In democratic ages men rarely sacrifice themselves for another, but they show a general compassion for all the human race. One never sees them inflict pointless suffering, and they are glad to relieve the sorrows of others when they can do so without much trouble to themselves. They are not disinterested, but they are gentle.
– Alexis de Tocqueville
In the past several days, I have come back to this quote from de Tocqueville several times. I must say that I am perplexed by it. On one hand, I do see the notion of compassion for all as value in democracies. In writing this I am not suggesting that this compassion outweighs the competition and greed of capitalism, but it is a value nonetheless. But on the other hand, I am less clear about his observation from his two years in America in the 1830s that describes us as being compassionate when it doesn’t put us out too much personally. Is he suggesting that our values are more genteel than genuine?
At least de Tocqueville tries to assure us that we are not disinterested. Still, he implies that our interest in the welfare of others has its limits. And these limits are spare.
I am increasingly fascinated with our national cool. Maybe that is what de Tocqueville is describing. If so, I don’t share his perspective that this cool is part of democracy. The cool I am referring to is a Gordian knot that binds self-interest not only to status, but to uprightness. Names of men who are among the greatest criminals against the environment adorn plaques on science museums and post-show credits of Public Television offerings. Ads for their products assert quality while implying a sort of whitewashed hominess. Neither quality nor family values are on their agenda; acquisition and consolidation of power are.
The grayness of their suits and affected tan-from-makeup of their faces seek to conceal the fact that they are thugs. At some point their wealth allows them to buy more than property. It allows them to buy votes, elections, and minds. In so doing they convince us that we are compassionate when our actions don’t suggest that. And we don’t care.
This week I am reflecting on disinterest. There are generally two meanings to the word. Legally, disinterest is viewed as a good thing because it suggests a lack of bias. For example, one might say that he is a disinterested third party who is, therefore, impartial in his assessment. But, disinterest is also associated with being uninterested. In this case, one might popularly say, “Whatever!” In so doing, our compassion is a theory or a concept, not an actionable value.
The Ralph Lauren sponsorship ad on Public Television says something to the effect that in the world of Ralph Lauren the concept of being handmade is valued. In that world nothing is actually made, it is branded – a concept. So, too, in the democratic world of the plutocrats, the concept of compassion is valued. Actual compassion is saved for interested chumps. These chumps create community.
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
― Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches