Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.
NEW: A Collection of Pebbles from The Philosopher's Stone
Volume I: 2009 Now Available at box.net
Volume II: 2010 Now Available at box.net
Volume III: 2011 Now available at box.net
Volume IV: 2012 Now available at box.net

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

FAIRY DUST


Bernie Sanders is not on track to win the Democratic Primary race for the Presidential nomination.  He will win a good many delegates, he will compel Clinton to talk substantively about topics she would rather slide around, he will warm the hearts of all good lefties, but he will simply not pile up enough delegates to win the nomination. 

It is not entirely clear that Bernie Sanders really desperately wants to win the Democratic nomination.  Now mind, I do not hold this against him.   Quite to the contrary.  Wanting desperately to be president is not a particularly admirable character trait.  It is a character trait that has been shared by some of the most despicable people in American public life.  But be that as it may, I am not sure Bernie has this particular fire in his belly.  Still and all, let us suppose that he really does want to be president.  As things now stand, he is not going to be.

What can be done?  I have been brooding about this, and I have a possible solution.  It partakes liberally of fairy dust, but those of us on the left have for some time now been resigned to  believing in the political version of pots of gold at the end of rainbows, so bear with me.

Bernie Sanders needs somehow to persuade Elizabeth Warren to be his running mate on an insurgent ticket.  If, mirabile dictu, he were able to accomplish this feat, he would have a good chance of snatching the nomination -- if I may borrow a phrase from Charlton Heston -- from Hillary Clinton's cold dead hand.  Think of it as the New England two-step, the revenge of the Northeast corridor.

Bernie already has the progressives and the young, but he does not have the African-Americans or the women.  With Warren by his side, he could peel off large chunks of the unmarried women's vote and quite possibly a share of the Black and Hispanic vote as well.  At the very least, he would have a shot.

Would Warren do it?  Good question.  She would rather not, pretty clearly.  But if Clinton looks weak and there is real danger of a Republican victory, she might be persuaded.  They would be a powerhouse team on the stump.  Warren would dismantle whatever doffus the Republicans nominated for the number two spot.  And if Bernie started to look like a possible winner, I suspect a number of Clinton supporters would switch, so long as they  could believe that a Sanders presidency would be followed by a Warren run.
Just thinking

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

WHO LOVES TRUMP? AND WHY?


Why do Republican voters like Donald J. Trump?  That is the question of the moment in the blogosphere.  The polling data suggest that substantive policy is not the answer.  With a phenomenon of this magnitude, there are clearly several correct answers.  Let me call attention to one answer that has cropped up in the discussion of the Trump phenomenon.  It is, I find, both plausible and especially disturbing.

Trump's rambling free-form public speeches give people permission to say openly things they have long wanted to say but feel they have been bullied into not saying -- things like "nigger" and "spic" and "anchor baby" and "illegal rapist drug-dealing Mexicans."  Trump has liberated, in millions of Americans, ugly, hateful, despicable sentiments that have been bottled up and forcibly suppressed.  It feels good to them to bring those sentiments into the sunlight, to hear a rich man say them unapologetically. 

What would Jesus say, were he to return to earth and walk once more among us as a natural man?  When I ask myself that question [as I often do], I am reminded once again of Matthew, Chapter 23, verse 27:  "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness."  That is a remarkably accurate description of many of the good White Christian folk who flock to Trump's gatherings and cheer him to the echo.

Will Trump win the Republican nomination?  I suspect not.  If he does, he will guarantee a Democratic victory.  If he does not, he will so damage the successful nominee that the same result is all but certain.  But that is not the end of it.  Freud and the Sixties to the contrary notwithstanding, there is much to be said for repression.  The sentiments whose expression Trump is legitimating deserve to be repressed, they ought to be repressed, and no good can come from exposing them to the light, for although real sunlight may indeed be an effective disinfectant, metaphorical sunlight does not have that cleansing property.

There are fifty-five million registered Republicans in the United States.  Let us suppose roughly 30% of them support Trump, as recent polls suggest, which is to say more than sixteen million adult Americans.   That is a whole lot of whited sepulchres out there filled with uncleanness and dead men's bones!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

VERY TROUBLING

This very troubling long article in the latest New Yorker about Trump and his supporters is worth taking the time to read.  Trump has lifted up a large rock, and slugs of all sorts are crawling out into the sunlight.

BODY LANGUAGE


Americans are not stupid.  Many of them are ignorant, some are bigoted, most are inattentive to public affairs, but they are not stupid.  They are quite as good as Germans, Chinese, Bulgarians, Brazilians, or Vietnamese at sizing people up and reading their self-presentations and body language.  If we abstract from such arcana as policies and just concentrate on how people respond to those seeking a party's presidential nomination, we can, I suggest, gain some understanding of the polls with which we are inundated.

Why is Trump trouncing all of his opponents by double digits in polls of Republican voters these days?  Well, lean back, veg out, turn off the higher functions of your intellect, and just watch him on the tube.  He is clearly having fun!  He loves being on the podium, draws energy from the crowds, jokes, laughs, sneers in turn.  He is playful, he cannot get enough of it.  Once on stage, he does not want to leave.  He is having  fun.  And everyone who watches him can feel it.

What about his rivals?  Jeb Bush is diffident, uncomfortable, ruminative.  His body and his voice both say that he would really rather be elsewhere.  He acts frustrated with reporters' questions.  Trump says he is a low energy guy, and Trump is right.  We can all feel it.  Jeb does not act as though he is having fun.

Scott Walker acts as though he has never had fun his entire life.  Just glance at his face as you are on the way to the refrigerator for a power drink.  He is morose, discomfited, a real Eeyore.  Cruz is stuck-up, the annoying kid in the class who thinks he is smarter than everyone else.  Christie is a fat bully.  Fiorina is a scold.  Paul is petulant.  Santorum is the repressed prig who pretends never to have masturbated.   And Jindal is just weird.

These are not political judgments or ideological evaluations.  They are gut reactions  -- the sort we all have every day when we meet people.  This is how the public sizes up candidates, and I have to say, their reactions are pretty shrewd.  [The fact that they are also politically disastrous is a subject for another post.]

What about the Democrats?  Clinton is irritated.  She is irritated by reporters' gotcha questions that ignore her carefully crafted policy papers.  She is irritated by the hoofaraw surrounding her e-mails when she knows that her motives are as pure as the driven snow.  She is irritated that she must work for a nomination that was hers for the asking six months ago.  In front of a crowd, her body and face say that she is doing her duty.  She smiles a lot and gives full-throated laughs from time to time, but she is clearly not having fun.  She never seems to want to stay on the podium just a little while longer, and then a little while longer still.  She is utterly unlike her husband, who never saw a group of people he did not want to rub up against and charm.

Bernie is angry.  It is a righteous anger, a policy-driven anger, but it is anger nonetheless.  He is the only candidate in either party who actually cares more about his policies than he does about getting elected.  He is the most earnest candidate to have come along since Adlai Stevenson.  Bernie probably could have fun if the world were ever what it ought to be, but right now there is no time for having fun.  Be serious!  his body language says.

Joe Biden is always having fun.  Put him in front of a crowd and his face lights up.  If he could patent that and sell it to Clinton, it would be worth every penny she has raised from her rich friends.  She would win in a landslide.

Which of these folks would be a good president?  Ah well, that is quite another matter.  When it comes to answering that question, I do not have quite so much faith in the Great American Public.

 

 

 

Monday, August 24, 2015

DOWN MEMORY LANE


Tomorrow Susie and I will celebrate our twenty-eighth wedding anniversary.  I will take her to dinner at  a lovely upscale Durham, NC restaurant on West Main Street called Revolution [you can't make this stuff up.]  At dinner this evening, we were reminiscing about our first dates, in 1948 and 1949, when we were students at Forest Hills High School in Queens.

Our very first date [a story I tell in my Autobiography] was a movie outing.  I took Susie to the Thalia Theater in Manhattan, an early art movie theater, to see a revival of César, the third in a pre-war film trilogy made by the great French director Marcel Pagnol.  [For musical buffs, the entire trilogy -- Marius, Fanny, César -- was turned into the Broadway show Most Happy Fella.]  At about the same time, I started taking Susie to performances of the newly formed Bach Aria Group, which performed arias from the Bach cantatas at venues such as the 92nd St. Y in Manhattan.  It was there that I first heard Bernard Greenhouse, the marvelous cellist who was later a mainstay of the Beaux Arts trio [with the inimitable pixie Menahem Pressler on piano.]  The violinist was Maurice Wilk, the very best student of my violin teacher, Mrs. Irma Zaccharias,

Somewhat later, I took Susie on a big date to the Cherry Lane Theater in the Village, where we watched a performance of T. S. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes with the curtain raiser Desire Caught By The Tail by Picasso.  We even went to the Davenport Free Theater , a weird and wonderful place in Manhattan where one could watch terrible performances absolutely free.

But our fanciest date was in the summer of '52, when I was working as a Copy Boy at the New York Herald Tribune.  I took Susie to the Blue Angel, a New York cabaret named after the dive in the famous Marlene Dietrich film.  The cover charge was five dollars per person -- a fortune -- but the show was quite memorable.  There were three acts -- Orson Bean, who opened, Josh White, and Eartha Kitt.  Josh White and Eartha Kitt were spectacular, of course, but I still remember Orson Bean's opening joke.  He came out, took the microphone rather diffidently, and said, "Hello.  My name is Orson bean, Harvard 48 ... Yale nothing."  It got a big laugh.

I wonder sometimes.  Do young people today go on dates like that?

MORNING MUSINGS ON SCHOLARSHIP AND THE CLOUD


I am no sort of scholar, as I have observed many times on this blog.  Perhaps that is why I stand in awe of the scholars I have been privileged to meet.  My first encounter with a world-class scholar was as a sophomore at Harvard, back in 1952, sixty-three years ago.  I sat for a semester in Harry Austryn Wolfson's great course on Spinoza's Ethics.  We all knew that none of us would ever be, could ever be, a scholar like Wolfson, but simply to sit in his presence was a blessing -- rather like listening to Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach Suites for unaccompanied cello.

Nine years later, when I left my Harvard Instructorship to take up an Assistant Professorship at the University of Chicago, I was powerfully impressed by the fact that one of my new colleagues would be Alan Gewirth, whom the philosophical world new as a moral and political philosopher, but who was, to me, the editor of the edition of Marsilius of Padua's Defensor Pacis that I had read during my half year on an SSRC post-doctoral fellowship.  Three years later still, when I moved to a tenured Associate Professorship at Columbia, it was not Ernest Nagel or John Herman Randall or Arthur Danto or Sidney Morgenbesser whose presence in my new department impressed me, but Paul Kristeller. 

Paul was a German scholar of the Renaissance thirty years my senior.  Among his great achievements was the Iter Italicum, a catalogue of early manuscripts that he painstakingly assembled during his years in Italy by going from castle to castle, monastery to monastery, and to the Vatican archives as well, recording what he had found.  It was the sort of laborious act of scholarship that earned one fame and honor back in the days before the Internet.  It was a source of great sadness to me that during the '68 Columbia student uprising, because we took up opposite sides in that dispute, Paul stopped talking to me.  When the two of us rode up to the seventh floor of Philosophy Hall in the building's tiny elevator, Paul would turn his face away from me in a physical act of rejection.

In those days, one could even gain scholarly recognition by doing something that a computer now accomplishes with a few simple commands.  One philosopher, whose name escapes me, made a name for himself by laboriously cranking out a concordance to the works of Spinoza -- useful, to be sure, but now the sort of task one would assign to an undergraduate for extra credit.

These random thoughts, which engaged me during my walk this morning, were prompted by the latest exchange in the comments section of this blog.  I posted a response to Sheryl Mitchell in which I attributed to Hillary Clinton the tone-deaf remark "All lives matter" as a response to the Black Lives Matter protestors at one of her campaign events.  At 4:42 p.m. yesterday, Matt Austern questioned my attribution.  Sixty-eight minutes later, someone writing under the pseudonym "Lounger" popped up with a link to an NPR  story confirming my memory.

Young people these days are so accustomed to these sorts of things that they cannot understand why old folks like me continued to be astonished by them.  What would Harry Wolfson, Alan Gewirth, and Paul Kristeller think, if they were still with us?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A RESPONSE TO SHERYL MITCHELL


Sheryl Mitchell asks the following question:  "I am very interested in your thoughts on the recent conflict between the Sander's campaign and some black activist groups. Today's Times characterised this as a difference between a race-based and class-based analysis of American society. As a Sanders fan, Marxist, and former head of an Afro-American studies department, you would seem to be uniquely well-placed to comment on this. What is your take?"

One correction:  I was the Graduate Program Director of the doctoral program in Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for twelve years, but never the head of the department.  That said, what is my take?

I have some things to say of an unorganized nature, and I will be happy to share them, but I want to resist offering a full-scale theoretical response, which would suggest that my insight is deeper and my knowledge broader than is the fact. 

First of all, I am not surprised that Bernie was blind-sided.  He clearly initially believed that since his very detailed policy proposals would, if anything, disproportionally benefit people of color, inasmuch as they have been disproportionally disadvantaged by American capitalism, and since he put himself personally on the line during the Civil Rights Movement, Black activists would recognize these facts and support rather than confront him.  He was wrong to assume that, as he very quickly realized, but I find it entirely understandable and -- in my personal opinion -- not at all reprehensible.

I think he knows that it is essential for him to embrace the Black Lives Matter activists in ways they can acknowledge and welcome, rather than acting hurt that they do not recognize his lifelong commitment to racial justice.  Speaking [or writing] as someone even older than Bernie, I can tell you that it is often hard for old warriors to be confronted by young fired up activists who seem to have been born yesterday.  Saying, somewhat defensively, "I marched and rode in the '60's" -- which is to say before the parents of the people confronting him were born -- is never going to get a respectful hearing.  I have the same problem all the time talking to philosophy students whose grandparents I might have taught in college.

By comparison, Hillary Clinton's initial response to the activists -- "all lives matter" -- was tone-deaf.  The cry "Black lives matter!" is not by implication a statement that white lives do not matter.  It is a dramatic assertion that Black men and women are being slaughtered by the police in this country and it has got to stop now.  Those saying it are announcing that they are no longer willing in any way to accept or be complicit in the injustice being inflicted specifically on Black people in America.

But obviously there is a great deal more to say.  I have on a number of occasions written on this blog about the distinctive intersection of race and class in American history -- an intersection that one does not find in the same way in European nations [despite the English exploitation and brutalization of the Irish peasantry.]   Slavery was not some unfortunate peccadillo on the way to the realization of the American dream.  It was the central fact about the development of the American economy for the first two hundred and fifty years, and the particular structural deformations and social evils consequent upon it remain a defining element of the American "story" to the present day.  It is understandable that socialist theorists schooled on the story of the rise of capitalism in Europe should try to assimilate the fact of American slavery to that story without in any essential way altering the outlines of the story, but it is in my judgment a mistake.  Since I have written a book about this [Autobiography of an Ex-White Man University of Rochester Press, 2005] I will not repeat here what I said there.

It is a fact about contemporary American politics that Bill Clinton, and by extension Hillary Clinton, enjoys phenomenal and very emotional approval in the Black community -- never mind whether that approval is justified.  Bernie needs a substantial portion of the community behind him if he is to have any chance of mounting a serious challenge to Clinton for the nomination, and I do not know whether he has the slightest chance of getting it.

On any substantive issue of policy you can name, Sanders would be at least as good as Clinton from the point of view of Black activists and on many he would clearly be better, but nobody ever votes on the basis of rational self-interest except the rich, and even they are quite capable of failing to recognize their Savior when he appears, as the monied hatred of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 30's demonstrates.