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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Saturday, March 18, 2017

TAKING STOCK

Tomorrow will bring to a close the first two months of the Trump presidency, so this is a good time to sit back, review the whirlwind of events and non-events that have characterized this disaster, and ask what we ought to be doing in the days, weeks, months, and – God help us – years to come.  Several of you have commented on a loss of intensity and urgency – Tom Cathcart called it “resistance fatigue.”  DML remarked, “Life intervenes.”  Lord knows this is true of me.  I have been utterly consumed for the past two weeks with such important decisions as where to hide the can of spray cooking oil so that our kitchen countertops are pristine when potential buyers walk through.  [For those who are curious, this is this the fifth dwelling I have put on the market.  I broke even on the first, made a modest profit on the second, made out like a bandit on the third, took a bath on the fourth, and will lose my shirt on this one.  I am doing my best to leave this world with the same net worth I had when I entered it.]

The launch of the Trump era has been hideous in every way imaginable.  Some of the bad things are atmospheric, some are really bad but are pretty much beyond of our ability to affect, and some are already showing signs of the effect of the nation-wide grassroots activism sparked by the election.

The most immediately visible and egregious of Trump’s doings are in some ways the least serious, at least in the short term.  Trump is a narcissistic sociopath who is constitutionally unable to distinguish truth from fantasy.  He is a vulgar braggart who cares about absolutely nothing save his self-image and his ability to bully and humiliate others.  He and his family are using the presidency to enrich themselves as openly, blatantly, and quickly as they can.  Quite apart from policies and governmental actions, the Trumps are the polar opposite of the Obamas.  That our former First Family should be graceful, restrained, educated, utterly free of all scandal, and BLACK, while the current First Family is boorish, corrupt, mired in scandal, and WHITE, is an irony almost too delicious to credit.  But if that were the worst of it, we could easily survive the Trumps.  Bad manners are a venial sin, the amount of money the Trumps are pocketing is chump change on a national scale, and his compulsive lying is more visible, more manic and uncontrolled, but in the end not markedly more dangerous than that of previous presidents.

A good deal more serious is the character of the administration Trump has assembled, more serious because Cabinet Secretaries are in a position to do real harm to millions of vulnerable people.  Trump has chosen an opponent of public education as Secretary of Education, a climate denier as head of the EPA, a neo-Nazi as his principal advisor, a flaming racist as Attorney General, a Secretary of State fresh from central casting who seems utterly clueless about any country that does not have oil in the ground, a Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs who can do brain surgery and little else – this is a right-wing Republican’s wet dream.  These people will, by their actions and inactions, cause a vast amount of misery and death, and at least in the short run, there appears to be very little we can do about it. 

A third cause for concern is Trump’s conduct of foreign and military policy, a sphere in which presidents have come over time to exercise almost unchecked power.  A number of commenters on this blog seem simultaneously dubious about Trump’s link to the Russians and sanguine about his apparent desire to exchange the European Alliance for an American-Russian world duopoly.  I confess myself to be rather puzzled by these attitudes, but I am weary of arguing the matter, inasmuch as neither we nor our fellow activists on the left can do much at all to affect Trump’s behavior in this regard.  Someday, someone will explain to me, without yelling at me, why Trump chose just one clause in a Republican Platform in which he showed absolutely no interest, that concerning Ukraine, to have his campaign representatives change.  Those same folks will also, I am sure, explain why we should weaken our ties to England and France in order to strengthen our relations with a failed kleptocracy propped up by oil.  But there is no point in dwelling on the matter because, as I say, we can do virtually nothing about it so long as Trump is president.

At the moment, I am genuinely terrified that Trump is going to launch a preemptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear facilities.  This would result in scores of thousands of South Korean deaths, a consequence that would not concern Trump at all and would also result in a big jump in his tanking approval rating here in America.  It would also result, probably, in a great many deaths of American service personnel [and American civilians in South Korea], which would also not trouble Trump.  Please, please, do not respond that Obama has ordered drone strikes, as though that were comparably evil.  I am still enough of an old school Benthamite utilitarian to believe that the violent deaths of twenty thousand count more heavily than the violent deaths of several hundreds.

One rather interesting consequence of a Trump presidency appears to be that America will lose its role as a world leader [as they say.]  Already, European nations are apparently re-thinking their habitual ceding of pre-eminence to America.  Whether exchanging the American president for Angela Merkel is trading up or down remains to be seen.

Which brings me to the one sphere in which we can have a measurable effect, indeed in which we already have had a measurable effect, namely domestic legislative action.  The current attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a Republican dream act threatens genuine human harm on a national scale.  I think it is clear that the protests against the effort in the home districts of Republican Representatives and the home states of Republican Senators are dramatically weakening the chances that the bill will become law.  This really is a place where we can all do something to change our world.  The same is true of the budget the Republicans may get around to proposing, if they can ever get the health care anvil from around their necks.

Now, let me address the problem of resistance fatigue.  I have many times written about this problem on this blog, and I have written and spoken about it for decades in a variety of venues.  It is relatively easy to motivate crowds of people when excitement is running high, the wolf is at the gate [if you will forgive me], and the blood stirs.  Witness the astonishing Women’s March just eight weeks ago.  But then the lights are turned off, the blood pressure drops back to safe levels, and, as DML reminds us, life intervenes.  What to do?

The wrong thing to do is to intensify the appeals, hit the bold button, make accusatory demands designed to shame the weak-willed into maintaining their previous pitch of resistance.  That simply never works, not even in the short run, and certainly not in the long run.  Very soon, we delete the urgent messages unread and go about our business.

The secret, as I have so often said, is to find something useful to do that one enjoys doing.  A mass movement is a landslide, not brain surgery [and in this case the brain surgeon is on the other side.]  It takes organizers and followers, fund-raisers and sign carriers, writers of chain letters and brave souls who will chain themselves to the gates of a State Legislature.  It requires a few who will stand for public office and a few more who will help to organize an election campaign.  Even something as trivial as my Friday Lists may encourage a few folks to pick up a phone or make a donation or go to a meeting, if only to have something to report.


Perhaps we should take our lead from fitness gurus who always say that it is better to find some sort of daily exercise you will stick with than to make episodic trips to the gym for a workout that leaves you crippled for a week.  The body politic requires no less than the body physical.

18 comments:

David Palmeter said...

I too worry about what he will do about North Korean nuclear weapons--and I also worry about what North Korea will do with them. A third world war could start right there.

Assuming, however, that we somehow survive that specific problem, I worry further that Trump’s statements, both in the campaign and since, will hasten the spread of nuclear weapons. Not only his statements that Japan and Korea should have nuclear weapons of their own, but also his statements about NATO being obsolete. That could lead Germany to develop weapons of its own.

What Trump has done--and what Americans have done by electing him--is plant the seed of doubt in countries that have no nuclear weapons--doubt that we will have their backs in a crisis. Our assurances that they could rely on us, and don’t need nuclear weapons under their own control, are probably unbelievable at this point. It’s not just Trump who is responsible for this, but also the people who voted for him-- and in doing so demonstrated that the American electorate it is capable of putting someone like that in the White House. Not just this time, but in the future as well.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Quite true. For a long time, it appeared that the spread of nuclear weapons had slowed or almost stopped. Now, who knows? How ironic, that I began my career as a public intellectual almost sixty years ago inveighing against nuclear weapons, and now, near the end of a long life, I am compelled to do so once more.

Chris said...

Obscenely loaded disjunctive below:

A number of commenters on this blog seem simultaneously dubious about Trump’s link to the Russians and sanguine about his apparent desire to exchange the European Alliance for an American-Russian world duopoly. I confess myself to be rather puzzled by these attitudes, but I am weary of arguing the matter, inasmuch as neither we nor our fellow activists on the left can do much at all to affect Trump’s behavior in this regard. Someday, someone will explain to me, without yelling at me, why Trump chose just one clause in a Republican Platform in which he showed absolutely no interest, that concerning Ukraine, to have his campaign representatives change. Those same folks will also, I am sure, explain why we should weaken our ties to England and France in order to strengthen our relations with a failed kleptocracy propped up by oil. But there is no point in dwelling on the matter because, as I say, we can do virtually nothing about it so long as Trump is president.

Chris said...

Edit: and total strawman.

I don't understand why whenever I and others disagree our position is instantly maligned and then rendered no longer worthy of the dialogue this blog engages in. It's in essence a silencing effect without due consideration :(

s. wallerstein said...

While I don't necessarily agree with everything Chris says about Trump's ties to Russia being exaggerated in the liberal media, what he says is worthy of consideration and Chris, at least, doesn't yell nor has he (or anyone else in this blog actually) ever claimed that the U.S. should weaken their ties to England and France in order to strengthen their relations with Putin's Russia.

Chris said...

"nor has he (or anyone else in this blog actually) ever claimed that the U.S. should weaken their ties to England and France in order to strengthen their relations with Putin's Russia."

Thank you Wallerstein!

Chomsky - per usual - has a sophisticated take on the Russia Trump geopolitical relationship:

http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/03/03/most-of-the-world-is-just-collapsing-in-laughter-on-claims-that-russia-intervened-in-the-us-election-an-interview-with-noam-chomsky/

RM said...

I do wish Americans would learn--it's surely not that difficult--to say "Britain" or "the UK" and not "England" when they are actually referring to "Britain" or "the UK." Should you be referring to something that is more narrowly English rather than British, "England" is OK. But otherwise not.

Admittedly, what was created in 1707 and extended in 1801 seems to be on its last legs. And admittedly, unless, like me, you happen to be Scottish, or Welsh, or--a more complicated case--Irish, you probably won't appreciate just how irksome it is to be regularly marginalised in this way. But every time any one of you bemoans the rise of nationalism in contemporary Europe, you ought to know that it owes something, at least in its British manifestation, to just this seemingly trivial sort of thing. (You might also like to try to figure out just how much Trump is the way he is because his mother was a Scottish maid servant.)

howie b said...

As a little thought experiment, imagine a Trump Presidency in the sixties. The opposition would just overwhelm and boggle. Trump would be history.
What has changed in America, that he can last the first few rounds?
I am horrified by Trump, but hopefully he will be bogged down and his demise will be near. The Trump of my imagination was far worse than what we have had to endure, bad as it may be and I hope it's not a matter of the worst is yet to come

David said...

howie b,

I've been thinking along similar lines. One difference between now and the sixties is that we had the draft in the sixties. We've yet to see young people join the resistance in numbers comparable to that of the sixties' anti-war movement. Or so it seems to me.

howie b said...

True, David, plus the youth vote did not exactly flock from Bernie to Hillary-still, look back to the outrage at the war in Iraq- huge demonstrations were sidestepped with agility- and were mere breath, making a noise but signifying nothing.
Something has changed with power in America and with society and so far I'm not up to figuring out just what has changed.

s. wallerstein said...

People were a lot more innocent in the 60's. I turned 18 in 1964 and I really believed that the U.S. was the greatest country in the world, that the U.S. President didn't lie, that it was a government of the people, for the people, by the people, the land of the free and the home of the brave, that the U.S. acted abroad from noble motives to defend democracy and freedom, etc.

Then came Viet Nam and I (and my peers) learned very quickly that the U.S. President lied and lied, that the U.S. was committing genocide (or something very similar) in Viet Nam, etc., etc. That disillusion plus the fear of being drafted for a war we didn't believe in made us very angry and militant.

After Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama, nobody in their right mind believes that the U.S. President never lies and nobody in their right mind really believes that it is a government of the people, for the people and by the people, given obvious corporate power.

So since people have fewer illusions, there is not the shock of being disillusioned. Could we imagine a Daniel Ellsberg today? That is, a guy
with a top job in the U.S. government who is so shocked by what his country is doing that he risks a treason charge to reveal the Pentagon Papers? Even Snowden revealed what he did from a relatively safe distance.

David said...

In the seventies, we were politicized by the Viet Nam war and the draft. We scorned "The Establishment" and any adult associated with it. Growing our hair long wasn't just about fashion; it was meant to be form of rebellion. In fact, much of the way we acted and thought about ourselves and others was an extension of that rebellion. Of course, such rebellions generally don't last long. Nonetheless, for a time, it constituted a widespread youth movement.

Today's students generally don't scorn "The Establishment." Indeed, they generally anticipate joining it. It isn't that they pose no challenges to the adults in their live. Rather, their politics tend to revolve around questions of self and identity. (The number of philosophy papers I recently received on just those topics is striking.) Where students are most likely to find fault with me is in my insufficient attention to using gender-neutral language. The election of Donald Trump has affected many of my students--particularly my Latino, black, feminist and LGBTQ+ students. They are in the process of learning how to build coalitions and forge solidarity among various interest groups. However, when it comes to effective political action, they have a long way to go. My former students who are in college and who keep in touch don't seem to have gotten much farther along in learning how to organize politically. They are really just getting started. Of course, there are exceptions: one of my former students was a TA for Robert Reich and another served as intern in the Obama administration. These students are deeply immersed in political activity. However, their experiences are atypical. What is more representative is the political frustration expressed recently by a former student at the U of W. She is impatient with the seeming apathy of so many of her colleagues.

In the long run, we are real trouble if young people don't join us in much larger numbers. No resistance or revolutionary movement can succeed without the involvement of young people. For one thing, we need their energy. I'm too old to do what I once did. "Resistance fatigue" is something I experienced long before Trump came to power.

Kate said...

Saw a relevant point made recently. Sorry not to footnote it -- I can't remember where I saw it unfortunately, but maybe one of you knows.

Why did the huge world-wide demonstrations against the Iraq War have no effect? Explanation: in the age of social media, it's much easier to organize a large demonstration. The March on Washington in the 1960s took years to organize, and because so many people worked so hard to make it happen, it represented a much more formidable voting block.

We need to strengthen the connection between demonstrations and votes. Here's hoping Jon Ossoff wins -- that would be an excellent start.

Kate

LFC said...

@RM

I'm an American and always make a point of saying "Britain" when referring to Britain. However, the Britain/England conflation or whatever you want to call it is sufficiently common here, esp. in more informal contexts, that you're fighting an uphill battle.

Jerry Fresia said...

s. wallerstein - I'm nearly your age and basically had the same turn-around for the same reason; however, there have been
many recent whistleblowers: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_whistleblowers and that list leaves out Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, and a few other recent prominent types.

Kate - MLK argued that protests, while not violent, must be "confrontational" so that the racism of police, for example, would be made visible while the cameras captured it all. General marches, for or against something, particularly when everyone is enjoying the protest and playing by the rules, while beneficial in some respects, is unlikely to make the invisibility of repression or hatred or war visible. The SCLC leadership were master strategists withr this kind of resistance.

Also, many have argued that non-violent protests need to be disruptive - that they need to raise the costs of doing business - in order to get the establishment to pay attention. Sit down strikes or strikes generally accomplish this. The non-violent people in the anti-vietnam war movement were great tacticians in this regard, blocking trains carrying war supplies, disrupting major events like conventions. The Republicans, for example, moved their 1972 convention from San Diego to Miami for fear of disruption.

s. wallerstein said...

Jerry Fresia,

Thank you. I'll take a look at the link.

RM said...


@LFC

Thanks for your understanding. And yes, I agree that it's a very uphill battle, and probably an unwinnable one, to get people to recognize that England is not synonymous with Britain or the UK. It's an even more troubling uphill battle when the person to be persuaded is English, not American. Still, that it's not entirely an irrelevant battle is indicated in such pieces as this by Patrick Cockburn:
http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/03/20/brexit-nationalism-and-the-damage-done/

s. wallerstein said...

RM,

As someone who used the term "England" above, I recognize my error. We've all learned not to use terms which offend diverse oppressed groups and we can also learn not to use terms which may offend residents of the various components of the United Kingdom.