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burned at the stake

“What’s wrong with belief?” she asked. ”I have been a Christian for many years, and my faith has given me great comfort.” 

That’s fine, I told her. I have no problem with that. I, myself, am a lapsed atheist: same non-belief, but no interest in the rituals of atheism. I don’t care to proselytize. 

She took exception, she said, to something I had written about political art. I had said that bad political art came as much from the Christian right as from the Marxist left. 

She got me to admit that I had been using hasty polemicist’s shorthand when indicting the Christian right. And she’s correct. For one thing, I’m hard pressed to name any art at all currently made by the religious right. They don’t make art, they criticize it. It is the conservative’s impotence that he can only react, never create. 

For another thing, the Christian right seems to me less a religious than a political faction. The items on its agenda are not notably Christian — at least not from the Christ who advocated poverty and humility — but rather free-market and male-dominated conservatism wearing the imprimatur of authority — a kind of soup made up of half-baked doctrine floating in a broth of testosterone. 

So, it wasn’t Christianity at all that I was indicting, and I should have left the term out of the story. I have no quarrel with Christians. 

Yet, there is something about a certain persuasion of Christian that worries me. And that thing that worries me is the same thing that worries many of us about the Muslim fundamentalism that bombs airplanes or the Hindu fundamentalism that killed Mohandas Gandhi. 

Because it isn’t really Christians who scare me, it is believers. 

I have always made a distinction between faith and belief. Faith is a comfort, and it is a willingness to let pass from one’s heart the angst, rancor and jealousy and recognize that there is something greater in the universe. And further, you are willing to give up control to something greater. 

In some ways, this is only common sense. 

The power you think you have is only illusory in the first place. You cannot control whether you will die, for instance, or whether you will go bald. That is the kind of power you must be willing to give over to the universe that gave you birth. It doesn’t much matter if you name that power Jehovah, Allah or the Void. On this point, the atheist and the Christian can come together. 

Belief, on the other hand, requires an agenda, a dogma, a list of specific things you must accept as ultimately true. Faith is generalized, belief is specific. 

And it is those specifics that have caused all the trouble. 

For human beings are willing to believe the most astonishing things. And what is worse, they are willing to act on them and impose them on their neighbor. It matters not whether you are Savonarola or Madalyn Murray O’Hair. 

Belief is the very devil. It is not a willingness to recognize one’s ultimate powerlessness in a universe that is an overwhelming mystery; it is rather the arrogant assertion that there is only one right way and what is more, you know that right way and everyone else had better start wearing your uniform and marching in step. 

What I should have written, if I had had the time and space, is that the root of evil is certainty. If there is a Satan, he is certainty. 

Certainty gave us Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition.

The wheel of the inquisition

It gave us Hitler, gave us Pol Pot. Certainty justified slavery and permitted white Americans to believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian. 

Certainty destroyed the temples of Tibet and the churches of Moscow. 

We live in a world beset with certainty. It killed Serbs and Croats, Turks and Greeks, Tamil and Hindu. It kills abortion clinic doctors and it kills Oklahoma City government workers and Boston marathoners. 

When people die because someone believes an income tax is unconstitutional, you know something is desperately wrong somewhere. 

The bottom line is: There is a world of difference between being willing to die for your beliefs and being willing to kill for them. 

I am reminded of a chapter in a book by the late Jacob Bronowski, who wrote in his Ascent of Man about the difference between knowledge and certainty. 

jacob bronowski-bbc

After a clear-minded explanation of the uncertainty principle of physicist Werner Heisenberg, Bronowski brings the reader to Auschwitz and shows us a lake bottom — muddy with the ashes of those killed there. 

Heisenberg formulated a theory that explained why if you can measure how fast an electron is traveling, you cannot measure where it is, and if you measure its location, you can no longer measure its speed. It is an expression of the ultimate ambiguity of knowledge. In science, all conclusions are provisional. 

Bronowski extrapolates that it is not just electrons for which that is true, but for all knowledge. Uncertainty breeds humility. Certainty breeds arrogance. 

We shouldn’t need Heisenberg to tell us that all knowledge is uncertain. 

uncertainty formula

”Look for yourself,” he writes. ”This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.”

Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber

Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber

I had always assumed that as I got older, I would eventually turn conservative. It seemed as inevitable as wrinkles, paunch and hair loss.

Radicalism, after all, is an affliction of the young: Too little life experience to know that existence cannot be better than it is; too full of oneself to recognize the limitations of our agency in making the world a different and better place; too full of books and pretty thoughts to realize that theory always falls short of the unpredictable and slippery ice of life.

And the harrumph of the jowly elder speaks of long life lived through disappointment and lowered expectations. The reality bulldozes the hope. A sense of realism settles in like joint pain.

It’s how all those New Deal liberals turned into Bush-era Neo-Cons.

So, I waited to become a curmudgeon, to become my own father. I knew it was coming; I expected it. But over six decades, it hasn’t happened.

I blame conservatives for this.

What was once an intellectual movement, even cosmopolitan in its outlook, with its elders educated at Yale, and able to pun in Latin, has decayed into a kind of anti-intellectual populism built on a foundation of bumper stickers. You elect someone you’d like to have a beer with; you get your political endorsement from an unlicensed plumber.

I do not suspect that Sarah Palin or Todd Akin has ever read Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss or even heard of them. So, I roll my eyes heavenward, twiddle my thumbs, whistle unobtrusively and back slowly away. I cannot sign on.

What has replaced the ideas is a low, rumbling fear of the rest of the world. One thinks of a badger hunkering in its burrow baring its teeth at any by-passers.

badger

The issues that engage conservatism may change over time and circumstance. But at bottom, what is unchanging is its fear of change. Doesn’t matter if it’s our fear of losing our capitalism to a supposed creeping socialism, or Russia’s fear of losing its Communism to creeping oligarchic anarchy. Hardline conservatives everywhere want to keep what they have.

Unfortunately, in the U.S., that means holding down the 15th place in the United Nation’s Human Development Index (a sort of standard-of-living measurement). If we were not so stubborn, we might learn from others, even those that conservatives fear despite their higher standards of living: Scandinavia, France, Canada.

That fear of others is diametrically opposed to the lessons I have learned in my six decades of life: Instead, I’ve discovered that intelligence and ignorance – and virtue – are pretty well equally salted across the globe. America has no monopoly on any of it.

“We’re Number One!” It’s one of the silliest things I’ve heard.

The U.S. is only 16th in its poverty rate, 17th in literacy, 30th in life expectancy, 33rd in infant mortality, and does not even make the list of top-20 nations in student performance in math, science or reading. Yeah, let’s keep on doing more of that.

Worse, you cannot forget that in the past, conservatives defended some pretty indefensible things, like segregation and the Vietnam War. The current fear of gays, or women in the military, or immigrants is just more of the same. Anti-science, anti-education, anti-evolution. “Whatever it is,” sang Rufus T. Firefly, “I’m against it.”

Outside this sad history of bigotry, I had once come to believe the possibility that conservatives had a firmer grasp on fiscal matters than their opposites. I knew I didn’t understand money – other than earning it and spending it – but I assumed someone did.

Perhaps I was wrong. It has been conservatives Reagan and Bush who blasted the roof off the federal deficit. It was the supposedly liberal Clinton who balanced the budget.

Now, conservatives seem to think the answer to anything is tax cuts. Economy good: reason to cut taxes; economy bad: reason to cut taxes. I scratch my head. I’m looking for complex answers to complex problems, not simple-minded and self-interested cure-alls.

Taxes may be a necessary evil, but conservatives have forgotten the “necessary” part of it. After all, when you live in a country club, you have to pay the dues. Fear of taxes is our national neurosis.

Then, too, I once believed that the conservative view of national defense was more realistic than the “ban-the-bomb” attitude of the anti-war demonstrators (of which I was one in the ’60s).

I know that there are people out there, across oceans, who would like to harm us, either from zealotry or rising national interest. The world is certainly nasty, brutal and doing its best to make our life short.

But, the conservative suspicion of other peoples’ motives and other nations’ motives was once based on a belief that human nature was self-interested, and that others’ interests may be inimical to our own. It was a question of survival. If we were smart, we could use their self interest to further our own. But that would require learning something about them, and what their interests are.

Nowadays, too often the conservative sees the world through Manichean lenses: Our American motives are good, even altruistic; “they” are all evil. White hats, black hats. “Axis of evil.” Such miserable lack of self-awareness is never a good way to build policy. And worse, it is patently sentimental. Sentimentality used to be a vice of the liberals.

Teddy Roosevelt – America’s arch-colonialist and hardly a darling of the Left – said “Speak softly but carry a big stick.” Conservatives seem to have forgotten the “speak softly” part, and prefer a great deal of unproductive saber rattling. We really don’t have to do that: The world knows we have the bombs and airplanes. It is our trump card, and shouldn’t be our opening gambit.

And the conservative’s insistence on self-reliance also used to ring true, although the actions of their avatars – Republicans in government – give lie to their convictions as they seem to believe in self-reliance for the poor and government hand-outs for cronies.

I should make it clear, though, that I am not making my point against Republicans, per se. Party politics has almost nothing to do with political philosophy; it is a dog-eat-dog struggle for raw, bloody-clawed power. Either party will toss its convictions into the fire in a wink if it thinks it can gain an advantage over its opponent. One thinks of a scrum of sled dogs snarling in the snow over a chunk of meat.

This partisan game of “king of the hill” is so discouraging that Americans of all stripes now throw up their hands in disgust.

So, it isn’t just Republicans. It is conservatism. There is its undercurrent of tribalism that is ugly and intolerant. People who don’t look like us, or share our beliefs, or worship our god, are proscribed.

The world is full of different kinds of people, and most have something to offer. It would be better to learn from them. As China and India gain on us, we can see they learned a lot by watching us.

And finally, the anti-environmentalism of lumpen conservatives makes me wonder. They seem to think it is a fight between endangered snails and The American Way of Life. Somehow they forget that the first conservationists were conservatives.

One hears the argument that global warming isn’t real, and forgets that it hardly matters: Civilized people don’t shit in their own nests. It shouldn’t take environmental Armageddon to make you realize it isn’t good to pump your waste into the water and air. It should be common sense.

Oh, there is something small and parochial about contemporary conservatism; it should be large and worldly. As I age, I hope I’ve grown; modern conservatism seems to have regressed into a kind of infantilism.

Please, conservatives, show me where I’m wrong, so I can sign up. Harrumph.

Tea party 2

America is a nation of tax whiners.

It is one of our least attractive features. I understand complaining about tax money ill spent; I understand about fretting over taxes being spent on programs we disagree with. In such cases, one should petition for reform of the wasted money or campaign for representatives who will repeal the programs. But complaining merely about taxes seems entirely beside the point.

After all, the very people who most whine about taxes are the same people who scream at the top of their lungs of American exceptionalism: “We’re Number One!”

But, if you live in a country club, you have to pay the dues.

Whine, whine, whine.

It is our unofficial national anthem.

We were founded on the principle of complaining about taxes, and the whining has never ceased despite that Americans pay less in tax than citizens in most other developed countries.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the only developed nations that have less of a tax burden than the United States are Australia, Japan, Korea and Mexico.

Total tax revenue in the United States is a shade more than 29 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, 25 down the list from the world tax leader, Sweden, which pays more than 50 percent of its GDP in tax.

We are beat out by all of Europe. The median percentage on the list for Europe is about 35 percent of GDP, and the average is above 40 percent.

Many, of course, would say that Americans pay less tax precisely because of their chronic whining — to which we also owe our prosperity and our freedom. Whether you agree, it’s likely that seldom before in history has there been a people who expected so much — in terms of government service — for so little. And in recent years, America’s traditional anti-tax sentiment has increasingly blended into our resurgent demonization of government in general.

Today you cannot turn on a television newscast without hearing a politician or a protester complain that American taxes are unconscionable.

“Taxes are too high and government is charging more than it needs,” said President George W. Bush in his budget speech to the joint session of Congress. “The people of America have been overcharged.”

His answer at a time of two unfunded wars: tax cuts. Whoopee!

This has always been gospel in America. The fighting cry for independence in the 18th century was, “No taxation without representation,” although the protest often seemed more against taxation of any kind.

In 1776, in fact, the American colonists paid less per capita in taxes to the crown than mainland English citizens did. And they paid five times more tax in 1698 than they did in 1773, the year of the Boston Tea Party.

It is ironic that the most famous act of tax rebellion in our history actually protested the elimination of a tax. How many of our current Tea Party activists know that?

The colonists had paid a tax on tea for years, but in 1773 the British Parliament allowed the British-owned East India Co. to sell its tea in the colonies tax free, making its tea cheaper than the American-imported product and essentially creating a tea monopoly.

There were other taxes that colonists found intolerable even when the amount of money collected was nominal. The Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765 added fuel to the pyre of anti-tax sentiment.

The true call, it seems, was then, as now, for representation without taxation.

But even after independence, when taxation came with representation, the first serious threat to the new nation came in the form of a tax revolt — the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, in which farmers of western Pennsylvania rioted against excise tax collectors. President George Washington had to lead the Army one last time to quell the revolt.

Four years later, when Congress enacted the Federal Property Tax to pay for the expansion of the military in anticipation of a feared war with France, John Fries began what is known as Fries Rebellion in opposition to the tax. Fries was tried and convicted of treason, though he was pardoned by President John Adams in 1800, not long before Adams left office.

The first American income tax was floated soon after to pay for the War of 1812, but the war ended before any tax money was collected, so it died a-borning.

It was reanimated during the Civil War; an income tax was collected from 1862 to 1872 although even then tax rebellion was afoot in the form of widespread tax evasion.

More to the point, there is an undercurrent of American historical thought that believes taxes were the primary cause of the Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln had promised the South that if elected he would not interfere with slavery. But he also promised in his inaugural address that he would enforce the collection of excise taxes even if the South attempted to secede. Those taxes were highly unpopular in the South as they favored Northern industry.

An income tax was tried again in 1893 under President Grover Cleveland. The primary income of the federal government had always been tariffs on the import of foreign goods, but Cleveland ran on the platform of reducing tariffs, which had restricted free trade. To make up for the lost revenue, he asked for an income tax on corporate earnings. The following year, Congress passed such a tax, expanded to include personal income.

The Supreme Court would have none of it and struck down the tax as unconstitutional.

The issue was Section 9 of Article I of the Constitution, which said, “No capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the census or enumeration herein before directed to be taken.”

Which meant that the collection of direct taxes — as opposed to indirect taxes such as sales taxes — must be made in proportion to the populations of the various states. This made a simple income tax nearly impossible.

But as populist sentiment arose at the turn of the century, many saw an income tax as a way of getting money from the rich.

Theodore Roosevelt advocated a graduated tax on inheritance in 1906. In 1908, he called for Congress to enact a progressive income tax.

But the Constitution still stood in the way.

So, an amendment was proposed, which came into law in 1913 as the 16th Amendment, authorizing an unapportioned income tax. By the way, the Senate voted for the amendment 77 to 0, and the House of Representatives followed, voting 318 to 14. It was hardly a squeaker.

The first income tax under the new amendment gave a $4,000 exemption to families (perhaps equivalent to a $40,000 exemption today) and then charged 1 percent on the first $20,000 above that, 2 percent at $50,000 and a maximum rate of 7 percent on incomes above $500,000.

World War II made the big difference, spreading the tax burden into the middle class. Before the war, about 15 percent of the people paid all of the income tax. After the war, 80 percent paid it.

That is when the federal government first started payroll withholding. During the 1930s, federal individual income taxes never topped 1.4 percent of the Gross National Product. During 1990, that number was 8.77 percent.

The income tax remains the single most contentious tax we pay. And it is the center of most of modern whining.

“When the 16th Amendment became law in 1913,” wrote Robert Ringer in his book Restoring the American Dream, “an important step was taken in laying the groundwork for the destruction of the spirit that had made America the freest, strongest and most prosperous country in history.”

It might be noted that it wasn’t until after the income tax that America, in fact, rose above the level of a Third World nation and became the strongest, most prosperous country in the world.

But the complaints continue.

There was a local tax revolt in Chicago in the 1930s during the height of the Depression and another in California in the 1970s.

The latter revolt still reverberates today, culminating most recently in the Taxpayers Bill of Rights passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1998.

But there was an edge to that 1970s movement, championed by Howard Jarvis, among others, that began to question not just tax but the legitimacy of government.

It resulted in the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which limited the state’s ability to increase property taxes. Jarvis was an unlikely revolutionary; he looked more like a jowly retiree bearing photographs of his grandchildren, but he had a mission and a message:

“Tax, tax, tax, spend, spend, spend; elect and elect and elect, is bankrupting we the American people and the time has come to stop it.”

Jarvis

Implicit in his message was a growing mistrust of government in general.

“Proposition 13 in California was an assault not simply on taxes but on government as we know it,” tax historian Elliott Brownlee has said. “It was really the beginning of an anti-government crusade that has continued.”

More extreme elements of this sentiment thrive all over the Internet, in scores of screed-filled Web sites about the evils of tax, government and a one-world conspiracy. One describes taxes as the “economic rape of America.”

“Tax is theft,” it says, “legalized robbery, crime” — begging the question how something legal can be a crime. It is called parasitism, cannibalism, cancer and, alternately, a Mafia protection racket.

Such ranting is the equivalent, amplified and larded with aggressive hype, of the pamphleteering of Tom Paine and others more than 200 years ago. Appealing to the emotions and an unrefined sense of personal freedom, with little sense of practical reality or the interconnectedness of society, they are the screams of our national id.

The founding fathers, it could be said, created the Constitution as a kind of superego to that id, to help Adam Smith’s famous “unseen hand” bring collective benefit out of the selfishness of the individual.

Certainly, as April 15 spins around each year, we all grow anxious: No one likes paying. And if we could run our government on less money, we’d all breathe easier. But taxes, in and of themselves, are at the very least a necessary evil. America would hardly maintain itself if no one paid teachers or built roads. We should decide what we want from government and argue over that, rather than whine about having to pay anything at all.

Colbert painting

Jean Baptiste Colbert, finance minister to King Louis XIV of France in the 17th century, once famously said, “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.”

On this count, America may have the world’s lowest threshold of pain.

A look back

Tax receipts can be found among the oldest artifacts of human civilization. Wrapped in a pottery ball from the fourth millennium B.C. discovered in the Near East are the records of a tax having been paid.

The earliest taxes, though, probably came in the form of work extracted. People would be required to work for the state for a given period of time each year. They provided the labor to build roads or pyramids or fill the ranks of armies during war. The military draft was a late remnant of such taxation.

Before money, when tax was exacted, it came in the form of crops and cattle.

In ancient China, one fifth of a farmer’s crops was taken as a “flat rate” tax. A poem from the Chou Dynasty complained about big government: “Big Rat, Big Rat, do not gobble your millet.”

But by the time of the Roman Empire, tax was often monetary. Under Julius Caesar, for instance, a 1 percent sales tax was introduced. And at an early date, a 5 percent inheritance tax was created — later raised to 10 percent — although applied on only what was left after bequests to wife and children.

Roman taxes at first relied on “tax farming” — that is, hiring private enterprise to collect the taxes. These were the publicans mentioned in the Bible, who grew so corrupt that Caesar Augustus outlawed the practice, putting civil servants in charge of gathering the money.

The first income tax was created in 1799 in England to raise money to fight Napoleon. It was repealed in 1816.

In the United States, the first income tax came in 1862 to help underwrite the Civil War, 50 years after an aborted attempt to help finance the War of 1812.

In one of those periodically surreal pronouncements from Washington, D.C., the tax commissioner said, “The people of this country have accepted it with cheerfulness.”

A more realistic assessment of how happy people were can be found in 1870 — the year of the highest compliance for that first income tax — in a nation of 38 million people, that only 276,000 people filed returns.

Platypus-sketch

Contemporary American conservatism is a very strange duck. Maybe a platypus. 

To begin with, it espouses what has always previously been called liberalism: When our nation was founded, it was the conservative Hamilton who imagined a strong central government and the liberal Jefferson who feared it. 

Conservatism has traditionally been in favor of strong government. It is one of its hallmarks through history. Of course, behind that belief in central power was the heart of true conservatism: maintaining privilege for those who enjoyed it. That is why we could talk about Soviet hardline conservatives hanging on to Communism. It was their own privilege they were attempting to save. 

It was conservatives who supported the aristocracy in monarchist Europe; it was conservatives who fought reform in 19th century England and justified the subjugation of Ireland; it was conservatives who supported segregation in the American Jim Crow South. The record of conservatives on the progress of human liberation is a dismal one. 

There is a graspingness and miserliness at the heart of historical conservatism. All change threatens the status quo and that threatens those who hold the best cards.

But what remains the oddest thing about the current iteration of conservatism in America is the way it marries this retention of old social norms — even injust ones — with a form of political radicalism that would have dumbfounded the founders. 

At the heart of the Tea Party movement is what can only be described as “soft” anarchism. One central tenet is the dictum that government is not the solution, government is the problem, and therefore, we need to eradicate government. This is not, in any way, shape or form, conservatism. It has no relation to conservatism historically, nor conservatism in ideal or theory. 

The philosophical grandfathers of the Tea Party, let’s face it, are Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin and Max Stirner. Get the government out of the way and everything will be peachy-hunky.

Kropotkin2

Those who call themselves libertarians can sign on to this soft anarchism and feel their views are coherent. But so-called conservative Republicans have a hard time reconciling this anti-government sentiment with the converse idea that everyone should behave according to the Judeo-Christian norms they observe. On one hand, they extoll personal freedom, and on the other hand, they negate it to anyone who disagrees with them. 

Even more, those Republicans who have signed on to the Tea Party’s soft anarchism have a difficult time matching that up with their own drive for political power. And we must face the fact that our two-party system is just a bipolar grasping of power. Republicans can claim that government should be smaller, but a short gander at the record proves that after years of striving for the power, when they have it, Republicans use it just as much as Democrats. What’s the point of winning if you don’t get the perks? 

That’s why I call this a platypus. The parts don’t belong together.

I suppose one shouldn’t expect any political movement to be philosophically coherent. Politics remains sausage manufacturing and always will. But the part that causes thoughtful people profound disquiet comes with the reflection on history.

This marriage of one radical idea with reactionary social conservatism has along history, and not a history that inspires much confidence or hope.

Every tyranny or reign of terror has its own version of a radical idea melded with a nostalgic longing for a past where everyone was good and righteous and behaved in the old-fashioned ways. Look at the incorruptible Robespierre; look at the agrarian virtues of Mao; look at xenophobic Stalin. 

Not to put too fine a point to it, and I don’t mean to equate one-to-one Republicans with Nazis, but the same principle is at work. No one extolled the virtues of family and marriage more than the National Socialists. Hitler loved children and dogs, as they say. The combination of reactionary social ideas with radical political ideas has fueled this kind of crackpotism since the days of Plato. 

During the last election, a healthy percentage of Americans turned away from the extremism of the Tea Party, and I don’t have a fear that this platypus will reconquer our politics. America has a long history of quietism, and has always in the past, so far, retreated from any radical departure from the comfort it finds in a stodgy middle class normality. It’s one of our country’s saving graces: We don’t go in, like the French, for theory. 

But nonetheless, this water-and-oil mixture of radicalism and reaction is something, as the doctors always say, we should keep an eye on.