Understanding the Refugee Crisis and Its Impact

Back in September of 2015, the Syrian refugee crisis took center stage in the world's awareness when the body of a cute three-year old, Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore lifeless after he drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to escape the violence and devastation that President Bashar al-Assad has been unleashing on his own people since 2011. Terrorist organizations such as ISIL are also responsible for a significant amount of the death and destruction, but it's Assad who manages to fly below the radar of consciousness while being responsible for most of the devastation.

As of today, around a quarter of a million people have been killed in Syria (two-thirds of them civilians; 13,000 of them children). This is an incredibly complex issue, with lots of moving parts, plenty of blame to go around, many conflicting interests and power struggles, and lots of points for possible interventions, but it would greatly help to get straight on the facts, one of which is the all-too-important distinction between 'migrant' and 'refugee' status, as John Green does in the following video:

There are those who callously claim that Syrians need to 'go back home' so they can solve their own problems instead of asking for 'handouts.' What such facile and inhumane statements ignore is the fact that 'home' for many Syrians just doesn't exist any longer: their cities and towns have been obliterated into a huge wasteland of rubble where the violence continues to expand, rendering the thousands of buildings that have not been completely pulverized into death traps that could collapse at any moment. But why take my word for it when you can see the destruction with your own eyes?

And here is John Oliver on the way that hateful groups have been using racist and zenophobic language to dehumanize these poor people in their time of need:

These people need our compassion, not our indifference or our hate...

Philosophy Talk - Jean-Paul Sartre

The nice folks at Philosophy Talk have just put out an episode on the highly influential French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Like his compatriot Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who began his highly influential The Social Contract with the now famous line "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains," Sartre is probably most famous for his thoughts on freedom: specifically for his thoughts and defense of existentialist radical freedom.

While his early phenomenological analysis and defense of freedom tended to focus primarily on the authenticity of individual consciousness, Sartre's later thoughts became more complex (and some might even say inconsistent) as he began to understand and incorporate the insights of historical materialism into his philosophical and political narrative, and there's an interesting discussion of that, as well as many other fascinating themes, in the episode below:

Mass Incarceration in the US

In addition to the physical walls that separate free citizens from those who have been incarcerated, there are also powerful and self-fulfilling metaphorical walls that make it difficult to see and recognize (for historic, cultural, corporate and political reasons) the humanity of countless human beings whose lives have been unnecessarily wasted when we threw away the key after we locked them up for no particularly good reason.

We talk about these cultural 'wars' (the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on crime), but then we tend to forget that our actual practices have become a de facto war on the poor, on the homeless, on black and brown, and a war on criminals, and we forget we've made it a crime in this country to be black or brown, to be homeless, poor or unemployed, to struggle with mental health issues, to lack proper nutrition, healthcare and education. And we treat these issues—especially when applied to non-whites—as issues that require we lock up and abandon the very people who have been the victims of systemic injustices and lack of opportunities for most of our history, the people who are in most desperate need of our compassion and our help... And the numbers, the sheer numbers!!!

Here is sociologist Bruce Western on the virtual inevitability of ending up in prison for certain demographics, particularly young black men:

Here is Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the powerful Between the World and Me, on the enduring myth of black criminality and how our response to various social issues that we could very well solve through humane sociological interventions, are often treated instead as mere issues of criminality:

And if you want a more thorough understanding of the systemic history of racial inequality, the structures and institutions of our legal system, the political backroom deals, the financial incentives, the self-perpetuating logic of the system, the targetted and discriminatory application of these draconian and inhumane measures, as well as the consequences for individuals, for families, for communities, for race relations, for our nation as a whole, for our own cultural perception and collective self-identity, and for the impact on our culture and values, I can do no better than to recommend you pick up and read Michelle Alexander's powerful exposé and manifesto The New Jim Crow, which you are also welcome to listen below:

And just for a little perspective on how we compare to other countries (to our shame, unfortunately), click on the following infographic:

In the land of the free, we can do better than to thoughtlessly acquiesce to the fear-mongering and racism that has denied so many people the liberty we all want to claim for ourselves...

Immanuel Kant - Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

One of the most fascinating moral frameworks philosophers have developed, to say nothing of its incredible scope, influence and depth, has got to be Immanuel Kant's deontology: the idea that the basis of morality is to be found in the self-determining principles of a rational and autonomous will, willing universal principles based on its recognition and respect for moral obligation, is particularly refreshing, especially in a time when we evaluate so many moral issues simply on the basis of hedonistic cost-benefit analyses, principles of non-interference, individual and collective self-interest, neoliberal values, relativism and post-modernism.

According to Kant's deontological framework, the basis of moral reasoning is not to be found in anything empirical or contingent (such as human nature, social mores, religious dogma, tradition, individual dispositions, or even the consequences of our actions). It is, rather, to be found in the nature of practical reason itself: in the discovery of universal principles applicable to, and discoverable by, any and all rational beings (both in and out of this world).

Kant articulated his thoughts concerning morality most fully in his Critique of Practical Reason and in The Metaphysics of Morals, but he wrote a 'popular' introduction to his theory for non-experts, which many people consider a cruel joke, since they think the text is still impenetrable. Luckily, Nigel Warburton has decided to present Kant's ideas in a short and accessible format in the following audio clip based on his book Philosophy: The Classics.

And for more, check out the Kant tag .

What Can We Learn from Ancient Greece?

We've all heard the mantras, whether from Hegel or Santayana, about the importance of history consisting in learning from previous mistakes so as not to repeat them. In some special cases, however, the importance of learning from history is the opposite: it's about understanding not only the twists and turns of our own trajectory but about being exposed to a variety of social, aesthetic and philosophical alternatives, to various experiments in governance and culture, to different understandings of ways of being in the world. In short, it's also about having our own preconceptions challenged and expanded.

And in a few select cases, history provides us with beacons of hope, with ideals worth striving for, with models to emulate, purify and improve on. And if there is one place where the universal existential aspects of the human condition have been explored, enacted, dramatized and confronted in sublime ways, all while struggling to balance the dualities of fatalism and agency, mind and body, self-interest and moral obligation, discipline and frenzy, the eternal and the ethereal, that place has got to be Ancient Greece.

Andrew Sullivan - Depression, the Secret We Share

"The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and it was vitality that seemed to seep away from me in that moment." Those who suffer from depression must battle with a lot of demons precisely at the point in which all energy, motivation and initiative have been exhausted.

One of those demons is the struggle to be understood in light of something that, to everyone else, seems plainly irrational and self-destructive, as if it is a choice one repeatedly makes to fall into a ditch that serves no productive purpose. And of course, how could you wish to be understood when you wouldn't wish the requisite phenomenology on anyone, especially those you care about? Another demon is the paradox of needing emotional support, connection and compassion when what one wants most is to be left alone. Another is the inability to understand the extent and intensity of your own pain when others clearly have it so much worse, to find a narrative that makes sense of—and vindicates—your suffering. Then there's the issue of hyper-awareness: that sense that you can see the fabric of reality as weaved by despair, suffering, loneliness, betrayal, loss and ultimately oblivion and futility. Then there's the guilt for inflicting suffering on those you care about, as well as the feeling of helplessness that comes when you find yourself unable to do much or anything about it. There are questions regarding the various forms that cultural understandings of individuality, community and mental health contextualize one's experience of depression and others' response to it. There's the struggle with existential questions of meaning, identity and authenticity in light of the need for medication: Is the meaning of my life and suffering reducible to a chemical imbalance in my brain? And if I am my brain, will medication help me or turn me into someone I'm not? Will I be me? Do I want to be me?

In the following moving and eloquent TEDTalk presentation, writer Andrew Sullivan takes us to the darkest corners of his mind, as well as on a journey that helped him understand depression in a new way. This may not be a solution, but perhaps a new context for understanding is already a step in the right direction...

Tamar Gendler - An Introduction to Political Philosophy

The conceptual structure and theoretical underpinnings of the modern world, for better and worse, have been possible in no small part thanks to the work and intellectual courage of philosophers trying to figure out how a just and equitable society, in which individual liberties are protected, can be established and preserved.

Many concepts that we take for granted today as self-evident once had to be thought up and defended by daring thinkers—often with their own lives—against societies and regimes whose own interests, history and vision of self-evident truths blinded them to new and better possibilities.

When devising the constitutional and political structure of a society, what kinds of principles should carry priority? How should we adjudicate competing claims not only between individuals but even between principles? How should we go about weighing and balancing the rights of individuals vs the interests of society at large? Where do individual rights come from in the first place? How can we simultaneously maximize concepts such as freedom, justice, and equality when they can so easily stand in inversely proportional relationship to each other? What are legitimate ways to divide civil rights and responsibilities, to distribute wealth, to enforce compliance? How can we establish trust and cooperation between states and nations? What kinds of institutional and structural mechanisms ought to be instituted to carry out and protect these various ends?

If you've ever been curious about any of those questions, then the following Introduction to Political and Economic Philosophy, presented by Yale philosopher Tamar Gendler, would be a great way to get started on your own intellectual quest.

And if that peaked your interest, you might also enjoy Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel's celebrated course on Justice.

Simone de Beauvoir & Judith Butler on Gender

Though Plato's thoughts on gender equality—at least as expressed in The Republic—were somewhat ahead of his time (though that doesn't say much, considering the misogyny of ancient Greece), the legacy of his theory of eternal essences has been used throughout history, intentionally and unintentionally, to reinforce the oppression and subjugation of women.

Variations on the concept of the 'eternal feminine' have been invoked by thinkers as diverse as Dante, Bacon, Rousseau and Goethe to reinforce the belief in inherent differences—and a subsequent hierarchy—between men and women. Men, according to this scheme, were depicted as embodying the active, penetrative principle responsible for activities such as conquest, dominion and calculation, while women were said to represent passivity, modesty, purity, gracefulness, servility, politeness and nurturing.

In the 19th century, those notions started to be challenged by philosophers such as Nietzsche, who was opposed to all forms of dualism and essentialism to the very core of his being, and John Stuart Mill, who famously declared that everything men know about women is what men have taught men about women without ever asking women who they are or what makes them tick.

Such challenges would eventually rise to new heights when French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir declared in The Second Sex that gender is not an eternal, inescapable metaphysical, or even biological, essence, as had been traditionally assumed, but merely a social construction that robs women of their freedom to determine their own destinies and identities. In what has become perhaps the most famous line in her book, Beauvoir argues: "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman."

Femininity is not 'secreted by the ovaries,' nor is it 'enshrined in a Platonic heaven.' It is, rather, the result of a particular—and regrettable—situation according to which Man is considered as self-identity, whereas Woman is always defined as Other, as not-man. Man is the Absolute, Subject, autonomous, active, self-defined, independent, strong, positivity. Woman, on the other hand, is defined as Other, as Object, as inherently alien and alienated, as naturally constrained by her body, as negativity, passivity and reaction, as dependent and weak. This, of course, Beauvoir thinks, is absolute bullshit. :)

And if that kind of animation isn't your thing, and you'd prefer some 8-bit, 80's style video-game animation, we have that too:

Other philosophers, such as Judith Butler, have thoughtfully expanded on Simone de Beauvoir's work, making important distinctions and contributions to our understanding of the construction of gender:

And here is Butler herself on the performative aspect of gender construction:

And if you're curious to learn some more about Beauvoir's life, work, philosophy and influence, there's a really nice introduction over at the BBC's In Our Time.

Roger Scruton - Why Beauty Matters

Beauty has been a central and enduring concept in the philosophy of art and aesthetics since its inception in ancient Greece. During the last few centuries, however, and due in large part to geopolitical, philosophical, religious, economic, and scientific revolutions, other aspects of art have come to dominate the aesthetic world.

Among the most radicaland, some might argue, the most perniciousis the postmodernist critique of objectivity in aesthetic judgments. This school of thought sees much art as an affirmation of European elitist attitudes driven by imperialistic and capitalistic motives. Unsurprisingly, a lot of postmodern conceptual art can best be understood as a reaction to the older and more traditional aesthetic norms.

Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton believes that postmodernism has gone too far, and that it has created a culture of fake originality where desecration and shock value for the sake of shock value have become the new norm. In his opinion, beauty must regain its former centrality in art because art must play a redeeming and inspiring role.

Let this be the start of a fascinating dialogue and conceptual exploration. :)

Jonathan Haidt - The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives

If you've kept up at all with the various cultural wars in this country, you're painfully aware of the various stereotypes that liberals and conservatives hold with regard to each other: conservatives are gun-totin' Jesus/Ronald Regan-worshipping, science-denying Chick-fil-A-loving racist, homophobic, chauvinist rednecks; and liberals are bleeding-heart politically-correct latte-sipping tree-hugging taxing-and-spending, welfare-promoting Prius-driving hippies... or something along  those lines.

Each ideology makes sense to its adherents because they share certain assumptions, values, attitudes, beliefs and worldviews that help to structure and organize their understanding of various issues in a coherent manner. The same is true of detractors, except that they share a different set of those conditions, which seem unintelligible to the first group.

Of course, we could continue to insult each other and show our sense of moral superiority and dominance till we're blue in the face, but if what we care about is bridging the divide and finding common ground so we could solve the various problems that afflict society and the world, then one of the best ways to do so, or so argues Jonathan Haidt in the following fascinating TEDTalk, is to begin to understand the moral dimensions on which each of these two major political ideologies is predicated.

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