The responses to President Obama’s 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 that other developed nations have had for decades. The arguments against it are unconvincing and profoundly depressing. “It’s too expensive. It’s 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 his documentary film “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 that is preventing us from addressing this issue head on. In this instance complacency, which can be seen as a somewhat ordinary vice, as in “not harmful to others,” is not so; it is a matter of life and death for all too many people.

What does this issue have in common with many 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 Mr. 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, these comments reflect the insensitivity of the complacent.
The arrest of Mr. Gates, a renowned scholar who, among his many accomplishments, has developed a major public education project designed to increase the knowledge and self esteem of black kids and decrease our nation’s 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 homes when they’ve misplaced a key.

Complacency in such an instance is not an ordinary vice. While we may not call it a life and death issue, it reflects 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, I think we need to talk about it.

Shouldn’t we think about replacing complacency with empathy in our increasingly interdependent world? Complacency is defined as self-satisfaction. We all need that — as a beginning. It is only a vice if our emotional growth stops there. Empathy, one can say, is an ordinary virtue. It is defined as experiencing as one’s own feelings the feelings of others. We have the capacity for empathy but it needs to be nurtured — in the interest of all. Taking care of each other is not just a matter of altruism; our pragmatism requires it as well. A democratic society is based on our being satisfied enough with our own selves to move to the next step in our development — concern for others. Our own pluralistic democracy and our own interdependent world depend on us taking that step forward.

Publication Date: August 2, 2009, Times-Tribune

A necessary leap to empathy