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Archive for the 'Postings by Authors' Category

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Ward Blanton: Paula Versus the New Philosophers, or, Incident in Beijing

The Incident at Antioch

This week Columbia University Press goes Badiou! Our featured books are The Incident at Antioch/L’Incident d’Antioche: A Tragedy in Three Acts / Tragédie en trois actes and Plato’s Republic by Alain Badiou, both translated by Susan Spitzer with introductions by Kenneth Reinhard. In today’s post, Ward Blanton discusses the importance of The Incident at Antioch in “rethinking … those old, old questions about ‘Jerusalem and Athens’ which seem to lodge so naturally around the figure of Paul.”

Professor Blanton is a Reader in Biblical Cultures & European Thought in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Kent. Among other books and collections, he spearheaded Columbia’s translation of Stanislas Breton’s A Radical Philosophy of Saint Paul. His next book, A Materialism for the Masses: Saint Paul and the Philosophy of Undying Life, is in press with Columbia’s series Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture.

Paula Versus the New Philosophers, or, Incident in Beijing

Ward Blanton, University of Kent

I’m not sure whether others have been struck by some of the public interactions of Alain Badiou and Simon Critchley, interactions which invariably start to circulate around the question of whether or how political creation relates to political disappointment. The more the matter is tabled the more memory of older conflicts—for and against Kant, for and against Levinas, or for and against a Lutheran inflection of newness and identity within the Pauline legacy—begin to churn toward the surface. I confess I like such moments as we continue to struggle with how we imagine or conceptualize the political—as we speculate on our own political chances. As if to stir gently what has always for me been a pleasing pot, I could begin by naming a disappointment I have undergone in relation to that remarkable play, The Incident at Antioch. Above all, I was sorry when I realized we couldn’t include portions of it in our Paul and the Philosophers (Fordham, 2013). True enough, it didn’t make any sense to publish a short selection of Susan Spitzer’s beautiful translation at the very moment that the entire play would become available… but for my disappointment logistics are generally beside the point entirely! In truth, I was disappointed that I would no longer have a great excuse to say there what I really wanted to say about Badiou’s play, namely, that I think The Incident at Antioch is one of the most important contemporary spurs for a rethinking of those old, old questions about ‘Jerusalem and Athens’ which seem to lodge so naturally around the figure of Paul.
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Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Susan Spitzer: Translating Alain Badiou’s The Incident at Antioch and Plato’s Republic

The Incident at Antioch

This week Columbia University Press goes Badiou! Our featured books are The Incident at Antioch/L’Incident d’Antioche: A Tragedy in Three Acts / Tragédie en trois actes and Plato’s Republic by Alain Badiou, translated by Susan Spitzer with introductions by Kenneth Reinhard. In this post, Susan Spitzer discusses the experience of translating two very different works by Badiou.

Translating Alain Badiou’s The Incident at Antioch and Plato’s Republic
Susan Spitzer

Although the translator’s initial encounter with the foreign-language text, to which so much time will be devoted, is not often discussed, I doubt I’ll ever forget the heart-sinking feeling I had on first opening Alain Badiou’s L’Incident d’Antioche. The play was utterly different from anything I’d read before, and translating it, I knew immediately, would be a daunting task. As I later remarked in my Preface to the translation, “The Incident at Antioch is characterized by a rich linguistic mélange, a virtual kaleidoscope of styles and genres: poetic or highly elevated literary language, language borrowed directly from the Bible or with religious overtones, pompous rhetoric, made-up proverbs, everyday French that often tends towards the colloquial, if not at times the vulgar, all overlain with the remnants of a certain Marxist vocabulary or with terminology bearing the stamp of Badiou’s own philosophical œuvre, and studded with allusions to, or quotations from, Marx and Engels, Goethe, Shakespeare, Racine, La Fontaine, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Greek mythology, along with myriad references to the contemporary world.”

Fortunately for me, Badiou was (and still is) a regular visitor to Los Angeles, so I was able to corral him into assisting me with the translation issues that confronted me at every turn. Most of the time, thanks to his generosity and patience, I would come away from these sessions relieved to have finally (or so I hoped) understood what was meant. But on one occasion he was of no help at all. Expecting a simple answer to my query about the source of certain lines in Act I that he had enclosed in quotation marks, I was surprised to hear him say, “No, no, it’s not a citation; it’s just the characters reciting their lines in a sort of chorus.” My intuition told me otherwise, but what is a translator to do when the author explicitly tells her she is over-reaching? The answer, it now seems obvious, was: Google! I entered one French phrase after another into the search engine, only to come up empty-handed. I then played around with the lines a bit, in case Badiou hadn’t followed the exact order of words in what I was still convinced was a citation. No luck. Next I tried numerous versions of my own tentative translation of the phrases or lines. Finally, when I was almost ready to concede defeat, I hit the jackpot: the lines, somewhat altered, were from The German Ideology! No one was more surprised, or pleased, I hasten to add, than Badiou himself when I apprised him of this. He had simply forgotten, having written the play some twenty-odd years before, about his own idiosyncratic use of Marx and Engels in this one particular scene.

Translating his Plato’s Republic was a different experience altogether. No dread on first perusing the text; on the contrary, irrepressible laughter. I knew from the outset that the book, a sparkling theatrical dialogue interspersed with novel-like narrative passages, would be a real romp for a literary translator. Not that there weren’t thorny passages – when Badiou’s mathematics met Plato’s, for example, or when the umpteenth appearance of “ce qui de l’Être s’expose à la pensée” (“that which of Being is exposed to thought”? “that aspect of Being which is exposed to thought”? “that of Being which is exposed to thought”?) made me tear my hair out – but overall it was a sheer delight to be part of the process of what was then a still-unfolding work. Badiou would send me each chapter when he finished it, and I would eagerly await the next installment to see what remarkable changes he had wrought on Plato’s immortal work. After receiving his blessing for the American-English slant I was determined to give the translation, I felt free to sprinkle the text with slang, where I deemed appropriate, and even the odd Yiddishism (“these vacationing culture-vultures, these mid-summer mavens of the minor arts”). Socrates, or at least this thoroughly contemporary version of him, was, needless to say, very philosophical about it all. I’m now looking forward excitedly to meeting up with him again sometime soon in the screenplay Badiou is currently writing about the life of Plato.

Copyright 2013 by Susan Spitzer

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

Roy Brand on Love and Philosophy

LoveKnowledge

Happy Valentine’s Day! In honor of the occasion, we have a post from Professor Roy Brand, author of LoveKnowledge: The Life of Philosophy from Socrates to Derrida, in which Brand discusses the relationship between love and knowledge.

Love and Knowledge
Roy Brand

What is the love that turns into knowledge and how is the knowledge we seek already a form of love?

LoveKnowledge is a book for lovers, but love is taken here in the widest sense, as the love of life and of humanity, the love for culture, for thinking and for art. Romantic love comes up numerous times, be it in Plato’s Symposium or Foucault’s History of Sexuality. And it is indeed carnal and passionate, far from the view that philosophy is all about abstractions and lofty ideas. But romantic love is a fairly new invention. And it is used nowadays for marketing purposes, such as in this Valentine’s Day. The general Greek word for love is philia, which applies indifferently to the feelings one might have to his family, friends, and lovers. Thomas Mann expresses this in beautiful prose in The Magic Mountain:

Isn’t it grand, Isn’t it good, that language has only one word for everything we associate with love- from utter sanctity to the most fleshly lust? The result is perfect clarity in ambiguity, for love cannot be disembodied even in its most sanctified forms, nor is without sanctity even in its most fleshly…Irresolute? But in God’s name, leave the meaning of love unresolved! Unresolved—that is life and humanity, and it would betray a dreary lack of subtlety to worry about it.

To achieve a “perfect clarity in ambiguity” might be the very purpose of philosophy–a practice of love that begins with not knowing and teaches us how to live with uncertainty without being crippled by hesitation.

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

Lawrence J. Friedman – Valentine’s Day, Erich Fromm, and The Art of Loving

The Lives of Erich Fromm

Today is Valentine’s Day! In honor of the occasion, we have a post from Lawrence J. Friedman, author of The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet, in which Friedman discusses Erich Fromm’s views on love, as articulated in his book The Art of Loving.

Erich Fromm had many “lives”. He was a political activist, a psychoanalyst, a theologian, a personality theorist, a social psychologist, a philosopher, and a clinician. Fromm wrote a great many books. Only one sold less than 1,000,000 copies. Through these volumes, Fromm conveyed the most complex thoughts of Einstein, Goethe, Darwin, Freud, Marx, and other intellectual giants in a way that readers everywhere could understand. In a very real sense, he was an “educator to the world.”

Fromm is primarily known for two of his books. Escape from Freedom (1941) addressed murderous dictators like Hitler who were running rampant over Europe and threatening to extinguish millions. For Fromm, hatred and sado-masochism were basic to their mass appeal. The Art of Loving (1956), on the other hand, was very different. It concerned hope and joyfulness – the upside of human experience. Whereas Escape from Freedom sold roughly 5,000,000 copies, The Art of Loving marketed 25,000,000 copies globally and continues to sell well.

Why has The Art of Loving had such an enormous attraction? Why has it competed with flowers and candy as a Valentine’s Day gift? Why does it appeal to my current Harvard undergraduates just as it appealed, half a century ago, to the undergraduates I studied with at the University of California?

We all seem to be animated by love and downcast by its absence. It is perhaps the most upbeat emotion of human existence. Fromm’s delineation of love is clear. Love requires a good deal of effort on many fronts and for the duration of one’s life. One has to love oneself, other(s), and all of humankind. For Fromm, love is Biblical command to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and then some. Love requires “central relatedness” – allowing the deepest region or essence of one’s spiritual self to enter another self and to extend that entrance into all of humankind. There is a reciprocity of feeling and commitment that begins with self understanding, extends to parental understanding, takes the form of erotic mutuality with a partner, and extends into all of humankind. Fromm’s view of love resembles the Quaker concept of the “inner light of God” that connects (on the deepest possible level) the self, the other, and all of humankind.

If Fromm’s explication of the meaning of “love” was not unprecedented, he advanced it with such animation and freshness of vision that it has appealed to millions. He offered up an inspiring sense of hopefulness in a world that he found blighted for most of his life by war, terrorism, bigotry, famine, and other dispiriting ills. But there was another quality that added a zest and conveyed a credibility to Fromm’s discussion of love. He was in love at a very deep level as he wrote his book about love.

Fromm had three wives and several affairs. The first marriage, to Frieda Fromm Reichmann, ended in divorce. Henny Gurland, his second wife, committed suicide. He started dating Annis Freeman shortly after Gurland’s suicide. Raised in Alabama, Freeman was tall, sensuous, and beautiful. Whereas Fromm Reichmann and Gurland had been Jewish, intellectual, and professional, Freeman was a Gentile and had no vocation. She practiced astrology, meditated, enjoyed tai chi, and took some interest in Eastern spiritual traditions. Despite their differences, Freeman fell quickly and deeply in love with Fromm. She considered all of his thoughts to be brilliant and was thrilled by his every mannerism. From the start, Fromm professed a lifelong commitment to Freeman. He enthusiastically indulged her with tea, pastries, flowers, and all else she might desire. When Fromm was with Freeman, there was not much else that he could desire – not even an affair a film celebrity or dancer.

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Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Boris Gasparov: The “Genuine” Saussure

“What made Saussure’s critique stand out amidst many similar events in contemporary philosophy and science is his keen sensibility for the principle of creative freedom in language, which renders language volatile and fragmented, to a point that renders moot all attempts at its categorization.” — Boris Gasparov

Beyond Pure ReasonBoris Gasparov is professor of Russian, cochair and founder of the University Seminar on Romanticism, and a member of the Seminars on Linguistics and Slavic History and Culture at Columbia University, and the author of Beyond Pure Reason: Ferdinand de Saussure’s Philosophy of Language and Its Early Romantic Antecedents. In today’s post, he discusses the fascinating history of the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure.

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) belongs to those towering figures from the turn of the twentieth century—such as Freud, Einstein, or Weber—whose contribution not only radically transformed their respective disciplines but played the decisive role in shaping the entire culture and consciousness of modernism. Almost a hundred years since the posthumous publication of Saussure’s Course in general linguistics (1916), its presence—first as the major source of inspiration, later as a prime target of critique—remains ubiquitous in all domains of cultural studies, including linguistics and philosopy of language, literary criticism, semiotics and cultural anthropology.

At the center of the book stood Saussure’s definition of language as an ideational construct (Saussure called it la langue), not identical to operational skills needed for “speech” (la parole). Popular consciousness perceives linguistic signs (words) as the means of expressing various phenomena of the world, whose content is derived directly from those phenomena. In contradistinction to this, Saussure envisioned la langue as a pure structure whose elements are defined negatively, solely by their mutual relations. A sign as such is devoid of any positive substantial content; it occupies as much of the semantic space as is left to it by the presence of other signs. One can try to explain to a speaker of English the meaning of German words kennen and wissen (both translating into English as know) by pointing to particular kinds of ‘knowledge’ associated with either of them; but all such positive explanations would remain tentative at best. In the last count, what determines the usage of either sign is the awareness of the border that divides it from the other—in other words, the awareness of what makes kennen ‘not wissen’, and wissen ‘not kennen’.
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Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

Margo DeMello: Why Human-Animal Studies?

“Clearly, much of human society is structured through interactions with non-human animals, and in fact, human society is largely based upon the exploitation of animals to serve human needs. Yet, until very recently academia has largely ignored these types of interaction.” — Margo DeMello

Animals and Society Margo DeMello teaches anthropology and sociology at Central New Mexico Community College, and she is the author of the recently published Animals and Society, the first book to provide a full overview of human–animal studies. In today’s post, Professor DeMello explains what the field of human-animal studies actually is and why it is important for us to study the way that human and animal lives are intertwined.

Why Human-Animal Studies?
Margo DeMello

Lately, I have been hooked on a website called Dog Shaming. It’s a tumblr devoted to photos of dogs who have committed a doggy “crime” (chewed up the couch, eaten their guardian’s panties, bitten the UPS man), along with a sign (sometimes hung around the dog’s neck) detailing the nature of their crime; often the dogs are photographed alongside of the “evidence.” This week’s signs include the following:

“I was put on 2 lists at daycare: the poop-eater list and the crazy list. The staff described my poop-acquiring tactics as ‘particularly stealthy.’” From Pepper, a black lab
“This is how I say ‘thank you’ for my new big boy bed.” From Robbie, a terrier who was photographed in front of his brand new, and completely destroyed, bed
“I decided to see if that stamp pad really was made with ‘washable ink.’” From Baxter, a white poodle (now covered with pink ink)

This is only the most recent of countless websites devoted to non-human animals: their cuteness, their intelligence, how funny they are, or their similarity to us. Dog Shaming is reminiscent of the Medieval practice of charging animals with crimes, and even trying them in human courts. While the result of that practice was often terrible—animals could be excommunicated from the church, sent to prison, or even hanged for their crimes—Dog Shaming is ultimately about how much we love our dogs, no matter what they do. The dogs are publically shamed, yes, but it is done with affection and humor, and that is as far as their punishment goes.

Dog Shaming is an example of the various ways in which human lives are intimately connected with the lives of other animals. Animals share our homes as companions whom often we treat as members of the family. We can view animals on the “Animal Planet” network or television shows such as “Animal Practice” and subscribe to magazines like BARK or House Rabbit Journal. We eat animals, or their products, for most every meal, and much of our clothing is made up of animal skins, fur, hair, or wool. We wash our hair with products that have been tested on animals and use drugs that were created using animal models. We visit zoos, marine mammal parks and rodeos in order to be entertained by performing animals, and we share our yards—often unwillingly—with wild animals whose habitats are being eroded by our presence. We refer to animals when we speak of someone’s being “cunning as a fox” or call someone a “bitch.” We include them in our religious practices and feature them in our art, poetry, and literature. In these and myriad other ways, the human and nonhuman worlds are inexorably bound.

In recent years, human-animal studies (sometimes known as anthrozoology or animal studies) has developed as a new field of study that explores these very relationships. Clearly, much of human society is structured through interactions with non-human animals, and in fact, human society is largely based upon the exploitation of animals to serve human needs. Yet, until very recently academia has largely ignored these types of interaction. Human-Animal Studies (HAS) takes on the challenge of bringing our interactions and relationships with other animals to the forefront of academic study.

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Monday, October 15th, 2012

Alasdair Cochrane: Making Animal Rights Inclusive

“Because there can be reasonable philosophical disagreements about the proper content of animal rights, I believe that it is only wise and proper for the animal rights movement at the political level to accommodate these differences.” — Alasdair Cochrane

Animal Rights Without Liberation We’ve had a good deal of discussion on our blog about what exactly animal advocates should be fighting for. While some claim that accepting compromises with the farming industry is in the interest of animals, others believe that only a complete rejection of farming as a practice is acceptable. This debate is indicative of a deeper divide among supporters of animal rights: whether full liberation is necessary for the fair treatment of animals. In today’s post, Alasdair Cochrane, lecturer in political theory at The University of Sheffield and the author of Animal Rights Without Liberation, claims that liberation of animals is not necessary to fully recognize their rights, and that our moral obligation to animals lie in ending practices that cause their suffering and death.

Making Animal Rights Inclusive
Alasdair Cochrane

If we accept that sentient non-human animals possess rights, what follows in terms of the obligations of individuals and society? One common view put forward is that a commitment to animal rights entails a duty to abolish the use, ownership and exploitation of animals. On this view, the acceptance of animal rights entails much more than simply refraining from killing or hurting animals: animal rights requires their liberation.

But while this position has become widely accepted by both academic textbooks and those who campaign on behalf of animals, I want to argue that it is both wrong philosophically and unhelpful politically.
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Thursday, October 11th, 2012

Jennifer Morrison Taw on economic trade-offs and the military

“[Cost-benefit] analyses can be skewed and the resulting resource distributions out of whack if policymakers determine their objectives on the basis of the instruments at hand rather than determining which instruments they need on the basis of their objectives.” — Jennifer Morrison Taw

Mission RevolutionDefense spending is an important issue, particularly with discussion of the national debt and balancing the budget driving this year’s presidential election. In her post today, Jennifer Morrison Taw addresses defense spending from an unusual angle, asking how our defense budget impacts our foreign policy choices. Professor Taw, an assistant professor at Claremont McKenna College and former policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where she focused on counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and peacekeeping, is the author of Mission Revolution: The U.S. Military and Stability Operations.

The city of San Bernardino, California, recently went bankrupt. Now the citizens are debating where to make cuts that will allow for the town’s healthy future. One vocal faction led by a charismatic Dutch ex-patriot is calling for cuts to all non-essential services – including parks and libraries – so that resources can go to boosting police presence. The logic is: increasing policing reduces crime, which entices the middle class back into town, thus promoting growth. Several other groups of residents have put forward a very different approach. They want to scale back police and firefighters’ salaries to free up funds to put into paying for other public services. These people would prefer to emphasize quality of life over security, believing that the latter will follow the former.

This debate is replicated time and again on a much larger scale. It is at the foundation of competing counterinsurgency strategies, represents a crucial decision for nation builders, and underlies most countries’ allocation of their domestic resources, including our own. It is also at the heart of the question of how the U.S. can best promote its interests internationally. In this context, the question becomes: to what extent do we invest in the future over the long-term, hoping to divert crises with development programs and diplomacy, and to what extent do we prepare our defense capabilities to respond to contingencies when they do arise? It is pretty obvious how this equation has been worked out to date: in a very typical division of resources, the 2012 U.S. defense budget accounts for about 20 percent of the total annual budget and about 4 percent of the overall GDP; the spending on the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development together account for only 1 percent of the total 2012 budget.
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Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Jonathan Lyons – Islam, Violence, and the West: It’s Not the Video, Stupid

“But to focus on the short clip, posted online, that portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, pedophile, and general sex fiend, is largely to miss the point. The true animating cause behind the protests is power, that is, Western power to define the Islamic world in ways that undermine its values, aspirations, identity, and, ultimately, its autonomy and means of self-determination.” — Jonathan Lyons

Islam Through Western EyesOver the last couple weeks, there have been protests against the US throughout the Muslim world, ostensibly in response to the short film The Innocence of Muslims.

In today’s post, however, Jonathan Lyons, author of Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism argues that the motivation for the protests goes much deeper than an offensive film.

Islam, Violence, and the West: It’s not the Video, Stupid
By Jonathan Lyons

It may be tempting to watch the unrest unfolding in parts of the Muslim world and wonder what real harm could there be in a cheesy “desert saga,” replete with glue-on beards, stilted dialogue, and an over-the-top touch of melodrama? Or perhaps to take some refuge in an absolutist notion of free speech.

But to focus on the short clip, posted online, that portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, pedophile, and general sex fiend, is largely to miss the point. The true animating cause behind the protests is power, that is, Western power to define the Islamic world in ways that undermine its values, aspirations, identity, and, ultimately, its autonomy and means of self-determination.
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Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Michael Marder and Gary Francione Debate Plant Ethics

Plants vs. Animals

Today we are featuring part one of three of a debate between Gary Francione, author of Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation, The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation?, and several other titles, and Michael Marder, author of the forthcoming Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. You can find part two of the debate here, and part three here.

The debate and the questions were inspired by Michael Marder’s controversial New York Times op-eds Is Plant Liberation on the Menu? and If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them? which generated a variety of responses from animal right advocates, philosophers, and others.

How does plant ethics relate to veganism?

Michael Marder: Plant ethics shares with veganism a strong commitment to justice, which is to say, to the reduction of violence humans perpetrate against other living beings. It is by no means a threat to or an invalidation of veganism. Rather, plant ethics is an open invitation to fine-tune our dietary practices in keeping with the philosophical and botanical considerations of what plants are, what they are capable of, and what our relation to them should be.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau made a useful distinction between perfection and perfectibility, arguing that the latter defines human beings. If veganism considers its moral bases to be perfectible, it will, I believe, admit plant ethics into its midst. Doubts sometimes arise as to whether or not veganism is a genuinely philosophical position when its unbending commitment is mistaken for doctrinaire rigidity, and its morality—for self-righteous moralizing. A serious engagement with plant ethics will finally dispel all such suspicions, as it will demonstrate the dynamic thinking behind veganism, ready to push its own limits.

This does not mean that, having entertained the real possibility of violence against plants, vegans would throw their hands up in despair and concede that it is pointless to alleviate animal suffering by refusing to consume animal flesh and by-products. What it implies is that they would not rest on the laurels of their accomplishments but would consider residual violence against other living beings, such as plants, thoroughly instrumentalized by the same logic that underpins human domination over other animal species.

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Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

Ludger Viefhues-Bailey — The Obomney Consensus: Sexual Politics are Faith-Based

Last Wednesday, in an interview with Robin Roberts, President Obama stated that he supported same-sex marriage. For Ludger Viefhues-Bailey, however, the way that President Obama framed his support of same-sex marriage was as important as the announcement itself. Viefhues-Bailey is the
Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Gender, and Culture and the Director of the Gender and Women Studies Program at Le Moyne College, and the author of
Between a Man and a Woman?: Why Conservatives Oppose Same-Sex Marriage.

Between a Man and a Woman?While the President and Mr. Romney disagree on whether or not it is right to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples, they agree on another point: the battle over marriage reform is a battle over American values and as such it is a battle over the kind of Christianity that should guide our polity.

In his interview with ABC news, Mr. Obama recounted that young people – including his daughters and even young Republican college students – “believe in equality” if it comes to marriage. While he endorses this belief of the young, Mr. Obama turns to religion to explain his and Michele’s position: “When we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated.”

Thus, Mr. Obama does not simply reiterate a constitutional or secular moral argument for giving same-sex couples the right to commit to each other in matrimony. Rather, his support for treating same-sex couples equally before the law is grounded in a specific Christian conviction. Respecting the claims of same-sex couples for equal protection before the law is the right thing to do because it is the Christian thing to do.

Christianity for the Obamas is, “at the root,” about Christ’s sacrificial atonement and about the Golden Rule, thus combining a universalizing appeal to ethical equality with a (at least potentially) limited appeal to Christian salvation. Confessing Christ as the sole savior for humankind should go hand in hand with following his commandment that Christian Americans should treat all with equal ethical care. Doctrinal differences should not overrule Christian ethical universalism.

“And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and, hopefully, the better I’ll be as president.”

While Mr. Obama’s endorsement of marriage rights for same-sex couples is a matter of personal opinion, his religious convictions are the basis for better governance in general. The more truly Christian he is, the better he will be as a president.

Mr. Romney presented a very similar theory of Christian governance in his commencement speech at the evangelical Liberty University. “People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology. Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.” Mr. Romney identifies this shared worldview as America’s “Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life,” a tradition that for him includes Mormonism.

Like the president, Mr. Romney contrasts divisive creedal differences (for example the fact that unlike his Evangelical audience the Governor believes not in a Trinitarian Godhead but in a divine heterosexual couple) with a unifying moral code: here, the national importance of restricting marriage to heterosexuals and of a “culture of life” that is mainly concerned with criminalizing abortions.

Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney agree that American politics, sexual and otherwise, must be grounded in some version of Christianity. The president champions a Christianity that (certain creedal differences aside) is at its root about fairness, emphasizing that we are created equal before God and the law. Mr. Romney’s Christianity (certain creedal differences aside) is about respecting an allegedly traditional heterosexual order of family as the basis of a nation that functions because we as citizens are substantially different. Men, women, rich or poor: The goal is not to equalize these differences but to make sure that each segment of society does their job. If men are men and women are women, if the rich enjoy their riches and the poor are hardworking, then the nation will thrive.

As for November, it seems that we have to chose between a Christian America based on the values of fairness or one based on those of stratification, heterosexual and economic. But Christian America it is, whether red or blue!

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Anat Pick — Pt. II of Fleshing out the Morality of Meat: Thoughts on the New York Times’s contest “Calling All Carnivores”

Anat  PickThe following is the second half of a post by Anat Pick, author of Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film.

Pick is, in part, responding to Calling All Carnivores, a contest from The Ethicist, a feature in the New York Times Magazine. The judges for the contest—Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer and Andrew Light—will select the best essay on why it is ethical to eat meat.

As Timothy Pachirat recently argued in Every Twelve Seconds, it is not quite the case that if slaughterhouses had glass walls everyone would be vegetarian. The “new moralists,” those who portray the consumption of animal flesh as an enlightened and conscientious choice, sensitive to both the lives of animals and to the higher value of human culinary discernment—namely Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and their American counterparts—have put slaughter on primetime television, proving that killing itself can be made to disappear in the act. This is one of our dubious powers: to remain blind in full view of reality. Blindness ensues from the new moralists’ refusal to question the morality of killing, the fact that animal life is subjected again and again to human whims. Somehow, somewhere along the way, the moral conversation turned into something else, bracketing off the fundamentals and magnifying incidental details—the hows and wheres of killing—turning the obvious commonplace that it is preferable for sentient animals to die without having suffered unimaginably before into the entire moral debate.
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Friday, April 27th, 2012

Carl Hobbs: Earth Day and Mother’s Day

April 22 was Earth Day, and in honor of the occasion, we have posted a series of articles over the course of this week by authors of our environmental studies titles. These articles cover a wide range of topics relevant to the study of the earth and the environment, from global climate change to the effects of economic development on the environment in China.

The Beach BookToday marks the end of our Earth Day 2012 blog series, and we are concluding with an article by Carl Hobbs, a professor of marine science at Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William & Mary. Professor Hobbs is the author of The Beach Book: Science of the Shore.

Earth Day and Mother’s Day
Carl Hobbs

Earth Day and Mothers’ Day share at least one important characteristic: each is a one-day celebration of something we should honor throughout the year. We should not have to be reminded to acknowledge the Earth or our mothers (or our fathers); we should always be aware of what they do for us and we should thank them frequently. This is easy for me because as a geologist, I work with the Earth every day and think about what it is and why and how it changes. As a marine geologist with a career in the area of coastal geology and coastal geomorphology, I have the luxury of working where the land, the sea, and the atmosphere intersect. This has provided by with a wonderful view of the earth and with many opportunities to think about what I see. For me, every day is Earth Day.

Beaches, barrier islands, and salt marshes are beautiful and complex places. One of my goals is to get others to observe, to take really good looks at, their environments. Carefully looking at a beach and thinking about what is seen – Why does it have the shape it does? How and why has it changed since the last visit? Why is one side of a sand dune steeper than another? – teaches the observer a lot. I wrote The Beach Book to help people interpret the shore.

I have had the good fortune to work along the mid-Atlantic coast and Chesapeake Bay for over 40 years. There have been a lot of changes. At a rough estimate, sea level has risen 8 or 9 inches during that time; that is enough to see. Low areas that used to be inundated only once every few years now are submerged at least yearly. Acquaintances who live in the low areas near the water have lost their wells to salt-water intrusion or have lost septic systems the rise of the saturated zone. Just as the changing environment impacts society, society interacts with and changes the environment. Urban areas have expanded and rural areas have become suburban. Lowly beach cottages have been replaced by large and fancy dwellings. I’ve seen the economic benefit of commercial seaports and I’ve seen the number of working watermen and their catch fall.

Earth Day should be more than simply celebrating the Earth. We should think about our individual and societal interactions with our planet. It is impossible for us not to change it but we must work to eliminate as many detrimental changes as possible because we can’t back up and we have had almost no success in correcting mistakes. We cannot “restore” an estuary but we might be able to rehabilitate it.

Every day is Earth Day just as every day should be Mothers’ Day. April 22nd is a good day to share our thoughts and actions for the benefit of our Earth.

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Stuart Sim: The Earth and Profit

April 22 was Earth Day, and in honor of the occasion, we will be running a series of posts over the course of this week by authors of our environmental studies titles. These articles will cover a wide range of topics relevant to the study of the earth and the environment, from global climate change to the effects of economic development on the environment in China.

The Carbon Footprint WarsToday’s post in our Earth Day 2012 blog series is an article by Stuart Sim, Professor in Critical Theory and Long Eighteenth-Century English Literature at Northumbria University, and author of (among other works) The Carbon Footprint Wars: What Might Happen If We Retreat From Globalization?, The End of Modernity: What the Financial and Environmental Crisis Is Really Telling Us, and Addicted to Profit: Reclaiming Our Lives from the Free-Market.

The Earth and Profit
Stuart Sim

The advent of the Anthropocene era, when the activities of humankind determine how the environment develops and behaves, has had a very significant effect on our relationship with, and attitude towards, the Earth. Increasingly, the Earth is viewed primarily as a resource to be exploited; an exploitation sanctioned by our commitment to economic growth and material progress. Modernity, the socio-economic system we have developed in the West over the last few centuries, demands that we keep finding ways of improving the Gross National Product year on year. So we are encouraged by politicians, fixated as they invariably are on the necessity for growth, to regard ourselves as essentially machines for the generation of profit, and it has been depressing in recent years to see how the profit motive has been introduced into more and more areas of our lives. In my current book Addicted to Profit: Reclaiming Our Lives from the Free Market, I describe Western society as a ‘profitocracy’ since that seems to sum up how we have allowed the profit motive to become the dominant factor in our existence. No part of the public sector now seems immune from the requirement to turn a profit, and this is having a profound, and I would argue largely negative, impact on our lifestyles.
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Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

James Rodger Fleming: Geoengineering’s Checkered Past

April 22 was Earth Day, and in honor of the occasion, we will be running a series of posts over the course of this week by authors of our environmental studies titles. These articles will cover a wide range of topics relevant to the study of the earth and the environment, from global climate change to the effects of economic development on the environment in China.

Fixing the SkyProfessor James Rodger Fleming, author of Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control and a professor of science, technology, and society at Colby College, is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), elected “for pioneering studies on the history of meteorology and climate change and for the advancement of historical work within meteorological societies,” and a fellow at the American Meteorological Society.

Geoengineering’s Checkered Past
James Rodger Fleming

Geoengineering, loosely defined as the intentional large-scale manipulation of the global environment, exists only in the fevered brains of those who propose it. It is “geo-scientific speculation” practiced by the Rube Goldbergs and Doctor Strangeloves who reside in a fantasy world of back-of-the-envelope calculations, simplistic computer models, and PowerPoint slides outlining outrageous proposals: build artificial volcanoes, open fire on the stratosphere with sulfate cannons, launch massive arrays of space mirrors to dim the sun, genetically engineer crops with more reflective leaves, or splash huge buckets of white paint on the cities of the world. The roots of geoengineering lie deep in the mythical quest to control nature, and its advocates exude a strange mix of overconfidence and hubris.
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Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

Political Philosophy and Real Politics: Part III of an interview with Albena Azmanova, author of “The Scandal of Reason”

The Scandal of Reason

“[Through public discussion,] we can learn how we are all complicit in the production of social injustice, even when we appear to be victims. ”
- Albena Azmanova

Albena Azmanova is the author of The Scandal of Reason: A Critical Theory of Political Judgment. This post is the third of a three-part series in which Professor Azmanova discusses The Scandal of Reason, theories of political judgment, and ways in which political philosophy can become more helpful in the actual political process. In today’s final post, she addresses how public discussion can play a crucial role in the political process.

In the model I detail in The Scandal of Reason, discussion and deliberation have a narrower but sharper role than they have in the most popular models of deliberative democracy. Public discussions cannot, and should not, replace the judgment public authority has to make. I find the contemporary hype about deliberative democracy dangerous, as it absolves political actors from their duty to make decisions and to assume the responsibility for these decisions—this fashion is a sort of colonization of political action by public deliberations. Public discussions, in my account, have two important functions.
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Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Political Philosophy and Real Politics: Part II of an interview with Albena Azmanova, author of “The Scandal of Reason”

The Scandal of Reason

“Preoccupation with economic redistribution, gender equality, cultural diversity, and action against sexual harassment appeared all too smug to me when set against the evils of life under political oppression and bankrupt economic systems”
- Albena Azmanova

Albena Azmanova is the author of The Scandal of Reason: A Critical Theory of Political Judgment. This post is the second of a three-part series in which Professor Azmanova discusses The Scandal of Reason, theories of political judgment, and ways in which political philosophy can become more helpful in the actual political process. Today, she addresses how her personal background influenced the writing of her book.

The story of The Scandal of Reason goes back in a straight line, and a long one at that, to my revolutionary past of twenty years ago. Quite unawares, and certainly without the armament of a grand doctrine, I became involved with the dissident movements in the late 1990s in my native Bulgaria as a first-year student at Sofia University. I recall distinctly that what drove us to act was a sense of frustration, and although I ended up writing up the demands of the students—whose strike triggered the downfall of the regime—I did so not because we had a creed, but because a television reporter asked after our goals and we had to come up with something on the spot. When I spoke later on behalf of the students at the Council of Europe, I was bewildered that telling of our frustration seemed not to be enough. Instead, I was pressed to specify positive goals, to name the tenets of our movement. To this day I find it a great pity that instead of trying to understand the proper causes of our frustration, we rushed into formulating (and simply borrowing) grand plans for a new future. A precious opportunity was missed in this way. The construction of (some semblance of) liberal democracies in post-communist Eastern Europe was in no way a response to the specific grievances that had prompted us to reject the old order. Alas, we rushed into a project of “what is right” before really figuring out what was wrong, what was missing.
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Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

Why the Recent Elections Won’t Stop Terrorism in Israel

cover art The Israeli Secret Services and the Struggle Against TerrorismThe following post is by Ami Pedahzur, author of The Israeli Secret Services and the Struggle Against Terrorism.

Two months after the end of the Israeli offensive in Gaza it seems that once again the “war model” for counterterrorism has yielded questionable results. Rockets are still being launched from Gaza into the Israeli heartland. Smuggling of weapons from Egypt to Gaza through tunnels is on the rise, and the Hamas-led cabinet in Gaza seems to be as strong as it was before the operation. Meanwhile, Israel was condemned around the world for the excessive use of force during the operation and for the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians.

Two major developments have occurred since the operation, which pose new challenges for the Israeli attempt to struggle with the threat of terror but are not likely to change much. In Washington, President Obama was sworn into office and indicated that promoting the peace process in the Middle East is high on his agenda. I believe that soon enough he will understand that hope is one thing while the hard reality of solving problems in the Middle East is a completely different matter. The February 09 general elections in Israel brought a clear triumph to the hard-liners. The new cabinet will be led by Binyamin Netanyahu, a prolific author on terrorism and an advocate of the war model.

From his first day in office Netanyahu will be under enormous conflicting pressures. On the one hand, the United States and the international community will push for progress in the talks with the Palestinians and for the relief for the civilian population in Gaza. On the other, Netanyahu’s coalition partners, who represent an extreme hawkish line, will advocate the further expansion of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and an even more forceful response to Palestinian violence.

This could not have happened at a worse time for the Israeli security establishment. Mossad and the military intelligence are overstretched. They utilize every available resource for following Iran’s race to acquire a nuclear bomb while at the same time monitoring the increasing power of Iran’s proxies in the Arab world, most notably Syria and Hezbollah. They also follow with vigilance the escalation of the Jihadi surge in Pakistan and Afghanistan and constantly assess the potential implications of these developments for the safety of Israelis and Jews around the world. Once again the General Security Service (GSS) and the army will carry the burden of monitoring the situation and executing policies in the West Bank and Gaza. Without a revolutionary agenda on the part of the new cabinet that will force them to offer new approaches to dealing with terrorism, they are likely to follow their old protocols, which they consider to be successful. This means more of the same.

Under these circumstances almost any possible scenario for the near future indicates that despite the failure of the war model over the last sixty years–with the war in Gaza being the most recent example–Israel under Netanyahu will not deviate from it. Despite the expected international pressures, the gaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians, who are now divided between two entities–Gaza led by Hamas and the West Bank led by Fatah–are only widening. The next wave of Palestinian violence seems inevitable, and so does the Israeli response. It will probably take Israel many more years to conclude that the war model was a failure. Unfortunately, this is small comfort to the victims of this model on both sides of the conflict.        
 

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

The Dover Ban – Why No One Gets It Right

Caskets at DoverThe following is a post by Michael Sledge, author of Soldier Dead.

Recently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the ban on media presence at the return of “transfer cases” containing the remains of US service personnel who have died overseas would be lifted.  I offer my sincere appreciation for this proposed change in policy.

In the case of allowing media presence at the repatriation of our Soldier Dead, it all boils down to the question: “To whom do the dead belong?”

After studying the proposal (and the objections of groups such as Military Families United), I can’t help but be struck by how much misinformation exists about the return of our Soldier Dead.

First, “coffins” (as generally reported) are not coming back to the US.  A coffin infers that the deceased is already identified and prepared for burial.  Rather, the “transfer cases” containing the remains are nothing more than big ice chests.

Second, once the as yet not officially identified remains are received at Dover, they go through a meticulous identification process in a state-of-the-art facility that is the envy of the rest of the world.  Military deaths are often a messy affair, and dedicated men and women work diligently to assure that each and every body part is associated with the appropriate service person who has given his or her life.

After the remains are officially identified – Dr. Craig Mallak, Chief Medical Examiner for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, has stated that remains only have a tentative identification when they arrive at Dover – they are prepared for burial, which includes a full military dress uniform and the casket of the family’s choice.

caskets at morgue in Baghdad (more…)

Monday, August 4th, 2008

Getting beyond the Conventions of Biography – and Hagiography Too: A Post by Peter Heehs

cover The Lives of Sri AurobindoThe following post is by Peter Heehs, author of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo

How do you write about a man who is known to some as a politician, to others as a poet and critic, to still others as a philosopher, and to a not inconsiderable number as an incarnation of God? This is one of the problems a biographer of Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Ghose, 1872-1950) has to face. Known in the West mostly to specialized audiences (people interested in South Asian history, literature, philosophy, and spirituality), Aurobindo is renowned in his native India as one of the most outstanding, and most many-sided men of the twentieth century. This has not prevented his legacy from being bitterly disputed.

Some historians and politicians see him as one of the forerunners of Mahatma Gandhi, others as a precursor of today’s aggressive Hindu nationalists. Admirers of his writings see his epic in iambic pentameter as the harbinger of a new kind of poetry, but most contemporary poets and critics dismiss it as a throwback to the Victorian era. The opinions of amateur and professional philosophers are polarized along the same lines. There is general agreement among students of religion that Aurobindo was a remarkable mystic, but few are willing to swallow the claim of some of his followers that he was an avatar, like Krishna, Chaitanya or Christ.

In The Lives of Sri Aurobindo I made Aurobindo’s many-sidedness the foundation of the structure of the book. Each of the five parts deals with one of his “lives”: the family man, the scholar, the revolutionary, the yogi and philosopher, and the spiritual guide. The first three go together pretty well, since the conventions of literary and political biography are similar. The writer is expected to present the significant events of a notable life in a chronological narrative, supporting the story with a scholarly apparatus based on primary sources. It was easy for me to do this when I wrote about Aurobindo’s life in politics. Discussing his role at the Surat Congress of 1907, for example, I was able to draw on government files, police reports, newspaper stories, Aurobindo’s reminiscences, and the reminiscences of others in English, Bengali, and Gujarati. But what was I to do with the information that a few days after the Congress, Aurobindo sat with a guru who taught him a meditation technique, and that, as Aurobindo later put it, “In three days – really in one, my mind became full of an eternal silence” – by which he meant the mental stillness and freedom from ego known as Nirvana.

It certainly is legitimate to cite Aurobindo’s own statements about this and other inner experiences. But personal reminiscences don’t count for much in scholarly biographies unless they are backed up by objective data and analysis. But what sort of objective data was I to look for? (Nobody knew what was going on in Aurobindo’s head.) If I wanted to discuss this inner event, did I have to switch (in mid stream) from the conventions of scholarly biography to the conventions of spiritual biography, that is, hagiography? Or could I get beyond the conventions of both genres?

Hagiography in its original sense, writing about the lives of saints, has been practiced since the first century CE (the Gospels, the Buddhacarita). What distinguishes the hagiographic from the critical approach is not that hagiographers are sympathetic to their subjects, but that they base their accounts on unverifiable assumptions that are likely to be accepted only by members of the discursive community that they belong to. Few modern non-Catholic readers are likely to take seriously the claims of Angelo Pastrovicchi that Joseph of Cupertino could fly. On the other hand, Pastrovicchi’s eighteenth-century work remains a vital source for any anyone wishing to write about the Italian saint. A scholar may reject levitation as inconsistent with what we know about gravity but still accept that Joseph had visions, as Pastrovicchi claims.

Aurobindo spent the last forty years of his life immersed in the practice of yoga. He wrote about his yogic experiences in a diary, the Record of Yoga, and in letters to his followers. Are these the sort of sources that a scholarly biographer can cite? It certainly would be uncritical to accept at face value all that Aurobindo wrote about his inner life; but it would be a different sort of negligence to refuse to consider accounts of inner experience a priori grounds, or to explain them away according to the assumptions of one or another social-scientific orthodoxy.

I think that William James had the right approach to this sort of material. “One cannot criticize the vision of a mystic,” he wrote in “A Pluralistic Mystic,” “one can but pass it by, or else accept it as having some amount of evidential weight.” I couldn’t simply close my eyes to Aurobindo’s accounts of his mystical experiences, so I accepted them as evidence of a vivid, if sometimes enigmatic inner life. I wonder however whether James got it right when he said we “cannot criticize the vision of a mystic.” Many spiritual traditions – the Catholic Christian and Tibetan Buddhist, for example – recognize a distinction between true and misleading visions. I don’t have the necessary discernment to criticize Aurobindo’s visions as visions; but I recognize – as Aurobindo himself did – that inner visions and experiences are open to different interpretations.

What about the assertion that Aurobindo was an avatar? I can’t say that the question interests me very much. Aurobindo never claimed the distinction for himself, and I don’t think anyone alive is in a position to say one way or the other. The Aurobindo that interests me is the one who turned from a life of hectic action to a life of contemplation, but was able, during his forty-year retirement, to write a shelf full of books on philosophy, political theory, and textual criticism, along with thousands of letters and, yes, that epic in iambic pentameter. People will continue to differ about the significance of his work, but its very mass is there for all to see. His life as a yogi and spiritual leader is more difficult to quantify, but it certainly will not be forgotten soon. I tried to do justice to all sides of this versatile man, but to do so I had to be unconventional in more ways than one.