By Tom Rudd,
Responding to complaints that he is not an American citizen and therefore should not have performed “God Bless America” at the MLB All Star Game, Marc Anthony reminded viewers of the TODAY Show that he is indeed a proud American of Puerto Rican descent, and, to accent his point about “Americaness,” he reminded us that the song he performed was written by Irving Berlin, a Russian Jewish immigrant. This situation is emblematic of the ignorance that always accompanies bigotry, but, more importantly, it leads us into a conversation about who qualifies as a member of the American family, who is a true citizen—who “belongs.”
Prominent scholar and professor john powell has contextualized the concept of “belongingness” in his explanation of who is considered to be a legitimate citizen worthy of our help, our concern and our compassion. In my interpretation of Professor powell’s analysis, those who are thought of as belonging are typically the people who look and think like we do and have common values, and wealthy elites who, by virtue of their position and power, get an automatic ticket to citizenship. People who are deemed to be unworthy of real citizenship are subjected to a process of “othering” in which they are marginalized to the fringes of the society, a place of invisibility and traumatic disparity. This othering process is often energized by implicit bias, especially implicit racial bias, a collection of negative attitudes and predispositions that is very often beyond our conscious awareness. In a bad economy where critical social issues are often reduced to a simple cost-benefit analysis, the marginalized other become the “disposable.”
In my own analysis of who is cared about in a society that is out of balance, I have constructed a simple model—“circles of cognitive caring”—that encompasses every person in our country. The smallest circle contains the people we care about all the time; the next and larger circle contains the people we care about some of the time; the next and still larger circle holds the people whose existence we acknowledge but are beyond our caring; in the next and still larger circle are the people who are considered to be disposable; and in the last and largest circle reside the people who are invisible to us.
When radically conservative politicians and their supporters talk about “taking the country back,” they are imaging a ride on the time machine back to a place where the full benefits of citizenship—the greatest opportunities available in our society—are conferred upon a very small segment of the population. In the circles of cognitive caring model constructed by these folks, full citizenship is conferred upon only those members of the society who reside in the first and second circles. Everyone else, including Marc Anthony, reside in a place of uncaring, disposability or invisibility and are deemed to be unworthy of the benefits, opportunities and protections afforded to “true” citizens. In those circles, people are relegated to second class citizenship, systematically denied critical life opportunities and targeted to receive a grossly disproportionate share of societal burdens.
In a true compassionate democracy, a society that is in balance, everyone “belongs.” In that model of cognitive caring there is only one circle of citizens—those who we care about all the time. In that democracy, the fates of all people are linked. When any group of citizens is deprived of opportunity, everyone is affected and everyone rallies to restore equilibrium. Is a true compassionate democracy possible? john powell, who often describes himself as a “possibilist,” believes that it is. And so do I. But we have a lot of work to do…