Wednesday, September 04, 2002


This is an unpublished piece I wrote last year, shortly after 9/11. It's something I'd been thinking about for awhile, but it also represents as aspect of the 9/11 aftermath most apt to be forgotten at its anniversary: the expressions of a social ethic, of brotherhood and altruism and what I consider the social contract of community.

But as the 9/11 anniversary approaches, America is apparently abuzz about a television show called American Idol, which seems to mostly celebrate meanness and zero-sum competition. This show, along with the brief popularity of "The Weakest Link" and various permutations of "Survivor"-a show with a dishonest premise (that this is how survival in the wild is accomplished) carried out dishonestly (i.e. manipulated if not rigged)-seem to say that people are reveling in the opposite of altruism or that spirit of 9/11. They want to watch people being mean and manipulative.

I tend to think the entertainment value of such programs has less to do with a social ethic than with a compensatory rebellion for all the forced niceness and phony images of "have a nice day" friendliness demanded in most jobs today, from corporate managers to badly paid fast food clerks.

Still, if 9/11 changed many things, its effect on civility wasn't all that lasting. But its anniversary shouldn't go by without a reminder of the kind of behaviors we're capable of, and perhaps even desire.

"You'd Do the Same for Me"

A few days after the World Trade Center towers came down, a fireman from Michigan or some other place distant from New York City was explaining to the TV reporter why he was starting a 24-hour shift digging through the rubble: because the firemen working there and buried there were his brothers. And because "they'd do the same for me."

That phrase once before had prompted a moment of illumination for me. I was living in Pittsburgh at the time, nursing a coffee one afternoon while reading and writing at a table in a restaurant in my neighborhood. I knocked a pen to the floor which was immediately picked up by a maintenance worker, a black man who I judged to be past 60 years old. As he handed it back to me I thanked him, and he said simply, "You'd do the same for me." He said it with a casual gravity, as though it was something he said regularly, but it also had the quality and weight of a personal mantra of some importance.

It wasn't the first time I'd heard it of course, but this time it hit me differently, mostly because of who said it to me and the sound of his voice. Gradually I realized what an important statement it is. It sums up entire philosophies and puts many book-length ethical treatises to shame. "You'd do the same for me" is nothing less than the basis of civil behavior, from courtesy to heroism.

By saying it to me, moreover, this man was stating both his own moral standard and his faith that others share it in the delicate informal system of day-to-day civilization. In the simplicity of this statement, in its simple assumptions, he was educating me and challenging me to rise to this standard. It is in some ways an ultimate equality, and a testament of faith in human possibility and the human heart.

I've thought about this for years. I wanted to write about it, about how I saw its truth in the ordinary behavior of so many ordinary people, there on the Murray Avenue and everywhere I traveled, and now where I live in Arcata. I confess I hesitated. I really don't need more rejection in my life, and this idea seemed so counter to the attitudes that news media, entertainment and books like to present as the prevailing one in society: Look out for number one, dog eat dog (and top dog fires disposable little dog); he who dies with the most toys wins.

And then after the shock of epic violence came the surprises of the response: not just the volunteers in the hell of lower Manhattan, but the people bringing food and flowers to them, or giving blood and contributing money when the economy is doubly uncertain, and being conspicuously kind to each other. Such behavior may be temporary, or our attention to it may be what's fleeting. And its opposite has also emerged in racist violence. But I am struck also by the biographies of the random victims in this deadly episode. So many of these people are remembered for their dedication to others, their efforts to benefit future generations as well as those around them in their lifetime.

And among them are heroes, quite probably including someone from our own community. Those who study altruism notice that people who go to extraordinary lengths to help others often don't think there's anything unusual about it. "They'd do the same for me" is the foundation of beliefs they can't otherwise explain.

That fireman's words-spoken diffidently, as if he didn't expect anyone to really understand-also illuminated a very different phrase that was stuck in my mind. I don't remember who said it but it struck me as true, though I couldn't say why: "the reason academic infighting is so vicious is that so little is at stake." In the light of those too-often repeated explosions, I realized this could be applied to any arena-business, family, politics, small towns.

Compared to life and death and to our common interest in the basic behaviors of living together, the envy, betrayal, cynicism and denial that rule so often in so many arenas can't be accepted as the inevitable responses of human nature nor the unfortunate byproducts of a generally beneficial economic system. They are what some in past generations would call them: small and mean. Because most often so little is really at stake for the perpetrators, while the consequences are profound for others, and for the fabric of our common lives. In times of crisis our best instincts seem to tell us this.

All of this emboldens me to assert that "you'd do the same for me" is a mantra in the heart of millions. Perhaps they do not always hear it, or even literally believe it, but it is our common faith, the ideal we live by as citizens of human civilization. It gives new meaning to the concept of the brotherhood of man. Beyond gender, and beyond any other distinction, this is what brotherhood means.

It is not too early to say that not honoring and acting upon this impulse enough is one reason-not the only reason, but one reason-- we're in this tragic mess.

Of course, the terrorists probably consider themselves brothers (and some may actually be brothers), but if they are who the U.S. government thinks they are, their reasons for loyalty are different. They are loyal to a dogma, to leaders, to blood. They are not really loyal to each other, or to any others who do not conform to their specific beliefs. The dispossessed of the world have grievances against the powerful who have ignored and abused them. But our fates excuse none of us-powerful or abused-from decency in our dealings as individuals.

"You'd do the same for me" may not tell us much about those who name themselves our enemies, but it might tell us something about ourselves, and what we need to defend in our own lives together.

Copyright 2001 by William S. Kowinski

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