Saturday, June 2, 2012

Redistribute the right to think?

There were many teachers who left a mark on my life. Having celebrated a day to remember those who gave their lives for our rights, let’s consider a day to remember those who used theirs to teach us what those rights mean. One of my favorites was Nick Breitweiser, a 10th grade civics at Cheyenne Central. Nick used Eric Fromm’s text, Escape From Freedom, to stir our limited ability to think.

I still see him in front of the room asking, “What does it mean to be free?” One or another of the 10th graders would shout answers.  “We can vote” or “go to church where we wish” or “say what we believe.” Nick would pull on what hair he had left, trying to get us to go deeper, think harder and find more meaning in our so-called freedoms.

What he wanted us to learn early in our lives is that regardless of what the Constitution says, we have no meaningful rights when others do our thinking. It explains why Americans have less freedom today than at any other time in our history. Nick wanted us to think about how much our lives were influenced by Madison Avenue and its cynical use of advertising messages. If he were yet alive, he’d be apoplectic about the use of television and political talking points to form our thoughts and control or minds.

One contemporary example is the use of the term “redistribution of wealth.” Conservatives have developed a “Joe the Plumber” economic theology. While Judeo-Christian ethics may have taught that we all have a responsibility to those who are on the margins of life, Joe the Plumber and his adherents use the term “redistribution of wealth” to suggest that those who believe the rich should pay a fair share are socialists.

Do your own thinking for a moment. Does that make sense? What does it truly mean for government to redistribute wealth? Some conservatives begin the debate by defining the terms. High school debaters are taught that trick. When assigned the “affirmative” in a debate, you gain ground by attributing self-serving definitions to key terms. Back then you were restrained from manipulating the debate because the team assigned the “negative” always got time to counter. That’s what’s missing in today’s public policy debates. Limbaugh and Beck and the others define the terms and disallow those who disagree equal time to question them.

They define “redistribution of wealth” along these lines. “Redistribution of wealth by the government, for example welfare or Social Security, is egalitarianism put into practice at the point of a gun.” They claim, “The redistributionists don't just want to give their money, they want to give other people's money away. They want to take money from those that have earned it, and given to those that haven't.”
Defining terms in a limited manner, those who believe the wealthy should pay their share are seen as peddling socialism and opposed to capitalism. They justify their own votes to redistribute the wealth of the nation when they take money from healthcare, education, housing and food stamps and give it to defense contractors, for example. Any criticism of that redistribution is an attack on capitalism.
Wealth is not “redistributed” only when we help the por. The truth is government is always engaged in a redistribution of tax revenue. When Congress uses your money to build schools in Afghanistan rather than in Wyoming, decides to give tax breaks to oil companies instead of the middle class, funds their own health insurance while opposing affordable healthcare for you, taxes tobacco and alcohol at a rates far below the medical costs borne by taxpayers…that’s a redistribution of wealth.
How free are you if they think for you? None of our rights have meaning if we don’t exercise the right to think for ourselves and dig deeper than the politicians and talk show hosts. It’s time we use our freedoms to redistribute the right to do the thinking in America.

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