“What is truth?” Truth and Power in the Trump Era

Fresno Bee, March 31, 2024

Truth and power have always been at odds. When Jesus claimed that he came into the world to testify to the truth, Pontius Pilate scoffed, “What is truth?” The powerful do what they want, indifferent to the truth. The meek end up suffering.

The Donald Trump melodrama provides a more recent example. Trump is skilled at twisting the narrative and making people wonder what is really true. While he was in court for his porn-star-hush-money trial, Trump shared a post that compared his tribulations to those of Jesus. But is it true that Trump is being persecuted like Jesus was?

Well, “What is truth?” Was the 2020 election a fraud? Was Jan. 6 an insurrection? Did Trump pay off a porn star? Did he really rape E. Jean Carroll? Leaving those sordid affairs aside, what is Trump really worth?

Trump seems to have made billions as his social media company went public. The company is not profitable, but the stock price jumped. Pundits are describing it as a meme stock, whose value is divorced from reality.

At the same time, Trump has been convicted of fraud in New York and fined more than $450 million. Despite his wealth, he claimed he was unable to post a bond while the decision is being appealed. The court reduced the amount to $175 million dollars just as Trump was making those newfound billions. Is he rich enough to pay the fine or not? Is his company really worth all of those billions? What is the truth?

These are unimaginable sums for normal, honest people. The story of Trump’s financial ups and down exposes the rotten core of modern capitalism and political life. This is a “let them eat cake” economy in which wealthy fraudsters get rich while homeless people sleep on city streets.

The name of Trump’s social media application, “Truth Social” discloses part of the problem. Truth is not social. Truth is solid and substantial. It is based in the world of facts. More importantly, truth requires honesty and sincerity.

Fraud, lying, and deception undermine truth. But when there is so much nonsense circulating, it becomes difficult to distinguish truth from falsehood. Quacks and charlatans take advantage of this situation. Many of us don’t seem to care. Or perhaps we have been subject to so much misinformation, disinformation and noise that we just throw up our hands, asking, “What is truth?”

A number of us seem eager to jump on the latest bandwagon, indifferent to the truth. We all do this from time to time. If a stock is trending higher, we buy it. If a celebrity endorses something, we use it. When everyone is mocking someone or sharing a stupid meme, we add to the pile. Instead of keeping our eye on truth and virtue, we are distracted by the shiny bells and whistles of the latest craze.

But the bandwagon has no substance. The opinions and beliefs that percolate through social media are merely gossip and gas. Things do not magically become true because people keep repeating them.

In an economy of bubbles and bunkum, we don’t know what anything is really worth. The rise and fall of meme stocks and celebrities as much about herd mentality as it is about any concrete value. And the “truths” that bounce around on social media are produced by “influencers” instead of experts.

The antidote for this is obvious. We need better critical thinking. We also need faith that in the long run the truth will triumph.

This takes us back to Jesus and his interaction with Pilate. It is there that Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” This is a reminder that there is another, better world in which truth and virtue matter. The kingdoms of this world float on hot air. Wisdom and truth have deeper roots.

It is instructive to note that Jesus did not argue with Pilate. The powerful are not interested in genuine arguments about truth. They pander to the mob, do what they want, and then wash their hands. This means that in the short run, untruth may succeed. But one of the hopeful messages of Easter is that in the long run the truth will prevail.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article287190845.html#storylink=cpy

Intellectual Freedom and Resurgent Censorship

At Fresno State, we recently hosted a discussion of book banning with Professor Emily JM Knox, who presented a compelling case for the need to think critically about resurgent censorship. Professor Knox discussed efforts to remove, restrict, redact, and relocate books in libraries. She has made similar points in Congressional testimony in September, 2023, where she reiterated ideas found in her book, Foundations of Intellectual Freedom.

Here in Fresno County, county libraries are restricting access to certain books, that as a Count Board resolution states “contain sexual writings, sexual references, sexual images, gender-identity content, and other sexual content or content deemed age-inappropriate.” This effort prompted the Freedom to Read Foundation, the ACLU, and others to write a strongly worded letter opposing the plan.  That letter stated that the rule would violate the First Amendment and “impose an unlawful and invasive censorship regime on the constitutional right to access library books.”

The effort to balance freedom of thought with the desire to protect young people from harm is a legitimate conflict of values. There are well-meaning people on both sides of this debate. First Amendment rights are fundamental to an open society. And yet, there may be good reasons to restrict the liberty of children. We do not allow kids to buy alcohol, firearms, or pornography, or hang out in bars. But there are always risks when limiting liberty, and critics of censorship fear a slippery slope toward other restrictions of freedom of thought.

This issue seems to breed polarization. Some book ban proponents are conservative reactionaries, unhappy with society’s permissive views of gender and sexuality. A similar kind of “anti-woke” conservatism inspires those who want to ban books that discuss critical race theory. Meanwhile, the liberal critics of the anti-woke movement describe it as a war on truth and a war on black history. Liberals tend see censorship of sexual content as prudish, bigoted, intolerant, and closed-minded. But right-wingers claim that those liberals are anti-American “groomers” intent on destroying civilization. And so it goes in a polarized culture, where it is increasingly difficult to find common ground. 

For my part, I am worried about a slippery slope toward broader censorship and authoritarianism. The new censorship must be understood in connection with dangerous nonsense about ‘fake news’ and the press as ‘the enemy of the people’ (as I have described in my book on Trump and tyranny).

History provides some warnings. Censorship has occurred throughout American history. In one of my first publications, I discussed the Kansas state school board’s ban on the teaching of evolution, which occurred in the 1990’s. Given this bit of recent history and the rise of Christian nationalist ideology, we ought to be worried about resurgent censorship. 

Authoritarian political movements generally want to limit liberty. This is not a partisan issue. Although recent cases, and the Kansas evolution case, involve right-wing censorship, left-wing causes can also employ authoritarian tactics. Mao Tse-Tung once said that more books you read, the stupider you become.  During Mao’s Cultural Revolution books were burned. More recently, Chinese Communists have staged book burnings as the Party seeks tighter ideological control.

The antidote for this is to remain committed to the fundamental value of free, open, and critical inquiry. Philosophers have defended intellectual freedom, ever since Socrates was executed for asking critical questions. Philosophers think that persuasion is superior to coercion. We think that good ideas can defend themselves without the need for censorship. There may be, in some cases, a need to protect children. But in the long run, the best way to protect both truth and democracy is to affirm the importance of a broad conception of intellectual freedom. 

In my paper on the Kansas school board’s ban on evolution, I turned to one of America’s great philosophers, John Dewey, for inspiration. Dewey was a staunch defender of open inquiry and democracy. In conclusion, I want to share a couple of sentences from an essay on Intellectual Freedom written by Dewey during his visit to China over a hundred years ago:

A dictatorship can endure only when its people are denied the freedom to think, to speak, and to publish freely; to state the converse, the enjoyment of intellectual freedom would guarantee the overthrow of the dictatorship…. Freedom of intellectual life is not only indispensable to a democratic society, but is also the most greatly feared threat to a dictatorial government. In fact, we can say that this freedom is a necessary condition to human progress.

It Ain’t Easy Being Good: Living Well in Exhausting Times

Fresno Bee, March 17, 2024

It is not easy to live a good life. In fact, the difficulty of the task is what makes goodness worth pursuing. If you think it is easy to live well, you’ve misunderstood the nature of morality and the world. The anxiety of virtue is a fundamental feature of the project of living well.

A recent essay by Professor Travis Rieder in Time describes the present age as “morally exhausting.” Rieder says, “Modern life is morally exhausting. And confusing. Everything we do seems to matter. But simultaneously: nothing we do seems to matter.”

Rieder frets about whether drinking almond milk or driving an electric car does enough for the environment. He worries about whether it does any good to “boycott” artists by not watching them on Netflix. I don’t doubt that some people worry about such things. But we Americans are lucky that this is all we have to worry about. In Russia these days, moral courage can get you sent to Siberia or poisoned by the state.

At any rate, moral exhaustion and confusion are not bugs of modernity. Rather, this is a perennial feature of the pursuit of goodness. New technologies and new knowledge must be integrated into our moral lives. But it has always been difficult to be good.

Imagine, for example, the moral confusion of the followers of Socrates or Jesus, beloved leaders who were executed by the state. Or imagine the moral exhaustion of life in Nazi Germany or Cold War Eastern Europe. For that matter, imagine life today in Gaza, Haiti, or Russia. There are places on this earth where violence, deprivation and oppression threaten moral integrity as well as life itself.

From a historical vantage point, Professor Rieder’s worries about almond milk are quaintly bourgeois. The moral struggles of the American present pale in comparison to the struggles of our past. This continent has seen violent conflicts between colonizers and indigenous people. The American revolutionaries made a difficult moral choice to break away from their British cousins. And during the Civil War, neighboring states went to war over the morality of slavery and the identity of the Union.

Rieder uses his examples to point out that it often seems that individual choices have little impact on huge problems. This is true. Your individual dietary choices won’t stop climate change or change Hollywood. Nor will your single vote change the political dynamic of our country.

The fact of our smallness can lead to an existential crisis. It seems that nothing individuals do has much of an impact on the great big world. Recognizing your smallness can provoke anxiety and despair. It can also lead you to give up trying. If nothing you do will change things, then why bother?

But nihilism and neglect are forms of complicity. You should feel guilty if you stop trying to make things better. Your moral effort matters. You may not change the course of history. But your individual commitments are significant for you and for those who know you. History won’t remember your choices. But you have to live with them. Your friends will remember your words and deeds. Your life establishes a model for your colleagues and loved ones.

It can be tough to constantly worry about the morality of what you choose to eat, drive, watch and buy. It is also draining to worry about who gets elected, whether the wars we fund and fight are justified, and the daunting challenges of racism and climate change.

But the moral life is not supposed to be easy. It helps to develop good habits of ethical hygiene. You must practice kindness, gratitude, and truth-telling. It also helps to have good friends and mentors who keep you on the right path. But at the end of the day, each one of us has to choose what kind of life we want to live.

Luckily, most Americans are free to make these choices in a relatively stable environment. Even then, we all confront despair and anxiety. But morality requires tenacity and zest. It is hard work to live well. If you want to succeed in living well, it’s up to you to rise to the challenge.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article286716915.html#storylink=cpy

The Wrath of God and the U.S. Constitution

Fresno Bee, March 10, 2024

Alabama has crafted legislation that will allow in vitro fertilization (IVF) to commence again, in response to a February ruling of the Alabama Supreme Court that shut it down. That’s promising for folks who want to use IVF technology to become parents.

But the court’s reasoning reminds us of the need to reaffirm the basic idea of separation of church and state.

In his concurring decision, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme, Tom Parker, cited the Bible, as well as Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and other Christian theologians to support his claim that “all human beings bear God’s image from the moment of conception.”

He concluded, “Human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself.” And “Even before birth, all human beings bear the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory.”

Some Christians will agree. Various Christian communities, including the Roman Catholic church, teach that IVF is wrong, along with abortion. One concern is that IVF results in extra embryos, what the Alabama high court called “extrauterine children.” If they are destroyed, the court suggests that this is murder.

IVF also violates “natural law” teaching about sexual reproduction. Natural law ethics holds that reproduction should only occur within loving, conjugal relations. But IVF involves masturbation and technological manipulation that supposedly violates the nature of sex, love and procreation.

Of course, not every Christian agrees with this moral analysis. Christians are not universally opposed to the procreative use of technology. Nor is every Christian opposed to masturbation, abortion or to methods of birth control that prevent fertilized embryos from implanting in the uterus.

Christians don’t all agree that life begins at conception. Indeed, Thomas Aquinas himself claimed, following Aristotle, that the soul is only present in the embryo at 40 days (for male children) and at 90 days for females.

The world’s diverse religious traditions teach different things about sex, genetic humanity and human reproduction. There is also a sizable and growing number of nonreligious Americans who don’t accept natural law ethics or the idea of a wrathful God.

That’s why invoking the wrath of God in a legal argument seems astonishingly un-American. The American government is the result of a social contract. It is a grand compromise created by “We, the people.”

Moreover, the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees the right to religious liberty while prohibiting the establishment of an official state religion. The only other mention of religion in the Constitution is found in Article VI, where religious tests for office are prohibited.

But in Alabama things seem otherwise. In a recent interview, Chief Justice Parker said, “God created government.” The founders would disagree. They viewed the government as the result of a social compact that aimed to produce domestic tranquility. John Adams said that the American states were “founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretense of miracle or mystery.”

One important reason to reject Chief Justice Parker’s theopolitics is the fact of religious diversity. This diversity includes a wide variety of Christian faiths. Adams himself had unconventional religious beliefs. He did not accept the doctrine of the trinity and was doubtful about the divinity of Christ. In a letter to his son, he claimed that the idea of an “incarnate God” had “stupefied the Christian world.”

Americans of the 18th and 19th centuries disagreed about religion. These days, Christians disagree about whether “extrauterine children” bear God’s image. And even in Alabama there are non-Christians. According to the Pew Center, 1 % of Alabamans belong to non-Christian faiths and 12% are non-religious. So, it is bizarre to claim, as Justice Parker did, that “the theologically based view of the sanctity of life” ought to guide the law of the land. This is a religiously diverse nation.

The founding social contract created a secular democracy that guarantees religious liberty and seeks to prevent the creation of an established state religion. This idea allows Christians to follow their consciences with regard to IVF, sex, abortion, and everything else. It also ought to prevent the government from imposing a religious doctrine on any one of us.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article286440505.html#storylink=cpy

On the wisdom of not clinging to power

Fresno Bee, Feb. 18, 2024

We have entered an era of bumbling gerontocracy. The crusty old codgers clinging to power are embarrassing.

Consider the recent report of the special investigator in the Biden classified documents case. The report said that since Biden is a congenial old duffer, a jury would not convict him of mishandling official documents. The special counsel said, “Mr. Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory… He is someone for whom many jurors will want to identify reasonable doubt. It would be difficult to convince a jury that they should convict him.”

This has been red meat for the “Let’s go Brandon” crowd. And the Biden backers claim it is a partisan hit job. But the other side is no better. Trump is accused of fomenting an insurrection, among other crimes. And left-leaning pundits have chronicled Trump’s gaffes and mental slips, including how he confused Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi, and his bizarre recent claim that liberals want to rename Pennsylvania.

In a better world, both candidates would step aside. This will be a depressing dumpster fire of an election year. But perhaps we can learn something along the way about leadership and power.

A good leader should be smart, truthful and thoughtful. He or she should be courageous and compassionate. And a leader should not cling to power.

Plato explained, over two thousand years ago, that the best leaders are usually the least eager to lead. Would-be tyrants lie, cheat, and cajole their way into power. Virtuous people will not play that ugly game.

Plato said that wise rulers must be compelled to rule by a sense of justice and duty. He concluded that the best rulers are those who are “most reluctant to govern.” This sounds bizarre and almost impossible. Can we really imagine a person who serves as a matter of duty, and not because they desire glory?

George Washington may provide a model. When asked to consider the presidency, Washington said he would rather stay home. He said, “it is my great and sole desire to live and die in peace and retirement, on my own farm.” But if he were called upon to serve, he said, “I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man.”

Perhaps this was a kind of false modesty on Washington’s part. It is possible for a manipulative person to say “no” to power as a strategic ploy. They might deviously hope that a public display of humility will be persuasive.

But Washington’s writings reveal a man who was focused on questions of virtue. Washington wanted to be remembered as a man who dedicated his life to the service of his country with “an upright zeal.” This is how he put it in his Farewell Address, as he voluntarily left office after two terms at the age of 65.

Washington’s decision not to run for a third term established the basic norm of the two-term presidency. This norm was put into law after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four-term presidency.

Scholars debate the reasons for Washington’s refusal to run for a third term. But most seem to think that he really did desire to retreat to a private life at Mount Vernon. The consensus view seems to be, as one scholar put it, “in turning away from further service, Washington established himself as a model of selfless leadership.”

Selfless leadership is a noble idea. The best leaders should be reluctant to serve — but do so willingly, out of a sense of duty. They should want to be known as honest people. And they should have the constancy of character, and orientation toward virtue, that Washington called upright zeal.

They should also possess wisdom. Wisdom is different from quickness of wit. Young people are quick and witty. But wisdom comes with age and experience, and with a mellowing of the passions.

So, the age of our leading candidates is not the only thing that matters. What matters more is whether these old-timers are wise and virtuous, and whether they insist on clinging to power.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article285541682.html#storylink=cpy