The Blame Game

When bad stuff happens, we want someone to blame.  But blame assumes a kind of agency that most of us lack.  Luck is as important as intention.  And culture and nature matter more than the choices of individuals.

Recent events show us how the blame game works.  The White House has blamed the Covid-19 pandemic on China.  White House trade adviser Peter Navarro recently claimed that China “spawned” the virus and deliberately spread the disease. Meanwhile, Trump’s critics blame him.  One recent article carried the headline, “It Really Is Trump’s Fault.”  Another said, “Covid 19: Blame Trump.” 

All of this oversimplifies the causal reality of the pandemic, which involves the complexities of microbiology, economics, and the daily choices of billions of people.  Policy and law can have some influence.  But there are more fundamental forces at play in the pandemic.

If we want to blame something for the explosion of the pandemic in the U.S., we might blame American individualism, libertarianism, and consumerism.  Trump did not invent these forces.  Nor did he (or China) cause the pandemic to blow up here. 

That explosion involved the choices of governors, mayors, businesses, and ordinary citizens.  Lots of people ignored the need for social distancing.  The virus did the rest, moving according to its own logic.

Trump cannot save us from the pandemic, by the way. That’s up to us.  To be critical of the blame game is also to be critical of hero-worship and the cult of leadership.  A leader can only take people in a direction they are willing to go.

When we understand the power of culture and nature, the blame game fades in importance.  For example, some blame the victims of hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes for building their homes in danger zones.  But economic forces create conditions in which some people have no other viable places to live.  And destruction or survival in a storm or an earthquake is often a matter of luck.

A fuller account of causality offers a more convoluted picture of our choices.  Blame (or praise) assumes a myth about free choice in these matters that hearkens back to the myth of original sin. A more scientific account of causality makes that myth seem silly.

At the level of leadership, the blame game assumes that leaders are free to create policies independently of the parties, systems, and circumstances in which they operate.  In reality, human beings—including leaders—are buffeted by cultural and natural forces that are beyond our control.

And yet, when things feel out of control, we search for someone to blame.  This can lead to scapegoating.  In heaping blame upon a scapegoat, we seek a semblance of power in the face of powerlessness.  It feels good to blame bad things on some person, party, race, or nation.  In older times, the need to blame a malicious agent escalated into claims about witches, demons, and devils.  These days, it manifests as absurd conspiracy theories that imagine some secret cabal of evil geniuses pulling strings behind the scenes. 

A further problem is that blame is retrospective and retributive.  To focus on blame is to dwell in the past and to look for someone to punish.  But this can prevent us from moving forward.  We should learn from the past and avoid previous mistakes.  But the goal should be to study the past in order to build the future.  Rather than focusing on whom to blame, we ought to think about what we need to do next time.  John F. Kennedy once said, “Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past.  Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” 

To avoid the blame game is not to give up on accountability.  Leadership matters.  Incompetent and malicious leaders should be replaced.  And indeed, a larger point of view makes it easier to move on.  If there are no evil geniuses, there are also no saviors or superheroes.  No leader is indispensable. 

Knowledge, expertise, and experience can help us ride through bad times.  But bad stuff is often a matter of bad luck and the larger forces of culture, institutions, and nature.  And often we really have no one to blame but ourselves.  Once we realize this, it is easier to leave the blame game behind and get to work on preparing for tomorrow. 

Religion, Non-Religion, and the Pandemic

Fresno Bee, May 17, 2020

The divide between religious and non-religious people is highlighted by the pandemic. At a recent “Freedom Rally” in Fresno, a woman said she was not afraid of the virus. If she gets sick or infects someone else, she said, it is “all part of God’s plan.”

This represents a dispiriting theology. It is not God’s will that people die from this disease. Scientists know how to stop its spread. It makes no sense to ignore science and blame God.

The conflict between faith and science rages on. Some turn to prayer. May 14 was an international day of prayer, celebrated by Pope Francis and Muslim leaders. Two months ago, President Trump declared March 15 as a national day to “pray for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.” May 7 was another National Day of Prayer. At the May 7 event at the White House, no one wore a mask, including the choir.

In response to all of this praying, the Freedom From Religion Foundation declared May 7 as a National Day of Reason. They claim the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. They argue, “irrationality, magical thinking, and superstition have undermined the national effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Pandemics have often prompted religious turmoil. In ancient Athens, a terrible plague turned people away from religion. The historian Thucydides reported that at first the Athenians asked the gods for help. But when prayer had no effect, the people saw the futility of religion.

As the disease spread, general lawlessness broke out. People expected to die soon, so they focused on enjoying themselves in the present moment. They gave up on honor and were not worried about punishment for crime. Thucydides explained that there was no longer any fear of the gods or of the laws.

Something similar occurred during the Black Death. The Italian poet Boccaccio recounts that people made merry and drank themselves silly, since death appeared inevitable. People generally disregarded “the reverend authority of the laws, both human and divine.”

The good news is that our pandemic is less severe. The Athenian plague killed one-third of the population. The Black Death killed over half of Europe. Things are better today thanks to modern science. We know how to prevent and treat the bubonic plague. Scientists also know how to prevent COVID-19.

But will faith wane in this crisis as it did in Athens and Italy? When prayer proved ineffective, some people gave up on religion — but not all. Religion is resilient, as recent data show. The Pew Center reports that the COVID-crisis has strengthened the faith of people who were already religious.

But the pandemic has not driven the nonreligious back to religion. Indeed, a growing religious exodus is already well underway. A fourth of all Americans are not religious and a third of those under 40 are nonreligious.

Religion can’t compare to science when it comes to understanding disease. But a religious attitude may be useful for creating solidarity and compassion. History shows that in a pandemic people may selfishly focus on short-term pleasure. But the turn to selfish individualism undermines cooperation and helps the disease to spread.

If religion encourages people to cooperate, care for the suffering, and work to prevent disease, then science and religion can work together. A carefree attitude of partying like there is no tomorrow will undermine cooperation. But the same is true when religious people refuse to cooperate in the name of religious liberty.

In a free country, of course we have the right to pray or to party. But we should be smart about exercising our rights. We can party safely and with social distance. We can also pray, while loving our neighbors and wearing masks.

Thucydides once said that good sense is undermined by haste, passion, and a narrow mind. We do better when we broaden our perspective and think more carefully about science, history, and ethics. We also need a more sophisticated theology that does not blame God for human failure. We must think about the impact that our choices have on others. We should acknowledge that science actually works to save lives. And whether we pray or party, let’s do it wisely.

To Mask or Not to Mask

To mask or not to mask

The CDC has called for Americans to wear masks.  But some people still don’t get it.  Donald Trump refused to wear a mask when he visited a mask factory this week.  “Live and Let Die” blared in the background. 

Mask-wearing is an ethical no-brainer.  If masks help us avoid further outbreaks and quarantines, we ought to wear them.  Masks also show respect for vulnerable service workers like clerks and cashiers who must daily confront the wheezing masses.  And by slowing the contagion we support nurses and doctors overwhelmed by the sick and dying. 

A mask is a symbol of solidarity and compassion.  It says to other people that you care enough about them to try to prevent them from getting sick.  New York governor Andrew Cuomo said, “You know how you show love?  By wearing a mask.” 

But masks have become a polarizing symbol.  According to a recent poll, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to wear them.  Those with more education are more likely to wear masks.  Black Americans are more likely to wear them than whites.

Skeptics and libertarians have warned that masks are a sign of government overreach and even tyranny.  Officials in Oklahoma and Ohio backed away from mandatory masking after public outcry.  In Flint, Michigan, a security guard was murdered for trying to enforce a mask requirement.

One Ohio lawmaker, Nino Vitale, went so far as to declare that his Christian faith prohibits him from wearing a mask.  He said that God made us in His image and that to cover the face is to obscure the visage of God.

Some backlash is understandable.  People don’t like to be told what to do.  But most don’t bristle at similar regulations such as “no shirt, no shoes, no service.”  When the national anthem plays, people take their hats off.  Kids can’t wear racist, gang, or drug-oriented clothes to school. 

And of course, public nudity is prohibited.  Although even this is contentious.  Men go topless.  But women may not.  Some women have protested against this double-standard

Perhaps the libertarian backlash against masks should extend to a refusal to wear clothes.  One could even imagine a religious point similar to Representative Vitale’s.  The entire human body is made in the image of God.  Perhaps we should show it all off.

The deep question is what counts as the authentic face or body.  People shave, cut their hair, and get their nails done.  Which version of your body is the one created in the image of God?

The issue of masking uncovers questions about bodies, identities, and cultural norms.  Not too long ago, people freaked out about Muslim women’s veils and headscarves.  And masks have been banned in the past, when associated with criminal activity.

The mask controversy exposes the social construction of reality.  Veiled women, bandits, and surgeons all cover their faces.  But the meaning of the mask depends upon cultural norms and the purpose we have for masking.

It is not easy to draw clear lines here since life involves a whole bunch of masking. We routinely put on masks in order to create or alter our identities.  Some, like the President, do it with make-up, a fancy hair-do, and a business suit.  Others get plastic surgery.  Professionals put on their “game face” at work, along with a uniform.  We change our demeanor when we hang out with friends, go to church, or go to a funeral.  Life is a complex masquerade. 

Existentialist philosophers have often wondered about the reality behind the masks.  Does the person remain the same behind the masks and under all of that make-up?  Or are we simply the masks we wear and the roles we inhabit?

This brings us back to the current issue.  In a pandemic, to wear a mask (or not) is to make a statement about who you are.  Whether you wear a mask or go bald-faced you reveal what you value and what you believe. 

Some apparently prefer to live and let die.  They walk barefaced and proud among the masked masses, believing that liberty trumps public safety.  But others emphasize solidarity with those who suffer.  They compassionately conceal their faces, so that others may live.

Are we really all in this together?

In this together

Fresno Bee, May 3, 2020

Hopeful signs have popped up saying things like, “we are all in this together, even though we are six feet apart.” That’s sweet. But is it true?

In many ways, we are not all in this together. Rich people ride out the COVID-19 storm in second homes and on private yachts. Affluent professionals work safely on speedy internet connections. But working-class folks, store clerks and bus drivers, must serve people who refuse to wear masks. Unemployment is growing while fat cats play the stock market.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed preexisting divisions. Some believe doctors and scientists. Others do not. Some think this is a left-wing conspiracy. Others blame the president.

The crisis has disclosed disparities in health care, economics, education and outlook. Black Americans are more likely to die of the disease. Poor communities lack the infrastructure to support online learning. And some Americans, like those who are married to undocumented immigrants, will not receive federal stimulus checks.

The president has encouraged protesters to “liberate” themselves from state governments. This week he asked why American taxpayers should bail out “poorly run states and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed.”

The answer ought to be that we are all in this together. But this doesn’t ring true anymore.

Perhaps it is time for Red and Blue Americans to seek a divorce. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently said California is a kind of “nation state.” The folks calling for a “Cal-exit” have said that the COVID-19 crisis could help push California toward secession.

A new book by F.H. Buckley, called “American Secession,” argues that America may be too big for its own good. Buckley is a law school professor and Trump supporter. He says that smaller countries are happier and less corrupt. He suggests that now may be the time to downsize.

Of course, downsizing won’t stop the virus. A global pandemic requires a coordinated global response. The idea of “California alone” is as asinine as the idea of “America first.”

And if California succeeded in seceding, how would we prevent further downsizing? California is as divided as our nation. The citizens of Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco might be glad to get rid of the denizens of Devin Nunes’ Central Valley – and vice versa.

The big question, of course, is what counts as the real California. And for that matter, who counts as a real American? Who gets to tell the others to take a hike? Who ought to be liberated from whom?

The Trumpists want to be free of the mainstream news media and others they see as enemies of the people. Those “enemies” dream of a world without Trump. Whose country is this anyway?

The fact that we need to ask this question shows that our Union is dying. Marriages, friendships and nations only exist so long as people believe in them. As with most of social life, our beliefs create reality. Trust is the basic glue of social relationships. Once “we, the people” stop believing in those relationships, they dissolve.

Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln was right about the nature of the Union. It won’t last if we don’t believe in it.

Lincoln led a war to restore the Union. That’s not what we need. Nor do we need to hear anymore from incompetent, corrupt and divisive leaders. A Union, if we want it, is up to us. Community is a bottom-up affair. This is how friendships, marriages and businesses work. Even if the economy is officially re-opened, it won’t revive until people believe it is safe to leave home.

Market forces, culture, religion and science operate independently. No government official ordered Americans to hoard toilet paper. That happened by itself, through the choices of individuals. If we are going to find a way to rebuild our broken Union, that’s how it will have to happen, one roll at a time, in the minds and choices of individuals.

Which brings me back to those sweet signs that have appeared as spontaneous love-letters to the world. If we believe that we are all in this together, then we will be. But once we stop believing, we will stand alone, even though we are only six feet apart.

Imagining a better economy after the Covid crisis

Imagine kinder future

Fresno Bee, March 27, 2020

The president wants to resurrect the economy by Easter. The scientists say it is too soon to get back to normal. But is getting back to normal really the solution?

Easter is a celebration of transformation. Maybe we should imagine a transformed economy on the other side of the corona crisis. We could even imagine the kind of economy that Jesus would hope for: an economy that prioritizes caring for the poor, the sick and the downtrodden.

The government is going to give direct handouts to people and extend unemployment benefits. Now is a good time to consider the idea of universal basic income. The stock market collapse is killing people’s retirement savings. Now is a good time to imagine how we might ensure a decent retirement for everyone. The pandemic also gives us a reason to consider disparities in public health and access to health care. And social distancing is an opportunity to rethink making a living and living well.

Henry David Thoreau said that there was more to life than making a living. He asked us to imagine “how to make getting a living not merely honest and honorable, but altogether inviting and glorious.” It may be too much to ask for an economy that is honest, honorable, and glorious. But we could benefit from a less materialistic approach to life.

The frantic pace of consumer society helped propel the pandemic. In a simpler time, people lived in small towns and villages, more in tune with nature, more connected to friends and family. A more localized economic model might impede future pandemics.

But reverting to pre-industrial life is not a viable solution. Instead of going back, let’s imagine how we might leap forward. A new vision of human life is made possible by the infrastructure that is helping us through this crisis.

People have rapidly shifted to working remotely. A generation ago, this would not have been possible. Universities have quickly gone online. Students have vacated dorms and professors teach from home. People don’t waste time commuting. Pollution is down as a result. Perhaps we have stumbled upon a new paradigm in business and education.

We are adapting in other ways. This week a couple in Green Bay, Wisconsin got married. Because of social distancing they had to invite their friends to participate via Facebook Live. That’s a cool idea, facilitated by technology. We are rapidly evolving how we work, play, learn, and love.

Or consider shopping and entertainment. The home delivery economy is thriving. There is a surge in grocery deliveries and restaurant carry-out. Movie theaters are closed. But we’ve got big TV’s and streaming content. Perhaps we’ll exit this crisis with new habits of consumption and amusement.

We may also reconsider the extent to which shopping and entertainment drive our economy and daily lives. This viral sabbatical provides an opportunity to spend more time with family, to re-learn the art of conversation, and to rediscover simpler pastimes, such as reading and playing cards. In my neighborhood, more people are taking walks with their families. It would be great if some of these new habits hung around.

But long walks and card games are not the only solution. The younger generation already spends a lot of time online chatting and gaming. Old folks have been forced to join in. Vulnerable and isolated oldsters need to turn to technology to keep in touch with friends and family. Social distancing will drive us further toward electronic social networking.

These are interesting times. Crises create opportunities for innovation. We need a vision of a post-corona economy that is not simply a return to normal. A new normal can build upon what we’ve discovered under quarantine about making a living and living well. Let’s imagine a new economy that conserves earth resources, avoids future pandemics, and enhances spiritual and mental health.

It may seem too soon to talk about life after corona. The scientists tell us it is too soon to reopen the economy. But now is the time to imagine a post-corona future that is kinder, gentler, and more supportive of the weak, the sick, and the vulnerable. Let’s not resurrect bad habits. Instead, let’s seek transformation and renewal.