Current Affairs

Episodes in Collective Mad-ness

Random, assorted pieces of evidence to suggest we’ve all become content to sit in judgment of others in an angry, Old Testament god sort-of-way:

The Democrats have a 12-year-old beneficiary of the S-Chip health care program (which provides insurance for people with incomes under a certain level) and Republicans — wrongly, it turns out — claim that the boy and his family are really rich people who don’t deserve government largess. Paul Krugman documents the sliming of an 12 year old today.

C.W. Nevius, in his ongoing crusade in the San Francisco Chronicle about the city’s failure to take stronger steps to deal with the homeless on our streets draws the ire of homeless advocates and others who claim the city has lost its compassion and it’s full of a bunch yuppies you don’t give a damn for the poor.

So quickly these so-called progressives are to judge, but really, is not the city already quite compassionate? San Francisco spends $150,000,000 in public funds per year on the homeless — about $24,000 per homeless person. Plus there are many millions more collected and spent in private funds. 

Compare that to $5000 or so per student in its public schools. Maybe the judgers here should focus on how that money is spent, not how much. The people who have a right to sit in angry judgment are the parents of the 56,000 public school kids, who get shafted…

And then Judith Warner writes today about the horribly tragic story of Carol Gotbaum, who died in custody of the police at Sky Harbor airport.  Her column is terrific — but read the comments if you want to get depressed.

The story is messy and complicated. Gotbaum was an alcoholic mother of three, travelling alone to get treatment at a clinic in Arizona. She was scheduled to fly directly from New York to Tuscon, but changed to a later flight so she could take her children to school one last time before spending a month in rehab. She missed her connection in Phoenix, became hysterical and distraught, the police were called, they handcuffed her — after she said "I’m not a terrorist, I’m just a mother who needs help" — and put her in a holding cell.

She apparently asphyxiated, alone in the holding cell, when she tried to bring her hands — which were cuffed — from behind her back to her font. At her funeral this past weekend, the presiding rabbi noted:

“The central teaching of both Judaism and Christianity is to love your
neighbor as yourself. But at that airport … there was no such love
offered to our Carol.”

This was the central point of Warner’s piece — to ask, have we lost "the base level of lovingkindness, decency, compassion and empathy that most
of us assume, or at the very least hope, we and our loved ones will
encounter in life."

So many of the commenters skip past any consideration of that question and move quickly to judge the Gotbaum family. How could they let her travel alone?  The tone of many is insistent — mean, even — angered by the fact that the family has asked — "Why didn’t someone just put their arm around Carol at the airport."

Just a quick attempt at empathy and you’d realize that these intimate, family decisions may seem clear in retrospect, but aren’t always without the benefit of hindsight. Gotbaum apparently insisted on going alone so her husband would be at home with the kids. Really, wasn’t there something right and honorable in Noah, the husband, staying home with the kids to minimize the impact on them? On a day when their mother was leaving for a month? Anyone in a family can understand how that might have seemed the right decision.

And yet, we don’t empathize. Left, right, center — we judge, with ferocity. A nation of so-called Christians, who more often than not side with the angry God of the Old Testament, and don’t seem to pay much heed to the more compassionate teachings of the New.