This piece is in response to the discussion over at Daily Nous here. You should read it first; I’m posting here partly because what I’ve got to say is longer than would reasonably fit into a comment, and partly because I want to think a bit about how difficult the question of whether to launch a boycott is, and Justin wanted to avoid that topic (I may be a little slow in approving comments the next couple of days, be patient). Since I live in Charlotte, NC, I do however think my subject position gives me some space for speaking on the topic. And to be honest, I have very mixed feelings – David Wallace’s first comment on the Daily Nous post (that we need to know the details) seems right to me. Here’s an example of why: One might boycott Charlotte on either of two grounds: the police shooting of Lamont Scott, or the state’s passage of HB2. I want to leave aside the police shooting for the moment, because the politics behind HB2 lend support to the difficulty of deciding whether to boycott, and if so, what to boycott (plus, police shootings are an aspect of the boycott idea, and it remains to be seen whether the protests in Charlotte manage to get anyone’s sustained attention about the city’s deep racial problems).
For those who haven’t been following the news, there was a police shooting in Charlotte the night before last. The facts of the case are still being investigated: the police claim that the black man who was shot had a gun; his family says he had a book. I’m not sure the distinction matters, as North Carolina is an open carry state, so “he had a gun” isn’t obviously relevant. There were violent protests both last night and the night before. Yesterday afternoon, I put the following statement on the Ethics Center’s webpage (including the italicized portion marking it as my own). I woke up this morning to an email ordering me to take it down, and to call my dean. I am not going to die on this hill, so I removed the post. But we live in a world where University Ethics Center directors are not allowed to attempt to exercise moral leadership in the communities they serve, even as those universities claim to commit and recommit to their communities. And where Ethics Centers are forced to be strangely silent on moral issues like HB2 and police violence.
I reproduce the statement in its exact form below, in case someone may find it useful. Systemic violence against people of color is worse than the loss of our universities - including public ones, as I was sternly informed UNC Charlotte is - as places of intellectual engagement. But the latter is not trivial or insignificant, as the steady collapse of meaningful public discourse is a disaster for any viable understanding of democracy.
UPDATE (9/22): There is dashcam footage of the shooting, which the CMPD has. The family has seen the video, and wants it made public. Earlier in the day, the CMPD chief had declared that the video would not be made public, because "The video does not give me absolute, definitive visual evidence that would confirm that a person is pointing a gun." Unless this is a misstatement (but this is the exact quote I have seen, in several sources), this means that the CMPD Chief has essentially refused to release the video on the grounds that it does not clearly exonerate his officer. Someone please show me how I am misreading this statement! In any event, there are already too many issues to discuss here, but the national conversation has to include discussion about what to do with video footage of shootings. North Carolina has passed a law that generally suppresses the public availability of that video. It takes effect Oct. 1. I do not know what the legal situation with the footage is now, but the conflict between the CMPD Chief and the family on whether the video should be released is important.
I am not the first to say this (I believe Habermas critiqued opinion polls in Theory of Communicative Action, though I bet he didn’t use the Foucauldian language I’m about to), but I live in what is now considered a “purple” state, which means my vote might actually matter, and so I am inundated with opinion polls. So allow me my few minutes of ranting here. Don’t get me wrong: I am very happy to learn that the RCP polling average as of this moment has Trump down 1.7 points in North Carolina, and down 5 points nationally, with almost no path through the electoral college. It helps me sleep at night, though whatever faith in humanity those polling numbers restore is quickly erased by the sadness that anyone could vote for someone so openly racist.
I don’t mind being phoned and asked who I’d vote for if the election were held today. What is more interesting and disturbing happens when the polls try to get at issues. It’s also an excellent example of the creation of a “population,” in the sense Foucault uses the term when he talks about biopolitics. Today was the second time I’ve been polled by an outfit that clearly only works for Republicans – in both cases, I was presented with a list of things the candidates have done, and I was asked if I was more or less likely to vote for them on that basis. The Republicans were presented as having done only things that they clearly thought I would say were good, and the Democrats were mainly associated with higher taxes and alleged scandals. So that’s the first point: the poll often tries to push the voter in one direction or another, to create the reality it is ostensibly researching.
The more interesting point is the one about constructing a population, which it does extracting a series of “issues” and presenting them as a disconnected set of questions, with no attention to their context or how they might interconnect.
There are a couple of emerging narratives about Donald Trump. One is that he is the unreconstructed id of middle-aged, white American men who were left behind by the economy. They aren’t quite sure who they’re mad at, but the list probably includes everybody who doesn’t look like them, women in general, and all those libruls who insist on the “political correctness” of being civil whilst in civil society. It also includes the Republican establishment, which Trump supporters have finally realized not only has virtually nothing in common with them, but also does not care about their actual interests. So the base devolves to all it has left: a generalized rage. The other narrative says that Trump is a European-style nationalist: you can have your social services, but you can’t have people who don’t belong to your tribe running around and using those services. These narratives have in common the idea that Trump is appealing because he is racist.
One should never underestimate the explanatory power of racism in American politics, but there’s a third narrative about Trump that belongs in the picture, because I think it adds some explanatory value that the other two don’t: Trump is also the perfect embodiment of contemporary capitalism, by which I mean brand capitalism. I want to take a little time to explain this via a detour into Saussure, but if you don’t want to go there, here’s the gist of it: Trump doesn’t have policy positions because he’s not selling any product other than himself, and there isn’t anything to him other than his being the embodiment of TrumpTM.
Several folks in last night's Republican presidential debate, including Marco Rubio, apparently decided to use philosophy as a foil for some of their typically ridiculous claims about education. In response, lots of people are citing an average salary for people working as professional philosophers — sometimes attributed to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — north of 70k, much more than 'welders.'
I would like to take this opportunity to ask folks to think about what they're doing. I am, and the rest of you should be, extremely dubious of statistics saying folks working as academic philosophers are making $70k on average. There is, to be blunt, no way such numbers —if they are being correctly reported — are being arrived at without massively undercounting continent faculty working at multiple schools, all technically 'part time,' and almost surely making 'welder' salaries or less. None.
At very least, let's not gleefully paper over the economic reality of many members of the profession just to score points against grandstanding right wing politicians. That would be to continue one of the worst patterns of the current academy, namely that of throwing many of us, and the most vulnerable of us, under the bus in order to reinforce the narrative that there isn't a problem with the economics of our profession — a position which is flatly wrong and only serves the interests of the most privileged subset of professional academics.
Charlie Hebdo has offended again. A recently published cartoon titled “So Close to His Goal”, shows Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose tragic drowning death sharply focused the world's attention on the desperation of the migrant crisis in Europe, lying face down on the sand near a billboard featuring Ronald McDonald and advertising a 2-for-1 McDonald's Happy Meal with the legend: 'Two children's' meals for the price of one." The caption reads, 'So close to his goal.' And above it all, "Welcome to migrants.' A second cartoon titled “The Proof that Europe is Christian” shows a toddler drowning in the ocean. waters. Next to him a Christ-like figure walks on water. The caption reads, "Christians walk on waters… Muslims kids sink.”
Here is how I 'read' the cartoon, roughly: The West and Europe imagines itself the haven of liberal, secular ideals; it imagines itself the bastion of democracy, republicanism, and the social welfare state. In point of fact, it is as much in thrall to old-fashioned notions of Christian triumphalism and the blurring of the church and state as those regimes that it disdains. The West and Europe still fight holy wars; they still imagine themselves under attack from the 'Huns' and the 'Goths' and the 'barbarians' and the 'Moors.' The migrants might have thought they were escaping to this promised land where they would be welcomed with open arms and invited to make a new life. Little do they know that they were only heading for a vapid, shallow, xenophobic, insular, Islamophobic, consumerist culture, one whose patron saint is Ronald McDonald, and whose guiding slogans are not the call to arms of the great revolutions, but rather, sales pitches for cheap goods.
That's how I read it. I did not take these cartoons to be 'mocking' a dead child. I do not claim to know the 'intent' of the cartoonist, but given Charlie Hebdo's history, and the current context, my interpretation strikes me as at least halfway plausible.
I am not going to offer a systematic defense here of Charlie Hebdo, but want to make note of a couple of what I think are relevant points:
The famous cartoon of Barack and Michelle Obama exchanging fist-bumps in the Oval Office, while wearing 'Arab dresses' and carrying guns, appeared on the cover of the New Yorker. Had it appeared on the cover of the National Review Online, complete with a comments section of gibbering right-wingers rubbing their hands in glee, reactions to it would have been considerably sharper.
Charlie Hebdo's cartoons are bound to offend many and their choice of vehicle for making their political points might be questioned. But they have ample material to choose from and ample opportunity to offend; this world and its dominant species' arrogance and continuing self-destructive behavior will ensure that. Satirists exist and find work because we are worthy targets of satire.
Philosophers, and many thoughtful people more generally, pride themselves on having a healthy skepticism toward claims made by the media, by politicians, by scientists – by pretty much anyone. And rightly so. Many issues are complex and have not just two sides, but multiple sides. One ought not accept proffered claims without examining all of the evidence and without thinking about whether the evidence supports the claims being made. But are there times when a healthy skepticism becomes unhealthy?
In my field, philosophy of science, we often have meta-discussions about the extent to which we should accept scientific findings or question them. But even the most naturalistic philosopher of science thinks that we ought to be skeptical of scientific findings at least some of the time and under some circumstances.
I don't think it is. I don't think we should have the same skepticism toward towards claims about future political outcomes as we have towards scientific claims. The reason is simple: in evaluating scientific claims, we are evaluating existing evidence. As new evidence comes in, we might change our evaluation, but our beliefs, whether in favor or against a given claim, are not affecting the evidence or the truth of the claim itself.
But when evaluating claims about future political events, the situation is different. To see this, let's suppose that Jane Voter likes Sanders's platform, agrees with his values and proposals, but, being of skeptical bent, Jane decides that Sanders is too much of a long shot and doesn't really have a chance. This belief leads her not to support Sanders's campaign; it also leads her to suggest to her friends and and family that it would be a waste of time to do so.
The more Janes there are in the world, the more they can convince their friends and family, the more their beliefs become a foregone conclusion. That is, unlike like beliefs about scientific claims, beliefs about political outcomes actually change the outcomes. The skepticism becomes unhealthy.
We should act to bring about the outcomes that we find desirable, not sabotage those outcomes while brandishing the banner of skepticism.
Last Friday (July 31st) my wife, my daughter, and I were to fly back from Vancouver to New York City after our vacation in Canada's Jasper and Banff National Parks. On arrival at Vancouver Airport, we began the usual check-in, got groped in security, and filled out customs forms. The US conducts all customs and passport checks in Canada itself for US-bound passengers; we waited in the line for US citizens. We were directed to a self-help kiosk, which issued a boarding pass for my wife with a black cross across it. I paid no attention to it at the time, but a few minutes later, when a US Customs and Border Protection officer directed us to follow him, I began to. We were directed to a waiting room, where I noticed a Muslim family--most probably from Indonesia or Malaysia--seated on benches. (The women wore wore headscarves; the man sported a beard but no moustache and wore a skull cap.)
I knew what was happening: once again, my wife had been flagged for the 'no-fly' list.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard oral arguments in Obergfell v. Hodges, which presents the Court with an opportunity to strike down state bans on same-sex marriage once and for all. Most observers seem to think that the court will take the opportunity. The four liberal judges are taken as a given, and both Justice Kennedy and Justice Roberts arguably have obtainable votes. Kennedy, who has repeatedly departed from his conservative colleagues on gay rights issues, seemed to think that the recognition of marriage afforded a kind of dignity to a relationship, and that there wasn’t any good reason why gay couples should be denied that dignity. Chief Justice Roberts, as Andrew Koppleman points out, seemed to be considering a very easy way out: bans on same-sex marriage are sex discrimination.
The sex discrimination argument isn’t immediately apparent, but once you see it, it makes pretty good sense. Mary wants to marry Joe. So does Bob. Mary can, and Bob can’t. The only reason Bob can’t marry Joe is his sex. It’s clear, it’s tidy, and it doesn’t require anything legally novel, like declaring that being gay (or otherwise gender non-conforming) makes one a member of a “suspect class” (something like race, where members of the class have been historically the objects of “invidious discrimination;” legislation affecting them as a class is then guaranteed a higher level of judicial scrutiny). If same-sex marriage bans discriminate on the basis of sex, then they have to survive judicial strict scrutiny, and that seems pretty unlikely. For one thing, it’s not at all clear what compelling governmental interest is served by restricting marriage only to heterosexual couples. The states in question were putting their eggs in the basket that marriage is for the sake of having and raising (one’s own biological) children. As William Saletan points out, that argument makes sense in a vacuum, but if it’s true, then states ought to ban marriage by the old or the infertile. Attorneys defending the ban apparently had one of those bad-days-at-work, repeatedly falling into incoherence.
The best teacher I’ve ever had in my life was my history teacher in my first year at the Lycée Claude Monet in Paris: Monsieur (Denis) Corvol. Aged 14, I had just arrived from Brazil to spend two years in France with my parents, who were on an extended research leave from their positions as medicine professors in São Paulo, Brazil. I barely spoke French upon arrival, and to say that the first months were tough is an understatement. Many of the teachers seemed to be particularly harsh on me, and one (the math teacher) said in front of everyone in class: “if you can’t solve this problem, and you obviously don’t speak French very well, I wonder what you are doing in this class”.
But there was Monsieur Corvol, whose unorthodox teaching methods included talking about a variety of topics that seemed to have no connection whatsoever with the content we were supposed to be learning (the French Revolution and so forth – for that, he told us to go read the textbook on our own). (Years later I realized he was some sort of Habermasian, emphasizing inter-subjective communication and rational discourse.) When I arrived, he spent some two or three classes talking about Brazil -- what a remarkable country it was, how much the French could learn from Brazil -- in an obvious maneuver to make me feel more welcome, and to invite my classmates to engage with me in more positive ways.
From time to time I remember Monsieur Corvol with much fondness; many of the things I heard from him for the first time still reverberate with me. One of them, which I am reminded of now with the ongoing disaster of the migrant crisis in Europe, was: “Migrants are the bravest people in the world.” Migrants are the people who have the courage to fight for a better life in a new, unknown, possibly inhospitable country; for that, they must be resourceful and determined. Lucky is the country that can count on the drive and ambition of migrants, as a wonderful recent campaign in the UK has also highlighted. The 800 people who died in the Mediterranean Sea, many of whom children, should be remembered as among the bravest people in the world.
In this country it is chiefly to the judiciary that is entrusted the task of preventing a discrepancy between the law as declared and as actually administered. This allocation of function has the advantage of placing the responsibility in practiced hands, subjecting its discharge to public scrutiny, and dramatizing the integrity of the law. There are, however, serious disadvantages in any system that looks to the courts as a bulwark against the lawless administration of the law. It makes the correction of abuses dependent upon the willingness and financial ability of the affected party to take his case to legislation. It has proved relatively ineffective in controlling lawless conduct by the police, this evil being in fact compounded by the tendency of lower courts to identify their mission with that of maintaining the morale of the police force. [pp. 81-82]
There is little need to emphasize the topicality or relevance of these words, originally uttered in 1964 by Fuller, during the delivery of the Storrs Lectures on Jurisprudence at Yale Law School. Still, one is almost unavoidably drawn to the last sentence of the excerpt above. The considerations raised there are especially worth revisiting. (Fuller's larger project, of course, is to argue that law-abiding behavior is better ensured by a consideration of the moral weight attached to any injunction of the law.)
In the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, both of which resulted in acquittals and failures to indict the police officers, it was transparent to most dispassionate observers that the judiciary did not see its work as upholding the law, as much as it saw it as supporting the police force, a 'partner' in the work it was engaged in elsewhere. Prosecutors and district attorneys work with police forces to enforce the law; they were not interested in bringing any of their 'co-workers' to justice, to subjecting them to the same standards employed on other legal subjects.
My guess is, the new strategy is go ahead and indict, and avoid the fuss that will be made if you don't. You can always acquit later with the right kind of jury.
Hours have passed since I wrote the comment and I see no reason to reconsider. Video evidence--the kind that led to the formulation and pressing of the initial murder charges--has never been considered probative when it comes to assaults on black men by police. And as always, the enduring and transient members of the judiciary--like the jury--will, in all likelihood, worry more about the hit the morale of the good police officers of South Carolina, and perhaps nationwide will take. Such dangerous work, such little reward; surely these men in the line of duty, standing shoulder to shoulder with us in the administration of the law, should be forgiven their minor transgressions?
The Affordable Care Act was in the Supreme Court again today, this time for oral argument in King v. Burwell. For those who don’t follow the ACA’s legal woes, the challenge in Burwell is this: under the ACA, states are supposed to establish exchanges where citizens can purchase healthcare on the individual market. For states that don’t want to run their own exchanges, the federal government steps up and does it for them. Healthcare is expensive, and so the federal government heavily subsidizes the premiums (on a sliding scale) for those in the middle class. However, buried in the part of the law to do with tax code, the statute says that subsidies are available for those purchasing from an exchange “established by the state.” The challenge is basically a big, fat gotcha! moment. If you say you’ll pay me back for “dinner,” and I show up with pizza and beer, then I can plausibly expect you to pay me back for both. On the other hand, if you say that you will pay me back for buying you a pizza, then I should understand that you don’t have to pay me back for beer. By the same reasoning, if the law says subsidies flow to those whose exchanges are established by “the state,” then those subsidies are not available to those whose exchanges are established by “the federal government.” Gotcha!
If you haven't already, you should read yesterday's Stone article in the NYT by Justin McBrayer entitled "Why Our Children Don't Believe There Are Moral Facts." There, McBrayer bemoans the ubiquity of a certain configuration of the difference between "fact" and "opinion" assumed in most pre-college educational instruction (and, not insignificantly, endorsed by the Common Core curriculum). The basic presumption is that all value claims-- those that involve judgments of good and bad, right and wrong, better and worse-- are by definition "opinions" because they refer to what one "believes," in contradistinction to "facts," which are provable or disprovable, i.e., True or False. The consequence of this sort of instruction, McBrayer argues, is that our students come to us (post-secondary educators) not believing in moral facts, predisposed to reject moral realism out of hand. Though I may not be as quick to embrace the hard version of moral realism that McBrayer seems to advocate, I am deeply sympathetic with his concern. In my experience, students tend to be (what I have dubbed elsewhere on my own blog) "lazy relativists." It isn't the case, I find, that students do not believe their moral judgments are true--far from it, in fact-- but rather that they've been trained to concede that the truth of value judgments, qua "beliefs," is not demonstrable or provable. What is worse, in my view, they've also been socially- and institutionally-conditioned to think that even attempting to demonstrate/prove/argue that their moral judgments are True-- and, correspondingly, that the opposite of their judgments are False-- is trés gauche at best and, at worst, unforgivably impolitic.
[UPDATE: It seems that my post is being interpreted by some as a criticism of the Charlie Hebdo collaborators. Nothing could be further from the truth; I align myself completely with their Enlightenment ideals -- so I'm intolerant too! -- and in fact deem humor to be a powerful tool to further these ideals. Moreover, perhaps it is worth stressing the obvious: their 'intolerance' does not in any way justify their barbaric execution. It is not *in any way* on a par with the intolerance of those who did not tolerate their humor and thus went on to kill them.]
I grew up in a thoroughly secular household (my father was a communist; I never had any kind of religious education). However, I did get a fair amount of exposure to religion through my grandmothers: my maternal grandmother was a practicing protestant, and my paternal grandmother was a practicing catholic. In my twenties, for a number of reasons, I became more and more drawn to Catholicism, or at least to a particular interpretation of Catholicism (with what can be described as a ‘buffet’ attitude: help yourself only to what seems appetizing to you). This led to me getting baptized, getting married in the Catholic church, and wearing a cross around my neck. (I have since then distanced myself from Catholicism, in particular since I became a mother. It became clear to me that I could not give my daughters a catholic ‘buffet’ upbringing, and that they would end up internalizing all the dogmas of this religion that I find deeply problematic.)
At the same time, upon moving to the Netherlands in the late 90s, I had been confronted with the difficult relations between this country and its large population of immigrants and their descendants sharing a Muslim background, broadly speaking. At first, it all made no sense to me, coming from a country of immigrants (Brazil) where the very concept of being a ‘second-generation immigrant’ is quite strange. Then, many years ago (something like 13 years ago, I reckon) one day in the train, I somehow started a conversation with a young man who appeared to be of Arabic descent. I don’t quite recall how the conversation started, but one thing I remember very clearly: he said to me that it made him happy to see me wearing the catholic cross around my neck. According to him, the problem with the Netherlands is the people who have no religion – no so much people who (like me at the time) had a religion different from his own.* This observation has stayed with me since.
Anyway, this long autobiographical prologue is meant to set the stage for some observations on the recent tragic events in Paris. As has been remarked by many commentators (see here, for example), the kind of humor practiced by the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists must be understood in the context of a long tradition of French political satire which is resolutely left-wing, secular, and atheist. Its origins go back at least to the 18th century; it was an integral part of the Enlightenment movement championed by people like Voltaire, who used humor to provoke social change. In particular in the context of totalitarian regimes, satire becomes an invaluable weapon.
The following open letter in support of the autonomy of the universities of the Republic of Macedonia was originally drafted by Todd May for the purposes of being circulated and gaining additional signatories. It is being published here with the names of its current subscribers. Those who wish to add their signatures are encouraged to do so in the comments. Institutional affiliations are provided solely for the purposes of identification of the individual signers and do not express any official position of the named institutions.
Those seeking more information about the situation or who wish to discuss it should read and comment on the post below this one.
I have been asked to pass along the following appeal—first circulated privately and signed by representatives of a student organization and several faculty, including noted philosopher Katerina Kolozova—concerning the situation of universities in Macedonia.
The Macedonian government is moving to institute a set of external, government administered examinations that would become the condition for granting of any university-level degree. Billed as an anti-corruption measure, this initiative is being criticized by the authors of the letter below as having the effect of ending the autonomy of the country's universities (guaranteed in the Macedonian constitution) and subjecting their core academic functions to direct political control. Similar sentiments are reflected in the following news stories about significant protests which took place last week in Skopje (here and here)—the largest in a month of protests.
The letter is reproduced below. Those with more knowldge of the situation are encouraged to add their voices in the comments.
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?
How we ought to understand the terms "civility" and "collegiality" and to what extent they can be enforced as professional norms are dominating discussions in academic journalism and the academic blogosphere right now. (So much so, in fact, that it's practically impossible for me to select among the literally hundreds of recent articles/posts and provide for you links to the most representative here.) Of course, the efficient cause of civility/collegiality debates' meteoric rise to prominence is the controversy surrounding Dr. Steven Salaita's firing (or de-hiring, depending on your read of the situation) by the University of Illinois only a month ago, but there are a host of longstanding, deeply contentious and previously seething-just-below-the-surface agendas that have been given just enough air now by the Salaita case to fan their smoldering duff into a blazing fire.
In the interest of full disclosure, I'll just note here at the start that I articulated my concerns about (and opposition to) policing norms of civility/collegiality or otherwise instituting "codes" to enforce such norms some months ago (March 2014) in a piece I co-authored with Edward Kazarian on this blog here (and reproduced on the NewAPPS site) entitled "Please do NOT revise your tone." My concern was then, as it remains still today, that instituting or policing norms of civility/collegiality is far more likely to protect objectionable behavior/speech by those who already possess the power to avoid sanction and, more importantly, is likely to further disempower those in vulnerable professional positions by effectively providing a back-door manner of sanctioning what may be their otherwise legitimately critical behaviors/speech. I'm particularly sympathetic to the recent piece "Civility is for Suckers" in Salon by David Palumbo-Liu (Stanford) who retraces the case-history of civility and free speech and concludes, rightly in my view, that "civility is in the eye of the powerful."
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.
[Update 2: The report on which this discussion has been based is now being called into question. UIUC English Professor Ted Underwood tweets as follows: "@Ted_Underwood: Regret to say that last night's report from students appears premature. Faculty have since met with Wise, & report no change in position."]
[Update: Thanks to John Protevi for providing the correspondence address for the UIUC Board of Trustees in the comments below.]
Yesterday evening, reports began to emerge that University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise has forwarded Steven Salaita's appointment to the University's Board of Trustees, who will vote on it at their meeting ten days from now, on September 11th.
Obviously, this is a hopeful sign, given that the Chancellor's position until how has been to refuse to submit the appointment to the board—as Corey Robin puts the point, what amounts to a 'pocket veto.' That said, it's difficult to feel too much confidence that the process now underway is intended or should be expected to terminate in the restoration of Professor Salaita's position. Robin has spent some time parsing a couple of scenrios here; but the key thing to recognize, as John Protevi also noticed very quickly last night, is that this could easily be a move that the University is legally required to make or that it would be in its best interest to make if it wants to avoid being sued for denying Salaita due process.
Nevertheless, as Robin points out in his post, these developments also mean that those supporting the causes of academic freedom and faculty governance* in this case now have an important opportunity: ten days in which to bring maximum pressure on the Trustees to vote in favor of Salaita's appointment. In other words, the game is still on, and it must continue to be.
As I write this, at least 543 philosophers have signed our disciplinary pledge to boycott UIUC until this matter is resolved in Salaita's favor—see this post by Eric Schwitzgebel, where he explains his rationale for honoring the boycott.** Please consider adding your name if you have not yet done so. Additionally, please consider writing to the trustees directly expressing your support for Salaita's appointment, as well as your sense of the cost to the Unviersity's reputation should it fail to respect the principles of academic freedom and faculty governance in this case.
For they know they are not animals. And at the very moment when they discover their humanity, they begin to sharpen their weapons to secure its victory. --Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth America has been and remains an apartheid state. That sad but increasingly undeniable fact was made apparent last night in Ferguson, Missouri to a group of peaceful protesters amidst tanks, deafening LRADs, a haze of tear gas and a firestorm of rubber (and real) bullets. The other tragic fact made apparent in Ferguson last night is that America is only ever a hair's-breadth away from a police state... if we understand by "police"not a regulated body of law-enforcement peacekeepers empowered to serve and protect the citizenry, but rather a heavily-armed, extra-constitutional, militarized cadre of domestic soldiers who provoke and terrorize with impunity. Much of the time, we are able to forget or ignore these unfortunate truths about contemporary America-- and by "we" I mean our elected officials, our bureaucrats and financiers, and a lot of self-delusionally "post-racial," though really white, people-- but the mean truth of gross inequality, both de facto and de jure, remains ever-present in spite of our disavowals, simmering steadily just below the allegedly free and fair democratic veneer of our polis.
Greg Howard, journalist and parrhesiates, said it about as plainly as it can be said this past Tuesday in his article for Deadspin: America is not for black people. The truth of "American apartheid" should make us all ashamed, saddened, angry, deeply troubled as moral and political agents. And, what is more, it should frighten us all.
There's been a good bit conversation recently about the merits and demerits of "public philosophy" and, as someone who considers herself committed to public philosophy (whatever that is). I'm always happy to stumble across a piece of remarkably insightful philosophical work in the public realm. Case in point: Robin James (Philosophy, UNC-Charlotte) posted a really fascinating and original short-essay on the Cyborgology blog a couple of days ago entitled "An attempt at a precise & substantive definition of 'neoliberalism,' plus some thoughts on algorithms." There, she primarily aims to distinguish the sense in which we use the term "neoliberalism" to indicate an ideology from its use as a historical indicator, and she does so by employing some extremely helpful insights about algorithms, data analysis, the mathematics of music, harmony, and how we understand consonance and dissonance. I'm deeply sympathetic with James' underlying motivation for this piece, namely, her concern that our use of the term "neoliberalism" (or its corresponding descriptor "neoliberal") has become so ubiquitous that it is in danger of being evacuated of "precise and substantive" meaning altogether. I'm sympathetic, first, as a philosopher, for whom precise and substantive definitions are as essential as hammers and nails are to a carpenter. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I'm sympathetic with James' effort because as Jacques Derrida once said "the more confused the concept, the more it lends itself to opportunistic appropriation." Especially in the last decade or so, "neoliberalism" is perhaps the sine qua non term that has been, by both the Left and the Right, opportunistically appropriated.
James' definition of neoliberalism's ideological position ("everything in the universe works like a deregulated, competitive, financialized, capitalist market") ends up relying heavily on her distinction of neoliberalism as a particular type of ideology, i.e., one "in which epistemology and ontology collapse into one another, an epistemontology." In sum, James conjectures that neoliberal epistemontology purports to know what it knows (objects, beings, states of affairs, persons, the world) vis-a-vis "the general field of reference of economic anaylsis."
Suspecting that a disappointing Court decision is coming doesn’t make it any better when it arrives, as did the Hobby Lobby opinion this morning, in which a 5-4 majority (led by Justice Alito) said that it violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1992 to require a “closely held corporation” (“family-owned,” but expect lots of litigation; apparently some 90% of American corporations may qualify!) to purchase a health insurance policy that provided free contraception to which the owners of that corporation object on religious grounds (nice summary here). There is a substantial silver lining, which is that the Court seems to endorse an opt-out like the one provided for non-profits: certify that you object to providing contraception coverage, and you don’t pay for that part of the plan. Either the insurer or the government does. Accordingly, today’s ruling would also appear to pre-emptively resolve (see also here) the next round of religious objections to the ACA, where some of those non-profits contend that even signing the paperwork saying they object to providing contraception somehow violates their religious beliefs, because signing the paperwork means they start a process the end of which is contraception (so would employing women at all, but never mind that, apparently).
In a post last month for Demos, Matt Bruenig argued that if one in fact cares about childhood poverty, a recent conservative position promoting marriage as a means of reducing childhood poverty rates is as cruel as it is misguided (http://www.demos.org/blog/4/14/14/single-mother-child-poverty-myth). In a nutshell, Bruenig notes that countries with low childhood poverty rates have not achieved this success via promoting marriage, nor are their rates of single-parenthood markedly different from those in the U.S.
One way to put this basic observation is that people promoting marriage are deliberately ignoring most of the variation that matters. Yes, it is true (ceteris paribus, of course!) that in the international sample Bruenig looks at, in every country, the children of single parents are more likely to be poor than the children of married parents living together.* But far more variation in childhood poverty rates is associated with different policies in the different countries, and not with the relationship status of the parents; indeed, even if the child poverty rate in the U.S. dropped to the level associated with children living with married parents living together in the U.S. today, it would still be substantially higher, indeed, quite grossly higher, than in the other countries Bruenig looks at.
My friend Alan Nelson recently posted a link on facebook to the following article: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/23/business/economic-view-when-the-scientist-is-also-a-philosopher.html with an appropriately snarky note that the author, N. Gregory Mankiw (the Chair of the econ department at Harvard, natch), seemed to be arguing that the only changes to the status quo permissible are those that are verifiably Perato efficient improvements. An obvious corollary is that, since every reasonably substantive and complex policy change will have winners and losers, we should never change policies at all.
... in Turkey. I suppose no one should be surprised by what Recep Tayyip Erdogan is capable of by now, but this is definitely a new low. Below is a short BBC video narrating the chronology of events, and here is a piece in the Guardian from the point of view of those fighting back against the suppression of internet freedom in Turkey (H/T Lucas Thorpe for both).
I invite well informed readers to offer further elements on the situation in comments below.
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 is just a short note to express my hope that all the celebrities and ordinary folks celebrating the two former members of pussy riot will recall that there are political prisoners rotting in US prisons as well. This is not to criticize TFMPR - I don't really understand the issues behind the split, but that aside, I take it that their primary moral responsibility is to stand up to abuses in Russia. On the other hand, while there is nothing at all wrong with cheering on these efforts from the safe Brooklyn sidelines, this is not the primary moral responsibility of someone in the US. For those who would like to learn more about US political prisoners, there are quite a few excellent resources Here
Is an African American political prisoner in the US. He was convicted of killing a police officer in the course of resistance work with the armed wing of the New African Liberation Army. He has been held in solitary confinement for the last 30 years, in violation of numerious international agreements, and under conditions that clearly constitute torture. Below is a letter from various Nobel Laureates calling for his release into the general population, and information on how to support him.