Some years ago Bruce Springsteen was interviewed on 60 Minutes and his final words have been ringing in my ears every since. He asked why we should judge a country on its military might, or its Gross National Product. "Why shouldn't a country be judged by its compassion?"
This struck me as a brilliant question, one I've heard asked in many different ways, beginning with my mother, who, when told a child "was just looking for attention," said, "Well, then give him some attention!"
In grad school I stumbled over the book "Tight Spaces: Hard Architecture and How to Humanize It" by Robert Sommer. He talked about the way midcentury architects had worked to designe buildings in such a way that they couldn't be vandalized-- but vandals always found a way. Then they began to design building that gave a sense of security and beauty, and voila, vandalism dropped significantly. The conventional wisdom was wrong-- flowers were a more powerful tool against vandalism than reinforced concrete. [book:Tight Spaces; Hard Architecture and How to Humanize It|10182161]
Later a friend suggested I read The Drama of the Gifted Child, by psychologist Alice Miller; not about child prodigies as I had guessed, but about the way we casually (and often cruelly) bully children by telling them that if only they were a little more grown up they'd behave as we want them to. (The book goes way beyond this and is brilliantly eye-opening.) I am SO glad I read this before I had a child. It helped me follow my own instincts as a mother and as a writer-- it made me feel that empathy is by far the most fertile soil for every kind of growth.[book:The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self|4887]
We're a terribly punitive country-- we have more than six million people in prison right now and states are spending more on prison than on higher education. We sentence children as adults for crimes they would never have committed if they had had better access to nurturance and less access to weapons. (A very good piece about the prison system--http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2012/01/30/120130crat_atlarge_gopnik) We count 'justice' for victims in terms of punishment to criminals. Our understandable fear of the threat of addictive drugs is answered by mandatory sentencing for minor drug violations. The prison population grows (no other country has so many prisoners), but the drug problem doesn't seem to be shrinking.
And that's just the most egregious example. Republicans offered a mishmash of ideas centered around the notion that some bad lazy people were sitting around sucking up our hard-earned tax dollars. All we had to do is get rid of them (Mitt didn't say what he'd do with the bodies) and everything would be fine. Looking closer, we could see that most of these people, 'the 47%' were in fact working full time and still unable to earn enough to raise them above the poverty line. Technology and outsourcing have drained the economy of stable jobs, but rather than look that problem in the eye we blame those who suffer because of it.
We made a huge step with this election, joining the rest of the developed world in providing low cost health care for all citizens, electing a man who believes that by working toward the common good we strengthen ourselves as a nation. But he-- and I mean we-- have a huge job ahead. I don't know where we begin but I do believe the answers will be counter-intuitive, like those in the books I've mentioned. And I know that I'd love to live in a nation that's more proud of its ethical and moral center than its military might.