Barack Obama: His Presidency

Hi everyone!
Teague and I started a podcast called the Veil of Ignorance. In this episode, we discussed the presidency of Barack Obama. Despite the fact that Obama has been the most important president in our lives (my generation), our political discourse has been wholly consumed by reactions to Donald Trump. We hope this makes us recognize the salience of Obama’s presidency.
Our next episode will cover imperialism and colonialism. There will be a few guests to discuss these issues with us. This episode on imperialism and colonialism will be recorded and posted two weeks later.
Hope you enjoyed this episode and, if you did, please subscribe to our channel! There will be more episodes like this in the future!


The piano mimics “Over 3000 dead, 6000 injured,” in 11/8; the tuba imitates “These fucking rag heads, they hate us.” in 9/8; hence, 9-11. The second part includes a reversal of the piano and a random displacement of the tuba melody. This mirrors the way in which we experience our grief and bigotry — grief is retrospectively experienced; bigotry randomly sprouts from every corner of this country.

This piece was inspired by the thought of whether death and birth can occur simultaneously. I believe 9-11 marked the death of thousands and the birth of the recent bigotry against Muslims.

John Cage and the philosophy of music

The aesthetician Susan Sontag claims that Cage’s attempt to erase authorial intent, in one sense, allowed him to erase meaning altogether. This is also reflected in Cage’s writings:

“New music: new listening. Not an attemp to understand something that is being said, for if something were being said, the sounds would be given the shapes of words. ust attention to the activity of sounds.” 

— Cage, Experimental Music: Doctrine, p. 10

But, I don’t believe this to be case. The cultural and historical context of Cage’s works show that they are trying to dissolve the distinction between art and sound. Such contexts allow sounds to refer to themselves, thereby giving them meaning and intentionality.

Plus, one could consider Heidegger’s argument that we do not hear pure sounds:

“What we first hear is never noises or complexes of sounds, but the creaking wagon, the motor-cycle. We hear the column on the march, the north wind, the woodpecker tapping, the fire crackling. It requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to hear a pure noise…Likewise, when we are explicitly hearing the discourse of another, we proximally understand what is said, or — to put it more exactly — we’re already with him, in advance alongside the entity which the discourse is about… Even in cases where the speech is indistinct or in a foreign language, what we proximally hear is unintelligible words, and not a multiplicity of tone-date.”

— Being and Time, 163

This means that even the sounds we encounter in ordinary life are never meaningless, pure sounds.

All in all, I admire Cage’s attempt to bring ordinary sounds to the forefront of Western music. I think he exemplifies Heidegger’s claim that art makes the conflict between World and Earth conspicuous. For Heidegger, World is the human environment in which we lead our lives. It includes our tools, houses, values, and so on; in other words, it is the habitat of Dasein. On the other hand, Earth is the natural setting of World; the ground on which it stands and the sources of raw materials for our artefacts. Through his illustration of ordinary sounds, Cage makes apparent the rift between World and Earth: musical sounds vs. pure noise. Interestingly, Cage’s take on this conflict uncovers a naked truth, i.e., the attempt to erase intentionality paves the way for a deeper unconcealment of intentionality and Dasein. 

Being and Time, Martin Heidegger

The Origin of the Work of Art, Martin Heidegger

Cage and Philosophy, Noël Carroll

Donald Trump is not a liar

Donald Trump is not a liar; he’s a bullshitter. There is a fine difference. The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt believed the difference between lies and bullshit is that lies are necessarily false; on the other hand, bullshit may happen to be true or false. In essence, a lie is a conscious act of deception, whereas a bullshit entails an indifference to how things really are. In order to lie, one has to implicitly acknowledge the existence of the truth — and then deceive another of not believing in such truth. However, a bullshitter does not care whether there exists a truth or a falsity. For example, I can bullshit a test by writing a bullshit answer. It doesn’t matter to me whether the answer is true or false. I just need to write some bullshit. If it happens to be true, I get a good grade. If it happens to be false, it doesn’t matter because I never bothered studying for the test to begin with.

Nietzsche believed that foregoing objective truth would be life-affirming. JL Mackie argued that disbelief in objective truth regarding morality would not be catastrophic. Some, however, worried that it could be very dangerous. If there is no objective morality, then why be moral? If there is no objective truth, then how do I make sense of things? In general, I think it is not so dangerous for people to not believe in objective truth regarding morality or the external world. We are hard-wired to care about certain values and facts; and I doubt that we would stop caring about them even if it turned out to be the case that they were not objective. I think this is especially true regarding morality. For instance, Foucault or Nietzsche still argued for certain virtues despite their skepticism of objectivity. The problem isn’t anti-realism. The problem is bullshit — antipathy towards objectivity. Trump is, in this sense, a bullshitter. He doesn’t care whether what he says is true or false. He spouts a ton of lies, but they are not calculated. They are not conscious acts of deception. It doesn’t matter to him whether his statements are true or false. A liar would try to show how his lie is the truth; Trump doesn’t provide any evidence. As we have seen, such bullshit has been extremely pernicious. Lies require effort and responsibility; one has to support them. Bullshit does not, and it can easily destroy a society when wielded by the powerful. Bullshit is worse than the nightmares of a postmodern world reigned by Nietzsche and Foucault, once feared by many. Anti-realism is not the problem; bullshit is.

Against the Electoral College

I think the argument that the Electoral College ensures candidates to not neglect smaller states is self-defeating, because the Electoral College allows its electorates to vote against the will of these small states. Plus, the Electoral College process doesn’t actually take into account the will of these small states — or any state — even if the electors were faithful. It is a winner-takes-all system that ignores millions of conservative voters in states like California or New York. So, in essence, the Electoral College only takes into account the majority (which is usually by a small margin like 50 or 60%) of a given state. It doesn’t matter whether 40-50% of the population voted otherwise.

Many people argue that we need to, more or less, equally weigh the votes of smaller states, because we need to listen to every culture in the United States. This is, again, self-defeating, because the Electoral College ignores the culture of each state. The culture of a state is a hodge-podge of different political beliefs, yet this process only listens to one voice. It’s especially ironic that many who argue in favor of the Electoral College support Voter ID laws that ignore 11% of US citizens that do not own government-issued photo identification — which disproportionately affects African Americans, 25% of whom do not own a government-issued photo ID. If one really believes that our leigslators must represent every culture in this country, then they cannot possibly support the Electoral College which cherry-picks which culture to represent and has the potential to disobey the will of the people.

Cultural Appropriation: Motoko Kusanagi is White?

In a recent article from the New Republic, Ryu Spaeth makes the case that it is fine to cast Scarlett Johansson, a white female, as Motoko Kusanagi, a robot detective in future Tokyo.

Cultural appropriation, as described by the cultural and racial theorist George Lipsitz, can exist for both the majority and the minority. It does not necessarily yield negative results as we often assume. Rather, it is a concept that reminds us to be cautious when the majority appropriates the minority’s culture, because it can often happen in a way that enforces negative stereotypes against minorities — e.g., that they are violent or servile or that they do not have a voice to represent their own culture — and entrenches existing power relations.

However, I think our usage of the term has evolved to mean only such negative instances — partly, because theorists have primarily focused on such usages. If you talk to someone about cultural appropriation, they are not going to mention Japanese animation, which often appropriates American culture; they will most likely mention black face or casting a white actor to play Mulan. So this is why I define cultural appropriation as an instance in which a dominant culture appropriates a minority culture; and this is why I use cultural cross-pollination to describe instances in which a culture benefits from using elements from another culture. In other words, cultural appropriation describes power relations; cultural cross-pollination describes fruitful interactions between cultures. I think such a demarcation will clear up our conceptual space and prevent unnecessary confusions.

One may object that the distinction between cultural cross-pollination and cultural appropriation is often blurry — samba and bossa nova are played by those who trace their ancestral roots back to European colonialists, Native Americans, and African slaves. So if such a person is a few percentages more European and plays samba, they are cultural appropriators? There is no clear way to tell whether this is an instance of cultural apporpriation. But we can tell that this is an instance of cultural cross-pollination. The purpose of the demarcation isn’t to sufficiently describe every exchange between cultures; rather, it is to clear up the conceptual space and prevent unnecessary confusions. The demarcation allows us to make sense of a cultural product that is both cultural cross-pollination and cultural appropriation — for example, the Rolling Stones. We celebrate their music, yet recognize the fact that they appropriated black artists like Muddy Waters. This is quite an intuitive answer, but the debate we often see on cultural appropriation prevents us from validating such intuitions. It, instead, insists that it is either cultural appropriation or cultural cross-pollination. Why not both? Clarifying such intuitions and preventing such unnecessary conflicts is the purpose of such a demarcation — and I believe that it is successful.