The Power of Truth

As the doctors and scientists struggle to contain the coronavirus, there has been confusion and disinformation coming out of the White House. And still the partisanship and polarization regarding truth continues.

They say this is a post-truth era.  But the truth is that human beings have never really been fond of truth.  When was the “truth era,” exactly?  During the “good” old days of racism, sexism, and colonialism?  And what about the long history of religious superstition and scientific ignorance?  Truth has usually been in short supply.

Given the long history of untruth, it is not really surprising that the Washington Post reports that President Trump has made over 16,000 false or misleading statements since taking office three years ago.  He is not the first liar to live in the White House, only the greatest.  The President, of course, claims that the Post is fake news.

But so what?  We’ve got other things to worry about.  For many of us, life is good.  We’ve got smartphones and Youtube, Instagram and all-star games.  The consumer society is pleasant.  We even get a perverse thrill watching the outrage flow from Washington.

Or at least we did, before the coronavirus. Maybe we are ready to return to truth, to a view that is informed by science instead of partisan spin.

But let’s face it, when it comes to truth, we mostly don’t care.  If you put together a wish list of the things you want in life, would truth make the list?  My guess is that for most people, truth would not make the list.  We are mostly content to live with white lies, unproven superstitions, and unfounded ideologies.  Very few feel compelled to challenge powerful lies or the lies of the powerful.

It is not that truth is somehow weaker than falsehood.  Rather, the issue is that truth and falsehood are usually less important to us than other things.  Mostly we want love, friendship, money, and peace of mind.  A few idealistic people want justice or universal harmony. 

But even the idealists will accept a few lies on their way to utopia.  Many people are simply not motivated by the love of truth.  And others subordinate the love of truth to their love of other things.

I have been thinking about truth, while re-reading Vaclav Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless,” which is about dissent under totalitarianism.  Havel was a Czech dissident.  He was imprisoned for his views.  But he went on to become the President of post-Soviet Czechoslovakia. 

Havel advocates for living within the truth.  But he explains how easy it is to live within a lie.  While his focus is on Soviet-bloc totalitarianism, he offers a prescient warning about the combination of totalitarianism and consumerism.  Over forty years ago, in 1978, he called out “the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption” fueled by advertising and a “flood of information.” 

He also understood that most people simply play along with the prevailing ideology.  Under old-school totalitarian regimes, the dissidents were jailed, tortured, and worse.  But Havel points out that mostly, people play along because everyone else is playing along.  We find a sense of belonging and purpose in joining with others under an ideological umbrella. 

Havel explains, ideology as “a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use.” 

This explains much about the power of partisanship and the failure of truth to capture our attention.  We sense that life is out of balance.  But rather than confronting our dis-ease directly, we retreat to a familiar ideology and find comfort within it.  Truth is irrelevant when what we seek is security and a sense of belonging. 

But Havel also gives us hope.  At some point, people simply stop playing along.  They stop repeating the party line.  Someone points out that the emperor has no clothes on.  And soon those who played along look like fools.  Living within a lie only works if the lie is universally accepted. 

The voices and symbolic gestures of the dissidents draw attention to the lies.  Those dissidents will be punished, attacked, and suppressed.  But in the long run, Havel’s own story reminds us that there is hope that the dissident can disrupt the system with the power of truth.  And the present crisis reminds us that truth is often a matter of life and death.

Imagining a better economy after the Covid crisis

Imagine kinder future

Fresno Bee, March 27, 2020

The president wants to resurrect the economy by Easter. The scientists say it is too soon to get back to normal. But is getting back to normal really the solution?

Easter is a celebration of transformation. Maybe we should imagine a transformed economy on the other side of the corona crisis. We could even imagine the kind of economy that Jesus would hope for: an economy that prioritizes caring for the poor, the sick and the downtrodden.

The government is going to give direct handouts to people and extend unemployment benefits. Now is a good time to consider the idea of universal basic income. The stock market collapse is killing people’s retirement savings. Now is a good time to imagine how we might ensure a decent retirement for everyone. The pandemic also gives us a reason to consider disparities in public health and access to health care. And social distancing is an opportunity to rethink making a living and living well.

Henry David Thoreau said that there was more to life than making a living. He asked us to imagine “how to make getting a living not merely honest and honorable, but altogether inviting and glorious.” It may be too much to ask for an economy that is honest, honorable, and glorious. But we could benefit from a less materialistic approach to life.

The frantic pace of consumer society helped propel the pandemic. In a simpler time, people lived in small towns and villages, more in tune with nature, more connected to friends and family. A more localized economic model might impede future pandemics.

But reverting to pre-industrial life is not a viable solution. Instead of going back, let’s imagine how we might leap forward. A new vision of human life is made possible by the infrastructure that is helping us through this crisis.

People have rapidly shifted to working remotely. A generation ago, this would not have been possible. Universities have quickly gone online. Students have vacated dorms and professors teach from home. People don’t waste time commuting. Pollution is down as a result. Perhaps we have stumbled upon a new paradigm in business and education.

We are adapting in other ways. This week a couple in Green Bay, Wisconsin got married. Because of social distancing they had to invite their friends to participate via Facebook Live. That’s a cool idea, facilitated by technology. We are rapidly evolving how we work, play, learn, and love.

Or consider shopping and entertainment. The home delivery economy is thriving. There is a surge in grocery deliveries and restaurant carry-out. Movie theaters are closed. But we’ve got big TV’s and streaming content. Perhaps we’ll exit this crisis with new habits of consumption and amusement.

We may also reconsider the extent to which shopping and entertainment drive our economy and daily lives. This viral sabbatical provides an opportunity to spend more time with family, to re-learn the art of conversation, and to rediscover simpler pastimes, such as reading and playing cards. In my neighborhood, more people are taking walks with their families. It would be great if some of these new habits hung around.

But long walks and card games are not the only solution. The younger generation already spends a lot of time online chatting and gaming. Old folks have been forced to join in. Vulnerable and isolated oldsters need to turn to technology to keep in touch with friends and family. Social distancing will drive us further toward electronic social networking.

These are interesting times. Crises create opportunities for innovation. We need a vision of a post-corona economy that is not simply a return to normal. A new normal can build upon what we’ve discovered under quarantine about making a living and living well. Let’s imagine a new economy that conserves earth resources, avoids future pandemics, and enhances spiritual and mental health.

It may seem too soon to talk about life after corona. The scientists tell us it is too soon to reopen the economy. But now is the time to imagine a post-corona future that is kinder, gentler, and more supportive of the weak, the sick, and the vulnerable. Let’s not resurrect bad habits. Instead, let’s seek transformation and renewal.

Compassion, Simplicity, and Patience during Quarantine

Tao Simplicity Compassion Patience

Fresno Bee, March 20, 2020

In times of crisis it is natural to reassess and reprioritize. Once the initial panic subsides, let’s use our time sheltering in place as an opportunity to seek wisdom.

First and foremost, let’s learn compassion. The sick and suffering need our support, as do the isolated and afraid. This is always true. While COVID-19 clogs the headlines, cancer and other diseases have not gone away. Loneliness, depression, and other maladies may be exacerbated by C-19 restrictions. Compassion brings us together in our distress. It takes us beyond narrow self-interest. It helps us grow as we give it away.

Let’s also learn simplicity. We must find joy in living a bit closer to the ground. This is an involuntary sabbath, a sabbatical from consumer culture. A sabbatical is a time of renewal and regeneration. Let’s use this is an opportunity to learn to live a life that is simple, plain and true. Life is good, even without the chaos of consumer society.

Finally, we must learn patience. We are all anxious to get back to our lives. But anxiety undermines well-being. Let’s urge on the scientists and doctors. But a vaccine will take some time. We have to wait for the disease to run its course. While we wait, let’s cultivate the virtue of patience. We’ve lived for too long in a world of instant downloads and fast food. Patience is the ability to defer gratification and endure hardship. This is a life skill. It is closely connected to courage, perseverance, and even to love.

Compassion, simplicity, and patience were celebrated as the “three treasures” of Taoism. This ancient Chinese philosophy is useful in times of crisis. The wisdom of Taoism teaches us to be yielding, flexible, and resilient. One translation of the three jewels calls them mercy, moderation, and humility. Another translation speaks of love, unpretentiousness, and modesty.

Whatever we call them, these three virtues are essential in a time of crisis. And even in ordinary times, it is wise to be merciful, mellow, and moderate.

Without compassion, we end up isolated and alone. In a crisis, there is a tendency to think that it is “every man for himself.” But this only makes things worse by increasing loneliness, conflict, and fear. Compassion is the root of human connection. Others need our support just as we need theirs. We are all in this together.

If we do not value simplicity, we will bristle at the restrictions imposed upon us in this crisis. Anger and resentment are not helpful. Even in times of crisis, plain and primary goods can be found. Without simplicity, we fail to find contentment in what we have. Right now we can enjoy humor and friendship, natural beauty and art, music and knowledge.

Finally, patience allows us to endure hardship without losing hope. Without patience, we act rashly and without foresight. In a crisis, quick decisions are important. But quick action must not lose sight of the long run. Panicked reactions make things worse. Fortitude, persistence, and hope makes things better.

These three treasures are always valuable. But they are easily forgotten in the frantic pace of what we call ordinary life. Our culture encourages individualism at the expense of solidarity. It glorifies consumption and wealth. It teaches us to be intolerant and unkind.

Let’s learn from the present crisis to live better when things get back to normal. Or better yet, let’s imagine a new normal. For a while now, it has seemed that our way of life has been unbalanced. For too long, we have lived at a furious pace. The planet is groaning under the weight of human consumption. Our social lives have become fragmented. Our political life is polarized. The truth has been lost under blizzards of bull. Our physical and mental health suffers from a life out of balance.

This mandatory pause in ordinary life—our viral sabbatical—is an opportunity to re-balance things and build better habits. Let’s learn to enjoy simple goods and reduce over-consumption. Let’s work to develop patience and forbearance. Let’s learn to care better for the sick and the suffering. And let’s view this crisis as an opportunity to unearth the treasures of wisdom.

Critical Thinking in Time of Crisis

Fresno Bee, March 15, 2020

Coronavirus uncertainty leaves us wondering what we should believe and who we should trust. This is made more difficult by partisan division and a general distrust of authority. Many authorities think that this illness is serious. Some countries have implemented drastic measures. Businesses and campuses are preparing contingency plans. Events have been canceled.

But the president suggests that this is fake news. On Monday, he tweeted, “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.”

But how do we know what the facts warrant? This question holds for a variety of issues: from climate change and the stock market to the threat of terrorism and dietary guidelines. Beyond these contemporary questions, there are deep questions about history, religion and the meaning of life. Did Jesus really walk on water? Did Shakespeare himself really write all of those plays and poems? Is there a soul that survives death?

In many cases, we lack direct access to the facts. Miracles happen far away and long ago. Historical facts rest on fragile threads of evidence. And death remains an undiscovered country from which no traveler returns.

Layers of secrecy and confidentiality in government and business make it difficult for ordinary people to judge. Even when we have evidence, we lack the expertise to evaluate it. The facts about climate change and the coronavirus have been published by scientists. But you need substantial training to understand these facts and assess the risks.

Given this problem, it is often wise to say “I don’t know.” Philosophers have routinely called for intellectual humility. Socrates famously said that the only thing he was certain of was that he lacked certainty.

But intellectual humility doesn’t help in an emergency. Acknowledging your lack of certainty doesn’t help you decide whether to avoid crowds, cancel a trip or stockpile toilet paper.

Intellectual humility should not be a recipe for inaction. Nor is it the same as lazy indifference. To say you don’t know is not the same as saying you don’t care. Nor does it mean that you should give up on the quest for certainty.

Prudence tells us to work diligently to get the facts and learn how to interpret them. One obvious method involves checking multiple reliable sources. But, of course, we disagree about what counts as a reliable source, which is the present predicament.

The president tells us not to trust the news media. But is the president trustworthy? The Washington Post reports that President Trump has made over 16,000 false or misleading statements since taking office. Trump calls that fake news. The polarization of information makes critical thinking more difficult.

This is not a new problem. There never was a time when people agreed about the facts or about who counts as an expert. The apostles believed Jesus was a resurrected messiah. Others thought this was fake news. And the Bible’s doubting Thomas demanded direct evidence.

In addition to gathering evidence and gaining expertise, we need to think about the burden of proof. The more the risk, the more the need for proof. If there is a risk of a deadly disease, you ought to take precautions, especially if those precautions are minimally invasive. If more hand washing prevents a pandemic, then let’s all wash our hands. But when it comes to cancellations and quarantines, the risk assessment becomes complicated. At some point, a leap of faith is required.

This is difficult and frustrating. But life is a series of decisions made without certainty. And at least we are free to make these decisions for ourselves. It’s a sign of our freedom that even the authorities disagree with each other. In ancient Athens, they killed people like Socrates who questioned authority.

Today, there are no undisputed authorities, in politics, religion, love, or life. There is no secret revelation that will cure a doubting Thomas. And there is no magic safety net to save us from bad decisions. We are on our own. It’s up to us to develop the knowledge to solve our problems — and the wisdom to think critically about what we believe and who we trust.

Don’t Panic

Fresno Bee, March 8, 2020

A virus spreads. The stock market tumbles. Store shelves clear. People are freaking out. The best advice for times like this is: don’t panic.

Panic undermines clear thinking and makes things worse. Luckily, the cure is well known. Get the facts. Seek a broader perspective. Focus on what is under your own control. Develop habits of calmness and self-control. And acknowledge that sickness and death are part of life.

The word “panic” comes from the name of the Greek god Pan, a feral god who haunted the wild places. Pan was the god of the nightmare and the uncanny. Pan would terrify and possess people, causing panic.

One solution is to stop believing in such superstitions. The wilderness is not haunted. Gods cannot possess us. Nor is the coronavirus sign of the Apocalypse, as some preachers have suggested. And while some Christians called for a global day of prayer to stop the coronavirus, what we really need is a vaccine, better hygiene, and a robust system of public health.

The ancient philosopher, Epicurus, offered a simple cure for panic. He told us not to worry about the gods. They are busy keeping the universe in motion. They have no interest in harming us.

But if we are going to pray, we might pray for wisdom and tranquility. This is what Socrates would have prayed for. In fact, at one point Socrates offered a prayer to Pan himself. He asked the god for integrity of soul. As Socrates put it, “grant me a beautiful soul in which the inner and outer self are united as one.”

A beautiful soul is stable and secure. It is at one with itself. It dwells in the company of truth. It is moderate and self-possessed. And it is resistant to panic.

The philosopher Seneca said the best way to prevent panic is to understand it. You need to understand that when “the habit of blind panic” takes over, the mind runs away with itself.

When we are not prepared for fear and hardship, panic strikes. Seneca explains, “the unprepared are panic-stricken even at the most trifling things.” And when uncontrollable and “witless” panic arrives, things get worse. Seneca’s solution is to adopt a larger point of view that puts life, death, and panic itself in proper perspective.

It is uncertainty that keeps us on edge. The fear that occurs out in the wilderness is like the fear of the dark. We’re not sure what’s lurking out there. That’s why knowledge helps. There is nothing in the dark that is not also there in the light.

It also helps to understand that fear is natural and has a purpose. There is a tightness in the belly and shallow breathing. We scan the environment looking for threats. This is the flight or fight instinct ready to go. If a threat emerges, the body is ready to react.

But this can get out of control, especially when everyone else is on edge. Panic is contagious. We sense the anxiety of our neighbor. If even a minor spark lights the fuse of anxiety, the herd erupts into a frenzied stampede.

This is why solitude is helpful. Peace of mind is easier to find if you keep your distance from the crowd. One easy way to prevent panic is to turn off your television and stay off social media.

But for some people, solitude causes panic. There is the fear of missing out and the depressing dread of loneliness. True solitude is not lonely. It is peaceful and centered, a way of finding yourself at home in the world.

Finally, the philosophers teach that we must understand that death, loss, and injury are common. Tornadoes, earthquakes, and deadly diseases have always existed. They always will. Something will eventually kill each of us. No one gets out of this life alive.

When we come to terms with our own mortality, panic gives way to acceptance. To live well is not to fearfully cling to life. This moment will not last long. So why waste it on worry? Life is not measured in length but in depth. The shallow panting of panic prevents us from breathing deeply and living well.

Leap Year: Make Meaning Out of Time

Fresno Bee, March 1, 2020

Leap year reminds us of the importance of science and math. It is also an opportunity to ponder the meaning of time.

Our calendars don’t line up with the way the solar system works. We divide the year into 365 days. But our journey around the sun takes approximately 365.25 days.

So we add a day every four years. And since the discrepancy is not precise, we make further adjustments. 2000 was a leap year. But 2100, if we live that long, will not be.

Time measurement was originally a political and religious prerogative. The calendar reflects ancient religious ideas. The days of the week are named after pagan gods. Sunday belongs to the Sun. Saturday is for Saturn. Wednesday is Wotan’s day. Thursday is Thor’s day.

Political meaning is also woven in. July is named for Julius Caesar. August is named for Augustus. The holiday calendar is both religious and political. It includes President’s Day as well as Easter. These are days for civic duty and worship.

But religious and political authority give way to science when it comes to leap year. We trust that the astronomers did the math right. Maybe we should trust science on other issues—such as climate change and public health.

But science can only observe and calculate the passage of time. It cannot determine its meaning. What is the point, after all, of measuring time?

We measure to make meaning. Quantity matters. We ask how much, how many, and how long? The sciences are useful here. Economics quantifies time and money. Medical science advises about how much to eat and how long to exercise.

But science cannot answer the questions of why and what for. These are questions of quality. The doctors can help us live longer. But what is the point of a long life? The economists can help us make money. But what should we buy?

Eventually, the question of quality overshadows the question of quantity. We know that our days are numbered. But what shall we do with those days to make them worth living?

Science cannot say. To find an answer we turn to politics and religion, as well as poetry and philosophy. The question of quality takes us far beyond science.

Perhaps we should fill our time with love and beauty. Some argue that love transcends time. Shakespeare said that love is “not time’s fool.” It remains like a fixed star across the tempest of time.

Shakespeare saw time as a “bloody tyrant.” “Time’s pencil” scribbles on our faces. “Devouring time” makes war on beauty. Summer fades, roses die, and youth succumbs to “swift-footed time.”

For Shakespeare, love and art provide a glimpse of immortality, lifting us out of the flow of time. Art preserves youthful beauty in the eternal present, forever young and glowing. What should we do with our time? Shakespeare suggests we make love and make art.

A different suggestion is found in Plato and in Aristotle. They say that wisdom lifts us beyond the ravages of time. When we contemplate truth, we touch the eternal. What should we do with our time, according to the philosophers? They suggest we pursue wisdom.

Other poets and philosophers tell us that since our days are numbered, we should seize the day. Thoreau said that killing time does injury to eternity. We should make no compromise with time but live fully in each precious moment. To be here, now, immersed in nature’s wonder is another way to savor our constantly dwindling supply of days.

We seem to have wandered far from leap year. But we have actually circled back. When we discover that the calendar is a man-made, a kind of liberation dawns. If the year can be made to leap, then so can we.

Leap year reminds us that time is something we measure for our own purposes. Science shows that the sun and the seasons are fixed by natural laws. But the poets and philosophers teach that time is ours to enjoy. It is not merely a tyrant, as Shakespeare warned. It is also a gift that affords us the opportunity to make love, to make art, and to make meaning.

Lessons from the Inca Trail about Wonder, Gratitude, and Nature

Searching for wonder in the reality of nature

Fresno Bee, July 29, 2018

Modern human beings are alienated from nature. We live in air-conditioned rooms. We relate to higher things through dry, ancient books. We rarely see the stars or feel the rain. We are rootless.

I have been thinking about our alienation from nature after trekking through the Andes of Peru. The trek ran over high mountain passes, where we endured freezing rain and cold, windy nights. We witnessed wild jungles and wandering llamas. And we celebrated the blessing of sunshine, which gave us warmth and the rainbow.

Our guide paused at the entrance to Machu Picchu to give an offering. He gathered three coca leaves into a shape that represents the mountains. He presented this gift to each of the four directions. He left the coca in a secret niche at the Sun Gate.

It made sense to give thanks to the mountains, to the elements and to the coca that made our journey possible. Coca tea helps fight altitude sickness. Its salutary effect is a kind of magic. There is also magic in the sun’s heat, the river’s song, and the rainbow’s glow.

fiala pix.jpg
Machu Picchu, the Incan citadel set high in the Andes Mountains in Peru. Andrew Fiala Special to The Bee

Religion in its best and original sense comes from the sense of wonder before the power of nature. It reminds us that we belong to the earth. We cannot live without land, water, and sun. These elements combine in the plants and animals that nurture us.

Nature is not all ease and comfort. Forest fires are rampaging in this long hot summer. Snow, rain, and cold are dangerous and difficult. But when the rains come or the sun breaks through, we give thanks.

In aboriginal Andean religion, the earth is a spiritual being called Pachamama, the earth mother. The mountains themselves are spiritual beings called Apus. These are powerful and mercurial beings. They can be dangerous or benevolent. To modern ears, this sounds far-fetched. But many cultures speak of mountains as divinities with personalities.

We still name mountains and understand their personas. In Yosemite there is Half Dome and El Capitan. Their presence is palpable. We also recognize that mountains do things. Climbers and backpackers have a saying: “Mountains make their own weather.” Temperatures change quickly. The wind comes on strong. Fire, rain, and snow are sudden in their appearance.

Modern science explains the orographic effect. Mountains interact with moving air masses. Changes in elevation cause changes in temperature that cause precipitation and swirling winds. Mountain weather is easily explained by atmospheric science.

But scientific explanation does not touch the lived sense that mountains are powerful beings. It makes sense to say that the mountains are angry or friendly. Thunder and lightning are threatening. Forest fires are malicious. Floods are cruel. Gentle blue skies and cool mountain streams are gracious and hospitable.

Much of the magic of nature is local. The sun is wrathful in the desert. It is cheerful in the cold high places. The rain is gentle in the valleys. It is vicious at 13,000 feet.

Those who live and work on the land are in touch with the personality of their local geography. Their livelihood comes from Pachamama. Their well-being depends upon the benevolence of the Apus.

There are very few farmers and shepherds left. We are no longer connected to nature.; we no longer belong to her. We do not know where our water and food come from.

The benefit of civilization is obvious. We dam the rivers and control the fires. We farm on an industrial scale. We drive and fly, instead of walking. We live in comfort and safety.

But this benefit is not without its costs. We are uprooted and dislocated. We lose track of who we are and where we belong. We no longer experience wonder or gratitude in their original organic sense.

This is not to say that we could go back to a world of Apus and the Pachamama. The world has moved on. But it is important to remember what we have left behind. We fill our lives with imitations of reality, flickering on screens. Out there in the natural world, the fires and storms still rage. And it is still possible to experience wonder, fear, and joy in the presence of the real.

Lessons about Politics from The Fall of the Inca

Is Russian interference in election the latest example of history repeating itself?

Fresno Bee, July 22, 2018

 

The story of the fall of the Incan empire is a cautionary tale, teaching that great empires can be destroyed by a small group of unscrupulous actors. It is worth considering this as we reflect upon the Russian hack of the American election of 2016.

Americans are at one another’s throats. Some have accused the president of treason. Others are in denial. With a few technological tricks, the hackers have succeeded in destabilizing our democracy.

History is full of sneak attacks, including Pearl Harbor and 9/11. But the attack on the Inca in 1532 by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro may be the most monumental.

Pizarro had only 180 men when he arranged to meet with the Inca emperor Atahualpa in the heart of Incan territory in the town of Cajamarca. Atahualpa arrived with a small entourage, leaving his army of 80,000 men outside the town. He expected a diplomatic exchange. Pizarro’s men were concealed in the town, waiting in ambush.

Pizarro and the Death of the Inca by Luis Montero

A Dominican priest presented the Inca with a Bible, demanding that he convert. Atahualpa threw the Bible to the ground. Pizarro’s men emerged from their hiding places. Spanish gunpowder and steel overwhelmed the Inca forces.

Pizzaro captured Atahualpa and held him for ransom. A large ransom of gold and silver was paid. But Pizarro murdered Atahualpa anyway. The empire soon fell.

I am writing this from Cuzco, Peru. This beautiful mountain town was the capital of the Incan empire. Ancient walls still exist as a forlorn testament to Incan power. The Incan empire was one of the largest in human history. It extended along the spine of South America, from Ecuador to Chile. Today only ruins remain.

From the standpoint of the Inca, the Spanish were foreign terrorists. They arrived uninvited on the shores of America. They brought new diseases. They demanded conversion to a strange religion. They stole vast quantities of gold and silver. And in the battle of Cajamarca, they violated the norms of diplomacy by ambushing and capturing the king. They even violated the ransom agreement.

Lesson to be learned

The lesson here is that devious and ruthless violence can decapitate a naïve power. The Inca seemed to be so sure of their power that they did not take the Spanish threat seriously. That is why Atahualpa walked into the ambush. Atahualpa’s demise is a warning against hubris.

The Inca failed to believe that the Spanish would have the audacity and immorality to do what they did. Nor were the Inca prepared for the new weapons and technologies that the Spanish possessed. The Spanish took advantage of Incan complacency.

History shows that all empires fall. Through the conquest of the Americas, Spain created one of the largest empires on earth. But the Spanish empire eventually fell. So too did the British Empire. And the Soviet Union. No power lasts forever, especially if it is not vigilant.

About that Russian interference

This brings us back to Russian interference in the U.S. election. The American democratic system depends upon the integrity of the electoral system. If citizens do not trust this system, it will fail.

But a small, technologically advanced group of foreign agents effectively ambushed our democracy. We are more divided than ever. And the biggest threat is that some are still in denial about the threat to our democracy.

The violence and weapons are different in the present case than in the fall of the Inca. But the common threads are the audacity of the attack, the use of new technology, and the strategy of assailing the heart of the empire. In the Inca case, you capture the king. In the current case, you undermine citizens faith in the electoral system and the integrity of our leaders.

History never repeats itself exactly. But there are lessons to be learned. The Spanish played dirty in Peru. They were sneaky and merciless. They broke their promises. And they won.

The solution is vigilance and overcoming hubris. Atahualpa should not have trusted Pizarro. If he were less assured of his power, he might have avoided the ambush. If he had avoided the trap or taken effective countermeasures, Pizarro would have failed. And in Cuzco today the walls might still support Inca temples instead of the Catholic churches built upon them.

The World is Getting Smaller

We’re growing closer. For proof, check out World Cup rosters and McDonald’s in Peru

Fresno Bee, July 12, 2018

The world is more integrated than ever. Consider how far we have come. A hundred years ago Europe was at war, colonial power still existed, racism was legal, and women were not allowed to vote.

Progress is never guaranteed. There are danger signs, as trade wars develop and old alliances are threatened. But it is difficult to imagine a return to the bad old days of colonialism, militarism, and legal discrimination.

I’m writing this from Lima, Peru, where I am participating in the biannual congress of the International Society for Universal Dialogue. This conference includes scholars from a variety of countries, who come together to talk about the prospect for developing a more just and humane world.

This organization began at the end of the Cold War to bring scholars together from East and West. It has evolved to become a global conference that includes speakers from all continents, religions, genders, and races.

The World Cup has been playing in the background as we meet. Throughout the city of Lima, football fans congregate in small cafes and bars to watch the games. Peru lost its opportunity in the qualifying rounds. But World Cup fever predominates. Sport is a unifying force.

The semifinals were an all-European affair featuring Belgium, Croatia, England, and France. Europeans invented this game. But South America teams also excel, while Asia and Africa are catching up.

The French team includes a number of players with African heritage. Our small world is mixed and integrated in ways that would have been unimaginable 100 years ago. Old-school ethnic nationalism has become absurd.

Europeans and Americans still dominate the globe as a result of prior colonial power. Economic globalization often means domination by European and American corporations. Coca-Cola and Budweiser are World Cup sponsors. But so, too, are Qatar Airways and Hyundai.

This economic mixing is apparent in Peru. Lima has McDonald’s, Starbucks and KFC. But there are also Chinese restaurants, French patisseries and Sushi bars alongside the local cuisine.

McDonald's_Surco,_Lima,_Peru
On Ethics columnist Andrew Fiala is attending a conference in Lima, Peru, where he notes an economic mixing. Lima has McDonald’s, Starbucks and KFC. But there are also Chinese restaurants, French patisseries and Sushi bars alongside the local cuisine.

On the drive from the Lima airport, huge signs welcome Pope Francis who visited Peru in January. Francis is from Argentina, which is another sign of the times. He is the first Latin American pontiff.

When the Pope was in Peru he pointed out that there was much work to be done to build a just and humane world. There are slums in Lima and poverty in Peru. Political corruption is a problem. As is violence, racism and intolerance.

But we are making progress. And the way forward must include a continued commitment to those universal values that unite us. Science and scholarship are already global. Scholars are united around shared principles of reason and evidence.

After long decades of outright discrimination against women in the academy, women are now invited to the table. So too are scholars and scientists from the developing world. We can build upon that spirit of inclusion.

We can also build upon the values found in sport. These include ideas about fair play and sportsmanship. Athletic excellence is recognized as a value that transcends race, nationality and gender.

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President Donald Trump casts a shadow on a wall at a news conference following the NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday, July 12, 2018. Trump strongly recommitted American support for the alliance on Thursday, declaring, “I believe in NATO.” (Doug Mills/The New York Times) DOUG MILLS NYT

Not everyone is happy with globalization. President Trump’s “America First” agenda points in a different direction. So too does the British “Brexit.”

But the American tariff war and the difficulty of pulling off a clean Brexit show us how integrated the world has become. It is not possible to build a wall, flood the moat, and pull up the bridges.

Our world is too interrelated to disentangle the forces of progress. The French soccer team is not going to purge itself of its African players. Women are not going to give up their place in the voting booth or in the academy. And Sushi is here to stay in Peru.

The political news is often grim. But tune in to the World Cup – or visit another country – and you’ll see a common and hopeful humanity. There are kind, generous and hard-working people everywhere. Most of us understand that the present is better than the past. We do not want to return to racism, sexism and militarism. And we understand that there is much work to be done to build a more just and equitable future.