Graduation: Kick Away the Ladder and Soar

Fresno Bee, June 6, 2021

Here is a column for the graduates. Graduation celebrates success at climbing a ladder. The word comes from “gradus,” which is Latin for “step.” To graduate is to complete all of the steps.

Education is an ascent. Plato pictured education as a climb out of the cave of ignorance toward enlightenment. In the Renaissance, Pico Della Mirandola said the ladder of knowledge leads us to God.

Our world has lots of ladders. In school you climb from one grade to the next. As you ascend you are graded, ranked, and evaluated. This hierarchical system continues in business, the military, and other forms of adult life. Much of life is organized by ladders and ranking systems. You will ascend a variety of ladders, including the famous ladder of success.

But once you’ve climbed up, then what?

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein recommended kicking away the ladder once you’ve climbed it. Graduation is like that. It is a time to leave the ladder and make a leap. This leap is a moment of freedom, anxiety, and joy.

Freedom can be scary. There is comfort in climbing a familiar path. But life is not merely a never-ending staircase. There are also circles and repetitions — and moments in which you hover, soar and plunge. Life is a dance and a leap as well as a climb.

What will you do with your freedom once the steps are no longer measured for you by parents and teachers? How will you use your freedom? Which mountain will you climb? Where will you dance off to?

Education should culminate in freedom. Knowledge liberates us. But liberty requires constraint. Freedom without discipline is chaos. Virtues like honesty and integrity channel freedom in productive ways.

Freedom must also be connected to compassion and justice. In “Julius Caesar,” Shakespeare warned us not to turn our backs on our friends once we’ve climbed ambition’s ladder. Remain humble. Give gratitude to those who helped you ascend. And offer a hand to those who need help climbing up.

There is also wisdom in standing still and learning to wait. Our culture emphasizes achievement and accomplishment. But silence is golden and patience is a virtue.

We learn this from music and the arts. The best music is not a frantic flurry of notes. The silences matter, as do the whole notes, and the whispered undertones. Subtle harmonies require gentleness, attentive listening, and a light touch. The sweetest poetry leaves important things unsaid.

And don’t forget love. True love is not selfish. It expands and uplifts. Parents, teachers, and coaches gave you the love you needed. They held your hand as you took the first steps of your journey. At some point, the training wheels came off and there you went. They ran beside you for a while as you sped up the path. And now you are ready to soar. Spread your wings. And when you are ready, pass that love on. Your task is to help others learn to climb.

Your parents and teachers hope that wisdom, courage, and tenacity will guide you as you conquer other mountains. But we can’t tell you where to go from here. Maybe you will climb Half Dome. Maybe you’ll write a poem. You might discover a cure for cancer. Or you might find a cure for violence, racism, and hate. The choice is yours.

There will always be new challenges to overcome and new ladders to ascend. We hope that you climb well, and bravely, and wisely. May your life be a dance, a song, and a sparkling work of art.

We’ll be here cheering you on, waiting for news of your achievements. Do us proud. Climb as high as you dare. Then gather your virtues around like a superhero’s cape and make that leap. If you fall, we’ll still be here to pick you up. Don’t be afraid to fall. Everyone falls down from time to time. What matters is the will to get back up and climb again.

Eventually you’ll catch the wind and soar beyond us with dignity and grace. Circle back from time to time. Astound us with what you’ve learned and who you’ve loved. We look forward to being amazed at who you will become.

The Poison of the Big Lie

Fresno Bee, May 16, 2021

The “big lie” is destroying our country. When Liz Cheney was deposed from GOP leadership, she said, “we cannot both embrace the big lie and the Constitution.” Cheney was referring to the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

Trump sees things differently. In early May, Trump proclaimed, “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!” Cheney responded, “The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.”

Unfortunately, this venom is already wreaking havoc. Half of Republicans believe that Biden was not legitimately elected. And this past week, 124 retired generals and admirals signed a letter claiming that a “tyrannical government” of socialists and Marxists has taken over. The letter also maligns the Supreme Court for ignoring “irregularities” in the 2020 election.TOP

Who should we believe? In asking this question we wander in a toxic fog. Who can we trust when the authorities and “we, the people” are so divided?

Big political lies have a long lineage. Plato suggested that the masses should be fed lies to maintain social order. Hitler said that “the primitive simplicity” of the masses leaves them susceptible to big lies. The big lie festers in the mind. You don’t have to fully believe it for it to work. Big lies throw us off balance. The authorities take advantage of our disorientation.

Big tangled webs of lies are found everywhere: in states, churches, families and businesses. Ordinary people have a difficult time sorting out the truth about pedophile priests and party purges. Some turn away in disgust. Others simply fall in line with a shrug and a sigh. This happens in families and businesses where people smile and wave despite the skeletons in the closet.

Vaclav Havel, the dissident who became president of Czechoslovakia, explained that people can live their entire lives within a network of lies. Communist regimes were based upon layers of falsehood that no one believed.

In Czechoslovakia, on Havel’s telling, individuals went through the motions. Silent conformity was sufficient for the “thick crust of lies” to endure. But this veneer is shattered when enough people simply live in truth. This is not heroic truth-telling. Rather, it is what happens when people stop saluting, stop repeating the mantras, and simply ignore political nonsense.

Of course, those in power cannot tolerate this. In the old days, the powerful would imprison non-conformists and kill truth-tellers. But in the age of advertising, confusion suffices. Propaganda baffles us, while the powerful pick our pockets.

Distrust and confusion are disastrous for democracy. When each party accuses the other of lying about the legitimacy of elections, we reach an impasse. We must either pick a side or throw up our hands in despair. Each option is inadequate.

If we pick a side — even the side that is objectively true — this means we must believe that the other side is malicious, devious, and untrustworthy. Democrats applaud Cheney, believing that Trump and his minions are big fat liars. But Republicans view Cheney as a traitor. They think that the Democrats are devious devils who stole the election. This polarization prevents cooperation. It is not possible to cooperate with a party that does not play by the rules or tell the truth.

And if we do not pick a side but, rather, retreat in despair and cynicism? Well, this also destroys democracy. All of this lie-mongering is leading many to conclude that the entire political class is a viper’s nest of hissing liars.

Nothing is more corrosive of democracy than cynical despair. Why vote if elections are rigged? Why pay taxes if tyrannical usurpers are in office? Why bother to go through the motions if the whole system is a crust of lies?

These are the frightening questions that arise in a country that is falling apart. The truth is that no political community lasts forever. Athens collapsed, as did Czechoslovakia. No family, church, or business can endure without confronting the skeletons in the closet. And no democracy can endure when each party accuses the other of lying about democracy itself.

On Motherly Love

Motherly love is neglected in ethics.  The Golden Rule speaks of brotherly love.  It says, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  But we might also say: “love your neighbor as a mother loves her children.” 

Brotherly love creates solidarity and respect.  Motherly love is a more active process of nurture and care.  A mother’s love is specific.  It concerns itself with your unique well-being.  Brotherly love spreads widely and grows thin.  Motherly love is intense: it responds to your needs and encourages you to fulfill your potential.  Brotherly love is universal and abstract.  Motherly love is for real people with concrete needs.

Motherly love involves labor. To live well is to participate in the labor of mothering: to give birth, to nurture, and to care.  We all do this.  The poet is a mother.  So too is the musician, scientist, and farmer.  Anyone who gestates, nurtures, and grows things is a mother.

Patriarchal metaphors confuse us.  We speak of founding fathers.  We imagine an artist imposing his will on the world.  We see the farmer as inserting his seed and extracting the fruit.  But art, politics, and agriculture require nurturing care.

We also conceive of God as a father who begets a son.  This patriarchal metaphor limits our imagination.  Divine creativity is not masculine imposition.  Rather, it is an unfolding from within.  It makes sense to say that God gives birth to the world. 

A hidden account of the importance of motherly love can be found in ancient philosophy.

When Pythagoras descended into a cave seeking wisdom, he was nurtured there by his mother.  She was the only person he communicated with from his dark retreat.  When he emerged from his cave, he began teaching about reincarnation.  This symbolic re-birth—the emergence from a cave—shows up Plato’s allegory of the cave as well as in the Christian Easter story. 

Pythagoras’s theory of reincarnation allowed that he had once been a woman.  So it is no surprise that he brought women into his school.  His wife, Theano, and his daughter, Damo, were among his most important disciples. 

Socrates also spoke of mothering.   He described himself as a midwife who helps others give birth to the wisdom that is within them.  That process is guided by love, conceived in motherly terms. 

The source of Socratic midwifery was a mystical woman named Diotima.  She taught Socrates the mysteries of motherly love.  Diotima said, “All of us are pregnant, Socrates, both in body and in soul, and, as soon as we come to a certain age, we naturally desire to give birth.”

These ideas gestated and evolved for centuries until Plotinus offered a grand synthesis.  He invoked female energies in his theology.  The god of love, Eros, is the child of Aphrodite.  Thus the creative energy of the universe comes from the goddess.  And in one pregnant passage, Plotinus suggests that Aphrodite is identical with the cosmos itself, which is a process of the unfolding of motherly love.

These metaphors are fascinating.  But we must be careful.  In a patriarchal world, women are often reduced to their capacity to be mothers.  A deeper vision of the power of motherly love calls patriarchy into question.  The ancient thinkers hinted that mothering was fundamental.  This vision empowered women as it did in the Pythagorean school.  And it is inclusive: it is for women and men, poets and philosophers.

Contemporary authors have also made this point.  Hannah Arendt focused on “natality” as “the capacity to begin something anew.”  And Nel Noddings calls our attention to what she calls “the maternal factor.”  Patriarchy ignores the amazing organic capacity of the female body.  The life of the species flows through mother’s bodies.  But motherly love is not merely about bodies: natality and maternity are spiritual metaphors.

Mothering is the compassionate heart of ethics.  It is available to every human being who has been mothered and cared for.  Brother love is fine.  But a higher love models itself on a mother’s love for her children. This is a love that is careful, graceful, and nurturing.  Motherly love is fundamental.  It may even be the pregnant power of the universe itself.

Wolves, Dogs, and Civilization

A wolf has appeared in Central California for the first time in a hundred years. He left a pack in Oregon, wandered 500 miles south, passed Yosemite and ended up in the Central Valley. The scientists tracking him are keeping his location a secret. But apparently, he is somewhere out in the fields of Fresno county.

This is a great story about the resilience of nature and the conflict between the wild and the domesticated. Wolves once roamed across this region, as did the grizzly bear, who adorns our state flag. Coyotes and condors, bears and wolves figured prominently in native Californian myths.

The last California wolf was killed in 1924, about the same time that the California grizzly was exterminated. But wild nature has a way of pushing back. Civilization won’t last forever. On the borderlands, wild critters are waiting to return. Civilization is a man-made raft floating on a wild sea.

Wolves touch a primal reservoir of meaning.  Civilization revolves around the ambivalence of the canine—which reflects our own dual nature. Dogs and wolves are symbolic brothers, whose difference marks the border between domestication and wildness. 

The civilizing urge struggles against the wilderness. Real wolves are killed by hunters and farmers. Education domesticates the wolf within. 

Plato described education as taming the inner beast. Aristotle extended this in his account of beastly humans and barbarians. Colonialism and slavery can be traced back to Aristotle’s idea that civilized humans were entitled to hunt and enslave the beastly other.

The wolf often shows up in European culture, as a symbol of the wilderness on the edge of civilization.  Consider an image from Euripides drama, The Bacchae, which is a play about the wild other. In the play, the female worshippers of Dionysus nurse wolf cubs with their own mother’s milk.

The Greek god Apollo was known to manifest himself as a wolf. Homer called Apollo “the wolf-born god.” Legends held that Apollo was himself nursed by a wolf. A similar tale is told about Romulus and Remus, the mythic founders of Rome, who were suckled by a mother wolf.

These stories point toward the mysterious emergence of civilization from out of the wild.  There is only a subtle difference between the wild, unruly wolf and the loyal, domesticated dog.

The wolf-dog divide is found in Plato’s Republic. Plato described the guardians and philosopher-kings of his ideal city as faithful watchdogs. They are loyal to friends, fierce toward foes, and curious about sniffing out the truth. But Plato warns that watch-dogs can turn feral and run amok. We need to guard the guard-dogs (as I discussed in a recent column).

Plato described tyrant as wild beasts. He said that tyrants have a taste for human flesh. The tyrant is “transformed from a man into a wolf.”

This Platonic metaphor resonates through the history of European culture. The Bible warns of wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15). Political philosophers worry that “man is a wolf to man” (homo homini lupus est), as Hobbes did in his argument against “the state of nature.” Wolves and werewolves haunt us in horror films and fairytales.

But does this focus on domestication cause us to overreact? What do we miss when there are no wolves, when everything is domesticated—even our souls?

I love dogs. But in their domesticated cuteness, they lack the edge of ferocity and power that makes the wolf, the grizzly, and the mountain lion so inspiring.  What do we lack when we stay home with the dogs instead of running with the wolves?

There is something unsettling about the presence of a wolf in Central California. This demands that we think the limits of domestication. What was lost as civilization wrested the land from its native inhabitants? And what might the future hold?

We are not the masters of the earth we suppose ourselves to be. This land once belonged to bears, wolves, and lions. The rivers held salmon. Great flocks of birds crowded the wetlands. People lived here, long before European culture arrived. One wonders how long our concrete cities and cultivated fields will last.

How long will it take for wild things to return? And what are we missing when no longer hear the howl of the wolf?

Guarding the Guardians through Vigilance, Leadership, and Professional Ethics

Fresno Bee, March 21, 2021

Who guards the guardians? This age-old question points to a fundamental problem in social life. Powerful institutions can be corrupted by bad actors. Oversight depends upon the virtue and vigilance of those who guard the guardians.

Oversight systems should clarify shared values, shed light on misdeeds, and take action to remove bad actors. Of course, this can become problematic, when partisans and cronies engage in cover-ups or refuse to remove the bad apples. Sycophants create elaborate defensive maneuvers. Bureaucratic procedures impede investigations. And sometimes the bad guys skate away.

This happens in the halls of justice, beneath the academic ivy, and behind the stained-glass curtain. Bad cops get away with murder. Perverted priests are shuffled about. Terrible teachers receive tenure. Lawyers and doctors do dumb and dangerous things. And corrupt politicians get pardoned.

Stories of failed oversight can produce deep cynicism. We are rightly appalled by moral failures in churches, schools and governments. It is frightening when the sheepdogs go bad and start preying upon the sheep.

Some cynics choose to trust no one in authority. But radical suspicion is dangerous and dysfunctional. If you suspect that every doctor is a lying cheat, you’ll ignore legitimate medical advice. If you think that all politicians are corrupt, you’ll stop voting. If you are wary of cops and teachers and other authorities, you’ll end up living in an outlaw limbo.

The cynics remind us that trust has to be earned. But trust is rational, much of the time. We make a leap of faith about the sanity and skill of other drivers, every time we get behind the wheel. Usually this works out well enough.

And despite cover-ups, failures, and delays, oversight systems can work. But they only work when leaders lead with integrity and when the rest of us demand accountability.

There are reassuring stories. This week in Fresno, the chief of police and the mayor (who is the former chief) spoke out against racist cops in the police department. The chief, Paco Balderrama, said, “Fair and impartial policing are extremely important in our society. There is no place in our police ranks for any biased, racist, or anti-Semitic views.”

Or consider the growing outrage about the governor of New York. Instead of circling the wagons to defend Andrew Cuomo against charges he sexually harassed multiple women, leading New York Democrats called for him to resign.

This is how oversight ought to work. Allegations of wrongdoing must be taken seriously. Leaders must articulate fundamental values. They must demonstrate their concern for ethics and the truth — in words and action.

This seems simple and obvious. But problems remain. Those who best guard the guardians are also those who possess the requisite expertise and experience to do that job. This often makes them part of a small, tight-knit fraternity. It is easy to give friends and colleagues the benefit of the doubt. And in politics especially, there are self-interested reasons for covering-up wrongdoing.

Plato proposed an ideal solution. He wanted only the wisest and most virtuous people to serve as guardians. But this solution requires another leap of faith. Philosopher-kings will be tempted to abuse their power. And who will hold them accountable or remove them when they become tyrannical? Plato left that unexplained.

The modern American solution points in a different direction. Instead of concentrating power in the hands of a small group of guardians, we spread the oversight power in a more democratic fashion. This is our celebrated system of checks and balances, intended to prevent bad actors from consolidating power.

This clunky system prevents tyranny. But it does not necessarily work to regulate doctors, teachers, and other non-elected authorities.

This is where professional ethics comes in, along with external oversight and legal liability. Professions are mostly self-regulating. Doctors supervise other doctors. Professors certify other professors. And so on. Much depends on the virtue and wisdom of the professionals themselves. But external auditors and lawsuits also shed light.

At the end of the day, in a democratic country, oversight depends upon what “we, the people” demand. Who guards the guardians? Well, we do — in our professional lives and in the voting booth. Cynicism won’t improve the world. Only virtue and vigilance can do that.