The GOP’s currency of envy

Heinz 57 variety political guyI’m such a Heinz 57 variety political guy that it’s really hard to fit myself into anybody’s pigeonhole. I like it that way, and my suspicion is that I’m not alone. We are silent, or so it seems, because no one truly speaks for us. We are offered choices that really don’t matter at the dawn of a new era (postmodern) in which the best we can do is hope for something different. Just like life itself, we can either live it or hope to live it, the former coming with great risk while the latter offering the same old, tired-but-comfortable options.

Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative and many other political groupings are all designed by our top-down culture to suit, well, our top-down culture, but if we believe that “top-down” doesn’t cut it anymore, then we need to start thinking differently when it comes to how “we, the people,” govern ourselves and, by extension, our country. Anybody wishing to start something new must fit himself into the old political portal mindset, which is by nature designed to prevent such intrusion without incredible cost.

I was the executive producer of The 700 Club in the early 80s, a wonderful adventure to which I gave my all but ended up broken. I was an outsider, of sorts, and even though I often led worship services at the ministry, I’d like to think I still managed to nourish and maintain my observer roots. In board room meetings on a host of issues, for example, Pat Robertson would often look at me for reaction to what he was proposing-cum-ordering, because he knew my head could and would move in both directions. I’m proud of that (book forthcoming some day, I promise), and while I’m sure many thought I was conflicted internally, the truth is I rather enjoyed being in that place at that time. Never try to judge what somebody’s thinking on the inside by his or her outside performance or circumstances.

Nobody ever asked me about my politics at CBN; it was simply assumed, and I count the many wonderful discussions – and even debates – with remarkable thinkers while there as one of the greatest joys of my life. You’ve probably never heard the name, but Herb Titus has one of the most remarkable minds of the late 20th Century. We often had super intellectual thinkers on the program, and I had the chance to learn from each of them. Dr. Benjamin Mays, for example, on what’s wrong with youth today:

“Because we are so extraordinarily afraid to let them experience the same hard times that helped shape our own character.”

American Thinker Logo image

“American Thinker”

That’s a long path to introduce you to a publication you’ve probably never encountered but that I often enjoy, American Thinker. It’s a conservative “think” publication, and since the reason for much of my writing is the challenging of assumptions, it’s a great place to do just that. Can my/your arguments that are counter to contemporary conservative positions stand up to genuine and passionate intellectual scrutiny? I find this a good place to bounce things around in my mind. I was doing this recently, when I came upon a fascinating argument about the currency of envy in a piece called, “Obama and the Infernal Serpent, by Jeffrey Folks, a prolific writer and conservative thinker from Knoxville, TN.

Mr. Folks charges President Obama and all Democrats with “wealth envy,” something he decries as evil and contrary to both the ancients and Christian literature. His opening statement reveals the flaw in this logic. “Envy of the rich,” he writes, “is actually one of the seven ‘deadly sins,’ according to Christian belief.” I’m sorry, but the phrase “of the rich” isn’t something I can find in my studies of those seven deadly sins. But he goes on:

The ancients understood envy better than we do today. Envy was always associated with snakes because it is a destructive emotion that creeps into one’s heart. It is sluggish, gradually overturning one’s nobler feelings and replacing them with venomous hatred. Like our current occupant of the White House, whose speeches have become harsher as the campaign draws on, envy is ruthless and unsmiling.

Once unleashed, envy knows no bounds. It slithers into men’s hearts, poisoning their relationship to others, destroying families, ruining friendships, and making the governance of society impossible. That is what has now been unleashed in America. Employing the tactics of Saul Alinsky, Obama approaches every political problem with the intent of isolating his target and exploiting the destructive emotions of envy and distrust.

All of Obama’s talk about “fairness” is nothing but an attempt to gin up a sense of grievance and exploit it for his own purposes. The rich should be taxed more, he says, not because it would bring in more revenue or because they are not taxed enough already, but because they need to be punished. We hate them because they have succeeded and we have not. Even 2,800 years ago, that kind of populist demagoguery was understood to be dangerous.

I love words like “envy,” concepts that human beings have struggled with since the beginning. We seldom talk about these kinds of things, preferring instead to leave that to the clergy, “where it belongs.” That’s a shame, because concepts such as this undergird many other things that we do talk about, and the dangerous assumption in those conversations is that we all agree on the properties, practices and consequences of such big ideas. When was the last time you thought about the role that envy plays in your life, or in anybody else’s life?

This is the kind of 30,000 foot, big thought process that often drives conservative thinking. I find it fascinating, because while I find his conclusion erroneous, Mr. Folks isn’t stupid, illiterate, or full of crap. He’s followed the thing back to word root origins, and has put his honest and sincere beliefs out there for anybody to read. If you want into the collective mind of conservative intelligentsia, you must occasionally drift into this kind of reasoning, because a logical path that produces illogical results has to begin at a twisted point. Challenging arguments on this level will help your results in debating all contemporary issues, because these underlie and provide motivation for arguments that many miss, because they simply don’t see it. But here we have it, spelled out for us by a very smart fellow.

I wish no disrespect to Mr. Folks or any of the people at American Thinker, but his argument avoids one very important piece of ancient literature in order to arrive at its conclusion. Finally – and forgive me – I have reached the point of this treatise. To accuse Mr. Obama of “wealth envy” disregards the role of envy in the amassed fortunes of those wealthy people that Democrats are alleged to envy and even hate. As much as Mr. Folks believes the President’s words to be “populist demagoguery,” he is himself engaging in a non-populist form of demagoguery, one that appeals to those who are rich, the ones the Democrats are supposed to envy.

The book of Ecclesiastes is clear on this matter.

4:4 – “And I saw that all labor and all achievement springs from man’s envy of his neighbor.”

So here, the author, presumed to be King Solomon himself, notes that in his observations of life, he’s discovered that human achievement (skill at work) has its roots in envy, which puts a different spin on the use of the word to disrespect only one swath of the political spectrum. The rich exploit envy and are filled with it themselves, for the competition to have the biggest this or that or more of this or that is, in fact, an expression of envy. Moreover, envy flows through every pore of those inside the velvet rope, those who wield power and influence and work to keep others outside its lure of being in control or even “in the know.” How hypocritical is it, then, to argue that one’s envy is the evil “infernal serpent” while another’s is simply dismissed as irrelevant, pointless or worse, not a part of the argument whatsoever?

Wealth envy, it seems, is the flip side of the coin of position envy and very much the same thing. The carrot and the stick is a good thing to those in power, because they are the ones holding the stick. This is not only envy; it’s a form of every one of those seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. Those chasing the illusive carrot are rarely allowed to get it, and when some do, they are held up as examples of now envy works for the good of all.

Mr. Folks goes on:

All of Obama’s talk about “fairness” is nothing but an attempt to gin up a sense of grievance and exploit it for his own purposes. The rich should be taxed more, he says, not because it would bring in more revenue or because they are not taxed enough already, but because they need to be punished. We hate them because they have succeeded and we have not.

This is the logical conclusion of thinking that begins in the wrong place, and it’s rampant among today’s popular conservative intelligentsia. It’s not that the rich believe themselves better than others; it’s that they believe they can be different than others (e.g. above others), because they’ve earned the right to be so. This is the existential battle between conservatives and liberals, and arguments justifying either position aren’t helped by logic that begins in the wrong zipcode.

By being classified as one of the seven deadly sins, envy is, therefore, a part of human nature and present in us all, not just one group. At the very root of colonialism, for example, is the envy of resources, and justification for seizing such resources in the name of God is a sham disguised as nobility. All colonialist institutions are corrupt in this way, and the protection of one’s place within the hierarchy is likewise self-centered. The French saying noblesse oblige (nobility obligates) undergirds the community chest, but is it really not today simply a tax exemption?

I don’t claim to understand rich people. I grew up in the home of a World War II veteran who settled back home in Michigan as a worker in the furniture factories. We were Adlai Stevenson supporters in the 50s, which carried with it a natural disdain for the “silk stockings” of the old GOP. “Fringe” in the GOP these days points to religious zealotry, but in my youth, it was more about the party of management, corporations, and the wealthy. Today, the religious right is a clever straw man thrown at the opposition and a recruiting tool for the “real” GOP – the fat cats of my dad’s era.

I’m in that 30% tax bracket, and I can’t help but cringe upon hearing that a guy like Mitt Romney doesn’t pay more that 13%. The “deadly sin” that I’m feeling, therefore, is anger, not envy, and there’s a big difference. I don’t want his 13%, because I honestly feel that paying my fair share is just that, fair. Would I like to pay less? Sure, but not at the expense of others, because I really do think we’re all in this together. And what I find illogical is that anything that justifies such a discrepancy is, on its face, contrary to the best interests of the whole.

Jeffrey Folks represents a part of our culture that judges the motives of others based on its own character defects. It’s human to envy others, especially those who have the whirling, sparkly things the have-nots don’t. But it’s foolish (and sloppy thinking) to assume that this has anything to do with the real motives of those who exist beyond the iron gates that separate one from the other. Out here, it’s about survival, not the easy life.

Remember, the Morlocks didn’t envy the Eloi; they ate them.