I ended my lecture this morning — on Richard Rorty and the power of literature to help us imagine new identities for ourselves, especially when it comes to moral decision-making — by asking students about “Star Wars: A New Hope.”
Specifically, I asked them whether they identified with one of the main characters over the others. By “main character,” I had in mind Luke, Leia, and Han. I suppose a case could be made, also, that Darth Vader is a main character … but I wasn’t thinking that anyone would consider him as an exemplar of moral decision-making.
One student said he always identified with Luke Skywalker. Another chose Obi-Wan Kenobi (somewhat unusually, I think, since he appears for only a few minutes and we learn almost nothing about him).
The other twenty-two students stared at me as though I’d just asked them to pick their favorite character from “My Dinner With Andre.”
At an average price of $901, it’s 112% more expensive than the last two Rose Bowls. It’s so expensive, in fact, that Michigan State’s Federal Credit Union is offering loans for students looking to attending the game, starting at a minimum of $1,000. With the deluge of debt that students are leaving school with, this hardly feels like responsible lending, however, when it comes to tickets for games in Pasadena, emotion clearly trumps responsibility.
Students, here’s a friendly word of advice:
If you’re thinking seriously this week about whether or not you ought to take out a loan to go to the Rose Bowl, don’t.
The Nonhuman Rights Project, an advocacy group led by Steven M. Wise, filed writs of habeas corpus in New York last week on behalf of four captive chimpanzees: Tommy, owned by a Gloversville couple; two at Stony Brook University; and one at the Primate Sanctuary in Niagara Falls. The lawsuits were dismissed, but Mr. Wise said he planned to appeal.
He believes that the historical use of habeas corpus lawsuits as a tool against human slavery offers a model for how to fight for legal rights for nonhumans.
His case relies heavily on science. Nine affidavits from scientists that were part of the court filings offer opinions of what research says about the lives, thinking ability and self-awareness of chimpanzees.
Mr. Wise argues that chimps are enough like humans that they should have some legal rights; not the right to vote or freedom of religion — he is not aiming for a full-blown planet of the apes — but a limited right to bodily liberty. The suits asked that the chimps be freed to go to sanctuaries where they would have more freedom.
Talking about dolphin rights or chimpanzee rights makes some sense to me; they might not have the precise language to claim their rights, but they could nonetheless conceive of themselves as individuals with a distinct sense of self and we could, on that basis, make a rights claim on their behalf.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the 4th of July. It would have been eminently symbolic if Nelson Mandela had died December 10th, International Human Rights Day. No single person better personified the notion of human rights in modern times than Mandela, who passed from this life on December 5 at the amazing age of 95. Despite 27 years of prison which included stretches of hard labor, his body proved as strong and vibrant as his mind. Both were devoted to fighting South Africa’s version of racial segregation.
Mandela’s incarceration was entirely legal under the laws of white minority government in that nation. But the idea of human rights rests on the argument that there is a universal set of personal rights which are fundamental for securing a life with dignity, whatever this or that national law might say. After all, the Nazis had laws too.
How then are we to know what those universal rights are? We could rely on philosophers, whether they believed in natural law or not. A practical answer is that all the states of the world meet and negotiate a set of fundamental personal rights. This is what happened on December 10th in 1948 when the UN General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights without dissenting vote (but with 8 abstentions). Human rights treaties followed to convert diplomatic agreement into law.
Universal human rights do not implement themselves. People like Mandela have to take up the challenge of securing implementation. This he did first through peaceful protest and legal argument, then later through support of armed action when the white authorities increased repression. From jail he continued to lead the opposition to apartheid in the name of the rights of all regardless of color and other superficial distinctions like gender or economic status.
Those South Africans with vested interests in the status quo resisted for a long time with brutal determination. Such elites always do, because human rights are not given. They are wrestled from below in a political process. The white minority South African elite yielded not to superior moral and legal logic, but because they finally recognized that given the pressures they faced, their own self-interests could only be protected in rainbow democracy. All-race elections occurred there in 1994, and a free Mandela voted for the first time in his life.
Americans now praise Mandela, from President Obama to Tiger Woods. But U.S. foreign policy was slow to decisively oppose apartheid in South Africa. Nebraska acted earlier, applying economic pressure through the Unicam as Senator Ernie Chambers led the fight to deny state pension fund investments to companies profiting from racial discrimination in South Africa.
Commentators now sermonize about how South Africans should keep alive Mandela’s memory and his determined but politically shrewd commitment to universal human rights. Americans might do the same as we continue to debate immigration reform, health care reform, and other perplexing questions such as what to do about violation of human rights in Syria. Universal human rights might indeed prove important in shaping national developments. Mandela (and Jefferson) believed in that possibility.
If we want to remain faithful to Mandela’s legacy, we should thus forget about celebratory crocodile tears and focus on the unfulfilled promises his leadership gave rise to. We can safely surmise that, on account of his doubtless moral and political greatness, he was at the end of his life also a bitter, old man, well aware how his very political triumph and his elevation into a universal hero was the mask of a bitter defeat. His universal glory is also a sign that he really didn’t disturb the global order of power.
Today is my birthday and it’s been a good, low-key one.
I took my son to Omaha’s Durham Museum, which is a beautiful old train station now filled with trains (as well as other exhibits about Omaha’s (and Nebraska’s and the American West’s) relatively recent past). He watched the model trains on their tracks, walked through a bunch of retired train cars, ate a snack at the fully operational soda fountain, and played with a hands-on exhibit about how steam engines work.
After, we stopped for lunch at our local bagel place and he chatted with a girl from day care (out with her grandparents), the father of another of his friends, and a group of six grandmotherly women who sat at the table next to ours. Halfway through his lunch, he said (without any fanfare or even looking up from his plate), “This is yummy. I love you, Daddy.”
Extensive reports by French scientists into Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death have ruled out poisoning by radioactive polonium, his widow said Tuesday. The results contradict earlier findings by a Swiss lab, and mean it’s still unclear how Arafat died nine years ago.
Scientists from several countries have tried to determine whether polonium played a role in his death in a French military hospital in 2004. Palestinians have long suspected Israel of poisoning him, which Israel denies.
I’ll be interested to see if this report is covered as extensively as all the reports that the Israelis definitely poisoned Arafat to death.
Despite Murphy’s slur-laden speech, the scrawling of the N-word on a campus sidewalk and the administrative response to both, some students say cries of racism at UNL are overblown. Ask Spencer Garrett, a junior advertising and public relations and marketing major, and he’ll say the N-word is offensive, but only as long as people regard it as such.
“Racism’s only big if you make it big,” he said. “You don’t actively have to go after it.”
It’s white people who experience much of the racial issues at UNL, he said. Garrett said the presence of minorities requires white people to be extra careful, “all the time.”
“It doesn’t matter where I am, I’m always looking to see who’s in the room,” he said. “If there’s an African-American or an Asian or anybody. Because who knows what you’re going to say that can be construed as racist to them?”
“I get it, Caucasians enslaved African-Americans a long time ago, hundreds of years ago,” he said. “Awful things happened, centuries of slavery and horrible conduct among our people, our people being Caucasian people, Europeans. But while we still may be linked ancestrally to those people, why do we still have to get crap for it all the time, from everybody?”
Whereas I previously claimed that the books were all action and no character development, that the stakes were impossibly low because the people had no inner lives, I now see the error of my ways. In this film, after all, we learn that — SPOILER ALERT!!! — Katniss has a favorite color and that color is green.
Tony Rohr, 28, had worked for the chain for more than 10 years.
When he refused to open on Thanksgiving Day this year and force his employees to work, he says, he was told to write a letter of resignation. Instead, he wrote one explaining why the store should remain closed.
"All my friends are telling me how cool it is and how proud they are — ‘You’re my hero’ and stuff you don’t expect to hear," Rohr said. "No, I’m just some guy who told his boss ‘No’ and got burned. There are people who save lives."
Justin Smith has a really interesting piece on the death penalty over at The Stone, in which he connects the annual presidential Thanksgiving pardoning of a turkey with the capriciousness of the death penalty in America:
Obama’s pardoning of one randomly selected bird at Thanksgiving not only carries with it an implicit validation of the slaughtering of millions of other turkeys. It also involves an implicit validation of the parallel practice for human beings, in which the occasional death-row inmate is pardoned, or given a stay by the hidden reasoning of an increasingly capricious Supreme Court, even as the majority of condemned prisoners are not so lucky. In this respect, the Thanksgiving pardon is an acknowledgment of the arbitrariness of the system of capital punishment.
I think the whole piece is nicely done, though perhaps Smith does try to connect a few too many disparate points on his way to his conclusion; it’s not just turkeys and death row inmates on his mind, but also Alan Dershowitz’s inane post-9/11 torture warrant idea, the general problem of corporal punishment for democracy, and the faux concern we attempt to demonstrate when we search for ever more humane methods of killing people. Still, it’s an interesting piece that’s worth reading if you want to reflect a bit before you go out and buy your Butterball.
Whenever I write something or give a lecture about Israel — on the human rights situation, international relations, or its domestic politics — someone invariably says to me, “Why are you so against Israel? You’d feel differently if your loved ones lived there or if you thought seriously about the legacy of the Holocaust.”
This is interesting for a couple of reasons:
First, because it’s so obviously wrong. I actually think I like Israel quite a lot (in fact, I also frequently get nasty notes from people who think I’m some sort of rabid Zionist), I have a whole bunch of family living in Israel, and I tend to think I know quite a bit about the legacy of the Holocaust since two of my grandparents survived it and a whole lot of my family did not.
But second, and more importantly, because it’s such a blatant attempt to use private reasons when public reasons aren’t working. When I’m critical of the human rights record of the Israeli government or when I take sides between the various political parties in an election, I’m attempting to use public reasons to sway someone else’s opinion; if I write, for example, that I would prefer a party other than Likud to win an election, my preference is presumably backed by some reason rather than just a feeling. It’s not that I simply dislike Netanyahu; it’s that I can sketch out various ways in which his preferred public policy positions are not in the best interest of the Israeli electorate (to say nothing of non-Israelis). The best response to my claims would be to refute them with other public reasons, to suggest that my own reasoning about what’s in the best interest of the electorate is mistaken for some reason or that there’s a different way to understand the human rights concerns I raise. The worst response is to suggest that I don’t feel deeply enough the tragic history of the Jewish people or that I haven’t established a strong enough connection to Israel.
This type of thinking suggests that — if only I had a more personal connection to Israel, the Holocaust, or maybe even to Judaism — I’d be more willing to ignore the public reasons that I’ve expressed with regard to human rights or public policy matters. But, of course, see #1 above.
Those public reasons aren’t going away, no matter how many family members of mine live in Israel or perished in the Holocaust. In fact, I think it’s important to recognize that I have this connection and that, nonetheless, I can attempt to think somewhat objectively about human rights or war-mongering or the peace process.
So … tell me I’m wrong about negotiations with Iran, or expanding settlements, or whatever else … but use reasons that might convince anyone anywhere, not just someone with your own personal beliefs or history.
His first bill failed in 2011; now he’s trying again.
The Nebraska Legislature is not even in session and already the Senator’s proposal starts a public debate among parents and the general public. Senator Christensen’s proposal requires teachers to hold a concealed-carry permit and take additional training, possibly in a simulator.
State education and law enforcement groups strongly opposed the 2011 bill.
So, if you’re keeping score at home, Mark Christensen believes so strongly in weaponizing our teachers that he’s proposing this bill a) when the State Legislature isn’t even in session yet and b) after his first bill on the subject was strongly opposed by both education and law enforcement groups (two pretty key players in the debate on whether educators should get into the law enforcement game).
It's completely asinine to believe that making a deal with Iran was a good thing. They played the US like a fiddle, and they can now continue to work on their nuclear program as much they want to for the next six months. Meanwhile, the US is slowly pushing away its only true ally in the Middle East (Israel) in order to make a half assed pact with Hezbollah-controlled Iran.
I’m going to pretend that this was a serious question about the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, rather than the fact-less rant it is, and provide a brief answer about why the deal doesn’t simply allow Iran to “continue to work on their nuclear program as much [as] they want to for the next six months.”
Here’s a quick primer, courtesy of our good friends at CNN:
As part of the deal, Iran will be required to dilute its stockpile of uranium that had been enriched to 20%…. The deal also mandates Iran halt all enrichment above 5% and dismantle the technical equipment required to do that. Before the end of the initial phase of the deal, all its stockpiles should be diluted below 5% or converted to a form not suitable for further enrichment, the deal states.
Iran would also have to cut back on constructing new centrifuges and enrichment facilities, and freeze essential work on its heavy-water reactor under development at Arak. That facility could be used as a source of plutonium — a second pathway to a nuclear bomb. The reactor under construction southwest of Tehran had been a sticking point in earlier negotiations.
Iran is expected to provide daily access to inspectors from the international agency, IAEA. The inspectors will be expected to visit centrifuge assembly and storage facilities, uranium mills and the Arak reactor, among others. The P5+1 and Iran will also form a joint task force on the issue.
Is the deal perfect? Certainly not.
Is it guaranteed to succeed in all of its aims? It’s not.
Is it better than the foolish saber-rattling from Israel that might lead to war and the sanctions that punish the Iranian people for decisions undertaken by a regime they’ve tried to oust, unsuccessfully, in the very recent past? Yeah, I’d say so.
A thought on bystanders: you say we should practice the small everyday things to be ready should we ever be called to that terrible moment of heroism. I agree. I think we need to practice it most in when knowing not to laugh. The inappropriate joke is the beginning of the bystander response. Practice explaining why it's not funny. Or even start by staying silent. Small steps.
Identifying “the cruel joke” and not laughing along with it is an important first step; it’s clearly a recognition of the possibility of the suffering of others (whether on a small scale or not) and a decision not to contribute to it.
The next step moves beyond identification of the wrongness of the joke and the decision to stand apart from it; as you say, it’s “explaining why it’s not funny.”
It’s very rare indeed that I see someone explain to a stranger, or even a friend, why a joke is inappropriate or cruel … but when it happens — when someone says to someone else, “That’s not cool” or “Don’t say things like that” — it’s clearly a breaking down of bystander behavior.
This year’s allocation of Pappy Van Winkle’s cult bourbon was recently released. There’s never enough supply to meet demand, which means two things: lines rivaling iPhone release day queues and high resale prices.
On Craigslist in NYC, bottles of Pappy are for sale for hundreds and and even thousands of dollars. One seller is offering a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year for $1,250…that’s right around $80 for each 1.5 oz pour (without any markup).
As someone who has loved Van Winkle bourbon for more than a decade now, who fondly remembers the days when a bottle of 15 Year was reliably ~$45, and who would quietly tell a trusted friend or two about it each year, there’s something very sad about the massive internet-fueled bandwagoning that has produced a black market for bottles of the good stuff.
Chancellor Harvey Perlman sent a collegewide email Thursday condemning racial intolerance after “use of the N-word and insensitive racial impersonations” were brought to his attention.
Graffiti of the N-word on campus and a student’s use of the word during a student government meeting prompted Perlman’s email, UNL spokesman Steve Smith said.
“I know we are not the only place where these actions have occurred,” Perlman wrote in the email. “But I ask all of you to rise up and say, ‘Not here, not now.’ ”
A lot of people will look down their noses at a “marketing campaign” to respond to instances of racism on campus. A lot of other people will ridicule this level of action taken as a result of three reported incidents at such a large university.
As for me, I think we’re fooling ourselves if we think these are isolated incidents or that they don’t rise to the level of an emergency.
I applaud the fact that the upper administration at UNL is responding in such a public way to these incidents. It would have been easy to chalk these incidents up to foolishness amongst young people, to deal quietly with the students in question, and not to draw so much attention to a problem here in Nebraska.
Kudos to Chancellor Perlman for sending a message about this problem to the entire university community, and for proactively and openly dealing with the issue of racism on campus.
Hi there! I wanted to ask you a question re: heroism and choice, since I gather that's something about which you're an expert, and it's something that bears on my own research: how do we make sense of the difficult choices necessary for heroism in light of philosophical and scientific challenges to free will? Can predetermined choices be considered 'heroic'?
I’m not someone who thinks people can’t make any meaningful choices or that our choices are less significant to us because of our biological makeup.
People are more likely to act heroically if they’ve had heroism modeled in their lives; if they recognize others as being more like themselves than not; if they’ve thought seriously about what they stand for; if they have a deep understanding of the fact of their mortality; and if they act altruistically on a regular basis.
But, when push comes to shove, even people who fit this bill won’t necessarily act heroically. There’s still a choice that has to be made. And lots and lots of people choose not to act.
Now some might say — and perhaps this is what you’re really suggesting — that some people are hard-wired to act heroically and others simpy aren’t. While I’ll certainly agree that some people are predisposed to taking risks and others are risk-averse, this seems to me quite different from saying that people’s choices are all hard-wired or predetermined.
Confession: I haven't read the book - yet. I'm going to. But I have been inspired by a question from your recent posts. I have undoubtedly done heroic things. I was raped and in the immediate aftermath of that saved someone else from same. Classically heroic - although, it wasn't. It was just obviously the only thing to do. The only thing to feel like heroism is recovering from that night. I struggle to save my own life every day - eating disorders & et al. But I doubt that fits any definition?
First of all, thanks for this question. It’s another great example of why I continue to allow anonymous questions despite my reservations regarding internet anonymity. For every three weird or rude anonymous question I get, there’s one serious and important one.
As to your question, I should say that I think you’ll find whole chapters of my book that validate your thinking about heroism in your own life. I’m thinking specifically of the chapters on the suffering of Odysseus and also the chapters on the Socratic other-regarding heroism, as both seem like they could aptly describe some of the experiences you reference here.
The lesson we should take away from reading the Odyssey and thinking about the life of its hero, for example, is that “life is full of toil and suffering, but man should be able not only to endure but also to transform this toil and suffering into supreme achievement. ‘To make of this suffering a glorious life’,” as Hercules says in one of the plays of Sophocles.
Finally, I’d also note that your comment that “It was just obviously the only thing to do” is something we hear time and again from people who act heroically. My own thinking on the matter is that people who put themselves at risk, especially on behalf of others, have done a lot of the most difficult work of heroism ahead of time — that is, preparing themselves for the possibility that they’ll need to act at some point in their lives — and so, when they act, it seems to them as if their action was the only possible choice to make. We know, however, from numerous studies of bystander behavior, that heroes are actually acting in ways that are extraordinary; despite what they say, their actions are really quite different from what is “obviously the only thing to do.”
I'm curious about your thoughts on why we tend to focus on symptoms, like the seemingly endless, D.C. only debate on climate change, rather than the causes. I've told climate change deniers for years that if you crap in the tub, whether it makes the water warmer or not doesn't change what you've done. Aren't we missing the largest, and maybe most vital parts of the discussion when we do this, or am I crazy?
Honestly, I don’t have much of an answer for this question, beyond saying “Sure” … but I couldn’t not publish such an amazing analogy.
And now, having published it, I look forward to all the messages I’ll be getting from anthropogenic climate change skeptics for the rest of the day.
Apparently, there was a bit of a flap on cable television over the past few days.
First, Sarah Palin equated public debt to slavery, explaining as she did it that the comparison definitely wasn’t racist. Then Martin Bashir suggested on his television show that she ought to be punished for that comparison in the absolutely ghastly manner that one slave-owner once wrote about in a diary. Then yesterday he apologized for it.
Which, once again, leads me to wonder why anyone in the world listens to anything being said by Sarah Palin, Martin Bashir, or cable “news” personalities generally.
If this is the best we can do when it comes to public discourse in America, we’re in serious trouble indeed.
How do you set boundaries between your academic and family life?
On the one hand, I go to work like anyone else and, like a great many people, my kids go to day care. That said, my schedule tends to be a whole lot more flexible than that of a lot of people.
I’m only teaching classes two or three days a week, depending on the semester, and even on my teaching days it’s not like I’m in a classroom all day long. The temptation to pick up my kids at 2pm rather than 5pm can be pretty intense, especially on those days when I’m working from my home office rather than my office on campus.
But I don’t. When I’m on campus, I’m on campus all day. I teach, I hold office, and I attend various meetings. And when I’m working from home, I’m reading and/or writing all day; unsurprisingly, I get a lot more of my own work done on the days I’m at home.
I like spending time with my kids and I like my work … so, basically, I keep family life from bleeding into my work by keeping my kids in day care during the week.
It’s actually much more difficult to keep my work from bleeding into my family life. Because so much of my work involves thinking about stuff, I’m pretty much always doing it. It can be pretty difficult to put down a book I’m reading or step away from my computer when I’ve got an idea I want to get onto the page.
When I was younger and didn’t have a family, I’d stay up until 3am if I had an idea and wanted to write it up. Now, I’m in bed by 10pm … because I know I have to get up at 5am and also that I’m likely to be quieting a screaming child at least once during the night. In the past, students would turn in an essay and I’d spend the weekend grading. Now I work during traditional business hours and I try to limit the work I do when my family is home (though I usually work while my kids are napping on the weekend).
The separation of work from family life is easier with regard to my research; if it’s 4:30pm, I’m not going to start writing something new because it’s nearly time to get the kids and make dinner. It’s not so easy with my teaching or administrative responsibilities; students and colleagues will email me at all hours and I’ll generally try to get a response to them as quickly as possible. I find myself answering email messages before 6am and after 5pm pretty much every day of the week, and on Sundays as well. I could do a better job of simply saving those messages for the next morning at 8am; it’s something I’m consciously trying to change but it’s difficult for me to let an email sit, especially if I know I can tap out a quick reply on my phone while I’m playing trains with my son.
I’d like to put up a hard barrier so that work doesn’t flow over into the time I spend with my family, but I suspect that’s a fight with myself that I’m going to have a tough time winning.
You might have addressed this before on your blog, or in your books, or in a lecture, but I'll ask anyway. Do you believe there can be heroes/heroic action taken in pursuit of a morally reprehensible cause? For example, were there heroic actions taken by individuals fighting for the Confederacy or the Nazis?
Can bad people act heroically? Sure.
Can someone do something distinctly impressive in the service of a bad cause? You bet.
Galileo has become, deservedly, one of the heroes of modern times, and Orwell, no less deservedly, one of the heroes of the twentieth century. Admiration for people such as these, who had the courage to buck the received opinion of the day, is entirely appropriate, and indeed necessary. For where there is no worship of heroes and heroines, there will be little moral idealism, and therefore little moral progress….
Just as hero-worship is necessary for moral progress, so is disgust. But one can be disgusted by a person while granting, for what little that is worth, that his or her mistakes were honest ones. The abolitionists were disgusted by Lee’s decision to fight to preserve slavery, but it never occurred to them to deny that Lee was a man of honor….
Honesty and honorableness are measured by the degree of coherence of the stories people tell themselves and come to believe. Most people are able [to] construct a novel of their own lives in which they appear as, if not heroes and heroines, at least good. This is what is true in Socrates’ claim that no one consciously does evil. But if one things, as Christianity and Kant did, that people are bad only because they have deliberately turned away from the light, then one will see most of these stories as dishonest and self-deceptive. To think in that way is to infer, as Plato did, from the fact that coherence is not enough for goodness to the conclusion that there must be some recourse other than coherence — some bright star to steer by, visible to any honest mind.
Plato was wrong. The best we can do, when making moral or political choices, or when deciding between scientific theories or religious convictions, is to work out as coherent a story as we can. But doing that will not ensure that the judgment of history will be on our side. Whether sticking to our stories will make us objects of admiration or of disgust to future generations is entirely beyond our control….
The absence of such a star entails that honorable men and women are quite able to do disgusting things. It also entails that the judgment of history is quite likely to be wrong, since our remote descendants will also lack such a star. But it does not mean that we should, or that we can, stop making moral judgments (p. 68-69).
I tend to think it’s a little bit easier, at least in some cases, to know whether you’re about to act heroically in service of a bad cause (Rorty gives the Stauffenberg plot as an example and concludes that neither the Nazi officers who honored their oath to Hitler or who broke it and plotted to kill him had a star to guide them). But, in the main, I think his point is a very interesting one, that moral progress is made through the veneration of our heroes and that, quite often, their heroics are contingent on the judgments wrought by our contingent historical analysis.