Thursday, November 6, 2008

President Obama

In his moment of triumph (the first of many, perhaps) the other night, Mr. Obama alluded tellingly and movingly to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as he was giving credit to all those millions of annonymous people (of which I was one) "who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth." What, or how much, should we make of this implied comparison between the Civil War and the Bush presidency (for which Mr. McCain has taken the rap)? Well, had the Confederacy won that war, the Constitution would have been amended beyond recognition afterwards, and democracy would have become a losing if not a lost cause. Lincoln was right about that. You can't say the same for a McCain victory in this last election. What we can say, though, is that for eight years the Bush administration has, for the most "patriotic" of motives, conducted the most sustained assault on the Constitution that we have ever seen. Patriotism, said Samuel Johnson, is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

The phrase "government of the people, by the people, for the people" naturally raises the question: Who are the people and what do they expect of government? Should their expectations always be satisfied? Are there times when Presidents (or Kings) ought to be telling the people, their putative masters, be careful what you wish for? Well, of course the answer is yes. What many people mainly want is happiness as defined by Hobbes (see my posting, 2-2-08) but a state that gives itself over to liberty and the pursuit of happiness on these terms will soon find itself with a happy few on top and a resentful multitude down below.

These reflections were occasioned, in part, by a paragraph in a book I have been reading--for the first time!--Les Miserables (1862) by Victor Hugo. Hugo, here, is talking about the 'ethics' of success.

We live in a somber society. How to get ahead, succeed--that is the lesson that trickles down, drop by drop from the overriding corruption on high.
We might say, by the way, that success is pretty awful. Its deceptive resemblance to merit has people fooled. For the hordes, success looks just like supremacy. Success, that dead ringer for talent, has a dupe, history. Only Juvenal and Tacitus grumble about it. In our time, a more or less official philosophy has entered into service as Success's handmaiden, wears its livery and works its antechamber. Succeed: That's the whole idea. Prosperity presupposes capability. Win the lottery and you are a clever man. The winner is revered. Be born with a silver spoon in your mouth, that's all that counts. Be lucky and the rest will fall into place. Be fortunate and you'll be thought great.... All that glitters IS gold.

Does that sound familiar? Isn't that the siren song and rhythm from Republican woofers that never ceases to pound our minds and sensibilities? But liberty and the pursuit of happiness is but a part of the American dream--and, naturally, the American nightmare; equality, the other part, is what we don't hear so much about, or haven't for a while, though it is generally one of the great preoccupations of the Democratic party in all its deliberations. McCain poured scorn on the idea that one purpose of taxation is to spread the wealth around. There we have the great difference between these two parties--these two halves of the American constitution and the American soul: Liberty AND equality. If liberty is all that matters, we have people going around equating taxation and theft, and claiming that we deserve our fate, good or bad. If we happen to be lucky we deserve our luck and the wealth that comes with it; if unlucky, too bad--you probably deserved it. You know how it goes in Republican minds: the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor. As for equality, well, we have seen and learned from the terrible experiences of the 20th century: when equality is all the matters, liberty disappears and life for many becomes poor, nasty, brutish and short. That is the brush that McCain was trying to paint Obama with. But communism is dead and with it the idea that perfect equality justifies the destruction of liberty. We now live in an imperfect world where liberty and equality must always exist in an uneasy relationship with each other, and all we know is we have to have as much of both as is consistent with anyone's having any.

1 comment:

  1. I had never known that Victor Hugo said "All that glitters IS gold." I guess he was a Marxist of sorts. People who believe in capitalism are negative Marxists, who accept the basic presmises of Marxism but come to the opposite conclusion. China today believes in Marxist capitalism. So do many Republicans.