Like a lot of people, I watched a good deal of the Democratic National Convention when it was broadcast a while back. As I did this, I was particularly taken by the speech Jill Biden made about her husband, Joe. Now one would expect a wife to be supportive of her husband's ambitions, so most of what she said seemed to me to be well-handled, but unsurprising. However, I was taken by the section where she said, “Four days after Beau’s funeral, I watched Joe shave and put on his suit. I saw him steel himself in the mirror, take a breath, put his shoulders back, and walk out into a world empty of our son. He went back to work. That’s just who he is.” I must confess that I could identify with Joe at least a little in that description. While I've never faced anything that devastating, there have been times when I felt I had to force myself to go "back to work."
Dr. Biden went on to describe a number of things she has seen Joe do to help others in their time of trouble and finished by saying she understood why he did such things. She said, "He does it for you." This set me back a bit because I didn't believe it. You see, I really don't believe in what is called "altruism." That's not to say that I don't understand the idea, or think it would be great if it existed, but I am unable to convince myself that real altruism actually exists.
Now, the dictionary says:
I rather like Joe Biden, not because he is "selfless," but because he has made efforts to do things which he felt were for the common good. I don't expect anyone in politics to do something "for" me, but to do things because they are in a position to make a contribution towards achieving some good, and are willing to expend their time, energy and resources to help accomplish it. If I benefit from it (whatever it is) that's nice for me. If not, maybe someone else will benefit more.
In The Notebooks of Lazarus Long, Robert A. Heinlein says, "Beware of altruism. It is based on self-deception, the root of all evil." What I think he meant by that was that people do things because they want to do them, not because they are against their own self-interest, although it is possible that some of these things may, at least, appear to be so. I would like to think that it might be because they see themselves as a part of a greater whole and they feel that they will achieve some sense of personal satisfaction by helping to see that certain things get accomplished for the good of everyone.
It comes to my mind that the multi-billionaire, Warren Buffett, has commented that it is ridiculous that he can pay less in taxes than his secretary, due to the way the tax code is written, and he would not be opposed to a revised tax code which required him to pay his "fair share" because he can certainly afford it. I don't think that's "altruism," so much as an awareness that "fair is fair" and a fair tax code isn't going to make him suffer very much. My suspicion is that his great emphasis on charitable contributions is, at least in part, based on his recognition that he benefits from an unfair tax code which hurts others., so he can afford to try to do something for others. Altruism? Perhaps. But I'll bet it makes him feel good, too.
While thinking about this, I have done a bit of looking around to see what others have said about altruism and discovered that I am, apparently, not alone in my ideas. Sri Aurobindo, the Indian philosopher, has been quoted as saying, " Very usually, altruism is only the sublimest form of selfishness." I think that may capsulize this idea rather well.
Another way of saying what I think is much the same idea comes from Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.
Later in my career, there were many evenings and weekends spent grading Theatre History or Dramatic Lit. papers and tests, or working on editing BFA theses not because I really enjoyed doing that, but because I got some satisfaction from returning the work to the students involved promptly and with my honest evaluation and commentary about the work they had done. While it rarely was what I would call fun, I felt it was necessary and important, so I made efforts to respond promptly. And it satisfied my sense of professionalism to do so to the best of my ability.
I could probably come up with other examples, but that isn't the point. The point is that I didn't really do it for my students, I did it because I expected high standards from my students, and I felt they had the right to expect me to hold myself to equally high standards in my evaluation/critique of their work. If it was important enough for them to do it, it was important enough for me to respond to it promptly and thoroughly.
I am thankful that whatever "sacrifices" I may have made to meet those standards were not, ultimately, all that significant. Yes, there were occasions when I was unable to do things I might have preferred to do with my family and/or friends, but I knew I wouldn't be happy doing them until I could do them without feeling guilty because I was not getting my job done. In fact, I probably enjoyed them more when I could relax and do so.
There are, of course, many reasons why political leaders do the various things which they do. I suspect that a common reason may be because it demonstrates that they are in a position of power and are, therefore, more important than other people. In simplest terms, it feeds their ego. I believe that I could come up with many examples of that in the current political situation, but I really don't wish to get into that sort of thing. The disgrace of the so-called First Presidential Debate has demonstrated what an infantile egomaniac looks like quite well. We cannot be a nation of "law and order" unless everyone agrees to make at least some effort to abide by the laws, even if we don't like them. A refusal to offer even a pretense of reasonably civilized behavior along the previously agreed guidelines, as we saw displayed during the first debate, suggests that civilization as we know it is in danger. And for what? Because Donald's ego is at stake and he refuses to accept that he isn't entitled to be king? I can think of no other conclusion.
I don't think that Joe Biden wants to be king. I believe that he wants to preside over a country which needs renewal, and that he thinks he can contribute to that renewal. I respect that. He isn't the total answer and I think he is aware of that. But, I believe that he will go to work to do what is possible to rebuild our country back into something of which we can be proud again. To steal a phrase, I think that it's possible that he actually could start to "Make America Great Again!" Not because it's the "biggest, baddest" bully on the block, but because it's making an effort to reestablish civil relationships with other countries (especially our allies); it's paying attention to the dangers to the climate from unregulated waste and pollution; it's seeing that the United States returns to showing the rest of the world that democracy IS possible and that fascistic dictatorship is NOT the solution; it's being a force for peace throughout the world; and, it's being a force for fairness for all in our society. I doubt that Joe can accomplish this in a single term, or even two. But I think that if we let him "go to work," progress will be made.
I'm through. I know how I'm voting. My ballot is sitting on my desk right now and it may well be in the hands of my county election commission by the time you read this. I will not tell you how to vote. But I WILL encourage you to consider the FACTS, consider your VALUES, and VOTE accordingly!
P.S. Next time I'll get back to my more usual frivolity. I promise.
P.P.S. Just to prove that I AM still capable of being frivolous and in honor of my rapidly approaching birthday, I offer this picture.