Oppose Fascism, Affirm Nonviolence

Defeat Fascism

This week the President falsely claimed that a 75-year-old peace activist who was shoved to the ground by cops “could be an ANTIFA provocateur.”  The man, Martin Gugino, hit his head on the pavement, drawing blood.  “Antifa,” in case you don’t know, is short for “anti-fascist.”

Even if he was a member of Antifa (he was not), such treatment by police is not deserved.  In the United States, people have the right to belong to political groups and to protest.  Membership in a group does not give the police permission to assault you. 

In fact, fascism occurs when there is a systematic use of the police to abuse members of certain groups.  This is wrong.  And in the United States it is illegal.  The cops who shoved Gugino have been charged with assault.  This shows that the U.S. is not a fascist country.  We prevent fascism by containing police brutality.

The fascists of the 20th Century like Mussolini and Hitler unleashed the police and para-military thugs on the people.  They used violence to consolidate power under a mythology of racial nationalism.

There have been warnings from mainstream thinkers such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about the looming threat of fascism.  But so far, the United States is not fascist.  And I doubt that many Americans long for fascism to come to America.   

I’m not saying it couldn’t happen here.  But Americans are typically anti-fascist.  Americans fought against fascism in World War Two. We are generally outraged by racism. And police brutality is prosecuted. Witness the near universal condemnation of the police killing of George Floyd and the arrest of the cops involved.

Anti-fascism is woven into our traditions and culture.  Our founding myth tells a story of rebellion against tyranny in the name of liberty.  The Constitution prevents authoritarian consolidation of power.  And the Bill of Rights creates strong safeguards against fascism.  The First Amendment guarantees religious liberty, freedom of speech, the free press, and the right to assemble and petition the government.  Other Amendments limit the government’s ability to set up a police state.

It is true that there is a counter-narrative to the American myth.  Native Americans were slaughtered and dispossessed.  Africans were enslaved.  Minority groups were excluded and oppressed.  Thugs lynched Black Americans during the Jim Crow era.  Japanese Americans were rounded up and put in concentration camps during World War Two.  Discrimination and racism continue.

But we have made progress.  The slaves were freed.  Women were given the vote.  Jim Crow was dismantled.  And people continue to take to the streets to demand an end to racism, injustice, and police brutality.

One way to continue to make progress is to oppose fascism.  Americans ought to be anti-fascist.  This means we should be opposed to police brutality, racism, and ethnic nationalism.  To be anti-fascist is to be in favor of liberty and the right to speak, protest, and assemble.

Now let’s consider the question of Antifa, which has become a bogeyman for President Trump.  Antifa appears to be a loose collective of activists opposed to racists and neo-Nazis (see discussions here and here).  If Antifa is committed to violence, then its tactics should be rejected.  But a recent analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded that there is no threat to American values posed by Antifa.  And Stanislav Vysotsky, the author of a new book about Antifa, concludes that Antifa is “a decentralized collection of individual activists who mostly use nonviolent methods to achieve their ends.”

This brings us back to Mr. Gugino, whom friends describe as a loving person committed to nonviolence.  Advocates of nonviolence have always been opposed to fascism.  Gandhi was a dedicated anti-fascist who described fascism as a doctrine of the “naked sword” that glorified war and violence. 

To be anti-fascist is be in favor of democracy and opposed to a cult of power, violence, and domination.  The best way to oppose fascism is to affirm nonviolence.  When nonviolent protesters such as Mr. Gugino are assaulted by police, the specter of fascism appears.  But when police brutality is prosecuted, this ghost is exorcised.

Gandhi, Judgment, and Truth

Fresno Bee, February 14, 2020

One local effort to dig deeper deserves our attention. The “Interfaith Scholar Weekend” (ISW) is an ongoing attempt to think critically about religion. This effort began in 1998. It has grown into an annual crosstown collaboration of religious and educational organizations.

The subject this year is Mahatma Gandhi. From February 21-23, the ISW will host Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, a professor from the University of Illinois. Professor Gandhi will speak at events at Fresno City College, Fresno State, Temple Beth Israel, and Wesley United Methodist Church (the Fresno State Ethics Center is a co-sponsor).

Jim Grant, the ISW chair and director of social justice ministry for the Diocese of Fresno, explained that the Central Valley has a robust and growing interfaith community. He shared stories with me of a number of examples of how people from different local religious communities have worked together to defuse religious tension, injustice, and hate.

The impetus for this year’s visiting scholar is the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Gandhi is revered as a “mahatma”—a great soul or saint. Gandhi helped to liberate India. He developed strategies of active nonviolence that were employed in the American Civil Rights movement.

But Gandhi has his critics. Some say he did not speak out forcefully enough about racism and India’s caste system. Others blame him for not preventing the partition of India and ensuing violence among Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims.

In light of this, it is worth noting that local Sikhs and Muslims are among those sponsoring the visit of Gandhi’s grandson. The point of this event is to think critically. What we might learn is that no one is perfect.

Gandhi’s grandson makes this point in his recent book, “Why Gandhi Still Matters,” where he describes his grandfather as a “fallible” man. But he points out that the Mahatma is held to a higher standard. Gandhi is blamed for not overcoming the challenges of his own time and for “not solving all of the problems of our age.” But his grandson reminds us that no one can solve all of our problems. Perfection is too high of a standard.

This message is important, I think, for efforts to develop tolerance. We often give our own preferred saint the benefit of the doubt, while leaping to condemn the heroes of the other side. This is a truism of the history of religious conflict.

It is also a feature of our fractious political life. Some applaud Pelosi. Others cheer on Trump. Some love Rush Limbaugh. Others hate him. Each side vilifies the other.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said that nothing straight can be built from the crooked timber of humanity. Gandhi might agree. With regard to religion, the Mahatma said, “I hold that all religions are true but imperfect inasmuch as they are presented through human agency and bear the impress of the imperfections and frailties of the human being.” In simpler terms he explained, “All religions are true; all religions have some error in them.”

The problem, of course, is that we are quick to see the errors in other people’s religions while remaining blind to faults in our own. The solution is to look more carefully, dig more deeply, and think more critically. Gandhi gives us another clue. He said, “I claim no perfection for myself. But I do claim to be a passionate seeker after truth, which is but another name for God.”

We are all flawed. If Gandhi wasn’t perfect, then neither are we. But like him, we can seek truth by trying to learn more, think better, and judge less.

IF YOU GO

The Fresno Interfaith Scholar Weekend will be held Feb. 21-23. The opening event is a free lecture, “Truth in an Age of Untruth,” and it starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Old Administration Building at Fresno City College, 1101 E. University Ave. For the full schedule and to learn more about the featured speaker and activities, go to http://interfaithscholar.org/.

Political Correctness and Free Speech

We need to hear bad ideas so we can argue against them

Fresno Bee, June 11, 2016

  • Free speech is the best cure for bad ideas
  • Political correctness gets in way of genuine dialogue
  • Americans don’t like political correctness

People don’t like political correctness. A February poll by CBS’ “60 Minutes” found that 55 percent of Americans think that political correctness is a danger to free speech. Nearly 70 percent of Republicans don’t like political correctness.

Donald Trump has made this a theme. In a January speech Trump said, “We’re going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct.” In a recent response to the backlash about his criticism of Judge Gonzalo Curiel, Trump said, “We have to stop being so politically correct in this country.”

Trump supporters agree. In a story about a Fresno kid who was not allowed to wear a Trump hat to school, Brooke Ashjian said, “If he wants to wear the hat, he should. If people are disturbed, too bad. There is so much political correctness people are afraid to rally.”

Travel Trip Seeing Miss LibertyDemocratic dialogue depends upon liberty, honesty and accountability. Without sincerity and freedom we end up with hypocrisy and duplicity. This is not good in a democracy.

Nor is it good for the pursuit of truth. Philosopher John Locke once said, “the truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself.” Speech codes that limit the free exchange of ideas undermine the pursuit of knowledge.

When people say what they mean and mean what they say, we have a basis for judgment and evaluation. Without free and honest speech, we do not know what anyone really thinks. That’s a problem in democracy, in business, and in life.

Frank and forthright speech is revealing and occasionally disturbing. Consider what Trump’s unconstrained speech teaches us about him. He has admitted he is suspicious of Mexican-Americans and Muslims. It is better that we know this than if he kept those ideas to himself.

WE SHOULD HOPE THAT LIBERTY PROVIDES THE BEST CURE FOR STUPIDITY.

Free speech allows for education and progress. Consider the case of Leslie Rasmussen, who wrote a letter in support of a friend who was convicted of rape at Stanford. Rasmussen blamed her friend’s conviction on political correctness. She wrote, “Stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.”

To claim that rapists are not always rapists is a contradiction. The complaint about political correctness is a red herring. But that’s why we need free speech. If we don’t know what people think, we cannot evaluate their ideas – or criticize their logic. Nor can we change their minds.

Rasmussen’s remarks provoked a backlash. Her band was dropped from a number of concerts. Some may see this as an example of the stifling effect of political correctness. But it’s part of the free market of ideas. And the backlash allowed Rasmussen to clarify her position. She recently apologized for her remarks.

That’s an important lesson. Unconstrained speech can result in dumb things being said. No one is perfect. Sometimes our tongues outpace our brains. When we say something dumb we ought to correct it and apologize. Honesty and liberty require accountability.

WITHOUT SINCERITY AND FREEDOM WE END UP WITH HYPOCRISY AND DUPLICITY.

We learn and grow through free, sincere and accountable dialogue. When people say what they believe, we can evaluate them accordingly. We can even try to persuade them to think differently. But when discourse is constrained and people don’t say what they mean, we cannot have a productive dialogue.

In the best of all possible worlds there would be no hateful words. But in our flawed world, the next best thing is for bad ideas to come out of the closet. Political correctness can cause people to say the right thing for the wrong reasons, while remaining committed to dumb or indecent ideas.

Genuine civility remains an important good for social life. But genuine civility is not mere political correctness. Authentic civility is grounded in respect, compassion and commitment to the common good. Gandhi explained, “Civility does not mean mere outward gentleness of speech … but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good.”

Eloquent courtesy can mask cruelty and violence. Political correctness can be oppressive. And inhibited speech prevents genuine dialogue.

Americans have the right to say what we believe. We need to hear bad ideas, so we can argue against them. And we should hope that liberty provides the best cure for stupidity.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article82987487.html#storylink=cpy

Community service can transcend religions

Community service can transcend religions

Fresno Bee, Oct. 07, 2011

According to Gandhi, “religions are different roads converging to the same point.” This is a nice idea. But it is most likely false. There may be some common values shared by religious people. But the details diverge — often in quite radical ways. Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Mormons and Jews will never agree about fundamental metaphysical questions: about the nature of God or the soul. And if we include atheists in the mix, it is unlikely that these roads will ever converge.

And yet, there may be a common path that we can walk together for a while, despite our differences. One common path is community service. Most religions stress altruism. And atheists recognize the ethical importance of working for the common good. Although there are different ways of providing service, it is rare to find a person who does not think it is good to help others.

It is important to understanding that despite our differences about fundamental things, we live together here and now. We drive the same roads, use the same resources and make our livings together. And our children will inherit this world from us. Productive relationships among diverse religious people can develop around shared interest in our common world.

This is the idea behind President Barack Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. This initiative aims to bring people of different faiths together to engage in a joint service project. The White House website describes this project as “an important way to build understanding between different communities and contribute to the common good.”

Fresno State is participating in this interfaith campus challenge. The project will begin with an Interfaith Student Discussion Panel as part of the Ethics Center’s Conference on “Ethics, Religion, and Civil Discourse.” On Thursday, a diverse group of students will discuss how their own religious traditions understand community service, and they will begin brainstorming a joint service project.

This joint service project is being coordinated by the Jan & Bud Richter Center for Community Engagement and Service-Learning, under the leadership of Chris Fiorentino. According to Fiorentino, a substantial amount of research indicates that service-learning works to promote greater cross-cultural understanding. Fiorentino says that people “find common ground through service.” Fiorentino recognizes that there are some issues that are intractable. It may be impossible for diverse religious people to agree about an issue such as abortion. But he maintains that there is quite a lot of room for consensus around issues such as education, safe neighborhoods and hunger.

A joint service project aimed at one of these topics can help to show that despite our differences, we have much in common. Fiorentino points out that we often over-emphasize our differences. One reason for this is a sort of self-absorption. It is easy to stereotype other people and their divergent points of view, especially when you only associate with people like yourself. Fiorentino argues that working on a joint service project can help people move beyond their narrow perspectives and learn to see “that there is something bigger than their own point of view.” That bigger thing is the community itself.

It is obvious that community service is not a panacea that will cure religious tension. Atheists and theists will still disagree about the existence of God, even if they swing hammers together. And Catholics and Mormons will still disagree about the teachings of Jesus, even if they work together to teach kids to read. But it is important to learn that, despite our deep differences, we can work together on projects of common concern.

Gandhi’s idea that all religions are fundamentally the same is hopeful — but misleading. If religions are fundamentally the same, then it is very difficult to understand the depth of religious conflict. Instead of hoping for a final convergence of religious belief, perhaps the most we can hope for is to learn to admit our differences while focusing on those values we share. The idea of being of service to the community may be one of those universally shared values.