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Saturday, April 30, 2016


Let me now respond to Chris’s comment, keyed to a passage in my little book In Defense of Anarchism.  Since it has been a while, I will start by reproducing the comment:

“Professor Wolff,
In In Defense of Anarchism, you provide a great argument against representative democracy infringing on autonomy when you point out that if a set of candidates were running on just 4 issues (an impossibly small world!), our two party system would be painfully inadequate to accommodate real representation:

"Simplifying the real world considerably, we can suppose that there are three alternative courses of action seriously being considered on the first issue, four on the second, two on the third, and three on the last. There are then 3 X 4 X 2 X 3 = 72 possible stands which a man might take on these four issues." -RPW

So in just a 4 issue world, we need 72 possible candidates, in order for each voter to at least have the possibility of voting for her preferred candidate. We have two “strictly consider these people” presidential candidates.

It seems to me the error being made when people say "you really must vote Democratic candidate X [cause it never matters who X is for the past 60 years], over Republican Y [in this case real names are used, e.g., Trump]", is that you assume somewhere on the hypothetically limited spectrum of 72 possible choices, the Democrat is 'closer' to our position.

Again, keeping the world simple, let's say that of all 72 possible candidates, Trump really is 72nd, i.e., in last place in terms of my hypothetically preferred representatives (not sure this is actually true). That is, he takes the maximally possibly wrong stance on every issue. But if Hillary Clinton is 71st, or 70th, hell 69th or 68th, and not something like 35th or 10th, does "vote for the Dem" really make sense?

It seems to me the error being made in vote Dem X judgment, is the presumption that the Dem is substantially closer to ideal candidate 1, than the republican. But when the distance is oceanic, covered with barbed-wire, and patrolled by ogres, at what point does this argument break down, If ever? At what point are you asking people to compromise on SERIOUS and autonomously decided moral principles, just to get their 71st choice?

Just as we wouldn't ask a serious pacifist to kill in the name of less killing, at what point are we commanding of people a serious moral albatross, to the point that the Dem vote is unwarranted?
Maybe I’m a literally crazy person, but the distance between Trump and Clinton is extremely minute compared to the distance between my conscience and either of them. And it can’t just be presumed a priori that the Dem fits well enough into my preferred choices.

And on an entirely pragmatic note, if all the independents (which I am registered as) really do commit Bernie or Bust, and that’s registered by party strategist, you better believe that could go some way toward restructuring the democratic party to be more progressive in 4-8 years. I sincerely DOUBT that will happen when we all just hop in line and vote Hillary without a fight.”

The first thing to recall is that my example concerns voting for someone who will represent you in the legislature that enacts laws.  The logic of the argument is this:  The de jure legitimacy of democracy derives, supposedly, from the fact that those who are bound to obey the laws make the laws, and hence are autonomous [literally “giving laws to oneself” or being self-legislating.]  In a representative democracy, the person I choose, by voting, to represent me may not win, but at least I had a chance to be represented by someone who, in the legislature, is pledged to act as my agent and work my will.  But if I am not even presented on the ballot with such a person, then I have no chance to be truly represented in the legislature, and hence I am not by any stretch of reason obligated to obey the law.  But if there are even as few as three or four issues of importance before the nation, and two or three logically independent possible positions on each issue, then the ballot would have to list as many as 72 candidates, each holding a different combination of possible positions, in order for it to be guaranteed that that I am at least offered a suitable representative of my will.  And nothing like this ever happens.

But in the American political system, a president is not a representative in the legislature.  He or she is an executive.  So my little argument is not really apposite.  Given the conclusion to which I come in that book, I begin with the assumption that no American government is de jure legitimate.  My problem is to decide, in a situation of total governmental illegitimacy, what it is best for me to do.  And that requires me to make uncertain estimates of the probable future behavior of whatever candidates for the presidency are offered to me on the ballot, along with estimates, equally uncertain, of the legislative and other consequences of one person or the other occupying the office of president.

Let me sketch my reasons for thinking Clinton is to be preferred to Trump by myself or someone holding roughly my political beliefs.  I hope it may go without saying that my judgments, involving as they do very uncertain predictions, are hardly offered as incontrovertible.

I think it is very clear what sort of President Clinton would be.  She has been a public figure for decades, and there is really very little mystery about her beliefs, her administrative style, or her character.  The same cannot be said about Trump.  I believe him to be deeply psychologically unstable, as I have indicated.  [Robert Shore calls that “a cheap shot,” which strikes me as a truly bizarre comment, but I shall let that pass.]  He is working hard to arouse, intensify, and legitimate ugly, fascist tendencies in the population of which I am genuinely frightened.  Perhaps I am too powerfully influenced by the world’s experiences in the 20th century, but I am not at all confident that America is safe from those dangerous political passions.  Might Trump be a pacifist sheep in wolf’s clothing?  Perhaps, but I doubt it, and I am loathe to take that risk.  Might he prove to be a champion of the interests of the dispossessed and down-trodden?  Perhaps, though that really does seem to me to be a stretch.  Collecting up and examining his assorted public statements is pointless, in my judgment, because they are contradictory, episodic, and manifestly not thought through.

Some things are more certain.  First, if he is elected, then in all likelihood he will have a Republican Senate as well as a Republican House.  That will mean a reactionary Supreme Court for the next thirty years, in which case voting suppression, the repeal of LGBT rights, gerrymandering, and the complete triumph of corporate capitalism in the courts will be a certainty.  Under those circumstances, a progressive movement will be strangled in the cradle.

Will Trump actually be less hawkish than Clinton?  It is impossible to say.  He is so utterly ignorant of everything having to do with foreign policy that he will be completely at the mercy of his advisors, and from the little evidence we have, those advisors do not inspire me with hope.

What of Clinton?  She will pursue an aggressive foreign and military policy, and she will do little, if anything, to rein in the power and freedom of the financial sector.  She will pursue a Center-Left economic policy, with emphasis on reproductive rights, economic rights for women, some incremental strengthening of the Affordable care Act, and a continuation of the Obama Administration’s solid work addressing climate change.

Under a Clinton Administration, there will be a chance, just a chance, of a progressive movement in America, if Bernie chooses to lead the charge and establishes an ongoing organization to fight in local, state, and federal contests for the election of truly progressive office holders.  That, in my judgment, is our best hope, our only hope, for real change in this country.  Will Clinton support such a movement?  Of course not.  Will she undercut it?  I do not think so, since she will need its support for her re-election.

Is it worth taking a chance on Trump for the possibility of a surprisingly progressive presidency?  I do not think so, and my reason is that I remain genuinely frightened of the emergence of real home-grown American style fascism.

Now, all of this is unavoidably speculative, although I am pretty confident of my expectations concerning a Clinton presidency, if not for a Trump presidency.  So Chris may disagree with me, after looking at all of the same facts.  But I would urge all of us to think about this coldly and calculatedly.  We are a long way from a situation in which we can feel joy about our alternatives.


Ten Books Worth Reading

              Erich Auerbach, Mimesis

      Sǿren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments

              Marc Bloch, La Société Féodale

              Paul Goodman, Empire City

              Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long

              Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

             W. E. B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction

              Jacqueline Jones, American Work

              Any of the books by the evolutionary biologist Nick Lane

              Irving Finkel, The Ark Before Noah

Friday, April 29, 2016


I am getting sick and tired of being the punching bag for other people's distress.  So, Bob, put up or shut up.  Next November, you will have a choice:  You can vote for Trump, vote for Clinton, vote for a third party candidate if one happens to appear on your ballot, or not vote.  Choose one and explain right here why you have made that choice.  Those are the only choices you will have.  I don't want to hear about how upset you are at having those choices.  That is the way it is.   Leave me out of it.  I won't be in the voting booth with you, and I won't be printing up your ballot or handing it to you.  Just explain, TAKING EVERYTHING INTO ACCOUNT, what you propose to do, and then justify that choice. 

Let's hear it.


Freud teaches us, Jung to the contrary notwithstanding, that there are no universal symbols in the processes of the mind [“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”].  It is therefore necessary to follow the unpredictable course of free association to gain access to the unconscious.  For this reason, armchair “psychoanalysis” of historical figures or persons one does not personally know is valueless.  Literary critics too are aware that the significance of symbols is peculiar to each author.  In the novels of Edith Wharton, for example, thresholds play a special role [see the frame structure of Ethan Frome].  For another novelist, they may hold no special significance whatsoever. 

It is therefore fruitless for me to speculate about the primitive unconscious thought processes of Donald Trump, someone I have never met and, it goes without saying, have never led through a process of free association.  But the temptation is irresistible, and as I have never been particularly adept at resisting temptation, here goes.  To preserve a semblance of scientific rigor, I shall cast these idle fancies in the form of predictions.  As the Fall campaign unfolds, you may check to see whether my expectations are confirmed.  Since, as we all know, post hoc, ergo propter hoc, the success of my predictions will confirm my speculations. 

Trump gives every evidence of being, at a very primitive level, both fascinated with and repelled by women.  He is frightened by strong women and flattered by submissive, conventionally attractive women.  He is obsessed with women’s sexuality as a prize to be won and worn on his sleeve, and he is deeply disgusted by women’s bodily functions.  Judging by his comments about Megyn Kelly and Hillary Clinton, he does not sharply distinguish between urination or excretion on the one hand and menstruation on the other, which suggests that he is fixated at roughly the stage of psychosexual development of a three year old.  He is also morbidly sensitive about the size of his hands and the folk wisdom concerning their connection to the size of his sexual organ.

None of this is especially unusual, of course.  All of us are in the grip of these sorts of infantile obsessions, which through a process of sublimation we convert into socially acceptable adult passions.  [Think, for example, of the extraordinarily aggressive psychosexual language in which mild-mannered mathematicians talk about their proofs – driving through a proof, ramming home a conclusion, dismissing the proofs of competitors as “trivial.”  Anyone who does not feel the aggressive thrust of a logical demonstration, which compels acquiescence, is not paying attention.]  What sets Trump apart from the general run of human beings is his utter inability to control the eruption of these primitive thought processes into speech, unmediated and unfiltered by the workings of an adult ego.  It is as though he is perpetually engaged in free association.

After watching Trump and listening to him for months, I have become convinced that he is going to find it psychologically intolerable to compete on the public stage with a strong, self-confident woman.  If, as I anticipate, the polls show Clinton beating him, Trump will find this simply unbearable, and his outbursts will become ever more bizarrely inappropriate.  He has already begun making disparaging remarks about Clinton “playing the woman card” and about her “shouting” when she gives public speeches.  Soon, he will bring up Bill Clinton’s sexual dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, and, I predict, will say that Bill strayed because Hillary could not satisfy him sexually.  Unthinkable! you say?  Wait for it. 

He will be compelled to engage in at least one or two public debates with Clinton.  If, as I hope, she responds to his personal attacks by laughing at him, this affront to his amour proper will be intolerable to him.  He is an insult comedian who has unexpectedly risen above himself.  Along about middle October, when it becomes clear that he is going to lose badly, and to a woman, I predict that he will go seriously bonkers.

I trust all of you to hold me accountable.

Thursday, April 28, 2016


I have now altered my settings so that people who are not Google users can comment.  Who knew?


I just learned that Judge Merrick Garland, Obama's nominee for Scalia's seat on the High Court, was a '74 graduate at Harvard in Social Studies, the program of which I was the first Head Tutor in 1960-61.  Suddenly he seems like a more acceptable choice.


The die is cast.  Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee; Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee.  I leave it to each of you to go through the five stages of grieving at your own pace.  The time has come to ask, What is to be done?  I am going to argue that each of us must do whatever possible to ensure that Hillary Clinton wins the election, and also whatever possible to transform Bernie’s campaign into a genuine movement.

I ask a favor of each of you: spare me the impassioned and accusatory list of reasons why Clinton is horrible.  I know them all, and agree with them all.  What is more, I am older than almost everyone who reads this blog, in many cases fifty or sixty years older.  If Clinton is elected, and if her Wall Street soulmates will refrain from again crashing the American economy, she is likely to be re-elected, which means that I will be ninety-one when she leaves office.  Don’t talk to me about despair!

First of all, it is essential to defeat Trump in the general election.  He is a hateful, narcissistic, rabble-rousing sociopath.  Might he make decisions as President that would be objectively better than those made by Clinton?  Of course.  Mussolini made the trains run on time.  Might he appoint Supreme Court justices that would set this country back half a century?  Almost certainly.  You don’t care about that?  Well, I have a proud gay son, and I do.  Suck it up.  Nobody guaranteed you a world full of happy choices between the good, the better, and the best.

But that is just the short term desideratum.  What we need in this country is a progressive movement, and as Bernie is fond of saying, change always comes from the bottom up, not from the top down.  That means everyone must vote in off-year elections.  Everyone must join and in some way support a movement from below in cities, in states, as well as in the nation as a whole.  You don’t like “bathroom bills” like North Carolina’s HB2?  Then work to defeat the governor who signed it into law.  You want to do something about income inequality?  That will require progressive majorities in both Houses of Congress, and even then it is hardly guaranteed.  You thrill to the news that millennials have a favorable opinion of socialism, even though they haven’t a clue what it is?  Then start organizing.

There is no end of the things needed to bring about change.  We need people who will march, and people who will sit down and link arms.  We need people who will run for the local School Committee and people who will fold and stuff envelopes.  We need people who will go door to door, and people who will set up information tables at the local supermarket.  The first rule of all political change is: Choose something you like to do, because you will have to keep on doing it even when the excitement evaporates and the media move on to the next Big Thing.  And you will have to still be doing it thirty years from now.  Finally, take to heart the advice that Paul Newman gives to Robert Redford about how to play the Big Con against Robert Shaw in The Sting:  If you win, it will not be enough, but it is all you are going to get, so you will have to accept it for what it is.

What will I be doing?  Well, I hate going door to door and talking to people I do not know, but I can give money, and that is something, even if it is not the most important thing.  So I have given $2,500 to Bernie’s campaign, and I will give regularly to a movement if he will start it.  I can write, so I will do that.  Lord knows, writing is pretty low on the list of desiderata, but somebody needs to do it, and I am pretty good at it.  What matters is doing something rather than nothing.  If we are to be successful, we will need, at a minimum, ten million people marching together.  Don’t worry if you are not one of the parade marshals.  Think of social change as being like a landslide.  If one big tree becomes uprooted and rolls down a mountainside, that is an interesting event, but it does not change the mountain.  But when a hundred thousand trees, bushes, boulders, and pebbles roll down the same side of the hill, the mountain is changed forever.

So much for my sermon.  Can I get an amen?