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Let's Drop the Good Guys vs. Bad Guys Talk, We Need to Grow Up as a Species

Bad people are not to blame for our problems and better people can't make everything right. We need to create the social conditions that bring out the best in everyone.

Editor's Note: Author Nomi Prins responds to Lappé's essay at the bottom of this article.

President Obama has given us a huge gift. It's so big we may have trouble getting our arms around it, but it's potentially life-changing.  

In 2008, even though I knew better, I fell for the notion that a more intelligent, reflective and progressive president could deflect our country's, even our world's, downward spin. Apparently a lot of people shared my frame of mind, or, dare I say, my hope.  

It's tempting to blame the president for letting us down, or even easier to blame his opponents. But doing that would deny us his gift. Obama's gift is that the very failure we're witnessing -- failure to reform the financial system at the root level necessary to avoid the next calamity or the failure to convince Americans that health insurance reform now is an immediate, moral and economic necessity -- exposes a deeper truth. If President Obama's first year had been more successful, maybe we'd have missed it.  

The truth is simply this: Bad people are not the root cause of our problems and "better people" can't make everything right.  

Many think of conservatives, long wrapped in "family values," as the moralists, but the tendency to blame shortcomings of character for our problems shows up across the political spectrum. Economist Joseph Stiglitz, in his newest book, Freefall, talks of a "moral deficit" at the heart of our financial industry's woes, and Nomi Prins rails against "greed" on Wall Street in It Takes a Pillage.  

Right and Left appear to share at least one common frame: The problem is defects in those people in power. If true, it's easy to believe that changing the people will solve a lot. As long as we believe this, we're in big trouble.  

Really accepting Obama's gift starts with letting go of this frame and facing truths about ourselves we'd rather avoid. But the work is worth it. Only with an evidence-based take on ourselves can we move toward the saner, healthier world most people want.  

The first part of this frame adjustment is fairly easy to swallow: More and more neuroscience confirms that we are indeed hardwired to care about each other, so we can't legitimately claim great moral victory when we're good. We just can't help it. Cooperation, it turns out, stimulates pleasure centers that are similar to what happens when we eat chocolate! Babies cry at the sound of other babies' cries but typically not at recordings of their own cries. In recent charming experiments, toddlers scurry to help clueless adults, without being asked and with no reward. And in another study, subjects ended up happier by buying a gift for someone else rather than indulging themselves.  

Berkeley anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy brings us the greatest news of all. We probably didn't evolve in the same line with extant great apes. Whew. They can be really brutal. We likely evolved our uniquely cooperative nature through eons of distinctive "cooperative breeding," caring for each others' babies, which developed empathy, trust and the capacity to read each others' feelings. But there's more, and here's where it gets touchy.  

History and lab experiments provide undeniable proof that most of us, not a handful of bad guys, will commit horrible deeds in the wrong conditions.  

Have most of us, for example, really taken in the truth that the Holocaust was not the work of one madman but carried out by millions of ordinary people? And other genocides? The same truth. Like the one in the Congo today, ignored by the world but arguably resulting in even more deaths by everyday people than Hitler's death camps.  

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