Stripping Bare the Conservative Deception of Liberty

Benedict de Spinoza

The supreme mystery of despotism, its prop and stay, is to keep men in a state of deception, and with the specious title of religion to cloak the fear by which they must be held in check, so that they will fight for their servitude as if for salvation.

These are the words of Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza was a liberal democrat, a lens-grinder by trade. He was a Dutch-Jew who believes that science was “the only certain and reliable criterion of truth we possess.”

I liked reading Spinoza in college. He had a very common-sense approach. Which is interesting, because the conservatives, the people who hate science, would have you believe they have a lock on common-sense.

But when you listen to what they actually say, all you get from them is superstition and fear. There isn’t a lot of nuance in that black and white world, and not much in the way of common-sense. Don’t think; just be afraid. Don’t ask question; just believe.

Spinoza, like the other men who created the Enlightenment and broke free of that two-dimensional black and white world, was full of nuance. He was the author of a fourteen-part proof of the existence of God, and for his troubles, because he denied human immortality and a personal god who acts on this world, was declared an atheist. You might remember an American who had the same problem: Thomas Jefferson would be labeled an infidel for holding the same belief. He was in good company, if you will remember Tom Paine.

It’s easy to understand why Spinoza, had he lived today, would have been equally reviled by America’s religious conservatives, not only for his religious views (look how they treat fellow Christian Barack Obama and other Democrats who are Christians), but because they couldn’t fool him. No, Spinoza wouldn’t drink the Kool-Aid and he wouldn’t shut up; they even tried to assassinate him.

Spinoza’s Holland, because it was one of the most liberal places on the planet, attracted from conservatives some of the same objections raised by America’s conservatives, that “specific groups” were not, in the words of historian Jonathan I. Israel,  confined “to a lowlier, more restricted existence.”

For Holland of the 17th century, these were “women, servants, and Jews.” For American conservatives we might begin with “women, Hispanics, and Muslims” though the list is far longer, including atheists, gays and lesbians, feminists, blacks, and others.

Conservatives don’t like diversity and plurality. They don’t like change because it threatens the status quo and they don’t like immigrants and immigration for the same reason. They don’t like liberalism because liberalism is about liberty and liberty is the great enemy of the status quo. It opens things up; it explodes the status quo.

It is also, because it frees people to worship (or not, as they wish), seen as irreligious, relativistic and corrupting. Because it substantially improves the lives of people everywhere it rears its head, liberty must be discouraged and condemned.

Obviously, liberty helps conservatives too, but it isn’t wise to let the base know this or they’d all become liberals too. So as Spinoza saw, people must be made to work against their own interest. How to do this? Fear. Instill in them religious fear, condemn the “other” as something evil, and you have an impoverished Republican base falling over themselves to serve rich corporate masters to whom they are nothing but objects on which to stand or move around like game pieces.

It would be nice if the truth actually set people free, but to be freed people have to be willing to listen and these people are afraid to acknowledge the truth. They’ve been convinced that the truth is lies coming from the mouth of Satan, and they don’t want to be fooled. With this attitude, they prove the point of the Enlightenment, which was to break this sort of thinking:

“The Church was indivisible, the afterlife a certainty; all knowledge was already known. And nothing would ever change.” In the world of historian William Manchester, Europeans were afraid of the prospect of improvement. “They were convinced that such a phenomenon could not exist.” But it does, and it’s good for you.

The evidence is all around us, that change is real, that it is part of life, and that it yields good things. Conservatives the world over, not just our own, are still suffering whiplash. The best they can do is use fear to put the breaks on.

It is time to stop listening to the people holding you in thrall, and wake up, hurry up, and catch-up to the Enlightenment as fast as you can. You’re about 300 years behind the game so there is no time to waste. You can still light that candle in the dark Carl Sagan spoke of, escape that demon-haunted world, and join us in the free-of-superstition section.

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