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.

Horseshit and the Human Condition

Why do snake-oil salesmen and con men succeed?

Because human beings have a great appetite for horseshit. 

Horseshit is a term that I learned from my grandfather, who was one of the world’s great artists of profanity.  My grandfather taught me a lot of interesting things, for example, that H. was Jesus’s middle name.  Like other men of his generation, grandpa distinguished horseshit from ordinary bullshit.

Kurt Vonnegut said that we prefer useful and comforting horseshit.  Hemingway defined horseshit as abstract, metaphysical nonsense.  Jack Kerouac warned that the world was trying to drown us in horseshit.

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt described bullshit as speech divorced from truth.  Horseshit is like bullshit.  But while bullshit entertains, horseshit seduces. 

A story about the fish that got away is bullshit.  A conspiracy theory is horseshit. 

Horseshit tantalizes.  It promises false nourishment.  It’s dangerous because it’s trying to sell you something.

I used to hike with my dogs on a horse trail.  They couldn’t resist the stench of fresh manure.  They would gobble it up by the mouthful.  And then they would vomit.

Human beings are similar.  We swarm to warm piles of nonsense and gorge on garbage. We humans are not typically interested in truth.  We prefer ideas that flatter and gratify.  We want to be titillated and entertained.  Truth is boring.  We prefer strong and spicy narratives.   

Malicious agents know how to manipulate this.  They spread horseshit.  And we buy it.

As my grandfather used to say, there are more horse’s asses than horses.

All of this helps explain the ordure oozing out of the White House.  Courts and election officials have repeatedly confirmed the validity of the 2020 election.  But Presidential power burnishes bullshit with the sheen of authority.  Prominent Republicans refuse to point out that the emperor’s new clothes are stained with runny hair dye. 

My grandfather would have asked a simple question about all of this.  Which is more likely—that there is a vast secret conspiracy to steal an election in “the U.S. of A.” (I can hear him adding “for chrissake”…) or that Trump is spreading horseshit?    

Horseshit is not unique to the Trump Era.  In 2004, Ralph Keyes published a book called “The Post-Truth Era.” Keyes pointed out that George W. Bush lied and manipulated the truth about the Iraq war.  But before Bush, Clinton lied, as did Nixon.  And so on—back to Caesar and Pericles.

In a recent op-ed, Nicholas Goldberg reminds us that lying is part of the arsenal of authoritarianism.  He cites George Orwell and Hannah Arendt to make his point.  But horseshit is as old as Plato. 

Plato did not like the bullshit stories of Greek religion.  He thought those myths taught the wrong lessons to the gullible masses.  Plato suggested that the philosopher-king should create new myths to manipulate the masses into buying his utopian scheme.  Thus Plato suggested replacing ordinary bullshit with tyrannical horseshit. 

Bullshit and horseshit have existed since human beings began talking.  Hunter-gatherers told bullshit stories around the campfire.  That is how art and religion were born.  Bullshit became horseshit when the shamans began profiting off those stories. 

Horseshit is meant to manipulate.  The bullshit artist is a lightweight in comparison to the horseshit hawker.  The bullshit artist is a good-natured raconteur.  But the horseshit vendor takes advantage.  Bullshit is playful and light.  But horseshit is denser and tastier.  It often even seduces those who sell it into believing that the manure they are spreading is true.

At some point reality bites back.  But often it is too late.  When your dog gorges on manure, he’ll eventually vomit.  But it is better to avoid the binge and the purge. 

The cure for all of this is fresh air and a good shovel. 

To see beyond the horseshit, Kerouac climbed a mountain. There is wisdom in taking a moment to rise above the stench. 

But you don’t need a mountain top to climb above the horseshit.  You only need self-control and a skeptical spirit, critical thinking and the scientific method.  Political checks and balances also help.

Stay focused on what is true.  Attune your nose to reality.  Feed your soul on nourishing ideas.  And don’t let anyone sell you a load of manure.

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.

Giving Thanks for Simple Things

Covid-19 has transformed Thanksgiving.  This year we should shelter within our bubbles and stay close to home.  Rather than complaining about a downsized holiday, let’s use this as an opportunity to rediscover the wisdom of living modestly and being thankful.

Ancient wisdom celebrates gratitude and simplicity.  Ancient sages teach us to be grateful for simple things and to celebrate abundance without extravagance.

Thanksgiving has strayed far from this idea.  Rather than a time to count your blessings and give thanks, it became an orgy of over-indulgence.  The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is a department store advertising gimmick.  The Black Friday frenzy is far removed from gratitude.  Good riddance to these extravagances. 

The Puritans of New England would be appalled that this festival of gluttony and greed commemorated their colonial adventure.  The Puritans connected thanksgiving with repentance and purification.  Instead of feasting, early Americans typically linked the ritual of giving thanks to fasting. Thomas Jefferson called for” public days of fasting and thanksgiving” when he was governor of Virginia.  During the civil war, Abraham Lincoln called for several days of “fasting and thanksgiving.”  In 1863, when Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving, he called for a day of prayer and “humble penitence.”   

This may go too far for those of us with a more secular orientation.  But there is wisdom in humility and abstinence.  You don’t have to be a Puritan to understand this.  Abstinence clarifies values.  Fasting heightens appreciation for simple things.  A thanksgiving feast that breaks a fast should consist of modest fare, eaten mindfully.

Mindfulness, gratitude, and abstinence are linked in most of the world’s traditions.  Muslims practice something like this during Ramadan.  The Buddha fasted and meditated on the way to enlightenment.  Ancient Taoist texts speak of “fasting of the mind” giving rise to the freedom of emptiness. 

This is not as far out and mystical as it sounds.  Mindful self-restraint quiets envy and desire.  The consuming self is like a vacuum.  It sucks things in: food, pleasure, and possessions.  But all of this frantic sucking produces anxiety, fear, greed, and envy. 

The mindful self stops sucking.  It becomes less focused on its own emptiness and more aware of its secret abundance.  The Greek sage Epicurus said that we already possess all that we need in abundance.  But we are confused.  We mistake wealth for happiness.  And we allow greed to make us ungrateful.  

When we discover self-sufficient abundance, it overflows.  It then becomes easier to give—and to give thanks.  The consuming self is a sucker and a taker.  The grateful self is content with what it has.  And in its contentment, it discovers compassion.

The ancient Greeks advise us to gratefully accept what fate gives us.  Seneca recommended an occasional fast as a reminder to be thankful.  This trains the spirit to be content no matter what fate sends our way.  Stoic serenity does not depend on money or good fortune.  Rather, it is built upon simplicity and gratitude. 

Seneca expressed these ideas in a letter criticizing the Saturnalia, the Roman equivalent of our holiday season.  He complained that preparations for the annual orgy went on all year.  And he noted that the season culminated in drunkenness and vomiting.  Seneca said it is wise to avoid all of that and to learn to “celebrate without extravagance.” 

The pandemic can help us re-learn this ancient lesson.  The usual extravagances have been cancelled.  And we are forced to abstain.  Rather than complain, let’s rediscover the wisdom of simplicity and gratitude. 

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.