Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Hupty Dumpty, Part 1

I’m sharing this article from the Christian Science Monitor of 6/28/10 by William R. Polk almost verbatim. Polk has taught at Harvard and the U of Chicago.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s me
Couldn’t pu Huupty together again.

Over the years, people have found the verses of this rhyme memorable because they remind us of important truths. For our times, it is something so taken for granted that we often overlook it: the ‘social contract.’ The social contract is the basis for a healthy, functioning society. Yet it is fragile. It is Humpty Dumpty, the fragile egg, sitting atop the wall.

American foreign policy in the past decade has been rooted in the notion that overwhelming force –‘all the king’s horses and all the king’s men’ – could in fact fix a broken social contract (Afghanistan) or create a new, improved on (Iraqu). The results have been uneding and tragic costs.

Sometimes written out in contitutions, laws, and treaties, but more often just unwritten cutom, the social contract is the convention in which we manage to live relatively peacefully next to one another. Whether written or not, it is based on a consensus of what we think of as ‘normal’ or ‘right.’ In more traditional societies, it is referred to as ‘the way.’

Historically, the idea of a social contract probably grew out of kinship. Our remote ancestors, who lived in small clans, were able to get along with one another because they were fathers and children or brothers and sisters. Few were more remote from one another than first cousins.

Then, about 4,000 years ago, clans grew into villages and towns grew into cities. Kinship became too vague or too remote to explain or enforce social peace. Some new means was required. In the urban revolution, the idea of kinship was transformed into neighborhood. The emerging fragile social contract was that one was supposed to treat his neighbor as though he were a kinsman rather than a foreigner for foreighner often meant an enemy.

That was not an easy transformation and is still incomplete, but over the few thousand years, society after society has struggled with the challenge of making this notion effective. That’s why Humpty Dumpty, the social contract, is depicted as a fragile egg. Where societies succeded they created what the rhyme pictures - Humpty sitting up on a wall, above the occasional rough and tumble, the push and shove, the give and take of daily life, a presence that in some abstract and idealized way facilitates and bring order to the challenging process of living together. But….

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