Some Thoughts and Feelings on the Aftermath of the Election



When I saw that anger, hate and bigotry were going to win two nights ago, I had to unplug for a while. I needed to find the strength to apologize to my students, to tell them, to confess to them really, that we have collectively failed them, that their lives and safety are now at risk, that the forces of pent up anger and resentment, carefully and systematically cooked for decades by the conservative propaganda machine that has normalized making up paranoid and ignorant conspiracy theories, now control all branches of government, and that it's de-facto open season on people who don't look like them, who don't believe or worship like them, who don't have the same body parts they do, who don't love like them.

I didn't know how I could protect and comfort my students while simultaneously admitting I'm genuinely afraid for their well-being and their safety. Would it be fair to give them what I consider to be false hope? How could I reassure my female students that they will be safe in their bodily and sexual integrity from men who define their masculinity through domination and force, and who can conceive of women as nothing more than collections of body parts to use, abuse and discard? How could I tell them that, with a straight face, when we just elected a self-described sexual predator as Commander-in-Chief? How could I tell them that their reproductive rights won't be overturned and taken away from them when the Supreme Court vacancy is filled by a president who has publicly claimed women ought to be punished for trying to exercise their constitutionally-guaranteed reproductive rights? How could I reassure my Muslim students that they won't be randomly harassed and attacked by angry mobs when they are simply trying to peacefully go about their day? How could I reassure my undocumented students that their families won't be suddenly broken up at some point when they least expect it? How could I reassure my gay or transgender students that they won't be beaten by angry men who can't understand their love, their identity or their sexuality, or that their right to marry the person they love will no longer be guaranteed and protected? How could I reassure my black students that they have nothing to fear, when I'm utterly terrified, actually shaking in my bones to the point where I can't even think the thought without crying, that... that there will be lynchings before too long?

Part of me wanted to hope against hope that I'm simply overreacting, that things won't be as bad as that. But on the morning after the election, one of my students' grandmother, an African-American Muslim woman who lives in the South, woke up to a burning cross in her yard, and to one of her eight dogs, noose around its lifeless neck, hanging from a tree. This is not an isolated incident. Hate crimes are already spiking throughout the country. This is the new America we must somehow manage to navigate our way across now.

We have just given the White House to a self-described sexual predator, to an ignorant, stupid, hateful, narcissistic, thin-skinned racist who sees the world as a zero-sum game in which one person's success necessarily requires another person's utter destruction, to someone who is constitutionally incapable of respecting views which he can't understand... and who seems incapable of understanding almost anything that requires to be explained in complex sentences made up with anything above a third-grade level vocabulary, to someone for whom success means domination, to someone who feels the visceral need to surround himself with sycophants who won't challenge his toxic and simplistically ignorant worldview, to someone who has confessed to fantasizing about revenge and the humiliation of others, and who will now have the full force of the American government to do that. The man who doesn't have the self-control not to go on hateful and misogynistic slut-shaming tweets at three o'clock in the morning will now have access to the nuclear codes.

I hope the systems of checks and balances—created precisely to prevent demagogues like Trump from exerting their uncontrolled will on the rest of the world—will hold. I hope that Congress and the Supreme Court will stand up to him if... no, when he tries to violate the very same Constitution he will facetiously swear to uphold a few months from now...

But I won't hold my breath. These will be the same people, after all, who already stood behind him when he vociferously accused Latino immigrants of being murderers, drug dealers and rapists; who stood behind him when he called for a complete shutdown on Muslims entering this country; who stood behind him as he has mocked people with disabilities; who stood behind him when he repeatedly and relentlessly objectified and body-shamed women; these will be the same people who said nothing about the fact that his vice-presidential running mate is someone who has attempted to legalize discrimination against the gay community; these will be the same people who stood behind a man who has been charged with housing discrimination against African-Americans, who has taken out full spreads in the media calling for the execution of black youths who were charged with a crime it was subsequently proved they did not commit, who has instigated and encouraged his followers to commit violence against black protesters at his rallies, who publicly questioned whether our first African-American president was actually an American; these are the same people who stood behind him when he viciously and mockingly called refugee children snakes and reptiles; these are the same people who have watched him reduce the value of women to nothing more substantial than their sex appeal; these are the same people who still supported him even after the tapes in which he boasted about being able to get away with sexual assault came out. "I'm voting for Trump, but I'm not endorsing him" is  an endorsement! It's just an endorsement that makes you feel good about yourself without actually doing anything to stand up to him.

There is no real evidence that conservatives will suddenly stand up to him when he has even more power, not simply because they're cowards, but—and let's just be honest about this, shall we?—because Trump actually represents most of their core beliefs. Conservatives have been using coded language and policies to mask their racism, their sexism, their homophobia and xenophobia for decades. The party of 'personal responsibility' always manages to blame everyone else, especially people of color and immigrants, for anything that's wrong with this country. When it comes to their own faults, Republicans never take responsibility. Sarah Palin's son is arrested  for domestic abuse? Blame President Obama. You lost your job because the corporation you work for outsourced your job to China? Blame Mexicans. Your local ecosystem was destroyed by toxic waste dumped by a factory? Blame too much regulation on American businesses. It doesn't have to make sense; it simply needs to be blamed on others. As anybody who has studied American history knows, the misdirection is nothing new. Ever since the "Southern Strategy" was thought up, Republicans have gotten better and better at masking their intolerance under the rhetoric of 'law & order,' 'family values,' 'traditional marriage,' 'religious liberty,' 'the war on drugs,' and countless other euphemisms that communicate and perpetuate their intolerance while giving them the protection of plausible deniability. Trump's political genius ultimately consisted in being too stupid to understand the subtleties of using coded language, and in doing so he provided a megaphone for all the pent up anger and racism that the Republican Party has been carefully cultivating for decades. Trump isn't an anomaly for the Republican Party: he's the ultimate and crystallized embodiment and expression of their core values.

As I walked and cried on the night of the election, wondering how I would face my students the next day and protect them, I thought about the millions of little boys and girls who went to sleep that night, hopeful that when they woke up the next morning, they would have proof that it is possible in America for a woman to be President, that they would know that adults stood up to hate, anger and bigotry, and I thought about the kind of strength that their parents would now have to muster up to share the bad news with those heartbroken children. How do you explain to your little girl that, in America, an incredibly qualified woman who has dedicated her entire adult life to public service can still lose to an unqualified and hateful ignoramus? What kind of message about the worth of women does that send little boys? In times like these, when hope is gone, it seems as if the hardest thing to do is to be strong enough to have enough strength to share with others, but that's precisely what we must do, isn't it? But how do we find that strength?

I don't have any answers. I don't really know how to make things better. All I can do at this point is recommend, and plead, that we become better and kinder people to each other. That we respectfully and compassionately listen to the voices of those who are different from us, even if... especially if we can't immediately understand their point of view, that we stand up with and for our brothers and sisters of other colors, other faiths, other orientations, other identities, other backgrounds. That we consider how our choices might ultimately affect others, that we think beyond our intentions and also consider the impact of our choices, especially on those who will eventually bear the brunt of the weight of those choices. That we lend our voices to the voiceless, and our strength to the powerless. I don't know that it will be enough, but I do know that we must try. The safety of the people who make up this wonderfully eclectic country, and the very values and principles on which this experiment in self-governance and democracy is based, depend upon it...

The Philosophy of Marvel's Daredevil

Everyone is familiar with the most obvious tropes of superhero comics: exciting action sequences, skin-fitting superhero outfits, the over-sexualization of strong female characters (or the need to emphasize the chastity and helplessness of damsels in distress), the perennial struggle between the forces of good vs evil, origin stories and haunting painful childhood memories, futile attempts at balancing one's public and secret identities, etc.

What isn't always obvious is that good comics often represent fascinating and thoughtful explorations of deep philosophical questions. These may not always be explicitly stated, but the multiplicity of circumstances and choices confronting the various characters, especially when these scenarios are slight variations on a more general theme, eventually make it impossible not to see the philosophical questions, and their complexity, at work.

If you simply watch the one-minute opening theme for the latest incarnation of Daredevil, for instance, you will notice that in addition to its beautiful aesthetic value, its creators have highlighted and juxtaposed some of the most important themes the show will explore: A world forged in blood. Wealth as the result of crime and corruption. Red as the color of blood, as a representation of loss, of sacrifice, of redemption... but redemption through a devil? A blind man, a red catholic devil meting out justice in the middle of the night? Outside the confines of the law and the light of due process? In the name of Justice? In the name of God? In the name of sublimated revenge and righteous indignation? And who exactly is blind? Justice? The vigilante? The world? Lady Justice and Matt Murdock shown not only blind but blindfolded? Does the blindness represent fairness and objectivity? Perhaps self-delusion? Does blindness represent an inability, or, perhaps, an unwillingness to see?



So if you'd like to peer beneath the surface and get a deeper appreciation of a few of the philosophical questions explored in Daredevil, as well as some of its religious, cultural and aesthetic influences and allusions, you could do worse than to sit back and enjoy the following short intro from the awesome folks at Wisecrack:




How the Republican Party went from Lincoln to Trump, and the Democratic Party went from White Supremacy to Obama

When accused of promoting racist beliefs of policies, Republicans usually argue that it was their party who freed the slaves and passed the first meaningful legislation to extend equal rights to all men, and that it was Democrats who stood against abolition and on the Confederate side. This is incontrovertible historical fact.

Of course, what often goes unsaid is that things have changed significantly since the time of Lincoln, and those changes have to be understood in their larger historical context. All too often, unfortunately, we tend to get distracted by demagogues, by the latest political and ideological fashions, by the prejudices of 'common sense,' etc., and we lose sight, as a consequence, of the need to educate ourselves on the historical evolution of the many factors that have contributed to the problems we face today.

Complex and entrenched problems are not amenable to simplistic solutions. They require for their solution, at the very least, a recognition and correct diagnosis and understanding of their historical, sociological and philosophical context. But we must know the context. In that spirit, and although I highly recommend you pick up some history books, here is a short animated introduction to how the Party of Lincoln eventually became the Party of Trump.





Of course, the Democratic Party has undergone an evolution of its own, starting as the party of white supremacy, and eventually becoming the party that would elect the first African-American president:





Go home, America! You're drunk. :p

Simon Blackburn - Plato's Republic

The term Utopia wasn't invented until 1516, when Thomas More published his now classic rendition of an ideal society. But the general concept had already taken place almost two thousand years earlier, when Plato wrote his Republic, a philosophical masterpiece exploring the nature, importance, need, justification and maintenance of a just society. Along the way, however, Plato devotes a substantial amount of pages to considering and proposing various arguments, allegories and thought experiments concerning issues as diverse as the nature of justice, the theory of Forms, the role of philosophers in society (hint: they're in charge), the importance of being an ethical person, the relationship between art and the state, a communal conception of parenting, arguments regarding equal opportunities based on sex/gender, and many, many more.

That's not to say that there haven't been powerful critiques of Plato's Republic. It has been credited, for instance, and by philosophers as influential as Karl Popper, of paving the philosophical road to totalitarian states such as those embodied by Hitler and Stalin, and with providing justification for the violation of individual rights in the name of the state. And in the following excerpt from Simon Blackburn's delightful book on Plato's Republic, narrator Simon Vance masterfully conveys these fascinating ideas with the sophistication, the pathos and the elegance for which he has become one of the most influential, memorable and coveted readers of our generation in the English-speaking world.




Introduction to Symbolic & Philosophical Logic

Although almost every activity human beings engage in requires some degree of reasoning, we're often sloppy at it, we seldom (if ever!) think about the thinking process itself, and we are really good at tying ourselves into conceptual knots and logical contradictions. For more than two thousand years, however, philosophers have been hard at work trying to understand, organize, classify and perfect the reasoning process, searching for and discovering the rules and principles of logical necessity, devising methods for ascertaining the validity of logical inferences, and testing the very limits of reasoning.

The following Prezi is a compilation of a number of lectures by philosopher Mark Thorsby. These lectures provide a great introduction to deductive symbolic reasoning in:
  1. Categorical logic (syllogisms and sorites), 
  2. Propositional logic (and natural deduction), and 
  3. Predicate (or 1st-order) logic.
If you've ever been curious about symbolic logic, but felt intimidated by the scariness of its symbols and notation, fear no more: these lectures are nicely organized and highly accessible, no matter your academic background or level of education.




These ideas may seem abstract and academic, and there's something to that charge, but they are also the ideas that make the modern world possible: our scientific knowledge, the technology on which our very survival depends, the political and economic systems through which we organize our social lives, our ability to reason about ethical questions, our very ability to communicate our thoughts and feelings to each other, and many other important domains, all depend on our ability to think clearly and reason properly...

Harry Frankfurt - Bullshit!

Bullshit is everywhere. I know it. You know it. And yet, what exactly is bullshit? You might agree with Justice Potter Stewart when he once famously remarked "I know it when I see it" (although he was talking about hard-core porn at the time), but that kind of answer is not going to cut it with philosophers, a group notorious for their love of rigor and analytical precision.

How would you define bullshit? How would you distinguish it from, say, lying, or telling falsehoods, from humbug, from deception, from accidental or deliberate misrepresentation? What does it take for something to rise to the level of bullshit? Does it depend on the truth value of an utterance or speech act? On the intention of the speaker? On the inferences a speaker makes about an audience's state of mind? And, normatively, is bullshit more reprehensible than lying? More innocent? More insidious? Does it belong to an entirely different ethical classification?

Fortunately, philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote the (very short) book on Bullshit a few years ago, trying not only to provide a conceptual analysis of what bullshit is exactly, but to also say something about the ethics surrounding bullshit. Here's a little preview of why it matters:



"The essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony."

Must Society Recognize Trans People's Gender Identities?

Between the fact that some celebrities have recently come out publicly as members of the transgender community, on the one hand, and (fueled by an unsubstantiated and distorted presumption that unfairly equates transgender individuals with sexual predators) recent legislation in some conservative states attempting to ban transgender people from using restrooms incompatible with the sex indicated on their birth certificate, on the other, the question of transgender rights has taken center stage in current political discourse.

Simplistic arguments, especially those coming from the ideological and religious right, which conflate the biological concept of sex with the philosophical concept of identity and the cultural concept of gender, and those that unquestioningly adopt a dualistic interpretation of these concepts instead of a spectrum (or a series of interrelated spectra) would be intellectually laughable if they weren't so pernicious in their practical and ideological influence. Which is not to say that there aren't other interesting and important perspectives and points of controversy on this topic. Questions regarding the phenomenology of bodily and gendered lived experience, cultural appropriation; challenges to the very ontological legitimacy of gender itself; intersectional questions regarding privilege and oppression; biological essentialism; constructivism; performativity; whether we should erase differences or celebrate them, and how, permeate the philosophical landscape. And because education is often best achieved by exposure to and analysis of various perspectives engaged in a dialectical process of civil discourse, we're showcasing today a fascinating Intelligent Squared debate on the question of whether society has a moral and/or legal duty to recognize trans people's gender identities.




Plato - Meno

Plato's Republic is widely recognized as his philosophic and literary masterpiece, but many of his shorter dialogues are also exquisite demonstrations of philosophical brilliance and argumentative cunning. The Apology, for instance, in which Socrates defends the value of philosophy and the principles that informed his own moral character, is universally taught in literature, rhetoric, oratory and philosophy courses as one of the most powerful speeches ever delivered. His Euthyphro makes an intellectually convincing case, and a hilarious one at that, for the independence of morality from religious foundations. The Symposium provides a fascinating account of the nature of love and its relationship to Beauty. The Crito provides a dramatic account of justice and of the appropriate response to injustice. Etc.

In Plato's Meno, showcased here today, we encounter, condensed into one brief discussion, an important account about the importance of defining concepts in terms of their necessary and sufficient conditions, a theoretical framework for how to investigate philosophical questions, a beguiling paradox about inquiry and whether we can know what we think we know, a fascinating account (and proof?) regarding the immateriality and immortality of the soul, as well as a theory of knowledge as recollection from previous existences, some allusions to Plato's theory of the Forms, an explicit demonstration of the Socratic method and its importance for philosophical reasoning, a demonstration of hypothesis testing through dialectics, and much, much more... all in the classic style for which Socrates was reviled by his detractors, loved by his pupils and admirers, and celebrated by lovers of wisdom ever since...




Boswell's Life of Marx: There Will Be Beard!

Ever since the publication of his Life of Samuel Johnson, the name Boswell has become synonymous with biographical genius and companion. In philosophical circles, the story of his encounter with David Hume shortly before the latter's death is usually told as a testament to Hume's courage and commitment to his philosophical views. Unlike the death-bed conversion Boswell was expecting, Hume surprised him, and earned more of his respect (and incredulity), by affirming his skepticism concerning the immateriality and immortality of the soul. Boswell is said to have experienced nightmares as a result of said meeting.

But Boswell's influence has also broken the barrier into fiction. In A Scandal In Bohemia, for instance, Sherlock Holmes famously compliments his faithful friend and chronicler, Dr. Watson, by confessing to him "I am lost without my Boswell." And in the brilliant BBC TV adaptation Sherlock, in which, through the medium of blog entries, Watson recounts Sherlock's adventures and mishaps, there's a subtle allusion to the original Holmes quote above (and a clever play on words on the Boswell reference) when Sherlock tells Watson: "What would I do without my blogger?" (Sherlock has lots of those great and gratifying allusions and references for those familiar with the original canon.)

But apparently Boswell eventually turned into a drunk and horny time traveller, traversing the fabric of space-time and visiting parallel worlds on a quest to document the lives of geniuses... or the whole thing may have just been one LSD-induced dream. It's not quite clear. Either way, the following is a hilarious treat about Marx's thoughts on seizing the means of production, and on his followers' attempts to seize the means of reproduction:




Will Durant - The Philosophy of Plato

There are many great introductions to the history of philosophy. Some do a fantastic job of explaining the thoughts and theoretical frameworks developed by philosophers; others contextualize the philosophy in light of their historical milieu; others attempt to understand the past through the perspective of the people who lived at the time, while others try to make us understand the importance of these timeless questions from within our own time and place; others tend to focus on the lives of the philosophers, and to try to understand the philosophy by focusing on the biographical details; others provide thoughtful commentary and philosophical criticism; etc.

One of the classic and most engaging introductions to the history of philosophy is Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy. The exposition of philosophical ideas and the biographical details are always fascinating, and the quoted passages are perfectly chosen, but it's Durant's wit and penetrating insights, always beautifully crafted into eminently eloquent aphorisms, that sets this book apart. And as if that weren't pleasurable enough, this audio rendition, read by the eloquent and thunderous voice of Grover Gardner will make you feel the philosophy in a way that transcends the purely conceptual pleasure of learning and understanding...



Check out the Will Durant tag for more on this great series.
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