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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Friday, August 18, 2017

A THOUGHT

Some natural law must be operating here of which I am unaware.  On many occasions I have written and posted lengthy discussions running to several thousands of words which have occasioned at most a languid comment or two.  Two days ago I posted thirty-three words with an embedded link, thereby provoking one of the longest and most interesting threads of comment in the history of this blog.  Perhaps if I just posted “So?” the comments space would overflow.

Out of the wealth of ideas finding expression in those comments, let me single out just one, the free marketplace of ideas, for some discussion.  The metaphor of a free market of ideas raises all manner of problems, and it might be fun to explore some of them for a bit.  The notion underlying the metaphor is of course that in a real marketplace, where goods and services are offered for sale, consumers, who are presumed to be excellent judges of their own pleasures and pains, very quickly learn which commodities yield a pleasure commensurate with their price and which do not.  Consumers’ unconstrained purchasing choices, which when aggregated with the choices of others constitute some level of effective demand, determine the prices at which the commodities sell, and hence the profits made by their producers.  Commodities sought by consumers establish themselves in the market; those shunned are unprofitable and are soon withdrawn. 

By analogy, we are asked to believe, opinions compete for acceptance in the way that goods and services compete for buyers.  Hence the familiar expression, “I’ll buy that,” meaning “I will accept that as true.”  Good ideas compete with bad ideas, with the good ideas gaining wider and wider acceptance as the bad ideas, like Betamax, are driven from the intellectual marketplace.

There are so many things wrong with this analogy that it is truly difficult to understand why it has gained such currency [itself an interesting metaphor, by the way.]  Consideration of a proposition is nothing like consumption of a commodity, and the conclusion that the proposition is true is nothing like the experience that the commodity yields pleasure [although a deep exploration of the psychological links between the oral incorporation of food and the intellectual acceptance of an idea might actually be interesting.]

Let me focus on just one problem.  In the modern world, consumers are presented with a completely unmanageable multiplicity of commodities whose safety, purity, and reliability it is beyond their ability to assess.  No one [save Rand Paul perhaps] seriously claims that the invisible hand of the free market can be relied on quickly, and with acceptable safety, to weed out faulty or poisonous products by the unfettered workings of competition.  Hence we rely on the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, to maintain product safety and purity standards enforceable by law. 

If one takes the metaphor of the free marketplace of ideas seriously, the clear implication is that the government ought to institute a Facts and Theories Administration, or FTA, whose responsibility it would be to regulate the dissemination of ideas, enforcing standards of evidentiary solidity and conceptual purity to protect us from dangerous ideas that are potentially fatal to our intellectual well-being.

Hmm.  That is not exactly what the folks have in mind who push the notion of the free market of ideas.


I am an absolutist when it comes to freedom of expression, because long experience has taught me that in this society, it is more than likely going to be my ideas that are squelched, my voice silenced, when limits are placed on what can be said in the public sphere.  But what would I say in the socialist society of my dreams?  Ah well, that is a post for another day.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

YOU REALLY HAVE TO WATCH THIS

Those of you who followed the link in my previous post to the chilling VICE video featuring an interview with Charlottesville protest organizer Christopher Cantwell really have to watch this.  I am speechless.

CHARLOTTESVILLE


Despite their seeming unimportance in the larger scheme of things, the events in Charlottesville may well prove a seminal moment in recent American public life, for at least three reasons.  First, Trump’s clearly expressed sympathy with the neo-Nazi demonstrators is an indelible stain on his presidency that may have significant consequences.  Second, the decision of the neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan sympathizers to go unmasked, lit by their own torches, and eager to be interviewed on television personalizes them and makes it increasingly difficult for apologists and temporizers to claim, as Trump did, that there were “many good people” in their ranks.  Third, the neo-Nazis were openly and vocally anti-Jewish, not merely anti-Black, and that rather old-fashioned obsession puts a number of people in Trump’s administration, including his son-in-law and daughter, in a rather difficult position, to put it as delicately as I can.

A news outlet called Vice produced a more than 20 minute report on the affair, including a brilliant interview with one of its organizers, Christopher Cantwell.  I understand that there is ferocious competition for your attention, but I strongly urge you to watch this lengthy report.  Don’t miss Cantwell’s little exchange with the interviewer at roughly 3:40 – 4:00.  You can be sure that Jared and Ivanka have seen that.  I would love to be a fly on the wall when Ivanka asks her daddy whether this is one of the good people there to protest the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee.

There is a great deal to be said about the so called alt-right, its emergence into the sunlight, its integration into the Republican Party, the cowardly timidity of Republicans in continuing to support Trump, and the question whether this will provoke defections from the White House staff.  Others with bigger megaphones than mine have been shouting about this for six days now.  I should like to make just one point that has not, so far as I know, been a part of the commentary.

The alt-right, it is said over and over again, is fueled by hatred and anger.  What struck me most forcefully about the interview with Cantwell was that he did not seem consumed with anger.  He seemed cheerful, happy, pleased with himself and with how the protest unfolded.  He was having a very good time.  I was reminded of the films I have seen of the Hitlerjugend, their eyes glowing, their faces lit with happiness.  To be sure, they had hatred in their hearts, but it was, if I may put it this way, a cheerful hatred, an intense pleasure at expressing openly, in accord with their fellows, their contempt for inferior humans, for Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, communists, foreigners – for anyone not blond and blue-eyed [like Hitler or Goering or Goebbels, hem hem.]

The mostly young men marching in Charlottesville with Nazi paraphernalia were clearly on a high, exultant, happy, pleased with themselves and with what they were doing.


That is worth thinking about.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A QUICK RESPONSE TO TWO COMMENTS

My post on the Charlottesville event has elicited two comments, both of which, in different ways, are I believe misguided.  Here are the two comments:

Frank said... Professor Wolff, Does your critique extend to white racists who are not within any positions of power (social, economic, or political)? If so, I'm wondering how one could square the view of white supremacy for the power it provides white people with the fact that many of the people holding up Nazi symbols and whatnot in Charlottesville likely do not hold any position of power or privilege in this society.
Anonymous said...
"The Africans were not seized, brought to the Americas and enslaved because they were thought to be inferior. Quite to the contrary, they were enslaved because they were thought to be good workers, and hence well worth their price and the cost of their upkeep."  What an odd assertion. To be sure, the motivation to enslave was not black inferiority, any more than a farmer's motivation to employ a mule is the inferiority of the beast. But the status of the mule as beast is the cause of its employment by the farmer, just as the perception of blacks as something inferior was the cause of their enslavement. Blacks were enslaved because they were thought to be inferior (your strange "quite to the contrary" notwithstanding).

To Frank, I respond:  You are mistaken.  All of the people “holding up Nazi symbols and whatnot in Charlottesville” hold a position of power and privilege in this society, one that is, I would imagine, desperately important to them, and which they feel is threatened.  What position of power and privilege?  They are White.  That fact by itself, regardless of their education, wealth, or position in the economy, confers on them in America a position superior to that of Black people.  You think not?  When was the last time a White father had to have “the talk” with his White son?  It is precisely their lack of status and position and wealth in White society that makes it so desperately important to them to be superior to any Black man [or woman – that raises other issues as well] in America.

To Anonymous:  You are simply wrong.  The West Africans sold into slavery were not selected to be sold by the local Black bigwigs because they were perceived as inferior.  They were captives in local wars or were otherwise vulnerable.  Some were in fact local nobles who had been captured.  Hence such names as “Prince” given to male slaves by the American owners.  The American slave owners tried to enslave Native Americans but for various reasons that did not work well.  They also did their best to enslave indentured English servants, but there was sufficient protection by the English Common Law to make that unfeasible.  The White characterization of the slaves as inferior was an ex post rationalization, not an ex ante reason for or cause of their enslavement.


CHARLOTTESVILLE

The events next door in Virginia have brought a certain amount of clarity to the issue of race in America.  It might be useful to remind ourselves of some facts that, although well known, are often forgotten.  Africans were brought to this continent against their will for one reason, and one reason alone:  to serve as a controllable source of labor for Europeans seeking their fortune in the New World.  The legal institution of chattel slavery developed slowly during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  New World slavery was unlike traditional European and Asian slavery first in being hereditary, and then, over time, in being racial in its definition.  The Africans were not seized, brought to the Americas and enslaved because they were thought to be inferior.  Quite to the contrary, they were enslaved because they were thought to be good workers, and hence well worth their price and the cost of their upkeep. 

The slave owners did not hate their slaves, any more than they hated their mules or horses.  Because some of the slaves were used as servants – cooks, nurses, nannies, footmen, hairdressers, and handmaidens – the slave owners lived in very close proximity to at least some of their slaves, and on occasion they developed a fondness for them.  The male slave owners were often sexually attracted to their female slaves and forced themselves on them, thereby cheaply increasing the size of their slave holdings.

The slave owners drove their slaves mercilessly in the fields and beat them cruelly at will for the slightest disobedience, but they were by and large extremely careful not to kill them or maim them in ways that interfered with their work, because the slaves were expensive pieces of property, and a man would no more hang his slave on a tree by the neck than he would kill a recalcitrant mule.

All of this changed once the slaves were freed.  The slave owners could be easy and intimate with their slaves because there was a legally enforced absolute divide between the legal status of a white man and the legal status of a slave.  After liberation, the Whites were perpetually terrified of “uppity negroes,” of the divide being bridged, of Black men and women behaving as though they were the equals of White men and women.  What we now call segregation was the result:  separation of Whites and Blacks and domination of Blacks by Whites, maintained by law, by custom, and by force.

North America was a White Supremacist society from the early seventeenth century until the founding of the United States in the late eighteenth century.  The United States was then a de jure White Supremicist state – what is in other contexts called a White Settler state – for the first three quarters of a century of its existence, and then a de facto White Supremicist state for at least an additional century or so.  White Supremacy has been formally illegal and socially in question for only the past fifty years or so.

Hatred has fundamentally very little to do with White Supremacy.  White Supremacy is a policy of domination and economic superiority of Whites in a multi-racial society.  African-Americans are not worried about whether White people want to be friends.  Most of the African-Americans I know have quite enough friends, thank you very much.  African-Americans demand legal, economic, and political equality.  And that terrifies many Whites, who do not want to give up the superior legal, political, and economic position in American society that they acquired through being born White.

For all of these reasons, the Charlottesville events have been usefully clarifying.  It is not at all surprising that there is a very large and enthusiastic audience for Trump’s racism.  Anyone familiar with the history of this society both before and after the founding of the United States would expect as much. 


In the words of the old union song, Which side are you on?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

WHAT THERE IS

There has been a good deal of chatter online lately about the future prospects of the Democratic Party, focusing principally on the growing conflict between progressive and centrist groups and tendencies.  Not at all surprisingly, the Clinton forces, heirs to the Democratic leadership Council, have been badmouthing the Bernie supporters, who in turn have been dissing the Clintonite Establishment.  A cottage industry of Kamala Harris supporters has sprung up, hearts beat faster whenever Elizabeth Warren surfaces, Joe Biden has dipped his aging toe in the water, and meanwhile an astonishing increase in the number of local Democrats interested in public service has hopes for 2018 rising.  All of this is just what any observer of American politics would predict.

I would like to offer my amateur opinion about all of this, taking care to make clear that I am no sort of expert on the subject at all.  I have never run for any public office more exalted than School Committee [ran third in a three way race for two seats, lost on a recount by twelve votes], I have never worked for any political campaign beyond knocking on doors and entering data, and the closest I have ever come to big league politics was attending a lunch in Shutesbury, MA with a small circle of equally inexperienced lefties to discuss with Sam Bowles his chances for running for the 1st Congressional District when Silvio Conte retired [Sam decided against it, and the seat was won by John Olver, who held it for many years until he was redistricted.]  With those caveats, let me plunge in.

First, I think we should focus on 2018 and leave 2020 to the professionals and the wannabes for the time being.  The political situation is extremely unsettled, it is at this point an open question whether Trump will serve out his term, and the 2018 off year elections offer very exciting chances for those of us on the left.  For reasons I will lay out, I think this is an ideal time for an extremely forceful left-wing political push, even though I think the somewhat longer term prospects for left politics are questionable if not dim.  Let me explain.

Off year elections are determined by turnout.  Only a third of eligible voters actually bother to go to the polls in the off years.  Hence, voter enthusiasm is all.  Two things have given the left an enormous advantage in the competition for off year turnout.  The first, of course, is Trump himself whose appeal beyond a small base is dwindling, and who inspires loathing across a wide swath of the remainder of the electorate.  The second factor is health care.  Never mind the facts, the history, the details.  The American people have gotten it into their heads that the Republicans want to take away their health care.  Without giving the matter very much serious thought, they have come round to the conviction that health care is a natural human right.  Lefties have been saying that forever, alienating the chattering classes, appearing uncontrollably radical, losing elections.  All of a sudden, it seems that everyone agrees. 

MEDICARE FOR ALL.  That is a platform we can run on in 2018, it is a platform we can win on.  Never mind that there is not the slightest chance in the world of anything remotely like that being enacted.  A tidal wave of Democratic wins in 2018 would produce a usable majority in the House and a miniscule majority in the Senate.  Radical health care reform might pass a Democratically controlled House but it could never win fifty-one votes in the Senate, let along 60 votes to break a filibuster.  It doesn’t matter.  An anti-Trump pro-Health Care platform in 2018 could dramatically alter the political complexion of Congress.

If we actually took back the House and even the Senate, would it be enough?  I am reminded of the wise words spoken by a sobered up Paul Newman to a young, inexperienced Robert Redford in The Sting.  Redford wants Newman to teach him the Big Con so that he can get back at gangster Robert Shaw, who had Redford’s buddy Luther killed.  Newman agrees, but cautions him:  When it is all done, even if you take Shaw down, it won’t be enough, but it is all you are going to get, so you have to be willing to take it and walk away.


This is our moment on the left.  With Trump as the enemy and health care as the issue, we can win big.  Even if we do, it will not be enough, but it is what there is, and we will have to be willing to take it.

SMALL DIFFERENCE

The polite, mannerly, country club racism of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is at base indistinguishable from the Alt-Right White Supremicist Neo-Nazism on display in Charlottesville, VA yesterday, save that the perpetrators of the Charlottesville violence run the risk of being arrested, whereas Sessions is the Attorney-General of the United States.  Let me say that again.  Sessions is the Attorney-General of the United States.  This is an appalling country.