Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Needs of the Few

"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few...or the one." --Star Trek II:The Wrath of Khan

It's become a Star Trek cliche: Spock's statement of utilitarian logic, leading him to sacrifice himself to save the rest of the crew of the Enterprise. At the conclusion of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the aphorism is turned on its head: Kirk's quest to rescue his friend have led to the destruction of both the Enterprise and, most likely, his career, not to mention the death of his son David. Asked by Spock why so many would give so much for him, Kirk replies, "Because the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many."

Last Friday, our raging bull in a china shop President issued an executive order, effective immediately, banning citizens of seven Muslim countries from entry into the United States. The order was, in the words of one Republican Senator carefully choosing his words, not "vetted properly." It resulted in chaos at every international airport in the United States. Muslims with green cards who had taken off overseas before the order was issued landed to find themselves detained and, in some cases, deported. Enforcement was erratic, depending on which Customs and Border Protection agents were in charge of each airport. Within hours, the ACLU was suing. Five different federal court judges placed holds on some or all of the order. Many affected by it continue to be in some kind of limbo, and even administration officials (including Chief of Staff Reince Priebus) seem unsure exactly whom is affected by it. In response to the mess he made with this xenophobic, reactionary edict, President Trump tweeted that "only 109" people were detained on the first day of the order.

There are two problems with this number. The first is that it is simply wrong, a distracting minimalization of an order that will probably affect at least 90,000 people. The much more disturbing problem is that violations of rights are an issue no matter how few people are affected. In fact, the Constitution of the United States exists not to defend the rights of the majority, but the minority--however small a number it may be. That an atrocity is committed against only a few, or even just one, human being makes it no less heinous.

My philosophical touchstone in this matter has always been a piece by Oregon's greatest literary treasure, Ursula K. LeGuin. In her 1973 short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," she describes a utopian city that could be the ideal of any progressive, humanist thinker, a place where all people live in harmony, free from want and disease, able to pursue enlightenment and fulfillment throughout their lives. There's just one catch: the price of all the Omelans' happiness is that one child must eternally suffer in a cold, miserable dungeon. As children, Omelans are spared knowledge of this atrocity, but upon coming of age, every one of them must visit the cell, witness the suffering, and be forbidden from doing anything to help the child. All are moved, some angered, but most are able to live with the knowledge. Some, though, decide that the suffering of one child is too dear a price for the happiness of the many, and walk away from the city, never to return.

I read this story once, when I was in high school, in a collection of award winning science fiction. That's forty years ago. And it still haunts me.

Fifteen years ago, I became aware of a growing protest against the Boy Scouts' refusal to accept openly gay recruits: Eagle Scouts were mailing their medals back to the national office. At the time, I was serving as a den leader in my son's Cub Scout pack, and was on the mailing list for Scouting, the official magazine of Scout leaders. One day I read an article that sought to minimize the Eagle protest by claiming that only a few hundred Eagles had returned their medals, and I saw red. I remembered being told, when I reached the rank of Eagle, that only one in two hundred Scouts make it to that rank; so even if it was just a hundred Eagles who'd returned the medals, that could represent the opinion of 20,000 former Scouts. More than that, though, I knew just how much it meant to every one of those men to open up whatever treasure box he kept his Eagle badge in, to contemplate how earning it had shaped his youth, how significant it was to his identity as a man, and even so, to put it in and envelope and send it off to the Scout Executive in Irving, Texas. To belittle such a sacrifice by even one Eagle Scout was to demonstrate a callousness that should have no place in any Scout leader, least of all the executives who represent the entire movement.

(Scouting has evolved since then, finally opening its doors to both gay Scouts and gay Scoutmasters. Just yesterday, it took another step toward inclusiveness, permitting trans children to join. I never did return my own Eagle medal, just as I've never surrendered my ordination, despite having long since grown disenchanted with United Methodism's long road to nowhere on matters of inclusion; but those are two other stories.)

In fact, hiding behind the suffering of just a few, or even a single person, is an admission that the policy causing that suffering is fatally flawed. Any hypothetical good that comes from it--be it enhanced "safety" from terrorists (highly debatable, as in fact it's driving a wedge between the United States and those Muslims whose opinion of this nation is so high that they want to live here), or "protecting" Boy Scouts from being "recruited" by gay peers or mentors (not even debatable, but based on lies told by bigots)--becomes ethically tainted. In fact, in the case of closing our borders to Muslims, we commit the sin of scapegoating, causing innocents to suffer as payment for the misdeeds of people they are completely unrelated to.

There are many who have spoken out against the ban, insisting "This is not who we are." Unfortunately, if the few polls conducted since the policy was announced are to be believed, it is, in fact, who at least a significant number, perhaps even a majority, of Americans are. Banning Muslims--and no matter how much lipstick the White House puts on this pig, it is unmistakably a ban on Muslims entering the United States--is viewed favorably by far more Americans than I like to imagine. It shouldn't be that hard to imagine it, though: Jim Crow laws were still in place when I was born, Black and Hispanic men still receive far worse treatment from police officers, and ever since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the office of President, the Republican half of America has been humming with racist, xenophobic, misogynist energy. There were enough racists and people willing to accommodate racism in the right places to give Donald Trump the electoral votes he needed to become President. Whether or not it's who "we" are, it's clearly who he is, and enough of his followers agree with it that he doesn't give a flying fig what the rest of us think.

As much as it sickens me to admit that reality--and I've been sickened a lot in the last year, and expect to go on being sickened by nearly everything this regime does for as long as it remains in power--there is a higher reality that, I have to believe, is who we really truly are. It's the America enshrined in the Constitution, a land of protected freedoms, a place that understands even the smallest minority must be protected from the tyranny of the majority.

Trump has enough followers to wreak havoc on that America. Since his election, his racist followers have felt empowered to engage in far more mischief than they've practiced since the end of Jim Crow. They may not be a true majority--in fact, the not quite 63 million votes cast for Donald Trump are slightly less than 20% of the population of the United States--but even so, that's a lot of Americans who want to return to the days of lynching, segregation, and the disenfranchisement of non-white citizens. Their leader--our (groan) President--continually inflates their numbers to stroke his ego and justify the radically destructive policies he seeks to invoke by decree.

In opposition to this democratically conducted coup, we have the Constitution. It's not a perfect defense--it's been amended 27 times, and still could benefit from the work of a good editor--but it's bolstered by the tens of thousands of public servants who have all sworn to uphold and protect it, for whom the word "unconstitutional" is synonymous with "blasphemous" and "heretical."

Our founders believed not just in the rights of majorities, but of individuals, and they enshrined those rights in this document. Donald Trump's minimization of the 109 individuals who lives were most obviously turned upside down by his executive order is an admission that he acted outside the Constitution, and that in so doing, sought to enact an illegal policy. We must not permit this wealthy bully to hide behind the numbers of his victims, however few they may seem to us. To allow him to trample the rights of just one human being is a bridge too far for any self-respecting American to cross.

And if we become the nation Trump envisions, an America that puts itself first, at the cost of scapegoating innocent people anywhere, then it will be time for many of us to walk away from this country that is not longer even a shadow of what it was, from the beginning, intended to be.

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