In the gardens of Athens in the fourth century BC (planting the seeds of Western Civilization), in the plazas of Florence in the 16th century AD (ushering in the modern era), in the salons of Paris in the 18th century AD (informing and inspiring others in a small meeting room in Philadelphia), to a lesser extent in mid-19th century Concord, MA (informing and inspiring Gandhi and King and Mandela), the genius of a few unleashed new currents of the genius of the many, currents thick with reason and a stronger commitment to our shared humanity, changing the course of human history. It has been done before and it will be done again, whenever and wherever people choose to do it.
They did not gather in those times and places to discuss only how to win this or that election or to shift power from one party to another or to address the human endeavor one issue at a time. Rather, they gathered, with wonder and hope and passion, to explore and discover, to create and innovate, to raise reason and our shared humanity onto a pedestal and dedicate themselves to the enterprise of perfecting our consciousness and improving our existence.
In every time and place, including these ones of particular florescence, most of the people went about their business, engaged in the mundane challenges of life, fought the battles we all fight, both personal and collective. But the great paradigm shifts of history have happened when a coalescence of inspired minds reached deeper and broader than others around them, beyond the individual issues of the day, beyond the immediate urgencies and power struggles, and sought out the essence of our existence, to understand it, to celebrate it, and to change it for the better.
Imagine a gathering of great minds today that were not lost to the minutia of academe or the mud-pit of politics or the selfish pursuit of wealth and fame and power, but were free to devote themselves to the challenge of orchestrating a social transformation, a peaceful revolution occurring beneath the surface of events, a new threshold reached in the advance of creative reason in service to humanity.
Imagine gatherings of engaged citizens that, guided only by the broadly attractive narrative of reason in service to our shared humanity, of emulating our Founding Fathers and fulfilling the vision that they had for this nation, dedicated themselves to learning how to listen to one another and weigh competing arguments rather than regress ever deeper into blind ideological trench warfare. Imagine forming the nucleus of a movement that would extend the logic of methodical reason in service to our shared humanity ever more broadly, not just through direct participation, but through the promotion of the narrative that we are capable of doing so and that it is incumbent on us to do so.
What is stopping us from establishing such gatherings, and such a movement? What is stopping us from bringing together a small cadre of brilliant minds to implement ideas designed to cascade through the social fabric in transformative ways, and large populations of engaged citizens to stir and be stirred by the sea giving rise to those cresting waves of brilliance, together advancing the tide of imaginative reason in service to our shared humanity? Only the precise combination of vision, drive, sophistication and resources that would make it happen, not just in some stumbling and unsustainable or unproductive way, but as a living, breathing, current reality.
I’ve designed the nucleus of an idea, a social movement that is realistic as well as idealistic, a secular religion to promote the narrative and practice of disciplined reason in service to our shared humanity. As a person who learned how to dream as a child; who drifted and worked and lived around the world for several years as a young adult; who became a social scientist, author, teacher, lawyer, public policy consultant, candidate for office, and member of several nonprofit boards and advisory councils; who has done urban outreach work and community organizing; who has synthesized ideas from many disciplines, many great minds, and much experience, this is not a Quixotic quest that boasts much but can deliver little; it is a carefully considered strategic plan for moving the center of gravity of our zeitgeist in the direction of an ever-increasing reliance on imaginative reason in ever-increasing service to our shared humanity.
For a comprehensive (though somewhat dense) presentation of my proposal, please see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill.
For a briefer and simpler presentation of the underlying philosophy of this proposed social movement, please see: The Ideology of Reason in Service to Humanity.
For an extremely bare-bones summary of the social movement idea itself, please see: A VERY Simplified Synopsis of “The Politics of Reason and Goodwill”.
For more elaboration of various aspects of this proposal and various musings about it, please see the essays hyperlinked to in the second box at: Catalogue of Selected Posts
I’ve borrowed the title of President Obama’s second book as the title of this essay because the message is the same, if in a somewhat different flavor. After posting a link to A Comprehensive Paradigm for Progressive Thought and Action; or “Yes We Can, and Here’s How” toward the end of a long Facebook thread, an FB friend commented, “I still imagine activism to be succinct.” The following was my response:
The more succinct our activism is, the less conscious it is. Biological evolution, for instance, is the most succinct form of “activism” imaginable: It is the struggle for reproductive success, and for surviving long enough to facilitate reproductive success. Completely “unconscious,” and extremely slow and haphazard (though cumulatively brilliant). Human consciousness is the basis of another evolutionary process, with cognitions rather than genes being the packets of information that are reproducing, mutating, competing for reproductive success, and thus evolving.
We do have branches of human endeavor that are less bound by “succinctness,” that don’t need to fit their memes on a bumper sticker, but the gulf between them and the zeitgeist is almost infinite. The two are insufficiently articulated. One challenge is to articulate the realms of academe and politics better, so that our politics are better informed. That does not require that everyone take the time to understand the scholarship, but merely that a broader acceptance of the relatively greater legitimacy of scholarship over arbitrary opinion is cultivated.
To me, the bumper-sticker mentality IS the problem, which cannot be solved primarily by reproducing and reinforcing it. I am not struggling to ensure that liberalism or progressivism prevails, but rather to ensure that reason and imagination in service to humanity prevails, and the latter is a process that cannot be excessively abbreviated without being destroyed. I find many liberals and progressives only marginally less a part of the problem than folks like (an angry and narrow-minded conservative commenting on that thread), and I am not content to struggle only to ensure that a marginally less banal ideology prevails over a marginally more banal ideology.
The belief that such goals are impossible is belied by history. People may be irrational and lazy, but over the course of the last five centuries, science and scientific methodolgy have grown from tiny embattled zygotes to major facets of our shared existence, affecting our technologies, our economy, and our broadly shared worldview. People may be belligerent and bigoted, but over the past few centuries humanism and the notions of natural or human rights have grown from almost non-existent to major cornerstones of the modern world’s explicitly pursued ideals. And these things happened through the efforts of people with imagination and passion and a belief in the possibilities.
I’m not content to invest all of our resources directed toward intentional social change on maintaining the status quo with merely marginal fluctuations. Yes, we must continue to do that, and, yes, we will and possibly should continue to invest the lion’s share of our resources in precisely that tug-o-war between competing ideological camps. But we can and should –and, I think, must– divert some small fraction of our resources, of our time and treasure, toward something more ambitious and far-reaching, toward something more fundamental and imaginative, toward reaching and passing through yet another threshold in the evolution of our shared existence. We’ve done it before. We can do it again.
A major social, moral, and political issue dividing us is the issue of how inclusive and how exclusive we should be as a national society. But beyond and beneath the question of membership in our national society is the question of whose rights (and which rights) we aknowledge and respect under what circumstances.
There is clearly a balance to be struck: Few would recommend such inclusivity that we extend the same respect to the bacterial infection threatening a person’s health as we extend to the person. Most (not all) are comfortable with the notion of extending our inclusivity no further than the bounds of our own species (respecting human life above other forms of life), even if modified to prohibit outright cruelty to those of other species that we recognize as cognitively capable of suffering from such cruelty (i.e., other large mammals). Though I’ll come back to the broader issue of universal empathy and systemic sensitivity at the end of this little essay, the main thrust will be on humanity’s divisions and their historical and contemporary role in justifying self-serving exclusivities.
Another word describing “exclusivity” is “discrimination,” referring to members of some in-group discriminating against members of some out-group regarding the privileges of membership. I use the word “discriminate” more or less interchangeably with the word “exclude” in this essay.
The most obvious dimension to this issue is the moral and social one: Those who are excluded are defined to be of lesser value or lesser concern. Sometimes they are defined as such (i.e., are excluded) in reference to intrinsic characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation; sometimes due to choices or cultural inheritences, such as religion of political ideology; sometimes due to some social status such as geographic location, socioeconomic class, or subcultural identification; and sometimes due to talents or abilities.
The last is perhaps the most morally justifiable form of exclusion: If a hospital is hiring surgeons, those with no training or skill in surgery can be legitimately excluded. Issues sometimes arise over whether the criteria for discriminating between those with the necessary skills and those without are not proxies for other less justifiable grounds for discrimination, but, as a general rule, this is not a difficult problem to solve.
Another justifiable form of exclusion involves freedom of association and the logistics of allowing people to gather to accomplish a specific task or for a specific purpose. Obviously, people holding a dinner party in their home can invite who they like and refuse entry to all others. This freedom extends outward, but ends when the private property is open to the public (generally, a business) and the discrimination is of a now forbidden nature (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender). Similarly, if an organization meets to discuss or address a specific topic, they certainly are justified in excluding those who want to come to discuss or address a completely different topic. If not for this form of exclusion, no one would ever be able to get anything done.
At the other end of the spectrum, exclusion due to irrelevant inherent characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, is not yet a folly completely relegated to a shameful past, but the moral argument is clearly over, and the result is a general awareness that such discrimination is unjustifiable and indefensible. Clearly, those who still suffer from this form of discrimination justifiably feel no patience regarding any delay in ending it completely, and I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in their efforts to end it now and forever. But, in the developed world at least, the writing is on the wall.
Another related but slightly different area of discrimination involves those with physical and mental disabilities. Unlike issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, inclusion of those with disabilities often requires an affirmative effort and investment by us as a society to create accessibility and accommodate special needs. Most people recognize that that is the decent and just thing to do, and many realize that it allows us to best utilize our pool of human capital rather than to create greater swathes of nonproductivity and dependence.
In between these extremes of the obviously justifiable and the obviously unjustifiable lies a broad swathe of contested terrain. I argue that we should only discriminate in the public sphere on the bases of merit or competence (or organizational relevance), and on no other basis whatsoever. Beyond that, we should be all-inclusive. Though that may seem at a glance to be a mainstream position, it is actually a radical fringe position, though recognizing it as such is the first step toward increasing its acceptance.
As the various debates revolving around immigration policy demonstrate, many Americans believe in excluding people on the basis of their legal residency status. That has nothing to do with merit: It is a status determined only by the way in which people migrated to their current location, what legal formalities they did or did not observe.
It also has nothing to do with orgnizational relevance, since studies generally demonstrate economic and fiscal gains to the organization (i.e., the nation), and, in any case, we do not only consider “organizational relevance” in national membership to depend on productivity (though illegal immigrants would generally benefit from such a criterion). In fact, those who are more inclined to exclude on the basis of “productivity” (i.e., who blame the poor for their poverty, and consider society as a whole to have no responsibility to them) are most similar to the historical archetypes we hold in least esteem (e.g., the Nazis).
The tautology that because it is illegal, exclusion is indisputably appropriate, ignores the historical frequency in which legal exclusion has been both morally and pragmatically wrong, and the reality of human migration and de facto (if not always de jure) membership in our society as a result of it.
Lest anyone exaggerate the “criminality” of not observing the formalities of legal immigration, I would recommend a review of both world and U.S. history, in both of which those formalities have rarely been observed or enforced to any great extent, anywhere, at any time. People migrate away from oppression or destitution and toward freedom or opportunity; they always have, they always will, and they don’t always do so by observing the bureaucratic niceties that would prevent them from doing so. That is the reality of the world we live in.
In America today, many right-wing ideologues who prefer more rather than less exlusion (excluding gays and lesbians from marriage, excluding Muslims from freedom of religion and property, excluding undocumented immigrants from most any rights whatsoever, and often, explicitly or explicitly, excluding those historically disadvantaged by race or ethnicity from redressment of those historically imposed inequities in order to create true equality of opportunity today), use rhetoric eerily similar to that employed by others who engaged in now discredited and reviled forms of exclusion in the past, including the rhetoric of German Nazis in the prelude to the Holocaust. We live in a country which continually flirts with the ugly inhumanities that history has reproduced so frequently in so many times and places, and does so with complete disregard for what it is doing.
(I use the somewhat “forbidden” historical reference point of Nazi Germany because it is important to heed the lesson it yields, embodied in the cry “Never again!” The error we must avoid is not limited to the sin of genocide, but also the sin of dehumanization that precedes and justifies all such crimes against humanity, on scales and in degrees large and small.)
If we, as a country, feel a pragmatic necessity to exclude some from entry to our country, let us do so reluctantly rather than overzealously, and let us recognize the de facto as well as de jure members of our society who have become integrated into it, into our economy and our communities and our families. Two recent studies, by The Colorado Center on Law and Policy, and The Bell, have demonstrated that illegal immigrants in Colorado yield a net benefit to both our state economy and our state coffers. The Economist magazine has frequently noted that our massive immigration of working age people serves to redress our increasingly critical demographic imbalance between a collapsing number of workers supporting an exploding number of retirees.
Research shows that several economic sectors suffer enormously from crack-downs on illegal immigration, that competition tends to be at the bottom of the economic ladder (mostly isolated to those who have just immigrated, and those who have recently done so) and that the new waves of immigration provide the foundations upon which established citizens and residents can climb the economic ladder. By most accounts, not only is it more humane to allow people to come here seeking opportunity, but it also benefits those of us who were already born into it.
Many Americans continue to see nationalism as an unassailably legitimate basis for exclusion, the nation as private property, and those who come into it uninvited as trespassers. First, as already noted above, since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we do not accord even private businesses such unfettered right to exclude, and the nation is more not less “open to the public.” Granted, the nation-state is a concept premised on some degree of exclusivity, of being a bounded entity defined as separated in some ways from the rest of the world. But nations have always been highly permeable entities, with people and goods flowing in and out in significant volume. There is little to indicate that stifling that flow has ever been particularly good for any nation (though much to show that encouraging it has been extremely good for those nations that have done so), and even less to indicate that it has ever been particularly good for humanity.
Even so, there certainly are some similarities between private property and national boundaries: Both are the institutionalization of historically violently acquired inequities, which, while eroded by subsequent enterprise, remain very evident in the distribution of wealth and opportunity. The main difference is that, while private property, despite its unsavory aspects in the establishment and perpetuation of inequity, is a highly functional system, facilitating the robust production of wealth through market mechanisms, nations, conversely, are for the most part mere barriers to such wealth production. Nations, in other words, enjoy the social defects of private property, while laying claim to none of the social benefits.
(That’s not to say that there are no social benefits whatsoever to the existence of nation-states. As with all forms of sub-global social organizational consolidation, there is, generally speaking, an immediate short-and-medium term benefit in terms of the utility produced within and for the bounded population, and a cost in terms of the barriers to larger scale social organizational consolidation which, in the long run, is a cost for the bounded population as well. Any level of social consolidation has variable value in terms of how well it articulates with both larger and smaller levels of organization. But focusing narrowly on wealth production, nation-states form barriers to the movement of the factors of production, and as such generally serve to impede global wealth production. There are some qualifications and exceptions to this general rule, but to go into them would be too great a digression.)
More easily grasped than the dissimilarities from private property is the historical infamy of ultranationalism, being the ideology which informed and justified the Holocaust, the attitude underlying which is uncomfortably similar to the attitude underlying our own current anti-immigrant hysteria.
Whether these analyses and this perspective prevail, the rhetoric that vilifies these humble people who migrate here to provide their children with better futures is absolutely and incontravertably indefensible. Several posters on The Denver Post message boards discussing the issue expressed the blatantly racist (and historically familiar) belief that our current wave of illegal immigrants is to be reviled for their supposed criminality (not immigration related), a belief based on the relative poverty of many in each new wave of immigration (and ironically emphasized the crime most commonly committed as a direct result of their illegal status: stealing social security numbers in order to obtain work, and argument in favor of precisely what they most vehemently argue against: “amnesty”). One sincerely opined that we should exterminate all undocumented immigrants in this country, all 12 million of them, thus doubling the record set by Nazi Germany in their own extermiantion of their own reviled “foreign” population living among them. That post received one parenthetical rebuke from one poster only, in contrast to the swarm of rebukes I received for my highly qualified comparison of their attitude to that of Nazi Germany, and for calling for a more humane and compassionate attitude.
One of the defining disctinction between the American Right and Left today revolves around our respective attitudes toward inclusivity and exclusivity. The left believes in social justice, in investing as a people in the increase of opportunity for those who currently enjoy the least opportunities, for more inclusion and less exclusion. The right remains the ideology that is the hier of racism, as well as to too great an extent its most fortified remaining haven, for not only do too many from that ideology defend the remnants of explicit and implicit racism, but, more universally and less ambiguously, they defend forms of exclusion that are logically and functionally similar.
It’s time to leave that kind of elitism on the dust heap of history, and recognize the humanity of all people, everywhere. It’s time to live up to our values and not just our greed, to be what we claim to be and not what others perceive us as. It’s time to give our children cause for pride, and the world cause for hope.
Beyond the specific moral, economic, and political dimensions of how inclusive we are, and how exclusive we are, is the systemic understanding. Human beings are woven of and into complex systems, ranging from the postulated basic building blocks of the universie (the “strings” of string theory, from which all other subatomic particles emanate), to the infinite and eternal. No systems are truly closed; all are open in various ways and to various degrees. The boundaries we perceive between them are more for our conceptual convenience than relfections of fundamental reality. From this perspective, “exclusion” is inherently unnatural, an arrogant insensitivity to the reality of our existence.
We are not first and foremost individuals, but rather first and foremost moments of a larger consciousness. Our happiness, our welfare, our liberty, and our humanity depend on recognizing our interdependence, not just with one another but with all of nature as well, more than on denying it. It is the smallest of demands upon this awareness to recognize that two people of the same sex who want to marry should be embraced without prejudice, and that all people who endure the difficulties of relocating in a foreign land in search of hope for themselves and their children should not be condemned nor robbed of dignity for doing what humans have done throughout history.
Extreme Individualism was dead. Even Economics, the most individualistic of Social Sciences, knew that it was dead. But Abandoner Screwage didn’t. (“Abandoner´s” real name was “Abner,” a Tea Partier who attended Sarah Palin rallies in a Medicare-supplied “Hoverround,” along with hundreds of others similarly equipped, like a confused geriatric biker gang).
Abandoner saw the ghost of Extreme Individualism everywhere, as if it were alive and well. He saw it in a century-old non-empirical Austrian economic philosophy and in a century-old poorly written and conceived novel expressing an adolescent superiority complex. He saw it in his caricature of the American Constitution, and in fabricated economic principles that no living economist actually adhered to. He saw it in his door knocker, heard it ringing all his bells (like a drunken hunchback defecting from another novel of the same era), filling his dreams with the slack-jawed stupidity of blind fanaticism.
But Abandoner didn’t realize that Extreme Individualism itself knew that it was dead, and that it wanted Abandoner to know it as well. For the Ghost of Extreme Individualism was ashamed of itself, and longed only for peaceful oblivion.
Extreme Individualism’s Ghost clanked its chains in Abandoner’s 3000 square feet of well-apportioned and larded living space that Abandoner knew he deserved by being born into an affluent family (or by being fortunate in other ways, but never primarily by the mythological “merit” with which he always rationalized the inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity as inherently just, in much the same way that landed aristocracy had in centuries gone by). The Ghost passed through the door into Abandoner’s room, howling and rattling and moaning, and in general giving Abandoner that warm fuzzy feeling of being favored by a dead and discredited idea.
But the Ghost of Extreme Individualism was repentant, and introduced itself to Abandoner by declaring the error of its, and his, ways.
“Business!” the Ghost cried. “Mankind was my business! The common good was my business!” The Ghost looked out the window and saw the misery that it and its past adherents (now moaning specters floating through the air) had wrought, all tortured by their inability to work toward instituting the public policies that would help alleviate that suffering, the policies that they had all so rancorously opposed in life.
“You will be visited by three spirits,” Extreme Individualism’s Ghost told Abandoner. “The first will come when the clock strikes one. The second when the clock strikes two. And the third when the clock strikes three. Heed their lessons well, Abandoner!”
Abandoner fell asleep trembling at the thought that his beloved dead and discredited ideology had turned on him, and awoke at the stroke of one to find himself confronted by the Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Past. The spirit was simultaneously old and ageless, quiet and strong, unpresuming and relentlessly imposing. But it was filled with sorrow and regret, for it knew that ages of suffering that it had failed to prevent had cost so many so much.
“Touch my robe, Abandoner, and I will show you your predecessors in elitism and oppression, in indifference to the unjust suffering of others, in rationalized selfishness and implicit cruelty.” The spirit took Abandoner on a tour of human history, showing him how private property came into being and passed from hand to hand through military conquest and theft, how titles of “nobility” assumed by thugs and descendants of thugs sought to rationalize and justify that distribution of wealth, how the evolution of democracy and capitalism, though generally improvements on what had preceded them, still largely preserved the injustices of past distributions of wealth and opportunity, and how those who were left to suffer in poverty and despair were usually guilty primarily of “being born into the wrong womb,” as much in the present as in the past.
The spirit shamed Abandoner by showing him that even the thugs of the past were more convinced of their social responsibility than he was, the Roman and Medieval aristocrats who understood their “noblesse oblige” and paid for public works and public feasts and alms for the poor with their own money, not as a charitable whim to satisfy or not as they please, but as a sacred (quasi-legal) obligation that would have brought disgrace upon them to fail to fulfill.
The Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Past showed Abandoner the American Revolution, on which Abandoner based so much of his self-justification. The spirit showed both the ways in which that revolution served to defend the current and potential wealth and power of its mostly landed aristocratic perpetrators against the British attempts to protect the Indians of the newly acquired Ohio Valley, the captive African population, the Scotch-Irish rural poor (who sided with the crown), and the French Catholics of newly acquired Canada from the avarice of the colonial coastal landed gentry; and the ways in which its underlying ideals were far more committed to the common welfare and the ideal of equality (as well as a commitment to continuing political progress rather than enshrinement of that moment in history) than Abandoner’s self-serving parody of those ideals recognized.
The spirit showed Abandoner the struggles for justice and equality that followed, struggles often opposed by oppressors using precisely the same language and ideas as Abandoner himself; the struggle for abolition of slavery, which Southern slave owners ironically decried as an attack on their liberties; the struggles to respect the rights of the indigenous population, to secure for women the right to vote, to overcome the legacies of history which deprived some of rights and the most basic of freedoms in the name of service to the “liberty” of others.
Abandoner watched the slaughter of innocent indigenous women and children in the name of “liberty” but in service only to the theft of their land. He saw slaves whipped, husbands separated from wives and mothers from their small children in sales designed to increase the master’s wealth, all in the name of “liberty” (as argued, for instance, by John C. Calhoun in his tome Union and Liberty, using language and arguments identical to those used by Abandoner today). He watched the denial of real, lived, shared liberty in the name of his false, greedy, oppressive and destructive mockery of the word. And he couldn’t help but be moved, for his self-serving ignorance and avarice could not withstand the onslaught of reality presented by this Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Past, a spirit who showed the blaring absence of all that it stood for, a surging sea of ignorance and malice rationalized by the convenient idols of petty and shrivelled souls.
Abandoner awoke again in his own room at the stroke of two to find a bright light seeping through the cracks in his firmly closed door. He opened the door to find the robust and hearty Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Present sitting on a raised chair surrounded by bounty, raucous laughter on his face and on his lips.
“Come in, Abandoner!” the spirit bellowed with resonant good humor. “Come in, and partake of our shared feast! Plenty flows from my horn when more are more disposed to share with others, and even deprivations are borne more lightly when borne together!”
The spirit showed Abandoner the rest of the developed world, less diseased by Abandoner’s miserable and miserly ideology than America. In these countries that share many of the same values and ideals, but have been spared the misfortune of enshrining them and thus reducing them to parodies of themselves, poverty has been virtually eradicated, there is less violence and more personal security, health care is universal and less expensive to provide and health outcomes are better by almost every single statistical measure (including public satisfaction), self-reported happiness is higher, and there is greater rather than lesser ability to prosper by virtue of one’s own efforts.
“The folly of condemning THAT, while embracing THIS…,” cried the spirit, showing Abandoner his own hyper-individualistic society, the one that Abandoner himself had helped to shackle with the rotting corpse of Extreme Individualism, with higher rates of poverty and all the social ills that accompany it: Higher infant mortality rates, poorer health, less happiness, poorer educational performance, more violence, more suffering. “This is what you are fighting to enshrine as the perfection of human genius! Clinging to a fictionalized past to impose greater suffering and less joy on a population ridiculed and pitied by all others of comparable economic power! Shame on you, you shrivelled little excuse for humanity! That poor child you’ve abandoned to your false idols is worth more in the eyes of God than all you self-satisfied misanthropes combined, who claim that the suffering of others is no concern of yours!”
The spirit showed Abandoner the other America, the one which Abandoner did not define, filled with many who accepted salaries far lower than they were capable of earning in order to do good works for others’ benefit, the teachers with advanced degrees, the public interest lawyers earning a fraction of what their peers in private firms did, the workers in non-profits and social services struggling to stem the tide of social indifference that Abandoner, with his every word and breath, struggled to preserve and perpetuate.
“Join them, you petty little parasite!” intoned the spirit. ”Join them in the shared feast which you choose instead to horde and call your own!”
Abandoner saw joy; joy in the faces of a teacher who inspired a child to learn rather than despair, to aspire rather than prey on others; of the social worker who helped another child find safety and love; of those who fought to govern themselves with compassion and empathy for one another rather than with individual avarice and mutual indifference; of those who were blessed by the Spirit of Reason and Goodwill and appalled by the specter of Extreme Individualism which so smugly and callously opposed it.
Abandoner couldn’t help but feel their joy, the celebration of humanity’s shared existence, the knowledge of belonging to something larger than himself and lovingly shared rather than being the covetous hoarder of something smaller and jealously guarded. He fell asleep with that joy dancing in his heart, truly light-spirited for the first time for as long as he could recall. He fell asleep knowing what it means to thrive, something that requires generosity of spirit, something that is the fount of true liberty.
He awoke at the stroke of three to see the Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Yet to Come standing beside his bed, a lithe form and beatific face, but human rather than ethereal; a mild satisfied glow in its eyes and a slight knowing smile on its lips, unburdened wisdom and contentment dancing across its features and flowing through its every movement and gesture. It was filled with passion but not anger, knowledge but not arrogance, reason but not certainty, imagination but not superstition, humility but not fear. It was what Abandoner would have dreamt of being, were Abandoner wise enough to understand the meaning of human potential.
The spirit stood before Abandoner saying nothing, piercing him with its gaze. Abandoner felt profoundly naked, trasparent, revealed. He felt foolish and small, which, of course, was precisely what he was.
“Are you the Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Yet to Come, whose appearance was foretold to me?” Abandoner asked, having wanted to invoke his customary bombast, but finding himself unable to, knowing now what a farce it had always been and would always be.
The spirit didn’t move, didn’t answer, didn’t even nod, but its smile seemed just a bit more intent, and its eyes to sparkle just a bit more brightly.
As Abandoner gazed into that face, he saw a future he had been unable to imagine, a future in which liberty and mutual responsibility were inseparable ideals, in which the interdependence of all was understood and acknowledged, in which freedom was heightened and enriched by transcending the shallow pretense that its exercise by each occurred in a vacuum, and recognizing instead that no one has the inalienable right to (for instance) contaminate another’s air and water any more than one has the inalienable right to put a bullet in another’s chest.
The spirit took Abandoner on a tour of a future devoid of both ostentatious wealth and abject poverty, a world of mutual care and support, a world not cleansed of human foibles but rather adapted to them. People lived to celebrate life, to discover and expand and enjoy and assist others in doing the same. Their work was both more productive and more satisfying for the value and respect that others gave it. Entertainments were edifying and enriching rather than mindless distractions that sapped the soul. Robust and knowledgeable discussions were commonplace, sometimes heated debates, but almost always reverberating with reason and imagination and goodwill. There was greater joy, greater health, greater mental health, less suffering, less abuse, less neglect, less violence, more freedom -real freedom, the freedom born of nurtured human consciousness.
But then the spirit showed Abandoner a different future, or perhaps the inevitable road to the one he had just shown, a road whose length would be longer or shorter depending on the choices of those who comprise it. Abandoner saw all the Tiny Tims that would die because of his callous insistence that denying health care to those who can’t afford it is a requisite of “liberty.” Abandoner saw all of the violence and suffering and heartbreak that could have been prevented, that had been prevented to a far greater degree in places less in the thrall of his shallow and life-denying ideology. He saw that it was real, that the tormented howls of a parent who lost a child to violence that could have been prevented, to a disease that could have been cured, to abuse or neglect by another that a society that placed greater value on empathy would have avoided by investing in its avoidance, were all real, and he knew that each and every instance was a crime against humanity, a crime for which Abandoner and all like him shared a portion of the guilt.
The spirit led Abandoner to a large book on a book stand, like a relic of a previous age. Abandoner’s trembling fingers reached out to trace the embossed letters that formed the title on its cover: “Humanity.”
The book suddenly flipped open, pages fluttering by as Abandoner recoiled in fear. Then the flurry ended and the book lay open, the spirit glancing suggestively at the revealed page.
Abandoner, quaking with fear, leaned over the book and read history’s judgment of the movement to which he belonged. He read how he and his kind would be as disdained by future generations as all others of similar disposition had been before, for just as those before had hidden behind distorted ideals, it was not “liberty” for which these shallow and selfish people were really fighting, but rather injustice and inequality.
History has always condemned the brutal, self-serving disregard for the welfare of others that litters its pages, and it condemned Abandoner. He was just another foolish adherent in another chapter of the long and tragic tale of Man’s Inhumanity To Man, and the false idols he gloriously cloaked himself in were just another swastika, another sickle-and-hammer, another white hood, another brown shirt, another tool of another Inquisition, another blind faith denouncing heretics while obstructing the less stagnant and reducible truths of Reason and Goodwill. He had wasted his life as just another dupe of ignorance and belligerence, and if he were remembered at all, that’s all he would ever be remembered for.
“Spirit!” cried Abandoner. “Are these the shadows of things that must be, or can I, if I change my ways, change what is written in that book?!”
The spirit looked into Abandoner’s eyes, and spoke for the first and last time. “What do you think Freedom really means?”
Abandoner awoke on Christmas morning, a white blanket of snow covering the Earth, and a weight lifted from his heart. He felt free, freer than he had ever felt before, free of a pettiness that had imprisoned him more securely than bars or chains ever could, free to work for the common good, free to be a part of something bigger than himself. He knew that individual generosity was a part of it, something that was as important as any other part, that he had to help others of all ideologies to understand that. But he knew also that it isn’t enough to express that generosity just as a bunch of atomized individuals, that it must also be expressed as a part of our shared existence, that we also each have a responsibility to work with all others so inclined, and to try to convince all others to become so inclined, to reach down into the systems that order our lives and refine them to better express that generosity of spirit that he had been shown by the three spirits who embodied it, not in defiance of individual liberty, but in the ultimate and most meaningful service to it.
Abandoner abandoned his old way of thinking, and gave his name new meaning, for he abandoned ignorance and belligerence; he abandoned extreme individualism; he abandoned fixed and inflexible, rigid and unsubtle ideas that do more to shackle otherwise free men and women than any other agent of oppression; he abandoned the struggle to impose injustice and suffering on the world, and joined instead the struggle to liberate ourselves from the constraints we have imposed on ourselves, together.
And he was forever loved and respected for having done so.
Merry Christmas, Everyone!
(For more precise, analytical discussions of the logical and empirical errors of extreme Libertarian/Tea Party ideology, see the other essays in the fourth box at Catalogue of Selected Posts: “Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry, The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical Analogy, The True Complexity of Property Rights, Liberty & Interdependence, Real Fiscal Conservativism, Social Institutional Luddites, The Inherent Contradiction of Extreme Individualism, Liberty & Society, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” American Political Edition (Parts I-V), An Open Letter To The American Far-Right, A Frustrated Rant On A Right-Wing Facebook Thread, The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism, Dialogue With A Libertarian, More Dialogue With Libertarians, Yet Another Conversation With Libertarians, Response to a Right-Wing Myth, and The History of American Libertarianism. For an alternative vision, based on the realities of the complex dynamical systems of which we are a part and how we can most wisely and effectively articulate our own individual and collective aspirations within those systems, see the essays in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts. For some insight into the nature of those complex dynamical systems and our place in them, see the essays in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts.)