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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."




Total Pageviews

Friday, July 20, 2018

POLLS


A new poll is out this morning purporting to reveal that 71% of Republicans approve of Trump’s handling of Russia in Helsinki.  This has the commentariat pulling out its collective hair, wondering despairingly what has happened to their father’s Republican Party.  Now I bow to no one in my conviction that Republicans are the spawn of the devil [please, spare me the feverish insistence that so are Democrats – I know all that, but that is not the point of this post.]  However, polls like the one referenced are no particular evidence of this truth.  Three times before, in 2010, 2012, and 2015, I have written about this subject here.  I am going to reprint what I said in 2015, because I am old enough and retro enough to imagine that if you have written something once, and still believe it, there is nothing to be gained by writing it differently a fourth time.  Here is what I wrote:

“If news reports are to be believed, 54% of Republicans believe that President Obama is a Muslim [and 100% of them, I assume, consider being a Muslim an especially bad thing.]  When I read reports like this, I despair for my fellow homo sapiens.  The scores of millions of Americans presumably represented by the poll respondents hold critical jobs -- as traffic policemen, as bus drivers, as doctors, as lawyers, as chicken pluckers.  If the polls are to be believed, a sizeable fraction of the cars approaching me here in North Carolina on Interstate 40 at a combined speed of 160 miles an hour are driven by motorists completely unhinged from reality.  Is it safe for me to drive?

Thus troubled, I looked within for reassurance.  Deep in the far recesses of my memory I found a faint trace of an article written almost seventy years ago by two of the great figures of mid-twentieth century American sociology, David Riesman and Nathan Glazer.  I am sure those names are completely unknown to you, although you may be familiar with some of the terms they gave to our conversation about public affairs -- "other-directed, "inner-directed," "inside dopester."

With remarkably little effort, I located this essay by means of Google and a few key words:  "The Meaning of Opinion," by David Riesman and Nathan Glazer, Public Opinion Quarterly, Volume 12, No. 4 [Winter 1948-49], pp. 633-648.  Read it!  It is so far superior to anything written by sociologists and public opinion pollsters today as to take one's breath away.

How can it be that 54% of Republicans think Obama is a Muslim?  The answer -- not simple at all -- is that public opinion polling is a socio-psycho-dynamically complex interaction between the poll-taker and the respondent in which the manifest content of the question and answer are a very imperfect representation of the latent interactive processes taking place in the polling.

In the simplest terms possible, I suggest that the answer to my despairing question is this:  When a pollster asks a respondent the manifest question "Is President Obama a Muslim?," the respondent at some level experiences this as the quite different latent question, "Do you like President Obama?"  The respondent understands quite well, even if not consciously, that to give the patently true answer "No" to the manifest question would actually be to give the answer "Yes" to the latent question.  So the respondent answers "Yes" to the manifest question, not wanting to be trapped into expressing any sort of support or sympathy for Obama.  The poll taker dutifully records this as a "yes" to the manifest question rather than what it really is, a "No" to the latent question.

I am quite confident that if a polling organization were to ask a statistically representative sample of Republicans  "Does President Obama have horns?," a significant percentage of respondents would say "Yes," even though all of them have seen Obama on television many times and know quite well that he has no horns.”

American voters, by and large, have no actual opinions about tariffs, Brexit, Russia, NATO, Putin, the rule of law, the balance of powers, the Constitution, or indeed about democracy.  Most voters could not find Russia on an unlabeled world map and haven’t a clue what the letters NATO stand for, let alone what it is and does.  They have plenty of opinions about their jobs, their families, their neighborhoods, their churches, their health insurance, and the successes and failures of their favorite sports teams, opinions that are, epistemologically speaking, factually well-grounded.  But opinions about NATO, tariffs, Brexit, and Putin are, like tastes in soft drinks, coffees, movies, and clothing, status markers in our society, markers that are quite well understood by everyone.  The support for Trump is, I am convinced, an expression of racial and status anxiety in a society in which a minority of adults get a huge majority of the rewards, all the while congratulating themselves publicly on having earned them, thereby telling the majority not only that they are screwed but that they deserve to be screwed and have only their own inferiority to blame.  All of those condemning Trump on television, without exception, are, and can easily be seen to be, members of that privileged self-congratulatory minority.  The pollsters may have thought they were asking, “Do you approve of Trump’s handling of Russia?” but everyone being polled heard “Are you with the privileged few or with the great unwashed?”  Well, for a long time, they would try to suck up by answering “No” but now they offer the polltaker’s version of the middle finger and say “Yes.”

Joe Scarborough is shocked.


Thursday, July 19, 2018

DOING GOD'S WORK

Well, I got hold of a database of the 397 residents of Carolina Meadows who are registered Democrats and cleaned it up so that I could use it to generate personalized letters from me asking for money for the young man running here in the NC 6th CD to upset right wing Freedom Caucus Republican Mark Walker.  Today, I drafted a letter and had it copied 400 times at the UPS store.  Then I merge printed the 397 letters with address and greeting.  After that I generated 397 matching envelopes.  I will turn them over to the campaign so that volunteers can fold and stuff them, put in return envelopes, seal them, stamp them and send them out.

Needless to say, this does not quite rise to the level of deep thinking about Das Kapital, but it just might help us flip one more seat in November.

I am reminded of this delicious passage from Kierkegaard's great short masterpiece, 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. Such conduct is at any rate not sophistical, if Aristotle be right in describing sophistry as the art of making money." 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

AN UPBEAT MESSAGE FROM MY SON TOBIAS

Consider the abject, pathetic display that we saw in Helsinki and in the Singapore meetings with Kim Jong Un the other month. Consider also the fact that, despite the endless bluster and threats about the Special Counsel and the obvious fact that the investigation is moving ever closer to implicating the grifter directly, as yet the White House has not attempted to fire Mr. Mueller or act directly against him, contenting itself instead with petty actions around the margins that are corrupt and injurious and corrosive to the rule of law but ultimately ineffectual.

I contend that these facts lead to several conclusions.

First. The unstable madman is a pathetic weakling and coward. He is an autocrat by nature, but a frightened and empty attempt at an autocrat who constantly tests the waters but will only act when he believes there is no risk.

Second. Pushback works. Resistance works. He has been largely ineffectual at stopping the investigation because he believes it is not safe for him to take bold action.

With all the damage and harm and destruction of this band of thugs, it would be easy to lose sight of what we are accomplishing through resistance. Every day that this pathetic, weak madman does not feel safe enough to levy a frontal assault on our democratic institutions is a day that we are succeeding.

Keep it up.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

SPECULATION

One of the great attractions of speculation is that it is untethered by the rules of evidence.  What could Putin have on Trump?  I agree that it is not a salacious videotape.  My guess is that Trump is deeply in debt to Putin's oligarchs and is threatened with financial ruin if he gets out of line.  I have long wondered whether Trump has much less money than he claims and much less even than he appears to have, judging from his life style.  It is genuinely odd.

Look, these are hard times, politically.  You have to take pleasure where you can find it, and if Trump is now crashing and burning, well, enjoy it, even though it leaves the underlying rot in American life and economy unaltered.

Nobody has commented on my evolutionary biological reverie.  I had hoped someone who actually knows something about the subject would respond, and either correct me or expand on what I had said.

MY PERSONAL OPINION

I watched the Putin-Trump press conference.  I do not speak Russian, but I do speak English.  I also have the average human being's ability to read body language.  My personal judgment?  Putin has something on Trump.

Monday, July 16, 2018

JERRY FRESIA AND ME


My exchange with Jerry Fresia has now become much more serious than a dispute between two old lefties.  Since I think his latest extended comment must be read, I will reproduce it at the end of these remarks, rather than simply suggest that you hunt it up in the comments section.

Jerry’s statement is a cry from the heart, a cri de coeur, as the French say, and it takes precedence over everything I wrote in my previous posts.  We are, in this life, not disembodied spirits, but real human beings who have been born into a specific moment in time and have lived specific, concrete lives, lives that shape what we experience and believe.  Jerry has earned his deep-rooted skepticism about everything the powers that be proclaim in a way that I have not earned my readiness to credit Robert Mueller’s investigation.  Since I knew McGeorge Bundy and Henry Kissinger personally before they become lying defenders of America’s imperial brutality, I feel a certain confidence in my evaluation of them as lying sacks of shit, but to the larger world, they were no less credible than Robert Mueller.

I hope this investigation leads to Trump’s downfall, or at least to his political emasculation, whatever the underlying truth may be, but as regards the truth, we must simply wait and see.

Here is Jerry’s comment:

“First let me say that I hate being a fly in the ointment and, as well, I hate having to take positions that might even bolster Trump's claims of fake news. I will add that the latter part of your post is perfectly reasonable and I am attempted to say, "Yeah, that makes sense. I can accept that." But there's a big BUT that prevents me from doing so.

You haven't addressed two aspects of the situation that just flat out bug me. One has to do with trust, the other with the smearing of leftists. My guess is that you would probably agree that the CIA and FBI have have lied to the American people so many times on so many important issues (including Mueller re the WMD/Iraq debacle) that refusing to trust what the national security state declares as truth is rational. So for me, the issue has less to do with epistemology than it does with heartfelt trauma.

Your work with African Americans and South Africans seems to have had a searing impact on you and your point of view. We all probably have these kinds of searing, gut wrenching experiences that impact whom and what we trust. I was an intelligence officer with the Air Force during the Vietnam War. I never saw combat but I had a very high top secret clearance and I saw not only the reality of the horror of that war, I saw the orders of various barbaric missions days in advance of those order being carried out. It was painful watching all that unfold. But here's the kicker: as these events unfolded, government spokespeople and the media ALWAYS lied about was going on. There was no doubt about this from where sat. I knew various media military analysts knew almost as much as I did. I even tried to be a whistle blower but was rebuffed.

I had volunteered. But I was duped. I felt betrayed. It became clear to me that my life, not to mention the lives of the Vietnamese didn't count for squat. As time went on, I would learn (thanks to academics such as yourself) that the systems of betrayal had no limits. The US military tested bacterial weapons on unsuspecting Americans in San Francisco (MKULTRA), to cite one example of the contempt gov officials can have toward ordinary people. The CIA lied to JFK about the Bay of Pigs, knowing it would fail while telling him it would help oppressed Cubans overthrow the authoritarian Castro (had JFK, by the way, not shown enormous resolve in refusing US air support, revolutionary Cuba would never have survived). I believe that Malcom X, JFK, MLK, RFK, Fred Hampton and many Black Panthers, along with so many young African Americans today have been either murdered or their murders covered up by the national security state. And so what is behind all this mayhem and mendacity? Well, it begins with a simple fact that you have so eloquently explicated time and again: capitalism requires the exploitation of workers. And so it is not surprising that Martin Niemöller's first targeted population (First they came for the communists....") were leftists challenging fascism.

I once believed it all. I seriously drank the kool-aid. But those days are long gone. Mueller et al may be right. But I won't grant him that validation, not until he is shown to be correct in a court of law or in some process that permits his case to be challenged publicly on the evidence. I'm like the wife, I suppose, who has been cheated on many times. Trust the bastard? Never again.”

WHAT IS TRUTH?, ASKED PILATE


The exchanges in the comments section triggered by Jerry Fresia’s comment and my response raise very interesting questions about what we know and how we know it.  To an extent that most of us do not often reflect upon, our knowledge of the world is socially grounded, not the product of individual observation or the formulation and confirmation and disconfirmation of hypotheses.  Let me offer, as a start, a few trivial examples and then a more serious extended example, all without venturing into politically or ideologically contested territory.

I believe that Jerry Fresia exists, that he holds a doctorate from UMass and is a distinguished and successful artist.   I believe this because I have read it online.  What is more, I believe that there is a single individual who repeatedly over the years has commented on this blog, and that this individual is the very same Jerry Fresia.  But I have never met Jerry Fresia, nor have I observed him writing and posting comments to this blog, and if someone claimed that this blog persona is the creation of a right wing conspiracy designed [somewhat unsuccessfully, to be sure] to sow discord on the left, I would have no sound counterevidence and would be reduced to ineffectual sputtering.

You who read this blog believe, I should imagine, that it is written by an American philosopher in his eighties named Robert Paul Wolff, but with the exception of Tom Cathcart, Charles Parsons, and a few others, including my sister Barbara, none of you has actually met me or talked to me.  For a long time, you could learn quite a bit about this character Robert Paul Wolff by going to Wikipedia, but some while ago one of Google’s internal police force decided the article on me was unsourced and with a keystroke wiped out all of it but the very first sentence.  Should that minatory figure revisit the entry, I may be completely obliterated, thereby, so far as the Cloud is concerned, becoming just one more bot.

I also believe that Pelham, Massachusetts, where I lived for twenty-one years, lies to the northeast of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I moved in 2008.  Why do I believe this?  Because a variety of maps show that it does.  To be sure, I have twice driven between the two cities, following interstate highways for most of the distance, but if I were called on to demonstrate to a sceptic the geographic relationship of the two towns I would be forced to appeal to generally accepted authorities, including the orientation display in the driving mirror of my 2004 Camry.  Someone who doubts such well-known facts is a nut, a kook, a conspiracy junkie, right?


Well, consider this case.  Charles Darwin, as we all know, launched modern evolutionary biology with his theory of natural selection.  But Darwin had no idea of the mechanisms of biological evolution.  It was the work first of Gregor Mendel and then of Thomas Hunt Morgan that located this mechanism in the genes lying on chromosomes in the cells of living things.  [Personal aside:  Hunt worked with fruit flies, specifically Drosophila Melenogaster, because they have unusually large chromosomes that are visible using the microscopes available in the early 20th century.  My sister, Barbara, won the national Westinghouse Science Talent Search in 1948 with research on phenocopies in Drosophila Melenogaster, and as a consequence during much of her senior year in high school, we ate dinner each evening in the Wolff household under a small cloud of fruit flies that had escaped from our basement and come up looking for food.]

The result was something in evolutionary biology known as the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis, given dramatic confirmation and specification by Watson and Crick’s demonstration of the double helix structure of the chromosome.  This synthesis dominated evolutionary biology for many, many years, yielding Nobel Prizes and other social recognitions of the brilliant work of several generations of scientists.

There were a few fringe dissenters, of course, as there always are in science, as in life.  One was a woman name Lynn Margulis, best known as the wife of the astronomer and TV superstar Carl Sagan.  Early in  her career as an evolutionary biologist, Margulis put forward the bizarre hypothesis that very early on, maybe two billion years ago or so, at a time when life was extremely primitive and organisms did not even have cellular structures with nuclei, two distinct organisms merged in a process she called symbiosis.  One of the two went on living inside the other, and when the host reproduced, so did the visitor, independently.  According to Margulis, the essential structures in modern cells known as mitochondria are the descendants of that early symbiosis.  What is more, she claimed, such symbiotic mergings continue.

Well, established evolutionary biologists scoffed, Margulis had trouble even publishing her papers, and she spent her career in the sticks first teaching at Boston University and then at UMass Amherst, where we overlapped for ten years, although I am sorry to say I never met her.  Margulis championed a number of fringe theories, including the claim that the 9/11 twin towers attack was a false flag operation and that the towers collapsed not as a result of the impact of the airplanes but because of timed detonations of bombs placed strategically in the buildings.

Clearly a nut, right?  Right, except for one inconvenient fact.  Her theory of symbiosis turns out to be correct, and is now regarded in the profession as one of the foundations of modern evolutionary biology, along with the work of Darwin, Hunt, and Watson and Crick.

 I think the specifications in the indictments secured by Mueller are reliable, I genuinely do.  Will it turn out, some months from now, that Trump consciously and deliberately conspired with Putin.  I have no idea, although I strongly suspect he did.  Is the investigation a deep state conspiracy designed to frustrate the legitimate will the American people as expressed in the 2016 election.  Of course.  Does that make the charges false?  Of course not.  I think the charges are true.  I also suspect that if an establishment candidate had engaged in the same behavior, it would have been buried.  Does that mean Trump is no worse than Bush or Obama or Clinton?  Nope.

Is that all perfectly clear now?