Good guys are like living-hospice-morphine-drips

“Caritas,” which means “Charity,” was drawn by Pieter Bruegel in 1599. Dennis Sullivan writes that the work “portrays neighbors meeting the needs of each other with a reflective tenderness.”

I don’t know what your history classes were like in school but, when you studied the Civil War, were you taught the South had the “bad guys?”

It’s more than 150 years since the war and some southerners still say the North has the bad guys. Last summer, a band of Confederate-based, Nazi-leaning demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia waged a pitched battle on that city’s streets against citizens demonstrating for peace. One ill-witted Confederate cut down a living flower with the bumper of his car.

And some southerners still say the South was inches away from winning the first time. Terry L. Jones in a March 2015 article in The New York Times, “Could the South Have Won the War?,” quotes sources saying that, if Lee had tweaked his military strategies here and there, we’d all be singing Dixie.

In a comedy bit on the last week of the Letterman Show in 2015, Norm MacDonald opined that, when Germany went to war with “the world,” it was close. With a few turns in Wehrmacht fortune, we’d be goose-steppers.

During an interview with Elliot Mintz in 2015, as part of a celebration marking his 90th birthday, the social satirist Mort Sahl — the first modern stand-up in history — expressed concern about how the current civil war in America is going.

With a tone of pained uncertainty, he non-rhetorically asked the interviewer: Don’t the good guys always win? Isn’t that how things turn out in history? It was a latent fear of fascism’s growing claim on America.   

Early in his career, Democrats accused Sahl of being a conservative, Republicans said he was a Commie. In “Last Man Standing: Mort Sahl and the Birth of Modern Comedy,” the wonderfully-written new biography of the comic, author James Curtis quotes Sahl as saying both camps were wrong; he said: I’m a radical.

Radical in the sense that he kept his satirical light shining on the powerful as they stepped on the dignity and well-being of people whose needs they dismissed as unworthy of attention.

Sahl hoped that, because a person has a particular race, color, creed, gender, or some other defining attribute, he would not be excluded from being treated as fully human. Consider the two black men arrested at a Starbucks in the City of Brotherly Love two weeks ago as they waited for a friend inside the café.

The satirist also used a word seemingly out of character for him; he said Americans have lost their commitment to “nobility.” In saying so, he sounded like the great 20th-Century poet Wallace Stevens who in his classic essay, “The Noble Rider,” addressed the nobility of the poet, laying out the requirements for being noble.

Stevens says the poet fulfills that function when he offers up his imagination to the community so the community can find the courage to delve into its unconscious ways and examine the justifications that induce people to become “bad guys.”

Those who persevere in the process develop an acute sense of human dignity, dignity as a political-economic variable that equates with a person’s worth.

Stevens said withstanding the abrasive assaults of bad guys requires “a mind of winter.” That’s what his beloved poem “The Snow Man” is about, standing up to the incursions of power, the deadly winter we create for ourselves.

I’ve mentioned the ongoing civil war in this country before. Some people seem unable to grasp its cultural context; a few say it’s a touch of conspiracy.

A person picks up a gun and shoots another dead. We see the death, we see the gun, we see the war. But today people obliterate each other ideologically, as when someone says to another: You’re dead, you’re of no account, your point of view is nothing, you’re a bad guy — and there’s nothing you can do for redemption.

The justification for this military incursion comes from a deserts-based view of reality. You hear it all the time: Hey, you don’t deserve this, you’re a Mexican! You’re nobody! Hey, you don’t deserve this, you’re a woman, you’re not equal! You’re a non-deserver too.

Civil war always has to do with deserts, over who deserves what according to pre-assigned value. If those who assert “conspiracy” wish to address value, they can deconstruct sexism, racism, ageism, classicism, cultural chic-ism, and all the efforts of the powerful to enforce modern-day versions of — shall we say: Aryan supremacy?

As our civil war continues, people of different ilk blame Donald Trump for pouring kerosene on the fire. But it’s not “Trump” because, if he had not come along, somebody else would have, so disconsolate is the Confederacy to find a secessionist standard-bearer.

Trump is a mirror for America to look at herself to determine how long she will allow her citizens to flail away at each other with unbridled id; Trump’s the clarion call for a secession-nation that devalues American commonweal. The lie promulgated by such an assault is that social institutions do not require benevolence for sustainability.

You can see why terms like “conservative” and “liberal” no longer have meaning. They’re like worn-out prize fighters banging at each other’s head to seize the title of: Assigner of Value and Worth.

And while the rights of all — including clouds and rivers — always require protection, the political economic map of a sustainable American future is rooted in needs, in communities across the country finding ways to meet the needs of all their citizens.

The nagging big-elephant-question in our national room then is: Are you a good guy or are you a bad guy? How do you know?

Outside the political boundaries of left and right there is indeed a measure to determine if you’re good: To what extent have you dedicated yourself to relieving the pain and suffering of others by tending to their needs? And do you support programs designed to do so?

Good guys are like living-hospice-morphine-drips, first listening to what people say their needs are, and then taking steps to meet them. In his 1559 drawing “Caritas,” Pieter Bruegel portrays neighbors meeting the needs of each other with a reflective tenderness. Is that not what their faces show?

If a person has one meal today and you come along with two, that person has three; it’s measurable. If a person is living in squalid conditions and you provide quarters that support the dignity of the person so he can sit quietly and ponder with gratitude the life he was given, it’s measurable.

Call yourself what you will — left, right, down, up in the air — the new American dream calls for needs-meeters, relievers of the pain and suffering of fellow Americans without charging for offered aid.

The decision to “form a more perfect union” and to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” as the Preamble to our Constitution says, is formed in the national unconscious. How a person handles the darkness there determines whether he becomes a good guy or a bad guy.