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Monday, September 1, 2014


Naive as I am about all things technological, I was oblivious of the ubiquity of this phenomenon of audio and video recorded lecturing, so the rash of interesting comments triggered by the idea of my recording my Marx lectures caught me by surprise.  I think I had encountered the acronym MOOC, but had certainly not remembered it.

Chris, I accept happily Noam's revision of the old Quaker injunction to "speak truth to power."  [I refer to him thus because I actually knew Chomsky back in the day and counted him a friend.  Indeed, as the saying goes, I knew him before he was Noam Chomsky.]   I have been trying to speak truth about power most of my life.  Indeed, what else is In Defense of Anarchism?   But it is also a useful exercise to speak truth to power, even if you think that power already knows that truth.  The seductiveness of wealth and entrenched power, especially when it masks its real nature and goes unchallenged, should never be underestimated.

Let me illustrate with one little personal story from my early days.  During the time that I was a student at Harvard and then an Instructor, McGeorge Bundy was Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which was then [and perhaps is still] the most powerful academic administrative position at Harvard.  Bundy's later performance as National Security Advisor demonstrates, if indeed demonstration is needed, that he had an extremely refined and well-tuned sense of raw power.  As I have several times related, I replaced for a year my Philosophy Department mentor, Morton White, on a committee planning a new undergraduate interdisciplinary major to be called Social Studies.  During that year, Bundy pushed approval of the new major through the Harvard faculty.  Like all majors at Harvard, Social Studies would need a Head Tutor, which meant some junior flunky to do the administrative scut work that senior members of the faculty shun.  Instead of calling me into his office and asking me whether I might want the position [which I certainly did], Bundy showed up at the Winthrop House Senior Common Room one day for lunch, and when I walked in late from a class, he looked up and said, "Ah, here is the new Head Tutor of Social Studies,"  the very first I had heard of it. This was, on his part, a typical display of power, albeit about something very trivial.  The idea was at one and the same time to fluster me with my pleasure at the announcement, to present himself as a casual and genial man, and to show by this act that he and he alone controlled the plum, which he could bestow on anyone he chose.  I regret to say that I did not have the self-awareness, at twenty-six, to understand what was happening, nor the moxie to give him the finger, verbally.  [I did several years later, but that is another story.]

Tony, your cautionary remarks about sounds one might not want the microphone to pick up is giving me pause.  Perhaps I should get hold of a device like the one you are talking about and try it out before I commit myself to what may turn out to be a never-ending embarrassment. 


My big sister, Barbara, whom I have many times mentioned on this blog, was not only an extraordinarily smart little girl, she was also crafty [as is my granddaughter, Athena.]  Like all children, Barbara loved cake, and she devised a rather clever strategem to get more than the piece allotted to her at the dinner table.  She pretended to be obsessed with the necessity of making her cake and her milk come out even -- eating the last bite and drinking the last sip together.  But despite her best efforts, one often ran out before the other, so she would have to get some more milk with which to finish the cake or more cake with which to finish the milk.  Several iterations later, she would triumphantly finish both together and announce herself satisfied.  As her little brother, I could only watch in admiration and envy.  It never occurred to me to lay claim to the same obsession.  I had plenty of my own, of course, though none that produced extra pieces of cake.

Sunday, August 31, 2014


Let me try once more to make myself clear.  I think Michael Sandel is a bright, lively, interesting person and, I suspect, a terrific lecturer.  In the context of the Harvard community, he is one of the good guys.  What I was trying to explain, with my references to McLuhan and [facetiously] to Woody Allen, is that even someone like that can be defeated by the form of his presentation, so that what would in another setting be effective teaching becomes a form of performance, of entertainment, and hence undercuts whatever he is trying to accomplish as a teacher.  I did not think I needed to spell that out so flat-footedly.  I thought I could communicate it wittily, by indirection.  But it would appear that I was wrong.

It would not surprise me to learn that Jonathan Swift had a similar problem.  [Sigh.  There I go again.]


I have now received, read, and uploaded to Part Two of William Polk's important historical essay on Israel and the Palestinians.  I urge all of you most strongly to take the time to read it.  I myself had not realized until now how central a role Bill himself played in the unfolding of those events.

The essay can be found under the title "Polk Part Two."


Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my practice of taking a daily early morning walk, during which, in the pre-dawn quiet, I meditate on this and that, often writing a blog post in my head before later transcribing it here.  This morning, I found myself reflecting on my exchange with Professor Tony Couture on the possibility of podcasting my Marx lectures next semester.  Tony [if I may be so informal] included a link to an on-line course on Justice taught at Harvard by the well-known political philosopher Michael Sandel.  The course is astonishingly successful, enrolling more than one thousand students each time it is taught.  Sandel, who is a Professor in Harvard's Government Department, first came to prominence with a book criticizing the methodologically individualist presuppositions of Rawls' A Theory of Justice.  In his comment, Tony noted the rather lavish production values of the video of the Sandel lectures.  I decided to take a look, and picked the lecture on Kant's ethical theory, for which the students are apparently asked to read the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  I made it through two and a half minutes of the lecture, which, by the way, was held in Sanders Theater, and then clicked off, deeply offended.

On my walk, I began to think about what had bothered me so much.  Lord knows, it wasn't the subject matter.  Getting a thousand Harvard undergraduates to read the Groundwork has got to be a good thing, right?  Sandel's opening remarks were a little inaccurate, but not more than what one would expect at that level.  [The First Critique was not the first thing Kant published, but only Kant scholars like me would quibble.]  Was I merely envious of this good-looking man in the really good-looking suit who was so obviously adored by more than a thousand good-looking, bright, and probably rich young men and women? 

I found myself thinking of Marshal McLuhan's old mantra that the medium is the message.  McLuhan's claim, which echoes Aristotle's insistence on the primacy of form over matter, is that the form in which ideas are presented inevitably and unavoidably shapes the content of those ideas, regardless of the intentions of their author.  I recalled the two and a half minutes I had watched of the video.  When Sandel made a humorous remark about the years Kant spent as an unsalaried privatdozent, paid according to the numbers of students he enrolled, the camera cut to the audience and focused on an attractive young woman who laughed and began to applaud. 

And then it hit me.  Sandel was doing stand-up.  His subject might be justice.  The topic of the day might be Immanuel Kant.  But he was doing a stand-up comedy routine that he might as easily offer in a Cambridge coffee house.  The form of his presentation had taken control of the content.  The medium is the message.  And the message is:  This is fun, this is entertainment, albeit the sort of refined entertainment that one has every right to expect at a classy and expensive place like Harvard.

And then, my mind being what it is, I recalled the Whore of Mensa.  There may be some of you, especially among my younger readers, who are unfamiliar with the Whore of Mensa.  Even though I am fond of quoting the King James version of the Bible, this is not, as you might imagine, an invocation of Revelations.  The Whore of Mensa is a short story by Woody Allen, published just forty  years ago in The New Yorker.  It tells the sad tale of a man, hiding behind the pseudonym "Flossie," who has started a Call Girl service.  He hires young women from elite women's colleges who, for a fee, will meet you in a motel and talk to you for an hour about Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Kant.

It would be cruel, I think, to describe Michael Sandel as a Whore of Mensa, but if the bustier fits.


Everyone around the world, quite rightly, has commented on the demented insanity of taking a nine year old girl out to a shooting range for a little fun time with an Uzi.  I should simply like to add a thought that has not, to my knowledge, yet received much attention.  That poor child will have to live for the rest of her life with the knowledge that she killed someone, regardless of how often she is told, correctly, that it is not her fault. 

I will confess, somewhat ashamedly, that I am not able to feel truly sorry for the shooting instructor whose recklessness cost him his own life.   I know nothing at all about him, save that he put a loaded submachine gun in fully automatic mode in the hands of a child.  It is no good blaming capitalism, or whatever.  There is not another "advanced" industrial nation in the world that would allow such a thing.  There is something uniquely sick about America, among all the other imperial capitalist states.  It is entirely of a piece with the fact that we incarcerate a vastly larger proportion of our population -- of course disproportionally of color -- than any other capitalist country.  And it cannot possibly be irrelevant that a higher proportion of Americans attend religious services regularly.


Just when I found out that I am very big in Ukraine [second most frequent country from which page views pop up on my Formal Methods blog], Vladimir Putin is threatening to make it part of Russia, where I am toast.  I can't seem to get a break.