O.P. Recommends: Like the Oscars, #PhilosophySoWhite

School of Athens by Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)Eric Schwitzgebel, who authors the The Splintered Mind blog (a favorite of mine), recently co-wrote this excellent opinion piece about philosophy’s lack of diversity.

Like Hollywood, Schwitzgebel and Myisha Cherry find that there’s a set of preconceptions which underlie the way work is chosen and promoted which, in turn, virtually guarantees philosophy will remain non-diverse. Hollywood has its own set; for academic philosophy, the glorification of obscurantism is a primary factor. Schwitzgebel and Cherry write: ‘We admire philosophers whose central arguments are nearly impossible to understand, or who speak in paradoxes, who accept seemingly bizarre views, or who display dazzling skill with formal logical structures of no practical significance. Kant and Hegel are better loved than understood.’ Seeming smart, the authors explain, has long been confused by too many academics with being smart.

The piece goes on to show how this obscurantism has become the traditional province of white male academics, and is integral to keeping the field of philosophy so exclusionary, and to most people, so irrelevant.

This, of course, would be sad news for Ordinary Philosophy, dedicated as it is to philosophy in the public square, if it were news. But it’s not news, and that’s one of the main reasons O.P. exists. Philosophy should be, like good government, of, by, and for the people. While specialization is key to the development and exploration of complex ideas, obscurantism and jargon, despite assumptions to the contrary, are not necessary to that project. In fact, they accomplish little except ensuring that philosophy is tedious and unpleasant to read, that philosophers end up talking to nearly no-one but each other, and that the field as a whole ends up remaining oh-so-white, oh-so-male, and to most, oh-so-irrelevant.

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

Interview with Clay Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson, Jan 16th 2016

I’m ple6759b-amy2band2bjeffersonased to announce that the 33rd episode of the podcast is a super special one, as it’s Ordinary Philosophy’s first interview, and my distinguished guest is Clay Jenkinson, humanities scholar, author, and creator of the Thomas Jefferson Hour radio show and blog.

I’m a long time listener of the show; in fact, I believe I’ve listened to just about every single episode, many of them more than once, and relied on Clay’s work to inform my own, especially in the two Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series I did following the life and ideas of Thomas Jefferson.

I highly, highly recommend you give the Thomas Jefferson Hour a listen, you can find it at www.jeffersonhour.com, along with many other resources on the life and ideas of Jefferson, and Clay’s other work in the humanities.

You can find the accounts of my two series on Jefferson, as part of the Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series, here and here.

I interview Clay here in character as Thomas Jefferson, as he does on the Thomas Jefferson Hour, discussing various issues as Jefferson himself might have viewed them, informed by Clay’s extensive scholarship on his life and expressed views.

I hope you enjoy our discussion as much as I did!

You can also subscribe to the Ordinary Philosophy and Thomas Jefferson Hour podcasts on iTunes.

*Thank you, Shane and David, for your help and technical support

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

Self-Soothing by Way of Erasing the Complexity of Human History, by Clay Jenkinson

Statue of Thomas Jefferson at his Memorial in Washington D.C., photo 2015 by Amy Cools My beloved mentor in the humanities, Everett C. Albers, taught me the most important of all lessons: “Judgement is easy, understanding is hard.”

You probably have been following the recent spasm of righteousness on some of our college campuses. Some students wish to erase all traces of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University, because he was a racist who undid what little integration his predecessors had managed in the federal government; because he was a sexist, who actively worked against women’s suffrage. Some students wish to have statues of Thomas Jefferson removed from the campus of the University of Missouri, because he was a racist, a slaveholder, and a sexual predator (if you read the Sally Hemings story in the darkest possible way). Some students at Oxford University wish to erase all traces of Cecil Rhodes, after whom Rhodesia was named, because he was a racist and an imperialist.

And so on.

It is true, by our standards as exemplars of perfect enlightenment, these men were all racists and indeed apartheidists. I have a close connection with two of them: Jefferson, whom I have been studying for thirty years, and Rhodes, whose scholarship I freely accepted back in 1976, and under whose financial legacy I studied for four wonderful years at Oxford University. I know the life and achievement of Woodrow Wilson less well, but I have read a handful of books about him over the years.

I regard this growing trend of purification rituals as wrong-headed and misguided for a number of reasons. I’ll list them as briefly as possible.

1. What will they say of us? Sometimes I try to anticipate what the righteous ones of the future will say about us? I met a petrochemical engineer a number of years ago. We talked for several hours about oil as a miracle carbon. I asked her what the epitaph of Western Civilization would be. She said. “They burned oil.” This morning I’m wearing shoes, socks, boxers, trousers, and a shirt, not one item of which was made in the United States. If I could trade each item of clothing back to the factory of its manufacture, I doubt that I would sleep well tonight. I’m with Jesus, John 8:7, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

2. The whole man theory. As Jefferson wisely explained to his daughter Martha (see above), every human being is a mixed bag: enlightenment and blind prejudice, generosity and narcissism, benevolence and malevolence, good day and bad day, clarity and blind spot, outstanding in some ways, deplorable in others. Think of Lance Armstrong, Bill Cosby, Benito Mussolini, Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher, for example. In selecting our culture heroes, we have to assess the whole life and the entire achievement.

Jefferson was a racist and a slaveholder. These factors should weigh heavily in any rational assessment of his life and character. But we must also place in the balance his magnificent labors as a benefactor of humankind: decimal coinage, the rectangular survey grid system, separation of church and state, the University of Virginia, the organizational principle of the Library of Congress, the Louisiana Purchase, the design for the Capitol at Richmond, VA, fundamental work in paleontology, the Declaration of Independence, and the software of the American dream.

For all of his faults–and they do not begin and end with slavery–is Jefferson, in the final analysis, a benefactor or a degrader of humankind? On balance, how shall we evaluate him? Looking at his whole 83 years, his mass of writings, his range of practical achievements, his acts of greatness and his weakest moments, how shall we finally assess him?

3. Hamlet’s view. When the aging courtier Polonius tells Hamlet he will treat the visiting theater group “according to their desert,” Hamlet responds passionately: “God’s bodykins, man, much better! Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping.” — Precisely. Where does this erasure of the past, more reminiscent of Stalin’s USSR and Orwell’s 1984 than of an enlightened democracy, end exactly? George Washington was a slaveholder. Lincoln had race views that would get him razed from Mount Rushmore by the narrowly righteous. Elizabeth Cady Stanton said remarkably ugly things about African-Americans when black men got the vote but white women did not in the wake of the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt was an adulterer. Theodore Roosevelt was at times a warmonger. His views on American Indians are so dark at times that one hates even to read them in a scholarly arena. John F. Kennedy, LBJ, Ronald Reagan, Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, (where does this list end?) broke their marriage vows. Martin Luther King was a womanizer and he plagiarized his doctoral dissertation. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush evaded military service during the Vietnam War. Presidents Obama, Clinton, and GW Bush smoked dope. JFK dropped acid in the White House!

The only political figure I know who seems to have passed the righteous test in full purity is Jimmy Carter. That alone should give us pause. Where does this wave of righteous expurgation end?

4. ‘Tis better to wrestle than erase. My mentor Ev Albers believed that the duty of the humanities scholar is to examine and explore, to try to put any text or historical act or individual in its context, to try to understand how things shook out as they did and not otherwise. The duty of the humanist is to explore the past for its complexity, richness, unresolvedness, nuance, paradox, and problematic nature, and not to engage in the lazy enterprise of making glib judgments. Judgement is easy, understanding difficult. It does no good to portray Jefferson as a lover of liberty who unfortunately was born into a world of slavery, but who treated his slaves well and tried to change the world of Virginia and the United States to the extent that he could; and equally it does no good to portray Jefferson as a contemptible hypocrite who talked the language of liberty and equality, but who was quite content to breed slaves for the marketplace, and who dismissed African-Americans as physically and mentally inferior. One could make either argument plausibly enough, for there is a huge and not always consistent body of evidence in Jefferson writings and actions.

But surely we gain more by wrestling with the paradoxes in Jefferson’s life, illuminating, clarifying, teasing out nuance, attempting to understand his own (changing) thinking about race and slavery, his own strategy for preserving his reputation as an apostle of liberty while buying and selling human beings, who, as he freely acknowledged, “did him no injury.” After spending thirty years thinking and writing about Jefferson, I am not at all sure I understand his relationship to race and slavery. I’m not done trying. But I refuse simply to condemn him before I fully understand him.

We cannot understand ourselves if we do not understand the unresolved and perhaps unresolvable complexities of our heritage. Jefferson’s greatest biographers have said that the contradictions and unresolved principles in his life (1743-1826) are also the contradictions and unresolved issues in the American experiment. To understand ourselves, we must try to understand him. To judge him in a simplistic and self-satisfying way, means that we are short-circuiting our attempts to understand ourselves.

It would be insane, I think, to refuse to name an elementary school Martin Luther King, Jr., because he broke his marriage vows, or plagiarized his dissertation. It would be equally insane to remove Jefferson’s statue from the campus of the University of Virginia or the University of Missouri or William & Mary. Much better to use the “offending” icons as a text to discuss, debate, wrestle with, maybe even throw eggs at on occasion. But to remove those statues because Jefferson has disappointed us, US!, is to lose an opportunity for a very serious conversation about the dynamics that produced the America of 2016.

The Culture of Outrage represents a very dreary path in our pursuit of happiness and justice. In my view, on the whole, all things considered, Thomas Jefferson (as well as Woodrow Wilson, though I’m not quite as sure about Cecil Rhodes) must be seen as a net benefactor of humankind. But I would not remove a statue of Jesse Helms, George Wallace, or for that matter Pitchfork Ben Tillman from its pedestal. Better to deliberate and debate, perhaps at the top of our lungs, than to erase that which we think we have transcended.

– Clay S. Jenkinson is the author, educator, and scholar who created The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and is a sought-after historical impersonator, speaker, and media commentator, providing a deep but playful context to today’s events. (Bio credit: The Thomas Jefferson Hour, edited by A.C.) To discover more about Clay and his work, please visit http://jeffersonhour.com/

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Further Reading:

» American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph Ellis
» Thomas Jefferson: America’s Paradoxical Patriot, by Alf Mapp, Jr.

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

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 greatness in the midst of such adversity. Born a slave on the eastern shore of Maryland in the early 1800’s, he was an autodidact, having overheard his master say that learning to read leads to learning to think, rendering a slave too independent-minded to submit to domination by another. Hearing this, young Frederick knew what he had to do. Attaining literacy and learning a skilled trade gave him the wherewithal to escape to New York City in 1838 at about 20 years of age. A few years later, as a result of an impromptu but impassioned and eloquent speech about the hardships of a life enslaved, he was recruited as a public speaker for the abolitionist cause. He spent the rest of his life as an activist for all manner of human rights causes, from the abolition of slavery to universal suffrage to women’s rights and beyond.

Douglass is an especially compelling subject for a historian-philosopher; observing the true nature and ramifications of slavery led him to think deeply about the most essential questions in human life, which, in turn, spurred him on to a life of thought and action on behalf of oppressed peoples. In these roles, Douglass had a heavy influence on American thought and on the course of American history. He asked, and answered: What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be a person of faith? What are rights, and why are we entitled to them? What is dignity, and does possessing it entail that we have certain obligations to ourselves and others? Given the frailties and strengths of human nature, how can we best live together and form just societies? What do the Constitution, its Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence really say about slavery, equality, and other human rights issues?

So I’ll begin my tale here in my home city of Oakland, CA, where I begin my research and exploration into Douglass’s life and ideas, then off to the east coast of the United States I’ll go, from March 19th thru April 2nd! There, I’ll visit landmarks associated with his life, places where he lived and died, worked, thought, wrote, studied, and rested, to see for myself how the places informed the man, and vice versa.

~ Listen to the podcast version of this series intro here or on iTunes

Here is the story of Frederick Douglass as I discover him:
Traveling Philosophy Series: Frederick Douglass Edition, Prologue, Oakland, CA
Frederick Douglass on Faith and Doubt
Frederick Douglass on the Constitution
Frederick Douglass the Pragmatist
Frederick Douglass Baltimore Sites
Frederick Douglass’s Birthplace, Maryland’s Eastern Shore Sites Part 1
Frederick Douglass, Easton and St. Michaels, Maryland’s Eastern Shore Sites Part 2
Frederick Douglass Havre de Grace and Philadelphia Sites
Frederick Douglass New York City Sites
Frederick Douglass New Bedford, Massachusetts Sites
Frederick Douglass Boston Sites
Frederick Douglass Lynn, Massachusetts Sites
Frederick Douglass Lynn Sites, Part 2: Historical Society & Hutchinson Scrapbook
Frederick Douglass Albany, Troy, and Syracuse NY Sites
Interview with Leigh Fought on Anna and Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass Rochester NY Sites, Day 1
Frederick Douglass, Rochester NY Sites Day 2
Interview with Ken Morris, Anti-Slavery Activist & Descendant of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass Seneca Falls, Canandaigua, Honeoye, and Mt Hope Cemetery Sites
Frederick Douglass Chambersburg and Gettysburg PA Sites
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 1
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 2
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Last Day

More about Frederick Douglass:

Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 1
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 2
Peoria, Illinois, in Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln, Part 3
Photobook: Frederick Douglass and Edinburgh, Old and New
O.P. Recommends: ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That: Frederick Douglass in Scotland’ by Andrea Baker for BBC Radio 4
Say What? Frederick Douglass on Originalist Interpretations of the United States Constitution
O.P. Recommends: Frederick Douglass’ Drunk History Episode
Say What? Frederick Douglass on Race Relations
Citizenship, Belonging, and the Experiences of Amero-Africans in West Africa: An Analysis of William Innes’ Early History of Liberia

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!

Patrons of the Frederick Douglass series: RH Kennerly, Elizabeth Lenz, Alex Levin, Cory Argonti Cools, Bryan Kilgore, Michael Burke, Gaia So, Veronica Ruedrich, Blair Miller, Alex Black, Devin Cecil-Wishing, Roxanne and Fred Smalkin and family, and Jim Callahan and Nerissa Callahan-Stiles and family. ~ With warmest gratitude, thank you!