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The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World

The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided WorldThe Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World by Michael Ignatieff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wish I could rush into an ethics classroom and teach this book. It is excellent. I devoured it quickly.

Ignatieff, both an academic and political leader, explores the impact that human rights have had upon the globe, shaping the moral order. A key idea of the book is that over the last fifty years we have improved morally as a species, with the advances in human rights, humanitarian responses to suffering, and environmentalism.

He sets out to various global hotspots to explore the current global moral order--Queens, LA, Rio, Bosnia, Myanmar, Fukushima, and South Africa. In these places he dialogues with poor women living in shanties and prominent public officials. He is a sympathetic and compassionate listener who draws keen philosophical insights from what he observes. A brilliant model for how to do academic work in our time.

What he discovers is that there are a few key aspects of ordinary virtue that humans seem to share. Trust, tolerance, and resilience are among them. And key to promoting these virtues are well run public institutions and civil society. Ordinary virtue becomes almost impossible in a broken, violent, corrupt society. He writes, "The whole point of a liberal society is to create laws and institutions that make virtue ordinary."

The most brilliant chapter is that on Fukushima, and I would recommend it as reading right now in our moment of global pandemic. He writes that the triple disaster in Japan--earthquake, tsunami, meltdown--was the unimaginable and that we moderns are not well prepared for the unimaginable to happen. Yet, the unimaginable has consistently been occurring the last twenty years eroding our trust in our institutions which keep failing us and eroding our ability to plan for and hope for our futures. He writes, "Instead of embracing the future, imagining radiant tomorrows, we now think of the future in the language of harm reduction, target hardening, and risk management." This breakdown has made humans more individualistic in their resilience strategies.

Here is the final paragraph of that brilliant chapter, where he discusses hope:

The hope I am talking about is an ordinary virtue: it is free of hubris, and so it takes for granted, that we will not always be able to avoid the worst. At the same time, it is not misanthropic: it prepares for the worst but does not think the worst of human beings. It is anti-utopian: while it believes that over time we get better at learning from our mistakes, it does not have any faith that we can fundamentally change; it is rationalist but questions that History, with a capital H, is knowable. It draws faith from the past, from the memory of the samurai, but it also knows that sometimes all you can do is to keep moving, keep going toward the future, no matter how uncertain the destination. But resilience has an unshakeable, physical element of faith. It affirms that we do learn and that we are not condemned to endless repetition of our folly. This complex hope is, I believe, what underpins human resilience, more than an attitude of responsibility toward others. It is also a metaphysical commitment, deep inside, usually left unspoken, to the future continuity of human life itself, no matter what, a commitment best expressed by the belief that we will not only survive but prevail.

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Climate Justice

Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable FutureClimate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future by Mary Robinson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Robinson shares some of the struggles to get to and to implement the Paris Accords and also the stories of various climate activists from around the global with an emphasis of how climate action intersects with human rights and inequality work. I was hoping for some more intellectual substance, but the stories are good.

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The City and Man

The City and ManThe City and Man by Leo Strauss
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A congregant who was a retired political science professor died last year and because he and I had engaged in various philosophical discussions over the years, I was able to select some books from his library. He was a student of Strauss, so there were a handful of Strauss' books to choose from.

This volume is made up of three long essays--one on Aristotle's Politics, one on Plato's Republic, and one on Thucydides' Peloponnesian War. In each essay there are some interesting insights, but overall I found Strauss to be a most infelicitous writer. The final essay was by far the best and the most interesting, making me want to read Thucydides in full (I've only ever read excerpts).

An overarching theme seems to be doing what is practical and realistic in politics.

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Where I Currently Stand in the Democratic Primary

Warren-1

It's Super Tuesday.  We in Nebraska don't vote till May 12 and one wonders what our choices will be by then.  Unlike previous election cycles I have not been blogging or social media posting my thoughts in the primary the last year, though I have been following it and reading other people's posts, open to persuasion.

There have been five candidates in the primary that I donated money to.  A large number.  There were a handful of others I could have been interested in had they performed well.  At various times I've favored different candidates, but I've largely left myself open, knowing that my vote would come very late in the process.

After all the developments of the last 48 hours, I now feel confident to publicly state my choice.  The only remaining candidate I support in the primary is Senator Elizabeth Warren.

I don't care for any of the old white guys running and wish none of them had.  We have so many strong and excellent candidates to offer that we could have had a good primary determining the future of the party without the old Baby Boomers trying to hold onto power. 

Michael Bloomberg frightens me.  He seems like a classier, more centrist version of Donald Trump--a rich guy who would try to force or buy his own way.  I'm not sure I thought this about him a decade ago, but post-Trump various things become clearer and more important.  Here in Nebraska we've endured a billionaire governor, and I don't recommend it.  Our governor uses his money like an extra veto if he doesn't get his way by funding ballot initiatives and primary challengers to legislators who oppose him.  I don't want something similar at the federal level, even from someone like Bloomberg who agrees with me on some issues.  I feel like it is most important to defend and strengthen our democratic institutions, and Bloomberg's sense of entitlement that he can buy his way into the top tier threatens that.

Bernie Sanders I mostly just disagree with as a matter of policy.  His most rabid supporters also annoy me.  I feel like he ran an insurgency in 2016 that damaged our party.  But I'm not as afraid of him as some pundits and establishment figures seem to be.  

I'm supposed to be in Joe Biden's demographic--a white, middle-aged, heartland moderate.  But Biden holds no appeal for me.

Joe Biden shouldn't have run.  He had achieved a career capstone with a well-regarded turn as Vice President.  For more than thirty years, since he ran disastrously the first time, I've never cared much for him.  I find him more than a little creepy.  Back in the Aughts Dick Cheney once said on a Sunday morning show, "In the last thirty years no one has been more wrong about more things than Joe Biden."  Cheney was right.  Biden has a long career, but little of it is inspiring.  He does seem to be motivated by compassion, which is lacking these days.  I've never understood the thought that he would have performed better in 2016, because all evidence was to the contrary based on his two previous runs for the presidency.  And even in this cycle he was fifth in New Hampshire, which would normally eliminate someone.  I still don't get how his first primary win in thirty years of trying so dramatically changed the race.  Particularly with the clear evidence of his decreased function with age, his inability to run a well-organized campaign to date, and the whole Ukraine mess which really should have eliminated him if for no other reason to spare us even the appearance of anything untoward.

But my biggest critique of Biden at this moment is that he is a nostalgia candidate, and I don't think looking backward will win us the election.  I think the Democrats need to put forward a new vision for the country and not just run in reaction to Donald Trump.   I honestly don't see Joe Biden inspiring people, and I have no confidence that he defeats Trump.  Truth is, if it comes down to Bernie and Biden on May 12, I may vote Bernie simply because he has a forward-looking vision (even if one I don't agree with) that inspires a lot of people as opposed to Biden's nostalgia tour.

One more thing about Biden.  If he should win the nomination and the general election (which I have zero confidence in), I believe we'll have four more years of stagnant government and likely a GOP victory in 2024.  I don't see that Biden creates us any lasting movement for the future.

Elizabeth Warren I do like.  She is competent, passionate, energetic, and strong.  I was shocked when she fell so quickly last fall from her short time as a front runner.  She has seemed for some time now to clearly be the candidate who appeals to enough people in the center and the left.  Most people who I know who were backing another candidate had her as a second or third choice.  I'm a little angry that she's been left out in the rapid changes of the last few days.  

So, I'm no longer undecided.  The winnowing of the race has left one candidate standing that I can support in the primary.


The Monarchy of Fear

The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political CrisisThe Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis by Martha C. Nussbaum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book serves as both a fine introduction to Nussbaum's important work on the emotions and particularly how they intersect political thought and a fine contribution to the various works over the last few years to help us better understand our current American situation and how to respond to it.

Nussbaum views fear as a threat to democracy and rightly perceives our current time to be a fearful one. Fear can become worse when it feeds anger, disgust, and envy. What democracy requires is hope, the opposite of fear, and the faith and love that hope feeds.

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Two Treatises of Government

Two Treatises of GovernmentTwo Treatises of Government by John Locke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had somehow made it to 45 and well into my philosophy career without reading all of Locke's second treatise, though I had read substantial bits at various times in my life, beginning in high school debate. Now I've done it.

Americans would be well-served to re-read Locke this season to remind themselves of the limits needed on executive power. As I read, many passages were deeply resonate with the impeachment hearings on-going in Washington.

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Packer on Political Language

A perceptive essay by George Packer in the Atlantic examines political language, particularly that of Trump and contrasts it with the language currently used by progressives.  Some insights:

The strength of Trump’s populist language lies in its openness. It requires no expert knowledge and has no code of hidden meanings. It’s attuned to some of the strongest currents in American pop culture, and it gives rise almost spontaneously to memorable slogans—“Build the wall,” “Lock her up,” “Witch hunt,” “No collusion,” “Make America great again.” It’s the way people talk when the inhibitors are off. It’s available to anyone who’s willing to join the mob. 

***

By contrast, the language of the contemporary left is anti-populist. Its vocabulary, much of it taken from academia, is the opposite of accessible—it has to be decoded and learned. Terms such as centered, marginalized, intersectional, non-binary, and Eurocentric gender discipline separate outsiders from insiders—that’s part of their intent, as is the insistence on declaring one’s personal pronouns and showing an ability to use them accordingly. Even common words like ally and privilege acquire a resonance that takes them out of the realm of ordinary usage, because the point of this discourse is to create a sense of special virtue. Many of these changes happen by ambush—suddenly and irrevocably, with no visible trail of discussion and decision, and with quick condemnation of holdouts—which gives them a powerful mystique.

The language of the left creates a hierarchy of those who get it and those who don’t. Mastering the vocabulary is a way of signaling entry into a select world of the knowing and the just. The system is closed—there’s an internal logic that can be accepted or rejected but isn’t open to argument or question. In this sense, though much of the language of the left has academic origins, its use in the public square is almost religious. The abandonment of language that brings people in rather than shutting them out is one of the left’s many structural disadvantages in American politics today.


What's going on with the Right?

An excellent, and I think helpful, column in the Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf on what's going on with the Right.  Even deeper than the racism currently being exhibited is a psychological temperament that seeks order and fears difference and change.  He criticizes the Left for how they respond to the Right and provides insights on the best way to build coalitions to advance the nation.


Primary Update

I haven't posted anything really about the Democratic primary, so I thought I'd write my thoughts to date.  I've mostly been following the campaign by reading profiles and articles and what I've heard on NPR.  I pretty much gave up TV news after the election.  I was camping during the first debates and this week's debates I saw snippets of each night, as household chores and child's bedtime routines were more important (and without cable tv I couldn't have it on in the background, since they were on CNN).  Nor have I seen any of the candidates, though they come nearby all the time and many of my local friends have.  So, I haven't been too engaged in the process yet.

Back at the turn of the year, as announcements began, my favorite candidates were Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Jay Inslee.  I like her work as a Senator and felt her Midwest pragmatism was a good direction for the party to take in this election.  I like him because of his record in Washington state and his focus on climate change.  But neither of them has gained much traction in the effort so far.

When Mayor Pete first announced, I was pleased that an openly gay candidate was in the race, but didn't think a 37-year-old mid-sized city mayor was qualified or ready.  I went ahead and gave him money, as I had the other two just mentioned, because I felt some obligation to support the gay candidate.  Then, of course, he did take off, and I began to wonder if there is a possibility there.  I'm confident he'll be the nominee one day and may still be the VP candidate this time, but as yet I'm still not convinced he's the top choice.  Though if I don't have a particular favorite come time for me to vote, I may just vote for him anyway.

I wish Biden weren't running.  I was a good VP and should have retired with a secure legacy and functioned as a good elder statesman.  I've never really cared for him and have never understood those who thought he would have fared better than Hillary in 2016, because all empirical evidence, based upon his previous runs for president, was to the contrary.  

I also wish Bernie had declared victory, as he changed the national political discourse and many of his policies are now mainstream.  I wish he weren't running either.  I think he could be more effective working on legislation in the Senate.

After the first debate and based upon things I'd been reading, I was drawn to Sen. Kamala Harris as my top choice.  One analysis I read said that she has the chance to build the broadest coalition, as she is acceptable to folk in both the moderate and leftist wings, often as a second or third choice.  And I thought based upon her debate performance (which I also had some critical thoughts about) she could compete well with Trump.  Last night she did not convey the same confidence, so I'm on the hunt again.

I've liked Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the Senate but haven't been sure I want her as President.  But she's been running a very good campaign, and I'm more open to her as the candidate than I was a few months ago.

So, that's where I currently stand.