American Civilization and Its Discontents

Fresno Bee, July 4, 2020

Americans are dissatisfied, and that is good. Discontent is the lifeblood of democracy.

A recent poll from Politico concludes that 75% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.  Another recent poll from the Pew Center found that only 17% of Americans are “proud” of the country.  When asked how they feel about the state of the country, 71% said “angry,” 66% said “fearful.”  Only 46% are “hopeful.”  Pew reports that only 12% of Americans say they are satisfied with the country.

These numbers indicate a low point for the American spirit.  But they also show that Americans are not stupid.  It is smart to be dissatisfied when there is a pandemic, economic collapse, confused leadership, and racial injustice.  It is surprising that anyone is satisfied with the country today.

The United States is a land of dissatisfaction.  People come here because they don’t like the old country.  The early Americans were not satisfied with British colonial rule.  The Civil War and the civil rights movement were expressions of deep dissatisfaction.  Donald Trump rode to power on a wave of discontent. 

And the waves roll on.  This nation is a changing multitude.  We have too much liberty to remain united for long.  America is anti-abortion protesters and Black Lives Matter marchers.  It is the anarchists of Seattle and the law and order crowd in Washington, DC.  Our divisions and our discontent are signs of the vitality of our democracy.  In a dull and dying country, no one has the energy to be fed up and people lack the right to express their unhappiness.  But in a vibrant and free country, the yearning for change is loud and proud.

Some dream of bland homogeneity.  They want an America that looks like what they see in the mirror.  They dream perhaps of resting in peace.  But life is a bubbling, boiling confusion.  There never was homogeneity on this vast continent.  The native tribes of pre-Columbian times were diverse.  For five hundred years, new generations of immigrants have brought different cultures, religions, and ideas.

The thing that unites us is our freedom to criticize and our right to think for ourselves.  Liberty creates difference.  The more freedom, the more divergence.  From creative liberty and diversity of experience emerges energy and enthusiasm.  Let’s embrace the fact that to be an American means to be cranky and critical, argumentative and evolving. 

The idea of productive discontent is central to the American myth.  The Fourth of July commemorates this process.  This nation was born out of the destruction of the old.  We celebrate it by blowing things up!  We hope that from the fireworks, something better will emerge.

The Declaration of Independence can be read as the expression of the complaints of a youthful spirit.  It’s timeless words about self-evident truths give way to an extended diatribe against old King George, who is described as a mean and tyrannical father figure.   

Thomas Jefferson was only 33 years old when he worked on the Declaration.  And while the Declaration described the King as an absolute tyrant seeking to impose an absolute despotism over the colonies, not everyone on the committee agreed.  John Adams was an older man.  He thought the accusation of tyranny was too personal and sounded like “scolding.” 

A decade later, Jefferson said, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”  This physical analogy is enlightening.  Storm clouds build as the atmosphere heats up.  There is thunder and lightning, rain and hail.  But this clears the air and waters the crops. 

This idea, that a little rebellion is a good thing, seems uniquely American.  This is the spirit of youth and rock and roll.  It is the creative destruction of the capitalist economy.  It spurs innovation in technology and scientific revolutions. 

The simmering dissatisfaction of the present will boil over and give shape to something new.  Of course, there are dangers.  Lightning can kill and flash floods can wash away things we love.  But that’s life.  We never really rest in peace until the day is done or freedom is extinguished.  Liberty creates discontent.  But from dissatisfaction, creative innovation develops, as today’s storms nurture tomorrow’s fruit.

Cultural Value of the Super Bowl

Fresno Bee, February 5, 2016

  • The Big Game is an artistic production
  • Culture and the arts are playful games
  • Football isn’t perfect, but it’s fun

The Super Bowl is a high point of American culture. Some snobs view football as barbaric and uncultured. But this year, the halftime show will include the conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic and students from the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.

This mash-up points to a link between high culture and pop culture, sports and art. The cultural continuum includes the punter and the poet, the quarterback and the string quartet.

Football is performance art. The game has music, costumes, tragedy and ritual set pieces. Like opera, the game includes pageantry, agility and pathos.

The arts are also playful games. We play music. Actors put on plays. Poets play with words. And philosophers play with ideas. Human culture is a process of making meaning through playful activity.

Some think the fine arts are superior. Poets and painters represent things in word and image. Musicians explore time and tone. Art is about abstract ideas, beauty, finitude and the divine.

Football seems less refined. It is physical activity. But there are geniuses and prodigies on the gridiron. And fans find virtue, grace, beauty and transcendence in the game. For most Americans, the pigskin is more meaningful than Picasso or Puccini.

Football’s place in our culture

Football’s importance to our culture is obvious. Our language is shaped by it. We tackle a problem after huddling up. Monday-morning quarterbacks question people’s play-calling. When it’s fourth-and-long, we know things are serious. And sometimes it’s better to punt.

It may seem odd that a mere game is so tightly woven into our culture. But games are part of every culture. An old proverb says, “All work, no play makes Jack a dull boy.” To be human is to play games and amuse oneself. Culture is the accumulated set of games we play. The Greeks wrestled and raced. In America, we play football.

Our Sunday afternoons have been filled with the rhythm of the season and the game, the drama of fourth down, and the heroics of the fourth quarter. After the Super Bowl, we will find new games to fill our time and our conversations.

We need art and sports. Once we satisfy our animal needs, we fill our lives with games. Literature, politics and sports – all are forms of play. Our pastimes can be deadly and serious. But they are recreations and amusements, nonetheless.

Culture is learned behavior. The rules and formulas of dance, music, poetry and football must be learned in order to appreciate them. No one is born knowing a language or understanding the rules of the onside kick. Love of opera or haiku is not innate. Broncos fans are made, not born.

Some critics worry that the hedonistic spectacle of the Super Bowl is a sign of the decline of our civilization. Super Bowl Sunday certainly makes it difficult to keep the Sabbath day holy. Others compare the NFL to the gladiators of Rome, warning of the demise of culture into “bread and circuses.”

But the gladiators marked a high point of Roman civilization. They fought in the Colosseum, its ruins now venerated as a magnificent triumph of Roman architecture. Thriving civilizations have surplus wealth to spend on sports and games, art and festivity. Once we have enough bread, bring on the circuses.

No game is perfect

There are other reasons to criticize football. It is a brutal game. It causes brain injuries. Players risk necks and knees. But ballet is hard on the toes. And other sports are dangerous – climbing, skiing, for example.

Football is also sexist. News about the Super Bowl as a haven for prostitution is alarming. Gambling, commercialism and alcoholic fans are also concerns. And pacifists will note that football mimics warfare.

But no game is perfect. Chess is warlike and horse racing is hard on the ponies. Our games, sports and arts are our own creation. We can remake them according to our own interests and concerns. And each generation does rewrite the rules of sports, art and culture.

We are lucky to have so many games, sports and arts to choose from. We could live without these amusements. Football is not life. Nor is opera or poetry. But art gives zest to life. And football spices up our Sunday afternoons.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article58662308.html#storylink=cpy

Yes Means Yes But What About ‘I Love You’?

Something amiss when we are too casual about casual sex

Fresno Bee, October 3, 2014

California’s new law requiring “affirmative consent” for sex is a good one. The “yes means yes” law rules out the possibility of consent when someone is asleep, intoxicated or otherwise impaired. Neither silence nor lack of protest counts as consent.imgres

That’s a good law. But I thought decent human beings already knew this. Sex without consent is rape. And sex without communication is not very sexy. Trust, tenderness and mutual affection are the heart of erotic experience.

Erotic relations are deeply ethical. Erotic experience is heightened by shared intimacy and imagination. The zenith of the erotic occurs in seeing and feeling your lover’s desire and pleasure. Mutuality and reciprocity heighten pleasure and deepen desire. In a genuinely erotic relationship, there should be no mistake about consent.

In a culture of casual hookups, however, this may be missing. The players in the hookup culture need the reminder that only an explicit “yes” turns on the green light for sex. Indeed, as if on cue, there is a new app for consent called “Good2Go.” Prospective partners can use their smartphones to register consent (and level of intoxication) during a hookup in order to avoid messy “he said, she said” accusations after the fact.

This is an inevitable development. Erotic relationships are a lot of trouble. It is difficult to talk and listen to your partner about feelings, needs, hopes and expectations. In the smartphone universe all of that mushy emotional stuff can be dispensed with. We can send sexy photos, use an app to register consent, exchange bodily fluids and then get back to the lonely business of living.

Erotic experience is much more than a contractual relation in which we consent to intercourse. Unfortunately, our culture tends to divorce sex from social relationships and shared intimacy. Ubiquitous porn normalizes unsocial orgasms. What we used to call “making love” is described as “doing it” or “having sex.” When sex becomes an “it” that we can “do” or a thing we can “have,” we risk confusing a social relationship with an act of solitary gratification.

Some may argue that sexual acts are simply pleasant biological functions, something to be done without much fanfare or any necessary social connection. Some may also object that idealism about making love is a gourmet indulgence for those fortunate enough to have found a loving partner. Many people don’t have the time, energy or opportunity for deeply meaningful erotic relations. A quick consensual hookup may be the best we can hope for in our fast-food world.

I corresponded about this with Professor Qrescent Mali Mason, an expert on the philosophy of sex and love at Drexel University. Professor Mason thought I was too moralistic in my thinking about the importance of what I call making love. She argued that there is something to be learned from sexual experimentation without love. She suggested that experiencing sexual relations with partners we do not love can help us to understand and recognize love when we find it. Professor Mason also pointed out that some people just want sex.

Fair enough. We do have a tendency to idealize and romanticize sex, which is after all simply an animal function. But I still contend that there is something missing when we are too casual about casual sex. Animals can exchange bodily fluids. But only human beings exchange ideas, hopes and dreams.

Some may suggest that the deep problem is that sex has been decoupled from marriage. But there is no guarantee that sex within marriage is loving. Husbands can rape their wives. And people can make love and share profound intimacy without being married. The real problem is that sex is often viewed as a mere bodily function divorced from the erotic and social connection that is its greatest joy.

Technology and the law make the hookup scene easier, safer and more efficient. But consent apps and “yes means yes” laws cannot transform sex into love. Professor Mason concluded her correspondence with me by joking that one reason to like the “yes means yes” law is that we all like to hear a little “yes, yes, yes!” shouted in the bedroom. But I would add that we also like to hear a whisper of “I love you.”

 

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/10/03/4159723_ethics-something-misses-when-we.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

Yosemite religion

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Yosemite reminds us to enjoy rainbows while they last

Fresno Bee, June 13, 2014

As the Fresno Bee commemorates Yosemite history, we should consider Yosemite’s spiritual importance.  The Valley is certainly awe-inspiring.  It’s difficult to imagine not being moved by the view of Half Dome or the thundering spray of Yosemite Falls.  In some people, Yosemite elicits an experience that may even be called “religious.”

The “Yosemite religion,” as one of my colleagues calls it, is based in the experience of the transcendent power of nature.  It is connected to an ecological point of view that sees a continuum between human life and the non-human world.

If there is such a thing as the Yosemite religion, then John Muir is its prophet.  For Muir, religious experience is rooted in the beauty of nature.  He explained, “no synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.”  For Muir, the “sublime wonderlands” of the Sierra were manifestations of divinity.

Muir thought that city religions were weak imitations of the direct appearance of the divine in mountains, trees, and rivers.  Muir explained, “the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.”  Muir saw himself as a modern John the Baptist.  He felt called to immerse people in “the beauty of God’s mountains” and spread the good news of Sierra transcendentalism.

Evangelizing on behalf of wilderness is necessary because most people do not see the value of the wild.  Some of Muir’s companions thought Yosemite was just a big hole in the ground.

As with any other kind of spiritual experience, receptivity and education matter.  Some people view Christian prayer as dull recitation.  Others see meditation as not much more than daydreaming.  And some people, I suppose, can look at a Yosemite landscape and see only a pile of rocks.

Yosemite can also provoke uneasiness and leave people anxious to return to the city.  The cliffs are daunting.  The waterfalls are intimidating.  And the idea of a bear in camp can make it hard to sleep.

Religions often propose a solution to our anxieties—through ritual, law, and spiritual practice, or through the intervention of a savior.  Civilization offers another remedy—by softening the hard parts of life and flattening out the steeps.  Civilization also keeps us so busy, that we do not think about the meaning of life—or the critters who roam the dark.

The Yosemite religion, however, offers no ritual, law, or savior.  The bears still rule the night.  The cliffs remain dangerous.  And the trails are steep.  Muir’s idea was to leave nature alone.  He also encouraged us to know the earth, its ecosystems, and our place within all of that.  Bears are less frightening when we understand them.  And mountaineers learn quickly to respect objective danger and know their own limits.

Ecological understanding does not always satisfy our narcissistic desires.  Cities and city religions celebrate the importance of humanity.  But wilderness reminds us of our mortality.  Earthquakes, glaciers, and rivers will eventually grind even the hardest mountain to dust.  Ancient civilizations have returned to earth, while the Sequoias have endured.

The indifference of wilderness may provoke anxiety.  But understanding can provide solace.  From the standpoint of geological time, the beauty of these rocks, waters, and creatures is as fragile and fleeting as our very lives.

I recently took a photo of my wife standing in the middle of a rainbow beside Vernal Falls.  The rainbow had appeared for a moment as the sun settled in the west.  And then it was gone.  We are incredibly fortunate to experience rainbows and share them with those we love.  But the mountains remind us that nothing lasts forever.

Muir did not lament death and change.  Rather, he celebrated the lavish abundance of nature and rejoiced and exulted “in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe.”

Yosemite does elicit joy and exultation—as well as gratitude and reflection.  Moments of beauty dawn for a moment and disappear.  We can’t hold them.  But we can love them while they last.  And if we continue to preserve these wild places, we hope that tomorrow our grandchildren may find their own rainbows beneath the ever-changing falls.

http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/06/13/3976526/yosemite-reminds-enjoy-rainbows.html

Murder, Resentment, Revenge, Respect, and Recognition

Love, respect cannot be taken by force

Fresno Bee, May 30, 2014

Another awful story of mass violence comes to us from Santa Barbara — another story of promising young lives destroyed by a nihilistic young shooter. The shooter left a manifesto, reprinted in the Los Angeles Times, that contains an example of the typically horrifying moral reasoning used by those who justify violence.

The murderer resented those who excluded and rejected him. He wanted to prove his superiority over those who failed to love and respect him. He equated violence and cruelty with god-like power. He felt he was giving his “enemies” what they deserved. Guns and mental illness are obviously involved. But the flawed moral argument that led to his dreadful and nihilistic conclusion is also to blame.

Physical dominance through violence cannot create love, admiration or respect (or god-like power). Bullies, terrorists and murderers don’t understand this. They resort to violence in an apparent effort to get what they want. But they also seem to know that the tool they employ is incapable of providing them with what they want. So they end up destroying the very thing they desire.

Murder and resentment are nothing new. Homer’s “Iliad” chronicles Achilles’ murderous rampage. Achilles kills everyone he encounters, without mercy, even desecrating his enemy’s corpse. The Bible begins with the envious Cain killing his brother Abel. The terrain of resentment and revenge has been explored in various ways by Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Shakespeare.

The Star Wars film series provides a contemporary example: Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader is fueled by resentful rage. The Santa Barbara manifesto fits this mold. A young man experiences rejection — and turns his rage against the entire world.

Literature, religion and popular culture remind us that villainous and vengeful pride leads only to the graveyard. But murderous young men seem not to care about this, willing their own deaths along with others — an absolutely nihilistic endpoint along the continuum of social instinct.

The experience of resentment and the desire for revenge afflicts us all from time to time. Who hasn’t felt insulted, excluded or envious? Who hasn’t been tempted to tell someone off or push back against an indifferent world?

When resentment rises, however, most of us are able to control it and prevent it from boiling over as vengeful rage. We learn that anger and revenge simply do not work to get us what we want. Most of us figure out how to soothe wounded pride with positive action. Instead of returning hurt for hurt, we learn that hard work, a sense of gratitude, the spirit of forgiveness, kindness, mercy, humor and love help to heal our wounds and create a better life.

Social philosophers describe the social world in terms of a struggle for recognition. We desire recognition by others. We feel resentment when we believe that we have not received the respect we deserve. Resentment is more than mere anger. It contains a moral judgment and develops when we believe that others should treat us better.

The agony of wounded pride is often deeper and longer-lasting than the pain of physical wounds. Resentment festers and broods, incubating plots for revenge. Revenge aims to pay people back for not giving us what we deserve, to take from them what they owe us.

But that is where resentment and revenge unravel. Violence takes what is not given, attempting to force others to give respect or love. But this destroys the very thing that is sought. Love, respect and recognition cannot be taken by force — we only receive them as gifts from others. Violence annihilates the conditions under which these social gifts can be given.

The struggle for recognition ought to properly lead to mutual recognition and reciprocal respect. This means that to be respected you have to work hard to earn it. To get love, you have to give it. And violence cannot get you what you want.

One moral of contemporary stories of mass murder is found in the resilience and compassion of the survivors. In the long run, positive social instincts such as empathy and care are much more powerful than the dark resentments that fester in the deranged minds of angry young men. Let’s hope that somehow someone will find a way cure these angry young men, so that these horror stories no longer keep happening in real life.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/05/30/3952685/ethics-love-respect-are-given.html#storylink=cpy