Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Reading Intersects with Life Sometimes

My state legislators have spent the past session ignoring the compelling problems such as unemployment, foreclosures, steep funding cuts to schools, and lack of access to health care, issues that make lives difficult every day. Instead they addressed the non-problem of domestic unions. An amendment has been proposed,

Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State
It is expected that the amendment will not receive sufficient votes in May to be enacted. Should it win the vote, it would be challenged on constitutional grounds, a contest it would not win, but which would cost the state a great deal of time and money. It is pointless, since there is already a law on the books forbidding gay marriage.

So why propose it? I can think of no good reason. When my daughters asked about it, the best explanation I could give them is that some people wish to legislate away that which they do not like. That isn't adequate, though, because that law was already passed. This is about depriving citizens of their rights. My town is one of several in the state which is offering the same benefits to spouses and domestic partners. The amendment's purpose is to permanently assign a less-than status to any domestic arrangement other than heterosexual marriage. It is an effort to strip citizens of some of their rights, which in my opinion is the worst thing a law can do. "It is mean," I told my children.

 But I wondered, why, if I feel so strongly about this am I not putting up a yard sign, or writing letters to the editor? The answer, at lest in part, is that I had a hard time articulating why this is wrong. I felt that it was, but was unable to express why. I could think of numerous examples, showing that to take away the rights of some people was one step towards greater atrocities, but "because Nazis" is not a reasonable argument.

And then, off a stack of books waiting their turn for my attention, I pulled The Pox Party. My daughter probably loaned it to me a year ago, but I hadn't even looked closely at the cover. Octavian is a slave who is being raised in a learned home with all the advantages save one. As a child his lack of freedom isn't very noticeable, for what child isn't constrained by the adults around them? As Octavian grows, and learns, and suffers, the reader feels his pain. This, truly is a fate worse than death because it never ends. Moreover, it taints and corrupts everyone. As slavery goes, one can't help thinking that Octavian has it pretty good: he is well fed, richly clothed, educated. What Anderson shows us is that without freedom even "pretty good" is horrific. Slavery infects the social interactions between Octavian and everyone else. It creates an imbalance of power that weighs down Octavian. He is surrounded by scientists, well-intentioned and sometimes even kind, not a one of whom can think straight, because of this huge, glaring WRONG that is ongoing every minute. Slavery is wrong because it denies the humanity of the one enslaved, but it also steals the humanity of everyone who goes along with it. Everyone is lying, denying what they see in order to support a system that they cannot see a way around. Everyone is constantly being tested as to how they will treat their neighbor, and everyone is found wanting. The truth of slavery is ugly.

 So here is my understanding, after reading this astonishing book: In order to be humane, we must recognize the humanity in others, and address it. Therefor, any effort to deny the humanity of others, such as, by stripping them of any of their rights, is not only to do a violence to them, but also to that which is humane within oneself. The only thing which makes any of us "good" is the effort to do good to others.