Almost too true, but still funny. (At least they're in the same room.)
Sunday, May 31, 2009
Friday, May 29, 2009
A conscientious young liberal of my acquaintance, a "rising 9th-grader," told me yesterday that he makes a point of listening periodically to local talk radio troglodyte Phil Valentine. Exposing himself to narrow and intolerant thinking (if you want to call it that) will better inform his own burgeoning progressivism and balance his own perspective, he supposes.
According to Jonathan Haidt (as related by Nicholas Kristof), that's a well-intentioned but unpromising strategy. Listening to Limbaugh and other shouting ideologues, on whichever end of the spectrum, does not create sympathy for their views in those not predisposed to sympathize.
A study by Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania found that when people saw tight television shots of blowhards with whom they disagreed, they felt that the other side was even less legitimate than before... we often form judgments through flash intuitions that aren’t a result of a deliberative process. The crucial part of the brain for these judgments is the medial prefrontal cortex, which has more to do with moralizing than with rationality...
So what should my young friend do to expand his openness to those with a different point of view? Don't tune in to the loudmouths. Take a quiet conservative to lunch.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
We got no class, And we got no princip(les)/(als)...
No more pencils, No more books, No more teacher's dirty looks
Out for summer, Out 'til fall, We might not come back at all... Alice Cooper
Oh sure they will. But May is nearly over, which means that my May experiment of posting to blogs old and new every day, come what may, is probably out for summer too. Teachers' dirty looks don't compare to kids' when they want a ride to the pool (etc.) ,- and anyway I've got my priorities straight. Like Calvin and Hobbes, we're about to rediscover just how busy summer can be. But May sure has been fun this year.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
I never imagined, back in the '70s, that someday I'd feel warm & fuzzy about the good ol' days of the original-cast Saturday Night Live, but Tom Davis' memoir has me in a sentimental mood.
I also never imagined that the other half of his comedy duo, fellow Minnesotan Al Franken, would someday be seated by the United States Senate. Even after Jesse Ventura was governor, I wouldn't have imagined it. I'd happily be a Minnesotan, but for the climate and the mental geography (speaking as a transplanted midwesterner myself) and the indoor baseball.
But that reminds me of a childhood episode...
In 1969 I became very ill while on family vacation in the Twin Cities and had to be hospitalized there. Discovering my baseball obsession, some wonderful forgotten staffer went to the trouble of getting the Twins to send over a personalized, autographed 8x10 of one of their players at the time - a pretty good (Garrison Keillor might say) outfielder named Bob Allison. Great healing medicine - like laughter.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
The sequel "Battle of the Smithsonian" is not great cinema, but it was not a bad family activity during the rainy half of Memorial Day. Amelia Earhart and the Space Monkey were the scene-stealers this time. And, a nice cameo by Oscar the Grouch, who isn't really bad. Rodin's Thinker was an idiot, as was General Custer. But he had a good line: We're Americans. We don't plan. We do. Actually, some of us thinkers do spend holidays making plans. Eh, colleagues? That post urging all to "take a holiday" was for you, too.
With creative hands they reach towards the future, and everything that is or has existed becomes their means, their tool, their hammer, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil in 1886, presaging Twilight of the Idols, or How to Philosophize with a Hammer two years later.
Here for once to ask questions with a hammer and, perhaps, to hear in response that famous hollow sound which speaks of swollen innards — what a delight...
I have a good friend who philosophizes with hammers and other tools, and loves dogs, and is a lot more fun than old Fritz...
Monday, May 25, 2009
"I fully believe in the legitimacy of taking moral holidays."
"Well it's only up to you, no one else can tell you to
Go out and have some fun... And take a Holiday.
You need a Holiday..." -Jimmy Buffett
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Just in case anyone besides me tuned into WMOT-FM at 7 am this morning, expecting to hear a scintillating interview with a philosophy professor talking about happiness: are you crazy? But it's been bumped to June 21. (My interview, that is, not the station...yet. They too have been targeted by the budget-loppers.) So you still have plenty of time to subscribe to the program ("MTSU On the record") on iTunes. Gina Logue asked excellent questions and had obviously done her homework, so any infelicities of expression or inanities of utterance are strictly the responsibility of Your Philosopher.
In the Beginning, Man Created God.
Taking a cue from English precedent, the campaign for open discussion of religion and philosophy has actually arrived in America."The intent of the campaign is to stimulate discussion of religion and its place in our society...the ads aren’t an attack on religious people but an affirmation of a different point of view."
Atheists have long tolerated the charge of being too "negative." They do need to be more affirming about what they're for.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Friday, May 22, 2009
It is more fun being a contrarian, an iconoclast, and a free-thinker. But I seriously doubt it's more fun being a Republican.
I went to a party the other day and heard the word "torture" and said that I didn't think we should prosecute the Bush lawyers who wrote those torture memos, and people jumped all over me like I was an escaped Nazi, so as long as I was persona non grata, I said some more stuff — that America would be a better country if we took the vote away from people over 65 because they are selfish and greedy and the future of America is its young. People about dropped their drinks. And then I said that cat ownership is a sign of emotional immaturity and a good predictor of a tendency toward violent crime. I saw lifelong friends turn away in disgust. And you know something? I Don't Care. It felt good. Garrison Keillor
As for the catty comment: sorry, Zeus... and family. But I stand with my dogs.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
The President of my school, the largest public institution of higher learning in my state, has released his tensely-awaited, now roundly-deplored report. It betrays no recognition of the value of philosophy:
The recommendation for the elimination of the Department of Philosophy will be supported if a viable plan for significantly increasing the number of majors has not been approved by the Interim Provost and President by September 30, 2009. Should we not approve a plan for this area, the Interim Provost, in consultation with the deans, academic personnel and representatives from the Faculty Senate, will develop a plan to phase out the major over a three- to four-year period. Should a decision be made to eliminate the Department of Philosophy, the Interim Provost, in consultation with the appropriate deans, academic personnel and Faculty Senate representatives, will explore the various options for merging the Department with the most appropriate and compatible existing academic department at the University.
We're not slackers in my department, the numbers show that we more than pull our weight for the university. The distinguished philosopher John J. McDermott called us one of the best small departments of philosophy in the nation.
The president has not explained how our elimination (or "merger") will contribute materially and significantly to redressing the university's present budget shortfall.So: how do we generate more philosophy majors? Suggestions welcome.
Annie Dillard was a wise twenty-something in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Answering a curious London cabbie:
Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him, "Well, Lord Russell, what's it all about," and, do you know, he couldn't tell me... I know what it's all about, and I wish I didn't. The parents die, the next generation lives, ad majorem gloriam, and so it goes.
And so it goes.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
The softball season ended last night, the girls played with lots of spirit and lost by considerably less than 30 runs. The rally fell just a bit short, but a great time was had by kids, parents, and coaches too I hope (ours were better than Sally Forth's). Lots of moral victories all around, all season. Didn't see anyone sobbing - which has not always been the case, in our experience with organized youth sports leagues. Our coaches remembered that it's not about them, and that it is only a game. Can't wait 'til next year!
Verlyn Klinkenborg seems to have struck a hidden nerve with his Times piece on reading aloud: it was one of the week-end's most emailed articles.
He doesn't just mean listening to audio books and podcasts and other spoken-word transmissions, which I do a lot of while commuting to school and locomoting wherever. He's all for that, as a general boon to literacy and multiplier of ever-scarcer "reading" time.
But listening aloud, valuable as it is, isn’t the same as reading aloud. Both require a great deal of attention. Both are good ways to learn something important about the rhythms of language...
Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body, which is why there is always a curious tenderness, almost an erotic quality, in those 18th- and 19th-century literary scenes where a book is being read aloud in mixed company. The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading.
I don't disagree at all, having already seconded former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's observation that "poetry calls upon both intellectual and bodily skills," that "the medium of poetry is a human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth," and that the chief skill of poetic interpretation is one's own embodied awareness. Good poetry and literary prose are not airy-fairy wisps of aesthetic preciousness, they're concrete bits of experience transposed into a more portable and transferable form that can be easily shared.
I simply wonder who's doing all the article-sharing. Are there enough closet-poets in the country to create such a boomlet of interest in the physicality of language? Where have they been? What will they do with this newly-revealed passion for elocution?
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
God is "a misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochist, capriciously malevolent bully."
Why is Dawkins so aggressively atheistic - much moreso than Russell, in fact? This interview gets at that. He's not just against religion, he's for something he thinks is a lot better.
Monday, May 18, 2009
May 18 is the birthday of philosopher Bertrand Russell, born in Trellech, Wales (1872), into one of Britain's most prominent families. His parents were free-thinkers, and his father was an atheist, but both his parents died by the time he was four. They left their son under the care of radical friends, hoping he would be brought up as an agnostic, but his grandparents stepped in, discarded the will, and raised Bertrand and his brother in a strict Christian household.
As a teenager, Bertrand kept a diary, in which he described his doubts about God and his ideas about free will. He kept his diary in Greek letters so that his conservative family couldn't read it. Then he went to Cambridge and was amazed that there were other people who thought the way he did and who wanted to discuss philosophical ideas. He emerged as an important philosopher with The Principles of Mathematics (1903), which argued that the foundations of mathematics could be deduced from a few logical ideas. And he went on to become one of the most widely read philosophers of the 20th century. His History of Western Philosophy (1946) was a big best seller, and he was able to live off its royalties for the rest of his life.
He said, "The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time."Writer's Almanac
He also said:
Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen in this world millions and millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out -- at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation -- it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things. ("Why I am not a Christian")
Dr. Flicker read his Russell.
The space shuttle Atlantis, last Tuesday. If thinking of ourselves as a mote of dust caught in a sunbeam, a pale blue dot etc. makes you feel sort of insignificant, maybe this image is a corrective. Sure, we're small. But we're going somewhere. And as Dr. Seuss knew, a person's a person no matter how small.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Because my wife is not the beer aficionado I am I got nearly two for the price of one, plus a growler of "Hop Project #15" to go. As daughter (who gave a terrific dramatic performance in "Little Princess" last night, btw) would say, not of beer but of delightfully-random other things, "it makes me happy."
Earlier this week I finally landed at the Flying Saucer (in the old Union Station depot) too. Turns out there are at least 200 beers to sample before I can even think about dying. Well, I can think about it. After so many beers, can I possibly stand it no longer? Hard to imagine.
Shortly before his own looming extinction, James responded to Henry Adams' dark musings about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the "heat death of the universe" and so on:
"Though the ULTIMATE state of the universe may be its . . . extinction, there is nothing in physics to interfere with the hypothesis that the PENULTIMATE state might be . . . a happy and virtuous consciousness. . . . In short, the last expiring pulsation of the universe's life might be, "I am so happy and perfect that I can stand it no longer."
Way to go, Billy. Like Woody Allen's "Dr. Flicker," James understood that the universe won't be expiring for billions of years yet, and "we've got to enjoy ourselves while we're here."
And, we must understand that "we" doesn't just mean me.
Friday, May 15, 2009
And so it is refreshing, in the lead-up to Copenhagen and the drafting of a new global climate treat, to learn from this morning's Tennessean that participants at a "Climate Project Summit" here yesterday applauded Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for responding to a question about the American lifestyle this way:
Lifestyle changes aren't too much to ask, Pachauri said.
"Why not, if this way of life is imposing a huge burden on the rest of the world?" he said to applause.
Emissions from fossil fuels are rising faster than projected, former Vice President Al Gore told hundreds gathered Thursday night for The Climate Project's North American Summit in Nashville.
"Temperatures are rising more rapidly," he said. "The ice is melting more rapidly."
Still, he said at the kickoff event of the three-day gathering, hope looms large.
A bill in Congress, expected to come out of committee soon, would be effective in reducing emissions in this country, he said. "Exciting" new developments are taking place with solar cells, wind and wave power and electric cars. New commitments are being made to mass transit.
"This is our time," Gore said. "This is our opportunity."
Joining Gore was Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The panel and Gore shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for building knowledge about climate change and bringing it to the attention of the world...
Lifestyle changes aren't too much to ask, Pachauri said.
"Why not, if this way of life is imposing a huge burden on the rest of the world?" he said to applause...
Getting the U.S. to commit to legislation before negotiations begin this December on a Copenhagen Treaty to slow climate change was considered key at the summit. It would take the place of the Kyoto Protocol, which both the U.S. and Australia refused to sign in years past...
In Environmental Ethics this past semester we read James Garvey's excellent Ethics of Climate Change, which led to a constructive and cordial email exchange with the author - who at my suggestion promises to read some John Dewey. Dewey, for my money, has the best general answer to those who would challenge the idea that we have some obligation to our successors on this planet. (Nigel Warburton raised this challenge in a "Philosophy Bites" interview.) More on this later.
The Reaper's not a pleasant house-guest, but he's nothing to fear.
But the funnier scene in Meaning of Life (especially if you've encountered Leo Buscaglia's "Freddy the Leaf") is the one just preceding Mr. Death's arrival.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
It's important to read the signs along your way. And it really does matter how you play the game.
- *"For when the One Great Scorer comes
- To write against your name,
- He marks - not that you won or lost -
- But how you played the Game."
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
"Driven by a savvy, brilliant psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania named Martin Seligman, the movement to create a scientific study of the good life has spread wildly through academia and popular culture (dozens of books, a cover story in Time, attention from Oprah, etc.)."
And it's spread to me. I'll be teaching "The Philosophy of Happiness" this Fall. If I find the secret I promise to share it. In the meantime, I'll continue to operate on the assumption that happiness - perhaps occasionally punctuated by transcendence - is best pursued in ordinary ways. Bertrand Russell is a very good source on this, as is Monty Python. They were talking about the meaning of life, but it's really the same question and I like the answer: try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.
It works for me.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
One of my favorite Nashville walks takes me to the top of a local reservoir called Love Circle, from which vantage it used to be possible to peer at my city and environs in every direction. I used to walk it every day and always enjoyed circling the overlook a couple of times while picking out memory-laden landmarks below - old abodes, old schools, the state capitol building, the Parthenon.
Now I live further out, and get there only occasionally... so I hadn't much attended to the hoopla surrounding country musician John Rich's ugly new manse on the hillside there, until an auto appointment nearby left me with some discretionary time to ramble this morning.
The damn thing dominates the neighborhood, especially when approached from Hillsboro Village to the east. It occludes part of what used to be a lovely view from the summit, and generally highlights the matching monstrosity of its owner's ego. Why do we tolerate this kind of garish abomination in our public spaces, just because some self-important guitar plucker can afford it?
But I'll continue to enjoy that walk, now supplemented with one more reminder that commercial music "success" can be one of the uglier Bitch Goddesses* on our landscape.
*William James to H.G. Wells:
The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That - with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word 'success' - is our national disease.)
Monday, May 11, 2009
As noted: at the conference in March I paid tribute to John Updike and his classic New Yorker tribute to the great Ted Williams, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu." It was my small way of bidding "Rabbit" adieu. Ted, we learned from conference speaker and former MLB star Mudcat Grant, was one of the too-few white stars who welcomed baseball's integration and were kind to African-American ballplayers.
So this will be an homage to Williams and Updike, and a consideration of baseball as mirror to society and culture, and a meditation on death. And I promise, it will be cheerful. Stay tuned.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
“A lot of science-fiction is nihilistic and dark and dreadful about the future, and ‘Star Trek’ is the opposite,” Mr. Nimoy said. “We need that kind of hope, we need that kind of confidence in the future. I think that’s what ‘Star Trek’ offers. I have to believe that — I’m the glass-half-full kind of guy.”
Saturday, May 9, 2009
In Talks to Teachers, he elaborated:
in the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall reinforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge...
The old "new habit" I'm doing my best to launch these days: writing habitually, daily, as my highest (or at least my first) priority.
There, I've taken the pledge.
Friday, May 8, 2009
When I woke up in the morning,” Ms. Gallagher said, “I’d ask myself: Do you want to lie here paying attention to the very good chance you’ll die and leave your children motherless, or do you want to get up and wash your face and pay attention to your work and your family and your friends? Hell or heaven — it’s your choice.
Dad made his choice last year, when he received a terminal diagnosis of leukemia not long before Mom died. He chose to accentuate and attend to all that had been good and right about his eight decades on Earth. He was experiencing a great deal of the physical pain that inevitably accompanies that horrible affliction, and no doubt a lot of the normal psychological distress that any honest and reflective person who loves life must face, as the end nears. But he exhibited no fear. From May to September his loved ones basked in the glow of his incredibly positive and grateful attitude. Now we know how to die. If there is such a thing as a "good death" he showed us what it can look like.
That was William James's point: our choices frame our attitudes, motivate our actions, shape our experience, become our lives, and can light the lives of others. I keep telling myself: Pay attention...
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Like Spock, part of what makes Obama so appealing is the fact that although he’s an outsider -- "proudly alien," as Leonard Nimoy once put it -- he uses that distance to cultivate a sense of perspective. And while we're drawn to Spock's exotic traits -- the pointy ears, green blood and weird mating rituals -- we take comfort in his soothing baritone, prominent nose and ordinary teeth...
"Bill Clinton promised a Cabinet that looked like America," Henry Jenkins said in a recent conversation. "Obama gave us one that looks like the Enterprise crew. In a matter-of-fact way, he's embraced diversity at every level. No Klingons yet -- but the administration is new."
Beam me up... Rahmy?
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Cinco de Mayo, the great North American drinking holiday with vague roots in 19th century Mexican history (Mexico's defeat of French invaders at the Battle of Puebla in 1862), seems the perfect day to toast the release of yet another Open Court volume of popular philosophy. I'm afraid I'm complicit in this one. (See chapter 4, "Licensed to Chill" - bet you didn't know he was christened James William Buffett.)
Buffett fans are widely maligned as thoughtless, reefer-mad, parrot-headed dolts. But I can affirm that there is a sub-class of us who think not too little, but much too much. Nonetheless, it was fun to write and got me through many bleak winter days.
Monday, May 4, 2009
Tenure does offer protection for free thinkers, though I'm not sure how many of my colleagues actually take advantage of that freedom. And indeed, it's too easy for Know-Nothings to poke ignorant fun at obscure-sounding research that they don't understand. Above all: the bottom line should be driven by intellectual, not financial, considerations. Most of the "reforms" currently sweeping campuses like mine clearly are not.
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Saturday, May 2, 2009
Friday, May 1, 2009
The researchers at Writer's Almanac summarize its significance:
...a holiday with its roots in the fertility celebrations of pre-Christian Europe. At Oxford University, otherwise intelligent young scholars jump off the Magdalen Bridge into a section of the Cherwell River that is two feet deep. At St. Andrews in Scotland, students gather on the beach the night before May Day, build bonfires, and then at sunrise they run into the very cold North Sea, some of them without any clothes on. There are bonfires and revelry in rural Germany. And there's hula dancing to the "May Day is Lei Day" song in Hawaii. In Minneapolis, there's the May Day Parade that marches south down Bloomington Avenue. It's organized by the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, now in its 35th year and attracting about 35,000 people.
May Day is also Labor Day for much of the world, a day to commemorate the economic and social improvements of workers, like the eight-hour workday. It evolved from the 1886 Haymarket Square riots, so in the United States, President Cleveland moved Labor Day to September to disassociate it with the radical left. In 1958, U.S. Congress under Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 "Loyalty Day" and also "Law Day" — two holidays that have not caught on. May Day is still a prominent holiday in communist countries like Cuba and the People's Republic of China. Two years ago, a May Day rally in Los Angeles in support of illegal immigrants turned into the L.A. May Day Mêlée after police fired rubber bullets into a crowd of demonstrators they had ordered to disperse.
But beyond fertility and political solidarity it has a far simpler significance for me. It's a harbinger of Spring, not as marked by the calendar (there's nothing especially Springy for me about the 3d week of March, except the anticipation of baseball's Opening Day) but as measured by lengthening, warming, non-commuting days when I can sit out in my Little House and tap away on my keyboard and dream my quirky dreams. I'm doing it right now, and though it's a gray, drizzly, misting May Day, it feels like Spring at last. That's what May does for me, at least 'til the kids are released for summer break. So again, Happy May Day!