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?

NYT’s New Blog on Philosophy and the Philosopher’s Leisure of Time

Great news for philosophy and public life: the New York Times has a new online blog on philosophy, moderated by Simon Critchley of the New School for Social Research. The first edition just appeared, and in it Critchley looks to Plato’s Theaetetus to ask, “What is a philosopher?”  The interesting answer is that a philosopher is one who takes time to think about things whereas other busy professionals try to take as little time as possible to do any one thing, just rushing through so as to get as much done as possible, and in the process becoming all gnarled up.

Socrates says that those in the constant press of business, like lawyers, policy-makers, mortgage brokers and hedge fund managers, become ‘bent and stunted’ and they are compelled ‘to do crooked things.’ The pettifogger is undoubtedly successful, wealthy and extraordinarily honey-tongued, but, Socrates adds, ‘small in his soul and shrewd and a shyster.’ The philosopher, by contrast, is free by virtue of his or her otherworldliness, by their capacity to fall into wells and appear silly.”

I like the general distinction, but at the same time am aware of how the academic system robs even we supposedly otherwordly philosophers of the leisure of time. There is a constant pressure to rush through things to get things done.

I have a way of working that tries to thwart this pressure.  I have a very long “to do” list. Under the subheading of philosophy, are ten items. Two have to do with a book project, two are articles I need to finish writing, two are reviews of others’ books,  one is a book I’m reading out of my own philosophical interest, and the rest are about courses I’m preparing.  If I’m interested in checking something off, it’s a hell of a lot easier to move over to another part of the list and get my passport renewed than finish a book proposal.  Under that mindset, I will spend most of my time doing inconsequential and unsatisfying things. So instead, I strive to make sure I spend X amount of time on any one thing.  I aim to spend some fixed amount of time, even if it’s just 20 minutes, on any given project. When I sit down with that book or that paper, there’s a kind of leisure involved.  I’m not trying to hurriedly get this thing done.  I have the leisure of time, no matter that it’s a mere 20 minutes to read a bit of my current favorite book, Michael Naas’s Derrida From Now On.  For those 20 minutes, that’s all there is.  I’m not worried about finishing; I’m thinking about the sentence before me and I’ll pause to write a note to myself about how what he is saying intersects with something I’ve been working out on another project. For that bit of time, I am not in a rush. When the timer goes off (yes, I resort to such a thing), I may press it for another twenty minutes, and then again, and again, all afternoon long.

One doesn’t have to have a Ph.D. in philosophy to pursue one’s work this way, or so I would think.  (And I think this is part of what Critchley is suggesting.) Could other jobs be done this way?  Not in most jobs where the bottom line is the bottom line.  But the most productive and creative organizations seem to have something like this mentality built in, just like Google’s policy of having its employees work on something of personal interest for a certain amount of time per week.  Take the time; see what emerges.  Hmm, that might be gmail, or google books, or google earth, or something even more astounding.

Random Summer Thoughts

1. It’s odd that no one paid attention to the adjective “wise” in Sotomayor’s comment, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion.” If “wise” means anything, then all she said was a tautology.

2. It’s good that some companies are making a profit, but obscene that they’ll be handing out huge bonuses.

3. The Wall Street Journal increasingly looks like USA Today.

4. The steadiest ritual in my life, for more than 20 years, is morning with the New York Times and a cup of French roast coffee and this makes life very good indeed.  I don’t think it would be the same with an online version.

5. The social effects of Facebook have yet to be seen.

6. Twitter is the anti-Facebook.  Where Facebook is about creating a tight circle of friends, however big, Twitter is all about broadcast with a big disconnect between who one follows and who follows you.

7. It’s not as hot this summer as it was last summer, but then again I don’t live in Texas anymore.

8. Did California ever repeal Proposition 13?  Now would be a good time.

9. We want Sen. Franken to be funny, not boring.

10. And that’s the way it is, so far, in some measures, this summer of 2009.

11. Rest in peace, Walter Cronkite.

Politics of Attack

Today’s New York Times lead editorial echoes what I’ve been thinking about the ugly turn in the presidential campaign. I’m not going to try to say it better, so I’ll just quote the whole piece.  (I hope the lawyers don’t come after me.)

It is a sorry fact of American political life that campaigns get ugly, often in their final weeks. But Senator John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin have been running one of the most appalling campaigns we can remember.

They have gone far beyond the usual fare of quotes taken out of context and distortions of an opponent’s record — into the dark territory of race-baiting and xenophobia. Senator Barack Obama has taken some cheap shots at Mr. McCain, but there is no comparison.

Despite the occasional slip (referring to Mr. Obama’s “cronies” and calling him “that one”), Mr. McCain tried to take a higher road in Tuesday night’s presidential debate. It was hard to keep track of the number of times he referred to his audience as “my friends.” But apart from promising to buy up troubled mortgages as president, he offered no real answers for how he plans to solve the country’s deep economic crisis. He is unable or unwilling to admit that the Republican assault on regulation was to blame.

Ninety minutes of forced cordiality did not erase the dismal ugliness of his campaign in recent weeks, nor did it leave us with much hope that he would not just return to the same dismal ugliness on Wednesday.

Ms. Palin, in particular, revels in the attack. Her campaign rallies have become spectacles of anger and insult. “This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America,” Ms. Palin has taken to saying.

That line follows passages in Ms. Palin’s new stump speech in which she twists Mr. Obama’s ill-advised but fleeting and long-past association with William Ayers, founder of the Weather Underground and confessed bomber. By the time she’s done, she implies that Mr. Obama is right now a close friend of Mr. Ayers — and sympathetic to the violent overthrow of the government. The Democrat, she says, “sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.”

Her demagoguery has elicited some frightening, intolerable responses. A recent Washington Post report said at a rally in Florida this week a man yelled “kill him!” as Ms. Palin delivered that line and others shouted epithets at an African-American member of a TV crew.

Mr. McCain’s aides haven’t even tried to hide their cynical tactics, saying they were “going negative” in hopes of shifting attention away from the financial crisis — and by implication Mr. McCain’s stumbling response.

We certainly expected better from Mr. McCain, who once showed withering contempt for win-at-any-cost politics. He was driven out of the 2000 Republican primaries by this sort of smear, orchestrated by some of the same people who are now running his campaign.

And the tactic of guilt by association is perplexing, since Mr. McCain has his own list of political associates he would rather forget. We were disappointed to see the Obama campaign air an ad (held for just this occasion) reminding voters of Mr. McCain’s involvement in the Keating Five savings-and-loan debacle, for which he was reprimanded by the Senate. That episode at least bears on Mr. McCain’s claims to be the morally pure candidate and his argument that he alone is capable of doing away with greed, fraud and abuse.

In a way, we should not be surprised that Mr. McCain has stooped so low, since the debate showed once again that he has little else to talk about. He long ago abandoned his signature issues of immigration reform and global warming; his talk of “victory” in Iraq has little to offer a war-weary nation; and his Reagan-inspired ideology of starving government and shredding regulation lies in tatters on Wall Street.

But surely, Mr. McCain and his team can come up with a better answer to that problem than inciting more division, anger and hatred.