Monday, November 28, 2016

If the Electoral College can contradict the popular vote sometimes, why would it be wrong for them to do it every single time? [Ask a Philosopher]



Today we have a question that makes me think of the current attempt to get electors to abandon Donald Trump and vote for Hillary Clinton.

A reader writes:
Long before the election, my class was discussing the Electoral College, and one student opined that it should be kept because the popular vote doesn't accord with the electoral vote only some of the time. This got me thinking, "Would we find it acceptable if the popular vote never matched the electoral vote?" It would seem that whatever makes it acceptable to have the popular vote not match the electoral vote in some instances, would also make such an outcome acceptable in every instance. Or, conversely, whatever makes it unacceptable to have the popular vote not match the electoral vote in every instance, would also make such an outcome unacceptable in each instance. But perhaps I'm missing something, so I thought I'd see what you have to say in regard to the argumentation.

This is a good, interesting, and relevant question. Let me put it another way: if it is okay for the Electoral College to contradict the popular vote once in a while, why isn’t it okay for it to do so all the time? How can opposing the popular vote be right only some of the time?

I think there are two possible options, depending on what we regard the purpose of the Electoral College to be. Is its purpose insurance or to be a representative body?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A reporter wrote an article about me and got an antisemitic email in response.



Today, the Grand Forks Herald, published an article about my inclusion in The Professor Watch List. It is a thoughtful piece. You can read it here.

Buried in the 18th paragraph is a mention about the antisemitic letter I received last week, the one I wrote the blog entry about. It was in no way, the subject of the article. It was just an aside emphasizing how these sorts of attacks make people feel vulnerable.

Within a few hours, the journalist herself got her own antisemitic rant. It read:

you do know you cannot have antisemitism without semitism right ??
I'm sure you are a college grad and do know the jews have been kicked out of 89 countries 109 times right ? You do know that.....? Right ?.
If this guy has his way you will not be able to have a gun in this country.........

I know about the letter because the journalist sent it to me. She didn’t understand one of the references and sought to know more. I have nothing but respect for this. As a Jew and a teacher, I can think of nothing nobler than asking to learn more, especially about a paniful and complex topic like antisemitism. I wish more journalists were as conscientious as she is.

I wrote her a detailed line-by-line historical explanation of the email; I won’t repost it here. But just in case others have a difficult time deciphering the sentence fragments, I will reprint my plain-English summary.

No, students who sought counseling after the recent presidential election are not "precious snowflakes."

This picture was used here to ridicule the crying student.
I believe her emotional reaction to losing is a badge of honor.

Over the last couple of weeks, pundits have publicly attacked university students for being whiny, coddled crybabies in the face of the presidential election. Following others (see here, here, and here), Rob Port a local Republican blogger attacked a neighboring university, North Dakota State University, for sending out an email informing its students that counseling services were available to anyone who was having trouble dealing with the results. This student weakness was so horrifying to a a local letter writer, that she felt the need to both describe her own time as a college student as strong and noble, and then to tell students who need someone to talk to to “get a grip” and "find God."

Even if only a small  numbers of students actually sought counseling, these attacks are dangerous and ignorant. They are based on the outdated premise that asking for psychological help is a form of weakness. It is not. Asking for help requires great strength and it is noble for anyone to act to improve his or her own well-being. Part of what makes human beings special is our desire and ability to improve ourselves. Part of what makes us fragile is that our idea of what improvement is, is often distorted by, at best, imperfect, and at worst, destructive experiences. A good therapist can help people overcome a difficult childhood, trauma, poor judgment and self-centered blinders. Personal improvement is hard that takes much more than personal reflection. Shouldn't we encourage people to work on themselves?

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The author of this blog has just been put on a watch list for having “anti-American values.” Here is how you can help.



It has been a heck of a week here at PQED and Why? Radio.

We had to cancel our planned guest on Why? Radio and reran our interview with Daniel Goldhagen called “How to Think About Antisemitism.”

Two days later, our host, Jack Russell Weinstein received an antisemitic screed via email. He responded on this blog in, in the words of one religion scholar, an “amazing calm” and “powerful” way.

It took a lot out of him.

Then yesterday, the world found out that Jack is the only North Dakotan listed on Professor Watch List, a website dedicated to surveilling professors who, they say, “promote anti-American values:”

We feel a little exposed right now. We are looking over our shoulders a lot.
But we will not be intimidated. We will not be silenced.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Molli Bernstein died this weekend. (Death in the age of Facebook.)



Molli Bernstein died of a drug overdose this weekend; I didn’t really know her. She was one of the hundreds of Facebook friends I have acquired because of my radio show and blog. I was first connected to her via a mutual acquaintance—a young photographer—when they both started complaining about Facebook censoring their pictures.

Molli was a fashion model and she had posed for some test nudes, helping an inexperienced photographer-friend as they both learned their trade. She posted them on a blog, shared them on Facebook, someone complained about the nudity, Facebook took the link down, and eventually, I wrote a post exploring the tension between the idea of “art” and the pragmatic practice of labelling images Not Safe for Work. It was a totally unnecessary chain of events.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The antisemitic email I just got and my response to it.

So, here's a problem: what image do I use here that doesn't make things worse? What can I do that doesn't exploit the history of antisemitism just to get attention? I don't want to equate this email to any real atrocity, but I'm backed into a corner. I have to have some kind of illustration here.  This is another way in which antisemitism traps Jews. Even the mere act of deciding what picture to use to begin a blog post is fraught with danger. Whatever I use, I can be accused of taking advantage of other people's suffering for my own personal publicity. 


This past weekend we broadcasted a Why? Radio rerun, an interview with Danial Jonah Goldhagen called “How to think about antisemitism.” I had my reservations about running it again because the first time we did, we lost a bunch of listeners. People who regularly wrote to the show sent emails in advance, asking why Israel was evil and other questions that were, at minimum, phrased problematically. The guest and I discussed them, addressing, in particular, the accusation that Jews all think that criticizing Israel is itself anti-Semitic. (Goldhagen’s answer was, first, that most Jews do not think this and second, that criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic. What is, he argued, is holding Israel to a different standard than anyone else. We’ll come back to that at the end of this discussion.)

During the show I mentions that as a host, I was scared because although I wanted to address listeners’ questions, some of the replies were going to be critical and I didn’t want to alienate a loyal audience. This turned out to be prescient. I never heard from some of them again.

But, politics being what it is, I thought it was an important episode to rebroadcast. Plus, I think it’s a really good episode, one of our best, most compelling, and most sophisticated ones. So I reran it and, predictably, today (11/16/2016) at 7:12 pm, I got the following message via my personal website.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Telling people to just chill-out about Trump and love one another, is bad advice and philosophically incoherent

This photo is courtesy of the LA Times.


Post-election discussion on social media has reached the phase in which large numbers of people are telling others to calm down. Demands for people to “chill out,” “love one another,” and “agree to disagree” are all over the place, as are testimonies that the poster will never unfriend someone because they voted differently. In some cases, the last kind of remark is a direct rebuke to my previous post declaring that I could never stay friends with someone who voted for Donald Trump.

The idea behind these love-promoting messages is that angry political debate should always be contained, and that people will be better off if they just find common ground and push the conflict aside. There may be times when this is a suitable response. Now is not one of them.

The election of Donald Trump has terrified and angered an impressive amount of people. It strikes at the core of people’s most cherished beliefs, of their vision of what America is and ought to be, and, in many cases, of their own identities. Many LGBTQ people, for example, were just starting to feel secure as a result of the legalization of gay marriage. Now the rug is being pulled out from under them. They and their loved ones have every reason to be furious.

Monday, November 7, 2016

My Final Statement on Donald Trump



I would like to post a very personal reflection on tomorrow's election and a message to Donald Trump supporters. Because of its partisan nature and how intimate this particular essay is, I am including it as an embed rather than as a post. Once again, I need to make the distinction between Jack the person and philosopher, and Jack the Director of IPPL.

Please read this and consider sharing it on FB or anywhere else.


 

Follow the author on Twitter: @jackrweinstein


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

[PSA] Yelling is not an argument; insults are not evidence.



Anytime someone responds to an internet post by yelling, insulting someone, or being a complete jackass, send them a link to this post and save yourself some time.


A few days ago, I posted a partisan essay about the recent election. It was strong, but it was a proper argument with evidence and elaboration. I did not expect everyone to accept it, but I wasn’t quite expecting the volume of obscene, sexist, anti-Semitic, and completely ineffective responses on the thread. Part of me wanted to answer all of them personally, but I knew that it would be both aggravating and a waste of time. It would also probably have escalated the insults. Instead, I offer this generic response. I hope others will find this useful.


1. Yelling is not an argument; it is a form of violence. Socrates made this point in the very beginning of Plato’s Apology when he urged his audience not to shout him down while he spoke. It is a form of force and violence because its goal is to make someone else submit against their will. It is an attempt to drown them out and shield everyone from what they want to say. While it is true that some people are perfectly fine with using force in the face of argument—some people, such as internet Trolls, enjoy it—yelling at someone has never made anyone change their mind. In fact, it usually only confirms their suspicion that the person yelling doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.

Ultimately, yelling in response to arguments is a sign of weakness. It has no staying power and only stops discussion while the yelling takes place. Force is only effective while the force exists. It has no lasting impact.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The rarely-used word that would describe a Trump presidency



With all eyes turned towards Trump’s horrendous treatment of women, a central aspect of his character is being ignored. Donald Trump is a kleptocrat. His first goal is to put public money into his own pockets.

Monday, October 10, 2016

How should we think about moral relativism?

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "An Argument for Moral Relativism" with guest David B. Wong
Click here to listen to the episode.

There’s a long-standing philosophical debate as to whether ethical claims are the same type of statements as others kinds or claims—whether or not, for example, “thou shalt not kill” is the same kind of thing as “2+2=4.” Some philosophers argue that they are the same—that they both report a fundamental truth—but their opponents argue that “thou shalt not kill” is really just “I don’t like killing” or “I believe killing is wrong” in fancied-up language.

On the surface, this may seem dry. But, in fact, it is an incredibly important controversy with massive consequences for our day-to-day life. When the president appoints a new Supreme Court justice, for example, Congress grills the candidate on his or her position on this very debate. There they call it natural law: the idea that rights are written into nature in just the same way math is. If the candidate believes in natural law, he or she thinks that rights don’t come from the constitution but from God, nature, or logic. These rights then, should never ever be taken away, even if we change the constitution. Maybe there is a right to work, or a right to freedom of worship, but the point is, anytime the US does something against these rights, it’s wrong to do so, no matter what.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

TONIGHT (October 9): Why? Radio is live with guest, David B. Wong. Topic: "An Argument for Moral Relativism"




Why? Radio is live Tonight (Sunday, October 9) at 5 p.m. central.
Send us your comments now or during the show.

"An Argument for Moral Relativism"

Guest: David B. Wong
Sunday, October 9 at 5 p.m. central.

Listen live from anywhere in the world at http://www.whyradioshow.org/ 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 questions now or during the show to askwhy@und.edu

Remember, if you miss this or any episode, you can access them all for free at our archive: http://www.whyradioshow.org/Why/Previous.aspx

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Why do men and women have different conversation styles?

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "Should Prostitution Be Legal?" with guest Peter De Marneffe. 
Click here to listen to the episode.

I always define feminism for my students in the same way. It's the claim that gender is a legitimate category of analysis. In other words, feminism as a philosophy is the idea that we gain relevant information by asking how something affects women as women, and men as men. This seems commonplace now, but for most of the history of philosophy—frankly for most of the history of the human pursuit of knowledge—gender difference was invisible. All humans were men; women were just lesser, or incomplete.

We now know this isn’t true. There are biological differences, for sure, but there are also differences in cultural expectation and personal experience. Feminists disagree about how important these factors are—how much the difference is derived from nature and how much from culture—but whatever the cause, we still don’t understand many of its effects. This is true in politics. It’s also true in linguistics.

A sermon and an essay on the events of September 11, 2001.

I found it very difficult to choose a picture for this blog entry. How do you choose something meaningful without being exploitative or pornographic? I settled on this one. I don't know who the photographer is. 

In honor of the fifteenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11, I thought, rather than write new comments, I would offer links to two pieces I wrote that sum up many of my complicated feelings about the event. I'm a New Yorker born and bred, and many people I know were personally affected by the tragedy. My high school has a plaque commemorating 12 students who died. I can't count the number of friends who witnessed the violence first hand. Yet, the event will always be a tangled web or reflection, analyses, and critique for me. I'm a philosopher. That's how I think about stuff.

Click on the title to download a free PDF of each essay.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Should prostitution be legal? (Starting a conversation)

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "Should Prostitution Be Legal?" with guest Peter De Marneffe.
Click here to listen to the episode.


When my wife and I got married, we signed a Ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract. It is a beautiful piece of art and we proudly display it framed in our living room. It has the same text in both English and Hebrew, and it is signed by two witnesses. The Ketubah is obviously very meaningful to us.

Yet, at the same time, it feels odd to me to describe a marriage in terms of a contract. A wedding is not a quid pro quo; we are not agreeing to exchange goods and services. Yes, of course, this was once the case; marriage is built on a long tradition of consolidating power and wealth. And even now, there are significant economic consequences to getting married. My wife and I hold joint property. There is a specific order of inheritance. We share debt. But these have become secondary reasons for getting married. The primary ones are that we love and are devoted to each other, that we are want to build a life together and create a family, we are committed to raising a child and adding to a community that is larger than us.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Is there only one way to be authentically Black?


This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "How to Think Philosophically About Black Identity" with guest Tommie Shelby. Click here to listen to the episode.


Like many people of my generation, I grew up watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the show that made Will Smith a household name. In it, Will plays an African-American teen whose mother sends him across the country to live with his rich relatives, because he got into, as the song goes, “one little fight.” The show advertises itself as a fish-out-of-water, rags-to-riches story, and in all fairness, it does spend a great deal of time focusing on these themes. But this is largely subterfuge. What the show really is, is a six-year exploration of what it means to be a black male.

Many of the show’s jokes involve Will teasing Carlton, his rich cousin, for not being black enough, culminating in the famous Carlton dance, the exuberant celebration of the music of uber-white Tom Jones. But the show also features Phil Banks, Carlton’s father, a former dashiki-wearing activist turned judge who defends his own authenticity as a black man working within the system.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Always Talk About the Elephant: A two-minute commencement address




On May 14, I had the honor of being awarded a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professorship at my home institution, The University of North Dakota. I was asked to give a short speech--about a minute long. I wasn't sure what I wanted to say except for one phrase "always talk about the elephant." This video is the result.


I gave the comments spontaneously; I was not reading my remarks. Below is the transcript. Thank you everyone who asked for copies of the text. 

Thank you President Shafer. Thank you everyone on stage. I’d like to thank the faculty for this nomination and I would like to thank the students for the honor—every day—of getting to explore the world with all you. I was asked what advice I can give in a brief 60 seconds and also moved by the fact that this is the last—any maybe the first—time any of you have ever paid attention to me. I wanted to know—I wanted to figure out—what it was that I could give this particular group of students, in this region, in this school—what Ideas that I can give them to move forward that perhaps someone else might not. I want to summarize it in one sentence: always talk about the elephant.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Do we still need the eighteenth century?


This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "Do We Still Need the Eighteenth Century" with guest Ryan Patrick Hanley. Click here to listen to the episode.


When Americans think about the 18th century, they think of war. They remember the American Revolution and all that comes with it. Some will add the French Revolution to the mix, seeing the late 1700s as the beginning of the modern democratic state, an introduction to a new world order that wouldn’t actually see the light of day until the end of World War One.

But when philosophers think about the 18th century, they think of texts. They celebrate the great works by David Hume, Adam Smith, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Mary Wollstonecraft, books that were no less revolutionary than the wars we celebrate in our history textbooks. Thomas Jefferson was a philosopher, so were Hamilton and Madison. Benjamin Franklin was a philosopher of sorts, although in the 18th century, a philosopher had a much wider portfolio that we have now. They could be expansive and exploratory. They weren’t worried about tenure.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Do we need a philosophy of aging?


This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "How to Think Philosophically About Aging" with guest Sharona Hoffman. Click here to listen to the episode.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger once called people the “being-unto-death.” What he meant was that since human beings are aware of our own mortality, living authentically means confronting the fact that we are absolutely, positively, going to die. Whether he was right or wrong, I can’t say, but his ideas influenced a lot of people. Strangely, though, while philosophers wrote about death, they neglected the getting older part. Aging has been left out of philosophy.

Two ideas about age have dominated philosophical thought. First, children are different than adults because adults are rational and morally accountable, and children are neither. Second, our elders should be our mentors because they have more experience, and knowledge is the foundation of wisdom. In other words, aging, in philosophy, usually implies that we are getting better, not worse.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Sunday: Why? Radio: “"How to Think Philosophically About Aging" with guest Sharona Hoffman




Why? Radio is live this Sunday at 5 p.m. central.
Send us your comments now or during the show.

"How to Think Philosophically About Aging"

Guest: Sharona Hoffman
Sunday, April 10 at 5 p.m. central.

Listen live from anywhere in the world at http://www.whyradioshow.org/ 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 askwhy@und.edu