The Future of Democracy?

Fresno Bee, March 7, 2021

Democracy appears to be in decline around the world. Freedom House, a think tank founded by Eleanor Roosevelt, recently warned of an ongoing “recession” of democracy. China, Russia, and countries in the Middle East remain unfree. Major democracies such as India and the United States have stumbled. Freedom House claims that when exemplary democracies falter, anti-democratic forces are emboldened.

Authoritarianism was on the rise prior to COVID-19. Threats to freedom of the press predate the pandemic. Religious liberty and other human rights have never existed in some places. But the pandemic created new opportunities for disinformation and democratic dysfunction.

There was some good news. Across the world, protesters clamored for equality and human rights. Unfortunately, these protests were often met with governmental repression.

And, as we’ve seen in the U.S., there is growing distrust. Recent opinion polls paint a worrying picture. An Associated Press poll concluded that nearly half of Americans think our democracy is not working well. Such conclusions reflect our polarization. That poll concluded that 75% of Democrats think the country is on the right track, while almost 80% of Republicans think it is not. A related AP poll found that 65% of Republicans do not believe that Joe Biden’s election was legitimate.

These differences of opinion are troubling. Democracy depends upon trust and common ground.

But let’s not be surprised. History shows that democracy is rare, unstable, and imperfect.

The Roman republic lasted about 500 years. The Athenian democracy lasted about 200. And ancient “democracies” were not all that democratic. Slavery was allowed and women were subordinated. Athens and Rome were also aggressive colonizers. And we should not forget that the Athenian assembly voted to execute Socrates.

This is one of the reasons that Plato distrusted democracy. He thought it was foolish to put the uneducated masses in charge. Plato worried that liberty would be abused. He warned that the masses would fall for the seductive lies of a tyrant. He described democracy as a ship of fools, where the drunken passengers stage a mutiny and throw the expert navigators overboard.

Modern democracies have, of course, made improvements and learned from ancient failures. We have institutionalized human rights that protect freedom of religion, speech, and the press. Socrates would not be sentenced to death in the United States. We have also abolished slavery and advanced women’s suffrage.

Modern innovations may help to stabilize and preserve democracy. But challenges and opportunities remain.

An important question is who is included among “we, the people.” Should there be voting rights for people in prison or even non-citizens? Some states allow felons and ex-cons to vote. Others do not. In the U.S. we link voting to citizenship. But in New Zealand some permanent residents can vote.

We can also ask about the size, stability, and longevity of democratic nations. The United States did not always include 50 states. Could more be added or some allowed to secede? The Constitution is not written in stone. Should it be amended in ways that make it more responsive to the will of the people?

We should also consider the role of global institutions and international law. Should we seek a more global democracy that involves trans-national unions? Or does democracy require small, local, and decentralized communities?

In a polarized era, rational conversations about these things are difficult. It seems increasingly unlikely that we will be able to talk reasonably about all of this. This may be our undoing.

A significant question is how peaceful and reasonable we expect democracy to be. Some philosophers dream of “deliberative democracy” in which rational people engage in sincere and civil debate. But democracy is also a field of conflict and struggle, what scholars call “agonistic democracy.” In the United States, our democracy has become much more agonistic of late. This damages civic institutions. But “people power” may in fact be more like anarchy than law and order.

As we consider the future of democracy, we should remember that democracies have not always existed. Irrationality, self-interest, and conflict are part of the human condition. Authoritarians are waiting to exploit those weakness. And without rational consensus about shared values, democracies will continue to fail.

Liberalism and the Legacy of John Rawls

Fresno Bee, February 21, 2021

Republicans, Democrats can find common ground over concern for reason and truth.

Feb. 21, 2021 is the 100th birthday of the American political philosopher John Rawls. He was a famous proponent of liberalism. He imagined a tolerant secular society in which reason produced consensus.

Rawls died in 2002. Liberalism was a common ideal in the United States in the 20th century. Things have unraveled since then into fundamental disagreements about truth, justice and the American way.

Liberty matters in Rawls’ vision. But society also ought to concern itself with the well-being of the underprivileged. Liberalism allows people to pursue their own interests, while also setting up a safety net. This system encourages people to develop their dreams. But it also takes care of what Rawls calls “the least advantaged.”

Rawls gives us a useful tool called “the veil of ignorance.” You ought to pretend, Rawls suggests, that you do not know who you are. You should disregard your race, gender, and net worth. What kind of social system would you imagine was fair, if you didn’t know whether you were rich or poor, white or black, male or female?

This thought experiment encourages us to ignore biased self-interest. This should lead us to see the injustice of sexist, racist and elitist systems. Reasonable and unbiased people should want a system that helps those with special needs and hard luck, because that could be you (or someone you love).

This ends up looking something like the economic and political structure we have in the United States. Entrepreneurs are free to get rich here. But they pay taxes that help the needy. There are details to be debated, including how much the rich should be taxed and how much social support is needed by the poor. Those details are to be sorted out by balancing liberty with concern for the least advantaged.

We can use Rawls’ method to think about a variety of issues. Imagine if you did not know if you were old or young, rich or poor, sick or healthy. You might then agree that those who are most likely to die from COVID-19 (old people and people with medical conditions) should get the vaccine first. Or imagine that you don’t know for the moment whether you are safely housed or not. You might then agree that everyone should have access to shelter, toilets and the security of walls and doors.

And so on.

The liberal idea has been criticized. Libertarians think liberty trumps other values. Socialists want more equality than Rawls provides. Feminists claim Rawls ignores the historical oppression of women. Critics focused on race say he ignores the history of slavery and segregation. And Christian critics claim that secular justice is empty in comparison with the command to love God and your neighbor as yourself.

But liberalism imagines a big tent. Rawls defended a vision of toleration that would allow diverse people to find common ground despite their differences. He called this “overlapping consensus.” That place of reasonable consensus would be where we would debate the historical details and balance equality with liberty.

Overlapping consensus depends upon the basic good will, fairness, and reasonableness of people. Diverse religious people should be able to find consensus because of their basic sense of fairness. Republicans and Democrats should be able to find common ground because they share a common concern for reason and the truth.

As polarization and distrust grow, this idea seems untenable. Conspiracy theories, fake news, identity politics, and growing authoritarianism all serve to undermine the dream of a tolerant, reasonable consensus.

The risk of devolution stems from growing irrationality. Rawls explained in a comment on Hobbes that “so far as people are rational, they will want to avoid having things collapse back into a state of nature.” The state of nature, on this account, is a state of war. Rawls did not mean this as a prophecy. But the risk is there. If people are not rational, we won’t be able to find common ground and society risks collapse.

As we continue to struggle with polarization, we would do well to revisit the liberal idea of a just and tolerant secular society. Rawls gives us reason to hope that we might ignore our differences long enough to find common ground.

Tyranny and Love

Fresno Bee, February 14, 2021

Love is powerful and perilous. It arouses and inspires, transforms and uplifts. But love can also be manipulated and exploited. Child abuse and domestic violence are appalling perversions of love, as is tyranny.

Love hovers in the background of the Trump impeachment. The violence of Jan. 6 was inspired by a strange love. At the rally that led to the insurrection, Trump thanked the crowd for their “extraordinary love.” The crowd chanted in reply, “We love Trump.” As those chants morphed into, “Fight for Trump,” the erotic became violent.

Trump eventually called for peace in a video where he described his opponents as “so bad and so evil.” He told his followers, “We love you. You are very special.”

This is not, of course, how love is supposed to work. Love is not supposed to look like a violent mob, a battered wife, or a cowering child. Love should make things better, not worse. It ought to be grounded in dignity and truth. It should enrich and include.

Love is easily manipulated. The abuser takes advantage of his lover’s infatuation. The gullible child, the frightened wife, and the devoted loyalist are bewildered by perverted eroticism. The victims of erotic exploitation are confused by lies, threats, and gaslighting. Their trust is twisted, their emotions manipulated.

The Greeks pictured Eros, the god of love, as a mischievous spirit. Eros inspires courage and sacrifice. But this can become fanatical. Eros afflicts us with a kind of madness that connects us to the divine. But love often becomes its opposite.

Freud suggested that eros and aggression are intertwined. Love inspires us to courageously defend those we love against insults and threats. This natural instinct distinguishes friend from foe. When this instinct is perverted, it fuels racism and ethnic violence. In joining together with those we love, we sometimes turn against those we hate.

Love is also connected to power and to madness. Erotic love can make people do crazy things. The sexual appetite destroys common sense.

Plato linked the madness of love to tyranny. He recognized that love empowers the tyrant. The tyrant’s self-love is excessive. Despite his narcissism, his followers love him. Their strange infatuation leads them to do shameful deeds on the tyrant’s behalf.

This happens in politics, in cults, and in families. Sadistic husbands, abusive priests, and vicious politicians remain beloved despite their crimes. This is as irrational as it is dangerous. Misguided love encourages and apologizes for the tyrant’s transgressions. The wife refuses to press charges. The cult closes in to protect the abuser. The partisans rally round the tyrant’s flag.

Despite what he says, the tyrant does not really love his adoring disciples. He loves only himself. When the chance arises, he will throw his devotees under the bus without blinking an eye.

Genuine love is different. The Apostle Paul said that love is patient and kind. It is not aggressive or easily angered. It is not proud or self-serving. It rejoices in the truth. Christians maintain that God is love. The Christian vision of love involves giving and forgiving, mercy and sacrifice.

A similar idea is found in Plato, who suggested that Eros holds the key to virtue and happiness. Tyrannical love closes us off in aggression and violence. Platonic love opens us up to friendship and wisdom.

Love enchants and expands. It leads us beyond the narrowness of ego toward something larger. It widens our circle and enriches the self. Plato said it connects us to eternal truths. Platonic love transforms both self and world. Things become more beautiful and joyful. We are inspired to embrace and to create.

There is energy and light in love. The lover’s flame warms and illuminates. This heat can also burn out of control. Love can sink into possessive jealously. Fanatical desire can become destructive. Tyrants abuse love in families, religions, and states.

The solution is to put Eros on trial. When Eros becomes tyrannical, it must be convicted and corrected. Love ought to help instead of hurt. It ought to decrease violence and build community. It ought to keep us open to the possible. And instead of causing terror and tears, it ought to give us hope.

Sloppy Thinking and the Trump Impeachment

Fresno Bee, Feb. 7, 2021

Sloppy language is a sign of sloppy thinking. Our culture is brimming with slop. Prose piles up. Text scrolls by. Much of this is unedited and unenlightening. We are awash in words. But we are not any wiser.

Good writing and good thinking are undermined by procrastination and lack of focus. I see this in my students’ work. The later the submission, the more likely the typos. This is a distracted age. Hyperlinks open the floodgates of diversion. These flowing tangents impede concentration.

Students can be forgiven for their sloppiness. They are still learning how to think and write. But in the professional world, there is no excuse. We expect precision of language in scientists, doctors, lawyers and political leaders. This expectation of precision helps explain why the typos in Donald Trump’s response to the recent articles of impeachment have been widely mocked.

The former president is charged by the House of Representatives with inciting an insurrection. The gravity of this charge is profound. It requires a careful rebuttal. But on the first page of their response, Trump’s lawyers misspell the name of our country. The address line of the memo says “To: The Honorable, the Members of the Unites States Senate.” The same gaffe is repeated on page nine.

This typo is easy to understand. The “s” key is next to the “d” key. “Unites” is a word. So spell-checking software won’t flag it. Proofreaders often overlook titles and italicized words. We also know that Trump struggled to find attorneys willing to defend him. It is easy to imagine these last-minute lawyers frantically typing in the wee hours.

These kinds of mistakes happen when we are rushed or stressed. We’ve all been there. A deadline looms. You work hard to meet it. You hit send. Only later do you notice your linguistic blunders.

Often this is no big deal. The importance of spelling and grammar depends on the context. An occasional “covfefe” in a tweet only makes us human.

But there are moments when the text needs to be perfect. A typo in your resume can lose you the job. Grammatical ambiguity in contracts and laws cause legal battles.

Some documents have profound historical and legal import. Scholars quibble over commas and word choice in ancient religious texts. Disputes about the Constitution concentrate on textual subtleties. This linguistic quibbling is part of the current Trump impeachment.

The question about whether a former president can be impeached depends upon how you read the word “and” in the Constitution’s description of impeachment. The Constitution states, “Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.”

Does this mean, as Trump’s defenders argue, that impeachment is no longer valid once the office holder’s term is completed? Trump’s attorneys say that removal from office is “a condition precedent which must occur before, and jointly with” disqualification.

On the other hand, the brief against Trump claims that the placement of the word “and” suggests that impeachment can also extend to disqualification from future office. The House impeachment managers argue, “The Framers then provided two separate remedies, both focused on an offender’s ability to seek and exercise government power: removal from office and disqualification from future officeholding.”

In the impeachment trial, in addition to this technicality of constitutional interpretation, we will see lots of discussion of Trump’s language. Words like “incitement” and “insurrection” will be debated, along with the general sloppiness of Trump’s language and thought. A significant question will be whether Trump actually meant what he said when he incited the crowd to riot.

The takeaway for ordinary people is to be more careful in speech and thought. Clear thinking depends on clarity of expression. This is especially important in formal communication. Technicalities matter in professional life. Typos can destroy careers. Laziness can lead to liability. And loose language can start a riot.

Wisdom is not measured by the volume or velocity of our words. Good thinking takes time. Good writing requires revision. If you want to be understood and respected, you must slow down and choose your words wisely.

Ethical Whiplash and Learning to Dance Like Socrates

Fresno Bee, January 31, 2021

Rapidly shifting values create confusion and distrust. To live well in tumultuous times you need strong character and a supple spine. Stability and strength should combine with flexibility and the creative imagination. As we seek our way in chaos, we need to learn how to think critically and also how to dance.

This is an era of ethical whiplash. The Trump-Biden seesaw has been bewildering. One bizarre manifestation was the appearance and disappearance of President Trump’s 1776 Commission report.

On Monday, Jan. 18, President Trump released a diatribe against the liberal academy, written by conservative pundits. Among other things, the report concluded that American universities are “hotbeds of anti-Americanism, libel, and censorship that combine to generate in students and in the broader culture at the very least disdain and at worst outright hatred for this country.

Historians panned the Trump report. The American Historical Association said that its authors “call for a form of government indoctrination of American students, and in the process elevate ignorance about the past to a civic virtue.” As soon as Joe Biden was inaugurated, on Jan. 20, the report disappeared from the White House website.

These gyrations are disorienting. This tumult at the top breeds cynicism, polarization, anger, and even violence.

The solution is to combine toleration with love of truth, to think deeply but also to take things lightly. Historical and ethical truth should resist the shifting winds. But these truths are complicated. So as we search for truth, we must also learn to leave each other alone and take disagreement in stride.

This requires a difficult balancing act. A model can be found in the idea of a Socrates who dances. Socrates criticized the mythic history of his day. But Socrates also danced and played.

Socrates lived in an era of ethical whiplash. A plague had ravaged Athens, along with a brutal war. There was profound moral, political, and religious uncertainty. Socrates was accused of being part of the problem by the Athenian equivalent of Trump’s “1776 Commission.” His accusers claimed he taught unpatriotic doctrines and that he corrupted the youth. They sentenced him to death.

Socrates was legendary for his simplicity and strength. He was a war hero. He walked barefoot in the winter. He drank, but never got drunk. And according to his friends, he danced, even in his old age.

Or so the story goes. This transpired over two millennia ago. Did Socrates really dance? Who knows? But the legend inspires us to seek strength and grace and poise.

Socrates remains a hero because he lived and died with courage, integrity, and good humor. Physical and mental strength helped him endure. Spiritual flexibility helped him thrive. He challenged authority and stuck with the truth. He also knew when to yield and how to maintain his equilibrium.

For those of us who are tired of the squabbling, perhaps the best thing we can do is hold fast to truth while letting loose with a dance. Socrates provides a model of a limber soul that is deeply rooted. The Socratic soul is well-balanced and resilient.

In our disembodied world of social distancing and virtual reality, we rarely dance. Instead, we hunch over our screens and surf our silos of information. It is no wonder that anger and resentment fester. Bodies are built to move. Voices are made to sing. And thought needs the freedom to wander.

Socrates teaches us to defend the truth. But he also takes things lightly. History shows that human nature includes nobility and absurdity, cruelty and grace. It also teaches us that wisdom is a dance.