The Problem of Protesting at People’s Homes

Protesters have targeted the private homes of public officials.  This is dangerous and misguided.  It risks violence and misunderstands political power and political protest.

In Idaho last month, after a woman was arrested for protesting COVID-19 restrictions, activists protested at the home of the cop who arrested her.  Last week in Fresno, California, anti-stay-at-homers protested at the apartment of a city council member and at the home of the mayor.  Also last week, a protest was planned at the home of California’s governor. 

There is symbolic value in protesting “stay-at-home” orders at the homes of public officials.  And people have a right to protest on sidewalks and city streets.  But these protests primarily seek to intimidate public officials.  And they are often merely opportunistic.  The Sacramento protesters explained this in a Facebook discussion.  One of the governor’s neighbors said the protesters should protest at the state capital.  An activist replied, “They won’t allow us to protest at the Capital…that’s the whole point of this.”

But a defiant protest at the Capital would be much more impactful, especially if the protesters got arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights.  In fact, 32 protestors were recently arrested in Sacramento for doing just that. 

Courting arrest is the point of civil disobedience as Thoreau explained, in his influential essay on civil disobedience.  When the law is unjust you should disobey it, Thoreau said, and willingly go to jail.  He wrote, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is in prison.”

This idea influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  The point of civil disobedience is to break unjust laws civilly and justly.  To be jailed for doing the right thing draws attention to the injustice of the law and the system that executes it. 

But protesting at the homes of public officials does not accomplish this systematic goal.  By focusing on the private homes of public officials, the legal system is ignored, which is where the real power lies.  Individual officials do not make laws, systems do. 

Some public officials may in fact disagree, in private, with the policies they execute in public.  But their duty is to execute the law.  The Idaho cop didn’t make the law.  He only enforced it.  Don’t protest the cop. Protest the law.

Mayors and governors have more power and discretion.  But they are not dictators.  They inhabit a bureaucratic system.  That’s why the proper place to protest is at city hall or the state capital.  Protesting where systems of power reside draws attention to policy problems.

A similar mistake is made by anti-Trumpers who have assailedTrump staff and cabinet member at restaurants and other non-official places.  But a person at a restaurant is not acting in an official capacity.  Politicians, of whatever stripe, have a right to be off-duty.

The tendency to personalize the political reflects our growing inability to distinguish between public and private.  Privacy has eroded in the era of social media and a 24-7 work-world.  Folks who lack a sense of privacy don’t appreciate the distinction between public roles and private persons serving in those roles.  But without that distinction everything becomes political and nothing remains of private life.  When the distinction between policy and personality is effaced, life becomes more polarized and less civil.

Finally, let’s note that protests at private homes are strategically misguided.  Such protests tend to turn off potential sympathizers.  The goal of political protest should be to generate outrage and empathy among possible supporters.  But a protest at a home or at a restaurant defeats that purpose by making the protestors appear to be vindictive bullies.  Public protests and civil disobedience are more effective at persuading others to see the justice of one’s cause.

Peeved protesters may get a thrill from demonstrating at a politician’ domicile.  But their anger is misdirected.  The official at home is not the problem. Rather the problem is what happens when the official is at work.  These protesters would be more effective if they were informed by the history civil disobedience and by a more systematic conception of political power. 

Choose the simple life

Living in harmony with the Earth is a matter of simplicity

Fresno Bee, April 21, 2017


The recipe for living in harmony with the Earth is simple. We should reduce consumption and minimize our impact on the ecosystem. This is not easy to do in a culture of mass consumption.

We enjoy fast cars and air travel. We fill our large houses with manufactured goods. We have closets full of clothes, garages full of toys and an appetite for imported foods. We like comfort and pleasure.

Consumer culture is fun. Our economy is based upon the expectation of continued growth. New gadgets and gizmos create needs we didn’t know we had before. Marketing and promotion manufacture desires and leave us wanting more. It is hard to say no to consumption when everyone else is enjoying the goods of consumer society.

It is counter-cultural to talk about decreasing consumption. But simplicity has long been advocated by prophets and philosophers as a pathway to liberation. As an added bonus, a simple life is also good for the environment.


Thoreau and simplicity

In the American tradition, Henry David Thoreau is the great advocate of simplicity. Thoreau thought that enlightenment grew from simplification. He claimed that civilized people would “leave off eating animals.” He said, “water is the only drink for a wise man.” He thought that we often live like ants, our lives being “frittered away by details.” The solution is simplicity – a word that he repeated as a mantra in his book “Walden.”

It turns out that the vegetarian diet that Thoreau advocated is also environmentally friendly. Reduced meat consumption decreases the size of your carbon footprint. The same is true with regard to other exotic foods. Coffee, alcohol and imported foods have ecological costs.

Thoreau was not in favor of eating as a recreational activity. We eat more than we need to survive. Extravagant variety makes for delicious dining. But this is not healthy for us or for the planet. Obesity, diabetes and heart disease are problems, as well as climate change.

The solution is to realize that what’s good for the body is also what’s good for the planet and for society. Simple foods – raw and local fruits and vegetables – are nutritious. Vegetarian cuisine can be delicious – and fun.

There is adventure in experimenting with the variety of meatless foods. Sharing with others can spice up our lives. Happy dining has less to do with what you eat than with who you eat it with.

Walking or biking

Another Earth-friendly step is to drive less. Driving is easier and often more convenient. But there is adventure in riding the bus, including an opportunity to have more intimate contact with people in your community.

A walk or bike ride is good for the heart and the mind. Walking and biking show you the the world from a different perspective and a different pace. Broaden your horizons by leaving your car at home.

We can also reduce our use of consumer goods. Big homes inspire us to fill them. Big-box stores encourage mass consumption. And big cars are perfectly constructed to carry all of that stuff back home.


But there are activities other than shopping that can provide satisfaction. Have a picnic or visit a park. Join a sports league. Participate with a political group. Or visit a library. You’ll make new friends, learn new things and see the world in a different way. You will also save money.

Consumer capitalism provides pleasure. But it does not produce lasting happiness or a good life. Technological innovation makes some things easier. But there are diminishing returns. Cars are great. But traffic soon becomes a problem. Email is great, until we experience inbox overload. Easy access to delicious food is wonderful. But obesity and diabetes are dangerous. And so it goes.

Inner peace and spiritual growth cannot be generated by external means. This is the common teaching of the world’s philosophical and religious traditions. Simplicity was taught by ancient Greek philosophers, Asian sages and Christian ascetics.

Our consumer culture is not sustainable in the long run. There will be 8.5 billion people on Earth by 2030. We can’t all live as mass consumers. But we would be happier if we would reduce consumption. And the Earth would benefit if we would learn to find satisfaction in simple things.

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:


Who can be trusted with our secrets?

July 12, 2013

The news about government surveillance and secrecy is alarming. But it is not surprising. Governments have always been interested in controlling information. But democratic governments should be limited in their ability to do so.

Managing information is the primary occupation of many people — in social networks, in business, in sports, in religion, and in politics. When information is scarce, the demand for it goes up. That’s why it’s possible to leverage information for profit — which explains blackmail, insider trading and treason.

Social life consists of a complex game of exchanging information. The best players have a knack for obtaining and revealing information in appropriate ways. And governments have an interest in controlling the process.

Secrets are valuable, and there is power in knowing them. We value those who can keep confidences. And we threaten and punish those who disclose them. But the urge to divulge is often as strong as the desire to know. The joy of the tattletale and the blabbermouth is complemented by the curiosity of the eavesdropper and Peeping Tom. Gossip is as much fun to tell as it is to hear.

There is also satisfaction in keeping a secret. We gain a sense of superiority from knowing something that others do not know. Community develops from the loyalty and trust found among those who keep each other’s confidences. There is solidarity among those who share secrets. We like to receive that sly wink or subtle nod from those “in the know.” No one wants to be left out of the loop.

But secretiveness can be dangerous. Cabals and cults indoctrinate members by revealing secret mysteries. Magical power supposedly flows from access to esoteric knowledge. People are often willing to pay dearly to see what is concealed.

The need for secrecy is often a sign of something rotten. Perverts lurk in the shadows. Criminals whisper conspiratorially. Con men and swindlers manipulate information. Delinquents conceal their misdeeds. And cheating lovers arrange clandestine meetings.

The great American philosopher Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “there must be some narrowness in the soul that compels one to keep secrets.” Good and virtuous things are not done surreptitiously. If we are proud of what we do and who we are, we should do it publicly.

A virtuous personality has no need to weave the tangled webs of deceit that cramp the soul. And a virtuous person has no need to pry into the private lives of others. Speak your mind. Be yourself. Leave others the privacy they deserve.

So much for individuals. But we often make exceptions for government spying and secrecy because we feel it is necessary for law and order. In order to uncover criminal conspiracies, the government may have to secretly surveil the bad guys. But one always wonders, who is watching the watchers.

The philosopher Plato solved that problem by maintaining that the rulers had to be wise and virtuous. Plato assumed that the majority of people were not virtuous enough to govern themselves. But he hoped that a wise and virtuous ruler could be empowered to manipulate and deceive us, for our own good.

Democrats, in the philosophical sense of that term, reject that idea. Democrats tend to think that governments ought to be transparent, because there is no good reason to believe that the watchers are wiser or more virtuous than we are. Democrats reject the idea that governments should be granted exceptional powers. And they believe that government should respect the liberty and privacy of individuals. As Thoreau put it, “that government is best which governs least.”

Individual privacy matters, from the point of view of democracy, because the freedom to keep and tell secrets is such an essential feature of our social lives. But governments ought not keep secrets. If we don’t know what the government is doing on our behalf, how can we claim to be governing ourselves?

Some fear that bad guys will exploit democratic liberty and transparency. They will want to empower the surveillance state as Plato did, for the good of the whole. But followers of Thoreau may suspect that growing state surveillance and secrecy indicates an undemocratic narrowing of the soul of the nation.


Democracy and Voting

Real work of democracy begins after voting

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-11-03

Voting is a central part of self-government. Blood and tears have been shed in the struggle for voting rights. But voting is an imperfect indication of the will of “we, the people.” And voting is only a small part of political life.

Our system of voting creates problems. The biggest problem is the disparate weight of individual votes from state to state. As a result of the way that Electoral College votes are allocated, the votes of citizens in small states are worth more than the votes of citizens in big states. An individual vote in Wyoming has nearly four times the weight of a vote in California.

The Electoral College also creates the phenomena of swing states — where only a few states are the focus of presidential politicking. The Electoral College system combines with the “winner-takes-all” procedure to produce strange possible outcomes: candidates can be elected with less than 50% of the popular vote. This problem is exacerbated when third party candidates play the spoiler. Game theory shows that when there are more than two choices, less favored candidates can be elected.

In order to prevent such outcomes, we might prefer our two-party system. But what happens when you don’t like either of the two major party candidates? Those who are unhappy with the two main candidates may stay away from the polls. Others may vote in other races that matter, while leaving parts of the ballot blank. By abstaining, these voters may intend to vote “none of the above.” But our system is not set up to register a “none of the above” vote. Abstaining has no impact on the outcome of an election.

Henry David Thoreau explained, in “Civil Disobedience”: “All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it.” Some voters think like strategic gamers, perhaps by voting against one candidate, rather than voting in favor of another. But in our system, in order to vote against a candidate, we also have to vote in favor of another — even if we are not in favor of him or her.

Likewise, when voting on a proposition, we are asked to say “yes” or “no.” But life is more complicated than that. Our lives are not best described in bivalent decisions. In ordinary life, we rank a variety of things in multiple ways as we deliberate about our choices.

Decision-making in ordinary life is also a deeply social process. We talk things over. We listen to each other. We compromise and negotiate. And we aim at a consensus that is satisfactory to everyone involved. But voting is not like that. There is no talking or negotiating in the silence of the voting booth. We do not have to explain or justify our votes to anyone. The process is eerily un-social.

And yet, one reason we vote is that we like to participate in social life. Even though we know our votes don’t count for much, we like to be able to say that we voted. A sort of solidarity develops from voting. We like to wear our little “I voted” stickers throughout Election Day. We smile at our fellow citizens — even those in the other party — and celebrate our shared citizenship.

Voting is only a small part of political life, which also includes talking things over and taking action. We should vote. But we should also explain, argue, and act. Thoreau explained, “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it.”

The act of voting occurs in a mere moment of time — as a pause from the tumult of political life. We mark our ballots — in secret and in silence — and then head home to watch the returns, enjoying the political game as a spectator sport.

Sometimes we forget that political life involves more than punching a ballot and spectating on the couch. We also need to exchange ideas and argue about the issues of the day. In a sense, the real work of democracy occurs after the voting is over, as we wrestle with the implications of the election, talk things over and begin arguing again.

Reflecting on Sept 11

Silence will offer space to reflect on 9/11

By Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2011-09-10

Memorial activities dedicated to 9/11 have continued to create controversy. Critics on the right complained that when President Obama called for national service in honor of 9/11, he was slipping “socialism” into Patriot Day. And on the left, critics worry that the name “Patriot Day” is itself too nationalistic and militaristic.

This year the dispute is over the place of prayer in the dedication of the 9/11 memorial in New York City. The plans for the event do not include public prayer. In response, the Family Research Council has circulated a petition that concludes: “This nation needs prayer more than politics.” But public prayer is political. Public prayers would inevitably include some and exclude others.

All public speech is political. Perhaps what we need is more silence and less squabbling. The 9/11 ceremony in New York will, in fact, include several moments of silence. This is the best way to proceed in a diverse society in which religion is politicized. Indeed, silent reflection is welcome, in a culture that is filled with speech. In silence, we can sort out our own thoughts — apart from the incessant bickering and chattering of public life.

Our desire to give speeches and offer public words of prayer is connected with our need to make sense of things. We want a story in which events have some meaning. But our stories are tendentious. We always reconstruct the past based upon our present concerns. Over time, as our memories fade, we establish memorial rituals, as an attempt to preserve the past against the corrosive power of time. But these ritual memorials are partial and biased. They skate on the surface, while lacking the complexity of serious history.

For several years, the images and emotion of 9/11 were seared into our memories. Those who were directly involved in the horrors of that day may never be able to forget. But for many, the memories fade. And events that were once so vivid, now become episodes in a story that is being told to the next generation, which has no living memory of the event.

Ralph Waldo Emerson explored the problem of memory in his essay, “Experience.” Emerson was troubled by the fact that he could no longer feel the same grief for his dead son as he did in the days and months immediately after his son had died. Emerson worried that forgetting was disloyal to the past. He concluded: “The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.”

But forgetting is natural and normal. It is healthy to turn the page and allow the past to become a story. And we should admit that these stories cannot touch the reality of what is past. Even atrocities are forgotten and we are left with stone memorials and ritualized ceremonies. Emerson said that things “slip through our fingers when we clutch hardest.” The more we try to hold on to the fading past, the less we grasp it.

As we pause to remember 9/11, it is important to recognize the complexity of the process of remembrance. It is easy to be swept away by maudlin spectacles and sentimental speeches. There is pleasure in the emotional excess of public ceremony. It is comforting to belong to a community that remembers and grieves together. We need these ceremonies to reassure us and to express solidarity with those who are still suffering from trauma.

We want to belong, to share a common story, to celebrate a common past, and mourn a common loss. But somehow public speeches don’t go deep enough. The staged emotion of public ceremony is too shallow to reach the reality of a past that is slowly fading away. And oratory offered in commemoration is always colored by present purposes. The controversy about prayer at the 9/11 event is, after all, as much about the politics of the present as it is about the past.

There is a time for speeches and for prayer. But silence is also useful. And we don’t have nearly enough of it. As Thoreau — Emerson’s disciple — put it, “silence is the universal refuge.” Silence allows us to think on our own terms, outside of the din of public life. And silence offers a common refuge for each of us, whatever our religious or political inclination.