Loyalty and Tragedy in Politics

Trump campaign is like Greek tragedy

Fresno Bee, March 19, 2016

  • Loyalty is a virtue that can become a vice
  • Loyalty should not be mechanical, bigoted, or provincial
  • Donald Trump pledged loyalty to the GOP

Rival Republican candidates pledged to support the party’s nominee, even if it was Donald Trump. But some Republicans are thinking of jumping ship.

GOP 2016 TrumpTrump has complained that his loyalty has not been reciprocated. He warned of riots if the party were to deny him the nomination. Will those Republicans who denounced Trump in recent weeks remain loyal?

It seems that we are witnessing a Greek tragedy in which conflicting loyalties generate pathos, pity and fear. The current morality play points to the perennial ethical question of loyalty and its value.

In tragedy, the hero proudly declares her loyalty in opposition to some other person’s cause. Each side becomes recalcitrant. Violence looms. The crisis is resolved with the downfall of the characters, and in some cases the demise of the political establishment itself.

Loyalty is a double-edged sword. Committing to something gives meaning and purpose to existence. Our loyalties shape our lives. But dogmatic loyalty is as dangerous as treachery.

Consider the problem of the loyal gangster. Sincere loyalty is not praiseworthy when the cause is a bad one, even though we understand the power of gangland loyalty.

We also empathize with the faithful wife who stands by her man despite his philandering. We appreciate the love of a devoted father who protects a criminal child. And we recognize a kind of virtue in the steadfast soldier whose loyalty is abused by immoral armies and iniquitous empires.

Loyalty leads to moral disaster when people support causes that they should abandon. Mechanical fidelity is not really loyalty. Loyalty requires intentional commitment and ongoing reflection. It is not praiseworthy to go along with traditional allegiances because of inertia. Habitual loyalty is unworthy of a thinking person.


Unthinking loyalty is a kind of bigotry. Loyalists can be blinded by their allegiance, biased against those who have other loyalties. For that reason, loyalty often seems to be an old-fashioned virtue incompatible with democratic values and the idea of toleration.

Loyalty becomes bigoted when combined with stubborn pride, what the Greeks called hubris. Loyal persons identify with the object of their allegiance. When the team does well, we feel proud. But when our party is attacked, we take it personally. Wounded pride easily becomes indignant and sometimes violent.

About a hundred years ago, the American philosopher Josiah Royce wrote a book extolling loyalty as devotion that gives form to life. In fidelity to a cause, Royce said, life becomes real, solid, and active. An individual without loyalties would be a blank, apathetic shadow.

From this perspective, it is easy to understand why people can be seduced by false or evil causes. We want to belong to something beyond ourselves. In some cases, the content of the cause is less important than the longing for loyalty. Royce suggested that the cure for intolerant loyalty is to respect other people’s loyalties. He celebrated the idea of loyalty to loyalty itself.

One of Royce’s students, Alain Locke, extended this analysis further. Locke is an important African American philosopher, known as the philosophical father of the Harlem Renaissance. It is easy to imagine, with African American history in mind, how loyalty is connected to racism by way of so-called “race loyalty.”

Locke distinguished proper loyalty from unjustifiable prejudice. He wanted “value loyalty” without “value bigotry.” Locke dreamed of a pluralistic commitment to values that was not dogmatic or intolerant. He wanted us to overcome sectarian fanaticism and narrow provincialism by calling for a cosmopolitan sort of loyalty to loyalty.

Nearly a century later, Locke’s pluralistic paradise has yet to be created. Racial division still plagues us. Our loyalties remain provincial. Hubris haunts our politics. And bigotry divides us.

A better understanding of loyalty could help. Human beings need loyalty. But loyalty is not a stand-alone virtue. It is connected to all of the rest of our values. Those values transcend party affiliation and the temporary allegiances of political expedience.

Loyalty must be tempered by justice, moderation, and wisdom. Loyalty provides a rudder through changing seas. But misplaced loyalty can be an anchor that inhibits critical thinking and common sense. And sometimes it is wiser to abandon ship than to remain loyal to a lost cause.

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Religious Liberty in the American Political Campaigns

Fresno Bee, March 13, 2016

  • Religious liberty is a key value for all Americans
  • Data on religious affiliations point toward the need for secularism
  • As presidential candidates use religious rhetoric, it’s important to keep sight of core American value

Many Americans want a president of their own religious persuasion. The Pew Center reportsthat 41 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans say it is “important for a president to share their religious beliefs.” Given this demand for confessional conformity, it’s no wonder that politicians weave religious language into their campaign rhetoric.US NEWS CAMPAIGN-EVANGELICALS 2 LA

Nor is it any wonder that our political parties are sorted by religion. Republicans tend to be openly evangelical. Democrats tend to be more ecumenical.

Bernie Sanders provided a good example of Democrat inclusivism in the debate Sunday in Flint, Michigan. In response to the God question, Sanders said, “when we talk about God whether it is Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, what we are talking about is what all religions hold dear.” Hillary Clinton said she prays regularly. She explained, “I pray for the will of God to be known that we can know it and to the best of our limited ability, try to follow it and fulfill it.”

Republican evangelism is more forceful. Ted Cruz once said, “Any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander in chief of this country.” Ben Carson went further, suggesting that a Muslim could not be president.

Perhaps the only one who breaks the mold is Donald Trump, who seems to lack the religious literacy of most Republicans and the religious sensitivity of most Democrats. But Trump still talks religion. He has suggested, for example, that Obama feels more comfortable in a mosque than in a Christian church.

All of this religious talk may come as a surprise to those who think that the U.S. is a secular country. In a more secular country, politicians would avoid speaking of religion. French secularism seems to point in that direction.

But in the U.S., religion remains important. Many Americans don’t like atheism, for example. According to the Pew Center, more Americans are willing to support a Muslim than an atheist for president. A sign of American anti-atheism is that there is only one representative in Congress who is not religiously “affiliated.” There are 2 Muslims, 2 Buddhists, 1 Hindu, 1 Unitarian and 28 Jews. The rest are Christians of various sorts.


Maybe someday a candidate will refuse to answer the God question on constitutional grounds. Such an unlikely candidate would point out that her religious beliefs are no one’s business but her own. She might add that privacy and freedom are essential for genuine religiosity. She might suggest that political sound bites produce clichés that float on the surface of genuine soulful religious reflection.

Our imagined secular candidate might point out that in a diverse religious society, politicians serve all of the people – not merely some of the people. And she might remind us that partisan religious squabbling further polarizes us.

We continue to play politics according to a script that ignores the fact of our ever-increasing religious diversity. In addition to about 6 percent of Americans who are not Christian, more than 22 percent of the population is not affiliated with any religion.

But it is still difficult to imagine a president who does not routinely say some version of “God bless America” at the end of every speech. Presidents didn’t always use that phrase, of course. Ronald Reagan added it to the standard script for political speeches during the culture wars of the 1980s.

Religious clichés and ritual religious affirmations do not necessarily have any deep religious significance. Politicized discussions of religion often seem to be more about polling than piety. And so despite all of this religious rhetoric, we are quick to question the authenticity of the religious affirmation of candidates we don’t like.

But how would any of us know what transpires in the soul of a stranger? It is hard enough to figure out your own spiritual commitments. Half of Americans change their religious affiliation at least once.

That’s why the Constitution is important. Other people’s religious beliefs are none of our business. Religious liberty includes the freedom to change religions. There is no religious litmus test for office. And in a pluralistic democracy a candidate’s religious rhetoric is less important than the commitment to protecting every person’s right to religious liberty.

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Civility and the Presidential Campaign

When it comes to civility, do as we say, not as we do

Fresno Bee, February 26, 2016

  • We all benefit from common courtesy
  • Civility is not innate; pop culture and political life undermine it
  • First Amendment freedom should be accompanied by considerate speech

Civility is a great and fragile good. Liberty allows our lips to flap. Common courtesy causes us to keep our mouths shut. Some bristle at the idea of political correctness. But without civility, political life becomes a fistfight.IMG_APTOPIX_GOP_2016_Tru_4_1_6L7ASOFI_L199078247

Donald Trump recently said he would like to punch a protester in the face. Trump extolled “the old days” when a protester like that would be “carried out on a stretcher.” At an earlier rally, Trump repeated an obscene insult directed at Ted Cruz.

Opponents of Trump also use inflammatory rhetoric. More than one pundit has called Trump a fascist. The Fresno State student newspaper even ran a picture withTrump’s face imposed on Hitler’s body in front of the White House.

Political rhetoric often generates more heat than light. But we seem to be rounding a corner, where vulgarity and vitriol trump reasonable argument.

In some parts of the world, politics quickly becomes pugilistic. Fistfights have broken out in legislatures in Japan, Ukraine and elsewhere.

We like to think of ourselves as more evolved. But without civility, are we any better than Kosovo, where legislators set off tear gas bombs in parliament?

Civil and honest speech are essential for democratic life. But civility is not innate. It takes a lot of effort to teach kids to keep their mouths clean, their hands to themselves, and their minds focused on truth.

Pop culture and political life undermine these lessons. Fists and foul language are not normal or acceptable. Crude, rude and obnoxious behavior remains rare and exceptional. Most of the time, most people don’t exchange insults or threaten violence. Profanity and violence are not permitted in schools or in business meetings.

Our schools work hard to curtail bullying and create safe and civil places for children to thrive. Businesses require anti-harassment training. These lessons in political correctness work. Most of us behave civilly most of the time. Those who misbehave get suspended, fired, sued or jailed.

Fear of punishment is not the only thing guiding civil behavior. Most people don’t view life as a competition. We don’t use words as trump cards. We don’t focus on winning. Rather, we exchange ideas.

Civil people engage in dialogue in order to build community and seek understanding. Civil dialogue requires self-restraint and an open mind. An old saying says that we have two ears and one mouth because we ought to listen twice as much as we talk.


The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, including the right to be offensive. But civil people do not say everything that is on our minds. We learn to hold our tongues out of respect for decorum. This may sound old-fashioned and uptight. But tact and discretion are useful skills.

One kindergarten cliché has a kernel of truth: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” A more advanced lesson teaches us to speak low, speak slow, but always speak the truth.

Civil discourse is a fragile fruit, easily destroyed by hot air. One obnoxious boor can ruin a picnic, a party or a political season. Bullies and blowhards infect families, school and the workplace. They rarely stop talking long enough to listen. If they do pose a question, it is usually only to catch their breath in order to continue their harangue.

Bullies want an audience. Blowhards only blow when someone is listening. The best response is often avoidance. Most people have learned to ignore their ornery uncle, cranky colleague or noisome neighbor.

When avoidance is impossible, we can invoke the basic rules of the kindergarten classroom: don’t threaten violence, don’t call people names, tell the truth and be kind to strangers. A more advanced lesson teaches that civility keeps the peace, protects freedom, shows respect for humanity and helps us discover the truth.

Donald Trump has hinted that he can be more civil and play nice. He said that he would be “more presidential” when the time comes. That’s good news. Let’s hope the time comes soon. But until that happens, we should remind our kids that what they are seeing and hearing in the world of politics is behavior that would not be permitted in the boardroom or on the playground.

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The power of tears

Big Boys Do, and Should, Cry

Fresno Bee, January 29, 2016

  • Politicians weigh in on the power of tears
  • Our ideas about crying men have changed
  • Can tears be faked and how would we know?

Reflecting on border walls

What kind of message would an American border wall send to the world?

Fresno Bee, August 7, 2015

  • Donald Trump’s border wall is a bad idea
  • Border walls are symbolic of inequality
  • The Berlin Wall fell under its own oppressive weight

It is sad that we are still talking about building walls. Donald Trump wants to build a wall along the southern border of the United States. The world’s borders are becoming more fortified and more difficult to cross. Israel has constructed a massive border wall. Hungary and Saudi Arabia are reportedly working on walls of their own.

This week I am touring Berlin, where the ghost of the Berlin Wall haunts the city. Cobblestones mark its former path. A few remnants are on display for curious visitors.

Checkpoint Charlie and the other infamous icons of the Cold War are tourist attractions. Young people take selfies in places that were once sites of oppression and brutality. Berlin is a wonderful reminder of the absurdity of walls.

East Germany constructed the Berlin Wall in the 1960s in order to prevent citizens from fleeing to the freedom of the West. In 1987, Ronald Reagan came to Berlin and famously said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Reagan asserted that peace and prosperity require open gates.

In 1989, a nonviolent revolution occurred, and the Wall fell. Those were hopeful times. A peaceful Germany was reunified with a reunited Berlin as its capital. Berlin is now alive with energy. Reagan was right: when walls are dismantled, peace and prosperity follow.

But we keep building walls. And people keep banging on the ramparts. Thousands have drowned in the Mediterranean in search of a better life in Europe. On the southern border to the U.S., hundreds have died in the deserts.

Inequality across borders explains all of this. People from impoverished and unstable places want to escape their misery. They will scale walls, brave deserts and swim the seas in order to find opportunity.

Unequal opportunity explains the direction of the flow of people. In Germany, Easterners fled west in search of liberty and prosperity. No one scaled the Wall to go East. Today, no one flees Europe or North America to get to Central America or the Middle East. Inequality is at the root of the immigration issue.

The history of divided Berlin reminds us that a wall is a blunt solution for a deep social and political problem. A wall cannot remedy injustice or end inequality. A wall is not as strong as a good idea. And a wall cannot create unity, friendship or lasting peace.

We place too much faith in walls. We tend to think that “good fences make good neighbors.” That proverb was made famous by Robert Frost in a poem called “Mending Wall.” But Frost is often misquoted. His poem refutes the idea that a good wall can make us good neighbors.

In the poem, Frost explains that his neighbor keeps insisting that good fences make good neighbors. But the poet is not persuaded. The urge to build a wall seems un-neighborly and inhumane. Frost says, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense.”

Frost reminds us that building a wall is a symbolic act. What kind of message did the Berlin Wall send to the world? What kind of message would an American border wall send to the world?

Frost’s poem concludes, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” When Reagan told Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, he was channeling Robert Frost.

The desire to build a wall is understandable. Walls are cheap and easy to build in comparison with the difficulty of creating justice. But walls often indicate a poverty of ideas. The Berlin Wall went up because the East German government was based upon a bad idea.

A wall along the U.S.-Mexican border would be built on another bad idea. We permit goods and capital to move freely across borders. But we prevent human laborers from following suit. That’s an unstable system.

At Checkpoint Charlie, tourists from across the globe celebrate the fall of an oppressive wall and a bad idea. This vibrant corner of reunified Berlin shows that peace and prosperity develop from open borders. The human spirit cannot be confined by barbed wire and concrete. And bad ideas eventually collapse under their own oppressive weight.

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