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A simple road to perdition

8/26/2008, 6:02 a.m.

A simple road to perdition

“It’s time to give him a gold watch. ”

Life in America has become increasingly complex. Things that used to be simple now require close attention and extraordinary skill. It takes talent just to decipher the family phone bill.

One way to ameliorate the complexity? Be rich. Then you can hire an accountant to pay your bills, balance your checkbook and do your taxes. On top of that, the best medical care anywhere in the world will be within reach, and you will be able to educate your children at elite universities.

However, there is a downside. The simplification of life made possible by wealth also tends to create a distorted impression of the severity of problems and the difficulty of forging solutions. Unfortunately, the rich and their surrogates rarely have empathy for the rigors faced by the less affluent.

How else could someone as intelligent as Phil Gramm, a former U.S. senator from Texas with a Ph.D. in economics, say that America has “sort of become a nation of whiners”?

“You just hear the constant whining, complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline,” Gramm said, criticizing those who lack confidence in America’s economic strength in the wake of rising gas prices, plummeting home values and the subprime mortgage crisis.

It seems that Gramm’s sort of folks attended the Rev. Rick Warren’s recent interviews of the presidential candidates at Saddleback Church in California. The enthusiastic response to Sen. John McCain’s puerile answers to the evangelical minister’s questions was troubling to those who understand the complexity of the issues America now faces.

One question required a philosophical turn of mind to answer properly. Warren asked the candidates whether evil exists and, if so, “Do we ignore it? Do we negotiate with it? Do we contain it? Do we defeat it?” In a brisk militaristic manner, McCain answered, “Of course, evil must be defeated.” The Phil Grammites were ecstatic.

Obama’s response was more nuanced. While he acknowledged that evil exists —  “We see evil all the time,” he said — he also asserted that it must “be confronted squarely.” There was a groan of disappointment from the audience, which apparently wanted a bit more “blood and guts” in the confrontation, especially since the battle would be waged by an all-volunteer army of other people’s children.

Obama’s measured answer was not reluctance to impose a military solution when warranted. As a well-educated man, he is painfully aware of the may times people have reacted with the best of intentions to oppose evil and have inflicted terrible harm on humanity. He warned that “a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil.”

History supports Obama’s view. Consider the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition’s efforts to stem the evils of apostasy in the 15th century. Or consider the 19 citizens of Salem who went to the gallows in 1692 for the evil of allegedly practicing witchcraft. Or in more modern times, consider the 13 men exonerated and released from death row in Illinois since 1987 because DNA tests proved that they were innocent of the unspeakable crimes which had warranted their execution.

McCain’s response to the question, “When does human life begin?” was also unsatisfactorily simplistic. He answered, “At the moment of conception.” He offered no philosophical explanation, no scientific evidence and no comment on the affect of this view on American jurisprudence. Nonetheless, the Grammites roared their approval.

Polls have established that the overwhelming majority of Americans disapprove of the performance of the Bush administration. McCain’s simpleminded policies promise only more of the same.