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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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




Total Pageviews

Sunday, March 28, 2010

FRANK RICH AND ME

Not too long ago, I posted a long blog ruminating on the sources of the hysterical anger emanating from the right. I suggested that the cause is not the complex, centrist health care reform bill, loaded with ideas originally put forward by Republicans, but rather the powerful, inchoate fear in some parts of the American public that the world has changed so much as to make them bewildered and terrified. The blog provoked a great many extremely interesting responses, some posted as comments and some in emails to me.

Today, in the NY TIMES, Frank Rich has a long column arguing essentially the same thesis, although with rather more detail and factual backing. He makes a good deal of an important fact that had eluded my attention, namely that this year may well be the first year in modern American history in which non-Hispanic white births [a census category] are in an absolute minority. Demographics being what they are, it will take several decades or more before the population as a whole is minority White [although that is already a fact in some large cities and other regions of the country].

Rich links this to the fact -- striking, if one makes the mistake of taking the Tea Partiers at their word -- that among the targets of the hate epithets and spitting have been an openly gay man [Barney Frank] and a civil rights hero [John Lewis] who had little or nothing to do the drafting and enacting of the health care reform bill. It is too easy, and essentially misguided, to explain the anger as simple racism, though there is plenty of that to go around among the almost all white, relatively less well educated, economically stressed Tea Partiers. Psychodynamically, it seems to me, the reactions from the right are rather like the terror that the presence in their midst of an openly gay man strikes into the hearts of some belligerently heterosexual men, who feel that the mere acknowledgement of someone else's homosexuality threatens their own sexual orientation.

America has changed dramatically in the past half century, both culturally and demographically. Those of us old enough to have lived through the forties and fifties can testify from personal experience just how much change has been accomplished by the Civil Rights Movement, by Women's Liberation, by the Gay Liberation Movement, by the sexual revolution, by the advent of a drug culture, and even by the transformation of popular music. Scores of millions of Americans feel unsettled by these changes, decentered, threatened, undermined. The core organization of personality, the complex repressions, sublimations, deferrals of gratification, and identifications that is for each of us the foundation of what we think of as ourselves, has in their case come to be fundamentally at odds with the social reality which they confront daily. It is not surprising that their reaction should be hysterical irrationality.

For those of you who do not quite know what I am talking about, try the following thought experiment. Imagine that you are invited to a small social gathering, at which there are a number of people you have not met before. As you are introduced to some of them, you notice someone whose face, hair, body, and dress are ambiguous with regard to gender identity. You wonder idly, "Is that a man, or is it a woman?" As time passes, you begin to feel a curious urgency to find out -- just to know -- which it is. But absolutely nothing disambiguates the situation for you. This is not a man in drag or a woman in a pants suit. It is a person whose gender is genuinely unclear. There are a great many people who would be made so uncomfortable by the presence of this person, even though he or she was doing nothing at all in the least offensive or even noteworthy, that they would almost be driven to rip off the person's clothes in order to settle the matter.

I suggest that what is being expressed in the political arena are feelings similarly deep, fundamental, and inaccessible to factual rebuttal or rational argument.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

WHAT HE SAID

I do not often post links on this blog to what folks have said elsewhere in the blogosphere, but this comment by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I found on Andrew Sullivan's blog, seemed to me so right that I had to pass it along. Here is the link: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/03/the-tea-partys-rank-amateurism/38077/

BARACK, MICHELLE, AND ME

Yesterday evening, Susie and I had dinner with some good friends who live just outside Paris. Anne and Philip are both highly skilled simultaneous translators [the people who translate what some big wig is saying while he or she is saying it.] Every time we come to Paris, we have dinner with them, usually at a restaurant near our apartment. But yesterday, we dined at La Fontaine de Mars, in the 7th arrondissement, near the Champ de Mars, on rue Saint Dominique. Those of you who really keep track of such things will recall that in June, last year, during a state visit by President and Mrs. Obama to the new Sarkozy government, Barack and Michele slipped out for a date night, a cozy dinner for two [plus the inevitable swarm of Secret Service guards] at --- La Fontaine de Mars. I thought it might be nice to have a go at the restaurant they chose for their one night on the town.

La Fontaine de Mars is not at all fancy, nor is it pricey by Paris standards. Susie had an entree and main course, I had a large entree ["un vrai cassoulet de Toulouse"], we shared an ile flottante for desert, drank a simple wine, and I had "un deca allonge," which is a decaf expresso with extra water in it. The bill, including service, came to 110 Euros for the two of us, which is only slightly more than we would typically spend at Rotisserie du Beaujolais or Le Petit Pontoise in our neighborhood. The Guide Michelin lists the restaurant as one of the many establishments they mention without any of the famous stars. It rates one crossed knife and fork, the lowest level of elegance they acknowledge [the highest is five crossed knives and forks, which means ritzy and very expensive, with endless waiters hovering, expensive china and crystal, and a snooty sommelier who manages to make you feel that the wine you have chosen would not have been his choice, but if you only want to spend $300 a bottle, it will have to do.] Very pleasant ambiance, tables quite close together, as is typical in French restaurants, and upstairs, where we ate, nicely removed from the bustle of the street.

So how was the food? We all agreed afterward that it was ok, but nothing to write home about. Just a typical Paris bistro. Next time, I do wish Barack and Michelle would ask me before they make a reservation!

Friday, March 26, 2010

THE NARCISSISM OF SMALL DIFFERENCES

Ever since the attack by the youthful Marx and Engels on their former comrades, the Young Hegelians [Edgar and Bruno Bauer, etc.], the left has been afflicted by a murderous in-fighting that has resulted in the endless splintering of tiny bands of revolutionaries. It seems that the closer two radicals are to one another in ideology, the more deadly their wars, as though the real danger to socialism were not the hostility of the entire capitalist world, but the minute differences separating Schachtmanites from Luxembourgeois. At the University of Massachusetts, when a happy series of unexpected circumstances led to the simultaneous hiring of five tenured Marxist economists in the Economics Department, the first thing they did was to split into two opposed groups.

Freud had a felicitous phrase for the psycho-dynamics of this sort of thing. He called it "the narcissism of small differences."

I am happy to report that this affliction of self-destruction seems now to have been visited upon the right in America. The latest evidence is the vitriolic reaction of folks at the American Enterprise Institute to the departure of David Frum. Frum says he was fired as a result of donor pressure. Charles Murray, who describes himself as a long-time close friend of Frum and his wife, calls this a despicable calumny and says that this judgment will no doubt lead to the end of the friendship. [For those who are totally clueless, hit the internet and find Frum's very recent opinion piece calling the Republican hostility to health care reform a strategic Waterloo.]

Perhaps I should not go on. As Napoleon is reputed to have said to one of his Marshals during a battle, "When your enemy is making a mistake, do not interrupt him."

CATCHING UP

Well, I got carried away by the prospect of the re-emergence of the public option. That is what happens when you get up in the middle of the night to watch the U. S. Senate on a little laptop. Suffice it to say that the Reconciliation package has been passed by both Houses, and health care reform is now on the books.

I have heard from a number of you in response to my plea for enlightenment on just what is driving right wingers crazy. Your various suggestions are on the mark, and I do not really have comments on them. I think perhaps I am simply having trouble thinking my way into the minds of people who are capable of viewing the passage of this bill as Armageddon [Boehner], or fascism, or communism, or the downfall of American liberty.

A propos my difficulty plumbing the depths of the minds of some people, I have now finished reading Richard Dawkins' latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth. As I think I explained, this is his effort to respond, with a flood of facts, to the evolution deniers and creationists who number 40% of the American population, and smaller but still sizeable portions of European populations. In an Appendix, Dawkins reports in more detail on some polling, the results of which are really quite appalling. It seems, for example, that in a number of European countries, including Great Britain, roughly 20% of those polled think that the earth goes around the sun every month. As Dawkins says with exasperation, "What, I wonder, do they think a year is?"

This actually raises a broader and deeper question that is worth reflecting on in a systematic manner. We tend somewhat unthinkingly to suppose that because so many people use the technology of the modern age -- television, cell phones, computers, automobiles,PDAs and all the rest -- they must have some general sense of the science underlying that technology. But it seems to me much more likely that this is not at all the case. Many, many people who think of themselves as quite au courant [except that they wouldn't use that phrase] with modern technology actually have a very primitive relationship to it. They know, in a brute sort of way, that pushing this button produces that result. They know how to text, but have no idea of the electronic processes by which text messages are created and transmitted. They are, in fact, simply clueless about the world. I recall fifty-six years ago, when I was sailing on a student ship from New York to Southhampton, England, hearing two young women asking the purser where the mailbox was on the ship. They had just written home, and wanted to send their letters off right away. Very patiently [I thought], he explained to them that as they were on a ship in the middle of the ocean, the letters would not be mailed until they reached port. The women were quite put out, and not a bit embarrassed by the sheer stupidity of their question.

This pandemic of ignorance is concealed from us in part by the fact that there is also a sizeable number of people [probably a minority, I would guess] who are really quite knowledgeable about the basic facts of science. This includes not only techies and people who have chosen some branch of science as their life work, but also lots and lots of people who are simply curious about the world around them and absorb basic information as it passes before their minds. There was a time, perhaps, when the wearing of nerd packs and horn rimmed glasses identified those folks, but no longer.

It is quite possible to get through the day successfully without even the dimmest understanding of how anything actually works. Unfortunately, ignorance is a very poor foundation for the formation of judgments about matters of public policy.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

STAY TUNED

The Senate Parliamentarian has ruled that two very small provisions in the Reconciliation Bill violates the Byrd Amendment, and therefore that the entire bill, once corrected and passed by the Senate, must go back to the House. This is entirely apart from any of the Republican amendments, all of which have been designed to send the bill back to the House.

THIS MEANS THAT SENATE BACKERS OF A PUBLIC OPTION CAN, WITH 50 VOTES PLUS BIDEN, ATTACH A PUBLIC OPTION TO THE BILL. AND CLYMER SAYS THE VOTES ARE THERE IN THE HOUSE TO PASS THE AMENDED RECONCILIATION BILL WITH THE PUBLIC OPTION ADDED.

Stay tune, folks. This could get very interesting. The Republicans may just possibly have shot themselves in their collective foot.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

IS IT SOMETHING IN THE WATER?

Those of us on the left who consider the health care reform bill just signed into law a necessary, yet flawed, compromise with the ideal, can only view with awe and amazement the hysterical reaction to the new law by those on the right. For reasons that remain obscure to me, large numbers of ordinary citizens, and an astonishing number of their elected representatives, seem genuinely to believe that the passage of the bill signals either the arrival of the AntiChrist or the demise of any semblance of American democracy. Medicare and Social Security were both considerably more consequential social programs, after all, and yet these same people appear to have made their peace with them sufficiently to recall with nostalgia the glory days of Reagan -- which occurred, after all, after both of those programs came into existence.

The very latest manifestation of right-wing craziness is the call by Representative Louis "Louie" Gohmert, of the Texas 1st Congressional District, for repeal of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution so that Senators can again be selected by State Legislatures rather than being elected by the people. I freely confess that this was my first encounter with Louie Gohmert, and I explored his website a bit to see whether there were any tell-tale signs of dementia. Not a bit of it. Louie has a handsome wife and three lovely daughters. They all attend the Green Acres Baptist Church, where he has served as Deacon and still teaches sunday school. He attained the rank of Captain in the U. S. Army, and before being elected to the House, was three times elected to a District Judgeship in Texas. The only evidence I can find on his website of a certain failure of rationality is the fact that in one paragraph of his campaign biography, he is described as decrying the notion that Washington Bureaucrats know better than American taxpayers, while in the very next paragraph, he is proudly described as the Ranking Member on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, where he presumably oversees the bureaucrats who know better than the American people how to manage such things. All in all, a perfectly ordinary right-wing Texas Republican. And yet, he wants to go back to the practice of having State Legislatures select Senators.

I feel a need, indeed a compulsion, to achieve some rational understanding of Republican insanity. These are, after all, my fellow citizens. They, or at least some of them, are also Representatives, Senators, Supreme Court Justices, former Presidents, very possibly future Presidents, and in large measure gun owners and carriers. If for no other reason than elementary self-protection, I need to understand what on earth is eating them.

They are freaked out by a Black First Family living in the White House. That I get. Like all of us, they are anxious about the state of the economy. But this madness has deeper roots. Their hysteria seems to be triggered by the visceral belief that their entire world is falling apart around them. Now, that just cannot be because they desperately want to be denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition!

I invite my readers to offer serious and considered explanations. This is not a joke. Does anyone have any idea what is striking terror in their hearts?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

MEMOIR

Long time readers of this blog will recall that last June, I posted five chapters of a memoir that I wrote in November of 2003. The memoir, prompted by the prospect of my seventieth birthday, covers the first twenty-seven years of my life, and is titled A Harvard Education: A Memoir of the Fifties. The actual memoir, written in four weeks and running abut 300 pages, has six chapters, but for some mysterious reason only the first five chapters seem to have been posted. Now there has been a thundering call for the memoir to be continued. [O.K. So one person said he would enjoy seeing it.] Inasmuch as I originally projected a three volume work, bringing things up to the present, I am now wondering whether I ought to go back to writing my memoirs. Once I return to Chapel Hill, I can call the OIT help desk at UMass and find out once again how to post lengthy documents on the server they maintain.

F0r those who are curious, the links to the first five chapters can all be found in the post I wrote on June 28, 2009. I would really like to know whether anyone other than that one very kind person has any interest in hearing about my experiences at the University of Chicago, Columbia, and UMass. My founding and management of University Scholarships for South African Students has already been posted on early entries of this blog.

Monday, March 22, 2010

BUT I REPEAT MYSELF

One of the features I find most counter-intuitive about the blogosphere is that the people who inhabit it have collectively the memory span roughly of a May Fly. As a long time writer of books, which at least are intended to last forever, whatever their actual shelf life, I tend to suppose that if I have said something once on this blog, I ought not to say it again, for fear of merely repeating myself. But inasmuch as I seem, rather slowly, to be acquiring readers and visitors to this site, perhaps it will be forgiven if I say now, in the aftermath of the great health care reform victory, something I observed a bloggish millennium ago -- which is to say, last year.

Shortly after Obama was elected, with large majorities in both Houses of Congress, the Republicans made a conscious [and, rather imprudently, publicly announced] decision to do everything in their power to make his presidency fail. This was not, I am convinced, because of some mistaken belief that Obama is a flaming radical whose goal is to shift American politics tectonically to the left, but rather because of a cold-eyed calculation that the Democratic majorities were too diverse and internally divided to achieve much legislatively without at least a modicum of Republican support. They judged, I believe, that if they could produce unanimous Republican opposition to every proposal coming from the White House, no matter how close it might be to something in which they actually believe, pretty soon Blue Dog Democrats, Progressive Democrats, Black Caucus Democrats, Pro-Life Democrats, and Pro-Choice Democrats would be at each others' throats. Early on, this strategy was threatened by the momentary defection of Olympia Snowe, but the Republican Leadership whipped her into submission, and since then only one lonely Louisiana Republican elected by happenstance in a safely Democratic district has broken ranks.

This was a bold and risky strategic choice, for two reasons. First, the strategy could be pursued with any hope of success only if the Republicans made a total all-in commitment to it long before they saw any evidence of its success. And Second, if it failed, they would be left completely without either a platform for the 2010 mid-term elections or a set of accomplishments they could showcase in the campaigns. Early on, the Democrats succeeded in labeling them "The Party of No," and although the Republicans rejected the label angrily, it stuck because it corresponded to reality. They had no alternative response to the economic crisis, no alternative plan to create jobs, and -- most notably -- no competing health care reform plan. Since Obama took from them the foreign policy/military card by actually opting for an Afghan surge [a decision that was, in my opinion, a grave mistake], they have been reduced to embracing the fringe craziness of the Birthers and Tea Partiers.

Obama has now announced his intention to attempt the reform of our immigration policy. This, as even George W. Bush understood, is a potentially fatal trap for the Republicans. If they oppose immigration reform with the same nativist, racist fanaticism that has been displayed in the past by such leading lights of the Republican Party as Tom Tancredo, they will almost surely lose the fight and be branded for a generation as anti-Latino. But as things now stand, any among their ranks with enough sense to see the electoral folly of such a course are certain to face nativist primary challenges from the right [as, in fact, McCain does from none other than Tancredo.]

Long ago, I predicted that health care reform would pass, that it would be an imperfect bill, but that it would transform America's approach to the subject. Now I will make another prediction. Obama is going to advance a series of proposals that, while more centrist than progressive in content, will be greeted by Republicans with hysteria and fury. He will be successful with most of these proposals, if not all of them. And in November of this year, the Democrats will lose no more than the historically average losses of a party in its first mid-term election after securing the presidency.

Oh yes. And Obama will be elected to a second term in 2012. But that, in blogoland, is so far in the future as to be the equivalent of a science fiction fantasy.

VICTORY!

At roughly 11:30 p.m.last night, the House passed the reconciliation bill with four votes to spare, having earlier passed the Senate's health care reform bill with three extra votes. It was 4:30 a.m. here in Paris, and I had dragged myself out of bed at 3:00 a.m. to watch the end of the debate and the two historic votes [together with a unanimous vote approving a measure introduced by a Representative from Guam commemorating the heroic actions of WW II airmen -- the ways of the House are mysterious indeed.] This was a victory whose consequences will radiate throughout the social and political world for a long time to come. [For a conservative commentator's take on just how bad the defeat is for the Republicans, check here: http://www.frumforum.com/waterloo ] And, as promised many months ago on this blog, I now get to say, I told you so.

Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi have been getting some bad press in recent months, especially from the Left, so now is the time to stop and reflect on just how skillfully they have all played their hand. They know their caucuses a good deal better than we commentators do. In retrospect, it is clear that there was never a real chance of passing a bill significantly more progressive than this. One ought not to be mesmerized by numbers. With the Republicans united in opposition to anything whatever, the Democrats essentially had to negotiate among themselves to find 216 yes votes, and to hold together the sixty in the Senate. That took patience, skill, and a very strong stomach. How many of us could keep our cool while trying to herd Bart Stupak and Dennis Kucinic into the corral?

By one of those ironies of politics that are sweet when you win and bitter when you lose, the Pro-Life forces actually benefited from the loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat. Because the Democrats no longer have the votes to stop a filibuster, they were forced to adopt the tactic of having the House pass the Senate bill [which lacks the Stupak amendment] and then adjust things through reconciliation. This in turn robbed the anti-abortion forces of a good deal of their leverage, and made it possible for Pelosi to garner enough anti-abortion Democratic votes to ensure victory in the two House votes. So we get health care reform without the truly devastating Stupak amendment.

No what we need to do is to strengthen the reform bit by bit, as has been done for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

As several commentators have pointed out, close, hard-fought victories strengthen, rather than weaken, a leader. Obama is now even stronger, for having persevered and won, than he would have been had his health care reform package passed without a fight. His success in gaining approval for his stimulus package did not noticeably increase his political clout, but this victory, I predict, will do just that. It is also worth noting that neither Reid nor Pelosi has yet failed to produce the votes when they were needed.

Meanwhile, the Socialists creamed Sarkozy's UMP in the regional elections, and Duke is in the Sweet Sixteen. You have to enjoy the good times when they come along.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A MEAN-SPIRITED THOUGHT

I try, I really do, to be high-minded. Always in the back of my mind is the question, WWKD? [i.e, What would Kant do?, my non-believing version of WWJD?] But again and again, I fall from grace, and twenty years of psychotherapy have taught me that denial is not healthy.

All of this provoked by my reaction to the book I am now reading -- Richard Dawkins' latest, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Dawkins is beside himself at the fact that 40% of Americans report themselves as believing that the earth was created 10,000 years ago. That is, give or take a handful of cashews, 120,000,000 nuts within the borders of the lower forty eight [and God alone knows how many more lurking up there in Alaska or out in the Pacific in Hawaii.]

When I encounter facts like that one, my first reaction is simple denial. "They cannot mean it," I tell myself. "Surely they are no more serious in their belief than the vast number of people who claim to expect the Rapture any moment but also buy life insurance and put money away for their kids' college expenses."

Nevertheless, I must confess that I have the following mean-spirited thought: Every time one of those one hundred and twenty million shows up at a hospital with a life-threatening condition that is treatable by modern medicine, he or she should be asked, "Since this treatment we are about to give you assumes, for its efficacy, either directly or indirectly, the truth of evolution, are you prepared to forswear your absurd beliefs as a condition of having us save your life?" If the answer is no, then turn them out into the street and let them pray to their god for relief.

Now, that is about as low and mean spirited as you can get, I realize. And if I were a hospital administrator, I would not dream of enforcing such a rule. But, Lord forgive me, I would be tempted.

BIG DAY TODAY

Later today [it is 5:23 a.m., U. S. East Coast time, as I write this], the House meets to vote on the health care bill. I will have a great deal to say about this after it is all over [I shall be watching a live stream on www.c-span.org], but for the moment, all is quiet as we await what will be an historic moment.

Meanwhile, I have one more personal memory of the summer of 1952 to share [see my former blog post.] As I have explained, I was spending the summer as a copy boy at the NY Herald Tribune. My girlfriend, and the love of my life, Susie, was in Westport, Connecticut, where her parents had a summer home. Truth to tell, I felt that she was drifting away from me, and in fact, the next Spring, as I was preparing to graduate, she left me for Gordon Hirschhorn, the son of the Canadian uranium king [and later on, the endower of the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.] In a desperate attempt to hold onto her, I splurged big and took Susie to a New York nightclub, The Blue Angel [named, of course, after the nightclub in the immortal 1930 Marlene Dietrich film, Der Blaue Engel.] It didn't work, alas, and it took me another thirty-five years to persuade her to marry me, but that is another story.

The Blue Angel was a fabulously expensive place. The minimum was $5 a person, and since neither of us drank, the only way we could spend that much was by ordering dinner. [My memory is that I dropped $25 that night, but that cannot be right. I didn't have that kind of money]. The great attraction, of course, was the floor show, which consisted of three acts. The opener was a young comedian just starting out, named Orson Bean. His opening joke, as I remember it, was "Hello. I am Orson Bean, Harvard '48. Yale nothing."]

But the stars were two singers -- Eartha Kitt and Josh White. I kid you not. If you are of a certain age, you will understand that this was like having Bob Dylan and Sting on the same card.

That was the only time I have ever gone to a nightclub. When you start out like that, it can only go down hill, right?

Friday, March 19, 2010

A STROLL DOWN MEMORY LANE

For as long as anyone my age can remember, the International Herald Tribune, published in Paris, has been the home away from home for expatriate American newspaper readers. Those of us who are linguistically challenged would snatch it up at the kiosks, extracting it from displays of Le Monde, Liberation, Humanite, and Le Canard Enchaine, and eagerly read sports news we never read at home, or bits and snatches of American political news. Now, alas, The Paris Trib is owned by the NY TIMES, which is of course on line anyway. I would not dream of buying it.

But all of this set me thinking of the one and only time in my entire life when I had a job that required me to punch in at a time clock -- the summer of 1952, which I spent as a copy boy in New York on the old Herald Tribune. [Some of you may actually be unaware of the fact that for nine years, Karl Marx wrote foreign reports for the NY Tribune, before it merged with the Herald to form the Herald Tribune. Actually, if the truth be told, Engels wrote many of the pieces that appeared under Marx's byline, since Marx was hopelessly dilatory in getting them done.] My mother got the job for me. It was the summer after my second year at Harvard [which was my last summer as an undergraduate, since I finished up the degree in three years], and I was all of eighteen.. I needed a job, and since my mother, much earlier, had worked for ten years as the secretary to the City Editor of the Trib, she still had connections. So I got the job, not then realizing that seasoned reporters on provincial papers would have sold their souls for a chance to start at the bottom of a NY newspaper, in hopes of working their way up.

I was on the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, and I was, like all copy boys, essentially a gofer. My main job was to run things from one desk to another in the large City Room, or to go down to the press room and bring up what was called "overrun" -- thin columns of newsprint that did not make it into the paper. The summer of 1952 was an exciting time. Sugar Ray Robinson fought for the title at Yankee Stadium when it was 110 degrees under the lights. King Farouk of Egypt was ousted. And Dwight Eisenhower and Robert Taft were duking it out for the Republican presidential nomination. The Trib was an Eastern internationalist liberal Republican newspaper [yes, Virginia, there really were liberal Republicans in those days], and they were of course backing Eisenhower. The heart and soul of the party belonged to the midWestern small town isolationist Republicans whose leader and favorite son was Robert Taft of Ohio.

The first and most critical test of the strength of the two wings of the party came over the question which delegation from Texas to seat -- the pro-Eisenhower delegation or the pro-Taft delegation. The outcome of that vote would reveal for the first time the exact strengths of the two sides, and would presage the outcome of the nomination battle. The Republicans were coming off twenty straight years of presidential losses -- four to Roosevelt and one to Truman. Thomas E. Dewey of New York had lost twice as Republican standard bearer, first to Roosevelt in '44 and then to Truman in '48, and the midWestern forces were desperate for a win. Dewey was the floor manager for Eisenhower, provoking the oleaginous Everett Dirksen of Illinois, The Wizard of Ooze, as he was called, to heap imprecations on him from the podium. "You led us down the road to defeat in 1944," he thundered, "and you led us down the road to defeat in 1948, but you shall not lead us down the road to defeat in 1952."

The Trib in those days published an Early Bird edition, that came out at 8 p.m. the evening before, and featured two front page columns of sports news. This was the Trib's [mostly unsuccessful] effort to steal a march on its arch rival, the bigger, richer, and more widely read NY TIMES. The vote on the seating of the Texas delegation began, and as was the custom in those days, things dragged. The Republicans, to reward the faithful, had adopted the practice of splitting votes in a delegation, so that two or three party regulars might go the convention as the bearers of s single vote. If there was a challenge by a delegate to the delegation leader's report of its vote, the entire delegation had to be polled, which meant that each delegate, or partial delegate, had to come to the single microphone allocated to a state and announce his or her vote when called to do so by the secretary of the convention.

The city editor of the Trib [a formidable personage named Kalgren, known in the City Room as The Count] fumed and fussed as the vote dragged on, while he postponed putting the Early Bird edition to bed longer and longer. He and his assistants were clustered around the radio waiting for the conclusion of the vote. They already had two sets of headlines and lead stories waiting to go, depending on which way the vote fell. The last straw was a request for a polling of the New York delegation, which, what with partial delegates, had more than one hundred members. Kalgren threw up his hands and ordered the paper put to bed. The report of the outcome of the crucial vote would have to wait until the regular edition hit the streets at 11:30 p.m.

My most notable achievement as a copy boy came one evening when one of the men on the horseshoe shaped rewrite desk offered me the chance to write the headline on a tiny report of a big storm in the Mid West. [The rewrite desk, for those too young to remember, was a desk at which sat men wearing headphones. Reporters in the field would phone in their details, and the rewrite men would turn them into well written stories, suitable for printing in the newspaper.] I was enormously excited by this opportunity, and wrote a headline almost as long as the story itself. With a smile, the rewrite man edited it down to "Storm hits Mid West." I had tasted my fifteen minutes of fame.

AND NOW, TO SLIDE THE SAUSAGE MEAT INTO THE CASING AND TIE IT OFF

These last few days and hours of the health care reform struggle are absolutely fascinating, and deserve close attention. Nancy Pelosi and the White House have now reached the stage of calculating exactly which endangered House Democrats they can permit to vote NO. Retiring members must vote yes, because they have no political price to pay. Close attention is being paid to the details of each district in which a Member is standing for re-election. Does an endangered Dem have a large African American constituency [presumed to be a safer constituency than some others?] Does a Member already have a Yes vote on the earlier bill on his or her record, and hence cannot be expected to suffer much more from a Yes vote this time around? And so forth. It is mesmerizing to see the American political system work exactly as it was set up to work, with everyone sniffing the wind, calculating the odds, balancing constituency pressure against party loyalty.

It is going to work, the bill is going to pass, and Obama will suddenly go from being a potentially failed President to being the first President since Teddy Roosevelt to pull off health care reform.

Let me repeat what I said many blog posts ago. If you are trying to get three hundred plus million people to act as one, and you don't want to use brute force or terror, this is what governing looks like. We who are pure of heart and forever excluded from the the inner circles of power may decry the messiness and imperfection of it all. But the alternatives are all around us in the history of the past one hundred years, and they do not inspire confidence. The best strategy for those of us on the left is to work endlessly for small leftward adjustments in the resolution of the parallelogram of political forces, at least until and unless we are favored with a revolutionary moment.

I remind you of Paul Newman's classic advice to Robert Redford in THE STING, when Redford asks Newman how to play The Big Con against Doyle Lonnegan [the late great Robert Shaw.] Even if we win, it will not be enough, but it is all we are going to get, so we have to just walk away.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

MORE STRAWS IN THE WIND -- INTERNATIONAL EDITION

Most of you will recall, I imagine, that in the last French presidential elections, the Socialists got creamed, and Sarkozy took the office back for the right. France is now in the midst of regional elections [there are two rounds -- March 14 and March 21], and a coalition of left parties -- two socialist, one green -- is poised to win big. My own arrondisement here in Paris, the Fifth, had the largest turnout, and gave the left a pretty good victory in the first round. Paris itself has a gay socialist mayor, and the city is of course the most beautiful, most people friendly place in the world.

On a totally unrelated matter, I see that Dennis Kucinich has decided to vote for the health care reform package this time around. Apparently Dennis got the message that his groupies were not amused by his announced willingness to sink the bill. I think it is, at long last, going to pass, and when it does, the political climate in America will, overnight, change completely.

Yesterday evening, I essayed truite amandine for the first time in my cooking career. The two trout turned out perfectly, and combined with carmelized courgettes and eschallottes [zucchini and shallots], made a lovely simple meal. Tonight I shall go easy on myself and prepare some paupiettes provencale made by the local butcher. With a perfectly drinkable Beaume de Venise for me and a nice Sancerre blanc sec for Susie, it should do nicely.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A NON-RHETORICAL QUESTION

Am I missing something? I have been reading the reports of the latest Tea Party Washington protest against health care reform. The language, both from protesters and from their Republican Party Congressional enablers, is over the top. This flawed and incremental bill is described as fascism, as socialism, as unconstitutional, as the end of American liberty. The protesters call for Nancy Pelosi to be tried for treason.

Is more going on than I realize? Are these protesters right to see the passage of this bill as a stake driven into the heart of conservatism? Is this really a step so far beyond Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security that armed rebellion is the only reasonable response by defenders of American capitalism? Are Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama closet radicals?

God, I hope so.

BRIAN LEITER - BLOG

Several days ago, my son, Tobias [the law professor] forwarded to me an essay on legal positivism by Brian Leiter, a philosopher and law professor at the University of Chicago. The essay is extraordinarily clear, precise, and well-written [and also true, as it happens], something that is rare in every field of intellectual endeavor. I found Leiter's email address on line, and had a very nice exchange of emails with him. It turns out that he has a quite elaborate blog, visited each day by maybe one hundred times as many people who check in here. You can find it at www.leiterreports.typepad.com Check it out.

J'ARRIVE, J'ARRIVE

We are here, in Paris, and as I expected, the gloom is dispelled, my spirits are lifted, and all is right with the world. Yesterday evening, we ate at La Rotisserie du Beaujolais. Susie had pigeon roti, I had ecrivisses gratinee and escargots a la tradition. I drank a large amount of a very modest red wine [Beaujolais villages]. It was wonderful. I feel happy just to be here.

This morning, we went to the market. I bought a dorade royale and two small truites for the next two dinners, along with courgettes, shallots, potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, tiny French beans, a lovely cheese [Comte], two bottles of wine, and all. We have arrived.

I am on the web, so I can monitor political developments in America, but already I feel less deeply involved, less oppressed by the frustrations of life on the margins. I have even done two loads of laundry in our French washer-dryer, which very quietly sloshes away for hours until the clothes are all washed and dried.

Now we are off to BHV [le Bazaar de l'Hotel de Ville - a large department store next to l'Hotel de Ville, or City Hall, that has everything.] The walk takes us past Notre Dame. Always nice to reacquaint ourselves with that grand old lady.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH, DEAR FRIENDS

Well, never mind closing up the wall with our English dead. [Henry V, for those who are wondering.] We are again going to set out for Paris. Let us hope US Airways does not do us in again.

Meanwhile, things are looking very good for health care reform, and suddenly the chattering classes are discovering that Obama is a rather skillful and determined politician after all.

But the ugly news is out of Texas, where the state textbook committee, dominated by right-wing fanatics, has passed a series of secondary school textbook guidelines that will dumb down the next ten years of young people. Because Texas chooses books state-wide, publishers supinely cave in to their insane demands, and that in turn blights the textbooks used in other states as well. This really is an appalling country, for the most part. As I have often noted in this blog, the Evangelicals and birthers and Tea Partiers think that people like me look down on them. Well, damn it, I do. Why should I give them a pass for their absurd views when they spend their time congratulating themselves that I will be damned to eternal hellfire for mine?

France, of course, has its own problems, which I am able to ignore because I do not really live there.

I am afraid the enforced lay-over has made me dyspeptic. As the taxi crosses the Seine and approaches our pied a terre on rue Maitre Albert, my spirits will lift, and my Paris posts will be models of sweetness and light.

en avant!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

THOUGHTS IN LIMBO

Limbo is the region bordering Hell where reside the souls of such as unbaptized babies who, though innocent, cannot enter Heaven since their original sin has not been washed away in the blood of the Lamb. In the dumbed down amnesiac language of our modern age, limbo is any place where you are stuck, unable to continue on to whatever was to be your next stop -- like an airport departure lounge when your flight has been cancelled. Here I am, then, in limbo, innocent, unbaptized, waiting until Susie and I can tomorrow renew our trip to Paris.

Having taken out the garbage, done all the laundry, emptied the refrigerator, and even, this morning, Jiffy Lubed my car, I am left with idle thoughts. Happily, I have a blog, into which I can transfer them for the enlightenment of my small band of readers. Herewith, then, some idle thoughts.

The first is a poem, that came to my mind for some reason this morning. It is the haunting vilanelle by the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, known by its great first line. I will only say, by way of commentary, that when my time comes [not, if my son, Tobias, is to be believed, for another twenty years or more], I hope that my sons will speak in this way to me:

DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And now, for a total change of pace, a reaction to an Evan Thomas NEWSWEEK piece on American primary and secondary education that focuses on the supposedly baleful effects of teachers' unions and the institution of tenure. A vanishingly small number of teachers are discharged for cause each year, which leads Thomas to conclude that secondary education can only be improved by getting rid of "bad teachers."

As befits a philosopher in limbo, I shall begin at a very high level of theoretical abstraction and descend slowly to the real world. I remarked in a previous blog, devoted to Stephen Jay Gould's theories about hot hands and streaks in the sports world, that it is usually a mistake to ignore the folk wisdom of professionals in any field. Let me step back a bit and speak even more generally about how I think it is wise to proceed in analyzing a social institution.

In the early nineteenth century, there were, broadly speaking, three modes of analysis of the dramatic changes wrought first in England, and then on the Continent, by the new socio-economic form that we know as capitalism. Laisser-faire liberals tended to lay down axioms [rational agents, perfect knowledge, perfect markets, etc.] and then deduce consequences, the rigor of which was too often matched by a complete disconnect from the real world. Conservatives and Karl Marx [but not those whom Marx ridiculed as "utopian socialists"] in contrast, began from a consideration of institutions in medias res, recognizing that human affairs are a great deal more complex, mystified, and multi-layered than can be captured in neat systems of deductions from a priori premises.

As a Marxist with a deep appreciation for the insights of the best conservative social theorists [pace my penchant for quoting Hobbes], I try when I approach any question of social analysis to be alert to what the real world has to teach me. Let me turn that habit of mind to the subject before us, which is tenured teachers.

Let us begin by noting that there are, in addition to public secondary education, four institutions in American society that offer to their work force something very like tenure: University Education, the Catholic Church, the Federal Judiciary, and the Military. American university education is a rave success, the gold standard, universally recognized as the archetype for the countless ectypes worldwide. The Federal Judiciary, by and large, fully justifies the confidence that is placed in it by the practice of life tenure. People of my political persuasion may wish that former Vice President Cheney would take Justices Roberts, Scalia, Alito, and Thomas on a quail hunt, but the failings of the Federal Judiciary are, in the end, inadequacies of ideology, not evidences of incompetance. The American military, whatever you may think of the uses to which it has been put by its civilian masters, is an extraordinarily successful institution, a model of what a huge bureaucratic organization can be and accomplish. And even The Roman Catholic Church, the child abuse scandals notwithstanding, survives and flourishes across the milennia, despite the fact that it is more difficult to remove a priest from his holy orders than it is to fire a teacher, cashier an officer, or impeach a Supreme Court Justice.

Compare these four successful institutions with the corporate and political worlds, neither of which promsies tenure, for all that both offer to at least some of their supplicants great longevity. Does anyone seriously want to claim that politicians perform better than combat infantrymen, or that corporate CEOs are to be preferred to members of the Fourth Circuit?

Of all of these lifeworlds, I have extensive experience only of one: University Education. I am particularly struck by the fact that the practice of life tenure is more firmly entrenched in the elite reaches of that world even than in its lesser regions. Is the world right to esteem the Ivy League universities, the great institututions of public higher education, the very best of the small liberal arts colleges? Undoubtedly, in my judgment, for all that I have fought for half a lifetime with the benighted politics of my alma mater, Harvard. Tenure is not a source of mediocrity in higher education. It is the seedbed of originality, innovation, and free thinking. That is why the frenetic rightwing so often decries "tenured radicals."

The corporatization of higher education is well under way in America, just at the time when the inadequacies of the corporaste world are manifest. I confidently predict that as tenure erodes in universities, the quality of higher education will decline.

What then of primary and secondary education? Is the destruction of the teachers' unions really the necessary precondition for better performance? Well, reflect on the fact that the communities whose high schools have for generations been models of excellence [Newton, Brookline, and Belmont in Massachusetts, Shaker Heights in Ohio, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech in New York City, and so forth] all grant their teachers tenure.

It is not for me to say what can make poor schools better. I have not set foot in a high school classroom since I graduated from Forest Hills High School in 1950. But I am deeply sceptical of the notion that job insecurity is the way to improve teacher performance.

Now, off to Paris.

Friday, March 12, 2010

AND FURTHERMORE

So I figured the one ray of sunshine in this raincloud of bad luck was that Susie and I would be able to watch the Friday episode of The Young and the Restless, which is always the boffo episode of the week. [OK, OK, so I have watched it every day pretty much for twenty years. I think of it as a very long War and Peace, only without everyone having three names.] But no. This is regional basketball playoff time, so Y&R is preempted. I mean, is this happening to me because I am an anarchist, because I am a Marxist, or because I am an atheist?

THE *&%#%#&(+%# AIRLINE INDUSTRY

Here we are, all packed and primed for Paris. 5:50 p.m. on US Airways from Raleigh Durham, connecting in Philadelphia with a 9:00 p.m flight to Paris. I had already decided where we were going to have dinner our first evening in Paris. Then I get an automated phone call telling me that the 5:50 flight is delayed until 8:00 p.m., which makes the connection impossible.

The first time US Airways can rebook us is SUNDAY.

So, I take off my support hose [useful for counteracting swollen feet on long trips], and ask Susie where she would like to have dinner in Chapel Hill. We will go to Squids, where, if you sit at the bar, you can have oysters for $0.50 each. Susie usually gets half a peck of steamed oysters [no kidding].

I have explained to Christmas Eve [our surviving cat] that we are not leaving yet, and cancelled the cab. I have already done all the laundry and taken out the garbage. aaaarrrrgggghhh!!!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

FAREWELL THOUGHTS

As I pack and make last minute arrangements for our Paris trip tomorrow [special instructions for our pet sitter, and such], just a few thoughts on the passing scene.

A troubling report by the Southern Poverty Law Center on the dramatic rise of right-wing vigilante and hate groups, preaching [and in some cases practicing] violence. The SPLC tracks hate groups, and reports a 54% spike in their numbers between 2000 and 2008. This is entirely separate from the Tea Party groups, which are populist protests on the right that, despite some nasty rhetoric, are considered by the SPLC to be quite different from the sorts of nativist violence-drenched groups they track. Contrary to what you might imagine, these groups are heavily concentrated up and down the eastern Seaboard and into the upper and lower South. There is, of course, a long history of such groups in America, but it is at least worth noting that the annual CPAC conference this year [Conservative Political Action Committees] was co-sponsored by the John Birch Society, which for decades was excluded from polite right-wing company because of the sheer paranoid craziness of its founder and members. [For those of you who are candy bar fans, remember that it was the man who started the company that made Mars bars who founded the John Birch Society. Sigh. I really like Mars bars.]

More signs of a revival of energy and determination in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Harry Reid, much maligned and in danger in his home state re-election bid, is talking about revising the filibuster rules come January. A change now would take sixty-seven votes, but in January it will only take fifty plus Joe Biden. Chuck Schumer is going to hold hearings, he says. Obama is in campaign mode for the closing of the deal on health reform. By this time, the political implications of a win are almost independent of the actual content of the bill. In the words of Thomas Hobbes, my favorite source of political wisdom and aphorisms, "the reputation of power is power." If Obama wins on health care reform, he is a winner, and thereby gains political power. He has just announced the intention of tackling immigration reform. You cannot accuse him of ducking the hard issues!

Avatar didn't win. I rather like the fact that Best Director went to James Cameron's former wife. Maybe story does matter. We are a long way from 1952 when The Greatest Show on Earth won best picture for Cecil B. DeMille. [For those who missed it, this was the schlock blockbuster to end all schlock blockbusters, with Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde and the inevitable Charleton Heston. By comparison, The Ten Commandments was War and Peace.]

Since I am not a member of the Mainstream media, I am not obligated to comment on the bizarre tale of Eric Massa and Glen Beck. So I won't.

I will talk with you from Paris. toujours gai, as the cockroach Archy used to say. [Look it up]

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

EARLY MONEY IS LIKE YEAST

This saying, for those who don't know, is the origin of the acronym "Emily," as in "Emily's List." And in politics, it is true. Your money has a greater weight in primaries than in the general election, and it has a greater impact early than late. Our attention recently has been focused on Republican primary challenges from the right, but there are beginning to crop up some very interesting Democratic primary challenges from the left. I have recently given $100 to Bill Halter, challenging the extremely conservative Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln, and another $100 to Tarryl Clark, running for the Democratic nomination to take on Michele Bachmann. Halter raised a million dollars in forty-eight hours after ActBlue and Daily Kos highlighted his challenge. If you are as frustrated as I by the Blue Dog Democrats who have highjacked health care and other issues, this is a good way to strike a blow for progressive principles. Also, keep an eye on Bart Stupak, who may be challenged in his district by a pro-choice pro-health care Democrat. This is the transformative effect of the Internet.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

PEDANTIC QUIBBLE

What point is there in maintaining a blog if you can't post a pedantic quibble from time to time? So here goes.

George W. Bush is rightly mocked by lefties for saying that the American people "misunderestimated me." Fair enough. But every day, it seems, someone in the mainstream media or in the blogosphere misuses the term "underestimate," as in "it is hard to underestimate ..."

Look, if something is incredibly large, expensive, dangerous, beautiful, old, or likely to happen, then it makes sense to say that "it is hard to overestimate" that thing's size, expense, danger, age, or likelihood, meaning "no matter how large, expensive, dangerous, beautiful, old, or likely you estimate it as being, you will probably fall short of how large, etc etc it really is." In other words, it is really hard to overestimate its size, etc. because it is so big, costly, etc. An alternative way to say this is, "You should never underestimate the size, expense, etc etc of that thing, because it is sure to be larger, costlier, etc etc than you think."

Now, that wasn't so hard, was it?

By the way, Bush was wrong. We didn't misunderestimate him. We estimated him as being just about as low as a president could get, and we were right.

WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE PARIS

I stumbled yesterday evening on a TCM screening of Casablanca, which I can practically lip sync by now. It reminded me to tell you all that on Friday, Susie and I shall be going to Paris for two and a half weeks. It is still rather chilly in Paris, so we shan't have any jardin du Luxembourg picnics, but as always, I shall relax into the delights of the 5e arrondissement. My principal task on this trip will be complete the preparations for our June trip, when I shall host a party for my big sister, Barbara, who turns eighty this summer. Twenty of us, from three generations, will float down the Seine on June 20th having dinner and toasting her. It should be a grand occasion.

Dedicated readers of this blog will know that during our last visit, which is now six months ago, I created a true boeuf bourguignonne, a task that took me two days but was well worth the effort. I am toying with the idea of doing it again, and perhaps even inviting my French cousins, Andre and Jacqueline Zarembowitch, to share it with us.

Assuming that my internet access still works [always an uncertainty, what with France Telecom's fecklessness], I shall continue to blog from Paris, although perhaps not as often. One of the many miracles of cyberspace is that in it the dimension of space does not exist.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A QUIBBLE ABOUT NOTHING OF IMPORTANCE

This blog post has absolutely nothing to do with politics, philosophy, economics, life, the meaning of the universe, or even Paris. It is about Stephen Jay Gould, Joe Dimaggio, statistics, and streaks. It was inspired by the fact that I am currently on a twenty-one game winning streak of Spider Solitaire on my computer, which reminded me of something that has been eating away at me for years. Do you ever shout at the tv screen when someone says something with which you disagree? Do you ever wish that you could reach through the pages of a book and grab Plato or Macchiavelli or Jane Austen by the collar and say, "Now, listen!"? Well, then you may understand why I am writing this post. Even when he was alive, there was no chance that I would ever have a one-on-one with Gould, although I did hear him speak once. Now that he is long gone, I am left with my daydreams -- and with my blog. So here goes.

Stephan Jay Gould, now tragically and much too soon deceased, was a marvelous biologist and science writer, tenured at Harvard along with Richard Lewontin and E. O. Wilson. He was, among many other things, a fanatic baseball lover. In 1988, he wrote a review for the NY Review of Books of a book about Joe Dimaggio's famous 1941 streak -- hitting safely in fifty-six straight games. You can find the review here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/4377

In the course of the review, Gould, drawing on detailed analyses by a number of other famous scientists and mathematicians who were also sports fans, undertook to debunk the popular view -- a myth, Gould claims -- that hitters, basketball players, and other professional sports greats "get hot," "get in the zone," and then are able to sink strings of baskets or get strings of hits or whatever because they are momentarily elevated to a higher place of sports excellence. None of this is true, Gould insists. The occurrence of runs or streaks is -- with the singular exception of Dimaggio's streak -- nothing more nor less than what statistical probability predicts will happen.

Now, I learned long ago that it is almost always a mistake for an amateur to try to tell a professional his or her business. If I shop for antiques occasionally on a Sunday, it is not likely that I am going to spot a valuable piece of furniture in a shop whose owner -- who buys and sells furniture all day long for a living -- has failed to appraise correctly. Inasmuch I could not sink a set shot even if Shaq picked me up and held me over the basket, I would think twice about telling Michael Jordan that he is wrong when he says that he was "in the zone" and couldn't miss. When professional athletes claim that they are sometimes hot or are in the zone, we fans ought at the very least to accord their report some evidentiary value.

The core of Gould's argument is a fact well known to mathematicians but usually misunderstood by the innumerate, namely that in random distributions of some property in a sequence, runs or streaks are much more common than one might intuitively anticipate. So, if you are a .300 hitter, Gould says, sheer chance dictates that every so often you will have a hitting streak that strikes everyone in the stands but the statisticians as a sign that you are "hot." Not a bit of it, Gould replies. That is just what you would expect of a .300 hitter. Obviously, he observes, a .250 hitter will have such a streak less often. The player's claim that he got the hits because he was hot or in the zone is just false, for all his conviction.

I think that this argument [you have to read Gould's lovely review to get all the details] is based on a rather simple but fundamental logical error. [Now you see why I wanted to reach through the page and grab him by the lapel.] Here is the point: the statistical argument is based on the assumption that there is such a thing as being a .300 hitter, which is logically different from being a batter who hits .300. Being a .300 hitter, for the purposes of the statistical analysis, is like being a bag of marbles 30% of which are white and 70% of which are black. If you repeatedly choose marbles from the bag at random, you will indeed get some long runs of white marbles more often than intuition tells you that you ought to. That is the sum and substance of Gould's point.

But being a .300 hitter is not like being six feet tall or having naturally curly hair. It is not a property you have prior to, and independently of, playing the game of baseball. It is at least possible -- and the pros repeatedly claim that it is true -- that the great players have the ability to concentrate, shut out every irrelevant stimulus, sharpen their reflexes, and raise their level of performance. That ability is a part of what makes them great players.

There is a great story about Ty Cobb that illustrates this point. At the age of sixty, Cobb participated in an Oldtimers' Game, organized as a feel good exercise in fan adoration. When Cobb stepped to the plate to hit, he turned to the oldtimer who was catching and politely asked him to step back a bit, because he could not trust his hands to keep hold of the bat and he didn't want to hurt him. The catcher stepped back a few paces, whereupon Cobb laid down a perfect bunt and beat it out to first. Even in an exhibition, he cared more about winning than about anything else. [It is that feature of Cobb's character that leads the ghostly players in Field of Dreams to vote not to ask him to join them in their pick-up games on Kevin Costner's old-time field.]

The players themselves claim that there are times when they can call on that extra level of performance, and times when they cannot. Furthermore, it is at least plausible that an initial statistically random series of successes -- hits, or baskets -- can trigger that extra effort in them, so that they feel themselves to be in the zone. That is what can enable to hitter whose natural talents might lead a talent scout to expect a .280 batting average to pull himself up to .300. If we could measure a player's "natural" batting average, just as we can count the proportion of white balls in a sack, and then compare it with the average he actually achieves, we could judge whether he is "falling short," "living up to his potential," or "developing a hot bat." But in fact neither we nor Gould can carry out that measurement ex ante. So we are left to judge a player's
ability" by his batting average ex post, and that simply does not permit us to test the claim that he sometimes "gets hot." We are left to rely on the reports of the people who really know best, namely the players themselves.


So, Stephen Jay, if there is a heaven for wonderful writers, I hope you are reading this. Dimaggio's streak is still a marvel, but I insist that sometimes Michael had hot hands.