Monday, July 27, 2015

Are college students adults?

A few years ago, I complained to a friend who worked in the Dean of Students office because there were bounce houses at the university’s opening weekend celebration. They were the most notable attraction in an elaborate fair designed to occupy the new students during their first few days in the dorm. His response: “we are doing everything we can to stop them from drinking.”

Helping to curb self-destructive behavior isn’t a bad thing, but infantilizing people to do it only makes matter worse. These are 18-year olds at a university. If they can’t fend for themselves, they could be doing college-related things: getting tours, taking orientation courses, learning the basics of cooking and financial management (our students do not know how to balance a checkbook, let alone how to make a simple pasta sauce), reading an important essay and discussing it en masse, participating in mock archeological digs, getting etiquette lessons and dressing up for a formal welcome banquet, visiting an observatory or a laboratory, write something and publish it using old-fashioned printing press, perhaps even exploring the campus by doing some public service. These kind of events would have set a tone of maturity for the coming year. They would have announced that college is a place for work, study, self-exploration, and social commitment, and that growing-up involves expanding the pastimes one should find interesting and enjoyable. Instead, the wants university to portray itself as “fun” and puts on a carnival. The fact is, most students never recover. They never grasp that learning can be pleasurable and that taking responsibility for their own actions is the prerequisite for freedom. At least if they do, they don’t do it while enrolled at UND.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road is a very very bad movie. (And what makes a good movie plot anyway?) [A philosopher goes to the movies]

People are going to tell you that Mad Max: Fury Road is a non-stop adrenaline thrill-ride with strong female characters and an excellent reboot of a beloved franchise whose time has come again. They are going to exclaim that it is an action-movie game changer that gives filmmakers permission to revel in the art of car chases and non-CGI stunts. They are wrong. It is a video game disguised as a movie, a terrible, terrible movie that doesn’t meet the minimal standards of science fiction. The female characters are neither strong nor feminist, and the story makes no sense, even on its own terms.

There is an important difference between good and popular, and while I can’t argue that this film won’t make lots of money, I can explore its lack of quality. Ultimately then, what I offer here is a meditation on what makes a defensible movie plot. I’m going to focus on four criteria: the plot must serve its purpose in the genre, be consistent in the world in sets up, be well-crafted, and respect its characters. These are not the only requirements for a good movie, of course—acting and cinematography are tremendously important, too—but plot is complicated enough of a subject for one blog post.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Does our religion reflect what we want to be or what we don’t want to be?

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “How do Muslims, Christians and Jews see each other?” with guest David Nirenberg. To listen, click here. It is worth noting that while this monologue does not address the main question of the episode, it is preparatory. We can’t see how others see us if we don’t explore how we see ourselves. We must all explore how each of us committed to what we believe.

There’s an old adage that everyone in New York is a little bit Jewish. Anyone who lives there understands this. With the ubiquity of Yiddish phrases, deli cuisine, and wise-cracking argument, sometimes it seems like the whole city is just one big Beastie Boys video.

But if it’s true that everyone is a little bit Jewish, then it must also be true that the Jews who live there have to work harder to distinguish themselves from the crowd. When being Jewish is no big deal, it’s also no effort, and it isn’t until Jews leave the city that they understand exactly what is and isn’t theirs.

Monday, July 13, 2015

If we have free speech, how come it's okay to punish us for what we say? [Ask a Philosopher]

Last week, the following letter to the editor appeared in the Grand Forks Herald, my local newspaper:

Is free speech still 'free' if it can be punished?

     I'm in need of a philosopher/ethicist. The Constitution guarantees "free speech." It is an extraordinarily important right that promotes diversity of opinion and is an antidote to dictatorship. 
     Having said that, how is it that whenever someone says something outre or unpopular, say Donald Trump for example, individuals are "allowed" to disenfranchise from him?
     If "free speech" which is allowable, is also allowed to be punished, how does this differ from not having "free speech"? 
     How does withdrawing from a golf tournament either support free speech or do other than implicitly condone punishing it?
     It is easy to make what is technically called "the error of assumed essence"; if a person is, say, "gay," this error happens when everything they do is tied to this "gayness."
     Thank heavens Trump doesn't have a children's charity from which critics can withdraw because of his new "taint."
     Ross Hartsough
     Grand Forks

Seeing as the author asked for a response from a philosopher/ethicist, I felt an obligation to write back. Here is my answer. It was published this morning under the headline "Reactions give free speech its meaning and power."

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Why? Radio is live this Sunday. "How do Muslims, Christians, and Jews see each other?"

Why? Radio is live this Sunday! Listen and participate during the show!

"How do Muslims, Christians, and Jews see each other?"
Guest: David Nirenberg

Sunday, July 12 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 you comments to

Friday, July 3, 2015

New symposium on Adam Smith's Pluralism, the most recent book by PQED author Jack Russell Weinstein

The new issue of the philosophy journal Cosmos + Taxis features a full-length symposium on Adam Smith’s Pluralism, PQED’s author Jack Russell Weinstein’s most recent book. It contains six essays inspired by the book and Jack’s response.

The issue will be of more interest to philosophy professionals, but some of the essays, especially the introduction and Jack’s response are suitable for non-academic audiences.

The issue is free and can be downloaded here. The contents are as follows: