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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN

On Friday, Susie and I will go to Amherst for the weekend to see old friends and visit old places, so I shan't be blogging until next week.  No doubt the world will scarcely notice.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

PITCHING HORSESHOES


I think the time has come to say something about the curious coalition of political forces on the left and the right uniting to oppose drone strikes, government surveillance, and increased defense spending.  I will start by reproducing a column I wrote eight years ago for a website called antiwar.com.  Then I will bring my discussion up to date with some contemporary observations.  Here is the column exactly as it originally appeared.

 


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

SIX GENERATIONS

My granddaughter, Athena, will be five on Thursday.  Three weeks later she will start kindergarten.  Grandpa has been accorded the privilege of giving her, as a birthday present, the new backpack she will need for this momentous occasion.   When Athena's mother, Diana, told me that Athena would be starting kindergarten, I recalled a brief excerpt from a tape recording that my father made of his mother's reminiscences in 1971.  At that point, my grandmother, Ella Nislow Wolff, was either ninety-three or ninety-four, depending on whose recollections one trusts.  Her age had always been a matter of some dispute in the family, because she was a year older than her husband, Barney, and she tried, without success, to conceal this fact by lying about her age.

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:
 
Miss Moses was a school teacher that my little sister - was not in her class, but the little sister was one that caused a great discussion of having kindergarten.  She was so marvelous at her age, she was four and a half years, not quite, then [that] they started to talk about having kindergarten in America.

She died as a child, that’s why Rosabelle has her name.    So they came to the father to tell the father why should a child as intelligent as this sort be working in a shop.  She should get a chance to get somewhere, she should get schooling.  So of course there was no compulsory schooling then so they talked but my father didn’t even pay attention to this.  I went on working.  But my little sister went to school, but unfortunately she got - that terrible winter that we had with diphtheria that time in New York, she was one of those who passed away that time.
 
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

SOKAL, FISH, SCIENCE, AND BLUE HERONS


Those of you who have been following the comments section will know that several commentators and I have been discussing the Sokal affair and the response by Stanley Fish, who was at the time the General Editor under whom the journal Social Text fell [but not the editor of that journal itself, as one commentator somewhat inaccurately asserted.]  While taking my daily walk yesterday morning [which was enlivened by sightings of two Blue Herons, two deer, and a rabbit!], I had an extended conversation with an imaginary audience [my preferred mode of thinking] in which I attempted to set the Sokal flap in a larger context.  It occurred to me that some of you might have some interest in what I was thinking.  [This is, of course, the operational hubris on which blogging is premised.  It has a rather uncomfortable similarity to Anthony Weiner's narcissistic sexting, as I am all too aware.  But then, that is a subject for another day.]

Let me begin in 1620 with Francis Bacon's publication of the Novum Organum [right away, you can see this is going to take a while, but then, it is a long walk.]  Bacon laid out a method of investigating nature that consisted, essentially, in making long lists of observations, organizing them into what he called tables of presence and absence, increase and decrease, and then using them to check hypotheses about the nature of natural phenomena.  For example, if I wanted to figure out what heat is, I would first make a list of all the hot things I could think of [soup boiling on a stove, a stone sitting in the noonday sun, my forehead after a vigorous workout, etc.] and all the cold things I could think of [a piece of ice, my feet after a long walk in snow, and so forth], and then collect observations of cases in which something is felt to heat up or cool down.  Then I might try out an hypothesis:  heat is the presence in an object of blood.  Well, that works for my forehead after a vigorous walk, but it does not work for a pot of boiling soup.  So that hypothesis is rejected.  You get the idea.

This scientific method had a number of very interesting and important implications.  Consider  just three, which were vigorously contested by some of Bacon's contemporaries, such as Descartes.  First:  the right way to learn about nature is to observe it with the senses, by looking at  it, listening to it, touching it, even tasting it;  Second, there is an absolute differentiation between the observations we make of nature and the theories we formulate to explain nature -- the theories are, as we would say but Bacon did not, theory neutral;  and Third, scientific knowledge is, by its very nature, ever-expanding, ever growing, because the collection of observations keeps getting bigger, and no old observations ever  have to be thrown away, even though we keep discarding theories as more observations allow us to eliminate them.

This picture of science as a succession of theoretical explanations of an ever-expanding store of observations remained the dominant understanding of science for a very long time, although it was significantly altered and revised by three developments:  The first was the invention of instruments [microscope, telescope, x-ray machine, etc etc] that rapidly expanded and also changed the nature of the observations.  With these instruments, we could gain information about things that were not apparent to the senses, such as microbes, distant stars, atomic particles.  It required both equipment and extensive training even to make these observations, quite apart from the formulation of theories based on them.  The second development was the mathematicization of scientific explanation and theorizing, which altered the sorts of things that scientists attempted to observe.  The third development, which somewhat undermined the original sharp distinction between observation and theory, was the slow realization that some of the states of affairs being observed could not even be described without assuming the correctness of certain theories.  One could, to be sure, report an experiment simply as the hearing of a certain number of clicking sounds being produced by a Geiger Counter.  But that report was scientifically useless, as an observation, unless it was interpreted as an indication of the presence of a certain number of sub-atomic particles.  But that interpretation necessarily presupposed both a theory of the atom and a theory of the nature of sub-atomic particles, theories which it was supposed to be the role of the observations to confirm or disconfirm.

Despite these developments, whose full implications, of course, are quite far-reaching, the central conviction remained unchanged that science is an ever-expanding body of knowledge and explanation resting on an ever-growing accumulation of observations.

Enter Thomas Kuhn, who in 1962 called this story into question with the publication of the Structure of Scientific Revolutions.   If we take a close look at the actual history of the development of modern science, Kuhn argued, we see that it does not exhibit that slow, steady growth that the standard account would lead us to expect.  Instead, we see long periods of what he labeled "normal science," during which things progress incrementally as we would expect, punctuated by brief upheavals during which everything changes rapidly and radically -- scientific revolutions, Kuhn called them.  What happens during these moments of revolutionary transformation is that the old, settled way of conducting scientific investigations is replaced by a new model, a striking new experiment or bit of explanation that comes to serve as a new paradigm.  When this happens, the bright young scientists latch onto the new paradigm and imitate it, doing science in a new way.  The established scientists, by and large, are not refuted or proven wrong, and most of them go on doing science as they always have.  But they die out and do not reproduce themselves, because all the young hotshots are enraptured with the new paradigm.  After a while, things settle down, and normal science goes on, but now along the lines of the new paradigm.

A word about "paradigm," which has become a buzzword in modern discussions but is almost always misunderstood.  A paradigm is a concrete specific instance that serves as a model for imitation.  The most familiar example comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition.  In the Old Testament, we read that God handed down to Moses the Law, which Jews were enjoined to obey and to follow.  The Law was not a paradigm.  It was a set of general commands -- the Thou Shalts and Shalt nots.  But then the Word becomes Flesh in the person of Jesus, the Perfect Man, free of Original Sin, and thenceforth rather than obey the Law His followers are called upon to imitate Him, to take Him as the paradigm of the Good Man, whom we must make ourselves as much like as possible.  Hence the medieval practice of the imitatio cristi, the Imitation of Christ. or, in its modern vulgar trivialization, the bumper sticker WWJD -- "What Would Jesus Do?"

According  to Kuhn, ordinary workaday scientists learn how to do science by studying and reproducing in their laboratories or studies paradigmatic experiments or observations that are taken as the quintessential examples of what it is to do science.  When they craft their own experiments or observations, they consciously or unconsciously imitate these classic examples and thus do science as they have been taught to do it.  But when some transformational figure -- Galileo or Kepler or Newton or Faraday or Watson -- does a totally new experiment or devises a totally new sort of observation that yields surprising, powerful, transformational results, it captivates bright young scientists everywhere who begin to imitate it and stop reproducing the old style of work.

Now, if Kuhn's story about the history of science was correct, and it certainly seemed to be, it had an extraordinary implication that totally upended the standard account of the development of science.  For Kuhn was saying that in each of these scientific revolutions, an entire body of existing observations was cast aside, not as incorrect, but as no longer relevant to science at all.  Once the new paradigm of scientific research replaced the old paradigm, these observations simply dropped out of the base of observations on which scientific theories were erected.

For example, for more than two thousand years, following Aristotle, scientists had been working with such observational categories as "hot" and "cold," "wet" and "dry."  The theory of the elements was couched in these categories -- fire is hot and dry, air is hot and wet, earth is cold and dry, water is cold and wet.  The same system of categories was used to describe the "humours" of the body [phlegm, bile, choler, etc.] and medicine set as its task restoring the proper balance of these humours.  With the seventeenth century mathematicization of Physics, observations of hotness, coldness, wetness, and dryness simply ceased to be considered scientific observations at all.

But the implication of this was that there was no gradually expanding body of observations on which a succession of theories could be tested, and that in turn meant that there was no ground for claiming that scientific knowledge was expanding, as opposed simply to changing.

It certainly looked as though modern science was in some sense better than old-fashioned science, but the clear, simple demonstration of that intuition evaporated with Kuhn's account of the evolution of science as a series of paradigm shifts.

Not long after Kuhn shook up our understanding of science, students of the practice of science noted two other profoundly important ways in which actual science differs from the story told by philosophers of science.  First of all, modern science is done by groups of researchers working together in laboratories under the tutelage or leadership of a senior researcher.  Humanists may work alone as they have for two thousand five hundred years, but not scientists.  This simple fact immediately raised questions about the social organization of science, and sociologists began to examine the social structure of scientific activity in the same way that they were accustomed to examining the social structure of the corporation or the government or the army.

Second, the size and scope of the scientific enterprise exploded, with hundreds of thousand, if not millions, of scientists worldwide doing research and producing reports of their work.  This had a rather unexpected consequence.  Since it had become impossible for anyone to monitor and be aware of all the scientific research being done even in a single branch of science, not every experiment, no matter how properly conducted, was noticed and taken up into the general understanding of the field in which it was carried out.  Students of science as a social enterprise discovered that some experimental reports got noticed, footnoted in the work of other researchers, referenced by yet other researchers, and in that way became, in effect, scientific facts, while other experimental reports, not significantly different in the rigor with which the work had been done or the precision with which that work had been reported, failed to gain notice and simply dropped out of the body of experimental facts on which theories were being erected.

In short, what counted as a scientific fact was, or so it seemed, socially determined, which was to say, SCIENTIFIC FACTS ARE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONS.

So there we are with Social Text, Alan Sokal, and Stanley Fish.

Well, all of this pretty much flashed through my mind during the first few minutes of my walk, at which point, more or less when I saw the second Blue Heron, I had to ask myself what I thought about the Sokal hoax and Stanley Fish's attempt to defend the editors for their exhibition of scientific ignorance.

I remained convinced that the editors are horses' asses, not because they think scientific truth is, in some sense, a social construction, but because, if I may allude to Fish's baseball analogy, they are like someone who says, "The thing I really like about baseball is the halftime show."  baseball is a game.  Hence it is, in some pretty simple sense, a social construction.  But anyone who thinks baseball has a halftime show is an idiot, and so is someone who reads the title of Sokal's send-up and thinks it could be a serious, publishable piece of work.

Friday, July 26, 2013

THIS ONE DOESN'T COUNT

Blogger, which keeps track of everything, tells me that up to today I had posted 1499 posts on my blog, so technically, this one is the fifteen hundredth, but that calls for something a bit more substantial, which I shall attempt later today.  This is just a note -- a word of appreciation to Papa.  While eating my lemon poppyseed muffin in the Carolina Cafe and after completing the NY TIMES crossword puzzle [difficult today, because it is Friday], I was idly reading a review of a debut novel when I came across this sentence:  "And readers may be left thinking that Ernest Hemingway was right when he wrote in 'The Garden of Eden,' 'Know how complicated it is and then state it simply.'"

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

THE GREEKS HAD A NAME FOR IT


"Yes, but what has He done for me lately?"as the religious sceptic might say to the Lord after being told that He sent His Only Begotten Son to save mankind.  The trouble with blogging is that no matter how brilliant you were yesterday, you need to come up with something to say today.  Under this pressure, it is only natural to see accidental conjunctures as divine hints.

Yesterday, as I was intermittently listening to the comments about Anthony Weiner's truly extraordinary press conference, I began reading John Sandford's latest novel in the Lucas Davenport series.  Sandford is a reliable and very successful writer of schlock police procedural fiction somewhat implausibly set in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  I have read a dozen or more of his novels, and find them a completely satisfactory way to waste time.  So what is the connection?

A few words of explanation are called for.  Weiner first.  Anthony Weiner was a New York Congressman of no noticeable accomplishments but with an ego unusually large even for a politician who was discovered to have been "sexting selfies" to huge numbers of women with whom he was totally unacquainted.  I employ the current jargon, unfamiliar as I am with it.  "Sexting" is what Lewis Carroll called a "portmanteau" word, formed in this case by conflating "texting" and "sex."  It is apparently the method of flirtation of choice among the underage crowd with nimble thumbs.  In Weiner's case, the sexting consisted of sending out full frontal nude photos of himself [selfies], followed by lewd messages to those bored or foolish enough to respond.  His most faithful correspondent seems to have been a twenty-two year old woman.  Weiner, we now learn, used the internet handle "Carlos Danger," but the young woman says she knew it was the Congressman all along.  Weiner was finally prevailed upon by his Democratic colleagues in the House to resign, whereupon, as one has come to expect, he sought "therapy" and for a New York minute fell out of the public's sphere of attention.  Now he is back, running for the Democratic nomination for Mayor of New York.  But the day before yesterday, we learned that Carlos Danger was still cyberflashing, by his own admission, at least up until last summer, a year or more after he had "put it all behind him" and "moved on."

And now Sandford.  In Silken Prey, we are introduced early on to the villain, Taryn Grant, a beautiful, rich candidate for the Senate on the Democratic ticket who is described by the omniscient narrator as suffering from "narcissistic personality disorder."  Sandford clearly leans to the left, politically, so it is an act of authorial courage for him to make his villain a pro-choice pro-union Democrat with ... narcissistic personality disorder.

I take it that the conjuncture is now obvious.  What is fascinating about Weiner is his all-consuming limitless narcissism.  What on earth would possess a skinny not particularly good-looking man with a long hooked nose to take nude photographs of himself and then send them to, by one estimate, forty-five thousand women?  He does not seem to have requested nude photos of them in return.  What turns him on, it would seem, is --in Dickenson's lovely phrase -- telling his name the live long day to an admiring bog.  After his original confess-all press conference, in which he vowed to get treatment, he apparently went back to his room and spent hours watching the coverage of his humiliation.  The day after New York magazine published a cover story about his tearful, traumatic rehabilitation, he contacted the twenty-two year old recipient of his nude photos to ask whether she had seen it and what she thought.  At this second press conference, it was clear from his face and body language that he was getting more gratification from being the center of attention than pain from having once again to admit that he was still engaging in "inappropriate behavior."

Psychoanalytically speaking, narcissism is, I think, an unusually early erotic pathology, anterior even to oral or anal fixations.  According to some versions of the myth, Narcissus saw his reflect in in a pool and fell in love with it, dying of a broken heart when he realized that he could not have the object of his affections.  One can only hope that Weiner stumbles across a mirror.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A GOOD READ


Five days ago, Robert Gallagher, a philosopher who teaches at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, sent me an email to which he attached a paper he has published on Aristotle's economic theories.  [Incommensurability in Aristotle's Theory of Reciprocal Justice, in The British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 20(4), 2012, pp. 667-701].  It would be a wild overstatement to say that this is not my area of expertise.  Prior to reading his article, I knew absolutely nothing about it at all.  A good deal of Gallagher's discussion focuses on the Nichomachean Ethics, and a quick look at my copy shows that at some point I read the relevant passages pretty closely [if marginalia are any indication], but that was maybe sixty years ago, and I haven't been back since.  So Gallagher's discussion was terra nova to me.

At first, I found the essay somewhat impenetrable, but after a while I realized that it was actually extremely suggestive, in at least several different ways.  First of all, Aristotle is struggling to understand economic exchange from the perspective of a slave-owning utterly non-capitalist society, and what emerges from his discussion, and Gallagher's analysis of it, is that economic exchange, for Aristotle, is necessarily an exchange of unequal and incommensurable things between socially unequal individuals.  This makes it difficult to understand how such exchange can exist and be justified.  Aristotle's answer, to put it as simply as I can, is that the stronger and higher status individual loses materially in the exchange but is compensated by receiving honor in return.  Second, Gallagher makes it clear that Aristotle thinks the purpose of society is to supply the wants of those in need.  All of which leads Gallagher to conclude in deliberately dramatic and anachronistic fashion:  "For Aristotle, reciprocity is established through meeting the needs of all parties:  of the lesser for goods, of the superior for honour.  The result is his own, peculiar form of the proposition:  from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." 

As you can imagine, that made me sit up and take notice.  This is not quite as titillating as the latest tidbits about Anthony Wiener's rampant narcissism, to be sure, but I recommend the article to you nonetheless.

Monday, July 22, 2013

A REPLY TO MAGPIE


Magpie [sigh.  Doesn't anyone have a real name anymore?] posted a comment asking the following question:

"Prof.

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?"

Since answering that grab bag of questions is a bit of a tall order, I thought I would do it in a blog post, rather than as a comment on a comment.  Let me preface my response by saying that I am a retired seventy-nine year old professor on a secure pension.  Nothing puts me in an uncomfortable position.  Heaven knows, there are lots of topics on which I have nothing remotely useful to say, but someone who has picked as many  intellectual fights as I have over the years can hardly slide away from a topic simply because someone may get angry at what I say.

So.  First of all, the Sokal affair.  Those of you who are unfamiliar with it should read the nice summary on Wikipedia, as I just did.  Briefly, a physicist named Alan Sokal wrote a send-up of fashionable modern leftwing literary commentary which he called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" [no kidding] and submitted it to Social Text, described on Wikipedia as "an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies."  They published it, whereupon Sokal revealed that it was a hoax.  Needless to say, Jacques Derrida was not amused.

What is my opinion?  I loved it!  The editors of Social Text should be ashamed of themselves.  If they had any sense of honor, they would have committed ritual academic suicide by forthwith terminating the journal.  I have devoted my life to taking extremely difficult ideas and struggling to make them as simple and clear as I can.  It is not for nothing that I introduced my explication of the famously obscure first chapter of Capital with an old Jewish joke.  I have no patience with pseudo-intellectuals who take simple ideas and make them as obscure and difficult as possible by cloaking them in impressive jargon.  Nor do I for a moment imagine that that sort of cant has anything remotely "leftwing" about it.

Let me illustrate with a story that I told in my Autobiography [but, alas, I cannot assume that everyone reading this blog worked through that 800 page monstrosity.]   Many years ago, I was invited to be a member of a panel discussion on "the public responsibilities of intellectuals" hosted by the University of Kentucky.  My co-panelists were two very well known supposedly left-wing intellectuals:  Martin Jay of the University of California, author of an important book on the Frankfort School, and my UMass colleague Sam Weber, a member of the Comparative Literature Department.  Naively imagining that the organizers of the event wanted me to speak on the public responsibilities of intellectuals, that being the announced topic, and mindful of the fact that the panel was aimed at a general audience, not at members of the Kentucky faculty and their students, I wrote a clear, simply expressed, but serious talk on -- the public responsibilities of intellectuals.  Martin Jay chose to speak on images of vision in the writings of nineteenth century French intellectuals [that apparently being his research topic of the moment.]  Weber gave an incomprehensible talk on Heidegger's essay on  technology.  During the discussion period, I made a strenuous effort to get these two post-modern leftwing intellectuals to address a simple question:  What did they think about faculty unions?  It seemed to me that two professed Marxists ought to be able to handle that one without breaking a sweat.  Try as I might, I could not get either of them to take a stand in favor of the unionization of professors.

As I have explained in some of my writings, the failure of Marx's prediction of world socialist revolution -- a failure compounded of the willingness of the French and German working classes to fight one another in the First World War, the fragmentation of working class solidarity by the persistence of a pyramidal hierarchy of working class wages and salaries, and the success of the capitalist class [pace Keynes] in managing economic crises -- sucked the life out of a true revolutionary politics, which then retreated into the Humanities where it took up residence in departments of English and Comparative Literature.  The mocking epithet "tenured radicals" has more than a smidgen of truth to it.

But the Sokal affair forces us to confront a larger and more serious issue:  the utter ignorance on the part of most humanists of science and mathematics.  How else to explain the inability of the editors of Social Text to recognize what any moderately educated person should have been able to spot as a hoax?  This is an old problem, associated in my mind with the English chemist and novelist C. P. Snow and his famous 1959 lecture, "The Two Cultures."  Those of you who are interested can seek it out and read it.  Snow was addressing a problem that was peculiar to the English educational system, which segregated students at the high school level into a classics and literary track and a science math track, but his observations have considerable truth for Americans today.  I find it appalling that pompous, self-important people who feature themselves intellectuals know so little about science and math.  And it is particularly appalling that some of them should wrap themselves in the mantle of Karl Marx!  Just imagine what Marx would have thought of  "radicals" who could not be troubled to inform themselves about physics, chemistry, or biology!

As some of you will know, I have tried in my own explication of Marx's theories to bring together in fruitful conjuncture considerations drawn from literary criticism and formal mathematics, all in the service of a radical critique of capitalist society.

As for the remainder of Magpie's questions:  Nietzsche was a brilliant thinker and writer,  whose works have not inspired me personally.  From that same period, I find more to love in the writings of Kierkegaard.  But Brian Leiter has written about Nietzsche, and champions his thought, and I recommend you to him for enlightenment.

I will offer an opinion about post-modernism if someone will please tell me what on earth it is.  I could tell you what I think the term "post-modern" means, but I doubt anyone would be interested or find what I had to say useful.

As for "relativism," presumably in ethics [I cannot make much sense out of the notion of relativism in science!], I have written a good deal about that subject in the course of trying to understand Kant's ethical theories.  This post is running too long as it is, so I shall bring it to a close.  If anyone is seriously interested in hearing me say again what I have said before about relativism in ethics, I will have a go at it.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A LITERARY LESSON FOR A LAZY SUNDAY AFTERNOON


Most of you know the familiar line, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."  The line has been used by Edmund Burke, Abraham Lincoln, Johnny Mercer, and Bob Dylan, among others.  Some of you, I am sure, know as well that the line comes from Alexander Pope's book-length poem, An Essay on Criticism.  But I wonder how many of you know what it actually means.

Here is the stanza from Pope's poem in which the line appears:

Such shameless Bards we have; and yet 'tis true,
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!

Ah, where is Alexander Pope when we need him!

The line is usually taken to mean, "Fools will do something that wise people refrain from doing," and no doubt that was in Pope's sense when he wrote the line.  But he had something a good deal more specific in mind.  To understand the line aright, you need several bits of knowledge that may have slipped your notice.

First of all, "Paul's Church" refers to the great Cathedral of St. Paul in London -- not the new cathedral, rebuilt on Christopher Wren's design after the Great London Fire of 1666, but the original St. Paul's.  Second, a churchyard is a cemetery attached to a church, so Paul's Church-yard was the cemetery of the old Cathedral of St. Paul.  Third, St. Paul's Church-yard, in the time before the Fire, was where London's booksellers gathered to display their wares.  Finally, and this is the key to the entire line, there was an old folk superstition that angels shunned cemeteries, because of the unresurrected souls buried there.

And there you have it.  Fools -- the critics -- rush in to attack the new books being hawked by the booksellers in a graveyard that angels would shun.  Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

How do I know this?  It all goes back to the Fall of 1962.  I was newly married to Cynthia Griffin.  We were living in Chicago, where I was an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and General Education at the University of Chicago.  Cynthia is now a distinguished and accomplished literary scholar and critic, retired from a Chair she held for many years at M. I. T., but she was then a doctoral student in English at Harvard, madly cramming for her doctoral orals.  Although Cynthia's field was the eighteenth century English novel, in those days the orals covered everything, from Beowulf to T. S. Eliot.  At one moment in her frantic study, she turned to Pope, and as her husband, I was the beneficiary of a good deal of pillow talk that taught me everything I know about literary criticism.

Well, now you know, if anyone should ever ask, what the meaning is of the well-known line, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

AN UNANSWERED QUESTION


During the long struggle for LGBT equality, one of the rhetorically most powerful arguments has been the simple assertion, "We are here."  We exist, we have names, we have jobs, we love, we grieve, we raise children, we vote, we die.  We are here.  Refusing us the rights routinely accorded other Americans will disadvantage us, it will inflict injustice upon us, it will deny us the joys of social recognition and the solace of social support at the end of life, but it will not make us cease to exist.  One way or another, you must give up the fantasy that if you refuse to recognize same sex love it will evaporate.

We live in an extraordinary period here in the United States.  On the one hand, rights long denied are being won, affirmed in the highest courts.  On the other hand, rights long thought secure are under attack from a right wing increasingly hysterical in its frenzied effort to reverse the flow of time and take this nation back to a time of back alley abortions, segregated voting, and the imposition of nakedly theological imperatives in the public square.

I believe the revanchistes are losing.  The demography of the nation is against them, and cultural tides are dragging them down in the undertow.  The contemporary efforts to deny at the state level rights secured at the national level is intensely dangerous and must be fought with all the energy and mobilization we can muster but it will fail eventually, I am convinced.

 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.

We will defeat the racists.  We will vote down the homophobes.  We will secure for women the reproductive rights that now are under such concerted attack.   But our opponents will then be able to say, truthfully:  "We are still here.  We exist, we have names, we have jobs, we love, we grieve, we raise children, we vote, we die."

Those of us on the left who find that time and demography are our friends in these fights need to ask ourselves how we think this country can acknowledge the existence of, find place for, those whose deepest [and most irrational] convictions we abhor.  What do we imagine they can and will do as they suffer defeat after defeat but remain unreconciled to the social and legal changes that, in their eyes, threaten their existence and constitute the victory of evil?

I am certain of two things which together seem to foretell a bleak future:  First, these are issues on which no compromise by us is acceptable;  and Second, violent confrontation and war over them would be an unmitigated disaster.  What then do we imagine the losers in this cultural and demographic struggle will do?  We are talking about a very large number of people -- certainly millions, even tens of millions, probably scores of millions or more.  How can they be integrated into a society that, in their eyes, is becoming the embodiment of evil? 

 

SELF-REFERENTIALITY

Back in the forties and fifties [and maybe even in the thirties] the secretary of the Harvard Philosophy Department was a lovely woman named Ruth Allen who seemed to be the embodiment of the collective memory of the department.  At a department meeting during my brief stint as a lowly Instructor in Philosophy and General Education a question came up about whether something or other could be done in conformity with Harvard's rules.  No one knew the answer, and a question was dispatched to Ruth Allen to see whether she knew.  Back came the answer, Yes, that could be done.  When one sceptical member of the department asked on what precedent she based this judgment, her answer was, Something she had decided to do in an earlier year!  Shades of the U. S. Supreme Court.

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

AUTUMNAL MUSINGS

Posted on the side of my file cabinet next to my desk are three photographs.  The first is a black and white snapshot of Susie, taken in May 1952 at Connecticut College for Women [as it was then called].  She is seated on a lawn, wearing a short-sleeved v-neck blouse and and a dirndl skirt flared out around her, her hair in the page boy that she had affected since I first fell in love with her in high school in 1948.  The second is our wedding photograph, taken at the Northampton City Hall after our marriage on August 25, 1987.  We are in dress-up street clothes because it was the City Clerk who married us.  The third is the small head shot she just had taken so that we could renew her passport before going back to Paris in October.

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. 

DREAMS OF A BOOMER WANNABE


Susie and I were born in the depths of the Great Depression, a bit less than a generation before the advent of the post-World War II Baby Boomers, but we have ridden along with the Boomers, senior associates, as it were, through the doldrums of the Eisenhower years, the excitement of the Sixties, the trauma of Watergate, the despair of the Reagan revanchement and Bush fiasco, and all the horribles of these past years.  The one certainty in an uncertain world is that every year we all get one year older.

Advertisers and movie makers, allured by the buying power and sheer size of the Boomer generation, have crafted their commodities to suit.  As the Boomers have aged, Hollywood has trotted along with them, making Beach Blanket Bingo when the Boomers were teenagers and Die Hard as they approached middle age.

Now the Boomers, staring their own personal sixties in the face, crave amusements appropriate to impending Senior Citizen status, and so, yesterday afternoon, Susie and I took in RED 2, the sequel to the 2010 action comedy, RED.  RED stands for "Retired Extremely Dangerous," which is as perfect a three-word encapsulation of an aging Boomer's fantasies as one could possibly devise.

RED 2 stars Bruce Willis [58], John Malkovich [60], Helen Mirren [67], and Anthony Hopkins [75].  The love interest is two young hotties, Mary-Louise Parker [48] and Catherine Zeta-Jones [43.]  Each one is an old friend whom we recall fondly from their [and our] salad days.  The action is flamboyant and suitably implausible -- but then, even when Bruce Willis was young, we knew he was not really doing all those impossible things in Die Hard.  Hopkins has never been more delightful, and Mirren is the sexiest sixty-seven year old I have ever seen.

Like the Bourne and OO7 franchises, the RED films feature a good deal of tourist footage of world-class cities -- New York, London, Paris, Moscow.  The Paris segment was an especial treat for Susie and me because much of it was filmed in our quartier.  When Willis and Zeta-Jones sit down at a sidewalk cafe for a drink and chat, we both immediately recognized it as a familiar bistro on rue La Montagne Ste. Geneviève just down the street from the Place du Panthéon, three blocks from our apartment. 

Do you suppose some evening I will actually run into Catherine Zeta-Jones and Bruce Willis and John Malkovich and Helen Mirren and Anthony Parker and Mary-Louise Parker?  One can dream.

Friday, July 19, 2013

BRAGGING RIGHTS

Today Paul Krugman wrote an Op Ed for the NY TIMES in which he predicted that China's economy would crash.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/19/opinion/krugman-hitting-chinas-wall.html?hp&_r=0

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.

STIGMATA OF A WASTED LIFE

I am currently working on a 197 game winning streak of FreeCell [without use of the Undo button.]

A VERY INTERESTING ARTICLE

I have long looked to Juan Cole for informed, intelligent commentary on the Middle East, but a friend, Robert Shore, called my attention to this article by Cole on a different subject of enormous importance.  I read it and found it very valuable.  I recommend it.

http://www.juancole.com/2013/07/bankruptcy-americas-globalization.html

TU QUOQUE


In my previous post, I invoked the well-known slogan of Marshal Mcluhan, "The medium is the message," by which I understand him to have meant that the form of a communication ["the medium"] so constrains and dominates the communication ["the message"] that it comes virtually to be the message communicated.  After putting up that post, whose purpose it was to explain my reaction to televised discussions of the Trayvon Martin case, I reflected that it was also quite apposite to my experience as a blogger.

I took to blogging, at the suggestion of my son, Patrick, when the prospect of retirement loomed frighteningly before me.  It is not for me a natural form of writing, anymore than is Face Book or YouTube or Twitter.  In April 2010, I thought I had found a way of bending the blog to my natural inclinations.  I began a lengthy autobiography, posted seriatim.  When I had brought that to conclusion [by writing the story of my life up to the moment in which I was writing it], I was loath to give up the genre of the extended essay, and launched a series of tutorials, mini-tutorials, and "appreciations" on a very wide range of subjects.  By April 2012, the autobiography and tutorials together had run to more than 400,000 words, the equivalent of three good sized books [or eight doctoral dissertations!] 

But even the most indefatigable of writers run out of themes sooner or later [leaving to one side such phenomena as Georges Simenon and Agatha Christie], and the form of the blog has defeated me.  I have been reduced to comments on the passing scene and navel gazing musings like this one.  One might have expected that having had my say, I would simply fall silent, but having told my name the live long day to an admiring blog, I am compelled to continue.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

MCCLUHAN AND KIERKEGAARD


Today I continue my extended meditation on the Trayvon Martin debacle.  Rather than talk about the case itself, I want to say something about my response to the extensive, obsessive discussion of the case by cable television pundits and opinionators.  More particularly, I have been trying to understand why I cannot bring myself to listen to that commentary even when it is offered by people with whom I fundamentally agree.  Some of those who have appeared [Bob Herbert, for example] are African-American reporters or columnists who have offered searing, heartrending accounts of their own experiences and those of their teenage sons.  Those comments express an involvement with American racism far beyond anything I have myself experienced, and I would have thought that however painful I found such accounts, I would feel a need to hear them and to offer my own silent assent.  And yet something compels me to turn off the television set or change channels whenever the comments begin.  Why, I ask myself, is this so?

My answer, such as it may be, traces its lineage both to Marshall McLuhan and to Søren Kierkegaard.  From McLuhan I take the profound insight that the medium is the message, a slogan with very wide application.  From Kierkegaard I have learned the distinction between the ethical and the aesthetic -- namely that the essence of the ethical is repetition whereas the essence of the aesthetic is novelty.

First, McLuhan.  Long ago, as a young man in New York City, teaching at Columbia, I experienced firsthand the wisdom of McLuhan's slogan.  I was one of a small group of lefties invited during the late Sixties to appear on David Suskind's television show to talk about radicalism in the university.  The six of us were rambunctious and full of beans and spent our time beating up on Suskind for his lily-livered liberalism.  We thought we had demolished him, and were pretty pleased with ourselves, until, as the credits were rolling at the end of our half-hour of speaking truth to power, he turned to us and said enthusiastically, "Great show!"  All of a sudden, it washed over me.  Suskind was in the business of producing, week after week, a show that would generate enough sparks to keep viewers riveted and sponsors satisfied.  We had very kindly provided him with just that.  Next week, we would be gone, he would be back, perhaps with a group of right wing scolds, and so long as the excitement did not languish, his ratings would keep the show on the air and his paycheck coming.

Cable and television commentators, whatever their political leanings, are in the business of attracting viewers whose demographics please the ad agencies.  The one thing they cannot abide is dead air time.  Their stock in trade is novelty.  But ethical truth does not change, as Socrates reminds Callicles in the Gorgias, and hence the essence of ethical truth is repetition.  When Alex Wagner [whom I love] or Rachel Maddow [whom I also love] or Chris Matthews [whom I tolerate] or Joe Scarborough [whom I despise] assembles a panel to discuss the Trayvon Martin case, the unspoken imperatives are: First, that they keep talking, even if there is no more to be said;  Second, that they acknowledge the reasonableness and acceptability of the views expressed by their fellow panelists, even if that is manifestly untrue;  and Finally that they refrain from offering judgments so uncompromisingly declarative and final that they shut off rather than open up discussion.

For the most part, I am comfortable with these rules of the trade.  I turn on those shows to be amused, to have my own prejudices echoed, to enjoy a bit of schadenfreude at the expense of the Right.  I do not turn them on to be informed, nor, Lord help me, to be intellectually challenged.  Only rarely does one encounter in these settings someone intelligent and well-informed who has not internalized the rules of the genre.  That is what makes Elizabeth Warren so delightful, for example.

But when a genuine moral outrage is perpetrated, such as the murder of Trayvon Martin, the last thing I want is amusement.  I feel rage, and I want, but cannot have, revenge.  The formal constraints of the medium defeat even those commentators who are experiencing the same rage and seek to give voice to it.  They are as easily defeated as I was all those years ago on the David Suskind show.  McLuhan was right.  The medium really is the message.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

NIGHT SWEATS


Fantasy is the last resort of the powerless, and as a consequence, I spend a good deal of my time day-dreaming about possessing the power to change the world.  One of my persistent fantasies is rooted in the peculiar structure of American politics, and since the realization of this fantasy only requires the cooperation of a progressive billionaire, and not the magical acquisition of superhuman capabilities, I am able for long periods of time to sustain the hope that a pair of lefty Koch brothers will come along, to whom I can play Karl Rove.

Last night, I spent a good deal of time tossing and turning -- a consequence, I think, of my distress over the Trayvon Martin travesty -- and at about three a.m., I found some solace by rehearsing the following fantasy.  Since this is a serious blog, I must preface my fantasy with a brief discussion of the structure of American politics.

There are five well-known facts about American politics that offer an opening for a seriously committed left-wing billionaire.

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.

Second, the American electoral system is winner-take-all within districts, with the consequence that, as Lani Guinier argued in a well-known series of journal articles, there are a great many "wasted" votes.  [See The Tyranny of the Majority, 1995]  A vote can be described as wasted if it makes no difference in the outcome of the election.  It has no effect on the outcome of a Congressional district if the winner gains 70% of the vote instead of 51%.

Third, a startlingly large proportion of the eligible electorate does not vote -- 45% in presidential elections, 65% in off-year elections.   Here is a link to a table showing voter turnout every two years going back to 1960.  http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0781453.html  It is remarkably stable.

Fourth, American society is very highly, albeit for the most part informally, residentially segregated.  Housing costs of course impose economic segregation on the population, and that segregation coincides pretty closely with the lines that are drawn around electoral districts -- wards, precincts, parishes [in Louisiana].  But Americans are also residentially segregated racially, ethnically, religiously, culturally, and by political leanings.  There are African-American communities and Asian communities and Hispanic communities and Catholic communities and Jewish communities and Russian communities and Haitian communities and yuppie communities and fundamentalist Protestant communities and progressive communities and conservative communities.  There are even a handful of anarchist communities and vegetarian communities and biker communities and survivalist communities.

Finally, a large and rapidly growing segment of the American electorate speaks Spanish either as a first language or else as the family tongue, and these Spanish speakers, although very widely distributed geographically across American society, are concentrated in identifiable areas.

I am going to make one large assumption, supported, I believe, by some polling data, but certainly not necessarily true -- namely, that those in a district who do not vote would, if they voted, cast their votes in roughly the proportions of those who actually vote.  It is easy enough to see why that might not be true.  Conservatives in a liberal district, or liberals in a conservative district, might get discouraged by their awareness that they were in the minority and just not turn out.  But I am going to make that assumption, and follow out its implications.

Suppose we were to gather detailed data on the numbers of eligible voters, the proportion who actually voted, and the results in elections going back several cycles for every voting district in America, right down to the smallest unit for which data are recorded -- the ward, precinct, or parish.  You might imagine that these data are readily available, but you would be wrong.  Although the demographic data can be gathered or inferred from the decennial Federal census, voting is controlled by state governments, and it turns out to be extremely tedious to collect those numbers, but they are public, and it can of course be done.

Once we have all the data entered in an appropriate computer program [assembling the data and having a good program written are among the things for which we need the help of the sympathetic billionaire], we can then ask the computer the following sort of question:

In Republican Congressional districts that are close enough to be possibly competitive, are there local electoral districts [towns, individual precincts, etc.] that are both heavily Democratic and also have sizeable numbers of eligible non-voters, whether registered or not registered?  If a concentrated strictly non-partisan registration and get-out-the-vote campaign were conducted in those districts, could such a campaign generate an increase in voter turnout large enough to produce a net gain of Democratic votes sufficient to tilt the Congressional seat Blue?

For example, in a heavily Democratic town nestled in a Republican district, there might be 20,000 non-voters.  If a campaign could turn out 10,000 of them, and if the town was 70% Democratic, that ought to produce a net gain of 4000 Democratic votes, if my assumption is correct that those who do not vote would volte like those who do vote.

The point of the stipulation that the campaign be non-partisan is to get around the campaign financing laws.  It appears to me that a strictly non-partisan campaign constructed along the lines I have outlined to produce a net Democratic party gain would be legal, so long as it did nothing resembling in any way campaigning for a particular party.  The fact that the districts were chosen in the manner outlined above would not cause a problem under the existing law, I think.

And this is the point of appealing to the left-wing billionaire.  He or she would be forbidden to donate vast sums to a political party, and probably would be forbidden from conducting a partisan registration and get out the vote campaign.  But a targeted non-partisan campaign would, I think, be highly effective and legal.

Notice that such a campaign could not make use of television ads [save in one special case, to be discussed below.]  There is no way that television, or even radio and print, can target precisely defined geographic electoral divisions.  Any ad that reaches those in our heavily Democratic undervoting district will also reach voters in heavily Republican districts, and have the counterproductive effect of increasing turnout in the wrong segments of the population.  The campaign would have to be an intensive ground game with paid full time workers recruited in the district and working over a long period of time [six months or more] in that district.  This, of course, is why we need a leftwing billionaire and not just some lefty yuppies willing to toss a thousand dollars apiece in the pot.

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.

Well, there it is, the product of a fevered imagination in chewing on itself at three a.m.

Does anyone know a sympathetic billionaire?