A Possibility

Now this is interesting. According to Robert Gibbs, President Obama didn't inquire into Judge Sotomayor's stance on Roe v. Wade prior to nominating her for the Supreme Court. Blackadder doesn't believe Gibbs. He's not alone.

I neither believe nor disbelieve the official story. I can't prove an alternative tale, but I understand there's a basis for doubt. Nominating someone to the Supreme Court is one of the strongest influences a president has on the legality of abortion, yet Gibbs claims that Obama, who I am told is the most pro-abortion politician ever, didn't even make sure that his pick supported Roe.

Well, maybe he didn't. Sure, Gibb's assertion doesn't fit with the superlative-heavy narrative that President Obama is an enthusiastic extremist hell-bent on promoting baby-killing, or even with the more mild depiction of Obama as a trustworthy champion of abortion rights, but the incompatibility might be due to a problem with the narratives. Obama strongly supports abortion rights, clearly, but perhaps abortion doesn't weigh as heavily among his priorities as his detractors claim.

Relativism in the Torture Debate

I'm normally one to point out that charges of relativism are unfounded or exaggerated. I find that what is often called relativism is really an appeal to an objective standard different than the standard used by those making the charges. Personally, I don't think relativism is quite the problem it's made out to be, but I don't for a second think that relativism doesn't exist in our culture.

Today Dick Cheney gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in defense of, among other policies, the interrogation techniques used by the Bush Administration. In this speech, he made the following point:
Critics of our policies are given to lecturing on the theme of being consistent with American values. But no moral value held dear by the American people obliges public servants ever to sacrifice innocent lives to spare a captured terrorist from unpleasant things. And when an entire population is targeted by a terror network, nothing is more consistent with American values than to stop them.
Notice that Cheney's moral standard here, the standard he uses to judge U.S. actions in response to terrorism, is the safety of American people. If it keeps us safe, then it is moral. We follow our moral values by stopping terrorist attacks; stopping those attacks justifies the means we use to keep us safe.

Cheney's moral standard is relative to situations of terrorism and, conceivably, other threats to American lives. Cheney appeals not to a timeless standard, but to a relative and changing one. In traditional moral thinking, the morality of an act is judged by the object chosen, the intention, and the circumstances. Cheney’s moral reasoning includes the last two, but not the first. Cheney believes that the good intention (keeping America safe) and the circumstances (there are terrorists out to bring us harm) are sufficient to justify "enhanced interrogation techniques" and other measures. The actions and policies we use to keep us safe are not, in Cheney's view, good or evil in themselves; their consequence of keeping us safe makes them good. Nothing is more consistent with our values than saving American lives. Nothing! The relative good of safety is Cheney's highest moral value.

Words from the Dark Side

Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls:
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe:
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.
March on, join bravely, let us to't pell-mell
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.

- King Richard III (Shakespeare)
In other news, Richard Cheney gave a speech today defending his interrogation program. He accused the program's critics of "feigned outrage based on a false narrative," "contrived indignation" and "phony moralizing."

The Times They Are a-Changin'

Much has been made of the recent Gallup poll showing a shift in how people label their position on the abortion issue. While the question in the poll asking where people stand on the legality of abortion tells us something concrete, the question about which label people self-apply tells us nothing definitive. The latter question was posed this way:
"With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?"
The poll shows a sudden shift in how people answer this question. Since about 2002 the majority of those polled called themselves pro-choice. Now the majority embrace the label pro-life. Is this a small victory for the pro-life cause? A sign of progress?

I'm not sure. I don't know what this shift really means. Cecile Richards' observation is correct. When 51% of American's call themselves pro-life while 74% of Americans support legalized abortion to some extent, the terms pro-life and pro-choice have ceased to differentiate where people stand on the legality of abortion.

It may be the case that more people today really espouse a pro-life legal philosophy. It may instead be the case that people today use the terms to signify something other than where one stands on whether abortion should be legal. That possibility may not be a good thing for the pro-life movement: it probably doesn't want people to think they can be pro-life and be in favor of legalized abortion.

In Defense of Diagramming

Why do we have to do this?

As an English teacher, I heard this question a lot, particularly after I asked my students to diagram sentences. I would treat those who asked to the five-minute lecture or the forty-minute lecture, depending on my mood. After a while, they stopped asking.

To be fair, I understand why students ask about the purpose of diagramming sentences. The activity can seem pointlessly abstract, with little relevance to reality. In truth, however, sentence diagramming is intimately tied to the concrete activities of reading, listening, writing, and speaking.

Those who think they can get away with never diagramming sentence delude themselves: we diagram sentences every time we read, listen, write, or speak sentences. We diagram mentally. We attach a verb to a subject and associate words with other words in a sentence. When I write, "The blue cat sat on the purple mat," the reader links the adjective "blue" to the noun "cat," the word "purple" to the noun "mat," the prepositional phrase to the verb "sat," and the verb "sat" to the subject "cat." Reading, writing, listening, and speaking involve mental diagramming.

How does actual diagramming sentences help? It trains the mind to recognize the parts of speech and other structures of language, making explicit and visual what is implicit and mental, and thus familiarizing the one who diagrams with the structures of grammar, which are the structures by which we understand reality. While being correct grammatically does not necessitate flawless understanding of reality, real ignorance of grammar (not simply careless typos) can negatively affect that understanding. Therefore, being able to clearly see grammatical structures helps us to understand the meaning that is being expressed through them.

Furthermore, knowing the structures of grammar with intimate familiarity gives us greater freedom to write what we mean by supplying us with a repertoire of structures and combinations from which to draw. Diagramming also helps us to comprehend sentences written in unfamiliar construction, such as "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.” Diagramming is akin to playing scales in band or running laps in football practice: it is a tool, a means to an end, not done for its own sake but to make the student a better reader and writer, listener and speaker. So I say diagram, daily if possible. You're diagramming already; you're diagramming right now!

A Not-So-Great Deception

This morning my son, who’s not yet three, was getting into something he shouldn’t be playing with – something both his mom and dad had told him just to stay away from. As I entered the room where our son was busy being disobedient, my son, not yet aware that I was right before him, shouted out, “I can’t hear you, Dad!”

Journey to Vox Nova

I’ve accepted an invitation to contribute to the superb and very diverse Catholic group blog Vox Nova. My first post, on why metaphors matter in philosophy, can be read here.

I will continue to post here at Journeys in Alterity.

My thanks and appreciation to the Vox Nova community!

Michael Pollan on The Colbert Report

The author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma talks with Stephen Colbert:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Michael Pollan
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorGay Marriage

Bicyclist’s Observation

Drivers of cars with super-tinted windows seem not to realize that I cannot see their hands waving me to proceed.

On Having the Truth

I picked a fight with a book the other day. It was a work on ethics. I’ve occasionally taken it off the shelf and scanned a little here and there, but I’ve never devoted much time to actually reading it. I can’t say that engaging the text was my motivation in this instance. Despite my better judgment, I continue to feel a lingering temptation to approach works expressing views different than mine out of a desire to feel good about my own philosophy. And sometimes I succumb. I knew – okay, suspected – that this particular book on ethics presented arguments that I would find laughably poor. I had no intention of being challenged by the authors or even learning something from them. I wanted to revel in my own superiority.

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson. Back in my university days, I started reading the postmodernists and deconstructionists because I knew they were the latest and greatest bad guys, and I wanted to get to know their particular intellectual villainy so that I could heroically refute them. I had the truth. They were relativists who denied the truth. Or so I thought. Reading them turned out to be very unsettling, but this feeling was not due solely to what they said or even how they said it. I felt unsettled because I had heard from trusted lovers of truth that that these writers were enemies hell-bent on destroying the truth, and what I read of them didn’t seem to support this characterization. Suddenly I found myself asking, like Pontius Pilate, “What is the truth?” Hey, a lot can happen when you learn that Jacques Derrida, the dark lord of deconstruction himself, actually affirms justice, forgiveness, and hospitality. A lot can happen when you actually engage a text.

One of my errors here was arrogance. I thought myself smarter than those I set out to read and didn’t think they had anything to teach me. Another error of mine was to think that I had the truth. The expression, “I have the truth” may be benign, but it may also indicate possessiveness toward truth, an approach that reduces truth itself to a subjective and limited understanding of it. When I began to read the words of “the enemy,” I accepted with certainty that I was on the side of truth. No, it was worse than that. Because I looked upon truth as something I possessed, I looked at truth as something smaller than myself. I had the truth, they didn’t.
What I took for the truth was something small indeed. It wasn’t the truth itself, but, at best, my particular and mediated understanding of it. I know of a philosophy professor who told his students, “Don’t call it my philosophy; just call it true philosophy.” I thought the same way. I thought philosophy had more or less answered the fundamental questions of life, the universe, and everything. I thought I had those answers or at least knew where to look them up.

I saw the field of philosophy as a battlefield between those who had the truth and those who didn’t. I believed that I could wield truth as a powerful weapon against those who would war against the tradition. I thought those answers would effectively shield me from the blows of my enemies. This perception was exemplified in a course I took on existentialism, in which the authors we studied were grouped at the outset into the good (theistic) camp and the bad (atheistic) camp. Reading Heidegger in this class proved a very different experience than reading him in another course, in which the objective was to put on our Heidegger hats, enter into his world, and understanding what he was trying to do. Suffice it to say I gained much more from the latter.

These days I tend more toward the thought of Paul Ricoeur than to the postmodernists, though I remain quick to defend them, especially against those who use the term “postmodernism” as a buzzword for bad contemporary philosophy. Ricoeur proposed an approach to truth centered in the hope that all great philosophers are within the bounds of truth, even though all of their philosophies cannot be unified into a systematized whole. He thought the function of this hope lies in always keeping the dialogue open, even in the most bitter of debates. Ricoeur was a master at bringing opposing philosophies into dialogue, but he didn’t try to synthesize them into a coherent whole or dismiss one while affirming the other. He looked for what he could learn from bringing them into communication. He taught that truth is not something to be possessed, but rather pursued, and pursued in a spirit of hope and as a community in dialogue. When we think we possess the truth, we stop pursuing it, and then our contributions to the community come to an end.

I’d like to be able to say that I follow Ricoeur’s approach to texts, but I’m not there yet. I still fall prey to the false certainty that I have the truth and the arrogant presumption that a given philosopher has little to teach me. I probably should stop picking fights with texts. If I don’t, I’ll undoubtedly end up with worse wounds than paper cuts.

(The above was published as a guest post at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. You can read it there here. Check out the other posts as well. The League is one the best group blogs in the 'verse. Definitely worth reading daily.)

Revise! Revise! Revise!

I have no problem with historical revisionism.

When a historian writes a history, he does not write the factual record of what happened, why it happened, how it happened, and so forth; he writes an interpretation, a very selective one. He chooses his focus, his emphasis, which events to highlight, which to exclude, which connections to make and not to make. One historian might tell of great figures that shaped continents. Another might tell of the forgotten and the marginalized.

The historian tells a story, and like any storyteller, his story is a product of his creativity, his subjectivity, his language, his perception, and his situation in time and place. His art is one of revelation and concealment, of fact and fiction. No historian has produced or could produce the master history, the final narrative, the definitive story no longer in need of revision. There is no such history, meaning there is no one history. There are only histories.

The historian who seeks to write the truth must dialogue with other historians and allow his tale to be open to and challenged by others. Each historian calls the others to revision.

So It Has Come to This

My son is now correcting me when I call a particular kind of digger by the wrong name. "No, Dad. That's a backhoe," he said to me on our bike ride yesterday. Soon I'll need a pocket Wikipedia just to keep up with him.

A Brother's Love

Yesterday, our soon-to-be three-year-old son expressed his desire to teach Vivian how to play garbage trucks when she is born. He knows she has a boo-boo, but that's extent of her condition that we've communicated to him, at least directly. I have no idea what all he's picked up from listening to Genece and me. Anyhow, I thanked him for his offer and told him I thought that it was a good idea. How does a parent explain the expected death of a sibling to a three-year-old? I'm not sure there are any good answers to that question.

Mary Poppins: Assassin

After several recent viewings of Disney’s Mary Poppins, it is clear to me that the magical and vain nanny is a very shrewd and effective assassin. In the common interpretation of this alleged children’s tale, Poppins providentially orchestrates situations that lead to Mr. Banks realizing his responsibilities as father to Jane and Michael.

In truth, this reconciliation story is but a front.

Underneath this narrative, Poppins orchestrates the death of Mr. Dawes, a “giant in the world of finance.” Her instrument: Mr. Banks himself, who prophetically says to the target, “When all is said and done, there’s no such thing as you!”

Poppins, knowing how the despondent Mr. Banks will finally react to being fired, uses him to deliver the fatal joke to his boss. So effective is the arrangement that not only is Poppins free from any suspicion, but the dead man’s son rewards Mr. Banks for making his father truly happy.

When all is said and done, kites fly, Poppins floats away, and a murdered man is forgotten.