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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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, September 30, 2009

WILLIAM SAFIRE, R.I.P

Some of you have probably noted the passing of the NY TIMES columnist and former Nixon speech writer, William Safire. Bill Safire, as he was apparently known by everyone, was one of the very few right-wing pundits whom I could stomach. He was, by all accounts, a decent man with a genuine commitment to individual liberties, despite his conservative bent. He also had a commendable passion for language, and a puckish wit.

Odd as it may seem, I once had an exchange of letters with him [in a manner of speaking]. Herewith my letter to the NY TIMES, and his hand-written response.

February 8, 1999

To the Editor:

I was astonished and dismayed to see William Safire, in today's Op-Ed column, refer to Vernon Jordan's phrase "Mother wit" as a "rich dialect phrase." Apparently, when Mr. Safire sees a Black man using a phrase that is not found on the tongues of Talk Show hosts or New York cabbies, he assumes it must be Ebonics.

For the phrase "mother wit," permit me to refer you to the Critique of Pure Reason of Immanuel Kant. The following appears in the opening pages of the Transcendental Analytic, at page 133 of the first edition: "It is the specific quality of so-called mother-wit [Mutterswitzes]." Mr. Safire might also have referred to the Oxford English Dictionary, which traces the phrase in English to 1440.

Sincerely, etc etc.

Safire sent the letter back with the following handwritten note: "Sir -- I've done a language column on this, that will appear in the NYT Magazine. Thanks for writing --- Bill Safire

Maybe I am just getting old, but I feel the need now and again to acknowledge the humanity of my enemies.

HEALTH CARE DOWN TO THE WIRE

A while back, I made a prediction, and promised to eat crow publicly [or as publicly as one can on this obscure bog] if I was wrong. The prediction was that a health care reform package would pass, that it would not be everything we on the left hoped for, and that it would not be the end of the story. As we come down to the wire on health care reform, it is time to make this prediction more precuise, and to assess where we are.

I think it is fair to equate a public option with "everything we on the left hoped for." To be sure, many of us would prefer a single-payer national health care system, but this was never a realistic possibility, given the constellation of forces in the United States. A single-payer system could more accurately be described as "everything we on the left dream of." I also dream of an egalitarian society in which everyone acknowledges the truth of evolution and is even willing to grant that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, but there are limits!

So, where are we, now that the Baucus committee has rejected the public option? First of all, it is clear that a bill will pass, and that it will be a major step in the direction of reform. No one anymore doubts that. Pause for a moment to consider what this means. Truman couldn't do it. Nixon couldn't do it. Clinton couldn't do it. But Obama will do it. That is a triumph by itself.

Secondly, the public option is not dead. The Baucus committee was always the most conservative of the five committees struggling with health care, and three of the others have already voted out bills that include a public option,. With the appointment of Paul Kirk, the Democrats are up to sixty, finally, and it remains genuinely uncertain whether they can block a filibuster, the statements of Nelson and others notwithstanding.

So I would say that my prediction is looking good, very good. What about the third part of the prediction? Is this all we are going to get, for at least another generation? That is truly harder to predict. So I will now venture another prediction, one that can be tested relatively soon. I predict that once a health care reform bill is signed into law, Obama will emerge from this struggle dramatically strengthened. He will have shown that against the most violent, concerted, massively funded opposition, he can prevail, and secure the fulfilment of a major campaign pledge. The decks will be cleared for other plans and proposals that have necessarily been put on hold while this health care battle is waged.

One more thing, more a prayerful hope than a prediction: Once health care is passed, Obama will be free to make a major reversal in Afghanistan policy without losing one or two crucial votes in the Senate. I think it is at least possible that we shall see that reversal shortly after health care passes.

Check back with me in a while to see whether my crystal ball is clear or cloudy.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

AN ODD FACT

Have you ever noticed that no matter what the physical condition that afflicts you, as soon as you mention it, it turns out that everyone has had it? This morning, I took Susie to Duke Eye Center for cataract surgery -- happily, with lasers and such, not a terribly lengthy or distressing procedure. When we got home, the phone rang. It was the woman who runs Susie's MS Support Group calling for her. I was not sure Susie was up to talking on the phone, so I asked her, and then explained to the caller about the surgery. "Oh yes," she replied brightly, "I had that." It never fails.

Monday, September 28, 2009

MOVIE REVIEW

Those of you who are familiar with my tastes in entertainment are aware that I prefer shoot 'em ups and spy movies to Merchant/Ivory films. My dear friend, Milton Cantor, has long since despaired of recommending to me "good" films, aware of the disdain I customarily show for any attempt at art in my amusements. Yesterday, my wife dragged me off to see Jane Campion's latest work, BRIGHT STAR, a film dealing in a leisurely low-key way with the love affair between the poet, Keats, and a young woman named Fanny Brawne, who was an accomplished seamstress. I am abashed to have to admit that the film is utterly beautiful, and mesmerizing.

Everyone describes the film as dealing with the last three years of the life of John K. But in watching the movie, if it were not for the fact that he is JOHN KEATS, immortal tragic romantic poet, one would pay him very little mind. The movie is really about Fanny -- her wit, her independence, and the slow growth in her of a passionate love for the consumptive young man with the permanent five o'clock shadow who has taken up residence next door with his companion, Mr. Brown.

There is one supremely erotic moment in this low-key, reserved film, and it consists of a single word uttered by Fanny. I leave it to you film buffs to find it.

Abbie Cornish, an actress I have not before encountered, is irresistible as Fanny. I for one spent the entire movie wishing I might get to meet her. [Fanny, that is. For all I know, Cornish is a supremely gifted dingbat.]

Well, if anyone in Amherst, MA is reading this, don't tell Milton. It would destroy his image of me, and leave me with a lot of explaining to do, next time I see him.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

IT IS BETTER TO LIGHT A CANDLE THAN TO CURSE THE DARKNESS

On Friday, I posted a somewhat self-pitying message, tricked out in academic references to C. P. Snow, about my inability, during my long career, to find students who share my desire to unite the insights and methods of mathematics and logic with those of literary criticism, history, philosophy, and other "soft" disciplines. Yesterday, it occurred to me that self-pity is not a terribly attractive personality trait, even in a septuagenarian, so I decided to have another go.

I have always thought that the ideal teaching situation would be to gather a group of dedicated students who were seriously interested in learning, and then to conduct a seminar completely free of the extraneous irrelevances of university education: No entrance requirements, no tuition or other fees, no grades, no credits to earn and enter on a permanent record, no degrees awarded. Just me and the students, engaging with hard, exciting, deep ideas. Now that I am retired, there is no reason why I cannot do just that. All I need is students and a place to meet.

I think [it is not yet certain] that the UNC Philosophy Department will graciously allow me to use one of their seminar rooms, once a week, at a time when a regular seminar is not scheduled there. Now I must figure out how to put the word out in the Triangle community [Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh, the Research Triangle, and associated towns and villages]. Then we shall see whether there are eight to fifteen people who want to study Marx's economic, historical, political, sociological, philosophical, anthropological, and psychological ideas with a depth and precision and integration that has not before, to my knowledge, been achieved.

Since the series of meetings -- probably twelve or so in all -- will cost nothing and confer no benefit on the participants save knowledge and understanding, I will feel free to make any demands I wish, however onerous. Anyone who does not want to work that hard will just drop out. I will ask them to read all of CAPITAL, Volume I, the MANIFESTO, portions of the ECONOMIC-PHILOSOPHIC MANUSCRIPTS OF 1844 and THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY, and my two books on Marx -- UNDERSTANDING MARX and MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, and other things in addition.

Well, twelve weeks may not do it.

I will expect them, at the very least, to feel comfortable with high school algebra -- I am not crazy, so I will not require Linear Algebra and Differential Calculus, even though those are both standard undergraduate subjects for students who pursue a science/mathematics track.

The course will be open to persons of any age, regardless of their educational credentials or lack of same. There will, needless to say, be not a whiff of ideological correctness. The students will not have to like Marx [that is actually rather hard to do] or agree with him -- or with me. All that is necessary is that they want to understand Marx, as richly and complexly as possible.

We shall see.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

THE NEW CANDIDATE FOR DUMBEST SENATOR

The competition for the apparently much-coveted title of "Dumbest United States Senator," which for a long time was pretty well locked up by Jeff Sessions, has a new hopeful who will be hard to beat: Jon Kyle of Arizona. The following link comes to you courtesy of my son, Tobias, who apparently has enough time left in the day after his teaching duties at Harvard Law School to keep in touch with the ever more deeply plumbed depths of Republican stupidity. Just check out the follow: http://www.youtube.com/watch?3v=3Jj6pqajvB8& As Tobias observed to me, may we assume that Kyl has no female constituents?

Friday, September 25, 2009

THE TWO C ULTURES

Some of you may be familiar with the expression "the two cultures," made popular half a century ago by the Englishman C. P. Snow. Snow, who used the phrase first in a speech, then in an essay, and finally in a short book expanded from the essay, was referring to the intellectual and cultural chasm he observed between the science dons and the humanist dons at Oxford, a chasm that, by extension, divided educated people throughout the English-speaking world. Snow himself was both a science don and a novelist, and hence was well positioned to bridge the gulf between the two groups of intellectuals. No scientist, he observed, would willingly acknowledge not knowing who Shakespeare was, and could be expected at the least to have a few bits and snatches of information about him -- "the Bard of Avon," "Macbeth," "To be or not to be," that sort of thing. But supremely learned, sophisticated, and self-admiring humanists would openly confess, indeed sometimes even brazenly announce, that they had not the slightest idea what the Second Law of Thermodynamics might be, and felt no impulse to find out.

The starkness of the division was heightened in England by the practice [which may no longer be in effect -- I have not checked] of examining boys and girls in what we would consider roughly the beginning of high school, and then sending each one off either into a science/math stream or a literature/classics stream. This determination continued right on through university, with no "General Education" courses to give the scientists a taste for the humanities and the humanists a glimmer of the sciences.

As this brief description suggests, Snow, while claiming that each of the two cultures was ignorant of the other, really thought the split was, if I may combine a political metaphor with an American football metaphor, unbalanced to the right. The humanists were more deeply ignorant of the sciences than the scientists were of the humanities.

Throughout my long teaching career, which lasted fifty-three years and spanned six decades, I have brooded on this chasm between the two cultures, particularly because in my own intellectual work I strive not merely to work in a version of the two cultures but to fuse them seamlessly in order to achieve a deeper and more complex understanding than might otherwise be possible. I began my undergraduate education, in 1950, as a mathematics major, and though I quickly shifted to philosophy, I devoted a good deal of time and energy to the study of mathematical logic. Later on, when I became involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, I taught myself Game Theory and studied the physics of radiation and fallout shelters, in order to debate against Herman Kahn and other defense intellectuals. My first teaching job, after getting my doctorate and spending six months on active duty in the Army National Guard, found me teaching European History at Harvard, while also teaching a graduate course on Kant's CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. I next taught undergraduates at the University of Chicago some of the classic texts of anthropology, psychology, sociology, and philosophy, while also teaching a more advanced course on military strategy and foreign policy and a variety of graduate courses in philosophy. In the course of a long career, I taught Rational Choice Theory to graduate students, introductory microeconomics to undergraduates, and ended up running for twelve years a revolutionary doctoral program in Afro-American Studies.

This broad array of materials has always seemed to me to be seamlessly connected, demanding the same sorts of intelligence, intuition, rigor, and clarity. But to my very great sadness, I have virtually never found students able to draw, with my guidance, on a similar spectrum of disciplinary specialties. The consequence has been that I have never truly found students who can carry on the sort of work I do. If they can handle the math, the literary criticism and sociology and philosophy is a closed book to them. And if they are comfortable with the history or anthropology or literary analysis, they are almost certain to confess, only a trifle shame-facedly, that they were "never good at math."

When I started to study the thought of Karl Marx, I found in him a catholicity of intellect and breadth of learning that I admired, and I formulated the plan of writing a study and explication of his great work, DAS KAPITAL, that would bring into fruitful conjunction the modern mathematical interpretation of his economic theories with a literary, philosophical, sociological, and historical understanding of his devastating expose of the mystifications of capitalist market relations. I did not conceive this as some sort of scholarly analogue to the old parlor trick of rubbing one's stomach and patting one's head at the same time. Rather, I was persuaded [and still am] that only such an integrated approach could do justice to the depth and complexity of Marx's insights.

My friends made it urgently clear to me that there would no readership at all for a book that combined linear algebra equations with explications of Marx's literary metaphors, and I compromised by producing two books, the first of which [UNDERSTANDING MARX] analysed the economics [with the linear algebra consigned to an appendix] and the second of which [MONEYBAGS MUST HE SO LUCKY] dealt with the literary/philosophical dimensions of the first ten chapters of CAPITAL. The joke was on me, alas. The first book had a minor success in certain economic circles, while nobody at all read the second one.

Despite what has been, if one be honest, a career-long failure both to teach and to write in the way I think best, I remain wedded to the belief that an understanding of the complex capitalist world in which we live requires a fusion of the insights from as broad an array of disciplines as one can manage. Perhaps someone out there will pick up the torch.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

OBAMA'S VIET NAM

Those among you who read this blog faithfully may have noticed that every morning, President Obama checks it for advice, just after kissing his daughters goodby and sending them off to school, and before his daily national security briefing. The time has come, therefore, for me to advise him on this whole Afghanistan thing. Let us be clear: I know next to nothing about the region in which Afghanistan is located. I have, to be sure, read Kipling's great novel, KIM, and I have even seen the movie, several times [I love the part where Kim is being trained for the Great Game, and has to memorize a table full of objects in no time at all.] Needless to say, I do not read, write, speak, or understand any of the languages of the region, and my grasp of the history of the area is sketchy, to put matters as delicately as I can. In short, I am as well prepared to pontificate on the subject of America's Afghan policy as perhaps 432 of the members of the House of Representatives, at least 96 of the senators, and all of the 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls. So here goes.

Afghanistan threatens to be Obama's Viet Nam. The reference, of course, is to Lyndon Baines Johnson, who, when he ascended to the presidency upon John Kennedy's assassination, had dreams of being a domestic affairs president in the mold of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Kennedy had sent "advisors" to Viet Nam to pick up the slack from the collapsing French Empire, but it was not too late, in 1963-64, to shut the whole escapade down and back off. Tragically, Johnson was intimidated by the Ivy League whiz kids [MacNamara, Bundy, et al.], who suckered him into a bigger commitment that then produced the downfall of his presidency and the death of fifty thousand Americans and several million Viet Namese.

We are way deeper into Afghanistan than we were into Viet Nam in 1963, of course, but the principle is the same. It would perhaps help if Obama had a bit of the Old South in him, and remembered Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby.

Let us recall that this country essentially created the Taliban during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, arming them with everything up to, and especially including, Stinger ground-to-air missiles with which to shoot down the Russian attack helicopters that were devastating the resistance forces.

Joe Biden. God bless 'im, has apparently weighed in with a strong dissent from the proposal to expand American forces, and even George Will, one of my very least favorite human beings, has called for us to get out.

If Obama pulls put of Afghanistan, he will be beat up on by the Republicans for a while, but the public, which couldn't find the country on the map with a seeing eye dog, will forget about it soon enough. If Obama gets suckered into accepting the myth that just one more troop increase, just one more surge, will do the trick and stabilize the country, then his presidency will be held hostage to the vagaries of internal Afghanistan politics, and all our brave hopes for him will be dashed. What can we do? Not a thing. This is not, unlike health care, an issue on which mobilized public opinion will in the short run make any difference. Right now is the last moment when Obama can back off, treat both wars as a legacy from the previous administration, and cut America's losses. If he buys the troop increase, he buys the war, and from now on it will be Obama's war.

I suspect Obama actually knows all this. But does he have the political courage to take the hit up front? He may well have to temporize until the health care battle is over, but that is now a matter of weeks.

All we can do is wait and see.

After writing and posting the above, I went to Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Daily Dish, and there, under a heading "Obama's JFK Moment?" found essentially the same analysis. I take this as a good sign, not as evidence that I have been "one-upped." What I am most encouraged by in the posting, which is by George Packer, is the statement that the people around Obama are all drawing the analogy and are fully aware of what is at stake. Let us hope so!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I WOULD LAUGH IF IT DIDN'T HURT SO MUCH

I was idly googling myself at three a.m. this morning, having just arrived home from Paris [let us not have any cheap snarking here, please. Who among us has not done the same?] Deep into the sixty-eighth page of sites, I came upon the Blog of Jeremy Farris, a very interesting doctoral student at Oxford in political philosophy, who has, among other things, taught at Morehouse College. Farris has some nice things to say about me, but the line that caught my eye and brought a lump to my throat was this one: "Wolff appears to be much more active with his blog than I am, which is not bad for a man who is nearly an octogenarian."



Now, let me make one thing perfectly clear. I am clearly, firmly, irrefutably a septuagenarian! I am nine months past the mid-point of my decade long stroll through the seventies. My Lord, Barack Obama will be re-elected before I hit eighty! [But it will be close]



At first, I was stunned, appalled, devastated. But after regaining my composure, I tried to see things from Farris's point of view. The book of mine that has clearly had the biggest impact on him is IN DEFENSE OF ANARCHISM, which, though it was published in 1970, was actually written in the Summer of 1965. Farris's father was probably in grade school at the time, so in a certain sense, Farris bears the same relationship to the time of that book's writing as I do to the run-up to the First World War, when my father was in about fifth grade.



It is a commonplace claim about the experience of old age that one recalls events from one's youth more easily than what one had for breakfast. Now, this is not true of me at all. I recall vividly what I had for breakfast this morning. [I am helped, to be sure, by the fact that I have the same thing every morning, which saves me the trouble of deciding, and leaves me more time to plan my blog posts.] But what IS true is that those of us on the downward slope of life can survey a sweep of time and events that extends far beyond the immediacies that young people mistake for the totality of reality. That is why we are persuaded of our superior wisdom, despite the fact that we must ask the help of grade schoolers when struggling with our cellphones.



So, I recommend that you Google Farris and check out his blog, while at the same time cutting him some slack because of his extreme youth. It is not his fault that he is so young, and if we all just wait a while, the infirmity will correct itself.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

FOR JENNIFER

One more time to the market, for the makings of the last dinner I shall prepare here in Paris, before we head home next Tuesday. Susie opted for quail, so I got two cailles, san tetes. Some courgettes [that is Zucchini, in English, but that is such an ugly word that I cannot bring myself to use it. Courgettes sounds infinitely better, and tastes the same.] Then home.

Today, for some mysterious reason, Boulevard Saint Germain was blocked off by Police, and an enormous outpouring of young people took it over, dancing, fire eating, shouting, listening to ear-shattering music played over huge amps on trucks. I have no idea what was up, but there were some thousands of people parading down the Boulevard. One truck had placards calling for free medicines for AIDS sufferers, but I suspect that was just an excuse for what was basically a celebration of the end of summer.

In a desperate effort to use up whatever I found in the kitchen, I peeled and sliced a dozen shallots, carmelized the courgettes, sauted the shallots with butter [Julia Childs is quite right that everything tastes better with butter], grilled the quail until they were "rose" [i.e., pink], and served it all up with a Beaume de Venise for me and a bottle of rose for Susie.

I started with rabbit and ended with quail. Not too bad. Tomorrow, we shall see my French cousins, Andre and Jacqueline Zarembowitch [retired distinguished scientists -- Andre's grandfather was my great-grandfather's brother].

I hope you have all checked out the link to my son's talk. He is truly brilliant -- visiting this semester at Harvard Law School -- the leading young Civil Proceduralist in the country -- and a really great looker. I believe I have what, in a different context, would be called trophy sons.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A TOUCH OF BRILLIANCE [HEM HEM]

For anyone interested in a brilliant analysis of the struggle for GLBT equality in America, I strongly recommend a speech given by -- wait for it -- my son, Tobias Barrington Wolff. The entire hour and a half event can be found at the following link, but the first fifteen minutes really need to be seen and heard. http://hammer.ucla.edu/watchlisten/watchlisten/show_id/159617/show_type/video?browse=none&category=0&search=

Thursday, September 17, 2009

IS IT RACISM?

Everyone is getting into the discussion now about whether Joe Wilson's outburst, and the rabid support for it from the right, is an instance of, or evidence of, racism. Jimmy Carter says yes. The White House says no. Today, on the Huffington Post, John A. Bohner posted a comment entitled "The GOP is Too Crazy to be Racist." Here is, as they say in the blogosphere, the money quote: "[T]he color of the President's skin does not matter to the lunatics dictating the direction of the Republican Party. I mean, it matters in that it's icing on the cake -- but they were baking regardless of all that." He concludes by writing: "Are there some racists out among the crowd? Absolutely. Is race an overtone? You bet. But -- and it's a big 'but' -- is "the overwhelming portion" of it based on race as President Carter contends? No."

Bohner is right, in an odd way, even though he misconstrues the role played by race in American economic, political, and public life. His commentg treats what is called racism as a personal attitude, an aversion to people with skin somewhat darker than that of Northern Europeans, a matter of taste, an individual irrationality. But slavery was never about skin color. Jim Crow was never about skin color. Redlining and job discrimination are not about skin color. The Civil War was not about skin color.

My colleague in the W. E. B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass, John Bracey, brought this home to me one day during the very first year of our doctoral program. We were in class with the first group of doctoral students [that first year, crazy as it may sound, all seven members of the graduate faculty attended every one of the twice-a-week seminar meetings required of all seven graduate students -- by the time we got finished arguing with one another, there was scarcely enough oxygen in the room for the poor students to take a deep breath.] I was making some inane remark about the racism of the early slave owners, and John interrupted. "Bob, the English settlers didn't get to Virginia, look around, and say, 'this is a wonderful place. All it is lacking is black people to discriminate against. Let's go get some.'" He didn't need to finish the thought, because I immediately saw what he meant. The settlers, who were out to make a killing in tobacco, took a look around and said, "This is a godawful bug-infested unhealthy place, but if we had some cheap labor to plant and tend tobacco crops, we could make a bundle. Let's go get us some cheap labor."

Race in America has always been about forced labor, cheap labor, labor that can be exploited to make a profit for capital. The liberation of the slaves deprived the planters of their captive labor force, and the Black Codes and Jim Crow legislation that brought an end to the brief period of Reconstruction had as its manifest purpose re-enslaving that labor force in all but name. The ante-bellum slave owners were not phobic about people with black skin. They raped them, had babies by them, gave their infant children to them for suckling, lived cheek by jowl with them, and took them as mistresses when they couldn't have them as slaves. They used them not only as field hands, but also as skilled artisans -- wheelwrights, cartwrights, carpenters, blacksmiths, builders, architects, even factory workers. So long as the owners could control the labor of the slaves, they valued it, paid top dollar for it, depended on it. Once they lost control of that labor, almost overnight the myth grew up that the former slaves were shiftless, lazy, no-account layabouts.

For much of the last century and a half, the well-being of White workers, always in danger, has depended on excluding from the labor force a sizeable fraction of the available workers, so as to maintain a decent level of wages. Starting with the period just after the Civil War, that meant excluding Black workers from all but the most poorly paid jobs. The working class in America has been under siege for decades now, with stagnant wages and vast job losses contributing to persistant unemployment and underemployment. The election of Barack Obama has panicked millions of Americans, who fear that this highly symbolic event means a final and complete loss of the comparative advantage White Americans enjoy so long as they can effectively exclude Black Americans from jobs and some measure of economic security. Not at all surprisingly, the severe recession of the past year has been catastrophic for Black workers.

The recent outbursts are about the fact that there is a black man in the White House, as I said in an earlier post, not because of his skin color, but because of the threat that this legitimating of a dispossessed fraction of the American population poses to those already under attack by a capitalist economy that no longer needs their labor so urgently. The attacks operate at the level of symbolism and hysterical phobia, but the underlying cause is economic through and through. These attacks will grow more stronger, and the public faces of the attacks will become more unhinged. We are in for an ugly time in America. It is only a matter of time before there is an attempt on Obama's life. The Secret Service hasn't lost a president in forty-six years. Let us hope they can run the string out for another seven.

Monday, September 14, 2009

IS MAUREEN DOWD READING MY BLOG?

Maureen Dowd, the resident NY TIMES snark, had a column yesterday suggesting that the real reason for the hysterical reaction to Obama's rather middle of the road health care reform proposals is simply that some people cannot come to terms with the fact that we have a Black president. I refer you to my earlier post. It is nice to know that I am being read. :)

By the way, those of you obsessively following the counter that adds up the number of visits to this blog [I do hope I am not the only one afflicted with this disease] will perhaps have noticed that after the counter proceeded slowly and sedately toward the 2000 mark [many of these are me, of course], suddenly it jumped by 10,000, so that now it is approaching 12,000, not 2000. There are two possible explanations. The first, which I secretly favor but officially doubt, is that overnight I acquired ten thousand new readers. The other is that there is some glitch in the counter. [A third, that someone at Google looked at my pathetic numbers and took pity on me, is touching but unlikely].

By the way, the boeuf bourguignon was spectacular. We shall eat the second half tonight.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

SUCCESS!!!

Success has crowned my efforts! I am proud and pleased to announce that I have succeeded in creating un vrai boeuf bourguignon. The entire process took about four and a half hours today, and an hour or so yesterday [everything marinates for twenty-four hours] and the result now sits on a large pot on the stove, awaiting the dinner hour. I shall follow tradition, and serve it with little boiled potatoes. It is rich, intense in taste, deep in color, and delicious.

There is enough to serve at least four comfortably, so Susie and I will have several dinners before it is all eaten. One of the odd and unexpected aspects of the process is that near the end, after the pot of meat and vegetables has been simmering for three hours, one separates and [supposedly] throws away the vegetables. Susie is at the moment reading a book about the creation of style in 18th century France, and she reports that in the days of the Bourbon kings, the aristocracy did not eat vegetables. They were considered suspect, and good only for peasants, who could not afford to eat meat. The veggies that I separated out from the pot taste wonderful, and we shall eat them tonight or tomorrow night.

I have had greater triumphs, of course -- the birth of my two sons, for example, and the time I successfully played Beethoven's Opus 59 #3, with the super-fast viola part in the last movement. But this ranks right up there.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

AN ETHICO-POLITICAL DILEMMA

I am sitting in my Paris apartment at six p.m. on a lazy Saturday afternoon, waiting to go around the corner with Susie to Le Reminet, one of our favorite restaurants, which features a new chef whom we must check out. I am listening to one of my all time favorite CDs, with Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis doing a number of baroque arias for soprano and trumpet. This is perfect music. If God has His head screwed on right, it is what you hear when St. Peter admits you to Heaven.

Seven years ago, Battle was sacked by the Met for "unprofessional conduct." Her career tanked, and she dropped from view. Now, let us stipulate that she was acting like -- a diva, a prima donna, a horse's ass. She apparently imperiously dismissed an Assistant Manager from the set, for something or other, and that wasn't all of it.

Here is the question: Morally speaking, she deserved to be fired for making the lives of her fellow artists and associated personnel miserable. BUT: The Met exists to produce beautiful music. There is no other excuse for it. A well-run, employee-friendly Opera House putting on mediocre productions with off-key singing and out of tune instrumentalists might well be a worker's paradise, but it would be an utter waste of social resources. Nobody has ever questioned that when Battle opened her mouth, out came sheer beauty.

So, should an exception be made to the norms of decent human behavior for great artists? My socialist genes, inherited from my father's father [apparently not in mitochondrial dna] say NO. But my aesthetic sensibility says, well, maybe.

OMNIUM GATHERUM OF A SCATTERED MIND

1. In less than two weeks, I shall be back in Chapel Hill, beginning my course, at the Duke Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, on The Thought of Karl Marx. As part of my preparation, I sat in Le Metro, our cafe in Place Maubert, and re-read THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. It struck me that it has literally been decades since I last read it -- possibly, as many as four decades! Once again, its sheer brilliance stunned me. And yet, I had never before realized how much it is a young man's cri du coeur. It breathes with confidence, defiance, a sense that this is our historical moment. "Bliss was it that dawn to be alive, but to be young were very heaven." Perhaps I never saw before this distinctive character of the MANIFESTO because when I last read it, I too was young [though not, I imagine, as young as Marx when he wrote it.] CAPITAL is very much a mature author's creation -- fully as brilliant, filled with excoriations of Capital, but measured, less certain that the moment has arrived and is upon us. I wonder whether I shall be able to communicate something of that brilliance and excitement to my students, all of whom, I rather expect, will be my contemporaries.

2. Herewith an account of my latest passage at arms with the bizarre French banking system. Susie and I have a bank account in a French bank, BNP Paribas, which we opened in the big Place de l'Opera branch. [Never mind that in order to gain the right to give them my money, I must maintain an 8,000 Euro savings account in the bank that I may not access.] We need this account because all our bills for the apartment are paid in Euros -- electricity, condo fee, taxes, telephone, cable, internet, insurance -- but all of the Americans who rent the apartment for short periods when we are not there pay us in dollars. There is a BNP Paribas branch in Place Maubert, across rue Lagrange from the cafe, and it even has an atm machine outside where my Bank of America card works. So that is fine.

However, periodically, I must deposit Euros in the account to cover the on-going costs of maintaining the apartment. I do this by taking Euros from the atm, and then entering the bank and depositing them in the account. Simple, right? As if!! Three days ago, after accumulating a little horde of 2000 Euros [I can only take about 600 a day from the atm machine], I walked into the bank to make a deposit. Now, I had a problem, which was, I admit, my fault. I had left my bank book at home, and hence did not have ready to hand my account number. But I had my passport, and I figured that with some fractured French explanation, all would be well. Good luck. The lady behind the counter told me that I would have to go to the branch at which I had opened the account to carry out this transaction. They are branches of the same bank, but that seems to count for nothing.

So, Susie and I took the metro to Jussieu, transferred, and went to the Opera stop, which -- it being the ritzy part of town -- even has an up escalator [but not a down escalator -- one can try the legendary French bourgeois penuriousness only so far.] We went in to the bank and asked to see Mlle Phincth, who, it seemed, was on an extended lunch break. She could see us in an hour and a half. So we crossed Place de l'Opera [always a risky operation] and sat in the famous Cafe de la Paix, drinking kir and watching the traffic go by. [I logged ten different bus lines passing through the Place -- extraordinary.] At 3:30, we were ushered in to see our conseillier. I counted out my 2000 Euros, and was then told that I needed the atm withdrawal slips, to prove where the cash came from. Of course, I hadn't kept them. Who does? This one time, she would make an exception, since I had my passport, but the maximum amount of cash that the bank would accept in any case was 1500 Euros. She took me to a teller, who led me down a flight of stairs, and through two locked doors, to a secret room [where downed American fliers were hidden from the Nazis in WW II, maybe?], equipped to receive -- cash. Back through two locked doors, up the stairs, and finally I was given a receipt. But it was made clear that BNP Paribas did not approve of cash, and in the future all transactions would have to be electronic.

Marx was too pessimistic, thinking it would take a revolution to overthrow capitalism. If he had only been a bit more patient...

3. I have committed myself. Today, at the market, I bought four pounds of beef, cut up into large cubes, a healthy portion of lardon, reduced to cubes, enough mushrooms to sink a canoe, carrots, leeks, and a lovely huge bouquet garni, and I am ready to try my hand at a true French boeuf burguignon. This will either be a spectacular success, or the largest pile of unusable detritus I have ever accumulated. I shall report on the outcome of the experiment.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

CAROLINA ON MY MIND

South Carolina is not a large state. It has nine principal political officials -- two senators, six members of the House, and a Governor. And yet four of those nine are Mark Sanford, of Rio and the Appalachian Trail fame, the reptilian Lindsey Graham, the appalling Jim DeMint, and now the Boor of the Congress, Joe Wilson. We in North Carolina feel a certain proprietary pride in the term "Carolina," and really would prefer not to share it with the troglodytes to our immeduate south.


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

DO FOREIGNERS KNOW SOMETHING WE DON'T KNOW?

One of the most familar conceits of a certain kind of American intellectual is the belief that foreigners understand America much better than Americans do. This is a long tradition, of course, going back at least to Tocqueville, and for all I know to General Lafayette. There were probably Seneca and Iroquois who thought that Henry Cabot understood them better than their local shamans did.

I have always been rather doubtful of this particular instance of xenophilia. I certainly never imagined, during my visits to England, that I understood the arcana of British politics better than the journalists who made their living at it. This morning, when I went out to have a coffee and brioche au chocolat at the secondary Keyser bakery up the street from the big one, I picked up today's copy of LIBERATION, the socialist newspaper, to read their big multi-page spread anticipating Obama's speech this evening. I can read French, but it is enough of an effort to encourage me to confuse difficulty with depth. [I might add, as an aside, that I discovered, by reading cover to cover a book of mine that has been translated into French, that everyone sounds like Descartes in French! What I took for Descartes' spare prose is mostly a consequence of the fact that there are many fewer words in French than in English.]

Naturally, LIBERATION included at the bottom of page 2 a little chart showing that America's health system costs 45% more per head than France's, even though France's system is rated first in the world and America's is rated 37th. Fair enough. But the news story, which I dutifully plowed through, read like boiler plate lifted from a NY TIMES article or a TalkingPointsMemo blog post. I have, on occasion, followed American presidential elections in French newspapers, and they NEVER know something that any reasonably alert American news consumer wouldn't know. This is not at all surprising. If you are the LIBERATION stringer in Washington D.C. [I am not sure they can afford an entire news bureau, as LE MONDE undoubtedly can], how will you decide what to write? You will read the TIMES and the WASHINGTON POST, you will surf the blogosphere, and if you are lucky, you will get interviews with second or third string Administration spokespersons. You may also get credentials to attend the daily White House Press briefings, and for some snark, you will watch Olberman and Maddow. Which is to say, you will do what I do, and what several million other American news junkies do.

So there is nothing for it. Either I must stay up until three a.m., and hope my TV set is working, or I must wait until tomorrow morning and see what Arianna Huffington has to say about the speech.

But the food is really better.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

AN INNOCENT ABROAD

Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of Paris [my apologies to the Bard.] It was in the eighties today, sunny and lovely, and all Paris was in the streets and the cafes enjoying what may be the last such day before autumn. I decided to show the flag, and wore my Obama T-shirt, which drew approving nods and thumbs up from several passers-by. For those of you who are following this blog, I can report that the quail were a success, along with some delicious sauteed mushrooms. Julia Child was entirely correct in her profound observation that everything tastes better with butter.

And now for another of my Panglossian predictions. [I seem awash in literary allusions today -- a nod to culture.] The tide has turned. The Republican hysteria over Obama's anodyne talk to returning grade schoolers has made them laughing stocks. George Will has broken all precedent by writing the first true words of his entire career, about Afghanistan, no less. And with Congress returned to Washington from their long August encounters with the total crazies of the wingnut right, we are back to serious work on a large, history-making health care reform bill.

Herewith the prediction. A bill will pass. It will be imperfect. It will be a major step forward. And it will not be the last word on the subject.

Unlike the pundits of the mainstream media, I can actually remember what I say. Therefore, if I turn out to be wrong, I will eschew Dorade royale and quail and hazelnut encrusted rabbit and instead, in full view of my vast audience, consume a healthy portion of crow [without the blessings of butter.]

Meanwhile, we are off for dinner at La Rotisserie du Beaujolais -- across the street from Tour d'Argent, just en face the Seine, seated in our favorite window alcove, and -- if all works out well -- visited by the large, fat, lazy cat who graces the restaurant with his presence -- a cat appropriately named Beaujolais. Life truly does not get any better than this.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

OFF TO THE MARKET

Not THAT market! Not the foundation of liberty, the bulwark of the Free World, the Eden of Bentham, Friedman, and Adam Smith, The God That Failed, the last refuge of Rational Actors, the Museum of Mystified Commodities, the implacable mechanism for the exploitation of the working class -- I mean a REAL market, the open air market in the Place Maubert, half a block from our Paris apartment.

This morning, after several cups of strong coffee, half an orange, a piece of a baguette, and some Bonne Maman jam, I took my shopping bag and set out for an initial foray into the Saturday market. My first purchase was 100 grams of raw hazelnuts -- an odd choice, you might think, but an essential ingredient in hazelnut encrusted rabbit. [I had already ascertained that the apartment's kitchen still contained some curry powder and oriental five spices powder, which must be mixed with the finely chopped hazelnuts before the rabbit pieces are dredged in a beaten egg and coated with the mixture.] Then off the to butcher's stand, where I asked for a demi-lapin, coupe, sans tete. [I pay for the head, needless to say, or more precisely for half of the head, after he has split a skinned rabbit up the middle lengthwise, but I don't cook the head, and think it better not to pretend that I do.] As I was about to leave, I spotted a mound of plump quail. Susie is very partial to quail, so I bought two for another dinner. On to the fishmonger. His display was unusually elaborate and tempting, but I have just arrived, and I am not quite ready to be adventuresome with unfamiliar crustaceans, so I just bought a lovely dorade royale, which I asked for "en fillet sans peau." I have cooked dorade royale many times, in our little microwave/convection oven. With pepper and salt and some bits of butter, it makes a very simple but delicious main course, and frees up the two burners on our plaque induction stove top for other things.

Well, so much for main courses. Now, it was time for veggies and fruit and such. I already had some shallots, purchased yesterday as soon as we arrived, so I picked out some mushrooms, some onions, and a garlic bulb. Yesterday, I stopped at Than Binh's vegetable market on the corner and bought a piece of gingerroot so fresh that when I snapped it off a larger piece, the smell of ginger wafted into even my rather challenged olfactory nerve endings. The ginger here bears no relation to the dried out excuse that Whole Foods tries to pass off as the genuine article. [Never mind that the President of Whole Foods has pooh-poohed the efforts at health care reform, sparking a boycott across Yuppie America.] Then a big bunch of fresh carrots -- carmelized carrots, pan-fried in butter with some brown sugar, is a delicious vegetable course, and I figured it would complement the dorade royale nicely. A lot of baby potatoes, always a nice starch. And then real French green beans, slender and fresh, ready to be parboiled in the water that the potatoes come out of [with only two burners, I am always calculating ways to save space on the stove.] Finally, a big bunch of flowers for Susie, who was sleeping in, flattened by the travel, despite the Business Class upgrade.

There is an open air market in Place Maubert every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, but the Saturday market is far and away the best. The market regularly features stands devoted to clothing and quasi-African art and such, all of which entrances Susie, but I stick to the food.

Yesterday, I bought some Beaume de Venise for me and a nice bottle of Sancerre blanc for Susie, so we have wine, at least for the moment. Later today, I shall walk up rue Monge half a block to Kayser's, the best bakery in Paris, for some more brioches a l'orange [Susie has already finished the two I bought yesterday] and another baguette. This evening, we shall have a simple meal at home, probably the dorade royale.

We have arrived in Paris.

Friday, September 4, 2009

BOB AND SUSIE'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE

We set out for Paris from Chapel Hill, NC on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. to drive the 150 miles to Charlotte so that we could try the newly established US Airways non-stop flight to Paris. Two hours on the highway is a breeze for most people [my son, Tobias, regularly drives twice that without thinking abut it], but I was pretty tired by the time we found our way to the far northeast corner of Long Term Lot 1, and grabbed the van to the Terminal. As we got out of the van, Susie remarked ruefully that she had left her cane in the car. It was too late to go back, so I promised that we would buy a new one as soon as we got to Paris, to leave there along with all our other belongings in our 5th arrondisement apartment.

As we settled down to wait for our flight, one of the people at the desk announced that the flight was oversold, and that they were offering $550 per person and overnight accomodations for anyone willing to leave the next day. We were sorely tempted, since we had no one waiting for us, no hotel reservaions, and it made no difference at all which day we got to our apartment. What closed the deal was the realization that if we delayed a day, we could go back to the car and get Susie's cane.

A long night at a grungy Ramada Inn with very friendly people working there, a tedious wait at the airport the next day, and then we boarded, discovering that the nice US Airways lady had put us in Business Class! I just checked on line, and that upgrade was worth roughly $4000 over and above the $1100 in US Airways vouchers in our pockets.

So, here we are, a good deal richer, having had undoubtedly our most comfortable flight ever to France, and just one day later than planned. Wonder of wonders, when I plugged in my computer, it connected instantly to the Internet. Even the television worked as it should. The only mystery was that the little garbage pail in the kitchen has disappeared. Very strange.

I shall be blogging from Paris, but not as often as I do at home. There is boeuf bourguignon to be attempted, an open air concert in the Bois de Vincennes to sample, and always, the pleasure of going down to the end of our block and looking at Notre Dame de Paris, the most beautiful building in the world.

Life isn't too bad for an old leftie.