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Monday, June 25, 2012

All's Aflutter

Hi all,

So, my promise to blog more after Blogathon hasn't really come to fruition, mostly because I've been spending my time since then frantically preparing for the Center for Inquiry conference at which I spoke, paneled, rabble-roused, and have finally just returned from and slept off. The audio/video from my talk will hopefully surface soon, in which you'll get to see just what it looks like to be ridiculously nervous, somewhat unprepared, sleep deprived, and angry on stage.

In the meantime, I'm working on turning that talk into a blog post, and reworking it a bit for the Secular Student Alliance conference in 10 (!!!!!!) days. Before then, and before I jet off to Connecticut for three weeks of desperately needed relaxation, I hope to complete another post stemming from my discussion of Habermas and Taylor, and advance my philosophical project a bit.

Before I go, a huge, huge thank you to Debbie Goddard for bringing me out to Amherst for the conference. Despite being extremely tired, I had a great time. I met so many incredibly awesome people, including Rebecca Watson, and hung out with lots more who I knew, some well and some not so much, from previous conferences. James Croft and I even avoided challenging one another to a duel! 


All in all, it was a blast, especially hanging out in the green room with Amanda Knief and Ed Brayton, who I give full credit (along with Sarah and Ben) to keeping me sane through my darkest moments. 

Til later.

Monday, June 18, 2012

My Kingdom for a Decent Mayor

What is it about American cities having evil mayors? It seems like it has been a theme throughout our history, from Mayor Ogden building Chicago on the back of speculation capital to line his own pockets, and continuing ever onwards; even in films, it seems like it's always the mayor who's the scheming mastermind (Bullitt comes immediately to mind for my fellow McQueen fans), to the contemporary example of Boris Johnson in London, who until recently I did believe was actually a character on a BBC show and not actually their mayor. He is that much of a comedy villain.

So, for the past couple of years, there has been some solace in my heart knowing that, after years of the likes of Giuliani and Jerry Springer (yes, he was really the mayor of Cincinnati. For real), that All American Hero Cory Booker was holding down the fort in Newark, New Jersey. This dude seemed like the real deal: a Rhodes Scholar, who while at Yale Law School ran free clinics for low-income people in New Haven, during his tenure he has vastly reduced Newark's sky high violence rate, spent hours of his own time patrolling the streets where police presence has been low, and just recently, sent the nation a-swooning when he first shoveled an old man's driveway after his daughter asked him on Twitter to help because she feared her father could not do it, and then topped that by running into a fucking burning building, unable to be restrained by his police escort, and carried a woman to safety from it.

Is your chest swelling? Did you sit up a bit straighter? Let a bit of light in, hum something patriotic, think, just for a moment, that everything's gonna be okay, because Cory's out there somewhere, being a badass on the mean streets of Newark?

Yeah, mine did too there for a while. Then this happened:
Cory Booker, the popular and progressive mayor of Newark, New Jersey, attacked the Obama campaign for making an issue of Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital during an appearance today on Meet the Press. 
Romney has placed his career at Bain the center of his campaign. On several occassions Romney has asserted that, while at Bain, he was responsible for creating 100,000 jobs. Multiple independent fact checkers have concluded that Romney’s claims on jobs is simply false. 
The Obama campaign has responded by highlighting instances where Romney’s actions at Bain Capital resulted in substantial job loses. On Meet the Press, Booker called criticizing Romney’s time at Bain “ridiculous” and “nauseating.” He also equated criticisms of Romney’s buisness record with racially charged attacks against Obama centered around Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Yeah, you read that right. Our hero, like so many others, has fallen to corporate cash and influence. Turns out he's got massive ties to Wall Street, and is looking to preserve those for future campaigns.

I mean, come on. This is just madness, now. I still like Cory Booker as a person; the amount of effort he puts into his city are unparalleled, and he's done a lot of good things. Fact of the matter is, the realist/pessimist/miserabilist (delete as accurate) in me has to admit that you only get elected in this country these days with massive amounts of money; just look at the recall in Wisconsin. He's clearly making a pragmatic move, hopefully to continue doing good deeds.

But fuck it, Mr. Mayor. I can't help but be depressed. This might just be the last straw, man. While it's never been strong, I've always had a tiny flickering light of optimism in me in regards to politics. There have been just enough decent people, like Bernie Sanders, Jan Schakowsky (minus the Zionism), Sherrod Brown (ditto), Pete Stark, and Elizabeth Warren, who have kept that lick of flame alive. Five people out of 535 Congresspeople, governors, mayors, and president ain't a whole lot, but in sad times, it was enough. Shit, those hundreds of people I mentioned above are mostly fighting to end women's rights, destroy education, and make everything privatized while bombing as many brown people as possible. But when Bernie Sanders gets on the floor and rails against corporate greed, I get a little bit of optimism back.

You, Mayor Booker, were one of them. You were the shining light amongst the mayors, against free-speech hating Rahm Emanuel and Thomas Menino, against megalomaniac supervillain Michael Bloomberg. Now, you're not crushing your own constituents, but the superhero guise is gone.

You're just Clark Kent now, Mayor Booker.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

And in the end...

Well, today has been something quite amazing. This blog has gotten fully four times the number of pageviews it had in total before today, and I have written on everything from high school to Husserl to The Who. I really enjoyed the experience, and hanging with Chana, and getting suggestions and feedback from all y'all.

I hope you'll stick around and listen to me rant some more in the future. I also regularly write over at In Our Words, I'm on Twitter, and this summer I'm very happy to announce that I will be speaking at the Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference in Buffalo, NY as well as appearing at the Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference in Columbus, OH. I hope to talk to/meet some of you soon!

Why I Think That Art, and Art History, Are Important

For my final full post today, I want to write about why I study art history and why I engage in the art world.

I probably get more shit for my art history major than my philosophy major; there's either a snort, a roll of the eyes, or at best, a "do you want to teach?" type of question. It's a discipline that's seen as old fashioned, from that Walter Pater era of lace cuffs and learned white dudes with whigs who hung out in salones. And, to a degree, that's fairly accurate even now; the history of art, like its practitioners, has been made out in a canonical sense, so that the artists that are well known and celebrated are the reflections of those who write art history: white, male, conservative. Think: who do you think when you think art? You think Leonardo, Michelangelo, Monet, van Gogh, Pollock. White dudes. The classic essay on this topic, by Linda Nochlin, is a great starting point to understanding why.

It makes sense, in a certain way, given that, with certain exceptions, societal constraints meant that anyone who didn't fit that description could not become artists, much less make work or be noticed by patrons. Similarly, those in power were white and male; why do I point all this out? Because of my belief that art matters because it reflects the political circumstances of when it was made. Art was used to back up the regimes of kings, to subvert the power of others, to give voice to marginalized groups. Visual culture, meaning everything from paintings to manuscripts to movies, has always been primary in society, for good and for ill. The history of art is the history of human civilization.

And, if history is doomed to repeat itself, I want to know what's coming. Because, if art history has taught me one thing, it's that human's tastes for the gaudy and shameless never really change.

Phenomenology, Part 2

Last post, I very briefly introduced you to the thought of Edmund Husserl, specifically relating to his philosophy concerning the natural sciences in order to illustrate to you the kind of reason why many "rationalists," particularly atheists, scorn not just continental philosophy but the discipline as a whole. I will now follow the same formula for Maurice Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology, but hopefully, will leave you with a very different conclusion.

The first point to make about Merleau-Ponty, and in fact for his relevance to us, is that his philosophy in Phenomenology of Perception in particular is based in a basic refutation of Descartes' dualism. In the latter's famous claim of “I think, I am,” from the Meditations, the subject's knowledge of itself is its basis for understanding all of the other things around it, as based upon the sense. It is an essentially egotistical view, as everything comes through our biased lens and thus gives us a sense of power over the things around us. Merleau-Ponty takes the opposing view to this, arguing that in fact we cannot have any true understanding of those things that are not us, for they are “transcendent... I do not possess them... they are transcendent to the extent that I am ignorant of what they are, and blindly assert their bare existence” (Phenomenology of Perception, 168). We can certainly see that there are things in the world around us, living and otherwise, but we can never truly know anything of their “factual existence.” It is precisely because we perceive the world around us in this manner that we cannot understand that which is not us, because then it is us who ascribes meaning and information to the world. No human being has or will ever be able to fully comprehend the ashtray that Merleau-Ponty speaks of, because it is viewable from a myriad of angles; never in one of those do we see all of its sides, or every burned-in mark from discarded cigarettes.

This line of reasoning follows to matters relating to ourselves as well. In discussing those strongest of feelings, love and will, which always seem the most true and authentic to us, Merleau-Ponty complicates the matter by investigating feelings that are found to be illusory. If these feelings are genuine, then how are we to explain that I lost the romantic intentions I had towards the beautiful woman I met at the bar after a few months of dating, for no discernible reason? It is, the philosopher says, because when I seemed to fall in love with her, I was not, nor am I at any time, fully in possession of an understanding of myself. In falling for the woman, I left my true self behind, and became enraptured by some aspects of her; her smile, her hair, her quick wit, but only aspects nonetheless; it was not true love because I did not love her entire being, and was only able to realize my misstep when I returned to my true self and was able to cast an eye back over my conduct; only in this way can we know ourselves.

This is not, however, to be an argument for doubt, for an existence so steeped in a need for authenticity that it keeps us from going into the world and experiencing life; instead, Merleau-Ponty states that “My love, hated, and will are not certain as mere thoughts about loving, hating and willing; on the contrary the whole certainty is owed to that of the acts of love, hatred or will of which I am quite sure because I perform them” (181). Our inner thoughts about the world around us cannot serve fully as rationales for living because we cannot be perceived by ourselves; we make our own realities, and only through doing can we find ourselves. By doing, we are able to relate ourselves to the world, and here is where understanding, and Merleau-Ponty's argument comes to its conclusion: instead of Descartes “I think, I am,” we should instead say “I am, I think,” for perception can only exist if we are beings in our worlds.

This is a MASSIVE conclusion, one that goes against centuries of philosophical background that essentially took the cogito to be gospel. Why is it important? Because in the years since, science has proven Merleau-Ponty's assertion; neurologist Antonio Damasio, in his book Descartes' Error (which should be, I think, required reading for EVERYONE), presents evidence for the refutation of the cogito based upon empirical studies of human behavior. His studies of emotion have been accepted and are now taught, and his book is considered a classic 50 years after Merleau-Ponty published his argument. Even though the latter was certainly hostile to the scientific establishment (thought not necessarily the practice of science itself), he was way ahead of the labs in this arena.

My point is, please do not give in to the hubbub and lazy talk of philosophy being for dreamers and impractical types. Yes, some philosophers are scary in that they speak foreign languages and get mistranslated, but that's not a reason to write them off, as I think I have demonstrated here.

Let's Talk About Phenomenology

So, while taking a class on phenomenology last quarter, in between hating pretty much everything about Heidegger and Husserl, I managed to find some aspects of it from one thinker in particular that seemed, contra the two just mentioned, quite logical and empirically based. In this post and probably more to follow, I'm going to examine two famous phenomenologists, Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and see what I can pull from them in order to further my project of reclaiming continental philosophy for those (i.e., the rationalists) who claim it's nothing but fancy wordplay.

Now, there are absolutely legitimate critiques against phenomenology; Husserl is exemplary of most of them. Ideas I, Edmund Husserl put forth a conception of phenomenology in which he advocated for the primacy of consciousness over the natural attitude, or empirical scientific thinking. In parenthesizing, or leaving out of our thoughts, the latter, in a process he called the “phenomenological reduction,” he posited that we would be able to investigate our beings through pure intuition, and only in this way could we reach greater understanding of it. Such a radical idea, such a notionally pure idea, free of suppositions, naturally leaves much to question about it, and thus we have the topic.

The goal from the outset for Husserl is unity, towards which his work has striven. He has constituted it in many different levels now, he says, but must fix the limits of his analysis in order to reach “the ultimate one, the level on which the Objective material thing is actually constituted” What he searches for now is the actual reality of the thing, how it exhibits itself according to its essence, and how that depends upon the human subject for its conception. In the end, he says, “The qualities of materials things... prove to be dependent upon my qualities, the make-up of the experiencing subject, and to be related to my body and my “normal sensibility.” This is because, he says, the Body is the lens through which all perception passes, thus making it an essential part of all perception. It is on this foundation that the Ego is built, and through which the Ego intuits space and senses; the Body is a rock, of the “here and now,” that remains steady and capable of supporting the Ego; it is only in relation to this rock that the Ego can create perception, and know whether the imagined centaur is to the right, or left, whether it is moving or stationary. Without this “center of orientation,” as Husserl puts it, senses would not be able to function as specifically as they do, and without the Ego, the body would be unable to move within the world.

So far, so good, right? Unfortunately not. See, Husserl decides later on that all of this empirical thinking, trying to note how he actually thinks his body works using sense perception and the like, is just not adequate enough, and so introduces a concept called "parenthesizing," sometimes translated as "bracketing off," meaning basically to eliminate or to put aside, in this case referring to our "natural attitude," or the naturalistic account that many might use to view and analyze the world. This way, with the nasty reality forgotten, Husserl believes that we can truly engage with perception and through that connect with the mental and spiritual realms, which are subject to their own rules.

It all sounds just a bit religious, doesn't it? Despite all of Husserl's objections to the contrary, we still find him in a strange, Zen-ish idealism. This is the caricatured face of phenomenology; next post, I'll show you the decent, down-to-earth side.

Habermas and Taylor, Part 3: Radical Secularism


This is part of my blogathon for SSA Week. Donate, and suggest topics for me, here!

In two previous posts, I have laid out the arguments as they stand from Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor, two of the more prominent philosophers of religion working today. The former laid out a type of secularism that incorporated religious notions of community and such into an overall "postsecular" mode that would define society, while the latter proposed a total redefinition of secularism, a new variety that is not primarily concerned with religion, but one that is devoted to serving the absolute needs of its people while maintaining equality of voice as greatly as possible. In this post, I will lay out my own view, such as it is at this moment.

While I do not think he would necessarily agree with how I would like to characterize it, from these two men I take Taylor's redefinition of the secular to be the most important step for me here. This is not to say I discount Habermas: far from it, I agree wholeheartedly with him that the return to political theology is a dangerous turn (though I disagree with him on the importance he believes religion plays in culture; another post for another time). But, I think, as Taylor does, that his solution does not adequately deal with the "fetishization" of religion in western secular democracies, which I believe is possibly the strongest opponent to the removal of reactionary and regressive tendencies from our governments. Religious privilege is amongst the most odious in our society; as Greta has written on before, religion tends to get a free ride from those with the power to check it. To criticize religion or religious belief in our day and age is still a massive taboo.

Hence why a redefinition of secularism is in order. Taylor writes of the new secularism not referring primarily to being a "bulwark against religion," but creating equality of voice across a society, so that, as he wrote in A Secular Age, to celebrate the integrity of not just one, but many ways of life; sex and celibacy, war and peace, dogs and cats. This is a noble sentiment, and one I agree with, but the question becomes of how such a redefinition becomes possible.

It is tempting, if for but a moment, to take the Marxist view and demand immediate action, a revolution to overthrow the established order and install one based on, as Adorno put it, a perfect mixture of theory and practicality. This would, however, be committing the same crime that I mentioned earlier; that we would be creating a hierarchy of value, where one way is right and all the others are wrong. This will lead to disaster.

So what, then? I still think secularism as an overarching ethical is needed, but revolution of rationalism is not going to cut it. Any redefinition of secularism must, I feel, have a progressive, humanist ethics at its core. This is an ethics that demands action and stances that support true equality for women, full and equal rights for queer people, access to complete medical care and housing for those who want it, the decriminalization of drugs and sex work, and an end to state violence, to name just a few. Secularism must be about fighting oppression, not creating a new privileged class; and in this fight, we fight against all oppression or we fight against none of it.

These three posts should serve as an introduction to my thought on politics and the secular. Throughout the summer and beyond, I will be developing in full the ideas and claims I have laid out here in greater detail. I hope you have found these posts interesting, and if you have questions, objections, or general comments, please put them below and I will answer them as soon as I am able.

And now, for the rest of the night, I may just harp on phenomenology to taunt my rationalist readers. Stay tuned.

Solving the Israel-Palestine Conflict in 50 Words or Less

Another request from Heather.

The answer? End intersecting systems of oppression. Violent fundamentalist eligion being obvious, but more overtly, racism and the military-industrial complex that perpetuates the spread of arms in the area. Lookin' at you, America.

That should settle it.

Back To It in a Bit

Hi all,

I'll be back to blogathonning soon. I'm planning on doing a post an hour now between the post that comes up after this one until 12 AM Central, just because I'm a bit exhausted and would like to analyze the few topics I still want to cover a bit more in-depth than if I was doing every half hour.

Before I'm back to it, though, I would just like to thank everyone who has contributed so far and given me stuff to write about. Pretty much all of you have been students, and I certainly know that none of us have money, so it means even more that you're willing to donate to the SSA to see me write about stuff. It's a truly great organization, so know that you're supporting a good cause.

Also, thank you to everyone who has pointed people my direction today. Greta, Dan, JT, Brianne, et al, I have had more traffic today than in this blog's existence. Thanks for letting your readers know!

Finally, thank you to Chana, who previously spent six hours in a cafe with me writing, talking, and generally being cool as shit like she always is. If you haven't been reading her stuff today, you're doing yourself a disservice.

See you soon!

Habermas and Taylor, Part 2: The Modern Moral Order


This is part of my blogathon for SSA Week. Donate, and suggest topics for me, here!

In a previous post, I briefly detailed Jurgen Habermas' arguments against political theology and his view that a "postsecular" stance is required in order to formulate a society that is truly secular, where religion is incorporated but given no primacy. In this post, I will examine Charles Taylor's response to Habermas.

Taylor objects to Habermas in many respects, most importantly for my purposes in that he views the latter man's conception of a state that incorporates religion as "treating religion as a special case." It's a symptom of secular society as we have known it; he cites the US and France, though very different cases, as examples of how churches, in this case Christianity, have always managed to maintain an apartness from secular government, and are allowed by said government to essentially play by their own rules; take for example tax-exempt status.

This happens, Taylor contends, due to the need of citizens to have common points to rally around, what Taylor calls "collective agency," or that with which people of the same nationality identify with as expressing their freedom and cultural expression, in most cases both. In the democratic era, such notions are not set in stone, and so the legitimacy of the state might seem to be under greater question; that is, unless, the modern secular democracy has a very strong collective identity, which, Taylor believes, is much greater than that expressed by a dictatorship, as democracy requires "much more solidarity and much more commitment to one another in our joint political project" ("Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism"). This task can never be completed, as the project is not unilateral; as such a problem always exists, and can never truly have the same answer, but the fundamental goods remain the same: liberte, egalite, fraternite.

In this sense, Taylor argues that governments labeled "secularist" must be ones that are not primarily aimed as being "bulwarks against religion," but those that best satisfy the needs of an increasingly diverse world; by attempting to maximize the goals of liberty and equality amongst vastly different viewpoints, Taylor believes that the current issue that we atheists so often angst about, having to balance out respect for people's self-determination while not letting their beliefs that we believe to be harmful slide, could be solved, and as a result, the state could truly accept everyone and treat all groups equally.

Later, I will finish this series with my own thoughts.

Break Time.

Hey everyone, Chana and I are going to be packing it in for a bit. Being new to this whole blogathon thing, and also still being fried from finals, we need to refresh and recharge for a bit.

My next post in the Habermas/Taylor series is coming up, and after that I will be back by 7.

Well, all right then.

My friend Evan, who I have known for a really damned long time now, is a terrible person. He has asked me to prove the statement that Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon" is in fact a critique of US foreign policy.

Frankly, I don't know how it could be so, as the song is so obviously a love letter to Iran. Just check this out:

Desert loving in your eyes all the way.If I listen to your lies,would you say I'm a man without conviction,I'm a man who doesn't knowhow to sell a contradiction? 
You come and go, you come and go.
Karma, karma, karma, karma, karma, chameleon,You come and go, you come and go.Loving would be easy if your colours were like my dreams:red, gold, and green, red, gold, and green. 
Didn't you hear your wicked words ever'y day.And you used to be so sweet. I heard you say that my love was an addiction.When we cling, our love is strong.When you go, you're gone forever.You string along, you string along.

I think it's obvious to anyone with a passing knowledge of international relations that Boy George is clearly playing the role of the United States post-1979: the US is a jilted lover (of oil), stunned by the nation's sudden turn away from its love (money), taking off its Shah hat for its Ayatollah crown. Red and gold and green? Red and green for the flag, gold (at the center of the arrangement), standing for gold.

The US' love was an addiction. To oil. The line "When you go, you're gone forever," clearly refers to the closing of the Suez Canal.

Damned Iran. Such a tease.

In which we play with puppies...



... instead of blogging. It's gettin real, folks.

Why Does Sam Harris Matter?

You know who I'm talking about. Sells a lot of books. Says things like this.

I mean, really? Why do we like him?

All he seems to have offered, aside from Letter to a Christian Nation, seems to be Islamophobia and long-since debunked philosophical arguments.

I would really like to know this, everyone. Please help me out.

Can We Define Objective Morality?


This is part of my blogathon for SSA Week. Donate, and suggest topics for me, here!

This one comes in from Mike Mei, formerly of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago: he asks how we can define objective morality.

I'm not really sure that we can.

See, my philosophical beginning was with Albert Camus, and to this day I still view one of my first touchstones in my worldview as being the absurdist assertion that there is no intrinsic meaning to the world, but instead we create meaning based on experience. I believe that each and every freethinking person probably views morality in very different ways, but that does not, for me, necessarily mean that one viewpoint is better than another. 

I suppose more than anything I would define myself as a consequentialist. Defined simply, this means that we evaluate how moral an action is based on whether or not it created a good outcome; I'm not a utilitarian, as that relies far too much on Enlightenment notions of ethics for my comfort. But, empirically, we know that actions considered by many to be "good" are not always so; take, for example, a person who gives food to a homeless person out of kindness, without knowing that said homeless person is allergic to an ingredient in the food they were given. And indeed morally "bad" actions can be said to have good outcomes, such as if someone managed to kill a person threatening to kill innocents before they could pull the trigger, as it were. These are basic examples, but I think illustrate the point.

Hence my dilemma. I know, for instance, Dan Fincke over at Camels With Hammers has argued in favor of there being objective morality, but I have yet to properly engage with that material. As such, my answer, for now, is that I do not personally believe it is possible for there to be a set of morals that is objectively right or wrong.

But, I will be happy to hear opposing arguments, and maybe be proven wrong.

Lunch Break!

I need noms. Back at 2:30.


I Aim to Misbehave: A Comment on Humanist Communities

Over at Almost Diamonds and Temple of the Future respectively, Stephanie Zvan and James Croft, two people whose work I think very highly of, are having a discussion on Humanist communities. James and I have previously had discussions on the language use around the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy (now Community, I see), but I have not yet really written my thoughts on the idea of such communities, as counters to the religious variety. I'll do that here, as well as in the future, I'm sure.

I'm going to start with a film reference. In Joss Whedon's Serenity, the movie made to round up some plot lines from the utterly brilliant yet cruelly canceled Firefly, main character Captain Mal Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion, has a superb monologue. Without going into too much detail for the philistines among you who have not seen it, it comes after a revelation of a massive coverup by the Alliance, the authoritarian ruling government of the galaxy. It's a horrific tale, and Mal decides that the crew have to reveal it to the people; he says [emphasis mine]
"Sure as I know anything, I know this - they [the Alliance] will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They'll swing back to the belief that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin'. I aim to misbehave."
The bolded segment here is the heart of my problem. It was further enforced when Crommunist posted this piece the other day in which he detailed a conversation he and James had had over ostracizing potential attendees from Humanist communities, which James apparently has no problem with doing.

I worry about this quite a bit. One of the things that I have seen over and over again as I have been a secular activist is that atheists and rationalists will use their criticisms of religion to create a new dogma on their own, another set of principles that set up an unchallengeable belief system: as I have learned previously, to criticize Richard Dawkins in this movement is akin to stealing groceries from little old ladies, in terms of the righteous backlash.

Though James will certainly argue otherwise, I worry that this kind of thing is what would happen in a Humanist community like those he wants to set up. When he says things like he did to Crommunist, about not being bothered about accepting everyone, he is inevitably setting up a binary of right and wrong. And, to borrow from Thedor Adorno, we must be wary of creating collective ethos, of setting up hierarchies of morality; collective ethos are almost always conservative ones, which Judith Butler characterizes as postulating a "false unity that attempts to suppress the difficulty and discontinuity existing within any contemporary ethos" (Giving an Account of Oneself, p. 4).

I encourage James and all other secularists to apply the same rationality and skepticism that they prize to their own views. Hierarchical divisions, based on virtue or reason or whatever, will break this movement as sure as anything.

Suggestion: The One Book High Schoolers Should Read


This is part of my blogathon for SSA Week. Donate, and suggest topics for me, here!

This suggestion comes in from Heather, who asks "If you had the opportunity to choose one book to be required reading in American high schools, which one would it be?"

This is a ridiculously hard question because I am such a book nerd, but I think my answer would ultimately be The People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

I debated in my head some more typical answers, like Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, something Shakespeare, the like, but Chana said that it needs to be something that completely changes the way that you think, and I agree.

Zinn's book is a tome, and an absolute classic. It starts with Columbus' arrival in the Caribbean and continues through to the present day, presenting a narrative of the history of America not through the old rich white men who are all anyone focuses on in high school history classes, but instead takes his readers to the plantations, coal mines, and picket lines of the working classes. For most readers, it is their country seen in an entirely new light; not the land of the free, home of the brave, democracy and apple pie national legend that we all have shoved down our throats from day one, but instead one where the haves exploit and oppress the have nots to maintain their privilege and wealth.

I think Zinn himself described his work best of all.
My history, therefore, describes the inspiring struggle of those who have fought slavery and racism (Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses), of the labor organizers who have led strikes for the rights of working people (Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, C├ęsar Chavez), of the socialists and others who have protested war and militarism (Eugene Debs, Helen Keller, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, Cindy Sheehan). My hero is not Theodore Roosevelt, who loved war and congratulated a general after a massacre of Filipino villagers at the turn of the century, but Mark Twain, who denounced the massacre and satirized imperialism... 
I want young people to understand that ours is a beautiful country, but it has been taken over by men who have no respect for human rights or constitutional liberties. Our people are basically decent and caring, and our highest ideals are expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which says that all of us have an equal right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The history of our country, I point out in my book, is a striving, against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make those ideals a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that.


Schooling, particularly high school, should be about free thought and critical investigation. I think Zinn's book is one of the best catalysts for this that is available.

Habermas and Taylor, Part 1: Political Theology and the Public Sphere

This is part of my blogathon for SSA Week. Donate, and suggest topics for me, here!

As I mentioned briefly before, I am a philosophy and art history major at DePaul University in Chicago when I'm not being the president of DAFT. Thought I'm constantly questioning these two life choices in terms of future career (especially when Richard Carrier posts things like this), I think there is a lot to be gained from the perspective of a philosopher. Yes, certainly, that isn't true for all, but at least in my training thus far, I have learned an immense amount on not only how to write or argue, but on how to think; I now devour books in a completely different way than I used to. For instance, I can't read anything any more without a pen in my hand to underline and annotate. Particularly if it's something I'm going to be referring back to.

In any case, it has been my intention for a long time to write more philosophically on this blog, largely inspired by Dan Fincke of Camels With Hammers, who somehow manages to write long posts with very sophisticated but clear arguments damned near every day when he isn't grading. I don't want superpowers, I just want to be able to do that.

So, here's my first musing of the day.

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I've recently been reading quite a lot of theory on secularism and religion in preparation for writing my undergraduate thesis next year, which will be on the topic of apathy and political engagement in a contemporary context, namely in the fact that I think there is an essential dearth of action inherent in liberal secular democracies that allows those in power to continue to rule, even through the tenures of many "elected" officials; I refer to the "smoke-filled room" types, corporate bosses and bankers et al., that seem to be the ones really making the decisions.

In this paper, I want to formulate an argument towards regaining a spirit of activism in the modern world; one of the points of this will be an extended analysis of religious and secular worldviews as motivators. In this post, via Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor, I want to take my first step in defining the kind of secularism I think will be needed to make this happen.

The encompassing concept that seems to be defining current debates on secularism and religion in philosophical circles is that of "political theology," or the concept that postulates that religious ways of thinking are prevalent throughout political, social, and economic theories. The classic example of this is Carl Schmitt, who wrote an entire book on the topic: he argued that all political theories relate to government in the same way that theology relates to religion, and particularly used the concept of Original Sin, our old friend, to argue for authoritarianism.

The premise we have here is that politics is propped up in the same way that religion is; through dogmatic ways of thinking that exist to maintain order. Nationalism in particular comes to mind here as a notion of the political acting like the religious.

Contra this, Habermas, one of the more prominent political philosophers of the past few decades, makes the case that the revival of political theology and this notion of "the political" is to attempt to make the state out to be a totality, a historical notion of the nation-state not terribly dissimilar from a Rousseauian social contract, where all citizens of the nation buy into a narrative of power that is based on smoke and legend; such a conception, Habermas contends, has been rendered obsolete by the revelation of state power through what he terms "the public sphere."

Now, however, in a society where the capitalist economic "juggernaut" reigns more than any political philosophy, he sees the resurgence of political theology as an attempt to return the control over these forces to "human agents." This, he argues, is just more smoke and mirrors, and so a new, "postsecular" stance is required, one which has a handle on the continued vitality of religion in public life; it has not gone away, and shows little sign of doing so in a global sense. In a turn that reminds one of Quine, he says that religion is part of the bond of society, but that its language must be secularized into a "universally accessible language," understandable by all, not just the religious or the secular.

In my next post, I will turn to Charles Taylor's critique of Habermas, and offer my own analysis.

The Greatest Live Performance in History

This is part of my blogathon for SSA Week. Donate, and suggest topics for me, here!

So, while I do a bit of philosophizing, feast upon this performance by The Who, which I truly believe to be the best live rock and roll performance ever. Not only because it's awesome, but because Mick Jagger wouldn't release the footage for years, as The Who completely blew the Stones off stage. Ah, jealousy.



An Update on Bradley Manning

This is part of my blogathon for SSA Week. Donate, and suggest topics for me, here!

For those of you who read my work over at In Our Words, you might remember that a couple of months ago I wrote a novel on the case of Private Bradley Manning, a US Army soldier who was arrested when it was discovered that they had leaked data to an information broker of sorts, which included footage of US soldiers killing innocents and claiming they were terrorists as well as thousands of cables detailing diplomatic operations. I argued that the way they have been treated is unconscionable and horrifying, especially given the crime supposedly committed.

Since I wrote that piece, Manning has been moved out of the prison where he was held in isolation and apparently, been treated better, probably as a result of the UN Rapporteur on Torture reporting that the US' treatment of Manning, as well as their efforts to obstruct his investigation, constituted violations of UN regulations.

Now, Private Manning is on the verge of going before a full military trial. However, there are possible bright spots, namely that the military and Obama administration are actually allowing Manning's defense team to have full access to government documents relating to the case, an act of fair play that seems odd for our government.

So, Manning is not out of the woods, but there is a slight chance that justice may be served in this case. We cannot forget the injustice of this case, nor what it represents: that our government, despite trying to argue otherwise, is more and more trying to become less transparent. If we want to live in a free and open society, we have to fight against such authoritarian moves, or we're acquiescing to, for lack of a better term, letting the bad guys win.

Why The High School Movement is Awesome

This post is a suggestion from August Brunsman, the awesome and adorable Executive Director of the Secular Student Alliance. Don't forget to donate and suggest topics for me here!

I tended in high school to generally be a pretty terrible person. I was dealing with lots of shit, most down to my brain being cut open twice (that's a whole other story. Maybe later...), but I just was not very nice. Had there been an SSA in my awful bourgie Cincinnati suburbs white peoplesville school, I may not have been so terrible.

See, a few weeks ago, Kate Donovan of the Northwestern SSA, JT Eberhard of Clan Badass, Arthur Wawrzyczek who is DAFT's vice president, and I made our way an hour northwest of Chicago to a place called Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville for an activism fair being put on by a teacher there named Bruce Taylor, who is the advisor for their branch of the Youth Labor Committee (!!). This was my first sign that this school was magic.

See, as most of us know (or are currently going through), high school sucks. It's a place where artifice rules, where if you don't win the popularity lottery, your life will be miserable. Some of us fought against this, and managed to survive it (in my case, thanks to lots of books, old movies, and my father's scotch). However, from all appearances, Dundee-Crown has none of that. When we got there and set up the SSA table, I was blown away first of all by how diverse the school is. Being in Chicago's suburbs, which are notoriously whitewashed and soul-crushing, I expected that to be the case here, but, though I have no demographic information to back this up, it looked to me like, gender and race wise, there was damned near equal representation. Also, I expected the kids to view the activism fair as a chore, something Mean Mr. Taylor (who by the way every year for this gets Noam Chomsky on the line for a conference call with students. I know, right?) was making them do. But no: attracted to our table by the magic and singing skills of JT, who was trading magic tricks if the students would wear SSA swag, knew their shit. They were down with politics, economics, all that good shit.

Which leads me to my final point about D-C's awesomeness: within the first hour we were there, two students came up to the table and asked what we were all about. After hearing from us and asking more questions, they asked immediately if they could form a high school group at Dundee-Crown. We obviously said yes, JT gave them his card, and told them to e-mail him when they got a faculty advisor.

Three hours later, they were back with a prospective faculty advisor.

Fuck yeah, right?

Many other awesome things happened that day, but it was this that still stands out in my mind as the best part of the day. Not because I was representing the SSA, but because it took these students THREE HOURS to find a faculty member when it seems at most other schools JT deals with the students are forced to fight against the administration tooth and nail to just start a group.

Dundee-Crown is DEFINITELY out of the ordinary, in that it is a warm, nurturing public school; I'm pretty sure still it's the only one. It's the kind of environment where an SSA affiliate can thrive, in an atmosphere of open intellectual discourse. For the schools who try to pick fights with JT, though, I think that the SSA can be a huge influence on making those schools better places for students and faculty alike. In a time of life that emphasizes sticking with the herd, not acting out, and generally forming you into nice little productive automatons, a group dedicated to free thought might be the most radical outlet possible.

Forward the Secular Student Alliance. Liberate ALL the high schools!

All right, here we go.

Oh hai. Sorry about that.

I am Andrew Tripp, philosophy and art history major, the President of the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought, renowned scoundrel, and I want you to give me your money.

No, don't go! I promise, it's for a really good cause.

See, the Secular Student Alliance, the umbrella organization of which my group is a member, is trying to raise $100,000 over SSA Week, so that they can continue kicking ass, taking names, and generally being awesome.

So why am I here, you ask? Because, along with my very good friend and president of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago, Chana, I am going to be blogging for the next twelve hours straight. I will be posting every half hour to hour depending on what I am writing about; some posts will be about SSA stuff, or other general news stories, which take less time to do, but some will be full-blown philosophical analyses that I might need a bit more time to complete. Whatever. I don't follow your rules. Nyyyyuuuuuuuuh.

So, that's what you can expect. But, I need your help. In order to make sure my blogging remains high quality, and also so that I'm not just doing this for my own ego, I need you to go and donate to the SSA. For a measly $10, you can suggest a topic for me to write about; I will take and complete all requests, in some form hopefully at least somewhat resembling what you asked for. The sillier, the better; I will abide by the same guidelines Chana laid out in the post I linked to above. Silly photos, art historical analysis of puppy photos, whatever. Come at me.

Hi There!

Hello one and all and welcome to Blogathon for SSA Week! A proper intro post will be coming shortly as soon as I've had some caffeine and cooled down a bit.

Until then, PUPPIES!


Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Official Considered Exclamations SSA Week Page!

Want to contribute directly to my goal of raising $100 for the SSA? Go here!

I will repost this as I blog on the 12th. August Brunsman, the SSA's director, has already made the first contribution; go show him up!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

BLOGATHON

Hello all.

This is my announcement that, in support of SSA Week, on June 12th I will be blogging for 12 hours straight, starting at 10 in the morning and ending at 10 in the evening.

Why, you ask? Because the Secular Student Alliance is a fucking phenomenal organization that I love with all of my heart. Since my adventures with DAFT began, they have always been there with support and guidance and friendship, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to know and work with them.

There's an added bonus to this: if you donate to the SSA and mention me, I will write a blog post on the topic of your choice.

So, there it is. Look out, the secularists are coming for your malleable minds.