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Monday, July 25, 2016


All right now, let us take some deep breaths and relax.  This presidential campaign is driving all of us a little bit crazy, and it has not even, technically, begun!  If I am going to survive until November, and if you are as well, then we must agree to certain ground rules.

Let me begin with something that Freud taught us.  It is not possible to make well-grounded psychiatric judgments about someone who is not one’s patient [an important truth that Freud himself then forgot when he undertook to make such judgments about famous historical figures whom he neither had nor could ever have encountered!]  There are several reasons for this caveat.  First of all, one can only have available the invaluable products of free association in the setting of a psychoanalytic therapy.  And since, as Freud humorously reminded us, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar [rather than a phallic symbol], only through the techniques of the analytic couch do we have access to the symbolic meaning of the manifestations of the unconscious.  Second, judgments of psychiatric disorder rely on extremely subtle signs of body language, tone of voice, pacing of speech, facial expressions, and the always complex phenomena of transference and countertransference.

Now, I have never so much as seen in person or been in the same room as the people I have been evaluating and judging, let alone engaged in a therapeutic relationship with any of them [a relationship for which I am not trained.]  So quite clearly I am not professionally competent to conclude that Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton [or Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein or Barack Obama or Cedric the Entertainer] is a sociopath or a psychopath or even, if I am using the terms properly, a narcissistic personality.

Therefore, I am going to stop using the powerful [and, in a non-therapeutic context, extremely judgmental] language of psychotherapy, and I suggest that all of you do so as well, unless you are professionally trained and have had access to the person you are discussing.

This does not mean that we must stop making judgments about Trump and Clinton.  What else is a political campaign for?  We are perfectly at liberty to form considered judgments of their character on which we base predictions about their probable future behavior.  To do that is simply to be human.  Some of us are good at sizing up people, some of us are not.  Every day, we make such judgments and find them either confirmed or disconfirmed by subsequent events.  I have been observing Hillary Clinton from afar [and seeing her on television is observing from afar, remember] for many years, and I have been observing Donald Trump for more than a year now [although it seems vastly longer!]  I think I have become pretty good at making judgments about public figures and predicting their behavior, but of course my judgments may be wrong and have been in the past.

On the basis of past experience with American politicians [but not, note, with French or Chinese or Russian or Argentinian politicians], I have concluded – to take one example among many – that Hillary Clinton’s embrace of several of Bernie Sanders’ signature policies is a temporary shift to the left to win the nomination and secure her left flank in the general election, rather than a change of her firmly held opinions about policies.  I therefore anticipate that if she is elected, neither the fifteen dollar an hour minimum wage nor free public college will be a proposal on which she is willing to expend much political capital.  On the basis of my observation of Donald Trump, I have concluded that he has very little ability to control, even for his own benefit, his impulse to lash out at those who have attacked him.  I predict, therefore, that in the next three months, he will repeatedly engage in politically unproductive verbal battles with Republicans whose support he could use to win the election.  And so forth.

I shall continue to make such judgments, but I shall try to avoid expressing them in the language of psychoanalysis – “narcissistic,” “sociopath,” “psychopath,” and the rest.  I think it would be well if we all adopt this course.

Finally, a word of political advice from someone old enough to have seen and engaged in six decades and more of political struggles on the left.  Social change is not like brain surgery – a delicate, precise activity in which a single wrong move, however slight, can lead to disaster.  Social change is much more like a landslide, with rocks, boulders, bushes, twigs, trees, and great gobbets of dirt rolling down a mountainside.  Most of us are pebbles, a few are bushes, and a tiny handful – Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, for example – are great trees and huge boulders.  What matters most is that you are rolling down the right side of the hill.  Social change in a nation of three hundred million and more requires coalitions of vast numbers of people who find a way to make common cause with one another, even if on very important matters they disagree.  I think most of the people who visit this blog would be said to be on the left rather than on the right in American politics, although that is certainly not universally true.  It would be politically wise for everyone who comments here to treat other commentators with courtesy.  Believe me, in the context of contemporary American politics, we are all the good guys!

Sunday, July 24, 2016


S. Wallerstein asks my impression of Henry Kissinger.  I knew him when he was a young professor at Harvard very much on the make and on the rise.  He was a wretched human being even then, but he was also, I thought, rather limited intellectually.  One brief story will make the point. 

After I had acquired some local notoriety around Harvard Square because of my advocacy of nuclear arms reduction and elimination, Kissinger asked me to address his graduate seminar in the Government Department [which is what Harvard calls Political Science.]  I wanted to talk about some rather technical game theoretic issues related to the disagreements between those defending the Navy's point of view -- Thomas Schelling [a genuinely brilliant man],  et al. -- and those defending the Air Force's point of view -- Herman Kahn, an intellectual fraud, and Kissinger.  [The underlying issue at stake in the theoretical disputes debated by the think tanks was which branch of the service would get the big Congressional appropriations for its form of nuclear delivery systems -- nuclear submarines, which were a Second Strike weapon or Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, which were a first strike weapon.]

When I showed up in Kissinger's office, I asked him whether the seminar room had a blackboard.  Why did I want to know, he asked.  I explained that I wanted to put some equations on the board.  He got a squirrely panicked look in his eyes and asked whether that was really necessary.  It was obvious that he neither knew anything about nor understood the theoretical foundation of the position he was espousing.

The week before, he had published a pompous letter in the Harvard Crimson [the student newspaper] criticizing me among others for failing to realize that nuclear deterrence was a "very complicated subject."  I looked at him after his nervous question about the blackboard and said quietly, "Well, this is a very complicated subject."  I did not like him even then.

Two more things that may be of historical interest.  First, that seminar played an important role in subsequent American foreign affairs because many of the foreign graduate students who took it went home to become important figures in their governments.  Kissinger cultivated them as students, anticipating this, and used his connection with them when he was in the government to aggrandise his influence.

Second, the big book of the moment in deterrence theory was Herman Kahn's pretentious but hollow book, On Thermonuclear War.  In anticipation of the 1960 election, Kissinger published The Necessity for Choice, much of its intellectual content lifted from Kahn.  Shortly after his inauguration, Kennedy gave a television interview in the Oval Office which showed Kissinger's book prominently displayed on the desk.  Kissinger's bags were all packed, but Kennedy chose McGeorge Bundy, the Harvard Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, as his National Security Advisor, so Kissinger had to unpack until Nixon was elected.


I started blogging regularly on June 1, 2009, although the blog was officially launched two years earlier.  Recently retired and desperate to find some way to keep myself busy, I took my son Patrick’s advice and began writing The Philosopher’s Stone.   At first, so few people visited the site that I could significantly up the number of page views just by checking it several times a day, but once I started serializing my autobiography, word got out that I was an inveterate gossip and things picked up.  As the years passed, the numerical counter offered by Google as one of their add-ons ticked over steadily, until on April 28th, 2014, almost five years later, I recorded my one millionth page view.  The site has gathered a sizable coterie of readers, some of whom comment with regularity.  I have been delighted and rather astonished to discover that I have readers on all of the populated continents.  Indeed, I even once had a troll, although with a little guidance from readers more adept at these matters than I, I managed to discourage him or her.

Some time tomorrow, twenty-five more months further on, the Google Counter will record the two millionth page view.  Over these seven years, I have put up more than 2700 posts, which works out to more than one a day, and the community of readers have made almost four times as many comments.  And all of this with no term papers to read!  No teacher could ask for more.

During the seven years, I have grown seven years older, as have all of you.  If I keep at it, in another seven years I shall be eighty nine, and there is no telling how many page views this site will have drawn [always assuming that blogging still exists seven years from now and has not been superseded by some even less natural form of communication.]

Thank you all for nodding in.


Despite the sneering tone of his comment [“(Professor Wolff) cannot bear to have readers desecrating the sanctity of his blog…”], Robert Shore raises a question of the very greatest urgency, viz which of the two major candidates poses a greater threat of nuclear war, and I should like to address that matter at some length.  Dr. Shore is quite correct that this question takes precedence over all others.  Indeed, if I may invoke the jargon of rational choice theory, it is lexicographically prior to all other questions – which is to say, if one candidate poses even the tiniest greater threat of nuclear war, that consideration alone should outweigh any benefits, however large, in other realms.  Dr. Shore says that as he lives in a safely blue state, he plans to vote Green.  But that is hardly sufficient, if he is not simply using me as the occasion for blowing off steam.  He lives next to a battleground state, and I assume that in addition to donating to the Trump campaign and publicly supporting it, he will also go on weekends to New Hampshire to campaign for Trump.  Anything less would be a confession of unseriousness in the face of what he believes to be a mortal threat to civilization.

Let me note before I begin that I do not come late to a concern for this matter.  I first took an active public stance against the threat of nuclear war and the policies of the American government that increased that threat in 1959, some fifty-seven years ago, which, if I am not mistaken, is well before many readers of this blog were born.  I argued against Henry Kissinger and Zbigniev Bzrezinski at Harvard, where I joined forces with David Riesman and Erik Erikson and many others.  I debated Herman Kahn at Jorden Hall in Boston, I wrote, I published, I spoke on the radio, I served for several years on the Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, I lectured on military strategy and foreign policy at the University of Chicago, I chaired a protest meeting at Harvard seeking to reverse America’s Cuba policy.  Struggle against the threat of nuclear war has been a part of my private and public life for nearly six decades.  As we think through this vitally important topic, let us never forget that the United States invented nuclear weapons and is the only nation ever actually to kill people with them.

Historical perspective is useful in thinking about the present presidential campaign.  Some modern powers have pursued their imperial ambitions by seizing and holding territories far from their borders.  Great Britain and France come to mind.  Others, like China and the Soviet Union, have enlarged their empires by absorbing contiguous weaker nations, exhibiting great hesitation about sending their military forces to regions not connected to the homeland by a land bridge.  The United States has pursued an imperial project that is something of a combination of these two approaches.  Its principal imperial expansion has consisted of the absorption of contiguous lands to the west and southwest of its original borders, expanding to the Pacific Ocean and the boundaries of Mexico and Canada, but it has of course also extended its empire militarily overseas as well – one thinks of the Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and so forth.  The distinctive feature of American imperial expansion is that, unlike China, Russia, France, and Great Britain, Americans sought to exterminate rather than incorporate the indigenous peoples they conquered.

At the end of the Second World War, Germany and Italy were defeated and Great Britain and France, despite being part of the winning coalition of forces, began to lose their empires.  The two principal beneficiaries of the war were the Soviet Union and the United States.  The Soviet Union responded to the changed international balance of forces in characteristic fashion by incorporating territories in Eastern Europe.  The United States undertook to replace Great Britain and France as world hegemons, forging alliances with a wide array of states and stationing its troops permanently in every sector of the world not already claimed by the Soviet Union.  These efforts were of course not all successful.  The Soviet Union was several times compelled to use force to stop its Eastern European imperial appanages from breaking away, and its disastrous adventure across its southern border in Afghanistan led eventually to the collapse and break-up of the Soviet Union.  The United States, for its part, came close to destroying the cohesion and effectiveness of its military in its failed attempt to take the place of France in Southeast Asia, forcing it to bring the military draft to a close and substitute a professional army that could function effectively and without major political cost as an instrument of empire.

For a time, the collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the sole unchallenged imperial power in the entire world.  As one would expect, America responded to the Eastern European vacuum created by the breakup of the Soviet Union by expanding its sphere of influence eastward, using the device of membership in NATO.  Now, we see Vladimir Putin seeking to recapture some of the territory lost in the breakup, annexing Crimea, nibbling at Ukraine, beginning to make eyes at the Baltic States.  The fall in the price of oil has put severe strains on the Russian economy and hence on Putin’s ability to pursue his ambitions for a revived Russian empire.  But he does have some arrows in his quiver.  He has been offering financial and other support to extreme right-wing European political parties, such as the National Front of Marine le Pen in France, and Russian oligarchs allied with Putin have made several hundred million dollars in loans to Donald Trump [which may perhaps explain the fulsomeness of Trump’s praise for Putin.]  And of course, Putin has at his command a sizeable nuclear arsenal, even though it does not compare with the Soviet military force in Russia’s heyday.

All of which brings me to the question with which I began:  As between a President Clinton and a President Trump, who is more likely actually to get the United States into a nuclear exchange with Russia?  For seventy years now, American presidents have embraced and implemented the American imperial project.  Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, I have watched them all, and all have pursued essentially the same project.  [We must not allow ourselves to be misled by their rhetoric, which is usually quite high minded and selfless.  Let us recall that it was not an American who coined the memorable phrase, “the white man’s burden.”]  Some presidents have been rather more belligerent, some less.  Only one, John F. Kennedy, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Clinton would clearly be rather more belligerent than Obama, rather less than George W. Bush.  She would resist Putin’s expansionist efforts, and would deploy American forces and weaponry in that resistance.  If she did not, Putin would push further.  Let me emphasize this point, as it is crucial to everything I am saying.  It is a left-wing fantasy to suppose that the United States is the source of conflict in the world, and that if it were to give up its imperial project, the world would be a peaceful multi-polar harmony.  Whatever room America leaves for Russia’s imperial expansion Russia will take.  And whatever room Russia leaves for America’s imperial expansion America will take.  And should both America and Russia, in a fit of self-abnegation, retreat from the field of imperial struggle, China and other nations will take their place.

Both Clinton and Putin, I think it is clear from the available evidence, would be as careful as possible to avoid a nuclear confrontation, but I am well aware of the dangers of miscalculation.  Clinton would not act rashly, precipitously, or without thorough consultation with the military.  Everything we know about her makes that clear.  Would she be more likely than Obama to start small wars?  Pretty clearly yes, but that is not the subject of this discourse.  It is not small wars against real or imagined enemies that risk nuclear war.  The threat comes from a miscalculation by Clinton or Putin in a confrontation involving American and Russian troops.

What then of Trump?  This is a much more difficult problem to work out, and that fact by itself is significant.  When it comes to nuclear confrontations, uncertainty is an even greater danger than belligerence.  Trump has no ideological commitments or beliefs on the basis of which we might make a prediction of his behavior, and he has no track record on these issues, nor any experience on which he could draw as president in making decisions.  He is vain, ignorant, and narcissistic, and exhibits no capacity for impulse control even when it is in his self-interest to rein in his impulses.  He is desperately in need of constant ego-reinforcement, and what is more, he is in hock financially to Putin.  I find this combination of traits and defects terrifying.

Nor can we calm our fears by telling ourselves that the civilian and uniformed leadership of the military would not permit Trump to make disastrously dangerous decisions.  That is a fantasy that ignores the realities of the bureaucratic character of American government.  A President Trump could quite well plunge us into a civilization ending nuclear exchange.

Therefore, I am for Clinton.  I look forward to hearing Robert Shore’s reports of his experiences on the campaign trail in New Hampshire working for the election of Trump.

Friday, July 22, 2016


Every so often I check in on my other blog -- Formal Methods in Political Philosophy.  Usually, I find that eight or ten or twelve people have viewed it on that day, which I consider pretty good, considering the subject matter.  I mean, it is not often that a discourse on von Neumann's proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Game Theory goes viral.  Today, more than two hundred people have checked into the blog, and judging from Google's map, most of them are coming from Russia.

What's up with that?


Emily Dickinson observes, in one of her poems, that God requires that we die in order to see Him, thereby indicating a sadistic streak in the Almighty that does not comport well with His reputation for sublime mercy.   This penchant of His for pointless cruelty is construed by the faithful as a test of our faith.  I am afraid we are often presented with analogous tests in the political realm.

The latest word on the web is that Hillary Clinton will soon announce that she has chosen the egregious Tim Kaine to be her vice-presidential running mate.  Kaine is a pro-life Catholic who supports the TPP and just a day or so ago spoke of the need to DEREGULATE the banks.  

I understand that this is intended by Clinton as a test of my resolve to work for her election as the only way of putting an end to Donald Trump's megalomaniac dreams of dictatorship.  I also understand that her decision is a cold-eyed calculation of the relative advantage of appealing to the progressives, whom she obviously thinks she has secured, as opposed to moving to the center to draw in Republicans and so-called Independents appalled by Trump.

I trust I shall be worthy of the test.  Is it too much to ask that my readers express their outrage elsewhere?  It is difficult enough to do what I know I must do, without being berated by those who offer no viable alternative way of defeating Trump.  Those fortunate enough not to live in battleground states like North Carolina are of course free to strike heroic poses and vote for Jill Stein.

Thursday, July 21, 2016


I am very distressed by some of the comments that have appeared in reaction to my comments on the election, but I cannot bring myself to respond.  It is all I can do to endure the next three months and what will follow.  As soon as Bernie announces the formation of his political action organization, I shall sign up as a monthly contributor [I can afford more than $27], and in the meantime I shall work for the election of Clinton, which is to say the defeat of Trump.  I have already had my say regarding why I consider this the proper course for me to take.

Now, I shall return to the Critique [and, yes, I am well aware that he was a racist.]  As Hannah Arendt remarked to me almost fifty years ago, "It is so much more pleasant to spend time with Kant."