Nobody for President

Nobody for president? Anti-establishment votes winning the day

Fresno Bee, May 14, 2016

  • Republicans are discovering the wisdom of George Carlin and the counterculture
  • Cynicism is a common thread in American politics
  • Voting is difficult when our choices are limited

Henry Ford told his customers they could have a car painted in any color, so long as it was black. That’s a Hobson’s choice. It’s a joke, not a choice.

Something similar is confronting California Republicans. They can choose any candidate they want, provided his name is Donald Trump. Our late primary means that Californians are stuck with a Hobson’s choice.

Some Republicans are fed up. Jeb Bush said he won’t vote for Donald Trump or for Hillary Clinton. The whole Bush family is planning to boycott the Republican convention. And Mitt Romney has said he will not vote for Clinton or Trump.

Romney explained, “I wish we had better choices, and I keep hoping that somehow things will get better, and I just don’t see an easy answer from where we are now.”

Obit CarlinMany of us wish we had better choices. For long decades, we’ve wished for better choices all the way back to when Romney and the Bushes were running things.

Most of us showed up to the polls and cast our ballots anyway, naively thinking that this is what citizenship required.

But a growing number of Americans are taking the advice of the late comedian George Carlin. Carlin proudly proclaimed that he never voted. He described voting as a meaningless exercise in self-gratification. He said he would rather get his jollies doing something more productive.

Carlin would have loved the irony of Romney and the Bushes ending up in his camp. He famously declared, “They call it the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

That sort of cynicism is now mainstream. Republican lions are echoing the sentiments of the radicals they would have once disparaged. This election is creating some very strange bedfellows.

Cynics and anti-establishment types have long argued that voting is a mug’s game. A hundred years ago, the anarchist Emma Goldman suggested that if voting changed anything they wouldn’t let us do it. Radicals routinely complain that rich power brokers narrow the field for the masses before we get a ballot. This populist anti-establishment idea is exactly what has propelled Trump and Bernie Sanders into the limelight.

What is remarkable and appalling is the fact that a cynical anti-voting message is exploding in the heart of the establishment. This is a bad sign for the health of our democracy.

THERE IS SOMETHING SYMBOLIC ABOUT A VOTE FOR PRESIDENT. OUR LEADERS SHOULD ATTEND TO THIS SYMBOLISM. THE NEXT GENERATION OF VOTERS IS WATCHING.

Protest votes and abstentions have always existed. But it is ominous when leading politicians, including former presidents and presidential candidates, pick up their marbles and go home. What kind of a message does that send to young people who are being introduced to our democracy?

Young people have often embraced the anti-establishment idea of a protest vote. The icon of Mad Magazine, Alfred E. Neuman, was a protest, write-in candidate in the 1950s and ’60s. In the ’70s, a psychedelic clown from the Bay Area named Wavy Gravy led a campaign to elect “Nobody for President.”

The Nobody for President campaign continues in 2016 with a website that explains its goal. “If a majority of people voted for ‘None of the Above’ rather than ‘voting for the lesser of two evils,’ it might force a situation where Americans would have to find someone competent to lead them.”

The fact that Wavy Gravy and Mitt Romney have stumbled upon a similar idea is enough to make you fear the second coming of George Carlin. These may be the last days of a once-great democracy.

But this side of the apocalypse, the lesser-of-two-evils argument, is worth considering. Is Clinton really worse than Trump? A non-vote could end up getting Trump elected. Are Bush and Romney willing to tolerate that?

A common cliché says that if you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain. Carlin claimed the opposite. He said that voters have no right to complain. His cheeky point was that by voting you endorse the process and shouldn’t complain about its outcome.

I doubt that anyone will stop complaining anytime soon. Democracy is more than voting – complaining is part of it, as is comedy. But there is something symbolic about a vote for president. Our leaders should attend to this symbolism. The next generation of voters is watching.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article77421877.html#storylink=cpy

Misguided War on Liberal Arts

Candidates short-sighted war on liberal arts

  • Political attacks on philosophy prompt a philosopher to reply
  • Liberal arts education is a key to progress in troubled times
  • Citizens benefit from training in critical thinking and moral educatio

Fresno Bee, November 27, 2015

Last month, Jeb Bush suggested that a liberal arts degree was a waste of time. “That philosophy major thing,” he said, “that’s great, it’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working at Chick-Fil-A.”AP_jeb_bush_2_jt_150218_16x9_992

Marco Rubio made a similar point at a recent debate. He said we need “more welders and less philosophers.”

But in these troubled times, we need more philosophical reflection and less heated rhetoric, more careful analysis and fewer glib one-liners. A broad liberal arts education teaches us to think. Good thinking is essential for citizens of a free, self-governing democracy.

Consider the question of war against the Islamic State.Sen. Rubio describes this as a “clash of civilizations.” He said, “They do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East – they hate us because of our values. … They hate us because we have freedom of speech, because we have diversity in our religious beliefs. They hate us because we’re a tolerant society.”

Claims like these deserve critical scrutiny. Is this really a clash of civilizations? How can we know why someone hates us? And what should we do about it? To answer those questions, we need philosophers, historians and students of religion and culture.

The study of the world’s religions sheds light on the idea of a clash of civilizations. Muslims, Jews and Christians share common roots and a long history of intolerance and warfare. These traditions share an ideal of holy war, crusades and jihad. They also contain a common hope for peace, shalom or salaam. Understanding the similarities and differences among these traditions develops through broad historical, cultural and philosophical inquiry.

A liberal arts education also helps us understand the value of religious toleration. Secular systems of government evolved in recent centuries as a response to ongoing religious violence. Theocratic regimes are throwbacks, seemingly at odds with the general logic of historical progress.

But does history have a logic? And are we wise enough to figure out what to do next? Historians warn against such broad generalizations. Consider this: the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the Middle East among European powers was hammered out 100 years ago. A century of European and American intervention has left us with a mess. Perhaps we are not as wise as we think we are.

Jeb Bush has urged an all-out war against the Islamic State. But in order to decide that war is justified, we need a substantial amount of philosophical reflection. We need to ponder – among other things – the justice of the cause, the question of proportionality, the issue of how noncombatants will fare and the plan for postbellum peace.

NO MATTER THE TRADE OR PROFESSION, WE NEED CITIZENS WHO UNDERSTAND THAT WAR, TERROR AND HATE DESTROY UNDERSTANDING AND KILL HOPE.

Understanding all of that requires training in ethics, political science and history. To make sure that our soldiers fight morally appropriate wars, we need better liberal arts education – not less of it.

Indeed, a liberal arts education is likely part of the long-run solution for the war on terrorism. The root cause of war and terrorism is, after all, bad philosophy. Extremism, demagoguery, ignorance and moral blindness are cured through education. The best cure for bad ideas is better ones.

A broad liberal arts education produces critical, virtuous and responsible citizens. Science grounds us in facts about geography, biology and the physical world. History provides context for understanding current events, while reminding us that progress can be made. Music, literature and poetry deliver transcendent joys that unite us despite our differences. The study of the world’s religions shows us that there are diverse paths to a meaningful life. Ethics teaches us to distinguish good from evil. And philosophical training reminds us to be curious, courageous, compassionate and modest about what we know.

Good education helps to create good people. In order for society to function, we need welders – fast food cooks, lawyers, and even politicians – who are honest, trustworthy and kind. No matter the trade or profession, we need citizens who understand that war, terror and hate destroy understanding and kill hope.

It is true that there are very few paying jobs for full-time philosophers. But welders, cooks, and politicians – indeed all citizens – benefit from philosophical insight and broad education. We need better thinking and more enlightened citizens – more liberal arts and less hot air.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/article46737230.html#storylink=cpy

What to do when entertainment becomes greater than truth in politics

Fresno Bee, September 18, 2015

  • Political speech is different from philosophical reflection
  • Wonder, doubt offer an antidote to political distraction
  • Wonder creates tolerance, humility and compassion

Political pomposity is fun. Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he is not boring. He gives the pundits lots to talk about. Demagoguery and punditry are entertaining.

Philosophers have long warned against political speech that moves us, without concern for truth. But we like amusing distractions. Many watch politics as a sideshow – paying more attention to the jokes and jabs than to the content. Some snarky commentators suggested, before the last Republican presidential debate, that the debate could be used as a drinking game, taking a shot with every mention of Ronald Reagan. Truth seems the least of our concerns.

We are distracted – but not very thoughtful. Technology doesn’t help. There is now even an app that measures boredom by tracking how often you fondle your phone. When the app detects boredom it offers up a new distraction, such as a link to BuzzFeed.

In the age of Internet addiction disorder, we are habituated to stimulation. The more distracted we become, the more distractions we crave. People become addicted to video games, pornography, Twitter and political news.

Philosophers have long warned about this. They recommend silent reflection and patient dialogue that breaks us free of the trivial nonsense that fill our lives. Philosophers advise disconnecting from the amusing drivel drifting through our minds.

Silent meditation and philosophical dialogue are, of course, countercultural. It is difficult to imagine a public figure in our loquacious era who would admit to doubts or who would wonder aloud about the complexity of the world.

Our culture encourages us to express opinions, even mean and ugly ones. Read the comments on YouTube for an example. We tweet, post and opine. But rarely do we listen or wonder or simply stop to consider our own ignorance.

Philosophy, they say, begins in wonder. Wonder gives birth to inquiry, dialogue and scientific discovery. Wonder also gives rise to tolerance, humility and compassion.

Wonder is often accompanied by doubt, which admits all that we do not know. This provides an antidote for the bombastic certainty we hear from the pundits and prophets. Demagoguery and dogmatism are defeated by the contemplative mood.

Many marvels prompt wonder – from the starry skies above to the moral law within. Given all of the mysteries of life, it is surprising that more people are not more cautious about what they say.

Wonder begins with very basic amazement about the fact of existence. Why is there something rather than nothing? Humble gratitude develops when we realize that existence is a rare and fleeting gift. But debaters can’t score points by puzzling about metaphysics.

Nor can politicians take the time that is needed to establish scientific certainty. The painstaking efforts of the natural sciences contribute to the experience of wonder and humility. Scientific knowledge deflates human narcissism. Species come and go. The universe is vast. The world is infinitely complex. And knowledge is a difficult process.

Wonder extends into the study of the human spirit. Compassion grows when we understand the breadth and complexity of the human condition. Our own cherished values, norms and institutions are temporary and local. How amazing that people are so different from one another.

Love, friendship and grief also give us plenty to wonder about. It is humbling to consider how deeply our own lives are intertwined with the lives of others. Poets have explored this theme in various ways. And art and beauty give us even more to wonder about.

Political bombast loses its allure – as does much of the drivel of popular culture – when deep questions plant a splinter in the mind. The demagogues and pundits bristle and bluff. Meanwhile the philosopher wonders and wanders in the depths.

This might mean that philosophy is utterly useless. Or it may be that wonder is a priceless good to be enjoyed for its own sake. Maybe wonder is a waste of time. Or maybe it is the key to a better life.

If you are interested in this topic, a public philosophy conversation will take place from 7-9 p.m. Wednesday at the Woodward Park Library. I will be there, along with Fresno City College professor Wendell Stephenson, considering the value of philosophy in the world today.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/article35703480.html#storylink=cpy

Skepticism, Anarchism, and Utopianism

Skepticism of Politicians is Important

Fresno Bee, April 4, 2014

The accusation that a California state senator was involved in gun trafficking is the most recent and appalling in a long list of scandals. Governors, senators, representatives, mayors, and even presidents have cheated on their wives, taken drugs, lied, cheated and misbehaved.

There are good reasons to be skeptical of blundering bureaucrats and pathetic politicians.

We might think that military and security forces are better. But down the road in King City the police took cars from poor immigrants. Scandals have swept national security agencies. Secret Service agents were caught partying on the job. A sex scandal forced former Gen. David Petraeus to resign as head of the CIA. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair’s sexploits were splashed across the headlines. And the airmen tending our nuclear arsenal have been caught cheating.

Decades of dysfunction and scandal include: Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky, WMD in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, Bridge-gate, IRS-gate and so on. The government even shut down last fall. Our motto “in God we trust” should continue to say, “… in government we don’t.”

This comes as no surprise to students of history, philosophy and religion. The world’s traditions express deep skepticism toward political power. Moses battled Pharaoh. Nathan rebuked David. The blind prophet Tiresias condemned Oedipus and Creon. And Socrates was put to death for speaking truth to power.

The most important story of the Western tradition can be read as an indictment of political power. The story begins with King Herod massacring children. To escape the slaughter, the holy family flees to Egypt. Jesus is finally arrested, tortured and brutally executed under Pontius Pilate. Jesus reminds Pilate and posterity that his kingdom is not of this world.

Some have derived anti-political conclusions from this story. Christian abolitionists in New England in the early 19th Century rejected political power that permitted slavery and injustice. They declared allegiance to the brotherhood of all mankind. Some explicitly refused to support human governments, withdrawing from the mainstream and forming separatist Christian communes.

Henry David Thoreau, the American transcendentalist, was part of that milieu. He criticized slavery and unjust wars. His famous essay, “Civil Disobedience,” explains that the best government is the one that governs least.

Like the ancient prophets, Thoreau aimed to live his life as a counter-friction to the machine, even breaking the law out of obedience to a higher law.

This skeptical standpoint resonates in our era of political crimes and misdemeanors. The wisdom of the ages suggests that we should not expect too much from political power and that enlightenment is to be found somewhere beyond the political fray.

Of course, this skeptical critique has its blind spots. Not everyone in the political barrel is a bad apple. And the legal system is better today than it was in the 19th century or in the time of Jesus. Slavery has been abolished. Women can vote. We no longer crucify dissidents. But it is important to note that this progress often has been the result of the difficult and dangerous work of those who speak truth to power, while remaining committed to a higher law. The prophets, abolitionists and dissidents play a crucial political role.

While anarchist utopianism is inspiring, it is important to note that the flaws that plague our politicians are shared by all of us. People are ignorant; some are evil; and most make mistakes.

Big institutions magnify these human faults. Skepticism about human nature afflicts all utopian dreams. If we can’t trust the politicians, how can we trust our neighbors or even ourselves?

No utopian solution or political scheme can completely straighten the crooked timber of humanity. The Christian anarchist communes of the 19th century did not last long. States and governments also fail.

While it is difficult to imagine a future of anarchist communes united by brotherly love, it is equally difficult to imagine a successful state run by incompetent and wicked people.

It’s enough to make one hope that there is another world in which stability, order and justice might reign.

But in this world, in the meantime, skepticism is in order.

There are no perfect politicians because there are no perfect people. They are us. We are them. And the work of justice is never done.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/04/04/3860782/ethics-skepticism-of-politicians.html#storylink=cpy

 

Politicians and the Truth

Unraveling the political art of the repeated lie

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-09-22

Politicians are adept at exaggeration and obfuscation. They spin the truth, occasionally telling outright lies. Large numbers of people then repeat the latest political hogwash, forwarding it, posting it and replicating it in the media echo chamber. With enough reverberation, even obvious humbug can sound like truth.

It is not surprising that politicians stretch the truth. Five centuries ago, Machiavelli noted that a successful politician had to be as cunning as a fox. A sly political fox knows how to manipulate, ingratiate, provoke and inspire.

A good politician understands that social life is lubricated by white lies and insincere pleasantries. We say thank you when we don’t mean it. We give unwarranted compliments. And we smile and nod even when we disagree. Social life would be cold and hostile if we were unwilling or unable to dissemble.

It is interesting that we are so willing to go along with the fakery and deception. Machiavelli explained that “the one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.” Politicians know how to appeal to our basic credulity. We are social animals who respond to the moods of our fellows without much concern for truth. We like to repeat gossip and rumors. We tend to believe and trust those who are like us.

We prefer stories that reinforce our other ideas and beliefs, pleasant stories that are easy to understand. No politician is going to admit that public affairs are incredibly complex, that human behavior is difficult to control and that unpredictable events will disrupt even our best-laid plans. The politician tells us instead that he or she has a clear plan for success and confident knowledge of the situation. And we are glad to believe. We desire certainty in an uncertain world.

Psychological well-being may hinge upon our ability to deceive ourselves in the face of uncertainty and failure. When you make a mistake, suffer rejection, or embarrass yourself, you have to find ways to downplay and ignore the truth so you can move forward. Self-doubt and self-recrimination can be paralyzing. It is useful to fudge the truth about yourself and your own abilities.

There may be an evolutionary explanation of our ability to deceive and dissimulate. The struggle for prestige involves a large dose of bluff and bluster. Outright deception is useful in struggles for scarce resources and in battles for territory and mates.

Mating rituals are obviously colored by deception. We fix our hair, our faces, our clothes — putting on a show for potential mates. These embellishments work, even though we know that beauty is only skin deep. Our tendency to fall in love with images and appearances might explain our tendency to believe political bunkum.

In an interesting recent book, “The Folly of Fools,” Robert Trivers explains that you will be more effective at lying to others if you are able to believe the lies you tell. The best liars sincerely commit themselves to what they are saying, somehow concealing the truth, even from themselves. Trivers suggests that the ability to believe your own lies provides an evolutionary advantage. He even argues that good health involves the ability to deceive yourself about your own well-being. Self-doubters will not do very well in the struggle for existence. Confident fakers will tend to succeed in battle, in the bedroom and in the ballot box.

Of course, this raises another question: Is it really a “lie” if you sincerely believe it is true? Lying is usually thought to involve a deliberate intention to deceive. But the best liars are those who are so sure of themselves that they don’t even know they are lying.

This brings us back to the political echo chamber. The more a lie is repeated, the easier it is to believe. It is possible, then, that politicians don’t deliberately lie. They may believe the tales they tell, supported in this belief by the reverberations of partisan advisers and supporters. We have an instinctive need to believe our own stories and the stories of those like us. Although they may appear to be cunning foxes, politicians may in fact be like the rest of us, herd animals who can’t help believing what they hear and what they say.