Earlier this summer, I was in Berlin to participate in a Smarter Cities conference hosted by IBM. I had not been to Berlin in a while, and was looking forward to seeing it, especially since it is one of my daughter’s favorite cities in the world. I was not disappointed. Berlin is a very nice city indeed, with lots to see and do, full of young people and positive energy.
But, you cannot visit Berlin and not be struck by its history, especially if you are Jewish. Its Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe is haunting in its simplicity. Newsreel images of Berlin Nazi rallies sweep through your mind. And a question keeps coming up. What happened?
Richard von Weiszacker, - who was mayor of the then West Berlin from 1981 to1984, and President of Germany from 1984 to1994, which included the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East and West Germany, - spoke at the conference on the history of Berlin. He reminded us that before the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, the city was the intellectual center of the world. People everywhere learned German to be able to read the best textbooks and academic journals in their fields, much as they do now with English. How could such an advanced civilization engage in such monstrous acts?
Numerous books have analyzed this question. The answer that makes the most sense to me is rather simple. Civilization is a relatively recent and thin veneer on human behavior. People are capable of terrible actions against their fellow men, especially when they are under severe stress and are incited to blame others for their fears by skillful demagogues.
Like all social animals, humans are ill-equipped to survive on their own. We are tribal in nature – that is, we have evolved to develop very strong feelings of identity to our specific ethnic, national or cultural group, and to feel quite distinct from the members of other groups. Our very survival has depended on our group being able to successfully compete for resources against the other tribes.
These strong feelings of we versus they are likely hard-wired into our brains. Thus, feelings of affinity, cooperation and altruism toward the members of our own group come naturally to us. But so do feelings of discrimination, prejudice and violence toward the others, which can then lead to wars, and in the extreme, to genocidal conflicts. Such hostile feelings will more naturally arise in times of economic stress, when we are fearful about our own ability to survive.
At such times, demagogues will often arise, point to one group and make them responsible for whatever anxieties people are feeling. There is a long, sad history of picking on some group – e.g., ethnic, religious, racial - and making them the scapegoats for whatever people are worried and angry about. As we well know, the results are often disastrous.
My Jewish heritage has undoubtedly sensitized me to the demonization of minorities by powerful media figures and politicians, who blame them - sometimes directly, sometimes in a more subtle way - for whatever problems are afflicting society. This is a major reason why I have reacted so negatively to the angry, strident tone that the immigration debates have taken in the last few years. Moreover, the fact that my family and I were so welcomed in the US when we came here as refugees from Cuba in 1960 is never far from my mind. There but for the grace of God go I, is the thought that causes me to empathize with this generation's poor immigrants even though my economic condition are now quite different from theirs.
I am all for civilized, rational conversations on immigration reform and other complex societal problems. But I get very worried when I see powerful media figures portraying illegal immigration as the most urgent threat the country faces, and blame poor Mexican immigrants for the economic anxiety felt by many middle and low income workers. I must admit that these red meat style verbal attacks designed to polarize our society cause echoes in my brain of hate speeches I have heard against blacks, Jews and other minorities.
The incredible anger on display at the recent health care town halls is another cause for concern, and another reminder of how tribal we humans are and how quickly those tribal feelings can pierce through our civilized veneer. We are once more seeing that anger stoked by demagogues, who will stop at nothing, including ridiculous charges of death panels to kill off Grandma and plots by President Obama to turn the country into a socialist state.
Maybe I am being a bit paranoid myself, but those death panel charges remind me of the sad history of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The people who used the Protocols to vilify Jews knew full well that this was all fiction and lies. But, because it served their cause, they had no more scruples in repeating their lies than the politicians and media figures who keep repeating that health care reform will lead to death panels seem to now have. Let me point out that many of the same death panel advocates raging against health care reform are also behind the birther conspiracy theories - that is, the allegations that Barack Obama was not really born in the US and is therefore not eligible to be the President of the United States.
It all perversely meshes together. If you want to convince people that they should stop at nothing to fight against health care reform, what better way is there than convincing them that health care reform is being brought to you by the others, that is, those who want to take your own health care away, get rid of you altogether with death panels in order to save money, give away your health care to minorities and other tribes and turn the US into a socialist country. Moreover, the health-care-reformer-in-chief himself is not even an American, but an other masquerading as an American in order to lead his own tribe to victory. After a while, reminders of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion do not seem so paranoid after all.
During Senator Arlen Spector’s raucous health care town hall meeting several weeks ago, a man said to him, “One day God is going to stand before you and he's going to judge you and the rest of your damn cronies up on the Hill and then you will get your just deserts.” I am not so sure he got that quite right. Let’s talk about the role of religion in the context of the health care debates.
Throughout history, religious differences have often been one of the main causes of bad tribal behavior and acts of violence. But from their earliest days, religious leaders have tried to counter our worst instincts through their teachings and stories, to help us tell right from wrong. For me, the best and simplest such moral compass is The Golden Rule, which essentially urges us to put ourselves in the shoes of our fellow man and treat others as you want to be treated.
The Golden Rule is endorsed by just about all the great world religions. I first learned it in the context of Rabbi Hillel, a Jewish religious leader who lived around the same time and place as Jesus, who is famous for having said that he can explain the whole Torah while standing on one foot: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire Torah; all the rest is commentary; go and learn.” In the New Testament, both Matthew and Luke summarized the ethical teachings of Jesus with The Golden Rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
Health care reform in the US is a very, very complicated subject. Most experts agree that there are two main issues we must deal with in order to reform the health care system: we must make the system more cost effective; and we must deal with the large portion of the population that is uninsured. It is quite reasonable to debate everything else, as long as we end up with a system that can begin to seriously address these two critical issues, and that can evolve over time as we learn what works and what does not.
It is telling that most of the angriest people at the health care town halls have their own insurance and seem to want no changes at all in spite of the fact that over forty million of their fellow Americans, many of them children, have no insurance at all, and that the present system is not sustainable for future generations. Many of these people are over 65 but seem not to notice the irony in raging against socialism while being protected by Medicare and Social Security, both government-run programs that were equally strongly opposed in previous generations by those so worried about turning the US into a socialist country.
I really do wonder what Jesus, Matthew, Luke and Rabbi Hillel would say about such behavior, which seems to be in conflict with the spirit of the Golden Rule. I think I know. I think they would understand the real fears that are causing these people to revert to a more selfish, tribal behavior, and would urge us to “forgive them for they know not what they do.”
But, how about the demagogues who should know better but yet, seem to be selling their souls for votes and ratings, as they aim to derail health care reform by scaring people with their lies and angry, divisive rants? I don't know what to say. I guess they will have to plea their case to the higher authorities at the Pearly gates as they queue up behind camels trying to get through the eyes of needles.
And, as with Social Security and Medicare in years past, let us hope that we will soon come up with a decent health care reform program that will make us a better country for all.