Don’t be a Donald!

Fresno Bee, October 4, 20202

The president is obnoxious. And our democracy is in disarray. The debate this week demonstrated that Trump is a boor. But this is not news. For nearly five years, I have been writing about Trump’s incivility.

So what have we learned during these years? Well, I hope that by observing Trump we learn how not to behave. The president’s behavior can be used to teach lessons in critical thinking and character. I imagine posters that say, “Don’t be a Donald!”

This is a time-honored method of moral instruction. Cato, a Roman soldier and senator, said, “wise men profit more from fools than fools from wise men.” Moral development is stimulated by scrutinizing bad behavior.

The lessons are simple. Don’t badger other people. Keep your mouth shut and allow others to speak. Ad hominem arguments are empty and irrelevant. Blustery bullying is mean. Lies, deflections, and hyperbole indicate a mind without clarity or depth.

These are ancient lessons. The Bible warns against false and foolish speech. It praises wisdom and righteous words, as well as kindness, patience, and golden silence. It is better, we learn, to remain quiet than to blow like the wind. The Bible points out the moral failure of selfish and incompetent leaders.

The ancient Greeks offered similar lessons. The Greek tragedies are object lessons in failures of character. The Greeks teach us to avoid hasty and loud speech, to cherish wisdom, and to persuade rather than overpower. They teach us not to mock another’s misfortune, to be merciful in our strength, and to seek tranquility through self-mastery and introspection. One of the seven sages of ancient Greece, Chilon, put it simply, “Let not your tongue outrun your thought. Control anger. Let no one see you in a hurry. Obey the laws. Be restful.”

These lessons are taught by observing bad rulers. Ahab and Oedipus were corrupt kings. They ignored moral restraint. Moral education uses ancient tragedy to teach us how not to behave.

But there is another side to the story. Even though the corrupt kings of the ancient world eventually fell, they still enjoyed the privilege of power. Here is a problem for parents and teachers today. The Trump method rejects restraint. But so far, this bad behavior has worked. If you act like Trump, you could become a billionaire and win the presidency.

Imagine if this lesson took root. Would teachers, coaches, and parents be interrupted and belittled by Trumpian children? Would a petulant child respond to a teacher’s admonishments by saying, “I’m just doing a Donald.” It’s possible to imagine bracelets and T-shirts emblazoned with “What Would Trump Do?” In a WWTD world, the bully rules the playground.

These comments about character and style have nothing to do with policy. Some people support Trump because he appoints conservative judges or because he cuts taxes. Reasonable people can disagree about policy. But the triumph of the Trumpian character is a menace to morality.

The ancient Greeks understood that obnoxious boors win elections by inflaming the passions of the people. That’s why Plato thought that democracy was a terrible idea. In the United States we think differently. Our democracy emerged out of the Enlightenment. The American experiment was a product of “the age of reason,” when public debate was supposed to be based on rational arguments and guided by norms of civility.

Safeguards are built into the system to limit the power of demagogues. The system of checks and balances does not, by the way, require debates, rallies, or tweeting. Maybe it’s time to return to a leaner version of democracy — one which does not give a platform to rude and obnoxious behavior.

One way to teach our children not to be like Trump is to stop watching him. This is generally good advice for dealing with rude and obnoxious colleagues and relatives. Leave the room and shut the door. Unfortunately, this isn’t so easy when the boor is the president.

So until Trump is finally shown the door, let’s use his bad behavior to teach our children how not to behave. Let’s teach them that rudeness is wrong. And even though Trump is currently king, it is wise to say, “Don’t be a Donald.”

Curing Viciousness by Climbing the Moral Ladder

Fresno Bee, September 20, 2020

At a recent rally in Reno, President Trump said, “Now I can be really vicious.” “I don’t have to be nice anymore.” Trump said, “the Republican party doesn’t play it rough and tough.” “We play it so nice,” he said. “In the end it’s not right.”

Trump’s viciousness can be seen in the way the president applauded the killing of Michael Reinoehl by U.S. Marshals. Reinoehl was suspected of killing a right-wing protester in Portland, Ore. After the marshals killed him, the president said, “that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution.” Of course, in the U.S., police are not justified in delivering retribution.

We are on a slippery slope lubricated by viciousness. To avoid that slope we need to hold fast to what I call the moral ladder. The rungs of the ladder tell us to be nice and kind, to seek justice, to limit power, and to develop mercy.

Morality begins with niceness. Parents tell kids, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” We quote Aesop’s fables and teach children that “Kindness is never wasted.” These nuggets of proverbial wisdom create a foundation for morality.

Niceness is about manners. Manners provide a psychological and social root for moral development. In learning to be nice, children develop decorum and self-control. Niceness can be superficial and deceptive. A con-man can be nice while he picks your pocket. But that behavior is an exception. Niceness is the first rung on the moral ladder.

Kindness is also essential. Kindness is empathy and benevolence. Sometimes this can be phony or done for show. But genuine kindness opens the heart. It is the source of charity and compassion. The next rung on the moral ladder involves extending kindness to friends and even to strangers.

Beyond this, ethical maturity requires that we develop a sense of justice and responsibility. The Roman philosopher Cicero said that kindness is optional but justice is necessary. Kindness is a gift. If you withhold charity, no one would blame you or be angry. It is not nice to be unkind, but it is not evil.

Justice, on the other hand, is required. If you fail to be just, you are blameworthy. Failures of justice— from lying and promise-breaking to outright violations of human rights — create outrage and righteous indignation. Injustice is not simply unkind. It is evil. Justice is another step on the moral ladder.

Here is where retribution is found, offering payback that holds criminals responsible for their misdeeds. A traditional scheme requires eye for eye, life for life. But a complex system has developed in order to administer justice. Among the most important features of our system is the presumption of innocence.

Accused criminals in the United States have a right to defend themselves in a court of law. American police are not authorized to deliver retribution. The state’s power to punish is awesome. That’s why we limit it and make certain that those we punish are actually guilty. Recognition of the necessary limitation of the state’s power to punish takes us higher up the ladder. This is the vantage point of democratic political theory, which is committed to basic human rights and the rule of law.

It is possible to climb still higher. Many moral systems teach that forgiveness and mercy are higher than retribution. Mercy asks us to be kind, even to those who deserve punishment. The last rung on the ladder takes us beyond law toward something transcendent.

This moral ladder represents the basic common sense of our civilization. Common sense teaches that when viciousness is praised, virtue gets trampled. When niceness is kicked aside, kindness becomes impossible. When police take retribution into their own hands, democracy is in danger.

It’s time to get off of this slippery slope and climb back up the moral ladder. We do that by adhering to justice and the rule of law. We do that by teaching our children to be nice and kind, fair and forgiving. Our children are watching. They will eventually take control of this vicious country. If we teach them well, they may be kind enough to show a little mercy on us.

Malevolent Hope and The Desire To Burn Things Down

Anger

Fresno Bee, September 6, 2020

This is a season of malevolent hope. Hope is usually positive. So this may seem strange. But the desire to see enemies suffer is common, as is the urge to burn things down in pursuit of power.

We see malevolent hope when Republicans imagine benefiting from civil unrest. Kellyanne Conway said last week that “chaos and anarchy” are good for Trump’s re-election.

Another example showed up this week when the president told his supporters to vote twice to test the electoral system. If the system is broken, Trump gets extra votes. But if chaos ensues, after Trump voters are charged with the crime of voting twice, this reinforces Trump’s claims about a broken system.

Democrats may have their own form of malevolent hope, perhaps secretly hoping that a vaccine does not appear until after the election. Republicans are already accusing Democrats of wanting to block the vaccine. Conservative columnist Betsy McCaughey claims that the Democrats “wish failure” on every COVID-19 breakthrough.

It is obviously wrong to wish for the worst as a bridge to the better. It’s cruel to desire more disease. It’s evil to cultivate chaos. It’s perverse to encourage criminality and felonious voting.

But malevolent hope is as common as greed and envy. When a relationship sours, you hope your former lover suffers. When a rival is winning, you wish he would fail.

Good people realize this is wrong. Such thoughts ought to be repressed. Wicked wishes can give birth to evil deeds.

Politics often slips down this devilish slope. Terrorists actively seek to make things worse. They attack in order to provoke a backlash. Once the backlash occurs, they say, “see, I told you—those guys are oppressive.” A different example comes from Germany in the 1930s. The Reichstag was burned. The Nazis blamed the Communists and soon seized power.

Malevolent hope often includes a story about a savior. The jilted lover imagines himself swooping in and consoling his miserable former love. Political partisans believe that when things get bad enough, their candidate will save the day.

This narrative also appears in apocalyptical faith. Plagues, pestilence, and war are signs of the end times. Does this mean that the faithful should hope for these horrors? That question is a recipe for theological heartburn.

Malevolent hope is connected to gloating. To gloat is to take joy in your enemy’s misfortune. Ancient warrior cultures encouraged gloating. It’s not enough to kill your enemy. The warrior also disfigures his enemy’s corpse and dances on his grave.

Some ancient sources condemn this. The Bible’s book of Proverbs warns against envy, pride, and gloating. One verse says “don’t gloat when your enemy falls and don’t rejoice when he stumbles.” Jesus went even further. He told us to love our enemies.

That may be too much to ask. A basic concern for the common good would suffice. To hope that things get worse actively encourages pain and misery. We should want our rivals to succeed in business, politics, and even in love because we want happiness to spread.

To the jilted lover we say that if you really loved her, you should hope she finds joy in her new relationship. And patriots should want peace, justice, and prosperity regardless of who is in the White House.

But we are jealous and greedy. And we tend to fight evil with evil, violence with violence. Malevolent hope grows out of selfish pride and a zero-sum view of the world.

This is corrupt and self-defeating. It is simply wrong to wish harm upon others. Peace and prosperity require cooperation, solidarity, and concern for the common good.

It is difficult to remember this lesson of common decency in a world that has grown ugly and angry. But common sense tells us that if we hope things will get worse, they probably will. It is easy for things to fall apart. Holding them together is difficult. Creating something better is harder still.

For things to improve, we need positive hope. Benevolent hope affirms human creativity. It keeps open the possibility of enemies becoming friends. This is the kind of hope that grows from love and wants joy to spread. It is a hope that builds instead of burns.

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. 

On Heritage and the Sequoia named Robert E. Lee

Fresno Bee, June 21, 2020

Most Americans are ready to bury symbols of white supremacy. Let’s be done, already, with Confederate flags and rebel generals. Does anyone really care anymore about Braxton Bragg, Henry Lewis Benning, or Robert E. Lee, some of the Confederate generals whose names are fixed to American military bases?

But the president has resisted calls to purge these names. He said, “We must build upon our heritage, not tear it down.”

When someone uses a collective pronoun, it’s worth asking who is included and excluded. What counts as “our” heritage?

Is Robert E. Lee really one of “us”? He picked the wrong side and lost. How odd that we continue to immortalize him, 150 years after the fall of Dixie.

I thought about all of this while standing beneath two sequoia trees named for Robert E. Lee. The Robert E. Lee Tree is in Grant Grove up in Kings Canyon National Park. Down the road in Sequoia National Park stands the General Lee.

The General Lee is up the trail from the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree on Earth. The Sherman Tree is named for a victorious Union general. But this was not always its name. The utopian socialists of the Kaweah Colony originally called it Karl Marx.

General Lee
General Lee in Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park

The trees are indifferent to their names. They are thousands of years old. And unless we utterly destroy the ecosystem of the Sierra Nevada, these groves will endure long after the United States and its generals are forgotten.

The view from the sequoia groves is enlightening. These magnificent trees open a larger and more inclusive prospect. Our squabbles look absurd from the standpoint of millennia. The giant trees make racism and nationalism seem sadly short-sighted.

We are part of a system that exceeds the human imagination. Our true heritage includes the ancient sunlight trapped in the sequoia’s flesh. But the stories we tell remain narrow and cramped. And we seem incapable of telling the full tale of our heritage.

The U.S. is a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the idea that all persons are created equal. But Native Americans were dispossessed. Slaves were only counted as three-fifths of a person. Mormons were driven out of American states. California was taken away from Mexico. And Marxists lived in the Sierra Nevada.

Our story is complex and evolving. But often the idea of “our heritage” is used to invoke a mystical idea about identity and belonging, blood and soil. This simply does not work in a diverse nation of immigrants, some of whom came here as slaves.

Many people are fascinated by heritage. They get genetic tests and trace out family lineage. I suppose this is fun. But the heritage game is not fun for everyone. Many hyphenated Americans — Irish-Americans, Japanese-Americans, or Mexican-Americans — trace their lineage back to those who chose to come here from “the old country.” This story is not so pleasant for African-Americans.

Perhaps it is time to be done with the idea of heritage. The historian David Lowenthal argued over 20 years ago that heritage is a dangerous idea. Heritage is not history. It is, rather, a mythical and politicized interpretation of the past. It is a fable that resists critical analysis. Lowenthal explained, “heritage exaggerates and omits, candidly invents and frankly forgets, and thrives on ignorance and error.”

A walk among the sequoia offers a cure. The vantage point of millennia teaches that life is fragile and diverse. The ancient trees remind us to embrace as much of life as we can, while we can. Nothing lasts forever. Not even these giants.

Nor do the sequoia know hatred, resentment, or intolerance. These trees do not belong to a party or a people. They have welcomed birds and butterflies for 2,000 years. This is a symbol of something inclusive, lasting, and strong.

And if the Robert E. Lee trees are ever renamed — perhaps after Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez, as I might suggest — the trees themselves will remain indifferent. Heroes and nations come and go. The natural world is more substantial than any human heritage. And history is more interesting than the myths we tell ourselves about who we are and where we came from.