Saying No to Racism, Brutality, and the Politics of Total Domination

Fresno Bee, June 7, 2020

Evil is contagious and brutality loves company. When George Floyd was killed, one of the officers involved should have said, “Stop it.” But peer pressure and the bandwagon can cause ordinary people to participate in terrible things. It is often easier to look away than to say, “This is wrong.”

So kudos to former Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis and to Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both of whom spoke out against abuses of power emanating from the White House. Critics may say that this is coming a bit late in the game. But better late than never.

The Rubicon was crossed this past week when the president threatened to deploy the military in pursuit of what he chillingly called “total domination.” The police and National Guard then used tear gas and grenades to drive peaceful protesters away from a church so Trump could pose with a Bible.

The president did not read the Bible at the church, of course. Nor did he cite an equally important document, the U.S. Constitution.

Each of the five freedoms of the First Amendment was under assault this week. The threat of total domination and police brutality undermines our freedom to assemble, protest, and petition. Journalists were shot at and arrested, in violation of freedom of the press. And then the president took a battering ram to the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state.

Our country needs a crash course in civics. You don’t hold a democracy together by domination. Nor do you unite a secular nation by brandishing a Bible. Cops and soldiers especially should read the Constitution with care. We consent to be governed because we believe that the institutions of government — including the military and police — exist to defend our rights.

That’s why police brutality is so appalling. When the police kill people in their custody, the social contract unravels. That’s also why efforts to create law and order through domination are un-American and counterproductive. Domination does not create consent, it breeds discontent.

The good news is that there are conscientious cops, soldiers and civil servants. Americans of all races volunteer to serve the public and protect the Constitution. Many public servants spoke out against the George Floyd killing and against racial injustice. Some even took a knee with protesters. And now Gen. Mattis and Adm. Mullen are reminding us of the need to reaffirm our commitment to the Constitution.

But this is not easy. Mullen’s statement opened a difficult can of worms. He said of the military, “They will obey lawful orders. But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief.”

If a cop or solider were given an order to violate the rights of citizens, would he or she refuse? Conscientious disobedience is a deeply American idea. But it is a question that rightly provokes fear and trembling.

The nation began in disobedience to tyranny. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Howard, the Earl of Effingham, was a British officer who became a hero to early Americans after he resigned his commission rather than fight the colonists. Henry David Thoreau said that if the law causes you “to be an agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, we have “a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” And in 2003, President George W. Bush warned Iraqi soldiers that they would be prosecuted for war crimes and that it would be no defense to say, “I was just following orders.”

This lesson can also be learned from George Floyd’s killing. A uniform does not protect a person from moral condemnation or from legal prosecution. The cops involved were fired and arrested. It seems obvious in retrospect that one of them should have said, “Stop it. This is wrong.”

In the heat of the moment, peer pressure and the bandwagon often prevail. But once the heat has dissipated, the world will condemn those who condone cruelty. And history will eventually shine a more flattering light on those who have the moral courage to say to the creeping shadow of total domination, “Stop it, this is wrong.”

Simplicity

Simplicity

Wisdom for tumultuous times

I am happy to announce the publication of my new book, Simplicity. It is available at Amazon.com in ebook (Kindle) or paperback (either with color photos or in black and white).

This is the first volume of a planned trilogy called The Three Mountains: Simplicity, Compassion, and Hope.

The book includes insights from the world’s wisdom traditions, along with photographs from my wandering in Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada, the Alps, and the Andes.

“Things change. They always have. They always will. One day we are born. We build, create, and dream. And then one day we die. For a short while, we are privileged to explore existence with grace, kindness, and fearless acceptance.”  
Excerpt from Simplicity

Available in Three Formats

Kindle Ebook

Color Paperback

Black and White

Singing the Blues in Difficult Times: Art and Creativity in the Pandemic

Fresno Bee, May 31, 2020

The pandemic has left people feeling numb, powerless, and hopeless. One recent article suggests that half of Americans have the blues. People are out of work and struggling to pay the rent. There is political animosity and racial tension.

Reopening things will get some folks back to work. But the economy is still a mess. Political nonsense continues to flow out of D.C. And a second wave of infections and shut-downs is waiting in the wings. We can’t go back to the carefree world we once knew.

This is a good time to turn to the blues, an art form full of nostalgia and despair. As John Lee Hooker sang, “Hard times are here to stay.” The world is out of joint. We dream of going home. But we can’t get there. So we sing.

Great songs, inspired novels, and new art will emerge from this crisis. Art grows from hard times.

The Great Depression gave birth to Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” for example. At one point in the story, poor folks chip in for a funeral for a child who died of malnourishment. Steinbeck then offers a simple prayer for the common man. “Pray God some day kind people won’t all be poor. Pray God some day a kid can eat.”

The Depression also inspired Langston Hughes’s dream of an America that didn’t exist. In the 1930s he wrote, “Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, the rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, we, the people, must redeem the land, the mines, the plants, the rivers … and make America again.”

These artists confronted the bleakness of their time with a kind of hope. Rather than weep and wail, artists turn suffering into song. And you don’t have to be a genius to participate in the magic of art. Everyone can make lemons into lemonade. The creative urge is deeply human.

Consider the surge in baking that occurred during quarantine. Stores ran short on flour and yeast. Bread nourishes the body. But there is therapy in the culinary arts. Mixing, kneading, and waiting give shape to bread — and to poetry and life.

Life is made meaningful by creative activities. Joy is found in sharing this with others, telling stories, singing, laughing, crying, and eating together.

We sing, bake, and build because of an upsurge of energy. A kind of spiritual leavening occurs in the active and inspired mind, as ideas and emotions ferment and overflow. The vitality of the mind impels it to create and to communicate.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that inspired spirits enrich the world out of their overflowing fullness. Art is the expression of will and energy. Suffering becomes meaningful when it is transformed into poetry, prayer and thought.

The blues tradition provides a great example. The blues grew out of the anguish of the African American experience. The novelist Ralph Ellison once explained that the blues express both the agony of life and a toughness of spirit. It offers no solutions or scapegoats. But it turns heartache into song. Ellison wrote, “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it.”

When hard times become art, courage and resilience emerge. Langston Hughes described the blues as sadness hardened with laughter. This requires audacity and tenacity. There are tears and loss. But the artist responds with energy and gives birth to something new that is both melancholy and beautiful.

I don’t mean to suggest that everyone ought to become professional artists. Artists are going to be hard-pressed to make a living these days. But one cure for the pandemic blues is to find solace in creativity, whether baking, singing or writing.

Nor do I mean to say that art can solve our problems. We need scientists to find a vaccine. Economists must tackle unemployment. And psychologists are needed to treat clinical depression. Art does not solve problems. Rather, it helps us cope. Art kneads our pain and causes it to ferment and rise up. And somehow this transforms the deep and lowdown blues into food for the soul.

The Problem of Protesting at People’s Homes

Protesters have targeted the private homes of public officials.  This is dangerous and misguided.  It risks violence and misunderstands political power and political protest.

In Idaho last month, after a woman was arrested for protesting COVID-19 restrictions, activists protested at the home of the cop who arrested her.  Last week in Fresno, California, anti-stay-at-homers protested at the apartment of a city council member and at the home of the mayor.  Also last week, a protest was planned at the home of California’s governor. 

There is symbolic value in protesting “stay-at-home” orders at the homes of public officials.  And people have a right to protest on sidewalks and city streets.  But these protests primarily seek to intimidate public officials.  And they are often merely opportunistic.  The Sacramento protesters explained this in a Facebook discussion.  One of the governor’s neighbors said the protesters should protest at the state capital.  An activist replied, “They won’t allow us to protest at the Capital…that’s the whole point of this.”

But a defiant protest at the Capital would be much more impactful, especially if the protesters got arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights.  In fact, 32 protestors were recently arrested in Sacramento for doing just that. 

Courting arrest is the point of civil disobedience as Thoreau explained, in his influential essay on civil disobedience.  When the law is unjust you should disobey it, Thoreau said, and willingly go to jail.  He wrote, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is in prison.”

This idea influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  The point of civil disobedience is to break unjust laws civilly and justly.  To be jailed for doing the right thing draws attention to the injustice of the law and the system that executes it. 

But protesting at the homes of public officials does not accomplish this systematic goal.  By focusing on the private homes of public officials, the legal system is ignored, which is where the real power lies.  Individual officials do not make laws, systems do. 

Some public officials may in fact disagree, in private, with the policies they execute in public.  But their duty is to execute the law.  The Idaho cop didn’t make the law.  He only enforced it.  Don’t protest the cop. Protest the law.

Mayors and governors have more power and discretion.  But they are not dictators.  They inhabit a bureaucratic system.  That’s why the proper place to protest is at city hall or the state capital.  Protesting where systems of power reside draws attention to policy problems.

A similar mistake is made by anti-Trumpers who have assailedTrump staff and cabinet member at restaurants and other non-official places.  But a person at a restaurant is not acting in an official capacity.  Politicians, of whatever stripe, have a right to be off-duty.

The tendency to personalize the political reflects our growing inability to distinguish between public and private.  Privacy has eroded in the era of social media and a 24-7 work-world.  Folks who lack a sense of privacy don’t appreciate the distinction between public roles and private persons serving in those roles.  But without that distinction everything becomes political and nothing remains of private life.  When the distinction between policy and personality is effaced, life becomes more polarized and less civil.

Finally, let’s note that protests at private homes are strategically misguided.  Such protests tend to turn off potential sympathizers.  The goal of political protest should be to generate outrage and empathy among possible supporters.  But a protest at a home or at a restaurant defeats that purpose by making the protestors appear to be vindictive bullies.  Public protests and civil disobedience are more effective at persuading others to see the justice of one’s cause.

Peeved protesters may get a thrill from demonstrating at a politician’ domicile.  But their anger is misdirected.  The official at home is not the problem. Rather the problem is what happens when the official is at work.  These protesters would be more effective if they were informed by the history civil disobedience and by a more systematic conception of political power. 

Religion, Non-Religion, and the Pandemic

Fresno Bee, May 17, 2020

The divide between religious and non-religious people is highlighted by the pandemic. At a recent “Freedom Rally” in Fresno, a woman said she was not afraid of the virus. If she gets sick or infects someone else, she said, it is “all part of God’s plan.”

This represents a dispiriting theology. It is not God’s will that people die from this disease. Scientists know how to stop its spread. It makes no sense to ignore science and blame God.

The conflict between faith and science rages on. Some turn to prayer. May 14 was an international day of prayer, celebrated by Pope Francis and Muslim leaders. Two months ago, President Trump declared March 15 as a national day to “pray for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.” May 7 was another National Day of Prayer. At the May 7 event at the White House, no one wore a mask, including the choir.

In response to all of this praying, the Freedom From Religion Foundation declared May 7 as a National Day of Reason. They claim the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. They argue, “irrationality, magical thinking, and superstition have undermined the national effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Pandemics have often prompted religious turmoil. In ancient Athens, a terrible plague turned people away from religion. The historian Thucydides reported that at first the Athenians asked the gods for help. But when prayer had no effect, the people saw the futility of religion.

As the disease spread, general lawlessness broke out. People expected to die soon, so they focused on enjoying themselves in the present moment. They gave up on honor and were not worried about punishment for crime. Thucydides explained that there was no longer any fear of the gods or of the laws.

Something similar occurred during the Black Death. The Italian poet Boccaccio recounts that people made merry and drank themselves silly, since death appeared inevitable. People generally disregarded “the reverend authority of the laws, both human and divine.”

The good news is that our pandemic is less severe. The Athenian plague killed one-third of the population. The Black Death killed over half of Europe. Things are better today thanks to modern science. We know how to prevent and treat the bubonic plague. Scientists also know how to prevent COVID-19.

But will faith wane in this crisis as it did in Athens and Italy? When prayer proved ineffective, some people gave up on religion — but not all. Religion is resilient, as recent data show. The Pew Center reports that the COVID-crisis has strengthened the faith of people who were already religious.

But the pandemic has not driven the nonreligious back to religion. Indeed, a growing religious exodus is already well underway. A fourth of all Americans are not religious and a third of those under 40 are nonreligious.

Religion can’t compare to science when it comes to understanding disease. But a religious attitude may be useful for creating solidarity and compassion. History shows that in a pandemic people may selfishly focus on short-term pleasure. But the turn to selfish individualism undermines cooperation and helps the disease to spread.

If religion encourages people to cooperate, care for the suffering, and work to prevent disease, then science and religion can work together. A carefree attitude of partying like there is no tomorrow will undermine cooperation. But the same is true when religious people refuse to cooperate in the name of religious liberty.

In a free country, of course we have the right to pray or to party. But we should be smart about exercising our rights. We can party safely and with social distance. We can also pray, while loving our neighbors and wearing masks.

Thucydides once said that good sense is undermined by haste, passion, and a narrow mind. We do better when we broaden our perspective and think more carefully about science, history, and ethics. We also need a more sophisticated theology that does not blame God for human failure. We must think about the impact that our choices have on others. We should acknowledge that science actually works to save lives. And whether we pray or party, let’s do it wisely.