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August 23, 2009

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One of Those Old Words We Don't Use Anymore

It’s not really the full content of Charles Stross’s argument here that gets me; it’s simply his use of the word “mercy.” He connects Abdelbaset Al Megrahi with U.S. health care reform, and argues that the U.S. is suffering from a mercy deficit, and it’s worth checking out. But really, I’m sort of inclined to ignore the argument, and just dwell on the word. Mercy.

Is that word like totally not a part of our modern lexicon or what? I’m rolling it around in my mouth, and in my brain, and it feels almost like one of those hard-to-translate words from another language. Saudade. Schadenfreude. Mercy.

Where does mercy live in our society today? What policies do we promote that have mercy at their core? What would that even mean? Not rhetorical questions; I find myself suddenly and sincerely puzzled by this.

Posted August 23, 2009 at 9:58 | Comments (6) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted


Perhaps it's that the ideas of incentives, rational actors, and game theory are so much in favor that we've forgotten (or foregone) a more emotionally rooted approach to public life... one that asks us to empathize with those facing the short end of the stick, and to give people not what they deserve but better than they deserve.

What would mercy look like? Well, it might be as simple as giving up our means-testing, data-gathering, quantizing instincts for public assistance, and providing that assistance without requiring "proof of need". It might be as hard as letting go our fear of being scammed and giving to each other openly.

Posted by: Matt Penniman on August 23, 2009 at 10:55 PM

That last sentence resonates. This deep fear of getting cheated -- not just by the rich, but by the poor! by anybody! by everybody! -- is so endemic.

Amerihealth Mercy is the name of the company that provides Medicaid in Pennsylvania (and thirteen other states). Basically, it's Blue Cross's Medicaid wing.

This is terrible, but whenever I hear the word Mercy I think of Karate Kid I, and that "bad guy" karate instructor who would shout "Mercy is for the weak!"

Obviously I don't hear it or think of it very often. Words I'm more likely to think about/use are compassion, empathy, pity. Where does mercy fit in this spectrum? Definitely something to think about.

Posted by: Jennifer on August 24, 2009 at 08:00 AM

Huh, I use it all the time. It is very much part of my lexicon--seriously, in jest, and many linear combinations in between.

Matt P, I think there's a big difference between lacking mercy and fearing getting scammed. I think about this all the time as I walk around my somewhat ailing Berkeley/Oakland neighborhood and am almost constantly asked for spare change. My policy is that unless I am in a tearing hurry, it's dark and I'm not feeling safe, or I actually have no spare change, I will look the person in the face before deciding and then I will follow my heart. It's really the only thing that feels right--and a lot of times, people just somehow have some sort of look on their face that makes me feel like giving money is what I want to do. But sometimes, they just don't. And I *have* been around long enough to know that there are plenty of scammers around. And guess what? Thanks to this economy I myself am slowly skating my own way down to the poverty line. There's a reason I live in this rough neighborhood and often don't have spare change in my pocket any more, and there are an awful lot of needy causes I care about deeply. I would rather be a little skeptical and careful about where I spend my limited charity than end up padding some con artist's expense account such that I am empty pocketed when someone I care about needs help. So when I can I give a donation to shelters and food banks, the kind of places that have the ability to use data and method and evidence to make sure they dole out their mercy to the people who need it most.

In short, I just don't think it's the means-testing data gathering forces that are at the root of our problem. That's like saying that a doctor practicing triage at a disaster doesn't care deeply about saving lives. The problem is the motivation of the people paying for all that data and triage. Do we have, interwoven into our very character, the desire to be a compassionate people who help needy people as best we can? I don't think we do. I don't think that's because we're too rational or scientific or in love with game theory. I think it's because compassion and kindness just don't make the top of the list of values we willfully cultivate in ourselves or our children. We're all about reponsibility, accomplishment, family-time, innovation, being good friends, etc.. But being blindly nice to people we don't even know is not something we talk about or celebrate. I think our national hero on that front is Jane Addams, and I'm not sure I'd recognize a portrait of her if I saw one.

It's a great mystery, because you would think a country built on Christian roots would have the Gospel interwoven into the fabric of its total culture, but it's really not there most of the time.

I didn't work this in originally, but I think this observation about getting cheated --

-- This deep fear of getting cheated -- not just by the rich, but by the poor! by anybody! by everybody! -- is so endemic --

is BIG.

In Jon Stewart's interview with Betsy McCaughey, he asks her, "do you really think that somehow the intent of this bill was to try to covertly screw over seniors?" Ditto, Obama said something similar about the idea that he and others entered public life to pull the plug on grandma.

That's what it's about. To the extent that there's a consistent (if paranoid) ideology to "keep the government away from my Medicare!" -- it's "don't cheat me."

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