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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.

Today, I experience a similar sense of pressure on the other side.  But now I am more willing to resist it.  I wish then I hadn’t felt so profoundly like the Party was the only possibility.  I think for far too long the GOP has taken advantage of the fact that people will put aside all their misgivings for the sake of some possibility that their agenda will be recognized.  Thus both parties benefit from there being people who are single issues voters, who say, I only vote on the basis of abortion politics, because this allows you to look away on all the other things–the isolationism and racism, the violence for us and law and order for them mentality, the outright misogyny, the disdain for others, the unabashed power seeking — both individual and for the country as a whole.  This thinking allowed politicians to use issues like abortion that they didn’t really care about to push through supply-side economics.  What this eventually meant was that the politicians were willing to flip on the wedge issues that helped get them elected because they weren’t really invested in them in the first place.  Thus, when George H.W. Bush nominated David Souter to SCOTUS in 1990, evangelicals felt betrayed.  I was 14.  I felt betrayed.  Bush had never really been a firebrand social conservative (just like the current nominee), but people voted for him because the Supreme Court!  Let that be a lesson.

I’m not a Republican anymore, but I know what it feels like to be a Republican who feels like you have no choice.  This feeling is part of what drives the two-party system in the US.  I don’t like hearing from the Democratic Party today that I have no choice, as if the Party has no choice but to support the neoliberal policies it supports, as if I should get on board just because of those wedge issues, which politicians seem to find ways to cave on pretty easily.

This election cycle reminds me of that feeling as I see one evangelical after another find a way to support the Republican nominee.  Some people think they are doing it because they only ever were power hungry – evidence for this can be found in people like Falwell all of a sudden thinking the Bible has nothing to say about how government should be run.  Some argue that evangelicals are drawn to messianic figures – strong leaders.  Others argue that evangelicals support Trump because they are largely white middle-class men who feel a loss of power.  An article last fall in The Atlantic Monthly argues that people vote on the basis of religion.  It seems to me that this Republican campaign thinks the last one is true and has made religion its own kind of wedge issue.  Aside from the historical danger of making religion a political wedge issue, it is worth considering that as with other kinds of wedge issues, it is easily forgotten once the votes roll in.

One thing I learned as a social conservative Republican growing up was that electoral politics will not save us.  This is one thing with which I agree with my former self.  So if it won’t save us, why do we put ourselves through the gymnastics of defending what ordinarily, if we were just asked by someone over coffee whether we thought it was right or not we would say no?  I think both the evangelical right and the progressive left are being appealed to through arguments that ask us to accept things we find unacceptable for things we want to see happen in the world.  As someone who doesn’t like that on the left, who used to experience it on the right, I want to say, I don’t think we should buy it.

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

Buying a House: Good Enough

Since I last posted on the house, I have not had a spare moment to blog because I was painting every day but two and on those days, I was celebrating retiring colleagues or attending graduation.  So phew.  Last night, after 79 hours of work on the house (yes, I’m counting), we finished the painting project.  Just in time for the floor guy to come this morning at 7:30 AM.  I’m exhausted.  My hands hurt.  I’m glad that part is over.  We know we’re still going to have to do some touching up after the floor guy leaves.  But in all, we tried to have high standards.  We tried to do better than good enough.

When we first move to Indiana, a friend gave me a book: Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana.  The author, James H. Madison, points to how Hoosiers have a general mentality of “good enough.”  I think there’s a legend that settlers moving westward stopped in Indiana instead of continuing westward, because, you know, “good enough.”  Since we learned about the “good enough” mentality, we see it everywhere.  We vowed that in our home, things would be otherwise.

Then we got to work.  We did two coats of paint in the living and dining room, and maybe you can still see a little bit of blue.We pulled painting tape off the ceiling and some paint came off with it.  We painted the wooden joiners in the corners and then wondered if we should have left them bare wood.   We got a little trim paint on the wall in certain places. We decided not to do a second coat in closets because we didn’t have time.  We discovered one closet is wall-papered and so we just let it be altogether.  We realized another wall is wallpapered and covered with paint over the wallpaper.  We painted over it anyway.  We don’t want to have an unfinished closet.  We don’t want to paint over wallpaper.  But we didn’t have the time to do otherwise — we needed the job to be done by this morning.  We started to understand why people settle for good enough. Read more

Buying a House: Don’t Force It

Today I primed the living room and the dining room at our new house.  I had to do a bit of prep first: spackle some holes including the very big ones left by the television mount the previous owners left (that they left it baffles me, I think I could get a good chunk of change for this ginormous piece of equipment), take off an odd bit of baseboard that was nailed to the mantel and then scrape and sand down the paint on the mantel, and clean the walls and baseboards.  Then I very carefully laid down drop cloths, and tried very carefully not to spill paint even though I had the drop cloths down.  Two things kept running through my head.  First, do better than good enough — but I’ll get to that in another post.  Second, don’t force it.   Read more

Buying a House: Manual Labor and Material Conditions

Today was my first full day of working on the new house.  At day’s end, my finger pads are sore, my arm is bloody, and I’m exhausted.  Turns out, this is what all that weight lifting this semester has been in preparation for.  The day we closed, we went over to the house and pulled the carpets up and discovered beautiful wooden floors beneath them.  The project of today was to pull up the tack boards that the carpet had been nailed into.  That didn’t sound like that much work to me.  But it took me five and a half hours to do two rooms (I had planned on doing three, but cut out from exhaustion after two — this would seem to be one of the rules of DIY home improvement projects: the project will always take at least one and a half times as long as you estimate it will take).  Part of the problem is that I had to figure out how to do it first.  I was using the back end of a hammer which was practically impossible because the boards are too close to the wall so I couldn’t get any leverage, so I googled how to do it and someone said, get a pry bar, so off to Lowe’s.  I found a tool that pried on one end and pulled nails on the other.  (Another rule of DIY home improvement projects: the right tool is key). Read more

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