Sunday, April 12, 2015

Is there such a thing as a "national food"?

This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Cuisine and Empire: What does food tells us about culture?” with our guest, Rachel Laudan. To listen, click here.

So, there’s this thing called New York pizza. It’s unlike Chicago pizza, favoring thin crust rather than thick, and it’s different than pizza in Italy because it’s meant to be served in slices and eaten with your hands. There are many people who think that it’s the best pizza in the world, but that is, ultimately, a matter of taste. What interests me more is that there is a New York pizza at all, that something so Italian, can be made so American without any sense of compromise or irony.

On the most simplistic level, New York pizza can be explained by Italian immigration around the turn of the twentieth century; the word itself has been used in Italy for over a thousand years and the first documented American pizzeria appeared in Manhattan in 1905, in the midst of the main wave of Italian relocation. But, in fact, the idea of a national cuisine was a recent innovation, and if there was one in Italy, it was pasta, not pizza. Even what we think of as pizza, flatbread with marinara and toppings, couldn’t have existed without the Americas. The tomato was brought from the new world to Europe four hundred years earlier and met significant resistance; Europeans thought it was poisonous. The reality is that we no longer think of pizza as an ethnic food at all. It’s basically fast food and American chains like Domino’s and Pizza Hut, possibly the worst pizzas in the world, dominate the international scene with restaurants in over sixty countries.

Let’s think about the brief history I just offered. To truly understand it, we have to know geography, and about three major periods of migration and trade; we have to grasp that vegetation is local, but can be relocated; we have to understand basic capitalism, the idea of the nation state, and the concept of a multinational corporation; we have to accept that language changes meaning, as do culinary traditions, and, not the least of it, we have to grasp the role of identity in ethnicity and nationalism. That’s a lot of background knowledge. Like clothing and music, cuisine is world history writ small.

What’s particularly interesting about pizza is that it is recognizable by everyone involved. Neapolitans and Sicilians may not like what Americans have done with it (or vice versa), but they’ll still understand the dish when they see it. This wouldn’t be the case with fortune cookies, which are not from China but invented in America and modeled on a Japanese cracker, nor Fajitas, which are probably from Texas, not Mexico. But pizza is a global food that speaks to the best of humanity, our ability to combine innovation and tradition, and to create a truly cosmopolitan experience.

Pizza is just an easy example. All cuisine migrates. Every food is individual, familial, regional, national, imperial, and global. It reminds us that the borders we create are political, not natural, and that there is something arbitrary about the distinction between the American and the Canadian, the Italian and the Spaniard, the Greek and the Turk. I recently asked a Pakistani citizen how his food differed from that of his neighbors and he responded that Pakistani and Indian food are “identical twins with different names.” Imagine that. The two countries most likely to destroy each other with nuclear weapons have the same cuisine. Despite their partition and religious conflict, their sustenance unites them. Their food knows no borders, even if they refuse to break bread at the same table. 

Today’s episode is about the history of cooking. We’ll look at the philosophy, politics, anthropology, and sociology of cuisine, and we’ll try to learn from the changes in food patterns. We’ll see how differences in dining are largely a matter of class, not nature, and that access to foodstuffs has been a force of intentional reward and punishment, not just convenience, and social control, not simply personal preference. But in doing so, we are going to have to reconsider how we think about food itself. Cuisine is a tool, no doubt. It is both a fuel and a resource, but it is also art, affection, and, more often than not, an object of worship. It is wild yet cultivated, uncontrollable but manipulated, nature and nurture, and not surprisingly, we think about it all the time, but rarely give it any real thought.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Why? Radio, PQED, and The Institute for Philosophy in Public Life are looking for social-network and marketing interns

Get a PDF of this poster by clicking here.

Why? Radio, PQED, and The Institute for Philosophy in Public Life are looking for thoughtful, creative, tech-savvy interns to manage our social-network presence, and our online and offline marketing during for the 2015-2016 school year. We have an international presence with thousands of followers on Facebook, and Twitter and Instagram accounts that need cultivating and promotion. The radio show has over 30,000 listeners in 116 countries, and has been featured in national publications.
Interns receive course credit. Students from any university may apply, but if they are not from The University of North Dakota, they will have to work with the IPPL Director to arrange credit at their local institution. Non-students may also apply, but unfortunately, we cannot pay interns at this time. Students will likely be given priority.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What happens when more people write than read?

This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “The Rise of Writing: What happens when more people write than read?” To listen, click here.

Here is all the writing I did yesterday: I wrote this monologue. I edited and wrote comments on a colleague’s law review article. I responded to comments on Why? Radio’s blog and to comments on Facebook. I wrote a recommendation letter for a student and some emails about that recommendation letter. I also wrote a handful of emails about a Pakistani scholar who I am bringing to the US and a few more about changing the server that Why? Radio’s webpage is on. I wrote things on my to-do list and notes in the book I read for today’s discussion. I sent lots of text messages to my wife.

I probably wrote for four hours yesterday, but almost none of the things I listed would be considered as writing by most people, they were just…work. Certainly, none of them made me feel like a writer and the one piece I didn’t get to spend any time on was the one I most wanted to, a scholarly article that I’ve been trying to finish for months. I know it sounds contradictory, but I spend so much time writing yesterday that I never got the chance to write.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Why the current email controversy is evidence that Hillary Clinton will be president. (Or, some thoughts on political argument).

Hillary Clinton is the single most qualified presidential candidate in the 2016 election cycle. In fact, she is one of the most qualified people to ever run for president, period. Only a few candidates have ever had eight years’ experience in the white house, only six presidents have been Secretary of State, and her time as Senator of New York, combined with her understanding of rural politics in Arkansas, means that she understands better than almost anyone what it means to govern America. Her doing all of this as a woman only makes her achievements more impressive. Women are not treated well by the American political process.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

How should I react to my racist parents? [Ask a philosopher]

Recently, a college student asked me how to deal with the fact that her parents are racists. It took her a while to get to the question, but it seems that she, a white woman, dated a black man, and that in response, her parents didn’t talk to her for three months. She was horrified, frustrated, and clearly angry, but she still wanted to preserve their relationship. They are her parents after all.

There were other incidents—this was not a one-time thing—and the upshot is that she’s 21 years old and paying her own college bills. Her parents cut her off because they disapprove of her moral choices, even though she is an outstanding student, bright and, as far as I could tell, a kind, curious, and likeable person.  

Before I reveal my advice to her, I want like to point out that the word “racist” no longer serves its purpose. It is antiseptic and lacks emotional power. It does indeed denote a cluster of bigoted behaviors and attitudes, but it doesn’t identify any causes or predict any consequences. “Racist” sounds more like a profession to me—“John is a doctor, Sally is a scientist, and Billy is a racist”—I can’t imagine any actual racists being upset by its use, especially since so many of them are so proud of their perverse point of view

Monday, February 9, 2015

Today's Twitter Chat on Adam Smith: A live feed

I've never done a Twitter chat before, but the good folks at Palgrave MacMillan asked me to join them for a discussion on Adam Smith. The occasion is the publication of the new book Propriety and Prosperity: New Studies on the Philosophy of Adam Smith edited by David Hardwick and Leslie Marsh. I wrote a chapter in it called: "What My Dog Can Do: On the Effect of The Wealth of Nations I.ii.2." In it, I argue that Adam Smith was wrong when he argued that animals were not capable of exchange, but that it doesn't matter. His work is affected by his mistake.

So, in honor of the chat, I'm going to try to have a live feed here, so people can follow it if they don't have a Twitter account. If you do have one, please follow me at @whyradioshow. If not, you should be able to read the posts here.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Why do people hate teachers...and what is a school anyway?

This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Equality and Dialogue in American High Schools” To listen, click here.

Everyone in America has an opinion on education policy; we all have the ways in which we want schools to change and improve. This is democracy at work and a good thing. But in the midst of all the debate and politics, one simple fact has been ignored. Almost all of us have only experienced school from one perspective: the student.

Think about what you remember from your schooldays, the friends, the teachers, a handful of meaningful, sometimes traumatic events, but how many of the individual hours do you recall and how many of the lessons? Very little for twelve years’ worth of schooling.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Monday, a special event: A live twitter chat about Adam Smith with Why? Radio host Jack Russell Weinstein.

 Special event: A live twitter chat about Adam Smith with Why? Radio host Jack Russell Weinstein.
Monday, February 9.
10:30 a.m. Central (11:30 Eastern and 8:30am Pacific)

In honor of the new book “Propriety and Prosperity: New Studies on the Philosophy of Adam Smith” (
Palgrave Macmillan is hosting a live Twitter chat with book editor Leslie Marsh and contributor Jack Russell Weinstein.

Join the discussion by following @whyradioshow on Twitter and including the phrase #palgravechat in your questions.

Feel free to send you questions in advance!

More information can be found here:

And don’t forget, Why? Radio is live this Sunday at 5 p.m. central.
For details, visit:

Why? Radio is live this Sunday! "Equality and Dialogue in American High Schools” with guest Nel Noddings

Why? Radio is live this Sunday. Send us your comments now or during the show!

Why? Philosophical Discussions about Everyday Life presents

“Equality and Dialogue in American High Schools”
Guest: Nel Noddings

Sunday, February 8 at 5 p.m. central.
Listen live from anywhere in the world at and in North Dakota at 89.3 (Grand Forks), 91.9 (Fargo), 90.5 (Bismarck), and on Prairie Public radio stations across the state.

Send your comments to

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Should we care if people marry animals?

As candidates vie for the Republican nomination, we are no doubt about to see an upswing in anti-gay-marriage rhetoric. Mike Hukabee has already started us off and it will get worse. It is only a matter of time before people start claiming, once again, that if we let same-sex couples marry, we might as well let people marry animals.

For the record, this is a stupid argument. It misunderstands that modern marriage is built on the ability of people to both want and consent to marry. Modern marriage also assumes the moral personhood of its partners. It wasn’t always like this. The history of marriage is complex and involves a huge variety of traditions including polygamy and polyandry, same-sex marriages, slave-marriages, temporary marriages, and even marriages to ghosts!

Friday, January 23, 2015

How should people respond to anti-vaccination parents?

As many already know, California is suffering through the worst measles outbreak in 15 years, an epidemic that has spread to four other states and Mexico. It began when non-immunized measles-carrying Disneyland guests infected other visitors. Measles is ultra-contagious, so if someone has it, “90% of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.” Disney has responded by warning those who aren’t immunized to avoid the park and have instructed their ill employees to stay home.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for those who got sick through their own bull-headed and anti-science beliefs. You play the game, you take your chances. But I do feel quite bad for their children, for those kids who are too young to be immunized, and for those who are too poor to have access to good medical care. My heart goes out to people who caught the illness because of others' ignorance.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Could Facebook handle Karl Marx? (Some thoughts on doing politics on social media.)

This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Why not socialism?” To listen, click here.

Political activism in America has been usurped by Facebook. The website has made outrage into entertainment and political argument into branding. In a certain sense, this is not new. French existentialists once roamed Parisian cafes performing their political views, and American hippies used their picket signs to troll for sex, but Facebook has made these behaviors immeasurably worse. It is a platform fueled by emotional game playing, not political argument, and its endgame is well-known: when you link to that blog, photo, or pictogram that angers your friends—not your parents, not the establishment, not even “the man,” whoever that was—but your friends, when you find that link that inspires them to be publicly petty and respond with virulent diatribe, then, well, you win. Nothing happens next.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Does academic research have to be relevant? (Some thoughts on Hayek and the Virgin Mary.)

This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Can A Philosopher Govern the United States? The Case of F.A. Hayek.” You can listen the whole episode online here.

There is a certain amount of faith required to advocate for philosophy. We tell our students (or our radio and blog audiences) that even the oldest ideas are still relevant. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about someone who lived two hundred or two thousand years ago, we continually promise that if we can get people to understand what they are saying, we can all learn something new and important about the world around us.

What’s funny about philosophers though, is that we spend most of our time arguing about what those ideas actually are. Instead of showing how historical thinkers are genuinely important to contemporary debate—instead of asking what Machiavelli or Jeremy Bentham might say about what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri, for example—we fight about the meaning of their texts. We undermine one another’s interpretations, we publish jargon-filled journal articles for tenure, and we focus on the most obscure terms and claims, and make them the center of our careers. Then, in the midst of it all, we wonder bitterly why cancer researchers get paid the big bucks and why we are still struggling to retain an audience.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why is there no real education in the Harry Potter books?

For more philosophical images like this one, subscribe to our Instagram feed.

I got an energetic response to the Philosophy is Everywhere post pictured above. In it, I suggested that since none of the Hogwarts students get a true liberal-arts education, they won’t grow up to be creative. There were two basic criticisms in response. Some claimed I misrepresented Hogwarts and others argued that I am wrong to suggest that people can’t create art without going to school. The first is a matter of interpretation and less philosophically interesting. My response to that is simply that arthimancy is not math and the history of magic is not world history. Hogwarts students should take all of these subjects, not to mention Composition 101, so they, not the quill, will know how to write. The second criticism however is wonderfully rich and worth exploring. The connection between creativity and education is fascinating.

As with most of the snippets I post, the philosophical issues are simplified and made as stark as possible—public philosophy is often philosophy at a glance. But the substantive questions are still there: what is the purpose of education and what kind of curricula should be prioritized? There are massive debates all over the world about the importance of art, music, theater, and literature in schools. In the U.S. and the UK, they are being pushed aside for STEM courses (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). All of the Hogwarts classes are the wizarding equivalents of STEM, with the possible exception of the history of magic, which everyone but the half-muggle Hermione hates. If we can conceive of a wizarding world in which the arts and humanities are unnecessary, it’s that much easier to justify a real school in which they are unimportant too.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

My boyfriend wants to have a threesome with another girl, but I want to have one with another guy. What would Plato say? [Ask a philosopher]

Recently, PQED got this email as part of our Ask a philosopher invitation. Thank you anonymous email writer. It made me feel like a real advice columnist!

Dear PQED:
My boyfriend and I have been dating for six months and we talked about having a threesome. He wants a threesome with another girl and I want one with another guy. I think he's homophobic and he says I'm no fun. We are both philosophy majors (he's a junior and I'm a senior), and I told him that Plato would be on my side. Do you think I'm right? And who should we have a threesome with?
Get my boyfriend out of the cave!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Introducing the "Philosophy is Everywhere" project...because, well, philosophy really is everywhere.

When we teach philosophy, we teach the great books and the complicated arguments. But there is so much more philosophy than what we see in college. The Philosophy is Everywhere project aims at highlighting the little bits of philosophy that we encounter every day. The quotes from celebrities, the passages in books, the comments from politicians, the art, music, and day to day conversation that happens while we are busy looking at other things. These are all philosophy, too.

Philosophy is Everywhere is a new Instagram-based project aimed at getting the attention of a younger, more pop-culture aware audience. It speaks to people in their teens and twenties, and to the older folks who have never let go of the excitement of seeing the “thoughtful” in their entertainment.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Is there intelligence in working-class jobs?

This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “The Intelligence in Everyday Work.” You can listen the whole episode online here.

There is an attitude among men of a certain generation, that real work involves wearing a suit. While Americans have always spoken romantically about laboring with our hands, and politicians running for office fight over who is the most working class, there is still a cultural commitment to the idea of dressing up for a job. Going to an office is seen as somehow better than not doing so, and wearing a suit means being higher on the food chain than those who do physical labor. I have known quite a few people who put off being contractors or artisans until after they retired, and who, even though they may never admit it, were happier making things than they ever were sitting at a desk.

It’s not that we as Americans don’t celebrate manual labor; it’s that we celebrate it in a very narrow way. Whether it’s Andy Dufresne downing a beer after tarring a roof in the Shawshank Redemption, or Peter Gibbons working construction at the end of OfficeSpace, when our heroes do choose a life of physical work, it’s the sunlight and the fresh air that bring them happiness. The movement of their bodies and the fatigue in their arms and legs signify a job well done, not some deeper intellectual commitment to the project at hand. Whatever praise we have for the working classes, none of it involves their minds.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Should white women be permitted to belly dance or twerk? (On cultural appropriation.)

In an article called Why I can’t stand white belly dancers, Randa Jarrar argues that white women who belly dance are “playing at brownness” and dressing in “Arab drag.” Since belly dancing is historically Arab, she explains, and since it is still used as a form of protest in Egypt, white women shouldn’t do it. To those who object to her stance, citing their own love, respect, and commitment to the art, she responds simply, “I’m sure there are people who have been unwittingly racist for 15 years. It’s not too late. Find another form of self-expression. Make sure you’re not appropriating someone else’s.”

It is unclear why cultural appropriation has become the object of such liberal ire, but Jarrar is not alone in her objections. She communicates the same hostility Miley Cyrus faced when she twerked at the MTV Music Awards. Cyrus is white, twerking is a traditionally black dance, and her act was seen as a form of cultural theft. Doing something from someone else’s culture, even with love and respect, is now interpreted as racism.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Is it ever okay to put a Star of David on a Christmas tree?

I recognize that I have a visceral and probably overblown reaction to seeing Stars of David on Christmas trees, but I do. I hate it. So, rather than give in to brute emotion, I thought I’d offer a clear philosophical explanation as to why it is wrong to do so. This way, when people ask me why I’m upset about something so trivial, I can show them this post. In doing so, I hope to explain why, in fact, decorating one’s tree with the Jewish symbol is not trivial at all. It is tremendously problematic.

There are, I believe, three reasons why putting a Star of David on a Christmas tree is wrong:

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How should we think about antisemitism?

This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “How to Think About Antisemitism” You can hear the whole episode online here. 

People think that prejudice is simple, that it involves lack of thought. The most common response to someone’s bigotry is that the offender just “doesn’t know any better,” and that he or she simply needs to get out more, meet new people, and be open-minded. While it’s true that lack of experience can make prejudice worse, this kind of ignorance is anything but simple. It’s built on history, attached to our common texts, and supported by all aspects of our lives. Most of what justifies our prejudices is so familiar that it is invisible to us; this is particularly true about antisemitism.

I am, no doubt, the first Jew that most of my North Dakota students will meet. Most of them will not even discover my background until midway through the semester, when it comes up in discussion. When I taught on the East and West coasts, my students recognized Weinstein as a common Jewish name, but not here. Most have no idea. But these young men and women who have never knowingly interacted with a Jew before me, feel they have a strong understanding of what Jews believe, of what our place in history is, of what’s wrong with us. Most have been learning about Jews since they were old enough to understand what Christmas is, and all regularly encounter jokes and slights about us on the internet. Almost everyone has seen who we are framed as incompetent, neurotic, and dominated, in almost any Ben Stiller movie. Meet the Parents, There’s Something About Mary…lessons on how Jews simply don’t operate properly in the world.