Christmas peace and the anti-political turn

Fresno Bee, December 17, 2023

Donald Trump is threatening to govern as a dictator. Joe Biden is cruising toward impeachment. And partisan bickering never seems to end. But it’s a mistake to fret too much about the absurdity of American politics.

The crises of our republic matter. We live in a broken world. But the ugly mess of political life is less important than we think. There has never been a perfect country. To obsess about politics is to fail to understand that politics cannot solve spiritual problems.

So, I disagree somewhat with Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who wrote an interesting recent column on “The Spiritual Unspooling of America.” That “spiritual unspooling” includes loneliness, suicide, drug overdoses, polarization, violence and hate.

Murphy suggests that the antidote is a better kind of politics. Sure. Better politics might help. It would be nice to live in a good country led by honorable people. It would be wonderful to live in a world of harmony and peace. And we should work toward those goods. But as I argued in a recent column, humanity is constructed of “warped wood” not easily made straight.

The real solution for “spiritual disintegration” is, well, spiritual. Harmony, peace and honor have always been in short supply. Learning to accept the tragically flawed reality of political life is an essential part of wisdom. Once we understand this, we can look elsewhere to find solace and hope.

Our spiritual malaise will not be solved by better politics. Your flourishing does not depend on Trump or Biden. Politics is not the highest good. The best and most important things transcend political life. These transcendent goods include spirituality and art, love and community.

This anti-political idea is clear at Christmas. The story of the season is of a new conception of power, born of humility and existing apart from politics. Christianity teaches about a kingdom that is not of this world. Jesus was not a political leader. He raised no army and was murdered by the state. According to one important story, when Satan tempted Jesus with political power, Jesus refused.

The turn away from politics is a common theme in the world’s wisdom traditions. The Taoist sages avoided politics. Lao-Tzu, the founder of Taoism, left China because he was fed up with the hypocrisy and corruption of Chinese politics. The wisdom of Buddhism aims to cultivate nonattachment, which looks beyond the tumultuous fires of social and political life. And the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus encouraged his followers to “live unnoticed” in a garden sheltered from political turbulence.

Unfortunately, it is easy to be seduced into an obsession with politics. The partisans and the political media encourage this obsession. Political squabbles keep us glued to our screens, while helping the partisans raise money and get people to the polls, and into the streets.

But political obsession is a recipe for anxiety and despair. The more upset we become about politics, the more we focus on things that are really beyond our control. Instead of cultivating our own gardens, we get frustrated. And when things go wrong — as they always do — we end up angry and hopeless.

Rather than obsessing about politics, we need to understand that spiritual health is found in religion and other deep sources of meaning; in small local and loving communities; in music, art, and ceremony; and in connection with the wonder of nature.

Spiritual integration depends upon a set of habits that are good for body and soul. It is cultivated in silence and solitude. It is nurtured by love. It flourishes among friends and family. It blossoms when we discover wisdom, wonder and gratitude.

The bad news is that we are easily distracted by the crises of the moment. The partisans and the news cycle feed the frenzy of political frustration. The good news is that higher goods are easily obtained, if we turn off the TV and rediscover the world of nature, spirit, and loving community.

This does not mean we should drop out of political life, as Lao-Tzu did. Citizenship requires us to pay attention. And ethics demands solidarity with those who suffer.

But at Christmas, we should also remember that comfort and joy are found beyond the halls of power.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article283061398.html#storylink=cpy

Finding Hope Beyond the Political

Or Why We Need Philosophy, Religion, and Art

Political life is limited and ultimately unsatisfying.  When we focus on the external and horizontal dimension of political life, we are bound to be frustrated.  But there are other dimensions and sources of meaning, beyond the political.

The despair of the political

The world is unjust.  Good people often suffer in misery and obscurity.  And bad folks become rich and powerful.  The social and political world is messy and frustrating.  Our imagined ideals fail to become real.  And although progress can be made, there is backlash and unfulfilled expectations. 

We inherit a broken world that conflicts with our idealism.  The dream of justice runs aground on the shards of these fragments.  The more we want to repair these ruins, the more hopeless things appear.  We also disagree about who ruined this world, why it is broken, and how it ought to be fixed. 

This sense of grievance and longing explains why the passion of the political can become shrill, dogmatic, and polarizing.  Political intensity feeds off dissatisfaction.  And when these deep emotions are frustrated long enough, there is the risk of despair.  The passion of the political dwells in the thought that if these ruins cannot be repaired, all is lost. 

Clinging to hope

To fight the despair that haunts politics, political rhetoric is often infused with what Barack Obama called “the audacity of hope.”  The best and most inspiring political speech reminds us of an imagined future in which the ideal will be actualized.

Martin Luther King, Jr. provides a well-known example.  He was aware of the problem of political despair.  In response to the disappointments of the civil rights movement, King said, , “The only healthy answer lies in one’s honest recognition of disappointment even as he still clings to hope, one’s acceptance of finite disappointment even while clinging to infinite hope.”  And: “Our most fruitful course is to stand firm, move forward nonviolently, accept disappointments and cling to hope.”

King warned that disappointment in the face of injustice can lead to bitterness, self-pity, cynicism, nihilism, and other “poisons” of the soul.  His remedy was to “cling to hope.”  This phrase is interesting.  To cling is to hold on, to try to remain committed, even as the storm rages.

Thinking in more than one dimension

As a Christian, King found a source of hope beyond the storm.  King’s hope was oriented toward another dimension, a source of meaning that exists in a realm beyond the political.  This is what Rev. Jeremiah Wright (who inspired Obama’s idea of the audacity of hope) called “the vertical dimension.”

Politics is one dimensional.  It views the self and the other on a merely horizontal dimension, failing to take into account other dimensions of life and experience.   This is bound to be dissatisfying because human beings live in more than one dimension. 

The vertical dimension is often understood in religious terms, as an axis oriented toward the divine.  But secular folks can also discover an inner dimension connected with love, beauty, or other sources of meaning found in the human experience.  The most important of these non-political axes are called art, religion, and philosophy (borrowing a set of concepts from Hegel). 

Now there is a tendency among some thoroughly political (or politicized) folks to reduce art, religion, and philosophy to politics.  Marxists explain the “ideological” in terms of material and economic conditions.  Feminists and race-conscious theorists also sometimes interpret art, religion, and philosophy from a liberatory framework.  Conservatives do this as well, when they think that art, religion, and philosophy ought to support some preferred nationalistic ideal. 

But the wonder of art, religion, and philosophy is that they burst the bounds of any politicized and reductive account of human reality.  The artist, the mystic, and the sage exist in a different dimension, oriented toward values and ideas that are not reducible to questions of justice or power. 

The example of comedy and tragedy

This may sound abstract.  So let’s consider two familiar artforms: the comedic and the tragic.  Comedy can be political.  It can be used both to liberate and to oppress.  But sometimes the comedic reveals the absurdity of existence.  And laughter can be an end-in-itself. 

Tragedy can also be employed for political purposes: to tell a story about oppression or the “triumph of the will.”  But tragedy also transcends the political.  It makes us shudder to wonder about death, evil, pride, murder, and betrayal.  Sophocles has the chorus say in Antigone (line 332): There are terrors and wonders on earth, and none is more terrible or wonderful than we humans. 

When a comedic artist reveals absurdity, we are directed beyond the political dimension toward broader reflection on the human condition.  When we laugh, and play along, we are engaged in a world of imagination, on a dimension apart from the political. The same is true, when we are moved by tragedy to see the terror and the wonder of human existence.  This act of imagination gives us a glimpse of a dimension of experience that is beyond the political. 

This act of imagination can be a source of hope, repair, and reconciliation.  It can also renew the spirit and gives us the energy to return to our struggles with better perspective, and a clearer sense of self. 

Hope beyond politics

Now a critic may suggest that this experience of transcendence comes from a position of “privilege” that is conveniently able to ignore the challenges of political reality.  But the move beyond the political is not an excuse for political indifference.  We are political animals, as Aristotle said.  And we cannot simply ignore injustice and the struggles of political life. 

But we all possess the power of human imagination.  And we can all find consolation and hope when we open our minds to those other dimensions of human experience that transcend the political.

The Problem of Protesting at People’s Homes

Protesters have targeted the private homes of public officials.  This is dangerous and misguided.  It risks violence and misunderstands political power and political protest.

In Idaho last month, after a woman was arrested for protesting COVID-19 restrictions, activists protested at the home of the cop who arrested her.  Last week in Fresno, California, anti-stay-at-homers protested at the apartment of a city council member and at the home of the mayor.  Also last week, a protest was planned at the home of California’s governor. 

There is symbolic value in protesting “stay-at-home” orders at the homes of public officials.  And people have a right to protest on sidewalks and city streets.  But these protests primarily seek to intimidate public officials.  And they are often merely opportunistic.  The Sacramento protesters explained this in a Facebook discussion.  One of the governor’s neighbors said the protesters should protest at the state capital.  An activist replied, “They won’t allow us to protest at the Capital…that’s the whole point of this.”

But a defiant protest at the Capital would be much more impactful, especially if the protesters got arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights.  In fact, 32 protestors were recently arrested in Sacramento for doing just that. 

Courting arrest is the point of civil disobedience as Thoreau explained, in his influential essay on civil disobedience.  When the law is unjust you should disobey it, Thoreau said, and willingly go to jail.  He wrote, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is in prison.”

This idea influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  The point of civil disobedience is to break unjust laws civilly and justly.  To be jailed for doing the right thing draws attention to the injustice of the law and the system that executes it. 

But protesting at the homes of public officials does not accomplish this systematic goal.  By focusing on the private homes of public officials, the legal system is ignored, which is where the real power lies.  Individual officials do not make laws, systems do. 

Some public officials may in fact disagree, in private, with the policies they execute in public.  But their duty is to execute the law.  The Idaho cop didn’t make the law.  He only enforced it.  Don’t protest the cop. Protest the law.

Mayors and governors have more power and discretion.  But they are not dictators.  They inhabit a bureaucratic system.  That’s why the proper place to protest is at city hall or the state capital.  Protesting where systems of power reside draws attention to policy problems.

A similar mistake is made by anti-Trumpers who have assailedTrump staff and cabinet member at restaurants and other non-official places.  But a person at a restaurant is not acting in an official capacity.  Politicians, of whatever stripe, have a right to be off-duty.

The tendency to personalize the political reflects our growing inability to distinguish between public and private.  Privacy has eroded in the era of social media and a 24-7 work-world.  Folks who lack a sense of privacy don’t appreciate the distinction between public roles and private persons serving in those roles.  But without that distinction everything becomes political and nothing remains of private life.  When the distinction between policy and personality is effaced, life becomes more polarized and less civil.

Finally, let’s note that protests at private homes are strategically misguided.  Such protests tend to turn off potential sympathizers.  The goal of political protest should be to generate outrage and empathy among possible supporters.  But a protest at a home or at a restaurant defeats that purpose by making the protestors appear to be vindictive bullies.  Public protests and civil disobedience are more effective at persuading others to see the justice of one’s cause.

Peeved protesters may get a thrill from demonstrating at a politician’ domicile.  But their anger is misdirected.  The official at home is not the problem. Rather the problem is what happens when the official is at work.  These protesters would be more effective if they were informed by the history civil disobedience and by a more systematic conception of political power. 

Trump and Machiavelli

Machiavelli and Trump are brothers, bullying their way to power

Fresno Bee, November 12, 2016

Donald Trump’s victory demonstrates that virtue is not necessary for political success. For those who value virtue, Trump’s victory comes as a blow. But we should not be surprised.

We’ve known that virtue is irrelevant to politics since Machiavelli first explained how princes obtain power. A Machiavellian leader is bold, shameless and aggressive. He is not constrained by truth or morality. He gains power using fear, threats and false promises.

And it works. The people love their Machiavellian princes. He flatters their egos and fulfills their desires. The people can quickly turn against him, since their loyalty is based on mercurial emotion. So once the prince takes power, he must continue to manipulate desire and fear, pride and hope.

In his victory speech, Trump claimed he wanted to “bind the wounds of division.” He said, “It is time for us to come together as one united people.” He said he wants to be president for all Americans.

Those words ring hollow for those who remember his divisive campaign. But most people have short memories. And we want to believe him. We also want to believe that there is a united America, despite the deep and obvious divisions that Trump’s victory exposed.

The red states throb in the middle, while the blue states hug the coasts. In California, the Valley bleeds red (with the exception of faintly fuchsia Fresno). But in the true blue Bay Area they are already marching in the streets, yelling “not my president.”

Our disagreements run so deep that Trumplandia must seem a foreign country to the liberals of Berkeley or Westwood. We disagree about the death penalty, abortion, homosexuality, climate change and so on. Some believe in Jesus, others in Mohammed, and some in science. Thankfully, the Constitution allows us to co-exist without killing each other.

But it is inevitable that Americans will continue to take to the streets, the courts and the ballot box. If our team wins, we praise the inherent wisdom of the voters. If our side loses, the system must be rigged. And off we go again.

TRUMP IS THE ULTIMATE MACHIAVELLIAN –
A PARADIGM CASE OF HOW POWER COMES TO THE BULLY WHO GRABS HER BY THE CROTCH.

This generation did not invent political turmoil. Nor did we invent lying, corruption, racism, misogyny, murder or war. Human beings have always been venal and vicious. And Machiavelli has always been watching from the wings.

Republicans obstructed Obama. Democrats hated George W. Bush. Clinton was impeached. Reagan was shot. Nixon resigned. Unprincipled opportunists often rise to power in both parties.

Nor has our polity ever been at peace for long. First-time voters already have witnessed Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and 9/11. Each generation has its riots and revolutions. There are more to come.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus explained that war is the father of all, and strife is necessary and common. Machiavelli would agree. He described Fortune as a two-faced female dog who must be beaten into submission. A successful prince rides the wild beast of political discord, holding on long enough to triumph.

The ugly truth is that Machiavellians often prevail. They understand that we define ourselves in opposition to others. They manipulate our hatreds, loves, fears and desires. They pander and cajole, soothe and provoke – as it suits their purposes.

There is no permanent solution to this problem. Education can help. But the will to power cannot be eliminated. It can only be channeled and directed by laws and social norms.

Unfortunately, our social norms have been weakened by TV, Twitter and internet trolls. We succumb to shysters and charlatans. And we tolerate outrageous behavior.

IF OUR TEAM WINS, WE PRAISE THE INHERENT WISDOM OF THE VOTERS.
IF OUR SIDE LOSES, THE SYSTEM MUST BE RIGGED.

This is a bipartisan problem. If Trump had lost, Republicans would lambast the Clinton machine. But Trump is the ultimate Machiavellian – a paradigm case of how power comes to the bully who grabs her by the crotch.

It’s going to be a long four years. The comedians are licking their chops. The critics are sharpening their knives. And we’ve got a lot of thinking to do.

We ought to begin by reading Machiavelli. But then we ought to dust off the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. The only known antidote to Machiavellian disease is a division of powers, a system of checks and balances, and the right to protest, criticize and think for ourselves.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article114066188.html#storylink=cpy

Political Life vs. Living Well

Take a break from bitter politics – go fishing

Fresno Bee, July 29, 2016

After two weeks of political conventions we need a break from hype, hyperbole and hyperventilation. We need to go fishing. Catch our breath. And clear our heads.

Here’s some of what we witnessed in the past two weeks.

At the Republican convention, delegates chanted “lock her up,” when Hillary Clinton was mentioned. One Donald Trump supporter, Al Baldasaro, called for Clinton to be shot for treason.

Trump’s convention speech prompted pundits to call him a fascist and a dictator. If the rhetoric is true, this leaves us with a choice between a Caesar and a criminal.

On the one hand, we have a billionaire who takes pride in firing people claiming that he understands the plight of the middle class. On the other hand, we have the wealthy wife of a former president claiming the same thing.

WHEN ASKED TO TAKE A JOB WITH THE EMPEROR, THE ANCIENT CHINESE SAGE CHUANG-TZU SAID NO. POLITICAL LIFE ENDS IN UNHAPPINESS AND DEATH.
HE SAID HE WOULD RATHER GO FISHING.

Bernie Sanders concluded his campaign claiming that Clinton would “end the movement toward oligarchy.” Sanders’ supporters walked out. An apparent anti-Sanders conspiracy in Democratic headquarters confirmed the suspicions of those who think the system is corrupt. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the Democratic National Committee, resigned as a result of the damaging email dump.

Democratic Party operatives, including President Barack Obama, suggested that Russia was behind the email leak. They insinuated that Trump is too cozy with Russia, since he benefited from the leak.

Trump responded by calling on Russia to find the missing emails from Clinton’s private server. The Clinton campaign replied by saying, “This has to be the first time that a major presidential candidate has actively encouraged a foreign power to conduct espionage against his political opponent.”

Each side has basically accused the other of treason, duplicity, stupidity and criminality.

Can it get any worse?

This is all disheartening. But it is not surprising. Politics has always been a repugnant business.

Within the lifetimes of our two candidates we have witnessed anti-communist witch-hunts, political assassinations, Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, Clintonian philandering and lying, Bushian incompetence and a host of other crimes and misdemeanors.

image1History discloses a political world that stinks to high heaven. That’s why the world’s religious and philosophical traditions have often taught us to avoid it.

Socrates thought politics damaged the soul. Jesus advised his followers to render unto Caesar only what belongs to Caesar. He suggested that his kingdom was not of this world. Both Socrates and Jesus were killed by political authorities.

The Epicurean philosophers of ancient Greece advised us to avoid politics entirely. True happiness, they argued, is found in good health and in the private company of good friends. Christians often retreated behind cloistered walls seeking peace and communion with God.

IF GOOD PEOPLE GO FISHING, FISHY PEOPLE WILL TAKE OVER AND DESTROY OUR FISHING HOLES.

A related idea comes from China. When asked to take a job with the emperor, the ancient Chinese sage Chuang-Tzu said no. Political life ends in unhappiness and death. He said he would rather go fishing.

How nice it would be simply to go fishing with the Taoist sages. But if good people go fishing, fishy people will take over and destroy our fishing holes.

We might like to be left alone. But injustice and stupidity have a nasty way of spreading. The philosopher’s garden, the monk’s monastery, and the Taoist’s mountain retreat are still connected to the political world. No one can withdraw completely.

Politics is a necessary evil. We avoid it at our peril.

The political world is a bit like our bodily functions. We must occasional get our hands dirty with this messy business. Justice requires us to wade into political swamps. But we should not be surprised by how bad the whole thing smells.

Nor should we view political life as an end in itself. There are higher and more lasting goods to be found elsewhere.

The challenge is to make the best of a putrid situation – to keep our heads clear despite the hot and fetid air.

Critical thinking skills help. Suspend judgment until you get all the facts. Control your emotions. Keep the larger sweep of history in mind. Remember that there are no utopias and no morally perfect politicians.

We also benefit from taking a break from breathing hot air. Go fishing. Recharge your critical batteries. Clear your head. This is going to be a nasty and noxious political season.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article92507247.html#storylink=cpy