Reflections of a Philosophy Major ~ Ben Kharakh

I’m a philosophy major, which means that I like having things spelled out for me. Case in point: my first day of philosophy class, wherein it was explained to me why thinking is important. “Thinkin’? Important?” Whodathunkit?! Simon Blackburn thunks so because how you think about something affects how you do it or if you do it at all. Could I have provided you with a list of reasons why thinking was important prior to that moment? Maybe, but I’m not a fan of arguing over guesses. “Was Mona a character on Who’s The Boss? Or Charles in Charge?” So, instead, I quote Blackburn a lot because I find his comment to be profound.

“You mean obvious!” If it’s so obvious, why aren’t you teaching a philosophy class? “I don’t want to!” Really? All you’d have to do is say a bunch of obvious shit for eighty minutes to a bunch of idiots. “Why idiots?” Who if not idiots is gonna pay to listen to some stranger spew obvious shit for an hour plus? “Good point!” It’s obvious though, isn’t it?

That a knife in the face might kill you may be obvious, but if you didn’t know that you’d be dead by now or have half a face.  ”I wouldn’t pay someone to tell me obvious stuff!” Obvious stuff isn’t necessarily worthless though. If philosophy’s worthless, then my degree isn’t worth squat. And by that logic, raising kids is worth less than squat because that’s what we pay our mothers. “But mothers are priceless!” And that’s what I’d call my degree: priceless. Well, two-fifths of it. One fifth I’d call timeless since I minored in history, and the other two-fifths I wouldn’t know what to call if you wanted to debate the merits of English.

For the sake of argument, though, I’ll grant that philosophy is obvious. In fact, I’d say that the philosophy that resonates with me most is the most obvious, indisputable (yet controversial!), and blandest stuff anyone could tell me about myself or the world. “I coulda told you that!” Huh? “I coulda told you that you learn about yourself from others.” Holy crap; keep going! “You often see ourselves as others do!”  This guy’s a genius! PUT THIS IN A BOOK! There’s not going to be anything to put in a book if you keep spoiling it like this. That took me six pages to say! (I had to put that in italics so that you’d know I was doing a third voice. And I had to put all this between parentheses so that you’d know it was me, Ben. Hope you can keep up!)

One of my issues with philosophy is how long it takes many philosophers to say what they say.  Example: Thomas Nagel’s What is it Like to be a Bat? In this essay, Nagel talks about how we can study a bat and imagine ourselves as a bat, but we still wouldn’t know what it’s like for a bat to be a bat because the objective study of a thing does not reveal the subjective experience of being that thing. A very accurate description! Unfortunately, in the amount of time it takes Nagel to say all this I could have actually dressed up as a bat, flapped my arms around, eaten some bugs, and then thought, “Something’s gotta be missing because these bugs are gross, my arms are tired, and I haven’t flown an inch!”

I think there’s a good reason for writing philosophy the way that it’s often written, though. This is because I often think of philosophy as horribly, unfunny satire. See, a lot of philosophers try to give as accurate a description of everyday stuff as possible, but they do it in such a way that the everyday appears alien. That’s why so many philosophers write circuitously, use unfamiliar language, make up their own words, or just use traditional words and phrases in untraditional ways. They’re trying to wake you up to the world around you! Luke Wilson wakes up in the future in Idiocracy, but he really wakes up IN THE PRESENT! Philosophy’s a trip! So, if you love rollin’ dubbs, you’ll love Wittgenstein! Just don’t smoke Schopenhauer; he’s a bit of a downer!

“Long words? Telling me stuff I probably already know? These people sound elitist!” I’d say there’s more to elitism than using long words. You’d have to, for example, think you were better than other people because you used long words, sorta like how you think you’re better than elitists for thinking they’re better than you. “OH SHIT!”

Not all philosophers are elitists, of course, but a number of people I’ve come across seem to think that they’re engaged in privileged thinkin’. “I’m wonderin’ bout stuff common folks couldn’t even imagine!” I think of philosophy as just another type of thinkin’, which means that I think philosophers and non-philosophers think about the same stuff. “Like what it would be like if Arnold Schwartzegger was shrunk down to teeny-tiny size and injected into someone’s body like in Inner Space?”  The 1987 action-comedy-adventure, staring Martin Short, Dennis Quaid, and Meg Ryan?! “The Joe Dante picture?” Who? “ME! Directing’s been slow, so I’m taking on roles in third rate puppet shows to supplement my income.” Third rate?!” “Listen: I get paid by the hour, so unless this is going somewhere you better wrap it up!” Right, so, yes, I think about Arnold Schwartzegger being shrunk down to teeny-tiny size. I also think that a philosopher’s no more likely to find the truth or think rigorously than a non-philosopher.

I’m also of the opinion that there’s no necessarily inaccessible knowledge, although some disagree. I’ve had people (more than one!) tell me that there might be biological reasons why I couldn’t know or understand something. “I think they called you retarded,” my friend said. (I had to cite my friend on that one not so you’d know I have friends but because I’m writing a joke research paper. Thanks B.C.!) So if anyone knows something, I think they can explain it to you. And claiming otherwise is just a lie the man made up to keep you down!

When philosophers do explain things they often use analogies, which is fine if you recognize that thought experiments only highlight what’s similar between things rather than what’s the same about them. And when people fail to recognize this, they end up taking seriously something that’s absurd, like wondering if we’re always dreaming. Don’t worry, we’re not, because that’s not what it means to dream! Unfortunately, too often philosophers forget or aren’t aware of obvious stuff like what it means to dream or how we use words. Plenty of people make the same mistakes, but they don’t know they’re making them. As a result, people find ludicrous things to be genius. And that’s why hundreds of years later I end up having to write essays explaining how we use words and why we can’t always be dreaming; or why I find myself in a classroom being told that it’s a strike against a theory if it disallows time travel.

That’s right: in philosophy class, it’s minus points if your plans mean you can’t Quantum Leap into Genghis Khan. I’m pretty sure “no time travel” isn’t a problem anywhere else. “Hey, you wanna hang out?” With dinosaurs and Richelieu?! “No, with me.” Nah, I’m good. “Hey, I’m gonna order a pizza. Want some?” Is it one of those time traveling pizzas? “Is that like a pizza that’s already eaten by the time you get it? Because I’m not paying for an empty box.” Then, no, I don’t want any.

And that brings me to my final (for now) gripe with philosophers: they spend too much time mulling over stuff that cannot be practically applied to everyday living, like whether the world is made out of stuff or ideas. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be to be told you didn’t understand someone’s long, convoluted, and circuitous paper—or book!— on why ideas are more real than stuff could ever be? Euch! And then, to cap it off, the author says that she’s figured out philosophy forevers. So we can rest our heads because the debate over whether stuff or ideas are the real deal is over. We can finally go on living our lives because she’s done all the important thinkin’ for us! No dice says this guy!

That’s right, lady I made up. I saw through your purported shangri-la of heuristics for what it really is–a dreamed up world of rules and regulations that shields you from an indisputable matter of fact:  that you, like me, are the same– just a couple of animals. And, like all animals, you and I will one day die. The real tragedy is not that your behavior alienates the people most likely to help you, but that you’ve been living in a dream for so long that you’ve come to mistake it for waking life. But, you know what? You can put up all the walls you want and stick porcelain or tile wherever you please, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re all squatting when we shit, that we all shit outside, and that everybody dies. Yeah, where’d you think the houses were? They’re outside! And maybe if Gargamel knew this stuff, he’d stop trying to kill the Smurfs (they’re just fun-sized humans!).

That’s what I think of when I think of philosophy: trying to understand the world and what about it makes me laugh. Along the way, I hope to break down walls, bring us all closer together, and be a good person.

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Humorless Budget Report ~ Ben Kharakh

RUSA had a good grabber for their budget meeting: “Where does your money go?” I didn’t stick around long enough to find out the answer to that question. Instead, I left after becoming both overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the first hour of the event—overwhelmed by the amount of information thrown at me; and underwhelmed by the absence of tools to make sense of it all.

The meeting began with the presentation of a survey regarding what some number of students thought about the current fiscal situation. I say “some number” because the audience was never informed of how many people RUSA spoke to for its survey. I’m not interested, though, in what random students think about who’s responsible for the current state of affairs. I’d care if random students knew how to fix the problem, but then they wouldn’t even be random students; I’m pretty sure we’d all know the names of the people who figured out how to balance the budget and save us all money. But rather than get something resembling a way out, I was given what struck me as a deeply unsatisfying narrative.

I was told that the cost of tuition was going up, that the amount of financial aid was going down, and that banks were profiting from it all. Meanwhile, the Obama administration had passed a bill barring private lending institutions from making a buck off the whole shebang, with the government handling the distribution of funds instead.  So: there was a massive problem and the closest thing to a solution came from the government. My gripe with all this is that there’s no room for me in the narrative besides as being the victim. The whole thing struck me as very disempowering.

Unfortunately, most of the information I get, whether it be print, online, on TV, etc.,  is oriented around problems rather than solutions thereto. I can see the appeal of framing particular parties as “bad guys,”; and it certainly seemed like the audience was none too pleased with banks or the government. But none of that tells me how the banking and lending system works in the first place or what I or anyone else can do about it.

I never found out where my money actually goes— unless RUSA meant the bank (ha ha joke’s on me!)— because I left the meeting early. I was simply too dissatisfied to stick around for the whole thing. So, I went to an open mic at the Red Lion Café instead. I watched the show rather than performed in it, but I felt very excited nonetheless. As a philosophy major, I like having things spelled out for me; as a comedy nerd, I like jokes; as someone that likes a challenge, I’d like to synthesize the two; and as someone who enjoys his sanity, I see no other option.

Philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein is rumored to have said that, “A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes. ” I can see that for sure. Something makes you laugh, you explain what it was to someone else, and that explanation is the joke. If something strikes you as funny about something serious and you can explain what it was to someone else, then you’ve got some serious comedy on your hands— you’ve entered Bill Hicks/Maria Bamford/Louis CK territory.  And there’s more utility to that sort of comedy beyond the good PR it’ll bring.

The first hour of the RUSA meeting was full of charts and bad news. A few jokes would have made the whole thing not only more palatable but easier to cope with too.  The latter becomes even more apparent when the budget meeting is taken as only a part of all the problems facing America and the world today. If I read nothing but bad news on the web followed by hateful, angry comments and combine that with a sense of impending catastrophe, impotence, and general absurdity, I’d feel awful. But absurdity can be a source of laughter as much as it can be a source of despair. And I’d much rather be full of laughs than dread. Besides, people are a lot more eager to listen to you and share your message if it’s as funny as it is insightful.

I figure that if I’m going to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders, I’m going to need my sense of humor to lighten the load. But this sentiment, I would argue, is founded upon a misunderstanding of what it means to be a person. I alone don’t carry the weight of the world on my shoulders; all people carry that burden if a person is to carry it at all. And, by the looks of things, we could all use a few more laughs, which is good, because I got me a hankering to tell some jokes.

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JVP Speaks: Wikileaks & Transparency

In the wake of the latest Wikileaks disclosure, how much should we, as people, know? Is there such a thing as knowing too much? Or are some things best left unsaid?

Rebecca Zandstein: I cannot answer what we should “as people” know, but I strongly believe that as American citizens we should be extensively educated on matters that can allow us to become better political activists and voters. The government should not be hiding relevant information on wars, for example, since it relates to those that are representing us and whom we vote for. Information should be disclosed as long as it is not secret information relating to positions, strategies, and informants’ names. Otherwise, just like The Pentagon Papers allowed us to see the corruption within our government [officials]. WikiLeaks allows us to have more accurate body counts in Iraq and shows the public that Iraq is indeed a “bloodbath on every corner”.

Everyone chooses to live and see their own version of reality but in the end there is only one. The reality that the American government sets out for the public should not be masked in an attempt to make the public “safe” and “secure” in knowing untruths. As long as our national security is not at risk, there should not be such extreme restrictions on publications released for the public to become more educated.

Mike Stuzynsk: The problem with the stuff released by wikileaks is that it is shockingly bland.  Australia doesn’t think Iran is the devil–holy shit, no way!  It seems so me like these leaks are really a non-issue and the government is making a bigger deal about it than needs to be made.

Jhoany Benitez: There IS such a thing as knowing too much. Some things are irrelevant pieces of information. Curiosity is not always a good thing; it can lead to paranoia and losing trust. While it is good to know things, it is also a bad thing to know everything. Part of the beauty of life is its mystery.

Ben Kharakh: I endorse the idea of Wikileaks with the hope that the fact that we now know what’s going on will make people change for the better (as opposed to staying the same and just getting better at hiding information). Will this actually happen? On this issue I remain agnostic.

I also think, though, that power should not be focalized in such a manner that individuals are able to affect the lives of so many people so quickly. And in those instances when it’s unavoidable that people become this powerful, I’d prefer that their activity be as transparent as possible so that I know just exactly what’s going on with that power.

Some of the leaked info seemed private and some may argue that, as a result, the information is not inappropriate to know (and in this case I don’t mean people’s names, etc). I don’t buy the whole private/public dichotomy, nor the offline/online distinction. Private stuff is just public stuff we don’t want other people to know about (and I don’t mean your email passwords). And how one behaves in private, methinks, is indicative of how one behaves in public. Unfortunately, too often a lot of the behavior showcased in the cables is treated as gossip rather than a justification for improvement. Although, given that all the starlets the media harangues have yet to better themselves, maybe I’m naïve to expect the same of diplomats and leaders.

Lastly, I’m gonna paraphrase my friend Maximum Barkley (Barkley to the max!) and say that the success of Wikileaks is indicative of a failure on the part of contemporary journalism. The fourth estate, I would say, has dropped a ball in terms of being the party to get this sort of information. Sure, the press is writing article about this stuff, but it’s not the press that’s getting the stuff in the first place. They need to hit the pavement harder!

Brendan Kaplan: I think that as individuals that make up a larger body politic, complete with its own behavior, rationalization process, and mechanisms of action, it is important to understand what that body is doing.

In other words, we need to understand the processes being carried out by society through its aggregation and direction of our behavioral outputs. What is not necessary, however, is to release content beyond that which is not necessary to fully describe the process to which the content claims to be relevant.

In the case of the Wikileaks, it is important for the public to understand the types of practices that the United States carries out. If this could be done without releasing the names of specific dates, then it should be.

Additionally, Wikileaks would be able to take the moral high ground in any argument claiming, “We were vague… claiming that this foreign power is worried about that foreign power. Then the 1st power started arguing and claiming that we were only making it up. We were thus forced to release the details to back up what we are saying. If they had just accepted the truth in the first place instead of trying to lie about it, we would have spared that nasty details”

Basically, process is necessary to understand, and some content is required for individuals to understand process. If content is released that is not necessary to understand process, than that release is done so for publicity or political purposes.

Personally, I think Wikileaks walks a fine line between the two and has engaged in both. One thing is for certain right now though: Julian Assange is in way over his head and is part of something he can no longer control.

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Inside JVP: An Interview with Dan Bracaglia by Ben Kharakh

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then a prize or two wouldn’t do their quality any justice. Although I doubt that sentiment makes Dan Bracaglia think any less of all the critical praise and awards his photography has earned him throughout the years. Whether it’s with the Targum, his photoblogs, or elsewhere, Dan’s web and print presence makes an indelible impression: this guy is going places. And in this Q and A, JVP’s former photography editor looks back on where he’s going, where he’s at, and the path he’s been on along the way.

What brought you to Rutgers?

What brought me to Rutgers? Well I guess I was technically brought to Rutgers by my Mom’s minivan on a rainy August day back in 2006.

For real though: I went to Rutgers because it was the first school I applied to and the first school I got accepted to.  After that I said to myself, “Fuck it, I don’t want to be bothered filling out any more of these bullshit applications that ask me to sum up my aspirations and life”, I mean fuck I was eighteen years old, I don’t have a clue what I am doing with my life now, how the fuck did they expect me at eighteen to know that shit.  Not to mention the fact that I put in absolutely no effort (ok maybe a little effort) in high school. Well, I mean, I got by with straight B’s, but in high school, that’s no effort, regardless of whether it’s an AP class or not. So, Rutgers was pretty much my best option; and I sure as hell wasn’t going Ivy League (my parents told me my choices were a state school or Ivy League).

Also it should be noted that my mother attended Rutgers and dragged me to the college tour.  All I remember from it was that Cheese Whiz had been invented at Rutgers. That was enough for me; I was sold.

How’d you decide on your major(s)?

I knew I was going to major in journalism before I applied to Rutgers.  I always loved story telling, especially through visuals. It was a no brainer.  Funny story: I almost didn’t make it into the journalism school because I got a C in the very first journalism intro class that I took, which was also a prerequisite to applying to the school.  You needed a B in the class to apply. I had to take a Library Studies course instead.  I wrote some b/s paper about how the Segway was a complete failure (not sure now how that was related to the study of libraries).  However, I never got anything lower than a B+ after that class in the journalism major.

When and how did you develop and interest in photography/politics/journalism? How did you explore these interests growing up?

Photography is my passion.  I am lucky that I figured out what makes me happy at an early age.  Unfortunately what makes me happy isn’t exactly the most lucrative thing in the world.  As for politics, both my parents are lawyers and I was raised to, naturally, be political.  I minored in political science at Rutgers and actually only needed to take one more class to make it a double major, but refused to because it was some garbage intro class.  My parents think that was a bad decision; I think, who the fuck cares what you majored in? As of recently I have temporarily written all things political out of my life, including voting.

As for photography, I started a badass monthly “Zine” in high school called Dan’s Zine (yeah I was pretty vein).  To this day I am still trying to relive the glory of my high school days.  All I did every day after school was go out skateboarding with my friends, shoot photos, write obnoxious stories, and interview bands.  The zine lasted three years and we published 35 issues.  I had a sandwich named after me at my local town deli.  Like I said: the glory days.

What sort of aspirations did you have growing up and which of these, if any, are you putting the most effort into making a reality?

Growing up I wanted to be a rock and roll star.  I wanted all the girls to throw their panties at me when I walked down the street.  I wanted all the guys to be like, “I wish I was him”.  This is still my dream.  I want to be Bob Dylan.  He is a god to me. He is the most unexpected, shot in the dark, shit on your head dude ever.  I would love to shit on everyone’s head.

For real though, my dream is to own my own highly successful, highly controversial, super cool company, which I have complete creative control over.  I do well when I work for me.

What am I doing to accomplish this?  Gaining experience and knowledge and waiting.  I am like an assassin waiting on top of a building patiently until the moment is right to go in for the kill. That was fucking corny and untrue actually.  I am more like a dude trying to live his dream and make the right connections and gain the right knowledge first.

I just want to have complete control over my own destiny and be able to do positive things in my own way without anyone telling me what to do.

My real dream growing up was always to win a Pulitzer Prize for my photography.  If I could do anything with my time, I would photograph things that matter and change public opinion for the better through my images.  I feel I was born a slightly better than average photographer.  Photography was the first thing I realized I was good at (there were probably about 500 things I learned I wasn’t good at before discovering photography).  It would be a shame to not use my talents for positivity.  I truly believe in the power of humanity.

How did you change over the course of your time at Rutgers?

I changed a lot at Rutgers, although many of those changes are not ones I want to publish on the Internet, like the copious amounts of drugs I ingested—kidding!

My experience at Rutgers did exactly what a college education should do: It expanded my mind, taught me a lot about mysely– my strengths and weaknesses, the world around me, and the people around me.  I am very grateful for my education.

What have you been up to since leaving RU?

Since leaving RU I got into grad school, withdrew from grad school and took a job as the Associate Online Editor at Popular Photography Magazine.  I am currently working on nearly a dozen personal creative projects.  I have a live stop action short film in the works that I am real excited about.

How’d you become involved in the JVP?

Mike Stu got me in JVP way at the beginning when it was still a concept.  Despite my long-term affiliation, I have let JVP down far more times than the amount of times I did worthwhile things for it.  Although the photos that appeared with my Chris Dagget piece did win a New Jersey Press Association General News Photography Award (although they won for the identical images printed in the Targum).

In closing, follow your dreams. You can do anything you want, as long as you’re not a total bum.

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JVP Speaks: What is Civic Duty?

Project Civility is in full swing at Rutgers, whether you noticed it or not. The initiative’s aim is to get people to ask questions about what it means to be part of a community, about how people should treat one another, and what can be done to improve the quality of people’s treatment of others. Of course, the whole initiative is voluntary rather than mandatory, which means that, chances are, one likely won’t be prompted to participate in Project Civility in one’s day to day. At the very least, I’ve yet to be prompted, so I figured that I’d prompt myself and my fellow JVPers to participate in Project Civility with this week’s question: Should America have a notion of civic duty if it doesn’t already? Why or why not? If so, what should it entail?

Alex Giannattasio: Civic duty is the moral imperative that members of society actively protect the rights of society as a whole. There are many ways to fulfill this duty, one of which, for instance, is voting. By collectively engaging in the democratic process, our society as a group agrees to work out its differences peacefully in exchange for giving everyone a voice. This in turn sets a baseline for the group’s peaceful coexistence to stand upon, thus preserving the basic rights of every individual.

But voting is not the only way to engage one’s civic duty. Voting takes such a small effort that the possible impact per person is diluted anywhere from hundreds to millions of times over. A more active way to meet one’s civic duty is to work in one’s local community to improve the quality of life of the most needy, and to just improve it in some valuable way. We as a nation are in fact living up to this now: community engagement in America is at very high levels, with 111 million Americans volunteering their time in the past 12 months and 60 million volunteering on a regular basis. The Future of American Power by Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Foreign Affairs, Vol. 89, No. 6, at 10. Community engagement bears a much bigger impact per person and improves the quality of the community in which you live. In the short term, this kind of civic participation can be much more valuable to a nation as a whole, because it translates into social improvement at an extremely efficient cost.

Michael Stuzynski: Americans have a sense of civic duty because after over 200 years people are still somewhat conscious of the concept of the Revolutionary War. The fact that people fought and died for your right to vote, among other things, is everywhere in culture, and is reiterated with every new war that our country fights. It’s less a sense of a duty and more a sense of a responsibility that is owed to the respectful remembrance of people from the past. But it’s also pretty cool that you can be responsible for firing the leader of the free world, and all of his oafish minions.

Jhoany Benitez: When I first read this question, I was immediately going to answer “Yes, definitely. It’s your right, so, why not? People in Cuba wish they could make a difference.” But then I opted to put some real thinking into my answer and ended up completely changing my mind. So my real answer is No. I think that the United States shouldn’t have a notion of civic duty. Why? Because people should not be forced to do something. Voting, to be exact. “It’s your right as a citizen!” Does this mean that I have to run out and vote—even if I don’t even know who I’m voting for? That’s why I changed my mind. Because I remembered hearing from friends who opted not to vote because they knew nothing about the people running.

Also, let’s say that you hate Republicans…but you don’t even know who’s running for either party. Does that mean that you’re going to vote for whoever’s representing the Democratic party even if you know nothing about them? This is where the notion of civic duty fails. I think it’s better to not vote than to shove down people’s throat the belief that it’s their “civic duty” to vote and have them vote blindly. So I say No to civic duty. Vote because you care, not because someone’s telling you to do so.

Dave Imbriaco: To me, civic duty is what is expected of a citizen in return for living within a system that allows them certain rights and freedoms – the RESPONSIBILITIES that come with those freedoms, if you will. There was a point in this country not too long ago when everyone who took high school social studies classes learn not only about how government works but how they must also actively participate in it. This seems to have all but died in our modern education, which is a tragedy of epic proportions. The mantra of a good social studies class went that it creates not only good students but good citizens. Also, it wouldn’t be called our “duty” if it was an easy thing to do. It sucks to choose between a giant douche and a turd sandwich, but you, as a citizen, still have the duty to make that choice because you live in a democracy. There are countless other ways you can get involved in a democracy but this is the most basic of all. /rambling.

Billal Ahmed: I find it interesting that while young people often have no problem condemning strict notions of what it means to be a good Muslim or Christian as a danger to global security, they hesitate to criticize civic duty for the same reasons. I have no problem with the idea of improving a nation through the idea of civic duty, whether through volunteering, teaching, building, etc. However, I blame civic duty for the prevalence of worrisome nationalism which inevitably begins to infringe on the rights of others. Civic duty easily leads to civic elitism, which reinforces the notion that a particular nation is special and requires extremely lamentable acts to be carried out in order to preserve that status. One could argue that civic duty is a fundamental motivation for the vigilante bands currently patrolling the United States border with Mexico. One could also argue that civic duty lead to the vengeance-fueled invasion of Afghanistan nine years ago with Operation Anaconda, which was blinded by passion and thus badly disorganized. Civic duty is excellent under the same conditions that religious zealotry can be considered excellent- when it is used to fuel the betterment of humanity rather than the suffering of others.

Brian Connolly: We pay taxes…so, we already all do have a notion of civic duty. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great outlet for people who have the time, energy, and willingness to help their fellow countrymen (and countrywomen, out). But, quite frankly, people have live’s to live. If you want to run a YMCA program for underprivileged youth–knock yourself out, you’ll probably feel great doing it. But in no way should America institute a mandatory system of community building exercises. That encroaches on the freedoms that we have. And, as an interesting reminder, historical precedents that include an overwhelmingly strong concept of national duty include Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Just a thought.

Rebecca Zandstein: Civic duty, being the responsibilities of a citizen are demanded by America to some extent. Citizen’s are required to pay taxes and obey all laws of the state in which they live or are traveling to and the federal laws. Aside from the latter give or take a few citizens are expected to follow other rules that are not necessarily obligatory or concrete: like voting and being morally just to one another. While America does provide citizens with a code that they must follow I believe that the “unspoken law” should be followed as well due to the positive effects it can have on society and the individual(s). Civic duty allows individuals to participate in activities that many would literally die for the opportunity to do. Civic duty can assist others, whether below or above you in the hierarchy, in a manner that no one else might necessarily have the capability of. Regardless of the latter, America can only enforce a limited amount of written code/rules on its citizens despite that it might be tempted to enact the “unwritten code” onto its citizens as well. Unwritten civic duties are optional and those who view them as mandated have the benefit of, at a minimum, being viewed in a brighter light than other citizens.

Marlana Moore: There are certain attributes that make a person a good, admirable human being, regardless of nationality. When I think of civic duty, I think of those things I can do to be a good and responsible person in context to my identity as an American. Civic duty includes voting, obviously, but voting entails some other duties as well. In order to vote responsibly, you have to be aware of the candidates and know what they stand for. Similarly, being a responsible American involves knowing what your government is doing, and telling them what you think about it. I think if more Americans really took this attitude of their civic duty seriously, our government would not feel so removed from us, and we might instead feel that they are helping us.

Ben Kharakh: I think that America lacks both a cohesive and shared vision of what it means to be a good citizen and the means by which the virtues of good citizenry are to be cultivated. Rather than wait, however, for the government to improve or for people to start discussing what it means to be a “good American”, it’s up to those people who desire reform and deliberation to be the change they wish to see. That means asking one’s self, “What can I do to be a good citizen?”, which is the same as asking one’s self, “What can I do to be a good person?”

It’s important to be a good person for a number of reasons, one of which is that the way we treat others teaches them how to treat us, something that’s easier to discern on a micro scale with a family than on the macro scale with a nation. A nation, however, is just a family with a lot of people, which means that it simply takes longer for the treatment that we’ve taught others to come back around and affect us. But it will, it does, and we are seeing the affects of now more than ever. Not that this is anything new; we just didn’t have TV and Internet 2,000 years ago.

Who’s to blame for this? No one or everyone; take your pick. Personally, I find the question of, “Who’s responsible?” less useful than, “What do I do?” It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately.

Brendan Kaplan: By “sense” I think what you mean is cohesive whole, picture, or gestalt.

Any position on the matter, even one devoid of commitment to civic duty is nonetheless a sense. We HAVE a sense… is it the right one?

I think the question really is then, what type of sense of civic duty should individual Americans have? How does this sense impact the greater country as a whole?

Things tend to function fractally, and that means the the number one thing you can do to change the country is to change yourself. To determine what type of country we should have, is to contemplate what type of people we should be. In short, by asking if there is a proper type of civic orientation, we are asking ourselves if we think that there is a proper way to act or not.

I am of the mindset that there is. I guess then, that I believe that we as individuals, and therefore collectively as a country, should maintain a set of behavioral standards. Our question further suggests that those personal standards that I think we should maintain are relevant to the way the nation functions as a whole.

OK, so what standards should these be?

I think it is very difficult to predict how any process will manifest in any specific situation. The content may be different for different people. For example, to become more well rounded, a really rich arrogant kid might be well served by working in a field for a week and being treated with little importance, while an illegal day-worker might truly benefit from being prodded to act arrogant and demand Pellegrino sent to his table. The content of the process of balance is different depending on the direction any particular actor is coming from.

Thus, by realizing that individuals can attain balance by acting in seemingly divergent ways, and considering that a cohesive national “feeling of duty” would necessarily account for these diverse methods of balance, a true and proper sense of civic duty would have to connect and encompass all of these facets.

Our duty must be then to translate the experiences of individuals within the country into content that others can understand as of the same process as their own. Civic duty isn’t about symmetrization, as in what I call ‘the new diversity’ whose maxim reads “Nobody can be discriminated against, therefore everyone has to be exactly the same [when measured against pre-approved factors such as income, education, wealth, aptitude]” Instead, civic duty is about recognizing the differences in the individual stories that become aggregated into cultures and nations, and elevating those differences as the welcome product of a highly specialized humanity that has evolved traditions and customs that allow it to live in a variety of situations.

Interaction between these different cultures must be facilitated in such a way as to not allow the willful destruction of a culture simply for the sake of its destruction.

Civic duty, then, is about communication, accountability, and rights. These days, accountability is so often lost as people are reluctant to suggest that an individual’s perspective might be flawed for fear of offending a cultural perspective. To compensate, these same people often become overly concerned with communication or rights, and end up as misguided activists, protesting anyone and anything in their paths.

A further revision then: Civic duty is about a mediation of communication, accountability (consequences/ resolutions), and rights. Those concerned about their civic duty engage in processes that further these three ideals.

Way to go JVP!!

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JVP Speaks: Are you going to vote?

Hello and welcome to JVP Speaks! In this soon-to-be-a-recurring-feature, contributors will kick-off a discussion on a particular topic by writing on a single prompt. This week the JVP asked itself: are you voting? Why or why not? Feel free to answer the question yourself, comment on any of our answers, and to generally get the ball rolling on this important topic! Here’s what we had to say: Jhoany Benetiz: I believe that this upcoming election is crucial. People are losing trust in our president and the Democratic Party, which I find very upsetting. I think that people need to learn to be patient and not expect drastic changes overnight. My family and I have been affected by the recession, so I totally understand why people are growing desperate and need things to improve. But, still, people should not lose hope like that. Obama’s doing what he can. I know that not everyone agrees with this. I constantly hear my professors urge us to vote on Tuesday and make a difference. But, unfortunately, I will not be voting. Why? Because I’m a permanent resident and only American citizens can vote. Isn’t that something? But I would vote if I could. Believe me! Brendan Kaplan: Yes, I will be voting. I’m more concerned with keeping my pulse on the local state of things rather than any of the other races. Also, I’m going to be voting in Princeton, my hometown community. I’ve heard a lot over the past few years about students needing to make a bigger difference in the political landscape of New Brunswick. I think that that is great, as long as one plans on staying in (or owning property in) this city. Aside from that, I think a more genuine way to give back to the community that more or less graciously provides us a place to study is through local community action rather that local community politics. True service can’t be put on a resume and should be undertaken as a means to an end, in this case hopefully a healthier community. Additionally, there are a number of issues that are important to me in good old P-town. My parents still live and own property there. There are also a number of changes happening downtown there, especially with the construction of the new hospital getting closer and closer to completion. I’m going to follow the progress there with a watchful eye, and hope everyone takes the time to lend their own personal expertise to their hometown races. We grew up there, we know the issues. Bilal Ahmed: This question does not entirely pertain to me because I am a Canadian citizen. However, I would advise people to register their dissent. I understand that voting sometimes appears to be a means of enabling a broken system, but I have watched enough news programs in the United States to know that most statistics are based on registered voters rather than eligible ones. The only way for your decision not to vote to have any effect on how party politics are conducted is to register before staying home on Election Day. I realize that some will argue that both parties are fundamentally flawed, but I have noticed that most objections to the American political process in this area of the country come from frustrations with the Democrat Party. They are labeled as spineless, cowardly, and unable to take a firm stance on issues such as Afghanistan. If I were able to vote in the 2010 election, I would register as a Democrat and remain at home in protest because of President Obama’s decision to escalate the war. I’d register in protest of the Afghan troop surge, as I believe it to be a political compromise that relegates bloodshed to an international theater rather than risking it in Congress. President Obama has decided to place life and human morality below American party politics, and in response I would register my disapproval. Matia Guardabascio: Yes. I will be voting in the election. I am voting because it is my civic duty to do so. I am voting because I want to make sure I did my part to help the country avoid the wrath of incompetent politicians. Voting in a state—Massachusetts— that is historically Democratic (except for Scott Brown), my voting day is less of a hot spot than most. Still, the gubernatorial race up here has been heated and I am anxious to cast my vote for a man who has done a good job as governor for the last four years. I am also anxious to remind Barney Frank that he will always win his district back home, in spite of the lies and propaganda spewing from the other side. And given the issues on the ballot this year (particularly the lowering of taxes), I feel obligated to go out and vote to make sure that the reasonable and responsible decision is made. Mike Stuzynski: I’m voting because, even though I have honestly lost faith in politics, a right un-exercised is a right lost. And my faith in politics will be restored only when everyone who voted for the bailout is no longer in office. Ask Alex G if he remembers how exciting it was last year when we found out that the House of Reps rejected it the first time. We had quite the celebration, and that was honestly the last time I really thought that the government was paying attention to my interests and wishes. The current health care law is a joke, but you’d only find that out if you read the entire thing (hint: it’s long). Listen to the media and they either criticize it for the wrong reasons (the asinine–but possibly true–notion that it’s an unconstitutional use of the commerce clause) or emphasize one or two talking points again and again. The bill failed to establish the goal of government run health care, but also did little to change the already highly structured and monopolistic private health insurance industry. Instead of using the natural force of private competition to drive costs of care down, the law allows insurance providers to divide up the market and keep prices artificially high. Because of all this, the law just does more harm than good. It’s like you sent your buddies out for beer, and they come back with a keg of O’Douls, and you still have to pay for it! Alex Draine: It was my intention to vote, but I will not be voting because the great state of New Jersey has failed to send me my absentee ballot in a timely fashion. Either that or the US postal service lost my application for an absentee ballot in its journey to Trenton. Dave Imbriaco: I plan on voting today and in every future election. Why? Because it’s the LEAST that a responsible citizen can do in a democracy. I know it’s a trite expression, but democracy is not a spectator sport. You can’t expect to have your interests represented in government if you don’t take the time one day a year to cast a ballot, and that is really the barest minimum that someone who considers themselves a responsible citizen can do. I would never expect for people to get as involved in politics as I do (doing what I do requires a bit of insanity), but I truly don’t understand why people don’t vote (well I do, I just tend to think their reasons for not doing so are stupid). It doesn’t matter if your choice is between a giant douche and a turd sandwich (credit: South Park), you still have a choice to make. If voting was always an easy thing to do, it wouldn’t be called a civic DUTY. You are lucky enough to be born in a country where you have the fucking chance to shape your own government, anyone who puts that down is an unappreciative asshole in my book. Moreso, it’s ESPECIALLY important that us young people get out to the polls. Do you all really expect our parents’ and grandparents’ to solve all the problems that they created? If the American youth doesn’t step up and assert themselves and demand their place in American politics, no one will give it to them and we’re fucked as a generation and a county. The day that I’m convinced that my vote doesn’t mean anything, you’ll find me on the front lines of the second revolution. Marlana Moore: I am going home to vote on Tuesday. My dad is running for council in my very small town, and he needs every vote he can get. I should have just voted by mail, but I forgot to get the ballot. I am not sure if my vote will matter all too much. In fact, I haven’t yet looked up the other candidates. The last two elections have been pretty big ones, and I guess I have seen the most aggressive campaigning in other states that are voting on senators. As a culture, we stress the gubernatorial and senatorial candidates so much more than local county positions even though that is the sphere where your vote has the most direct impact. But does anyone know who is on the Board of Freeholders, or even what they do? How about the County Sheriff? I don’t, and I think that I should. In Merchantville, I know that my vote will count, at least personally. I will probably continue to vote, just because I can. Rebecca Zandstein: I will be voting in the elections on November 2nd. I do not think I can complain about certain local legislation and actions being taken by our House representative if I did not at least vote. Voting is the minimum that is asked of us to do as out civic duty [as citizens]; voting is an easy way to go out and show that I care about what happens within my district. I do not approve of those who complain about budgets and taxes (cuts and increases) and free markets versus extensive restrictions on businesses when they did not even vote for a candidate who abides by their ideology. Furthermore, voting encourages education: one needs to know the core values behind each candidate and many times research is required for values that are not understood in depth. Educating oneself within society for the benefit of self and others is, in my opinion, a primary benefit to voting. Ben Kharakh: While I’m currently of the opinion that voting is less than the least that one can do, I also recognize that the government exists. A lot of times people get caught up in criticizing and theorizing without admitting that, hey, the world is a particular way right now. If you’re going to try to change anything in anyway, you’re better off taking the current state-of-affairs into consideration. So, I will vote. At first I was going to pick the candidates who seemed like they’d come closest to voting in the manner that I would vote, but they all fell short of that standard. And that’s based on websites designed with the purpose of making the candidates look good! So, rather than voting based on who I think will do the most good, I will vote based on who I think will do the least damage.

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