Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013

Homer Simpson Ponders Politics

By David Luhrssen
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  The title of the book is misleading. Homer Simpson Ponders Politics (University Press of Kentucky) isn’t about the world according to Matt Groening, but ranges widely, hooking-up particular films, television shows, graphic novels and genres with philosophers and their ideas. True, one of the essays is titled “Aristotle’s Politics and the Virtues of Springfield: Community, Education, and Friendship in the The Simpsons”: the author, UW-LaCrosse political science professor Timothy M. Dale, find that despite the corruptibility of the town’s institutions and the stupidity of its citizens, “the characters learn they can depend on one another, and the family and the city find order through the redemption that is in place by the end of every episode.” The common good is ultimately preserved, Dale believes, and Aristotle would have approved.

But that’s all we hear of Bart and Company. “One doesn’t often hear the names Plato and George Lucas in the same sentence,” UW-Waukesha philosophy professor Dean A. Kowalski acknowledges in “A Tale of Two Republics: Plato, Palpatine, and Politics.” Whether or not the two are usually kept apart with good reason, it’s fun to find the philosopher’s insights borne out by the Star Wars’ plotline. The Galactic Republic is too sprawling and diverse to maintain unity of purpose—the common good of which Plato’s pupil Aristotle spoke. Democracy can be a fragile edifice, subject to manipulation by the unscrupulous; Plato was skeptical, fearing democracy could descend into disorder, mediocrity (Jar Jar Binks for Senate?) and rule by someone posing as the people’s champion. Enter Palpatine.

One of the most interesting essays, by UW-Fox Valley’s S. Evan Kreider, explores basic ethical principles in terms of the super anti-heroes of Alan Moore’s graphic novel-turned-motion picture, Watchmen. In “Who Watches the Watchmen?” Kreider explores categories of ethical philosophy as embodied by the curmudgeonly Rorschach, the hubristic Ozymandias and the supremely aloof Dr. Manhattan. Rorschach represents the “No Exceptions” absolutist imperative of Immanuel Kant; Ozymandias is an “Ends Justify the Means” Utilitarian, arguing that millions must die so that a larger number can live. Kreider is less convincing in trying to cast Dr. Manhattan as a figure that walks “the careful line…around which rights-based democracies are built.” Maybe he earns the distinction because he gives more thought to the consequence of actions than his peers.

Wisconsin academics are heavily represented in Homer Simpson Ponders Politics. The editors are Timothy M. Dale, who we met in his essay on the Aristotelian virtues of “The Simpsons,” and UW-Waukesha’s Joseph J. Foy.

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