Sunday, January 06, 2008

A Tale of Two Visions

We are, I think, in a crisis of meaning. What do our governmental institutions mean? What does it mean to be educated? What does it mean to be a journalist? What does it mean in today’s world to pursue not only vocations, to be part of institutions, but to be human?

And, certainly, coming off the last year when the ethos of selfishness and greed were given places of honor never before accorded, it is certainly timely to ask ourselves these questions... But I think the answer to his question—“Who will lead us out of this spiritual vacuum?”—the answer is “all of us.” Because remolding society does not depend on just changing government, on just reinventing our institutions to be more in tune with present realities. It requires each of us to play our part in redefining what our lives are and what they should be.

We are caught between two great political forces. On the one hand we have our economy—the market economy—which knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. That is not its job. And then the state or government which attempts to use its means of acquiring tax money, of making decisions to assist us in becoming a better, more equitable society as it defines it. That is what all societies are currently caught between—forces that are more complex and bigger than any of us can understand... And what we each must do is break through the old thinking that has for too long captured us politically and institutionally, so that we can begin to devise new ways of thinking about not only what it means to have economies that don’t discard people like they were excess baggage that we no longer need, but to define our institutional and personal responsibilities in ways that answer this lack of meaning.

We need a new politics of meaning. We need a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring. We need a new definition of civil society which answers the unanswerable questions posed by both the market forces and the governmental ones, as to how we can have a society that fills us up again and makes us feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

Now, will it be easy to do that? Of course not. Because we are breaking new ground. This is a trend that has been developing over hundreds of years. It is not something that just happened to us in the last decade or two. And so it is not going to be easy to redefine who we are as human beings in this post-modern age. Nor will it be easy to figure out how to make our institutions more responsive to the kind of human beings we wish to be.

But part of the great challenge of living is defining yourself in your moment, of seizing the opportunities that you are given, and of making the very best choices you can. That is what this administration, this president, and those of us who are hoping for these changes are attempting to do...Let us be willing to remold society by redefining what it means to be a human being in the twentieth century; moving into a new millennium.
(Hillary Clinton, at the Liz Carpenter Lecture Series, University of Texas, Austin, Texas, April 7, 1993)

These comments by Hillary Clinton, now a candidate for the Democrat nomination as President of the United States, but then given as First Lady, illustrate the essential difference in vision between the Republican party candidates and those of the Democrat party. It is, at its core, the same difference in vision that respectively fueled the American and French revolutions.

Thomas Sowell has written comprehensively about this in his book, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. To very briefly summarize: the French Revolution was spurred by an unconstrained vision of humanity that saw it as capable of achieving utopia through applied reason and social institutions, i.e., education, science and government. The American Revolution, on the other hand, was ideologically underpinned by the constrained, classical view of humanity (specifically, the Judeo-Christian view of humanity) as fallen and fatally flawed; that government, rather than being a path to utopia, was something of a necessary evil to restrict the passions and behaviors of men in a social order, while, as much as possible, guarding and preserving his God-given rights and freedoms.

In Mrs. Clinton's call for a redefinition of humanity through a "politics of meaning," (a phrase she acquired from radical Jewish activist Michael Lerner), I hear the echo of the atheist enlightenment utopianists who were, ultimately, the progenitors of both socialist and communist systems of thought. What I find more disturbing, however, is that the same language and ideas permeate the speeches and policies of all the Democrat Presidential candidates. Implicit in their speeches is the idea that government is a force for good, and if government, through the exercise of "progressive" ideals, is good, then more government is better. Implicit, too, is the idea that human problems can be--not ameliorated, but solved--through the wise and progressive application of government. Disease, poverty, ignorance, bigotry--perhaps even loneliness--are all human problems that can be eradicated by this redefinition of humanity and the politics of meaning.

As Thomas Sowell points out, such ideas are far from being new. They first played themselves out in the French Revolution to horrifying results. But the vision of humanity that fueled the American system and defined the role and limits of its government, was something of its polar opposite, perhaps most succinctly described by James Madison in The Federalist Papers: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." It was precisely this clear-eyed understanding of flawed human nature that informed the American founders of both man's need of the constraints of government, and the government's need of constraints on itself, so that Thomas Jefferson could say, "government is best which governs least."

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