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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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