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.

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It’s fall and there’s a spirit of debate in the air

Fresno Bee

November 1, 2013

The changes of autumn prompt metaphysical speculation. The leaves turn colors, as if by magic. The mists linger in chill hollows like ghosts. Living things hibernate and die. It’s a good time to wonder about spiritual things.

The pagan Celts called this time of year Samhain. Christians focus on Halloween, All Souls’ Day, and Dia de los Muertos. Some think the living and the dead intermingle in the transition from autumnal equinox to winter solstice, the midpoint between life and death.

Scientific materialists will see this as mere silliness. The change of seasons is determined by astronomical events. The cycle of life involves dormancy and death. But the dead do not return. We miss them. But they cannot harm us. And we cannot communicate with them.

Skeptical materialists will note that ghostly metaphysics don’t work out. How can a spirit being interact with the material world? If ghosts can pass through walls, then they cannot grasp and move material objects, make sounds, or be seen. Movement, sight and sound occur in the world of matter, light and sound waves. Immaterial entities cannot be seen, heard or felt. There can be no trace of the existence of a ghost in our material world.

Despite this common-sense objection, quite a few people still believe in ghosts. Some of this may be merely for fun. Ghost stories provoke a thrill — especially at this time of year. But some people are quite sincere in saying they’ve experienced a haunting.

According to the Pew Center, nearly one-third of Americans say they have been in touch with the dead. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll reports that 45% of Americans believe in ghosts. A report from Public Policy Polling claims that half of Americans believe in demonic possession. And in an interview in October, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia affirmed that the devil is real and that demonic possession can occur.

We might think that people are entitled to believe what they want about these things. But materialists might be reluctant to trust judges and other public servants who affirm spiritual nonsense. And spiritualists may not trust authorities who deny that the world is enchanted and visited by spiritual forces.

Skeptics and spiritualists are often living in quite different worlds. For the believers, the world is a mysterious place haunted by things unseen. In a spooky and uncanny universe, magic may be required to manipulate spectral forces — in the form of talismans and good-luck charms to ward off evil. Some believe in the power of sacrifices, offerings, prayers and exorcisms. Others will invoke demonic powers to explain bad behavior, accidents and natural disasters.

Skeptics will see such magical thinking as ridiculous and dangerous. David Hume, an 18th century Scottish philosopher, argued that superstition developed out of weakness, fear, melancholy and ignorance. Hume also suggested that superstition empowered priestly authorities who say they possess the ability to manipulate the spirit world. And he thought this undermined the liberty of superstitious individuals who submit to the magical maneuvers of the priests.

Skeptics also will point out that there is no way to figure out which account of ghosts and demons is the right one. There is no agreement about pneumatology (a fancy word for the study of spiritual beings). Is the Catholic account affirmed by Scalia true? But what about shamanistic spiritualism? What about Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and other beliefs? Unlike in the material sciences, pneumatology is unable to produce consensus.

It’s a good thing that we no longer burn witches. We generally agree to disagree about ghosts, demons, and magic. It is possible for spiritualists and skeptics to coexist, so long as we don’t try to impose our beliefs on one another.

Our ability to coexist may indicate that these metaphysical disputes are not really that important.

Spiritualists and skeptics must each rake the autumn leaves and mourn their dead.

But on the other hand, nothing is more important than the meaning we give to these activities. Whether we affirm magic or materialism, we want to make sense of a world of change and death.

We all share the deeply human project of making meaning in a mysterious world.

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