Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Sunday, December 30, 2012

MORE ON LINCOLN


By and large, even movies I like a great deal do not make me think.  The Hobbit,, for example, was great fun, but it did not set me to thinking [save to wonder how they manage to make Gandalf look twice as tall as Frodo -- or, for that matter, how they make Hagrid look so enormous in the Harry Potter movies.]  Even a truly lovely film like A Late Quartet, which I adored, and which made me burst into tears at its very end, was not in any deep way thought-provoking.

But I find myself turning Lincoln over in my mind and trying to extract from it lessons for our current situation -- which, judging from the fascinating interview with screenwriter Tony Kushner that Jim put me onto, is very much what the makers of the film intended.

Here, for what they are worth, are some reflections on the present day that were stimulated or reconfirmed by Lincoln.

First, truly great political accomplishments, among which I count the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, require enormous efforts, by countless men and women far from the political arena, to set the stage and create the circumstances that make those accomplishments possible.  In the case of Lincoln, it was the actions of several millions of slaves and former slaves that weakened the South's military campaign and made possible the North's impending victory.  Without their actions, it is not at all clear that the North could ever have won the war, nor is it clear, even if they had, that the victory would have ended slavery.  Once again, let me refer you to Black Reconstruction, in which Du Bois deploys the concept of the General Strike to explain the role of the slaves in the defeat of the South.  As I observed in my tutorial on Afro-American Studies, the truly remarkable thing about Du Bois' thesis is that he advanced it in 1935, two generations before the historiographical data required to confirm it would be made available by Ira Berlin and his co-authors [and legions of nameless graduate students] in Slaves No More.  Kushner, by the way, in the Bill Moyers interview that Jim put me on to, and which stimulated this post, gets this wrong, specifically denying that slaves or Free Blacks had anything directly to do with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

The lesson for us today, pretty clearly, is that it will take the efforts of millions, or tens of millions, of Americans far from Washington to create the conditions under which Obama and the Democrats can achieve dramatic change. 

The second lesson of the movie is that even heroic, epoch-making political action is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," to invoke Thomas Hobbes' classic description of the state of nature.  It is genuinely educational to see, in the movie, how corrupt and devious are the machinations by which something of transcendent moral importance gets accomplished in politics.  Anyone whose sensibilities are offended by the sight of Obama wheeling and dealing with Boehner or McConnell is just not serious about wanting the world to change.

The third lesson is that in the midst of a dirty, no holds barred political fight, it is very, very difficult to know just what precisely is the most that one can exact from one's opponents.  Knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em [to quote a Kenny Rogers classic] is a matter of art, not science, of intuition, not of calculation.  It is natural, but I think a mistake, to construe differences of judgment about such matters as evidences of moral failing. 

But, to recur to the first lesson, recognizing this character of political decision in no way alters the absolute necessity of mass action in support of goals that cannot, in their nature, be completely achieved.  Anyone who knows even a little bit about the promise and failure of Reconstruction, and about the century and more of struggle that was required to realize the dream of genuine liberation, will understand that only by overreaching, by demanding what will not entirely be achieved, can we create the pressure that will allow a Lincoln [or an Obama -- this is the real message of the film] to achieve what can be achieved in the present balance of political forces.  My favorite character in the movie is Thaddeus Stevens, not Abraham Lincoln, but if Abraham Lincoln had been a Thaddeus Stevens, the Thirteenth Amendment would not have passed, and if Thaddeus Stevens had been an Abraham Lincoln, it also would not have passed.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A PLEA FOR HELP

Something weird is happening.  Every time I access Google's Blogger, to post something on my blog or just to check comments, etc., an extremely irritating banner for PacMan pops up and obscures part of the screen.  I cannot figure out how to get rid of the damned thing, which I hate.  Does anyone know what is going on?

MOVIE REVIEW

Susie dragged me to see Lincoln last night, and I am very glad that she did.  I did not want to see the film [confession:  I really wanted to see Jack Reacher, which tells you everything you need to know about my middlebrow tastes.]  I have never been a fan of Lincoln, believing him not to have been truly an opponent of slavery, although my former colleague, the distinguished historian Manisha Sinha, has chastised me for this prejudice.  Since she knows vastly more about the subject than I ever could, I ought to defer to her superior judgment. 

The movie, as those of you who have seen it know, focuses on the months during which Lincoln fought to win passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  Daniel Day Lewis' performance is splendid, but for my money, the actor who steals the show is Tommy Lee Jones as the great Radical Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. 

Again and again, I found myself reduced to tears as I watched the two and a half hour movie.  What affected me so powerfully was Steven Spielberg's decision to view the unfolding events repeatedly through the eyes of Negro soldiers, slaves, and servants, as well as the common law Negro wife of Stevens [Wikipedia tells me that there is no conclusive evidence that she and Stevens did in fact live as man and wife, although there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence, and I think Spielberg was totally within his rights to represent them in that fashion.]

Curious to see whether I was in this instance, as in the case of The Hobbit, out of step with the professional reviewers, I surfed the web a bit and found a very interesting and knowledgeable review by Kelly Candraede in the LA Review of Books.  One does not often read a movie review that refers to Karl Marx, Max Weber, Eric Foner, Ira Berlin, Eric Hobsbawm, and Robin Blackburn.  The gravamen of the review is that the movie is, as Foner apparently called it, an "inside the beltway" telling of the story that ignores the enormous role played by the slaves themselves in bringing about their liberation.  This is of course true, although the reviewer made no mention at all of the greatest work advancing this interpretation, W. E. B. Du Bois' classic Black Reconstruction.  But that strikes me as not really an appropriate complaint about a movie.  Spielberg does not present his film as a telling of the story of Emancipation, or of the Civil War, or even of the life of Lincoln, and the nuanced complexity of his account is so far above what usually passes for historiography in the public discourse of this country that I am not inclined to complain about what it omits.

The one dimension of the film that the reviewers I read did not mention is what strikes me as the obvious fact that the movie is, among other things, a celebration of the fact of the Obama presidency.  Be that as it may, this is a rich, complex, beautifully acted, visually striking film, and I recommend it to you most heartily.

Friday, December 28, 2012

SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI

My birthday has come and gone, and it remains only to thank the many people from around the world who took the time to wish me a happy birthday.  I was very touched by your kind wishes and words.  Writing this blog has introduced me to a world of folk with whom I have made a connection.  What began as a lark, suggested by my son, Patrick, as a way to fill the empty hours of retirement has become quite the most important part of my day.

Thank you to Jim, and to James, to Manisha and Dot and Kevin and Mickey, thank you to Jennifer and Charles and David and to C Rossi.  And my thanks to all those I have no doubt overlooked in the chaos of my desk and the jumble of my mind.

Thank you as well to all those who, it seems, wished me well on FaceBook [and wasn't I mean spirited to write negatively about that program just when people were using it to say kind things to me!]

Those of us of a progressive turn of mind face a daunting future here in the United States.  We dodged a bullet in the last election, but the deeper ills of this society remain, and grow progressively worse.  At the very top of my personal list of horribles I place the seemingly intractable and ever worsening inequality of wealth and income that is turning America into a Banana Republic.  We seem as a nation to be conducting a horrific experiment to see how close to 1 the Gini Coefficient of income distribution in America can come before the society collapses. 

Perhaps in the coming months we can try to figure out the extent to which it is structural features of capitalism in its current form that generate this ever-worsening inequality, and the extent to which it is political decisions that are, at least in principle, reversible.

Now, onward to eighty!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

THE WALKING UNDEAD

My law professor son pointed out to me that the Constitution does not require that the Speaker of the House be a member of the House, anymore than a Justice of the Supreme Court must be a lawyer, or the pope must be a priest.  Since John Boehner is clearly unable to perform the functions of Speaker, the Republicans must find a new Speaker.  And as the turn of the old year into the new is a time for nostalgia, I propose that the Republicans choose someone who already carries the title --  Speaker Gingrich.  He even has a Ph. D.

IN MY PRIME

Well, this is it.  Today I reach seventy-nine and therefore enter my eightieth year.  My warmest thanks to those of you who wished me a happy birthday.  As soon as the sun starts to come up, I shall take my four mile walk, in a pathetic attempt to deny the passage of time.  My walk here does not have the picture postcard delights of my Paris walk.  No Notre Dame, no Musee d'Orsay, no Louvre or Jardin des Tuilleries, no Cafe Flore and Deux Magots.  But perhaps I will see our resident Blue Heron, always a pleasure.

My birthday present from my grandchildren was a pair of lovely silhouettes in old-fashioned frames, one of Samuel and the other of Athena.  They have a place of honor on our mantel now.

My New Year's Resolution will be to make it to eighty.  When that happens, I will meditate on ninety.

Happy New Year to all.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

AN ABJECT APOLOGY

To all my relatives, former students, former colleagues, and others kind enough to express friendship for me, I apologize most humbly, but I do not do FaceBook.  To be sure, I am on FaceBook.  I was strong-armed into joining it by a wonderful former student who still cannot get over the fact that I do not text.  Periodically, when FaceBook emails me to tell me that I have seventeen friend requests, five pokes, and I do not know what else, I navigate to the site and page down, accepting the friendship requests from people I know who would, I fear, be offended if I did not.

But I do not do FaceBook.  I do not post breathless reports of my trip to the supermarket, nor do I share with the world my latest haircut.  As readers of this blog are aware, I find it hard to so much as clear my throat in fewer than five hundred words.  Call it, if you will, the failing of a culturally conservative anarchist, or simply the crustiness of a codger who tomorrow turns seventy-nine.   If you email me, I will respond immediately.  But I do not do FaceBook.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

NAVEL GAZING

Navel gazing, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, is the intense process of self-satisfied self-examination that is the most favored activity of the confirmed narcissist.   Blogging, by its nature, partakes somewhat of navel gazing.   This post conforms rather more closely to that description than most.  My apologies.

For much of this day, I have been engaged in an unsuccessful search for my copy of Charles Mills' unpublished essay on Tolkein's Lord of the Rings.  My problem is that when I moved from a big house to a small condominium four and a half years ago, I had to give up several large file cabinets and other storage facilties.  Things got crammed into boxes out of order.  Now, I am very much of a pack rat.  I rarely throw things out, and I would never throw out Mills' essay, which I love.  But I have picked through every box, file cabinet, and stack of manila folders in my small office and I simply cannot find it.

Along the way, as I was looking, I kept coming upon unpublished essays, lectures I have given, reviews, and the like, most of which I have no recollection of having written.  Earlier today, I mentioned one such paper, delivered more than thirty years to a meeting of the American Philosophical Association, which I shall try to scan and post.  A few moments ago, while watching Mrs. Doubtfire on television, I suddenly had a thought, and went searching through some files I had moved to a storage box to make room for materials related to my new gig at Bennett College.

I did not find the Mills essay, but I did stumble on an unpublished 175 page manuscript of something called The Language of Economics:  A Course of Lectures, which I apparently wrote in 1979.  Paging through it, I found that it is the first part of a long book which I eventually decided to break up into a trilogy, two thirds of which were actually published [Moneybags Must Be S Lucky and Understanding Marx.]  There seems to be a good deal of material in this manuscript that never made it into those two books,  and since I never completed the trilogy, it has been lying there in a manila folder for thirty-three years.

I think of myself as someone who does not work very hard.  in my long life, I have watched endless mvies, played thousands upon thousands of games of various solitaires on my computer, daydreamed for hours on end, and on occasion, spent some time teaching and writing.  And yet the contents of my file drawers and shelves suggests that I must have spent a very considerable amount of time writing, and even reading, which latter I imagine I do very rarely.

It is really very odd.

HOME FOR CHRISTMAS

Last night, Susie and I arrived back in Chapel Hill after a long flight from London Heathrow.  We had followed our new practice of taking the Eurostar from Gard du Nord to St. Pancras, staying over night at a Heathrow hotel [the Sheraton this time], and then catching the direct non-stop American Airlines flight to Raleigh Durham.  At our age, this is a tiring trip no matter how we arrange it, but the Eurostar portion is lovely, and the hotel stay breaks up the trip nicely.  Exactly one year ago, faithful readers will recall, I came home, got terribly sick, was told I had terminal lung cancer, underwent every test known to medical science, discovered that no one had a clue what was wrong with me, took some Ibuprofen, and got better. 

In two days, I shall be seventy-nine, which means that I shall be entering upon my eightieth year.  Being eighty, I have decided, means never having to say you are sorry.  Of course, I have not been saying I am sorry since I was about seven, but now I am justified in giving a finger to the world.

Getting up at four this morning [ten Paris time -- it takes me a while to adjust], I launched into an extensive search for my copy of Charles Mills' paper on Tolkein.  Since I never throw anything out, I was sure I could find it, but so far it has not surfaced.  What I did stumble on is a seventeen page paper called "The Indexing Problem" that I delivered to the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association on March 22, 1985.  I had totally forgotten that I had written it, let alone delivered it.  I re-read it [old age, I find, is mostly re-reading things you wrote four decades ago], and found that it has some rather interesting things to say about Rawls and Gerald Cohen, among others.  If I can manage to scan it onto my computer, I think I will post it in several installments on this blog.  There may be some folks out there still interested in Rawls and Cohen [and Sears Roebuck, but you will have to read the paper to find out what that is about.]

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A LITTLE INSIDE BASEBALL

I am going to take just a moment to explain something that every single public political commentator knows, and that millions of non-bloviating Americans know, but that somehow never ever makes it into the discussions now going on about tax rates.  As everyone knows who has ever labored through Form 1040 of the Federal Income Tax filing system, you are taxed not on the amount of money you earn from all sources during the year, which is called your Gross Taxable Income [although even this is actually a misnomer for reasons I shall not bore you with], but rather on a quite different amount of money called your Net Taxable Income.  You arrive at your Net Taxable Income by taking the sum of all your sources of income [this is on page one of Form 1040], and then on page 2 subtracting from that sum all manner of amounts of money that are called either deductions or exemptions.  You get to deduct all or most of the interest you pay on a home mortgage, all or most of the money you pay in state and local taxes, all or most of the money you give to charitable organizations, all the money over a fraction of your Gross Taxable Income that you pay for medical insurance, services, and equipment, along with lot of other amounts of money that some people at least can claim as deductions.  In addition, you get to claim a sizable amount of money for yourself and your spouse [if you are married and filing a joint return] and any dependent children you may have.  This last is called an Exemption.  When all is said and done, many people, especially people who used to be called rich when I was young [but are now called middle-class], end up deducting tens or scores of thousands of dollars from their Gross Taxable Income before they arrive at the Net Taxable Income on which their tax is actually calculated. 

Now, all the talk about raising the rates on "people making more than $250,000 a year" conceals the fact that what is actually being contemplated is raising the top rate paid by people whose Net Taxable Income is $250,000 or more, and those are people who, in all likelihood, have Gross Taxable Incomes well in excess of $300,000.  Furthermore, the higher rate being argued over will of course be paid only on that portion of their Net Taxable Income that is over $250,000.  All of their Net Taxable Income below $250,000 will be taxed at the lower rates that came into effect when George Bush was President.

Can we please stop talking about this as a debate about "middle class tax rates?"

LOCAL NOTE

The appalling speech by Wayne LaPierre of the NRA is getting very considerable television coverage here in France.  As we sat in our local cafe having some onion soup and staying out of the heavy rain, LaPierre's face kept appearing on the cable news channel to which the cafe TV set was tuned.  I would like to believe that he has done his cause a grave disservice, but that may be giving Americans more credit than they deserve.

AN AUGUST CRIME WAVE

Lincoln Steffens [1886-1936], the great New York muckraking reporter, told the story in his autobiography of a slow August when no news worth reporting was coming into the City Desk.  Steffens and his colleagues, as a lark, decided to create a crime wave, which they did, to the horror of the newspaper reading public, by simply reporting every crime, large and small, on the police daily blotter.  Normally newspapers ignore most of these crimes, everything from purse snatchings to murders, unless some element of the story catches the eye and seems newsworthy, but in a great city like New York there are always plenty of crimes to report, if one wants to bother.  After several days, during which public hysteria grew and calls for action echoed in City Hall, the reporters got bored and stopped reporting the contents of the police blotter.  Miraculously, the crime wave subsided, and order was restored to the streets of Gotham.

The Huffington Post, to its great credit, has taken a leaf from Steffens' notebook.  Their top headline, screaming in large type, lists murder after murder committed in the past twenty-four hours somewhere in the United States.  The point, of course, is to gin up support for gun control legislation, now that the horror in Newtown has caught the fickle attention of the public.  I have no idea whether The Huffington Post's gimmick will have any measurable effect, but full marks to them for trying.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

PARIS EPHEMERA

One of the truly remarkable features of Google maps is that if you zoom in to the maximum, the map switches to a picture of the street or house you are searching for.  In some cases, there is even a line down the middle of the street that you can follow with the wheel on your mouse, producing a moving picture of an entire neighborhood.  If you Google the address of our Paris apartment, 17 rue Maitre Albert, you eventually get a picture of the street, and on that street is a little man with a mustache, wearing a cap, walking along the street.  That little man is a local whom I see almost every day.  We have now progressed to the point that when we meet, we shake hands, and ritually ask, “Ca va bien?”  If Susie is there, he doffs his cap and inquires after “Madame.”  I know nothing about him beyond that, and my conversational French could not support a real chat, even if he had a mind to it.  The waitress in the local café greets us with handshakes, and the proprietor of the notions shop, “Bazaar des Ecoles,” recognizes us when we come in for a battery or a coffee pot gasket or even, on one occasion, a new rolling suitcase. Being greeted this way makes me feel that I am truly a resident of this quartier.

Having circumnavigated the fifth arrondissement on one of my morning walks, I tried a new route, along the quais, up to Place de la Bastille, then west past Place des Voges along rue des Franc Bourgeois, which is the boundary between the fourth and the third arrondissements, past la musee de Pompidou, to Boulevard de Sebastopol, which is the continuation north of the Seine of Boulevard St. Michel, and home past Notre Dame.  The fourth being smaller than the fifth, this circumnavigation of the fourth is a shorter walk, but it was fun to see an entirely different part of old Paris.

Under the reign of Louis Napoleon [see Marx’s great tract, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon] and with the direction of Baron Haussmann, Paris was totally reconfigured.  One of the many changes was the creation of a pair of intersecting streets, one running east-west, the other north-south, to facilitate getting around in Paris.  What we now know as rue de Rivoli did not exist.  A mare’s nest of tiny streets and buildings interrupted east-west traffic.  Haussmann tore down buildings and pushed aside neighborhoods to create a thoroughfare along which carriages could drive.  The north-south axis became Boulevard St. Michel on the left bank and Boulevard de Sebastopol, then Boulevard de Strasbourg, on the right bank.  Boulevard St. Germain, which now runs from the point across the river from Place de la Concorde through our own Place Maubert to the Institut du Monde Arabe, did not exist either.  As I write these words, I sit under a framed map of Paris, dated 1789.  Our little street, Maitre Albert, is identifiable by its distinctive hooked shape, but it was then called “rue Perdu”  [the lost street.]

Try as I do, I cannot muster the same sentiment for our planned community in Chapel Hill.

Monday, December 17, 2012

WITH A HEAVY HEART

I have hesitated to say anything about the Newtown massacre because the reality trivializes commentary.  The refusal of Obama to throw all of his considerable power behind a push for significant gun control is shameful.  I fully understand that such an effort, quite possibly doomed to failure, might cost scarce political capital that is needed for large scale and far reaching efforts to address America’s economic inequality and budgetary problems, and I can easily imagine that a careful utilitarian calculation might yield the conclusion that more good is to be achieved by once again taking a pass on gun control.  But at some point, honor takes precedence over even the best intentioned calculation.  The young John Kerry achieved instant fame by asking a Congressional committee, “What do you say to the last soldier to die in Viet Nam?”  Can Barack Obama  look into the faces of those dead children and say, “I needed for you to die so that I could raise taxes on the rich?”  As for the Republicans, they are unspeakable, and worthy only of contempt, not conversation.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

NARCOLEPSY

I have been reading Hallucinations, a new book by Oliver Sacks.  The astonishing range of the visual, tactile, auditory, olfactory, cognitive and other hallucinations described by Sacks through the recounting of hundreds of case studies and clinical observations has on me the effect of making me wonder whether perhaps everybody suffers from these bizarre experiences.  Sacks himself, who did some pretty serious drugs at an earlier time in his life [both for research and for recreation], tells a great many stories about his own encounters with hallucinations.

The only example he gives that connects with my own experience – and a pretty tame one at that – is the people who, after a long hard night drive on a highway, lie down to sleep and see the road in their mind’s eye, as though it were still really there.  Hardly worth mentioning in the same breath with some of Sacks’ really dramatic examples.

But there is one experience I have had repeatedly that I have always found very strange.  It fits nicely into Sacks’ chapter on “Narcolepsy and Night Hags.”  I suffer from what is apparently a mild case of narcolepsy.  Quite often, when I am playing a card game on my computer, such as FreeCell or Spider Solitaire [and I play thousands upon thousands of both!], just at the point where the game is won and I have only two or three moves left, I will fall asleep for a few moments.  When I wake up, I am looking at the computer screen, and I complete the game, making the last moves.  Oddly, I never fall asleep in the middle of a game, only at the penultimate moves. 

I find it very difficult, if not impossible, to read steadily for long periods of time.  My eyelids grow heavy and I nod off for a few moments, the book still in my lap or on my desk.  I have sometimes wondered whether that is why I have never in fact read a great deal, carefully selecting the books I do read because something tells me that I must read them, that the reading of them will change my life.  Thus, for example, even though I am a Kant scholar of some reputation, there are great swaths of Kant’s writings that I have never read.  I simply know that they have nothing to tell me.

Once in my life this narcolepsy, if that is the right name for it, came close to killing me.  Driving from UMass Amherst to my home in Belmont, Massachusetts along Route 2 inside the Route 128 perimeter, where the road has a wide median strip dividing the east and west traffic, I fell asleep at the wheel and woke up careening across the grass median at fifty miles an hour or faster.  I was able to regain control of the car and simply drive back onto the road.  Terrified, I took myself to the Sleep Clinic at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital.  They wired me up for EEGs and had me spend the entire night sleeping while they filmed me. 

The diagnosis?  It seems that the facial and bodily twitches with which I have been afflicted since the age of five were jolting me to less deep levels of sleep [not waking me up, just disturbing my deep sleep] so that I was not getting enough REM sleep [rapid eye movement sleep, which Sacks reports was discovered by two University if Chicago doctors in 1954.]   The doctor handling my case told me to stop drinking caffeinated coffee, which at that point I as consuming in large amounts.  I managed to do that over a three week period, and for the past thirty years have drunk only decaf. 

The odd thing about this phenomenon is that it seems to have no connection with being tired, at least not in any ordinary sense of that term.  I can drive for long periods of time when I am tired without the telltale heaviness of the eyelids, which feels as though I have been drugged.  And that narcoleptic sleepiness can come on even though I feel quite alert and rested.  But I have learned that if I am driving when the feeling comes on, I must drive off at the next exit and just sit for a few moments with my eyes shut, nodding off if I can.  Then it is safe to get back on the road.

Friday, December 14, 2012

SUCCESS HAS CROWNED MY EFFORTS

Well, I cooked the skate wing tonight, and it was a success!  Even though the skate at the market looked as though it just wanted to jump into my boat and bite me, I brought the skate wing home, and conquered it.  The recipe, for that handful who actually want to know, is very easy.

The hardest thing is taking the skin off the side that has not been skinned by the fishmonger.  I think I need one of those super sharp knives that just slips under the skin and peels it off.  Anyway, after fifteen minutes of effort with Susie helping, I got it off.  Then:

1.  Salt the skate wing and dredge it in flour.

2.  Melt a big gunk of butter in a hot pan [the recipe says two tablespoons, but I always exaggerate] and fry the skate wings on both sides for maybe three or four minutes a side.  Then take them out of the pan, pop them in a warming oven on a plate, and add even more butter to the frying pan they came out of, along with "half a cup of white wine" [i.e., maybe a cup].  Cook the butter and wine, getting up the tasty bits with a spatula, until the alcohol burns off and the butter is brown.  Pour it over the skate, and serve. 

Dead easy, assuming your local supermarket carries skate wings.

I served it with thinly sliced sauteed zucchini, but you can serve it with anything.

What is it like?  A meaty, mild white fish, very pleasant, and of course wonderful with all that butter.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

THE HOBBIT

Susie and I just got back from Place de l'Odeon, where we saw the new movie, THE HOBBIT, in the original version [which is to say, in English, and also in Elvish and Orkish and ancient Dwarvish with French subtitles -- it was a trifle odd.]   I loved it, but that is not the occasion for this blog post.  On the way walking home, I bethought myself of the brilliant unpublished essay by Charles Mills on THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  Mills is, in my opinion, one of the really important political theorists of our time.  His first book, THE RACIAL CONTRACT, is one of the two or three most important pieces of political theory of the past century -- way more important, for example, than Bob Nozick's delightful book, ANARCHY, STATE, AND UTOPIA.

As readers of my autobiography may recall, I was called on to evaluate Mills when he came up for tenure at Illinois Chicago Circle [he now has a chair at Northwestern.]  The main piece of writing they sent me was the manuscript of what became THE RACIAL CONTRACT, but included in the packet was the essay on Tolkein, which I just raved about.  For my sins, as people used to say, I got to write a little plug for the back cover of Mills' book.  I was honored.

THE HOBBIT is apparently the first of a trilogy to be made from Tolkein's slender book.  I hope I live long enough to see all three.

CULINARY ADVENTURES

Ever since Susie and I took the plunge and bought our Paris apartment eight years ago, I have been the cook.  Over the years, I have developed a small repertory of dishes of which I am inordinately proud, as only a mediocre amateur chef can be -- grilled quail, hazelnut encrusted rabbit, five spices duck legs, coquilles St. Jacques, dorade royale [a lovely white fish], tuna, swordfish, paupiettes provencale [a cheat, these, inasmuch as they are delicious little concoctions of turkey, bacon, and farci already prepared by the local butcher].  Today, urged on by Susie, who in the day was truly a great cordon bleu cook, I bought skate at the market [or "raie,"as it is called in France.]  Skate is a really scary looking thing, lying there at the fishmonger's stall as though it was ready to fly into your boat and bite you.  I found a fairly simple recipe online, and tomorrow night I shall try it.  Who knows, if this works, I might even try my hand at escargots!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

AM I MISSING SOMETHING?

The resignation from the Senate of Jim DeMint has created an opportunity for Nicki Haley, Governor of the deep red state of South Carolina, to appoint a replacement for the two years until 2014, when a special election will be held to fill the seat for the remaining two years until it is normally up for election in 2016.   Needless to say, only certifiably far right wing Republicans need apply.  A number of quick polls, testing the support for five or six of the usual suspects, has revealed that the person with the most support is television personality Stephen Colbert.

Now, I admit that I am a naive boob from the clueless Northeast, recently transplanted to the equally clueless Research Triangle area of North Carolina, but isn't Colbert a liberal whose comic TV shtick is to masquerade as a batshit crazy right winger?  Have I been seeing comedy all these years when in fact it was just honest nuttiness?

Monday, December 10, 2012

CIRCUMNAVIGATING THE FIFTH

This morning, emboldened by a good night's sleep, I decided to set out on a major new route for my morning constitutional.  Instead of walking past Notre Dame along the quais to the National Assembly and then back home via Boulevard St.Germain, a walk of about six kilometers, I decided to try my hand [or my feet] at walking all the way around the fifth arrondissement where our apartment is located.  The fifth is pentagonal, roughly in the shape of a single-peaked house lying on its side.  Our street juts south from one of the long sides of the pentagon.  I started there, and walked east along the quais to the end of the Jardin des Plantes.  A 60 degree right angle turn on rue de l'Hopital followed by another 60 degree right turn on Boulevard Saint Marcel brought me to the southern edge of the arrondissement, Boulevard du Port Royal.  A long, long walk along that boulevard ended at a point where Boulevard St. Michel intersects, heading north.  That takes you back to Boulevard St. Germain, and then home.  This morning, when I got to the northeast corner of the Jardin du Luxembourg, I chose instead to turn right on rue Soufflot up to the Pantheon and then down rue des Carmes to our own Place Maubert.  All in all, a little less than four miles, which took me just an hour.  A side trip to pick up two bauguettes Keyser and I was home at about 8:40 a.m.

This morning's route was strikingly different from my usual walk, which goes by some of the classic spots of old Paris -- Notre Dame, the Louvre, the French Academy, the Musee d'Orsay, Brasserie Lippe, Cafe des Flores, and Les Deux Magots.  This morning I saw modern-day Paris waking up -- scores of people pouring out of Metro stations, hurrying to work, parents taking their children to school, the large Val de Grace hospital complex coming alive, and masses of traffic clogging the streets.

It was all something of an adventure;  I was not sure how it would go, or whether my estimate of the distance from my map wouldturn out to be accurate.  But all in all, I think I prefer the old Paris route.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A QUESTION FOR A SUNDAY MORNING

In this post, I am going to pose something akin to what legal theorists call a hypothetical.  I ask you to accept, hypothetically, a set of facts, so that we may discuss a question of policy without at the same time debating the facts of the case.  I am aware that from certain epistemological perspectives, this distinction is impossible to make, and we can discuss that as we go forward.

Assume, contrary to reality, that America is pretty much domestically what you would like it to be.  For me, that means assuming that America is a secular democracy with a socialist economy, a very flat distribution of wealth and income, and an operative commitment to policies addressing global warming, an America in which the Yankees are permanently mired in last place [oh well, you can leave that last one out if you insist.]  Your ideal America may differ from mine.  If you decide to join the conversation, try to sketch your own ideal America as part of your comment so that the rest of us understand where you are coming from.

In this radically counterfactual case, what should the foreign and military policy of such an America be?

It is no great effort in the real world to criticize every aspect of America’s military and foreign policy.  The real America is an imperial hegemon whose military budget virtually equals that of the rest of the world and whose actions over the past sixty years have again and again supported dictators and tyrants and undermined or actively deposed and defeated progressive forces on every continent except Antarctica.  Let us stipulate that, as they say in the trial courts.

But what should the policies of an ideal America be?  There are two obvious polar alternative responses to this question.  The first response is:  America should maintain its military dominance of the world, but use its power to advance democracy and socialism rather than autocracy and capitalism.  America should support the Fidel Castros and Mohammed Mosaddeghs and Daniel Ortegas of this world rather than doing its best to overthrow or kill them.  America should use its wealth and power to support the Palestinian cause.  And so forth and so on.

The second response is:  American should withdraw all of its troops from foreign soil, should reduce its military budget to the minimum necessary to defend itself [from Canada and Mexico, presumably], and should embrace Thomas Jefferson’s call for “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

Each of these alternatives has troubling consequences that it is difficult to disentangle from the policy.  A militarily dominant America will maintain an enormous military establishment whose existence will shape its domestic politics regardless of how well-intentioned its architects may be.  Every time such an America projects its power abroad for some indisputably progressive cause, there will be innocent men, women, and children who are killed unintentionally.  [It is not only military actions in support of dictators that produce “collateral damage.”]  The easy availability of those military options will have a powerfully corrupting effect on those who exercise the use of the armed forces, even though such exercise is, or is supposed to be, guided by impeccably progressive principles.  But if, let us say,  such an America wishes at a moment’s notice to be able to impose a no-fly zone on Libya during a popular uprising against Khadafy, it will need to maintain aircraft carriers and squadrons of fighters and spy satellites and special ops forces on a permanent footing.

The alternative is to adopt a non-interventionist policy with a military only large enough to deal with genuine threats to the security of America’s borders.  But such an America will have to stand idly by when the forces of revolutionary progress are being pounded into the ground by tyrants. It will be unable to move swiftly and effectively to stop genocidal slaughter by religious fanatics.  Such an America will not be the immediate cause of retrogressive tragedies nor will it prop up dynasts and dictators, but it will have to be content merely to watch the slave labor of children and the bondage of women abroad.

So, what should the foreign and military stance of an ideal America be?  I confess that I am genuinely unsure.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

THE PREROGATIVES OF THE GODS

While Susie was out having her hair done, I set about making a simple dinner of salmon steaks, courgettes, and mushrooms.  To liven the apartment, I put on the great recording of Handel's Semele with Kathleen Battle singing the title role.  I do not know how many of you are familiar with Battle.  She is a coloratura soprano who, in the day, had a divine voice -- supple, exquisite, transcendent.  Her recording with Wynton Marsalis of arias for trumpet and soprano is one of the greatest CD's I have ever heard.  Early in Semele, Battle sings the aria "The morning lark to mine accords his note." As her voice filled the tiny apartment, my heart soared and tears filled my eyes.  When I have not listened to beautiful music for a while, I forget how powerfully it moves me.

Battle is a famously difficult artist. She was actually banished from the Met for "unprofessional behavior," the description of which makes it clear that she was the classic diva, imperious, selfish, egocentric, demanding, impossible. So the Met clearly had every bureaucratic right to banish her.  The only problem is that she sang better than anyone else they could find.  Now the Met exists for one and only one purpose: to make beautiful music.  If it fails to do that, it has no right to exist and to drain from the public purse the enormous resources that it takes to put great opera on these days.  I have always thought they should have put up with her outrageous behavior -- and it apparently was really outrageous -- simply for the privilege of putting her on stage to sing.

When I am in the presence of great music, I lose all sense of the quotidien world.  On one occasion, at Tanglewood, I heard Yo Yo Ma play several of the Bach Suites for unaccompanied cello.  He did not seem to be so much playing them as listening to himself play them.  He had long since so completely mastered the impossibly difficult demands of the music that now he simply existed in the same space and time with it.  He was actually accompanying a ballet troupe that was dancing to the music, but I could not bear to be distracted by their dancing [which was, to  be sure, quite expert], so I positioned myself behind the person sitting in front of me in such a way that I could see Yo Yo Ma but not the dancers.  The music he was playing was almost more than I could bear all by itself.

There is a glimmer of the same unearthly transcendence in that lovely old movie, The Hustler, in the scene in which Paul Newman prowls like a great cat around the pool table, destroying Minnesota Fats [played wonderfully by Jackie Gleason].  "I can't lose," he says to his manager, George C. Scott, and you know that something is moving within him that makes that true.

I am an atheist, as my blog site announces,so perhaps this is as close as I can ever approach to the experience of the divine.

BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN

My apologies for being out of touch – Paris has that effect on me.  Today, I shall post an omnium gatherum of bits and pieces of news from Paris.  Tomorrow, I shall broach a large and very difficult question that has bothered me for some time now.  Perhaps it will stimulate some interesting discussion.

Paris is unusually cold and rather rainy.  Since I gave away my heavy winter coat when I moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina four years ago, I have been reduced here to wearing several sweaters and a lined trench coat in an effort to stay warm.  I like to think that I look like Orson Welles in The Third Man [well, one can dream.]  The night before last snow was predicted, and all Paris braced, but in the end no more than a few flakes fell.

The big news from my little copropriété [which is to say “condo”] is the cave vouté or vaulted cave discovered right under our bathroom when workmen dug down to prop up the seventeenth century building [which was starting to show cracks in the outer walls.]  It is a rather large space, apparently.  I immediately announced dibs on any treasure discovered, but the engineer hired by the syndic that manages our building opined that it was probably part of an old septic system.  Pretty disappointing.  On Tuesday, at eleven in the morning, there was a gathering outside our French doors, at the hole, which narrows the access to our apartment.  The space is unusable, even as a wine cellar, because of the humidity, but it poses a threat of flooding since we are only half a block from the Seine.  The only good news is that since no one knew the cave existed, it is not mentioned in the legal documents forming the copropriété out of three buildings around an interior courtyard, so instead of charging only the owners of the apartments in our building for work dealing with the cave, all fifteen apartments will be charged.  Not equally, of course, but in proportion to their usable floor space.  Our tiny apartment is 2.77% of the total floor space, so we pay 2.77% of the repair costs.

Meanwhile, the really bad news in Paris is that the little weekly magazine, Pariscope, that lists concerts, movies, art exhibitions, and everything else happening in Paris, is on strike, so we are left to scrounge for places to visit.  On Wednesday [the day movies change in Paris] Susie and I walked down to Place de l’Odéon to see Killing Them Softly, the new Brad Pitt movie.  I thought it was a brilliantly powerful political commentary on contemporary America, with the last speech by Pitt an excoriating debunking of mainstream political rhetoric, but then I read Anthony Lane’s review in The New Yorker and discovered that I am an ignorant boob.  I think I will stick to the Critique of Pure Reason.   Film criticism is too sophisticated for me.  Next Wednesday The Hobbit opens.  I shall not attempt a commentary, lest I embarrass myself.

Today I went to the market to shop for dinner for tonight and tomorrow.  I got half a rabbit cut up [without the head], and some hazelnuts for my signature “rabbit loins with hazelnuts, five spices, and curry” dish.  Asparagus and mushrooms should go nicely.

An observation about small cultural differences between the French and Americans:  In a café, the French bring their dogs with them to the table but sit their children at an adjoining table so they will not interrupt the adult conversation.  Americans bring their children with them to the table and leave the dogs in the station wagon.

The parvis Nôtre Dame, the large cobblestoned square in front of the grand church at the bottom of our street, is almost totally occupied by large stands and other structures that have been erected to celebrate Nôtre Dame’s 850th birthday next year.  Nôtre Dame took so long to build that the great grandchildren of the original workmen did not see it completed.  It remains, to my untutored eye, the most beautiful building in the world.

Susie and I dropped by Shakespeare and Company, the well-known English language bookstore, to find something to read.  They are asking for patrons to contribute recollections of the shop, especially in its earliest years, for a forthcoming volume. I spent a good deal of time hanging out there in the Spring of 1955, when it was still Le Mistral, and not yet Shakespeare and Co.  I shall send them an email with some reminiscences.

And so to bed, as Samuel Pepys liked to say.  Tomorrow, serious stuff.

Friday, November 30, 2012

AND AGAIN, IN PARIS

We have arrived, massively jet lagged but otherwise fine.  There is some interesting political news from Paris.  The center-right party of Sarkozy that lost the Presidential election to the socialist François Hollande [the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, or UMP] is engaged in a fratricidal split in some ways similar to what is brewing in the Republican Party at home.  The conflict, according to Le Monde, is as much one of egos as of ideology. The two contestants for the leadership of the Party, Fillon and Copé, are supposed to represent the center-right [Fillon] and extreme right [Copé] wings, and there is talk of Fillon [who lost a recent vote] hiving off to form a new party, but nothing is clear at this point, save that the extreme right-wing Front National Party started forty years ago by Jean-Marie Le Pen and headed now by his daughter Marine, is surging in strength.  The  FN is usually described as fascist, and it is certainly the repository for strong anti-immigrant French sentiment, but if you read the long and detailed article on Marine Le Pen in Wikipedia, you will see that matters are rather complicated.  The FN is very much unlike our own right wing, both because it is fiercely secular, not religious, and because it opposes the globalized capitalist world economy that our own right-wingers seem mindlessly to embrace.

The other news, of course, is that Dominique Strauss-Kahn [DSK], whose sexual harassment of a hotel maid half a year ago cost him the directorship of the IMF and probably the French presidency, has now settled “amicably” the civil suit brought against him by the maid by paying her, according to reports, six million dollars of his wife’s fortune.  You may recall that I sided with her from the very outset, despite the belief of some of my French friends that he had been set up.  The tiny bit of evidence that convinced me was her claim that when he assaulted her and she resisted, he said “Don’t you know who I am?”  That struck me as not at all something an immigrant African woman working as a maid would make up, and exactly what a man like DSK would say.  I think the payment settles the question as to who was telling the truth.

Paris is cold and rainy, and despite that utterly beautiful.  Tonight I shall cook a simple meal of dorade royale fillets, haricots verts, and fingerling potatoes, with a Keyser baguette and a Beaume de Venise for me and a Sancerre blanc for Susie.  I am afraid it us totally impossible to feel sorry for myself.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

AND AGAIN -- TO PARIS

Well, Obama has been re-elected, the French presidency is once again safely in socialist hands, and it is time for me to return with Susie to Paris.  We shall be there until Christmas Eve [Paris is dead between Christmas and New Year's], and then home again so that I can crank up for the next semester at Bennett College.  On my drive home from Bennett today, I listened to an NPR discussion of the secessionist movements sprouting like weeds in the Old Confederacy.  We must be very strong and mature and resist the temptation to facilitate their departure!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

DAVID BROOKS -- AN APPRECIATION

As most of you are aware, the Jewish seder is both a religious ritual and a meal.  It is a celebration of the liberation of the Jews from their captivity in Egypt and their flight, led by Moses, across the Red Sea.  The modern seder is an elaborate affair, with a text, the Haggadah, that is read [in Hebrew at a serious seder, in English at the seders I have attended] in a formulaic manner, punctuated by songs, the ritual of the "afikomen" [a piece of matzoh that is hidden, and then searched for by the children at the seder, to be held hostage until the director of the seder buys it back, inasmuch as the service cannot proceed without it], and eventually, by a meal.  It is intended to be a joyous affair, with a good deal of kibbitzing and joking and singing -- it is, after all, the celebration of a liberation.

The best seder I ever attended took place on Long Island at the home of young rabbi Waxman, son of old rabbi Waxman, who was at the table but not conducting the service.  I was then a student at Harvard, and had just taken a course on the philosophy of Spinoza with the great scholar Harry Austryn Wolfson.  It turned out that old rabbi Waxman knew Wolfson, and while the rest of the people at the table twiddled their thumbs and fumed quietly, waiting for the meal that was promised, I pressed the senior Waxman with questions, both about Wolfson and about the arcana of the interpretation of the Haggadah.  [All of this, you understand, despite the fact that I was then, and am still, an atheist who has never even been bar mitzvah'd.]

A signal moment in the seder occurs when one of those in attendance asks the person conducting the service four ritual questions, each of which is preceded by the formula, "Wherefore is this night different from all other nights, for on this night we ..."  [eat reclining, eat unleavened bread, etc.]  Each question is answered by reference to a different feature of the flight from Egypt.

There is a tradition, at least in America, that the youngest boy present asks the four questions.  [No girls needed to apply, although I imagine things have now changed.]  Since the seder is typically an affair for family and close friends, it was not difficult to figure out which little boy would have the honor of asking the questions.  In upper middle class Northeast families, it was quite common for this chosen one to be a fat-faced, petted, made much of little momma's boy dressed in a new little suit and tie and fussed over by a rather plump, preening, proud mother, who felt that the selection of her son to ask the four questions constituted a signal recognition of herself, as well as of her precious son.

Needless to say, regular boys hated this smug little brat, and would not themselves have been caught dead asking the four questions.

Whenever I see David Brooks on television, all I can think of is that little boy at a seder.  This is, of course, an unkind and quite unfair thing to say.   But I cannot help it.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A NIGHT AT THE MOVIES


Yesterday, after a somewhat frustrating passage at arms at the local mega-mall on Black Friday, Susie and I went to the movies, where we saw A Late Quartet, a beautiful new film featuring outstanding work by Christopher Walken and Seymour Phillip Hoffman.  The film explores a critical time of changes in the intertwined lives of the four members of a long-established string quartet.  The second violinist [Hoffman] is married to the violist.  Their daughter, a budding violinist, is the student, and the briefly the lover, of the obsessive, driven first violinist.  But the focus of the movie is the cellist [Walken], who as the film begins is diagnosed with early stage Parkinson's.  I freely confess that in the film's final moments, I wept openly.  If Hollywood has any shred of integrity left, Walken and Hoffman will get Oscar nominations.

As I watched the film, I was reminded of a fascinating autobiographical memoir, Indivisible by Four, by the great first violinist of the Guarneri Quartet, Arnold Steinhardt.  Through Steinhardt's writing, I gained some sense of the cloistral intimacy of the personal relationships of the members of a string quartet.  A well-established quartet, like the Guarneri or the Juilliard, may remain together, its members unchanged, for decades.  Night after night, for seven months a year, they sustain an intense, focused relationship, constantly attuned to one another's most subtle variations of mood and performance in their collective effort to create transcendently beautiful music.  String quartets differ enormously from one another, though to the novice they may all sound alike.  The Borromeo, for example, the very best of the new young quartets [although Wikipedia tells me that it has now been in existence for twenty years], is defined for me by the driving intensity of its cellist, Yeesun Kim.  I once had the extraordinary privilege of listening to the Borromeo perform the great Grosse Fugue quartet by Beethoven while sitting no more than twenty feet from the musicians, and the power of her playing was a transformative experience.

Those of us in the professional upper middle classes tend to spend an entire lifetime in a single profession.  Generally speaking, none of us -- Philosophy professors, cardiologists, corporation lawyers, architects, ministers -- has any direct experience of the professional lives of anyone outside of our own sub-specialty.  My own case is actually somewhat anomalous, inasmuch as I taught History, Economics, Political Science, Mathematics, and Afro-American Studies, as well as Philosophy, and yet not once in my fifty year career did I so much as set foot in an active Biology, Chemistry, or Physics laboratory, nor did I ever go on an archeological dig or spend time in a performing arts studio.  I know as a matter of general information that scientists these days work in groups in laboratories, typically under the guidance of a senior researcher whose NIH or NSF grants support cadres of graduate students and lab technicians.  But I have no hands-on sense of what it would be like actually to work with another academic on a daily basis.  The closest I ever came, I suppose, was co-authoring a little book with Barrington Moore, Jr. and Herbert Marcuse in 1965, but each of us wrote his essay alone, and we did not even exchange them for comment before cobbling them together into a book.

Susie and I have daily watched the most popular of the soaps, The Young and the Restless, for more than twenty years [I like to think of it as being rather like War and Peace -- a great deal of a good story, rather than, like The Brothers Karamazov, a good deal of a great story.]  A number of the characters in the The Young and the Restless have been featured in the soap for more than two decades, and in several cases those roles have been, during all of that time, played by the very same actors.  I am absolutely fascinated by this fact, and I endlessly wonder what it is like to play the same character for that length of time.  This cannot at all be like acting in a long-running stage play [such as Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, which has now run continuously in London for fifty years!]  An actor in a long-running play says the same lines and does the same stage business night after night, and that is clearly its own experience sui generis.  But an actor in a soap never utters the same lines twice.  Every day is a new plot twist, a new set of lines, a new bit of stage business.  The actors playing Catherine, Victor, Nicky, and Jill have probably spent more time together in this imaginary world than they have spent with their husbands and wives.  What on earth can it be like to be a professional actor whose entire career consists of playing one part, and yet playing it in such a way that one never repeats a performance?

If I may return to the world of the string quartet, I played viola for several years in an amateur quartet when I lived in Pelham, Massachusetts.  I was brought into the quartet by a wonderful woman, Barbara Greenstein, who had been playing quartets for sixty years, and served as our second violinist.  The cellist was Barbara Davis, a woman in her late forties whose husband was the neurologist who, for a while, treated Susie's Multiple Sclerosis.  It was a delight for me to sit next to her [as the violist and cellist do in a string quartet] and listen to her beautiful sound.  The first violinist, Don White [who, like a number of accomplished amateur string quartet players could handle both the violin and the viola parts], was the most skilled of the four of us, but not a terribly sympatico person.  Weak as my playing was, I cherished our weekly sessions.  When Barbara Greenstein was taken from us by cancer, the heart went out of my playing, and although I did some pick-up quartet playing for a while, when I retired a bit later and moved to North Carolina, I put my beautiful Marten Cornellissen viola and my Benoit Roland bow in the closet and have not played since.  For me, the personal relationships with my quartet mates were inseparable from the music making.

All of this, the elevated and the banal, was evoked by watching the A Late Quartet yesterday evening.  I think I wept as much for my own personal loss as for the affecting end of the film.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

HOME AGAIN

I have returned from a quick visit to the West Coast to see my grandchildren [and their parents, of course].  A few personal items to report:

1.  An objective, unbiased evaluation of my grandchildren resulted in the conclusion that they are the two cutest kids in the universe.  Tiny four year old Athena is the spitting image of Cindy Lou Who of Whoville [The Grinch Who Stole Christmas].  She is currently very much into the heroine Merida from the movie Brave, and walks around carrying a bow and some suction rubber tipped arrows.  About to be seven year old Samuel, who takes with him to bed each evening The Complete Idiot's Guide to Chess  [which as it happens was written by his father] has suddenly become a sports fan.  He is a raving San Francisco Giants rooter.  As a one-time Dodgers, Mets, and then Red Sox fan, I know how hard it is to keep the faith when your team keeps losing.  It doesn't hurt that the Giants have won the World Series two out of the last three years.

2.  I may be crazy, but the whole country feels better as a result of how the election turned out.  There is a great deal to do now, but it is building on success, not damage control.  I am delighted that the Obama machine is trying to keep itself in business to pressure Congress.  We have taken small steps, but that is how political change takes place.  Alan West is gone, Joe Walsh is gone, Elizabeth Warren has become a senator, several more states have endorsed same sex marriage.  There is a good chance that immigration reform will finally become possible, that further steps can be taken to address global warming, that tiny positive adjustments will be made to the tax rates and code.  And on the schadenfreude front, Mitt Romney is finally emerging from his cloud of etch-a-sketching to reveal himself clearly as the horrible person he is.

3.  On my way home, I changed planes in Denver, and had a meal there to tide me over.  Delicious elk medallions!  That is surely the only chance I will ever have to eat elk, and it was lovely.

Once I catch up on my mail and such, I will try to say something coherent about the tasks for the Left that lie immediately ahead.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

THE DELPHI PROJECT

One of the many things Freud taught us [see my tutorial, The Thought of Freud, archived at box.net] is to look closely at the details of the non-rational elements of our thought processes for clues about their origin and meaning.  He used this technique most famously and successfully in his analysis of dreams, but the advice has a much broader applicability.  A case in point:  My son, Tobias, alerted me to a Salon.com story about a meeting called by the head of the Georgia State Republican Party at which a documentary was screened concerning a conspiracy between the UN and Obama to use mind-control techniques developed by the Rand Corporation.  I was rather startled to read that the goal of this insidious project is -- wait for it -- to get us all to move to cities.

At first, of course, all we can do is scratch our heads at the sheer bizarrerie of this paranoid theory.  But it takes very little thought to uncover the real sources of the fantasy.  America has for generations been undergoing a steady movement of populations from rural areas and small towns into cities and their suburbs.  This is in fact a world-wide trend.  Far and away the largest cities are to be found in Asia and Latin America, not in Europe or North America.  When I was a boy, New York's seven million inhabitants made it the largest city in the world, but now there are many cities around the globe that are two and three times that size.

In recent decades, the hollowing out of rural and small town America has proceeded apace.  The psychic dislocation is enormous for millions of Americans who define themselves essentially in relation to the small towns and farms where they grew up.    It is completely natural and also totally irrational to explain this painful life-altering change as the product of a hostile conspiracy.

What makes such thought processes politically significant is that people exhibiting them seem to have captured large parts of the Republican Party.

One final thought as I prepare to fly out to San Francisco tomorrow to see my grandchildren and their parents.  For several years the conventional wisdom has been that the election of a Black president was a life-altering, game-changing revolutionary transition for America, but I am beginning to think that the real revolution, with which millions upon millions of Americans simply cannot deal, is in fact the re-election of a Black president.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

I AM PERSUADED


As I had hoped and expected, my brief post posing a question about unmanned drones produced a large number of thoughtful and knowledgeable responses.  Among all the considerations advanced, there were several that struck me as especially powerful responses to the specific question I asked.  The first was the observation that drones have contributed to the militarization of the CIA [a development highlighted by the recent flap concerning General Petraeus.]   The second was the argument that the politically cost-free character of drone usage significantly increases the likelihood that the president will choose to authorize drone attacks.

I focus on these two considerations rather than the many others that were cited by one commentator or another because they seem to me to be peculiar to drones, and not just a feature of war itself.   They are therefore, I think, good arguments for the proposition that we ought to oppose the use of drones even if we despair of having any noticeable effect on the general imperial militarist stance and policy of the United States in general, which is the proposition I posed for discussion.

The first argument cited above had in fact not occurred to me, which may be why I was especially impressed by it.  Taking all in all, I am persuaded by those who advanced the various arguments.  There is, however, one consideration I should like to mention that played no part in the comments, so far as I could see.  To put it simply, the use of drones reduces the risk of injury and death undergone by American men and women in uniform.  Now, despite having spent a benign six months in uniform fifty-five years ago, I have in my long life had virtually no personal connection with the lives of men and women in the service and the dangers they undergo.  So it is fatally easy for me to make the mistake of transferring my anger at American foreign and military policy to the ordinary soldiers who actually put their lives in danger carrying out that policy.  But that, I think, is unfair of me, and a cheap off-hand response to the world.  With the ending of the draft, military service became a career for many young men and women who had few other paths to a job with decent pay and benefits.  It seems to me really dishonorable for me to sit back in safety and comfort and say that those men and women should run greater risks of death and injury because I think, on reflection, that a weapon that is saving their lives ought not to be used.  Nor do I feel at all comfortable suggesting that if American servicemen and women suffer higher death and injury rates, perhaps that will dissuade politicians from choosing a military option.  I do not think I have the right to make an argument like that unless I or my sons are the ones whose lives are being put at greater risk.

This is why I was opposed to the ending of the draft and have always been in favor of its reintroduction.

Well, perhaps we can move on to happier subjects, like thinking through what next steps we as progressives can take to solidify such gains as we made last Tuesday and build on them for future gains.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A VERY TOUCHY QUESTION


In this post, I am going to ask a question that has been puzzling me for some time.  It is a question that is guaranteed to evoke violent and angry comments, and quite possibly no serious or thoughtful replies at all.  Nevertheless, I shall ask it, and hope that at least some of you will be willing to discuss it calmly.  Let me say two things at the outset:  First, this is not a rhetorical question, to which I already think I know the answer.  It is a genuine invitation for reasoned discussion.  Second, I will simply delete any comments that are not sober and serious.  So hold your invective and scorn please.  I am not interested in reading it.

The question is this:  What is wrong with America's use of armed drones?

Let me begin by setting aside a question that can easily be confused with this one.  I am not asking whether it is right or good that America pursue an imperial foreign and military policy.  I have already expressed several times my belief that it is not.  Presumably, anyone who thinks America ought not to use military force to impose its will on other nations also will be opposed to America's use of missiles, aircraft carriers, land mines, manned fighters, special forces units, and every other instrument of military power.  But that is not an argument against drones per se.  The drone, on that view, is simply one weapon in an armamentarium of weapons, not in itself distinguishable from any other.  It is useful to contrast the use of drones with the use of torture.  There are good and sufficient reasons to oppose the use of torture even if one approves of the military and foreign policy in whose service it is employed.  I am asking whether the same is true of the use of drones, and if so, why.

What prompts me to ask this question?  Quite simply, I ask it because a number of people on the left who in general supported the re-election of Obama consider his increased use of drones an especially black mark against him and his administration, and that fact has puzzled me.

What are the benefits of the use of armed unmanned drone aircraft, in the eyes of the military or civilian war planners?  There seem to be three that weigh in the calculations of those planners who choose to use them.  First, drones are much, much cheaper to build than manned aircraft, for a variety of obvious reasons.  Second, they can be used without risk to American pilots.  And third, they cause less "collateral damage" than bombing raids and missile attacks, and hence are less likely to increase opposition in the countries attacked to the United States.  The first two of these are manifestly true, the third is at the very least debatable.  There are other secondary considerations that incline military planners to use drones.  They are smaller and lighter than manned aircraft, and therefore can fly slower, maneuver more tightly, and remain aloft longer.  As a consequence of high tech instrumentation, they can monitor an area as effectively as manned aircraft, if not more effectively, and they can be controlled from a trailer parked in Arizona as easily as from a command post close to the target.

What are the special costs or defects of the use of drones as opposed to any other weapons?  Perhaps the most obvious is that they are a cheap and easy way to violate the territorial sovereignty of other nations.  Not the only way, heaven knows.  The special forces raid that killed Bin Laden did not use drones.  It used helicopters and a small team of armed Navy Seals.  From a purely practical policy point of view, the manned attack was preferable to the use of a drone, even though it was both riskier and a much more serious violation of Pakistani territorial sovereignty, because it yielded a wealth of intelligence data and the absolute certainty that Bin Laden had been killed.  But one very powerful argument against the use of drones is that by making violations of national sovereignty so much easier, they make such violations more likely.

Now, let me speculate [and inevitably incur the wrath of a good many readers].  I suspect that there are psychological and cultural reasons why there is so much opposition on the left to the use of armed drones.  Mind you, I have absolutely no evidence that any such reasons are in play, so I offer these observations simply as a speculation.  I suspect that many people are uneasy with the use of drones because their use seems unfair, cowardly, bullying.  To hunt down and kill an enemy [assuming for the moment that you grant that America has enemies] without taking any risk to oneself seems unmanly.  [Yes, I am using this loaded word because I suspect it is at play in unacknowledged ways.]  The Seals, after all, risked their lives going after Bin Laden, but a Spec-4 sitting in an air conditioned trailer in Arizona is not risking anything save boredom.  At least those whom we attack have rifles or shoulder-fired missiles with which they can attack the drones, but they do not themselves have drones that they can launch against American cities, so using drones is not -- fair.

Put openly in this way, the objection to drones seems fatuous.  War is not a boxing contest or a pro football game.  Nor is it a knightly quest out of the Chanson de Roland.  Surely no one fighting a war has any obligation to take unnecessary risks just to satisfy some antique British fetish with fair play!

It is important not to confuse the question of the special objectionableness of drones with the larger question of the legitimacy of the military effort tout court.  Obviously, if you think America has no business attacking members of al Qaeda, then you will also think that America has no business attacking members of al Qaeda with drones.  But I am deliberately attempting to set aside that larger question in order to focus entirely on the question whether Obama's increased use of drones is somehow especially reprehensible.

Well, there it is.  I would be genuinely interested in what people have to say about this precise question:  Why is Obama's increased use of unmanned armed drones a special black mark against him and his administration?