Covid Karma: The Mask Debate Evolves

Fresno Bee, July 25, 2021

Masks are back, along with protests against them. Fresno County public health officials recommend that everyone wear masks again in public. This includes kids in schools, which prompted parents in Clovis to protest the need for kids to wear masks.

The resurgence of COVID is the vexing result of vaccine skepticism. Experts have explained that this is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated. This is frustrating for vaccinated people. We hoped the vaccine would get us back to normal. But that only works if everyone gets vaccinated.

Unvaccinated people are still supposed to wear masks. But anti-vaxxers are also likely to be anti-maskers. Unvaccinated and unmasked people are at risk. And it is through them that the virus spreads and mutates.

Political polarization is part of the problem. A report from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that Republicans are less likely to get vaccinated than Democrats. But not every vaccine-skeptic is Republican. And some Republicans believe in vaccines and masks. Ignorance, fear, and selfishness are non-partisan problems.

Vaccine skepticism is more complicated than political ideology. Some religious people refuse vaccines on dogmatic grounds. Some people are allergic or have other health conditions that rule out vaccination. And vaccinations for children remain problematic.

This subtlety is ignored when people start casting blame upon the unmasked and unvaccinated. Some go so far as to invoke a kind of karmic comeuppance for the unvaccinated. I have heard more than one person say something like, “Well, it’s those unvaccinated folks own fault. They deserve what they get. I hope they hurry up and die so we can get back to normal.”

The people who say this usually say it with a wink and a whisper. They take it back quickly, claiming it is a joke or that they don’t really mean it. But it’s an awful thing to say.

This cringe-worthy blame game is a symptom of a profound social malfunction. The anti-vaxxers don’t trust the public health system. The pro-vaxxers don’t have any sympathy for the anti-vaxxers. As the pandemic continues, anger and exasperation are more common than kindness and compassion.

This dysfunction is similar to other rips in our unraveling social fabric.

Productive social life requires thick webs of cooperation. In a well-functioning society, cooperation is contagious. Successful cooperation makes people more cooperative. Cooperators are rewarded. As we share the goods of social life, we become even more cooperative.

But when cooperation breaks down, there is a vicious cycle fueled by distrust and animosity. This has been described by psychologists and philosophers in terms of “the prisoner’s dilemma” and “the tragedy of the commons.” The basic problem is that when we fail to cooperate, we end up with worse outcomes.

This helps explain a number of political and moral problems. Consider climate change. If other people are consuming mass quantities of fossil fuels, why should I cut back? As the climate heats up and the other guy is guzzling gas, I may lose the motivation to regulate my own consumption.

Or consider the controversy about the integrity of the 2020 election. If the other party is stealing elections or undermining confidence in democratic elections, then why should I cooperate? When trust erodes, democracy collapses.

Similar worries hold for COVID restrictions. Those who cooperated for the past year did so with the expectation that if everyone cooperated, things would get better. But the non-cooperators have undermined that hope.

This is a dangerous moment. We risk losing the buy-in of the folks who cooperated in the first place. Their virtuous behavior has not been rewarded. So, the motivation to cooperate fades.

One solution to this problem is moral. If the minor inconvenience of covering my mouth in public can save people’s lives, then I should mask up. Blame and karma ought to play no part in this moral calculation.

But moral concern is not the only thing that motivates us. Our emotions are also involved. That’s why we also need inspiration and hope. More people need to be inspired to get vaccinated. Those who wear masks need to be praised for their virtue. And those who are vaccinated need to be reassured that their cooperation was not in vain

Vigilance, Patience and Hope: The Drive Toward Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, December 27, 2020

On the longest night of the year, we drove through the fog looking for starlight. Other people had the same idea of driving uphill to see the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. In a parking lot in Prather, carloads of masked stargazers emerged from the fog and looked toward the heavens, seeking the Christmas star.

We are all looking for inspiration these days. If you rise above the fog, there are wonders to be found.

The last time the planets lined up like this was 800 years ago. The stars move at their own pace. We must learn to wait and keep our eyes open. The philosopher Marcus Aurelius said that stargazing washes away the filth of the earth. The cosmos teaches patience and perseverance.

This was a star-crossed year. Disease killed people and jobs. Our democracy teetered on the brink of disaster. Let’s drink a toast to all we’ve lost and endured. Let’s also learn from the light that shined in the darkness. If there is wisdom in the gloom, it comes from the values of the Enlightenment. It was science and law that prevented 2020 from being darker than it was.

When the Black Death hit Europe in the Dark Ages, astrologers blamed it on a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. We know much more today about the stars and about disease. We know how to prevent contagion and predict the weather. We peer into the molecular basis of life and into the depths of space. We build vaccines and satellites. Let’s give thanks to the scientists who shed light.

One of the wonders of 2020 was the growth of virtual reality. Satellites, computers, and cell phones kept us connected in the gloom. Without these technologies, social distancing would have been impossible. Let’s give a shout out to the wizards of Silicon Valley.

Telecommunication transformed the field of education. Difficulties remain, including educational inequity and a digital divide. But students are learning in ways that could not have been imagined last year. Hurray for the educators — and the students and parents — who pioneered a new model of teaching and learning.

Our civic values were challenged in unprecedented ways. The year began with impeachment. It ended with outrageous falsehoods about a stolen election. This was a year of protests and anger. We are more polarized than ever. Racial animosity afflicts us. There is corruption in the halls of power.

But citizens enlightened ourselves about history and the Constitution. And ethical professionals held back the darkness. Lawyers and judges remained committed to their code of ethics. Soldiers, cops, and firefighters did their duty. Business leaders supported justice and the common good. Nameless bureaucrats served with honor and integrity. Enlightenment depends upon the good work of citizens and civil servants.

As this pestilential year comes to a close, what should we resolve for the future?

I propose we need to affirm the value of vigilance. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” they say. This is common sense for those who drive through fog. We must be mindful and alert. Watchful care is the key to enlightenment.

Vigilance is the moral of Albert Camus’s novel, “The Plague.” That book is an allegory about the plague of totalitarianism in the 20th century. Camus noted that plagues stimulate enlightenment by opening our eyes. We must learn “a vigilance that must never falter.” The good man, Camus said, “is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.”

The stewards of civilization must be watchful, as we drive toward the light. New diseases are waiting to infect us. A random sneeze can start a pandemic. Tyrants and crooks wait to take advantage. Indifference leads to disaster.

Enlightenment is not something that just happens. Our scientific and technological prowess is the result of centuries of cultural evolution. Our legal system has a similar heritage. And the work of education is never done.

On sunny days, it’s easy to let your guard down. When the fog comes, it is easy to lose hope. But there are stars above the haze. Good and decent people live nearby. Science and reason provide hope in the darkness. Patience and vigilance keep us moving toward the light.

This is Not the Worst Year Ever

Time magazine declared 2020 “the worst year ever.”  That’s obviously not true.  In the 1850’s, millions were held in slavery.  In the 1860’s, over 600,000 Americans died in the war that freed those slaves.  One hundred years ago, the Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans, while women struggled to gain the right to vote.  Our current troubles are minor in comparison.   

Time magazine’s hyperbolic headline can be forgiven as a ploy to sell magazines.  But people succumb to hyperbole.  We tend to magnify present suffering.  And that can impede critical thinking.   

History is not one story, it is many.  When historians look back on 2020, they will see failure that caused unnecessary suffering.  But they will also witness ingenuity that mitigated harm.  We should learn from our successes—and from our failures. 

Some of what we suffered in 2020 was the result of human greed, ignorance, and pride.  The Covid-19 death toll was made worse by selfishness, ignorance, and lack of leadership.  The fires in California were the terrifying result of human-caused climate change.  The social divisions and racial tensions of 2020 are the result of systematic stupidity and political polarization. 

But human intelligence prevented things from being even worse.  Health care systems evolved.  A vaccine was developed.  There were government bailouts.  School teachers invented online learning.  Firefighters demonstrated heroism.  And Americans educated themselves about racism and the American Constitution. 

Life includes both tragedy and triumph.  We fail.  We suffer.  We learn.  And we grow.

Resilience is a process of growth and development.  Resilient people generally avoid absolutism and hyperbole, which cause despair.  Defeatism undermines the spirit of invention, discovery, and growth. 

Consider a recent essay by Chris Hedges on cultural despair.  Hedges warns that despair can fuel the wish for magical solutions that can turn into fascism.  I’m sympathetic to his critique.  But Hedges’ assessment is itself dispiriting.  Hedges gives voice to despair.  And this leads him to conclude that reform is impossible.  He concludes that we are faced with a choice between tyranny and revolution. 

Hedges’ dilemma is typical of despair.  We tend to dwell on the darkness without noticing the light.  But history is more complicated than a stark choice between tyranny and revolution.  And there is no such thing as “the worst year ever.” 

Evaluation is relative and evolving.  Some people fell in love in 2020.  Others died.  Some families had children.  Some experienced divorce.  Some people began new careers.  Others lost jobs.  Art was created and scientific discoveries were made.  But businesses failed and crimes were committee.  For some people, 2020 was a great year.  For others, it was miserable. 

And yes, there was Donald Trump.  But there were also movements of social protest.  The Constitution was tested.  But the system worked.  Polarization increased.  But decent people sought common ground.

We must resist oversimplifying when we judge.  These are not the best of times.  Nor are they the worst of times.

Some new age advocates of mindfulness celebrate “non-judgmental awareness.”  There is value in this.  But non-judgmental presence is only a tool and a mood.  We need to judge things.  Judging helps us learn, invent, and improve.  But we need to be judicious in judging—moderate and prudent. 

We can learn a lot from acceptance and gratitude.  The mind can be sharpened by quietness and presence.  Thinking and learning require judgment and discrimination.  If we practice pure acceptance, we will never learn anything. 

If we are overly judgmental and hyperbolic in our judgments, we will also fail to learn.  We have to see what works—and what doesn’t.  We must also remain open to the new and the different.  We must be creative and inventive in our response to the world.

To say that this was the worst year ever is a kind of cop out.  It is a shoulder shrug and a sigh.  Shrugs and sighs are OK—for a moment.  Then it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get back to work.  Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, let’s learn from our mistakes.  We can also learn from our successes.  And with some luck and a lot of labor, the next year may be better than the last.

Fire Wisdom

Smokey Sunset

The Sierra Nevada is blazing.  Smoke chokes our lungs here in the shadow of these burning mountains.  Yesterday we learned that a friend’s house burned down, another victim of the Creek Fire near Shaver Lake.

What wisdom can we learn from fire and smoke?  Fire is a terrifying force of nature.  It is also a metaphor. Pandemics burn.  Violence flares up in the streets.  Some warn that the bridges of democracy are being torched.  Each day brings a new conflagration. 

The ancients saw fire as a primal force.  Fire cults gave birth to religion. God appeared to Moses in a burning bush. Ancient worship included burnt offerings and smoking incense.

The Greek sage Heraclitus gave voice to a fire philosophy.  He said the cosmos is an “ever-living fire.”  Everything changes.  The eternal fire burns all things.  This fiery wisdom reveals the cold, dark truth of mortality. 

The Greek word for fire (πῦρ or pyr) is the root of our word “pyre.”  The funeral pyre purges and purifies, returning ashes to ashes.  Fire transforms mortal flesh into smoke and wind.

Fire destroys. But it also gives birth. Fire is essential to the forest’s life.  It clears the undergrowth and fertilizes the soil.  The seeds of the mighty sequoia only germinate after a fire.  The bark of the sequoia bears the marks of prehistoric flames.

Climate change accelerates this cycle.  The ponderosa pines have been destroyed by the tiny bark beetle.  Drought and death have reduced these forests to kindling.  The hot winds of a feverish climate fan the flames.

Wind is another metaphor and element. Wind is breath. But wind is duplicitous. It can blow flames out or encourage their growth. The same is true of breath. Breath is life and laughter. But breath gives voice to angry words and hateful curses.

Wisdom teaches us to control the breath and to inhale clear air from above the fuming haze. Watching your breath teaches patience and tenacity. Someday the winds will change.

Someday these ashes will give birth to new growth. Fire wisdom takes the long view.  The life cycle of a sequoia is measured in centuries.  Forests span millennia. 

The big picture offers some consolation.  But what about today?  Wisdom teaches us to tend the fires that nourish us.  Fire can be a friend.  As darkness falls and the cold settles in, a campfire reassures. The hearth provides a place to gather and dwell.  There is comfort in keeping the home fires burning. 

But an errant spark can burn down the house. Fire is dangerous when it blazes out of control.  That is why we protect our fires from the wind. Fire explodes when the wind blows uncontrolled.  This is also a metaphor.

The Buddha said everything is burning.  The senses are on fire, he said, as is the mind.  Suffering arises when the flames of the spirit are fanned by ragged hyperventilating and breathless passion.  Negative emotions burn the soul and fuel terrible explosions.

Anger and resentment grow along with violence and fear.  These flames are scorching our social world today. We need to moderate our breathing and keep the sparks of hate away from the powder kegs.

These Sierra fires are flashing a warning.  We have grown too fast.  We live too furiously.  We burn too brightly.  Our breathing is shallow and feverish. Life is out of balance.  The world is on fire. 

The solution is containment and prevention.  A forest fire cannot be quenched.  It can only be contained.  The same is true of pandemics and of violence.  Control the burn.  Keep kindling and flame safely apart. Breathe from the belly.

This is a simple lesson taught by ancient sages.  Control the negative emotions that incinerate the spirit.  Watch your breath. Conserve your fuel.  And tend your hearth.

We should also discover the cooling balm of compassion.  This fiery world contains too much mourning.  Let’s comfort the grieving. And hold fast to patient hope.  The winds will shift. The rains will come.  The smoke will clear.  And someday these ashes will give birth. 

Malevolent Hope and The Desire To Burn Things Down

Anger

Fresno Bee, September 6, 2020

This is a season of malevolent hope. Hope is usually positive. So this may seem strange. But the desire to see enemies suffer is common, as is the urge to burn things down in pursuit of power.

We see malevolent hope when Republicans imagine benefiting from civil unrest. Kellyanne Conway said last week that “chaos and anarchy” are good for Trump’s re-election.

Another example showed up this week when the president told his supporters to vote twice to test the electoral system. If the system is broken, Trump gets extra votes. But if chaos ensues, after Trump voters are charged with the crime of voting twice, this reinforces Trump’s claims about a broken system.

Democrats may have their own form of malevolent hope, perhaps secretly hoping that a vaccine does not appear until after the election. Republicans are already accusing Democrats of wanting to block the vaccine. Conservative columnist Betsy McCaughey claims that the Democrats “wish failure” on every COVID-19 breakthrough.

It is obviously wrong to wish for the worst as a bridge to the better. It’s cruel to desire more disease. It’s evil to cultivate chaos. It’s perverse to encourage criminality and felonious voting.

But malevolent hope is as common as greed and envy. When a relationship sours, you hope your former lover suffers. When a rival is winning, you wish he would fail.

Good people realize this is wrong. Such thoughts ought to be repressed. Wicked wishes can give birth to evil deeds.

Politics often slips down this devilish slope. Terrorists actively seek to make things worse. They attack in order to provoke a backlash. Once the backlash occurs, they say, “see, I told you—those guys are oppressive.” A different example comes from Germany in the 1930s. The Reichstag was burned. The Nazis blamed the Communists and soon seized power.

Malevolent hope often includes a story about a savior. The jilted lover imagines himself swooping in and consoling his miserable former love. Political partisans believe that when things get bad enough, their candidate will save the day.

This narrative also appears in apocalyptical faith. Plagues, pestilence, and war are signs of the end times. Does this mean that the faithful should hope for these horrors? That question is a recipe for theological heartburn.

Malevolent hope is connected to gloating. To gloat is to take joy in your enemy’s misfortune. Ancient warrior cultures encouraged gloating. It’s not enough to kill your enemy. The warrior also disfigures his enemy’s corpse and dances on his grave.

Some ancient sources condemn this. The Bible’s book of Proverbs warns against envy, pride, and gloating. One verse says “don’t gloat when your enemy falls and don’t rejoice when he stumbles.” Jesus went even further. He told us to love our enemies.

That may be too much to ask. A basic concern for the common good would suffice. To hope that things get worse actively encourages pain and misery. We should want our rivals to succeed in business, politics, and even in love because we want happiness to spread.

To the jilted lover we say that if you really loved her, you should hope she finds joy in her new relationship. And patriots should want peace, justice, and prosperity regardless of who is in the White House.

But we are jealous and greedy. And we tend to fight evil with evil, violence with violence. Malevolent hope grows out of selfish pride and a zero-sum view of the world.

This is corrupt and self-defeating. It is simply wrong to wish harm upon others. Peace and prosperity require cooperation, solidarity, and concern for the common good.

It is difficult to remember this lesson of common decency in a world that has grown ugly and angry. But common sense tells us that if we hope things will get worse, they probably will. It is easy for things to fall apart. Holding them together is difficult. Creating something better is harder still.

For things to improve, we need positive hope. Benevolent hope affirms human creativity. It keeps open the possibility of enemies becoming friends. This is the kind of hope that grows from love and wants joy to spread. It is a hope that builds instead of burns.