Cover Story: Yes, We Can All Just Get Along

Start with compassion, and that includes business

Nov 21, 2006 at 2:06 pm
C. Matthew Hamby

It has been suggested, in the outcome of the most recent elections and based on a remarkable number of offices secured by more temperate members of the Democratic Party, that although Republicans appear to have "lost" the battle, conservatives — and more important, the values they champion — have "won" the war.

Nevertheless, an old debate continues. Republicans claim Democrats have no real platform in the near future. Democrats counter-bemoan a sad state of affairs they attribute to the recent years of Republican control.

A game of Duck-Duck-Goose, anyone? Or perhaps a refresher on the Golden Rule? That's what Jonathan Miller suggests. The author of the quietly groundbreaking new book, The Compassionate Community: Ten Values to Unite America, presents a thoughtful affront to time-tested, tug-of-war politics, beginning with the story of Hillel, a rabbi who lived around the time of Jesus of Nazareth.

One day Hillel was heckled by a pagan pedestrian, who challenged him to sum up the Torah — the first five books of the Hebrew Bible — while standing on one foot. Accepting the dare, Hillel stated, "What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor.

That is the whole of the Torah; all the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it."

Values for Democrats
The story of Hillel is a fitting prologue for Miller's simple yet profound mission: to reintroduce discussions of morals and values into the Democratic consciousness. Wearing many hats — Kentucky State Treasurer, lawyer, father, teacher, Jew and visionary — Miller sees a Democratic Party that has become tongue-tied on questions of morality.

"Democrats have long been afraid to talk about values — and with good reason," he says.

Miller and his cohorts are pioneering an effort to promote what he calls the creation of "public policy (reflecting) the fundamental moral value of compassion for others." His book (visit www.thecompassionate expounds 10 values: opportunity, responsibility, work, family, freedom, faith, justice, peace, respect and life. Each value is outlined in terms of how it fits into Miller's plan, one that is truly Democratic at its core.

"When we act in service to others, that's when we're acting in our most morally valuable way," he said at a recent book signing at Hebrew Union College. "We owe special compassion to those in our society who are most vulnerable — our old, our very young, our poor, our disabled. As the prophets teach us in the Hebrew Bible, we can judge a society's value in how it treats its (victimized)."

The thrust of any argument, as Miller sees it, must have politically unbiased roots. In fact, he states that only by abandoning party polarization will America reach reasonable solutions to her problems.

"Take abortion, for example," he says. "On that issue, we must agree to disagree. But there is one area where we do agree about abortion, right? We'd all like to see fewer abortions."

Miller points out that, interestingly, our last pro-choice president, Bill Clinton, saw dropping abortion rates, a fact that many, including Miller, credit to a strong economy. Conversely, as the economy founders under the present "pro-life" administration, abortion numbers rise. It is in the practice of targeting the source of societal problems that we can come to a conclusion, rather than attempting to choose sides in such historically gray arguments.

Changing the way we approach hot button issues is the key to finding a solution, Miller says, citing a series of "new" moral discussions — abortion, gay marriage, Bill Clinton, Mark Foley, the Rev. Haggard — which don't address love and compassion so much as sex and scandal.

"When I was campaigning door-to-door in Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia," Miller says, " ... invariably, the first question I was asked was, 'What is your position on gay marriage?' (That question was) coming from people who'd likely never met an openly gay person ... but they felt it was important enough to ask right away of a politician standing on their doorstep."

By shifting the paradigm, Miller says, we can come to viable conclusions and, hopefully, leave behind the ever-popular smear campaigns that do very little to educate potential voters and constituents.

The speculation with which every candidate is met on his or her platform is perhaps doubled for Miller, because his views incorporate advice on how people should live their lives. The issues he believes need the most immediate attention are mostly typical, ranging from domestic violence to health care reform to Middle East investments. Others, such as credit card abuse and identity theft, reflect both his chosen profession and his desire to alleviate the financial burdens that he suspects compel some people to hurt themselves and others.

Caring about the well-being of the community is about more than just getting on God's good list, according to Miller. Monolithic corporations and small businesses alike can actually affect their bottom line based on the philanthropic decisions they make.

"I was just up in Detroit, where the car industry has not been responsible for the environment, and as a result it has fallen behind the Japanese who have (taken on) that responsibility," Miller says. "(American) companies lose business as a result."

A simple mantra — "Doing good also means doing well" — is a familiar though often differently worded sentiment that Miller says can guide business leaders and individuals to both financial and ethical success. ©