From Oakland to Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts I Go, in Search of Frederick Douglass

As I am in the throes of paper-writing against final semester deadlines, I am sadly unable to write for Ordinary Philosophy at the moment. So let me re-share a story: exactly two years ago today, I caught a plane to return home from an amazing two-week journey following the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass all around the eastern United States. I had long been fascinated by this complex and brilliant man, and what I learned during this journey increased my interest and admiration by orders of magnitude. So here I am living in Scotland continuing my Douglass studies; I am so looking forward to sharing what I find with you in the coming months as I follow his life and ideas around this beautiful country as well. Stay tuned!

Ordinary Philosophy

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my fifth philosophical-historical themed adventure, beginning with research and study in Oakland, CA, then off to Baltimore, MD, New York, Washington DC, and other East Coast sites to follow in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass’s life story is inspiring and humbling in the strength, character, and dazzling intellect he reveals, rising to such…

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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!

In Memory of Harriet Tubman

Portrait of Harriet Tubman by Benjamin Powelson, Auburn, New York, 1868-69, public domain via the Library of Congress

On this anniversary of her death on March 10, 1913, let us remember and salute Harriet Tubman, that brave, intrepid, and most ingenious of women.

Born on the eastern shore of Maryland as Araminta Ross around 1820, she was put to work very young, from field labor to housework to child tending. She suffered regular physical abuse all the while, including whippings and a cracked skull from a two-pound weight thrown her way as she refused to interfere with the escape of a fellow slave. The resulting injury caused her much pain and difficulty from the age of 12 until she received brain surgery in her late 70’s. She was both disabled and inspired by her injury: she suffered severe headaches and narcolepsy, but she also experienced visions which she believed were sent by God.

But her injury apparently little to dampen her energy or undermine her ingenuity. In 1849, Minty, as she was nicknamed, escaped to Philadelphia to avoid being sold further South where there was a good chance she’d suffer under an even harsher enslavement. Her first husband, John Tubman, a free man, refused to go with her. The next year, Harriet Tubman (she adopted her mother’s first name upon her marriage to Tubman) returned to Maryland to rescue her niece and her niece’s two children. That was the first of 19 rescue missions in which Tubman risked her own freedom by returning to Maryland rescue family, friends, and many other people, about 70 in all. She helped dozens more complete their journeys north to Canada through the Underground Railroad.

Harriet Tubman, 1911, Auburn, New York, from Miller NAWSA Suffrage Scrapbooks, public domain via the Library of Congress

During the Civil War, Tubman would go on to free about ten times as many as she had from Maryland. From 1862-1865, she worked as a nurse, a scout, and a spy for the Union Army. One on occasion, she and Colonel James Montgomery led an expedition into South Carolina to destroy plantations and liberate their enslaved workforces, about 700 people in all.

For the rest of her life, Tubman worked hard to help her fellow black citizens recover and thrive after release from slavery. She worked and raised money to care for orphans and the aged, and she also became a women’s rights activist. Despite her war services and other services on behalf of Americans most in need of help, Tubman received only a fraction of the pension that male veterans received and she struggled with financial hardship for the rest of her life, in no small part because she donated so many of the funds she raised to various causes. She died in 1911 in the Home for the Aged that she established next to her own home in Auburn, New York.

Be further inspired by the great Harriet Tubman through these works of journalism, scholarship, art, and comedy:

Runaway award notice for Harriet Tubman (then also known as ‘Minty’) and her two brothers, 1849. Via ClickAmericana.org

Harriet Ross Tubman (c. 1821-1913) ~ by Shirley Yee for BlackPast.org

Harriet Tubman ~ by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum

Harriet Tubman ~ by Eloise Greenfield, performed by Thelma R. Thomas

Harriet Tubman ~ for the National Park Service website

Harriet Tubman ~ Neal Conan interviews Katherine Clinton for NPR’s Talk of the Nation

Harriet Tubman: American Abolitionist ~ by the editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

Harriet Tubman Leads an Army of Bad Bitches ~ starring Crissle West and Octavia Spencer for Drunk History

Harriet Tubman’s Ballad ~ composed and performed by Veronika Jackson, lyrics by Woody Guthrie

Harriet Tubman’s Path to Freedom
~ by Ron Stodghill for The New York Times

Harriet Tubman: Slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights in the 19th Century~ by Kristen T. Oertel

Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Part I and Part II ~ with hosts Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey for Stuff You Missed in History Class

Harriet Tubman: Underground Railroad “Conductor”, Nurse, Spy ~ at Civil War Trust website

Iconic Americans: Meet Harriet (Minty) Tubman ~ by J.C. Shively for I Love American History blog

New Book Documents Courage of Harriet Tubman and Underground Railroad (excerpt) ~ by Eric Foner at The Root

Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman ~ by Sarah H. Bradford, 1869

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

What I Learned About Disability and Infanticide from Peter Singer, by Katie Booth

Illustration from A System of Midwifery, Including the Diseases of Pregnancy and the Puerperal State, 1875 by Leishman & Parry, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1970s, the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, perhaps best-known for his book Animal Liberation (1975), began to argue that it is ethical to give parents the option (in consultation with doctors) to euthanise infants with disabilities. He mostly, but not exclusively, discussed severe forms of disabilities such as spina bifida or anencephaly. In Practical Ethics (1979), Singer explains that the value of a life should be based on traits such as rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness. ‘Defective infants lack these characteristics,’ he wrote. ‘Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.’

The thought of killing disabled babies is especially dangerous because the concept of disability often functions as a mere cloak, thrown over much uglier hatreds. In ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History’ (2001), the historian Douglas Baynton points out that African-American enslavement was justified through disability models: there was a supposition that African Americans suffered from a number of medical conditions that were understood to make them unable to care for themselves. Until 1973, homosexuality was a psychological disorder justified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; the current edition, the DSM-5, still considers transgender people disabled.

Singer generally frames severe physical disabilities through a medical lens. His ideas chafe against models of the disabled as a minority group. To Singer, severe disability is more a problem to be solved than a difference to be embraced and accommodated.

For years, I thought Singer was morally bankrupt. I grew up in a family with hereditary deafness, and though deafness is far from the type of disability that Singer was focusing on (with some arguing that it’s not a disability at all), I still recognised an idea that the disability community has faced for centuries: that people with disabilities are fundamentally less entitled to their rights – even their lives. Singer’s ideas stood in opposition to my core belief that the disabled body is created largely through a lack of accommodation, and that people with disabilities are different perhaps, but not less.

While most of Singer’s other writings seemed so thoughtful, so compassionate, his writings on disabled children seemed to be approaching the slippery slope toward ethnocide – the intentional and systematic destruction of cultures, like the Deaf culture that my own family embraced. I had never been able to shake what he was saying about the disabled – and I wanted to know more: what he thought today; if his ideas had ever shifted; and, mostly, how he could believe so strongly in something that seemed so out of sync with his reverence for life.

This past winter, I reached out to Singer to learn more.

I was nervous to talk with him, even over the blurry, jumpy distance of Skype, but I had no reason to be. Though his ideas felt abrasive, even violent, to me, he took opposition with thoughtful consideration. And as we talked, I began to wonder if I hated his ideas because they poked at sore spots in my worldview, exposing its vulnerabilities.

Singer resists the idea that disability is mere difference; there is suffering involved, he says, and not only of the social variety. ‘I don’t think the idea that it’s better to be able rather than disabled is in itself a prejudice,’ he told me. ‘To see that as akin to racism or sexism is a mistake.’ He argues that if it weren’t preferable to be able-bodied, we wouldn’t have a problem with pregnant women taking drugs or drinking heavily, that avoiding disability would have to also be seen as prejudicial. It isn’t, and Singer maintains that it shouldn’t be.

Instead, Singer maintains that disability, unlike race or gender, comes with intrinsic suffering – sometimes great enough that it is more compassionate to end the lives of infants than to force them to live in pain. Over the years since he first began discussing this proposal, Singer has had to contend with studies showing that quality-of-life assessments of people with disabilities are not that different from those of able-bodied people – a fact that could grossly undermine his argument of alleviating suffering. While he has found those studies compelling, he maintains that it’s not fair to allow them to speak for those too severely disabled to respond to such a survey. (In general, he doesn’t buy the idea that people with vastly different disabilities ought to be speaking to each other’s experiences.)

Disturbingly, though he focuses mostly on severe disabilities, he also resists putting strict parameters around which disabilities would qualify for infanticide. ‘Look,’ he told me, ‘I don’t think it’s for me to tell parents [that] if your child is like this you are to end the child’s life, and if the child is like that you ought not to.’ Instead, he considers how class, family, community, not to mention regional and national support, shape the potential life of the child.

Particularly surprising was how Singer’s responses often revealed under-investigated issues in the disability movement’s rhetoric: the idea that class and location could have tremendous impact on a parent’s ability to raise a child with a disability, for instance, or that some are so disabled that they have no ability to speak to their own quality of life. The way that Singer’s ideas are often engaged with exhibits an intellectual laziness that tosses these issues dangerously aside.

Singer has not focused on infanticide for decades, but his ideas still ache in the disability world, like a wound that won’t heal. Singer is still deeply entrenched in questions about the hierarchy of lives, and his ideas about the inferiority of many people with disabilities – and the dangers that those ideas imply – are as pertinent today as they’ve ever been. The epidemic of spina bifida that spurred his arguments has now passed, but the larger questions he poses are still central to questions of prejudice and equality in the disability community. This makes it hard to sort through Singer. His arguments are built intricately and beautifully, like a perfect mathematics equation, but at their core beats a single assertion, one that is still too difficult to concede: that this group of human beings aren’t really people. That’s the pain that obscures the rest.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Katie Booth is a freelance writer and a 2017-18 John W Kluge fellow at the Library of Congress. She has written for the Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, The Fourth River and Vela. Her first book, The Performance of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to Cure Deafness, will be published by Simon & Schuster. She lives in Washington, DC. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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!

The Right to be Poor, Part 2: O.P. Recommends ‘Freedom and Hostile Design’ by Barry Lam

People in a Public Square (cropped), Image Creative Commons CCO Public Domain via Pixabay

Last year, O.P. shared an excellent article by Peter Adamson called ‘The Right to Be Poor’, which is about an aspect of the property rights debate that we rarely address: the right to own nothing.

Recently, Barry Lam, associate professor of philosophy at Vassar College and creator of the excellent podcast Hi-Phi Nation, considered another aspect of the human rights and ownership problem: do people who own little or nothing have a right to access public places in the course of taking care of their most basic needs? In the episode ‘Freedom and Hostile Design,’ Lam and his guests ‘look at some of the suckiest things that ever sucked in urban design, and the street artists and compassionate vandals who are trying to fight them. We use these stories to investigate how public spaces are becoming less free and more coercive.’

If you enjoy what you hear, don’t stop there! Hi-Phi Nation is one of the best philosophy and indeed, any podcasts out there.

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!

Happy Birthday, Abigail Adams!

Abigail Adams, the earliest known image of her painted near the time of her marriage in 1764

Abigail Adams, born on November 22, 1744 in Weymouth, Massachusetts, was wife and chief advisor to John Adams, American founding father and second president; early advocate for women’s rights and opponent of slavery; self-taught intellectual; mother to many children including another American president; and something I just learned today, a savvy and successful financial speculator. She is one of the most well-known figures in American history because of the voluminous and well-preserved correspondence between her and her husband John. While she remained at home raising the children and managing their home, John was frequently away for extended periods on matters of revolution and state. Their letters are famous: they were loving and forthright with one other on a rare level, and the ideas and advice these two brilliant people shared with one another illuminate and inspire readers still.

Learn more about our wise and indefatigable founding mother Abigail Adams at:

Abigail Adams ~ by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider for The History Chicks podcast

Abigail Adams (1744 – 1818) ~ bio for the Adams National Historical Park, National Park Service website

Abigail Adams: American First Lady ~ by Betty Boyd Caroli for Encyclopædia Britannica

Abigail Adams: Revolutionary Speculator ~ Liz Covart interviews Woody Holton for Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History

Abigail Smith Adams ~ by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum website

First Family: Abigail and John Adams ~ by Joseph J. Ellis for the Philadelphia Free Library

How Abigail Adams Proves Bill O’Reilly Wrong About Slavery ~ by David A. Graham for The Atlantic

John Adams ~ Miniseries by HBO, 2008

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!

Happy Birthday, John Jones!

John Jones, portrait by Mosher & Baldwin, 1882, courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

When I visited Springfield, Illinois this summer, I found a very interesting plaque at the Old State House downtown. It told the story of John Jones and his activism against Illinois’s Black Laws, a set of legal codes that pertained only to black people, and, as you likely and immediately supposed,  were terribly oppressive. Such laws have a long history in the United States and as long as they’ve been around, lovers of justice have been around to fight them. John Jones was one such person.

Born on November 3rd, 1816 to an American black mother and German white father, Jones had to make his own way early in the world. Jones’ mother did not trust his father to do right by his son so she apprenticed him to a tailor when he was very young. The resourceful Jones taught himself to read and write and, having learned what he needed to, he released himself from the tailor’s service by age 27. He then obtained official free papers for himself and his wife, née Mary Jane Richardson, and secured their freedom to live and travel by posting a $1,000 bond in 1844. While he and his wife were both born free, they had to worry about the numerous ‘fugitive’ slave catchers and kidnappers prowling around, all too happy to capture as many black persons as they could get ahold of, passing them off as escaped slaves in exchange for a substantial payoff.

The Joneses moved to Chicago from Alton, Illinois in 1845, where there was an established community of black entrepreneurs and therefore, more opportunities for families such as theirs. Jones worked hard and savvily, building up a very successful tailoring business and amassing an impressive fortune within just a few years. The Joneses used their success to help their fellow black citizens, making their home one of the key Chicago stops on the Underground Railroad. Jones poured much of his money and time into civil rights activism, working for the abolitionist cause and to overturn the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the already decades-old Black Laws of Illinois, sometimes with his fellow autodidact and activist Frederick Douglass. For the rest of his life, Jones was a prominent intellectual, moral, religious, and political leader in the black community of Chicago and beyond.

Learn more about the courageous civil rights leader John Jones at:

John Jones (1816–1879): Activist, politician, tailor, entrepreneur  ~ by Jessie Carney Smith for Encyclopedia.com

Jones, John ~ by Cynthia Wilson for Blackpast.org

Historical placard for John Jones, Old State House, Springfield, Illinois

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!