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Weinstein on Democracy; Isern on Regional Studies; News and Movies

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Today's Segments:
Jack Why Preview - American Democracy
In the next episode of "WHY? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life," UND philosophy professor Jack Weinstein joins Adam Lovett to delve into the state of American democracy. We explore political identity, the power of emotions, and how our mindset shapes our voting behavior.

Tom Isern - The Rise of Regional Studies
In 1950, Dean Ernst Giesecke envisioned the Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota Agricultural College, inspired by regional identity efforts in Texas and Oklahoma. Despite initial skepticism, the institute emerged as the oldest regional studies center on the Great Plains, significantly enhancing the academic prestige and pride of the institution through the collaborative efforts of a diverse group of faculty members.

Dave Thompson's News Review
News Director Dave Thompson delivers a comprehensive review of the latest news, providing sharp insights and in-depth analysis.

Matt Olien Movie Review
Prairie Public's movie critic Matt Olien reviews Woody Allen's "Coup de Chance," offering a compelling critique of the film's themes and performances.

Transcript of interview with Jack Russell Weinstein:

Ashley Thornberg

What is democracy in its purest form?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Well, I'm going to start with an even easier question, which is how do you answer that question? How do you talk about it? Because we can't have the conversation without stepping away from the things that make us angry.

We can't have an answer to that question that says democracy is a system that will elect Donald Trump or democracy is a system that won't elect Donald Trump. We have to ask what the core values of democracy is. So what is a democracy?

A democracy is a political system that allows individuals to be equal, self-governing and authors of the laws that they find themselves in. In other words, democracy is a system that lets individuals interact to be themselves and to be as much of themselves as the people around them.

Ashley Thornberg

And you and your guests distinguish a little bit between American democracy and other forms of democracy. Why?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

It's very hard to talk about democracy without comparing it, whether you're comparing it to an ideal democracy that like someone like Plato would have talked about, or whether it's just how does American democracy compare to Belgium's democracy or Mexico's democracy? It's very hard to avoid that comparison. Also, it's really useful to remember that everything we decide upon was a choice.

And so the founders chose one system over another. The founders chose one kind of constitution over another. We, when we decide on policies, choose one position over another.

We can't talk about evaluating or ultimately healing the American democracy until we recognize that we play a role in choosing and that we are responsible, not necessarily for the outcome, but for how much freedom we have to find a desired outcome.

Ashley Thornberg

Your guest is Adam Lovett. He is a lecturer at Australian Catholic University and the author of Democratic Failures and the Ethics of Democracy. He's also studied in London.

Why are you talking to someone who's not American about this?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

There's a couple good reasons to talk to somebody who's outside the system, independent of whether or not the person has expertise or not. When you are outside of a political conflict, you can see things about the political conflict that people inside don't see. When you are evaluating something as a whole, it's important not to get trapped into the parts.

And I think, as you mentioned in introducing this segment, anyone who is investigating American democracy right now is going to be colored by their loyalties and colored by their fears. And they're going to direct the conversation, at least subconsciously, to a conclusion that justifies their position. So sometimes, when the conflict is tremendously intimate, having someone who doesn't have a horse in the race is the best way to get past the triggering moments and get to the core of the issue.

Ashley Thornberg

You and your guest spend a great deal of time talking about identity. What's the difference, Jack, between how we think political identity is formed and how it's actually formed?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

We are educated about the democratic process incorrectly in school. We are taught that what you're supposed to do is you're supposed to examine yourself to figure out what your position is on controversial issues like abortion or gun control or social security or things like that, and then find the party that matches your position best. Then you become a member of that party.

That's what we're taught happens, but that's not actually what happens. What actually happens is we are raised in a context in which our parents and our community identify with a particular party, and we start to think of ourselves as a member of that party first. My mom is a Republican, therefore I'm a Republican.

My dad is a Republican, therefore I'm a Republican. My neighbors are Democrats, therefore I want to be Democrats. Now, in college or around your late teens and early 20s, we might rebel or learn things and change our position, but even so we then identify ourselves as a Democrat or a Republican first, and then we want to act out that for other people.

We want to ask not what issue, what position on an issue do I believe, we ask what does it mean to be a good Republican? How do I tell other people I'm a good Republican? What would a good Republican vote for?

Same for the Democrats or independents or things like that. There are people who absolutely identify as independents. They don't want to be bound by the traditional parties, so they're going to act out their independence, and so your identity as a member of the party is so fundamental that it tells you whether you are pro-choice.

It tells you whether you are a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. The identity comes first. When did that start happening?

Fairly recently. When the idea of democracy first came up, was floated in the classical Greek world, the idea was that the best method of being a human, the best role a human can be in is citizen, that that is the highest good a human being can accomplish, and so a person would see themselves as an Athenian as opposed to a political party member or a Syracusean or a Spartan as opposed to the party member. They were a member of the state first.

In the 18th century, when the Constitution is being written, when Thomas Jefferson is figuring out the foundational philosophies, when he's arguing with Madison, there was still this notion that citizenship was a high ideal to strive for, but they also understood that a democracy is governed by ordinary people, farmers and shopkeepers and landowners and workers and all these people who are going to have to make decisions that they don't truly understand.

So they created a party system to act as a shortcut for people to say, well, I don't really understand banking regulation, but I know that I'm a federalist, so I'm going to choose that party. The further away we went from having the ideal of citizenship, the more we had to fill that void with something, and especially since the 1960s and 70s, we have filled that void with these identities that we all know very well, whether it's whiteness or blackness or whether it's your religious point of view, whether you're a Catholic or a Buddhist or whether you think of yourself as a libertarian or something like that. These notions of identity eclipse our political identity because they are what we want to be judged by, and that's how we vote because voting is first and foremost for us, a performance to show other people what we believe in and who we are.

Ashley Thornberg

Is it possible to separate the emotional reaction to a specific policy from the policy itself and the identity that we form around the emotional reaction?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

It's possible, but it's difficult, and ironically, the more important the issue is to us, the harder it is to separate the emotional content. I mean, if someone is immersed in a debate about what kind of cutaway on the sidewalk do we want, ramps or some other option that I don't even know what it is, I'm not going to care that much, but if I were in a wheelchair, if I loved someone in a wheelchair, if I had to deal with crutches every day, if my very existence every day depended on this kind of cutaway on a sidewalk, it would become really important to me and I would get upset anytime I thought someone was taking away my freedom and my ability to move myself from one place or another. If I care really strongly about abortion, if I care really strongly about gun control, it's very, very hard to separate that emotionality.

In fact, I've taught Introduction to Ethics for about 25 years, and when I did the final assignment where people could choose their own papers, I always said you could do anything you want, but you can't talk about abortion and you can't talk about marijuana legalization because those two sets of papers were always horrible because students couldn't step aside and look at it from a philosophical point of view.

What Y Radio was trying to do with this episode and what philosophers are trying to do in general is figure out a way to talk about these deep-seated issues without triggering that emotional reaction. So instead of talking about affirmative action per se, we can talk about what equality means. Instead of talking about the Second Amendment and gun control per se, we can ask what does it mean to govern oneself.

We can step away and ask these abstract philosophical questions and hope that investigating those tells us more about our beliefs and more about our convictions and gives us more choice on how to choose. Because the thing is, if we are trapped by our identity, then one has to question how much freedom we have to vote in the first place. If I can only think of myself as X, Y, or Z, if I can only think of myself as a Democrat or a Republican, then I'm always going to vote that way and I'm less free than if I have a philosophical point of view where I can really examine things, I wouldn't say objectively, but closer to objectively than I would get otherwise.

Ashley Thornberg

That's an interesting take on freedom that doesn't seem to square with current notions of freedom. Am I oversimplifying in saying that freedom sort of seems to mean that I should be able to do whatever I want?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

It is an excellent question and it is something that I spent an entire semester talking about in one of my classes. What is the definition of freedom? I'll give a very quick example.

I grew up, as our listeners know, in New York City where people are pretty much free to do whatever they want. No one will pay attention to you at all, but there's high crime and hostility and anger. I lived for a while in Vienna, Austria in the 90s and there people were very critical and judgy and were always paying attention to everyone else, but I could walk home at two in the morning, listen to my then Walkman, because it was the 90s, and carrying my guitar and I knew I wouldn't be mugged.

I knew I wouldn't be hit in the head. Women could walk in the street and feel 100% safe where they don't in many neighborhoods in New York City or, frankly, in certain parts of North Dakota. The question is, are you freer if you can do whatever you want or are you freer if you're safe from violence and molestation?

What does freedom mean? Does freedom mean do anything you feel like without consequences? That's the American conception of freedom.

Or does freedom mean you are safe enough and secure enough that you can realize who you are and act out who you are without getting, again, hit on the head? That's a much more European conception of freedom. So what freedom is, is incredibly complicated and one of the ways that philosophers have tried to sort of make sense of that is by looking at both the rational or logical components of freedom and the emotional or intimate elements of freedom and figuring out how to balance logic and emotion to get something that fully represents who we are so that we can act the way that we want in accordance with the values that we hold dear.

Ashley Thornberg

Is it helpful to talk about concepts like a democracy and freedom in this sort of ideal state when we are dealing with the fact that humans are quite fallible and we manage to take things out of their perfect state pretty quickly?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

That's also a really good question and it's something that has played philosophy for 2,000 years. Are you doing ideal theory? In other words, are you comparing things to an ideal?

Are you doing non-ideal theory, which is you're looking at how the world really is? And I think that there's two sides of that coin. The first is looking at something as an ideal really helps us clarify our values.

It really helps us ask what's truly important to us and again, it helps us step outside our squabbles to get a sense of what we believe and what other people believe so that we can approach the conversation in a more informed and self-aware way. But at the same time, we don't want, and the expression goes, we don't want perfection to be the enemy of the good. And what that means is when it comes time to make decisions, we can't say we're only going to vote for the perfect answer.

We're only going to choose the perfect system because sometimes things can get a little bit better. Sometimes things have to go step by step by step by step in order to progress into something that we want. So if you have an ideal, and this is what revolutionaries and actually reactionaries do, but what revolutionaries do, they say here's this perfect world.

We're going to destroy the system all at once and give birth to this perfect system. We know that does not have a long history of being successful. What we want instead is to have a goal in mind and take short steps along the way.

You can't start running a marathon. You have to run for a long time before you start running 5Ks and 10Ks and then half marathons. The perfect can't be enemy of the good.

You have to be able to act even if you don't achieve that ideal.

Ashley Thornberg

It's occurring to me in this conversation that so much of what you deal with as a philosopher is what people in sort of the health and wellness end of things refer to as something called a scarcity mindset and an abundance mindset. Scarcity is this pattern that you can only focus on a lack. Is it possible that we are going into voting booths with a scarcity mindset or an abundance mindset and that alone is what's actually impacting our ability to make decisions whether it's for ourselves or for a more collective society?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

If we take those terms literally, then that is absolutely what we're doing. What I mean by that is politics is the process of allocating scarce goods. There isn't enough land for everyone to have all the land they want.

There aren't enough cookies for everyone to have all the cookies. There isn't enough penicillin for everyone to have all the penicillin they want. We have to decide who gets what and how much because scarcity requires that we make decisions, that we choose between who benefits from the public financing or who benefits from the distribution of electric cars or what have you.

On the one hand, politics is all about managing scarcity. If there was enough for everyone to have everything they want, we wouldn't have to make any decisions. At the same time, there is a discussion to be had about what it means to vote as a citizen in a democracy.

On the American system, we are presumed to vote for what we want, what best serves our self-interest, and we are supposed to think of ourselves and the people who are most important to us in the ballot box. This is the legacy, by the way, of John Locke, if anyone is keeping score at home. In the French system, for example, which is the legacy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, another democratic thinker, what the French, in a Republican mindset—and I don't mean the Democrat-Republican, I mean the political system called Republicanism—in a Republican mindset, you're supposed to walk into a voting booth and ask, what is best for everybody?

Not what is best for me, but what is best for the community as a whole? So if you take your scarcity versus abundance framework, you can see that in many regards, Americans very much approach with a scarcity mindset, and the French and European model of democracy is more focused on an abundance. Ultimately, I think if we're really going to take America seriously and the ideal of America seriously, we have to ask, is freedom something that is scarce, or is freedom that is something we can make abundant?

Or in other words, can everyone be free at the same time, or does freedom necessitate that some people are free and other peoples are not because there is a limited amount of freedom to go around? And I actually think that that is what divides Republicans and Democrats to a large extent, at the core, their attitudes about freedom and how much freedom there is to go around.

Ashley Thornberg

You know, Jack, at one point in your introduction to this show, you talk about specifically not wanting to talk about the current state of the American political system and not wanting to talk about who's in office and who's running for office. And if you identify as a Democrat or a Republican and try to step aside and just think philosophically, and you say to the listener to be both curious and courageous, why put those two words together? Why is it an act of courage to be curious?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

One of the things that doesn't get talked about enough when we're talking about democracy is that freedom is terrifying. That to truly be free is to open ourselves up to two different things. The first is responsibility.

If I am absolutely free, then I am the only one responsible for what happens. And I can't predict what happens because life is what happens when you're making other plans. You don't know if you're going to get hit by a car tomorrow or if you're going to win a million dollars.

You just don't know. And so freedom, when you take it seriously, is amongst the most terrifying things there is. Now, imagine turning that freedom inward or towards your ideas.

What if it turns out that you're wrong about something? What if it turns out that you are a bad person? What if it turns out that you've been helping people, educating people, leading people astray your whole life when you were trying to help them?

What if your values turn out to be evil rather than good? When you're genuinely curious, you have to ask all these questions. You have to look at yourself in the mirror.

You have to look at the things that you hold most dear and have the courage to say, maybe I'm not going to like what I find, but I have to do it anyway. I think about how horrible it must be to be a parent of someone who goes into a school and commits mass murder. How awful must it be to look at someone you love and see that they've caused so much suffering and so much pain?

First of all, how do you still love someone who has done that? Second, how do you hold the responsibilities on your shoulder that because you are the parent, somehow you are accountable for this school shooting and the death of 10, 20, 50 different people? Parenting is terrifying in much the same way freedom is terrifying because you are accountable and yet you are out of control at the same time.

I think that curiosity and courage are complementary. You have to be curious if you want to be courageous, but you have to be courageous if you want to be curious.

NOTE: The Main Street team uses Turboscribe.ai to generate transcripts of some interviews. The official record is the audio of the show.