They're Only Human

It started out as an explanation of why people aren't always perfect. You've heard it. Maybe you've said it. "They're only human." When it began, it was a call for tolerance for others in their struggles to live good lives.

Today, it has evolved into a cop-out for just about every ugly trait that finds its way to the surface of the cesspool of civilized America in the '90s. But that's another story.

Let's go back a ways and see how it began. Take something as commonplace as selfishness. People assumed that this was a natural human trait. In fact, the American economy is built on it. This explains, in part, why the recent welfare "reform" was such a hit with the taxpaying public. A caricature of the welfare recipient was presented to the voters as a "parasite," a "cheat," "too lazy to work," and a "drain on your tax dollars," and the rest was easy. "Keep more of your money for yourself" was the promise, and the hungry, helpless and homeless are no longer entitled to the help of the more fortunate. (The fact that the average taxpayer will never see any of the promised savings is yet another story.)

So selfishness, at least in some of the ways it is expressed, is accepted as normal. When it translates itself into something as ugly as road rage, society begins to re-think just how "only human" it is. You may be wondering how selfishness expresses itself in rage behind the wheel, but it is really only a matter of a driver thinking "I want what I want, and I want it now!," and then being angry because someone dares to be in his way. All anger, in fact, is the result of not getting your own way, and you can easily become a tantrum-throwing, diaper-clad baby, out of control.

If it is truly "only human" to be selfish, then there is a mystery I would like you to help me solve. Why did the European invaders have to teach the Natives of Turtle Island to be selfish?

Private ownership of land, so basic and essential to the white man's way of (civilized) life, was totally foreign to the Natives. Subdividing Indian lands into single-family plots was an idea hatched in the early nineteenth century which grew into law in the General Allotment Act in 1887. It was a law that found support from both pro- and anti - Indian groups in the nation. Some saw it as a chance to steal more land from the tribes. Reformers saw it as a chance to make Indians self-supporting, church-attending, white-thinking people, just like everybody else. As one Indian official put it, he looked forward to the day when the Indians would say "This is mine" instead of "This is ours."

Senator Henry Dawes, who would ultimately attach his name to the General Allotment Act, attended a conference in 1885 to discuss Indian problems and reported on a visit to the Five Civilized Tribes in Oklahoma territory. He found them self-supporting, debt free, without paupers, with their own schools and hospitals. "Yet," he concluded, "the defect of the system was apparent. They have got as far as they can go, because they own their land in common....There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization."

Years before this, Red Cloud, a Sioux chief who had never been defeated by the American military forces, laid down his weapons and accepted the peace offers, but not the ways of the white man. Recognizing the overpowering numbers and military technology of the white man, he knew that victory was impossible, and it was with bitterness that he told his people, "You must begin anew and put away the wisdom of your fathers. You must lay up food and forget the hungry. When your house is built, your storeroom filled, then look around for a neighbor whom you can take advantage of and seize all he has."

That is quite a commentary on modern civilization, but it tells me that selfishness is not, after all, "only human."

There is another way to live. We see glimmers from time to time of a better way. Mother Teresa was one. The widespread response to the tragic illness of Jason Wessels is another. And there are many more.

Maybe the alien Starman was right in his assessment of Earth people: "When things are at their worst, you are at your best."

Posted to Zephyr Online February 26, 1998
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