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Modern Politics


The first section of our course is devoted to examining the character of the Modern Nation-state. To this end, I will begin by drawing a  connection between two qualities we all share in common:  “modernity” and “liberalism.” At this early point in the semester, we will deal with several abstract concepts.  Once we begin to consider the origins and evolution of these concepts, these abstractions will become real to you.

My personal guarantee:  By the end of this course, you will see how my abstractions fit together into one neat and tidy, dynamic story.  First, we need to agree about the meaning of the terms we use.

1. LECTURE:  Wednesday August 23

Reflections on the evolution of political institutions: The making of the Modern Nation-state and the indeterminate nature of human history.

Today’s Assumption: The Modern Nation-State is distinguished by its capacity to bring together different peoples and contending identities.  This state form represents a novel way of organizing human beings.  To be clear, not all states are NATION-STATES.  And, not all peoples want to come together.  Sometimes, things just don’t work out, especially in politics.  Just look at the disastrous circumstances our disastrous experiments in nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Gould’s Theory of Punctuated Equilibrium

Assignment:  Watch the video below and reflect upon the issue of historical change which I address in today’s class.  Also, look ahead to your Friday discussion section.  NOTE:  you have reading assignments and a short essay which you must turn in at the beginning of your section.

The nature of historical change.  Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould talks about the approach to studying change which I happen to find totally convincing—the theory of evolution.  Watch the first 6 minutes of this stimulating video: LISTEN  As you listen to Gould, ask yourself how his arguments about human evolution, “punctuated equilibrium” (what does this concept mean?), and the extinction of dinosaurs might be applied to the evolution of political ideas and institutions.

2. DISCUSSION SECTION:  Friday, August 25

American Democracy in Crisis: What does it mean to be a real American”

What does it mean to be a real American? How do we decide who belongs in the United States? How do we decide who does not? Assuming you are an American citizen, how did you acquire this title? 

Trigger Warning for Liberals!  Most of these readings come from conservative sites and/or conservative writers:

Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” on America’s Statue of Liberty:  PRINT AND READ

See the original HERE

Bruce Springsteen, “American Land” PRINT AND READ

Edward Hudgins, “What is an American?” (Cato Institute) PRINT AND READ

“Husband of Trump Supporter Deported to Mexico” (Breitbart News) PRINT AND READ

Christopher Manion, “The Catholic Bishops and Immigration Reform” (Crisis Magazine): PRINT AND READ

Samuel Huntington, “The Hispanic Challenge” (Foreign Policy): PRINT AND READ

This is the most important article in the group since Huntington was a preeminent political scientist.  Note his incredible prediction on 14.

“New York Police Officers Rally in support of Colin Kaepernick” PRINT AND READ

Colin Kaepernick (right) cannot find a job, but Blain Gabbert (left) can

What is an American Car? READ

Warren Buffett’s “Ovarian Factor” and You:  READ

Assignment: Write a one-paragraph (no more!) response to the following question:  What is the single, most important requirement for being a “true American.”  You may only choose one requirement.  The point of your paragraph should be to identify this requirement and persuade the reader why it is the single, most important factor?

Your response should be typed and double-spaced (12 point).  We will use this format for discussion-section paragraphs throughout the semester.  Make sure your bring your paragraphs to your discussion.  Your TAs may want to work out other arrangements for the deadlines of your paragraphs after the first week of class.

3. LECTURE:  Monday, August 28

Reflections on what it means for citizens of the United States to live in modern times.

Today’s Assumption:  We are all Modern.  By this statement, I mean that we share conceptions of truth and ideas about how to organize our lives which differ fundamentally from those held by other societies in the world.

Jen Christensen, “The Most Accurate Clock in the World is Redefining the Second” READ

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451.  Start reading this book now and finish it as soon as possible. What would it be like to live in a world where humans were deprived of the capacity to pursue facts?

An essential part of being modern is agreement on facts.  As a result of our capacity to reason, we pursue the truth through the scientific method (even though we don’t always recognize that this is what we are doing).  Faith is different.  It may be just as true as factual knowledge, but its claims are not (normally) empirically verifiable.  Throughout much of its history, the Catholic Church has maintained that there is no contradiction between reason and faith—they are simply different forms of knowing.

4. LECTURE:  Wednesday, August 30

Reflections on a political invention, the Liberal Nation-stateLiberalism is a specific way in which human beings have been organized in modern times. However, it is not the only expression of modern politics. Others forms include FASCISM and LENINISM. 

Today’s Assumption:  We are all Liberals.  (Sorry, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Scott Walker, but it’s true.)  However, this no cause for alarm.  In making this claim, I do not mean that we are “liberals” in the politically-charged sense that is thrown around bvy American politicians.  Rather, I am referring to classical Liberalism, a conception of political order that was invented (not discovered) by people  like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill.

Assignment:  Read Chapter II, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” in John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1869):  PRINT AND READ

Then, listen to musician Frank Zappa talk about freedom of speech HERE  Do you agree with Mr. Zappa?  If not, where do we draw the line on what constitutes free speech in a LIBERAL society?  Or should there be a dividing line at all?

The Nazis march on Charlottesville:

Anthony Romero, ACLU Executive Director, “Equality, Justice and the First Amendment” PRINT AND READ

K-Sue Park, “The ACLU needs to rethink Free Speech” PRINT AND READ

Not at all a new issue: “Swastika war’ in Skokie” READ

5. DISCUSSION SECTION:  Friday, September 1

American Democracy in Crisis: Part II  How much should we limit free speech?

One-Paragraph Assignment:  If one must define an acceptable boundary between justifiable speech and intolerable speech in a democracy, can it be done?

For this assignment, I do not want you to focus on whether demonstrations are safe or not. That is a question of policy. Rather, please think about the broader question of what kinds of speech are acceptable–or unacceptable–in a free, liberal-democratic society.


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