Some deaths are especially personal. Recently the Ethical Movement lost one of its own longtime members, Bob Gordon, who succumbed to cancer on May 2 of this year. Bob’s son, Gregg, sent in a beautiful obituary the family put together which I urge you to read. Bob led a rich and colorful life: he flew planes for the Air Force, lived for several years in Iran, traveled the world, and even, at age 70, made a solo bike trip across the United States. Bob was also a member of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County for over 50 years and served on the American Ethical Union Board of Directors from 2008-2011 and from 2015-2021.
Bob’s death made no sense. He was a very young 83 year old with a lot of energy and healthy personal habits. He’d been on a ski trip in January – just before he noticed symptoms. It’s been hard to take in that he’s gone. I especially noticed this at a recent board meeting when our President, Sonja, asked “are we all here?” at the beginning of the meeting. No, I thought, we are not all here. We are missing Bob.
Bob was a part of us and his absence kept us from being whole in a way that was quite different from those absences that were due to his illness and treatments. Then we could hold on to the notion of what a fighter Bob was – if anyone could kick the cancer it would be him.
Some deaths come to us as statistics rather than from direct experience. According to the Center for Disease Control, as of May 31, 2020 there have been at least 103,700 deaths due to the coronavirus in the United States (which I expect is a significant undercount.) Presumably, all over the country there are meetings starting without a familiar face looking back from the Zoom session, and participants feeling the tug of loss. While anonymous to almost all of us, each of those deaths represents a tear in the fabric of humanity. We may not notice those particular tears but they are there nonetheless.
Some deaths bring real focus to just how fragile human beings are and illuminate the dangers that may await us. George Floyd’s death at the hands of police and captured on video, showed just how easy it is to end someone’s life. It can be done dispassionately with a quiet persistence. And if you are part of an organization, such as a police department, it can even seem routine.
Perhaps that is because it is routine – at least for some groups in this country. Violence and the threat of violence have been the mainstays of policing in predominantly black communities for hundreds of years. As a police chief from upstate New York has said, when police go to white neighborhoods they are there to protect. When they go to black neighborhoods they are there to hunt.
I say George Floyd’s death illuminates the danger that “may” await us because Mr. Floyd’s reality was quite different from the reality of people like me who are pink rather than brown – people who represent the protected rather than the hunted. I can imagine that the officers who responded to the convenience store employees’ call about someone using fake cash to purchase cigarettes thought of themselves as protecting people who look like me from people who look like Mr. Floyd.
Instead of protecting anyone, the officers who participated in the killing of Mr. Floyd lit a match to the massive collection of kindling that has gathered at our feet – fuel for the fires that are lighting up police cars all over the country — as the unanswered frustration over oppression and inequity have ignited massive conflagrations.
As more people of all hues join the protests against police violence it remains to be seen how law enforcers will deal with the mix. So far it’s not so promising, as many of the police have been relying on use of force to subdue protests.
And that brings me back to Bob and the cause of his death – cancer. Cancer is an apt metaphor for what is ailing us. Cancer works by a combination of cells not dying off when they should and reproducing uncontrollably to form masses of dysfunctional cells. Cancer happens when an organism is unable to exert control over the cells to keep the organism organized and functional. When cells fail to heed the body’s controls they are free to do whatever.
So it is with our current political situation. The United States has an executive branch headed by an individual (I doubt you are reading this, but in case you do – you know who you are, POTUS) who refuses to be bound by the usual controls and routinely behaves in a most aberrant and disgusting manner. Worse yet, this flaunting of controls infects others, who, when no longer bound by public reprobation, feel free to engage in all manner of weird and horrific behaviors. Worse yet, this flaunting affects the very institutions we have relied upon to keep the worst aspects of humanity in check, dissolving their authority opening the doors for lawlessness. Worse yet, this flaunting was desired by a significant portion of the electorate.
Perhaps people didn’t recognize the danger of letting this one cancerous cell into the Oval Office. Or perhaps that election is just one aspect of a much more pernicious metastasis. The old order was vulnerable because the controls it relied on weren’t effective enough.
Which brings me back to the killing of George Floyd. Racial injustice is not new and the deeply rooted inequity has barely been addressed, in a positive way, by either party. Meanwhile, the militarization of the police force and mass incarceration have been promoted by both parties. Use of force seems to be the one control a wide range of politicians can agree on.
Order is not necessarily a good thing – at least not when it is profoundly inequitable – but a total lack of order is not good either. Orderliness works when there is broad participation and consent in determining what gets ordered and how. You need a mechanism for that, though. You need a basis for agreeing that developing an equitable orderliness is welcome and needed – a far cry from what we are seeing today.
As the swamp continues to be drained by the current administration, one has to wonder, how will equitable orderliness ever be achieved when order itself has no respect?