Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

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Monday, September 30, 2013


My extended response to Magpie's questions about Marcuse has in turn prompted some interesting comments, including an extended and thoughtful comment by Howard Berman.  I should like, if I may, to take just a moment to say something about Marx and Freud, who were the subject of Magpie's original questions.  I shall be repeating things I said in my tutorials on the thought of Marx and of Freud, but I have found, to my astonishment [hem hem] that not everyone who visits this blog has read everything I have ever written [how can that be?] so a little repetition may not be superfluous.

Marx was, before all else, an economic historian and theorist.  That is what he devoted most of his mature years to, and that is the subject of more than five thousand pages of his published and unpublished writings, including all three volumes of Capital, the three volumes of Theories of Surplus Value, the Grundrisse, and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.  Freud was a medical doctor, trained as a neurologist.  He spent his entire professional life, six hours or more each day, seeing patients.  His speculative writings, like Civilization and its Discontents, and his excursions into armchair analysis [of precisely the sort that his own theories said was impossible], such as Moses and Monotheism, are no more expressions of his most accomplished and professional work than The Holy Family is an expression of Marx at his most serious.

In trying to understand great thinkers like Marx and Freud, I find it useful to remind myself what they actually spent most of their time doing.  Both Marx and Freud have been hijacked by Literary Criticism -- I do not think that is too strong a word.  Neither of them would recognize himself in what has been written by those who claim to be their followers or to have been inspired by them.  Marcuse, despite giving very little evidence of familiarity with Economics, was, I think, actually being true to both thinkers in his efforts at a rapprochement between them.

Freud was, I repeat, trained as a neurologist, as a medical doctor.  His theory of the unconscious was an attempt to interpret observations made in the course of his treatment of patients.  To the end of his life, as his writings make clear, he assumed that there must be a neurological basis for everything he observed and theorized about, despite the fact that, as he well knew, medical science was not in his day advanced enough to provide more than the sketchiest anatomical and neurological grounding for what he called the Unconscious, the Libido, the Id, the Ego, the Superego, and so forth.  My own guess is that were he to return now and discover what could be done with brain scans and MRI's and CT scans and the rest, he would be thrilled and delighted.  The one thing he absolutely would not do is retreat into literary theory or ideological critique as a sanctuary protected from the latest advances of hard science.

One further point about Freud:  the focus of his medical practice was the treatment of what he called "neuroses."  He was well aware that there were many other psychological illnesses and presentations that did not fall into that category -- psychoses, psychopathologies, and so on.  He did not think his theories were the key to treating all mental illness -- only neuroses.  It is useful to keep that in mind.


I frequently mention my daily four mile walk on this blog.  I am obviously pathetically pleased with myself for keeping at it when I am almost eighty.  But the truth is that the walk, although not hard, is terminally boring.  I take the same route every day of the week, past the same trees and houses, the same UNC golf course and pond and club house, the same waste water treatment facility, the same Ronald McDonald House.   And then I turn around and walk back home.  I daydream a lot, I plan blog posts, I have political arguments with imaginary interlocutors, all to keep myself amused.

There are two things I look for to tell Susie about, rather like the little boy in  the first Dr. Seuss book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street.  The first is buses.  Chapel Hill has a system of free buses that follow a number of routes, and one of them, the HU bus, runs along the road that is the principal part of my walk.  As the buses roar by, I count them.  Early in the morning, they run frequently, and I usually see six or seven coming and going during my walk.  But on very rare occasions, if all the stars are aligned just right, I see eight HU buses.  That is always a very big day for me.  Today I saw eight buses.

The other thing I look for is the resident blue heron.  He actually shows up in a number of venues -- the pond near our condo, a pond a little farther away, and the big pond that is part of the golf course alongside which I walk.  Susie sees the heron also when she takes a walk to one of the ponds.  Whenever I see the heron, I am sure to tell her after I return from my walk.  Sometimes, if I am very lucky, he takes off and flies overhead, with his huge leathery wings looking for all the world like the pterodactyls at the end of Jurassic Park.

Well, this morning on my return leg, I saw the blue heron by the golf course pond.  As I looked at him, he took flight, and then a second blue heron took off from the near shore!  And then a third blue heron flew overhead.  I knew that I would have very exciting news for Susie when I got home, so I soldiered on.  And when I was almost home, passing Brixx Pizza across the street from our condo, A FOURTH HERON FLEW OVERHEAD.

Eight buses and four herons.  This is a day to remember.

Sunday, September 29, 2013


I find contemporary American politics so distant from anything I could recognize as admirable that it is hard for me to comment on the passing scene, since expressions of dismay or disgust rather quickly become old.  So I was pleased to find, in the Comments section of this blog, a series of questions posed by Magpie with regard to the tutorial I wrote a while back on Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man.   Rather than snark once more at Ted Cruz or rummage about online for some sign, however faint, of movement on the left, I shall take a few moments to address the questions.  I think they are interesting.

Magpie begins with this observation:  "I got the general impression, from the tutorial, that the process of combining the insights of Freud and Marx by Western Marxists in a way is an attempt to provide micro-foundations to Marxist thought.  The Marginal Revolution (from Menger, Jevons and Walras), for instance, was supposed to trace economic behaviour back to individual's "rational" decision-making.  Similarly, Freud would, within Marxist thought, provide the "micro" theory.  Then, quoting me, 'Freud took the larger social and economic world of himself and his patients as a given fact, to which, as a medical doctor, he gave very little thought. His realm of investigation was the individual unconscious, with heavy emphasis on the development of the unconscious in early childhood'."

I think this reading by Magpie is exactly correct.  By the time the Frankfurt School thinkers came along,  Marx's economic theories were well and widely understood by them, as were Freud's theories, but they could see that Marx's analysis, at the level of the capitalist economic relations of production and distribution did not in any useful or obvious way connect with Freud's insights into individual motivation.  Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and others undertook to make those connections.  Marcuse had two brilliant ideas, it seems to me, that he set out in two books:  One Dimensional Man and Eros and Civilization.

The two ideas, briefly [this could take hours otherwise] were these:  First, "surplus repression," a riff on Marx's notion of "surplus labor."  Marcuse accepted Freud's claim that civilization rests on the repression, or at least sublimation, of powerful infantile libidinal urges and drives.  All of us must learn to defer gratification in order to interact productively with the world, to become toilet trained, to restrain our sexual drives, and substitute the reality principle for the pleasure principle, as Freud put it.  But, in a brilliant turn, Marcuse argued that capitalism exacts surplus repression over and above what is required for civilization, a surplus whose only function is to get us to do the excess work required to feed capitalism's insatiable appetite for profit. 

Marcuse's second insight, fostered by his observation of cultural changes in the Sixties, was that capitalism robs our sublimated desires of their revolutionary potential by what he called "repressive desublimation."  This idea is a bit more complicated to explain, and interested readers are urged to look up my tutorial either on or in Volume IV Part Two of my Collected Papers, available as an e-book on  Briefly, Marcuse's claim is that the psychic energy that fuels the unsatisfied infantile fantasies of omnipotence and instant gratification can serve as the impetus to real-world revolutionary action, despite the fact that the fantasies are doomed to be let unsatisfied.  These longings find their public expression in such acts of cultural defiance as hairstyles, music, speech, and sexual transgressions.  Modern capitalism, Marcuse suggests, has learned to convert those rebellions into emasculated, denatured tools of advertising and the sale of cultural commodities.  The desublimation is, paradoxically, repressive, not liberatory , because it disconnects the public displays from the unconscious revolutionary roots.

Magpie goes on:  "My question is: must social science be ultimately grounded on individual human behaviour? What about "structures"? I suppose I am trying to query about your views on the ontology of social sciences and Marxism implied by Freud."

Well, I always get queasy when folks start talking about ontology, but my answer is that a fully satisfactory understanding of capitalist society requires both a systematic analysis of economic, political, and other institutional structures, in an historical context, and an understanding of the roots of individual action, the two ideally being integrated into a seamless theoretical and descriptive whole.  A tall order, obviously, and no one yet has accomplished it, but that is what we ought to be trying to do, I think.  This implies, of course, that we must ignore disciplinary academic boundaries, and inform ourselves about everything that bears on our effort -- economics, history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, literary theory, political science -- the works.

Magpie concludes by asking "More generally, as a Marxist philosopher active and participating in theoretical debates during the 20th century, how do you evaluate developments such as the New Left?"

Like Marcuse [who was, of course, a generation or more older than I], I was excited by the New Left.  Indeed, I suppose I was part of it, although I did not sing its songs [preferring Bach cantatas] or smoke its pot or, save on the rare occasion, go on its marches.  For a while, I really believed we were in this country on the very edge of a new day.  The murders -- of JFK, RFK, Malcolm X, MLK -- were a blow to the pit of the stomach, but even so, I thought the promise of the labor movement and the New Deal and the old Socialist movement of which my grandfather was a part would be realized.  When all the shouting and singing died down, we found that we had a very real and enormously productive Civil Rights Movement, sparked, led, and staffed by African-Americans.  We had the beginnings of a Women's Movement that, a little later, worked major changes in America and continues to do so today.  We had a big cultural shift, which seemed to consist principally in more casual clothing, more facial hair, pot smoking, and an end to the assumption that an FBI agent in a movie was automatically the Good Guy -- and very little else.  Nixon resigned, but we got a major shift of American politics to the right, not to the left.  I suppose the biggest real and important institutional change of that period was the end of the military draft and the creation of a professional army that could, without significant public opposition, be used as an instrument of empire.

Well, I hope this serves as an answer, Magpie.  Thank you for the questions.


My grandniece [my sister's granddaughter] Emily, having graduated from Mills College with a B.A. in Mathematics, is now doing six months of graduate study in Hungary before applying to grad schools in Math here.   She has a wonderful blog, which I have linked to in the past.

This morning I read her description of a Math class.  You can find it here.   I recommend it.   It is not only charming [she really is a peach!] but also quite suggestive about teaching methods.  I would love to have had this teacher Miklos when I was a Math student.

Saturday, September 28, 2013


One of the memes [I hope I am using this term correctly] in the comment sections of the political blogs and websites is "pass the popcorn" and its variations.  The idea is that when, say, the Republicans are acting in flamboyantly self-destructive ways, the only thing to do is to treat it as a reality TV show, make some popcorn, sit back on the couch, and just enjoy it.

There is an idea floating about in the past twenty-four hours, growing out of Senator Ted Cruz's very public attempts to whip up the frenzy of House right-wing Republicans against Speaker Boehner, that perhaps they will choose Cruz as Speaker of the House!  It seems that the Constitution specifies that there will be a Speaker of the House, but does not require that the Speaker be a member of the House.

To which there is only one possible response:

Pass the popcorn.

Friday, September 27, 2013


In 1977, I ran for a seat on the Northampton, MA School Committee.  There were two open city-wide seats [the other six seats represented Wards], and three candidates.  I came in third.  That pretty well settled any question of my political talent.  School Committee Member was not quite Dogcatcher, but it was pretty close.  So let's agree that I am unfit to offer any one advice about practical electoral politics.  But I was a university  teacher for fifty-three years, if one counts my time as a graduate Teaching Fellow, and I will ask you to take my word for it that I was a really good teacher.  So I do think I am competent to offer advice about how to teach.  And the simple fact is that despite his many talents, not least among which is his truly astonishing gift for electoral politics, Barack Obama is a really lousy teacher.  I noted this fact about him a long time ago, but I have been thinking about it in the past week or two as an argument has raged about funding the Federal Government and raising the debt ceiling.

Good teaching has very little to do with an engaging classroom manner, a fund of funny stories, or even mastery of the subject matter [as I demonstrated during my first teaching job by adequately teaching a subject about which I knew practically nothing, namely European History.]  The secret of good teaching is knowing what your students do and don't know, and then telling them at each stage what they need to know to understand what you are saying and to follow you to the next stage in the unfolding of the subject.  It is important to know both what they do know as well as what they do not know, so that you do not alienate them by explaining what they already understand or lose them by assuming what in fact they do not understand.

Consider the current argument about whether to raise the debt ceiling [I call it an argument because it has not risen to the level of a debate.]  Any marginally aware American with even the most modest grasp of the elements of the American political system knows that the U. S. debt is the total of all the expenditures that past Congresses have authorized and that past Administrations have then spent in accordance with the instructions of Congress, over and above those monies that past Congresses have caused to be raised by enacting bills imposing taxes on American individuals and corporations.  Had past Congresses chosen not to authorize those expenditures, or had they chosen to impose taxes sufficient to cover those expenditures, there would be no U. S. debt.  Every two years, Americans decide whether to send back to Congress the men and women who have been authorizing the expenditures and imposing the taxes.  Any time the American people want to stop the country from running up the size of the debt, they are free to do so by electing Representatives who will either hold down the spending authorizations to the level of taxation, or else raise taxes to cover the level of spending they choose to authorize.  Raising the debt limit does not constitute an authorization to make new expenditures, nor does it constitute the imposition of new taxes.  It simply authorizes the Treasury to cover those most recent expenditures that exceed the most recent taxation levels by borrowing from the people around the world who are willing to lend money to the United States.

I say that any marginally aware person knows these things, but there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that perhaps two hundred to two hundred and fifty million Americans do not know these things.  How can they not know them, inasmuch as they are so obvious?  Well you may wonder.  But pretty clearly they do not.  What then do they think insofar as they pay any attention at all to the argument about raising the debt ceiling?  I would be willing to bet good money that enormous numbers of Americans think that raising the debt ceiling is a way of authorizing the President to spend money -- to spend it on Medicare, or on Obamacare, or on food stamps, or on environmental regulations, or even on the army and the navy.  This is not true, of course.  Quite to the contrary, raising the debt ceiling has no effect whatsoever on future spending.  Its sole effect is to enable the U. S. government to pay for things that this very Congress has voted to spend money on.

President Obama understands this, of course.  He understands it, I would imagine, with a degree of detail and depth that is shared by a relatively small fraction of the American people.  But I really think he does not know how many people in this country do not understand this. 

No, that is not quite correct.  The truth is rather more complicated.  I think he cannot credit, cannot take seriously, cannot think it his job to speak to the people who do not understand something as elementary as this because deep down, inside, he has a quite understandable contempt for people this dim about the simplest and most obvious facts of public life.  "But," you will object, "he has given speech after speech in which he has said that we must pay our debts, must not allow the United States to default, that all he is asking is that we pay for what we have already spent."

He has indeed made those speeches, but listen carefully to one of them some time.  As he says these things, he tilts his head a little to one side, he smiles, his voice rises with an undertone of an incredulous laugh, all of which conveys very clearly something like the following:  "We, you and I [speaking to his audience], understand, as anyone must, that  [and now insert everything I laid out four paragraphs ago], and the Republicans really understand these things as well, but the scoundrels are pretending that they do not understand them in an attempt to blackmail me into agreeing to policies that they were unable to win approval for in the last election, and I am not going to let them get away with it."

Now you and I may enjoy this shared sense of superiority over the dastardly Republicans [except for Chris -- don't even bother, Chris, I know], because you and I are among the fifty million or fewer folks who understand all of this and are therefore able to join with him in his amused contempt for those ne'er do well Republicans.  But the other two hundred and fifty million Americans hear the scorn in his voice and know that it is directed at them as well as at the Republicans.  They may not know why he is looking down on them, but they know he is, and they don't like it.

That is the mark of the bad teacher!  I have seen small scale classroom examples of this same thinly concealed contempt countless times.  As I observed in my Autobiography when talking about the members of the UMass Philosophy Department, the characteristic facial expression of the contemporary Analytic Philosopher is the smirk.  That is why I was so enchanted, on my first day in the UMass Afro-American Studies Department by the sound of a genuine belly laugh.

It is interesting to contrast Obama with Bill Clinton.  Clinton, I suspect, is quite as smart as Obama.  They are both very smart men.  But Clinton never speaks in a way that excludes the two hundred and fifty million.  He does not speak down to them.  He speaks to them.

It is, I believe, a genuine character flaw in Obama that he cannot speak to the people whose support he needs.  They are not in fact stupid, and whatever the shortcomings of their grasp of the Congressional processes for authorizing spending, they are hypersensitive to condescension, in all its forms. 

How will all of this play out?  I have no idea.  But I really hope that Obama decides to mint that trillion dollar coin.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


When I began my undergraduate studies in 1950, Harvard was in the process of phasing in a program of large required lecture courses taught by the most distinguished members of the faculty, with discussion sections led by legions of "Section Men," as they were called [there were precious few Section Women in those days.]   Undergraduates were required to satisfy this new General Education requirement by taking one course in Humanities, one in  Social Sciences, and one in Natural Sciences [although serious science students could satisfy the third of these by taking a real science course.]  My second year, I signed up for Hum 3, an omnium gatherum of a course in which we read some epics, some history, some novels, and a bit of this and that .  Hum 3 was taught entirely in sections, and my Section Man was an entirely forgettable little man named Mr. Brown.  I was also taking Willard van Orman Quine's graduate course on Mathematical Logic, Hao Wang's graduate seminar on Set Theory, and Henry Aiken's course on the Treatise of Human Nature, so I did not actually pay much attention to Hum 3, but one of the readings, Feodor Dostoyevsky's great novel Crime and Punishment, did make an impression on me.  So much so, in fact, that in my spare time I read The Possessed, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov.  Most readers of this last novel focus their attention on the saintly Alyosha or the earthy Dmitri or the intellectual Ivan, but I was always fascinated by the bastard son Smerdyakov, who imitates his legitimate brother Ivan without any real understanding of the spiritual dimensions of that ostensibly coldly rational man, and ends up actually murdering the father of this unlikely brood, old man Karamazov.

Nine years later, when I was myself teaching one of those General Education courses [Soc Sci 5] as a young Instructor in Philosophy and General Education, Senator John F. Kennedy ran for the Presidency against Vice-President Richard M. Nixon.  Nixon, as my older readers will recall, was a rather creepy character.  Recalling The Brothers Karamazov, I took to comparing him to Smerdyakov, saying that he bore to Kennedy the same relation that the bastard son bore to Ivan.  This was, needless to say, a complicated snark, considering Dostoyevsky's evident distaste for the Western irreligious rationalistic philosophy that so fascinates Ivan.

In the past several days, the news has been dominated by the war that has broken out between Texas Senator  Ted Cruz and his fellow Republicans.  A lengthy portrait of Cruz published by GQ [you can find it here] has provoked a good deal of discussion, especially with such tidbits as the revelation that when Cruz was a Harvard Law student, he let it be known to his fellow students that he would only study with graduates of Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, and not with graduates of the "minor Ivies" like Brown and Penn. 

Chris Matthews has, with considerable justification, spent a good deal of time comparing Cruz to the late Senator McCarthy, whom Cruz both physically resembles and in various ways manages to channel.  But I have found myself thinking more and more about Smerdyakov.  There is something both corrupt and pathetic in Cruz's endless self-advertisement and his obsessive fascination with the most external marks of intellectuality, such as his possession of degrees from Princeton and Harvard.  Obama exhibits something of the same fascination [witness his otherwise incomprehensible support of Larry Summers], but in Obama this is modulated and humanized by a measure of genuine transactional intelligence and imagination [Chris, do not even bother -- I know you disagree].  Cruz is, in a sense, Obama's Smerdyakov.

Just a thought.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


Since I go to bed at eight p.m. or so [I don't even stay up long enough to see Rachel Maddow], I never ever see prime time television.  But I do have NetFlix, and for the past several days, I have been binge watching episodes of the ABC prime-time series Scandal.  Probably all of you know what it is, but for the purists and early birds among you, Scandal is a political thriller now in its third season that can best be described as West Wing written by the Marquis de Sade.  The central character is Olivia Pope, a "fixer" who is having an affair with the [moderate] Republican president.  The cast is talented and attractive, so naturally I identify with some of them and have strong positive feelings toward others.  The only problem is that everyone in the show, without exception, is a total amoral sleazebag.  Huck, a scruffy charismatic ex-CIA operative, is a torturer and killer who likes his work.  Cyrus, the chief of staff, Mellie, the First Lady, Olivia, and a fatcat donor named Doyle together conspired to steal the election for the president by gimmicking voting machines in Ohio.  Murder, corruption, vote fixing, bribery, torture, treason, and common ordinary spying are the stock in trade of the entire cast.  The only person thus far who seems not to be in on the crime wave is the fanatic right wing bible-spouting Vice President [played, Google tells me, by the daughter of Richard Burton, no less!]  The Democratic governor from whom the election was stolen gets away with killing his wife's lover [the contractor redoing their house], and then tries to blackmail the president into putting him on a unity ticket for reelection.

I will run out of episodes pretty soon, at which point I can return to commenting on the real world of politics, peopled by the likes of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and Mike Lee, who cannot hold a candle to the characters in Scandal.

By the way, Kerry Washington, the beautiful young Black woman who plays Olivia Pope, spoke at the 2012 Democratic Nominating Convention. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013


I grow weary of angry commentary on the politics of the day, none of which seems to have much effect on the course of events, so today I propose to amuse myself, and perhaps some of you as well, by continuing my discussion of the contrast between historians with too much and with too little data.  Let me begin by acknowledging the lovely comment of J.R. concerning the very different circumstances of historians of early Greek thought and historians of the great figures of  eighteenth and nineteenth century Philosophy.

Today, I want to resurrect and tell you about a delightful controversy that flared up briefly in the middle of the twentieth century between Georges Lefebvre, whom you have already met on this blog, and Alfred Cobban.  Lefebvre was a leading proponent of the Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution as a struggle that began as a right-wing aristocratic rebellion against the French monarchy and then changed into a seizure of political power by a growing bourgeoisie that had already displaced the landed aristocracy as the central economic force in Old Regime France.  In a phrase, the Marxist view was that the French Revolution was a major episode in the world-wide rise of the bourgeoisie, marking the inauguration of a new stage in the historical development of the forces and relations of production, a new stage of history.

Alfred Cobban, a distinguished English historian of the French Revolution, was a leader of a revisionist school of historians who rejected the Marxist interpretation of the revolution that was dominant at that time, in favor of a more complex reading of the facts that made the political revolution out to be less significant in France's historical development than previously thought.

Cobban wrote a pamphlet entitled Historians and the Causes of the French Revolution that was published in 1946 and reprinted in 1948, in which he undertook a synoptic review of the development of historiography of the Revolution, culminating in a brief two and a half page discussion of Lefebvre that was a direct challenge to the received interpretation.  Cobban claimed that the standard view of the Revolution was "supported by no more than isolated facts," and went on to state that "as qualification after qualification is introduced, the outlines of the accepted picture of a revolution of bourgeois merchants, financiers and industrialists become more and more obscure."  Lefebvre responded with a strongly critical review of Cobban's pamphlet. 

Then, in 1954, Cobban was installed as Professor of French History at the University of London, and he chose to title his inaugural lecture "The Myth of the French Revolution."  What made the event so delicious was that the French Ambassador to the Court of St. James was in attendance.  It was a deliberate slap in the Ambassador's face to make him listen to an argument that the defining moment of his native land was a myth!  To Frenchmen of the mid-twentieth century, a mere decade after the liberation of Paris by the Allied Forces and the reestablishment of Free France, The Revolution was the defining iconic moment in the two thousand year history of La Belle France.

Cobban's argument, which he had already set forth in scholarly publications, was based on his detailed study of the biographies of all of the men who served in the National Assembly, the first of the two great gatherings of elected representatives whose actions constituted the core of the Revolution.  Cobban showed that these men were, overwhelmingly, lawyers and government officials before the Revolution, lawyers and government officials during the Revolution, and lawyers and government officials after the Revolution had been displaced by the Napoleonic Empire.  The appearance of a radical social upheaval was, Cobban said, an illusion.  The same class of men ran France before, during, and after the Revolution.  Indeed, Cobban argued, the Revolution actually set back the advance of bourgeois capitalism in France, and that economic transformation did not occur until much later in the middle of the nineteenth century.

What fascinates me about this argument is precisely that everyone involved was a hard-working, immensely knowledgeable scholar, ready to learn from and acknowledge the archival discoveries of the other side.  Neither Cobban nor Lefebvre accused his opponent of ignoring facts or cooking data or playing fast and loose with documentary evidence.  But the sheer quantity of materials was so great that neither of them could possibly resurrect and absorb all of it.  Consequently, each man necessarily, unavoidably, was compelled to bring some theoretical or ideological matrix to the materials in an effort to subdue them to a comprehensible order.  Because they brought differing ideological understandings to the data, they emerged from their archival labors with differing grand interpretations.

Does this antique dispute between two schools of professional historians matter?  I think it matters a good deal.  France has had a strong, influential socialist political tradition for almost two centuries.  In its current incarnation, it controls the presidency  and the legislatures at the national and local levels.  The theoretical interpretation of France's past plays an important role in shaping its present politics, whatever one may think of the inadequacies of the Hollande presidency.  Only a few days ago, I sketched a contrarian reading of American history designed to make sense of contemporary political disputes.  I think it makes a difference for American politics whether one embraces or rejects that reading, and I think it also makes a difference for the French what understanding of the French Revolution they adopt as the basis for their understanding of their current situation.

But leaving all of that to one side, the Cobban/Lefebvre debate is a lovely example of what can happen when historians have too much data.

Friday, September 20, 2013


All of us who are compulsive consumers of the latest political news have been mesmerized by the fratricidal in-fighting on the Republican right over competing plans to defund, repeal, or otherwise neuter the Affordable Care Act [the ACA], familiarly known as Obamacare.  The hysteria surrounding the ACA is genuinely astonishing, and I think it is worth taking some time to figure out why.  [Note, by the way, that Social Security, established in 1935, is never referred to as the Roosevelt Dole, nor is Medicare, enacted in 1965, called JohnsonCare.]  In this post, I am going to suggest a reason for the otherwise incomprehensible passions stimulated by the ACA.  This will require me to reach way back into America's history, and will involve rehearsing some things I have said before, most notably in Autobiography of an Ex-White Man and my multi-part tutorial on Afro-American Studies.  However, no-one has read the first, and relatively few have read the second, so perhaps you will forgive me for repeating myself.

The emotions aroused on the right by the ACA are quite mysterious.  It is not at all surprising that large numbers of people in the United States have intense feelings about abortion or same-sex marriage.  I may find those feelings reprehensible, but I am not surprised by them.  Nor does it surprise me that many people feel strongly about taxation, or about America's military involvements.  These are quite naturally subjects of controversy, and though we may grow angry at those who disagree with us, we ought not to be surprised by the disagreements.  But medical insurance?

Medical insurance is a bit like highways, supermarkets, or television -- a familiar part of life that we more or less take for granted.  Most of the time, those of us who have medical insurance [which is to say, eighty percent of Americans, or more] use it without giving it a great deal of deep thought.  I go to the doctor, present my insurance card to the receptionist at the front desk, perhaps pay a co-pay, see the doctor, and forget about it.  There are of course problems -- with caps, uncovered procedures, pre-existing conditions, and so forth -- many of which the ACA is designed to address.  But because the entire health care sector of the economy and society is so huge and impenetrably mysterious to most of us, it is very hard to develop passionate feelings about it.  Indeed, I suspect that we feel about health care very much as we feel about the Congress -- we have a low opinion of the system, if we have any feelings at all, but like our own doctor.

And yet, there is now a sizeable fraction of the American public, and a considerable number of Representatives and Senators, who say that they consider Obamacare an assault on everything they hold dear, a fatal blow to the American Way, a Socialist plot to destroy life as we know it, an evil so great that it is worth bringing the government to a halt and threatening the world financial system to defund it or even slow marginally the pace at which its provisions go into effect.

What on earth is going on?  The answer, I think, is actually rather simple, although unpacking it will take me more time than I usually devote to a blog post.

To put the answer in just four words, the real, underlying reason for the hysteria engendered by the ACA is:  Because Obama is Black.

All right, this is going to take a while.  North America was colonized by European adventurers looking for available land on which to grow crops that could be sold into the European market.  They seized land on the Atlantic coast and brought in indentured servants to do the real work -- men and women either transported after being convicted of crimes or else attracted by the possibility of eventually getting a piece of their own land.  The entrepreneurs bearing patents from the English king tried impressing the Native Americans into their labor force, but the effort was a failure, principally because it was too easy  for the Native Americans to run away into the woods and make their way back to their home villages and peoples.  Eventually [starting in Virginia in 1619], they hit upon the device of enslaving West Africans and bringing them to the New World as a labor force.

For well over a century, the most widespread condition of the newcomers to the New World was some form of bonded labor.  Freedom, as we now understand that condition, was reserved for a very small fraction of those of European descent and for virtually no one of African descent.  Bound laborers, White or Black, enjoyed few liberties.  They could not choose where they lived, for whom they worked, what they were paid, or whom they married.  And the extremely harsh conditions in the New World took a fearful toll.  Many, in some cases most, of the indentured servants did not survive to work off their seven year indenture.

The English brought with them the Common Law, in which there was a good deal about bound labor but nothing at all about chattel slavery.  Over the century and a half between the earliest settlements and the American Revolution, a slow and complex process took place.  Little by little, by custom, by colonial legislation, by legal decisions, and by cultural evolution, two contrasting social and legal statuses crystallized out of the complex of bound labor.  On the one side, there emerged slowly the status of hereditary chattel Slave.  On the other side, there emerged the status of Freeman.  Each of these new statuses was defined in terms of the other, and over time, they became firmly associated with visible racial traits, principally of skin color.  Although there were exceptions, some of which persisted for another century until the Civil War, it came to be understood in law and in the collective consciousness that to be White was to be a Free Man [not yet a free woman -- that took a good while longer], and to be Black was to be a Slave [despite the existence of Free Blacks up to 1865.]  The situation was captured in a catchphrase that was quite common when I was young:  when a man wanted to say that he could do as he pleased, he would say, "I am free, white, and twenty-one."  To be free was to be White, which is to say, not Black.  To be a slave was to be Black, which is to say not White.  For reasons having to do with the quite common rape of slave women by white owners and with the economic value of slaves, the English Common Law principle that the status of the child follows that of the father was reversed, so that the children of Black slaves raped by White owners were, like their mothers, slaves.  As the slave girls born to Black women and White owners grew up and themselves were raped, the "one drop" rule came to define the status of a slave, so that even someone visibly indistinguishable from a White person was classified as a slave if any of his or her forebears had been a slave.  The two contrasting statuses were written into the Constitution of the new nation, with a full panoply of legal freedoms assured to White men and the status of slave confirmed for people of African descent. 

During the three-quarters of a century between the establishment of the United States and the end of the Civil War, the relations between slaves and their owners was quite intimate -- not happy or cordial or friendly, God knows, that was a myth perpetrated by the Planter School of post-Civil War historians -- but intimate.  How could it be otherwise?  Slaves waited hand and foot on their owners.  They were raped by their owners  They wet nursed their owners' babies.  They traveled with their owners in carriages and train coaches so that they could be available to serve.  This physical closeness in no way threatened to obliterate the absolute difference between them in status and condition, because that difference was inscribed in law.  A White boy could grow up playing happily with a Black boy and then, when they had become men, sell his boyhood playmate down the river without a second thought.

During the slavery period, only well-to-do Whites owned slaves.  An adult male slave in 1850 cost as much in the slave markets as a year's wages for a free white northern worker.  There were millions of poor Whites, especially in the South, whose principal claim to self-esteem was the simple knowledge that they were not Black, not slaves.   With the end of legal slavery, things changed dramatically.  The same men and women whose presence, even physical closeness, posed no threat to Whites now became anathema.  To sit in the same train carriage with a Black man, to use the same facilities as a Black woman, to walk on the same sidewalk as a Black child very quickly came to be experienced by Whites as a threat to their safety, security, very being.  Black labor, needed by plantation owners to raise and bring in the cash crops, was beaten into submission by Black Codes and the renting out of convict gangs and the threats of lynch mobs.

Thus a new relationship emerged between free and bound, between White and Black, a relationship encapsulated in Jim Crow laws.  Whereas previously, White women expected to be served in every way by Black women, now these same women, or their daughters, found it intolerable to be served in department stores by Black clerks, so that for a long time Black women could not find even low-paying service jobs that might bring them into direct contact with Whites.  Residential segregation, which of course was impossible under slavery, when slaves had to live close to where they were required to serve Whites, produced a sorting out of the two populations and the creation of all-Black ghettoes.  The segregation was officially enforced and written into Federal and State law by means of covenants restricting the sale of properties.  During all of this time, it remained the case that poor Whites, exploited and oppressed by White capitalists, could tell themselves that they were free, White and twenty-one, that they were, at the very least, not black.

The Civil Rights Movement, launched by African-Americans half a century ago, threatened, and eventually began to break down even these legal, customary, residential, and employment barriers.  It was at this time that the old familiar political rhetoric about "working men and women" also began to change.  The new rhetoric spoke of "middle-class Americans," which, although no one acknowledged it, was a thinly veiled code for "not Black."  As economic pressures mounted on those in the lower half of the income pyramid, Whites wrapped themselves in the oft-reiterated reassurance that at least they did not live in the Inner City []which is to say, Black neighborhoods], that they were "Middle Class."  All of the political discourse came to be about the needs, the concerns, the prospects of the Middle Class, which to millions of Americans, whether they could even articulate it, meant "not Black."

All of this crumbled, frighteningly, calamitously, disastrously, when a Black man was elected president.  "Free, white, and twenty-one" ceased to be the boast of the working-class White man.  Statistics do not matter, trends do not matter, probabilities do not matter, income distribution differentials do not matter.  If a Black man with a Black wife and two Black children is President of the United States, then a fundamental metaphysical break has occurred in the spiritual foundation on which White America has built its self-congratulatory self-image for three centuries and more.

Hysterical Whites tried every form of denial.  Obama's election was theft.  Obama is not an American.  Obama is a Muslim.  Obama is a socialist.  Obama's election was a one-time proof that we are not racist, to be followed immediately by restoration of the status quo ante bellum.  When Obama was reelected, vast numbers of Americans went into terminal denial.  They seized upon the ACA simply because it was, as everyone knew, Obama's signature domestic accomplishment.  To repeal it, to defund it, to make it as though it had never existed, would be in some measure to deny that he had ever been President.  The actual details of the ACA matter not at all.  Neither do the actual felt medical needs of those driven insane by the very fact of Obama's tenure in the White House.  None of that has anything at all to do with the real cause of the hysteria.  Why are millions of Americans driven beyond hysteria by the ACA? 

Because Obama is Black.

Does Barack Obama know all of this?  That is too foolish a question even to be asked.  Every half-way sentient Black man and woman in America knows all of this, and has known it from childhood.  It is only well-meaning sensitive White liberals who need to be told it.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013


My old colleague, Ernest Allen, sends me this bit of news from the LA Times:

September 17, 2013, 7:56 a.m.
A little philosophy can be a dangerous thing. A heated conversation between two men about the seminal 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant first came to blows, then one man shot the other.
The Kant shooting incident took place in southern Russia in a beer line, Reuters reports, and the bullets were rubber. The 28-year-old victim is expected to recover.
The 26-year-old alleged shooter has been apprehended by the police and charged with "intentional infliction of serious harm." He could serve up to 15 years in prison for not living in accordance with the first, or indeed second, formulation of Kant's categorical imperative: using a gun to win an argument would not work as a universal strategy, and there is no rational end to getting into a fistfight about "The Critique of Pure Reason" or any of Kant's other works.

An interior ministry of the Rostov region, where the shooting took place, told the Wall Street Journal that the men had "decided to find out which of them is a bigger fan of this philosopher, and a tempestuous argument escalated into a fistfight."

If they had stuck with Kant's philosophy of relying on reason over emotion, Kant's biggest fans might never have gotten so wound up in the first place.


After I was awarded the doctorate in Philosophy in 1957 and served my obligatory military duty [in the form of six months of active duty, to be followed by five and a half years of National Guard meetings], my first posting in what would be a half century career as a university professor called for me to teach European History to Freshmen and Sophomores at Harvard.  Inasmuch as my only previous encounter with the subject had been Mr. Wepner's  Modern European History course in Forest Hills High School, you will not be surprised to hear that I learned a good deal on the job.  One thing that fascinated me about the discipline of History was the enormous difference in the sheer quantity of data available to historians of different periods.  Since the course in which I was teaching ran from Caesar to Napoleon, I was able to get a pretty good sense of the range of challenges confronting historians of Imperial Rome, the Merovingian and Carolingian eras, the High Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the seventeenth and eighteenth century English and French revolutions.

I quickly formed the idea that there are two sorts of historians:  those who have too little data, and those who have too much.  The theoretical and explanatory problems facing these two groups of historians are entirely different, with consequences, I eventually concluded, of a far-reaching ideological nature.  In the category of those with too little data, I put F-L Ganshof, Marc Bloch, and Henri Pirenne [knowledgeable readers will immediately recognize that my knowledge of historiography is utterly out of date], all historians of what  is usually called the Middle Ages.  In the category of those with too much data I put Georges Lefebvre and Alfred Cobban, whose sparkling debate about the nature of the French Revolution was one of the most brilliant moments of mid-twentieth century European historiography.

Ganshof, Bloch, Pirenne, and their colleagues were forced to reconstruct eight centuries of European history from a scattering of documents, artifacts, structures, and disinterred remains, rather like a paleontologist elaborating a dinosaur skeleton from a leg bone and a few teeth.  There was no question of selection.  They used every scrap of evidence available, and pounced on each new discovery eagerly for whatever it could reveal about a time all but hidden from their view.  I recall the shock with which I realized that the famous Pirenne Thesis [dating the economic decline of Western Europe from the seventh century closing of Mediterranean trade by the expansion of Islam rather than from the fifth century barbarian invasions of Rome] rested on a chance remark by Gregory of Tours and a few bits of evidence from sixth century trading records.  As I read the magisterial accounts of the development of feudalism by Ganshof and Bloch, I often thought of the annual Statistical Abstract of the United States, a copy of which sat on my shelves.  The historians of medieval Europe would have sold their souls for one page of that thousand page compilation of data for a single year of the eight hundred year span from 476 to 1276 A.D.!  Bloch could not have said with any specificity how many hectares were under cultivation in Burgundy in the eleventh century, or what the population was in the Loire valley in 915 A. D.

The problem confronting Cobban, Lefebvre and their fellow students of the French Revolution was exactly the opposite.  So much documentary material had accumulated and was readily available that even the most indefatigable historian could not hope to look at it all.  This was borne in upon me when I began to prepare my lectures in Social Sciences 2 on the causes of the French Revolution.  The course met in section twice a week, and once a week all 180 students, with their six instructors, gathered for a public lecture by one of us.  Since my five colleagues were all brilliant, up and coming Assistant Professors of History, there was a good deal of pressure on me to give a decent account of myself.  [One of my colleagues went on to become the Provost of Yale and President of the University of Chicago;  a second was appointed the Librarian of Congress;  a third became a distinguished professor at Princeton.  I was way over my head!]  As I rummaged around in Widener Library for some bits of data to flesh out my story of the revolution, I came upon mentions of the cahiers that the royal government solicited from the its subjects in preparation for the meeting of the National Assembly, a gathering of the three great estates [the clergy, the nobility, and the bourgeoisie.]  These "notebooks" are individual accounts of grievances, desires, and demands from every corner of society, and they are all preserved to this day in the Bibliotheque Nationale.  They are self-evidently an invaluable resource for any historian attempting to form a picture of France in 1789.  But the archive is vast, and there is simply no way that one can read it all.  What is more, the cahiers are only one of many such archival resources.  Alongside them are the annual reports of the Royal Intendants, government officials charged both with reporting on the state of agriculture and manufacture throughout France and also with bringing the latest innovations in modern scientific production to rather backward and out-of-touch provincial estates and monasteries.

Faced with this embarras de richesse, historians are forced to choose what they will investigate.  And inevitably, unavoidably, those choices are ideologically shaped and directed.  Lefebvre is customarily referred to as a "Marxist historian," but that should not mislead anyone to imagine that he was a party hack pushing a line laid down in Moscow.  When one reads his great work, La Révolution Franҫaise, one finds anything resembling partisan pleading confined to a brief Introduction and an equally brief Conclusion.  The intervening six hundred pages are a meticulously detailed account of the events leading up to and constituting the revolution.  But that account necessarily expresses a series of choices from the virtually limitless array of data available, and it is in those choices that Lefebvre's Marxism finds expression.

I have written of these ideologically guided choices in my tutorial "The Study of Society."  There, my focus is on index numbers and the like, but I first became aware of the problem fifty-five years ago as a young Instructor in Philosophy and General Education, frantically preparing to lecture to a group of undergraduates on the causes of the French Revolution.

If I knew a great deal more than I do, I think it would be great fun to give a course devoted to a series of case studies of the methodology of historiography with  a focus on the implications for that discipline of the quantity of original data available.

Monday, September 16, 2013


Many of you found William Polk's previous lengthy essay very useful.  He has now written another long reflection on the Syrian situation, which I found most illuminating and helpful.   In order to make sure that all of it, including the footnotes, is made available to you,  I have posted it on, accessible from the link at the top of this blog.  I encourage you to take a look at it, download it if you wish, and comment if you are so moved.  Bill indicates that he is at work on yet another lengthy paper discussing what the United States might do going forward.  As always, I am deeply grateful to Bill for his work and for his willingness to share his thoughts with the rest of us.


Since those of us on the left lose so many fights, we need to have a little celebration when we win a battle, however small.  Defeating Obama's bad idea to appoint Larry Summers as Chairman of the Federal Reserve is a victory.  It is not, in the larger scheme of things, a big victory.  It will not alter the basic structure of the American economy.  But it is a victory.  And since Summers is, among other things, a pig, it is an appropriate victory during Yom Kippur.  So, I raise a glass of Clos de Bois cabernet to the Gods, and thank them.  Sometimes you win one.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


I have just received a mailing from the Harvard Class of 1954 inviting me to contribute a statement of any length to the 60th Anniversary Class Report.  I have to decide whether or not to submit something.  I actually graduated in '53, but Harvard, in its infinite wisdom, takes no notice of such details.  From the moment I enrolled as a Freshman in the Fall of 1950, I was forever a member of the Class of '54, and plans were made by Harvard to start dunning me for money as soon as at all feasible.  Had I dropped out after six weeks, I would still be considered a member of the Class of '54, and since Harvard, for some mysterious reason, only has a six year graduation rate of 93% [how on earth can they possibly lose seven percent of each class, considering the care with which each egg is sexed and candled for any lurking imperfection?], there must be a good many aging degree-less chaps out there still considered members of this or that class who can be hit up for donations.  In the past ten years, Harvard has also been sending me estate planning tips -- waste not, want not.

I have never actually gone to a class reunion, but I have contributed statements, in some cases hundreds of words in length, to the fifth, tenth, fifteenth, twenty-fifth, thirty-fifth, and fiftieth Class Reports, on occasion using the opportunity to write harsh criticisms of Harvard's rather timid and conservative stance toward the larger world [Harvard refused to divest when it might have done some good in the struggle against apartheid, but as soon as the Robben Island prisoners were released and the fight was over, it awarded Nelson Mandela an honorary degree -- they really have no shame.]

I have actually donated money, but just once.  There used to be at Harvard, and perhaps still is, something called the Detur Prize -- your choice of a free book if you get almost all A's one year [this was back in the day when getting all A's was not automatic]  I had a good year, and for my efforts got Harry Austryn Wolfson's classic work on Spinoza.  I received an appeal from Harvard for a donation to the Detur Prize fund, and thought I really owed them something, since I so cherished the book, so I gave them a hundred.  But never again.

My disappointment with Harvard has been overtaken by bigger ideological disappointments, but a statement for the Class Report would give me the opportunity to immortalize my grandchildren, who have come along since my contribution for the Fiftieth Report.  Of course, I could revisit the Marty Peretz fiasco, but somehow I just don't think he is important enough to beat up on yet again.

Maybe I should wait for the Seventieth, when they will, I should imagine, be eager to fill up the report with anything they can get.  On the other hand, I could use the space to advertise my on-line collections of papers.  Now there's a thought.

Friday, September 13, 2013


Well, I have just heard from David Kleinberg-Levin himself.   What a remarkable instrument the internet is.  Now, has anyone heard from Catherine Cooper?  This is great fun.  David, by the way, is a very distinguished and much published philosopher, still writing books, and living in retirement in New York.

As I explained to him in my reply to his email message, I intend to take total credit for all the fine things he has done, that being in the tradition of Philosophy tutors going back to Plato, who, I  would imagine, claimed that "everything young Aristotle knows he learned from me."


I received sad news today.  Owen De Long, my Junior year philosophy tutee at Harvard in 1959-60, has passed away in distressing circumstances.  Owen was, as I recall him from that time, a bright, handsome young man.  His most notable accomplishment, in the eyes of many of us, was winning the heart of a brilliant, luminous Radcliffe undergraduate, Jane Mansbridge, whose father, as I recall, headed up the American division of Cambridge University Press.  Jane has gone on to become a widely read and much acclaimed political theorist who teaches now, with her husband, sociologist Christopher Jencks, at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

That was a remarkable little tutorial group.  There were five Junior year philosophy majors in all, four men and one woman.  My favorite was a tall, lanky man with a shock of red hair, Tom Cathcart.  Tom and I reconnected in New York some years ago when I went there to give a talk at a small gathering of African-American philosophers.  He has since made quite a stir with a little book he and Dan Klein wrote called Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, an exposition of the main fields of philosophy through jokes.  Tom has just published The Trolley Problem, which I am proud to say carries a praising blurb by me.  Tom is still tall, lanky, and irrepressibly cheerful, but like many of us, he has lost most of his hair.  Quite the most forgettable member of the tutorial group was David, a small, thin, very smart young man who wrote a lovely final paper on Clarence Irving Lewis' important -- but now all but forgotten -- book, Mind and the World Order.  The next year, I wrote a letter for David that helped him to win a Rhodes Scholarship.  David grew up to become Supreme Court Associate Justice David Souter.  I have totally lost touch with the other two members of the group, Michael David Levin and Catherine Cooper, and Google has been unable to tell me what became of them.  Inasmuch as the group met fifty-four years ago, I am compelled to infer that they are all in their seventies now, but to me they will always be bright, promising undergraduates.


Levinebar posted the following comment on my report of the Ho book I am reading:  "On your sister's recommendation, I read "The Rainbow and the Worm". I confess as a chemist, I found it a waste of time. The author uses the equations more to intimidate than to educate.     Is your sister concerned with your atheism? The book seems to build a rejection of the Scientific Method on the chance observation of birefringence in maggots."

I should like to ask Levinebar for further enlightenment, if he or she is so inclined.  It seems to me that the comment might mean one of two things [keep in mind that I am only in Chapter 5, and soldiering along with great difficulty.]

First of all, Levinebar, who is, remember, a chemist, might have thought while reading the book:  "Yes, yes, this is all quite familiar, nothing new here, but why is she making such a big deal of it and expounding it in an unnecessarily obscure manner?"  If that is the case, then I will continue plowing through the book, because this stuff, although perhaps old hat to a physicist or physical chemist, is totally new to me, and I am learning something.

Or:  Levinebar might have thought while reading the book, "No,No No, this is all wrong, she is getting things muddled, this is terrible, someone like Wolff who doesn't know shit about thermodynamics is going to get entirely the wrong idea."  If that is the case, then maybe I should stop reading, because I am really quite incompetent to distinguish correct exposition, however obscure, from sheer wrongheadedness, when it comes to thermodynamics [and a great deal else, but that is neither here nor there at the moment.]

So, Levinebar, would you take a moment to give me a little guidance?  I would be very grateful.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Several people have noted that I spoke incorrectly.  One hundred thousand is the estimate of the total number of deaths in the Syrian civil war, not the number of people killed by Assad's forces.  My apologies.  I do not see thast it changes anything I said, but I certainly do not wish to convey wrong information.


Several commentators have pointed out that however inappropriate the term "weapons of mass destruction" may be as applied to chemical weapons, those weapons are, nonetheless, horrible, and hence any success in restraining their use, for whatever reasons, clear or confused, is to be welcomed.

I agree completely with that sentiment, and would gladly extend it to land mines, cluster bombs, fragmentation grenades, depleted uranium artillery shells, and as many other hideous means of inflicting death and misery as can successfully be corralled into some sort of internationally recognized ban.  I despair of rooting out the deep-seated human desire to kill other humans and the equally deep-seated urge to assert political and economic domination, but anything that reduces the sheer level of carnage that seems to be the universal accompaniment of the human condition should be embraced.

The present surprising turn of events is also to be welcomed, however much Kerry and Obama may retroactively claim that this is what they had in mind all along.  It may be that the preponderance of Americans, at least for the moment, have had their fill of world domination. but having lived through the analogous reaction to the Viet Nam War only to see the advocates of endless American military adventurism return to power, I am pessimistic about any long-lasting consequences of our weariness with Middle Eastern incursions.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Rather than interject myself into the vigorous debate that has sprung up on this blog in my absence, I should like to focus on just one subject, "weapons of mass destruction," in an effort to bring a measure of clarity to a confused and confusing subject.  My concern in this post is to explain why it is inappropriate and ideologically motivated to refer to chemical weapons as "weapons of mass destruction."  I shall be drawing in part on a lengthy discussion in my early unpublished book, The Rhetoric of Deterrence, which can be found on by following the link at the top of this blog.

The invention and use of nuclear weapons in World War II by the United States created a theoretical and conceptual crisis in military thinking and planning.  Even the relatively primitive fission bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were vastly more powerful than any weapons ever used previously.  The first atomic bombs were rated at roughly 20 kilotons, which means that each bomb was the equivalent in explosive power of twenty thousands tons, or forty million pounds, of TNT.  Since the bombs carried by B-17s on their bombing raids contained, for the most part, 500 pounds of TNT, this meant that one atomic bomb was the equivalent of forty thousand conventional bombs.  The fusion bombs, or hydrogen bombs, developed somewhat later are rated in megatons, which means that one very large H-bomb, rated at 20 megatons, is the equivalent of one thousand Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.  It took one A -bomb to destroy Hiroshima and kill eighty to one hundred thousand Japanese.  A  single H-bomb can wipe out a major city and the surrounding area and kill millions of people.

The enormous destructiveness of atomic weapons completely transformed military theory.  Conventional bombs are delivered by manned aircraft.  An anti-aircraft defense capable of inflicting as little as a 20% loss on a fleet of raiding bombers poses an unacceptable risk for the attacking nation.  Bombs are cheap, but bombers are expensive, and the pilots, navigators, and bombardiers manning them are more expensive still to train and prepare for war.  If an attacking force loses an average of one fifth of its bomber fleet and associated crews each time it mounts a raid, it will very quickly find itself unable to carry on an air war.  But nuclear weapons are so powerful that anything less than an impossible one hundred percent destruction of an attacking force will result in vast, unacceptable death and destruction.  The invention of unstoppable intercontinental ballistic missiles made all thought of defense out of the question.  Thus was born the doctrine of deterrence.  Nuclear weapons, for obvious and persuasive reasons, came to be referred to as weapons of mass destruction.

Because nuclear weapons cannot, in any reasonable way, be integrated into a conventional war-fighting plan [despite the production and deployment of so-called battlefield nukes, rated at one thousand tons of TNT each], military theorists and strategists came to understand that a bright and uncrossable line must be drawn between the entire array of conventional weaponry on the one side, and nuclear weapons, or weapons of mass destruction, on the other.  This distinction had nothing whatever to do with the kind of pain and death that was inflicted on the victims by weapons of one sort or the other.  It is an absurd and pointless exercise to debate whether it is better or worse to be killed by an H-bomb or a land mine, or for that matter, by a rifle, a bow and arrow, a sword, a garrote, or someone's bare hands.  I would remind you that Joseph Ignace Guillotine conceived of his device as a more humane way of putting people to death.

During the successful efforts by George W. Bush and his Administration to con the American people into accepting his "war of choice" against Iraq and the regime of Saddam Hussein, intelligence was ginned up to demonstrate that Iraq had stores of chemical weapons.  It was well known that he had used chemical weapons against Iran [with the help of the United States, but never mind], so it was initially plausible, despite the absence of any evidence, that he might still have such weapons hidden away.  But in light of the fact that the United States had itself used chemical weapons in Viet Nam, and that in any event the existence of such weapons in Iraq posed no conceivable threat to the United States, the Bush Administration found it useful, for propaganda purposes, to refer to "chemical, biological, and nuclear" weapons as "Weapons of Mass Destruction," or WMD, so that the undoubted threat posed by nuclear weapons could be allowed to bleed over, as it were, onto chemical weaponry.

The press and public immediately embraced this confused, ideologically driven conflation of chemical with nuclear weapons and bought into the idea that WMD  in the hands of a nation supposedly hostile to the United States constituted a threat that had to be addressed.

And so we come the the irrational, meaningless, pointless "bright line" or "line in the sand" drawn by Barack Obama that now has him backed into a corner of his own devising, desperately looking for a way to avoid launching a war that he clearly would rather not initiate but cannot figure out how to extricate himself from.

The debate on this blog and elsewhere about the especial horribleness of chemical weapons is, I suggest, a complete non sequitor.  The destructiveness of chemical weapons is of the same order of magnitude as that of other conventional weapons.  The chemical weapons used, let us assume, by Assad and his forces in the Syrian conflict have, by all reports, killed two thousand or so people.  Assad and his forces have killed a total of one hundred thousand people.  There are many deep, intractable problems in the Syrian disaster;  chemical weapons are not among the most important, by any reasonable calculation.

Let me make several modest proposals, in the interest of clarity.  First, let us stop called chemical weapons "weapons of mass destruction."  Second, if we want to talk about making the Middle East a nuclear free zone in which nuclear weapons -- true weapons of mass destruction -- are not permitted, let us begin by including in that discussion the one Middle Eastern nation that currently possesses a large arsenal of such weapons, namely Israel.