Progress is possible and hope sheds light

Fresno Bee, July 19, 2020

This may seem an odd time to accentuate the positive. The nation is struggling with a pandemic, protests against racism, political dysfunction, and economic woes. Things could get worse. But when things look dark, it is important to take stock of progress that has occurred.

Science, economics, and the law have created improvements. There are many reasons to believe that things are better today — not perfect, but better.

Our lives are easier today thanks to technologies such as the internal combustion engine, refrigeration, telecommunication, personal computers, and the internet. There are downsides. Fossil fuel use causes climate change. And the Internet is awash in porn and fake news. But life is easier, healthier, and smarter thanks to applied science.

The coronavirus is scary. But experts are learning how to prevent and treat this disease. We’ve already eliminated smallpox, polio, cholera, and other devastating diseases. Many countries have made progress controlling COVID-19. The U.S. needs to get things under control. But medical science is better now than it was 100 years ago when the Spanish flu killed millions.

Protests against police brutality and racism indicate there is more work to be done. Terrorism and mass shootings cause anxiety. The U.S. exceeds other countries in gun violence. The U.S. imprisons more people than other countries. But crime is down from a high point in the 1990s and Americans are safer today than we were just a few decades ago.

The pandemic has exposed a digital divide in virtual learning. But a hundred years ago, girls and nonwhite people were woefully undereducated. Today we understand the ethical demand to provide quality education for all children. We teach science, math, and history to more kids in more sophisticated ways than in the one-room schoolhouses of yesteryear.

Wage gaps and wealth gaps remain. Rich people live longer and have more political power. But progress has been made for racial minorities, disabled people, homosexuals, women, and religious minorities since the 1950s when the Supreme Court abolished the farce of “separate but equal.” Things are not perfect. But discrimination is illegal and voting rights have been secured for members of previously excluded groups.

Threats to the American constitutional system exist, along with corruption in the halls of power. The free press has been attacked. Unjustified force has been employed against peaceful protesters. But the five freedoms of the First Amendment remain as beacons. The courts continue to defend our rights. And there is more vigorous political debate today than in previous decades.

Much of this debate overlooks the good news. The loudest voices on both sides of the political spectrum dwell on a sense of crisis. The conservative motto “Make America great again” begins with the premise that things have gotten worse. In response, progressives focus on remaining racism, sexism, and homophobia as well as Trumpian malfunction.

I’m not saying things are perfect today. There is substantial room for improvement. But hope for improvement depends upon the sense that progress has been made and can be made.

It is easy to lose sight of this. The news focuses on crime, disease, and corruption. Movies feature murder, malice, and mayhem. We like stories about bad guys and action heroes. A story about decent people who love their families and go to work every day would be boring.

Good news is also a political dud. Political energy grows from the sense of crisis that rallies the base. Change-makers are elected to shake things up. A campaign focused on moderate and incremental improvement would be uninspiring.

Incremental change is tedious. It takes persistent effort. The good it produces is slow in arriving and unexciting once it gets here. But lasting improvement occurs through painstaking effort.

In a crisis, despair can set in quickly. When things appear to be falling apart, it is easy to throw in the towel. That’s why it is important to recall the progress we have made. When we understand that smart, creative effort improves the world, it is easier to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

The world will never be perfect. But it won’t get better unless we believe that through our efforts it can be improved.

The Pandemic Dilemma

Pandemic Dilemma

We are witnessing a “pandemic dilemma” similar to the classic “prisoner’s dilemma.”  A growing number of people want to be “liberated” from stay-at-home orders, including apparently, President Trump.  The desire to end coronavirus restrictions is reasonable.  People need to get back to work and get on with their lives. 

But if we end stay-at-home restrictions too soon, the pandemic will continue and we’ll need more restrictions.  Cooperation is necessary, along with a long-term perspective.  Selfish action in the short term will prevent us from getting what we desire in the long run. 

The Problem of an Early Win

Pandemic restrictions have apparently worked.  The curve is “flattening.”   Although the number of deaths is appalling, this has fallen short of the most-dire predictions.  That’s good news.  But the effectiveness of stay-at-home orders makes it seem that they are not necessary.

It is tempting to declare a win too early.  The permanent solution involves vaccines and effective treatments.  The stay-at-home strategy only slows the spread of the disease.  If everyone stays home, the threat decreases.  It will then seem that there is no need to stay home.  But to re-open things too soon will increase the pandemic risk.  That would make it necessary to extend stay-at-home orders. 

Short-term thinking will lead to long-term problems.    

Cheating can be Contagious

As the threat dissipates, there will be more cheaters and resisters.  The irony of this is that cheating and resisting may prolong the pandemic. 

The longer this goes on, the more likely a further negative spiral.  As patience wears thin more people will be tempted to cheat and protest.  But a resurgent pandemic would lead to an extended need to stay at home.

 As frustration increases, cooperation decreases.  If you are staying at home, you will view defectors with resentment—but also maybe a bit of envy.  Resentment causes distrust and polarization.  The resisters view those staying at home as mindless sheep.  The stay-at-homers view the resisters as ignorant fools.  Cooperation becomes difficult. 

The Problem of Polarization

Polarization in the United States was already a problem.  This crisis has amplified it.  Some trust science.  Others do not.  Some think the president’s incompetence has made the crisis worse.  Others think that this is a “deep state” campaign to bring Trump down.

Our divisions will likely intensify as the economic and political consequences of the pandemic unfolds.  When distrusts grow, there is a tendency to focus on short-term self-interest, while blaming others.  This makes cooperative action more unlikely, which causes a further negative cycle.   

Hopelessness exacerbates distrust and makes it difficult to focus on long-term cooperation.  These negative feedback loops make long-term success seem farther away.  At some point, people begin to shrug and say “what the hell, might as well join the cheaters.”  When the Titanic is sinking and there is no hope for rescue, you might as well enjoy the ride (a point I’ve made in more detail elsewhere). 

If that happens, we really are sunk.

The Solution

Philosophers have long pondered the problem of cooperation.  One source is Hegel.  I won’t bore you with the details.  But in Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic,” when rival parties struggle for recognition, they end up failing to get what they want. 

The solution is a more robust sense of community.  This is similar to the solution of the classic prisoner’s dilemma, where two people struggle to choose wisely when they lack information and trust.  The solution is solidarity and trust, along with a shared source of information. 

Hope is also essential.  We need a reason to hope that things will improve when we work together.  The good news is that there is a reason for hope: cooperative action has slowed the pandemic.

Community, truth, and hope are cherished goods of human life.  Without them, we are thrown back into a chaotic world, where narrowly focused self-interest prevents us from cooperating and actually getting what we want.  Philosophers have made it clear what the solution is.  But building community is up to us. We, the people, must choose to cooperate, seek truth, and find reasons to hope that in the long run solidarity pays off. 

Never too young to change the system, never too old to hope

Fresno Bee, December 15, 2020

The United Nations commemorated Human Rights Day on Dec. 10 with a focus on youth leadership and voice. The UN notes that young people have often been marginalized and ignored. But youth movements are also in the forefront of social change. The motto of this year’s UN’s Human Rights campaign is, “never too young to change the world.”

Youth power is on the rise. Students have taken to the streets in Hong Kong and in climate action strikes around the globe. A 34-year-old woman, Sanna Marin, became prime minister of Finland. And Time recognized 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg as the magazine’s Person of the Year.

Our irascible president reacted to this last development with an insulting tweet directed at Thunberg. He said that Thunberg should work on her anger management issues and just chill out.

Grumpy old Scrooges have often told young people to chill out. They view youthful outrage as a pathetic phase. They mock youthful impatience to fix a broken world.

At the global climate change summit in Madrid, Thunberg said, “The change we need is not going to come from the people in power.” She said world leaders are betraying us by failing the fix the climate crisis.

Young people have often accused their elders of betrayal. The youth refuses to accept a broken system. They won’t tolerate the hypocrisies of business as usual.

Old folks view all of this as naïve. When you grow up, they say, you will grow out of your idealism. But young people don’t know any better. They don’t know enough, yet, to doubt their dreams.

This self-righteous enthusiasm typically fades over time. We mellow with age. Experience shows us patterns that repeat themselves. Those patterns become ruts, familiar and confining. You grow weary of struggle. You prefer stability. You become skeptical of revolution.

REVOLUTION IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER

For the youth, however, things look different. The audacity of youth is hopeful, creative and in love with the possible. Each moment is a new opportunity. The patterns are not familiar. There are no ruts to fall into. Revolution is waiting just around the corner.

These are stereotypes, of course. Some oldsters are radical and hopeful. And some youngsters are cynical. There is nothing sadder, I think, than a young person without hope. And there is something inspiring about old folks who encourage the youth to dream.

Consider Socrates. He was accused of corrupting the youth. He was executed at age 72 for daring to encourage the youth to think for themselves – about politics, religion, and the meaning of life. More recently, at age 79, the French philosopher Alan Badiou wrote a book explaining his desire to “corrupt the youth” by turning them away from a typical life spent in endless pursuit of power, money and gratification.

Badiou calls on us to live “a true life.” That would be a life of wisdom that is deeply critical of the hypocrisies of the status quo. To corrupt the youth is to help them become authentic. This means, “to try to ensure that young people don’t go down the paths already mapped out, that they are not condemned to obey social customs, that they can create something new.”

This “something new” is the key to hope. We don’t know what the youth will give birth to. Hope embraces an unknown future, betting that whatever comes tomorrow will be better than today. This is the attitude of youth: a reckless embrace of the future that is not cowed by convention.

Philosophy is not alone in embracing the audacity of youth. The message of youth power is appropriate at Christmas. Christianity began as a youth movement. Mary was a teenage mother, after all. And Jesus was only 33 when he was crucified. It was the old establishment that left Mary out in the cold and rejected the gospel of love.

So let’s hear it for corrupting the youth and empowering them to change the system. The system is broken. Its old cronies are bitter Scrooges and angry Trumps. But something beautiful and different is waiting to be born, if we let it. You are never too young to change the world. And you are never too old to hope.

Fortitude and Resilience in the Face of Tragedy

Right now fortitude is needed more than fantasy.
Admit fears, shed tears, get back to work

Fresno Bee, October 6, 2017

It feels like the world is falling apart. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and massacres clog the headlines.
Even El Capitan recently crumbled.

Of course, the rocks have always been falling. Each new hurricane and earthquake is a reminder of our fragile place on this spinning globe. Each new outburst of cruelty is a reminder of the human capacity for evil.

We cannot give up hope. But dark times need fortitude more than fantasy. Fortitude is grounded in a clear-eyed assessment of the world. This old-fashioned virtue has other names: grit, resilience, tenacity, and courage. Fortitude helps us face danger and endure stress. It gives us the energy and audacity to confront adversity.

Fortitude is solid and realistic, while hope is insubstantial and ethereal. The hopeful live in a world of “maybe.” Maybe after this hurricane season, we’ll take climate change seriously. Maybe after Vegas, we’ll take gun control seriously. Maybe next time, we’ll do things differently.

FORTITUDE IS GROUNDED IN A CLEAR-EYED ASSESSMENT OF THE WORLD.

It is possible that things will improve. But they won’t improve without hard work and common sense. Unrealistic hope is delusional. And hope without labor is merely hot air.

Reality is immune to our desires. Death and suffering are as pervasive as ignorance and selfishness. We need to accept the inevitable and focus on things that are actually in our control. We can regulate our efforts and subdue our fears. Beyond that lies fortune and fate.

Moderate fatalism is not a recipe for despair. Despair dwells in the negative and broods over misery. The risk of hope is that it gives way to despair when the hoped-for dream does not arrive.

The truth is that things are mixed. The earth is not static. Evil people exist. But so too do heroes, mothers and martyrs. Right now someone is dying; but someone else is being born. Someone is lonely; but someone else is falling in love. This vast world contains a multitude.

Reality includes hurricanes and earthquakes. It also includes tranquility, beauty and joy. We ought not let outrage and anxiety destroy our enjoyment of life’s bounty.

Our spirits will break if we try to take in all of the suffering of the world. This does not mean that we can ignore other people’s pain. But it does mean that compassion is a finite good. Help the victims if you can. But understand that grief and sorrow are local affairs.

Recent tragedies seem overwhelming. But there is always bad news somewhere. The media magnifies calamity. Catastrophes attract our attention.

It is wise to control your consumption of news. If the news is bothering you, turn it off. If you want good news and inspiration, look for it. Common decency is the unexceptional background condition of normal life. Talk to a neighbor. Or call an old friend. Most people are doing OK most of the time.

The ancient Greeks taught that evil can be endured and that good is easily obtained. They advocated moderation and courage. The Christians added faith, hope and love. It is sometimes useful to “let go and let God.” But grit and determination remain important. Fortitude was celebrated by Aquinas and others in the Christian tradition.

IT IS WISE TO CONTROL YOUR CONSUMPTION OF NEWS. IF THE NEWS IS BOTHERING YOU, TURN IT OFF.

Fortitude requires vigilance and prudence. It is prudent to prepare for disaster. But vigilance is not fear. Courage depends upon a sense of proportion that prevents panic. With preparation, some ills can be avoided. And many evils can be endured with patient resolve.

A sense of proportion puts anxiety in its place. The world continues to hum along after each quake, storm, and massacre. This bigger picture provides a source of hope. It is true that this too shall pass.

The big picture also makes us humble and forgiving. El Capitan crumbles on occasion. So too does the strongest man. We are all vulnerable. Our common fragility is the source of solidarity.

Share your strength when you can. But be modest about compassion. No one is strong enough to shoulder all of the suffering of the world.

In the end it is our resilience that is the source of progress. It is what we do after a disaster that actualizes hope. Comfort the afflicted. Lick your wounds. Admit your fears. Wipe away your tears. And then get back to work.

Morality and the drought

Moral lessons from the drought

Fresno Bee, December 9, 2015

  • Special Report: From drought to El Niño
  • Columnist Andrew Fiala says drought exposes conflicting ideas