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The Compassionate Community
Ten Values to Unite America
By Jonathan Miller
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2006 Jonathan Miller
All rights reserved.
NOAH AND THE VALUE OF OPPORTUNITY
God said to Noah, "I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you should make it: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and terminate it within a cubit of the top. Put the entrance to the ark in its side; make it with bottom, second and third decks."
I imagine most parents have a difficult time explaining to their young children what they do for a living. But I also know that having a parent with a political career is particularly bewildering to a young child.
During my first statewide political campaign, I had a breakfast conversation with my then five-year-old daughter, Emily, which made quite an impression on me. Emily understood that I was asking the voters of the Commonwealth to elect me to the position of Kentucky's state treasurer. But then she confounded me with an unusual question: "Daddy, does that mean we get to ride a big boat?" When I asked her what she meant, she exclaimed: "To search for the hidden treasure!"
Knowing that my daughters were confused by the concept, I instead have tried to illustrate what I do by telling them a story involving a subject that always piques their interest—a famous horse. This particular horse, that just happened to be Kentucky's most famous early-twentieth-century native, was named Seabiscuit.
Seabiscuit was a thoroughbred that everyone thought was too small, and no one gave him a chance to become a champion in the "sport of kings." He had a jockey that everyone thought was too tall, and no one gave him a chance to win the big races. He had a trainer that everyone thought was too old, and no one gave him a chance to work with the most talented thoroughbreds.
Then one day, one man came along—Seabiscuit's owner, Charles Howard—and gave them all a chance. Howard empowered each of them with the resources, equipment, facilities, and public show of confidence they needed to succeed. And Seabiscuit became a champion. Howard provided Team Seabiscuit with the tools they needed to achieve unparalleled racing success. Their success also empowered Howard; not simply to win renown and money, but, more importantly, to complete the grieving process for his deceased son.
What is most interesting is that Seabiscuit ran and won during a time in the nation's history when there were millions of Americans who were struggling just to get a chance. It was the Great Depression, and hope was scarce amid unparalleled economic hardship. And then one man came along and gave them all a chance. One man arrived on the scene and empowered millions of Americans with the tools they needed to work hard and build a good quality of life for their families. And because of that man—President Franklin D. Roosevelt—the United States, in time, emerged as the strongest economic power in the history of the world.
My kids know that FDR is one of my political heroes. And while his mission and mandate were far, far greater than mine, we share the same value: opportunity. I go to work every day trying to provide more and more Kentuckians the chance to realize their own personal dreams.
* * *
These lessons for my children are not limited to politics. In fact, I apply them on the softball field.
My own baseball career peaked at the age of eight, when I completed an extremely rare feat during a T-ball game: an unassisted triple play. The achievement can be credited not to any special athletic ability, but to the fact that the umpire and I were the only people on the field who knew what was going on at the time. However, that did not prevent my father from bragging about the incident for the next 25 years.
My involvement with the sport now consists of rooting for the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox (until recently a miserable preoccupation), "playing" in two fantasy baseball leagues, and, most importantly, coaching my daughters' Pee Wee softball teams. While I initially signed up to spend more time with my own daughters, coaching young girls for five years has been one of the most rewarding—and downright fun—things I have ever done. Teaching the fundamentals, making out lineups, and watching the girls grow, improve, and sometimes even win are the best parts of my summer.
Coaching has also helped me apply and demonstrate to the girls my vision of the moral value of opportunity. Unlike some coaches who focus on winning and winning only, playing the best athletes at the critical positions, I constantly rotate my lineups and fielding positions to give each girl a chance to learn, grow, and have fun. This strategy may have been the leading reason we always ended up with losing records during our first four years.
In 2005, however, my luck changed. In the last inning of the deciding game, we were up 7–4 with the chance to clinch our first winning season. It was Kayla's turn to play the key position on the field—pitcher. Kayla was one of my all-time favorites, but with the winning record on the line, I briefly considered substituting my best fielder, Cassi, at pitcher. I left Kayla in. With the lead narrowed to 7–6, and the bases loaded, Kayla made two heads-up plays to make the final two outs and win us the game. Kayla's entire extended family—who attended every game—couldn't hold back their tears when I awarded Kayla the game ball. I gave Kayla a chance, and she delivered all of us a victory.
NOAH AND THE GREAT FLOOD
I also believe that we all must witness the value of opportunity in action. When my daughter Emily turned six, I took her to attend Sunday services at the Historic Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church in Lexington. The minister, Rev. L. F. Peeples, had offered to introduce me to his mostly African American congregation.
I wanted to introduce Emily to Christianity. African American churches like Pleasant Green offer the most spiritually inspiring church experiences I have witnessed. The sounds, the rhythms, and the dancing in the aisles enthralled Emily. Fortunately, the place was loud enough so that only those sitting closest to us could hear Emily when she asked loudly, "Daddy, who is Jesus?"
I also brought Emily along because we had the very rare chance to listen to the guest preacher, Jesse Jackson. While Rev. Jackson and I part ways on a number of political and policy issues, I find him one of the most stirring and accomplished orators alive today. And Jackson is perhaps the most eloquent advocate of the value of equal opportunity for all Americans. Little did I know how relevant his talk would be.
Jackson's sermon focused on one of the most popular Bible stories—particularly among children of Emily's age—the story of Noah, found in chapters six through nine of the Book of Genesis. With his fluid delivery and rhythmic cadences, Jackson recounted how a grieving God despaired of the wickedness of man and chose to cause a great flood to destroy nearly all of His creation.
Of course, Jackson reminded us, there was one righteous man, Noah, and God decided to spare him, his family, and two of each species of living animal, so that the Earth could then be repopulated. This was a second act of creation—my daughters would call it a "do-over"; my grandfather, an accomplished golfer, would claim that God took a mulligan.
But then Jackson parted from the Biblical text. It was an election year, and he wanted to make a political point from the pulpit. This was the late 1990s, a period when right-wing politicians were making a resurgence nationally through piercing critiques of the federal bureaucracy. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was trying to dismantle Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society," anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist was drawing up plans to shrink government so that it could be "drowned in a bathtub," and radio personality Rush Limbaugh was challenging his listeners to name a single federal government program that actually worked.
Jackson asked the congregation to envision Noah's predicament had the Gingriches and Limbaughs ruled the heavens. Jackson imagined that they would have advised Noah to do push-ups. Like a prehistoric John Wayne, Noah should have picked himself up by his bootstraps (or sandal-straps, in his case), built up his muscles, and be prepared to swim—after all, the rain would only last for 40 days and 40 nights!
I found Jackson's critique of laissez-faire, do-nothing government to be compelling. Government has a vital role to play in society and in public policy, and the mythic notion of an entirely self-reliant populace, operating as wholly distinct and detached individuals, is not an appealing nor realistic vision of society in my mind.
Yet I also do not find the converse to be true. While government is not the problem in itself, it is also not the solution to all of our challenges. Indeed, there is a middle ground—the so-called third way—that was made famous by former President Bill Clinton and has proved around the globe to be an effective alternative to the politics of the left and the right. The fundamental principle of the third way is that government's role is to empower able-bodied individuals to help themselves. (Of course, direct government assistance will always be required for those who cannot help themselves: the young, the very old, the disabled, etc.) Policymakers are best suited to develop programs that equip people with the tools they need to solve their own problems.
Noah's Ark, in fact, is an appropriate symbol for the third way. God did not create a massive shelter, stocked with food and supplies (the "big government" approach). Nor did God adopt the laissez-faire attitude lampooned by Rev. Jackson. Instead, God provided direction to Noah on how to survive the impending natural destruction.
God gave Noah very detailed instructions on how to build an ark that would ensure the propagation of the human race and the animal kingdom. From the construction materials to the size specifications to the architectural design, God provided a blueprint for Noah's life raft—and charged Noah with the work. God equipped Noah with opportunity—the tools he needed to survive the storm—and empowered Noah to save his family.
OPPORTUNITY: A MORAL VALUE, AN AMERICAN VALUE
Opportunity, indeed, is a critical value of the compassionate community. World religious tradition instructs us that providing others with an opportunity to realize their own dreams is one of the most powerful ways to demonstrate love for your neighbor.
For society's most vulnerable, this means providing the opportunity to, at the very least, secure the basics: food, clothing, and shelter. Jesus instructed his followers to lend assistance to those who were struggling on their own to make ends meet: "Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you." Jewish Rabbinic law called for the creation of communal agencies to assure the minimum needs of survival for those who are destitute. And Eastern religious figures ranging from Mohammed (Islam) to Confucius (Confucianism) to Vivekanada (Hinduism) consistently advocated that society must provide for those who have the greatest needs.
But access to opportunity should not be limited to the destitute and the disabled. These same religious traditions promote equal opportunity for all of humanity. And while making charitable gifts is considered a universal virtue, the most noble of all charitable practices is empowering others with the opportunity to provide for themselves and their own families. You are probably familiar with the ancient proverb: "If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day; if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime." While the source of the quote is unknown, its philosophy is consistent with the teachings of most renowned world religious leaders. For example, the great twelfth-century rabbi Maimonides proffered that the highest form of charity was not giving money—but rather helping someone get a job to strengthen his own hand.
Our nation was built on the value of opportunity. The first waves of Europeans to settle our lands came for the opportunity to practice their religion without persecution. More recently, immigrants have traveled to the United States from all over the globe for the opportunity to earn a higher standard of living. Much like with Noah, the boats these brave men and women boarded to the New World represented their dreams of safety, security, and opportunity.
Not coincidentally, the value of opportunity occupies the core of the country's mission statement—the Declaration of Independence. In drafting the document, Thomas Jefferson relied heavily on John Locke'sTwo Treatises on Government in declaring that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." But in defining the key rights, Jefferson departed from Locke's formulation of "life, liberty and property," by listing them as "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" (emphasis added).
By substituting "happiness," Jefferson was not proposing an amorphous, lighthearted concept often identified with the term today. Instead, he was enlisting the definition of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who declared that the "final cause," or purpose in life, for all individuals was happiness, a well-being or human flourishing that could only be achieved through the pursuit of reason, combined with the opportunity to reach one's highest potential. Accordingly, Aristotle argued that it was the state's preeminent obligation to provide every individual with an opportunity to pursue his or her own version of happiness.
This political philosophy also influenced the framing of the country's governing document, the U.S. Constitution. During the constitutional conventions, future Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton unsuccessfully argued that because the masses were "turbulent and changing" and "seldom judge or determine right," it was vital to give the rich "a distinct permanent share in the government" by structuring a formally class-based government as had been the case in Great Britain. While early American history indeed was marked by a concentration of power in the "enlightened few," the Framers created a Constitution and a Bill of Rights that provided opportunity to the masses, and a political process by which the nation has moved much farther in that direction over the past two centuries.
Today, every American should expect an equal opportunity to pursue happiness. This means that every individual, who works hard and plays by the rules of society, should have the opportunity to share in the American Dream. People who are responsible for themselves and their communities should have the opportunity for a good job, the opportunity to live in their own home in safety and good health, and the opportunity to retire with financial security.
For those who are able-bodied, this does not necessarily mean a hand out, but a hand up. As the story of Noah illustrates, the ideal role of government is to empower individuals to help themselves, to give them the tools they need to build their own dreams.
* * *
Ultimately, the most vital guarantor of equal opportunity is education. Even in the early years of the Republic, our nation's leaders realized that universal public education was critical to the premise of equal opportunity for all. And in designing his roadmap to create a vibrant middle class in the wake of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the need to ensure that all American children received a free, quality public education through high school. By the end of World War II, the opportunity to earn a high-school diploma was all most Americans needed to secure a good factory job, buy a home, and raise their children in prosperity.
Today, however, a high-school degree is not enough for most Americans. Without higher education—college, vocational or technical school—it has become increasingly difficult to escape a life of poverty. The factory jobs of the post-war era are disappearing due to a sharp decline in the manufacturing sector, free trade agreements that have shifted many manufacturing jobs overseas, and the emergence of the new information-based economy. Since the 1970s, the American manufacturing sector has lost over six million jobs (more than three million have been lost since 1998 alone), due to new technologies and cheaper overseas competition. Further, the market value of those left unemployed has declined precipitously, forcing millions of formerly middle class, blue-collar American workers closer to the poverty line.
This trend is expected to continue and accelerate. With rapid advances in technology linking the globe digitally, and with the impending retirement of the disproportionately large baby boom generation, industry employment projections predict that the fastest job growth will occur in the high-tech and health-care sectors, both of which usually require higher education. High-school graduates (and dropouts) will be forced to fill the remaining service-related jobs offered by low-wage, low-benefits employers such as Wal-Mart and McDonald's. Those Americans without higher education will earn far less money than their peers; studies show that on average, a higher education degree could make a difference of nearly one million dollars over the course of a lifetime.
Excerpted from The Compassionate Community by Jonathan Miller. Copyright © 2006 Jonathan Miller. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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