Monday, September 08, 2008

The Thirteen American Arguments: #1 Who is a Person?

(I'm working through this book with my students on another website. I'm sharing this in the interest of stimulating dialogue in a time of heated elections!)

How many political parties do you know that are running for president? Why do most people only know the people and position of only two parties? Why doesn't the mainstream media pay any attention to the other political parties. Do their perspectives matter?

Baldwin/Castle (Constitution)
Barr/Root (Libertarian)
Calero/Kennedy (Socialist Workers)
Keyes/Drake (Independent)
La Riva/Puryear (Socialism and Liberation)
McCain/Palin (Republican)
McKinney/Clemente (Green)
Moore/Alexander (Socialist)
Nader/Gonzalez (Independent)
Obama/Biden (Democrat)
Weill/McEnulty (Reform)


Discussing the book by Howard Fineman

For the class. I will post and link to (some) people/places/events/terms that are mentioned in each section in order to help expand/contextualize the information you are reading. I will also post some questions and comments we should consider.

Before we start: I want to ask you what is the nature of democracy? Does it depend on silent consensus or passive acceptance? Does it demand that its citizens inform themselves about the issues of their world and engage in arguments about how we should live? Does a healthy democracy coincide with a societal attitude that you shouldn't debate politics?

The concept of "person" is a complex and important philosophical designation in Western society:

Wikipedia: Person

A major theme in this section is the American struggle with racism. The chapter begins with the historic achievement of Barack Obama and ends with the differing circumstances/perceptions of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his son Congressman Jesse Jackson III. Race is the classification of humans. While science has demonstrated that the concept of "race" is an illusion, it is still a very powerful illusion that shapes the way that humans act and think.

Race: The Power of an Illusion

Page 22: "This is our first and most fundamental American Argument: Who, in our constitutional scheme, is a 'person'?"

Page 25: "For many women, a logical and necessary feature of American personhood was the right to control the functioning of their own bodies--even and especially as that related to childbearing."

A broader question that develops out of this statement of rights in a democracy is on the same page:

"In the meantime, however, advances in science and genetics are raising an equally profound question: Who controls, and who should control, the genetic destiny of mankind?"

Page 26:
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson anchored a new nation on the rock of a single, revolutionary, but to him "self-evident" truth: that all men are created equal. ... As devoted as we claim to be to the Jeffersonian ideal, America has an equally deep penchant for denying what we now call "human rights." In the search for profit or political power, in the fervency of faith and fear, we have limited or ignored the legal personhood--even the elemental humanity--of a long list of people, from Native Americans to alleged terrorists.
... As a leader, Jefferson said "everyone," and yet as a slave master, he said "not everyone."

Page 26-27:
Other, newer versions of the age-old argument arose, and arise still. Were women entitled to full personhood in the eyes of the law? It took them generations to progress from what amounted to legal chattel to full-fledged citizens. Are you a fully a person if you are not allowed to "marry" in the eyes of the law? Are corporations "persons" with legal rights? Perhaps only in America, the land that puts "personhood" at the center of the universe, would that be a question. The answer: Yes, corporations are persons in American law. Do we really want to be "one America," as Obama put it?

What about groups for whom personhood is a settled issue, at least in terms of the law? Do we owe them for their suffering? Do we owe them preference in hiring or education? And what do we do when some persons insist on their claim to separateness--which used to be considered a sure mark of inferiority? What happens when a focus on human rights turns into the kind of "identity politics" that dwells on differences of race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation? Don't our founding ideals require that we ignore such distinctions? Is there such a status as personhood-plus? Are we really "one America"?

Pg. 27 discusses religious discrimination/oppression in the American colonies and it made me think about the little discussed prejudice against agnostics/atheists. Think about the current "religious test" for political candidates in which they have to "prove" that they "believe" in a (Christian) God. Whatever happened to separation of church/state? Is it right that non-believers are discriminated against in this manner? We see that Obama's candidacy proves to many that African-Americans have broken down the racial barriers of an intolerant society. What, then, does this "Christian" test for presidential candidates mean to anyone who is not a Christian. Are they less capable people... or not even worthy of consideration?

Pg. 28:

The Iroquois Federation is mentioned as an influence on our nation's founders and the development of our Constitution.

What do you think about the early Christian colonists use of The Bible in their acceptance of slavery?

Fineman mentions Theodore W. Allen's book The Invention of the White Race. It was one of the most important books I read as a student: Here is an explanation of how it influenced me

Pg 29:

What do you think of the fact that the American founders decided that African slaves would be considered three-fifths of a person?


Essentially we are attempting to understand the effects of institutionalized (or how about "structured") prejudice (of all sorts) on the people/groups who are discriminated against. This is difficult because we all hold prejudices, but this does not excuse us from recognizing how they operate in our thinking and in the larger operations of our society and/or world. To help you to think about this take a listen to this philosophy podcast:

Philosophy Bites: Miranda Fricker on Epistemic Injustice (12 minutes)

One method for examining societal assumptions (especially those that are not recognized) is to engage in a form of questioning known as The Socratic Method:

Philosophy Bites: Mary M. McCabe on Socratic Method

Pg. 30/31:

1973 Roe vs Wade Case (made abortion legal)

"For women to enjoy their full rights as human beings, they necessarily were entitled to full control over their person, to put it literally." What do you think of this statement?

1857 Dred Scott Decision (Dred Scott vs John F.A. Sandford) Pro-Life advocates cite this decision in their argument that Roe vs Wade should be overturned. What is your opinion in regard to this argument?

Wikipedia has an entry that attempts to outline the many issues and opinions circulating around the Abortion Debate. Remember, as always, Wikipedia can be a starting place, but when formulating your own opinions (and definitely your papers) you must conduct further research into the subject (question in the Socratic Method). Pay close attention to the arguments that are appended to wikipedia posts--these are just as important as the posts (in that we can map out the various positions that circulate around a concept/history/belief). Wikipedia is not recognized as an academic source in your papers, instead it is be used as a rough map that can get you started on more in-depth research (give you some early indication of where the already-ongoing argument has gone and where you should look for more academically-legitimated sources). We should definitely talk more about how/why Wikipedia is useful and problematic.

Another term that might be useful in thinking about these debates is the recognition and/or claim that America is divided by a Culture War

Pg 32:

What about the issues of "right to die" claims? In our society it is illegal for us to attempt suicide (or aid in a suicide attempt) no matter the suffering of the person. What do you think about this law?

A recent bitter and controversial legal struggle was centered around Terry Schiavo who was diagnosed as being in a "persistent vegetative state."

Pg 34:

Are prisoners of war deserving of treatment as individuals with rights? Traditionally the Geneva Conventions have been the international standard for the just treatment of enemy combatants captured during a war.

What are the implications of our country's sanctioning of torture as a legitimate measure in the interrogation of unlawful enemy combatants? What about extraordinary rendition by the USA of persons deemed to be under suspicion of doing something wrong?

Pg 35:

Have you ever heard of the Poor People's Campaign? Is class an issue in the USA? The world? Is it as easily recognized as some of the other issues? Why or Why Not? Just last week there was a Poor People's March during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, MN. Did you hear anything about the march? What do you think of the protest for the rights of poor people? What do you think about the police response/tactics? Are the poor deserving of the same rights as other people? Is it an individual problem or a larger social issue?

If you are interested. YouTube has a series of videos about protests during the recent Republican National Convention and Democratic National Convention.

Pg 37:

Have you read Ralph Ellison's classic novel Invisible Man? If so, what did you think about the protagonists struggle against a society that treats him as if he didn't matter ("socially invisible")? Refer back to "epistemic injustice" above to help you think about this struggle and process.

Last Thought/Question:

Should this just be viewed as a case of the struggle of individuals to achieve recognition in society (individual's actions are the issue and it is not a social issue), or, should we pay attention to social structures/institutions that reproduce and mask the delegitimation of the rights of certain peoples?

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