On public philosophy, the ethical ethos. –Robert M. Shelby, 12-6-10. [1172 txt wds]

People of far-right, Republican persuasion care nothing for bipartisanship now because they have lost all memory of the public philosophy which motivated our founders (as described in 1955 by Walter Lippmann) nor do they give a fig for it if reminded. Too many people high on the ladders of property and income have regressed both in sociality and public responsibility, becoming antisocial and virtually uncivilized. They cannot conceive themselves as having obligations equal to their rights. They want only for their precious rights to be constantly and universally observed and respected by all without owing anything to civilization for them in return, including taxes. A few pay  lip service to “giving something back” to the nation for all they have received, offering to serve in office or charitable cause, perhaps as one serves in tennis or water polo.

Jefferson made appeal to the Almighty as the source of human rights such as political liberty, equality before the law, freedom of speech and conscience, and the freedoms both to worship and not to worship with neither hindrance nor favor from government. Contrary to his documented appeal to divinity, the founders largely understood that civil rights, including  the “natural” rights of humans, were defined solely by societies whether in written law or unwritten social contract, and that these were granted with assurance only by governments. Claiming divine sanction was a tool of rhetorical persuasion not actually indicating belief. These men understood religiosity and the power of private interests to subvert and dissolve the mental and spiritual basis of public democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville noted and warned of possible trouble ahead.

As for the pursuit of happiness, these irresponsible people of great wealth have come to interpret happiness as material comfort with complete and risk-free security of person and property, enjoying unrestrained power to use or abuse property and less powerful people as they please, short of being caught in a blatant breach of clearly defined law. Many in commerce or industry hide their lack of public responsibility behind lesser responsibilities of daily management and payroll, or duties to family, church, private   organizations and avocational groups. Not all wealthy folks are so devoid of real concern for the public good, but let there be no doubt, wealth lifts many people above a sense of community with others, even in wartime. They save themselves and their offspring from any danger of combat unless an unusually patriotic and responsible youngster here or there insists on meaningful service, having imagined it gloriously romantic to enlist, and perhaps escape boring restraints at home.

Whatever lifts the morale, well-being and viability of the whole population comprises or contributes to The Public Interest. “Public interest” does not mean merely something which a large part of the populace happens to be focused on at this time or that, though many are attentive to actions and measures which really are in the public interest while some are not. It has never been clear that the extreme enrichment of a few truly serves all the people. It seems good that possibilities for individual persons to gain great wealth should be open to people generally, but the key to civilization, the good society, is balance and restraint, all citizens remembering the important distinction between justly exercised freedom and licentious abandon. Careful judgment must govern raw acquisitiveness and blatant power seeking. Where persons and classes will not control themselves, will not observe and adapt to the public interest or need, government must legislate and enforce.

We are seeing the Republican power-elites and propaganda spinners play “lame-duck,” pleading victimization by Democratic leaders, and trying to divert public attention from the ultra-right’s underhanded use of every means available to subvert the public interest in favor of a small clique of the most wealthy who, with their followers, either don’t care about or run blind to what damage their movement inflicts on the larger society. The public is literally under attack by large tracts of private wealth.

Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries On The Laws Of England (which my maternal grandfather studied by lamplight, preparing for the Missouri State bar examination around 1900) held that property rights are given neither by God nor nature but created by laws of the state. As laws can be changed, there are no absolute property rights. He wrote: “The laws define what are the rights to use and to enjoy and to dispose of property, which the courts will enforce.” The ownership of property is only feasible in civil society. Make society uncivil and the right to property evaporates, just as the British crown lost its property rights in America by becoming an uncivilized master. The Republican party endangers itself by incivil and hubristic speech and behavior. So, too, the rights of our wealthy approach cliff’s edge through blithe injustice. The Russian Revolution was tragically unnecessary but long prepared for by the inconsiderate behavior of powerful people. Time and vengeful anger do not wait for good intent to prevail. Today many seem to forget that rights entail duties. Property and wealth bear obligations to the civilization which makes them possible. Civilized people agree, neither financial wealth nor political power should be childishly self-centered.

Walter Lippmann wrote, “The right to utter words, whether or not they have meaning, and regardless of their truth, could not be a vital interest of a great state but for the presumption that they are the chaff which goes with the utterance of true and significant words. But when the chaff of silliness, baseness, and deception is so voluminous that it submerges the kernels of truth, freedom of speech may produce such frivolity, or such mischief, that it cannot be preserved against the demand for a restoration of order or of decency. If there is a dividing line between liberty and license, it is where freedom of speech is no longer respected as a procedure of the truth and becomes the unrestricted right to exploit the ignorance, and to incite the passions, of the people. Then freedom is such a hullabaloo of sophistry, propaganda, special pleading, lobbying and salesmanship that it is difficult to remember why freedom of speech is worth the pain and trouble of defending it. What has been lost in the tumult is the meaning of the obligation to subject the utterance to criticism and debate.”

Confrontational debate properly proceeds as Socratic dialogue, a dialectic among discussants toward improved concepts of the topic in hopes of reaching accord in true statements of fact, not opinion in accord with an apriori or foregone conclusion. Worthy debate requires honesty and sincere commitment to a common goal in reliable data shared by participants who respect each other and the process of communication. It must be understood that there is no more right to deceive than there is a right to cheat, swindle or pick pockets. Community solidarity requires personal integrity. Enemies of social unity who prefer fragmentation and conflict for purposes of private gain through use of personal wealth and political pull must be controlled or resoundingly defeated.

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