The responses to President Obama’s firm commitment to health care reform in our country and to the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, one of our most distinguished scholars and public intellectuals, brought one of our less noble American traits to mind—complacency. In 1992 the noted American economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, wrote a small but important book called, The Culture of Contentment. In it he posited that the reason that it is difficult for us to pass progressive legislation in this country is that most of us are content with—and complacent about our own circumstances.

Fast forward to today. Universal health care has been a public issue of grave concern in this country for 70 years. We now have a president who is committed to giving our great and rich nation the same opportunities for an inclusive health care system as other developed nations. The arguments against it are unconvincing and profoundly depressing. “It’s too expensive. It’s too socialistic.  It won’t work.” These embarrassingly weak, endlessly repeated arguments against it make Michael Moore’s on- the- surface outrageous claims against our current system in “Sicko” ring true.  Our record in certain areas is appalling; infant mortality rates, for example, are unconscionably high. With our wealth and well trained doctors we should be at the top in every category of health care delivery.  It is only complacency, an “ordinary” vice in some circumstances that is preventing us from addressing this issue head on. In this instance complacency is not an ordinary vice; it is a matter of life and death.

What does this issue have in common with a flood of the opinions on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates?  Just this.  Most of the pundits who comment on it are white. Racial profiling is not a part of their experience.  Some think that Gates was too agitated about being arrested, that the police were just following their accepted process, that the president shouldn’t have said the Cambridge police acted stupidly, etc. All the above might be true; still in the glaring reality and humiliation of racial profiling, they are too-easy examples of the insensitivity of the complacent.   The arrest of Gates, a renowned scholar who, among his many accomplishments, has developed a major public education project to help to increase the knowledge and self esteem of black kids and rid our nation of its deep seated prejudices, speaks volumes about what African Americans, whoever they are, suffer every day—whether they’re trying to get a mortgage, hailing a cab or gaining entry to their own houses when they’ve misplaced a key.

Again our complacency in such an instance is not an ordinary vice. While we may not call it a life and death issue, we can see that it is a chronic denial of respect that is just about as dangerous—strengthening the divide between the races. The complacent pundits who comment on this matter are missing an essential component of the equation—racial profiling is humiliating, cruel, unfair and just wrong.

If progress in such critically important realms as health care reform and improvement of the status of minorities in this country is hampered by complacency, shouldn’t we think about replacing complacency with empathy in our increasingly interdependent world? Taking care of each other is not just a matter of altruism; our pragmatism requires it as well.  I wish we were beyond having to be convinced.

Complacency: No Ordinary Vice