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Monday, November 22, 2010


My father was a high school biology teacher, and later, a high school principal. The high point of his career was the publication of a high school biology text that he co-authored with Elsbeth Krober, at one time the Chair of the biology department in which he taught. ADVENTURES WITH LIVING THINGS appeared when I was four, and so, as you can imagine, I grew up learning from it what little biology I managed to master. It was a good book, ahead of its time in the teaching of such controversial subjects as evolution, and my father was justly proud of it.

In that odd way the mind has, one fact, of all the facts in the book, stuck in my mind -- the human cell has forty-eight chromosomes, twenty-four pairs, including the XY pair in the case of males or XX in the case of females. Forty years or so later, I happened to be reading idly through a magazine article when I came upon the statement that the human cell has forty-six chromosomes -- twenty-three pairs. Stunned, and feeling rather betrayed, I called my father to ask him what was up. "Yes," he said, "it is forty-six, not forty-eight."

It seems that in the early days of Cytology, scientists prepared cells to be examined under a microscope by staining them. The stain fixed the cell, stopping its degeneration, and also brought out significant structural features in relief, so that they could be seen with the relatively weak microscopes then in use. This was long before electron microscopy, of course. Apparently the stain used to fix human cells affected them in such a way as to make it look as though there was an extra pair of chromosomes. Enlightened, but not appeased, I privately mourned the loss of the one fixed point in my personal scientific firmament.

I thought about this yesterday when reading a NY TIMES story about the demotion of Pluto from the status of planet. Pluto was the last of the planets to be discovered, and its status was always a bit iffy, but my youth was graced by trips to the Planetarium in Manhattan where, in the lobby, one could see a magnificent orrery [wonderful word, that], with nine planets rotating at the correct speeds and inclinations around a fixed sun -- visible proof that Copernicus had been right. Apparently, if the article is to be believed, a great many people are suffering the same nostalgia and withdrawal symptoms about the demotion of Pluto that I felt, privately, for that evanescent twenty-fourth pair of chromosomes.

What occasions these sad reflections is the struggle I have been having in recent weeks to sustain my commitment to, and enthusiasm for, the Obama administration. I gave my heart, if not my mind, to Obama [and also a very great deal of my cash], believing fervently that he was my one chance to see America turn decisively to the left before my time on this earth was up. I was well aware of his unwise decision to champion the war in Afghanistan, and I did not really imagine that he was, in my understanding of the term, a man of the left. Indeed, I knew that if he were, he could not possibly get elected by the American people as they are now constituted. But I did honestly believe that he would bring into his administration a large number of progressive men and women committed to many of the things to which I am committed.

There have been good moments, impressive victories. The health care bill, with all its faults, was an historic achievement, and the financial regulatory bill, with Elizabeth Warren in place, is a major step in the right direction. As for gay rights, I actually believe he has done quite well in the face of Republican hostility, and his handling of DODT has been masterful, in my judgment.

But the deep flaw in Obama's domestic politics has been has deliberate and clearly well-thought out decision to put the economic affairs of the nation in the hands of the likes of Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner. I am very much afraid that Paul Krugman is correct. Obama is essentially conservative in his economic orientation, and nothing that has happened in the past two years has changed that.

Where does that leave me? Well, it leaves me supporting him against his enemies, because the Republican Party has become a nightmare. As I have written on this blog, America has become a Banana Republic, with a super-rich elite, a very comfortable upper middle class [of which I am a part], and a growing mass of increasingly impoverished and unprotected men and women with neither job security nor a secure old age. This has become a hateful country, in which the man who is likely to chair the Congressional Committee principally responsible for environmental policy is actually quote as saying that climate change will not happen because God promised Noah that there would not be a second flood. This is beyond humorous, or silly, or absurd. It is criminal.

I genuinely do not know what I shall do about maintaining this blog and commenting daily on the passing scene. It horrifies me so much that I lack the strength to confront it. Perhaps when I recover from the flu that has flattened me since I returned from Africa, I shall feel a revival of my spirits.

It was bad enough when they took away that twenty-fourth pair of chromosomes, and demoted Pluto. It is genuinely hard once again to find myself, so soon, in opposition to the regime in power.


Chris said...

Professor, I'll walk this road briefly again; very briefly. You're a great guy, huge influence upon my philosophy, etc etc etc, but jesus, that health-care bill will be the death of me if I hear one more radical leftist praising it. A basic fact that should have you beyond suspicious is the reaction of the health insurance industry to the bill: They loved it. Please stop praising that Corporate safety net as something actually significant or worthy of Obama's change mantra. Especially when over 50% of the population thought it didn't go far enough.

Murfmensch said...

We just need to know that organizing does make a difference. If the labor movement had been smaller, things would be worse. Likewise, the environmental movement. Progress for Gays and Lesbian is the product of organization.

I am also depressed about how powerful corporate interests are and about the backlash we are experiencing right now.

Organization is the only answer.

Academics have a difficult time contributing skills and time to organizations. They lack the time to run them but don't always think so. But they should contribute.

General Cat Food said...


Perhaps a quick question will take your mind off of the depressing political scene:

Do you have any reading and studying advice for college students? Especially for those in philosophy? What is the best way to read philosophy? Any advice on note taking or marking up books? Is rote memorization effective?


Robert Paul Wolff said...

Rote memorization is useless. Don't bother. The thing to remember is that a philosophical text is an argument, which is to say the story of an idea. First figure out what the problem is that the author is addressing. Then ask what his or her thesis is with regard to that problem-- a thesis is a declarative statement one sentence long. For example, "No state has de jure legitimate authority." [The thesis of my little book, IN DEFENSE OF ANARCHISM.] Now try to figure out the series of steps, or arguments, by which the author tries to establish the thesis, and thus solve or at least contribute to the solving of the problem with which he or she began. If you can do all of that, you can probably summarize the entire thing in your notes pretty expeditiously. One warning: many authors do not have a clear thesis, or a clear argument either. That makes reading what they write really a pain.