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The Best and the Brightest and Accidental History

This week we learned that the Trump team didn’t realize they had to replace all the staff in the White House, that the Trump transition team has been re-organized several times, perhaps in part because his son-in-law, Jared Kushner wants to settle a personal score against Chris Christie, and that Ivanka Trump is using her dad’s election to hawk some bracelets in her line.  If you’re like me, you are little freaked out not only by the political commitments of this coming Administration, but how ill-prepared they seem.  I want to assure you–being well prepared might not be much better.

This week, as I’ve been hearing these things, I’ve been reading David Halberstam’s ironically titled historical account of the minds that together brought us the policies of the Cold War, and thus the Vietnam War and its failures–The Best and the Brightest.  What is clear in this book is that failures of personality, of individual insecurity, of a country wanting to prove itself led to decisions that were later defended as inevitable and necessary. Read more

Paper Towns and the Fragility of Democracy

Donald Trump has for several weeks now been calling into question the results of an election he has yet to lose.  He has suggested that he will put his opponent in prison if he is elected.  Earlier in this campaign he said he would instruct the US military to go after the families of suspected terrorists and he encouraged his own supporters to attack protesters with promises of paying their legal fees.  He has publicly shamed members of the media whose coverage of his campaign he does not like, as in this most recent case with Katy Tur.  He has generally violated the unwritten norms of American public discourse and political office-seeking.  His supporters describe his approach as refreshing.  I think what Trump has showcased for better or worse is how fragile the democratic project is.

This year in buying our house I learned a little something about how the rule of law operates on a fiction.  The fiction is that there is something that binds us to the rule of law.  Generally, we act as if the law binds us, but on occasion, when people decide it does not bind them, the fictive nature of the rule of law becomes clear.  That’s when you have to decide if you want to do anything to actually force the law to work, because it won’t on its own.  Making the law have teeth then requires an additional expenditure of time, energy and money.  Just ask any of Trump’s vendors that he never paid.

It turns out that the laws and mores whereby our institutions and political structures work also operate on a bit of a fiction.  They work because we believe they work, which means they also stop working when we stop believing that they work.  To the extent that Congress tries to represent the people it is because the people believe that Congress represents them and should be representing them.  To the extent that state governments accept judgments handed down by the Supreme Court and other arbitrating bodies they do so because they believe that those judgments require it of them. Read more

#FEMMSS6

I learned about the Feminist Epistemologies, Metaphysics, Methodologies and Science Studies  (FEMMSS) 6th conference at the GLCA Women’s/Gender/Sexuality Studies workshop in Ann Arbor last May from someone who works in science studies.  FEMMSS is the feminist epistemologists and metaphysicians equivalent to the Feminist Ethics and Social Theory (FEAST) conference.  Since FEAST meets every other year, FEMMSS meets on the off year.  What’s great about this conference is how interdisciplinary it is — people from physics, neuroscience, philosophy, anthropology, history and sociology are here.  I have enjoyed the interdisciplinary conferences I’ve attended in the last several years, from HASTAC to PODNetwork to Wonder and the Natural World at IU this last June.  The conversations are lively and cross-pollinating, and the intradisciplinary anxiety and intensity seem softened by the interdisciplinary engagements. Read more

Buying a House: The Ship of Theseus

I just finished redoing the deck.  My dad who is a contractor recently told me that you should be putting 5% of the value of your house into it every year if you don’t want to be losing value.  And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he continued by saying, you’re basically rebuilding your house over the time you own it.   I was actually glad to hear the 5% because I had misremembered him saying 10-15% some years ago.  The rebuilding point is something I have been mulling over a bit.  It reminded me of the problem of Theseus’ ship.  In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, Socrates explains that he has been waiting in jail for some time to be executed because no executions could occur during a festival.  The current festival celebrated Theseus’ defeat of the Minotaur, which I report on after visiting Knossos last summer, where the fabled labyrinth was said to be.  To celebrate the festival, a ship was sent out to Delos ritualizing a recreation of the trip to Crete.  But over time, the boards had to be replaced, raising the question of whether the ship was still the same ship if none of the original boards remained.  Socrates’ discussion of the festival in a dialogue focused on the question of the immortality of the soul raises the question of what keeps a person the same if all the “boards” that comprise a person change.  (One recent commentator points to the range of ways that the dialogue associates Socrates on the one side and the Athenians on the other with Theseus, the fabled founder of Athens, suggesting that the execution of Socrates is the final stage of this re-enactment for the Athenians, where Socrates takes the place of the Minotaur and on the other hand Socrates himself re-enacts the trip by finally dying and escaping the labyrinth of his body). Read more

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, A Review

One of my side projects has been thinking about how the shift from polytheism to monotheism parallels a shift from politics to philosophy in ancient thought, as I discussed here awhile back.   I am particularly interested in how the dichotomy between the false and the true god only becomes possible with monotheism, just as the dichotomy of false and true knowledge only becomes relevant with the introduction of philosophy, the arena of being and knowledge, against politics, the arena of appearance and opinion. I was looking forward to what Whitmarsh could add to the discussion in his new book, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World.  I was interested in how ancient atheism fit into this production of the true.  If Assmann’s account of polytheism as a domain of shared opinion and shared gods is accepted, it would seem that denial of the existence of gods put people outside the realm of even those who had political opinions. While there is a brief discussion of Assmann (26), Whitmarsh does not attempt to think atheism within that structure.  In fact, this lacuna points to a larger problem with the book: it makes the case that there were ancient atheists, but it does not lead to further insight about what that might mean for the social and political world.  Instead, the point seems to be, atheism is fine because it is not new.  And also, “clever people could not possibly believe in gods,” as Barbara Graziosi reads Whitmarsh.

In this post, I discuss the ways that Whitmarsh’s treatment of mythology, Plato and Socrates, and Christianity lead to flatfooted readings that fail to consider the robust complexity of Greek thinking about the gods. Read more

False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Review

We’ve been asking ourselves for years why certain voting blocs vote for the Republican Party apparently against their interest.  The economic platform of the GOP does not seem to serve working class white men, but the racist dog whistles and socially conservative “family-values” appeals draw these voters in election after election.  The neoliberalism of Hillary Clinton suggests that this same question should be asked of traditional Democratic voters who feel compelled to vote for the Democratic nominee to protect specific rights associated with identity politics. 7 intraparty caucuses are listed by the DNC in 1982, Donna Murch notes in this volume: “women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays, liberals and business/professionals” (92).

One contributor asks whether, if Roe were settled, many feminists would feel any compulsion at all to support the Democratic candidate cycle after cycle.  Maureen Tkacik (“Abortion: The Politics of Failure”), founder of Jezebel, argues that this is the one issue that seems to unite women to the Democratic Party, despite the fact that Democrats haven’t been very good at making abortion safe and accessible to women. Tkacik maintains that the right to abortion is easier to exercise in Mexico, a country where that right does not exist.  “This is telling because Hillary Clinton owes her chances at the presidency to abortion: and she’s not alone–it’s often Democrats’ unique selling proposition to women” (113).

But abortion cannot be the sum of feminist politics.  Far more significant and far more central in making women’s lives, workers’ lives, people of color’s lives precarious are the neoliberal policies long supported by Hillary Clinton.  Neoliberalism is the political and economic view that uses government to support and protect corporate interests, devolving risk to individual workers, who can be deemed too expensive to support.  Tkacik concludes that it is telling that abortion has become the rallying cry of Clinton’s feminism:

Yet it makes sense from an insular Beltway fundraising perspective to focus on an issue that makes no demands–the opposite, really–of the oligarch class; this is probably a big reason why EMILY’s List has never dabbled in backing universal pre-K or paid maternity leave; a major reason “reproductive choice” has such a narrow and negative definition in the American political discourse. (123)

This collection of essays edited by Liza Featherstone reminded me of how central was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s role in bringing the neoliberal state of affairs to American politics and making it commonplace.  In three specific areas-education, welfare, and crime policy- Hillary and Bill Clinton were catalysts  of change in American thinking such that these issues appear incontestable yet are severely damaging. Read more

To my Evangelical Friends from a former Republican staffer

When I was a Republican, working first on Capitol Hill and then for the Republican National Convention in 2000 and then for a senatorial re-election campaign, I experienced a constant sense of having to find ways of coming to terms with and supporting views I didn’t immediately find legitimate or actions of politicians in leadership that I did not find defensible.  I am from Philadelphia and was really a social family-values conservative and a fiscal welfare-supporting liberal.  I thought abortion was wrong, but we had a responsibility for the poor.  I experienced my fairly short-lived existence as a Republican staffer feeling like I had to swallow some things I found pretty awful like a general disdain for poor people in order to achieve the agenda I supported.  But it wasn’t just policy, it was like, every time the Speaker of the House (Newt Gingrich and then Dennis Hastert) or Majority Leader (Trent Lott) said something absurd, or when the House impeached Bill Clinton, every GOP staffer had to do various acrobatics to come to terms with supporting this party.  Maybe other staffers felt more freedom to distinguish between what they supported and what they didn’t, but we were working for the Party as much as for the Member of Congress so it was hard to do that.  Everything had to be defended.  The Party could do no wrong. Read more

Exploring Indiana: Turner and Oldfields at the IMA

Since I moved to Indiana, I have been blogging about various adventures in exploring Indiana, often at the instigation of my friend Nazareth Pantaloni who lives in Bloomington.  Last spring, we visited Naz in Bloomington the same weekend that the film about Joseph Mallard William Turner’s life, Mr. Turner, was playing in IU’s Art and a Movie Film series.  Turner lived from 1775-1851, and, as that NYT piece linked above says, his life was a piece of work just as much as his art was.  So this weekend, Naz joined us for a visit to the IMA to see the exhibit of drawings by Turner.   There are two large oil paintings on display in the general collections of the museum, including this one, The Fifth Plague of Egypt, which Turner painted in 1799.

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The drawings show a different side to Turner.  They are largely architectural, and not nearly so full of Sturm und Drang.  They often highlight the everyday life and work at the foot of impressive architectural edifices, like this one below of Ripon: Looking along the Kirkgate toward the Cathedral from 1797 (Turner was 23!).  The exhibit is in a room is up the stairs from the Clowes Courtyard.  Unlike much of the museum, which feels very much like a museum, this room appropriately feels like you are walking through someone’s living room.  I admit I was a little confused about why some pieces that were not Turner’s were included – I expect it was to show influence and connections, but there was no explanation.  The exhibit is up until August 28.turner2

I moved to Indianapolis just a couple months ago, but I already thought I knew the city.  I have visited the Indianapolis Museum of Art plenty (I blogged about the Georgia O’Keefe exhibit here).  But not until this weekend did I venture beyond the main building to the house and gardens that make up the estate behind it–Oldfields.  This is the home of J.K. Lilly, Jr., the businessman and philanthropist who now seems to fund most of Indiana nonprofit work.  As followers of this blog know from this series, I bought a home not too long ago.  In the Exploring Indiana series, I have blogged about visits to three historic homes in Indiana–the Miller home in Columbus, the Eugene Debs house in Terre Haute, and the Steele estate in Brown County.  But it struck me at the Lilly house this weekend that if interior design is aspirational, as Francesca Tronchin has argued and as I consider here, then the very function of all these homes set aside for our viewing pleasure is to produce the sense that homes show who you are, who you see yourself to be and who you want others to think you are.  Even these people were doing aspirational interior design.  Look at this library, what does this say about me?  Look at this china set, look at this kitchen, it even has a separate dish-washing kitchen.  The website explains, “Lilly House is a historic house museum and has been restored to its 1930s splendor. ”

OLD_079_Lilly House History 2

Of course there is an historical element–this is how people lived, which is why I like to see the kitchens and the dumb waiters and learning whether the elevator was a new addition or part of the house when it was built (it was part of the house when it was built).  But if it were only that, we would be as interested in preserving and visiting the average person’s home – the Debs house pretty much is the average person’s home and so many fewer people visit it.  Or we would be talking more specifically about the historical significance of the home.  But what we are talking about is silver collections.  The top floor of the Lilly House is an exhibit of the silver.  The website discusses the history in terms of the history of improvements that have been made to the house.  It isn’t just that this house communicates that this is what it means to make it.  To have a silver urn of this sort.  To have this old car.  To have the ability to donate this 100-acre estate to set up an art museum.  But rather, that these people were showing who they had become and how they wanted to be seen by their extensive china collection.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s captivating.  I envied the library.  The gardens are very nice.  The orchids on display in the greenhouse are amazing in the I-can’t-believe-this-exists-in-nature kind of way.  But it’s unmistakeable that these homes and gardens construct our desire and our feelings about needing to be better consumers in order to be better at communicating who we are to the world in the guise of interior design.

#7DaysofWomen

Starting on May 5, I embarked on a week-long social media experiment where I only engaged with women online.  I did this project in conjunction with blogger and philosopher Leigh Johnson.  Here’s what I posted and she posted on Facebook to announce the project.

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I have long felt like social media is a man’s world.  Men get all the privileges they get as men, but it feels amplified on social media.  My experience of social media in general is that men can say things that get taken as definitive, while women are asked to explain and justify.  Men say things about their difficulties in any particular area of their life and it is taken as an expression of their reflective capacities, but when women express such difficulties, it is taken as a moment to offer advice.  I don’t have the data (a. I would love to see such work being done and b. I think the call for data in response to this expression of my experience is in a sense part of what happens to women on the internet–we call it gaslighting when experience is not to be trusted), but my experience on the interwebz is that it’s a hard place to be a woman, especially a woman in philosophy. Read more

Philosophy and Monotheism, Politics and Democracy

In his book The Price of Monotheism, published in German in 2003, Jan Assmann argues that monotheism changes the shape of religion by construing the one god as the only true god among false gods.  Assmann argues that a certain kind of monotheism–revolutionary monotheism–finds its one god incompatible with any other god, because the god is not only superior but true, real, existent in a way that others are false (this is the position of the Deutero-Isaiah faction of the Old Testament).  This incompatibility stands in contrast to pagan polytheism and its evolutionary monotheism which saw gods as compatible, eventually recognizing that there were many different names for the supreme god, who was a chief god, but not any more a god than the other gods.  The compatibility of the pagan gods allowed them to make binding agreements with one another, which they made by swearing each to their own god(s) who was compatible with the others’ god(s).  Revolutionary monotheism’s incompatibilty explains why they could not contract with other peoples. Read more

The Prindle Post

Ethics in the News and Culture Explained

Feminist Philosophers

News feminist philosophers can use

Cori Wong, Ph.D.

Thinking Through Life in Transformative Ways

Samir Chopra

Refusing to Stick to the Subject

Works Cited

Catching all manner of thought

xcphilosophy

extra/trans-continental philosophers collective

The Activist Classroom

Because pedagogy is a public practice.

Ta-Nehisi Coates | The Atlantic

Catching all manner of thought

Christopher P. Long

Catching all manner of thought