Category: All of Spark’s Favorites

What We Have to Fear From Trump

The internet has in many ways cheapened and vulgarized our definitions of knowledge and dialogue.  Expressions of emotional content, uninformed by facts or logic, abound on all sides of the political scale.  Internet phenomena have even developed rules of their own, such as Godwin’s Law, which suggests that in any uninformed political conversation, comparisons by one side of the other to Adolf Hitler or to Nazism are effectively inevitable.  Hitler is seen (justifiably, of course) as an ultimate evil, and his name is used to denigrate everything opposed by uninformed political amateurs and commenters, from Bush’s war in Iraq to the Affordable Care Act and even Obama himself.  The latest recipient of the comparison is Donald Trump; but for once, critics have finally come close to the truth.  Trump is not Hitler; nor could he ever replicate Hitler’s initial success or the terrors that he unleashed.  But Trump has created a monstrosity of fascist forces beyond his control, forces which themselves now pose a greater threat to our nation than the foreign terrorists of ISIS.  Trump has unleashed forces that threaten the community of our City on a Hill; and to defeat our enemies abroad, we must defeat these forces at home.  But our enemies are not a new Nazi Party or anything like it.  Our enemies are our own hatreds, fears, and paranoia about each other, and about our community and government.

Comparisons of politicians and their philosophies and policies with Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler have become a part of the political vulgarity, a cheap and generally uninformed criticism of issues beyond the understanding of most of those who make the comparison.  Cheap shots are fired from both sides, by meaner and uneducated critics of the other side, and recent presidents (and other leaders) of both parties have been compared to Hitler by those not understanding either the full meaning of the terms they used or the politicians they wished to criticize.  George W. Bush’s unpopular decision to invade Iraq for reasons later proven to be wrong subjected him to leftist criticism which was cheapened by such comparisons, and his successor, Obama, has also weathered such moronic attacks, which amazingly compared giving uninsured Americans access to health care to genocide policies of the Third Reich.  One problem with the frequency of such attacks is that they are reminiscent of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf.”  They desensitize Americans to the problem of actual fascists among us, such as southern “flaggers,” and other extremists.  It becomes easy not only to compare such icons of bombastic pettiness and hatred like Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler, but to ignore such comparisons as a now too-common cost of doing business in politics.  Trump supporters can deflect such arguments with the same casual superciliousness and nonchalance that Democrats enjoyed when Obama was Hitlerized by right-wing extremists, or that Republicans experienced when Bush suffered such comparisons.  The ease with which both sides can now both fire off and ignore comparisons to Nazism therefore closes our eyes, as in the case of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf,” to real enemies of our City on the Hill when they arise in our midst.  When the real wolf shows up, we treat him as just another prank.

The latest wolf in our midst is Donald Trump; and to a lesser extent the Republican Party’s current field of political leaders.  Trump, who has no political experience at all, and no political legitimacy at all, has managed nonetheless to build a base of rabid supporters from the lowest common denominator of hatred, fear, and self-entitlement.  Tapping into a politically marginalized horde of anti-intellectuals and xenophobes, Trump uses simple facsimiles of public oratory such as his slogan “Make America Great Again.”  There is an easy parallel to find with Hitler’s promise to put Germany “back” as the centerpiece of European civilization, and with Hitler’s promise of an innate and genetic German greatness that had been oppressed by a conspiracy of foreign powers and subhumans.  Trump’s argument is not nearly as thought out (however ahistorically) as was Hitler’s message.  Trump merely pushes his base into seeing that at one time, America was “great”; but that now – due to the actions of “stupid” politicians – we have lost that greatness.  Trump claims also to have the solution:  close the borders, build a wall, keep out Mexicans and Muslims, deport or intern and publicly mark such untermenschen; and, of course, believe in the essential greatness of our new Leader.  Trump ignores essential constitutional principles (which at any rate lie above his educational and intellectual pay grade), and he cares less about the basic history behind the challenges the US currently faces, challenges with which our next presidents will have to contend.

An even scarier comparison to Hitler can be found in those following Trump.  Trump’s supporters have attacked, openly and violently, those opposing or questioning his candidacy, a frightening parallel to the Nazi Party’s use of the Sturmabteilung (SA) in fomenting street violence and providing “security” at Nazi Party events.  Trump has encouraged such violence from his supporters by applauding the rough treatment of anti-Trump protesters.  However, Trump demonstrates himself to be less a leader than an impotent follower unsure of how to handle the violent base he has crafted from the dregs of our polity.  Unlike the Nazis, who deliberately created an organized political street army (with uniforms, ranks, and all), Trump manifests more as a Dr. Frankenstein, unable to control the monster he’s created.  The monster is real; and the evil behind the monster’s creation is also just as real.  But it is getting out of the control of its depraved and alienated creator.

It is with Trump’s metamorphosis from Hitler to Frankenstein that some of the problems of Hitler analogies begin to manifest.  Other problems with the analogy arise, such as Hitler’s acquisition of power through the collapse of a weak and inflexible political structure.  Hitler never faced an electoral situation like that provided for by the US Constitution; and the US has never had a small party take power without developing substantial electoral strength throughout the nation.  With even his own new-found Republican Party fleeing from him in droves, his front-runner status may still be strong in the polls in comparison with his rivals, but only a small portion of Americans (or even of Republicans) actually support him.  The prospect of Trump facing a Democratic candidate (Clinton or Sanders) is both exciting and nerve-wracking to Democrats; exciting because it virtually guarantees a Democratic victory, but nerve-wracking because of the small but frightening prospect that he might actually win anyway.

Another problem in comparing Trump with Hitler is in their relative political and oratorical skills.  Hitler demonstrated much political acumen in his earlier years (later becoming ever more unable to grasp basic political realities); and his skill at using public oratory to move the crowds remains legendary.  He brought even well-educated people over to his side, and powered them with a thirst for greatness and a belief in their rights to it.  Trump, on the other hand, is an oratorical buffoon, able to move with xenophobic rhetoric those weak-minded enough to enlist in his mob army, but easily dismissed and laughed at by comedians, pundits, and real politicians.  Trump’s few proposals for action on problems faced by our country earn a similar reception, as the creations of a simple-minded child unable to cognize the world around him.  Trump is unable to master even conservative politics as he has attempted to do, earning not only the front-runner position in public polling (a position not backed up yet by any state primaries), but also a firmly entrenched opposition to him from the very party he claims to be leading.

As with any political phenomenon, the two American parties of course have different responses to Trump’s “campaign.”  Usually, most candidates in the pre-primary struggle for relevance defend their partisan comrades from the other side, but point out the great differences between themselves and their rivals.  While the Democrats have very cohesively defended each other against external attacks (e.g., Sanders’ defense against Clinton’s critics on the email investigation and the obviously partisan Benghazi committee), and the mainstream Republican field has done much the same among themselves, the GOP has become increasingly hostile to Trump, with House Speaker Paul Ryan, Carli Fiorina, Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, and others objecting to Trump’s anti-Islamic rhetoric.  If there’s anything the nation can seem to get together on, it is that Trump’s core political values are a betrayal of our City on a Hill.  Nonetheless, as Clinton, Obama, and others have pointed out, while the GOP mainstream is opposed to Trump’s cheap invective, they still collude with Trump on the party’s basic message, including their mutual xenophobia.  What the GOP fear in Trump is not so much a transformation of the country, as that a political outsider and neophyte would be at the helm of that transformation.  They do not fear the developing paranoia or nationalism; but they fear their own loss of power as the traditional helmsmen of such forces, and they fear that Trump’s political incompetence will make the transformation superficial and ephemeral, risking the future of the conservative revolution.

Donald Trump’s campaign, and the many trending comparisons of Trump to Hitler, teach us that we have many demons yet to fight before we can achieve our City on a Hill, and that those demons, our greatest threats, are here at home.  Trump is not Hitler, nor could he ever be, for a variety of individual and political reasons.  But he is unleashing, deliberately, forces which threaten the core values of our nation.  He is unleashing, deliberately, forces of hatred, fear, xenophobia, and mutual suspicion.  He is unleashing, deliberately, forces opposed to the formation of a community of care, a value that forms the center of the American promise.  That promise is what our enemies, both foreign and domestic, hope to destroy:  the promise to build a community of all people, of all faiths, of all races and nationalities, of all classes, working together and caring for each other.  To defeat our foreign enemies, and defeat those here at home, we must respond not in fear but with strength and confidence in our mission, welcoming those wanting to join us, and caring for those in need.  Those fearful of others, those frightened of their neighbors, are the ones threatening our City on a Hill, and strengthening our enemies abroad.  Just as Franklin Delano Roosevelt observed that such forces threatened America in the 1930s, just as he saw not foreign enemies but Americans’ own fears of each other as itself the greatest threat to our security, we must once again be warned that, “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Headline image via Google Image Search

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Of Refugees, Welfare, and Thanksgiving

On Thanksgiving, Americans traditionally have family dinners, typically with turkey and lavish side dishes and desserts.  We watch parades and football games.  We remember times gone by.  We talk, or argue, about politics, culture, and values.  We say that we do all this as a means of somehow giving thanks.  But how do lavish feasts and parties in the wealthiest, most overfed nation on Earth give thanks to anyone?  Whom are we thanking, and for what?

Thanksgivings are a normal part of Christian societies, and while not legislated into permanent existence in the United States until 1863, America had seen countless Thanksgivings before that, whereby Americans gave thanks to their God for the bounties of the earth and of their work.  The traditional “First Thanksgiving” was held by English Dissenters of the Plymouth Colony in 1621.  Those colonists who had lived through the first winter celebrated their survival and the success of their first harvest.  Their survival and their harvest success were both due in part to help from the local Wampanoags under under Massasoit, who provided food and helped teach corn cultivation.  The English Dissenters were refugees from the violent religious warfare that ripped through Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries; and these refugees with a completely alien religion, language, ethnicity, and political values were nonetheless welcomed and given welfare by the Americans already here.  For that, and for their survival of the first year’s trial in their newly adopted home, the colonists gave thanks to their God.

A decade later, John Winthrop (later the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) delivered his “Modell of Christian Charitie.”  Winthrop articulated a vision of a new America to come.  He expresses essentially the sentiment of “there but for the grace of God,” arguing that we are all born into circumstances at God’s pleasure.  The rich and poor alike, Winthrop asserts, have God to credit with their status (not their own labors or failures); and those born into – and escaping from – areas of terror and violence are likewise responsible only for their own agency in escaping their condition, not for the violence from which they strive to escape.  This argument played successfully with the various schools of English Christian immigrants in America, who sought refuge from the horrific religious and political turbulence tearing Europe apart.  However, those surviving the journey (itself a dangerous ordeal), and those fewer who survived their first hungry winters, gave thanks for making it through the trials of their odyssey.  Winthrop’s City on a Hill was built by the refugees who were wise enough to save themselves, strong enough to survive cold and hunger, and humble enough to accept a helping hand from an alien people.

Since the founding of our City on a Hill, the United States has been a nation of refugees and immigrants, and of people brought here in chains.  All of these people were taken into an alien land, society, and culture.  Refugees, immigrants, slaves, and servants are who we are, and are who built this country.  Refugees seeking to escape violence, and immigrants seeking a better life created the new America; and the new America was built into a giant through slavery and forced labor.  While slaves built a massive cotton economy in the south, northern free workers (many of them recently arrived immigrants and refugees from famines and revolutions and turbulence in Europe and elsewhere) built mills, factories, roads, bridges, and railroads.  Slave-masters and company bosses both fought to keep their labor forces in chains, with blood spilt south and north alike by their efforts.  Banks and corporations were built by a government providing public resources and revenues to men of wealth, many of them going bankrupt despite these gifts and despite underpaying their workers, through sheer mismanagement.  Slave labor, and immigrants and refugees, built our cities and our farms; our infrastructure and institutions; our massive economy, our social system, and our political values.  Slaves, immigrants, and refugees are what we Americans are.

It is for the labor of those who came before us that we owe our wealth, our education, our security, and all else that we have.  It is for their labors we must give thanks, and it is for the gifts enabled by their labors that we owe a great debt.  We cannot repay that debt to slaves whipped to death, or to workers cut down by strikebreakers.  We cannot repay the debt to Native Americans killed by diseases brought to them by Europeans, or pushed off their lands later by Europeans or white Americans.  We cannot repay the debt to those no longer with us.  But the debt remains, and must be repaid, as a cost of maintaining our City on a Hill.  Our thanks is a beginning, but is not enough.  The debt can only be paid, and our thanks can only be truly given, by continuing to build the City our predecessors created.  The debt is paid, our thanks given, by welcoming new refugees into our land as new Americans, just as our Native American forebearers did – taking in a people looking, sounding, and thinking differently, because they need our help.  The debt is paid, our thanks given, by opening our borders to immigrants.  The debt is paid, our thanks given, by helping the sick and poor and hungry.  The debt is paid, our thanks given, by honoring descendants of slaves and free workers alike, making sure these people whose ancestors died building our nation have every opportunity to reap from the seeds sown by their fathers and mothers.  It is for the sacrifice and labor and strength; for the blood, sweat and tears; for both the liberties and personal agency as well as for the sacrifice and suffering of those who built this nation that we give thanks.  But just cutting a turkey, or watching the Lions lose, does not give thanks.  Building the City on a Hill, welcoming strangers and foreigners, using our wealth to fulfill the City’s mission by caring for our needy, and eradicating poverty and social inequality, are the only means our nation has, to give thanks and repay the debts incurred for our fortunes.

On Thanksgiving, enjoy your bounties, and enjoy your friends and family.  These have been given to us by those gone before us.  But remember that our bounties came at a cost which must be repaid.  And the repayment of that debt is simple to understand – we must fight to maintain and to build our City on a Hill, and welcome those coming to our nation as newfound builders and new celebrants of our freedoms and our wealth.  This is a positive feature of our nation; that we can move forward and achieve even more, but only if we repay those debts from the past.  Repay them, give thanks, and have a Happy Thanksgiving.

[image used, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, oil on canvas by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914), found on Wikipedia.]

Why the Democrats are the New National Security Party

Gopper

Following a series of terrorist attacks in the Middle East and France, national security has become a vital issue in the continuing contest between the Democratic and Republican parties for the hearts and minds of the American voters.  Americans were particularly shocked by the Paris attacks, in a city seemingly far removed from the conflict zone of the Middle East, and especially considering the long and close relationship between the US and France.  Reacting with an almost post-911 frenzy, American pundits and social media commentators ratcheted up the panic level to maximum.  Seemingly reading the temperature of frightened Americans, the US House of Representatives pushed through House bill 4038, restricting the entry of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to the US.  Numerous state governments also issued arguably illegal restrictions of refugees to their own states as well, ignoring increasing evidence that refugees in France were not involved in the attacks (perpetrated by French and Belgian nationals), and contradicting France’s own immediate response of welcoming even more refugees.  As the election year draws ever closer, American voters will consider the two major parties’ (and their candidates’) responses to terror and their positions on national security policy.

First on the radar screen at the moment is Daesh (or the Islamic State; the author prefers the former term particularly as the group finds that term to be offensive to their image), the group behind last week’s terror.  Sadly, neither party has a cohesive plan (let alone an exit strategy) for pursuing war, with both parties apparently employing a “one-piece-at-a-time” chess-game strategy.  Candidates from both parties are reluctant to engage in another seemingly indefinite ground war, and the complexities of the Syrian civil war perplex the candidates on all sides.  Trump, Cruz, Bush and Christie (and Clinton on the Democratic stage) all urge a greater use of US airpower (most unrealistic is Trump’s focus on destroying oil facilities, which are of only minimal value in petroleum-poor Syria).  Trump and Carson both urge a greater ground effort in Iraq (containing Daesh to Syria, though neither candidate is willing to use the term “containment” to describe their strategy).  Bush has, since the latest wave of attacks, begun to favor the use of ground forces, but has not specified where or how, or how many, or with what objectives.  Paul wavers indecisively between calling the use of ground forces “unconstitutional,” and stating that he would use “…overwhelming force.  I wouldn’t mess around.”  He is as devoid of details as Bush, however.  Kasich favors invoking Article V of the NATO agreement, to “take care of business and come home,” but also has not said how either the deployment or the coming home would actually work.  Finally, Sanders, still trying to maintain relevance against Clinton’s rising popularity among Democrats, calls for a new, greater coalition (including Russia as well as the Muslim states of the Middle East).  Sanders, however, has not been able to explain how to defuse the increasing hostility and suspicion between the US and Russia.  With Russia bombing anti-Assad groups who have been aided by the US, there is much to do if Russia and the US are to work together instead of seeing the war as a zero-sum conflict between themselves.  No one on either side of the partisan divide has successfully addressed that issue.

Another issue of the Syrian war is the status of refugees seeking to escape the war zone.  On this issue, the parties have spelt out their differences far more prominently.  Republicans pushed through the House bill, and most of the state efforts to restrict refugees have come from Republican governors.  Republican candidates have said little to oppose restrictions, and have even called for “religious tests” denying Muslims refuge in favor of Christians.  Trump has even echoed Nazi racial programs by calling for the “registration” of Muslim refugees.  Sanders and Clinton have both (in league with President Obama) attacked such as un-American and un-Christian; and that argument has resonated with the evangelical community (normally a Republican stronghold).  Various commentators have linked Republican language of restrictions to Daesh’s specific goal of dividing America from the Muslim community, calling the Republicans out for surrendering in one fell swoop the terrorists’ most immediate political objective.

Taking the bipartisan confusion about the Syrian war together with the clear partisan divergence on the greater philosophy of conflict and engagement, we can define a reluctant tendency of a few Republican hotheads to push for a greater “imperial overreach,” while most candidates agree that a new war may simply not be in our national interest.  The Democrats, while being only slightly more (but questionably) reasoned and willing to lean on allies and other powers, see a clear link between the pursuit of war policy in the Middle East and maintaining our “shining City on a Hill” through one of our most American and liberal values, the compassion for refugees seeking a better life in a civil society.  Republicans are more willing to sink to the lowest common denominator of popular suspicion and resentment of the “Other,” and choose to empower themselves in a confusing conflict by taking power from those seeking asylum.  As with so many other issues, the Democrats’ approach seeks to build the City on a Hill; whereas the Republicans want only to wave the flag while denying its true meaning and value.  The Democrats’ approach also de-emphasizes the military aspect of the conflict in favor of the greater political conflict, while the Republicans confusedly wallow in the mud over tactical military problems without a greater appreciation of the politics driving the issue.

Iran is another issue more cohesively dividing the parties, both as an actor in the Syrian war, and as a power seeking a greater role in regional affairs.  All candidates recognize that Iran and Daesh are inherently opposed to each other, but they also fear what an increased role for Iran in Syria would mean for Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, and other regional states and issues.  Clearly as the US looks to regional states to step up and defeat Daesh, Iran’s massive and well-equipped military poses as a major potential ally; but a sudden US-Iran relationship could not be formed from that foundation alone, particularly as long as Iran and Israel both remain inherently hostile to each other.  As with Russia, Iran shows something of a zero-sum game approach to the conflict, with an Iranian defeat of Daesh as not necessarily in the strategic interest of the US (and with Iran viewing a potential US defeat of Daesh through a similar lens).  Neither US political party has developed a viable pathway to a US-Iran partnership on Syria.

Iran’s search for greater regional power and relevance further conflicts with American security policy on the nuclear weapons issue.  Flanked by  a hostile, nuclear-armed Israel to one side, and a hostile, nuclear-armed Pakistan to the other, and faced continuously by US naval forces in the Persian Gulf (themselves obviously backed by a massive nuclear deterrent), Iran has obvious motivations for acquiring a nuclear weapon.  Such a capability would force the US to use greater reflection before employing its military forces against Iran, and could theoretically increase Iranian prestige in the region (albeit also triggering a regional arms race, as Iran’s other regional rivals would seek to acquire their own nuclear deterrents).  The US, wishing to keep its military options on the table (and also fearing a potential Israeli-Iranian nuclear exchange), wishes also to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.  This issue has driven the past year’s antagonistic partisan debate over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and related agreements, by which Iran has agreed to surrender the vast majority of its nuclear weapons production potential (in both its on-hand materials and its processing capacity).  Republicans responded to their growing irrelevance in international politics with alarmist misrepresentations of the agreement (relying on their supporters’ reluctance to read 160-page technical agreements).  The Democrats, on the other hand, were able to brush aside Republican arguments, although they did face some difficulties over Republican accusations regarding “secret language” in the Additional Protocols.  Nevertheless, the Democrats secured a victory both internationally as well as domestically, in first pushing Iran to the peace table (through Clinton’s construction, as Secretary of State, of a rigid international sanctions environment), and second in getting the agreement approved over the opposition of the conservatives of both nations.

Another major security problem for the US is Russian expansionism.  Republicans have scored points by recalling Obama’s 2012 criticism of Mitt Romney, telling the governor that US-Russian conflict was a thing of the past.  Sanders hopes in effect to prove Obama right by developing a more productive relationship with Russia; but has not indicated how he would make that happen.  The Republicans dither between Trump and Fiorina imagining themselves using their corporate boardroom experience to build a better relationship (disregarding the historic lack of success that American business leaders have had in using business strategy in international politics), and Carson’s details-free “position of strength” exhortations.  Clinton is the only candidate with actual experience in negotiating with Russia and Putin; although her track record there is a combination of both successes and failures.  Otherwise, Republicans do not actually say what they would do differently from each other, or from Obama.  They attack Obama as somehow impotent in the face of Russian expansion into the Ukraine and Syria; but they ignore their own party’s failure in preventing or halting an actual outbreak of war between Russia and Georgia in 2008.  They have offered no actual solutions not already explored or implemented, only insisting that their sheer Republicanness would somehow force Putin to back down (despite the fact that that did not work the last time they tried it).  The Democrats, with Sanders’ vague intent to partner with Russia, and Clinton’s actual experience in doing so, therefore show a modest superiority over the Republicans, who seem more confused and torn over what to do (and over how to frame a campaign statement about it).

Finally, the Democrats claim a right to a major national security interest that the Republicans have traditionally denied en masse: the threat posed by climate change.  A few of the current flock of “clown car” candidates, however, see the issue as an arena in which to grab moderate American voters, and so the GOP’s diversity on that issue has grown.  Trump, Huckabee, Cruz, and Carson are still flatly in denial; while Fiorina, Rubio, and Paul are willing to concede that something freaky is happening, but all demonstrably oppose any  government action to limit or reverse the process.  Kasich, Christie, and Bush all recognize climate change as the real result of human actions; but they only see the need for the most limited of government action to curtail the problem.  Clinton can also be shown as having only limited commitment, having (while serving as Secretary of State) pushed fossil-fuels development as a key to foreign states’ overall energy independence; but her language is far more hawkish and she supports the president’s Clean Power Plan.  She may well have been steered to the left by Sanders’ more inflammatory language (describing climate change, at least before the recent wave of attacks, as the greatest threat to the US).  Martin O’Malley has fought for relevance from his single-digit approval ratings by in part pushing a far more detailed and comprehensive Clean Energy plan than have either of his Democratic rivals.  Both parties have therefore used the issue not merely to hammer the other party, but as an in-party arena to attract different political constituencies.  However, across the board, the Democrats have called unapologetically for greater action, while the Republicans’ most “radical” elements call simply for limited action at best, preferring to rely on private corporations’ good will to accomplish energy transformation and ecological protections.  The most popular Republican candidates fall on the flat denial side (although collectively those “most popular candidates” still poll at less than half among total Republican supporters).  Overall, the Democrats continue to be the party most willing to pursue actual reform on environmental and energy policy.

The Democrats can lay claim, therefore to being the US’s “National Security Party,” having by far the more coherent view of American security interests, as well as potential solutions to current problems.  Neither party really has much of a vision for Syria; but the Republican “fire and forget” military strategy applied in Iraq (and which created the Daesh problem in the first place) still remains their preferred alternative.  The Democrats see the need for a more philosophically consistent political conflict, between the American City on a Hill and an extremist, deliberately antidemocratic way of life, using our nation’s greatest assets and the power of modern information systems to push Daesh into irrelevance while using limited military efforts to neutralize physical targets as they manifest themselves.  The Democrats also have a far better plan (and history) of dealing with Iran, although there, too, both parties suffer from strategic myopia.  Even more short-sightedness is evident on the Russian front; but the Democrats have the greater experience and willingness not just to talk but also to listen, a fundamental step to repairing relationships.  Finally, on climate change, the Democrats have a much clearer vision of both the scope of the problem and the venue for solutions, a vision far more consistent with the actual data acquired by climate scientists.  As we near the start of the election year, the Democrats have demonstrated themselves as the party most capable of facing and solving our most vital national security problems.

The City on a Hill: A Critical Reading of Winthrop’s Sermon on Christian Charity

In 1630, John Winthrop (a later governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) wrote a sermon on Christian charity, in which he referenced Matthew 5:14, the Sermon on the Mount, and described the new America to come as a city upon a Hill.”  The city on a hill is visible to all; and either lights the darker places in the valley below with the light from its windows, or keeps them in the dark through its inaction or miserliness. Winthrop helped to develop an idea of America as a new, holy community with a mission, focusing the world’s attention upon it. Winthrop concentrated on charity, specifically, in order to push the community members into a greater, more cohesive collective and to give the community the responsibility to act charitably. Charity was not to be a personal responsibility alone; but was now also the communal responsibility of what would become the new American nation – the responsibility of its society and its government.

In the modern political dialogue between Left and Right, however, we often lose sight of the responsibility that falls upon the city on the hill. Two troubling aspects of this problem are the notion of “American Exceptionalism,” and the notion that the US is (and is supposed to be) a “Christian nation.” Both arguments are superficially derived from Winthrop’s sermon (as well, of course, as other sources), but they also lose completely the point of Winthrop’s sermon. On the one hand, liberals downplay American Exceptionalism, understanding that our nation has failed at many points of its history to live up to its most basic promises, has supported slavery and perpetrated genocide, and has denied basic “guaranteed” rights to its citizens. Liberals also downplay or deny the Christian nation argument, citing especially the Founding Fathers. Liberals also wish to distance modern American notions of rights and legality from Biblical directives and outdated concepts of social structure. Conservatives, on the other hand, superficially embrace both American Exceptionalism and the Christian nation argument, but they ignore completely the essential requirements, as laid out by Winthrop’s sermon, of fulfilling their own apparent visions of America.

American Exceptionalism is the notion that the US stands apart from the rest of the world’s nations. Proponents of Exceptionalism love to cite the Revolution, the Constitution, and other patriotic moments of our history as proof that the US was first, and remains the best, at fulfilling a special role to make the world a better place. Proponents ignore some of the basic failures of the US (slavery, the Indian wars, the Southern “Redemption” and its century of post-slavery racial violence, the Vietnam War, etc.), and they also ignore basic successes of foreign states in establishing and maintaining strong democracies (Canada, Scandinavia, western Europe, Japan, etc.). But more disturbingly, they ignore the question of why America is supposed to be “exceptional,” and what the ramifications and responsibilities of exceptionalism are.

It is easy to be not just patriotic, but nationalistic. Nationalists pop up in every nation on Earth, each convinced fiercely of the mission that bears upon their nation, to make the world a better place by making it more like their own nation. Russians, Germans, Frenchmen, Britons, Chinese, Japanese, Iranians, Saudis, etc., each have a concept of nation that makes their nation “exceptional.” The ancient Romans did, as did the Spartans, Athenians, and ancient Persians, etc. That America is “exceptional” is ironically something that makes us like every other nation, and every other national identity, throughout history – like all individuals sharing the fact that we are all, indeed, individuals.

If, however, we are to interpret “exceptionalism” to mean being better, being destined for something greater, than it is a title that must be earned, and not just once but perpetually. If you got an A+ in the third grade, but have never again shined academically, you are not an “exceptional student.” If just once, in high school, you scored that awesome touchdown with which you continue to bore your friends, but never again accomplished any great athletic feats, you are not an “exceptional athlete.” A truly exceptional nation must continue to fight itself, fight its own demons and failures, and confront them while striving towards perfection; not merely content itself to be “good enough” or better than that one bad place in today’s news. Otherwise, it becomes merely a nation, like all others, that had its moment of glory but is now just another place to live.

So, if America is truly “exceptional,” what makes us so? Certainly not our record of failures, nor our neighbors’ record of successes, nor the fact that, like all nations, we are unique. Neither our declining productive capacity, nor our stagnating education system, our rotting infrastructure, nor our refusal to extend basic health-care without extensive personal costs, argue for some right to a mission; nor do our increasing militarization of our police and their own increasing aggressiveness in policing their communities.

Winthrop’s sermon on charity demonstrates exactly how the “exceptional” new community must be defined. He demonstrates that the Christian community (which conservatives consider the US to be) is Christian not because of the faith of its majority, but because of the charity of its work. Winthrop specifically argues the notion of social contract between the various members and classes of the community. The rich, who Winthrop argues have not their own talents to thank for their fortunes but the designs of God, are responsible for using their wealth, all of it, to care for the poor – to feed, house, clothe, and provide for them. Similarly, the poor have not their own faults to blame for their status, but the designs of God. So long as the rich live up to a promise of community and employ all possible tools and wealth to look after the poor, the poor are responsible for maintaining basic order and civility – not to revolt, or to steal, or otherwise commit violence. Winthrop is clear on the function of wealth in the City on a Hill: the expenditure of all wealth toward the alleviation of “every want or distress.” If that mission is not fulfilled, the poor are no longer “under contract” (so to speak) to remain humbly in servitude and quiescence.

So, when conservative pundits and politicians blame the poor for their “laziness”; or refuse to allocate funding for welfare, food support, or health care; or refuse to tax the wealthy (specifically and especially) to provide for these needs, when they argue against funding for education, when they call for “simple” or “fair” taxes, when they call for cuts on wealth taxes and estate taxes and on corporate taxes for the larger corporations, when they laud the wealthy and loathe the needy, they break the contract. In doing so, they earn, as Winthrop stated openly, the curses of the world, and of their own putative God Himself, and they diminish that special light by which the City on a Hill lights the darker places in the valley below.

On the other hand, when liberals argue for these services, argue for taxes on wealth, argue for a greater and deeper community of care and mutual provision, they are, indeed, fulfilling Winthrop’s mission, and building the City on a Hill. It is those who draw away from the worst nationalistic pride of “exceptionalism,” those Christians (like our Founding Fathers) who separate their worship from their politics, who earn the title of exceptionalism for America, and who demonstrate what Winthrop argued a holy Christian community and nation to be. Those of us who keep hammering away at our nation’s faults build our City; those who wave the flag while denying national flaws tear it down. Those of us who seek to level the playing field, who urge that corporations be held accountable and financially responsible for their actions (and for funding public support structures), fulfill Winthrop’s mission, and build the City. Those merely “proud of their country,” but hateful of their neighbors, distrustful of the poor and of people who look or act differently, those supporting the concentration of wealth and opposing taxes and social supports, have earned no right, for themselves or their nation, to be called either “exceptional,” or “Christian,” two terms they pretend to hold most dearly. Winthrop shows us that ultimately, the City on a Hill is an obligation, both political and moral, to advocate for those values that, in today’s dialogue, fall on the liberal side (or even the more openly leftist side) of the political spectrum.