Contrapasso in the Heartlands: When We Reject The Common Good

Contrapasso in the Heartlands: When We Reject The Common Good March 31, 2019

When I visit the UK, my favorite pasttime is to walk. Walking in London is wonderful, but even better is walking in the countryside. It’s a kind of country walking that’s hard to do in the US, where – unless one happens to own thousands of acres – rural walks are confined to reserved parklands that are set apart specifically for the purpose. Park walking – or hiking, as we call it here – is pleasant enough, but it involves stepping outside the usual geographic networks, into a little bubble-paradise cut off from towns, farms, roadways. It’s not the kind of walking that can effectively get one from Point A to Point B, except for in a few rare cases.

Where I live, in the country, if I want to walk I can perambulate repeatedly around our small farm like a doomed soul in Dante, or I can brave the gravel roads where I might or might not get run down by a drunk on an ATV. Or I could drive to a park, head into the woods, walk a few miles, then drive back. The idea of walking across the country to a notable landmark, or into town, is ludicrous. There’s a good chance that I’d be shot at, if I tried it (it has happened before).

The right of way laws in the UK mean that you can set off from your inn across the neighbor’s farm, up into the hills or moors, on into the next village. There you can have a pint or a whiskey, and carry on. You can cover hundreds of miles in this way, if you just have the right maps. Right-of-way paths are marked, and the responsible walker knows to stick to them – and, also, should the path lead across grazing land, to make sure gates are all shut properly behind one.

The thing about the gates is especially striking to me, because during my years of ranch life one of our hugest problems was with irresponsible visitors who didn’t know that if you open a gate, you should also shut it. Allowing strangers to cross our pastures and fields, to trust them with the gates – that means trusting them with the well-being and even life of your animals.

And it’s not something I would be comfortable doing where I live, because in order for it to work there has to be a trust in the common commitment to a shared good. When I see the way the people around me throw garbage on the roads, and vandalize property, I have little faith in such a commitment.

There are many good and kind people near me, and on several occasions local farmers have helped me out in a pinch, but I suspect that they, too, know they need to keep their gates shut.

Tragedy of the commons

The “tragedy of the commons” means that if we’re going to have nice things in shared spaces, we need all to be equally committed to maintaining it. If we want to be able to walk across the bucolic sheep farm, we need to pause a moment to shut the gate. It means that if we want to traipse across our neighbor’s farm, we need also to trust them to close our gates, not to litter, not to let their dogs run wild and chase our sheep.

It also means that those who have more – hundreds of beautiful acres – need to have a sense of noblesse oblige with regards to those less-fortunate urban dwellers out for a day in the country.

This sense of shared responsibility and common good, as well as noblesse oblige, is why the UK has a system of health care far superior to ours.

No, it’s not perfect. And I don’t want to fall into the trap of anglophilic romanticization of a nation that has a nasty history of imperialist colonization, and is presently dealing with its own form of MAGA, in the shape of Brexit. There’s definitely a form of commitment to the common good that is dangerously exclusive: common meaning “our own” and “those like us.” Some of that seems to be at work in Brexit, and of course was always there in a society rooted in a class system that has never really existed in the U.S.

Our inconsistent and self-defeating obsession with autonomy

But here in the US, we’ve long adhered to a form of radical individualism which may look heroic on the surface, but which, when you begin to analyze it, looks self-defeating. Even the slogan “live free or die,” which sounds so epic, is a little nonsensical, given how little freedom we actually have. It also carries with it the dangerous idea that without freedom we’re better off dead. Freedom from what, or freedom to do what, rarely gets defined. But in America, “at least we know we’re free” – don’t stop and analyze it! Don’t ask whether it’s true! Just repeat it, wave the flag, and distrust the government (when it suits you, and if you happen to be white.

Our obsession with autonomy and individualism is not consistent, given that we routinely deny it to those who don’t fit our bill. It’s also a recipe for disaster, because in rejecting any commitment to a common good we are denying ourselves, also, any share in it. And yet, the radical individualism that rejects communitarianism, and the racism that denies autonomy to the Other, go hand in hand in American culture.

Literally dying for it

Take the instance documented by Jonathan M. Metzl in his book Dying of Whiteness: How The Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland. In a book review for Portside, Tana Ganeva writes of a case of a man named Trevor, dying of liver disease in Tennessee:


“Had Trevor lived a simple thirty-nine minute drive away in neighboring Kentucky, he might have topped the list of candidates for expensive medications called polymerase inhibitors, a life-saving liver transplant, or other forms of treatment and support,” Metzl writes. But Tennessee officials repeatedly blocked efforts to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

But Trevor is not mad at the state’s elected officials. “Ain’t no way I would ever support Obamacare or sign up for it,” he tells Metzl. “I would rather die.” When Metzl prods him about why he’d choose death over affordable health care, Trevor’s answer is telling. “We don’t need any more government in our lives. And in any case, no way I want my tax dollars paying for Mexicans or welfare queens.”

Over the course of almost a decade, Metzl crunched mortality statistics and spoke with people in the South and Midwest. He sought to find out how—and why—many low-and-mid income white Americans embrace values and back politicians who institute policies that are literally killing them, from lack of health care to gun de-regulations to shoddy infrastructure. Metzl shows that from a public health perspective, the dogma propagated by Republicans is literally toxic to a majority of their constituents.

He also traces the history of how right-wing groups have promised to restore some ideal of white American “greatness”—usually at the expense of racial and ethnic minorities. That political trick reached its ultimate fulfillment in the election of Donald Trump and his slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

Let’s go back to Trevor. What killed him?

“At the most basic level, he died of the toxic effects of liver damage caused by hepatitis C,” Metzl writes. “When the liver becomes inflamed, it fails to filter toxins from the blood and loses the ability to produce vital compounds such as bile and albumin. Without treatment, death comes by systemic deterioration. Jaundice gives way to ascites, which then gives way to hepatic encephalopathy and coma. It’s an exceedingly slow, painful way to go out.”

But Metzl reveals another culprit: the toxic effects of dogma absorbed by many white people that might lead them to accept a painful death over giving up their place in a hierarchy that puts them above blacks, Mexicans, immigrants, other nonwhite people and “the poor.”

The loss of the good of the intellect

What Metzl identifies is an attitude radically opposed to the ideal of common responsibility to a shared good. From a social-science perspective, it is alarming to think that one’s sense of identity could rely so wholly on hate and fear of another, and that one would embrace this hate even at the expense of one’s own life.

It’s an old classical ethical idea that being attuned to “the good” brings about a right ordering of the intellect so that one is able wisely and prudently to choose those lesser goods that make for a life that is happy, meaningful, and virtuous. Aristotle explored the way the pursuit of lesser goods such as pleasure or power leave humans perpetually unsatisfied and grappling with one another. Dante in The Divine Comedy depicted the nihilistic appetites of souls who had “lost the good of the intellect” – ultimately, locked together in ice, chewing at one another’s bloody skulls. This is one of many instances of what Dante terms “contrapasso” – a punishment which not only suits the sin, fleshes out the sin – but it brought on by the sin. 

Dante’s image may seem over-the-top, but when I look at the ferocity with which my fellow citizens of the United States reject a common good that would not only benefit others, but be literally life-saving for themselves, I can’t help but think I’m seeing another ring of the Inferno. It’s not just this one isolated case. It’s our wholesale rejection of programs that might benefit us, based on our fear that this would involve “handouts” to those less fortunate. It’s in the MAGA movement’s frenzy to build a completely useless wall, instead of spending time and resources in improving our own health care and infrastructure. It’s in our fear of government intervention in the environment, even while major corporations suck the wealth from under our feet and in return poison us. It’s in the worshipful adulation granted by white working class folks, to an oligarchic lout who despises them, simply because of their desire to be protected from the “other.”

It is the heart of Trumpianism itself. 

Dante didn’t explore the sin of racism in his work, but it’s one we in the contemporary U.S. might do well to consider, especially when these cases of self-destructive “contrapasso” are right before our eyes.

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