The Critical Mass

The price we pay for living in a civilization

Tuesday night’s snowfall and Barack Obama’s words on Wednesday met in a perfect storm this week.

The snow: about eight inches of it had fallen overnight. At eight in the morning, I stepped outside and began shoveling the driveway. It went quickly; the snow was heavy, but it’s a Charlotte city yard so it’s not like clearing the Clampett’s driveway. Then I walked out to Lake Avenue to catch the bus. I waited 45 minutes before one finally emerged from the blowing snow. The ride was long and slow, the bus sliding and groaning through the slush-rutted street. From my vantage point high in the bus, I could look down into the cars creeping alongside us. Almost all of them had just one person inside.

From the time I step out onto the porch, and if I don’t miss the bus, I’m usually in the office 30 minutes later. Wednesday morning, the elapsed time from front porch to office: Two hours, 20 minutes.

But here’s what I observed during that struggle to get downtown. We need public services. I did all I could in getting my driveway clear. I couldn’t do anything about Lake Avenue or the sidewalks. I saw thousands of people who needed help in navigating through their day.

We don’t need a storm to bring this to light. Just look around you. Start with, who pays your mailman? Picks up your garbage? Want public schools? Paved streets? Then dwell on less-obvious public matters. That drug you may need to control a medical condition: The research that made the development of that drug possible may have come, in part, from government program funding the study of the breeding habits of fruit flies. Fruit flies, because of their short life spans, are essential in studying how genetic traits are passed along the generations.

Funding for the arts is essential, because the arts define our culture (You there, the guy who doesn’t think symphony orchestras are important: Shut up or we’ll take away your taxpayer-built football stadium).

Heath care is essential as well. Because as a civilization, we have to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. This is no longer a primitive planet populated by hunter-gatherer tribes. Survival of the fittest. There are nearly seven billion people now on the planet. The rules have changed.

And it does cost. Taxes are the price we pay for civilization. Yes, as the gun enthusiasts like to say, Freedom isn’t Free. And that’s why this revolt against funding social services – which has erupted into an angry, fact-free war – is so ill-considered. And so lacking in civility and decency.

It comes down to compassion, and the desire to move forward together. The problem often is, we can’t agree on the location of the finish line. Particularly when the debate is being controlled by folks who are perfectly comfortable with surrendering a plastic bottle of hair conditioner to airport security, but insist they have the right to bring an automatic weapon to a political gathering. If Saturday’s assassination attempt on a U.S. congresswoman isn’t the America you know, as I’ve heard a few folks say, then you haven’t been paying attention to the news for the last two decades.

Wednesday at the Arizona memorial service for the six people murdered and 13 wounded in our latest domestic terrorist act – not too big a price to pay for our right to bear arms, I guess – Obama reminded us that we must “expand our moral imaginations” and “sharpen our instincts for empathy.”

And he said this: “Have we shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to people in our lives?”

And I wondered: Why does he have to even tell us this? Aren’t we supposed to know this already?