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Michael N. Nagler | Remembering Our Humanity

Remember our humanity, and forget all the rest. – Einstein

Remember our humanity, and forget all the rest.
– Einstein

The decade has not begun with a paean to human wisdom. Two recent acts of folly in particular share a deep and pernicious connection that bears some pondering, and I am not even referring to the capture of Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts. I am referring to the 5-4 Supreme Court decision on Thursday last week ratifying an absurd and dangerous notion that had been let loose in the public discourse almost by accident nearly a century ago, namely the legal “personhood” of corporations, and secondly to the introduction of full-body scanning for “security” that is coming soon to airports near you.

The first decision will unfetter corporate influence over policymakers (all in the name of populism, ironically), an influence that was already operating almost without let or hindrance under the present rules. The second decision reflects a serious misunderstanding of security (we can know real security only when we pursue peace and justice, not by walling ourselves in with ever-more-invasive technology), and was apparently arrived at, in unseemly haste, through the kind of corruption that has all too commonly accompanied post-9/11 security measures: as Randall Amster reported in his op-ed article, “Invasion of the Body Scanners,” former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is a vocal and influential proponent of Rapiscan, the firm that stands to make huge profits from the scanners, and has been promoting their cause since long before the Christmas bomber set off the recent panic. The Chertoff Group, his consulting firm, has Rapiscan as one of its clients!

The damage these decisions will do to us, however, goes even deeper; and it may be only when we peel back the covering on that deeper significance that we may really be able to understand – and overcome – the challenge they represent. When dissenting Justice John Stevens said that the majority had committed a grave error in treating corporate speech on the same level as that of human beings, he was hinting that they have dealt a blow not just to democracy, but to humanity. I am an embodied, conscious person endowed with judgment and responsibility. A corporation is none of these things. It is an abstraction, a collection of individuals who have surrendered precisely those qualities. It is more than a political mistake to grant corporations the status of persons: it is a spiritual delusion. And as such, it has dealt a blow to the very basis of freedom and democracy, the inviolable dignity of the human person.

These dehumanizing measures have not come out of the blue. They are the latest in a series of attacks on what Jason Lanier in “You Are Not a Gadget” called the “deep meaning of personhood” that have somehow become part of our culture – the way people in Nazi Germany accepted forcing Jews to wear yellow stars after they had been suitably prepared by a series of escalating insults.

As the revered religion scholar Huston Smith pointed out at an education conference some years ago, no further progress will be made in our culture until we can formulate a higher, mutually accepted image of the human being. Seen in this light, we have just been handed two steps backward in that essential progress. To quote Amster again, body-scanning “is essentially a form of high-tech voyeurism masking as security, and it portends more such incursions into liberty and privacy.” Without liberty and privacy, what are we?

How are these measures to be resisted? Partly this question is a no-brainer: we can only use means that themselves bring back to light the meaning of the person as they work toward ends with the same purpose. Those are the means of nonviolence. They alone allow us to resist the actions of our opponents, even to point out their follies, without diminishing them as persons. Recall, for example, British historian Arnold Toynbee’s astute summary of Gandhi’s methods: “He made it impossible for us to go on ruling India; but he made it possible for us to leave without rancour and without humiliation.” Nonviolence dignifies and humanizes as it works: it humanizes those who offer it, those to whom it is offered and the “reference publics” looking on. During the “People Power” uprising in the Philippines it was called alay dangal, or “offering dignity.”

I heartily endorse the current proposal to amend the Constitution to reinstate once and for all the distinction between a human being and an abstraction; but should it fail, we must be ready to carry out sterner measures in this humane spirit.

In an important article in the Huffington Post, my colleague George Lakoff stated that the first principle of democracy is empathy. Yes, but a more etymological way to define its core principle is the locus of value and responsibility of the human being, considered in his or herself without reference to social category or status. A democracy is made up of empowered, responsible individuals, or else it is no more than an empty structure composed of ciphers who have lost their true significance politically and are in danger of losing their very humanity spiritually – a “democracy” in name only (and quite possibly the more dangerous for clothing itself in that sacred name).

And now for the crowning irony. If I were gay, the people who would deny me the right to marry a same-sex partner because it isn’t “natural” are now telling me that corporations are equal to persons – the grossest denial of nature one can imagine. They are telling us, for that matter, that life is sacred until you are born – that we must be allowed to live until birth, but once we’re out of the womb, the death penalty, war and a flood of cheap handguns can have at us. I guess if you deny evolution and global warming it’s only a short step to denying your own humanity. And we know from history where that will take us. The brilliant political scientist and holocaust escapee Hannah Arendt said very clearly that totalitarianism … “strives not toward despotic rule over men but toward a system in which men are superfluous.” Nonviolent resistance, anyone?

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