“No cause is left but the most ancient of all, the one, in fact, that from the beginning of our history has determined the very existence of politics: the cause of freedom versus tyranny.”
— Hannah Arendt
So no, we can’t just get along.
That was the theme of my presentation this week to the Explorer’s Lifelong Learning Institute in Salem. When Franklin Hawke called me in the fall about my subject, I was watching the budget battle in Washington.
If you recall, Sen. Ted Cruz was refusing to vote for a budget that funded Obamacare, and the Democrats refused to allow a budget without it, and some Republicans were angry with Cruz, and in the middle of the debate voices from all sides were raised deploring the fact that everyone isn’t getting along.
So I said to Frank, in exasperation, “no, we can’t just get along’ might be a good subject”, and thus it became.
Where to start. A small statue of the goddess Athena resides near my computer. When I lived in Greece, I studied the mythology as well as the history of the country, was intrigued to learn that Athena is the goddess of wisdom and of war, which seemed at first a contradiction.
The gods and goddesses battled over important things, like giving mankind fire, but also silly things like who would be awarded a golden apple for being judged most beautiful. It’s hard to justify the Trojan War, romantic though its alleged cause may seem. Unlike her more bloodthirsty half-brother Ares, Athena’s involvement is strategic: her hero Odysseus meets with Troy’s Hector in negotiation, trying to “get along” and prevent the Trojan War. The Iliad and the Odyssey reflect the futility of their effort. In the movie “Troy”, Achilles is asked by a distraught woman after a terrible battle, “when will this end?” He calmly replies, “it will never end.”
Maybe we need to go back farther, to the Garden of Eden, no one around but God and two people. Eve wanted to do something, Adam didn’t argue, they shared an apple and whoops, they were no longer getting along with God. Then they had two kids -- just four people on earth -- and one of them murdered the other. Humans tell stories to deal with this reality: We don’t get along.
Once while walking on the Left Bank in Paris, I came upon a shop selling paintings by an artist named Rosario. I fell in love with the brilliant colors and the theme: various animals posing together in peace. Glad I couldn’t afford one; I’d feel silly now, having hauled a large painting home, with a theme that doesn’t make sense. Watch the National Geographic channel; animals, including our closest relatives, mostly don’t get along.
There have been theories about some primates living in peace, but Jane Goodall has disproved much of this fantasy with her chimpanzees. However, the relative success of the great apes generally avoiding warlike behavior among themselves could explain why they haven’t evolved further. What if the dynamic challenges of not getting along lead to evolutionary progress, creating long-term good to balance the sometimes bloody consequences of disagreement? It’s not always the physically fittest that survive: sometimes the smarter brains prevail.
George Bernard Shaw said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Which brings us to the debate over the federal budget, about which Shaw, a socialist, and I might reasonably disagree. Though perhaps not. It’s one point of view to want to spread the wealth around, and another to pretend there is wealth to spread, while borrowing trillions from future generations who don’t have a voice and may never get around to actually creating that wealth. How will mankind survive if hard work and superior intelligence aren’t rewarded?
So those of us who value the cause of freedom versus tyranny continue the battle that our founding fathers began: We argue, we stand firm, we fight if necessary. Tea party senators and congressmen keep their word to those who elected them: They resist new programs like Obamacare which increase the national debt, they refuse to raise the national debt limit, they don’t “reach across the aisle” to spread our grandchildren’s wealth around.
Compromise and “getting along” are strategies for advancing one’s own convictions, not values in themselves. Perhaps what we should be encouraging in Congress and among ourselves is disagreement that is stated with courtesy: not mindless name-calling or invitations to a duel, but insistence that arguments be rational, that outcomes are right.
Spiritual leaders like Pope Francis ask us “to recognize that we are brothers.” This isn’t helpful: Cain and Abel were brothers. What we need to recognize is that we are autonomous beings who should not be used for the benefit of others without our consent.
I’ve been told recently by young libertarians that I am an OWL -- an Old Wise Libertarian. I love it -- noting that the owl is the symbol of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and of war. Let’s just try to keep the war civil, and have our ongoing debate without swords.
Barbara Anderson is president of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a regular contributor to the opinion pages.