Archive for March, 2012

Short Writing Assignment

March 30, 2012

In a brief essay (500-1000 words) address ONE of the following questions. Normal citations rules apply (i.e., be sure to cite any text that you use to address the question).

(1)  Arendt argues that no government could ever be founded only on violence alone. What are her reasons for suggesting this? You should consider using one of her examples or developing your own.

(2)  Arendt tells us that power is the “very condition enabling a group of people to think and act in terms of the means-end category” (p. 150). What does this mean, and why is power a necessary condition for thinking and acting in the means-end category? You should consider using an example to illustrate Arendt’s point.

(3)  One of the more moving discussions from the video we watched was when one of the leaders of the March on Washington talked about going back to the Mall after the march had ended; he described the poignant emptiness, the fliers blowing in the wind, and the memory of the greatness of the event. Explain this person’s memories and descriptions in terms of Arendt’s conception of power and action.

(4)  According to Arendt, civil disobedience ought not to be understood in terms of individual conscience (or in terms of conscientious objectors). Why not? And what is Arendt’s alternative framework for understanding it?

Pinky Promise

March 30, 2012

I’m scrambling to get summer festival stuff sorted out and am (somewhat superficially) reminded of Arendt’s conception of public promise.  By signing and returning an acceptance form to a summer program, I believe I am making a public commitment to attend the program.  Once I have made this promise, I am compelled to keep it — not out of self-interest — but due to the public nature of the promise (if this sounds vague it is because my understanding of this part of the argument is vague).  Of course, if this were true, summer programs would not require me to deposit $250, refundable only if I follow through with said promise.  I think that the summer programs have learned that, without selfish incentive, its applicants will not consistently keep promises they have made.

With Love,
Miles Cole

Marx, Weber, and Syria

March 21, 2012

Post by Emily Park

The current conflict in Syria presents a horrifying picture of the lengths to which a repressive regime will go in an effort to protect its power and authority, but at the same time it reflects the similarly powerful motives of those who have decided that they can no longer live under a system which denies them the most basic of human rights.  An entrenched ruling class is fighting tooth and nail to keep its people from realizing any of the basic elements of a democracy.  The news stories and YouTube and cell phone videos paint a terrifying picture of brutality and desperation.

At the same time, I see this conflict as presenting a forum in which the divergent social and economic views of Marx and Weber are playing out.  I tried to imagine what it would be like to have a news program or panel, on which both could appear and like today’s “talking heads” offer their views on the conflict, its origins and the likely result from the conflict.  I am sure it would be an interesting commentary and debate, and I believe it would be something like the following.

Marx’s view of the conflict would be informed by his very uncompromising opinion of the inevitability of class conflict.  Marx would see the grass roots opposition to Assad and his ruling class and the rich beneficiaries of this system as reflective of the working class rising up against the entrenched powers.  In Syria, one family has run the country for decades, and an entrenched economic aristocracy supports the family.  Power is held ruthlessly by the few, who control the political and economic realm.  All others are subordinate to this ruling class.  The so-called “Arab Spring” generally and the uprising in Syria specifically are the result of the proletariat rising up against their masters and seeking to take control of economic and political power.  The vicious repression would be what Marx would anticipate, but he would also believe that the sheer numbers of the oppressed would ultimately overcome and defeat Assad.

Weber would certainly have a more subtle view of the conflict.  He would find much to consider in the religious history in the Middle East, particularly as it reflects the centuries old divisions among Muslims and the Sunni, Shia and other sects.  I suspect that Weber would be very hesitant to consider the developments in Syria in isolation from the rebellions in Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia.  He would also be conscious about how the division between the Sunni and Shia have been at the heart of much of the conflict among and within the Arab states in the Middle East for centuries now.  The complexities of politics in the Middle East, and the role of religious strife and divisions in Middle east politics, would persuade Weber that predicting the outcome of the strife is much more difficult than Marx would claim.

Again, I think that both would appreciate and identify the “darkness and pessimism” that pervade the Middle East, and which frustrate the hopes of many for peace, democracy and religious freedom.  However, I think Marx would see the rising tide of the inevitable revolution, while Weber would see the complicated playing out of difficult religious divisions on the existing social order.

Marx and the “Occupy” Protests

March 21, 2012

Post by Emily Clark

Recently, I’ve been very intrigued by the Occupy Wall Street (“Occupy”) movement.  Living in Washington D.C., I get a very eclectic taste of politics.  There are always people protesting or advocating political reform on the National Mall and elsewhere.  Over Winter Break, there were multiple Occupy D.C. events throughout the District.  The mantra behind the entire Occupy movement is “we are the 99%,” signifying the concentration of wealth in the 1%, while at the same time arguing that the 99% pay for the 1%’s mistakes.  This debate is all about the economic and social inequality created by a capitalist society.  Over 1500 cities globally have groups participating in the movement.

When I was reading the Communist Manifesto I came across a quote that ties directly to the Occupy movement.  Marx says, “but in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths.”  Marx identified almost the exact same unequal distribution of wealth over one hundred years ago, and now the issue presents itself again.  If we read on and follow Marx’s predictions, the Occupy movement could be a sign of the upcoming proletarian revolution.

Of course this is an extreme view of the predominantly civilized and peaceful protests that Occupy activists partake in.  The majority of activists don’t want a revolution, but simply strive for economic reform and more progressive taxation.  However, I read some articles representing the extreme views of some Occupy activists, the ones who preach a transition to a socialist or communist government.  This group of activists advocates the unity of the 1% in overthrowing the 99%.  Norman Thomas, who was a socialist candidate for President in the late 1920s, once said, “The American people will never knowingly adopt Socialism. But, under the name of ‘liberalism’, they will adopt every fragment of the Socialist program, until one day America will be a socialist nation, without knowing how it happened.”  One wonders why someone in the Republican primary has not cited Thomas.  But, is this what’s happening to us in modern society?  Are we unknowingly transitioning into a socialist society?  After all, the logo of the Occupy movement is a clenched fist.  Doesn’t this recall the symbol of communism and the unity of the workers?

As we discussed in class, a major difference between our society and the society that Marx lived in is that there is not now a clear distinction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.  We do not identify with these two groups.  Of course, there is a working class and a middle class, but within these classes there are many different subgroups. Marx’s “inevitable revolution” is unlikely in today’s society.  There are no viable alternatives to the system we have now, and certainly nothing that fits the model that Marx proposed.  The Soviet Bloc collapsed and the remaining communist or revolutionary nations, like Cuba or North Korea are failures that struggle to feed their people.  Society’s reaction to capitalist inequality tracks certain of Marx’s sociological views, however, we dare not try to create what Marx thought was inevitable.  People want change and reform, not necessarily a political uprising and overthrow.   Occupy activists aren’t striving for the revolution, but instead seek an alternative and fair collective freedom that balances the differences between the 1% and the 99%.

Freedom and Social Expectations

March 9, 2012

This reminded me of some of our conversations in class about freedom. It’s a humorous depiction of social expectations (structural power) and how our compliance (or defiance) creates it (or destroys it). It’s not running screaming form the room (my preferred example), but it’s the same idea.

As much as it made me laugh, it also made me think. All the examples of structural power we have talked about in class have been negative. It is used to explain and excuse what we would otherwise consider immoral action. But if structural power is defined as the expectations we have when we interact with each other, it is far more necessary for society then I initially thought.

All of our social interactions within a society require expectations. It is very difficult to work with other people unless you have a reasonable idea of how they will act. Hobbes put this in terms of covenants and employed a sovereign to enforce them. In our discussions of Steinbeck, Marx, and Weber in class, we put it in terms of structural power, the cumulative force of everyone’s every day interactions. While we blame this unconscious power for so much that is wrong in society today, remember that society is not possible without it.

By its very nature, structural power is created every time we interact with each other. Society cannot exist without it. This is partly because society is a definition of structural power. But it is also because there would be no way to communicate with or understand each other within society without structural power. To take the example in the comic linked above, if I expected someone to punch me in the face at any moment without warning, I wouldn’t talk to them. It is our mutual unstated agrement that we will not engage in face punching (or other violent acts such as defenestration) that allows us to interact.

Following the expectations of structural power is what defines us as people. Not only as a people (a society) but also as individual persons entitled to a place in that society. If I act like societies definition of a person, in both appearance and manner, I will probably be treated as one. If I ignore some of the basic expectations of society, be it with, for example,  a different appearance or a different religion, I will not be seen as a person and my perceived place in society will reflect this. This aspect of structural power has unpleasant consequences. Just as it allows us to see other humans as people, it can also allow us to see them as not people. This can make torture and oppression acts that are not reprehensible because no people are being hurt, just those creatures that happen to look sort of like us.

Structural power can not be eliminated or ignored; it must be worked with. Rather then trying to cut it’s hold over me as I initially wanted to after reading Steinbeck, I must learn accept it. It has power over me, but it is the power that binds society together and me into it. It is how I conduct myself within this bond, not whether or not it exists that is important.

Some Thoughts on Facebook and Society

March 7, 2012

In class we talked about how “breaking out of the system” is impossible because all of your actions out of the system are affected by the system. It was mentioned that you cannot leave society and live off the land without paying property taxes or risk living on the streets or going to jail. I believe that through the creation of social networks this is the modern creation of a social new system that we eventually will not be able to break out of. I recently deactivated my facebook and have already had to make small changes within my life to compensate for the lost social connections. For example it is more difficult for me to schedule rehearsals with my chamber group because we used to communicate over facebook. It has also somewhat negatively affected my social life because so many events are planned on facebook rather than in real life. On a larger scale, for advertising purposes companies have created their own facebook and twitter fan pages that people can “follow” or “like.”

Facebook was created in 2004 and already it has built up a “community” of roughly 850 million users and that number is still growing. Originally it was created for college students but now you can be as young as 13 and have a facebook. As the younger generation grows up with these facebooks it will eventually become mandatory to participate in some form of social networking. One of the reasons why social networking has exploded is because of the creation of the smart phone. Facebook is easier to access through the use of smart phones because it is easily portable and user friendly. Most phones are able to show you your facebook news feed as well as pool other people’s facebook information into your contact list. The smart phone is making facebook more convenient and easier to access for its users. While the smart phone is making facebook more convenient, it is also making not having a facebook less convenient. Because facebook is becoming so wide spread it may be difficult to live without one.

People’s creation of social networking is in a way creating a meaningless system that will eventually be impossible for us to break out of. We could compare the creation of social networks to the creation of capitalism through Calvinism by saying that originally the Calvinist ethos was geared towards glorifying God but eventually that aspect of glorifying God was lost and now we have a capitalist society in which people work pointlessly just to work for the money. The purpose of why we work is now gone and is now replaced with greed which goes against Calvinist beliefs. One could argue that facebook was created to make socializing with others easier but now we are spending too much time socializing in a meaningless self idolizing online world instead of spending time off the internet in the real world with real people. What  was meant to make socializing easier for people is now creating a barrier between online life and real life. Instead of spending time outside of our homes with people, we spend hours on the computer chatting or tweeting things. We spend time reading the news feed about our five hundred plus facebook friends when in relality we only have personal contact with about a handful of them. We are so busy with what is going on in our smart phones and in our lap tops that we forget to look around at what is happening in real life.

Expectations on Self-Assessments

March 6, 2012

Let me first direct your attention back to the syllabus. I state there, on page 3 (and again on page 4), that this class is designed to reward steadiness/effort, skill, improvement, creative risk-taking, and initiative. So my broad expectation in your self-assessment essays is that you will try to explain to me, focusing explicitly on the various requirements for the course, how you have engaged in or displayed these characteristics. I would consider approaching the self-assessment as a kind of narrative explaining how much you have grown or learned in the class, and where you hope to go in the next half of the semester. And be specific. Talk about how you have engaged in this growth: are there specific assignments you have done that really contributed to your understanding of the material? What kinds of activities do you intend to engage in for the last half of the semester?

Beyond that, you need to focus on the specific requirements for the course. You have all been assigned a few short quizzes and a long essay; many of you have also done oral presentations. As you explain what grade you think you deserve, talk about your performance on these assignments and what that performance demonstrates regarding the effort, skill, improvement, risk-taking, and initiative you have shown. You should also talk about your participation in class, which is a requirement for this course. If you don’t talk much in class, you should explain how other activities you engage in should count. And here let me encourage those of you who are somewhat shy in public speaking to participate more on commenting on the blog. That can demonstrate engagement even if you do not talk every day in class.

Furthermore, you need to discuss the “Optional Components” in the class; you are required to write blog posts/comments or do group projects. If you have done some of this, then great. Talk about what you have done and how it helps to justify the grade you think you deserve. If you have not done any of these components yet, I’m not interested in excuses. I do want to hear, however, what you think you’ll be doing for the rest of the semester to ensure that you complete the requirements for the class. If your intention is to do a group project, then explain who you’ll be working with; talk about what you think you’ll be doing in the project. If you want to write some longer blog posts, what are some of the subjects you think might want to cover?

How long should the self-assessment be? I have no set page requirement. Your main goal is to explain how what you’ve done in this class meets the expectations I have laid out in the syllabus. And you should focus not just on ticking off requirements, but on how your actions related to the course fit with the broader spirit and intentions of the class. You get to determine how many words it takes to explain all of this, but please note that I am using these assessments as a major component in determining your grade. If you turn in something that you’ve put no work into, that says to me that you are not really putting much effort into this class.

Readings for Tuesday, March 6

March 3, 2012

You can find a transcript of Malcolm X’s speech here.  However, I also recommend that you listen to an audio version of it, which I’ve posted below:

Listening to the audio, I think, gives a bit of the flavor of Malcolm X’s rhetoric and the audience’s response to it.  This, in turn, provides a bit more insight into why Malcolm X was such a frightening figure to white folks at the time.  Please note that there are some divergences between the audio and the transcript.  All of the same parts of the speech are present, but the audio presents the argument in an order different than the transcript version.

Anyway, you can find Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” here.