From the Treetops

In my post, The Foundational Cause of Our American Discontent, I offered an analogy: the American Liberty and Equality tribes are like two competing clans of Central American howler monkeys yelling at one another from the safety of their respective treetops. Two responses to my original post in 2019 got my attention despite the cacophony of daily howling on my newsfeeds and caused me to reflect—always a good thing. One comment presented a conclusion that is often alluded to; the second comment challenged the initial premise of the post.

The first comment (which I both paraphrase and quote) asserts that while our founding principles declare and imply that all persons are created equal and are given equal rights, “those rights have never included equal opportunities, and any attempt to level them will end up with a cure that is worse than the disease.”

I would offer for consideration that a child born in deep poverty through no fault of his or her own, has NOT been created equal to children that anyone likely to be reading this post might have. The US Census Bureau defines deep poverty as living in a household with a total cash income below 50 percent of what the Bureau has decided is the poverty threshold. In 2020, a family of four with a household income of $13,100 or less was living in deep poverty.

In 2018, there were 70,000 children living in deep poverty in Philadelphia alone. If I believed those desperately poor kids were created equal, I could let myself off the hook when it comes to being in some way at least partly responsible for them. Or I could espouse the equal does not mean equal opportunity view at social gatherings in order to avoid revealing an all too common belief (according to my non-scientific sample of one) that “we advantaged folks are just genetically more advanced than the poor; they can’t help themselves, so too bad for them. It is what it is. It’s inevitable. It’s not my worry.”

Or I could espouse this point of view that, with conviction, slipped out of the mouth of a talking head on TV: “The problem with the poor is, they just need to decide not to be poor,” which begs the question: If 70,000 desperately poor children in Philadelphia decide not to be poor today, or any day, how are they going to go about doing that?

I have not belonged to a religious club for decades, but my Christian training tells me that if someone claims to be a practicing Christian, he or she might want to take a look at what the Bible says about helping the poor and needy, the implication of which is, as I understand it, that those who “have,” have a responsibility to help the “have nots.”

I do understand, I think, that those in the Army of Liberty (conservative Americans) resent the government impinging upon their freedom by using their tax dollars to fulfill a Biblical expectation without their specific say so (taxation without representation and all that). I also understand that the Army of Equality (liberal Americans) justifies doing just that on two grounds:

  1. It is the right thing to do morally (check the documentation that comes with most World religions)
  2. It is the logical thing to do as per JFK’s Inaugural Speech: “a free country that does not help the many who are poor cannot save the few who are rich”

For me, the above reflects a classic example of how Liberty and Equality are diametrically opposed, with each point of view being defended by two massive groups of people who do not seem to grasp the other side’s point of view—and because they don’t understand, each side does not, and perhaps cannot, act rationally toward the other side.

Central American howler monkey resting after an exhausting howling match with the “other”

This inability or unwillingness to understand the other leads each side to think the other is at least unhinged but is more likely to see the other point of view as an evil existential threat, which leads to only one conclusion among some on each side: if the other side does not come over to our tree, we need to eliminate them (two of many examples: what happened in Pittsburgh on Saturday, October 27, 2018, and the Civil War, during which more Americans died than in all other wars in which America has been engaged!)

Wouldn’t it be better if we tried to understand the other’s point of view, not to alter it, but to try and reach compromises based on our understandings? We live in the same forest. Shouldn’t we be focusing on how we can live together instead of how we can eliminate the howlers in the tree across the way?

The second comment to my post presented a tight philosophical argument that Liberty and Equality are NOT diametrically opposed because:

Liberty is the freedom to develop and act as an individual, absent a presupposed limitation by a controlling force. Equality then fits within that construct as the absence of a presupposed limitation based on race, religion, gender or other preconceived prejudice…(therefore) the two concepts actually support each other.

I will agree that in an undergraduate philosophy class such an argument may stand up to challenge; however, my post was offered in the context of contemporary American life where none of us live in a world free of controlling forces.

Some of those forces are government regulations and/or intense societal pressures created by powerful blocks of people who believe that certain religions are evil, that marriage is between a man and a woman, that a woman should not have “choice,” that certain races are superior and others inferior. In other words, there are presupposed limitations created by controlling forces, and there are powerful blocks of people who attempt to use government regulations and intense societal pressures to counter discrimination perpetrated by controlling forces generated by the “other.”

It seems to me that there must be limitations on individual freedom by using the controlling force of government; otherwise, the Army of Liberty will insist that we all believe as they do (while espousing freedom from the treetops); but there needs to be equal limitations on the efforts of the Army of Equality to attempt to level the playing field—that grand experiment of Communism has failed miserably and repeatedly.

The wish expressed by The Foundational Cause of Our American Discontent is that we return to what has allowed us to survive until now: fraternal compromise.