Unfinished Business, An Octogenarian Speaks

Setting the Stage

The fact that I regard myself as a traveler through time reflects that I have experienced a lot of firsts, which I didn’t care about or even know about when they were occurring. They were seen through the eyes of a marginal man, and the eyes of the marginal man sees things that other people do not see. Marginality at first might have seemed a hardship, but, really, it is a value.

Being the first full-time black faculty appointee to the Yale School of Medicine (and, apparently, the second to the faculty of Arts & Sciences) was the “first” that set off the impetus for this project.

The ceremony occurred in 2010 during the Yale Medical School Bicentennial celebration. The “First” occurred in 1963.

It set me to thinking about major firsts that occurred during the ’60s and ’70s. Big social movements were sweeping the country  —  feminism, voting rights, racial justice, deinstitutionalization & the community mental health movement; The Great Society programs – the War to End Poverty, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the Food Stamp program, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS; and legislation to protect the public interest, such as the Truth-in-Lending Act.

The 1960s were the first time in U.S. history that poor people, regardless of race or background, conceived of themselves as a unified group, with collective bargaining power and authority. The Model Cities Program was initiated to eliminate inner city poverty and bring all people, in all communities, into the public dialogue, reflecting a view that cities were the future of America and mankind.


  1. As populations increase, a concept is needed to supercede group interests. Who is the “us” who defines more productive and fundamental rights? It can no longer be the original immigrants, in a nation of immigrants. The assumption of responsibility for oneself implies equal access to the means of so doing. If this is identifiably not so, where is the fix to be located? If one has faith in regulation, who is to regulate the regulators? Concepts of justice and a value system behind those concepts cannot be avoided. Can worldwide communication help in redefining these issues? There are those who believe in American exceptionalism. They are divided between those who believe in some form of ordained purpose and those who see diversity as the key and then there are those who do not believe in any exceptionalism. More dialogue, more and different questions are needed… CST

  2. Notice the points that are assigned highest value. Notice how the central issue is framed. The “Big social movements” listed here imply that, for this writer, progress is defined in terms of “unified groups”, “collective bargaining”, “power and authority”. “Programs initiated to eliminate inner city poverty”.

    How would we recognize something that can be defined as “Big social movements … sweeping the country” without isolating group interests as being distinct in important ways from individual interests? Group interests have much in common with “tribal” interests. Giving priority to group (or tribe) over that of individual interests necessarily produces conflict between the two. The central question it seems should be: Which, when given domination, will give humanity its best future? When we as a society create group-based or tribal “rights”, obligations are simultaneously imposed on others. Such obligations often involve a compromise or a denial of individual “rights”.

    For instance, if we invent a “right” for all members of a selected group to have access to free contraception we are simultaneously obligating others to pay for it. This imposition is a violation of what may be for us more productive, more fundamental rights. Our Constitutional rights tended to be focused on providing equal protection for every individual citizen regardless his or her group affiliations. This obligated our government to respect equal treatment for every individual citizen under the law. Simultaneously this obligated every individual citizen to avoid as much as possible obligating others to benefit the self. This original concept of rights meant that you, not others, assumed the bulk of responsibility for yourself.

    Don Spencer

    1. Again values dominate. Who is to say what is more fundamental and productive?

      Is it better or worse to execute one innocent man in preference to letting 10 murderers go free?

      Our credo says worse. Our practice differs. One supreme court justice has publicly argued the preferability of periodic injustice to jamming the system. Whose systems are operating and are those forever fixed by the omniscience of men who lived over 200 years ago?

      1. Claude asks, “Who is to say what (values are) more fundamental and productive?” If that important question is reframed by changing the “who” to “what”, many of the complicated variables linked to human subjectivity can be shunted aside and our attention then focused on obtaining applicable empirical measurement. One of our credos may indeed say that it is better to let ten murderers go free than execute one innocent. Our common sense tells us that murderers who roam freely among society are likely to kill innocents (many). We can understand that there is a tipping point where the benefits of such a credo can be overwhelmed by the number of innocents killed by free-roaming killers. If our primary goal is truly that of reduced human suffering we would want “credos” that are sufficiently flexible to allow adjustment to our best (objective) read of the empirical evidence.

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