Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 88

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Fascinating essay tracing the ethical history of money lending.

How Google search data reveals just how sexist, racist and generally ugly our society really is.

In dramatic shift, most Republicans now say colleges are not good for students.

When is speech violence?

It’s a bad idea to tell students that (certain kinds of) words are violence. (This is Jonathan Haidt’s response to the previous article. I must say, I think Haidt is right here.)


Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Thanks!

57 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 88

  1. Bunsen Burner

    Also, it seems like a classic positive feedback phenomenon. People who want to be seen as controversial, say controversial things, get the outrage they want, and so repeat ad infinitum. I have some friends in the US who saw Anne Coulter several years ago. They described a very low turnout and a largely bored audience. Well out of proportion given the hype surrounding the event. Maybe it’s time for a negative feedback approach?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fernando Andrade

    Hello Massimo and Bunsen,

    I have to say that I tend to agree with your positions, but don’t you think this “Meh” might be dangerous? If hateful speech keeps gaining momentum, dragging great number of people, ignoring might not be the best idea. I do not want to imply that ‘safe spaces’ is a solution to it either. But maybe engaging these speeches is needed some times.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Massimo Post author


    Well, engaging carries emotional involvement. So either one ignores, thus safeguarding one’s emotions, or one engages, but risks getting upset. I have no problem engaging, but it’s easy for me, I’m privileged.


  4. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo: First, you yourself have said in the past that you post stuff you find interesting but you don’t always agree with.

    Second, I’m surprised you didn’t pull a Wittgenstein out of Dan’s hat and accuse me of “geographism” as a parallel to “presentism.”

    Third, if we want to look at modern times, the author doesn’t ask whether things like credit cards have factored into changes in attitudes toward money lending, interest, etc.

    Fourth and related, the ancient world didn’t have credit and banking systems exactly like today. Yes, rich individuals could carry “notes” to or for each other, but not the same thing.

    Fifth, not everybody back then despised lending. While Jesus may have overturned the tables of the moneychangers, not only did the priestly establishment run the tables, most visitors to Jerusalem during Passover appreciated the convenience and didn’t find the debt level that high.

    Sixth, given the increased interconnectedness of today’s world, I think it is a legitimate issue to cite him for not looking at non-western attitudes on money, debt, etc.

    Seventh, re sharp elbows in general, if you want something more direct yet, as a critique, let’s remember that six years ago, you and I differed on the western intervention in Libya, with me warning of Iraq-type parallels, etc. I’ll just stop there on that one.


  5. Robin Herbert

    The trouble is that most of the people who turn out and make a big fuss about someone like Ann Coulter speaking at their college aren’t doing this because of any particular problem they have with Coulter, they are doing it because it is the big social event of their year.

    So they are not going to mind that they are handing an advantage to the person they are protesting against by giving them oxygen. Indeed they are ensuring that there will be more such social events throughout their college career.


  6. Bunsen Burner


    My point about ignoring certain people is certainly not to be taken dogmatically. I am only talking about people who crave seeing outrage in others. Dealing with the problematical views of other people, is in general, I believe situational. If a colleague at work makes a casual racist remark, I would probably tell them I don’t find such views acceptable. But I wouldn’t fly into a rage, or try to have HR fire them, unless they continued. If I meet someone in a pub deliberately trying to wind people up, then I would just go somewhere else as engaging with them would be pointless as they are just after the attention. If someone wanted a forum to actually promote violence against people, then I would not only want them banned from speaking, but arrested as well. But as for banning stupid people from saying stupid things… you would really have to enjoy silence to try and make that happen.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Fernando Andrade

    Hello Massimo,

    Sorry if you understood that way, but by no means I was trying to give you the “privilege” talk, really.I was just concearned thatsome empty speeches that tend to drag many people must be challenged and not only by yelling at the ‘other’ group, but by people capable of critical and careful thinking.


  8. brodix


    Capitalism is a distinctly western economic ideology. If you want a more socialist system, it is necessary to understand the conceptual foundations on which the economy is built.

    “In Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), the anthropologist David Graeber argues that before the advent of money, economic life within a community was a web of mutual debts. People did not behave as self-interested individuals – at least not from the perspective of a single transaction; rather, they would share food, clothes and luxuries, and trust that their peers would repay the favour in return. When we consider these origins of debt and credit – as a system of mutual aid between people who trust each other – it’s no surprise that so many cultures viewed charging interest as morally wrong.”

    As I’ve been pointing out, money is a communal contract that has become commodified itself. The problem isn’t going to be solved by just “taxing the rich and giving the poor more benefits.” Since everyone instinctively wants a little more, i.e. to be richer, not poorer, it is very easy to make this into an attack on the hopes and strengths of the community. Which is why it is so necessary to go back and understand money and finance is a method of accounting for large societies, not a store of abstract value to be extracted without consequence.

    As for stress and campus politics, how much of this generation’s stress is a function of the debts so many of them are accumulating to be in college? I suspect that is the real elephant in the room, college stress wise.

    The normal functioning of a reciprocal society requires giving the young the tools to make them productive members, thus giving them some sense of communal value and connectivity. Making them pay through the nose for the privilege seems likely to have the opposite effect.

    If you actually want to understand and solve social issues, don’t obsess over the loudmouths, figure out what has people disturbed in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Alan White

    The Google article was chilling, giving a new and decidedly bleaker sense of the “immoral majority” of the white Americans that elected Trump. It wasn’t about swamp-draining or electing a business person over a career politician or some sort of refreshing if often offensive honesty. It was all about dog-whistling to rascism, sexism, and jingoism that pervades huge swaths of the white electorate aided by an economically withered middle class that gone down hill since Reagan. All of which Trumps’ inner circle–especially Bannon–well understood even if the Donald didn’t exactly. But that inner circle didn’t bargain for the wildly incompetent and uncontrollable President they helped elect, and at some point, I think even some of those racists and sexists Americans who elected him will see him for the self-congratulatory child that he is, without even the immoral compass they wished him to have. Too bad this kind of research wasn’t promoted enough to wake the Dems up before the election. Maybe it will before 2018 and 2020–assuming Trump isn’t impeached. (BTW I do not hope for that–a Pence Presidency in many ways would be worse than this Trump chaos.)

    Liked by 3 people

  10. wtc48

    Bunsen: “I sometimes wonder what would happen if we decided to stop reacting to the Milos, Couters, etc. completely. I can’t be the only one who has heard of these people only because of the hype and hysteria on social media. I suspect the surrounding controversy of whatever idiotic remarks these people have made is far larger than their total written works by a significant margin.”

    You’re right about not paying too much attention to the firebrands of the foolish Far Right. What we really have to worry about is the possibility (still remote) of moving up into the major leagues of dissent-stifling, founded in Nazi Germany and the USSR, and still flourishing in China and probably Russia. Trump rode in on the coattails of a populist anti-central-government movement, but I doubt if he will pass up any opportunity to enhance his personal control of things.


  11. wtc48

    Haidt derives some of his concepts from Kahneman, whose “Thinking, Fast and Slow” had some attention here a while back. He’s taken some flak for being a spokesman for the right, but it seems to me that he is just attempting to be inclusive, and bridge the gap between the feuding ideologies.

    Pondering Haidt’s Hypothesis @ (I couldn’t get this to work as a link, and it may be too far off topic, but worth a look.


  12. saphsin

    As a first step, in the past several months I joined an online forum where I talk to a community that has political views on the Far Right to the Far Left. The impulse to rage or be dismissive of what the other person is trying to say is really strong and getting to me but I think I’m getting used to it. It’s been helpful.

    I also get the sense that there are plenty of people who’s views I hate will never change their mind about something because they are too stubborn; but there are also some people who are not quite like that and they are more common than expected. And from testimonies I’ve heard from other people, it helps if that person happens you’re trying to convince happens to be a close friend and will get less triggered. And it sometimes takes time for a lot of people to be convinced through multiple exposures, loosen their barriers and spend time mulling over it and so on.

    I think this aggravation with disagreement is that we have expectations that people should be getting it the first time when confronted with a compelling argument and if they are not listening, it must mean they are just completely irrational. But that’s not always the case, and that’s only the case if they are exposed to the right arguments, and they often aren’t. I mean just turn on Cable News and see what kind of crap comes from the liberal establishment and you can imagine why they’re building up their confidence.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Massimo Post author


    Don’t worry, my “privilege” comment was a reference to what Francisco had written earlier. I did not take you as meaning that.


  14. brodix


    The lying article was interesting, but not very surprising. We are relatively short lived bundles of semi coherent emotions, without an instruction manual, other than what we absorb from the culture we grow up in.

    Yet if you really want to understand what concerns people, take away their food and housing for a few days. Our minds naturally wander about the landscape, until the things we were taking for granted become unstable. That is why Obama won twice. First on Hope and Change, second, because Romney obviously had concerns that didn’t include the welfare of most people.

    For as bad as Trump’s poll numbers are, Clinton’s are worse, because she really does come across as Lady Macbeth, holding up a masquerade mask.

    To me, Trump and the rest of the media right are like fingers on a chalk board, designed to irritate, because their actual agenda wouldn’t win. Meanwhile the anti-Trump movement seems like shrieking children, who didn’t get what they wanted.

    I’m not going to argue politics, because it does seem like a jet at thirty thousand feet and the engines are starting to sputter. Few people seem able to understand how much debt has fueled our world for the last forty years and how reaching the end of that chain at a dead run is going to alter the landscape.


  15. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, you forgot the Chinese invented fiat money, which itself changed humans’ relations to money. That ALONE, in my opinion, leaves the piece short.

    Plus, in the first graf, note what students call Miller’s course:

    ‘How to Succeed without Selling Your Soul’ is the students’ popular nickname for his signature course.

    There’s prolly some neoliberal gears turning behind that, and behind the author’s angle.


  16. valariansteel

    Brodix writes: “As for stress and campus politics, how much of this generation’s stress is a function of the debts so many of them are accumulating to be in college? I suspect that is the real elephant in the room, college stress wise.”

    I would think so too. Are there college students posting regularly on this forum? I would think this might be their experience.

    1) Private college, and even public college, has become prohibitively expensive. Many now graduate with 5-6-figure debt amounts, and no or only a remote prospect of debt alleviation.
    2) To ameliorate their debt accumulation during college, they can work part-time, at their minimum-wage job, which does not pay enough, and creates equal amounts of stress and relief.
    3) Have you noticed the dramatic rise in apartment rents? Surely around campuses as well (think FIRE section of economy consuming more and more income — discussed by Michael Hudson).
    4) They face a volatile and uncertain job market even with as bachelor’s degree in hand. Earlier generations of graduating students didn’t face such an uncertain future. It’s a double-whammy, crushing student debt coupled with poor job prospects.
    5) There’s plenty of other sources of stress, created by fake news, global warming, endless wars, racial violence, etc. If they are the slightest bit open-minded, they recognize that the existing government is an obstacle frustrating millennials and others’ ambition for real, substantial change. Recall these sogenannt government representatives don’t even hold town halls anymore, allowing some voter venting.

    This might lead them to ask the question “why am I in this handbasket, and where am I heading?”

    Haidt mentions that there might be a long stretch of “simmering” stress on campus? Ya think?

    While not justifying it, this litany may provide an explanatory backdrop for the violent venting of frustration when a Yiannopoulos or a Colter comes on campus. Campus is the students’ “sacred space” — they are effectively saying, “don’t defile my space.” Again, I am not justifying their suppression of free speech. Just trying to understand their reaction (knee-jerk if it is).

    Liked by 5 people

  17. brodix


    Paying through the nose might also make them think of themselves as customers. As in ‘the customer is always right.’

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Alan White

    Though this is off-topic, I wish to thank you publicly for the wonderful essay over at Nautilus arguing for writing more science-oriented books for children. You’re completely right that trying to change adult minds already molded into antiscience attitudes isn’t the answer–we need to get to those minds in more formative stages. And as one who has taught hundreds of introductory courses over the course of my career–thanks for the remarks about the prevalence of snobbery in the university when it comes to teaching those courses. My attitude is that my Philosophy 101 is the most important course I teach–because most of my students will never take another, and I’d better get it right there.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. ejwinner

    College students have been acting rowdy and outrageous and irresponsible since what we know as colleges were invented way back in the Middle Ages. The only difference with the contemporary SJW version is that they assume they are participating in politics, but do so in a way that inoculates them against learning practical politics I saw that in the sixties and early seventies. There were two kinds of survivors – those who got jobs and dealth with reality on its own terms (often reversing political polarities in the process), and those who went on to become academics, since the academy allowed them to continue living in pretentious fantasy worlds.

    I dabbled in that; but my more persistent outrageousness was belonging to an “Animal House” group of friends and balsting rock music out at the world as our shared annoyance.

    (Graduate school – where I was surrounded by powerful Feminists and needed to negotiate between them to survive, is another matter. Eventually I found an alliance with a Deconstructionist Feminist who mentored me in my last year – which partially explains my sympathy to Continental Philosophy. I owe it. I owe her..)


  20. ejwinner

    The real story is of course how the current crises on campus feed into the currently diminishing public respect for the Academy, which leads – as it did under Reagan – to less funding for universities. Students are persuaded by historic example as promoted by some of their professors, into thinking they have some power in protest; they don’t realize how truly precarious their position really is.

    A little known fact (or at least as I’ve heard it from professors): the Universities of the State University of New York were designed in the mid-’60s, during the Cultural Revolution. Part of the mandate of design was that the campus should be easily controlled by military intervention if needed.

    Anyone who thinks they’re going to spark a revolution by shouting slogans should definitely study history more closely – and consider demographics and logistics more seriously.


  21. brodix


    Yet revolutions do occur. While they are more a function of the instabilities in the current system, what results is an ordering of the overall forces, both within and without that order.
    So while it is nearly impossible to start or direct one, they can be analyzed historically, as the factors become known.
    Given most people are biased toward the stability of the old, or the dynamics of the new, it is difficult to be objective as they occur, but it does make an interesting exercise.


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