Ursula Le Guin and Philosophy of Feminism Reading Lists

Ursula Le Guin‘s appearance in a recent conversation I had with some friends about favorite science fiction novels brought back memories of the time I used The Left Hand of Darkness in a class.

In the fall semester of 2007, I asked to teach Philosophy of Feminism. I had long wanted to do so, and thanks to a flexible department chair, got the assignment. (I haven’t taught it again since, but hold out hope that I can do so sometime in the near future.) My students were a mix of philosophy, women’s studies, and sociology majors. (There were a couple of male students in there, which should not have been surprising but was.) My assigned readings were not excessively ambitious; I selected Feminist Philosophy: An Introductory AnthologyAnn Cudd and Robin Andreasen eds., Blackwell, 2005–as the primary text; it featured–among others–Mary  Wollstonecraft, Simone Beauvoir, Kate Millett, bell hooks, Louise Antony, Martha Nussbaum, Sandra Harding  et al.

While discussing my plans for the semester with Scott Dexter–a keen sci-fi and fantasy buff– he wondered if it might work to assign some feminist science fiction to illustrate the class’ theoretical concerns and themes. That sounded like a pretty damn good idea so I looked around a bit and settled on Le Guin’s classic. More than anything else, it was the book’s radical reworking of gender and sexuality that convinced me it belonged on my reading list.

I assigned TLHOD in the 11th week of the semester. (Interestingly enough, none of my students had read Le Guin prior to the class. That’s how I remember it, but I might be mistaken.) When TLHOD rolled around, we had read and discussed ten weeks worth of wall-to-wall feminist theory covering basic definitions, sexism, gender, epistemology and ethics. I asked my students to bring in a one-page written response to Le Guin, which would serve as the basis for the class discussion that week. In particular, I asked them to note how they thought the novel resonated with the feminist theses that we had been grappling with all semester long.

I was pleasantly surprised by how well the assignment turned out. Most of my students enjoyed TLHOD; I was gratified by the sophisticated and thoughtful responses they offered. I read these aloud in class, inviting the author to clarify and amplify their analysis, and asked other students to pitch in as well. The ensuing discussion was among the richest we had all semester. My students confirmed my intuition that theory would be dramatically and vividly brought to life by literature. (They also helped me enjoy an entirely new reading of TLHOD.)

While I immediately decided to put at least one week of fiction on my philosophy reading lists from then on, I have not followed up adequately. Since then, I’ve assigned fiction in a philosophy class on only one other occasion: Dostoyevsky‘s ‘The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor‘ from The Brothers Karamazov in Philosophy of Religion. Sometimes this has been due to a lack of imagination on my part, and sometimes laziness. I’m hoping similar indolence won’t hold me back in the future; if my experience with Le Guin’s classic was any indicator, literature should almost always work well to illustrate philosophical musings.

Note: I welcome feedback from others that have successfully incorporated literature into philosophy reading lists. (Come to think of it, it doesn’t have to be just philosophy lists.  Any non-literature list would be interesting.)

Justice Roberts is Playing a Long Game

Time now to tabulate the damage done by yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in  National Federation of Independent Business et al. vs Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services et al. While Justice Roberts has made himself look extremely distinguished, statesmanlike, non-partisan, and touchingly concerned about his place in posterity, an appraisal that I’m sure he was soaking up yesterday, he might be playing a long game, gutting the Commerce Clause as  a ‘fundamental lever of constitutional power for the left’–from Corey Robin, who I’m sure will hand out some contrarian commentary on this ruling pretty soon–, redefining  the relationship between Federal government and State administrations, and further problematizing the notion of judicial restraint. (I realize that Justice Roberts is only one of five who signed on to the majority ruling, but I suspect he had a great deal to do with its crafting.)

My unease was sparked by the first few comments I read on the SCOTUS live blog yesterday:

[T]he entire ACA is upheld, with the exception that the federal government’s power to terminate states’ Medicaid funds is narrowly read.

A reminder. Part of the majority opinion reads:

Nothing in our opinion precludes Congress from offering funds under the ACA to expand the availability of health care, and requiring that states accepting such funds comply with the conditions on their use. What Congress is not free to do is to penalize States that choose not to participate in that new program by taking away their existing Medicaid funding.” (p. 55)

This is an interesting claim to make, for as Neal Katyal notes,

[U]ntil now, it had been understood that when the federal government gave money to a state in exchange for the state’s doing something, the federal government was free to do so as long as a reasonable relationship existed between the federal funds and the act the federal government wanted the state to perform.

In potentially ominous language, the decision says, for the first time, that such a threat is coercive and that the states cannot be penalized for not expanding their Medicaid coverage after receiving funds. And it does so in the context of Medicaid, which Congress created and can alter, amend or abolish at any time.

And in striking down the individual mandate under the commerce clause, especially by relying on the specious distinction between activity and inactivity in the healthcare market, the ruling is even more problematic.  (Pages 16-27 of the ruling are worth reading in their entirety.)

These aspects of the ruling have now been adequately commented on. Indeed, those opposed to the ACA see it as a strategic victory, one likely to have long-term repercussions, an especially significant factor given the long-term conservative bent this Court is likely to have. Randy Barnett, for instance, notes that,

Today, the Roberts Court reaffirmed the “first principle” announced by Chief Justice Rehnquist some 17 years ago in Lopez: the federal government is one of limited and enumerated powers. It accepted all of our arguments about why the individual insurance mandate exceeded the commerce power  “The individual mandate cannot be upheld as an exercise of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts. “That Clause authorizes Congress to regulate interstate commerce, not to order individuals to engage in it.”  Then the Court went farther to invalidate the withholding of existing Medicaid funding as coercive, thereby finding an enforceable limit on the Spending Power.

Lastly, and even more interestingly, the court reasoned its way to its conclusions in a way that is sure to raise questions about judicial restraint. Katyal again:

The court had to rewrite the statute to save it from a constitutional problem by eliminating the part of the law that permitted the federal government to withdraw Medicaid financing. The result, as Justice Anthony M. Kennedy warned, was effectively to leave in place a statute that Congress never enacted….[Thus] courts are given the power to rewrite legislation altogether, and leave legislation in place (like health care) in a form that Congress might never have approved and that would be difficult to ever repeal.

Of equal concern is the court’s analysis of the constitutionality of the individual mandate. While the court upheld the mandate, it did so by rejecting the federal government’s claim that it was regulating commerce. There is no judicial precedent or language in the Constitution that compelled that result; instead, the majority reasoned by constitutional inference.

The Supreme Court’s reliance on this ruling in other cases that require the relationship between the Center and states to be clarified will soon make clear what its true significance really is.

The End is Nigh: The ACA Is Upheld (Sort Of)

Today’s blog post writing hasn’t gone so well. I thought of writing a post on the correspondence between Voltaire and Rousseau, as a way of reminding ourselves of the 300th birth anniversary of the latter, then, perhaps commenting on the connections between Frankenstein and Romanticism, and then finally, noting Aquinas’ resolution of the theological problems caused by cannibalism. But nothing went anywhere. (Perhaps I’ll return to these fascinating topics at a future point in time.) I was distracted, as most people this morning were, by the impending news of the Supreme Court’s ruling on you-know-what (more precisely, National Federation of Independent Business et al. vs Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services et al. ) So, the sheer force of circumstance have forced me to junk all those drafts and turn to noting this momentous decision.

Then, finally at 10:08 AM, the news. A 5-4 ruling (Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan for; Kennedy, Scalia, Alito, Thomas against) that rules ‘ the entire ACA is upheld, with the exception that the federal government’s power to terminate states’ Medicaid funds is narrowly read.’ (from the SCOTUS live blog).

More: the individual mandate is a violation of the Commerce Clause, but survives as a tax:

Our precedent demonstrates that Congress had the power to impose the exaction in Section 5000A under the taxing power, and that Section 5000A need not be read to do more than impose a tax. This is sufficient to sustain it.

So, the individual mandate survives as a tax. Frank Pasquale has just pointed me to a remark made by Mark Weiner in 2010:

As a constitutional matter, the bottom line is that challenges to Congress’s power to tax and spend are never successful, and I think it would absolutely stun the tax community if this tax were held unconstitutional.

The SCOTUS live blog continues:

[A] majority of the Court holds that the Medicaid expansion is constitutional but that it w/b unconstitutional for the federal government to withhold Medicaid funds for non-compliance with the expansion provisions….the Constitution requires that states have a choice about whether to participate in the expansion of eligibility; if they decide not to, they can continue to receive funds for the rest of the program.

Part of the majority opinion reads:

Nothing in our opinion precludes Congress from offering funds under the ACA to expand the availability of health care, and requiring that states accepting such funds comply with the conditions on their use. What Congress is not free to do is to penalize States that choose not to participate in that new program by taking away their existing Medicaid funding.” (p. 55)

Plenty more to come later. For the time being, in lieu of serious commentary on the ruling, I’ve been juvenile, sending off a series of Tweets and Facebook updates:

The stars and stripes have been morphed into the hammer and sickle

The hammer and the sickle are gleaming, because a crescent moon is shining on them

Starting today, turbans replace baseball caps as symbols of America

No more, “Wassup bro?” – from now on it’s “Greeting comrades!”

Alternatively, you could say “Salaam brothers!”

Lame, yes, I know, but come on, why so serious?

And with that, I’m going to wind up this morning’s ‘blogging,’ one spectacularly derailed by the Supreme Court, and the millions who decided to tune in to this piece of political theater.

Wellington, Shwellington: Waterloo and Napoleon, Perfect Together

In September 2008, I visited Waterloo. I was visiting Brussels for work, and on arriving there in the morning, quickly realized that the best way to spend my first, jet-lagged day would be to travel to the site of Napoleon’s Last Stand. Armed with directions, train time-tables, a restless stomach, a camera, a thin sweatshirt, and my copy of War and Peace–I had started reading it a few days prior to my trip–I set off.

I promptly fell asleep on the train out of Brussels, but awoke at the correct station–Braine-l’Alleud–to scramble out onto the platform. On exiting the station, I quickly realized that Waterloo is not like American historic sites: I was a mile or so away from the battlefield, but there were no signs, no souvenir shops, no visible indicators that I was in close proximity to a tourist attraction. Momentarily confused by my map, I asked for directions again, and began walking.  This first road-sign assured me I was on the right track:

As did various street signs. The man himself gets an avenue:

As does the ‘old bastard‘ who made the Iron Duke into a hero:

I walked through quiet, deserted, windswept streets, still wondering how it was that more signs of museum and battlefield commercialization were not visible. The first sight of the battlefield was the Butte Du Lion:

And then, walking on for a bit, I arrived at a small cluster of buildings, which included the museum and some shops. Commercialization at last! I had been starting to think I was on a different planet.

(I would stop at the Le Cambronne Taverne for a beer afterwards.)

A map showing the order of battle and force deployments was available inside the museum:

The battlefield itself lay behind the museum; nondescript fields, really, through which I toured on a little tram. (Some of the topography of the region has changed, of course; the famous slopes that allowed Wellington’s forces to seek cover from French artillery are no longer visible for instance, having been dug up to provide material for the Butte Du Lion.)

After finishing my battlefield tour, I ascended the Butte Du Lion for a panoramic view of the battlefield. (All the while I was being lashed by cold winds that raked the region.)

In case you had forgotten, here is the date of the battle:

Part of the panorama:

Then it was time to check out a ‘circular naturalistic painting by Parisian artist Louis Dumoulin…on a canvas some 110 meters in circumference….accompanied by a soundtrack of battle noises including blaring bugles and cannon fire:’

This part of the painting depicts Ney‘s doomed cavalry charge:

Incidentally, Ney also has an avenue named after him. Some consolation, I suppose.

The Waterloo Museum also includes the Musee De Cires, featuring wax works–the one below possibly depicting the  fateful delay on the first morning.

And a Napoleon death mask:

Afterwards, as I sat at the Le Cambronne Taverne, drinking my beer, and trying to warm myself after being exposed to that grey, cold day, I wondered again about the curiousness of Waterloo as a site for Napoleon’s greatest defeat: his vanquisher, the Duke of Wellington, is scarcely visible. Napoleon’s last triumph, perhaps.

David Brooks Went to a Springsteen Concert, And All I Got Was A Stupid Op-Ed

David Brooks, the man who claims to have his finger on the pulse of down-home, All-American, Middle-American, (heck, Any-Which-Way American), plain-n-simple, family-values-oriented folks is a man who jets off to Europe for a Bruce Springsteen concert tour. No big deal. Lots of those good folk take vacations in Europe too. (If they can get to take their annual two weeks vacation all at once, and if they’ve managed somehow to save up the requisite monies.) What they don’t do however, I’m pretty sure, is subject us to inane sociological-ethnographic-anthropological analyses of their concertgoing experiences  in Europe.

Brooks finds that audiences ‘in the middle of the Iberian Peninsula’–reaching which, I presume, requires three weeks of hard  hiking from the nearest trailhead–‘singing word for word about Highway 9 or Greasy Lake or some other exotic locale on the Jersey Shore.’ Amazing. In Europe? When did they get television, radio, newspapers, magazines, or the Internet? This is pretty mind-boggling stuff. Here is an American rock star, surely the most obscure type of cultural figure there could be, and folks in Europe, a land separated from the US by a BIG ocean, know the lyrics to his songs. Next thing you know, someone will tell me that kids in the US know the lyrics to songs sung by working-class kids from Liverpool!  The world is flat, dudes. (Sorry, wrong New York Times columnist.)

But concert-going crowds knowing lyrics is nothing compared to what Brooks then experienced. Take a seat for this one, folks:

The oddest moment came midconcert when I looked across the football stadium and saw 56,000 enraptured Spaniards, pumping their fists in the air in fervent unison and bellowing at the top of their lungs, “I was born in the U.S.A.! I was born in the U.S.A.!”

Did it occur to them at that moment that, in fact, they were not born in the U.S.A.?

Once I went to a Pink Floyd concert, and all these people were singing, ‘All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall.’ Did it occur to them at that moment, that, in fact, bricks don’t have ears and so, they couldn’t hear what these kids were saying? Another time, I went to a Kraftwerk concert, and these humans were singing ‘We are the robots!’ Did it occur to them that, in fact, that they weren’t robots (Or were they confessing?) And then of course, there was that time that I saw AC/DC and the kids were yelling, ‘I’m a heatseeker, burning up the town!’ No, dude, you are not a heat-seeking missile – you’re a human being!

From here on, unfortunately, it goes downhill into ‘paracosms’ and ‘passionate, and highly localized moral landscapes’, all the while appreciating the ‘power of ‘particularity,’ while disdaining that dreaded mix of ‘the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism’, steadily downward, till it bottoms out with the offering of ‘pious advice:’ ‘Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community.’

Yeah, next time, go see Springsteen in New Jersey. Like you said, ‘Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past.’ And don’t write Op-Eds about it; I don’t intend to have my ‘identity formed by soft boundaries.’

Distraction and Writing: Pen and Keyboard Tales

A couple of days ago, I wrote my post on fountain pens with, er, a fountain pen; this one is being written in the old-fashioned way, on a keyboard, in the WordPress blogging tool/scratchpad. Writing a few hundred words with a fountain pen was a revelatory experience in several ways. (I realize this is self-indulgent navel gazing at its extreme, but bear with me.)

Most significantly, the nature of the distraction experienced in these two modes of writing was significantly different. When I write with a keyboard, using a word processor, or like now, using a blogging tool, my fingers rest on the medium of distraction, the computer. To procrastinate, to look away, to divert myself, I need do very little; I move my right hand to the mouse and click on a tab. These tabs often function like ticker-tapes: at any moment, one of them could light up with a notification for news that must be attended to. For instance, as I type now, I have tabs open on my GMail Inbox, and my Facebook Profile page: these could suddenly show a ‘(1)’  to let me know a little missive has arrived; when that happens, more often than not, I pull away from work. (Who am I kidding? I always check.) Often, I don’t even need a notification to divert me; I simply leave the writing–because I’ve hit a sticky patch–and move away.  (I just checked a Facebook notification – someone accepted a Friend request.)

When I wrote my post with a fountain pen, in long-hand, in the pages of a notebook, I wrote a little more steadily and persistently, working my way through three paragraphs before I stopped to reflect. In part that was because it was an easy post to write, but partly also because I was not writing on a keyboard, so close to distraction. This is a little simplistic, but I do think that writing with an implement that is also the site of our distinctively modern distraction makes a small difference to the nature of its hold on us. (This does not, for a second, mean that those who write with pens are less distracted.)

The physical particulars of composition with a word processor also affect the phenomenology of distraction. When I wanted to insert a paragraph between my second and third originals, I went back, drew a little arrow to indicate insertion, and wrote in my para on the opposing page. (I also added a new closing line to the fourth para, squeezing it in in the little space available.) Cutting-and-pasting makes such tasks trivial, but it also provides an opportunity to divert oneself by toying with the text, moving it hither and thither, reluctant to commit, all the while engaging in a holding action with the business of writing more. This ability to manipulate the text so effortlessly can lead to paralyzing play; by contrast, the physical contact of nib on paper, the not-so-easily-erased ink made visible, can induce commitment and fidelity to the written word.

It’s perhaps significant that these initial thoughts, prompted by a new writing experience, should be centered on distraction; nothing else is quite as indicative of writing’s challenges.

Posner, Apple v. Motorola, James Watt, and the Steam Engine That Couldn’t

Having brought up ‘intellectual property’ yesterday, I figured it might be a good idea to follow-up with a couple of related notes today.

First, some interesting news: Judge Richard Posner has ruled that the Apple v. Motorola patent infringement case be dismissed in its entirety. Apple had accused Motorola of violating four of its patents; Motorola had responded with a claim in return. The two have been in litigation since 2010; one shudders to think of the legal bills racked up, transaction costs that could have been spent on research and development by two innovative technology outfits.

Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica notes that

Judge Richard Posner previously canceled a jury trial in Chicago in the case, and then castigated both Apple and Motorola while calling the entire US patent system chaos….Noting that dismissals without prejudice allow suits to be refiled, Posner made it clear that this one would be dismissed with prejudice. “It would be ridiculous to dismiss a suit for failure to prove damages and allow the plaintiff [Apple] to refile the suit so that he could have a second chance to prove damages. This case is therefore dismissed with prejudice,” Posner wrote. Posner had previously ruled that proposed testimony from experts put forth by both sides would be inadmissible, making it difficult to support any claims for damages or injunctions.

And that isn’t all. In some telling commentary on the current lunacy of the world of patent litigation, Posner

[C]omplained that Apple’s attempt to get an injunction restricting the sale of Motorola phones would have “catastrophic effects” on the mobile device market and consumers. He further criticized Motorola for trying to use a standards-essential patent to get an injunction against Apple.

Second, in keeping with the ‘Twas ever thus-theme invoked yesterday, here is a little episode that should have warned us about patenting’s costs. In Against Intellectual Monopoly, Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine remind us of  the story of James Watt and the steam engine: the patents he was granted for it and his subsequent aggressive deployment of the law to crack down on possible competitors, all the while dissipating his innovative energies in litigation rather than designing better steam engines. In the end,

The evidence suggests that Watt’s efforts to use the legal system to inhibit competition set back the industrial revolution by a decade or two. The granting of the 1769 and, especially, of the 1775 patents likely delayed the mass adoption of the steam engine: innovation was stifled until his patents expired; and very few steam engines were built during the period of Watt’s legal monopoly. From the number of innovations that occurred immediately after the expiration of the patent, it appears that Watt’s competitors simply waited until then before releasing their own innovations….Watt’s inventive skills were badly allocated: we find him spending more time engaged in legal action to establish and preserve his monopoly than he did in the actual improvement and production of his engine. From a strictly economic point of view Watt did not need such a long lasting patent – it is estimated that by 1783 – seventeen years before his patent expired – his enterprise broke even; so every dollar that came after was pure gravy. (Introduction, pp. 3)