Critical Race Theory and the Project of Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, June 13, 2021

Criticism can be divisive. But banning critique is a bad idea. Unanimity that results from censorship is not genuine. The productive solution is more enlightened critique.

I say this in response to efforts in several states to prohibit “critical race theory” (CRT) from being taught in schools. CRT claims that racism is deeply embedded in American institutions.

The reaction against CRT follows a script written by Donald Trump. Last fall he described CRT as a “crusade against American history.” He said it was “toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.”

But prohibiting a theory does not make it false. To disprove a theory, you need to critically examine it. Rather than censoring CRT, let’s encourage students to listen carefully to what critics have to say about racism. If the critics are wrong, let students prove them wrong. If they are right, then let’s empower young people to imagine productive solutions. Ideological indoctrination is wrong, whether it occurs in defense of CRT or against it.

The effort to ban CRT is symptomatic of a broader human avoidance of critical thought. We often prefer useful illusions about faith, family and country. When people challenge our illusions, we get defensive.

Religious people get defensive when scholars critically examine religious texts and beliefs. Something similar happens when feminists criticize gender, sex and the family. It happens when philosophers question cherished values.

Ideas and institutions are strengthened by confronting criticism head on. Criticism exposes flaws and weaknesses that can be improved. Without critique, bad ideas fester and institutions rot. If an idea or an institution is not strong enough to sustain critical scrutiny, that is not the fault of the critic.

The crucible of criticism causes values to evolve. We cannot predict where this will lead. But the hope is that as bad ideas are exposed, better ideas will develop, and institutions will be strengthened as a result.

Radical critique has a deep history. Socrates criticized Athens. Jesus critiqued Jerusalem. The American founders criticized British tyranny. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. critiqued the American dream.

The heroes of critique are often opposed by reactionary forces who aim to silence them without responding to their criticisms. Sometimes this involves violence, as in the cases of King, Socrates and Jesus. But silencing the critic does not stifle the criticism. If the critique contains truth, the next generation will carry it forward.

It is not easy to think critically about the status quo. Sometimes it seems easier to avoid thinking altogether. But as King said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” He also said we have a “moral responsibility to be intelligent.”

Ignoring the problem of race in America will not make it go away. Indeed, institutions that censor criticism end up looking weak and stupid as a result. It is childish to stop up your ears and close your eyes.

Adults ought to confront problems with honesty, sincerity, and creative intelligence. Let’s model that behavior for our children. American kids know that there are racial problems in America. Riots in the streets make it clear. Preventing them from thinking critically about these problems won’t solve them. Our kids need lots of critical tools so that they can imagine solutions to our problems. Silencing the critics is not a useful strategy.

Censors sometimes seem to think that the critical theorist is conjuring these problems into existence. But critical theory is not a conjuring act. Rather, it brings to light the skeletons in the closet. The critical theorist does not create these specters. They are already there.

Critical theory is about enlightenment. One of the most famous mottos of enlightenment is “sapere aude,” which means “dare to be wise.” Wisdom requires the courage to confront the world without illusions. The light of truth exposes things as they are, not as we want them to be.

You have to shine this light into the closet. Ignoring the skeletons hidden there, won’t make them disappear. You also have to look in the mirror. If you don’t like what you see there, turning off the light won’t help.

The Poison of the Big Lie

Fresno Bee, May 16, 2021

The “big lie” is destroying our country. When Liz Cheney was deposed from GOP leadership, she said, “we cannot both embrace the big lie and the Constitution.” Cheney was referring to the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

Trump sees things differently. In early May, Trump proclaimed, “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!” Cheney responded, “The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.”

Unfortunately, this venom is already wreaking havoc. Half of Republicans believe that Biden was not legitimately elected. And this past week, 124 retired generals and admirals signed a letter claiming that a “tyrannical government” of socialists and Marxists has taken over. The letter also maligns the Supreme Court for ignoring “irregularities” in the 2020 election.TOP

Who should we believe? In asking this question we wander in a toxic fog. Who can we trust when the authorities and “we, the people” are so divided?

Big political lies have a long lineage. Plato suggested that the masses should be fed lies to maintain social order. Hitler said that “the primitive simplicity” of the masses leaves them susceptible to big lies. The big lie festers in the mind. You don’t have to fully believe it for it to work. Big lies throw us off balance. The authorities take advantage of our disorientation.

Big tangled webs of lies are found everywhere: in states, churches, families and businesses. Ordinary people have a difficult time sorting out the truth about pedophile priests and party purges. Some turn away in disgust. Others simply fall in line with a shrug and a sigh. This happens in families and businesses where people smile and wave despite the skeletons in the closet.

Vaclav Havel, the dissident who became president of Czechoslovakia, explained that people can live their entire lives within a network of lies. Communist regimes were based upon layers of falsehood that no one believed.

In Czechoslovakia, on Havel’s telling, individuals went through the motions. Silent conformity was sufficient for the “thick crust of lies” to endure. But this veneer is shattered when enough people simply live in truth. This is not heroic truth-telling. Rather, it is what happens when people stop saluting, stop repeating the mantras, and simply ignore political nonsense.

Of course, those in power cannot tolerate this. In the old days, the powerful would imprison non-conformists and kill truth-tellers. But in the age of advertising, confusion suffices. Propaganda baffles us, while the powerful pick our pockets.

Distrust and confusion are disastrous for democracy. When each party accuses the other of lying about the legitimacy of elections, we reach an impasse. We must either pick a side or throw up our hands in despair. Each option is inadequate.

If we pick a side — even the side that is objectively true — this means we must believe that the other side is malicious, devious, and untrustworthy. Democrats applaud Cheney, believing that Trump and his minions are big fat liars. But Republicans view Cheney as a traitor. They think that the Democrats are devious devils who stole the election. This polarization prevents cooperation. It is not possible to cooperate with a party that does not play by the rules or tell the truth.

And if we do not pick a side but, rather, retreat in despair and cynicism? Well, this also destroys democracy. All of this lie-mongering is leading many to conclude that the entire political class is a viper’s nest of hissing liars.

Nothing is more corrosive of democracy than cynical despair. Why vote if elections are rigged? Why pay taxes if tyrannical usurpers are in office? Why bother to go through the motions if the whole system is a crust of lies?

These are the frightening questions that arise in a country that is falling apart. The truth is that no political community lasts forever. Athens collapsed, as did Czechoslovakia. No family, church, or business can endure without confronting the skeletons in the closet. And no democracy can endure when each party accuses the other of lying about democracy itself.

Tyranny and Love

Fresno Bee, February 14, 2021

Love is powerful and perilous. It arouses and inspires, transforms and uplifts. But love can also be manipulated and exploited. Child abuse and domestic violence are appalling perversions of love, as is tyranny.

Love hovers in the background of the Trump impeachment. The violence of Jan. 6 was inspired by a strange love. At the rally that led to the insurrection, Trump thanked the crowd for their “extraordinary love.” The crowd chanted in reply, “We love Trump.” As those chants morphed into, “Fight for Trump,” the erotic became violent.

Trump eventually called for peace in a video where he described his opponents as “so bad and so evil.” He told his followers, “We love you. You are very special.”

This is not, of course, how love is supposed to work. Love is not supposed to look like a violent mob, a battered wife, or a cowering child. Love should make things better, not worse. It ought to be grounded in dignity and truth. It should enrich and include.

Love is easily manipulated. The abuser takes advantage of his lover’s infatuation. The gullible child, the frightened wife, and the devoted loyalist are bewildered by perverted eroticism. The victims of erotic exploitation are confused by lies, threats, and gaslighting. Their trust is twisted, their emotions manipulated.

The Greeks pictured Eros, the god of love, as a mischievous spirit. Eros inspires courage and sacrifice. But this can become fanatical. Eros afflicts us with a kind of madness that connects us to the divine. But love often becomes its opposite.

Freud suggested that eros and aggression are intertwined. Love inspires us to courageously defend those we love against insults and threats. This natural instinct distinguishes friend from foe. When this instinct is perverted, it fuels racism and ethnic violence. In joining together with those we love, we sometimes turn against those we hate.

Love is also connected to power and to madness. Erotic love can make people do crazy things. The sexual appetite destroys common sense.

Plato linked the madness of love to tyranny. He recognized that love empowers the tyrant. The tyrant’s self-love is excessive. Despite his narcissism, his followers love him. Their strange infatuation leads them to do shameful deeds on the tyrant’s behalf.

This happens in politics, in cults, and in families. Sadistic husbands, abusive priests, and vicious politicians remain beloved despite their crimes. This is as irrational as it is dangerous. Misguided love encourages and apologizes for the tyrant’s transgressions. The wife refuses to press charges. The cult closes in to protect the abuser. The partisans rally round the tyrant’s flag.

Despite what he says, the tyrant does not really love his adoring disciples. He loves only himself. When the chance arises, he will throw his devotees under the bus without blinking an eye.

Genuine love is different. The Apostle Paul said that love is patient and kind. It is not aggressive or easily angered. It is not proud or self-serving. It rejoices in the truth. Christians maintain that God is love. The Christian vision of love involves giving and forgiving, mercy and sacrifice.

A similar idea is found in Plato, who suggested that Eros holds the key to virtue and happiness. Tyrannical love closes us off in aggression and violence. Platonic love opens us up to friendship and wisdom.

Love enchants and expands. It leads us beyond the narrowness of ego toward something larger. It widens our circle and enriches the self. Plato said it connects us to eternal truths. Platonic love transforms both self and world. Things become more beautiful and joyful. We are inspired to embrace and to create.

There is energy and light in love. The lover’s flame warms and illuminates. This heat can also burn out of control. Love can sink into possessive jealously. Fanatical desire can become destructive. Tyrants abuse love in families, religions, and states.

The solution is to put Eros on trial. When Eros becomes tyrannical, it must be convicted and corrected. Love ought to help instead of hurt. It ought to decrease violence and build community. It ought to keep us open to the possible. And instead of causing terror and tears, it ought to give us hope.

Sloppy Thinking and the Trump Impeachment

Fresno Bee, Feb. 7, 2021

Sloppy language is a sign of sloppy thinking. Our culture is brimming with slop. Prose piles up. Text scrolls by. Much of this is unedited and unenlightening. We are awash in words. But we are not any wiser.

Good writing and good thinking are undermined by procrastination and lack of focus. I see this in my students’ work. The later the submission, the more likely the typos. This is a distracted age. Hyperlinks open the floodgates of diversion. These flowing tangents impede concentration.

Students can be forgiven for their sloppiness. They are still learning how to think and write. But in the professional world, there is no excuse. We expect precision of language in scientists, doctors, lawyers and political leaders. This expectation of precision helps explain why the typos in Donald Trump’s response to the recent articles of impeachment have been widely mocked.

The former president is charged by the House of Representatives with inciting an insurrection. The gravity of this charge is profound. It requires a careful rebuttal. But on the first page of their response, Trump’s lawyers misspell the name of our country. The address line of the memo says “To: The Honorable, the Members of the Unites States Senate.” The same gaffe is repeated on page nine.

This typo is easy to understand. The “s” key is next to the “d” key. “Unites” is a word. So spell-checking software won’t flag it. Proofreaders often overlook titles and italicized words. We also know that Trump struggled to find attorneys willing to defend him. It is easy to imagine these last-minute lawyers frantically typing in the wee hours.

These kinds of mistakes happen when we are rushed or stressed. We’ve all been there. A deadline looms. You work hard to meet it. You hit send. Only later do you notice your linguistic blunders.

Often this is no big deal. The importance of spelling and grammar depends on the context. An occasional “covfefe” in a tweet only makes us human.

But there are moments when the text needs to be perfect. A typo in your resume can lose you the job. Grammatical ambiguity in contracts and laws cause legal battles.

Some documents have profound historical and legal import. Scholars quibble over commas and word choice in ancient religious texts. Disputes about the Constitution concentrate on textual subtleties. This linguistic quibbling is part of the current Trump impeachment.

The question about whether a former president can be impeached depends upon how you read the word “and” in the Constitution’s description of impeachment. The Constitution states, “Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.”

Does this mean, as Trump’s defenders argue, that impeachment is no longer valid once the office holder’s term is completed? Trump’s attorneys say that removal from office is “a condition precedent which must occur before, and jointly with” disqualification.

On the other hand, the brief against Trump claims that the placement of the word “and” suggests that impeachment can also extend to disqualification from future office. The House impeachment managers argue, “The Framers then provided two separate remedies, both focused on an offender’s ability to seek and exercise government power: removal from office and disqualification from future officeholding.”

In the impeachment trial, in addition to this technicality of constitutional interpretation, we will see lots of discussion of Trump’s language. Words like “incitement” and “insurrection” will be debated, along with the general sloppiness of Trump’s language and thought. A significant question will be whether Trump actually meant what he said when he incited the crowd to riot.

The takeaway for ordinary people is to be more careful in speech and thought. Clear thinking depends on clarity of expression. This is especially important in formal communication. Technicalities matter in professional life. Typos can destroy careers. Laziness can lead to liability. And loose language can start a riot.

Wisdom is not measured by the volume or velocity of our words. Good thinking takes time. Good writing requires revision. If you want to be understood and respected, you must slow down and choose your words wisely.

Ethical Whiplash and Learning to Dance Like Socrates

Fresno Bee, January 31, 2021

Rapidly shifting values create confusion and distrust. To live well in tumultuous times you need strong character and a supple spine. Stability and strength should combine with flexibility and the creative imagination. As we seek our way in chaos, we need to learn how to think critically and also how to dance.

This is an era of ethical whiplash. The Trump-Biden seesaw has been bewildering. One bizarre manifestation was the appearance and disappearance of President Trump’s 1776 Commission report.

On Monday, Jan. 18, President Trump released a diatribe against the liberal academy, written by conservative pundits. Among other things, the report concluded that American universities are “hotbeds of anti-Americanism, libel, and censorship that combine to generate in students and in the broader culture at the very least disdain and at worst outright hatred for this country.

Historians panned the Trump report. The American Historical Association said that its authors “call for a form of government indoctrination of American students, and in the process elevate ignorance about the past to a civic virtue.” As soon as Joe Biden was inaugurated, on Jan. 20, the report disappeared from the White House website.

These gyrations are disorienting. This tumult at the top breeds cynicism, polarization, anger, and even violence.

The solution is to combine toleration with love of truth, to think deeply but also to take things lightly. Historical and ethical truth should resist the shifting winds. But these truths are complicated. So as we search for truth, we must also learn to leave each other alone and take disagreement in stride.

This requires a difficult balancing act. A model can be found in the idea of a Socrates who dances. Socrates criticized the mythic history of his day. But Socrates also danced and played.

Socrates lived in an era of ethical whiplash. A plague had ravaged Athens, along with a brutal war. There was profound moral, political, and religious uncertainty. Socrates was accused of being part of the problem by the Athenian equivalent of Trump’s “1776 Commission.” His accusers claimed he taught unpatriotic doctrines and that he corrupted the youth. They sentenced him to death.

Socrates was legendary for his simplicity and strength. He was a war hero. He walked barefoot in the winter. He drank, but never got drunk. And according to his friends, he danced, even in his old age.

Or so the story goes. This transpired over two millennia ago. Did Socrates really dance? Who knows? But the legend inspires us to seek strength and grace and poise.

Socrates remains a hero because he lived and died with courage, integrity, and good humor. Physical and mental strength helped him endure. Spiritual flexibility helped him thrive. He challenged authority and stuck with the truth. He also knew when to yield and how to maintain his equilibrium.

For those of us who are tired of the squabbling, perhaps the best thing we can do is hold fast to truth while letting loose with a dance. Socrates provides a model of a limber soul that is deeply rooted. The Socratic soul is well-balanced and resilient.

In our disembodied world of social distancing and virtual reality, we rarely dance. Instead, we hunch over our screens and surf our silos of information. It is no wonder that anger and resentment fester. Bodies are built to move. Voices are made to sing. And thought needs the freedom to wander.

Socrates teaches us to defend the truth. But he also takes things lightly. History shows that human nature includes nobility and absurdity, cruelty and grace. It also teaches us that wisdom is a dance.