“Throughout this campaign, I’ve shared that story – not because it’s unique, but because it isn’t.” A few weeks back, in response to attacks on her life story, Wendy Davis fought back in an open letter in which she rigorously defended the importance of her life story to her campaign for governor of Texas. This sentence tells the story best. Wendy Davis is running for office to represent all Texans, not just the privileged, but those who have endured hardship and those who continue to do so. This is a very important statement, because in America today we have forgotten the lessons of our forefathers and our history, and have turned against groups of our fellow Americans.
From Mitt Romney’s rather gentle dismissal of the 47%, to Duck Dynasty Phil Robertson’s more graphic disparagement of homosexuals, to North Carolina GOP Precint Chair Don Yelton’s racist denigration of black voting rights, to South Carolina’s lieutenant governor Andre Bauer likening the poor to “stray animals”; from the Paul Ryan budget and Republican lawmakers’ efforts to cut food stamps for the “undeserving” poor, to Republican officials’ attempts to curtail voting by the poor and minorities in their states, to the recent spate of anti-gay laws considered in state legislatures, to the more repulsive words used on forums across the internet where the poor are discussed, we see a misguided effort to turn Americans against each other and demote certain Americans from the rights and the opportunities that we hold dear.
Our forefathers did not live up to their rhetoric. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” They held slaves. Certain people who were governed were nonetheless not allowed to consent to their government, voting being restricted to certain classes of males. But ours is a history of spreading rights more broadly. Blacks got voting rights after the Civil War and these rights were secured with further constitutional amendments. Women got the right to vote in 1920. Today we generally believe, at least abstractly, that all citizens should have the right to take part in their government, participate in voting for those who govern them, and expect to have the government care about their circumstances.
In The Compassion Gap, Nicholas Kristof writes insightfully of this disdain we keep encountering for fellow Americans. He had written earlier about a young boy in poverty who had a correctable hearing problem that went undetected for the first 18 months of his life, likely leading to some permanent learning disability. His point was that poor kids start out life at a disadvantage (the piece is entitled When Even the Starting Line Is Out of Reach), and that we should focus attention on improving their chances at life. The response to this from certain readers seems to have taken him aback. “SOME readers collectively hissed after I wrote a week ago about the need for early-childhood interventions to broaden opportunity in America.” He addresses this by saying, “To me, such outrage at a doting mom based on her appearance suggests the myopic tendency in our country to blame poverty on the poor, to confuse economic difficulties with moral failures, to muddle financial lapses with ethical ones.”
Nicholas Epley calls it a failing of our sixth sense. This sixth sense is the ability to reason about the mind of another person. He describes an incident where he was camping with his sons and one of them badly cut his hand. “When I heard him cry out, I instantly spun around to see him hopping up and down with blood dripping out of his hand, looking me squarely in the eyes with a mixture of pain and fear. In a split second I knew exactly what he had done, was wincing in pain right along with him, and was equally worried about what we were going to do. In that split second, our minds merged.” When we engage our sixth sense, our minds merge and we share attention with another, imitate action, and create common experience. We can do this when we are in close contact, and also through imagination when not. When we don’t engage, we dehumanize others.
It is belittling enough to our humanity when we fail to engage this sixth sense when confronted with our enemies, but when we fail to engage with our fellow citizens, it means trouble for the republic. So when Wendy Davis says my story of hardship is your story of hardship, she offers a politics which brings us together “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”