It’s time for a faculty meeting

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09/03/2015 · 22:37

A short reading list for Kim Davis; understanding law, justice, and religious liberty

By now the internet has had quite a time discussing Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who has refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. I always feel sorry for the people who wind up in Kim Davis’s position, though I am sure part of her probably enjoys the attention for what she perceives to be a heroic stance against what she considers to be an immoral law.

This question–should you obey laws that you don’t agree with–is an oldie and a goodie in political theory and philosophy, where people make a distinction between law and justice for good reasons. What is lawful may not be just, and what is just may not, currently, be lawful. But the absence of any sense of justice in the law robs the law of its moral legitimacy, or why people will go along with the laws in the first place.

I’ve always maintained that the point of theory is to help people empathize with different ways of thinking about the world, particularly ways that differ quite a bit from their own. Towards that end, I put together a little reading list for students who want to think about Ms. Davis and her problem, which is: she believes same-sex marriage violates natural (divine) law (physis), but her professional legal role in enforcing man’s law (nomos). (My computer seems to want to insist on turning nomos to gnomes. What the actual hell? Does the word gnomes come up more often than the concept of nomos? Really??)

Laws and Justice, on the duty to obey laws, or not, and sublimation of the self to political community in classical studies:

Plato: Apology
Plato: Crito
Plato: Phaedo
Cicero: On Duties
Augustine: City of God
Aquinas: Selections from the Summa–get a reader that curates for you
Areopagitica by John Milton
Machiavelli: The Prince; The Discourses
Hobbes, Leviathan
Locke, First Treatise of Civil Government
Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws
Bentham, Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation
Burke, Empire, Liberty, and Reform
Marx, On the Jewish Question (this one right here, if you can read no other; this is why conservatives should read Marx).
Mill, On Liberty
Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil

I’ve got to run off to class but I will come back later in the week with some contemporary writers and thinkers who have been riffing off the concepts from the classics, but you can’t actually get at an answer for any of this without Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Antonio Gramsci, and some of the writings of Mahatma Gandhi.

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Library and book song parodies: a collection of my favorites

Ok, so don’t you start. I know that chapter is a mess and 100 million years overdue. I know. I just don’t know how to fix it.

So, of course, the answer is YouTube. It’s never not YouTube. It’s the procrastinator’s friend.

Here is a collection of my favorite nerdy book parodies of various songs, including very cute kids, adorable adults, good sport teachers, and clever librarians:

I Like Big Books – Dowell Middle School

Dowell Middle School “Bookloose”

“All About Those Books” MDIHS Library

All About That Book – Griffin Elementary Literacy Night

Napptown Books (“Uptown Funk” Parody)
(the little tiny girl in the shades with her cool and handsome teacher cracks me up here: I dunno about you, but I have a crush!)

Read It All (Taylor Swift Parody) by WaffleBox
(Boys in books are, in fact, better)

Bruno Mars Uptown Funk Parody: Unread Book
(the ending cracks me up)

Harvard Economics Department’s Call Me Maybe
(Greg Mankiw being *charming*, as an antidote to his ish policy advocacy and political theory)

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What are the duties of reviewing?

So I am contributing a book chapter on transport for a handbook on environmental ethics, and I got a critique of an earlier draft from a philosophy Phd student, who put in all sorts of lovely suggestions, but at the end, in a final comment, says, “I think you need to restructure the whole thing.”

Arrrrrrrrrgh. Now, it’s entirely possible that I have made a mistake in structure, but I re-read the whole thing and I don’t see the need to restructure. And moreover…I would never tell anybody to restructure without suggesting a possible structure that strikes me as an improvement. I got to wondering: is this a field difference? Structure in argument is so important to philosophy; perhaps it would be bad form for a reviewer in that context to tell others how to structure an argument. It’s possible. For me, the “restructure” comment seems a bit facile; of course you can structure an argument multiple different ways. I structured it the way it made sense to me. If it doesn’t make sense to you, tell me why to at least give me a lead on what I might do differently. Or if your own structure is so fabulous, go write that chapter and leave me to mine.

As a reviewer, when I complain about something, I feel some duty to suggest an out. Of course, some things can’t be fixed, but then there are rejections on the one hand and suggested caveats on the other. There are methods fixes. It’s not your job to educate other other authors, but pointing people to possible solutions strikes me as the least a reviewer ought to do.

It’s one of the problems with service-related work in an environment of university corporatism. Reviewers aren’t paid, usually, and as a result, they rather feel like an author and journal editor should be grateful for whatever reviewers feel like giving, and many a time when I am reviewing a particularly problematic piece I, too, get fed up and think “It’s not my job to figure out your problems for you.” And yet something a bit more than “This blows” also strikes me as in order.

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Ptolemy Grey, physician-assisted suicide, and the Kantian question of the future

Yesterday we had our Bedrosian Center book group discussion of the Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley. I am a great fan of Mosley’s writing in general, and this book has become one of my favorites. It is a very difficult book because of its complexity and tone, which is sad.

I brought up what I considered to be the central policy issue in the book–there are many–and I was surprised to discover that I was the only reader who viewed the central decision in the book to be about physician-assisted suicide. In short: Mr. Grey is 91 years old at the start of the book, and he is confused. He has been suffering dementia for some time, and he is living in squalor, among things he inexplicably hoards. He can’t seem to understand much of what is going on around him, but he does understand that his grand-nephew Reggie, who looked after him, has been murdered. And he wants to know who did it, and he wants to right that wrong. He’s got several wrongs to right, but that one is most pressing.

He is recruited by a shady social worker into a drug trial for a dementia medicine that will give him his mind back, but is also almost to kill him within a few months, if he is fortunate. If he is unfortunate, he will die right away. Thus for all practical purposes, the drug trial is a form of physician-assisted suicide.

Bioethicists and health policy folks will readily recognize the issues in play, and they are apparent here, except for the whole “Death Panels” –a master stroke of framing that prematurely ended the national discussion about physician assisted suicide as part of national health legislation. I’ll cover a couple of things first, before I get there.

My colleagues were on Ptolemy’s side, and it would have been a short book if he hadn’t agreed to the drug; I was the only hold-out because I’m just not sure what I would do myself in that situation. It’s one thing to think about the issue in the abstract. It’s another when you are actually staring at the gun, as it were. In any case, we did cover some of the problems for Ptolemy and the decision to undertake physician-assisted suicide:

1. He’s not really in any shape to truly be giving consent. He’s confused, but he’s not fool, but it’s not clear what consent means when a patient is as confused as Mr. Grey is. Taking away the decision is awful and paternalistic. Pressing the decision is also awful and paternalistic.

2. He does not have relatives who are disinterested in his death, who might be there to support him through the decision, granted his confusion. Now that Reggie is gone, his relations pretty much see him as a pathetic old man they don’t really know what to do with, who isn’t doing anybody any good, including himself, and so why shouldn’t he just die and let them have what money he has? They don’t even know about his big cache; if they knew about that, his exit would be all the more appealing to them.

He does have Robyn, who is also not disinterested; but she does try to point out the consequences of the choice. He knows, and she knows, that she could stop him if she really wanted to, but she also doesn’t seem to want to override his own choice. One of Robyn’s best qualities is that she respects Ptolemy’s manhood–genuinely–at an age where much can emasculate. There is something decent and humane in the mutual understanding and other regard between them.

3. He also has, in his current condition, very little dignity or quality of life. These are two factors that I think have to be absolutely central to the public ethics of social policy, and they are not. They should be–I repeat.

So we have a bunch of conflicting principles there, and how you weight them will lead you in different directions. Mr. Grey’s family does not strike me as exceptional; I think lots of people are just waiting to clear out their parents’ or grandparents’ homes and sell them. It would be nice if people were better, but we do have a goodly bit of evidence that, sometimes, they are not.

Finally, and this is the part we don’t deal with in Ptolemy Grey, we have

4. Medical businesses and insurers also are not disinterested financially in ending lives. And that is one reason why the ‘death panels’ discussion turned south so quickly. For those of us who think about these issues, the “death panels” discussions were exasperating, like, “Geez, America, this is why we can’t have nice things.” But on reflection, I do understand it better: many HMOs treat people pretty badly. I’ve had one uncaring, indifferent, robot of a doctor after another act like I was a waste of his 7 minutes. There are great doctors out there, just like there are great professors, but there are also real jerks in both games, and thinking about the HMOs and the way medical services are delivered in this country, I can’t blame people for worrying about handing over ANY decisions about the end of life to that industry.

We still made a mistake not having a much more serious discussion about dignity and the end of life during the ACA debates, but still. I get it. I do.

The reason why I am a little on the fence in Ptolemy Grey’s case, and my own, comes back to the little core of Kantianism that tends to guide my intuitions about “the future.” With his tricky “lying to the murderer” scenario, he turns us inside out, on ourselves, and confronts us with the reality of the future rather than our perceptions of power and control surrounding it, and that is a bitter bill for Americans, particularly American progressives, who think you control your future. If you eat healthy, you’ll live longer. Sure, in some instances. In others you still get cancer or squished by a car or gunned down. If you save your money, you will retire in wealth and get to golf all day. If you are fortunate. Alternatively, you will get wiped out by one stock shock after another, or conned by somebody like Madoff, or you die before you use it.

The future is a problem for Kant, and it’s a problem that planners like me spend a good deal of time thinking they can influence, and they do, but not as much as we’d like, and that’s a problem, too. So some planning things to turn out really nice, and others do not. Because that mix may actually be, as Kant notes, in the nature of the future.

For ending our lives, how exactly do we decide when “there is no hope” for a person? I agree, there is little dignity in a long, awful, pain-filled death at the hospital when most people would rather die at home, with the chance to say goodbye to their families. It’s wrong to make medical professionals like nurses effectively torture patients with treatments that have virtually no chance of working, instead of letting the individual carry himself off gently while surrounded by his friends and family.

But in Ptolemy’s case, his body was pretty healthy save for the dementia. With Robyn in his life, he was being cared for. It is possible that given a year or two more, treatments for dementia could prove out. We’re not talking about intense suffering and short timeline when breakthroughs are pie in the sky. Mr. Grey might have had some years yet. And I hesitate to conclude that even in his confused state, those years could not have had value to him, even if he is confused. The young think that aging is terrible, and it is, but youth, too, has its terrors.

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I’m going to go teach today because I (still) think teaching is one of the most honorable things I do

Despite American anti-intellectualism, the popular perception that I do nothing of value as a tenured professor, those who are joyously clapping their hands about MOOCs and the “higher education bubble” and their belief that I will be replaced by a recording of Michael Sandel, I still think showing up to work with students is both wonderful and honorable.

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Let me say this out loud for the Trump-ites: I genuinely like my neighbors from Mexico

I do not see them or their children as a burden on my taxes any more than I see white kids or white old people as a burden on my taxes. Some of them are criminals, sure. Some Americans are criminals, too. That’s humanity for you.

Mostly, I just see people who would like to flourish.

The languages, cultures and practices they have brought with them from Mexico are often diverse and interesting, and I enjoy learning about them. I would some folks from Mexico to change their attitudes about animals, just like I would like lots of Americans to change their attitudes and behaviors towards animals, too.

I do not say this as a Californian who, as the National Review alleges, enjoys having cheap labor to raise my kids, clean my house, or cut my lawn for me. In the interests of full disclosure, I do have a lovely guy who comes in to help Andy and me harvest the fruit from the trees. He’s a nice man, who has raised very nice kids, one of whom is a US Marine. This impresses me.

I am not saying this out of “political correctness.”

I am saying it because I simply like people, young and old, from all different places. Los Angeles would be a much poorer place without all these folks, and I am glad of them. I love it when their kids come to USC, and I get to meet them. I do not feel like newcomers have taken anything from me; I might feel differently if I were competing with them for jobs, but globalization and mechanization has changed the jobs landscape forever, and the Mexicans here are not the ones who pushed those agendas, if I recall properly.

So that’s it. I fell in love with Los Angeles after hating my first year here because of the people. The built environment here is often a challenge for those of us who do not drive, but the weather is nice, the universities good, and my neighbors from everywhere are always showing me something new. They have added value to my life and my city, and thus, to my country.

I just thought that was worth saying.

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E.B. White, planning, and plotting the resurrection

Because classes are soon to be upon us, I have reviews long overdue, my students are waiting for feedback, and the book is sitting there, waiting to be worked on, I have, of course, been reading about gardening. Katherine White’s Onward and Upwards in the Garden is a collection of her gardening columns for the New Yorker, and while many of them are charming, and she’s a good writer, I find her tastes and her assertions of her superior tastes oddly irritating. This is her on Peace roses: “Take, for example, the rose called Peace–the “rose of the century” on cataloguer terms it. Everybody knows this huge, rosy-yellow rose, and nearly everybody admires it and tries to grow it. In spite of its lovely colors, I don’t like Peace. Even a small vaseful of peace of Peace roses is grotesque.”

Now, I am 100 percent sure that anybody who thinks Peace roses–sweet, little Peace roses–are “grotesque” really, truly has no sense of what is actually grotesque.

All that said, I am still reading.

Most captivating is the description of Mrs. White from her husband, E.B. White, in the introduction in the way that she stubbornly continued to garden knowing full well she would not see the results:

Armed with a diagram and a clipboard, Katherine would get into a shabby old Brooks raincoat much too long for her, put on a little round wool hat, pull on a pair of overshoes, and proceed to the director’s chair–a folding canvas thing–that has been placed for her at the edge of the plot. There she would sit, hour after hour, in the wind and the weather, while Henry Allen produced dozens of brown paper packages of new bulbs and a basketful of old ones, ready for the intricate internment. As the years went by and age over took her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion–the small, hunched over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there wold be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting here with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.

I know an awful lot of urban planners who are gardeners. Some are gardeners for locavore reasons, and while laudable, I find locavore reasons for gardening to be unconvincing. I can taste no difference between my tomatoes and those from the farmer’s market. My lettuce is great but it’s so damn hot here you can only grow lettuce for a short time before it turns to shoe leather (my yard is brutally sunny).

Instead, those of us planner/gardeners who not motivated by instrumental reasons are constantly intervening to make something nice simply for its own sake. We are simply devoted to the future, knowing full well we don’t control it and yet we can influence it, a little, and that faith in the future is both decent and sustaining.

I often hear that planning is not a “coherent” field, but if I had to lay my bet on what glue ties planners to each other, it is this faith, and perhaps that is enough.

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It’s time for a faculty retreat

Horrified woman

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08/17/2015 · 06:36

My book is in incoherent piles on my kitchen table, thank you for asking

No, really, I love having to talk about a project that is causing me hives.

AIGHGHHHHHHHHHHH.

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