As each day brings more evidence of our society in America coming apart, I wonder why we think it should exist in the first place. Many philosophers have sought to describe the social contract which underpins any society. From Plato to Jean Jacques Rousseau, they seem to agree that the basis for any social contract is natural or covenantal justice. One definition I find compelling is that of the Roman philosopher Epicurius.
“Natural justice is a pledge of reciprocal benefit, to prevent one man from harming or being harmed by another…There never was such a thing as absolute justice, but only agreements made in mutual dealings among men in whatever places at various times providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.”
The United States is not today a place where a social contract is applied fairly for Black Americans. The infliction or suffering of harm is commonplace; there seems to be no reciprocal benefit; and no one is preventing the arbiters of ‘justice’ from harming another.
The pledge of reciprocal benefit is broken, if it ever truly existed as more than an aspiration.
George Floyd was casually murdered by an officer of the state. It follows the cold-blooded murder of Ahmaud Aubrey by a former police officer, his son, and his friend, and a month of silence from the arbiters of justice until publicity forced charges. This kind of justice has displayed itself for years in front of the cameras now ubiquitously tearing the veil away from the betrayal of decades or more. As Trevor Noah recently asked, is anyone surprised that the response to this betrayal of the social contract, of natural justice, is to burn and destroy the structures of the betraying society?
If a system betrays you, you have a choice. You can change the system, you can destroy the system and build a new one, or you can acquiesce and continue to be betrayed. This week, in America, the ship of acquiescence has sailed. I do not believe there is any going back from here. Change is inevitable. The only question is, how will it be brought about?
Many of my friends, both those on the left and the right, have declared their solidarity with the Black community while decrying the destruction of property and violence that has followed Floyd’s murder. Many of those who say they stand for justice and hate what happened to Floyd seem to be even more outraged by the riots. I am not more outraged by the riots. I despair of them because they are accomplishing nothing. They are ineffective, and when quiet returns, communities of color will be bereft of many of the entrepreneurs and businesses which offered some aspiration to a better future.
Action for change must be purposeful to be effective. If a society is so evil that it must be destroyed, like Nazi Germany, it must be done by any means, including violence. The implements of state, its buildings, its organizations, its enforcers – if they adhere to the evil system, they must be eliminated for something better to take its place. Using destruction and violence to accomplish this is purposeful, and if done with overwhelming strength, tenacity, and resolute will, change is inevitable.
The kind of violence we are seeing now, though, is purposeless. It is fueled by a justifiable rage, but it is neither organized to replace a broken system, nor is it overwhelmingly powerful, well led, or tenacious. A dispassionate assessment indicates that however well justified, in the end it is impossible here to bring together the power, leadership, organization and will to erase the old order and create a new one. And the system here aspires to be fair, not evil, even though it fails too many, too often.
This leaves one choice. Change the system. Hopeless, it seems. Impossible. People have been trying to change the system since 1865, and Black men are still being killed by the police or threatened by entitled white people who know how the game is rigged. Why will it work now?
I am a proud Jew. I have studied our history since I learned to read. And if I were without hope, without an appreciation of the slow yet inevitable work of change effected by a persecuted, murdered, and despised minority, I would have given up my identity long ago. I have my own rage inducing, despair producing, painful history, and Black Americans have theirs. I have lived with the legacy of persecution and genocide, learned from dozens if not hundreds of people who experienced it. I have not lived with the legacy of hundreds of years of slavery, nor of the 150 years more of inequality. And while I could shed the visibility of my minority status by simply taking off my kippah, I know that those base, hateful people who see skin color as a measure of value or privilege will only stop doing so if the cost of doing so becomes too high. Right now, it is simply too easy to hate. But I do know that the wheel turns inevitably, even if it turns slowly.
To change the system requires resources. Not just money, but human capital. Votes. Allies. Upstanders. It requires political will. Not only every four years in November, but in the election of every judge and Sheriff, every mayor and state representative, and every District Attorney.
It requires the fortitude and faith of Rev Martin Luther King Jr., and the clarity of Malcolm X. It needs anyone whose family has the experience of injustice to scream for justice. Anyone a child of exile to demand a place and a part in society. Anyone who has had to stand up to protect their community to recognize the need of another community for their alliance and friendship.
It needs hope, and sometimes that is all that sustained the Jewish people in the darkest times. Hope is a gift, one that is needed right now, one that we can give with our alliance and advocacy. Let’s get to work and provide it.