Multi-part question: Will you tell us about a time in your life when you were at a crossroad(s), what big decision you made and how you made the decision?
elledeau

My initial thought was that there just aren’t a lot of big decisions in my life where the outcome felt uncertain to me so I wouldn’t have much to say in response to this question. But, in thinking a bit more deeply about it, I suppose I’d say this is itself noteworthy enough for a response.

When I think of big decisions, I could point to choosing to attend one college or one graduate program over another; or to move from my first job at James Madison University to my current job at Nebraska; or to get married; or to have kids. All of these might be considered crossroads in my life.

But the choices I made in each of those cases felt like the obvious thing to do, both at the time and certainly upon later reflection. I never seriously considered going to grad school anywhere but at Duke once I’d been admitted and I visited. I never thought, after meeting my wife, that I wouldn’t end up marrying her. And so on.

I like to think that this is due to thinking things through in advance. In my writing on heroism, I often note that thinking ahead, planning ahead, is the best preparation for action. If you haven’t thought seriously about the kind of life you want to have lived, about the sorts of actions and choices that define who are you, you won’t be prepared to take action when it’s demanded of you, to make a difficult or dangerous choice when you come to a potential crossroads. I like to think that my crossroads moments haven’t felt so much like big decisions filled with uncertainty because I thought about what I wanted or what I hoped for well ahead of time and, when those moments approached, I had a very good sense of what I wanted to do.

# questions # raison d'être # education

Do you know how or why it is some articles get marked with a "special" blue politics tag? It's happened to my work a few times and when it does, they seem to get more visibility. I'm not sure how it works, though.
thepoliticalbreakdown

A few years ago, Tumblr created a number of curated tags. Or, rather, they turned uncurated tags into curated ones and put people in charge of stocking them with featured posts. One of them is “Politics” and there are certain posts — usually at least ten each day, sometimes as many as fifty — that allow Tumblr users who follow the Politics tag to see a diversity of posts they might not ordinarily see; these tags are also a good way to find new blogs, by following the people whose posts are featured and by following the editors.

Some of the editors are employed in some way by Tumblr; some are volunteer editors who are asked by Tumblr to curate the tag. I’m one such volunteer. I’ve been doing it — shockingly — for two years now (which seems like a pretty long time, especially because I think I was asked to do it for six months or something like that). When I see an interesting post, I can click a button and “promote” the post to the Politics tag; this is how the post gets the highlighted blue Politics tag on it that people might see in their dashboard; it also sends the post over to the Politics tag and people who follow the tag might see a notification in their Search bar to let them know that there’s a new post to be seen at the tag’s page. That’s how the posts get more visibility.

Here’s a post I wrote back when I was first asked to be a volunteer editor; it’s about how I plan to use my powers for good and also some problems I have with the way the whole curated tag system works. I think it holds up pretty well.

# questions # Tumblr # internet # politics

There are at least two was to approach (online) life. You can (1) be extremely self-critical and have a generally (even if you don't [I don't mean YOU "you" but the subjunctive "you" here] realize it) post-modern epistemologically skeptical self or (2) be generally feckless and un-self-conscious and just do stuff. Obviously, it's both easier to do (2) but also somewhat paradoxically harder to do (2) if you're in the wrong position. Anyway, either way, which is better?
bmichael

I often discuss this issue with my students, especially given the amount of online writing I’ve started to require of them in my courses over the past few years.

The short answer is that it’s always better to think critically about the online persona you’re crafting, even though it’s more challenging to do so and requires a fair amount of time and thought.

Better how?

Well, once you’ve figured out your goals for writing (and just generally being) online, the hard part is done. Now you just have to live up to the goals you’ve set for yourself. My sense is that having a carefully thought-out online persona makes it more likely that people will share your work and thus makes it easier for more people to find what you’re doing. After all, it’s more likely that someone who has thought critically about the sorts of topics (s)he wants to write about will also be thinking and writing carefully about those things, and thus will find an audience who is interested in careful thinking and writing on those topics.

If you never set any goals, never figure out what you want to accomplish online, I think you make life harder for yourself in the long term. You’re either always be trying to figure out what you’re doing (and why) or else you’ll just never figure it out and, as you say, “just do stuff.” Just doing stuff seems to me to be what gets people in trouble. If you’ve worked out who you are, I’d venture that you’re less likely to do something embarrassing to yourself. And, of course, we now know that embarrassing yourself online can be global, permanent, and have serious off-line implications.

# questions # internet # education # teaching

What are your thoughts on research faculty participating in extension and community outreach programs? Do you feel it's a suitable use of their time?
jakke

I suppose it’s difficult to say what’s a suitable use of someone’s time. When we’re “graded” as faculty, it’s almost entirely for our research productivity and the quality of our work in the classroom. The “service” requirement of my job counts for just 10% and it encompasses a dozen or more types of activities, like serving on committees at the university, advising student organization, doing editorial work for journals, reviewing book manuscripts for presses, and so on.

With regard to community outreach, here at Nebraska, we have the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and several of my colleagues have been invovled teaching courses for that program. I’ve generally heard very positive things from those who have been involved, both teaching and learning.

I tend to do other sorts of “outreach” activities that aren’t affiliated with the university … mostly because my university-related service cup runneth over already. In the past few years, I’ve given occasional lectures at retirement homes, and to religous or community groups, and I’ve served as a board member for local and national non-profit organizations.

For me, these things are a lot of fun and they allow me to interact with really interesting people so, even though it doesn’t really “count” for much with regard to my job, I’d say it’s a good way to spend some of my time.

# Nebraska # education # teaching # questions

What motivated you to get involved with a literary magazine in your undergrad days? What was it like working with the staff of the time?
gavinjcraig

The answer to your question, of course, involves a woman I liked very much. Isn’t that what college is all about?

She was an English major and a poet … and I just wanted to spend as much time as possible doing whatever it was she was doing. So, when she became involved with Michigan State’s excellent literary magazine, The Red Cedar, well, I decided I might like to help out as well.

Some absolutely amazing writers worked on and have been published in the RCR in its illustrious history as the longest-running student-managed college publications. I won’t spend time name-dropping here but you can find all the infomation about the journal at this fantastic site.

Anyhow, after a year of reading submissions as an associate editor, I was asked to take over as the fiction editor for the magazine. I learned a lot about the publication process, which served me in very good stead in my career, and I learned a lot about writing fiction and poetry, which I spent a lot of time doing in college and which, sadly, I’ve done very little of ever since. It was hard work; in addition to all of my reading and writing for class, and anything I wanted to read or write for fun, I was also reading hundreds of submissions from writers who sent in their short fiction from all over the world. In addition to reading their work (and rejecting the vast majority of it), I corresponded with a whole bunch of authors, offering suggestions for ways they might revise and strengthen their writing.

All told, I spent two years on the RCR staff and I loved it … mostly because, in addition to my feelings about a certain woman, I also had a serious interest in literature. Three of my teachers in high school — Jeffrey Welch, Eric Linder, John Hazard — got me excited about literature, both classical and contemporary. And, when I went away to college, I wanted to keep reading and writing. So it made sense to take some classes in the English department and to get involved with the exceptional literary life on campus, even though I was studying political theory and international relations.

# literature # Michigan State # writing # Red Cedar Review # questions

Technically, no one is required to take any of the courses I teach (at either the undergraduate or graduate level).
There is a political theory requirement for undergraduate political science majors, but it’s only one course and it can thus be fulfilled by taking the introductory course (which is taught by one of my graduate students) rather than one of my upper-level courses.
For the past six years, undergrads in political science at the University of Nebraska who wanted to make political theory one of their three subfields of study would have to take at least one course with me because the subfield requirement called for at least two courses. This won’t be the case any longer, as my department voted to eliminate political theory as one of the subfields of undergraduate study last semester. My suspicion is that, over time, the number of students in my courses will dwindle as more and more students simply elect take the intro course and steer clear of the upper-level courses (less because of my grading practices and more because they don’t fulfill any sort of degree requirement).
There might still be one or two students who choose to take all of the classes I offer. In his or her final semester, I might buy a weekly doughnut for such a student.

Technically, no one is required to take any of the courses I teach (at either the undergraduate or graduate level).

There is a political theory requirement for undergraduate political science majors, but it’s only one course and it can thus be fulfilled by taking the introductory course (which is taught by one of my graduate students) rather than one of my upper-level courses.

For the past six years, undergrads in political science at the University of Nebraska who wanted to make political theory one of their three subfields of study would have to take at least one course with me because the subfield requirement called for at least two courses. This won’t be the case any longer, as my department voted to eliminate political theory as one of the subfields of undergraduate study last semester. My suspicion is that, over time, the number of students in my courses will dwindle as more and more students simply elect take the intro course and steer clear of the upper-level courses (less because of my grading practices and more because they don’t fulfill any sort of degree requirement).

There might still be one or two students who choose to take all of the classes I offer. In his or her final semester, I might buy a weekly doughnut for such a student.

# Nebraska # education # teaching # political science # philosophy # questions

Wasn't it the anti-Federalists that pushed for the inclusion of the Bill of Rights with the ratification of the Constitution? Your post presumes that the Framers were all Federalists when that's completely untrue. It's not as much for overthrowing a tyrannical government but as a last ditch effort at keeping sovereignty with the people instead of a standing army. Also, it should be mentioned that gun owners as a demographic are more likely to be politically involved than non-gun owners.
n8kelly

I have to disagree with the notion that the Framers weren’t all Federalists. Framers specifically refers to those Founders who framed the Constitution. The Anti-Federalists opposed the Constitution, in no small part because they felt it gave far too much power to the federal government. In that sense, they might better be understood as Anti-Framers.

Of course, it’s clearly the case that the Founders weren’t all Federalists and I didn’t mean to imply it in my previous post on reading of the 2nd Amendment as providing an individual insurrectionist right against the government.

It’s also not the case that all the Federalists or Anti-Federalists felt the same way about everything; they weren’t monolithic groups. But let’s agree that the Bill of Rights was, in part, designed to mollify the Anti-Federalist complaints about the power of the federal government; given the Federalist majority in Congress, it just doesn’t make sense to assume that they would enpower the federal government and then empower individual citizens to take up arms against that newly-empowered government, especially in light of Shays’ Rebellion.

The notion that a democratic government ought to be resisted by violence rather than through the legislative and judicial processes outlined in the Constitution doesn’t fit with the work of the Federalists. And my sense is that even the Anti-Federalists, who didn’t want a standing army or a powerful federal government, didn’t support armed insurrection as an individual right.

Here’s “Brutus,” responding to Hamilton’s argument in Federalist 23:

The protection and defence of the community is not intended to be entrusted solely into the hands of the general government, and by his own confession it ought not to be. It is true this system commits to the general government the protection and defence of the community against foreign force and invasion, against piracies and felonies on the high seas, and against insurrections among ourselves. They are also authorised to provide for the administration of justice in certain matters of a general concern, and in some that I think are not so. But it ought to be left to the state governments to provide for the protection and defence of the citizen against the hand of private violence, and the wrongs done or attempted by individuals to each other—Protection and defence against the murderer, the robber, the thief, the cheat, and the unjust person, is to be derived from the respective state governments (Brutus, No. 7, Jan 1788, qtd. in Storing, Complete Anti-Federalist).

"Brutus" recognizes the right of the federal government to protect and defend the community "against insurrections among ourselves," rather than arguing in favor of a right to insurrection against the federal government.

"Federal Farmer" wrote that "state control of the militia ‘places the sword in the hands of the solid interest of the community, and not in the hands of men destitute of property, or principle, or of attachment to the society and government" (qtd. in Cornell, The Other Founders).

We can find other quotes relatively easily from leading Anti-Federalists who opposed the idea of a permanent right to revolution or an individual right to resistance. While, again, there wasn’t unanimity amongst them about this issue, it would be very difficult to make the case that, even amongst the Anti-Federalists, the common understanding of the 2nd Amendment was of an individual right to keep and bear arms against the threat of governmental tyranny.

# guns # politics # history # democracy # questions

Madonna published a photo of her son on Instagram and used the n-word in the description of the photo.
This might not offend you, as a young white guy in the UK, and it might not even offend the black friends you mention. But it clearly offended a whole lot of people and they made it clear to her that they were offended, which is why she first angrily told people “#getoff of my d–k haters!” and then later chose to apologize for the offense (albeit poorly).
But let me say one more thing: I don’t think it’s ever appropriate for white people to make a decision about when to use a term that has historically been used to marginalize and dehumanize; I feel the same way with regard to straight people and slurs about homosexuality, or Christians and slurs about Judaism, or men and slurs about women … and so on.
That you feel comfortable using these slurs and that you think they’ve simply “become commonplace today in society” is emblematic of a problem I think we would do well to address: Words have power. They might not feel particularly powerful to you, but stepping outside the bubble of your own privilege to consider how others might experience your usage of slurs will matter a great deal in the long run for you and for the pluralistic society in which you live.

Madonna published a photo of her son on Instagram and used the n-word in the description of the photo.

This might not offend you, as a young white guy in the UK, and it might not even offend the black friends you mention. But it clearly offended a whole lot of people and they made it clear to her that they were offended, which is why she first angrily told people “#getoff of my d–k haters!” and then later chose to apologize for the offense (albeit poorly).

But let me say one more thing: I don’t think it’s ever appropriate for white people to make a decision about when to use a term that has historically been used to marginalize and dehumanize; I feel the same way with regard to straight people and slurs about homosexuality, or Christians and slurs about Judaism, or men and slurs about women … and so on.

That you feel comfortable using these slurs and that you think they’ve simply “become commonplace today in society” is emblematic of a problem I think we would do well to address: Words have power. They might not feel particularly powerful to you, but stepping outside the bubble of your own privilege to consider how others might experience your usage of slurs will matter a great deal in the long run for you and for the pluralistic society in which you live.

# Madonna # questions # racism # lgbtq # politics # apology # anti-semitism

I'm not Jewish. Is it wrong that I feel weird when Jewish friends willingly and happily eat pork or other non-kosher foods?
roguepriest

Well, I can’t tell you how you ought to feel.

But I’ll say this: People, Jewish and not Jewish, often apologize to us when they order non-kosher food in front of us. I’m not sure why they do this, especially those who aren’t Jewish, but I’d say it happens two-thirds of the time.

And I don’t think we’re especially “judgy” about keeping kosher. What we typically explain to people is that we keep kosher in our home and we’re vegetarian or pescatarian (if the fish is kosher) when we go out to eat. This position is, in itself, a compromise; we know many people who wouldn’t eat at a non-kosher restaurant at all. Given that we make this compromise in order to be (relatively) observant of ancient dietary laws in our modern world, we know that what we do doesn’t have any bearing on what other people do or what we expect of others.

This works for us and we’re comfortable with it. We wouldn’t presume to tell other people what’s good for them.

# Judaism # questions # religion # food

Yet there is no evidence towards concealed carry increasing the rates of crime. So this debate is essentially: Does concealed carry reduce crime rates or have no affect. Seeing that people who carry legally very rarely commit crimes there is no real argument against it. Your strongest possible standing is "Well seeing as it has no proven affect, we should get rid of it" So you have two options. 1. Permit concealed carry, and allow individuals an effective defence 2. Strip them of this right
chazstah

Two things:

  1. Carrying a concealed weapon isn’t a right; it’s a privilege. You might have a right to keep and bear arms, and we might understand that right more and more expansively after the ridiculously bad Heller decision, but the right to own a gun isn’t the same thing as a right to go to the movies with that gun secreted on your person.
  2. You’re arguing against a straw man. I haven’t anywhere suggested that no one should be allowed to own guns or even carry them. My argument is that my own rights are infringed by the ongoing concern that some maniac vigilante will shoot me or my family members, whether by accident or as a result of some perceived affront. As a result, I argue that concealed carry testing and licensing should be very stringent and recur at very regular intervals. In other words, if you want the privilege of secretly carrying around a gun on your person, you should be required to submit to a range of tests at regular intervals. I believe the same to be true of driver’s licenses, by the way.

Owning and operating a deadly weapon (or simply carrying it around, loaded, at all times just in case you might feel the need to use it) places other members of society at great risk and the owner should have to demonstrate with some frequency that he can and will operate or carry responsibly.

I can’t understand why anyone would think I’m being unreasonable about this, but I’m sure I’ll hear about it.

# questions # guns # politics

What's your opinion on Mike Huckabee and his craze of duck dynasty he's having right now?
zeubersaw

Like most of the people I know, I haven’t been paying a lot of attention to Mike Huckabee ever since he suspended his presidential campaign back in 2008.

So, when I got this question, I did a quick Google search for “Huckabee” and “Duck Dynasty” … and here’s what I came up with:

It looks like things are going pretty well for the guy.

I wonder if his position on free speech and traditional values and the way “militants” have ruined everything that’s good about A&E and America has anything at all to do with his possible run for the presidency in 2016.

Nah, probably no relation between those things.

# Huckabee # politics # television # Duck Dynasty # lgbtq # religion # questions

Are you familiar with Tolkien's mythos, and if so, what do you think of heroism in say, The Lord of the Rings? Frodo Baggins is the obvious protagonist, but ultimately he fails, redeemed only by his purer companion (Samwise Gamgee) and his less pure one (Gollum/Smeagol).
andrerichesque

I’ve spent a fair amount of time with Tolkien and I’ve done a bit of reading on interpretations of the heroics at the heart of the Lord of the Rings saga … though I suspect that others have thought about these books, these characters, and their heroics far more than I have. So I suppose what I’ll say is this: I’m not convinced that Frodo’s failure at the climax of the tale disqualifies him from the status of hero.

While a lot of people today focus on the fact that Frodo might not have accomplished the destruction of the One Ring without both Sam and Gollum, I think it’s equally important to note that Frodo takes great risks and endures a great deal of suffering on his journey. He sets out on what is almost certainly a suicide mission, he succeeds in reaching Mordor despite the odds, he endures what very few could (recall the power of the Ring over others who hold it only briefly), and, along with his companions, he ultimately accomplishes the seemingly impossible and defeats Sauron by destroying the ring.

Imagine if we ruled out the heroism of Odysseus because he needed a great deal of assistance to do all the great deeds for which he is remembered. As just a few examples, he needed the other sailors to tie him to the mast so he could listen to the singing of the Sirens without having to fear death, he needed Nausicaa and her parents to help him complete the final leg of his journey, he needed Telemachus and Eumaeus to defeat the suitors, and — of course — he needed the help of the gods throughout the Iliad and the Odyssey in order to accomplish anything at all.

Fortunately, there’s no rule that says heroes must go it alone. That would be a very high bar for a hero to clear.

# heroism # literature # Tolkien # Homer # questions

What are your feelings on the legitimacy of natural rights outside of a religious framework?
joestanley

This question was actually the central motivating question behind my first book (though I talk about human rather than natural rights).

“The fundamental challenge to each and every human rights claim,” Michael Perry once wrote, “is a demand for reasons.”[1] Perry has written a couple of books and quite a few articles in an attempt to examine whether the existing reasons are compelling ones.

As Perry says, “To ask if the conviction that every human being is sacred – the conviction that every human being is ‘inviolable’, has ‘inherent dignity’, is ‘an end in himself’, or the like – is inescapably religious is to ask if the conviction can be embedded in…either an antireligious cosmology, according to which the world is, at the end of the day, not meaningful but meaningless, or a cosmological agnosticism that neither affirms nor denies the ultimate meaningfulness of the world.”[2]

On Perry’s reading, all of the non-religious reasons either fall well short of providing a solid foundation for human rights or are unintelligible.

He begins his argument with a quotation from R. H. Tawney, who argues that “The essence of all morality is this: to believe that every human being is of infinite importance, and therefore that no consideration of expediency can justify the oppression of one by another.”[3] Clearly, here, we have an articulation of the basic idea of human rights, that the human person is inviolable. Tawney continues, however, by noting that,“to believe this it is necessary to believe in God.”[4]

For Perry, following Tawney, there is clearly a direct link between a belief in God and the idea of human rights. For Christians,[5] this link can be expressed as follows: “I believe in God, who created all human beings in His image and who instructed us to love one another as He loves us. I have concluded, in believing that we are all created in God’s image, that we are all sisters/brothers and that we are all sacred. I have further concluded, in believing that we ought to love one another, that a life of human flourishing can only be achieved by treating others as sisters/brothers and as sacred. My belief system compels me to recognize the human person as inviolable and to respect the human rights of the Other.”[6]

The argument I make in my book is that in a pluralistic world – one in which most people do not hold the same religious worldview and many hold worldviews that would not fit within Perry’s definition of “religious” – a wider framework is needed, not a narrower one, to ground the idea of human rights.

This is, of course, quite different from showing that Perry is incorrect about religion providing a compelling grounding for human rights and I do not think he is. The language of rights can certainly find a solid foundation in many of the world’s great religious texts, especially – as Perry notes – the Christian Gospels. The language of love and respect for the other, as well as of the equality of persons, provides a strong justification for the belief that people ought to be treated with respect and compassion, and that they ought not be abused or otherwise harmed.

My positive argument for a non-religious grounding for the idea of human rights focuses on the international consensus on human rights and human dignity that sits at the heart of the drafting process of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The long version of this argument is can be found in the concluding chapter of my book, but there’s also a shorter version in this blog post.


  1. Michael J. Perry, The Idea of Human Rights: Four Inquiries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 30–31.  ↩

  2. Ibid, 16.  ↩

  3. Ibid., 11.  ↩

  4. Ibid.  ↩

  5. I use the example of Christianity here only because it is Perry’s primary example of a religious worldview.  ↩

  6. This connection might or might not be as explicit in other belief systems as it is in Christianity, but Perry argues that it is assuredly present in each because the concept of a religious worldview has similar features across the many diverse world religions, despite some differences in expression and application.  ↩

# human rights # political science # philosophy # Perry # religion # UDHR # questions

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