In 1759, Voltaire published the novel Candide, which featured a character Professor Pangloss. Though a great many calamities follow Candide and the Professor in their travels, Professor Pangloss never alters his philosophy of life. Nor does he ever lend a helping hand, neither first nor in return, even to those who saved his life. His beliefs are summarized as “whatever is, is best.”
A century and a half later, L. Frank Baum published The Wizard of Oz, a story with which every American is likely familiar. Young Dorothy, much like Candide, is in the throws of a great adventure full of difficulties. She is likewise both helped and persecuted by strangers. Fortunately, she survives because she is helped by courage, intelligence and compassion, embodied in the characters of the Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man. Without these compatriots, Dorothy would have perished. Her faith in goodness, her willingness to meet the requirements of the fraudster Wizard, and Glinda the Good Witch’s counsel would not have been enough for the young and naive girl to defeat the evil character of the Bad Witch. Had Dorothy needed the help of Pangloss, it would not have been forthcoming.
Another book, written in the early 1600’s, is Don Quixote, which features a character, a dreamer, who wants a world where men are chivalrous, noble and honorable. His motto could have been, “whatever is, isn’t nearly good enough.’
And then there is the Declaration of Independence, which ends with the words, “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” These rebels were quixotic, and simultaneously demonstrated courage, intelligence and compassion. They were far from perfect, but they must have had a decent understanding of human shortcomings. They attempted to form a government which would check their worst impulses, whether it was greed or panglossian indifference. The Declaration was soon followed by the Articles of Confederation, and a dozen years later, the US Constitution.
The Constitution has endured because it shares biblical wisdom. In Mark 2:21-22, Jesus speaks about putting new wine into new wineskins. If you put new wine into an old wineskin, as it ferments it expands. New wineskins can stretch. Old wineskins can’t, and as a result they burst and all the wine is lost. The Constitution is designed to be a new wineskin, to perpetually allow new people and new ideas the room to expand and improve upon the past. Its very existence replacing The Articles is proof of an attitude of continuous improvement. The Civil War was the result of a mistaken attempt to preserve the folly of slavery rather than accepting the lessons dating back to Moses. Courage, intelligence and compassion were lacking in The Confederacy.
Unfortunately, greed and indifference continue to be an obstacle to ‘a more perfect union.’ Despite the best efforts of The New Deal to create a just society after the economic collapse of The Great Depression, a large number of systemic failures plague our times. Health insurance was invented as a way to ensure everyone got the healthcare they needed. Today, health insurance prevents people from getting healthcare. Yet, the republican party offers only obstacles to fixing the problem. Like Pangloss, they embrace ‘whatever is, is best,’ and ignore the struggles others experience. Their panglossian approach is sadly consistent, but that is what the word ‘conservative’ has always meant. Liberals have always wanted to fix problems; conservatives have always been content letting them fester, caring only about their own comfort and nothing else.
The list of ways that conservatives and republicans have betrayed American idealism is woefully long. They claim to be unwilling to negotiate with terrorsits, but in fact won’t negotiate with Americans. When women in the military complained over sexual harassment or worse, they were content to blame the victim. While they give lip service to the sacrifices of soldiers, they allow them to be subject to low wages, poor facilities, and prey of loansharking. They give abundant praise to the small business-owner, but reject the contribution of their laborers, and give every possible favor to large public corporations in which they hold stocks. Citizens pay taxes on their full income, while businesses only pay taxes on profit. The equivalent would be for citizens only to pay taxes on what they saved, yet it is always businesses that get more tax breaks.
The title of Adam Smith’s book, The Wealth of Nations, refers to the social contract. Without a social contract, a nation is poor and miserable. He also wrote, ‘a nation with the highest rate of profit goes to ruin the fastest.’ He was never an advocate for greed, and continuously condemned the collusion between business and government to exploit others. Like Don Quixote, Adam Smith yearned for chivalry and better character in men. The American Revolution was less about the King, though he got a lot of blame, and more against the Lords of Trade, who set up monopolies that feathered their nest.
Now we have had the rise of Donald Trump. His tenure was marked with repeated excess, greed, indifference and cruelty. Incompetence writ large. Zero statesmanship. Trump is another of history’s charismatic megalomaniacs, gifted in convincing others and intimidation simultaneously. Those that believe his lies need intelligence, those afraid of him need courage, and those angry at whom he demonizes need to learn compassion.
Since about the time of Nixon, when the republican party was infused by the fleeing racists of the former democrats, republicans have consistently been a party of obstructionism and hypocrisy. The dignity of Eisenhower is but a distant memory. Like Pangloss, unwilling to lend a hand, worse than Pangloss, stopping others from helping others.
Soon the republicans will stand in judgement of an impeached president. They will need to decide how they want to be remembered. Will they embrace the courage, intelligence, compassion, chivalry and idealism that have been beacons of light for mankind, or will they choose to be Pangloss? A vote to acquit is not nearly good enough, and is dishonorable.