Tuesday, January 18, 2011

HUM 221: Liberalism Reading -- What and Who is a Person?

How many political parties do you know that ran candidates for president in 2008? 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)


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? Does it depend on the active engagement/participation of its citizens?

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

Wikipedia: Person

In our democracy are all persons equal? Who is considered a person? Has this changed over time?

America is undoubtably a racist society. How has this effected our considerations of the rights of people in the history of our liberal democracy and our designations of who is to be considered a person deserving of rights? 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.

"This is our first and most fundamental question of liberalism: Who, in our constitutional scheme, is a 'person' that deserves "equal opportunity?"

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 many Americans claim to be to the Jeffersonian ideal, America has an equally deep penchant for denying what we now call "human rights." ... As a leader, Jefferson said "everyone," and yet as a slave master, he said "not everyone.

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 slaves, to women, to people of a certain age, to peoples in other parts of the world, and currently anyone accused of being a terrorist.

Richard Rubenstein in The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future explains how political personhood is necessary for one to have any basic recognizable human rights in a society and how without this recognition we become vulnerable to predation, exploitation and elimination (without any recognition--because we are not recognizable "persons").

It took many generations for women to become recognized in America as full persons in the eyes of the law? It took them generations to progress from what amounted to legal chattel to full-fledged citizens.

Are you fully a "person" and offered equal opportunity 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?

What do we do when some persons insist on their right to separateness and develop subcultures that consider others to be "inferior?"

Is there such a status as personhood-plus in America? Keeping in mind that the U.S. Constitution has the 1787 decision that African slaves would be considered three-fifths of a person for tax and census purposes? This parsing of persons is built into our "liberal" values?

Are we really "one America"?

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? 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?

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)

Fricker states that epistemic injustice, in part, results when a person or certain groups of people, is ignored or dismissed based upon non-related perceived characteristics (a classic example would be a woman speaking up in a group of men on a political or social issue and being ignored--but this operates on so many levels... for instance an academic researcher believing they know better the conditions/needs of their subjects and ignoring their statements that contradict their research.)

Aristotle referred to those in "democratic" Athens, that were considered to be noncitizens, as being idiotes, from which we get the current term "idiot". As our reading reminds us (22), in "democratic" Athens, this designation would apply to "women, slaves, children and resident aliens." Is this kind of derogatory or dismissive thinking present in our current "democratic" society? Our country was founded on the understanding that full-citizens were those that owned "property." What does this tell us about the founding ideas of our "democratic" society? Is liberalism's main priority the protection of property?

Direct example of institutionalized epistemic injustice:

On July 23, 2009, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who is African American, was arrested on the front porch of his home in Cambridge Massachusetts, on charges of disorderly conduct. The professor had yelled at the white police officer who was responding to a neighbor’s call about a suspicious looking man (Gates himself) trying to break into Gates’ home. The charges were soon dropped. Several days later, when asked about the arrest, President Barack Obama suggested that the Cambridge Police Department had acted “stupidly,” setting off a storm of media criticism. Regretting his words, President Obama invited Gates and the arresting officer to join him for a beer and a private conversation about the incident. The President and his aides described the event as a “teachable moment” about race, without specifying exactly who was teaching whom or what might actually be learned.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a 59 yr old African-American Harvard professor and a prominent American scholar, was arrested in his home because a neighbor reported seeing two black men forcing their way through the front door. He became indignant when the police arrived and questioned--rather than check his identity, easily verified, they handcuffed him and took him away. Would this have happened if he was a prominent caucasian?

Furthermore, President Obama criticized the officers mishandling of this incident and stated they had acted "stupidly." He quickly backtracked under a media storm (pundits) of criticism ... did this prove to us that even an "African-American" president can't criticize the police?

In a liberal society are women deserving of control over their own bodies?

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?

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 which you will use as sources (give you some early indication of where the already-ongoing argument has gone and where you should look for more academically-legitimated sources that will be used to support your positions-perspectives). We should definitely talk more about how/why Wikipedia is useful and problematic.

Another term that might be useful in thinking about our study of ideologies is the recognition and/or claim that America is divided by a Culture War

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."

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?

In our reading on liberalism, most of the political philosophers discussed, from Aristotle to America's founding fathers, have a deep distrust (fear) of poor people. Why do you think that is?

Have you ever heard of the Poor People's Campaign? Martin Luther King, Jr. in launching his last campaign before his assassination stated that our liberal society has a moral imperative to address poverty first and foremost: "We believe the highest patriotism demands the ending of the war and the opening of a bloodless war to final victory over racism and poverty." What do you think about this statement and why is it rarely cited in our "liberal" media?

Is class an issue in the USA? The world? Is it as easily recognized as some of the other issues? Why or Why Not? Recently 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? Are the poor deserving of the same rights as other people? Is it an individual problem or a larger social issue?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed, in his last speech as president, before he died, the need for a Second Bill of Rights because the U.S. Constitution failed to guarantee basic political rights:

2nd Bill of Rights

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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