Saturday, April 28, 2007

Guns and lunatics

Only a lunatic could seriously believe that more guns in more homes is good for America’s children.

So concludes Thursday's Bob Herbert column in the Times. Two of my recent posts have separately discussed violence and children. Herbert forces our attention to their tragic, inevitable confluence in today's gun-addled America.

Herbert: Only motor vehicle accidents and cancer kill more children in the U.S. than firearms... Children in the states with the highest rates of gun ownership [are] 16 times as likely to die from an accidental gunshot wound, nearly seven times as likely to commit suicide with a gun, and more than three times as likely to be murdered with a firearm.

I'm sorry to report that more than a few of my students endorsed the lunatic position, and some even thought Newt Gingrich was onto something when he suggested giving concealed weapons to all the profs -- people like me. Way to go, NRA. The lunatics really are in charge now, aren't they?

There is no reason that any private citizen in a democracy should own a handgun. At some point, that simple truth will register. Until it does, phones will ring for dead children, and parents will be told not to ask why. (Adam Gopnik, New Yorker 4.30)

I'm asking.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


David Halberstam died yesterday in an automobile accident in California. He was a first-rate journalist and author, best known for The Best and the Brightest. My favorite Halberstam work is The Children, an account of the courageous college students who organized protests in Nashville and elsewhere in the heyday of the Civil Rights movement. I also like his baseball books, especially his account of the 1964 season that culminated in a Cards-Yanks World Series. I'm grateful for Halberstam's life and contribution,.

Halberstam's death seems an appropriate occasion to express my gratitude for another personal hero who left us too soon, Robert Solomon.

I'm on record as being generally unimpressed by the the academic/philosophical/Continental expression of Existentialism, much preferring literary versions like Walker Percy's and Richard Ford's. But I make an exception for Solomon, the University of Texas philosopher who collapsed and died in a Swiss airport in January.

Gratitude was one of Solomon's recurrent themes:
Gratitude, I want to suggest, is not only the best answer to the tragedies of life. It is the best approach to life itself. This is not to say, as I keep insisting, an excuse for quietism or resignation. It is no reason to see ourselves simply as passive recipients and not as active participants full of responsibilities. On the contrary, as Kant and Nietzsche among many others insisted, being born with talents and having opportunities imposes a heavy duty on us, to exercise those talents and make good use of those opportunities. It is also odd and unfortunate that we take the blessings of life for granted -- or insist that we deserve them -- but then take special offense at the bad things in life, as if we could not possibly deserve those. The proper recognition of tragedy and the tragic sense of life is not shaking one's fist at the gods or the universe "in scorn and defiance" but rather, as Kierkegaard writes in a religious context, "going down one one's knees" and giving thanks. Whether or not there is a God or there are gods to be thanked, however, seems not the issue to me. It is the importance and the significance of being thankful, to whomever or whatever, for life itself.
-Robert C. Solomon, "Spirituality for the Skeptic" (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Carlin Romano wrote last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
Above all, Solomon exuded appetite, endless appetite, for philosophy that matters, problems, in the Jamesian sense, that make a difference for real people.

Halberstam and Solomon, thankfully, left us a legacy of words and ideas by which we can continue to be instructed and inspired, and for which I am profoundly grateful.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Children and nature

I spoke to a class of Health & Recreation Management students the other evening. They share my alarm at the growing gap between children and nature, as kids increasingly mirror an attitude noted by Richard Louv (Last Child in the Woods, 2005) in a recent Orion Magazine essay: "I like to play indoors better 'cause that's where all the electrical outlets are."

Louv: Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience their neighborhoods and the natural world has changed radically. Even as children and teenagers become more aware of global threats to the environment, their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading... In a typical week, only 6 percent of children ages nine to thirteen play outside on their own... Even bike riding is down 31 percent since 1995. In San Diego 90 percent of inner-city kids do not know how to swim; 34 percent have never been to the beach. In suburban Fort Collins, Colorado, teachers shake their heads in dismay when they describe the many students who have never been to the mountains visible year-round on the western horizon.

We're raising unhealthy kids who don't consider themselves a part of the natural world. That's suicidal. Tempting as it is to blame video games et al, the responsibility for this state of affairs rests finally with the adults who don't take the time to play, swim, bike, hike etc. with their children; and with those who cancel recess in the misbegotten crusade to "leave no children behind."

Kurt Vonnegut wanted our newest humans to learn one rule: be kind. I'd add a second: be active.

It's the weekend, and it's spring: turn off your computer, confiscate the nintendos, "throw away your TV," go outside and play!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Violence in America

Today's post was supposed to just be an upbeat appreciation of Jackie Robinson, the barrier-breaking ballplayer who transcended sports and epitomized courage in the face of racist hostility and hatred. Sixty years (and two days) ago he stepped onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn in the Dodger uniform, and changed America. Defying threats of violence against himself and his family, he paved the way for integration not only in baseball but in American life generally. Martin Luther King, Jr. said the successes of the civil rights movement would not have been possible without Jackie Robinson. He was a splendid athlete, but far more importantly he was a man of resolute and fearless grace who made our country a better place.

But Jackie Robinson's America was murderously violent, and it still is. The massacre at Virginia Tech yesterday is just the latest illustration. Firearms proliferate here, along with the disturbed assailants who use them. It was especially shocking for those of us who live and work at similar large institutions of higher learning, but we can't really be surprised when such atrocities happen in America anymore.

"Life is not a spectator sport," Jackie Robinson said. It's time for us to decide, as a nation, that we're not any longer going to tolerate the level of violence we've become inured to. It's time to revoke the misconstrued personal "right to bear arms" once and for all. Guns do kill people. A truly civilized nation would impose sane restraints on their prevalence and accessibility.

We have to stop feeding the monster. One source of its sustenance is the culture of verbal brutality so much on exhibit in the popular music culture. A student played a snippet of rap music by a musician called "Nas" in class yesterday, contending that it exemplified an acute contemporary philosophical sensibility. But what it instead exemplified to me was an alarming level of insensitivity to violence and verbal aggression: a rap imploring "N--gers" to live intensely, in anticipation of an early and violent death. This is the insight and inspiration of a generation? It's appalling.

Why do so many young people now venerate vulgar thugs and punks and misogynists, while ignoring genuine heroes like Jack Roosevelt Robinson? How can we help them reclaim his legacy? This is a practical challenge for parents, educators, musicians, producers of popular entertainment, and everyone who cares about our future and would nurture the spirit of the children who must become its stewards.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


"With his curly hair askew, deep pouches under his eyes and rumpled clothes, he often looked like an out-of-work philosophy professor..." (New York Times, 4.12.07)

Just as I prefer literary existentialism to the philosophical kind, the passing this week of Kurt Vonnegut reminds me that my disdain for philosophic pessimism does not extend to the sensibility behind "Slaughterhouse Five," "Breakfasts of Champions," "Cat's Cradle," et al. Philosophically I could never endorse Vonnegut's disgusted remark that "evolution can go to hell" if we're its product; but I know what he was saying, and it makes me smile. So does his next observation in A Man Without a Country, which leavens contempt for Mark Twain's "damned human race" with the acknowledgement that on evolution's time-scale we did just get here. (See Carl Sagan's "cosmic calendar".) We can cut ourselves a little slack, and a little hope.

Verlyn Klinkenborg: "The time to read Vonnegut is just when you begin to suspect that the world is not what it appears to be... No one nourishes the skepticism of the young like Vonnegut. In his world, decency is likelier to be rooted in skepticism than it is in the ardor of faith." In mine too.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Rejecting evolution

Newsweek's latest appalling poll results indicate that "nearly half (48 percent) of the public rejects the scientific theory of evolution." --

Nine in 10 (91 percent) of American adults say they believe in God and almost as many (87 percent) say they identify with a specific religion. Christians far outnumber members of any other faith in the country, with 82 percent of the poll’s respondents identifying themselves as such. Another 5 percent say they follow a non-Christian faith, such as Judaism or Islam. Nearly half (48 percent) of the public rejects the scientific theory of evolution; one-third (34 percent) of college graduates say they accept the Biblical account of creation as fact. Seventy-three percent of Evangelical Protestants say they believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years; 39 percent of non-Evangelical Protestants and 41 percent of Catholics agree with that view.

Although one in ten (10 percent) of Americans identify themselves as having "no religion," only six percent said they don’t believe in a God at all. Just 3 percent of the public self-identifies as atheist, suggesting that the term may carry some stigma. Still, the poll suggests that the public’s tolerance of this small minority has increased in recent years.

Here's the good news, such as it is:

Nearly half (47 percent) of the respondents felt the country is more accepting of atheists today that it used to be and slightly more (49 percent) reported personally knowing an atheist. Those numbers are higher among respondents under 30 years old, 62 percent of whom report knowing an atheist (compared to just 43 percent of those 50 and older). Sixty-one percent of the under-30 cohort view society as more accepting of atheists (compared to 40 percent of the Americans 50 and older).

So younger respondents are marginally more "accepting." Too bad so few of them encountered even a little philosophy in the earliest stages of their religious indoctrination, so that they might go beyond acceptance and actually gain a little understanding. We must get serious about philosophizing with our children, about teaching them to think critically and fearlessly, if we're to hope for anything remotely resembling a thoughtful democratic citizenry in our future... if we're to hope for a future worth owning at all. More on this soon.

Saturday, April 7, 2007


Easter has always been one of my favorite holidays. "Resurrection" resonates symbolically for me, especially this time of year -- opening day, the darling buds of (April and) May, and all, are a genuine "return to life" that I try to mirror all through the year but feel most deeply only in the Spring.

Saying this sort of thing opens secularists like me to ridicule and resentment from mainstream religionists who think we're poaching on their territory, or blaspheming it. Garrison Keillor loves to poke fun at Unitarians in this regard, even though it doesn't seem to me that he's really an "average" Lutheran. But I side with John Dewey's Common Faith view: religious experience (call it "spirituality" if you prefer) is too widely shared and too important to cede to the supernaturalists. I felt yesterday (with Frank Bascombe): "Good Friday is a special day for me... as though a change were on its way..." Transformation and renewal are part of nature too.

And so I'll continue to celebrate the season of renewal tomorrow in a not-wholly-heathen spirit. "There's new grass on the field. Put me in, coach, I'm ready to play."

Happy Easter.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

"Friend Hegel"

In my bygone undergraduate years in the seventies I had a teacher who spoke familiarly of "friend Hegel," and my pals and I convened our little Friday afternoon beer-and-conviviality club under the banner of what we pretentiously called "The Hegel Society." (Maybe we meant to emulate the St. Louis Hegelians, I forget.) That was a club destined for dissolution, when one of our group attempted a demonstration of his free will by bashing himself with a mug of beer. In any case, I never really cottoned to Hegelian philosophy – especially after discovering William James’s send-up in "Some Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide." There James notes a parade of contradictory candidates for Hegelian reconciliation and rational synthesis, such as "God and devil, good and evil, life and death, I and thou, sober and drunk, matter and form, black and white, quantity and quality, shiver of ecstasy and shudder of horror, vomiting and swallowing, inspiration and expiration, fate and reason, great and small, extent and intent, joke and earnest, tragic and comic, and fifty other contrasts... "

Tongue deeply lodged in cheek, James then proceeds to report a series of his own "deep" musings allegedly recorded while under the influence of Hegel and laughing gas, including:

What's mistake but a kind of take?
What's nausea but a kind of -usea?
Sober, drunk, -unk, astonishment.
Everything can become the subject of criticism --
How criticise without something to criticise?
Agreement -- disagreement!!
Emotion -- motion!!!!
By God, how that hurts! By God, how it doesn't hurt!
Reconciliation of two extremes.
By George, nothing but othing!
That sounds like nonsense, but it is pure on sense!

(Michael Pollan undertakes a similar "experiment" in Botany of Desire, reading The Selfish Gene while smoking marijuana. His results were more enlightening.) But James finally tips his hand, venting a fiercely anti-Hegelian temperament:

the identification of contradictories, so far from being the self-developing process which Hegel supposes, is really a self-consuming process, passing from the less to the more abstract, and terminating either in a laugh at the ultimate nothingness, or in a mood of vertiginous amazement at a meaningless infinity.

And there my own negative appraisal of Hegel rested for a long time, until eventually I came across an essay a couple of years back fetchingly titled (in coincident echo of my old prof) "My New Friend Hegel," by Michael Prowse:

"To the degree that we are thinking beings, Hegel says, we have to consider ourselves as part of a larger whole and not as neatly individuated। He calls this mental whole Geist, or Spirit, and tries to work out the rules by which it develops through time... Hegel didn't regard Geist as something that stands apart from, or above, human individuals. He saw it rather as the forms of thought that are realised in human minds... What Hegel does better than most philosophers is explain how individuals are linked together and why it is important to commit oneself to the pursuit of the general or common good."

This gloss anticipates the criticisms of Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, two virulently anti-Hegelian pessimists whose philosophies were contemptuous of communitarian values and the public interest. Arthur Schopenhauer asserted the ubiquity of blind, striving, impersonal, purposeless Will. Soren Kierkegaard affirmed the propriety of "leaps of faith." The harm done in each case, I believe, is to reinforce the irrationalist impulses of modern life; and to extend to them an unearned respectability. We must not believe "because it is absurd"... and must not embrace despair until we’ve really given meliorism a fair shot. Accelerating Intelligence News