Don Davis

On The Fear Of Government, Or, Let's Get Back To Basics

Filed By Don Davis | March 13, 2010 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Barack Obama, election 2010, LGBT history, Patriotism, politics, Tea Party

It seems like everywhere you look these days, someone's trying to spread... The Fear.

All around us... in every town... on every corner... a massive Army Of Fear is standing by, according to the Messengers, ready at a moment's notice to obey the dictates of some unappointed Czar or another.

Just ask Glenn Beck: concentration camps for the white people, jackbooted stormtroopers ready to snatch the guns from your cold dead fingers... Socialist Government-Controlled Healthcare That Threatens Your Not Socialist Medicare... it's all coming, my friends--and unless we organize, as a community, to return to the values of the Founding Fathers, The Government, meaning that awful Obama and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and George Soros and all the other Evil Community Organizers, will win.

There's no government, we're told, like no government.

You know who would find all of this fear of self-government just entirely bizarre?

The Founding Fathers.

In today's conversation we'll consider the fundamentals of American patriotism, we'll ask one of those Founding Fathers how he saw the role of Government--and we'll toss in a few words from Abraham Lincoln, just for good measure.

"...There's a lot of different scenarios... We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot..."

Texas Governor Rick Perry, April 15, 2009

In a conversation about American Patriotism, it's hard to find a better place to start than with the words of Thomas long as you actually understand what he's trying to tell us.

"The trouble with people is not that they don't know but that they know so much that ain't so."

--Henry Wheeler Shaw, as Josh Billings, "The Encyclopedia of Wit and Wisdom"

Lots of people figure it's just plain common sense that Government must be evil, and to make their point they regularly quote from the very first paragraphs of Paine's seminal work, which, coincidentally, is also entitled "Common Sense":

"...Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness...Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil..."


But what these observers fail to understand is that, in the end, Paine's not condemning government's intrusions as much as he is man's frailties.

Consider this passage, from just a bit farther down on that same page:

"...Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence: the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For, were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which, in every other case, advises him out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows, that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others."

(Emphasis appears in original)

So...what is Paine actually saying?

Since people don't always do the right thing, you need a government that governs wisely and well--and the last thing that you want, if you want no government at all.

Paine continues by giving an example of how a community of people formed out of nothing will eventually have no choice but to organize themselves--and in a turn of phrase that our Tea Party friends would do well to note, Paine goes on to say this about societies forming governments:

"...And however our eyes may be dazzled with show, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding; the simple voice of nature will say, it is right."

You'll notice that when Paine writes about government he is referring to a thing which is imposed upon a people by a King, or someone similarly placed. Of course, since "Common Sense" was written before the American Revolution, what he could not yet do was speak from experience about a different kind of government: one that is created by the people themselves.

Abraham Lincoln could, however...and one November afternoon, he did:

"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

(Emphasis added)

Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

In other words, a government that belongs to us, run by people of all political persuasions, working for the benefit of everyone.

What would Abraham Lincoln say to today's Tea Party community? I suspect the obvious question he'd want to ask is: "In a country where we are the government, why in the world would you be afraid...of yourselves?"

And that is the question we should be putting to those same people.

We should be asking them why they are afraid to help captain the Ship of State...why they are afraid of the same democracy Ronald Reagan thought was the greatest on Earth...why, if they really feel that patriotic, they are afraid to do exactly what Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Paine told us would be best for the Nation: be a part of your own government, charting your own future, along with all of the rest of the citizens of the United States...and, most importantly of all, we should be asking why they are, today, so afraid of our shared democracy that they can't help the rest of us as we try to turn Pluribus...into Unum?

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thanks so much--and here's a bit of possible good news.

we already know, having spent a year watching it, exactly what the strategy will be for enda...tea party, tea party, tea party.

i would suggest that if there is any community ready to go to "party war" it's this one, and i would suggest that folks right here should already be planning theatrical events that they can put on right next to the "anti-enda tea parties" so as to expose exactly how foolish the right's resistance really is.

Excellent commentary. Unity is almost a foreign concept to most Americans these days, the dark days of the Great Depression II.

The Federal government is the most visible and therefore the easiest mark for we the people who cannot or will not accept responsibility for our own lives. It's far easier to point the finger of blame than to look in the mirror. And for a moment the buzz of "righteous indignation" might feel good, damn good. But at the end of the day each of us has face what's staring us down in the mirror.

United we stand, divided we fall.

it's kind of strange to be conducting a national civics class with our more secessionist friends, but it's probably a good thing--and the bast part, this is a great chance to really look at who the founders really were...and who they rally weren't.

Juston Thouron Juston Thouron | March 13, 2010 12:11 PM

"...and, most importantly of all, we should be asking why they are, today, so afraid of our shared democracy that they can't help the rest of us as we try to turn Pluribus...into Unum?"

Because they confuse religious morality with secular, civic morality. In a response to another blogger online, I wrote, "...arguments were used by the founding fathers to fashion a government that would provide benevolent governance to all, not regardless of a particular faith, but of a particular denomination...In short they formed a government as Christians of varying denominations acting in moderation towards fellow Christians."

The reality of American history (regardless of Constitutional language)is that we have never established a truly secular democracy. And we will not until people decide not to vote their faith-based morals into laws. The following article on The Huffington Post serves as an example of how religion creeps into our civic life while being represented as constitutionally sound.
Notice how they are teaching that the U.S. government has always been a "constitutional republic," rather than "democratic,".

On another point, Don, I see much to be afraid of in America today. Congressional rules stymie progress(the House has passed something like 290 bills not one of which has passed the Senate) so representative government is failing us. And corporations (especially banks 'too big to fail') elude regulation by the populace due to our broken system of representative government. So we are presently unable to govern ourselves or responsibly limit corporate greed.

We could vote them out of office, but The Hill seems to be able to corrupt Congressmen as fast as we can send them to Washington, D.C.

I see no possibility of change until term limits are enacted for Congress and private funds are eliminated from our election processes.

a few thoughts here:

we are indeed a nation tolerant to christianity--and to add to the historical context of the time, christians were busily devolving into more and more radical groups, as each became progressively more "pure" and intolerant of the others (read: quakers, shakers, calvinists, mennonites, amish, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and...methodists.)

by 1803 we were already busily chasing the muslims to the shores of tripoli--and the plain fact is, we've been hard at it since then.

strangely, we never went to war over buddhism, and we left it to the brits to oppress the hindu world...but i guess what with slavery, and oppressing the native population, we already had a lot on our plates.

cut myself off there. oops.

anyway, with all that oppression stuff noted...we're also a nation capable of some degree of self-healing, which is why women now get to vote, and the new slavery is minimum-wage employment--which, for the most part, is available to americans of any race, creed, or gender...and why we're even talking about enda.

it's an imperfect union, and our history is full of freedoms won and freedoms lost--but it's also a history of action and reaction, and the actions of our most conservative friends, i suspect, will actually inure to our advantage, just as they did in '06 and '08.

we are not working with large majorities, so we do need to tack to the center with every effort to be progressive, but lately, the center has also been moving our way, and over the next few election cycles i'm pretty sure i'd rather be telling our story to voters than our opponent's stories.

You know, usually my first thought whenever the right starts with all that powdered wig stuff is: Who died and left Thomas Paine in charge? And then I remember: who cares? He's generally on my side.

Not that it matters. The only thing the right likes about the founding fathers is the straight, white, property-owning maleness of them. Their actual ideas the right despises.

i often tell people that i thank god every day for sarah pain; in fact, if there wasn't a sarah palin, we'd need to invent one.

same with the most extreme of the right: you are correct that these are "unreachable" people, on a lot of issues--but sometimes they really surprise you.

a quick example: bob barr, who manages to keep a very interesting mix of progressive and hyper-psychotic going, both at the same time.

the real prize, though, if you're trying to win elections or pass legislation, is in the center, and the truly crazy on the right are doing us big favors with that group...which might be enough to overcome the efforts of our democratic friends.

WackoTheSane | March 14, 2010 12:48 PM

What, IMHO, many people who howl loudly for states rights seem to forget is that we as a country went down that path, right after the Revolutionary War. At that time we were organized under the Articles of Confederation and had weak central government and very strong states. That form of government failed. 12 years later the government was re organized under the Constitution.

I am often reminded of a quote reported to be from Churchill “Democracy is the worst form of government devised, except for all the others”

The real problems are that so many people fail to look at their individual views and see the inconsitancies in them. Examples they protest for states rights but defend DOMA. They clamor for freedom but oppose ENDA. The second major issue is that few people really do investigate the issues. They prefer to listen to the loud voices on the Right and Left.

Being informed and really looking at your views to insure that you are consistent in them takes time and work. That is something too many of the people in this country fail to do. They are too busy discussing American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

Juston Thouron Juston Thouron | March 14, 2010 5:47 PM

@ WackoTheSane. I agree with you completely. America also revisited the issue again, and the tragic result was the Civil War.

As for, "Being informed to do." This is a major challenge today for the average American. With the plethora of cable and internet sources it is a time consuming and, I don't think I'm exaggerating here, dangerous task to become informed. You go to a MSM news channel and a PhD from Stanford says the only way to solve a problem is to do one thing. And then a PhD from Harvard says to do the exact opposite. Partisanship on nearly every issue is not only to be found in Congress or the talking heads on TV. It is everywhere. But how many people have actually changed their perspective by becoming more informed? Usually they patronize sources sympathetic to their existing beliefs and get more information to justify and entrench those beliefs, hence the danger. I'm not advocating for ignorance and I am being a bit cynical, I know, but there is some realism here as well.

Whatever political beliefs someone espouses, we are in the midst of a redefinition of the purposes of government in America. Is health care a right? Dems say it is and Reps say it isn't. Are we a secular democracy? The majority of the Texas School Board just voted "No." Are LGBT Americans defined as a legitimate and oppressed minority or do they bring it on themselves with their personal choices? And does it make a difference to equality how one answers that question? Are these questions to be answered from a moral frame of reference, or are they merely pragmatic ones? Are any of these answers up to public opinion or are they facts to be discovered? How and by whom?

Answering these questions is quite a challenge for your average American. And there is nothing more difficult to change in the world than a mind already made up.

this comment deserves a bit of thought, and i have to run for the next few hours.

more tonight.

it is indeed amazing to hear someone defend medicare and decry government-run health care plans in the same sentence, to bring back an example from the original story, and yet it happens, over and over, on issue after issue.

i don't know how you fix that, as people do seem to be inherently able to ignore what they want when it fits their needs--and as so often happens, at least some of the people who are irrationally objecting to this particular set of proposals have other motives operating in the background that impact the way they react to this issue.

but let's move on...

i have forever tried to get to the question of how you get people more interested in politics, as they are in "american idol", and i'm convinced you have to find some way to hip this thing up.

i have jokingly suggested "presidential survivor", with all the candidates starting out together, and the public voting one off the island every week (and to weird things up, i even once suggested we let oj simpson also live on the island, to draw the "lost" audience...), but there are several potential variations on the same theme: "presidential apprentice", "ru paul's presidential race", and some kind of event that combines ryan secrest introducing the candidates from the red carpet with joan rivers and a panel of experts skewering them from the booth being the first things that come to mind.

on a serious note, "obama girl" might turn out to be the harbinger of a trend, and it wouldn't surprise me if other viral campaigns of that type (both complimentary and mocking) were either initiated independently or by the candidates themselves in lots of races going forward.