Problems in American Thought

Welcome History 302 Students!

Ex Post Facto includes several of my blog posts that are optional reading.

For your convenience, here is a list of the relevant posts, in order:

  1. Thoreau’s Principles
  2. Early American Murder Narratives
  3. Enlightenment and Its Discontents
  4. Franklin, Paine, and the Enlightenment
  5. Emerson’s Giant
  6. Margaret Fuller’s “Great Lawsuit”
  7. Thoreau and Disobedience
You are not required to make comments, but I have preserved the comments from previous semesters, which you are welcome to read. Feel free to comment yourself, too, of course.  –DV

Making Moral Sense of the Credit Crisis

I don’t normally blog on current events, but (thanks to my wife Ruth), I’ve found two journalistic productions that work wonderfully together to illuminate the ties among the mortgage crisis, the larger credit crisis, and the potential economic meltdown that we have been facing for some time. I think that these issues deserve discussion from a historical point of view, because they represent a historic transformation of the financial sector of the economy, and these changes seem to leave us with financial problems of historic proportions. I’m not actually prepared to do that historical analysis here, but I think it’s crucial to get a big picture sense of what happened.

On May 9, 2008, This American Life aired a radio show that brilliantly revealed the connections between ordinary borrowers (people seeking mortgages), mortgage brokers, and Wall Street investors.  Called “The Giant Pool of Money,” this episode explains how and why investors not only bought into sub-prime mortgages but in fact demanded (in an economic sense) that banks and brokers issue more and more risky mortgage loans, which were then bundled up and sold off as mortgage-backed securities and their even riskier offspring, collateralized debt obligations.  I think that this radio show is a great place to start to understand the credit crisis, because it connects financial deals to real people and their stories. (You can listen to the show online or read a full transcript for free.)

A great follow-up to “The Giant Pool of Money” is Dean Starkman’s “Boiler Room: The Business Press is Missing the Crooked Heart of the Credit Crisis,” which appeared in the Columbia Review of Journalism(Sept./Oct. 2008).  Starkman tips his hand with his title, of course, but the essay rewards a careful reading (despite the fact that he’s addressing an insider audience of financial journalists).

Together, these accounts suggest that the mortgage and credit crises have complex causes, including (but not limited to): the existence of more than $70 trillion that investors wanted to keep safe while earning a modest return; a super low interest rate on U.S. treasury bonds that sent investors looking elsewhere for easy interest income; and a booming real estate market.) They also suggest that it’s simply not fair to blame imprudent borrowers for the crisis.  Yes, there were homebuyers who bit off more than they could chew, and there were speculators trying to flip houses to get rich quick as real estate markets boomed, but these factors simply do not explain the crisis.  These borrowers were only able to get credit because investors, banks, and mortgage brokers not only enabled them but even begged them to finance or refinance, often playing fast and loose with borrower qualifications and loan terms in order to make the sale — and sometimes just plain lying.

In sum, our financial institutions, operating with little or no government oversight, changed their own procedures so that they could give mortgages and home equity loans to just about anybody, often without any verification of income or assets.  Agents and banks thus made irresponsible loans because there was demand (again, in an economic sense) for them to do so from financial institutions higher up in the food chain — namely, from Wall Street investment firms (many of whom are now going belly up). Because the banks were generating mortgages specifically to sell them, they didn’t have to worry about the risks involved — the risk simply wasn’t their problem.  Meanwhile, bond rating agencies supported the fiction that bundles of high risk mortgages were as safe as (but more lucrative than) government bonds. The result was a positive feedback loop between the credit bubble and the housing bubble. (For evidence regarding irresponsible lending and unethical lending practices, see Gretchen Morgensen’s August 26, 2007, New York Times article, “Inside the Countrywide Lending Spree.”  See also Charles Duhigg’s “Pressured to Take More Risk, Fannie Hit a Tipping Point,” also in the NYT, Oct. 4, 2008, regarding the  investors who bought into risky mortgages. Countrywide, now owned by Bank of America, has settled a lawsuit brought by 11 states by setting aside $8.4 billion in aid and by agreeing to allow mortgage holders to renegotiate their mortgage terms.)

It is in some way accurate, then, to blame this crisis on “greedy” Wall Street investors, as some pundits and politicos have done, but this explanation is both simplistic and inadequate — there is more to the problem than the moral failings of individual actors.  The real roots of the crisis are structural.  In the absence of adequate regulations, many financial institutions (from the top at Wall Street on down the ranks) systematically engaged in reckless, irresponsible behavior, boosted by — but by no means justified by — irrational optimism about the invincibility of the American housing market.  If you set up a system that rewards reckless, irresponsible behavior (in the form of giving out-sized profits to brokers and banks who sold more and more increasingly risky mortgages), then you shouldn’t be even a little surprised by the results.  Wagging our fingers at a few “greedy” Wall Streeters neither diagnoses the problem nor solves it  Moralizing may well be in order, but moralizing won’t solve our current crisis or prevent future ones.  

We live in an era of massive financial institutions (banks, investment firms, insurance companies, etc.) that are “too big to fail” without toppling our national and perhaps global economies.  This economy of bigness has generated a great deal of wealth, but much of that wealth seems vaporous (and some of it has indeed evaporated); furthermore, this wealth is more unequally distributed in the U.S. than it has been at any time since the 1920s — so much so that even notable conservatives, such as Alan Greenspan and David Frum, have begun to express concerns about the long-term sustainability of our economy.

I’m going to leave the historical commentary to more qualified scholars, but I can’t resist making this one point: the political founders of the United States understood very well the dangers of concentrated, unchecked power.  Not only did they fulminate against such power in their revolutionary pamphlets, but they attempted to frame governments that would limit the concentration and exercise of power.  We live in a very different world than that of the late 18th century, but I think that it’s safe to say that we should revive that old republican (small “r” — no connection to today’s political party) suspicion of concentrated, unchecked power, wherever it may occur, whether political or economic.  To recognize this need is to understand that the moral failing at the root of this financial crisis is more collective than individual.

ADDENDUM (Oct. 6, 2008)

This American Life has done it again, with “Another Frightening Show about the Economy.”  Take a listen to brush up on commercial paper, “breaking the buck,” and credit default swaps — the last of which led to a $60-trillion, unregulated, opaque, speculative market that knit the financial industry together into a stunningly insane MAD (mutually assured destruction) pact.  Meanwhile, Congress and the regulators stood idly by.

ADDENDUM (Oct. 9, 2008)

In a story on Alan Greenspan’s legacy, the New York Times discusses the largely unregulated market in “derivatives,” which includes the aforementioned credit default swap (CDS). Overall, the size of this market grew five-fold over the past five or six years, to over $500 trillion, with the CDS making up about 10% of the total. Greenspan’s dictum was that this market was best left to regulate itself. His longstanding position was this: get out of the way of these really smart people, and they will generate a lot of wealth. Indeed. In a speech last week, apparently, Greenspan blamed an excess of greed for the problems in the derivatives markets.

ADDENDUM (Dec. 6, 2008)

Paul Krugman has published an interesting overview of the crisis (an excerpt from his forthcoming book on the subject).  He doesn’t point any fingers, except to note the lack of regulation of the “shadow banking system,” but he nicely explains the global dimensions of the crisis.

ADDENDUM (Dec. 18, 2008)

The New York Times has published a story titled, “On Wall Street, Bonuses, Not Profits Were Real.”  The story looks at the bonuses paid to executives and traders for Merrill Lynch (recently bought out by Bank of America), and it suggests that the hefty bonuses ($5-6 billion in 2006) played a significant role in driving the company towards destruction by encouraging highly speculative investment practices aimed at short-term profits and based on wishful thinking.  See my comments above in paragraph number 6.    


“Getting Things Done” Tips for College Students

I normally don’t go in for “self help” or faddish systems, but I’ve been using David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) system for a couple of years, and I’ve found it to be a highly effective tool not so much for “time management” as for improving my productivity and efficiency — in other words, for getting things done.

Given that college students have many projects to manage, especially for classes, I think that the GTD system would be a great help.  In fact, a number of college students have already “hacked” GTD to simplify and adapt it to student needs.  For instance, check out this post over at Study Hacks, by Cal Newport.

If you are a student interested in trying out the GTD system, see also the entry at Wikipedia, which is a great (and free) place to start.  You might also want to check out this online flowchart of the GTD system, which is worth downloading and printing for your notebook.

See also my related post on managing email.  –DV

Why Email is No Longer the Bane of My Existence

I wouldn’t be writing about something so banal as email if I didn’t think that I’d found a set of useful tools for coping with a constant influx of messages.  After years of being frustrated by having to spend too much time managing my email, I have finally hit on a strategy that allows me to have an empty inbox at the end of every day while still being able to find any old messages that I may need.  I have adapted my strategy primarily from two very helpful blog posts by Gina Trapani on keeping your inbox empty and separating your email from your to do lists.  (Her strategies, in turn, derive from Merlin Mann of 43 Folders and David Allen’s Getting Things Done.) 

Below I outline my method for incorporating email into my workflow.  This method presupposes that you have what David Allen calls a "leakproof system" for keeping track of both individual tasks and larger projects.  In other words, you have a system for managing your "to do" lists and for filing and organizing materials for all your projects, big and small, with a project being understood as any job that requires more than one step to be completed.  For me, that system is basically David Allen’s "Getting Things Done" (GTD), which is very flexible and holistic.  (In the spirit of full disclosure, though, I should say that it took me about 3 tries, over 3-4 years, to fully implement a GTD-style leakproof system, but the payoff has been immense.)  You should, of course, use whatever system works best for you. 

Here are my basic strategies for dealing with email:

I don’t use email as a to-do list to track my obligations.  (I can’t over-emphasize the importance of this principle — separating email from task management was probably the most important step I took towards getting control over email.)  If I have an email message that I cannot process when I read it the first time, I convert the message into an action item on my paper-based task list.  (I’ve found, contrary to GTD, that having an "Action" folder in email simply doesn’t work.  The folder gets clogged, and pretty soon I’m wasting time sifting through the folder.)  If I can process a message in a minute or so, I try to go ahead and deal with it to avoid transferring it to my list.

Rather than processing email messages as they come in, I try to work on email a few times per day, at times when I am less likely to be productive on other fronts.  For instance, in between classes, I process email for 15-20 minutes as a way to have some down time before preparing for the next class.  The result (or the goal, anyway) is that email doesn’t interrupt my other work by breaking my concentration.  I find that it helps to set email to check hourly in order to minimize interruptions; sometimes, I simply close my email client.

I have a very limited number of folders that I use for processing and archiving email.  At any given time, I have a few project specific folders, but I reserve these only for major, ongoing projects, such as the courses that I am teaching during a given semester.  My other key folders derive from GTD and include:

  • "Waiting For" (This folder is reserved strictly for cases where I am waiting for somebody else to do something specific — I don’t use this to track my own tasks that I am putting off!)
  • "Follow Up" (This folder includes messages that I need to reply to after I have completed some task; again, I track these tasks outside of email.)
  • "Future" (This folder includes just a few messages at a time that I need for major future events; this category isn’t strictly necessary, but I find that I can keep it under control. It’s probably better, for the sake of parsimony, to simply print and file such messages in a tickler file or a folder for the future event.)
  • "Archive" (This folder, which I clean out and archive on my computer on a semester-by-semester basis, holds messages that I may need for future reference.  With today’s search capabilities, it’s usually quite easy to locate needed messages.)
  • "Print/Save" (I use this folder to temporarily hold messages and attachments that I need to print or download to my primary computer.  Having these folders really helps me clean out my inbox, even if I am using webmail.)

I use these same folders for my personal email account as well, with the addition of a "Business" folder where I store all messages related to personal finances, such as statements and receipts; I archive this folder annually.

By consistently adhering to these principles, I find that I can keep my inbox empty most of the time — certainly by the end of each work day.  To keep the system flowing smoothly, I regularly review the folders mentioned above to keep them pruned to just a few or several messages each and to make sure that I’m not procrastinating on some task.  Instead of being a grand distraction, email is now a fairly innocuous part of my work-flow.

Diigo as a Teaching Tool

I’ve recently started using a new social bookmarking service called Diigo to collect and share online resources with my students. (Diigo has features similar to, which I have also used for teaching, but it’s substantially more powerful.) The appealing thing about Diigo is that it allows me not only to create a list of links but also to highlight and annotate webpages. In other words, I can point to and comment on specific sections of a webpage.

Diigo works really well for sharing, but I also think that it could be very useful for doing research online, because you can essentially highlight and annotate much as you do on paper.

To get a better idea of what Diigo can do, take a look at my annotated collection of links on “Race, Culture, and Politics in the New South,” or access my links collections (see the sidebar to the right).

To get started using Diigo, simply add the Diigolet tool to your browser’s toolbar. Also, check out their Flash tutorials for a quick introduction to Diigo’s features.

Blogging for Your Students

(This posting is a companion to my essay on “Blogging for Your Students” in the May 2007 issue of the AHA Perspectives.)


If you would like to set up a blog, there are many blogging services to choose from. Ex Post Facto, for instance, runs on WordPress, a free, open-source, and very flexible blogging software package. While you can run WordPress on your own server, you can also use it on a number free webhosts, including and edublog. (One additional advantage of WordPress is that it allows you to have as many static pages, outside of the blog structure, as you desire, and there are scores of free plugins to add extra functions. One such plugin, called ScholarPress Courseware, allows you to use a blog to manage a course. For example, see Jeremy Boggs’s U.S. History Survey at GMU.) Blogger (or Blogspot), which is run by Google, is one of the most popular free blog hosts. Although it is less flexible than WordPress, Blogger has several education-friendly features, including support for multiple authors and privacy control, and it is quite easy to configure and maintain. For a sample Blogspot educational blog, visit Cyborg Culture, which my colleague Clif Ganyard created as an interactive space for his students. See also Russell Olwell’s “Taking History Personally: How Blogs Connect Students Outside the Classroom,” from the Jan. 2008 issue of Perspectives on History.


If you lack familiarity with blogs and RSS feeds, you should probably start with a good old fashioned book. I recommend Will Richardson’s Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classroom (Corwin Press, 2006).

James Farmer (of Melbourne, Australia) has written provocatively about the use of blogs in education. He is the founder of edublogs, a hosting service for educational blogs. See the “blogging for education” section of Blogsavvy and his blog, incorporated subversion. See also Anne Bartlett-Bragg and James Farmer, “Blogs @ Anywhere: High Fidelity Online Communication,” from July 2005. This scholarly paper analyzes the communication dynamic of blogs, compared to email and bulletin boards, with an emphasis on the potential applications of RSS feed technology. It also includes a bibliography. Farmer has condensed the conclusions of “Blogs @ Anywhere” in “How NOT to Use Blogs in Education” and “How You SHOULD Use Blogs in Education.” He has also written a highly suggestive piece on virtual personal learning environments, and he has produced a related screencast.

Bud Gibson, whose “Community Engine” site includes a bevy of posts on education, wrote a pair of articles called “A Learning Blogosphere” (Part 1) (Part 2). He describes and evaluates his experience using student blogs as a key course component.

For ideas and inspiration, see the Edublog Awards as well as this list of the “Top 100 Education Blogs,” compiled at the Online Education Database.

I have found it especially useful to solicit comments from authors my students are reading. (See, for example, the comment #10 posted here and comment #13 posted here.) I have also found it very fruitful to interview an author for my class. (For instance, I interviewed Curtis White via email before my students discussed The Spirit of Disobedience.) I have also found it useful to comment on my students’ comments with a summative “final comment” as we wrap up each topic. (Here’s an example.)

Finally, for links to some very thought-provoking reflections on the “read-write” web, see Reflections on the Web 2.0.

Curtis White, The Spirit of Disobedience, 3

Reading: Curtis White, The Spirit of Disobedience (Sausalito: PoliPointPress, 2007), 69-119.

This book is a work of criticism, and, as such, it forces us to confront ugliness. But White clearly also intends it as a work of hope. (Ignoring ugliness, surrendering to it, is an act of despair — which in the Christian tradition has often been called an “unpardonable sin.”) In calling us to imagine an alternative future to the one promised (threatened?) by consumer capitalism, White may seem to be tilting at windmills. As Wendell Berry once argued, however, “Hope lives in the means, not the end.” (See his essay “Discipline and Hope,” in A Continuous Harmony.) Berry later elaborated: “Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.” (See “A Poem of Difficult Hope” in What are People For?) White’s “spirit of disobedience” means not only not acquiescing but also self-consciously building an alternative.

In chapter 3, “Confessions of a Holy Whore,” White addresses “The difficulty of finding a political ‘outside’ innocent of complicity,” given the uncanny ability of the system to “internalize” and “digest” dissent (73). White explores the films of Rainer Fassbinder as an attempt to create this “outside,” which could then serve as a springboard for promoting an alternate world. He also confesses, as the title suggests, that he is a holy whore himself, implicated in the very system that he critiques (78). As in earlier chapters, White here dishes out criticism aplenty of both liberals and conservatives in America. His larger point is that both parties of our two-party system are servants to “the one great Party of Business” (85), which is to say that they are bound in the worst way to preserving the “spiritually bankrupt” status quo (81). The reigning order, White suggests, knows one rule: “the Market Knows Best” (93). It is the order of industrial (and presumably post-industrial) capitalism, which brings us the “strip mine” and the “strip mall,” and which is engaged in long process of making the world over in its image. In the last several pages of this chapter, White proposes his ethical alternative to the enfeebled “Golden Rule” — he enjoins us to imagine and create an alternative vision of the future.

In the 4th and title chapter of his book, White pulls together his plea for disobedience. Here, he maps out the complex relationships among Christianity, Enlightenment, capitalism, Marxism, and “Imagination” in American culture. I’ll attempt to encapsulate his criticism, but it needs unpacking: Americans have been distracted by a red herring binarism, the alleged contest between Christianity and Enlightenment. Meanwhile, the deathly spirit of capitalism has virtually won the field. Marxist-Leninism has not proven out as a viable alternative (it’s worth discussing why). Surveying the mess, White proposes a third way, a third principle that might rescue the best qualities of Christianity and Enlightenment. This third way is what White — drawing on William Blake and Ralph Waldo Emerson — calls “Imagination” (104).

Imagination for White is essentially the spiritual. It’s the creative power of humanity to make (and remake) the world in which we live. He does not map out a new world vision for us, but he does urge us to start creating alternatives that will allow us “a return to the fundamentals of being human” (113). In the spirit of two of his intellectual models, Henry David Thoreau and John Ruskin, White proposes a “new fundamentalism” centered on the question: “What does it mean to be a human being?” (113). One thing it means, surely, is to be alive, and thus in his epilogue, White writes of our need to be loyal to life (161).

I queried White about his use of the word spiritual, and he provided a very provocative response:

I mean intuition in … the Emersonian context.  What I’ve been trying to describe is a synthesis of the American Transcendentalist and the American Pragmatist traditions.  That’s what it comes down to.  By this description, Nietzsche was the purest American, an idea I like a lot (especially given his own fondness for Emersonian individualism.)  A homemade sublime.  Intuition is first the recognition of the falsity of the world you happen to have been born into, of the pastiche of reassuring lies that we’re asked to live in. It is, second, the recognition that this is not reason for despair or nihilism but for claiming your right to make, both individually and socially, your own world.  Every artist worthy of the name understands this.  Which is why Nietzsche and Emerson honored them above all others.  They have essentially opted on what William James called “the American bitch Goddess, success.”  They prefer a wealth that is spiritual.  Nietzsche had a vision of Jesus and it was this, “We are all the sons and daughters of God.  Live like it.” — Curtis White, email to David Voelker, 12/8/07

When prompted, White confirmed for me that his understanding of the spiritual was decidedly unsupernatural, but with a twist. He sense of the spiritual, he said, was:

Absolutely not supernatural, but with the good sense to be respectfully in awe at the miracle of being, as per the deists, Voltaire et al.  (Voltaire, another of Nietzshe’s favorites.)  — Curtis White, email to David Voelker, 12/10/07

This sense of awe or reverence of life, then, seems to be White’s starting point for imagining an alternative to the status quo. Rather than stopping with this point, however, White concludes his book with a series of interviews about time, home, and food — three of the fundamentals that he connects to being human. Although I don’t have time to discuss these interviews here, I think that they are an important part of the book, because they illustrate that what White is calling for is within reach.

As I see it, the concluding chapters of the book raise several key questions:

  1. Why is White so hard on the liberal and conservative punditcracy? Why does he find them harmful?
  2. What is the problem with corporate capitalism? Why has White made it the chief villain of his book? Are his criticisms justified?
  3. In the end, what does White seem to think of the political left and its guiding philosophy of Marxism?
  4. What is White’s positive or hopeful vision of the future? Does it have anything in common with the pragmatic and transcendental traditions that we have studied? Is it satisfying?

— D. Voelker

Curtis White, The Spirit of Disobedience, 2

Reading: Curtis White, The Spirit of Disobedience: Resisting the Charms of Fake Politics, Mindless Consumption, and the Culture of Total Work (Sausalito: PoliPointPress, 2007), 19-68.

This selection of White’s book includes two chapters, which I will take up separately.

In chapter 2, “Imagination Dead Imagine,” White begins to formulate a “spirit of disobedience” by looking at the spiritual role of art. Over the course of the chapter, he considers four main artistic expressions, including the film Office Space, the novel The Da Vinci Code, Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, and the film Brokeback Mountain. Interesting, while he defends Hamlet and Brokeback as authentic art, he condemns Office Space and the Code as betrayals of art. The latter two works, in fact, White sees as representative of a “self-disciplining” or self censorship, which is another way to say that they are sell-outs (21). He chose these two contemporary blockbusters for criticism, however, because they both exhibit a certain subversive potential, which he pretty persuasively argues that they betray. I want to save a more detailed dicussion of his criticism for class, but it’s worth noting that White uses Office Space to elucidate “our” fear-hate relationship with what he calls the “corporate life-world” (24), and he uses the Code as a way to point to our spiritual impoverishment. His criticism of these two works (and his positive analyses of Hamlet and Brokeback) plays a key role in his larger critique of American culture. In short, we should pay attention to what White is saying about good art and fraudulent art.

Chapter 3, “Beyond the Golden Rule,” is a more trying chapter to read — especially if one doesn’t share White’s hostility toward the status quo — because he shifts from a critique of our culture’s art to our overall way of life. Although White unleashes attacks here on Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, U.S. foreign policy, and Wal-Mart, it’s important to note that the chapter is not in any simple way a liberal screed or rant. Yes, White’s targets in the chapter are common subjects of liberal criticism, but he uses the chapter to make a larger point that transcends the liberal-conservative divide. In a nutshell, he is arguing that the Golden Rule of Christianity is “unavailable to us in the present” (27). The various segments of this argument deserve consideration, but he introduces one concept that seems central to the chapter and the book: the idea of “radical evil” (48).

These two chapters leave us with a great deal to discuss, so let me close by raising just a few of questions.

  1. Why does White see Office Space and The Da Vinci Code as betrayals? What do they betray?
  2. How does White define real art? How does art fit with his larger concept of disobedience?
  3. What does White mean by “radical evil,” and how does the concept play into his argument about the current inaccessibility of the Golden Rule?

— D. Voelker

Introduction to Curtis White’s The Spirit of Disobedience

Reading: Curtis White, The Spirit of Disobedience: Resisting the Charms of Fake Politics, Mindless Consumption, and the Culture of Total Work (Sausalito: PoliPointPress, 2007), 1-18.

(By way of introduction to the book, see also my brief interview of Curtis White.)

Curtis White, writer and Distinguished Professor of English at Illinois State University, begins this provocative work of criticism with a couple of questions about “purportedly secular liberalism, confidently established in the powers of Reason.” He asks: “Is [secular liberalism] really so free of the religious prejudices and superstition it has always claimed to despise? Has it no need for the spiritual?” (2). White seems to be writing primarily for a “liberal” — that is to say, progressive — audience, but he quickly challenges common liberal assumptions regarding the role of Reason in creating a better society. Reason, he suggests, boils down to a tool through which society extorts obedience from its members (9). Reason has become a cult, or an idol, that stifles not only thought but also creativity and justice. He thus offers this book as a reflection on the “spirit of disobedience” — a spirit that he sees in early Christianity, among other places.

White is not the first of the authors we’ve read in this course to question the conventions of allegedly rational (or scientific) discourse. In the “Will to Believe,” for instance, William James argued that the practice of science rested in part on faith, including the faith that science is worth pursuing because it yields a certain kind of truth. Likewise, Reinhold Niebuhr contended in “Truth in Myths” that secularists often smuggle faith into their worldviews in the form of an unwarranted belief in progress. Notably, neither James nor Niebuhr meant that science was illegitimate because of its reliance on these faiths. Instead, they meant to defend the right of religious and ethical thinkers (and believers) to likewise rest upon first principles that could not be empirically proven to be true.

White, I think, fits into this tradition of challenging those who would claim that science and rationality yield the only legitimate form of knowledge. He does so, as I mentioned above, by denying that Reason is a neutral tool for obtaining objective truth. There is also a pragmatic element of his rejoinder to Reason. He calls disobedience a form of “world making.” In defining “the spirit of disobedience,” he writes of “reclaiming” the world “in the name of that most exasperated human quality, creativity” (18). And what are the sources of this creativity? White refers to “an intuitive understanding of the good,” which he sees as ultimately spiritual in nature (17). Here, he sounds like an heir not only of William James but also of the Transcendentalists, about whom he writes favorably in this book.

By situating White’s book within these larger discussions of science, rationality, religion, and ethics, I do not at all mean to suggest that he is simply a latter-day James or Thoreau. On the contrary, I think that White takes us into relatively new territory when he suggests that “the Golden Rule is for complex reasons no longer functional or available in our society” (17). As we move ahead in the book, we will have an opportunity to assess that claim and to see what White proposes that we do about it.

— D. Voelker

Interview with Curtis White on the “Spirit of Disobedience”

Note: Curtis White generously agreed to answer a few questions that I posed about his book, The Spirit of Disobedience (2007), which my students are about to tackle. He responded to these questions via email on 23 Nov. 2007. — D. Voelker

DV: At the end of The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves (2003), you suggest that imagination and art have an important role to play in changing the world. Can you reiterate your point, briefly?

CW: My feeling about my life and the culture around it has always been that I am/we are vulnerable to the “automatic.” To stay alive is to want to reinvent yourself at every moment. In this sense I am nothing more than Nietzsche’s boy. This culture kills eros. Nietzsche’s Dionysus reasserts it not through “sex” but through the impulse to make your own world. Fascism is the fascination of the already thoroughly digested and automated. Being free from that is a spiritual, artistic and political act.

DV: Throughout this book, you draw on various intellectual, spiritual, and artistic traditions from the past. What role do you suppose that history might play in helping us to live good lives in the present?

CW: If nothing else, it allows you the reader/audience to immerse yourself in one of Nietzsche’s “free spirits.” When I listen to Beethoven (or Radiohead), I think, “This is alive in a way that we should all seek to be alive.” It allows for a depth of spirit and emotion that our “administered” reality does not. Consider Theodor Adorno’s maxim: “Life does not live.” The job of artists (who, after all, are nothing more than humanity’s proxy) is to live. That always also means resistance of the status quo.

DV: You’ve written favorably about Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and the pragmatic tradition that he elucidates. Do you think that you drew on that pragmatic tradition for this book?

CW: What I like about the pragmatists is the Americanness of feeling that we get to make up our own world. A homemade world. A primitive world, perhaps, but richly alive. Our “cussedness.” Not a European world. But what has happened instead, beginning in the late 19th century, is that we got “incorporated.” Literally, taken within something that has essentially digested us. You can call it capitalism or corporations or fascism. It’s the administered life in education, work and church and even in our most private lives.

DV: It seems to me that disobedience is a deeply personal and potentially lonely stance. Is there some danger that disobedience can lead to misanthropy or despair?

CW: Yes. I accuse myself of both those things all the time. But it is the inevitable consequence of saying “I will not be dead in my own life” while no one else around you seems to think much about it (or so it seems) and every institution seems bent on a world of death (ranging from boredom to poverty to oppression to literal planetary destruction: all at work at present for anyone who refuses to be comforted by lies).