Let’s make the George Floyd moment bigger!

Jun 28 2020

Can we make the George Floyd moment even bigger? 

Here are some things that have grown out of the social and political ferment catalyzed by the killing of George Floyd:

1) Merriam Webster says its dictionary entry for “racism” will be amended to “make the idea of systemic or institutional racism even more explicit in the wording of the definition.”

2) The TV show COPS has been canceled, and police cars have vanished from the bestselling video game Fortnite.

3) Github, the Microsoft-owned company that runs the world’s biggest site for software developers, plans to get them to quit using the word “master” to refer to the main branch of a computer program’s code.

I’m sure things like this can do some good. Language and culture influence our attitudes more than we realize (if not always in uniform ways; in my own experience, COPS often stirred empathy for the people arrested and underscored the pointlessness of jailing them). And particular words, like “master,” can offend some people in ways others are oblivious to. 

George Floyd, racial justice, and economic justice

Last week the New York Times ran a piece depicting Bernie Sanders as woefully out of step with the current political moment by virtue of his tendency to see the world through the prism of economic class, not ethnic identity. Calls from the Black Lives Matter movement “to address systemic racism and police brutality,” said the Times, are resonating in a way that “Mr. Sanders’s message of economic equality did not.”

It’s true that we’re hearing very little about that favorite Sanders theme of raising taxes on high-income people and using the money to help low-income people. By and large, the George Floyd story is being seen as a story about racial injustice and not about economic injustice.

I think that’s a mistake, in two senses. 

First, it’s a tactical mistake for the left. This is a moment full of activist energy, and it’s opened up new political space; there’s a chance to push for radically increased government spending on, for example, education, housing, and health care for low-income people. Such spending disproportionately helps black people, and to pass it up because it’s technically about class, not race, would be wasteful to say the least.

George Floyd and American foreign policy

In early June, small groups of demonstrators gathered in Israel and the West Bank to protest the killing of two men. One was George Floyd and the other was Eyad al-Hallaq, an autistic Palestinian who on May 30, while making his daily trek to a school for people with special needs, was killed by Israeli police. Protesters held signs that said #BlackLivesMatter and signs that said #PalestinianLivesMatter.

Are these two cases really comparable? Does the moral logic behind America’s Black Lives Matter protests naturally extend to a country 5,000 miles away?

Yes is just the beginning of my answer. Comparing the cases of George Floyd and Eyad al-Hallaq can be the first step toward a broad re-examination of American foreign policy. The George Floyd moment is an excellent time to ask why, in various countries, the United States routinely contributes to the killing, brutalization, and oppression of so many people—and why pretty much all those people are people of color.

It’s easy to point to differences between the cases of Floyd and al-Hallaq. Al-Hallaq, like all Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, had faced discrimination of a more formal kind than Floyd faced. He didn’t, for example, get to vote in Israeli elections, even though the Israeli government controls the Palestinian territory on which he lived.

Activist update

Back when this newsletter was called Mindful Resistance, we created a discussion group in the Insight Timer meditation app under the same name. (The group is still there, and sporadically active, though you have to do some searching to find it.) One of the members undertook the radical initiative of organizing a group of mindful resisters that met in actual physical space—but not to discuss things, just to meditate. Well, it turns out that, lo these many years later, the group is still at it. So if you find yourself in Providence, Rhode Island, you can join a sitting on Monday or Friday at 8:30 a.m. alongside the Blackstone Boulevard running path, near Brookway Road. The group no longer posts the Mindful Resistance sign, but you shouldn’t have much trouble distinguishing them from other people in the area. They’ll be the ones sitting down with their eyes closed.

What is it like to be an electron? An interview with Galen Strawson

In recent years more and more philosophers seem to have embraced panpsychism—the view that consciousness pervades the universe and so is present, in however simple a form, in every little speck of matter. It’s a view that’s hard to wrap your mind around, so I’m glad I got to have a conversation with Galen Strawson, a noted philosopher who is one of its most articulate proponents (and who, as a bonus, is charmingly offbeat). I interviewed Galen on the Wright Show (available on both meaningoflife.tv and as an audio podcast) more than a year ago. Below is an extended excerpt.

From physicalism to consciousness as illusion—or the only real thing

WRIGHT: There’s a view that I think people are hearing more and more about called "panpsychism," and the idea there is that consciousness … pervades reality. There's some kind of consciousness over there where my curtains are—only a little tiny bit, maybe, but  there's some. 

And it's a view that you subscribe to, I think—but then you throw in a twist and add the word “physicalist”… So you have, I think, a pretty distinctive view. And I want to approach it by, first of all, getting clear on what you mean by "physicalism." 

Now, am I right in thinking that that has come to be the term that philosophers use for what might have also been called at one time "materialism"? People hear "materialism" and they think of the idea that all there is is physical stuff, right? But now philosophers use the word "physicalism" for that. Is that right?

STRAWSON: Yes. I think it is right. I certainly use it in that way. Some philosophers mean more by physicalism than that. They tend also to mean something like "physics will tell us everything there is to tell about reality." And that's a mistake, in my view.

Yeah, I was just thinking about that today: … that science gives us everything we need to manipulate reality, but not all we need to understand reality.

Correct. 

You agree? 

Yes, I do. And, you know, I think of myself as a very passionate and committed naturalist. So it's not as if I have any odd agenda. I'm also an atheist, so I don't believe in any kind of god, and I don't have any sort of new age type of aspirations. 

I think that I'm forced into the position I hold precisely because I wanted to have an entirely naturalistic attitude to reality. 

Right. Now, a thing about physicalism is that, when you really start thinking about it, it's harder to define than you might think. … When you first hear it, you think "Well, okay—so it's all physical stuff, you could reach out and touch it, it's there, there's nothing spooky, there are no supernatural forces." But then you realize that … the deeper physics penetrates reality, the more you wonder in what sense there is physical stuff there, you know what I mean? Does that make sense?

Yes, it does, if you mean that the old picture of little tiny grainy bits of stuff—I mean, that was wiped out a hundred years ago. There aren't any such things, it seems.


Readings

In the Times Literary Supplement, classical historian Mary Beard notes that the Romans often decapitated or replaced statues of leaders who had fallen out of favor and then offers some thoughts on dealing with controversial monuments in our time.

A bit more than a year ago, Matt Yglesias presciently wrote in Vox about what he called “the Great Awokening.” Since 2014, he observed, “white liberals have moved so far to the left on questions of race and racism that they are now, on these issues, to the left of even the typical black voter.” 

As the world waits for Bibi Netanyahu to say whether Israel is going to annex parts of the West Bank (and if so which parts), critics are calling any such move the death knell for hopes of a “two-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict. But in Foreign Affairs, Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, argues that it’s already too late for a two-state solution, and the question is what kind of one-state solution there will be.   

Good news for me! Having an abysmally short attention span has its upside. In Scientific American, Holly White explains that people with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder often excel along three dimensions of creative thinking. (This piece was published last year, but I was too distracted to notice it then.)

A New York Times poll finds that Biden supporters are less likely than Trump supporters to feel proud and hopeful about America and more likely to feel anxious and angry about the state of the country—and way more likely to feel exhausted.

The Guardian lists eight of “the most stunning claims” in John Bolton’s new book The Room Where It Happened. You may not be stunned by all of them (“Trump offered favors to authoritarian leaders”) but the list is worth perusing. In the American Conservative, Barbara Slavin says the book’s account of Bolton’s approach to his job as Trump’s national security adviser is “an instruction manual for how not to do foreign policy.”

Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat comes up with what, as he notes, could pass for a radical left take on the current social unrest: The Black Lives Matter protests are, in effect, being co-opted by the establishment. Because elites would be threatened by a Bernie Sandersesque class-based revolt—involving things like seriously taxing the rich and redistributing resources to the poor (as I advocate in “George Floyd, racial justice, and economic justice,” above)—the consequences of the protests are being confined largely to things like the destruction of offensive icons, the renaming of buildings, and renewed pledges for workplace diversity, especially at the elite level.