Saturday, February 28, 2009

Social Networking, the Ivory Tower, and "Friend"-ly Disagreement

There is an old, well-worn and tired stereotype of academics that figures them/us as people who restrict their/our lives to the Ivory Tower, engaged in intellectual pursuits and disengaged from the practical concerns of everyday life. (Incidentally, the "tower" pictured to the left really is one of the towers on my campus.) I suppose that there are academics who revel in this stereotype, but for the most part I think we all understand it as a pejorative and, hence, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to disprove it. The idea is that Ivory-Tower-Existence amounts to little more than a giant echo-chamber in which smart people say esoteric, generally "relativistic" (ethical and political) things to one another upon which they all agree, or else they say esoteric, generally abstruse or arcane (scholarly) things to one another upon which they may disagree but about which the disagreements matter very, very little. I really hate this stereotype and vociferously disavow it at every opportunity... but every now and then, something happens that makes me stop and seriously reconsider both the homogeneity of the people that I am around every day and the ease with which I am able to avoid people with radically different world-views from mine. Here is one of those stories.

As everyone knows, Facebook is a social networking site with over 175 million active users. And as every Facebook user knows, you only have to be on Facebook for about 15 seconds before people you haven't spoken to in years find you again. As a rule, I'm pretty liberal about who I accept as "friends" on Facebook. My general parameters for deciding whether or not to accept a friend request is just whether or not I actually know the person (would I recognize him or her on the street? could I tell you something about him or her besides their name? have we ever had a real conversation?). If you've lived in more than one town, attended more than one school, worked at more than one job, or if you're a teacher, you find that "friends" accumulate very quickly. Some of them, inevitably, will be people that you knew back-in-the-day when you had something or another in common, but who in the intervening years have taken life-roads that widely diverge from yours, often in ways that you cannot possibly know. All that is just to say that many of us have Facebook "friends" that we may not count as "friends" in our average-everyday sense of that term.

Recently, I posted a link on my Facebook page to Senator Patrick Leahy's petition to create a truth and reconciliation commission to address the abuses (including torture) of the Bush administration. Shortly after I posted the link, the comments section to my link got some action. Here's a snapshot of the beginning of the conversation. I've blacked out the names for anonymity's sake. (You can click on the picture below to see a clearer image.):

If I were being completely honest, I would have to admit that my very first thought upon reading this exchange was that I was utterly embarrassed to have Friend #1 as a "friend," and for about a second I considered simply deleting his comments from my page. Then, my inner professor kicked in, and I decided that it was better to see this as what folks in my profession call a "teachable moment." Maybe I could enlighten what was obviously (to me) a matter of gross misinformation, so I posted several links verifying the fact that torture DID take place under the watch of the Bush administration, including a link to the excellent documentary (which you can watch online) Torturing Democracy. But I cannot say in good faith that I didn't really want to just write-off Friend #1 as an ignorant and ignorantly partisan representative of everything that is wrong with this country. I mean, who really thinks that? Is it even worth the wasted breath to have this conversation out? Is there even a conversation to be had there?

Alas, but there I go authenticating exactly the stereotype of Ivory Tower academics that I hate so very much. And there's the rub. The truth is that I hardly ever run into anyone who would say out loud that torture is justifiable. Maybe people don't say that to me because they all agree with me, maybe they don't say that because they already know where I stand on the issue and they don't want to bother disagreeing with me... but, either way, I think it's safe to say that ALL of the "social networks" that I run in are, in fact, echo-chambers of deafening consensus on this issue. That should seem odd to me, given that the moral and political permissability of torture is one of the hot-button issues in American public discourse right now. And it ought to seem odd to me, I suspect, that I can so easily avoid ever having exchanges like the one taking place on my Facebook page right now.

Anyone who has ever taught an intro-level course knows the challenge of confronting opinions and positions that are dogmatic and uninformed, which always require an extra measure of clarity, patience, generosity and respect. Of course, those virtues are easier to summon in the classroom, because (as a teacher) one already enjoys the privilege and confidence of the "authority" position. This is harder to do in conversations that occur in relationships with less structural asymmetry. Unfortunately, we academics too quickly excuse ourselves from conversations with what we too haughtily consider the hoi polloi, which amounts to avoiding the most difficult tests of our (presumed) skills. I'm going to work harder on resisting that temptation.

Thanks, Friend #2, for the healthy reminder that we owe it to ourselves and our profession to keep entering the fray.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mourning, Part III

[If you're wondering where the first two parts of the "mourning" series are, see The Work of Mourning (November '06) and Mourning Again (November '07)]

As you may or may not remember, then-President George H.W. Bush banned images of American coffins (and dead) in 1991, against protests that the ban was an attempt to cover up the real cost of the first Gulf War in American lives. Then, in 2005, Professor of Communication Ralph Begleiter (University of Delaware) sued the federal government under the Freedom of Information Act to allow the images taken of American casualties returning to Dover Air Force base, and he won, claiming that "these images were the single most important way that the American people could see the cost of war." After American casualties began accumulating again in Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11, President George W. Bush renewed the ban on images of war dead-- and that ban remained in effect until yesterday, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates finally lifted the media ban on images of American caskets.

It's hard to celebrate this development without some disturbance of conscience. On the one hand, it seems like an unambiguously good development inasmuch as lifting the ban signals a commitment to more transparency and accountability on the part of the Obama administration. Like Professor Begleiter said, images of war casualties are an important way to impress upon a citizenry the "cost of war," and one could easily argue that the anti-war effort was seriously handicapped over the past seven years by the suppression of these images. (Remember Marshall McLuhan's famous quote about the Vietnam War: "Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America—not on the battlefields of Vietnam.") On the other hand, the images are still of lost lives, the product of (what George McGovern called) "old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in," and whatever greater social good the images may serve does not assuage the tragedy of what they portray.

Even still, I am in favor of Gates' decision to lift the ban. For me, the wisdom of that decision is not (primarily) about providing ammunition for anti-war arguments, nor is it (strictly speaking) about a kind of tough-love utilitarian lesson in the "costs of war" for the American citizenry. Rather, it's about creating a proper, public space for mourning in this country again-- something that we have been denied for too long, much to our own detriment, and which has become both a symptom and a cause of our increasingly antidemocratic civic posture. Mourning is one of the most difficult-- Derrida would say impossible-- works that human beings undertake. What we attempt to do when we mourn the dead is, in a way, to keep them alive, to make them immortal in memory, to prolong and protract their "presence" even in spite of their painful and undeniable absence. But, alas, death is irreversible, and in that sense our mourning always fails to "keep" the beloved. And so we often introject the other (according to Freudian psychoanalysis, the "healthy" mourning) or incorporate the other (according to Abraham, the "pathological" mourning), but what all of these efforts demonstrate is that we are powerless to overcome our own mortality or the mortality of those we love.

Why is a failure to perform this work of mourning antidemocratic? First, because it alienates us from one another, weakens the bonds of community, and shortcuts a full recognition of the precariousness of human life and belonging that we all share in common. Second, because it fosters a false sense of security, a vision of the world in which violence has no consequences and loss is not suffered, thus undermining all of the reasons that democracies privilege debate and deliberation over war. Third, because suppressing the need to mourn-- publicly and without apology-- hardens and frustrates the human psyche, which spreads like an infection to all the other areas in which compassion and empathy for others ought to be activated. And those hardened psyches are far less capable of cooperatively determining what is in the best interest of their collectives, what is meant by the "public good" and how such good might be brought about without sacrificing the lives for the sake of which it is pursued in the first place.

Derrida once remarked that democracy was the only political form that presumed its own "historicity," that is, its own intractable embeddedness in time. The first and most important insight of that awareness is that things (and people) pass, they change, they deteriorate and they die. Democracy, like the human lives upon which it depends for meaning, is fundamentally defined by this fragility, indeterminacy and weakness. When we hide the signs and the images of those weaknesses-- painful as they may be-- we effectively deny them. And denying them is tantamount to denying our own historicity. It is an attempt to remove the uncertainty of all the unknown possibilities that attend temporal things and mortal lives, a kind of de-"if"-ication of ourselves and our collective that, in the end (and there is always an end), shows itself to be little more than self-sabatoge.

Are Terrorists "Stupid"?

Over at Slate, Timothy Noah has begun an 8-part series called Why No More 9/11s?, in an attempt to answer the question that has probably stymied all of us at some point in the last eight years. Immediately following the September 11th attacks, most counterterrorism experts and others in the know predicted that it was only matter of days before the U.S. was attacked on its own soil again. Then, it was months. Then, a year at the most. As more and more time passed without incident, the fear of the "terrorist threat" became something more like a default, ready-to-hand fear that had morphed into a certain manner of existing, rather than a fear of a particular event. And still... no attacks.

The first part in Noah's series considers one theory to explain this: what he calls the Terrorists-Are-Dumb Theory. If you look back at how close the 9/11 attackers came to being uncovered before they attacked, it does seem like the success of that mission ought to be attributed more to the fecklessness of U.S. intelligence agencies than the evil genius of terrorists. (And if you have still not taken the time to read the 9/11 Commission Report, you should do so.) Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, and it's hard to say with conviction how many things could have or should have been done differently. However, by August 2001-- when President George W. Bush was receiving briefs with titles like "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." -- I think it's safe to say that enough people were aware that (in the words of former CIA Director George Tenet) "the system was blinking red." So, on the Terrorists-Are-Dumb Theory, 9/11 never should have happened in the first place. The reason it hasn't happened again is that we learned our lesson, battened down the hatches, and closed all the loopholes that crazy people with crazy plans used to slip through.

I'm looking forward to reading the remaining seven parts of Noah's series, but one thing that bothers me a bit is his presumption that no more attacks on U.S. soil (on the order of the 9/11 attacks) somehow demonstrates that the U.S. hasn't been the victim of terrorism since. That presumption only holds, I think, if you believe that the only purpose of the 9/11 attacks was to take down the World Trade Towers, part of the Pentagon, four jet airliners and almost 3,000 innocent lives. What that presumption doesn't consider is that the purpose of the attacks was to "terrorize" a country that felt itself to be absolutely secure, absolutely powerful, absolutely immune to outside influence. "Terrorism"-- from the Latin terrorem-- is meant to cause "great fear or dread"... and that it most certainly did. What's more, it caused a great fear and dread that, as evidenced by Noah's very question ("why hasn't this happened again yet?"), continues to attack the American psyche even in the absence of terrorist "events."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Reaction to Obama's 2009 Address to Joint Session of Congress

Last night, I posted the transcript and some video clips of Obama's 2009 State of the Union Address. Here are my thoughts on the speech:

The Tone:
Perfect. We all expected that President Hope would sound strong and inspiring last night, that he would steer clear of fear and pessimism, that he would rally the troops... but Obama's no-nonsense, I'm-talking-to-the-people-at-home-and-I-GET-it straightforwardness was a refreshing departure from the last, oh, thirty years of State of the Union Addresses. There were a couple of moments last night-- in particular when Obama began the sentence "With the deficit we inherited..."-- that the chamber hooted and hissed like a bunch of Parliament Lords, making me believe for a second that they might actually be living, breathing human beings and not zombie bureaucrats. Even though I thought the "we are not quitters" thing was just a tad hokey, it still captured the moment and, in the context of its author's story, reminded us all that a good handwritten letter to your elected officials is not a waste of time. We're all in this together, after all.

The Economy, the Deficit and Taxes:
Kudos again to Obama for not backing off of the truth that "our economy did not fall into decline overnight." And BIG kudos for saying that he has no interest in bailing out the banks. That's what I call "getting it." I honestly don't know whether or not the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is going to work, or how, but it seems like a step in the right direction to me. (And by "right direction" I mean the opposite direction of further debt and debauchery.) I also appreciated Obama's ad-lib moment when he said that Americans who earn less than $250,000 a year-- and then clarified, "that's a quarter of a million dollars"-- would not see their taxes increase a single dime. It made me miss John Edwards for a second, but it was a nice reminder that we still live in "Two Americas" and the gross social and economic stratification of our bifurcated state cannot be remedied until we stop structuring the tax code in favor of the wealthy.

Energy and Automobiles:
Yeah, we need clean energy. Yeah, we shouldn't give up on the automobile. Like, duh.

Health Care:
If Obama's talk about taxes made me miss John Edwards, then his talk about health care made me miss Hillary Clinton. Of course, I'm very happy that our country's disaster of a health care system made it to the top of Obama's agenda, but he is still horribly vague about what is to be done. He says his administration has made a "historic commitment to comprehensive health care reform" (not comprehensive health care) and is committed to the principle that "we must have quality, affordable health care for every American" (not just quality health care for everyone). To his credit, I think that Obama is going to be effective in tightening-up the health care system (mostly Medicare, really) and possibly even holding insurance and pharmaceutical companies more accountable for their exploitative practices. And I am totally confident that he is going to redirect those wasted funds into research. (That man loves himself some science!) But the truth is that there was an obvious and troubling asymmetry between his descriptions and his prescriptions when it comes to health care. Want to stimulate the economy? Try to stop the hemorrhaging that every family with the misfortune of having someone get sick experiences as a result.

Okay, so I clearly have a vested interest in this topic. So, hurrah! for Obama's commitment to make America the country with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. And hurrah! for asking every American to commit to at least one year of higher education or career training. And hurrah! hurrah! for reinforcing the fact that quality education makes for a better citizenry and workforce. Now, if he could only do something about that other source of income-hemorrhaging: student loans. Pardon!

War and Torture:
From the President's lips to God's ears. Let's hope he means it when he says "without exception or equivocation that the United States does not torture." Let's hope he finds a way to convince the beltway hawks that "living our values doesn't make us weaker, it makes us safer and stronger." Let's hope we can responsibly end these wars. (Hemorrhage #3: Afghanistan and Iraq) I've been doing a lot of research on torture and terrorism recently, and I am convinced that the appearance of these in our times are both symptoms and causes of the regrettably antidemocratic trend of our country in the last seven years. I've heard a lot of people say in the last couple of months that they are "proud" to be American again, that the Obama administration's commitment to diplomacy and democracy have restored a sense of decency to our nation, and that it's only now that they realize how bad things had really gotten. Obama, like all Presidents before him, used the State of the Union Address as an opportunity to tell a few inspirational stories of Everyday Americans. Then, he said:
These words and these stories tell us something about the spirit of the people who sent us here. They tell us that even in the most trying times, amid the most difficult circumstances, there is a generosity, a resilience, a decency, and a determination that perseveres; a willingness to take responsibility for our future and for posterity.
Let's hope we are still that people.


Governor Bobby Jindal's (R-Louisiana) Response:
What? TWO people of color in one night?!? [Rubs her eyes and pinches herself.] Okay, in all seriousness, good for Governor Jindal for at least signaling a willingness on the part of the GOP to reach across the aisle and see what genuine bipartisan cooperation can do. Less impressive: "The strength of America is not found in our government." Hmmmm. I, for one, have a hard time buying the standard "no-big-government" line anymore, and an even harder time depending on the "good will and good hearts" of individuals in a mess as big as the one we're in now. But I'm not convinced that Jindal really buys it, either. The only major difference between his points and Obama's were on taxation and spending, about which Jindal still believes that allowing Americans to "keep the wealth that they earn" is more important than looking after the public good. Even still, I appreciate his clarification of the real philosophical difference between Democrats and Republicans and his honest admission of his party's abandoning of classical conservatism's fundamental principles. Jindal's right that the GOP has a long, hard, uphill battle ahead of it in reclaiming the trust and confidence of its constituency... and I suspect that he will soon learn that passing the buck back down to Main Street isn't going to make much headway in that struggle.

Obama's 2009 Address to Joint Session of Congress

Madame Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the First Lady of the United States:

I’ve come here tonight not only to address the distinguished men and women in this great chamber, but to speak frankly and directly to the men and women who sent us here.

I know that for many Americans watching right now, the state of our economy is a concern that rises above all others. And rightly so. If you haven’t been personally affected by this recession, you probably know someone who has – a friend; a neighbor; a member of your family. You don’t need to hear another list of statistics to know that our economy is in crisis, because you live it every day. It’s the worry you wake up with and the source of sleepless nights. It’s the job you thought you’d retire from but now have lost; the business you built your dreams upon that’s now hanging by a thread; the college acceptance letter your child had to put back in the envelope. The impact of this recession is real, and it is everywhere.

But while our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken; though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this:

We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.

The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation. The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth. Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure. What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more.

Now, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that for too long, we have not always met these responsibilities – as a government or as a people. I say this not to lay blame or look backwards, but because it is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we’ll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament.

The fact is, our economy did not fall into decline overnight. Nor did all of our problems begin when the housing market collapsed or the stock market sank. We have known for decades that our survival depends on finding new sources of energy. Yet we import more oil today than ever before. The cost of health care eats up more and more of our savings each year, yet we keep delaying reform. Our children will compete for jobs in a global economy that too many of our schools do not prepare them for. And though all these challenges went unsolved, we still managed to spend more money and pile up more debt, both as individuals and through our government, than ever before.

In other words, we have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election. A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market. People bought homes they knew they couldn’t afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway. And all the while, critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day.

Well that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here.

Now is the time to act boldly and wisely – to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity. Now is the time to jumpstart job creation, re-start lending, and invest in areas like energy, health care, and education that will grow our economy, even as we make hard choices to bring our deficit down. That is what my economic agenda is designed to do, and that’s what I’d like to talk to you about tonight.

It’s an agenda that begins with jobs.

As soon as I took office, I asked this Congress to send me a recovery plan by President’s Day that would put people back to work and put money in their pockets. Not because I believe in bigger government – I don’t. Not because I’m not mindful of the massive debt we’ve inherited – I am. I called for action because the failure to do so would have cost more jobs and caused more hardships. In fact, a failure to act would have worsened our long-term deficit by assuring weak economic growth for years. That’s why I pushed for quick action. And tonight, I am grateful that this Congress delivered, and pleased to say that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is now law.

Over the next two years, this plan will save or create 3.5 million jobs. More than 90% of these jobs will be in the private sector – jobs rebuilding our roads and bridges; constructing wind turbines and solar panels; laying broadband and expanding mass transit.

Because of this plan, there are teachers who can now keep their jobs and educate our kids. Health care professionals can continue caring for our sick. There are 57 police officers who are still on the streets of Minneapolis tonight because this plan prevented the layoffs their department was about to make.

Because of this plan, 95% of the working households in America will receive a tax cut – a tax cut that you will see in your paychecks beginning on April 1st.

Because of this plan, families who are struggling to pay tuition costs will receive a $2,500 tax credit for all four years of college. And Americans who have lost their jobs in this recession will be able to receive extended unemployment benefits and continued health care coverage to help them weather this storm.

I know there are some in this chamber and watching at home who are skeptical of whether this plan will work. I understand that skepticism. Here in Washington, we’ve all seen how quickly good intentions can turn into broken promises and wasteful spending. And with a plan of this scale comes enormous responsibility to get it right.

That is why I have asked Vice President Biden to lead a tough, unprecedented oversight effort – because nobody messes with Joe. I have told each member of my Cabinet as well as mayors and governors across the country that they will be held accountable by me and the American people for every dollar they spend. I have appointed a proven and aggressive Inspector General to ferret out any and all cases of waste and fraud. And we have created a new website called so that every American can find out how and where their money is being spent.

So the recovery plan we passed is the first step in getting our economy back on track. But it is just the first step. Because even if we manage this plan flawlessly, there will be no real recovery unless we clean up the credit crisis that has severely weakened our financial system.

I want to speak plainly and candidly about this issue tonight, because every American should know that it directly affects you and your family’s well-being. You should also know that the money you’ve deposited in banks across the country is safe; your insurance is secure; and you can rely on the continued operation of our financial system. That is not the source of concern.

The concern is that if we do not re-start lending in this country, our recovery will be choked off before it even begins.

You see, the flow of credit is the lifeblood of our economy. The ability to get a loan is how you finance the purchase of everything from a home to a car to a college education; how stores stock their shelves, farms buy equipment, and businesses make payroll.

But credit has stopped flowing the way it should. Too many bad loans from the housing crisis have made their way onto the books of too many banks. With so much debt and so little confidence, these banks are now fearful of lending out any more money to households, to businesses, or to each other. When there is no lending, families can’t afford to buy homes or cars. So businesses are forced to make layoffs. Our economy suffers even more, and credit dries up even further.

That is why this administration is moving swiftly and aggressively to break this destructive cycle, restore confidence, and re-start lending.

We will do so in several ways. First, we are creating a new lending fund that represents the largest effort ever to help provide auto loans, college loans, and small business loans to the consumers and entrepreneurs who keep this economy running.

Second, we have launched a housing plan that will help responsible families facing the threat of foreclosure lower their monthly payments and re-finance their mortgages. It’s a plan that won’t help speculators or that neighbor down the street who bought a house he could never hope to afford, but it will help millions of Americans who are struggling with declining home values – Americans who will now be able to take advantage of the lower interest rates that this plan has already helped bring about. In fact, the average family who re-finances today can save nearly $2000 per year on their mortgage.

Third, we will act with the full force of the federal government to ensure that the major banks that Americans depend on have enough confidence and enough money to lend even in more difficult times. And when we learn that a major bank has serious problems, we will hold accountable those responsible, force the necessary adjustments, provide the support to clean up their balance sheets, and assure the continuity of a strong, viable institution that can serve our people and our economy.

I understand that on any given day, Wall Street may be more comforted by an approach that gives banks bailouts with no strings attached, and that holds nobody accountable for their reckless decisions. But such an approach won’t solve the problem. And our goal is to quicken the day when we re-start lending to the American people and American business and end this crisis once and for all.

I intend to hold these banks fully accountable for the assistance they receive, and this time, they will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayer. This time, CEOs won’t be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over.

Still, this plan will require significant resources from the federal government – and yes, probably more than we’ve already set aside. But while the cost of action will be great, I can assure you that the cost of inaction will be far greater, for it could result in an economy that sputters along for not months or years, but perhaps a decade. That would be worse for our deficit, worse for business, worse for you, and worse for the next generation. And I refuse to let that happen.

I understand that when the last administration asked this Congress to provide assistance for struggling banks, Democrats and Republicans alike were infuriated by the mismanagement and results that followed. So were the American taxpayers. So was I.

So I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now, especially when everyone is suffering in part from their bad decisions. I promise you – I get it.

But I also know that in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment. My job – our job – is to solve the problem. Our job is to govern with a sense of responsibility. I will not spend a single penny for the purpose of rewarding a single Wall Street executive, but I will do whatever it takes to help the small business that can’t pay its workers or the family that has saved and still can’t get a mortgage.

That’s what this is about. It’s not about helping banks – it’s about helping people. Because when credit is available again, that young family can finally buy a new home. And then some company will hire workers to build it. And then those workers will have money to spend, and if they can get a loan too, maybe they’ll finally buy that car, or open their own business. Investors will return to the market, and American families will see their retirement secured once more. Slowly, but surely, confidence will return, and our economy will recover.

So I ask this Congress to join me in doing whatever proves necessary. Because we cannot consign our nation to an open-ended recession. And to ensure that a crisis of this magnitude never happens again, I ask Congress to move quickly on legislation that will finally reform our outdated regulatory system. It is time to put in place tough, new common-sense rules of the road so that our financial market rewards drive and innovation, and punishes short-cuts and abuse.

The recovery plan and the financial stability plan are the immediate steps we’re taking to revive our economy in the short-term. But the only way to fully restore America’s economic strength is to make the long-term investments that will lead to new jobs, new industries, and a renewed ability to compete with the rest of the world. The only way this century will be another American century is if we confront at last the price of our dependence on oil and the high cost of health care; the schools that aren’t preparing our children and the mountain of debt they stand to inherit. That is our responsibility.

In the next few days, I will submit a budget to Congress. So often, we have come to view these documents as simply numbers on a page or laundry lists of programs. I see this document differently. I see it as a vision for America – as a blueprint for our future.

My budget does not attempt to solve every problem or address every issue. It reflects the stark reality of what we’ve inherited – a trillion dollar deficit, a financial crisis, and a costly recession.

Given these realities, everyone in this chamber – Democrats and Republicans – will have to sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars. And that includes me.

But that does not mean we can afford to ignore our long-term challenges. I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves; that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity.

For history tells a different story. History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry. From the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution came a system of public high schools that prepared our citizens for a new age. In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history. And a twilight struggle for freedom led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes our world.

In each case, government didn’t supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise. It created the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive.

We are a nation that has seen promise amid peril, and claimed opportunity from ordeal. Now we must be that nation again. That is why, even as it cuts back on the programs we don’t need, the budget I submit will invest in the three areas that are absolutely critical to our economic future: energy, health care, and education.

It begins with energy.

We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century. And yet, it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient. We invented solar technology, but we’ve fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in producing it. New plug-in hybrids roll off our assembly lines, but they will run on batteries made in Korea.

Well I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders – and I know you don’t either. It is time for America to lead again.

Thanks to our recovery plan, we will double this nation’s supply of renewable energy in the next three years. We have also made the largest investment in basic research funding in American history – an investment that will spur not only new discoveries in energy, but breakthroughs in medicine, science, and technology.

We will soon lay down thousands of miles of power lines that can carry new energy to cities and towns across this country. And we will put Americans to work making our homes and buildings more efficient so that we can save billions of dollars on our energy bills.

But to truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy. So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America. And to support that innovation, we will invest fifteen billion dollars a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America.

As for our auto industry, everyone recognizes that years of bad decision-making and a global recession have pushed our automakers to the brink. We should not, and will not, protect them from their own bad practices. But we are committed to the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win. Millions of jobs depend on it. Scores of communities depend on it. And I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it.

None of this will come without cost, nor will it be easy. But this is America. We don’t do what’s easy. We do what is necessary to move this country forward.

For that same reason, we must also address the crushing cost of health care.

This is a cost that now causes a bankruptcy in America every thirty seconds. By the end of the year, it could cause 1.5 million Americans to lose their homes. In the last eight years, premiums have grown four times faster than wages. And in each of these years, one million more Americans have lost their health insurance. It is one of the major reasons why small businesses close their doors and corporations ship jobs overseas. And it’s one of the largest and fastest-growing parts of our budget.

Given these facts, we can no longer afford to put health care reform on hold.

Already, we have done more to advance the cause of health care reform in the last thirty days than we have in the last decade. When it was days old, this Congress passed a law to provide and protect health insurance for eleven million American children whose parents work full-time. Our recovery plan will invest in electronic health records and new technology that will reduce errors, bring down costs, ensure privacy, and save lives. It will launch a new effort to conquer a disease that has touched the life of nearly every American by seeking a cure for cancer in our time. And it makes the largest investment ever in preventive care, because that is one of the best ways to keep our people healthy and our costs under control.

This budget builds on these reforms. It includes an historic commitment to comprehensive health care reform – a down-payment on the principle that we must have quality, affordable health care for every American. It’s a commitment that’s paid for in part by efficiencies in our system that are long overdue. And it’s a step we must take if we hope to bring down our deficit in the years to come.

Now, there will be many different opinions and ideas about how to achieve reform, and that is why I’m bringing together businesses and workers, doctors and health care providers, Democrats and Republicans to begin work on this issue next week.

I suffer no illusions that this will be an easy process. It will be hard. But I also know that nearly a century after Teddy Roosevelt first called for reform, the cost of our health care has weighed down our economy and the conscience of our nation long enough. So let there be no doubt: health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year.

The third challenge we must address is the urgent need to expand the promise of education in America.

In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity – it is a pre-requisite.

Right now, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma. And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. And half of the students who begin college never finish.

This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow. That is why it will be the goal of this administration to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education – from the day they are born to the day they begin a career.

Already, we have made an historic investment in education through the economic recovery plan. We have dramatically expanded early childhood education and will continue to improve its quality, because we know that the most formative learning comes in those first years of life. We have made college affordable for nearly seven million more students. And we have provided the resources necessary to prevent painful cuts and teacher layoffs that would set back our children’s progress.

But we know that our schools don’t just need more resources. They need more reform. That is why this budget creates new incentives for teacher performance; pathways for advancement, and rewards for success. We’ll invest in innovative programs that are already helping schools meet high standards and close achievement gaps. And we will expand our commitment to charter schools.

It is our responsibility as lawmakers and educators to make this system work. But it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in it. And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

I know that the price of tuition is higher than ever, which is why if you are willing to volunteer in your neighborhood or give back to your community or serve your country, we will make sure that you can afford a higher education. And to encourage a renewed spirit of national service for this and future generations, I ask this Congress to send me the bipartisan legislation that bears the name of Senator Orrin Hatch as well as an American who has never stopped asking what he can do for his country – Senator Edward Kennedy.

These education policies will open the doors of opportunity for our children. But it is up to us to ensure they walk through them. In the end, there is no program or policy that can substitute for a mother or father who will attend those parent/teacher conferences, or help with homework after dinner, or turn off the TV, put away the video games, and read to their child. I speak to you not just as a President, but as a father when I say that responsibility for our children's education must begin at home.

There is, of course, another responsibility we have to our children. And that is the responsibility to ensure that we do not pass on to them a debt they cannot pay. With the deficit we inherited, the cost of the crisis we face, and the long-term challenges we must meet, it has never been more important to ensure that as our economy recovers, we do what it takes to bring this deficit down.

I’m proud that we passed the recovery plan free of earmarks, and I want to pass a budget next year that ensures that each dollar we spend reflects only our most important national priorities.

Yesterday, I held a fiscal summit where I pledged to cut the deficit in half by the end of my first term in office. My administration has also begun to go line by line through the federal budget in order to eliminate wasteful and ineffective programs. As you can imagine, this is a process that will take some time. But we’re starting with the biggest lines. We have already identified two trillion dollars in savings over the next decade.

In this budget, we will end education programs that don’t work and end direct payments to large agribusinesses that don’t need them. We’ll eliminate the no-bid contracts that have wasted billions in Iraq, and reform our defense budget so that we’re not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don’t use. We will root out the waste, fraud, and abuse in our Medicare program that doesn’t make our seniors any healthier, and we will restore a sense of fairness and balance to our tax code by finally ending the tax breaks for corporations that ship our jobs overseas.

In order to save our children from a future of debt, we will also end the tax breaks for the wealthiest 2% of Americans. But let me perfectly clear, because I know you’ll hear the same old claims that rolling back these tax breaks means a massive tax increase on the American people: if your family earns less than $250,000 a year, you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime. In fact, the recovery plan provides a tax cut – that’s right, a tax cut – for 95% of working families. And these checks are on the way.

To preserve our long-term fiscal health, we must also address the growing costs in Medicare and Social Security. Comprehensive health care reform is the best way to strengthen Medicare for years to come. And we must also begin a conversation on how to do the same for Social Security, while creating tax-free universal savings accounts for all Americans.

Finally, because we’re also suffering from a deficit of trust, I am committed to restoring a sense of honesty and accountability to our budget. That is why this budget looks ahead ten years and accounts for spending that was left out under the old rules – and for the first time, that includes the full cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price.

We are now carefully reviewing our policies in both wars, and I will soon announce a way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war.

And with our friends and allies, we will forge a new and comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat al Qaeda and combat extremism. Because I will not allow terrorists to plot against the American people from safe havens half a world away.

As we meet here tonight, our men and women in uniform stand watch abroad and more are readying to deploy. To each and every one of them, and to the families who bear the quiet burden of their absence, Americans are united in sending one message: we honor your service, we are inspired by your sacrifice, and you have our unyielding support. To relieve the strain on our forces, my budget increases the number of our soldiers and Marines. And to keep our sacred trust with those who serve, we will raise their pay, and give our veterans the expanded health care and benefits that they have earned.

To overcome extremism, we must also be vigilant in upholding the values our troops defend – because there is no force in the world more powerful than the example of America. That is why I have ordered the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and will seek swift and certain justice for captured terrorists – because living our values doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger. And that is why I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture.

In words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun. For we know that America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America. We cannot shun the negotiating table, nor ignore the foes or forces that could do us harm. We are instead called to move forward with the sense of confidence and candor that serious times demand.

To seek progress toward a secure and lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors, we have appointed an envoy to sustain our effort. To meet the challenges of the 21st century – from terrorism to nuclear proliferation; from pandemic disease to cyber threats to crushing poverty – we will strengthen old alliances, forge new ones, and use all elements of our national power.

And to respond to an economic crisis that is global in scope, we are working with the nations of the G-20 to restore confidence in our financial system, avoid the possibility of escalating protectionism, and spur demand for American goods in markets across the globe. For the world depends on us to have a strong economy, just as our economy depends on the strength of the world’s.

As we stand at this crossroads of history, the eyes of all people in all nations are once again upon us – watching to see what we do with this moment; waiting for us to lead.

Those of us gathered here tonight have been called to govern in extraordinary times. It is a tremendous burden, but also a great privilege – one that has been entrusted to few generations of Americans. For in our hands lies the ability to shape our world for good or for ill.

I know that it is easy to lose sight of this truth – to become cynical and doubtful; consumed with the petty and the trivial.

But in my life, I have also learned that hope is found in unlikely places; that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary.

I think about Leonard Abess, the bank president from Miami who reportedly cashed out of his company, took a $60 million bonus, and gave it out to all 399 people who worked for him, plus another 72 who used to work for him. He didn’t tell anyone, but when the local newspaper found out, he simply said, ''I knew some of these people since I was 7 years old. I didn't feel right getting the money myself."

I think about Greensburg, Kansas, a town that was completely destroyed by a tornado, but is being rebuilt by its residents as a global example of how clean energy can power an entire community – how it can bring jobs and businesses to a place where piles of bricks and rubble once lay. "The tragedy was terrible," said one of the men who helped them rebuild. "But the folks here know that it also provided an incredible opportunity."

And I think about Ty’Sheoma Bethea, the young girl from that school I visited in Dillon, South Carolina – a place where the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls, and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom. She has been told that her school is hopeless, but the other day after class she went to the public library and typed up a letter to the people sitting in this room. She even asked her principal for the money to buy a stamp. The letter asks us for help, and says, "We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters."

We are not quitters.

These words and these stories tell us something about the spirit of the people who sent us here. They tell us that even in the most trying times, amid the most difficult circumstances, there is a generosity, a resilience, a decency, and a determination that perseveres; a willingness to take responsibility for our future and for posterity.

Their resolve must be our inspiration. Their concerns must be our cause. And we must show them and all our people that we are equal to the task before us.

I know that we haven’t agreed on every issue thus far, and there are surely times in the future when we will part ways. But I also know that every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed. That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months, and where we return after those debates are done. That is the foundation on which the American people expect us to build common ground.

And if we do – if we come together and lift this nation from the depths of this crisis; if we put our people back to work and restart the engine of our prosperity; if we confront without fear the challenges of our time and summon that enduring spirit of an America that does not quit, then someday years from now our children can tell their children that this was the time when we performed, in the words that are carved into this very chamber, "something worthy to be remembered." Thank you, God Bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.

Monday, February 23, 2009

File This Under "Jane Doe"

It's not often that I post on something about which I have genuine ambivalence, but here's one: medical records. Last week, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), one of the goals of which is to encourage the adoption of electronic medical records by doctors and hospitals. At present, medical information privacy is protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a piece of legislation with many detractors and lots of problems. Among other blind spots of HIPAA, it contains a number of loopholes that allow for widespread access, sale and use of medical records without patients' permission. (Most times, it happens without patients' knowledge, even. Apparently the only thing stalwartly protected about medical records is the inability of the patient to know what's in theirs or who sees it.) Specifically, a whole multi-BILLION-dollar industry has emerged to take advantage of the fact that HIPAA only restricts "doctors and hospitals" from sharing information. Once these records are shared with "business associates"-- which can happen for any number of reasons, some of them totally innocuous, like data management-- these business associates are no longer bound by HIPAA and can share the information at will with marketing and advertising corporations, for-profit and non-profit researchers, employers, pharmaceutical companies, and insurers. ARRA appears to make every effort to close these HIPAA loopholoes, but it's insistence on electronic records has many people worried that newer, bigger loopholes will be opened... and won't be so easily closed.

There are obvious reasons to want to keep private medical information private. No one wants to lose a job because he or she is using birth control, or HIV-positive, or a smoker, or in therapy, or had a nose-job. And no one wants to worry about their doctors serving as shills for the drug companies, peddling expensive or unnecessary pharmaceuticals at the expense of good medicine. Americans have a long tradition of interpreting their God-given right to the "pursuit of happiness" as meaning they can do whatever they damn well please with their own bodies-- except have an abortion, elect to die peacefully, or not eat corn-- and the only way to be absolutely sure that those decisions aren't taken out of the patients' hands is to keep anyone with a vested interest in different decisions away from the information. (That means you, too, insurance companies!) For the more conspiratorially-inclined, there's also this whole new thing "biopolitics" to worry about, in which political power is applied to all aspects of human life. You thought eugenics was scary?

Alas, but when calmer (or, in this case, just "sicker") heads prevail, we have to admit that one of the great, truly disastrous, blunders of our medical system is its ad-hoc protocol for constructing and maintaining patient profiles. Long gone are the days when you would see the same family doctor for most of your life, who would know most everything important there was to know about your medical history. Now, we're shuffled around among "specialists" who rarely talk to one another, and even when they do it takes six-to-eight-weeks of courier services to accomplish that minimal communication. That leaves the patients-- yes, the poor, sick patients-- saddled with all of the responsibility of making sure that everything important gets relayed to the right people at the right time. An anecdote: a couple of months ago, I had a "diabetic episode" in the middle of the night (my blood sugar dropped below 25 and I went unconscious). I was taken to a local emergency room and, upon entering, was asked a battery of questions about my medical history. The problem is, I was barely conscious! I had also, incidentally, just been robbed and didn't have a phone or any information on me. What would have helped in this emergency medical situation? An electronic medical profile accessible by the ER doctors and nurses who were trying to save my life. Well, that and an IV-drip hooked up to a bag of glucose.

I really am torn about this issue, because I don't believe for a second that if medical histories were made truly "public" the information wouldn't be abused. On the other hand, it seems to me like we have far more mechanisms in place to protect against electronic fraud and exploitation than we do old-fashioned paper-and-files transgressions. The truth is, I believe that we would all get better medical treatment if health-care providers shared information, but I worry that the term "health-care providers" has become so nebulous and nondescript as to include plenty of folks who are more than willing to make a buck at the expense of my well-being. As one of those citizens who doesn't have the luxury of thinking about medical care only "theoretically," I cannot help but find myself resisting the arguments against ARRA that claim electronic medical records can only result in an abrogation of our civil rights. What's more, I hate this resistance even in myself, as I really do believe that my biological life is of far less value to me if it comes at the expense of my civic life.

It's a bona fide aporia.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


I just noticed that this website topped 20K over the weekend...

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Can I Have a Napkin, Please?

Okay, two prefatory remarks about this video post.

(1) I am a closeted super-huge-fan of musical theater. If I could go back and re-do all the important moments of my life-- good or bad-- I would re-do them in song. I often wish the world happened just the way it does in musical theater. I don't think it's corny and I don't think it's stupid. The truth is, I probably secretly keep a running "soundtrack" to my life all of the time. This is how important music is to me.

(2) I've got about three-too-many irons in the fire right now, which means that I'm busy and I'm in a fire. So, that's why this blog has wanted for posts in the last week or so. I'll get back to it as soon as possible, but in the meantime I wanted to say that this video has made me happier than I've been in quite a while.


Friday, February 13, 2009

There Are No Stupid Questions

When I was an undergraduate, I remember one of my (English Lit) professors saying on the first day of class: "There is no such thing as a stupid question." Obviously, this was a warm-and-fuzzy attempt to impart some measure of confidence to students, to encourage us to voice our questions and concerns without reservation, and to let us know that seminar discussions would be open and non-judgmental. The very first time I taught my own class at Penn State--five years ago now-- I said the same thing on the operning day of class.

Then I got a lot of stupid questions.

Nowadays, I don't believe that little credo about "no stupid questions" anymore. There are such things as stupid questions. These include (but are not limited to): questions of fact about things that are in the assigned reading, questions about the structure/schedule/requirements of the course that can be found in the syllabus, questions like "does spelling count?" or "can I get partial credit [for my incorrect answer]?", and questions about the course material that are some variation on "who cares what [Philosopher X] thinks?". I just cannot take any of these queries seriously, and I have resigned myself to responding with incredulous eye-rolling, sighing, and feigning utter skepticism about the fate of humanity.

That said, I've noticed there are a lot of questions that I get in class that appear at first to closely approximate a bona fide stupid question but, upon further consideration, are actually really astute and intuitive inquiries. I like to call these the "simple-cum-brilliant" questions. What's great about these questions is that they remind me what it was like before I read whatever material we're discussing in class, what sorts of propositions and analyses seemed, at first, completely strange to me, what there is in the material that is not immediately apparent, and how the things that "everyday" or "natural" consciousness of the world seems to intend might be at odds with what's in the book. I also like these questions because they force me to articulate clearly propositions that I (now) take to be intuitively true, but which are in fact counterintuitive (and probably seemed that way to me at one time, as well). So, for example, when a students asks me: what do you mean 'race is not genetic'? or how can 'impossibility' be the condition for the possibility of 'possibility'? or why can't I know that my experience of consciousness is exactly the same as everyone else's experience of consciousness?... then I am forced to acknowledge (to myself, anyway) that the answers to these sorts of questions have a lot of prerequisites, and that those prerequisites most often include whatever text we're reading.

These sorts of questions are the kind that really test the mettle of a philosophy professor, in my view, because they force us to get outside of our comfort zone and explain/defend complicated philosophical arguments in what Rorty called "good old plain American English." I know I've been hyping my practice of blogging in the classroom a lot lately, but I think the class blogs are great fora for working through just these sorts of issues. This semester, my Philosophy of Race course blog is a case in point. I can actually see the nuts-and-bolts process of students' working-through of a host of "simple-cum-brilliant" questions. (Want to see a really superlative example of students working through issues themselves? See this conversation from the Race blog.) They're asking things that, perhaps unfortunately, I stopped asking a long time ago: what is 'racism'? what is the difference between a 'race' and any other group? in what sense is race 'real'? These are not only not "stupid" questions, but they're not even "simple" questions, really. They're the sorts of questions that, if answered to some satisfaction, can really switch on that metaphorical light-bulb that we all wait to see lit in our classes.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

And, in this case, the "good deed" was my pedagogical experiment with (now, regular practice of) blogging in the classroom. I've been featured on The Dean's Blog: Celebrating Teaching and Learning at my college, in a story hyperbolically entitled "Philosophy in the 21st Century." I am, of course, really honored by the recognition... so, what's the "punishment," you ask? Well, I actually had to do a "photo shoot" for the story, which included not only portrait-type shots of the oh-so-very-non-photogenic me (in our library), but also "action" shots in the classroom during one of my seminar sessions. If you think being observed for evaluation while you are teaching is uncomfortable, you should try having a photographer in your classroom sometime. AWK-WARD.

Of course, what's really funny and ironic about the accompanying in-class photos is that they have very little to do with the subject matter of the story. But, hey, I don't want any photographers taking pictures of me in my regular blogging attire... and judging from the time-stamps on many of my students' blog posts and comments, I'm guessing they wouldn't want that, either.

Speaking of Philosophy

The picture to the left there is from my dissertation defense party, which took place at a much-beloved dive bar in Philadelphia (Oscar's Tavern) where I have imbibed almost equal amounts of libations and philosophical conversation. As a matter of fact, this setting (and settings very much like it) is about my favorite mise-en-scène for field-testing ideas and arguments. Almost nothing can rival a good old-fashioned pub talk for separating the wheat from the chaff of descriptive and prescriptive claims. And if you choose your interlocutors right-- smart, quick, agile thinkers (with strong livers)-- then you can have your mettle really tested in ways that sitting at home, alone, with a book and a laptop will never achieve. I feel very fortunate to have spent a lot of time with just such smart, quick and agile thinkers in a variety of pubs and cafes over the years, and I can (quite literally) trace exact quotations from some of my written work back to these very conversations. However, for the most part, this is not how "professional" philosophical conversations happen. In our profession, somewhat regrettably, the conventional practice is still to straight-"read" prepared papers to an audience at conferences. There are always Q&A sessions following, but they don't have the same kind of philosophical flexibility or spontaneity as a "real" conversation-- that is, one not principally focused on a text.

The always-provocative Mikhail over at Perverse Egalitarianism has begun an interesting discussion concerning what the "proper" medium is for "doing" philosophy ("Philosophy: Oral or Written Medium?"). He was responding to Graham Harman's observation that we actually don't want to hear philosophers speak spontaneously or off-the-cuff, in the way that we might expect of politicians, because "they wouldn't have anything interesting to say." When philosophers say something interesting in interviews, according to Harman, it is only because their statements are vetted and edited post-interview... which means, of course, that we're actually impressed with what they wrote and not exactly what they said. So, Harman concludes:

Philosophy is largely a written medium, and skill in oral debate is generally overvalued here.

Mikhail disagrees. And so do I. Mikhail writes (and I hope he'll forgive me for the long quotation, but he has a snarky way of putting things that, at least in this case, seems to performatively enhance his point):

I always thought that philosophers valued a kind of oral ability to debate, to encounter the points of others in a lively spontaneous exchange - or is it just me? Wouldn’t it strike you as awkward if in a philosophical exchange one simply said something like: “I will have to get back to you on that, I will think about it and write an essay later and send it to you"...

I think as much as I agree with Harman’s assertion that philosophy is largely a written medium, I wonder if this statement should be taken as simply describing the reality as it is and therefore should continue to be, or if one might say that philosophy is largely a written medium, but doesn’t it have to be?...

I don’t think that it should be one way or the other, of course, but I always thought that interviews or lectures or conferences for that matter are good in terms of seeing the philosopher at work in the present time, not mediated by written and rewritten texts and editing - I suppose that’s why I think that people who read their conference papers are lame: why bother if you could just email your text to others and get written response? Why not just talk about it? Maybe all conferences would benefit from a good pub session - no papers, just talking. Afraid of saying something stupid or banal or boring? Well, go to your room and write an article for a journal then - “Rebeer anyone?”

Let me say, for the record, that my appreciation of "oral" philosophy is not about privileging the (alleged) immediacy of the relation between idea-and-speech over the (alleged) extra-mediation between idea-and-writing. But there is something to Socrates' arguments in the Phaedrus (275e) that one of the drawbacks of writing is that it cannot answer questions , modify itself, change directions, or come to its own defense. What I appreciate about "spontaneous, off-the-cuff" philosophical conversation is that it gives me a chance to measure not only the strength of my interlocutor's ideas, but also the agility of his or her thinking. And, of course, it gives my interlocutor the chance to evaluate the same in return. I don't think that is an "overvalued" skill (as Harman claims). I think we value that skill in philosophy classes every day, where we try to cultivate in our students the value of good thinking, and not merely the value of good thoughts.

Finally, I think that blogs are an interesting kind of mid-way medium between philosophical speech and writing. Obviously, they're written, but the ones that I follow regularly aren't "written" in the same way that one would write a conference paper (including this one!). There is more spontaneity to them, and they approximate as closely as possible the advantages of speaking in their "comments" sections (where the "writer" can and does modify herself, change directions, or come to her own defense). That was part of the motivation for my decision to incorporate blogging in my classrooms, to reinforce the importance of both philosophical thinking and philosophical thoughts.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Nominations for Secretary of Culture?

Last night at the 51st Grammy Awards, the Recording Academy President Neil Portnow extended a long-overdue appeal to President Obama when he said: "Our finest national treasure is our culture in the arts, so it's time that we acknowledged that fact with the creation of the Cabinet position of Secretary of the Arts." How right he is. In case you haven't reviewed the Cabinet positions recently, there are 15 Secretaries (other than the Vice President) that serve as the President's advisors. The Presidential Cabinet includes the Departments of State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans Affairs... and, hrumph, Homeland Security. There is no Secretary of "the Arts" or "Culture" and none of the present positions count culture or the arts as part of their administrative domains. The United States is one of the few "developed" nations that does not currently have something equivalent to a Minister of Culture, despite the fact that American art, film, music, television and literature are some of our most influential and (for the most part) welcomed exports.

We do, of course, have the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), an independent federal agency established by Congress (at the behest of President Lyndon Johnson) in 1964. But the NEA has neither the political legitimacy nor clout that the regular Cabinet Departments do. We've seen arts education in this country suffer terribly over the last several decades, despite numerous studies demonstrating the benefits of arts education in developing other learning skills, including mathematics and literacy. When money is tight, the arts (and physical education) are almost always the first to go... and in American public education, the money is always tight.

The wide-ranging benefits of arts education are only one reason to support the creation of a new Cabinet position, though. The truth is that "melting-pot" America is the source of many hybrid, mish-mash, thoroughly miscegenated cultural and artistic products that serve as powerful, but largely unacknowledged, elements of our national and international identity. The creation of a Department of Culture-- I prefer "culture" to "the arts" because I think this allows other things (like philosophy) to be included-- would go a long way toward reorienting our collective focus far, far away from thinking about economic and military products as our primary identity-markers. The word "culture" comes from the Latin cultura, a derivative of colere, "to cultivate." None of the other Cabinet Departments are dedicated to "cultivation" in the same sense that a putative Department of Culture would be, I think. Instead, they're dedicated to "management," which has no eudaimonia resonance. Hmmm... how about a Secretary of Eudaimonia?

Not that anyone's is going to ask me or anything, but here are my nominees for Secretary of Culture:

Quincy Delight Jones (singer, songwriter, composer, recod producer, arranger, trumpeter, icon):

Jones is a living Renaissance man, with a genuine appreciation for not only the arts, but the influence of arts on culture. Plus, he would be known as "Secretary Q," which is awesome.

Robert Redford (actor, director, philanthropist, dreamboat):

Redford is the founder of the Sundance Film Festival. He's an active environmentalist and a pro-union activist. Smart, beautiful and green!

Maya Angelou (poet, playwright, memoirist, actor, author):

Angelou is the voice of the "other" America. Sensitive, resilient, hopeful and dedicated to the proposition that history-- even its most ugly episodes-- makes us who we are. And that culture is a product of history.

Richard Rorty (philosopher, gadfly, mirror of nature):

We need a philosopher on the list, and Rorty is the first that comes to mind for his commitment to (in his words) "achieving our country." I don't agree with everything Rorty says, but I do believe that he is a sober and wise connoisseur of American intellectual and artistic culture.

**CORRECTION: Rorty has now been de-nominated because, as I was reminded in the comments section, he has recently "come down with a case of death."**

Aaron Sorkin (screenwriter, producer, playwright, bleeding-heart liberal):

Sorkin makes the list for no other reason than being the creator and writer for the now-defunct television series The West Wing, which represented government and government officials as they should be.

[New Addition!]
Cornel West (philosopher, civil rights activist, pastor, movie star, Harvard-President-Destroyer):

I can't believe I forgot him the first time, but the commenters have set me straight. West is the best. And he's a living philosopher!

I'm opening the comment section to your nominations. Requirements: nominees must be living and up-to-date on their IRS payments.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Muselmann

Perhaps one of the most ethically challenging, and truly heartwrenching, figures of contemporary (by which I mean, post-WWII) philosophy is that of the Muselmann. The word Muselmann literally means "Muslim" ("one who submits to God"), but is used to refer to prisoners of Nazi concentration camps who had become so destitute and dehumanized as to appear like human corpses. Some scholars believe that the term originated from the similarity between the near-death prone state of a concentration camp Muselmann and the image of a Muslim prostrating himself on the ground in prayer. Primo Levi, survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camps and author of Survival in Auschwitz and The Drowned and the Saved employs the figure of the Muselmann in his works to underscore the utter dehumanization of the Nazi genocidal project. Similarly, contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben references the Muselmann in his Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life in the process of disambiguating Aristotle's categories of "bare life" (zoe) and qualified, human life (bios).

Like many others, I am deeply troubled by the figure of the Muselmann, both in fact and its use as a philosophical trope. If you're interested, see the emerging debate between myself and the eminently astute AnPan over on his blog at "Interference, Coercion, Domination, Powerlessness."

Friday, February 06, 2009

Art Imitating Whose Life?

About a month ago, I started watching the television show "24" from its beginning. I was immediately hooked, as I wrote in my initial post on the subject ("24" Is Like Television Crack), and this week I just began Season 5. My general impression is that the quality of the show declined after the first couple of seasons-- in part because the novelty of the format wore off, in part because many of the characters became caricatures, and in part because the writers' attempts to maintain the constant cliffhanger tension had resulted in truly over-the-top storylines-- but I'm still watching. Then, in a department meeting yesterday, one of my colleagues told me that the show's writers are "right-wing Republican hawks," which forced me to step back from my antihero-love-fest for a moment and realize that I, too, had been sucked in to the point of seriously relaxing my critical eye.

The truth is that the general world-view in 24 is hyperbolically hawkish. It presents a kind of Huntington-esque "clash of civilizations" between the United States and its foreign enemies, in which Counter-Terrorism Unit Agent Jack Bauer-- who lies, steals, kills, tortures, and breaks protocol all in the name of dutiful patriotism-- is positioned as the ideal soldier and citizen. There are a few consistently repeated leitmotifs that regularly work to excuse viewers from questioning not only the political wisdom, but also the morality, of Bauer's actions. These include statements like: (1) "You/I/We had no choice. This is what had to be done." (2) "There's no time to question. We have to act now." (3) "I will do whatever it takes to protect this country." and my favorite (4) "You're just going to have to trust me." The overarching "problem" of every season so far has been structured like a textbook utilitarian moral dilemma, where the permissability of actions is almost always determined by weighing the benefit of saving one life against the benefit of saving thousands/millions. In May, Christopher Orr from The New Republic wrote a piece explaining how Jack Bauer became a Republican hero and imaginative (George W.) Bush-proxy:

As befits his training, he is a man of action: decisive, aggressive, and disinclined to play by the rules when he feels they’re getting in the way. He never wavers, second-guesses, or gives in to criticism, instead doing whatever needs to be done to safeguard American lives, regardless of the costs.

The apparently right-leaning prejudice of 24 hasn't been lost on conservatives, as MediaMatters reports that many of them have consistently referenced the show over the last several years as support for their hawkish policies. Laura Ingraham even told Bill O'Reilly that the popularity of 24 was as "close to a national referendum that it's OK to use tough tactics" as we're going to get. (And I think it's safe to assume that by "tough tactics" she meant torture.) So, it does appear that the evidence is stacked high in favor of viewing 24 as right-wing political propoganda, aiming to foster a culture of fear that itself fosters political and ethical exceptionalism on the part of Americans.

[And, yet, but... (as Derrida was find of saying)...]

I'm not yet convinced. I can certainly see the evidence for claims that 24 is art imitating life-as-seen-by-conservatives, but it has an interesting way of making that life uncomfortably ambiguous, sometimes even in spite of itself. Sure, the hero is a hard-on-terror, soft-on-rights utilitarian. Sure, they have some cartoony caricatures of the left, like an Amnesty International lawyer who prevents the "much-needed" interrogation/torture of a terrorist suspect, and the (closeted homosexual) rebel son of the Secretary of Defense who is ridiculed for his "sixth grade, Micheal Moore logic." But these characters are small in both number and significance when compared to the show's many, many behind- (and sometimes right-in-front-of-) the-scenes liberal-hating "foils"-- Congressmen, agents, yes-men, bureaucrats, citizens-- who are faithfully portrayed as the self-interested, conspiratorial, power-hungry, short-sighted and amoral hawks that they are. For those inclined to see 24 as right-wing propoganda, I wonder how they explain the fact that the first (black and Democrat) President was a cautious, stalwart, self-critical and impeccably moral character, while the subsequent (white and Republican) Presidents have all been villains. And I wonder how they explain the fact that the horrors of torture are never concealed, even when they are ostensibly justified. And I wonder how they explain why so many "good" people die.

For all of its eschatalogical hyperbole, 24 is hardly a simple black-and-white morality tale. It may even represent the best kinds of illustrative moral dilemmas that we often search for in ethics classes. That is, 24 is framed in such a way as to suggest its own solution, without providing the necessary support for that conclusion. Perhaps contrary to the intentions of its authors, 24 consistently maintains the tension of an aporia, which necessitates that one make a real decision of moral, political and, most importantly, artistic interpretation. If it is the case that art imitates life-- and it certainly is the case that timely, hard-edged, "reality"-based television like 24 suggests that it does-- then the task of the translator (to use philosopher Walter Benjamin's phrase) is to first decide: whose life? which art?

Benjamin once speculated (in "On Some Motifs in Beaudelaire" from Illuminations: Essays and Reflections) that in order to understand art, we must consider the relationship of the viewer to the "aura" of his or her object. He called this "auratic perception," by which "to perceive the aura of the object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return.” I'm still not sure what the popularity of the show 24 indicates about the American public, but I think we might ought to allow for the possibility that sometime in the last 7 years the public invested this art with the power to look at it in return... and we did not like what we saw.