Something’s not right.
Nothing new about that, of course. Something’s never been right.
But something’s not right in a way it hasn’t been not right before. Or maybe we haven’t noticed something not being right like this before.
Maybe we hadn’t been born yet.
There’s a legal phrase we just stumbled across while looking for something else: “depraved indifference”. It even has a definition:
“To constitute depraved indifference, the defendant’s conduct must be so wanton, so deficient in a moral sense of concern, so lacking in regard for the life or lives of others, and so blameworthy as to warrant the same criminal liability as that which the law imposes upon a person who intentionally causes a crime.”
Yeah, that’s it. That’s what’s not right.
Nothing new. But stunning to see it in such stark relief. People are being treated like a dog, as our Idiot Tyrant might say, having never known the love and affection of a dog, or of anybody, for that matter.
It’s easy to see what’s happening right now and file it into different categories: This one’s racism, that one’s greed, over there is selfishness, and so on. And those categories aren’t wrong: You hold up an Auschwitz sign — in German, no less — at a rally against a Jewish governor, we know what’s in your dark soul.
But while the categories aren’t wrong, they tend to scatter the phenomena. Where did I put that item about Iowa pandemic deaths primarily affecting minorities? In the Racism file, of course. But they work at the meatpacking plants that have been uniquely shanghaied by the government, right? Shouldn’t that go in the Greed file, along with all the other low-paid heroes? (Actually, that one’s Vulture Capitalism.)
Look at the filing cabinet itself. See that big sign on top? “Depraved Indifference”. We’re not cataloging different phenomena, just different species of the same genus.
There was a familiar phrase for that when we were growing up: Man’s Inhumanity to Man.
So yeah, nothing new.
What it stems from is an almost psychotic lack of empathy, or to use another phrase from our distant youth, fellow-feeling. This also isn’t new — there’s a reason these phrases are familiar — but to see it institutionalized and propagated like this, well, that’s a new one in our experience. We weren’t around for World War II. We weren’t around for Jim Crow in the Fifties. That shit never went away — man, have we been around for that — but it wasn’t in full flower, either.
It was almost forty years ago now that we got our first whiff. We were a reporter in McMinnville, Oregon, a small town outside of Portland. Nice people, in the way that people in small towns are, but some of them had… ideas. Why should anything be free? Why should anything the government provides be free? Why should we pay for anything we don’t use? You pay tolls on some bridges — why should freeways be free? Your house isn’t on fire — why should you pay for the fire department?
Nice people, mind you, but caught up in the One True Idea that would change the world. And we stood there listening to them, politely stunned, wondering what Twilight Zone episode we had unwittingly walked into. Nice people. But batshit crazy.
Thus was our introduction to Libertarianism. Didn’t get around to reading Ayn Rand until a couple years after that.
And there’s where you see the psychotic lack of empathy — depraved indifference — expressed as philosophical principle. Other people are just vermin envying what’s yours, and forever plotting to take it. The circumstances of their lives — the inherent privileges of yours — aren’t part of the equation. It’s their fault for not being born on third base.
We sure suck at being social animals.
And here we are, in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s all coming out, in all its varieties, in all its manifestations. Depraved indifference, expressed by any means available. You can find plenty of polls showing we’re not all like that — #NotAllAmericans — and plenty of examples showing empathy at its best. But plenty of people are like that, and they’re in positions — in government, in media, in power — where they can cause great harm to the rest of us.
Even more than usual.
And that’s what’s not right. Because most of the time, at least we have a fighting chance.