My Brother’s Keeper

I stumbled on this wonderful definition, at google translate, of the word quijote (a variant on quixote), the name of a restaurant several of us ate at last night.  It’s perfect for a number of reasons.  

quijote:  Piece of armor that covers the thigh.

Person who has high ideals and fights and defends causes that, although noble and just, do not concern him.

“Wonderful definition,” said the skeleton, “fighting for noble and just causes that do not concern him.  Hah!  I can see why you love it.  Not only does it define you to a tee, it’s summarily judgmental, you know, the slavery of those people does not concern you, noble but misguided tilter at windmills.”  

I thought you’d like it.  Goes to that old question about being our brother’s keeper.  

“Well, things didn’t always go well for my little brother when I was his keeper.  That time I stuffed his mouth with raw chopped meat stands in for a lot of equally unkind turns as my brother’s keeper.  Still, this question of ‘what does not concern him’ is an excellent one.

“You know how we always said, on Passover, that slavery anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere, that as long as tyranny is winked at by democracies the world is not safe for children, and putting yourself in the place of the weakest and most oppressed among us is a crucial duty of all citizens and so on, all things that, clearly, ‘do not concern him’. Funny, the right wing has succeeded in making this part of the American credo, to a seamless extent, really, if you think about it.  

“If the whole game now, the new American Dream, is being a free libertarian, the government allowing you the full exercise of your freedom without interference, it is truly not your concern that millions in your own country live in want while you enjoy heedless personal liberty, justly feeling no obligation to anyone but yourself.  If you are born with $100,000,000 you should keep all of it.  Who is the government to confiscate any part of what is rightfully yours, you dig?  

“You, why are you concerned about the poverty and hopelessness you saw when you taught third grade in Harlem?  You have bigger things, much closer to home, to worry about.   That staircase in the untended tenement on Manhattan Avenue, right out of a horror movie, with the broken glass on the landing, and that mother of the kid you walked home coming to the door at 3 pm in a flimsy nightgown, her breasts swinging freely underneath it, not understanding why this white detective was knocking on the door with her nine year old kid next to him.”

I know, twenty-five years later that scene is still vivid in my memory.  I’d just woken her from a nap, or maybe she’d just had a hit of heroin, or who the hell knows what.  She was only partially there, swaying slightly as I tried to explain I wasn’t a cop, I was the boy’s teacher.  The boy had been putting his hand up and down the front of the skirt of the little semi-retarded girl who sat next to him in class. It had upset her, to have his unwanted finger probing for her little vagina while I was at the blackboard teaching math.    I’d spoken to him sternly about it, in no uncertain terms, he kept doing it.  I told him I would speak to his mother, and so here I am.  Ma’am, are you OK?

“No, Elie, ma’am was clearly not OK.  What’s with the rhetorical questions?  Just and noble, to do what you said you would after the kid would not heed reasonable adult correction, but also, you know, matters that did not concern you.  

“That’s the beauty of what Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher and their glorious ilk sold to their gigantic flocks, what the folks your friend Tex calls economic fascists, rightists like Paul Ryan, continue to peddle.  The message resonates.  You owe only your immediate family and their circle any kind of duty.  We owe absolutely nothing to strangers.   

“The social safety net is a crutch that fosters dependence and corruption.  We owe nothing to each other as members of  a society.  It is natural to acquire as much as you possibly can, and there is nothing at all shameful about acquiring a thousand, or a million, times what you actually need to have a perfectly fine life.”   

In fact, it’s not only natural, it’s praiseworthy to seek a thousand, or a million, times what you need.   The problems of those who don’t have enough to eat?  The problems of young kids in America who get brain damage from long-term malnutrition and other poverty-related maladies?  They do not concern you.

“A food stamp recipient who buys a steak with food stamps is gaming the system.  They’re morally obliged to eat gruel, you know, like in a Dickens orphanage.  The only people who have the right to eat steak are those who earn the money to afford it, or inherit the money, or acquire it by arguably fraudulent means, but done in the employ of a corporation that is ‘too big to fail’ in a system where people who commit massive fraud are free to pay millions in bonuses to their henchmen.

“You know in 2009, right after their falsely triple A rated toxic derivative casino marketplace almost toppled the economy– cost your mother, my widow, about 40% of what we’d managed to put aside– the industry paid themselves $20,000,000,000 in compensation and bonuses. Twenty billion.”

Twelve years dead and still so bitter.

“Elie, I will feel this way about the killers and the spoilers two hundred years from now.  Even as, at the same time, I can easily see that none of this concerns me.  For one thing, I’m dead. There’s that, of course.  For another thing, even when I wasn’t dead, when I was walking around, growing my hair over my collar and my thick mutton-chop side-burns, dismissing bullshit with a curt ‘dassum shit…’ I knew how little a person can do about any of this, the stuff that ‘does not concern him.’

“The world is a place of misery and bad behavior.  The Buddha taught that the only way out is to go inside your own mind, your own soul, and find the inner tranquility to carry you through it.  I think of that Buddhist monk in the street in Saigon setting himself on fire to protest the continued war in his country.  Didn’t go that well for him, I guess.”

Sorry, dad, not my concern.  

“Go get ’em, Elie,” said the skeleton, yawning or pantomiming a scream.

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