Sunday, March 22, 2009



I often write about equality in the United States. From an early age, American children begin to form an idealized understanding about their country. They hear phrases such as “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and “all men are created equal.” They watch television and it appears that every American has equal chances to succeed. There are white doctors, black doctors, Hispanic doctors and Pakistani doctors. They all speak English and it seems that everyone has relatively equal advantages.

But perceptions change with age and experience. One merely must visit a major American city to see that all men are not equal. If they were, then some men would not be driving around in limousines while other men starved in rags on the sidewalk. That is an extreme example, but experience reveals subtle inequalities all around us. When we begin to make money and support ourselves, we see that some people get jobs more easily than others. Others make more money. Still others live in larger homes. Some have little difficulty at work or in relationships, while others struggle to make ends meet. Even two equally intelligent people may face totally unequal circumstances in life. In fact, many advantages in life flow from birth; a rich child will invariably face an easier path in life than a poor one. This does not mean that “rich” is categorically “better” than “poor.” It simply means that some people in our society face fewer problems, and hence stand a greater chance to succeed than others.

I am probably a bit more disillusioned with this country than most Americans. In fact, my experience in life has left me with two general conclusions about equality in the United States: (1) Equality is not the goal; to the contrary, Americans live to become unequal to one another; and (2) Because people truly pursue inequality in the United States, they have created a culture of unfairness that functions under a “pernicious myth” of “equality for all.”

Unfairness and inequality go hand in hand. If one wishes to be better than his rival in the “life game,” one must “win.” It is always easier to win if one can tilt the table in one’s favor. Unfairness helps increase one’s chances of winning. Thus, in a society in which people strive to be unequal to each other, it should not be surprising that unfairness abounds. After all, not everyone can be successful. Successful people want to keep their numbers small. They achieve that goal by making life unfair on everyone else. True, some people manage to overcome the unfair obstacles and join their ranks. But they are few and far between. To illustrate, consider African-Americans in the United States. Statistically, they have a much lower chance to achieve success in America than any other ethnic group. Despite institutionalized unfairness in education, employment and criminal justice, however, some African-Americans become highly successful. P. Diddy is richer and more powerful than almost everyone in the United States. Despite all the odds, he overcame the obstacles and “succeeded.” Still, he is a rare example, especially among blacks. In most cases, unfairness keeps inequality in place.

Why do I say that equality is a “pernicious myth?” It is pernicious because it runs contrary to everything Americans learn as children. In school, we all learn about the Founding Fathers and their quest to make America “a home for liberty” against European oppression. In fact, we learn that Europe represented the “Old World,” in which noblemen were literally “better” than commoners, and where Kings ruled the masses by Divine Right. In a word, we learn to associate Old Europe with birth-based inequality and unfair rule. America, we learn, rebelled against that order and established a representative government committed to human equality and dignity. We do not have noblemen and Kings; we learn that “anyone” can be President, commoner or not. But this is a myth. America may not institutionalize inequality through a caste system or noble titles. Yet only a fool could claim that all Americans are equal, or that all Americans stand an equal chance to gain power. In truth, there are American nobles; they may not have titles, but they are superior to virtually everyone else in American society. Generally speaking, they own the property, they preserve their power across generations by inheritance, and they do not readily allow new members into the club. Equality is a myth because it really does not exist in America. And it is a pernicious myth because we delude our children into thinking that our Nation stands for equality, when the opposite is actually true.

This may all sound like bitter scrawl. But there is substance to my claims. I believe that hypocrisy dominates American life. I say this because there is scarcely a Nation on earth that deviates more drastically from its guiding principles. I mentioned the “pernicious myth” to begin this essay because it provides a framework to understand hypocrisies in American life. Our very principles are a “myth.” The Declaration of Independence is a myth. Equality is a myth, and so is freedom. When we see features of American life that deviate from the principles enshrined in our founding documents, we see hypocrisy. Our Nation embraced hypocrisy from day one by dedicating itself to liberty while defending slavery. Today, I take up another one of our mythical commitments: Human value.

In theory, American principles dictate that all men are created equal. We profess social mobility and equal access to wealth. Our Constitution makes similar guarantees through the Fourteenth Amendment. Although the Supreme Court has emphatically pointed out that constitutional “legal equality” does not mean “precisely equal advantages for every citizen,” San Antonio School Independent School District No. 1 v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973), most Americans feel intuitively that they should be equal to each other because that is what we all learned as children. After all, it is hard to be patriotic if we know that we fight to support an unequal social order in which we stand no chance to advance. On the other hand, it is easy to fight for a cause that you believe stands for you. But it is quite another to die for a country that consciously frustrates social mobility. Nonetheless, most Americans believe that the United States stands for equality. Within that principle is another belief: That all men in America are equally valuable.

Human value is an appealing idea. It is not uniquely American. Many Nations believe that every human life is valuable, and that no man is intrinsically “more valuable” than another. In fact, Germany’s Basic Law sets forth in its first Article: “Human value (or “dignity” or “worth”) is inviolable.” Grundgesetz, Art. 1. In America, human value and equality imply one another. People are equal because they are equally valuable. No man’s life is worth more than another’s. Everyone can feel equally valuable in our society, from the meanest beggar to Donald Trump.

Yet precisely here we see that reality shows us to be hypocrites. In “real life,” no one really thinks that a smelly, urine-covered half-mad beggar is “as valuable” as mega-millionaire Donald Trump. In fact, if both men died as a result of negligence, the law would award Donald Trump’s kin far more money in a wrongful death suit than the beggar’s kin would receive. In this sense, the common law voices American values far better than elementary school myths about equality. In the common law, life can be valued. It examines life earning potential, probable life span, job status, property ownership and other factors that suggest a person’s “lifetime economic worth.” It puts a dollar amount on every life, just as a life insurance company does. The law does not fool around with ethereal rhetoric about “equality.” It comes right to the point with cold, hard numbers: “Donald Trump is worth $600,000,000. The beggar is worth $34.12.” Six hundred million is more than $34.12, so Trump is “better” and “more valuable” than the beggar. This may offend our elementary school sensibilities about “American equality.” But our experience in commercial life tells us that it is glaringly true. There are “more valuable people” in our society. If we can tack a larger dollar amount on their backs, they must be worth “more” than people with smaller dollar amounts on their backs.

Several weeks ago, I watched a television program that brought home the “pernicious myth” of equality to me once again. A narrator told the story of a halfwit who ran away from home in Ohio when he was 20. He was poor and black and had spent some time in jail for extremely petty offenses that involved far more stupidity than malice. He had no chances for success at home, so he decided to just drift across the country. His foster parents knew he was not fully sane. He could not even wash his clothes, let alone manage his finances or go to school. He had awful hygiene and could not speak properly. He wound up begging for money in Los Angeles. Most of the time, he haunted a 7-11 Store on Santa Monica Boulevard. He was never pushy; people gave him change from pity. One night, security cameras showed him standing in his usual place outside the 7-11. Then two men approached him. They appeared to be speaking to him. Then one man pulled out a pistol and shot him in the face. After that, the two men left the beggar to die in a pool of blood. A few minutes later, passers-by saw the body and called the police.

Apparently, the shooter was a gang applicant and had to show his mettle by killing someone. Why not kill the most worthless guy in town? No one would really care, right?

I mention this example because it reveals that all men are not equally valuable in the United States. True, the television program called this murder a “senseless killing” that targeted a “poor, defenseless man.” But how many other killings like this happen without media attention? The killers singled this man out because he was the neighborhood beggar. No one cared about him. He was homeless. He was retarded. He was smelly. He was “worthless.” If there was one man in society whom no one would miss, he was the man. This proves to me that no one really believes in “human value” if they do not care about the person at issue. Who really cares about the stinky, insane beggar on Santa Monica Boulevard? If someone shoots him, does anyone cry? Does anyone feel loss? Would a District Attorney waste time pursuing the killers? But wait, isn’t everyone equal in the United States? Doesn’t everyone have “equal worth?” If we truly believed in those principles, this killing would outrage us as much as it would if Donald Trump were killed. But it doesn’t. If Donald Trump were killed, it would be national news for weeks. A prosecutor would jump on the case instantly. Yet if a beggar dies, no one hears about it. And no one cares. After all, he is not “not worth talking about.”

Why even bother talking about “human value” if we do not really care about our fellow men? Why sink further into hypocrisy? Most Americans do not ask these questions. Nor do they question the immense theoretical difficulties that arise in a commercial society that supposedly takes inspiration from principles like equality, justice and freedom. Rather, I think most Americans cling to the “human value” shibboleth in order to soothe their collective conscience. It feels good to pay lip service to “equal human value,” even if we believe something completely different. After all, it is easy to recite magnificent generalities while pursuing a life path that contradicts those generalities. All the rhetoric about “human value” rings particularly hollow when it appears alongside arguments praising the “sanctity of life.” If all human life (and even potential life) is valuable, then both capital punishment and abortion should raise moral qualms. But most abortion opponents support killing convicted criminals. If all men (and fetuses) are equally valuable, then killing should not be an option in any circumstance. We know from experience, however, that abortion opponents sidestep this theoretical inconsistency by qualifying the rule: “All life is sacred…except as otherwise provided.” In other words, life begins as “valuable” but can “ lose its value” if the “living person” commits certain acts that deserve condemnation.

In my view, this is pure hypocrisy and inconsistency. One either believes in a principle or one does not. It is better to declare oneself a scoundrel than to profess sainthood and act a swindler. Yet America has already sunk deep into the morass. Until we stop deluding our children with the idea that America stands for equality and “human worth,” we will not escape the blatant hypocrisies that hound us every day as we strive to outdo our neighbors in the “commercial life competition.” We cannot say yes and no at the same time, no matter what lawyers we hire to make the argument for us.


SteveW said...

You say that the value of a man should not be measured in money. Yet, your evidence for our inequality is that it costs more to negligently kill a rich man than a poor man. If equality cannot be measured in money, then surely our inequality cannot be measured in money.

Our jails are full of people that have killed others of "low value." The vote of a poor man counts the same as a vote of a rich man. The fourth amendment (and the others) protects the poor man and the rich man.

There is a civic equality among men that we believe in and that we strive for. Have we achieved it? Of course not. The rich, and more significantly, the powerful, are often treated differently by media and prosecutors than the unwashed masses. However, in America, the civilian of any stripe has a unique relationship with the government that was found nowhere before and that is still uncommon today. Do we hang our head and stare at our flaws (and our navels :-) ) rejecting the entire thing as a sham? I think we should rejoice in our successes, while recognizing our flaws and try to improve.

Slavery was an example of shocking hypocrisy from the nation that published the Declaration of Independence, but we don't have it any longer. Are we no different now than when we had it? Does any flaw in the soul of our nation render any good moot?

Economic mobility is far greater here than in any other country. While the rich have it "easier", every objective study shows that a much greater percentage of Americans change economic "quintiles" than any other industrialized country (down as well as up, but largely up).

Our treatment of the mentally ill is a national shame, and in fact a worldwide shame. However, neither we nor any other society has really ever gotten that one right. I don't think it has anything to do with our views or lack on individual freedom and inequality. We used to institutionalize them in nasty places where they were put out of sight. Now they are shucked onto the streets. Show me where they've fixed this problem and let's emulate it.

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