The Problem of Protesting at People’s Homes

Protesters have targeted the private homes of public officials.  This is dangerous and misguided.  It risks violence and misunderstands political power and political protest.

In Idaho last month, after a woman was arrested for protesting COVID-19 restrictions, activists protested at the home of the cop who arrested her.  Last week in Fresno, California, anti-stay-at-homers protested at the apartment of a city council member and at the home of the mayor.  Also last week, a protest was planned at the home of California’s governor. 

There is symbolic value in protesting “stay-at-home” orders at the homes of public officials.  And people have a right to protest on sidewalks and city streets.  But these protests primarily seek to intimidate public officials.  And they are often merely opportunistic.  The Sacramento protesters explained this in a Facebook discussion.  One of the governor’s neighbors said the protesters should protest at the state capital.  An activist replied, “They won’t allow us to protest at the Capital…that’s the whole point of this.”

But a defiant protest at the Capital would be much more impactful, especially if the protesters got arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights.  In fact, 32 protestors were recently arrested in Sacramento for doing just that. 

Courting arrest is the point of civil disobedience as Thoreau explained, in his influential essay on civil disobedience.  When the law is unjust you should disobey it, Thoreau said, and willingly go to jail.  He wrote, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is in prison.”

This idea influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  The point of civil disobedience is to break unjust laws civilly and justly.  To be jailed for doing the right thing draws attention to the injustice of the law and the system that executes it. 

But protesting at the homes of public officials does not accomplish this systematic goal.  By focusing on the private homes of public officials, the legal system is ignored, which is where the real power lies.  Individual officials do not make laws, systems do. 

Some public officials may in fact disagree, in private, with the policies they execute in public.  But their duty is to execute the law.  The Idaho cop didn’t make the law.  He only enforced it.  Don’t protest the cop. Protest the law.

Mayors and governors have more power and discretion.  But they are not dictators.  They inhabit a bureaucratic system.  That’s why the proper place to protest is at city hall or the state capital.  Protesting where systems of power reside draws attention to policy problems.

A similar mistake is made by anti-Trumpers who have assailedTrump staff and cabinet member at restaurants and other non-official places.  But a person at a restaurant is not acting in an official capacity.  Politicians, of whatever stripe, have a right to be off-duty.

The tendency to personalize the political reflects our growing inability to distinguish between public and private.  Privacy has eroded in the era of social media and a 24-7 work-world.  Folks who lack a sense of privacy don’t appreciate the distinction between public roles and private persons serving in those roles.  But without that distinction everything becomes political and nothing remains of private life.  When the distinction between policy and personality is effaced, life becomes more polarized and less civil.

Finally, let’s note that protests at private homes are strategically misguided.  Such protests tend to turn off potential sympathizers.  The goal of political protest should be to generate outrage and empathy among possible supporters.  But a protest at a home or at a restaurant defeats that purpose by making the protestors appear to be vindictive bullies.  Public protests and civil disobedience are more effective at persuading others to see the justice of one’s cause.

Peeved protesters may get a thrill from demonstrating at a politician’ domicile.  But their anger is misdirected.  The official at home is not the problem. Rather the problem is what happens when the official is at work.  These protesters would be more effective if they were informed by the history civil disobedience and by a more systematic conception of political power. 

To Mask or Not to Mask

To mask or not to mask

The CDC has called for Americans to wear masks.  But some people still don’t get it.  Donald Trump refused to wear a mask when he visited a mask factory this week.  “Live and Let Die” blared in the background. 

Mask-wearing is an ethical no-brainer.  If masks help us avoid further outbreaks and quarantines, we ought to wear them.  Masks also show respect for vulnerable service workers like clerks and cashiers who must daily confront the wheezing masses.  And by slowing the contagion we support nurses and doctors overwhelmed by the sick and dying. 

A mask is a symbol of solidarity and compassion.  It says to other people that you care enough about them to try to prevent them from getting sick.  New York governor Andrew Cuomo said, “You know how you show love?  By wearing a mask.” 

But masks have become a polarizing symbol.  According to a recent poll, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to wear them.  Those with more education are more likely to wear masks.  Black Americans are more likely to wear them than whites.

Skeptics and libertarians have warned that masks are a sign of government overreach and even tyranny.  Officials in Oklahoma and Ohio backed away from mandatory masking after public outcry.  In Flint, Michigan, a security guard was murdered for trying to enforce a mask requirement.

One Ohio lawmaker, Nino Vitale, went so far as to declare that his Christian faith prohibits him from wearing a mask.  He said that God made us in His image and that to cover the face is to obscure the visage of God.

Some backlash is understandable.  People don’t like to be told what to do.  But most don’t bristle at similar regulations such as “no shirt, no shoes, no service.”  When the national anthem plays, people take their hats off.  Kids can’t wear racist, gang, or drug-oriented clothes to school. 

And of course, public nudity is prohibited.  Although even this is contentious.  Men go topless.  But women may not.  Some women have protested against this double-standard

Perhaps the libertarian backlash against masks should extend to a refusal to wear clothes.  One could even imagine a religious point similar to Representative Vitale’s.  The entire human body is made in the image of God.  Perhaps we should show it all off.

The deep question is what counts as the authentic face or body.  People shave, cut their hair, and get their nails done.  Which version of your body is the one created in the image of God?

The issue of masking uncovers questions about bodies, identities, and cultural norms.  Not too long ago, people freaked out about Muslim women’s veils and headscarves.  And masks have been banned in the past, when associated with criminal activity.

The mask controversy exposes the social construction of reality.  Veiled women, bandits, and surgeons all cover their faces.  But the meaning of the mask depends upon cultural norms and the purpose we have for masking.

It is not easy to draw clear lines here since life involves a whole bunch of masking. We routinely put on masks in order to create or alter our identities.  Some, like the President, do it with make-up, a fancy hair-do, and a business suit.  Others get plastic surgery.  Professionals put on their “game face” at work, along with a uniform.  We change our demeanor when we hang out with friends, go to church, or go to a funeral.  Life is a complex masquerade. 

Existentialist philosophers have often wondered about the reality behind the masks.  Does the person remain the same behind the masks and under all of that make-up?  Or are we simply the masks we wear and the roles we inhabit?

This brings us back to the current issue.  In a pandemic, to wear a mask (or not) is to make a statement about who you are.  Whether you wear a mask or go bald-faced you reveal what you value and what you believe. 

Some apparently prefer to live and let die.  They walk barefaced and proud among the masked masses, believing that liberty trumps public safety.  But others emphasize solidarity with those who suffer.  They compassionately conceal their faces, so that others may live.

The Pandemic Dilemma

Pandemic Dilemma

We are witnessing a “pandemic dilemma” similar to the classic “prisoner’s dilemma.”  A growing number of people want to be “liberated” from stay-at-home orders, including apparently, President Trump.  The desire to end coronavirus restrictions is reasonable.  People need to get back to work and get on with their lives. 

But if we end stay-at-home restrictions too soon, the pandemic will continue and we’ll need more restrictions.  Cooperation is necessary, along with a long-term perspective.  Selfish action in the short term will prevent us from getting what we desire in the long run. 

The Problem of an Early Win

Pandemic restrictions have apparently worked.  The curve is “flattening.”   Although the number of deaths is appalling, this has fallen short of the most-dire predictions.  That’s good news.  But the effectiveness of stay-at-home orders makes it seem that they are not necessary.

It is tempting to declare a win too early.  The permanent solution involves vaccines and effective treatments.  The stay-at-home strategy only slows the spread of the disease.  If everyone stays home, the threat decreases.  It will then seem that there is no need to stay home.  But to re-open things too soon will increase the pandemic risk.  That would make it necessary to extend stay-at-home orders. 

Short-term thinking will lead to long-term problems.    

Cheating can be Contagious

As the threat dissipates, there will be more cheaters and resisters.  The irony of this is that cheating and resisting may prolong the pandemic. 

The longer this goes on, the more likely a further negative spiral.  As patience wears thin more people will be tempted to cheat and protest.  But a resurgent pandemic would lead to an extended need to stay at home.

 As frustration increases, cooperation decreases.  If you are staying at home, you will view defectors with resentment—but also maybe a bit of envy.  Resentment causes distrust and polarization.  The resisters view those staying at home as mindless sheep.  The stay-at-homers view the resisters as ignorant fools.  Cooperation becomes difficult. 

The Problem of Polarization

Polarization in the United States was already a problem.  This crisis has amplified it.  Some trust science.  Others do not.  Some think the president’s incompetence has made the crisis worse.  Others think that this is a “deep state” campaign to bring Trump down.

Our divisions will likely intensify as the economic and political consequences of the pandemic unfolds.  When distrusts grow, there is a tendency to focus on short-term self-interest, while blaming others.  This makes cooperative action more unlikely, which causes a further negative cycle.   

Hopelessness exacerbates distrust and makes it difficult to focus on long-term cooperation.  These negative feedback loops make long-term success seem farther away.  At some point, people begin to shrug and say “what the hell, might as well join the cheaters.”  When the Titanic is sinking and there is no hope for rescue, you might as well enjoy the ride (a point I’ve made in more detail elsewhere). 

If that happens, we really are sunk.

The Solution

Philosophers have long pondered the problem of cooperation.  One source is Hegel.  I won’t bore you with the details.  But in Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic,” when rival parties struggle for recognition, they end up failing to get what they want. 

The solution is a more robust sense of community.  This is similar to the solution of the classic prisoner’s dilemma, where two people struggle to choose wisely when they lack information and trust.  The solution is solidarity and trust, along with a shared source of information. 

Hope is also essential.  We need a reason to hope that things will improve when we work together.  The good news is that there is a reason for hope: cooperative action has slowed the pandemic.

Community, truth, and hope are cherished goods of human life.  Without them, we are thrown back into a chaotic world, where narrowly focused self-interest prevents us from cooperating and actually getting what we want.  Philosophers have made it clear what the solution is.  But building community is up to us. We, the people, must choose to cooperate, seek truth, and find reasons to hope that in the long run solidarity pays off. 

Coronavirus Pandemic is Not a War

Wash Hands Stay Home

A pandemic is not a war.

To call the pandemic a war shows a failure of imagination. 

President Trump claimed he is a wartime presidentThe Governor of North Carolina said, “This pandemic is a war, and we need the armor to fight it.”  Finance gurus want to issue coronavirus war bonds.  Foreign policy pundits are saying absurd things like, “We need to fight a holding action on the economic front.”  The Head of NATO said we are fighting “a common invisible enemy.”

This is nonsense.  Wars are intentional actions that deliberately kill human beings.  An enemy is a person serving a government.  War is a political act involving the conscious decisions of moral agents.

A virus is a force of nature.  It has no intentionality.  A pandemic has no political agenda.  There are no enemies here.  There is no one to negotiate with.  There will be no peace treaty. 

The war metaphor makes us think in nationalistic terms.  But a pandemic is a global problem.  Nationalism prevents cooperative action.  We don’t need a wartime president.  We need a global team of scientists and doctors.  

The war analogy creates a morbid fascination with body counts.  This leads to lame statistical analogies.  People have compared pandemic deaths to the numbers killed in wars.  The Surgeon General said this will be “our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment.”

These comparisons are uninformative.  Better comparisons would consider those killed by other infectious diseases, say AIDS or Ebola. 

This fascination with body counts implies that that we “win” when the count goes down.  But each death represents an infinite loss.  Dead people are not tally marks on some perverse scorecard.  Instead of counting body bags, let’s talk more about grief, mourning, and resilience.

The myths of war, as I have argued elsewhere, make it seems that a soldier’s death is vindicated by victory and the justice of the cause.  But in a pandemic, there is no justification or vindication. 

The rhetoric of war also gets infused with patriot and religious language that becomes propagandistic. 

When President Trump sent the Navy ship, Comfort, to New York,, he published a patriotic video and tweeted:With the courage of our doctors and nurses, with the skill of our scientists and innovators, with the determination of the American People, and with the grace of God, WE WILL WIN THIS WAR .”

Again, the idea of a war to be won is absurd.  Also absurd is the idea that the grace of God is involved in this, or in any battle.  Hurray for the doctors and scientists.  But the real work is about healing and mitigation, not about defeating an enemy.  This is an unglamorous effort, conducted one person at a time in sick beds and hospitals.  The American people don’t need to put on armor or steel themselves for battle.  We need to stay home, wash our hands, and wear masks in public.

Unfortunately, our imaginations are infected by militarism.  Patriotism is tightly woven around war.  We cheer on the war machine, despite morally problematic and endless wars.  If the “war” against coronavirus is like the war in Afghanistan, we are in trouble. 

Nor do we think enough about peace-building.  The pandemic calls for cooperative cosmopolitanism and creative community transformation.  Public health is not war.  It is peace-work. 

War rhetoric has led us astray before.  The “war on drugs” created a punitive system of mass incarceration, while thousands continue to die.  Drug overdoses killed 67,367 people in 2018.  The war on drugs failed because it should not have been a war. 

Instead of combat, we needed compassion.  People turn to drugs because of pain, depression, or a lack meaning and purpose.  The solution to the drug pandemic is a peaceful campaign of caring for those who suffer.

A similar rhetorical shift is needed for the coronavirus.  Let’s support the care-givers by giving them the equipment they need.  Let’s build inclusive infrastructure to support social-distancing in a time of economic turmoil.   Let’s provide compassionate care for those who suffer and grieve.  And let’s encourage the wartime president to stay out of the way of cosmopolitan science and the peaceful work of public health. 

Updates to Fiala blog

For several years I have been writing weekly for the Fresno Bee. Beginning in April 2020, I will be cutting down on the number of weekly columns that I publish in the Bee. The reason for this a new California law that limits the number of contributions that a freelancer can publish in a given venue.

As a result I am planning a more active presence on the blog on my website (www.andrewfiala.com) and on Twitter and Facebook.

I have recently updated my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/PhilosophyFiala/

You can follow me there.

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.