Compassion

I’m happy to announce the publication of my new book, Compassion. This is the second volume of The Three Mountains.

This book follows the trail of compassion. It offers poetic insight, stunning photography, and the wisdom of ancient philosophy. The book reflects on the meaning of compassion in a world that contains both beauty and suffering. It will provoke, invigorate, and make you wonder.

The book weaves spiritual teachings together with folktales and natural history in a way that surprises and inspires. Compassion involves laughter, chaos, tears, and joy. Compassion is about overflowing and becoming broader.

Excerpt: “The instinct to share is primordial. No one wants to drink or dance alone. We share the wine because happiness and sadness need company. We toast the illusions of life, laughing out loud at the glowing red of sunset and the silver light of moonrise. We toast the illusions of life, singing hymns to lost friends, dead dogs, and silent grandmothers. Here’s to the eyes that once saw this beauty, now closed forever. Here’s to the child whose eyes have just opened.”

The Ethics of Resigning Governors and State Recall Elections

Fresno Bee, August 15, 2021

To resign or not to resign? That’s not quite Hamlet’s question. But it’s close.

In New York, the governor resigned in disgrace, while Californians are trying to kick our governor out of office. New York’s Andrew Cuomo is accused of sexual harassment, fudging the numbers during the pandemic, and other misdeeds. Cuomo said he would step aside so as not to be a distraction from the business of governing.

California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, is not accused of sexual harassment. But he is accused of mishandling the pandemic, being soft on crime, contributing to rising poverty, and so on. In California, there will be a special recall election.

It may seem obvious that if a leader misbehaves, he or she should step aside or be removed.

But Donald Trump and Bill Clinton provide counter-examples. Both clung to power, despite the sleaze and the impeachments. The Trump-Clinton model is one of pugnacious resistance. They teach us to fight the opposition, malign the accusers, and circle the wagons. In both cases, this strategy worked.

Bad guys who refuse to resign typically claim that they are defending their integrity and honor against false accusations. They are lying, of course. But once you are on the highway to hell, the cover-ups are par for the course.

For decent people, this is appalling. If the accusations are true, you should step aside. That’s what a good person would do. Of course, if you are a good person, there probably won’t be any accusations.

Cuomo’s resignation complicates this somewhat. He claims that the accusations against him are false. But he resigned anyway. He said, more or less, I’m not guilty but I’m resigning.

But isn’t that what a guilty person would say? We suspect that by stepping down, he is admitting guilt. That’s the way most people interpret Richard Nixon’s resignation. He said, “I am not a crook.” He resigned before he could be convicted for his “dirty tricks.”

A good rule of thumb is that when scandals get in the way of your job, it is time to go. For most jobs, even governor or president, there are lots of competent people who could do them. If you are plagued by accusations of wrongdoing (whether true or false), you should get out of the way and let someone else take over. Once your leadership becomes a liability, step aside in the name of the common good.

But we cling to our jobs. Sometimes this is malicious. Lascivious scout masters and pedophile priests hang on to their positions. In other cases, people feel entitled to the prestige they have earned. They want to hold on to the money and the status, come hell or high water.

Furthermore, political leadership in a democracy is connected to the will of the people. Newsom won the 2018 election by a 24-point margin. It would seem undemocratic for him to resign. This would subvert the will of the majority who voted for him. And since we have a recall procedure in our state Constitution, this is the most democratic way to proceed.

Of course, Trump supporters made a similar point about Trump during his impeachments — that impeachment was like spitting in the eye of those who voted for Trump. And so it goes. The democracy trump card can be played by anyone.

All of this is exacerbated by polarization and distrust. When our guy (or gal) is in office, we circle the wagons. When the other party is in control, we go on the attack. Our political life can appear to be a game of partisan “gotcha.”

But there are cases when ethics rises above politics. A few Republicans have refused to circle their wagons around Trump. And in Cuomo’s case, his own party turned against him.

This points toward the solution. Hamlet felt himself to be alone in the world. But American politicians are not alone. Their power is the result of a social process. It involves parties, donors and voters.

In the long run, what matters is the truth and the common good. The hyperpartisans on the barricades will be remembered as hypocrites and sycophants. Those who pursue truth, justice, and the common good are the heroes of democracy.

Amateurs, Morons, and Professionals

There’s an ironic critique of amateurs in The Big Lebowski. Walter (played by John Goodman) keeps complaining about “f***ing amateurs.”  But Walter is an amateur.   He is a caricature of the great American “do-it-yourself” ethos. 

He claims that other people don’t know what they are doing.  But neither does he.  And so Walter keeps f***ing things up.

Some things ought to be left to the professionals.  A professional has specialized training, lots of experience, and a certain talent or skill.  But Americans distrust professionals.  We think that since we are all created equal, we should be able to do-it-ourselves.

Our suspicion of professionalism has some connection with Trumpism, the anti-vax movement, and the American distrust of science.  Professionals are elites.  But we don’t like elites.  We’d rather diagnose our own diseases and interpret the data for ourselves.  We think we are smarter than the doctors, the scientists, and the “mainstream media.”

As we’ve seen, this can lead to disaster.

The conflict between professionalism and amateurism is an ancient one.  Plato criticized democracy as a rule of amateurs.  According to Plato, this is a terrible idea.  Plato’s ideal republic is a nation run by professionals.  He describes a rigorous training method for selecting the rulers.  And he suggests that tyrants have not successfully completed the program.

Tyrants are the worst of the amateurs.  The etymology of the word “amateur” gives us a clue.  The root of the word is “love” (ama-).  Tyrants love power.  But they don’t want to develop the skill, virtue, and expertise necessary to rule.  They grab power without training themselves in wielding it wisely. 

This is not to suggest that all amateurs are tyrants.  There is something admirable about a dedicated amateur.  Amateurs do things because they love them.  They are not in it for the money or the fame.  But a virtuous amateur understands that some things ought to be left to the professionals. 

Things have changed quite a bit in recent decades when it comes to the difference between amateurs and professionals.  The Olympics, for example, used to ban professional athletes.  And while amateur athletes are inspiring, the pros are better.

In some fields, the professionals have been kicked to the curb.  In other fields, increased specialization makes it impossible for amateurs to survive.  Often this is about money: who makes it, who controls it, and where it flows.

At one time, Youtube was a place for amateurs to share videos.  But Youtube went commercial and the professionals staged a comeback, elbowing out the amateurs in pursuit of advertising revenue. 

Similar struggles have played out in other corners of the economy.  Ride-sharing apps like Uber compete with professional cab drivers.  Airbnb circumvents the professionals at Hyatt and Hilton.  Amazon allows self-published authors to reach a wide audience.  And so on.

Each of these stories is complicated.  In some cases, the rise of the amateurs has allowed for an outburst of creative entrepreneurship.  In other cases, you end up with crappy self-published books and weird cars driving you around town.

There is also lots of confusion about what’s true, what’s real, and what’s beneficial.  The Covid-19 debacle shows us what’s at stake.  Rather than trust the scientists, the amateurs are playing doctor. 

Early in the pandemic, non-experts claimed that Covid-19 was no worse than an ordinary cold or flu.  Then the amateurs doubted professional advice about masks and social distancing.  And now the non-professionals are skeptical of vaccines.  Meanwhile, the pandemic rages on.

Plato was right that in an ideal world we’d put the professionals in charge.  But in a democratic country that values individual liberty, the amateurs will resist.  The solution is better education.  But that’s a long-term and ongoing solution. In the meantime, we’re left with a mess. 

At one point in The Big Lebowski, the Dude (Jeff Bridges) says to Walter: “Walter, I love you, but sooner or later, you’re going to have to face the fact you’re a goddamn moron.” This is us. Let’s face the fact that we are a bunch of amateurs and morons, mucking things up. What’s not to love?

Drought, Fire, and Traffic: Lessons from Yosemite

Fresno Bee, August 1, 2021

Half Dome is as sublime as ever. But it presides over a valley where California’s drought is obvious. When I visited Yosemite this past week, the Merced River was barely flowing. Vernal Falls was a trickle. And Yosemite Falls was a dry dribble. We’re running out of water, folks.

If you drive to Shaver Lake, you see another warning about our hot, dry future. Last year’s fire left a scorched and desolate landscape. A few green shoots are returning. Forests are resilient. But their resilience is measured in decades. The forest will not return in my lifetime.

Our grandchildren will inherit a world of drought, fire, and heat. The climate is changing. The American West is drying up, including the mighty Colorado. As the land dries out, the fires will be worse.

Last week in this column, I talked about the “tragedy of the commons.” When we fail to cooperate, we end up with bad outcomes. This happens with regard to vaccines and masks. The drought provides another worrying example.

The California Water Resources Control Board met recently to consider cutbacks on water allocations. If the state imposes restrictions, they will be unpopular. Farmers will protest, as will back-yard gardeners.

The pandemic has shown that scarcity breeds polarization and conflict. In lean times, people get grumpy.

The good news is that we can learn to do better. It is easy to single out the anti-mask, anti-vax crowd. But the majority of people educated themselves and did the right thing.

Environmental issues will require similar cooperative evolution. Those of us who grew up in a cooler, wetter world will resent the restrictions of the hot future. But our grandchildren will be better at this than we are. They will have no other choice.

Spiritual and ethical evolution will be needed in a world where lots of people are competing for scarce water. If we don’t learn to cooperate, things will get worse.

A recent change in Yosemite provides a bit of hope. These days you need a reservation to visit the park. The reservation system is a response to pandemic social-distancing. They say it is only temporary. But it has solved Yosemite’s long-standing overcrowding problem.

When I visited Yosemite in May, before the reservation system started, it was impossible to park. The trails were packed. The traffic barely moved. Yosemite’s epic traffic is another example of the tragedy of the commons. When there are no limits on cars, there is gridlock, and everyone suffers.

When I visited recently after making a reservation, it was much better. The traffic was light. Parking was easy. The trails were uncrowded.

Of course, the reservation requirement is a pain. You can’t take a spontaneous trip to Yosemite anymore. In the old days, you could hike up Half Dome whenever you wanted. Now you need a reservation just to drive into the park.

It’s not hard to imagine a future where a visit to Yosemite always requires a reservation. Grumpy old timers will grouse and complain. For those of us who grew up with free and easy access, this stinks. But we will adapt, if we understand that these restrictions and limitations are in everyone’s interest.

There are reasons to hope. Human beings can learn and improve. This is a slow process. And meaningful change often only comes at the last minute. But we can evolve and respond with intelligence and compassion.

Scarcity can fuel the growth of elitism and inequality. This is why compassion and justice are needed. The reservation system makes it harder for working-class people to enjoy Yosemite. A similar problem holds for water and other resources. Rich people can buy their way out of scarcity, while poor people suffer.

Again, the pandemic provides an example. Wealthy professionals profited from low interest rates, a real estate boom, and jobs that allow telecommuting. It was poor and working-class people who suffered the worst impacts of the pandemic.

Let’s learn from that. As we respond to a hot, dry future, we must avoid exacerbating inequality. Rich people should not be allowed to cut the line or consume more than the rest of us. Water is a common good. And everyone should have access to majestic places like Yosemite.

Covid Karma: The Mask Debate Evolves

Fresno Bee, July 25, 2021

Masks are back, along with protests against them. Fresno County public health officials recommend that everyone wear masks again in public. This includes kids in schools, which prompted parents in Clovis to protest the need for kids to wear masks.

The resurgence of COVID is the vexing result of vaccine skepticism. Experts have explained that this is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated. This is frustrating for vaccinated people. We hoped the vaccine would get us back to normal. But that only works if everyone gets vaccinated.

Unvaccinated people are still supposed to wear masks. But anti-vaxxers are also likely to be anti-maskers. Unvaccinated and unmasked people are at risk. And it is through them that the virus spreads and mutates.

Political polarization is part of the problem. A report from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that Republicans are less likely to get vaccinated than Democrats. But not every vaccine-skeptic is Republican. And some Republicans believe in vaccines and masks. Ignorance, fear, and selfishness are non-partisan problems.

Vaccine skepticism is more complicated than political ideology. Some religious people refuse vaccines on dogmatic grounds. Some people are allergic or have other health conditions that rule out vaccination. And vaccinations for children remain problematic.

This subtlety is ignored when people start casting blame upon the unmasked and unvaccinated. Some go so far as to invoke a kind of karmic comeuppance for the unvaccinated. I have heard more than one person say something like, “Well, it’s those unvaccinated folks own fault. They deserve what they get. I hope they hurry up and die so we can get back to normal.”

The people who say this usually say it with a wink and a whisper. They take it back quickly, claiming it is a joke or that they don’t really mean it. But it’s an awful thing to say.

This cringe-worthy blame game is a symptom of a profound social malfunction. The anti-vaxxers don’t trust the public health system. The pro-vaxxers don’t have any sympathy for the anti-vaxxers. As the pandemic continues, anger and exasperation are more common than kindness and compassion.

This dysfunction is similar to other rips in our unraveling social fabric.

Productive social life requires thick webs of cooperation. In a well-functioning society, cooperation is contagious. Successful cooperation makes people more cooperative. Cooperators are rewarded. As we share the goods of social life, we become even more cooperative.

But when cooperation breaks down, there is a vicious cycle fueled by distrust and animosity. This has been described by psychologists and philosophers in terms of “the prisoner’s dilemma” and “the tragedy of the commons.” The basic problem is that when we fail to cooperate, we end up with worse outcomes.

This helps explain a number of political and moral problems. Consider climate change. If other people are consuming mass quantities of fossil fuels, why should I cut back? As the climate heats up and the other guy is guzzling gas, I may lose the motivation to regulate my own consumption.

Or consider the controversy about the integrity of the 2020 election. If the other party is stealing elections or undermining confidence in democratic elections, then why should I cooperate? When trust erodes, democracy collapses.

Similar worries hold for COVID restrictions. Those who cooperated for the past year did so with the expectation that if everyone cooperated, things would get better. But the non-cooperators have undermined that hope.

This is a dangerous moment. We risk losing the buy-in of the folks who cooperated in the first place. Their virtuous behavior has not been rewarded. So, the motivation to cooperate fades.

One solution to this problem is moral. If the minor inconvenience of covering my mouth in public can save people’s lives, then I should mask up. Blame and karma ought to play no part in this moral calculation.

But moral concern is not the only thing that motivates us. Our emotions are also involved. That’s why we also need inspiration and hope. More people need to be inspired to get vaccinated. Those who wear masks need to be praised for their virtue. And those who are vaccinated need to be reassured that their cooperation was not in vain