The Case for Bernie-or-Bust

Bernie Sanders is not going to be the Democratic candidate for President, but although their candidate looks set to lose, a portion of Sanders’ supporters insist that they will refuse to vote for Clinton in the general election. Going by the mantle Bernie-or-Bust, these supporters insist they will either write in Sanders’ name or refuse to vote for any presidential candidate in November. They should do exactly that...

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The GOP: The Party of Free Stuff

Bernie Sanders’ policy program includes a whopping $15+ trillion of new new government expenditures over 10 years, due in large part to his plan for Medicare for all, but also through his commitment to spending on infrastructure and youth employment, free college, increases to Social Security benefits, and expanded family leave. This remarkable cost to the federal government has, unsurprisingly, led many — especially on the right — to condemn Sanders supporters as just wanting “free stuff”...

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Follow up from August

In August I asked the following:

The physicist Richard Feynmann (sic) once said that the most important piece of scientific information that we have is, "everything is made of atoms." If he were to travel into the past with a single piece of knowledge to pass on, this would be it.

My question is, does political theory have anything even close to a single piece of information that could be fruitfully be passed on to previous generations? 

Having thought about it over the last few months, let me suggest that the closest thing in political theory is the following:

“Sapere Aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding.” (Kant, What is Enlightenment?)

Of course, Kant is responding to the social, political, and philosophical developments of his time, most notably in this case, the erosion of the authority of the Church. Interestingly, though, some form of his injunction - Dare to know! - is at the heart of political theory right from its inception. Notably, Socrates was put on trial for repudiating the Athenian goods, and at the time of his trial in 399BC, Socrates chastises his contemporaries for living an unexamined life characterized by the unreflective adherence to social norms like the pursuit of money, rather than the heroic search for wisdom. In a similar vein, in Book III of The Republic the character of Socrates exhorts Athenians to disavow the received knowledge and bellicose norms of the Poets including Homer and Hesiod. Instead, Socrates (as part of his ‘third wave’) elevates the role of the philosopher, who can see things as they really are, rather than how they are received through history or appear to the uninitiated. These philosophers require both protection and elevation in the polity because they push beyond the world of appearances; they dare to know. One wonders what the history of Europe (and, indeed, the World) would have looked like if this daring wasn’t extinguished in the person of Socrates and instead was fostered and developed to a greater extent than even Aristotle and Plato cultivated it. 

With that being said there is at least one difference between “dare to know!” and “everything is made of atoms.” Perhaps most fundamentally, the latter is a substantive claim about the nature of the world. By contrast, the former claim is a methodological point about how to approach political theory. To be sure, once we know that the world is made of atoms, some forms of methodology are more likely to emerge and flourish compared to others, and, indeed, this may be part of what Feynman had in mind. Even so, it’s remarkable that as much as anything, modern science is revered and distinguished from other fields of inquiry not because of the substantive claims that science has revealed (such as the fact that the Earth is 4.54bn years old), but because of the method by which these claims have been proven true (or, not yet proven false). So, then, to ‘send back in time’ a substantive rather than a methodological point in the case of science (and, in my case, the urge to send back a methodological point in the case of political theory) seems to need explanation. 

I’m not sure I have an explanation, but I imagine that it must lie in the difference in the nature of the object of study in science and political theory, respectively. Ideas like justice, fairness, nationhood, freedom, race, rights, security, equality, and others analyzed by political thinkers are essentially abstract and almost etherial. They’re ideas, so they’re lack a physical component that can be tested or analyzed (although the fact of supervenience suggests that the world of ideas and the physical world cannot be divorced from each other). Because one cannot observe them, what matters is how one approaches these concepts (and so it seems here I’m conceding something to the constructivists). By contrast, because the physical world can be analyzed, and, indeed, analyzed down to the level of atoms, the way one approaches scientific problems is circumscribed to some extent; a materialist and reductionist approach seems appropriate. Of course, this doesn’t rule out other theoretical approaches (so, in some cases, wave mechanics might more easily express the outcome of a system, rather than molecular theory), but it nonetheless (it seems to me at least) sets out likely boundaries of fruitful methodological approaches.

What does “dare to know” suggest about the appropriate approach to political questions? As has been said, the first is that one should be skeptical of received wisdom: individual reason is a powerful tool for knowledge. But, in addition to this, the fact that this reason is individual, rather than institutional (one has to use one’s own understanding, rather than group understanding, whatever that could be) suggests that what is needed is a multitude of perspectives. Why is this? Well, in Kant’s case, the need to use individual reason surely relates to his contractualist views on the legitimacy of moral principles, where moral principles gain their force and legitimacy from the fact that each person can see and appreciate their force if they apply their own reason (see Theory and Practice). More than this, however, we might also integrate the insights of the philosophy of science to conclude that political theories are stronger and more convincing when subjected to and triumphing over alternative political and moral theories, in the same way that liberal democracy had greater credibility in 1991 than it had in 1951 due to the fall of Soviet Communism. To this extent, Communism has been falsified and Liberalism survives to fight another day. Whether or not one rejects the latter suggestion, however, the attempt to draw parallels between political and scientific research certainly seems promising.

Political Correctness in the Time of Terror

The attack on Paris on Friday November 13th provoked a backlash against the ‘Islamic’ State: Hollande was swift to declare war on Daesh; the US began bombing oil trucks for the first time; and, the House of Commons voted yesterday to extend the bombing campaign in Syria. The attack also intensified the anti-Muslim rhetoric in Europe and the US, and perhaps one of the most perplexing manifestations of this anti-Muslim bigotry appeared in the immediate declaration by (to my knowledge) all Republican presidential candidates that the US should stop relocating Syrian refugees to the US for fear that there might be terrorists in their midst.

Of all the candidates Chris Christie’s remarks are especially striking...

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Learning and Progress

I opened up my copy of Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche after a good 3-4 years of it sitting on my bookshelf. Indeed, I'm not sure I've bothered to consult it since I received my undergraduate degree as I now find myself buying the full books of the thinkers I study rather than use the selections from this reader. That being said, I wanted to go back to Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals, which I knew was in this text, and I found something rather more delightful.

It seems that the first time I read this, I kept a list of all the words I didn't understand in the back of the book along with a page number listing the context of the word. As soon as I saw this I vividly remembered writing it, along with my long and frustrating attempts to decipher the complicated and confusing essays peppered with exotic and abstruse words. It took me so long just to understand what was being said, let alone think through the implications of the claims in these texts.

Now, of course, now these words seem elementary. Indeed, it's lamentable that it took me so long to learn them, as tenure as a professor is untenable without cognizance of them, as I would be wholly inefficacious in achieving my intentions of publishing good scholarship. (I promise, i know these words, please don't think less of me!!)

That being said, two things spring to mind. Firstly, it's notable that my wife still kicks my butt every time we play Words With Friends. Secondly, perhaps I sometimes expect too much of my students. I frequently cast my mind back to my time as an undergraduate student often remark to myself that many of my students produce better work than I think I did at their age. That being said, an article that I can comfortably digest and comprehend in a short sitting might well take them much longer as they lack the vocabulary. Consequently, maybe I need to dedicate more time to careful discussion of texts in class so that the nuance of them isn't lost on such young minds.

Kanye 2020: The Voice of a Neo-Liberal Generation

On several different occasions I've seen people wearing t-shirts that say “Only God can Judge Me”. I imagine I would have put this to the side and forgotten about it, had I not also seen someone with a tattoo saying the same thing! Now, it should be noted that Only God can Judge Me is a song by Tupac, but that song was released 20 years ago, so that’s surely not the explanation for why this phrase seems to have gained sudden prominence. Consequently, I assume that there must be something in the current cultural moment that makes it particularly attractive.

I must say, I find the saying “Only God can Judge Me” absolutely horrifying, and I’m aghast that people are compelled to wear it on a t-shirt, let alone permanently ink it into their skin...

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Will you watch this for me?

I was sat in the library and the person opposite me at the table asked if I could watch her stuff while she went to the loo. That seems sensible, after all, the library is plastered with signs warning that “it only takes a second” for all your items to be pinched, and that there have been dozens of thefts in only the last few months. Although it might be true that thefts are not particularly rare, and although I’m very trustworthy in the relevant sense — I haven’t stolen anyone’s stuff before — the person who asked me to watch her stuff doesn’t know that about me. For all she knows, I could be just as untrustworthy as anyone else. In light of this, to ask me to look after her things, which included her laptop and phone, seemed pretty silly, even contradictory. It’s akin to saying: “excuse me unknown stranger, would you protect my things from an unknown stranger?”

The thing is, I’ve done exactly the same thing myself...

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Here's a question:

The physicist Richard Feynmann once said that the most important piece of scientific information that we have is, "everything is made of atoms." If he were to travel into the past with a single piece of knowledge to pass on, this would be it.

My question is, does political theory have anything even close to a single piece of information that could be fruitfully be passed on to previous generations? 

Race Vs. Prejudice

A friend recently sent me the article, I, Racist, by John Metta. I copy my initial email response to her below. These were my initial thoughts after reading the text, and I will follow them up with further remarks and greater consideration in a later post to this website.

Dear ...

Thanks for the article. It’s certainly very powerful.

The article calls white people racist when they fail to actively work against racism and actively benefit from racist institutions. In my research, I have found it important [useful] to distinguish between being racist and being prejudiced. On this distinction, racism is like sexism and other forms of bigotry which actively [and purposefully] sets up one group of people (whites, men, Christians, etc.) as superior to another group (blacks, women, Muslims) who are therefore entitled or obligated to exercise power over the latter group; this is what we see in Dylan Roof’s words that “you are taking over the country,” before murdering nine people. By contrast prejudice is an often sub-conscious disposition that makes one skeptical of those in the other group, and usually inclines one to act towards them in a way that unfairly limits their opportunities and outcomes; this is what we see in the author’s claim that African-Americans are “systematically challenged in a thousand small ways [white prejudices] that actually made it easier for you [whites] to succeed in life.” 

One reason to draw up this distinction is because, the fact of the matter is, that Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Davis, Ben Tillman, Bull Connor, Dylan Roof and and all the rest are different in kind to the kind of racism exhibited by the author’s northern aunt. These people actively justified, agitated for, benefitted from tremendously and directly, and established the political and social concepts and language that entrenched slavery and Jim Crow and the egregious institutions of racism in the US. Now, it’s worse than foolish to think that the end of Jim Crow means the end of racism, but, even by the examples of the author, the kinds of racism he points to are very different in type to that which came before. As Karen and Barbara Fields put it at one point, ““There are white people and there are crackers.” Jefferson and Tillman are crackers… I’m not so sure about the Northern Aunt.

A second reason is to defuse the ridiculous argument that whites are also subject to racism. As an example, you’ll sometimes see people claim that if a white person moved into a black or hispanic neighborhood, they’d be looked at funny, isolated, and quite likely subject to discrimination in a directly analogous way to a black person moving into a white neighborhood. If we define racism merely as being subject to forms of prejudice, or the social norm being one skin color (the norm is white in the white neighborhood, but black in another neighborhood) then, the argument above is coherent [it's valid if we define racism as being subject to prejudice]; white people are subject to racism. But that’s patently absurd. So, by separating out racism and prejudice, we can say that, yes, the white person might be subject to prejudice (we all are in different ways), but they’re not subject to racism. The experience of racism is reserved to [particularly] African-Americans that are subject to a cumulation of prejudices in almost every sphere of life (by being "systematically challenged in a thousand small ways”) and live in a country (not just a neighborhood) with social institutions designed to directly harm and hinder them (for example, mass incarceration as discussed by Michelle Alexander, or Voter ID laws designed to disproportionately impact people of color).

This distinction becomes problematic when we have things like cops killing black persons without any good reason [and, of course, these reasons must be extraordinary]. It’s possible to get caught up in a whole series of questions over whether, for example, Darren Wilson was really racist, or was he just (just!?) prejudiced when he killed Michael Brown. And, after all, when people are being murdered by police, the distinction between prejudice and racism doesn’t fucking matter. They’re both equally as bad for the person killed (and, as the author of the article notes, it’s as bad for all other black persons who fear that they or their children could be the next victim of this racism, prejudice, or whatever it is). Now, the department of justice report found ample evidence of overt racism in the Ferguson Police Dept, and I’m sure that this kind of racism is prevalent throughout most (if not all police departments to some degree [not because of the unusual nature of police departments, but because it's present in many, many areas of society]). But, I’m not convinced that this is sufficient to call the author’s aunt a racist; it’s not like she’s sending e-mails depicting Michelle Obama as a monkey like people in Ferguson P.D. did.  

[That being said] Having read the article, I can see why it might be worthwhile to simply use the word racist instead of prejudiced. At the very least it’s a way to shock the complacency out white folk. The main thrust of the piece is that white people are to blame for slavery, Jim Crow, and contemporary racism, and that by failing to speak out against racism in any meaningful sense (all the while benefiting from it). And, as the comedians Key and Peele note in one of their sketches (In Season 1, Episode 6. It’s mentioned briefly by this website) “Racist is the N word for white people,” because when you call a white person a racist, they freak out as if you’ve just said something incredibly offensive. Well, if it’s the case that offending white people gets them (us!) to think about their role in tacitly supporting a racist political system, then there’s good rhetorical reason to just call the author’s aunt a racist, even though she’s hardly in the same league as Ben Tillman.

Over all, I’m increasingly convinced that, like the author suggests, the impetus for the end of racism has to come from the white population. Although I’m inclined (maybe because I study political theory and therefore tend to focus on political institutions) to think that the primary things that need to be changed are laws and political institutions that work to disproportionately harm persons of color (rather than the compounding effects of everyday prejudices), it’s the willingness of so many to acquiesce in these institutions that perpetuates the institutions of injustice. I’m currently reading the book Racecraft by Karen and Barbara Fields, and they have a really interesting discussion of the nuances of how and why people continue to believe in the importance of race and end up supporting racist institutions (like white schools and black prisons). The book is challenging, but I recommend it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the article.

Does Global Poverty Make Minimum Wage Struggles Trivial?

In his July 2015 budget, George Osborne, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, unveiled a new National Living Wage for the UK, to replace the current minimum wage. The Living Wage would pay more than the current minimum wage (7.20GBP rising to 9GBP/hr, compared to the current 6.50GBP/hr), but, notably, would not apply to persons under the age of 25.

I’m reflexively troubled by the exemption of persons under 25 from the new Living Wage for a number of reasons. Firstly...

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When Should Vegetarians Eat Meat?

I think that eating meat is subject to moral and ethical considerations. My grandma thinks I’m crazy for believing that. As far as she’s concerned, animals are food; it is therefore sufficient reason to kill and eat an animal that you’re hungry. Now, she doesn’t believe it’s acceptable to eat cats or dogs. And she believes - well, I bloody-well hope so, anyway - that it’s not acceptable to torture an animal, such as a cow, before eating it. But the fact that moral questions do not arise for her when it comes to eating meat suggests a few things...

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Daily Self-Affirmation #127: Thomas Jefferson Edition

I’ve been picking up and putting down Jon Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson for the last few months. I wonder whether he purposefully broke the book up into short chapters for exactly that reason, as I find myself reading it for 20 mins, finishing two or three chapters, then patting myself on the back for being such an impressive reader. In this regard, it’s like a slightly higher brow Da Vinci Code! When I publish, I’m committing myself to a maximum of 4 page long chapters; nothing longer than a blog post. I'm sure it’s the key to commercial success! 

Ever so slightly more seriously...

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Thinking about Walt Whitman's America on this Fourth of July.

As Fourth of July was this weekend, I went back and read through Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas and Leaves of GrassI remember I found Democratic Vistas nigh-on incomprehensible the first time I read it, which was due, I suppose, to the lack of chapters, the density of the text, and the fact that - due to his poetic nature and Whitman’s subscription to a Transcendentalist world-view - the text lacks analytical argument. As Bliss Perry says in his introductory note to Leaves of Grass, Whitman doesn’t so much argue for big conclusions, so much as he starts from these points and draws them out in poetic detail.

I’ll say...

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