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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

MOVIE REVIEW -- A CRITICAL CONUNDRUM

Yesterday evening, Susie and I went to a local theater to see the new Joel and Ethan Coen movie, A Serious Man. The movie raised in my mind an interesting question of critical theory: Can one consider a movie interesting, well-acted, thoughtfully written, well directed, and still hate it with a loathing so deep, so visceral, that one leaves the theater wanting to hunt down every last copy of the movie and burn them?

Generally speaking, I am a pretty easy customer to please. I love romantic films -- Sleepless in Seattle, Shakespeare in Love -- I dig spy films and shoot 'em ups, I can watch the Rock or the Governator, I will sit still for Pride and Prejudice as many times as it appears on my tv, I am a big fan of Juliette Binoche and Jean Reno, I recall The Seventh Seal with fondness, I even get a kick out of The Ten Commandments, although I have to confess that my sympathies lie more with Yul Brynner than with Charleton Heston.

But watching A Serious Man was like spending upwards of two hours listening to someone scrape his fingernails across a blackboard. I hated every character in the movie, save the protagonist, a poor shlub of a Mathematics professor to whom all manner of evils befall. The movie is said by some reviewers to be a loose retelling of the Book of Job. So I re-read Job this morning, outraged as I always am by its message, and that description of the movie is a real stretch.

I think I understand why I hated the movie so much, but that would demand a considerably longer post, so I will not attempt it unless there is a torrent of requests [measuring torrents as I do on this blog, which is to say two or three].

At least it took my mind off Afghanistan for a little while. That is something.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

MORE MARGINAL READING NOTES

Although the Argument from Design is, by general agreement in the philosophical community, the weakest of the so-called "proofs for the existence of God," it is far and away the most popular. It was the particular favorite of English divines such as William Paley, whose Natural Theology had a great vogue in the early nineteenth century. The fittingness of means to ends, the arrangement of natural things for human purposes, was said to bespeak the existence of a purposeful Creator as surely as would a watch, found on a deserted beach, indicate the existence of a watchmaker.

Of all God's contrivences, none was thought so patently to belie the heretical doctrine of Evolution as the human eye. How could this extraordinarily complex organ, with its highly specialised cells and precise arrangement of components, have evolved by minute stages in the supposedly distant past? What good, pious critics of Darwin asked with a sneer, would half an eye do to a bit of protoplasm gifted with it by a random mutation? Where is the survival value in a retina unattached to an optic nerve, a lens without a cornea?

In my slow but rich reading of Nick Lane's Ascending Life: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution [see my earlier post], I have just today completed his chapter on sight. Evolutionary microbiologists now know a simply extraordinary amount both about the molecular level workings of the eye and also about the evolution of photosensitivity, leading up to the appearance of genuine eyes. It turns out that the answer to the sneering question is: half an eye is much better than no eye at all. Indeed, a primitive retina unaccompanied by any of the other components of the eye as we know has considerable survival value in some organisms.

There is a fascinating dialectic at work in this seemingly endless struggle between the evolutionary biologists and the Fundamentalist Creationists. The Creationists present a mystery -- whence the eye? -- and the biologists, after brilliant and painstaking research, give a reply at the anatomical level. The Creationists respond -- But whence these anatomical arrangements, so manifestly purposive in their interconnection? After more work, the biologists reply, at the level of structures so tiny as to be visible only with electron microscopy. Look here at these molecules, they say, which interact so as to make sight possible. But, reply the Creationists, how could those molecules have come into existence and been selected for before the entire arrangement necessary for sight was in place? What is the survival value of just those molecules that will turn out to be required for sight? And with yet more work, this time supported by x-ray crystallography, the biologist answers, with ever greater and more precise detail, tracing the evolution back six hundred million years and more with the aid of the analysis of genetic encoding.

The rhetorical questions posed by the Creationists have already been asked by the biologists. But whereas the Creationists treat them as rhetorical questions, flourishes designed to demonstrate the impossibility of any answer save "God did it," the biologists treat those same questions as spurs to research.

There is a rather comical amnesia and irreligiosity in the behavior of the Creationists. Amnesia, because they can never seem to remember that the explanations they are now prepared to accept are precisely the explanations they so recently said could never be given. One can almost hear them saying, "Oh well, sure, we always knew you could explain things at the molecular level, that goes without saying. But it is at the atomic level that you must invoke God." Irreligious, because they seem utterly incapable of seeing God in a rock or a grain of sand, but must instead insist that only in the deepest recesses of the sub-atomic level of the workings of a cell is an appeal to the existence of God required." One wonders whether they have ever read Gerard Manley Hopkins: "Glory be to God for dappled things."

In the end, the failure of the Creationists is a simple failure of imagination. They are incapable of seeing the always unfinished task of science as a glorious challenge, an exciting adventure. The Creationists are worse than stupid. They are boring.

Lane's last chapter is on Death. I do not know now what I will have to say about that.

Friday, November 27, 2009

MORE WONDERFUL TIDBITS FROM THE WEB

Back in the 40's, when I was young, my sister and I, and many other people, used to listen to a folk music program on WNYC, New York City's public radio station, run by a young folk singer named Oscar Brand. I always thought of him as our own personal Pete Seegar [although it seems he is actually Canadian.] Here are two wonderful facts I just discovered, courtesy of Wikipedia:

1. He is still alive, at age 89, and is still hosting the same radio program that he started in 1945.

2. This is the biggie: He was on the Board of the organization that started Sesame Street, and he bugged them so much about their failure to achieve their original goal, which was to reach out to kids in the ghetto, that they created a character on Sesame Street modeled after him: OSCAR THE GROUCH!!!

I feel as though two completely separate lines in my life have suddenly come together.

AFGHANISTAN

The word in the media is that Obama has decided to send about 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. He will make a speech to the nation on December 1 [next Tuesday] announcing the decision. It is not difficult to figure out what he will say. He will lay down, firm, inflexible markers of success. He will say that if the Kharzai regime has not made major advances in combating corruption and establishing a legitimate government in six months, he will begin the withdrawal of American troops. He will say that in any case, he is prepaqred to commit troops for only five years, after which they must be totally withdrawn. And he will say that the focus of the mission of the troops will be on counteracting Al Qaida, not on fighting the Taliban.

And he will mean every word of it.

So Kharzai will make some head fakes in the direction of dealing with corruption. [Will he really put his brother in prison? I doubt it.] The Taliban will continue to expand their sphere of influence. [Just today there are reports that they have opened operations in an area of Afghanistan that the Americans had thought was secure.] And inevitably, American casualties will rise.

But the blood of these men and women will be on Obama's hands, not on Bush's hands, for with the escalation, the war will become Obama's war. Six months from now, no real progress will have been made, but there will be some Potemkin Village successes to which the generals will point. What is more, when they ask for more troops, to protect those already there, how will Obama say no? After all, it will be he who chose to send them there.

This is wrong, wrong wrong. It is a mistake of monumental proportions. And all the deliberateness of decision making, all the lines drawn in the sand, all the time lines and deadlines and inflexible conditions will not make it anything but a mistake.

I have seen this movie before, and the sequel was Richard Nixon.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

MARGINAL NOTES WHILE READING

My big sister, Barbara [Dr. Barbara Searle, retired from the World Bank after a distinguihsed career], teaches in the Washington, D. C. version of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program, in the Duke University branch of which I also teach. [It was she who put me onto OLLI as a thing to do in retirement.] For some years now, she has been teaching a sequence of courses on evolutionary biology and related subjects [her doctorate is in Biology]. At her suggestion, I have been reading a new book by a prolific and very gifted author, Nick Lane, called LIFE ASCENDING: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution. Having worked my way through the very difficult and fact-crammed chapters on The Origin of Life, DNA, Photosynthesis, The Complex Cell, and Sex, I am now deep in the chapter on Movement.

The dominant message of the book is the astonishing explosion that has taken place in recent decades in our detailed knowledge about the operations of living things, right down to the molecular and atomic level. But buried in Lane's exposition are some tantalizing observations of great philosophical significance. Here is one that I just came across at the very bottom of page 146.

Lane is talking about the evolution in cellular creatures [eukaryotes is the technical term] of the ability to move about in pursuit of food. He writes, "There were always good reasons to move, but the new lifestyles that came with motility gave animals a particular reason to be in a particular place at a particular time, and indeed a different place at a different time. That is to say, it gave them purpose -- deliberate, goal-directed behaviour." [He is English]

I stopped dead when I read those sentences. Purposiveness has long be viewed by philosophers as the distinctive mark of what they call practical reason. With purposiveness, goal orientation replaces the mere push and pull of efficient causation. It does not take much imagination to see the thread that connects a paramecium propelled by its flagella with a chimp using a twig to snag ants from an anthill, and ultimately with Immanuel Kant's Critique of Practical Reason.

This is exciting stuff, and a very welcome escape from the idiocies, anxieties, compromises, and disasters of the political world [to which I shall return in this blog shortly]. The book is slow going if you are not a biologist [and maybe even if you are], but this is where it is happening in the scientific world, and I recommend it to you.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

CLASS AND STATUS IN AMERICA

The classical political economists -- Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, and -- the greatest of them all -- Karl Marx -- conceived of society as divided into classes defined by their role in the system of what Marx called the social relations of production. All four of them saw England, and by extension the burgeoning capitalist world, as consisting of a landed class, an entrepreneurial or capitalist class, and a working class. All of them, of course, were well aware of national, religious, linguistic, regional, and cultural distinctions, some of which cut across class divisions in complex ways. But they thought that the best way to understand the social world was to attend first to class divisions.

The great German sociologist, Max Weber, although deeply influenced by Marx, believed that a classification by status, rather than economic class, would yield a better insight into the behavior of groups in society. Status, as he understood it, was defined by a number of characteristics, among which income [not position in the social relations of production] was clearly one of the most important.

So what?, you might ask. Well, to put it as simply as I can [nothing was simple for Weber!], if Marx was right, then we could expect minimum wage workers and well-paid industrial workers to recognize their common interest, and hence have a tendency to join forces against a common opponent, capital, despite the fact that the minimum wage workers lived hand to mouth in cramped apartments while the industrial workers owned their own homes and even sent their children to college. If Weber was right, then the industrial workers, able to sustain a "middle class existence," could be expected to make common cause with small businessmen in the protection of property rights. And so forth.

At the present time, we are experiencing a right-wing populist revolt against Obama's policies that confounds those of us who cling to Marx's way of understanding the world. For virtually a generation now, as Thomas Frank pointed out in his book, What's The Matter With Kansas?, we have seen large numbers of Americans vote steadily against their economic interest. As Frank rather trenchently put it, the peasant mob storms the castle, and when asked what they want, they cry, with righteous indignation, "Give tax breaks to the rich!"

One need pay only the slightest attention to the Tea Party movement, the Birthers, and the Sarah Palin phenomenon to recognizae that these are people who are deeply, bitterly resentful and offended about matters that have little or nothing to do with their class interests.

As a first hesitant step toward understanding what is happening, let me advert to a William F. Buckley "Firing Line" television show that I saw many years ago. [For those of you who cannot recall who Buckley was, let me simply say that he was a writer, ideologue, and tv talk show host who burst onto the scene with his youthful book, God and Man at Yale, and went on to found and for many years to edit The National Review, the first and the most influential of the right wing magazines of opinion.] Buckley had a faux patrician manner accompanied by a perpetual sneer, a voice that dripped condescension, and a pretention of exquisite intellectualism not often justified by his actual opinions. He was Roman Catholic, and hewed closely to the official Church line on matters of doctrine.

On this particular show, Buckley's guests were a Southern couple who had objected to evolution being taught to their children in the local public school, together with their lawyer and the lawyer for the school board. Both lawyers were big city types brought in for what offered some promise of being an epic courtroom battle -- shades of Inherit the Wind. The couple, by contrast, were modest folk, dressed in their Sunday best, which was quite manifestly not in style. They were hesitant, not well-spoken, and visibly terrified by being on national television. They were also, clearly, decent, God fearing, painfully honest people who had no concern at all beyond what they conceived to be the well-being of their children. I believe that they were, unlike Buckley, Fundamentalist Protestants, not Catholics [the Catholic Church gave up some while ago on denying the truth of evolution.]

Now, the thing you have to understand is that this was supposed to be a friendly interview. Buckley was on the side of the parents, and opposed to the effort, as he saw it, of liberal ideologues to cram their views down the throats of religious conservatives. But as the interview progressed, a strange thing happened. Buckley and the two lawyers in effect made common cause against the poor parents. All three men were well-educated, sophisticated big city types, accustomed to moving in circles in which an array of verbal and cultural traits serve to allow people to identify their social equals. The parents were of a totally different background and social status. Their speech, their manner, their clothes, their body language marked them not as economically lower class but as not part of the educated elite. And despite his ideological predispositions, Buckley could not conceal his disdain for them. Not his disagreement with them, not his opposition to their cause, but his disdain for them.

It seems to me that a very large part of the passion motivating the current crop of populist rebels is a bitter resentment at the disdain that they feel is directed against them every day by the dominant culture of American society. That is why, quite irrelevantly and inconsequently, they so often rail against Obama's "Ivy League" connections, despite the fact that George W. Bush, for example, was a product of Yale and Harvard.

These folks are not stupid, and they are not wrong. People like me do feel disdain for someone who denies the facts of evolution. We do ourselves quitre often have Ivy League credentials, even though I, for one, have during my entire life been a more active and determined critic of the elite educational sector than they, and have even spent time and money opposing Harvard's policies. My contempt for Sarah Palin is -- let us be honest -- strengthened by her grotesque declasse mannerisms -- winking at the camera, punctuating her remarks with "you betcha", claiming [falsely, as it turns out] to be a moose hunter. In this classless society, an upper class has emerged, and it is defined as much by education and culture as by money or ideology. Buckley is reputed to have been a good amateur harpsichordist, given to enteertaining his guests at dinner with a little Bach or Scarlatti.

It is a paradox that we must try to understand that socially and economically progressive public policies are so often vigorously supported by people who themelves have little to gain from them, and violently opposed by those in whose interest they are advanced.

I invite comments.

Monday, November 23, 2009

MY VERY FIRST GUEST POST!

This is very big. After six months and more of blogging, I am now able to post my very first guest blog post, responding to my comments about Whole Foods, organic foods, and such. I invite everyone to respond, and get a debate going. Here it is, written by Professor Ann Davis:

Let me begin first by a declaration of blogo-fidelity. This is the one and only blog in which I participate, ineluctably drawn in by my respect and admiration for Professor Robert Paul Wolff, who was my undergraduate philosophy professor at Columbia (Barnard College) in the fall of 1966.

I have just returned from a pre-Thanksgiving dinner with my children and son-in-law, who all live in Cambridge, Mass. One of them is a vegetarian, two of them are kosher, and all three are attracted to the notion of “ethical kashrut,” which is concerned with impact on labor and the environment, as well as the particulars of ritual slaughter.

My son is particularly aware of the importance of treating other people with respect, instead of resorting to cheap shots and put-downs, when in intense debate about important issues.

I approach the food issue within the context of environmental impact. I am convinced of the seriousness of global warming as an immediate threat to conditions of survival on the planet earth, for plants, animals, and humans. The ability of the human race to produce food is under threat, I am persuaded, by disruption of rainfall, unpredictable global temperatures, and sea level rise.

The food system in the US is a contributor to global warming, with CO2 emissions from synthetic fertilizer production, livestock waste, and long-distance food transportation. The food system in the US is organized by industrial principles of maximizing output per worker, or labor productivity. To achieve ever-increasing advances in labor productivity, there has been increasing use of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, mechanization, refrigeration, long-distance transportation. The use of science has also enabled the redesign of food along industrial principles, combining ingredients to produce taste, calories, and shelf-life, from whole produce. Branding of food has enabled firms to raise prices for products produced with basic ingredients which are inexpensive to produce, by means of advertising and packaging.

These steps increase profitability, at the expense of environmental degradation and declining human health. Factory farms produce waste collected in open pools, run-off from fertilizers, leading to eutrophication of ponds, rivers, and “dead zones” in coastal waters. Food growers in the Mid-West drain aquifers of finite water supplies, and in California rely on transporting water over ever-increasing distances. The availability of cheap calories has helped create an epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

These points are not original with me. There is increasing attention to these issues by writers like Michael Pollan, films like “Food, Inc.,” and even general audience magazines like Time (see cover story, “The Real Cost of Cheap Food” by Bryan Walsh, August 31, 2009, Vol. 174, No. 8, 30-37). Historians like Steven Stoll, in Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth Century America (2002), document the shift in farmers’ ethic from protecting the soil to increasing productivity by all means.

I see an echo of concerns from the 1970s, the “back to the land” movement, the “small is beautiful” ethic of E.F.Schumacher, and the “diet for a small planet” by Frances Moore Lappe. Today there are also the more recent contribution of Alice Waters, with her concerns for education and nutrition for school children, and the “slow food movement,” to increase appreciation for good food and the accompanying sociability. There are green roofs, vertical farms in skyscrapers, and urban farmers in the empty lots of devastated cities like Detroit.

There are other models of farming, such as small, diverse farms which rotate crops, use small herds of poultry and livestock to fertilize fields, and use labor-intensive no-till methods to retain moisture and reduce pesticide use. These methods may increase labor input, and so increase direct cost, but reduce the short and long term environmental damage. Networks of local farms provide fresh produce to densely populated urban areas, and Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs, provide a more direct connection and communication between “farm and fork.”

A preference for small family farms can be viewed as naïve nostalgia among those who never endured the boredom and back-breaking labor required. On the other hand, small diverse farms can be like railroads, the nineteenth century technology which is appropriate for the twenty-first century.

The increasing direct cost of such methods can be offset by government subsidies (or switching subsidies from monoculture and large, vertically integrated corporate farms), and increasing consumer awareness and demand. Increasing regulation regarding farm methods, or a carbon tax, could raise the cost of production for all producers, making small scale farming more competitive. Progressive policies, like taxes on higher incomes or luxuries, can compensate lower income residents for the overall increasing expense of food.

These policy alternatives are understood and endorsed by my undergraduate economics students in Environmental Economics.

The typical resistance is from farm belt states and large agri-business corporations. But this is true of many progressive policies.

As I see it, there is no reasonable alternative. Our so-called “cheap” food is not really cheap. Read about it in Time magazine.

MY WHOLE FOOD RAP

Professor Ann Davis, an economist teaching in Poughkeepsie [and a former student from the 60's] has a rather different view of the whole organic food question -- as many of you do, I suspect. I shall invite her to post a guest blog in which she gives expression to some of her disagreements with me.

By all means feel free to enter the debate.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

60-59 LET THE DEBATE BEGIN

One step at a time. Harry Reid held all sixty senators on a cloture motion to allow debate to begin [after Thanksgiving] on the health care reform bill. For some mysterious reason Voinivich was absent, so the Republicans lost one vote, which did not matter. The saintly, oh so independent, Olympia Snow voted to close off debate before it began. Why do the David Broders of the world persist in imagining that people like Snow and Collins are any better than their hard right colleagues?

A correction: One of my faithful readers, Professor Jennifer Jensen-Wallach, informs me that Whole Foods bought Bread and Circus. It did not begin as Bread and Circus, as I said. Many thanks for the heads up.

WHOLE FOODS, ORGANIC FOODS, AND THE FAMILY BUDGET

I do most of the food shopping and all of the cooking in our family, so I tend to notice what things cost at the local supermarkets. For standard staples, I patronize the Harris Teeter half a block away -- very convenient. But for a few items -- fresh fish, wine, sometimes cheese -- I drive to the Chapel Hill Whole Foods, known hereabouts as "whole paycheck" for its tendency to scarf up all the available money in your pockets. Whole Foods, which began life with the rather more imaginative name Bread and Circus, specializes, of course in organic produce, especially that which is locally grown. Yesterday, I decided to get some zucchini to go with the catfish I had purchased. [Zucchini, very thin sliced and then pan sauteed until it carmelizes, is surprisingly tasty.] I saw a display of organic zucchini for $2.49 a pound. A few feet away was another pile of zucchini -- not organic, but still "regionally grown" from South Carolina -- for $1.69 a pound. The seedless red grapes, which I like to snack on, were going for $2.99 a pound. Their price varies enormously depending on the season. The organic red seedless grapes were $5.99 a pound.

I was so outraged by the price differences that I bought the South Carolina zucchini, and took a pass on the grapes entitrely [I sneaked a taste of one grape, and it was not sufficiently crisp and fresh]. This informal anecdotal survey convinces me that at present, organic produce is a yuppy indulgence, like a Starbucks latte, totally out of reach of a family trying to get by on a really limited budget. I do not see how the organic foods movement can hope to be taken seriously as anything other than an upper middle class indulgence so long as these sorts of price differentials persist.

I might say that this observation holds true as well for the Saturday Farmer's market in Carrboro, where I spent many happy hours last summer behind a card table signing people up for the Obama campaign. Going to the Farmer's Market is an entertainment, like taking in a movie with popcorn -- expensive but fun.

TUMMLERS

In the first part of the twentieth century, a number of resort hotels were opened in the Catskill Mountains north of New York City, catering to Jewish families who wanted to get away from the city for a week, or even a weekend. Known as the Borscht Circuit, these resorts were the launching pads for a great many show biz careers, including such notables as Danny Kaye. By common agreement, the jewel of the Borscht Circuit was Grossinger's, in the town of Liberty, New York. Liberty has a special place in my heart because my grandfather, long a stalwart of the socialist Workman's Circle, ended his career as the Director of a Workman's Circle TB Sanitarium that was virtually across the street from Grossinger's.

Even a short stay at one of the hotels was a considerable financial stretch for many of the Borscht Circuit guests, who would come with their marriageable daughters seeking nice Jewish medical students or law students [see Dirty Dancing with Patrick Swayze], or on special singles' weekends hoping for romance. Every minute on vacation was precious, and not to be wasted. Well aware of the needs of their patrons, the managers of the hotels would schedule non-stop Events, guaranteed to fill the time. Lest there should be a single empty moment, they would hire professional stirrers-up, referred to in Yiddish as tummlers, whose job it was to wander around the hotel and stir things up when they threatened to slow down. If a tummler came on three old ladies sitting in rocking chairs nodding off, he would shout, "Ladies, let's dance," and right there would whirl them around, one after the other, lavishing them with absurd compliments and exhortations to have fun.

When I watch Chris Matthews on MSNBC, shouting at his guests, interrupting them, goading one to attack the other, what I see is not political commentary, but a world class tummler at work. The one thing that is absolutely forbidden on commercial television is a moment in which nothing is happening. Obscenity, profanity, perversity, stupidity -- all these are grist for the mill. But there must not be a quiet moment in which someone can be seen to be thinking.

There are, of course, quite comprehensible economic reasons for this frenzy of tumult. With five hundred cable stations available at the click of a remote, even fifteen seconds of calm is liable to see a disastrous leeching away of viewers. At least, at Grossinger's, the guests were paid up through Sunday evening, so a slow moment Saturday morning could be redeemed by a boffo floor show the next evening.

At no time has this penchant for new age tummling been more evident than during the months-long, complex, frustrating process of crafting a health care reform bill and bringing it to a vote. Even now, as we approach the penultimate moment [with reconciliation and final passage still before us], Matthews and his many colleagues and competitors cannot wait patiently for events to unfold. There might, after all, be a slow moment, when their viewers would slide away to re-runs of NCIS or one of the countless basketball games that seem to played at all hours of the day and night. So there is Matthews, shouting at the two most fervently opposed members of Congress he can dragoon, asking whether Obama is "dithering," answering his own questions, doing everything but dragging Keith Olberman on camera, as he waits to begin his own show, and dancing the Hora with him.

Is it any wonder that I sometimes turn to C-Span in hopes of a Senate quorum call graced by some lovely Mozart?

Friday, November 20, 2009

AN INVITATION TO MY READERS

Now that this blog is, in a manner of speaking, established, at least in a very select circle, I would like to offer it as a space for my readers to express themselves. If any of you have something you would like to say, but do not wish to undertake the responsibility of maintaining a blog, just send your posting along to me and I will put it in this space with your name attached. Send it as an email to me at rwolff@afroam.umass.edu.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

MORE GREAT PLOT SUMMARIES

I think I am on to something! Here are a whole group from another old student, Dan Klammy.

Anna Karenina: Woman catches train on time, got off on wrong track.
Iliad: Helen's honeymoon over, she decides to go to Paris.
Tender is the Night: Patient gets Dick. Divers accounts as to what happened.
Faust: Devil in the details.
All of Henry James: Somebody WASPY inherits money and falls in love with somebody else WASPY. A "class" act.
Dead Souls: a grave pecuniary matter. Very taxing.

MUSICAL TIP

The best classical music on television is the music played on C-Span during Senate quorum calls. The person who selects the music has superb taste, and inasmuch as quorum calls are a routine part of the Senate day, he or she has plenty of opportunity. The only problem is that one rarely hears a complete composition, because Harry Reid is always interrupting Mozart or Bach or Beethoven for legislation. Oh well, nobody's perfect.

FIRST RETURNS

OK. Here is the first submission in the plot summary contest. It comes from Professor Andrew J. Rosa of Oklahoma State:

Crime and Punishment: Country boy goes to the big city, falls on hard time, kills his landlady, and discovers himself.

I love it. Keep them coming.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

SARAH PALIN, YET AGAIN

There is a wonderful scene in an old West Wing episode, in which a fashion reporter who has somehow made her way into the daily White House press briefing takes a cheap shot at press secratary C. J. Craig for changing out of formal attire before briefing the press on a tragic occurrence. Later on, after C. J. has royally screwed the airhead over, she says to her, in an immortal line, "I mean, you are stupid, but you are not STUPID." Which is to say, she may not know beans about national politics [like how many members of the House of Representatives there are], but she perfectly well understands why C. J. changed her clothes.

O.K. Fast forward to the current Palin phenomenon. Here is what is happening, as I see it. The pundits of both the mainstream media and the blogosphere, who are, whatever their failings, by and large intelligent and well-informed, view Palin as a joke [which of course she is], and everything they say about her communicates their disdain. Even Oprah, surely the most supportive interviewer imaginable, was unable to conceal her disdain for Palin, who is a narcissistic, ignorant, self-promoting nonentity who has risen many levels above whatever modicum of competance she has acquired. Now, Palin's fans may not be well-educated, or knowledgeable about national and international affairs, or well-spoken, or sophisticated. They may, in C. J. Craig's phrase, "be stupid." But they are not STUPID. They know perfectly well that the people smirking and winking and laughing at Palin are also smirking and winking and laughing at them. And the don't like it.

They didn't like it before Palin came on the scene, and the like it even less now. Which is why they react phobically to the Ivy League, even though George W. Bush went to Yale and Harvard, and why they made fun of John Kerry for wind-surfing, and why they think it is great that Palin pretends to be a moose hunter, even though most of them wouldn't know a moose if it bit them in the rear.

In the old days, before America forgot that it is divided into classes, this was understood as class resentment. The tragedy is that class resentment in America used to feed the forces of reform and revolution. Now it serves the interests of reaction.

AN INVITATION TO MY READERS

I was idly channel surfing yesterday when I stumbled on Pride and Prejudice. Since it was a commercial break, I hit the Info button on the remote to see which version it was -- my favorite is the recent remake with Keira Knightly. The one line plot summary was "A man begins a convoluted relationship with a woman." That struck me as such a hilarious capsule characterization of the novel that I decided to see whether I could come up with some others. Then it occurred to me to issue a challenge to my readers to post their efforts as comments to this blog post.

Here are my first tries:

The Odyssey -- Married man goes off to war and takes a long time getting home.

Don Quixote -- Aging bachelor has issues with wind farms.

Hamlet -- Young man gets girl, think he loses girl, takes it hard.

OK. Now it is your turn.

Monday, November 16, 2009

BACK TO THE HOSPITAL

Well, Murray came home, much perked up and almost his old self, but within hours he was in crisis again, and went back to the hospital. Now we expect him tomorrow, and this time he must make a satisfactory adjustment, or I do not know what we are going to do. We have cancelled our December trip to Paris because of his condition, and I confess that while he is sick, I cannot generate the appropriate concern about larger matters to blog about. He is just fourteen pounds of cat, but he has managed to take hold of my heart.

I refuse to read Sarah Palin's "book." Andrew Sullivan is doing a fine job on his blog of snarking at it, and I shall leave that to him. My time has been spent these past days, when I am not worrying about Murray, reading slowly and carefully through an eight hundred page collection of Freud's most important writings, edited by Peter Gay. It is an extraordinary experience, in preparation for a series of lectures on The Thought of Sigmund Freud as part of the Duke University Learning in Retirement program.

A propos, does anyone know where [and whether] Freud says something like this: "If there is one subject that it is not permitted to discuss in an analysis, sooner or later the entire analysis comes to be about that subject"? It is a great line, and I have been quoting it for forty years, but for all I know he never said it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

IMPORTANT NEWS

Murray comes home today. I think it is unfortunate that Obama is out of the country for this event, but I recognize that he has other responsibilities. I shall resume my meditations on national and international affairs tomorrow. Now, I must explain to our other cat, Christmas Eve, what is happening so that she will not be surprised when Murray shows up.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

MIXED SIGNALS

On Wednesday, I watched the Fort Hood ceremonies, including Obama's speech. It was moving, beautifully crafted, a splendid performance. But as I listened, a thought I saw something that sent a cold chill up my spine -- a gifted, dedicated man who had run as a candidate committed to domestic change and progress, but who was becoming transformed into a war-time president by the pressure of events. I was very fearful that the terrible burden of being responsible for sending men and women into combat had changed him. I do not for a moment think he wants to be a wartime president, as George W. Bush clearly did, but he may think that he has no alternative.

Then, today, I read reports that Obama has rejected all four alternatives for Afghanistan as presented by his advisers, and demands to know what the "off ramps' are for our involvement there -- this coming on the day that Ambassador Eikenberry's extremely negative report was leaked to the press.

There is really nothing at this point for us to do but wait and see how it comes out. I continue to believe that his presidency hangs in the balance.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

THE DEATH OF SECULARISM

My post earlier today on end times theology and the doctrine of the trinity was meant as a playful jeu d'esprit. [I know, I know. In a world inundated with twittering and Facebook hookups, theology hardly qualifies as playful, but keep in mind that I am a seventy-five year old philosopher. We have a pretty low standard of humor in that profession.] As the day wears
on, however, I find myself more and more oppressed by my awareness of the resurgence of superstition around the world.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Ever since the eighteenth century, a broad spectrum of thinkers have attacked the accumulated superstition of past ages, arguing instead for the supremacy of reason, of science, of simple common sense. Marx celebrated capitalism as the most revolutionary force the world had ever seen, confidently predicting that its expansion would dissolve national, racial, ethnic, and religious parochialisms. This same fundamentally optimistic point of view was shared by so varied an assortment of thinkers as Max Weber, Karl Mannheim, and Sigmund Freud.

As I grew up, the rationalist vision of a secular world became so deeply embedded in my mind that I could no more imagine its demise than I could imagine a world in which the laws of physics ceased to operate. And for a long while, it seemed that Marx and company were right. Certainly in the rest of the capitalist world, church attendance declined, science was in the ascendant, and superstition was confined to fairy tales and benighted backwaters.

But here we are in a world gone mad with anti-rationalism. I am not speaking of armed conflict, or even of unspeakable holocausts -- both of which have been as much abetted as opposed by the forces of reason. It is the pervasive corrosion of simple rationality that I find especially depressing. I have in mind the prevalance of the denial of the manifest truths of evolutionary biology, the embrace of religiosity in every corner of the public world, the self-denial of the evidence of the senses. Militant Christianity, militant Islam, militant Judaism, militant Hinduism -- there is no end to the varieties of unreason that have taken hold of large portions of the world's population.

When I was young, I thought that I could rely upon the forces of modernization to sap the strength from every form of parochial irrationality. But in my dotage [as I am coming to think of it], I am forced to acknowledge that perhaps the triumph of reason was merely a passing phase in the historical unfolding of unreason. How the shade of Hegel must be weeping.

AN IDLE THOUGHT

Most mornings, at 6:30 or 7:00 a.m., I take a four mile walk, up and down hills, starting and ending at the front door to our condo building. Since I follow the same route every day, the walk requires virtually no thought, save of course for the ritual greetings to joggers, cyclists, and young parents running with three wheeled baby carriages whom I encounter along the way, leaving me free to engage in idle reflection.

This morning, my thoughts turned to the Christian end-times true believers who are convinced that the rapture is right around the corner. If I understand their views correctly, they expect that some time very soon, those among us who are marked for salvation [which includes themselves, of course] will be taklen bodily into heaven in a process called "the rapture," condemning the rest of us on earth to a rather bloody thousand years or so leading to our eternal damnation. Since it is the body sanctified and purified that is to be taken to heaven, this abrupt departure will leave behind all unnatural bodily accoutrements -- clothing, of course, but also dental fillings, artificial hips, rings, piercings, and hair transplants. Should these "meek members of the resurrection" [in Emily Dickinson's lovely phrase] happen to be driving cars at the moment of transportation, the cars will simply continue driverless on their way until they crash. The same goes for born again airline pilots.

Atheist though I be, I am something of a connoisseur of religious doctrines, and the rapture has always been one of my favorites. There is a sensory immediacy about it, a matter of fact, quotidien ordinariness, that stands in sharp contrast to the mystified theology of most mainstream Christian churches.

So I calculated, as a trained philosopher must, the relative likelihood that the end timers are right, as opposed, say, to the Roman Catholics. There can be no question that from a secular point of view, the doctrine of the rapture is, shall we say, improbable. But the doctrine of the Trinity, central to Roman Catholic theology, is a logical impossibility. And as between the improbable and the impossible, the improbable wins every time.

So next time Republican wingnuts mouth off about the rapture, end times, and Godless America, just keep it in mind that from a logical point of view [to quote the old calypso song], they are way ahead of mainstream Catholics.

Well, you can see what a long walk does to me.

Monday, November 9, 2009

PROPORTIONALITY

I am often struck by the disproportion between the significance of the major issues of public importance about which I pontificate knowingly in this blog, and the insignificance of the personal matters about which I anguish privately. Right now, three things are weighing on my mind: the fate of the health care reform bill, the war in Afghanistan, and the health of my cat, Murray, whom we took yesterday to the emergency room of the North Carolina State University Veterinary School with a life-threatening diebetic attack that has mushroomed into something much worse. I am not crazy. I acknowledge that by any measure to which I could give rational assent, either of the first two issues is to the third as a galaxy is to a dust mote. And yet, in the emotional balance of my life, the third far outweighs either or both of the first two. If Murray pulls through, we will need to care for him for the rest of what I hope will be a long life, giving him twice a day subcutaneous insulin shots and watching carefully to be sure that he does not become hypoglycemic from too much insulin. Murray has been sick for several days, and yesterday, even though it was a Sunday, I called the emergency service of our vet and took him in to be seen. The vet offered the opinion that if I had not chosen to take him in, he might not have lasted through the night! When she said that, I experienced not relief but what can only be called a retroactive shock that left me wrung through.

Meanwhile, Lindsey Graham is calling the House bill Dead on Arrival, Joe Lieberman is renewing his threat to filibuster the bill in the Senate, and new reports suggest Obama is leaning toward the disastrous decision to send 38,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. I know that if I have any self-respect as a blogger, it is those matters about which I should be writing. But the truth is that the uncertainty about Murray's fate completely eclipses health care and Afghanistan in my mind. I suppose one explanation for this distorted sense of priorities is that while there is absolutely nothing I can do that will make a discernible difference to either the health care bill or Afghanistan, what I do will make all the difference to Murray's future.

Murray, by the way, is name after the dog on the old Paul Rieser/Helen Hunt television comedy, "Mad About You."

Sunday, November 8, 2009

WELL, THAT'S HALF OF IT

Murray, the Shadkhan, was tired. [shadkhan -- Jewish marriage broker]. For three months, he had been trying to find a wife for Mrs. Shapiro's precious son, Bernard. The butcher's daughter? Not refined enough. The baker's daughter? Too fat. The moyle's daughter? Too dull. The rabbi's daughter? Not sufficiently devout. Truth be told, Bernard was no great catch, but in Mrs. Shapiro's eyes, he was a Prince of the Realm, and only the perfect girl would do. As he sat in his kitchen drinking tea from a glass and listening to reports of the elevation of Crown Princess Elizabeth to the English throne, a thought crossed Murray's mind. The Princess Margaret Rose was still single. Could this be the solution to his problem? To be sure, she wasn't Jewish, but she was rich as Croesus, and a princess to boot! He put on his hat and his best coat, and rushed off to talk to Mrs. Shapiro.

It was not easy. Was she pretty? Mrs. Shapiro wanted to know. As beautiful as Queen Nefertiti! Good manners? She is a PRINCESS, he protested. But she isn't Jewish. She'll convert, I'm sure of it. Murray was desperate, and even Mrs. Shapiro was growing restive. Finally, after one last rehearsal of her objections, reluctantly, she agreed to allow Bernard to marry the Princess Margaret Rose of England, but only if the wedding was held here in town so that her friends could come and burn with envy.

A great weight lifted from his shoulders, Murray put on his coat and hat and stepped out into the street. His eyes lifted heavenward, he said a silent prayer. Then, with a shrug, he pulled himself together, and said, aloud: "Well, that's half of it."

Saturday, November 7, 2009

THE REPUBLICANS ARE RIGHT

For what seems an eternity, I have been obsessed with the struggle to reform health care, following the death and resurrection of the public option, anguishing over Joe Lieberman's threatened defection, second guessing the strategy of the Obama White House. In the background has been the constant drumbeat of hysterical warnings from the Republicans that passage of the bill will destroy American democracy, ensconce Hitlerian policies in American law, and bring the Republic to an end.

Today, I have been spending a good deal of time watching the proceedings in the House of Representatives, listening to speakers from both sides echo talking points long since reduced to bumper sticker slogans. And slowly, very slowly, it has been dawning on me that the Republicans are right! This IS an historic bill. It WILL fundamentally change what goes on in the United States. It IS an expansion of the federal role in the life of the country surpassed perhaps only by the militarization of America over the past half century.

The Republicans are right to be desperately fearful. This bill, if something very like it can get through the Senate, will alter the lives of countless Americans, just as did Social Security and Medicare. And their united opposition to it will be an albatross around their necks for a long time to come. One of the many clauses in the bill stands out in my mind for its revolutionary impact: No longer will insurance companies be able to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. That change alone is worth all the sturm und drang.

We have been waiting for this since I was in elementary school, sixty-five years ago, and now, it very much appears, it is going to happen. When we take the measure of Barack Obama's first year, let us remember to place this accomplishment in a place of honor.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

MORE BAD METAPHORS

Now that the elections are behind us, my grandchildren's pictures have been posted, and other such matters have been blogged about, it is necessary to return to the really important issue that pends: the situation in Afghanistan. There are reports from unnamed sources [as always] that Obama is considering changing the mission to the training of Afghan security forces and sending ten to fifteen thousand additional troops in pursuit of that mission.

This is madness, folly, a terrible waste of lives and resources. If he chooses this course of action, I would be willing to bet my entire modest savings that the following sequence of events will unfold: First, the troops will be sent and the mission will be changed. Then the Taliban [or other parties] will mount attacks on the training bases, and U.S. service men and women will lose their lives. In response, the generals in the field will state [publicly, since the tradition of civilian control of the military seems to have died away] that they need more troops to protect those engaged in the training. Obama, having chosen to send those trainers, will believe that he has no choice but to comply. How can he not give the troops he has sent in harm's way whatever they need to be protected while they do the job he sent them to do? A year from now, very little will have changed in Afghanistan, despite much brave talk about "benchmarks" and "metrics" of "success." But there will be 100,000 American troops there, not 68,000. And from then on, no matter what he says or hopes or dreams, Obama's presidency will be about Afghanistan.

This training mission is repeatedly described as "giving the Afghan forces the tools they need to maintain security." Think for a moment about that metaphor -- "the tools they need." We are to suppose that the Afghans are trying to clear a forest with axes, which is very difficult, so we will send them chain saws, which will make things go better. Or, they are communicating with one another by dixie cups attached to strings, and we will give them field radios, which will improve their ability to talk to oneanother.

Now the people the Afghan government forces are supposed to fight have a good deal less in the way of sophisticated equipment, and they have had the benefit of little or no formal training. Yet they regularly defeat the government forces, even when those forces are supported by U.S. air power and artillary ["tools" that the Taliban totally lack.] How can that be? Put this way, the question virtually answers itself. The Taliban [or the Iraqi militants, or the American Colonials, for that matter] have chosen to fight, and they have got their hands on enough weapons to do great harm. The Afghan forces are hired guns, not terribly enthusiastic about getting killed in the service of a corrupt government and an occupying great power. All the traning manuals written by American generals with Ph. D.'s cannot change these facts.

Now, it is no doubt true that with sufficient force, America can rule Afghanistan, either directly, or through a puppet government in Kabul. But experience teaches that to accomplish this dubious end, we would have to: (a) commit vastly more troops, (b) stay for as long as we want Afghanistan to be ruled, and (c) be willing to kill as many Afghan men, women, and children as it takes to oppress them successfully.

I know that Obama did not have a typical African-American upbringing, but surely he is familiar with the story about Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

THE DAY AFTER

My son, the lawyer [no, no, not the three year old, as in the old Jewish joke. That is my grandson, the doctor] -- anyway, my son, the lawyer, warned me, when I started my blog, that it would be very burdensome. As usual, he was right. The hardest thing, I find, is dealing with the structural obligation to have an opinion about everything. I am not known as shy about expressing myself, but there really are a great many things about which I simply do not form an opinion worth expressing, let along immortalizing. Still, I have this blog, so I must have an opinion about yesterday's election.

Since all politics are local, as Tip O'Neill liked to say, let me start with the Chapel Hill elections. I knew the names of all the candidates, thanks to the ubiquitous lawn signs planted along the highways, but I had no idea who they were, and also no idea what, if any, were the hot issues. Since I feel a deep inner compulsion to vote every time I am offered the opportunity, Susie and I went off to the local YWCA [formerly the Meadowmont Swim Club]. As there were no party affiliations listed [Chapel Hill is too good for that], I hadn't a clue. Rather arbitrarily, I chose Augustus Cho from among the list of four candidates for Mayor, eschewing the chance to vote for Kevin Wolff. Well, Cho and Wolff between them racked up 3 1/2 % of the vote. The real race was between Kleinschmidt and Czajkowski, who split the remaining 96 1/2% . Kleinschmidt edged out Czajkowski, thereby becoming the first openly gay mayor of Chapel Hill. Rats! A great opportunity missed. Susie got it right, and voted for Kleinschmidt. Issues? It seems Kleinschmidt was the candidate of "old Chapel Hill," which means upper middle class academic and medical professionals who want all the business to be zoned into Durham across the county line and who make enough to pay the consequent exorbitant real estate taxes. Czsajkowski was the candidate of the business community. Very like Amherst, Mass, in a way.

Oh yes, the rest of America. What can I say? I weep whenever a Democrat loses, of course, but I cannot say my id was engaged in the NJ and VA governor races. I love the fact that the Conservative lost in NY 23rd, and I cannot wait to see the same wrecking crew destroy Charlie Crist's chances in Florida.

What really matters is Obama's decision with regard to Afghanistan, but that will have to wait for another post.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

INFRA DIG

One of the consolations of retirement is the opportunity to read some of the books one has known about for a long time, perhaps even has lectured about, but which one has never actually read. Wandering down this path, I have started reading Bruno Bettelheim's well-known book, THE USES OF ENCHANTEMENT: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. For those of you who do not know the name, Bettelheim, a psychoanalyst who committed suicide in 1990 at the age of eighty-seven, was known principally for his work with autistic children, and for the theory that autism is traceable to the emotional frigidity of the mother -- a theory since mostly discredited. He was by all accounts a rather unpleasant man, but he was brilliant, and, if his book on fairy tales is any indication, sensitive to and sympathetic to children.

However, the purpose of this blog post is not to talk about Bettelheim's theory of the role that fairy tales play in the growing up of healthy children. Rather, I want to use the book as a hook on which to hang a broader and more interesting observation about the evolution in the past two centuries of what used to be called "the human sciences," and are now called the Humanities and Social Sciences.

For much of the two and a half millennia of western literature and culture, a sharp distinction was drawn between high and low styles and subjects of discourse. [For a stunningly brilliant discussion of this subject, I strongly recommend what is possibly the greatest work of Humanist scholarship ever written -- Erich Auerbach's MIMESIS.] The doings of kings, emperors, and generals were considered worthy of serious examination in tragedies or works of historiography. The lives of peasants, slaves, and the low born generally were not. Large spheres of human experience, however universally familiar they might be, were simply beneath the notice of the gentle born. They were, in the old Latin phrase, infra dignitatem, or, as the slang came to have it, infra dig.

The rigid separation of high and low styles was not strictly enforced even in ancient times, as Auerbach demonstrates, but it continued to dominate academic discourse well into the eighteenth century and beyond. The first modern rejection of this tradition came with the establishment of the discipline of economics, or, as it was then called, Political Economy. The subject of the investigations of this new science was the buying and selling of ordinary commodities in the marketplace by commoners who lacked both social status and classical learning. That such undignified doings could yield propositions of great beauty and power was, by itself, a challenge to the traditions of intellectual discourse.

Over the next century, one body of materials after another, formerly considered infra dig, was taken up and made the subject matter of an academic discipline. Edward Tyler, in his seminal work PRIMITIVE CULTURE, applied to the religious practices and kinship relationships of some mostly naked inhabitants of the Southern Hemisphere the term of esteem "culture," thus elevating them to the rank of classical literature and Romantic poetry and creating thereby the discipline of Anthropology. Emile Durkheim transformed statistics of the incidence of suicide into an argument for the legitimacy and theoretical independence of the new discipline of Sociology. Somewhat later, Sigmund Freud focused, with utter earnestness, on such experiential detritus as dreams, jokes, and slips of the tongue, demonstrating that from them one could extract a revolutionary new theory of the structure and functioning of the human mind.

In the Humanistic disciplines, the domination of tragedy and poetry was so complete that at Oxford in the nineteenth century it was not possible to make novels the object of serious academic investigation. They were amusements, suitable only for one's leisure hours. Once the novel had won acceptance as a branch of Literature, a canon of great works was established, almost immediately to be challenged not only by the claims of novels written by women or persons of color, but eventually by movies [or "films"], television shows, comic strips, and graffiti.

In each case, the intellectual move has been the same: identify a sphere of human experience or activity previously considered beneath the dignity of serious investigators, and then elevate it to the staus of an academic object of investigation. The challenge of each such proposed expansion is to demonstrate that apparently unpromising material really can yield an intellectually interesting and powerful body of theory. The inevitable vulgarisation of this tendency [notice the thinly disguised class distinctions implicit in the term "vulgarisation"] is the mistake of supposing that merely identifying something that no one has yet thought worth studying is, by itself, without further effort, proof of its worthiness as the subject of disciplinary autonomy.

Well, that is what I got out of Bettelheim's Preface. We shall see what thoughts the remainder of the book provokes.

A REMARKABLE DISCOVERY

In 1948, I was a precocious, troubled teenager, bedeviled by obsessive and terrifying fears of death. My mother at that time worked for a Manhattan-based organization called The Child Study Association, a progressive operation dedicted to advocating enlightened techniques of child-rearing. A young psychiatrist named Bertram Schaffner, returning from the war, approached Child Study with the idea of trying pyschoanalytic techniques, then used only with adults, on a teenager. My mother got wind of this plan, and arranged for me to go into treatment with him, at a reduced fee [necessary since my parents were living on a rather tight budget]. For the next two and a half years, until I graduated from high school and went to college, I would leave Forest Hills High School early two or three days a week, take the E train to 53rd and 7th avenue, walk the six blocks to Central Park South, turn right for half a block and enter one of the imposing apartment buildings lining the park where Dr. Schaffner had his home office. I lay on the couch just like an adult patient, and I imagine free associated, reported my dreams, and so forth. I say "I imagine" because I do not in fact remember much of anything about the actual sessions, an odd fact considering how precise my memory is of so much else from those days. Very soon the fears of death abated, and I went off to college a reasonably sane young man. My big sister, Barbara, had gone to Swarthmore, and although I wanted to follow her there, Swarthmore was leery of taking an applicant who was receiving psychotherapy [how is that for an indication of the changes time has wrought!] They actually told me that if Harvard rejected me, they would admot me, but Harvard couldn't have cared less, and said yes, so I never did get to go to Swarthmore.

Barbara is a loyal Swarthmore alum, and reads the Alumni Bulletin each month when it comes to her home in Washington, D. C. Yesterday she emailed me about a story in the Bulletin. Didn't someone in the family go to Dr. Bertram Schaffner? she asked. It seems Schaffner was a Swarthmore alum, class of '32, still living and practicing a bit at the age of 97! The story focused on the fact that he was gay, and had been forced to lead a deeply closeted life until he was in his sixties, treating gay men and working sub rosa to help those discriminated against by the brutal prejudice both of the psychoanalytic profession and of America in general.

And there he is, still living in the same apartment, sixty years later. For me, this has somewhat the air of "turnabout is fair play." From time to time, I make contact with men and women who were my students as much as fifty years ago, and I often think that in a corner of their minds is the thought, "Gee, I didn't realize he was still alive." Now, here I am in awe that Dr. Schaffner is still alive and in the very apartment where I saw him so often as a boy.

If anyone is interested in following up, just do what I did. Google "Swarthmore" and "Bertram Schaffner" and the story will pop up.

AN APPEAL TO A READER

Noah posted a comment on my blog in response to a posting several days ago, asking me to respond. But I cannot figure out how to do that! [I know, I know, any twelve year old can tell me how. But I don't have a twelve year olsd handy. Please recall that I was born the year Franklin Delano Roosevelt first took the oath of office as president.] So, Noah, send me an email at rwolff@afroam.umass.edu and I will respond immediately.

Monday, November 2, 2009

REALLY IMPORTANT THINGS


OK. Enough talk about health care reform and Afghanistan and democracy and NY 23rd. Here is something really important: My grandchildren, Samuel and Athena, dressed for trick or treating. We shall return to what is laughingly referred to as "the real world" tomorrow.

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!