Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
May 25, 2005
On Left and Right
by Robert Paul Wolff
Some while ago, a fellow leftie put me on to Antiwar.com. I took a look at the site, bookmarked it, and have ever since been a regular visitor, sometimes clicking on it two or three times in a day. I have even on occasion donated money to keep it afloat. I find there a broad array of factual reports and opinions consonant with my distressed and outraged view of an America seemingly gone mad with imperial hubris and pathological self-delusion.
Being somewhat dim about such things, I did not at first notice that the site is hosted and sustained by right-wing libertarians whose position on the conventional political spectrum is as far from my own as it is possible to get without falling off the other edge of the world from my own. Whereas I look to Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Edward Said for intellectual simulation and solace, reaching back, when I desire some historical perspective, to Karl Marx, the managers of antiwar.com are more likely to reach out to Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman, with obligatory obeisances to the authors of the Federalist Papers.
This is not the first time I have found myself in suspicious company. Thirty-five years ago, when I published In Defense of Anarchism, I was chagrined to receive congratulatory notes from the likes of Murray Rothbard, and to be offered, by an earnest graduate student, without a word, a tattered copy of Lysander Spooner's No Treason. Indeed, in the sixties, it was often said that the political spectrum was shaped like a horseshoe, with the two ends a good deal closer to one another than either was to the middle. Nevertheless, an America in which the most trenchant, uncompromisingly condemnatory critique of the present administration issues from the pen of Patrick Buchanan clearly requires some new direction of analysis.
I am united with my libertarian brethren in a hatred of the imperial state, and in my disdain for the dishonesty, self-delusion, and wanton profligacy of this nation's policies in the Middle East. I am one with them, also, in my dismay at the erosion of such individual liberties as survived the post World War II era. But if I may speak as a philosopher, I and they are most at odds in the realm of possibility, not of actuality. I would support a foreign policy that genuinely furthered progressive economic and political developments throughout the world, whereas they would view such policies, even if they might be sympathetic to some of them, as an inappropriate overreaching of state power and a violation of the authority that could justly be assigned to the state by an alert and vigilant electorate. I believe, as they fervently do not, that capitalism rests on exploitation, as Marx argued, and I am therefore always ready to consider ways in which the state might mitigate, if not vitiate, the capitalist economic regime.
But since the United States does not, in actuality, offer me the slightest hope of being able to throw my support enthusiastically behind a government that truly embodies the principles in which I believe, I am left to consider how best to resist the advances of the imperial expansionism that has captured the state. And in this effort, as necessary as it is disheartening, I find myself reaching out to those at the other end of the political spectrum.
We can surely agree on the necessity of defeating politically the drive for U. S. military hegemony. We even can agree on several of the most hotly contended social issues that currently divide the electorate – same-sex marriage, abortion rights, rights of free expression. If we can somehow turn this nation from its imperial path, then there will be time enough to fight over the justice or injustice of capitalism, the need for collective social action to provide decent wages and health care, or the merits of federal restraints on corporate depredations.
As the past two elections have demonstrated, the politically active fraction of the electorate is very evenly divided between the two major political parties. It is also the case that the center of the political spectrum has shifted dramatically to the right, with only a handful of genuine old-fashioned Rooseveltian liberals left in Congress [with the honorable and important exception of the Black Caucus], and increasing numbers of stone-age troglodytic reactionaries masquerading in the Republican Party as conservatives. An alliance of Blue State Democrats with true blue libertarian conservatives would have a reasonable chance of defeating the imperialists. It might then be possible to get America to stand down from its militarism and imperial expansionism, and return us to the far better, though admittedly unsatisfactory state of affairs of only a few years ago.
This alliance would undoubtedly splinter almost as soon as it had triumphed, for on a wide range of important domestic issues the partners disagree irreconcilably. Nevertheless, in a world gone mad, we must learn to cherish second bests. As Paul Newman says to Robert Redford in The Sting, when explaining to him the workings of the Big Con, if we succeed, it won't be enough, but it is all we will get, so you have to be willing to walk away.
Well, that is the column, as I wrote it then. Things have changed a good deal in the intervening eight years. The politicians who today style themselves as libertarians turn out to favor an intrusive, repressive state when it comes to reproductive rights or same sex marriage, which suggests that their libertarianism is a fraud. They may worship at the altar of Ayn Rand, but faux philosopher as she was, she would been horrified at the stance they have adopted in her name. The effort by these apostles of liberty to suppress voting among those whose politics they find distasteful bears no relation whatsoever to the principles they profess to embrace.
The second difference is that although we now have a genuinely more progressive administration in office which is a good deal more cautious about the use of military force abroad, it has embraced and extended the surveillance state of its predecessor in ways that it will be extremely difficult to roll back.
Meanwhile, the increasing economic inequality in America and the destruction of the life chances of scores of millions of Americans has made the need for genuine economic transformation imperative, and in any such effort, our libertarian brethren will be mortal enemies. Nevertheless, Paul Newman's wise advice to Robert Redford remains true today. Perhaps we should make common cause with the Rand Pauls of this world when it comes to the surveillance state, and expect all-out war when we try to rectify economic exploitation.
Monday, July 29, 2013
Here is my Grandmother's recollection, as I transcribed it from the tape, without, however, managing to capture the distinctive Vilna accent that she retained more than eighty years after coming to America:
The father who would not hear of his little girl going to kindergarten was Athena's great great great grandfather, my grandmother's father. There is this slender thread stretching across one hundred twenty years or more and six generations. Some day, I hope, long after I have died, Athena, all grown up, will read the book I wrote about my grandparents and learn something of her lineage. Perhaps, if I am very fortunate, that book will be passed on to her children, and her children's children. My fondest dream is that, as my grandfather's life in socialist politics inspired me, perhaps my life in the Academy will inspire Athena and her children.
Saturday, July 27, 2013
Friday, July 26, 2013
That could be my mantra. It captures perfectly [and simply] what I have spent my entire writing career trying to do. Hats off to Papa Hemingway, on whatever ghostly fishing boat he may be.
Thursday, July 25, 2013
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Monday, July 22, 2013
Now that we are speaking of leftwing cant, clichés, unthinking people, intellectual fashions and such, there is a question I'd like to ask you (as a philosopher, you are probably in the best position to answer).
But, I want to be fair and not put you in an uncomfortable situation; so, let me warn you before you give any answer: this topic could easily degenerate into a flames war; so, I honestly understand if you decide to pass.
What's your opinion of the so called Sokal affair of a few years back? What do you think of post-modern thought, relativism, Nietzsche and other things like that?"
Sunday, July 21, 2013
There are as mad, abandon'd Criticks too.
The Bookful Blockhead, ignorantly read,
With Loads of Learned Lumber in his Head,
With his own Tongue still edifies his Ears,
And always List'ning to Himself appears.
All Books he reads, and all he reads assails,
From Dryden's Fables down to Durfey's Tales.
With him, most Authors steal their Works, or buy;
Garth did not write his own Dispensary.
Name a new Play, and he's the Poet's Friend,
Nay show'd his Faults--but when wou'd Poets mend?
No Place so Sacred from such Fops is barr'd,
Nor is Paul's Church more safe than Paul's Church-yard:
Nay, fly to Altars; there they'll talk you dead;
For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.
Distrustful Sense with modest Caution speaks;
It still looks home, and short Excursions makes;
But ratling Nonsense in full Vollies breaks;
And never shock'd, and never turn'd aside,
Bursts out, resistless, with a thundering Tyde!
However, as it fails, as the racists and the homophobes lose ground once again, as their ranks are thinned by the death of their oldest supporters and the failure of the young to take their place, it will nevertheless remain true for as long as we can see into the future that a very sizeable segment of the American people will hold fast to the fears, anxieties, hatreds, and convictions now finding hateful expression in our politics.
Earlier today I was turning over in my mind an idea for a blog post. I wanted to use as a title the lovely phrase, "shit to airy fineness spun," which I recalled as coming from Alexander Pope's great eighteenth century attack on his fellow poets, The Dunciad. "I had better check exactly where it appears in The Dunciad," I thought to myself, so I googled the phrase. Only one site popped up: My own blog from 2010, where I used the phrase in my rumination on leftwing cant, "Macros and PC's."
A trifle panicked, I found an online edition of The Dunciad and did a search. Nothing for "shit to airy fineness spun." Nothing for "airy fineness." "Nothing even for "spun!" Now I know that I did not make up the phrase. I really did not. But no amount of Googling ever turns up anything but my own blog.
I have turned into Ruth Allen.
Saturday, July 20, 2013
Those three photos are a visual expression of the unity of my life. It is an extraordinary experience to be seventy-nine and have so strong a living connection through Susie with my boyhood. Many people these days have second or third marriages -- new beginnings, they think of them. But for Susie and me, marriage was a coming home.
Friday, July 19, 2013
Well, my son Patrick, the famous chess grandmaster who started and runs Grandmaster Capital, a San Francisco hedge fund, predicted this three years ago and has been talking to me about it ever since. I guess we know who really has his finger on the world's economic pulse.
Thursday, July 18, 2013
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
First, the American electoral system is geographically based. Senators are elected from states, Members of the House from Congressional districts, local officials from wards or precincts, and even presidents are elected state by state, not by popular vote. Not all political systems are organized this way, although it is easy for unreflective Americans to suppose that they are. In South Africa, for example, a party -- the ANC, say -- is allowed to put forward a ranked list of enough candidates to fill the entire legislature. When the votes are counted, each party gets a share of the representatives equal to its percentage of the total national vote [with a threshold for winning any seats at all.] The candidates elected by a party are chosen in the order in which the party has listed them on the ballot, regardless of where they live. During the first free elections in 1994, Nelson Mandela was of course listed first on the ANC ranked ordering. This system has the virtue of giving minor parties some representation, and the defect that citizens do not have an identifiable member of the legislature who is their representative.
There is one very important exception to the stipulation that the campaign must be an on-the-ground district based operation: Hispanic voters. Because they are Spanish speaking and the rest of the population, by and large, is not, and because they are a very heavily Democratic-voting subset of the population, they would be a natural target for this sort of registration and get out the vote campaign, and in this case broadcast media could play a valuable role, because it would be heard or seen by only the population we were targeting.
The campaign could still target districts -- the state of Texas would be the big prize in any such effort. But there are a number of sizeable Hispanic communities in states so Red that there is no chance of flipping them.