Critical Race Theory and the Project of Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, June 13, 2021

Criticism can be divisive. But banning critique is a bad idea. Unanimity that results from censorship is not genuine. The productive solution is more enlightened critique.

I say this in response to efforts in several states to prohibit “critical race theory” (CRT) from being taught in schools. CRT claims that racism is deeply embedded in American institutions.

The reaction against CRT follows a script written by Donald Trump. Last fall he described CRT as a “crusade against American history.” He said it was “toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.”

But prohibiting a theory does not make it false. To disprove a theory, you need to critically examine it. Rather than censoring CRT, let’s encourage students to listen carefully to what critics have to say about racism. If the critics are wrong, let students prove them wrong. If they are right, then let’s empower young people to imagine productive solutions. Ideological indoctrination is wrong, whether it occurs in defense of CRT or against it.

The effort to ban CRT is symptomatic of a broader human avoidance of critical thought. We often prefer useful illusions about faith, family and country. When people challenge our illusions, we get defensive.

Religious people get defensive when scholars critically examine religious texts and beliefs. Something similar happens when feminists criticize gender, sex and the family. It happens when philosophers question cherished values.

Ideas and institutions are strengthened by confronting criticism head on. Criticism exposes flaws and weaknesses that can be improved. Without critique, bad ideas fester and institutions rot. If an idea or an institution is not strong enough to sustain critical scrutiny, that is not the fault of the critic.

The crucible of criticism causes values to evolve. We cannot predict where this will lead. But the hope is that as bad ideas are exposed, better ideas will develop, and institutions will be strengthened as a result.

Radical critique has a deep history. Socrates criticized Athens. Jesus critiqued Jerusalem. The American founders criticized British tyranny. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. critiqued the American dream.

The heroes of critique are often opposed by reactionary forces who aim to silence them without responding to their criticisms. Sometimes this involves violence, as in the cases of King, Socrates and Jesus. But silencing the critic does not stifle the criticism. If the critique contains truth, the next generation will carry it forward.

It is not easy to think critically about the status quo. Sometimes it seems easier to avoid thinking altogether. But as King said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” He also said we have a “moral responsibility to be intelligent.”

Ignoring the problem of race in America will not make it go away. Indeed, institutions that censor criticism end up looking weak and stupid as a result. It is childish to stop up your ears and close your eyes.

Adults ought to confront problems with honesty, sincerity, and creative intelligence. Let’s model that behavior for our children. American kids know that there are racial problems in America. Riots in the streets make it clear. Preventing them from thinking critically about these problems won’t solve them. Our kids need lots of critical tools so that they can imagine solutions to our problems. Silencing the critics is not a useful strategy.

Censors sometimes seem to think that the critical theorist is conjuring these problems into existence. But critical theory is not a conjuring act. Rather, it brings to light the skeletons in the closet. The critical theorist does not create these specters. They are already there.

Critical theory is about enlightenment. One of the most famous mottos of enlightenment is “sapere aude,” which means “dare to be wise.” Wisdom requires the courage to confront the world without illusions. The light of truth exposes things as they are, not as we want them to be.

You have to shine this light into the closet. Ignoring the skeletons hidden there, won’t make them disappear. You also have to look in the mirror. If you don’t like what you see there, turning off the light won’t help.

Erotic Untruth and the Violence of January 6

The January 6 attack on the US Capitol gives us a lesson in the futility of violence.

Human beings have a terrifying tendency to kill each other over horseshit (to use a technical term).  Violence typically rests upon a delusion.  The bigger the lie, the worse the violence. 

Religious and ideological warfare are extreme cases.  Terrorism and cult violence routinely occur: with Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, Aum Shinrikyo, the Manson Family, in Waco with David Koresh, and so on.  There is an analogy linking QAnon to al Qaeda. 

Some of the Trump insurrectionists believed outrageous falsehoods: that Biden and Pelosi were communists; that Covid-19 was a sinister plot; that pedophiles, Satanists, and lizard people had infiltrated the government.  This horseshit was accompanied by other more insidious lies: that the election had been stolen; and that the Congress and Vice-President could overturn the Electoral College. 

A broth of bullshit was brewing when the President said, “Our country has been under siege for a long time.”  He said, “If you don’t fight like Hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”  This rhetoric is eschatological and existential.  It is not surprising that the pot boiled.

The rioters believed they were patriots leading a noble revolution.  But they did not seem to think beyond the immediate outburst of violence.  What was supposed to happen next?  And why did they think they could get away with it?

Some have blamed the rioters’ obliviousness on the sense of impunity that comes from white supremacy.  But at bottom this was a product of the delusion of violence.

Violence is mired in immediacy.  It is reactive and episodic.  Violence focuses the mind on the present moment.  Violence promises simplicity, clarity, and consummation.

This promise is false, of course.  But violence is not about truth.  It is about power in the moment.  It is an expression of anger and contempt.  It is not strategic.  It is emotional, exciting, and erotic.

Tangled webs of braggadocio and bullshit typically lead to violence.  Closed networks reinforce delusion and breed a sense of superiority and impunity.  Critical thought is destroyed by anger, fear, and the love of brothers-in-arms.  When the delusions are eschatological, common sense is trampled underfoot. 

We have known that violence is rooted in psycho-social dynamics since Cain killed Abel and Achilles sailed off to Troy.  Freud described how hate and violence are perversely linked to love.  Aggression against “the other” binds us together and gives us meaning. 

It does not matter that our ideology is a lie.  In fact, falsehood binds us tighter together in an erotic dance.  When some “other” challenges our delusions, we strike out.  When those delusions involve love and identity, the other becomes a menace who must be destroyed. 

Religious violence has often worked this way.  Sometimes religious violence involves tangible conflicts about land or resources.  The Crusades had political and economic causes.  But the faithful frequently fight in the name of the fabulous.  The warriors themselves want glory, as well as penance and atonement.  They want to be purged and healed, uplifted and inspired.

And so human beings continue to kill and die in defense of unprovable myths.  The most dangerous myth of all is the myth that links violence to righteousness and redemption.  Prior to Trump’s speech on January 6, Rudy Giuliani proposed “trial by combat.”  This medieval nonsense holds that somehow the gods ensure that the righteous defeat the unholy. 

But violence has nothing to do with morality.  Good guys get killed as easily as bad.  Violence occurs at the level of physical power.  It decides nothing about truth, holiness, or moral worth. 

The myth of violence is essentially pagan.  It reflects a primitive theology.  To view the world as a battlefield supervised by the gods is to ignore a more elevated notion of the divinity.  If there is a God, wouldn’t He want us to reason together rather than to kill each other? 

The solution to the problem of violence is as old as Jesus and Socrates.  Jesus said the peacemakers were blessed.  And Socrates encouraged us to ask critical questions about the horseshit that encourages violence.  The truth is that violence is not reasonable.  Nor is it loved by the gods. 

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. 

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.

Seeking wisdom in dark times

Fresno Bee, January 5, 2020

This past year, things got foggy. We were confused by fake news and conspiracy theories. We had a hard time seeing beyond partisan division. A kind of spiritual darkness – racism, hate, greed, and anger – lurked in the shadows. Let’s hope that in 2020, we can see more clearly and spread more light.

The goal of the Western philosophical tradition is enlightenment. Immanuel Kant, the great German thinker, said that we should “dare to be wise.” Enlightenment requires us to have the courage to think for ourselves.

Enlightenment is not simply another word for knowledge. Knowledge grew in amazing ways during the past decade. But it is not clear that we are more enlightened.

We have probed into deep space and into the subatomic realm. We know how to edit DNA and make clones. We have discovered planets orbiting distant suns. Human spacecraft visited Pluto and left the solar system. We have learned more about evolution and the history of life. We also understand the perilous impact of human development on the climate and our planet’s ecosystem.

SEEKING WISDOM

But what good is all of this knowledge without a moral compass and an engaged wisdom? Wisdom situates knowledge within a larger context. Ethical insight leads us to do good with our knowledge.

Philosophers have long worried about knowledge that lacks ethics and wisdom. Bertrand Russell, one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, warned that knowledge without “comprehensive vision” is dangerous. Knowledge of atomic energy created the threat of nuclear weapons. Knowledge of power and propaganda creates the threat of authoritarian politics.

Russell defined wisdom as emancipation from the tyranny of here and now. This gives us a clue about how wisdom is to be found. To be wise is to look up, look around, and look within.

For two and a half millennia, philosophers have called upon us to seek wisdom by seeing things more clearly. Plato suggested that most people are slaves to darkness. We sit in dark caves, he said, looking at flickering images. These images confuse us about reality. We don’t know how to distinguish right from wrong or how to live well. If we could leave the darkness of the cave and see the light, Plato said, we would be good and happy, just and wise.

Plato knew nothing of television, the internet, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. But what he said about life in the cave of ignorance is appropriate to our century. We passively consume images. Our thumbs move across screens. Our eyes flit across the page. Algorithms collect data about us, generating more images for us to consume. Our minds are washed by waves of infotainment. Our bodies grow soft. Confined within silos of information, the human spirit becomes warped. And the social world grows more divided.

One crucial solution is to clean the lenses of perception by learning to think critically about the images that surround us. But clear vision is useless if we look in the wrong direction. Sharp-sighted sociopaths and keen-eyed kleptocrats are very good at manipulating images and seeing how to hurt and take advantage.

We also need to look in the right direction. We need to look up from our screens and take a look around. Most importantly we need to look within. It is self-knowledge that helps us see how bias, prejudice and self-interest cloud good judgment and narrow our point of view.

JESUS’ PARABLE OF THE GOOD SAMARITAN

Narrowed vision is a common human problem. A hint about this is found in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Several people walked past a needy man. Either they looked at him but did not see him, or they saw him but quickly looked away. The hero of the story saw the man’s need. He did not look away. And he took action to make things better.

That’s what enlightened insight looks like. Clear vision helps us see reality as it is. But wisdom should also lead to action. To be wise is to see things clearly, to see them wholly, and to see what needs to be done.

So let’s seize the new year as an opportunity to gain wisdom and seek enlightenment. This is a challenge for this year, this decade, and for a lifetime.