some notes upon watching Hamilton

I’m one of those who already knew the music and lyrics of Hamilton extremely well but watched a performance of it for the first time this weekend on video.

I hadn’t realized how consistently Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) appears on stage or even dominates it. I understood the plot but didn’t appreciate the strength of Burr’s presence. Specifically, I had missed scenes that emphasize his parallels with Hamilton, such as when the two men split the stage to sing love songs to their infants.

The musical as a whole is about who gets to tell the story. At the end, George Washington and the company sing, “Who lives / Who dies / Who tells your story?” Burr asks, “But when you’re gone, who remembers your name? / Who keeps your flame?” Angelica and the women of the company echo his question: “Who tells your story?” The women say, “Eliza,” and she begins, “I put myself back in the narrative.”

Washington has skillfully controlled his own story by exiting voluntarily and leaving a farewell address (written by Hamilton). Burr is the one who narrates Hamilton’s story for us, but he plays his cards so badly that he makes himself into the villain. Hamilton is obsessed with his own reputation; his efforts to safeguard it are one source of his own destruction. Eliza takes herself out of the narrative and then puts herself back in, using her 50 remaining years after Hamilton’s death to become a public historian. And Lin-Manuel Miranda turns Hamilton’s life into the material for his own art, thus becoming the one who really tells the story.

One general implication is that politics generates the noblest stories. We should want to be in the Room Where it Happens because then we can engage with other people, not as friends but as equals, and make something public and lasting together. This is high drama. It is possible only in a republic or in a revolutionary struggle to make a republic. Of course, Burr’s tragedy is that he can’t get in.

I think that Hamilton is the best fictional evocation of the intrinsic value of politics–politics not as a necessary means to some end but as a venue for drama and excellence. It also rescues the American story by treating our republic as an ongoing project to which anyone can contribute.


Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me
You let me make a difference

Another general point is that Miranda has appropriated the founding history. He has taken it as his material and turned it into something original that exemplifies his own culture. To be sure, any culture is layered, internally diverse, and vaguely bounded. Lin-Manuel Miranda and the original Alexander Hamilton actually share some aspects of culture as their common birthright. But the musical (lyrics, plot, music and cast) surely reflect a racially diverse 21st century New York City and a base in hip hop that are distant from Hamilton.

In this case, cultural appropriation is great. It is an impressive power move and a creative act. That reinforces my view that cultural appropriation is not an intrinsic problem at all. It simply depends on who appropriates whom for what. Appropriation is a political act, and politics can be noble.

See also Hannah Arendt and Lin-Manuel Miranda; ambition: pro or con?; Arendt, freedom, Trump; taking satisfaction from politics in the face of injustice; a welcome talk for college interns newly arrived in Washington; what is cultural appropriation?; and diversity, humility, curiosity

Foucault’s spiritual exercises

Here is Michel Foucault’s definition of “spirituality”:

… I think we could call “spirituality” the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth. We will call “spirituality” then the set of these researches, practices, and experiences, which may be purifications, ascetic exercises, renunciations, conversions of looking, modifications of existence, etc., which are, not for knowledge but for the subject, for the subject’s very being, the price to be paid for access to the truth. Let’s say that spirituality, as it appears in the West at least, has three characteristics.

[1] Spirituality postulates that the truth is never given to the subject by right. … It postulates that for the subject to have right of access to the truth he must be changed, transformed, shifted, and become, to some extent and up to a certain point, other than himself. … It follows that from this point of view there can be no truth without a conversion or a transformation of the subject.

[2] Eros [the subject’s attraction to the truth, or the truth’s movement to the subject] and askesis [labor] are, I think, the two major forms in Western spirituality for conceptualizing the modalities by which the subject must be transformed in order finally to become capable of truth.

[3] The truth enlightens the subject; the truth gives beatitude to the subject; the truth gives the subject tranquility of the soul. In short, in the truth and in access to the truth, there is something that fulfills the subject himself, which fulfills or transfigures his very being.

Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Lectures at the College de France 1981-2, translated by Graham Burchell (Palgrave, 2005), pp. 15-16

Foucault distinguishes spirituality from philosophy: “the form of thought that asks what it is that enables the subject to have access to the truth and which attempts to determine the conditions and limits of the subject’s access to the truth” (p. 15).

Although philosophy and spirituality are different, all the Greek and Roman philosophers–except (Foucault thinks) Aristotle–believed that a person could not have access to the truth without first being transformed into a better self. Therefore, all the classical philosophers argued for spirituality, as defined above. More than that, they combined their philosophical arguments with spiritual instruction, because they saw the two as inseparable.

One of the main topics that a self was supposed to understand was justice. To understand justice required improving oneself. In turn, learning about justice made a person better. “Consequently, taking care of oneself and being concerned with justice amount to the same thing” (p. 72, here interpreting Plato).

These presuppositions of ancient philosophy and spirituality contrast with two prevalent modern traditions. First:

  • Science is that set of methods and institutions (such as labs, PhD programs, and peer-review) that allow us to know nature without having to improve the self first. A scientist “can recognize the truth and have access to it in himself and solely through his activity of knowing, without anything else being demanded of him and without him having to change or alter his being as subject” (p. 17). In turn, science generates knowledge that may not improve anyone spiritually. Nature is precisely the realm that is independent of our spiritual condition. If some scientists prepare themselves mentally to do their jobs or gain tranquility from what they discover about nature, those are incidental facts about them as people. Spiritual preparation may not be necessary, and it certainly isn’t sufficient. Science is about methods, techniques, instruments, rules, and norms that prevent the self from influencing knowledge. And science pursues truth without flinching even when the results are morally problematic.

I would add another tradition as a contrast with ancient spirituality, although I am not sure Foucault would agree:

  • Liberalism is the political tradition that seeks to base good government on well-designed institutions (rights, checks-and-balances, elections and other mechanisms of accountability) so that good government need not depend on the moral excellence of either leaders or the people. Good institutional design is a more secure basis for justice than human excellence. Further, in a well-designed polity, we can leave people alone in their private lives instead of badgering them to transform themselves. Thus liberalism is compatible with freedom as autonomy and with diverse understandings of the good life.

According to Foucault, classical spiritual traditions lived on in Christianity. Spirituality ran into trouble with the rise of scholasticism, which made the study of God into a kind of science. Drawing on Aristotle, medieval scholastics provided methods for understanding God and nature that did not depend upon spiritual self-improvement. They left methods of self-improvement to non-scholars, a division that continues today.

I struggle to decide where Foucault stands himself. Does he give detailed lectures about Greco-Roman spiritual traditions because he believes that modern science and governance are bad and he wants us to return to a better way? Does he describe these Hellenistic traditions dispassionately, as a contribution to truth that may not improve us or himself? (In other words, is he a scientist of the past?) Or does he seek to liberate us from spirituality and science by demonstrating the historical contingency of both? If we shed spirituality and science, what are we left with?

I don’t know, but I enjoy the moments in the lectures when Foucault interacts with his audience. For instance, here he demonstrates concern:

[Is there] another room you can use? Yes? And are those people there because they cannot get into the other room or because they prefer to be there? I am sorry that the conditions are so bad, I can do nothing about it and as far as possible I would like to avoid you suffering too much. Okay, earlier, while talking about these techniques of the self and their existence prior to Platonic reflection on the epimeleia heautou [care of oneself], it came to mind, and I forgot to mention it to you, that there is a text … (p. 65)

And here he is playing with his audience:

I was saying that it seemed to me that at a certain moment … the link was broken, definitively I think, between access to the truth, which becomes the autonomous development of knowledge (connaissance), and the requirement of the subject’s trans- formation of himself and of his being. When I say “I think it was definitively broken,” I don’t need to tell you that I don’t believe any such thing, and that what is interesting is precisely that the links were not broken abruptly as if by the slice of a knife (pp. 25-6).

Foucault respected and learned from his colleague Pierre Hadot, a great scholar of Hellenistic thought. Hadot emphasized that the Hellenistic thinkers did not write systematic treatises. They were teachers who worked with students or other audiences in concrete circumstances.

Philosophy in antiquity was a spiritual exercise. … Whether we have to do with dialogues as in the case of Plato, class notes as in the case of Aristotle, treatises like those of Plotinus, or commentaries like those of Proclus, a philosopher’s works cannot be interpreted without taking into consideration the concrete situation which gave birth to them. They are the products of a philosophical school, in the most concrete sense of the term, in which a master forms his disciples, trying to guide them to self-transformation and -realization. Thus, the written work is a reflection of pedagogical, pyschagogic, and methodological preoccupations.

Although every written work is a monologue, the philosophical work is always implicitly a dialogue. The dimension of the possible interlocutor is always present within it. This explains the incoherencies and contradictions which modern historians discover with astonishment in the works of ancient philosophers.

Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, translated by Michael Chase (Blackwell 1995), pp. 104-5

Foucault’s concrete situation was rather unusual. As a holder of a chair in the College de France, he was required only to conduct his own research and report the results annually in a series of lectures–free, public, and uncredited. Because he was an academic superstar, he gave these lectures to a packed lecture hall and overflow areas, with ranks of tape-recorders piled on the desk before him. The audience could not literally discuss with him, but he could address them in a dialogic way.

Here is Foucault’s description of Epictetus:

unlike Seneca, [Epictetus] is a teacher by profession [and] he really does have a school. He opens a school which is called “school” and in which he has students. And, of course, among his students there are a number, no doubt a considerable number, of young people who come to be trained. … It should not be thought that the care of the self, as principal axis of the art of life, was reserved for adults. But alongside this, intertwined with this training of young people, we can say that in Epictetus’s school there is also what could be called, employing an unjust metaphor no doubt, an open shop: an open shop for adults. And in fact adults come to his school to hear his teaching for one day, for a few days or for some time. Here also, in the social world evoked in the Discourses, you see, for example, a town inspector passing through, a sort of tax procurer if you like. He is an Epicurean who comes to consult Epictetus and ask him questions. There is a man sent to Rome by his town who, passing through Asia Minor to Rome, stops to ask Epictetus questions and get advice on how he can best accomplish his mission. Moreover, Epictetus by no means disregards this clientele, or these adult interlocutors, since he advises his own students, young people therefore, to find prominent people in their town and to shake them up a bit by saying: Tell me then, how do you live? Do you really take proper care of yourselves? (p. 90)

I think Foucault’s own role is similar. And that makes him–not a scientist of history–but a practitioner and provider of spiritual exercises.

See also Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); does focusing philosophy on how to live broaden or narrow it?;  Hannah Arendt and philosophy as a way of life; Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life; science, UFOs, and the diminishment of humankind; notes on the social role of science: 1. the example of fetal ultrasounds.

Putting the US Constitution in its Place: A Broader Agenda for Civic Education

I put a draft chapter on in case anyone is interested in commenting. It is for a forthcoming volume edited by Carol McNamara about American citizenship.

The abstract:

Almost all American students are required to study the formal structure of the US government, and most perform fairly well on concrete, factual questions about the Constitution. But there is much more for competent citizens to learn. After I explore some valid reasons to include the Constitution in required curricula, I argue that the document provides a poor framework for civics as a whole, giving students a distorted view of the social world and failing to motivate them for ethical civic engagement. I conclude with a sketch of a curriculum in which the US Constitution has a place, but a fairly modest one.

Here is an excerpt:

… the Constitution is a distorting lens through which to view the social and political world. It is, after all, a charter for the federal government of the United States, albeit one that protects the rights of the states, associations, and individuals. It has much to say about the three official branches of the national government. It also mentions certain other institutions that seemed important to its 18th-century authors, such as the armed forces, militias, and privateers (“letters of marque”); religion and the press; lawyers (“Assistance of Counsel”); and associations and public assemblies. It does not mention any of the following components of our 21st-century system: political parties and lobbies; unions and organized professions (other than the law); permanent regulatory and national security agencies and the civil service; for-profit and nonprofit corporations and capital markets; or broadcast and digital media and the Internet.

Courts strive to apply constitutional principles to these modern institutions by expanding 18th-century categories. For instance, publicly traded, general-purpose corporations—which became common in the 19th century—are treated as examples of “associations” under the First Amendment.* I lack the competence to assess such rulings, but I think that the Constitution is problematic as a curricular framework. A curriculum based on that text will leave scarce time for analyzing most of the institutions that actually structure our lives, because they are unmentioned in the document.

While studying the First Amendment, students might be invited to think about the types of associations, religions, and equivalents of “the press” that exist in our time. But that is an odd and constraining way to investigate the structure and functions of Facebook, the Democratic Party, Sunni Islam, The Washington Post and its parent holding company, Black Lives Matter, the National Rifle Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and General Motors, to name just a few “associations.” A course on how our society works would go deeply into those organizations and give much less time to the question of how the US Constitution applies to them.

And another:

A heavy emphasis on the Constitution also implies a causal theory that is sometimes made explicit in k-12 classrooms. Students may take away the thesis that our society can be explained by the Constitution and the founders’ vision. The world we observe around is the one the founders “framed” for us.

That thesis is, at best, contestable. The organizations, norms, and systems of the United Kingdom and the United States today are in many ways similar, despite the fact that the USA has an idiosyncratic (some would say, “exceptional”) written constitution, whereas the British constitution is unwritten and has very different components: a monarch, an established church, a cabinet that is part of Parliament, and parliamentary sovereignty. Meanwhile, both the USA and the UK function very differently from the same countries a century ago. The reason is not that they have changed their constitutions profoundly but rather that urbanization and then suburbanization, industrialization and then deindustrialization, capitalism and then the welfare state, immigration and internal migrations, technology and global capital markets have transformed these two societies—more or less in parallel. The causal impact of the US Constitution on the USA seems limited.

*“Corporations and other associations, like individuals, contribute to the ‘discussion, debate, and the dissemination of information and ideas’ that the First Amendment seeks to foster.” Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U. S. 1 (2010), quoting Bellotti, 435 U. S., at 783. See also: on teaching the US Constitution; the Citizens United decision and the inadequate sociology of the US Constitution; liberals, conservatives, and love of the Constitution; is our constitutional order doomed?; and how to teach the constitution of cyberspace.

some highlights from the new CIRCLE survey

CIRCLE’s new survey of 2,232 young citizens (ages 18-29) is out. Among the findings:

  • “83% say they believe young people have the power to change the country, 60% feel like they’re part of a movement that will vote to express its views, and 79% of young people say the COVID-19 pandemic has helped them realize that politics impact their everyday lives.”
  • They support Biden over Trump by 58%-24%, “a staggering 34-point margin. But 18% of youth say they would like to vote for another candidate. Asian youth (78%) and Black youth (73%) are the most likely to support Biden. Meanwhile, almost three quarters of youth who support Trump (72%) are White.”
  • 27% of young people (ages 18-24) say they have attended a march or demonstration, a remarkable increase from when we asked the question [of] the same age group before the 2016 and 2018 elections (5% and 16%, respectively).”
  • For all youth, the top issues are environment and climate change (13%), racism (12%) and healthcare (12%). For Black youth, the priorities are racism (22%), policing of communities of color (15%), and healthcare (11%).
  • All measured forms of political engagement are up compared to 2018 (admittedly, not a presidential year). For instance, half say that they have tried to convince someone else to vote–which is a lot of viral marketing for the election.

Much more information is on the CIRCLE page.

diversity, humility, curiosity

I recently heard about a conversation in which someone invoked the idea of a “voodoo doll,” and another in which someone said that the Chinese character for crisis also means “opportunity.”

These phrases rest on falsehoods. Sticking needles into effigies to harm real enemies derives from Western European folklore. A widow was “accused, tried and drowned at London Bridge, England, for piercing a puppet, made in the victim’s likeness, with nails, towards the end of the 10th century” (Armitage 2015, p. 88). In white popular culture in the early 1900s, such practices were attributed to Haitian religion as part of a fearful, contemptuous, and hateful depiction of Haiti–the only country with a successful slave revolt–and of Black people in general.

John F. Kennedy popularized the idea that the Chinese character for crisis also means opportunity. This is false and may perpetuate stereotypes of Asian “wisdom” as paradoxical, antique, and unscientific. A similar example is the remark attributed to Zhou Enlai that it was too early to tell whether the French Revolution was a good thing. That sounds sagacious and mysterious until you find out that he was referring to the French uprisings of 1968, less than a decade before he spoke. It actually was too early to tell.

We shouldn’t say these things, because they are wrong and they reinforce harmful stereotypes. In fact, if anything is racist, it is to depict a religion constructed by enslaved and self-liberated people under immense duress as a malevolent form of magic, characterized by enchanted dolls and walking undead that are familiar tropes in European folklore.

Yet I do not think that the best outcome is to erect warning signs around such topics. We don’t want someone to use these phrases, get corrected, and resolve never to talk about Haiti or about Chinese characters again.

Instead, we should strive for a combination of humility (knowing what we don’t know) and curiosity (striving to learn more).

For instance, the family of syncretic religions that includes Vodou, Santeria, Candomble Jeje, and others is an important topic of study. These religions are components of our social world, interesting in their own right and significant in the history of the African diaspora. To understand a phenomenon like the astounding growth of Pentecostalism in Brazil, it might be important to have some awareness of Brazilian syncretism, which Pentecostals depict as their main enemy. Fear of Haiti and its successful revolution has been important in American politics–and that, too, is valuable to understand.

To study syncretism raises general issues that might have existential significance for people from other religious backgrounds. For instance, the question “What is a religion?” is pressing for all human beings. One answer is: a system of belief defined by certain abstract tenets that are matters of faith rather than reason and that are incompatible with other systems. That definition does not apply to Vodou or explain how someone can be both Catholic and syncretic, as many people are. So maybe we should rethink what a religion is, in general.

Likewise, it is worthwhile to understand more about Chinese writing. In addition to its intrinsic significance, this topic also raises questions that generalize to other contexts. For example, the word ji, misleadingly translated as “opportunity,” is polysemous: it has a whole family of loosely related meanings. Many English words are polysemous, too. What should we make of polysemy in general?

Also, the claim that the Chinese character for crisis means opportunity is an example–in this case, a spurious example–of arguing from etymology. People make etymological arguments all the time. I, for example, have noted that the roots of “citizen” and “political” are Latin and Greek words related to the city (civitas and polis). They share a history with the words “urbane” and “civilized,” which also distinguish cities from the inferior countryside. But do we get any guidance for today by understanding what ancient Greeks and Romans meant by these words? How, in general, should we think about original meanings, given that languages and societies change?

In short, let us turn mistakes into quests for more and better knowledge. That means encouraging further forays into fraught topics instead of warning people away from them. When we err, as we all do, we should respond by learning, not by apologizing and turning away. Incidentally, this means keeping the focus on the original topic of conversation (e.g., Haitian religion), not on our feelings about being corrected. I take the main problem with “white fragility” to be a tendency to distort conversations by directing attention to the question of how the white person feels.

My thesis is that cultural diversity requires humility plus curiosity. I would acknowledge two challenges to this thesis–not to discourage curiosity but to remind us what to be careful of.

First, by digging more deeply into fraught topics, we may make additional mistakes. I wrote above that the Haitian Revolution was the only successful revolt of enslaved people. Arguably, that is a false statement. In an earlier draft, I wrote that white people depicted Vodou as “black magic,” thereby repeating a racist trope in my own voice. It can be safer to erect warning signs around such issues than to compound our initial mistakes with more. I think we should take this risk but be appropriately careful about it. Humility should not diminish with added knowledge.

Second, knowledge confers power. To understand more about other peoples and cultures can allow you to profit from them or even dominate them. Often in durable cases of imperialism, the conquerors learned about, and even admired, the people whom they controlled.

For instance, I am not sure that Britain would have been motivated to dominate India, or capable of doing so, if some British people had not become learned and appreciative about India. A classic case is Rudyard Kipling. His first language was Hindi, he knew a lot about India, he disparaged racist stereotypes about Indians, and he believed that Britain should rule India just because it was a magnificent civilization. In stark contrast, Donald Trump displays ignorance and contempt for almost the whole world. One result is a reluctance to use US military power overseas. Trump has arguably been less imperialistic than his predecessors because he is more ignorant. This is a warning about curiosity.

Leaving aside literal imperialism, we might also worry about profiting from knowledge about other cultures. One could imagine a privileged American who starts with an idea about voodoo dolls, is corrected, learns more about Haitian syncretism, and makes money by writing about it or by importing and selling real Haitian art. Although I would defend cultural appropriation in many circumstances (and I disagree that profit is a mark of sin), one should at least be mindful about monetizing other people’s experiences.

These are caveats, but I don’t think they rebut the basic presumption that we should address ignorance by learning more–with curiosity born of humility and guided by ethics.

Source: Armitage, Natalie, “European and African Figural Ritual Magic: The Beginnings of the Voodoo Doll Myth,” in Armitage & Ceri Houlbrook, editors, The Materiality of Magic: An Artifactual Investigation into Ritual Practices and Popular Beliefs, Oxbow Books, 2015, pp. 85–102.) See also: is everyone religious?; Kipling: understanding and control; what is cultural appropriation?; and when is cultural appropriation good or bad?.