Tyranny from Plato to Trump

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my new book, Tyranny from Plato to Trump: Fools, Sycophants, and Citizens.

The book offers insight into the perennial problem of tyranny. Tyrants seek to grab power. They are supported by sycophants. And cheered on by fools. This is a political problem as well as a social and spiritual problem. There are tyrants in our families and in our businesses. There is also a tyrannical tendency in our souls. The same is true of the tendency to suck up to the powerful. And each of us can behave moronically, more interested in amusement than ethics or truth.

The cure is spiritual and political. We benefit from self-examination. And we need social and political guardrails that prevent tyrants from consolidating power.

Voting is a leap of faith

Voting is a little like a leap of faith

Fresno Bee, November 5, 2016


Your vote does not count for much. In the U.S., there are about 150 million registered voters. You are only one among 18 million registered California voters. But there are good reasons to vote anyway. Voting allows you to express your values and participate in civic life.

Ron Hirschbein, a philosopher at Chico State, wrote a book in the 1990s, “Voting Rites,” that considers the metaphysics of voting. I spoke with him the other day. Hirschbein says, “The cruel mathematics of mass society destroys the narcissistic belief that your vote matters.”

The large numbers involved make it unlikely that your vote will change the world in your favor. If you view your vote as an instrument serving your self-interest, then voting is a waste of time.

But voting is not merely an instrumental activity. It is also a meaningful social ritual. Voting has symbolic and expressive value. It is a participatory social act. This year you can help elect the first female president or a billionaire outsider. You can also write in “none of the above.”

Your vote is meaningful to you, even if it does very little to change the aggregate vote count. It is an expression of your hopes and your values. And it matters to you, even if your vote is merely a drop in the bucket.

audienceConsider this analogy. After a concert, people applaud. Your claps only make a miniscule contribution. No one would miss your clapping if you chose not to applaud. But you would miss out on the opportunity to participate in the process. Applauding is a symbolic and expressive gesture, done in solidarity with the audience and in support of the musicians.

Voting is similar. We demonstrate solidarity with other citizens by voting. And we express a kind of faith in the political show.

Admittedly, there are good reasons to be skeptical of all of this. Citizen solidarity may seem absurd in a divided nation. Many people fear that the political show is a rigged carnival game. Monolithic parties, political dynasties, insider trading, gerrymandering and big money all serve to undermine our faith in democracy.

To vote is to say, “Despite all of this, I assert my constitutional right to participate in self-governance.” This is an expressive act and a leap of faith.

Faith – religious, civic or otherwise – is belief in the absence of evidence. In social contexts, faith performs an important conjuring act. Political societies only exist so long as citizens believe in them. Teams, social clubs, businesses, and nations fall apart when we lose faith.

Maybe we are heading in that direction. In 2012, just over half of eligible voters voted. U.S. voter turnout rates trail behind the rest of the world. Maybe Americans are simply giving up on the charade, refusing to applaud this tired old show.

Social life is an elaborate ritual that requires willingness to play along. Ghosts and witches are fantasy, but we carve our jack-o-lanterns anyway. It’s all phony. But when we play along, Halloween exists.


Weddings, funerals and graduations are games and shows that require voluntary suspension of disbelief. The ceremonies are formulaic and often lack depth. But we play along, enjoying the process and the result.

It may seem disenchanting to admit all of this, but grown-ups know that social rituals involve make-believe. Acknowledging this creates deeper understanding of social life and a more realistic assessment of our place within the social universe.

No individual matters all that much to history or society. But we create the shared social world by our individual deeds and commitments. Understanding this gives us the freedom to invest our spiritual energy wisely and appropriately.

This is ultimately a question of existential philosophy. You truly are a grain of sand. But so what? The beach is beautiful, and we find meaning in participating in things that are larger than ourselves.

Democracy is created by the faith of individuals who vote and thereby participate in the life of the country. One vote does not matter in a country of hundreds of millions. But if that one vote is yours, it matters to you. And democracy only exists when we believe that despite evidence to the contrary, our votes really do matter.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article112552757.html#storylink=cpy

Good Citizenship Takes Commitment

Citizenship and The Constitution

Fresno Bee, September 4, 2015


No one is born a citizen. Our Constitution allows so-called “birthright citizenship.” But no one is born understanding the Constitution. Real citizenship requires active commitment to the values of the community.

That’s why civic education is important. Some states have instituted mandatory civics test, requiring high school students to score 60% on the U.S. Citizenship test, the same score required for immigrants to qualify for U.S. citizenship.

In California, State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson and Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court Tani Cantil-Sakauye are leading a new civic education initiative. The chief justice explains, “The strength of our democratic institutions relies on the public’s understanding of those institutions.” Civic Education Partnerships have been created in six counties, including Fresno.

Of course, knowledge about the Constitution is not sufficient. Citizenship is deeper than factual knowledge. It includes a set of values and active commitments. Can those values and commitments be created by education?

I talked about this with John Minkler, a retired educator who is one of the leaders in Fresno County’s Civic Education Partnership. Minkler’s passion for civics is evident from a bumper sticker on his car that reads, “E Pluribus Unum.” Minkler points out that we carry this motto in our pockets every day. Take a look at your coins. They proclaim, E Pluribus Unum – “out of many, one.”

This is the basic idea behind the social contract: we join together to form a community. Individuals reap benefits from belonging to the community. We also have obligations to participate in the life of the community.

Minkler worries, however, that the social contract has eroded. One problem is materialistic individualism. We are often more focused on self-interest than the common good. A related problem is an educational system that focuses on test results and obedience rather than engaged citizenship.

Many have become disillusioned with political life. Young people are especially cynical. Studies show that millennials are less politically aware and committed than older adults. They vote less and don’t trust the political system.

Critical scrutiny of our system is wise. Democratic government requires vigilant citizens. But cynical disengagement is self-defeating. If you believe you can’t change things, then you will not work to change them. And then – lo and behold – things don’t change!

Minkler explains that citizenship develops from involvement in the community, which teaches that individual commitment matters. Minkler has long been an advocate of service-learning. He says that service-learning helps disengaged kids develop the spark of citizenship, as they discover that their effort and commitment actually matters.

Teachers and schools already have a difficult task of developing college- and career-ready graduates. Creating good citizens is yet another difficult task. We can’t expect the schools to do this alone. That’s why the idea of a Civic Education Partnership is important. In Fresno County, the Civic Education Partnership includes educational leaders, business and community leaders, as well as members of the legal profession.

To support this effort, the Ethics Center at Fresno State is co-sponsoring a Constitution Day event at Fresno State on Sept. 17. In case you forgot, Sept. 17 is the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. Around the country, that day is celebrated as Constitution and Citizenship Day.

The event at Fresno State will focus on the question of how civic education connects youths to our constitutional system. Speakers will include former Assemblyman Juan Arambula, Fresno City Council Member Esmeralda Soria, Lorenzo Rios, CEO of Clovis Veterans Memorial District, Justice Rosendo Peña, Jr. from the California Fifth District Court of Appeal, Deborah Nankivell, CEO of the Fresno Business Council, and Minkler.

Citizenship involves understanding the Constitution and the basic principles of democratic government. It also requires commitment and engagement. Communities are not abstract ideas created on paper documents. They are living entities in which diverse individuals work together within a framework of common values. No community is perfect. But communities are improved when citizens understand their rights and responsibilities, and when individuals actively participate in the shared life of “we, the people.”

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/article34140597.html#storylink=cpy

Education and Democratic Citizenship

Education should encourage us to ask critical question

August 23, 2013

Teachers and students return to school anticipating the discovery of new ideas and the creation of new relationships. Empty gradebooks and notebooks promise transformation. But what should we hope for, as we send our kids back to school?

I heard at least one speech this week that emphasized that education is a way to make money. We celebrate the cash value of staying in school and going on to college. But emphasizing the money is a fairly superficial way to sell school to kids and their parents.

The focus on money ignores a key lesson of a good education, which is that money is not the most important thing in life. Sure, some money is needed for a decent life. But a good education should encourage us to ask critical questions about what we value. How much money is enough? How should resources be distributed? What’s an honorable way to make a living? And what’s the value of a culture that worships the almighty dollar?

Another idea about the value of education focuses on teaching kids to use tools and master the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. Mastery of those skills is essential for people who live in a culture that requires basic literacy and numeracy. Computer technology skills are also becoming essential for life in our culture.

But it’s not enough to teach kids how to use tools. We also have to encourage them to think about what those tools should be used for. Ethical tool use begins with understanding the difference between the tool and its uses. A hammer can build. But it can also destroy. Words and ideas can uplift and empower. But they can also fuel violence and hate.

Our culture is often confused about tools. We fetishize our tools, imbuing them with mysterious power, allowing them to control us and the way we think. The emphasis on computers and online technology is a sign of this problem. Technology is not a panacea. It can be misused and backfire. Reading on computer screens is often more superficial than reading on the printed page. Computers make it easier to cheat and plagiarize. And electronic communication often lacks the depth and care of face-to-face conversations.

A good education helps us sort out the difference between those things that have value in themselves (love, beauty, truth, other people, etc.) and those things that do not (money, tools, computers, etc.). A good education helps us understand the relative value of different technologies and methods of communication. A good education empowers us to use these technologies for appropriate ends.

This process of understanding, assessing and prioritizing values is centrally important for citizens in a democracy. Democratic government is another tool that must be judiciously employed. Democracy can be abused by unscrupulous politicians who take advantage of a gullible citizenry. Democracy becomes dangerous when citizens are unethical and uncritical.

Human beings are not born knowing how to govern themselves. We are dependent for much of our childhoods. Our passions and instincts often rule over us, leaving us unable to properly govern ourselves. We are easily seduced and distracted. It takes long practice to learn how to pay attention, get your work done and do the right thing. A good education teaches us how to free our minds and control our behaviors so that we might govern ourselves.

Democratic citizens must learn to question authority, evaluate conventional wisdom, discuss values and deliberate about ideas. Citizens need to understand their rights. They also need to develop the wisdom and virtue so that they might exercise their rights responsibly.

Human beings are not born understanding ethics or politics. Most children do have an innate capacity for truth-telling, compassion and love. But children can also be selfish, close-minded and mean. They can bully others and show undue respect for authority and power. Ethical judgment and democratic values must be taught.

Every fall we entrust our educators with the awesome job of cultivating the next generation. I wish them luck on this difficult and crucial task. We hope that our kids end up with fruitful careers and that they learn to read, write and compute. But mostly I hope that they learn to be critical and virtuous democratic citizens.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/08/23/3458110/education-should-encourage-us.html#storylink=cpy