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.