Great Review of ‘Democracy and Leadership’

Dr. Tadd Ruetenik.Dr. Tadd Ruetenik of St. Ambrose University published a review of my 2013 book, Democracy and Leadership, in the second 2016 issue of The Pluralist. I subscribe to the journal, but since I moved last June, I have not yet received the issue. I still have some address information to update for a number of subscriptions and such, it seems. I was delighted to get my hands on the review through other means, therefore, when Tadd was kind enough to share a digital copy of it with me.

Image of Ruetenik's review of 'Democracy and Leadership.' The link opens a PDF version of the review.

Click on the image for a text-searchable Adobe PDF version of the review.

A good review explains a book’s main point and approach, showcases some strengths, and offers some points of potential disagreement. In many reviews, that formula is often undertaken in all too formulaic a way. Ruetenik’s review has a depth of thoughtfulness and a sharp discernment about differences in our points of view that is deeply refreshing. Plus, where he inclines in different directions, he nevertheless exhibits the philosopher’s humility in understanding why others incline in other ways. In the popular press in Mississippi, my more recent book was dismissed as excessive optimism by one older, jaded progressive and rejected as far too moderate and modest by a young, not yet jaded man on a mission. It was like the old economist’s joke. With your hair on fire and your feet in ice, on average, you’re quite comfortable.

Photo of MLK, Jr. I’m definitely an advocate for moderation and believe that, like MLK, one can be militant yet moderate. Ruetenik appears to disagree, but naturally, I think. The concepts certainly seem to be in conflict, on the surface anyway. A moderate person in an immoderate, unjust society, may be called radical, as King was. But when Aristotle referred to the mean between extremes, he did not mean a simple matter of the average of others’ extremes. The moderate is what is right, and one’s society can be far from the mean. Calling for justice courageously can seem immoderate, but, I believe, that one’s means for calling for change can demonstrate moderation while pushing heroically for change.

These remarks are initial thoughts I have about the great feedback I have received from Tadd. The best thing about Tadd’s review is that, unlike so much other feedback one can receive, his makes me want to return to the project. In fact, I’ve been meaning for years to write a paper about how I believe my theory of democratic leadership can help us to explain and theorize elements of King’s democratic leadership efforts, which I see as a confirmation of the value of my theory. Of course, there are important contributions at work in the Malcolm X’s out there, yet even he, when you look at what he said, often was far more reasonable and democratically respectful of people and inquiry than he was painted in his day. He accepted the label of extremism, but in his own way showed how moderate the values he represented were, such as in the values of liberty, self-respect, self-defense, and more.

I don’t want to get too far afield here today, but my excitement over thinking about this topic again is not something I commonly experience when I encounter a review of my work. It is a testament to Ruetenik’s probity, his sincere and interesting engagement with the ideas of the book, and his reasonable differences of opinion that inspire me to think and write more on the subject.

Benjamin Franklin.

Beloved deist, Benjamin Franklin.

To his speculation about public office, I’m with Plato in thinking that in general, one probably ought to feel called to leadership. You need the right environment and to believe genuinely that you are the person who might really have what the public needs. That takes a balance of circumstances related to the mandate-independence matter. Thus, you’ve got to be a part of a community in which you will represent people, not merely in terms of what the public calls for, but as someone whom you believe the relevant public would choose for his or her own values. That takes the alignment of quite a few stars. If one day the stars do align in such a way, then I might pursue service to my community outside the academy, beyond public writing and speaking. I don’t think it would be such a problem to learn from Kurtz, whom Tadd mentions. The many deists who contributed to the U.S. Constitution are lauded despite their divergences from some Americans’ beliefs. The important thing is whether or not a person seriously embraces the right values and has the wisdom, courage, and humility to listen and serve others in the deepest, most democratically respectful manner that he or she can.

All these are initial thoughts, hence posted here on my site only. Still, I can feel renewed energy for thinking about democratic leadership and am thus profoundly grateful to Tadd for his review and challenges in The Pluralist. If you all are interested in reading what he had to say, check it out here.

Photo of the paperback and hardback editions of 'Democracy and Leadership.'From a 2016 review of Democracy and Leadership:

“Weber is direct and interesting…. Weber demonstrates critical and creative thinking skills when detailing solutions to public problems such as the controversial presence of sex education and corporal punishment in public schools, and the challenge of respecting free speech while confronting the prospects of a KKK rally at the University of Mississippi…. Weber’s book is useful and even inspiring, and the weight of common opinion should incline in favor of this work.” (The Pluralist)

Tadd Ruetenik, The Pluralist

The logo for Philosophy Bakes Bread.Starting on Monday, January 9th, I will join a friend and co-host Dr. Anthony Cashio of the University of Virginia at Wise to broadcast the Philosophy Bakes Bread radio show and podcast, a production of the Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA) airing every Monday at 2 on WRFL Lexington, 88.1 FM.

Philosophy Bakes Bread first aired as a pilot podcast, for which I put together 4 episodes here. The new show will be weekly, featuring a co-host, interviews, special segments, and more. Plus, it will be broadcast for the Lexington, Kentucky area, before it is then made into a downloadable, subscribable podcast (for me, so I don’t have to do it!). So, the initial audience is here in Kentucky, but soon becomes anyone with an internet connection or a smartphone. I hope you enjoy!

If you’re not in Lexington, you can stream the show live at http://wrfl.fm/stream, or you can wait until it comes out as a podcast episode. More info on that coming soon!

Date: January 9, 2017
Time: 02:00-04:00 p.m.
Event: Philosophy Bakes Bread radio show & podcast
Topic: Philosophy Bakes Bread
Sponsor: The Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA)
859.257.1849
Venue: WRFL Lexington, 88.1 Radio
859.257.9735
Location: Lexington, KY
Public: Public

If you haven't checked out SOPHIA, you should, at PhilosophersInAmerica.com.

Better Late Than Never: Recent Review of my 2010 Book

Warning: This post is about a scholarly review of a pretty technical book.

Cover of 'Rawls, Dewey, and Constructivism.'The pace of academic work can sometimes seem tectonic. There’s a reason scholars tend to have a hard time appreciating what news editors mean by “timely.” For a philosopher, an argument about Plato that was published after the year 2000 is downright recent.

Keeping that in mind, I’m pleased to share with you the book review that has just been published of my first book, released in 2010, Rawls, Dewey, and Constructivism. It’s the first review of that book to come out in any of the major American philosophy journals, believe it or not. The book wasn’t ignored, I’m happy to say, having been reviewed very positively in 2011 in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. But, the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society is a top notch outlet for one of my deep philosophical interests, namely American philosophy.

Photo of the cover of the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society.

The best news about the review that has just come out is not any glowing language about my book. The tone of the review is very matter of fact and balanced. The fantastic thing is the quality of this review.

A good review has to tell you in some precise detail about the aims, structure, and substance of the book to be reviewed. It also should raise notes about both what were some strengths in the project and what could either be improved or extended in future work. In his review, Torjus Midtgarden of the University of Bergen has seriously inspired me in a highly unusual way. He’s made me want to return to the study of the subject of my dissertation.

View of a sunset through a rear view mirror.Most people finish their dissertations and don’t want to look back. Not only did I look back in the years after defending it, but I did the traditional thing some choose to do and developed elements of it further, ultimately putting the revised project out as a book. When you’ve gone through that step, you’re even less motivated to want to return to it. You’d think so, anyway.

Dr. Midtgarden was even handed, though generous in offering a thorough and precise understanding of the aims of my project. He also invited some thought and response about his comments on it that were pointed, but fair and intellectually provocative.

Thumbnail image of the review.How cool is that? I am grateful to Professor Midtgarden and plan to stew on his interesting comments and suggestions for some time. Here’s his review.

The DJ booth at WRFL Lexington on December 10th, 2016.

I’m still just practicing as a DJ as I plan the Philosophy Bakes Bread radio show to start in January. It is an awful lot of fun, though. Plus, to create the talk show may take committing to a two hour block for a one hour show. That will mean that I might plan an hour of music and then have the second hour be the Philosophy Bakes Bread talk show programming. Or, vice versa. Or, I could alternate in 30 minute segments. Still to be determined.

Why Some Progress Is Slow for Accessibility

“What’s with that?” a student asked me. Our classroom this semester was on the third floor of Barker Hall at the University of Kentucky. The flights are tall and there is no elevator. “How is that allowed?”

The young woman was asking about accessibility. It’s 2016. Don’t campus buildings have to be accessible?

This is a photo of a modern staircase designed with ramps running zig zag up the diagonals of the staircase.

New construction can incorporate accessibility features beautifully, as part of the design, and while not making accommodations around back by the trash can. You can walk or roll with your loved ones to the other floor.

A sidewalk that ends in grass.Before moving to Lexington, I advocated for certain accessibility issues at the University of Mississippi. In the process, I learned a lot about what people say when you push on such issues. There were many disappointing responses at times, the most upsetting of which was being ignored for nearly a year. That’s another story.

The experience in Mississippi revealed to me some interesting challenges to consider even when an organization means to do its best to make a social space maximally accessible.

If you want to advocate for change, critical thinking textbooks will tell you, you have to understand your opposition and address it head on. Finding the weakest arguments that oppose your mission and laughing at them won’t convince people who disagree with you. Identifying the smartest things people say in their defense and responding to those might.

How many buildings are on a university campus? It will vary significantly, but let’s imagine that there are 200 at a major research university. If the campus has been around a long time, many of the buildings will have been built long before the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some will be historic buildings. Others in need of repair. Some will be priorities and others won’t.

Classroom space tends to be at a premium in most institutions. When all of the most commonly used spaces have been taken up, you look for further spots not yet in use. My courses were added far later than is usual this past summer, so they were located in classroom space still available. It so happens that that means Barker Hall.

Barker hall today.Barker Hall is historic, built in 1901. The first photo of it is how it looks now, although it is actually surrounded by construction of the new student center at present. The next photo showcases what we mean when we call it historic.

So why isn’t it accessible?

  1. Making spaces accessible as you build them is cheaper than retroactively. So, it’s more expensive than making other, perhaps more spacious new buildings accessible.
  2. Historic photo of Barker Hall.Making historic buildings accessible generally adds cost, because it is desirable to preserve the beauty of historic buildings, while retrofitting. It’s harder, so it costs more.
  3. It probably is not the only remaining space that needs retrofitting.
  4. Money is always limited and judgments are made all-things-considered about where to spend it.
  5. Without many people calling for Barker to change, it won’t any time soon. Though, there may be plans in the works to update it at some point.

But wait, “Isn’t it the law?!”

  1. No, it’s not technically the law that every space has to be accessible to every person. The law says that institutions like mine have an obligation to make reasonable accommodations for people who need them. That means that if any of us had a broken ankle or if a student who uses a mobility device were to have added the course, the university would have had to find some solution to move the class meetings.

This last point is delicate, though. How would it make you feel if 30 other people had a change to their meeting location for a semester because of you? It’s something that couldn’t help but make someone feel singled out. Maybe the first classroom was conveniently located for certain people. Barker Hall is a hop away from Patterson Office Tower, where my office is. So, in the end, this answer is not terribly satisfying.

My point here is not that I think it’s fine to have inaccessible buildings. Hell, the window unit air conditioners made it hard to hear each other in August, a problem for people with hearing impairments, not to mention anyone trying to engage in a classroom discussion.

Man holding his ear because he can't hear the speaker.

No, this professional baseball team executive has nothing to do with the story here, except that he’s struggling to hear someone, as I often did this semester.

So, at some point I’ll gently start to ask questions about what the structure is here for decisions and initiatives regarding accessibility. It was refreshing, I must say, to hear disdain in the student’s voice. I heard passion and initiative in it. You can’t change much for the better without high expectations. At the same time, the challenges are real even when good people are trying to do many things right with limited resources.

Next semester, I’ll be teaching on the second floor of a building with several elevators. And central air.

Follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook @EricThomasWeberAuthor.

The Risks of Public Engagement, Part I

Dr. Shane RalstonI and others may well be guilty of romanticizing public philosophy. Fellow Dewey scholar and a prolific writer, Shane Ralston, has published a warning for people interested in engaging in public philosophy. In “On the Perils of Public Philosophy,” Ralston rightly recognizes both that there is a resurgence in the movement for publicly engaged philosophy and that too few call attention to its risks.

He explains that “Public philosophers are often criticized, bullied, harassed and even threatened and, unfortunately, some respond in kind when communicating their ideas in the public sphere.” He’s right. In Oxford, MS, while I was working at the University of Mississippi, I was thoroughly harassed by someone who made me feel ill. I won’t go into the details of it, but being publicly engaged has not been easy. People who disagree with you sometimes do so to a degree motivating enough to be threatening.

David - The Death of Socrates

I have reason to believe that this person sent two students to my office with a video camera for a “gotcha” kind of harassing interview. They were surprised when I sat them down to schedule a time to meet up formally. They didn’t show up for that.

Other people have written me with insults. One man, in a single email, called me a eunuch, a gelding, and effeminate. He clearly has strong feelings about gender and opinions. That sort of thing I can laugh off. The person who told me he was meeting with my Chancellor the next day was clearly trying to intimidate me. I was then an untenured assistant professor.

People will be mean. They will be unbelievably uncivil. One said that I should spend more time in the classroom than in the opinion pages.

Ralston is right that we don’t hear enough about the unpleasant side of public engagement.

So, why on Earth do we do it?

First of all, we should remember that it’s no surprise to be criticized or insulted for engaging with people about philosophical issues. Plato noted in his cave metaphor that the philosophers who have seen the light outside the cave have an obligation to go back down in there to help free the others. He did not think that they would welcome this liberation, he explained. If any philosopher “tried to loose another [prisoner in the cave] and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death… No question.”

Plato’s Socrates recognized that people will resist teachers and liberators. The folks in the cave are habituated to that setting. They believe that they have interests there. It’s unpleasant to be turned toward the light. People will be upset. Some might try to kill you.

I see that I have yet to make the case for public engagement. My point so far is that when we do it, we must do so with understanding of dangers. It’s like a battle medic. You head into dangerous territory to save people, not to injure anyone. Nevertheless, you can be targeted and hurt in the process. The part that makes it all the more difficult is that in Plato’s metaphor, it’s those whom you’re trying to save who resist and want you dead. Given that, why think we even have an obligation to them?

Here another line from the Republic is motivating for me. Plato’s Socrates says that the “greatest punishment for those unwilling to rule is to be led by those who are worse.”

Puppet master's hands and strings.If you’re unwilling to fight for the truth and for the liberation of people’s minds, you have chosen to be ruled by ignorance and whatever shadows on the wall the powerful puppet masters choose.

If we are going to mean what we do in love of wisdom, we must do so with our greatest hopes in mind. It isn’t that we should believe that they will be achieved. The point is that if we don’t try, we choose to be doomed to follow ignorance and injustice.

Now we have the greatest need I have witnessed in my lifetime to engage publicly in reasoned, vigorous debate about what is right. There will be risks to doing so. Socrates was killed. It is incredibly unlikely that philosophy professors today could face such risks, but it is not impossible. This is all the more reason why it is important to mean it when we say with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

You can follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook @EricThomasWeberAuthor.

“Now Online, 2015 Interview with NPR Affiliate, Clinton School Presents”
by Nikolai Dipippa, with Dr. Eric Thomas Weber

Sorry, listening to the audio on this website requires Flash support in your browser. You can try playing the MP3 file directly by clicking here.

Eric Thomas Weber, author of "Uniting Mississippi: Democracy and Leadership in the South" speaks at Sturgis Hall October 19, 2015. Photo Credit: Jacob Slaton

Weber speaking in Sturgis Hall on October 19, 2015. Photo Credit: Jacob Slaton

From the “Clinton School Presents” Web site:

Interview with Eric Thomas Weber for NPR affiliate KUAR on Clinton School Presents, a weekly dialogue of distinguished guests that visit the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Arkansas. Nikolai DiPippa, Clinton School Director of Public Programs, sat down with Eric Thomas Weber, associate professor of public policy leadership at the University of Mississippi and executive director of the Society of Philosophers in America. His book, Uniting Mississippi: Democracy and Leadership in the South, applies a new, philosophically informed theory of democratic leadership to Mississippi’s challenges.

If the audio player above does not work on your platform or device, click here to hear the interview on the Clinton School’s site.

The recording runs 23 minutes long.

If you are interested in a speaker on the subjects of leadership, ethics, or democracy, visit my “Speaking” and “Contact” pages and be in touch.

Trump’s Blind Faith in Tax Cuts Won’t Work, Just Look at the Evidence

Piece originally published in The Herald Leader, October 13, 2016.

Thumbnail photo of my piece in the Herald Leader, titled, 'Trump's Blind Faith in Tax Cuts Won't Work, Just Look at the Evidence.' The link leads to the article on the Herald Leader's site.

After watching the first Presidential debate, I was struck by how little Donald Trump had to offer in terms of actual policy proposals. He suggested renegotiating trade deals, but that’s not something he can unilaterally do. I’m skeptical. The things government can do on its own, among his recommendations, included lowering taxes for the wealthy and for corporations. It’s his panacea. It’s also something that in many cases has already been shown not to work.

Of course, there can be too much. But for a man proud of paying no taxes, it’s all the more absurd to suggest that taxes are too high on him. Here’s my piece, covering what I take to be the four big mistakes in Donald Trump’s free market fundamentalism.

Trump Forfeited the Benefit of the Doubt

Yesterday, I was deeply troubled to hear that Trump referred to suicidal veterans with PTSD as people who “can’t handle it” (CNN). It sounded, read in the news, like another incredibly callous remark, like so many that he has made. When you watch the video of him saying the words, you see that he was trying to speak sympathetically to the difficulties that veterans face when they witness traumatic events. That fact leads some people to want to defend Trump from the unfair media, and from others’ allegedly unfair reactions.

Image of a soldier at the Arlington National Cemetary.

There’s certainly some merit to the idea of encouraging people to dig deeper. Folks need to understand two things, however. 1) His remarks displayed a disrespectful, troubling set of assumptions even if he meant to be sympathetic. 2) Trump once deserved the benefit of the doubt, but his words and actions forfeited it long ago. Procedurally, he’ll always have the benefit of the doubt in the courtroom, but you have to deserve it in the court of public opinion.

Trump calls people “losers” all the time (170 examples in the Washington Post), and himself “smart” for paying no taxes. He sees people’s misfortunes as demonstrations of their own failings. You can’t get a clearer example of this than in the language he used to describe veterans who commit suicide. “Handling it” is something you’re supposed to do when you have a problem. Even if he was trying to speak sympathetically, and I’m sure he was, he referred to PTSD in terms of an inability for veterans to handle their problems. Imagine saying that a deceased mother’s problem was that she couldn’t handle her cancer. If you hear how jarring that sounds, you can see what’s so troubling and ignorant in Trump’s remarks. PTSD isn’t a little bit of everyday work stress turned up several levels. It’s a serious matter of mental illness. It’s akin to cancer.

So, when reporters who felt that his language was troubling wrote that “Military suicides happen to service members who ‘can’t handle it’,” it rubbed a lot of people wrong. He has said so many things that have been deeply callous, troubling, and unacceptable for a Presidential candidate that folks encountering that reporting have cause to worry and be dismayed by this man’s careless statements.

For critical thinkers and readers, it’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt. When I first read the article, it sure sounded as though he was being as callous and judgmental as so many instances in the past. For public figures, we ought to dig deeper and try to make sure that our judgments are deserved. A figure can abuse that, however, and there’s no doubt that the public has heard so much troubling bigotry from Trump that we’ve become desensitized to it.

I want our judgments to be well informed and fair, but at least as important is the obligation of our officials to deserve the benefit of the doubt. Trump has forfeited that honor contemptuously. Three examples of hundreds make the matter plain for me:

  1. Because of Trump, we actually have had a Presidential candidate, during a Republican primary debate, mind you, refer to his penis size and satisfaction over the matter. Sadly, this is the least troubling of my three examples.
  2. Trump’s misogyny actually led him to refer to a Fox News reporter’s menstrual cycle, literally “blood,” when upset about difficult questions she raised for him. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes… Blood coming out of her wherever.”
  3. In reference to one of our most famous veterans who endured trauma, Senator McCain, Donald Trump actually dismissed the idea of him as a hero, saying that he prefers soldiers who weren’t captured.

This final example explains my lack of sympathy for those who believe Trump was interpreted unfairly. Maybe some commentator thought he meant to be hurtful, and probably that person was wrong. That doesn’t mean that Trump deserves the benefit of the doubt. He has so profoundly demeaned the role of the American Presidential candidate that he has forfeited sympathy over a few people’s snap judgments.

If evidence matters to you, here’s a New York Times list of 258 people, places, and things that Donald Trump has insulted, as of August 22nd.

Sure, I’ll always advocate for innocent til proven guilty in court. But in the public sphere and in the pursuit of the highest office in the United States of America, you’ve got to deserve the benefit of the doubt. It’s time for people who care about values to mean it.

Dr. Eric Thomas Weber is Executive Director of the Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA) and Visiting Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. He is representing only his own point of view. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.