Can Monkeys and Rats Save America?

We’re living in some nasty times.  Conservatives accuse liberals of empathy, as though it’s a bad thing.  That’s already one of those You-can’t-make-this-shit-up things.  We hear some sane news commentators and saner comics attacking Glenn Beck’s outrage-du-jour.  Everyone to the left of Genghis Kahn has noticed that Faux News has moved beyond car-crash journalism to its real calling, as a network that will use any means necessary to ramp up our most dangerous hatreds (and citizens). 

The Fox network’s compost heap can only – and will – empower some truly unstable and dangerous people. These will be people who are already angry at life for their own reasons, who are drawn into hateful maelstroms and the belief that killing some dangerous liberals might give their life the only focused purpose they can find. The people murdering doctors who provide safe abortions are psychologically bizarre, not healthy; those fanning the flames of extremism count on it. 

We already live in a police state, with its dramatic Darth Vader costumes for police costumed in black, their eyes and nametags hidden from us.  For the past decade, using 9-11 as a cover, our presidents have continued to restrict our rights, claim the power to arrest anyone, hold them without charges, even export them to prisons where they will be tortured. Never mind the fact that John McCain said after just a little bit of torture, you’ll tell them whatever will stop the pain for awhile – and how when asked to name Names, he recited the starting lineup of the Green Bay Packers. 

And never mind that the intelligence community’s most intelligent people have found repeatedly that torture doesn’t produce reliable data.
Now President Obama – for whom I eagerly voted – has even issued his version of a fatwa: he has ordered a hit on an American citizen and claimed authority to order a hit on any U.S. citizen who is judged, without a trial, to be a danger.[i]  Occasional politicians – Dick Cheney and John McCain come to mind – have acknowledged that the plan for the foreseeable future is a state of endless war abroad, which will require a police state at home.  Terror is a cash cow requiring that we be kept in a constant state of fear.  It’s also – along with “security” hardware and weapons manufacturing – about the only thing we’re still producing.

The purpose of the ridiculous screening at our airports has little to do with security, but everything to do with regimentation.  We are becoming accustomed to being herded, obedient, x-rayed, patted down in increasing degrees of humiliation.  We invade countries and kill their people – mostly civilians – to steal their oil, plant permanent military bases (we’ve built the world’s largest embassy in Iraq: we’re not leaving), and crush or control Israel’s – but not our – enemies.  We’ll keep the rates of violence and murder high enough to guarantee that some of their “freedom fighters” will keep trying to fight back – supplying a small but steady stream of people we will call “terrorists,” but who are doing just what we hope our own citizens would do if we were invaded by a hostile force coming to rob and kill us. 

This closes the vicious circle: we invade and steal, a few of them fight back, we label them terrorists, and use them as an excuse for increasing the police state at home and the military and drone incursions overseas so we can add a “surge” to our invasions and theft.  Every step from war through rebuilding produces immense profits for our military-congressional-industrial-security complex, which the Supreme Court has encouraged to buy as many lawmakers as they need. 

It’s a perpetual motion machine, into which we feed the lives of our soldiers, their families, and the freedoms of our citizens. The machine then turns them into profits for those in the top percent or two of our society.

Consider this instead: There is no terrorism and we are not at war! We have claimed the right to invade anyone with resources or location we want, to try and keep the collapsing American Empire propped up as a kind of superficial Potempkin Village. We’re trying to ignore the rude fact – made clear at the most recent G20 meetings – that we no longer frighten many other countries, and can no longer dictate terms to them.  The American Empire has already ended.  It’s depressing, and more than a little frightening. 

Lines from the aftermath of our First World War come alive again:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. [ii]


While we would differ in who we identify as the “best” and “worst,” we all recognize the script. 

In today’s news, Michael Hudson writes in Counterpunch[iii] of “Obama’s Greatest Betrayal” — there are so many, they must be ranked.  It is, once again, “The coming sell-out to the super rich,” the top 2%, for whom greed really has been good and empathy would mean losing some money:

The wealthy now see victory within reach, through regressive taxation and the slashing of public spending on anything except more bailouts for the financial oligarchy….

Mr. Obama’s appointees are turning the U.S. economy into a Permanent Emergency, a Perpetual Ponzi Scheme….

And Mr. Hudson uses the ba-dump-bump line: “It gets worse.”  How many times have we read “It gets worse” after descriptions of how our leaders – from Reagan straight through to Obama – have misled us into debt, into war, into the loss of more individual rights, and – they hope – into the loss of hope. That last one is especially cynical and ironic, after Hope was the promise Mr. Obama rode into the White House.  It’s also reminiscent of President Clinton’s hometown of Hope, Arkansas, and the spin his handlers put on it. Hope seems to be everywhere except in the worlds of Afghans, Iraqis, our soldiers, their families, and the world in which 98% of us actually live.  To give Sarah Palin’s speechwriters their due, that hopey-changey thing isn’t working out well at all for the overwhelming – and overwhelmed – majority of us. It feels like Lily Tomlin time: “No matter how cynical I get, I just can’t keep up.”[iv]  It’s no wonder pundits from the right see empathy as foolish and expendable.

Rats and Monkeys To The Rescue


When empathy, compassion, and good-heartedness seem to be superficial add-ons, we can learn something comforting, perhaps even empowering, from rats and monkeys.  Really.  I like to read in ethology (comparative animal behavior), which is filled with scientific observations of Golden Rule type behaviors, from thousands of species.

For example: Scientists have learned that rats are reluctant to press a lever to get food if doing so will also deliver an electric shock to a companion. They will invariably press the lever that will not deliver the shock, and some will even forgo food rather than hurt their friends.[v] That’s empathy and compassion in the animal world.

Similar experiments with rhesus monkeys had even more dramatic results. One monkey stopped pulling the lever for five days, and another one for twelve days after witnessing the shock delivered to a companion. These monkeys were literally starving themselves to avoid inflicting pain upon another.[vi]

Our human evolution diverged from our common ancestor with rhesus monkeys 25 million years ago[vii]; with rats, over 50 million years ago.[viii] In other words, the behavior we call the Golden Rule has roots so deep in our evolutionary history that even monkeys and rats share it.  When liberals or conservatives insist on laws and public policies grounded in empathy and compassion for all of us – which includes asking much more from those to whom too much has been given – we’re just saying that we need to be at least as caring as rhesus monkeys and hundreds or thousands of other species.  In our increasingly nasty and hate-filled times, this may seem like an absurd demand.  But who among us could be proud of being more selfish and less compassionate than a rat?

It’s really not meant as a rhetorical question.


[ii] W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” 1919.
[iii], November 15, 2010
[iv] The line is credited to writer Jane Wagner, made famous by Lily Tomlin’s version of it.
[v] Jeffrey M. Masson, Dogs Never Lie About Love, p. 95.
[vi] Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers, p. 29, from Masserman et al. 1964
[vii] From “Monkey DNA Points to Common Human Ancestor, By Charles Q. Choi, Special to LiveScience, 12 April 2007
[viii] Quick online searches showed estimates of our common ancestor with rats as 50, 70 and 75 million years ago. Evolutionary science isn’t my field, and “more than 50 million years ago” is close enough to show that empathic, compassionate behavior has very deep roots in our evolution, and is shared by hundreds or thousands of species.

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About the Author

Davidson Loehr is a former musician, combat photographer and press officer in Vietnam, owner of a photography studio in Ann Arbor, and a carpenter. He holds a Ph.D. in methods of studying religion, theology, the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science, with an additional focus on language philosophy (The University of Chicago). From 1986 to 2009, he served as a Unitarian minister. He is the author of one book, America, Fascism & God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher, (Chelsea Green, 2005). Now retired from the ministry, he is building a platform to become involved in national discussions of religion, science and culture. His book in progress is The Rise of Secular Religion in America.

  • consufe

    holy shit finally someone who makes sense?

  • Unbusta

    Fucking fuck. I fucking knew this would happen.

    • Friv

      wow i didnt believe it at first

      • Drew

        this is wrong. we HAVE to stop this before the interpretation of "terrorists" by the executive branch get out of hand..who else is going to be a terrorist in the eyes of the Obama administration? A peaceful, anti-war protestor?

        This is the Alien and Sedition Acts all over again!!!!

  • Yum

    So what else is new?

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