We continue awaiting the decision of a grand jury on whether or not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, exactly 15 weeks ago today on a suburban street in Ferguson, Missouri. News reporters from across the globe have been camped out in Ferguson for months, their expectation of an announcement teased and disappointed several times in the last week alone. On Monday, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard in advance of the grand jury's decision. Yesterday, President Barack Obama, in what can only be judged to be an anticipation of Wilson's non-indictment, preemptively urged protesters not to use Ferguson as an "excuse for violence." In the meantime, demonstrators of various ilk remain on standby, rallying their troops, refining their organizational strategies, painting their oppositional signs, standing vigilantly at the ready for whatever may come.
But what are we waiting for, really, as we wait for Ferguson?
As someone who has spent the better part of her career researching, analyzing and teaching not only about the structure and nature of oppressive power regimes, but also better and worse ways to resist or transform such regimes, I've nevertheless been unable to settle in my own mind, to my own satisfaction, my position with regard to the moral or political value of revolutionary violence. I can say that my core moral intuitions (for whatever those are worth) definitely incline me toward favoring nonviolence as a principled ethical commitment... though, over the years, I have found those intuitive inclinations fading in both intensity and persuasiveness. As a philosopher, a citizen and a moral agent, I continue to be deeply unsettled by my own ambivalence on this matter.
First, a preliminary autobiographical anecdote: I spent a year between undergraduate and gradate school in the nonprofit sector, as the Director of the M.K.Gandhi Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. (That was back in 2000, when the Gandhi Institute was still housed at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, which is now my academic home, evidencing the kind of bizarro turn-of-fate that can only be credited to some particularly clever-- or ironically humorous-- supernatural bureaucrat.) I went to the Gandhi Institute initially because nonviolence was an all-but-unquestioned moral virtue for me at the time. But, after a few years in graduate school and consistently since, the many and varied until-then-unposed questions about the moral or political legitimacy of violence pressed their way to the fore of my mind. In roughly chronological order, I'd say that the combination of (1) my first real engagement with Frantz Fanon's argument in "Concerning Violence" (from his Wretched of the Earth), the arguments by Marx (and Marxists) in various texts advocating more or less violent revolution, and Noam Chomsky's considerations of the same, (2) my extensive research into human rights violations, transitional justice and transitional democracies, postcolonial theory, feminist theory and critical race theory, which collectively constituted the subject of my dissertation, (3) the radically dramatic shift in what counts as properly-speaking "political" and/or "revolutionary" violence in the post-9/11 world and (4) my own experiences, from near and afar, with the increasing number of (threatened, proto-, aborted, defeated and/or more-or-less successful) revolutions taking place in my adult lifetime (e.g., OWS, the Arab Spring and, much closer to home and far less violent, the current and ongoing academic revolution surrounding the Salaita case), all worked together to contribute to my rethinking the merits and demerits of violence as a way of resisting/combatting/correcting oppressive, exclusionary or otherwise unjust power regimes.
The news has just been released that Rev. Fred Phelps, founder and lifelong shepherd of the Westboro Baptist Church (in Topeka, Kansas) has died at the age of 84. I find it difficult, I confess, to summon the normal human compassion that usually accompanies news of another's death in this case, largely because Phelps dedicated his life to broadcasting his rejection of-- not to mention enlisting others, including children, to stage carnival-like circuses around his rejection of-- what most people would consider even the most minimally-decent exhibitions of human compassion. Fred Phelps was one of the most infamous, outrageous, dishonorable and genuinely despicable hatemongers of my generation. And, what is more, Fred Phelps' hate was as ferocious and vicious as it was blind. Through the prism of his delusional and evangelical abhorrence, the Westboro congregants en masse considered themselves justified in casting an unjustifiably wide net of Judgment. Caught in that net were many: ranging from bona fide innocents against whom no reasonable person could or ought cast aspersions, like Matthew Shepard, to a whole host of other "collateral-damage" victims of Phelps' quasi-political positions who found themselves the inadvertent and inauspicious targets of his his flock's detestation.
I say again: I find it very, very difficult to summon the normal human compassion that ought to accompany the news of Fred Phelps' passing.
Nevertheless, these are the moments when our inclination toward Schadenfreude, however deeply affirming and deeply satisfactory indulging that sentiment may feel, ought to be on principle squelched.
This Salon piece looks at some recent movies through the lens of masculinity anxiety:
A friend of a friend of mine has big plans: quit his prestigious editorial job in New York, grow his beard a bit further out, and start working on the docks. In 2014, the sentiments behind such a decision aren’t anything new... Gender roles in the workplace and the family are blurring...
I don't have any complaints about the analysis of the movies, just about the vast understatment of the phrase "aren't anything new." Because, let's face it, if there's anything men have been worried about the entire history of "Western Civilization" (TM; and yes, like Gandhi, I would be in favor of it), it's the decline in masculinity as soon as guys take up desk jobs.
I would date it to Nausicaa getting turned on by the pirate, er, gangster, er warrior Odysseus when he appears on the beach, because frankly those nancy boy courtiers hanging around her dad's court just lack a certain something, know what I mean? But then again, really isn't it Enkidu teaching Gilgamesh what a real man is all about? And so on and so forth, through Plato and Tacitus and hell just about everybody, really, including turn of the century Americans. Turn of the 20th century, that is. Cf, too, for the latest in hard bodies. It's as if it were a theme or something!
Schliesser thought he could escape the Borg, but a senior philosopher elsewhere has tracked him down for us here. In this very interesting reflection, he writes about the head-lice inspection all Dutch kids undergo at school, and connnects it to Foucaultian analyses of biopolitics (or, with less fancy terms, that government rationality that licences, among other things, involvement in public health). But, as Schliesser recognizes, it's hard to be simply "against" public health -- what, you *want* your kids and other kids to have lice?
Also, any objections, like his about evidence of the effectiveness of school level inspection, share much the same rationality -- what's the most effective means of obtaining a health-managed population? Now we could do some sort of neoliberal twist here: some sort of market in private insurance against the costs of head lice treatment with a tax penalty for non-compliance might fit -- a AHLIA (Affordable Head Lice Inspection Act), if you will -- but would this neoliberalization not still fit within a biopolitical horizon?* Or, if you prefer more direct means, do we continue at the level of schools or centralize ("up") to the level of the city or state, or further de-centralize ("down") to the level of the household with say, random house visits?**
A few days ago, while trying to open the interwebs thingy to allow me to start entering my grades, I was prevented from doing so by a pop-up menu that referenced LSU's Policy Statement 67. The text included unsubstantiated and highly dubious claims such as that most workplace problems are the result of drugs and alcohol abuse by workers. And this was only a few weeks after all of the chairs at LSU had to provide verification that every single faculty member had read a hysterical message from our staff and administrative overlords that justified expanding the extension of pee-tested employees at LSU to now include faculty. The wretched communiqué justified pee-testing faculty because of new evidence showing that marijuana is harmful to 13 year olds.*
Anyhow, when I scrolled to the bottom of the popup, I had to click a button saying not only that I read the document but also that I "agreed" with it.
I honestly don't get this. Are my beliefs a condition of employment at LSU? There was no button that said I read it but didn't agree with it.
This is my first foray into newAPPS waters-- and I thank the newAPPS coterie for the invitation!-- so I thought I’d start by tossing out a fairly straightforward philosophical claim: Tolerance is not a virtue.
When I say that tolerance is not a virtue, to be clear, I don’t mean to imply that tolerance is a vice. No reasonable moral agent, certainly no moral philosopher worth his or her salt, would concede that. Rather, I only want to point out that “being tolerant” requires at most little if not nothing more than refraining from being vicious. Not only is it the case that we don’t define any other virtue in this explicitly negative way, but we also don't generally ascribe any particular kind of moral credit to persons who are merely refraining from being vicious.
I want to offer a reading of the classic film Casablanca through the lens of a conception of love developed in bell hooks's All About Love. In that series of essays, hooks picks up on ideas of M. Scott Peck's in The Road Less Traveled. Peck, whether explicitly or not - I haven't read that book - is developing Aristotelian notions. Leaving that aside, and taking a few liberties with what hooks has to say, the concept of love that I want to make use of here is roughly this: a mutual social-psychological orientation between a group of people through which they systematically contribute to each other's spiritual growth. (Here 'spiritual' can be given a more directly Aristotelian reading in terms of virtue, or others. These differences do not matter for present purposes.)
A few quick points: this is meant in the sense of concept crafting. That is, the claim is not that this notion captures the (all, even some) commonsense usage of 'love' but that it is a useful concept for cutting some aspects of moral-social-psychological reality at the joints. Note as well that this notion of love is not at all essentially tied to romantic love. It applies as well to friendship, parenting, political comreades, members of a close social group, etc. Importantly, this sense of love is not equated with affect or emotion, though some sorts of emotional engagement may be necessary. It is essentially measured by effect. Love is a relationship that leads to mutual growth, reinforced by the relationships that nurture it. Finally, note the emphasis on mutuality - which is not to say symmetry. A loving relationship is one in which each nurtures the growth of the others. There may be healthy relationships that nurture growth in one direction, but that is something different, and something that is very likely to quickly become unhealthy.
He may say with Parmenides, who, upon reading a philosophical discourse before a public assembly at Athens, and observing, that, except Plato, the whole company had left him, continued, notwithstanding, to read on, and said that Plato alone was audience enough for him.--Adam Smith
The English Bill of Rights (1689) expressly forbids ""cruel and unusual" punishment, and this found its way into the U.S. Constitution. One important, enduring argument against such punishment -- and many other forms of cruelty that may not, in fact, constitute 'punishment' -- can be found in Seneca's Letter 7: viewing and otherwise participating in the degradation and cruelty of others, even in the context of justified punishment [ille meruit ut hoc pateretur], can harm not just the victims or punished, but perpetrators and spectators alike. This is especially so if the cruelty produces pleasure as it is likely to do at public spectacles [spectaculo]* because then this pleasure makes our soul receptive; a desire for more cruelty creeps up on us [per voluptatem facilius vitia subrepunt].
Seneca's particular target is the institution of aestheticized, public spectacles of cruelty and inhumanity [crudelior et inhumanior].** He emphasizes the significance of audience participation [spectatoribus suis obiciuntur]. He reorients and subtly transforms Plato's arguments for censorship of the arts to focus on the more pernicious institutions that indirectly teach people to celebrate cruelty. Seneca's argument applies to a lot of issues that we are not likely to consider primarily in terms of political speech: mass sporting events; war coverage; disaster tourism, and any form of entertainment that rely on the pleasures derived from exposure to the suffering of others. (This is not to deny that the targets of Seneca's argument can overlap with Plato's, and that his argument is indebted to Plato's moral psychology.)
Now, reflection on this very small sample (add your favorite example in comments!) inclines me to delimit a certain genre of philosophically effective ridicule (as opposed to mere character assassination); this genre, relies on the magnification of a core philosophical commitment of the opponent and thereby render the whole project preposterous or laughable. I label this a 'Swiftian-Rabelaisian strategy.' Nietzsche's writings are littered with attempts at Swiftian-Rabelaisian strategy, although he often suggests that the contrasting strategy -- ridicule by way of minimization (e.g., Berkeley on minute philosophers) -- comes more naturally to him.
Of course, such a Swiftian-Rabelaisian strategy is compatible with the existence of effective arguments against the ridiculed opposition (as well as the existence of argumentative rejoinders). It is also compatible with holding a rather austere (what we may call, adopting a phrase from Derrida) 'ethics of writing'. Given the sample, I hasten to add that even if the meta-ethical-writing-principles were shared, the enacted norms of writing may differ widely. We should distinguish the Swiftian-Rabelaisian strategy from other forms of ridicule (which, say, rely on misrepresentation, incredulous stares, silencing techniques, etc.).
I conclude my preliminary analysis by way of a suggestion; in some possible world it ought to be possible to execute the Swiftian-Rabelaisian strategy under, as it were, the radar without, say, being funny. To give a hint of an example: when Locke takes on the stance of an 'under-labourer' he magnifies some privileged others (Boyle, Sydenham, Huygens Newton). Nobody would ever accuse Locke of being a funny writer, but it would be amusing if he were capable of an inside joke.
We already know that with a social graph at its disposal, a mood graph would give Facebook an incredible edge over its competitors for customizing ads and recommendations, as well as predicting users’ future feelings. But consider this: Even if you’re someone who doesn’t share anything, Facebook could potentially reverse-engineer your emotional persona by filling in the blanks from your like-minded friends’ emotional states. In other words, the more your friends emote and translate their soulful moments into basic data points, the more Facebook can determine what makes you tick, too.
In short, thanks to persuasive interface design and non-transparent algorithms, we may be providing emotional labor without even knowing it.
You'd literally have to change the human genome to stop wealth discrepancy.... We have biological systems built into us that were very advantageous for us, up until we became a functioning civilisation 10,000 years ago. We are literally genetically coded to preserve life, procreate and get food – and that's not gonna change. The question is whether you can somehow overpower certain parts of that mammalian DNA and try to give some of your money out, try to take your wealth and pour it out for the rest of the planet.
But if, in despotic statecraft, the supreme and essential mystery be to hoodwink the subjects, and to mask the fear, which keeps them down, with the specious garb of religion, so that men may fight as bravely for slavery as for safety, and count it not shame but highest honour to risk their blood and their lives for the vainglory of a tyrant; (Spinoza, TTP, Preface)
Evolved Apprentice Kim Sterelny claims there has been an over-estimation
of the difficulty of cheater detection in small groups. (Hence he is not a
supporter of Machiavellian Intelligence theories alone; in fact, cheater
detection is less demanding than coordinating cooperation [2012, 7-10].) The
real issue for him is to explain how cooperation in complex tasks works. His answer,
apprenticeship, is fascinating in its own right, but what I want to concentrate
on here is the way in which at the end of his book Sterelny poses the question
of functionalism, or if you prefer, the Spinoza question: why do people
go along with hierarchies when they are at the bottom – or at least not at the
[UPDATE 8 August, 2:25 pm CDT: comments by Roberta Millstein and by "bizarre" have convinced me that the author of the review, David Haig, is better seen as *diagnosing* tough guyism in his neo-Darwinist colleagues rather than as exemplifying it. My thanks to them for pushing me to see this. I'll leave the post as is -- for the record, as it were -- but ask readers to keep this change of view in mind in reading it.]
This is a fine review of Transformations of Lamarckism, ed. Gissis and Jablonka (MIT, 2011), but its conclusion is somewhat marred by a classic flaw: it attributes an "emotional reaction" to its targets without acknowledging that its own position is also emotionally inflected rather than being simply "intellectual." We can call this the self-denying political affect* of tough guyism.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: "I think the message of this episode is unfortunate. By Florida law, in any violent confrontation ending in a disputed act of lethal self-defense, without eye-witnesses, the advantage goes to the living. An intelligent, self-interested observer of this case, who happens to live in Florida, would not be wrong to do as George Zimmerman did--buy a gun, master the finer points of Florida self-defense law and then wait."
This Salon interview with an urbanist about Gezi was published the afternoon before the 15 June police attack. It includes this memorable description of sports fandom, occupation of public space, and political affect:
On Saturday [1 June] there was a back and forth struggle with the police all day, but they backed off around 3PM, largely thanks to the Beşiktaş soccer team’s ultra fans, Çarşı. They maintained a solid front before the tear gas and police. Their steady patience at the front line kept those us of behind them in place up until the police retreated. Then, we all rushed into the park shouting ideological slogans. The feeling of walking back in was amazing, powerful…. It’s a standard thing to walk in a park. You know, “It’s like a walk in the park,” the saying goes, but the effort here transformed it. To be with those thousands of people taking control of our urban space, our park, in our city came with a sense of communal empowerment I’d never felt.
Facebook was awash with jokes yesterday poking fun at McGinn and his defenders. (You know who you are! ["you" = the jokesters and the defenders]) Taking off from the original Defense of Snark, I would like to defend mockery in the McGinn case as an important means of norm enforcement. In other words, mocking the inanity of McGinn's defenders with their "out of context" or "he was just conveying the results of his research" maneuvers does two things I think: one, it ups the social cost of traditional defenses of the indefensible, and two, it sends a message of encouragement to those thinking of pressing charges but worried about what the defenders of the accused will say.
As some of you may know, Niall Ferguson engaged in a bit of gay-bashing yesterday (links below), holding that Keynes wouldn’t have cared about future generations because he was gay (the point is apparently taken from Gertrude Himmelfarb: see the Delong item referred to below). Now he has apologized. In my view no one is obliged to accept an apology: should we accept Ferguson’s and move on, as they say?
Henry Blodgett at Business Insider was one of the first with the story.
Tom Kostigen at Financial Advisor also reported on Ferguson’s remarks.
One brother is dead and the other is in custody in a hospital. Obviously I loathe what they did. Obviously my thoughts are with the victims and their families. Obviously I would have stopped them if I could have, by any means whatsoever. But I also feel enormously sad that a 19 year old boy could come to this. And being a naturalist - that is not believing that things happen magically because of some supernatural force for evil - I believe that there is some explanation for why this happened. Maybe his brain chemicals are at different levels from ours. Maybe he underwent some trauma - either acute or chronic. Maybe he was taken in by an irrational ideology or systematically trained as are government torturers. Maybe all of these. I have no idea, and neither do you. Probably we would never fully understand even if we tried. But something happened, something contingent and potentially avoidable. And I hope that there is a way to redeem some modicum of life for this boy also. I hope that there is a way for all to find restorative, rather than vindictive, justice in this. I hope we can do better than toss one more body on the pile.
I think the discussions in the books demonstrate a slogan of mine, that "our nature is to be so open to our nurture that it becomes second nature."* What I mean by this is that we are "bodies politic," that is to say, due to our neuroendrocrinological plasticity, social experience will shape our bodies in accord with the subjectification practices in which we participate more or less consciously and willingly. Experience goes deep, you could say, right down to the brain's neurons and hormones. But there's a variation in that depth, I think; some depths are deeper than others.
Last night, Michelle
Obama presented the award for best picture at the Oscars. She said
all the usual inspirational stuff about movies making us laugh and cry and teaching
us something important about the human spirit. In Hollywood’s America, it doesn't matter what
you look like (wink, wink - race), where you come from (wink, wink -
immigration), or who you love (wink, wink - gay marriage), if you believe in
yourself, you can make your dreams come true. We all know it’s bullshit, and yet… hey, it’s
But wait a second! Isn't Michelle Obama the First Lady of the United
States? The wife of the President? And who are those smiling white people
standing behind her in military pomp and little bow ties? Is she actually
speaking from the White House?
Presenting an entertainment award? I know that's kind of weird, and
yet... she looks great! Her bangs are a little heavy, but it works.
Last week I presented a paper* on "Plato, Political Affect, and Lullabies"** at a wonderful conference at CUNY. One key point is Plato's claim that habits of transgression formed from repeated petty misdeeds can ripple up to bad effect in a polity (788b-c). In the plus ça change category, I read this AP story on "zero tolerance" school policies in the morning paper. Some key grafs:
Zero tolerance traces its philosophical roots to the "broken windows" theory of policing, which argues that if petty crime is held in check, more serious crime and disorder are prevented.[***]
Among the great early
Modern thinkers, Hobbes famously emphasizes the role of fear in the state of
nature in prompting the agreement to form the civil state—and fear of a return
to the state of nature once in such a state. The reason we must be afraid in –
and of – the the state of nature is the widespread ability of people to kill
each other; while asleep, even the strongest can be killed by the weakest (Ryan,
1996; Foucault, 2003; Hull, 2009; on the general relation of reason and passion
in Hobbes, see Coli, 2006).
The other great early Modern thinker whom we will
treat is Spinoza.
Max Weber defines political sovereignty as the monopoly on the legitimate
use of force within a territory. But there is a problem: how to
unleash yet control the killing potential of the forces of order, the army and
the police? The problem is especially acute in the
crucial point of counter-revolution: will the army fire on “the people”? Plato
saw this problem clearly in his analysis of the character of the guardians, who
had to be kind to friends yet fierce to enemies (Republic, 375c).
Interestingly enough, the problem is more on the
“unleashing” side than on the “controlling” side, for killing is less easy than
it might seem for those raised with a Hobbesian outlook in which the ability to
kill is assumed to be widespread. We should recall here the way Hobbes emphasizes the role of fear in
the state of nature in prompting the agreement to form the civil state—and fear
of a return to the state of nature once in such a state. The reason we must be
afraid in – and of – the the state of nature is the widespread ability of
people to kill each other; while asleep, even the strongest can be killed by
This NYT article (h/t Greg Downey on FB; check out his Neuroanthropology blog) lays out research on the effects of social conditions (isolation vs integration) on PTSD. Greg excerpted this quote:
It turns out that most trauma victims — even survivors of combat, torture or concentration camps — rebound to live full, normal lives. That has given rise to a more nuanced view of trauma — less a poison than an infectious agent, a challenge that most people overcome but that may defeat those weakened by past traumas, genetics or other factors. Now, a significant body of work suggests that even this view is too narrow — that the environment just after the event, particularly other people’s responses, may be just as crucial as the event itself.
I thought this one about Nepalese ex-child soldiers provided a good concrete example:
But in villages that readily and happily reintegrated them (usually via rituals or conventions specifically designed to do so), they experienced no more mental distress than did peers who had never gone to war. The lasting harm of being a child soldier, it seemed, arose not from the war but from social isolation and conflict afterward.
As M.P. notes here in comments on Mohan's post, there is an undercurrent of thought (using the term lightly) that defends absolutist interpretations of the 2nd Amendment by claiming that widespread ownership of guns (sometimes specified as assault weapons) serves as a last line of defense against "tyranny."