I’ve started reading through a poetry anthology this past week called ‘Soul Food’. There is a particular poem that has unsettled me, which is here for you to read now:
September Twelfth, 2001
Two caught on film who hurtle
From the eighty-second floor,
Choosing between a fireball
And to jump holding hands,
aren’t us. I wake beside you
Stretch, scratch, taste the air,
The incredible joy of coffee
And the morning light.
Alive, we open eyelids
on our pitiful share of time,
we bubbles rising and bursting
in a boiling pot.
When I was younger, I had a fear of lifts. I knew that mostly I would be ok, but I didn’t like being unable to get out of a lift or pause it in the case that it suddenly dropped. I just really disliked the falling sensation I would get in my stomach as a lift started to move.
This poem to me, reads like that falling sensation. It unsettles me.
In the past few days I have been reading for a topic on my political philosophy paper called ‘International Justice’. The central debate is between statists, who think principles of socioeconomic justice apply domestically, within a state, but not internationally, and cosmopolitans, who seek to extend principles and duties of justice globally. The argument is really about whether we have any duties of justice to those beyond our borders: statists mostly think we need only worry about absolute deprivation, cosmopolitanists believe that we should also worry about global relative deprivation.
While reading the literature on this subject, there have been some moments akin to the dropping sensation I so dislike. Take the line “the value of a life is nothing other than the value of the good things it contains” (John Broome). This is among the more explicit statements of what it is that I find, pretty literally, difficult to stomach.
However, a lot of the literature is more subtle. There is an acknowledgement of what the world is like, stated a lot less starkly than the first stanza of the poem above (but which if stated more evidently should really ought to provoke the same sort of visceral horror), but without blinking you find yourself somewhere in the midst of whatever political conception of a state is given, and the duties this entails, very much like the second stanza. It’s ok, is the message, we have a way to put this picture ‘injustice’ into a picture frame which magically happens to cover over the first two letters.
I don’t believe it is ok. I believe that every person on this planet is an ultimate unit of moral concern, and this is a status which extends to all human beings equally. It’s a status and which should not and cannot, not really, be overruled based on which state borders a newborn finds itself surrounded by.
I am not warming to ad hoc philosophical arguments for why state borders aren’t in fact arbitrary, but are in fact of definitive moral significance.
It is the global poor that have moral significance, and petty philosophical railings against this fact that I deem to be definitively arbitrary.
There isn’t so much left to say about this before I’ve finished the rest of the reading and worked out how to construct the most watertight cosmpolitanist argument I can, but if you are interested in this, I would recommend reading Pogge’s ‘World Poverty and Human Rights’. I would also challenge you to think about what you think gives a human life value. I’ve found that the philosophers really can’t give you an answer. But the gospels of Jesus Christ can.
And if it’s the third stanza of this poem that is what gets to you most, may I gently suggest these blog posts: Eternity in the Human Heart, What’s your answer for death?
I find that the most convoluted poetry has a message that is best left hidden. The problems of poverty will continue to exist, for it is one of the many circumstances created by a flawed world ruled by a fallen humanity. Jesus, Himself, said: “The poor you will always have.” He didn’t come to free mankind from the poverty that assaults the body, but that which assaults the soul.
Man refuses to admit sin. For it is sin that he finds most pleasing. But, sooner or later he is awakened to the truth that it is not natural to life, but is very much so to death.
Boundaries are necessary to keep an evil hand from reaching in, but do not keep a good hand from reaching out. Christ sent the apostles out into the world telling them to be gentle as doves but as cunning as serpents. He doesn’t want compassion to overshadow the truth.
To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton: “When we do away with the supernatural we are left with the unnatural.”