Bad history + bad reasoning = a bad book. In this case, Alex Zamalin’s Against Civility.

Here’s a quick sample of its awfulness:

“[President] Johnson’s Republican successor, the general of the United States Army, Ulysses S. Grant, represented a distinction without a difference.”1 This ignores the 15th Amendment, the KKK Act (and its enforcement), and much more. It contradicts the scholarly and popular consensus. He gives no real argument for his position (just a few cherry-picked quotes from Grant). Perhaps he thinks that reads as bold and authoritative. Instead he comes across as ignorant.

On Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Exposition speech of 1895: apparently “From a leader who held immeasurable clout, Washington’s words mattered greatly. Especially because, like Douglass before him, Washington was a man of firsts: the first black man to dine at the White House with Theodore Roosevelt [1901], to whom he became a close advisor on race; the first black man to have tea with Queen Victoria of England [1899].”2 Not sure ignorance can explain this example of reverse causation. This seems simply dishonest (a not uncommon feature of the book).

Finally, John Brown “was unafraid to call himself an anti-racist”3 is surprising since the term “racist” was coined in the 1930s. But I suspect that is less bad history than bad writing: Zamalin likes throwing in well-known phrases without thinking them through. A page earlier he wrote approvingly that John Brown opposed racism “by any means necessary” (the second time, I believe, he used that phrase) only to go on to condemn his actions in Bloody Kansas. (He seems more positive about Harper’s Ferry, but mostly because it enables him to criticize Frederick Douglass for not joining him.)

Other examples of bad writing are easy to find. “Racial equality isn’t easily achievable. It requires strenuous work, resilience in the face of failure, and incredibly long odds.”4 To achieve racial equality, strenuous work and resilience are necessary. But that’s because it faces incredibly long odds, not because it requires it.

Bad writing, of course, is generally a product of bad thinking. This book is no exception. Not once is it clear what he means by civility. At one point he lists “loitering, petty vandalism, sex work, and drug dealing” as “small incivilities”5 which is certainly an unusual understanding of what constitutes an incivility.6

In place of civility–whatever that is–Zamalin advocates what he calls “civic radicalism” and states that, apparently unlike everyone else, “the civic radical doesn’t take up action for its own sake–just to do something–but thinks about the right conditions, the best alliances, and the specific institutions upon which to focus their activism.”7 It’s the emptiest of empty phrases.

He also repeatedly contradicts himself. But I won’t go into that since at this point I feel I’ve put more thought into this blog post than he put into his book.

Civility is often used to maintain and promote injustice. It should be critiqued. This book entirely fails in its attempt.

  1. p 32
  2. p 35
  3. p 24
  4. p 63
  5. p 99
  6. It also raises the question, what on earth is a large incivility?
  7. p 10

On Reading Another

After Gessen’s god awful book (probably the worst thing I’ve ever read), it’s refreshing to read a book I strongly disagreed with but also very much enjoyed. That would be J. David Velleman’s On Being Me: A Personal Invitation to Philosophy.

There isn’t much I agree with Velleman on. When he writes that when he dreamed he was Socrates, he was Socrates and not David Velleman and therefore “being a different person…[is] conceivable in the abstract…[and] imaginable in concrete detail,”1 I can’t help but think of J.L. Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia and suspect his language is muddled.

Furthermore, I don’t think we can understand who we are about from our relationships with other people. And it is once Velleman has to reflect on his relations and interactions with others that he ends the book, since otherwise he would “have to learn things that aren’t available to solitary reflection.”2 But as I, and many others, would argue even solitary reflection isn’t possible without others, the most obvious reason being that Velleman’s reflection relies on language and that is not something he’s invented on his own. Perhaps even more serious, I view our self as relational. There simply isn’t any self to examine that isn’t deeply tied up with our relations with others.

The reason I love this little volume, despite disagreeing with nearly all of it, can be seen from the title. It’s not called On Being a Me–it’s On Being Me. It’s a thoughtful, personal account of who Velleman is, what questions motivate him, and how he understands who he is. As he says in the preface, “Let me be the first to say it: There are no arguments. There are only observations of what being a person is like for me and speculations as to why it might be like that.”3 Instead, he has successfully produced “dispatches from an examined life.”4

  1. p. 6
  2. p. 87
  3. p. xii
  4. p. xiii

Words Matter

Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy has two theses: that Trump aspires to autocracy and that words matter. The first is obvious, but obviously important. The second is less obvious and less obviously important, but it is an argument I’m extremely sympathetic towards. An excellent book could be written about this.1 Surviving Autocracy is not an excellent book. It is an embarrassing one.

Perhaps the root of their error stems from this incredibly naive passage:

The Trump era saw a surge in the use of such words as “fascism,” “coup,” and “treason,” often deployed less in reference to specific events or actions than to signal that American politicians were acting in ways American politicians ought not act. “Democracy” stands for everything we miss about the way politics used to be. But all these words have clear, if sometimes multiple, definitions in political science, history, and law.

p. 85

Any one who states that knows very little about political science, history, or the law. Or, for that matter, fascism, coups, or treason.

To take a quick example, there is no settled definition of fascism.2 Robert Paxton’s excellent The Anatomy of Fascism goes through considerable length to argue that fascism can be defined. Umberto Eco’s seminal “Ur-Fascism” argues that fascism is a “family resemblance” and “fuzzy.” It cannot be defined. That Gessen blithely tosses off “fascism” as a term that can be clearly defined simply shows they have not begun to do the work needed to write about it.

Their claim a little later that “If politicians, journalists, and even kitchen-table debaters adopted the habit of defining their terms, we would understand each other better–and begin the process of restoring language” [p. 98] severely underestimates the difficulty, and even possibility, of definitions. This isn’t to say that attempting to define one’s terms isn’t important and can’t be useful. It is to say that Gessen tosses off this claim thoughtlessly.

Thoughtlessness pervades the book. At times one wonders if Gessen is trying to show that words matter by writing a book where they don’t. For instance, their understanding of words is very idiosyncratic. “The opposite of corruption in political discourse is transparency,” [p. 44] “the American government grew more corrupted, in the sense of the world that denotes a transformation beyond recognition” [p. 48]–such passages makes me wonder if they understands the words they write. And let’s not even get into their claim that white supremacist violence cannot be terrorism because “these crimes are violence delegated by the American president” [p. 221]3

Gessen cannot even be consistent. On page 193 they slam people who “following Trump’s lead adopted the word ‘deter’ and its derivatives.” 24 pages later they write about Trump “creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that functions as the ultimate deterrent.”

Their use of language is shockingly shoddy. That the book’s thesis is that words matter? I have no words.

Supposedly no book is so bad there isn’t some good in it. This book puts that saying in doubt.


1. Something along the lines of Victor Klemperer’s classic The Language of the Third Reich.

2. I’m rather surprised “fascism” apparently has a legal definition. I can find no evidence for that claim. Germany, for instance, simply bans “Parties which by their goals or through the acts of their adherents seek to impair or to do away with the liberal democratic order, or to endanger the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany, are unconstitutional. The Federal Constitutional Court shall determine the unconstitutionality of a party.” In short, I don’t think Gessen knows what they’re talking about. But that happens throughout the book. Nowhere do they display even competence.

3. Igor Primoratz’ Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation is a great book on terrorism.

Addendum: I focused on their use of language since that is what stuck out at me. I’ve just touched upon their errors in that regard. But seriously, there is nothing good about this book and I now have serious questions about their judgment and acumen. There is so much stuff they assert without argument and that seems obviously, sometimes dangerously, wrong. Someone else could write about how they want a return to “the language of ideals and principles” that has “perhaps since the end of the Cold War…had been fading from American political discourse.” [p. 203] Such a suggestion makes me distrust their works on Russia, supposedly their area of expertise.

I hope I have been clear that this is the worst book I have ever read.

In the forword to Byung-Chul Han’s The Agony of Eros, Alain Badiou writes, “This work proves utterly absorbing precisely because of its unlikely combination of philosophical rigor (it concludes with a striking quotation from Deleuze and Guattari) and a wealth of far-ranging sources.”1

Now, I don’t usually associate quoting philosophers with philosophical rigor. If anything, the opposite is true. Quoting other philosophers often hides your lack of rigor. If there’s an argument, you let the other philosophers make it. Often there’s not–the quote is just a conclusion, supported only by the authority of the philosopher you quote. It also lacks rigor by eliding differences, pretending that you and the philosophers you quote are on the same page. Literally, that might be true (at the very least you’re in the same book). Figuratively, it is much more dubious, eliding differences, ripping passages out of context, and so on.

The Agony of Eros is the third book by Han I’ve read, Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese and In the Swarm: Digital Prospects are the other two. They are entertaining but entirely lacking in what I see as philosophical rigor. Sweeping conclusions, not arguments, are Han’s forte. Moreover, they’re often extremely dubious, contradictory conclusions. In Shanzhai he says copying and fakery is so common in China, as opposed to the West, because there is no idea of an original. However, Han also admits until recently copying and fakery was common in the West–one thinks of the different versions of Don Quixote that Cervantes decried. This would be acceptable if Han didn’t trace this to deep, fundamental differences between China and the West. He commonly cites Plato as a source for the Western view, though he’s more coy about specific Chinese sources for the ideas that everything is process and there is no creatio ex nihilo.

Moreover, his statements rarely withstand the slightest scrutiny. What would he think of fan fiction, for instance? Reading him one becomes aware at how authors guide one’s attention. As long as one looks at what the author wants you to see, they sound plausible. Turn one’s head, look at something different, and incongruities quickly emerge.

Still, Badiou captured something I enjoy about Han’s work, and I do (mostly) enjoy them else I wouldn’t have read three of his works in the last week. They remind me of John Ashbery poems insofar as one should read them more as language or philosophy at play. Taking them seriously seems fruitless. But if you can just surrender to them, they can be highly enjoyable.

Of course, sometimes something that is said might snap one out of one’s reverie. With Ashbery, for me it’s his poem “On Autumn Lake.” It reads:

Leading liot act to foriage is activity
Of Chinese philosopher here on Autumn Lake thoughtfully inserted in
Plovince of Quebec–stop it! I will not. The edge hugs
The lake with ever-more-paternalistic insistence, whose effect
Is in the blue way up ahead. The distance

By air from other places to here isn’t much, but
It doesn’t count, at least not the way the
Shore distance-leaf, tree, stone; optional (fern, frog, skunk);
And then stone, tree, leaf; then another optional–counts.
It’s like the “machines” of the 19th-century Academy.
Turns out you didn’t need all that training
To do art–that it was even better not to have it. Look at
The Impressionists–some of ’em had it, too, but preferred to forget it
In vast composed canvasses by turns riotous
And indigent in color, from which only the notion of space is lacking.

I do not think that this
Will be my last trip to Autumn Lake.
Have some friends among many severe heads
We all scholars sitting under tree
Waiting for nut to fall. Some of us studying
Persian and Aramaic, others the art of distilling
Weird fragrances out of nothing, from the ground up.
In each the potential is realized, the two wires
Are crossing.2

From the opening r/l confusion (which is a common difficulty for Japanese, not Chinese, English speakers) to the faux-Oriental syntax of the end, it’s impossible for me to surrender to this poem and be swept away by the language. For me it’s an ignorant, offensive poem. There are some similar moments in Han’s work, particularly when speaking of depression.

Han has some claims he enjoys repeating, e.g. that the Internet and social media is eliminating distance, making everything porn-like. One of them is that depression is narcissistic. In The Agony of Eros he writes, “Depression is a narcissistic malady. It derives from overwrought, pathologically distorted self-reference.”3 He says something similar in In the Swarm. Needless to say, he does not cite any research or give any evidence that is the case. It also largely seems to blame people who are depressed. If only they thought about others (or Others) instead of themselves then they would be well. I’m fairly certain depression does not work like that and that’s a claim, like Ashbery’s poem, that to me is astoundingly ignorant–made worse by Han’s self-confidence–and offensive claim. It also grinds my reading to a halt. No longer is the book a melange of various ideas,4 a philosophic reverie with all the logic of dreams. But it’s something real, making claims about the world which are deeply wrong.

I doubt Han, or for that matter Ashbery, intended his work to be read as a daydream, one that only superficially resembles the actual world but gets some of its strength from being a distorted version of it. But for me, it’s how I best enjoy him and it’s unlike any other philosophy I’ve read.


1. p. vii
2. First published in Crazyhorse, here, later collected in Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror.
3. p. 3
4. I described In the Swarm to a friend as a Heideggerian rant against cellphones and the Internet. As such, it’s both immensely amusing, but like most rants not something to take to heart.

Philosophy Talk:
3:00: Eleanor: What are you reading?
Chidi: [holding copy of Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals] “The Metaphysics of Morals” by Immanuel Kant. It’s a treatise on the aesthetic preconditions of the mind’s receptivity to duty. A book on how to act good.
Eleanor: Oh great! So you’ve decided to help me?
Chidi: I don’t know. There’s a thousand questions. Is there a moral imperative to help you? Do I have a greater obligation to my community? Are you taking someone elses’s spot, someone who deserves to be here?
Eleanor: Ooh, on that question, I honestly think I was just put here by mistake. Because Michael called me Eleanor Shellstrop, so he knows I’m me. He’s just wrong about my overall “quality” level. Please help me man. I swear I am worth it.
Chidi: Tell me one fact that you know about me. I mean, we spent the whole day together. You must remember something. What country am I from?
Eleanor: [groans] Is it racist if I say Africa?
Chidi: Yes, and Africa is not a country. I am from Senegal. Do I have any siblings? Where did I go to college?
Eleanor: Trick question. You didn’t.
Chidi: I was literally a college professor. Do you not remember one single thing about me?
Eleanor: Dude, things have been nuts around here. I bet you don’t know anything about me.
Chidi: You were born in Phoenix. You went to school in Tempe. You’re an only child. Your favorite show is something called “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” and your favorite…book is Kendall Jenner’s Instagram feed.
Eleanor: How did you know all that?
Chidi: Because you are constantly talking about yourself. You are the most self-obsessed person I have ever met.
Eleanor: You should see Kendall Jenner’s Instagram feed.
Chidi: Okay, this is my fear about you Eleanor. You are too selfish to ever be a good person.
Eleanor: Well, I think you’re wrong.
Chidi: What country am I from again?
Eleanor: Sen…sodyne.
Chidi: That is a brand of toothpaste. Look, the only thing that you are concerned with is your own happiness. [points to “SELFISH” written on chalkboard] That’s your problem.
6:56: Chidi: Eleanor and I would love to help.
Tahani: Ah, hurrah, hurrah, yay.
Eleanor: Dude.
Chidi: You want to prove you’re not selfish? Here’s the perfect test. There’s something fun that you want to do, and then there’s something less fun that people are doing for the common good. Which do you choose?
9:23: Eleanor: Well, I have had a pretty full day of being unselfish. I’ve made some new friends. My area’s almost garbage-free. So you’re gonna help me figure out how to stay, right?
Chidi: Well, that is a really tough question. Most great philosophers would say helping you is pointless, that you can’t try to be good, especially when your motivations are so obviously corrupt.
Eleanor: Yeah, but what do most great philosophers know?
Chidi: On the other hand, Aristotle thought that moral virtue is something that you could get better at. He–he compared it to playing the flute. The more you practice, the more you improve.
Eleanor: Aristotle! That’s my boy, right there. He was the best. I mean, most people agree he was the best one. So it sounds to me like you are on board the “help Eleanor” train.
Chidi: Well, I’ve narrowed it down to two possibilities: yes and no.
Eleanor: Well, no worries. Just hit me up when you’re done weighing my life in your hands. I’ll just keep doing what I do best: being superconsiderate and selfless.
11:18: Tahani: You know, sometimes a flaw can make something even more beautiful, like with Cindy Crawford and how short she is.
14:16: Eleanor: My bag broke, and I ditched the trash instead of taking it all the way to the dumpster. But in my defense, there were only five minutes left in flying and I wanted to go flying.
Chidi: How is that a defense? You made a bad choice.
Eleanor: I made a bad choice? We could have literally been flying, and all you wanted to do was talk about morals. I mean, you’re like the worst part of Superman.
Chidi: This is a relief. I can stop my deliberations. You’re a selfish person, and it is pointless to help you. You are on your own.
18:05: Chidi: What are you doing?
Eleanor: I went to all the places where I dumped trash earlier and cleaned it up so it couldn’t be traced back to me.
Chidi: Well, it looks like you cleaned up everything. You’re doing this because you feel bad. And you’re not even doing it to get me to help you anymore because I told you that’s not gonna happen.
Eleanor: Ok, yeah, fine, I felt bad for stupid Gunnar and stupider Antonio and the whole neighborhood. I felt bad about what I did. It was a weird feeling. Not used to it. Didn’t love it.
Chidi: Well, feeling remorse about being wrong isn’t as good as just doing something right, but it’s a start. Look, I think you’re capable of change. And I will help you try.
Eleanor: Oh, wow, man, I swear I won’t let you down.
Janet: Hi there. I’ve collected the worst-smelling garbage that I could find. Do you still want me to dump it inside of Antonio’s house?
Eleanor: What? No. I did not tell you to do that. You are loco, girlfriend. Okay, I won’t let you down starting now.
20:30: Chidi: Now you’ve got a long way to go to pull this off. It will take hours and hours of studying ethics and moral philosophy. We’re gonna have assignments and quizzes and papers. It’s gonna be so much fun.
Eleanor: Remind me what I’m getting out of this again.
Chidi: You get to avoid eternal damnation.
Eleanor: Oh yeah. Right. Hey, I got you a present.
Chidi: What?
Eleanor: Senegal.
Chidi: That’s not a present; that’s just common decency.
Eleanor: Yeah, but I forkin’ nailed it.
Chidi: Good talk.

Philosophy Books:

2:54:Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 11.45.33 AM

Left pile on table: The Basic Works of Aristotle
Middle pile: Unknown, David Hume A Treatise of Human Nature, unknown, Aristotle The Metaphysics, unknown, unknown, Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics, unknown.
Right pile: Martin Heidegger Ponderings II-VI
Chidi is holding Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

20:32: Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 11.31.44 AM.png

Left pile: unknown, Martin Heidegger Ponderings II-VI, unknown, unknown.
Middle Pile: John Stuart Mill Utilitarianism, unknown, unknown, Martin Heidegger The Concept of Time, Henry Sidgwick The Methods of Ethics, Thomas Sowell The Quest for Cosmic Justice
Right pile: Martin Heidegger On the Way to Language.


Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 11.46.26 AM


Quick Thoughts:

11:18: Cindy Crawford is apparently 5’9″, Jameela Jamil, the actress who plays Tahani, is 5’11”. Most people would assume Crawford’s flaw is her mole. Tahani makes up a flaw in order to appear more beautiful than Crawford.

Philosophy Talk:
1:50: Eleanor: Um, so who was right? I mean about all of this?
Michael: Well, let’s see. Hindus are a little bit right, Muslims a little bit. Jews, Christians, Buddhists, every religion guessed about 5%, except for Doug Forcett.
4:32: Michael: During your time on earth, every one of your actions had a positive or a negative value, depending on how much good or bad that action put into the universe.
6:11: Eleanor: So who is in the Bad Place that would shock me?
Michael: Uh, well, Mozart, Picasso, Elvis, basically every artist ever, uh, every U.S. president except Lincoln.
Eleanor: That sounds about right. What about Florence Nightingale?
Michael: That was close, but, no, she didn’t make it.
Eleanor: Wow, all those amazing people down there, it just seems so hard to believe.
Michael: Again, it’s an incredibly selective system. Most people don’t make it here.
8:43: Chidi: Eleanor, I have spent my entire life in pursuit of fundamental truths about the universe. And now we can actually learn about them together as soul mates. It’s overwhelming.
Eleanor: Chidi, you’ll stand by my side no matter what, right?
Chidi: Of course I will.
Eleanor: Promise me. Say, “I promise I will never betray you for any reason.”
Chidi: Eleanor, I swear I will never say or do anything to cause you any harm.
10:38: Chidi: So your job was to defraud the elderly? Sorry, the sick and elderly?
Eleanor: But I was very good at it. I was the top salesperson five years running.
Chidi: OK, but that’s worse. I mean you–you do get how that’s worse? Right?
Eleanor: Mm.
12:15: Chidi: I’m sorry, I don’t think I can help you. I just don’t like being dishonest, and I can’t advise you to be dishonest either.
Eleanor: Come on, I’m just asking you to fudge a little bit. You must’ve told a few white lies in your life. I mean, what was your job?
Chidi: I was a professor of ethics and moral philosophy.
14:00: Chidi: Okay, uh…help me out here. Tell me one good thing you did on Earth, just one truly kind and decent act so I can feel better about helping you out.
Eleanor: …
Chidi: Let’s forget about good. Um, just tell me something neutral about yourself. Like, tell me about the day before you died. What do you remember?
Eleanor: I don’t remember anything specific.
Chidi: Oh.
Eleanor: Look. I might not have been a saint, but it’s not like I killed anybody. I wasn’t an arsonist. I never found a wallet outside an IHOP and thought about returning it but saw the owner lived out of state so just took the cash and dropped the wallet back on the ground.
Chidi: OK, that’s really specific and that makes me think you definitely did do that.
Eleanor: All I’m saying is these people might be “good,” but are they really all that much better than me?
Bambadjan: Well, I spent half my life in North Korea fighting for women’s rights and the other half in Saudi Arabia fighting for gay rights.
Gloria: So we said, “If the U.N. won’t remove those landmines, we will.” And we dug up over a thousand unexploded landmines from the area surrounding the orphanage.
Sachveer: –Well, then he said, “You can’t give me both your kidneys; you’ll die.” And I said, “But you will live. And I know we just met on this bus ten minutes ago, but you seem nice.”
17:27: Eleanor: Whatever. It’s freakin’ heaven. I’m sure they have plenty of shellfish.
18:17: I bet way more people cared that you died. ‘Cause you’re a nice person.
20:52: Eleanor: Not everyone here is perfect, okay? Tahani is totally condescending. And there are a couple of, you know, chunksters.
Chidi: Oh, come on!
Eleanor: No judgment! I’m just saying I’m not the only one with flaws.
21:16: Chidi: Let’s just face it, Eleanor, you don’t belong here.
Eleanor: Well, then this system sucks. What, one in a million gets to live in paradise and everyone else is tortured for eternity? Come on. I mean, I wasn’t freakin’ Gandhi but I was okay. I was a medium person. I should get to spend eternity in a medium place! Like Cincinnati. Everyone who wasn’t perfect but wasn’t terrible should get to spend eternity in Cincinnati.
Chidi: Look, apparently it doesn’t work that way. I’m sorry, Eleanor, but there’s nothing anyone can do.
Eleanor: Unless…there is something we can do. Unless you could teach me.
Chidi: Teach you what?
Eleanor: How to be good. That was your job, right? A professor of ethics? No one knew that I was a problem when I arrived. Things only started getting crazy after I was an ash-hole to everyone at the party You know I’m trying to say “ash-hole” and not “ash-hole,” right?
Chidi: I got that, yes.
Eleanor: OK, give me a chance. Let me earn my place here. Let me be your ethical guinea pig.

Philosophy Books: None

Chalkboard: None

Other: None

Quick Thoughts:
1:50: So no one religious tradition gets it all right, or all wrong.
4:32: Appears to be consequentialist. Not sure how how they’re measuring the value, and some of it is unusual, e.g. you get credit for veganism but even more credit for not bringing up your veganism unprompted.
6:11: Rather shocking that most great artists don’t produce more good than bad in the world. The pleasure people take from art alone would seem to produce a tremendous amount of value. See Bernard Williams’ “Moral Luck” and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence for discussions of whether art can justify an otherwise apparently immoral life. Both use Paul Gauguin as an inspiration. With regard to Florence Nightingale, perhaps see Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. It stresses Nightingale’s ambition and how contra many of her hagiographers she did not exemplify the conventional morality for a Victorian woman.
8:43: Chidi makes a rash promise. Reminds me both of Kant’s “On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns” and Ruth Barcan Marcus’ “Moral Dilemmas and Consistency.” The second is a stretch, but her argument is that moral principles are consistent if there is a possible world in which they are “obeyable.” Unfortunately in the actual world many people create moral dilemmas, e.g. by promising to do something that turns out to go against another moral principle. Here Chidi unwittingly creates a moral dilemma.
10:38: The difference between being good and being good at.
12:15: Interesting that Chidi speaks in terms of disliking being dishonest. Is he opposed to dishonesty because he doesn’t like it or does he have a perfect will so that his dislikes something because it is immoral? This is another point Kant stresses.
14:00: A lot of going on here, but Sachveer’s self-sacrifice is perhaps the most interesting. First, it’s not clear sacrificing his life for another’s really added to the amount of good in the world, thus contradicting Michael’s earlier claim. Second, it is reminiscent of the Jataka tale where Prince Sattva (a previous incarnation of the Buddha) sacrifices his life so that some tiger cubs can feast on his body. Third, this touches upon discussions of supererogation and effective altruism. See also this New Yorker article on a man who inspired by Peter Singer gave his kidney to a stranger (and in general leads a very unselfish life).
17:27: Heaven: not kosher.
18:17: I need to read Murdoch’s The Nice and the Good and re-read her The Sovereignty of the Good. 
20:52: She’s not wrong about Tahani or that good people can have flaws, especially based on the supposed system of tabulating good and bad actions.
21:16: Is the system just? Is morality teachable? Both questions are central to the show and to philosophy. For the first see works like Leibniz’ Theodicy; for the second second, Plato’s Meno. Moreover, Eleanor suggests there can be no harm if no one is aware of it. That is an important issue in harm-based moralities, e.g. Joel Feinberg’s. Finally, the language here is interesting. Chidi refers to “anyone,” denying a personal involvement. Eleanor uses first “we,” drawing him in, making them equal partners, and then “you” and “me,” which here has a hierarchy, namely a teacher-student relation.

Hong Gildong and Sci-fi

I’m often slow at doing things. Maybe another way of saying that is I’m lazy. Months ago I read The Story of Hong Gildong and decided it would have been better as science fiction and that I should write a blog post about that. The book has been on my floor ever since, waiting for me to write this.

Unfortunately, I’m no longer entirely clear what I meant to write. The main idea was that Hong Gildong would have worked better as sci-fi. The book is an early Korean novel about the son of a concubine. It’s fantastic*: Hong Gildong learns magic and becomes unbeatable, first as a bandit fighting evil officials and then ruling his own island country. One of the weaknesses of the book was Hong Gildong’s loyalty to the throne. That’s because the book supposedly takes place during the reign of an actual Korean king.

Somehow I thought Hong Gildong showed the necessity of sci-fi: that some stories don’t fit well in the present or the past but can be set in the future.

I don’t doubt I had a genuine insight. I just don’t remember what exactly it was.

Also, I’m still lazy. It took me months to finish this blogpost.

*as in the sense of “unbelievable” or “fantasy.” It’s a pretty good tale too.

Two Populisms?

Nowadays when I read the word “we” I ask, “who is this ‘we’?” Rarely is “we” truly universal. Determining who “we” refers to often reveals who the author is concerned about.

In What is Populism? Jan-Werner Müller stresses this point: often, “we” excludes as it seemingly includes. He writes,

Populism, I suggest, is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified–but, I shall argue, ultimately fictional–people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. (pp. 19-20)

It’s a useful definition even if potentially controversial–according to him, the American Populist Party was not actually populist. What makes it useful to me is that is does capture a type of politics, one dangerous to democracy. Nevertheless, I have some worries about his account.

Perhaps the least of them is his claim that Sanders is not populist, something he simply asserts on page 93. This, of course, is a serious worry politically–one reason I strongly oppose Sanders is because he is profoundly undemocratic in exactly the way Müller argues populists are. It’s less of a worry theoretically, however, since claiming Sanders is a populist does not challenge Müller’s central claims. He simply categorized him wrongly.

Still, as Barney Frank observed back in 1991,

To him, anybody who disagrees with him is a crook; there are no honest disagreements with people. Bernie’s view of the world is that the great majority of the people agree with him on all the issues and the only reason he does not win is that the Congress is crooked.

Sanders has not changed over time. During the primary he made a series of dishonest attacks on institutions that opposed him, be it the DNC for briefly cutting off his campaign’s access to a voter database because his campaign took advantage of a firewall being accidentally dropped or Planned Parenthood for supporting Clinton. Like the populists Müller describes, Sanders too blames the media for people’s disagreements with him (while ignoring the question about the importance of diverse representations). Moreover, Sanders’ focus on changing primaries so that non-Democrats can vote on them while ignoring caucuses shows the populists’ selective use of democracy. Finally, Sanders’ inability to realize there is honest disagreement came to a head in Nevada, where he excused his supporters’ violence and spread conspiracy theories, all while trying to undo the popular vote. In short, Sanders is a populist and consequently a threat to democracy. Fortunately, he lost the primary. Unfortunately, he is still admired by many.

Sanders also validates Müller’s claim that it is important to address some of the issues populists raise. One should not simply ignore them. Clinton and the Democratic Party did pay attention to them (sometimes for the worse, e.g. the focus on campaign finance reform instead of voting rights) but it did bring on board most of his supporters. It did not, however, bring on many of the diehards who formed the anti-democratic, often harassing, wing of his base.

Trump, of course, ended up winning the election and he’s a populist of a different stripe, one who reveals a more serious problem with some of Müller’s analysis. Trump ran on bigotry. His we is white people. He ran against elites because they supposedly favored non-whites or in fact because they were the new elites. So one potential flaw with Müller’s definition is that the elites populists run against are often as fictional as the people. Perhaps they are even more so. Moreover, it is not elites as such that Trumpian populism opposes: it’s elites supposedly allied with the oppressed.

Another serious problem is that he does not get into how certain groups are seen as the people. As the case of America shows, it is often because of already existing systems of oppression. I suspect Europe is much the same: the rise of right-wing populism is probably tied to the collapse of imperialism and an influx from former colonies. This is something Müller seems almost doggedly determined to avoid saying. Perhaps he believes it can go without saying. However, at times he goes too far in excusing populists. For instance,

One is reminded of what gave [George] Wallace’s counterpunches against liberals such force in his day: he could claim with some plausibility that “the biggest bigots in the world are…the ones who call others bigots.” (pp. 83-84)

This, quite frankly, is absurd. Opposition to bigotry is not bigotry. Wallace’s voters no more than Trump’s were “economically anxious.” White supremacy was their issue and they (rightly) felt it was under attack.

Once one realizes that bigotry often helps form “a morally pure and fully unified” people and maintaining their supremacy is their main issue, three important points follow. First, Müller’s emphasis on not ignoring populists and their issues seems misguided. One should not give bigots what they want because what they want is more bigotry. Second, one suspects there are at least two important types of populism. One whose group identity is formed by bigotry and another that isn’t. Though to a large extent the issues Sanders addresses are those that center the needs of white men, white supremacy never united his followers the same way it unites Trump’s (or maybe it is better to say it was a different type of white supremacy). While both Trump and Sanders are undemocratic, the bigotry at the center of Trump’s movement makes him much more harmful than Sanders. Any account of populism that fails to distinguish between the two is seriously incomplete. Third, and this is in part a corollary of my second point, some populists attack actual elites. Others do not. Right-wing populists like Trump attack elites mainly insofar as they protect and help groups that are oppressed. Sanders concentrates his attacks on a wealthy, powerful elite, albeit rather indiscriminately and any organization that disagrees with him quickly gets labelled elite.

But even with those caveats Müller is correct to worry about populism, and he gives a good, if partial, analysis as to why it worrisome.


One of the claims of Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore is that Southern literature before the Civil War was constrained because it could not write openly and honestly about slavery. Something similar may affect conservative authors. Haunting Goldwater’s1 The Conscience of a Conservative is race.

The ostensible theme of the book is that the federal government has overstepped its bounds and we are on the path to tyranny. There are a lot of government programs Goldwater believes must end. For instance, he is against what he calls Welfarism. Welfarism, for Goldwater, is any spending for the care of citizens. Private charity should care for the poor, the sick, the orphaned, the elderly. To do otherwise is grossly immoral for “I am unaware of any moral virtue that is attached to my decision to confiscate the earnings of X and give them to Y.” (p. 67)

Perhaps understandably Goldwater does not go into too much detail about how private charity will replace the federal government. He does however make one concession to his seeming heartlessness. “Finally, if we deem public intervention necessary, let the job be done by local and state authorities that are incapable of accumulating the vast political power that is so inimical to our liberties. (p. 69)

That concession contradicts not only the previous quote–“confiscation” does not magically become virtuous when local governments do it instead of the federal government–and his opening complaint about Democrats and Republicans. Both, he claims, wrongly believe “The government can do whatever needs to be done.” (p. 7) That the state government can do what the federal government must absolutely not do suggests there is something other than a principled (if misguided) stand at work. This becomes clearer when one realizes what federal program Goldwater most targets: education.

The fourth chapter of the book is titled “And Civil Rights.” Here Goldwater attacks the federal government from interfering with segregated schools. He claims he favors integration, but “I am not prepared, however, to impose that judgment of mine on the people of Mississippi or South Carolina.” (p. 31) Apart from two sentences in the same chapter off-handedly mention blacks can vote thanks to the 15th Amendment, education is the only race issue Goldwater mentions. Still, just like antebellum Southern literature, Goldwater’s evasion of racial issues dominates and undercuts everything he writes.

Much as Goldwater worries about America descending into tyranny, he refuses to acknowledge that for many, America already was tyrannical. Lynchings were public occasions, Jim Crow laws were instituted by the states. Racism was a central, defining feature of American life. It was the federal government that most effectively opposed it. In fearing a future, hypothetical tyranny, Goldwater was supporting actual, concrete tyranny. The central theme of the book, his opposition to the federal government’s interference, is rotten to the core.

Goldwater’s concerns in some abstract sense might be correct. Humans, however, don’t live in the abstract. Had Goldwater faced racism, argued against it, and shown how his conservative conscience and philosophy would help end this central tyranny of American life we would have a substantially different book.

He didn’t. Instead, he wrote an apologia to Jim Crow.


The final third of the book is a chapter on “The Soviet Menance.” Goldwater advocates for the use of tactical nuclear weapons and an aggressive offense against Communism. “Daisy” is not the unfair attack I was told it was.


1. The book was ghostwritten by L. Brent Brozzel, Jr., William F. Buckley’s brother-in-law. Nevertheless I will write as if Goldwater himself wrote it.

Works Cited:

Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative. (Princeton University Press, 2007). The original book was published in 1960.

Often I feel our understanding of intellectual history is Whiggish. We read the arguments and positions that succeeded. So for all their brilliance, defenders of slavery such as George Fitzhugh are largely forgotten and unread. This is a problem. First, it gives us an inaccurate understanding of the times and how change occurs. Second, as Albert O. Hirschman argues in The Rhetoric of Reaction, bad arguments have a habit of popping up anew. If we don’t understand the bad arguments of the past then when they reappear they might seem new and plausible. Third, we often have a sort of cultural amnesia about what people said in the past. For instance, growing up I had no idea that William F. Buckley supported Jim Crow and apartheid. Thanks to Youtube, one can now watch Buckley debate Baldwin.

It’s in that spirit, the spirit of examining bad ideas that I read Buckley’s God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Bias.’ I was not unrewarded.

God and Man at Yale is indeed a bad book. Buckley advocates what he calls “Christian individualism.” What exactly that is is unclear, defined more by what it opposes than what is believes in. But even what he opposes in unclear and shapeless. One of the characteristics of the book is Buckley’s mendacity. Whether or not he believed his lies is besides the point since the falsehood is easy to refute. If Buckley does not know better that shows he does not want to know better.

For instance, at one point Buckley writes, “a man whose curiosity and knowledge are well above the Corporation mean, told me in February, 1951, that Professor Blanshard, chairman of the Yale Department of Philosophy, was a ‘good Quaker.’ I am sure he found it hard to believe me when I told him Mr. Blanshard was an atheist, though the professor has never made any secret of this, even from the Corporation members.” [p. 122]

Buckley should have listened. Blanshard was undeniably a Quaker, who contributed to the Friends Journal. One could argue that he was a bad Quaker–as a Time magazine article titled “Fighting Quakers” from 1942 shows Blanshard argued in Friends Intelligencer (a predecessor of the Journal) that Quakers needn’t be pacifists. But even bad Quakers are Quakers; Buckley’s accusation was false.

This was no harmless error as Buckley’s thesis is that only professors who profess “Christian individualism” should be professors. In wrongfully accusing Blanshard of atheism, Buckley was also demanding he be fired.

It’s unclear why Buckley claimed Blanshard was an atheist. The most innocent is he confused Brand with his brother Paul, who was an atheist and author of American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949). This, however, goes to Buckley’s lack of intellectual curiosity. In his foreword, he writes “I therefore looked eagerly to Yale University for allies against secularism and collectivism.” [p. xiii] Throughout the book it is clear Buckley did not go to Yale to learn. He merely wanted ammunition to support his pre-established views. Thus the book is scattered with howlers such as, “I am not forgetting that no honest or fruitful course in philosophy can be taught without readings from some of the famous and brilliant skeptical philosophers of the post-Enlightenment. The student must be introduced to Hume, Kant, Russell et al.” [p. 21] As most beginning students of philosophy should know, Hume and Kant are the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Further, to call Kant a skeptic and lump him with Hume and Russell is a gross injustice. Kant wrote to refute Hume’s skepticism.

This incuriosity is central to much conservative thought. As Page duBois argues in Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from Conservatives, conservatives regularly read their own positions back into the classics in an attempt to pretend their own views are timeless wisdom. No doubt people from all political persuasions at times do so, but it is more central to the conservatives since as Goldwater (or his ghostwriter, Buckley’s brother-in-law) wrote in The Conscience of a Conservative, “The Conservative approach is nothing more or less than an attempt to apply the wisdom and experience and the revealed truths of the past to the problems of today.” (p. xxiv) That ignores the fact times change, our current preoccupations are not the preoccupations of the past. One cannot simply apply past truths to today. Yet for many conservatives including Buckley, the current battle is forever and the past is to be plundered for allies. Such an attitude cannot withstand thoughtful engagement with the past, so thinkers become mere shibboleths. “Smith” is what Christian individualists shout (e.g. page 181), “Hume” is supposedly what godless collectivists cry. That Adam Smith and David Hume were dear friends goes unmentioned and perhaps unknown.

To sum up, Buckley believed he already knew the sides of the fight, which one was right, which was wrong, and so all that was needed was to assign people–be they current professors or long-dead philosophers–to one side or the other. Once they were assigned, one knew what was important about them and there was little reason to investigate further. As a result, if he confused Brand with his brother Paul, Buckley would have been unlikely to discover his error for what Blanshard actually said was never of much importance.

This explanation of Buckley’s error about Blanshard also reveals an important weakness of his book: college is not supposed to show how diverse ideas, people, and ways of life are. It is supposed to promote narrow, supposedly timeless, values. Lines of opposition are drawn, the fight entered, but with little thought about who one’s allies or enemies actually are.

Another explanation for Buckley’s error is he knew something of Blanshard’s views, disagreed with them, and decided he was an atheist. Certainly Blanshard was no traditional Christian. He identified God with the Absolute and not “as a Person distinct from the world.” Buckley, as we have already seen, is not a careful thinker. Not having a traditional Christian view of God would be tantamount to atheism for him. Buckley, however, would be wrong.

Moreover, such mendacity is essential to his argument. Given the diversity of views that exist, a dichotomy between Christian individualists and godless collectivists could not exist if views were treated fairly. Throughout the book it becomes clear that he is arguing perhaps even more so with fellow Christians. Here Blanshard may not count since he was not clearly Christian.1

He is, however, a useful reminder at how crude Buckley’s dichotomy (and thought) is: one needn’t be a Christian to believe in a god. Fan of the Enlightenment Buckley hints that he is, he appears never to have heard of deism. Moreover, many of his opponents are clearly Christian. Buckley acts as if they are acting in an ineffectual, duped, or short-sighted manner. Yet more likely they simply disagree with him.

McGeorge Bundy in his review points out that Buckley is Catholic. At first, this seems like mere prejudice. It isn’t. What goes unacknowledged throughout the book is how varied Christianity and belief in God is. There are many Christians who believe inheritances and incomes should be taxed, welfare should be provided to the very young and very old, the gold standard is not needed, segregation is evil, and many other positions contrary to Buckley’s individualism. Similarly there are many Christians who strenuously disagree with his Christianity, starting with the fact that it is Catholicism. Buckley never argues that Christianity and capitalism are inseparable, he simply treats them as if they are.

At first I wondered if this might not be a rhetorical trick–to bait the hook by identifying as Christian, then reel in his audience into thinking only capitalism is Christian. This would give a nice explanation as to why Buckley claims Blanshard is an atheist. Blanshard was a public intellectual, one who said of Dewey–a figure Buckley reviled–“I not only admire his public spirit but agree for the most part with his social attitudes.”2 Buckley’s disagreement with him may have been based on Blanshard’s politics but he decided he had to frame it as if it was Blanshard’s lack of religion he disagreed with. 

That’s perhaps giving Buckley too much credit. His confidence gives his writing some style, but it’s unearned confidence. His prose is sure-footed; his points are constantly tripping over themselves. Buckley shows a tremendous lack of intellectual sophistication so it’s unlikely he knew much about Blanshard’s–or any other person mentioned in the book–actual positions. Nonetheless, his treatment of Blanshard, like his treatment of others, reminds one he had to lie about people’s positions in order to get his two sides. It’s a mendacity not as a result of willful ignorance but of (perhaps unintentional) rhetoric.

There is much more that is bad about Buckley’s book, as seen in McGeorge Bundy‘s and Peter Viereck‘s excellent reviews. There is even a certain contemporaneous to it as many of his claims are still live issues. College Republicans still try to get professors fired because they aren’t right-wing ideologues. Democrats are still said not to be Christian (which is especially amazing since Clinton and Obama’s faiths clearly inspired their politics while Republicans selected Trump).

I read the book expecting to read much that was odious–after all Buckley supported segregation and apartheid. I did not expect the book to be so intellectually shoddy. Originally I had intended to focus on other aspects of the book apart from the brief mention of Blanshard. However, the amount of effort to refute bullshit greatly exceeds the amount of effort needed to create it and Buckley’s knowledge is slight and superficial. The book is largely misconstrued gossip about his professors, his treatment of Blanshard sadly typical.


1. Unfortunately I’ve only read a limited about of Blanshard. He does position his God as different from the stereotypical Christian God. Whether this means he is a Quaker but not a Christian (which is entirely possible) I’m unsure.

2. Blanshard, Brand. “Can the Philosopher Influence Social Change?” p. 749

Works Cited:

Blanshard, Brand. Reason and Belief

———–. “Can the Philosopher Influence Social Change?” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 51, No. 24, American Philosophical Association Eastern Division: Papers to be presented at the Fifty-First Annual Meeting, Goucher College, December 28-30, 1954 (Nov. 25, 1954), pp. 741-753.

Buckley, William F. God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Bias.’ (Henry Regnery Company, 1951)

duBois, Page. Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from Conservatives (New York University Press, 2001)

Goldwater, Barry. The Conscience of a Conservative (Princeton University Press, 2007)