About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Beer, baseball and philosophy

“Who's defining right and wrong?” “It's society, dude.” I caught this snippet of conversation while riding on the Long Island Rail Road, back from campus to Brooklyn, where I live. The two men in their 40s who exchanged this pearl of wisdom where going to see a Yankee game, and had already gotten to their fourth beer – each (I counted).

Their conversation soon drifted away from philosophy and into Seinfield, The Office, and other tv shows, and was pretty darn interesting. Soon after the comment on morality, one of them said he normally watches The Daily Show, the Colbert Report and Bill Maher. Wow, I was impressed. The other guy commented that Jon Stewart is like Geraldo, to which the first one immediately rebutted that they are not at all comparable, because, you see, Geraldo is actually a pseudo-intellectual – he actually used that very word.

OK, what is wrong with this picture, I began to ask myself, now completely absorbed by my eavesdropping activity and no longer working on editing a graduate student's paper? If the average American can carry on this sort of conversation, how is it that this nation has managed to put Bush and his gang in power, twice? (Well, almost, considering that W. did steal the first election; still, he got close enough to get away with a little bit of fraud and arbitrary decisions by his brother and his father's Supreme Court appointees.)

And yet this is the quintessential state of contradiction that afflicts the United States of America at the dawn of the 21st century. It's a nation made half of anti-intellectuals who still think Darwin's theory of evolution is not good science on the one hand, and millions who revel in the sophisticated, decidedly intellectual antics of Stewart, Colbert and Maher (together with Al Franken, a liberal dream team if there ever was one). This bizarre state of affairs may be due to the culture wars, the Red vs. Blue states thing, the classic divide between urban and countryside populations. Whatever it is, it's directly affecting the lives of millions in this country and of literally billions worldwide. But if a couple of beer-drinking, train-riding Yankee fans can have the sort of conversation I just overheard, man, there's still hope for this country. By the way, the Yankees got rained out tonight, they'll have a second chance tomorrow...


  1. Unfortunately, not all of the country benefits from such open minded thinking. In the South, W for President bumperstickers and Jesus fish still prevail. It is almost impossible to have an informed discussion about evolution without someone bringing up why it is false and intelligent design or creationism should be taught instead. The sheer amount of people who don't even know what evolution is or have a completely false notion is simply astounding (Way to go public school). Not to mention the sole arguments seem to be "I didn't come from no damn monkey" or "My preacher told me..." Infuriating.

  2. MP, willie said it. You should take an extended roadtrip through the USA: there are incomprehensibly vast tracts of entrenched ignorance out here. If you're within 100 miles of public transport that includes a train system, you're nowhere near that.

  3. James,

    I know, I lived in Knoxville, TN for nine years! Why on earth do you think I moved to New York City? :)

  4. James, I'm in the middle of the bible belt, far from any type of public transportation system involving trains, subways, or metros. Fortunately, not for much longer.

  5. Don't forget that the gray is usually larger than most people give it credit for. Meaning, there are people like myself (which I am sure you guys consider anti-intellectual), that feel I.D. may be true and also enjoy watching Stewart and Colbert(don't always agree, but enjoy them both), although I can't stand Bill Maher.
    Although belief systems are different between urban and country side populations the actual intelligence doesn't change. I come from the North East (outside Boston). Almost every single human here believes beyond a doubt that Evolution is fact. Very very rarely does anyone I talk to, Know the first thing about it. Is that better than believing in I.D.? It is mearly association with science. Poeple just assume that since guys like Massimo are scientist (they already went to school for years and years) they must be right.
    Massimo, If you asked those two yankee fans if evolution is true. I will bet my next pay check against yours that they will say yes. Ask them how Natural selection works is or what Genetic drift is and they will give you a blank stare.
    Thus, I do believe that the processes of evolution should be taught in school in far more detail than it is. So that at least people that want to believe in evolution will know why, and people that feel something is missing in the processes ability to bring about radical change over time can find the missing answers, whether it be evolution or I.D.

  6. Jim,

    Excellent point. Agreeing with me isn't the same as being smart, although I am always tempted to think it is.

    A friend used to say that oppinions are like navels. Everyone has one. I should have replied, "No, oppinions are like bank accounts. Most people have them, but they are not all of equal value."

    I teach biology, and most kids either don't know what evolution is at all or they think "it's that we came from monkeys." When I teach evolution and natural selection, I never mention human evolution. That avoids most of the emotional controversy.

    Cop out? Yes, but we have a school board that wanted to give students Bibles.


  7. I ride the Long Island Rail Road to work five days a week, and I can say without reservation that it is not representative of the best that humanity, or the United States for that matter, has to offer.

    People are rude and self absorbed. You get these jerks who sit on the side of the train that has two seats per row, the jerk sitting in the aisle seat, and his or her baggage occuyping the window seat. It's like, hey buddy, why don't you put your stuff in the overhead rack and sit in the window seat to make life a little easier for the passengers who board the train at the next stop. Then you have the people who try to make the train their own personal office, with their lap tops plopped on their laps, again, seated in the aisle seat. When you ask if you can cut in, they almost always get up and make you take the window seat instead of just sliding over to the window seat themselves.

    Then, there are the litter bugs. For the most part, they are men between the ages of 35 and 55, who likely have children of their own and probably harangue them constantly about cleaning their rooms. And yet these guys think nothing about leaving their coffee cups and beer cans on the floor of the train. By the end of the day, a LIRR car looks like Delta House on wheels.


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