The American Pharisees of Madison

Americans looking for entertainment need only to observe controversies surrounding the fiscal follies of February, which have metastasized from the budget proposals of the nation's capital to a dozen or so state capitals. At the center of the most interesting fracas stands Wisconsin's newly elected Republican governor, whose position is depicted by his opponents as comparable to the stance taken by the Bastille's luckless commander in 1789.

More sober heads might rather search Jesus' Parable of the publican and the Pharisee, which needs to be fully quoted in order to grasp its message:

"Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner."

Themes that emerge from this passage include the Pharisee's self-righteousness along with his contempt for the publican (tax-collector), who approached God with self-abnegation and reverence. Both represent human types, and though publicans are despised, they are less numerous, whereas Pharisees, who are known for their arrogance and facile condemnation of others, are found in great abundance everywhere. Indeed, Pharisaism permeates American society today, defining much public debate and nearly all discourse involving policy crusades and "suffering situations."

The turmoil in Wisconsin is especially instructive in this regard. Governor Walker proposes budget changes that still leave state workers in a far better position than their private-sector counterparts, with nearly ironclad job security to boot. And how have Wisconsin's teachers reacted? With marches, strikes, and cowardice, especially on the part of those renegade legislators who fled the state to prevent a vote on the governor's measures.

The worst reaction has been Pharisaism. Mr. Walker's arguments have not been addressed because they are unanswerable; instead, spokesmen for the striking teachers bellow about rights of "public servants" to defend themselves, in this case, against rapacious taxpayers in the form of elected officials. The crusade is perpetuation of public-sector labor unions, and the "suffering situation" is their plight against the depredations of an executive depicted as a Hitler-mustachioed Hosni Mubarak. Even Jesse Jackson was retrieved from his Agitators-R-Us semi-retirement, throwing in a few "we shall overcomes" for good measure. The message in any case is clear: public-sector unions are noble, their enemies, unjust. And thank God we're all so righteous.

But this is just one example of Pharisaism and likely not the most prominent type. The Pharisee in Luke's parable first declared himself as upright and then condemned his adversary, but many modern Pharisees take their cue from the diatribes against Christians made by Friedrich Nietzsche, who reversed the order of moral reasoning in "Genealogy of Morals" and other works. According to Nietzsche's criticism, moral inferiors first postulate their enemies as evil and then by deduction assume their own righteousness, which of course leaves the definer with a sort of derivative status of moral superiority.

Thus, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi accused Republicans of "putting women and children last" (which not incidentally establishes the accuser's rectitude); two members of Joy Behar's famously self-righteous panel of tolerant liberals on The View engaged in a sort of moral calisthenics by marching off the stage when Bill O'Reilly hinted that Americans might have good reasons to oppose a mosque at Ground Zero; Mayor Bloomberg's excoriation of such opponents as bigoted follows in the same vein. Indeed, the entire political correctness project of the last half-century is based on a Nietzschean concept of a transformation of values: my enemies are racist, bigoted, homophobic, sexist, greedy, and oppressive -- that is to say evil; therefore I am good, I am noble. In the current political climate, such meretricious nobility reigns supreme.

However, many Americans may have had their fill of our modern Pharisees' arrogant posturing and contempt for all those who oppose them. Indeed, Pharisee critics may be heartened by the last words of Jesus in that parable. Referring to the publican, Jesus said, "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."

We must all be more humble. Certainly we should all be more grateful. Let humility and gratitude start with each of us individually and spread throughout the rest of the country. At this time, especially in Wisconsin.

Dr. Marvin Folkertsma is a professor of political science and Fellow for American Studies with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. The author of several books, his latest release is a high-energy novel titled "The Thirteenth Commandment."
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