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.

Critical Thinking in Time of Crisis

Fresno Bee, March 15, 2020

Coronavirus uncertainty leaves us wondering what we should believe and who we should trust. This is made more difficult by partisan division and a general distrust of authority. Many authorities think that this illness is serious. Some countries have implemented drastic measures. Businesses and campuses are preparing contingency plans. Events have been canceled.

But the president suggests that this is fake news. On Monday, he tweeted, “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.”

But how do we know what the facts warrant? This question holds for a variety of issues: from climate change and the stock market to the threat of terrorism and dietary guidelines. Beyond these contemporary questions, there are deep questions about history, religion and the meaning of life. Did Jesus really walk on water? Did Shakespeare himself really write all of those plays and poems? Is there a soul that survives death?

In many cases, we lack direct access to the facts. Miracles happen far away and long ago. Historical facts rest on fragile threads of evidence. And death remains an undiscovered country from which no traveler returns.

Layers of secrecy and confidentiality in government and business make it difficult for ordinary people to judge. Even when we have evidence, we lack the expertise to evaluate it. The facts about climate change and the coronavirus have been published by scientists. But you need substantial training to understand these facts and assess the risks.

Given this problem, it is often wise to say “I don’t know.” Philosophers have routinely called for intellectual humility. Socrates famously said that the only thing he was certain of was that he lacked certainty.

But intellectual humility doesn’t help in an emergency. Acknowledging your lack of certainty doesn’t help you decide whether to avoid crowds, cancel a trip or stockpile toilet paper.

Intellectual humility should not be a recipe for inaction. Nor is it the same as lazy indifference. To say you don’t know is not the same as saying you don’t care. Nor does it mean that you should give up on the quest for certainty.

Prudence tells us to work diligently to get the facts and learn how to interpret them. One obvious method involves checking multiple reliable sources. But, of course, we disagree about what counts as a reliable source, which is the present predicament.

The president tells us not to trust the news media. But is the president trustworthy? The Washington Post reports that President Trump has made over 16,000 false or misleading statements since taking office. Trump calls that fake news. The polarization of information makes critical thinking more difficult.

This is not a new problem. There never was a time when people agreed about the facts or about who counts as an expert. The apostles believed Jesus was a resurrected messiah. Others thought this was fake news. And the Bible’s doubting Thomas demanded direct evidence.

In addition to gathering evidence and gaining expertise, we need to think about the burden of proof. The more the risk, the more the need for proof. If there is a risk of a deadly disease, you ought to take precautions, especially if those precautions are minimally invasive. If more hand washing prevents a pandemic, then let’s all wash our hands. But when it comes to cancellations and quarantines, the risk assessment becomes complicated. At some point, a leap of faith is required.

This is difficult and frustrating. But life is a series of decisions made without certainty. And at least we are free to make these decisions for ourselves. It’s a sign of our freedom that even the authorities disagree with each other. In ancient Athens, they killed people like Socrates who questioned authority.

Today, there are no undisputed authorities, in politics, religion, love, or life. There is no secret revelation that will cure a doubting Thomas. And there is no magic safety net to save us from bad decisions. We are on our own. It’s up to us to develop the knowledge to solve our problems — and the wisdom to think critically about what we believe and who we trust.

Trump and the Social Construction of Crime

Ripping Trump's Speech

Fresno Bee, February 23, 2020

Crime is a social construction. While this point has often been made by left-wing scholars, President Donald Trump has brought this idea to life.

The president has accused the criminal justice system of bias. He suggests that prosecutors and judges are engaged in a process that is arbitrary and subjective. The president denounces legal inquiries as witch hunts and hoaxes.

He also calls things he does not like criminal. When Nancy Pelosi ripped up his State of the Union speech, the president said that that was “actually very illegal.” It wasn’t. He routinely suggests that some people should be in jail, chanting “lock her up.”

At the same time, he lets others out. The president called the prosecution of his friend Roger Stone “ridiculous.” He has pardoned white collar criminals, tax evaders and supporters such as sheriff Joe Arpario. Last year, he pardoned a Navy Seal for war crimes.

But before Trump, the social construction of crime had already become obvious. Marijuana and homosexuality were decriminalized. Sentencing reform changed punishments. The death penalty fell out of favor (although Trump wants to bring it back). And sanctuary cities have refused to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

Some claim a higher power defines crime and punishment. But there has always been a disconnect between moral law and criminal law. And those supposedly transcendent sources of moral law have been reinterpreted.

Jesus was among the re-interpreters. He refused to stone the woman taken in adultery. He offered a radical revision of the old “eye for an eye” punishment scheme, advocating that we turn the other cheek instead.

Not only do the punishments change; what counts as a crime also changes. For a very long time it was not a crime for a husband to rape his wife. It was not until the 1970s that marital rape was considered a crime. Nor was it a crime for a slave owner to rape a slave.

Speaking of slavery, the Bible permits it, as did the U.S. In the American slave system, it was legal to kill your slave. The colony of Virginia passed a law in 1705 acquitting slave owners who kill their slaves, “as if such incident had never happened.” If the law permits rape, slavery and murder, that makes you wonder about the moral basis of the law.

Now, we might protest, those were the bad old days. Our laws are better today. But are they? And how would we know?

Crime and punishment are malleable. They depend upon historical context, geography and jurisdiction. In some countries, blasphemy is illegal, along with homosexuality and abortion. At one point these things were also illegal in the United States. But some Americans argue that abortion is murder. They want to re-criminalize it.

Crime and punishment are defined by the law. But the laws are made by human beings. Over time, the laws change. We hire human beings to enforce these changing laws. Even within the criminal justice system there is room for discretion. And in the case of pardons, the executive power can overrule the justice system.

This may cause us to throw up our hands in confusion and despair. But it can also be empowering. The system of crime and punishment is entirely up to us. Society defines what counts as a crime. Society also determines how crime will be discovered, prosecuted, and punished. We, the people, have the power to determine all of this.

This means that we can get creative, if we want to. Some activists have called for prison abolition. Others are advocating for restorative justice and other alternatives to incarceration. What about using brain science and creative chemistry to deal with deviance?

It’s difficult to imagine what the future might look like. But the history of crime gives us a clue. We can predict that the future will be different. And the president’s attacks on the whole system of crime and punishment makes one wonder whether it’s time to put everything on the table and think it all through again. If crime is a social construction, then it is up to us to figure out how we want to define it and how we want to punish it.

Impeachment and Corruption

Fresno Bee, February 2, 2020

Our constitutional crisis is also a moral one. The impeachment saga shows us deep-seated corruption. One side must be lying. That means that half of the political establishment is fundamentally flawed.

Either the Democrats are engaged in “demented hoaxes, crazy witch hunts and deranged partisan crusades,” as President Donald Trump said. Or the president has “betrayed the nation by abusing his high office to enlist a foreign power in corrupting democratic elections,” as Adam Schiff put it.

Something is rotten in America. We disagree about the source of the stench. But after this is all over, no one will be satisfied. Most will continue to believe that something stinks.

The accusation of corruption flows freely in both directions. The Trump camp accuses Joe Biden of nepotism. Biden’s son got a high-paying job in Ukraine, where the taint of corruption is especially pungent. But power and money infect the whole system. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner parlayed their connections to move from Manhattan to D.C.

Nepotism and cronyism infect everything. The Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, is married to a Trump cabinet member, Elaine Chao, the Secretary of Transportation. The senator declared in December, “I’m not an impartial juror.”

This admission reinforces what many Americans think about the legal system anyway: that it is rigged. The powerful get away with stuff and the powerless get stuffed away.

Or consider John Bolton. If he has information relevant to Trump’s impeachment, he should just speak up. If a kid knows something, teachers and parents encourage him to spill the beans. Law enforcement says, “if you see something, say something.” But that does not apply in Washington, where what you say depends upon personal and political advantage.

We hold our children to a higher standard than our leaders hold themselves. But shouldn’t it work the other way around? Shouldn’t there be a higher standard for those who are entrusted with power and authority?

During Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the late Sen. John McCain said that if a military officer were caught doing what Clinton did, that officer should resign. He explained, “I do not hold the president to the same standard that I hold military officers to. I hold him to a higher standard.” He continued, “Presidents are not ordinary citizens. They are extraordinary.”

McCain’s point echoes a proverb made famous by Spiderman: “with great power comes great responsibility.” This idea sounds naïve today. After Bill Clinton and Donald Trump it is difficult to believe that anyone lives according to a higher standard. Priests mess with kids. Sports heroes cheat. Politicians lie. And no one seems worthy of our respect.

That lesson can be liberating. If everyone is corrupt, then there is no reason to feel guilty or inferior. But the liberation of lowered standards is dangerous, if it gives us a license to sin. If our leaders lie and cheat, why can’t we?

The value of a moral life persists, of course, despite what the powerful do. We know that truth and integrity matter in family life, in school, and in professional life. And at the end of the day, you have to live with yourself. The powerful may not be worthy of our respect. But you should want to respect yourself.

To teach our children to live well, we ought to encourage them to do the opposite of what they see in Washington. To find moral models, we should look in another direction. Let’s celebrate the unsung people in the moderate middle of things. Nurses, teachers and all kinds of ordinary people do their jobs every day with honesty, integrity and compassion. We learn to be moral by watching grandmothers, coaches, scientists and neighbors – not by watching the political class.

Good people tell the truth. They strive to be impartial. They work hard. They care for their families and help their neighbors. Good people do not live according to a calculus of personal advantage.

Ordinary moral decency may not help you in politics. But it will help you live a life that you can be proud of. In the end it is important to hold yourself to a higher standard, even if the powerful live according to a lower one.

Wrong to Bomb Cultural Targets: Trump Threatens War Crimes against Iran

Fresno Bee, January 12, 2020

It is good that tensions with Iran have cooled for the moment. But the heated rhetoric of the past week shows a moral deficit in our thinking about war.

The president threatened to destroy cultural targets in Iran if it retaliated for the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. President Trump threatened, in his words, “disproportionate” violence in response to Iranian retaliation. He explained, “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way.”

But morality does indeed work that way. The enemy is not “allowed” to do these things. We should rightly condemn them for it. And we must understand that it is immoral to return evil for evil.

Proportionality is key. The law of retaliation says you may demand eye for eye, and life for life. But justice says you can cannot demand more. To threaten disproportionate violence and escalation is immoral.

A higher, more humane morality goes beyond retaliation. Humanitarian morality calls upon us to give mercy to our enemies with the goal of restoring peace.

So-called “realists” reject this. They say anything goes in war, so long as it is effective and you can get away with it. But the “just war theory” developed over the past millennia, which calls for moral restraint in war.

The just war theory has roots in ancient Greek, Roman, and Christian sources. These ideas are woven into contemporary international treaties and conventions governing the laws of war. These ideas were used by Americans to prosecute war crimes after the Second World War. Until recently, the United States was a leading proponent of these ideas.

The just war theory prohibits disproportionate violence. It seeks to avoid the escalation of tit-for-tat reprisals. It prohibits torture and abuse of prisoners. It rejects deliberate attacks on innocent civilians and on cultural heritage sites.

Realists reject all of this. They see war as a matter of power. If you win, you do what you want. And if you lose, well, judgment does not matter to the dead.

The realist view of war is immoral and too narrow. All wars end. Soldiers return to civilian life. Communities are rebuilt. And history will render judgment after war.

Thousands of years ago, the Greek historian Polybius condemned the wanton destruction of temples and statues in a war led by Philip V. The historian said this was how frenzied tyrants fight. Good men do not make war with the goal of destruction and annihilation, he said. Rather, good men wage war in order to reform evil and create justice. Tyrants are ruthless and cruel. Good rulers earn people’s love with humanity and beneficence.

Future historians will judge our country’s actions as either tyrannical or benevolent. But judgment also occurs in the short-term among soldiers and those who love them. When soldiers are asked to behave immorally, they suffer from moral injury.

The soldiers who would be asked to carry out immoral orders are our students, friends, and loved ones. These are human beings with consciences. It would be wrong to ask them to violate morality by delivering disproportional harm or by destroying cultural heritage sites. Soldiers come home from war. We should want them to come home whole and morally intact.

It would, of course, be better if there were no wars at all. But an important step in the direction of peace is to understand the need for moral restraint in war. As Augustine said in a passage quoted with approval by Thomas Aquinas, “we go to war that we may have peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace.”

Moral restraint in war helps to create a just and lasting peace. Cruelty creates hatred, enmity, and escalating violence. Tyrants ignore this to their peril. So let’s encourage our leaders to learn the lessons of the just war theory. And let’s hope they cherish the moral integrity of the soldiers they command and that they consider the judgment that history will render.

Misogyny, Sexism, and Sex Abuse: Lessons from Machiavelli and Plato

From the White House to town square, men try to dominate without moral restraint

Fresno Bee, December 10, 2017

Sexual misconduct was not invented by the current generation. Before Al Franken and Matt Lauer there was Bill Cosby. In Greek myths the gods often raped young women. Plato wrote a book about the ethics of sex and love, called “The Symposium.”

Men have always desired the godlike power to take what they want with impunity. Male dominance ignores moral restraint. It wants power, pleasure and glory.

One spokesman of misogyny is Machiavelli. In an infamously sexist passage in “The Prince,” Machiavelli says that fortune is a woman. If you want to win fortune, you need to beat and abuse her, like you would batter a woman you want to control. Machiavelli teaches that glory comes to those who are audacious and violent.

The Machiavellian man brags about his prowess. He even boasts about what he has not done, manipulating truth in order to manufacture status. The Machiavellian also manipulates people. He grabs and gropes, swaggers and swears. When accused of misdeeds, he lies and dissembles.

We see numerous examples across the country of men getting caught with their pants down. Some have apologized. Others have resigned or been fired. But the hard-boiled Machiavellians continue to deny and denounce.

The most egregious examples come from the Oval Office. Recall Bill Clinton’s famous false denial, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Other men would have withdrawn in shame. But not Clinton, who shrugged off impeachment.

WE SEE NUMEROUS EXAMPLES ACROSS THE COUNTRY OF
MEN GETTING CAUGHT WITH THEIR PANTS DOWN.

Our current Machiavellian-in-chief bragged on tape about grabbing women’s crotches. President Trump has recently suggested that the voice on the tape was not really him, despite the protestations of his accomplice, Billy Bush.

For a Machiavellian, there is no fact that can’t be massaged to serve his purposes. The Machiavellian never flinches. He trades punch for punch. He mocks and belittles his enemies. He traffics in false and inflammatory material. He accuses others of stupidity, fakery and immorality. If he apologizes, his words are insincere. When he makes promises, he offers flattery without substance.

Unfortunately, the Machiavellian strategy pays off. It often works to be a jerk. It often seems that the more shameless one’s deceits, the more glory one attains.

Perhaps the tide is turning on this. But progress will be slow. This problem has been with us for thousands of years.

Plato understood that sex and politics were often at odds with morality. Good men are often destroyed by evil liars. And shameless gropers often keep what they grab.

The Platonic man does not fit well in the world of male dominance. He is reflective and retiring, modest and private. He does not boast. He is not willing to sacrifice his integrity to achieve victory. He is conscious of his own failures. His primary concerns are truth, justice and virtue.

LET’S TEACH OUR SONS TO BE
BETTER MEN THAN THE MACHIAVELLIANS CURRENTLY ON DISPLAY.

The Platonic man sees no value in taking what is not freely given. He values honesty, friendship and love. He won’t pander. He won’t lie or spread false rumors. He thinks that glory without goodness is not worth the price.

The Platonic man does not view sex and power as ends in themselves to be obtained by any means necessary. Indeed, Plato suggested that lust for sex and power often lead us astray. He taught that sex without restraint is rapacious and that power without justice is tyranny.

The Platonic ideal is constantly at war with the Machiavellian urge. Education and constant effort are needed to develop men of character, who are caring, truthful, just and wise. Young men must be taught to keep their pants zipped.

While we might forgive the immature mischief of an adolescent, we cannot ignore the immoral machinations of mature men. The worst aspect of the Machiavellian man is that he makes groping and glory-seeking a way of life. He models depravity and makes it appear to be good. The tragic fact of political life is that so many Machiavellians have so much power.

The solution is moral education and the empowerment of women. Listen to women’s complaints. And condemn male dominance and misogyny. The point is easy to make today as the rogue’s gallery of gropers continues to grow. Let’s teach our sons to be better men than the Machiavellians currently on display.

http://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/article188839694.html

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.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article187350558.html

When is enough enough?

Drawing a line in the sand isn’t as easy as it sounds

Fresno Bee, October 27, 2017

When do you throw down the gauntlet or throw in the towel? Sen. Jeff Flake did both things at once this week. He announced his retirement from the Senate and declared that his conscience impelled him to speak out against the “spell” of Trumpism.

The Arizona Republican explained, “Nine months is more than enough for us to say, loudly and clearly: Enough.”

Trumpers will scoff at this. And Democrats will howl that this is too little, too late. But we can all relate to Flake’s moment of truth.

Flake said there comes a time when you simply must say “enough!” He warned, “silence can equal complicity.” Martin Luther suggested something similar at the start of the Protestant Reformation, as I discussed in this column last week. Martin Luther King Jr. also criticized complicity and complacency. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King condemned the “appalling silence” of so-called “good people.”

Of course there are risks to breaking silence. Lives will be disrupted. Relationships can be lost. And there is always room for doubt.

But justice requires action. A legal maxim holds that “justice delayed is justice denied.” Grave injustices must be denounced as soon as possible. Unless bystanders speak up, there will be more victims. And unless courageous souls blow the whistle, there will only be a shameful and appalling silence.

It is inspiring to see someone transcend the constraints of business-as-usual and declare themselves a free person. Most people have contemplated singing along with that old country song, “Take this job and shove it.” We imagine ourselves speaking truth to power. We dream of throwing caution to the wind and saying what we actually believe.

But most of the time, we stick to well-worn ruts, afraid to upset the apple cart. We do a bit of math, adding up mortgage payments and retirement savings. Our confidence wanes. Then we sit down and shut up.

It is not that we lack courage, we tell ourselves. It is that we understand that freedom isn’t free. It is actually more expensive than we can afford. Freedom creates risk and uncertainty. It is usually more prudent to stick it out and soldier on. We take what the boss doles out because, well, that’s what it means to work for a living.

So we rationalize our conformism. Those who speak up get punished. And at any rate, we tell ourselves, quitting, protesting or going on strike usually changes nothing. When people resign in a huff, their places are easily filled by sycophants and suck-ups eager to compromise their principles. When people go out on strike, the scabs are waiting in the wings.

MOST OF US WILL NEVER FACE THE MOMENTOUS CHOICES OF SOMEONE LIKE SENATOR FLAKE. BUT EVERY NOW AND THEN WE CONFRONT A MOMENT OF TRUTH. YOU CAN DUCK AND KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN. OR YOU CAN DRAW A LINE IN THE SAND, BLOW THE WHISTLE, AND TELL THE BOSS TO SHOVE IT. THE CHOICE IS YOURS.

And yet, it is bracing to witness someone like Flake declare himself to be a free man. He said he is done with political calculation and that he will only be guided “by the dictates of conscience.” This implies that others are less courageous.

But conscientious refusal is not easy. The powers-that-be will threaten and manipulate. Retaliation happens. Whistleblowers often end up miserable. We must weigh costs and benefits.

But we should ask whether we can live with ourselves in the long run. Will our children be proud of who we are and what we stood for?

The existentialist philosophers said we are condemned to be free. To be human is to be forced to choose your existence. To be free is to be confronted with the anxiety of choice. With each anguished decision, you pick a destiny and choose your fate.

Our choices are declarations of identity and affirmations of value. Senator Flake explained this, giving us a lesson in moral psychology this week. He said, “Acting on conscience and principle is the manner in which we express our moral selves.”

He is right. Our choices declare who we are. What are you willing to risk? And what are you willing to stand for?

Most of us will never face the momentous choices of someone like Senator Flake. But every now and then we confront a moment of truth. You can duck and keep your head down. Or you can draw a line in the sand, blow the whistle, and tell the boss to shove it. The choice is yours.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article181115001.html

Social Media, Civility, and Intelligence

Do social media make us wiser or dumber? That depends on our choices

Fresno Bee, September 15, 2017

Is the world getting dumber? Twitter co-founder Evan Williams thinks so. In commenting on Twitter’s role in electing Donald Trump, Williams said people are isolated and narrow-minded in their consumption of news. He said the whole “media eco-system” is “making us dumber.”

Of course, stupidity has always been with us. Ignorance is the birthright of every generation. But Twitter has a unique role in fueling the comedy of errors – the “covfefe” – playing out across our screens.

This week, U.S. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, or someone using his account, apparently “liked” a porn video on Twitter. Cruz blamed “a staffer who accidentally hit the wrong button.”

This makes you wonder about security issues and the risk of hacks. It also reminds us that porn is just a click away: at work, at school, or in the statehouse. If Ted Cruz can stumble upon it, so can any kid with a smart phone.

Twitter is responsible for other mayhem, especially when it is used as a vehicle for public policy. President Trump’s confusing recent tweets about DACA have kept people guessing. He has proclaimed unvetted policies via Twitter, such as the ban on transgender persons in the military. And he continues to use Twitter to launch ad hominem invective at “crooked Hillary,” “the fake news” and other enemies.

IT IS WE, THE PEOPLE, WHO ALLOW OURSELVES TO SUCCUMB TO THE TEMPTATIONS OF STUPIDITY.

But the technology is not to blame. A tool is not responsible for malice or error. The Internet was not designed specifically for pornography. And Twitter was not intended as a platform for policy statements. The great dumbing down is not the medium’s fault – it is ours.

The social media ecosystem does provide a temptation for rudeness, crudeness and lewdness. But it is our eyes that move fast across our screens. It is the human user who swipes and pokes, looking for stimulation.

The speed of the medium favors the salacious and obscene. Click-bait preys upon short attention spans. It does not reward subtlety or complexity.

twitter logo

The American attention span is shrinking along with our vocabulary and our sense of privacy. But it is we, the people, who allow ourselves to succumb to the temptations of stupidity.

Information swirls, unfiltered and raw, simple and direct. This is a great democratizing shift. Now the politicians and pornographers can go directly to the people. The Internet knows what you like and it will deliver it to your inbox.

But important things – public policy and sexual relationships – are complicated. Relationships and ideas need time and privacy. A policy is more than the flick of a thumb. Love is more than clicking the “like” button.

Understanding and intelligence are cultivated in quiet solitude. Wisdom grows slowly through a process of exploration and revision.

Our ever-present screens prevent us from finding privacy and silence. This makes us impatient and cranky. Courtesy and eloquence are rare. Civility is a quaint relic of a slower time. And compassion? Well, there is no button for that in the comments section.

We also lack guides and mentors. Experts have been demoted. Editorial expertise is replaced by robots and algorithms.

“Power to the people” is the slogan of the social media revolution. But who is to guide us or teach us how to interpret the information we circulate?

SO ARE WE WISER OR DUMBER?
THAT DEPENDS ON WHAT WE CHOOSE TO DO WITH OUR LIBERTY AND OUR TECHNOLOGY.

Plato feared democracy because it puts the mob in charge – the dumb, vicious and reactionary mob. He warned that the mob easily succumbs to false prophets and demagogues who flatter our baser instincts. I’m sure he would be appalled by the Twitter revolution.

Democracy is dangerous. But it is also precious. The freedom to Tweet is a modern invention. Long centuries of war and turmoil have secured our right to forward outrageous images on our tiny screens.

So are we wiser or dumber? That depends on what we choose to do with our liberty and our technology.

Social media creates an opportunity for better choices. We really do have the world at our fingertips. We can use this incredible resource and our liberty to build a better world.

We can choose to be civil, eloquent, and compassionate. We can educate rather than denigrate. Instead of accepting stupidity, we can strive for wisdom. The first step is to stop blaming the medium, while taking a look in the mirror.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article173413896.html

Justice, Compassion, and the Dreamers

DACA controversy reveals conflict between blind justice and broad compassion

Fresno Bee, September 8, 2017

The reconsideration of DACA presents an example of the conflict between justice and compassion. It also shows us the conflict between a narrow conception of our obligations and a broader point of view.

Justice requires impartial application of rules. The goddess of justice is blind. She administers law without considering the identity of those who receive her decisions. Justice is a goddess of the public sphere. She demands that we extend moral concern universally, fairly, and without exception.

Compassion operates differently. The goddess of compassion opens her eyes and her arms. She attends to people’s concrete situations, making exceptions for the disabled, the displaced and the disadvantaged. The motherly goddess of home and hospitality focuses on individual identity and relations of care.

Compassion and justice disagree whenever there is a conflict between mercy and rule-following. Justice requires equal treatment and unbiased judgment. Compassion makes exceptions for special needs and mitigating circumstances.

The DACA debate asks whether we should extend compassion to the children of immigrants who did not knowingly violate the law when their parents brought them here. Justice may ignore this fact and simply apply a rule that says if you are not here legally, you must leave. Compassion begs us to consider that these young people have no other home to return to and bear no responsibility for their predicament.

President Trump’s statement about DACA uses moral language. But he prioritizes compassion for Americans, saying, “We must also have heart and compassion for unemployed, struggling, and forgotten Americans.” He admits there is something unfair about punishing children for the actions of their parents. But he said that fairness for American citizens was his first priority. He explained, “Before we ask what is fair to illegal immigrants, we must also ask what is fair to American families, students, taxpayers and job seekers.”

Trumpian morality applies compassion and justice in a limited nationalistic way. This fits with the president’s America first agenda.

Moralists have often criticized this kind of nationalism. The goddesses of justice and compassion are not national deities. Morality universalizes.

Justice and compassion extend across borders. The goddess of justice is blind even to national identity claims. And the “mother of exiles” – as the Statue of Liberty has been called – opens her arms to the world’s homeless and huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.

ANY RESOLUTION WILL REQUIRE US TO THINK CAREFULLY ABOUT THE NATURE OF LAW AND MORALITY.
IT WILL ALSO REQUIRE US TO REFLECT ON WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN AMERICAN.

It is not surprising that American religious leaders responded with dismay to Trump’s announcement. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned Trump’s decision. The bishops wrote, “Today’s actions represent a heartbreaking moment in our history that shows the absence of mercy and good will, and a short-sighted vision for the future.”

Mercy and good will are the heart of the ethics of compassion. The bishops extend this globally, applying the commandment to love one’s neighbor in a universal direction.

Trump and his supporters reject this view of morality. They also discount the religious critique of this policy. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, said that limiting immigration was a matter of “national sovereignty.” He also said that the Catholic church has “an economic interest in unlimited immigration,” suggesting that the church wants immigrants to fill pews and coffers.

The president and his supporters have also claimed that Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was unconstitutional. They want Congress to take action. But hundreds of law professors, governors, and other legal and political leaders have argued that DACA is constitutional.

The constitutional question is related to the moral question. Does our legal system require strict impartiality and blind justice or does it permit discretion and compassion? Is the Constitution a system that puts America first and focuses only on questions of national sovereignty? Or are there values in our constitutional system that point in a more cosmopolitan direction?

These are not easy questions to answer. We disagree about religion, morality, and the Constitution itself. These conflicts run so deep that they may never be resolved.

But any resolution will require us to think carefully about the nature of law and morality. It will also require us to reflect on what it means to be an American.

http://www.fresnobee.com/article172036532.html