How Far We Have Fallen, Together


Morton Chalfy’s recent column (“The Great Remixing,” Feb. 21), describes a society absent racism where only the “strongest” genes survive and everyone is brown. Surely it provides a better ground in which equal opportunity, pursuit of happiness and other founding ideals can flourish. But I always get a late winter chill from a call for sameness, one big happy family. It reminds me of classless, ethnic and ideological utopias of the previous century, those experiments in sameness that didn’t work because they required a non-volitional buy into the collective. 

To be fair, Chalfy isn’t advocating a state-ensured, genetically engineered harmony; he sighs relief that the scourge of racism is finally disappearing like a maladaptive gene. For now, we can return to our prelapsarian roots, the then-single tribe of first humans that hadn’t yet differentiated into others or departed Eden. 

But we are still tribal by nature, and in the absence of racial differences, we still form groups that honor unique identities and personal passions. How interesting, for example, that social-constructionist feminists must now contend with the athletic superiority of transgender women who no longer identify as male. It’s a nature-nurture debacle, a moment of truth. 

Closer to home, while exiting the bus in Alameda, I glared at a young woman wearing a T-shirt that read “I have no use for white men” until her pink flesh turned puce. If we’d both been brown, this wouldn’t have happened? Maybe not. Was it my turn to feel the string of discrimination, my karma? Perhaps. But even in Alameda, a place so special for its beauty, embrace of history, and friendly local culture, two people with more in common than most in the world can be balkanized by tribes we didn’t know we belonged to. 

We can’t return to Eden. Our “fall” into self-consciousness distinguishes our species from its unselfconscious past. Struggle and suffering, the search for meaning and happiness are the prices we pay for free will and conscience. I say this not as a Christian, nor even a religious person, but one who believes the metaphor of the fall describes our condition. 

One of the noble truths of Buddhism says it as well: struggle and conflict are inherent parts of life. That’s not to shrug at racism, sexism, oppression, bullying or any other expression of the dark side of human nature, but to say we have to work across tribal boundaries to broach differences and protect the culture of freedom. 

For all of its faults, American society is receptive, and tolerant. We document one million immigrants, or the number of people comprising the city of Las Vegas, every year. We hear about the wall but seldom the multitudes risking their lives to make this their home. We hear what a horribly racist society ours is but not about its unique openness or the fact that in the 250,000-year history of our species, most of the gains in quality of life have happened in just the last 10,000 years. 

How far we have fallen.