What sort of society do we want for our great-grandchildren? A fascinating collection of responses have come from my readers. Some of them I detailed in last week’s column. But perhaps the best of all came from a military veteran who proffered the words of a slogan from the Vietnam war. “I’ve got your back.” It originated with fighter pilots who were informing a comrade that everything to the rear was covered. “I’ve got your six,” meant your six o’clock position. It became the military’s way of saying, “We’re in this together. Your safety depends on me and my safety depends on you.” That is the fundamental lesson in basic training. “We are a unit!” The Stephen Spielberg mini-series, "A Band of Brothers," nailed down the concept. Survival depends on mutual trust. Perhaps that notion is the essence of any vital community.
And that sort of society is what many of us want for our great-grandchildren. A livable earth, safety in a disarmed world, adequate health care, distribution of goods so that all can survive, the diminution of our dog-eat-dog philosophy—and so much more. This vision of the future depends on a community of mutual trust.
What we want for our great-grandchildren might well be a nation made up of interdependent persons. While individual rights can never be discounted, they must lie embedded in a social fabric. We are all partners of one another and have a responsibility for one another, particularly for the weak. No one is an island entire of itself. Every person is connected to every other person. It is the only way society can survive. The implications of this notion run all the way from the establishment of a defense force to food stamps. This is not envisioned as a system in which government owns and operates everything. Free enterprise will still be our fundamental economic model. It is rather the task of government to insure equity, fairness and concern for the left out. We say to one another in a hundred ways, “I’ve got your back.” And that is what the government must say, even to the weakest among us.
While we are not officially a Christian nation, much of this notion of mutuality flows from the religious roots which have guided much of American history. If one is honored, all are honored. If one suffers, all suffer. Maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Interdependence lies at the core of religious ethics.
Our Constitution defines a government of mutual concern and support. It begins, “We the people,” and goes on to detail what the people are going to do together, through their elected officials. Nowhere does the Constitution suggest that we are no more than a collection of isolated individuals.
The opposite of this communitarian perspective is an absolute individualism which suggests that the only responsibility any of us have it to the self. Its rallying cry is “Where’s mine!” In modern times this notion has taken shape in the 0bjectivism of Ayn Rand. She spelled it out in 1962 newspaper article.
Every man is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
Over against this notion are the words of the Christian novelist, Frederick Buechner, “Compassion is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”
Obviously all of this has serious political implications. The coming election will provide one more step in deciding which path America will take. But that is for the next two columns.