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I Picket, Ergo Sum 

With philosophy on their side, there's no way San Francisco hotel workers can't win their labor dispute

Wednesday, Mar 30 2005
Last Monday I received a note titled "PHILOSOPHERS TO PICKET IN SUPPORT OF HOTEL WORKERS" from Phil Gasper, a philosophy professor at a school in Belmont called Notre Dame de Namur University. The note said, "Members of the American Philosophical Association (APA) will picket the Westin St. Francis hotel, 335 Powell Street in San Francisco this Wednesday."

The association had its annual convention in town last week. And, as liberal college professors attending S.F. conventions do nowadays, the APA members felt compelled to show support for workers in our ongoing hotel labor dispute.

The notion of a group of phil-profs spending 60 minutes tromping around on the sidewalk as part of their annual school-financed convention junket seemed to provide food for thought, as a philosopher might say. In the spirit of inquiry and contemplation, I dashed off a list of existential questions. Gasper responded in an e-mail:

"I don't know if your questions are intended seriously, but if you are interested, you should come to the picket line tomorrow and talk to some of the philosophers."

Going to physical events and incidents, asking participants questions -- that's a newspaper reporter's universe.

Contemplating deeper meanings of written material -- that's a philosopher's.

Gasper seemed to be thwarting my efforts to enter his universe, while telling me to keep to my own.

At the same time, though deflecting me from his and his colleagues' existential space, Gasper was also inviting me to enter his physical space. Once there, I might engage in a conversation with him and other phil-profs, possibly touching on issues such as responsibility, morality, and choice -- that's to say, on philosophy. I would be at once repelled from and sucked into Gasper's and his colleagues' universe.

Clearly, Gasper was baiting a philosophical trap, attempting to lure me into an existential wormhole, a Wittgensteinian fly bottle!1 I needed to buzz my way out of Gasper's hermeneutical pinball machine -- and quick!

Happily, our era's relevant philosophers don't teach at universities.

They do stand-up on HBO.

Comedian Will Durst, driving Wednesday to a stint at the Sacramento Punch Line, kindly offered guidance to those of us keen to extract deeper meanings from the philosophers' picket at the St. Francis.

SF Weekly: As they picket, will the picketers have a definable nature? What shall that nature be?

Will Durst: Oh yes, the dual nature of picketing. There will be substructures within the active and passive picketing.

SFW: To what extent is picketing constituted by the picket's nature as a picket?

WD: I think we'll be able to delineate the special fields of each of the participants by their style of their picket. There will be Hegelian picketers, Foucaultian picketers, and Habermasian picketers.

SFW: What is the basis of the values that might lead the philosophers to picket?

WD: They will be plumbing new depths to which they have no plumb line. This experience would have to be looked upon as being favorable, as it's forcing philosophers to think. It's an exercise in solidarity and comfortable shoes.

SFW: Are the picketing philosophers choosing for all people when they make this choice? Or just themselves?

WD: There are two schools of thought on that: yes, and no.

SFW: How does this choice limit how SF Weekly readers are to understand the meaning of this picket, and whether it is good or bad?

WD: The meaning of their choice to picket is, itself, a lens.

SFW: Is this picket an accident? Why? Why not?

WD: The picket itself is not an accident. But I've seen philosophers walk before, and that can cause accidents. It all depends whether it's before happy hour, after happy hour, what is happy about the hour, and why the hour is 2 1/2 hours long. I have many questions.

SFW: What do philosophers believe about whether their choice to picket is arbitrary?

WD: Their decision is not their decision. Their decision to picket is a decision that has already been made.

SFW: Are you thinking about the picket in a Calvinist sense? A religious one?

WD: Actually, I'm thinking of the Architect in The Matrix.

SFW: Picketing is complaining. Is there any sense in complaining?

WD: I can't complain.

SFW: Are you, the picketer, the picket?

WD: No, I am just a vessel for the picketing. I am the host of the grand picketer, that great picketer inside of all of us.

SFW: When picketing, are you the S.F. hotel labor dispute?

WD: That is the picketee. Not to be confused with the picador, which is the sword in the bull's neck. Or the chickadee, as W.C. Fields would say.

SFW: Do you seek to reveal something about yourself, or as humans as moral agents, through this picket? What is that something?

WD: I'm sorry. I just dropped my beer.

SFW: What do you not mean by your answers to these questions?

WD: I don't mean everything.

It will be no accident if Durst appears at the Purple Onion in North Beach on March 31.

1 I think this means the kind of philosophical trap rubes get into when they overphilosophize.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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