Sunday, July 27, 2008


July 27th has always been a special day for me. I was born on this day 48 years ago. Alex Rodriguez -- he who has become known for hitting home runs and possibly hitting on Madonna -- was born on this day 33 years ago. But historians can tell you that the date is notable for far more important reasons. Today in 1953, the Korean War ended. In 1890, on July 27th, Vincent Van Gogh, seemingly at the height of his artistic powers, committed suicide by firing the shot that would result in his death two days later. But most relevant for our purposes is that it was on July 27, 1656 when the leaders of the Amsterdam synagogue permanently excommunicated Spinoza from their community.

“Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night,” proclaimed the “Lords of the ma’amad,” which is the term that that the synagogue elders used to refer to themselves. “Cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book [the Torah] shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven.” The synagogue elders went on to prohibit all members of the community from communicating with Spinoza, staying under the same roof with him, coming within four cubits (roughly six feet) of him, or reading any of his writings. As a result, Spinoza has become infamous with many traditional Jews but a beloved role model for just as many other Sons and Daughters of Jacob who admire him as perhaps the quintessential Jewish free thinker who has ever lived.

I have Spinoza on my mind today after having just returned from a week largely spent teaching about him to a group of Unitarian Universalists. It is not surprising that UUs have given me such a warm reception whenever I’ve addressed them on the topic of Spinoza; after all, UUs see themselves as a community of heretics. My job has been to help them recognize Spinoza as a fellow traveler. Truly, in the thousands of years since Socrates, I am hard pressed to name a philosopher more associated with heresy than Spinoza. Nietzsche, you say? Perhaps. But don’t forget that Nietzsche once wrote that in Spinoza, he found his precursor, “and what a precursor! … Even though the divergencies are admittedly tremendous, they are due more to the differences in time, culture, and science. In summa, my solitude, which as on very high mountains, often made it hard for me to breathe and made my blood rush out, is at least a dualitude.”

Nietzsche’s comments illustrate how comforting it is for freethinkers to know that heretics in the past have made names for themselves speaking truth to power. It gives us all hope that expressing heresy need not be fruitless, and it makes the whole freethinking enterprise feel a lot less lonely. Both times that I have gone to the Summer Institute in Virginia and spent a week with a thousand UUs, I’ve been reassured to see so many people receiving support from one another in questioning authority, challenging conventional wisdom, and gaining inspiration to fight for social change. Just as importantly, I have been moved by how their challenge to conventional thought is not a shrill one but one that is bathed in warmth and empathy. If I were to be pressed to identify a large group of Americans today who can legitimately call themselves “Empathic Rationalists,” the UUs would be as good a choice as any.

But it is one thing to be empathic and rationalistic, and quite another to be worthy of the term “heretic.” Many of us aspire to that status; few of us attain it.

To me, heretics aren’t simply people who espouse points of view that are far afield from their society’s mainstream. Heretics espouse these viewpoints powerfully, publicly, and with enough lucidity to be deemed threatening to the authorities. Consequently, the life of a heretic is fraught with peril, and is anything but easy on the arteries. When I bask in the love and support of a summer camp for UUs, I’m not exactly witnessing 1000 risk-takers. Indeed, for the most part, what I hear are left-of-center non-theists who devote most of their preaching to the choir. Neither Spinoza nor Nietzsche – or for that matter Van Gogh – would recognize themselves in this multitude.

This past week, though, a funny thing happened to me that would have made true heretics proud. I was in the middle of a group of non-theists preaching the word of God – no, not the so-called divine “Scripture, but merely the idea that we must seize the word “God” from the traditional theists and change its meaning to make it harmonize with the teachings of modern science and philosophy. When I finished my schpiel, who should come up to me but a gentleman who wanted to do what I was doing but in the realm of political-economics rather than that of theology. He is, as they say, a card carrying member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation – not a mere visitor like myself – and yet he is a staunch libertarian. That makes him an extremely rare bird. You see, in the great left-right dichotomy that seems to divide our nation so potently and tragically, he would surely be classified on the right. Here he was, bemoaning to me the era of big government and proposing that we lop off one government program after another. He pined for a time when the nation would have an honest dialogue on how precisely to delineate the appropriate uses of government from those that have developed as a result of political pandering and bureaucratic greed. In talking to him, I realized that I have known many, many dozens of UUs in my life but this was the first one who wasn’t solidly on the left. And that pleased me no end. This guy actually preaches against his choir. By doing so, he helps to create an environment in which people think for themselves, rather than mindlessly uttering the word “Amen” – which is perhaps the most mind-numbing word in our lexicon … at least for an aspiring heretic.

As I drove home from the UU Summer Institute, I found myself picking up the challenge that was given me by my new libertarian friend. Exactly how, I wondered, can we best trim the governmental bloat that has come to mar America throughout my lifetime? What do we need to do in order to balance the budget … and not just during times of unusually rapid technological advancements, such as those that buoyed President Clinton? Must we continue to use the government to subsidize those who are far from “needy”? And if we were to engage in a national dialogue with the purpose of segregating those government programs that American citizens are proud to finance from those that have resulted from pandering and bureaucratic bloat, couldn’t we take a major dent out of our national debt?

When I got home, I went on-line and checked the Huffington Post, which has become – for better or worse – one of my major sources of news. One of the lead articles of the day discussed the Senate’s passage of so-called “bi-partisan” legislation. The bill enables American homeowners who are having trouble paying their mortgages to lean on the government in order to retain their homes. Included within the bill are provisions for the bail-out of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, companies that have paid ungodly sums to their executives, all the while knowing that if the organizations should falter – which they did -- Uncle Sam would have no choice but to rescue them. As Yakov Smirnov used to say, “What a country!”

Liberal Democrats are toasting this legislative victory today. As surely as clockwork, my fellow “progressives” will boast about how the new law will help the great middle class, whose dream of home ownership dates back to the very beginning of our nation and such “limited government” advocates as Thomas Jefferson. Still, as we prepare to add zillions more dollars to our national debt, is this really a time for rejoicing? In particular, is this really a time for rejoicing at the conduct of the Democrats in the Senate?

One Republican Senator, Jim DeMint, delayed the glorious vote on the grounds that he wanted to propose a ban on Freddie Mac and Fannie May from lobbying legislators or making donations to their campaigns. I have to say, DeMint has one hell of a point. Can someone tell me why it is that these companies are permitted ungodly profits in good times and are protected against failure in bad times, their chief executives are allowed to earn many millions of dollars per year regardless of how well these quasi-public companies are doing, and yet … we still enable these organizations to have the privilege of financing the campaigns of the incumbent Congressmen and Senators who make such corporate welfare possible?

So how did the Democrats respond to DeMint’s proposal? They killed it, of course. And why not? Senators of both parties tend to want as many campaign funds as they can get. This is surely why they vote each year to pay Government subsidies to support multi-millionaire farmers.

You shouldn’t have to be a libertarian to realize how offensive it is to treat taxpayer money like it was printed by Milton Bradley. But this has become the Washington game, and it is truly bipartisan. I find it quite ironic that I had to go to a camp for leftists to encounter someone who I was convinced actually gives a damn about the issue of government waste. Then again, perhaps that stands to reason. If you want to locate someone who has credibility, find the plain-spoken heretic. S/he is the one who speaks from a disinterested heart, and not based on some “agenda.” I hear traditional conservatives bemoan government waste all the time, only to support wars of choice that contribute hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars to our national debt. But the heretic I met values consistency – he doesn’t want to saddle our children and grandchildren with debt, so he’s willing to decry the pet programs of the right as well as the left. And he’s willing to sound his libertarian shofar in the heart of one of the most liberal communities in the United States.

As I begin the transition in this portion of cyberspace to where you all know I will be in the fall – relentlessly toasting a man who is poised to become one of our greatest Presidents – and no, I’m not speaking about the pandering curmudgeon – I’d like to ask you this question. Are we who support Barack Obama willing to encourage him to be fiscally responsible? Are we willing to make that a high priority for his Administration?

If we’re not, we can toast many a legislative “victory” under his watch, and yet the fruits of these so-called accomplishments will all come crashing down at the expense of our children and grandchildren. What do you say we put the heresy of budget cutting at the very top of our “progressive” agenda? Do that, and I suspect we Democrats and Independents will find a lot more fellow travelers than we ever dreamed possible, and Barack might find the path for unification that he so obviously is seeking.

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