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I have no idea what motivated the Australian sisters, one of whom died and one of whom survived after a suicide pact at a firing range where they rented the weapons they used on themselves (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_16649332). But it is something more than just a bizarre story that grabs our attention, or a private human tragedy made public due to a combination of the circumstances and our own fascination. It is one of the more dramatic expressions of something that is very widespread, and very significant: Human desperation. And of the general challenges we face as a society, the general good we can do together, mitigating human desperation should rank high on the list.

As one commenter on the message board following the Denver Post article said, mental health problems are far more prevalent than most people realize, and the need for better mental health hygiene is nearly universal. All of our social problems are interrelated, usually incubating in troubled childhoods with issues of school truancy or academic failure, child abuse, substance abuse, juvenile delinquency, poverty, and/or mental health issues mixed together in various combinations, reinforcing one another, growing over time.

There are many on the Right who decry “the nanny state,” but we are not enough of  a nanny state when it comes to those who most need nannies. We do not invest enough in our children’s welfare –all of our children’s welfare– though the benefits to all of us, let alone those whose lives are essentially saved by being proactive with early interventions, are well worth the investment, and end up saving us not only the suffering inflicted by troubled others, but also the material costs.

The mantra on the Right is that that’s the responsibility of parents. There was a time, just over a century ago, when “child abuse” and domestic violence in general had not yet been defined into existence, because those issues were the family’s business and no one else’s. The more rational and compassionate view is that we all have a responsibility to assist families in meeting theirs. When no families exist to do so, or those that do exist are unable or unwilling to do so, then it is our shared responsibility to step in and assist those innocent souls who some would leave to a life of suffering (and often of inflicting suffering on others, sometimes in ways which perpetuate the cycle of violence and despair across generations). The question should not be whether that is our shared responsibility, but rather how best to meet it.

It doesn’t matter that the sisters in this story were Australian nationals visiting the U.S. No one can deny that we have many like them that are home grown, and that our policies are implicated. On the news last night, there was a story of a woman who has had problems with alcohol abuse, and child abuse of her nine year old daughter, who apparently adored her daughter nonetheless, who was found, along with her daughter, in her running car in the garage of her home, both dead apparently from carbon monoxide poisoning (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_16653435). Friends and neighbors said that she loved her daughter too much to “take her with her” if she had wanted to commit suicide, but desperation isn’t that rational, and it’s not hard to imagine that, once the despair made suicide the only option the mother felt she had (if that was indeed the case), that same desperation could easily have made the thought of leaving her adored daughter behind to suffer the consequences as unbearable as life itself had become for her.

In an all-too-common story of deadly domestic violence, an ex-boyfriend, a military veteran, killed the girlfriend who ended their relationship (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_16643775). No member of the perpetrator’s family ever showed up for the three-week-long trial, and the mother of the victim said, with compassion, ”I expect they were never there for you.” But we should have been. We can reduce the rate at which lives are destroyed by the combination of extreme individualism, a refusal to invest in proactive services (such as mental health service), insanely easy access to weapons and a culture that constantly glorifies violence. The fact that our rates of violent crime are much higher than those of other developed countries suggests that it’s not just the inevitable consequence of individual defects, but the very avoidable consequence of political choices and their cultural consequences.

A man, apparently also with mental health problems, who refused to leave his foreclosed home in Jefferson County not far from where I live required a SWAT team to evict him (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_16632232). The combination of economic stresses in this period of economic downturn, and a decrease rather than increase in our commitment to take care of one another, bode ill for the rate at which such events are likely to occur, and the rate at which they are likely to end badly.

There is no shame in evolving as a society to do more to mitigate such desperation, to be there for one another, and to create social institutions which identify, intervene, and offer assistance proactively at the earliest possible stage of the development of such problems. But the newly minted Republican Congressional majority in the House voted not to extend extensions of unemployment assistance (http://www.denverpost.com/nationworld/ci_16653692), when about 14.8 million Americans are unemployed (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm).

This commitment to leaving people to fend for themselves is justified by a highly questionable analysis of how to strike the optimal balance between debt and spending, and when to impose austerity v. when not to (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=1259). In the long run, investing in proactive human services, that reduce the private and public costs of unaddressed problems and the public costs of expensive reactive policies (e.g., the highest both percentage of population and absolute number of people incarcerated of any nation on Earth) not only increases human welfare, but it also improves our bottom line in the long run.

Those who hide behind the subterfuge that, sure, it’s our shared responsibility, but a responsibility best met through private charity and the decentralized volition of people of goodwill, are engaging in the convenient historical amnesia of how inadequately these needs were met prior to the utilization of government as an agent for meeting them, and how hollow such calls are when there is no private substitute anywhere in sight, capable of meeting these needs at anywhere near the level that government today currently inadequately meets them.

I am all for well-designed government-private sector partnerships, including with churches and other religious institutions, to address these problems. I have no inherent preference for government; just an inherent preference for facing our collective responsibilities to one another rather than finding excuses to shirk them. In fact, I’m a staunch advocate of strengthening our communities, and building greater non-governmental solidarity and mutual support into them, replacing something that has been lost in our forward march into extreme individualism. There are many pieces to the puzzle of addressing our failings as a society; improving the role of government, and integrating that role into the more organic social institutional materials with which government can and should work, is just one set of such pieces.

It’s time to stop the spiral down into cruel insanity, both the cases of individual insanity that we augment with our widespread ideological commitment to hyper-individualistic public policies of mutual indifference and disdain, and the collective insanity that those policies and that attitude are a symptom of.

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  • Since the story about the Australian sisters broke, it has been revealed that they were victims of bullying as kids, and had reached out to a Columbine survivor (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_16670682). These are all reminders of our collective responsibility to our kids, and to ourselves as a people, to address social problems such as bullying, a culture of violence, and the other components of what makes our society (in the United States) crueler and less mutually attentive, both through the vehicle of government and independently of it, than average. On all dimensions, in our communities, in our other social institutions, and through out agent of collective action (our government, at all levels), we need to address these deficiencies.

    Here’s another story that points to the challenge that the small government idolators want to pretend doesn’t exist, or doesn’t need to be addressed in any coherent way: http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_16670683

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