Author Archives: Bharath Vallabha

Nationalism, Universalism and Diversity

The below is posted at Daily Nous.


What should be the relation of a philosophy department to the country it is in? For example, is there a sense in which a philosophy department in America ought to be distinctly American, tied more closely to the history, culture and identity of America than to that of other countries? Or should the fact that the department is in America be irrelevant to the philosophical work that is done in the department?

I will call the former view, that the department ought to be distinctly American in some sense, nationalism. And I will call the latter view universalism.

So according to nationalism, philosophy departments in, say, America, Mexico, India, Germany, Egypt and so on, though they will have a great deal of similarities and points of overlap, nonetheless will be different in their philosophical projects since they are interwoven with their home countries in different ways. According to universalism, however, philosophy departments in different countries ought to be the same in terms of content, since philosophy departments ought to transcend the contingent fact of their location.

A couple of clarifications. First, nationalism in the sense I am talking about is distinct from patriotism. The difference between a nationalist and a universalist isn’t who loves their country more. A universalist can be as patriotic as a nationalist. The difference is about the philosophical relevance of the country the department is in to the work of the department.

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The Ego is an Egg

How can people of diverse backgrounds harmoniously live together? In the same way that people of similar backgrounds can harmoniously live together.

The obstacle to harmoniously living together isn’t the diverse backgrounds part. It is the living together part. When people of a similar background live together (in a family or a house or a city or a country), inevitably they too find reasons for disagreement, for disharmony.

If Christians and Muslims and Atheists aren’t able to live together in peace, it is no help to simply separate the groups. For a group consists only of Christians or Muslims or Atheists, inevitably what will surface are disagreements about what means to be Christian or Muslim or an Atheists.

Or an American or an Indian or Brazilian. Or a democrat or a republican or a communist.

The appeal of the bogeyman they, those others who are causing the disharmony (by they immigrants, or the alt right, or the Muslims, or the rich, or the communists, etc.) is that it covers over the internal disagreements of a group. In the face of the they, we and us acquires a shiny, harmonious facade. As in: we are alright, we are good to each other and get along and live in harmony; the trouble only begins with them, their arrival, their interference in our lives.

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The Oppressor and the Oppressed

Is the relation between Trump and Russia a mystery? In one sense, it is perfectly clear. But we as a society are afriad to talk about it openly. Even Trump seems afraid to talk openly about what he is thinking about Russia. As if his mind and actions have followed the dots, but he is hesistent to speak up about where the dots are leading.

The progressive framework of the 20th century depends on a contrast, between the opressor identity and the opressed identities.

When colonialism and segregation were true, for the first 2/3 of the 20th century, the oppressor identity was, blunty put, the white man. More generally, white culture traced to European culture of colonialism. And the oppressed identities were all the peoples who were colonized, people from Africa, Asia, Latin America. As well as white people within European and American culture who were deemed back then less than the typical white male: women, jews, gays, the disabled, and so on. Call this the white opressor framework.

In the last 50 years this white opressor framework has seeped into education, popular culture, and the government. Not that white privilege has been eradicated. But the idea that there has been white, male privilege until mid 20th century has become more and more accepted.

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The Political Question of Our Time

Is democracy in trouble in America? Yes. And in a way, that is a good thing.

No, I haven’t become a fascist. But there is a kind of democracy that America has had since its inception 240 years ago which is ending. That is a good thing. The question is: what will take its place?

The declaration of independence from 1776 reads:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

And yet, when this declaration was affirmed, “the consent of the governed” was not applied to women or African-Americans. The declaration was even seen to be compatible with slavery. How could “all men are created equal” be compatible with slavery?

It is entirely natural if one sees blacks or women as unequal to white men. “All men are created equal” then means, as it was originally intended to mean: All men of a certain culture, education, class; namely, men like us writing this declaration, men like the British King or men like the Enlightenment thinkers, European men of standing.

So the way the founding fathers read “All men are created equal” was: “All people who are created equal as the most rational humans (who happen to be European men who are educated, cultured…) are endowed with certain unalienable Rights…” It was the way the declaration was generally read till the 20th century.

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Fostering Trust in a Pluralistic Society

Before the election, I used to get my news generally from four websites: cnn, huffingtonpost, slate and politico. Don’t know how I settled on these, but there it was. If I wanted to check out conservative opinion, I went to Foxnews and later on Breitbart.

Since the end of the election I have generally avoided these sites. I voted for Clinton and seeing news of Trump and his side taking the victory lap was no fun. But he won, and that’s his right.

Everyone once in a while, like yesterday and today, I get curious what is going on. So I go back to the “neutral” cnn and the liberal huffingtonpost. And then after reading around for a little while, I feel this is pointless and skip it.

Why? Not just because of Trump. But because it is amazing how much CNN and Huffingtonpost are, however unwittingly, giving more power to Trump with how they are covering him. Then again, I suppose it is all part of the process.

We are in the midst of some big tectonic shifts in our society, in America and the world more generally. One of these vast shifts is that with the rise of social media, the idea that there is a uniform, shared structure among all citizens for news is being obliterated. There is no more Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings, journalists who seem to merely provide the news and no partisan spin; whose very ethical character seemed defined by the sense that they held themselves to such a standard of neutrality.

But in the 60s for Cronkite and even the 90s for Jennings this was possible not just because of their intrinsic moral worth but because people were dependent 3 or 4 or 5 news outlets for their main national news. It was the very power Cronkite and Jennings had, or their network heads had, which shown through as the moral uprightness of not abusing that power.

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Being Stillness

When I started this blog I called it “In Search of an Ideal” because there was a very particular destination I wanted to reach. The subtitle I gave it then was “Towards a pluralistic public philosophy.” What I wanted were not principles exactly, but atleast something conceptual to hold on which would articulate how people of diverse backgrounds, habits and values can live together in peace globally.

emerson-hall-harvard.jpgThe starting point of my thinking was the idea that the Enlightenment ideas of post-medieval Europe, captured in the modern, liberal theories I was taught in academic philosophy and which were passed around the world through colonialism, were limited and failed to provide the theoretical foundations for a truly diverse society. Primary evidence for this was the fact that academic philosophy was itself the least diverse discipline in the humanities.

Idownload.jpgf this was true, and given that America was founded in part, or mainly, on those Enlightenment ideals, it suggests that American society, and in particular it’s government, did not yet have the ideals, even conceptually, of how to foster diversity in a robust sense. Perhaps America doesn’t aim to be a land of “full and equal diversity,” and aims instead to be rooted in a historical Europeanness. If so, that is another matter. But insofar as America, as a country and as a concept, aims to be a land of equality for all, I concluded that if academic philosophy itself failed to live up to the ideal of diversity, how much further from such an ideal must be the nation.

download-1.jpg.jpgIf this was true, and if America was the greatest experiment  (or atleast , a great experiment) in the ideals of the Enlightenment, then it suggests that we as a species, around the globe, had not figured out, even in theory, what it would mean for the global situation to be just and truly democratic. What does it even mean to speak of justice and diversity at a global level? Of seven billion people? As someone with passing knowledge of marxism, critical theory and post-colonial theory, I felt that the global capitalism of the last 50 years retained and smuggled in many of the power imbalances of the colonial period. But what is the alternative, even conceptually, in theory? This I did not find in post-modern theories. If these theories critical of modernity left mainly unscathed the core Enlightenment ideals which were the bread and butter of “prestiguous” philosophy departments in the English speaking world – if they failed to change parts of academic philosophy – that suggested broader limits of these philosophies.

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The Coming Cycle

2017 is set to be a tumultous year. I suspect much of the public discourse on CNN or Facebook, and among family and friends who differ on politics, will follow a pattern which will be generally as inflammatory as it will be unproductive:

– Trump and his administration will do something that goes against the perceived norms of what presidents or administrations normally do.

– Liberals will be in up in arms about how Trump is a bigot, a sexist, a conman and aims to be a dictator like Putin and who is eroding the principles of democracy.

– Trump and his supporters will use the clamor from the liberals, and the protests, to say they are the victims of “political correctness” run amok, and Trump will wear any provocative act as a badge of honor, and feel more entitled to act as he wants. And his supporters will become focused on culture war wins over liberals instead of holding Trump up for scrutiny.

– The more the conversation gets stuck between the moral indignation of Trump critics and the defensive self-righteousness of Trump and his supporters, the more the DEEPER intellectual and conceptual issues will recede into the background. That is, the more the discussion becomes about Trump in particular, the more the broader forces of our country and world, of which Trump is a symptom and not the main cause, will be lost sight of.

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Politics and Critical Philosophy

I am realizing more and more that my interest in politics is fueled by a question which is not discussed in the media or is much in the public consciousness. And that is the question: What is the relation between politics and critical philosophy?

By “critical philosophy” I mean 19th and 20th thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Dewey, Foucault and so on (a motley crew, no doubt) who were critical of modern, Enlightenment philosophy of the 17th and 18th centuries (I am avoiding “post-modern,” since it means so many different things at this point).

Modern philosophy is tied together with achievements such as the rise of democracy, modern science, capitalism and secularism. Thinkers like Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant were philosophers who created conceptual frameworks to make sense of, strengthen and defend these achievements. And yet, as the critical philosophers suggested, there are deep problems and internal tensions within the conceptual frameworks of modern philosophy.

The question then is: Can the achievements of modernity such as democracy and secularism survive whatever flaws there are within the frameworks of modern philosophy? If so, how?

The clearest example in the 20th century of connecting critical philosophy to politics is communism. Marx’s argument was that it is not possible to retain capitalism once the alienated conceptions of freedom and individuality inherent in modern philosophy were discarded – that true freedom required that workers overthrow the capitalist system. In the Russian and Chinese revolutions, as these ideas were being implemented, it seemed that democracy and secularism as well would have to be discarded.

The most notorious example of an individual philosopher in the 20th century trying to connect critical philosophy to politics is Heidegger. His affiliation with Nazism, and his antisemitism, became inseparable for Heidegger from his philosophy, and from the sense that Western society had to break from, as he saw it, the technological and individualized alienation of modernity. Though many Heidegger scholars have worked hard to separate Heidegger’s philosophy from his Nazism (and I think a good deal of what is great in Heidegger’s thought can be conceptually separated from Nazism), nonetheless it cannot be denied that the coming together of politics and critical philosophy was what gave Heidegger himself a messianic feeling. And he falsely assumed that the Nazis would share such a feeling and treat Heidegger as its main philosophical voice. He failed to take into account that the Nazis could be satisfied with a much cruder version of critical philosophy, one which treated only Hitler as the main prophet.

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Rock n roll is the soundtrack of the 60s. The revolution fueled by free spirited musicians breaking free of their past, of the stodgy old 50s, and standing up for a new world of peace and solidarity. Bob Dylan. The Doors. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. “I can’t get no satisfaction”. A generation of young whites turning against their parents to support the new world of racial equality.

That, at any rate, is one way to look at it. The way that has been reified in our cultural consciousness.

Another way to look at it – which doesn’t displace the first way, but is its less glamorous, more psychologically inevitable side – is in terms of the excesses of rock n roll: the parties, the drugs, the wanton womanizing, the getting rich. The trashing of the hotels. It is surely a strange way to help create an equal society by throwing millions upon millions of dollars down the drain into parties, fancy rock n roll planes, into repairing whole hotel floors destroyed by white youth acting out in the name of equality. What was all that about?

It was an example of “minoritization”: the affirming of oneself as a minority, so that one can live one’s life as one wants free of the stigma of supporting oppression.

It was not simply white people supporting blacks, and with the focus mainly on blacks, so that blacks can attain equality. It was the white youth discovering themselves as a minority, as an oppressed group, held back and controlled by “the system”. It was working class, young males (doubly a minority!), who just happen to be white (but which doesn’t matter because they are minorities) discovering their liberation, their path out of oppression. So it’s fine if they waste millions of dollars on drugs and alcohol, and partying – while millions of people are starving or are going to prison out of civil disobedience – or if they buy fancy mansions or castles (as in the case of the Beatles or Rolling Stones or Elvis), and live like royalty, because they are themselves minorities really – part of the change of the status quo, of the people from the bottom getting to the top.

The point isn’t that Jim Morrison or John Lennon or Bob Dylan (all musicians I love) aren’t minorities, and that rock and roll was simply a way for white people to keep control of the society by coopting the revolution. That really they were part of the oppressors, who fooled themselves or others into thinking they are part of the oppressed. No, this isn’t it. The situation is more interesting and subtle.

What the rise of rock n roll shows is the explosion in the concept of a minority – of the myriad ways in which one could be a minority. One can be white, and male, and heterosexual, and yet still take on the mantle of being a minority – say, if you come from a working class background, or if you are young and feel oppressed by tradition. Or if you simply identify with a new medium such as rock n roll itself, as opposed to the traditional mediums of classical music or Broadway. One doesn’t have to a black or a woman or gay to be a minority. One just has to identify with an identity which is, in some important way, not the status quo, and which is therefore not represented as much in the public domain of “the cultured and the elite.”

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