On the Importance of Looking Up

The new Netflix film “Don’t Look Up” has a lot of people talking.  It is a black comedy, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, and Jennifer Lawrence. It’s about corporate greed, bureaucratic incompetence, and the apocalypse.  Its bleak conclusion gets you thinking about the dangers of power, narcissism, and willful ignorance. 

The movie’s fans see it as a cautionary allegory about climate change, science denial, and clueless amateurs running the government.  Some worry that its gloomy ending may encourage despair.  Others hope it will be a call to action. 

Reviews of the film reflect our polarization.  Conservatives claim it is another example of Hollywood preaching a liberal gospel.  One critic in the National Review suggested it is the worst film of 2021.  He lambasted is as a “better-than-you comedy” that “reveals the nastiness of liberals.”  Another critic in the Washington Examiner said it was a “lazy anti-Trump comedy.” 

More subtle criticism came from New York Magazine, where a sympathetic commentator accused the film of oversimplifying the climate crisis.  He said liberals “need to stop telling themselves self-flattering fairy tales.”

I suppose the point is that we are all in this together.  Narcissism and stupidity cross party lines.  Hollywood is part of the problem.  The film seems to recognize this.  It shows how the cult of celebrity corrupts everyone, even the neurotic scientist played by DiCaprio. 

At any rate, this is an allegory, not a documentary.  Allegories simplify reality. They tell memorable stories that get people talking.  In this regard, the film succeeds.  It provokes conversations about life, death, politics, and American culture. 

This conversation should extend to the very idea of “looking up.”  The film’s title calls to mind Plato’s famous “allegory of the cave.”  In Plato story, we are prisoners chained in a cave.  We are not permitted to turn around and see reality.  Even when we are set free, most of us refuse to turn around. Plato suggests the masses would go so far as to kill truth-tellers and educators, who like Socrates are trying to get us to look up.

Plato’s allegory is about willful ignorance. Plato warns that most people don’t want to know the truth.  We deliberately choose not to look up.  We are happy with our illusions.  We don’t want to confront reality.  We keep our heads down, preferring slavery over enlightenment.

In the film, this idea becomes the slogan of the political party led by Streep’s character, President Orleans.  The party encourages people not to look up at the comet hurtling toward earth.  This is a parody of our culture’s struggle with science denial, “fake news,” and “alternative facts.”  It also implies authoritarianism.  “Don’t look up” also means “mind your own business” and don’t criticize the elites.

The philosophical solution to all of this is the pursuit of wisdom.  We ought to look up.  It won’t be easy or comfortable.  We may discover things that confuse us or make us unhappy.  But it is better to live in the light than in the darkness.

One of the questions raised by the film is whether you would want to know how and when you are going to die.  The scientists in the film know the exact time of the apocalypse.  And there is a supercomputer using big data to predict how people will die. 

What would you do with this knowledge?  Would knowledge of your death cause despair?  Would you prefer to remain in ignorance about your death?

A modest hopeful appears toward the end of the film when DiCaprio’s character responds to knowledge of his death by changing his life.  He refutes the computer’s prediction about his death, thereby reclaiming some modest dignity.

This is the kind of dignity that knowledge provides.  When we look up and confront reality, we can take charge of how we live and how we die.  To live in ignorance is to live as a prisoner.  The truth sets us free. 

Knowing the truth won’t change the indifferent reality of the cosmos.  Knowing the truth won’t stop a comet or cure you of Covid.  But knowledge allows us to live responsibly and, if necessary, to die with dignity.  It is tempting in a crisis to bury our heads in the sand.  But wisdom is only available to those who look up.

Defusing Covid Anxiety and Climate Worry

Fresno Bee, December 19, 2021

COVID restrictions are coming back. And climate change is wreaking havoc. It is easy to get depressed.

New categories of psychological affliction have appeared. Worries about the climate generate “eco-anxiety” and “ecological grief.” And “COVID anxiety syndrome” has emerged. A recent New York Times column maintains that COVID anxiety is plaguing the globe.

Political dysfunction contributes to despair. The scientists know what we ought to do. But politics prevents us from doing it. Vaccines and masks are refused. And the oil pushers keep us addicted to fossil fuels.

Growing anxiety is especially hard on young people. A new UC Berkeley grad was recently quoted as saying that health crises and climate catastrophes have led her to not want children. She said, “it would be wrong to bring someone into that chaos, without their consent.” I’ve heard similar sentiments from my students.

This is a sad result. Young people are typically a source of optimism and energy. But today’s youth are afraid of the future.

In response, we might point out that the future has always been scary. My generation grew up during the Cold War. Many of us expected nuclear winter to destroy life on earth. Nuclear weapons remain an ominous threat to humanity. But as you grow older, you learn that each generation has its crises.

You also learn that solutions to big problems require painstaking and tenacious effort. Social change does not happen overnight. The American revolution lasted seven years. It took another four score and seven years to abolish slavery. We are still working on racism and inequality.

Realizing that history moves slowly can alleviate angst. A culture of instant gratification fuels anxiety. If we don’t get what we want, we freak out. But history is not like DoorDash. It moves at its own pace.

Patience is especially important when dealing with epidemics and diseases. Colds and flus have to run their course. Immunity takes time to develop. It helps to know that prior pandemics were not cured overnight. The Spanish flu epidemic of the early 20th century blazed for at least two years. The Black Plague ravaged humanity for decades in the middle of the 14th century. It continued to recur for centuries.

The Earth’s climate unfolds across even larger time scales. The Earth was once covered with ice. At other times, it was much hotter. What’s “normal” for us is not what’s normal for the Earth.

Humans thrive under present conditions. But homo sapiens only emerged a few hundred thousand years ago. Our species will go extinct, like most other species. That’s just the way it goes. It doesn’t help to fret about it.

But it does help to recall how resilient and adaptable we are. Our ancestors left the warmth of Africa and migrated across the globe. When we encountered cold climates, we invented clothing and furnaces. When we settled in hot, dry places, we invented irrigation and air conditioning. We’ve visited the ocean’s depths, Mount Everest, and the moon. We also invented vaccines and solar panels.

We’ll adapt to COVID-19 and to the changing climate. Yet those adaptations are at the level of the species. Our individual choices matter for our personal survival. But evolution does not care about our individual choices. So don’t waste too much energy worrying about the survival of humanity or civilization.

In general, it’s wise to stop fretting. It is not healthy to dwell on disaster or ruminate on impending doom. The ancient Stoics advise us to stop worrying about things that are not in our control. The climate, the pandemic, the political world, and the course of history are simply not up to me.

This does not mean we should stop being prudent. Choose wisely with regard to your own body and behavior. Wear a mask. And get vaccinated. But stop fretting about other people’s choices. And lower your expectations about a return to “normal,” whatever that is.

Solidarity as a Moral Value

Fresno Bee, September 19, 2021

Solidarity is an important focal point of morality. Solidarity involves empathy and emotional connection. But it is not merely a feeling. It is also the understanding that social problems require cooperative solutions. These days many of us feel fragile and insecure. Solidarity offers something solid and enduring in benevolence, justice, and concern for the common good.

The United Nations just published a report described as a “wake up call” for global solidarity. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warns that people are turning their backs on trust, cooperation, and multilateralism. He says, “Humanity’s welfare depends on solidarity and working together as a global family to achieve common goals.” Solidarity arises when we understand that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

This echoes the teaching of Pope Francis, who published an encyclical last fall, “Fratelli Tutti,” which basically means that we are all brothers (and sisters). Some want to build walls and retreat into isolation. Francis encourages us to do the opposite. Instead of withdrawing, we should reach out. The pope says that the path to peace and flourishing requires a “global ethic of solidarity and cooperation shaped by interdependence and shared responsibility in the whole human family.”

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of our interconnectedness. The virus spread globally. New variants emerge among the unvaccinated. As long as some remain vulnerable, we all remain vulnerable.

The war on terrorism provides another example. Terrorists hiding out in Afghanistan masterminded the 9/11 attacks. Those attacks were a response to American interventions in the Middle East in prior decades. The war on terrorism extends across the globe, involving many allies. It has had far-reaching impacts. We still stand in irritating security lines at the airport. And now we must welcome refugees fleeing Afghanistan.

Or consider climate change. As individuals, we go about our own business, burning fossil fuels. But those individual choices heat up the atmosphere. The result is fire and smoke in California, horrific hurricanes, and rising sea levels that will swamp island nations.

Our struggle with racism provides yet another example. The repercussions of slavery and Jim Crow continue to ripple across our social and political landscape. Historical injustices give birth to contemporary dysfunction. Police brutality in some American cities sparked a global movement against racial injustice.

These examples show that each is connected to the other. If you pull one thread of the social fabric, it changes the whole cloth. We are networked and interdependent. Global and historical interconnections define who we are and what we can become.

Now some people do not like to admit this. They refuse to accept our interconnectedness and insist on living in stubborn isolation. The lonely hermit is a symbol of this kind of refusal. Others draw lines of solidarity that are narrow and exclusive. Some focus on solidarity within their families or within a neighborhood. Others focus on racial solidarity or national solidarity.

Most religious and moral traditions imagine a broader circle of solidarity. Calls for brotherly love spread globally. The parable of the good Samaritan is not only about solidarity with a suffering neighbor. It is also a call to view the world as our neighborhood.

There are remaining difficulties. Solidarity gives us an orientation. But it does not tell us exactly where to go or how to get there. The issues of climate change, racism, terrorism, and the pandemic are complex. Solutions are also complex and evolving. But any viable solution must bear witness to suffering wherever it is found and grow networks of cooperation that are large and inclusive.

When we affirm solidarity we acknowledge that solutions for social problems cannot focus on “us” in opposition to “them.” Any long-term and stable solution to our problems must move beyond “us” and “them.” In solidarity, each of us comes to see that we are responsible for the other. In an interconnected world, what happens to the other impacts me. And my choices and behaviors have ripple effects that extend beyond me.

These ripples fortify us in the face of our common fragility. Life is precarious. But we do not suffer alone. There are problems to be solved. We solve them by opening our doors and reaching out our hands.

On Fixing Stupidity: Replace Dumb Ideas with Critical Thinking

Fresno Bee, September 5, 2021

Dr. Rais Vohra, Fresno County’s interim health officer, warned this week of an “information pandemic.   He said, people who are “infected by viral misinformation” need to “inoculate themselves with the truth.” 

We are plagued by misinformation, disinformation, and outright stupidity.  Mis-information is mistaken information.  It is not necessarily malicious.  Dis-information is worse.  It is basically a lie.  Disinformation is a malicious attempt to make you believe something that is not true.  And stupidity?  Well, it’s a failure of intelligence.  But it is not only a mental malfunction.  Stupidity also involves actively embracing false and pernicious ideas.

The doctor was calling out people who are reluctant to get the Covid-19 vaccine because of false information.  Almost half of the population of Fresno County remains unvaccinated.  There is also the problem of people poisoning themselves with ivermectin, a horse de-wormer. 

This is dismaying but not surprising.  History is full of terrible ideas and epidemics of stupidity.  Not long ago, kids were eating Tide pods and teenagers were stuffing their mouths with ground cinnamon.  Even worse was smoking, a stupid habit that caused long-term health problems for millions of people. 

The good news is that people usually wise up.  The bad news is that advertisers and propagandists are always working to spread more stupidity.  Ideas are contagious.  They circulate and propagate.  Some catch on.  Some die out.  This is true for all ideas—good ones and bad ones. 

Stupidity has a tendency to attract our attention because it is ridiculous.  It can also cause us to lose faith in humanity.  It is not only the absurdity of dumb ideas that bothers us.  We are also alarmed by the strange sense of certainty that stupid people seem to have.

We may worry that our own beliefs may be just as stupid.  This can prompt a crisis of faith.  As Shakespeare said, the fool thinks himself wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

Cynics worry that bad ideas are more easily spread than good ones.  But this is not true.  Bad ideas only spread when the intellectual immune system is weak.  And good ideas can be reinforced through conscious effort.

It is disheartening to know that stupidity is contagious.  But we know the cure.  Social distancing helps.  We should isolate dumb ideas and prevent them from proliferating.  The long-term solution is the vaccination we call education.  Education strengthens the intellectual immune system.

The campaign against smoking provides an example of a successful approach.  People were taught that smoking was unhealthy.  Smoking was prohibited in public places.  And taxes were levied on tobacco products.  It took decades, but smoking declined.  In the 1950’s, 45% of Americans smoked.  These days the number is around 15%.

As we fret about the recent plague of stupidity, let’s celebrate the fact that many good ideas have caught on.  And some very bad ideas have died out.  Slavery was abolished.  Women were liberated.  Old superstitions and stereotypes have faded away along with the idea that smoking is cool. 

Technology and culture play a role in all of this.  Human culture is a process of spreading ideas.  We gossip and talk, exchanging stories and information.  In the old days this occurred slowly through face-to-face interactions among friends and family. 

Electronic communication is faster and more volatile.  Memes and trends explode overnight.  Robots and artificial intelligence manipulate the cyber-ecosystem.  They target us with advertising, including misinformation and disinformation. 

The bad news is that misinformation and disinformation can spread quickly in cyberspace.  The good news is that the truth is also out there and is often easy to find.  But we need to be educated about where to look and how to distinguish the truth from a lie.  That’s called information literacy and critical thinking.

It’s not true, as a folksy proverb puts it, that “you can’t fix stupid.”  Nobody really believes that cynical proverb.  Educators and coaches certainly don’t.  And experience teaches us that stupidity can be fixed.  It takes practice and discipline to overcome intellectual laziness and ignorance.  But we can make progress.  This is a lifelong project.  People make mistakes.  But we can learn from our mistakes.  And we can build up an immunity to dumb ideas.

Covid Vaccines, Religion, and the First Amendment

Fresno Bee, August 29, 2021

Most of society is pushing for vaccine mandates. But a small minority is opting out on religious grounds. That’s their right under the First Amendment. If your deeply held beliefs prevent you from getting a vaccine, you can get a religious exemption.

In the United States, the First Amendment allows for “free exercise” of religious belief and other freedoms. These principles are connected to the right to have an abortion, the right to refuse to serve in the military, the right of gay and lesbian people to marry, and the right to refuse to salute the flag.

We value religious liberty in this country and freedom of conscience. This does not mean that religious people can sneeze germs wherever they want. Those with religious exemptions still need to wear masks, to self-quarantine when ill, and to undergo routine testing. But so far, no one is going to force you to get a shot, if you are conscientiously opposed to the idea.

There are complexities here involving what counts as a religious exemption. Some vaccine denial is not of the “conscientious” variety. Instead, it is based on crackpot conspiracy theories. But then again, one person’s deepest religious beliefs may be viewed by another as a crackpot conspiracy theory. That’s why we ought to tread lightly.

Official policies regarding religious exemption show the difficulty. In the California State University policy, for example, it says that a religious exemption can be granted either for “sincerely held religious belief” connected to “traditionally recognized religion” or for sincere beliefs that are “comparable to that of traditionally recognized religions.”

This means that agnostics and atheists can be granted “religious” exemptions. But would a devoted QAnon believer also qualify? It is difficult to decide what counts as a sincerely held belief worthy of exemption.

Religious exemptions in the United States have evolved through litigation. Originally, exemptions from military service were granted only for members of historic peace churches. Over time, the interpretation of what counts as grounds for conscientious objector status expanded along with religious diversity and the growth of non-religion.

The question of what counts as a religion is vexing, especially in the U.S., where new religions grow and prosper. The U.S. has given us Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Nation of Islam — along with Scientology and the Church of Satan.

When is a group of like-minded folks really a “religion”? And when are your beliefs worthy of accommodation? In the U.S., we are permissive in this regard. If you publicly testify to the sincerity of your belief, we’ll accept that for the most part.

data dump from California State University Chico provides a bit of insight about how this might play out. There are ethical concerns about the breach of privacy that occurred when Chico State’s data was revealed. But the published accounts show the kind of language used by students who were granted exemptions. One claimed, for example, to believe in “natural healing through God’s divine power.”

It would be wrong to force someone with that kind of belief to violate their conscience and take the vaccine. In the same way, it would be wrong to force a committed pacifist to take up arms or a believer opposed to state-idolatry to salute the flag.

Some people will lie about this. But how can we know? It is very difficult — if not impossible — to judge the sincerity of another person’s profession of faith. If someone publicly declares their belief in something, we take them at their word, until evidence is provided that shows they are lying. Of course, if you lie on your application, that’s fraud, and this may have legal repercussions.

It is likely that the number of people asking for religious exemptions will be small. There are few people whose religious beliefs prevent them from saluting the flag or from carrying arms in defense of the country. There are likely also few people whose faith prevents them from using modern medicine.

These religious exemptions provide a great opportunity to educate ourselves about the First Amendment and the complexity of religion. It also provides each of us with a chance to think about what we sincerely believe.