What happened to the common good?

From the Anchorage Daily News


(Published: May 2, 2007)

Soren Kierkegaard and Jonas Salk: one was a man of faith; the other was a man of science. Both cared deeply about the relationship of the individual to society. Both influenced my intellectual growth. Lately I wonder what these old teachers might think of our state of affairs in Alaska.

Salk initially got my attention through the point of a needle as part of a mass polio inoculation when I was in fourth grade at Denali School in Fairbanks. Later, the inventor of the Salk vaccine got my attention with a metaphorical needle when I was a young man.

In 1973, a remarkable gathering of thinkers was convened by Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. The occasion was the 25th anniversary of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. The event was carried by PBS. I was lucky enough to be watching. Jonas Salk was there. Toward the end, Dr. Salk said something that I will never forget (I paraphrase): The human condition arises from our own behavior. We are responsible for this world. We will never cure cancer in man until we cure the cancer of man.

As for Kierkegaard, I fell for him in college. His essay "Sickness Unto Death" grabbed my attention. I am Danish on my father's side so there was an appeal in walking around campus carrying a book with a cool title written by a Dane. The 19th-century philosopher-theologian observes that we are all in despair, and the only way out is to take responsibility for our lives. Kierkegaard describes moral self-reliance in terms of pursuing an individual relationship with God. Kierkegaard was also an outspoken critic of the politicization of Christendom in his time, and he was deeply troubled by the surrender of individuality to the crowd. Conformity, particularly unthinking and uncritical acceptance of institutional religion, was tantamount to sin.

What would Kierkegaard say about the pious demagoguery over the issue of domestic partnership health care? Why did we choose to waste a million dollars on an advisory vote while 4,000 homeless children struggle to survive in Alaska's largest city, he would ask. I can almost hear Kierkegaard uttering: A fool with a cross is no less a fool.

What about politics of the pulpit awash in worldly power and corruption? Kierkegaard would regard this as the worst kind of moral debasement of Christianity. He would remind us of Christ's admonition to his apostles: Beware of the false prophets who come in My name and deceive many.

Moral self-reliance and a personal relationship with God do not require a brand or a bully to assert meaning into worldly affairs. The opposite is true: The mark of true faith is when one keeps counsel with one's Creator in private, not, like the hypocrite, by making a spectacle of it -- Christ tells us as much in His Sermon on the Mount. James tells us it is not by faith alone but by our acts that we will be judged.

Alaskans live in the wealthiest state (per capita) in the wealthiest nation on Earth, yet we rank among the worst in care for our children and in the rates of domestic violence and suicide and many other sad social indicators.

In the face of this shameful state of our community, certain politicians continue to talk piously of their commitment to "Life" and of devotion to "Family Values." Ideologues who don't believe that government works get themselves elected and set out to prove that they are right. Millions of dollars are spent on a social services system designed by conservatives to fail while our state and local governments become mired in niggling and bickering as they seek to direct our public treasury to one pet project or another.

Perhaps Dr. Salk would say that these institutional failures are in danger of metastasizing to the vitals of the tolerant and progressive democracy born at statehood.

Alaska's future will not be assured by a gas line or an open-pit mine or a bridge across the Inlet. Our future depends on leadership with the intellectual and moral capacity to build public institutions that work.

That is the cure for Alaska's sickness unto death.

Elstun Lauesen is a rural development specialist. He lives in Anchorage.


Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Facebook me