Freedom is Frustrating and Pride Provokes

Fresno Bee, Oct. 31, 2021

Life in a secular democracy can be frustrating. In our country, we disagree about nearly everything. Our lack of agreement is a sign of the health of our democracy. Liberty is disruptive. The confusing complexity of our secular world is worth celebrating.

Consider the controversy about an LGBTQ pride club at Fresno Pacific University. Fresno Pacific is a Christian school. It denied an application for a student pride club. The university president, Joseph Jones, explained that establishing a pride club “was not consistent with the Confession of Faith of the university.”

The Fresno Pacific Confession of Faith says, “God instituted marriage as a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman for the purpose of companionship, encouragement, sexual intimacy and procreation.” Fresno Pacific is affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren Church, a church that is opposed to homosexuality and extramarital sex.

As a religious institution, Fresno Pacific has an exemption from Title IX, the law that is supposed to prohibit sex discrimination. The Department of Education explains that “Title IX does not apply to an educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”

All of this came as a surprise to student journalists who reported about it in the Fresno Pacific school newspaper. An important part of this story is about courageous student journalism. The good news is that the student journalists at Fresno Pacific were free to pursue this story.

Another part of the story is the fact that the national Campus Pride organization lists Fresno Pacific on its website as among “the absolute worst, most unsafe campuses for LGBTQ Youth.” Campus Pride is free to publish its list. Students can complain. And the campus will likely continue its policies.

The First Amendment is the touchstone here. It guarantees religious liberty as well as freedom of speech, freedom of the press— along with the right to assemble and to petition the government. In the United States, religious organizations have a significant degree of freedom. Journalists are free to report on these things. Ordinary citizens are free to cheer or jeer in rallies in the streets. And if you want to change the law, you can speak to your congressional representative.

The Fresno Pacific case is the kind of thing that happens in secular democracies. The story undoubtedly involves anxiety and acrimony for those directly involved. There will be disagreements about what should happen next. But the story reminds us that the First Amendment is alive and well in our country.

The liberties enumerated in the First Amendment give rise to controversies that span the political spectrum. Wherever your sympathies lie, you are bound to be outraged and offended by someone in a world that is organized under the First Amendment.

On the one hand, anti-vax and anti-mask protesters make First Amendment appeals and disrupt school board meetings. Some Trumpians have celebrated the protests of Jan. 6, linking it to the kind of assembly protected by the First Amendment. This shows us an important limit. You can rally and protest. But violence is not protected.

On the other hand, LGBTQ people have a right to speak out against Fresno Pacific. And in our world, religion is strictly regulated in public schools. One interesting recent case involves a high school coach in the state of Washington who was fired for leading his players in prayer. Among the issues in that case is an atheist family who complained that the coach did not provide their son with adequate playing time because he refused to pray.

And so it goes. There will always be plenty of controversies to keep the lawyers busy and the critics buzzing. The political philosopher Robert Nozick famously said, “liberty disrupts patterns.” We might add that liberty also disrupts social harmony and peace of mind.

Some may prefer a world where everyone conforms and obeys. But that’s not America. Thomas Jefferson once said, “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.” And if you don’t agree, in our country you are free to say so.

Giving Thanks for Simple Things

Covid-19 has transformed Thanksgiving.  This year we should shelter within our bubbles and stay close to home.  Rather than complaining about a downsized holiday, let’s use this as an opportunity to rediscover the wisdom of living modestly and being thankful.

Ancient wisdom celebrates gratitude and simplicity.  Ancient sages teach us to be grateful for simple things and to celebrate abundance without extravagance.

Thanksgiving has strayed far from this idea.  Rather than a time to count your blessings and give thanks, it became an orgy of over-indulgence.  The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is a department store advertising gimmick.  The Black Friday frenzy is far removed from gratitude.  Good riddance to these extravagances. 

The Puritans of New England would be appalled that this festival of gluttony and greed commemorated their colonial adventure.  The Puritans connected thanksgiving with repentance and purification.  Instead of feasting, early Americans typically linked the ritual of giving thanks to fasting. Thomas Jefferson called for” public days of fasting and thanksgiving” when he was governor of Virginia.  During the civil war, Abraham Lincoln called for several days of “fasting and thanksgiving.”  In 1863, when Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving, he called for a day of prayer and “humble penitence.”   

This may go too far for those of us with a more secular orientation.  But there is wisdom in humility and abstinence.  You don’t have to be a Puritan to understand this.  Abstinence clarifies values.  Fasting heightens appreciation for simple things.  A thanksgiving feast that breaks a fast should consist of modest fare, eaten mindfully.

Mindfulness, gratitude, and abstinence are linked in most of the world’s traditions.  Muslims practice something like this during Ramadan.  The Buddha fasted and meditated on the way to enlightenment.  Ancient Taoist texts speak of “fasting of the mind” giving rise to the freedom of emptiness. 

This is not as far out and mystical as it sounds.  Mindful self-restraint quiets envy and desire.  The consuming self is like a vacuum.  It sucks things in: food, pleasure, and possessions.  But all of this frantic sucking produces anxiety, fear, greed, and envy. 

The mindful self stops sucking.  It becomes less focused on its own emptiness and more aware of its secret abundance.  The Greek sage Epicurus said that we already possess all that we need in abundance.  But we are confused.  We mistake wealth for happiness.  And we allow greed to make us ungrateful.  

When we discover self-sufficient abundance, it overflows.  It then becomes easier to give—and to give thanks.  The consuming self is a sucker and a taker.  The grateful self is content with what it has.  And in its contentment, it discovers compassion.

The ancient Greeks advise us to gratefully accept what fate gives us.  Seneca recommended an occasional fast as a reminder to be thankful.  This trains the spirit to be content no matter what fate sends our way.  Stoic serenity does not depend on money or good fortune.  Rather, it is built upon simplicity and gratitude. 

Seneca expressed these ideas in a letter criticizing the Saturnalia, the Roman equivalent of our holiday season.  He complained that preparations for the annual orgy went on all year.  And he noted that the season culminated in drunkenness and vomiting.  Seneca said it is wise to avoid all of that and to learn to “celebrate without extravagance.” 

The pandemic can help us re-learn this ancient lesson.  The usual extravagances have been cancelled.  And we are forced to abstain.  Rather than complain, let’s rediscover the wisdom of simplicity and gratitude. 

American Civilization and Its Discontents

Fresno Bee, July 4, 2020

Americans are dissatisfied, and that is good. Discontent is the lifeblood of democracy.

A recent poll from Politico concludes that 75% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.  Another recent poll from the Pew Center found that only 17% of Americans are “proud” of the country.  When asked how they feel about the state of the country, 71% said “angry,” 66% said “fearful.”  Only 46% are “hopeful.”  Pew reports that only 12% of Americans say they are satisfied with the country.

These numbers indicate a low point for the American spirit.  But they also show that Americans are not stupid.  It is smart to be dissatisfied when there is a pandemic, economic collapse, confused leadership, and racial injustice.  It is surprising that anyone is satisfied with the country today.

The United States is a land of dissatisfaction.  People come here because they don’t like the old country.  The early Americans were not satisfied with British colonial rule.  The Civil War and the civil rights movement were expressions of deep dissatisfaction.  Donald Trump rode to power on a wave of discontent. 

And the waves roll on.  This nation is a changing multitude.  We have too much liberty to remain united for long.  America is anti-abortion protesters and Black Lives Matter marchers.  It is the anarchists of Seattle and the law and order crowd in Washington, DC.  Our divisions and our discontent are signs of the vitality of our democracy.  In a dull and dying country, no one has the energy to be fed up and people lack the right to express their unhappiness.  But in a vibrant and free country, the yearning for change is loud and proud.

Some dream of bland homogeneity.  They want an America that looks like what they see in the mirror.  They dream perhaps of resting in peace.  But life is a bubbling, boiling confusion.  There never was homogeneity on this vast continent.  The native tribes of pre-Columbian times were diverse.  For five hundred years, new generations of immigrants have brought different cultures, religions, and ideas.

The thing that unites us is our freedom to criticize and our right to think for ourselves.  Liberty creates difference.  The more freedom, the more divergence.  From creative liberty and diversity of experience emerges energy and enthusiasm.  Let’s embrace the fact that to be an American means to be cranky and critical, argumentative and evolving. 

The idea of productive discontent is central to the American myth.  The Fourth of July commemorates this process.  This nation was born out of the destruction of the old.  We celebrate it by blowing things up!  We hope that from the fireworks, something better will emerge.

The Declaration of Independence can be read as the expression of the complaints of a youthful spirit.  It’s timeless words about self-evident truths give way to an extended diatribe against old King George, who is described as a mean and tyrannical father figure.   

Thomas Jefferson was only 33 years old when he worked on the Declaration.  And while the Declaration described the King as an absolute tyrant seeking to impose an absolute despotism over the colonies, not everyone on the committee agreed.  John Adams was an older man.  He thought the accusation of tyranny was too personal and sounded like “scolding.” 

A decade later, Jefferson said, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”  This physical analogy is enlightening.  Storm clouds build as the atmosphere heats up.  There is thunder and lightning, rain and hail.  But this clears the air and waters the crops. 

This idea, that a little rebellion is a good thing, seems uniquely American.  This is the spirit of youth and rock and roll.  It is the creative destruction of the capitalist economy.  It spurs innovation in technology and scientific revolutions. 

The simmering dissatisfaction of the present will boil over and give shape to something new.  Of course, there are dangers.  Lightning can kill and flash floods can wash away things we love.  But that’s life.  We never really rest in peace until the day is done or freedom is extinguished.  Liberty creates discontent.  But from dissatisfaction, creative innovation develops, as today’s storms nurture tomorrow’s fruit.

Impeachment and Enlightenment Democracy

Fresno Bee, December 8, 2020

In this winter of discontent we discover that democracy contains a dark side. We should lower our expectations without giving up hope.

The president suggests that Democrats do not love our country. The Democrats claim the president betrayed his oath of office. Americans are so divided about impeachment that it often seems that we live in different universes.

But this is to be expected. Free people will diverge. Liberty leads to discord and disagreement. We even disagree about what counts as reasonable. The challenge is to accept this, the cold shadow of democracy, without giving in to cynicism.

The ideal version of enlightened democracy is sunny and enlightened. It imagines virtuous citizens meeting together in public to deliberate and reach reasonable consensus. The losing party would graciously concede, while admitting that the process was fair and their opponents were worthy.

Enlightened democracy is republican in the classic sense, where a republic is a government based on the public good (in Latin, the “res publica”). Thomas Paine explained, for example, “Republican government is no other than government established and conducted for the interest of the public.”

The enlightenment dream is of public-spirited and rational citizens sharing a common understanding of the good of the community. They would have faith in the intelligence and good will of their opponents.

A phrase from Thomas Jefferson explains the genteel dream of enlightened deliberation. In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson describes the two of them as “rational friends” despite their deep disagreements. Jefferson said, “you and I differ; but we differ as rational friends, using the free exercise of our own reason, and mutually indulging its errors.”

In these winter months, Americans no longer view one another as “rational friends.” We appear to lack a common vision of the good life. We believe in different facts. We suspect treasonous malice in the other. And we disagree about what is reasonable. This makes public deliberation impossible.

The impeachment hearings are sterile debates, not collegial deliberations. The participants in these “hearings” do not listen. Instead, they talk past each other. Each side has already decided what it believes. There is no effort to find common ground. And each side blames the other for being irrational and partisan.

We are witnessing what is sometimes called “agonistic” democracy. This is democracy as strife, struggle, and conflict (in Greek, “agon” means competition). Agonistic democracy is not about building rational friendship — it is about defeating political foes. The focus is on gaining partisan advantage. The goal is to build power, not to achieve rational consensus.

Agonistic democracy is full of dirty tricks and Machiavellian maneuvers. Fallacious arguments are made. Facts are ignored. And reason is left out in the cold.

President Trump is a master of this game. But he did not invent it. It is an old game familiar to Socrates, Shakespeare, and to the founders.

James Madison warned that people can be “blinded by prejudice” and “corrupted by flattery.” We are prone to error, delusion, and the tyranny of the passions. The system of checks and balances seeks to mitigate the damage caused by the “violence of faction,” which is the “mortal disease” that destroys democracy.

The partisanship in D.C. can leave us disillusioned and cynical. Cynics give up on the dream of rational friendship and public deliberation. When we succumb to cynicism, we sink further into the abyss of Machiavellianism, with violence lurking around the corner as the irrational nadir of a world gone mad in pursuit of power.

Madison’s remedy is the checks and balances of the Constitution. But we also need hope that this dark winter too shall pass. History moves in waves. There are moments of cold-hearted darkness. But the spring will come again — so long as we don’t burn the bridges that can lead us back to rational friendship.

In the same letter that Jefferson wrote to Adams, he noted that he and Adams were both too old to change their opinions. It may be too late for friendship to bloom in the winter years of the Trump-Pelosi generation. But the younger generation can do better. Let’s teach the youth to be better: to be more rational, more republican, and more friendly.

Literacy and Liberty in the emoji era

Can the Declaration of Independence be reduced to a Thomas Jefferson smiley face?

Fresno Bee, June 30, 2017

A recent Harris Poll indicates that people prefer to communicate through images rather than with words. Young people in particular seem to think GIFs and emojis are more useful than words for expressing emotions. We are entering a new chapter in the evolution of literacy.

Words seem quaint, old-fashioned, and boring. We send pictures or exchange videos instead of writing letters. Twitter is changing spelling, punctuation and attention span. People don’t read long emails. And most people would rather watch the movie than read the book.

One wonders whether the emoji generation would have the skill or patience to read something as verbose as the Declaration of Independence. It is over 1,300 words long and includes some pretty big words: unalienable, tyranny, perfidy, magnanimity and consanguinity.

Consider the following fateful phrase calling for revolution: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government.”

ONE WONDERS WHETHER THE EMOJI GENERATION
WOULD HAVE THE SKILL OR PATIENCE TO READ SOMETHING AS VERBOSE AS
THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE.

That sentence is too long for a tweet. Could such an idea be expressed in emojis? Maybe we could use a mean face followed by a thumbs-down.

Electronic communication is changing our vocabulary, our syntax – and our thinking. Our thoughts are determined by our vocabulary and by the complexity of our propositions. A limited lexicon constrains thinking. A primitive grammar only permits primitive thought.

It is true that a quick exchange of pictures can often suffice. If you like something, post a thumbs-up. If you don’t, send a frowning face. You need not explain or think further—or agonize about using just the right word. Click, post and move on.

Writing and reading are laborious and slow. So too is speaking and conversation. But we crave speed. Literate people can read faster than they can listen to something read. And online readers skim faster than those who read in print.

There is even a technological fix for the slow pace of the spoken word. College kids listen to the news and online lectures played back at fast speeds. Perhaps they dream of a conversation app that would speed up interactions with boring people. Or how about a widget for wisdom?

We seem to think that communication is simply about file transfer. Our computers provide a model. We dream of faster downloads. We imagine thinking as data processing. And picture intelligence as processing speed.

PICTURES SHOW US THINGS.
BUT THEY DON’T TELL US WHAT THOSE THINGS MEAN

But speed is no substitute for depth. The pace of human thought is fixed by neurobiology and by deeply rooted social convention. The human mind can only absorb information at a limited rate. Conversation is a tedious dance involving layers of social interaction that are continuously rehearsed, repeated and revised.

We are not simply data processing units waiting to receive the latest file transfer. We are human beings who seek out meaning. And meaning is more than information. Thinking is more than data processing. Communication is more than a quick download.

Deep thoughts and emotions percolate slowly. A conversation is often less about the information exchanged than about the process of building relationships. Wisdom cannot be downloaded directly into our wetware. It must be earned by dwelling on things and mulling them over.

And here is where words are better than images. Words open the door to abstraction, rumination and deliberation. The time span of a sentence – or a book – allows us to reflect, connect and make meaning.

Consider this sentence—also too long for Twitter: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Those words provoke and inspire. They require concentration and focus. Their meaning resonates and leaves us wondering.

Pictures show us things. But they don’t tell us what those things mean. A picture may convey a passing feeling, provoking tears or laughter. But an image cannot explain the rationale for a political revolution or help us make sense of who we are and what we stand for. For that we need words and sentences, literature, poetry, and philosophy.

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