Thoughts about Our Situation Today
Learning to Read, Again
In January 2020 I presented Learning to Read, Again: I argued that we need new skills for dealing with a deluge of predatory addictive media. I talked about the way we learned to read in the old world of books and libraries, and how the flood of new media swept away the old landmarks. I stressed the dangers in this new media world, and suggested tools and attitudes for defending ourselves, along with new ways to criticize immersive, grasping media. You can read the text for the lectures, or listen to the audio of the first and the second lecture. There is also an information sheet with references and links.
Other Recent Reflections on our Difficult Times
In November 2019 I presented Talking with Alien Neighbors: I spoke about how it seems political adversaries just live in different worlds, and I drew some practical lessons from science fiction stories (by C.J. Cherryh) about conflicts and connections among alien species who come from different worlds yet do manage to achieve mutual respect and understanding. You can see the slides from the lectures and an information sheet with references to stories and articles.
In January 2019 I gave five lectures on American Identity and American Exceptionalism: I discussed what it means to have a personal and social identity, and the difference between modern and traditional identity. I argued that no identity was as simple and fixed as we imagine our ancestors, nor as floating and empty as we fear for our selves. Then I described what makes American personal and social identity distinctive and how that might play out in a multicultural world. You can follow my discussion by reading a summary pdf file that brings together slides from all five lectures.There are also some chosen readings.
In 2017 I wrote "Why Plato thinks Democracy leads to Tyranny." Plato thought democracy was a beautiful tapestry of free citizens that, unfortunately, tended to become dominated by strong-man demagogues. I looked into Plato's reasons, discussed the differences between Athenian democracy and our own and the different weaknesses of the Geek system and our own, then asked whether we should still be afraid. (Spoiler alert: Yes!) There is a handout containing with scarily applicable quotations from Plato, and also the slides from the talk.
Here are brief summaries of the lectures:
- Talking with Aliens
- Lecture One: Learning from a sci-fi example ways to develop respect for alien values and habits. One key is to appreciate what the other thinks are the virtues that make a person a good person, and what they take as irrational behavior..
- Lecture Two: Another sci-fi example suggests what to do when the alien has no desire or ability to establish respect or friendship, but you need to work together on concrete local issues. The benefits and dangers of temporary alliances where we can share what to do here and now though our ultimate ends may be very different.
- American Identity and American Exceptionalism
- Lecture One: Freedom and Modernity:
This first lecture features a comparison between substantive traditional life and formal free modern life. Modernity means freedom, we say, and circulation let loose: commodities, technology, choices, the autonomous individual. In contrast to our free exchange, we imagine old traditional societies as regulated exchange along a network of posts defined by fixed roles. In those societies identities and roles were experienced as naturally given. They were not experienced as constituted (and questioned) by the circulation among them, nor as exchangeable or substitutable one for another. In this lecture I examine this division, using concepts from Max Weber, and show the positive and negative effects of the change he reveals.
- Lecture Two: Rethinking substantial selves and social identities:
Are "traditional" societies and identities as solid and substantial as they are said to be by Max Weber and other proponents of "modernization"? This lecture argues that they are not.
- Lecture Three: Rethinking formal selves and social identities:
If traditional societies and traditional identities are not so solid and substantial as Max Weber and others claim, neither are modern societies and identities as formal and free as they are claimed to be.
- Lecture Four: Rethinking American identity:
Talking about how exceptional America is often merely covers over American imperialism and commercial interests. But America is exceptional as the first among other modern nations, each with their own distinctive histories and identities. This lecture asks what distinguishes American modernity from those others.
- Lecture Five: Multi-identities and multi-culturalism:
This lecture summarizes the complexities of modern/traditional identities, free yet grounded, and discusses the new problems encountered in America's multi-cultural world.
- Democracy and Tyranny: Plato argues that the freedom that is the glory of democracy has no limits; it leads to fragmentation and resentful groups seeking champions who promise everything then change democratic process into authoritarian rule. There are huge structural differences between the political systems in ancient Athens and the US, but each system is vulnerable in its own way. So, yes, be afraid...