As we veer closer to the edge and the phrase “fiscal cliff” becomes so ubiquitous even the children are getting scared, the issues of debt, tax increases, Grover oaths and budget deals are so front and center we can barely see around them to find the road. Into this conversation has waded many a bright – or not so bright – mind, with theories, warnings, dire predictions and foot-stomping resistance, to the point that the average person has no idea what solution is best, whether we’re all going to die, or if this “cliff” we’ve heard so much just as “straw” a man as the Y2K scare.
Given the critical mass of this, well, critical mass, it becomes imperative to stir some new voices into the mix, hopefully to add perspective we might not have considered or a fresh viewpoint that bears attention. One such voice is that of Professor Robert Thurman: Buddhist scholar, prolific author, respected academician, and “one of the 25 most influential people” chosen by Time in 1997. Perhaps his most unique feature is his position at Columbia University, where he is the Je Tsongkhapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, “holding the first endowed chair in this field of study in the United States.” [Wikipedia] According to his website, Professor Thurman is also the co-founder and President of Tibet House US, has been a personal friend of the Dalai Lama for over 40 years, and writes and lectures frequently on the topics of Buddhism, Asian history, and critical philosophy. In other words, a learned and accomplished man whose opinion merits our open minds.
And Professor Thurman thinks the Grover Norquist pledge is a “seditious oath, a treasonous oath,” and he wants to “start a meme” that stirs up the people of this country to give serious thought to what that means. To that end, he has recorded a video that is going viral, presumably because it so well articulates – in his calm, reasoned, but very persistent voice – what is so objectionable about our elected officials swearing an oath to this scruffy man named Norquist who is, ostensibly, holding hostage the GOP congress people he’s blackmailed into acquiescence.
Thurman’s main thesis is that a person cannot hold allegiance to two masters, particularly conflicting masters, and properly serve either. He makes the point by, first, reiterating the oath of office that all Senators and Congressman and women take:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
A noble, historical oath; one that comes, surely, with the expectation of loyalty and a willingness to do what comes with the job. Instead, Thurman points out:
“95% of the congressmen and Republican senators have sworn a written oath to someone called Grover Norquist and an organization called American For Tax Reform; that they will under no circumstances, and for no reason, raise taxes of any kind on anyone. And therefore they have taken an oath to an outside organization which is not supported by the U.S. Constitution – which gives Congress the right to levy taxes, to do the work of the people through the government –but this is a non governmental organization, not elected by anybody and supported by big money people who are making money by not having to pay taxes.
“And these people have signed a sworn oath that contradicts their oath of office. And therefore, in fact, they do have mental reservations, and they do have purpose of evasion and they are not sincerely taking their oath of office. And if they persist in that, and if they are held to that by this outside person who is not a member of the government, then they are, in fact, breaking their oath of office and they are not serving what they swore to serve the American people.”
Most would find this a compelling enough argument against the Pledge, but also consider the mission statement of Americans for Tax Reform, who, like many conservatives, see their mission as “starving the beast,” in reference to the government. Norquist himself has stated:
“I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
Thurman takes issue with that verbiage, the implication of destroying the government. He suggests that people expressing fealty to Norquist are, in essence, agreeing to a kind of “anarchist” proposition; agreeing, by virtue of loyalty to Norquist, that the government is essentially useless and should be starved, destroyed. And that, he believes, is where the line is crossed:
It’s actually a kind of seditious oath, a treasonous oath. People who take that oath cannot actually serve in the government with good conscience, because their real role is to act as a mole to destroy the government; they are “starving the beast.”
As for the “beast” reference? Whether you translate that literally or figuratively, given the religious fundamentalism of many conservatives and most in the Tea Party, Thurman believes it’s not coincidental. He points out that, in the Bible’s Book of Revelations, the Beast refers to Satan, which would imply that Norquist and the uber-conservative movement equate the government with Satan. Again, take it literally or not; either way, as Thurman puts it, it’s “a very negative way of depicting the U.S. government.”
In the concluding section of his video, Thurman earnestly – and “lovingly,” as he puts it – makes the point that those who’ve been elected to office have an obligation to their constituents who elected them and to the government they serve; if they cannot compromise because they’ve signed a pledge to an outside party who has not been elected and is not a part of the government, then they are operating with a serious and actionable conflict of interest…and that is grounds for impeachment. They are “unfit for office.”
That is the meme he wants to convey, he wants it “spread around,” and by writing about it here, I’m doing just that. Because I believe his points are well taken and deserve thoughtful and serious consideration by any American who is confused by the greater conversation about the economy, and concerned by the segment of our elected officials who appear to be loyal to a master who is neither their constituency nor their government. I share Professor Thurman’s sense that this is unacceptable, and, as he says:
“…they must, as a single body, reject their oath to Grover Norquist, renounce that oath in order to retake their oath of office; sincerely, without mental reservation, and without purpose of evasion; which is what they must do to be reinstated in our good graces, the people of the United States, of whom they are the employee.”
Watch the whole video below and tell us what you think.