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Which America First?

Trump spoke at the World Economic Forum at Davos yesterday (full transcript here) about “America First,” saying, “I believe in America.”   Trump seems to think it is obvious who he means by America, and many of his supporters think it is obvious too.  Yet, increasingly, the policies of “America First” do not support those who support it.  Last week, in an effort to protect American interests the Trump Administration slapped a tariff onto solar panels coming from China this week.  Though Trump fancies himself a “job creator,” this move will likely result in the loss of 23,000 American jobs.  Solar panel manufacturing will help FirstSolar, Tesla, Suniva, and SolarWorld, but manufacturing only makes up a small portion of the solar panel industry.  Most of the work is in installation.  Some analysts are even suggesting that foreign companies will see most of the benefit. Read more

Phantom Thread: Never Cursed

I have never been so convinced that reviewers have missed the central theme of a film than in the case of “Phantom Thread,” the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson starring Daniel Day-Lewis.  It is not about a man driven to aesthetic perfection more than money and power, whatever A.O. Scott seems to think.  Nor is it, as he puts it, “The wrenching tale of a woman’s love for a man and a man’s love for his work.”  Nor is it about breakfast, as Anthony Lane suggests in The New Yorker, although that is a more interesting possibility, and it is true that breakfast is an important setting for the major moments in the film.  Like Lane, I thought of Hitchcock in watching the film, and specifically of “Rebecca,” but the film is in the end, more of a love story, than a horror story, which is perhaps its central surprise.

SPOILERS Read more

Black Mirror Episodes Ranked

So apparently listing all of the Black Mirror Episodes in the order from best to worst is now a thing.  So I’m getting on it.  For me best to worst does not mean I don’t like the episodes on the bottom of the list, I just mean, in terms of Black Mirror episodes, they were not as good as the ones ahead of them.

I was trying to think about what my ranking criteria are.  One element is how believable it is, not in terms of the technology, but the ethical dilemmas and decisions people find themselves facing as a result of the technology or the aspects of the human condition the technology reveals.  The more those dilemmas seemed to capture the truth of humanity in this moment in time the better I thought the episode was.  But I also coupled that with how interesting the technology / world created by the technology was.  So while I thought Shut Up and Dance captured the truth of humanity, the technology seemed pretty much already possible so the episode didn’t seem that imaginative to me. Read more

Mother! and the Wisdom of Silenus

I saw Darren Aronofsky’s film Mother! when it first came out and I’ve been mulling over it for awhile.  I was hesitant to see it because of reports that it was a horror film, but I didn’t think it was difficult to watch in the same way a horror film is.  It is unrelenting in the Second Act, but the unrelenting nature is purposeful.  Marc Maron had a just awful reading of it on his podcast after he interviewed Aronofsky, but mostly, astute viewers saw the allegory to Christianity and to the price the artist exacts from his material.  What I’ve been mulling over are the ways that the film is a critique of Christianity–of God as the artist and of Christianity as a practice of consuming the creations of the artist.

In what is to my mind the central scene of the film, Jennifer Lawrence’s character realizes that The Poet who represents God is trying to take the newborn baby from her.  So she holds the baby to protect it.  Eventually she falls asleep, and while she is sleeping, The Poet / God takes the baby and presents it to the people who tear the baby to pieces and liturgically eat the pieces of the baby guided by a priest in a clear depiction of Communion. Read more

Teaching through Encouragement

Yesterday, after yoga I thanked the teacher for the encouragement in class and he said, “It’s a pleasure to watch you work.” It got me thinking about how the encouragement and positive feedback motivates me to work through the difficult parts of class.  When I was in graduate school, I worked for a test prep company where I taught classes and also trained teachers for them.  One of the regular strategies that we were supposed to teach was that teachers should provide consistent positive feedback to students, even if students were struggling.  Evidence shows that encouragement motivates students to do more work.

Perhaps that point is obvious.  And yet, in the classroom, I find myself focusing more on making students aware of their deficits in order to get them to work.  In the same way that I sometimes hold back insight in order to motivate insight, I sometimes hold back encouragement to get students to see that more work, more thinking needs to be done.  Obviously, it takes judgment.  Sometimes students need to be made aware that they are not fulfilling expectations.  But often, students need affirmation for the work they are doing in order to be motivated to do more and better work. Read more

Yes, And…Two Exercises for Building Better Discussion

At least once a year, I teach a small upper division seminar course that is heavy on discussion.  I have been working on strategies to get students to talk through issues that their classmates raise rather than to jump from one free associated comment to another or to think discussion is just asking their classmates to explain things.  Last summer I saw some movie about an improv troupe in which they did this exercise where one person started with a name and then the next person had to say something related to that name and the next person something related to that and so forth.

It occurred to me that this exercise could help students think about how to listen to one another and to respond in related ways.  During the third week of class, after we had tried to discuss and ran into the typical problems–students don’t pursue issues after the first response, students don’t directly take up issues their classmates raise, students jump quickly  to other issues and remain on the surface for all of them, or students speak just to ask clarifying questions rather than to build on ideas–I started class introducing this game. Read more

I Marched, But Not for the Polls

When I started writing this post, I wasn’t going to go to the march.  But I started thinking about the post that went up yesterday about purity.  I realized you know, it is pretty easy to find lots of reasons not to do things and then be very consistent and kind of useless in terms of doing something in the world.  As my post yesterday suggested, purity in the politics might be the enemy of doing any g–d— thing at all.  Then I realized that some of my friends were going and that they had made posters that were not at all about winning at the polls, so I thought, maybe we can go, and be a part of shifting the conversation.  And you know what they say in organizing efforts, you gotta go where the people are.

I am wary of political organizing whose aim is not really to change the political order.  Any political organizing that is trying to motivate people to resist by voting is doing very little to really try to change the normal order of things.  I am not saying that people shouldn’t try to vote out Republicans in November.  They should.  However, I am not here for that effort if Democrats are just going to be a cleaned up version of militaristic imperialism and corporate underwriting.  Read more

Purity and Individualism

In my first or second year of graduate school, I was newly immersed in feminist theory and generally excited about seeing the world again through a feminist lens.  I had recently read Luce Irigaray’s “Women on the Market,” which analyzes the ways that customs around marriage and weddings contribute to viewing women as commodities.  A graduate student friend who was finishing the program got engaged around the same time I was reading this piece and her partner gave her a diamond ring, which she wore.  This friend was (and remains) something of a feminist hero to my young graduate student self so I asked her how she held together her feminist commitments and wearing a diamond ring.  She told me, I still have to live my life, I still have to live in this world. Read more

Border Walls, Immigration Policy, and Hannah Arendt

This semester I am teaching a course I’m calling “Thinking with Arendt.”  The question of the course follows from Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: if failing to think enables us to do great evil, what is it about thinking that leads us to live well?  A corollary of this question is what are the ways that we think about other people that allow us to dehumanize them to the point where we can justify actively killing them or letting them go to their deaths?  I’ve been teaching Eichmann as discussions about US immigration policy and border security are underway ahead of a deadline today for funding the federal government and I’m finding that second question particularly pressing.

First, I should say that it continues to boggle my mind that people in the interior of the United States talk about the need for a border wall, when there IS A BORDER WALL at much of the parts of the border that can be walled.  Above is a photograph of part of the wall at the Hidalgo County Pumphouse that I took when I was living in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas.  The wall purposefully does not cover the whole border because it is meant to funnel people crossing to places where the border patrol can focus.  The existence of the wall in the face of the discussions of it demonstrate the extent to which people in the interior are far removed from the reality of the border.  People who live at the border don’t want a wall and they have long been mad about the way the current wall has destroyed ecosystems and public spaces. Read more

The Stoic Solution: The Wisdom to Tell the Difference

One way that Spinoza seems to be clearly drawing on the Stoics is in terms of recognizing that we are sorrowful about events because we suppose that we have some power to make them otherwise when we do not.  The Stoics counsel us to seek to understand causes so that we might understand what outcomes we can affect and which we cannot, what aspects of the world we can control and which we cannot, to focus on those that we can and to recognize that those we cannot are just part of the order of things and to accept them accordingly.

The problem I was realizing as I was getting myself organized for the new semester and setting myself some intentions for the semester–thinking about how not to worry about things that are out of my control and to only work on those that were within my control–is that anxiety comes from not being able to know which is which.  I can understand why the Serenity Prayer ends with a request for wisdom to know the difference between the things that we can change and the things that we cannot.  My entire anxious life is rooted in wondering if I did something that adversely affected some situation that I might otherwise have thought I had no control over or whether I should have done something in order to bring about some desired goal that I might have thought was not in my control.

Seneca writes that nothing happens to the wise man contrary to his expectations because he recognizes when his efforts can be thwarted.  But that would really seem to be all the time, which is to suggest that one’s plans may be in her control but the success of them always depends on the order of the nature and fate.  For the Stoics, the actions that we control are themselves part of a larger order of nature.  So our control is even then in affirming them as part of that order.  The good Stoic then tries to fit into that order of what will be.  Here it seems that the Stoic understanding of our action involves a sense of time that sees the action we contemplate as something that already fits within the order of the universe.  The wise man acts in a way that knowing the causes of the universe can conform to its order.  Such a way of acting seems to involve that we already know how our action fit into the universe.  Our problem is that we cannot yet understand the causes of what has not yet happened.  I think this is what Arendt means by the newness of action, and why Kant makes the responsibility to the duty and not the outcome, and yet it is the outcome that we want to achieve.  This is why we can never fully understand the causes and as a consequence can never fully know what is in our control and what is not in our control.  What is not in our power it would seem is the wisdom to tell the difference.