NauenThen

The social contract II

February 13, 2015

When I was writing about the social contract the other day, what I didn't ask was: What's behind this seeming disdain for the communal good? One answer is that I don't see a lot of people talking (convincingly) about what the point of society even is. How can we expect high-quality action without grand or just positive visions?

Tom Waits said, "The world is a hellish place and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering." Maybe it's the other way round (also): Maybe clear and accurate writing can put attention to bright ideas and loving actions. It's tempting and pretty easy to be funny or random or snarky (especially on social media), not so easy to go out on the limb of sincerity.

It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.—William Carlos Williams

My friend Liz Galst wrote:
This week, in our Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read a lot about responsibility—whose it is and what is to be done when your ox gores a neighbor’s and when a thief is beaten to death well after the theft. Critics often cite Mishpatim when they denigrate Judaism as legalistic. But reading the parasha this week, I found in these verses a kind of weighty sacredness, a profound willingness to embrace the simple truth that we are all obligated to one another—not only to one’s loved ones but to one’s enemies as well. (If you see your opponent’s pack animal “lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.”) These days, when politicians take little blame and fewer prisoners, when the social contract seems cut to threads, the Torah’s insistence upon mutual responsibility feels important and bold.

So the social contract involves thinking towards the common good, expressing that thinking with clarity, and acting on it even when you might not feel like it. What is hard and essential is not turning away when your enemy (or the other) suffers and also, believing in one's responsibility as an artist as well as a citizen.