The Most Important Word

The other day, my daughter overheard her mother telling her brother that if he did well in school — that is, if he brought home the green smiley faces that denote good behavior — he would get a prize.

My daughter (who’s four years older than her brother) asked what she would get for her good behavior. When the reply came that she’d already received her prize (three new nail polishes and some flowers for her hair), a few days earlier, her mind immediately went to work on how to get more stuff. If her brother’s prize equaled an amount higher than that which was paid for her stuff, then she should get something else, until the amount paid for the prizes were equal.

That’s a disheartening thing to hear from your child. It’s a clear statement which, in no uncertain terms, conveys how much values stuff.

As a parent, your first instinct when you hear something like this from your child’s mouth is disappointment- and that’s where most stop. There’s one little word that should come after the disappointment, though.

If I might digress for a minute, and venture into dangerous territory, this week’s government shutdown has been on my mind. In case you’ve been living under a rock, here’s what’s been going on in Washington:

Congress’s job is to pass a budget, which is how taxpayer money is allocated. Without it, the government can’t spend any of its money; in short, it can’t pay its bills without that budget. The passing of the budget is really Congress’s only job; everything else is optional. This is something that’s been done by every Congress, ever, because it’s their job.

This time around, House Republicans are refusing to do their job unless a bill that became a law a few years ago, which was deemed by the Supreme Court to be constitutional, by the way, gets defunded. Essentially, they shut down the government because they don’t like the Affordable Care Act and are throwing a temper tantrum about it. The merits of Obamacare are irrelevant; it’s not the House’s job to spend all their energy trying to stop a law (whcih has passed every check and balance it’s faced) from going into effect. It’s their job to pass a budget, lest innocent people be adversely affected by the lack of access to services they need.

Now, those same House members are blaming President Obama for the shutdown. Let that sink in for a minute: these people are blaming someone else for the fact that they don’t want to do their job.

Imagine going to a restaurant. You sit down, order your food, wait patiently. Then the cook comes to your table and informs you that you will not be getting your food. He doesn’t feel like cooking it, but he proceeds to tell you that the it’s the waiter who won’t cook your food. It’s his fault you’re staring at an empty plate.

That’s the same amount of ridiculousness permeating this entire shutdown. It’s asinine. It’s insane. It’s deplorable.

It’s been discussed to death, but I haven’t heard much talk of the one word I’m interested in, the word that should follow the disappointment mentioned above, the most important word in the English language.


When it comes to navigating reality, which is muddied by the amazingly complex labyrinth of human motive and emotion, why is the single most effective weapon against ignorance.

Going back to my daughter, I could focus on the disappointment that comes with the realization that she is too materialistic for my tastes (for the record, mind you, she’s the greatest human being on the planet in every other conceivable way). Were I to end the thought process there, disappointment is the end of the line on this train of thought, my last destination. What if I stick around, though, and ask why?

Well, it’s mostly the world she lives in. My great country is easily the most materialistic society that’s ever existed. Perhaps we’ve unwittingly aided this materialistic mindset: we reward her with stuff on a regular basis.

I would never know these things, of course, if I never stopped to ask why.

My interest in the shutdown, then, is not who’s to blame (that’s pretty clear), but why? Why are they doing this? How is it that Republicans have existed in Congress for so long, and they’ve only now reached this level of insanity?

For starters, these aren’t conservatives holding the entire federal government hostage. Conservatives maintain a sensible fiscal policy which advocates patience and restraint. Conservatives hold a certain set of values dear to them, and use their conscience, guided by those values, to to take care of their people. Conservatives can articulate compelling, spiritually satisfying reasons for their beliefs, be it in God, in democracy, in markets.

No, these are not conservatives, but radicals. So... why?

My hypothesis is that they’re seeing their worldview come crumbling down before them. Unlike the conservative I just described, these are fundamentalists who see no room for nuance in the world. To them, the very ideas which they’ve molded their entire identity around, are crumbling. Basic human rights are being extended to gays. Creationism is increasingly being condemned as a myth which directly contradicts reality. Those who identify as non-religious are increasing rapidly in number.

In short, facts are emerging which prove this type of American’s most deeply held beliefs to be quite flawed. Emerging research proves that more guns equals more senseless deaths. Studies on the effect of immigration show that it’s a vital piece of the country’s economy. The free market has, through the 2007 recession, been exposed for all its flaws. Conservatives take these things into account, weigh their beliefs, and, at the very least, reconsider their position. They may come to the same conclusions, but at least they stopped to think about their causes. Fundamentalists double down and stick their fingers in their ears.

No wonder these people are going crazy. Their very identity, as they see it, is under attack. Their entire way of life, the things they’ve built their moral compass around, is crumbling under the harsh light of science, reason, and moral progress.

What would you do if the world were threatening your entire belief system? If your principles were being exposed as narrow? If your ideology were on the verge of becoming extinct?

Anger is a natural response to this shutdown, just as disappointment is a natural response to my daughter’s statement.

But those natural responses don’t have to be the finale in this whirlwind of emotion. In fact, the moment you utter that single word — why? — the anger and disappointment dissipate to the point of near irrelevance.

Slavery is the enjoyment by a few of the involuntary labor of the many, and before slavery can become a thing of the past, people must cease to desire the enjoyment of the forced labor of others, must hold it to be sinful or shameful. But no, they simply set to work to abolish the outward form of slavery, to render it impossible legally to purchase or sell a slave, and execute a deed of sale; and this done, they delude themselves into the belief that slavery no longer exists, overlooking the circumstance that it continues to be just as rife as before, because people still consider it good and just to profit by the labor of others. And as long as they hold it to be good and just there will never be any lack of persons stronger or more cunning than their fellows who can transform this opinion into an act.

That's Leo Tolstoy in The Kreutzer Sonata. Tolstoy (or his character, at least), believe that slavery cannot be abolished through legislation, or even changing customs. Those who, in his time, are trying to change the laws and customs are going after the effect, and not the cause, which is the "the enjoyment of forced labor." Until you can make people not want to own slaves, until it is a shunned practice, slavery will continue (in fact, that's just what happened after the Civil War in the U.S.- slavery, afterward, was shunned and considered immoral). Essentially, Tolstoy is saying that slavery cannot be overcome until those seeking to destroy it ask one simple question: why?

Even this very piece is an homage to that one word. Friends, family, readers will take exception to some of the statements I’ve made. I will be confronted- and that is precisely the point. I cannot challenge my own assumptions without help. By confronting me, you initiate discussion. By initiating discussion, you force me to question, to hold my own words up to the microscope. You force me to enter the territory reserved for that one all-important word.

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