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July 20, 2013


We are told that one of the abilities we have which distinguishes us from other animals is the “gift of speech.” Other such “gifts” include the thumb and brain circuitry. Gifts require both givers and receivers – and givers remain unnamed in this explanation, any such discussions left instead to a process loosely called “evolution,” which is in turn presumably another gift from an unknown giver to us receivers. Some inject a creative god in the giver role; others talk time and Darwinism. What if it is neither?

This short political/philosophical essay, however, is not designed to test either philosophy or science in its treatment of the gift of speech; it is rather aimed at how we have misused such a facility for other purposes, ranging from altruism through greed. Frequently we do not say what we mean or mean what we say. Have we thereby demeaned the substance of the gift, or is its use a different issue conditioned by subsequently adopted standards of social conduct and taboo?

For instance, Jefferson put together historic words with his “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that. . . .” Jefferson was a slave holder and held male slaves. Obviously he did not believe that “all men are equal,” but if he didn’t mean it, just what did he mean? We cannot just throw such historic words of this FOUNDER (!) on the scrap heap of “evolution” or other such junk pile for meaningless words; we need to know what he was REALLY thinking when he took quill to parchment because what he had to say and write is not in the least “self-evident.” Unfortunately, all is left to conjecture. What else did he NOT mean? What else did Madison NOT mean? Franklin? Adams? Hancock? This is Athenian democracy? Don’t words matter? Especially in founding documents?

When the Articles of Confederation and (later) terms of the Constitution were under consideration, there were those among the delegates who openly wondered why anyone who didn’t own real estate could possibly be interested in voting since they had nothing at stake. Again, what were they thinking? How could such a voting requirement comport with the majestic “all men are equal” language? How can all men (not to mention women) be “equal” in a democracy if only some are permitted to vote? (Unfortunately, some, mostly tea party members, apparently agree these days with the substance of this sentiment with their voter suppression attempts to remove yet another democratic freedom from the 47 per cent.)

One of history’s most honest men in telling it like it is without fear or favor was the Florentine Machiavelli, who advised his Prince how to employ cunning and falsehood in gaining political and diplomatic advantage over other states. Plans he designed for his Prince involved pretense and lies, but Machiavelli had no compunction in how to get the job done; he was all for results that fit his Prince’s best interests. Honesty and fairness in obtaining such results were not a consideration; only the best results for his Prince were ever on the table. It was a classic demonstration of “the ends justify the means” philosophy, one employed disastrously by Hitler, Genghis Khan and various Roman administrations, among others.

Tellingly, perhaps, Newt Gingrich is on record as an admirer of Machiavelli. We see others today who, though unannounced Machiavellians, follow Machiavellian principles in their votes to disenfranchise voters and otherwise employ cunning and falsehood to rough up their fellow Americans who are hungry and unemployed. They are mostly but not all members of the so-called tea party, who seem to believe that the Florentine Machiavelli was on the right track, i.e., the means (take it all, greed all the way and ignore what anyone may have to say to the contrary) justifies the ends (it’s there for the taking so take it all and to the devil with the blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice our forbearers underwent to amass this trove we are taking).

Perhaps if an ethical giver of speech had known how some of us were going to dishonor and abuse such a gift to the great detriment of humanity, such a gift would have been limited to the Shakespeares, Lincolns, Gandhis and Christs among us. From my perspective of the manner in which the gift is being employed these days on Wall Street and in the halls of Congress, that would not only be a fair but a desirable trade-off because, if greed wins, everyone (even the greedy) will lose.

Think not? Take a cursory look at Greek and Roman history. Take a listen to Justice Brandeis as well, who (as paraphrased) said that “concentrated wealth and democracy cannot co-exist.” He is right, and so is history. All ultimately lose, whether rich or poor. We do not have economic or political institutions that can accommodate such a dichotomy for any sustained period.

For a host of good reasons, including survival itself, let’s end our abuse of the gift.  GERALD  E


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