“XXX.–In the government of this Commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them: The executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: The judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.”

With these words, set into the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the State of Massachusetts in 1780, John Adams captured one of the pillars of the American form of government.  In revolting against England, Americans did not merely reject King George III.  They rejected the entire system of government by a single person or group.  This principle of a government of laws and not men is the natural consequence of the founding American ideal that all human beings are born equal and endowed with inalienable rights.     It is a critical point, but one that is easily missed.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident:  that all human beings are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”  That statement announces a community based, not on individual license, but on a fundamental responsibility of every human being for every other human being.  We are each responsible for honoring the rights of each of our fellow humans, and that responsibility is what gives us our meaning, and it is even the source of our freedom.  We are free because all those people for whom I am responsible are responsible for me.

The enemy of America’s founding ideal rests precisely here.  When a government makes its decisions, not based on the laws of that government but rather by the orders of a single person or group, the source of the people’s meaning shifts from the ideals embodied in their laws and constitution to the personal needs and desires of the person or group ruling them.  “L’etat c’est moi,” said the imperious Louis XIV.  I am the state, and your rights, and therefore your meaning, are defined entirely by me.  This is the real peril of dictatorship.   The individual has no meaning by himself or herself.  Even the dictator’s meaning is gone, because it is completely subjective.  It might be something one day and something else another.  Moral value derived from one individual is the morality of self-interest, and self-interest is no morality at all.

This is the real, fundamental crisis being caused by Trump’s actions and words.  He may or may not have overstepped his bounds with the ban on seven Muslim countries.  We have a judiciary to determine that in accordance with the laws and constitutional provisions that express our journey to our ideal.  It is what he did in response to that judiciary, and what his people have done in response to criticism, that is far, far more dangerous.  He denigrates the judiciary, calls a judge bigoted or characterizes the judge as “so-called”.  His advisor tells the press to “shut up and listen.”  All this and much, much more describes an attack on the fundamental rights of the people and the checks and balances system that guards those rights.  Trump doesn’t want to befriend Putin.  He wants to be Putin.  His goal is dictatorship, and if he succeeds we will not just lose our form of government, we will lose our very meaning.

We are not a perfect nation.  Our worth and meaning lie in the fact that, with all our flaws and failures, we strive for a perfect ideal.  The actions and words of Trump and his representatives signal an attack on those ideals.  We cannot allow that attack to even begin.




It is the eve of Thanksgiving Day, 2015, and I would like to add my little thanks for all of the blessings I have received.

I am deeply thankful for the wife I have been privileged to live with for lo these many years.  I am equally thankful for the three incredible women with whom we so enjoyably shared their childhood and now so enjoyably share their accomplishments.


I am grateful for all the worldly goods that fill my life — a wonderful home and an inexhaustible supply of books and food in abundance and entertainment aplenty.


I am grateful for those who inundate me with thoughtful observations and drive me constantly to find the real meaning deep down things.


I am grateful for a country that still holds on to the fundamental ideals of the equality and inherent rights of all human beings.


I am grateful for the example of all those who stand up to the oppression of power, whether military or political or financial.


I am grateful that there are people in the world who have needs about which I can do a little something, and I am grateful for the meaning they give to my life by allowing me to do it..


I am grateful, if sadly so, that I live in a world relatively untouched by hatred and violence and poverty and oppression.


I am, in the end, grateful that I still have time to do whatever I can and should to help the world turn away from that hatred and violence and oppression, that I still have a chance to give all those others in my life the ability to also be grateful.


And to all of you, who have given me so much, I give you thanks.

























A long time ago, someone gave me what I think was the best advice I have ever received regarding teaching. It was as follows. If one student doesn’t understand you, it is that student’s fault, but if several students don’t understand you, it is your fault. Looking at that bit of wisdom always makes me hark back to my first day of teaching, when, after lecturing for fifteen minutes with my back to the class, I turned around to see pretty much every student in the class staring at me with his or her mouth open. Thanks to this principle, I was able to send the class home and promise to do much, much better next time.
Over the years, I have come to realize that there is a far wider application for this brilliant observation than just teaching. In particular, it has a very specific application to governance. If you are truly a citizen of the United States, then you operate on the principle that government is meant to serve the people by maintaining equality and protecting the inalienable rights of every human being. By “government”, we in the United States mean “we the people”, served by representatives. Thus the term “representative democracy.” So a government fails, and, by implication, we all fail, because, as members of this nation, we are each responsible for maintaining that equality and those rights.
We cannot, of course, eradicate inequality and the violation of rights. There will always be those who will game the system or ignore or trample on the rights of others. What we can do, however, is be vigilant to see where major and continuing violations of those rights occur and address the issues that are creating or allowing those violations. To put that in terms of the above aphorism, if one, or a very few, people, suffer a violation of their rights, it is the fault of the offenders. If, on the other hand, there is a widespread injustice, we as citizens of the United States are failing and need to do whatever we can to reduce or eliminate that injustice.
So, let us apply the principle. There is always crime in America, as in any population. There is always drug and alcohol abuse. There are always murders. If, however, drug abuse and murder escalates, then we need to look to ourselves to see if we are somehow failing as a community. Likewise, if there is some fringe group of non-Americans who do not like us, that is their problem. If, however, large segments of the world population express profound hatred of our governmental or business activities, then we need to see if we are in fact violating the rights of those populations.
Unfortunately, a great deal of this is true today. Crime in general, and murder in particular, is rising drastically across the nation. Drug abuse has skyrocketed, particularly with heroin. And in large populations in the world, America is looked upon as a country that routinely violates people’s rights and uses devious business practices purely for profit.
What do we do about it? Well, I can certainly hear the voice of those who say that we should do nothing, that whatever America does is okay, that it is in fact disloyal or even treasonous to suggest that we are to blame or that we have done anything illegal or immoral as a nation. Such talk is at best naive and at worst disingenuous. We are draining the American population of its wealth and opportunity and handing it over to superwealthy few. We are in desperate need of funds to adequately — and justifiably — run this country. Our roads are a mess, our schools are being drained of money, our health system is sucking us dry. People are despairing, and, when they despair, they do things that add to the damage.
We have, for far too many years now, reduced our tax income and then paid for the deficit by eliminating the basic benefits that our government was created to supply. The myth that reducing taxes would somehow be of benefit to us all has been exploded in a sea of violence and misery. We have, in sum, substituted private gain for public rights, and either we will end that failed policy or it will end by itself, violently.


In the last presidential campaign, conservative interviewers routinely asked candidates to “define ‘marriage’.” They were not looking for a definition of a word. That would have been made evident if one of the candidates had asked for a dictionary. They were, rather, masking their real intent, which was to determine whether the candidate was willing to restrict civil rights accorded to those who are married to unions of one man and one woman. So they were really asking whether the government should refuse to allow tax advantages and hospital visitation rights and other such benefits to any couple other than a heterosexual couple. Why these interviewers would not state their intent directly is a valid question. Perhaps it is much more appealing to the public to hide the fact that the interviewers and their supporters wanted to institutionalize discrimination against gays and lesbians. Perhaps they were just trying to be clever. Whatever their motive, they were most certainly not wanting legislation about a dictionary definition. One can only imagine the fun we would have with the legislature if we gave it the task of defining words. It would, I suppose, be a punishable act to refer to mayonnaise as a marriage of eggs and oil.

Clearly, then, all this clamor was not about defining words. Sadly, however, many true believers in whatever set of doctrines were deceived into thinking that it was about a definition, not, however, a definition provided by a legislature but rather a definition provided by a religion. The Archbishop of Milwaukee, for instance, was quoted as saying that the ruling was “a sad day for the sacrament of marriage.” We should, perhaps, forgive the archbishop for his apparent ignorance of the differnece between a religious statement and a legal statement. The court’s ruling in no way affects the Roman Catholic Church’s refusal to grant sacramental status to the marriage of same-sex couples. The Roman Catholic Church remains fully within its right to restrict access to its rituals to gays or lesbians or, for that matter, to any other category of humans against which it feels required to discriminate. So, for instance, it can continue to refuse to deny the sacrament of holy orders, priesthood, to all women simply because they are women. The laws of the United States allow for all of the peculiarities of the various religious cults, unless they interfere with the civil rights of others.

There lies the rub, and there lies one of the truly scary tendencies of some of the comments of those who oppose granting civil marital status to gays and lesbians. What these people are actually trying to do is to institutionalize their relgiious beliefs. Whether intentionally or not, they ignore the distinction between religion and government. They blur the line, or rather they attempt to erase the line, between the rules of government and the rituals of institutional religions. They threaten the very nature of governance in the United States. They pervert the United States’ commitment to the freedom of religion into an institutionalization of their own particular religion. One individual, a noted preacher, even had the nerve to state in public that the freedom of religion in America extended only to the “Christian” religion. One can only assume that, by the word “Christian”, he meant his peculiar version of that religion. Whatever he meant by his words, the inevitable effect of his view would be to destroy the American ideal and, as the consequence, the American way of governance. If such as he had their way, that would be a truly sad day.

The real effect, therefore, of the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage is precisely the opposite of what the opposing factions are decrying. Far from being a sad day for any ritual or any religious belief, it is a ratification of the right of all people to live their lives in accordance with their beliefs and their personal orientations, subject only to the fundamental American requirement that they allow all others that very same right. We hold these truths to be self-evident. We cannot conceive of a world without those rights. We have, no doubt, a long way to go, but at least we have not left the path.


Meaning comes from moral responsibility. Moral responsibility comes from the demand by the Other upon me. The Other’s demand rests solely on that Other’s confrontation of me, her announcement, by her mere presence to me, that I am obliged to her. She brings that demand to me, thus making me responsible, and thus making me meaningful.

Politics, the management of the community, rests upon this responsibility. I am unconditionally obliged to each and every human being that presents herself to me. This is precisely the meaning of the American ideal stated in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that each is endowed by its creator with certain unalienable rights…” Our obligation to recognize the unalienable rights of each and every human being is self-evident, that is to say, established without doubt or question. To hold to that ideal is what it means to be an American.

Since I am confronted by more than one person, I have necessarily to husband my limited assets to most effectively serve the multiplicity of unconditional demands upon them by this community of people. In a community, this husbanding is the purpose of politics. Politics exist in service to the unalienable rights of the members of the human community
When politics forgets this purpose, when politics operates for itself rather than for the people, it necessarily becomes a tyranny, a rule of the community in complete disregard of the people it was invented to serve. It operates in secret, so as to deliberately ignore the needs of the people. It operates to limit, rather than protect and expand, the rights of the people.

These are the marks of political tyranny: secrecy, disregard of the voice of the people, and limitation of the people’s rights. Political tyranny would call for the restriction of the right to vote, restriction of access to education, medical care and the other elements vital to the protection and growth of the people’s rights.
This is precisely what we are seeing today in America as the result of a political climate ruled by power and wealth. The demand for voter i.d.’s clearly prevents vast numbers of people from voting, or at least makes it sufficiently difficult to assure that vast numbers of people will not vote. Anti-union laws make it difficult, and in some instances impossible, for working men and women to have the bargaining power necessary to achieve a living wage. Reductions in funding for education and medical care are a direct assault on the inherent right of the people to those necessities. Huge and thoroughly unnecessary tax breaks given almost entirely to the already wealthy assure a concentration of power in the hands of a few to the detriment of the vast majority of the community.

Politics, left to itself, does not moderate the quest for power. It must, and it will, finally assert absolute power over the entire community. That is the definition of tyranny. Sadly, throughout history, with only the rarest of exceptions, the response of that community has been violent revolution. Politics makes the unfortunate assumption that it will be always equal to that violence, and so responds to objections to its power with that violence. We have seen it in America over and over, from the trampling of Hooverville by the MacArthur-led military to such anti-union massacres as those of Ludlow, Lattimore, Butte and Hazelton.

When this suppression of the fundamental American ideal happens, as it is happening now, the sole question is whether it can be stopped before the people rise up to violently oppose it. It can be stopped peacefully, by the vote. That is why those who exercise this power politics restrict the vote and pack the courts with judges and justices willing to perpetuate the tyranny. The single great hope was best put in the aphorism attributed to Abraham Lincoln: you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

So we will get it right eventually. We will, eventually, return to service to the American ideal. My prayer is that we will be able to do so peacefully


The world is a mess. Regional wars are devastating several countries, and there is a serious threat of escalation, involving the major powers of the world. The wealth of the world is being concentrated in the hands of a very few, and those few are using the power of that wealth to gather yet more to themselves. The rights of the average citizen are threatened by limiting, or even eliminating, the right to vote and the right to organize. The stock market, having sustained a crushing blow from the misconduct of the financiers, is booming, and jobs are increasing, but wages are stagnant or even falliing. Funds for education and health care are being slashed. The middle class is disappearing, and the window of opportunity for youth is growing smaller and smaller. Bigotry is on the rise, and there is a demand to close American borders to essentially all foreigners, particularly those of another color or religious persuasion. Politics consists mostly of vicious attacks by each side on the other, and government, including both the legislatures and the courts, are almost completely controlled by the rich and powerful. More and more, the voices of dissent are being silenced or excoriated in the media as communists and terrorists.
Do you recognize this picture? It is America, and the world, but it is that world in 1900. The regional conflicts, and the various interwoven web of alliances caused by those conflicts, would draw the world into global war. The robber barons — Rockefeller and Morgan and Hill and the rest — were reaping millions on watered stock and other flimflams. Unions were being restricted by legislation, and even the right to peaceably assemble was under attack.
The comparison of that time to our own is, thankfully, not quite as close as it might appear. We have, since that awful time, passed laws and installed policies that have increased opportunities for the less advantaged and decreased the effects of bigotry. We have created programs that make education and health care more readily available. We have increased the rights and opportunities of women and people of color. The comparison, while uncomfortable, is not by any means complete.
Not yet. The disturbing thought here is that the recent political landscape makes one feel that we are moving backward, giving up the gains we made in human rights, limiting opportunities, restricting the vote, allowing wealth, and therefore power, to be once agains concentrated in the hands of a few.
Why? Why would we move back to a time and a set of policies that we know will end in injustice and perhaps even violence? The answer is, I suggest, far deeper and far more personal than the far too easy answer that it is the damned rich people, the damned Koch brothers, the damned capitalists. I suggest that the answer is in each of us. The answer is that the prime, the natural, the instinctive motive for our actions is self-interest. Graham Greene, in his masterpiece The Heart of the Matter, observed that each of has inside a little dictator who would wish serious damage to others just for our own convenience. We each, deep down and at base, want the world to operate in our favor. In a sense, we are each little Koch brothers, wanting to feather our own nests more and more, no matter how big that nest is at the moment. And since, as Plato so brilliantly observed in the Republic, politics is nothing but the individual “writ large”, we are constantly tempted to follow political policies that further our own interests. In sum, we have met the enemy, and it is us.
What makes us, humans, great, what gives us a hope, is that we are also the beings that recognize a calling beyond ourselves. That call is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. We recognize, we hold without any doubt, that all humans are created equal, that all humans have inalienable rights. As long as those ideals are preserved, we will inevitably be drawn back away from self-interest, both individually and politically.
Want proof? List for yourself your real, honest to God heroes. Find any Koch brothers on your list?

Where Are We Going?

Today, November 4, 2014, is election day. We are voting for senators and governors and representatives. We are voting on referenda and constitutional amendments. Woven into all that, we are voting for future policies on wealth distribution and education and health care and abortion and gay rights, and, deeper, on help for the poor and disabled and on improving the environment and on how we use our military might.
In all of that, though, we are doing something far more significant. We are, slowly and by the most circuitour of paths, moving ourselves in an overall direction. We are, almost subconsciously, expressing where it is that we want to go as a society, how it is that we want to shape our world for those who follow after. This is no product of any grand cabal, of any secret society consciously directing us in one direction or another. It is simply the play of various forces, pushing us in one direction or another, the combination of which ends up, almost against our will, in defining who we really are. It is the play of a variety of values taking us, regardless of any one individual intention or even of the announced intention of the vast majority, toward a set of characteristics that will define our society for history.
We think that, because we in the United States have defined ourselves as a democracy, we will ultimately be seen as that. There are two fairly significant problems with that assumption. First of all, remarkably few of us understand exactly what we mean by “democracy.” Do you, for instance, know precisely what the American ideal is, and where it is precisely expressed? In this writer’s experience as a lecturer and teacher, not many of us do. For the record, our form of democracy, which Plato decried as the worst form of government, is laid out in the Declaration of Independence. Be honest now: can you quote those words precisely? “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness;…” If you were honest, you probably didn’t know that. If we are honest with ourselves, we will probably need to admit that we do not review these ideals in making our political decisions.
The second problem with the assumption is that, in a way, the structure of democracy carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. Jefferson is rumored to have said that the price of liberty is license, and in practical fact that is precisely the argument made by those who, oddly enough, want to curtail liberty. Those who successfuly argued to remove all caps on spending on elections argued for that precisely in the name of one of the most basic freedoms of our constitution, the freedom of speech. Having won, they exercised their new-found freedom to gain control of the government so that they could preserve, and presumably, increase their power in our society, not least of all by curtailing many of those same rights, such as the right to vote. In sum, liberty frees up even those who want to curtail liberty. This finds its parallel in the terrorists preying on freedom of movement in America to get on a plane and use it to attack us. The problem with liberty is that, unless it is defined always in reference ot Jefferson’s brilliant statment of our ideal, it can actually become a tool of its own destruction.
So, my great fear, on this election day before which more money has been spent than ever before and more invective and just plain mud has been slung and lies told as truth and hate and bigotry appealed to more than true concern for our fellow humans, my great fear is that we are moving, slowly, imperceptibly, to the acceptance of a national fascism, toward a de facto dictatorship. I feel a movement being driven, not by the recognition of human rights, but by the interplay of various powers all operating solely on self-interest. And, if what I fear is true, what we need now, more than any time in our history, is a revolution, a re-volt, that is, a return back to the ideals that formed the basis for our democracy in the first place. We need to recommit ourselves to an ideal, not of self-interest, but of commitment to the recognition of every human’s rights.
The price of liberty, as Jefferson defined it, is not license. The price of liberty is the sacrifice of self-interest in the constant effort to serve and protect the interests of every human being.
Will we do that? Will we pay that price? I hope we will. I fear we will not.