Commonplace Book 1

“Don’t you know that only fools are satisfied? Dream on, but don’t imagine they’ll all come true” – Billy Joel

What poetically profound words! Everyday my friends and I cap the evening with a listen to Billy Joel. Over the past two weeks Vienna has been the crowd favorite. Perhaps it’s the realization that our ambitious academic and professional goals are to be indelibly determined in the next upcoming years that this song has become so appealing. Surely, that’s the case for me. Either way, these two lines have proven inescapable for me. I find myself grappling with their seemingly contradictory claims as I fall asleep most nights. How can Billy call us fools for pursuing dreams that even he admits may never come true? This seeming mutual exclusivity perplexed me for the better part of the last two weeks. Recently, however, I think I figured out Billy’s blatant hypocrisy. This apparent dichotomy between two innate and incredibly human “forces” (always striving for more and being content when goals are not achieved), it seems, is entirely contrived. Stylistically, posing the first line as a question seems to indicate this, as if Billy is questioning what should be common knowledge and exposing it superficiality. Instead, Billy seems to be saying that you can set lofty goals to fuel your ambition while simultaneously accepting the current state of your position. In other words, if you view your dreams singularly, and are persistent and realistic in trying to achieve them, then you can close the artificial schism between both “forces.” It’s all about balancing expectations and results. Realize that and you’ll realize Vienna waits for you. 

Commonplace Book 2

Yesterday I took an Uber to Foggy Bottom to meet a friend of mine from Manhattan who is attending George Washington University. Waiting on the corner of 30th and M Street, a luxurious white Mercedes Benz skirted to a stop in front of me. Right then I knew this wasn’t going to be the typical Uber ride I was accustomed to. After settling down in the back row, I asked the customary question that any Uber user is familiar with. “How long have you been driving Uber?” I figured I would receive a half-assed response, one that suggested he was just as disinterested in forcing a conversation as I was. I assumed wrong. Muffled by his mask, I was quickly bombarded with an enthusiastic, but unintelligible response. As he continued talking, (he was uninterruptible) I gradually began to make sense of his words. But even though he became more coherent, I grew ever the more confused. 

“I graduated from Wharton, worked with the Pennsylvania and Virginia Government for a few years, and then served in the Pakistani Government as a Minister of Investment.” Did I just hear that correctly. Immediately crossing my mind: why the hell is this guy driving me around DC.? I guess he can read minds because before he even replenished his breath he told me he was “running for Congress in 2022 and campaigning through Uber.” My initial instinct was disbelief. This must have been a joke, albeit a well orchestrated and researched one. A quick Google search looking for “Omar Ghuman” however proved this instinct wrong. Omar was legit! And Omar was in the same car as me! Even then I still didn’t believe it. The remainder of the ride comprised more or less of his policy platform and a Q&A. 

It wasn’t until later that night that I actually began questioning the practicality of Omar’s approach to campaigning. Although his policies, at least as he presented them to me, were not entirely my preferences, I found myself compelled to respect him for his innovative and grass-roots approach. It reminded me of Youtube videos I had seen of celebrities and professional athletes surprising their fans in similar situations, either by working in the food court at a local mall or driving ride-share routes. It made me think about the relationships between politicians and their constituents. In today’s day and age there is no excuse for distanced politicians. Omar proved that. I’m not entirely sure if there are major takeaways from this experience, but I figured it was unique, exciting, and, therefore, share-worthy. I would add that I do not know this politician in any other way, do not necessarily support or oppose any particular policy he champions, and am not promoting his candidacy in this piece. Rather, for me at least, this experience was just interesting in its own right, and the few realizations it provoked make it a share-worthy topic for me. 

Commonplace Book 3

“But officials told The Times this week that the Department of Health and Human Services did the rewriting itself and then “dropped” it into the C.D.C.’s public website, flouting the agency’s strict scientific review process.” – NYTimes

This is a strong example of what Fish, in his chapter Political Arguments, refers to as the “spin” (although he would say that there is already inherent “spin” on any political argument or perspective) pervasive in the political realm. We all know COVID-19 has become an incredibly politicized issue. However, we probably choose to believe that our leaders and politicians, despite the agendas they champion, would set aside their differences and make smart, strategic, and beneficial decisions during times of crisis. Unfortunately, this quote discredits that belief. Just as the example in Fish’s chapter which discussed the increase of real, disposable income proved that even statistics can be manipulated to promote a certain narrative, this blatant disregard of honesty, public security, and respect for expert opinion proves that COVID-19 data and policy decisions are such types of information susceptible to distortion. To make matters worse, under the security of their irreproachable authority, officials in Washington’s COVID Task Force exploited the C.D.C’s esteemed scientific review process to propagate misinformation. While this is clearly an injustice, it is also clearly an example of the dangerous ways “argument,” manipulation, and distortion, affect our daily lives. 

Commonplace Book 4

“Contemplating unknown unknowns isn’t easy. Nor is challenging the conventional wisdom, fealty to which often parallels religious observance.” – WSJ

From the WSJ, Richard J. Shinder proposes a new risk-management strategy in the eave of inadequate government responses to COVID-19. His suggestion…preparing for unknown unknowns. This is a notable rhetorical ending to this article which champions unconventional and, therefore, risky strategizing. For fiduciaries and business executives, being correct in their market forecasting is crucial to the survival of their careers. Therefore, by acknowledging the difficulty of embracing and implementing a new, fairly unpracticed strategy for risk-management, Shinder is appealing to his audience on a personal level, displaying his ability to empathize with the “pawns” of this matter on an even playing field. Another rhetorical tactic displayed by Shinder is the hyperbolic comparison of challenging conventional wisdom to that of strict religious adherence. Not that religious observance is wrong by any means, but in a business environment, adaptability and flexibility are crucial to playing the long game. If firms are unable to do that, then as the world and industry progresses (or devolves), their companies will be unable to change with it. Hence, this comparison influences his intended audience to avoid making the implicit mistake of doing exactly what the comparison calls out.  

Commonplace Book 5

As the election cycle draws nearer to its closing, there is much talk about the possibility of this year’s election being decided by the Supreme Court. Of course, constitutional and demicratic concerns over a plethora of issues, ranging from the legality of mail-in ballots, to extended voter submission deadlines, and the eligibility of electorate votes are all the rave on the Hilltop between two fiercely combative parities. The overarching issue is the weaponization of the Supreme Court to influence the outcome of the election. For example, Democrats are rightfully concerned that conservative and Republican-appointed Justices, which comprise the majority of the bench, will rule preferentially in favor of President Trump’s attack on mail-in ballots which is due for review in three days. These current events are especially interesting through the lens of Stanley Fish’s political and legal argument distinctions. Here we see how the “bounded-space” of the highest courtroom in America will deal with the entirely different realm of political argumentation where each party’s “spin” on mail-in voting will have to be reviewed, judged, and ultimately legitimized or defunct. This is just another example of how despite the finitude of law, there is still always interpretability and avenues for doubt to invade and destroy seemingly concrete ideas or contentions. With the stakes as high as they can be it will be interesting to see which narrative of the truth the court decides to accept. 

Commonplace Book 6

Columbus Day Stands for Diversity: Italian Americans, victims of severe discrimination, rallied to honor him.

On the opinion page of the WSJ, Alessandra Bocchi recently published a piece in which she argues that on account of the victimization and discrimination of Italian Americans in the 19th Century, and becasue these same Italian Americans where the proponents of nationalizing Columbus Day, then Columbus Day is, therefore, not a holiday of white, European oppression representing colonization and forced homogeneity, but rather one that is inclusive and celebratory towards diversity. I am an Italian American myself, and while I accept the fact that Italian immigrants faced discrimination shortly after coming to the US, I also understand that the argument against celebrating Christopher Columbus is not to discredit this suffering, but to acknolowedge the suffering and discrimination of the indigenious people Christopher Columbus displaced. I have a problem with both Bocchi’s and the opponents of Columbus Day’s arguments. In this new era of “culture of complaints” where the louder one shouts the claim the more legitimate it is and the more oppressed one is the more righteous her opinion, it is easy to see why Bocchi takes the route of expressing Italian American victimhood to “prove” that Columbus Day is inclusive. Afterall, if Italians can be branded as a discriminated class, regardless of time period, then how could Columbus Day, a day strongly celebrated by this ethnicity, be malicious and representative of the very discrimination that Italian Americans face(d)? It’s a clever rhetorical move but one that only perpetuates this “culture of complaint,” which I generally dislike, instead of challenging the “cancelations” of historic figures and current celebrities. On the other side of this argument, where opponents of Columbus Day see the holiday as an affront to indigenious people and the celebration of a genocidal conquistador, I have a different problem. While these opponents are correct in recognizing that Christopher Columbus can be credited (it is important to note these deaths are not all intentional or directly caused by him) with the deaths of thousands of indigenous people, they completely disregard why he is celebrated in the first place….for discovering the New World, brining Western Culture to the Western Hemisphere, and setting in motion the way current world affairs are today. These are not incidental accomplishments, nor something that should be simply read in a textbook and then forgotten by students. They are worthy of celebration, and not his flaws, but his positive accomplishments. It is easy to critique historic figures as immoral, wrong, or bad people when you subject them to the cultural and moral standards of current times. It is more important in  my opinion to understand the shortcomings of these figures, separate them from the accomplishments, and respectively condemn the former while celebrating the latter. Just look as Neitszche, who is regarded as one of the best philosophers to have ever done it. He is infamously known for his anti-semitism, yet this does not prevent philosophy teachers from teaching his ideas in the classroom, or philosophers from admiring his work. Many simply separate that flaw with the good that he contributed to his field. This distinction is important and the same should be done with Christopher Columbus.   

Commonplace Book 7

“Scholars are now rectifying that omission, with the recognition that in politics, status competition has become increasingly salient, prompting a collection of emotions including envy, jealousy and resentment that have spurred ever more intractable conflicts between left and right, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.” – Thomas B. Edsall from the NYTimes.

In his recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Thomas B Edsall discusses how identity politics and the competition of social status that stems from it on the political left and right is to blame for the cultural and political fault lines that we currently see dividing America. More specifically, Edsall argues that “ status” has less to do with the material possessions of classes, and more to do with the cultural and moral values that each have. I personally, believe, however, that the economic standing of classes invariably influences the level of security and acceptance of a class’ values, for the wealthier and more financially stable one class is, is ultimately a representation of how appealing they are to the larger public. Ultimately, the crux of the argument is that identity politics is only strengthening this status competition and promoting feelings of resentment between groups. The conservative side is championing the status and values of the white rural and middle classes which are seeing lowered wages, less job security, the diversification of the population, and more urbanization nationally. On the other hand, liberals are the defenders of marginalized groups, from African Americans to LGBTQ+, and are worried about the political and social backlash that progressive policies and movements are causing in predominantly conservative circles. I think all of this largely makes sense and is quite intuitive. Status is one of the most influential motivators for class improvement and so with the advent of identity politics threatening the old guard (rural and middle class whites) it is only natural that they consolidate and try to protect their status from those who wish to displace them. 

Now, that is not to say that marginalized groups are not entitled to or should not have a higher status in this country. Let me be very clear that they ought to be able to! Where my concern lies is not in their economic or social improvement, but rather in the means to achieving it, namely identity politics. I forget who coined this saying and I will not be able to quote it precisely, but it was said that the African American will have more in common culturally with a KKK member than he would with a native African. While this is an extreme example, I bring it up to shed light on the fact that marginalized groups, while definitely sharing in ethnicity and perhaps some of them in lived experiences, are not existentially defined solely based on their ethnicity. Therefore, to expect the political or cultural views of an American to be based solely on identity is a mistake, and one that as we see is causing more fault lines, more division, and more unease in this country. I think a more peaceful and harmonizing approach, one that does not seek to replace but to join high social status groups in the solution. However, that only is possible if we get out of the mindset that identity politics creates, one that pits the “other” as the adversary, as the unsympathetic rival, and, ultimately, as evil.

Commonplace Book 8

In this opinion piece from the New York Times, a conversation ensues between readers and editors over the government and media’s coverage of the ongoing pandemic. Some readers call for a more aggressive and fear-inducing approach which seeks to scare viewers into taking the consequences of the virus more seriously. On the other hand, some view this approach as a counterproductive method that will ultimately make citizens act defensively or even believe in conspiratorial stories that discredit the seriousness of the issue. 

This brief yet profound conversation captures the essence of rhetoric as well as the painstaking considerations that go into planning and preparing against social health threats. Rhetorically speaking, both sides have their merits. On the one hand, a scare tactic seems intuitively effective, however crude. Covering patients who are suffering may have an effect of disillusioning the public and showing them the seriousness of the virus. It may cause them to sympathize with those most susceptible and start taking precautionary measures such as mask wearing, social distancing, or hand washing more often. On the other hand, the psychologist’s argument that this approach will backfire and cause more people to act defensively also holds. This argument not only has a renowned psychologist backing it which provides credibility, but it also has an intuitive appeal to it as well. May of us tend to double down on our preconceived beliefs when provided with contrary evidence, and so shoving videos of suffering patients into people’s faces may not work as effectively as previously thought. 

Either way, there is an undeniable problem in America. The public does not seem to be taking the pandemic seriously anymore and are more willing to risk their and their acquaintances safety. Whether the answer is to induce more fear and show them the ugly truth of the virus, or champion an approach which encourages hope and positivity is still under debate. What matters most, however, will be the effectiveness of either campaign in its job of curtailing the spread of this virus.   

Commonplace Book 9

In this opinion piece found in the Wall Street journal, a conversation ensues between high education students about their experiences and expectations of higher education post-pandemic. Everyone seems to be in agreement that Zoom and online resources have completely redefined the way students engage and learn educational material. Some voices seem to be sounding the alarm, arguing that remote learning lowers academic standards, dilutes the culture of learning distinct to higher education campuses, and results in less prepared or knowledgable students. On the other side of the debate stands those who welcome the flexibility that technology offers many students. They see remote learning as a way of combating high tuitions, expensive commutes, busy day-to-day schedules, and time-filling responsibilities. It is no secret that Zoom has everyone questioning how Universities will respond or change in a post-pandemic world. These institutions have many avenues to consider and, with a few semesters of history, much to draw upon when they do sketch out their future routes. 

From a cynical point of view, these Universities will most likely choose the option that generates the most tuition. However, I do not think this answer is categorically bad. In fact, it seems the best approach for higher education would be to embrace remote learning when necessary but still maintain the unique campus culture and learning environments that they’ve spent so much time and money creating over the years. In re-committing to the values that come from a campus culture – debate and reflection of course material outside the classroom, comradery between peers and colleagues, and more – colleges and universities will undoubtedly bring in eager students who for the last year have been deprived of this experience. At the same time, for those international or incapable-to-live-on-campus students, they can offer remote learning at an affordable price. These students, who have other responsibilities, logistics concerns, or for whatever other reason, in pursuing an education in the first place despite the difficulties, would most likely take remote learning seriously, and not succumb to the lax nature of it. In doing this hybrid method, higher education institutions would not only be solving both problems expressed by the two camps who view online learning differently, but they would also be doing so in a rhetorically appealing way. One of the greatest concerns with high education is the exorbitant cost that comes along with receiving a degree. You are either fortunate enough to afford it, must go into debt to receive a degree, or forgo higher education completely. Two of these options, clearly, are not great. An online option seems to be the solution. Students can receive an education at an affordable price, albeit while losing out on the campus culture of it. Either way, it seems to be the best possible solution and one that, if marketed correctly, can appeal to many people in a rhetorical and ethical sense. 

Commonplace Book 10

In recent news, the Federal Trade Commission and over 40 states have accused the tech giant Facebook of engaging in anti-competitive behavior. The plaintiffs point towards Facebook’s major acquisitions of both Instagram and Whatsapp, totally $20 billion. These acquisitions, the FTC and state regulators argue, were conducted as a means to prevent any social media or messaging competition that could threaten to weaken Facebook’s share of the market. In response, CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg and his team, has argued that there is no shortage of social networking competition, pointing to the explosive rise of the Chinese-born social media app Tik Tok as proof, and that its acquisition of Instagram and Whatsapp was never intended to snuff out competition, but rather to help the company adapt to the changing social and technological times. 

Regulators have been investigating Big Tech, including Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon, for many years now. It seems they are sure that these companies are engaging in illegal, monopolistic behavior, yet have never been able or are unwilling to bring any of them to court. This hesitancy may be because of the enormous pockets each company has to spend on legal defense, but it may also stem from the interpretative shortcomings of antitrust laws themself. Take Amazon for example. If you were to categorize the industry which Amazon belongs to you may run into some trouble. What began as an online bookstore turned e-commerce platform has become a logistics giant, a cloud-based computer provider, a supermarket chain, and much more. Amazon has somehow found a way to get its hands dirty in virtually every industry and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. The ubiquitousness of companies such as these makes it very difficult for regulators to argue that they are stifling competition, namely because they must pin-point which industry these companies are disrupting. For Facebook it is fairly easier being that they are primarily a social media giant. Perhaps, their one-dimensionalism will help regulators in their pursuit to break Facebook up. However, even then there is more to argue. Regulators did in fact give the ok to Facebook’s acquisitions in previous years and only now seem to be concerned by them. In a legal setting this is a difficult argument to present let alone defend. 

This case, wherever or if ever it sees the courtroom, will inevitably be a rhetorical blood bath. Each side has its own truth that they present. Each side has its own evidence and counter-evidence. And, however surprising it may be, both seem to be in the right. Their facts check out, their interpretations are understandable, but it’s their convictions which seem to be unaligned. Whoever presides over this case, I think, will primarily be using their own predetermined position on this issue to make their decision. Until then, though, regulators still have to build their case and reach the standard acceptable to bring these companies to the courtroom. Only time will tell what will happen.