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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Friday, November 29, 2013

A ROYAL SCREW-UP

Well, I knew I should not have written about Iran and Israel.  I appear to have screwed up royally, not about any large geo-political question, just about the elementary matter of who wrote what comment.  I think I am going to go back to watching re-runs of NCIS until my mind clears.  Aaarrrggghhh!!!

THE EVOLUTIONARY ECOLOGY OF STORES

It is a truth universally acknowledged in the game preserves of East Africa that one needs roughly 100 prey animals [Impala, African buffalo, zebra, etc.] to one predator [lion, leopard, cheetah, etc.] for a stable sustainable balance.  [This is why the story of Noah's Ark is implausible.  What did the lions eat after they polished off both Impala?  And how did the Impala survive to the present day?]

I thought of this the other day when I was trying to find a music store in the Triangle Area [Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh] that carries chamber music scores and parts.  I have found a violinist -- my first small victory on the way to assembling a string quartet -- and we shall be trying out some Mozart duets for violin and viola, K 497, on Sunday.  Now, the Triangle is an area pretty well stocked with academics, medical personnel, research scientists, and even a symphony orchestra, and yet it has been very difficult for me to pull together a string quartet.  What is more, there is literally no shop in the region that carries a good selection of sheet music.  I did hear of a fabulous store in Charlotte [a three and a half hour drive to the West] but when I looked for it online, I found it had just closed after many years.

Apparently, it takes a very large number of amateur and professional classical musicians to sustain  such a store.  You can see why.  Once you have purchased, let us say, a set of parts of the early and middle Beethoven quartets, you have them, and for as long as you are alive, you are not going to need another set.

The same problem afflicts restaurants, even though unlike string quartet music, people will eat more than one meal in  their lives..  Almost any area will have a large number of cheap, fast food and take-out restaurants, but you need a sizable business community on expense accounts and a large number of couples who like a really good meal to sustain even one first-rate gourmet restaurant.

In the end, I had to get Shar Music in Ann Arbor to overnight me the Mozart duets so that I could take one copy over to Liz Prescott, the violinist, and start practicing the viola part.  It all made me appreciate Stammell Strings in Amherst, MA a good deal more.

MY DISAGREEMENT WITH MICHAEL LLENOS

Michael Llenos and I have exchanged several comments about Israel's nuclear weapons and the recent tentative agreements reached between Iran and the United States and other nations.  I would like to pursue this exchange for just a bit, here in the main portion of this blog rather than in the comments section.  Several caveats are necessary as I begin.  First of all, I suspect that Michael knows a great deal more about this subject than I, and although that does not entail that his point of view is correct, it certainly calls mine into some question.  Second, as we all know, this is a subject on which feelings run very high, with harsh accusations being launched by all parties against those in disagreement.  I really, really do not want to wander into that free fire zone.  Although I have strong feelings on the subject, as do all those who speak about it, I am quite content to keep them to myself rather than descend into charges and counter-charges. 

First, a review of the exchange.   Yesterday [Good grief, was it only yesterday!], in response to Robert Shore, I wrote the following paragraph:

"I have already commented in this space about the absurdity of obsessing about the possibility that Iran will "get the bomb" and "turn the Middle East into a nuclear zone" without ever mentioning that it is Israel that has a full-blown nuclear weapons arsenal and the delivery systems to accompany it. But although I have said that, I am in fact not knowledgeable at all about the complexities of Middle Eastern affairs, and beyond a simple observation or two, I do not have useful things to add to the public discussion."

Michael Llenos posted the following extended comment to that remark:

"I am usually in tune with your views on policy matters, but your comparison of Israel's alleged possession of nuclear weapons to Iran's hypothetical development of nuclear weapons strikes me as misguided. In Israel's 60 year history, they have been involved in seven wars, faced constant and violent opposition from multiple sources, and have fought to defend their country and its 7 million residents from hostile neighbors. No doubt one reason other rogue countries and groups have held back from a full invasion of the country is because of Israel alleged nuclear weapons that might be used against them. The putative Israeli nuclear weapon buildup has been a necessary requirement for the safety and stability of the nation and the region, since they are under constant threat from the countries that surround them on all sides. Iran has been among the largest threats to the region in the past few years, not only because of their determination to obtain nuclear weapons, but because of their sponsoring of terrorist organizations. Iran has been giving hundreds of millions a year to support Hezbollah, providing various types of weapons including rockets, mines, arms, explosives, anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles. It is the responsibility of the rest of the world to act in preventing Iran from obtaining the materials and knowledge necessary to produce this type of weapon of mass killing. Failure to stop them will result in a dramatic exchange of nuclear weapons and effect a dramatic concomitant destabilizing effect on the region."

I responded briefly as follows:  "I agree with much of what you say, but I am mystified by your use of the words "alleged" and putative." I have never actually seen a nuclear weapon of any sort, needless to say, but it would never occur to me to refer to America's nuclear weapons, or Britain's, or Russia's or Pakistan's, or India's as "alleged" or putative." What are those terms intended to convey?"

Michael answered with this reply:

"I appreciate your reply to my comment. I only use the terms 'alleged' and 'putative' because Israel has never officially acknowledged its construction or possession of nuclear weapons. In contrast, all other nuclear nations - with the possible exception of South Africa - advertise their nuclear status and thereby maintain the capacity to issue explicit nuclear threats. This sui generis posture of nuclear ambiguity is underpinned by an important array of historical, political and ethical determinants."

I am troubled by Michael's use of language, which seems to me the sort of language that states use, not scholars or serious students of international relations.  I believe [correct me if I am mistaken] that Israel is one of the few nations that are not signatories to an international treaty designed to constrain the spread of nuclear weapons.  This fact, coupled with Israel's possession of nuclear weapons, makes it illegal for the United States to provide foreign aid, and may even require the United States to impose sanctions on Israel.  So Israel pretends that it does not have the weapons that everyone knows it has and the United States pretends that it believes Israel.  The "sui generis posture of nuclear ambiguity" is thus "underpinned" by "political determinants," but I cannot see that it is underpinned by ethical determinants.  As for Israel's capacity to "issue explicit nuclear  threats," I think it is obvious that Israel, like all other nations possessing nuclear weapons, makes it unambiguously clear that if attacked it reserves the right to defend itself with its nuclear weapons.

Does Iran have the right to develop nuclear weapons to defend itself?  Obviously yes.  Does it have the right to use those weapons to threaten Israel or any other nation, or to use those weapons in an unprovoked attack?  Clearly not.  Would it be better if the Middle East were a zone free of nuclear weapons?  Yes.  Could the United States guarantee Israel's right to exist and Iran's equal right to exist on condition that both nations foreswore nuclear weapons?  Yes.  Should Israel rely on that assurance and give up its nuclear weapons?  That is a question only Israel can answer, and it would certainly be understandable if it concluded it could not in conscience do so.

So why not just say all of this openly?  Presumably because Israel wants to continue to receive aid from the United States.

The final sentence of Michael's original comment is extremely ominous, and also quite ambiguous.  He wrote:  " Failure to stop them [i.e., stop Iran from making nuclear weapons] will result in a dramatic exchange of nuclear weapons and effect a dramatic concomitant destabilizing effect on the region."  I can see absolutely no reason at all to suppose that Iran, if it were to develop nuclear weapons, would launch them against Israel.  Is Michael saying that Israel would respond to Iran's development of nuclear weapons by launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike?  I hope not, because such an act would be unconscionable, reckless, and unforgivable.

One final point that it is simply impossible not to mention in a discussion of this sort.  Israel is one of the few nations in the world that holds an entire people in thrall [China is another, vis-√†-vis Tibet, for example.]  It systematically and progressively seizes the territory of that people, divides them into non-contiguous regions, and militarily patrols them.  That fact, which is manifest and undeniable, profoundly weakens whatever "ethical determinants" Israel may appeal to in defending its posture in the Middle East.

None of this speaks to the existential threats Israel has faced nor does it answer the question that only Israel can answer, namely what should it do with its large nuclear weapons armory.  But it does very much rob Israel, in my judgment, of the right to demand that its case, unlike that of Pakistan and India, say, should be judged on moral grounds rather than by the tenets of realpolitik.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A RESPONSE TO ROBERT SHORE

Bob Shore made the following comment:  "I am more than a little mystified by the total lack of comment [in  ed.] the latest blogs regarding the momentous news items, one of course being the extremely important Geneva agreement between P5 + 1 and Iran, and the other the extraordinary statement of Pope Francis regarding the alarming growth of inequality between rich and poor. Surely both these events are far more deserving of comment at this time than squirrels or the differences between Baroque and modern string instrument bows."  [For some mysterious reason, the comment is listed as having been made by Unknown, but since Bob signed his name, I figure it is all right to respond to him directly.]

Bob is of course right that the recent agreement with Iran and the statement by the Pope are both vastly more important than my light-hearted comments about the animals I see on my walks and the nature of the bows used by violinists in a French docudrama about Bach.  Good grief.  How could they not be more important?  The weather on Thanksgiving is more important than either of those topics!  So why do I spend time commenting on unimportant things when important things are happening?

First of all, a reminder.  A blog is a web log, which is to say, a personal log of thoughts and experiences launched into cyberspace rather than entered by hand in a leather bound book.  I do not pretend to be running an Internet newspaper, or even an Internet journal of opinion.  I write about what I see on my morning walks because it amuses me to do so, and I hope that it will amuse someone else as well.  I write at length about the thought of Marx and Kant and Hume and Plato and Kierkegaard and Weber and Durkheim because I know something about those things and enjoy setting forth my understanding of them as clearly and precisely as I can.  I write about American politics because I care deeply about what happens in this country and hope, after a long lifetime of engagement, to be able to say something that others will find useful or interesting. 

I try, by and large, not to write about even very important matters about which I am really ignorant, Middle Eastern politics being a case in point.  On several occasions I have linked to or reproduced the superb and deeply knowledgeable discourses on these topics by my old friend William Polk, whose lifetime of practical experience and study make him supremely qualified to talk about the subject.

I have actually been meditating on making a comment on the Pope's recent discourse on inequality, which I find interesting and suggestive.  Whether it will prove important remains to be seen.  I had thought to talk about its relationship to Latin American Catholic social gospel or liberation theology from which the Pope's comments seem to emanate, but the truth is that although I am vaguely aware of those subjects, I really do not know much about them, certainly not enough to say anything very useful.

I have already commented in this space about the absurdity of obsessing about the possibility that Iran will "get the bomb" and "turn the Middle East into a nuclear zone" without ever mentioning that it is Israel that has a full-blown nuclear weapons arsenal and the delivery systems to accompany it.  But although I have said that, I am in fact not knowledgeable at all about the complexities of Middle Eastern affairs, and beyond a simple observation or two, I do not have useful things to add to the public discussion.

One of my reasons for keying some of my discussions to books I have recently read, on biology or evolutionary genetics or even the use of information technology in political campaigns, is to indicate in that way the limitations of my command of the subject.  When I am writing about something I really know a great deal about, like Karl Marx's economic theories, I feel no need to refer to the writings of other commentators because I am confident that my opinions will stand on their own feet.

So I shall go on reporting my wildlife sightings [and learning from knowledgeable readers the proper term for groupings of crows] and my experiences with the viola. I think a blog is the proper venue for such musings.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A RESPONSE TO SIMON B

In a recent post, I mentioned a book I had read some time ago about the design of common objects, like the paper clip and the pop top can.  Simon B. asked for the reference.  Well, it took a good deal of Googling, but I have come up with it.  The book is Invention By Design, and the author is Ed Buch, who turns out to be a professor at Duke, in  the next town over from mine.  I found it a really fun read.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

MORE INSIDE BASEBALL FOR STRING PLAYERS

Susie and I just watched a French semi-documentary semi-fictionalization of the life of Bach on NetFlix.  It was not terribly interesting, save for a great deal of Bach's music ostensibly played and sung by bewigged musicians, but one anachronism really stuck out.  The bewigged violinists and violists were using modern, not Baroque, bows.  Those of you, if there are any, who listen to early music regularly will know that there is a marked difference between the sound of a Baroque violin ands that of a modern violin.  The Baroque sound is softer, less brilliant, less metallic, as it were.   There are two reasons for this.  The first is that the strings of the early instrument are made of animal gut, not of metal.  The second is the nature of the bow.  A modern bow bends inward, so that the hair is pulled tighter between the two ends.  This produces a greater vibration when the bow is pulled across the strings.  The Baroque bow actually bends outward a trifle, with the result that the hair is somewhat looser.  This is exactly similar to the difference between an old bow [as in bow and arrows] and what I believe is called a "compound bow."  The quickest way to tell the difference between the two musical bows is to look at the point.  The early bow has a long graceful point;  a modern bow has a shorter, stubbier point.  This is occasioned by the different way in which the hair is attached to the bow.  The difference in sound, by the way, is not a result in differences in the instrument itself.  There are considerable differences between a Baroque violin and a modern violin, but a Stradivarius with metal strings played with a modern bow will have a quite brilliant sound.

As I have remarked on this blog before, the early music performances in Paris are, by and large, not at all comparable to those in Boston, Western Massachusetts, or elsewhere in America, so I guess it is not surprising that when the French make a movie about Bach, they use musicians playing with modern bows.

Monday, November 25, 2013

CROWD-SOURCING

The knowledgeable comments of Magpie and Professor Auerbach reminded me yet again of the extraordinary power and reach of the world wide web.  It seems that one cannot make a comment on any subject, however obscure, without flushing out one or two people who know all about it.  The phenomenon puts me in mind of one of my happiest memories from the early eighties, when I was living in Boston and my first marriage was coming to an end.  At Boston University in those days were two fine philosophers, Marx Wartofsky and Robert Cohen, who together ran something called the Boston Colloquium for the Philosophy of Science.  Many times each academic year the Colloquium held public sessions at which invited speakers appeared.  There was a large and very faithful following of Boston area folks drawn from every corner of the Academy who attended regularly.  Some of us regulars were fortunate enough to be invited to the dinners held before the talks, events that were often the highlight of the evening.

Marx and Bob had a rather expansive notion of what counted as "Philosophy of Science," with the result that the talks ranged as widely as one could imagine, well beyond the narrow confines of that subject as it is customarily conceived.  But the truly remarkable thing was that no matter how arcane and obscure the topic, there always seemed to be at least one person in the audience who was an expert on the subject and could be counted on to ask penetrating questions.

I recall one Colloquium session at which the renowned M. I. T. neurophysiologist Jerry Lettvin gave a talk on Newton's theory of vision.  This was not as much of a reach as it might sound inasmuch as Lettvin's research was on the optic nerve of the frog.  Lettvin was one of a kind, a large, fat, rumpled man married to a svelte, beautiful woman, Maggie, who ran a popular Public Television exercise show called "Maggie and the Beautiful Body."  I was once sitting in Tulla's, an early coffee house in Cambridge where I hung out as a graduate student, arguing about Plato or some such topic, when Lettvin, who was sitting at the next table and overheard us, thrust himself into the conversation without so much as an introduction and became part of the argument.  The talk at the Colloquium was impressive but hopelessly obscure.  I mean, none of us knew anything about Newton's theory of vision.  What would we ask when the question period started?  Not to worry.  Sure enough, sitting in the front row was an inoffensive little man, maybe a third of Lettvin's weight, who turned out to be the world's leading expert on Newton's theory of vision!

But the greatest example of the Colloquium's magical powers came on the evening that a member of the University of Massachusetts Medical School gave a truly horrifying lecture on the bloody human sacrifice rituals of the ancient Aztecs.  It goes without saying that we were utterly ignorant of the subject, but by the end of the talk, we were all in a state of shock at the vivid descriptions of flayings, beheadings, disembowelings, and the like.  [A touch of this tradition made its way into one of the Harrison Ford Indiana Jones movies.]  As soon as the Chair called for questions, an impassioned young man jumped to his feet at the back of the room and said, in a loud, clear, belligerent voice, "I am a descendant of the ancient Aztecs, and you have it all wrong!"  I thought the Boston Colloquium earned its chops that night.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

TWICE IN ONE DAY

I am abashed and humbled to have to confess that twice in  one day I have been properly corrected by David Auerbach.  He did indeed mean venereal, and appropriately so.  He has sent me a link to a definition of Venery, and the associated term Venereal.

Who knew?  Clearly, he did.

JUSTICE FOR SQUIRRELS

After a balmy Saturday with temperatures in the sixties, a front came through overnight, and when it was time for my early morning walk, the thermostat was flirting with 32 -- zero degrees centigrade for those of you not living in fragments of the old British Empire.  When it gets that cold, I haul out my thermal underwear and warm-up pants and load up with sweaters, scarves, and gloves.  To take my mind off the fingers of cold reaching under my hoodie, I keep an eye out for wildlife, hoping to see something I can relate to Susie when I get home.  [In an earlier post, I compared myself to the little boy in the first Dr. Seuss book, And To Think that I Saw It On Mulberry Street.  A reader more knowledgeable than I pointed out that the Mulberry Street of the story is in Philadelphia, not Manhattan, as I had always assumed.]

As I hurried along this morning, shivering each time a blast of wind dropped the wind chill into the low twenties, I found myself reflecting on my odd prejudices against certain forms of wildlife.  There really is no rationale for the privileged status I ascribe to some critters and withhold from others.  Highest on my list are the deer who appear from time to time, sometimes far off in the woods but at other times dashing across the road just ahead of me.  On those days, I feel that I have something important to report to Susie.  Rabbits are always welcome, and on one occasion a red fox burst out of the brush and ran across the road.  A very big day, that.  But far and away the most frequent sightings are of squirrels, scurrying through the grass or running up the trunks of trees.  They are not even worth turning my head to see, and I would certainly never come home, call out to Susie, and report breathlessly that I had seen a squirrel.

The same pecking order, if I may out it that way, obtains among birds.  Blue Herons are always worth a mention, and the three occasions on which I have seen two or even three herons together have been true "To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street" days.  The very occasional hawk, spotted high in a tree, is certainly worth a mention and I take note of, though I rarely report, sightings of cardinals.  But crows, which are seen in  abundance in and around the condominium project where I live, are no more noteworthy than cars.

Now none of this makes any sense whatsoever.  Consider crows, for example.  A gathering of fifteen or twenty crows [what used to be called a Parliament of Crows] is an impressive sight.  Crows are big, rather menacing birds, as Alfred Hitchcock had the wit to recognize.  Surely twenty crows perched on the roof of a building are more worthy of mention than one lone heron plodding about in a pond looking for frogs.  And yet Susie would think I was mad if I rushed in from my walk and called out, "I just saw twenty crows."

When it comes to birds, you might imagine that big or colorful would be the measures of importance.  Now, a good sized pigeon is almost as big as a small hawk, and a Blur Jay is far more colorful than a Black Capped Sparrow.  Why do we dismiss pigeons and Blue Jays as beneath notice, while chattering excitedly about spotting a Tit?

The late and much lamented Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay thirty-four years ago called "Mickey Mouse Meets Konrad Lorenz"  in which he explained that the "aww, isn't that cute" response that we have to dolphins and pandas and Mickey Mouse is a result of the arrangement and relative size of their facial features, which mimic those of a little baby -- eyes big relative to size of face, head big relative to body.  Our response, Gould speculates, has developed evolutionarily to favor hungry and harried primates that care for their young.  I often think that something similar is at work in our response to certain film stars.  First Audrey Hepburn, then Julia Roberts, and now Anne Hathaway have those big eyes, set wide apart, and a too-large mouth that bursts into a face-splitting smile that is simply irresistible, much as the smile of a little baby captivates us.

All of which no doubt explains but does not justify my privileging of deer over squirrels and herons over crows.  It really does not seem fair.  Perhaps tomorrow I shall come in from my walk and cry excitedly, "Susie, I saw a squirrel!"  I wonder what she will say.

 

Friday, November 22, 2013

IN MEMORIAM


Bloggers are required, as a condition of their residency in the blogosphere, to commemorate anniversaries of important public events.  For the most part, we have nothing particularly memorable to say about those events, and anniversaries that are multiples of ten or fifty or one hundred are quite arbitrary anyway, but I do not want representatives of Google knocking on my door at midnight, so I shall dutifully write a post about the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Four assassinations in less than five years defined the 60's, for those of us who lived through them, and had a real as well as symbolic impact on the public life of America.  The first, which today commemorates, was the assassination in 1963 of President John F. Kennedy.  The second, which I confess I did not take note of at the time, was the assassination of Malcolm X  on February 21, 1965;  The third was the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1965; and the fourth, barely two months later, was the assassination of Robert Kennedy on June 6, 1968.  I recall exactly where I was on the occasion of the first, third, and fourth.

I have told the story of the JFK assassination in my Memoir, and will not repeat it here, save to recall that I was in the catalogue room of Widener Library at Harvard when I heard the news.  I was driving with my wife in Manhattan when I heard about MLK.  And I was giving my young son, Patrick, a bottle in the middle of the night when I heard about RFK.

JFK was not much of a loss, if the truth be told.  Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were great losses, and it is possible, but only possible, that Bobby Kennedy might have played an important role in American politics, had he lived.  With his death, it fell to the least of the Kennedy boys, my Harvard classmate Teddy Kennedy, to continue the political ambitions of his father and in time become one of the great Senators in the history of that institution.  I never knew Teddy, of course.  We travelled in different circles at Harvard, to put it delicately.

 

A VERY BIG DEVELOPMENT


Something very important happened yesterday, and though I am in no way an expert on the subject, I think I ought at least to take some note of it.  The Senate, by a vote of 52-48, ended the practice of filibustering Administration appointments and nominations for Federal District Court and Circuit Court [but not Supreme Court] judgeships.  This will make it possible for Obama's nominations to the DC Circuit to be confirmed quickly, and should permit him, if he can get his act together, to fill all of the vacancies in the Federal judgeships before the 2014 elections, when the Democrats might [but probably won't] lose control of the Senate.  This is a huge development, bigger even than the difficulties with the roll-out of the insurance exchanges mandated by the Affordable Care Act.  The judgeships are lifetime appointments, which means that Obama can put his stamp on the federal judiciary for decades to come.

How can a vote of 52-48 overturn filibustering, which requires a cloture vote of 60?  Herewith a little inside baseball.  Since I am only marginally knowledgeable about all of this, I welcome corrections from those better informed.  Briefly, a change of the rules of the Senate requires a two-thirds vote, virtually impossible to put together.  But there is a way around that fact.  Here, as I understand it, is what happened yesterday.

The Senate is presided over by the Presiding Officer, who is, by Constitutional mandate, the Vice-President.  In his absence, which is to say almost always, a senator from the majority party is handed the job of sitting in the Senate President's chair and doing whatever the Senate parliamentarian tells him or her to do.  It is a terminally boring assignment whose principal challenge is appearing to be awake.  Yesterday, not at all by accident, the senator presiding was Patrick Leahy, who is Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  A Democratic Senator [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, I think] posed a parliamentary inquiry to the Chair, viz., Are Presidential nominations for Administrative posts and District and Circuit Court judgeships subject to a filibuster?  Leahy quite properly ruled, as presiding officer, that according to the rules the answer is yes.  Reid then challenged the ruling of the Chair.  A challenge to a ruling of the Chair is non-debatable and requires only a majority vote to be sustained.  Reid had the votes [this is, of course, the crucial point -- it has taken a long time and an outrageous use of the filibuster to get fifty-one Democratic senators to agree to limit the filibuster.]  The Chair was overruled, 52-48, and Presto, the rules were effectively changed, at least for as long as the Democrats control the Presidency and the Senate.

This alteration of the rules does not alter the ability of the Republicans to block any legislation they wish by threatening a filibuster, nor does it apply to any future Supreme Court nominations Obama may be lucky enough to have the opportunity to make.

WORTH TAKING A LOOK

A reader sent me this link to a very nice short piece by philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, which supplements my blog post on the reasons for the hysterical hatred of Obama on the right.  I recommend it.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

THE INTERSECTION OF ART AND PHILOSOPHY


Jerry Fresia asks what my views are on the intersection of art and philosophy or politics.  I do not have worked out views on this general question, but I do have an autobiographical answer, if that is of any interest.  I have written about this in my Memoir, but I will briefly reprise those thoughts here.

Although I spent my professional life as a scholar, presumably engaged in making "contributions to knowledge," as the common phrase has it, I have never really thought of my work in that fashion.  Perhaps that is why I so rarely put footnotes in what I write, and do not "keep up with the literature," even on subjects on which I am thought to be an expert.  Philosophy for me has always been essentially an aesthetic undertaking.  Over and over again, I have engaged with profound and difficult books or ideas, and then have struggled to make them so transparently clear that their beauty shines forth.  My writing, as I imagine it, is a gift to my readers, allowing them to see the simplicity of the ideas that I have succeeded in wresting from their obscure and often confusing settings.  That is what I thought of myself as doing when I searched for, and believed I found, the central argument of the Transcendental Analytic of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.  That is also what I sought to do in my books on Marx's Capital.

When I am struggling to clarify the core idea of a text or a subject, I cannot write until I have told the story of the idea to myself, in my head, as clearly as though I were telling a fairy tale to a child.  Then the words flow easily, as quickly as my stubby and inaccurate forefingers can get them down.  When I have told the story, be it the immortal story of Kant or Marx or the flawed story of John Rawls, I present it to the world -- I publish. 

It never occurs to me to show what I have written to another scholar before publishing.  What would be the point?  If the story is perfectly clear, it is an aesthetic whole, and to tinker with it, add caveats or footnotes or addenda, would be like editing Jack and the Beanstalk or Snow White.  I sometimes think how odd it would have been for Matisse to show a painting to Picasso for "criticism" before exhibiting it to the world.  "I think a little more red here in the upper right corner, Henri, and maybe just a tad more blue around the edges.  You really ought to check with Braque.  He is doing some nice things with that yellow you have used."

This explains the odd fact that although it is terribly important to me to be known, to have what I write be read, I never much care about reviews or critiques,  The little book that made me a household word in unlikely places like Croatia and Malaysia, In Defense of Anarchism, was universally panned when it appeared, a fact that did not trouble me at all.

One might ask, as Plato has Callicles ask Socrates in the Gorgias, whether this is a way for a mature adult to spend his or her life.  To which perhaps the only answer is to recall the story that Kierkegaard deploys so powerfully in the Preface to the Philosophical Fragments: 

"Consider the example of Archimedes, who sat unperturbed in the contemplation of his circles while Syracuse was being taken, and the beautiful words he spoke to the Roman soldier who slew him: nolite perturbare circulos meos."

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

WHAT PASSES FOR CONFIRMATION IN THE BLOGOSPHERE

Seth, who tells us a lovely story about himself, speculates that the Einstein story is an urban legend.  A little surfing brought me to this site.  If it is really true that Einstein once played chamber music with Arthur Schnabel, then maybe he wasn't a complete patzer.  I myself would be mortified to play with a great musician, even if I were the world's greatest physicist, or whatever.  I would be too conscious of the intense musical pain I would be causing the musician, regardless of whether she smiled and nodded and put on a good face.  For me [and for many amateur chamber players, I would imagine] the ideal is to play with three quartet mates who are a bit better than I, but not too much, and who are generous and tolerant besides.  That is the circumstance I was fortunate to be in for eight lovely years in Pelham, Massachusetts.  We shall see this evening whether I can manage to count correctly in the Adagio, ma non troppo of K516.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

FURTHER REFLECTIONS OF AN AMATEUR VIOLIST

Now that I am again playing the viola after a hiatus of almost six years, old feelings are flooding back.  Despite my academic accomplishments, which are after all not nothing, I stand in awe of even journeyman professional musicians, and for the members of the great string quartets -- the Juilliard, the Guarneri, the Emerson, the Boromeo -- I have something approaching reverence.

For mediocre amateurs like myself, the most important thing, as I have observed on this blog before, is not making a beautiful sound or even playing in tune, nice as those accomplishments are, but simply counting.  This is especially important for a violist, who is quite often consigned to playing what is best described as filler.   I am now working on two Mozart viola quintets as the second violist with an amateur quartet that has consented to have me play with them several times.  Now, even in a Mozart viola quintet -- and Mozart loved the viola -- the second viola part is mostly pretty boring.  There are a number of eight measure rests and lots of measures filled with repeated eighth notes -- sewing machine music, as it is sometimes called.  But being Mozart, Mozart tosses in some really tricky bits, which I pray I will not screw up when it comes time to join the quartet.  In the Adagio of K516, for example, there are some passages in which the second viola is playing syncopated sixteenth notes and even syncopated thirty-second notes.  I find it almost impossible to practice those passages in the absence of the rest of the musicians.  I mean, who can hear syncopated sixteenth notes in his head?

There is a great old story about Albert Einstein -- perhaps apocryphal -- who was apparently a mediocre amateur violinist.  According to the story, he was playing quartets one evening at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study and managed to get totally lost.  One of his fellow musicians said, in exasperation, "Albert, Albert, count!  One, two, three four!  Count, Albert!"  This to the greatest mathematical physicist who has ever lived.

Tomorrow evening, I play K516.  Keep your fingers crossed.

HOW TO MAKE A PAPER CLIP, AND ALLIED SUBJECTS


As I set out at six this morning on my daily walk, under a beautiful full moon, my thoughts turned to the very helpful comment by Marinus Ferreira about the underlying engineering problems behind the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges.  I reflected, as I often have before, on the curious fact that most of us really have little or no idea how the things that we use actually work.  Several years ago my older son, Patrick [the chess grandmaster and hedge fund manager] gave me a very interesting book about the design engineering problems in the invention and development of the commonplace things we all use.  The first chapter was devoted to the invention of the paper clip.  Very few of us, certainly not I, have ever thought about the invention of the paper clip.  I recall that when I came upon the letter file from the 1917-18 term that my socialist grandfather served as New York City Alderman, I found that sets of papers were held together by straight pins, presumably because at that time the paper clip had not yet been invented.  The second chapter of the book dealt with the tricky engineering task of designing a pop top beer or soda can.  The central problem was that if you made the top too easy to take off, the pressure of the carbonated beverage in the can would blow the top off prematurely, whereas if you made it too difficult to take off, the tab would just break off in your hand.  Who knew?

When I got my IPhone, which seems to have caused as much trouble in cyberspace as that coke bottle did in the Kalahari in The Gods Must Be Crazy, my younger son Tobias, the law professor, who serves as my IPhone guru [he solved my problem of the rotating screen] pointed out to me something that had never occurred to me, namely that a mobile phone is essentially a shortwave radio.  A proper appreciation of that fact would put in perspective the widespread anxiety about NSA spying.  I mean, we are all now amateur ham radio operators.

Which led me back, finally, to Marinus Ferreira's point.  Most of us have very little idea at all of how computers actually work.  Oh, we -- by which I mean the readers of this blog -- all know how to word process and surf the web and play computer games and maybe use an Excel spreadsheet, and some of at least [not I] are adept at photo shopping a picture.  But how many of us know, all the way down, how computers work, in the way that red-blooded American boys are expected to know how the internal combustion engine works?

Let us think about this in layers, as it were, starting [as Aristotle would say] with things that are first in the order of knowing and proceeding to things that are first in the order of being. [Philosophy is really very useful for expressing commonplace ideas in fancy ways.]  All of us can use a computer, as I have said.  A handful of us [again, not I] can actually program -- that is to say, write sets of instructions for a computer, even perhaps create entire applications.  But that is probably a very small fraction of all the reasonably skilled computer users -- say, one percent or fewer?

Even if you can program, you are still operating very much on the surface, as it were.  You may have no very precise idea of what you are actually causing to happen when you type the commands on the keyboard.  Now, I understand the theoretical significance of John von  Neumann's brilliant idea of expressing all mathematics in a binary number system.  Briefly, for those of you who have never given it any thought, a number system based on ones and zeroes perfectly models the on/off or open/closed structure of an electrical network -- 0 for no current flowing through a connection and 1 for current flowing through.  Every on/off switch is representable by a "bit," and a string of eight zeroes and ones in binary notation, representing a particular specification of ons and offs in an electrical circuit, is a "byte."  If you use the eighth binary digit as a test of the success of the transmission across a junction, that leaves you with a seven place binary number, which is to say 128 different combinations of ones and zeroes [two to the seventh power].  When I look at my computer keyboard, I find 47 keys with symbols on them, which, what with upper and lower case, gives 94 different binary numbers to which one can assign letters and symbols.  That leaves another 34 for other uses.  Why not a sixteen bit byte?  Because in the early days that was too complicated to build into the wiring of the computer's central processor.  Why not fewer?  Because then the letters and symbols you wanted would not all be modeled by a single byte of binary code [the next step down from 128 is 64, of course.]

But all of this, which I understand at a perfectly useless abstract level, is still very much on the surface.  What is really going on is the flow of electrical currents along circuits -- at first, circuits of wires and tubes, subject to heating problems very difficult to manage, then later printed circuits, and then in solid state transistors, which I do not understand in any real sense at all.

Not one in ten thousand of us actually understands the physics and engineering of a transistor [which suggests that there are thirty thousand people in America --a bit of an undercount, maybe, but not by much, I would imagine.]  And yet all of us every day use computers [and cell phones, which are really little computers as well as shortwave radios].

If we consider the entire sweep of the history of human beings, which is to say one hundred thousand years or somewhat more, this is a very odd and unusual state of affairs.  For at least ninety percent of that time, and maybe more like ninety-nine percent, most people had a grasp of how their technology worked.  There were specialists, of course -- ironmongers, silver smiths, carpenters, shipwrights and wainwrights and wheelwrights [I omit philosophers, kings, and theologians] -- but even if you did not have the skill to fashion a piece of iron into a sword, you could watch a blacksmith do it and grasp what was going on.  Today, nothing remotely like that is true.  How many of us really know what is involved in making a machine that can turn out Barbie Dolls?

Which, by a circuitous route [Tristram Shandy has nothing on me when it comes to digressions], brings me back to Barack Obama and the botched rollout of the insurance exchanges website.  Obama is an intelligent man, but I very much doubt he understands as much as Marinus Ferreira does about the problems inherent in launching a website of that nature.  Lord knows, Kathleen Sibelius certainly does not seem to.  [For my foreign readers, she is the former Governor of Kansas who is currently Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and hence the person in charge of the website.]

So perhaps I should not be as censorious of Obama as I was.  Then again, the mark of an effective manager is knowing what he or she does not know and finding someone who does.

 

 

Monday, November 18, 2013

TIME TO PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS [AS WE USED TO SAY IN THE SCHOOLYARD]

OK.  We have had a very nice theoretical discussion about the structure of capitalism and the responsibilities of the individual.  Now it is time to do something.  Take a look at this.  It will tell you about the work being done by my wonderful friend, Judith Baker, who is the sort of person I aspire to be but fall short of being.  If you want to help terribly poor rural African children to learn to read, this is it.  I have set up a separate sub-account in my USSAS scholarship organization bank account for donations to this project, and I have started things off with one thousand dollars myself.  All donations are tax deductible.  If you would be willing to help, send a check made out to USSAS-Reading Project to

USSAS
631 Meadowmont Village Circle
Chapel Hill, NC 27517

I expect to hear from Michael.

UNFORCED ERRORS AND SELF-INFLICTED WOUNDS

While I was away, I read a new book by Sasha Issenberg called The Victory Lab.  It is a detailed historical account of the increasingly sophisticated methods used by political campaigns and number-crunching geeks to slice, dice, parse, and palp the electorate in an effort to identify supporters and get them to the polls.  The book culminates, as you might imagine, with two chapters on the two Obama presidential campaigns, which were far and away the most sophisticated, complex, expensive, and successful efforts ever made to bring high-powered social science to bear in the heat of a campaign.  It was an impressive effort, far more impressive than I imagined from my ground-level participation in one small part of that campaignin North Carolina.

While I was reading the book, the disastrous roll-out of the ACA website was dominating the news, and it left me mystified.  There has never been political campaigns that invested so heavily in high-tech data-crunching manipulation of voter information, and it is quite clear that the drive for this effort came right from the top, from Obama himself.  This was not something done on his behalf by people who in effect left the Big Man to make lovely speeches while behind the scenes they got him elected.  How on earth could a president who ran those campaigns make such a total botch of the implementation of his signature achievement?

To be sure, the Republicans have done everything they could to destroy Obama and his health care reform.  Their behavior has been despicable, beyond redemption, callous, destructive, shameful.  But they were not in charge of the implementation of the ACA!  Obama was, and is.  And the responsibility for the present disaster is entirely his.  I do not mean simply that as president he is responsible in some bureaucratic sense for everything that is done by any of the two million federal employees.  I mean that he is responsible in the ordinary every day use of that word.  He is an extremely intelligent man, totally committed, by the evidence of his campaigns, to the most advanced use of IT in all of its manifestations.  He has been aware for years that the Republicans would do everything they could to undermine the Affordable Care Act.  Why on earth did he not start planning for its implementation three years ago?  Why did he not make certain that competent people were put in charge of its implementation?  Why did he not demand in this instance, as he did repeatedly during the campaigns, that websites be tested and debugged and tried out experimentally before launching them?

I confess I do not know the answers to these questions.  Reading Issenberg's book forced me to focus on the details of Obama's unparallelled use of IT during the campaigns.  His failure in this instance is, as Tallyrand said of Napoleon's murder of the Duc d'Engien, worse than a crime;  it is a blunder.

One last word.  At the moment, Obama is being pilloried for his repeated statements that "if you like your health care insurance, you can keep it," which is not exactly true under the ACA.  This repeated promise was not a blunder, nor was it a crime.  It was a deliberately calculated half truth, designed to reassure people with lousy health plans who will benefit enormously under the ACA but are freaked out at the thought that they will end up without even the lousy coverage they are now over-paying for.  Whether it was an unwise political choice on Obama's part remains to be seen, but it is perfectly comprehensible.  The botch of the website rollout is not.

ONE LAST WORD

A propos the dispute triggered by my response to Michael's comment, let me say one last word.  I think the discussion about structural or systemic analyses of capitalism misses the point of my response.  I was not suggesting that the correct way to understand the current state of affairs is to look at what individuals can do in their own lives.  I quite agree that the proper way to understand a society -- any society -- is to look at the structural or systemic nature of the political economy of the society as a whole.  That, if anything, is what it is to be a Marxist.  But that does not answer the question:  What should I do?  No doubt, we would all prefer to live at moments when great progressive changes are under way.  As Wordsworth observed about the period of the French Revolution, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!"

No doubt.  Unfortunately for me [and even more so for those younger than I who did not even have the privilege of living during the height of the Civil Rights Movement], we live in a time of defeat and retrenchment, not of progress and revolution.  And yet, the question remains -- What should I do?

Note that the problems posed by the Roman Empire did not trouble Jesus, whose concern was eternal life, not social improvement -- " "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" [Matthew 22:21].  Those of us who do not have the hope and consolation of eternity are compelled to come to terms with whatever brief moment of historical time is vouchsafed us as the span of our lives.

The extraordinary power of Marx's analysis of capitalism derived in part from his conclusion that capitalism was moving inexorably toward a socialist revolution.  It is quite exhilarating to be swept along by the irresistible currents of historical change.  But for reasons that I have outlined in my paper, "The Future of Socialism," I believe that Marx's analysis of the structure of capitalism, which is largely correct, does not entail the optimistic prognostications he drew from it.

So, once again, we are left with the question:  What should I do?  Michael's answer appears to be, "Sell your IPhone and donate the proceeds to OxFam."  I have made other choices -- starting and running a charitable organization for twenty-five years, getting myself arrested in a demonstration, writing books, donating fifteen thousand dollars in the last two years to political and charitable causes.  But I think I will keep my IPhone.  Now if I can just figure out why it has stopped rotating to landscape view when I turn it!

[Oh yes.  I just this moment donated $100 to Oxfam in honor of Michael.]

Saturday, November 16, 2013

CATCHING UP


While away, my little post about my new phone triggered a tsunami of comments, initiated by Michael's sneering remark.  As usual, Jerry Fresia seems to be the person who understands me the best.  But I thought perhaps I would attempt to stand back a bit from the snarking and countersnarking and address an underlying question that is both legitimate and urgent.

If one is genuinely concerned about the plight of the vast numbers of desperately poor people, and about all the other evils and injustices in addition to poverty that afflict so many men and women, there are, it seems to me, two ways in which one can respond.  The first is to take to heart the counsel of Jesus in Matthew 19:








This is essentially an injunction to become a saint [or at least what Catholics would call a saint -- the early Protestants used that term in a somewhat different sense.]  Stripped of its religious significance [for Jesus is really counseling sainthood as a way of earning eternal life, not for its own sake], this is an honorable calling, one that deserves our admiration and praise on the rare occasions when we encounter it.  Let us be clear what is involved in following Jesus' advice.  Giving away what one hath means not getting married, not having children, not pursuing a career, not seeking higher education, not running for public office.  It means, as Jesus well understood, a form of what was once called dying to the world, for all of these things -- marriage, parenthood, education, career, secular public service -- involve commitments that conflict with the injunction to give away to the poor what one hath.

What then is the alternative, for those of us who have chosen to remain of the world, to marry, raise children, pursue education and a career, and in many other ways participate in the public and private life of the modern world?  Here is my answer.

Choose a way to build your commitment to the needs of the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, and excluded into the fabric of your life.  There are endlessly many ways to do this, and since each of us is only one person, we must resign ourselves to having only the tiniest marginal effect in the world.  Perhaps Bill Gates can take it as his personal goal to eliminate smallpox from the face of the earth, but the rest of us must be content with rather more modest goals.

What can one of us do?  Well, choose a career that commits you to doing work that you believe helps others, whether it is medicine or law or teaching or working for a charitable organization or doing any of the other countless things whose effects are positive rather than negative.  Give a portion of your income to others, either by supporting political movements whose goals you embrace or by donating money to charities, or by directly offering some of what you have to those in need.  Will it be enough?  No, but if you succeed in integrating your charitable giving and your positive actions into your on-going life, I can report that when you reach the age of eighty, you will be able to look back over your life and see that you have at least tried to make a difference.

As for anguishing over buying a smartphone:  Guilt is in fact a very ineffective motivator.  Since it is painful to feel guilt [leaving aside the moral masochists among us], we quickly find ways to avoid the feeling, with the result that any burst of eleemosynary generosity prompted by the guilt quickly evaporates.

Since Michael posted a comment on my blog, he must have access to a computer or other device.  Presumably, it cost him something to use it [even if he is posting a comment from an internet cafe].  Can he justify the expense of that small amount of money simply to gratify his desire to √©pater les bourgeois?  Shouldn't he have donated that small sum instead to OxFam?   You see where this foolishness leads.

 

FAIR WARNING


I had the opportunity, while I was away, to spend some time with my five and a half year old granddaughter, Athena, who is shown above.  She is charming, super intelligent, and very cheerful, but I feel obliged to issue a warning to any of you who may encounter her.  Chat with her, tickle her, make funny faces at her, but do not play games with her, no matter how much she pleads.  She whipped me at Old Maid, Go Fish, Match, Candyland, and lord knows what else.  She is a shark!  Fair warning.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

HIATUS

I shall be out of town starting early tomorrow morning until late on Friday, November 15th.  Although I shall be able to read comments on my brand new IPhone 5S, I shall be unable to put up any new posts until after I return home.  It is hard to believe, but the larger world will hardly notice my absence.  Oh well.  Keep on snarking while I am away.

Friday, November 8, 2013

MY VIOLA


Inasmuch as I have mentioned it, I thought someone might be interested in seeing my viola.  It was made by Marten Cornellissen, a Northampton Mass luthier.  My bow, not shown here, was made by the great French-American archetier Benoit Roland.  As my viola teacher acerbically observed when I bought them, "Now you don't have any excuses."  Needless to say, they are much too good for me!

WHY RAND PAUL IS NOT YET QUITE READY TO BE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES

[A frivolous bit of snarking for a chilly November morning.] 

All of us in the political left blogosphere have been enjoying the Rand Paul plagiarism "scandal,"  to wit,  his habit of inserting sections of Wikipedia entries into his speeches and writings.  [By the way, I am a big fan of Wikipedia -- at least ever since they corrected the initial impression they created that I am dead -- so let's not have any complaints about the quality of the sources from which he stole.]  But no one, to my knowledge, has commented on the most revealing of his many reactions to the plagiarism charges.  I refer of course to his rather plaintive question, "Do I have to be in detention for the rest of my career?"

Now Paul, although a United States Senator, has somewhat the look of a teenager already, so perhaps it is not smart for him to call attention to his youthfulness, should he aspire to even higher office.  The remark about detention makes it clear that he thinks of himself as a high school student, and  despite the fact that the electorate is changing demographically, I do not think America is quite ready for a presidential candidate who might have to be carded before drinking a beer with some guys at an Iowa tavern. 

On the other hand, a Republican primary debate between Paul and Chris Christie would be a makeover artist's dream:  The guy with the stapled stomach up against the kid whose biggest personal problem is a zit.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

AN ATTEMPT AT CLARIFICATION

Judging from the comments on my response to Andrew Blais' question, I failed to make myself clear.  Let me try yet again.  Andrew asked me how I would imagine a conversation beginning between myself, or those on my end of the political spectrum, and those at the other end.  I thought it was a good question because it seems to me that the persistence in contemporary American society of bitterly opposed factions unable to come to any sort of mutually acceptable composition of their differences is dangerous.  Since the American political system is designed to resolve conflicts of interests, I suggested that whenever and wherever possible, it would be fruitful to separate out disputes that could be construed as conflicts of interest from those that are manifestly conflicts of principle and cannot be viewed in any other way by the opposed parties.

Several people, in emails and in blog comments, argued that underlying even what appear on the surface to be conflicts of interest lie conflicts of principle, with the consequence that my suggestion would likely fail to bear fruit.

I quite agree, though that is not, in my view, a good reason for not trying.  But although I can imagine a conversation between defenders of opposed secular principles that might result in some mutual accommodation or eventual agreement, perhaps by identifying deeper underlying principles on which they could agree, I simply cannot imagine such a result from a conversation with opponents whose principles are grounded in religious conviction. 

It has also been suggested to me that those on the extreme right, despite their brave talk of secession and nullification and Second Amendment remedies, are extremely unlikely actually to take up their guns and start shooting.  I certainly hope that is true.  But I have lived through two-thirds of the twentieth century and as much of the twenty-first as we have seen thus far, and I must say that I am not reassured.  Here in the United States we have seen bombings of medical clinics and fatal assaults on doctors who perform abortions, and in other parts of the world irresoluble conflicts of religious conviction have proved vastly more violent.

I am not desperate, although I am angry, because demographically and in other ways things seem to me to be moving in a direction of which I approve.  But that tendency makes those on the other side even more desperate and bitter, and therein lies the potential for real trouble.  I know there is no very useful comparison to be drawn between contemporary America and Weimer Germany in the 1930's, but I am haunted by the awareness that those living in that sophisticated avant-garde world could not imagine what was about to follow.

A RESPONSE TO ANDREW LIONEL BLAIS


Andrew Lionel Blais asked a provocative and interesting question in response to an earlier blog post and I have been mulling over how I might respond.  Let me give it a try.  [Andrew, by the way, wrote his doctoral dissertation with me at UMass back in the day, and then published it as a fine book, On The Plurality of Actual Worlds, with UMass Press.]  Here is what he asked:  "How would you begin the talk with your socio-political doppelganger who is now wondering about the problem of reintegrating the extreme leftists into American society?"

This is, I believe, a question that is both pressing and extremely difficult to answer.  Let me begin by recalling a fact that has been much discussed in various ways by theorists of democracy over the past three centuries:  There is a fundamental difference between conflicts of interest and conflicts of principle in a state that aspires to make decisions about matters of public importance by means of some form of popular democracy.  Conflicts of interest can be compromised;  conflicts of principle cannot be.  One thinks, in the American context, of such interest conflicts as the struggle over control of range land by farmers and ranchers [a favorite theme of old Westerns], or the conflict between creditors who sought low or non-existent inflation [so that debtors pay back notional dollars that are worth as much as those they borrowed] and debtors [principally farmers with mortgages on their land] who felt oppressed by the gold standard and wanted steady inflation that would progressively diminish the real burden of their debt  [the theme of The Wizard of Oz].  Disputes over taxation and the role of the Federal Government in the creation of a social safety net are also conflicts of interest, for all that they are often portrayed as matters of principle. 

But there are some conflicts that truly are over matters of principle, and it is very difficult to see how these can be handled effectively within the American political system, which is designed to deal with conflicts of interest.  The most important issue of principle in the history of America was of course slavery, and nothing short of a long and bloody war could resolve the issue decisively, leaving resentments, hatreds, and political deformations that persist to the present day.  Much of American public life for the past two hundred and twenty-five years has been the story of the playing out of that conflict of principle.

But both this principled dispute over slavery and the various conflicts of interest are secular in nature.  We are confronted today with a number of conflicts of principle that are essentially religious in their motivation and intensity, most notably the conflict over abortion.  [I tend to think that the dispute over same sex marriage, despite the frequent appeal of biblical texts by its opponents, has fundamentally psychological rather than religious roots, although I might of course be mistaken.]   If someone believes, as a matter of religious faith, that God implants a soul in a foetus at the moment of conception, and that deliberate termination of that pregnancy, even in its first hours, is therefore the unjustifiable murder of a human being with an immortal soul, there is simply no acceptable and satisfactory compromise possible with someone who rejects that premise.  In the nature of the case, no accumulation of facts can resolve the conflict, which is after all a matter of religious faith, nor can any political process involving elections and decisions by courts lead that person to accept anything short of a complete ban on all forms of the deliberate termination of any pregnancy. 

I do not think there is any conversation, debate, focus group, or process of political negotiation that can resolve conflicts of principle of this sort.  What then is to be done?

The best course available, so far as I can see, is to separate out from the jumbled complex of issues setting the far right today against the middle and the left all those issues that are genuinely conflicts of interest, regardless of whether they have been cast by one side or the other as issues of principle.  The Affordable Care Act, taxation levels, income inequality, the relative power of the states and the federal government, the status of undocumented Americans, climate change, the role of the federal government in managing a capitalist economy -- these are one and all conflicts of interest, and therefore susceptible to the sort of resolution that the American political system was designed to accomplish.

If this sorting out can be carried through, there will still remain irresoluble conflicts of principle that cannot be accommodated by politics.  Since I believe that time is on my side with regard to these issues, I am content to have them continue to fester unresolved.  But if you believe that the direction of evolution of American society is against you, as so many on the right seem to, then you may become either more and more alienated and withdrawn from America as a whole or alternatively more prone to violence as the only hope for ending what you sincerely believe to be an evil condemned by God.  There is nothing politics or discussion can do to change that.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

AN ODD FACT FROM AN OBVIOUSLY WASTED LIFE

The classic solitaire game on my computer permits me to take back a move -- the "undo" functionality.  I have tried playing huge numbers of games both using and not using the undo capability.  My winning percentage is 16% both ways!  That strikes me as counterintuitive.

NIGHT SWEATS


I spent a restless night, angry about the assault on voting rights in Texas, here in North Carolina, and elsewhere around the country, furious at the five Supreme Court justices who gaily gutted the Voting Rights Act [they are, I imagine, thrilled by the spate of anti-voting bills flooding through Republican-controlled state legislatures], and painfully aware of how little I can do about it.  What triggered the bad night was the grotesque story about ninety year old former House Speaker Jim Wright being turned away from the polls in his native Texas because his expired driver's license was not enough to establish the credentials of one of the best known persons in American politics.  Perhaps the most cynical maneuver is the so-called "two-tier" voting system proposed in Arizona and Kansas that would grudgingly obey federal voting laws that control federal elections while imposing separate voter suppression restrictions for state and local elections.

What we are witnessing is nothing less than a deliberate all-out assault on the foundations of popular democracy.  The right, panicked that it will never be able to assemble a majority of the actual citizens now and in the future living in the United States, is attempting to go back to the time when only white men had the franchise.  They are openly and without even the fig leaf of rationalization attempting to deny the vote to African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, students [here in North Carolina] and other suspect sub-populations.

The Supreme Court being what it is [were I a religious man I would be praying for flesh eating bacteria to strike Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Roberts], our only recourse is turn out at the polls at every election in very large numbers and vote the bastards out of office. 

Speaking of which, I must go to the polls today and make a selection for Chapel Hill Town Council, despite the fact that this is a contest with virtually no ideological content or significance.  Meanwhile, I shall await the expected defeat of Cuccinelli in Virginia.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

THE SECRET LIFE OF PAUL RYAN [COURTESY OF JAMES THURBER]

Every day, when I eat my simple lunch of cottage cheese, yogurt, and grapes, I sit on my bed and watch television.  During the week, I usually turn on Alex Wagner on MSNBC, whom I really like, but on weekends her place is taken by Alex Witt, who is not so much a favorite of mine, so today I decided to try Turner Classic Movies.  There I found the great old Gary Cooper Patricia Neal Raymond Massey version of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.    If you have not seen it, I can report that it is magnificently, spectacularly, uproariously, heart-poundingly awful -- a totally successful rendering of the inner geist of one of America's very worst novels.  As I watched it, mesmerized, giggling and groaning and trying not to succumb to the temptation to avert my eyes or hit the mute button, the thought suddenly occurred to me:  This is the secret wet dream of Paul Ryan and a host of passionate conservatives who have seized control of the rotting corpse of the Republican Party. 

It would seem that it is  not only Roman Catholic priests who are psychodynamically fixated at the level of nascently pubescent teen-age boys.

AN INTERESTING DISCUSSION

A regular reader, prompted by my rumination on the problem of reintegrating the extreme rightists into American society, suggested that I take a look at this discussion in the TIMES.  On the one hand, it somewhat sets my teeth on edge.  On the other hand, what after all is the alternative?  If we do not talk, there is not much left but trying to kill one another, which strikes me as unsatisfactory.