Plato on the Ridiculous and Donald Trump

Donald Trump is a fairly ridiculous human being. Though he has somehow managed to inspire admiration in many, even some of his supporters concede that he isn’t especially admirable, and many of his detractors apparently agree that he is not merely a bad person and unfit for public office, but positively absurd, a laughingstock of the sort we more readily expect from political satire than from political reality, perhaps all the more ridiculous for being real rather than fictional. Such, at least, we might infer from the frequency with which social media users and some traditional media outlets subject Trump to ridicule and present him as an object of derision and mockery. Admittedly, politicians in general, and especially presidents, are always easy targets for humor and satire, and the most successful comedians can find a way to make almost anything funny. In some conservative circles Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were — and in some, still are — laughed at with tedious regularity, and it may not be that Trump is made fun of more than they were, or by more people, but simply more often by people I happen to pay attention to. Even so, Trump gets made fun of. A lot. This worries me.

In some ordinary, imprecise sense of the word, I find Donald Trump ridiculous. What I don’t find him is funny, in any way, someone who inspires laughter of any kind. I share what some readers will no doubt regard as the Standard Liberal Elitist Disdain for Trump; pick a widely held complaint about Trump, and I probably at least sympathize with it. So my inability to laugh at him is not an expression of any kind of respect for the man or his office. I simply can’t laugh at him, or at any of the many discussions or representations of him designed to make me laugh at him, from Alec Baldwin’s caricatures to the latest post on my Facebook feed. This isn’t because I’m a generally humorless guy; anybody who knows me well will probably tell you that I’m at least occasionally too silly. It’s that I don’t think I should laugh at him. More than that, I don’t think you should either. I don’t think anyone should. Insofar as something that is ridiculous is something worth laughing at in a contemptuous, dismissive way, I don’t find Donald Trump ridiculous.

Plato explains why.

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Criticisms of Academia

Academics are no strangers to criticism. When scientists, historians, philosophers, and scholars of all kinds publish their research, part of what they are doing is setting their ideas forth to be criticized. In many cases, criticism of past work is an integral part of new work, and sometimes new work consists exclusively in criticism of old work. Though members of different academic disciplines differ widely in the ways that they criticize their colleagues and how they respond to criticism, in most fields criticism is expected, and in some a publication that provokes no criticism can even seem like a failure. Criticism and disagreement are ideally instruments of intellectual progress, and while I have never met an academic who has not received some bad, useless criticism, I have also never met a successful academic who has not benefited tremendously from criticism somewhere along the line. Criticism isn’t just familiar to academics; it’s an essential component of what they do.

For better or worse, however, most academics are familiar with another sort of criticism that is at least not so clearly essential to what they do, or useful at all: criticisms of academia as such. For at least the last four decades, sweeping general denunciations of academic research, colleges and universities, and professors themselves have become a recognizable part of American culture, or at least that part of it that cares at all about such things. The critiques have often been expressed as complaints about academia in general, but more often than not the target in view has been the humanities and certain of the ‘softer’ social sciences like anthropology and sociology, as opposed to natural sciences like physics, chemistry, and biology or certain ‘harder’ social sciences like economics and some areas of psychology. The familiar complaints are that academic research is more and more narrowly specialized and technical, that as a result it is increasingly obscure and inaccessible to non-specialists or at least to non-academics, that it deals less and less with questions and problems that matter to ordinary people, and so has become more and more irrelevant. Frequently the critics add that academic disciplines are largely driven by fashion and strongly discourage creative, original thinking, so that most professors and scholars are in fact conformists unwilling to challenge the dominant dogmas of their colleagues rather than bold, daring intellectual innovators. Occasionally they charge that when academic research seems to have some bearing on important, real-world problems, this appearance is deceptive, and that all too many academics are uninterested in putting their ideas into practice and acting on what they at least pretend to be their convictions. Different critics differ in which of these charges they include or emphasize, but each is a familiar part of the wider genre of academia-bashing: academic research is too specialized, too technical, obscure, inaccessible, trivial, irrelevant, conformist, impractical, and too tenuously connected to real life.

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Felician University Event: “Policing the Police”

For those of you in the area, Felician University’s Committee on Leadership & Social Justice will be sponsoring the fourth and final event in its year-long series on “Race and Criminal Justice in America.” Previous events covered racial profiling in Bloomfield, the ethics and constitutionality of police stops, and community policing in Bergen County.

Our upcoming event is “Policing the Police,” about allegations of police abuses by the Newark Police Department, featuring a public screening of the PBS Frontline documentary of that name, followed by commentary and discussion by Junius Williams, the Newark-based author and activist. I’ll be moderating. (We may have some other speakers, but for now, Mr. Williams is the confirmed speaker.)

The event takes place Thursday evening, April 27, at 6:30 pm, in the Education Commons auditorium on Felician’s Rutherford campus (227 Montross Ave, Rutherford, New Jersey 07070). The event is free and open to the public, and is sponsored by Felician’s Committee on Leadership & Social Justice, its Pre-Law Program, its Department of Criminal Justice, and its UN Fellows Program.

Hope to see some of you there.

Extra reading: Here’s an an article about Newark’s policing problems in The New Yorker by Jelani Cobb, the filmmaker. Here’s the U.S. Justice Dept’s consent decree re the Newark Police Department. Here’s the Department of Justice’s list of special litigation (including consent decrees against law enforcement agencies). The website of Newark’s Independent Monitoring team. Jelani Cobb, again, on the fate of federal consent decrees under the Sessions Justice Department.

Blogging Hiatus (for real this time)

So I’m on my way to the office today, thinking,

I’ve been on a de facto blogging hiatus for the past two weeks, and am not sure when I’m going to get the chance to write again. Truth is, I simply can’t do justice to the blog while juggling all of my other commitments right now. Yes, I could write a lot of crap for the blog that would adversely affect my other commitments, but I can’t do justice to both.

In the past, I’ve threatened to go on blogging hiatus but not done it. Having been on blogging hiatus this time, I should hurry up and announce it before anyone draws attention to it, lest it look as though I’ve gone on blogging hiatus without announcing it. I mean, that would be absurd.

So I get here and discover that Riesbeck has posted just before I have, drawing explicit attention to my de facto blogging hiatus, and making it look for all the world as though I’ve gone on blogging hiatus without announcing it. Damn it all! Continue reading

Inconsistency, Hypocrisy, and Bombs

In the past, Irfan has often threatened to go on blogging hiatus, only to succumb to weakness of will after a few days. So it figures that now he’s gone on blogging hiatus without first threatening it. This may be evidence that his current hiatus is itself a result of weakness of will, or it may just be evidence that he has a life. Or, you know, work.

Whatever the reasons and causes for Irfan’s extended absence, I can’t bring myself to allow a post over two weeks old to stand as the first post on this blog. So, at the risk of revealing my own incompetence, I’m going to write a post about politics.

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Talking Treason

The U.S. Constitution defines “treason” as follows (Article III, Section 3):

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.

It’s not the only possible way of defining treason, but it’s the legally accepted definition of treason in the United States. Treason is a crime, and like all crimes, those accused of it enjoy a presumption of innocence until proven guilty in a court of law. Since it’s a capital crime, punishable in principle by death, the presumption of innocence matters even more than it ordinarily would, not that the presumption is any less applicable to non-capital crimes.* Continue reading

503+ Boots on the Ground and Counting

No comment on this item except to say “I told you so”:

More flexibility for American commanders appears to be coming. Representative Mac Thornberry, Republican of Texas Republican and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters Wednesday that he expected the White House to remove “artificial troop caps” in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The current “force manning level” for Syria sets a limit on the number of American military personnel in Syria at 503. But the limit does not count temporary reinforcements, like the roughly 400 personnel who were deployed in Syria when the Marine artillery battery and Army Rangers were sent to the country.

There was another telling indication on Wednesday that American Special Operations would continue to play an important role. Col. Jonathan P. Braga, the chief of staff of the Joint Special Operations Command and the former deputy commander of Delta Force, has been named as the next senior operations officer for the American-led command that is leading the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Surely you remember President Obama’s “no boots on the ground” promise (“promise”)? It took less than three years for the promise to evaporate and be forgotten. Continue reading

Reviewing Terrorism

Since Irfan and I have been discussing terrorism lately, I was intrigued by the recent review in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews of Vicente Medina’s Terrorism Unjustified: the Use and Misuse of Political Violence (http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/terrorism-unjustified-the-use-and-misuse-of-political-violence/). The review strikes me as a bad review in a number of ways, but, probably unintentionally, illustrates what seems to me to be the relatively sterile character of debates about how to understand ‘terrorism.’

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John Davenport: The Case for a Constitutional Convention

My grad school friend John Davenport (Philosophy, Fordham) has an interesting essay up at the GPS site, well worth working through, on the need for a constitutional convention to amend the U.S. Constitution. I don’t have the time to comment on it at the moment, so for now, I’ll just commend it to your attention. Feel free to comment either here or there.

“GPS,” incidentally, stands for Gotham Philosophical Society, a quasi-academic philosophical society based in New York, and founded and run by my friend and erstwhile Felician colleague Joe Biehl. I wonder whether Joe’s work for GPS might be fodder for Derek Bowman’s Free Range Philosophers project; in any case, it’s a valuable and much needed contribution to intellectual life in the NYC metro area.

Stephen Hicks on Islamic Terrorism: A Response

Stephen Hicks (Philosophy, Rockford University) has an article up at his website, also published elsewhere, on “How to Tame Religious Terrorists,” meaning, essentially how to tame Islamic terrorists. Below I’ve posted a long comment I wrote in response. I’ve added hyperlinks in the version below, and added a clause to one sentence to clarify its meaning (“as is typically done in the United States”).

It should go without saying that my point is not that all Islamic terrorism can be justified as a legitimate response to real grievances (it can’t), but simply that some Islamic terrorists (and would-be terrorists, or sympathizers with those terrorists) have real grievances. One way (though not the only way) of “taming” terrorism would be to reduce the number of real grievances they have, especially when we ourselves are the direct or indirect source of the grievance–as in the Israeli case, we are. Continue reading