Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Confessions of a Political Philosophy

          When Jean-Jacque Rousseau sat down to write his influential and controversial “Confessions,”

he unintentionally started two revolutions. On the one hand, the idea of an autobiography was

something new to the literary world, so “[f]or the first time, an author’s intimate emotional life

became the subject of his work” (Puchner 385). At the same time, Rouseau’s book also offered a new

kind of hero to his audience, a hero who was an “isolated but extraordinary individual, unhappy in his

solitude but brave in his resistance to social mores” (385). That last part was especially relevant, as

Rousseau’s themes of revolution and resistance became wildly influential both at home in France as

well as some 3,700 miles away in a blossoming new country.

            Rousseau’s strong sense of individuality, in particular, would ring in the words of the founding fathers of the United States of America when they penned the Declaration of Independence. Rousseau wrote, “I feel my heart and I know men. I am not made like any that I have seen; I venture to believe that I was not made like any that exist” (Rousseau 387). Indeed, the entire reason the American colonies decided to declare their independence from England was because the King of England had lost touch with what the colonists wanted and needed. It inspired them to write that: “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect [sic] their Safety and Happiness” (Declaration). Those early American colonists very much believed, as Rousseau did, that their needs were best served through self-governance, and thus they threw off the yoke of the far distant English king.
            Rousseau is the product of a good family, including a hard-working, humble father and a mother whose “beauty, intelligence, and accomplishments won her many admirers” (Rousseau 388). As such, he grew up as a thoughtful and caring person who would not think of trampling on the rights of others for his own purposes. He wrote that the most important gift his family bequeathed to him “was a tender heart; but to this they owed all their happiness” (389). Happiness, then, stemmed from being kind and loving, not from the acquisition of wealth and power, as so many seemed to believe lead to happiness and contentment.
This is very much the same kind of person that George Washington was, and similar values enabled him to win the war of independence from the British (Waldman 64). Washington’s commitment to religious tolerance, as well as keeping church and state separate led him to chastise his own troops for making fun of Britain’s Catholicism, writing, “at such a juncture, and in such circumstances, to be insulting (England’s) religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused” (65). As a result of Washington’s own outspoken stance against religious intolerance, the Continental Congress sent a letter to (Catholic) French Canadians, asking them to join the cause of freedom for the colonies, and their decision to join the fight was an enormous turning point in the war.
            Unfortunately, the concept of religious tolerance and the importance of being tender-hearted have often been lost over the years. As America has grown from an upstart colony
of Great Britain into the world’s biggest super power, her leaders have often lost sight of those all-important principles upon which she was founded. In his bestseller, American Theocracy, political and economic commentator Kevin Phillips goes so far as to say that American became a Theocracy under the presidency of George W. Bush and to call the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 an era of “disenlightenment” (Phillips 1). Phillips bemoans the death of the Republican Party, once founded on ideals of small government and conservative spending, and its transformation into something that sees itself as “a ruling political party that represents religious true believers and seeks to mobilize the churches” (8). He goes on to note that the modern Republican Party believes that “government should be guided by religion, and top of it all, White House implementation of domestic and international agendas that seem to be driven by religious motivations and biblical worldviews” (9). The problem with that kind of religious worldview, of course, is that it tends to be extremely judgmental and looks down on those who disagree. It does not allow for civil discourse and alienates both Americans and their neighbors in the global community.
The truth is, the further we get from a worldview similar to that of Rousseau and George Washington and America’s founding fathers, the further we get from the vision of America as the land of the free and the home of the brave. That can be especially dangerous at a time when Americans are spending less and less time paying attention to their elected officials and to world events as other distractions reach an all-time high. Reality TV has replaced what used to be news, and there are now entire networks calling themselves “news channels” that do little more than promote divisive thinking and spread disinformation instead of actually reporting the news. More than a few progressive political analysts from both sides of the ideological aisle foresee this as a growing problem that could ultimately spell the end of America as the founders intended it.
In her book, The End of America, feminist, social critic and political activist Naomi Wolf warns against complacency and the impact it can have on a culture’s way of life. She says Americans tend to think of democracy as being “eternal, ever-renewable, and capable of withstanding all assaults” (Wolf 25). According to Wolf, however, the founding fathers would have found it “dangerously naïve, not to mention lazy, to think of democracy this way” (25). The founders thought “that it was tyranny that was eternal, ever-renewable, and capable of withstanding all assaults, whereas democracy was difficult, personally exacting and vanishingly fragile” (25). The founders, in Wolf’s view, did not see Americans themselves as special, but rather saw America as special.
One of the biggest threats to the peace that Rousseau so valued and the America that the founding fathers were hoping to build is the radical change in the way information is disseminated to the American people. For years America had network news that was presented in an unbiased way, was a public service, in fact, that was required for stations to use the national air waves. Instead, we now have news with an agenda, sometimes called “infotainment,” that works to forward the agenda of its corporate sponsors (119-122). The George W. Bush administration used such outlets as well as falsified documents to convince both Congress and the American people that the country should go to war with Iraq, for example. This tactic of manipulation was eerily similar to tactics used by Adolf Hitler during the rise of Nazi Germany (126-127).
The bizarre thing is that all of these tactics have been done in the name of preserving “freedom,” as George W. Bush constantly put it. Of course, what Bush was talking about when he evoked the word “freedom” was not always the same for everyone hearing it. “The progressive and conservative versions are very different,” writes George Lakoff, a world renowned linguist (Lakoff, Freedom 39). The concept of freedom that is most clearly threatened by the Bush-era worldview also threatens the way of life espoused by Rousseau and engendered by America’s founding fathers. It is “the imposition of a dangerous worldview without public awareness. When free will itself is threatened, that is the ultimate threat to freedom” (62). The Bush administration would come up with their own definitions of words that were not necessarily in line with common understandings and then evoke them as often as possible to get people used to hearing them and make them feel like they understood them. All the while, the Bush administration was working behind the scenes to undermine the very freedom that the founding fathers fought so hard to establish.
When progressives talk about freedom they refer to a dynamic freedom, the kind of freedom that has defined America since its founding. These freedoms include “expanding civil rights, voting rights, property rights, education, science, public health, workers’ rights, protected parkland,” which includes the infrastructure that supports those freedoms: “the banking system, court system, transportation system, communication system, university system, scientific research system, social services system” (73-74) and other aspects of the common good which is paid for through taxation and the common wealth. The conservative view of freedom is based on the nurturing parent model, in which debate is healthy and the government is commission to care for the needs of its people.
When members of the neo-conservative movement talk about freedom, they mean something entirely different. This worldview is based on the strict father model, in which there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong and the strict father is morally right and never questioned. In this view, neoconservatives see the United States “as the moral authority in the world, and it is its moral duty to maintain its sovereignty and to use its military end economic power maximize American interests, which are, in this view, also the interests of other countries” (109). Never mind that what best serves the interest of this worldview might not be accepted by other countries, and might not even be in the best interest of the majority of Americans.
The neoconservative (anti-Rousseauian) worldview, with its skewed version of freedom, has begun what political analyst Thom Hartmann calls “an undeclared war against the middle class” (Hartmann 2). The short-term impact of the neoconservative approach is already clearly observable. Most worker unions have either been disbanded or stripped of the powers that made them the defenders of the working class, minimum wage is no longer a living wage, the inflation-adjusted income of corporate CEOs went up from $7.8 million in 2002 to $9.6 million from 2002 to 2004, and from 2000 to 2004 the inflation-adjusted median annual household income went down from $46,058 to $44,389 (3). From 2001 to 2005 America lost 2.8 million manufacturing jobs, the number of employers offering a full pension dropped from 91 percent to 67 percent and off of employer-provided health care (4). The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and the middle class is struggling to avoid falling into the latter category.
Possibly the biggest issue threatening America’s democracy, and with it the vast majority of Americans, is the failing definition of democracy itself. Democracy “is found among virtually
among all the indigenous peoples of the world,” and “is the way humans have lived for more than 150,000 years” (Hartmann 5). “There are no rich and no poor among most tribal people,” and the European insistence on creating a hierarchy among the Native Americans made it very difficult for those newcomers to understand their hosts (6). Yet the democracies already in place among the native tribes very much informed the way in which America’s Founding Fathers framed the Constitution (6). The Founders believed in the individual’s right to self-government, and thus created a form of government in which We the People had the ultimate say.
America’s form of government is no longer a true democracy, and opinions vary on what, exactly, America’s political system really is now. Hartmann makes a strong case that America is now a feudal aristocracy (10), where the elite rule. Unfortunately, without a thriving middle class, a democracy cannot exist for long, and becomes “caricature of itself. There are leaders and elections and all the forms, but they’re only for show. The game is now rigged” (10).  The rich don’t want a democracy because what’s best for everyone does not involve the vast majority of the nation’s wealth resting in the hands of a small elite class at the top. A democracy will, by its very nature, strive against such a phenomenon, so the ruling class must constantly work to subdue and destroy democratic processes at every turn. In particular, they are opposed to free and public education, limits on the monopolistic ownership of media outlets, and social security and universal health care. Policies like these produce a strong middle class, which will constantly work towards a stronger and stronger democracy (11). The ruling elite can’t let that happen if they want to hang onto their ever-growing wealth.
There is a solution, thankfully. There is a way that Americans can reclaim the kind of democracy that those founding fathers established, one that is in line with Rousseau’s way of thinking. It is even a way that is compatible with both Democratic and Republican ways of thinking. “Progressive may see this as an ‘American awakening,’ as a liberation or, at the least, as a campaign, while conservatives may see the same movement as ‘conservative’ in the truest sense – a return to the stewardship of the Founders’ vision” (Wolf 152). Americans must take advantage of a community that is becoming more global by the minute, using the internet, social media and grassroots movements to “truly encounter their counterparts across the political spectrum and learn to talk to each other once again directly, as neighbors, interlocutors and fellow patriots” (153). In other words, it’s time to stop listening to talking points and 30-second sound bites purporting to cover an entire issue and start talking to each other as human beings with the same needs, desires and dreams.
An amazing film written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Michael Douglas as the President of the United States sums up America’s democracy dilemma as well as anything possibly could. In a speech that was the climax of the movie, President Andrew Shepherd (Douglas) says the following:
“America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the ‘land of the free’.”
Democracy is an idea as much as it is a system of government. It does not exist in a vacuum and it does not grow organically unless the soil in which is it planted is constantly cultivated. Greed is a weed that threatens the very survival of democracy, whether that greed manifests itself in the form of a love of money or power. The acquisition of wealth and power subverts the very nature of democracy, and in turn subverts what is best for the welfare of the people within a culture. Only though the diligent defense of democracy, which starts with an educated and alert population, can a culture fight hope off the weeds of greed and power mongering and restore the kind of society that Jean-Jacque Rousseau and America’s Founding Fathers would endorse and expect to thrive.

Works Cited

The American President. Dir. Rob Reiner. Prod. Rob Reiner. By Aaron Sorkin. Perf. Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, and Michael J. Fox. Columbia Pictures, 1995. Film.

The Declaration of Independence. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992. Print.

Hartmann, Thom. Screwed: The Undeclared War against the Middle Class--and What We Can Do about It. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2006. Print.

Lakoff, George. Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub., 2004. Print.

Lakoff, George. Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America's Most Important Idea. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Print.

Phillips, Kevin. American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. New York: Viking, 2006. Print.

Puchner, Martin. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Third ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. Print.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “Confessions." The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Third ed. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013. 381-401. Print.

Waldman, Steven. Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New
Approach to Religious Liberty
. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2009. Print.

Wolf, Naomi. The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub., 2007. Print.


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