Quit Complaining

In his victory speech Joe Biden said, “put away the harsh rhetoric, and lower the temperature.” He’s right. Let’s be done with grievance and aggravation.  Constant complaining cramps the soul and sickens society. 

My grandfather put this crudely. He’d often say, “quit your bitchin’.” A poet would say, “Let us not be aggrieved.”

The grievance machine runs on bile.  President Trump is complainer-in-chief.  He has griped and grumbled for years: from American carnage to a rigged election.  Conservative commentators copy his kvetching and complain about the “frauds and liars” in the liberal establishment. 

Of course liberals love lambasting Trump. They also lament his popularity.  After the election a headline in Politico said, “Democrats look at Trump voters and wonder, ‘What the hell is your problem?’”

All of this complaining causes heartburn.  Grievance produces grief.  Anger begets animosity.  And a small mind gets focused on small things.

There is a time and place for righteous indignation—but it is a narrow place and a limited time.  Genuine injustice ought to enrage us.  But rage can burn a hole in your heart if it is not transformed into creative activity.

Common sense teaches this.  Complaining about being hungry does not fill your stomach.  Whining about the wind won’t stop it from blowing.  But griping and groaning will certainly make you more miserable. 

Ancient wisdom traditions tell us to bear hardship without complaint.  They emphasize resilience and teach us to give up grousing.  The Stoics recommend taking things as they come without wishing them to be otherwise.  The Taoists teach us to stop fussing and fuming by learning to flow with the changes .

The wisdom of patient endurance and going with the flow is obvious.  But quiet retreat is not the whole answer.  The further lesson is to get to work.  We ought to transform resentment into resourceful action.  If the wind is blowing, close the window.  If you are hungry, cook something. 

Scoop Nisker used to say, “if you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”  We might add, “if you don’t like what’s happening, then either fix it or shut up.” 

Partisanship feeds on outrage.  The headlines called this the most important election of our lifetime.  The Republicans claimed it was a fight against socialism, anarchist violence, and leftist totalitarianism.  The Democrats claim.ed it was a fight against fascism, authoritarianism, and malicious incompetence. 

This created historically high voter turnout.  But a third of eligible voters didn’t bother to vote.  While the partisans are screaming, a third of Americans opted out.  Maybe the screaming has turned them off. Some non-voters are ignorant and lazy.  But some are sickened by the vitriol of the public sphere.

Grievance is a sales technique.  It keeps us glued to our screens.  Clever partisans fan the flames of grievance and complaint. But this divides us and closes people’s minds.

Our complainer-in-chief is a master of the dark art of aggravation.  His vain boasts and vile complaints are mostly hot air.  But his followers love it.  His opponents love to hate it.  And the viewing public keeps tuning in. 

The Trump era is like spicy food.  It’s exciting.  But it disrupts the digestion.  Some people get addicted to the cycle of heat and misery.  Others can’t stand the smell it leaves behind.

It’s wise to stop binging on spicy stuff. Most people intuitively understand this.  It is difficult to live life permanently aggrieved. Active people have little time for grievance.  We have work to do, families to care for, and activities to enjoy. 

Of course, there is irony in complaining about complaining.  At some point, we just need to stop it.

The world’s traditions teach us how to lower the temperature. Instead of grumbling, be grateful.  Instead of complaining, have deep conversations.  And instead of pulling your hair out, put your hands to work.

The Trump Prophecy and Related Absurdities

These are boom times for doomsday predictions.  Some folks view Trump as the Chosen One.   A survey from earlier this year found that 35 percent of Americans think we are entering the end times.  Only 37 percent disagree.  And this week, Pat Robertson predicted Trump would be reelected but that an asteroid would destroy the earth. 

These prophecies are laughable.  But people apparently believe this stuff.  So let’s take a critical look at Robertson’s prophecy in order to see why this kind of thing is nonsense.

The first problem is that while Robertson says Trump will win the election, he also encourages his viewers to vote.  But if God has revealed that Trump is going to win, then why bother to get out the vote?  The very idea of prophecy undermines free will and agency. 

After Trump is sworn in, Robertson says the country will be torn apart by civic unrest.  Robertson predicts five years of subsequent peace and final death by asteroid.  But don’t these predictions give us a reason not to vote for Trump?  Could we avert the unrest and the asteroid by voting for Biden? 

Proactive prevention is not on the prophet’s table.  Indeed, the prophets of doom seem to have a kind of malevolent hope (as I discussed in another column).  They appear to look forward to the chaos and to the end. 

Now let’s turn to the tortured Bible interpretation that grounds this prophecy.  Robertson cites snippets of text from Ezekiel, Isaiah, Thessalonians, and Matthew.  This textual cherry-picking is silly.  The prophecy jumps through the Bible, extracts a few ominous texts, and offers a wild and anachronistic interpretation.

If you study the Bible critically, this approach is absurd (see my What Would Jesus Really Do?).  Critical Bible study undermines the idea that there is a hidden message in the texts.  These texts were created by human beings.  They evolved over time in response to historical forces. 

Scholars suggest, for example, that Isaiah was written by more than one author (this may be true of Ezekiel as well).  These texts were written for an ancient Jewish audience during the period of Jewish exile in Babylon.  Paul’s letter to Thessalonians is written centuries later and addressed to a newly formed Christian church.  Matthew was written a generation later for an audience who had witnessed the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. 

The meaning of these texts is grounded in these contexts.  It is absurd to believe that ancient authors wrote these texts as a warning to people in 2020.  If anything, we should heed Matthew’s warning against false prophets (Matthew 7:15) and Paul’s suggestion that we test prophecy and hold fast to the good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). 

And now, about that asteroid.  Ancient people feared objects being flung from the sky by angry gods.  But today, we know that there are no gods up there to do the flinging.  We understand that planets and space rocks orbit the sun at high speeds and sometimes cross paths.  We know that the universe is billions of years old.  Species have come and gone.  Some have been destroyed by asteroid impacts. 

But none of this was known to Ezekiel, Isaiah, Paul, or Jesus.  Nor did these ancient prophets know there were continents on the far side of the world.  So why should we believe that they made predictions about contemporary American life?

And why should we believe that God is the kind of being that gets angry and destroys His own creation?  The theological assumptions of prophetic Christianity turn God into a petulant bully. 

The theological critique of this kind of thing has been around for a long time.  One clear statement of the idea comes from Thomas Paine, whose thinking about religion and political life inspired the American Revolution.  Paine criticized “the prophecy-mongers.”  He said, “belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.”

Of course, in the American system, people are free to believe what they want.  But critical thinkers are also free to criticize the absurdities of prophecy.  That’s the way enlightenment works.  It is a slow process of sifting and winnowing.  Enlightenment is not an asteroid that strikes like a thief in the night.  It is critical activity that requires daylight and human agency. 

Virtues and Vices of Online Learning

The idea of “reopening schools” is hopelessly politicized.  School are “open,” even though teaching and learning have moved online.  Unfortunately, school “reopening” is a political football.  There is a legitimate debate about school safety and the well-being of children, staff, and teachers.  But the political environment does not foster careful thinking about teaching and learning.

It is obvious that learning can happen online.  Americans learn online every day.  Youtube videos teach us how to do home improvements or how to play guitar.  Useful apps teach foreign languages.  Business training involves videos and interactive websites.

Some people don’t like this.  Some are nostalgic for the routine of sitting together in classrooms, hanging out and chatting in the halls.  Of course, not everyone is nostalgic for this.  Face-to-face schooling also includes loneliness, bullying, and stress.

Schools are not simply places for learning.  Public schooling is an essential part of the economy and the social safety net.  Schools allow parents to get to work.  They provide breakfast and lunch for poor children.  They are places of refuge for kids who need social and emotional support.  They are also connected to the rituals and routines of American life: football games and marching bands, holiday concerts, and so on.

But the traditional classroom is not essential for learning.  Learning is an individual activity which requires effort, concentration, discipline, and motivation.  John Dewey explained, “learning means something which the individual does when he studies.  It is an active, personally conducted affair.”  Social supports help.  But the learner must do the learning, alone with a book, a piece of music, or a math problem.

A recent article interviewed college students who complained about online learning.  One student said she lacked motivation.  Another said, “I just feel like I’m turning in work and not really learning anything.” 

Those same problems occur in the face-to-face environment.  Teachers have long complained about unmotivated students who go through the motions and don’t learn.  The issue of motivation and engagement is not an online problem.

The bigger problem is that schooling is viewed as a necessary evil and not as something valuable in itself.  Whether online or in person, if you don’t view value what you are learning, you will be unmotivated and disengaged. 

Working adults encounter the same problem when completing mandatory training courses.  Whether online or face-to-face, if you don’t want to be there, it is hard to learn.  On the other hand, if you are curious and interested, you will learn whether online or in person. 

For curious learners, online learning can be very effective.  One advantage of asynchronous courses is that you can rewind or fast-forward videos according to your own needs and interests.  This is much better than suffering through a boring lecture in a crowded classroom. 

Or consider the difference between in-person discussions and written discussion forums.  In-person discussions typically group students in a circle to encourage oral communication.  Skills of speaking and listening can be developed in this environment.  But often the circle is dominated by a few loud talkers, while other students sit passively. 

Online forums that encourage written communication are more inclusive of the quiet and reflective student.  The level of discourse in written discussion forums is typically much higher than in in-person discussion.  When students write online posts, they have more time to reflect. 

By now, our technologies are flexible. Oral discussion can occur online through programs like Zoom.  Written communication can be practiced in the classroom.  Both skills are important.  Each can be learned in either environment. 

At the end of the day, neither modality is inherently better or worse.  It all depends on the way the teacher structures the activity and on the motivation and curiosity of the student. 

Teachers and students still have a lot to learn about online education. As with most things, there are pros and cons, virtues and vices.

But online learning is not going away. And if we work at it (if we try to learn to do it better…) we will get better at it.  We won’t learn to improve if we keep complaining and waxing nostalgic for the old routine.  Nor does it help to let politics get in the way of thinking carefully about what it means to teach and to learn.

Secular or Sacred? A Pandemic Conflict

The pandemic has brought the conflict between the sacred and the secular to the surface. 

The Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, led a recent protest against Covid-19 restrictions.  He claimed that restrictions on worship violate the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.  He said, “when government asserts authority over the church’s very right to worship, it crosses a line. Our fundamental rights do not come from the state… they come from God.”  He also suggested that “secular elites” lack compassion for religious people and do not understand the pain caused by restricting worship.

The Archbishop did not deny the need for reasonable restrictions on religious liberty.  The problem is that we disagree about what is reasonable.  In fact, we always have. 

150 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Mormon polygamy (Reynolds v. U.S.), arguing that the state can restrict religious liberty.  The Court said that religious belief is not “superior to the law of the land” and that religious liberty does not “permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

The worry is that religious liberty can open the door to a kind of anarchy, as each sect claims an exception to the law.  The Mormon polygamists of the 19th Century did not think that polygamy meant anarchy.  Nor is the Archbishop prescribing general lawlessness in the face of the pandemic.  But it is difficult to figure out where to draw the line in disputes between the secular and the sacred. 

Furthermore, the Archbishop suggests that some values transcend the law of the land.  He says that our rights come from God—not from the state.  This may mean that we have a right (or even an obligation) to violate the law of the land in the name of a higher law. This is what happens in cases of civil disobedience and conscientious refusal. 

Public health and the common good would seem to call for restrictions on worship. But do religious people have a right to refuse?

A significant problem is that terms such as “public health” and “the common good” are subject to interpretation.  A religious person may think that spiritual well-being is part of public health.  And some religious communities think that communal worship is essential for the common good.

The Archbishop suggests that secular people often don’t understand the powerful role that ritual and communal worship play in the lives of religious folk.  There is some truth to this.  The idea of the sacred opens a realm of transcendent value, which has no parallel in non-religious life. 

The secular world is “disenchanted,” as Max Weber put it a hundred years ago.  Philosopher Charles Taylor said something similar: “The modern identity and outlook flattens the world, leaves no place for the spiritual, the higher, for mystery.”  Speaking as secular person, I think they are right.  The sacred, the transcendent, and the holy are indeed flattened in the secular world.

There is much to argue about here in terms of ethics, theology, and the meaning of life.  But let’s leave these existential arguments aside and return to the problem of the pandemic.  The present situation is this.  Some religious people live in a world of mystery and enchantment that requires communal celebration of shared rituals.  These communal practices appear to violate the public health rules created by a secular political system, which views the world as disenchanted and flat. 

This conflict becomes more complicated when the source of political and legal authority is called into question.  Are the laws a human creation, the result of a social contract?  Or are these laws reflective of something deeper, more mysterious and sacred? 

The present crisis prompts these deep questions.  To answer them we need the help of political philosophers and theologians.  But there will be no unanimous consensus about how to answer these questions. 

This gives us clue to finding common ground.  The fact that we disagree shows us the need for liberty.  The Courts are going to have to draw lines. These judgments will not be satisfactory to everyone.  But let’s agree, at least, that we should be free to ask these questions and to disagree about the source of the law and the meaning of life.

Curing Viciousness by Climbing the Moral Ladder

Fresno Bee, September 20, 2020

At a recent rally in Reno, President Trump said, “Now I can be really vicious.” “I don’t have to be nice anymore.” Trump said, “the Republican party doesn’t play it rough and tough.” “We play it so nice,” he said. “In the end it’s not right.”

Trump’s viciousness can be seen in the way the president applauded the killing of Michael Reinoehl by U.S. Marshals. Reinoehl was suspected of killing a right-wing protester in Portland, Ore. After the marshals killed him, the president said, “that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution.” Of course, in the U.S., police are not justified in delivering retribution.

We are on a slippery slope lubricated by viciousness. To avoid that slope we need to hold fast to what I call the moral ladder. The rungs of the ladder tell us to be nice and kind, to seek justice, to limit power, and to develop mercy.

Morality begins with niceness. Parents tell kids, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” We quote Aesop’s fables and teach children that “Kindness is never wasted.” These nuggets of proverbial wisdom create a foundation for morality.

Niceness is about manners. Manners provide a psychological and social root for moral development. In learning to be nice, children develop decorum and self-control. Niceness can be superficial and deceptive. A con-man can be nice while he picks your pocket. But that behavior is an exception. Niceness is the first rung on the moral ladder.

Kindness is also essential. Kindness is empathy and benevolence. Sometimes this can be phony or done for show. But genuine kindness opens the heart. It is the source of charity and compassion. The next rung on the moral ladder involves extending kindness to friends and even to strangers.

Beyond this, ethical maturity requires that we develop a sense of justice and responsibility. The Roman philosopher Cicero said that kindness is optional but justice is necessary. Kindness is a gift. If you withhold charity, no one would blame you or be angry. It is not nice to be unkind, but it is not evil.

Justice, on the other hand, is required. If you fail to be just, you are blameworthy. Failures of justice— from lying and promise-breaking to outright violations of human rights — create outrage and righteous indignation. Injustice is not simply unkind. It is evil. Justice is another step on the moral ladder.

Here is where retribution is found, offering payback that holds criminals responsible for their misdeeds. A traditional scheme requires eye for eye, life for life. But a complex system has developed in order to administer justice. Among the most important features of our system is the presumption of innocence.

Accused criminals in the United States have a right to defend themselves in a court of law. American police are not authorized to deliver retribution. The state’s power to punish is awesome. That’s why we limit it and make certain that those we punish are actually guilty. Recognition of the necessary limitation of the state’s power to punish takes us higher up the ladder. This is the vantage point of democratic political theory, which is committed to basic human rights and the rule of law.

It is possible to climb still higher. Many moral systems teach that forgiveness and mercy are higher than retribution. Mercy asks us to be kind, even to those who deserve punishment. The last rung on the ladder takes us beyond law toward something transcendent.

This moral ladder represents the basic common sense of our civilization. Common sense teaches that when viciousness is praised, virtue gets trampled. When niceness is kicked aside, kindness becomes impossible. When police take retribution into their own hands, democracy is in danger.

It’s time to get off of this slippery slope and climb back up the moral ladder. We do that by adhering to justice and the rule of law. We do that by teaching our children to be nice and kind, fair and forgiving. Our children are watching. They will eventually take control of this vicious country. If we teach them well, they may be kind enough to show a little mercy on us.