On the Importance of Looking Up

The new Netflix film “Don’t Look Up” has a lot of people talking.  It is a black comedy, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, and Jennifer Lawrence. It’s about corporate greed, bureaucratic incompetence, and the apocalypse.  Its bleak conclusion gets you thinking about the dangers of power, narcissism, and willful ignorance. 

The movie’s fans see it as a cautionary allegory about climate change, science denial, and clueless amateurs running the government.  Some worry that its gloomy ending may encourage despair.  Others hope it will be a call to action. 

Reviews of the film reflect our polarization.  Conservatives claim it is another example of Hollywood preaching a liberal gospel.  One critic in the National Review suggested it is the worst film of 2021.  He lambasted is as a “better-than-you comedy” that “reveals the nastiness of liberals.”  Another critic in the Washington Examiner said it was a “lazy anti-Trump comedy.” 

More subtle criticism came from New York Magazine, where a sympathetic commentator accused the film of oversimplifying the climate crisis.  He said liberals “need to stop telling themselves self-flattering fairy tales.”

I suppose the point is that we are all in this together.  Narcissism and stupidity cross party lines.  Hollywood is part of the problem.  The film seems to recognize this.  It shows how the cult of celebrity corrupts everyone, even the neurotic scientist played by DiCaprio. 

At any rate, this is an allegory, not a documentary.  Allegories simplify reality. They tell memorable stories that get people talking.  In this regard, the film succeeds.  It provokes conversations about life, death, politics, and American culture. 

This conversation should extend to the very idea of “looking up.”  The film’s title calls to mind Plato’s famous “allegory of the cave.”  In Plato story, we are prisoners chained in a cave.  We are not permitted to turn around and see reality.  Even when we are set free, most of us refuse to turn around. Plato suggests the masses would go so far as to kill truth-tellers and educators, who like Socrates are trying to get us to look up.

Plato’s allegory is about willful ignorance. Plato warns that most people don’t want to know the truth.  We deliberately choose not to look up.  We are happy with our illusions.  We don’t want to confront reality.  We keep our heads down, preferring slavery over enlightenment.

In the film, this idea becomes the slogan of the political party led by Streep’s character, President Orleans.  The party encourages people not to look up at the comet hurtling toward earth.  This is a parody of our culture’s struggle with science denial, “fake news,” and “alternative facts.”  It also implies authoritarianism.  “Don’t look up” also means “mind your own business” and don’t criticize the elites.

The philosophical solution to all of this is the pursuit of wisdom.  We ought to look up.  It won’t be easy or comfortable.  We may discover things that confuse us or make us unhappy.  But it is better to live in the light than in the darkness.

One of the questions raised by the film is whether you would want to know how and when you are going to die.  The scientists in the film know the exact time of the apocalypse.  And there is a supercomputer using big data to predict how people will die. 

What would you do with this knowledge?  Would knowledge of your death cause despair?  Would you prefer to remain in ignorance about your death?

A modest hopeful appears toward the end of the film when DiCaprio’s character responds to knowledge of his death by changing his life.  He refutes the computer’s prediction about his death, thereby reclaiming some modest dignity.

This is the kind of dignity that knowledge provides.  When we look up and confront reality, we can take charge of how we live and how we die.  To live in ignorance is to live as a prisoner.  The truth sets us free. 

Knowing the truth won’t change the indifferent reality of the cosmos.  Knowing the truth won’t stop a comet or cure you of Covid.  But knowledge allows us to live responsibly and, if necessary, to die with dignity.  It is tempting in a crisis to bury our heads in the sand.  But wisdom is only available to those who look up.

January 6: American Democracy and the Challenge of Tyranny

Fresno Bee, January 9, 2022

The American political system remains in crisis, one year after the Jan. 6 riot. A recent poll shows that 40% of Americans believe that the 2020 election was illegitimate. The same poll indicates that a majority of us fear the future will bring more political violence.

This is alarming. But polarization and distrust are par for the course in the American system. This dysfunction is a feature of the system, and not a bug. Conflict was hard-wired into a system that was set up to safeguard against tyranny.

I explore this idea in more detail in my forthcoming book, “Tyranny from Plato to Trump.” The American founders were focused on preventing tyranny. They were less interested in efficiency than in preventing the consolidation of power.

The question of whether our system is working depends upon what we think this system is supposed to be doing. If we think the government is supposed to respond to the will of the majority, we will be disappointed. But if we think that the American system is intended to prevent tyranny, then the virtue of its dysfunctional design becomes apparent.

The problem of tyranny is an ancient one. In the ancient world, political power was often consolidated in the hands of a strongman. Sophocles warned against the hubris of Oedipus. Plato warned that tyrants were predators who preyed upon their own people.

The American founders studied ancient philosophy and literature. They accused the British king of behaving tyrannically. When they set up the American system of government, they were interested in preventing tyranny by establishing the Constitution’s separation of powers. James Madison defined tyranny as the “accumulation of all powers” in the “same hands.” The solution is a system in which divided powers limit each other. As Madison put it, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

The good news about the American system is that its checks and balances worked to prevent Donald Trump from consolidating power. Local officials refused to comply with Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election. The House impeached the lame duck president. The courts provided independent confirmation of the integrity of the election. Members of Congress certified the election, led by Vice President Mike Pence. And when the Capitol was assaulted by an angry mob, those insurrectionists were arrested, put on trial and convicted.

All of this is part of a slow and messy process. This is the way the American system is designed to work. It moves slowly and incrementally. It is not easy for a strongman to take control in this system and purge his enemies. Nor is it easy for democratic majorities to enact radical change. There is too much friction built into the system for quick and radical solutions.

Some people don’t like this sluggish system. Some long for a nimble system that can react quickly to emergencies. A number of people even seem to desire a savior who would ride to the rescue with a flaming sword.

But the people’s desire for a savior can be exploited by would-be tyrants. In response to emergencies, the people are often willing to sacrifice ethics in the name of expedience.

History teaches us that there are no saviors. It shows us that when power is concentrated, corruption is sure to follow. Atrocities occur when reaction outpaces rationality.

The U.S. Constitution is not perfect. It was flawed at the start, since it permitted slavery. A civil war was fought to eliminate that peculiar form of tyranny. Other corrections and improvements followed.

It took centuries to improve this system. More work remains to be done. One obvious problem is the inordinate power of small states. Citizens of small states such as Wyoming and Rhode Island have much more representational power than citizens of California. And citizens of Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico have no real representation.

We ought to continue to improve the system. But this is tedious work. Progress will be slow in coming. And there will be no perfect result.

This will bother those who dream of utopia. But utopias do not exist. The human condition does not permit perfection. There are no political saviors. And the dream of a savior can easily become a tyrannical nightmare.

New Year’s Resolution: Live as an Adult

We live in a childish age.  This is an era of immediate gratification, temper tantrums, and short attention spans.  It’s time to grow up.  Here’s an idea for a new year’s resolution: let’s live like adults.

This is an ancient resolution.  In the Second Century, the philosopher Epictetus said “Grow up!  Stop behaving like a child.”  Now is the time to get serious.  “The Olympic games are now,” he said.  Stop procrastinating and start living a good life. 

But it is easy to mope and whine like spoiled children.  We are childish when we expect the world to satisfy our wishes.  The truth is that reality does not conform to your egoistic expectations.

It is difficult to be an adult.  There are bills to pay and work to be done.  There are battles to be fought and losses to be endured.  Adults understand that life is difficult and that it takes hard work.  Adults do their duty.  They avoid self-indulgence and ingratitude. 

Adults also understand that nothing lasts forever.  They prepare for death, realizing that everyone dies and that the world imposes significant limits upon what we can achieve.

The word adult has an intriguing etymology.  It comes from a Latin word for growth, related to the word adolescence.  An adolescent is one who is growing.  An adult has completed that process. 

To be an adult is to be ripe and mature.  Fruit also ripens.  Each creature has its own path of maturation and completion.  The playful puppy becomes a dog who hunts, defends, and stays loyal to its pack.  The sapling grows through several seasons until it produces flowers and fruit.

To be mature is to have reached the final stage of development.  It implies a sense of completion and fulfillment.  Maturity depends on what we take as the essence of the thing that is ripening. 

In our culture, we tend to think that the human essence is defined by liberty and license.  They key coming-of-age milestones in our culture are about the freedom to consume.  At age 21, we gain the freedom to drink alcohol, smoke pot (in California anyway), and gamble.  There are other milestones.  At 16, you can drive a car.  At 18, you can vote. 

It is a sad world in which the entry into adulthood is marked by your ability to buy beer.  Perhaps this is why we often fail to grow up.  In our culture, too many adults are focused on consumption, sensual indulgence, and self-satisfaction.

The philosophical tradition has a different notion of the human essence.  This idea holds that to be fully human is to develop wisdom and virtue.  Adolescents are not yet virtuous or wise.  But adults have ripened to the point at which wisdom and virtue are possible.  This is not about liberty and consumption.  Rather, it is about self-restraint and obedience to the moral law.  Adults know how to control their bodily urges.  They also understand that there are duties and obligations that must be fulfilled. 

At what age does wisdom and virtue become possible? 

Plato suggested that at around age 50 people had the capacity to rule themselves (and others) wisely.  The U.S. Constitution holds that you have to be 25 to run for the House, 30 to run for Senate, and 35 to run for President.

Of course, age is merely a number on a calendar.  Some young people are wiser than their parents.  And some old people are foolish.  The point is to grow up. 

The poet Horace once said: “To begin is only half the battle.  Now is the time for the audacity of wisdom.  Begin!” Horace was referring to a timid animal standing beside a river, waiting for the water to stop flowing for its chance to cross.  We might picture this as a juvenile, waiting for its chance to jump into the flow of life.

But the river stands still for no one.  The point is to take the plunge and get going.

So here is a philosophical new year’s resolution: let’s resolve to be adults.  That means we should be audacious in the pursuit of wisdom.  We should overcome childish self-indulgence.  And we should get to work on being good. 

Practice gratitude and live a grateful life

Fresno Bee, December 26, 2021

The holiday season encourages us to practice gratitude. One way to lean into gratitude is to celebrate the lost art of writing thank-you notes. A good thank-you is more than a text message saying “Thanx.”

I learned this from the women in my life who are role models of gracious gratitude. My grandmothers always sent handwritten cards and notes. My mother’s artful cursive gives style to her thank-yous. My wife writes lots of thoughtful thank-you notes.

We forced our children to put pen to paper after Christmas and birthdays. They seem to have learned the art of saying thanks. As young adults, they write heartfelt expressions of gratitude.

This little ritual is an ethical and spiritual practice. It is important to take time out and really think about what you are grateful for.

Gratitude is often in short supply in an impatient world. Envy, anger, and other negative emotions can undermine the spirit of gratitude. And sometimes we get grumpy, even about the need to write a thank-you note.

The good news is that in expressing gratitude, grumpiness dissolves. Positive virtues are often developed by a kind of “fake it until you make it” contrivance. Even if you are not feeling particularly thankful, the emptiness of the blank page forces you to conjure up some gratitude.

Giving thanks is an important social ritual. You are expected to say thanks in certain situations. When the server brings the meal, you say thanks. After a job interview, you ought to write an email saying thanks. And so on.

Parents ask their kids, “What do you say?” in response to Grandma’s gift. The child knows that the correct answer is “Thanks, Grandma.” This compliant response to a parent’s prompting is an important start. But it is not yet gratitude.

Gratitude is deeper than saying thanks.

That’s where a thoughtful thank-you note plays a role. A decent thank-you note should have at least three sentences. First, you say what you are thankful for. Then you explain why you are thankful. Finally, you express good wishes toward the person you are thanking. By the time you’ve written those three sentences, the spark of gratitude may be kindled.

That’s why a hand-written note is better than a texted “Thx.” Mechanical expressions of thanks have little to do with gratitude. Pre-printed thank-yous often arrive in our inboxes, in response to charitable donations, bill payments, and the like. Sometimes they even arrive in response to wedding gifts or graduation gifts.

A mechanical thank-you acknowledges a gift or payment. The note lets you know that the check was not lost in the mail. But acknowledgement is not gratitude.

Gratitude is an expression of heartfelt gladness. It is not simply a receipt. It is also an appreciation. The word “appreciate” has the word “precious” concealed within it. Genuine gratitude involves reflecting on what you appreciate.

Philosophers have thought about gratitude for thousands of years. The Stoic philosopher Seneca suggested that true gratitude is not simply mechanical or self-interested. Ritual thankfulness occurs in religion and in business. This is often a superficial formula without thought.

Even worse, there are people who ingratiate themselves with sweet talk. Gratitude can be used to manipulate and take advantage. Slick salesmen express gratitude while picking our pockets. True gratitude is not like that at all. Rather, it is linked to generosity, friendship, and love.

Seneca also suggested that a good life should be imbued with a spirit of gratitude. He said, “we wish to depart from human life as full of gratitude as possible.”

A good life would be one in which envy and resentment give way to gratitude. To live well is to be grateful for this moment and this life. We should live in such a way that when the end comes, we can be grateful.

In the new year, then, let’s resolve to be less resentful and more grateful. One way to do that is to put pen to paper and write an old fashioned thank-you note. This reminds us of the generosity and good will of our friends and relations. It spreads goodwill by letting other people know that we appreciate them. And it encourages us to count our blessings, even in the dark of winter.

Defusing Covid Anxiety and Climate Worry

Fresno Bee, December 19, 2021

COVID restrictions are coming back. And climate change is wreaking havoc. It is easy to get depressed.

New categories of psychological affliction have appeared. Worries about the climate generate “eco-anxiety” and “ecological grief.” And “COVID anxiety syndrome” has emerged. A recent New York Times column maintains that COVID anxiety is plaguing the globe.

Political dysfunction contributes to despair. The scientists know what we ought to do. But politics prevents us from doing it. Vaccines and masks are refused. And the oil pushers keep us addicted to fossil fuels.

Growing anxiety is especially hard on young people. A new UC Berkeley grad was recently quoted as saying that health crises and climate catastrophes have led her to not want children. She said, “it would be wrong to bring someone into that chaos, without their consent.” I’ve heard similar sentiments from my students.

This is a sad result. Young people are typically a source of optimism and energy. But today’s youth are afraid of the future.

In response, we might point out that the future has always been scary. My generation grew up during the Cold War. Many of us expected nuclear winter to destroy life on earth. Nuclear weapons remain an ominous threat to humanity. But as you grow older, you learn that each generation has its crises.

You also learn that solutions to big problems require painstaking and tenacious effort. Social change does not happen overnight. The American revolution lasted seven years. It took another four score and seven years to abolish slavery. We are still working on racism and inequality.

Realizing that history moves slowly can alleviate angst. A culture of instant gratification fuels anxiety. If we don’t get what we want, we freak out. But history is not like DoorDash. It moves at its own pace.

Patience is especially important when dealing with epidemics and diseases. Colds and flus have to run their course. Immunity takes time to develop. It helps to know that prior pandemics were not cured overnight. The Spanish flu epidemic of the early 20th century blazed for at least two years. The Black Plague ravaged humanity for decades in the middle of the 14th century. It continued to recur for centuries.

The Earth’s climate unfolds across even larger time scales. The Earth was once covered with ice. At other times, it was much hotter. What’s “normal” for us is not what’s normal for the Earth.

Humans thrive under present conditions. But homo sapiens only emerged a few hundred thousand years ago. Our species will go extinct, like most other species. That’s just the way it goes. It doesn’t help to fret about it.

But it does help to recall how resilient and adaptable we are. Our ancestors left the warmth of Africa and migrated across the globe. When we encountered cold climates, we invented clothing and furnaces. When we settled in hot, dry places, we invented irrigation and air conditioning. We’ve visited the ocean’s depths, Mount Everest, and the moon. We also invented vaccines and solar panels.

We’ll adapt to COVID-19 and to the changing climate. Yet those adaptations are at the level of the species. Our individual choices matter for our personal survival. But evolution does not care about our individual choices. So don’t waste too much energy worrying about the survival of humanity or civilization.

In general, it’s wise to stop fretting. It is not healthy to dwell on disaster or ruminate on impending doom. The ancient Stoics advise us to stop worrying about things that are not in our control. The climate, the pandemic, the political world, and the course of history are simply not up to me.

This does not mean we should stop being prudent. Choose wisely with regard to your own body and behavior. Wear a mask. And get vaccinated. But stop fretting about other people’s choices. And lower your expectations about a return to “normal,” whatever that is.