Happy Birthday, John Muir!

John Muir National Historic Site, his home in Martinez, CA, where he lived the last two and a half decades of his life

In honor of John Muir’s birthday, April 21, 1838, I’ll share the story of my visit to an important place in his life almost two years ago. It was June 26th, 2016, a hot, bright day in Martinez, CA.

The John Muir National Historic Site is just south of the Carquinez Strait, which links San Pablo and Suisun Bays. Benicia, California’s third but short-lived capital city, is just across the strait and was reached by ferry in Muir’s time. A lovely town with a well-preserved historic district, Benicia is well-situated on a waterway that permits easy passage for ships and ferries. In its early years, the strait allowed for easy passage of people, animals, and the products of this agricultural region and later industrial center, so it became a busy, thriving center of commerce. It enjoyed its first big boom with the Gold Rush, as it lay on an easy route between San Francisco and the gold fields.

Martinez was also a hub of Gold Rush activity. The ferry between Benicia and Martinez enjoyed a monopoly on getting all those gold-crazed fortune seekers south to the gold fields and north again to cash in. But Martinez was also an important agricultural town, and this site preserves just a little bit of that aspect of its history. It’s about a thirty-five-minute drive northeast of where I live in Oakland.

Physician, horticulturist, and father-in-law of John Muir, Dr. John Strentzel, among his orchards and vineyards in Martinez, CA. Photo credit: Sierra Club

A ripe peach from the orchards of John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, CA

The grand house which stands here was first the home of Dr. John Strentzel, a Polish physician who emigrated to the United States in 1840. Like Benicia and Martinez, Strentzel made his early fortune in the Gold Rush, in his case through the practice of medicine. He later took up farming and achieved fame as a horticulturist. Strentzel settled in Alhambra Valley, just south of Martinez, with his wife Louisiana, daughter Louisa, and son John, in 1853. The Strentzels built their final home and grand farm here in Martinez from 1880-1882, with a veritable mansion made comfortable with the most modern amenities as they became available: indoor plumbing, gas lighting, two water closets, and eventually, a telephone and electricity. Louisa, nicknamed Louie, ferried to Benicia daily where she went to school and learned to play the piano expertly. Her brother John died at only nine years old in 1857.

The Martinez house was surrounded by acres and acres of rolling farmland, and several groves remain today. I see grapes, peaches, plums, pomegranates, and much more. Visitors can pluck and eat the fruit freely; the peaches and plums are ripe now, the latter richly red, dripping, and delicious.

John Muir’s ‘Scribble Den’, John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, CA

John Muir met the Strentzels in 1874; he was already well known as a naturalist and just beginning his career as a writer. The year before, he moved to Oakland from Yosemite and published articles about California’s natural wonders. He often lamented how slowly his thoughts flowed through his pen though they bloomed as naturally and abundantly in his mind as the wild California flowers he loved.

Parts of Yosemite had already been set aside as public land by the federal government, protected by the state of California for public use and barred from development by private interests. Senator John Conness introduced the park bill in Congress in 1864 which passed quickly, and President Abraham Lincoln signed it that summer. Conness is an interesting and admirable person as well, an Irish immigrant who also got his start in the Gold Rush and remained on the right side of history in his political career. His advocacy for Chinese immigrants and for equal rights eventually destroyed his political career, but in the meantime he was respected as a champion of the ordinary American, native and immigrant, over the interests of the few and the wealthy, and was one of Lincoln’s pallbearers.

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park

Yet the bill setting Yosemite aside as public land did not provide funds or the authority to protect it. It took Muir, another immigrant, to reveal the true sacredness of the natural world to the consciousness of his (now) fellow Americans, which in turn gave rise to the political will to care for it. An accident in the factory he worked at in 1867 damaged his eyes temporarily and he began to wander. He walked from Indianapolis to Florida, a thousand miles, and fell in love with the natural world and the transformative power of walking in nature. Muir heard that there were spectacular natural wonders in California, vast, and in many places still unexplored and unspoiled, and sailed to San Francisco in 1868. He walked to Yosemite and throughout the Sierras, writing a journal as he went. He emerged as a prophet, fearless, tireless, and rendered poetic by his baptism of the wind, trees, stones, wildlife, and water.

Two books, one written by and one owned by John Muir

But he realized that this great inspiration which transformed and ennobled his life would be unavailable to others if the entrepreneurs trespassing into the Yosemite valley and despoiling it were allowed to continue. So, again like the biblical prophets, Muir emerged from the wilderness to share the good news and cry out against those who defiled the great temples of creation for their own gain. He returned to civilization to spread the word, first through newspapers and then through books. 1874, the year he met the Strentzels at a mutual friend’s home in Oakland, saw his first success as a writer with his ‘Studies in the Sierra’ series. Muir had also discovered the evidence that the formations of Yosemite were created by glaciers, not wind and rain as previously thought, and over time, the scientific community were convinced of the truth of his theory.

The sequoia that John Muir planted near his home is not doing too well, it’s too warm and dry here. Its natural habitat is in the higher, cooler Sierras

Muir married Louie Strentzel in 1879. Though her father and Muir had become good friends, the couple did not fall in love with each other on their own. Another mutual friend set them up and convinced each, separately, that the other would make a perfect companion for them. Muir began to help Dr. Strentzel run the Martinez farm when his health declined, and when he died in 1890, the Muirs established a life together here as ranchers with their two daughters. Muir turned out to be an excellent rancher and, like his father-in-law, was a hard and skilled worker, gifted at innovation and invention. Though Louie didn’t share Muir’s central passion for the wilderness, the couple were affectionate and generous with one another, and she insisted that Muir get away and spend time alone in his beloved wilderness when he needed it, which was often, and often for extended periods.

Like Muir, I love to walk, especially in nature, and when the weather and daylight hours permit, I go on hikes, long or short, two or three times a week. I would one day love to have the wherewithal, or lacking that, the courage to give up financial security and my belongings to wander the earth awhile in freedom, taking in what the journey has to offer. I am in the process right now of cutting my moorings and setting off on a new course in life, resuming my studies in Muir’s native Scotland and getting in as much walking and traveling as I can beforehand. I’m happy that I’ve walked in many of the places Muir has, or at least nearby: I’ve ascended Mount Diablo, by foot and by bicycle; I’ve done several hikes in Yosemite; I lived in Oakland for over a decade and spent a lot of time in San Francisco; and on that beautiful summer day in June, I explored his old home and strolled through some of his orchards.

Amy in Yosemite National Park, above the falls on the El Capitan hike

The idea that Americans should own the most beautiful portions of their nation’s land in common is an idea that melds Muir’s belief in the sacredness of nature and Senator Conness’s belief in universal human rights. Each human soul needs and deserves a place of unspoiled beauty to immerse itself in, and everyone, not only the rich, the powerful, and the well-connected, should have the opportunity to fulfill and ennoble themselves this way. The National Parks, then, are among the greatest expressions of this democratic spirit.

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

You can find more photos of the John Muir National Historic Site here

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration

Burns, Ken. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea documentary series, and ‘John Muir (1838–1914)‘ from the documentary website

City of Benicia: Historic Context Statement, Sep 27, 2010. By City of Benicia Department of Public Works & Community Planning

John Muir National Historic Site: People‘, at NPS.gov

History of Martinez‘. From the Martinez Historical Society website

John Conness‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

The John Muir House‘. John Muir National Historic Site: People, at NPS.gov

Sierra Club: John Muir Exhibit, various articles: ‘Chronology (Timeline) of the Life and Legacy of John Muir‘; ‘Dr. John Theophile Strentzel’; ‘John Muir: A Brief Biography‘; ‘Louie Strentzel Muir: A Biography by Steve and Patty Pauly‘; ‘Who Was John Muir?

Thomas, Donna and Peter. Muir Ramble Route: Walking from San Francisco to Yosemite in the Footsteps of John Muir

Walsh, Victor A. ‘John Muir and the Family Ranch in Martinez‘. July 5, 2011. LiteraryTraveler.com 

Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson!

Thomas Jefferson by Charles Bird King, 1836, after Gilbert Stuart, at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Photo 2016 by Amy Cools

As I rest after completing my term papers, exploring the highlands and islands of Scotland with my dear friends, I find I have little time to write and even less time with good internet connection. So let me share some old things with you, friends, until I can write and record for O.P. again.

In remembrance of Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) on his birthday, here are my tributes to his memory, his life, and his ideas from over the years:

To Washington DC, Virginia, and Philadelphia I Go, In Search of Thomas Jefferson

To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson

and my thrilling interview with Clay Jenkinson, Jefferson scholar, of just over two years ago

Interview with Clay Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson

I hope you enjoy following me as I followed in the footsteps of Jefferson!

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Paul Robeson, Black Dockworkers, and Labor-Left Pan-Africanism, by Peter Cole

Actor Paul Robeson, photographed at Madame St. Georges studio in London in 1925 (AP Photo/Courtesy Paul Robeson Jr.). Click to hear Robeson’s incomparably beautiful baritone voice sing ‘Shenandoah’

In honor of singer, actor, and civil and labor rights activist Paul Robeson’s birthday, April 9, 1898, here’s an excellent piece by Peter Cole, originally published at the African American Intellectual History Society blog

Paul Robeson was one of the greatest black internationalists of the twentieth century. A gifted actor and singer, he was also an unabashed leftist and union supporter. This resulted in his bitter persecution, destroying his career and causing, to a surprising degree, his disappearance from popular–if not academic–memory. Robeson’s connections to the fiery black dockworkers of the San Francisco Bay illuminate a form of black internationalism still left out of scholarly analyses –what I will refer to as Labor-Left Pan-Africanism.

Robeson’s life exemplified Pan-Africanism, a global movement of politically conscious black people who believed they shared much in common with all people of African descent in Africa and across the African Diaspora. In the 1930s, Robeson embraced this ideology, along with communism, and supported the Soviet Union. Robeson and other leftwing, Pan-African black intellectuals and activists—such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Eslanda Robeson, Vicki Garvin, and Hubert Harrison—fought long and hard for racial equality in the United States and for liberation of African and Caribbean nations abroad.

Robeson connected struggles for civil rights with socialism and working class politics. His interest in black equality first came from his father, William Drew Robeson, who was born a slave and successfully liberated himself. Robeson’s leftist politics emerged in the 1930s, first visiting the Soviet Union in 1934, and subsequently embracing socialism for treating black people as equals. He combined politics and artistry from then onwards.

In 1935, Robeson performed in the London debut of the American play Stevedore.1 The reviewer in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine concluded: “Stevedore is extremely valuable in the racial–social question—it is straight from the shoulder.” Later that year, he also played the lead in C. L. R. James’ take on Toussaint L’Ouverture, itself written shortly before James’ classic history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1938).

In 1937, back in the United States, Robeson helped to establish the Council on African Affairs (CAA), which promoted African liberation in an era when few Americans actively engaged in such matters. Perhaps its greatest achievement came in 1946, when the CAA submitted a memorandum to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in support of the African National Congress (ANC). Led by its US-educated President, Alfred Xuma, the ANC successfully fought to prevent the annexation of South-West Africa (now Namibia) by racist, white minority-ruled South Africa. Alas, the CAA was red-baited out of existence shortly after this victory.

In 1942, during WWII, Robeson traveled to Oakland to champion the black and white union workers contributing to the Allied war effort on the home front. One of Robeson’s most famous photos shows him singing the “Star Spangled Banner” amidst a sea of black and white workers at Moore Shipyard in Oakland. The image captures his politics brilliantly, all the more so since Robeson had worked as a shipbuilder during WWI.

Paul Robeson, world famous baritone, at Moore Shipyard in Oakland, CA, leading workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner.

After WWII, the Cold War commenced and black people linked to communism, like Robeson and Du Bois, were persecuted by the US State Department, the FBI, and many so-called patriots intolerant of dissent. Historian Penny M. Von Eschen cites Robeson’s “extreme advocacy on behalf of the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa” as an explanation for his career’s destruction in the Red Scare. I would also add his labor activism.

Just like Robeson, many of the black dockworkers I study adhered to Labor-Left Pan-Africanism. In the San Francisco Bay Area, thousands of African Americans belonged to the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU).2  This leftwing union was renowned for its fierce and proud commitment to racial equality and black internationalism. Indeed, during WWII, Robeson became an honorary member of the ILWU. Robeson and the ILWU were, in many ways, a perfect fit.

The ILWU was—and remains—amongst America’s most radical unions, led for decades by its leftist President Harry Bridges and supported by many leftists in the rank-and-file. The union put socialism into action in its hiring halls, which dispatched members based upon a “low man out” system in which the person with the fewest amount of hours worked, that quarter, received the first available job.

In keeping with its politics, the ILWU attacked racism on the waterfront beginning with its initial “Big Strike” even though the workforce was 99% white in 1934. Local 10 welcomed thousands of African Americans during the WWII-induced shipping boom and these blacks, alongside leftist white allies, fully integrated their union and fought for civil rights in the Bay Area and nationwide. Due to their aggressive efforts, ILWU Local 10, which represents dockworkers in San Francisco, Oakland, and throughout the Bay Area, became black majority in the mid-1960s with blacks elected to every leadership position available. Truly, the ILWU embodied what historian Robert Korstad labeled “civil rights unionism.”

Robeson understood the significance of the ILWU as a platform from which to demand civil rights. Two of Robeson’s best friends– Joe Johnson and Revels Cayton— belonged to the ILWU. Together, these three black men articulated a commitment to Labor-Left Pan-Africanism.

The best example of its Pan-Africanism was ILWU’s commitment to the struggle against apartheid and, more broadly, for the liberation of all the peoples of southern Africa. In the 1950s and 1960s, the union repeatedly condemned white-minority rule in South Africa and also noted the ironic similarities with Jim Crow segregation in the States. In the 1970s and 1980s, rank-and-file members of ILWU Local 10 formed the Southern Africa Liberation Support Committee, which stood at the vanguard of black working class anti-apartheid activism during this period. Leo Robinson, Texas-born and a child of the 2nd Great Migration to Oakland, followed in his father’s footsteps to the waterfront in 1963. In Local 10 Robinson became a communist and activist who helped found the SALSC after the Soweto student uprising of 1976. Although Robeson died that same year, after declining health and decades in forced retirement due to McCarthyism, other radical longshoremen inspired by socialism and liberation movements in Africa joined Robinson and following in Robeson’s footsteps.

The black and white members of the SALSC fought for the liberation of black people in South Africa, Mozambique, Rhodesia, and elsewhere in the best way they knew how: direct action on the job. To leftist, Pan-African dockworkers, the most logical way to attack apartheid and racial capitalism was flexing their economic muscle, i.e. stop work. In 1962, 1977, and for eleven days in 1984 (shortly after Reagan’s landslide re-election), they refused to unload South African cargo. By contrast, other black Pan-Africanists embraced consumer boycotts or economic divestment. Local 10’s actions set the bar for US anti-apartheid activism and helped inspire many in the Bay Area to join the solidarity struggle. Nelson Mandela thanked the union on his first visit to Oakland in 1990 and Robinson received a posthumous award from the now-democratic South African government.

Long after his death, Paul Robeson continued to inspire African Americans in the ILWU including the Bay Area’s Alex Bagwell. Like Leo Robinson, Bagwell’s family moved to San Francisco during WWII. In the 1960s, he dropped out of college after admission to the union, which had elevated so many black folks into the middle class. Like Robeson, Bagwell was a leftist and active in the union’s anti-apartheid efforts. He and his wife, Harriet, belonged to a radical choir, Vukani Mawethu, founded by a South African who belonged to the ANC and had gone into exile. Alex and his wife were among those in Vukani who sang when Mandela visited Oakland.

In the early 1990s, though not yet retired, Bagwell finished his B.A. and then earned his M.A. in Creativity and Arts Education at San Francisco State University. For his graduate degree, he wrote a play on Robeson’s life, conducting interviews with twenty people who knew him including Local 10 member Joe Johnson, Robeson’s long-time friend.

After the birth of a multiracial, democratic South Africa, the Bagwells traveled to the country, as part of Vukani Mawethu, to perform there. Other black and white radicals in the ILWU did so, as well. The Pan-Africanism of these dockworkers clearly followed in the footsteps of Robeson, who first championed the rights of black South Africans in the 1940s. The spirit and ideals of Robeson continue to shape the Pan-Africanism of working class black dockworkers who now have established connections with black dockworkers in South African ports. Robeson would be proud.

  1.  Stevedore is an older term for dockworker or longshoreman, workers who load and unload cargo ships.
  2. The ILWU’s original name was the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union but, in 1997, a resolution was approved, unanimously at its biennial convention, that made its name gender-neutral. “What’s in a Name? For ILWU, it’s not ‘men’,Journal of Commerce, May 4, 1997

~ Peter Cole is a historian of the twentieth-century United States, South Africa and comparative history. Dr. Cole is Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia (University of Illinois Press, 2013) and currently at work on a book entitled Dockworker Power: Race, Technology & Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He writes on labor history and politics (Bio credit: AAIHS)

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

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!

(this piece has been published previously in Ordinary Philosophy)

~ Alejandro Magaña is a musician, poet, and songwriter some of the time, and a father and husband all of the time. He blogs at Aether Ore and lives in San Diego with his wife and son and books and records.

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.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

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 for the 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 is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Anscombe!

Elizabeth Anscombe, [born Mar 18, 1919] was considered by some to be the greatest English philosopher of her generation. She was professor of philosophy at Cambridge from 1970 to 1986, having already, as a research fellow at Oxford in the 50s, helped change the course of moral philosophy. Also influential in philosophy of mind, she pioneered contemporary action theory, and the pre-eminent philosopher Donald Davidson called her 1957 monograph Intention the best work on practical reasoning since Aristotle. The philosophical world owes her an enormous debt, too, for bringing Wittgenstein, probably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, to public knowledge….

~ by Jane O’Grady, from her obituary for Anscombe for The Guardian

Let us honor Elizabeth Anscombe on the anniversary of her birth by learning more about this influential  and trailblazing philosopher:

G. E. M. Anscombe (1919—2001) – by Duncan Richter for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe – by Julia Driver for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Elizabeth Anscombe – Sarah Woolman speaks to Dr Rosalinde Hursthouse and Professor Philippa Foot for the BBC’s Woman’s Hour

The Golden Age of Female Philosophy – Eleanor Gordon-Smith speaks with Dr Rachael Wiseman, Assoc Prof Fiona Jenkins, and philosopher Mary Midgley about Anscombe’s, work along with the work of other great contemporary women philosophers, for The Philosopher’s Zone

Anscombe Bioethics Centre – ‘a Roman Catholic academic institute that engages with the moral questions arising in clinical practice and biomedical research’

G.E.M. Anscombe Bibliography – by José M. Torralba for Universidad de Navarra

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, H.P. Grice!

In honor of this anniversary of H.P. Grice’s birth on March 13th, 1913, let me share an undergraduate paper I had an especially good time writing. For a much less slang-littered and more complete exploration of his ideas, Richard E. Grandy and Richard Warner have written an excellent profile of this brilliant philosopher of language for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Enjoy!

Slang and Grice’s Cooperative Principle

In “Logic and Conversation”, H. P. Grice outlines the unspoken but fixed rules of conversation that not only explain the workings of ordinary language, but account for implicature.

In a paper written only three years later in 1978, “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”, Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter develop a set of criterion for distinguishing slang from other language, through analysis of historical definitions and attitudes and description of its characteristics. In the contemporary F**k, A Documentary, Steve Anderson presents a more informal exposition of a particularly controversial yet ubiquitous slang word, interviewing a host of linguists, politicians, social critics, and entertainers on issues surrounding the use, abuse, and censorship of the term. These interviewees contribute a variety of insights into the nature of slang and its influence on language generally as well as on social thought and attitudes. In this paper, I explain how Grice’s rules of conversation, besides accounting for implicature, also provide an excellent explanation of the mechanism by which slang originates, develops, and conveys meaning.

Question: if sentences and terms refer to things in the world and/or express thoughts, how is it that so many utterances actually convey meaning without using apparently appropriate or specific terminology?

In his paper, Grice considers this phenomenon of pragmatics, or language behavior. He explains that implicature, the ability of a statement to convey meaning without including literal or explicit terms, is possible because acts of language are governed by rules and maxims. The Cooperative Principle (1) contains four rules: quantity, quality, relation, and manner. Each rule, in turn, contains one or more maxims, or principles of linguistic etiquette. Grice proceeds to explain how exploiting these rules and maxims enables a speaker to implicate what they want to say without expressing it literally. Implication serves countless linguistic functions: irony, the discreet sharing of gossip, insult, raising doubts, avoiding or expressing rudeness, social and political critique, proclaiming membership in a social group, artistic expression, etc. Implication is so integral to conversation, so effective for conveying meaning while tailoring the needs of expression to the context of a given situation, that Grice argues that a philosophic theory of language is incomplete without an explanation of it.(2)

Dumas and Lighter are concerned with formalizing a set of criteria for determining what constitutes slang. Prior to their paper, ‘slang’ was a variously defined, often maligned, and poorly understood category of language.(3) The paper opens with a series of descriptions and characterizations of slang over time by linguists, academics, and authors, many of whom dismiss slang as, at best, an unfortunate habit engaged in by the uneducated, lazy, and the thoughtless, or at worst, a corrosive force on language and morals. A few of these figures, however, are much more impartial in their assessment, characterizing slang as a side product of social change or simply a sort of code; a few (Walt Whitman, for example) even approve of its use. Dumas and Lighter demonstrate an attitude of professional detachment in their exploration of slang, considering their paper a much-needed contribution to this academically neglected subject; they recognize, contrary to the dismissive commentary of their peers, that slang is an important area of pragmatics. Like Grice, they narrow their criteria of what constitutes slang language to four: it lowers the dignity of formal/serious speech or writing; it implies a special familiarity between speaker and hearer or speaker and referent; it’s taboo in higher-status social circles; and it’s a euphemism to protect the user from social discomfort or the necessity of elaboration.(4)

Anderson’s documentary, unlike the scholarly works summarized above, is an informal and irreverent romp aimed at a mainstream audience, yet it provides informative insights into the usage and functions of slang.(5) It’s an exploration into a specific slang term, ‘fuck’, widely considered offensive and confrontational by society generally. Yet, it’s a subtle term as well, capable of conveying very complex meanings in various shades, and often considered especially useful for ‘expressing the inexpressible’. (Comedian Billy Connolly provides a particularly charming example of this: “…’fuck off!’…is international; I don’t care where you are…if someone’s fucking with your bags…in Tibet…and you say…’fuck off!’ …he knows exactly what you mean…and off he will fuck!”) Some of the interviewees in this documentary enjoy using this word, some consider it obscene and find hearing or using it offensive, and some are uncomfortable with it, but consider right to free speech so democratically essential that they oppose any sort of coercive censorship of its use. Many of the interviewees (even some of those who disapprove of it generally) acknowledge that ‘fuck’ and other slang/obscene terms have historical significance for challenging and testing social norms and institutions, and many entertainers, authors, academics, and reporters consider this category of language as an important element in artistic and political expression. The academics interviewed in the film, such as Geoffrey Nunberg and Reinhold Aman (the latter humorously billed as ‘a cunning linguist’) discuss why ‘fuck’ is an interesting word strictly linguistically as well, including for its venerable pedigree and for its variety of forms.

Dumas and Lighter’s quote from James Sledd: “the most crucial feature of slang: it is used deliberately, in jest or in earnest, to flout a conventional social or semantic norm”(6) neatly dovetails Grice’s characterization of the way implicature likewise works, by flouting or exploiting conventions of use. Between the the two, Dumas and Lighter’s paper and Anderson’s documentary contain at least one specific discussion or pragmatic example for each rule and maxim of Grice’s Cooperative Principle; and I’ll present and explore these examples following Grice’s arrangement.

The first Cooperative Principle is Quantity, containing two maxims; the first is “Make your contribution as informative as required”. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang terms can abbreviate a large amount of information (7) (as demonstrated previously by Billy Connolly), especially between the speaker and an ‘insider’ audience, a subgroup who uses terms familiar to the speaker. So, using any of these terms exploits this maxim by violating it when speaking within the wider community, since using this term either conveys no information, or is ambiguous meaning in meaning, in this context. However, the maxim is not violated if such a term is used within the subgroup. The mirror maxim, “Do not make your contribution more informative than is required”, is exploited in one way by the element of connotation essential for slang, another method of using a term or expression to informally convey an additional amount of information not gleanable from the general term or expression itself. (8) For example, this information can include contextual information about the speaker, approval or disapproval of the content of the discourse, or compliments or insults directed at the audience.

Quality, the second Cooperative Principle, also contains two maxims. “Do not say what you believe to be false” is exploited when a speaker intentionally breaks with conversational convention by using a term that would not be true or accurate if understood according to its usual definition. (9) The following sentence is an example Dumas and Lighter provide, a slang term inserted into an otherwise conventional sentence, as an instance of flouting this maxim.”The Federal government spends nearly one hundred billion bucks annually for defense.” (10) Traditionally, ‘bucks’, as the term for male deer, would understood according to that definition, and the above sentence would be false. However, ‘bucks’ as a slang term for ‘dollars’, is accurately used within this sentence, but the truth of the statement is only preserved for others familiar with the slang usage, or for those who accept the propriety of its usage. In this case, the choice of the slang usage of ‘bucks’ in place of ‘dollars’ could convey the additional meaning of disrespect for the Federal government, or of identification with the same social group as the audience, and so on. In this way, an apparent falsity actually functions as an more efficient method of conveying the additional meaning with a simple switch of terms. “Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence” is a more idealistic maxim, though I grant that most people expect the speaker to have some justification their statement, be it independently verifiable evidence or at least an accurate, relevant anecdote. However, in ordinary conversation, it’s sometimes important for a speaker to extricate themselves from a difficulty caused by the conversation itself. Perhaps the speaker is in a position to be embarrassed by their own lack of knowledge of the subject discussed. Or, perhaps the speaker is impatient with the conversation, out of lack of interest or in a state of offense at the subject matter, or has a personal dislike of the other participant(s) in the conversation. Whatever the reason, using slang, or more specifically obscenity, can “…protect the user from the discomfort or annoyance of further elaboration.” (11)

Relation is the sole Cooperative Principle with only one maxim: “Be relevant.” Walt Whitman, quoted by Dumas and Lighter, shares the slang speaker’s disdain for strict adherence to this maxim: “Slang, or indirection, [is] an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably….”(12) Whitman here extols the potency of slang terms, in much the same way as entertainers, artists, and free speech advocates such as Billy Connolly, Lenny Bruce, Shakespeare, and Sam Donaldson do, (13) for conveying force and shades of meaning the speaker finds unconveyable in conventional terms. These slang/obscene terms import some of this meaning precisely from the novelty, unexpectedness, or seeming irrelevance of the terms. While singer Pat Boone, for example, may advocate (sometimes humorously) elegant expressions using traditional, even terms for the more intimate functions of the human body as creative ways to express wrath, insult, or depths of passion (14), this general manner of speaking simply doesn’t convey other shades of meanings, such as disapprobation of a political body or philosophy, or declaration of membership in a subgroup, or disgust with corruption, or humorous social commentary, and so forth, that’s essential to political or artistic discourse or is more relevant to the context in which slang is used.

Grice’s final Cooperative Principle, Manner, contains four maxims. Sam Donaldson, veteran anchorman of ABC news, enjoys the term ‘fuck’ as an all-purpose word unlike most others, for its versatility as a substitute for an amazingly large number of other terms while retaining its own particular shade of meaning. (15) Yet ‘fuck’ clearly violates, on its face, the first maxim “Avoid obscurity of expression”, as it seems to rarely denote its original and specific referent, but instead any one of a numerous other things (often within in a noun phrase): as a substitute for actions such as ‘destroy’, ‘harm’, or ‘undermine’, descriptions such as ‘drunk’, ‘wrong’, or ‘in trouble’, or exclamations such as ‘that’s wonderful!’, ‘that’s awful!’, or ‘that’s amazing!’ It appears to be an obscure expression until the context is considered, making it an excellent one for interpersonal and other specific conversational usage but inexcusably ambiguous (according to the maxim) for formal discourse. With ‘fuck’, as with all slang, novelty is important (16), as is the speaker’s intention (17). What the speaker wishes to express is often something they find ordinary words insufficient for: conveying such additional meanings as mentioned earlier: biographical details, general attitudes about life or mood of the moment, or status in society or with a particular subgroup, to give a few examples. (18)

“Avoid ambiguity” is closely related to the obscurity maxim. Again, ‘fuck’ provides an excellent example of slang interpreted through Grice’s Cooperative Principle. As funnyman Billy Connolly explains, it has a guttural sound which aids its expressiveness; a “primal word” (19) that, while to Connolly is unambiguous in its general meaning, is ambiguous in reference to literal translatability: the hearer can understand the word to mean a whole variety of things, depending on the circumstances. Slang is also often used as a euphemism to allay the discomfort of the speaker in a given situation, for example, saying “I love you” can seem too formal, or serious, or connote a level of commitment to the hearer that the speaker is not prepared to make. Instead, a slang phrase such as “you’re cool” or “I dig you” conveys the meaning of some level of affection of the speaker for the hearer, but in a strategically ambiguous way.20 The speaker can later claim that the statement expressed merely friendly feelings or passionate emotion, whichever best suits the speaker at the time.

Some slang actually exploits the third maxim “Be brief” (or, “Avoid unnecessary prolixity”) by obeying it to a fault. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang words are often used to abbreviate longer sentences, as briefly discussed two paragraphs earlier in the “Obscurity”section. Many pop-culture favorites such as commercials, video skits, and comedy films such as “Baseketball” feature characters who conduct entire conversations mostly or even entirely composed of repetitions of a single slang term, variously inflected, to express entire statements of approbation, anger, surprise, inquiry, or command (a web browser search for videos, using the single keyword ‘dude’, will quickly provide multiple examples of this). Yet, this brevity of speech is only successful in conveying the desired meanings when the speaker and hearer belong to the same social group that uses the slang term this way. (21) The general community that conducts conversations according to the Cooperative Principle will not understand such usage. The fourth and final maxim, “Be orderly, is exploited by slang terms (rather obliquely) in their function of punctuating sentences with unconventional words so as to make them more informal, less “dignified”. (22) A more direct example of this, once again, is a particular way the word ‘fuck’ is used: this time, by inserting it in the middle of another word or phrase, interrupting its expression so as to lend it additional dynamic force, in a positive (“fan-fucking-tastic”, “abso-fuckingly-lutely”) or negative manner (“no-fucking-way” or “jeezus-fucking-christ”) (23). Besides the slang classification of such terms by the conversational community, the slang terms inserted into sentences in such a way obtains its forcefulness from the very fact that it interrupts an otherwise orderly sequence of syllables or words.

From my very first reading, I was impressed, and remain so, by Grice’s explanatively powerful, tidy, and intuitive theory for how ordinary conversation and implicature function.

As my research for this paper progressed, I was also surprised by how neatly Grice’s Cooperative Principle and Dumas and Lighter’s description of slang fit together. From Dumas and Lighter’s retelling of historical descriptions and accounts of slang, it appears that there was a poverty of theoretical work on its origins and pragmatics. It appears clear that this was due to an attitude of academic aloofness, if not outright disdain, towards this essentially populist form of expression. Yet slang provides a living laboratory for observing the dynamics of the evolution of language and the way new terms and expressions come into being, as slang originates, changes, and disappears so quickly. It’s the linguistic fruit fly for evolutionary research! And the sheer number of scholarly articles I found on the subject of slang while I was doing my research indicates that scholars of language have discovered this.

While I share the scholar’s high valuation of precision in discourse, I also value vibrancy of expression in many forms including that such as that slang provides, as Walt Whitman did, and as the contemporary comic and author Stephen Fry does: “Imagine if the structure, meaning and usage of language was always the same as when Swift and Pope were alive. Superficially appealing as an idea for about five seconds, but horrifying the more you think about it. If you are the kind of person who insists on this and that ‘correct use’ I hope I can convince you to abandon your pedantry. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be. But above all let there be pleasure. Let there be textural delight, let there be silken words and flinty words and sodden speeches and soaking speeches and crackling utterance and utterance that quivers and wobbles like rennet. Let there be rapid firecracker phrases and language that oozes like a lake of lava. Words are your birthright …Don’t be afraid of it, don’t believe it belongs anyone else, don’t let anyone bully you into believing that there are rules and secrets of grammar and verbal deployment that you are not privy to. Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years.” (24)

Damn straight, Stephen Fry!

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NOTES:

1 – Grice, H.P. “Logic and Conversation” in The Philosophy of Language, ed. A. P. Martinich, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008, 173
2 – Ibid, 172
3 – Dumas, Bethany K. and Jonathan Lighter. “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”. American Speech, Vol. 53 No. 1 (Spring 1978) pp 5-17, 10
4 – Ibid 14-15
5 – Anderson, Steve. F**k, A Documentary, 2005
6 – Dumas and Lighter, 12
7 – F**k
8 – Dumas and Lighter, 13
9 – Ibid, 13
10 – Ibid, 14
11 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
12 – Ibid, 5
13 – F**k
14 – Ibid
15 – Ibid
16 – Dumas and Lighter, 7
17 – Ibid 11-12
18 – Ibid 13-14
19 – F**k
20 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
21 – F**k
22 – Dumas and Lighter, 14
23 – F**k
24 – Fry, Stephen. “Don’t Mind Your Language” Stephenfry.com.