Those kids and their phones

BBC reports on a social trend: little kids hate their parents’ use of smart phones. “I don’t like the phone because my parents are on their phone every day. A phone is sometimes a really bad habit” — this child’s comment was reported by a second-grade teacher in Louisiana. Another comment reported by the same teacher: “I hate my mom’s phone and I wish she never had one.”

BBC also reports that one mother said “her teenagers were just as bad, often choosing their phone over family time.” But the teens are simply doing what they see adults do: giving lower priority to their face-to-face interactions than to their phone interactions. It’s just like that old song by Harry Chapin:

“And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
“He’d grown up just like me,
“My boy was just like me.”

I see this all the time as I walk around San Mateo, where we live, and Palo Alto, where I work: the two year old having to amuse itself in the stroller while the parent focuses solely on their smartphone; the elementary age child standing in front of the parent waiting to play catch while the parent texts someone far away; the parent brushing off the young adolescent who tries to get their attention while they’re looking at their phone….

Privacy policy

On May 25, the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) comes into effect throughout the European Union. To comply with this eminently sane and reasonable law, I’ve established a Privacy Policy, partly using suggested language distributed by the WordPress developers.

Here’s my shiny new Privacy Policy.

And, as long as we’re talking about policies, here’s the latest version of my long-standing Blog Policies.

500 years of love songs

If you’re in the San Francisco area, the quartet I sing with will be singing twice in the next few days. On Friday, we’ll be at The Heritage on Laguna St.; contact them directly for exact time and location on their campus. Then on Monday, we’ll be singing in the Ferry Terminal Building beginning at 5 p.m.; we’re never sure exactly where we’ll be able to set up in the Ferry Terminal (we don’t want to disturb the friendly merchants there), so look around for us. Our program is “Five Hundred Years of Love Songs,” with music from the early Renaissance to Meghan Trainor, in genres ranging from classical to jazz, pop to country.

Marx bicentennial

Karl Marx’s two hundredth birthday was celebrated on May 5 — at least, it was celebrated in a few places such as Marx’s home town of Trier, where there is reportedly a thriving trade in Marx-themed tourist tschotchkes; and in China, still a communist country, at least from its own perspective.

In most of the United States, Marx’s birthday was studiously ignored. There were a few newspaper editorials (remember newspapers?), most of which, I suspect, assumed the gently mocking tone of the editorial in the Chicago Tribune, which wound up concluding that Marx was wrong: “Germany conducted an exhaustive 40-year experiment on the comparative value of a market-based approach and a statist one. In 1989, it was the latter that expired, along with the Soviet-aligned dictatorship that ruled in the east.”

Social media was far less restrained in its open criticism of Marx; when philosophy professor Brian Leiter posted birthday greetings to Marx on Twitter, both he and Marx were, not surprisingly, viciously attacked, and to a lesser extent, viciously defended.

For most people in the United States, the main thing to know about Karl Marx is that he has been proved wrong. Communist states murdered tens of millions of people, communism couldn’t compete with capitalism, and since 1989 when the Soviet Union imploded, communism and Karl Marx are irrelevant.

Was Karl Marx wrong? It depends on how you read him. If you accept the Soviet Union’s interpretation of Marx (which most Americans do without questioning it), an interpretation in which the Soviet Union had the only true interpretation of Karl Marx, then you have a pretty strong argument that Marx was in fact wrong.

As for me, I was introduced to Marx through the Frankfurt School, which offered a substantially different interpretation. The Frankfurt School pointed out that Marx demonstrated the ways capitalism causes alienation, and the ways women are subjugated under capitalism. The Frankfurt School also made it clear that reading Marx seriously required intellectual freedom that only came from disaffiliating with existing communist parties. While I’m critical of the Frankfurt School, it was the Frankfurt School helped me learn how to be critical — critical of economic systems that cause harm; critical of social structures in which a few people dominate everyone else; and critical of any belief in supernatural forces that are supposed to save us.

I’ve found this last kind of criticism — the criticism of belief in supernatural forces that will supposedly save us — to be very powerful. Whenever I hear that something is going to save us, if we would just put our trust in it, I get very skeptical. A lot of Americans want us to have unquestioning belief in the motto “In God we trust”; but I’m very skeptical that some big Daddy God is going to save us from infidel Muslim terrorists, unemployment, or whatever the bogeyman of the month happens to be.

And most Americans, including all our political leaders, have an unquestioning belief in a supernatural force called “The Free Market” that will solve all our problems. I find this even less believable than the idea that a Daddy God is going to solve all our problems.

Marx’s writings have distinct limitations, and we should read him critically. Some of the best criticism of Marx may be found in Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, where Piketty points out that because Marx did not have access to big data sets, Marx simply couldn’t be very accurate.

Despite those limitations, Marx’s writings taught me how to be critical of the society in which I live. Things do not have to be the way they are now. History shows that things can change. We do not have to put up with injustice. That’s the fundamental message of Marx, one that is still as fresh today as when he was writing the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Capital, and the Theses on Feuerbach which end with the statement:

“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Happy birthday, Karl.


“We are always in media res, there are no absolute beginnings or finalities. We are always in the process of being shaped and shaping our history and our traditions. We are eminently fallible. We never escape from the precariousness and contingency of existence. We become fools of history if we believe that we can achieve total control by expert knowledge, or if we think we can collectively impose our wills and completely determine our destinies.”

Richard J. Bernstein, “John Dewey on Democracy” (Philosophical Profiles, Univ. of Penna. Press, 1986, pp. 266-7).

“The U.S. left has been dead for decades….”

Philosopher Peter Leiter makes some crucial points in a May Day interview with Il Manifesto, “Italy’s leading communist newspaper” (look for the link to download an English translation of the interview). Here are three highlights from the interview:

“The U.S. left has been dead for decades, starting with the state purge of communists in the 1950s and continuing with the neoliberal revolution since the 1980s and the war on the organized labor movement — so Trump is more symptom than cause of the fact that there is no left in the U.S….”

This is probably the most important thing that Leiter says in this interview. The lack of meaningful leftist politics in the U.S. not only means that Bernie Sanders, a center-left politician, is popularly thought to be a socialist — it also means that most U.S. residents do not actually know what leftist politics look like. This is a huge hole in our political discourse. Leiter goes on to add:

“‘Identity politics’ is the narcissism of the aspiring bourgeoisie, who want to get their share of the ‘capitalist pie,’ including their share of ‘respect’ as reflected in language and culture. … Insofar as ‘left’ politics in the U.S. has been captured by identity politics, it has been rendered impotent against the real obstacle to human flourishing….”

In other words, in the absence of actual leftist politics in the U.S., we have a putative leftist politics that does not aim to reform the economic injustice perpetuated by capitalism; instead, this putative leftist politics wants to keep capitalism going by offering it to historically marginalized groups. Even for those who strongly support capitalism, it’s important to understand that the goal of identity politics is not fundamental economic reform; its goal, while worthwhile, is much narrower.

Leiter will be taken to task here by U.S. academics who will point out that he is a white man and therefore can not understand identity politics; but as Leiter points out, most academics come from “bourgeois backgrounds” and indeed some of them are “actual or aspiring members of the ruling class”; as apologists for capitalism, they are not going to engage in serious critique of capitalism. So if he as a white man can’t understand identity politics, then they as aspiring members of the ruling class can’t understand leftist politics.

And here’s perhaps my favorite passage from the interview:

“Moral and political ideals are very important to human beings, but there is no evidence that the often unintelligible theoretical writings of academics about these ideals make any difference at all. Marx, who was a good writer (unlike Habermas), seized the imagination of revolutionaries in the 19th-century because he explained to them the causes of what was visible to them and what to do about it; he didn’t have to persuade them that they were suffering. No one who reads Marx could mistake him for Habermas….”

I once went to a lecture given by Jurgen Habermas. He spoke with a heavy German accent, but the real reason I found his lecture incomprehensible is the same reason I find his books incomprehensible: he’s a lousy writer. You can’t go about changing the world if you write specialized books that only appeal to a tiny number of professional philosophers and other academics.

There is more to Leiter’s interview, and no matter what your political persuasion, it’s definitely worth reading — it’s hard to find any American these days who can speak intelligently about leftist politics as they relate to the U.S. context.

Not thinking about being human

At the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site, George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Emory University, writes about what it’s like to be a black professor.

Back in December, 2015, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Yancy titled “Dear White America,” a thoughtful essay that asked white Americans to reflect on their position as white persons in a social system that provides structural benefits for white people. From my perspective as a former student of philosophy, this op-ed piece was primarily philosophical: it was written in the spirit of dialogue and openness, and designed to evoke serious reflection on an insistent social situation.

Rather than evoking reflection, Yancy reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education that he received “hundreds of emails, phone messages, and letters, an overwhelming number of which were filled with racist vitriol.” Yancy offers quotations from perhaps a dozen of the communications he received. Sadly I was not astonished by the level of vitriol; it was about what I expected. I was mildly astonished at how badly written these communications were, and how thoughtless — I mean “thoughtless” not in the sense of a lack of civility (though they did lack civility), but thoughtless in the sense that the writers had not actually thought about what they wrote.

Since Yancy’s essay was structured to provoke thoughtfulness about the topic of race, how is it that hundreds of people responded thoughtlessly? Part of the problem may be the American cultural tendency towards “evasion of philosophy” — the phrase used by American pragmatist philosopher Cornel West to name the American propensity of avoiding systematic thinking. Another part of the problem is American anti-intellectualism, a well-known phenomenon which includes those ostensibly well-educated Americans who value entrepreneurship and “business” over the life of the mind.

But I think the major problem here is the inability of most white Americans to think seriously about race and racism in America — to think, to think seriously. Sociologist Robin DiAngelo has identified the problem of “white fragility,” but there is more to Yancy’s experience than white fragility. Yancy was attacked for asking white Americans to think, reflect, be introspective. The refusal to think can only be called intellectual fearfulness.

Another way of saying this is that white Americans are fearful of thinking seriously and deeply about what it means to be human. This fearfulness on the part of white Americans is, I suspect, amplified by the general American anti-intellectualism which is in large part a fear of thinking outside the narrow boundaries of technical achievement or outside the even narrower boundaries of American white Protestant evangelical theology. Thinking about virtual reality and artificial intelligence and other technical matters is acceptable. Thinking about, and either accepting or rejecting, the Protestant evangelical conception of God is acceptable. Thinking about what it means to be human as a white American is not acceptable, and evokes fearfulness rather than serious reflection and introspection. I find that very troubling.

Denominational leaders shooting themselves in the foot

It was just over a year ago that my denomination was engulfed in conflict due to a denominational leader’s insensitive remarks. Looking back, I still feel embarrassed by that moment — not that anyone else in the world cares what my tiny denomination does, but still, no one likes having denominational stupidity on view for all the world to see.

With that in mind, and in a spirit of utter humility remembering all the other stupid things my denomination has done, it’s kind of a relief to read about another, much larger, denomination having its own moment of embarrassment. An article in Christianity Today (which I learned about from John Fea’s blog post) tells the story of Paige Patterson, one-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and current president of an SBC seminary, and Paul Pressler, an SBC layperson. Back in the 1980s, Patterson and Pressler were the architects of the “Conservative Resurgence” within the SBC. Now Pressler faces allegations of sexual assault, and Patterson allegedly assisted in a cover up.

It’s an ugly story, almost as ugly as our own Unitarian Universalist Forrest Church episode. And before you say that this sort of thing implies that we should do away with organized religion, may I remind you of the sexual misconduct of Jerry Sandusky and Bill Cosby, so if we’re going to do away with organized religion we also need to do away with organized sports and the entertainment industry. And sadly this kind of argument does lead many religious progressives to claim that we should do away with all organized institutions, because (so goes the reasoning) human institutions are the locus of the problem. As if we can separate individual human begins from society. As if human society without any organized institutions would put an end to sexual assault. So let’s just stop those silly arguments, shall we?

Instead, this story about Paige Patterson and the SBC offers a chance to reflect on the fact that we human beings screw up regularly. Instead of being shocked when human beings screw up, it is wiser to accept regular screw-ups as a fact of life, to acknowledge that any one of us can (and probably will) screw up, and to make sure we build into our human institutions processes for dealing with screw-ups. I suppose it seems more glamorous to get all indignant when other people screw up, and flood social media with that indignation — but while maintaining and strengthening institutional processes is far less glamorous, I promise you it’s more likely to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

“Why, sir, a man [sic] grows better humoured as he grows older. He improves by experience. When young, he thinks himself of great consequence, and every thing of importance. As he advances in life, he learns to think of himself of no consequence, and little things of great importance; and so he becomes more patient, and better pleased. All good-humour and complaisance are acquired. Naturally a child seizes directly what it sees, and thinks of pleasing itself only. By degrees, it is taught to please others, and to prefer others; and that this will ultimately produce the great happiness….” Samuel Johnson, quoted by James Boswell in Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, Tuesday, 14th of September, 1773.

While I have great areas of disagreement with Johnson — and he would dismiss me as a “Leveller” who wants to do away with the great principle of subordination and social rank that keeps a society stable — I find him to be right about a great many things. For example, what he says about people growing “better humoured” as they grow older I find to be substantially true. He was 64 when he said this in a conversation in the castle on the Isle of Sky built by the MacLeod clan; seven years older than I am now. I look forward to improving additionally by experience, and thinking myself of even less consequence than I do now.

The kind of wisdom Johnson praises here strikes me as a variation on what Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics called phronesis, or practical wisdom. Contemporary U.S. society no longer values phronesis; instead, our society values techne, or technical skill; and nous, or abstract knowledge. In my experience, those who have the kinds of wisdom that can be categorized as techne or nous tend to think themselves of great consequence, and, like children, tend to think more of pleasing themselves, and they tend to be impatient, and they tend to consider it acceptable to seize directly what they see. The titans of Silicon Valley come to mind, people like Mark Zuckerberg and Travis Kalanick and the venture capitalists and the many CEOs of small inconsequential start-ups. The current president of the U.S. also comes to mind.

These are all ill-humored people who think themselves of great consequence and who wish to seize directly what they see without thinking about their effects on others; they have very little in the way of practical wisdom. Unfortunately, these are the people who now provide us with leadership. Equally unfortunately, these are the kind of people we now respect: selfish, immature, child-like idiot savants who think themselves of great consequence, and who, if they think of us lowly peons at all, think of us with contempt because we lack their narrow technical skill and abstract knowledge, and feel the only thing they owe to us is the privilege of exploiting us. I think I prefer the elite of Johnson’s day, the “men distinguished by their rank,” who at least paid lip service to the obligations of their rank, and at least pretended to protect those who were subordinate to them.