Saying No to Racism, Brutality, and the Politics of Total Domination

Fresno Bee, June 7, 2020

Evil is contagious and brutality loves company. When George Floyd was killed, one of the officers involved should have said, “Stop it.” But peer pressure and the bandwagon can cause ordinary people to participate in terrible things. It is often easier to look away than to say, “This is wrong.”

So kudos to former Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis and to Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both of whom spoke out against abuses of power emanating from the White House. Critics may say that this is coming a bit late in the game. But better late than never.

The Rubicon was crossed this past week when the president threatened to deploy the military in pursuit of what he chillingly called “total domination.” The police and National Guard then used tear gas and grenades to drive peaceful protesters away from a church so Trump could pose with a Bible.

The president did not read the Bible at the church, of course. Nor did he cite an equally important document, the U.S. Constitution.

Each of the five freedoms of the First Amendment was under assault this week. The threat of total domination and police brutality undermines our freedom to assemble, protest, and petition. Journalists were shot at and arrested, in violation of freedom of the press. And then the president took a battering ram to the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state.

Our country needs a crash course in civics. You don’t hold a democracy together by domination. Nor do you unite a secular nation by brandishing a Bible. Cops and soldiers especially should read the Constitution with care. We consent to be governed because we believe that the institutions of government — including the military and police — exist to defend our rights.

That’s why police brutality is so appalling. When the police kill people in their custody, the social contract unravels. That’s also why efforts to create law and order through domination are un-American and counterproductive. Domination does not create consent, it breeds discontent.

The good news is that there are conscientious cops, soldiers and civil servants. Americans of all races volunteer to serve the public and protect the Constitution. Many public servants spoke out against the George Floyd killing and against racial injustice. Some even took a knee with protesters. And now Gen. Mattis and Adm. Mullen are reminding us of the need to reaffirm our commitment to the Constitution.

But this is not easy. Mullen’s statement opened a difficult can of worms. He said of the military, “They will obey lawful orders. But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief.”

If a cop or solider were given an order to violate the rights of citizens, would he or she refuse? Conscientious disobedience is a deeply American idea. But it is a question that rightly provokes fear and trembling.

The nation began in disobedience to tyranny. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Howard, the Earl of Effingham, was a British officer who became a hero to early Americans after he resigned his commission rather than fight the colonists. Henry David Thoreau said that if the law causes you “to be an agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, we have “a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” And in 2003, President George W. Bush warned Iraqi soldiers that they would be prosecuted for war crimes and that it would be no defense to say, “I was just following orders.”

This lesson can also be learned from George Floyd’s killing. A uniform does not protect a person from moral condemnation or from legal prosecution. The cops involved were fired and arrested. It seems obvious in retrospect that one of them should have said, “Stop it. This is wrong.”

In the heat of the moment, peer pressure and the bandwagon often prevail. But once the heat has dissipated, the world will condemn those who condone cruelty. And history will eventually shine a more flattering light on those who have the moral courage to say to the creeping shadow of total domination, “Stop it, this is wrong.”

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.