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.

Should Biden Pardon Trump?

Fresno Bee, January 24, 2021

On his way out the door, Donald Trump pardoned a bunch of his buddies. Trump didn’t pardon himself, as some suspected he would. And now one wonders whether President Biden might consider a pardon for Trump.

At his inauguration, Biden spoke of unity, love and healing. Would a Trump pardon help? This was Gerald Ford’s reasoning when he pardoned Richard Nixon. Ford explained, “the tranquility to which this nation has been restored by the events of recent weeks could be irreparably lost by the prospects of bringing to trial a former president of the United States.”

There is much to think about here. What is the role of justice and pardon in the life of the nation? And in our own lives?

The pardon power is easily abused. Trump pardoned his cronies, including his son-in-law’s father. Bill Clinton pardoned his brother, Roger Clinton. And Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted the murder sentence of the son of a political ally.

The pardon power exists because the judicial system is a blunt tool. The executive can make exceptions that correct failures and excesses — or that recognize the unique circumstances of wrongdoers.

Presidents Ford and Carter commuted the sentences or granted amnesty to tens of thousands of Vietnam era draft dodgers and deserters. After conscription was abolished and the war ended, it seemed odd to punish those who refused to fight.

Not everyone was happy about this. Those who obeyed the law and fought in Vietnam resented this move. It seemed to discredit their own service and sacrifice.

Justice requires fair and equal treatment. It also demands negative consequences for wrongdoing. If you do the crime, they say, you must do the time.

Strict retributivists argue that forgiveness is unjust since it fails to give wrongdoers what they deserve. But justice is not the only thing that matters. Forgiveness is beneficial emotionally and psychologically. It heals resentment and promotes kindness. Mercy can build reconciliation and help create a new future.

The world’s religious traditions often celebrate these values. Some even imagine God as merciful and compassionate. But how does God’s mercy relate to divine justice? If you want to generate an argument, ask a friend whether they think God would forgive Hitler.

Forgiveness is an exception to the rule of punishment. For this reason it appears arbitrary and capricious. It unfolds that way in our own emotional lives. Anger and resentment fester, until one day they fade away. It is often not clear why this happens.

There is a mystery here that theologians call grace. Forgiveness is a gift. To forgive is to give up on anger and the demand for punishment. It is to give in to love, compassion, and other tender-hearted values.

But should presidents and governors have the power to bestow this kind of gift? In the old days of kings and emperors, people thought that the sovereign’s mercy was guided by God. But we know that our leaders are merely human. And we see that the pardon power can be abused for corrupt and venal purposes.

Nepotism and cronyism are obvious problems. It is wrong to use the promise of a pardon to create loyalty in the cover up of a crime. It is also wrong to sell pardons or to pardon political cronies. These corrupt uses of the pardon power make it appear that justice is not blind, but that she is only winking at the rich and well-connected.

This shows us the deep political problem of the pardon power. Its promiscuous usage undermines faith in the rule of law and the fairness of the justice system. In defense of the rule of law, it seems that we must make examples of those who break the law.

After Ford pardoned Nixon, many were outraged at justice denied. The tranquility Ford hoped for failed to materialize. Nixon appeared to have gotten away with his crimes. As a result, Ford’s political power waned.

So after you are done arguing about God and Hitler, turn the conversation to Ford and Nixon — and Biden and Trump. What is the function of justice, punishment, and pardon in the life of our nation? And what is the role of mercy and forgiveness in your own life?

Quit Complaining

In his victory speech Joe Biden said, “put away the harsh rhetoric, and lower the temperature.” He’s right. Let’s be done with grievance and aggravation.  Constant complaining cramps the soul and sickens society. 

My grandfather put this crudely. He’d often say, “quit your bitchin’.” A poet would say, “Let us not be aggrieved.”

The grievance machine runs on bile.  President Trump is complainer-in-chief.  He has griped and grumbled for years: from American carnage to a rigged election.  Conservative commentators copy his kvetching and complain about the “frauds and liars” in the liberal establishment. 

Of course liberals love lambasting Trump. They also lament his popularity.  After the election a headline in Politico said, “Democrats look at Trump voters and wonder, ‘What the hell is your problem?’”

All of this complaining causes heartburn.  Grievance produces grief.  Anger begets animosity.  And a small mind gets focused on small things.

There is a time and place for righteous indignation—but it is a narrow place and a limited time.  Genuine injustice ought to enrage us.  But rage can burn a hole in your heart if it is not transformed into creative activity.

Common sense teaches this.  Complaining about being hungry does not fill your stomach.  Whining about the wind won’t stop it from blowing.  But griping and groaning will certainly make you more miserable. 

Ancient wisdom traditions tell us to bear hardship without complaint.  They emphasize resilience and teach us to give up grousing.  The Stoics recommend taking things as they come without wishing them to be otherwise.  The Taoists teach us to stop fussing and fuming by learning to flow with the changes .

The wisdom of patient endurance and going with the flow is obvious.  But quiet retreat is not the whole answer.  The further lesson is to get to work.  We ought to transform resentment into resourceful action.  If the wind is blowing, close the window.  If you are hungry, cook something. 

Scoop Nisker used to say, “if you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”  We might add, “if you don’t like what’s happening, then either fix it or shut up.” 

Partisanship feeds on outrage.  The headlines called this the most important election of our lifetime.  The Republicans claimed it was a fight against socialism, anarchist violence, and leftist totalitarianism.  The Democrats claim.ed it was a fight against fascism, authoritarianism, and malicious incompetence. 

This created historically high voter turnout.  But a third of eligible voters didn’t bother to vote.  While the partisans are screaming, a third of Americans opted out.  Maybe the screaming has turned them off. Some non-voters are ignorant and lazy.  But some are sickened by the vitriol of the public sphere.

Grievance is a sales technique.  It keeps us glued to our screens.  Clever partisans fan the flames of grievance and complaint. But this divides us and closes people’s minds.

Our complainer-in-chief is a master of the dark art of aggravation.  His vain boasts and vile complaints are mostly hot air.  But his followers love it.  His opponents love to hate it.  And the viewing public keeps tuning in. 

The Trump era is like spicy food.  It’s exciting.  But it disrupts the digestion.  Some people get addicted to the cycle of heat and misery.  Others can’t stand the smell it leaves behind.

It’s wise to stop binging on spicy stuff. Most people intuitively understand this.  It is difficult to live life permanently aggrieved. Active people have little time for grievance.  We have work to do, families to care for, and activities to enjoy. 

Of course, there is irony in complaining about complaining.  At some point, we just need to stop it.

The world’s traditions teach us how to lower the temperature. Instead of grumbling, be grateful.  Instead of complaining, have deep conversations.  And instead of pulling your hair out, put your hands to work.

The Trump Prophecy and Related Absurdities

These are boom times for doomsday predictions.  Some folks view Trump as the Chosen One.   A survey from earlier this year found that 35 percent of Americans think we are entering the end times.  Only 37 percent disagree.  And this week, Pat Robertson predicted Trump would be reelected but that an asteroid would destroy the earth. 

These prophecies are laughable.  But people apparently believe this stuff.  So let’s take a critical look at Robertson’s prophecy in order to see why this kind of thing is nonsense.

The first problem is that while Robertson says Trump will win the election, he also encourages his viewers to vote.  But if God has revealed that Trump is going to win, then why bother to get out the vote?  The very idea of prophecy undermines free will and agency. 

After Trump is sworn in, Robertson says the country will be torn apart by civic unrest.  Robertson predicts five years of subsequent peace and final death by asteroid.  But don’t these predictions give us a reason not to vote for Trump?  Could we avert the unrest and the asteroid by voting for Biden? 

Proactive prevention is not on the prophet’s table.  Indeed, the prophets of doom seem to have a kind of malevolent hope (as I discussed in another column).  They appear to look forward to the chaos and to the end. 

Now let’s turn to the tortured Bible interpretation that grounds this prophecy.  Robertson cites snippets of text from Ezekiel, Isaiah, Thessalonians, and Matthew.  This textual cherry-picking is silly.  The prophecy jumps through the Bible, extracts a few ominous texts, and offers a wild and anachronistic interpretation.

If you study the Bible critically, this approach is absurd (see my What Would Jesus Really Do?).  Critical Bible study undermines the idea that there is a hidden message in the texts.  These texts were created by human beings.  They evolved over time in response to historical forces. 

Scholars suggest, for example, that Isaiah was written by more than one author (this may be true of Ezekiel as well).  These texts were written for an ancient Jewish audience during the period of Jewish exile in Babylon.  Paul’s letter to Thessalonians is written centuries later and addressed to a newly formed Christian church.  Matthew was written a generation later for an audience who had witnessed the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. 

The meaning of these texts is grounded in these contexts.  It is absurd to believe that ancient authors wrote these texts as a warning to people in 2020.  If anything, we should heed Matthew’s warning against false prophets (Matthew 7:15) and Paul’s suggestion that we test prophecy and hold fast to the good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). 

And now, about that asteroid.  Ancient people feared objects being flung from the sky by angry gods.  But today, we know that there are no gods up there to do the flinging.  We understand that planets and space rocks orbit the sun at high speeds and sometimes cross paths.  We know that the universe is billions of years old.  Species have come and gone.  Some have been destroyed by asteroid impacts. 

But none of this was known to Ezekiel, Isaiah, Paul, or Jesus.  Nor did these ancient prophets know there were continents on the far side of the world.  So why should we believe that they made predictions about contemporary American life?

And why should we believe that God is the kind of being that gets angry and destroys His own creation?  The theological assumptions of prophetic Christianity turn God into a petulant bully. 

The theological critique of this kind of thing has been around for a long time.  One clear statement of the idea comes from Thomas Paine, whose thinking about religion and political life inspired the American Revolution.  Paine criticized “the prophecy-mongers.”  He said, “belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.”

Of course, in the American system, people are free to believe what they want.  But critical thinkers are also free to criticize the absurdities of prophecy.  That’s the way enlightenment works.  It is a slow process of sifting and winnowing.  Enlightenment is not an asteroid that strikes like a thief in the night.  It is critical activity that requires daylight and human agency. 

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.”