Monday, April 28, 2008

Who are you to say that? Moral Relativism on the Run

One of my classes never ends without a student bringing up moral relativism. I've said before here that the conservatives are wrong about "tenured radicals". Students don't learn how to be relativistic liberals in the university because of liberals; they seem to come to the university already believing that there is no such thing as a universal morality. One student told me the other day he thinks morality is even "personal"--each person gets to decide what is right and wrong. ( I told him that he had just earned an F for the class. He asked why. I said just because. I asked him if he thought it was unfair of me to do that to him. He said yes. I asked him what fairness could possiblity mean in his world where every individual gets to make up what is right and wrong.)

Peter Singer offers evidence to suggest that not only is there something like a global human ethic, but that there is moral progress. Fewer and fewer people around the world today believe that inequality based on race or ethnicity is justified. Gender inequality is still more acceptable,but less so than it was a few decades ago.

It may be the case that people only say they believe in equality when they actually do not practice justice and fairness. Singer cautions us not to underestimate the power of shaming the hypocrite. Ideals matter and if we can work to make them part of our everyday language and expectations, then we are contributing to moral progress.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Who Makes Us Think? The Top Intellectuals in the World Today

Foreign Policy and Prospect Magazines are conducting a poll to determine who the top public intellectuals are in the world today. You can vote here for the top 5 individuals who have made significant contributions to their fields and have increased awareness of their ideas to broader spheres.

The third largest group in the top 100 are philosophers. What's interesting about the select group is the number of North Americans and Europeans. Could this be ethnocentric bias or a reflection of the difficulty of doing intellectual work in the rest of the world? What publics do global public intellectuals reach?

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Memories of Empire, Part Two: My Old San Juan

American citizens may soon be surprised to find out that their choice for President will be decided by people who are not allowed to vote in the November election. No, its not a conspiracy of capitalist thugs or some shadow government. Its the people of Puerto Rico.

Right now, Clinton and Obama are running neck and neck to attract delegates before the nominating convention this summer. It seems every state counts. Puerto Rico is not a state, but since 1917, all Puerto Ricans are U.S citizens. They will be allowed to vote in the Puerto Rican primary. And it is going to matter this year. Puerto Rico has 60+ delegates in the primaries. That's more than most states have and ranks it up there with the powerhouses of New York, California, and Florida.

However, Puerto Ricans will not be able to vote in the general election in November. Why? Because they do not live in a state. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth holding of the United States. It has limited powers of self-rule and any laws passed by the government of Puerto Rico can be vetoed by Congress. According to the Constitution, it is the states that get to set the rules for voting (in accordance with federal law and the Constitution). Hence, it is only citizens who are residents in states who may vote in federal elections( thus, citizens of Washington, D.C. don't get to vote either--of course, there are 4 million Puerto Ricans, so its a big difference).

As Antonio Darder point out here, this primary situation is a mixed blessing. Hopefully, some people might be shocked to learn the power Puerto Rico has in this decision making process of leadership--without really having a meaningful place at the table--and start to ask questions.

The reason for all of it, of course, is simple: colonialism. Puerto Ricans are second class citizens and the island, an economic disaster, has been exploited for its natural and human resources for over 500 years, first by the Spanish and then by the United States.

Over a hundred years ago, Mark Twain spoke out over this condition. He became a leader in the Anti-Imperialist League and wrote about the Treaty of Paris between the U.S. and Spain that gave the former control over Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Phillipines. Perhaps we should finally heed his words:

"It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land."

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Beyond the Academy Conference: June 10-11, 2008

An interesting conference that I might be attending:

Beyond the Academy Conference: June 10-11, 2008
Call For Abstracts

The Beyond the Academy Conference is now scheduled for June 10-11, 2008. It will take place on the Arlington Campus of George Mason University, beginning the evening of the 10th and continuing all day on th 11th.
Meeting just outside the nation’s capital in the midst of a presidential campaign year, public scholars from across the country will discuss the ways in which their work is more than “academic,” how it helps strengthen democratic institutions and public life and can bring about civic change.

To be considered for the program, send a 450-550 word abstract by April 28 to with the subject line “public scholars.” Possible topics include, but are not limited to, the following:

* Reclaiming the civic mission of the university
* The incentive structure of university scholarship
* The self-understanding of scholars and their relationship to the public
* How to be the public’s allies in democratic work
* What kind of research does a democratic public need?
* Organic vs. traditional scholarship: How does Milton matter?
* Assessing the engaged campus movement
* Independent scholars, the academy, and the public
* the multiple ways communities, individuals and non-academic institutions contribute to public knowledge (e.g., film festivals, literary festivals, literacy initiatives)
* Advocacy versus Engagement
* Book sessions

For more information go to


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Memories of Empire, Part One: Absolut(ly) Aztlan

Absolut Vodka has created a huge web flurry with this new ad campaign in Mexico. The ad depicts what an "ideal" world might look like from the standpoint of Mexico--one in which Mexico has the national boundaries it had in about 1821. This was before Anglo-Mexican settlers revolted in the state of Tejas and created the Republic of Texas in 1836; and also before the war of 1846-1848 with the United States (regarded by many to have been an aggressive and unjust war for territorial expansion. Young Abraham Lincoln, then a Congressional Represenative from Illinois, voted against the war. Thoreau went to jail for failing to support it with his taxes. Even Ulysses Grant was shocked at the the conduct of U.S. troops during the war).

Blogs all over the web are calling for a boycott of Absolut, calling the ad "racist" and in poor taste.

While Mexico does have many monuments to heros who fought in the war against the United States, I hazard a guess that most Mexicans are not dreaming of any Reconquista (despite what the nativists are arguing).

What strikes me as more interesting is how vociferous and angry the responses have been to this ad among conservative voices.

I'm sure that the anger is not a reaction of guilt for the imperalist impulse that the U.S. embodied in the 19th century, leading it to land grab so much in Latin America. Its more likely the case that the reaction is part of the growing fear being felt in the U.S. about a loss of power and stature on the world stage. Gregory Rodriguez calls the new border fence a "670 mile-long shrine to American insecurity".

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