I received a reader email from Iran in the last few weeks. I’ve been swamped and hadn’t had a chance to respond until now. I’m still swamped, catching up, but I thought it might be fun to post the question and my reply here. These responses were quickly drafted, with some thought but little editing. <Disclaimer…> lol.
Dear Eric Thomas Weber
I’m [name omitted] from Iran.We are Iranian people who we love peace and other culture we love other people in every point of earth.You know my country is a victim of mistaken policies in 8 years ago but we(people of Iran) are not bad.Politician of united state of America like Mr President Barak Obama say that the human right situation in Iran is not good.I want to know that what is meaning the human rights?
Best Regards, [name omitted]
While I feel bad about having little time to answer [name omitted], I felt worse about how long it had taken for me to get to his email (BTW, that’s my mug on the front page of The Tehran Times from this past July – Pretty cool). So, here’s my rough and quick reply:
Hi [name omitted],
I apologize for the long delay before my reply… [explanation omitted]. To answer your question, human rights are generally considered responsibilities on the part of a government towards its people. The legitimacy of a government depends upon its respect for its people and their rights. Among the kinds of rights that Americans find sadly infringed upon in Iran are the freedom of expression and of the press. Governments cannot be wise and just without knowing about how their people are affected. When free expression is stifled, when leaders do not allow criticism of their decisions, the government intentionally fails to draw its judgments on the greatest pool of information available. Therefore, one of the cornerstones of just governments on this view is the right to criticize any public official. Here is an example of what I mean:
I think it is fair to say that the United States, and most every nation, falls short of perfect justice. There are some things that we take to be fundamental, however. Freedom to raise one’s concerns as a citizen is vital as perhaps (or one of) the most basic human right(s).
That’s how I think about the question you’ve asked me. Again, I apologize for the delay in my reply. Happy new year to you and your family,
Now that I’ve sent that message, I’m reminded of Michael Ignatieff‘s suggestion that freedom of movement might possibly be considered more fundamental than speech. I see his point with respect to cases of ethnic cleansing.
January 6, 2016, With host Jack Criss, and guests Kinsella, Weber, and Rings
I had a great time talking with Jack Criss on BAM South’s Midlife Criss podcast. The interview will soon be up on BAM South’s site, but for now Jack’s posted the interview on Sound Cloud. The player is here below. Jack is a great M.C. and he had questions for me about Uniting Mississippi. My interview is about 16 minutes in from the start of this audio recording. I’m the second of three guests: Stephan Kinsella, me, and John L. Rings.
Jack has kindly invited me to join him again for a more extended discussion when I’m next in Jackson, MS. I’ve got plans in the works for a trip to Jackson at some point in the spring of 2016, so I think that it would be great to join Jack again.
The name BAM South is short for Business Always Matters. Check out the online publication, which features a nice podcast series. Jack has a great voice, I should add. Fun host too. I hope you enjoy.
Here’s the interview (again, my interview is around 16 minutes in):
Journal article published in Pragmatism Today, Volume 6, Issue 2 (2015): 105-116.
I’m happy to announced that my latest paper, as of December 2015, has been published in Pragmatism Today, the peer-reviewed journal of the Central-European Pragmatist Forum. This paper is a step in the larger project of my book in progress, A Culture of Justice.
Title: “Justice as an Evolving Regulative Ideal.”
In this paper, I argue that justice is best understood as an evolving regulative ideal. This framework avoids cynicism and apathy on the one hand as well as brash extremism on the other. I begin by highlighting the elusive quality of justice as an ideal always on the horizon, yet which is nevertheless meaningful. Next, I explain the ways in which it makes more sense to see justice as evolving, rather than as fixed. Finally, I demonstrate the value of Charles Sanders Peirce’s concept of a regulative ideal for framing a pragmatist outlook on justice. Peirce helps us at the same time to appreciate ideals yet to let go of outmoded understandings of their metaphysical status. Ideals are thus tools for regulating behavior. Each of these qualifications demonstrates that justice is best conceived of as an evolving regulative ideal.
While I have been writing A Culture of Justice, so many examples have come up to illustrate what I’m concerned about. The latest is from Charlie Brown. At the same time, it’s true that culture is a funny thing to think about when it comes to justice.
When I first read Plato’s Republic, I found it so strange that Plato addresses oddly specific decisions about which kind of music and arts should be allowed in just city. It is one thing to be concerned about music that promotes violence or that demeans women, but what does the mode of the music have to do with justice? By modes, I’m referring to the dorian, the phrygian, or the mixolydian modes. Plato believed that it mattered profoundly which modes of music were taught to young people. Here’s a YouTube lesson on the modes of music – probably longer than you need, but you can stop whenever or jump ahead:
Plato presented a highly authoritarian version of Socrates in the Republic, so much so that Karl Popper accused him of betraying his great teacher. Popper saw the real Socrates as an advocate for freedom and the open society. The early dialogues do seem to present a different Socrates from the late dialogues. Plato loved his great teacher, yet the Athenians killed unjustly. It is not surprising that he would be skeptical about the will of the people to lead wisely.
While I disagree with the extent of Plato’s heavy handedness, I think he was right to attend to culture’s relationship to justice. Today, we defend the freedom of expression to amazing lengths, protecting even hateful speech. The modes of music seem strange to think of limiting, sure, but it was once prohibited to show Elvis Presley’s shaking hips on television.
The first interracial kiss on television was also a big deal at the time. I thought it was the one on Star Trek (photo on right), but it turns out that CNN has found one earlier. The funny thing is that today people belittle efforts to shape culture for the sake of justice. Presidential candidate Ben Carson has called political correctness “dangerous.” People joke about the silliness of calls for being “P.C.,” rolling their eyes.
Some efforts to address “political incorrectness” have offered cause for concern. The University of New Hampshire created a Guide for Unbiased Language, for example, which found the word “American” problematic, among many others. The university took down the guide, but not before the Washington Post released a piece on the subject.
While I appreciate calls for people not to be too swift or harsh in judging uses of language, they are extensions of sensible thinking. For example, when young people throw around the word “retarded” as a substitute for anything they think is bad or worthless, it hurts people with cognitive or other disabilities, as well as their family members like me. Some people may roll their eyes when a woman doesn’t appreciate being called “sweetheart,” yet when she is called “tootse,” most people balk. These things are matters of degree, and examples will vary.
Reasonable people may wonder “What’s the big deal?” or “Why does culture matter?” I’ve answered already what I think a flag has to do with justice, addressing the Confederate Battle Flag in the South. Language matters too. So do cartoons and children’s books, such as these horrifyingly racist ones that I first learned about in the Atlantic Black Star. In the Ten Little N—-r Boys (cover image on right), for example, young white kids were taught to count by means of learning ten ways in which young black boys were killed or somehow lost. The drawings were meant to be humorous, but are horrifying.
For generations, young people have been conditioned from infancy to devalue others. You can see, therefore, why a school teacher and then African American readers wrote to Charles Schulz, urging him to introduce a “negro character” into his Peanuts comic strip. The latest story on the matter includes this short one on NPR. The more interesting stuff can be found in the actual letters that the story refers to, in which readers and Schulz went back and forth about how to incorporate a new character respectfully, without patronizing African Americans. Mashable.com put together a set of letters, sample comic strips that Schulz released, some story about the resistance he faced from disappointing editors, and a video of school teacher Harriet Glickman who first wrote to Schulz – find that stuff here.
I understand that Variety called for more diversity in the new Charlie Brown movie. At the same time, I appreciated what I read of Schulz’s replies to his readers and the hard line he took with editors and agents who were resistant to his inclusion of the Franklin character in 1968, whom Charlie Brown greets in the featured image above. That makes me want to see his movie. Of course, Variety‘s criticism raised the ire of the conservative American Spectator.
I haven’t seen the film yet. Nevertheless, I think it is important that we consider the messages we present our kids and the kinds of cultural force that we need to push back against, from hundreds of years of conditioning young people to devalue some folks and to see others as deserving of privilege. Such designs on our culture begin as early as the cartoons we show our kids.
My latest Clarion Ledger piece, published December 8, 2015, 8A.
Click here or on the Clarion Ledger logo on the right to read the piece on their Web site.
You can also see a scan of the printed piece on Academia.edu.
The video clip of my interview on WLOX TV News at 4 in Biloxi, MS, is included at the bottom of this post. I had a great time visiting the coast, seeing the beautiful water, and talking with some really nice people.
I also had a great time meeting Jeremy from Bay Books for the book signing afterwards at the West Biloxi Public Library. While I was at the TV studio, I was able to snap these photos.
Here’s the interview video:
For more information, you can visit my page about the book here. If you are looking for a speaker for your group or think your community might enjoy a book talk and signing, visit my Contact page and drop me a note. Groups in Mississippi can apply for a mini grant from the MS Humanities Council, as they have a speakers’ series that features my talks on Uniting Mississippi.
Beautiful day in Biloxi! Just met the owner of Southern Bound Book Shop. If you live nearby and can’t make it to the signing tonight, you can head there for a signed copy later. They also have a store in Ocean Springs. If you live closer to Bay Saint Louis, Bay Books will have copies there after tonight’s signing.
When I was in graduate school, looking at the job market, I remember feeling perplexed at certain questions about the future of my career. Some colleges and universities ask you about your “research trajectory.” Finishing a dissertation prepares you with a stack of paper, but now it’s supposed to be nimble and fly like an arrow. I can just picture throwing an unbound dissertation from the top of some stairs, watching the pages fall in all directions. That’s one kind of a trajectory.
It wasn’t too hard to imagine things that I wanted to study next, but it’s a huge step in one’s academic career just to finish a major, final project. To be asked at that moment what your next one will be takes one aback. I’ve come to like that question, but somehow I hadn’t been expecting it at the time. It was exciting to think about what I might pursue over the course of my career, though. I had ideas about wanting to work on this or that topic, and some of them did come together.
I thought that I, like so many scholars you meet, would want to depart from the focus of my dissertation. While some steps have been diagonal or roundabout to this point, I have found myself actually returning to some of the issues and sources from that first project. I won’t get into that now, but the fascinating thing for me in writing has had to do with how each work builds on elements of the one before, even if in surprising ways.
My dissertation on John Rawls and John Dewey’s work focused on basic questions, after which my next project was much more centered on application. Then, Democracy and Leadership was a return to theory, especially to Plato, but with adaptations drawn from Dewey and some from Rawls. The last chapter of that prompted further focus on application, which resulted in Uniting Mississippi. While working on each of these earlier projects, I have had cause to return to Rawls and Dewey’s work, and noticed a concern that I believe is crucial, yet insufficiently explored in studying justice: especially the role of culture in enabling or impeding it.
So, I’ve been working in slow steps on A Culture of Justice for a few years now, longer than I expected. It is coming together, still needing work. That said, it is definitely a more theoretical project, even if I see and will note many possible applications. With my more applied writings, I’ve been striving to make them more and more accessible and publicly engaged. In addition, I’ve focused quite a bit on Mississippi, given that issues for democracy, education, and leadership are so striking here. At the same time, many of the issues I’ve studied are relevant beyond the South. Dean Skip Rutherford of the Clinton School highlighted that point for me. I thought it to be true, but he encouraged me to speak to a broader audience, beyond both Mississippi and the South.
Given that, I’ve started rethinking some of the next projects that I want to pursue. In particular, I’m seeing a number of ideas come together for a next step after A Culture of Justice. The big picture challenge for democracy at the national level can be drawn from what I argued about Mississippi. That lesson was itself learned from Plato. Plato’s Socrates asked what could be a greater evil than that which makes the city many, instead of one? And, he continued, is there any greater good than that which binds it together and makes it one? Nothing and no. Unity is indeed vital for a good city.
For Plato, unity was important enough to trample on liberty. He thought leaders were justified even to lie to their own people for the sake of fostering unity. He was not democratic. In a democratic society, liberty is central. So how could a democracy be united, he wondered? Plato doubted that democratic societies could be wise enough to unite, to care about virtue, and to limit the will of the majority, when it wants vice and injustice.
John Rawls once noted that in many ways American democracy has been remarkably stable. I would suggest that he could only say that in a part of the country that did not fight for secession. We still have the scars of division from the Civil War showing in Mississippi. That said, I believe that Rawls was right when he explained that there are so many more things that unite Americans than that divide us.
We focus so much on the latter, as that’s disagreement. It’s drama. It sells newspapers, or at least ads on their Web sites. The countless things I could mention that people accept as uncontroversial and obvious are so numerous that they would take entirely too long to list. Given that, we can say that in many ways, our hyper-polarized, divided society does live up to one key aspect of our nation’s billing. Indeed, it’s so easy to forget: the key virtue noted in Plato’s Republic is the one virtue mentioned in the name of our country: unity. Ours are the United States of America. Unity is primary. It is vital. But it is also not guaranteed.
So, I’m thinking about expanding from my project on Mississippi. I’ve adapted Faulkner’s line, and want to follow that next step. Faulkner said that to understand the world, you’ve got to understand a place like Mississippi. Ok, so I’ve given Mississippi a try. Next, I want to study the needs, forces, and factors Uniting the States of America. That may not be my title, but I’m working on it. Hell, I may go in a very different direction, but at present, this feels right.
While I’m an unabashed optimist — nothing ventured, nothing gained — I recognize that the “stability” that Rawls saw in the United States comes at a price of the massive incarceration of poor and otherwise disadvantaged people, the use of labor under the table, paid to people who do not have the protection of the police, and many other troubles that people face in the U.S. That said, a vision of progress takes recognition of our challenges, of what divides us. When we see the need for unity, for fighting problems like hyper-incarceration, we can fight for change. In that particular example, there is cause for hope, as Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and the Koch brothers, powerful voices on the Left and Right, all believe that we desperately need to combat hyper-incarceration.
These are just some sketched thoughts about the big picture next steps for my writing trajectory. If you have thoughts or questions for me, send me a tweet @EricTWeber or post on my Facebook Author page.