Happy Birthday, Henry David Thoreau!

Replica of Thoreau's cabin near Walden Pond, Rhythmic Quietude, Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons, cropped

Replica of Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond

Henry David Thoreau is the American philosopher and writer best known for two books, On Walden Pond and Civil Disobedience.

The first is about simplifying your life so as to find what it’s really all about, the second promotes breaking the law in protest when the state does wrong (think Martin Luther King in the Birmingham jail). Walden tells of Thoreau’s experiences and observations living a simple life in a cabin for two years, where he seeks to clear his mind of the encumbrances and distractions of life in society and focus on immersion in nature and the life of the mind. Civil Disobedience is an essay prompted by Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes in protest of slavery and of America’s starting a war to seize land from the Mexican government.

Here’s a list of resources, short but sweet, to introduce you to his life and work if you haven’t been already or would like a refresher. Not all are complimentary, but that’s good: we learn much from the debate over his ideas, too.

Henry David Thoreau‘, from American Transcendentalism Web

Henry David Thoreau‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Popova, Maria. ‘Happy Birthday, Thoreau: The Beloved Philosopher on How to Use Civil Disobedience to Advance Justice‘ and ‘The Spirit of Sauntering: Thoreau on the Art of Walking and the Perils of a Sedentary Lifestyle‘ in Brainpickings.org

Schultz, Kathryn. ‘Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s Moral Myopia.’ The New Yorker, Oct 19th 2015.

The Thoreau Reader: Annotated works of Henry David Thoreau – Three complete books and four essays, annotated copies of Walden and Civil Disobedience, and more…

West, Stephen. Henry David Thoreau. Episode 83 of Philosophize This 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!

Anger and Hypocrisy, by Clay Jenkinson

Obamas on Inauguration Day 2013 by P. Souza, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Obamas on Inauguration Day 2013 by P. Souza, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I find it interesting that for eight years the anti-Obama legions kept their eyes open at all times for signs that Barack Obama was “an angry black man.” If at any time he showed the slightest impatience or raised his voice above a certain level, or spoke in something that could be thought to resemble black street English, the conservative punditry accused him of being an “angry black man.” They had slightly better luck with the First Lady Michelle Obama, who seemed to have a slightly more volatile temperament than her famously self-controlled husband. The academic papers of her young womanhood were examined for any sign that she hated white people, hated America, or sought radical revolution. Her statement in Milwaukee on February 18, 2008, that “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country,” was cited as proof that she hated white America.

That sentence was proof positive to millions of Obama detractors that we had somehow put into the White House a couple bent on destroying America, or at least the America we know and love. Every Obama association, no matter how ancient and no matter how thin–the Reverend Wright, Bill Ayes, Saul Alinsky–was routinely trotted out to prove that the President of the United States was a dangerous radical, and perhaps a treasonist.

Apparently all black men are angry and violent. You can go to Harvard or Princeton, speak in perfect grammar, dress with great elegance, exhibit ceremonial decorum not seen in the White House since Jack and Jackie, write thoughtful and eloquent books (by yourself), and exhibit an analytical capacity that even Bill Clinton rarely exhibited, and still be regarded by the yahoos as a Black Power Radical likely to reveal his core rage at any moment. Apparently, you cannot be a black President of the United States unless you have built up no resentment about the historic and ongoing oppressions of White America, and never reveal anything but a sunny minstrel temperament.That sentence was proof positive to millions of Obama detractors that we had somehow put into the White House a couple bent on destroying America, or at least the America we know and love. Every Obama association, no matter how ancient and no matter how thin–the Reverend Wright, Bill Ayes, Saul Alinsky–was routinely trotted out to prove that the President of the United States was a dangerous radical, and perhaps a treasonist.

Now, in 2016, we elect not just an angry white man, but an almost continuously angry white man. I doubt that a day went by on the two-year campaign in which Donald Trump did not lash out at some one or some group. At times he slavered in his rages. At times he became incoherent as he tried to find words sufficient for the level of anger and denunciation he felt. From the podium he singled out individuals for ridicule and abuse. He heaped abuse on American war heroes, parents of young men fallen in America’s battles, journalists just doing their job, women who had tearfully and reluctantly confessed that he groped them in public.

When was the last time in American politics when a major candidate was so angry, so often, and with such a mean-spirited manner?

If you are a student of history, you can think of only two obvious examples. Remember in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was upset by the logistics of a Republican debate in New Hampshire? His face darkened, and he said, with unmistakable anger, “I am paying for this microphone?” The reason we all remember that minor incident is because it was essentially the only time the even-tempered, genial, and happy Reagan ever lost his temper in public.

The only other modern politician worthy of comparison with Donald Trump is former Alabama Governor George Wallace in the 1960s–with his famous leer and sneer–a vicious southern racist whose every pronouncement during those years was “dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification,’” as Martin Luther King, Jr., put it.If you are a student of history, you can think of only two obvious examples. Remember in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was upset by the logistics of a Republican debate in New Hampshire? His face darkened, and he said, with unmistakable anger, “I am paying for this microphone?” The reason we all remember that minor incident is because it was essentially the only time the even-tempered, genial, and happy Reagan ever lost his temper in public.

The only other modern politician worthy of comparison with Donald Trump is former Alabama Governor George Wallace in the 1960s–with his famous leer and sneer–a vicious southern racist whose every pronouncement during those years was “dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification,’” as Martin Luther King, jr., put it.

Think about it. Barack Obama was routinely accused of being an angry black man, but he wasn’t. He was about as gracious a human being as you could ever put into the Presidency (whether you like his policies or not). Donald Trump is perhaps the most angry man ever installed in the Presidency. Barack Obama had a great deal to be angry about: the history of American racism, oppression, racial profiling, segregation, lynching, belittlement. But he was invariably professional and often serene. What does Donald Trump have to be angry about? He has always been one of the most mollycoddled, indulged, and privileged of Americans, a man who can afford to install gold faucets in his homes. (Try as I might, I have never been able to find gold faucets at Home Depot).

Angry White Man with no reason to be angry: OK.

Gracious Black Man with plenty to be angry about, but beyond anger: Dangerous radical.

But as the far right likes to say, “I ain’t racist, ain’t no racism or prejudice in my body.” – CSJ

Originally published at clayjenkinson.com

– 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) To discover more about Clay and his work, please visit http://www.clayjenkinson.com/

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!

Philosopher’s Way at John McLaren Park, San Francisco

Philosopher's Walk entry path, John McLaren Park, San Francisco

Philosopher’s Way entry trail, John McLaren Park, San Francisco. The plaque contains the trail map and text seen below

Earlier this summer, I walked the Philosopher’s Way in San Francisco. Between wrapping up the main portion of my Frederick Douglass history of ideas travel series (I have more essays in the works about his life and ideas which I’ll finish and publish over time), preparing to resume my formal education, a health issue, and a family trip, I’ve had less time to write other pieces, so I had to put this aside too. But finally, here it is.

The Philosopher’s Way is inspired by a tradition of such philosopher’s walks that are meant to inspire contemplation and an appreciation of the natural world and our place in it. I was reminded of the Hume Walk on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. In 1775, the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume helped get a park built here so that the people of Edinburgh had a beautiful and accessible place to get exercise and admire nature.

Philosopher's Way

Philosopher’s Way downloadable trail map and article, by artists Peter Richards and Susan Schwartzenburg. Courtesy of the San Francisco Arts Commission / Public Utilities Commission

An arrow marker stone marks each fork and turnoff on Philosopher's Way

An arrow marker stone marks each fork and turnoff on Philosopher’s Way

Though the parking lot is full of trash, including the largest pile of discarded whip-it canisters I’ve ever seen, the park is not. It has a wild look, only minimally pruned and landscaped. On the whole, I like it. The grassy hill leads to shady groves, that gold-and-green California look I love. Many of the overlooks of the city and the bay contain too many industrial-looking structures to be considered very beautiful in my view, but the park itself is nice. It’s only June, and already very dry. The drought’s still going strong.

mclaren-park-in-green-and-gold-san-francisco-ca-2014-amy-cools

John McLaren Park in green and gold.

San Bruno Mountain marker

San Bruno Mountain marker

Each overlook and designated view has an etched stone plaque with information about the landscape and history, and a poetic, inspirational, or thought-provoking quote.

I wander, through shade and sun, sometimes seeing only the path and trees ahead and sometimes more open views, sometimes of the surrounding hills and sometimes of the flats and water below.

San Bruno overlook from Philosopher's Way

San Bruno overlook from Philosopher’s Way

Turn in the shady path. Note the helpfully arrowed stone marker.

Turn in the shady path. Note the helpfully arrowed stone marker.

A particularly pretty view from Philosopher's Way. Note one of the arrowed stone markers

A particularly pretty view from Philosopher’s Way.

Eucalyptus, flowers, and greenery on a hillside

Eucalyptus, flowers, and greenery on a hillside

martin-luther-king-marker-at-cow-palace-overlook-philosophers-way-sf-2016-amy-coolsThere’s an overlook with a clear view of the large, sideways half-cylindrical shape of the Cow Palace, a large forum where, it turns out, Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke. An interesting tidbit of local history!

As I’ve explored much of the walk already, I sit here for a little while, then choose another spot more shielded from the sun glaring off the pages of my book. I read, and rest, and exchange messages with a faraway friend, and think a little, but mostly daydream.

After a couple of hours, I explore the rest of the trails. It’s a lovely, quiet way to spend an afternoon.

cow-palace-overlook-with-martin-luther-king-marker-philosophers-way-sf-2016-amy-cools

Cow Palace overlook with Martin Luther King, Jr. photographic marker

A hillside view from Philosopher's Walk

A hillside view from Philosopher’s Walk

A marker which tells about the native San Francisco grasses here in McLaren Park

A marker which tells about the native San Francisco grasses here in McLaren Park

another-view-of-philosophers-way-trail-mclaren-park-sf-2016-amy-cools~ Thanks, Michelle, for telling me about this place!

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!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Philosopher’s Way: McLaren’s Contemplative Jewel‘. From SaveMcLarenPark.org

Richards, Peter and Susan Schwartzenburg. ‘Philosopher’s Way‘ trail map and article, San Francisco Arts Commission / Public Utilities Commission

Todd, Gail. ‘Philosopher’s Way in McLaren Park‘. June 5, 2013, SFChronicle.com

Happy Birthday, Henry David Thoreau!

Replica of Thoreau's cabin near Walden Pond, Rhythmic Quietude, Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons, cropped

Replica of Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond

Henry David Thoreau is the American philosopher and writer best known for two books, Walden  and Civil Disobedience. The first is about simplifying your life so as to find what it’s really all about, the second promotes breaking the law in protest when the state does wrong (think Martin Luther King in the Birmingham jail). Walden tells of Thoreau’s experiences and observations living a simple life in a cabin for two years, where he seeks to clear his mind of the encumbrances and distractions of life in society and focus on immersion in nature and the life of the mind. Civil Disobedience is an essay prompted by Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes in protest of slavery and of America’s starting a war to seize land from the Mexican government.

Here’s a list of resources, short but sweet, to introduce you to his life and work if you haven’t been already or would like a refresher. Not all are complimentary, but that’s good: we learn much from the debate over his ideas, too.

Henry David Thoreau‘, from American Transcendentalism Web

Henry David Thoreau‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Popova, Maria. ‘Happy Birthday, Thoreau: The Beloved Philosopher on How to Use Civil Disobedience to Advance Justice‘ and ‘The Spirit of Sauntering: Thoreau on the Art of Walking and the Perils of a Sedentary Lifestyle‘ in Brainpickings.org

Schultz, Kathryn. ‘Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s Moral Myopia.’ The New Yorker, Oct 19th 2015.

The Thoreau Reader: Annotated works of Henry David Thoreau – Three complete books and four essays, annotated copies of Walden and Civil Disobedience, and more…

West, Stephen. Henry David Thoreau. Episode 83 of Philosophize This 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!

New Podcast Episode: Communitarianism, Writ Large

Listen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

I listened to Bill Moyers’ discussion with Michelle Alexander recently, about her book The New Jim Crow and her activism against the over-incarceration of black people here in the US. Something she said really struck me, as it relates to a problem I’ve been mulling over for some time. She said:

‘…I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was, it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking… Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King’s insistence at the end of his life….’

Alexander’s reflection on her own work illustrates our need not only to grow more expansive in our thinking in order to achieve a more just society not just locally, but globally: we need to witness and internalize the sufferings faced by other human beings who are not like us in appearance and culture, so that our instincts for empathy and for justice expand as well… Read original essay here

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!

 

Thomas Jefferson Sites, Part 1: Washington, D.C., First Day

First day, Sunday April 19th:

I get a late start on my first day. But that’s okay: I’ve long since made it my policy to get my rest at the beginning of a trip because three things happen when I’m sleep-deprived: 1) I’m cranky and don’t enjoy myself fully 2) It’s much harder to take in everything and remember it, and 3) I lose my sense of direction and ability to read maps. Since I need to have my good spirits and my thinking, remembering, and map-reading capabilities intact for the purposes of this trip, I sleep in. I get a late start on my first day. But that’s okay: I’ve long since made it my policy to get my rest at the beginning of a trip because three things happen when I’m sleep-deprived: 1) I’m cranky and don’t enjoy myself fully 2) It’s much harder to take in everything and remember it, and 3) I lose my sense of direction and ability to read maps. Since I need to have my good spirits and my thinking, remembering, and map-reading capabilities intact for the purposes of this trip, I sleep in.

When I finally get a move on, I head over to the Mall, and start with:

 
– The Jefferson Memorial 
It’s neoclassical in design, inspired by the ancient Greek and Roman architecture that Jefferson loved. It’s also tall, well-appointed, classy, and full of memorable quotes… like the man himself. He would also appreciate its open-air design, its setting among trees and on the water: he was quite the outdoorsman, as studious and writerly as he was. And he would love to see the crowds that visit the site continuously, people from all walks of life, admiring the building and the grounds, resting on the steps, discussing the thoughts expressed on the walls.

Jefferson would probably have protested the idea of setting up such a grand monument to himself, something so close to a shrine or a temple; he described himself as a modest man. But it’s also clear, despite his protestations to the contrary, that he enjoyed being admired, that he sought love and approval from others. I think he’d look on this monument with secret pride and gratification, and would praise its hospitable openness to the public, as available to them as he made himself and the White House during the years of his presidency, and its edification to the people’s sense of beauty and the intellect.

I visit the museum beneath the memorial, which gives an overview of his life, times, and ideas. Jefferson was born at Shadwell in Albemarle County, Virginia in 1743, his father a successful planter, his mother from a well-connected, wealthy family. Jefferson was educated at home by tutors and at boarding schools as a youth, and studied law at William and Mary College. He entered public life early, elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses at age 25. His tenure as a public servant lasted over 40 years, from congressman to minister to France to Secretary of State to President. All the while, he was a farmer, amateur scientist, inventor, architect, writer, philosopher, and whatever else captured his imagination, more details of which will come up in later posts.

As I leave Jefferson’s memorial, I waver in deciding where to go next: do I abandon the Mall and go immediately in search of other sites associated with Jefferson’s life, or do I continue on my way? It’s really a beautiful day, a bit windy, perhaps, but it’s fairly warm and there’s still some cherry blossoms left on the trees and wildflowers scattered all around the Mall’s park grounds.

I decide do something a little different this time: I usually stick to writing about the sites more or less directly related to the people I’m writing about, be it sites they visited themselves or sites created by others in their memory. But it occurs to me that I’m surrounded by memorials to people who, in addition to carrying out their own vision, carried out something of Jefferson’s vision as well. Nearly all American civic and moral leaders since Jefferson’s time reference his ideas when promoting their own, and cite his authority in carrying out their political missions. That’s to be expected: none of the members of our nation’s founding generation addressed so many matters of public concern, wrote or helped to write so many of its founding documents, explained the philosophy behind our form of government and our bill of rights so throughly, helped formulate the political structure of our government, and personally lived out our promises, our strengths, our contradictions, and our weaknesses as a nation as Thomas Jefferson, with the possible exception of James Madison and John Adams.

And no others were as widely influential, and who, while a de facto aristocrat, was more of a man of the people than Jefferson, with the possible exception of… (and who, by the way, laid the cornerstone of the Jefferson Memorial…)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

…FDR!A year or so ago, I first listened to an utterly fascinating episode of the Thomas Jefferson Hour discussing how Jeffersonian ideals may only be realizable by non-Jeffersonian means. It’s a radio show and podcast by Jefferson scholar and historian Clay Jenkinson (one of my all-time favorite podcasts, I’ve listened to every one that I could get ahold of at least once, often two or three times, except the ones about gardening, since I have no yard and hence, no garden). I recently went back and listened to again. It’s a discussion on Jefferson’s letters to Madison, and one in particular, after he had spent some years in Paris before the French Revolution. Jefferson discussed the dangerous political situation in France that resulted from a long history of a powerful and wealthy few systematically gobbling up most of the nation’s wealth and political power for themselves, leaving the majority of the population destitute. It was only a matter of time, Jefferson pointed out, before the people could take no more, and would inevitably rise up violently against their oppressors.

It’s always been the case that there will be some portion of a nation’s population that lack sufficient humanity, that are greedy and rapacious, and their thirst for power and hunger for wealth will drive them to spend their lives getting as much as they can, regardless of how many others they must harm to get it. Others might not be so purposeful in their predations, but their shortsighted efforts to increase their own personal gains without a though for the welfare of others, or a blind faith that the market will alwasy correct itself, often lead to the same harmful results. Because of this, Jefferson explains, it might very well be necessary for society to engage in some sort of redistribution of wealth.

Given Jefferson’s background as a passionate promoter of states’ rights and his fear of a too-powerful central government, this might come as a surprise to the modern reader, as it was to me when I first heard Jenkinson’s podcast on the subject, and read the letter for myself. But Jefferson was a believer in John Locke’s theory of natural rights, as Jenkinson explains, and in particular, in his theory of property rights. Our primary property right is the right of subsistence, to have enough to provide for one’s own needs, to preserve the health of one’s body and of mind. Our secondary property rights allows for the accumulation of wealth beyond that needed to maintain a happy and healthy existence, but we may only take advantage of secondary property rights if they do not infringe on the primary property rights of others.

This is the key point of property rights that many overlook today, especially those who select from Jefferson’s writings, especially his early writings before the evidence of the dysfunctional and unraveling French society tempered his views, to support their ideas about small government and absolute rights of property and contract. But Franklin Delano Roosevelt, like his progressive cousin Theodore Roosevelt, realized that the pursuit of personal gain without respect for to the primary property rights of others led to a society that systematically placed Jefferson’s ideals of a self-sufficient, educated, free citizenry out of the reach of too many people. Teddy Roosevelt, initially a more strait-laced conservative, had toured the slums of New York City, and had seen for himself how the ruthless, unrestrained pursuit of profit led to the impoverishment, sickness, and death of so many people, rendered easily exploitable by circumstance. In response, he changed his mind about the extent of rights of contract and made some reforms. Spurred on by the Great Depression, FDR carried forward the progressive vision of his cousin and overhauled the whole system, enlarging the government so it would work better for the ordinary citizen in the way Jefferson had hoped a small government would.

– Martin Luther King Jr Memorial

MLK was quite the wordsmith; besides revealing extraordinary personal bravery in the face of repeated and threatened imprisonment as well as death threats, he had a way, like Jefferson, of putting things.There are many of his memorable quotes engraved on the walls surrounding his memorial. One that’s not engraved on his memorial (but I think should be) is the one that links most directly to Jefferson and that stands out in both succinctness and explanatory power: his analogy of the promissory note from his great ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ of 1963.

At the time they were written and first put into action, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution increased the liberty of very few people. In severing themselves from Great Britain, the leaders of our new country mostly secured more rights for themselves and those like them: landowners, lawyers, merchants, and so on. The ordinary colonist lived more or less the same life just after the Constitution was ratified as before. Most free men could not vote since they were not property owners and/or were not fully literate, and no women or slaves at all could vote. Same for members of some religious minorities; this situation was one of the first political injustices to be reformed. Taxes went to a new set of leaders almost as far removed from the reality of most Americans as before. In other words, ‘taxation without representation’ was still the rule rather than the exception in the newly United States of America.

As MLK pointed out, the promissory note promising ‘liberty and justice for all’ remained unpaid: for black people, for other ethnic and racial minorities, for women, for working people. He revealed, in an eloquent and moving way (aided by his experience as a preacher), how the words of the Declaration of Independence rang hollow since ‘all …are created equal’ was not manifested in law, attitudes, and practice in the lives of far too many American people.

While he reviled and wrote and fought against slavery as a young lawyer and politician, giving up the fight after years of unsuccessful opposition to (and I add, hypocritically enjoying the benefits of) of what he called the ‘abominable crime’ of slavery, Jefferson also believed the races could not live together in peace and friendship. MLK dreamed otherwise.

 Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln, unlike Jefferson, was a man brought up in poverty, and had little formal education in his youth. Like Jefferson, he was largely self-motivated and self-taught in his advanced education, and like Jefferson, hated slavery as a young man and spoke passionately and eloquently against it, only to waffle on the issue in his later years somewhat for reasons of personal bias, and even more for political reasons. Fortunately, yet again unlike Jefferson, he came back around, and did what Jefferson had hoped and predicted future generations would do.
The violence of the Civil War was as horrific as were the centuries of slavery that proceeded it; while it’s debatable whether it could have been averted or that it was the inevitable outcome of the discrepancy between the practice of slavery, the political and moral theory informing our founding documents, and the individual human longing for freedom, Lincoln, like MLK, recognized the societal moral debt that remained unpaid, using the rhetoric of blood redemption in the words of his second inaugural address, immortalized on the right wall of his memorial: ‘…shall [the Civil War] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

And as Jefferson pointed out in his letters referring to the bloody Revolution in France, it would be unrealistic to expect that the struggle for freedom against such a deeply entrenched, cruel, and oppressive institution would be pleasant or easy. Jefferson famously wrote ‘The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.’ I hope he’s wrong when it comes to the future, though he was not wrong about the revolutions of his own time and about the worsening effects of slavery on society. There’s an excellent book I often refer to, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (a phrase borrowed from Lincoln) which, as the book’s subtitle Why Violence Has Declined suggests, indicate that, among other things, the free(ish) market world economy, the scientific and human rights revolutions, and the advances in communications are making the world a much more peaceful place than it ever has been. Perhaps these advances will give many more of us the potential to become as informed, as cosmopolitan, and as courteous as Jefferson himself.

I had come to the end of my tour of the memorials.
Between visiting the MLK and Lincoln Memorials, I had swung around to the left to see if I could stop by what is now know as Theodore Roosevelt Island, known in Jefferson’s time as Analostan. He used to visit his friend John Mason, who had a farm and mansion there. The 66 connects it to the mainland, and there’s a footpath on the bridge.

It was a blustery walk, to say the least, and I discovered that footpath reaches across, but not down to, the island. I’ll return to visit another time. But looking back, I could plainly see TJ’s memorial between the trees.My Uncle Bob, who lives in nearby Fall’s Church, Virginia, picked me up to take me on a little driving tour and then to dinner. I’m fond of my Uncle Bob, tall, handsome (a common trait of the Cools’), courteous, old-fashioned in his sensibilities and speech, seemingly grave and imposing with his deep and slightly thick voice (I was a little scared of him as a child, funny to think of that now!), but with an enthusiasm that would rival any small child’s when it comes to seeing something beautiful or discussing a subject he loves. He has a good sense of humor.
On our way around the Mall, we passed by the corner of C and New Jersey Streets, where Conrad and McMunn’s boarding house was. Jefferson lived there for a while when he was Vice President, but the building no longer stands. I check it off my list. The rest of the evening is devoted to non-Jeffersonian-themed touring and dinner.

To be continued….

*Listen to the podcast edition here or on iTunes

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Sources and Inspiration: 

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.
http://us.macmillan.com/freethinkers/susanjacoby

Jenkinson, Clay. The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Podcast.
http://www.jeffersonhour.com/listen.html

King, Martin Luther, Jr. ‘I Have A Dream’ Speech, 1963.
http://www.ushistory.org/documents/i-have-a-dream.htm

Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. New York: Random House, 2012.
http://www.jonmeacham.com/books/thomas-jefferson-the-art-of-power/

‘Timeline of Jefferson’s Life’. Monticello.org. Website of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/timeline-jeffersons-life

‘Washington, D.C.: Sites Associated with Thomas Jefferson’. Monticello.org. Wiki, Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

http://wiki.monticello.org/mediawiki/index.php/Washington,_D.C.
 

Communitarianism, Writ Large

I listened to Bill Moyers’ discussion with Michelle Alexander recently, about her book The New Jim Crow and her activism against the over-incarceration of black people here in the US. Something she said really struck me, as it relates to a problem I’ve been mulling over for some time. She said:

I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was, it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking… If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime… If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who’s facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well? Ought I not be equally concerned about a family whose loved ones were just killed by drones in Afghanistan? Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King’s insistence at the end of his life. That we ought to care about the Vietnamese as much as we care and love our people at home.’

Alexander’s reflection on her own work illustrates our need not only to grow more expansive in our thinking in order to achieve a more just society not just locally, but globally: we need to witness and internalize the sufferings faced by other human beings who are not like us in appearance and culture, so that our instincts for empathy and for justice expand as well. 

The problems associated with the organization and implementation of an ordered society is the central topic of political philosophy; the problems associated with making societies just is the concern of ethical philosophy. Two philosophers whose work I especially admire in these fields are John Rawls and Michael Sandel. They are both concerned with justice, how to recognize a just society, and how we select the criteria for ethical decision-making. (I’m also a fan of Sandel’s because he’s engaged in a cause that’s dear to my heart: the great project of philosophy is not, and should not be, confined to academia. With his freely accessible lectures and discussions, and his popular philosophy books, he is among those reintroducing philosophy to the public square. Philosophy originated in the public square, after all, and as it addresses the concerns of the whole of humanity, then it should be a concern of, and the conversation should be accessible to, the whole of humanity as well.)

Yet Rawls and Sandel are at odds in some key ways. Among other things, Rawls’ theory of justice is classically liberal, in the tradition of John Locke, and focused on universalizability: a just system is one that must be applicable to all human societies, in all times and places. Sandel focuses more on the importance of community and tradition in matters of justice, and the answers are found more in solutions to ethical dilemmas based on particular society’s evolved norms. Rawl’s famous ‘veil of ignorance’ is his method for discerning whether or not a society is just: if each and every person were to be randomly assigned a role in society and had no way to know ahead of time who they would be (woman, man, CEO, employee, black, white, rich, poor, etc), and knowing this, they had to design a social arrangement, what would they all agree on? Then, we can look at how that veil-of-ignorance social design compares with an actual society to help us assess how just it is, and in turn, help us create s social system that will benefit everyone as much as possible. Seems a method that should obtain pretty fair, democratic results, right? But for Sandel, the veil of ignorance seems incoherent even as a mere thought experiment, since morals originate in, or emerge from, particular societies. Therefore, what is just is derived from how actual societies work, how they’ve grown and evolved to solve their own sets of problems, and cannot be derived from hypotheticals. So Rawls’ and Sandel’s ideas seem, on the face of it, irreconcilable. Who’s right?

Sandel’s views are generally described as communitarian, though he’s not entirely comfortable that characterization in that it can go too far in allowing community to trump the individual in all things moral. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘…communitarians argued that the standards of justice must be found in forms of life and traditions of particular societies and hence can vary from context to context’. In other words, communitarianism is the philosophy that ethics have more to do with particular societal morals and traditions, so the claim that there can be a universal definition of justice, such as Rawls’, is dubious at best.

When it comes to explaining how cultural traditions evolve to make a society more just, communitarianism has something to offer. For example, it’s among America’s most self-identifiable traditional ideals that individual liberty is of highest value and should be promoted as long as the freely chosen actions of one person don’t infringe on the freedom of another. The ideal of individual liberty has long roots in American society, and evolved and expanded over time through political upheavals, case law, and interpersonal disputes. But when we consider the traditional American ideal of individual liberty (by no means unique to America, of course) and compare it to our social history, it’s clear that it’s not no simple: it’s also been a tradition in the US to enslave other people. When that particular tradition was slowly, painfully overturned, there were many other ways that people, legally or illegally but commonly practiced, infringed on the freedoms of others: by denying women the vote, imposing Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, segregating the military, preventing workers from forming unions, and so on.

So a communitarian could argue that while the moral ideal of freedom is traditional in the US, it’s the broader implementation of it that took a long time as traditional practices caught up.

But how about societies that don’t have traditions of individual freedom, who believe there are some classes of people that should have all the power and wealth, and that it’s proper and right that others live in impoverishment and misery, lacking rights of citizenship, for their entire lives? Such is the caste system of India, for example, or the traditionally influential political philosophy of Aristotle which holds that there ‘natural’ slaves. Are we, then, not to be concerned that people of those cultures are suffering from injustice, if they belong to a community with different traditional views of justice? After all, according to the caste system, and to Aristotle and those communities that hold like views, it is just that certain people are slaves and certain people are not, that some people have power and some do not, that some live in wealth and comfort and others in misery, because all of this is justified by their society’s traditional concept of human nature.

Many people, myself included, have the same problem with communitarianism as I am sure Michelle Alexander does, given her quote which opens this essay: why should our sense of empathy, of moral obligation, be limited to the concerns and traditions of our own communities? That may have been prudent, even necessary, for our ancient ancestors, when human groups became large enough to need to compete for resources, but didn’t have the sophistication or technology to facilitate cooperation on such a large scale.

But now, our situation is very different: people’s ideas and actions, thanks to advanced technologies in communication, production, and travel, can have worldwide consequences, for ill and for good. We have access to centuries of the best products of human thought from disparate traditions all over the world, which are gradually coming to a consensus on some key issues in ethics and politics: the value of individual liberty, the benefits of equality, the necessity of having and fulfilling civic duties, and how to recognize a just society, for example.We have access to centuries of historical evidence which demonstrate the benefits of ever-more widespread cooperation, and the ineffectiveness of violent conflict, so that the immense suffering caused by war ends up wasted and unnecessary. And finally, now that people spend a lot of time ‘face-to-face’ with others from all over the world via computer, we feel a sense of real global community. Familiarity with people of different habits, different appearances, and different interests removes our sense of discomfort, and breeds not contempt, but empathy, compassion, and friendliness.

So perhaps the conflict between communitarian and modern liberal accounts of what constitutes a just society will lessen over time. After all, communitarianism must contain within it the idea that traditions change, grow, and evolve, since there have always been so many different traditions with mutually exclusive ethical codes. (I, too, think that morality is not fixed and eternal; rather, it’s a product of evolving, social, cooperative creatures.) And if the world’s communities are merging into one moral community, than the basic ideas of communitarianism will harmonize ever more with the universalizable ethical goals of liberal thought. While communitarians and liberals might still argue over the origins(s) of morals (tradition? reason? emotions?), our conception of justice, our ethical systems and the political institutions with which we realize them (governments, laws, and so on) will look more and more alike all over the world.

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~ Also published at Darrow, forum for ideas and creative commons webzine

~ Re-edited slightly in Feb/Mar 2016

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Sources and inspiration:

Alexander, Michelle. ‘Incarceration Nation’. Interview with Bill Moyers, December 20, 2013. http://billmoyers.com/episode/incarceration-nation/

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. 2012. New York: New Press Books.

Anderson, Elizabeth. ‘Tom Paine and the Ironies of Social Democracy‘, University of Chicago Law School Dewey Lecture 2012

Bell, Daniel. ‘Communitarianism‘, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Sandel, Michael. Various works and lectures, including his books What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets and Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Schneider, Greig and Egon Zehnder, Boston, and Ulrike Krause. ‘Interview with political philosopher Michael J. Sandel’, The Focus magazine. http://www.egonzehnder.com/the-focus-magazine/topics/the-focus-on-family/parallel-worlds/interview-with-political-philosopher-michael-j-sandel.html