The Blame Game

When bad stuff happens, we want someone to blame.  But blame assumes a kind of agency that most of us lack.  Luck is as important as intention.  And culture and nature matter more than the choices of individuals.

Recent events show us how the blame game works.  The White House has blamed the Covid-19 pandemic on China.  White House trade adviser Peter Navarro recently claimed that China “spawned” the virus and deliberately spread the disease. Meanwhile, Trump’s critics blame him.  One recent article carried the headline, “It Really Is Trump’s Fault.”  Another said, “Covid 19: Blame Trump.” 

All of this oversimplifies the causal reality of the pandemic, which involves the complexities of microbiology, economics, and the daily choices of billions of people.  Policy and law can have some influence.  But there are more fundamental forces at play in the pandemic.

If we want to blame something for the explosion of the pandemic in the U.S., we might blame American individualism, libertarianism, and consumerism.  Trump did not invent these forces.  Nor did he (or China) cause the pandemic to blow up here. 

That explosion involved the choices of governors, mayors, businesses, and ordinary citizens.  Lots of people ignored the need for social distancing.  The virus did the rest, moving according to its own logic.

Trump cannot save us from the pandemic, by the way. That’s up to us.  To be critical of the blame game is also to be critical of hero-worship and the cult of leadership.  A leader can only take people in a direction they are willing to go.

When we understand the power of culture and nature, the blame game fades in importance.  For example, some blame the victims of hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes for building their homes in danger zones.  But economic forces create conditions in which some people have no other viable places to live.  And destruction or survival in a storm or an earthquake is often a matter of luck.

A fuller account of causality offers a more convoluted picture of our choices.  Blame (or praise) assumes a myth about free choice in these matters that hearkens back to the myth of original sin. A more scientific account of causality makes that myth seem silly.

At the level of leadership, the blame game assumes that leaders are free to create policies independently of the parties, systems, and circumstances in which they operate.  In reality, human beings—including leaders—are buffeted by cultural and natural forces that are beyond our control.

And yet, when things feel out of control, we search for someone to blame.  This can lead to scapegoating.  In heaping blame upon a scapegoat, we seek a semblance of power in the face of powerlessness.  It feels good to blame bad things on some person, party, race, or nation.  In older times, the need to blame a malicious agent escalated into claims about witches, demons, and devils.  These days, it manifests as absurd conspiracy theories that imagine some secret cabal of evil geniuses pulling strings behind the scenes. 

A further problem is that blame is retrospective and retributive.  To focus on blame is to dwell in the past and to look for someone to punish.  But this can prevent us from moving forward.  We should learn from the past and avoid previous mistakes.  But the goal should be to study the past in order to build the future.  Rather than focusing on whom to blame, we ought to think about what we need to do next time.  John F. Kennedy once said, “Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past.  Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” 

To avoid the blame game is not to give up on accountability.  Leadership matters.  Incompetent and malicious leaders should be replaced.  And indeed, a larger point of view makes it easier to move on.  If there are no evil geniuses, there are also no saviors or superheroes.  No leader is indispensable. 

Knowledge, expertise, and experience can help us ride through bad times.  But bad stuff is often a matter of bad luck and the larger forces of culture, institutions, and nature.  And often we really have no one to blame but ourselves.  Once we realize this, it is easier to leave the blame game behind and get to work on preparing for tomorrow. 

American Civilization and Its Discontents

Fresno Bee, July 4, 2020

Americans are dissatisfied, and that is good. Discontent is the lifeblood of democracy.

A recent poll from Politico concludes that 75% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.  Another recent poll from the Pew Center found that only 17% of Americans are “proud” of the country.  When asked how they feel about the state of the country, 71% said “angry,” 66% said “fearful.”  Only 46% are “hopeful.”  Pew reports that only 12% of Americans say they are satisfied with the country.

These numbers indicate a low point for the American spirit.  But they also show that Americans are not stupid.  It is smart to be dissatisfied when there is a pandemic, economic collapse, confused leadership, and racial injustice.  It is surprising that anyone is satisfied with the country today.

The United States is a land of dissatisfaction.  People come here because they don’t like the old country.  The early Americans were not satisfied with British colonial rule.  The Civil War and the civil rights movement were expressions of deep dissatisfaction.  Donald Trump rode to power on a wave of discontent. 

And the waves roll on.  This nation is a changing multitude.  We have too much liberty to remain united for long.  America is anti-abortion protesters and Black Lives Matter marchers.  It is the anarchists of Seattle and the law and order crowd in Washington, DC.  Our divisions and our discontent are signs of the vitality of our democracy.  In a dull and dying country, no one has the energy to be fed up and people lack the right to express their unhappiness.  But in a vibrant and free country, the yearning for change is loud and proud.

Some dream of bland homogeneity.  They want an America that looks like what they see in the mirror.  They dream perhaps of resting in peace.  But life is a bubbling, boiling confusion.  There never was homogeneity on this vast continent.  The native tribes of pre-Columbian times were diverse.  For five hundred years, new generations of immigrants have brought different cultures, religions, and ideas.

The thing that unites us is our freedom to criticize and our right to think for ourselves.  Liberty creates difference.  The more freedom, the more divergence.  From creative liberty and diversity of experience emerges energy and enthusiasm.  Let’s embrace the fact that to be an American means to be cranky and critical, argumentative and evolving. 

The idea of productive discontent is central to the American myth.  The Fourth of July commemorates this process.  This nation was born out of the destruction of the old.  We celebrate it by blowing things up!  We hope that from the fireworks, something better will emerge.

The Declaration of Independence can be read as the expression of the complaints of a youthful spirit.  It’s timeless words about self-evident truths give way to an extended diatribe against old King George, who is described as a mean and tyrannical father figure.   

Thomas Jefferson was only 33 years old when he worked on the Declaration.  And while the Declaration described the King as an absolute tyrant seeking to impose an absolute despotism over the colonies, not everyone on the committee agreed.  John Adams was an older man.  He thought the accusation of tyranny was too personal and sounded like “scolding.” 

A decade later, Jefferson said, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”  This physical analogy is enlightening.  Storm clouds build as the atmosphere heats up.  There is thunder and lightning, rain and hail.  But this clears the air and waters the crops. 

This idea, that a little rebellion is a good thing, seems uniquely American.  This is the spirit of youth and rock and roll.  It is the creative destruction of the capitalist economy.  It spurs innovation in technology and scientific revolutions. 

The simmering dissatisfaction of the present will boil over and give shape to something new.  Of course, there are dangers.  Lightning can kill and flash floods can wash away things we love.  But that’s life.  We never really rest in peace until the day is done or freedom is extinguished.  Liberty creates discontent.  But from dissatisfaction, creative innovation develops, as today’s storms nurture tomorrow’s fruit.

On Loneliness and Solitude

Solitude

An article in Time describes a “plague of loneliness” exacerbated by social distancing during the pandemic.  But being alone does not mean being lonely.  Some dread solitude.  Others use it to create, think, and dream. 

Loneliness can be caused by social conditions.  The isolation of the pandemic provides an obvious example.  An isolating culture can reinforce psychological pathologies such as agoraphobia and social anxiety. 

But solitude can be inspiring.  Poets and philosophers have often affirmed it.  Emerson said, “people are to be taken in very small doses. If solitude is proud, so is society vulgar.”  By “vulgar” Emerson means “ordinary.”  Emersonian solitude seeks to transcend the ordinary.  Schopenhauer and Nietzsche agreed.  They imagined the great soul rising above the vulgar masses, alone on a mountaintop.   

This is a typically masculine idea, patronizing and condescending.  Men have traditionally been free to indulge heroic individualism.  Women were not permitted the luxury of what Virginia Woolf called “a room of her own”—a refuge for creative individuality.

Freedom and creativity are essential for avoiding the dread of loneliness.  Solitude is not dreadful when freely chosen.  To be forced into solitary confinement is a terrible punishment.  But the mystic chooses silent meditation and the poet retreats to her private room. 

The dread of loneliness is connected to boredom.  Lonely people are isolated with nothing to do.  But solitude can be replete with activity.  Indeed, some activities require us to be alone.

Hannah Arendt explained the difference between the productive solitude of the life of the mind and a more dreadful kind of loneliness.  In loneliness, you exist as a mere object and not as an active thinking being.  But in productive solitude, you keep good company with yourself. 

The novelist Thomas Wolfe once claimed that he was the loneliest person he knew.  He understood that loneliness gives rise to the desire for self-expression.  But he also knew that loneliness lingers as the after-effect of the creative act, an emptiness that remains after your song has been sung.

Wolfe saw loneliness as “the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”  Loneliness, he said, sucks the joy from life, leaving us empty, impotent, ruined, and lost.  Time seems to flow on without us, while we sit “drugged and fettered in the prison of loneliness.” 

One solution is found in religion.  Religious thinkers have plumbed the depths of solitude, retreating to monasteries and sitting in silence.  Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, explained that solitude opens an abyss within that points toward the infinite.  A different religious idea is offered by Dorothy Day who said that we overcome loneliness through service, community, and love.  She explained, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love.”   

This is a common refrain: to transform loneliness into love.  A poem from Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“Finding”) provides a poignant example:

Out of the great darkness and wide wastes of silence,
Long loneliness, and slow untasted years,
Came a slow filling of the empty places,
A slow, sweet lighting of forgotten faces,
A smiling under tears.

Gilman reminds us that loneliness is what allows memory to unfold.  When alone we can enjoy the memory of those we’ve lost.  Later in the same poem, she explores how lost love opens onto a broader love:

Love like the rain that falls on just and unjust,
Love like the sunshine, measureless and free,
From each to all, from all to each, to live in;
And, in the world's glad love so gladly given,
Came heart's true love to me!

Here we get a sense of the strange productive power of solitude.  From out of loneliness grows the urge to communicate and to love. 

The highest human goods—art, religion, and philosophy—require solitude: a quiet and empty space in which the spirit can unfold.  Instead of allowing solitude to devolve into dreadful loneliness and succumbing to boredom, we must find ways to fill the emptiness with meaning, whether in exploring our memories or writing poetry.  This is also what scientists, entrepreneurs, bakers, and gardeners do: they create, build, and explore.  The aloneness of the creative soul is a pregnant at-one-ness, waiting to give birth to beauty, knowledge, and love. 

On Heritage and the Sequoia named Robert E. Lee

Fresno Bee, June 21, 2020

Most Americans are ready to bury symbols of white supremacy. Let’s be done, already, with Confederate flags and rebel generals. Does anyone really care anymore about Braxton Bragg, Henry Lewis Benning, or Robert E. Lee, some of the Confederate generals whose names are fixed to American military bases?

But the president has resisted calls to purge these names. He said, “We must build upon our heritage, not tear it down.”

When someone uses a collective pronoun, it’s worth asking who is included and excluded. What counts as “our” heritage?

Is Robert E. Lee really one of “us”? He picked the wrong side and lost. How odd that we continue to immortalize him, 150 years after the fall of Dixie.

I thought about all of this while standing beneath two sequoia trees named for Robert E. Lee. The Robert E. Lee Tree is in Grant Grove up in Kings Canyon National Park. Down the road in Sequoia National Park stands the General Lee.

The General Lee is up the trail from the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree on Earth. The Sherman Tree is named for a victorious Union general. But this was not always its name. The utopian socialists of the Kaweah Colony originally called it Karl Marx.

General Lee
General Lee in Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park

The trees are indifferent to their names. They are thousands of years old. And unless we utterly destroy the ecosystem of the Sierra Nevada, these groves will endure long after the United States and its generals are forgotten.

The view from the sequoia groves is enlightening. These magnificent trees open a larger and more inclusive prospect. Our squabbles look absurd from the standpoint of millennia. The giant trees make racism and nationalism seem sadly short-sighted.

We are part of a system that exceeds the human imagination. Our true heritage includes the ancient sunlight trapped in the sequoia’s flesh. But the stories we tell remain narrow and cramped. And we seem incapable of telling the full tale of our heritage.

The U.S. is a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the idea that all persons are created equal. But Native Americans were dispossessed. Slaves were only counted as three-fifths of a person. Mormons were driven out of American states. California was taken away from Mexico. And Marxists lived in the Sierra Nevada.

Our story is complex and evolving. But often the idea of “our heritage” is used to invoke a mystical idea about identity and belonging, blood and soil. This simply does not work in a diverse nation of immigrants, some of whom came here as slaves.

Many people are fascinated by heritage. They get genetic tests and trace out family lineage. I suppose this is fun. But the heritage game is not fun for everyone. Many hyphenated Americans — Irish-Americans, Japanese-Americans, or Mexican-Americans — trace their lineage back to those who chose to come here from “the old country.” This story is not so pleasant for African-Americans.

Perhaps it is time to be done with the idea of heritage. The historian David Lowenthal argued over 20 years ago that heritage is a dangerous idea. Heritage is not history. It is, rather, a mythical and politicized interpretation of the past. It is a fable that resists critical analysis. Lowenthal explained, “heritage exaggerates and omits, candidly invents and frankly forgets, and thrives on ignorance and error.”

A walk among the sequoia offers a cure. The vantage point of millennia teaches that life is fragile and diverse. The ancient trees remind us to embrace as much of life as we can, while we can. Nothing lasts forever. Not even these giants.

Nor do the sequoia know hatred, resentment, or intolerance. These trees do not belong to a party or a people. They have welcomed birds and butterflies for 2,000 years. This is a symbol of something inclusive, lasting, and strong.

And if the Robert E. Lee trees are ever renamed — perhaps after Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez, as I might suggest — the trees themselves will remain indifferent. Heroes and nations come and go. The natural world is more substantial than any human heritage. And history is more interesting than the myths we tell ourselves about who we are and where we came from.

Oppose Fascism, Affirm Nonviolence

Defeat Fascism

This week the President falsely claimed that a 75-year-old peace activist who was shoved to the ground by cops “could be an ANTIFA provocateur.”  The man, Martin Gugino, hit his head on the pavement, drawing blood.  “Antifa,” in case you don’t know, is short for “anti-fascist.”

Even if he was a member of Antifa (he was not), such treatment by police is not deserved.  In the United States, people have the right to belong to political groups and to protest.  Membership in a group does not give the police permission to assault you. 

In fact, fascism occurs when there is a systematic use of the police to abuse members of certain groups.  This is wrong.  And in the United States it is illegal.  The cops who shoved Gugino have been charged with assault.  This shows that the U.S. is not a fascist country.  We prevent fascism by containing police brutality.

The fascists of the 20th Century like Mussolini and Hitler unleashed the police and para-military thugs on the people.  They used violence to consolidate power under a mythology of racial nationalism.

There have been warnings from mainstream thinkers such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about the looming threat of fascism.  But so far, the United States is not fascist.  And I doubt that many Americans long for fascism to come to America.   

I’m not saying it couldn’t happen here.  But Americans are typically anti-fascist.  Americans fought against fascism in World War Two. We are generally outraged by racism. And police brutality is prosecuted. Witness the near universal condemnation of the police killing of George Floyd and the arrest of the cops involved.

Anti-fascism is woven into our traditions and culture.  Our founding myth tells a story of rebellion against tyranny in the name of liberty.  The Constitution prevents authoritarian consolidation of power.  And the Bill of Rights creates strong safeguards against fascism.  The First Amendment guarantees religious liberty, freedom of speech, the free press, and the right to assemble and petition the government.  Other Amendments limit the government’s ability to set up a police state.

It is true that there is a counter-narrative to the American myth.  Native Americans were slaughtered and dispossessed.  Africans were enslaved.  Minority groups were excluded and oppressed.  Thugs lynched Black Americans during the Jim Crow era.  Japanese Americans were rounded up and put in concentration camps during World War Two.  Discrimination and racism continue.

But we have made progress.  The slaves were freed.  Women were given the vote.  Jim Crow was dismantled.  And people continue to take to the streets to demand an end to racism, injustice, and police brutality.

One way to continue to make progress is to oppose fascism.  Americans ought to be anti-fascist.  This means we should be opposed to police brutality, racism, and ethnic nationalism.  To be anti-fascist is to be in favor of liberty and the right to speak, protest, and assemble.

Now let’s consider the question of Antifa, which has become a bogeyman for President Trump.  Antifa appears to be a loose collective of activists opposed to racists and neo-Nazis (see discussions here and here).  If Antifa is committed to violence, then its tactics should be rejected.  But a recent analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded that there is no threat to American values posed by Antifa.  And Stanislav Vysotsky, the author of a new book about Antifa, concludes that Antifa is “a decentralized collection of individual activists who mostly use nonviolent methods to achieve their ends.”

This brings us back to Mr. Gugino, whom friends describe as a loving person committed to nonviolence.  Advocates of nonviolence have always been opposed to fascism.  Gandhi was a dedicated anti-fascist who described fascism as a doctrine of the “naked sword” that glorified war and violence. 

To be anti-fascist is be in favor of democracy and opposed to a cult of power, violence, and domination.  The best way to oppose fascism is to affirm nonviolence.  When nonviolent protesters such as Mr. Gugino are assaulted by police, the specter of fascism appears.  But when police brutality is prosecuted, this ghost is exorcised.