Questions for Murakami

With all the snow, I nearly forgot that Haruki Murakami, who is arguably my favorite living author, is currently receiving questions through a special website, Murakami-san no Tokoro (Mr. Murakami’s Place).

I first ran across Murakami’s writing nearly 15 years ago when I read Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World for a Japanese literature class. I was intrigued just by the title and, while I often regret that I haven’t gone back to re-read it, it remains one of my favorite works to this day.

His genre is metaphysical fiction.

His characters wonder through life, listening to jazz, talking with cats, and hollowly searching for connection in an isolated world. Some are moved to search for meaning while others are resigned to knowing there is none.

His stories remind me of Vonnegut, though his style is quite different.

When I saw that he was accepting questions from the public, I rather thought I ought to submit something.

I’m not one to get star-struck – I generally disdain contact with celebrities who are unlikely to remember my existence – but this is, perhaps, too rare an opportunity to pass up.

But then, of course, there’s the question of just what to ask him. I’d like to go back and re-read Hard-Boiled Wonderland, to re-read Kafka on the Shore, or to re-read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Perhaps those pages would inspire the perfect question to ask.

And while I’d like to re-read those books someday, I’ll likely not re-read them today. So, I suppose instead I’ll just ask the question that all his books see to answer:

Why live in a meaningless world?

And this question isn’t merely one of being – I mean live here in its finest sense.

Why seek agency and autonomy, why live life to the fullest – and how do you live life to the fullest in a world that is ultimately, tragically, beautifully, meaningless?


SOPHIA Strategic Planning Session, January 2015

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SOPHIA Strategic Planning Session, January 2015

Photo of people in dialogue at a SOPHIA meeting.
Last night, Thursday, January 29th, 2015, the Board of Trustees and prospective future leaders of the Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA) joined together on a phone conference call. In the spring of 2015, Dr. Annie Davis Weber, the University of Mississippi's Manager of Strategic Planning, is teaching a graduate course on strategic planning in the university's School of Education. Her class includes a real strategic planning experience for her students. Fortunately for SOPHIA, I happen to know Dr. (Annie Davis) Weber quite well. SOPHIA is an organization that has been around for many years in a few forms. Over the last six years, I have served as Executive Director, working to get the ball rolling again on a number of activities that embody the values that attracted me to work with SOPHIA. At the same time, given our momentum and our need to take SOPHIA to the next level, we really needed a dedicated effort to plan our future strategically. All of these factors together have made for a pretty extraordinary opportunity.

SOPHIA participants listening to an announcement.
The new SOPHIA is in the making. I can feel a great deal of energy coming not only from me or even from just a few of us, but from the group. This is exciting. It is also a really helpful and direct experience of the value and prospects of modern strategic planning. On a personal level, it's pretty wonderful also to see the brilliant woman I married in action - and to appreciate how great she is at what she does. 

Stay tuned,  because I sincerely believe SOPHIA is poised for some very exciting developments. I've already started getting a number of interested people, groups, and impressively organized and funded programs interested in collaborating with SOPHIA. If you're interested in publicly engaged philosophy, or just in thinking deeply about practical and timely problems, visit our Web site:

SOPHIA Executive Director, Eric Thomas Weber, listening to Texas A&M University Associate Professor of Philosophy Dr. Tommy Curry.
In the next two months we'll have a lot to tell you about our ideas. We will also want to hear your ideas and to involve you in the mission of creating a two way street and new public forums for philosophers and people from other fields and beyond the academy to join together in fruitful conversation, following Socrates example, but maybe without the hemlock. 

Dr. Eric Thomas Weber
Executive Director
The Society of Philosophers in America

Weber's site: 

Tisch talks on the humanities and civic engagement

The Initiatives in the Public Humanities at Tisch College sponsor this series of monthly brown bag lunches during the spring semester of 2015. The Tisch Talks in the Humanities seek to identify areas of mutual interest and concern through conversations informed by contemporary civic and cultural practices.

All sessions take place at 12pm at Tisch College, Rabb Room, Lincoln Filene Hall
Moderated by Diane O’Donoghue, Senior Fellow for the Humanities, Tisch College

Feb 2: Source @Sourcing
Marie-Claire Beaulieu, Assistant Professor, Department of Classics
Jennifer Eyl, Assistant Professor, Department of Religion

Professors Beaulieu and Eyl will discuss the impact of contemporary practices of knowledge production, such as found in the digital humanities and open-source scholarship, on the audiences and reception of classical and biblical texts.

March 30: Generative Empathies
Amahl Bishara, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology
Doris Sommer, Ira Jewell Williams, Jr. Professor of Romance Languages and
Literature and Director, Cultural Agents Initiative, Harvard University
Peter Levine, Associate Dean for Research, Tisch College

Professors Bishara, Sommer, and Levine will explore current discourses around the meanings and uses of “empathy,” a topic with implications that are both compelling and complex.

April 27: Neighboring
Penn Loh, Director, Master in Public Policy Program and Community
Practice, Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning
Peter Probst, Professor and Chair, Department of Art and Art History

Professor Probst and Mr. Loh will discuss the implications of proximity as the provocation to objects and acts of “neighboring.”

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Healing the Heart of Democracy

In Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, Parker J. Palmer quickens our instinct to seek the common good, proposing practical ways to bridge our political divides. In this personal as well as political book, Palmer explores five “habits of the heart” that can be developed in everyday settings like families, neighborhoods, classrooms, congregations and workplaces to help restore a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”:

  1. Healing the Heart of DemocracyAn understanding that we are all in this together
  2. An appreciation of the value of “otherness”
  3. An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways
  4. A sense of personal voice and agency
  5. A capacity to create community

The paperback edition includes a detailed discussion guide with links to 40 brief online videos where the author talks about key issues in the book. You can download the discussion guide, the videos, tips for organizing a discussion group, and more at

About the Author
Parker J. Palmer, founder and Senior Partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal, is a world-renowned writer, speaker and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change. He has reached millions worldwide through his nine books, including Let Your Life Speak, The Courage to Teach, A Hidden Wholeness, and Healing the Heart of Democracy. Follow on Twitter @parkerjpalmer and on Facebook.

Healing the Heart of Democracy is available through Amazon or visit the book’s website.

Resource Link:

Greece and Germany and getting to yes

The situation involving Greece and the European Union is a complex game, with numerous players and potentially many phases. Just as an example, voters in Spain are players who will have a chance to choose the new government in December; they may opt to support Podemos, the relatively left-wing Spanish party, if they think that the Greeks did well by choosing Syriza last week.

Nevertheless, we can dramatically simplify the game to have two key players: Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Tsipras can accept some level of debt relief, from zero to 100%, or walk out of the Euro. Merkel can support some level of debt relief, or let Greece walk.

There are principles on both sides. My sympathies lie much closer to Syriza, on the grounds that: austerity is generally bad economics; Greek residents count for as much (morally) as Northern Europeans; and the Greek meltdown, although abetted by poor national governance, was mainly a consequence of neoliberal economic policies driven by Germany and other Northern economies in their interests. However, a German Christian Democrat or a British Tory could make a sincere case against leniency, based on moral hazard, the virtues of fiscal responsibility, Greeks’ responsibility for Greek debt, and other such arguments.

My suggestion of the day is based on Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, the 1981 best-seller by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury. It is a popular and breezy book but based on some serious analysis. Fisher and Ury present two forms of positional bargaining in this table:


In this case, Mr. Tsipras could opt to be hard or soft in his approach to the European Central Bank and other key European players. Fisher and Ury would predict that either approach will yield a bad outcome for Greece and for Europe as a whole, because people have systematic weaknesses that make positional bargaining go badly, whether the players opt to be nice or tough. By the way, that prediction holds even if Mr. Tsipras is completely correct on all matters of principle: this is a game, not a seminar.

Instead, Fisher and Ury propose “negotiation on the merits,” which has four key features:

  1. “Separate the people from the problem.” Create settings in which negotiators who have not publicly defined one another as adversaries are asked to address the problem and propose solutions.
  2. Interests: Drop the debate about principles (ban words like “neoliberalism” and “fiscal responsibility”) and just try to maximize the outcomes for the various parties.
  3. Multiply options: Don’t be satisfied with the choices that seem to confront the players right now, e.g., Greece either leaves or stays in the Eurozone. Instead, deliberately brainstorm a whole range of options. Could a massive new EU investment in some public good, such as climate mitigation, be designed especially to benefit Greece? Could a new loan package be offered simultaneously to Portugal, Spain, and Greece? (etc.)
  4. Criteria: bring in a neutral party to establish concretely measurable objectives.  Don’t ask how much each player must (or should) give up, but rather whether the agreement maximizes these objectives.

There is much more in the book, but this offers a flavor.

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Trusting Young People

Not long ago, there was a story on the news about parents being investigated after their children, 10 and 6, were found walking to the park on their own.

A few weeks after that, someone told me how folks in their neighborhood complained about teens “hanging out” downtown. A complaint I’ve heard more than a few times in my own communities.

Those teens were probably up to no good, older neighbors seemed to think. With their loud talking and lack of important business.

These stories seem some how connected.

I do not nor have I ever had children, so I certainly don’t intend to tell people how to raise their own. Besides, each child has their own quirks and personalities, and I rather suspect there’s not a single style of parenting that works for them all.

But I often wonder if we – collectively, as society – ought to put more trust in our young people.

I have no children, but I’ve had the pleasure of learning from many young people. And I humbly hope they have learned something from me.

It may not be my responsibility to raise them, but it is our collective responsibility to welcome them, to engage them, to support them.

But apparently, teens hanging out can’t be trusted because they act like teens. Perhaps the kids going to the park can be trusted, but the world around them is so dangerous that we should fear letting them in it.

We’re so accustomed to thinking of kids as lesser beings that such a protective instinct seems natural. And perhaps it is, to some degree – I imagine if I did have children I would feel quite strongly that children need to be protected from some things.

But I’d never stand for a law saying that adult women couldn’t go out alone after dark – even if it was for their own protection. Such paternalism – inappropriate in most situations – is still appropriate in the situation from which it gets its name: pater, after all, is the Latin word for father.

And, again, perhaps paternalism of children is appropriate. I don’t imagine we’d want to simply unleash the world upon our kids – or worse yet, to unleash our kids upon the world. But the dangers of paternalism in other situations is enough to give me pause.

I suppose what I ask is this – that we collectively try to trust young people more, or at the very least, we look deeply at the roots of our concern.


3 Questions for Navigating Conflict in Dialogue from PCP

We thought our members would resonate with this piece from the blog of our friends with NCDD organizational member the Public Conversations Project that offers key questions you can ask as you seek to address conflict. The post came from a discussion on the NCDD discussion listserv, and we encourage you to read it below or find the original by clicking here.

At Public Conversations Project, we work with groups torn by deep divisions over issues related to different identities, beliefs and values – divisions that tear apart communities and block progress toward shared goals. One of the most important preparatory measures we take as dialogue practitioners is crafting opening questions that promote understanding and reduce stereotyping.

We’ve found that asking questions that promote reflection and elicit personal speaking is especially critical if some of the participants have come to see each other in unidimesional ways, perhaps even as the cause of, or sustaining force behind, the “problem.”

Here are three questions we’ve developed that cultivate a sense of curiosity and encourage participants to view each other – and even themselves – in a richer and more nuanced manner:

1. “How has this conflict had an impact on you and your life?”

We begin by inviting participants to share a story from their life experience. We typically invite a “story from your life experience that might help others understand how you have come to the perspectives you hold on the issue at hand.” The effect of this question is quite powerful; it de-stereotypes individuals in each other’s eyes and allows people to be seen in their living, breathing complexity (rather than as bearers of slogans). We sometimes precede that question with another. For example, we sometimes ask participants to share a story that might help others understand the impact of the conflict in their lives.

By locating the fears associated with the conflict in real lives, the question supports better understanding of the views of the other, even if those views conflict with one’s own. Another option for a preceding question is to elicit stories about the values or motivation that brought participants into the room, or a way in which the community or organization has had significant meaning in their lives. Responses to these questions underscore their shared commitment to the group, and highlights the worth of what is at stake for each person if the community remains blocked.

2. “What is at the heart of the matter for you?”

The middle question that we often use allows people, with this expanded sense of connection as a backdrop, to speak briefly about what most deeply matters to them in relation to the issue. This question elicits a more heartfelt presentation of core concerns, visions and values than questions about positions.

3. “Within your thinking about the issue, do you have some gray areas or uncertainties, or are there times when some of your values related to this issue bump up against other values you hold?”

This is a very powerful antidote to views of “the other” as simple-minded, and allows each person to “own,” for others and themselves, the views and values normally set aside or suppressed in the polarized battle. These questions offer a solid foundation for fostering a constructive conversation on a divisive issue, but they’re not a recipe for all situations. The most crucial question we ask ourselves as dialogue practitioners is: “What questions will best serve the shared purposes of this group, at this time, and in this setting?”

This blog is adapted from a listserv entry that Founding Associate Maggie Herzig wrote on the listserv of the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation. Want more tips from Public Conversations Project? Check out our resource library or upcoming open enrollment workshops.

To find the original version of this piece, please visit

As Neoliberal Forces Lash Out, Solidarity with Syriza is Needed

Now that Syriza has prevailed in the Greek elections, a new field of battle has emerged:  the political maneuvering before debt-relief negotiations.  Syriza’s decisive victory is sending some richly deserved shock waves through the citadels of finance capital and their partners in government, especially in Europe. 

Not since the 2008 financial crisis have neoliberal policies and politicians suffered such a stinging public rebuke – through democratic elections, no less.  The financial establishment and leading politicians around the world want nothing more than to staunch the damage. They clearly wish to isolate the new prime minister and undermine his party’s leadership.  They would also love to kill in the cradle many socially minded initiatives that Syriza plans (protections against home foreclosures, restoration of pensions, basic healthcare, etc.).

Hence the fierce media propaganda war now underway to defame Syriza and lock in a negative set of images and ideas about it. I keep hearing the term “radical left” a lot (funny, the press never called austerity politics a program of the “radical right”).  British Prime Minister David Cameron recently warned, “The Greek election will increase economic uncertainty across Europe” – as if that hasn’t been the case for years.

There are also many attacks on the coalition government as unprincipled and expedient, particularly after Syriza made a coalition government with ANEL (a conservative party whose acronym translates as “independent Greeks”).  ANEL is socially conservative but it is also extremely hostile to big capital and the current banking system.  It is more radical than Syriza in that it wants to nationalize banks and throw out the Greek oligarchy.

I thought it was telling, in its account of the elections, that the New York Times gave the last word to the neoliberal Peterson Institute for International Economics.  A fellow there counseled Greece to move to the political center because “it would show that these protest movements ultimately recognize reality – which is that they are in the euro, and they have to play by the rules.”  Otherwise, he warned, “things could get a lot worse.  Very, very quickly.” 

“Play by the rules,” “face reality” – or things will get “a lot worse.” Worse than the slow-motion social disintegration that austerity is already imposing on the Greeks?  Such advice is darkly humorous in light of the rule-breaking, reality-defying audacity of banks, financial institutions and investors.

read more

Snow Removal in the Good Society

I spent about three hours shoveling today, which gave me plenty of time to think about how communities deal with the complex task of snow removal.

The city I live in is among the best in the area when it comes to snow removal, and yet I find myself continually looking at the ineffeciencies and wondering if there isn’t some better solution.

Perhaps I am just a New England curmudgeon, but here are a few of the things that drive me crazy:

As a home owner, I am conceptually fine with it being my responsibility to clear the public way (sidewalk) abutting my house. This is standard in many area communities and just seems like good citizenship: yes, we must all work together to keep public areas publicly accessible.

But even agreeing to that thesis, the logistics make this process break down.

First, people are expected to clear their sidewalks a minimum of 42 inches wide, per ADA requirements. I would agree that accessibility is important – it’s terrible how difficult we make it for people in wheelchairs, or even with strollers, to get around. But the challenge is that many of our sidewalks aren’t even 42 inches wide. I’m not sure it’s even physically possible to clear 42 inches wide – where would we put the snow?

This could lead to an interesting debate about our individual and collective responsibility to ensure a welcoming and accessible environment for all, but it also leads to a more practical challenge:

Everyone has a different idea of what it means to clear the side walk.

I try to go for about 2 shovel widths – somewhere between 24-30 inches. Some people stick with just one shovel width (12 inches), and, of course, some people just don’t shovel at all.

But the variation is important, because it’s not just an issue of compliance vs. non-compliance. We’re all (not) complying differently, which makes for irregular paths.

As a pedestrian, I find this frustrating.

To complicate matters, sidewalk shoveling and street clearing are two tasks which don’t go together very well. Yesterday shoveling was all about keeping up with the storm, but today was clean up – which essentially meant doing the same work over and over again.

Before I went to bed last night, I shoveled the walk, cleared the curb cut on the corner, and cleared around the fire hydrant.

Then when I got up this morning, I shoveled the walk, cleared the curb cut on the corner, and cleared around the fire hydrant.

After lunch time I went out, shoveled the walk, cleared the curb cut on the corner, and cleared around the fire hydrant.

And it didn’t snow at all today.

Most of the work today was just from undoing the sidewalk impact of the snow plows. Every time they come by they plow in the corner, they plow in the fire hydrant, and their plowed snow causes avalanches into the cleared parts of the sidewalk.

I’m like the Sisyphus of snow removal.

I have this dream world where the city has some sort of sidewalk-clearing device that can clear the sidewalks – a full 42 inches! – as easily as plows clear the streets.

As much as I enjoy this dream, though, I know it’s impossible. For one thing, my city already spends $650,000 annually on snow removal, so we’d need to find the money to double or perhaps triple that amount. Assuming we found the funding, there’d still be the challenge of where to put the snow.

And finally, there’s the challenge that smaller sidewalks would invariably get worse service than main sidewalks – just as main streets get plowed more frequently than side streets. That doesn’t entirely seem fair.

Perhaps we need to rethink the entire way we think of transportation and snow removal – reorient ourselves to pedestrian-driven designs and forgo vehicle-centric approaches.

Or perhaps tomorrow morning I should just shovel the walk, clear the curb cut on the corner, and clear around the fire hydrant.


why not require high school students to pass the citizenship exam?


Arizona recently passed legislation requiring all high school students to pass the test required for naturalization as a US citizen. About a dozen other states are considering similar bills. Some of my friends are supporters, and the idea seems attractive for several reasons. It sounds like a way to strengthen civic education, and it subjects native-born Americans to the same test we require of immigrants, which may seem just.

I am nevertheless against the idea. First, I am worried that the time allocated to civics will shrink as a result. After all, this is an easy test. You can see all the questions and answers in advance. It takes a matter of hours to study for it. People who do not read English still memorize the answers and pass it, without comprehension. If passing this test comes to be seen as adequate preparation for citizenship, there will be no reason to spend a semester on civics, for the demands on math and science are much higher.

Importantly, more than 90% of US high school seniors have spent a semester in a civics course. They have also spent a year on US history, which is actually the topic of most questions on the naturalization test.

That brings me to a bigger objection. Requiring a single, short test of concrete factual knowledge in civics would be a step forward if most kids never faced such a test. But at least 90% of students do face regular testing that is quite a bit more demanding than the naturalization exam. If you take a US history sequence and an American government course–as most students must–then you are tested, at least by your teacher and, in many cases, also by the state.

If our problem were a total neglect of civics, then we might begin by requiring a simple test. But that is not the situation.

Instead, one major problem is that we do not take the time to teach (nor assess) the deeper and more demanding civic skills that we really need–such skills as following and interpreting a complex current issue, or advocating in a court or legislature, or developing an argument for a public policy. These are the kinds of outcomes that tend to be missing from state assessments. I don’t see how a new test like Arizona’s will increase the time or effort spent on learning these skills. I can see us spending less time if adequate performance on civics comes to be equated with passing the naturalization test.

The other problem is that adult Americans don’t know basic facts about the political system. According to today’s New York Times story about civics, “A survey last year by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that more than a third of respondents could not name a single branch of the United States government, while fewer than a quarter knew that a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate is required to override a presidential veto.”

But most of these adults had to study precisely these topics in school and faced tests on them. So the problem is that they don’t remember the concrete factual information (much as I have forgotten my high school chemistry). Now, why would they forget these facts? I would posit: because they have not formed habits of actively engaging with news and current events. You will remember the branches of the government if you are interested in President Obama’s current tensions with the Republican Congress. If you don’t follow such news, you can easily forget what you crammed for in 11th grade civics.

Thus the second problem is really that civics is often boring. It doesn’t inspire interest that will continue after the test. And again, I don’t see how the Arizona legislation will address that problem, but I can see it making it worse.

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