Vigilance, Patience and Hope: The Drive Toward Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, December 27, 2020

On the longest night of the year, we drove through the fog looking for starlight. Other people had the same idea of driving uphill to see the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. In a parking lot in Prather, carloads of masked stargazers emerged from the fog and looked toward the heavens, seeking the Christmas star.

We are all looking for inspiration these days. If you rise above the fog, there are wonders to be found.

The last time the planets lined up like this was 800 years ago. The stars move at their own pace. We must learn to wait and keep our eyes open. The philosopher Marcus Aurelius said that stargazing washes away the filth of the earth. The cosmos teaches patience and perseverance.

This was a star-crossed year. Disease killed people and jobs. Our democracy teetered on the brink of disaster. Let’s drink a toast to all we’ve lost and endured. Let’s also learn from the light that shined in the darkness. If there is wisdom in the gloom, it comes from the values of the Enlightenment. It was science and law that prevented 2020 from being darker than it was.

When the Black Death hit Europe in the Dark Ages, astrologers blamed it on a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. We know much more today about the stars and about disease. We know how to prevent contagion and predict the weather. We peer into the molecular basis of life and into the depths of space. We build vaccines and satellites. Let’s give thanks to the scientists who shed light.

One of the wonders of 2020 was the growth of virtual reality. Satellites, computers, and cell phones kept us connected in the gloom. Without these technologies, social distancing would have been impossible. Let’s give a shout out to the wizards of Silicon Valley.

Telecommunication transformed the field of education. Difficulties remain, including educational inequity and a digital divide. But students are learning in ways that could not have been imagined last year. Hurray for the educators — and the students and parents — who pioneered a new model of teaching and learning.

Our civic values were challenged in unprecedented ways. The year began with impeachment. It ended with outrageous falsehoods about a stolen election. This was a year of protests and anger. We are more polarized than ever. Racial animosity afflicts us. There is corruption in the halls of power.

But citizens enlightened ourselves about history and the Constitution. And ethical professionals held back the darkness. Lawyers and judges remained committed to their code of ethics. Soldiers, cops, and firefighters did their duty. Business leaders supported justice and the common good. Nameless bureaucrats served with honor and integrity. Enlightenment depends upon the good work of citizens and civil servants.

As this pestilential year comes to a close, what should we resolve for the future?

I propose we need to affirm the value of vigilance. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” they say. This is common sense for those who drive through fog. We must be mindful and alert. Watchful care is the key to enlightenment.

Vigilance is the moral of Albert Camus’s novel, “The Plague.” That book is an allegory about the plague of totalitarianism in the 20th century. Camus noted that plagues stimulate enlightenment by opening our eyes. We must learn “a vigilance that must never falter.” The good man, Camus said, “is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.”

The stewards of civilization must be watchful, as we drive toward the light. New diseases are waiting to infect us. A random sneeze can start a pandemic. Tyrants and crooks wait to take advantage. Indifference leads to disaster.

Enlightenment is not something that just happens. Our scientific and technological prowess is the result of centuries of cultural evolution. Our legal system has a similar heritage. And the work of education is never done.

On sunny days, it’s easy to let your guard down. When the fog comes, it is easy to lose hope. But there are stars above the haze. Good and decent people live nearby. Science and reason provide hope in the darkness. Patience and vigilance keep us moving toward the light.

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.

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.

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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.

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