The Dangers of Doing What’s Right-11/17

In Zola’s J’accuse, he openly declares his support for Alfred Dreyfus and asserts that he is innocent. He also accuses the first and second court marshal of covering up the facts, and acquitting a man they knew to be guilty. In doing so, he acknowledges, “I am fully aware that my action comes under Articles 30 and 31 of the law 29 July 1881 on the press, which makes libel a punishable offense. I deliberately expose myself to that law.” (pg. 214)

Zola is publicly addressing the President, very publicly accusing the people running the trial, and aligning himself with a man who was convicted of spying for the enemy. He does this with the full knowledge of what laws he is violating, and that he will likely serve time for this. How does this help his argument? Does it make it more convincing? Why would he go to such lengths to help prove Dreyfus’s innocence, and Esterhazy’s guilt?

Do Dreams Have Meaning? 11/12

In Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, he is trying to interpret the meaning of a particular dream he had. He begins by saying that he wrote the dream down as soon as he woke up, and the analysis is a play-by-play breakdown of the events. While he does a thorough job of analyzing the possible meanings of his dream, he assumes that there is some meaning behind it, “If we adopt the method of interpreting dreams which I have indicated here, we shall find that dreams really have a meaning and are far from being the expression of a fragmentary activity of the brain, as the authorities have claimed.”

This is a pretty bold statement, especially considering that he has not yet proved his claim. While it is a valid scientific exploration into whether or not dreams have meaning, Freud is operating under the assumption that dreams definitively have some sort of meaning, and goes so far as to question the validity of the conclusions of the larger scientific community at the time. Why is this a problematic approach to researching dreams in a scientific context, and how would this affect the eventual conclusions of his research if he was already convinced he was right?

Terrorism vs Revolution- 11/2

In Figner’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist, she describes the organization “The Will of the People”. She describes them as an organization fighting against the oppression of the Russian people, but they were not easily swayed to their side. She is confused by the public’s reaction, “All the stranger was the title of terrorist organization which it later acquired. The public gave it that name because of the external aspect of its activity, the one characteristic which caught their attention. Terror for its own sake was never the aim of the party. It was a weapon of protection, self-defense… the assassination of the Tsar came under this head as one detail.” (pg. 75)

She did not view the violence that they committed as terrorist in nature, even though she admitted that they used terror in order to get what they want politically. By viewing it as a tool to win freedom for the Russian people, she is able to justify the violence that the organization committed. But she doesn’t understand why the public did not share these same views, even though they were fighting for their rights. All the public really saw about The Will of the People was their violent acts, and that overshadowed their message about freedom for the people.

Should they have tried a different method to enter into the public sphere? Were these acts at all effective in spreading their message, or was it ultimately counterproductive? Do you think that they had to resort to violent acts because the government was so oppressive?

Masculinity and Violence-10/27

In Chapter 2 of Things Fall Apart, it says, ” His [Okonkwo] wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children. Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness… It was not external but lay deep within himself.” (pg. 12-13)

This quote describes Okonkwo’s behavior with his family, and why he acts the way he does. He lashes out at people because of his insecurities and fears of inadequacy. While this does not excuse abusive behavior in any way, the explanation is important to understand. Where does his issues stem from? His father, the society he lives in, or maybe both? How is this exacerbated by his exile and move to his mother’s village in Chapters 14 and 15?

Darwinism Applied to Society-10/20

In The Origin of Species, Darwin presents his theory of natural selection. While he is speaking scientifically, he does use humans as an example to support his argument, “No country can be named in which all the native inhabitants are now so perfectly adapted to each other and to the physical conditions under which they live, that none of them could anyhow be improved; for in all countries, the natives have been so far conquered by
naturalized productions, that they have allowed foreigners to take firm possession of the land. And as foreigners have thus everywhere beaten some of the natives, we may safely conclude that the natives might have been modified with advantage, so as to have better resisted such intruders.” (pg. 103).

This ‘example’ of how nature has room to improve, and that natural selection is just a process of learning how to survive better is extremely problematic when you try to apply it to human society instead of genetic traits. He implies here that all the native people of other countries just didn’t evolve well enough to prevent their own oppression. This implies that the oppressors (in this case Europeans) are somehow more evolved because they weren’t oppressed by foreigners. While he did not believe in Social Darwinism, do you think that phrasing his argument like this could have contributed to it? Why was that such a popular idea among the upper class in Europe, and what purpose did it serve?

Nations as a Social Construct-10/13

The overarching question in Ernest Renan’s What is a Nation is whether or not there is something with which we can measure the validity of a nation or state. He brings up several examples, but it essentially boils down to the distinctions being something that we (humanity) made up. He first looks at race and ethnicity. If we were looking at it from a purely scientific view, the differences between people on a genetic level translate to visually different at best to indistinguishable. Historically, people banded together for survival, and as time went on and technology improved, those social connections stuck. How people defined themselves was with who they lived with. Renan says that it ultimately does not play a part in defining a nation, “The truth is that there is no pure race and that to make politics depend upon ethnographic analysis is to surrender it to a chimera” (Renan, 48).

He then goes on to talk about language and religion. Language is essential to communication, but it does not always rely on ethnic or racial lines, or even geographical ones. So that in and of itself cannot define a nation. Religion is also a factor. When people defined themselves based on who they lived with, religion was entirely identical among any group. However, when people began interacting outside of their immediate surroundings, it had to change. To get to the time when this was written, religion was no longer a cultural or societal identifier, it became personal and individual. So we can no longer base a nation on a particular religion either because states are now composed of multiple religious groups.

All of this is to say that what makes a nation is the people who are there. Nationality is a social construct that we use to identify ourselves and others. I would like to clarify that just because something is a social construct doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It still has influence and power. For example money, time, and language are constructs but our lives are very much affected by these things. Do you agree with Renan? Is there something with which we could determine a nation, or is it only up to the people of a particular area to decide their own nationality? Is there a way to bring about nationalism, or is it something that happens organically?

Historical Awareness-10/6

On page 62, de Tocqueville remarks, “In my life I have come across literary men who wrote histories without taking part in public affairs, and politicians whose only concern was to control events without a thought of describing them”. He makes it clear that he is aware of the historical context of his writing, unlike his peers who only look at the world from a historical context and do not try to change it, or those who try to change events without care for the potential consequences.

He knows that his recollections are important to history because he was there for the fall of the July Monarchy. With this in mind, how does this mindset affect his writing? Do you think he emphasized certain events looking back? Does this affect the credibility of the source at all? How does he talk about himself throughout this work, and how does he characterize other people? Is this important?

Developments in Power- 9/29

The Communist Manifesto asserts that history has always been a story of class struggle between the powerful and those that work for them out of necessity. The first chapter introduces how the bourgeoise came into power, and the specific ideology they used to do so, “In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation”. They have established power not through previous methods, like a religious mandate for power or a natural separation between the nobility and everyone else. They have instead made their power on the basis of the accumulation of money. Why is this important to their justification of the power that they hold? Is it a good idea for the upper class to get rid of moral or ideological justifications? Why or why not? Is the absence of these ideas made up for with the globalization and technology that they have now, as opposed to the older ruling classes who did not?

Morality and the Law- 9/22

Mill brings up an important and often overlooked dynamic when it comes to the relationship between religion and a country’s laws, “Suppose now that in a people, of whom the majority were Mussulmans [Muslim], that majority should insist on not permitting pork to be eaten within the limits of the country… Would it be a legitimate exercise of the moral authority of the public opinion? And if not, why not?”. The problem presented here is whether or not a public should decide laws based in their religion.

While a theocracy is a country whose identity is based entirely on the law of a religion, Mills is pointing to an example of a country who has a majority of the population following one religion, but not all of it. The question here is whether or not it is fair to force the religious minority of the country to follow laws based in the majority religion because they hold a moral authority within that country. There have been many countries that followed one religion or another, particularly denominations of Christianity in Europe, that became the basis of laws and social norms.

However, in places like the US that have a separation of church and state are not immune to this question either. People, in general, will base their sense of right and wrong in the religion that they believe in. So, the policies that they vote for are influenced by one religion or another. It is dangerous to exclude the religion of people from the discussion of politics because what people think politics should be and the laws that should be enacted are based on their sense of right and wrong, which directly stems from the teachings of their religion. Should we base our laws on morality? Can morality be objective, or is it only something that a society collectively agrees is wrong? Do you agree with Mill’s question of whether or not the majority of the public should enact laws based on their religion in the name of morality, or should the minority get a greater say in those types of laws?

The soul vs the body-9/15

Mary Wollstonecraft argues for equality between men and women in The Vindication of the Rights of Women . There are several points that she makes, but the one that stood out to me was the distinction between a person’s physical body and their soul or mind. There are two arguments that she uses this in, “I speak collectively of the whole sex; but I see not the shadow of a reason to conclude that their virtues should differ in respect to their nature. In fact, how can they, if virtue has one eternal standard?”. As well as a possible difference in the nature of a soul, “I have been led to imagine that the few extraordinary women who have rushed in eccentrical directions out of the orbit prescribed to their sex, were male spirits, confined by mistake in female frames… the inferiority must depend on the organs; or the heavenly fire [the soul]… is not given in equal portions”.

The first quote I picked is about the standard at which we judge a person’s virtue. If men are superior, they are judged for their virtue. However, since the definition of virtue, by nature, is unchanging, then women are also judged by that same standard. There can be no inherent difference, she argues, because both men and women are judged on the same level. Here, she focuses on a person’s soul, and concludes that all souls are equally capable of being virtuous.

The second quote deals with the relationship between the soul and the body it inhabits. If a man’s soul is superior by nature, then the women who have accomplished similar feats must have a man’s soul. This undermines the ‘superiority’ that men have simply for being a man physically, one sex does not have an inherent right over the other if women can have a male soul. If that is not true, then the fault must lie with the physical construction of a man or woman. If that is the case, then there is no difference between souls in either body, and men are only physically superior due to an inequality of traits.

Wollstonecraft distinguishes between a person’s soul and their physical body. How would this idea been received at the time, or even now? Why is this distinction important to her arguments for equality?