Cesar Chavez Day, by Alejandro Magaña

Cesar Chavez visits college - By Movimiento - Own work, cropped - CC BY-SA 3.0 httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsEvery year around Cesar Chavez’s birthday, as media outlets report of festivities in his honor, I’m reminded of a joke in a Simpsons episode and the strange sadness it elicited in me when I saw it: Homer Simpson is on his front lawn and is confronted with the apparition of a debonair, mustachioed man who introduces himself as, “the spirit of Cesar Chavez.”

In typical Homer confusion he asks, “Then why do you look like Cesar Romero?”

The ghost replies, “Because you don’t know what I look like!”

Cesar Chavez is certainly revered by many people, especially within the Latino community, but despite the steadily increasing ubiquity of his name across the United States, especially the American Southwest, there are still many Americans today who don’t really know who he is, let alone what he stood for, or what he accomplished.

Cesar Chavez was a Mexican-American community organizer turned labor leader. A former migrant farmworker recruited by the Community Service Organization (CSO) in its heyday of the 1950s, he co-founded the National Farmworkers Association (NFWA,) which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW,) the first successful union for migrant farmworkers. The UFW’s membership consisted mostly of indigent Latinos and Filipinos, and their struggle for justice and dignity, fighting to gain higher wages and better conditions in the fields where they were deprived of basic needs such as clean drinking water and bathrooms, became a national moral cause under the stewardship of Chavez, who courted national and international sympathy using militant non-violent tactics in the vein of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, such as strikes, boycotts, fasts, and peaceful marches.

Chavez was not an imposing orator with the fire-and-brimstone timbre of the Reverend Dr. King, nor did he cut as iconoclastic a figure as Gandhi, but in his unassuming way he could be just as charismatic and endearing, and this often caught people off guard, as it did an interviewer for the New Yorker in 1973, who, “had expected, if not a Mexican-American Lenin…a young, hard, intense man bristling with revolutionary zeal. Instead we found Mr. Chavez to be a stocky man…about five feet seven …with Indian features…and a pleasant earnest manner.” With his trademark regular boys’ haircut parted on the side and wearing simple cardigans with button down plaid shirts and slacks, his fashion was more Mr. Rogers than Mr. Lenin. He looked the part of the humble Everyman that people felt they could relate to.

On a personal note, my parents actually met while working with Cesar Chavez in the early ‘70s, and when they tell stories of those days, they both recall how approachable he was with his easy but confident demeanor; how people were drawn to him and trusted him, even as he took them out of their comfort zones, like the time he sent my mom and a few other farmworkers to Chicago, to publicize and organize the Grape Boycott, even though they spoke very little English and were armed with just a few phone numbers of sympathizers there along with the names of some churches that might possibly provide them with food, room and board. They believed they could accomplish such ambitious plans because this diminutive, unpretentious man seemed capable of stopping the engine of the entire agricultural industry and took on Big Agribusiness all by himself. Before it became widely known as the slogan of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, I grew up with my father reminding me, “¡Si se puede!” (Yes, you can!) a phrase Chavez often chanted before throngs of people at picket lines and marches.

Like Gandhi and King, he was intensely spiritual and absolutely committed to non-violence. In what may be his most recognizable aphorism, he said, “It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage…is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice.” Self-immolation was a recurring theme in both word and deed: in 1968, during the Delano Grape Strike, after several tense confrontations at the picket lines nearly devolved into violence, he fasted for 25 days to encourage and remind the farmworkers that their fight was to be a non-violent one. He would fast for 24 days again in 1972, and in 1988 he fasted for 36 days(!) to bring attention to the pesticide poisoning of grape workers and their children. It is thought that his relatively early death at the age of 63 in 1993 was probably due to aggregated health complications suffered from these sacrifices. Still, even now, if you talk to people who marched with Chavez and the UFW back then, most speak of Chavez in reverential, even hagiographical ways, for to them he was como un santo: like a saint..

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as the UFW made sweeping legislative strides on behalf of organized farm labor, Chavez was also becoming the most widely known leader within the broader Chicano Movement, or “El Movimiento,” a civil rights movement which empowered Mexican Americans caught between two cultures, not quite Mexican enough for their Mexican immigrant forebears, nor seen as truly American by the white hegemony. The term “chicano” was originally a derogatory term for the American children of Mexican migrants, but in the Movement it was flipped, transmogrified, to be a badge of ethnic pride. Of course Chavez always made sure to situate the fight of the UFW as united with the struggle of “all farm workers across the country, the Negroes and poor whites, the Puerto Ricans, Japanese, and Arabians…the races that comprise the oppressed minorities of the United States,” but “The Plan de Delano,” a text co-authored by Chavez with Dolores Huerta and the Chicano playwright Luis Valdez, reifies and emboldens his ethnic heritage, declaring “We are sons of the Mexican Revolution.” To this day, the flag of the UFW, showing a black Aztec eagle on stark red background, is widely considered a symbol of Chicano or Latino pride. Those of us who wear this symbol, or even, as in my case, have it tattooed on their body, recognize that the life we have so firmly rooted in the United States, with access to resources and opportunities that our parents or grandparents did not have, is due to the hard work and vigilance of people like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, or my mother, Maria Saludado.

The identity politics that certainly began to swell in the 1960s have persisted despite reactionary criticism and remain particularly relevant today; an era in which the ugly scars of racism seem as starkly etched in our national consciousness as ever. As we near the end of the second term of America’s first ‘non-white’ President, as Mexican immigration continues to be a galvanizing and polarizing issue in the US, and the Latino vote is highly prized on both sides of the political aisle, conditions would seem fecund for a reboot of El Movimiento. In appropriate fashion, this year the Cesar Chavez Foundation, an offshoot of the UFW, began its annual celebration in San Fernando, the first city in the nation to commemorate Cesar Chavez Day with a paid holiday, with a rally and march to encourage activism to “Dump Trump.”

¡Que viva César Chávez!

~ Alejandro Magaña is a musician, poet, and songwriter some of the time, and a father and husband all of the time. He also works full-time as an office manager at Urban Ore in West Berkeley. He lives in North Oakland with his wife and son and books and records.

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

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Sources and Inspiration:

● My mother and father. ¡Que viva mis padres!
● Chasan, Daniel. “‘Marcher,’ an interview with Cesar Chavez,” The New Yorker, May 27, 1967.
● Chavez, Cesar, Huerta, Dolores, and Valdez, Luis. “The Plan of Delano,” El Malcriado, March 17, 1966.
● Chavez, Cesar. An Organizer’s Tale: Speeches Ed. Ilan Stevens. London: Penguin Books, 2008.

This piece was first published one year ago today here at Ordinary Philosophy

Until Recently, Trump Got Health Care Right, by Fareed Zakaria

Fareed Zakaria

By Fareed Zakaria
Thursday, Mar. 30, 2017

The recent Republican debacle on health care could prove to be an opportunity. It highlighted, yet again, the complexity of the U.S. system, which continues to be by far the most expensive and inefficient in the advanced world. But President Trump could actually use the legislative collapse to fix health care if he went back to basics and to his core convictions on the topic, which are surprisingly intelligent and consistent.

There is an understandable impulse on the right to assume that health care would work more efficiently if it were a free market, or a freer market. This is true for most goods and services. But in 1963, economist Kenneth Arrow, who later won a Nobel Prize, offered an explanation as to why markets would not work well in this area. He argued that there was a huge mismatch of power and…

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Happy Birthday, Moses Maimonides!

Maimonides medallion, photo by T. Horydczak, approx. 1950, sculpture over the door of the gallery of House chamber, U.S. Capitol. Photo public domain via Library of Congress

‘Moses Maimonides… [born on March 30, 1135]… is the greatest Jewish philosopher of the medieval period and is still widely read today. The Mishneh Torah, his 14-volume compendium of Jewish law, established him as the leading rabbinic authority of his time and quite possibly of all time. His philosophic masterpiece, the Guide of the Perplexed, is a sustained treatment of Jewish thought and practice that seeks to resolve the conflict between religious knowledge and secular….’ ~ Kenneth Seeskin, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Read and hear more about this great philosopher and religious thinker at:

Jewish Philosophy: Maimonides – Joe Gelonesi interviews Steven Nadler for The Philosopher’s Zone podcast

Maimonides – by Melvyn Bragg and his guests John Haldane, Sarah Stroumsa, and Peter Adamson for In Our Time BBC Radio 4 podcast

Maimonides – by Kenneth Seeskin for Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Maimonides (1138—1204) – by Jonathan Jacobs for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Maimonides (Rambam) and His Texts – by Danny Moss for My Jewish Learning website

Moses Maimonides | Jewish Philosopher, Scholar, and Physician – by Ben Zion Bokser for Encyclopædia Britannica

Oath and Prayer of Maimonides – Bioethics – The Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University website

Sarah Stroumsa on Maimonides – Conversation with Peter Adamson for History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast

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!

Abortion: Conflict and Compromise, by Kate Greasley

View of a Foetus in the Womb, c. 1510 – 1512, drawing by Leonardo da Vinci

A few years ago, when I told a colleague that I was working primarily on abortion rights, he looked at me quizzically and replied, “But I thought they had sorted all of that out in the seventies”. Needless to say, he was a scientist. Still, while the idea that the ethical questions implicated in abortion were somehow put to bed in the last century is humorous, I knew what he meant. The end of the ‘sixties and beginning of the ‘seventies marked watershed developments for reproductive freedom in both Britain and the U.S. – developments which have (with some non-negligible push and pull at the boundaries) continued to set the basic terms of abortion regulation ever since.

In Britain, the 1967 Abortion Act widely legalised termination of pregnancy for the first time and codified the grounds upon which abortions could be legally carried out. Shortly after, the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade famously declared that there was a constitutionally protected right to abortion in the United States, albeit with some qualifications. Since those events, there have been no revolutionary changes to the system of abortion regulation on either side of the Atlantic, although there have been many meaningful ones.

Of course, legal resolution by no means signalled the end of moral disagreement about abortion. A significant minority voice has continued to vehemently oppose abortion practice. What was settled back then secured far more of a grudging détente than a happy compromise. (Like so much legislation, the Abortion Act was a product of political expediencies; I once heard one of its drafters describe the pandemonium of last-minute back-room deals in the Houses of Parliament, and the hotchpotch of provisions that emerged from all of the bargaining necessary to get it through.) As such, the political resolutions, whilst enduring, have always been intensely fragile, especially in the US where Christian conservatism and the anti-abortion lobby overlap so much. Of late, that fragility has become increasingly apparent. Recent developments in the United States and elsewhere have revealed just how misplaced any complacency about reproductive rights truly is.

It is, in truth, hardly surprising that abortion compromise is so precarious when one considers the nature of dissent to abortion practice. If one side of that debate really believes—as many claim to—that abortion is murder, akin to infanticide, then it is hard to see how they can ever truly accept legal abortion merely on the strength of its democratic pedigree. Against such a belief, rehearsing the familiar pro-choice mantras about women’s rights and bodily autonomy is a bit like shooting arrows at a Chinook helicopter. For what strength does control over one’s body and reproductive destiny really have when measured against the intentional inflicting of death on another?

Of course, if ideological opponents of abortion rights really believe that abortion amounts to murder, it may be hard to make sense of some of the traditional exceptions they themselves have defended, in circumstances, for example, of rape or incest, or where the pregnancy endangers the very life of the pregnant woman. If killing the fetus is no less than homicide, then how can it be justified even in these dire conditions? We certainly do not permit the out and out killing of born human beings for comparable reasons. This may be an indication that opponents of abortion who make such concessions do not truly, deeply, believe the claim that killing an embryo or fetus is like killing a child. Alternatively, it may just suggest that such concessions are rarely ever authentic, but adopted merely as a matter of political strategizing, to avoid losing moderate support in the wider conflict. If that were true, it would be unsurprising to see those traditional concessions gradually withdrawn as opponents of abortion become emboldened by increasing success.

Either way, defenders of abortion rights have a constant decision to make about how to respond to attacks on reproductive freedom and the denunciation of abortion as a moral horror. The approach most traditionally favoured, at least in public spheres, is to simply ignore all talk about abortion being murder and try to refocus attention on women’s stakes in abortion freedoms. As the Mad Men character Don Draper always quipped, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation”. This strategy can have its uses, but also its drawbacks. Most importantly, whilst reminding everyone of what women stand to lose through abortion prohibition is likely to strengthen the resolve of those sympathetic to abortion rights, it does nothing to address the consternation of those that are genuinely conflicted about the issue – who are not sure that abortion isn’t murder. As an effort to persuade avowed opponents of abortion rights to think again, it is even more pointless. For those who decry abortion as unjustified homicide do not usually need to be convinced that women can be hugely benefited by it, and harmed by its outlawing. That is not where their main ground of opposition ever lay.

It is for this reason that I think any effective defense of abortion rights must meet that opposition on its own terms, and confront the claims that abortion is homicide and the fetus the moral equivalent of a child. The task can seem daunting; how does one even begin to argue about whether or not unborn human lives have exactly the same right to life as mature human beings? But there are many reflections one can bring to bear on that question, and especially on the question whether, when examining our own or others’ beliefs, we are really committed to the claim that embryos are equal in moral value to human children. For one thing, as some philosophers have pointed out, if we really believed that claim, we may have to ask why infinitely more resources are not devoted to the prevention of natural miscarriage, which, it would follow, is the single biggest cause of child mortality – far greater than famine, disease, or war. At any rate, if defenders of reproductive freedoms do not concern themselves with the fundamental questions of abortion ethics, they are in danger of being left with little effective argument if and when the fragile settlements that have held for some decades threaten true collapse.

This essay was originally published at OUP Blog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Happy Birthday, Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, and Thank You for Joshua Tree National Park!

Minerva Hoyt

Just last week, I returned to one of my favorite places in the world: Joshua Tree National Park.

A native of Southern California, I have visited it many, many times throughout my life, ever since I was a young girl: with family, with friends, and alone. This place is full of wonder, beauty, and a clear clean vastness which tricks your eyes and makes you never quite certain if the rock, rise, or Joshua tree you see in the distance is close enough to touch or miles and miles away. I’ve hiked here, camped here, explored here, laughed and talked here, sighed, embraced, and frolicked with my first love here; I’ve experienced companionship, loneliness, solitude, joy, pain, and peace here. Joshua Tree played a great role in the development of my mind, soul, and heart. The beauty and richness of this place have thus affected so many others, including and especially one other woman, and it shaped her life:

There was once a natural wonder in the California desert — one you may not have heard of — that was essentially destroyed 90 years ago because people wanted desert plants for their own gardens.

One Pasadena-based environmental activist was horrified at that destruction. Her response forever changed the way Californians look at the desert, and earned her a permanent place in the pantheon of California environmentalist women… – Chris Clarke

A young Joshua Tree, cholla, creosote, and yucca at Joshua Tree National Park

…This woman was Minerva Hoyt.

Not many will recall Minerva Hamilton Hoyt and her tireless efforts on behalf of California desert protection. In fact, without her leadership, Joshua Tree National Park might never have become part of the National Park System. How a transplanted southern belle born on a Mississippi plantation became a staunch backer of the protection of desert landscapes is perhaps one of the more unlikely stories in the annals of national park history.

Minerva Hamilton led a genteel early life attending finishing schools and music conservatories. Her marriage to Dr. Sherman Hoyt led her away from the deep south to New York and eventually to South Pasadena where she immersed herself in southern California high society and civic causes. She demonstrated talent as an organizer of special charity events and developed a passion for gardening, which introduced her to some of the native desert vegetation commonly used in southern California landscaping. Trips to the desert instilled in Ms. Hoyt a strong appreciation for the austere beauty and wonderful inventiveness of desert plants that somehow managed to thrive in the harsh climate. She also saw the widespread destruction of native desert plants by thoughtless people who dug up, burned, and other wise destroyed so many of the cacti and Joshua trees that Minerva found beautiful.

Following the deaths of her son and husband, Minerva dedicated herself to the cause of protecting desert landscapes… – Joseph W. Zarki

A Joshua tree in bloom

Here’s a photo journal of some of the beauties I marveled at on my latest visit, including the marvelous desert plants Minerva Hoyt loved so well. There were some wildflowers already in bloom, but this was mid-March, a little early for wildflowers at the higher, cooler, western Mohave Desert end of the park. I heard they were in full bloom at the eastern, lower, warmer Colorado Desert end of the park, but I was with a large family group during this visit and we were unable to round everyone up to make the additional drive.

Following these photos, you’ll find links to articles and books where you can read more about this hero of conservation. The political climate we find ourselves in in the United States does not bode well for the conservation of our greatest national wonders. Yet I hope the great vision of Minerva Hoyt, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt (and later his cousin Franklin, who established Joshua Tree National Park by proclamation), and so many others who fought the good fight on its behalf, fueled by the love of nature which ennobles every heart it finds a home in, continues to win over the hearts and minds of all Americans. This is our pride and our heritage, and once gone, it may never return.

A natural sphinx stands tall among the sunrays and above the yucca plants in Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park

Early blooming cactus, Joshua Tree National Park

Panoramic view of Hidden Valley in early spring, Joshua Tree National Park

A beautiful arrangement of stone, sky, cactus, and creosote, Joshua Tree National Park

Stone, flora, and sky in Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park

Western tent caterpillars in a creosote bush, Joshua Tree National Park

A young Joshua tree forest, Joshua Tree National Park

Another view of Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park

Sources and Inspiration

Bishop, Kim. ‘How One Tireless Advocate Protected Joshua Tree National Park‘. Aug 8, 2016, San Bernardino County Sun

Clarke, Chris. ‘The Woman Who Saved The California Desert‘. March 11, 2016, KCET.org

Kaufman, Polly Welts. National Parks and the Woman’s Voice: A History. University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Zarki, Joseph W. Joshua Tree National Park, for Images of America book series. Arcadia, 2015

Zarki, Joseph W. ‘Minerva Hoyt‘. For the National Park Service at nps.gov

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!

New Podcast Episode: Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Michel de Montaigne, who lived from February 28, 1533 to September 13, 1592, was a thinker after my own heart.

Montaigne was a deeply philosophical thinker, though he never developed a complete philosophical system or moral theory. He invented, or at least popularized, a revolutionary way of writing: the essay. In his Essays, he wrote about anything and everything he found interesting enough to observe and think deeply about which was …well, just about everything, especially his inner life. His Essays are a rich source of wonderful philosophical and moral insights. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes: “… under the guise of innocuous anecdotes, Montaigne achieved the humanist revolution in philosophy. He moved from a conception of philosophy conceived of as theoretical science, to a philosophy conceived of as the practice of free judgment’. Judgment, in this sense, involves applying both our cultivated moral sense and our reason, enriched with knowledge, to navigating the complexity and variety of situations we face throughout our lives; it also refers to the expansive, tolerant attitude we should display towards each other and towards the whole of reality…. Read the written version here

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!

Can We Have More Than One Friend? According to Montaigne, No, by Manuel Bermudez

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Essais are the perfect mate to accompany anybody, throughout all stages of life. It’s always interesting to explore Michel de Montaigne‘s life and his marvellous book: the Essais. Within his lifespan, Montaigne was able to find true friendship for himself and record its effects therein. Here we propose to navigate Montaigne’s approach to friendship.

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle wrote that friendship was “one soul in two bodies.” Montaigne, on the contrary, always thought that friendship was a free exchange between two people.

Montaigne thought that true friendship was rare. He himself acknowledges to have found only one proper friend in his life: Etienne de La Boétie. And he could enjoy this friendship only for a mere four years. They met as adults and death took Montaigne’s soulmate early. An irreplaceable loss. After La Boétie’s death (in 1563), Montaigne didn’t feel the desire to find a substitute for his dead friend. Perhaps the reason was that our French friend knew intuitively that such a profound bond could only happen once in a lifetime.

Is it possible to have many different friends at any given time? According to Montaigne, true friends are not only scarce, but they should be unique, if only for loyalty’s sake.

If two friends asked you to help them at the same time, which of them would you dash to? If they asked for conflicting favours, who would have the priority? If one entrusted to your silence something that was useful to the other, how would you manage?

— Montaigne, Essais, “On Friendship”

Montaigne-Dumonstier

Portrait of Montaigne by an unknown artist. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The dilemma set here finds an easy solution for Montaigne, since the balance will always incline towards one of them. A succession of these choices would lead him to the real friend. Thus, it would be proved that true friendships tend to uniqueness.

When Montaigne talks about friendship, he does so from his own feelings towards a person of flesh and blood: Etienne de La Boétie. He transferred what he felt for his kindred spirit to the Essais. He loved his friend to the point where he felt despondently lost when La Boétie died. Montaigne attempted to find solace in his writing about La Boétie, even though he failed to portray the true nature of their relationship.

We can find a good deal of mystery in a friendship like these two men had. That strange and powerful empathy that Montaigne tried to describe is difficult to understand. Montaigne concludes that: “They are unimaginable facts for those who have not tried them.”

Montaigne distinguished true friendship from ordinary friendship. Ordinary friendships have, in a way or another, self-interest behind their development. It’s an investment made not with money, but with affection. On the other hand, true friendship is described by the author with the following words:

For the rest, which we commonly call friends, and friendships, are nothing but acquaintance, and familiarities, either occasionally contracted, or upon some design, by means of which, there happens some little intercourse betwixt our souls: but in the friendship I speak of, they mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoyn’d.

— Montaigne, Essais, “On Friendship”

In an attempt to describe the nature of his friendship with La Boétie, Montaigne concludes with his famous expression: “If a man should importune me to give a reason why I lov’d him; I find it could no otherwise be exprest, than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I.”

We can only add here that in the example of Bordeaux of the Essais, Montaigne wrote first “because it was he.” Later he added “because it was I.”

This essay was originally published at OUP Blog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Read Montaigne’s essay ‘On Friendship’ here

For more about Montaigne here at O.P., please also see my own essay, published here at Ordinary Philosophy