Early Morning Open Thread: Happy Birthday, JSF!


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If I remember correctly, it’s May 12 in Just Some Fuckhead’s timezone now, and he mentioned the natal anniversary last evening.

Okay, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to use this particular clip, but seriously: Best wishes and many happy returns to an internet mensch.








For a Good Time In Cambridge: Philosophy, Judaism, Ferociously Smart People Edition

Dear all,

I’ve been a bit slow in posting this one — I was distracted just a bit last week for some reason…but tomorrow evening I’ll be moderating a really fascinating panel (if this sort of thing fascinates you).  The event is titled Hilary Putnam’s Jewish Journey, with a cut line that adds “an exploration of the Jewish strands in the thinking of Hilary Putnam, Harvard Professor emeritus and Rolf Schock Prize laureate.”

A little less formally:  Hilary is on anyone’s shortlist for most significant contemporary philosophers, with an intellectual career that has spanned just about the entire range of questions the last (n) millenia of thinkers have confronted.

Raphael_School_of_Athens

I’ve got a spurious connection to him:  he taught at MIT in the early 1960s, before moving to Harvard in 1965, where he has remained through a career that continues at almost ridiculous spate despite his emeritus status (since 2000).

My real connection is that of one of those very lucky folks who can count Hilary as a friend.  He is simply the most generous and warm great thinker I’ve ever had the good fortune to know.  Every conversation (with just about everyone he encounters) is one in which he speaks to a colleague, a companion, someone with whom he can think.  Just be warned:  bring your A game.  His a formidable intellect.  Trained as a mathematician and mathematically competent philosopher, he was a member of the group that resolved Hilbert’s tenth problem (showing that the problem has no solution).  He’s written more than 20 books on a huge range of philosophical topics, and his “brain in a vatthought experiment is credited as one of the major sources for The Matrix (who says contemporary philosophy has no practical application?!)

He is also someone who has developed a profound commitment and intellectual insight into Jewish thought, life and practice over many decades.  In 2008, he captured some part of that thinking in a book, Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life:  Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein — which I can affirm is both well and deeply written.  In celebration of all that and more, several groups have got together to put on a panel to respond to Hilary’s writing, and then hear from Hilary himself as he responds to the responses (a kind of Talmudic approach to such things, actually).  The speakers will be Harvard’s Diana Eck, Boston University’s Abigail Gillman, and Michael Morgan, from Indiana University.  Hilary will listen to what they have to say and then reply.  I’ll be the traffic cop.

Let me say again:  Hilary is at once a brilliant scholar and thinker and one of the genuinely good guys.  You won’t regret time spent in the company of both his ideas and his person.  To drive that point home, I’ll quote from one of my all-time favorite students who just wrote to me, gnashing her teeth that she can’t be there, and that, “I once bailed out on a Violent Femmes concert to hear Hilary Putnam talk at Smith.”  That’s an accolade if ever there was one….;)

The time:  7 p.m.
The place:  Beren Hall, Harvard Hillel (the Moshe Safdie building at 52 Mt. Auburn St. at the corner of Plympton St. in Cambridge.)

We’ll go until about 8:30.  Should be a good time.

Image:  Raphael, School of Athens, 1505.  Cliche, I know, but hey…given the subject it’s hard to avoid.








It don’t worry me

It’s a tragedy that a few whackjobs with bombs managed to kill and maim so many at the Boston marathon. There’s no reason to believe that this is part of any trend, or that we need change our attitudes about diversity and inclusion. Ron Brownstein:

The 9/11 attacks unnerved and staggered the U.S. in many ways, provoking responses that politically divide the nation even now. But two very bad things that might have happened did not. One was a systematic backlash against American Muslims. Prejudice obviously exists: In a comprehensive 2011 Gallup Poll, Muslims were more likely than Americans of other religious backgrounds to report discrimination. But Muslims never faced anything comparable to the recoil against foreign communities in the U.S. during World War I or World War II; the examples of places resisting the operation of mosques, for instance, draw attention precisely because they are exceptions. (One 2011 study found more than 2,000 mosques operating in the United States.) The 2011 Gallup survey concluded, “A majority of Americans of every faith see Muslim Americans as being loyal to their country.” The poll also said that U.S. Muslims are as satisfied as Americans from other religious backgrounds with their lives today—and more optimistic about their prospects five years down the road.

[….]

One of America’s greatest strengths is its almost infinite capacity to include, absorb, and integrate new groups. It’s a revealing coincidence that the Boston attack took place on what Major League Baseball now observes as Jackie Robinson Day—celebrating the achievement of a racial pioneer whom many in his day scorned and resisted. In America, walls fall, sooner or later.

Our amalgamating capacity obviously doesn’t erase all of our differences. Our politics are ominously and stubbornly polarized along overlapping lines of race, generation, education, region, and religious faith. But a society forever absorbing the new dissolves alienation and disrupts radicalization. So long as the instinct to include remains common in America, attacks like the one in Boston will remain rare.

This is Jackie Robinson’s country, not Pam Geller’s.








Damn. Just Damn

Just checking in, really.

Some notes — first, thanks for good thoughts sent our way. My family and I are all OK.  We actually are visiting a very ill relative out of town, so nowhere near any of the mess.  All my wonderful students are OK, I believe, though I can’t imagine their state of mind.

I note that those MIT  students finishing up their freshman year have now seen a terrorist attack, a murder on campus, a town in lockdown — and have as some of their formative childhood memories the fall of the towers when they were around six years old.  They’ve spent almost all of their lives watching the unfolding of wars of choice fought in the case of Iraq on false pretexts.  They seen torture routinized and the only political process they’ve witnessed is one of persistant anti-democratic manouvering pursued by one of the two major parties in our system.

They remain enormously optimistic (or at least have been in my conversations with them up till the last couple of days). They are phenomenally smart, gifted, optimistic. I damn well hope they stay so.  We need them.

Johann_Peter_Hasenclever_-_Die_Dorfschule

Next:  I’m heartsick at the death of the MIT police officer.  I am for the marathon victims as well of course, and more abstractly for the dead on the street in Iraq, in Mogadishu, in…  But I’m like almost everyone, I think; those losses that strike closest to home color the emotions in a particular way.

Campus cops have a strange, really difficult job:  they have to both police and protect in a hothouse setting full of young (and often insufficiently wise older) folk who are not always sure that the rules and norms of the wider world are more than advisory.  Our force at MIT manages that balancing act really, really well, especially given their charge within a university whose traditions include translocating cop cars to, shall we say, interesting coordinates.*  From the report it sounds like our man was gunned down, really just executed, and I couldn’t be more enraged nor heartsick.  I’ll save for a different post the political point I think most of you can probable guess. This isn’t the time.  But you know I’m thinking it.

More close to home stuff.  One of the graduate students in my department, a really sweet, good guy, turns out to have been long time friends with the Richard family and their eight year old son, Martin, killed  in Monday’s bombing.  The connections which bind us all run through all kinds of chance links, but through that pathway that already horrific loss comes closer.  Any murder is hateful, but the killing of kids….I’m not going to write down the words that flow through my head as I cycle back to that.  But I can tell you that, however irrational it may be, my sense of wretched, futile anger ramped up when I learned of the loss refracted through the sorrow of someone I know.

That student and other friends of the family have set up a fund to help the Richards directly — the intention is to cover medical expenses, funeral costs, and whatever else it takes to get through the various horribles coming up over the next while. I’ve thrown a bit that way, and I offer the link up here if anyone feels so moved.  The “One Fund” to offer help to those affected by the bombings (and, I’d guess though I don’t know, those affected by last night/today’s evens) is here. I’d note that folks in town and around the country have already been phenomenally generous, and I’ll add my private thanks to the much grander and more official ones I’m sure will follow.

Last utterly meaningless coincidence.  The manhunt in Watertown going on as  I write this is right smack in the middle of the neighborhood I lived in until 2009.  My wife just picked up a facebook post of a couple of hours ago from  the friends to whom we sold our apartment.  They were as of that time  hiding down in the basement with their two kids.  They’ve been there all night, since they heard the explosions, and they are trying to figure out how to get the little one to sleep, while easing the fear in their older child.  Again, close to home.

I write all this aware that around the world what is striking me as an utter derangement of the way life ought to be is simply the status quo.  I know that the US in general is a phenomenally lucky country, spared so much of the horrors visited on folks around the world — sometimes by the explicit policy and actions of the United States of America. (No need to shout DROOOOONES at me, folks).  And you know what?  I think mine is the right reaction.  This stuff is wrong, unacceptable, to be pushed back at home and everywhere.

I’m rambling. I’ll stop.

I thank this community for its good wishes, its anger, its humor, and perhaps as much as anything else, its simple presence. It’s good to be able to shout, and not simply into the void.  Tip of the hat to y’all — and hug those you love, two footed and four, spend time talking to folks…do all that human stuff.

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir,_Le_Moulin_de_la_Galette

*Other first responders are not immune, either.

Images:  Johann Peter Hasenclever, Jobs as a school teacher, 1845.

Pierre Auguste-Renoir, Bal du moulin de la Galette, 1875

 








Third bombing victim identified

Lu Lingzi was a graduate student from China. I hope that the right thinks of this before they start the inevitable hate-the-furners stuff again.