Tag Archives: bibliophilia

The Man Who Was Thursday

book cover Wow. From the person who brought me two other recent successes (The Member of the Wedding and The Road to Wigan Pier) now comes this. What to say (other than, “I love you and please keep recommending books!!”):

First, G.K. Chesterton’s writing is exceptional. For most writers, there are maybe a half-dozen lines I underline in a book because they’re cool and insightful and well-crafted. Virtually this whole book should be underlined. That this guy had such insight into human behavior while also being able to express it in writing with such wit, topsy-turvy paradoxical flair, and yet simplicity is something to behold. I will absolutely read more by him in the future — and then stick the book under my pillow in the hopes his style comes to me through sleep osmosis. (it’s a thing — sleep osmosis). A few examples of awesome passages

  • “Gabriel  Syme was not merely a detective who pretended to be a poet; he was really a poet who had become a detective. Nor was his hatred of anarchy hypocritical. He was one of those who are driven early in life into too conservative an attitude by the bewildering folly of most revolutionists. He had not attained it by any tame tradition. His respectability was spontaneous and sudden, a rebellion against rebellion. He came from a family of cranks, in which all the oldest people had all the newest notions. One of his uncles always walked about without a hat, and another had made an unsuccessful attempt to walk about with a hat and nothing else. His father cultivated art and self-realisation; his mother went in for simplicity and hygiene. Hence the child, during his tenderer years, was wholly unacquainted with any drink between the extremes of absinth and cocoa, of both of which he had a healthy dislike. The more his mother preached a more than Puritan abstinence the more  did his father expand into a more than pagan latitude; and by the time the former had come to enforcing vegetarianism, the latter had pretty well reached the point of defending cannibalism.”    [NB: I mean, come on! I want to write that!]
  • The debate between Syme (who stands in for order) against Gregory (who stands in for anarchy, which basically here just means chaos [unfortunately]). They debate where art comes from – order or chaos. Gregory retorts that if poetry comes from order, then the Underground Railway would be the most poetical thing in the world. Syme agrees. From there,
    • Gregory says: “Nonesense!” “Why do all the clerks and navvies in the railway trains look so sad and tired, so very sad and tired? I will tell you. It is because they know that the train is going right. It is because they know that whatever place they have taken a ticket  for that place they will reach. It is because after they have passed Sloane Square they know that the next station must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria. Oh, their wild rapture! oh, their eyes like stars and their souls again in Eden, if the next station were unaccountably Baker Street!”
    •  “It is you who are unpoetical,” replied the poet Syme. “If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!
  • “Let us remain together a little, we who have loved each other so sadly, and have fought so long.”
  • “Now absent-mindedness is just a bit too awful in a bad man. We think of a wicked man as vigilant. We can’t think of a wicked man who is honestly and sincerely dreamy, because we daren’t think of a wicked man alone with himself. An absentminded man means a good-natured man. It means a man who, if he happens to see you, will apologise. But how will you bear an absentminded man who, if he happens to see you, will kill you? That is what tries the nerves, abstraction combined with cruelty. Men have felt it sometimes when they went through wild forests, and felt that the animals there were at once innocent and pitiless. They might ignore or slay. How would you like to pass ten mortal hours in a parlour with an absent-minded tiger?” [NB: Reminds me of why No Country for Old Men was so very very creepy]
  • “Syme was subject to spasms of singular common sense, not otherwise a part of his character.”

I could go on.

Also, given how many anarchy-related booklists I’ve seen this book on, I assumed it was in some sense pro-anarchy. Let me assure you that that is not the case, though I can’t say it’s a full-fledged love letter to order either. A bit like C.S. Lewis (though upon some googling it seems more accurate to say Lewis a bit like Chesterton, just not particularly clever and topsy-turvy version of him): Chesterton was a Christian and this book can certainly be read to endorse a sort of divine orderliness that goes along with that view of the universe. But then, if that’s the view what to make of the fact that the book suggests it through a most chaotic and absurd of nightmares. Perhaps a phoenix rising from the ashes sort of thing.

Long story short: Chesterton is brilliant and the fact that I’ve only just heard of him in the last few months is a tragedy. I want a first edition like nobody’s business!

Save The World on Your Own Time

Book CoverSaw this book on my friend’s bookshelf, he explained Fish’s argument, I thought it sounded interesting-but-not-quite-right, and so decided to give it a read.

Some of my notes:

  • Things I like: I agree that if we think the best justification for higher education is an instrumental one (e.g. it results in more productive worker bees), then it shouldn’t be a surprise that outside forces continue to criticize universities using that same premise. That said, I think Fish has to do a lot more to explain what makes education good/worth funding (esp. if one thinks, as I do, the public funding only 20-25% of public university expenses is, if it is truly to be a public university, too low). I would like to know what he’d say to an objection like the following: you’re right, Fish. Education isn’t good for the broader world in some obvious way. It’s good for those individuals who like it and/or need it to flourish. But for that very reason the state should not be funding it any more than it should be funding dance lessons or trips around the world. It’s just another way the elites have coopted the machinery of the state to further a particular conception of the good.
  • Issues:
    • The claim he bases his entire argument on doesn’t grip me at all. The claim is that “both the coherence and the value of a task depend on its being distinctive” (Chapter 2 (if I remember correctly), p 168, etc.). But is that really the case? What about the role/tasks of a friend versus the role of a romantic partner? Or the role of a parent? They all seem to have overlapping tasks and that doesn’t in any way seem to diminish the value of the tasks, or the persons filling the roles. So why must higher education have just one task and that task has to be distinct? And putting aside the role of the university, what about the role of a teacher? Or maybe a different question: maybe the role of a university is singular/special, but why not think the role of individual teachers is broader? [to be clear: true to Fish, I’m not necessarily saying I take a side here, just I think his grounding premise is unconvincing. There are certainly other sorts of premises that could do better.]
    • He says we should have no concern for the ideological makeup of a school because that’s not the business of a school. (p 146) But doesn’t the ideological makeup signal something important to the world, similar to the signaling that happens when there are no women or lesbians or blacks or alternative lifestyle(ish) people on a faculty? Perhaps this goes back something deeper I’m committed to: that each action we take can be described in a variety of different ways and, importantly, being aware of and responsive to those different descriptions and corresponding signals is what some sorts of virtue seem to require.
    • He strikes me as confused on the legitimacy of the heckler’s veto (which itself is just a form of consumer demand/discrimination).
      • Passages I noted:
        • Re: Larry Summers fiasco: “Summers offered serial apologies for his comments but accompanied them with a defense that took them back. I was, he said, just being provocative. But being provocative is not in the job description. If straight-talking, with no concern for the fall-out that may follow, is what you like to do, you may not be cut out to be a university administrator. Not ever virtue … is pertinent to every practice, and it is surely part of your responsibility to know what virtues are appropriate to the position you hold.” (92-93)
        • “There is a big difference between ‘I don’t like what that guy said, and I’m going to fire him’ and ‘I don’t like the effects brought about by what he said, and I’m going to fire him.’ The first raises constitutional issues (at least in some contexts); the second doesn’t. It’s just a judgment on job performance.” (93).
        • When discussing a controversy at the University of South Florida re: the dismissal of a prof who apparently said some unacceptable things about 9/11, he says “The reason given by the university for its action was that the hostile response to the professor’s appearance disrupted day-to-day business (this is the heckler’s veto argument, firmly rejected by a succession of Supreme Court decisions), but the real reason was that the president, rather than being true to her obligation to defend the academic enterprise, had given it over to the very political forces from which she should have protected it.” (104-05).
      • My questions
        • Is the idea that Summers’ comments on women leading to his resignation isn’t an example of a heckler’s veto because the comments on women had understandably bad consequences on his ability to do his job whereas objecting to/firing a professor who says 9/11 was [fill in the blank] might be a heckler’s veto because we want more room for debate there? Why?
        • If administrators can be reasonably fired for expressing comments that the majority finds objectionable because being provocative isn’t part of their job, why is that not true of professors? On his view, professors are just teaching people how to see the mechanics etc. of arguments, understand all the sides of arguments, etc. But nothing about his view on what makes teaching and universities special qua teaching have anything to do with being provocative. So perhaps my issue is: either you think the pressure leading to Summers’ resignation was misguided (because his views on women had no effect, you’d argue, on his role as an administrator) or you think professors also have no special right to be provocative without risking being fired because what they say makes the classroom a less good place to learn, even if (like Summers, we can hypothesize) there’s no evidence the profs views influence their teaching at all — it’s just hostile in virtue of the fact that a person in an authority position has a view that you find offensive.
        • What might all this mean for our views on the Mozilla case, where the CEO was fired after it came to light he donated money in the past to support opposition to gay marriage in CA? [article with a position here]
    • Fish seems to take the position that we can read literature and evaluate its arguments without that process having an effect on us as moral beings/on our normative commitments.  If that’s a fair characterization of Fish, I think he’s wrong. Think of The Dispossessed! Or East of Eden! Beggars in Spain! Or the Fountainhead! You can surely assign that book in an ethics class and spend class time deconstructing the arguments to see how they fare, but to act as if an average person can do that without then contemplating what that philosophy means to them as a normative guide is just untrue. A philosophy professor friend of mine said the few times she’s had students read Ayn Rand, it’s amazing how the class divides. They cannot help but respond as moral beings to the arguments, even though the class is about just understanding different moral frameworks and arguments. I don’t think that counts in favor of anything like indoctrination in the classroom but I think his understanding of human psychology is wrong and I think that wrongness may result in prescriptions for classroom behavior that aren’t ideal. Or perhaps I should say: teachers should be attuned to this psychological fact and that awareness should mean something for how we teach.
    • Relatedly, Fish says: if you write a poem glorifying x, that does not mean you endorse x. Fair enough, but I do think you bear some responsibility for the fact that your poem promotes x as good to the world. We are storytelling (and listening) beings – that is how we learn. Think of children and the stories we tell them as ways to guide and habituate them to good behavior. Maybe you don’t actually endorse x but who cares? I don’t endorse punching someone in the face but I do it anyway – what does my endorsement in these cases have to do with the bigger questions of whether I should punch the person in the face? Or, if I do, what responsibility I bear for doing it?
    • That all said, I do agree that my interpretation of the works of others does not mean I endorse the ends I think the other adopted. I can write an article explaining what I think Ishiguro endorsed in The Buried Giant and in doing some I’m trying to explain something I see happening out in the world. I may not like what’s happening, but I’m simply trying to report on it.

Worth a read.

When Things Fall Apart

book coverPicked this one up randomly while at Strand Books in NYC last weekend. My knowledge of Buddhism, let alone Eastern philosophy, remains embarrassingly non-existent and since it’s been a few months since my foray into the field, I thought I’d give it a go.

This book is actually a collection of self-contained essays/musings on a variety of different topics that all have to do with … wait for it … things falling apart. Unlike Mark Epstein’s work, this collection struck me as more directly self-help(ish) and less about explaining Buddhism, the history, the philosophy, etc.

I’ve got a few essays left, but overall I’ve enjoyed it. It definitely assumes some prior familiarity with Buddhist concepts, so not recommended for a first in this space. Still, the reflections on identity, relationships, love (for others and self), anger, etc. are all so interesting and oddly absent in Western literature on those topics, which is a true loss for the West.

The Buried Giant

book coverI just finished The Buried Giant yesterday. I read the whole thing over the course of a two week work-cation so the entire book is still fresh in my mind, which I much prefer to those times when I’m forced to read a book like this over a much longer time horizon.

So the novel. I was just on Goodreads and saw it has a 3.47/5 rating and am rather surprised. I found the book, much like Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day, beautiful. Beautiful in its portrayal of the love between the two main characters – Axl and Beatrice (or “princess”, as Axl tenderly calls her). And here I’m not referring to romantic beauty of a youthful sort – like that depicted in most tear-jerking romantic films, or the sort of flawless beauty depicted on magazine covers. This book lets you go along on the journeys of a handful of people who have deep, time-worn, hopeful and yet pained human hearts. A journey where you bear witness to a short of tenderness (second time I’m using that word but it’s quite a good fit) between two old lovers that feels handmade and imperfect, with both deeply buried chambers of pain and areas of bright and simple light. And all that makes the story beautiful. It also makes you think something like: ah. So that is what the best sort of love can be.

But enough of me trying (and no doubt failing) to express the feeling the book created in me. The themes it engages with deserve serious reflection. Here, I’ll only highlight some of the main ones that interested me and leave it to in-person conversations over hot chocolate to discuss in greater detail.

endpaper art by Neil GowerThrough the use of a fantastical land, shrouded in a mysterious mist that makes people (and perhaps even animals) lose access to their memories, the book creates a space for us to reflect on the nature of memory itself – its reliability, its construction, its purpose and use. It does this in the context of both our inter-personal relationships (e.g. family, romance) and as regards to the sort of collective memories of peoples (e.g., Britons versus the Saxons). Here are some thoughts I wrote down while reading:

  • what do we make of romantic love where the parties cannot remember their shared past? Beatrice seemed to think remembering quite important, that without the discreet memory of the event that led to her feelings for Axl their love was thrown into some doubt.
  • why do we care whether we can prove our love? And why do we think memory has anything to do with it?
  • the idea of “never forget” and the hope that once we remember, we’ll know the truth of the matter seems constantly challenged throughout the book. Ishiguro subtly and without warning tells the same event from different perspectives, from people with different histories and memories going into the event, and we see that there is no there there. (my favorite version of this revolved around the discussion of the buildings at the monastery) That is, there is no single true characterization of what happened, let alone what it means. But if that’s right, then I return to my earlier question – why is memory so important to our belief in the realness of love we experience today? Certainly a narrative of a life is important for our sense of self (who is the me sitting here if I am suddenly stripped of my own life story), but the characters don’t seem as preoccupied with worries about the integrity of their own selfhood. This is much more about memory’s role in our relations with others.
  • Can we apologize or ask for forgiveness for things we do not remember? Near the end of the book I was reminded of Luke 23:34. Jesus says from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But when reading this book I’m not sure I understand what that sort of forgiveness looks like/ is doing. If someone does not know what they do – or, somewhat differently, if today they cannot remember what it is they once did – are you even forgiving them? And even if you are forgiving them, forgiving them for what? Is there blame to even be had there? Must there be blame before one can be forgiven? (to be clear, I had to look up the verse… and the fact it was Jesus who said it. But I did remember the line!).
  • Is it beyond us to love a person while remembering everything? Is it beyond us to love or at least accept other groups of people while remembering our histories? (and here I think of the truth and reconciliation commission as an argument that it is possible, though even there it might be that new versions of memories are formed through that process, and that somehow the reconstruction of memory, or at least its recontexualization, is necessary for forgiveness and peace.)

Oh and one more thing. The US edition I got was published by Alfred A. Knoff as a Borzoi book, printed and bound by RR Donnelley, the book jacket was designed by Peter Mendelsund, and the endpaper art was created by Neil Gower. This is unquestionably the most gorgeous modern edition I can remember laying eyes on. I very much hope to see more books published with such care in the future. A real pleasure to read something so beautiful and fitting to the story itself.

The Road to Wigan Pier

book coverIn the Matrix, Morpheus offers Neo a choice: blue pill or red pill; blue pill and he’ll wake up back in his bed, able to continue living in the fictional world that is the Matrix. Red pill and he’ll see the brutal but true real reality that exists outside the Matrix.

I was reminded of Neo’s choice – the opportunity to see the truth, even if it’s harsh – when reading George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. In the 1930s, the Left Book Club, a socialist reading group in England, paid for Orwell to document the realities of poverty and staggering unemployment in northern England. The thought, it seems, was that such documentation would straightforwardly lead all readers to be reaffirmed in their commitment to Socialism. And, no doubt, it would plainly bring non-Socialists around. In other words, the club wanted to give people the opportunity to understand more deeply what sort of poverty and existence they were fighting against. Orwell, however, had additional plans. In addition to documenting the awful conditions in the first half of the book, the second half is perhaps best described as a critique of Socialism (or, more precisely, of Socialists) given with the hope of saving it from itself.

The second half centers on the idea that it is class prejudice that truly gets in the way of Socialism’s progress. That is, real Socialism requires reckoning with the realities of classism — a sort of prejudice that is ingrained in us in ways more fundamental than the economic prejudices (poor v. rich) Socialists usually focus on.

Orwell also provides a fantastic discussion about how the technological progress Socialism seems to require at the same time makes it harder for us to figure out what a good life even looks like. If we create ourselves and exercise our virtues though work and struggle, what happens when we live in a world where technology has made self-creating-and-enhancing work unnecessary? What’s a virtuous person look like in the Brave New World? What is it we are really trying to achieve here?Simply more leisure? But what do we do with leisure time? Easier lives? But that doesn’t seem right either, or else Brave New World wouldn’t seem so… discomforting.

Highly recommend.

East of Eden

Bookcover I don’t have much to say: it might be the best novel I’ve ever read. I hope it’s true. There are also enough quote-worthy passages to fill another book. Some good ones:

  • “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
  • “I am certain that under their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted shortcuts to love.”
  • “That’s why I’m talking to you. You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”
  • “Tom bruised himself on the world and licked his cuts.”
  • “My Tom is a hell-bent boy. Always takes more on his plate than he can eat. Always plants more than he can harvest. Pleasures too much, sorrows too much. Some people are like that.”
  • “Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then – the glory – so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling  light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished.”
  • “A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out. And a day was good to awaken to. And there were no limits to anything. And the people of the world were good and handsome. And I was not afraid any more…. all this coming out of a little hurt girl.”   “And not out of you?”    “Oh no, or it would have come before.”
  • “The emotion of nonviolence was building in him until it became a prejudice like any other thought-stultifying prejudice.”
  • “Adam concealed his treasure deep in his tunnels, but he was inclined to pay for his pleasure with something. Alice began to find gifts ….”
  • “men do not trust themselves any more, and when that happens there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails.”
  • “I went along with them, marveling at the beauty of their proud clean brains … you should have sat through some of those nights of argument and discussion. The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking – the beautiful thinking.”
  • “Act out being alive, like a play. And after a while, a long while, it will be true.”
  • “You’re going to pass something down no matter what you do or if you do nothing. Even if you let yourself go fallow, the weeds will grow and the brambles. Something will grow.”
  • “It’s like you said about knowing people. I hate her because I know why she went away. I know – because I’ve got her in me.”
  • “We are Cain’s children”
  • “Timshel”

How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves

Book CoverRead this in conjunction with Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by law professor Kenji Yoshino. I absolutely recommend the pairing.

In Covering, Kenji basically argues that until we are each able to be our “authentic selves” in society we are not truly equal. To say people are equal regardless of their sexual orientation (or lack thereof) but then say that gays shouldn’t “flaunt” their gayness is to suffer a sort of cognitive dissonance. The test of equality is whether I can not only be bisexual but whether I can “act bisexual”. As I said in my review of the book, there are some serious issues with this idea of there being some way of being bisexual. But, putting that aside, his point is a good one: unless we can be our authentic selves, which means perform as our authentic selves, we aren’t actually equally. How Our Lives Become Stories is one piece in the large body of literature dealing with selfhood and, in so being, sheds light on how complex the construction of selves is (and thus how Kenji skips over much of the hard stuff). A lot of the book focuses on the relational aspects of self but it also contrasts that sort of self with the self we seem to be when it seems we’re acting apart from our relations, as radical individuals.

The book makes great use of autobiographies as a way of showing how the very construction of self (and the construction of a story about the self) varies across cultures and time.

Quite a great read. The first twenty or so pages are a bit of a slog (they struck me as overly dense and lacking the clarity he provides later), but after that it’s a very doable read.

Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights

Book CoverFinished this on my flight out to a labor conference in Italy. Beautifully written (truly — it’s gorgeous). I’ll add more later but the only disappointment was that it didn’t cover more. In particular, he argues that real equality means that minority groups (e.g., homosexuals) are treated as equal even if they don’t “cover”. That is, even if they keep their own gay culture and are thus allowed to be their authentic selves. As the author recognizes, there’s a real danger here of suggesting both that (1) there is some essential gay culture and (2) if someone is gay but doesn’t perform that culture they aren’t being their authentic self. That’s all problematic. The author’s response is that he just wants people to be able to be their “authentic self.” Fair enough but the hard question is what on earth an authentic self even is. And, more to the point, to say that the law and culture should let us be our authentic selves seems to imagine that selves come before our experiences in the world and society. In other words, law and culture and the rest all create the conditions under which we develop into selves in the first instance. How that law and culture are constructed will thus determine to some large degree what I experience as my authentic self. So isn’t the hard question what sort of authentic selves law and culture should help cultivate?

I recommend reading How Our Lives Become Stories either during or immediately following this book.

The Modern School Movement (experimentation in anarchist and libertarian education and living)

Book CoverOne of the many interesting tidbits in the Avrich Sasha Berkman-Emma Goldman duel biography was its brief discussion of the Modern School Movement. The way Avrich explained it, in 1901 Francisco Ferrer started the Modern School in Spain. His goal was, at least in part, to teach the next generation of children how to lead the coming working class revolution. But the idea was that to achieve this end did not require force-feeding students dogma. Instead, a sense of justice and voluntary cooperation would arise naturally from children raised in an environment of freedom, nature, exercise, love, and sympathy — where formality, hierarchy, and discipline were entirely absent from learning. While the school was forcibly closed in 1906, Ferrer (once released from prison again) founded the International League for the Rational Education of Children in 1908. Tragically, though, he was then executed in 1909 as a result of his anarchist and related education activities (he was labeled seditious). His execution sparked international outcry and led anarchists and libertarians to create Modern Schools around the world. The United States was one place these schools particularly flourished and this book documents their creation and ultimate dissolution.

Overall, I enjoyed the book but there were a couple of issues. First, there are some chunks that seem virtually identical to text in the duel biography. Now, the repetition isn’t so much the issue as much as the fact that the areas of overlap didn’t strike me as core to the story of the Modern School Movement. It was bonus material that led down small (but interesting!) rabbit holes that diverted attention from the book’s main project. Another issue, and I don’t know how you get around this, was how many characters were introduced. Considering this seems to be one of the only books out there on the Modern School Movement, I don’t blame him for stuffing it full of information. But, it would be great for later books in this area to focus a bit more on specific lines of thought without the movement and develop them more robustly. At the end of the book there are likely a dozen names I’ve already forgotten. I also wish the book dedicated more than a few sentences to talking about what happened to the children who attended these amazing schools. How did they fare later in life? For an educational philosophy, the proof has got to be in the pudding. Most people reading this book, I suspect, want to know whether the experiments can be thought a success on the experimenters’ own terms. I still don’t know.

That all said, I am grateful Avrich wrote this and only wish there was more out there on this topic.

Here’s the list of ideas and notes I kept as I read. As I’ve said before, some of it might not make sense unless you read the book yourself.

  • Paul Robin’s school at Cempuis, which was the model for Ferrer’s Escuela Moderna.
  • A.S. Neill’s Summerhill – read by Uncle Fern, thought revolutionary (re: education)
  • 1949 Freedom in Education – post-Aunt (Elizabeth) Fern’s death. Interesting ideas on education but also anti-intellectual (in an ironically dogmatic way for a free-thinker)
  • Lewis Mumford – wrote on utopias
  • Single Tax party
  • Frobel – The Education of Man (founding educational philosophy text)
  • Central Labour College of London
  • News from Nowhere – William Morris. Libertarian utopia
  • Power of conduct as more powerful than mere speech quote on page 145 and what it should mean to free speech advocates/ the line between speech and conduct with re: government power to regulate. (quote = “It is not hard to write what one feels as truth. It is damned hard to live it.”
  • Walt Whitman, Walden – hugely influential on anarchists
  • Pestalozzi – 1800s, early radical education thought
  • Joseph McCabe – monk turned atheist (that’s got to be an interesting story. Elizabeth Fern had a similar trajectory. The relationship between some sort of mysticism/religiosity (just plain intensity of conviction?) and anarchism is interesting…. Think of C.S. Lewis, too.)
  • Skaneateles Community = one of the earliest US anarchist colonies. Brook Farms in MA was another early one.
  • The Paris Commune (looked online – very little in English about this)
  • The New Unionism – Andrew Tridon. One of the first American books on revolutionary syndicalism.
  • Kropotkin, Appeal to the Young. Probably one of the most influential pieces, sparked many young people to consider anarchism.
  • 1890-1920s is when anarchism was the most popular in the US. Where’s their writing on welfare capitalism? Made trade unionism seem tame.
  • Aurora Colony
  • The Modern School magazine, printed by Ishill around 1911ish. Free Spirit Press then Oriole Press (Ishill’s press — Ishill seems quite interesting).
  • Socialism spectrum: libertarian-ish (Carpenter, Morris) and then somewhere far away we have economic determinism (Engels, Marx)

Why Tolerate Religion?

book coverIs religion special such that the law should give religious commitments special/preferential treatment over other claims of conscience? And if they are not special, how should the law deal with religious-based claims for exemptions from otherwise applicable laws?

Here’s the hypothetical Brian uses at the start to illustrate the question: Imagine you have two fourteen year old boys starting middle school (NB: may the gods help them). Both are wearing daggers around their necks. Boy One is wearing a dagger because he’s a devout Sikh and in that religion, male believers must wear this sort of dagger as a symbol of religious devotion. Boy Two is wearing a dagger because for generations upon generations his family has been part of a culture where, when a male enters manhood, his father passes the dagger that his father gave him (and his father him etc.) and the boy/new man is then expected to wear it at all times. That is, the boy’s whole identity as a man in his community is wrapped up in wearing this dagger. Now imagine the school has a policy against bringing weapons on campus. What should happen?

Option One: The school should grant Boy One but not Two an exemption

Option Two: The school should grant Boy Two but not One an exemption

Option Three: Boy One and Two both get exemptions

Option Four: Neither One nor Two get an exemption.

Today, the most likely answer outcome is Option One. Boy One gets an exemption because his desire for an exemption is rooted in religion while Boy Two’s request stems from a non-religious conscientious objection. Brian more or less assumes that toleration is the underlying motivating force for why we feel compelled to make exemptions generally but then asks why we should “tolerate” (and by that he means make special exceptions for) religious-based claims over non-religious ones. After arguing that the answer is no (no, there is no reason to treat religion requests for exemption differently than other non-religious conscientious objections), he proceeds to argue that instead we should generally not create exemptions from these sorts of laws.

Unlike many readers (judging by other reviews I’ve seen), I find Brian’s first claim persuasive. I can see no good reason to privilege the Sikh boy’s request for an exemption from the weapon ban over that of the boy whose identity as a man is wrapped up in wearing the same dagger. My intuition, though, is to take much more seriously Option Three (i.e. giving both boys an exemption). Brian mostly dismisses this option out of hand by saying it would basically lead to anarchy. I don’t find that persuasive for two reasons: (1) we need some account of why anarchy is not an option (this is a philosophic argument, so it’s a bit like cheating to just assume that anarchy is off the table) and (2) we need some reason to think that allowing for exemptions for all claims of consciousness would actually lead to anarchy. I’m skeptical. Just think about the power of default rules, for starters.

I think I’ll save a full review of this book for when I’m guest posting on PrawfsBlawg later this summer, I’ll just mention a few other questions I’m left with:

  • The argument seems to be that toleration is what is required to show proper respect (meaning appropriate recognition) for other people’s faculty of conscience. (p. 69) But why? It seems true that we should give appropriate consideration to the ends and objects other people are aiming for but why is toleration appropriate? It’s not so clear to me that letting you be plainly wrong about something, without making at least an attempt at showing you what I think to be true, is the morally required stance I take. Or maybe the idea has to be that there’s no such thing as being wrong (or right) in the moral space? But I certainly don’t take that position. Knowing what is “right” and “good” is extraordinarily difficult but that doesn’t mean I don’t know when one thing is better than another. And, I take that to mean I think there’s some truth in there.
  • He says the state may not directly target or coercively burden claims of conscience generally, unless those claims violate the Harm principle (Mill’s principle – the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. (p.115)  If we take the Harm principle seriously, why the focus on direct targeting? Who cares if you target me directly or not if you exercise your power over me, against my will, for a reason other than the prevention of harm to others? In other places Brian says the state has the right to push its own conception of the good. Ok… (1) why and (2) if that’s right, then it seems the state can target or coercively burden my claims of conscience. (maybe the pushback is to define “coercive” narrowly — to cover only super forceful coercing. But that seems like cheating)

In short, a quick and thought-provoking read!