Buy The Battle for the Black Fen!

Category Archives: philosophy

Revisiting James Baldwin

For the past month, I have been receiving Facebook posts with excerpts from the late American writer James Baldwin’s essays along with some striking photos. This got me remembering him from the 1960s, so I went back and reread his Collected Essays and found him marvelously up to date on our contemporary racial issues.

Here’s the result:

Democracy – much harder work than Dictatorship

When we grow up in a specific cultural group, we tend to assume that it is the only one there is, until we learn that America is much more diverse than just our little corner of it. Then, we have a choice: to we hunker down amongst our own kind or undertake the onerous work of multicultural citizenship necessary for living in American democracy.

Here’s my take on that:

Monism and Pluralism in American Political Thinking - Impakter

IMPAKTER.COM

Monism and Pluralism in American Political Thinking – Impakter

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO RACHEL MADDOW

Come back in time with me to the middle of World War II, where I was growing up safely (one would think) in New York City.  But, no, we lived one street over from 86th, where the Nazi bund, though outlawed, still had its adherents. My brother and I were walking home – aged about 7 and 9, and we must have seen a rally where people were raising their arms in the heil Hitler salute.   We tried it on our parents and were soundly scolded.   As the war dragged on, that encounter left me terrified of Nazis because I thought the war included our own neighborhood.

Meanwhile, here in the Detroit Metro area, Charles Lindbergh, a pro-Hitler America Firster who practiced Nazi eugenics by establishing an (Aryan) bigamist family in Germany, was given asylum during WWII at Cranbrook; Henry Ford was promulgating the (fake conspiracy theory) about the Protocol of the Elders of Zion, delighted that Hitler was using it to persecute Jews; and, in Royal Oak Father Coughlin was pouring his hate for the Jewish race over the radio and from the pulpit of his Shrine of the Little Fascist in Royal Oak.

‘Rachel Maddow has just published a book about that era –  PREQUEL (subtitled “An American Fight Against Fascism”) covering the rise of American Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s and 1940s.  “Looking at this story in aggregate is a shock to our usual thinking about this historical period,” writes reviewer Kathleen Belew, “It’s an era that, as Maddow notes, is ordinarily remembered as a time when Americans unified against fascist threats.. . . most of us don’t know that the politics of the era were far more divisive than Greatest Generation mythologies would have us believe.”         

        

Rachel Maddow is a very accomplished public intellectual, with an hour of political commentary that, until recently, appeared every night on MSNBC. She has a Ph.D. in politics from Oxford, does brilliant research, and talks very fast. Besides starring in the Rachel Maddow show, she writes history books about things that happened before and have been neglected or shoved under the rug, but which have important implications for what is going on at the present moment.         

On the day after Thanksgiving 2023, Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes (who has the MSNBC talk show before hers) sat down for a live taping at City Hall in NY for his podcast, “Why is This Happening?” Against the background of Rachel’s discoveries about American Fascism, they discuss its reappearance in our country and what it means, for our lives now. Their theme is that it is going to be weird, frightening and difficult year, when we will have to come to terms with “the existential threat that the rising tide of autocracy in America poses for our continuing to live in a democracy.”

Chris Hayes points out the “incredible ridiculous tension in American rhetoric” people use about our democracy, as if democracy were inevitable, a permanent fixture in our country, no longer challenged.   Instead, he sees our whole history as an ongoing “Pitched battle” between people trying to get ourselves included in the precepts of the Declaration of the Independence and the Constitution and those who want to replace democracy with the efficiencies of authoritarianism   At every point in American history there has beden this tension between “Dominion, rule by some group or person” vs all of us working to do things together. “ Or, as Rachel chimes in “Being in a 250 year old democracy is hard, and there are not very many left in the world, deciding things together. ”

What to do? Well, here’s The Gospel According to Rachel Maddow

 “This is going to be a weird year.  This is going to be a very difficult, frightening year. It doesn’t come to every generation, but it has come to us this time, this year. . . .“We must engage with terrible ideas and defeat them with better ideas.” Surprisingly, however, Rachel’s core advice is not intellectual: we can’t defeat their ideas with other ideas or policies with other policies when so much emotional inter-party demonization is going on; just sending up a Fox pundit against a MSNBC pundit isn’t going to get us anywhere.

In other words, one of our most famous and successful intellectual pundits has realized that neither intellectual argument or punditry, can save democracy.

What seems to have happened to Rachel Maddow is that she nearly killed herself (she puts it that way) doing a show every night of the week until she was threatened by the kind of thing that, in Japan, is called Karoshi – death from overworking. So she cut back, doing only the Monday show, and has moved to a home in the Massachusetts countryside with her wife: “living in rural western New England…it has taught me is that politics is only one thing in any one person’s life.  .There is, I believe, something very important that you can do in your non-political life that can improve your political life: have face to face relationships with people that are everything besides politics. Know all the dimensions of your neighbors”

Her example: ” where I live now, Even committed news junkies also have bears getting into their trash; talk to them about the bears!” Your neighbors may have different political views than yours, but you can try to figure out how to solve your common problem!

My example: There is a couple up my street who have Trump posters all over their lawn at election time.. They also have a pollinator garden and plantings right next to the sidewalk.  On my daily walk, I cross the street to enjoy their garden and in hopes of chatting with them, as they are out there all of the time. Once they know me, I plan to ask them their particular needs that lead to their voting choices.  Following Rachel’s advice, the idea is that once they know me and that I am respect them enough to listen to their views they are more likely to at least listen to mine. .

Rachel adds that another way to resist demonizing people you disagree with politically is getting involved in something that connects you to them, through voluntary associations like PTAs, block clubs, and book groups. 

She also advises keeping humanity in your life by getting back in touch with old friends, repairing broken relationships you may have ended long ago, including family members. That way, so that you aren’t dragging any heavy backage behind you. Also, make new neighborhood friends, especially with elderly folks who you might phone to check in on new and then – but don’t live in your phone and devices. 

.  

 Deciding things Together

The Gospel According to Chris Hayes: You must use democratic means to fight anti-democratic forces.” Our situation is like getting on a bus with 60 people and asking them all to decide ‘where shall we go?’   Practice decision making with the people you don’t agree with”

This makes me think of Quaker decision-making, which is based on group consensus-seeking. Adam Gopnik has a great article in the New Yorker about Black Quaker Bayard Rustin, who was a lead organizer in the Civil Rights Movement (though he had to stay in the background because he was gay).

As a Quaker, he knew how to “find a way from individual crankiness to a working consensus” and to unite a coalition of fractious groups around a common cause. It was Rustin who, after a visit to India in 1948, brought the non-violent protest methods of Gandhi to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, combining them with his Quaker skills to organize the 1963 March on Washington as well as the Freedom Rides and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Those of us who witnessed that era realized that there was nothing “soft” about the non-violent method: it was militant and tough minded and required extraordinary personal courage. As Gandhi puts it, “It is not nonviolence if we merely love those who love us. It is nonviolence only when we love those that hate us. I know how difficult it is to follow this grand law of love. But are not all great and good things difficult to do? Love of the hater is the most difficult of all.”

How About Us?  The kind of conversations we want to have with our opponents are an application of the nonviolence we saw in the civil rights movement to our everyday parlance. First of all, if we demonize those who demonize us, how can we claim ethical superiority? Secondly, as Rachel Maddow points out, ideas are not enough to get through; we need to set the emotional stage for the possibility of communication. When you interrupt or have anger in your voice, for example, you arouse emotions in the other person that wipe out their thinking capacity, substituting opinions for thoughts as everything dissolves beneath waves of antagonism.

So there we are on Chris Hayes’ bus, hoping to get someplace together, but so uselessly cantankerous and tribally unable to cooperate with any group other than our own that we can’t even leave the parking lot. The only way we can reach consensus is to transcend our individual suspicion and elf-protection, to wash off the groupthink glue that congeals us, and to open up our hearts, so that we can take the emotional risks necessary for concerted action.

Spinning Among Fields

One happy summer day, years ago now, I went blueberry picking with my eleven year old grandson.  He was all over the place, leaping from bush to bush, getting  scratched up in the brambles, telling me about this, then telling me about that – enthusiastically imparting whole bunches of information, each item related to another, and very interesting to hear.

As we walked home down the hill, I said

“I notice that you haven’t been taking your ADHD medication for the last couple of days.”

“That’s right. I haven’t – and do you know why?”

“No, tell me,” I answered.

“It’s that I like the way my mind leaps around between this and that.  One thing gives me an idea about another other; when things bounce up against each other, they take me along into whole new places.”

That fruit (I also have ADHD) does not fall far from the tree.  I told him about an article I once wrote called “Spinning Among Fields,” based on the story of how different kinds of sheep took to leaping over fences from one pasture to another, leaving all kinds of wool stuck in the wires so that spinners who came along after them found wool to blend into brand all new colors and textures.

“That’s ME,” shouted my grandson, tearing gleefully down the hill in a whirl of skipping and leaping.

I am currently reading a book by the physicist Carlo Rovelli, who argues against the idea that important scientific discoveries always contradict previous assumptions. There is something of Aristotle’s theory of gravity in Galileo, and there are elements suggesting quantum theory in Einstein. It is in the places where theories abut each other that important breakthroughs occur:

“The borders between theories, disciplines, eras, cultures, peoples and individuals are remarkably porous, and our knowledge is fed by the exchanges across this highly permeable spectrum.”

Or, as Krista Tippett puts it, “Wisdom and wholeness emerge in a moment like this when human beings have to hold seemingly opposing realities in a creative tension and interplay.” There is a problem, however, This kind of interstitial thinking can really irritate people who like to think one thing at a time and are fond of either/or categories.  It got me into all kinds of trouble in a viciously territorial academic world that values loyally clinging to separate disciples; and you see it, more grimly, in the intransigence of power/over people like white supremacists who resist functioning as one among a variety of races.    

The tangential talkers in our family drive our linear thinkers to distraction as we leap from topic to topic in a conversational style they call “always changing the subject.”   So, with profound apologies to them (we have thrashed this all out and are working to communicate better when we are all together), I will be getting on with my wool gathering.  

Homo Puppy

I have always assumed that human evolution was brutal, a matter of the survival of the fittest, with only the meanest and strongest among us getting to reproduce.   What do you know?  According to Rutger Bregman in Humankind: a Hopeful History,* it’s not that way at all.  Instead of evolving to be ferocious, we have evolved to be loveable.  Here is a useful outline of Bregman’s theory that we have evolved as Homo Puppy.  

  • “Our brains are smaller than those of some of our predecessors, our teeth and jaws are more childlike and partly because of that we have become great in cooperating: we have become hypersocial learning machines,
  • We are born to learn, connect and play and that makes us strong as a species.
  • The Homo Puppy has an antenna that is continuously tuned to others. We are good in connecting to other people and we enjoy doing it, consciously as well as subconsciously; emotions are leaking out of our bodies all the time, waiting to be picked up by the other puppies.
  • Our minds need contact in the same way as our bodies need food.”

Bregman prefers Rousseau’s theory that we were better off in “a state of nature” to Hobbes’ and Machiavelli’s belief in an existential human nastiness that is only kept in check by a thin veneer of “civilization.” He is skeptical “of the notion that human beings are inherently selfish, or worse, a plague upon the earth.  I’m skeptical when this notion is peddled as ‘realistic,’ and I’m skeptical that there’s no way out.”

He demonstrates the “way out” in historical examples when, instead of acting at our very worst in times of great danger, we act out of community-mindedness, kindness, and mutual cooperation.  Agreeing with Gustave Le Bon’s theory in The Psychology of the Masses that civilized behavior crumbles in the face of catastrophe, Hitler thought he bombing the hell out of their cities would easily undermine British morale.

However, the cooperative behavior of Londoners, accomplished in a mood of mutuality, courage and care for each other in the face of horrific danger, proved the opposite. Nevertheless, both Churchill and Eisenhower bought Le Bon’s argument, though their carpet-bombing of German cities produced the same result of deepening community ties, morale, and solidarity.   (And, then, consider Putin’s “ten-days-and-it’s-over” presumptions about Ukraine).

 William Golding, in his 1954 Lord of the Flies, adheres to belief in our propensity to social evil, a personal bias that Bregman refutes in telling what actually happened when six boarding-school boys survived on an island for a year in 1966: they cared for each other, invented fair rules for dividing up chores, and came up with reasonable punishments for misconduct while devising cooperative methods for hunting, fishing, and gathering fresh water.

 Humankind is structured on a series of similar examples that demonstrate how our puppy-like geniality (manifest in the evolution of our appealingly rounded eyes, our ability to make eye contact with each other, and the distinctly human tendency to blush with shame) result in a complex social wiring enhanced through our development of language and our delight in learning things from each other.

Bergman hypothesizes that their (puppyish) eagerness to trade with and even leave their bands to join others, enhanced by their curiosity and copycat propensities, are the reasons why our hunting and gathering ancestors prevailed.   Although Neanderthals had much bigger brains than ours, our social/linguistic skills and propensity for learning from each other may have been the key to how we lived through the onset of harsher climate conditions.

The problem with civilization is that it brought ownership, then rivalry over what was owned, and then misery for those who owned less or were cut out of owning anything.  Bregman finds operating on a hierarchical power/over rather than the community power/with basis tragically corruptive: People in power “literally act like someone with brain damage. Not only are they more impulsive, self-centered, reckless, arrogant and rude than average,” they cheat and are shameless and loose the capacity to blush. . .Power works like an anaesthetic that makes you insensate to other people” and see them “in a negative light.” 

When sociopathic autocrats call the shots, puppy-like communities can morph into ferocious packs.  By the time a regime’s propaganda machines have done their work on us, along with threats of torture and execution at the least appearance of dissent, it is no wonder that we do what we are told.  Bregman, however, sees the “just following orders” argument, as used at the Eichmann trials, as a short-sighted iteration of the veneer theory; he posits something more (tragically) puppy-like as the motivation which made high level Nazi officials devise, and then carry out, the precise, viciously evil workings of the Holocaust.

Bregman suggests that, though his psychopathic antisemitism was searingly evident, Hitler’s orders were actually so vague that officers like Eichmann chose to act within “a culture of one-upmanship in which increasingly radical Nazis devised increasingly radical measures to get in Hitler’s good graces.” In other words, years and years of the propaganda machine had brainwashed the German military into thinking that killing Jews was an act of personal virtue.  Bregman argues that Hannah Arendt’s understanding of “just obeying orders” has been misinterpreted:   she “was one of those rare philosophers who believe that most people, deep down, are decent. She argued that our need for love and friendship is more human than any inclination towards hate or violence. And when we do choose the path of evil, we feel compelled to hide behind lies and cliches that give us a semblance of virtue.  Eichmann was a prime example:  he’d convinced himself he’d done a good deed, something historic for which he’d be admired by future generations.” In other words, he was so eager to wag his tail for Hitler that he did profoundly evil things in order to please him.  Clearly, homo-puppyness does not always lead to a good outcome:  it can embroil us into a “negative spiral [that] can also factor into deeper societal evils like racism, gang rape, honor killings, support for terrorists and dictatorial regimes, even genocide.” And so, our evolution as tail-waggers has its dark side if we copycat ourselves into conformity with systems of injustice.

During the years of the Weimer Republic, Hitler had replaced the Rule of Law with a despotic antisemitism and diktats against dissent.  As a remedy, the nations that won World War II used the Nuremberg trials to establish international standards to prohibit crimes against humanity, including “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population.”

Shamefully, both the United States and the USSR left their ongoing crimes against humanity out of the new international formula: “The final version of the charter limited the tribunal’s jurisdiction over crimes against humanity to those committed as part of a war of aggression.” Both the United States—concerned that its “Jim Crow” system of racial segregation not be labeled a crime against humanity, and the Soviet Union, wanted to avoid giving an international court jurisdiction over a government’s treatment of its own citizens.”

The problem for Homo Sapiens today is that, if such self-interested, piecemeal compliance prevents out adhering to environmental covenants like the Paris Agreement, we may not be able to save the human race from global warming. In order to prevail, we will have to undertake an unnaturally swift evolutionary leap to a global homo-puppyhood that accepts the whole planet as our commons.  Is this too much to hope? Or will our devotion to charismatic dictators and their propaganda appeals to a narrow and destructive self-interest lead to a far more tragic outcome?

Here’s Rutger Bregman’s take: “There is no reason to be fatalistic about civil society. We can choose to organize our cities and states in new ways that will benefit everyone. The curse of civilization can be lifted. Will we manage to do so? Can we survive and thrive in the long run? Nobody knows.”   

*Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History.  Little Brown & Co: NY 2019

Chattering and Mattering

After a long, dry stretch in a particularly reserved (okay, anally retentive) academic department where I felt that my humanity was being drained out of me through my toes, I wrote a poem asking “Did anyone ever die for lack of gossip?”  I answered myself that “We are born for a web of words, an embracing patter,” and then I threw my Full Professorship out of the window to find a more socially nourishing life.

From birth, we live in a rich matrix of other people talking to us and to each other. As toddlers, we begin to formulate our replies within that context of interactive chatter; by the time we are six we are skilled linguistic manipulators within our particular social milieu.

Chattering generates mattering: we figure out our place in our world through verbality.  Feral children raised without language – let’s say by wolves –  communicate in wolf submission gestures, taking their correct place in the pack on hunts, and in growls and grunts, but remain poorly wolf-socialized because they lack non-verbal wolf information like smell – the enormously detailed array of scents wolves respond to – and the multiple meanings that a tail can express.  If rescued, it is often too late for feral children to acquire human language and live fully as humans.

A lone wolf ejected from the pack for bad behavior is not likely to survive on its own. American culture, in contrast, often considers an individual the center of the universe, despite our Surgeon General’s warning that the current plague of isolation leads not only to mental but also to bodily disease (apparently, we can actually die from lack of gossip).

Our development of language, with the evolutionary outcome of a larger and more complex neo-cortex than other animals, enables us to transmit a considerable body of how-to and what’s-it-all-about information among each other and down the generations.  For many millennia after we came down from the trees, we did this by word of mouth, orally. Think of the West African Griot, responsible for keeping centuries of tribal history and genealogy in his head; of “Homer,” who was actually a group of people writing down a cluster of epic narratives; or of the New Testament Gospels, stories told in the Christian communities that remained oral for most of the first century after the life of Jesus.  

Unfortunately, this treasure of human knowledge can be used for evil as well as good: it all depends on that ambivalent human gift, the gift of choice.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, we assumed that our bright new technologies would, in and of themselves, lead to human progress.  Silly us: we got a century of total war.  As Justin Gregg puts it in If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals about Human Stupidity: “If Nietzsche had been born a narwhal the world might never have had to endure the horrors of the Second World War or of the Holocaust.”  Unlike animals, which seem to know what they are doing, human beings – for all of our linguistic skills and our museums and libraries and symphonies – are tragically prone to muck things up.

Gossip is that way too: talking about whose mother called, what he said, then what she said can lead to kind understanding or turn toxic in the blink of an eye.   Nevertheless, we can’t live without it: we feel all creepy crawly if we go even one day without talking to someone.   So, if you live alone, like me, find somebody to chat with today, even if it is a familiar stranger like the check-out lady at the supermarket; she probably hankers to verbalize just as much as you do.

Chattering matters!

BEGINNER’S MIND

I belong to a little group of friends who meet every month to check in with each other’s lives and discuss a topic like “silence” or “hospitality” or “compassion.”  This January, it was “Paradigm Changes.”  Wouldn’t you know it, we decided that each of us would select a way we were doing things and change it, for which purpose we used a “30 Day Challenge” chart with “Every Day I Will…” at the top and 30 little squares to record our progress.   Does it sound like New Year’s Resolutions to you? It did to me, so I resolved to choose something light-hearted – to cultivate a (child-like) beginner’s mind.

It’s a core teaching of Buddhism, having to do with being entirely present in each moment the way we used to get so caught up in our play that everything else vanished from our minds. One of Buddhism’s ways of cultivating this state is to look at everything you encounter through the bandbox fresh, brand-new eyes of a child.

The trouble is, this winter proved a hard time to be light-hearted. It turned out to be one of those grim, grey Januarys we often have in Michigan, with no sun whatsoever plus sheets and sheets of cold, hard rain – a challengingly bleak time to cultivate childhood joy. Or, “if there is no self, then whose arthritis is this?”

So I did little things, like bet myself I wouldn’t see a single patch of blue driving home through the murk, and then click my mental heels when I saw one.  (It turns out that this isn’t a very smart thing to do with your foot on the accelerator, so I resolved to have my moments of hilarity when I wasn’t driving.) When I heard a lovely flute piece on the living room radio I would attempt a jig; when a Tufted Titmouse alit on my feeder I stopped and stared, and jumped with joy when children tore whooping around the playground. There was a huge snowfall, delightful in its dazzle (until tree branches started falling all over my yard); I got excited in a blissfully child-like way the next morning when I saw determined little possum tracks etched in the new snow, punctuated by a tail dragging along between them.

In spite of my friends still catching covid and my being in a high-risk group, I resolved to return to a few small local museums to experience the joy of finding something that delights me – most often a blazingly bright minimalist abstraction – before which to stand and stare. Look what I found!

I Sometimes stumble upon things at an art show that are just plain funny.  There was an hilarious juxtaposition of installations where I laughed and laughed and took this picture:

After I posted it on our neighborhood newsletter, I got a furious repost demanding how could I be so insensitive as to promulgate a rape scene?   Gentle reader, look again:  the stuffed people are facing upward after apparently falling over backwards on top of each other, and that’s why the little boy from the other installation finds the whole thing (like I do) hilarious.

Cultivating one’s (long-lost) inner child involves returning, after years and years of heavily responsible adulthood, to a “beginner’s mind.”  I tried to think of something I could get up to that was beginnerish in that way ?  When I was seven years old I hit a mischievous streak in my otherwise rule-abiding life: I founded a Mischief Club with my best friend. to startle people – like jumping over their jump ropes in the middle of a game or moving their belongings to somebody else’s locker.

When a childhood friend (who had witnessed my Mischief Club phase ) turned up in town and asked me to stop by her motel, I decided it would be fun to engage in some mild social mischief. Although Lilybet comes from a family of rather reserved folks, she has a raucous sense of humor and a flair for writing and reciting limericks.

So I put of a couple of limericks in my pocket and drove to her hotel, where I found her on a sofa in the foyer flanked by relatives.  Determined to carry out my resolution to be as silly as possible, I sat down with her and, instead of having the organ-recital about our ailments my crowd usually indulge in, I read her one of my limericks:

Way back in the 1940s

We were told it was always naughty

If we ever blew our noses

Anywhere on our own clotheses.

Nice girls in the 1950s

Always used our handkerchiefties

That is why I think it’s not

Nice to fill your sleeves with snot.

We hugged and jiggled and simply howled with laughter while, would you believe it, the relatives laughed right along with us!

EVERYDAY PHILOSOPHIZING

What is going on in that “Socrates Cafe© “on the second floor of the library every third Sunday afternoon? Since people seem curious, take last Sunday.

People wrote down questions and voted on which to discuss.  Th questions were:

What is consciousness; are animals conscious?

Can animals be people?

What is wisdom?

What is death?

and Why does Suffering Exist, which was the winner.

The conversation moves all around the table, with me as facilitator, calling on people when a turn opens up and interjecting my own comments here and there. Here’s how it went:

The word “why” appears in the question – this suggests that there a reason for pain?

Existentialists don’t think so – to them, it’s all random happenstance.

How about evolution? You learn what to avoid if you feel pain, so you survive to reproduce.  But what if you can tolerate more pain than other people: isn’t that an evolutionary advantage too? On the one hand, you need to know what to avoid. On the other hand, Stoic endurance might have some genetic usefulness if it is passed on.

Is pain physical- of the body- or can it be emotional, or both?  When you are in emotional pain does it take the form of bodily sensations (stomach aches, headaches?)  What emotions are engendered by physical pain?

How about people who are perpetually consumed by their victimhood, even when the emotional or physical trauma occurred way back in their lives?

Can pain be transcended by thinking and talking about it? What role does conscious acceptance that suffering is part of life play, given that so many people think that life is supposed to be easy? How about talk therapy for emotional pain?

Do religious systems “rationalize” pain?  How about Buddhism, with its belief that pain is a given if we exist, and Christianity with its teaching that suffering is redemptive?   Is “rationalizing” in the sense of explaining pain and suffering as part of an overall “why” useful?  Does it lessen pain to give it this kind of meaning? Does experiencing pain within a system of meaning mitigate it?

How about the question “How Could a Good God Let There Be So Much Pain in the World?”  A Judeo-Christian answer is that life in the material world consists of random happenings and that God so values our decision-making capacities and wouldn’t want to govern our fates as if we were puppets.  God grieves for our bad decisions and delights in our good ones.  A Buddhist answer might be that pain is the way the world goes but we can control our responses to it through meditation and compassion for each other.

Victor Frankl wrote that he found meaning during the holocaust by thinking about what it would be like outside the concentration camp if he survived for a future after it, and by taking day to day actions helping other inmates. His take suggests that “hopelessness” is what makes pain unbearable and that hope for the future, plus present-time compassion for his fellow prisoners, is what got him through.

LET’S ALL BE INTELLECTUALS!

Review of Ward Farnsworth, The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook.  Boston: Godine, 2021

It is not very popular to be an intellectual in America today.  My husband and I, both college professors, were careful not to draw our neighbors’ attention to our status lest they hold back their friendship.  And now, country-wide distrust has been fired up by the idea that intellectuals inevitably condescend to ordinary people and that neither facts nor reasoning  are to be trusted.

The problem is, I become more and more intellectual as I get older.   Some years ago, having read Christopher Phillip’s Socrates Café about the discussions he holds in nursing homes, schools, prisons and public parks, I decided to solve my problem by convincing friends and neighbors that they were just as intellectual as I, and that it would be fun to have philosophical discussions with each other. 

In my Socrates Café, I make a firm distinction between an opinion and a thought, and I always insist that you can’t engage in thinking if you are opinionated. (see https://bit.ly/3jtmQ2b),  Most people are pleased to think things through, although I had to dissolve a Socrates Café at a senior center when, week after week, discussants refused to abandon their opinions about immigrants and people of color.

In Socrates, Farnsworth finds a perpetual questioner of “the commonplace. the acceptance of traditional opinions and current sentiments as an ultimate fact.” People feel good expressing their opinions in a pushy way, but it is precisely this kind of bold assertion that Socrates questions.  “Questions and answers are the sound of thought happening. An essay or lecture is usually the sound of a thought having happened.”

In asking one question after another Socrates is a skeptic, a word whose root means “inquiry” and which involves less of the modern “disdainfully doubtful” connotation than a person who “inquires without reaching a conclusion.  Skeptics don’t say ‘no’ to every claim, or indeed to any of them.  They just keep asking questions.  They want the truth, and are always trying to get closer to it, but they never reach a stopping point; they never find certainty. They have a dread of ‘rash assent’ and of thinking that you’re done thinking before you really are.”

I have noticed that people really like it when you question yourself in front of them: You can’t come across as intellectually condescending when you display skepticism about your own opinions!

When you apply the Socratic method to yourself, you arrive at a state of mind which Socrates calls Aporia.  “You realize that you’ve been pushing words around as if their meaning were obvious but that you don’t really understand.” Once you learn to do this, you can help other people get there, and that is why, pursued in a non-judgmental, non-interruptive manner, the Socratic method has a lot of promise for the hard-held opinions that endanger American democracy today

                                 *  *  *

Let’s give it a try with a guy who “doesn’t believe in facts”:

G(uy). Global Warming is a hoax made up by the democrats. It isn’t a fact – it’s propaganda.

Q. How about in your personal life? Do you use facts there?

G. What do you mean?

Q. Well, just for an example, how did you decide on the best commute to work today?

G. I started with a map when I first got the job, but as I went on, I worked out some shortcuts to make it quicker

Q. What did the map tell you?

G. Which roads intersected, distances – things like that.

Q. How did you work out the shortcuts?

G. I found some side roads, and then tested the route with my watch.

Q. Were the roads on the map and the timing you worked out based on facts?

G. Yes, but those aren’t the made-up kind.

Q. So you trust some facts, but not others?

G. Obviously!

Q. How about weather reports – do you trust those?

G. They are pretty accurate most of the time.

Q. Who does those weather reports?

G. The news, tv shows

Q. Where do they get their facts.

G. They get them from meteorologists.

Q. So you trust the accuracy of weather reports because they are given by trained meteorologists?

G. Yes.

Q. Do you know where the reports on Global Warming come from?

G. Of course: the democrats – Biden and his elite east coast friends who look down at us and want to ruin our economy.

Q. Do you think the inftense new hurricanes, wildfires, deluges, droughts and heat waves are really happening?

G. Yes.

Q. Why?

G. I see them on TV and we had a whole week of really heavy rain ourselves  last spring.

Q. Was your house okay?

G.  Yes, though the porch floated away.

Q. So your direct observation tells you that those kinds of storms are facts?

G. Yes, but they are not caused by humans: that’s the hoax!

Q. (summarizing): Okay, I see where you are coming from: you trust maps and your own observations of the closest route to work – which means that you trust your own reasoning from obvious facts. You trust what Meteorologists report about weather because it lines up with the facts you see on TV and with your own experience.  On the other hand, you don’t trust what meteorologists and climate scientists tell you about the causes of Global Warming.   I am not sure how one set of facts that you trust differs from the set of facts you don’t trust?

                                             *  *  *

What do you think? Is it working? If not, why not?  And then what?  Do you think there is room for using the Socratic method in everyday life?

How to be Perfec: A Philosophical Journey

A Review of Michael Schur, How to be Perfec: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2022.

I took an Introduction to Philosophy in college – my father and my brother majored in it, and I wanted to see what it was about.   What it was about was boring. The teacher wasn’t particularly inspired and never engaged us in the philosophical issues she droned on about. Besides, at that age I didn’t really care about what Socrates or Aristotle, Kant or Bentham felt was so vitally important.

I didn’t see the point of establishing my ethics for everyday living because I hadn’t done a whole lot of everyday living. But now!  After a life filled with the vicissitudes (and joys) of marriage, parenthood, teaching, community organizing and political activism I know what I stand for, though I still struggle to avoid undercutting my integrity by failing to live up to it.

That’s where Michael Schur’s How to be Perfec: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question comes in. The fact that Schur is a tv comedy writer (Parks and Recreation) and is funny even when he is carrying on about categorical imperatives and existential anxiety convinced me to read the whole thing this summer, very slowly.

Here’s the kind of ethical conundrum that typically gets my moral knickers in a twist.   We have a community homeless shelter where I drop in with fresh fruit to supplement the hot lunches. I often chat with whoever has come off the streets that day: I have a rule for myself that if a guest wants to talk I will stop running all over town like a chicken with my head chopped off and take time for a conversation.

The other day I brought a bunch of grapes and stopped to greet a guy I often chat with, who was disconsolately slumped over his chair.  

“Lunch smells good,” I said.

“Would you sit down and eat it with me,” he asked.

He had been in the shelter all day with his mask below his nose, and I am at a high risk category for covid.  In order to break bread with him we would both have to take our masks off.

 “I am really sorry,” I said, “I have another errand.”

I chose between his good and my good, and I am still unhappy with myself about it. So is he: he has gone off me, no longer eager for my company.

That’s why I like Schur’s less than perfec (sic) take on the struggle to live up to our moral responsibilities: “Again, part of the project of this book is to help us accept failure – because, again, failure is the inevitable result of caring about morality and trying to be good people. I really don’t mean to argue for perfect living…because a) it’s impossible and b) I don’t even think it’s a good goal. Instead, I’m arguing that when we fail, in matters great or small, we just take a second to acknowledge our failure to ourselves, and try to remember that failure the next time we have a decision to make.”

He devotes the first eighty pages of his book to “various theories of how to be good people.” 

Deontology – Emmanuel Kant: Arrive at your rules for moral behavior through reasoning, as long as they work as well for others. My personal ethics told me to eat with the guy at the shelter, but, the very next day, I was joining my daughters and grandsons for our summer vacation.  Taking a risk on his behalf could in put me and my whole family at risk.  Or, my (Kantian) categorical imperative of being there when people ask me to was undercut because it might not work out well for others.

Utilitarianism – John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham: Make decisions that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number.  Take my monetary donations to that shelter: arguing from quantitative analysis, shouldn’t I donate to groups whose intent is to eradicate homelessness (and poverty) altogether?

Contractualism –  T.M. Scanlon (Author of What We Owe to Each Other):  Make ethical decisions based on what we need to do to live with other people.  What we owe each other is more qualitative and emotional than quantitative and mathematical, therefore “Living with other people” backs my choice to support “bricks and mortar” programs in my own neighborhood rather than distant charities.

Virtue Ethics – Aristotle: what are virtues? Which values do we want to live by, how to we find the golden mean in enacting them that is neither too little or too much? There are two aspects of Aristotle’s ethics that are the touchstone for my decision-making:  first, that life does not consist of ideas but of action; secondly, matching your acts to your values brings life’s greatest happiness; being at one with yourself brings you a sense of wholeness, true flourishing as a human being.

Existentialism – Sartre: don’t look for a meaning in life there isn’t any. There is no source outside of you where you can find moral values: you have to make your own choices (while being sure they are good for others too.)  Camus: Life is absurd; accept human absurdity and try to make good individual choices anyway.

 I used Schur’s philosophical categories to sort out the basis for my life choices.  I have come to consider the universe fundamentally moral, so I go with Kant.   Utilitarianism leaves me (emotionally) chilled; though I have to admit that basing your charitable giving on algorithmically sorted data and quantitative accounting makes plenty of (rational) sense.  

In choosing my actions I have never been a loner, but always join in the social contracts of the organizations where I volunteer: there is my (Unitarian) church’s covenant to principles, for example, and the stated rules that the Citizens’ Climate Lobby adheres to. And there is our United States Constitution and our Rule of Law, about which I am passionate.  

As for Existentialism – when I fell into it during the (mercifully few) depressions I suffered, existential anxiety and a sense that life held no meaning whatsoever  undermined my entire (Kantian/Contractual/Aristotelian)  process of moral reasoning to leave me disastrously adrift on life’s tumultuous seas, without a rudder.   

One of the truly lovely things about living (as often as possible) by integrity is that your ethics have a way of making themselves available at a (non-deliberative) second’s notice. A moment suddenly arrives when I realize that I must stand up for my values, right then and right there. Trembling all over, I get up on my feet to speak my piece for what I think is right and good, and experience what Aristotle described as true human flourishing – a great and all-pervading feeling, a warm bolt of complete happiness that rises from the tips of my toes and shoots up my spine to the top of my head as, once again, I head for good trouble.