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.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article158928284.html

Impeachment, The Constitution, and Civics

Is the United States heading for an impeachment crisis?

Fresno Bee, September 10, 2016

 

Democracy is both inspiring and appalling. This year in California we will vote on initiatives involving the death penalty, firearms, taxes and health care. We also will vote on whether marijuana should be legal and whether porn actors should wear condoms.

There is no guarantee that voting will produce wise and virtuous outcomes. Porn addicts and potheads will cast votes alongside priests and police officers.

The national race does not inspire confidence in the electoral process. The primaries have given us two flawed candidates for president. Each accuses the other of mendacity and incompetence. With this level of animosity before the election, dysfunction likely will follow. Some commentators have suggested that there will be an impeachment crisis in the next few years, no matter who gets elected president.

Democracy can produce good outcomes. Smart and sincere voters can elect virtuous officials who are dedicated to the common good. But the fact of diversity means that we will disagree about what we mean by virtue and the common good. And so democracy also gives us gripes, grievances and gridlock.

THE PRESENT ELECTION PROVIDES A WONDERFUL TEACHABLE MOMENT. CIVICS EDUCATION INCLUDES A DISCUSSION OF THE VIRTUES AND VICES OF DEMOCRACY AS WELL AS ANALYSIS OF THE STRUCTURE AND HISTORY OF THE CONSTITUTION.

Philosophers have often criticized democracy. Plato warned that democracy can quickly turn to tyranny, as the people elect tyrants who make populist promises while plotting to take advantage.

John Adams, our second president, shared Plato’s worry. He warned about the dangers of direct democracy. He said: “Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.”

The framers of the U.S. Constitution tried to remedy the flaws of democracy by giving us mixed government with a separation of powers. That idea goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. A mixed government is not very efficient. But it aims to prevent tyranny by frustrating the machinations of those who lust for power.

Another remedy focuses on educating citizens. This idea was dear to Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to James Madison in 1787, Jefferson wrote that education of the common people is the best way to secure liberty.

A similar argument is made in a forthcoming book by educational and moral theorists Nel Noddings and Laurie Brooks. The book “Teaching Controversial Issues” maintains that critical thinking and moral education are essential for democracy.

NO NATION IS PERFECT.

The authors argue that democratic schools should encourage critical thinking rather than blind obedience. We need to give young people the tools to analyze and evaluate controversial topics, while inspiring them to remain committed to the common good. The goal “is to develop thoughtful, well-informed citizens for a participatory democracy.”

The present election provides a wonderful teachable moment. Civics education includes a discussion of the virtues and vices of democracy as well as analysis of the structure and history of the Constitution.

It is easy and fun to celebrate the myths of uncritical patriotism. But the truth is more complicated. No nation is perfect. There are no utopias. The flaws in political systems reflect flaws in human nature. People are not perfect. Nor are the systems we construct.

On Sept. 17, 1787, when Benjamin Franklin made a motion to approve the Constitution, he acknowledged that there was no perfect constitution. Human beings always bring with them “their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.” So no human constitution can ever be perfect.

But rather than leaving us discouraged, this should invigorate us. There is work to be done to improve the world. In the end, we get the democracy we deserve. We build the world we live in with our questions and criticism as well as our votes.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article100862147.html#storylink=cpy

Religious Freedom

Fiala on ethics: Religious freedom ideal is heart of democracy

By Andrew Fiala, Fresno Bee April 20, 2013

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first 16 words of the First Amendment represent the heart of our democratic system, according to Charles Haynes, a senior scholar from the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C.

Haynes gave a workshop on civic education and religious liberty at Fresno State on April 13, which happens to be Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. Haynes argued that the First Amendment represents a progressive step in world history. In other parts of the world, people kill each other over religious differences. Here, the worst that happens is that people go to court.

No system of government is perfect. But the First Amendment idea is a useful innovation. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees.

According to a poll by the Huffington Post conducted in early April, one-third of adults favor establishing Christianity as the official state religion in their own state. Thirty-two percent said they would favor a constitutional amendment making Christianity the official religion of the U.S.

In North Carolina this month, state legislators introduced a resolution stating that the Constitution does not prohibit the state of North Carolina from establishing a state religion. These legislators read the First Amendment as a narrow restriction on the federal government, which does not apply to state governments. Apparently they ignore the Fourteenth Amendment and legal precedents that extend basic rights to the states.

Thomas Jefferson may be turning in his grave. When he died, Jefferson wanted to be remembered for three of his most important projects: the Declaration of Independence, the University of Virginia and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

In the Virginia Statute, Jefferson explained that God created human beings with free minds and that He does not use coercion to force us to believe. Jefferson also noted that political and religious leaders are fallible and uninspired men. For those reasons, religious belief should not be enforced, restrained, burdened or molested.

Moreover, Jefferson held “that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself.” He adopted that idea from the philosopher John Locke, who had argued that “the truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself.”

Not everyone is content to leave the truth alone to fend for herself. Some continue to think that religious truth needs to be propped up and defended by political power, by hierarchical institutions and by coercive laws.

Those who think that religious belief needs legal supports may be worried that humanity is easily corrupted. Some may fear that if religious truth were not backed up by state power, irreligion would triumph. Wouldn’t people ignore religion, if the law were indifferent to religion?

But if religious beliefs can only prevail when bolstered by coercive legal institutions, this may show us something lacking in those beliefs. It would be odd to say that we need the state to enforce ideas about gravity or mathematics. Those ideas can indeed defend themselves in a free and open marketplace of ideas.

But what about religious ideas? Jefferson thought that true beliefs would prevail in an open forum. It may be that only weak or false beliefs need to be defended by political compulsion.

The authors of the First Amendment were not directly concerned with setting up a marketplace of ideas. Rather, they wanted to prevent domination by one religion over others. As James Madison wondered, “Who does not see that the same authority, which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”

Those who want to establish a state religion ignore the ugly history of religious violence that ensues when diverse religions vie for political power. The solution is to prevent any religion from obtaining political power.

As a birthday gift to Thomas Jefferson, we might reflect on the importance of the ideal of religious liberty. We might also reflect on the connection between religious freedom and Jefferson’s beloved University of Virginia.

For truth to prevail, people need to be properly educated about the history of religious violence, about political philosophy and about the progressive import of those sixteen monumental words.