“Goodness and strength are not mutually exclusive.”
As I write this, Donald Trump is President of the United States and currently speaking to the U.N. General Assembly. Maybe he’ll talk about cooperation, or cooperation without commitment, or the evils of bureaucracy and globalism. Maybe he’ll use this opportunity to promote his chain of hotels, or control himself and painfully read from a semi-prepared script. Maybe he’ll threaten to nuke the world.
In some ways, this is a crucial test for him and his geopolitics on the world stage. In other ways, it really doesn’t matter. The damage is done.
America is broken and in desperate need of repair, and the root of the fracture is as deep as it gets. The fact that an entertainer and shameless huckster was president during this era is the only fact future historians will need to understand the people who lived through it. And we were, in a word, selfish.
Humanity at this point in time is unique in that it has the knowledge and tools to accurately predict the manner and approximate timeframe of its self-imposed demise, yet it refuses to stop the behavior that will bring it about. Why? Because we can. Because we were promised everything and are therefore entitled to it. Now.
Purchasing stuff and convenience ad nauseum with no immediately observable consequence. Ignoring the true and total cost of our demand for everything all the time. Destroying the world and responding with shock and outrage when it fights back. Creating our own realities with no regard for the only one that matters.
And as we do, facts disappear. Attention spans and news cycles shrink to seconds. Years become quarters. Priorities and considerations narrow. The world becomes distant and disposable entertainment, cycling out of sight and out of mind.
A nation as diverse as America must surely reflect the world, and so selfishness is not unique to Americans. It is a human epidemic. We as a species have a shockingly high tolerance for the suffering of our own kind, so long as we’re comfortable and our garbage disappears. Which is a shame, because, for the first time in history, we have largely moved beyond the need for several inherited defense mechanisms once required for survival. But we have not shed them entirely, and our stubborn refusal to evolve threatens to cause us great harm.
These instincts- to view life as zero-sum, to shoot first, to fear the other, to limit emotional attachment- are all vestiges of our evolution from a harsh and unforgiving world, amplified and preyed upon by hyper-competitive, hyper-capitalist forces. But while the world is still harsh and unforgiving, developed nations today have the ability, and therefore the responsibility, to at least try to create the conditions for people to sustainably thrive in peace and harmony.
This is where government comes in. Unless you hold a vested interest in deregulation or personal animus untethered from reality, you probably agree that government should prevent the worst self-serving abuses by individuals and entities whose actions affect the general public. And maybe you also think that government should reward actions taken in the public interest. But this is not enough. Because people are inherently selfish, government must also take steps to actively incentivize them to make empathetic choices.
Let me be clear- I’m not saying government should try to make people feel more empathetic. People can feel what they want. I’m saying government should, from top to bottom, by example in both conduct and policy, work to reflect empathy in its decision-making processes and encourage altruistic behavior in its citizens. In doing so, it would help create an environment of thoughtfulness and understanding that would ease communication, limit distraction and generally make problem solving run more smoothly.
From education, healthcare and criminal justice to immigration, climate change and nuclear war, whatever its scope and function, people agree that government should serve the long-term interests of many over the short-term interests of few. An empathetic populace would likely vote with the former in mind and provide political cover to go after the latter. So government should make it easy for us to live thoughtful and considerate lives. Most of our problems have solutions and only government has the resources to implement them and a mandate to do so for the public good. Fostering a more empathetic citizenry is not only in the public interest, it is a pivotal step on our road to repair.
With human activity and destruction spread across the globe, government must become a solver of man-made problems. And when solutions are found, government should use the full reach of its authority to educate its citizens, promote altruistic decisions and deter selfish ones. This should be the overarching task of government- to address the reality of our unfair, oppressive, contaminated and violent world and illuminate a path to the fair, free, clean and safe world we all want for our children. Politicians are not doing their jobs if they espouse moral platitudes about togetherness and teamwork while rubber-stamping massive tax breaks for multinational corporations, funneling hundreds of billions of dollars into America’s bloated military industrial complex, and allowing the nation’s health and social safety net, education system and infrastructure to crumble.
No good person would want their child to grow up like Donald Trump, but good people today can’t help but contribute to a system that breeds and rewards people like him. Those who are tired of a selfish world must certainly stand up and demand a more responsive government. But it is also up to the men and women in power now to get the ball rolling in this, our hour of need. There is no time to waste. And don’t tell us the money isn’t there (See: Defense budget). The money is always there. What’s eternally lacking is the political will to do what is right.
Political access and influence must no longer be the province of the short-sighted and deep-pocketed. At the very least, in 2017, government has a responsibility not to actively promote self-destructive behavior on a global scale. It’s time we demand even more of our government and of ourselves. Maybe a more empathetic world isn’t in the cards, but using it as a beacon can only help as we try to find our way out of the darkness. If only we had a government strong enough to lead by example.