“What is truth?” Truth and Power in the Trump Era

Fresno Bee, March 31, 2024

Truth and power have always been at odds. When Jesus claimed that he came into the world to testify to the truth, Pontius Pilate scoffed, “What is truth?” The powerful do what they want, indifferent to the truth. The meek end up suffering.

The Donald Trump melodrama provides a more recent example. Trump is skilled at twisting the narrative and making people wonder what is really true. While he was in court for his porn-star-hush-money trial, Trump shared a post that compared his tribulations to those of Jesus. But is it true that Trump is being persecuted like Jesus was?

Well, “What is truth?” Was the 2020 election a fraud? Was Jan. 6 an insurrection? Did Trump pay off a porn star? Did he really rape E. Jean Carroll? Leaving those sordid affairs aside, what is Trump really worth?

Trump seems to have made billions as his social media company went public. The company is not profitable, but the stock price jumped. Pundits are describing it as a meme stock, whose value is divorced from reality.

At the same time, Trump has been convicted of fraud in New York and fined more than $450 million. Despite his wealth, he claimed he was unable to post a bond while the decision is being appealed. The court reduced the amount to $175 million dollars just as Trump was making those newfound billions. Is he rich enough to pay the fine or not? Is his company really worth all of those billions? What is the truth?

These are unimaginable sums for normal, honest people. The story of Trump’s financial ups and down exposes the rotten core of modern capitalism and political life. This is a “let them eat cake” economy in which wealthy fraudsters get rich while homeless people sleep on city streets.

The name of Trump’s social media application, “Truth Social” discloses part of the problem. Truth is not social. Truth is solid and substantial. It is based in the world of facts. More importantly, truth requires honesty and sincerity.

Fraud, lying, and deception undermine truth. But when there is so much nonsense circulating, it becomes difficult to distinguish truth from falsehood. Quacks and charlatans take advantage of this situation. Many of us don’t seem to care. Or perhaps we have been subject to so much misinformation, disinformation and noise that we just throw up our hands, asking, “What is truth?”

A number of us seem eager to jump on the latest bandwagon, indifferent to the truth. We all do this from time to time. If a stock is trending higher, we buy it. If a celebrity endorses something, we use it. When everyone is mocking someone or sharing a stupid meme, we add to the pile. Instead of keeping our eye on truth and virtue, we are distracted by the shiny bells and whistles of the latest craze.

But the bandwagon has no substance. The opinions and beliefs that percolate through social media are merely gossip and gas. Things do not magically become true because people keep repeating them.

In an economy of bubbles and bunkum, we don’t know what anything is really worth. The rise and fall of meme stocks and celebrities as much about herd mentality as it is about any concrete value. And the “truths” that bounce around on social media are produced by “influencers” instead of experts.

The antidote for this is obvious. We need better critical thinking. We also need faith that in the long run the truth will triumph.

This takes us back to Jesus and his interaction with Pilate. It is there that Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” This is a reminder that there is another, better world in which truth and virtue matter. The kingdoms of this world float on hot air. Wisdom and truth have deeper roots.

It is instructive to note that Jesus did not argue with Pilate. The powerful are not interested in genuine arguments about truth. They pander to the mob, do what they want, and then wash their hands. This means that in the short run, untruth may succeed. But one of the hopeful messages of Easter is that in the long run the truth will prevail.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article287190845.html#storylink=cpy

On the wisdom of not clinging to power

Fresno Bee, Feb. 18, 2024

We have entered an era of bumbling gerontocracy. The crusty old codgers clinging to power are embarrassing.

Consider the recent report of the special investigator in the Biden classified documents case. The report said that since Biden is a congenial old duffer, a jury would not convict him of mishandling official documents. The special counsel said, “Mr. Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory… He is someone for whom many jurors will want to identify reasonable doubt. It would be difficult to convince a jury that they should convict him.”

This has been red meat for the “Let’s go Brandon” crowd. And the Biden backers claim it is a partisan hit job. But the other side is no better. Trump is accused of fomenting an insurrection, among other crimes. And left-leaning pundits have chronicled Trump’s gaffes and mental slips, including how he confused Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi, and his bizarre recent claim that liberals want to rename Pennsylvania.

In a better world, both candidates would step aside. This will be a depressing dumpster fire of an election year. But perhaps we can learn something along the way about leadership and power.

A good leader should be smart, truthful and thoughtful. He or she should be courageous and compassionate. And a leader should not cling to power.

Plato explained, over two thousand years ago, that the best leaders are usually the least eager to lead. Would-be tyrants lie, cheat, and cajole their way into power. Virtuous people will not play that ugly game.

Plato said that wise rulers must be compelled to rule by a sense of justice and duty. He concluded that the best rulers are those who are “most reluctant to govern.” This sounds bizarre and almost impossible. Can we really imagine a person who serves as a matter of duty, and not because they desire glory?

George Washington may provide a model. When asked to consider the presidency, Washington said he would rather stay home. He said, “it is my great and sole desire to live and die in peace and retirement, on my own farm.” But if he were called upon to serve, he said, “I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man.”

Perhaps this was a kind of false modesty on Washington’s part. It is possible for a manipulative person to say “no” to power as a strategic ploy. They might deviously hope that a public display of humility will be persuasive.

But Washington’s writings reveal a man who was focused on questions of virtue. Washington wanted to be remembered as a man who dedicated his life to the service of his country with “an upright zeal.” This is how he put it in his Farewell Address, as he voluntarily left office after two terms at the age of 65.

Washington’s decision not to run for a third term established the basic norm of the two-term presidency. This norm was put into law after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four-term presidency.

Scholars debate the reasons for Washington’s refusal to run for a third term. But most seem to think that he really did desire to retreat to a private life at Mount Vernon. The consensus view seems to be, as one scholar put it, “in turning away from further service, Washington established himself as a model of selfless leadership.”

Selfless leadership is a noble idea. The best leaders should be reluctant to serve — but do so willingly, out of a sense of duty. They should want to be known as honest people. And they should have the constancy of character, and orientation toward virtue, that Washington called upright zeal.

They should also possess wisdom. Wisdom is different from quickness of wit. Young people are quick and witty. But wisdom comes with age and experience, and with a mellowing of the passions.

So, the age of our leading candidates is not the only thing that matters. What matters more is whether these old-timers are wise and virtuous, and whether they insist on clinging to power.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article285541682.html#storylink=cpy

Religious Freedom Day: From Jefferson and Adams to Trump and Biden

Fresno Bee, January 14, 2024

Religious Freedom Day” is January. 16. The day commemorates the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was passed into law on January 16, 1786. The law was originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson and carried forward by James Madison.

It is worth reading the whole document. It is not long. But it does contain dense prose that brings together a number of important points from theology and political philosophy. Before summarizing it, we might note how different things seem today from the time of the founding. Jefferson and Madison studied philosophy, religion, history, and politics. They spoke moderately and with reasoned arguments.

These giants are quite different from the leading Republican candidate for president, who has been talking a lot about religion. In a Christmas post, Donald Trump wrote of Joe Biden and others he calls “thugs,” “MAY THEY ROT IN HELL.” And before Christmas, in Iowa, Trump said, “Our country’s gone to hell. As soon as I get back in the Oval Office, I’ll immediately end the war on Christians … Under crooked Joe Biden, Christians and Americans of faith are being persecuted and government has been weaponized against religion like never before. And also presidents like never before.”

This Christian nationalist dog whistle fails to acknowledge that the Constitution makes persecution of any religion illegal. It fails to recognize that in our system of checks and balances, the president does not have the absolute power to declare war on religion. Trump also fails to understand that Christmas is a time of joy and love, not grievance and resentment.

Of course, Trump is free to say what he wants. Thanks to the founders’ wisdom, we have freedom of speech along with religious liberty. The Constitution’s First Amendment ensures that there can be no war on any kind of religion. It also allows Trump to damn his opponents to hell.

Now let’s consider that Virginia Statute. The law states that faith ought to be free from coercion because God created the human mind free. The government should stay out of religion because coercive state power corrupts the nature of faith.

The law notes that the men who lead churches and states are “fallible and uninspired.” It also claims that these faulty mortals have “established and maintained false religions” throughout history. Such crooked men end up warping religion when they try to impose their opinions on others.

The statute further says that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” This means that every person has the same civil rights, no matter what they believe (or don’t believe). Civil government exists to maintain peace and good order. Beyond that it should not go. The state does not exist to enforce religious orthodoxy.

The statute concludes by paraphrasing the philosopher John Locke, saying, “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself.” There is a suggestion here that political coercion tends to undermine truth. At the same time there is the hope that if people were left alone to develop their own consciences, truth would win out and we’d all be better off.

These are important ideas found deep in the heart of the American tradition. They also remind us of a different kind of political tone. The founders valued civility, moderation and restraint. Of course, from time to time, the founding generation engaged in heated political rhetoric. These men were human, after all. In the election of 1800, supporters of John Adams accused Thomas Jefferson of being an atheist. William Lin, a clergyman who opposed Jefferson, said the election of Jefferson would “destroy religion, introduce immorality, and loosen all the bonds of society.”

Despite that hyperbole and animosity, Adams and Jefferson eventually reconciled after their respective presidencies ended. They went on to exchange a number of letters in which they discussed religion and philosophy. These letters show that Jefferson was not an atheist. Nor was Adams an orthodox Christian. Rather, these were inquisitive minds trying to make sense of religion.

It is religious liberty that allows us to think critically about our beliefs. In the long run, wisdom is found in free and moderate discussion. And it is better to argue reasonably than to wish that your opponents should rot in hell.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article284146833.html#storylink=cpy

Christmas peace and the anti-political turn

Fresno Bee, December 17, 2023

Donald Trump is threatening to govern as a dictator. Joe Biden is cruising toward impeachment. And partisan bickering never seems to end. But it’s a mistake to fret too much about the absurdity of American politics.

The crises of our republic matter. We live in a broken world. But the ugly mess of political life is less important than we think. There has never been a perfect country. To obsess about politics is to fail to understand that politics cannot solve spiritual problems.

So, I disagree somewhat with Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who wrote an interesting recent column on “The Spiritual Unspooling of America.” That “spiritual unspooling” includes loneliness, suicide, drug overdoses, polarization, violence and hate.

Murphy suggests that the antidote is a better kind of politics. Sure. Better politics might help. It would be nice to live in a good country led by honorable people. It would be wonderful to live in a world of harmony and peace. And we should work toward those goods. But as I argued in a recent column, humanity is constructed of “warped wood” not easily made straight.

The real solution for “spiritual disintegration” is, well, spiritual. Harmony, peace and honor have always been in short supply. Learning to accept the tragically flawed reality of political life is an essential part of wisdom. Once we understand this, we can look elsewhere to find solace and hope.

Our spiritual malaise will not be solved by better politics. Your flourishing does not depend on Trump or Biden. Politics is not the highest good. The best and most important things transcend political life. These transcendent goods include spirituality and art, love and community.

This anti-political idea is clear at Christmas. The story of the season is of a new conception of power, born of humility and existing apart from politics. Christianity teaches about a kingdom that is not of this world. Jesus was not a political leader. He raised no army and was murdered by the state. According to one important story, when Satan tempted Jesus with political power, Jesus refused.

The turn away from politics is a common theme in the world’s wisdom traditions. The Taoist sages avoided politics. Lao-Tzu, the founder of Taoism, left China because he was fed up with the hypocrisy and corruption of Chinese politics. The wisdom of Buddhism aims to cultivate nonattachment, which looks beyond the tumultuous fires of social and political life. And the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus encouraged his followers to “live unnoticed” in a garden sheltered from political turbulence.

Unfortunately, it is easy to be seduced into an obsession with politics. The partisans and the political media encourage this obsession. Political squabbles keep us glued to our screens, while helping the partisans raise money and get people to the polls, and into the streets.

But political obsession is a recipe for anxiety and despair. The more upset we become about politics, the more we focus on things that are really beyond our control. Instead of cultivating our own gardens, we get frustrated. And when things go wrong — as they always do — we end up angry and hopeless.

Rather than obsessing about politics, we need to understand that spiritual health is found in religion and other deep sources of meaning; in small local and loving communities; in music, art, and ceremony; and in connection with the wonder of nature.

Spiritual integration depends upon a set of habits that are good for body and soul. It is cultivated in silence and solitude. It is nurtured by love. It flourishes among friends and family. It blossoms when we discover wisdom, wonder and gratitude.

The bad news is that we are easily distracted by the crises of the moment. The partisans and the news cycle feed the frenzy of political frustration. The good news is that higher goods are easily obtained, if we turn off the TV and rediscover the world of nature, spirit, and loving community.

This does not mean we should drop out of political life, as Lao-Tzu did. Citizenship requires us to pay attention. And ethics demands solidarity with those who suffer.

But at Christmas, we should also remember that comfort and joy are found beyond the halls of power.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article283061398.html#storylink=cpy

Donald Trump and the Cult of the Rebel

Fresno Bee, Oct. 1, 2023

It’s worth asking why Donald Trump remains popular. He’s been indicted for crimes including a scheme to subvert the 2020 election. A court ruled that he committed sexual assault. He paid off a porn star. His language and demeanor are divisive. If you want a soft and sympathetic character, don’t look to Trump. But if you like rebels, Trump is your man.

You would think that all of these accusations would disqualify Trump from the political stage. But the former president is so popular among Republicans that he didn’t bother to show up to the Republican debate this past week. As the underdogs searched for the limelight in Simi Valley, Trump’s shadow eclipsed the headlines.

This past week, a court ruled that Trump’s business was liable for massive fraud. Other headlines reported that Trump suggested that the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Miley, should be executed. The Wall Street Journal editorial board used words like “lunacy” and “unhinged” to describe Trump’s rants.

But people still love Trump. Republican voters appear to think that the indictments are unjustified political persecution. They see Trump as a martyr who is being attacked by a corrupt federal bureaucracy. From this standpoint, it is the cops, the courts, and the generals who are the bad guys.

If we push a bit deeper, we stumble upon a strange theme in American culture: the cult of the rebel. Americans idolize rebels and vigilantes, bad guys and martyrs. We tend to view those in authority as self-righteous hypocrites who abuse their power. And we cheer on those who throw mud at the stiffs in uniform.

We might trace the cult of the rebel all the way back to Jesus and Socrates, rebel martyrs who questioned authority. But this is also uniquely American. The founding of the country was revolutionary. The founders heroically pledged their “sacred honor” to the rebellion of 1776. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson said, “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” He described rebellion as “a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”

Rebels and outlaws are icons of American culture. Criminals like Billy the Kid and Al Capone are favorite fixtures of Americana. Pop culture often portrays bad guys and gangsters as heroic figures who have no choice but to use violence to defend their sacred honor. There is a whole genre of heroic vigilantes, including Batman and Spiderman.

The cult of the rebel implies that for good to be done, good guys have to go rogue and break the law. Instead of obedience and conformity, rebel culture values honor, pride and self-assertion. This is a bipartisan tendency. Leftists wear Che Guevara T-shirts, and right-wingers view the Jan. 6 rebels as patriotic heroes. Rebels on the left and the right think the establishment, the system, or “the swamp,” is made up of biased bureaucrats who are venal and corrupt.

This cult of the rebel is part of the dysfunctional attitude of what I have called elsewhere the moronic mob. The unthinking mob wants heroes and villains, spectacles and melodrama. It is fun to cheer on the rebels in “Star Wars” as they battle the empire. We rally with Neo as he fights the Matrix. And we sing along with the hippies, punk rockers, gangster rappers, and outlaw country stars who celebrate sticking it to the man.

This is all, of course, childish and dangerous. Rebellion is rarely justified and often unpredictable. Vigilantes end up in jail. Modern societies cannot function without widespread commitment to the rule of law. And most cops, lawyers, judges, and bureaucrats are decent folks trying to do their jobs.

But the story of decent people operating within the rule of law is boring. Reform is slow, incremental, and tedious. Rebels spice things up. And the mob is always hungry for what is spicy and spectacular. But ordinary social and political life is rarely spectacular or spicy.

Even if he outrages you, Trump isn’t boring. I personally think that boring would be nice for a change. But we are unlikely to be bored as the next presidential election unfolds. The cult of the rebel runs too deep. And we, the people, seem too fascinated by the spectacle to look away.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article279879484.html#storylink=cpy