The Real Attack on the Spirit of Christmas Comes from the Right Wing
Every year about this time the gang at Fox News and others in the Right Wing blogosphere get on their high horse about the "liberal attack on Christmas" - or President Obama's "attack on Christmas."
Of course all you have to do is have a look at pictures of the White House Christmas decorations - dozens of Christmas trees virtually everywhere - to realize that the Obama "attack on Christmas" is one more right wing hallucination.
But there is an attack on the spirit of Christmas - and it comes directly from the Right Wing.
Earlier this year, Think Progress put out a video that included the Republican golden boy - Budget Chair Paul Ryan - praising the moral stances taken by the late novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. The video intersperses Ryan's praise for Rand with video from a 1959 interview of Rand by CBS's Mike Wallace. In the interview, Rand - author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (recently made into a movie) explained her "Objectivist" philosophy.
It begins with Ryan saying that "Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism…..If Ayn Rand were here today, I think she would do a great job in showing us just how wrong what government is doing, is."
Rush Limbaugh refers to her thinking as "brilliant".
Fox News' Sean Hannity, referring to Rand says, "certain writers just have a vision of the future."
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that "I tend to really be partial to Ayn Rand and to The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged."
What does Ayn Rand say about her own philosophy? In the Wallace interview he asks her:
"Christ, and every other important moral leader in man's history, has taught us that we should love one another. Why then is this kind of love, in your mind, immoral?"
Rand responds, "It is immoral if it is placed above one's own self."
Wallace: "And then if a man is weak or a woman is weak then she or he is beyond love?"
Rand: "He certainly does not deserve - he certainly is beyond."
Wallace: "There are very few of us that would, by our standards… that are worthy of love - is that your view?"
Rand: "Unfortunately yes - very few."
Wallace: "You are out to destroy almost every edifice in contemporary American life - our Judeo-Christian religion, our modified government-regulated capitalism, rule by the majority will. Other reviewers say that you scorn churches and the concept of God - are they accurate criticisms?"
Rand responds, "yes."
In the Biblical account, Jesus says to is disciples: "Love one another, as I have loved you." That doesn't sound very much like Ayn Rand. But you have to give her credit. She understood precisely the implications of her values and said so. The values of the extreme right wing are simply incompatible with the Judeo-Christian tradition - and for that matter the ethical tradition of all of the world's great religions including Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism as well.
The New Testament relates the quintessential Christian understanding of ethics in the 10th chapter of the book of Luke in the parable of the Good Samaritan:
On one occasion, an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
"What is written in the law?" He replied. "How do you read it?"
He answered: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and, love your neighbor as yourself."
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "and who is my neighbor?"
In reply, Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. "Look after him," he said, "and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have."
"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"
The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."
Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."
In the material, social world, the cornerstone of Christian ethics is "love thy neighbor as thyself." That simple statement, and the story of the Good Samaritan that followed, makes it clear that the central goal of ethical behavior should be assuring that all human beings flourish. In the Christian tradition, one should seek to satisfy the same basic self-interests and needs for all human beings that we would wish to see fulfilled for ourselves.
The universality implied by the parable of the Good Samaritan is central to the progressive ethical system. Samaritans and Jews were not close at the time. Yet the disliked Samaritan was the true neighbor. The story was intended to drive home the universality of the fundamental ethical premise - "love thy neighbor as thyself."
"And who is my neighbor?" asked the expert on the law. "Everyone," Jesus replied.
The importance of the principle of universality must be understood in the context of human development. For millions of years, "everyone" was not the answer that most humans would have given to this question. For bands of hunter-gatherers, or tribes of later human societies, the answer was "another member of our kinship group or band - or another member of our tribe."
Jared Diamond's study of human development, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, points out that the first question for a typical member of one band of hunter-gatherers when he encountered a member of another band, was why he should not kill them on the spot. [i]
The universality of the ethical demand to "love thy neighbor as thyself" is a very recent development in human evolution. It has emerged only over the last several thousand years of our approximately seven million years of evolutionary history. Previously, most behavior involving moral content pertained only to members of our own band, tribe or ethnic group.
The principle that one should "love they neighbor as thyself" is the direct opposite of the kind of right wing philosophy embodied by Ayn Rand and her disciple, Paul Ryan.
But the "love yourself above all" philosophy of Rand and Ryan not only represents a direct attack, as Rand understood, on the core message of Christianity (and therefore Christmas) of the Judo-Christian heritage. It is also dangerous to the potential survival of humanity.
Though the ethical principle of universally loving your neighbor has only come to dominate moral understandings of human interaction for a few thousand years, it is also deeply rooted in our evolutionary forbearers. It has emerged in our evolutionary history because it is a selective trait. Loving your neighbor - empathy - helps species survive and flourish.
In fact a recent study of rat behavior by University of Chicago scientists Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, Jean Decety, and Peggy Mason published in the journal Science shows that rats exhibit empathy toward each other, even when they receive no reward.
According to the New York Times:
The researchers placed a free-roaming rat in an arena with a caged rat. Over the course of several days, the free rats realized they could nudge open a door and release the caged rat.
After figuring this out, they did so repeatedly, day after day.
"They then did what we refer to as a celebration," said an author of the study, Peggy Mason, a neuroscientist at theUniversity of Chicago. "The trapped rat runs around the arena, and the free rat appears excited and runs after the trapped rat."
That behavior alone is not enough to show that rats are empathetic, she said. The rats could be releasing their caged cohorts simply for companionship.
So the researchers changed the setup: when the free rat released the caged rat, the caged rat went into a second arena, and the two were unable to interact.
Still, the free rats released the caged rats, day after day.
Then the researchers placed a free rat in an arena with a caged rat and locked-away chocolate.
The free rats were just as likely to free the caged rat as they were to liberate the chocolate and eat it. Moreover, when they got the chocolate they almost always shared it; on average, they would leave about one and a half out of five pieces for the caged rats, Dr. Mason said.
One of the researchers, Jean Decety, noted:
There is strong evidence that empathy has deep evolutionary, biochemical, and neurological underpinnings. Even the most advanced forms of empathy in humans are built on more basic forms and remain connected to core mechanisms associated with affective communication, social attachment, and parental care.
And there is good reason why empathy - why "love your neighbor" -- is so adaptive to long-term human success and survival and the Rand-Ryan idealization of selfishness is not.
A few years ago I read a book by a planetary scientist named David Grinspoon called Lonely Planets. It explores the question of extraterrestrial life.
Toward the end of his book, Grinspoon speculates on the chances of survival for intelligent life in the universe. He argues that every civilization of intelligent creatures must pass through a gauntlet that tests whether the values and political structures of the society are capable of keeping pace with the exponentially increasing power of the society's technology. If its values and political structures can keep pace with technological change, the society may pass into a phase of enormous freedom and possibility. If it does not, the power of its own technology will destroy it. Perhaps, he postulates, civilizations are like seahorses. Many are born, but only a few survive.
For the first time, a little more than half a century ago, human society entered that gauntlet. Our technological growth reached a point of takeoff that for the first time gave us the power to destroy ourselves and all life on our tiny, fragile planet. From that moment on, the race began.
The next several generations of humans will decide how that race turns out. We won't simply observe it, or describe it; we will decide it. Whatever the future holds will be a result of human decision for which we are all responsible.
We will decide if we pass through that gauntlet or - like our cousins the Neanderthals - become evolutionary dead ends. We will decide if humanity passes into a new era of possibility and freedom - or the human story simply ends.
I believe that progressive values --- love your neighbor and empathy -- are our greatest evolutionary treasure.
Progressive values: that we're all in this together, not all in this alone; unity not division; hope not fear; equality not subjugation; the premise that if each of us is better educated all of us will be wiser; that it is not true that for me to be richer you have to be poorer - but rather that if each of us is more prosperous, all of us will have more opportunity; that our success comes from cooperation and mutual respect. These progressive values are the most precious assets that will give human beings the ability to make it through that gauntlet - and to create a truly democratic society.
That is just one more reason why at this time of year, we should celebrate these values - the true spirit of Christmas - and defend them from those who want to take society back to a time of social Darwinism, to the law of the jungle, to "survival of the fittest." Because the fact of the matter is that in the future, if we govern our society by the precepts of selfishness and the survival of only the fittest, we may find that human society is not fit enough to survive at all.