Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

If you go carryin’ pictures of Chairman Mao…

April 7, 2012

Most unexpected sidelight of our Lyceum lecture yesterday, a real Dorian Gray moment: the speaker, I discovered, attended Furman University back in the ’70s as an undergrad with my old grad school friend Mark Stone, the Schopenhauer scholar. I haven’t seen Mark since about 1985, so the mental picture I carry of him is chronologically dated. It took a moment to sync the incongruity and realize that Mark will also have put on some years.

I’m still working on the realization that I have, too. Better dust that portrait in the attic.

Our speaker Bill Martin was just back from Shanghai (where they thought he looked like Einstein, with his gray unkempt hair) , full of interesting observations and speculations about China’s future. He was more nostalgic for China’s Maoist past than I would have been, but of course I was never a Maoist. I just kept hearing John Lennon’s voice in my head, during the talk. (“You say you want a revolution, well, you know… you better free your mind instead.”)

Bill listened to the Beatles in his rented silver Beatle on his drive to our campus, by the way, and thought that car assignment might have been prophetic.

Mao’s mama was a Buddhist, we learned, and Mao thought Buddhists were nice. But he didn’t rule like a Buddhist, for those 26 turbulent years. Bill noted that Confucianism remains the “glue” that holds that society together, and gives it some credit for keeping the streets safer than those of Chicago.

But they don’t have the Cubs or Bill Murray, now do they?

MLK Day-Are we there yet?

January 16, 2012

No, we’ve not reached the mountaintop of justice for all. Ours remains a deeply flawed species, our politics has degenerated to the extent that at least one popular GOP candidate openly avows that he would not have supported federal action on behalf of the transformative Civil Rights initiatives of the ’60s, our civic dialogue is often an embarrassment.

But yes, we’ve made strides. Doors have opened, opportunities have created hope where there was despair. We should celebrate those victories today and continue the climb to freedom. And we who study philosophy should recall Dr. King’s advocacy of constructive Socratic tension, and continue to ratchet the pressure for progress in this imperfect time.

Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.  Letter from Birmingham Jail

We may not reach the promised land, but it shouldn’t be for not trying. As historian Taylor Branch wrote of King’s “last wish,”

How do we restore our political culture from spin to movement, from muddle to purpose? We must take leaps, ask questions, study nonviolence, reclaim our history.

So no, we’re not there yet. But asking questions and “creating tension in the mind” will move us on down the road. That’s the faith of a philosopher, and it’s why MLK makes the last cut on our timeline.  We can argue about whether his religion “improved” King, or whether his own virtuous character improved his religion. Just let Hitch have the last uncontroversial word, for once:

One wishes every day that Martin Luther King had lived on and continued to lend his presence and his wisdom to American politics.


A rising tide sinks more boats

April 9, 2011

We were talking in class the other day about J.S. Mill’s “harm principle” and Karl Marx’s utopian dreams. The question arose: Does a rising tide lift all boats? Well… “maybe you’re a heartless crank for thinking so.”

The top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent.


Of all the costs imposed on our society by the top 1 percent, perhaps the greatest is this: the erosion of our sense of identity, in which fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community are so important. America has long prided itself on being a fair society, where everyone has an equal chance of getting ahead, but the statistics suggest otherwise: the chances of a poor citizen, or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America are smaller than in many countries of Europe. The cards are stacked against them.


The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late. J. Stiglitz

Memorial Day

May 31, 2010

It is right that we set aside a day to pause and reflect on the terrible cost of war, in soldiers’ lives, and feel deep gratitude for the willingness of idealistic young men and women to sacrifice themselves for a perceived greater good.

But it is not enough to remember them alone. Civilian casualties in war are inevitable and appalling. The entire human cost of armed aggression around the globe needs a day of remembrance too, and we need to insist on an accounting.

The only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry- in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government. -Justice Potter Stewart

We need to be less stone-blind to the realities of war, less stoical in our acceptance of the “inevitable.” In some ways it’s hard, but in others it’s way too easy to “suck it up and keep on fighting”– as Nancy Sherman says in the new installment of the Times philosophy blog. We undertake “detachment from certain objects so they cannot affect” us, we hold the brutality and de-humanization of war at arms’ length, we idealize noble ends and whitewash despicable means… and we continue the fight.

The U.S. has been carrying on the present fight for nearly a decade now. Why is this not widely rejected as outrageous and intolerable? Could it be that we’re simply not paying attention, most of us? That we’re lacking Justice Stewart’s “informed and critical public opinion?” Do we need to bring back a draft, to re-focus our attention and hone our critical opinion?

But we do love a parade. Happy Memorial Day. Peace.

Greg Mortenson

January 16, 2010

Seeing Greg Mortenson with Bill Moyers last night reminded me of my brief but inspiring conversation with Greg when he came to speak at our school in August ’08. I made a Flip-cam recording of his convocation address to the new freshmen that day which I then shared with my Dad a few days later, just a few days before his death. Dad was inspired too.

The author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools has a simple, powerful message: human beings reaching  across national, cultural, religious and other divisions to help other human beings is a far more effective and humane strategy for promoting peace (and opposing terrorism) than armed intervention. The cost of maintaining one soldier in Afghanistan for a year could educate thousands upon thousands of Afghans away from the indoctrinating snares of militant Islam (but not from that tradition’s nobler aspirations) and towards better lives of peaceful coexistence. That’s what Mortenson is doing. He is a courageous, visionary man. Like many others, I’d hoped the new president would read Mortenson and be guided by his vision. It’s not too late. But it’s late.

I’ll always recall Dad’s warm and positive reaction to my little video as emblematic of his own deepest instincts towards humanitarianism and empathy and compassion. He’d have enjoyed last night’s show, and we’d have taken another step towards closing the political gap between us.


December 6, 2009

“In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.” Mark Twain

As Mr. Emerson put it: “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”

Are we up to it, Mr. Clemens?