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Thursday, May 28, 2015


Human beings have been around in their present form – homo sapiens sapiens – for about 150,000 years, give or take a few score millennia.  If we assume that young Cro Magnon men and women did not wait to have babies until they had graduated from college and paid off their student loans, a generation for most of that time would have been, say, fifteen years.  So there have been maybe ten thousand generations of people.  For the first nine thousand nine hundred ninety nine of those generations, old people explained to young people how to shape a promising looking bit of stone into a hand axe or how to protect a castle with a moat or how to rebuild an internal combustion engine.  We are now living in the first generation of the human experience in which young people tell old people how stuff works.

These sober reflections were prompted by my experience yesterday.  Faithful readers will recall my traumatic Parisian struggles last time around to get on the Internet.  This time, as soon as we arrived, I set up my computer and had a go.  No problem.  Nor was there any problem with the telephone [which I rarely use because my French is not good enough to chat on the phone.]  But the television set was a complete non-starter.

So what?, you might reasonably ask.  With all Paris at my doorstep, what need have I for TV?  Well, leaving aside my plebian tastes, there is the problem of my renters.  I advertise the apartment [in the back pages of the New York Review of Books] as having, among other things, TV, and I feel compelled therefore to make the damned thing work.  I tried.  I unplugged the modem and rebooted it [always the first thing to do, as I have learned from Time Warner Cable.]  I unplugged and replugged the cable box [called, in France, rather ominously a “decoder.”]  Then I screwed my courage to the sticking point [I trust you know the source of that cliché – it is the crossbow] and walked over to the nearest Orange store [Orange is what FranceTelecom became when that fine old state corporation was taken private some years ago.]  There I was given an English language phone number to call for help.  [Trying to describe technical problems over the phone is hard enough for me in English – in French it would be a charade.]

I called the number and received a recorded announcement that there was no such number – not promising.  I consulted the Internet and found a completely different number, which did indeed connect me to a young man who spoke quite good English.  I told him my sad story and assured him that I had rebooted the modem, trying to sound as technically proficient as I could manage.   Speaking slowly and distinctly, as one would to a not too bright child, he asked me to look at the TV set.  Did I see a button with an up arrow?  I did.  “Press it,” he suggested.  I pressed it.

The TV set burst into color and sound with Bloomberg International reporting the business news.

I got off the phone as quickly and with as little further embarrassment as I could muster.  Later, reflecting on the experience, it occurred to me that I might have deduced the problem, had I thought about it more deeply.  TV sets in the U. S. typically receive cable signals on channel 3, or sometimes on channel 4.  If the set gets switched to another channel, there is nothing but snow on the screen.  Obviously, one of my renters accidentally or mistakenly pressed the channel button on the set and switched the set to the wrong channel [notice the care with which I distinguish “accidentally” from “mistakenly.”  J. L. Austin would be pleased.]

In the next generation, younger children will explain to older children how things work.

Isaiah 11:6  The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Classstruggle, who has posted many lengthy comments on this blog, some running to several comment spaces, posted a brief comment to my post titled “Keeping My Hand In” that troubled me greatly, and I should like to respond, even though to do so is in a way rather bad-tempered of me.  He [?] said, regarding my report that I had sent copies of the Meditations, the Monadology, Hume’s Treatise, and Kant’s First Critique to a student I am mentoring, “I may have a PDF copy of some of these texts (not that I have read them or care to really). But if I can be of any help, you just let me know.”

That was a very generous thing for him [?] to do, and yet here I am caviling at the parenthetical aside.

That aside is such a profoundly unMarxian thing to say that I had to respond.  I think I am safe in assuming that classstruggle holds Marx in the very highest esteem.  And yet, Marx was one of the most widely and deeply educated people in Western civilization of the past three or four centuries at the very least.  He gobbled up books the way the Cookie Monster gobbles up cookies.  I cannot even begin to imagine how he managed to read as much as he did.  And this was not mere obsession or a demented notion of a good education.  Marx used ideas, quotations, suggestions, facts, and arguments from an unimaginably broad array of written sources, in at least seven different languages and a dozen disciplines.   Those of us who find inspiration and guidance in the thousands of pages Marx wrote ought, it seems to me, to learn from his practice.  We ought to read the great literature of our culture, from antiquity onward.  We ought to read widely in history, in sociology, in the sciences, and yes, in the  neo-classical economics we claim to disdain.  Let us follow Marx’s own practice, and embrace the famous saying of the poet Terence, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” or “I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.”

Now, I am sure that classstruggle has many pressing obligations that might keep him [?] from reading Hume’s Treatise or Kant’s Critique, but I would urge that he allow himself [?] to feel some passing regret at the missed opportunity.


Yesterday evening, I finished reading The Sixth Extinction, a relatively light, rather chatty and anecdotal, but nevertheless quite interesting book by Elizabeth Kolbert.  There have been five great extinctions – periods of time short by geological standards when as much as fifty or sixty or even ninety percent of all extant species of living things disappeared.  Most of these extinctions were the result of gradual changes in the world’s environment – a rise or drop in temperature, for example.  The last and most famous, the Late Triassic extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs and made ecological room for the expansion of the mammalian population [and eventually, for us], was the result quite literally of an event, the crashing into the earth of a five mile wide asteroid.

Kolbert’s thesis is that human beings are producing a sixth great extinction by their expansion across the planet, their rearrangement of ecological spaces [by clearing forests, building cities, and subdividing old growth areas into parcels too small to support many species, for example], and by raising the planet’s temperature so rapidly that species do not have time to adapt.

This is presented by her as a disaster, but that depends on one’s point of view.  Several years ago, there were reports that the lions in Kruger National Park in South Africa were dying of pneumonia.  This was widely viewed as a crisis, but it was, of course, a success story for the virus or bacterium causing the disease.  E. O. Wilson likes to tell us how successful ants are as a family but not many of us have learned to adopt a formicaedean standpoint.

Anyway, the book is perfect summer reading.  Enjoy.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


One of the liveliest and most engaging of the philosophy graduate students who took my course last semester on Karl Marx’s Critique of Capitalism was a young first year student who has been forced to take a year off from his studies to return home so that he can help to support his mother.  I offered to mentor him this coming year in order to enable him in some manner to continue his study of philosophy during his year in California.  As I have often made clear on this blog, I am deeply suspicious of the contemporary practice of giving doctoral students snippets of philosophy to read – selections from great works, or recent journal articles.  I am unashamedly old-fashioned in my belief that the very best preparation for beginning students is close reading of a number of major texts of Western philosophy.  Accordingly, I arranged to have send the young man copies of Descartes’ Meditations, Leibniz’s Monadology, Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.  Over the coming months, I hope to take him through these works – all of each of them, even the less highly regarded or commented upon parts – and perhaps through other classic works as well, if time permits.  By the time he returns to resume his doctoral studies, he should have some solid grounding for whatever his professors ask him to read.  It should be an interesting experience for me, and perhaps for him as well.


Long, cramped, uneventful flight.  Took me two days to make up the lost sleep.  Ah, to be seventy again.  Walked past the newly renovated La Monnaie.  No sign of Guy Savoy's three star restaurant on the top floor.  Susie and I were awakened this morning by a persistent rhythmic hammering that sounded as though it was right outside our window.  Sure enough, a workman was hard at it stippling a newly plastered façade of the building next door to make it rough and aged looking.  There is something inherently irrational abut trying to make a seventeenth century building look old.

Paris is lovely -- mixed sun and clouds, the weather trending warmer.  Yesterday was Pentecost, a national holiday, and the streets were deserted when I walked at six a.m.  This morning  shopped at the market.  I shall make skate tonight -- a very Parisian meal, I feel.

From time to time, readers report having difficulty posting comments.  This is terra incognita to me, I am afraid.  Wallace Stevens sent me an extremely interesting comment by e-mail after finding himself unable to post it.  With his permission I reproduce it here:

Wallace Stevens:

Your question "What should the foreign and military policy of the United States be?" is an important one.  I think it is pretty clear what it should NOT be.  But I think that in order to address what it should be, we first need to address the notion of "imperialism,"--the term that forms the context in which you raise the question.
Ancient imperialism was a pretty transparent and unapologetic question of theft--the hauling away of booty and the collection of tribute.  Yes, there may have been the odd road, or bridge, or public bath coming back the other way, but there was never any real accounting of the "balance" of such exchanges.  And any improvements to local infrastructure reflected the priorities of the metropolis, not the needs of the colony or vassal state, although some of the improvements were no doubt welcome.  (Older readers of this blog will recall a very funny segment in the Monty Python film "The Life of Brian" on this issue.)  The ancient model of empire was replaced by the commercial/capitalist empire in which the colonies became both captive sources of raw materials, and captive markets for finished goods?the two sides of the profit equation--through various monopolies awarded by the imperial government.  It was no longer a simple matter of "loot."  We are now talking about businesses that made useful things and sold them.  But the colonies did not control the exploitation of their natural resources or collect royalties for use, and they were forced to buy only goods made in the metropolis.  Military power was a means of maintaining and extending these arrangements.
None of the above is true today.  Whatever is taken by the US from other countries is bought and paid for with an equivalent basket of US goods and services.  And if a given country does not want enough of what the US has to offer in exchange for what it produces, the difference is paid for with US debt--i.e., future claims on US goods and services.  Further, such exchanges are based on prices determined by market forces, some competitive, some, like the price of oil, which is largely dependent on Saudi production, not so competitive, that, in the context of a global, capitalist market place, US military might cannot control.
Today, the US certainly has the military capabilities and swagger of an imperial power of old. But it is not at all clear to me what actual good it does the US. For example, the price of oil--a critical commodity for the US and other industrialised societies--seems completely out its grasp.  (You can imagine the rhetoric and reaction in the 19th century if a small,  relatively lightly defended state like Saudi Arabia controlled the supply and therefore the price of coal: A bunch of "wogs" holding the civilised world to ransom, time for gunboats in the harbour, etc., etc.  Not only are all the President's horses and all the President's men incapable of doing anything about the price of oil, but also, supposing they WERE to act, what would the US government do with this power? Force the Saudis to cut back production further (thus benefiting the oil companies by raising prices), or force them to increase production (thus aiding the Western economies as a whole and the (vastly larger) non-petroleum capitalist interests)?  To this one might add that higher prices, which discourage consumption, might not even be in the interests of the oil companies over the longer term. So, what to do, even supposing you were able to act?
The Japanese, the Swiss, the Canadians and others, who have little to no capability of "projecting power," have discovered that you don't need a huge military presence in order to prosper.  All you have to do is stand on the shore waving hard currency and the tankers will come to you!
Yes, there are pirates (sea-born and cyber) and other potential disrupters of the free and peaceful flow of goods, services and capital.  But even Japan has enough of a navy to take on the threat of pirates at sea.  As for the cyber pirates, well, aircraft carriers aren't much help.  What about organized states that might disrupt trade?  Here it is ironic that "enemies" like Iran today, and Iraq pre-2003, are EMBARGOED.  The US, and the West more broadly, actually forces them to withdraw their critical raw material?oil--from the market.
I want to get to your question. In particular I like Gene's alternative #5.  But I have gardening duties and will have to sign off for now.

Friday, May 22, 2015


My bag is packed, I have had a haircut, a taxi is arranged, and there is really nothing more to be done save wait until tomorrow, so I spent some time exploring my IPhone, with special attention to the apps I never use.  I discovered that I have zero birds listed on my life list on my Birds of the World app.  GoogleMaps assured me that I am still in Chapel Hill.  For the tenth time, I checked the weather in Paris.  And then I tapped the iBooks icon.  It turns out that I have A Treatise of Human Nature on my phone [I am old enough to find this astonishing.]  I called up the text and began reading the Introduction.  I feeling of warmth and comfort came over me as I read again the words I first read sixty-four years ago.  How measured, how sane, how charmingly familiar they were.  I am a Kant scholar of some sort and a Marxist, or so I insist, but David Hume is my favorite philosopher.  I do not think I would actually have much enjoyed an evening with Kant or Marx, for all their greatness, but I would give anything to have had the pleasure of an evening with the man whom the French called le bon David.  In my mind he is linked with Jane Austen, who lived perhaps a generation later.  Of both it would always have been the case that they were the smartest person in any room, and yet both were in their way unassuming and modest, allowing others to underestimate them.  Perhaps on the long plane ride I shall pass the time by dipping here and there into Books One, Two, and Three of the Treatise.


As I make last minute preparations for our trip to Paris [haircut -- I do not trust Parisian barbers to snip my few remaining scraggles of hair], I should like to pose a question for my readers.  This is  not a rhetorical question, as the saying has it.  I am genuinely uncertain what I think is the appropriate answer.  The question is this:  What should America's military policy be with regard to the rest of the world?

Some facts, first.  The United States currently has roughly one and a third million men and women under arms, and an additional 850,000 or so in the various reserves and National Guard units.  Its military budget accounts for perhaps not quite 40% of the world wide expenditures on armed forces and related activities and resources.  [Some of America's expenditures are hidden in the budget, so it is difficult to be precise, and I assume the same is true for many other nations.]

For at least the past three quarters of a century, the United States has been pursuing an imperial foreign policy, seeking to establish military hegemony over as much of the earth's surface as it can manage.  So far as I can tell, this drive to world domination has been motivated partly by a desire to make the world safe for American capitalism, and partly to establish supremacy simply for its own sake.  During part of that three quarters of a century, the United States confronted a Soviet empire which, though never as powerful militarily, possessed enough nuclear weapons to create a so-called balance of terror.  Despite the precariousness of that arrangement, the world approached dangerously close to nuclear war only once, in 1962, thanks to the decisions and actions of a liberal Democratic president, John F. Kennedy .

In pursuit of its imperial aims, the United States has overthrown democratically elected governments, subverted progressive indigenous movements, propped up dictators, and engaged in perpetual war.  After the disaster of the Viet Nam War, which came close to destroying the cohesion and effectiveness of the American military, America's political and military rulers carried out the final transformation of America to a classical imperial power by replacing its conscript army with a professional military that could be deployed anywhere in the world with little or no domestic political opposition.

All of this, I take it, is beyond dispute.  For purposes of discussion, I shall simply posit that this is not good.  But it is the reality.  I do not wish to ask here what the United States should have done over the past  three quarters of a century.  That is an important question, but it is not my question today.  Nor do I wish to ask what it is politically possible to do in the United States now.  That too is an important question, and one to which the realistic answer is deeply depressing.  Rather, I am asking:  What should the foreign and military policy of the United States be?

There are four possible answers, so far as I can see.  They are:

1.  Pursue an expansionist, belligerent military policy, seeking to control as much of the world as we can while denying the imperial ambitions of China and other potential contenders wherever  and whenever we can, thereby making the world as safe as we can for capitalism.  That, I take it, is the expressed or unexpressed grand vision of most Republicans and a good many Democrats.

2.  Continue to function as an imperial power dedicated to the protection and advancement of the interests of American capital, but do so in a kinder and gentler fashion.  That, I take it, is roughly Obama's answer.

3.   Dismantle the U. S. military establishment, leaving only so much of it as is required to protect America from a land invasion by Canada or Mexico, or an amphibian invasion by, let us say, China.  Then, keep America's troops at home and let the rest of the world sort itself out as it chooses.  On a good day, this appears to be Rand Paul's policy.

4.  Maintain America's military establishment, but use it, along with America's economic power, for progressive, indeed, revolutionary projects abroad wherever possible.  Undermine and overthrow repressive and reactionary regimes whenever possible, such as, for example, the Saudi regime, or the Russian regime, or the North Korean regime.  Use America's military and economic power to undermine capitalism abroad and to support progressive revolutionary forces wherever they appear.

If we are talking about what would be best, not what is possible, I assume that most of my readers would reject alternatives one and two.  But I am genuinely uncertain whether it would be best to maintain a large military establishment that could be deployed instantly in support of progressive policies, or whether it would be best to dismantle our huge military establishment and adopt what used to be called a Fortress America stance.

Let me make one thing very clear.  I reject utterly and categorically the fantasy that all the evil in the world is a result of past or present American actions, so that if we would simply stop our endless undermining of good regimes and propping up of bad regimes, the world would be a peaceful, progressive, secular place. 

If we choose the third alternative, then we must be prepared to stand by while really terrible things are done in the world [never mind for the moment the really terrible things done in America -- that is a subject for a different discussion.]  If you think the abduction of hundreds of young girls by Nigerian Muslims is something we should do something about, then you must be willing to maintain a standing armed force of considerable size that can be deployed immediately, not after a year of recruitment.   No doubt, America would not need as large a military as it now has, but interventionist policies cannot be pursued on the cheap.

If we choose the fourth alternative, then inevitably there are going to be unintended civilian deaths, the use of drones and other modern weapons, and a state of permanent military readiness with all of the unavoidable consequences.

So, what do people think?  Is there a fifth alternative?