Critic Romano to discuss America’s radical culture

Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer


As the nation’s political landscape seems to shift, radicalism can help individuals make sense of the full ideological spectrum.

“I think by trying to understand the concept of radicalism, you can paint a new picture of the spectrum of belief,” said Carlin Romano, critic-at-large of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Romano will speak about what radicalism means to a variety of Americans, observers of thinkers, and movements in American life during his lecture, titled “America the Radical,” to start the Week Eight “Radicalism” lecture platform at 10:45 a.m. Monday in the Amphitheater.

Radicalism refers to a difference in ideas compared to what is considered the norm. What is defined as radical changes over time — birth control and gay marriage, for example, are both accepted now more than they have been in the past.

American life has seen many forms of radicalism, including radical feminism, sexuality and politics. The United States also has been radical in that it has rejected violence as a way to settle differences, Romano said.

For example, he said, the American Revolution can be considered radical, because individuals did not turn against one another as the French did during the French Revolution. He plans to touch on the connection between political radicalism and violence.

Romano will also discuss the individual’s role in radicalism. What is worth paying attention to, he said, is the “flavoring of the word ‘radical.’”

Saul Alinsky, an American community organizer, did not believe being radical meant an individual was dedicated to ideology. He thought it was not just what people believed, but whether they have the toughness and ability to achieve a goal.

“And his feelings that a lot of so-called liberals and progressives, who are often contrasted with radicals — they didn’t quite have the stomach for a lot of fight, while the radical would,” Romano said.

The title of Romano’s lecture derives from his most recent book, America the Philosophical, in which he argues America has the most philosophical culture in history.

“I always thought it was a crazy idea that America is not a philosophical culture,” Romano said, “but that is the culture cliché.”

As a literary editor, Romano noticed how many philosophical books were produced in the country, despite the common belief that America was unintellectual, he said. Throughout history, cultural historians and critics have labeled the country as materialistic and imperialistic but not philosophical. His book grew from that observation.

Romano lists reasons why America is philosophical in his book, including openness of dialogue, the quantity of dialogue, the diversity in viewpoints, the freedom of expression and more.

“I think a lot of Americans who don’t think comparatively and don’t think internationally don’t understand that our level of freedom of expression really exceeds just about any place, ever,” he said.

Romano said that though America is the world’s most philosophical culture, there are criteria to philosophical thinking and argument. There must be relevant evidence for the claims made, focus on the question at hand and openness toward criticism of an individual’s position.

“I believe there are these rough-and-ready rules of what counts as philosophical thinking,” he said, “but I don’t believe they’re absolutely precise or scientifically precise.”

Though some people find philosophy boring because it gives no straight answers, the field attracts others, because in it one concept leads to interest in another. Romano considers himself to be the latter type of person.

Romano has always been interested in philosophy, but he became more so about it while he studied at Princeton University. He also attended Yale University to study philosophy and Columbia University for law.

In 1981, he began writing for The Village Voice, where he published his first big piece on Michel Foucault. The following year, he began working at The Philadelphia Inquirer and was its literary editor from 1984 to 2009. He also taught on the side, he said.

Now, he is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College, as well as the critic-at-large for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“I’ve been doing the same thing for a long time, which is trying to keep a foot in the academic world as a professor, and also trying to keep a foot in the journalism world and writing about cultural things I care about,” Romano said.