Home National Politics Wired for the Human Scale (Which Evils Ignite Our Outrage?)

Wired for the Human Scale (Which Evils Ignite Our Outrage?)


This piece ran this weekend in newspapers in my very red congressional district (VA-06).


We live in a big and complex world, but we are wired to respond to what’s visible on the human scale.

That’s why, while our present political landscape is littered with outrages, it is only this one that has ignited a firestorm of moral outrage in America: the tearing of children away from their parents at our southern border.

We see and hear these terrified little ones and we know this is wrong. Former First Lady Laura Bush spoke for millions of Americans when she wrote of this deliberate policy that it “is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.”

Most Americans agreed that such a cruel policy – inflicting trauma on innocent babies, toddlers, kids – to “deter” some adults somewhere, or to hold them hostage for policy concessions, is not the America we want to be.

It is both right and unsurprising that most of us can readily grasp the wrongness of traumatizing these innocents: after all, we humans have understood the vulnerability of children for as long as we’ve been human.

But children and others are also now threatened with suffering and trauma as a result of other outrageous transgressions currently being committed by our ruling powers.

These, however, involve more abstract – but no less real – aspects of the world we live in.

Many of the warnings I’ve tried to sound, for example, concern an ongoing assault on our constitutional order. People have often said to me, “You overestimate how much your audience cares about the Constitution.”

They may be right. After all, the Constitution is something intangible — a set of rules and principles — far removed from the daily lives of ordinary people.

But I’ve responded, “The people I’m writing to believe they care about the Constitution.” Then I wonder: How well do they understand what the Constitution is about?”

Here’s how I’d describe what the Constitution is about: “It is an agreement on how things will be decided, to enable a free people to control how power is exercised, so they can find their way together — into the future they choose – without having to fight each other to decide the path they’ll take.”

In other words, the Constitution is a system to allow a free people to escape the oppressions of tyranny and the terrors of civil war.

Tyranny and war—no small evils for people to suffer. The stakes are huge.

Nonetheless, I’ve heard dozens and dozens of times, in the political arena, that “Voters don’t care about abstract issues like ‘protecting our democracy.’ It’s bread-and-butter issues – those that directly affect their quality of life – that drive their votes.”

That, too, may be right. The size of a paycheck, the availability of good and affordable healthcare, not only matter, they are tangible as well. It’s much easier to grasp what it means not to have enough to pay one’s bills than to imagine what it would be like if we no longer had a free press, or if our rulers were above the law.

But people do not live by bread-and-butter alone.

I would wager that of the various outrages being perpetrated before our eyes, those that have the greatest bearing on the well-being of our children in years to come are not those on the concrete level, but those that are more abstract.

  • Like the assault on the rule of law.
  • Like making the United States the only nation – out of nearly 200 – not party to the Paris Climate Treaty.
  • Like tearing apart the international order that great American statesmen built and maintained over the past more-than-70 years.

But the consequences of the outrages being committed against these good structures – being both more abstract and more uncertain (no one could know for sure that a consequence of an election held in Germany in 1933 would be the murder or traumatizing of millions of children) – cannot be palpably brought home to us the way we’re move by a photographer’s pictures of children being traumatized.

By nature, as the heirs of countless generations of our species’ history, we find the most vivid reality in the scale of human lives. (Which is why biographies are among the most-read books, and why we take a great interest in celebrity gossip and royal weddings.)

Which is why the tearing of children from their parents is the only issue to ignite public outrage powerful enough to make our current ruling powers back down.

Which is why on TV the other night I saw two veteran journalists in tears as they tried to report on what was happening to these innocents.

But reporters don’t cry, nor does the public rise up in their millions, when this administration dismantles our environmental protections—even though the Clean Air Act alone has been saving nearly 200,000 American lives (including children’s) every year.

While the human heart suffices to inform us with the children at the border, with these larger systems – the Constitution, the earth’s climate, the international order – our well-being requires that we also bring the powers of the mind to bear.

In the global civilization we have built, the fate of all of us is caught up in systems bigger than our long-ago ancestors ever had to contend with.

Which poses a big challenge to us as citizens: It’s good that we experience a vivid sense of good and evil at the sight of young children being torn from their parents. Can we bring that same vivid sense of what’s at stake when we see the larger (more abstract) systems — which allow us to live decent human lives—under outrageous attack?


Andy Schmookler – a prize-winning author who was the Democratic nominee for Congress in VA-06 – has written most recently a series titled “Press the Battle: Fighting for the Soul of America(ns),” at http://abetterhumanstory.org/press-the-battle/ .

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