In a classic speech, Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, recently addressed the graduating class at Stanford University and reminded them about the “conspiracy of love” that has enabled them to be at this particular point in their lives. What he wanted to convey was simply that every person’s opportunities and fortunate circumstances do not emerge in a vacuum and, much less, do not exist merely as a result of an individual earning or deserving them. Instead, he insisted that these circumstances—whether it be shelter, good health, schooling, employment, supportive relationships, peace and safety—result from the labor of love of many others. These people are usually parents, grandparents, and teachers, but they are also the civic-minded among us: community leaders and those who labor on behalf of the health and vitality of institutions. He offered his own family experience as an example, describing how his parents and grandparents grew up in a segregated America and yet managed to arrive at a point where Booker could have a shot at getting into Stanford at the age of 18.
Whenever Booker was found acting just a little too oblivious to or ungrateful for the conspiracy of love that behind the scenes had provided the fortunate circumstances of his life, his father would chide him: “Son, don’t you go walking around this house like you just hit a triple, when you were born on third base!”
It would seem to follow that if positive circumstances are the product of a collective conspiracy of love and that achievement is never merely individual, failure is also never merely individual. This is because above and beyond all my good and bad decisions are the collective effects of good and bad decisions of a myriad of others. Evil does not triumph through individual disobedience to God’s will alone; “And that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers (Doctrine and Covenants 93:39). Tragedy, suffering, and loss, in other words, are to be collectively mourned in part because they are collectively created through erroneous or insufficient structures in society. The best evidence of this is the fact that we are so inadequate in the face of collective problems like endemic poverty, human trafficking, or climate change. Our ethics needs a deeper and more collective evolution. We cannot imagine that our morality is determined by individual agency in a small sphere of influence alone since we are not only parents, children, siblings and neighbors but also citizens, consumers, employees, users of public goods, members of a culture and participants in traditions that are collectively generated.
Perhaps some will say I am sounding too much like a socialist, since I seem to want to subvert individual agency by an appeal to the collective good. But the very fact that we so easily assume that any discussion of collective good and collective sin mutually excludes individual agency is merely a signal failure of American society to appreciate the various conspiracies of love and of selfish hate that have shaped our circumstances, to pay penance for collective failure, and to conscript new conspirators for future generations. In recent years it seems that we have spent far more time celebrating and defending freedom than we have spent expressing gratitude, acknowledging our inadequacies, or describing and promoting responsibility to others. Education does not seemed aimed any longer at the collective whole but at the ultimate goal of self-realization, as if any self could be fully realized without others who help or need help. We have become addicted to the memoir, the individual tale of self-fulfillment, as if being a self, for its own sake, were its own end. It seems hard to believe that the original purpose of Thanksgiving, as instituted by President Lincoln on the heels of the Civil War, was to collectively recognize the undeserved mercies of God, the need for collective penance, and the plight of those who had suffered the greatest losses.
Recent events in my own family have brought these thoughts to mind. In my own extended family I can see that despite our common heritage and biology, there are many cultural and structural differences and traditions that have emerged that account for a great many advantages and disadvantages that each of us enjoys. If it is hard to imagine how we can have so much wealth and opportunity in this country alongside so much deprivation and disadvantage, it is even harder for me to see such disparity in one family, let alone to see how easy it is for those on third base to imagine they just hit a triple.