Archive for the ‘Social Change’ Category

The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on January 19th, 2009

Racial apartheid has taken a terrible toll on African Americans by shutting them out of America’s promise.  But racism has exacted a terrible cost on all Americans. The symbol of this oppression can be best captured in the introduction to the film “Mississippi Btmpphp6mpgve.jpgurning.” The movie opens with the camera focusing on two water fountains, one marked “white,” the other marked “colored.” An adult white man approaches the white fountain and drinks and then walks off. A young African American male then approaches the colored fountain, drinks and also walks off. This metaphor has special currency in my own life. During my family’s first trip to Florida, we stopped for refreshments at a Dairy Queen in Georgia. My older sister, Julia, approached the water fountain marked “Colored,” and was about to drink when an angry white employee redirected her to the fountain marked “Whites.” My sister was thirteen, at the time, and no activist, so she refrained from drinking from the “Colored” fountain.  Nonetheless, she could not bring herself to drink from the “Whites” fountain and thus refrained from drinking at that Dairy Queen at all. An eight year old neighbor, accompanying us on our vacation, spied the “Colored” water fountain and shouted gleefully and in earnest, “Look colored water.” In retrospect, the starkness of Günnar Myrdal’s “two Americas” has no greater reality than through the conduct and words of children.

Why did this experience have such a poignant impact on me?  After all, I was just a little kid. The answer lies in the fact that I grew up in a household where racism was viewed as America’s original sin. Racism was wrong and America needed to redeem its promise by extirpating the practice once and for all.

Of course, in a few short years, the force of  Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to hold segregation up to the American social mirror forcing all of us to decide whether we could embrace the image that we saw. But Dr. King’s approach was not merely an exercise in civil obedience. Indeed, there exists a powerful philosophy behind his activism that needs to be articulated.

Dr. King’s non-violent civil disobedience required enormous courage and self-discipline. Dr. King recognized that individuals are not the measure of all things, but more importantly, he recognized the interconnectedness of everyone. We are community, of one sort of another, and the type of community we choose determines who we are individually. Consider:

[W]e have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood [and sisterhood]. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this.  We must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

These words bespeak the idea of community, but more than that also. King goes on to state what I think is the best statement of his conception of community.

I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.

This states the thread that connects every American. It also states a dynamic process of making sure that both you and I are what we ought to be.  But most important, it seems to me, it captures the importance of deliberation and conversationalism.  We must deliberate with one another, engaging in a conversation that never ends, but continues to refine and perfect our Union. Dr. King recognized that the true spirit of the American experiment was a continued process of deliberating over what both you and I ought to be and the recognition that it is impossible for this moral “ought” to be just for whites, or just for Americans. This sense of continued community is contained in the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal” and Dr. King helped to make this aspiration real.

Dr. King realized the difficulty of this moral project, which is among other things, the moral project of justice and freedom. He quotes the Prophet Amos as saying “Let Justice roll down like waters in a mighty stream.” King believed that “America ha[d] made progress toward freedom, but measured against the goal the road ahead is still long and hard.”

And then came Barack Hussein Obama. In May, the University of Pennsylvania’s Journal of Law & Social Change will publish an article of mine which casts President-elect Obama’s philosophy as committed to tmpphpn0yo3h1.jpgdeliberative conversationalism, a methods for engaging in political dispute resolution. His philosophy includes endless respect for others and civil conversation.  He requires us to take one another seriously and see ourselves in others. President-elect Obama sees the need for resurrecting America’s sense of community.  Rather than adhering to weaponized reason which often devolves into an insistence that I’m right and your wrong, President-elect Obama sees commonality in our differences. The possibility that the man and his philosophy can actually change our politics and help re-create our sense of community is not a given.  It requires supporting him not by rubber-stamping his policy decisions, but rather by a continued commitment to his deliberative conversationalism. In my view, the American attempt to rid ourselves of racism begins with the Declaration of Independence, and then marches on to the Civil War amendments, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, Brown, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, and now the Presidency of Barack Obama. While racism unfortunately still exists in our nation. We are entering a new phase that I believe will prove to be the beginning of the end of this national malady.

I am incredulous and amazed that shortly America will begin to overcome its brutal racial past by swearing in the first African American to the presidency of this great nation. But we should celebrate President Obama not only because he is African American but more importantly because of the truly extraordinary person he is. In my mind’s eye I am overwhelmingly eager to see and hear him finish his oath with the words “ . .  . so help me God,” so that the Chief Justice can say, “Congratulations Mr. President.” This is truly the legacy of Dr. King.

John Edwards: The People’s Candidate?

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on December 21st, 2007

John Edwards is an appealing quasi-progressive Democratic candidate for president. I say “quasi-progressive” because no Democratic candidate can be authentically progressive in a society so viciously hostile to alleviating the plight of the poor, the dispossessed, and the marginalized. The power structure in the United States would never permit authentic progressivism to survive. Edwards’ talk of “two Americas” is precisely the type of criticism our political culture needs. (Of course, it’s probably more accurate to say there are three or four Americas, but two will due for now.) Yet, the closer he comes to winning the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, the sooner one of his closest rivals will adopt the Republicans mantra condemning him for encouraging “class warfare.” It is cruelly ironic that the very same Party, designed to create a society riven with the shackles of class, should condemn someone for raising the issue of class in the first place. There’s logic in their strategy, however. An oligarchical class, dominating the poor and transforming the middle class into ravenous consumers, if shrewd, can hide behind its own pronouncement of innocence. Our political culture is so controlled by a malevolent, anti-constitutional power structure and the media stooges representing and fueled by this power structure that any fair-minded citizen is likely to be incapable of identifying the core problems preventing democratic citizens from flourishing. Instead, we quarrel over such peripheral issues as the so-called “war on Christmas;” we spit out vitriol against undocumented workers and their children; and we celebrate God–and coerce others to do so as well–rather than practice daily His imperative to love one’s neighbor. The continuing accumulation of wealth in the few and the suffering of tens of millions of others is hidden beyond the periphery. John Edwards’ attempt to rouse us from our slumbers and shake away the distractions imposed upon us by those whose interests depend on our being distracted will surely be blocked just as soon as he makes any serious progress toward winning the nomination. But his message is important. Watch his Christmas remarks and judge for yourself:

Of course, any savvy observer knows that these statements, photographs and videos are hype. But they are not necessarily all hype. Concealed within the hype is a core commitment to a particular system of values, at least that’s the hope. Here are what some supporters say about Mr. Edwards: Let’s be clear about one feature of American politics; the odds are stacked against significant progressive change. Yet, occasionally progressive change becomes possible if only temporarily. John Edwards’ may not be the ideal progressive, but he does seem to be the most credible of the top three Democratic contenders. Iowans should give his progressive message a chance.
Credit for the Image

SDS Returns

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on September 28th, 2007

Check out the story of the reemergence (or reinvention) of the 1960s anti-war group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Here’s a sample: “In the 1960s, the Student Democratic Society was the nation’s most influential radical student organization, making noise about civil rights, the Vietnam War and a government perceived as sinister. . . . [Now they are] making noise again. . . . Reinvented and reignited in January 2006, the new SDS spawned a Lancaster chapter that held vigil on the courthouse steps. And while those steps are the platform for various community groups to protest the Iraq War at least once a week, Friday’s group brought energy and vibrancy as only youth can. . . . ‘I feel like we can learn a lot from older people, but this is our generation, and we need to work at it now to make a difference,’ said SDS member Amber Nitchman, a senior at McCaskey, where a handful of students joined the Lancaster SDS chapter at the start of this school year.”

Anti-war sentiment seems ineffective. The body politic appears to be paralyzed. Why? Culpability lies in several places. The constitutional structure doesn’t help to rid the nation of a lawless chief executive. Perhaps the central reason for this paralysis is the fear that if politics end our military adventure in Iraq, and further catastrophe ensues in the form of a massive civil war or regional conflict or both, the politicians responsible for ending our involvement and their political parties will pay for this blunder for decades. That’s why, perhaps, Clinton, Obama, and Edwards each failed to promise that no American troops would remain in Iraq after her or his first term. How does one weigh what might happen against what is happening and will continue to happen indefinitely. Statesmanship, integrity, honesty, and commitment to one’s avowed goals must overcome fear in any politician deserving a term as president.

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When an obdurate, ill-informed person rules our great nation, when opposing political parties lack the fortitude to challenge him, when the majority of his own party remains loyal to his malevolence and incompetence, only one course of action remains. The people must mobilize peacefully and demonstrate everywhere across America, to make it clear that Bush-Cheney does not speak for us. Without such demonstrations, history’s unforgiving judgment will mark us as the generation that stood by in the face of evil and did nothing. Perhaps the new SDS can contribute to a mass movement designed to avoid such infamy.

Three Cheers for 1967: The Summer of Love

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on August 20th, 2007

The summer of 1967 marks the coming of age–sexually, politically, and socially–of a generation. Perhaps, more than any year in that turbulent decade, the summer of love suggested a novel, more authentic, way of interacting with others. Sexuality became a common–some say promiscuous–form of interaction, sans marriage, sans love, sans commitment. Of course, sexuality could be included in these practices, but, according to “the new explanation,” none of them are required for sexual relations to be appropriate. The first blow at calcified social traditions was to identify sexual repression. Once doing so, peculiar, Victorian “hang-ups” about sexuality could then be abandoned. A freer, more open, view toward sexuality served as a paradigm for dealing with other calcified traditions having little to do with sexuality. If sexuality can be re-evaluated rationally, so could everything else. And this rationality included, but was not exhausted by, deductive reasoning. It was more the rationality of reflective and pragmatic commonsense.

During the sixties a much greater imperative lay beyond the freedom of sexual gratification. In addition to its primary commitment to end the war in Vietnam, the sixties’ nation shown the light of revelation on the ubiquitous darkness of excluded and marginalized people living and suffering among us. How can the richest nation in the world–ostensibly dedicated to freedom and equality–ignore the well-being of so many of its own citizens? (“Whatever you did to the least of my brethren, you did it to me.”) Focusing on these people became, for the sixties’ nation, both personal and a political imperatives. As Edward P. Morgan put it, “Sixties movements, were grounded in a democratic vision that is as compelling today as it was then: a belief that all people should be included as full members of society, that individuals become empowered through meaningful social participation, and that politics ought to be grounded on respect and compassion for the individual person.” In short, the sixties’ imperative was the expansion of the moral and political community in order to include those deliberately and subliminally excluded. After the drudgery of the 1950s, 1967 was the time when the sixties reached its most hopeful pinnacle and an explosion of colorful possibilities in social and personal development burst on to the American landscape. Underlying Haight-Asbury and the hippie-yippie generation lay the imperative to take others–African-Americans, women, gays–seriously, playfully seriously, but seriously nonetheless. Freedom too was embraced as both a personal and political goal. It was something to be to be practiced daily. It was, as they say, “the age of great dreams,” though some of these great dreams, as might have been expected, for some people became nightmares.

Reactionary commentators, chief among them Robert Bork, tar the sixties as a time when permissively raised, rich and middle class kids engaged in greedy hedonism and nothing more. More insidiously, these commentators delight in tarring the period as filled with violent weather-underground radicals, the Port Huron statement, and Chicago Seven, in an attempt to hide from sight the essence of an ennobling process. Sure there was excess, but often in cultural revolution excess plays mid-wife to creativity and nobility that harkens back to our constitutional founding. Blaming “liberalism” for America’s decline is right on the money, but only if you select the right liberalism. Trying to expand the actual moral community to include the excluded is not the culprit. Rather, it is the materialist, radically individualistic culture that deadens American values. Moreover, blame lies equally with such critics as Bork who believe in dedicated social structures, ones that should resist change. This “dedicatedness” flies in the faith of the Jeffersonian commitment to deliberation, reflection, and change. Jeffersonian, and even Madisonian, constitutionalism is as antithetical to Bork’s cartoon depiction of American constitutionalism as simple majoritarianism. Yet, dedicated constitutionalism would prevent from taking seriously the question Hamilton puts to his contemporaries in Federalist No. 1 and to all succeeding generations of American about the possibility of self government: “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, to decide by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Hamilton might have add to “accident and force” a third element in dedicated cultures “unreflective customs or traditions.” Judge Bork is thus out of step with Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton. It’s difficult to identify which founder, if any, reflects Judge Bork’s conception of constitutionalism. Majoritarianism was never even considered at the constitutional convention. So Judge Bork’s conception of original meaning seems to preclude the theory of democracy he so willingly embraces.

Indeed, the sixties represent a social and political revolution virtually synchronized with the most progressive period of constitutional change in the nation’s history. In brief, what’s typically lost about the sixties was the underlying deliberative attitude which finds its source in the Founding. To locate this attitude one should steer clear of hippidom or yippidom. Look instead into the lives of young intellectuals and reflective people who, in the sixties, sought to be the source of change, a new “founding,” if you will. An old approach to practical reasoning–forgotten after War II–was revivified. Deliberation captured the imagination of the young. This underlying attitude embraced the tradition of providing reasoned arguments, not merely an appeal to unreflective customs no matter how entrenched, for personal, political, and social policy. Moreover, the reasons given in these arguments could not ultimately be idiosyncratic. For my reasons to convince you, they must touch you and affect and influence your ratiocinative powers. When I insist that you abide by my reasons whether you’re convinced or not, I impose my reasons on you and I violate one of the basic conditions of rationality. I consider my reason to be beyond deliberation; its truth is absolute and uncompromising. I’m duped to thinking that imposing my reasoning upon you is not only justified, but required. If you cannot apprehend absolute truth for yourself, concern for you, if not respect, requires making sure that absolute truth controls you life whether you want it to or not. Moreover, you violate one of the basic conditions of deliberative rationality when you acknowledge that my reasons have some merit but ultimately should be rejected even when you have nothing better with which to replace it. Accordingly, deliberative rationality includes reciprocity or mutuality. We must seek reasons together–all the while arguing respectfully with one another–until we find a reflective consensus or realize that such a consensus, at least at this time, is not possible.

On a personal note, the summer of love, 1967, is responsible, at least in part, for forging intellectually, the person, for good or ill, I later became. My one regret is that I believed, at that time, that although progress toward a more rational and reasonable society might come temporarily to a halt, the gains made would be permanent. That is, there would be no political or social backsliding. In that conviction I was probably mistaken. The sixties’ nation made promises it couldn’t be kept. What prevented the sixties’ nation from keeping these promises is a critically important question. Perhaps, social and economic circumstances prevented their fulfillment. Subsequent and especially current, developments prove that political and social back sliding is inevitable. We just can’t seem retain political and social advances without cultural changes that support these advances. But perhaps our culture has changed significantly and permanently. We no longer think it permissible to harbor racial prejudice. Our views about sexuality have changed permanently perhaps. Even political conservatives, in committed relationships, opposed to most of the promises made by the sixties’ generation, think nothing of cohabiting without marriage. (They have the sixties’ nation to thank for that.) Women no longer are excluded from entering the professions, academia, and just about whatever avocation they desire. Gays and lesbians, for decades made invisible by mainstream society, now publicly seek to enter mainstream society through the institution of marriage. Each one of these cultural changes finds its source in the sixties. So perhaps the gains made during that fecund, if turbulent, era have become part of America’s cultural heritage.

However, in contrast to these achievements, we have become a more cynical society where our domestic opponents are viewed not merely as respected adversaries, but rather as hateful enemies. Unfortunately, the past seven years have provided a pellucid demonstration that republican democracy does in fact have domestic enemies, usually just those public officials and pundits who are busiest trying to demonize their opponents. Not since Watergate have we seen an administration so clearly opposed to American constitutional values. It’s difficult to appreciate just what the antidote to our impoverished politics might be. Perhaps, the current cynicism will cause an even greater fragmentation in the body politic. Or maybe, a new wave of realistic optimism will wash the slate clean. As with many other elements in the evolution of the American republic and the culture that supports it, only an intelligent, determined, tough, and idealistic new generation of young people can begin this cleansing. Only when such a generation arises will social hope of the intoxicating sort experienced during the summer of love be a possibility.

Defending Rorty: The Kibitzer’s Kibitzer

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on June 27th, 2007

Richard Rorty’s death has prompted well-deserved praise and appreciation for a public life well spent. There has been, however, little serious discussion of his political views. This is unfortunate, because politics is the radiating core of his philosophy. Rorty’s project replaces epistemology with politics and knowledge with warranted assertability which is achieved through political debate. More precisely, conversation–deliberative debate designed to achieve unforced inter-subjective agreement–is the goal of Rortyan politics. Similarly, deliberative conversation is the method for talking about politics and culture. By engaging in this multi-layered conversation, we may be able to agree about some critical features of social life. When we agree we achieve provisional closure of debate. When we disagree, the debate must continue until we achieve agreement. If agreement is improbable at the time, we can at least appreciate just what is at stake in our disagreement. Often underlying our disagreement are two incommensurable perspectives. When this occurs we must pause, but then return to “debate” through poetry–non-discursive suasion–which may help us to achieve agreement through edifying vocabularies that convert others to our point of view.

It’s not Rorty’s intention to try to refute the framework of truth, knowledge, reason, and reality, whatever that would be like. He doesn’t seek to demonstrate that this framework is self-contradictory, for example. On the contrary, he engages in kibitzing–a form of jocular coaching–about the usefulness of retaining this framework. Rorty urges us to imagine a new world where people were simply uninterested in philosophical justifications of the judgments that matter most to them. These new worlders are deadly serious about whether these judgments are true, but not about what is meant by “truth.” They seek true judgments, but not true judgments about the nature of truth. In this new world, the word “true” applies simply what other people let us get away with. It is the normative compliment awarded to the judgment that withstands criticism best. The nature of truth, knowledge, reason, and reality–these foundational justifiers–simply don’t turn new worlders on. In a similar fashion, the nature or existence of God leaves these new worlders cold. Instead, they are engaged in building a future dedicated to minimizing cruelty and suffering. They are always ready to argue whether a particular policy reduces cruelty and suffering. But they find it tedious to try to demonstrate why cruelty and suffering should be reduced in the first place. These new worlders have experienced cruelty and suffering themselves and just want them eliminated. Their experiences is all the proof necessary. For them, seeking a demonstration of whether cruelty and suffering should be eliminated is a fool’s errand. We have no guarantees or guarantors in trying to eliminate cruelty and suffering, just our own and others’ experiences, and a conviction that we can do better. Rorty suggests that these new worlders can be us.

Some critics insist that the above story makes Rorty a relativist or worse, a nihilist. Maybe. But perhaps these critics can only envision the framework of either-or: either God and foundational justifiers or relativism and nihilism. These critics should explain why we need to retain this framework. Rorty wants to kibitz long enough for us to take seriously that there are other possibilities. We can seek the framework best suited to achieve our goals. We don’t need guarantees (nor guarantors) that this framework will work. We just continue its promotion by experiencing and acting upon the world through an edifying vocabulary to see if it does.

Most people in contemporary society retain deeply held moral convictions while rarely asking whether these convictions are grounded in God or foundational justifiers. Sure, if challenged, they might attempt to defend their entire system of convictions by appealing to God or the foundational justifiers, but for the lion’s share of their everyday lives, they never give them a thought. Yet, these same people disdain cruelty, refrain from mayhem, and would never contemplate killing their neighbors. Rorty’s point stripped down is simply that God and all the foundational justifiers aren’t necessary for human society to be populated by people who passionately seek to create better opportunities for human liberation, where what’s deemed “better” isn’t completely known in advance.

When a critic asks how can “better” have any significance without tying it to “God” and “truth” Rorty’s might reply as follows: Imagine reading in tomorrow’s newspaper “God is dead and there is no such thing as truth.” Suppose you were convinced by this report. What would you do? Go out and murder your neighbor? Probably not. Instead, you would trudge along as before. Why? Because cruelty and suffering have their own experiential (avoidance) hold over us. Try excising them from your personality and psychological reactions. In short, go forth into the world and see cruelty, and suffering; then imagine no God and no foundational justifiers. Do you think for a moment the horror you feel when confronting, cruelty, and suffering would dissipate? You might be inclined to reply that the intelligibility of this hypothetical depends on the existence of God and the foundational justifiers both of which serve as the basis of morality. Without their existence or at least their intelligibility the hypothetical has no force. Yet, that is precisely the problem. Where Rorty sees a world in which people work together to create a better future, his critics see God and rationality creating and guiding the entire operation. However, if one is authentically moral, if morality is integrated in one’s personality in an Aristotelian fashion, no further grounding is necessary. Relativism and nihilism are not implausible because some remarkable philosopher refuted them. Rather, they are implausible because the hard and soft wiring of human personality invariably rejects them. Natural and environmental factors together contribute to make most people sensitive to cruelty and suffering, though some people ignore the suffering of others by compartmentalizing their experience of it. More tragically, some notorious and infamous cases exist of sadists who enjoy cruelty and suffering. But as it now stands, God and the foundational justifiers have not successfully prevented these moral monsters; so why should Rorty’s proposal be held to a higher standard?

Rorty urges us to imagine a world where our passion for creating a better society does not depend on first rationally demonstrating that we possess a better way, just that it’s worth a try. Of course, in the “wrong” hands, danger might result. But in the “right” hands danger results now. For Rorty, we should continually strive to seek novel ways to cope with life’s vagaries. Imagine if talented undergraduate intellectuals spent less time trying to discover whether God exists or what reason demands and redirected their efforts to figure out how to reduce homelessness, war, brutality, and as so forth. “Devote yourself to first-order problems, not second-order ones” is the pragmatist’s advice. Let’s abandon a framework which requires us to first seek permission from an external authority before we try to follow where commonsense and passion suggest it’s more profitable to go. This search for a better world here and now–a utopian and more liberated America if you will– prompts Rorty to reject the panoply of “authorities” standing in our way.

Summarizing, Rorty embraces conversation–a type of fancy kibitzing–designed to formulate provisional solutions to social problems, but it is a kibitzing that should never end. We’re ready to terminate kibitzing only if we’re ready to give up freedom. The first photograph of Rorty was taken by Suhrkamp Verlag.

Rorty on Justification

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on June 20th, 2007

Richard Rorty is guaranteed a prominent place in the pantheon of great Western thinkers, especially for his role in reviving American pragmatism, long moribund or at least dormant throughout the vast wasteland of analytic philosophy. From time to time ECA will post some items on Richard Rorty’s views on justification, politics, and society. The first installment follows below.

Richard Rorty breathed new life into pragmatism, arguably America’s unique contribution to Western philosophy. Have you ever wondered what pragmatism is? Pragmatism is difficult to understand, partly because it can mean almost anything. Indeed, it is far from clear whether “pragmatism” stands for a discrete, set of views. Too often pragmatism simply refers to anti-foundationalist views without making clear just how it differs from “foundationalism,” whatever that is. So then, how do you know whether you’re a pragmatist? Since pragmatism has few, if any, well-demarcated doctrines, it might be better to try to figure out whether you’re not a pragmatist. Here goes.

You know you’re not a pragmatist if only “justification[s] from on high”–justifications which stand external to human experience–are your cup of tea. If you need to grasp the essence of such foundational justifications as Truth, Knowledge, Reason, and Reality before you can take a stand on whether we should legitimize same-sex marriage, you’re not a pragmatist. If practical judgments–judgments about what to do–need some authority beyond offering a particular solution to a particular problem, turn in your pragmatist credentials, if you still have them. If “true” and “right” must signify “a relation to some antecedently existing thing–such as God’s Will, or moral Law, or the intrinsic Nature of Objective Reality,” you’re most certainly not a pragmatist. If progress means getting closer to that antecedently identifiable value, forget trying to pass the pragmatist litmus test.

Richard Rorty rejected justifications on high. For Rorty, justification involves finding “a solution to a problem: a problem which may someday seem obsolete.” There are no guarantees in Rorty’s world, only discrete, incremental solutions. And don’t, for a minute, think that these solutions form a system, which needs a justification. Such thoughts will get you barred from the pragmatist club house. The only sort of justification for these solutions is political and political solutions are always contestable.

What implications do Rorty’s views have for contemporary American society? Take the same-sex marriage controversy. I suspect Rorty would ask whether instituting same-sex marriage solved any problems gay and lesbian couples experience living in relationships without the title “marriage.” Would same-sex marriage benefit or hurt children? A Rortyan would also attempt to ascertain whether extending marriage to gays would create unforeseen problems. All that’s remains now is to evaluate the pros and cons of same-sex marriage and then decide.

What Rorty most certainly would not do would be to appeal to external justifications for or against same-sex marriage. God, the true nature of sexuality and marriage, or an abstract appeal to equality would all be rejected. Pragmatist justification is unconcerned with the fundamental principles alleged to underlie this controversy or how such principles might have generated the controversy in the first place. No existing authoritative foundation dictates the solution to this problem. Forget about past-looking inquiries. For Rorty, the controversy needs to be resolved by looking to the future. Will same-sex marriage benefit gays and lesbians, children, and society in general? That’s the question for Rorty, and the answer lies in ordinary experience, not in justifications on high. In sum, pragmatists don’t seek whole-sale solutions to societal problems; they’re content in shopping retail.

Richard Rorty (1931-2007)

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on June 10th, 2007

Richard Rorty, one of the most influential philosophers of the latter half of the twentieth century, died last Friday from pancreatic cancer. He was 75. His death represents a colossal loss to American political culture. The only conceivable antidote is for Americans to reconsider the now completed corpus of Rorty’s writings. Rorty possessed an uncanny and startling ability to redescribe old terrain in a way the keeps the seeds of liberal hope alive. He did this, in part, by integrating what he deemed useful in the contributions of past (and present) philosophical giants and then melding them into his own unique pragmatist vision of how to carry on. Rorty was able to provocatively work both analytic and continental philosophical audiences. In his work, one can detect the ideas of such English speaking philosophers as William James, John Dewey, W.V.O. Quine, Donald Davidson, Thomas Kuhn, and Wilfrid Sellars. Ludwig Wittgenstein also greatly influenced the development of Rorty’s pragmatism. His work was influenced also by such continental philosophers, as Jacques Derrida, G.W.F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger, and Frederick Nietzsche.

Although often in disfavor, unjustifiably in my view, with large segments of analytic philosophy, at the beginning of his career he was an analytic philosopher’s analytic philosopher. In abandoning analytic philosophy, Rorty rejected Western philosophy’s obsession with epistemology and such modernist terms as “truth,” “knowledge,” “reason,” “reality,” “mind,” and “human nature.” In Rorty’s view, these concepts have no currency, or put differently, they are empty vessels that prevent us from seeing language as a pragmatic tool for improving the world. This pragmatic turn drew Rorty to the idea of philosophy as conversation–a notion partly inherited from Michael Oakeshott–about our intellectual and practical challenges. And the goal of conversation is unforced inter-subjective agreement at least provisional agreement. Language, for Rorty, is a form of social behavior used to help us cope with our environment. The pursuit of “truth,” “reality,” and “reason” simply obscure the daily quest to envision new ways to reduce cruelty and suffering. Modernist notions such as truth should be rejected, in his view, because they simply get in the way of achieving our goals. Truth, for instance, is nothing more than warranted assertability. We should be happy if we can achieve inter-subjective consensus because then we are warranted–at least provisonally–in offering these assertions as solutions to our political and cultural problems. In short, we are warranted in these assertions because they assist us to realize our goals; they have, in other words, utility. To insist that the utility of a sentence depends upon its truth is, for Rorty, question-begging in the extreme. Let me present a brief example of the difference between Rorty’s approach and the approach of the analytic philosopher, Bernard Williams.

Williams was not enamored with Rorty’s idea of conversation. In fact, Williams thought that “[u]nless a conversation is very relentless–for instance, one between philosophers–it will not be held together by “so” or “therefore” or “but,” but rather by “will then” and “that reminds me,” and come to think of it.” In these remarks Williams contrasts logical connectors with rhetorical ones. The former reveals the muscular, rigorous (logically) argumentative status of philosophy, while the latter represents linguistic connectors which we insert in a conversation with an insouciant air. The former potentially gets us truth, while the latter gives us only autobiography. For Williams Rorty’s notion of conversation obscures this distinction, and thus must be rejected.

The problem with Williams’ view is that it begs the very question at issue between him and Rorty. Rorty deliberately collapses argument and rhetoric and instead evaluates conversational conclusions by how well they help us to cope with various challenges in living. This defense does not mean that Williams’ view is wrong. It just means before distinguishing different types of linguistic operators as a means of discrediting Rorty, as William does, one must first establish that there is a formidable dichotomy exists between truth and warranted assertability, between logic and rhetoric. But it is precisely this type of issue that divides Williams and Rorty. To insist that Rorty’s idea of conversation transmogrifies argument into autobiography might be a valid criticism of Rorty’s view. But its validity depends upon first showing that the distinction between argument and autobiography is as stark as Williams thinks it is, and that’s precisely what Rorty denies. Our goal should be to swap truth for inter-subjective agreement, which, in the most interesting cases, is itself difficult enough to achieve. In the end, what members of our community let us get away with saying is what influences the world for good or ill.

Rorty was a public intellectual, in the finest sense of the term. He was extraordinarily well-read, though one complaint against his work is that he tended to misread, or read for his own purposes, the giants of analytic and continental philosophy. But this complaint is unfair. Rorty never presented himself as a philosopher devoted to textual exegesis. He took from the greats what he thought helpful even if, in doing so, he strayed from the conventional interpretation of their work. In brief, Rorty was saying “Let’s just try understanding Dewey in this way because doing so might be helpful in resolving challenging practical problems.”

In the final analysis, Rorty did more to challenge analytic philosophy’s dogmas than any other English speaking philosopher. To his credit, Rorty broke free from the confines of analytic philosophy and was rewarded by having his work read by intellectuals in such varied disciplines as social science, law, history, and literary theory. Rorty was intent upon showing that analyzing pursuing the “correct” analysis of “indexicals” or “vagueness” or “mass nouns”–or whatever other arcane concepts were fashionable in analytic philosophy–represented an especially crabbed view of intellectual discourse and any philosophical categories left standing after Rorty’s critique. (Are there any philosophical categories left standing after Rorty’s critique?)

For me, Rorty’s greatest contribution was to suggest that there exists a form of intellectual discourse–call it “ironist and collegial kibitzing,” if you will–freed from the traditional analytic philosophical categories and that this mercurial discourse, with luck, can be used to illuminate a range of problems across diverse academic and practical categories. For Rorty, inquiry dedicated to how things are prevents us–sometimes permanently–from creating a better world, one whose overriding promise is to reduce cruelty and suffering. When philosophers eschew attempting to realize this promise, their work becomes jejune and largely irrelevant to novel, collective solutions to problems of political and social organization.

Rorty was the faculty adviser to philosophy graduate students when I was a doctoral student at Princeton in the late sixties. In my fourth and final year, I recall Rorty telling us “No more reading, it’s time to write.” Some of us heeded his advice better than others, but the advice itself was right on the money. He was a soft-spoken, complex man, who was admired by those students who knew him. The more I think of Rorty’s life and death, the greater is my sense of loss for American political culture.

Jackie Robinson’s Breaking the Color Line or Brown v. Board of Education: Which Did More For Racial Justice in America?

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on April 25th, 2007

On 15 April 1947, a twenty-seven year old African American became the first of his race to play in the Major Leagues. Jackie Robinson, an exceptional college athlete and officer in the Army, endured the bigotry, and even death threats, from many of his fellow Americans and even worse from baseball players, some on his own team. Jackie did have support, however, from none other than the Dodger captain Pee Wee Reese. One day in Cincinnati, after death threats against Robinson, Reese walked over to Robinson and put his arm around him expressing to the Dodgers, the Major Leagues, and the world his solidarity with the young first-baseman. Although I cannot verify this now, I recall reading that Reese, standing close to Robinson, joked “if someone does try to shoot you, I hope he has good aim.”

Jackie won many awards in and outside of baseball, including the 1947 Rookie of the year Award, an MVP, the Medal of Freedom. Jackie Robinson was the first African American to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. In the interest of full disclosure while he was a player for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson was one of the few heroes I ever had.

Robinson, in one sense, was an unlikely candidate to break the color line in Major League Baseball. By nature, Robinson was combative and did not suffer racists easily. In fact, Jackie was court-martialed for refusing to obey an order to sit in the back of the bus. He was acquitted and honorably discharged from the army. The job of ignoring racial taunts and insults would be difficult for anyone, but it was extraordinarily difficult for Robinson. Larry Schwartz reports the following exchange between Rickey and Robinson preparing the way for one of the most significant social revolutions in American history: “Rickey wanted a man who could restrain himself from responding to the ugliness of the racial hatred that was certain to come.” Here’s “[a] shorthand version of their fateful conversation in August 1945.”

Rickey: “I know you’re a good ballplayer. What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.”

Robinson: “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”

Rickey, exploding: “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”

This pivotal conspiracy cannot be underestimated. It changed the face of American sports.

Jackie Robinson’s entry into major league baseball occurred seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, a revolutionary decision holding that segregated public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. While growing up in Brooklyn I was fully aware of Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball and only vaguely aware of Brown. I don’t recall ever considering any connection between these two events. Only recently–for the past ten years say–does the question of linkage arise. Now we can ask the question: Which had a greater significance in extirpating American apartheid? Brown or Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey’s concerted effort to desegregate baseball? At one time this might be considered a frivolous question. In my view, it is not. American political culture valorizes the Court and its role in articulating constitutional values. Americans, like Robinson, helped instantiate those values into American life.

Some might argue that Brown is more important because it set in motion a series of events that ultimately led to the desegregation of public schools and American society generally. The problem with this argument is that it seems to defy reality. Brown didn’t segregate schools, certainly not even in the South. Schools in Dixie are still virtually segregated. Many southern public schools are predominantly black due to white flight to private schools or to public schools in suburban areas where blacks cannot afford to live. The history of desegregation is a hollow victory for anyone seeking a system of public schools that are dedicated to authentic, not lip-service, equality. If anything, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 did more to segregate American society than did Brown. Brown’s defenders, of course, insist that Brown was essential for the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But such essentiality as a causal or symbolic mechanism is notoriously difficult to define or defend.

No one can prove definitively that citizens rather than judges play a greater role in creating constitutional justice. Most commentators would, I suppose, suggest that both are important factors. Nevertheless my vote is for Jackie Robinson and not just because he was one of my boyhood super heroes while growing up in Brooklyn and watching him dazzle the base paths in Ebbets field. Jackie Robinson, the Tuskegee Airman before him, the many other African American war heroes in Word War II, President Truman’s executive order desegregating the military, Vivian Thomas‘ pioneering work in open heart surgery, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights movement, and the scores of blacks and whites who resisted the idea that equality and segregation could coexist in a just society deserve more credit than the courts. Happy Anniversary, Jackie! Your contribution to a just America has been is incalculable.

The Aftermath of the Massacre at Virginia Tech

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on April 19th, 2007

Moral monsters are rare, if they exist at all. Evil is typically created by ordinary folks unable to exorcise deeply entrenched demons. Perhaps this was true of Cho Seung-Hui, the twenty-three year old VA Tech senior whose murderous rampage will live in infamy. How many of us can fill with personal content the motives, plans, and execution of this maniacal intent? And now this intent has permanently changed the lives of hundreds perhaps even thousands of people? What distinguishes the good guys from the bad guys in these disasters? We self-righteously congratulate ourselves by objectifying Cho Seung-Hui as a madman; he’s not like us.[1] We could never commit such crimes, could we? I wonder whether Cho, upon hearing about some pre-meditated rampage, thought he was clearly unlike the perpetrator. He could never commit such a dreadful crime. In the final analysis, are we really so different from him?

Nothing can diminish the loss for the victim’s parents, friends, classmates, and lovers. Even if such a tragic act generates good, the world’s design must be inherently flawed. Why would a just world need good to be born from tragedy? Nevertheless, as we begin the agonizing process of regeneration, we learn of heroism in the face of such madness. A seventy-five year old Holocaust survivor, Professor Liviu Librescu, for instance, sacrificed his life by barring the door of his classroom while at the same time exhorting his students to jump through the windows to safety below. Professor Librescu did not know he was to die that day, and no day is a good day to die, but Professor Librescu died selflessly in order that others might live. We often too cavalierly use the term hero to praise supererogatory acts. However, not all supererogatory acts are the same. Professor Librescu was committed to life and to his students. In the end, he valued his students’ lives more than his own. In doing so, he distinguished himself as a consummate teacher and a quintessential member of humanity.

In stark contrast, Governor Tim Kaine spewed forth unwarranted, divisive venom. He found loathsome those who expressed their conscientious convictions about the causes of the tragedy and how to prevent such mayhem from re-occurring. The governor disgraced himself and the commonwealth he represents. No one should be told suppress their raging anger, debilitating grief, or intense desire to express why, in their view, such unspeakable acts occurred. Consequently, Governor Tim Kaine’s arrogant condemnation of those individuals denouncing or defending the Second Amendment was simply out of line. If the Governor has any honor he would apologize to those he gratuitously vilified.

I want to comment on one student’s–a Virginia Tech RA–sincere beliefs about how the catastrophic effects of this incident might have been mitigated. He writes:

First, I never want to have my safety fully in the hands of anyone else, including the police.

Second, I considered bringing my gun with me to campus, but did not due to the obvious risk of losing my graduate career, which is ridiculous because had I been shot and killed, there would have been no graduate career for me anyway.

Third, and most important, I am trained and able to carry a concealed handgun almost anywhere in Virginia and other states that have reciprocity with Virginia, but cannot carry where I spend more time than anywhere else because, somehow, I become a threat to others when I cross from the town of Blacksburg onto Virginia Tech’s campus. I, of course, did not experience the blizzard of bullets and death that the above graduate student experienced. Accordingly, my comment must be tempered and measured. However, in American society, our security is often fully in the hands of others. We rely on the police to protect us in ways unaffected by carrying a gun. We rely on governmental agencies to protect the food and drug supply. Hospitalization for traumatic injuries almost always involves relying on others, and so forth. And this student overlooks the fact that many of us would not want to rely on the good judgment of our fellows to use their guns in the appropriate circumstances. As a law professor, I would be disconcerted if students brought guns to class. Most importantly, although some empirical evidence might suggest that jurisdictions permitting guns experience a decrease in crime because gun toting criminals fear breaking in to a gun owner’s home, for instance, I doubt that there is sufficient evidence that students armed can prevent murderous rampages. Concentrating only on the remote possibility that in one situation, armed students save the day is myopic. Sure, it’s great that students were saved in that situation. But it willfully ignores circumstances where armed students cause disaster. And this myopia is dangerous in the extreme. It’s similar to the case of burning a house down in order to cook a roast. You might have superb feast, but at what cost?
The reason the argument for arming students founders is because it rests on splitting the world into two classes of gun owners: good guys and bad guys. The good guys only use their guns for acceptable purposes such as self-defense and the defense of others. Moreover, the good guys store and maintain their weapons in ways that minimize the chance of collateral damage. The bad guys are criminals who are beyond the reach of appropriate regulations. In such an ideal world, arming the good guys might work. However, this overlooks the critical fact that the class of good guys is incompletely specified. Within that class there are super-good guys and ordinary good guys who never intend to use their weapons in appropriately but sometimes do. Members of the class of ordinary good guys might intend to use their guns appropriately–that’s why they’re good guys–but some members of this class will err. Some will kill when consumed by road rage, or by mistakenly identifying someone as threatening, or by not carefully storing or maintaining their guns, and sometimes even by using their guns to commit suicide.

Across the population, it is inevitable that armed students will kill in class, in the cafeteria, walking across campus, at sporting events, and so forth. Unless there was overwhelming reasons to suppose that students are mostly super-good guys, it is irrational, not in just one case, but across a population, to permit students to carry guns. Come to think of it, how many super-good guys exist? Forty percent? Twenty percent? Ten percent? Five percent? Empirical investigations might show that most good guys are merely ordinary good guys. If so, there’s great danger in arming students.

The real problem is our society’s inability or disinclination to articulate reasonable regulations on gun ownership and use. And no one is free from appealing to patently absurd arguments. One such especially irksome argument attempts to show that in some highly regulated jurisdictions gun crimes are on the increase. The reason this argument is irksome is because absent uniform regulations, people will import guns from states like Virginia where there’s easy access to guns. Indeed, this is the problem Mayor Bloomberg is battling in New York City. For those who take an absolutist position regarding the Second Amendment, the question hauntingly remains: How many gun massacres must occur, before they realize that the Second Amendment is far from absolute? One massacre per week? A dozen per year? How many?

I grieve for the victims of this rampage. When I first heard about a college shooting, I immediately thought of my daughter who is a college freshman. When I learned the university was Virginia Tech I breathed more easily. I no longer experienced images of my daughter dead. I cannot imagine what it must be like to wake up one morning, gratified that your child is pursuing his or her dreams in college, only to learn that day is your child’s last. No candle light vigil can ease such unbearable pain. We are being tested. Can we put our political ideologies aside and save the children?

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[1] If Cho was psychotic, the media’s lust for an ordinary explanation of his conduct is totally misplaced. People suffering from schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, or psychotic depression might give reasons for their conduct, but it’s a pretty safe bet that these reasons did not motivate the behavior, the psychotic disorder did. If Cho was schizophrenic his disdain of hedonism or the rich was just a subterfuge. Paranoid schizophrenia is all about secret conspiracies and concerted efforts to injure the person suffering from the malady. If Cho lived in a monastery, the focus of his rant might be against religious devotion. So don’t try to explain his behavior as you would someone who killed for money. In Cho’s case, it’s the delusional ideation that matters not the content of the delusions.

A NATIONAL EPHIPHANY: Ten Lessons Learned From “The Imus Affair”

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on April 14th, 2007

Everyone should take a step back and reflect on the significance of the Imus affair. How should we, as individuals and as a community, balance free speech, on the one hand, and the stigmatization of certain classes of our fellow citizens, on the other? The future invites us to create a more humane and forgiving America. This week an abundance of pain prevailed, pain to the Rutger’s women basketball players, pain to Don Imus, and pain to our cultural conscience.
For this pain to matter, it is critical that we understand the significance of this affair. Consider the following lessons: (1) Government restriction of free speech should occur only in extraordinary circumstances. (2) When speech conflicts with conventional ideas and tasteful expressions of those ideas, a presumption should exist in favor of the speech. (3) People and communities, through the economic marketplace and through the marketplace of ideas, should, if they choose, make their voices known concerning appropriate standard of civil discourse. Everyone has a right to free speech, both those who want no standards of “acceptable discourse” and those who do.

(4) Remember context matters. When a powerful white male broadcaster gratuitously targets college kids in order to tickle his audience’s funny bone, the result might be fun for some, yet enormously painful for others. The pain resulting from this speech overwhelmingly outweighs the benefit of enjoying “a good laugh.” The context tells us that cracking such “jokes” by targeting kids may be funny to some, but only perversely funny. In the end, it is cruel and demeaning. (5) We must be able and willing to draw lines between what is and what is not beyond the pale. Indeed, drawing just one line might be insufficient. Some speech is unacceptable and some speech is even more unacceptable. Hence, we must be able and willing to draw additional lines within the categories of acceptable and unacceptable speech. Using the “N-word” in a drama or film about miscegenation, for instance, may be permissible, even if still objectionable, while demeaning African American women in a rap song is objectionable and impermissible. Who decides this? We do, you and I together with our fellow citizens through a continual national dialogue.

(6) Two kinds of absolutism must be avoided. The absolutism that says all objectionable speech should be permitted and the absolutism that says no objectionable speech should be permitted, are equally out of touch with the complexity of social reality. The lines to be drawn can never be permanent lines; they must be lines that are drawn and redrawn as we have a greater appreciation of both the importance of expressing ideas and the pain that certain “ideas” inflict.

(7)We must accept the burdens of judgment which tell us to use reason in order to help us mediate conflicts in a democratic culture while at the same time realizing that what counts as “reason” is often just the prejudices of the majority. Practical reason exists in our everyday world and we can never be certain that our practical judgments are the reasonable ones. Yet even absent such certainty, we must never abdicate the responsibility of trying to formulate reasonable practical judgments. You might respond that such a democratic culture is a messy business. Well, welcome to the real world.

(8) We should eschew such empty epithets and arguments as “political correctness,” and “if rappers can get away with unacceptable speech” why can’t Imus?” The former is a poor substitute for reasoning and the latter overlooks context. We must achieve our social balance both to avoid slippery slopes as well as to avoid the inordinate fear of slippery slopes that allow only all-or-nothing judgments. Any mature adult realizes that there are degrees of almost everything. In the final analysis, it’s the degree that often becomes dispositive.

(9) Don Imus, as well as others, should be permitted to redeem themselves. After a suitable amount of time, it would be a positive sign if Imus found a new forum for a reconceived talk-show.

(10) Most importantly, each one of us should realize that the Imus Affair may be “a national epiphany.” The precise lessons we should take away from this episode in the evolution of our cultural conscience is for each of us, individually and collectively, to decide.