Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

ARISTOTELIAN MUSINGS

I have it firmly fixed in my mind, although I do not have the textual reference, that Aristotle somewhere observes that shit does not have a form.  [The Greek scholars among you can help me out.]  Now, my work, for all of my life, has consisted of intuiting conceptual or argumentative forms and then trying to articulate them clearly and transparently.  Perhaps this is why I find it so difficult to write about the current political scene.  Bernie Sanders is the only political figure in America today whose utterances can support a conceptual analysis of any sort.  The remainder is burlesque, low artifice, or vulgar evil. 

I am sure you will understand the problem this poses for a philosophical blogger.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

WHY DO I EVEN TRY?


The young Marx famously wrote, "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."  To which I am inclined to respond, "Fine for you to talk, Mr. World-Historical, but what about us poor schlubs whose greatest efforts do not even register on the global needle?"  Day after day, I sit in my apartment yelling at the TV when political commentators say dead stupid things.  When I cannot stand it anymore, I retreat into elaborate fantasies of magical powers with which I redistribute wealth or reverse global warming or put a piece of adhesive tape over Chris Matthews' mouth.

My latest fit of TV-yelling was triggered by some nameless member of a panel of opinionaters on Hardball, Chris Matthews' MSNBC show.  At issue was the phony "scandal" created by some opponents of Planned Parenthood who cooked up photo-shopped videos that purport to reveal Planned Parenthood employees heartlessly bargaining for the body parts of aborted fetuses to be used in medical research.  Carly Fiorina, the failed Hewlett Packard CEO now making a run for the Republican presidential nomination, has made this the centerpiece of her right-wing lunge for the nomination.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid," I shouted at my inoffensive TV set, as the idiot on the Hardball panel went on about how terrible it was that a woman in one of the videos should casually eat her lunch and sip wine while talking about fetal body parts.

So, here is what I would have said if, magically, I had been transported to the MSNBC set and had by the exercise of unimaginable powers forced Matthews to shut up for ten minutes.  Since this must all seem not only pathetic but also incomprehensible to my overseas readers, a few words of explanation are called for.

Planned Parenthood is a private non-profit organization, almost a century old now, that provides reproductive health services and associated medical services [cancer screenings, etc.] to women.  It has an annual budget of about one billion dollars, half of which comes, in one form or another, from federal and state governments.  Its important role in providing contraception to women and in performing abortions has made it the target of so-called "pro-life" forces in American politics.  Carly Fiorina is a businesswoman who worked first for the Lucent Corporation and then as CEO of Hewlett Packard, the IT giant.  As head of HP, she initiated the acquisition of Compaq, which turned out to be a disastrous mistake, causing the HP stock to lose half its value and bringing about her firing.

So much for background.  Here is what I would have liked to have the opportunity to say to that brain-dead member of the MSNBC panel ["brain-dead" does not, of course, uniquely identify her, but that is another matter.]

It is often said that in the first year of Medical School, the students must start to think of themselves as doctors, just as the first year of Law School is devoted to getting the students to think like lawyers.  Thinking of oneself as a doctor means, among many other things, adopting an utterly unnatural attitude toward the human body -- an objectifying, de-sensitizing attitude that enables the newly formed doctor to engage in such activities as physical examinations and invasive operations calmly, routinely, scientifically, and without gagging or throwing up.  One of the ways in  which medical schools accomplish this is by setting the student to work, right at the beginning of the very first semester, dissecting a cadaver.  If you can even allow yourself to think about it, there is something profoundly unnatural and unsettling about picking up a scalpel and cutting into a corpse.  Those first cuts are bad enough, even with the rest of your cadaver team there to cheer you on, but imagine what it feels like to dissect a liver, a penis, an eyeball, a brain.

Doctors steel themselves for these experiences by breathing deeply, gritting their teeth, making crude locker room or funeral parlor jokes, and in every way they can denying the appalling reality of what they are doing.  Years later, those who become surgeons routinely cut open living, breathing, bleeding people.  We need them to do this, we want them to do this, because our health and our very lives depend on their ability to do so calmly, deliberately, even casually.  So a surgeon who is up to her elbows in the chest cavity of a patient, blood flowing all around, will chat about the latest episode of NCIS or discuss what she had for dinner the previous night. 

It is a profound mistake, not to say a stupid mistake, to conclude that the surgeon is heartless, or amoral, or insensitive to the humanity of the patient.  This is, after all, a highly skilled woman who is prepared to work for thirty-six hours without rest to save the life of a desperately ill patient.

Which brings me to the woman having lunch while talking about salvaging for medical research the body parts of an aborted fetus.  It is medically extremely valuable to have those body parts available for research.  Countless life-saving medical advances have resulted from such research.  But the process of cutting open a dead fetus to preserve the appropriate organs is, viewed from a normal human perspective, appalling, revolting, unthinkable -- just as appalling, revolting, and unthinkable as it is to perform open heart surgery or to remove a brain tumor.  The only way one can engage in such activities is to grow an emotional carapace that protects you from your ordinary human responses.

So when that woman on the MSNBC panel went on about how horrid it was for a Planned Parenthood employee to sip her wine and eat her lunch while discussing the harvesting of fetal organs, all I could do was shout at the TV set, "Stupid!  Stupid!  Stupid!"

Fat lot of good that did.

 

 

Monday, September 28, 2015

PAWN TO KING FOUR -- NOT


Yesterday afternoon, Susie and I went to see the indie movie Pawn Sacrifice, about Bobby Fischer and his 1972 world chess championship match with Boris Spassky.  Fischer  is played by Spiderman [which is to say, Tobey Maguire], and though Maguire does his best  to communicate Fischer's intensity, brilliance, and all-round nuttiness, he is simply too nice a young man to bring it off successfully.  Spassky is played by Liev Schreiber, who comes across as the grownup in the affair.

The 1972 match was a turning point in my life as a parent.  I was living then in Northampton, MA with my first wife and our two sons, four year old Patrick and two year  old Toby [as he was then called.]  I was no sort of chess player at all, but my father had taught me the moves, and for the fun of it, I hauled out my set and played along as the moves were announced on a public TV show devoted to the match.  The host of the show was Shelby Lyman, a cheerful young man who was only a chess Master [very low level in the big league chess world] but an enthusiastic promoter of chess.  Since there was no direct TV feed, Lyman set up a wall mounted chess board in the studio and put the moves up as they came in over the teletype.  He had assembled a little group of serious chess players -- International Grandmasters and International Masters [a totally  different thing entirely], who analyzed each move during the long waits between teletype messages.

Although I did not realize it at the time, four year old Patrick took note of Daddy's fascination with the game.  The next year, during an open house at his pre-school, Patrick dragged me into a room in which the teachers had laid out a variety of board games.  Pointing to the chess board, he asked me to teach him how to play.  I demurred suggesting Checkers instead, but Patrick insisted, so I taught him the moves.

The rest, as they say, is history.  Patrick went on to become an International Grandmaster, twice United States chess champion, one of the strongest players American produced after the Fischer era.  I spent a good deal of his boyhood ferrying him to and from chess matches.

The pivotal moment in the movie [spoiler alert] comes almost at the end.  After blundering away the first game and forfeiting the second by not showing up, Fischer goes on to equalize in the 24 game match at two and a half, two and a half.  In the sixth game, he departs from his signature e4 opening and beats Spassky in what is widely considered one of the most brilliant games ever played.  When Fischer makes the move that crushes Spassky, Spassky looks at the board, smiles, laughs, and then stands and applauds Fischer.  It is an act of exquisite grace and pure sportsmanship, and it makes Spassky, who was after all far and away the second best chess player in the world, look like a real mensch.   I freely admit that tears came to my eyes.

Friday, September 25, 2015

IN HONOR OF THE POPE


On Wednesday, Pope Francis celebrated a mass completing the canonization of Father Junipero Serra, an eighteenth century Spanish priest who founded nine missions up the coast of what is now California [thereby bestowing on that great state a series of city names beginning in "San" -- San Diego, San Francisco, and so forth.]  It was widely reported that the Catholic Church had "made" Junipero Serra a saint, thus reinforcing a widespread misunderstanding of the condition of sainthood.  As my personal homage to the visiting Pope, I hereby  offer a clarification.  Think of it as Bob Wolff's contribution to the catechism.

Adam fell, disobeying God's command to refrain from eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Because we are all descended from Adam, that first or Original Sin stains all of our souls.  God's infinite and implacable justice demands that each of us be punished for that Original Sin and all of our other sins, even if by God's infinite and incomprehensible mercy some of us are to be saved and gathered into God's bosom, there to reside for all eternity in Heaven.  Thus it is that at death those souls destined for Heaven must first spend a long and very painful time Purgatory, where they shall be punished for their sins.

However, a tiny handful of exemplary souls whose time on earth has been marked by supererogatory acts of faith and charity are, again  by God's mysterious charity, excused from the torments of Purgatory and taken instantly upon death into the blessedness of Heaven. 

Because these few blessed individuals reside at the right hand of God now, and not at some future time after the Last Trump, it is possible for them to intercede with the Lord, to appeal to Him to answer the prayers of one of the faithful.  Hence the practice has sprung up of praying not directly to God but to one of the blessed souls already in Heaven.

The souls who have been taken directly to Heaven, bypassing Purgatory, are called Saints.  As should be manifest from this elementary exposition, it is God, and only God, who "makes" a Saint [for of course even Saints are sinners, bearing as they do in  their souls the mark of the Original Sin.]

But who is a Saint?  To whom may the faithful pray, in  hopes of intercession with the Lord?  The Roman Catholic Church, ever mindful of the needs of its flock, undertakes to ascertain which souls, now departed, have been thus singled out by God for immediate entry into Heaven.  Now, the indisputable mark of election [which is the term used to describe God's selection of a sinner for Sainthood] is a miracle, a divine contravention of universal natural law.  And because it is a deeply conservative institution unwilling to act precipitously ["fools rush in where angels fear to tread," as Alexander Pope remarks in The Dunciad], the Church requires evidence of three miracles performed in the name of, or after prayers directed to, a departed individual before declaring itself satisfied that the individual is indeed a Saint.  as the Church is also a thoroughly bureaucratized institution, there is, as we might expect, an Office of the Holy See whose function it is to evaluate the many claims of miraculous interventions that its credulous parishioners are forever putting forward.  This Office is staffed by wise and sceptical guardians, who examine each claim with a basilisk eye. rejecting far more claims than it certifies.  Not every vision of the Crucified Christ in a tub of butter is a miracle!

Thus it is that with implacable rigor and infinite care, but, by a happy accident, just in time for the Pope's visit to the United States, Father Junipero Serra has been determined to be among that little band of souls whose exemplary life moved the Lord to take him immediately to Heaven upon his death two hundred thirty-one years ago.  The Mass celebrated by the Pope was an acknowledgement of that Act of Divine Mercy.

Class dismissed.  Now go and sin no more.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

GENETIC ARCANA

Was it Lamarck who said that the parent inherits the acquired characteristics of the child?  I forget.  At all events, I neglected to point out that my jest about Obama as a Jedi derives from my son, Tobias.  Check this out.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

OH THE SHAME THE SHAME

I just learned that Donald Trump grew up in Jamaica Estates in the New York City borough of Queens, about a mile and a half from where I grew up in Kew Gardens Hills.  For some inexplicable reason, I feel a personal responsibility for what has been visited on the world.

AH SCOTT, WE HARDLY KNEW YA


And then there were fourteen.  Scott Walker has "suspended his campaign," which is American polispeak for dropping out while retaining control of what monies remain in the coffers.  Oscar Wilde once described an English country fox hunt as "the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable."  The bon mot conjures the current race for the Republican presidential nomination.  Warren Goldfarb was surely right in characterizing Walker as the most loathsome of the aspirants to the title, though some might think his powers of discrimination a tad too fine.

Something very strange is happening to Republicans this cycle, and I have been spending a good deal of time trying to puzzle it out.  The "noted pediatric neurosurgeon" Ben Carson has lately taken to telling all who will listen that a Muslim ought never  to be President unless he forswears the central tenets of his religion, which prompted Donald Trump to snark that "some say we have already had one as president."

If we remain at the level of appearances, dealing first, as Aristotle says, with things known better to us rather than things known better in themselves, we might naturally suppose that the Republican Party has embarked on a coordinated campaign to offend, one by one, every segment of the American electorate that is not old, White, and bigoted.  The party long ago lost the Black vote, resulting in Democrats getting share of the African-Americans so large that the remainder looks like a counting error.

In this cycle, the Republicans began by doing whatever they could to offend unmarried women.  That accomplished, they moved on to Hispanic-Americans.  This task was assigned to Donald Trump, whose assault on Latinos and Latinas has dominated the public discourse, allowing no other candidate to get a deep breath of the political air. 

But Trump's efforts were so successful that after a while it became clear nothing more needed to be done.  The Hispanic vote was locked up for the Democrats for at least a generation.  The Republicans looked around for another minority group to offend, and noticed Asian-Americans -- not so rich a target of opportunity as Hispanics or African-Americans, but growing in importance, and worth a bit of attention.  So Jeb Bush was dispatched to toss a casual insult at them, in hopes that they would take offence and depart for the Democratic Party.  This left Dr. Ben Carson pretty much out in the cold.  Uncle Ben had been passed over for the juicy plum of dissing the Hispanics, and had even been denied access to the Asian-Americans, so he did what any enterprising candidate would do, he bustled about and found -- Muslims.  Muslims are not a large minority, but one takes what one can get in the insult business, so the good Doctor wasted no time assuring that no alert, self-respecting Muslim would ever vote Republican.  I guess that leaves Marco Rubio with the Satanists.

What on earth is going on?  I have a theory, and like all my best theories, it is rooted in the experiences of my youth.

When I was a boy, there were a number of daily fifteen minute radio serials that aired around dinner time.  [The Lone Ranger was an exception -- it was on for a half hour three times a week.  I used to listen to it as my sister and I did the dinner dishes.]  My favorite was Captain Midnight, which featured a decoder ring one could write away for.  With my decoder ring, I could decipher the sequence of numbers announced at the very end of each episode, which gave the cognoscenti secret information about the next show.  Among the other shows was The Shadow.  This was an early superhero program, the central character of which was Lamont Cranston, also known as The Shadow.  Each day, the announcer would proclaim, in a sepulchral voice, "What evil lurks in the hearts of men?  The Shadow knows."  Lamont Cranston, we were told, had "traveled in the Far East," and there had acquired the "ability to cloud men's minds."  For the youngsters among you, think Obi-Wan Kenobe in the original Star Wars movie, drawing upon The Force with a wave of his hand to confuse the troopers who stopped him and Luke as they came looking for a transport ship to take them on their journeys.

What is going on?  My theory is that Barack Obama is a Jedi knight whose command of The Force enables him to cloud the minds of Republicans and drive them mad.  After seven years as President, he has, without visible effort, reduced otherwise rational Republicans to gibbering idiots hell bent on making their party unelectable at the national level.

What will become of Obama once he leaves office?  I see him as turning into Yoda, ostensibly living in obscurity while in reality training generations of Democrats in the secret tricks of driving Republicans insane.  As he ages, he will begin to stoop and put the second halves of his sentences before the first halves.

Who will be next?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

FIRE UP THE POT-BELLIED STOVE FOR A MEETING OF THE HOT STOVE LEAGUE


The contest for the Republican Party's 2016 presidential nomination has become so raucous, xenophobic, bigoted, and overall ugly that I find myself desperately reaching for facts to counteract the flood of hateful talk spewing from the mouths of the candidates.  What follows is as much security blanket as analysis.  Use it as you will.

Here are some indubitable facts:

1.  Contrary to present appearances, the Republican Party will nominate someone to serve as their standard bearer in the 2016 election.  I know that there are House races, and even the occasional Senate race, in which one party simply takes a pass, but I am convinced, after a deep historical and ideological examination, that the Republicans will indeed nominate someone.

2.  There will be 2470 delegates to the Republican Convention.  Therefore, a candidate must accumulate 1236 delegates in the state caucuses and primary elections in order to enter the Convention assured of nomination.  The allocation of delegates to the several states is determined by a complex formula that takes into account the number of Representatives and Senators each state elects, whether the state voted for the Republican candidate in 2012, and so forth.  Those interested in the details can consult this website.

3.   If no candidate has won 1236 delegates, the nominee will be chosen on the floor of the Convention.  This has not happened since the modern system of primaries was instituted.  It is the secret wet dream of all TV commentators, but I am on balance doubtful that it will happen in 2016.  However, that is by no means certain.

4.  Each state has its own rules, regulations, and deadlines governing the selection of delegates.  Some of these are determined by the state Secretary of State and are binding on both major parties;  others are determined by the state Republican Committee; and still others are determined by the National Republican Committee.

5.  It is not at all a trivial matter to ensure that a candidate appears on the ballot in all fifty states [and the Territories, but never mind those.]  A candidate's campaign operation must have people knowledgeable about such matters who keep track of all the rules so that the candidate even has a chance of picking up delegates.  All eyes may be on Iowa and New Hampshire, but those two states together only account for 53 of the 2470 Convention delegates.

6.  There are deadlines that must be met if a candidate wishes to appear on the primary ballot, and those deadlines will start coming up almost before we know it.  As everyone knows who is really paying attention, the first four caucus and primary states are Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, with Iowa leading off on February 1, 2016.  But on March 1, 2016, a large number of states hold their caucuses and primaries -- this is referred to as Super Tuesday.  Here are some deadlines for just four of those states: 

Virginia [49 delegates] and Louisiana [46 delegates], December 10, 2015

Texas [155 delegates], December 14, 2015

Ohio [66 delegates], December 16, 2015.

In short, during one week a month and a half before the Iowa caucuses, the deadlines will come up for filing in four states that produce a quarter of the delegates needed to win the nomination.

It would be extremely interesting to know whether the Trump, Fiorina, and Carson campaigns, for example, have fulltime staffers concentrating on meeting these and the other forty-six deadlines.  If they do not, it will not matter how well they do in Iowa and New Hampshire.

I desperately hope that the Sanders campaign has someone handling these technical matters.  You can be absolutely certain that the Clinton campaign is all over this like white on rice [as we used to say in the UMass Afro-American Studies Department.]

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A STROLL DOWN MEMORY LANE



If news reports are to be believed, 54% of Republicans believe that President Obama is a Muslim [and 100% of them, I assume, consider being a Muslim an especially bad thing.]  When I read reports like this, I despair for my fellow homo sapiens.  The scores of millions of Americans presumably represented by the poll respondents hold critical jobs -- as traffic policemen, as bus drivers, as doctors, as lawyers, as chicken pluckers.  If the polls are to be believed, a sizeable fraction of the cars approaching me on Interstate 40 at a combined speed of 160 miles an hour are, especially here in North Carolina, driven by motorists completely unhinged from reality.  Is it safe for me to drive?

Thus troubled, I looked within for reassurance.  Deep in the far recesses of my memory I found a faint trace of an article written almost seventy years ago by two of the great figures of mid-twentieth century American sociology, David Riesman and Nathan Glazer.  I am sure those names are completely unknown to you, although you may be familiar with some of the terms they gave to our conversation about public affairs -- "other-directed, "inner-directed," "inside dopester."

With remarkably little effort, I located this essay by means of Google and a few key words:  "The Meaning of Opinion," by David Riesman and Nathan Glazer, Public Opinion Quarterly, Volume 12,m No. 4 [Winter 1948-40], pp. 633-648.  Read it!  It is so far superior to anything written by sociologists and public opinion pollsters today as to take one's breath away.

How can it be that 54% of Republicans think Obama is a Muslim?  The answer -- not simple at all -- is that public opinion polling is a socio-psycho-dynamically complex interaction between the poll-taker and the respondent in which the manifest content of the question and answer are a very imperfect representation of the latent interactive processes taking place in the polling.

In the simplest terms possible, I suggest that the answer to my despairing question is this:  When a pollster asks a respondent the manifest question "Is President Obama a Muslim?," the respondent at some level experiences this as the quite different latent question, "Do you like President Obama?"  The respondent understands quite well, even if not consciously, that to give the patently true answer "No" to the manifest question would actually be to give the answer "Yes" to the latent question.  So the respondent answers "Yes" to the manifest question, not wanting to be trapped into expressing any sort of support or sympathy for Obama.  The poll taker dutifully records this as a "yes" to the manifest question rather thasn what it really is, a "No" to the latent question.

I am quite confident that if a polling organization were to ask a statistically representative sample of Republicans  "Does President Obama have horns?," a significant percentage of respondents would say "Yes," even though all of them have seen Obama on television many times and know quite well that he has no horns.

Riesman and Glazer would have understood this perfectly.

Friday, September 18, 2015

TROUBLED THOUGHTS A FTER A NIGHT DISTURBED BY W. B. YEATS


Two millennia ago, so the legend has it, a god manifested itself as a male child in a rude stable far from the center of European civilization.  From the stigmata of that crucified child, we are told, sprang timeless cathedrals, divine masses, autos da fe, world wars, and -- latterly -- Mike Huckabee.  Generations of the devout offered up their sexuality as a sop to a pitiless Creator.  Parents shunned sons in His name, and inspired by His infinite Goodness turned brothers and sisters into chattel.
 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS


I was wondering this morning as I walked, Does anyone ever prove anything in Philosophy?  Oh. I know we prove things all the time in Logic -- All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, Therefore Socrates is mortal.  But what about Philosophy per se [as we like to say in the trade]?

Then it occurred to me that every so often a philosopher will disprove something.  My favorite examples, not surprisingly, are Hume and Kant who, between them, brought Rational Theology to a screeching halt by decisively refuting every one of the going proofs for the existence of God.

Indeed, I flatter myself that in my small way, I refuted the standard arguments for the moral legitimacy of the majoritarian democratic state.  Not quite God, to be sure, but not chopped chicken liver either.

I invite my readers to offer other examples of things philosophers have proved or disproved.

AND AGAIN, THANK YOU

Once again I am moved to thank you for your very lovely expressions of support.  I feel like a castaway on a desert island who puts a forelorn note in a bottle and casts into the outgoing tide, only to have the next tide bring back baskets of flowers.  I am very touched.

MADSISON AVENUE RULES!


Readers of this blog are well aware that I hold Hillary Clinton in low esteem, but fairness requires me to acknowledge true political brilliance when I see it.  Yesterday I watched a Clinton commercial -- one  of the first I have caught on the tube, though I imagine by now there have been many.  I say without hesitation that it was the single most powerful and effective political advertisement I have ever encountered.  It was so good that after I had watched it for a while, unbidden there rose in me a visceral longing for a Clinton victory in 2016.

The commercial was lavishly produced and must have cost a small fortune, paid for out of the Clinton campaign's famously deep pockets.  It ran for an unimaginably long time -- three hours, I believe, though I only watched the first ninety minutes.  The format was sheer genius.  It pretended to be an actual live debate among eleven of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.  By inspired cross-cutting and photo-shopping, the producers of the commercial managed to make every one of the Republican candidates look like a blustering bully, a blithering idiot, or an ineffectual fool.

The real genius of the ad is that since it used absolutely nothing but the Republicans' own words and facial grimaces, they have no grounds for complaint.

Now if only the Sanders campaign could produce commercials like this!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

PROFOUND THANKS

I was deeply, deeply moved by TheDudeDiogenes' response to my complaint about my doctor.  Let me just reproduce the portion of his comment that touched me so profoundly:

"At any rate, I am only 33 and while I joke about being old (and am the oldest of my "meatspace" friends, I surely have nothing on you Professor! Which brings to my mind something that I have worried about whenever you mention your age or health - supposing something tragic happens to you, is there any way readers of this blog will know or will some day there just won't be any new posts? (I don't wish to be morbid, and I wish you as many more years as you wish for yourself, but the thought of you sustaining a debilitating or fatal injury or illness fills me with great dread - I can't begin to express how much your wisdom, wit, compassion, and joie de vivre have consoled and inspired me over the years, even though I am an infrequent commenter.)"

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.  In my quirky way, this kind comment reminded of the very last scene in that strange Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show.  Carrey plays a man whose entire life, unbeknownst to him, has been an on-going reality TV show filmed inside an enormous domed sound stage staffed with actors who have been with the show Truman's entire life.  [Keep in mind that I and millions  of others have been watching The Young and the Restless for twenty-five years.]  The show ends when Truman figures out what is going on and finds his way to a door in the dome, through which he walks out of the show and into the real world.

The world-wide audience watches and cheers as Truman finds his way off the set.  The last scene of the movie shows several firemen [I think] watching, transfixed, as the show goes dark.  Then one turns to the other, picking up the remote, and asks, "What else is on?"

That is how I have always imagiued it would be should I blog 'til I die.  I am moved by the thought that someone might miss the show.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

JUST ASKING

Do I have this right?  Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are married, and they have a son named North.  So his name is North West.  And if, when he grows up, he has a little boy whom he names after himself, then Kim Kardashian's grandson will be North by North West.

IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE?


Back in the '80s, when I was living in Watertown, outside of Boston, I attended a concert by the great Beaux Arts Trio at Harvard's Sanders Theater.  Midway through the first number, a commotion arose at the rear of the balcony.  Someone called, "Is there a doctor?"  This being primarily a Harvard audience, a goodly number of medical students, Mass General residents, and junior and senior Med School professors looked around, searching for the most senior physician attending the concert [protocol in those days compared favorably with that among the English Peerage.]  The trio fell silent while we all sat and waited.  After a bit, we heard the siren of an ambulance [this was well before cell phones, so someone must have called on a house line.]  Eventually men hurried in with a rolling stretcher and carted some poor sod off.  The trio picked up where they had left off, and we all cheered them to the echo when they finished, as much out of relief as aesthetic pleasure.  Then, mid way through the second number, it happened again!  This time, Isidore Cohen, Leonard Greenhouse, and Menachim Pressler threw in the towel and announced intermission.  The next weekend, I flew to RDU to visit Susie on one of my twice-monthly trips. When she picked me up at the airport, she told me with great excitement that she managed to obtain tickets to a sold-out concert at Duke.  The Beaux Arts Trio was coming to town!  The concert went off without a hitch.  Nobody died.

I thought of this tidbit of ancient history this morning as I walked because for some long time now I have been struggling with increasingly invasive pain in many parts of my body and I have been unable to get my doctor to really pay attention to me.  I have access at UNC to world-class specialists of every conceivable variety, but I do not feel that I have a doctor.  Let me explain.  [I apologize for this shamelessly personal post on a blog that has always striven for an elevated intellectual ambiance, but the pain has destroyed my equanimity and undermined my philosophical ability to view the universe sub specie  aeternitatis.]

Four or five months ago, I began to develop increasing pain in various parts of my body -- elbow, thighs , neck, arms -- nothing remotely life-threatening, let me hasten to say, but as it worsened, enough to destroy my normal cheerful equanimity, so that in the past two months, my life has been mostly about the pain.  My doctor did  not seem to me to be paying much attention to what I was saying when I saw him, so I complained loudly.  At that time, four weeks ago, he was very apologetic, thanked me for being honest with him, and examined me.  He did three things.  At the suggestion of the specialist who was treating me for "tennis elbow" [a separate problem], he took me off a statin medication I had been taking for years to lower my cholesterol [statins can cause generalized muscle pain -- who knew?].  He prescribed Celebrex for the pain -- 100 mg twice daily.  And he referred me to UNC's big hernia man for a possible femoral hernia.

And that was the last I heard from him.  So far as I could make out, when I walked out of the examining room, he totally put me out of his mind.  Was he curious whether taking me off statins helped with the pain?  Apparently not.  Did he want to know whether the dosage of Celebrex needed to be adjusted?  It seems never to have crossed his mind.  Yesterday the hernia maven told me the CT scan showed no evidence of a hernia.  Does my doctor even care?  Who knows?

I made an appointment to see my doctor this afternoon at 2:20.  I am going to ask him straight out whether he wants to be my doctor, because as of now, I do believe that I have a doctor.  What I have is access to a suite of world-class specialists who will attend with great skill to neck or my thigh or my left elbow [I feel like Koko in The Mikado!], but I do not have a doctor who is treating me, all of me, in an intelligent on-going fashion.

Am I in the grip of a nostalgic fantasy?  Is medicine no longer practiced that way?

THIS YOU GOTTA READ

Give credit where credit is due.  Conservative Jonah Goldberg's rant in the National Review is priceless.  Reading this raises schadenfreude to an entirely new level.

Monday, September 14, 2015

GIVE ME THAT OLD TIME RELIGION


In the old days, if you wanted to be a martyr, you could count on finding a Roman soldier who would consent to crucify you, or a Coliseum event manager who would feed you to the lions.  Fast forward fifteen hundred years, and despite the inevitable cultural decline, it was still possible to get yourself broken on the rack or burned alive.  Now that was martyrdom. 

But these days, the best you can hope for is a weekend in jail, while still collecting your $80,000 a year salary as a County clerk.  Hunh.  Next they'll turn Purgatory into a theme park and give discounts on family night.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

I TAKE THIS PERSONALLY


The Intel Corporation has announced that it is ending its decades long sponsorship of the national high school science competition that bore its name -- the Intel Science Talent Search.  I take this personally, for a reason I shall explain.  In 1942, during the Second World War, the Westinghouse Corporation, then a corporate leader in science and technology, decided to encourage America's high school seniors to go into science as a career by holding an annual national competition.  Interested seniors would undertake original research projects under the guidance of their science teachers while also studying as much science as they could get under their belts.  They would all take an examination to measure their science literacy and would submit reports of their research.  The whole shebang would be called the Westinghouse Science Talent Search [later taken over by Intel.]  Several hundred seniors would be awarded Honorable Mention in the competition on the basis of their performance on the test, and the forty with the most promising projects would be invited to Washington, D. C. for a week-long celebration and round of interviews by distinguished scientists.  The top girl and top boy would be selected by a panel of judges [they talked that way back then], and each of them would receive a $2400 prize -- enough to pay four years of college tuition at a top school!

At Forest Hills High School in Queens, N.Y., a hot-shot Biology teacher named Dr. Paul Brandwein took note of this development and decided to put the new high school on the map by training up students to compete.  In 1944, a fourteen year old girl started at FHHS whose father, also a high school Biology teacher, had been Brandwein's Chair of department before Brandwein came to Forest Hills.  Brandwein spotted her when she signed up for freshman Biology and took her under his wing.  Four years later, in a stunning coup de theatre, Brandwein placed four FHHS seniors in that elite group of forty Westinghouse winners.  One of the four went on to win top honors as the number one girl that year.

That young woman [as I may now perhaps be permitted to refer to her] was my big sister, Barbara Wolff.  Her project was a study of phenocopies in drosophila melanogaster -- fruit flies. 

As you can well imagine, it was a very big deal.  Bobs [as she was known in the family] was in all the papers, and even received a marriage proposal by mail from a super-impressed reader.  She went on to graduate summa cum laude from Swarthmore College and to earn a doctorate in Biology from Harvard.

By the time Intel called it quits, the prizes had soared, and the research projects, as you might imagine, would have been beyond the reach of the Nobel Prize winners back in the forties when the competition began.  Over the years Intel has received vast amounts of good press for its sponsorship, as did Westinghouse before it.  I cannot imagine what possessed the corporate managers to bow out now, but I hope some other tech company picks up the ball.

You might wonder how Barbara's little brother made out when his turn came two years later.  I got an Honorable Mention.  I was broken-hearted, but Susie was very supportive.

Friday, September 11, 2015

the return of archie the cockroach

i had an invasive procedure this morning on my left elbow and i am in a sling, so for the next several days i shall be typing with one finger lower case, in the style of don marquis' classic lovelorn cockroach.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

AND IN THIS CORNER WE HAVE ---


Dr. Ben Carson, the distinguished pediatric neurosurgeon now giving Donald Trump a run for his money, does not believe in evolution.  I never know what to think when someone like Carson says something like that.  Are we to believe that during his long and very successful medical career, he never prescribed any antibiotics save penicillin because he did not believe that strains of bacteria could evolve that are immune to the very first antibiotic?  Somehow I doubt it.  Carson explained his decision in 2013 to enter politics thus:  "I believe it is a very good idea for physicians, scientists, engineers, and others trained to make decisions based on facts and empirical data to get involved in the political arena".

This is a very strange country.

THE COLOR PURPLE

Even though we are only three weeks into the Fall semester here at UNC Chapel Hill, I am already starting to plan my Spring course on Ideological Critique.  After an intense engagement with Karl Mannheim's great work, Ideology and Utopia, I shall take the class through three detailed practical applications of the concept of ideology, one of which will be Henry Louis Gates' first [and only really good] book, The Signifying Monkey.  In conjunction with the Gates, the students will read two of the three novels he analyzes, The Color Purple by Alice Walker and Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neal Hurston.  Here is a short piece of literary criticism I wrote almost twenty years ago about the Walker novel.

Two Observations on the Structure and Voice of The Color Purple

First Note:

Since its publication in 1982, Alice Walker's The Color Purple has attracted a good deal of critical commentary in addition to a wide general audience.  The MLA International Bibliography lists better than half a hundred journal articles and contributions to books, and there have, in addition, been a number of significant extended discussions in books devoted to Afro-American literature, among them The Afro-American Novel and its Traditions, by Bernard Bell, The Signifying Monkey by Henry Louis Gates, and Inspiriting Influences by Michael Awkward.

Commentators have focused on several themes, including, most notably, Walker's relation to Zora Neale Hurston in general and Their Eyes Were Watching God in particular, on Walker's use of vernacular speech, and on the themes of lesbianism, male violence toward females, and the refiguring of Christian religiosity.  But although several commentators have discussed Walker's use of the epistolary genre, almost no attention has been paid to the purely formal and structural aspects of The Color Purple.  The purpose of these brief observations is to call attention to certain striking formal or structural features of Walker's novel, in an effort to complicate somewhat our reading of it. 

The Color Purple consists of a single line of direct discourse, uttered, we assume, by the man whom the main character, Celie, knows as Pa, followed by a series of ninety-two letters, several of which are embedded within other letters, and five of which are somewhat ambiguously introduced by a comment from Celie, italicized.  Fifty-five of the letters are written by Celie to God [or "G-o-d" in one case];  twenty-two are written by Celie's sister, Nettie, to Celie;  fourteen are written by Celie to Nettie; and the last letter is addressed by Celie "Dear God.  Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples.  Dear Everything.  Dear God."

[The opening line of direct discourse, for those who do not recall or have not read the novel, is:  "You better not never tell nobody but God.  It'd kill your mammy.]

The first fifty-five of Celie's letters to God are unsigned.  Now, a letter to God is, in the Christian tradition in which Celie is situated, a prayer.  And the appropriate ending for a prayer is the expression of affirmation, "Amen."  So the absence of the word "amen" from these fifty-five letters can be taken by us, I think, as Walker's formal expression of Celie's inability to affirm or accept or consent to the God in whom she has been told by Pa to confide.  She writes the prayers, but she is unable to bring them to a satisfactory, and satisfied, closure.

In Celie's forty-ninth letter to God is embedded Nettie's first letter to her.  There follow fourteen more letters from Nettie to Celie, interspersed with Celie's letters to God, until, in her fifty-fifth letter, Celie packs it in with God.  "You must be sleep," she writes abruptly.  Now she turns her epistolary attentions to Nettie.  Her first letter to Nettie is unsigned, but Nettie's sixteenth letter to Celie, which comes next in the series, ends with the injunction "Pray for us."  Celie's very next letter, her second to Nettie, begins with the flat, dramatic announcement, "I don't write to God no more, I write to you."  And this letter, in which Celie reports an extended conversation with Shug in which her conception of God is radically called into question, is signed "Amen"!  Celie is finally able to utter this word, though only as an affirmation of her relationship with her sister, not as an affirmation of God's presence.

Celie now writes six more letters to Nettie signed "Amen," [including the fourth in the series, in which we get the characteristic call-and-response of the Black church, "Amen, say Shug.  Amen, amen."]  In the ninth letter to Nettie, Celie announces that Pa is dead, and this letter is not signed "Amen," nor are any of the subsequent letters to Nettie.

At the very end of the novel, after Celie has written herself into existence as a sexually, morally, and socially complete woman;  after she has gathered about her the whole extended family of players in her complex, self-assured psycho-drama; after her proper sister Nettie has returned from her brush with Spelman College, W. E. B. DuBois, President Tubman, Africa, missionary work, New York, and all the other icons and symbols of socially acceptable Negro upward mobility -- in short, after Walker has established dramatically that true self-discovery requires the courageous taking possession of an authentic authorial voice, and after Celie has successfully recreated God in a form suitable to be the object and recipient of prayer, NOW Celie can finally undertake and complete the act of prayer.  And so we get the final letter of the novel, which is indeed a prayer to God, concluded by the word "Amen."

A few words about this analysis before I move on to the second Note.  The Color Purple is an epistolary novel, which is to say a novel consisting of a series of letters.  Every doctoral student in any English Literature program learns that the epistolary form was the first form of the novel, exemplified by the classic eighteenth century novels of Samuel Richardson, Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison.  [I never studied English Literature, but I was married for twenty-three years to a distinguished scholar of the subject, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, whose doctoral dissertation was on Samuel Richardson, later published as Samuel Richardson and the Eighteenth Century Puritan Character, so I absorbed all of this as pillow talk, as it were.]  Now, for as long as I can recall, scholars of literature have been alerted to the significance of the formal structural features of works of fiction or poetry, and they are forever explaining to naive readers that one cannot really understand what a novel is about unless one pays attention to narrative voice and all the rest of that stuff.  For a late twentieth century author to adopt the form of the epistolary novel is a clear signal to any sophisticated reader that something important is happening here to which attention must be paid.  It is simply astonishing that not one of the extremely sophisticated critics I have cited even so much as asks the question, "Why did Walker choose to write an epistolary novel?"  These critics would never make the mistake of failing to examine the form of Joyce's Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake.  Indeed, they would not even make the mistake of failing to ask such questions about Invisible Man.  So why on earth did they not ask it about The Color Purple?

I really do think there is only one possible answer.  The Color Purple is a novel by a Black woman in which themes of lesbianism and abusive treatment of Black women by Black men come up.  It just never occurs to the critics, including such sophisticated writers as Henry Louis Gates, that Walker might actually be a thoughtful, self-aware, intelligent author whose authorial choices are made deliberately for some deliberate artistic purpose.

Second Note:

A number of commentators on The Color Purple have written critically or disparagingly about the contrast between the power and immediacy of Celie's narration and the stilted formality of Nettie's letters, with their implausibly proper English and lengthy, tedious, quasi-Ethnographic accounts of the African people in whose midst she spends so many years as a missionary.  Once again, in this day of super-sophistication about matters of literary voice, none of the commentators has thought to ask why Walker, who clearly has the authorial skill to create the compelling voice of Celie, chooses to conjure so unappealing a voice as that of Nettie.  Walker's choice may, of course, be a literary mistake, but it is manifestly impossible that it is a mere accident or oversight.

There are some clues in Nettie's letters to which we ought to pay attention in our attempt to discover Walker's aims.  Consider first of all the contrast in diction and grammar of the two sets of letters.  These are sisters, after all, raised in the same household and educated, such as may be, in the same school.  Yet one writes in a direct, forceful, compelling, semi-literate dialect, and the other writes in stilted, educated, boring correct English.  Later on, I will suggest that this is one of the clues to what the novel is about, what its message is, but for the moment, let us simply note that since Walker wrote both sets of letters, she could perfectly well have made Nettie's letters as compelling as Celie's, had she chosen to do so.

The letters written by Celie exhibit a subtle progressive development, whereas those written by Nettie might all have been written at the same time.  One example will suffice.  Celie always refers to the man to whom she has been married as "Mr. -----."  In the earlier letters, she consistently misuses the possessive case, writing "Mr. ----- children" on page 25 or "Mr. ---- daddy" on page 58.  Then, in the dramatic and pivotal letter to Nettie, in which she announces that she is not writing to God any longer, she uses it correctly. -- "Mr. ----'s evil" on page 179, thereby signifying linguistically a growth in self-command and assurance.  Nettie, on the other hand, uses the possessive correctly from the very beginning -- see her second letter, p. 119 -- "the Reverend Mr. ----'s place."

Nettie follows a path in the novel that is stereotypically the correct path -- what today we would call, in a different context, P.C.  She leaves the rural South, goes North, becomes involved with Christian missionaries off to do good works in Africa.  The couple she joins are virtually a caricature -- the woman, Corinne, went to Spelman Institute [later Spelman College];  her husband, Samuel, met the young W. E. B. DuBois.  The two of them met President Tubman in Liberia [which, as it happens, is historically impossible.  Tubman did not become president of Liberia until much later.]  Nettie's letters are filled with pseudo-anthropological accounts of African customs -- in which, incidentally, can be found striking parallels to Celie's life, marked by direct and unmistakable verbal echoes.  [One example:  Nettie says of the Olinka:  "There is a way that men speak to women that reminds me too much of Pa.  They listen just long enough to issue instructions."  Celie, in one of her letters, says "I know white people never listen to coloured, period,  If they do, they only listen long enough to be able to tell you what to do."]

One would expect Nettie, who has escaped from the degradation of her childhood, to return and take Celie away to Harlem at the end of the novel.  Instead, Walker inverts the expected conclusion by having Celie gather Nettie and the rest of her extended "family" about her at the end of the novel.  It is Celie, not Nettie, who has actually taken the longest and most productive journey.  Surely, it seems to me, this central structural feature of the novel must signal Walker's rejection of [or, as they say in literary circles, revision of] the dominant literary tradition and dominant theses of the Harlem literary renaissance.  I am not simply calling attention to Walker's reversal or revision of the representation of male and female roles within the Afro-American literary tradition.  At stake here too is the role of the rural South versus the urban North, etc.  What is especially interesting is that Walker, the person, followed Nettie's path, but she has written a novel in which Celie is the compelling central figure.

In short, a great deal is going on in the Color Purple, as in any novel.  But it seems clear from these elementary facts about the formal structure of the work that Walker has chosen to write a story about the process by which a Black woman can achieve the possibility of successful prayer, and at the same time, to call into question standard evaluative assumptions within the Afro-American literary tradition about the centrality of the Southern rural experience and the Northern flowering of the Harlem Renaissance.  It is also possible that attention to these formal features of the novel will help readers to resist the temptation to construe it as a naive expression of Walker's unmediated attitudes toward Lesbianism or the mistreatment of Black women by Black men.

HOT OFF THE PRESSES

I have not been posting much in the last  few days because I have been totally absorbed in the creation of the 2014 volume of Pebbles from The Philosopher's Stone.  2014 was an extraordinary year for this blog, the first in which I wrote no tutorials, mini-tutorials, appreciations, and such, which do not get included in the Pebbles volumes.  As a result, this edition of Pebbles is almost twice as long as the previous annuals -- 160,000 words, which is the equivalent of a very long book.

As I read through each post, deciding whether to include it, I was rather surprised to see how much of what I wrote dealt in one way or another with economics.  The pick of the litter, I would think, is the 9000 word review of Thomas Piketty's CAPITAL in the Twenty-first Century, but the volume also contains my extended colloquy with Professors Kliman and Freeman and a great deal more about Marx and Neo-Classical economics.

Despite the focus on economics, the posts exhibit a very broad range of interests, including literature and culture, microbiology, archeology, and of course politics.

The volume has been up-loaded to box.net, accessible as always via the link at the top of this page.  Enjoy.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

THE SESQUICENTENNIAL OF DAS KAPITAL

Capital was published in 1867, so we are two years away from the sesquicentennial of its appearance [the whole point of this post is to allow me to use the word sesquicentennial, for which there is very little call usually.]  Clearly, a celebration is called for.  Has anyone heard about plans for same?

Monday, September 7, 2015

I SAY "KURDS" YOU SAY "QUDS"

You probably saw or heard about the telephone interview a right-wing talk show host named Hugh Hewitt did with Donald Trump in which Hewitt stumped Trump with some questions about Middle Eastern policy.  The highlight was Trump's confusion of the Kurds with the Quds, an Iranian special forces military unit that carries out secret operations in the region.  When all this popped up in the news, I was hard at work on the 2014 volume of Pebbles from the Philosopher's Stone.  You may perhaps recall that just about a year ago I wrote several enthusiastic posts about a wonderful book I was reading by Irving Finkel called the Ark Before Noah.  Before I had even finished the book, I posted a short comment about one particularly delightful passage that echoed in my mind as I read about Trump's discomfiture.  Here is the relevant portion of that brief blog post.


There are countless wonderful passages I could quote at length, but that would be de trop, as they say in these parts, so I will content myself with this footnote to a passage in which Finkel is introducing the reader to the ancient Sumerians of the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers [hence Mesopotamia] whose capital city, Ur, was located in what is now Iraq.  Finkel writes:

"During the last invasion of Iraq, a high-flown American official, interviewed on the radio about damage to archeological sites on which military installations had been imposed, referred to this city as 'Umm,' evidently confusing one convention for 'I can't think what to say' with another."

Sunday, September 6, 2015

BUSY, BUSY, BUSY

Some time last year, I decided to create a series of volumes of selections of my blog posts.  I called them Pebbles from the Philosopher's Stone, and I managed to work up volumes for 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.  They are archived on box,net, accessible via the link at the top of this page.  I am now at work on the 2014 volume.  I am only in May and already it is 75,000 words long!  As usual, I have written on a wide variety of subjects, and this volume will even contain some photos from the safari that Susie and I took to Botswana, but the dominant subject is economics.  The first half of 2014 saw both my 9,000 word review essay on Thomas Piketty's CAPITAL in the Twenty-First Century and also the extended exchange with Professors Kliman and Freeman concerning the proper interpretation of Marx.  When I am finished, which should be some time the week after next, I will let you all know and post the volume on box.net along side all the others.

Friday, September 4, 2015

AN IMPORTANT POST REPOSTED

I am currently engaged in the tedious task of creating the 2014 volume of Pebbles From the Philosopher's Stone, a selection of things I wrote last year [the five previous volumes are available on box,net.]  I just came across this appreciation, in February of last year, of the fine new book by Professor Jacqueline Jones, one of America's best historians.  I think it is worth re-posting.  Here it is:

Back on January 25th, when I was confined to one finger on my IPhone, I promised to write about Jacqueline Jones' new book, A Dreadful Deceit, when I returned home and could type with both of my forefingers. The time has come to fulfill that promise.

Jacqueline Jones is one of the most distinguished and accomplished scholars now writing American History. Intellectual disciplines go through moments of extraordinary accomplishment separated by long deserts of mediocrity. I have many times observed that Philosophy, far and away the oldest of the disciplines, has had stretches of five hundred years or more when nothing much seems to be happening, interrupted by eruptions of sheer brilliance. Think of fifth and fourth century B. C. Athens, twelfth and thirteenth century Europe and North Africa, Seventeenth and Eighteenth century Great Britain and France and Prussia. The same seems to be true for the younger disciplines. Sociology, now mired in the tedium of opinion surveys and statistical manipulations, was, somewhat more than a century ago, the most exciting of the Social Sciences, with Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Mannheim and many others transforming our understanding of the social realm. There have been moments [not now, I think] when Literary Criticism sparkled. Economics has flourished, especially when Karl Marx was alive. Even Political Science, which is not really a discipline at all, has had its moments. This seems to be American History's time. The depth, richness, complexity, and sophistication of the work now being done by the best American Historians, especially on the story of African-Americans, is worlds better than what is being written by philosophers, economists, sociologists, political scientists, and literary critics these days. And in this moment of its flourishing, Jackie Jones is one of the very best. Two of her previous books, American Work andLabor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, are among the best things ever written about America.

The subtitle of A Dreadful Deceit is "The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America." Jones presents her book as the detailed stories of six individuals, ranging in historical time and place from seventeenth century colonial Maryland to 1970s Detroit, but these stories are a device for organizing a sweeping survey of the entire history of race in America. It is, contrary to superficial appearances, a book with a strong driving thesis that informs Jones' selection of the stories and of the vast amount of historical detail of time and place that she weaves around those stories. The thesis is nicely summarized exactly halfway through the book:

"The notion of racial differences between blacks and whites would provide a guiding principle for postwar [i.e., post Civil War] political relations and create a social superstructure to replace the legal institution of slavery. Southern yeoman farmers could ignore the material similarities between themselves and freedpeople and embrace a notion of whiteness that guaranteed them considerable privileges and legal rights, without altering their lowly class status. Politicians could appeal to their impoverished white neighbors and exalt solidarity among white men, all the while exploiting the labor of tenants, sharecroppers, and field hands regardless of color. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) the widespread acceptance of the notion of race, that notion did not necessarily lend itself to proof -- or to rational discussion for that matter" [p. 151]

The seventeenth century colonialists who sought to make their fortunes on land granted to them by the English King needed labor to transform the virgin forests into fields on which they could grow cash crops for the home market [tobacco, rice, later cotton.] Their first solution was to bring the labor with them in the form of indentured English workers, but though they continued to use these workers for almost two centuries, they posed certain problems. The indentured workers were English subjects and hence had legal protections that the courts set up in the New World were bound to observe.

The colonists tried to use the labor of the indigenous peoples, but this also posed problems. These "Indians" were often members of powerful nations ["tribes"] with whom the colonists entered into political and military alliances, and to whom they could appeal for protection when their "masters" sought to exploit them. One of the many fascinating elements in the early chapters of Jones' book is her detailed account of the political negotiations and shifting alliances between the colonists and the various indigenous nations. These relationships were really no different in motivation from those into which European nations entered with one another in their endless jockeying for power and material advantage.

The men and women captured, or sold into bondage, in West Africa and brought to Virginia and Maryland also belonged to nations, some them powerful, but those nations were too far away to offer protection, and so the Africans could be exploited and subdued to bondage more easily.

Race played virtually no role in all of this. As Jones says early in her first chapter, "Local political economies and labor demands shaped by military imperatives -- not racial prejudices -- account for the origins of slavery in the colonies." [p. 7] So long as slavery was legal, the slave owners had no need to justify their treatment of their slaves, any more than they had a need of an elaborate ideological rationalization for their treatment of their livestock, their horses, or, for that matter, their tables and chairs. But with the defeat of the South in the Civil War and the end of slavery, a situation emerged that was anomalous and required justification. "[W]hites -- surrounded by a group of people toiling at ill-paid tasks, the men deprived of the right to vote and the women limited to domestic service -- devised a racial ideology from a harsh reality, an ideology that justified the immiseration of black men, women, and children, all in the name of racial difference. [p. 135]

The implications of this central insight, which Jones pursues through four centuries in the pages of her book, are profound, and of the very greatest importance for our understanding of contemporary politics. The subordinated position of African-Americans, and now of Hispanic Americans, was inflicted upon them and exists today not because of the subjective, private, irrational prejudices of White Americans, but because it has served the economic interests of the rich while placating exploited Whites, whose disadvantaged status is made more or less palatable to them by the knowledge that their condition is at least superior to that of their black and brown neighbors. So long as that subordinated economic position remains essentially untouched, not even the ascension to the White House of one of their own will address the roots of what today we call "racism."

It would be foolhardy of me to attempt to summarize Jones' book, for its real strength lies in the rich detail with which she fortifies and elaborates its central thesis. This is not a quick read. Indeed, it took me more than a month to read the entire book, even though it is only 301 pages long. But it is a book of the very greatest importance, and I recommend it to you most strongly.