Wednesday, July 17, 2013

noblesse oblige

Russian President Vladimir Putin is wriggling on the hook, but seems to be showing signs he might be willing to sell out Edward Snowden, the 30-year-old American holed up in a Moscow airport after
leaking American surveillance secrets. Snowden is in limbo: He has no passport and no means of getting to one of several Latin American countries that have offered him asylum. Putin says he does not want a single man to sour U.S.-Russian relations. He seems to want to find the way to feed the sheep to the American wolves but come out of it untarnished on the political home front. If he waits long enough, perhaps some of the brightness of the situation will dim and Putin will be able to go about his business. What the hell -- it's only one sheep and the cause of international relations is important.

The trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning -- another whistle blower who caught the U.S. with its surveillance pants down -- drags on in Ft. Meade, Md., and is largely unattended by mainstream media that, like Putin, may excuse themselves based on some 'wider principle' of peace and security and having a 'working' relationship with the powers that be. What the hell -- it's only one sheep.

Between 1881 and 1914, when the Panama Canal finally opened, some 27,000 workers died, most of them black men from the West Indies. Most died of disease. Many died in accidents. One recollection stated, “it was the same way -- bury, bury, bury, running two, three, and four trains a day with dead Jamaica niggers all the time…It did not matter any difference whether they were black or white, to see the way they died there.  They died like animals.” What the hell -- it's only one sheep.

The Vatican has ignored with a sweeping good grace the quite individualized cases of believers whose lives were ripped asunder by the sexual and financial depredations of the mother church and its priestly representatives. The Christian allegory of the shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep behind in order to retrieve the one that is lost seems to be lost on the institution. Pointing to its many good works past, present and future, the Vatican is willing to let the spotlight dim: What the hell -- it's only one sheep.

Noblesse oblige is a long-standing encouragement that suggests that those with wealth and power and station are morally constrained to look out for those not similarly endowed. With privilege comes responsibility. Aristocracies of every era have paid some lip service to this concept. The American robber barons funded libraries, gardens, soup kitchens and hospitals. The well-heeled landlords of Europe could and can point to similar good works. And the Roman Catholic Church, the biggest corporation in the world, has a panorama of benevolent badges to point to.

The problem is, of course, that no one who ever became rich and powerful did so by being nice and the definitions of "privilege" and "responsibility" are pretty much left to those who are privileged. And so, when an Edward Snowden or Bradley Manning or priest sex-abuse victim threatens to upset the privileged apple cart ... well, what the hell -- it's only one sheep. Fairness and justice are all well and good ... up to a point. And that point is the one at which those with the standing to define -- and more important redefine -- fairness and justice draw the line.

What the hell -- it's only one sheep.

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