Thursday, November 27, 2008

A CORLEONE THANKSGIVING

The images keep flowing into my mind, and it’s impossible not to be reminded of the Godfather. You all remember the scene; it is arguably the most powerful in celluloid history. One moment, we’re witnessing a symbol of holiness – a Catholic priest baptizing an infant. In this case, however, the infant is Michael Corleone’s nephew, and Michael is standing as the child’s godfather. At the same time that the Corleone family celebrates this rite of worship, Michael is consolidating his grip over the “Five Families” and taking out an uppity Jew for good measure. One hood after another is murdered – Stracci, Cuneo, Greene, Tattaglia, and, ultimately, Barzini (who gets it in the back after witnessing the shooting of his bodyguards). It is a perfectly-orchestrated orgy of bloodshed carried out amidst a backdrop of spiritually-enunciated Latin. Evil and good, mixed together, seamlessly, as if they are inexorably linked. Perhaps the most artistic touch is that nobody is killed until after the Latin stops and Michael is asked to “renounce Satan.” Then come the first shots, after which Michael utters the words “I do renounce him.”

Does Michael really renounce Satan? Can he renounce the devil at the same time that his men are implementing his orders to slaughter one rival after another? Sure, why not? Such is the human capacity to rationalize just about every monstrous act imaginable. No doubt, Michael saw himself as doing God’s work, soldiering against the enemies of the Father. Resolute, strong, thoughtful, powerful, heroic – Michael must have seen himself as all of those things. When the priest ended the scene by telling Michael, “Go in peace and may the Lord be with you, Amen,” the new godfather must have felt that he had earned his title of honor and was ready to bear its responsibilities with dignity.

The baptism scene was supposed to have taken place in the mid-50s. So let’s fast forward half a century – and leave the world of fiction for a place that is often even stranger. Today is Thanksgiving. It is perhaps the most religious of the secular American holidays, at least to those of us who don’t happen to be Christian. On this day every year, most Americans give thanks to the God of their choice for allowing us and billions of others to enjoy one more year of life on this planet. Since we’ve chosen not to do ourselves in, we presumably value our lives and are appreciative of the One responsible for the bounty that sustains us. Certainly, when the Pilgrims founded this holiday, they had in mind praying every bit as much as feasting.

This year, we have even more to be thankful for than usual. And yes, I’m talking about the election of Barack Obama. But for those of you who supported John McCain, please don’t take that as a slap at your candidate. Perhaps the more experienced McCain was the better option. Let’s stipulate that for a moment. It would remain the case that this election symbolizes how far this nation has come that its majority would be willing to consider electing a black man to hold our highest office. That doesn’t mean that those who voted for McCain are racist. But it does mean that millions of Americans whose ancestors would never have voted for a black candidate (due to racism) were finally able to view such a person in a color-blind manner. For that, we should all be thankful.


And, while we’re giving thanks, let’s also recognize that in the weeks after the election, Barack seems to be conducting himself beautifully. His nominations are gaining such rave reviews that even Republicans are publicly marveling at their wisdom. In fact, no sooner did the stock market appear to be headed into free fall than Barack cleared his throat and held a couple of press events, and somehow, almost magically, Americans are buying stocks again. I’ve never seen a leader inspire more bi-partisan confidence. In a time like this, a time when the words “Great Depression” have been in the back of our minds, how can we not be thankful that our President-elect exudes such competence?

So yes, it is time to give thanks for life. For living on a planet that is habitable – providing food, drink, and a climate that sustains us. And for the great minds among us, be they scientists, artists or statesmen. It is also time to give thanks for the newfound wisdom that so many people have gained – including the knowledge that our “natural aristocrats” come from all races, colors and creeds. In short, it is time to give thanks that we live in the Age of Obama.

But, as if on cue, something happened yesterday to remind us that we do not live in the Age of the Messiah. In fact, I would argue that something happened to remind us that there never will be a Messianic Age. Stated simply, religions may speak in terms of black versus white, good versus evil, or heaven versus hell, but a deeper truth was implicit in the Baptism Scene of the Godfather: you might be able to isolate those polar opposites in labs, or even in the movies, but in reality, you inevitably find them mixed together. Love mixed with hatred, pleasure mixed with pain, hope mixed with fear, life mixed with death. That’s the way it has always been, and I suspect that’s the way it always will be. U-topia literally means no-place. And indeed, just as the death of Christ didn’t usher in an age of eternal peace, neither will the election of Barack Obama. Killings, as Jesus might have said, will always be with us.

I’m referring, of course, to the city formerly known as Bombay. Bomb-bay indeed. Now, in the 21st century, it would hardly be reported if seven or eight people were killed, as in the Baptism Scene. Well, OK, I’m exaggerating – a domestic slaughter like that would make the news. But if it happened overseas, and certainly in the Indian Subcontinent, it would barely merit a ten-second mention. If you want international coverage, you’d better kill on a larger scale, with weapons more in keeping with the times. You’d better fly airplanes into buildings. Or set off explosives and fire bullets all over town – killing scores and injuring hundreds. I can only imagine how long it took the lunatics who perpetrated the Mumbai attacks to plan it out, but now that they’ve been “successful,” I still have to ask myself: why? What was possibly accomplished? What coherent message was sent?

If I were to ask that question to God, and if God could respond in English, I can imagine what would be said. “Why indeed? Why have I buried so many people alive in earthquakes? Why do I continuously require children to receive chemotherapy? Why did I turn Weimar Germany, that shining celebration of modern intellectual life, into Nazi Germany, and arm it with the ability to invent ever-expanding methods of mass murder?”

If you forced me to supply an answer to those questions – other than saying “how the hell do I know?” – I would have to quote a passage from the Appendix to Part I of Spinoza’s Ethics:

“To those who ask why God did not so create all men, that they should be governed only by reason, I give no answer but this: because matter was not lacking to him for the creation of every degree of perfection from highest to lowest; or, more strictly, because the laws of his nature are so vast, as to suffice for the production of everything conceivable by an infinite intelligence…”

That might not be the kind of God you’ll find priests talking about during baptisms. It’s not the kind of God to which people customarily give thanks. It might not even be a God that merits the moniker “omni-benevolent.” But it does seem to be the kind of God we’ve got, if indeed we have any at all.

Tonight, when you carve the turkey – or the Tofurky, as the case may be – humor me. Don’t just give thanks. First, think a bit about who or what is the object of your gratitude. Then, think a bit about the world for which you are thankful. In the past, religion has been devoted to thanking the God of our ideals with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might. Today, I ask that we thank the God of the real with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might. The “God of the real” gave us Auschwitz, Mumbai, and the Great Tsunami, every bit as much as Jesus, Moses and Gandhi. Go ahead, my theological friends, try to create theodicies to rationalize that fact. Utter such cop-outs as “God works in mysterious ways,” or “God needs to create evil in order to provide for the conditions whereby we can choose the good.” For my money, though, Samuel Johnson was right when he said “As far as human eyes can judge, the degree of evil might have been less without any impediment to good.”

Oh hell, let me not beat around the bush. If you ask me, Neitzsche killed the Cosmic Santa Claus once and for all. To believe in that God on Thanksgiving makes no more sense than believing in Kris Kringle on Christmas Eve.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

THE HONEYMOON

More than anything else, honeymoons are about love, whether it happens to be sexual, romantic, or simply affection for one’s neighbor. Whether that “neighbor” happens to be a hotel busboy or a beach rat who sells snorkeling gear, honeymooners are treated with warmth and can hardly help reciprocating. As infectious as fear can be in a hospital, that’s how infectious love can be during a honeymoon.

Bill Clinton never received a proper honeymoon. Neither did George W. Bush. When first elected, they didn’t receive the majority of the national vote, and their enemies never let them forget it. Clinton was viewed as “Slick Willie” by the titans of talk radio, who spoke for much of the American public. As for George W. Bush, many questioned whether his election was even legitimate and lawful. That’s no way for a man to begin his tenure in the world’s most challenging job. It’s no wonder that their Presidencies were marked, respectively, by impeachment and the lowest approval rating in the history of Presidential polls.

Well, that was then, and this is now. Never in my lifetime have I seen a President-elect enjoy a honeymoon like Barack Obama. Here in D.C., three to five million folks are expected to descend on the National Mall for the inauguration. It’s as if Barack is the Beatles in ’65, and half the nation is a 15 year old girl. Yesterday, I heard a story about how a mother stopped a six-year-old kid from whining. The kid had been complaining about having been treated unfairly by her older sister when the mother calmly said “when Barack Obama is President, everything will be fair.” As if on cue, the child shut her mouth and smiled.

Some would call that creepy. To me, it’s just a well-deserved honeymoon.

Given the amount of Kool-Aid that I myself have consumed about our President-elect, my objective in this post will be difficult to attain. Stated simply, I’d like to be as unbiased and balanced as possible about the progress Barack has made to form a new government. The mere fact that I would call the guy “Barack” even though I’ve only met him for about 20 seconds should tell you to take everything I say with a grain of salt … but what is Empathic Rationalism if not a philosophy that prides itself on at least attempting to be objective. So here goes:

Let’s start with the good news. Nothing that has transpired in the past 18 days has caused Barack to lose a scintilla of good will among his supporters. Oh, there were a few folks who despaired that he wasn’t more involved in solving our economic crisis, but it’s not like he’s been sitting around doing nothing. In two and a half weeks, he appears to have selected, in addition to a Chief of Staff and a number of distinguished senior advisors, an Attorney General and Secretaries of State, Commerce, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Defense, and Treasury. When he made the last selection, the Dow jumped 500 points. If I didn’t know better, I’d think his name wasn’t Barack but Midas.

Better yet, the group Barack is assembling is exceptionally bright and experienced. And talk about diverse – Washington hasn’t seen such diversity since James Watt boasted about his staff having “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple.” I’m not sure who the “cripple” will be on Barack’s cabinet, but if he has one, I don’t doubt that he or she will have a thick resume and an outstanding academic pedigree. I may have gone to Harvard Law School, but every day that Barack is making appointments, I get reminded that I never made Law Review. With this crowd, “cum laude” won’t cut it.

That Barack would be devoted to principles of meritocracy and diversity is hardly surprising. Nobody expected another “Brownie” to be running FEMA, let alone the State Department. But I have to say, nobody I know expected Foggy Bottom to be turned over to Hillary either. So far, that’s been the head shaker of the fortnight.

I won’t lie to you. My first reaction upon hearing that Hillary was in consideration for the Secretary of State job was to wince. Even now, I’m too risk averse to favor the appointment. But … and it’s a big but … at least I can see a potentially enormous upside to Hillary’s selection. When I reflect on the other contenders for the job, not one excites me. Looking at the matter strictly from the standpoint of the assets they would bring to the table, no candidate is as qualified as Hillary.

Consider, for a moment, the breadth and depth of Hillary’s portfolio. When it comes to world leaders, she knows them and they know her. The Clinton “brand” is immensely popular internationally, and Hillary was never seen as a mere first lady, but as a force to be reckoned with. Moreover, by all accounts, she is a brilliant woman -- knowledgeable, intellectually curious, and a quick study. Few if any legislators command the respect she is given on Capitol Hill, and that is due not merely to the power of her mind but to the strength of her personality. Many have attested to how impressed they were upon getting to meet Hillary individually or in a small group. Finally, when you think about Hillary as a spokesperson, no characteristics stand out more than her discipline and her doggedness. It’s difficult to imagine her putting her mind to something and not fighting tooth and nail to make it happen.

Put all of the above together, and you have the makings of a remarkable diplomat. Barack couldn’t help but recognize that fact, and after battling Hillary for nearly a year and a half, he could hardly be blind to her talents. Consider also that Barack campaigned on a platform of unity, and what can be more unifying than to see Obama and Clinton – the two rivals who captivated our entire nation for much of the winter and spring – put their minds together and fight for peace, environmental sanity, and other national goals? Hillary would have to give up her Senate job permanently in order to join the Cabinet, and if she did so, it would be with the understanding that she would serve at the will of the President. She’s surely smart enough to understand that if she tries to “go rogue,” as was said about Sarah Palin, Barack would be well within his rights to fire her and send her into retirement. So all her motivation would be placed behind the task of making this great experiment work – for her, for Barack, for the country, and for the world.

Put that way, the nomination doesn’t sound so crazy, does it?

Well, it’s not crazy. But that doesn’t necessarily make it wise, either. My concerns would be lessened if the Secretary of State’s job consisted solely of shuttle diplomacy. Unfortunately, the Secretary also has to run a huge bureaucracy – the State Department – and when Hillary was given the opportunity to run something equally massive (her campaign), she ran it into the ground. I attribute that failure to an authoritarian culture that de-values flexibility and openness to the facts on the ground and is impressed more with good old-fashioned political “clout.” It’s not exactly compatible with the kind of grass-roots atmosphere that Barack brought to his campaign. (Just try to imagine Barack turning over his campaign to Marc Penn and you’ll immediately see what I’m talking about.)

Already, we’ve been hearing reports in the media about clashes between “Hillary’s people” and “Barack’s people.” Excuse me, but I thought the entire Administration was supposed to be staffed with Barack’s people. Wasn’t that the idea? Wasn’t Hillary supposed to be one of those people? Separation of powers is a great concept, but I don’t think it works well to have multiple fiefdoms within the Executive Branch.

In short, if Hillary were to treat her appointment as an opportunity to implement the vision of Barack Obama, I’ll be all for it. But my concern is that she sees herself as too important to be a mere functionary And if my fears are confirmed, and she or her staff try to do pave their own trail instead of Barack’s, it could get ugly. Barack won’t want to fire Hillary within the first year or two – talk about a formula for ugly press – and so he might be willing to tolerate things coming out of State that a President shouldn’t have to tolerate. The result could be a message to overseas leaders that is incoherent, and thus ineffective.

There you have it -- the one cloud on the horizon. Well, OK. There’s also the God-awful economy that Barack is inheriting. But even in Barbados, where my wife and I honeymooned, you sometimes see clouds. For the most part, what I see is sunshine. Unlike that six year old, I don’t foresee Barack eliminating unfairness from the world, but I do see him exuding more competence than any American leader of his generation. And what I see even clearer is a nation, if not a world, that is desperate for him to succeed. It will be a rocky road for a while – thanks to the greedy bastards who have destroyed our economy while the regulator-ideologues have been sleeping – but we have the right captain at the helm. If the worst decision he’s made so far is nominating a brilliant, charismatic, passionate, disciplined, diligent, internationally-beloved fighter to head up the State Department, I’d say he’s off to a great start.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

STILL DREAMIN’

The great American dream has come true. We now appear to have reached the point where if your IQ is at least 150, you’re really good looking, you’re incredibly diplomatic, you have uncommon oratorical skills, and you have impeccable timing, then you, as a political candidate, can be judged not by the color of your skin, but by the content of your character. Yes indeed, it took a strange constellation of circumstances to get a black man elected President of the United States, but the fact of the matter is that it happened. And now, instantly, American Democracy has taken a qualitative leap upward on the evolutionary scale.

But what does this election do for dreaming, now that MLK Jr.’s prayers have been answered? Are we dreamers no longer needed? Is it now time for the pragmatists to sweep us aside and get busy, without our interference? Nah. We always have a role to play. For until the Messiah comes – and for my money, since he’s a fictional concept, we have an eternity to wait – there will always be room for dreaming. Allow me to offer three dreams. The first two seem to be well within reach – at least within most of our lifetimes. The second? More quixotic, and yet infinitely more worthwhile.

Dream #1: that someday, we will live in a country where neither pundits nor politicians feel free to label people “real Americans” or to mock others as somehow less authentic as Americans simply because of (a) the geographical area where they live, (b) their political views, or (c) their socio-economic class. It wasn’t long ago that I could have added two other categories – race and gender. Thankfully, our public sphere has reached the point where talking-heads who elevate some Americans over others because of their race or gender will pay dearly in credibility. Barack’s election has placed one more very powerful nail in the coffin of outspoken racism. But … polarizing pundits and politicians continue to abound. And while their appeals may be more subtle than the racist or sexist verbiage of decades past, these appeals remain nefarious. My dream is that they will cease … and in the not so distant future.

Watch Morning Joe, as I have pointed out before, and you will see on display the appeals at issue. The pundits on that show frequently ridicule Americans because they live in such “liberal” places as “Georgetown” and “the Upper West Side.” Sure, those people are rich. But so are the residents of Newport Beach, California or Windermere, Florida – communities where the multi-millionaires that abound tend to be Republican. Can we tolerate a political environment where the residents of the latter communities are respected as authentic Americans, whereas their more liberal counterparts in the northeast are viewed as unpatriotic and even alien? Similarly, can we dare elect politicians who praise the residents of small towns but mock those who toil anonymously as “community organizers” – the crown jewels of our urban areas?

In my dream, everyone has come to recognize that the strength of America lies in its diversity – and that includes ideological diversity. Just as a William Safire must be treated with respect, just as a Ronald Reagan must be treated with respect (and credit Barack big time for showing him that respect during the Democratic primary), that applies to died-in-the-wool liberals as well. Question their positions. Question their judgment. But in my dream, those who question their patriotism and their authenticity as Americans – absent evidence of real treason – will be the ones who are ostracized.

Dream #2 – that someday, all pairs of consenting adults will be able to get married, regardless of race, color, creed or sexual preference. I have said a lot on this topic in previous posts, and it hardly appears necessary to belabor the point. But today, something must be said. This afternoon, all over the country, many people who care deeply about marriage will be taking to the streets. I plan on being among them. We will be demonstrating in support of gay marriage … or more to the point, in support of the right for every human being to participate in a ceremony, sanctified by the rule of the law, in which they will pledge their hearts to another consenting adult for as long as the two will live.

In Washington, D.C, we will be meeting at the Reflecting Pool by the Capitol at 1:30 p.m. If you live in the area and read this before then, please come. We need as many supporters as possible to make this dream become a reality. But believe me – it’s just a matter of time before this dream will be realized. The trend is on the side of tolerance. The trend is on the side of viewing the right to wed as a fundamental right. As I approach my sixth decade on earth, I can’t imagine where my own life would be without it.

Dream # 3 – The peaceful co-existence of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. Yes, you heard me. Now that a black man has been elected President of the United States, we can envision pigs flying … hell freezing over … and Israelis and Palestinians co-existing as peacefully as those who live on the Canadian/American border.

Of course this one is far off. But today, it seems significantly more reachable than it did three weeks ago. Somehow, the impossible now appears possible. Someday.

The question is, how do we get there? By praying, praying and more praying? Or by praying, working, and more working? I’m opting for the latter.

On recent Sundays, I have been going to mosques in the D.C. area attempting to enlist interest in Jewish-Muslim interfaith activities. My plan is to get pockets of these two people together, first in charitable and prayerful activities … and then later in honest-to-God discussions of the fundamental issues that concern us. These include such non-controversial topics as the politics of the Middle East and how to produce peace in that region.

Wherever you are, I encourage you to undertake a comparable initiative. Even if you’re not Jewish or Muslim, there’s no reason you can’t get involved. You surely know people who are Jewish or Muslim, right? Or perhaps you are part of a community (e.g., Protestant, Catholic, Unitarian Universalist) that has grown inpatient with the idea of a never-ending war in the place commonly known as “the Holy Land.” All of us can play a role in raising consciousness and seeking an amicable solution to this mess. All we need is faith that the war can ultimately end, and confidence that every little act of “d├ętente” – whether it takes place in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania or Bethlehem, Palestine – will be invaluable in producing this peace.

Trust me, when we have true peace in Israel/Palestine – whether it happens in our lifetime or those of our grandchildren – it will be even sweeter than Barack’s election. And that was pretty damned sweet, wasn’t it?

Friday, November 07, 2008

A GUEST BLOG FROM PURPLE AMERICA

I may have spent election day hard at work, but some of my friends have been working on the campaign trail for weeks.  To honor one such noble soul, I would like to post the comments of an old friend, Ben Vernia, who spent the last few weeks serving as a regional voter protection organizer for the Obama/Biden campaign in Stark and Wayne Counties, Ohio.  Ben and I worked together at the Justice Department, before he moved on to the private sector.  What follows are his words, unfiltered.  If you would like to post a comment, please note that I will be out of town this weekend and won’t be able to publish your comments until Sunday night or Monday morning.

Take it away, Ben:

 

If I had to sum up this election in one word, it wouldn’t be “change,” it would be “hunger.”  The people I saw in northeast Ohio (not to mention those in Joe McCain’s “communist” Northern Virginia, where I live) were hungry, hungry people.  Some were hungry for leadership.  Some were hungry for racial equality.  Some were hungry for progress on specific policies like health care and labor rights.  Some were hungry for an end to bleakness that has smothered their communities for eight long years.  Perhaps a few were hungry for any kind of “change” they could lay their hands on, but I think “hunger” is a more accurate, though politically less catchy word to sum up the mood on E-Day.

At 6:30 pm, an hour before the polls closed in Ohio, the regional political staff set up next door to us lawyers in a “boiler room” call center looked dejected:  the long-expected lines outside the polls hadn’t materialized, and maybe we’d lost.  Perhaps everyone had overestimated the voters’ hunger, and apathy had stolen the helm of our country once again.  It quickly became apparent that voting in the weeks before and morning of Election Day had left no voters to “get out” at dinnertime.  We hadn’t overestimated the people’s hunger, we had underestimated it.

In an election characterized by a lot of lies about Barack Obama, the biggest was perhaps the one which appeared most irrefutable:  that he had no management experience.  It took me about a day with the campaign to realize how wrong that was.  All campaigns are pressure cookers; the Obama campaign turned this pressure into discipline.  Staffers blended mutual support with candid accountability and a relentless focus on staying on target and getting the job done.  If President Obama runs the Executive Branch half as well as Senator Obama ran his campaign, the country will be in good hands.

Finally, because I was based in Canton, home and burial site of William McKinley, I listened to Kevin Phillips’ biography of the Republican president.  I was reminded of Karl Rove’s boast that he fancied himself the 21st century Mark Hanna, the Senator from Cleveland who advised McKinley.  Setting aside the perfectly credible suspicion that Rove viewed the Iraq war as a desirable analogue to the Spanish-American War (the “splendid little war” whose low body count helped propel McKinley to a second, assassin-abbreviated term), it was sweet to have a front-row seat at the decimation of Rove’s dreams for a “permanent” Republican realignment. 

 In the final week of the campaign, Barack Obama spoke through his exhaustion at a Civic Center only a few blocks from the site of William McKinley’s home, who received 750,000 visitors in a stay-at-home campaign for reelection in 1900.  Rove’s biggest mistake was seeing himself as the architect of a generation of Republican dominance.  In fact, Rove’s hubris ensured that the first GOP candidate after Bush became the 21st century version of William Jennings Bryan, whose appeal to conspicuous religiosity solidified his evangelical base at the expense of a broader appeal.


Those were Ben's words.  But I'd like to end this post with a wish about a VERY important topic. Barack Obama needs a puppy to fulfill a promise to his children, but one of those kids has a pet allergy.  The politically correct crowd is pleading that he get a puppy from the shelter, but you're not hearing that from me.  As a fellow dog lover with pet allergies, I can safely say that there is only one breed for Barack:  get a bichon!  I have two, and I love them.  So do my two daughters.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

BLESS YOU

I have a lot to be thankful about tonight. But I want to give special thanks to the dozen or so people I met today at the precinct in McLean, Virginia who were working as diligently for McCain as I was working for Barack. What a nice, intelligent ... really lovely group of people they were. I have no doubt that Barack will try to be THEIR President, and not simply try to ram things down the throats of Red America.

In any event, we made history tonight. Finally, an African-American, American President. And a brilliant, wonderful man at that. Physically, I am exhausted, but spiritually, I am euphoric.

Rest in peace, MLK, Jr. Rest in peace, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rest in peace, Julius Spiro.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

THE FRIENDS AND FOES OF FREEDOM

“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.

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.
Those lessons are indeed priceless. They, as much as any economic principles, are the cornerstones of what it means to live in freedom.