Monthly Archives: March 2009

Denver Acceptance Speech

Tomorrow we’ll be discussing Obama’s acceptance speech.  Here is a link to the c-span video; the transcript is available through course reserves.


“Race Without Color”

— Posted by James Burney

It was briefly mentioned in class that our cultural conceptions of race have very thin and arbitrary empirical basis. There seemed to be an assumption that everyone had a comfortable understanding of this, but for anyone who was confused – or is interested in more reading – here’s an excellent article on the topic. Jared Diamond (author of several popular books) explains the subject in detail, and I think his conclusion is well researched and has very important implications.

WordPress won’t let me attach files, but I uploaded it to google docs. Maybe this link will work for those that have google accounts.

Obama’s Pragmatism

We’ll be handing out the first essay assignment on Thursday.  One of the questions refers to a couple recent articles that mention Obama’s pragmatism.  The first is from the New York Times Magazine of September 19.  In an article entitled “Case Study” Alexandra Starr quotes a former student of Obama’s who calls his philosophy “ruthless pragmatism.”  The article is here.

Second, Cass Sunstein has an article in The New Republic where he, too, tries to shed some light on Obama’s pragmatism.  The link to that article is here.

Cass Sunstein

Cass Sunstein

Sunstein, incidentally, was Obama’s colleague at Chicago Law School and is pretty well known both for his academic and semi-popular work.  Sunstein has also been called the “Kevin Bacon of law”:  everyone’s connected to him.  Finally, according to the Wall Street Journal, he’s been tapped to be Obama’s chief administrator in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Everyday “Pragmatism” and Booker T. Washington

Yesterday’s discussion of Booker T. Washington helped bring to light the idea of everyday pragmatism.  That is, Washington’s position–that black Americans should focus one economic rather than political and social equality–is certainly “pragmatic” in the popular sense.  After all, he’s claiming his strategy this will work in ways that other strategies won’t:  moreover, his argument doesn’t seem particularly principled or idealistic.

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

That–unprincipled and not idealistic– is how pragmatism is understood in the everyday sense.  The question, then, is whether a more nuanced  philosophical pragmatism has anything more to offer.

One easy response is that Washington wasn’t being pragmatic because, actually, his proposal did not work.  Phew!  But that just begs the question.  What would we have said if it had worked?  Or, in other words, does pragmatism entail that the ends justify the means?

The Dewey readings for tomorrow should, I hope, help clarify that answer.  In the meantime, I think it is worth noting just how principled, in contrast, is W.E.B. DuBois’ position.  DuBois doesn’t shy away from talking about amorphous concepts like “respect” and “dignity.”

In the end we cannot separate ends from means so neatly:  as DuBois and others argued, the means color the ends so one cannot achieve the end of respect by means of a process that is itself disrespectful.

James v. Dewey

Last Thursday we discussed some of the strengths and weaknesses of William James’ pragmatism.  One weakness, I argued, is that it doesn’t have a well-developed social or political theory behind it–or to the extent that it does, it boils down to a rather crude form of individualism.

As we’ll see this coming Thursday, the same can’t be said of Dewey who always emphasizes the communal and social.  (People say that Dewey thought about politics as a grand New England town hall meeting, hence the Rockwell painting to the right.rockwell_speech)

In “The Moral Equivalent of War,” James argued for the importance of taking on some sort of strenuous project in your early 20s:  something like war, but without the bloodshed.  Perhaps working on a fishing boat, or being a lumberjack:  you get the idea.

Dewey, in a letter, gives exactly the right response, one that, in my opinion, gets to the heart of the two men’s differences.  Dewey writes:

[“The Moral Equivalent of War”] seemed to me to show that even his sympathies were limited by his experience; the idea that most people need any substitute for fighting for life, or that they have to have life made artificially hard for them in order to keep up their battling nerve, could come only from a man who was brought up an aristocrat and who had lived a sheltered existence.

Dewey’s point is valid, especially in light of last week’s discussion:  James does have a blind spot when it comes to recognizing our interdependence and one likely reason for that, honestly, is is privileged background.

Zadie Smith on Obama in NYRB

The author Zadie Smith has an interesting article on Obama’s language in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books.

Here’s a link to the article:

In a section related to yesterday’s discussion she writes:

In Dreams from My Father, the new president displays an enviable facility for dialogue, and puts it to good use, animating a cast every bit as various as the one James Baldwin—an obvious influence—conjured for his own many-voiced novel Another Country. Obama can do young Jewish male, black old lady from the South Side, white woman from Kansas, Kenyan elders, white Harvard nerds, black Columbia nerds, activist women, churchmen, security guards, bank tellers, and even a British man called Mr. Wilkerson, who on a starry night on safari says credibly British things like: “I believe that’s the Milky Way.” This new president doesn’t just speak for his people. He can speak them. It is a disorienting talent in a president; we’re so unused to it.

And, a few sentences later:

For Obama, having more than one voice in your ear is not a burden, or not solely a burden—it is also a gift. And the gift is of an interesting kind, not well served by that dull publishing-house title Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance with its suggestion of a simple linear inheritance, of paternal dreams and aspirations passed down to a son, and fulfilled.

More information on Zadie Smith can be found here:

Zadie Smith, 2006

Zadie Smith, 2006

The American Dream

David Kamp has an article in this month’s Vanity Fair about the American Dream (here).  Not only is the notion of “an American Dream” relatively new (popularized in the 1930s) but it has undergone major revisions since WWII.

In particular Kamp shows how a more materialist American Dream replaced an earlier, more modest and idealistic version.  He concludes the article:

The American Dream should require hard work, but it should not require 80-hour workweeks and parents who never see their kids from across the dinner table. The American Dream should entail a first-rate education for every child, but not an education that leaves no extra time for the actual enjoyment of childhood. The American Dream should accommodate the goal of home ownership, but without imposing a lifelong burden of unmeetable debt. Above all, the American Dream should be embraced as the unique sense of possibility that this country gives its citizens—the decent chance, as Moss Hart would say, to scale the walls and achieve what you wish.

Of local interest, the article is accompanied by Kodak colorama photos supplied by the George Eastman House.