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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Saturday, June 17, 2017

SEE YOU IN A BIT

I have been blogging for just short of eight years.  In that time, I have written on line a quarter million word autobiography, another quarter million words of extended essays, and uncounted numbers of words of commentary on the passing scene.  I am now eighty-three years old, and I am tired, written out for the moment.  I am also just now managing a move from a condominium apartment to a continuing care retirement community.  I have decided therefore to take a break from blogging for a week or two.  We move on June 28th, and go to Paris for a two-week break on July 12th.  Unless something titanic of a political sort happens in the interim, I shall return to blogging at some time between the 28th and the 12th.  The world will get along quite nicely without me, I imagine.

TOUGH LOVE DEMANDS AN INTERVENTION

This is a message for Danial Langlois.


Mr. Langlois, for some time now, you have been posting lengthy comments on this blog, sometimes as often as twice or even three times a day.  Surely you must have noticed that after a short while I stopped responding to them, as indeed did the other constant commenters.  Speaking only for myself, I will say that I refrained from responding because I find your contributions to the discussion to be scattered, unfocused, and often simply incoherent.  You are always appropriately respectful, and I think it would be inappropriate for me to remove your comments, But I must suggest that in future you refrain from posting comments on this blog.  You are of course always welcome to read the blog, and I will tell you honestly that if you continue to post comments, I will not remove them.  But I really do think it would be best if you stop.

Friday, June 16, 2017

THIS COULD HAVE BEEN PREDICTED

When drug addiction was a problem in the Black community, America's response was to lock up as many Black men as it could manage -- an ad hoc response to the Civil Rights Movement and the end of Jim Crow.  Now that opioid addiction is killing White people, enlightened responses focused on helping the addicted are all the rage.  Indeed, according to this story in today's TIMES, some folks thinking outside the box are even using the jails in Kentucky as treatment centers.

Why am I not surprised?

EITHER THE WORLD IS COMING TO AN END OR A NEW DAY IS DAWNING

Amazon.com is buying Whole Foods.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

JERRY FRESIA'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE

Here is Jerry's account of the time his university's Chancellor ran over him with a car.  This is way, way braver than anything I have ever done.  I stand in awe.


Righteous, Upstanding, Honorable Self-serving Cowards With a Bit of Revenge Tossed In

Okay, okay, so inquiring minds want to know how it happened that within weeks of my very first full time teaching gig at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the Chancellor of the university drove over me with his car. Here’s the story, as best as I can recall.

First, some background: I arrived at UMass, Amherst in 1974 as a grad student in political science. My undergraduate degree was in engineering and I was then able to snag an MA degree in poly sci from Purdue University before I had to deal with my military “obligations.” Given the various ways of avoiding combat back then, I chose volunteering for a desk job in the Air Force, a four year commitment. As an intelligence officer, I spent two years in Korea and two at the Strategic Air Command Headquarters in Omaha. I mention this because it was my military experience that moved me from someone who knocked on doors for McGovern in ’72 to someone who secretly identified, while in uniform, more with the people on the ground in Vietnam resisting the US invasion than I did with the American pilots dropping bombs. What I saw and learned as an intel officer forever altered my sense of – well, shall we say – America’s best and brightest.

As the Professor has referenced, the UMass campus in the mid-70s was brimming with a slew of brilliant left (many of them Marxist) professors. The conceptual framework that I encountered completely transformed my way of understanding my own life as the son of factory workers and the grandson of illiterate immigrants. The Amherst campus wasn’t exactly Paris 1871 but for me it might as well have been. I felt alive, young, and powerful. The revolution just couldn’t come soon enough.

I received my degree in 1982 and throughout my grad school period I became very active within various groups, mostly around anti-intervention causes (Central America), some labor activity, and in solidarity with the gay and lesbian alliance that was becoming quite the powerhouse in nearby Northampton. I always felt that my activist experiences – working with and/or against city officials, speaking at group meetings and, at times, publicly, developing arguments, and watching powerful types simply betray various members of the community, principally our gay and lesbian friends - even the machinations of getting arrested, going to court, and so on – contributed as much to my education as did academic life. And so it was that when I got my first full time position (temporary) at UCSB, a professor friend advised me, “Whatever you do, do not embarrass the administration or your department.”

As I mentioned in the comment section, within a few weeks of my arrival (January 1986), Desmond Tutu came to UCSB to give an address. It was open to the public but I couldn’t get near the place so I listened in on my radio at home. After Tutu completed his impassioned plea for UC divestment, Chancellor Huttenback responded to Tutu’s remarks by saying, “I don’t know what to say.” What? You don’t know what to say? What an upstanding, honorable, cowardly asshole! I’M EMBARASSED!

I left my apartment, went on campus and found about 100 students protesting outside of the administration building. Someone asked me if I would say something to the assembled protesters so I went through my embarrassment-is-a-two-way-street story and that was that. But then minutes afterwards, the students began running toward the parking lot, shouting, “There he is, there he is!!” Apparently, Huttenback’s office had told the students who had wanted to meet with him, that he was out of town.

Huttenback very quickly walked to his car. I said to the students, “Block his exit.” And then I sat down on the road in front of the exit. One student joined me. The rest of the students were surrounding the exit, yelling and shouting.

Huttenback’s car approached at a slow speed (it was one of those 1986 GM models that looked like a tank). It turned a corner and then came directly at me. I remember that my brain was giving me two simultaneous and conflicting messages: one was “large, heavy metal object approaching, you have seconds to move to safety – GET UP, GET UP, GET UP.” The other message was “do not move, stay put, resist, resist, RESIST.” My comrade, the student next to me, sprang up in the nick of time and dashed off. The bumper of Huttenback’s car slammed into my chest, knocking me flat to the ground and then I felt the tire running over my foot. I remember thinking how the pressure on my foot was enormous and then it occurred to me that the tire was split seconds away from my pelvis. By this time, the protesters were screaming for Huttenback to stop. He did. And then he proceeded to back up over my foot. And with protesters banging on the car, he grove up over a curb, onto the grass and through a hedge and then onto the nearby road and sped away.

I wasn’t injured. My chest was bruised and my foot sore, but that was it. I reported the incident to the police and because there were “no injuries” there wasn’t really an incident. Talk about norms.

Weeks later, at the Reagan “western White House” press conference (remember Larry Speaks?), I, with a few other citizens, poured fake blood over ourselves and began yelling “Stop the Lies.” The nice thing about that action was that it had been picked up by the Nicaraguan press. So someone in that terrorized nation, I’m sure, understood that Americans were standing with them, as best they could, side by side.





Wednesday, June 14, 2017

SOME RESPONSES

The response to my blog post entitled “NORMS” has been rambunctious, hilarious, delightful.  I have a good deal to say by way of response, but before all else, I must begin with something Jerry Fresia wrote:

“prior to my first full-time teaching assignment at UC Santa Barbara, I was told (or maybe warned!) by a professor friend that whatever I do, I should not “embarrass” the university (or department chairs, etc). It was 1986 and Desmond Tutu gave an impassioned speech, at a very large assembly open to the public, urging that the UC universities divest. Chancellor Huttenback of UCSB responded by saying to Bishop Tutu, “I don’t know what to say.”

Later that day at a student rally, I was asked to say a few words. I recounted the advice/warning that I had received (clearly a big fat norm) and told the students that the embarrassment thing was or ought to be a two way street and that I was embarrassed by the Chancellor’s response.

Note: About an hour after I spoke at the rally about my two-way sense of embarrassment, the Chancellor actually ran over me with his car, literally. Long story. Later that year Chancellor Huttenback was convicted and ousted over the embezzlement of university funds as well as tax evasion. Ah, those were the days!”

Now really, Jerry, you cannot leave it at that!  I must insist that you tell us the whole story.  The blog is yours.

 A propos, in 1981, I was put up for a professorship at Brandeis shortly after my wife and I moved from Amherst to Boston.  The President, Marver Bernstein, was dead set against the appointment, saying that I had done some good work when I was young but was now played out.  [His Provost asked the Chair of the Philosophy Department, scornfully, “Why do you want another Marcuse?”  It was the greatest compliment I have ever received.]  I didn’t get the job, thank God.  My story, like Jerry’s, ends happily.  Shortly thereafter, Bernstein was killed in a hotel fire in Israel.

A number of you penned effulgent words of devotion, mimicking and mocking that godawful Cabinet meeting.  I will tell you a deep, dark, shameful secret.  I kind of liked them when I read them.  There!  And they say old folks can’t play Truth or Dare!

Let me move on to a more serious part of Jerry’s comment.  He writes:  “Based upon what you have just said, I assume you would agree that norms tend to express ideology.  So my question is, if norms are concrete manifestations of ideology, as I believe many norms are, are there social norms that would support actions of liberation? Or do such actions always push a society or institution to the edge of collapse?”

Jerry’s question in a way echoes the comment of S. Wallerstein, who wrote:  “There are good norms and there are bad norms.  For example, the norms that have to do with how women are treated in Saudi Arabia are bad in general.  I believe that the academic norms which you outline above are good, although full disclosure, I may just be defending norms that I guided my professional life with during the years that I taught in a university.  I'm not at all sure which of the norms of U.S. political behavior are good and which are bad. We'd first have to have some sense of the explicit and implicit norms, tacit and stated norms, written and unwritten norms, which function there.”

These are really interesting comments, and if I can wrest my eyes away from the train wreck of the Trump presidency, I want to try to reply to them. 

It is clear that there are social norms that support actions of liberation and, what is equally important, that would work to sustain a just society if one were to come into existence.  Norms are the public face of our social actions, and as such they are inevitably in conflict with many of our deepest desires – for domination, for revenge, for private gratification at the expense of the needs of others.  These are universal human desires, surely present in a socialist society as they are in capitalist, feudal, or slave societies.  A modern post-industrial socialist society will necessarily be bureaucratically organized.  Those occupying positions of public trust or managing large-scale enterprises will be drawn to favor some – children or friends, perhaps – to the detriment of others not so connected.  It is public norms, celebrated and reinforced by honor, by public recognition, by tradition, and by ideology, that will strengthen the public face of the individual against the temptations of self-interest. 


S Wallerstein is most assuredly correct.  There are good norms and bad norms.  As I have argued elsewhere, no philosophical argument will serve to distinguish between the good and the bad.  That is a matter of fundamental human choice.  As my Columbia student said all those years ago, “First you must choose which side you are on.  Then you will be able to decide what you ought to do.”  But it is important to recognize that those enforcing and living by the norms of Saudi Arabian society with regard to women are, sociologically speaking, doing just what I am doing when I reject those norms and instead embrace and live by the norms of a gender equal society.  A great many philosophers have defended the position that those who act immorally are, must be, guilty in effect of false consciousness, but I am convinced that is a mistake.  There are righteous, upstanding, honorable [by their lights] racists, sexists, and capitalist exploiters.  I simply choose to make them my enemies because they treat as enemies those with whom I have made common cause.  They feel the same pride, the same sense of subordinating themselves to norms dictated by society, the same willingness to yield self-interest to the norms they embrace, as I do.  They are my enemies, but I will misjudge their motives and fail to foresee their actions if I make the mistake of thinking that they must be self-serving cowards simply because they pursue evil ends.

OY VEH

The person who showed up at a Republican Congressional baseball practice and started blasting away with a rifle, hitting Representative Scalise and others, has been identified as James Hodgkinson from Illinois.  If this is the James T. Hodgkinson on Twitter, he appears to be a fanatic Bernie Sanders supporter!  One report has it that he left the Democratic Party to join the Green Party.  I am afraid we are now in for it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

NORMS

The sickening, embarrassing, creepy sight of Trump’s Cabinet delivering, one after another, fulsome words of praise for their Glorious Leader has inspired me to say something about the norms of civilized behavior on which every society relies for its quotidian functioning.  I anticipate that my attempt will elicit heated comments about the widespread immoral acts of ostensibly respectable public, corporate, and other governmental figures, comments that, though well-intentioned, and with the content of which I quite agree, will distract readers from the point I am trying to make.  In an effort to postpone those reactions, I shall begin by talking about a social realm with which most of the readers of this blog are familiar – the American university or college.

Those of us who spend our work lives in higher education very quickly become aware of the existence of certain norms of expected performance, and most of us, I venture to speculate, actually try to conform our own behavior to them.  Let me mention just three:  First, we try to offer in our classes thoughtful, intelligent, and informed lectures or discussions that arguably concern the ostensible subject of the course;  Second, much as we may hate it, we actually read the papers and exams that our students write and try to offer useful comments and criticisms of student work; and Third, if grades are called for, we do not simply assign them randomly, but try to fit the grade to the student performance in some predictable and impartial manner.

We are, of course, all well aware of colleagues who regularly violate one or another of these norms – colleagues who do no more than glance at papers before slapping grades on them haphazardly; colleagues who hand papers or exams back with not a comment or correction on them, just a bare grade; colleagues who do little or nothing to meet the legitimate expectation that their lectures will present in an orderly fashion material facially related to the announced subject of the course.  Let me give you one particularly egregious example, from South Africa, not America.  During several of the twenty-five years that I ran a scholarship organization for poor Black South African university students, I brought some of the money I had raised to Cape Technikon, an originally all-White Africans-speaking institution that had under the new post-Apartheid regime become integrated.  During one of my visits, some of my scholarship recipients took me aside to tell me of a problem they were having.  The lectures were supposed to be in English, which would be equally comprehensible to the Afrikaner students and to the Khosa and Zulu students.  But quite often, in a class, an Afrikaner student would ask a question in Afrikaans, and the lecturer [one of the hold-overs from before integration] would reply in Afrikaans and then proceed to give the rest of the lecture in Afrikaans, leaving the Black students mystified [save for the mixed race or Coloured students for whom Afrikaans was in fact their first language.]

Now, if you know anything about the way a university actually functions, you will recognize that in practice there is almost no realistic way to enforce the norms I mentioned.  In particularly egregious cases, an “intervention” might be attempted, with a professor’s senior colleagues taking him or her aside and quietly, tactfully suggesting some changes.  But it would be impossible to run a university in which every act by every professor were monitored, overseen, and disciplined.  If the university cannot count on the general run of professors to abide voluntarily by the norms of the Academy, reserving its minatory oversight for the rare outliers, the institution will simply collapse.  It will become Trump University.

Now, the norms of which I am writing are not universal, nor can they be deduced a priori from the concept of education-as-such.  They are social norms, variable from age to age and from society to society.  They are not so much taught as absorbed by those being socialized into a profession.  And higher education is of course not at all unique in exhibiting such norms of expected functioning.  The Military has its norms, as does the Church.  And yes, difficult thought it may be to believe, even the Corporation in a capitalist society has internal norms of expected behavior.  And so too do the institutions of representative government.

All of these norms are violated some of the time, and – a point of the greatest importance – some institutions, such as the Corporation, may be inherently immoral or unjust, so that even those conforming meticulously to its norms can be rightly condemned.  But in understanding even unjust institutions, it is useful to identify its internal norms and distinguish those who are constraining their behavior by them from those who are violating them.

Which brings me back to Trump.  What makes trump uniquely dangerous is that he is flagrantly violating all of the norms of political behavior to which the rest of the political class give lip service, and to which a good many of that class actually make some effort to conform their behavior.  [This is the point at which I expect readers to explode with outraged laundry lists of all the ways in which mainstream politicians violate those norms.  I am well aware of all of that, I would really like it of readers could contain themselves long enough to try to engage with what I am trying to say, but that is probably a forlorn hope.]

Perhaps it is worth pointing out that even in a socialist society, no instance of which has yet existed, there would be social norms on which the successful functioning of the society depended and there would of course be individuals who violated them.  A revolution would not alter that fact, even though it would most certainly alter the structure of society and with that the character of the accepted norms.

American society is bad enough.  American society absent these norms of publicly acceptable behavior would be even more of a nightmare.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

WAS IT EVEN REAL?

As I began my walk this morning, just after six a.m., I looked up and saw a beautiful full moon hanging low in the early morning sky.  A great sadness swept over me as I reflected that it was now forty-five years, half a lifetime and more, since the last human had walked on the surface of the moon.  Those below middle age have never known the thrill of following reports that one of our species was walking on the moon.  Since then, we have spent hundreds of billions of dollars in fruitless, destructive wars, the inequality of our society has grown ever more grotesque, and yet it has not proved possible to mount one more manned space flight to our nearest solar system neighbors.  Had we devoted a tenth of the resources we have wasted killing, we could by now have sent men and women to Mars, and brought them back.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

WHILE WE ARE OBSESSED WITH THE RUSSIAN CONNECTION

Colbert King calls our attention to the extensive evil being done by the Trump administration in this Wsshington Post Op Ed column.

ROLLING MY TUB

I take the text for today’s meditation from the Preface of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments:

“When Philip threatened to lay siege to the city of Corinth and all its inhabitants hastily bestirred themselves in defense, some polishing weapons, some gathering stones, some repairing the walls, Diogenes seeing all this hurriedly folded his mantle about him and began to roll his tub zealously back and forth through the streets. When he was asked why he did this he replied that he wished to be busy like all the rest, and rolled his tub lest he should be the only idler among so many industrious citizens.”

The entire nation has been mesmerized by the spectacle of James Comey’s testimony, and the screen of my TV set, which has been on virtually non-stop, has been filled with learned speculation on the deeper significance of his revelations.  I have absolutely nothing of value to add to that commentary, but like Diogenes, I do not wish to be seen as the only idler among so many industrious citizens, so herewith a thought experiment about the question whether Comey has broken the law or violated accepted norms by passing along his contemporaneous memoranda on his meetings with Trump to a friend, with instructions to give them to a NY TIMES reporter.  My thought experiment is prompted by a statement by Susan Collins, described in a brilliant satirical piece as “the human fulcrum perched stoically at the precise center of American politics.”  Senator Collins offered the opinion that Comey had violated recognized restrictions in passing along his memorandum because it was a “work product” created on an FBI laptop while Comey was an FBI employee.  [“Work product” is a term of art from the legal world.]  Comey, meanwhile, has been described by friends and enemies alike as a “leaker.”

Let me ask a series of elementary questions, each of which can be answered by “yes” or “no.”  The answer to the first question is transparently “yes.”  Senator Collins says that the answer to the last question is “no.”  The trick is to figure out where in the series the answer flips from “yes” to “no.”

Did Comey, as a private citizen, having been fired from his job, have the right to think about his meetings with Trump during the time that he was FBI Director?  I take it we will all agree that the answer is “yes.”

Did he have the right, at night in bed with his wife, to talk to her about those meetings, describing to her his memory of what had happened during them?  This, I think, is actually the most important question in the entire series.  Presumably the answer is “no” if those recollections include classified matters, but ”yes” if not.  People privy to classified information are not supposed to share it even with spouses.  [Recall that hilarious old Arnold Schwarzenegger/Jaimie Lee Curtis movie True Lies.]  But Comey says, and no one is disputing, that he deliberately kept any classified matters out of his memos, and we will assume that he does the same in his pillow talk.

Did Comey have the right, before talking to his wife, to consult his contemporaneous memos in order to refresh his memory of the events?  Obviously yes.

Did he have the right to make notes from those memos?  Yes.

Did he have the right to draft full-length quasi-memos in preparation for his nightly pillow talk?  We may assume that his wife is a demanding bed partner, if not in matters sexual then at least in matters conversational.  Surely the answer is still “yes.”

In preparing his pillow talk aide-memoire, did Comey have the right to make it a word-for-word copy of the original memoranda?  Surely yes.  On what possible grounds could one say “no?”

At an intimate dinner the next evening with friends, did Comey have the right to share with them his pillow talk?  The answer must be “yes.”  When it comes to such matters, the spouse does not have, in the law, privileged access [as we say in philosophy] to the thoughts of the husband or wife.  If Comey can share his thoughts with his wife, he can share them with a friend.

Can Comey give to his dinner guest a copy of the private notes he prepared prior to the previous evening’s pillow talk?  Why not?  Can he ask that friend to pass it on to a reporter?  Again, why not?  The fact that the document began life as a personal aide to Comey before getting into bed the night before seems to be irrelevant. 

Can Comey, who, we may suppose, is an indifferent typist, make a Xerox copy of the original memorandum rather than typing out a new copy before giving it to his friend?  It is difficult to see why not.


Suppose Comey, by mistake, gives his friend the original memorandum rather than the Xerox copy.  At this precise moment, but not before, Comey, according to Susan Collins, has violated a law or norm because the original memo was written on an FBI laptop while Comey was an employee of the FBI.  Really?  So what Comey did would be all right with Collins if it was a copy rather than the original that he passed to his friend.  I would be willing to bet that it was a copy.  But does Senator Collins, or anyone else, seriously wish to hang on that detail the charge that Comey has violated some law or norm?

SOMETHING TO DO

If you live in West Virginia, Louisiana, Maine, Arizona, Colorado, Alaska, Ohio, or Nevada, call your senator’s office and ask for the staff person listed here, urging the senator to vote against the health care bill now moving to the floor in the Senate.  This is important, and worth a few moments of your time.

Friday, June 9, 2017

SAVE THE DATE

My first gig as a newly elected member of Columbia's Society of Senior Scholars will be a talk at noon on Friday, October 6, 2017 at the Heyman Center, which is located [according to GoogleMaps] at Morningside Drive and 118th street in Manhattan.  Sandwiches will be served, I am told.  The title of the talk is:  "What Good is a Liberal Education?  A Radical Responds."  If you are in the area, come along and pad the audience so that I am not talking to myself.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

SIGH ...

Chris, I think you are so overwrought that it is eroding your ability to read.  I did not say that it was unusual for a president to lie.  I mean, seriously, after all these years of reading this blog, do you really think I believe that?  I said it was unusual for a former Director of the FBI to say under oath that he believed the President could be expected to lie.  And if you do not think that is unusual, you have not been paying attention.

A WORD TO THE WISE

I don't care what your theory is of society, politics, or the universe, I strongly recommend that you watch what is unfolding on television -- the Comey testimony and all -- because when you get to be my age, you will ant to tell young people about it.  This is truly extraordinary.  A former Director of the FBI testifies under oath that he wrote memoranda of his meetings with the sitting President contemporaneously with those meetings because he thought the President would lie about them.

Trust me, folks, that is not normal!

Where will it all lead?  Lord, I don't know.  But you only live once, and I have been fortunate to live through two such political extravaganzas.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

AN IDLE, RANDOM REMINISCENCE ON A SLOW TUESDAY

Alexander Gerschenkron was for many years a Professor of Economic History at Harvard.  I knew him because he was a member of the faculty committee that created the Social Studies undergraduate concentration, of which I served as the first Head Tutor in 1960-61.  One day, when I was meeting with him about Social Studies business, I mentioned that on a recent train trip from New York to Boston I had gone to a nearly deserted bar car for a cup of coffee and there, at the other end of the car, had been sitting none other than the immortal Ted Williams.  I thought this would puzzle Gershenkron, a deadly serious scholar with a heavy European accent.  “Oh yes,” he replied, “Ted is a good friend of mine.”


Monday, June 5, 2017

THANK YOU

Thank you all for your thoughtful and supportive responses to my anguished confessional post.  This difficult time is testing my customarily sunny disposition.  I have read a good deal about alienation and written a bit about it as well, but it does not come naturally to me.  It seems not to make sense for me to say that I cannot bring myself to give up on a nation I have spent my entire life criticizing.  I think my current mood is powerfully influenced by my age, oddly enough.  It is all very well, when one is young, to say defiantly "This is not my country!  I refuse to take responsibility for it, to be embarrassed by its stupidities, to feel shame at its inhumanity."  But at the end of one's life, it is hard indeed to contemplate the thought that one's sole life cycle has coincided with an historical moment that is cause only for dismay or disgust.

All of us, I imagine, recall the famous lines from William Wordsworth's poem about the French Revolution:

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven."

What would as great a poet write about these days?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

IS CONFESSION GOOD FOR THE SOUL?

This is a personal confession.  It is not a political argument, and I do not want to be lectured by those who insist on telling me that I ought to have felt this way long ago.  I really do not.

Let me say it as simply as I can.  Today, I am ashamed to be an American.  I have not before felt shame at being an American.  I have felt anger at what the American government has done, outrage at what the American government has done.  I have felt a sickening sadness at what happens every day in this country.  I have felt all of those emotions, repeatedly, over the past six decades and more.  But I have never before been ashamed to be an American.  To feel this shame, manifestly, I must identify myself emotionally as an American, not as a citizen of the world who happens to reside in America.  And I do so identify, for better or for worse. 

I did not feel shame for America’s war crimes during the Viet Nam War.  Instead, I opposed the war from the outset.  It was a war ostensibly fought in my name, for I am an American citizen, but it was fought over my vocal opposition.  I stood in front of the centennial gathering of the Bar Association of New York and declared that no young man had a moral obligation to obey a draft notice to fight in that war.  I chaired a public meeting at Harvard University and condemned John Kennedy’s decision to invade Cuba.  I marched to protest Jim Crow, I stood against the overthrow of Latin American governments.  I did all these things, and yet I did not feel shame at being an American.

Some of you who read this blog perhaps did feel shame at being Americans long before I did.  As I say, this is not a political argument, it is a personal confession. 

Shame is an emotion, not a judgment.  I think it has about it elements of the aesthetic and the psychodynamic, not the political and ideological.  I find myself now feeling unclean for being an American.  I feel that I owe my French friends a personal apology for being an American.  They are very kind, of course, and do not reproach me.  Instead, they commiserate, as though there had been a death in the family.  But death is a natural part of the human condition.  Perhaps God should feel ashamed for having invented death.

What will I do?  Oh, you know.  I will protest, I will march, I will write, I will vote.  When this move is over and our finances have stabilized, I will go back to donating to the Jon Ossofs of the world.  [I accidentally checked the wrong box when giving $25 to John Lewis a while back and now it seems I am donating every month, but John Lewis deserves my little gift.  Consider it my Grushenka’s onion.]


What can be done to cleanse me of this shame?  I honestly do not know, but I think impeachment would help.

Friday, June 2, 2017

THIS AND THAT

The events of the past few weeks have been quite dramatic, what with Trump abdicating the role of “Leader of the Free World” [I have always loved the naïve egomania of that phrase] and then choosing Nicaragua and Syria over the remainder of the world as playmates.  What fascinates me, as a long-time fan of realpolitik, is the ease with which China, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, without missing a beat, slide into the space left vacant by Trump’s retreat.  I am not sure it makes much difference in the short run, and perhaps not even in the long run, but it is interesting to watch.

Why on earth doesn’t a wind power or solar energy company waltz into coal country and offer training grants to out-of-work coal miners who want to tool up for renewable energy jobs, complete with a national publicity campaign?  Who knows, maybe they have.


Meanwhile, on the cultural front, if you want a really lovely little movie that manages to be gripping despite a total absence of sex or violence, take in Richard Gere in Norman.  

Thursday, June 1, 2017

COLLEGE ADMISSIONS

I think I have mentioned that my big sister, Barbara, and I are at the very same time selling our apartments and moving to Continuing Care Retirement Communities, she in Southern California and I here in North Carolina.  I am the unofficial family archivist, so as she sorts through her accumulated belongings and surfaces papers and letters from long ago, she sends them to me.  I receive them with the same eager excitement that a medievalist historian might experience who stumbles on a previously unknown document from the later thirteenth century.  Today, a rich trove of documents arrived, and right on top was a copy of a letter sent to me by the Dean of Admissions of Swarthmore College, dated May 16, 1950 [decisions were made later back then.]  The essence of the letter is that Swarthmore has decided I would do better at Harvard, and so is turning me down.  One sentence in particular caught my attention.  I was then in twice a week psychotherapy with a young Manhattan analyst, Bertram Schaffner, who it seems had been at Swarthmore as an undergraduate.

Here is the relevant sentence.  “Dr. Schaffner, whom I knew very well as an undergraduate and whose judgment I greatly respect has sent us a letter about you which recommends you and states his belief that you could complete college without danger of any breakdown or serious difficulty.” 


And so it was that the following September, I signed up as a first semester freshman for a course on Symbolic Logic with Willard Van Orman Quine.  At the time, I was quite disappointed with Swarthmore’s decision, inasmuch as Harvard required its undergraduates to wear a tie and jacket to every meal, including breakfast, but with the wisdom that sixty-seven more years has conferred on me, I can say, reluctantly but honestly, that Dean Hunt was right to send me on to Harvard.  I am pleased to report that I lived up to Dr. Schaffner’s belief in me and completed my undergraduate degree without a breakdown.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

HUMPH

I dislike being lectured, especially by those who do not choose to disclose their identities, so I shall not respond to recent comments.  Those who find this unacceptable are free to seek out other blogs, of which there is no scarcity.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

MOVING ON

I tried to get folks to look at international relations in an explanatory rather than an exculpatory or condemnatory fashion, but I clearly failed so I shall move on.

Monday, May 29, 2017

A REPLY TO EWAN

Ewan joins the conversation on this blog with a lengthy response to my post Idle Speculation.  He objects to my characterization of Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy as imperialistic, and after a series of observations about Putin’s behavior and that of the United States, he remarks “Compared to the US, Russia is the grown up.”

I shall not dispute Ewan’s factual assertions – as I remarked at the beginning of the post, I know little or nothing about these matters and warned readers to take them for what they were worth.  But the remark that I quote, I believe, reveals a way of thinking about international affairs that is fundamentally wrong, and I shall spend some time explaining why.  Now, I have written about this before, and like many writers, I am in the grips of the bizarre fantasy that someone who has read anything by me must surely have read everything by me, but, to paraphrase that great fantasist Ronald Reagan, though I believe in my heart that this is true, I know in my head that it is not.  So here goes.

If, like me, you have spent your entire adult life inveighing against the self-congratulatory ideological mystifications of America’s imperial projects, and if it makes you, as it makes me, “faintly nauseous” [to quote James Comey] each time you hear an American apologist describe this country as “the good guy” on the international scene, you might be seduced into a transvaluation of values, leading you to call America the bad guy and America’s opponent the good guy [or “the grown up.”]  But that would be a mistake.

The world is a complex array of nation-states, some of which have been imperial powers [Spain, France, Germany, Great Britain, Mongolia, among others], some of which are currently imperial powers [China, Russia, the United States], and the rest of which would be imperial powers if they could.  There are two models of imperium, or Ideal Types, as Max Weber would have labeled them.  One model is the ceaseless expansion of the homeland into contiguous territories – China, Russia, and to some extend Germany exemplify this model.  The other is the projection of imperial power overseas or to non-contiguous territories – England, Mongolia, Spain, Portugal, and France come to mind.

The United States has pursued a rather complex mix of these two styles of imperialism.  Very early in its history, it declared the Western Hemisphere its natural sphere of interest, projecting military and economic power to a number of places in Central and South America.  At the same time, America’s principal imperial project for its first hundred years was the forceful incorporation of all the territory to the west and southwest of the original thirteen states, ending only when America reached the Pacific Ocean.  Once that Manifest Destiny had been accomplished, America reverted to the alternative model of imperialism, projecting its power into the Pacific and the Northwest. 

The Second World War ended with two great empires bestriding the world like Colossi:  The Soviet Union and America.  The Soviet Union had successfully expanded both east into Central Asia and west into the Baltic and Eastern Europe, incorporating a contiguous territory spanning eleven time zones.  America had, in effect, inherited the imperial purple of Great Britain and France, and now, seventy years later, has its troops stationed in upwards of one hundred fifty countries.  Things did not always go smoothly for the two hegemons, of course.  The Soviet Union’s Afghanistan adventure ended badly, contributing to its eventual breakup.  America ill-considered attempt to assume France’s role in Southeast Asia was so disastrous that it was forced to reconstitute its military force to repair the damage.

In all of this, there are no good guys and bad guys, no grownups and wayward children.  There are just states [not individuals, remember] expanding their imperial reach until they come up against other states strong enough to oppose them successfully.  The underlying purposes of these expansions vary.  America’s motives are transparently those of international capital.  China’s motives are in part those of state capitalism and in part an effort at internal consolidation and stabilization [Owen Lattimore’s classic work, The Inner Asian Frontiers of China, is, as I have observed before on this blog, a useful guide.]  Russia’s motives appear to be in part economic and in part revanchist.


What then is a man or woman of the left to think?  If there are no good guys and no bad guys, where do I hang my hat and my heart?  I can only offer the answer that satisfies me.  Put not your trust in princes, as the Good Book says [Psalm 146, chapter 23, verse 5].  Choose your comrades in this world, those with whom you make common cause, and then fight alongside them for what you and they believe to be right and just.

GOLDEN OLDIE

I was searching for an old post in preparation for responding to Ewan's comment on Idle Speculation when I came upon this brief item that I posted a year and a half ago.  I liked it so much that I decided to post it again. No one has ever accused me of modesty, false or otherwise.

 A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW

December 26th, the day each year that falls between Jesus' birthday and mine.

"Hegel remarks somewhere
 that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."  Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

IDLE SPECULATION

I have done the Sunday TIMES crossword puzzle and both the 5 x 5 and 7 x 7 KenKens, so it is time for some idle speculation.  I trust everyone understands that I have absolutely no first-hand knowledge of any of the subjects I shall be speculating about.  Pay attention at your peril!  Here goes.  I write with an air of certainty simply because speculation is no fun if it is hedged round with caveats.

It is now clear that Jared Kushner really did approach the Russians with a proposal to use their Embassy equipment to communicate with the Kremlin.  This follows from the fact that H. R. McMaster and John Flynn have publicly stated that there is nothing untoward about the action.  If this were a Russian trick, they would be condemning the media for publishing false stories.

Why did he do this so close to the time when the Trump team would take over the government anyway?  It is not because he and his colleagues in the Trump White House are inexperienced or stupid or reckless or impatient.  And it certainly is not because he and the Trump team have any substantive national policies that they wish to pursue.  They don’t.

I think I know the answer.  Here it is [for what it is worth.]  Trump and Kushner are real estate speculators.  They are not ideologues, they are not right wing or left wing or middle of the road, they are real estate speculators.  That is who they have been all their lives and it is all they know or care about, leaving aside sociopathic narcissism and all that.

After Trump’s serial bankruptcies, he was forced to seek foreign and dodgy financing for his schemes, because American banks would no longer lend to him.  So he went deeply into debt with DeutscheBank, with a Chinese government owned bank, and with Russian oligarchs hand in glove with Putin.  Kushner took an enormous flyer in high profile Manhattan real estate, paying 1.8 billion for 666 Fifth Avenue at a time when New York real estate was booming.  He borrowed enormous sums at very disadvantageous terms, gambling on high rents and occupancy rates in excess of 90%.  Now, the real estate market is weak, and the building has an occupancy rate of 70%.  He is very close to default on the loans, and has been trying desperately to refinance.  He wanted a secret channel of communication to the Russians because he needs refinancing, and he needs it fast.

Why would the Russians be interested in helping him?  Putin has imperial ambitions.  He seeks to recapture at least some of the former glory of the Soviet Union.  But he is hamstrung by the weakness of the Russian economy.  Russia is a Petrostate, propped up by its oil sales.  Three or four years ago, when crude was selling on the world market for ~$80 a barrel, he had the means to throw his weight around in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, despite the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the EU.  But oil is now selling at half that price, roughly $40 a barrel or even less, and the sanctions are hurting.  Alternative energy sources are booming, the world economy is plodding along with slow growth, and high oil prices are not likely to reappear any time soon.

Kushner and Trump need Russian money, and Putin needs an easing of the sanctions.  That, I suggest, is why Putin has been wooing Trump camp figures, and that is why Kushner wanted a secure communications channel to the Kremlin.



MOVIE REVIEW

Yesterday afternoon, Susie and I saw a new film about the life of Emily Dickinson starring Cynthia Nixon.  It is a dark, slow moving, deadly earnest movie in which Nixon’s voice is heard at many points reading one or another of Dickinson’s poems.  Despite a fine performance by Nixon, I left the theater profoundly disappointed, and yet at the same time aware that perhaps what I wanted to see in the movie is essentially impossible for a director or writer to communicate.  Let me explain.

Emily Dickinson led a quiet, outwardly uneventful life in the New England college town of Amherst – one of its few tourist destinations is the Dickinson home, which I, like virtually everyone else in town, visited.  She never married, she never had a love affair, so far as we know, and only on rare occasions did she venture beyond Amherst even to the nearby city of Springfield.  She was also the author of one thousand eight hundred poems, and is arguably the greatest poet the United States has ever produced.  She had a rich, deep, complex mind and as complicated a relationship to the Christian religion as any poet who has ever lived.  And yes, I include in that estimate John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  The surface simplicity of her poetry is as deceptive as the surface simplicity of a Bach Invention.

The movie does a rather good job of portraying Dickinson’s rebellion against the rigoristic piety of nineteenth century New England Protestantism, but it does absolutely nothing to explain, or even puzzle over, the sources and dimensions of her poems.  There is a great temptation, of course, to fill this post with endless quotations from her poems, a temptation I shall resist.  Let me cite just one phrase.  In a poem ostensibly about the pink-tinged clouds one sees as the sun goes down, she writes ”angels wrestled there.”  Where we see quiet natural beauty, Dickinson saw blood sports.  If you pause and think about that fact, you will perhaps begin to gain some insight into her poetic vision.

The director makes some obvious and inevitable choices:  after Dickinson dies and her coffin is being put in the horse-drawn hearse, we hear Nixon’s voice:  “Because I could not stop for death/Death kindly stopped for me.”  The film ends with Nixon reading “This is my letter to the world/That never wrote to me.”  But it also makes some really appalling choices.  When Dickinson is given her brother’s new baby to hold, she looks down at the infant and says, “I am nobody, who are you?/Are you nobody too?”  This has got to be the wrongest reading of a great poem ever offered.

How can we communicate, in a film, or indeed in a book, the creative process of a great poet, a great composer, a great novelist, or a great painter?  The splendid movie, Amadeus, succeeds brilliantly as a movie, but only because it is really about Salieri, not Mozart.  Mozart’s creative genius is treated in the film as incomprehensible – Salieri says God is dictating the notes to Mozart.

Perhaps I ask too much.  It must be sufficient that a movie, as the word suggests, move us.  If we could explain how Dickinson did it, then we could all do it, and that, alas, is a blessing that New England’s God has chosen not to bestow.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

HMMMMM

I have wondered about this.

THE LEAKS

I am put in mind about the story of The Little Juggler.  What can I possibly add to the celebration of the flood of news that keeps me, and tens of millions of others, glued to our TV sets or IPhones?  I have never even met a newspaper reporter, although a good college friend went on, after we had lost touch, to work for the TIMES.  But there is one aspect of this complex story that fascinates me, and a personal experience from thirty years ago may illuminate it a bit.  I refer to the leaks.

In 1986, I spent five weeks in Johannesburg, South Africa lecturing on Marx in the Philosophy Department at the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits.  The chairman of the department was Jonathan Suzman, the nephew of a famous anti-apartheid activist Member of Parliament named Helen Suzman.  The Suzmans were a wealthy family, and Jonathan belonged to a toney downtown private men’s club called the Rand Club.  After I had been there three or four weeks, he invited me to dine at the club with him and a small group of prominent men – some bankers and corporate executives, the editor of one of the leading English language newspapers [not The Daily Mail.]  I borrowed a tuxedo [only the third time I had worn one] and went off to see how the one percent lived.  There were six or eight of us in a private dining room, served by quiet, efficient, deferential Black men doing their best to be invisible.

At this time, the government was carrying out active raids against groups of fighters based in Botswana who were members of the military wing of the African National Congress, uMkhonto we Sizwe.  The newspaper editor gave those of us at the dinner some not-for-publication information about bombing raids carried out by the South African air force against suspected camps inside Botswana.  A lively discussion ensued about whether the raids would be successful, where they would strike next, and the size of the rebel forces.

I sat there, utterly mystified by the ease with which these men spoke about secret matters in the presence of Black waiters, who, during the conversation, continued to refill our coffee cups and clear away dishes.  Then I realized the truth: these smart, well-educated, politically clued up men simply did not see the waiters, they did not exist for them save as extensions of their dining needs.  It was exactly like Mitt Romney’s famous 47% remark, made at a supposedly closed dinner and recorded on a cellphone by one of the waiters.  Since I had nothing to contribute to the conversation, I amused myself by wondering which of the waiters was the ANC operative charged with reporting everything that was said at the dinner.

As the flood of leaks continues, I find myself wondering who is doing the leaking.  There were very few people in the Oval Office when Trump blurted out top secret information to the Russian Ambassador and Foreign Minister [the Oval Office, I am told, is actually not very big, and will not hold large gatherings.]  The leak must have come from one of those few people present.  You do not need to conduct an extensive investigation to make a short list of suspects.  Are there people working in the White House who are as invisible to Trump and his “senior advisors” as those waiters were to my dinner partners at the Rand Club?  Some flunky must be tasked with actually typing up the notes taken by some other flunky at the meeting.  My understanding is that when a new administration come into office, everyone in the old White House right down to the chef, the bathroom attendants, and cleaning staff is fired and new people are brought in.  These leaks must be coming from supposed loyalists.


As our distinguished President likes to ask, What the hell is going on?

Friday, May 26, 2017

FRANCE 1 AMERICA 0

I know it is juvenile and fifth grade of me, but this warmed my heart.

A QUIET WORD

I have been increasingly distressed by the direction of American public affairs, and for the first time in my long life, I am fearful for the survival of such democracy as we have in this nation.  I do not want to argue about this, I am not interested in being told that I should have been this worried earlier, I simply want to say that for as long as I continue to live, I intend to continue to struggle for what I believe and for the people whom I identify as my comrades.  I honestly do not know whether we shall win out in the end, but the alternative, which is to decline into passivity, is unacceptable to me.

We are surrounded and confronted by such raw cruelty, brutality, greed, and -- yes, alas -- acquiescence that the struggle will be difficult and the outcome quite uncertain.

I will continue to blog about the public world, and also about the ideas that have been my companion and inspiration for a lifetime.  I welcome your presence, your comments, your commitment to shared goals and principles.

These are hard times.

POETIC JUSTICE

If I understand the tidbits of news now emerging in the newspapers and on cable news, FBI Director James Comey pursued his investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails on the basis of a bogus "email" produced by Russian intelligence and inserted into a drop of hacked emails.  Comey did so knowing that the email was bogus, thereby almost certainly throwing the election to Trump, and then Trump fired him.

Can this all be true?

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A SUGGESTION

I trust everyone will agre that Noam Chomsky does not need me either to explain his views or to defend them.  My suggestion is that anyone whose curiosity was provoked by my post should first watch the video and then discuss what Chomsky said, not what I said.  The comments posted here make it clear that my effort to summarize what Chomsky said was unsuccessful, so I am going to bow out.  It is not as though he has been shy about setting forth his views!  :)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A BEAUTIFUL MIND

Yesterday afternoon, I wrote a brief message linking to a video of a lengthy lecture given by Noam Chomsky in Paris four years ago.  In this extended post, I am going to lay out what I understood to be the core of Noam’s remarks.  Why on earth am I doing this?  The answer is this:  What I care most about in the world is deep, clear ideas, elegantly expounded so that one can see and appreciate their power, simplicity, and beauty.  Chomsky’s life work in the field of Linguistics has all of these qualities.  As I listened to him, I could see, through his words, the power, the elegant simplicity, of his theories, and so I want to try to share with you what I heard.

Now, let us be clear.  I know next to nothing about Linguistics.  I am a complete novice on the subject.  I may very well get something wrong, and I will surely fail to capture the complexity of Noam’s thought.  But it is beautiful, in much the same way that the central argument of the Critique of Pure Reason is beautiful, in the way that great mathematics is beautiful. 

Chris writes, “In 2003 Charlie Rose asked Chomsky "if this was your last day on earth, would you like what is mentioned about you to focus on your political works or linguistic contributions".  Chomsky, shrugging and laughing said "to tell you the truth I honestly don't care".  I can easily believe that Noam said that, and indeed meant it.  This post is in no way an attempt to prioritize his Linguistic theories over his political commentary.  It is simply an appreciation, an homage, to the beauty of his ideas.

Chomsky’s theories overturned several widely held assumptions about the origins of language, about language acquisition, and about the purpose of language.  As I see it, his analyses rest on three very simple but powerful observations.  First, grammatical sentences are potentially infinite, or at least unbounded, in length.  There is no limit to how long a sentence can be.  [At a minimum, one can, by simple concatenation, extend a sentence indefinitely by adding “and” followed by another phrase.]   It follows from this that the ability to form infinitely long grammatical sentences could not have developed little by little, through extension of already existing well-formed sentences.  Thus, it could not be that first human beings acquired the ability to form simple sentences.  Then, through experience or genetic mutation, they acquired the ability to form somewhat longer sentences.  And so forth until finally they had mastered the ability to form sentences of unlimited length.  It follows from this, in contradiction to very widely held views, that human language ability is not a progressive enlargement of animal communication capacities.

Think about that for a moment.  We are all familiar with the ability of animals to communicate:  bees doing their tail-wagging “dance” to report on the location of pollen, whales and elephants “talking” over long distances at low frequencies, hunting packs of dogs or prides of lions communicating as they quite intelligently pursue prey [as I have seen them do on safari].  The paleontological record shows that early hominids had the ability to make simple stone tools as long as a million years ago, an ability obviously transmitted from generation to generation by some sort of communication.  What more natural than to see human language as a slow evolution from these behavioral skills?  But Chomsky’s point, made several times in the lecture, is that this must be wrong, because no extension or evolution of these animal behaviors could lead to the capacity for infinitely long strings of symbols.  All the available archaeological evidence suggests that language was actually created, invented, or developed no more than 100,000 years ago, probably in pretty much its present form.

Chomsky’s second observation, famously deployed in his classic critique of the behavioral theory of language acquisition advanced by B. F. Skinner, is that it is impossible to explain a child’s language acquisition purely as a response to external stimuli.  This is true for three reasons.  First, if we take seriously Skinner’s notion of stimulus and response, there are simply not enough stimuli [in the form of uttered speech] in the life experience of a little baby to account for the acquisition of language at the age of one or two.  Second, no amount of stimulus in the form of speech in the vicinity of the baby can explain the child’s eventual development of the ability to form new sentences that he or she has not heard before, and perhaps could not have heard before.  Third, the actual sensory environment of the child is what Chomsky, quoting William James, calls in the lecture a “buzzing, blooming confusion,” and it is simply impossible on Skinnerian terms to explain how babies unerringly pick out of that auditory chaos the instances of language whose presence Skinner supposed serve as the stimuli in a stimulus/response behavioral event.

Chomsky’s third observation – with which I was not already familiar and which struck me as extraordinarily powerful – is that if we take from the theory of evolution the basic insight that the human capacity for language must be grounded in some genetic mutation, then it is obvious that this mutation occurred in the genome of a single individual, who was thereby equipped with the capacity for language acquisition and use.  But in order for this mutation to survive, it must have conferred some competitive advantage to the individual.  And since he or she would be the only human being in the world with the capacity for language, the fundamental adaptive advantage of the mutation must have derived from the new ability to think, NOT from an improved ability to communicate!!  BECAUSE WITH WHOM WOULD HE OR SHE COMMUNICATE?

Chomsky now assumes [taking his guidance from Galileo, rather elegantly] that the mutation giving rise to the capacity for language must have been very simple.  He suggests in the lecture that the most elementary, primitive innovation conferred by the mutation was the ability to take two elements and form from them a simple unordered set.  He names this operation “merge,” and with considerable formal flair, he proceeds to show how the operation of merge can, recursively, give rise to sentences of any desired length and syntactic complexity.

Well, there is vastly more in the lecture, which in turn was only a cursory overview of a lifework.  But perhaps this is enough to indicate something of its elegance and beauty.


Noam is a classy dude.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A LAZY AFTERNOON

I just spent several hours watching this lecture by Noam Chomsky on Linguistics at the science branch of the University of Paris, which is just next to the Institut de Monde Arabe near my Paris Apartment in the 5th Arrondissement.  The session was two hours long, recorded four years ago, and Noam spoke for about an hour and twenty minutes.  He was, as you might expect, quiet, reserved, precise, and intelligent.  It is always a delight to spend time with a clear, powerful mind.  I already was familiar with much that he was saying because I recently read a book he co-authored [which is now packed away, so I cannot pull it off my shelves and tell you the title.]  I remember him almost sixty years ago when he came to Harvard as a Junior Fellow and I was a young Instructor.  Like all of us, he has aged, but his mind has not changed.  I know we all look to him for political commentary these days, but this is the work for which he will be remembered centuries from now.  It was a welcome relief from the chaos and disaster of our public world.

A QUIZ FOR MY READERS

Why do you suppose I began my comment on Chris Hedges with a paragraph or two about The Dozens?  [Hint:  Think Swift  -- not swiftly.]

Monday, May 22, 2017

PLAYIN' THE POLITICAL DOZENS

African-Americans have an extremely sophisticated relationship to language, as I explained at length in my videotaped lectures on Ideological Critique, a sophistication manifested in many ways – in oral traditions, in literary works, even in music.  One of the best known and most delightful examples of this linguistic skill and complexity is a verbal game in which one member of a group starts by directing an imaginative and playful insult at another member, who is his or her target.  At this, everyone sits up and takes notice, aware that a performance has begun.  The target of the insult responds with a variation on the insult that raises its level.  The insults fly back and forth, each more elaborate, outrageous and extravagant than its predecessor, until one of the players gets off an insult so utterly over the top that the opponent cannot immediately come back with a topper.  At that point, everyone collapses in laughter and the winner is acknowledged.  This game is called Playin’ the Dozens, or simply The Dozens. 

There is a political version of this game, played by left-wing intellectuals, that consists in making more and more devastating condemnations of contemporary society in an effort to gain the upper hand over one’s fellow radicals as the most unrelentingly negative member of whatever group has assembled.  If one player says that Donald Trump is a liar, another replies that Trump is a sociopath.  The first player responds that Trump is really different from all Republicans, to which the second responds that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats these days.  This is topped by the argument that there has never been a difference between Democrats and Republicans.  At this point, another player enters the game and annihilates both opponents with the statement that there could not be a difference, because all are merely mouthpieces for capitalism.  Everyone collapses, if not in laughter, than in shared angst.

I was reminded of The Dozens this morning when I read an essay by Chris Hedges posted yesterday on Truthdig entitled “The Death of the Republic.”  Taking as his text the Roman “year of the five emperors” [AD 193], a sure sign of a serious Political Dozens player, Hedges rehearses the manifold, structural, incurable evils of our current politics, and concludes “Our Republic is dead.”  At which point, presumably, all the rest of us in this contest having been silenced by this pronouncement, we can applaud, relax, and go about our daily business, reassured that nothing any of us does can reanimate the rotting corpse.  It is an oddly comforting game, comforting perhaps in the way that post-apocalyptic movies are comforting.

Although I agree with almost every single statement in Hedges’ indictment of modernity, or of America, or of humanity [the precise object of his attack is unclear], I am not at all as a consequence inclined to inaction.  Get rid of Trump?  Hedges responds, “The relationship between the state and the citizen who is watched constantly is one of master and slave. And the shackles will not be removed if Trump disappears.”  Retake the House in 2018?  “The outward forms of democratic participation—voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight and legislation—are meaningless theater.”  Perhaps one of the risks those of us must face who choose action is that most devastating of accusations, that we are naïve.  It is a risk I am willing to take.

TIME OUT

I have now returned from my trip to San Francisco, where I saw my son, Patrick, and his family.  I had the great pleasure on Saturday of watching my grandson, Samuel, get a hit and an RBI in his baseball game.  Samuel’s team lost, but they are assured a slot in the semifinals for the league championship and will play again tomorrow.  Since this was San Francisco, all the kids are rabid Giants fans, and I sat in the little stands with the cheering parents wearing a Giants cap provided by my son.  The teams are all named after big league teams [Samuel plays for the Rockies], all except the L. A. Dodgers, the Giants’ mortal enemies.  Samuel explained to me that the kids who had to play for the DODGERS would feel bad.  When I was a boy, seventy years ago, I was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and the New York Giants were the enemy, but grandparental loyalty takes precedence over childhood memories, so I soberly agreed that it would indeed be terrible for a kid to be saddled with the stigma of playing for the Dodgers.


I have a Southwest visa card on which I have amassed a ton of points, so my trip out and back was free, but you know Southwest.  Coming home I flew from San Francisco to Milwaukee to Orlando [!!] to Raleigh Durham.  For my foreign readers, just take a look at a map and you will see how insane that is.  On the other hand, all the flights were on time or early, and no one was dragged off kicking and screaming.  You can’t ask for more than that.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE

One of the curious quirks of American culture is the popular fascination with zombies.  I get vampires -- that is all about menstruation.  But why zombies?  The latest manifestation of this obsession with the undead is the surfacing of Joe Lieberman as the leading candidate for the position of Director of the FBI.  Hasn't anyone ever driven a stake through his heart?

DERELICTION OF DUTY

Once more, I am decamping, this time to San Francisco for the weekend to see my older son, Patrick, his wife Diana, and my two grandchildren Samuel and Athena.  I realize that I am taking the coward's way out by suspending my commentary on the passing scene for a few days, but things are happening so quickly that even taking my morning walk keeps me out of the loop for at least two news cycles.

Before I go, let me comment briefly on one recent revelation, this one concerning General [and former National Security Advisor] Mike Flynn.  It seems that in the last weeks before Trump's inauguration, Flynn advised against, and thus killed, a plan by the previous administration to support Kurdish troops fighting ISIS in Syria AT A TIME WHEN HE WAS IN THE PAY OF THE TURKISH GOVERNMENT, WHICH OPPOSED SUPPORTING THE KURDS, A FACT THAT WAS KNOWN TO THE TRANSITION TEAM PREPARING FOR THE NEW ADMINISTRATION.  

This seems to me to be treason, pure and simple. 

Flynn informed the transition team that he was under investigation for working for the Turkish Government without having registered as a foreign agent, and was listened to and appointed National Security Advisor anyway.  What is more, simon-pure boy scout Mike Pence was in charge of the transition team and thus knew all about this, a fact about which he subsequently has lied several times.

In a decent well-run country, Flynn would be taken out and shot.

A VERY PROMISING NEW IDEA

Professor Christia Mercer of the Columbia Philosophy Department has been working on a great plan to link skilled professionals to progressive organizations for whom they could then volunteer.  Here is a link to project pro bono.  Check it out and get involved.  There is a movement afoot in this country, and it needs all of us!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

LET US NOT LOSE FOCUS

When I blog about Marx or Kant or Game Theory or the theory of democracy, I do so with a certain confidence that I have some idea what I am talking about.  Readers may disagree with me -- Lord knows they always do! -- but I have at least a prima facie claim to knowledge on those topics.  By contrast, when I blog about the current political crisis, I am painfully conscious much of the time of simply echoing what I have read online or heard during my endless surfing of the TV news stations.  Nevertheless, I think it is essential to speak about what we are confronting.  "Attention must be paid," as Willy Loman's wife insists.  Herewith, therefore, my view, offered with full awareness of its lack of authority.

The current administration, despite its extraordinary chaotic incompetence, is steadily doing genuinely terrible things that either seek to threaten the lives of countless millions or actually succeed in doing so.  Here is just one example among scores.  Trump's action will deprive millions of women of essential health services, particularly in Africa, leading to countless preventable deaths and illnesses.  That is sheer evil.  There is no other word for it.

The men and women Trump has appointed to his cabinet will do immeasurable harm to the environment, to women's reproductive health, to education, to worker's rights, and to voting rights.  They will greatly increase the number of men and women incarcerated for long periods for non-violent crimes.   All of this is the deliberate intention of the entire Republican Party, not merely of the Trump Administration.

I do not for a moment believe that Congressional Republicans will act to remove Trump from office, no matter how manifestly egregious his actions, principally because they fear opposition at the polls from Trump supporters.  I predict that Trump will survive all scandals, all revelations, and serve out his term unless he actually comes utterly unglued and must be led off in a straight jacket.

From all of which I draw the conclusion that the only way to limit the harm being done to millions of Americans is to take back the House of Representatives in 2016 and the White House in 2020.  This will by no means end the harm being inflicted by this Administration -- see the example linked to above, which is an example of presidential action alone.  But it will limit the damage.

How to accomplish this overthrow of the Republican majority in the House?  My guess -- not grounded in genuinely deep political knowledge or experience -- is that calls for impeachment will be ineffective, but that a ceaseless hammering on the Republican threats to health care can be a winning strategy.  Repeatedly I have heard anecdotal reports from reporters and politicians that outside the Beltway, health care remains a red hot issue while impeachment only agitates the reliable Democratic voters.

Meanwhile, I freely admit that I am mesmerized by the chaos and self-inflicted wounds of this White House.  But I shall try not to be seduced from  attending to the issue that can win back the House.

INFRA DIGNITATEM

This just appeared on TPM, one of my favorite progressive blogs:

It appears that four months into his presidency, Donald Trump hasn’t developed any keener of an interest in his daily national security briefings.


According to a report published Wednesday by Reuters, Trump is more likely to read national security briefing materials if his name is mentioned in as many paragraphs as possible.

Unnamed officials who have briefed the President and others familiar with his learning processes told the publication that Trump still prefers one-page memos and visual aids.

One unnamed source told Reuters that since Trump “keeps reading if he’s mentioned” in briefing materials, officials on the National Security Council have learned to insert the President’s name into “as many paragraphs as we can.”

In such a world, how on earth is one supposed to write thoughtfully about ideological mystification and capitalist exploitation?

THE DEATH OF SATIRE

It is beyond the talents and imagination even of Jonathan Swift to write a satire of the current administration that unmistakably exceeds the boundaries of the actual.   As evidence, I offer this news story, appearing as I was taking my walk this morning:

“Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday he would be willing to provide the U.S. Congress a record of President Trump’s meeting with top Russian envoys, possibly offering new details on the disclosures of reportedly highly classified intelligence information.


The remarkable offer for the Kremlin to share evidence with U.S. oversight committees came with the caveat that the request for the transcript would have to come from the Trump administration.”

I think we can agree that when it comes to humiliating those in an inferior position, Trump has met his match.

A RAY OF SUNSHINE

This is too good to languish in the comments section of the blog:

Jim said...

Everyone --

Good news from Philadelphia. Today we had a city and state election for court justices and judges, as well as District Attorney. Lawrence Krasner, far and away the most progressive candidate in the field, won the DA race. He is a defense lawyer who represented participants of the Occupy Movement and Black Lives Matter. Several progressive judges were also elected. Finally, we have a new progressive City Controller, Rebecca Rhynhart. This is how it starts. I feel hopeful -- at least for now.

-- Jim

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT, ALFIE?

I assume that everyone reading this is aware of the basic facts revealed yesterday concerning Trump’s meeting in the Oval Office with the Russian Foreign Minister and the Russian Ambassador to the United States.  I cannot possibly make useful up-to-the-minute comments about this because during the time it takes me to type this, more information will be revealed.  But I think it might be useful to remind ourselves what is actually at stake here.

It seems that ISIS has been developing a bomb, hidden in a laptop computer, that is not detectible by the machinery used to scanned airline passengers.  Apparently there are technical limits on the explosive power of these laptop bombs, such that they can be expected to bring down an airplane only if the explode fairly close to the hull, or metal skin, of the plane.  This means that putting them in checked luggage with a timer is probably not going to work.  They must be carried onto the plane by a suicide bomber who gets a window seat.  OK, got that?

The threat of such an attack has been considered sufficiently serious to lead airlines to ban carry-on laptops on flights originating in a number of Middle Eastern countries, and a world-wide ban on laptops on all flights is under consideration, disruptive as that might be.

Some nation [we do not know which one] has an intelligence plant in a city controlled by ISIS, and that person [it helps to remember that this is an actual human being, not a drone or a listening device] has garnered information about the ISIS project, which that nation has shared with the United States.  These sharing arrangements are super-secret for two reasons:  First, because the nation doing the sharing may not be officially an ally of the United States, so that it would be compromised by the revelation that it is sharing intelligence with us [and hence would be less inclined to do so in the future], and Second, because revealing the mere fact that someone in that ISIS-controlled city is an agent could easily endanger that person’s life.

Donald Trump blew all of this by shooting his mouth off to the Russians, who are, with regard to ISIS, not at all our allies.  Trump’s action could lead ISIS to delay its planning for the laptop bomb attacks until it has discovered the mole, or it could just as well lead them to accelerate the timing of the attacks in order to carry them out before they are stopped.  That Trump did in fact do what he is reported to have done is demonstrated by the report that immediately after the meeting, persons in the meeting rushed off to contact the CIA and the NSA to alert them to what the president had done so that they could try to contain the damage.

Why did Trump do this?  I have looked at the still photos of the meeting released by the Russian news photographer and I have read the account of what Trump said [an account which the Washington Post and the NY TIMES edited so as to delete the actual information, by the way.]  It seems to me self-evident that Trump was trying to show off, to establish that he was a big deal in the eyes of the Russians.  He was bragging about the wonderful intelligence he gets every day and then, to prove it, rather like an insecure ten year old trying to gain street cred with the big kids in the playground, blurted out some juicy details.

Let me emphasize:  Trump’s braggadocio has put at risk countless air travelers as well as one or more moles in ISIS, and has made it very much less likely that foreign intelligence services will share information with the U. S. in the future.

In a tweet this morning, Trump declared defiantly that he has every right to do what all of his advisors are desperately trying to claim he did not do.  He is correct about that.


All of this caused me to delay my morning walk.  This is serious stuff, folks.