Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Originally published on The Huffington Post:

Affirming Altruism

Somewhere between high school and college we argued about selfish acts. Only, we didn't call the alternative to them unselfish, we called them altruistic. (It never occurred to a single one of us deep-thinkers to question whether calling them altruistic was pretentious; optimal words came naturally to us once upon a time.)

The question posed was, "Is there such a thing as a purely altruistic act?" I remember thinking that all young men and women somewhere between high school and college age must be having the same considered debate we were—and, with similarly facile logic, invariably reaching the same defining conclusion:
There is no such thing as a purely altruistic act.

Ours wasn't a happy pronouncement. What we agreed on by surprising consensus we agreed on reluctantly rather than cynically. If a plausible corollary was "blowin' in the wind," we didn't see it.

Several years after we earnest few moved on—from our lofty contemplations and from each other—I was nursing a cappuccino and gorging on the nuance du jour with friends at a Greenwich Village café when I heard a familiar voice and turned to see Bob Dylan, legs up, slouched down, amid a sprawled-out group of coffeehouse denizens in animated conversation at a nearby table. Seeing coffee and cigarettes, the prerequisites to good conversation, strewn on their table, it crossed my mind to muse: were they, by any chance, debating the same thing we had—the truly altruistic act—invariably coming to the same conclusion? many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn't see?

This was roughly a decade before the "me" generation was appropriately identified. What our generation wanted to be was unselfish: what we all in our starry-eyed idealism wanted to embody was altruism. What was "blowin' in the wind" was the dawn of an invigorating new era, and if the answer we wanted wasn't yet written on the wind, it was visible—if nowhere else, then on our earnestly unfurrowed brows. How did everyone, or anyone, fail to see it?

Yes, how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?

Nothing, over the years, threatened to change my mind. Absolute selflessness, self-abnegation, self-sacrifice were mythological at best—the stuff of scriptures, literature and dreams. Clerics shock us, heroes disillusion, icons pale, leaders fail. Still, something in me clings to the utopian notion of that "purely altruistic act."

Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind...

The question we should be pondering today is can we stand by and do nothing while innocent women and children are indiscriminately gassed and murdered. Not, first and foremost, should the United States intervene in yet another war on distant shores, risk American women's and men's lives to save others, although it's a valid question. Not, should we spend money in a foreign country while people are suffering in ours, an equally valid consideration. Not even, should we go to war and risk American lives to stem further terrorism and to protect ourselves and our children. There is but one paramount question, the purely altruistic one, the humane one, the morally right one, and the answer to it is being addressed by President Obama, who fathoms and feels we must do something!

Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died ?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

The president has nothing personal to gain from waging war in any manner on Syria. Someone should try to explain to Ted Cruz that Barack Obama is already the president and can't run for another term. Someone should explain to Newt Gingrich that he can never be president. Someone should explain to Fox News... no, forget it.

It's reasonable to criticize and differ with the president's handling of Syria, but irrational to attribute his motives to anything self-serving or sinister. This man who makes Republicans stark-raving venomous may be the least selfish of any president in recorded history. Absolutely, purely altruistic? History and historians will decide. What matters at the moment is ridding the world of Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons and arms expeditiously. If negotiation succeeds, the president's reticence to strike summarily is a signature triumph. If it fails, Congress and the American people must empower him to take action against the Assad government because, after all, there just may be such a thing as a purely altruistic act! Unless you consider saving the lives of untold numbers of men, women and children—and feeling good about it—a selfish act.