« November 2016 | Main | January 2017 »

December 2016 posts

Lesson in Freedom

By Jonathan B. Wight

Alexander McCall Smith is the prolific author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series and The Sunday Philosophy Club series among other things.

My current read is 44 Scotland Street, which was written on a whim as a newspaper serial.  The author’s interest in philosophy and ethics appears in various plots and twists.  Who owns the property rights to a potentially valuable painting that was mistakenly given away to a charity event and then bought by Ian Rankin?  I won’t give away the answer. 

Meanwhile, “Big Lou,” the proprietress of a local coffee bar in Edinburgh, finds herself having to teach a young university student a thing or two about ethics and freedom:

“The problem was that some people preached social philosophies that paid no attention to reality.…  It was perfectly possible to portray scientific knowledge as socially determined – and therefore not true in any real sense – when one was safe on the ground in Paris; but would you ask the same question in a jet aircraft at 35,000 feet, when that same knowledge underpinned the very engineering that was keeping one up in the air?  By the same token, French philosophers have been able to admire Mao and his works because they did not have to live in China at a time.  And they knew, too, that what they preached would never be put into effect.…

“But the young man had laughed and turned to the reading of a magazine.…  [Big Lou] had remained silent and merely gone to the door and locked it, discreetly.  Ten minutes or so later the young man got up to leave … and had tried the handle of the door.  When he realized it was locked, he had to turned her and demanded that she let him out, which she had done.

“He had looked indignant, as she had taken her time to walk to the door and unlock it.  So might the jailor in a prison swagger to his task.  And as she and opened the door for him she said: ‘You’re a university student, aren’t you?  I’ve never been that…. But don’t you think that I’ve just been able to teach you a lesson about freedom?’”

This is what's called "active teaching"!  It does get the attention of students.

In my own life as an undergraduate student I admired the writings of Mao and the bold vision for transformation.  In studying Latin American economic development, it was easy to revere (on paper) the gumption of Castro in overthrowing the corrupt Batista. My time of awakening came when doing field work in Brazil for my dissertation, and the intrusive corruption of big government was painfully oppressive and clearly destructive of productivity and economic justice.

There had to be a better way, which is not laissez faire and not command and control.  How to navigate that unhappy middle ground is best described by Dani Rodrik in his various works such as One Economics: Many Recipes.  It’s a messy world of politics and path-dependency.  Daylight is provided by the clear and brave theorizing of someone like Milton Friedman (advocating for a floating currency, for example, back in the mid-1960s) or John Maynard Keynes in the 1930. 

Policies are often adopted in the midst of crisis, and the ethical practicality of many proposals are overlooked in the political sound bites.  Trump’s “let’s ban all Muslims” proposal strikes me as one such proposal that pays no attention to reality.  We may see many more.  In the meantime, back to reading novels for inspiration and philosophy!


By Jonathan B. Wight

Yes, everyone knows that the historical figure Jesus was not born on December 25. The later Christians were smart enough marketers to enfold the new Christian celebration on top of the earlier pagan winter solstice observations. 

For me Christmas means so many different things.  One is a time to reconcile with friends and foes.  A friend reminds us that “Allahu Akbar” is what Orthodox Christian Arabs say when they pray to the Almighty.  Same God, so let’s not let language get in the way.  And likewise for Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, and agnostics. 

Christmas is mainly about reuniting family, whose members make long pilgrimages to be with one another.  I have so many happy memories of a big bustling household—often chaotic—with loud joyful singing.

This Christmas was about being with new friends, and sharing fun technology.  I learned two things: one was about the image messaging service Snapchat, a fun way and informal way to stay connected with family and friends. 

Jonny.eyesThe second technology I learned was how to make Cinemagraphs—still life photographs with small eerie animations.  It’s not a video, but a Harry Potter type photograph, where the subjects move their eyes (here’s one example--click to see the effect). 

Another example is this creation from Niagara Falls (click to see the effect).


Without the excuse of Christmas, I would be toiling at work and wouldn’t have the mental downtime to learn useless things like Snapchat and Cinemagraph.  And my youthful teachers would likewise not be in Richmond to instruct me. 

Savor your Christmas time, even if you call it simply “happy holidays.”

“Incremental Change Feels Enormous”

By Jonathan B. Wight

The writer Zadie Smith grapples with the meaning of the political lurch to the right in both Europe and the United States.

Does it mean that multiculturalism was a horrible mistake, the wrong road taken?

Her answer is beautifully addressed in a New York Review of Books essay.  She explores how multiculturalism is simply part of the larger historical story that grows out of colonialism and other global legacies. There are many examples of diverse groups getting along fine, and other examples of the contrary.

It is wrong to think, she argues, that homogeneity of culture is any guarantee of peace and social acceptance.  Think of the vitriol between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, who wear the same clothes and worship the same God while loading their bombs. 

The alleged dream of 7 out of 10 Republicans to return to the idyllic decade of the 1950s and the homogenous white culture of the time is a false dream to Smith, because you can’t take only the good, you have to accept all the bad that went with it.  Zadie Smith thus doesn’t believe in time travel: “Time travel is a discretionary art: a pleasure trip for some and a horror story for others.”

Zadie Smith reveres the incremental progress that since the 1950s has opened many opportunities, including the right to interracial marriage, the right to drink out of any water fountain, and the right to live where she chooses.  “Such incremental change feels enormous,” she says.

Her conclusion is one that fits within pluralist and virtue ethics:

“If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world—and most recently in America—the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind…[and] there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.”

[Thanks to Jack Fiedler for the link!]