As a young woman, I used to imagine that the downfall of my beloved country would come from our participation in wars that were not ours to fight, the investment of too much in human life and money for goals that are impossible to attain. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq.
Then, as I grew older, I became concerned about the declining wisdom of our children, their abilities, as well-rounded individuals, to think critically, to perceive with a high probability when they’re being manipulated, duped.
To accomplish the first requires the second, whether we’re talking about battles fought with guns or weapons of mass manipulation. To evaluate with wisdom which battles to fight and which to stay out of requires a shrewd, incisive capacity to evaluate all of what might be at stake in every decision, especially as an unintentional side effect.
I have always delighted in what I considered the hand of God in science–the frequency with which the most life-changing things are discovered by accident, in the unexpected side effects of experiments designed to test completely different hypotheses. The discovery that led Tom Edison to the incandescent bulb after he’d gone down another path for years; the fact that Hans Selye, who documented the "fight or flight" response of the human nervous system and its effect on the immune system, was actually trying to isolate what he thought was a brand new hormone when he happened to notice a pattern that would illuminate the role of physiological effects of stress on illness, emotional and physical. (He failed to find a new hormone, by the way.)
If they hadn’t been paying attention to the small things, they might have missed the discoveries that would improve all our lives. If they hadn’t been looking at all of the possible implications of their experiments, who knows where electricity and medicine would be now?
But side effects are not always good ones. As with drugs, where, for instance, we make decisions about whether keeping our blood pressure controlled is more a priority than avoiding the need to pee at inconvenient times, we must evaluate all our decisions, predicting as best we can what the positives and negatives will be and judging whether or not to proceed on the basis of whether achieving happiness (assuming we can) or avoiding suffering is the more important goal, the more far-reaching in its consequences if achieved.
It’s the paradox of duality–we humans can focus on achieving happiness or avoiding suffering, but not both at the same time. When we elect people to make decisions that benefit the majority of us, we must be able to trust there is someone looking at both and that the decisions will be made, not on the basis of who has the most money, but the most character and compassion.
I think that’s what Albert Einstein was getting at when he said, "The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking…the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If I had only known, I should have become a watchmaker." Had he known that his discoveries would help to lay the foundation not only for the power of good but for weapons of mass destruction, he would have pointed his focus of study toward another aspect of the measurement of time.
While we’ve been focused on similarly unsolvable battles over abortion and whose rights come first, or the intent of our founding fathers when they wrote the 2nd Amendment, and while we wait with baited breath, more interested in whether the "liberals" and "conservatives" will "win" the battle over universal health care than in helping those innocent bystanders who are dying of diseases that might have been cured if they’d been able to afford a doctor’s care…the Supreme Court decided that the voice of money is equal to the voice of human conscience–that the "collective bargaining" power of money united trumps the "collective bargaining" power of wisdom united. All at the behest of men whose goal is to use the power of money to manipulate the masses through sleight of hand to support the maintenance of their money and position and power.
The ideals of democracy depend on the individual’s freedom to vote his conscience on the basis of his own truth, but a vote purchased is no vote at all, much less one of conscience or truth.
Man does not live by bread alone, Jesus said. But I submit that he’ll die trying to, especially if he has a barn full of bread and has been convinced that someone is trying to steal it from him.
As an American woman, I can live with whatever decisions are made about abortion, about who gets what financial support from the government and who doesn’t, about immigration, about same-sex marriage, even if I fall into the demographic group affected most negatively by the decision of whomever is in power, because the results do not threaten to affect all Americans or the principles on which our country was founded.
But if we allow it to stand, I’m afraid we will rue the decision of Citizens United, and that day will one day be counted among the signs that the end of the age of America had come. Pray that Alexis de Tocqueville was right when he wrote, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”