The Injustice Gene
by John Denvir
I have always wondered what makes some people respond to the
sufferings of others while most of us do not. For instance, only
about 2% of German gentiles took any action to aid German Jews
in the Nazi era. We are sensitive to injustices we personally
experience, but some people seem to be blessed with a greater
imaginative capacity that allows them to picture and respond
to the experience of others.
I call this capacity the "injustice
gene", although I recognize that I am talking metaphor rather
than biology. Gandhi had it, as did Martin Luther King. And a
lot of less famous people have it too, many of them entering
law students. Whether the gene remains dormant or shapes their
careers in large part is determined by their early professional
Salles The Motorcycle Diaries illustrates this point.
It's a "road" picture, telling the tale of a 8000 mile
motorcycle trip taken by two young Argentineans in the early
1950's. One, Alberto, is chubby and gregarious; the other, Ernesto,
quietly handsome. Their goal is to live a great adventure to
remember in their old age. The first half of the movie consists
of the endless mechanical problems the motorcycle suffers and
various hustles the two chums engage in to keep housed and fed.
We know little about these
two young men other than one is a bio-chemist graduate and the
other a medical student and that they have the romantic plan
to end their trip volunteering at a leper asylum up the Amazon.
But we slowly get to know them. Alberto is the more easy going,
willing to say and do whatever is necessary to keep the show
on the road, Ernesto is more intense, sometimes showing a streak
of brutal honesty in telling a potential host that the cyst on
his neck is actually a tumor or an amateur novelist that his
chef d'oeuvre is a pack of clichés. But Ernesto also manifests
a capacity for compassion when he leaves his asthma medicine
with a dying woman or gives the twosome's reserve funds to a
The trip turns out to be more
than a series of amusing anecdotes; it becomes a life-transforming
experience for both Alberto and Ernesto. They have left their
cocoon of middle class comfort to witness the reality confronting
the common men and women of Latin America "So much injustice"
as Ernesto puts it. They also meet a doctor at the leper colony
who treats them as valued professionals. They respond positively
to his confidence and spend three weeks not only treating lepers
with dignity as well as drugs. A key moment in the film is when
both Alberto and Ernesto refuse to wear gloves they know are
medically unnecessary while treating their patients. We are in
the presence of the injustice gene.
Salles is too good a filmmaker
to get preachy. He allows his images to tell the story. And he
keeps a certain distance from his protagonists. The viewer knows
coming in that the young Ernesto will become that icon of 60's
revolutionary romanticism, Ché Guevara. Salles is generous
in his portrayal of Ché, but not uncritical. We note a
tendency to extremism in Ernesto's very dangerous and wholly
unnecessary decision to swim the Amazon at night for one last
visit with his leper comrades.
If Alberto and Ernesto had
not visited the leper colony (or met a supportive mentor there)
they might have ended up in Buenos Aires forty years later boring
people with accounts of their great adventure. Instead Alberto
practiced medicine in Cuba for forty years and Ernesto Ché
became one of the most admired revolutionaries of the second
half of the 20th Century.
Mainline reviewers of the Motorcycle
Diaries have been quick to disassociate themselves from Ché
who they are quick to dismiss as a Stalinist totalitarian. This
seems to me to miss the point. First, it ignores the important
question of to what extent the Cuban revolution's "Stalinist"
tendencies were forced upon them by the United States insistence
upon overturning a democratic revolution. But even if one decides
that difficult factual question against Ché, results are
not determinative from an injustice gene perspective. If hindsight
shows that our efforts to fight injustice were failures, or even
wrong-headed, that fact does not detract from their nobility.
The "smart" reaction to the suffering of others will
always be to ignore it. But that's a form of intelligence that
some people refuse to embrace. We have no reason to doubt that
the same ideals that inspired Ernesto to refuse to wear gloves
in treating lepers in 1952 remained with Ché when he died
a revolutionary's death in an ill-fated attempt to overturn a
manifestly unjust social system in Bolivia in 1967.
There is a lesson here for
law students (and law schools too). Maybe clerking for large
law firms is not the best use of short summer vacations. Here
at USF Law School some students (with law school support) spend
their summer working on death penalty cases in Texas. Happily
so far no one has tried to swim the Rio Grande.
Posted December 15, 2004
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