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Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Growing up in Queens, New York, my heart belonged to the Brooklyn Dodgers, one of three big league baseball teams in the Big Apple.  It was out of the question to root for the Yankees.  With their pinstripe uniforms, they seemed more to be businessmen than ball players.  The Giants weren't in it.   The Dodgers didn't actually win all that many games, so being a fan required a stout heart and a strong stomach.  When I moved to Cambridge for college and graduate school, I inherited the Boston Red Sox, who were, if anything, worse.  The Curse of the Babe hung over the team like the permanent cloud over Joe Btfsplk, the bad luck character in L'il Abner.  Every Spring, the Sox would get off to a great start, sometimes even topping the Yankees in the rankings, but come late summer, they would go into their patented predictable fade.  It  took real character to be a Red Sox fan, character for which being a Dodgers fan was great training.  We Sox fans wore our inevitable disappointments like battle ribbons. scorning Yankees supporters as fair weather fans.

Somehow, as I have aged, I have lost my edge, and now, in my eighties, I find I that I have sunk lower than a Yankees fan in my enthusiasms and allegiances.  It all started with Tiger Woods.  So long as he was tearing up the links, I was a rabid supporter, despite hating the game to which he had dedicated his life.  But once he began to go downhill [roughly at the time that his picture book marriage broke up because of his compulsive philandering], I lost interest.  So I transferred my loyalties to Venus Williams [thereby also switching games, but since I am only a spectator, who cares?]  Lately, it is her little sister Serena who has totally captured my heart.  Just today, I watched her crush Azarenka to make it to the Semis at Wimbledon.

I have done a good deal of soul-searching about my feckless fickleness, and I have come up with an explanation that is, no surprise, political and ideological in its roots.  So far as I can work it out, what is going on is this:  I really, really care about what happens in the world -- the exploitation, the oppression, the discrimination, the hideous unending brutality  -- but there is, to be honest, virtually nothing I can do about the evils I so profoundly hate.  Sports offers an alternative world in which the passions run as high but the outcome really does not matter at all.

I mean, deep down, I just don't care if the Sox lose a game or Woods hits a bogie or Serena double faults.  When my team or my star is winning, I can cheer to the echo.  When they lose, I can turn off the TV set and forget about it instantly.  That is, for me, the real attraction of sports.  It just does not matter at all.

So I will be rooting for Serena Williams to beat Maria Sharapova in the semis, but if, as is always possible, she loses, I will turn off the set and go about my business without a second thought.   Alas, it is not so easy to put the real ills of the world out of my mind.


Donald Trump

Monday, July 6, 2015


A quick reply to Wallace Stevens, out of ignorance:  I agree completely with his remarks about the tax evasion of rich Greek citizens, but if Paul Krugman is correct [and I am in no position at  all to form an independent opinion], Greece for some time has been running a budget surplus, if one leaves aside the payments on its debt.  The struggle has been over how big that surplus ought to be and how much ought to be taken out of the hides of ordinary Greeks.

There was a comment on Morning Joe today that, I thought, revealed the actual agenda of those beating up on the Greeks.  To paraphrase, if the Greek left-wing government, as a consequence of the no vote, is able to negotiate a better deal with the IMF, that will encourage left-wing parties in Spain, which has an election coming up.  So it seems this is not about frugal. belt-tightening, responsible Germans trying to rein in the profligate child-like Greeks.  This is about corporate Europe trying to sink a left-wing government before it sets a dangerous example for the rest of Europe's left.

But, as I say, I only know what I read in the papers.

Sunday, July 5, 2015


I grew up in the Fifties.  If you were White and your family had made it into the middle class, as mine had [my father was a high school teacher and my mother was a secretary], it was a comfortable time.  But if you had leftie leanings [which I inherited from my socialist grandfather], there was one problem:  a serious shortage of role models.  By an accident of history, most of the young American leftwing intellectuals from the Thirties had taken a sharp turn to the right by the time I was paying serious attention to politics.  Despite the excitement of the Spanish Civil War and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, world events had soured American radicals on communism, and by extension, on Marx, socialism, and all that other good stuff. 

If it wasn't the Moscow Show Trials, it was the Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact, and if it wasn't the Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact, it was the Cold War, and if it wasn't the Cold War, it was Israel.  Whatever the reason, by the time I came along, there were precious few grown-up mature seriously adult radicals on whom young people like me could model ourselves.  Even Sidney Hook, who had sat with my father, my uncle Bob, and Ernest Nagel at the Norman Thomas socialist table in the CCNY lunchroom, had turned hard right.  [Each fraction of the left had its own table in the lunchroom.  Since the tables were small, it was fortunate that the Left had splintered into innumerable tiny mutually antagonistic fragments.]

Oh, there was William Appleman Williams, way out in the Midwest, and a Canadian, C. B. Macpherson, and there were of course the editors of the Monthly Review, Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman, who for some reason did not inspire young wannabes like me.  But there seemed to be a genetically encoded law of nature that to grow old was to move to the political Right.  Like graying hair and sagging pecs. 

That is why Herbert Marcuse was such a big bit in the Sixties.  Nobody actually had any idea what he was talking about, but he just smelled intractably radical, and he was undeniably old -- ancient, even.  It gave us something to aim for.

By the time the Sixties really got started,  I was a tenured senior professor at Columbia, a member of the older generation by rank if not by age.  I conceived it as my generational obligation to demonstrate to young people, by my personal example, that it really was possible to grow old while keeping faith with the rebellions of one's youth.

Nowadays, there are lots of us aging lefties -- one of them is even running for President.   We crop up in commune-like gatherings in Berkeley or Hyde Park or Greenwich Village, or in such unlikely places as Madison, Wisconsin, Carrboro, North Carolina, and Austin, Texas.  The men wear what remains of their hair in ponytails and the women eschew makeup.  There have even been TV Sitcoms about aging hippies with embarrassed conservative children.

Why do I blog?  Well, one reason is to reassure those just coming up that it really is possible to grow old without finking out.

Saturday, July 4, 2015


I have often referred to my sons on this blog, of whom I am very proud.  My younger son, Professor Tobias Barrington Wolff, is a senior member of the University of Pennsylvania Law faculty and a leading expert on such arcane matters as class action suits and complex litigation.  He is also the author of a series of brilliant papers on various aspects of the LGBT struggle that has recently culminated in the establishment of same-sex marriage as a constitutionally protected right.  He played an important part in that struggle and continues to do so.

Three years ago he published this extraordinary article entitled "Civil Rights Reform and the Body."  It is not often that you encounter a passionate defense of the rights of transgendered Americans that draws on, among other things, early train travel in America and the history of public swimming pools.

If anyone wants to know what I have been bragging about, take a look at the article.


In a response to my short and somewhat facetious post about the horrendous Greece mess, the frequent commentator with the Internet name "formerlyawageslave" made some remarks about the Czech Republic [where he(?) teaches] that resonated with me.

Some years ago, I had a very nice E-mail message from a student in the Czech Republic who had read my little book, In Defense of Anarchism and had apparently liked it.  He wanted to know what I was currently working on.  I told him that I was studying the thought of Karl Marx, which of course in the United States marked me as a rebellious Lefty.  He was very distressed to learn this, and I heard no more from him.  It was obvious that where he lived, only government tools and other finks studied Marx.  I was clearly not the liberatory author he was hoping for.

There is a lesson here too obvious to require comment.


Jerry Fresia says I ought to post a teaser to my Chapter Two about the evolution in the standard story of America, as told in the most widely used college Amercan History texts written by the most distinguished and honored academic historians.  So here it is.  The chapter is called "Mr. Shapiro's Wedding Suit," and it begins like this:  [The entire chapter can be found by following the link at the top of this page to]

Sam Shapiro's daughter comes home from college at the end of her Junior year and announces at the dinner table that she is to be married in two weeks time.  Mrs. Shapiro goes into panic overdrive and starts to plan a modest wedding for three hundred.  Her last words to Mr. Shapiro, before taking over the den as headquarters for the planning operation, are "You are going to need a new suit."

Mr. Shapiro sighs, and goes to see Schneider the Tailor. 

"Schneider,  I need a new suit, and there's no time for fittings.  My daughter, Tiffany, is getting married in two weeks time.  It's got to be a real fancy suit."

"Mazel tov!   Not to worry.  I will make you such a suit, your own relatives won't know you."

Schneider measures Mr. Shapiro up one side and down the other, all the while assuring him that there is nothing to worry about.  "Just come back the morning of the wedding," he tells Mr. Shapiro, "wearing your good shirt, your good underwear, and your good shoes.  The suit will look like it was born on you.".

Two weeks later, not having spoken more than ten words to Mrs. Shapiro or Tiffany in the interim, Mr. Shapiro goes back to Schneider the Tailor, with his shirt, his shoes, and underwear all just waiting to be graced by the perfect suit.  Schneider whisks out the suit with an air of triumph, and tells Mr. Shapiro to try it on.

Mr. Shapiro slips on the trousers, and his face falls.  The pants are a disaster.  The right leg is three inches too long, and slops over his shoe.  The left leg is four inches too short, revealing a quite unappealing ankle.  And the waist is too big, so that the pants sag dangerously low on the Shapiro midsection.  Mr. Shapiro lets out a cry of anguish, and turns on Schneider.  "Schneider, you idiot!" he yells.  "What have you done?"

"Now, now" Schneider croons, "don't worry.  Just extend your right leg to make it a bit longer.  Now hike up your left hip, so that the leg pulls up.  And if you will remember to keep your stomach pushed out, the pants fit perfectly."

Mr. Shapiro is beside himself, but the wedding is in one hour, and there is nothing for it but to make the best of a bad situation.  He extends and hikes and pushes, and the pants more or less cover his lower half without falling down.

Now Mr. Shapiro slips on the jacket, and this is an even worse disaster, if that can be imagined. One sleeve is too long, the other is too short, and there is a bunch of cloth over his right shoulder blade that has no discoverable function at all.  Schneider the Tailor guides him through another series of contortions - one arm down, the other arm up, the shoulder hiked to fill the extra cloth, and finally, clammy with anxiety, Mr. Shapiro steps into the sunlight and makes his way carefully down the street toward Temple Beth Israel.

As he walks, concentrating fiercely on his left leg, his right leg, his left arm, his right arm, his stomach, and his shoulder, a nicely dressed stranger approaches him on the street and says, "Excuse me, but could you tell me the name of your tailor?"

"My tailor!  My tailor!" shouts Mr. Shapiro.  "Why do you want to know the name of that scoundrel?"

"Well," says the stranger, "I figure any tailor who can cut a suit to fit a man shaped like you must be a genius with the needle!"