Critical Race Theory and the Project of Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, June 13, 2021

Criticism can be divisive. But banning critique is a bad idea. Unanimity that results from censorship is not genuine. The productive solution is more enlightened critique.

I say this in response to efforts in several states to prohibit “critical race theory” (CRT) from being taught in schools. CRT claims that racism is deeply embedded in American institutions.

The reaction against CRT follows a script written by Donald Trump. Last fall he described CRT as a “crusade against American history.” He said it was “toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.”

But prohibiting a theory does not make it false. To disprove a theory, you need to critically examine it. Rather than censoring CRT, let’s encourage students to listen carefully to what critics have to say about racism. If the critics are wrong, let students prove them wrong. If they are right, then let’s empower young people to imagine productive solutions. Ideological indoctrination is wrong, whether it occurs in defense of CRT or against it.

The effort to ban CRT is symptomatic of a broader human avoidance of critical thought. We often prefer useful illusions about faith, family and country. When people challenge our illusions, we get defensive.

Religious people get defensive when scholars critically examine religious texts and beliefs. Something similar happens when feminists criticize gender, sex and the family. It happens when philosophers question cherished values.

Ideas and institutions are strengthened by confronting criticism head on. Criticism exposes flaws and weaknesses that can be improved. Without critique, bad ideas fester and institutions rot. If an idea or an institution is not strong enough to sustain critical scrutiny, that is not the fault of the critic.

The crucible of criticism causes values to evolve. We cannot predict where this will lead. But the hope is that as bad ideas are exposed, better ideas will develop, and institutions will be strengthened as a result.

Radical critique has a deep history. Socrates criticized Athens. Jesus critiqued Jerusalem. The American founders criticized British tyranny. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. critiqued the American dream.

The heroes of critique are often opposed by reactionary forces who aim to silence them without responding to their criticisms. Sometimes this involves violence, as in the cases of King, Socrates and Jesus. But silencing the critic does not stifle the criticism. If the critique contains truth, the next generation will carry it forward.

It is not easy to think critically about the status quo. Sometimes it seems easier to avoid thinking altogether. But as King said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” He also said we have a “moral responsibility to be intelligent.”

Ignoring the problem of race in America will not make it go away. Indeed, institutions that censor criticism end up looking weak and stupid as a result. It is childish to stop up your ears and close your eyes.

Adults ought to confront problems with honesty, sincerity, and creative intelligence. Let’s model that behavior for our children. American kids know that there are racial problems in America. Riots in the streets make it clear. Preventing them from thinking critically about these problems won’t solve them. Our kids need lots of critical tools so that they can imagine solutions to our problems. Silencing the critics is not a useful strategy.

Censors sometimes seem to think that the critical theorist is conjuring these problems into existence. But critical theory is not a conjuring act. Rather, it brings to light the skeletons in the closet. The critical theorist does not create these specters. They are already there.

Critical theory is about enlightenment. One of the most famous mottos of enlightenment is “sapere aude,” which means “dare to be wise.” Wisdom requires the courage to confront the world without illusions. The light of truth exposes things as they are, not as we want them to be.

You have to shine this light into the closet. Ignoring the skeletons hidden there, won’t make them disappear. You also have to look in the mirror. If you don’t like what you see there, turning off the light won’t help.

Memorial Day and the Ethics of Memory

Fresno Bee May 30, 2021

For Memorial Day, consider a fitting tribute to the dead: Unity in America

Memorial Day began after the Civil War as “Decoration Day,” a day to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. You would think that remembering the dead would help us find common ground. But memory can polarize.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is a Memorial Day mainstay. Delivered during the war, the speech was both a memorial and an exhortation. He called on Americans to complete the task for which the heroes of Gettysburg had died, to preserve the Union so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

But there are difficulties. What about the rebel soldiers who died at Gettysburg? Should they be memorialized as well? This question lingers as we reconsider schools and military bases named for Confederate soldiers. The nation continues to struggle with how we remember the American legacy of slavery, segregation and war.

One obvious solution would be to stop naming buildings after people. A recent debate about school naming in Fresno shows us the problem. Maybe we should name schools after concepts instead of people. How about schools named “Liberty,” “Independence,” “Imagination,” or “Kindness”?

Memorials, including our use of names, are ultimately expressions of value. They make an assertion about what the living hold dear. Do the dead care about these memorials? I doubt it.

When Socrates was asked whether he wanted his body buried or burned, he shrugged. He joked, “do whatever you want with me—if you can catch me.”

Since he would no longer be there, it didn’t matter to him what happened to his corpse. He asked his friends to make sure his debts were paid and his sons were educated. He was indifferent to the rest.

This indifference opens the door to significant questions about how and why we memorialize the dead. The dead are no longer here to enjoy their memorials. Some people believe that ghosts haunt the cemeteries. But I doubt the dead care how we honor them. From the vantage point of eternity, our memorials must seem unimportant.

Eternal values transcend our petty squabbles about names and monuments. Names are powerful symbols. A school named for Abraham Lincoln means something different than a school named for Robert E. Lee. But those symbols have meaning for us. Our memorial tributes are for the living. The dead have moved on.

Decoration Day began as a day to bring color and life into the cemeteries of the Civil War. It also functioned to heal a divided nation. Flowers decorated both Union and Confederate graves. Lilacs and roses were preferred, in the colors of red, white and blue.

This memorial process aimed to build unity. Despite the war, the Civil War dead were all, in a sense, Americans. Death can bring us together, if we let it. Our differences fade away in the face of eternal sleep. Mourning widows and grieving comrades share something in common that transcends party, color or creed.

Decoration Day poem by Henry Peterson suggested that the fallen of the Civil War were “foes for a day but brothers for all time.” Peterson continued, “we all do need forgiveness, every one.” And, “in the realm of sorrow all are friends.”

Death is a great leveler and equalizer. So too is grief and mourning.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address proclaimed that the living must be dedicated to the “unfinished work” of those who fought and died. But Lincoln’s vision was broader than a battlefield. In his Second Inaugural, delivered a month before he was assassinated, Lincoln called for malice toward none and charity toward all, while asking the nation to care for the widows, the orphans and the wounded warriors.

The work of compassion and justice is a tribute to the fallen. We honor the dead by loving the living and creating ways to eliminate ignorance, injustice, hatred and fear.

The Civil War reminds us of the danger of polarization. Today our nation is divided, but not hopelessly so. A fitting tribute to the dead would seek to overcome the differences that divide us. We are all Americans, after all. And one day every one of us will be on the receiving end of the lilacs and the roses.

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.

“Tighten Up!” Self-Control and the Covid Finish Line

Fresno Bee, April 18, 2021

As more people get vaccinated and coronavirus restrictions ease up, public health officials are worried that we will ditch our masks and let down our guard. It is not yet time to celebrate. When you see the finish line, breathe deep and bear down.

Virtues such as patience, fortitude, and endurance are often ignored in a culture of instant gratification. Consumerism feeds the frenzy of appetite. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, we have not generally adopted a Spartan lifestyle. Instead, we have embraced DoorDash, Netflix, and the drive-thru window. Pornography consumption increased under COVID, as did alcoholism and obesity.

A recent survey reports that more than 60% of Americans gained weight while living under lockdown. The average weight gain was 29 pounds. This is worrying since obesity is an important factor in COVID-19 mortality.

Our obesity problem indicates the role that social systems play in supporting good (or bad) habits. Self-control is important. But social circumstances matter. The American Academy of Pediatrics cautions that COVID-related disruptions in school can increase obesity in children, as kids spend more time on screens, exercise less, and eat more unhealthy foods.

Social support helps develop the crucial ability to delay gratification. Delayed gratification is a sign of moral maturity and a key to living well.

The famous Stanford “marshmallow experiment” showed that children who could resist the temptation of immediate gratification ended up with better life outcomes. That experiment forms the basis of a book by Walter Mischel who claims that self-control is “the engine of success.” Critics have pointed out that self-control is linked to class, race, and other social determinants. The children of well-educated families are better at delaying gratification. And affluence may mitigate the negative outcomes of a lack of impulse control.

The question of self-control is as old as the Greeks. Aristotle connected self-regulation with happiness. Pleasure seduces us into making bad choices. Virtue helps us resist the siren-song of unbridled appetite.

Aristotle was puzzled by weakness of will. Why do some people have the ability to control their appetites while others do not? And how come we lose this ability when asleep, drunk, or overcome by strong emotions?

Aristotle compared weak-willed people to beasts. But unlike the beasts, we ought to know better. And we can train ourselves in self-control. Education and social support networks provide the solution. Good education and good friends support good habits.

The ancient Stoics developed this idea into an elaborate system of training in virtue and self-mastery. One important technique is to develop critical thinking. If you really understand what’s good for you, you will do the right thing. And if you really understood what was bad for you, you would avoid it.

But knowledge must be supplemented by habit. Stoic spiritual training also included physical austerities designed to accustom the self to hardship. The Greek root of our word “austerity” also means “bitterness.” The Stoics systematically embraced bitterness. They exposed themselves to cold and to heat. They fasted and abstained from sex. They exercised in the gymnasium and slept on hard beds. And they constantly reminded themselves of illness, grief and death.

Patience, fortitude, and endurance were key virtues for the Stoics. These are important values for living well. But these are not the only values that matter. Sometimes, it is wise to loosen up and enjoy life. Austerity can indeed be bitter. Asceticism needs to be balanced with sweetness and joy.

The Stoics also enjoyed pleasure, but in moderation. The founder of Stoicism, Zeno, was known as a sour-faced and reserved man. But like Socrates, he drank wine occasionally — although he did not get drunk.

There is a time and place for everything. At some point, our masks will come off and we’ll raise a glass at the local watering hole. But Stoic endurance is especially important as the finish line comes into view.

When the philosopher Diogenes was an old man, his friends invited him to rest and take it easy. He thought that was terrible advice. He said that the end of the race is no time to go slack. Rather, as the finish line approaches, we ought to tighten up and put on speed.

Ethics and Economics: The Value of Value

Fresno Bee, March 14, 2021

What is anything really worth? Numbers flash across our screens. But real value remains elusive.

A new round of COVID relief is coming to individuals making less than $75,000. Some argue this is too generous. Others say it is not enough. Meanwhile, Wall Street valuations baffle and confuse. GameStop has bounced around. Bitcoin’s total market value surpassed $1 trillion this week. But Bitcoin is an enigma, seemingly built on the thin air of cyberspace.

What is the intrinsic value of things? Value is often measured in terms of labor. But labor is not all equal. How much is a man — or a mayor — worth? We learned recently that the mayor of Fresno makes over $400,000 a year when his salary is combined with his retirement income. Is that enough or too much? And how about the minimum wage, should it be $15/hour? Some talk about a living wage. But there is a difference between merely living and living well.

Americans are free to earn what the market will pay. Value is a matter of exchange. It is whatever buyers are willing to pay sellers. But exchange value gets weird, as Bitcoin and GameStop show.

Perhaps value should be cashed out in usefulness. Food is essential to life. So, the use-value of an apple or a loaf of bread appears grounded in reality. But why does a pound of apples or a loaf of bread cost about the same as a fancy cup of coffee?

We disagree about what is essential. Our judgments about necessity are colored by other values. Pricing is about hopes and dreams as much as it is about supply and demand.

Economic reflection leads to more fundamental questions about the meaning of life. Simple folk could live well on modest pay. Some folks may be content with $15/hour. But most of us want apple pie instead of apples.

Capitalist culture inflates our aspirations. We are not content with what we have. We compare our wages and piles of goods with those of others. This is not the inevitable reality of economics. It is a matter of ethics and worldview.

Once we see this, value looks even more arbitrary and capricious. Lines are drawn. But those lines are not fixed by nature. They involve perspective. If you make $76,000/year, you might resent the COVID cutoff. The mayor’s $400,000 seems like a lot of money. But in San Francisco that won’t buy a bungalow. And while $15/hour may seem generous for a teenager living with his parents, it is not enough for a single mom.

The circumstances matter, as do our expectations. The whole system hovers on hope. It is leavened by bubbles. A pandemic can pop these balloons. A credit crunch can cause a crash.

Economic value reflects a complicated social process. Bitcoin and GameStop show us that valuations can be manipulated. Momentum matters, as does peer pressure, the bandwagon effect, and the fear of missing out. People game the system. Buyers want bargains. Sellers want profits. Real value remains hidden.

Markets are not as rational as we might hope. Adam Smith suggested that an “invisible hand” guides this process. But the market is more like an invisible casino, a game of chance that is neither rational nor benevolent.

It is good to step back and ask bigger questions when thinking about the economy. Economics should not be untethered from ethics. Fairness and equality remain primary concerns. Poverty stands as an accusation against wealth. There is a fundamental flaw in a system where some people own more than one home, while others are homeless.

Most ethical traditions teach that envy and greed are vices. These vices leave us feeling incomplete. They count what we do not have. Envy and greed prevent us from enjoying the presence of simple goods that are near at hand.

Socrates said that virtue cannot be purchased. The best things have no cash value. Friendship alone can buy friendship, as Emerson said. The Beatles said that money can’t buy love. And integrity is the price for peace of mind.

Let’s keep these perennial insights in mind when thinking about economic issues. Happiness and wisdom are not for sale. They are earned and enjoyed in a sphere of value beyond the market.