THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
Does It Matter Whose Child?
It is a cliché of modern times that societies are best judged by how they treat their most vulnerable members. Social democracies assist their populations largely from a sense of duty and conviction, providing uncommonly generous benefits to the very young, very old and very ill. Entitlements are distributed regardless of political affiliation, racial distinction or economic status. Authoritarian regimes tend to heap their largesse on a small number of those who help to keep them in power, and at the expense of everyone else. Taking care of the needy is a secondary consideration, if it is considered at all, and is reserved only for those who happen to take the government's side (e.g., anyone of the same tribe or party). Most countries fall somewhere in between, offering the lowest level of support necessary to fend off accusations of heartlessness and to suppress social unrest. They do only as much as they have to and as little as they can get away with.
The condition of children is particularly indicative of the degree to which a nation is favorably disposed, not only toward the treatment of the young, but towards compassion in general as a motivating factor in social policy. We have lately witnessed any number of incidents, accidents, and shifts in government behavior to see where the United States lines up among the nations of the world in the hierarchy of caring. Despite the commonplace politician's insistence that "Americans are a generous people", or variations thereon, the evidence is not encouraging.
Like much of the rest of humanity, Americans have never been able to decide how to treat children. From one era to the next we veer from neglect to coddling, from indifference to fetishizing. Through most of our history we expected them to be seen and not heard; today we are compelled to see and hear them anywhere and everywhere, whether we want to or not. In generations past a child was subject to the supervision and discipline of any adult; now they are deemed too delicate to be spoken to harshly even by their own parents, let alone strangers. We declare them to be the most precious objects in the universe and then proceed to leave them vulnerable to violence and abuse. We go to great lengths and enormous expense to bring them into the world, only to nickel and dime their parents on their medical bills once they find themselves among the living. We spend a vast store of national treasure on their schooling, only to abandon them to fate once they reach a certain age. Only a minority of the well-off are in a position to perpetuate their prosperity by buying expensive real estate where schools are good and paying extortionist prices for higher education.
We weep when we lose them to tragedy: to indiscriminate disease, and to accidents both natural and unnatural. And yet our sympathy is in direct proportion to the familiarity and proximity of the victim, or the intimacy of the telling. The dire effects of war, famine, plague and natural disasters tug at our heartstrings and prompt many to make donations, but usually only when a face is associated with the story: a Syrian child covered in dust and blood, or washed up on a Mediterranean beach; an orphaned youngster wandering aimlessly through a devastated landscape; a Central American toddler held in detention without its mother. The suffering is so widespread, and the tragedy so overwhelming, that we soon avert our gaze. Besides, we have problems nearer to home, and our own children to worry about. The passing sentiment, however sincere, does nothing to narrow the distance between our prosperous selves and those children whose only fault is to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It is possible that we make a grave error when we equate tugs on heartstrings with genuine caring. Or perhaps it is more correct to say that it doesn't matter whether or how much we care, given our impotence in the face of so much misery. How many have watched breathlessly as divers rescue a dozen boys trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand, while simultaneously bemoaning the forced separation of several thousand immigrant children who are currently languishing in detention centers or foster homes around the U.S.? There is little we could do about the first instance, given its remoteness and the peculiar nature of the situation. The same could hardly be said of the second case. We may not have the wherewithal to reunite parents and children, but we do have the option of supporting those individuals and organizations who are working toward that end, and to apply pressure on our elected representatives (and to vote, of course). There are surely those who care about the fate of all children, just as there are those who are unmoved by both stories and are at least consistent in their lack of concern. But what is most telling about our society is that there are clearly some who are deeply touched by the underground drama in Thailand but determinedly unmoved by the fate of (conveniently) Hispanic children who have been taken from their parents. Our so-called government is either too incompetent, too cruel, or both to bother figuring out how to keep proper tabs on these migrants so their eventual reunions would be inevitable and efficiently organized, rather than the harrowing and unruly mess that it has become.
Sentiment is easy, justice is hard.
In a large and fragmented society like ours, in which values are not universally shared, several of these trends can be observed simultaneously. The reaction to the forced separation of immigrant parents and their children is mirrored in other culturally divisive issues. We see it in the irreducible debates over abortion and guns, in the obsessive demonization of sex offenders even while child pornography proliferates, and in the vast disparity of opportunity between the children of the poor and everyone else. Any tendency towards compassion to which we may be inclined is tempered by tribalism.
In The Florida Project, destitute children living in a seedy motel near the edge of Disney World are left mostly to their own devices during summer vacation while their parents scramble to make a bare living. Most urban and suburban viewers could be forgiven for thinking they were watching a movie about people in a third-world country. So little attention is given to the nearly one in five American children who grow up in poverty that we scarcely comprehend the magnitude of the problem. Those who are far removed from poverty can hardly grasp what hardships such a life entails: domestic insecurity, hunger, threats of violence, insufficient health care, encounters with police (sometimes fatal), frequent changes of address, inconsistent and ultimately inadequate education. The movie shatters the myth of the idle poor who are living comfortably on the public dime — as if this lie needed exposing at this late date, or as if such an existence were so desirable that any of us would gladly exchange our current life for one on the dole. Volunteers?
If you seek more compelling evidence, try the documentary Quest about a hard-working African-American family in Baltimore and the fear and tragedy that stalks their daily existence. In this compelling and unusual film, we follow the family and the neighborhood over the course of a decade. With two loving, responsible and always employed parents, the girl at the center of the story would seem to have hit life's jackpot. She also happens to be charming and possessed of uncommon athletic talent. But she nonetheless faces severe crises and a shockingly uncertain future, and not for lack of effort, desire or parental support. It is a startling and disturbing reminder that geography is destiny.
Or is it? Ironically, Asian American parents are currently suing New York City because it is proposing to lower admissions standards for the city's elite public high schools (presumably at the expense of academically deserving Asian students). Astonishingly, the city does not consider attacking the problem at the source by providing a superior education to all of the city's poor children, who could then compete on their own merits.
The Power of One
Every now and then we encounter someone who is so inherently decent and compassionate, particularly towards children, that we are made to feel embarrassed by our own inaction. We meet just such a man in Won't You Be My Neighbor? about the creator and long-time host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. If one created a fictional character like Fred Rogers, his goodness and kindness would be dismissed as patently ridiculous. He was in fact lampooned many times over the years; his decidedly square manner and appearance in an era of steadily increasing rebellion and outrageousness made him an easy mark for comedians. But the wonderful way he had with children — his preternatural quiet, his thoughtfulness, his circumspection about life's challenges, his utter lack of prejudice — was plain to see in every episode of his improbably successful program. Since the documentary premiered this spring, critics and other observers have noted that his demeanor can be explained by his background as a Presbyterian minister, but one searches in vain for another man of the cloth as inherently empathetic as Fred Rogers. He may have been the clergyman from central casting, but he was hardly anyone's idea of a charismatic TV host, for children or anyone else. He set a standard for warmth and benevolence that has hardly ever been matched on television or in life. The only way to describe him is Christ-like, a reference from which he himself, in his humility, would almost certainly recoil.
How fitting that Won't You Be My Neighbor? should appear in theaters at this time in our tormented history, at the very moment when the mistreatment of children is so much in the headlines. Fred Rogers certainly makes us realize where and how we are wanting as parents, and in loco parentis as guardians of the all the world's children. His story forces us to confront the disparity between our child-adoring rhetoric and the child-distressed reality of the human condition. The movie asks, among other questions, whether Mister Rogers had a profound influence on the culture, or whether his message of love and tolerance ultimately fell on deaf ears. Wouldn't our government's colossal failures, which are beyond definition and beyond shame, strongly suggest the latter? Maybe, but what other options do we have, individually or collectively? Decency demands that we strive to make things better — if need be, one child at a time. If we are truly the good society we want to believe we are, then, like Fred Rogers, there isn't a choice. If the current spate of depravity being carried out in our name does not represent who we think we are, then it is incumbent on each of us to demonstrate that we are made of something better.
A truly caring people would not feel the need to declare its goodness; it would simply be taken for granted. As in so many aspects of public life, our self-congratulatory assertion of our own decency is more honored in the breach than in the observance. For the sake of the children, it does not have to be.
Why were you in prison?
I hurt a man.
Because he hurt a child. Killed a child.
Does it matter whose child?
from The Girl in the Café (HBO movie, 2005)
Watch the scene here [the above bit of dialogue is at 8:00-8:45 of the linked segment].
The movie, which won Emmy Awards for TV movie, screenplay and supporting actress (Kelly MacDonald), is well worth watching (with a handkerchief warning).
July 8, 2018
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