Exit over Voice: Kojin Karatani on Athens’ Equality Problem

(This post is part of a roundrobin reading group on Kojin Karatani’s Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy. I focus here on chapter one; James Stanescu previously discussed the preface and appendix, and Joseph Trullinger will be discussing chapter two in the next few days.)

In a certain sense, much of Karatani’s book is a brief in favor of the claim that Western philosophy was born in Turkey, not Greece, and then promptly destroyed by the Athenians, though some of the true Turkish philosophy occasionally reappears. But it’s difficult to ascertain why this slight geographic shift across the Aegean Sea should matter so much. (Karatani is Japanese, and so might have some slight preference for locating philosophy’s origins on his continent rather than the European one, but….) But like Heidegger before him, this allows Karatani to argue that the most prominent philosophical voices—Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—were actually suppressing the insights that they stole from elsewhere and rebranding the whole enterprise.

The Axial Age: State, Market, Temple

Speaking very, very roughly, Buddha and Lao-tzu are contemporaries of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. What happened in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE to launch these philosophical traditions? The main candidates are novel political organizations (states and empires), population growth, and agricultural innovations.

Of course, it’s important to understand that there isn’t actually much evidence that the axial age was unique in generating egalitarian ethics, moralizing religious ideals, and wisdom traditions;  there was a market for satirical stories like The Eloquent Peasant a millennium and a half earlier. But perhaps for the first time, following the Axial Age these innovations stuck.

Karatani’s claim, ironically, is that they didn’t stick. Instead, Ionia’s egalitarianism was replaced by Athens’ democratic inequality, where equality for a few was purchased at the expense of the domination of many more. Most political units, Karatani claims, went from tribal units to tribal agglomerations dominated by one tribe and structured by class contestations mapped onto those tribal lines. This, he argues, produces a despotic Asian state, characterized by bureaucratic price fixing. A market where buyers and sellers agree on prices through negotiation is thus a major innovation—one he credits to Ionia. And unlike in other city-states and empires, the free market did not amp up economic inequality in Ionia. Instead, it led to economic equality. Despite his disdain for neoliberalism, Karatani here sounds like a classical liberal: if only markets were truly free, there’d be no permanent winners and losers and free markets would produce both affluence and equality.

The Ionians were somehow able to dissolve their older tribal allegiances and create something he calls a covenant community” without either tribal boundaries or fixed class identities. And they did this by embracing the commodity fetish of coinage, market pricing, and somehow refusing to form a state, not in the sense that all tribal societies refuse to be joined into states (until they are conquered) but in some independent way. This last refusal then becomes the basis of “moralizing” religions in which even prayer and sacrifice are understood as primarily reciprocal relationships with the divine.

Later, of course, Ionia was conquered by the Delian league, and then by the many antecedents of modern Turkey. But something briefly flared in Ionia that was eventually perverted into Athenian democracy: Karatani calls it isonomy.

Defining Isonomy

The term isonomy” is usually defined in English as equality before the law” in the sense of equal civil rights. I usually follow Herodotus in defining it as a kind of maximally inclusive government, such as election to public office by lottery would produce. However, there are two other candidates: isonomy sometimes refers to home rule” or independence from foreign domination, and it was used by Hannah Arendt to refer to a kind of resistance to government which she calls no-rule.”

Karatani starts with Arendt. Here’s the relevant passage from On Revolution:

“Freedom as a political phenomenon was coeval with the rise of the Greek city-states. Since Herodotus, it was understood as a form of political organization in which the citizens lived together under conditions of no-rule, without a division between ruler and ruled. This notion of no-rule was expressed by the word isonomy, whose outstanding characteristic among the forms of government, as the ancients had enumerated them, was that the notion of rule (the archy’ from archein in monarchy and oligarchy, or the cracy’ from kratein in democracy) was entirely absent from it. The polis was supposed to be an isonomy, not a democracy. The word democracy,’ expressing even then majority rule, the rule of the many, was originally coined by those who were opposed to isonomy and who meant to say: What you say is no-rule’ is in fact only another kind of rulership; it is the worst form of government, rule by the demos. 
Hence, equality, which we, following Tocqueville’s insights, frequently see as a danger to freedom, was originally almost identical with it.”

Most readers of Arendt will know and love this passage. But it’s at odds with Herodotus and may well misread the historical political theory, if Karatani is correct. Karatani argues that the Ionians of the ancient Mediterranean world were able to achieve no-rule isonomy only through economic equality. From this economic equality they were able to dependably and sustainably preserve the possibility of equal self-government. And this economic equality was only possible because of a strong cosmopolitan right to immigrate and emigrate, along with a refusal of tribal or any other form of cultural or geographic loyalty to origins.” No-rule” then is only possible as no-source,” no arche.

The Forgetting of Isonomy in Athenian Democratic Theory

The Athenians, in contrast, prioritized positive liberties like voting and speaking in the Assembly over exit. This meant that their democracy was founded both homogeneity and several forms of domination: the domestic domination of slaves and immigrants, on the one hand, and the imperial domination of foreign cities on the other.

Solon’s term as archon might have had some hope of creating the conditions for true equality, as he eliminated debts and granted membership in the newly formed assemby to resident foreigners. But it took a tyrant to institute these reforms, and the tyrant who followed Solon, Peisistratus,  was able to seize power in large part because he executed land redistributions. This accustomed Athenian citizens to a novel form of equality, achievable only through the strong-man tactics of a tyrant who would enrich himself and his allies and thus preserve class relations.

Later Athenian tyrants would turn abroad to find resources to redistribute rather than risk their own wealth, like Percles who used profits from the Delian League to pay off Assembly members. Thereby, Athenians discovered something (seemingly) better than domestic equality: foreign conquests. Where the Ionians found true egalitarian isonomy through statelessness, the Athenians could only achieve a facsimile of  isonomy–democracy–through a strong state and an adventurous military. An active military requires a clear distinction between agricultural labor (slaves) and the standing army and navy (citizens), so this is the foundation of Athenian democracy, which is why all efforts to learn modern lessons from Greek demoratic forms are doomed to fail.

Exit and Voice

Political philosophers are more likely to argue about the contrast between positive and negative liberty, or between freedom and equality, than to focus on the pairing of exit and voice that derives from Albert Hirschman’s book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Understanding negative liberties like freedom from censorship or freedom from the establishment of a state religion primarily in terms of individual liberty and restrictions on state power creates the wrong impression. It’s an impoverished ideal of free speech rights that conceives of them merely to allow unlimited self-expression. When we defend free speech to ensure the effective support for each citizen’s policy preferences—in terms of positive liberty and effective political participation—we similarly run into questions about how much to tolerate intolerable ideas beyond leaving them uncensored.

The Hirschman paradigm suggests that we are better off if we think of two kinds of engagement: effective voice and cheap exit. Consumers and workers can always express their distaste for a product or working condition through mere complaining, but effective voice requires that the companies we work for or purchase from actually listen and respond, even if they don’t always give us what we want. For our exercise of voice to be effective, we need to feel heard and we need to feel that the exchange of reasons that follows is not merely a distraction. In the same way, the right of exit cannot be merely notional but impractical. Where exit costs are high, as when competing products are much more expensive, or other job prospects are poor, there is no cheap exit and threats to leave or switch brands are implausible. The nation-state often combines weak voice and expensive or impossible exit: it’s almost impossible for most people to effectively emigrate legally, and most citizens do not have an effective means to exercise their voice. Instead we are exhorted to practice loyalty—patriotic displays—and for some reason many of us accept this hostage situation with the forced loyalty of Stockholm syndrome.

Karatani argues, however, for an alternate: equality is realized through freedom. “The ability to move is a fundamental precondition of isonomy.” But where could they go? Karatani argues that emigrants could easily form new colonies in Ionia, or join older ones without penalty or prejudice. The underlying commitment to cosmopolitanism is distinct from the kind of ease of travel we now associate with the nation-state. (And note that fewer Americans move for jobs than we used to do.)

A Positive Role for Colonization?

According to Karatani, the Ionian system of isonomy was based on the priority of cheap and easy exits.  It’s hard to think of colonialism as a positive political impulse, but in this case it’s closer to the ideology of the frontier: rather than wrangle with entrenched interests or demand to be heard, an Ionian could simply pull up stakes and leave. As Karatani tells it, this both empowered Ionians in their effort to gain effective voice in the endeavors of their current states, and it ensured that all market transactions occurred in a truly reciprocal and ultimately egalitarian manner, without rent-seeking activities which could create permanent class divisions. Trade with neighboring city-states was carried out privately, while Athenian trade leagues were state affairs with plenty of skimming by elites. Conquest of other states could create a revenue stream for division as well.

In part this is based on Karatani’s claim that the ease of emigration and new city-state formation meant that no large farms and landholders could emerge. In contrast, the capture of slaves enables larger farms and a division of labor that then grounded the class system. The “despotic Asian state” always lurks as a possibility so long as human beings are too closely attached to the land, whether as serfs, slaves, or ethno-state citizens.

What is Faith to Free Men?

The most provocative claim in chapter one of Karatani’s book is his speculative comparison of Ionia to Iceland, where he notes that both Iceland and Ionian literature are characterized by a rejection of the gods: the Icelandic sagas seem to reject or ignore the Norse gods, while the Ionian philosophers are uncharacteristically naturalistic for the time. In the same way, 18th century American towns were also the product of migrants fleeing the strict class structures of a homeland, where many of them had been deeply religious. And yet these Americans formed relatively egalitarian communities once they arrived, characterized by easy exits to new frontiers, and a curiously deistic and pluralistic society blessed by Nature’s God. (Karatani doesn’t comment on the murder of indigenous peoples that made that frontier possible, however.)

Karatani thus sees freedom of movement, naturalistic religion, and social and economic equality as the key to isonomy.  Returning to Arendt, he advocates for the ward system to help to broaden the sphere in which freedom can produce equality.

Tune in next week to Joseph’s blog Between Two Untruths to read about chapter two.

Catching up (again!) on DemocracySpot

cover-bookIt’s been a while since the last post here. In compensation, it’s not been a bad year in terms of getting some research out there. First, we finally managed to publish “Civic Tech in the Global South: Assessing Technology for the Public Good.” With a foreword by Beth Noveck, the book is edited by Micah Sifry and myself, with contributions by Evangelia Berdou, Martin Belcher, Jonathan Fox, Matt Haikin, Claudia Lopes, Jonathan Mellon and Fredrik Sjoberg.

The book is comprised of one study and three field evaluations of civic tech initiatives in developing countries. The study reviews evidence on the use of twenty-three information and communication technology (ICT) platforms designed to amplify citizen voices to improve service delivery. Focusing on empirical studies of initiatives in the global south, the authors highlight both citizen uptake (yelp) and the degree to which public service providers respond to expressions of citizen voice (teeth). The first evaluation looks at U-Report in Uganda, a mobile platform that runs weekly large-scale polls with young Ugandans on a number of issues, ranging from access to education to early childhood development. The following evaluation takes a closer look at MajiVoice, an initiative that allows Kenyan citizens to report, through multiple channels, complaints with regard to water services. The third evaluation examines the case of Rio Grande do Sul’s participatory budgeting – the world’s largest participatory budgeting system – which allows citizens to participate either online or offline in defining the state’s yearly spending priorities. While the comparative study has a clear focus on the dimension of government responsiveness, the evaluations examine civic technology initiatives using five distinct dimensions, or lenses. The choice of these lenses is the result of an effort bringing together researchers and practitioners to develop an evaluation framework suitable to civic technology initiatives.

The book was a joint publication by The World Bank and Personal Democracy Press. You can download the book for free here.

Women create fewer online petitions than men — but they’re more successful

clinton

Another recent publication was a collaboration between Hollie R. Gilman, Jonathan Mellon, Fredrik Sjoberg and myself. By examining a dataset covering Change.org online petitions from 132 countries, we assess whether online petitions may help close the gap in participation and representation between women and men. Tony Saich, director of Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Innovation (publisher of the study), puts our research into context nicely:

The growing access to digital technologies has been considered by democratic scholars and practitioners as a unique opportunity to promote participatory governance. Yet, if the last two decades is the period in which connectivity has increased exponentially, it is also the moment in recent history that democratic growth has stalled and civic spaces have shrunk. While the full potential of “civic technologies” remains largely unfulfilled, understanding the extent to which they may further democratic goals is more pressing than ever. This is precisely the task undertaken in this original and methodologically innovative research. The authors examine online petitions which, albeit understudied, are one of the fastest growing types of political participation across the globe. Drawing from an impressive dataset of 3.9 million signers of online petitions from 132 countries, the authors assess the extent to which online participation replicates or changes the gaps commonly found in offline participation, not only with regards to who participates (and how), but also with regards to which petitions are more likely to be successful. The findings, at times counter-intuitive, provide several insights for democracy scholars and practitioners alike. The authors hope this research will contribute to the larger conversation on the need of citizen participation beyond electoral cycles, and the role that technology can play in addressing both new and persisting challenges to democratic inclusiveness.

But what do we find? Among other interesting things, we find that while women create fewer online petitions than men, they’re more successful at it! This article in the Washington Post summarizes some of our findings, and you can download the full study here.

Other studies that were recently published include:

The Effect of Bureaucratic Responsiveness on Citizen Participation (Public Administration Review)

Abstract:

What effect does bureaucratic responsiveness have on citizen participation? Since the 1940s, attitudinal measures of perceived efficacy have been used to explain participation. The authors develop a “calculus of participation” that incorporates objective efficacy—the extent to which an individual’s participation actually has an impact—and test the model against behavioral data from the online application Fix My Street (n = 399,364). A successful first experience using Fix My Street is associated with a 57 percent increase in the probability of an individual submitting a second report, and the experience of bureaucratic responsiveness to the first report submitted has predictive power over all future report submissions. The findings highlight the importance of responsiveness for fostering an active citizenry while demonstrating the value of incidentally collected data to examine participatory behavior at the individual level.

Does online voting change the outcome? Evidence from a multi-mode public policy referendum (Electoral Studies)

Abstract:

Do online and offline voters differ in terms of policy preferences? The growth of Internet voting in recent years has opened up new channels of participation. Whether or not political outcomes change as a consequence of new modes of voting is an open question. Here we analyze all the votes cast both offline (n = 5.7 million) and online (n = 1.3 million) and compare the actual vote choices in a public policy referendum, the world’s largest participatory budgeting process, in Rio Grande do Sul in June 2014. In addition to examining aggregate outcomes, we also conducted two surveys to better understand the demographic profiles of who chooses to vote online and offline. We find that policy preferences of online and offline voters are no different, even though our data suggest important demographic differences between offline and online voters.

We still plan to publish a few more studies this year, one looking at digitally-enabled get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts, and two others examining the effects of participatory governance on citizens’ willingness to pay taxes (including a fun experiment in 50 countries across all continents).

In the meantime, if you are interested in a quick summary of some of our recent research findings, this 30 minutes video of my keynote at the last TicTEC Conference in Florence should be helpful.

 

 


New Papers Published: FixMyStreet and the World’s Largest Participatory Budgeting

2016_7_5_anderson-lopes_consulta-popular_virtual

Voting in Rio Grande do Sul’s Participatory Budgeting  (picture by Anderson Lopes)

Here are two new published papers that my colleagues Jon Mellon, Fredrik Sjoberg and myself have been working on.

The first, The Effect of Bureaucratic Responsiveness on Citizen Participation, published in Public Administration Review, is – to our knowledge – the first study to quantitatively assess at the individual level the often-assumed effect of government responsiveness on citizen engagement. It also describes an example of how the data provided through digital platforms may be leveraged to better understand participatory behavior. This is the fruit of a research collaboration with MySociety, to whom we are extremely thankful.

Below is the abstract:

What effect does bureaucratic responsiveness have on citizen participation? Since the 1940s, attitudinal measures of perceived efficacy have been used to explain participation. The authors develop a “calculus of participation” that incorporates objective efficacy—the extent to which an individual’s participation actually has an impact—and test the model against behavioral data from the online application Fix My Street (n = 399,364). A successful first experience using Fix My Street is associated with a 57 percent increase in the probability of an individual submitting a second report, and the experience of bureaucratic responsiveness to the first report submitted has predictive power over all future report submissions. The findings highlight the importance of responsiveness for fostering an active citizenry while demonstrating the value of incidentally collected data to examine participatory behavior at the individual level.

An earlier, ungated version of the paper can be found here.

The second paper, Does Online Voting Change the Outcome? Evidence from a Multi-mode Public Policy Referendum, has just been published in Electoral Studies. In an earlier JITP paper (ungated here) looking at Rio Grande do Sul State’s Participatory Budgeting – the world’s largest – we show that, when compared to offline voting, online voting tends to attract participants who are younger, male, of higher income and educational attainment, and more frequent social media users. Yet, one question remained: does the inclusion of new participants in the process with a different profile change the outcomes of the process (i.e. which projects are selected)? Below is the abstract of the paper.

Do online and offline voters differ in terms of policy preferences? The growth of Internet voting in recent years has opened up new channels of participation. Whether or not political outcomes change as a consequence of new modes of voting is an open question. Here we analyze all the votes cast both offline (n = 5.7 million) and online (n = 1.3 million) and compare the actual vote choices in a public policy referendum, the world’s largest participatory budgeting process, in Rio Grande do Sul in June 2014. In addition to examining aggregate outcomes, we also conducted two surveys to better understand the demographic profiles of who chooses to vote online and offline. We find that policy preferences of online and offline voters are no different, even though our data suggest important demographic differences between offline and online voters.

The extent to which these findings are transferable to other PB processes that combine online and offline voting remains an empirical question. In the meantime, nonetheless, these findings suggest a more nuanced view of the potential effects of digital channels as a supplementary means of engagement in participatory processes. I hope to share an ungated version of the paper in the coming days.


Great Review of ‘Democracy and Leadership’

Dr. Tadd Ruetenik.Dr. Tadd Ruetenik of St. Ambrose University published a review of my 2013 book, Democracy and Leadership, in the second 2016 issue of The Pluralist. I subscribe to the journal, but since I moved last June, I have not yet received the issue. I still have some address information to update for a number of subscriptions and such, it seems. I was delighted to get my hands on the review through other means, therefore, when Tadd was kind enough to share a digital copy of it with me.

Image of Ruetenik's review of 'Democracy and Leadership.' The link opens a PDF version of the review.

Click on the image for a text-searchable Adobe PDF version of the review.

A good review explains a book’s main point and approach, showcases some strengths, and offers some points of potential disagreement. In many reviews, that formula is often undertaken in all too formulaic a way. Ruetenik’s review has a depth of thoughtfulness and a sharp discernment about differences in our points of view that is deeply refreshing. Plus, where he inclines in different directions, he nevertheless exhibits the philosopher’s humility in understanding why others incline in other ways. In the popular press in Mississippi, my more recent book was dismissed as excessive optimism by one older, jaded progressive and rejected as far too moderate and modest by a young, not yet jaded man on a mission. It was like the old economist’s joke. With your hair on fire and your feet in ice, on average, you’re quite comfortable.

Photo of MLK, Jr. I’m definitely an advocate for moderation and believe that, like MLK, one can be militant yet moderate. Ruetenik appears to disagree, but naturally, I think. The concepts certainly seem to be in conflict, on the surface anyway. A moderate person in an immoderate, unjust society, may be called radical, as King was. But when Aristotle referred to the mean between extremes, he did not mean a simple matter of the average of others’ extremes. The moderate is what is right, and one’s society can be far from the mean. Calling for justice courageously can seem immoderate, but, I believe, that one’s means for calling for change can demonstrate moderation while pushing heroically for change.

These remarks are initial thoughts I have about the great feedback I have received from Tadd. The best thing about Tadd’s review is that, unlike so much other feedback one can receive, his makes me want to return to the project. In fact, I’ve been meaning for years to write a paper about how I believe my theory of democratic leadership can help us to explain and theorize elements of King’s democratic leadership efforts, which I see as a confirmation of the value of my theory. Of course, there are important contributions at work in the Malcolm X’s out there, yet even he, when you look at what he said, often was far more reasonable and democratically respectful of people and inquiry than he was painted in his day. He accepted the label of extremism, but in his own way showed how moderate the values he represented were, such as in the values of liberty, self-respect, self-defense, and more.

I don’t want to get too far afield here today, but my excitement over thinking about this topic again is not something I commonly experience when I encounter a review of my work. It is a testament to Ruetenik’s probity, his sincere and interesting engagement with the ideas of the book, and his reasonable differences of opinion that inspire me to think and write more on the subject.

Benjamin Franklin.

Beloved deist, Benjamin Franklin.

To his speculation about public office, I’m with Plato in thinking that in general, one probably ought to feel called to leadership. You need the right environment and to believe genuinely that you are the person who might really have what the public needs. That takes a balance of circumstances related to the mandate-independence matter. Thus, you’ve got to be a part of a community in which you will represent people, not merely in terms of what the public calls for, but as someone whom you believe the relevant public would choose for his or her own values. That takes the alignment of quite a few stars. If one day the stars do align in such a way, then I might pursue service to my community outside the academy, beyond public writing and speaking. I don’t think it would be such a problem to learn from Kurtz, whom Tadd mentions. The many deists who contributed to the U.S. Constitution are lauded despite their divergences from some Americans’ beliefs. The important thing is whether or not a person seriously embraces the right values and has the wisdom, courage, and humility to listen and serve others in the deepest, most democratically respectful manner that he or she can.

All these are initial thoughts, hence posted here on my site only. Still, I can feel renewed energy for thinking about democratic leadership and am thus profoundly grateful to Tadd for his review and challenges in The Pluralist. If you all are interested in reading what he had to say, check it out here.

Better Late Than Never: Recent Review of my 2010 Book

Warning: This post is about a scholarly review of a pretty technical book.

Cover of 'Rawls, Dewey, and Constructivism.'The pace of academic work can sometimes seem tectonic. There’s a reason scholars tend to have a hard time appreciating what news editors mean by “timely.” For a philosopher, an argument about Plato that was published after the year 2000 is downright recent.

Keeping that in mind, I’m pleased to share with you the book review that has just been published of my first book, released in 2010, Rawls, Dewey, and Constructivism. It’s the first review of that book to come out in any of the major American philosophy journals, believe it or not. The book wasn’t ignored, I’m happy to say, having been reviewed very positively in 2011 in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. But, the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society is a top notch outlet for one of my deep philosophical interests, namely American philosophy.

Photo of the cover of the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society.

The best news about the review that has just come out is not any glowing language about my book. The tone of the review is very matter of fact and balanced. The fantastic thing is the quality of this review.

A good review has to tell you in some precise detail about the aims, structure, and substance of the book to be reviewed. It also should raise notes about both what were some strengths in the project and what could either be improved or extended in future work. In his review, Torjus Midtgarden of the University of Bergen has seriously inspired me in a highly unusual way. He’s made me want to return to the study of the subject of my dissertation.

View of a sunset through a rear view mirror.Most people finish their dissertations and don’t want to look back. Not only did I look back in the years after defending it, but I did the traditional thing some choose to do and developed elements of it further, ultimately putting the revised project out as a book. When you’ve gone through that step, you’re even less motivated to want to return to it. You’d think so, anyway.

Dr. Midtgarden was even handed, though generous in offering a thorough and precise understanding of the aims of my project. He also invited some thought and response about his comments on it that were pointed, but fair and intellectually provocative.

Thumbnail image of the review.How cool is that? I am grateful to Professor Midtgarden and plan to stew on his interesting comments and suggestions for some time. Here’s his review.

The Risks of Public Engagement, Part I

Dr. Shane RalstonI and others may well be guilty of romanticizing public philosophy. Fellow Dewey scholar and a prolific writer, Shane Ralston, has published a warning for people interested in engaging in public philosophy. In “On the Perils of Public Philosophy,” Ralston rightly recognizes both that there is a resurgence in the movement for publicly engaged philosophy and that too few call attention to its risks.

He explains that “Public philosophers are often criticized, bullied, harassed and even threatened and, unfortunately, some respond in kind when communicating their ideas in the public sphere.” He’s right. In Oxford, MS, while I was working at the University of Mississippi, I was thoroughly harassed by someone who made me feel ill. I won’t go into the details of it, but being publicly engaged has not been easy. People who disagree with you sometimes do so to a degree motivating enough to be threatening.

David - The Death of Socrates

I have reason to believe that this person sent two students to my office with a video camera for a “gotcha” kind of harassing interview. They were surprised when I sat them down to schedule a time to meet up formally. They didn’t show up for that.

Other people have written me with insults. One man, in a single email, called me a eunuch, a gelding, and effeminate. He clearly has strong feelings about gender and opinions. That sort of thing I can laugh off. The person who told me he was meeting with my Chancellor the next day was clearly trying to intimidate me. I was then an untenured assistant professor.

People will be mean. They will be unbelievably uncivil. One said that I should spend more time in the classroom than in the opinion pages.

Ralston is right that we don’t hear enough about the unpleasant side of public engagement.

So, why on Earth do we do it?

First of all, we should remember that it’s no surprise to be criticized or insulted for engaging with people about philosophical issues. Plato noted in his cave metaphor that the philosophers who have seen the light outside the cave have an obligation to go back down in there to help free the others. He did not think that they would welcome this liberation, he explained. If any philosopher “tried to loose another [prisoner in the cave] and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death… No question.”

Plato’s Socrates recognized that people will resist teachers and liberators. The folks in the cave are habituated to that setting. They believe that they have interests there. It’s unpleasant to be turned toward the light. People will be upset. Some might try to kill you.

I see that I have yet to make the case for public engagement. My point so far is that when we do it, we must do so with understanding of dangers. It’s like a battle medic. You head into dangerous territory to save people, not to injure anyone. Nevertheless, you can be targeted and hurt in the process. The part that makes it all the more difficult is that in Plato’s metaphor, it’s those whom you’re trying to save who resist and want you dead. Given that, why think we even have an obligation to them?

Here another line from the Republic is motivating for me. Plato’s Socrates says that the “greatest punishment for those unwilling to rule is to be led by those who are worse.”

Puppet master's hands and strings.If you’re unwilling to fight for the truth and for the liberation of people’s minds, you have chosen to be ruled by ignorance and whatever shadows on the wall the powerful puppet masters choose.

If we are going to mean what we do in love of wisdom, we must do so with our greatest hopes in mind. It isn’t that we should believe that they will be achieved. The point is that if we don’t try, we choose to be doomed to follow ignorance and injustice.

Now we have the greatest need I have witnessed in my lifetime to engage publicly in reasoned, vigorous debate about what is right. There will be risks to doing so. Socrates was killed. It is incredibly unlikely that philosophy professors today could face such risks, but it is not impossible. This is all the more reason why it is important to mean it when we say with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

You can follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook @EricThomasWeberAuthor.

Trump’s Blind Faith in Tax Cuts Won’t Work, Just Look at the Evidence

Piece originally published in The Herald Leader, October 13, 2016.

Thumbnail photo of my piece in the Herald Leader, titled, 'Trump's Blind Faith in Tax Cuts Won't Work, Just Look at the Evidence.' The link leads to the article on the Herald Leader's site.

After watching the first Presidential debate, I was struck by how little Donald Trump had to offer in terms of actual policy proposals. He suggested renegotiating trade deals, but that’s not something he can unilaterally do. I’m skeptical. The things government can do on its own, among his recommendations, included lowering taxes for the wealthy and for corporations. It’s his panacea. It’s also something that in many cases has already been shown not to work.

Of course, there can be too much. But for a man proud of paying no taxes, it’s all the more absurd to suggest that taxes are too high on him. Here’s my piece, covering what I take to be the four big mistakes in Donald Trump’s free market fundamentalism.

Trump Forfeited the Benefit of the Doubt

Yesterday, I was deeply troubled to hear that Trump referred to suicidal veterans with PTSD as people who “can’t handle it” (CNN). It sounded, read in the news, like another incredibly callous remark, like so many that he has made. When you watch the video of him saying the words, you see that he was trying to speak sympathetically to the difficulties that veterans face when they witness traumatic events. That fact leads some people to want to defend Trump from the unfair media, and from others’ allegedly unfair reactions.

Image of a soldier at the Arlington National Cemetary.

There’s certainly some merit to the idea of encouraging people to dig deeper. Folks need to understand two things, however. 1) His remarks displayed a disrespectful, troubling set of assumptions even if he meant to be sympathetic. 2) Trump once deserved the benefit of the doubt, but his words and actions forfeited it long ago. Procedurally, he’ll always have the benefit of the doubt in the courtroom, but you have to deserve it in the court of public opinion.

Trump calls people “losers” all the time (170 examples in the Washington Post), and himself “smart” for paying no taxes. He sees people’s misfortunes as demonstrations of their own failings. You can’t get a clearer example of this than in the language he used to describe veterans who commit suicide. “Handling it” is something you’re supposed to do when you have a problem. Even if he was trying to speak sympathetically, and I’m sure he was, he referred to PTSD in terms of an inability for veterans to handle their problems. Imagine saying that a deceased mother’s problem was that she couldn’t handle her cancer. If you hear how jarring that sounds, you can see what’s so troubling and ignorant in Trump’s remarks. PTSD isn’t a little bit of everyday work stress turned up several levels. It’s a serious matter of mental illness. It’s akin to cancer.

So, when reporters who felt that his language was troubling wrote that “Military suicides happen to service members who ‘can’t handle it’,” it rubbed a lot of people wrong. He has said so many things that have been deeply callous, troubling, and unacceptable for a Presidential candidate that folks encountering that reporting have cause to worry and be dismayed by this man’s careless statements.

For critical thinkers and readers, it’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt. When I first read the article, it sure sounded as though he was being as callous and judgmental as so many instances in the past. For public figures, we ought to dig deeper and try to make sure that our judgments are deserved. A figure can abuse that, however, and there’s no doubt that the public has heard so much troubling bigotry from Trump that we’ve become desensitized to it.

I want our judgments to be well informed and fair, but at least as important is the obligation of our officials to deserve the benefit of the doubt. Trump has forfeited that honor contemptuously. Three examples of hundreds make the matter plain for me:

  1. Because of Trump, we actually have had a Presidential candidate, during a Republican primary debate, mind you, refer to his penis size and satisfaction over the matter. Sadly, this is the least troubling of my three examples.
  2. Trump’s misogyny actually led him to refer to a Fox News reporter’s menstrual cycle, literally “blood,” when upset about difficult questions she raised for him. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes… Blood coming out of her wherever.”
  3. In reference to one of our most famous veterans who endured trauma, Senator McCain, Donald Trump actually dismissed the idea of him as a hero, saying that he prefers soldiers who weren’t captured.

This final example explains my lack of sympathy for those who believe Trump was interpreted unfairly. Maybe some commentator thought he meant to be hurtful, and probably that person was wrong. That doesn’t mean that Trump deserves the benefit of the doubt. He has so profoundly demeaned the role of the American Presidential candidate that he has forfeited sympathy over a few people’s snap judgments.

If evidence matters to you, here’s a New York Times list of 258 people, places, and things that Donald Trump has insulted, as of August 22nd.

Sure, I’ll always advocate for innocent til proven guilty in court. But in the public sphere and in the pursuit of the highest office in the United States of America, you’ve got to deserve the benefit of the doubt. It’s time for people who care about values to mean it.

Dr. Eric Thomas Weber is Executive Director of the Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA) and Visiting Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. He is representing only his own point of view. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.

March 2016 Interview on MS Flag

The Commercial Appeal, March 12, 2016

I now recall giving an interview that I had completely forgotten about. As I had written on the MS state flag, a reporter called me from The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN’s major newspaper. To those not from the region, Memphis is the closest big city for many folks living in northern Mississippi. In fact, lots of people live in DeSoto, MS, and commute across the state border to work in Memphis. So, lots of Memphis readers are Mississippians.

Photo of the piece from the Commercial Appeal.In the effort to change the MS state flag, one approach that arose came in the form of a lawsuit. Here’s the piece that draws on the interview I gave.

Still no change to the MS state flag. It bears an emblem of the Confederate Battle Flag in its canton, even though the state of Mississippi joined the Confederacy explicitly for the purpose of defending the institution of slavery. Go on, read it. Please.

Here’s the article in The Commercial Appeal about the lawsuit.

Self-Respect and a Sense of Positive Power [Essay]

Journal of Speculative Philosophy 30, Issue 1 (2016): 45-63.

My regular, public writing is starting up again, as we’re getting settled in. Over the course of a few busy months, some of my pieces have come out in academic outlets, like the essay I posted last week. Here’s a further piece published this year (2016) in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. It’s titled “Self-Respect and a Sense of Positive Power: On Protection, Self-Affirmation, and Harm in the Charge of ‘Acting White’.” Here’s a pic of it:

Photo of my essay, 'Self-Respect and a Sense of Positive Power.'

I seek permission to post my full articles on my Academia.edu page, and I either am given it or have at least given a good faith effort to get that permission. In this case, though, this copy of the paper is the only one I have with my final edits and it’s plastered with JSTOR info (online journal database) and policies stuff. Given that, I’m posting a link to the JSTOR page for my paper instead of to a scan on my Academia.edu profile. If you have academic library access to such stuff, you can probably open the paper or manage to get access to it here (the “static” page for the on JSTOR).

This essay is one of the steps in my overarching project on culture and justice. For now, I can share my abstract for the paper:

In the liberal tradition, self-respect is most often associated with Kantian moral philosophy, which suggests a focus on individual responsibility. While the individual plays a part in the development of his or her self-respect, so, too, do his or her environmental and cultural conditions. In this essay, I distinguish between conceptions of self-respect, especially those that focus on it as a duty to oneself, and having a “sense of one’s own positive power,” a Deweyan educational ideal. A sense of positive power is partly directed by the individual but is also clearly conditioned by the ways in which one’s culture treats and reacts to one’s efforts. Thus, a sense of positive power, as a concept, reveals the powerful role of one’s wider culture in frustrating or enabling a vital element of personal growth necessary for justice. I test the distinction with respect to the difficult and harmful charge of “acting white,” which concerns self-respect and the role of oppressive forces conditioning people’s senses of their power in an unjust society.

If I can figure out a way to share the full paper without violating relevant policies, I will. In general, scholars as editors want you to share your work. A journal is better known the more it’s read. I do understand that there’s a system to this, however, and I try to always seek permission to share my work as much as I can.

John Dewey, standing.

Despite this hurdle, I’m especially happy to have work come out in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. It’s a classic outlet in American philosophy. John Dewey published in it as early as 1882. Also, Charles Pierce published one of his classic pieces in the journal as early as 1868 (free to access, unlike my paper). A few of Dewey’s early papers there are available for free as well, such as this one on Kant that was very helpful for my dissertation.

If you can’t access this paper and want to know more about it, let me know that. At the very least, that’ll tell me that I should probably consider a newspaper piece on the subject. For now, I’m working on an op-ed on education and another on the Presidential election.

Reach out if you’re interested and follow or “like” my pages on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook.com/EricThomasWeberAuthor.