Friday, April 15, 2011

Hopes and Fears

As President Obama begins his billion-dollar journey towards reelection there are two things he will want to remind us that really matter. First, there is the fear of another Republican presidency. We don't want to go back to that. Second, the hope for the future, to "pass on to our children a country that we believe in." He made all this clear in his April 13 speech at George Washington University. He attacks Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) for the pessimism of the Ryan Budget Plan.

I believe it paints a vision of our future that is deeply pessimistic. It’s a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them. If there are bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can’t afford to send them.

Who wouldn't fear an America like that? But there is hope.

The America I know is generous and compassionate. It’s a land of opportunity and optimism. Yes, we take responsibility for ourselves, but we also take responsibility for each other; for the country we want and the future that we share... We don’t have to choose between a future of spiraling debt and one where we forfeit our investment in our people and our country.

Let us think a little about how this business of hope and fear works. There is political hope and fear, economic hope and fear, and religious hope and fear. In China we would talk about the Three Hopes and the Three Fears.

At the political level, we talk about our fear of enemies. If you are a conservative, you fear Islamic extremism. If you are a liberal, you fear right-wing militias. Politicians are eager to lead us, to battle against the forces of darkness and lead us to the Promised Land. For conservatives that would be America, the last best hope of mankind on Earth. For liberals, it would be Peace and Justice.

At the economic level, we fear deprivation: hunger, homelessness, the Homeric horror of the man who is clanless, lawless, hearthless. But we hope for prosperity: a good job, successful career, and a nice little nest egg to ease the declining years.

In the soul, the depths of the ego, the fear is loneliness, the slough of despond, meaninglessness. We hope for salvation, for meaning, for a fullness of heart.

In the simple community all these hopes and fears are mixed together: we do not differentiate between the political, the economic, and the religious. They are all integrated in our minds. Thus is it that the modern politician, tugging at the ancient chords of memory, frightens us with hobgoblins that threaten our safety, our economic wellbeing, and our sense of meaning, and promises to lead us to peace, to prosperity, and make sense of the meaning of it all.

But the question is: what business has the politicians to talk about prosperity, when that is an economic function? And what business has he to talk about the meaning of life, or even the meaning of America? That is for moralists, for writers, for preachers.

Here we have the Great Question. In our articulated, differentiated world the politician seeks to enfold all of life into the political. But we know that when the political is folded into the religious the result is holy war. And we know that when the political is folded into the economic the result is, at best, crony capitalism and, at worst, the economic disaster of Maoist China.

Thus the Great Hope. We believe in the Greater Separation of Powers, to keep political power out of the economy and economic power out of politics. We believe in keeping moralism out of government and government out of morality.

We believe in an America where a politician that promises prosperity would be laughed out of court. What, after all, does a politician know about creating a business, and building prosperity? He knows nothing except shilling after votes. What does a politician know about morality, who taxes Peter so he can pay Paul for his vote?

Let the politicians stick to politics, defending us from enemies, foreign and domestic. Let the businessmen and the workers stick to products and services. Let the writers and the moralists stick to their appealing entertainments and their glorious visions. Let the moralists criticize the politicians and the businessmen. Let the politicians curb the businessmen when they cheat and steal. And let the rest of us keep the politicians on a very short leash and stop them short when the affect to moralize and imagine that they can manage the economy.

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