Is It Safe?

Leviathan of Hobbes

Is it safe?

All I can think is Sir Laurence Olivier offering oil of clove to Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man after jamming a dental pick into a cavity – even his henchman had to turn away – after asking that question.

That is the question I ask myself as the 2016 presidential election unfolds. Rights and freedoms are are being buried in a campaign of innuendo and factless smear.  We were taught our founders created a nation built on the writings of the great Enlightenment thinkers (unless you’re from Texas, where textbooks have that tidbit edited out).  Starting with Thomas Hobbes who began a century long conversation on how government should work. This dialog includes such great thinkers as Rousseau, Locke, Voltaire, and Montesquieu – all refining the idea of government and natural rights. Their writings inspired our writings – our Declaration, our Constitution, our Bill of Rights.  

What were the major concerns of those writers and our founders? Balancing individual freedoms while creating a government for protection. It began with Hobbes rejecting the divine right of kings and suggesting we willingly give up all our freedoms to one all-powerful leader who would keep us safe. This evolved into Rousseau’s idea that we should only give our freedoms to each other creating “We, the People.” Rousseau’s ideal of a direct democracy becomes Madison’s practical republic, rebuking most of Hobbes’ writing (except for his concept of man being a selfish asshole if left to his own devices).

Over the past nearly two and a half centuries, this system has worked reasonably well in the U.S. with some glaring exceptions (think slavery, Civil War, the Japanese internment). It has slowly refined itself and grown to accept the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and LGBTQ movement; closing in on the promise of all being created equal with certain unalienable rights.

Now, nearly 400 years after Hobbes, we have a candidate who is running on the Leviathan* platform and leaving the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason behind. Trust him, he’ll fix everything all by himself. He’ll self fund his campaign while raising money through emails and online pledges. He’ll protect our religious freedoms by knowing your religion before he allows you to enter our country. He uses his freedom of speech to bully and belittle those who speak against him. He promises to protect the freedom of the press by threatening lawsuits and refusing to credential journalists who question him. Just give him your vote and trade in the ideals of the  Enlightenment for a great wall of safety.

This spring we traveled to Italy and the first thing we were asked by the man who arranged to get us to our hotel was how was it possible a person like Trump could be so close to winning the nomination. It is now summer and Trump has the nomination and we are vacationing in Quebec, Canada. The topic that keeps coming up is possibility of Trump actually getting elected and did anyone seriously think this was a good idea. I wince when I tell them yes – many Americans do. They all look at me in horror. America will elect Trump to the most powerful position in the world? Ashamed, I have to turn away.

Is it safe? Can the world absorb a Trump presidency? Can our already strained republic overcome its base, nativist underbelly? Does anyone have a giant vat of clove oil?

 

*In the Leviathan the English writer, Thomas Hobbes, said the only way for us to be safe is to give up our freedoms to a badass Chuck Norris-like leader because man’s natural state is that of constant war – making life “nasty, brutish and short.” This leader would need to be so terrifying that no one would dare incur his wrath. Enemies from outside would keep their distance fearing his deadly roundhouse kick and those inside would avoid any and all commotion to save themselves from a righteous spinning back fist. With a leader like that, Hobbes reasoned, people could then go about their day in complete safety building businesses, creating infrastructure, growing a society for the next generation. He had a major flaw in his reasoning. The leader would be a human and humans are a greedy lot (which Hobbes acknowledged).

Hobbes is one of the early Enlightenment writers during the Age of Reason, a time when superstition was swept aside, replaced by a belief in logic and reason. Provable facts, able to be verified and refined, were the touchstone in that age – not so much this one.

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2 Responses to “Is It Safe?”

  1. Jnana Hodson Says:

    This reminder of the contrast between Leviathan and (by my extension) the Federalist Papers is most welcome. The Founding Fathers acknowledged our human flaws in ways that led to peaceful resolution in self-governance, rather than ongoing repression and violent conflict.

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