Today is the true first day of the Trump administration.  Up to this time, all that he and his representatives have said has been rendered meaningless by their constant contradictions and weasel words.  Think, for instance, of the promise by Trump that all Americans will be insured for medical care and then his Secretary of Health and Human Services announcing that all Americans would “have access” to medical insurance.  We are thus left to judge them solely by their actions.  All the rhetoric — “America First,” “We will win,” “the government is about you” — now gets its real meaning from their actions.

So how do we judge this administration and the Republican Congress that has espoused it?  I suggest two possibilities.  The first is by its ability to satisfy our own personal wants and needs.  Those who voted for this administration objected to the Affordable Care Act because it cost too much and it did not provide adequate insurance.  They also wanted lower taxes, a more or less constant Republican campaign promise.  They also wanted more job opportunities and higher pay and benefits.

The second possibility for judging this administration is by its effectiveness in promoting the American ideal, which is presented in the Declaration of Independence as the founding notion of our nation:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident:  that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain alienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness …”   True enough, the founding fathers excluded, in practice, from “all men” a substantial majority of the population, but the ideal is just that, an ideal, and as such it is clearly meant to cover all human beings.

This second possibility stands in stark contrast to the first.  That possibility asks, in essence, what this administration will do for me.  I want a high-paying job.  I want all-inclusive insurance.  I want to pay less in taxes.  As for you, as long as I get what I want, I will agree to let you have whatever you want.  The measuring stick, however, is me.  This is the so-called morality of self-interest.  I say “so-called” because it is self-contradictory.  Morality is that which I owe to others.  A dedication to self-interest necessarily entails a denial of any such obligation.

The second possibility — the American ideal — has often been misinterpreted as a commitment to my own personal liberty.  It is mistakenly seen as an announcement that I can do whatever I want, with the tacit correlative that the best way to get what I want is usually to not violate the liberty of others.   Freedom, in other words, is defined as license, and that definition perverts the entire meaning of the American ideal.  To measure the rights of others by whether or not they serve your own is, at base, a complete denial of the American ideal.

That ideal is a bold and brave and earth-shaking commitment to respect and serve the rights of every human being.  Not just those of my race or my locale or my social or economic status or my religion, but every human being on the planet.  That colossal ideal is what brought the poor and the hungry and the oppressed of the world to these shores:  the knowledge that they would be freed of the chains forced upon them by their birth or their beliefs.  It is the inspiration for those words that stirred us long ago:  “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”

Self-interest is not an ideal.  It is, in fact, the denial of all ideals.  The primacy of self-interest is the root of all conflict.  It is the mother of injustice.  It is the breeding ground of war.  It is the very antithesis of the American ideal.

If, then, we are truly Americans, we should, we must, measure the actions of those presently in power by whether they foster a world that respects all human beings or whether they operate on a fundamental policy of self-interest.  If self-interest prevails, the founding notion of America will fall from an ideal to a mere advertising campaign.





American citizens are justifiably concerned about the threat of terrorist violence in the United States.  From 2001 to 2013, over 3000 people have been killed in the United States by terrorists.  The recitation, and the memories, are gruesome, from the twin towers to San Bernardino.  Those monstrous crimes have pushed American voters to list terrorism among their greatest concerns, and it is clearly affecting their choice of candidate for the presidency.  Likely Republican voters have listed terrorism as America’s number one problem.


We are all deeply concerned, as we should be, because innocent people are being killed by terrorists.  In 2004 alone, 74 people were killed by terrorists in the U.S., and in 2013, 20 people were killed by terrorists.


So we should be deeply concerned about deaths in such numbers.  Here, then, are some other numbers.  In the same period, 2001 to 2013, over 400,000 people were killed by guns in the United States, and in 2013 alone, over 13,000 people were murdered in the United States.  Yet crime is not a major issue for the voters, and gun control is actually denounced by a large part of the population.  Why is that?


I am going to hazard a guess.  Think about the instances of terrorism.  The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  The attack at the Boston Marathon.  The attack at Fort Hood.  The attack at a center to help the disabled in San Bernardino.  There is a common thread here.  All of these attacks happened at places where we would least expect to see violence of any kind.


So, if we shudder at the 3000 deaths that happened in these places, why do we pay so little attention to the more than 400,000 people who died from guns in the same period?  If we face this honestly, do we have to admit that, to put it bluntly, we don’t care?  Are we saying that those violent deaths don’t matter because they don’t really affect us?  Are we assuming that those deaths are in “bad areas”, and, since we don’t live there, it is not our problem?  13,000 people are murdered, and we hardly spare a sigh, and in the same period 20 people are killed by terrorists and we are ready to throw away our most precious civil rights in our effort to avoid further terrorism?


Terrorism is a real and undeniable threat.  So are crimes like murder, rape, and the various financial crimes that strip our citizens of billions of dollars a year.  There is, however, a far greater threat, a threat that could destroy the very fiber of this nation.  The real threat is our growing commitment to the ideology of self-interest.


America was founded on an idea of responsibility for others.  We hold the indubitable truth that every human being — every human being — is born equal and born with inalienable rights.  That is a clear announcement of, and a clear commitment to, the fundamental view that our value comes, not from pursuing our own selfish interests, but from honoring and protecting the rights of all around us.  It is why we honor those who have dedicated, and in many cases surrendered, their lives to protect and defend others.  We don’t honor anyone just for amassing great wealth or seizing great power.  Think of your list of true heroes.  Think of those to whom we give the medal of honor or the medal of freedom.  You will not find Donald Trump or Carl Icahn there.  You will, however, find Rosa Parks and Mother Theresa and Abraham Lincoln and Mohandas Gandhi.  These are not great because of what they gained for themselves but precisely for what they have done and what they have given for others.


We do have problems in America.  We should worry about the economy and the crime rate and terrorism.  Before we can even begin to solve these problems, however, we need to look to ourselves.  If we do, we might just run into the inconvenient truth so neatly put by Al Capp:  we have met the enemy, and he is us.




America’s Achilles Heel

There is a flaw hidden at the very heart of the American view of values, and, therefore, at the very heart of the American system of governance.  This flaw now threatens to bring that system of governance to its knees, and, ultimately, to destroy that system of governance altogether.
     The American ideal, set forth so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence, announces a moral worldview grounded, not in individual freedom or license, but rather in a commitment to responsibility to each and every human being.  It says, not that I have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but that every human being has those rights, and that, since those rights are inalienable, I am obliged to recognize those rights in each and every one of my fellow human beings.  The American ideal thus states a revolutionary value system based, not on my individual needs and wants, but on my inexhaustible obligation to others.   
The genius of the founding fathers was to recognize that this was not the real moral view of the people for whom they were providing a system of governance.  They knew that the actual moral worldview of the people was egocentric.  So they built a system of governance that would, at its best, protect and grow the inalienable rights of all, but that would, at the very least, survive the battles that would inevitably arise from conflicting self-interests.   
The primary instrument used by the founding fathers to avoid the damage done by such battles was a web of checks and balances.  The power of government was divided among the three branches, and each branch was honeycombed with the weights and counterweights necessary to prevent one faction from outweighing the interests and powers of all other factions.  Things like filibusters and super-majority cloture votes, exasperating as they have sometimes been, are all there to make sure that no one faction can assert its will over all other factions.
     This whole system of checks and balances is an implicit recognition of a moral worldview radically different from, in fact radically contrary to, the other-centered value system stated in the Declaration of Independence.  In setting it up, the founding fathers were quietly recognizing that the real value system, the ethos actually espoused by the people, was not other-centered but rather ego-centered.  While we may give lip service to the inviolability of the rights of others, and while we may express deep admiration for those who dedicate their lives to the service of others, the fact is that the fundamental principle defining Western values is self-interest.  Whether it is framed in terms of the spiritual or the material, the fundamental question that is at the heart of Western man’s moral decisions is:  how will my actions best serve my interests?  There is, at base, not much difference between living to obtain eternal happiness and living to accumulate wealth and pleasure.  They differ only as to means.  The end is the same — to serve myself.
    The economist and philosopher John Rawls, in his great work, A Theory of Justice, said it best in modern times.  Each political faction, and each individual, enters into a kind of implied contract.  That contract states that we will all agree to act in such a way to at least serve the minimum interests of the least advantaged among us.  We enter into that contract for reasons of self-interest.  We are agreeing to a system in which we are guaranteed that our own interests will, at the very worst, be served in some way.  This is what we might call a kinder, gentler version of what was said long ago by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes:  in a world defined by self-interest, the natural state of human relations is that of a war of each against all, and we submit to government to avoid that war.  If we did not, said Hobbes, our lives would be nasty, poor, solitary, brutish and short.
     So I recognize the rights of others because doing so best serves my own interests.
  But — what if that were not true?  What if I gathered to myself sufficient power that I did not have to recognize the rights of others?  What if I had so much power that it would best serve my interests to reduce or even eliminate the rights of others?  What if, for instance, I felt that my interests were best served by not sharing any of my assets with anyone, and that I could resist, or even eliminate, for instance, my government’s policies of providing aid to the poor and the sick and the elderly and all the least advantaged among us?  And what if I had the power to stop the government from pursuing those policies?  How would those who oppose my views respond?
     Herein lies that central flaw I mentioned. If you accept self-interest as the defining value, then you cannot object to someone using that same principle to serve his own interests by subjugating your interests. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If your own interests were best served by violating the interests of others, you would do so. At the very least, you would have no reason not to do so.
So at the heart of every value system based on self-interest is this frightful flaw capable of wreaking havoc in a human community. It is possible that one’s self-interest could be best served by subjugating the interests of others, and in a value system based on self-interest, such power plays are perfectly justified.
Imagine how someone could go about profiting from this flaw in, for instance, the American governmental system. Some faction might decide that its interests would be best served by seizing control of the government in such a way that the power of any opposing interest is rendered ineffective. To do this, the faction insists on making its control on government immune to attack. It gerrymanders legislative districts so that its proponents cannot be voted out of office. It uses every legislative device available to install its own policies and defeat all attempts to install policies and programs to which it is opposed. It limits the rights of its opponents to vote. It works to fill the judicial positions with judges and justices whose opinions are in accord with its own. It runs a campaign of ceaseless objection and denigration of the executive branch when held by someone who opposes it, and it runs a campaign of ceaseless justification of the actions of a president whose views are in accord with it. Most of all, it abandons reason, which would give the lie to its tactics and goals, and replaces reason with rhetoric and appeals to prejudice.
If such an attack on the American system of governance were to be pursued, the system itself would be effectively destroyed. Remove the system of checks and balances, and the American democratic government can, at best, remain only a meaningless shell. The faction that succeeds in installing itself in power in such a fashion could never be removed. We would have, in practical fact, a dictatorship.
And here is the real problem, the real flaw. If, as seems to be the case, our moral worldview is grounded in self-interest, we would have no way to object to this takeover. The faction would, after all, be pursuing the same principle of self-interest on which we ground our own moral decisions. We would, of course, be tempted to cry out, “It’s not fair! It’s not just! It’s not right!” To all these cries of injustice and unfairness, the faction would respond, “We are only acting in accord with your own principle — self-interest. It serves us better to take over government, so we did it.”
To that, dear reader, what would you respond? Justice, fairness, right and wrong — all these things are subject to your first principle, self-interest. Now where do you turn?
This is, of course, all hypothetical. In the real world, no one would stoop to such despicable tactics. No one would systematically gerrymander congressional districts, load the courts and carry on a ceaseless smear campaign against the president. After all, this is America.