David Wong is Susan Fox Beischer and George D. Beischer Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. In this interview, he talks about his parents escaping the Chinese Communist Revolution, frying and boxing chow mein in his father’s restaurant, worrying about disappointing his parents, the problem of evil, existentialism, Vietnam, being a shy undergrad, starting to wonder whether there was a single set of moral truths, why folks are afraid of relativism, working with Benacerraf, Field, Harman, and Scanlon, being knocked down and how a good friend helped him pick himself up, Chinese philosophy, Judaism, moral transformation, misconceptions about Eastern philosophy, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, ritual, therapy, why his work on relativism and Eastern philosophy is interdisciplinary, how to incorporate Eastern philosophy into the curriculum, Zhuangzhi, the 1%, favorite podcasts, movies, songs, and his last (hypothetical) meal…
What's your earliest memory? Where did you grow up?
My earliest memory is of presents under a Christmas tree in our family home in Minneapolis. I was born and grew up there.
What did your parents do for a living? What were they like? Do you have any siblings?
My father owned and managed a restaurant. He had a very full life before I was born. My father had ten children by his first wife, and in the late 1940’s he had made enough money to move back to China. His first wife died there, and he met and married a nurse who was to become my mother. The Chinese Communist Revolution, and the fact that my parents were on the wrong side, prompted them to move back to Minneapolis. I was the first child of the second family. I have two younger sisters. But I had many half brothers and half sisters, most of whom were old enough to be my parents.
Did your dad have any stories from the Revolution?
No, neither my father nor my mother liked to talk about traumatic events in the past, though one time, my mother said she was in the middle of some shooting and later found a bullet hole in her sleeve. I remember as a young boy her saying that as soon as the KMT took China back, that we were going back.
As a little kid, what did you do for fun?
When I was a young boy, my father worked long and hard hours at the restaurant. I remember hanging out there after school. In the neighborhood, I just went out on my bike with friends, played baseball or softball, and went swimming in the nearby lake during the summer. And I loved to read, and to get lost in whatever I was reading. When I was in high school, my father went into the restaurant supply business, which was not as draining as running a restaurant. My mother operated the business with him, and we kids would sometimes help out (I fried and boxed the noodles that got sold to restaurants—those were the days when chow mein was the kind of Chinese food that Americans wanted). Both my parents worked very hard, and they showed their love by doing for you, though one of my other earliest memories, come to think of it, is of getting tickled by my father and of his merry laughter.
Biggest fear as a kid?
My parents wanted all the children, but especially the sons, to get educated and to get a good job that garnered respect. My biggest fears as a child had to do with failing expectations. My older brothers were mostly doctors and engineers, and my oldest sister also became a doctor, which must have been extremely unusual for that era. My parents wanted me to become a doctor, and I found it very difficult to explain why I wanted to go into philosophy. In fact I don’t think they understood what sort of thing philosophy is. The part they understood was that I wanted to become a teacher of some kind, and I remember my mother telling me that being a teacher would have been great in China, where that gets you respect, but not in America. So my parents had to deal with my deviations from their expectations, and I had to deal with not being a good son in that way.
Was there any sign you were going to grow up to be a philosopher?
Looking back, I suppose there were early signs of philosophical interest. I might have been thirteen when I came across an argument purporting to reconcile the existence of God with the fact of evil in the world. I thought the argument was preposterous, and then concluding that if God doesn’t exist, the implications are pretty dramatic. Also, growing up in Minneapolis at that time meant that were there not many people who were like us, either racially or culturally, and like many children of immigrants, I perpetually felt like I was in a liminal or in-between state of existence. It’s no surprise, I suppose that I latched onto the subject of how to understand differences in values when I began studying philosophy formally.
Favorite books as a high school student?
Too long ago for me to remember particular books in high school, but I was lucky enough to have a philosophy course. The only selections from our textbook I remember now are the ones about existentialism (Kierkegaard, Sartre), which I suppose is not that surprising a draw for someone that age.
Right. So for you, it sounds like college was a foregone conclusion. Is that right? Going into college, you were certain you wanted to do philosophy? What were your philosophical interests?
Going into college, yes, planning on that all along, but I was not immediately certain about majoring in philosophy. I remember taking a number of literature and mathematics courses, besides philosophy. Maybe philosophy combined the appeal of the other two ﬁelds for me—the clarity and systematic nature of mathematics and the focus on the human condition in literature.
Favorite teacher? Least favorite classes in college?
My favorite college teacher was Thomas Hill, Sr. I remember taking history of philosophy and ethics from him. He was really clear in his explanation of philosophical arguments, and his assessments of the arguments always seemed to come from a very solid core of philosophical commitments that I found congenial. I experienced him as a person of integrity who lived his values, and remember him telling of his experiences advocating civil rights in the South.
What did you do for fun? Did you...party?
I suppose I did some partying in college, but wasn’t very good at it: too shy. I vividly remember being a ﬁrst-year student living in a dorm with other ﬁrst-year students. We were all somewhat awkward and unsure of ourselves and didn’t know who we were (but not wanting to admit any of that), and that was the basis of our bond.
Did you evolve philosophically?
Yes, I evolved in my philosophical orientation. My ethics in college were intuitionist and (ideal) utilitarian. When I got to graduate school in Princeton, I became quite interested in philosophy of language (which was “ﬁrst philosophy” at that time). I began to question my previous assumption that there was a singular set of moral truths.
Can you trace that doubt back to your personal experiences, you think?
When I began to question whether there was a singular set of moral truths, it was natural for me to draw from my own experience of culture clash when I was growing up in Minneapolis. It struck me that even when moral philosophers wrote about issues having to do with cultural relativism, they rarely cross over into a cultural tradition of thought and practice other than their own. Examples of cultural conflict in values were very briefly and abstractly described. I thought I could contribute by delving more seriously and in a sustained way into the Chinese tradition and engaging in some comparative work (and of course it was an opportunity to connect my professional writing to something very meaningful to me in a personal way). This led me to explore the way that relationship and community were central to Confucian ethics and how such an emphasis might be different than ethical traditions that emphasized individual rights. Though the differences between these two kinds of traditions turn out to be more complex and interwoven with similarities across the traditions, I concluded that a relativistic/pluralist stance was more appropriate than saying that there has to be some singular set of truths that show us what the correct balance is between relationship and autonomy, community and rights. I insert the word ‘pluralist’ as a qualifier on relativism because I do not hold that any morality is as true or justifiable as any other. There is no single true morality, but not all moralities are true.
I’m sympathetic to relativism. Why are some folks in philosophy so afraid of relativism?
An ungenerous answer is that they feel it takes away their ability to tell the rest of us what’s right. A more generous answer is a belief in progress to be achieved through better thinking, getting more evidence. I share that belief and would ask those fearful of relativism to be open-ended about what results are yielded by better thinking and getting more evidence. I think that there are versions of relativism (unsurprisingly, one of them is mine) that do provide for the possibility of better thinking about morality, without having to assert that there is a single true morality. That leads me to the ﬁnal reason for fear of relativism: the debate over relativism usually focuses on the extreme subjectivist or conventionalist versions of the view—what’s right is whatever I think it is or my group or society or culture says it is. Relativism can be conceived in much more plausible ways than this, but I think that rhetorically, it has been very useful for those who hold in a single true morality to present the most extreme and implausible versions of relativism.
Right, so, before grad school, were you tempted to do something other than philosophy?
I wondered whether I should continue in academia. It was a time of political and cultural tumult, and I wondered whether I should be doing something that made a difference to more people. But I concluded that I should do something that suited me as the kind of person I was.
Which issues were you most concerned with?
The U.S. war in Vietnam had expanded to Cambodia. It seemed as if efforts to end it “with honor" only got us deeper into the horrific bloodletting. There are some analogies to the present to be made. Another issue has in some respects has gotten worse since then, which is inequality, the lack of meaningful participation by most citizens in American democracy, and the bitterness and antagonism within the country that is not merely political and economic but deeply cultural. It was issues like these that made me think that I couldn’t justify going into philosophy, but, perhaps rationalizing, I concluded that I could try to make a difference in more indirect ways that were more suited to my temperament. I think that was one reason why I ended up writing about moral disagreement, cultural difference, and how we might try to get along in the face of all that.
Was Princeton competitive?
Yes, Princeton was competitive, but a lot of the pressure was internal. I regret most not speaking up in seminars nearly as much as I should have or wanted to, but I feared looking stupid or ignorant.
Did you become more self-confident?
I knew I acquired skills there, and came to realize I had some interesting perspectives to contribute, but it’s not a place that helps you get over the habit of invidiously comparing yourself with others. A few years after graduate school, I came to think of myself as a laborer in an ancient tradition, and that how we contemporaries judge each other is not going to matter a whole lot in the long run. We just do our best and hope that some of it matters to some people now or down the line.
I like your take on what we do. Do you worry this laborers conception may have negative consequences...like it may encourage a tendency to fall in line with the tradition rather than challenge it?
No, I don’t worry about that, because it all depends on what you think the best features of the tradition are. One of the best features is that we leave nothing unchallenged, nothing unquestioned. That is the tradition. I think philosophers, no matter how slim the odds, should keep trying to improve on the answers to the perennial questions, or contribute to a new reframing of the questions. To retain this ambition with a sober sense of one’s chances to realize it can be a difﬁcult balancing act, but it’s also a very privileged position to be able to do this sort of thing.
Love it. Favorite classes? Who did you work with?
I liked Margaret Wilson’s classes. She taught her seminars in such a way that we did rigorous history of philosophy with her. She expected us to pull our weight in discussion, and when she felt we didn’t, she just ended the seminar early. I still remember a session of Paul Benacerraf’s philosophy of math seminar in which he took apart his own seminal paper “On What Numbers Could Not Be.” He was just so exemplary in scrutinizing his own work that it brought home to me how easy it is to criticize other people’s work and how difficult it is to see, or admit to, the weak spots in one’s own. In an epistemology seminar, Hartry Field gave me extensive written comments on my papers. Ever since then I have adopted that as my standard for giving feedback to my own students. Gil Harman was my thesis supervisor on the subject of moral relativism. He modeled for me the idea one could have fun doing philosophy, and enjoying the competitiveness (though I came to later to adopt a much less competitive style for myself). I also talked with Tim Scanlon as I was writing my thesis. He was very helpful and has such a penetrating mind. Someone whose work influenced me a lot was Tom Nagel. I was impressed by the ways he could articulate deeply and persuasively the difficulty and complexity of moral questions.
Sounds great, professionally. What was going on in your personal life?
Because of a relationship I had, I moved to another part of the country while I was writing my thesis. The relationship failed, and not wanting to go back to Princeton with my tail between my legs, I moved into a cooperative house full of psychologists who had weekly meetings to air any issues that had come up. This was something of a watershed experience for a Chinese American kid not used to articulating his feelings and for a philosopher who lived mostly inside his head. I ended up falling in love with Laura, who had the room next to mine. It was the best thing to has ever happened to me, along with the birth of our daughter Liana, and all this happened just after I thought my life had fallen apart. A friend from graduate school, Louis Loeb, helped to pick me off the floor, and it was really at his suggestion that I try to find a house with others. I will always be grateful to him for his friendship and for his knowing what I needed.
That’s a really touching story, man. Thanks for that. So, you eventually finished up. What was the job market like when you ﬁnished? How did it feel to land your ﬁrst job?
I experienced the job market as challenging, but it was not nearly as bad as it is now. I didn’t get a tenure track job straight off, but a renewable one-year post at Brandeis. I then got an offer from another place, and Brandeis decided at that point to offer me a tenure track, which I accepted. Of course, it felt good, though one soon enough sets one’s sights on the next challenge after a brief celebration.
When you started, were you prepared to teach? How has your teaching style changed?
I had to learn how to teach my own courses pretty much from scratch. I found learning to teach to be very difficult. I didn’t feel like a natural at it. At first I was too exclusively focused on clearly presenting philosophical arguments and theories and on presenting plausible critiques of them. I wasn’t focused enough on how my students were receiving what I was presenting. I still have tremendous respect for the content, but learned to focus on what my students are getting out of it. I am trying to teach more by posing questions rather than telling. And my measure now for what they are getting out of it is less the specific retention of whatever arguments and theories we’ve studied but the students having experienced a certain way of working through the arguments, hearing and really listening to challenges to whatever side they’re predisposed toward. Especially when I’m teaching Chinese philosophy, I am concerned for them to realize how many of the insights and outlooks of Chinese philosophers resonate with their own experience. One very admirable quality I find in Chinese philosophy is that it always holds itself accountable to everyday experience. To be able to go back and forth between the texts and one’s fund of personal experience, so that one side illuminates the other, is one of the most rewarding things I believe I can convey to my students.
What do you find interesting about Chinese philosophy?
As I began to explore Chinese philosophy, I found so much more to appreciate, e.g., whatever ethic you have, you have to be concerned with how people can develop the dispositions to do the right thing or how one develops natural sympathetic dispositions so they become compassionate dispositions to respond to people’s weal and woe whenever one should, and to respond in the right way. The Confucians had hugely interesting things to say about those subjects because philosophy was never a purely theoretical discipline for them. Not only do they hold themselves accountable to everyday experience but consistently return to the question of “how” to realize their ideals of the person. In particular I found fascinating their use of rituals as a method of moral transformation. Rituals for them included not only ceremonies marking life-passages such as birth, coming of age, marriage, and death, but also the rituals of everyday interaction such as greeting people on the street, having meals with others, and the giving and receiving of gifts. The Confucians used rituals to strengthen the affective attitudes they were committed to having, such as care, respect and gratitude. By acting in accord with ceremonies that are conventionally established to signify and convey these attitudes, one can strengthen them in oneself. In the Daoist texts, particularly the Zhuangzi, I found brilliant and funny therapeutic jabs at the human tendency to take oneself and one’s “knowledge" too seriously, and at the same time, calls to tap into ways of becoming attuned to the world that often dip below the level of conscious reasoning.
Most frustrating misconceptions of Eastern Philosophy? Is there anything to the criticisms?
That there are no arguments in it. There is something to these criticisms in the sense that there is often, but not always, less emphasis on argument and more emphasis on explanation of how the world is or on how we might improve ourselves and our societies. It is more often therapeutic in its aims, in ways that are somewhat analogous to Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. What is even more common about Western responses to Eastern philosophy is the provincialism and lack of curiosity, not even enough curiosity to have a misconception.
You were at Brandeis for roughly 2 decades. Low points?
Brandeis, at least while I was there, was struggling ﬁnancially. When resources are that scarce, people are more often looking over to the next department to see what others had that they didn’t have (though I have to say I have witnessed some of this at Duke). I felt (which is to say, I could be wrong but I felt it strongly) that many administrative people had a kind of suspicious or disdainful attitude toward faculty, as if we weren’t doing enough to save the university. Not surprisingly I thought that was very unjust, but (and I speak only for my own experience and my own capabilities for dealing with the situation) I needed a change of scenery.
High points...things you were most proud of?
I’m proud of the work in ethical theory and Chinese philosophy that I produced in the time at Brandeis. I can read something I wrote years ago, and think, gee, that’s not terrible! I deeply appreciate it when former students write me years after I taught them, and tells me that what happened in our courses is still remembered and still inﬂuences them. I came to know and beneﬁt from my relationship with many ﬁne people and impressive minds in my own department and in the faculty generally (and some in the administration). I appreciated the cultural associations with Judaism at Brandeis: they gave the university a distinctive character without being closed in on itself. When I taught about ritual in Confucianism, I always knew that there would be Jewish students who would appreciate the importance of ritual on a deep, experiential level.
Really awesome, David. So, how did Duke lure you away from Brandies?
A friend of mine, and a terrific philosopher who has influenced me a lot, Owen Flanagan, moved from Wellesley to Duke. Alasdair MacIntyre was at Duke at that time, and he had already been a big influence on me in the way he talked about traditions of thought and practice. The prospect of being their colleague attracted me. The Department at Duke has a highly interdisciplinary orientation, and as you see from what I’ve already said, I was heading in that direction. Duke had a PhD program and Brandeis didn’t. I thought that being able to teach graduate students would stimulate my research, and it did. All that and the fact that when I visited in February it was warm enough to wear shorts!
What do you miss most about Brandeis?
See my answer above on the high points at Brandeis. I miss the reading and discussion groups in moral psychology and multiculturalism and race that I had in the Boston area. I miss regularly talking with Larry Blum, who has been a big influence on me as a friend and a philosophical interlocutor. He listens so deeply and responds so thoughtfully when you are having a philosophical conversation (or any other kind of conversation, for that matter) with him.
Any pleasant/unpleasant surprises in North Carolina?
One thing I appreciated right away is the slower pace of life and the fact that people you interact with just in the course of the day, like shopping at the supermarket, are more likely to take the time to chat. We found a great neighborhood to live in, where we really do get to know most of our neighbors. When you live in a big Northeastern city like the Boston area, you get used to the general atmosphere of people impersonally and hurriedly trying to do their business, the “sharp elbows” of daily life. Driving in Durham is just a lot more pleasant, much less honking as an expression of impatience with other people getting in your way or holding you up (but alas more of that in recent years as more people from the North migrate down here!).
How did the move change your trajectory, philosophically?
It helped me turn my work in a more interdisciplinary direction, one that weaves philosophical argument and explanation with the relevant science and with historical narrative. My work in ethical theory, moral psychology, and Chinese philosophy has become more tightly integrated. Having graduate students has added an entirely new dimension to my professional life.
Explain this interdisciplinary turn a bit.
My book, Natural Moralities shows a trend in my work, especially upon coming to Duke, of incorporating a lot of the scientiﬁc work that bears on my theory of morality. I have a functionalist theory of morality: that it is a part of human culture which has an interpersonal function of promoting and regulating social cooperation in ways that do not depend on coercion or force. It also has an intrapersonal function of fostering within the individual a degree of ordering among potentially conﬂicting motivational propensities, including self- and other-regarding motivations. The content of moral norms about what is just, right and the qualities of the good person is constrained not only by the functions these norms must fulﬁll but also by the nature of the human beings they govern. This nature includes a diverse array of self- and other-regarding motivational propensities plausibly considered to have a biological, innate basis. In the course of arguing for this theory of morality, I discuss various theories of the biological evolution of other-concerned impulses, and the way that moral norms develop in response to the need to shape human motivation both to strengthen these impulses and to mitigate the conﬂict between them and self-concerned impulses. In the course of arguing for this theory I also discuss how culture played a major role in aiding in the further evolution of the human motivational system.
What’s the relationship between Eastern philosophy and psychology, you think?
I’ve been drawing from social and cognitive psychology to amplify and argue for the relevance of the kind of moral psychology and epistemology I ﬁnd in the Confucians and the Daoists. The Confucians, I argue, had a sophisticated theory of the way that reﬂection and emotion can be interwoven in the cultivation of moral character. In the work of someone like Mencius, reﬂection and reasoning and feeling get married to one another: reﬂection becomes embedded in feeling and in doing so acquires the motivational efﬁcacy of feeling at the same time that it makes emotion more intelligent. The Daoists, such as Zhuangzi, put their ﬁnger on the way that intuitive, automatic processing of information from the environment can actually detect complex patterns that the conscious mind cannot handle, but they also saw that this kind of detection can be improved and cultivated by coming aware of its possibilities and cannot handle, but they also saw that this kind of detection can be improved and cultivated by coming aware of its possibilities and then training our capacities for detection. I use ﬁndings from psychology and neuroscience to argue that these insights are indeed well-taken.
I think that I’ve become more willing to write about the subjects I ﬁnd compelling and that return me to the reasons why I got into philosophy in the ﬁrst place. I’ve written about the nature of love and why it’s so hard to get a philosophically coherent account of it. I’ve written about why some people make a dramatic change for the better, from a moral perspective, and have applied some of my theories in moral psychology, about the roles of reﬂection and feeling, the important roles that other people play in helping us to change. But I wanted to avoid an entirely abstract way of discussing these issues (Blum has been a big influence on this matter), so I sometimes use some real-life case studies such as the story of how C.P. Ellis, the head Klansman of the Durham, NC chapter, came to be involved in the school desegregation process during the 70’s, working with and forming a lasting friendship with Ann Atwater, a prominent Black civil rights activist. It makes a real difference to me to be writing about that in the community where it happened, and to know that some of the people who played a major role in this remarkable story are still around.
Really cool stuff, man. What do you do for fun nowadays?
I wish I had more time for fun. Every day though I take long walks with my dog (as long as she’s in the mood and it’s not too hot). My wife and I like to walk to restaurants in Durham. In the summer we eat at restaurants where we can eat outside with our dog. More generally, downtown Durham has become this place populated by Chinese dumpling and Korean barbecue food trucks and places like the British-Indian gastropub. And we have gone over to Netflix and services such as HBO for our movie entertainment. I’m a podcast addict. I love the range of knowledge and information about all kinds of subjects, the interests and views from all kinds of people that this media technology makes available.
Important questions: Favorite podcasts? Dog’s name?
The New Yorker magazine puts out a number of podcasts by its writer and editors. Listening to them makes me feel less bad that I don’t have the time to read the articles in the magazine. Freakonomics Radio often has something interesting about human behavior and psychology relates to what I’ve been thinking about philosophically. There’s a very personal podcast called Terrible, Thanks for Asking about people who’ve had unexpected, terrible things happen to them, like losing a partner in the prime of life when you have a young child. Offshore is about Hawaii—the non-touristy parts, and for me it gives me a glimpse of the multiracial, multicultural country America could be, but it also shows the effects of the history that we have to struggle against, how it was essentially taken over by the U. S. government at the behest of a bunch of businessmen. I like podcasts about crime such as Criminal, Crimetown (corruption and colorful characters in Providence, RI, which brings me back to the feeling of being in New England), and Detective, which features veteran detectives who tell talk about their careers and the people and cases they’ve encountered. There are investigative shows like Breakdown and In the Dark. For politics, I listen to ones like Decode DC. There are podcasts that come out of regional public radio shows such as Forum (San Francisco), Think (Dallas), and On Point (Boston). I like NPR shows like Fresh Air, This American Life, and Invisibilia.
Our dog’s name is Sadie. My wife says she knew that was her name the first time she saw her.
Any interesting upcoming projects?
I published and have in the works enough material on Chinese philosophy and moral psychology to make a book, and that’s what I will aim at producing as the next larger project. This summer I’m going to India to participate in a seminar with philosophers who work with Chinese texts and others who work on Indian texts. It will be a different kind of interchange than the East-West axis I usually occupy, and in fact where most comparative philosophy is done.
Do you find any trends in philosophy exciting? Disconcerting?
Exciting: philosophers reaching across disciplinary boundaries; and most exciting of all when they are doing this in service of addressing the perennial philosophical problems. Disconcerting: philosophers whose horizon is the last five years of essays in the journals that address their specialties; the way graduate students are forced to publish almost immediately to compete for jobs; they need to be given the space to explore and mature their thought.
What's the most effective way to get more Eastern philosophy in the curriculum, you think?
To integrate it into philosophy courses that are already in the curriculum: introduction to philosophy, ethics courses, epistemology and metaphysics. To confine Eastern philosophy to courses explicitly dedicated to it is to give students the impression that it’s an exotic island they can visit at their discretion. There are websites now that are dedicated to introducing Eastern philosophy to those who want to integrate it into their courses: thedeviantphilosopher.org, and globalphilosophyresources.com.
If you absolutely had to sacrifice something from the curriculum to accommodate Eastern philosophy, what would it be?
When I had to choose what not to teach in an ethics course to make room for some Eastern philosophy, I left out the stuff I realized I didn’t enjoy teaching but included because I thought it should be covered, because it presented a point of view that needed to be articulated. I realized I could find something in Eastern philosophy to play that role and therefore to integrate Eastern and Western philosophy in a single course. This move helped me to teach with more enthusiasm and conviction.
Great idea. How would you explain what we do to a 5 year old?
Hmm. It’s been a while since I’ve talked with a five year old for an extended period of time. Don’t have grandchildren yet, and when my daughter was that age she was always demanding stories that I would have to make up on the spot. But maybe I would start with saying that what we do is very similar to what the five-year old does when she says, “What’s that?” and of course, “Why?” Children get to asking philosophical questions pretty quickly, so I would take the opportunity to engage philosophically with these questions. My daughter was in third grade when we started talking about what happiness is, and I took the opportunity to introduce her to Aristotle and to John Cooper’s elegant short book about reason and the human good in Aristotle. I recall talking about how happiness has to be measured across a whole life, and about the place of friendship in a happy life. Later on, I introduced a Zeno-type paradox to her and her friends by arguing that you could never finish an ice cream cone if you kept eating half of whatever you had left. I recall how delightfully outraged one of her friends got over this argument.
Most underrated philosopher living or dead?
Zhuangzi, because whatever your philosophical commitments are, there’s something in that text that stomps on them. It takes a certain type of philosopher to appreciate that. And he’s too funny and playful for the pompous types to take him seriously.
Sounds like my type of guy. Election 2016, who did you vote for, Hillary, Trump, Stein, or Johnson?
I voted unenthusiastically for the one that most people, including Trump, expected to win.
What political issues are at the forefront of your mind lately?
The very legitimate issues that helped Trump to win: the way our economy tends to favor some and greatly disadvantage others. Just once, I would like a politician to be honest and say that the American Dream is wishful thinking and that people in our society have less mobility than quite a few others. I would like to see progressives try to broaden their coalition to recover the support of working-class people (not just the white working class but also working classes of color) not because it’s a way to start winning (though that would be nice), but simply because it’s right to be concerned for everyone. I am worried about the way our “democracy” has bred cynicism and alienation; the disproportionate influence of economic elites on which policies get enacted, regardless of what party is in power (Marty Gilens has produced a compelling study to this effect). I’m worried about the venomous polarization that seems to be getting worse and worse. Trump is just a symptom, a genius (or perhaps an idiot savant) at exploiting these diseases eating away at American society, and there is danger in becoming overly focused on him, as if he were just some kind of disastrous fluke because of what Comey did or Clinton’s email mess. There are deeper reasons why he is President, and we had better learn this lesson well, because the whole country and the world are going to be severely punished whether we learn or not.
Ever consider writing about them?
I think I do write about some of these issues from a longer perspective, for example, when I write about the need to have a value I called “accommodation,” which accepts the inevitability of disagreement and works toward constructive relationship with those one will continue to disagree with, about the need to cultivate a sense of common fate that helps to mitigate the divisive effects of always framing moral issues in terms of individual rights. I don’t think I’m particularly qualified to write about issues that are of more pressing contemporary significance.
Favorite work of ﬁction?
In recent memory, a couple of movies stick in my memory: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, because it takes us inside one man’s catastrophic situation and makes something of beauty from it, and A Separation, the Iranian movie about a couple divorcing that is morally complex, with personal, religious and political dimensions, and is respectful of the humanity of each person. From the more distant past, the rude anarchistic energy of Yojimbo stays with me.
As long as this is a hypothetical, I will stipulate retention of my wits and my physical capabilities, so that I can make two dishes to have with my wife and daughter: Kung Pao Seitan, my daughter’s favorite dish; and seitan with hot peppers, my wife’s favorite dish.