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Saverin Is the New Spinoza

Their excommunications say more about the community

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Eduardo Saverin last year.(Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Common Sense Media)

Yesterday, Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania told a thirty-year-old former American that they didn’t like his kind. Facebook’s co-founder Eduardo Saverin chose to renounce his citizenship and settle down in Singapore, in all likelihood in order to avoid paying millions of dollars in U.S. taxes. The senators wanted the young mogul to know he was not welcome back. “Senator Casey and I have a status update for him,” said Schumer. “Pay your taxes in full, or don’t ever try to visit the U.S. again.” To make sure Saverin got the message, Schumer and Casey presented a joint bill, entitled the Ex-PATRIOT—“Expatriation Prevention by Abolishing Tax-Related Incentives for Offshore Tenancy”—which will help enforce existing laws barring Americans who have renounced their citizenship for tax evasion purposes from re-entering the U.S. as well as taxing any of their future investments in the U.S. at a 30 percent rate.

If the senators ever want to tweak the bill—and they might, considering that it currently calls for the IRS to automatically consider any wealthy American denouncing his or her citizenship as guilty of tax evasion until proven otherwise—they may look for the following piece of ancient legislation for inspiration: “Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in. We order that no one should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells of him, or read anything composed or written by him.”

So decreed the wise men of Congregation Talmud Torah in Amsterdam in the summer of 1656, furious with another young and enterprising Jew, 23-year-old Baruch Spinoza, for failing to play by the rules. Spinoza became the victim of the most famous cherem, or censure, in Jewish history. And while he and Saverin have little else in common—one having challenged the notion of a providential God and the other having helped create a way to electronically poke virtual strangers—they both share the burden of having fallen victim to the strictest form of public damnation. From Spinoza to Saverin, little has changed about the cherem in the last 356 years: now, as then, it remains an extreme punishment that says much more about the community exercising it than it does about its lone and ostracized recipient.

Like the Inuit’s alleged wealth of words for snow, Jews have fashioned all manners of terms by which to call a fellow Jew to order.
There’s the nezifah, a one-day period during which anyone accused of violating the common rules must stay home and repent; the niddui, a weeklong ban usually imposed over financial matters; and, rarely used, the cherem, a ban for life.

The cherem is not so much a judicial ruling as a metaphysical one. What, after all, were the Jews of Amsterdam expected to do when their strange son argued that the soul was not immortal nor the Torah divine or binding? A day, a week, even a month of condemnation would do little to change Spinoza’s mind, or, more poignantly, curb the spread of his ideas. Faced with a Spinoza, the community had two choices: engage in conversation and be prepared to question fundamental assumptions, or ban all members from ever talking to the heretic again.

In that light, it’s not absurd to see Saverin as a modern-day Spinoza. Responding to Schumer and Casey’s robust and pun-riddled attack, he argued that he had been living in Singapore since 2009, that he had paid—and will continue to pay—lots and lots of money to the U.S. government in taxes, and that the company he helped create (which had its initial public offering today) has generated immense wealth and many American jobs. He is correct, but he’s missing the point. The cherem on Saverin has to do with much more than the relatively inconsequential $67 million he’ll avoid paying in taxes by residing in Singapore. As was the case in the 17th century, it’s about change, and about the community’s inability to come to terms with its core beliefs being called into question.

As Lawrence Lessig noted in his review of The Social Network, the Hollywood version of Saverin’s falling-out with his partner, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s real innovation lies in the fact that two Harvard students with little more than a laptop and an idea managed to rapidly create a mammoth company and revolutionize their industry without having to ask permission from any gatekeepers. By way of comparison, Lessig offers up the example of another pair of Massachusetts entrepreneurs, Tom First and Tom Scott, who, in the early 1990s, expanded what began as a summer job selling homemade juices to yachtsmen on Nantucket Sound and created the massively profitable beverage company Nantucket Nectars. Tom and Tom needed to go through manufacturers, bottlers, distributors, and shopkeepers before they could get their product into the consumer’s hand. All Zuckerberg and Saverin required was a thousand dollars, innate ingenuity, hard work, and a dream.

Which is problematic for men like Schumer and Casey. Government not only depends on order; it is its earthly manifestation. And the thought that two kids sitting somewhere tooling around on their computers and creating a platform that could not only generate what is arguably the greatest transfer of wealth in human history but also change the way we do business and politics and buy shoes and look for love—that thought, if one happens to be a United States senator, must be terrifying.

This is where things get philosophical, and where the comparison with Spinoza gets the leg it stands on. One explanation for Schumer and Casey’s harsh words—their point, arguably, could have been made more calmly and reservedly, without resorting to strong language, without accusing Saverin of “spitting in the eye” of the American people—may have to do with the fact that Saverin is not only a wealthy man in a globalized economy, free to move about as he pleases in order to maximize his profits, but also an embodiment of the idea of the free Internet, resistant to control. Earlier this year and last, both Schumer and Casey were enthusiastic supporters of a number of bills—known as COICA, SOPA, and PIPA—that would give the government, with help from large media and entertainment conglomerates, the power to tamper with the Internet’s infrastructure and make websites suspected of infringing copyrights disappear from the net. The legislation met with intense opposition from Internet companies and activists alike, and was thankfully shelved. Had it passed, the Eduardo Saverins of tomorrow would have known that their every move was monitored and that they were likely to get sued, censored, or both for failing to play by the rules dictated by gigantic corporations. In short, they would have had to think twice, and, if Facebook is any example, that would have been our loss as well.

It is easy to empathize with Schumer and Casey. Saverin lived the American dream and then cashed out. But we should resist the easy outrage and keep two things in mind. The first is that Saverin’s seeming sense of rootlessness might be unpatriotic, but it is motivated by the same unbound and universal ethos that makes the Internet such a radically accessible platform and that helps ordinary citizens do anything from keeping in touch with old friends to toppling dictators; the same ethos, arguably, that we elsewhere would call the American spirit. The second, and more crucial, lesson is that a cherem rarely succeeds, and in fact usually backfires. Spinoza is an intellectual lodestar to many. And we know very little of the little men who wrote such vehement things that summer in Holland four centuries ago.

Schumer Wants to Ban U.S. Citizenship-Renouncing Facebook Cofounder [Gothamist]

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Godwinslaw says:

So it rarely succeeds-that’ really not the point, is it? He owes nothing to this country, and vice versa. Flaunt the social compact if you will, but stay the hell out. Simple.

AriShavit says:

to be rich in this country must be fabulous.  first, the country won’t tax you anywhere near enough.  Then, you’ll be painted as a free spirited embodiment of the internet once you decide what little tax you do have to pay is too much and flee the country.

lchaim says:

Aside from wealth leaving the country, internet globalism, and defiance of communal agreements as to how money should be bestowed on people, Saviner has violated norms which highlight devotion to the USA.  Imagine the ingratitude, the effrontery, and the challenge that suggests that there is another country that a prominent figure would prefer on the basis of wealth preservation.  Schumer and Casey are misguided in their issuance of a chemer against Saverin and his ilk, but they are right in denouncing it.  Saverin is wrong as an immigrant, a beneficiary of our wonderful country, and a Jew to husband his money at the expense of our nation’s security, stability, and ‘soul.’

Buck Turgidson says:

“… they both share the burden of having fallen victim to the strictest form of public damnation”

This is complete nonsense. Saverin damned himself–he chose to denounce his citizenship and no one brought it upon him. Although Schumer wants to codify the rule in a piece of legislature, in fact, the law already exists. Spinoza did nothing of the sort–his rule-breaking was purely doctrinal. In this, Spinoza parallels Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, not Saverin. Neither Eliezer nor Spinoza broke any actual law. What they did is go against the established decorum–effectively, they spoke out of turn and refused to submit their opinion to being overwritten by the majority. Basically, they were shunned for being a rhetorical pain in the ass. Saverin’s violation is far more direct–he cursed the congregation, so to speak, before it could curse him back. Saying that Saverin is like Spinoza is the equivalent of accusing Spinoza of refusing to pay membership dues at the club and demanding that he be forever exempt from such dues should he ever deign the club with his presence.

“[The bill] currently calls for the IRS to automatically
consider any wealthy American denouncing his or her citizenship as
guilty of tax evasion until proven otherwise”

This is also nonsense. Had Saverin left without renouncing his citizenship, but keeping the money, he would have been prosecuted on his return just the same. As a citizen, he has certain obligations–as citizenship is both a right and a privilege. It is a right that no one can take away, but it’s a privilege in that it carries obligations with it. The right can be renounced–but that also happens to be the only way to dispose of the obligations. As it currently stands, a citizen is obligated to pay taxes on his windfall profits. There is no presumption of guilt if he fails to do so, but he can certainly be prosecuted for it. If someone leaves the country without paying his fair share, the obligation does not go away and the threat of prosecution hangs over his head (just ask Marc Rich). Denouncing the citizenship does not remove this threat–it merely gives the person a protection against a demand for return. But, if he chooses to return, the obligations remain. There is no added assumption of guilt–merely an assumption of prosecutability, which exists even now.

scallywag says:

“Please Chuck. Singapore is swell. I’m dating loads of supermodels, living lush and escaping unwarranted media attention (sort of). As for them taxes, can’t I send you a campaign contribution or a spare super model to pop out of your birthday cake?’

Love Eddie…

joesterne says:

Probably important to note here that he was a *naturalized* citizen, not a US one by birth. 

shaulbeny says:

Regarding Spinoza, he is no longer of any influence and his ideas are dead. The values and traditions of the “little men” continues to flourish.

    9Athena says:

    Spinoza’a basic thrust was that he was entitled to think his own thoughts. As for the values and traditions of “the little men: slaves are not allowed anymore, they are allowed only one wife at a time and the law of the land in which they reside is the law for them too. There have been other directions of values and traditions: conservative , reconstruction , modern orthodox-with different interpretations of religiousity.  Two great gifts were given-life and free will. To deprive anyone of those gifts is is to deny the Creator. That is the biggest sin. And Spinoza still lives. 

    hypnosifl says:

    Not true at all, he continues to be a significant influence on scientists, and those who take seriously the scientific picture of a universe governed by uniform mathematical laws–Einstein was very much influenced by his thought, for example (read “Einstein and Religion” by Max Jammer for details, or go to Einstein’s wikiquote page and search for the word “spinoza”). He also was a major influence on the ideas of the Enlightenment, as Robert Israel has detailed. The traditions of the “little men” do continue, but mostly among conservative religious believers who reject much of modernity, including modern science (rejecting ideas like Darwinian evolution, or the notion that human intelligence is a product of the physical brain rather than a supernatural “soul”…perhaps you reject these ideas too, but to argue that Spinoza has had no significant philosophical influence is a bit like arguing that Darwin has had no influence in biology, which even creationists who reject Darwin themselves wouldn’t say).

      shaulbeny says:

      As an engineer, I am not unsympathetic to attempts to find scientific explanations for everything. However when it comes to ethics, the approach of reason has been a dismal failure. Emmanuel Levinas reintroduced ethics into philosophical debate by reaching back to the teachings of the “little men”. Having given up on Spinoza et. al., I have spent 20 years trying to understand the teachings of the past Jewish sages. I am glad that I spent the time and effort and now have a better understanding of what makes Jews Jewish. Spinoza tried to understand the world using reason and failed, as did most of philosphy. I am not, of course, taking about the naturel sciences. I am taking primarily of ethics. Darwin had his influence and Spinoza had his, in his day. Science moves on and new influences take their place. Ethics however, is not time dependent.

phill2012 says:

stupid article, ridiculous comparison, totally false heroics.  as for this Harvard Jewish boychik in Singapore, he’s more grist for the antisemitic mills—” see, the jews make a mint from us dumb goyim, they don’t pay their fair share of taxes like we do, and then he runs away after he craps on the stars and stripes which we die to defend.”   

 get the picture? 

PhillipNagle says:

Schumer will do anything to avoid talking about the mess Obama has made of the economy and his anti Israel policies.  To tell the the truth Chuck, I don’t care about Saverin.  I do care that the Senate has not produced a budget in 3 years. 

Hershl says:

Once again Liel Leibovitz has shown that he is a hack with a keyboard minus any original ideas.

Next time, Liel, use some discretion when you have a deadline to produce an article and have nothing to say.

Silence is a virtue where ignorance reigns.

Miha Ahronovitz says:

Liel I am with you here. Great article. 

As with the declaring Gunther Grass “persona-non-grata”  by an official Israeli bureaucrat. The right thing to do would have been to invite Gunther Grass by any group that dissents with current government to visit Israel and join them and other groups in his criticism. Instead Grass said he was banned from three counties so far: Myanmar, Communist Germany and now Israel.So what it has to do this Mr. Saverin? He is a schmuck.  It made me think why he broke away from Zuckerberg. The reason #1 is because he is not at Zuckerberg level. (See what is Mark Zuckerberg’s true attitude towards money? – Quora ) He was rich and could take the risks of daring investments without fears of loosing his shirt.  

Now is super-rich. How much he can  eat?  How many girl friends he can have?. No need to ban him from US. Sooner or later he will want to return to US and let the guys at IRS, the expensive tax attorneys and the media  handle him. He may even reform himself and become a philanthropist. Who knows..

ZionistForever says:

  The diaspora is destined to assimilation and loss.  There is no excuse
for a Jew not to return to Israel NOW. 

    hypnosifl says:

    What is “assimilation” exactly? Is it a codeword for adopting secular, universalist Enlightenment values like those of Spinoza? If so, what makes secular Jews in Israel any better in your eyes than secular Jews in other countries? Maybe “assimilation” is for you just about intermarriage, so you think secular Jews in Israel are less “assimilated” because they are more likely to marry other Jews, not necessarily out of any particular preference but just by default since most people around them are Jews?

I agree with “Buck Turgidson”‘s comment below. To compare Saverin with Spinoza is absurd. To compare Gunther Grass to Spinoza would be closer to the truth, since Grass was after all declared persona non grata by Israeli authorities for views he expressed, not for income tax evasion.

Carl Rosenberg
Vancouver, BC 

    grass, former nazi amnesiac(?) and current fool, and Spinoza? Spinoza? ol’ carl should have put the pipe down a few hours before he hit the keyboard.  and, btw: try reading Spinoza and some history before you post some mother goose-wiki version of a summary of a pastiche of an echo of a travesty of a suggestion of cliff’s notes Spinoza.  do yourself a favour. don’t embarrass yourself.

valles says:

 “Regarding Spinoza, he is no longer of any influence and his ideas are dead” Could I humbly suggest that some of you read Spinoza. You will get a shock.

Scorebear says:

Idiodic comparison. Spinoza was a man of ideas, albeit unpopular ones. Saverin is greedy, plain and simple.

rathertired says:

“In that light, it’s not absurd to see Saverin as a modern-day Spinoza.”
That must be some blinding light. 

As other have pointed out: a really dumb article. Really, really dumb.

Spinoza? don’t be silly. I have nothing against Eduardo, personally, but, if it was about taxes, he should be ashamed to ditch the USA and all that it stands for.   


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Saverin Is the New Spinoza

Their excommunications say more about the community

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