networks of affection

I wish I could write like Rebecca Solnit, but I can’t so I’m just going to quote a few lines from the opening pages of her new book, A Paradise Built in Hell. To me, this is what true citizenship is all about, not about shouting people down and threatening “we surround them.” Listen:

“When Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he is raising one of the perennial social questions: are we beholden to each other, must we take care of each other, or is it every man for himself?…Most traditional societies have deeply entrenched commitments and connections between individuals, families, and groups. The very concept of society rests on the idea of networks of affinity and affection, and the freestanding individual exists largely as an outcast or exile. Mobile and individualistic modern societies shed some of these old ties and vacillate about taking on others, especially those expressed through economic arrangements-including provisions for the aged and vulnerable, the mitigation of poverty and desperation-the keeping of one’s brothers and sisters. The argument against such keeping is often framed as an argument about human nature: we are essentially selfish, and because you will not care for me, I cannot care for you. I will not feed you because I must hoard against starvation, since I too cannot count on others…but if I am not my brother’s keeper, then we have been expelled from paradise, a paradise of unbroken solidarities.”

When I see what happened yesterday in Maine, when equality was defeated by bigotry and intolerance, and when I see the talking heads on cable TV shouting at us and one another, I wonder: Where are the networks of affection and affinity that are supposed to bind us as a society?


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