Thursday, May 19, 2016


When I was teaching a college class in the ‘00s, I began my first lecture talking about how for all the fancy words and interpretations in the Constitution most issues came down to a few concepts we have been talking to all our lives, like fairness. Another way to look at fairness is by talking about sharing.
When we argue about almost anything, how often is it about sharing? I’d say when it is about public issue, much if not most of the time. Mostly it is about assets and opportunities, though there are times it includes, at least tangentially, things like dignity.

Our culture and our traditional economic system, capitalism, is based upon the notion that property can be private, owned by someone. The famous sociologist/mythologist, James Frazer, author of the renowned The Golden Bough, wrote another book, Psyche's Task, much less famous and harder to find now. I got a copy of it and read it. In it he argued (hedging the whole way) that four traits or customs supported by superstition seem to be connected to whether a society is successful or not, and one of the four is private property. Respect for private property requires that any sharing be voluntary. Modern political systems all seem to require something more than voluntary sharing though, and it is the center of many of our political issues (e.g., taxes, economic redistribution, entitlement programs, etc.). If it hard to grasp in the abstract, you could think about such fundamental American political concepts such as separation of powers and federalism, both forms of sharing power.

It is very easy to reduce the notion of sharing to a cute kindergarten concept, but, in reality, it is the heart and soul of many things we argue about in life, at least tangentially. What can be shared, what should be shared? When the Bernie Sanders inspired radicals throw chairs, it is because they are demanding more sharing – and not voluntarily (and don't tell me sharing means voluntary - parents often teach kids to share by forcing them to do it). That is the ironic essence of socialism and similar doctrines – what will not be voluntarily shared, is redistributed by force until it becomes the norm --so it can be fair. Every society in modern times that are primarily based upon socialistic concepts fails, but, it is still apparently wonderfully attractive to young people, as it was to me in my youth. Why would anyone not want to share everything they had, I thought, back when I was in many ways as dedicated to my own images of “liberalism” as those today “feeling the Bern.” Even then, though, the idea of violent revolution or persuasion by force was repellent to me. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were then, and still are, heroic figures to me, because the equality of opportunity and respect they sought was achieved by self-sacrifice, education and personal qualities. They too sought a redistribution of opportunity and material things, but by appealing to the haves by self-sacrifice. What does discrimination mean but that some are denied access to what others have, whether it be a water fountain or the right to rule themselves.  In the end, both paid the ultimate sacrifice, but were successful in large in their missions first.

The “law” is in some aspects a set of rules for sharing, whether we are talking about taxes, mineral rights, navigation, the budget, rules of the road, domestic relations, anti-discrimination laws, the rules of personal, real and intellectual property or a multitude of other topics.  Just as the laws are the rules for sharing, notions of “fairness” are what we think about those laws.  Laws are “fair” when they meet our approval as to what we should have to share or not. They are “unfair” when they do not.

Both those following Trump and those following Sanders are impassioned by their views of basic fairness, whether they would describe it this way or not.   One factor in Trump’s success is based upon the “haves,” or people believing they should be the “haves,” rejecting the seeming reversal of access to opportunity and material sought by the “have nots” and the means they go about achieving it. They feel that the rules of sharing, the laws, have been so turned on their head, such that they are now being discriminated against simply by being part of a shrinking majority. Trumpians often cannot even explain what it is about Trump they like, and we know neither can he, but we often hear that they want someone who will take down or break the system. In this, Trump's and Sanders' supporters sometimes see each other as being similar. But what Trump’s followers mean to achieve by breaking the system seems to be the opposite of what Sanders’ followers want. Trumpians want to break a system that they associate with Washington and sometimes Wall Street, which they believe is now geared to taking what they have, imagine they have or want to have by right, whereas Sanders’ group wants to do the same thing, having similar feelings of entitlement. It is a complicated pudding though, and not heavily thought out by anyone, but all based on notion of sharing and fairness. And though they are similar in concept, they are very different in who or what they think they might be entitled to, and could not be unified in my view. But even Trump's and Sanders' gripes about the nomination system run by their respective parties primarily concerns the notions that the elites are not sharing the choice of the nominee with its rank and file. I have to leave this example, or I'll get bogged down in it.

We are also hearing a lot about “dignity” these days, which has more to do with sharing than you would think at first blush. Dignity often reflects a belief that because of their personal circumstances, people are not valued or treated in society such that they cannot share in what others take for granted. The idea of dignity is an extremely fluid concept. Take a transsexual. They, and those who support anti-discrimination laws concerning rest rooms find that their not being able to choose their own bathroom robs them of their personal dignity. Those who support laws requiring public bathroom use to be restricted by gender feel being forced to share with someone biologically different robs their dignity. Dignity may be fluid, but it is a feeling that inspires great passions, as we can see. The same can roughly apply to many LGBT issues. They believe that they are entitled to be who they really are and treated as equals in society, and to refuse them this robs them of their dignity. Those who oppose them often feel that they are not playing by the common rules of our society and they are acting in an undignified manner.

Not everything is sharing, of course. I suggest this is just on way to look at our social and political world. It can’t explain the randomness of life or atoms, nor human nature or natural laws, only the way we deal these things when they come into existence. And it is not, of course, all negative. It is mostly positive. There is a great positive power to sharing and it is the bulwark of our human relations and civilization. Even driving down the road, by following the rules we are engaging in sharing common assets. Perhaps the easiest way to conceive the great power of voluntary sharing is what we now call “wiki,” which enables an unfathomable amount of knowledge to be gathered and distributed by voluntary mass sharing.

These notions occurred to me a few mornings ago and I decided to set them down. I by no means think I can exhaust even the smallest considerations of it. The examples I use are just topical and came first to mind, but the concepts are eternal. I could go back to the Epic of Gilgamesh and analyze it in terms of sharing, fairness and dignity, and, in fact, had an example from it in mind too. I just restrained myself. Sometimes voluntarily oversharing taxes a reader's patience.

1 comment:

  1. Trumpians!?! What the hell are Trumpians?? Sounds like a body part connected to the colon. Our current self-centered, narcissistic generation ain't sharing a goddamed thing with anyone. Get over it. There taking it all and the generation coming after them is mightily screwed. Glad I won't be here to see it.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .