Kettering Review 2016

The latest issue of the Kettering Review, a journal I co-edit for the Kettering Foundation, is now available for free online here. It includes pieces by Iris Marion Young, Daniel Yankelovich, E.J. Dionne, Vaclav Havel, and other luminaries.

To get a sense of the overall issue, here’s the start of my editor’s letter:

Over the past 60 years, the fortunes of democracy have been tumultuous. In the mid-20th century, dozens of countries in Asia and Africa won their independence from colonial rulers; but shortly thereafter the Cold War polarized the world for decades. Nixon’s 1972 trip to China pointed to an end of a 25-year estrangement between East and West, but it took another decade for this to move forward. In 1980, Polish workers in the Gdansk Shipyard formed the labor union Solidarity, which opened up the possibility that authoritarian goverments might meet their match in public dissent. Mikhail Gorbachev’s appointment as leader of the Soviet Union in 1985 led to Perestroika and Glasnost and the hope for some kind of global rapprochement. And one day in November 1989, a German bureaucrat haplessly announced the opening of a passage in the Berlin Wall from East to West, which within days led to the utter destruction of that edifice that had divided the world in two. Since then and continuing through today, ancient enmities have flared even as new democratic governments form and falter.

For the past 30 years, Kettering Review has chronicled many of these journeys. Just as Carol Vollet’s painting, Approach Blue, which we are delighted to feature on this issue’s cover, points toward a bright spot in the midst of tumult, we have tried to identify those elements that are so central to democratic self-governance. Over the years we have taken as our point of departure the question, “what does it take for democracy to work?”—not just here in the United States but throughout the world. As a “Review” we have published pieces old and new, taking liberty to bring the words of Aristotle, Dewey, and Arendt to these pages, just as we have published new pieces by many of democracy’s living philosophers and practitioners. We were publishing during the last years of the Cold War when many thought that if only communism would end then democracy would prevail. But in the past 25 years we’ve found that democracy raises more questions than it answers: Who are the people? How do they organize themselves as a public? What kind of power and knowledge can they have?

Click right here to go to the pdf.

Humanity & the Refugee: Another Stab at Universal Human Rights

I had the great pleasure of giving a keynote address today to the North American Society for Social Philosophy. Here’s how it starts and a few excerpts….

“The minimal definition of humanity, the zero degree of humanity, to borrow and expression from Barthes, is precisely hospitality.”  —Julia Kristeva


Writing in his curious little book of 1967, The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan noted that with the new invention of the television we were thrown into a world of radical new responsibility for each other. The television had turned the world into a global village. All those other people I could previously ignore? Now I turn on the television and they are in my living room. “Our new environment compels commitment and participation,” McLuhan writes. “We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other” (McLuhan and Fiore, 24). Nearly fifty years later, as refugees pile up at borders of nations that are becoming increasingly xenophobic and nationalist, this technological determinism seems hardly warranted. For all our new media, millions of people around the world are bereft.

Statistics on the Refugee Crisis

According to the United Nations High Committee for Refugees ( , the world over,

  • 5 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, that is, one in every 122 people in the world
  • Of these 59.5 million people, 38 million have been displaced within their own country and the rest are refugees or seeking asylum abroad
  • 5 million people are registered refugees, 51% of whom are under 18
  • every day 42,500 people are forced to flee their homes due to conflict or persecution, and
  • Additionally, according to the UNHCR, 10 million people are stateless, meaning, they have been “denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement”
  • During 2014, only 126,800 refugees were able to safely return to their country of origin. This was the lowest number since 1983.
  • 3 million people live in what the UNHCR deems a protracted situation, that is, a situation in which 25,000 or more refugees of the same nationality have been in exile in the same country for at least five years trying to get asylum.

On average, a refugee will spend 17 years as such, possibly spending as many as 25 years there.


In this paper I take up the questions of (1) how the refugee crisis exhibits the fault lines in what is an otherwise robust human rights regime and (2) what kinds of ways of seeing and thinking might better attune us to solving these problems. There is surprising agreement internationally the content of human rights, though, as I’ll discuss, there is a huge gulf between international agreements on human rights and their actual protection. The subtitle of my talk, “another stab at universal rights” has a double entendre: In the midst of a crisis that is stabbing international agreements on human rights to its core, I will take a stab at using the crisis situation to point a way forward toward a cosmopolitan social imaginary that uses human imagination, not just as an ability to represent in one’s mind what one has seen elsewhere, but also as an ability to imagine something radically new, something entirely different from what already exists, like the end of racism or democracy throughout the Middle East. Not too long ago, envisioning marriage equality called for such an imaginary.[1] Imagination is indeed powerful, perhaps even more than our technologies.

A cosmopolitan social imaginary is not a new thing, but the shape it takes now is new. In ancient times it took the form of identification with human beings as such; in early Christianity cosmopolitanism meant an understanding of all people being God’s creatures; and in modernity it was a matter of all having the same kind of rational nature. These were various views of how, despite ethnic and national differences, no matter how foreign someone else seemed, there was something that connected us all. Today’s cosmopolitanism, I venture, grows out of a political imaginary of a global world, inaugurated in part with the television and with that first photo of the earth taken from space in 1968 and published on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue, which profoundly shaped popular consciousness, literally showing the world without borders.[2]

But this image is not enough, nor are all the screens in our world. A cosmopolitan imaginary is in part an effect of ways of seeing, not just what we see but how we see it, what our vantage point is (vertical? horizontal?) and how we see ourselves relating to what we see.[3] ….

Refugees, stateless and exiled, interned in camps, living in states of extremity, waiting for months and even years to be taken in by a host country, are denied their own humanity. And this is not only or mainly because of deplorable living conditions, however dreadful, but because they are boing denied their right to politics.[1]

Even if and when they are taken in, more is to be done. So long as they are treated as foreigners and not as members, I argue, they are denied their humanity. To live in a society without full membership in that society, including the political capacity to shape it, means being alienated from others and from one’s own humanity.

This is not just a problem for the refugee but for anyone with second-class status in a country, including those who hold green cards in the United States as well as ex-felons who are denied the right to vote. Living in a society that does not allow them equal standing to shape that society’s direction is flatly undemocratic and inhumane. [Insert discussion of the figure of the migrant; refer to the argument in the book of this name and point out that the migrant is a figure much broader than the refugee, something much more widespread, and for whom the right to politics is increasingly endangered.]

This way of putting the matter only deepens the Arendtian paradox. Qua refugee, a living being has no humanity and no political opportunity. To the extent that human rights are rights that humans can have, the refugee is not the kind of subject we can fathom as having any rights at all — unless, that is, we see the performative and relational dimensions of humanity. Unless we performatively recognize and treat the refugee as human with full political rights, we are all stripped of our own humanity.

A fundamental human right that is insufficiently enshrined in international law is, as I will explain shortly, the right to politics, a right that under neoliberalism is under attack even for full-fledged citizens of democratic nation-states, but is completely denied to refugees, those in asylum, and even those with full resident status.

On the Meaning of Humane

I would like to attempt to solve the Arendtian paradox by focusing on the meaning of “human” in both the phrase “universal human rights” and in the history of philosophy. While the term human has been used horribly, often to exclude those rendered less than human, there is in the word a germ of possibility, especially if we think of human as an achievement, a kind of activity and disposition, and not as a being with given attributes. That is, human is not a category of beings but a way of being. The distinction is similar to Heidegger’s distinction between ontic and ontological. I am not interested in the ontic understanding of the human being but of an ontological understanding of what it means to be human.

The word “humane” helps; for in it we can hear its relational and dispositional meaning in three ways. First, one is not humane by oneself but always in relation to some other creature. One might be humane one moment and inhumane the next. It is not a static category or anything remotely like an essential attribute. I want to argue that being human is like that. If we find out that someone we know takes pleasure in torturing puppy dogs, our estimation of that person will certainly change: from human to monster. Our humanity is an achievement that can be sundered by our failure to act humanely.

Second, we treat others humanely when we think that they have some kind of dignity, even if it’s the dignity of a pet gerbil. We treat some creature humanely when we realize that it is not just a thing for our own pleasure but a creature that should in some way, however meager, live for itself. So our own humanity is relational, dependent on extending humanity to others.

So, third, intrinsic to the idea of what is humane is the Kantian notion that others are ends in themselves and for themselves and that they should decide their own ends.

Behaving humanely toward another is a way of acknowledging the dignity of the object of our attentions; but more so it speaks volumes about our own humanity. We think of those who treat other creature inhumanely as less than human themselves. The sociopath is a strangely inhuman creature, lacking the ethical sensibility that seems so central to others. So I venture to say that to be human is to acknowledge the humanity of others. And to be in a world in which all are acting humanely is to be given the special gift to be an end for oneself and to decide one’s own ends. (I think this is what Kant meant by a kingdom of ends.) Political communities that acknowledge all its members their rights of collective self-determination humanely treat people as human. Political communities that deny any of its members the prerogative of self-determination are forgoing the humanity of some of their members as well as their own humanity.

[1] Footnote essays by Albena Azmanova.

… to be continued in a future book….

Brexit’s Cautionary Tale for Democracy

I’m one of those democratic theorists who believes there are no right answers. By that I mean that there are no timeless truths that the will of the people will either grok or not. There is no epistemic gauge of whether people get it right or not. Contra Plato’s reactionary stance against democracy, I think that—under the right circumstances—people can measure and decide what ought to be done on a case by case basis. In other words, what is right is not something separate from public judgment but something that emerges from it.

But under the right circumstance—and by this I have long meant in an open and fair and inclusive process with opportunity to deliberate and consider multiple points of view. The more such conditions are in place, the better I think the outcomes are. And by “better” I mean what works best for all involved, and I mean all, not just the majority.

But with the news that 52% of the British people voted to exit the European Union, I can’t help but think they got this massively wrong. Do I think they got it wrong because their answer was wrong? According to what I said, that would be nonsense. Did they get it wrong because the opportunities for full and open deliberation were truncated? Now, there’s the rub. I don’t think so. Surely the discussion in the British media was open and robust. Surely all had an opportunity to offer their views, if not in mainstream media then surely in social media.

But I still want to say they got it wrong—simply because the results are catastrophic for Britain’s own welfare and because of the xenophobic and reactionary politics it has confirmed. So am I a Platonist after all?

I hope not!

Perhaps more needs to be added to “under the right circumstances” than the Habermasian litany of an ideal speech situation. There is also the need to deal with unconscious fears, paranoid projections, and infantile regressions that increasingly multicultural and globalized phenomena elicit. It’s no coincidence that this Brexit came on the heels of the refugee and debt crises emanating from the South. While the EU’s response to these has hardly been ideal, in fact it has been awful, but it has at least been a response rather than a complete shut down and reversal of any responsibility. Clearly the British people in the non-urban, non-Scottish, non-Northern Ireland, parts of Great Britain think even this response was too much.

So they vote to leave, complete with fantasies that now they will be stronger, that they will determine their own future, and they can take back their country from all these marauders.

What if, before the vote, there had been a way to address straight on these fears and fantasies? Imagine a series of deliberative forums for the last six months throughout the country on these issues where citizens would have to squarely face other people’s perspectives and the likely consequences of their own views. When a country is on the verge of making such a major and largely unalterable decision, that whole country should engage in some serious deliberation about its idealizations and fantasies—and the ramifications of its choices. Now they’ll have to deal with this all in real time.


A Guest Blog for the Leiter Report

This morning I found, to my surprise, that Brian Leiter had invited me to write a guest blog for him on “Tips for Writing Your own Wikipedia Entry.” I love a good joke, even an  April Fool’s one like this.  But now the joke is on him — because if anyone has expertise on writing one’s entry, it’s him.

I’ll get to that; but first, let me address the nasty insinuation that I wrote the Wikipedia entry on Noëlle McAfee. Now all one needs to do to see if this is so is to go to the history tab of the entry and see who created it.  If you do so, you’ll find that someone named Kevin Gorman wrote the entry:

This and the following eight entries are by Kevin Gorman, who I’ve since discovered is a high-level Wikipedia editor in California. The day after the entry was created, there were several minor edits by a chrisclaire88, a pseudonym for an editor who has started pages on other women philosophers.  For the sake of argument, what if I am chrisclaire88?  If that is the case, then that would have been in bad form and readers might wonder if the entry is biased. To check, readers could go through the boring changes that chrisclaire88 made and decide for themselves. If chrisclaire88 were indeed my pseudonym and I had used it to guard the entry, reversed things that made me look bad, and been an all around nasty and vile person, there would be cause for concern.  But chrisclaire88 was instead a tedious editor making trivial changes. And she seems to have moved on to other ventures.

Before turning to the edits that Brian Leiter made to the Wikipedia entry on him — and there are many! — let me offer my tips.

Tip number 1: Don’t write an entry on yourself.

Tip number 2: Don’t edit an entry on yourself.

Tip number 3: If you want to edit an entry anywhere on Wikipedia, start an account so you are accountable, otherwise you’ll be identified by your IP address.

Tip number 4: Don’t guard the entry on yourself and remove things that make you look bad.

Tip number 5: Be aware that an entry on you is not your entry. It belongs to the wikiuniverse. There are guidelines on entries on living persons. Follow those. If you think someone else has violated them, report the matter to wikipedia.

Tip number 6: Don’t accuse anyone who has edited the entry on you in a way you don’t like as “vandalizing” the entry. That just makes you look like an idiot for (1) thinking the entry is “your” entry and (2) being so clueless about how wikis work.

In keeping with those tips as well as the guidelines on entries on living persons, the most egregious thing to do is guard your own entry and remove things that make you look bad. Let’s say someone else finds that a reference in the entry has been removed, say to an old Boston Globe article that said, basically, you’re a schmuck, and then this person puts it back in the entry. Don’t remove it. Again, this is not your promo piece; the entry should be well-sourced and balanced. And, yes, the Boston Globe counts as a good source.

For example, from IP addresses that Brian Leiter has used (click on the “diff” button to see a comparison of the previous entry and the subsequent edit made by this IP address):

Here are other changes that were made to the entry on Brian Leiter from IP addresses that Brian Leiter has used to comment on my blog,

I also believe that Brian Leiter has used IP address while he was still in Texas. Here are the results I get for this one: on Brian Leiter (4.71% of the total edits made to the page)

Next 500 results →

There is nothing safe about democracy

Recently my university has gotten caught up in a brouhaha about a supposed chalk controversy, with many Latino and Muslim students taken aback by “Trump 16” chalkings across campus and, supposedly, the university caving in to their fear and terror over political sloganeering. The dichotomy being portrayed is democracy versus “safe spaces.”

There is some truth to students wanting Emory to be a Trump-free zone, given that Trump regularly demonizes and literally wants to extrude many of those living here, which would include a significant portion of our student body.  Who wouldn’t be a bit terrorized by that? And, yes, these students did march to the president’s office requesting some response from the university to address their concerns about the climate and policies on campus. Yes.

And, yes, the president did respond to their concerns in an email to the whole Emory community,

As an academic community, we must value and encourage the expression of ideas, vigorous debate, speech, dissent, and protest. At the same time, our commitment to respect, civility, and inclusion calls us to provide a safe environment that inspires and supports courageous inquiry. It is important that we recognize, listen to, and honor the concerns of these students, as well as faculty and staff who may feel similarly.

Many in the press are claiming that the Emory administration is caving into “coddled” students demands, but I don’t see a trade-off between free speech and creating a good culture for open inquiry. Students are free to express their concerns. The university is free to help foster open inquiry.

But the aim for a “safe” environment is misbegotten. There is nothing safe about democracy. In fact, as we’re finding now in these days of Trump, democracy can be horrifying: what if the mass of people make a disastrous and unjust choice? Yes, that’s always a possibility.  At least we’ve got a bill of rights, however weak, to do some protection against demagogues.

But the search for safety runs right up against and contradicts the search for rule by the people. Democracy always teeters on the unknown and it can never tether itself to the certain and true, for these words are meaningless when “what is to be done” is “whatever the people decide.” Yes, this is frightening. No safe space will help. Instead we all need to be more courageous and step up, even if in the short run that means aiming a waterhose at the Trump chalkings, and the next day holding a rally about why you did so.

“Let’s Make America Great Again”: Trump’s Paranoid-Schizoid Politics

The cry that Donald Trump repeats at every rally — “Let’s Make American Great Again” — taps into a dual wager: (1) that those who imagine themselves as the dominant and quintessential “American” people need not mourn the loss of their presumed dominance at home and abroad and (2) that those who are undermining the old status quo can be undone, thrown out, excised from the body politic, making possible an ideal and perfect state. Those who will not mourn their losses nor tarry with indeterminacy, uncertainty, and democracy demand a politics of black and white and good and evil; and they presume that those who oppose them are the enemies of all things perfect and true.

This wager has been going on for decades if not millennia and is likely a large part of what made Reaganism and neoliberalism possible. All the ostensible reasons for taking down the welfare state had subterranean motives of demonizing the poor, the dark, the queer. Even the most belligerent and conservative politicians cloaked their ulterior motives with reasons, however illogical, e.g. Reagan’s mantra that a rising tide lifts all boats. (It didn’t take a Ph.D. to point out that if one didn’t have a boat, one was sunk.) But they did at least pretend to trade in reasons. And people who shared their ulterior views could vote for them and support their policies as reasonable affairs. We all said we dreamt of freedom and equality for all, even if we had different ideas about how this could be achieved.

But now there is Trump, who dispenses with all the niceties and gets to the truth — or what many imagine to be the truth — who says out loud what was never said on a national stage in the modern era, even by people who believed it. Here are few samples from recent rallies:

“Are you from Mexico? Are you from Mexico? Are you from Mexico?”

“Get out of here, get out of here. Get out.”

“We’ve become weak; we’ve become weak.”

“Our country has to toughen up folks. These people are bringing us down. … These people are so bad for our country, you have no idea. They contribute nothing, nothing.”

“Get him out. Go home to mommy. Go home and get a job. I tell you these are not good people, folks ….These are not the people that made our country great. But we’re going to make it great again… These are the people that are destroying our country. Get him out.”

The Trump phenomenon taps into a deeper political problem, not in just the U.S. but in multi-cultural polities throughout the world: a lack of public and shared means for working through ambiguity and loss, for coming to understand the strangers in our midst, that is, for moving from a paranoid-schizoid politics to what we might call a Kleinian depressive position. Psychoanalytic theory, including Freud’s tantalizing but undeveloped concept of working through, offers a doorway out of this mess. The iconic scene is the analytic space: patient on the couch, analyst behind, and the analytic third to their dyad where Manichaean divides can transform into shades of grey; where projected demons can be taken back and metabolized; where the adolescent selves we all are at one time or another might grow up and realize the world is not made of saints and sinners but of complex and imperfect people; and most importantly that there are no perfect solutions that will solve all our troubles.

The task now is how to take this micro-politics to a macro level, how to move to a politics of mourning and working though. How to see people different from us not as threats but opportunities to open up new worlds and possibilities.

Trump slams shut any such door. Maybe he needs to get himself out of here — or at least get off the stage.

Politics & the Work of Mourning

Here’s something I’m working on….

There are many languages of reason, but perhaps the most powerful and insidious one is the unconscious logic that emerges during political, ethnic, and religious conflict. What may at first seem madness, is, if looked at with the right lens, a very cool calculus of justice aimed at righting past wrongs — no matter how out of scale the “solution.” The unconscious is not mad. It keeps careful tally. It never forgets insults, injuries, traumas, or wrongs. It waits for its moment to set matters straight. And the unconscious of a people traumatized and bereft will bide its time for centuries, if need be, waiting for an opportunity to set matters right. Consider what lay behind the shot that set off World War I: six hundred years of grievance and political melancholia. Psychoanalytic hermeneutics can help make sense of the effects of political traumas. Might it also help people work through them? With his all-too-vague notion of “working through,” which shows up in dream work and the work of mourning, Freud thought he found an antidote to traumatic remembering and repetition, a process that could calm and bind the psychical excitations that trouble the organism. Considering a political body of restless people haunted by past traumas and injustice, what kind of Arbeit can help political communities deal with buried traumas and insults before they explode in vengeance? Without some kind of work, politics becomes an enactment of fantasied, unrealistic expectations; demonic projections; and persecutory anxieties. In this paper I draw on and move beyond Freud’s model toward a post-Kleinian one that can be tethered to the political process of public deliberation. In my account, political deliberation is not just a process of reason giving and consideration, which many political philosophers think it is, but an affective process that helps people work through fantasies of denial, splitting. and revenge and toward a position that can tolerate loss, ambiguity, and uncertainty, that is, the human condition.