HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 31, 2007
From Liberty Street

The Right Order

John Turner


As far as I can tell here on this final day of 2007, there are three value systems contending for what might be called, loosely, the American soul.

One is concentrated on freedom of speech and civil rights, and is often associated with the concept of democracy, though it always needs to be said that this democracy is not pure rule by the majority but, rather, control tempered by a set of principles and restraints which protect not only the members of the majority but all citizens against governmental abuse.

Second is the concept of a social safety net whereby we, as a whole people, insure that all of us have the necessities of life -- food, housing, medical care.

Third is a spirit of invention and enterprise in which entrepreneurs are not hampered by foolish or unnecessary rules and capital is allowed to flow where it wishes to flow.

Most Americans would pay lip service to all these systems. It's when we begin to set them in rank order that we raise up political problems. I have listed them in what I consider to be their order of importance, but I'm acutely aware that my ranking is not the order that would be chosen by all Americans and, perhaps, not even by a majority.

Over the past seven years, for example, the federal government has been mainly in the hands of those who not only would put my third item first, but who give it so much importance that they would pretty much sacrifice the first two for it. They would rather have people starve in the streets than to have the wealthiest one percent of the population give up even one percent of their wealth. They won't admit to that, of course. It wouldn't be electorally efficient. So they make up silly fables, like voodoo economics, to mask their motives. If you listen to the major Republican candidates, you'll hear that as tax rates approach zero tax revenues will streak towards infinity. This is infinitely silly, and, yet, there are people who want their vast piles of wealth so much they are willing to make utter fools of themselves in order to keep and increase them.

There's a great deal of talk nowadays about how partisanship is staining our society, and that it needs to be put aside so that people of good will can work together to solve our problems. It's a pleasant idea but it's based on the notion that regardless of where people stand on the political spectrum they are still persons of good will. It would be wonderful if that were true. Unfortunately, it's not.

When you are dealing with those who would sacrifice basic civil rights and the fulfillment of fundamental human needs in order to accumulate wealth and power, it's farcical to call them people of good will.

In the first pages of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, the author recounts a conversation she heard in a Baton Rouge shelter about a week after Katrina smashed New Orleans. People were standing in a food line when an elderly man said, "What's wrong with these people in Baton Rouge? (meaning corporate lobbyists) This isn't an opportunity. It's a goddamned tragedy. Are they blind?"

To which a woman with two children replied, "No, they're not blind, they're evil. They see just fine."

I have some problems with the concept of evil, but, still, she made a pretty good point.

I'm more than willing to debate with people about how we can best achieve the benefits of these three values systems. I'm willing to listen -- though, I admit, it's somewhat frustrating -- to people who want a different order from mine. But when I encounter men and women who simply want to do away with the first two in order to promote, without restraint, the third, then I realize I'm no longer in a discussion.

We have to work towards a set of national moral beliefs in which certain desires and so-called values are eliminated from serious contemplation. Just as arguments in favor of racism and human slavery have been flushed out of tolerable discourse, the notion that the freedom to amass money and power is the only freedom that counts also needs to be dismissed. We know what there is to be said for the primacy of wealth and physical power, and it's no good. It's an argument without intellectual foundation. It rises from selfishness and, ultimately, from hatred. I don't want to stifle anybody who wishes to push those ideas, but I do want to remove them from any significant influence on the nation's future.

If that takes partisanship, then that's just too bad.


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