American justice still life

Every right that I have creates a corresponding duty in my fellowman to honor that right. My right to my property creates an obligation in my neighbor not to trespass.

Rights create duties and duties create rights. The question is our starting point. Do we start out with rights or duties? There is a huge difference as we shall see. For ultimately, it will reflect whether our society is a giving society or a taking one.  Do I frame my interpersonal values as essentially ones of responsibility and obligation towards my fellow-man?  Is the question, “What can I give to my society?” a part of my basic social contract?  Or do I define my attitude as one of entitlement: “What does society owe me?”

It is a little known fact that the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1793 was followed by a Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man and the Citizen 1795. The Declaration of Rights is well known; few have heard of the Declaration of Duties. We remember the rights but forget the duties. What does that say about us?

The great campaigns we remember are all about rights and freedom – the freeing of the blacks, gay rights, women’s rights, abortion rights – and these are things worth remembering for better or for worse. But, we ought to be conducting some memorable campaigns about our responsibilities to others as well.

Let’s see how a duties-orientated society might work.

For a Jew, the idea of being obligated is a privilege. When someone does a Mitzvah, we generally say to him ‘Tizkeh le’Mitzvot’ – which means, “May you merit to fulfill many more Commandments”.  We are, in essence blessing the person that just as he or she was privileged to fulfill this obligation, so may he or she merit to have and fulfill further obligations. The Western mind would not easily understand this. Were a person on the streets of New York to do me a favor, and were I to thank him by wishing that he should have many more obligations, he might just sock me on the jaw. He certainly would not see this as a blessing at all.

Americans are rightfully proud of their Constitution and the rights it bestows upon all of its citizens. Americans have the right of speech, to bear arms, to remain silent… basically to do anything they want to as long as they don’t harm another.  We protect the individual but do we then provide the national messages that will help to develop his character? 

The results of this is a society that is increasingly about “me”. The rugged individual, or any other individual, becomes the ultimate end of the state or the village and, increasingly, the family. (Hence a 50% divorce rate.)  “I”sm is the last “ism” left standing.

Nowhere is this better reflected than in the American litigation mentality. Someone falls down, and the first thing his or her friend says is not “are you ok?”, but “are you going to sue them?”  Schools declare snow-days with three inches of snow on the ground not because teachers and students can’t make it, but because schools are terrified of being sued. By contrast, a now graduated student from Montreal said that he never had school off because of a snow-day. Doctors send patients for endless and expensive tests and scans, lest a judge decide that they were negligent to leave one out. Malpractice insurance is so crippling to doctors that many have simply given up practicing. This is the real issue behind higher medical costs in the USA than anywhere else.

This litigation mentality is rooted in the idea that “you owe me”.  If I can get something out of you I will. When I first visited the USA, I was so impressed by  “thank you for using AT&T” or “US Air recognizes that you have choices and you have chosen us” or, “please feel free to come and exchange this and get your money back” because I felt that there was a genuine sense of caring. But, tens of thousands of miles on American airlines has taught me that air hostesses usually only help you within the rules. They are not there to solve any problem that their employment does not require them to. I came to learn that all of this niceness was good for business. And that is why it was being done.

Make no mistake. I am impressed by the culture of charity that exists in America. I am impressed by the very American idea that businesses are supposed to give back to society. I am impressed by the spirit of volunteerism that I see in so many of that wonderful country’s citizens. And, even in an era of increasing American isolationism, America can claim, more than any other country in modern history, to have cared about the destiny of other peoples. They have cared also about the universalization of their own democratic principles although they are more sober about their implementation.

So what is missing?

How do we reconcile the grandness of the American idea with the pettiness of its enlightened self-interest? What is missing is the idea of taking responsibility; the idea that if I stumble upon a problem, there is a Providential reason for that, and that I should make that my problem. This will not just determine how we respond in a crisis, or at a time of national tragedy. It needs to filter down into our everyday lives.

A number of times I have slightly lost balance on a jerking NY subway and bumped into someone. Often, the response has been aggressive: “Hey bud, what’s your problem!” I fell. It is my problem. But what would happen if the person were to make this his or her problem. Someone is falling and I have to help him! Wouldn’t that make for a whole different kind of society?

Or let us say that I am waiting to get on a full subway and there is a crush behind me. What would happen if instead of feeling that the guy behind me was pushing me (his problem), I felt that the problem was that I was being pushed. A subtle difference but with significant consequences.  If the guy behind me is pushing, only he can stop. He has to take care of his problem. But, if I am being pushed – my problem – then there are other options. I can get out of the way, for example, and allow the person to get ahead of me. Now I am empowered. Now it is up to me to solve the problem. Now I am beginning to live according to a Bill of Duties.

Women who dress provocatively to the office are wont to say that, if men can’t concentrate as a result, it is their problem. In the new paradigm, women would take responsibility for the impact of their dress on others, not to le t men off the hook, but as a part of a general way of framing issues.

But the new attitude will surely go further. Not only will I see problems around me as things for which I should take responsibility, but I will see them as opportunities to grow. My self-vision will be to leave the world a better place than when I came into it, at least  in terms of the environment that impacts on me directly. This is not as modest a goal as it would seem. I have to be convinced that it is not just for outstanding leaders, it is a model for everyone.

One can readily see the types of people who do this. They are the ones who pass you the salt or the salad when it is on their side without you asking for it. They are the ones who see the subway is getting full and move into the center. They are the ones who lookout of an older commuter and get him or her a seat. They are the ones when boarding a plane who help you find place on the overhead bins and put your suitcase up for you. They show an overall alertness to the needs of those around them, and provide for them naturally and gracefully. They are not heroic; they are simply duties-orientated people.

There is a Jewish belief that God created the world unfinished so that man could be His partner in completing the world. God maximizes his giving to man and allows man to maximize his giving in turn. Man then becomes more God-like, walking in His ways.

The people who accepted the greatest responsibility were the Jews. It is a misnomer to call them the Chosen People. They are, instead, the Obligated People. As the ditty goes: How odd of God to choose the Jews; it’s not so odd, the Jews chose God. In one sense, the high profile given to every single Jewish tax-cheater, or sexual abuser reflects the idea that, since the Jews have held themselves to a higher standard, why should the world not do the same? More is expected of the Jews. Perhaps the NY Times gets it right when it headlines with relish every observant miscreant. It is always a headline when an Orthodox Jew does something wrong. It is contradiction to the fundamental covenant we Jews made with our God. That is big news. A Jew abandoned his responsibilities.

Of all the qualities of leadership, I have found that the most decisive indicator of a future leader is how much responsibility he or she is willing to take. The surest way to see who is really taking responsibility in an organization is to find out who will not go to sleep if any of the workers are not paid on time. But what if we could create a whole society of people who take responsibility for each other? Judaism states it very clearly, “All of the nation of Israel are responsible one for the other.”

Taking responsibility means first and foremost taking responsibility for who you are; it means feeling obligated to moral means as well as ends. It means not giving up on people, just because you are tired, or fed up, or too busy or don’t want to get involved.

One of the great ideological inhibitors to this idea is capitalism. The original principle underlying capitalism was enlightened self-interest, a fancy word for selfishness and the very opposite of responsibility.  Adam Smith opined that the entrepreneur, committed to becoming wealthy, opens a factory which now provides employment for managers and workers. Everyone benefits from his selfishness. The money trickles down the totem pole. As the economy progresses, a larger and larger group of middle class, defined by their disposable income, develops.  Furthermore, as capitalism destroys inefficiencies and drives progress, each generation can expect to live better than the previous generation.

But, in the 21st century, capitalism has not delivered the goods.  Men in their 30s earned 12 percent less in 2004 (inflation-adjusted) than their fathers did at a similar age.[1]  This was well before the economic downturn of November, 2008.  Moreover, the top one percent of earners were capturing an increasing share of national income. The rich are getting richer while the middle class are no longer making it.  The economic downturn just exacerbated a trend, but it did not create any new problem.

The generation that came of age in this century grew up believing that they would live as well and probably better than their parents. This was not to be. From the beginning of the 90s until 2008, fixed income increased from 53% to 75%. Housing, food, child care and medical insurance[2] kept on rising while salaries stagnated. The cost of buying a home jumped, in most cases, over 100% in a decade[3].

By 2008, eight out of ten Americans thought their country was heading in the wrong direction. The original American idea, as a land of endless opportunity for anyone willing to work hard, was no longer. Great Gatsby’s green light at the other end of the bay shines no more.  It was only a matter of time before capitalism itself – that great doctrine of selfishness – would be reassessed.

At this time, Fareed Zakaria produced a best-seller called “The Post-American World”. American exceptionalism seemed to be coming to an end. Americans increasingly doubted the moral superiority of their country. Guantánamo Bay[4] and the prisoner abuse by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib in Iraq were just two reasons for this. In addition, America became an increasingly reluctant and hence emaciated super-power.  After 9/11, America, the super-power, did not know quite how to finally win the war on terror. They saw the Europeans and the Arabs less responsive to their power – and they saw the Iranians thumb their noses at them, while developing nuclear power.

See now how the world looks at a middle-class American. He is not making it financially, and he is no longer a part of some grand, moral mission. America no longer sees its own system of capitalism as taking care of the average Joe. And it no longer has an active vision of spreading its democratic values to others.

I see all of this as a marvelous opportunity for change.  We were beginning to equate people’s wealth with success; poverty with a lack of success.  The ‘Great American Dream’ became too exclusively a financial term. Now, that most Americans are struggling to make it, and struggling to define their national mission, dramatic changes in the country’s moral bearings can be made.  Let the land of opportunity become one of moral opportunity, the chance to develop your personality or to serve God.

If America is to regain traction, it won’t be by implementing laws to prevent another meltdown, and it won’t be by simply taxing the rich to pay for the poor. It will only happen if the American people fundamentally changes its vision. The American nation needs a new contract; that contract must be about people, their values, their concern for their fellow man.  It is about moving away from the “I” generation of rights, to the reinvented nation of obligations.

I have a dream of an American Bill of Obligations. I dream of children knowing it by heart and of adults living their lives accordingly.  Now that would put this country right back in the saddle as the leader of civilization in the 21st Century.

[1] The Pew Research Center.

[2] The proportion of workers whose employers cover them fell from 65% in 2001 to 59% in 2007.
American health care was now the most expensive on the planet even though it still failed to properly care for tens of millions of people.

[3] Ireland’s residential property market soared in value 170% from 1996 to 2006. In Spain, it jumped 133% for this period.

[4] What one person called the most profoundly un-American place on the planet.



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