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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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Sunday, September 30, 2012


What can I know?  What must I do?  What may I hope?

I can know that my particular life cycle falls in a period during which the United States has become the sole imperial power in the world.  I was born at a time when that was not so, and I have lived through both the decline of the British empire, and the rise and fall of the Russian empire.  I don't like the fact that the United States is currently the dominant world hegemon;  indeed, I would much prefer that there be no nation with that sort of monopoly of military power.  But it is a fact, and pretty clearly when I will die it will still be a fact.  I also know that I live during a time when international financial capitalism flourishes and is unchallenged by any alternative, another fact I regret but that I know will still be so when I die.

I know that income inequality and social stratification have characterized the United States during my entire life, and that by all measures that inequality has increased rapidly in the last quarter century.  But I also know that this increase in inequality, which I view with great disapproval, is in part the result of deliberate governmental policies that it is at least possible to reverse.

I know that during my lifetime a number of legal and social barriers to equality have been successfully contested and to a considerable extent removed -- barriers against people of color, against women, against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons.  I know that the removal of these barriers was the result of deliberate and forceful struggle, sometimes violent, sometimes  non-violent.  And I know that these social and legal changes are still resisted by large segments of the American public who would, if they could, re-impose the disadvantages and oppressions that struggle eliminated.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I know that major change, whether economic or social, results from the organization of countless millions, not from the intentions, however admirable, of the few.  I know that merely electing public officials who share one's goals or principles is never enough, by itself, to effect salutary change.  Electing those officials is the necessary, not the sufficient condition of desired change. I know that during my lifetime, the most effective instrument of collective action -- the labor union -- has been suppressed, eviscerated, and disempowered, and I know that this too is the result of deliberate governmental policies that it is at least possible to reverse.

All of these things I know, and they narrowly circumscribe the possibilities that offer themselves at this moment in my one and only life cycle. 

What, then, must I do?  First, I must choose, in the words of the old union song, which side I am on.  [Which side are you on?, by Florence Reece, 1931, written during the Harlan County coal miners' strike.]  There is no argument that can establish with objective validity the correctness of such a choice, Immanuel Kant and John Rawls to the contrary notwithstanding.  I must decide who my comrades are as I live out the cycle of my life, from boyhood to old age.  I have made that choice.  I have chosen as my comrades the exploited, the oppressed, the down-trodden, those who labor but are not fairly compensated, those whose work creates and recreates the fabric of our society.  As the Occupy Wall Street Movement would have it, I chosen as my comrades the 99%, not the 1%, although that hyperbole overestimates considerably the numbers of my comrades in the United States.

Having made that choice, I must, it seems to me, do two things that may seem incompatible with one another but in fact are inseparable parts of the same struggle.  First, I must throw my support behind the national political party farthest to the left that has a realistic chance of winning national elections, which of course means the Democratic Party.  That it has become a centrist party with little of the working class bias and reformist thrust of earlier years is deeply regrettable but a fact that must be faced.  The failure of Obama supporters to turn out in sufficient numbers of hold control of the House in 2010 unleashed an assault on women's reproductive rights, indeed on women's sexuality, that was simply appalling.  A Romney victory, which fortunately will not occur, would result in further devastation to the economic and social needs and aspirations of those with whom I have chosen to make common cause.

But an Obama victory simply creates the possibility of the real work that must be done -- a ground level effort, by millions upon millions of men and women, to strengthen labor unions, recapture state governments, and organize to support any efforts that have even the slightest chance of success to rein in the imperial ambitions of America and the depredations of financial and corporate capital.

What may I [reasonably] hope?  Not that I will live to see the socialism for which my grandfather fought.  That will not happen in what is left of my life, and very probably will not happen in the lifetimes of my sons, although I may at least go to the grave hoping that my grandchildren will see that day, and will themselves fight to bring it about.  Nor may I reasonably hope to see the end of imperialism in the world, for it is virtually certain that when American imperialism passes from the world scene, as it will, another nation will step forward to take its place as hegemon, one no more likely to place the well-being of the billions of men and women over its own desire for world control.

This is where I see the world and myself in relation to it, as the years of my eighth decade wind down.  I do not think I can say, with Wordsworth, that to be alive in the dawn of my life was bliss, nor that to be young was very heaven.  I came upon the scene as the hopes of my grandfather were being dashed, and there have been more disappointments than moments of triumph along the way.  But there have been many, many life cycles that offered less hope and more disappointment, and I imagine that after I pass, there will be many more.


Professor Charles Pigden sent me the following long email reaction to the first half of my Meditation post.  While I write the second half of that Meditation, I trhought I would post his message.  Note that some software gremlin changes his apostrophes to question marks.

Dear Professor Wolff,
A few months ago Brian Leiter started a thread on ?What would your biggest regret be if this were the last day of your life?? Unlike some others I took the question seriously, hoping to start a political discussion. I?m reposting it here because it?s kind of a propos.
Regrets, I?ve had a few but then again, not too few to mention ?
1) For fourteen years (1989-2003) I devoted a great deal of my time and energy to political activism, combatting the rise of the New Right in New Zealand, my adopted country. We achieved some successes, but it was a great deal of work for some very Pyrrhic victories. I did not neglect my students and I worked, at least, a forty-hour week at my official job. But it is difficult to be a high-achieving research philosopher if you only work the traditional forty hours. So during those years of political activism, my research career slowed, if not to a crawl, then to a very sedate walk. Between 1996 and 2006 I published no journal articles whatsoever (though I did publish an annotated collection of Bertrand Russell?s writings on ethics plus a couple of book chapters on the same theme). Since 2003 when I effectively resigned from my party (which had imploded because our leader preferred power to principle) I have published 50% more papers than I did in the preceding nineteen years. The result of all those years of activism is that I find myself in my middle fifties scrambling to do all the things that I have always wanted to do in philosophy before I run out of time, talent and energy. (So in a way, I DO regret the time I did not spend at the office.) I am also (though this doesn?t matter to me so much) a lot less rich than I might otherwise have been, since a lower research output led to slower promotion. I regret all the time that I devoted to politics at the expense of philosophy - or, at least, I regret the situation that made it seem necessary.
2) I regret that, along with the rest of my generation on the broad Left, I have done such a dismal job of defending the institutions of the social democratic state which handed us so many golden opportunities on a platter. New Zealand, the US, the UK and (I think) Australia are less equal now than they were thirty or forty years ago, with less equality of opportunity and less social mobility. Of course, the New Right is principally to blame, and some of us fought against it, but its stunning success in making the world a worse place must have something to do with our stupidity, cowardice, inaction and incompetence and the relentless way in which we have persistently barked up the wrong trees. We have failed not only as citizens and activists but also as thinkers, since we have not managed to articulate an intellectually effective opposition to the New Right?s ideas (one that resonates with the wider public). This is not the world that our mothers and fathers fought to create when they defeated fascism and voted for social democracy. And the fact that it isn?t, is at least partly our fault.
?3) I regret that in so far I have been politically active, I have devoted most of my political energies to what is really a side-show. By far the most important issue facing the world today is not the rise of the New Right per se but the threat of Global Warming. (Of course, the rise of the New Right has contributed to Global Warming and has helped to stifle attempts to do something about it, so there is some connection.) Global Warming is likely to bring about the deaths of hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of people over the next century, partly because of desertification and partly because of the drowning of populous and productive deltas. It might even lead to the collapse our civilization. And all I have ever done about this is write a few articles in the local paper and make a Quixotic gesture at the 2008 meeting of the AAP. It?s not enough, and if I believed in God I would dread his judgment at my combination of complicity and inaction.
As you can see my regrets don?t form a consistent set. I regret BOTH doing certain things and NOT doing them more (or more effectively). You might say that I don?t really regret my period as an activist but the political situation which I felt called upon to deal with. And perhaps you would be right (though I have certainly been a lot happier at the personal level since I gave up on my party). But it?s the second two regrets that are really important. For if you are roughly my age and of roughly my political persuasion, and if you DON?T, to some extent, share in my second two regrets, then the chances are that you are deceiving to yourself somewhere along the line. As a generation of intellectuals, we haven't done a great job. We have a great deal to be sorry for.
T-T-Talkin? ?bout my g-g-generation. Hard to do it without some shame.

Saturday, September 29, 2012


I apologize for my relative absence from this blog in recent weeks.  Part of the reason is the demands of my new Bennett College job, which grow heavier with every passing day.  When I began working at Bennett, I repeated, as a mantra, that it was the hardest thing I had ever attempted.  Little did I know how true that would turn out to be.  But a second reason has been the evolution of the presidential race.  In the past month or so, the prospects for the Republicans have grown bleaker and bleaker, leading Obama partisans like myself to indulge in giddy rehearsals of the mistakes made by the Romney camp and endless checking of the steady growth in the polls of the Obama lead.  Yesterday I officially marked the all but certain outcome of the race by going to A Southern Season, the ultimate yuppie food and kitchen store in Chapel Hill, to buy an extremely pricey bottle of Chateau Neuf du Pape [sixty-eight dollars, for heaven's sake!], which I plan to drink on election night as I sit in front of the TV set and watch the results roll in.  As I remarked a few days ago, the pleasures of schadenfreude are much underrated.

Now that an Obama victory is all but certain, and even the fate of the struggle for the Senate seems to have been pretty much settled [the House is quite another matter], I think it would be seemly for me to stop reveling in the misfortunes of the Republicans and start thinking seriously about what we are going to do on November 7th.  A lengthy interview with Norman Finkelstein, the link to which is provided in the previous post, crystallized this thought in my mind.  Herewith then is not a plan or a set of marching orders, but rather a meditation, some reflections on where we will find ourselves after the defeat of the Republican ticket.  I take as the themes of my meditation two passages.  The first is a famous pair of lines from a Wordsworth poem referring to the French Revolution:

  "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

          But to be young was very heaven!--

The second is a line from Erik Erikson's great book, Childhood and Society which I used as one of the epigraphs of my Autobiography: 

"An individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history."

Each of us lives for no more than a few moments, and then we are gone.  Even if I restrict myself to recorded human history, and set aside as unfathomable the scale of geological time, my life is no more than the briefest flicker in the ten millennia since the Neolithic revolution.  It is just fortune, good or bad, whether I happen to be alive during a time of great social progress, or am condemned to live out my life in one of the many stretches of historical time during which nothing uplifting or liberating happens.  Something like that, I imagine, is what Wordsworth had in mind.  Think how exciting it would have been to live during the outbreak of the French Revolution, when centuries of encrusted privilege and repression seemed to be crumbling before one's eyes and the head of Europe's most powerful monarch fell into a basket.

During the nearly eight decades of my life, there have been two moments of great hope -- moments when it was possible to believe that great, positive advances were taking place in America.  The first, which I am not quite old enough fully to have appreciated, was Roosevelt's New Deal.  The second, during which I had the great good fortune to be all grown up, was the period usually referred to as "the Sixties," during which a great Civil Rights Movement transformed the lives of Black Americans and irreversible social progress seemed all but inevitable.

The iconic moment for me was a lazy Fall afternoon, October 10, 1973, when I sat in the lovely third floor study of my home in Northampton, Massachusetts, watching on a tiny TV set as the Mets won the fifth game of the playoffs to take the National League pennant, the telecast being interrupted by spot announcements of the resignation of Vice-President Spiro Agnew. Spiro Agnew's resignation would be followed a year later by the resignation of President Richard Nixon.  "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive..."

But it was my portion, dictated by the accident of when I was born, to live long enough to see the frustration and defeat of those millenarian hopes and dreams.  The Sixties were followed by the nightmare of Reagan, of first one Bush and then another, of wars, assaults on the rights of women, the dramatic expansion of America's imperial pretensions, the victories of rightwing orthodoxy, the attack on science and the plain facts of nature and society, and the complete disappearance form American life of even a memory of the dreams of socialism.

I supported Barack Obama enthusiastically because I believed he was the best this terrible time had to offer, and that belief has been confirmed by the appalling lurch to the right of the Republican Party in response to his 2008 electoral victory.  I welcome with deep relief the prospect of his re-election because I think his defeat would be a disaster for this country and the world.

But I never indulged in the illusion that Obama was a progressive liberal, let alone a socialist, and I do not suffer that illusion now.  My life, as Erikson so wisely notes, is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history, and for better or worse, it is in this segment of history that my personal life cycle will come to its natural end.

So, echoing Immanuel Kant, I must ask, situated as I am in this moment, and confronted as I am with this world, What can I know?, What must I do?, What may I hope?

Tomorrow, I shall continue this meditation and address these three questions.


Jerry Fresia sent me this link, and I read the interview.  It is extremely interesting and well worth your time.  I recommend it:

Friday, September 28, 2012


Just about everyone, including me, has had something to say about Mitt Romney's "47%" statement to a bunch of fatcat donors, but there is one tiny point that struck me especially hard, and has not been commented on at all.  To get the full flavor of this, it is not enough to read the transcript of the remarks, devastating though they are.  One must actually listen to the intonation of Romney's voice at each point in the recording.

A "tell" is what serious poker players call that unconscious and revelatory bit of behavior that can be used to tell whether a bettor is bluffing -- see John Malkovich and Matt Damon in the great all night poker game in Rounders [Malkovich's tell is that he separates the two halves of an Oreo cookie and licks the filling off one of them.  Malkovich, always a treat, is spectacular as Teddy KGB.]  More broadly, a tell is any bit of behavior that gives us a window into someone's true beliefs or point of view.

The moment of revelation for me comes during the passage in which Romney says "All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon the government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it."

You cannot tell this from the transcript, but as Romney says "who believe that they are entitled to healthcare ..." his voice rises sharply on the word "entitled."  There is incredulity in his voice, a sense of personal affront.  The tone of his voice clearly communicates something like this:  "Can you believe it?  They have the colossal nerve to think that they are entitled to food, or healthcare, etc."  This is the voice of a noble whose robe has just been brushed by the dirty foot of a commoner.  It is the voice of an aristocrat in whose presence a serf has not tugged his forelock or doffed his cap.  It is not anger, exactly.  Rather it is an expression of disbelief that one of the lower orders could so completely violate the natural order of things as to presume to think that he has any entitlement at all to anything.

Google the remarks and listen to them again, and you will, I think, hear what I mean.


John Silber has died at the age of eighty-six, thus confirming Billy Joel's view ["Only the good die young."]  Silber was trained as a philosopher, and early in his career he wrote several decent articles about Kant's ethical theory, one of which I anthologized in my 1967 book Kant: A Collection of Critical Essays.  It is hard to imagine a person in whom the philosophical temperament was less manifest.  Indeed, it was Silber who is responsible for the only time in my entire life that I voted for a Republican.  He managed somehow to get the Democratic Party nomination in 1990 for the office of Governor of Massachusetts, and after much anguish, I decided -- correctly, I think, in retrospect -- that the Republican, William Weld was by far the less objectionable of the two.

There are many things to reproach Silber for, his homophobia among others, but it was in his twenty-five year long presidency of Boston University that he fully revealed himself as completely devoid of any comprehension of, or respect for, the guiding principles of Academe.  He bullied the faculty, did everything in his power to destroy the faculty union, drove good people on the faculty to leave, and comported himself as a pint-sized dictator.  [He also blocked my appointment to a professorship in the B. U. Philosophy Department, through his cat's paw, Jon Westling, but since in the end my failure to join the B. U. faculty worked out well, I do not hold that against him.]

Those of us in the Philosophy game like to believe that a serious engagement with our field of study will have the effect of leading us to wisdom as well as tenure, and though professional philosophers [an oxymoron if ever there was one] are not generally wiser or more possessed of the virtue of gravitas than those in other fields of academic work, they are generally a pretty humane lot.  If one were to draw a curve plotting philosophical knowledge against common human decency, that tiny blip at the far end of the curve, completely removed from the general locus of points, would be John Silber.

I cannot imagine that anyone will mourn his loss.

Monday, September 24, 2012


Nate Silver, the statistics guru who now writes for the NY TIMES, is well aware of the fact that a sizable share of his readership consists of freaked out junkies like myself who crave not merely daily but hourly analyses of the upcoming presidential election.  Since he rigorously confines himself to an analysis of polling data, eschewing speculation or political commentary, he is on some days hard put to come up with something new to satisfy our cravings.  Today, for example, having nothing much in  the way of new data to crunch, he devoted an entire column to analyzing the extremely outré circumstances under which the entire election could turn on the results in the Congressional District that includes Omaha, Nebraska.  Nebraska is one of only two states [the other is Maine] that award electoral votes by Congressional District, and in 2008, in that overwhelmingly Republican state, Obama actually snatched a single electoral vote from the sea of red by carrying that district by a single percentage point.  The odds of the election turning on that electoral vote, by the way, are apparently a thousand to one, but the Nebraska Republicans, stung by the insult to their purity, have rearranged the district so that it is unlikely to occur again.

Another wonkish topic Silver spent some time discussing is the tendency of some polling firms systematically to tilt more toward one side or the other than the other firms that are doing polling.  Rasmussen, for example, can be relied upon to tilt Republican.  This tendency is called by statistics nerds "the house effect" [for reasons a quick Google search failed to disclose.]  It is not that any firms actually cook their data.  Rather, the technique they use for forming their sample or making their contacts has built in biases one way or the other.

For example, pollsters regularly distinguish between the universe of Registered Voters [RVs] and the universe of Likely Voters [LVs].  A poll of RVs will tilt more to the Democrats than a poll of LVs, because the sub-populations strongest in their support for the Democrats [Hispanics, young people] are also less likely to turn out and vote than the sub-populations favoring the Republicans [rich people, old people, white people].  Silver has no patience with those who average polls of RVs with polls of LVs.  There is also a good deal of disagreement among pollsters as to how one identifies LVs.

There are other sources of bias, or a House Effect.  Rasmussen leans Republican in part because it calls people only on landlines.  But young people, who tend to favor Obama, are more likely to be reachable only on cell phones.

Since I obsess a good deal about these matters, I got to thinking last night at one a.m. about other examples of House Effects.  One that occurred to me concerns my life-long tendency to daydream.  As readers of my Memoir will know, I spend a goodly part of my waking hours in my head, daydreaming.  Sometimes I daydream about having magical powers, with which I correct much that is wrong in the world.  I also do my share of daydreaming about sexual conquests, of course.  And a not inconsiderable portion of my daydreaming is actually a form of work, in which I give extended lectures to imaginary audiences as a way of thinking through  a theoretical problem.  On occasion, I write imaginary reviews of books I have published.

I have noticed that my daydreams exhibit a significant House Effect.  They tend to biased in my direction.  There are limits, of course.  I do not write reviews of my books that begin, "Not since Immanuel Kant burst upon the scene has an author so stunned the philosophical world ...", but the reviews do tend to be somewhat more enthusiastic about the arguments of which I am singularly proud, and unusually forgiving of such shortcomings as I am willing to acknowledge.

You might think that such self-regarding daydreaming would, from the standpoint of a utilitarian calculation, be a net minus, since the momentary pleasure from the imagined review would be more than compensated for by the eventual pain of realizing that it was only a daydream.   But like Walter Mitty, I am undeterred by such hard-eyed calculations.  I have long since become inured to the disappointments of reality, while remaining enraptured by the enticements of fantasy.

There is one odd counter-example, however,  As I am now only fifteenth months from my eightieth birthday, I have begun musing on the possibility of throwing myself a big party on December 27, 2013.  I thought maybe I would hold it in Paris [which would have the effect of keeping the attendance within manageable limits].  I would invite everyone:  family, friends, former students, colleagues, everyone who reads this blog.  We would take over an entire restaurant in Paris and spend the evening celebrating -- me.  But somehow, the prospect does not enchant.

I think the problem is like that attendant upon the fantasy of being present at your own funeral.  You can count on the speeches at the funeral being encomia -- de mortuis nil nisi bonum and all that -- but the problem is that you would be dead.   An eightieth birthday bash carries with it the suggestion that you are pretty well finished and are just putting a cap on it.

I guess I will wait until I am ninety.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


No matter how firmly you vow never to say certain things to your children that your own mother or father said to you, sooner or later there comes a moment, after a long hard day, when, exhausted and exasperated, out of your mouth comes your father's voice, yelling "If you don't eat that oatmeal I am going to rub it in your hair!"  Stress reveals who we really are in a way that prepared presentations never can.

I think we may assume that after several weeks of excoriating criticism from the talking heads and opinion makers of the Republican Party, the inner circle of the Romney campaign is experiencing an uncommon level of stress.  So it is that recent outbursts like that of Ann Romney give us some insight into the true character of the candidate and his wife.  ["Stop it. This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring.  This is hard and, you know, it's an important thing that we're doing right now and it's an important election and it is time for all Americans to realize how significant this election is and how lucky we are to have someone with Mitt's qualifications and experience and know-how to be able to have the opportunity to run this country."]

I suspect Romney and his wife really believe that America is lucky to have him, so that if the little folks ["You people," as she has addressed them on occasion] would just realize that, and understand how many millions of dollars Mitt is foregoing to offer himself selflessly to America, they would just shut up and vote Republican.

The pleasures of Schadenfreude are much underrated.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


One of the standard action film clichés that really bugs me is the scene in which the hero and the heroine are shown, in slow motion, running away from an explosion.  Every time I see that, I think, "That is nonsense.  An explosion expands much faster than anyone can run."  But of course I don't know that, so I just grumble a bit to myself and go on watching.  This morning, during my regular four mile walk, I started thinking about this, for some bizarre reason, so when I got home, I turned to Google.  As always, Google did not disappoint.  Here is a passage from a site I found, at

"Can you really outrun an explosion, like Sydney does every other week on "Alias"?
Let's go to the starting blocks: Sydney vs. chunk of C-4 explosive.

(There is a picture here, but I cannot figure out how to upload it, so just imagine it.)

Let's say Sydney can sprint at about 15 miles per hour, or 22 feet per second. If we give her a 10-foot head start to get to top speed, she'll be 32 feet away from the center of the blast one second after the C-4 detonates. Not too shabby, but it's not nearly fast enough. A C-4 explosion will expand at a rate of 26,400 feet per second. In other words, the blast is so fast it's almost instantaneous. If she were in range of the explosion, she wouldn't have time to think about running - or anything else. "

Never mind Alias, which I have never watched [so I don't know whom Sydney is].  Isn't this cool?

Thursday, September 20, 2012


A year ago, I posted a comment called "The Shadow."  It came to mind as I contemplated the disaster that the Romney campaign has become in the past several weeks.  I should like to re-post that old comment today, because I think it contains the secret to Obasma's current success in the polls, as well as a clue to how the first debate, on October 3rd, is likely to go.  Here is the old post:

"A meme has been replicating itself in cyberspace concerning President Obama. It is said that he has a mysterious ability to get his enemies to self-destruct. I have been thinking about this for a bit, and I believe I can throw some light on this strange power. But first, a trip down memory lane.

When I was a boy, I listened faithfully to a radio show called "The Shadow." The central character was a gentleman crime fighter named Lamont Cranston who, it was said, had acquired, during his travels in the Orient, the "strange power to cloud men's minds" and thereby render himself invisible. [Obi Wan Kenobe, in the original Star Wars movie, has a similar power, as he reveals when he and Luke go to town to hire a freighter to take them to Alderan. Am I recalling this correctly?] Each episode of The Shadow would begin with a sepulchral-voiced announcer intoning, "Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of men? The Shadow knows." The always indispensable Wikipedia tells me that in the earliest years of the radio show, before I began to listen, Lamont Cranston was actually played by a young Orson Welles.

Now, to Obama. I begin with a crucial observation about the character of the political climate in the United States in the last twenty years or so. For a variety of reasons, some of which I have discussed here in the past, a sizable fragment of the American electorate has become viscerally convinced that no Democrat, regardless of the election results, is or could be a legitimate President of the United States. These are people who feel very deeply that the America they think they grew up in has been lost, and that they are being ruled, dominated, betrayed by foreigners, aliens, people who are "not American." They thought this about Bill Clinton, about John Kerry, about Hilary Clinton, about Joe Biden, and about anyone else who might put himself or herself forward as a candidate of the Democratic Party. The election to the Presidency of a Black man with a strange name who had spent part of his youth growing up in the Far East simply confirmed their worst fears, and has driven them clinically insane.

One of the consequences of this development, coupled with the new world of multi-media and cable television, has been a transformation of what passes for a public conversation in this country. The standard image of that public conversation now, replicated daily, is of angry talking heads in matching screens, shouting at one another, talking over one another, wrestling verbally for control of a few seconds of airtime. I respond to this in the way that many people do, I imagine, by feeling as though I am being assaulted. The talking heads all seem to be pushing air at me, as though by the sheer force of their voices they could reach out of the screen, grab me by the throat, and force me to accede to their point of view.

Now, good old Marshal McLuhan, the Canadian literary and cultural critic, had it basically right when he said "the medium is the message." [Or, as Aristotle would have put it, had he seen television, form dominates content.] It does not matter that in these shouting matches one person is saying reasonable, albeit debatable, things and the other is saying things that are just batshit crazy. The format defines the situation as one of rhetorical equality. As one of the speakers raises his or her voice, the other responds in an effort not to be drowned out, and no matter how hard we try when we are watching, it is impossible not to feel, at some level, that they are equivalent.

What happens when one side won't play? Call the two parties the shouter and the debater. What is the effect when the debater will not become a shouter, will not raise his or her voice, push air, make more and more un-nuanced assertions to balance the un-nuanced assertions from the shouter? Refuses to get angry? There is an interesting and complex effect. First of all, the partisans of the shouter see the shouter as winning the encounter, and so they cheer to the echo. The shouter, frustrated by the seemingly wimpy, flaccid unresponsiveness of the debater, and emboldened by the cheers of the fans, makes more and more outrageous statements, almost taunting the debater, seeing what he or she can get away with. The debater remains calm, quiet, reasonable, refusing to interrupt, to respond angrily, to become accusatory. The debater's supporters become frustrated at their champion's failure to give as good as he is getting, and they demand that he take the fight to the enemy, even, in their frustration, threatening to find another champion. The debater remains poised, unflappable, unmoved by these demands from his supporters. Meanwhile, as the shouter grows louder, more extreme, more uncompromising, the rather large group of lookers-on who are partisans of neither side become uncomfortable with the sheer assaultive noise of the shouter, and feel increasingly comfortable with the debater. It would be a mistake to suppose that the debater has won them over by the logic of his arguments. They aren't listening that carefully. They simply feel more comfortable with him.

This, I suggest is most -- but not yet all -- of what is going on right now in the public arena of American politics. But everything is complicated by the fact that Barack Obama is Black. Deeply rooted in the very being of White America is the image of the angry Black man, the menacing Black man, the mugger, the rebellious slave, the rapist, The Other. However much White America may congratulate itself on the extraordinary generosity and liberality of its open-mindedness in electing a Black man to the Presidency, that dark, frightening image remains. If the Republicans ever succeed in making Obama angry, they win. It won't matter what he is angry about, or how justified his anger. He will become The Angry Black Man, and they will win.

Does Obama understand this? Can Geico save you fifteen percent or more on your car insurance? [Local reference, for my overseas readers.] Of course he understands it. Every Black man in American understands this, whether he chooses to talk about it or not, and regardless of how he deals with it.

These ruminations are prompted by Rick Perry's veiled threat to lynch Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. It was an unconscionable statement, made by Perry deliberately for effect, and it triggered an eruption of outrage. Obama happened to be giving a one-on-one television interview, and was asked about it. His reply was pitch perfect. "He has only been running for president for a few days. I think we ought to cut him some slack." It reminded me of a televised moment, during the 2008 campaign. Obama was speaking to a large outdoor audience somewhere, and he brought up some of the attacks that had been directed at him. With a grace that would have done credit to Cary Grant, he lightly brushed an invisible speck of lint from the shoulder of his suit jacket. The crowd roared. It was the coolest thing I have ever seen a candidate do.

Now, none of this has anything to do with actual policies. But purely at the level of style, I think it is a profound mistake to criticize Obama for not throwing his base some rhetorical red meat. I repeat: if he gets angry, they win."
I predict that Romney, egged on by his partisans and desperate to score a knock-out punch that will put him back in the race, will attack Obama in the first debate frontally, violently, perhaps even outrageously.  Progressive Democrats, hungry for blood, will hope against hope that Obama punches back, and they will be disappointed.  Obama will remain aloof, calm, balanced, unflappable.  And he will win the debate, simply by not getting angry.
I will say one more time what I said a year ago:  If he gets angry, they win.  He knows that, and he won't take the bait.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Last Saturday, I sent out a large mailing for my scholarship organization, University Scholarships for South African Students, containing my annual appeal for funds.  Today, a batch came back, with a bar code printed on the bottom of the envelope and then crossed out, but no indication of wrong address, or address moved, or addressee deceased [I get a distressing number of those, as my funders age and pass on to their reward.]  One of the letters was sent to my sister.  Now I know that her address is correct and that she has neither moved nor died, so I hopped in the car and went to the post office to find out what is going on.

It seems that the post office now has a machine that automatically reads zip codes and sorts the mail accordingly.  It reads from the bottom of the envelope up.  As it happens, this time around, the addresses I had merge printed onto the envelopes were situated a bit high up and, since I have a logo consisting of an outline of the continent of Africa above the return address, the machine was reading the return zip code rather than the addressee's zip code, and was returning the envelopes to me!

The only solution is to throw out the hundred or so envelopes I have remaining and have the print shop do a new run of envelopes on which the logo is moved below the return address.  That will ensure that the addressee zip code is read first, and all will be well. 

I think I would like to return to the time when you handed a letter to a chap on a pony and he rode off into the sunset to deliver it.  All that remains of that storied era is the Wells Fargo bank branch across the street.


There has been a good deal of speculation about the hour-long video that has surfaced of the now truly infamous supposedly private Mitt Romney speech to $50,000 a plate donors.  [I use the adjective "infamous" in its proper meaning, "detestable or shamefully malign," not in its current misusage as simply "widely known."]  Present in  the room were Romney, the fat cats, and servants scurrying about bringing the food and clearing the dirty plates.  The angle of the video makes it clear that it was not recorded by one of the guests, so we can only conclude that one of the wait staff managed to set up a camera and film the proceedings.

Upper classes always ignore the presence of their servants, a fact that gave rise to an entire genre of eighteenth century French comedy.  [Think "The Marriage of Figaro" without the immortal music.]  Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they seem constitutionally incapable of remembering that the working class is populated by actual human beings with eyes and ears and fully functional intelligence.  This failure is ideological, not personal, in nature.  Were the rich and powerful of the world to acknowledge the full humanity of those they exploit, they would find it difficult to sustain the easy air of superiority that they consider their birthright.

I had a personal experience of this ancient truth more than twenty-five years ago in Johannesburg.  I had gone to South Africa for six weeks to lecture to the second year Philosophy majors at the University of the Witwatersrand on the thought of Karl Marx, a subject that had never until then been included in the undergraduate Philosophy curriculum.  The Chair of the Philosophy Department in those days was Jonathan Susman, nephew of the famous anti-apartheid activist and member of Parliament Helen Susman.  Jonathan invited me to join him for dinner at an old and very exclusive Johannesburg men's club.  I rented a tux [one of only four times in my life that I have worn a monkey suit] and joined him for a private dinner with, among others, the editor of one of the leading newspapers, an executive of a major bank, and the CEO of a mining company.

I was, to put it as gently as I can, a bit out of my element.  [The chap sitting next to me, in an effort to be friendly, turned to me at one point and asked, "Well, Bob, are you a club man?" meaning, I suppose, did I belong to an American counterpart of this men's club.  I allowed as how I was not.]  A good deal of the conversation concerned a bombing raid that the South African air force had launched against suspected anti-apartheid rebel forces in Zimbabwe.  [This was well before Nelson Mandela and his colleagues were released from Robben Island], about which the newspaper editor had some inside information.

As the men chatted, silent waiters moved about the room, serving us.  I sat there and wondered which of them was taking note of everything that was said and reporting it back to associates of the armed struggle inside South Africa.  My dinner hosts seemed blithely unaware that this could even be a possibility.

At Romney's rich donor dinner, it is a virtual certainty that the wait staff consisted of men [and perhaps women -- one cannot tell from the video] who make too little money to pay federal income taxes, and hence are among the 47% whom Romney says are dependent moochers who cannot take personal responsibility for their lives.  These people were obviously in full view of Romney as he stood at the podium and spoke for more than an hour.  The fact that it obviously never occurred to him that he was talking about people present in the room says more about Romney than any formal biography or hatchet job expose possibly can.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Some truths are so important that they bear repeating.  One such truth is that for as long as the Republic has existed, the key to an understanding of American politics has been race.  This truth was once again borne in upon me by the extraordinary video that has surfaced of Mitt Romney's impromptu talk to a closed meeting of fat cat Republican donors.  [A second, subordinate, truth of contemporary American public life is that everything, without exception, has been captured on a handheld device by somebody or other and can be counted on to surface when least convenient.]

Romney's surreptitiously recorded speech is widely viewed, on the right as well as on the left, as having put paid to any lingering dreams the Republicans might have had of winning the election.  As Tallyrand is reputed to have said about Napoleon's murder of the duc d'Enghien, it was worse than a crime, it was a blunder.  What can Romney have been thinking when he casually dismissed 47% of Americans as free-loading moochers incapable of caring for themselves and slavishly beholden to Democrats throwing them slops?  Never mind that Romney had his facts completely wrong.  I think we have become accustomed to that.  But in the midst of an election that he is currently losing, what can have possessed him to speak condescendingly and contemptuously of a tad less than half of the American electorate?

The answer, as always, is race.  Let me repeat what I have written here before.  Both before and after the Civil War, poor whites in the South and also in the North, bemired in a socially and economically disadvantaged position in American society, consoled themselves with the thought that however poor they were, however much they were disrespected by their wealthier and socially more prominent betters, at least they were not Black!  In both the North and the South, here was a permanent underclass toward whom they could show disdain, whom they could discriminate against, and on occasion whom they could lynch with impunity.  That structural fact of American life was written into the Black Codes -- laws that reinstituted de facto servitude  after the end of formal, legal slavery; it was written into Jim Crow, into the exclusionary racial covenants that kept Black families trapped in ghettoes, into the racial quotas at Northern colleges, and into the devil's compact between employers and White labor unions that kept former slaves from any chance of securing good industrial jobs.

The success of the Civil Rights Movement in ending Jim Crow, in breaking down the barriers to employment, and in winning the vote for Black citizens deprived poor Whites of their only consolation for their disadvantaged condition, and they reacted with anger, bitterness, and a deep sense of betrayal.  It is the bitter residue of this ressentiment that explains the tenacity with which poor and lower middle class Whites vote against their economic interest by supporting Republican candidates whose policies sink them ever deeper into economic despair.

Mitt Romney knew what he was saying when he described 47% of Americans as takers, moochers, free-loaders.  He was talking about Black and Brown Americans, and he was talking to White America.  The numbers do not matter, nor do the facts.  What mattered was a desperate attempt to tap into that deep well of bitterness and try to transform it into a winning coalition of White voters. 

Happily, he will fail.  But he is not a fool, and what he did was not in fact a blunder.  It was one last resurrection of Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy.


There was a young man in my Harvard College class ['54] who really got on everyone's nerves.  His name was David Shapiro.  He was absolutely brilliant, and picture book handsome.  But what really got under our skins was the fact that he was really, really a nice guy.  It didn't seem fair, somehow.  Sort of like Angelina Jolie, who in addition to being the most gorgeous woman in the world is also a committed activist for humanitarian causes.  I mean, why couldn't she just marry famous men, like Marilyn Monroe?

The French have a lovely phrase for this phenomenon.  They call it an embarras de richesses.  That must be the way the Obama campaign feels this morning.  The video of Mitt Romney's despicable comments to a closed door meeting of rich donors, coming on top of his ill-considered comments about the violence in Libya and Egypt, which in turn followed Clint Eastwood's world-class comedy routine at the Republican Convention, must leave the Obama campaign ad planners at a loss to know which disaster to feature in their thirty second spots.  Truly, an embarras de richesses.

Shapiro, by the way, after marrying a lovely woman whom I dated briefly, went on to become a distinguished Harvard Law professor, a leading expert on Civil Procedure who has, on occasion, generously offered support and encouragement to my son, Tobias, whose field is also Civil Procedure.  For that, I can forgive him anything.

Friday, September 14, 2012


This has been a big week for me at Bennett College.  I have been driving the 50 miles to Greensboro every day [I leave once again in an hour], visiting classes with my research expert, Ms. Dania Francis, who is being paid on the Spencer Foundation grant I was able to secure.  Dania is a brilliant young woman -- graduated from Smith College at nineteen, went to Harvard to do Economics and did not take to that rather odd environment, left Academia for a while, and is now about to get her doctorate in Public Policy at Duke University.  Dania lives in Boston with her husband and her tiny baby, Sloan.  Her dissertation director at Duke is William "Sandy" Garrity, Jr.

Sandy Garrity's father was William Garrity Sr, the founding Dean at UMass of the School of Health Sciences.  Bill Garrity was one of a small band of African-American scholars and administrators who for decades served as an informal network of support for the Black students who found their way to UMass.  When I joined the UMass Afro-American Studies Department, after twenty-one years on the campus in the Philosophy Department, I learned of this community within the commuinity for the first time.  It was one of the many things I learned about UMass by changing departments.

While Dania was on the Bennett Campus, I took her in to meet Esther Terry, my former Chair of Afro-American Studies at UMass and now the Interim President of Bennett.  Esther, of course, was an old and very good friend of the Garritys, and she greeted Dania warmly, in effect welcoming her into that circle.  The next day, Dania had a meeting wtih Sandy Garrity at Duke about her dissertation, and when we met later that day at Bennett, she said that she had told him about meeting Esther.

"I think she used to baby-sit me," this distinguished senior Duke professor said.

It takes a village.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


All of you, I am sure, are aware of public opinion surveys showing that astonishing numbers of Americans believe mindlessly stupid things.  A recent Gallup Poll, for example, tells us that 46% of Americans believe that the earth was created ten thousand years ago.  These same people blithely answer "yes" when asked whether dinosaurs and humans walked the earth together.  What are we to make of information like this?

One natural response is to conclude that there are well over one hundred million ignorant, dead stupid Americans.  I am not aware of ever having had a conversation with one of these folks, but since, like all sensible people, I trust Gallup implicitly, I can only infer that I have thus far led a charmed life.  People who are this appallingly ignorant of the simplest facts of natural science, one would think, ought to be unable to function at even a minimally effective level in the modern world.  If they really believe the world was created ten thousand years ago, what sense can they make of the solar system, of computers, of the internal combustion engine, indeed of a vacuum cleaner?  Do they refuse to fly, fearing that the airplane will fall out of the sky?  Do they, on entering an elevator, look about anxiously to see whether the elevator slaves are ready to haul on the cables and raise the car?  Do they, each time they flip a light switch, step back to avoid the flare of the match as secret candles are lit?

I have been brooding on these and similar questions, and I have an alternative hypothesis.  Mind you, I have no direct confirmatory evidence for this hypothesis, so let us label it armchair speculation.  I offer it for your consideration, purely as what physicists call a gedankenexperiment, or thought experiment.

I have a suspicion that when a Gallup pollster asks these folks "Do you believe that the world was created in its present form ten thousand years ago?", what the respondents really hear is a lengthy and very complex question that goes something like this:

"In America today there is a sizeable minority of adults who have Bachelor's Degrees or more from good schools, who hold cushy jobs with nice salaries in comfortable offices, who live in upscale communities like Chapel Hill and Shaker Heights and Cambridge and Hyde Park, who expect to be, and are, accorded respect and deference in restaurants, doctor's offices, airline lounges, and bank lobbies, and whose cultural preferences are echoed on television and in magazines.  These people look down with a genial condescension on people like you.  They do not share your religious affiliations nor do they really respect them, though they may pay lip service to the notion that all religions are to be accorded superficial courtesy.  And they would not be caught dead in the neighborhood in which you live or at the events where you amuse yourself.  Now, do you accept the fact that you are among the disrespected, the condescended to, the left out, the social, intellectual, and cultural underclass of America?  Are you prepared to tug your forelock or touch your cap in acknowledgement of your inferior status?  Of course, I am not going to ask you this question directly.  Instead, I am going to ask you whether you think God created the world in its present form ten thousand years ago.  But you and I understand that this is really a shorthand code version of the longer question, and I quite well realize that if you answer my little question 'yes' you are really answering my longer question 'no!' "

That is what I think is going on when we get these bizarre poll results.  Looked at this way, the responses make sense, and are, I might even suggest, honorable.  If we want to reduce the number of people who say the world was created ten thousand years ago, we will be wasting our time pushing for better science courses in high school.  What we really need to do is to break down the class barriers and wealth and income inequality in American society.  But that, I am afraid, is a very much larger project.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


On September 6th, after I bemoaned the lack of things to blog about, Chris asked me whether I might do a tutorial on Volume III of CAPITAL.  I responded with a post on the 10th briefly explaining why I did not think it would be much fun, and Chris immediately took exception to my explanation, citing and giving links to videos of lectures by Andrew Kliman, as well as to some publications.  I am currently very busy with my Bennett project, and I simply do not have the time to watch the videos from start to finish and read the works referenced, so that I can give a serious reply.  But it seems to me I owe Chris some answer, however fragmentary, so here goes.

As I suspected, Kliman is a student or follower of Richard Wolff and Steven Resnick, both of them old friends of mine from the UMass Economics Department.  Rick and Steve have for more than thirty years been developing and teaching a systematic interpretation of Marx's economic theories.  In true academic fashion, they have published books and articles, trained students, organized annual conferences, started a journal, and done all the other things that we do in the Academy to advance our views.  I have enormous respect both for their work and for their dedication and energy, even though I do not agree with them about a number of things.  Our specific disagreement over the so-called Transformation Problem is rather technical, but at the risk of losing everyone but Chris, I will spend a few paragraphs explaining what is at stake.

I have argued in my published writings on Marx and also on this blog that in CAPITAL, Volume I, Marx assumes equal organic composition of capital, only relaxing this assumption in Volumes II and III.  Since Ricardo's version of the Labor Theory of Value is correct only under this severe constraint [as Ricardo himself was aware], this assumption allows Marx to focus on what he considers the more fundamental question that Ricardo cannot answer even in the special case in which his theory is true, namely why there is a positive rate of profit in a capitalist economy.  Marx then introduces his distinction between labor and labor power to solve the problem, demonstrating thereby that capitalism rests essentially on the exploitation of the working class.

Mathematically speaking, the arguments by which the various propositions of Volume I are demonstrated -- at least on my interpretation of the book -- presuppose that competition establishes a uniform rate of profit throughout the economy.  It is this assumption that yields the conclusion that input and output prices are identical for a given commodity.  This way of analyzing things, which Kliman correctly labels a "simultaneous" approach, is widely adopted in the large international literature written by contemporary mathematical economists interested in casting Marx's arguments in modern dress.  I am a big fan of this approach.

However, there is an alternative way of reading Volume I.  If you give up the assumption that competition equilibrates the system by establishing a single economy-wide profit rate, then you can represent Marx's analysis as approaching such a uniform profit rate over time by way of a series of adjustments on the part of capitalists to the information presented by the market.  In that analysis, input and output prices are not identical.  This is not a simultaneous analysis, but a temporal analysis. 

But I believe that the end result of these two modes of analysis is the same.  The same relationships emerge between labor values and prices, and the same divergences of prices from labor values appear, which must be explained and analyzed by the same arguments that Marx invokes in Volume III.  So I do not see how adopting Kliman's approach alters, in the end, our understanding either of capitalist economies or of Marx's text.

The second question, on which I am afraid I have nothing at all to say, is the dispute over Marx's claim that there is a tendency for the rate of profit to fall as more capital intensive techniques are introduced.  I would have to read, or else watch on video, Kliman's analysis of that dispute, and I just have not done so yet.

Chris, I hope this at least demonstrates that I take your comments seriously, even if I am not now in a position to respond to them fully.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


When I was a boy, the gold standard in choruses was the 360 member Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  This was, as the name suggests, the choir of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah, and it seemed to consist of every able-bodied non-tone-deaf Mormon within a one hundred mile radius of the Tabernacle.  Pictures of the choir [no television in those days] showed banks upon banks of sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses, standing on risers that seemed, like Jacob's Ladder, to ascend to the heavens.  Although the choir clearly equated numbers with musical power, it was a rather odd fact that as a musical group, they did not make that joyous a noise.  Rather, they produced a muddy, indistinct sound that seemed to be coming from a cathedral bedeviled by inconvenient echoes.

This odd contradiction between the sheer size of the choir and its rather mediocre musical power was a consequence of a simple fact about the generation of sound waves familiar to anyone who has ever sat in front of an old monitor watching a sine wave rise and fall across the screen.  Sound, of course, is generated by the agitation of the gas particles in the air.  It travels in a series of expansions and contractions that are nicely visualized by those old sine waves.  When you add a second sine wave to the first, it can either match the first perfectly, in which case the combination is augmented by the addition of the two magnitudes, or it can conflict with the first, in which case the interference of the two waves diminishes the combined sound.  The Mormon Tabernacle singers, numbered though they were in the hundreds, were not, if the truth be told, very good singers.  They did not all sing on key [or even, or so it seemed to me, in the same key], and their entrances and exits were ragged.  As a result, the sound waves generated by their vibrating uvulae interfered with one another, producing what I can only describe as a brown sound.

The truth of this observation was brought home to me powerfully one evening in the late 40's [I was still in high school] when I attended a concert at Town Hall in Manhattan by the newly formed Robert Shaw Chorale.  Shaw was a dynamic young conductor with radically new ideas about what a professional chorus ought to be.  When the Chorale came out on stage, I was astonished to see that there were no more than twenty or so of them.  I was sitting in the peanut gallery, of course, and I began to worry about whether I would be able to hear them.  The singers, all hand-picked professionals, did not group themselves into sections -- sopranos, altos, tenors, basses -- as was the universal practice at that time.  Instead, they lined up in several ranks man-woman-man-woman-man-woman.  What is more, instead of being bunched tightly together so that each one's left shoulder seemed welded to the next right shoulder,  they spaced themselves perhaps two or three feet from one another.  It was clear that Shaw had some very unorthodox ideas about choral singing.

When they opened their mouths to sing the first notes of the first composition, a blast of sound filled Town Hall, as audible to me near the back of the second balcony as it must have been to the toffs in the expensive seats in the orchestra section.  The reason for this astonishing power, of course, was that the singers were all perfectly in tune and perfectly synchronized with one another.  Their spacing, which succeeded brilliantly in blending the different voices, was made possible by the fact that it was not necessary to group all the sopranos near the one or two of their section who could be counted on to find the pitch at an entrance or pick up a conductor's cue.  Compare, if you will, the playing of  a fine string quartet with that of a mediocre orchestra.

These thoughts crossed my mind this morning as I reflected on the odd failure of Romney's super-pac multi-millions to achieve any measurable success in the campaign against president Obama.  Why, I wondered, were the vast sums of which Democrats were so fearful having so little impact on the race?  Then I thought about Shaw and the Tabernacle Choir, and I saw what might be an answer.

The Romney campaign, it occurred to me, is suffering from the advertising equivalent of the self-defeating interference of the sound waves issuing from choruses like the Tabernacle Choir.  The Romney campaign is producing what psychologists, reaching for the same analogy, call cognitive dissonance.  Since North Carolina is considered a "battleground state," our television viewing is repeatedly interrupted by political thirty second spot ads.  The Romney campaign started out pillorying Obama as Other, un-American, out of touch with American values, a Socialist [I wish!].  But that did not seem to have any negative impact on his poll numbers, which most strikingly revealed that Americans like the President, even when they disagree with him.  Apparently cautioned by this evidence that their efforts to make Americans fear and hate Obama were not working, the campaign did an almost complete about face.  Now, the ads feature a syrupy voice saying that although Obama is a nice guy, he is in over his head, and unable to deal with America's problems.  The effect of these two series of ads, I thought, is rather like the effect of having the altos in a chorus singing slightly off key or out of synch with one another.  The sound waves interfere with each other, producing a muddy sound of no great power.

The same result is produced by the campaign's constant shifts in its positions on such issues as "pre-existing conditions" in health care reform or a voucher system to replace Medicare.  Political junkies, like music mavens, might be able to disambiguate the conflicting messages conveyed by the Romney campaign's ads, but the general public, like the audience at a concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, just hears a blurred sound of no particular direction or distinction.

I think they would have had more success with a sharp, precise, clean message, however unfamiliar to the ear.  Better a good performance of Pierrot Lunaire than a blurred rendering of the Messiah.