Misogyny, Sexism, and Sex Abuse: Lessons from Machiavelli and Plato

From the White House to town square, men try to dominate without moral restraint

Fresno Bee, December 10, 2017

Sexual misconduct was not invented by the current generation. Before Al Franken and Matt Lauer there was Bill Cosby. In Greek myths the gods often raped young women. Plato wrote a book about the ethics of sex and love, called “The Symposium.”

Men have always desired the godlike power to take what they want with impunity. Male dominance ignores moral restraint. It wants power, pleasure and glory.

One spokesman of misogyny is Machiavelli. In an infamously sexist passage in “The Prince,” Machiavelli says that fortune is a woman. If you want to win fortune, you need to beat and abuse her, like you would batter a woman you want to control. Machiavelli teaches that glory comes to those who are audacious and violent.

The Machiavellian man brags about his prowess. He even boasts about what he has not done, manipulating truth in order to manufacture status. The Machiavellian also manipulates people. He grabs and gropes, swaggers and swears. When accused of misdeeds, he lies and dissembles.

We see numerous examples across the country of men getting caught with their pants down. Some have apologized. Others have resigned or been fired. But the hard-boiled Machiavellians continue to deny and denounce.

The most egregious examples come from the Oval Office. Recall Bill Clinton’s famous false denial, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Other men would have withdrawn in shame. But not Clinton, who shrugged off impeachment.


Our current Machiavellian-in-chief bragged on tape about grabbing women’s crotches. President Trump has recently suggested that the voice on the tape was not really him, despite the protestations of his accomplice, Billy Bush.

For a Machiavellian, there is no fact that can’t be massaged to serve his purposes. The Machiavellian never flinches. He trades punch for punch. He mocks and belittles his enemies. He traffics in false and inflammatory material. He accuses others of stupidity, fakery and immorality. If he apologizes, his words are insincere. When he makes promises, he offers flattery without substance.

Unfortunately, the Machiavellian strategy pays off. It often works to be a jerk. It often seems that the more shameless one’s deceits, the more glory one attains.

Perhaps the tide is turning on this. But progress will be slow. This problem has been with us for thousands of years.

Plato understood that sex and politics were often at odds with morality. Good men are often destroyed by evil liars. And shameless gropers often keep what they grab.

The Platonic man does not fit well in the world of male dominance. He is reflective and retiring, modest and private. He does not boast. He is not willing to sacrifice his integrity to achieve victory. He is conscious of his own failures. His primary concerns are truth, justice and virtue.


The Platonic man sees no value in taking what is not freely given. He values honesty, friendship and love. He won’t pander. He won’t lie or spread false rumors. He thinks that glory without goodness is not worth the price.

The Platonic man does not view sex and power as ends in themselves to be obtained by any means necessary. Indeed, Plato suggested that lust for sex and power often lead us astray. He taught that sex without restraint is rapacious and that power without justice is tyranny.

The Platonic ideal is constantly at war with the Machiavellian urge. Education and constant effort are needed to develop men of character, who are caring, truthful, just and wise. Young men must be taught to keep their pants zipped.

While we might forgive the immature mischief of an adolescent, we cannot ignore the immoral machinations of mature men. The worst aspect of the Machiavellian man is that he makes groping and glory-seeking a way of life. He models depravity and makes it appear to be good. The tragic fact of political life is that so many Machiavellians have so much power.

The solution is moral education and the empowerment of women. Listen to women’s complaints. And condemn male dominance and misogyny. The point is easy to make today as the rogue’s gallery of gropers continues to grow. Let’s teach our sons to be better men than the Machiavellians currently on display.


War on Christmas, Diversity, and Secularism

Americans have always been divided over morality, politics and religion

Fresno Bee, December 1, 2017

Our country seems more divided than ever. Recent polls from the Pew Center and the Washington Post make this clear. The Post concludes that seven in 10 Americans say we have “reached a dangerous low point” of divisiveness. A significant majority of Americans think our divisions are as bad as they were during the Vietnam War.

But let’s be honest, we have always been divided. Free people always disagree about morality, politics and religion. We disagree about abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, drug legalization, pornography, the death penalty and a host of other issues. We also disagree about taxation, inequality, government regulation, race, poverty, immigration, national security, environmental protection, gun control and so on.

Beneath our moral and political disagreements are deep religious differences. Atheists want religious superstitions to die out. Theists think we need God’s guidance. And religious people disagree among themselves about God, morality and politics.

As an example, consider the so-called “war on Christmas.” President Trump declared victory in the war on Christmas this week during a speech in St. Charles, Missouri. Standing in front of American flags and Christmas trees, he said “You don’t see Merry Christmas any more. With Trump as your president, we are going to be celebrating Merry Christmas again and it’s going to be done with a big beautiful tax cut.”


Some will cheer this on as a triumphant moment in the culture wars. Others will say, “bah humbug,” claiming that the war on Christmas is fake news. And others will wonder what tax cuts have to do with the birth of Christ.

Christmas has always generated controversy. Different Christian traditions celebrate it on different days. Some Christians – the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example – do not celebrate Christmas at all. They point out that the apostles did not celebrate Christ’s birth. They view Christmas as a pagan celebration.

Disagreement is as deep as Christmas itself. The Christian “good news” was viewed as fake news by the ancient Romans. The history of Christianity is full of heretics and dissenters who offered alternative facts. Each religious sect claims special access to the truth. Each views the other as delusional.

And of course, we disagree about the value of disagreement. Some value diversity of opinion. They are interested in new ideas and interpretations. Others see diversity as a decadent sign of liberty run amok. They resist change and avoid innovation.

And so it goes. Social cohesion is rare. So let’s not be surprised by our divisions. The ideal of a cohesive social, political and religious identity is a myth that creates frustrated expectations. People disagree about important stuff. We always have – and probably, we always will.

The desire for social cohesion is a pipe dream, cloaked in sepia-toned nostalgia. It is fun to imagine a Norman Rockwell Christmas scene. But life is not a painting or a Christmas card. We change, argue and diverge.


There is wisdom in admitting this fact. We might stop hyperventilating when we realize that the current crisis is nothing new. It is wise to stop expecting conformity.

It is also wise to support safeguards that protect liberty against oppressive power. The Christmas story includes a warning about political oppression in the presence of Herod the Great, the murderous king. Of course, such warnings are routinely ignored in the effort to purge heretics and dissenters.

Our secular system safeguards us against would-be Herods. But secularism means that disagreement will persist. This does not mean we should give up on arguing about the truth. But we must admit that disagreement is part of the human condition.

In fact, we should view our present disagreements as a sign of the health of our secular system. People are free to criticize or praise the president, the Congress and Christmas itself. This is not true in other parts of the world.

Freedom leads to controversy. Freedom without disagreement would be paltry and phony. Along with the freedom to say “Merry Christmas” we also have the freedom to say “Happy Hanukah” or even “bah humbug.” Take your pick. Stake your claim. Realize that other people will say different things. And be thankful that in our country the war on Christmas is merely a war of words.


When is enough enough?

Drawing a line in the sand isn’t as easy as it sounds

Fresno Bee, October 27, 2017

When do you throw down the gauntlet or throw in the towel? Sen. Jeff Flake did both things at once this week. He announced his retirement from the Senate and declared that his conscience impelled him to speak out against the “spell” of Trumpism.

The Arizona Republican explained, “Nine months is more than enough for us to say, loudly and clearly: Enough.”

Trumpers will scoff at this. And Democrats will howl that this is too little, too late. But we can all relate to Flake’s moment of truth.

Flake said there comes a time when you simply must say “enough!” He warned, “silence can equal complicity.” Martin Luther suggested something similar at the start of the Protestant Reformation, as I discussed in this column last week. Martin Luther King Jr. also criticized complicity and complacency. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King condemned the “appalling silence” of so-called “good people.”

Of course there are risks to breaking silence. Lives will be disrupted. Relationships can be lost. And there is always room for doubt.

But justice requires action. A legal maxim holds that “justice delayed is justice denied.” Grave injustices must be denounced as soon as possible. Unless bystanders speak up, there will be more victims. And unless courageous souls blow the whistle, there will only be a shameful and appalling silence.

It is inspiring to see someone transcend the constraints of business-as-usual and declare themselves a free person. Most people have contemplated singing along with that old country song, “Take this job and shove it.” We imagine ourselves speaking truth to power. We dream of throwing caution to the wind and saying what we actually believe.

But most of the time, we stick to well-worn ruts, afraid to upset the apple cart. We do a bit of math, adding up mortgage payments and retirement savings. Our confidence wanes. Then we sit down and shut up.

It is not that we lack courage, we tell ourselves. It is that we understand that freedom isn’t free. It is actually more expensive than we can afford. Freedom creates risk and uncertainty. It is usually more prudent to stick it out and soldier on. We take what the boss doles out because, well, that’s what it means to work for a living.

So we rationalize our conformism. Those who speak up get punished. And at any rate, we tell ourselves, quitting, protesting or going on strike usually changes nothing. When people resign in a huff, their places are easily filled by sycophants and suck-ups eager to compromise their principles. When people go out on strike, the scabs are waiting in the wings.


And yet, it is bracing to witness someone like Flake declare himself to be a free man. He said he is done with political calculation and that he will only be guided “by the dictates of conscience.” This implies that others are less courageous.

But conscientious refusal is not easy. The powers-that-be will threaten and manipulate. Retaliation happens. Whistleblowers often end up miserable. We must weigh costs and benefits.

But we should ask whether we can live with ourselves in the long run. Will our children be proud of who we are and what we stood for?

The existentialist philosophers said we are condemned to be free. To be human is to be forced to choose your existence. To be free is to be confronted with the anxiety of choice. With each anguished decision, you pick a destiny and choose your fate.

Our choices are declarations of identity and affirmations of value. Senator Flake explained this, giving us a lesson in moral psychology this week. He said, “Acting on conscience and principle is the manner in which we express our moral selves.”

He is right. Our choices declare who we are. What are you willing to risk? And what are you willing to stand for?

Most of us will never face the momentous choices of someone like Senator Flake. But every now and then we confront a moment of truth. You can duck and keep your head down. Or you can draw a line in the sand, blow the whistle, and tell the boss to shove it. The choice is yours.


Social Media, Civility, and Intelligence

Do social media make us wiser or dumber? That depends on our choices

Fresno Bee, September 15, 2017

Is the world getting dumber? Twitter co-founder Evan Williams thinks so. In commenting on Twitter’s role in electing Donald Trump, Williams said people are isolated and narrow-minded in their consumption of news. He said the whole “media eco-system” is “making us dumber.”

Of course, stupidity has always been with us. Ignorance is the birthright of every generation. But Twitter has a unique role in fueling the comedy of errors – the “covfefe” – playing out across our screens.

This week, U.S. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, or someone using his account, apparently “liked” a porn video on Twitter. Cruz blamed “a staffer who accidentally hit the wrong button.”

This makes you wonder about security issues and the risk of hacks. It also reminds us that porn is just a click away: at work, at school, or in the statehouse. If Ted Cruz can stumble upon it, so can any kid with a smart phone.

Twitter is responsible for other mayhem, especially when it is used as a vehicle for public policy. President Trump’s confusing recent tweets about DACA have kept people guessing. He has proclaimed unvetted policies via Twitter, such as the ban on transgender persons in the military. And he continues to use Twitter to launch ad hominem invective at “crooked Hillary,” “the fake news” and other enemies.


But the technology is not to blame. A tool is not responsible for malice or error. The Internet was not designed specifically for pornography. And Twitter was not intended as a platform for policy statements. The great dumbing down is not the medium’s fault – it is ours.

The social media ecosystem does provide a temptation for rudeness, crudeness and lewdness. But it is our eyes that move fast across our screens. It is the human user who swipes and pokes, looking for stimulation.

The speed of the medium favors the salacious and obscene. Click-bait preys upon short attention spans. It does not reward subtlety or complexity.

twitter logo

The American attention span is shrinking along with our vocabulary and our sense of privacy. But it is we, the people, who allow ourselves to succumb to the temptations of stupidity.

Information swirls, unfiltered and raw, simple and direct. This is a great democratizing shift. Now the politicians and pornographers can go directly to the people. The Internet knows what you like and it will deliver it to your inbox.

But important things – public policy and sexual relationships – are complicated. Relationships and ideas need time and privacy. A policy is more than the flick of a thumb. Love is more than clicking the “like” button.

Understanding and intelligence are cultivated in quiet solitude. Wisdom grows slowly through a process of exploration and revision.

Our ever-present screens prevent us from finding privacy and silence. This makes us impatient and cranky. Courtesy and eloquence are rare. Civility is a quaint relic of a slower time. And compassion? Well, there is no button for that in the comments section.

We also lack guides and mentors. Experts have been demoted. Editorial expertise is replaced by robots and algorithms.

“Power to the people” is the slogan of the social media revolution. But who is to guide us or teach us how to interpret the information we circulate?


Plato feared democracy because it puts the mob in charge – the dumb, vicious and reactionary mob. He warned that the mob easily succumbs to false prophets and demagogues who flatter our baser instincts. I’m sure he would be appalled by the Twitter revolution.

Democracy is dangerous. But it is also precious. The freedom to Tweet is a modern invention. Long centuries of war and turmoil have secured our right to forward outrageous images on our tiny screens.

So are we wiser or dumber? That depends on what we choose to do with our liberty and our technology.

Social media creates an opportunity for better choices. We really do have the world at our fingertips. We can use this incredible resource and our liberty to build a better world.

We can choose to be civil, eloquent, and compassionate. We can educate rather than denigrate. Instead of accepting stupidity, we can strive for wisdom. The first step is to stop blaming the medium, while taking a look in the mirror.


Justice, Compassion, and the Dreamers

DACA controversy reveals conflict between blind justice and broad compassion

Fresno Bee, September 8, 2017

The reconsideration of DACA presents an example of the conflict between justice and compassion. It also shows us the conflict between a narrow conception of our obligations and a broader point of view.

Justice requires impartial application of rules. The goddess of justice is blind. She administers law without considering the identity of those who receive her decisions. Justice is a goddess of the public sphere. She demands that we extend moral concern universally, fairly, and without exception.

Compassion operates differently. The goddess of compassion opens her eyes and her arms. She attends to people’s concrete situations, making exceptions for the disabled, the displaced and the disadvantaged. The motherly goddess of home and hospitality focuses on individual identity and relations of care.

Compassion and justice disagree whenever there is a conflict between mercy and rule-following. Justice requires equal treatment and unbiased judgment. Compassion makes exceptions for special needs and mitigating circumstances.

The DACA debate asks whether we should extend compassion to the children of immigrants who did not knowingly violate the law when their parents brought them here. Justice may ignore this fact and simply apply a rule that says if you are not here legally, you must leave. Compassion begs us to consider that these young people have no other home to return to and bear no responsibility for their predicament.

President Trump’s statement about DACA uses moral language. But he prioritizes compassion for Americans, saying, “We must also have heart and compassion for unemployed, struggling, and forgotten Americans.” He admits there is something unfair about punishing children for the actions of their parents. But he said that fairness for American citizens was his first priority. He explained, “Before we ask what is fair to illegal immigrants, we must also ask what is fair to American families, students, taxpayers and job seekers.”

Trumpian morality applies compassion and justice in a limited nationalistic way. This fits with the president’s America first agenda.

Moralists have often criticized this kind of nationalism. The goddesses of justice and compassion are not national deities. Morality universalizes.

Justice and compassion extend across borders. The goddess of justice is blind even to national identity claims. And the “mother of exiles” – as the Statue of Liberty has been called – opens her arms to the world’s homeless and huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.


It is not surprising that American religious leaders responded with dismay to Trump’s announcement. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned Trump’s decision. The bishops wrote, “Today’s actions represent a heartbreaking moment in our history that shows the absence of mercy and good will, and a short-sighted vision for the future.”

Mercy and good will are the heart of the ethics of compassion. The bishops extend this globally, applying the commandment to love one’s neighbor in a universal direction.

Trump and his supporters reject this view of morality. They also discount the religious critique of this policy. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, said that limiting immigration was a matter of “national sovereignty.” He also said that the Catholic church has “an economic interest in unlimited immigration,” suggesting that the church wants immigrants to fill pews and coffers.

The president and his supporters have also claimed that Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was unconstitutional. They want Congress to take action. But hundreds of law professors, governors, and other legal and political leaders have argued that DACA is constitutional.

The constitutional question is related to the moral question. Does our legal system require strict impartiality and blind justice or does it permit discretion and compassion? Is the Constitution a system that puts America first and focuses only on questions of national sovereignty? Or are there values in our constitutional system that point in a more cosmopolitan direction?

These are not easy questions to answer. We disagree about religion, morality, and the Constitution itself. These conflicts run so deep that they may never be resolved.

But any resolution will require us to think carefully about the nature of law and morality. It will also require us to reflect on what it means to be an American.


Nepotism and the Trump White House

Nepotism has no place in American democracy, but Trump does not practice that truth

Fresno Bee, July 14, 2017

Donald Trump Jr. jumped into Russia-gate this week. And we have yet another reason to be wary of nepotism. The benign interpretation of Trump Jr.’s Russian meeting is that he is a political neophyte, clueless about the impropriety of trying to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russia. He said on Fox television’s “Sean Hannity” show, “In retrospect I probably would have done things a little differently.”

But there are no “do overs” in the big leagues. Experienced and expertise really do matter. The problem with nepotism is that family members get the job, whether they are qualified or not.

The family members of presidents may be smart, virtuous people. Or they may be embarrassing goofballs like Billy Carter. But in most cases, these relatives lack relevant experience, education and expertise.

And anyway, we only elect one person to office at a time. The voters picked Donald Trump Sr. to be president. We did not elect his son, son-in-law, or daughter.

When Ivanka Trump sat in for President Trump last week at the G20 Summit, Trump critics howled. The president tweeted that such criticism should go both ways. He wrote, “If Chelsea Clinton were asked to hold the seat for her mother, as her mother gave our country away, the Fake News would say CHELSEA FOR PRES.”


Trump is right. Nepotism is as wrong for the goose as it is for the gander. If Hillary Clinton had been elected, it would be wrong of her to empower her daughter or husband. Only one person is elected to serve as president. We vote for individuals, not families.

A further problem is that nepotism means that family loyalty can trump other commitments. About 2,500 years ago Plato warned that this was dangerous and divisive. He wanted citizens to be guided by their loyalty to the state, not by devotion to their families.

Some of the divisive partisanship in our country can be attributed to our bipartisan nepotism problem. Republican animosity toward Hillary Clinton is connected to disdain for Bill. Democrats disliked George W. Bush because he was a scion of the Bush dynasty.

Nepotism creates the appearance of bias and partiality—and yet another reason to distrust the political system. Family feuds and dynastic intrigue have no place in democratic politics.

George Washington recognized this. When he became our first president, he was scrupulous about avoiding the appearance of conflicts of interest. He said that “impartiality and zeal for the public good” should never suffer from the intermingling of “connections of blood and friendship.” He declared he would not be influenced by “ties of amity or blood.”

In private life it can make good sense to hire a family member. Families are based upon trust, a sense of obligation and a common set of values. Expertise can also be handed down through families.


The daughter of a doctor may have shadowed her father and learned about medicine firsthand. But patients don’t hire a doctor because her father was a gifted surgeon. We expect a legitimate medical education. We also expect trained nurses and anesthesiologists in the operating room, not the doctor’s sons and daughters.

In our political system there is no credentialing process. Anyone can run for president. And apparently the chief executive can appoint whomever he wants to serve as an adviser.

Another worry is what this tells us about “the American Dream.” They used to tell us that anyone could become president. Political dynasties make that dream seem hopelessly naïve.

Donald Trump Sr. offered a bit of hope for the unconnected masses. His popularity was based upon his status as an outsider. Ironically, by putting his children in power, he is taking a page from the insider’s playbook.

The risk of this strategy has become apparent. Trump Jr.’s cluelessness undermines his father’s presidency. The Trump family is seemingly unworried about all of this. They are also unconcerned about nepotism. President Trump’s other son, Eric, once said, nepotism “is a beautiful thing.”

Family devotion is important—in the private sphere. But in democratic politics, things should be different. We need expertise and experience in the public sphere. And instead of family loyalty we need our leaders to be devoted to justice and the greater good.


Dignity and Public Service

A nation lacking in dignity means our children have no one to look up to

Fresno Bee, July 7, 2017

After President Trump’s most recent tweet storm against the media, several people – including GOP senators – said his behavior was “beneath the dignity of the office.”

On July 1, Trump tweeted that his use of social media was “modern day presidential.” A new norm is emerging, lacking in dignity. Trump takes this to a new level. But the modern presidency has lacked dignity since Bill Clinton dropped his pants in the Oval Office.

Dignity is difficult to create, but easy to destroy. The same is true of trust and respect. Dignity inspires confidence and admiration. Shameful behavior undermines credibility and inspires revulsion.

The demise of dignity also afflicts the news media, since Walter Cronkite gave way to Jerry Springer. Consider Mike Brzezinski’s response to Trump’s outrageous attacks against her. She posted an image on Twitter implying that Trump has small hands.

That sexual euphemism was used by Sen. Marco Rubio against Trump during the 2016 campaign. Trump, you’ll remember, badgered him by calling him “little Marco.”

And so it goes. It seems there are no adults left in the country. We are all smaller these days. Our children have no one to look up to.


The demise of dignity is linked to a general failure of civility. It is also linked to our inability to distinguish between public and private. Petty arguments and private parts are all on public display.

But dignity requires us to draw a line. The official acts of the office holder should be our focus. The private idiosyncrasies of those officials are really none of our business. In a dignified world, private personality is concealed behind the public persona.

That’s why judges wear robes and we call them “Your Honor.” It is also why cops wear uniforms. And it is why we say “Mr. President” instead of “Hey dude.”

Modern culture rejects that deferential stuff. We are informal and easygoing. We care more about cheap laughs than deferential esteem. Social media encourages thoughtless, reactive crudeness. And it degrades traditional notions of privacy. Dignity is destroyed by speed, stupidity and familiarity.

Some will say this is all good. Presidents and pundits are people, too. They have sex and get mad. Why not stop pretending that they don’t? It seems duplicitous for pundits and politicians to conceal their personal quirks and private opinions.

But the public-private distinction remains important. The First Amendment to the Constitution depends upon it.

You are free to pray in private; but the government is not free to force you to pray. You are free to assemble in public for political purposes; but you cannot trespass on private property for private purposes. You can say things that are highly critical of political figures; but you cannot slander or libel private persons.


And despite our informal culture, we expect professionals to live up to public standards of ethics and excellence. We want journalists, judges and janitors to keep their quirks concealed. What professionals do in private is their own business as long as they do their work for the public good.

Trust depends upon dignity. We trust professionals who clearly serve the public good. Dignified professionals speak carefully. They think critically and apply relevant expertise. They embody the collective wisdom of the institutions they represent. And they place service above self.

When dignity is lacking, we have no reason to trust these people, listen to them, or respect them. Respect must be earned. Once lost, it is not easily regained.

The demise of dignity in the public sphere is a serious problem for our democracy. Many Americans no longer trust our institutions, including government, business and the press. We have come to believe that no one is objective or professional – that everyone is in it for themselves.

Perhaps we are finally learning that public service was always a farce. Perhaps true dignity never existed. Maybe we are simply realizing that the emperor was never wearing any clothes. But the solution is not for everyone to simply drop their pants. A race to the bottom diminishes us all.

The recipe for dignity is simple. Behave according to the expectations of professional service. And always remember that the next generation wants someone to admire.


Honesty and Loyalty in the Trump-Comey affair

Pledges are empty promises.
Honest, loyal people don’t have to swear that’s what they are

Fresno Bee, June 16, 2017

James Comey swears President Trump asked him for a pledge of loyalty. Comey offered honesty. Trump said he would accept “honest loyalty.”

After Comey testified before Congress, the president accused him of lying. Trump said, “I hardly know the man, I’m not gonna say I want you to pledge allegiance, who would do that, who would ask a man to pledge allegiance under oath?” Trump has offered to testify under oath about his version of things.

What is “honest loyalty”? And what lessons can we learn from this fascinating piece of political theater?

One lesson is to be suspicious of oaths and loyalty pledges. Perjury is not prevented by promising to tell the truth. In some cases, the more a person swears to God, the less we ought to trust them. Nor is loyalty guaranteed by a pledge of allegiance.

Oaths and pledges are least effective when they matter most. Scoundrels affirm bald-faced lies. Traitors are eager to pledge allegiance. Hypocrites and rogues cover their tracks with honeyed words and perfumed promises. And even decent people occasionally fudge the facts in order to get out of a jam.

In the long run, verbal assurances mean less than a consistent pattern of truthful, loyal behavior. Honest and loyal people remain faithful and true, without needing to swear that they are.

-Hannah Arendt

The complaint against oaths and pledges is an old one. The ancient Jews and early Christians refused to pledge allegiance to Caesar. Some contemporary Christians continue to avoid swearing oaths, basing this on the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus teaches there that you should simply say yes or no, without swearing an oath.

Protestant reformers took this seriously. In 1635 Roger Williams was driven out of Massachusetts for criticizing the colony’s loyalty oath. He thought it was wrong to force people to swear allegiance in the name of God and to invoke God’s name with regard to civil matters. After his banishment from Massachusetts he founded the colony of Rhode Island as a refuge for religious dissenters.

In the 1650s the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes explained that “an oath adds nothing to an obligation.” If we have an obligation we ought to keep it. An oath will not make a bad man keep his promises.

William Penn, the Quaker who founded Pennsylvania, had a similar idea. In 1679 he explained, “He that is a knave, was never made honest by an oath. Nor is it an oath, but honesty, that keeps honest men such.” Penn concluded that oaths have “often ensnared a good man but never caught one knave yet.”

And what about loyalty? Philosophers have roundly criticized unquestioning loyalty. In the middle of the 20th century, Hannah Arendt argued that totalitarianism rested upon morally deficient loyalty. She said, “total loyalty is only possible when fidelity is emptied of all concrete content.” Fidelity without morality leaves the loyal person subject to the immoral whims of a party or person.

-Thomas Hobbes

A further problem is that fawning toadies pledge loyalty as a way of sucking up. Ingratiating flatterers offer worshipful praise, currying favor by lying and exaggerating. Flatterers and sycophants have been roundly mocked by moralists. The Roman essayist Plutarch called them “parasites” and enemies of truth. He says that flatterers ruined Rome, since they encouraged rulers like Nero to behave without dignity.

Plutarch noted that excessive self-love makes us susceptible to flattery. Those who are infatuated with themselves believe what flatterers tell them, no matter how absurd. That is why flattery undermines truth and wisdom.

The solution, of course, is self-examination, devotion to virtue, loyalty to the truth, and honest friendship. True friends speak the truth, without “paint and varnish,” as Plutarch put it, because they love us and want us to be better. True friendship is both loyal and honest.

In political life, truth and loyalty are always in dispute – as the Comey-Trump feud shows us. But in ordinary life, honesty, loyalty, and friendship help us live well. We need honest and loyal friends. But friendship should be freely given. It is not assured by an oath or pledge. Promises and flattering words are mere idle talk. What matters is the quality of our characters, not the quantity of hot air we produce.


Moral Myopia and the Speed of Twitter

Don’t be like the president.
Take a breath and think before you act (or tweet)

Fresno Bee, June 9, 2017

We are bombarded with news. It is easy to get lost in the Twitteropolis and the vibrating pulse of our newsfeeds. But when we are pulled along by the world in this way, there is no room for thinking.

We are quick to complain and slow to understand. We speak without knowledge. Reactionary responses undermine our long-term interests, goals and happiness.

As a case in point, consider President Trump’s recent twittering. He tweeted that his own Justice Department was being too politically correct with a “watered down” version of his “travel ban.” Trump tweeted that he wants a “much tougher” ban. But these tweets seems to undermine his own court case.

This week Trump also used Twitter to antagonize the mayor of London after terror attacks there. And his tweets about Qatar threatened to destabilize alliances and operations in the Middle East.

Trump is not the only thoughtless social media operator. Petty criminals boast about their crimes on Facebook. And the rest of us post and tweet reflexively. In this fast-twitch era, cyber chest thumping has replaced thinking.

Short-sighted thoughtlessness has always been a problem. In the old days, people ranted to barroom buddies. But today our thoughtless ramblings are permanently recorded online.

A kind of myopia afflicts us. We focus on immediate problems that grab our attention. We miss out on the larger picture. Short-term tactics predominate. Larger strategies go unheeded.

Our myopia is connected to our hedonism and narcissism. Like infants throwing tantrums, we want what we want and we want it now. We crave stimulation and reinforcement. We respond to every prick and poke without restraint. We won’t accept “no” for an answer. We view every setback as a personal insult.

Intemperate reaction fans the flames of cyberspace. The myopic person sees the ensuing turmoil as a sign of success, since their tantrum puts them firmly in the center of attention. But this ignores the fact that long-term interests have been sacrificed to achieve a fleeting notoriety.

Wisdom and virtue require slower, more thoughtful responses. We also need to be willing to shrug off adversity. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. We waste too much time and energy reacting to every challenge and affront.

There is wisdom in silence. It is often also wise to do nothing and simply leave things alone. This idea is central to the Chinese tradition of Taoism. The Taoists suggest that those who are busily reacting accomplish little, while non-action produces harmony.

Silent non-action is counter-cultural. But consider how our reactive culture keeps us constantly distracted. We are obsessed with activity and the need to comment on the latest news. When we do something – even small inconsequential things – we document, post and brag. But the more we post, the less anyone cares and the less any of this means.

Busy bragging is a feature of our general hedonism and narcissism. We seem to be constantly trying to convince ourselves that we exist, that what we are doing is important. But let’s be honest, most of what we do or say simply does not matter. The world is vast. History is long. Everything we accomplish will be forgotten soon after we die.

From the vantage point of eternity, the pursuit of accomplishment is a vain exercise in futility. That may seem depressing. But resigned acceptance can set us free, liberating us from the need to respond to every little thing.

If we were less reactive and more reflective, we would be more moderate and circumspect. Important things require careful attention. Justice and truth are complicated and difficult. Justice is not served by a quick tweet. Truth cannot be disclosed in 140 characters.

Or consider love. We are told that love is patient and kind. It is not boastful, proud or easily angered. Love cannot be cultivated on Snapchat, Instagram or Tinder. Those names imply a quick spark, rather than an abiding warmth.

The fury of our reactionary world undermines thinking. Deep thought is unhurried and quiet. Thinking takes time, vision and revision. The life of virtue cooks slowly. Happiness requires a slow simmer, not a quick boil. And the bread of wisdom takes a lifetime to rise.


Pride causes powerful to fall

What causes the powerful to come to ruin? In a word, pride

Fresno Bee, May 19, 2017

At a graduation speech this week at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, President Trump warned, “the more righteous your fight, the more the opposition that you will face.” He advised, “Don’t give in, don’t back down.”

That is standard fare for graduation speeches. Indeed, unrelenting self-assertion helped President Trump get elected. Persistence and tenacity are virtues. But the same disposition can become the vice of obstinacy.

Much depends upon the righteousness of your cause. But in general, obstinate self-assertion brings the powerful to ruin. At least, that is the lesson of the great tragedies. The drama unfolding in Washington could be written by Sophocles or Shakespeare.

Political tragedy is a microcosm, a fascinating display of the common human affliction. We see our own foibles reflected in the flaws of the powerful. The perennial lesson is that we are all subject to tyrannical moods. We push more than we yield. And we arrogantly cling to our own ignorance.


The tragic chorus reminds us that human power is uncanny and strange. Our power creates the conditions for our own downfall. The more powerful we appear, the more blind and lame we become.

The problem is hubris, that fancy Greek word for arrogant pride. Hubris, the chorus explains, gives birth to tyrants. And tyrannical power begets hubris. Relentless pride, wanton ignorance, and unbridled ambition are the source of folly and crime. Shakespeare’s Macbeth warned, “vaulting ambition” overleaps itself. As the Bible put it, pride goeth before the fall.

Even a blind man can see that. In the Greek tragedies the blind prophet Tiresias makes the point. Everyone makes mistakes, he said. But good men yield when they are wrong. And they make amends.

The ancient tragedies also show that the cover-up is worse than the crime. A tyrant does not concede his failures. He never admits he is wrong. He lies and denies. And he blames the messenger for bad news.

The problem is power without restraint. As Lord Acton put it, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” One solution is a system of legal checks and balances. The law can prevent abuses of power. But virtue requires self-restraint.

It also helps to reflect upon the nature of power and ambition. Shakespeare provides a clue, suggesting in Hamlet that the substance of ambition is the shadow of a dream. Power inflames desire and our sense of entitlement. The more we get, the more we want. But political power is ephemeral. It is nothing but the opinion of others.

The game of power requires a constant effort to keep the hot air blowing in your own preferred direction. And when the winds shift, as they always do, the tyrant rants and howls like old King Lear raving on the heath.

Pride makes us stubborn and irrational. The young prince in Antigone warned his father against being inflexible and unreasonable. He suggested that his father should relent—and listen and learn. King Creon, of course, ignores this advice. The family is destroyed. And the desolate king learns too late the lesson of moderation.


Tragedies also show that wisdom can be found in unexpected places—in the voices of the powerless. Throughout Western literature, powerful men routinely ignore and degrade women. They do not listen to the blind or the young. In Shakespeare, the fool offers insight. In Greek tragedy, it is the chorus of the people who provide the voice of conscience.

Here, then, is a source of hope. Normal people—lowly, hard-working, ordinary people—possess a kind of wisdom and virtue that the powerful seem to lack. We, the people, can learn from observing the tempests of political life a lesson of how not to live. We ought to discover that “wisdom is the supreme part of happiness” as Sophocles explains. It is in modesty, decency, hard work, and caring relationships that happiness is found.

The powerful fret and strut for their hour upon the stage—and then are heard no more. What’s left is a tale seemingly told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Those immortal lines are Shakespeare’s. His poetry has lingered, as have the works of Sophocles. And here is another source of hope. Empires rise and fall. But beauty and wisdom endure.