Magnolia

MagnoliaWhen a little boy—maybe
Three, maybe four—
I plucked a magnolia
Blossom from a neighbor’s
Tree and gave it
To my mother.

She told me it was wrong
To take what did not
Belong to me, yet she
Acknowledged my gift
By placing it afloat
In a crystal dish.

The Right Man for the Job

Caravaggio's Narciso (1594-1596).*
Caravaggio’s Narciso (1594-1596).*

I’m beginning to see how Donald Trump is the right man for the job. I don’t mean President of the United States, though, because he’s unqualified for that one. Rather, he—and only he—is uniquely qualified to use his coming position as president to fulfill a purpose whose time has come. It’s now or never.

As president, he will show us Americans what the rest of the world already knows about the country we call our Homeland. As a country, the United States is narcissistic, duplicitous, dishonest, and dangerous. As president, Trump will hold a mirror to us the people and say, in contradiction to a few other politicians: “This is who we are.”

For too long we have wrapped ourselves in the flag of American exceptionalism, believing (by God!) we have the unique purpose in the world to rule. We piously claim ourselves a Christian nation, but we sell more weapons around the world than any other country. We espouse freedom but overthrow weak democracies in order to exploit their human and natural resources. We start wars so as to promote our own interests, regardless of the economic and human costs. We oppress our own citizens through bigotry and hatred.

Politicians, i.e., Republicans, like to tout their Christian values. To me, Christian values are things like “love thy neighbor as thyself,” caring for the poor, “turning the other cheek,” the Beatitudes,** and all those other Christ-like qualities one finds in their over-thumped Bible. Yet those politicians ensure the poor stay poor (while blaming them for their poverty), ensure the rich get richer (while saying they deserve it), decry peacemakers and justice-seekers as unpatriotic, undermine their opponents with lies and cunning, use their office to increase their own power and influence, and many other tawdry things. And we the masses cheer (or jeer), just as ancient Romans had done at the Colosseum and Circus Maximus.

Such are we—as a nation—the Great Pretenders, wrapped in delusion.

Now (by God!) we have Donald Trump. He, too, is a pretender. And a con-man. He doesn’t try to hide who he is, either. He is the greatest, the best, the only one who can save the country—but that’s just his sideshow-barker’s cry. Something else awaits us inside his hall of mirrors. He made a lot of promises for the sole purpose of garnering the support of the masses. It worked, and he’s in.

Based on his campaign, post-election behavior, and his selections for cabinet and other positions, Trump’s plan for making America great again will not entail building up and unifying, but demolishing and dividing. In the meantime, he will line his pockets and those of the plutocrats he’s brought into power with him. The rest of us, I fear, won’t fare so well.

Well, fine. He’s who—and what—we voted for (not all of us, but enough). Donald Trump is who we are as a country. Some of us, though, don’t find that image so appealing. These are people who, like me, cringe when we see our reflection in the national mirror. Many of us have seen it for years, generations even. Most of us have gone along with the program with uncomfortable acceptance. Others of us (but not enough) have stood up and stood out but with only small success.

And now, maybe enough of us—even those who believed the Flim-Flam Man from Queens—will be so appalled by his behavior and disregard for the average citizen and the world that we rise up in outrage and say: “If the United States will be truly a good and moral force in the world, then we must begin now to practice what we preach so the rest of the world will see us as we wish to be seen.”

All our politicians at every level—whether Democrat, Republican, or whatever else—need to hear this cry. We must demand they and other leaders set examples of goodness and not greed, harmony and not hatred, justice and not judgement, virtue and not viciousness. We must insist they create conditions that foster the health and wellbeing of all of us, not just the ruling class.

Donald Trump has exposed the right’s longstanding moral corruption masquerading as sanctity. He has shown us just how complacent, misleading, and corrupt much of our media have become. He has revealed how the Democratic Party has lost its way as champion of the working class. For all this we should thank him.

Now, we, as a country, must shatter the mirror of national narcissism that Trump holds before us. Let us use him as a beautiful, beautiful catalyst to create the kinds of change that benefit us all, every one of us. This is real life I’m talking about, not just another episode of “Celebrity Apprentice.” We’ve had enough of that.

*The story of Narcissus and Echo

**The eight Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3–12 during the Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The Power and Fallacy of Belief and Our New Civil War

battle_of_franklin_november_30_1864
Battle of Franklin, Nov. 30, 1864. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

With all the disinformation, fake news, innuendo as fact, and lies gone unchallenged, it’s been difficult to get a grasp of anything close to truth during the past campaign for president and post-election. This onslaught of propaganda has rendered truth irrelevant, further cementing Red-Team beliefs and Blue-Team beliefs as well. Belief is a Kevlar vest against sharp attacks of disagreeable facts. And it’s an armor-piercing bullet, a weapon of force and power.

It’s been difficult for me to disentangle what I read in the news from both camps and make of sense this of war of beliefs between the Reds and the Blues. To help me put things into perspective I reached back in history to an era where the destructive forces of belief split the nation.

We all know of the Civil War, the War Between the States, between North and South, between the Blue and the Gray. Although I think even today some would deny it, the root of this war was slavery.

Slavery was the way of life in the South. It was as natural as magnolia blossoms. It’s mentioned many times in the Bible and not unfavorably. Belief held that God approved of slavery, endorsed slavery. It was right and good. Moreover, it was a necessary duty. Such was the belief that made slavery possible, thus making it possible for those upright people of Southern gentility to sleep well at night and with a clear conscience.

Ah, but those in the North, those abolitionists, believed slavery was an abomination. It could not be possible for a good and gracious God to condone slavery. Slavery was evil and it must end.

So here we have two strongly held and conflicting beliefs. Some 500,000 people died for those beliefs. Those conflicting beliefs ripped families apart. Those conflicting beliefs wrecked the Southern economy.

Such is the power of belief.

But who was right? Where lay truth?

Did Northern victory prove that God abhorred slavery? If so, all those Southerners held wrong beliefs about God and a few other things, too. Or could it be that God got whupped along with the true believers? If that’s the case, then Satan, not God, stood behind Northern victory. And, hell yeah, the South will rise again!

Or maybe, just maybe, God had no opinion of slavery or the war, for that matter. If so, the South used God as an excuse for deplorable behavior (not at all uncommon, don’t you agree?).

Such is the fallacy of belief.

So what do you believe? Is slavery right or wrong? Was God with the Gray Team or the Blue Team? Or nowhere to be found? Is belief the same as truth, or is truth independent of belief?

And here’s another bit of perspective-putting: Abraham Lincoln, that good and deliberative man so determined to keep the union together, was despised by half the country for what he believed.

Now take this perspective on truth and belief, pop it into this very day, and make of it what you will.

On Teaching Children How to Think or What to Think

This showed up one day on my Facebook newsfeed. It’s among the thousands of catchy image quotes that friends like to share. I found one attribution to cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. Although I couldn’t verify the quote anywhere else, it does seem consistent with other things I’ve read about her.

Teaching children how to think seems a fine idea, don’t you agree? But what does that mean, really? What teachers themselves know how to think? Who are the teachers who know how to teach children how to think? What does “how to think” mean in the first place? 

Most children’s first teachers are their parents. And most first-time parents are, themselves, very young when they have children. Child-rearing is an occupation undertaken with “no experience necessary,” including experience in teaching anything, let alone thinking skills. From my own parental experience, I know that much of what I taught my children—if not explicitly, then implicitly—came from what I learned from my parents. 

“How to think” was not part of my growing-up curriculum. “What to think,” however, was—not only at home but at school. Some things I learned as matters of fact include: the United States is the best country in the world, and good Catholics go to heaven (and, at best, Purgatory for the rest of you). Only later, when I was able to look at these two “givens” objectively—through my own reasoning—was I able to come to different conclusions.

“How to think” implies using reason and logic to analyze information or situations in search of understanding or other desirable outcomes. And that implies the need for a well-rounded education—not necessarily a college degree, but at least some exposure to a variety of topics and disciplines (e.g., history, humanities, physical sciences, civics and political science, religion, etc.) Part of that education comes from exploration and experimentation—whether physically, mentally, or spiritually. In other words, a variety of diverse life experiences. How can you evaluate something without having something else to measure against? 

Also important is an understanding of (or just recognizing) the many biases and fallacies people fall prey to without even knowing it. Salesmen, advertisers, politicians, preachers, and other persuaders are expert in using these to get what they want: which is to convince you it’s what you want too. To me, knowing how to think seems a valuable asset and survival tool (unless you’re living in 1984).

As beneficial as this may seem, however, critical thinking—and the education that fosters it—may be at odds with the Judeo-Christian ethic and core narrative of our country. Both of these are matters of faith, and faith definitely falls into the “what to think” category. 

Martin Luther, the rebellious Catholic priest and principal of the Protestant Reformation, said:

Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but—more frequently than not—struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God. 

The definition of reason is: “the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.” Reason is dangerous because those who know how to use it may come to different conclusions about things that were once accepted as matters of faith and fact and “because I said so.” 

Animosity to reason is alive even today, at least in some parts of the country. Built into the 2012 Texas Republican Party platform is this statement:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority. 

So not everyone believes teaching children how to think is a good idea. “What to think”—e.g., fixed beliefs firmly instilled by one’s parents—is the order of the day here. By objecting to this, I don’t mean to imply that we should raise little anarchists without any respect for authority. I believe in teaching respect, especially respect for one’s parents and teachers. But that respect should be founded on love and wisdom and not on fear and guilt. And parents should have enough respect for their children to teach them how to make their own decisions, develop their own consciences, and form their own opinions.

Someone else who doesn’t appreciate the value of education is Karl Rove, who said:

As people do better, they start voting like Republicans…unless they have too much education and vote Democratic, which proves there can be too much of a good thing.

On second thought, he may appreciate the value of education very much. Apparently, a well-educated and thoughtful electorate is something to fear.

Please take the poll, and leave your reasoning in the comments section if you’re so inclined.

 

What is Skillful?

I began this series with some thoughts on the differences between liberals and conservatives—views that have everything to do with one’s beliefs about things like justice, patriotism, authority, and spiritual purity. Most recently, I concluded that one’s actions, what one does, are fundamental to one’s morality and live outside the above categories. On the surface it may sound as if I’m saying there is a difference between belief and action. Not at all. Belief and action are interrelated. 

I suggested that morality and virtue are skills one can develop, much like a musician or a woodworker can develop skills. A person can be skillful at being a person. 

Sabio, a commenter on my earlier post, responded:

…I would say the normal use of this word is:

Skillful: the quality of actions which allow acquiring the desired product with a specific qualifier such as better, faster, prettier, effeciently ….

[…]

All to say, I don’t think “Skillful” is going to get us anywhere in building a ethical nest that will be universally comfortable nor conforming to everyone’s common sense.

Well, I’m not attempting to find some common ground that is universally comfortable or conforming. That’s futility in action (possibly, what I’m talking about here is futility in action too). But I do maintain that one can be a morally skillful person according to the above definition. In that regard, I must define morally skillful actions as those that when carried out result in one’s longterm benefit and the longterm benefit of others. If my actions benefit me but harm someone else then they would not qualify as skillful. 

The difficulty—and here I use “difficulty” in its strongest sense—is discerning between what is skillful and what is unskillful, between what is harmful and what is beneficial. This takes a lot of work. It requires an ongoing examination of one’s actions and their results. To do so, one must first shed the armor of self-deception. That, too, is difficult.

What actions can we consider harmful? I think we can all agree that causing someone physical harm would not be to that person’s benefit. Certainly, killing someone would cause the maximum harm and would be unskillful. And here I can hear the rebuttals: What about executing dangerous criminals? What about killing terrorists who would kill us first? What about war to defend our country? Remember, I’m talking about developing qualities in oneself that would be morally skillful as opposed to morally unskillful. If you are the kind of person who never harms anyone or anything in any way, I have nothing to fear from you. Nothing at all. Regardless of who you are or where you’re from.

Further, if one professes non-harm in one circumstance but does harm in another, then there is a double-standard. Double standards are suspect.

Words also can cause harm. All of us are familiar with this one. But which is more skillful, honesty or dishonesty? How about words spoken with kindness or words spoken in anger or hatred? Or word used to bring people together and not divide? If you are the kind of person who never lies to anyone and always speaks kindly, then I am sure what you tell me is true and you will never malign me. 

Further, if one professes honesty in one circumstance but is dishonest in another, then there is a double standard. Double standards are suspect.

I can apply the same argument to stealing. If you never take anything that isn’t given to you, then I can trust that you will never steal anything from me. 

What I’m getting at here—aside from bringing this series to an end—is that morality and virtue have nothing to do with blind allegiance to doctrines or ideologies, or with professions of faith for that matter. Morality has everything to do with action. Actions spring forth from a core belief that acknowledges, Everything I do, for good or bad, has a consequence for me and for others. And what a person doesn’t do could be of greater moral significance than what a person does. 

Virtuous Action As the Foundation of Morality

In earlier posts, beginning here, I talked about the five pillars of morality as defined by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a psychologist working in the field of moral psychology. He conducts studies to determine the differences between liberals and conservatives, both politically and spiritually.

He does what psychologists do: studies what drives peoples’ behavior. Psychologists want to know why people do the things they do. Of course, Haidt may be completely wrong about his five foundations of morality—after all, they are just ideas. Yet looking at people I’ve known over the years, many of them seem to fit well within Haidt’s categories. I don’t mean to argue that he’s right. Nor do I mean to dispute his theories.

People do things for many different reasons. On the surface, they may say things like “It’s the right thing to do,” or “It’s what God wants me to do,” or what have you. But I’ll assert that deep down, most of us really don’t know why we do what we do.

On thing I’m sure of, most people, most average people, whether liberal or conservative, religious or not, will state they are moral. And they will say so without giving any particular thought why they believe themselves to be moral individuals.

I stated in the first post of this series that morality concerns itself with distinguishing among human behaviors that are right and wrong and good and bad. Virtue is excellent moral conduct or behavior that exhibits high moral standards. What matters is what one does.

Being liberal or conservative doesn’t matter. Being gay or straight doesn’t matter. Being American or Iranian doesn’t matter. Being Christian or Jewish or Mormon or atheist or Muslim or Hindu doesn’t matter. But one’s actions, now they matter.

Oh, yeah, I know. The argument about faith versus works is an old one. There are those who believe that all one needs is faith—meaning faith in Jesus, of course; nothing else will do—to be “saved.” A person who believes this may also believe that negative and harmful actions are irrelevant. They may also insist that, no matter how good a person is and how many good works he performs, unless he has faith in the proper form, he is doomed to hell for eternity. OK, fine. But I say again: Actions matter.

I do agree that what one believes is the basis for one’s actions. No doubt about it. If one believes that actions do matter, then one is more likely to be heedful of what one does. If one believes that faith is all that matters but does not take care with actions, then less consideration may be given to possible harm to others.

Actions can fit into two broad categories: those that are beneficial and those that are harmful. Actions can have short-term benefit but may be harmful in the longterm. Or actions may appear harmful in the short term, but have lasting benefit later on. Sometimes it’s hard to know. But it stands to reason that longterm benefits are more desirable than immediate gratification.

Another important aspect here is: harmful or beneficial to whom? Actions that benefit the individual may be harmful to others. So the best actions, meaning actions that are the most skillful, are those that lead to the long-lasting benefit of oneself and others. This is virtuous behavior based on high moral standards.

Revisiting Haidt for a moment, we can see he’s on to something with his harm/care foundation. I would say that the other four are relative to, and dependent upon, harm/care because they form the basis for how we treat others.

I like the idea of being skillful with one’s actions. There are skillful doctors, mechanics, baseball players. We can be skillful at being people, too. Virtue—good moral conduct—is a skill that can be sharpened with practice.

Next: Determining what is skillful and what isn’t.

Getting to the Source of Conflict between Liberals and Conservatives

The proposition—presented in my earlier post—is that people with a liberal mindset base much of what they think and do mostly on only two of five moral imperatives as defined by researchers at the University of Virginia.

For a liberal, matters of fairness and the well-being of others have high moral value, much higher that matters of group loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity (e.g., cleanliness is next to godliness).

For a conservative, these three things (loyalty, respect, and sanctity), together with the other two (fairness and protection from harm), also have high moral value and form a solid foundation of morality.

A careful look at the five moral foundations reveals that the first two are directed toward others—even to those outside the group. Loyalty to the group, authority, and purity are directed inwardly, toward the group itself. They keep the group strong. Although in many respects values derived from these areas are positive and good (who would argue that loyalty, respect, and cleanliness are inherently bad?) they may effectively build a wall around the group, separating the group from others. Under this condition, the in-group is pure and righteous, and the out-group can easily be viewed as evil and the enemy. There is no reason to care for the harm an enemy may endure, nor can there be any but one kind of justice for the enemy. To care for and insist on fairness for an enemy would be unpatriotic. Morality, instead of being a universal good, becomes relative only to the group. We are moral. They are not. Therefore…

To a liberal person, the three “conservative” values are often taken to extremes that harm the greater society: walling off and oppressing outsiders, autocratically dictating the way things should be, enforcing racial and sexual purity.

Because liberals may instinctively reach out to the oppressed, conservatives may see liberals as disloyal and unpatriotic, disrespectful of authority, and supportive of “abominations” like homosexuality and desegregation.

Liberals fume when people who talk about how moral they are (e.g., “moral majority,” “party of family values”) will support a war started under false pretenses, overlook the lies told to get us there, condone the torture of prisoners and the exposure of a CIA operative, shrug off the outright stealing of an election, and overlook a long list of sexual and marital transgressions by conservative politicians and clergy alike.

For a conservative, events like these are easy to condone or overlook because they take place within the group. (The same can be said about a liberal’s acceptance of Bill Clinton’s transgressions.) But to a liberal, the harm created by such unfairness is nearly unbearable.

Remember, though, that fairness and justice are also part of the conservative make-up. And this gets closer to the core of the problem, because each group has its own idea of what “fair” means and as a result will act accordingly.

Once again, I turn to researcher Jonathan Haidt, who in “What the Tea Partiers Really Want,” published in the Wall Street Journal in October 2010, points to the Roosevelt era and the establishment of “social programs” to help the disadvantaged as the root of the current political divide. On the one hand are the conservatives who believe that hard work yields reward, and hard work is all that’s necessary for society to thrive. Fairness means, “I get what I work hard for, and if you don’t get ahead it’s only because you’re lazy. Each of us gets what we deserve.”

On the other hand are liberals who see fairness as equality. Liberals use phrases like “level playing field” and “safety net” to express concepts that are supportive of the disadvantaged. Safety nets and level fields come in the form of social programs that cost money, “my money!”

It is unconscionable, to a conservative, that someone else would 1) get rewarded for doing nothing, and 2) that he, the conservative, would have to pay for it.

My father is a conservative, and we sometimes get into discussions around these topics. They go nowhere, of course, because each of us is a product of our own moral intuitions. But one day, while over at his house, I got a jolt of understanding about just how strong the current political impasse is. Sitting on a table was a copy of Michael Savage’s Liberalism is a Mental Disorder. Instead of asking what it was about, when I got home I did a Google search for “liberalism is a disease.” Try it yourself to see how pervasive this idea is (if you’re a conservative, you already know).

But it explains a lot: If liberalism is a disease which must be eradicated then there is no way forward if it involves compromise. Imagine, after being diagnosed with cancer, your doctor suggests compromise instead of surgery.

It also explains why, during the Republican debates, there is little substance other than who’s the best candidate to get Obama out of the White House. Because not only is Barack Obama the consummate liberal who represents all that is bad with this country, he’s the consummate outsider. Only when he’s gone will we “get our America back.”

Next, I will explore a different perspective on morality, one that has to do with action rather than political persuasion. It will focus on a much different concept of “hard work.”

Meanwhile, why not explore your own morals and even contribute to the research?