The Tough and the Tender-Hearted: Trump, Jesus, and Socrates

Fresno Bee, December 22, 2020

President Trump has a steely spine. He is feisty and pugnacious. Some people admire him for his toughness. But toughness is not the only thing that matters. There is also a need for a more tender-hearted morality.

Trump is a paradigmatic tough guy. The title of Trump’s 2011 book is “Time to Get Tough.” He explained that to fix America “we’ve got to be smart and get tough.” Earlier this year Trump bragged that all of the tough guys are on his side: the police, the military, and the bikers. And in a famous tweet from 2105 he said, “When somebody challenges you unfairly, fight back, be brutal, be tough, don’t take it. It is always important to WIN!”

Trump’s recent letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a great example of how tough guys operate. A softer man would have apologized, resigned, or attempted to negotiate a compromise. But Trump expressed no remorse or interest in reconciliation. Indeed, he touted his toughness in the letter, saying “I have been far tougher on Russia than President Obama ever even thought to be.”

The letter is scathing and belligerent. He accuses the Democrats of staging a partisan coup. He says the Democrats view democracy as their enemy and are “declaring open war on American Democracy.” He even suggests that Pelosi has weaponized religion, suggesting that she prays for his demise.

Some people admire truculent tough guys. Pop culture is full of them. Americans love movies about cowboys, soldiers, gangsters and cops. We like Robert De Niro, Clint Eastwood and Samuel L. Jackson.

History is also full of tough guys. Plato described a tough guy named Thrasymachus, whose name literally means “bold fighter.” Thrasymachus defined morality simply as helping friends and harming enemies.

That’s how tough guys view the world: divided between friends and enemies. They reward loyalty and show no mercy to their rivals. For tough guys, the essence of morality is power, since power allows you to help your friends and punish your enemies.

The tough world view is self-reinforcing. You assume that your enemies are waiting to pounce and that your allies may sell you out. The solution is to be relentless toward friends and enemies alike. But that causes friction and animosity, which increases the need for further toughness.

In a tough world, even loyal comrades are temporary. The assumption is that people only do favors looking for something in return. This is a world of cronies and accomplices, vendettas and possible violence. It is the world we see in Shakespeare and Sophocles, as well as in Hollywood.

Philosophy and religion provide a critique of toughness. A more tender-hearted morality is espoused by Socrates, who argued against Thrasymachus’s hard-hearted worldview. Socrates said, “we ought not retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone.”

Jesus said something similar. But Jesus went a step further in his advocacy of love. Not only are we to love our neighbors, we are even supposed to love our enemies.

Tender-hearted morality looks beyond the distinction between friend and enemy. It judges things impartially. It sees dignity and worth in all persons. It respects everyone equally. It forgives and shows mercy. It wants to transform enmity into community.

Tender-hearted morality elevates love above power. It thinks that gentle kindness is superior to tough-minded ferocity. Instead of seeking favors, soft hearts give without expectation of payback. Instead of a loyalty and revenge, tenderness calls for hospitality and compassion.

Tough guys will see tenderness as foolish. Softness shows weakness and vulnerability. In a tough world, enemies will exploit weakness. Those enemies must be defeated. And the cronies and accomplices must be kept loyal. The tough cannot yield. They cannot admit wrongdoing. They cannot offer mercy or seek forgiveness.

The logic of toughness is understandable. But unyielding Scrooges and gritty Grinches inhabit a dark and lonely place. The antidote is to soften up your spine and open up your heart. The Christmas message calls us toward charity and joy. Instead of winning and fighting back, this is a time of giving and forgiving. It is a season that encourages us to set aside the love of power and recall the power of love.

War on Christmas, Diversity, and Secularism

Americans have always been divided over morality, politics and religion

Fresno Bee, December 1, 2017

Our country seems more divided than ever. Recent polls from the Pew Center and the Washington Post make this clear. The Post concludes that seven in 10 Americans say we have “reached a dangerous low point” of divisiveness. A significant majority of Americans think our divisions are as bad as they were during the Vietnam War.

But let’s be honest, we have always been divided. Free people always disagree about morality, politics and religion. We disagree about abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, drug legalization, pornography, the death penalty and a host of other issues. We also disagree about taxation, inequality, government regulation, race, poverty, immigration, national security, environmental protection, gun control and so on.

Beneath our moral and political disagreements are deep religious differences. Atheists want religious superstitions to die out. Theists think we need God’s guidance. And religious people disagree among themselves about God, morality and politics.

As an example, consider the so-called “war on Christmas.” President Trump declared victory in the war on Christmas this week during a speech in St. Charles, Missouri. Standing in front of American flags and Christmas trees, he said “You don’t see Merry Christmas any more. With Trump as your president, we are going to be celebrating Merry Christmas again and it’s going to be done with a big beautiful tax cut.”

DISAGREEMENT IS AS DEEP AS CHRISTMAS ITSELF.

Some will cheer this on as a triumphant moment in the culture wars. Others will say, “bah humbug,” claiming that the war on Christmas is fake news. And others will wonder what tax cuts have to do with the birth of Christ.

Christmas has always generated controversy. Different Christian traditions celebrate it on different days. Some Christians – the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example – do not celebrate Christmas at all. They point out that the apostles did not celebrate Christ’s birth. They view Christmas as a pagan celebration.

Disagreement is as deep as Christmas itself. The Christian “good news” was viewed as fake news by the ancient Romans. The history of Christianity is full of heretics and dissenters who offered alternative facts. Each religious sect claims special access to the truth. Each views the other as delusional.

And of course, we disagree about the value of disagreement. Some value diversity of opinion. They are interested in new ideas and interpretations. Others see diversity as a decadent sign of liberty run amok. They resist change and avoid innovation.

And so it goes. Social cohesion is rare. So let’s not be surprised by our divisions. The ideal of a cohesive social, political and religious identity is a myth that creates frustrated expectations. People disagree about important stuff. We always have – and probably, we always will.

The desire for social cohesion is a pipe dream, cloaked in sepia-toned nostalgia. It is fun to imagine a Norman Rockwell Christmas scene. But life is not a painting or a Christmas card. We change, argue and diverge.

WE SHOULD VIEW OUR PRESENT DISAGREEMENTS
AS A SIGN OF THE HEALTH OF OUR SECULAR SYSTEM.

There is wisdom in admitting this fact. We might stop hyperventilating when we realize that the current crisis is nothing new. It is wise to stop expecting conformity.

It is also wise to support safeguards that protect liberty against oppressive power. The Christmas story includes a warning about political oppression in the presence of Herod the Great, the murderous king. Of course, such warnings are routinely ignored in the effort to purge heretics and dissenters.

Our secular system safeguards us against would-be Herods. But secularism means that disagreement will persist. This does not mean we should give up on arguing about the truth. But we must admit that disagreement is part of the human condition.

In fact, we should view our present disagreements as a sign of the health of our secular system. People are free to criticize or praise the president, the Congress and Christmas itself. This is not true in other parts of the world.

Freedom leads to controversy. Freedom without disagreement would be paltry and phony. Along with the freedom to say “Merry Christmas” we also have the freedom to say “Happy Hanukah” or even “bah humbug.” Take your pick. Stake your claim. Realize that other people will say different things. And be thankful that in our country the war on Christmas is merely a war of words.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article187350558.html

Tax Cuts and The Class Divide

Is our economy naughty or nice when workers face hard toil and wealthy ease into riches?

Fresno Bee, November 24, 2017

The class divide in our country becomes apparent this time of year. The affluent celebrate with a binge of buying. The working class is busy stocking shelves, running cash registers and waiting tables, thankful for the overtime. The homeless suffer on the margins, begging for handouts on the side of the road.

These disparities are worth considering as the country considers tax reform. The details are yet to be determined. But most agree that tax reform will make rich people richer.

Ironically, not all rich people think that this is a good idea. A group of 400 wealthy people – including Steven Rockefeller and George Soros – recently signed an open letter to Congress arguing against tax cuts for the wealthy

This letter singles out efforts to eliminate or reduce the estate tax as an example of unneeded reform. The estate tax helps to redistribute private wealth, taking it from wealthy families and using it for public projects. The estate tax is only an issue for the richest Americans. According to the Washington Post only about 5,000 families are affected by the estate tax.

The working class does not possess enough wealth for it to pay this tax. The median net worth of American families is about $80,000. The estate tax only affects couples with more than $11 million in assets.

Those disparate numbers indicate the inequalities that exist in our economy. One recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies claims that the three richest Americans own more wealth than the entire bottom half of the American population. And the combined wealth of the top 400 people on the Forbes list of richest people is more than the bottom 64 percent combined.

The Christmas season seems an especially bad time to consider exacerbating wealth disparities. Scrooge and Grinch remind us of the dangers of greed and the need for charity. The Christian gospels teach that we have a special obligation to care for the poor, to give to those who beg, and to avoid the worship of wealth.

Of course, the critique of wealth is counter-cultural. We live in a casino culture. We all seem to hope that somehow we will strike it rich. We don’t view wealth as a sin. Instead we hope it will trickle down. And we are not worried about fitting the camel of wealth through the eye of the moral needle.

One significant social problem is that wealth disparities tend to become magnified. Unbridled capitalism tends to concentrate wealth. Those with the most money earn the most money.

And much of what the wealthy earn requires little actual work. The capitalist puts his money to work for him. A fortunate few inherit their wealth and live off the fruits of their parent’s labor. The rest of us work and save. Many are one paycheck or one medical emergency away from homelessness.

This reward structure seems upside down. We might think that those who work the hardest should earn the most. We might also suppose that those who do the most essential or dangerous work should be paid the most.

From this point of view, there is something shameful about living off an inherited estate. From this perspective, farmworkers, teachers and police should earn generous rewards. But the reality is that the working class struggles to make a living, while the fortunate few enjoy financial security.

Shoppers crowd into JCPenney on Thanksgiving afternoon in the quest for Black Friday deals. The holiday shopping season brings forth the income disparities that exist in America, says Bee ethics columnist Andrew Fiala. He notes that the working class need special deals to afford higher-end goods; the rich can buy whenever they choose. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA Fresno Bee file

The holiday shopping frenzy reminds us how divided our economy is. The wealthy don’t fight the crowds for a Black Friday deal. They buy what they want when they want it. It is the members of the working class who need a bargain. Teachers and farmworkers elbow each other aside to get a door-buster deal, while the wealthy roll their eyes.

None of this really makes any sense. In a humane world, the homeless would be housed. In a moral economy, hard-working people wouldn’t need to work overtime to afford Christmas gifts and rich people wouldn’t simply live off inherited wealth.

The dream of a fair and decent world may seem too much to hope for. But this is, after all, a season of hope. It is also a great time to ask whether our economy is naughty or nice.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article186350658.html

Wishful thinking at Christmas

At Christmas, maybe a little wishful thinking is OK

Fresno Bee, December 24, 2016

Much of life depends upon voluntary suspension of disbelief. We often set truth and reality aside to play in the fields of fantasy.

Perhaps we are too gullible. Fake news floods our screens. We are awash in bunkum and balderdash. Major dictionaries picked “surreal” and “post-truth” as words of the year for 2016.

Science and logic help us distinguish fact from fiction. But this problem is psychological. We enjoy our humbug. Sensational hoaxes are much more fun than reality. And the will to believe provides us with wonder and joy.

In 1897, the New York Sun famously declared, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” The editor – with the fantastic name Frances Pharcellus Church – explained, “The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn?”

“Of course not,” he said. “But that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.”

Mr. Church concluded that faith, fancy, poetry, love and romance reveal the beauty and glory of the world. These things, like Santa Claus himself, are “real and abiding.”

This inspiring essay would fail a critical-thinking class. Lack of proof is not proof. Wishful thinking does not make things true. Imagined wonders are not real just because we want them to be.

A LIFE OF PURE, UNADULTERATED REALITY WOULD BE DISMAL AND DULL.
THE COSMOS CARES LITTLE FOR OUR HAPPINESS. BUT THIS EMPTY UNIVERSE ALSO CONTAINS CHRISTMAS.

And yet, we do not live by truth alone. We love our illusions. We are fascinated by fables and fantasy. Poetry transports us. Music moves us. The unreal worlds of television, film and literature fill our empty hours.

A life of pure, unadulterated reality would be dismal and dull. The cosmos cares little for our happiness. But this empty universe also contains Christmas.

The miracle of birth cannot be reduced to mere biology. Love, beauty and joy transcend material reality. Generosity and forgiveness can break long cycles of violence and hatred. But these wonders cannot be enjoyed unless we believe in them.

On Christmas Eve, the will to believe takes center stage. Christmas stories hinge upon the crisis of faith of an incredulous child. Belief in the unbelievable empowers Santa and his sleigh. Credulity is the ticket to the Christmas wonderland.

The same is true of art. Music is merely sound and rhythm. Poetry is scribbles on a page. Films are flickering, two-dimensional images. We must allow ourselves to be enchanted by these things. And when we give in to the illusion, we encounter meaning that transcends the material world.

Religion and politics also require suspension of disbelief. Bread and wine are transformed. Flags and insignia are not mere cloth. We encounter the sacred and sublime through a leap of faith.

It is easy to dismiss this as humbug. A cynical Scrooge will complain that love is hormonal, justice is power, and truth is the echo of a lie well told. Critical reason bursts the bubbles of the false and fantastic.

THE CHALLENGE IS TO STEER A MIDDLE COURSE. WE NEED TO KEEP WONDER AND HOPE ALIVE.
BUT WE ALSO NEED TO KEEP OUR HANDS ON OUR WALLETS.

But we do not live by reason alone. Poets and playwrights know this, as do shysters and charlatans. And therein lies a significant problem. Like other artists, the con artist plays upon our credulity. He sells us a pack of lies, which we gladly pay for.

The challenge is to steer a middle course. We need to keep wonder and hope alive. But we also need to keep our hands on our wallets.

There are times when it is appropriate to set reality aside and celebrate the play of the imagination. Christmas is surely one of those times. We sing the songs and tell the tales, weaving a fantasy that glows in the child’s wondering eyes. F.P. Church rightly celebrates “the glad heart of childhood.”

We cannot live every day as if it were Christmas. The adult world includes violence, hatred, stupidity and ignorance. Sober thought, grounded in reality, is the cure for these maladies.

But despair is also a problem. Wonder and hope are often in short supply. And cynicism pinches our hearts.

So yes, Virginia, we need to believe in Santa. Tomorrow we’ll be back to battling bull. But today we play with the fairies, creating a world of generosity and love for our children to enjoy.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article122726694.html

Love and hate at Christmas time

Love and hate at Christmas time

Fresno Bee, December 3, 2016

Hate is growing. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that hate crimes have increased since the November election. The Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno received hateful threats that mentioned Donald Trump. But hate already was rising before Trump’s election.

According to the FBI, hate crimes increased 6 percent in 2015. And hate goes both ways: Anti-Trump protests, vandalism and graffiti are a problem. Trump’s star on the Hollywood walk of fame has been chiseled and defaced.

We are in the middle of an ever-increasing hate-storm.

The Kellogg company pulled its advertising from Breitbart News, citing disagreement with Breitbart’s pro-Trump values. Breitbart ran a headline saying Kellogg “declares hate for 45,000,000 readers.” Breitbart’s editor-in-chief said, “If you serve Kellogg’s products to your family, you are serving up bigotry at your breakfast table.”

Breitbart has called for a Kellogg boycott. Will we now suspiciously eye one another in the grocery store? The fight over Fruit Loops seems absurd. But it is also symbolic of our acrimonious era.

An “us vs. them” mindset is developing. We look for allies, while fearing everyone else. Emotions are frayed. We become wary and worried. Every glance, action and word seems pregnant and portentous. A spark can easily cause this powder keg to snap, crackle and pop.

Hate, fear and violence form an unholy trinity that undermines stable and harmonious social life. These evils provoke a tit-for-tat logic. We fear those who fear us. Those we hate hate us in return. Each turn of the ratchet of fear and hate creates an atmosphere in which violence becomes likely.

We need to stop it. When asked about outbreaks of hate and violence on 60 Minutes, President-elect Trump said he is saddened by it. He said, “If it helps, I will say this: Stop it!”

Yes, it does help. We all need to say it loudly. Stop the hate. Stop the violence.

We desperately need de-escalation, reconciliation and human kindness. It sounds naïve, but the simple truth is that the world needs love. We need trust, communal feeling, generosity and hospitality. And more of us need to say to the haters, “Stop it.”

Time magazine recently published an article by researchers from UCLA and Princeton that argues that communities can de-legitimize violence and prevent hate by speaking out against it. Violence decreases when masses of people – including prominent “influencers” – vocally and vigorously condemn it. When hate appears, we should all be vocal in condemning it.

The way to cure darkness is to shed light. The way to fight hatred is to spread love. The way to stop violence is to practice nonviolence. And the first step in ending social dysfunction is to say, “Stop it.”

Violence and hate easily become normalized. It begins with a few mean jokes and insulting words. Soon, we are not surprised or offended by rough language and hateful speech. This is especially true when leaders and elites start speaking in insulting, uncivil and hateful ways.

But hateful speech and violent deeds are not normal or defensible. Normal people respect each other. We normally view each other as partners in the project of building up the common good. Normal families, businesses and polities work together, avoiding rancor. Normal people follow the Golden Rule of treating others as you want to be treated.

This time of year, we teach our children that they better be good, for goodness’ sake. And we talk about being naughty or nice. The moral spirit of the season is about generosity, hospitality, love and peace.

Of course, even Christmas has become political. But you don’t have to believe in Christ – or Santa – to understand the moral message of Christmas. The Golden Rule is common to all of the world’s traditions.

It is better to give than to receive. It is better to welcome than to exclude. It is better to build up than to tear down. It is better to live in peace than to be at war. And it is better to love than to hate.

Let’s declare December a hate-free month. Tone down the political vitriol. Reach out to the marginalized. Defuse conflict, violence and fear. And if someone says a hateful word, quote Trump, and tell them to stop it.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article118497773.html