When you think of someone winning a philosophy competition, you might picture a Harvard grad, or maybe a law professor.
Uh, not always. The winner of this year’s “Great American Think-Off”—a nationwide contest that attracted about 150 competitors this year—is Craig Allen.
A 59-year-old West Linn resident who teaches construction clinics at the Home Depot in Southeast Portland, Allen learned from a Home Depot co-worker about the Think-Off. Sponsored by the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center in Minnesota, this year’s contest asked, “Does immigration threaten or strengthen the U.S.?”
Allen’s 750-word essay on why immigration threatens the country got him chosen as one of four finalists flown last month to debate his argument at the Minnesota cultural center.
And now he holds the title of America’s Greatest Thinker of 2008, along with a $500 cash prize and a gold medal (kinda ironic given the omnipresent TV ads running during the Olympics with Home Depot employees who are in the Beijing Games). Wearing his bright-orange apron and silver-rimmed glasses, Allen explained his winning argument and what his co-workers think of all that philosophy.
WW: Why’d you choose the side that immigration threatens the U.S.?
Craig Allen: I’m kind of schizophrenic about it. The important thing was to look at what the question was. A lot of people assumed the question was, ‘Should we do something about illegal immigration?’ or ‘Are immigrants bad people?’ To me that wasn’t the question. My stance was—and is—immigration threatens the U.S. because of how polarizing it is. The immigration laws were largely created in the 1800s when we were still building our country. We have a very different need for immigrants now. I think we’re threatened because we can’t even have a conversation about it now; the topic is so controversial…. It’s funny because after I won, I was invited to talk on some right-wing radio shows. They definitely were taken aback when they realized I wasn’t automatically going to take the conservative side of immigration policies.
Do you work with many immigrants at Home Depot?
I work with several. The custodial crew is largely Hispanic. And I know a couple of them personally. Besides casual chitchat, I haven’t actually had any conversations with any of them regarding the contest.
How about your friends and family? Do you talk philosophy much with them?
I’ve had some fairly good discussions with my tight group of online friends. But locally I don’t have a whole lot of people I discuss things like that with. When I won and came back to the store I had a number of co-workers asking me about the topic, but I don’t talk about it too much.
Do they think your deep thinking is boring?
(Laughs) I don’t do too much of that talking here at work; it’s not really an environment that’s conducive to it.
Is it weird feeling smarter than people?
I don’t really think of myself as being smarter. Sometimes I think I’m more perceptive. But even that may not really be accurate. I suspect I spend a bit more time “thinking” about issues and such.
OK. What are some of life’s unanswerable questions that can’t be solved by philosophy?
Some of them have actually been asked in past years of the Great American Think-Off…like the one two years ago—is freedom or security more important? Ooohh, tough question. If you’re feeling particularly threatened at the moment, security is pretty darn important. On the other hand, Draconian security takes away all of your freedoms, so I don’t know if that’s much of a trade-off. There’s a lot of questions like that that don’t have a real answer. The answer is more about the context of the moment. You know like, “Is the pen mightier than the sword?” Not always. I mean, if you’re in a knife fight, that pen isn’t going to do you much good.