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 Blame Game

When bad stuff happens, we want someone to blame.  But blame assumes a kind of agency that most of us lack.  Luck is as important as intention.  And culture and nature matter more than the choices of individuals.

Recent events show us how the blame game works.  The White House has blamed the Covid-19 pandemic on China.  White House trade adviser Peter Navarro recently claimed that China “spawned” the virus and deliberately spread the disease. Meanwhile, Trump’s critics blame him.  One recent article carried the headline, “It Really Is Trump’s Fault.”  Another said, “Covid 19: Blame Trump.” 

All of this oversimplifies the causal reality of the pandemic, which involves the complexities of microbiology, economics, and the daily choices of billions of people.  Policy and law can have some influence.  But there are more fundamental forces at play in the pandemic.

If we want to blame something for the explosion of the pandemic in the U.S., we might blame American individualism, libertarianism, and consumerism.  Trump did not invent these forces.  Nor did he (or China) cause the pandemic to blow up here. 

That explosion involved the choices of governors, mayors, businesses, and ordinary citizens.  Lots of people ignored the need for social distancing.  The virus did the rest, moving according to its own logic.

Trump cannot save us from the pandemic, by the way. That’s up to us.  To be critical of the blame game is also to be critical of hero-worship and the cult of leadership.  A leader can only take people in a direction they are willing to go.

When we understand the power of culture and nature, the blame game fades in importance.  For example, some blame the victims of hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes for building their homes in danger zones.  But economic forces create conditions in which some people have no other viable places to live.  And destruction or survival in a storm or an earthquake is often a matter of luck.

A fuller account of causality offers a more convoluted picture of our choices.  Blame (or praise) assumes a myth about free choice in these matters that hearkens back to the myth of original sin. A more scientific account of causality makes that myth seem silly.

At the level of leadership, the blame game assumes that leaders are free to create policies independently of the parties, systems, and circumstances in which they operate.  In reality, human beings—including leaders—are buffeted by cultural and natural forces that are beyond our control.

And yet, when things feel out of control, we search for someone to blame.  This can lead to scapegoating.  In heaping blame upon a scapegoat, we seek a semblance of power in the face of powerlessness.  It feels good to blame bad things on some person, party, race, or nation.  In older times, the need to blame a malicious agent escalated into claims about witches, demons, and devils.  These days, it manifests as absurd conspiracy theories that imagine some secret cabal of evil geniuses pulling strings behind the scenes. 

A further problem is that blame is retrospective and retributive.  To focus on blame is to dwell in the past and to look for someone to punish.  But this can prevent us from moving forward.  We should learn from the past and avoid previous mistakes.  But the goal should be to study the past in order to build the future.  Rather than focusing on whom to blame, we ought to think about what we need to do next time.  John F. Kennedy once said, “Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past.  Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” 

To avoid the blame game is not to give up on accountability.  Leadership matters.  Incompetent and malicious leaders should be replaced.  And indeed, a larger point of view makes it easier to move on.  If there are no evil geniuses, there are also no saviors or superheroes.  No leader is indispensable. 

Knowledge, expertise, and experience can help us ride through bad times.  But bad stuff is often a matter of bad luck and the larger forces of culture, institutions, and nature.  And often we really have no one to blame but ourselves.  Once we realize this, it is easier to leave the blame game behind and get to work on preparing for tomorrow. 

Singing the Blues in Difficult Times: Art and Creativity in the Pandemic

Fresno Bee, May 31, 2020

The pandemic has left people feeling numb, powerless, and hopeless. One recent article suggests that half of Americans have the blues. People are out of work and struggling to pay the rent. There is political animosity and racial tension.

Reopening things will get some folks back to work. But the economy is still a mess. Political nonsense continues to flow out of D.C. And a second wave of infections and shut-downs is waiting in the wings. We can’t go back to the carefree world we once knew.

This is a good time to turn to the blues, an art form full of nostalgia and despair. As John Lee Hooker sang, “Hard times are here to stay.” The world is out of joint. We dream of going home. But we can’t get there. So we sing.

Great songs, inspired novels, and new art will emerge from this crisis. Art grows from hard times.

The Great Depression gave birth to Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” for example. At one point in the story, poor folks chip in for a funeral for a child who died of malnourishment. Steinbeck then offers a simple prayer for the common man. “Pray God some day kind people won’t all be poor. Pray God some day a kid can eat.”

The Depression also inspired Langston Hughes’s dream of an America that didn’t exist. In the 1930s he wrote, “Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, the rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, we, the people, must redeem the land, the mines, the plants, the rivers … and make America again.”

These artists confronted the bleakness of their time with a kind of hope. Rather than weep and wail, artists turn suffering into song. And you don’t have to be a genius to participate in the magic of art. Everyone can make lemons into lemonade. The creative urge is deeply human.

Consider the surge in baking that occurred during quarantine. Stores ran short on flour and yeast. Bread nourishes the body. But there is therapy in the culinary arts. Mixing, kneading, and waiting give shape to bread — and to poetry and life.

Life is made meaningful by creative activities. Joy is found in sharing this with others, telling stories, singing, laughing, crying, and eating together.

We sing, bake, and build because of an upsurge of energy. A kind of spiritual leavening occurs in the active and inspired mind, as ideas and emotions ferment and overflow. The vitality of the mind impels it to create and to communicate.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that inspired spirits enrich the world out of their overflowing fullness. Art is the expression of will and energy. Suffering becomes meaningful when it is transformed into poetry, prayer and thought.

The blues tradition provides a great example. The blues grew out of the anguish of the African American experience. The novelist Ralph Ellison once explained that the blues express both the agony of life and a toughness of spirit. It offers no solutions or scapegoats. But it turns heartache into song. Ellison wrote, “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it.”

When hard times become art, courage and resilience emerge. Langston Hughes described the blues as sadness hardened with laughter. This requires audacity and tenacity. There are tears and loss. But the artist responds with energy and gives birth to something new that is both melancholy and beautiful.

I don’t mean to suggest that everyone ought to become professional artists. Artists are going to be hard-pressed to make a living these days. But one cure for the pandemic blues is to find solace in creativity, whether baking, singing or writing.

Nor do I mean to say that art can solve our problems. We need scientists to find a vaccine. Economists must tackle unemployment. And psychologists are needed to treat clinical depression. Art does not solve problems. Rather, it helps us cope. Art kneads our pain and causes it to ferment and rise up. And somehow this transforms the deep and lowdown blues into food for the soul.

Religion, Non-Religion, and the Pandemic

Fresno Bee, May 17, 2020

The divide between religious and non-religious people is highlighted by the pandemic. At a recent “Freedom Rally” in Fresno, a woman said she was not afraid of the virus. If she gets sick or infects someone else, she said, it is “all part of God’s plan.”

This represents a dispiriting theology. It is not God’s will that people die from this disease. Scientists know how to stop its spread. It makes no sense to ignore science and blame God.

The conflict between faith and science rages on. Some turn to prayer. May 14 was an international day of prayer, celebrated by Pope Francis and Muslim leaders. Two months ago, President Trump declared March 15 as a national day to “pray for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.” May 7 was another National Day of Prayer. At the May 7 event at the White House, no one wore a mask, including the choir.

In response to all of this praying, the Freedom From Religion Foundation declared May 7 as a National Day of Reason. They claim the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. They argue, “irrationality, magical thinking, and superstition have undermined the national effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Pandemics have often prompted religious turmoil. In ancient Athens, a terrible plague turned people away from religion. The historian Thucydides reported that at first the Athenians asked the gods for help. But when prayer had no effect, the people saw the futility of religion.

As the disease spread, general lawlessness broke out. People expected to die soon, so they focused on enjoying themselves in the present moment. They gave up on honor and were not worried about punishment for crime. Thucydides explained that there was no longer any fear of the gods or of the laws.

Something similar occurred during the Black Death. The Italian poet Boccaccio recounts that people made merry and drank themselves silly, since death appeared inevitable. People generally disregarded “the reverend authority of the laws, both human and divine.”

The good news is that our pandemic is less severe. The Athenian plague killed one-third of the population. The Black Death killed over half of Europe. Things are better today thanks to modern science. We know how to prevent and treat the bubonic plague. Scientists also know how to prevent COVID-19.

But will faith wane in this crisis as it did in Athens and Italy? When prayer proved ineffective, some people gave up on religion — but not all. Religion is resilient, as recent data show. The Pew Center reports that the COVID-crisis has strengthened the faith of people who were already religious.

But the pandemic has not driven the nonreligious back to religion. Indeed, a growing religious exodus is already well underway. A fourth of all Americans are not religious and a third of those under 40 are nonreligious.

Religion can’t compare to science when it comes to understanding disease. But a religious attitude may be useful for creating solidarity and compassion. History shows that in a pandemic people may selfishly focus on short-term pleasure. But the turn to selfish individualism undermines cooperation and helps the disease to spread.

If religion encourages people to cooperate, care for the suffering, and work to prevent disease, then science and religion can work together. A carefree attitude of partying like there is no tomorrow will undermine cooperation. But the same is true when religious people refuse to cooperate in the name of religious liberty.

In a free country, of course we have the right to pray or to party. But we should be smart about exercising our rights. We can party safely and with social distance. We can also pray, while loving our neighbors and wearing masks.

Thucydides once said that good sense is undermined by haste, passion, and a narrow mind. We do better when we broaden our perspective and think more carefully about science, history, and ethics. We also need a more sophisticated theology that does not blame God for human failure. We must think about the impact that our choices have on others. We should acknowledge that science actually works to save lives. And whether we pray or party, let’s do it wisely.

Are we really all in this together?

In this together

Fresno Bee, May 3, 2020

Hopeful signs have popped up saying things like, “we are all in this together, even though we are six feet apart.” That’s sweet. But is it true?

In many ways, we are not all in this together. Rich people ride out the COVID-19 storm in second homes and on private yachts. Affluent professionals work safely on speedy internet connections. But working-class folks, store clerks and bus drivers, must serve people who refuse to wear masks. Unemployment is growing while fat cats play the stock market.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed preexisting divisions. Some believe doctors and scientists. Others do not. Some think this is a left-wing conspiracy. Others blame the president.

The crisis has disclosed disparities in health care, economics, education and outlook. Black Americans are more likely to die of the disease. Poor communities lack the infrastructure to support online learning. And some Americans, like those who are married to undocumented immigrants, will not receive federal stimulus checks.

The president has encouraged protesters to “liberate” themselves from state governments. This week he asked why American taxpayers should bail out “poorly run states and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed.”

The answer ought to be that we are all in this together. But this doesn’t ring true anymore.

Perhaps it is time for Red and Blue Americans to seek a divorce. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently said California is a kind of “nation state.” The folks calling for a “Cal-exit” have said that the COVID-19 crisis could help push California toward secession.

A new book by F.H. Buckley, called “American Secession,” argues that America may be too big for its own good. Buckley is a law school professor and Trump supporter. He says that smaller countries are happier and less corrupt. He suggests that now may be the time to downsize.

Of course, downsizing won’t stop the virus. A global pandemic requires a coordinated global response. The idea of “California alone” is as asinine as the idea of “America first.”

And if California succeeded in seceding, how would we prevent further downsizing? California is as divided as our nation. The citizens of Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco might be glad to get rid of the denizens of Devin Nunes’ Central Valley – and vice versa.

The big question, of course, is what counts as the real California. And for that matter, who counts as a real American? Who gets to tell the others to take a hike? Who ought to be liberated from whom?

The Trumpists want to be free of the mainstream news media and others they see as enemies of the people. Those “enemies” dream of a world without Trump. Whose country is this anyway?

The fact that we need to ask this question shows that our Union is dying. Marriages, friendships and nations only exist so long as people believe in them. As with most of social life, our beliefs create reality. Trust is the basic glue of social relationships. Once “we, the people” stop believing in those relationships, they dissolve.

Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln was right about the nature of the Union. It won’t last if we don’t believe in it.

Lincoln led a war to restore the Union. That’s not what we need. Nor do we need to hear anymore from incompetent, corrupt and divisive leaders. A Union, if we want it, is up to us. Community is a bottom-up affair. This is how friendships, marriages and businesses work. Even if the economy is officially re-opened, it won’t revive until people believe it is safe to leave home.

Market forces, culture, religion and science operate independently. No government official ordered Americans to hoard toilet paper. That happened by itself, through the choices of individuals. If we are going to find a way to rebuild our broken Union, that’s how it will have to happen, one roll at a time, in the minds and choices of individuals.

Which brings me back to those sweet signs that have appeared as spontaneous love-letters to the world. If we believe that we are all in this together, then we will be. But once we stop believing, we will stand alone, even though we are only six feet apart.