Rebellion, Fantasy, and Nihilism

Fresno Bee, January 10, 2021

The mob’s attack on the Capitol was a juvenile outburst of rebellion doomed to fail.

What we witnessed on Wednesday was a juvenile outburst of rebellion. A motley mob stormed the Capitol without a plan or strategy. The violence was disorganized. This was a desultory insurgency instigated by a leader who lives in a fantasy world, where ranting and raving masquerade as thinking.

The image of Shakespeare’s King Lear comes to mind. As Shakespeare put it, nothing comes of nothing. This shambolic coup offers a warning about nihilism and a lesson about power and rebellion.

There is in the human soul an impulse toward anarchy. We bridle against restraint. We want the world to conform to our own image. This impulse is often destructive and nihilistic.

The rebel is a toddler angry at his parents. He is an adolescent lashing out at the world. Rebellion can do short-term damage. But the rebel’s ferocity is feckless. Juvenile rebellion cannot effect lasting change.

The rebel paints the world in black and white, leaving no room for compromise. He has no desire to build because he is focused on burning things down. He has no strategy because in his fantasy, the world should revolve around

The rebel fails to understand that this is a world of highly organized systems of power. There really is a deep state. It cannot be transformed by random outbursts of violence or emotion.

Power is tightly woven in complex webs involving political bureaucracies, transnational corporations, educational institutions, religious traditions, and so on. Political change in the modern world requires strategy based in this reality. This is slow and complex work. Random protest is toothless in the face of the bureaucratic state and institutionalized power.

The would-be revolutionaries of the 21st century — on the left and on the right — are deluded if they think this system can be opposed by disorganized explosions of anger. In the long run, the cops and the courts will win every time.

Political change requires an organized, fact-based approach to the world that avoids wishful thinking. Almost always this involves compromise and working to find common ground in a shared conception of the world. Most of what the party of Trump has done since the November election has been futile because it is based on the fantasy that Trump actually won the election. Lies have limited power. They eventually run aground on reality.

Juvenile rebellion is prideful and angry. Sometimes it is simply thrill-seeking. Other times it is a violent convulsion of despair. Almost always it is based in an unrealistic view of self and world. This leaves the juvenile rebel strangely susceptible to lies, conspiracy theories, and authoritarian politics.

The rebel feels that the world ought to satisfy his desires. When it does not, he gloms onto a savior or hero who makes him feel powerful. The rebel seeks out lies that feed his ego. This can evolve into a cul-de-sac of conspiracy, where the truth gives way to a reflection of the rebel’s own self-image.

Most rebels grow up and grow out of this nihilism. When rebellion comes of age, it mellows and deepens to discover a larger truth. A good explanation of this is found in Albert Camus’s book “The Rebel.” Camus describes how rebellion becomes nihilism. From nihilism, totalitarianism can emerge. Those who believe in nothing are susceptible to anything. But if we keep growing and looking for reality, rebellion can give birth to solidarity, justice, love, generosity, and wisdom.

The impulse of rebellion will always be with us. But it must be educated and sublimated. Artists and entrepreneurs nurture the spark of anarchy. So too do religious mystics and scientific geniuses. The creative imagination smashes barriers. But it does not destroy for the sake of destruction. Rather, it aims to build something out of nothing.

The energy of anarchy is youthful and exuberant. Without guidance this energy circulates in nothingness. When rebellion remains stupid, it is merely destructive. But when the spirit of rebellion is informed by truth, there is hope for justice, compassion, and wisdom. For this to happen you need a strategy that accepts reality. Instead of ranting into the storm with King Lear, you need to harness the wind and put it to work.

Vigilance, Patience and Hope: The Drive Toward Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, December 27, 2020

On the longest night of the year, we drove through the fog looking for starlight. Other people had the same idea of driving uphill to see the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. In a parking lot in Prather, carloads of masked stargazers emerged from the fog and looked toward the heavens, seeking the Christmas star.

We are all looking for inspiration these days. If you rise above the fog, there are wonders to be found.

The last time the planets lined up like this was 800 years ago. The stars move at their own pace. We must learn to wait and keep our eyes open. The philosopher Marcus Aurelius said that stargazing washes away the filth of the earth. The cosmos teaches patience and perseverance.

This was a star-crossed year. Disease killed people and jobs. Our democracy teetered on the brink of disaster. Let’s drink a toast to all we’ve lost and endured. Let’s also learn from the light that shined in the darkness. If there is wisdom in the gloom, it comes from the values of the Enlightenment. It was science and law that prevented 2020 from being darker than it was.

When the Black Death hit Europe in the Dark Ages, astrologers blamed it on a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. We know much more today about the stars and about disease. We know how to prevent contagion and predict the weather. We peer into the molecular basis of life and into the depths of space. We build vaccines and satellites. Let’s give thanks to the scientists who shed light.

One of the wonders of 2020 was the growth of virtual reality. Satellites, computers, and cell phones kept us connected in the gloom. Without these technologies, social distancing would have been impossible. Let’s give a shout out to the wizards of Silicon Valley.

Telecommunication transformed the field of education. Difficulties remain, including educational inequity and a digital divide. But students are learning in ways that could not have been imagined last year. Hurray for the educators — and the students and parents — who pioneered a new model of teaching and learning.

Our civic values were challenged in unprecedented ways. The year began with impeachment. It ended with outrageous falsehoods about a stolen election. This was a year of protests and anger. We are more polarized than ever. Racial animosity afflicts us. There is corruption in the halls of power.

But citizens enlightened ourselves about history and the Constitution. And ethical professionals held back the darkness. Lawyers and judges remained committed to their code of ethics. Soldiers, cops, and firefighters did their duty. Business leaders supported justice and the common good. Nameless bureaucrats served with honor and integrity. Enlightenment depends upon the good work of citizens and civil servants.

As this pestilential year comes to a close, what should we resolve for the future?

I propose we need to affirm the value of vigilance. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” they say. This is common sense for those who drive through fog. We must be mindful and alert. Watchful care is the key to enlightenment.

Vigilance is the moral of Albert Camus’s novel, “The Plague.” That book is an allegory about the plague of totalitarianism in the 20th century. Camus noted that plagues stimulate enlightenment by opening our eyes. We must learn “a vigilance that must never falter.” The good man, Camus said, “is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.”

The stewards of civilization must be watchful, as we drive toward the light. New diseases are waiting to infect us. A random sneeze can start a pandemic. Tyrants and crooks wait to take advantage. Indifference leads to disaster.

Enlightenment is not something that just happens. Our scientific and technological prowess is the result of centuries of cultural evolution. Our legal system has a similar heritage. And the work of education is never done.

On sunny days, it’s easy to let your guard down. When the fog comes, it is easy to lose hope. But there are stars above the haze. Good and decent people live nearby. Science and reason provide hope in the darkness. Patience and vigilance keep us moving toward the light.

Democracy is like Santa Claus. It only exists if we believe it does.

Fresno Bee, December 13, 2020

Democracy is like Santa Claus. It only exists if we believe it does. Many Americans would like to say, “Yes Virginia, there was a legitimate election.” But the Scrooges are saying, “Bah, humbug.”

A number of Americans believe that the election was stolen. One poll reports that half of Republicans believe Trump “rightfully won” the election. Another poll found that 62% of Republicans say it’s “very likely” that the election was stolen by Democrats.

This means that when Joe Biden is inaugurated, many will view him as a shopping mall Santa, sitting on a throne of lies.

We are at a dangerous crossroads. If what the president says is true, the Democrats have stolen our republic. If what the president says if false, then he is the Grinch hijacking our democracy.

It is difficult to tell how serious this is. It is one thing to say you don’t believe in Santa. It is another thing to stop celebrating Christmas.

We’ll see how this cookie crumbles after the Electoral College votes and someone is inaugurated. Will the nonbelievers choose to act on their disbelief? If so, let’s hope that their actions are nonviolent. To protest non-violently is the nonbelievers right, grounded in the First Amendment. But violence is extra-constitutional and revolutionary.

Nonbelievers might stop paying taxes, for example. Of course, tax resisters will be prosecuted. But that is the point. Nonviolent protesters go to jail to protest a corrupt system.

I am not advocating this. I happen to believe the state election officials, the courts, and other experts who concluded that the election was legitimate. But this whole system is based upon faith.

Like Christmas, democracy is a ritual and a pageant. At some point we make a leap of faith and choose to play along. People have a right to stop playing along. But there are consequences.

One famous defense of playing along begins by saying, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Francis P. Church said that Virginia and her 8-year-old friends had been “affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.” He defended the importance of “childlike faith” in magic, poetry, fantasy and romance.

Government also involves fantasy and faith. A flag is a piece of cloth. A law is merely words on a page. These things come alive when we believe in them.

Francis Church wrote that the best things are those we cannot see. He spoke of Santa Claus as a metaphor for the hidden wonders of the world — for love and beauty, meaning and transcendence.

He could as well have been talking about democracy. Like Christmas, democracy exists in the minds of men and women. It only exists when we play along. When people stop playing along, the fantasy ends. If enough people stop playing along, the whole thing collapses.

Perhaps skepticism is warranted in this skeptical age. We know that there really is no Santa Claus. And as the partisans squabble, it is increasingly difficult to believe in the idea of America. Maybe it is time to wake up from the dream of e pluribus unum.

But it’s worth asking what we would wake up to, if we stopped playing along. If we give up on the dream of democracy, what would replace it? If we stop believing in America, then what?

Christmas is a good time to think about what we believe.

Do we believe in country more than party?

Do we have faith in democracy or not?

Christmas is also a time of transformation.

After the Grinch stole Christmas, he was surprised. The Grinch thought that if he stole the tree and the presents, the Whos of Whoville would have nothing to celebrate. But they came together and sang anyway. And the Grinch’s heart grew.

The Grinch learned that Christmas doesn’t come from a store. He learned that Christmas “means a little bit more.”

When we wake up from this nightmare winter, will we learn something similar?

The future looks bleak. But this is also a season of hope.

So let’s hope that if there are protests, they remain nonviolent.

Let’s hope that we can sing in harmony again.

And let’s hope that the Scrooges and Grinches will decide to play along.

Responsibility and Fanaticism

Fresno Bee, November 29, 2020

Last week, Bishop Joseph Brennan of the Diocese of Fresno gave an ethical warning about COVID-19 vaccines. In a video message, he said that if a vaccine were “developed with material from stem cells that were derived from a baby that was aborted, or material that was cast off from artificial insemination of a human embryo, that’s morally unacceptable.”

The bishop warned that the Pfizer vaccine may be morally suspect. In response to Bishop Brennan’s warning — and a similar warning from Texas Bishop Joseph Strickland — the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops clarified that the Pfizer vaccine is not connected with embryonic stem cell research.

This controversy is an example of how moral conflict unfolds. It is important to get the facts right. But we disagree about fundamental values. We also disagree about the nature of moral responsibility.

The bishop begins with an assumption that most people would accept. He said that we should “always and only pursue vaccines that are ethical.” But we disagree about what counts as ethical.

Pro-life Catholics see embryonic stem cell research as unethical. Other people deny that human embryos are persons and do not see a problem with stem cell research. Others may argue that if a vaccine can save thousands of lives, it is a good thing, even if it is derived from a questionable source.

And what about individual responsibility? The bishop has a demanding sense of responsibility. If a vaccine has immoral sources, he says, we ought not use it — no matter how far away in the causal chain those immoral sources are, and no matter how beneficial the vaccine.

The bishop suggested a fascinating analogy with recent anti-racist arguments. Some anti-racists argue that since the U.S. was founded on the sin of slavery, Americans remain responsible for this today. The bishop suggested that biomedical research that is founded on the sin of abortion has a similar moral taint.

The idea seems to be that moral identity is structured by choices made within a history that is beyond our control. This is related to the activist’s slogan that silence is complicity. It is not enough to avoid actively doing evil, you must also free yourself of the moral taint of history and institutions.

This heroic moral standard has been applied in a variety of other cases by uncompromising activists.

Animal welfare activists argue that our fast food economy is based on industrialized cruelty to animals. They demand that we become vegetarian.

Anti-poverty activists argue that global capitalism is based upon systematic exploitation of the poor. They argue we should give surplus wealth to the poor.

Anti-war activists argue that the American way of life is based upon militarism and conquest. They refuse to pay taxes that support the war system.

Anti-abortion activists claim that abortion contaminates sex education and women’s liberation. They refuse to support women’s health care that includes abortion.

And so on.

Heroic responsibility asks us to take action to stand up for our values. There is something noble about this. We admire uncompromising souls who live a life based on principle.

But moral heroism is often in the eye of the beholder. The heroes we admire are those we agree with. Those who cling to other values, we call zealots and fanatics. Of course, the moral hero wears those accusations as a badge of honor.

All of this shows us the difficulty of living a good life. We disagree about basic principles. We disagree about the facts. We disagree about who has a responsibility to act and about how much each of us should sacrifice.

Realizing the depth of moral conflict can make us humbler. The moral life includes complexities, uncertainties and disagreements. We should be cautious as we proceed. But humility does not let us off the moral hook. It is difficult to be good. But that does not mean we should give up trying.

There is no ethics vaccine. There is only the preventative soul care of moral education. To live a good life requires the hard work of thinking. Get the facts. Question your values. Understand the systems, histories and institutions that you inhabit. And try to be a hero without becoming a fanatic.

On Making a Graceful Exit

Fresno Bee, November 15, 2020

The political news reminds us of the wisdom of graceful exits.  Businesses need succession plans.  Individuals ought to prepare advance medical directives.  It is wise to learn to depart with dignity.  That means not clinging or lingering until the bitter end.    

In show business they say, “leave them wanting more.”  It is better for the show to end with an empty spotlight than to offer another encore to a thinning crowd.  How you exit determines how you are remembered. 

Knowing when to quit requires modesty, self-knowledge, and self-control.  Those who refuse to leave are greedy, narcissistic, and embarrassing.  The aging quarterback hanging on for another season is sad.  The scandal-ridden bureaucrat who refuses to resign lacks a sense of shame.  And the autocrat who clings to power is dangerous. 

Sages and saints have extolled the virtue of finishing well.  Saint Paul said, “the time of my departure is at hand.  I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the race.  I have kept the faith.”  Paul expresses a kind of heroic resignation.  Do your best.  Stay strong.  And when the day is done, put out the light.

Socrates said something similar.  When he was sentenced to death, Socrates responded calmly and with dignity.  He said simply, “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways.”  He didn’t rant or rave.  Nor did he challenge the legitimacy of the jury’s vote. 

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus pictured life as a naval cruise.  Sometimes your ship visits port and you get shore leave.  But when the captain says it’s time to sail, you must depart.  You can board the ship in a dignified manner.  Or you can be bound like a sheep and thrown on board.  The choice of a noble departure is up to you.

Those who cling often have a delusional self-image that is out of touch with reality.  Some people think they are the life of the party.  Others think they are the smartest person in the room.  Obnoxious boors ignore the yawns and eye-rolls of the crowd.  They are blind to the feedback of the world. 

Clingers often view themselves as irreplaceable and indispensable.  “She can’t live without me,” the clingy boyfriend says.  “They’ll never win without me,” the grizzled quarterback tells himself.  And the aging diva says, “my audience needs me.”

This is rationalization and projection.  The washed-up quarterback can’t imagine life without the team.  The clingy boyfriend can’t live without her.  And the aging diva needs the adoring crowd.

In reality, everyone can be replaced.  In fact, there are usually dozens of talented people waiting in the wings.  One of the problems of those who cling is that they don’t make room for other talent to shine.

Good parents, coaches, and mentors know when to get out of the way.  The same is true of good bosses.  A great pleasure of coaching and parenting occurs when you realize that the kids are alright without you.  If you’ve done your job, you are no longer necessary. 

Clinginess can be easily confused with loyalty and tenacity.  But loyalty and tenacity require moderation.  Too much loyalty is blind allegiance.  An excess of tenacity is mule-headed stubbornness.  The challenge of life is to learn to hold tightly until the moment when it is wise to let go. 

Benjamin Franklin said that fish and houseguests start to stink after a few days.  But we lose track of the time.  Clueless guests don’t notice that the party is over and the hosts are dozing off.  We often fail to notice that the expiration date has passed until the stench is overwhelming.

We need to learn to read the crowd.  When the audience starts yawning, it’s time to wrap things up.  When the crowd is grumbling and groaning, it is already too late.  It is better to leave early than to leave a lingering stench. 

We also need to keep better track of time and to learn modesty.  Our days are numbered.  We each play only a minor part in the drama of the world.  Our role is important but limited.  Our time on the stage is short.  Make the most of it.  And then depart with dignity.