New Podcast Episode: Frederick Douglass on the Constitution

Frederick Douglass Ambrotype, 1856 by an unknown photographer, image public domain via Wikimedia CommonsListen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

Early on his career as an abolitionist speaker and activist, Frederick Douglass is a dedicated Garrisonian: anti-violence, anti-voting, anti-Union, and anti-Constitution…

[But] by the early 1850’s, the abolitionist par excellence had come to disagree with Garrison, father of American radical abolitionism, and to agree with Lincoln, proponent of preserving the Union at all costs and of the gradual phasing out of slavery.

So how does Douglass come to make what seems such a counterintuitive change in his views on the Constitution and on the role of violence, voting, and the Union in bringing an end to slavery?… Read the original essay here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Junkyard Idealism

Greater Adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius) on a garbage dump in Guwahati, Assam in March 2007, by Yathin sk, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsIn a letter to a friend recently, I was reminiscing about my years working in a salvage and recycling yard. It was founded by an idealistic and action-oriented sociologist right near the edge of the local dump’s garbage pit, now grown to a fairly large operation that employs about forty people. I loved and miss the work: it was dirty, physically demanding, creative, and full of the thrill of treasure hunting, as founder Dan Knapp, my fellow salvagers, and I made all manner of discarded things available for use again. We diverted truckloads upon truckloads of things from the landfill every day, and dug among boxes and bags of trash and pulled out everything recyclable or reusable we could find. We rescued all manner of interesting artifacts; one box of ephemera we sold made it into an episode of PBS’s History Detectives. Being a lover of history, I was thrilled at the discovery and wondered how many other interesting and significant relics we snatched from the dump’s gaping mouth.

I wore steel toed boots and thick battered work gloves and grimy jeans, and scrubbed the filth off old household goods, lifted stoves and tables and dressers and machinery and rugs and other heavy things (I grew very strong there, and learned how to maximize the available leverage in my body), and delicately repaired jewelry, pottery, art, and so on. One of my favorite photos anyone’s ever taken of me illustrates an East Bay Express article from several years ago, where you will find me sitting on one of a row of recycled toilets. We helped young artists and first-time homeowners and collectors and independent businesspeople and seekers of antiquities find interesting and useful things; we also bargained, negotiated, and wrangled with hustlers, hoarders, slumlords, and thieves. While the work was hard and pretty nasty sometimes, it could also be great fun and deeply satisfying, and the comradery we shared was delightful, sometimes intense. Many lasting friendships emerged from this place, including my marriage.

Amy Cools works at Urban Ore, where you can find all manner of household goods, by Stephen Loewinsohn for the East Bay Express

Amy Cools works at Urban Ore, where you can find all manner of household goods, by Stephen Loewinsohn for the East Bay Express

My reminiscing was triggered by a podcast discussion I’d just heard about Thomas Jefferson’s disappointed idealism when so many of his fellow Americans flouted the Embargo Acts of his administration. Jefferson wanted to avoid getting drawn in to the war between Britain and France happening at the time, and to protest the unfair treatment of the newly formed United States as a free and equal trading partner. He also wanted to demonstrate to the world ‘that there are peaceful alternatives to war’, such as withdrawing from trade in protest. Unfortunately, the public would not put up with the resulting deprivation of luxuries and money-making opportunities resulting from the general embargo, and it failed.

The embargo episode discussion reminded me of the idealism of the salvage yard, of its founder and those of us that believed that the work (and some still do!) was mostly about doing our bit to counteract the wasteful and polluting consumer habits of our American culture. We hoped and believed, like Jefferson, that the capacity of ordinary citizens to do the right thing would come through, and we could curb and redirect our acquisitory habits if necessary. Yet, like Jefferson, many of us found ourselves disappointed at the way our fellow citizens would fail to live up to our idealism. Even in the Bay Area, known for its ‘green’ culture, our community still manages to consume so voraciously and produce so much trash, that our operation could hardly seem to make a dent in it, though we recycled, literally, tons of stuff every day. When our team in place at the dump would salvage from the trash pile about to be bulldozed into the pit, we’d find enormous quantities of recyclable and salvageable things thrown carelessly into the garbage, even though there’s a comprehensive local infrastructure for salvage and recycling. Everywhere in this country, even here in this liberal bubble, we still seem to be contributing far too much towards rendering the earth and its atmosphere more inhospitable to life as we know it, because we just can’t seem to find a way to help ourselves.

Now, of course, there’s no way around the fact that waste is one of the byproducts of living, especially for long-lived, intelligent, creative creatures like human beings. And some of the waste seems acceptable: clothes worn out and outgrown; machines which no longer work but contain usable parts; recyclable packaging like glass bottles and tin cans; worn-out books, textiles, and parts; obsolete technology; and so on. But lots of the waste appears just gratuitous: gimmicky toys and games; faddy decor; cheap, poorly constructed clothing and other stuff manufactured for short-term use; trinkets and impulse buy gifts that few like to keep but many buy out of a sense of social obligation or an addiction to shopping; and so on. To this day, when I walk into a department or gift shop I perceive mostly thinly disguised, soon-to-be trash.

We really did believe, as again so many of us still do, that this salvage work has significance, that it’s a part of a general movement, slow-moving as it may be, towards a greener, less wasteful, more environmentally caring way of living in the world. The mission and the work both fit in with and raise local consciousness, and lots of people bring their discards to salvage from, glad to see that much of it would not become trash after all. And the business continues to be a well-known and beloved local institution, warts and all.

I still hope, with my old friends and former colleagues, that the people of the United States and of the world will make more than symbolic changes to better protect our world from the ravages of our mining, agriculture, production, and consumption, and live up to our idealism a little better than the American people of Jefferson’s day. Those disposable grocery bags do little to help if we’re still buying and throwing away at such high rates, cheap clothing, discarded water bottles when clean water is flowing from our taps, boxes from nightly takeout, overly-packaged goods, most kinds of plastics, and generally more stuff than we need. Many are more optimistic than I am about how far we’ve come and where we’re going when it comes to waste, pollution, and the capabilities and effectiveness of modern recycling programs. My husband points out that the efficiency of the Oakland transfer station, which uses well-calibrated equipment to effectively separate out recyclables from trash, and the advanced capabilities of carpet recyclers, who have taken out the guesswork of sorting by compatible fiber content with sensors which can detect it, demonstrate real social progress at least when it comes to waste. And one of my great friends is a techie who closely follows technology news, those just coming out, in development, and still in the working-theory stage. If he’s right, new technologies will resolve most or all of our pollution problems, of both production and disposal, in the relatively near future, so long as we manage to fund, make, and use them before we’ve pushed our human-nurturing environment over the brink of collapse.

I really hope my husband and my tech friend are right. Perhaps we won’t ultimately solve the problem through economic self-control, just as in the days of the embargo. Perhaps technology is the only workable solution. But until we’ve invented our way out of the mess we’re making of the world, we need to keep putting our junkyard idealism to work.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration:

Jenkinson, Clay. ‘Crockett Middle School‘, episode 1169  of the Thomas Jefferson Hour, Feb 21, 2016.

‘Urban Ore: About Us’ business website page

Related Ordinary Philosophy pieces:

Activism is Not Enough: As Long As We Keep Shopping and Don’t Vote, It’s Our Fault Too! Dec 13, 2014 by Amy Cools

Logos‘, Jul 27, 2015 by Amy Cools

New Podcast Episode: O.P. Recommends: Landmark Cases and Injustices, Two Great Works on the Supreme Court

Listen to the podcast episode here  or subscribe on iTunes

This last couple of weeks or so, I’ve been packing in a lot more learning about the Supreme Court, and is it ever fascinating.

It began when I stumbled on Landmark Cases last month, a C-Span series about 12 Supreme Court cases chosen because they had a dramatic impact on the legal landscape in United States history, and because they likewise had a significant impact on the Court itself, as precedent and on its perceived legitimacy, for good or ill….  Read the original essay here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Frederick Douglass the Pragmatist

Frederick Douglass House Parlor, Washington, D.C.

Douglas is a fiery orator, an uncompromising abolitionist and proponent of universal human rights, and even an advocate of using violence if the cause is just, the harms too great, and other means prove ineffective (more on that in an upcoming piece). He criticizes those who ‘shamefully abandon their principles’. And very often, when he encounters discrimination in a hotel, restaurant, or other public place, he reports the incident to the local press.

Yet for all his energetic activism, uncompromising rhetoric, and devotion to principle, Douglass is also a pragmatist, in matters large and small.

To be sure, many of his activist tactics are as idealistic, and plainly appear so, as they are as practical. Douglass’ reports of discrimination, for example, fire up public support for the cause of equal rights by arousing a storm of protest and in turn, raising consciousness and providing examples for use in the political arena.

He’s a pragmatist when it comes to making a living as well: after a decades-long successful career lecturing and publishing, a house fire and an attempt to rescue the Freedman’s Bank from collapse leave Douglass’ finances in disarray. So he takes to the lecture circuit again full time in the 1870’s. In the pre-Civil War era, he makes his living doing what he believes in most: lecturing, debating, and arguing for abolishing slavery and expanding human rights. But in the post-Civil War era, he finds that morals, politics, and rights issues are no longer such profitable topics. So he goes ahead and lectures on the profitable ones, so long as it he can make the talks instructive and wholesome, and link them to more important issues. ‘People want to be amused as well as instructed’ he writes.

He’s a pragmatist when it comes to tactics and the importance of crafting an image. For example, Douglass considers photography a very important, modern tool for engendering mass support through empathy: if people can see and recognize the face of the person behind the ideas, and of one who is a member of a suffering and oppressed people, people will feel the visceral need for change. So, he takes care to become one of the most photographed men in American history.

Douglass’ practicality holds sway in larger issues too. He does not hesitate to change tactics or switch allegiances between organizations or parties if he thinks it would help the cause in the long run. In fact, he is convinced that true, unswerving, uncompromising allegiance to the cause itself requires a reformer to use whatever means necessary, so long as they are not morally wrong, even if they are imperfect or less inspiring or exciting to others than the more uncompromising choice. He has been criticized throughout the years for splitting with the Garrisonians, for siding with Captain John Fremont against Abraham Lincoln in the latter’s recall of Fremont’s emancipation proclamation in Missouri early in the war, for refusing to support or join in on the raid on Harper’s Ferry (though he supports John Brown’s ideas about the validity of armed resistance in general), for evading arrest and possible execution for charges of co-conspiracy in the Harper’s Ferry raid by fleeing to Canada, and for abandoning the Radical Abolitionist Party in favor of the newly formed Republican Party. His critics contend that his practice of often siding with moderate tactics and candidates reveal a lack of commitment and moral courage.

Yet he defends all of these practical choices on the grounds that commitment to the tactics or politics in and of themselves are actually a distraction, since the practice of committing to the ‘pure’ choice in the short run is often an impediment to achieving the ultimate goal in the long run. For example, if he throws his support behind his friend and hero Gerit Smith, uncompromising political candidate of the Radical Abolitionist Party, instead of Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate who ran on the more moderate goal of preventing the spread of slavery to the new states, he might be more admired as an uncompromising leader. But he understands what a risky move this would be. The Radical Abolitionists had little chance of winning, but the Republican Party was off to a very successful start, losing its first presidential campaign by a relatively small margin. Since the moderate goals of the Republican Party had a good chance of realization while those of the Radical Abolitionists little to none, Douglass sides with the former. The stakes are simply too high for Douglass to risk losing at this point, even if the risk appears nobler.

In sum, Douglass argues that the truly committed reformer is free to choose the more modest, practical, sure-bet option over the less apparently compromising, more radical option when it appears to be more effective in the long run. That’s because true faithfulness to the mission does not require appearing an effective reformer, it requires actually being as effective as possible. No small part of Douglass’ greatness as an activist and as a person is his willingness to forgo short-term public approval or personal glory in favor of acting in the long-term best interests of his cause. And it appears that history not only validates him as an astute tactician, but as a heroic figure, in part because in hindsight we can more easily recognize the wisdom, integrity, and strength in his pragmatism.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration:

Blassingame, J. (Ed.). The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. 4 volumes, and The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 2: Autobiographical Writings. 3 volumes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979-1999

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies, with notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Volume compilation by Literary Classics of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction.. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Varon, Elizabeth. ‘Most photographed man of his era: Frederick Douglass’, the Washington Post, Jan 29, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/most-photographed-man-of-his-era-frederick-dou

Happy Birthday, John Rawls!

John Rawls, image via BBC's Will and Testament blogJohn Rawls, Feb 21, 1921 – Nov 24, 2002, is the great moral theorist who thinks of justice as fairness.

Among his greatest contributions is the thought experiment called ‘the veil of ignorance’. It’s a beautifully simple method for helping to design a just society: imagine you’re to be placed into society with no idea what you would be: rich, poor, or middle-class; tall or short; intelligent or not; of which gender; outgoing or shy; of which race; employed or not and at what kind of job; and so on.

Given that you have no idea what your roles in life will be, what cultural practices, laws, policies, governmental system, economic system, and so on, would you put into place? Remember, behind that veil of ignorance, you’ll have to decide what kind of society benefits everyone the most, since you could end up being anyone. If you were really in that situation, imagine just how fair you’d be. Perhaps, as Rawls imagines, we’d all be far better off if that was really how the world works.

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Further reading:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: John Rawls

John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (book preview)

Ordinary Philosophy pieces featuring John Rawls:

Communitarianism, Writ Large

Sources, Influences, Shout-Outs, and all that Good Stuff

What Ordinary Philosophy’s All About: Clarifying the Vision

People in a Public Square, Image Creative Commons via PixabayIt’s been an especially busy few weeks for me: studying, researching, writing, planning for my upcoming traveling philosophy journey and for the expanded future of Ordinary Philosophy. This year so far, I’ve had the great good fortune to meet some inspiring new people: passionate, thinking, active, and creative. I’ve also gotten to know others better as well, and am opening new doors and making new contacts every day. Our conversations have been inspiring me to think more clearly and deeply about my vision for Ordinary Philosophy, about my hopes, dreams, and goals, and about the wonderful people who will work with me to accomplish them in the future.

So I’ve just been looking over my introductory statement about Ordinary Philosophy, and thought it needed some clarifying and expanding. Here’s my vision as it stands now, best as I can describe it, and it’s beautiful to me. I hope it is to you too!

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Ordinary Philosophy is founded on the belief that philosophy is an eminently useful endeavor as well as a fascinating and beautiful one, and that citizen philosophers and academic philosophers alike share in making it so.

So why the name Ordinary Philosophy?

The ‘Ordinary’ in Ordinary Philosophy means: Philosophy is not only pursued behind the walls of academia.

It’s an ordinary activity, something we can do regularly whatever our education, background, or profession, from our homes, workplaces, studies, public spaces, and universities. It’s applicable to ordinary life, since it’s about solving the problems we all encounter in the quest to pursue a good, happy, and meaningful one.

It’s about seeking answers to the ‘big questions’ we ask ourselves all the time: ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ ‘What’s a meaningful life, and how can I make mine so?’ ‘What’s the truth of the matter, what does truth mean anyway, and how do I know when I’ve found it?’ ‘What does it mean to have rights?’ ‘How did reality come to be as it is?’, and so on.

It’s also just as much about the ordinary, day-to-day questions: ‘Should I take this job, and will it help fulfill my highest aspirations?’ ‘It is wrong to put my interests first this time, even if it will harm someone else?’ ‘What’s the difference between just talking about other people and malicious gossip?’ ‘Why should I go out of my way to vote?’

And in the end, it’s about living philosophy, about philosophy in the public square, and the stories and histories of philosophy as it is realized, personified, lived out by activists, artists, scholars, educators, communicators, leaders, engaged citizens, and everyone else who loves what’s just, what’s beautiful, and what’s true.

All of this is philosophy.

~ Amy Cools, founder and editor of Ordinary Philosophy

It’s Hard to be Anti-Muslim When You’re Stuck with the Old Testament

Poussin Nicolas - The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites, copy, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsThere’s a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment in this country and in many other parts of the world these days: if you don’t look too deeply into history, or at how denominations of Islam differ from each other, or what the political situations are the Muslim world right now, it’s not hard to see why. The bare fact is: the majority of ideologically driven terrorists in the world today are Muslim.

As many are quick to point out, that’s not always been the case: Christians have targeted Jews, heretics, and dissenters for centuries, burning books, homes, entire towns, and people at the stake. Christians defended slavery and racism, and the Klu Klux Klan and the White League’s belief in Jesus did nothing to stop them from beating and lynching; in fact, they may have felt themselves holy warriors of their race, avenging angels of sorts.

But wait a minute! comes the protest. Christians don’t do that anymore: they’ve seen the light and mended their ways. They’ve pondered, learned from their mistakes, and have reformed, which is the whole point of religion, isn’t it?

Well, this is true: not many terrorists are Christian anymore, and the few who are left, such as abortion protesters gone off the deep end, are generally not defended by their coreligionists. And yes, reflection and self-correction are laudable features of religion. As is the effort to realize the love of God in the world, for those who worship the God of love.

But Christians have a problem: the legitimacy of Christ as the Messiah, foretold by the prophets according to the New Testament, is derived from the Old. And the God of the Old Testament is not a God of love, but a God of jealousy and vengeance. At least, for everyone who already worshiped other Gods, or liked to keep their genitals intact thank-you-very-much, or people other than the Israelites if they just so happened to already live where God subsequently decided the Israelites should settle instead.

So as you may expect, as it has always been when adherents of a new religion convinced of their own uniqueness and infallibility sweep in and take over, slash-burn-rape-kill was the order of the day. The Old Testament, other than a few lovely poetic and wisdom-y books and chapters (Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes) is really chock-full of the most God-awful violence and cruelty you can imagine, inspired, condoned, and expressly ordered by the same God Christians worship today.

While his son Jesus is called the Prince of Peace, and his teachings are relatively peaceful (though not entirely), the legacy he inherited of the Father was made plain in the centuries of religious wars and persecutions carried out in his name. But slowly, slowly, sloooooowwwwly, Christianity was reformed, and rejected many of its nastier and more violent aspects, keeping the friendly parts and interpreting away the rest. Or, I think rather, it was forced to do so by the Enlightenment and other humanistic movements in order to stay relevant. Today’s Christians do generally behave very well, and are charitable, peaceful, and tolerant for the most part.

Only thing is, there’s that pesky Old Testament, that Tarantino-like gorefest without the redeeming quality of being tongue-in-cheek. And the Old Testament is so very full of all that awful stuff that’s nearly identical, if not worse, than the most violent stuff found in the Q’uran that inspires and ‘justifies’ Islamist terrorism.

So now that Christianity has undergone that reformation crucial for a future of peaceful enlightenment, what of that Old Testament? Can any of us, of any belief, believe in a future where even those committed to peace can’t let go of the violent relics of the past because they’re foundational myths? Perhaps, perhaps not; we can’t even give up the gun-nut interpretation of the Second Amendment. But until the Christians can give up their violent scriptures, they can’t be taken totally seriously when they demand Muslims give up theirs. And their kids, like me with my Christian upbringing, will continue to think the adults are crazy for telling us to be good while believing in the Old Testament, though sadly some of them will get all too used to those bloody ideas, and learn to believe in them too.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!