O.P. Recommends: Malcolm Gladwell on Brian Williams, the Fungibility of Memory, and Journalistic Integrity

Brian Williams in 2011 by David Shankbone, free to use under Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Brian Williams in 2011 by David Shankbone, free to use under Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, I listened to a recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast about a subject I’ve been interested in for a long time: how memory actually works and how that understanding relates to our relationship with the truth.

A few years ago, I wrote a short opinion piece that was, in part, about news anchorman Brian Williams’ disproven claims to be on a helicopter that was shot down over Iraq in 2003. In that piece, I favorably compared how Williams behaved in the wake of that scandal to the behavior of other media personalities who made similarly false or distorted claims. Unlike the other figures I criticized in that piece, I believe that Williams’ ready admission of his mistakes and his willingness to heap recriminations on himself reveal that he is, in fact, a person of integrity with a real respect for the truth.

While listening to the podcast yesterday, I found that Gladwell agrees with my assessment and for many good reasons. In ‘Free Brian Williams’, Gladwell summarizes what we now know about the fungibility and therefore unreliability of memory, and applies this to a very good discussion of how we all should be careful about the claims we make, especially when we’re in a position to inform and influence the public. A very interesting listen…

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Happy Birthday, Niccolò Machiavelli!

Niccolò Machiavelli statue at the Uffizi

Cary Nederman introduces us to his piece on Niccolò Machiavelli for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy thusly:

Why an entry on Machiavelli? That question might naturally and legitimately occur to anyone encountering an entry about him in an encyclopedia of philosophy. Certainly, Machiavelli [May 3, 1469 – June 21, 1527] contributed to a large number of important discourses in Western thought—political theory most notably, but also history and historiography, Italian literature, the principles of warfare, and diplomacy. But Machiavelli never seems to have considered himself a philosopher—indeed, he often overtly rejected philosophical inquiry as beside the point—nor do his credentials suggest that he fits comfortably into standard models of academic philosophy. His writings are maddeningly and notoriously unsystematic, inconsistent and sometimes self-contradictory. He tends to appeal to experience and example in the place of rigorous logical analysis. Yet succeeding thinkers who more easily qualify as philosophers of the first rank did (and do) feel compelled to engage with his ideas, either to dispute them or to incorporate his insights into their own teachings. Machiavelli may have grazed at the fringes of philosophy, but the impact of his musings has been widespread and lasting. The terms “Machiavellian” or “Machiavellism” find regular purchase among philosophers concerned with a range of ethical, political, and psychological phenomena, even if Machiavelli did not invent “Machiavellism” and may not even have been a “Machiavellian” in the sense often ascribed to him. Moreover, in Machiavelli’s critique of “grand” philosophical schemes, we find a challenge to the enterprise of philosophy that commands attention and demands consideration and response. Thus, Machiavelli deserves a place at the table in any comprehensive survey of philosophy…’

Learn more about the often contradictory, ever controversial, always fascinating and relevant Niccolò Machiavelli:

The Inverted Advice of Niccolò Machiavelli – by William J. Connell for the Times Literary Supplement

Machiavelli and the Italian City States – Melvin Bragg in conversation with his guests Quentin Skinner, Evelyn Welch, and Lisa Jardine

Niccolò Machiavelli – by Cary Nederman for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Niccolò Machiavelli: Italian Statesman and Writer – by Harvey Mansfield for Encyclopædia Britannica

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

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O.P. Recommends: M.M. Owen on Martin Buber’s I and Thou

‘A Father and Child’ by Andrei Osipovich Karelin, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In this excellent essay, M. M. Owen explores Martin Buber‘s idea that ‘when we encounter another individual truly as a person, not as an object for use, we become fully human.’:

I and Thou argues that within this elementally networked reality there are two basic modes of existence: the I-It, and the I-Thou. These two stances make up our basic ‘twofold attitude’. In the I-It mode, an ‘Ego’ approaches another as an object separate from itself. This type of engagement is driven by a sort of instrumentalism; the object is engaged primarily as something to be known or used, and its nature is always mediated through the subject’s own self-regard. From the I-It stance, we don’t engage with things in their entirety. Instead, we engage with a web of distinct and isolated qualities notable for how they are useful to us. Buber regarded this kind of self-centred outlook – typified, in his view, by proto-existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – as a grave error.

By contrast, in the I-Thou relationship, rather than simply experiencing another, we encounter them. A subject encounters a fellow subject’s whole being, and that being is not filtered through our mediated consciousness, with its litter of preconceptions and projections. ‘No purpose intervenes,’ as Buber put it. The I-Thou stance has a purity and an intimacy, and is inherently reciprocal. In relation to others, he argued, we can step into an intersubjective space where two people coexist in (and co-contribute to) what he called the Between. In this Between lurks the vital, nourishing experience of human life, the real sacred stuff of existence. As he put it: ‘All real living is meeting.’

Read the full essay here

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O.P. Recommends: Slavery and the History of Abolition: An Interview with Manisha Sinha for the African American Intellectual History Society

1898 portrait of Frances E.W. Harper, one of the multitude of abolitionists so richly featured in Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause

I’ve been reading Manisha Sinha‘s wonderful book The Slave’s Cause as fast as I can, which is not very fast at all given my current master’s degree course heavy reading load. But today, I’m happy to say, I’ll be really digging into it for a seminar essay I’m working on. What a happy coincidence that this interview with Rebecca Brenner for the African American Intellectual History Society is just published today; thanks as always for the excellent work you do, AAIHS!

Here are some audio sources to learn more about Sinha’s work on African American leadership in the abolitionist movement:

Harvard Book Store talk, March 2016, recorded and published at C-SPAN

Manisha Sinha, A History of Abolition: interview with Liz Covart for Ben Franklin’s World podcast

Slavery & Abolition in Antebellum America with Manisha Sinha, interview with Daniel Gullotta for The Age of Jackson 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!

O.P. Recommends: Frederick Douglass’ Drunk History Episode

This year brings all things Frederick Douglass to O.P., in celebration of the bicentennial of the great human rights activist’s birth, one especially dear to my mind and heart. So here I share my favorite episode of Drunk History, in which comedian and screenwriter Jen Kirkman drinks two bottles of wine before she tells Douglass’ story. It also stars Don Cheadle as Frederick Douglass, Will Farrell as Abraham Lincoln, and Zooey Deschanel as Mary Todd Lincoln. Directed by Jeremy Konner. Prepare for some aching ribs…

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!

Book Review: The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia, by Claude A. Clegg III

Liberian Senate drawn by Robert K. Griffin, Monrovia, Liberia 1856, public domain via the Library of Congress

The Price of Liberty is not a new publication, but I found this book which I read and reviewed for one of my seminars so interesting I thought I’d share it here with you:

In his 2004 book The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia, Claude A. Clegg III examines the history of African-American migration to Liberia, a colony established for free African-Americans, previously enslaved and otherwise. Clegg chooses the experiences of colonists from North Carolina to West Africa as his case study. His examination reveals the complex issues of African-American liberation from slavery and its wider effects. From the struggles of African-Americans nominally repatriated as they formed a colony in an unfamiliar country in the continent of their ancestors’ birth, to the impact of their colonization on African peoples displaced or made neighbours by these foreigners from American shores, Liberia was at once a place of hope, promise, turmoil, and struggle. While the book focuses on three major waves of emigration throughout the nineteenth century, Clegg’s epilogue rounds out the story with a brief history of Liberia in the twentieth century and up to the time the book was written.

The Price of Liberty’s first chapter lays the groundwork with the backstory of the colonization movement in the eighteenth century, centred on American Quakers’ evolving beliefs about the morality of chattel slavery and their attempts to work around laws that prohibited manumission or at least rendered it prohibitively expensive. The colonization movement, though lambasted by abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass as a racist attempt to rid the United States of those Americans who did so much to build it with so little reward, was also considered by many, both black and white, to be a ready if expensive way to resolve interracial conflict. Clegg then describes three major waves of emigration of North Carolinian freepersons to Liberia. The first wave included two main periods. The first, from 1825 – 1830, saw 652 emigrants to Liberia, Haiti, and other places, mostly to the former (Liberty p 75). Negative reports about the dangers of emigration, especially of high rates of mortality from malaria, led the movement to lull. The second period followed white reprisals and repressions sparked by Nat Turner’s slave uprising. The deadliness of white raids and assaults gave new urgency to the movement, so from 1831 – 1833, an additional 203 North Carolinians settled in Liberia, among many hundreds more from other states (Liberty pp 138, 141). The second wave, from 1850 – 1864, was also sparked by crisis: the 1850’s Fugitive Slave Law and subsequent legal attacks on the rights of black Americans such as the 1857 Dred Scott case. These engendered new dangers not only for escaped slaves and those still in thrall, but also for free black Americans, who could be captured and pressed into slavery with few legal remedies left to alleviate their plight. Again, with reports of Liberian struggles with malaria, poverty, and conflict with neighbouring Africans combined with the end of the Civil War and emancipation, the colonization movement again dwindled and virtually disappeared by the end of the 1850’s. The final and longest wave began in 1865 following the institution of repressive Black Codes, attacks by the Ku Klux Klan, and general lack of opportunities for freed African-Americans to lift themselves out of poverty. 1879 saw the last relatively large number of North Carolinian freeperson emigrants to Liberia (Liberty p 267).

Though freeperson colonists suffered poverty, armed and political conflicts with neighbouring West African peoples and those who shared their communities, and difficulties wresting a living from the rocky soil in communities decimated by malaria and other diseases. Liberia continued on and does so today as Africa’s oldest republic (Holsoe). Though emigrating African-American freepeople hoped to find a country in which their ancestry would no longer render them separate and unequal in their new societies, they found themselves separated from the African people they found on it West Coast by a wide gulf created by cultural and religious differences; in fact, many West Africans considered these immigrants whites who just happened to have black skin (Liberty p 97). Clegg’s study of the origins and history of the Amero-Liberian colonization movement offers a compelling example of the difficulties in forming a stable society built on the ideals of equality, liberty, and democracy while resting upon a foundation of colonization and displacement and, in many instances, of the exploitation of native Africans. It also reveals the promise and problems of the Pan-Africanist movement, of building identity on a broad basis of shared ancestry and struggle rather than the cultural and religious affinities and community ties that more commonly bind humanity together.


Clegg, Claude Andrew. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Holsoe, Svend E. et al. ‘Liberia.’ Encyclopædia Britannica. 9 February, 2018. Accessed 23 February 23, 2018 at www.britannica.com/place/Liberia

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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!