Gerard “Jerry” Cohen, Jewish, Montreal-born, was till his recent death Professor of Philosophy, Fellow of All Soul’s College. He was a fervent egalitarianist-the kind we do not come across very often. His view, which he was still developing at the time of his death, that personal behavior, personal example and personal morality were important, in that they gave the society an ethos that could elevate the nature of social life.
Having had a father, who was an egalitarianist, it made me think very early on in my life, that all of us have to do very little to make the society a better place. Who other than the venerable Zhou En Lai, who said: let us all get ahead together. This idea of being one of the many, being part of a force that swells up, is still alien to many Asians, because of their penchant for money and to many Europeans, because of their steadfast belief in Individualism. Multiple examples in both sides of the Divide exist.
To the charge made by his opponents that he was flirting with bourgeoisie liberalism, he would say: No bourgeoisie liberal would argue for real egalitarianism. Nor would they live among the proletarians!
I am amazed at the current polemic about providing Health Care for all in the USA. Such rhetoric and such fire being fueled just because individualism triumphs over egalitarianism. Jerry Cohen would have chuckled: his emphasis on the morality of human association (such as providing Health Care for all on an equal basis) does not have to frighten the ordinary people as workings of the devil, charged to change their lives as they know it, but this morality of human beings ( Che argued that in his book, The New Man and Zhou En Lai lived the concept) can open a possible future for happiness among humans who interact and have contact with the mechanisms of their own societies. We are going through another era of lack of disrespect for other human beings, whether our own kind or other societies. Yesterday, they intercepted a boat load of people from Eritrea intending to get to the shores of the USA ! and they were intercepted off Puerto Limon in Costa Rica. Even us, who have international upbringings and wider worldviews, these geographical crossings point to a failure of our own morality.
We want Bangladeshis to clean our homes, Indonesian maids to look after our children, Mexican maidens to make up beds in hotel rooms, Salvadoreans to wash dishes at cheap eateries.. but we are not willing to do something extra.. not all of us can do something extra, but at least think favourably something extra.. Visiting Bangladesh may be out of question, starting a project to help Bangladeshis may not be within the realm of many, but think of them, not as a congregation of humans ( In the Gulf States, they are equated with animals!), but people working hard to bring up the standard of living which we take so for granted. Why do I mention Bangladesh? (apart from the fact that Bangladeshi taxi drivers in New York City ask me whether I am from their country!)
Of all the countries that rely upon remittances from abroad for a sizable proportion of their income, only in Bangladesh the amount of remittances have not gone down (in fact during August of 2009, the remittances from exiled Banglas was at a record peak), compared to the countries whose citizens have gone to Europe or USA.
So Jerry Cohen, who grew up in a working class neighbourhood of Montreal of Jewish Communist parents, himself elevated to the august halls of academia but never forgetting the basic concept of being a human being…a philosopher who would leave his legacy for years to come, something not all of us can claim to do.
At least we can follow the Jewish Concept of Mitzvah..vaguely translated as Good Deed..and try to be better human beings..