We're on our way back to our sprawling campus!

MONDAY, MAY 22, 2017

In the meantime, do trees exist?:
Last Friday, we found Paul Krugman's column semi-discouraging. He ended the piece like this:
KRUGMAN (5/19/17): In a perverse way, we should count ourselves lucky that Trump is as terrible as he is. Think of what it has taken to get us to this point—his Twitter addiction, his bizarre loyalty to Flynn and affection for Putin, the raw exploitation of his office to enrich his family, the business dealings, whatever they were, he's evidently trying to cover up by refusing to release his taxes.

The point is that given the character of the Republican Party, we'd be well on the way to autocracy if the man in the White House had even slightly more self-control. Trump may have done himself in; but it can still happen here.
"Think of what it has taken to get us to this point," Krugman said. His chronology took us all the way back to maybe last week.

It has taken a lot more than Trumpistry and its discontents to get us to this point. For one example of what we mean, consider this timely news report from the next day's Times.

The Times was reporting a recent firestorm within the realm of academic philosophy. The firestorm surrounds a little-read paper about a touchy topic by Assistant Professor Tuvel.

The basic question raised by Tuvel was poorly explained by the Times. That said, our idealistic young analysts all howled in pain at this point:
SCHUESSLER (5/20/17): [U]nderneath the hyper-charged war of words lies a wonkier but no less significant battle over philosophical method.

''In terms of quality, it's a very normal paper,'' Justin Weinberg, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina and the editor of Daily Nous, a philosophy news website, said in an interview. ''But some people will say that's part of the problem.''


Ms. Tuvel's paper is squarely in the tradition of analytic philosophy, an approach that focuses on clarifying concepts and that relies on blunt logical analysis and sometimes outlandish-seeming hypotheticals and analogies. (Do justifications for eating meat also support cannibalism? Are unwanted fetuses akin to rapists?) But it's an approach, some of her detractors say, that is unsuited to the subject at hand.

''That's fine when you are looking at abstract metaphysical questions,'' like ''whether trees exist, or things that exist in the past exist in the present,'' said one of the signers of the open letter, Talia Mae Bettcher, a professor of philosophy at California State University, Los Angeles. ''But when you start philosophizing about racial oppression or trans oppression or other contemporary social issues, different methodologies need to be employed.''
According to Professor Bettcher, normal procedure is fine when you consider normal philosophical questions. But not for something like this!

Sad. According to Professor Bettcher, a normal philosophical question might go something like this:
Normal philosophical questions:
1) Do trees exist?
2) Do things that exist [sic] in the past exist in the present?
Maybe Professor Bettcher was kidding. More probably, she wasn't. Assistant Professor Tuvel's approach would be fine when examining questions like that!

Readers, do trees exist? As our academic elites have been pondering such questions, the society which hands them their sacks of money each month has spent the past thirty years slouching toward Trumplehem.

The intellectual/journalistic descent started long before Trump. As this headlong descent occurred, the professors were asking if trees exist.

Krugman wrote as if our current situation started with Trump. Increasingly, our long-time unquestioned MVP has been sliding toward the only dumbness large enough to match the dumbness of Trumpism itself. We refer to the disabling dumbness of Trump hate, which is the latest way we liberals, and our failed elites, have arranged to malfunction.

We're on our way back to our sprawling campus. Full services resume tomorrow. At some point, we expect to return to this topic, and to Jim Holt's book from 2012, one of that year's ten best.

Meanwhile, do trees exist? Three decades after Rush went national, the professors still aren't sure.

For that reason, they haven't moved on. Such roads have all led to Trump.

Just for the record: "Things that exist in the past?" We're assuming that wasn't a typo.


  1. Ms Tuvel is being criticized because she was NOT pursuing a question like "do trees exist". Somerby pretends that PHILOSOPHY professors were wasting their time pursuing whether trees do exist, fiddling while Rome is burning. Ms. Tuvel was not fiddling and that is the problem, presumably.

    Krugman didn't confine himself to last week. Trump has been tweeting for a long time. His loyalty to Flynn goes back to before his inauguration. His connection to Putin presumably goes back further. I realize Somerby thinks the Trump problem goes back to earlier deterioration of our ability to think critically. He might as well go back to our respective childhoods on that one. I don't believe there was a golden age when everything was much better and people made good decisions about candidates. The people elected Nixon after all, and there was plenty of prior evidence about who he was. The people rejected civil rights and embraced McCarthyism long before Somerby saw a decline in journalism.

    It is a little late to be complaining about the content of the field of philosophy. Worrying about how we know that trees exist has been their bread and butter for several thousand years. It is a bit late for Somerby to change his major.

  2. I suppose TDH, if had lived back then and had a blog, would have been snarkily critical of Bishop Berkeley in a similar vein. There were big problems back in Berkeley's days that the philosopher, in his ivory tower, seemed to ignore, thus contributing to those problems.

  3. "Trump hate" is not dumb for the Democratic establishment, or even for the media. The establishment hopes to get back into power without any changes in their own policies, and especially they way that they get the big money from banking, finance and other industries. Concentrating on Trump's flaws is very easy (and gets a lot of assistance from Trump himself), although this did not work as a tactic in the 2016 election.

    The MSM cooperated in generating "Hillary hate" by breathless reporting of the fake Benghazi and email-server scandals. Paradoxically some of them, such as the NY Times, also indulged in "Bernie hate" during the primary campaign. Of course all this is basically the same as the media's past "Clinton hate" and "Gore hate" that Bob still complains about. These campaigns presumably are about reader/viewership, but also the egos of reporters who can damage political figures with personal attacks.

  4. Somerby is out of his depth when he starts arguing that professors need to stop studying whatever their curiosity dictates and instead focus on practical real-world problems (preferably the ones he thinks are most important). He might as well be arguing that art should be representational and music pleasant and forget speculating about what dark matter is, too. Knowledge should be of some practical use or it is a waste of everyone's time and money.

    Folks over at Harvard are cringing that this man received an undergrad education there without being taught the importance of free inquiry in the arts and sciences. Next Somerby will be calling for the reinstatement of Proxmire's golden fleece awards.

  5. ""Things that exist in the past?" We're assuming that wasn't a typo."

    If Somerby cannot imagine how and why the present tense might be used to refer to the past, he should give back his degree. He pretends to have been reading philosophy books since his graduation. Not much evidence of that, if he doesn't understand this much.

    1. “If Somerby cannot imagine how and why the present tense might be used to refer to the past…”

      Sure, you can use the present tense to describe the past. But the quote was wanting for an “-ed.”

      … or things that exist in the past exist in the present…” should have been “existed in the past.”

      Unless you count past and present in the time continuum as _the same thing_, then it was a nonsensical thing to say.

      “Things” can exist in both the present and the past as they constantly evolve through time, but they can’t exist at the same time. But that is indeed an interesting pursuit of inquiry for time-travel theorists.

      Hell, it may have really been a typo. Maybe just fuzzy thinking. Maybe just a blurb of deeper thinking that might have been unraveled. Who knows?

      Anyway, I can see where Bob may have really howled. It came before the deep past-present conundrum. Writeth Schussler:

      “(Do justifications for eating meat also support cannibalism? Are unwanted fetuses akin to rapists?)”

      Hm. I hope those aren’t actually the questions leading philosophers are presumably unpacking. Because if they are, then modern philosophy has devolved into depravity.

    2. This is easy. The past only exists in the present because it relies on a mental comparison between two time periods (which occurs in the present) for its existence. In the past, the past is the present, not the past at all, so the past didn't exist in the past. It only exists now. So, no "ed" needed.

    3. “This is easy. The past only exists in the present because it relies on a mental comparison between two time periods (which occurs in the present) for its existence. In the past, the past is the present, not the past at all, so the past didn't exist in the past. It only exists now. So, no "ed" needed.”

      Touché. But I think your comparisons are literary, not literal. And your comparison of the present and past relies on a mental state. Would the past and present exist without it? Or is the passage of time (and being) simply an illusion?

      I think past and present can (and do) phenomenologically exist without a mental state to mediate them… But then again, I’m a materialist, and limited in my way of thinking.

    4. This is why dogs cannot tell how long you've been away and greet you as enthusiastically after 15 minutes as after 4 hours. They don't have the same consciousness of time as humans do.

      Time is a mental construct and past is a mental construction arising out of our consciousness and especially both memory and the ability to hold several things in mind at the same time. We can also imagine other states that do not exist, such as ideal events or feared events. The passage of time is subjective. it goes slowly when you are having novel experiences and quickly when you are doing routine things and not paying much attention. The term "phenomenological refers to subjective awareness, so it cannot exist without a mental state." I think you are referring to the existence of a material world separate from the mental, that has its own passage of time regulated by something like the atomic decay used to keep clocks synchronized.

      This is very much the subject matter of psychology, cognitive science and philosophy. I am puzzled by why Somerby is mocking it. There are many practical applications to understanding how people experience time. Has he gotten so obsessed with making fun of professors that he has forgotten that many important discoveries still come out of universities?

    5. "Time is a mental construct..."

      Perhaps. Is the mental construct responsible for entropy?


    6. And BTW, I don't think Somerby is mocking it. He started a conversation. In my view (best Bernie Sanders voice), that's a good thing.

      And I realize I'm being mocked now, but you did make me think. Thanks.

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  7. Tuvel made up an issue that does not exist. Clearly the issue with Rachel Dolezal is because she made false claims about her background. Additionally, Tuvel shows no understanding that cultural misappropriation is a different issue than transracialism. Were it possible to literally and earnestly change race, there is no indication it would be particularly controversial. The only controversy from white people trying to become more dark-skinned are issues related to skin health. Obama was considered our first black president even though he was raised by his white mother. Trump himself goes to great length to not appear white, although no one knows what race orange is.

    Tuvel also pretends to ignore the notion that the privilege of being white is much greater than the privilege of being male, seemingly in an attempt to mock feminists.

    It is not clear that Tuvel produced an academic paper, rather it seems she wrote an article with poorly constructed sentences that are difficult to parse.

    This issue was better addressed in the 80's with movies like Soul Man and Trading Places, which is embarrassing if you are trying to claim to be an academic.

    1. There is gradedness in racial categories, which permits crossing boundaries at the edges of each category (Obama is neither wholly white nor wholly black). Sex has been regarded as an all-or-nothing category without such gradedness (at least socially) but now there is an increasing recognition that there is gradedness within gender too.

      Passing to obtain social privilege and for other reasons has been going on as long as there have been people. There are many examples with respect to race. Martha Sandweiss's recent book Passing Strange (2009) describes the life of Clarence King, who was a famous personage (founder of the USGS and noted explorer), who was white and blue eyed, but who also passed as a black man living in Queens, had a wife and several kids. He led dual lives. Many women have passed as men and vice versa throughout history.

      I disagree that being white has more privilege than being male. White women generally earn less than black males (except in NYC) and women's rights came long after racial laws were changed. We still have had no female president (look at what happened to Hillary) and there is arguably less proportional representation of women (who are 50% of the population) than black people (who are 12% of the population).

      It might be interesting to argue that the idea of cultural misappropriation is a continuing backlash against passing now that racial category boundaries are becoming less well-defined (and their existence thus threatened).

      Movies like Soul Man and Trading Places are insensitive and not realistic depictions of people passing across racial lines. The movie Pinkie was better, but films generally show crossing from black to white, not vice versa.

      Being female, I have always wondered why a man would want to give up his privilege to become female. Tuvel consistently frames sexual identity as a choice. I don't believe it is any more a choice than being gay is. Race category boundaries may be more fluid for people with lighter skin. There is certainly no choice for someone very dark, short of a "Black Like Me" transformation (that one in the name of journalism).

  8. You can Bettcher ass Talia was a diversity hire.

  9. Krugman is not going to talk about entirely what you talk about ad infinitum every day. However, over the long haul he has discussed this issue.

  10. Yeah, Krugman and Trump are pretty equatable. Now THAT'S dumbness....

    OT: The reemergence of Joe Leiberman reminds us, how, finally, what a limited thinker Bob Somerby is. The Daily Howler's compelling
    case against the Press Corps leading up to the debacle of 2000 (bearing in mind, Bob was once a much more serious writer and thinker) always had a major problem: Bob would never concede Gore had himself made foolish errors that contributed to his loss. The worst being giving the VP slot to Leiberman, who had famous condemned Bill Clinton's sexual misconduct. Leiberman, a dull figure void of any charisma, was an anchor tied around the campaign that only pointed to another of the campaign's flaws, it's sheepish attempts to back away from the accomplishments of Clinton.
    We have learned, over the intervening years, that Leiberman is a lot worse than useless, a ridiculous asshole of zero character or personal merit. Which means Gore was actually an lot more wrong than we knew, and Bob's stubborn refusal to see the whole picture that much more incorrect still.
    And now they both roll around in the slime, trying to normalize the pussy grabber. In somebodies hell, Joe can run the FBI and Bob wins the Pulitzer....

    1. Leiberman secured the Jewish vote, which Gore couldn't do, being from the South. His criticism of Clinton was essential because of how upset the Democrat Catholics were (think Dowd). You don't see it because you are probably not a member of either of those voting blocs where are essential parts of the Democratic coalition.

      If you think Somerby has gotten old and lost it, that goes double for Leiberman. But Trump is just taunting the left (like he did to his Republican critics by interviewing Romney) and has no intention of appointing Leiberman to anything. Remember when Trump met with Gore?

      Palmer Report is talking about these health incidents on Trump's trip as a manufactured excuse to resign before they start impeachment.

  11. For what it's worth, my author cousin L in NJ, who is half black, chooses to identify as black. She's light-skinned enough that she could identify as white if she wanted to.

  12. Just wanted to say that "slouching toward Trumplehem" made my day. Thanks, Bob!

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