On Cardigans and Social Distancing

Sitting in front of a fire, wearing a cardigan sweater, in February 1977 President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation about the energy crisis that had punched the country in the gut. Clearly the White House’s thermostat must have been turned down. The fire crackled, making the living room warm and toasty. Carter spoke of national policies but also what citizens could do, uttering the words “conservation” and “sacrifice.” The message was clear: turn off unnecessary lights, turn down the thermostat, put on a goddamned sweater.

I remember clearly the contrast from the December before, when every house in my neighborhood was decked out in holiday lights, to the following December when there were no holiday lights to be seen. Everyone took to heart the message of conservation, and also perhaps the message that the annual rite of hauling out ladders to string the lights was no longer necessary. And ever since, the rite is no longer obligatory but voluntary. Now I marvel when I see a house strung out in lights.

I wonder what social distancing — what the mandate to work at home, what the elbow bump (that now is even too close) — will do to our social practices. I can teach class from my living room. Maybe I could teach it from across the world? Why risk running into a student or colleague in the hallway?

Jimmy Carter was absolutely correct about what we needed then and still need to do now about our energy habits. He discussed not just conservation but renewables and a comprehensive national policy.

Now in the face of a viral pandemic, it is absolutely right for us to stay as far away from each other as we can. But not forever, I hope. Not for long.

Conservation is key for energy policy or what we now think of as climate change policy. Social distancing is necessary to stave off the coronavirus. But these are ways of addressing symptoms, not getting at underlying and systemic processes. Addressing climate change means developing renewable sources of energy, just as Carter anticipated over forty years ago but which has yet to be carried through. In fact, under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has been busy rolling back Obama’s climate change measures.

Likewise, preventing pandemics requires robust public health policies. But instead of these, the United States’ health care system is geared to addressing individual’s needs (or at least those with decent health insurance) not the systems that allow for the proliferation of illness in the first place.

If we address the roots of these problems, maybe the future could hold holiday cheer and lots of hugs and kisses from all our friends.

Notes from Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy Conference

I am only now catching my breath — in between teaching and before I head off to my next conference — to stop and reflect on the Public Philosophy Network’s first conference.  Never mind the bias that I was a co-chair.  I just helped throw the party.  But the party glittered because of everyone who really helped create it.   It was fabulous, with participants ranging from graduate students doing amazing public philosophy work via youtube (e.g Cori Wong) and in poetry slams in NYC (Travis Holloway) to renowned philosophers working on climate change and poverty (Thomas Pogge and Henry Shue) as well as journalists E.J. Dionne and Hannah Rosen, political theorists Bill Galston and Mark Sagoff, Penn State’s Anita Allen, and more than a hundred other amazing people.

Here are some of my notes, which I also posted here.

We had roughly 150 people registered and, in the midst of the conference, reached a milestone of having 500 members in the network.

The most exciting thing about the conference was its participatory nature, with one full day of collaborative workshops followed by another day of interactive panel sessions.  On the workshop day, I attended Vance Rick’s and Mark Fisher’s workshop on social media and ethics.  It was lively, especially with lots of great provocations from participants about the need for both walls and bridges in cyberspace and how to maintain both at the same time.  In the afternoon I attended Chris Long and Cori Wong’s session on philosophy and the digital public.  This session was a little more formal, with both organizers giving short presentations.  Both were followed with great conversation.  And in the end we tried to create a social media product and learned a lot about the fruits of collaboration.

Altogether there were 15 workshops the first day, and I heard great reports all over.  The next morning I facilitated a plenary on the outcomes of that workshop and pushed my own pet concern to interrogate the meaning of “public philosophy.” We heard from people who took part in lots of workshops, including philosophy in the city; collaborative research; academics stand against poverty; and feminist bioethics.

The rest of that second full day was taken up with panels, which, at their best were highly participatory. I really enjoyed the session on “eating in public” put on by an interdisciplinary team at Michigan State University.  Actually, this was a presentation of a paper written by four authors.  Each took five minutes to explain his or her own aspect, then for the Q&A they turned the table and asked the audience questions.  At the end of the day I  attended a session organized by Elizabeth Minnich that asked wonderful big questions about what we have all learned from doing this kind of work.  The panelists started but then the question went all the way around the room.

In short, this conference modeled a new way of thinking about philosophy.  It was not at all an exercise in “applied philosophy.”  It was an exploration of engaged philosophy where we could all think about what is public in our work and what being public means for doing philosophy.

For others’ notes, go here here here and here

Idiosyncratic Articles of Faith and Tea Party Discourse

I am still finding this story from last week’s New York Times really disturbing.

JASPER, Ind. — At a candidate forum here last week, Representative Baron P. Hill, a threatened Democratic incumbent in a largely conservative southern Indiana district, was endeavoring to explain his unpopular vote for the House cap-and-trade energy bill.

It will create jobs in Indiana, reduce foreign oil imports and address global warming, Mr. Hill said at a debate with Todd Young, a novice Republican candidate who is supported by an array of Indiana Tea Party groups and is a climate change skeptic.

“Climate change is real, and man is causing it,” Mr. Hill said, echoing most climate scientists. “That is indisputable. And we have to do something about it.”

A rain of boos showered Mr. Hill, including a hearty growl from Norman Dennison, a 50-year-old electrician and founder of the Corydon Tea Party.

“It’s a flat-out lie,” Mr. Dennison said in an interview after the debate, adding that he had based his view on the preaching of Rush Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture. “I read my Bible,” Mr. Dennison said. “He made this earth for us to utilize.” read more

Thumping the Bible or even Rush Limbaugh (no matter how much we’d like to thump him) is no way to engage in public discourse and a really bad way to back up one’s views. Is there any dispute over that? In this public setting of a political debate—on matters of common interest—Mr. Dennison metaphorically reaches for his Bible, his idiosyncratically-read Bible (why “utilize” rather than “steward,” Genesis 1.28), to a text that is not recognized publicly as an authority.  But now we are in a vicious circle, for certainly Mr. Dennison wants us to recognize his idiosyncratic reading, his sacred (dare I say “private”) text, as a public adjudicator.

Nor was Mr. Dennison the least bit interested in civic discourse, not in either sense of the word “civic,” neither polite (he growled at the speaker) nor interested in helping to develop a shared sense of things.  It is his way or the highway, whereas civic discourse, in the political sense requires some civility in the manners sense. In all this, he certainly seems to be a good representative of the Tea Party. For a reflective kind of public opinion to emerge from any public, political conversation, participants need to present themselves as willing, at least in principle, to the possibility that they might learn something from each other, that the other might bring forward a new perspective on the matter.  I don’t see any signs of such comportment in this new “civic” movement today.

I am very disturbed.  Not just by Mr. Dennison but by an increasingly venomous public discourse in this country along with increasing hatred and discrimination against gays and Muslims. This is all worse now than it was a year ago, and it wasn’t good then. Certainly there is much that is objectively wrong in this country that might spur vitriol against political leaders who seem to have done relatively little about the economy (or pick any issue), but why is this manifesting itself as extreme bigotry?  In times of trouble, is it necessary to hold tight to one’s own idiosyncratic view of things, to “one’s own,” and denounce all things, orientations, faiths that call into question one’s own self-sovereignty?  Where is the strength in that?