Paul Nevins

Paul Nevins
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
October 29
Paul Nevins is the author of "The Politics of Selfishness: How John Locke’s Legacy Is Paralyzing America "(Greenwood /Praeger/ABC-CLIO). The central thesis of this important and unconventional work is that the United States has begun to experience a number of profound, interrelated problems that are caused, both directly and indirectly, by the country's dogmatic and often unconscious adherence, collectively as a political culture and individually as Americans, to the political philosophy of John Locke. That ideology, which is the bedrock upon which the American liberal democracy has been founded, asserts that human beings are by nature solitary, aggrandizing individuals. Hence, preoccupation with the self in all of its manifestations and attributes - as opposed to the whole, the public interest - has become the primary focus by which political, economic and societal decisions are made. Consequently, the preferred form of social and political relationships with others, including the state as the organized expression of political society, is solely contractual and is designed primarily to protect private property in all of its forms. "The Politics of Selfishness" provides compelling historic and contemporary evidence that U.S. institutions, at all levels, are failing because of the country's uncritical embrace of the anti-social individualism which is John Locke’s legacy. Paul Nevins has been a trial attorney in private practice since 1982. He concentrates in public and private sector employment law and litigation, related civil rights and constitutional law claims, and contract claims. Prior to becoming a lawyer, Paul Nevins taught in the Boston Public Schools. While teaching, Mr. Nevins served as a member of the Executive Board of the Boston Teachers Union, Local 66, AFT/AFL-CIO. Paul Nevins served as a conscript in the United States Army from 1968 to 1970. In 1969, he was a founder and the first chairman of GIs for Peace at Fort Bliss, Texas.This was the first organization of active duty soldiers who publicly opposed the Vietnam War. Mr. Nevins received an A.B. Degree from Suffolk University, a Master of Arts Degree from New York University, and a Juris Doctor Degree from Suffolk University Law School. He lives and works in Boston.


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FEBRUARY 12, 2013 3:38PM

How Do Our Values Define Us?

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                             cross-posted at

     As a people, Americans like to think of ourselves as pragmatic, hard-working and  individualistic. These are the values that Benjamin Franklin extolled and that foreign observers such as de Tocqueville and Lord Bryce chronicled as essential components of the American project.

     As a value, pragmatism - finding common sense, practical solutions to existing problems -  helped to launch the Industrial Revolution in the United States n the early 19th century and later the Technical Revolution in the 20th century that spurred generations of inventors and tinkerers such as Whitney, Watts, Edison, Ford, Marconi. Goddard , Jobs and Gates. Because of their curiosity, imagination and resourcefulness the power of the engine and machines was harnessed, production standardized, and new modes of transportation and communication were created.  

    So, too, the value of hard work. the nostrums found in Franklin's Poor Richard’s Almanack, as Max Weber noted, embodied the spirit of the Protestant Ethic. The successes of Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller during this country’s First Gilded Age inspired the myth of Horatio Alger and similar rags-to-riches fantasies that advocates of unbridled capitalism continue to apotheosize.  

    Individualism, to the present, is the sine qua non that defines the American experience in contrast to that of all of the other advanced democracies that share in the tradition of Western political philosophy. Individual rights, enshrined in Bill of Rights, sent a radical, clarion call to oppressed people everywhere.  A belief in the singular importance and centrality of the individual enticed millions upon millions of ordinary people - peasants, artisans and uneducated laborers -to forsake their ancestral homelands and kin folk and to emigrate to the United States. Their quiet optimism and self-confidence helped to forge the American Dream.  

     These three values are regularly touted by pundits in the popular media and by gaggles of politicians as the quintessential American Creed to which children and adults are regularly prompted to genuflect and to show obeisance. But there is also a dark side to these three values that, all too often, is blithely ignored.

    The notion of common sense as a value worth cultivating is a legacy of John Locke. Locke, who emphasized  the importance of "common sense,” denied the existence of innate ideas. Instead, his theory of knowledge was based upon a conviction that meaningful knowledge is acquired by the self through sensory, tactile experience.

    Locke’s ideas about the importance of the individual, how one learns, and what one should learn have entwined themselves in the fabric of American culture and, by and large, have had profoundly leveling, and at times, anti-intellectual effects. His ideas have been invoked by a number of disgruntled and irate advocates of "American values," who denigrate professional elites and oppose government control of education.

    Not surprisingly, many of these same zealots are as unable to distinguish between a scientific theory and a theological conviction as they are to understand that the infinitive "to educate" is not a reflexive verb. The decisions of the Dover, Pennsylvania school board to enforce the teaching of a purely theological concept "intelligent design," and the 1999 decision of the State Board of Education in Kansas, to delete references to evolution and to the geological age of the earth from the state’s science standards, are but two cases in point .

    More recently, the BBC reported State Senator Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and State Delegate Chris Stolle, a Republican, worked together to secure legislation that provided $50,000 for a “comprehensive study of the economic impact of coastal flooding on Virginia and to investigate ways to adapt.” The bill’s original draft contained the term “relative sea level rise,” but the version that was ultimately adopted instead, used the term “recurrent flooding” at Stolle’s suggestion. “Other folks can go argue about sea-level rise and global warming,” Stolle told the BBC. “What matters is people’s homes are getting destroyed, and that’s what we want to focus on. To think that we are going to stop climate change is absolute hubris. The climate is going to change whether we’re here or not.” Still later, in an interview with The Virginian-Pilot, Stolle stated that “sea level rise” is a “left-wing term.”   

    Over the past two centuries, the meaning of hard-work and the importance of the self as values have also been twisted into ugly concepts. Since the advent of the Protestant Reformation, as R.H. Tawney and Max Weber chronicled, there has existed a pronounced link between the dour predestination of Calvinism and a work ethic which has emphasized material success: The accumulation of wealth was incontrovertible evidence that Providence had blessed the successful and marked each as one of those as chosen for redemption.

    But a preoccupation with the accumulation of wealth and the things that wealth buys often inures us to the reality that none of us really made it solely on our own. At every critical turn in life, as Senator Elizabeth Warren reminded us, family, teachers, clergy, friends, and business colleagues helped to guide us and enabled us to succeed. In addition, without public goods - the critical infrastructure, including the transportation and communication systems; public education and the public health systems; the military, police and fire fighters who have helped to keep us safe; environmental regulations; and yes, even the government regulators, public persecutors and the legal system that sometimes tries to protect us from the worst depredations of the marketplace - are all the product of communal investment and collective effort.

    At its most extreme also, a preoccupation with the self blinds us to the suffering and misfortune of others and we lose the capacity to experience empathy. At that point, individualism descends into narcissism and solipsism; violent and destructive forms of anti-social behavior become acceptable as the norm; and civility, as an essential public virtue, is lost.

    President George W. Bush once confessed that he disdained  nuances. But without an appreciation for nuances - the ability to understand and evaluate the interplay of important values and ideas, to grasp them in all of their ambiguities and subtleties - values are reduced to their
lowest common denominator. The inability to understand subtleties and nuances - and to think critically - has reduced American politics to a food fight.

    The slogans and cant that all too often pass for political discourse in the United States today are now a part of the accepted repertoire of what Paul Krugman has described as the Ignorance Caucus. The shrill shouts that now echo and reverberate across our public square increasingly sound more like the angry protests that one hears in the Arab Streets throughout the Middle East rather than the thoughtful reflections of informed citizens who are determined to understand, embrace and celebrate our common values in all of their complexities.          

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There's a difference between our values, and our "beliefs" as defined by classical ethical theory. Values are our beliefs that we "feel," while beliefs are what we "think" and not necessarily what we feel. It is an important distinction to anyone who has given the subject any thought.

I can believe that I am a wonderful, warm hearted and and "human" person, but if I rape someone, or destroy my child's life by constantly berating them, it's clear my "values" are not the same.

Likewise, people who believe contraception is wrong, but it is God's will that my partner contracts AIDS from me, may have a hard time explaining that to anyone but an indoctrinated priest.
I highly recommend you try to get hold of The Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell. As Russell describes the history of the industrial revolution in the US, the vast majority of the working class totally rejected the Protestant work ethic. "In the early American economy, workers, not bosses, decided when they would show up and when they would go home. Long afternoon periods of eating, drinking and sleeping were taken for granted. In the late 18th century, Sunday was followed by by a another day of rest known as "Saint Monday." This was only remedied by Franklin and our other founding fathers vigorously campaigning to restrict the licensing and hours of taverns and brothels.
Put it this way: most of us know what we are "supposed" to believe, i.e. what is the standard in most cases, but whether or not it is a "value" and we feel that belief is an entirely different matter.

Today, it is hard to find a person who believes, for instance, that "people of color," or women are inferior to white males.

The "white males" have adapted, at least in terms of their public "beliefs" yet what is clearly visible on an objective, fact based analysis is entirely contrary to the beliefs that are expressed.

It becomes even more interesting on a personal basis. We all know "better" about how we are supposed to live, how much money we are supposed to make, how we are supposed to treat our spouses and children, what we are supposed to say at funerals, yet how often are we able to achieve those standards, and how do we attribute those "failures."

Ah, this is the good shit. Fuck Locke.
sjb's non-work ethic is the natural state of man, and appears everywhere. people have to be trained to be on time, sober, and inclined to work. threats, beating and starvation are the usual training aids. which led to slavery and imported labor, the native americans were not hardy enough.

the american ascendancy is largely the result of vast untapped resources, large population, and no dangerous neighbors. no ideology necessary.
Ben, I agree with your comment about Locke. My only disagreement is the distinction that you draw so rigidly between values and beliefs. Values, I would submit, are shaped and informed by beliefs. The values that I have discussed above are the manifestation of an ideology - as set of beliefs - properly known as liberalism. While value systems are neither true nor false, per se, they have real world consequences when acted upon. I would also note that sociopaths, too, have beliefs /values. for example, but in their hierarchy of values concern for others is at the very bottom.

Stuart, I promise to read Thaddeus Russell's book but I do know, as the grandson of four Irish immigrants, that the "Catholic ethic" as chronicled by Sebastian DeGrazia in his work, "Of Time ,Work and Leisure," is very different from the Protestant Ethic. Immigrants were sent to the factories of Lowell and Lawrence here Massachusetts and indoctrinated with the idea of salvation through toil. In reaction, the U.S. experienced an incredibly violent and bloody labor history throughout the 19th and 20th centuries..Unfortunately, a majority of Americans have ignorant of that history now accept the demonization of unions and accept the legal fiction of "employment at will" and "competitive wages" that account, in large part, for the hollowing- out of the middle class and the enormous economic inequality. To the extent that most of us have been "Protestantized" - in the sociological, if not religious sense - we become captives of Franklin's aphorisms and lost our capacity to imagine - or to challenge - the status quo.

Al, I would argue, however, that the ideology provided the rationale for the American ascendancy. Locke's theory of property - as applied to the new World - permitted the European settlers to appropriate land from the "state of nature" and, as a result of their labor, claim ownership. Of course, the native inhabitants had a very different theory about the land: They believed that the Great Spirit gave the land to all in common to share, but that simple idea was not powerful enough to withstand the "logic" of Locke's ideas. Further, the early English settlers drew upon Locke's insistence upon contractual relations and were "considerate" enough , in some cases, to strike "bargains" with the Indians in which the later were induced to sign away their rights.using As a true, albeit unconscious, disciple of Locke, John Wayne, once remarked,"I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves"?