Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

House Republicans, deterred briefly by the Tucson massacre, can now check off pandering to our base as their second action as the majority party in the new congress. Obamacare is now safely repealed—only it isn’t, if repeal means the actual law has changed. It will go nowhere in the Senate, where Democrats are still barely in charge. Even if Senate Democrats were all sick on voting day and it did pass, the President would simply pull out his veto pen, and there are certainly not 67 Senate votes to override him. But House Republicans can now say, as Speaker John Boehner did, “we listened to the people,” though he should have added, sotto voce, “but really to the insurance companies.” Thus the new majority played a little fiddle tune as Rome warms up, the fire on the horizon being the national debt and an unsustainable budget, with no current officeholder of any stripe having a serious plan to rein it in.

So what is it exactly about healthcare reform that the Republicans so want to repeal? The prohibition against insurance companies cherry-picking their customers? The prohibition against insurance companies dropping customers if they inconveniently get a little too sick? The prohibition against companies’ refusal to cover people with pre-existing conditions? The right of children up to age 26 to stay on their parents’ insurance? The closing of the doughnut hole for seniors? The expansion of health coverage to 30 million more Americans? The greater scrutiny of fraudulent Medicare claims? No, they claim to want to keep these things; it’s just that freedom-killing requirement that everyone have insurance, by buying it if necessary, that’s standing in their way. This, they say, is an infringement of a citizen’s rights, ignoring altogether the fact that governments require people to pay taxes to support things they may not advocate, and they require drivers to buy insurance. But that’s different—you don’t have to drive. For most people between 20 and 80, driving is not a choice. Well it’s just wrong, so Boehner et al. say, unconstitutional even, to require folks to buy health insurance, even though they inevitably are in the healthcare system from the day they are inoculated until their last visit to the emergency room. To make the case against the mandate, they drop their usual concern about the uninsured having their health problems paid for or subsidized by other taxpayers through Medicaid and visits to emergency rooms—the socialism thing.

It is hard to put much credence in their protestations that all those good things about healthcare reform are things they want too—their backers in the insurance industry certainly don’t. If it just were not for that pesky mandate that everyone must buy insurance, they would be healthcare reform’s biggest champions. All those mysterious lost jobs is a problem too, but never mind the Congressional Budget Office’s estimated $230 billion addition to the debt that repeal would cost over the next several years. Not coincidentally, the mandate is the linchpin of the whole plan, the mechanism by which it is funded, and if they could kill that, healthcare reform would just go away. And if they can say “job killing” enough times, that might, they hope, just put them and their insurance company pals over the top, before Americans discover that they actually like Obamacare, and that the Republicans tried yet again to sell them a bill of goods.

Jean Meslier’s Secret War

Voltaire, like Jefferson, was a man of mixed parts, hardly less interested in science than literature, history, and the social and political events of his day. Also like Jefferson, he was deist, one who could be disturbingly deferential to nobility and authority, but who courageously campaigned against the horrid injustice done by the Church-State coalition to the Calas family, and who led the philosophes’ war with the Church. Still, in the way of old men softening with age (perhaps fearing to rage against the darkness any longer), he sought Communion at the end of a long life and died in the Church. In the course of his conversion, he drew a cartoon of Jean Meslier which was mendacious and contemptible.

The cartoon was all the more reprehensible because it was not a mere critique of Meslier (1664-1729), but rather an abduction of his very identity. He took Meslier’s posthumously published Testament, and printed a twisted, corrupted, hideously redacted version of the atheist priest’s explosive manuscript, dressing him up, as a modern Meslier defender states, “in a cassock and a clown suit,” and turning him into a deist.

Meslier was a practicing priest, deeply compassionate toward his believing and oppressed flock, hardly able to contain in secrecy his vitriol and literally unspeakable apostasy in the practice of his vocation. It is his hidden life, his hidden thoughts that fascinate me as much as the virulence of his diatribes. His conflict between public role and private thought must have been excruciating. He acknowledges that to expose himself would destroy his parents, but also that the Church could not find “tortures cruel enough” to punish him for his radical non-belief and his amazing indictment of religion itself. Thus Meslier leaves his Testament as his posthumous, single-handed declaration of war on the suffocating oppression of religion, the exploitation of the credulous poor by the pampered priest-class, and the sheer absurdity of theism in all its guises.

In multi-layered but often tedious and repetitious prose, he builds a double-barreled argument that no God, whether in the form of an anthropomorphic being or an abstract creator, exists; and second that religion colludes with the state to exploit the credulity of the peasants in order to oppress them, extort them, and tyrannize them. As Meslier says, “all religions are nothing but errors, illusion, and imposture.” In particular, his outrage emanates from his compassion for the people who are exploited by religious authority in a devil’s pact with the state—a pact in which all of the articles conspire for the benefit and protection of the signatories’ power, wealth, ease, and aggrandizement. He rages against this cruel exploitation, all the more cruel because the Church makes its parishioners complicit in their own oppression by fostering and then using their belief for its own ends. It is in this sense that religion is an “imposture,” and its leadership charlatans, con men—and no less so simply because some of them are taken in by their own con. It is, for Meslier, a cruel, life-ebbing criminality cloaked in the fine garments of soaring rhetoric and Godly compassion. Believe and accept (so the priest-nobility alliance says) this unfair imbalance of wealth and poverty in this life—and equally important, propagate it—and you will be rewarded in a deferred life that we have painted as a paradise. But protest this odious imbalance, this exploitation, and condemn it, and further proclaim to others their exploitation, and not only will we damn you to an eternity of torture, we will not even wait for that eternity to begin. Rather we will torture and painfully execute you here, in this life, partly from our own sadism, but mostly to protect our own hegemony from the dangerous sparks of disillusionment and the right to think.

Thus speaks, if not in these words, a righteous man. After thousands of handwritten pages scribbled in secrecy, Meslier concludes his Testament with: “It is the force of truth that makes me say this, and it is the hatred of injustice, lies, deception, tyranny and all the other iniquities that make me speak in this way because I really hate and detest all injustice and iniquity. . . . I am hardly more than nothing and soon I will be nothing.” The outrage is palpable; and the human compassion which is its source is profound and incorruptible. And one should not ignore the existential bravery required: not only does he reject an inherited belief structure that suffuses his world and all his training and upbringing, he rejects the illusory comfort of an eternal life and accepts his coming extinction. Like Hume, when the void nears, he does not retreat into the illusion.

For his time, Meslier, I believe, is correct in his indictment of the extortionate Church he knew regarding its exploitation of the people. And yet we do not have a full picture unless we also acknowledge the undeniable comfort provided those whose lives are an almost endless trial. The belief is probably illusory, but the comfort is not. The European Church of Meslier’s day earned its repellent reputation. Today, except where fundamentalism rules, religion often has a more benign face, and its anodyne value may exceed its vices. Thus the dilemma for non-believers: Can one embrace what he perceives to be an illusion because he also sees the comfort and consolation the illusion provides? At least the best of religion despises the fear, the superstition, the doctrinal exclusivity, and the obscurantism of most religion and stresses above all else kindness, compassion, and love. When the Dalai Lama says “my religion is simple: my religion is kindness,” he removes God and all the resulting dogma that so encumber faith and places humanity and humaneness for all sentient things at its center. But even in religions where God remains the center, the illusion can provide genuine comfort. If the illusion can inculcate an active kindness—as communities of faith often do during crisis, and as I have seen—then it is not without value. Where the message eschews dogma, and instead promotes the universal value of active humaneness, that is where religion’s potential for goodness resides.