Under Pressure: Or, A House Divided [Free Verse]

A construction worker once told me -
    for a building to last -
 depends not so much on
    its materials,
    nor even on its foundations,

but rather on the building being
    in balanced strain throughout.

A building stays up when its 
    parts press into each other firmly,
    or pull at each other strongly,
    but never too out of balance.

This web of unseen forces
    allows the building stand solid
    against any huffing, or puffing,
    the world might throw its way. 

A democratic society works the same.

It must have an establishment.

It must have a counterculture.

And these two elements must 
    constantly pull at each other
    or mash into each other:
    tension & compression,
    compression & tension,
    tug-of-war & sumo.

If one side is unopposed, or too weak,
    the state will crumble into some kind of
    authoritarianism by another name.

Destroy your enemies at your own peril.

BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Hegel: A Graphic Guide by Lloyd Spencer

Introducing Hegel: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Hegel: A Graphic Guide by Lloyd Spencer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book combines a biography of the German philosopher Hegel with a quick and dirty overview of his most well-known philosophical ideas. Today, Hegel is best known for his approach to dialectics (thesis confronts antithesis, resulting in synthesis,) and for having a profound influence on the thinking of Karl Marx. However, the book addresses a broad collection of philosophical ideas including those in aesthetics, political philosophy, philosophy of history, and philosophy of religion. (With respect to the latter, it should be noted that Hegel was a believer [of the Protestant Christian persuasion,] lest one think that, given frequent co-utterances of Hegel and Marx [of the “religion as opiate of the masses” persuasion,] that the two philosophers were in complete lockstep; they were not.)

I found this book to be readable, and to be successful in conveying Hegel’s philosophical ideas – at least in a rudimentary form. It’s useful that the book wraps up by reflecting upon whether Hegel is even relevant in the world as we know it, and – if so – why? Hegel might have been a name lost to time if he hadn’t come to be so enthusiastically cited by Marx, a scholar who left a huge imprint on twentieth century history.

If you’re interested in the life and philosophy of Hegel, but don’t want to be inundated by minutiae or complexity, this is a fine work to investigate.

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BOOK REVIEW: Zeno and the Tortoise by Nicholas Fearn

Zeno and the Tortoise: How to Think Like a PhilosopherZeno and the Tortoise: How to Think Like a Philosopher by Nicholas Fearn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book presents twenty-five philosophical tools or concepts fundamental to thinking philosophically. Fearn does an excellent job of making these ideas comprehensible while exploring how they can be of practical value in philosophizing (as opposed to diving into conceptual minutiae and the conflicts and debates around them.) The author uses stories, metaphors, and examples extensively, while avoiding jargon or complicated expressions and explanations.

The book is entirely Western-oriented, and one won’t see any discussion of ideas originating outside Europe (or North America by way of immigration from Europe.) That’s not uncommon for English language popular philosophy books, and I don’t think there’s anything nefarious to be read into it, though some will find it a shame. The philosophers whose ideas are addressed span from pre-Socratic Greece to Richard Dawkins (who I’m pretty sure is the only one still living.) The reader learns about reductionism, relativism, the Socratic method, analogy / allegory, teleology, thought experiments, parsimony, pragmatism (of sorts,) induction, skepticism, social contract, utilitarianism, dialectics, falsifiability, memes, deconstruction, and more.

I found this book to be readable and absorbing and would highly recommend it for anyone who would like an overview of the major ideas of Western philosophy and how they can be applied to thinking more philosophically.

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BOOK REVIEW: Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton

Free Speech: A Very Short IntroductionFree Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

This concise guide outlines the debate on the perennially precarious issue of freedom of speech and expression. What factors (if any) should determine whether speech is restricted or not? Only when harm will be done to other individuals or to society at-large? Under a set of predefined conditions designed to advance societal harmony, or, perhaps, jingoism?

Some of the most interesting discussions in the book involve questions of whether any individuals or entities should have special privileges vis-a-vis freedom of speech? Historically, religions have claimed to be beyond criticism, but even as blasphemy restrictions have been softened (or applied equally to minority as well as majority religions,) there are still other groups seeking special status. For example, should a renowned artist who produces something that would otherwise violate public decency standards be able to publicly display said work because it has some redeeming artistic merit? (One can imagine the challenge presented by this question, given the inherently subjective nature of “artistic merit.”)

The book generally describes two or more opposing stances on any given issue, almost ensuring there will be points with which one agrees and others with which one doesn’t. I found the book thought-provoking, which led to a couple interesting realizations. For one thing, while I’ve been dismayed about how some groups are trying to carve out sacred spaces in which they are beyond criticism, challenge, or even [the nebulous] “being offended,” I was reminded that this is nothing new, and that whether it’s royal families or “the Church” there’s always been some group who wanted “freedom from” offense, challenge, or critique. It’s just a question of which groups make said demands that’s changing. For another thing, while I’m generally about as close to a free speech absolutist as one sees, I did learn that there is one question on which I don’t take the most pro individual liberty stance (in part because I didn’t recognize it as part of the debate.) The issue in question is copyright protection. There are those who argue that access to knowledge should be free and unimpinged, and that – furthermore — this would advance creativity. [I don’t really understand this stance as it seems to assume that creators of intellectual property will work even harder if they don’t get paid, but that’s a discussion for another time.]

If you’re interested in questions of free speech, particularly as they pertain to religious beliefs, pornography, and the changing state of intellectual property, you may want to read this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction by Colin Ward

Anarchism: A Very Short IntroductionAnarchism: A Very Short Introduction by Colin Ward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Despite having graduate level education in Political Science, I never learned about anarchism. Even as an individual holding libertarian [classically liberal] beliefs, I dismissed anarchism as a philosophy without practical merit, one that failed to grasp the realities of human nature. And I apparently wasn’t alone as all those professors who built the curriculum that I studied didn’t find anarchism worthy of more than a passing mention as the theoretical endpoint on a continuum, a point that could never be reached in reality.

I read this little guide to the history and political philosophy of anarchism to help rectify this gap in my education, and to determine whether I was correct to dismiss anarchism as a pie-in-the-sky ideology of no practical value.

This introductory guide makes the point that anarchists have had influence in areas like labor and education policy. In essence, the book suggests that anarchism isn’t as bleakly devoid of success as it would appear. While we don’t see any functional and long-lived political entities devoid of governance by an organization with a monopoly on use of force, that doesn’t mean anarchist ideas haven’t made an impact.

The book starts with definitions and an overview of those thinkers who made anarchism seem potentially viable. It examines anarchist history and how anarchism related to competing ideologies. There’s a chapter that looks at the individualist / libertarian approaches to anarchism (in contrast to the leftist / socialist strains that dominated the early history of anarchism.) There’s a chapter that investigates the connection between anarchism and federalism. The book ends with a discussion of the green anarchists and how anarchism might move forward (to the degree it does so.)

This was a fine overview, offering insight into anarchist history, philosophy, and the divergences of thinking between anarchist scholars. It’s dry reading, and while that’s almost unavoidable in a book that’s brief, scholarly, and on a specialized subject, I’d say this volume is probably in the lower half of VSI titles for readability. Still, if you’re interested in the subject, it’ll give you the gist in a small package.

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