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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Sunday, November 1, 2009

THE MERETRICIOUS CHARMS OF IDEOLOGICAL PURITY

The estimable Frank Rich, always worth reading regardless of the subject, has an enjoyable column today on the NY TIMES Op Ed page about the fracas in the 23rd Congressional District of New York. [In a previous post, I mistakenly said that Obama had appointed the 23rd's Republican Congressman Secretary of the Navy. He was actually appointed Secretary of the Army. My apologies.] Rich rehearses the bloody fight that has broken out between the New York Republican Party establishment, which chose a relatively moderate local politico to run for the open seat, and the frenzied attacks on her by the extreme right wing partisans both in New York and nationally, who are backing a nonentity running on the Conservative Party ticket. In this District, which apparently has not gone Democratic in the lifetime of America's oldest citizen, there is actually a chance that the Democrat may win, despite the fact that the woman chosen by the party has "suspended her campaign," allowing all the Republicans who had endorsed her [such as the irrepressible Newt Gingrich] to switch their allegiance to the nutcase.

Rich's focus is on the self-defeating nature of the behavior of the Republicans. One can only hope that he is right in claiming that this is a self-inflicted wound that will supurate for a long time to come [my image, not his.] But the affair stirs in me familiar thoughts about the very same sort of behavior on the left, most notably, in recent times, Ralph Nader's throwing of the 2000 Presidential race to Bush.

This fratricidal masochism has a long history on the left. One thinks of the Jacobins consuming themselves in an ever more frantic search for ideological purity, or the frenzied and often enormously entertaining battles Marx and Engels fought against the Bauer brothers and other revolutionaries only marginally different from them on any issue of real importance. I leave to one side Stalin's murder of Trotsky, which had less to do with ideology than with the consolidation of power. Since this is the sliver of the political spectrum that I call home, I have spent a good part of my life brooding over the temptations and dangers of collaboration and cooperation, as opposed to the satisfactions of ideological purity [what Freud, in a different context, once called "the narcissicism of small differences."] Perhaps this is the time to confess what was almost my greatest political sin. In 1968, driven mad by Hubert Humphrey's embrace of Johnson's disastrous Viet Nam policy, and momentarily seduced by a faux Hegelian belief that things had to get worse before they could get better, I walked into a voting booth in Morningside Heights intending to vote for Richard Nixon. My head told me to pull the Republican lever, but my good right arm would not obey, and so, wracked by an inner conflict happily concealed from view by the curtain, I voted Democratic, and went home to sit through the night rocking my young son in his swing and watching Humphrey go down to defeat.

The Democratic Party is firmly in control of the government, thanks to Howard Dean's big tent strategy [as I have observed in an earlier blog post], but all of us on the left have been gnashing our teeth in frustration and fury while watching the Baucuses and Landrieus and Nelsons negotiate away what we thought we had won at the ballot box in 2008. [I pass over in silence the behavior of Lieberman, who seems to me more and more akin in his mentality to Clarence Thomas, driven by an unquenchable bitterness to lash out at those on whose good will he depends for any simulacrum of political influence in the present government.]

Rather than repeat what I have already said about the strategic wisdom of Dean's path, I should like in this blog to explain why I think that it has certain political and moral virtues, irrespective of its tactical usages. This will be a trifle tricky, because I want simultaneously to argue that both ideological rigor and political compromise are admirable in themselves. You might view this as one more tribute to the late Ted Kennedy.

America is a country of more than three hundred million people with conflicting economic interests and strongly opposed religious, moral, and ideological beliefs. The fact that decent, thoughtful, responsible people hold views that are diamtrically opposed to my own does not in any way weaken my conviction in my own rightness. Decent people believe that it is morally acceptable for some to live lives of lavish self-indulgence while others starve. They are wrong. Decent people believe that homosexuality is a sin against God and that same sex marriage is an abomination. They are wrong. Decent believe believe that all abortion is morally indefensible, regardless of the circumstances of the pregnancy and even if the life of the mother is at risk. They are wrong. But wrong as they are, they live in the same country I do, and neither they nor I have plans to move.

Sometimes, when one is faced by this situation, the right thing to do is to fight, even though inevitably once a war starts people die who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Eigthteen Sixty was such a time, despite the carnage that ensued. But if you are not prepared to take up arms or to emigrate, then the only alternative is to seek some sort of political accommodation -- always striving for as much as possible of what one believes is right, but willing, nonetheless, to take less than everything as an alternative to getting nothing.

In the American political system, for better or for worse, elected representatives are the vehicles for the on-going negotiations by means of which such accommodations are achieved. There is nothing shameful about seeking accommodation. Furthermore, it is pointless to pour one's resources and energies into electing as president someone who presents himself as a vehicle of accommodation and then getting angry with him for seeking accommodation.

But our politicians are not the architects of accommodatiion -- they are merely its agents. When there are more people who share our goals and principles, the accommodations will be more satisfying. When there are fewer, the outcome will be less satisfying.

Which brings me back to the 23rd new York Congressional District. The exclusionary tactics of the rightwing are not entirely self-defeating, as Karl Rove demonstrated over several election cycles. Simple arithmatic tells us this. If 40% of the voters in a district agree with you, and 60% agree with your opponent, but only half of the voters, by and large, bother to vote, then intensity of preference, as the Rational Choice mavens like to call it, may translate into a turnout that wins the day. Ninety percent of forty percent is thirty-six percent. Fifty percent of sixty percent is thirty percent. Hence those pursuing the path or ideological purity strive endlessly to stir up and maintain a level of frenzy that can be translated into an outpouring of voters even in by-elections.

Nevertheless, what Max Weber called the routinization of charisma works against such a tactic. Sooner or later, even Palin palls. Far better to broaden the base and then strike compromises within that base.

So: If you don't like the compromises being struck by Barack Obama, your best bet, as I have often remarked on this blog, is simple:

ORGANIZE!

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