The House of Atreus: A Play

Agamemnon is like: I can’t believe we’re still stuck in this place. I am totally tired of waiting around for wind. I’m going to sacrifice my youngest kid to Artemis. Tell her it’s her wedding, she can marry that musclehead Achilles.

Cassandra to Iphigenia: Um, I wouldn’t go to your dad’s if I were you.

Agamemnon is all set to slaughter Iphigenia. But Artemis is like: JK, you can kill this deer instead and I’ll teleport Iphigenia to hang with the Taurians for a while. Just don’t tell anyone.

Electra: Orestes, did you hear what Dad did? He killed Iphigenia and now he’s like blatantly hooking up with Cassandra, who’s the most annoying prophetess ever and like half his age. Mom is having a fit!

Orestes is like: Dad, WTF? You sacrificed Iphigenia just so you could go on a trip?

Enter Clytemnestra, who is is like: Kids, chill, I’ll take care of it. Agamemnon, honey, come inside and take a bath. Your girlfriend can wait here.

Cassandra to Agamemnon: I wouldn’t go in there if I were you.

Clytemnestra to Agamemnon: Here we go, get in the tub. [Stab, stab, stab.]

Cassandra is like: I told him. This family never pays attention to me.

Orestes is like: OMG, what am I going to do? If I don’t revenge Dad, the whole entire House of Atreus will look, like, totally lame. But you’re not supposed to like kill your own mother, are you?

Electra is like: Um, Iphigenia was stupid anyway? I totally would have sacrificed her to Artemis if I’d been in Dad’s situation. Mom overreacted as usual. I hate her. [Exits, slouching.]

[Orestes slays Clytemnestra.]

Chorus of Boeotian Fisherwives: OMG! OMG! Life totally sucks for these guys!

[The trial of Orestes]

Bailiff: In the case of People v. Orestes Son of Agamemnon Son of Atreus, the defense has rested. Jury, how find you?

Furies: Guilty! Let us hound him to hell!

Various respectable Athenians: On account of the defendant’s dysfunctional home environment, we recommend counseling in lieu of human sacrifice and damnation.

Athena: The jury is split 50/50. Let the defendant go.

Furies: We’ll hound him anyway!

[Iphigenia in Tauris]

Iphigenia is like: I am so glad I don’t have to live in stupid old Greece anymore. Dad was so typical–ready to kill me just to go sailing. I can’t understand a word these barbarians say but they are so cool. If any Greeks show up, I’ll sacrifice them!

[Enter Orestes and Pylades, in chains, pursued by Furies.]

Iphigenia is like: Look, here come two Greek dorks now! Get them ready for the sacrifice. I am like totally up for cutting those two dudes’ throats.

Orestes is like: Um, Iphigenia? I’m, like, your long-lost brother?

Iphigenia is like: Oh yeah, look at you. What was I thinking–sacrificing you guys, hahaha. Let’s all escape from this place. Your boyfriend can come, too. I am totally ready to go home to Greece.

[Orestes rules justly for many years and then goes to hell with the Furies like everyone else.]

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creative options for the next House Speaker

Turmoil in the US House has provoked a remarkable variety of creative proposals, which I’ll list in descending order of likelihood. In reviewing this list, keep in mind that the Speaker is elected by the entire House and need not be a US representative. The links are to articles making the case for these various scenarios.

John Boehner: Whether he wants to or not, the current Speaker could stay on as the Speaker. He is the only person in the world who does not have to win an election; he would just announce that he is staying on. He might be prevailed upon to do so if the alternative is a disaster. Or–conceivably–this was the outcome he foresaw all along.

Paul Ryan: The Wisconsin Rep. has broad support across the GOP caucus, so they might decide to vote for him unanimously and make him the Speaker. The main obstacle seems to be that he is steadfastly against running.  (“Was the crown offered him thrice?” / “Ay, marry, was’t, and he put it by thrice, every / time gentler than other, and at every putting-by / mine honest neighbours shouted.” … But look what happened to Caesar.)

Reps. Daniel Webster (sic) or Jason Chaffetz. They are running. But they don’t seem to have enough support in the GOP caucus to win, unless the Republicans face a protracted struggle and decide they’d just better pick someone who is seeking the seat.

Mitt Romney: The House GOP could select him if they wanted to (and if he accepted). Ezra Klein notes that they almost all endorsed him for president, so maybe he could unify their caucus. And they would get a prominent, effective leader from Capitol Hill.

“Colin Powell”: I use this name as an example of someone who might fit the following profile: popular and respected, with at least some GOP credibility and yet appeal to some Democrats. In the latest US poll of most admired humans, Powell gets zero percent, but so does everyone except a small group of people who are either disqualified (Pope Francis, Vladimir Putin, the current POTUS) or politically unacceptable to the House (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush). In any case, the scenario is that the House GOP decides they can look good by picking a popular figure and they replace the defectors on their side by drawing in quite a few Democrats who feel they’d be better off under Speaker Powell than under a House GOP leader. In fact, this idea could come from the Democratic side. (Speaker Buffett?)

Nancy Pelosi: She could get all the Democrats to support her, and if 29 moderate Republicans decided to join them, she would be elected. But those moderate Republicans stand far from Pelosi on the issues and would pay a price politically for supporting a Democrat. Moreover, if she compromised too much to get the 29 Republican votes, she could lose some Democrats or just decide herself that it wasn’t worth the candle.

See also why can’t a centrist coalition form in the US House? (Sept. 2013)

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the big divisions of academic work

I constantly see evidence that people are confused about phrases like “the liberal arts,” the “arts & sciences,” and “the humanities.”  Although some of my definitions may be controversial, I thought a lexicon might be helpful:

The liberal arts encompass the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. These disciplines are meant to be valuable irrespective of their utility as preparation for careers. The root meaning is that they are appropriate for a gentleman or -lady. In the middle ages, it was common to list seven liberal arts, often the following: music (which was really music theory), arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The last three were about language, whereas the first four were about nature. Philosophy and theology were sometimes substituted or added to the list, and philosophy has subsequently given rise to a range of liberal arts, from anthropology to zoology.

The phrase arts & sciences seems to be synonymous with liberal arts but avoids the modern implication that the “arts” exclude the sciences.

The humanities involve the interpretation of human culture. Interpretation generally takes the form of insightful description, whether organized over time (as narrative) or across space, but the humanities also encompass theorizing about human culture and applying such theories. By this definition, the humanities encompass the study of literature, music, and the arts. They also include portions of history (cultural history and historical narrative), anthropology (qualitative cultural anthropology/ethnography), political science (normative political theory), and philosophy (history of philosophy and some approaches to ethics and political philosophy). Many would disagree, but I believe that the rigorous moral assessment of human phenomena is intrinsic to the humanities, whereas science claims to separate facts from values.

The social sciences investigate the human world in ways analogous to the natural sciences, meaning that they generally seek to classify, model, and/or explain human phenomena. So a historian who tells the story of Boston’s development is a humanist, but a historian who tries to model the causes of urban growth is a social scientist. The social sciences can be primarily qualitative, quantitative, or theoretical. The line between the humanities and social sciences cuts through departments; the criterion is whether the research is analogous to natural science.

The behavioral sciences do not seem to me sharply distinguishable from the social sciences, but they put human mental states (such as choices and responses) at the center, as opposed to social systems and processes. They tend to employ the elaborate toolkit of empirical psychology rather than other methods.

The arts (in the context of a university) involve the actual production of cultural products, from ceramics and paintings to dance performances and music.

The natural sciences investigate nature, sometimes including human beings as natural species. They thus encompass not only mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and their offshoots but also some forms psychology, anthropology, and philosophy.

Engineering, computer science and related fields do not investigate nature but rather aim to change nature through deliberate interventions.

The professional disciplines aim to understand and teach the techniques, ethics, and underlying principles applicable to particular socially constructed professions, ranging from those that are strictly licensed (e.g., medicine and law) to those that are more loosely and informally defined (business, journalism).

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3010 blog posts

I just realized that this blog recently inched past 3,000 posts. Today’s post is the 3011th since I began in January 2003. For more than 10 years, I posted absolutely every work day. Of late I’ve begun missing one now and then, and I’m OK with that. But the 3,000-post mark seems worth noting.

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Bernie Sanders runs on the 1948 Democratic Party Platform

One gap between liberals and conservatives is their sense of the direction the country has recently taken. Each side perceives a nation that has abandoned valuable principles that were prevalent in the past. Sometimes, both sides’ perceptions are exaggerated. For instance, gross government spending has neither soared as a result of Obama and other recent spendthrift lefties, nor has it plummeted due to neoliberal budget-cutters. It looks fairly similar from decade to decade. (The upper trend includes entitlements and interest payments; the lower is limited to direct government spending.)

But there is an important way in which the progressives’ perception is valid. Ideas that are now embraced mainly by Occupy protesters and the Sanders campaign were once so mainstream that they provided the basic planks of the 1948 Democratic Party Platform. I quote from that document (italics added):

  • We shall enact comprehensive housing legislation, including provisions for slum clearance and low-rent housing projects initiated by local agencies. This nation is shamed by the failure of the Republican 80th Congress to pass the vitally needed general housing legislation as recommended by the President. Adequate housing will end the need for rent control. Until then, it must be continued.
  • We advocate such legislation as is desirable to establish a just body of rules to assure free and effective collective bargaining, to determine, in the public interest, the rights of employees and employers, to reduce to a minimum their conflict of interests, and to enable unions to keep their membership free from communistic influences.
  • We favor the extension of the coverage of the Fair Labor Standards Act as recommended by President Truman, and the adoption of a minimum wage of at least 75 cents an hour [$7.42 in 2015 dollars] in place of the present obsolete and inadequate minimum of 40 cents an hour.
  • We favor the extension of the Social Security program established under Democratic leadership, to provide additional protection against the hazards of old age, disability, disease or death. We believe that this program should include: Increases in old-age and survivors’ insurance benefits by at least 50 percent, and reduction of the eligibility age for women from 65 to 60 years; extension of old-age and survivors’ and unemployment insurance to all workers not now covered; insurance against loss of earnings on account of illness or disability; improved public assistance for the needy.
  • We favor the enactment of a national health program far [sic] expanded medical research, medical education, and hospitals and clinics.
  • We will continue our efforts to expand maternal care, improve the health of the nation’s children, and reduce juvenile delinquency.
  • We approve the purposes of the Mental Health Act and we favor such appropriations as may be necessary to make it effective.
  • We advocate federal aid for education administered by and under the control of the states. We vigorously support the authorization, which was so shockingly ignored by the Republican 80th Congress, for the appropriation of $300 million [almost $3 billion today] as a beginning of Federal aid to the states to assist them in meeting the present educational needs. We insist upon the right of every American child to obtain a good education.
  • We pledge an intensive enforcement of the antitrust laws, with adequate appropriations. … We advocate the strengthening of existing antitrust laws by closing the gaps which experience has shown have been used to promote concentration of economic power.
  • We support the right of free enterprise and the right of all persons to work together in co-operatives and other democratic associations for the purpose of carrying out any proper business operations free from any arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions.
  • The Democratic Party commits itself to continuing its efforts to eradicate all racial, religious and economic discrimination. … We again state our belief that racial and religious minorities must have the right to live, the right to work, the right to vote, the full and equal protection of the laws, on a basis of equality with all citizens as guaranteed by the Constitution.
  • We recommend to Congress the submission of a constitutional amendment on equal rights for women.

To be fair, the platform also diverges in some respects from contemporary progressive thinking. The environmental policies are mostly about supporting big projects that will extract more power and natural resources from public lands. That was Midcentury Modern progressivism, which lost its appeal in the 1960s. The platform is very positive about the Farm Bill, which may still receive Democratic Party support today but is unpopular among progressive activists. And the platform calls for tax cuts, albeit focused on lower-income Americans and as a response to post-War defense cuts.

Overall, the 1948 Platform seems left of the contemporary Democratic Party. It is, however, true that some important proposals of the 1948 platform were enacted by 1972, and today’s mainstream Democrats tend to want to protect those policies. In that sense, the mainstream Democratic Party is arguably the most conservative force in the country today (and I mean that respectfully). Its goal is to preserve what was constructed from 1932-1968. Meanwhile, Senator Sanders can be pretty accurately described as someone who wants to check the unchecked boxes on Harry Truman’s 1948 to-do list.

See also: Wyoming has moved right, the country has not moved leftEdmund Burke would vote Democratic; and the left has become Burkean.

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on philosophy as a way of life

(San Antonio, TX) Here I briefly introduce schools of thought–Indian and European–that have combined introspective mental exercises with reasoning about moral principles and critical analysis of social systems. I contrast their integrated approach to forms of philosophy that construct comprehensive models of ethics by using reasons alone. This essay will be the introduction to a book on mapping moral networks, which is a new introspective exercise.

–“I should have given that man some change. He looked hungry.”
–“He would have used it for drugs or alcohol.”
–“Maybe he has that right—it’s his life!”
–“If you’re going to try to help the homeless, you should donate to the Downtown Shelter. They spend the money on real needs. Plus, it’s tax-deductible.”
–“That’s not realistic advice. While I am talking to a homeless person, I have homelessness on my mind. Once I get back home, the thought is gone. I’d never remember to mail off a check.”
–“Perhaps we should set aside some time every day to practice compassion and remember people who are suffering.”
–“Yes, I guess I’m for compassion—but handing someone money seems to create the wrong kind of relationship. What did Emerson write? ‘Though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.’”
–“Maybe we should think about why some people are homeless in the first place and what policies would end that situation.”

This little dialog shows a pair of human beings doing several valuable things. They display emotions, some expressed with enthusiasm and some with regret. They exchange reasons. But they know that their reasons may not actually influence them deeply because they have habits that they would have to counteract by altering their regular routines. They cite rules—such as the tax deduction for charity and the shelter’s ban on alcohol—that are meant to improve and regulate people’s behavior. Finally, one speaker (perhaps showing off) cites an influential thinker from the past whose argument seems relevant.

Each of these modes of thought can be practiced at a high level. Instead of quickly asserting moral beliefs, we can develop whole arguments: chains of reasons that carry from a premise to a conclusion. If the argument persuades, it joins the list of things you believe, and you have been changed. Anyone who is serious about being a good person must struggle to get the reasons right and then act according to the conclusions.

But because our wills are weak, we also need enforced rules that guide or constrain us. And just as we can reason about our own choices (“Should I give a dollar to this homeless person?”), so we can reason about laws, regulations, social norms, and institutions. We can ask whether the rules that are in place are acceptable and, if not, how they should change. As Alexander Hamilton wrote on the first page of the Federalist Papers, laws are meant to arise from “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” Political thinkers have often offered elaborate arguments about how institutions should be designed to improve people’s behavior.

Meanwhile, we can learn reflective practices such as confession, memorization, visualization, meditation, autobiographical reflection, and prayer. These methods are more personal than arguments, for they work directly on an individual’s beliefs, emotions, and habits. They are less coercive but more individualized than rules and laws, for we enforce these practices on ourselves. They tend to require practice and repetition to achieve their goals. You can read an argument once in order to evaluate it, but you must repeat a mental exercise for it to affect your psychology. In the 1500s, Michel de Montaigne observed, “Even when we apply our minds willingly to reason and instruction, they are rarely powerful enough to carry us all the way to action, unless we also exercise and train the soul by experience for the path on which we would send it” (II.6). But self-discipline without reason is blind, potentially turning us into worse rather than better people. Think of terrorists who have overcome their habits of peacefulness and tolerance to make themselves into killers; their fault is not a lack of discipline but a poor choice of means and (often) ends.

Finally, we can take the interpretation of other people’s thoughts to high levels of sophistication and rigor. Instead of just quoting a snippet of Emerson, we can make a full study of his ideas in their context. Cultural critique and intellectual history help us understand where we come from and what influences us. After all, we believe what we do in large measure because other people have formed and shaped our thoughts. No one invents her whole worldview from scratch. Since we begin with the traditions that have developed so far, it is important to understand them. Reasoning or self-discipline requires a critical understanding of the materials with which we construct our thoughts, which are ideas that our predecessors have invented.

It makes sense to put these modes together because we are reasonable creatures (capable of offering and sharing reasons for what we do), but we are also emotional and habitual creatures (requiring either external rules or mental discipline and practice to improve ourselves), political creatures (living in communities structured by laws and norms that people make and change), and historical creatures (shaped by the heritage of past thought).

In some periods, it has been common to combine argumentation about personal choices and social institutions, mental exercises, and the critical study of past thinkers. In other times–including our own–these elements have come apart. Here I will offer a very short and suggestive review of that history to support the thesis that now is a time to put the pieces back together. Continue reading

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Danielle Allen at Tufts on Oct. 21

All are welcome to two talks with the excellent Danielle Allen, the new director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and professor in the Department of Government and Graduate School of Education, Harvard University

Tisch Research Prize Keynote Address: Recovering Equality in America

October 21 | 5:30 pm

Interfaith Center, 58 Winthrop Street

Tufts Medford Campus

This year’s recipient of the Tisch Research Prize, Professor Danielle Allen was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002 for her ability to combine “the classicist’s careful attention to texts and language with the political theorist’s sophisticated and informed engagement.” Among her many books is Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, which was featured on the front page of the New York Times. A renowned scholar in many fields, Allen has doctorates in both classics and political science and also writes about education and race in contemporary America.

Allen argues that in the U.S. we are very good at discussing and defending liberty and its requirements, but our capacities to analyze and defend issues of equality have atrophied. Healthy democracies, though, depend on the interdependence of liberty and equality. Allen will present the historical reasons lying behind the diminishment in our capacity to think effectively about equality, discuss the relationships among moral, social, political, and economic forms of egalitarianism, and point to pathways by which we can recover our collective commitment to equality.

The Tisch Research Prize, awarded by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, recognizes outstanding careers devoted to Civic Studies–academic research on issues related to active citizenship. Previous winners of this prestigious award include the Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom (Indiana), MacArthur Fellow John Gaventa (Coady Institute), and distinguished professors Robert Wuthnow (Princeton), Doug McAdam (Stanford), Constance Flanagan (Wisconsin), and Meredith Minkler (Berkeley).

This event is co-sponsored by: The Center for Race and Democracy, The Africana Center, and the departments of Classics, History, Philosophy, and Political Science.

Please register here:

Tisch Talks in the Humanities: From Voice to Influence: Preparing for Civic Agency in a Digital Age

October 21 | 12:30 pm

Cabot 702, the Fletcher School

Tufts Medford Campus

Join Tisch College for a brown-bag lunch discussion with this year’s recipient of the 2015 Tisch Research Prize winner, Professor Danielle Allen. Allen is a co-editor of the recent book From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age and a member of the Youth Participatory Politics Research Network. She will present and discuss ten fundamental design principles for those seeking to be, or support, change-makers who work with digital tools. The design principles were developed through her work with the MacArthur Foundation research network on youth and participatory politics.

This event is organized by the Initiatives in the Public Humanities at Tisch College and co-sponsored by Boston Civic Media. Please RSVP by emailing


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measures of Critical Consciousness

New on the CIRCLE website is a guest post on Critical Consciousness Impact Measures. As the authors (Matthew Diemer, Ellen Hawley McWhirter, Emily J. Ozer, and Luke Rapa) explain, Critical Consciousness “refers to marginalized or oppressed people’s critical reflection on oppressive social, economic, or political conditions, the motivation to address perceived injustice, and action taken to counter injustice.” In their work–together and separately–these scholars have found that students do better when they have more Critical Consciousness. Survey measures are embedded in the post and are available for anyone to use in program evaluations or research, or even just for discussion.

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what happened to leisure time?

(Hyde Park, NY) I am at FDR’s historic home with (as it happens) a bunch of labor organizers and others concerned with work. On a break, we had a chance to visit the house where the New Deal president was born–we even saw the bed where that blessed event happened–and where he spent most of his life. He was a busy man: Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, President of the United States for 13 epic years. And yet he also had time to collect one million stamps and more than 20,000 books, many of them about naval history, a special interest of his. He also welcomed many house guests and obviously socialized constantly. He had a dog and was interested in birds.

Where did he find the time for all these hobbies? I know hardly anyone who has enough spare time for the equivalent of stamp collecting, even though they aren’t Commanders in Chief during World War II. Here are three explanation for where the time has gone:

  1. Roosevelt had servants and a wife and a mother who did lots of work within the family. His leisure simply came from privilege. I think this is partly true, but even if he had lived alone without kids, it’s hard to imagine how he could have found the time for hobbies while leading the free world.
  2. He was free of some time-wasters. As it happens, he owned just about the only TV set in the world at the time, the very machine that had been exhibited at the World’s Fair. But there was nothing to watch on it. That actual TV, still preserved in his house, stands as a symbol of time that he couldn’t waste.
  3. He had more free time than we do because he could communicate less. Once he mailed a letter, he just had to wait for a response. In contrast, we get thousands and thousands of emails and texts each year, and they bounce back and forth constantly, many of them reaching whole lists of people who feel the need to keep up with the constant flow. My hypothesis: too much communication is using up our lives. Receiving and sending we waste our powers.
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how a university “covers” the world

(Philadelphia) Here are the baker’s dozen Tufts faculty who are Tisch College Fellows for 2015-16. Their work involves active citizenship as a topic of study, a research method, or a mode of teaching. I work with a group like this every year; about 100 alumni of the program are still on the Tufts faculty.

Listening to the 2015-16 Fellows introduce their projects last week, I realized that the faculty of a research university resembles a global open-source intelligence service or a nonprofit news-gathering organization to rival a major newspaper. One of our fellows both studies and supports Muslim women leaders in the West African region where Boko Haram makes headlines by suppressing education for women. Another fellow spent this summer conducting detailed ethnographic research in Ferguson, MO. A third is inside the homes of elderly Somerville residents who have mobility problems.

These scholars investigate topics that may also appear on the cable news or the front page of The New York Times. Their methods are more systematic and deeper than those of reporters, although their products also tend to be less timely and (with some exceptions) less accessible. I don’t consider scholarship better than excellent reporting; we need both. But we also need ways to make more public the kinds of knowledge collected or created by scholars. The Conversation is one fascinating and promising effort to marry “academic rigor” with “journalist flair” by employing professional journalistic editors to solicit and edit articles by scholars. That begins to tap the tremendous potential of the academy for public knowledge.

See also Civic Engagement and Community Information: Five Strategies to Revive Civic Communication

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