Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Yue Yue - Never Again!

It is a central and universal teaching in Judaism that Torah can, should, and must be ignored to save a life. Bystanders have a "religious, ethical and legal" duty to help those in danger (even if they're non-Jews!).  So while I didn't hear about this story when it first broke last week, only learning of it from Geek in Heels today, I am sure it will surprise no one that I join the ranks of those horrified by this event. Originally I was going to say "shocked and horrified", but the more I thought about it, the less shocked I was. From Jenny's blog post:

But when discussing the story over dinner last week, my in-laws told me a couple of things that set things in perspective:
  1. Due to the underdeveloped legal infrastructure in China, there have been many cases in the past where a good samaritan would step in to a stranger’s aid, only to be blamed and charged with the crime they had never committed.
  2. Additionally, local laws dictate that if a person is found guilty of devastatingly injuring another person(s), they are responsible for all of the medical bills and expenses for the rest of the victim’s life. This, coupled with the fact that the majority of the Chinese population — especially in poorer regions like Foshan where Yue Yue lived — would not be able to afford to financially provide medical care, leads people to leave victims for dead rather than help. That is, they would rather go to jail for manslaughter than be in debt (and become a burden and embarrassment to their families) for the rest of their lives.
This isn’t to say that I — or even my in-laws — believe what the 18 passerbys did was right. Neither am I justifying their actions (or lack thereof, in this case).
But now that I have been informed these cultural factors, I can better understand what had happened.
While some blame China's pursuit of economic growth and educational system, most stories confirm Jenny's; Good Samaritans in China help others at their own risk. It even seems some good may come of this; at least one university has pledged legal defense support to Good Samaritans (and started a new meme in the process), and international attention has ignited a new debate about China's ethical future.

So horrified? Yes. Hopefully this will catalyze positive change? Yes. But surprised? No; not at all. This is, after all, the Capitalist ideal.

My high school government teacher used to refer to "capital-C Communism" versus "small-C communism" to differentiate Marx's political theory from the real-world governments of the same name - say what you will about its validity, Marx's theory never killed anyone; that was the government that co-opted it. It is in that spirit I refer to Capitalism; not the economic theory, but the way we see it practiced in America today, where people are financially incented to let their neighbor's house burn down. Where we take as given that we're willing to let children starve to death and freeze on the street, and only debate how much we're willing to let it occur.

Look, what happened to Yue Yue should never be allowed to happen anywhere ever again. Good Samaritan protections should be universal and powerful; no one should hesitate to help those in danger because they fear financial or legal retribution. But let's stop kidding ourselves that this obligation to help others only applies on the individual level, and only to emergencies that happen right in front of us. Starving a child kills them just as surly as hitting them with a car - it just takes longer.

None of us are obligated to save the world entire; what is expected of us is what we are able to provide and no more. It's the "and no less" part that gets forgotten. Some see this as encouraging individual action, with each of us giving as best we are able (hey; that sounds like small-C communism!). In truth, though, what we as a nation are capable of is so much greater than what we as individuals can do that it is unconscionable to me to settle for anything less.

This is the origin of my political "liberalism". Not a desire to coddle everyone or contribute to a culture of entitlement, but a deeply held conviction that when the power of the world's mightiest nation is applied problems like hunger, poverty, and sickness cannot stand.

Do I honestly believe we can feed, clothe, educate, house, and treat every soul in the world? No; not even every in our own country. But I do believe we can save many. And I, for one, want to be sure the next time a child dies that I was not an inactive bystander.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

'Tis a dark and stormy knight

It started with thunder booming so loud that all our cats - even the non-cowardly ones - ran and hid under the bed. Rain is pounding against my window hard enough I can see the glass vibrate, and at a speed and rhythm most speed metal drummers would envy. It's not yet 7pm and the night is so dark I can't see the house across the street, and even if I could it would seem too far to walk, having to fight the wind the whole way.

All in all, it's oddly appropriate. Happy Sukkot everybody! Chag sameach!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Marriage with a sunset clause?

This is...actually a very interesting idea. Like the wizard, it is great and terrible. But interesting. Short summary: new law in Mexico City allows couples to sign a marriage contract with an expiration date (minimum of two years), after which time the couple can choose to extend the marriage or simply let it expire.

My first reaction is amusement, because it seems like an idea got pulled from a speculative fiction short story and turned into an actual policy/social experiment. The stated goal of the policy is to reduce the divorce rate - it will almost certainly be successful at this, even if it does not increase the number of marriages that last to three years or longer - and the contract requires the couple to make many long-term decisions upfront (what to do with any potential kids, etc.), a step which would probably benefit many "traditional" marriages.

Let me get this out of the way: Yes, I just completed one year of marriage. No, I'm not looking to get out, or wishing I had this kind of deal. Just intrigued by the potential social impact the policy could have, especially if it's successful.

To oversimplify, there are three ways this could go:

1. Nothing changes except for the terminology. Marriages still fail at the same rate, with the same amount of fallout, baggage, and legal drama.

2. The Nightmare Scenario. Mexico City replaces Vegas as the hotspot destination for quickie, ill-advised weddings. People enter marriage lightly (because that's not already happening) without taking seriously the long-range implications. Families are devastated, childrens' lives ruined, and we move further down the slippery slope to legally endorsing bestiality, necrophilia, pedophilia, and all the other scary things "pro-family groups" are going to trot out to demonstrate this is an irreversible step towards the Apocalypse.

3. The Best-Case Scenario. I can see an argument for this actually making marriages stronger. I think the big problem with many marriages (and long-term commitments in general) is people don't actually understand what they're getting into. They think it's always going to be the fun, sexy, easy relationship it was at the beginning, and freak out when it becomes work, the "spark" is gone, and they realize they're trapped in the relationship for the rest of their lives. Or, you fall in love, marry someone, then see what they're really keeping behind their mask - whether it's an inability to properly clean the bathroom, a tendency to sleep around, or severe psychopathic tendencies - and realize you need to get out quickly. This starter kit approach to marriage allows people to learn what being married really means and who their partner is in a much more forgiving environment. Taking off this pressure might mean that when the problems come, people feel comfortable working together to resolve them instead of freaking out and running away.

I honestly think in the short-term the first scenario is the most likely, especially since there will likely be so much stigma against a marriage with an expiration date. It will be great or terrible for couples in equal numbers, based on what they bring into the relationship. What I really want to see is what happens if the policy survives long enough for a generation to grow up thinking it's "normal"; then we'll really see something interesting.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Completing the cycle of forgiveness

There comes a moment, in the process of repentance, after you have wronged someone but before they are aware of it. Many times, in this moment, we have already come aware of our transgression and have begun feeling the guilt, pain, and remorse that signifies genuine t'shuva, but we also feel fear: the fear of having to admit our action and endure the other person's anger and pain.

In this moment the temptation is often to conceal our actions. We already feel remorse, after all. We have acknowledged our wrongdoing, and may genuinely have learned from our actions, changed our ways, and vowed - truthfully! - to never do it again.

This temptation is, however, the Yetzer Ra - the wicked inclination. To deny the other person knowledge of your transgression is itself transgression. There is a teaching in Jewish law that one can only forgive sins committed against themselves; I cannot forgive you for what you did to my neighbor. Likewise, I cannot forgive myself for what I did to you.

The pain of telling the other person is the pain of healing coming it. It may not feel like it at the time. As with many medical procedures, it may cause great harm in the process of healing a greater wound. But without it you are not forgiven. At best, you have merely gotten away with it. Covered it up, buried it, and hid the evidence like a criminal escaping the police. To escape justice is not the same as to reclaim innocence.

L'shana tovah; may you have an easy fast.