“To give aid to every poor man is far beyond the power and the advantage of any private person. For the riches of any private person are wholly inadequate to meet such a call. Again, an individual man’s resources of character are too limited for him to be able to make all men his friends. Hence, providing for the poor is a duty, which falls on the State as a whole, and has regard only to the general advantage.”
If Barack Obama had made such a statement in the presence of Joe the Skinhead, Barack would have been called all sorts of names. Socialist. Communist. Marxist. Maybe even un-American. The fact is, however, that the above quotation does not come from Mao or Lenin, but from Henry Kissinger’s favorite political philosopher. Its author was also a staunch proponent of the value of private property. He claimed that the genius of the Biblical Hebrews wasn’t in their metaphysical wisdom, but in their social organization, which largely consisted in their enlightened decisions to ensure security in property and practice the separation of powers. Somehow, that doesn’t sound so un-American. And while the author of the above quotation was obviously concerned about the need to alleviate poverty, he did not identify economic equity as the fundamental goal of a society. Rather, he said, “the true aim of government is liberty. Government must free every man from fear that he may live in all possible security.”
The philosopher I’m referring to is none other than Baruch Spinoza. Like his own fellow traveler, Thomas Jefferson, Spinoza is beloved among political thinkers on both the right and the left. This can be traced to his willingness to see the world with subtlety and to recognize that seemingly “inviolate” principles often clash with one another. Jefferson was reminded of this fact every time he respected the rights of a southern landowner to the labor of his human “property.” Spinoza was reminded of the same point when he, a proponent of moral virtue if ever there was one, saw that laws designed to prohibit vice “are counted but a laughing-stock” and that human greed can actually be a boon to the economy. In the words of Kissinger’s hero, “there is no doubt that, if this passion of avarice, which is general and lasting, be encouraged by the desire of glory, most people would set their chief affection upon increasing their property without disgrace, in order to acquire honors, while avoiding extreme infamy.”
It sure sounds more like Adam Smith than Joseph Stalin. Yet I have no doubt that if Spinoza were alive today and running against the GOP attack machine, he’d be called a Pinko and an enemy of the state. I’m also quite sure that the venomous rhetoric invoked against him wouldn’t surprise him in the slightest.
Writing in the 1660s, Spinoza was an early proponent of democracy. “It is almost impossible,” he said, “that the majority of a people, especially if it be a large one, should agree in an irrational design.” But just a few years after penning those words, Spinoza would see for himself some of the dangers of granting power to the masses. In 1672, the body of Spinoza’s favorite statesman, Jan DeWitt, together with that of DeWitt’s brother, was literally ripped apart by a mob that blamed the DeWitts for the occupation by the French. It would appear that when political passions are inflamed, the sky is the limit.
Fortunately, we have progressed a ways since the days of Spinoza. We Americans have become much more civilized than the 17th century Dutch. To be sure, two young men were recently caught plotting to kill Barack Obama. And several attendees at McCain/Palin rallies have shouted all sorts of vile names against Barack and his supporters. But there have been no signs of mobs massing to tear statesmen limb from limb. In fact, we are on the verge of an election in which a record number of Americans will peacefully go to the polls and exercise their rights to freely choose our next leader. At times like this, we should thank God for disciples of freedom like Spinoza who never renounced his devotion to democracy even in the face of unspeakable evidence of how the masses of men may be prone to act when allowed to express themselves in the public sphere.
Fast forward three centuries from the time that Spinoza wrote his political theories, and you will come to another disciple of freedom, Martin Luther King, Jr. The echoes of MLK’s dream are forever etched in our brains – a dream in which people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their characters. To some, that dream sounded utopian. But even the cynics couldn’t argue with what was at stake if the dream were to become a reality. “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
MLK’s dream of liberty was multi-faceted. He sought for our nation freedom from racial bigotry. And he also sought the very tangible corollary of that goal: freedom to live in a society in which the “natural Aristocrats” (Jefferson’s term) of any race, creed, or gender are given a legitimate opportunity to reach any office in the land, even President. Now, finally, we are on the verge of seeing this dream come to fruition. I cannot help but think that Spinoza would be as thrilled with this opportunity as MLK.
Perhaps it is undeniable that the most liberating thing about this election is the opportunity to elect as President a representative of a race that, not long ago, was considered by many Americans as more ape than human. Even in my family, I got used to hearing the word “schvartza” to refer to black people – to my English-speaking ears, there were few more de-humanizing words than that one. And then, when I left the presence of bigoted octogenarian relatives and went to summer camp in West Virginia, I would enter the company of young people who would tell jokes like “Why do niggers smell? So that blind people can hate ‘em too.” That was America, folks, and not all that long ago. Barack Obama is poised to put a dagger in the heart of those attitudes. Talk about liberating.
But while that may win the gold medal, it’s no more difficult for me to identify the silver. The other especially liberating facet of this election is the opportunity to hold a political party accountable for its actions. How sweet is that? Here in America, capitalist America, we base our economic system on the principle of accountability. When companies freely compete with one another for business, they become accountable to the marketplace. The result will be the production of goods and services of the highest quality and the lowest price. Those companies that satisfy the demands of the public will survive … and indeed thrive. Those that fail will go out of business. That’s the American way. That’s what has given us the most powerful economy in the world.
Just as those principles apply to economics, so do they apply to governance. We have two political parties. One was in power for eight years (from 1992-2000), presided over an economic boom, and left office with a budget surplus. Then, the other party came in, and for the next eight years it has run our nation into a ditch. We have become embroiled in a seemingly endless set of wars in the Middle East, which have resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and tens of thousands of limbs, and has left our military capability severely weakened. Economically, we have built the national debt to record proportions, and yet what do we have to show for this profligate spending? A stock-market crash, a credit crunch, and a recession.
I could go on telling our tale of woe (international standing, climate change, etc.), but why bother? It has become clear that if there’s any sense of accountability left in American politics, the voters on Tuesday will send a message to the Republican party: it’s time to let the other side take a shot at it. If they fail, they’ll be booted out too. That’s called accountability. That’s called democracy. It’s not perfect, but it is liberating.
Under the circumstances, you can almost pity the poor Republicans whose job it is to buck the tide. How do you compete against a candidate as attractive, articulate, inspiring, historical, classy, and poised as Barack Obama? I’d be tempted to say that you’d fight with the 1980 version of John McCain – Mr. Straight-Talk Express – but that McCain would have never appealed to the base of the Republican Party. Those troglodytes aren’t looking for the subtleties of a Spinoza. They want the simplicity of Joe the Plumber. According to Joe the Tax Delinquent, any sense of progressivity in our tax system entails socialism (despite the fact that the tax policies of such GOP heroes as Eisenhower and Nixon were heavily progressive) and the election of Barack Obama means the death of Israel (despite the fact that Barack’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, is Jewish and that Barack has consistently professed to be a friend of Israel). Let’s face it: when you’re running against a dream candidate and your best weapon is Joe the Plumber, it’s time for the Fat Lady to at least start humming.
The next time I blog, Barack Obama will be the President-elect, and elation will reign throughout blue and purple America. But what will happen to John McCain? Eight years ago, he would have been my choice for President. But lately, he has been reduced to pathos – presiding over a campaign worthy of Joseph McCarthy. I suspect that McCain, always the survivor, will ask for the nation’s forgiveness, and point out that he got so caught up in the desire to “win” that he resorted to below-the-belt tactics. Barack, forever classy, will surely forgive McCain – he might even find a place for him in his Administration if McCain wants to leave Capitol Hill.
Let’s say all that happens. Should we, as Empathic Rationalists, forgive McCain? I’ll leave that question to our post-election judgment, which will surely be more temperate than we can possibly be today. But no matter how we assess the sincerity of his upcoming apology, we should forever be in John McCain’s debt. The importance of what his campaign is about to teach America cannot be overestimated.
If a nation is truly energized about a political campaign, it can defeat fear, sleaze, lies, you name it.Those lessons are indeed priceless. They, as much as any economic principles, are the cornerstones of what it means to live in freedom.
If a nation is truly energized about a political campaign, it can elect the candidate who is most suited for the job intellectually, emotionally, and ideologically … regardless of race or gender.
If a nation is truly energized about a political campaign, it can leave the winner with a mandate to lead us all through a period of shared sacrifice in which we place the profound needs of our society above our own superficial desires.