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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

MEA CULPA

Chris chastises me for being dismissive of the arguments advanced by him and others.  Fair enough.  I shouldn’t do that.  I apologize.  Let me address one or two of them directly and seriously.

First, he says: “Some of us have REAL fears that this MAY BE a witch hunt, which MAY blow up in the face of the Democrats, which MAY embolden Trump. Those are legitimate fears, they share with you a fear of Trump, and they need not be considered with disdain, straw man representation, and silencing of diversity in opinion.”   Obviously, I cannot tell whether the FBI investigation is a witch hunt, because I do not know what evidence, if any, triggered it.  There is so much information in the public domain about past, recent, and present contacts between members of the Trump campaign and administration and the Russians, and the behavior of Trump with regard to Putin and the Russian government is so odd, that it certainly does not look like a witch hunt at this point.  I quite agree that if the FBI turns up nothing at all, that will embolden Trump and make it more rather than less difficult to attack him on other grounds.  I continue to believe that the FBI investigation is going to prove explosive.  By the way, whatever our disagreements, there is nothing any of us can do advance, curtail, or shape that investigation.  But let me be clear:  I do not for a moment suggest that we should relax, lean back, and let Director Comey do our work for us!  The investigation just seems to me a potential blessing.

Chris continues:  If we want Trump out of power that means we MAY want Democrats in power. If we want Democrats in power there has to be a strategy to do that, and right now we fear this is not a tenable strategy. CRITICISM OF DEMOCRATS IS NOT SUPPORT FOR TRUMP IT'S PREDICATED ON FEAR OF TRUMP OR THE NEXT CHARISMATIC RIGHT WING ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT TRUMP (not yelling just emphasizing).”

Here I think there is a real disagreement between me and Chris [and perhaps Robert Shore and Jerry Fresia as well].  I may be wrong, but it seems to me to concern essentially the best way to advance a genuinely progressive or even radical agenda in the American political situation as we find it.  I am extremely skeptical, as I have said on occasion, of third party efforts of any sort.  They just seem to me to be doomed on the national level [although not at all at the local level.]  I think taking over the existing machinery of the Democratic Party is the way to go.  That is why I supported Bernie, why I supported Keith Ellison, and why in general I think our best shot is fighting first to return the party to the ideals and principles of the old New Deal and then to work to push it further to the left from there.  Progressive forces in America are now in really bad shape, for all the noise we make.  In state after state, we have suffered devastating losses.  The Clinton wing of the party is not just well-financed – money is the least of our problems, as Bernie demonstrated.  That wing is filled with full-time professionals with experience, practical knowledge of how the system works, and a willingness to make the party their careers.  That is why they are so difficult to displace, and why they keep coming back, even though we have won many of the policy arguments in the party.


What do I think we should be doing?  Just what I have been suggesting.  Be active locally in support of any progressive candidates who lift their heads up.  Encourage friends and neighbors to run for local offices, and maybe even do it oneself, if that is feasible.  Work very, very hard to get out the vote at every election, no matter what.  This last is the most important.  If we show that we can turn out the votes, I think progressive candidates will appear.

BEWITCHED, BOTHERED, AND BEWILDERED

I have been somewhat bemused by the comments on this blog lately.  Let me explain.  First, with regard to North Korea.  I am not entirely sure the readers who commented quite understand either what I was saying or the gravity of the situation.  Howie B, it is quite true that North Korea would have to develop sophisticated guidance systems to be confident of striking San Francisco [or any other specific target] with a nuclear armed ICBM, but the technology is what is sometimes called “old technology,” it has been around for several generations, and I am fearful that North Korea would be able to develop it.

S. Wallerstein, if North Korea develops nuclear weapons for the purpose of protecting itself against a U. S. attack, that is rational -- not good, not a positive development, not something to be hoped for, just rational, hence predictable.  But I am fearful that Kim Jung-un will behave irrationally, self-destructively, and hence in a manner that produces death and destruction on a massive scale in the United States or elsewhere.  That is the same fear that grips me when I see that the U. S. has nuclear weapons, or that Great Britain, France, Russia, China, Pakistan, India, and Israel have nuclear weapons.  Is North Korea more likely than those countries to behave irrationally, i.e., not in accord with its self-interest?  Well, that is hard to say.  John F. Kennedy behaved irrationally during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we were saved by the fact that Nikita Khrushchev behaved rationally.  Thus far, India and Pakistan have behaved rationally in their dispute over Kashmir, but who is to say they will continue to do so.

Perhaps even more frightening is the possibility that Kim Jung-un will miscalculate, will think he can threaten nuclear attack as a way of getting the United States to back off and incorrectly estimate how much provocation he can get away with.  Is Trump less likely to respond rationally to such provocation than Clinton, Bush 1, Bush 2, or Obama?  I don’t know but my impression is that the answer is yes.

Short of an infallible anti-missile defense, which, Ronald Reagan to the contrary notwithstanding, seems not to be technically feasible, we are confronted with a constant threat as great in its magnitude as the threat of global warming.  That is what I thought sixty years ago when I agitated for nuclear disarmament, and that is what I think now.

With regard to the reactions to my lengthy post yesterday, let me address the rather odd comments of Robert Shore.  Here is what he wrote:  “Prof. Wolff, while you are exulting over March 20, 2017, you might want to recall October 28, 2016 as the day James Comey announced that the FBI was investigating Hillary Clinton's email server and its use. You know what came of that! And April 22, 1954, the day that Senator Joseph McCarthy began his hearing investigating the United States Army as being "soft on Communism" and you know what came of that! I know how much you hate President Trump but you might at least remember that a man is innocent until proven guilty and not go rushing headlong into your own premature judgment about Trump's possible collusion with Putin.”

I am mystified by these remarks.  I “exulted,” as Shore put it, over March 20, 2017, because I thought, and still hope, that it would cripple Trump’s presidency, which I view as malign, not benign.  [By the way, I was not exulting;  I was telling my readers to mark the day because in years to come they might look back on it as having been as consequential as the day Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of a taping system in Nixon’s Oval Office, but let that slide.]  I did not “exult” on October 28, 2016, because I was fearful that it would help Trump get elected.  I was right about that.  As for April 22, 1954, I actually watched some of that on the television set in the Graduate Dorm lounge at Harvard during breaks from studying for my doctoral exams.  I had no idea at the time what might become of that event, but as it happens it led directly to the diminution of Joseph McCarthy’s influence, so in retrospect I “exult.”

Robert Shore’s last sentence is fascinating.  I would never have known from his previous comments that he was such a prim and proper stickler for the rule of law.  But in fact, if you will go back and read what I wrote, I did not rush to judgment.  Instead, I laid out four logically discrete alternatives, made it clear I did not know which one was correct, and then engaged in the time-honored right, guaranteed under the U. S. Constitution, to speculate.  I am not sitting on the judicial bench in judgment on Trump.  I am just one of the spectators in the crowd, and I freely confess that I really hope Trump is found” guilty,” whatever that means, whether he actually is or not.  There, I said it, go sue me.


I wonder, as I have before:  What on earth is it about me that makes Bob Shore so mad?

NORTH KOREA

I first became deeply and earnestly involved in large questions of public policy in the Spring of 1958.  The issue that engaged my energies was the threat of nuclear war.  There was a movement then to ban nuclear weapons worldwide, led by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, an organization formed in Great Britain the year before and headed up by my old teatime companion [hem hem], Bertrand Russell. 

The invention of nuclear weapons had fundamentally altered military strategy and international affairs because there was no effective defense against them.  [I explored all of this at great length in a book I wrote four years later and failed to get published, The Rhetoric of Deterrence.]  Overnight, the age old concept of defense had been replaced by the new, untested, and fundamentally different concept of deterrence.  Since it was in practice impossible for a nation to defend itself against the devastation of a nuclear attack, there were only two alternatives:  either all the nations that possessed nuclear weapons or were capable of producing them had to agree – unanimously – to destroy the weapons they had and to not produce any more, which is to say nuclear disarmament; or else a nation, to defend itself, had to produce and maintain an arsenal of nuclear weapons capable of being deployed even after a nuclear attack with sufficient effect to make it not in the rational self-interest of any other nation to initiate a nuclear war, which is to say deterrence.  It took no brains at all to see that deterrence was a very risky option, because either accident, or miscalculation, or – worst of all – a failure of rational self-interest on the part of a nuclear armed nation could very well result in the deaths of scores or hundreds of millions of the residents of one’s homeland.

Which brings me to North Korea, which apparently now possesses nuclear weapons and is actively engaged in trying to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM] capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States, a distance of maybe 5000 miles.  Should the North Korean development efforts prove successful [and it is difficult to see how they could not be], it would then be possible for Chairman Kim Jong-un to launch an attack on, let us say, San Francisco that the United States would have no ability to stop.  Such an attack would be suicidal, it goes without saying.  I think it is pretty certain that in response the American military would obliterate North Korea with a flood of megaton weapons, killing the Chairman, his government, and most of the North Koreans.  But that would not save San Francisco.

For sixty years, we and the rest of the nuclear armed nations have been relying for our lives on the rational self-interest of all.  It is not for nothing that this state of affairs, usually referred to as mutually assured destruction, goes by the acronym MAD.

Let us assume that Kim-Jong-un is not suicidal, that all he wants, like Henny Youngman, is a little respect.  [If this is not true, then San Francisco, or Los Angeles, or Beijing is doomed.]  The problem is that he is engaged in a very dangerous game, making threats he does not actually intend to carry out in an attempt to bluff the United States and other nations into lifting sanctions, increasing aid [in the case of China], and ceding him a seat at the councils of the nuclear nations.

Since every knowledgeable civilian and military figure in the American government [with the possible exception of the President] understands all of this quite well, there will be enormous pressure on them to launch a first strike to destroy North Korea’s military establishment before Kin Jon-un is in a position to carry out his threats -- threats which, I repeat, cannot be defended against.


We are in dangerous waters.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A BELATED ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Nine days ago, Nick Pappas posted a comment, but I have been so obsessed with preparing our apartment to sell that I passed over it.  My bad.  He reminded me that in 1983 he was my TA.    Indeed he was, during one the summers when I supplemented my income and escaped boredom by teaching in Harvard's summer school program. [He was actually my TF = Teaching Fellow -- Harvard's term for a TA.] He was then a young man, of course, but time being what it is, he is now presumably approaching sixty.  Greetings, Nick. Are you teaching?  If so, where?  [Lord, I feel like Mr. Chips.]  This is one of the greatest pleasures of old age.  Nick prepared an extremely neat grade sheet, by the way.  I wonder what all those students are now doing.

REMEMBER THIS DAY

Yesterday was an historic day.  Not since Alexander Butterfield, responding to an apparently innocent question, revealed the existence of an audio taping system in the Oval Office have we heard such explosive Congressional testimony.  No self-respecting blogger could pass this by without extended comment, so here goes.

A word of advice to my younger readers from an elderly gentleman with a long memory.  I know that some of you will hesitate to acknowledge the importance of anything that so nakedly benefits Democrats and harms Republicans.  Too establishment, you will feel, not sufficiently infused with the awareness that the whole kit and caboodle of them are as guilty as sin of much greater transgressions.  True, true, but entirely beside the point.  When you reach something approximating my age, you will look back on this day and tell your grandchildren what it was like to hear the Director of the FBI testify that he and his organization were investigating a sitting president and his aides for what can only be construed as treason.  Recall the words of Prince Hal, become King Henry V, on the eve of the battle of Agincourt:

                        This story shall the good man teach his son,
                        And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
                        From this day to the ending of the world,
                        But we in it shall be remember├Ęd—

As Comey testified and Representative Adam Schiff laid out the prima facie evidence during his questioning, the Republicans, echoing Gertrude Stein [who was speaking, let us recall, about Oakland, CA], kept saying, there’s no there there.  The circumstantial evidence of active collusion between Trump and his campaign on the one hand and Russia and its agents on the other is quite astonishing, when one hears it laid out quietly and dispassionately.

It is well established and uncontroversial that the Russians sought to influence the election.  Inasmuch as every great imperial power since the glorious days of Louis XIV has acted in this manner, up to and notably including the United States, this is not at all surprising.  The news, of course, is that Trump and his campaign may well have been active participants in the effort.

Elementary logic tells me that there are four possibilities:

1.         There was no collusion, merely what Mike Nichols and Elaine May, in an early comedy skit, described as “proximity but no relating” [they were talking about an uptight couple in bed, but no matter.]

2.         Trump’s aides – Manafort, Flynn, and the rest – actively colluded with the Russians, but Trump was ignorant of their efforts and was uninvolved.

3.         Both Trump and his aides actively colluded with the Russians.

4.         Trump colluded with the Russians, but his aides were ignorant of his efforts and were uninvolved.

Quite obviously, I have no knowledge which of these is the case, but I am, after all, not brain dead, so I have opinions.  Numbers 2 and 4 strike me as least likely.  Number 4 is unlikely because, unless there were back channels of which we have had no word, it is implausible that Trump could have struck a series of explicit deals with the Russians without any awareness on the part of, or collaboration with, his aides.  Number 2 is implausible because Trump so visibly and loudly and repeatedly proclaimed his affection for Putin, his disapproval of NATO and the EU, and even called during a campaign speech for the Russians to hack Clinton’s e-mails and release them.

So either they were all in it together, or else there was no it at all.

Since I am deeply engaged in the expensive business of moving, I am unable to offer a Romney bet on the matter [$10,000, for those of you who do not recall the 2012 Republican primary debates], but I am willing to wager a dollar that the truth is behind Door Number 3.

All of this is entirely distinct from the question whether sufficient evidence can be uncovered to justify indictments or, beyond that, to secure convictions.  The FBI will of course follow the time honored procedure of nailing the small fry and then offering them immunity to rat on their superiors.  But as the outcome of the New Jersey Bridgegate affair shows, even when it is transparently obvious that the person at the top is guilty, it may prove impossible to bring him or her to justice.

There is, so far as I can see, one striking fact that speaks to Trump’s innocence:  If he is in fact in cahoots with the Russians and wishes to keep this fact secret, his behavior is so mind-numbingly stupid as to seem completely unbelievable in someone who is presumably at least minimally capable of dressing himself and using the toilet.  Let me offer just one example among many.

Let us suppose, purely hypothetically, that Trump took several hundred million dollars [or perhaps less – he may be, in the world of spycraft, a cheap date] to soften the Republican Party Platform language on Russia and Ukraine.  How would any ordinarily intelligent person go about this?  Well, the obvious answer is something like this:  Make a big fuss about the importance of the platform; present to the Platform Committee a lengthy document, with much fanfare, as Donald J Trump’s Plan to Make American Great Again; hide in an obscure clause of the document the bought and paid for softened language on Ukraine; and then put on an all court press to win approval of the platform, making whatever concessions are necessary on any clause not related to Ukraine.  The odds are great that no one would even notice the Ukraine language.

What did Trump actually do?  He completely ignored the Platform Committee, exhibited no interest whatsoever in the drafting process, and then sent his minion to demand that one and only one clause be changed, namely the clause on Ukraine.  Nobody engaged in a treasonous conspiracy to do Russia’s bidding in an American election could possibly be this stupid, right?

But then I remind myself of Karl Marx’s famous opening words of his brilliant monograph, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon:  “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”




Monday, March 20, 2017

TRUTH IN ADVERTISING

Several quite enthusiastic comments on my forthcoming lectures on Freud have made me fear that I have been guilty of bait and switch advertising.  Inasmuch as I am a philosopher given to easy allusions to Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School, one might reasonably anticipate that the lectures would be a fruity mixture of kulturkritik and dire predictions of the Untergang des Abendlandes.  Alas, nothing could be further from the truth.  After some opening remarks about the dangers of our current political situation, I shall devote the remainder of my time to a focused examination of the core of Freud’s professional work:  the discovery of the unconscious.  There will be some, but really not very much, sex talk, and absolutely no reference to Civilization and its Discontents or Moses and Monotheism.  On the other hand, there will be a great deal on primary and secondary thought processes, countertransference, resistance, and overdetermination in the dreamwork.

Why shall I be behaving in a manner apparently deliberately designed to disappoint?  Because I find Freud’s discussion of the unconscious conceptually fascinating, and his musings about Western Civilization not very interesting at all.


Lord, what have I done?  As you may have noticed, I am obsessed with how many “views” my video-ed lectures get, and here I am driving potential viewers away.  It is enough to make one suspect that I am engaged in neurotically self-defeating behavior.  But I digress …

WAITING FOR FREUD

If you are really into Freud, I can recommend two books to look at before or during my lectures.  The first is by Freud himself, the classic work The Interpretation of Dreams.  The second is an old 1971 book by the philosopher Richard Wollheim, called simply Sigmund Freud, which I found enormously helpful.   Aside from that, just keep a pad by your bedside and jot down what you recall of your dreams.  I work cheap, since I do not have a medical degree:  $1.50 an hour and all the blintzes you can eat.