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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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




Total Pageviews

Monday, May 22, 2017

PLAYIN' THE POLITICAL DOZENS

African-Americans have an extremely sophisticated relationship to language, as I explained at length in my videotaped lectures on Ideological Critique, a sophistication manifested in many ways – in oral traditions, in literary works, even in music.  One of the best known and most delightful examples of this linguistic skill and complexity is a verbal game in which one member of a group starts by directing an imaginative and playful insult at another member, who is his or her target.  At this, everyone sits up and takes notice, aware that a performance has begun.  The target of the insult responds with a variation on the insult that raises its level.  The insults fly back and forth, each more elaborate, outrageous and extravagant than its predecessor, until one of the players gets off an insult so utterly over the top that the opponent cannot immediately come back with a topper.  At that point, everyone collapses in laughter and the winner is acknowledged.  This game is called Playin’ the Dozens, or simply The Dozens. 

There is a political version of this game, played by left-wing intellectuals, that consists in making more and more devastating condemnations of contemporary society in an effort to gain the upper hand over one’s fellow radicals as the most unrelentingly negative member of whatever group has assembled.  If one player says that Donald Trump is a liar, another replies that Trump is a sociopath.  The first player responds that Trump is really different from all Republicans, to which the second responds that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats these days.  This is topped by the argument that there has never been a difference between Democrats and Republicans.  At this point, another player enters the game and annihilates both opponents with the statement that there could not be a difference, because all are merely mouthpieces for capitalism.  Everyone collapses, if not in laughter, than in shared angst.

I was reminded of The Dozens this morning when I read an essay by Chris Hedges posted yesterday on Truthdig entitled “The Death of the Republic.”  Taking as his text the Roman “year of the five emperors” [AD 193], a sure sign of a serious Political Dozens player, Hedges rehearses the manifold, structural, incurable evils of our current politics, and concludes “Our Republic is dead.”  At which point, presumably, all the rest of us in this contest having been silenced by this pronouncement, we can applaud, relax, and go about our daily business, reassured that nothing any of us does can reanimate the rotting corpse.  It is an oddly comforting game, comforting perhaps in the way that post-apocalyptic movies are comforting.

Although I agree with almost every single statement in Hedges’ indictment of modernity, or of America, or of humanity [the precise object of his attack is unclear], I am not at all as a consequence inclined to inaction.  Get rid of Trump?  Hedges responds, “The relationship between the state and the citizen who is watched constantly is one of master and slave. And the shackles will not be removed if Trump disappears.”  Retake the House in 2018?  “The outward forms of democratic participation—voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight and legislation—are meaningless theater.”  Perhaps one of the risks those of us must face who choose action is that most devastating of accusations, that we are naïve.  It is a risk I am willing to take.

22 comments:

Kate said...

Nice analysis! Ruy Teixeira discusses the value of optimism from a slightly different angle here:
https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/4/17/15321732/left-optimism-trump-demographics-poverty-progress

I don't agree with all his points, though it's refreshing to hear from someone so positive. But if you scroll down, you get to a very persuasive point: "optimism is a better selling point than pessimism." He adds:

"If things were terrible yesterday, are worse today, and are likely to get even worse tomorrow, this does not motivate the typical person to engage in heroic struggle to change the world. ... To the extent the left wallows in a slough of despond about the state of the world, it only manages to undercut its ability to mobilize ordinary people.

"Optimism, by contrast, mobilizes people. It allows people to raise their heads from the daily struggle for existence, envision something better, and believe it’s actually possible to get there."

s. wallerstein said...

I haven't read the article in question (I have rather severe sciatica and I can't sit at my computer for very long.), but that "retaking the House for the Democrats in 2018" will probably not change much does not in any sense imply political inaction.

There is the possibility of a third party movement, there is the possibility of political education on a local level or through internet, there is always the very remote possibility of revolution. If the fact the elite is corrupt and opportunistic entailed political inaction, there would never have been any movements challenging that elite or any revolutions.

David Palmeter said...

The idea that "retaking the House for the Democrats in 2018" will make no difference is more than wrong--it’s ludicrous. Consider what would be the case if the Democrats controlled the House now---there would be no threat to Medicaid and Medicare; there would be no tax cut for the top 1%; there would be no astronomical increase in the defense budget--and on and on and on. These things make a real difference in people’s lives.

Chris said...

Uh democrats have given out tax cuts to the well to do, and also inflated the defense budget....

David Palmeter said...

Indeed they have, but that doesn't mean they are equivalent to the Republicans. There are degrees in these matters--to be expected in country of 300 million plus. Purity has never reigned and it can't. But is there a rational reason--a progressive reason--for preferring Democrats to Republicans? Based on their records, and their current positions on the issues, it seems obvious to me. The Democrats, like the Republicans, accept a capitalist economy. But one group wants to give tax cuts to the rich and destroy Medicaid. The other doesn't. So far as I'm concerned, case closed.

Chris said...

Nice red herring

s. wallerstein said...

The point is, I believe, that electing a congress controlled by Democrats (unless they are all clones of Bernie Sanders, who isn't really a Democrat) will not change much (I said " not change much", not that there is no difference, by the way) in the basic conditions (gross inequality, the hegemony of Wall St., loss of well paying working class jobs, anomie, downward mobility, lack of a decent healthcare system for all) which led to the election of Trump.

Daniel Langlois said...

'that most devastating of accusations, that we are naïve'

First, -- orthography - is it spelt "naïve" or "naive"? I won't tarry to try to answer this, but only to muse that I don't think I was previously aware of an issue here. I thought it was simply 'naive'. I guess that similarly, there is naïver, and superlative naïvest. I am not remotely 'just kidding', here, to pause over this. It so happens that I've been learning some French, and I am totally confident that 'naïve' is from the French. Now, I say that I'm not remotely just kidding, but I mock the notion of left-wing intellectuals already, before I learn that the most devastating of accusations for them is etc.

Tom Cathcart said...

There are indeed degrees of missing the mark. If you don't believe it, watch "Get Me Roger Stone" on Netflix. After you see pure evil, Chris, the rest of us compromised humans might not seem quite so bad.

Daniel Langlois said...

I am, by the way, intrigued by this business about how African-Americans have an extremely sophisticated relationship to language. I've encountered the notion that 'African-American' is a patronizing, even racist term. My point here of emphasis would not be on how I feel about it. I can guess how I would feel about being called '*half* American'. I'm considering hyphenated designations, here..no doubt I could could learn something important about black Americans, or more correctly, about American culture, by reading 'Go Tell it on the Mountain' or something..but I remain, as I say, intrigued by this business about how African-Americans have an extremely sophisticated relationship to language. Is there a sort of fantasy version of African-American culture involved in this? I am wondering, about whether this 'extremely sophisticated relationship to language' might be construed as 'serious difficulties learning to read well'. I shall guess that hunger is hunger and poor health is poor health and family disruptions are family disruptions and violence is violence..and okay, I mean, sure, let's appreciate some sophisticated storytelling abilities, some skillful use of word play, rhyme, rhythm. Some use of vivid metaphors and analogies..I wouldn't mind appearing to be out of my depth, here, though this may come off rather more extremely unkind than intended..

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't mind appearing to be out of my depth, here

Evidently. :-)

Chris said...

Tom, I watched that documentary the day it came out. Please don't put words in my mouth (a trend that is occurring all too often). I never for a second suggested explicitly or implicitly that a democratic controlled congress under Trump would be worse than or equal to a Republican one. And I don't believe it would be. Of course it would be better. And of course Stone is pure evil. I felt like throwing up throughout the entire film. THAT SAID we can't whitewash and fabricate truths about Democrats. Yes they raise defense spending (Obama did every year I believe), and yes they give tax cuts to the well to do. Those two claims can be true IN TANDEM WITH the claim that a democratic controlled congress under Trump is better than a Republican one. Any attempt to criticize democrats has got to stop being met with astonishment and hand wringing.

Chris said...

Wallerstein is exactly right to my mind.

David Auerbach said...

In the version of dozens I knew the loser of the game was the first person to pull out a knife. (The point being, if I need to explain it, that it was uncool to neglect the difference between real damage and wordplay.)

Tom Cathcart said...

Chris, I'm not "wringing my hands" over any criticism of Democrats, nor do I read anyone else on this blog as doing that. Your comments just seemed off point, especially in a post about this very phenomenon. I'm glad you do see qualitative differences, but it's sometimes difficult to tell that from your posts. I'll try not to read between the lines anymore, although this medium makes that a challenge. Meanwhile, I'm sorry to have put words in your mouth.

Chris said...

I agree, the internet is overall an often terrible medium for showing irony, sarcasm, intention, etc.

Since I know you're a fan of comedy, I suspect you'll love this skit by Key and Peele!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=naleynXS7yo


I don't think there's a qualitative difference between republicans and democrats though. And I suspect Democrats have their own Roger Stones (David Brock domes to mind...). Again, that's not to say I think a democratic congress under Trump is equal to a republican one.

I actually wasn't trying to be on or off point as I don't know whether or not I agree with Hedges or Wolff here. There are days where Wolff seems right to me, and I think congressional victories matter, but then there are days where the instrumental reason of these fights (a la the Frankfurt school) suggests to me that our society is sick and perhaps passed the point of redemption (Hedges). I'm sitting on the fence I suppose. A trip the mall, watching someone use facebook, or channel surfing will quickly make me side with Hedges. But any fight that improves my wife's working conditions will quickly move me to Wolff's side.

s. wallerstein said...

Here's an example from Chilean politics that may clarify my position vis-a-vis supporting mainstream Democrats.

We have presidential election in November and it will be a 4-way race: Piñera on the right, Goic for the Christian Democrats (center), Guillier for the Nueva Mayoría (a coalition which could be best described as center-left, mainstream Democrats) and a new force, el Frente Amplio (the Broad Front)a coalition of 12 smaller parties and movements which could be described as Bernie Sanders and the Green Party in political terms.

If no one gets an absolute majority in the first election, there's a run-off between the two candidates with the most votes. One will obviously be Piñera and the other will be probably be Guillier (the mainstream Democrat), but it might be Beatriz Sanchez, the most probable Frente Amplio candidate.

The Nueva Mayoría (mainstream Democrats) have already begun their campaign of terror against the Frente Amplio, claiming that the Frente Amplio will divide progressive forces and hand the election over to Piñera (the right). They demand that the Frente Amplio promise and unconditionally swear that they will support the mainstream Democrats (Guillier) in the run-off to keep Piñera out of office.

Alberto Mayol, a sociologist and political theorist as well as a pre-candidate for the Frente Amplio (he is unlikely to win the primary), replied that he would have no problem supporting the Nueva Mayoría (mainstream Democrats) in the run-off, if and only if they are willing to negotiate a common platform with the Frente Amplio, with all the cards on the table, a negotiating process which should be public and open to the media and to all those interested in politics.

So if the mainstream Democrats would put all their cards on the table and explain clearly, without slogans, without background music, what they are willing to struggle for politically, if they are willing to accept suggestions from the Greens and from other non-mainstream movements, and are willing to draw up a common platform with forces on the left, great, but otherwise, I have to say that I don't trust them at all.

Tom Cathcart said...

Chris, very funny! And very true. I pretty much agree with you and s wallerstein that electing a Democratic Congress won't change Wall Street hegemony, military buildup, etc. But it might change some other very important stuff, like women's health, gay and transgender rights, racism, the safety net, maybe Medicaid.

Chris said...

That's true Tom, Democrats are better on the identity politics issues.

Wallerstein, I also agree. At the moment Democrats primary position seems to be "Trump sucks", which is true, but it certainly doesn't tell us what they'll do in power without Trump around... It's easy to be against something, but having principles and maintaining a course for something... well only Bernie seems to be doing that (but he's an independent anyway).

David Palmeter said...

S. Wallerstein,

This is where I think I go in a direction diffent from many on this blog. I would prefer the candidate on the left or perhaps the center left, but I would prefer the center right to the far right if my only choice was between the two. I see this as pretty much Sanders' position: he was opposed to the Clinton wing of the party, but when the choice was between that wing and the Republicans, he went with the Clinton wing. I was with him all the way, both at the start and at the finish.

Chris said...

Quite literally I don't think ANYONE on this blog has ever disagreed with that sentiment DP. They do however disagree with certain strategies undertaken by all of these wings, and question their motives, goals, desires, etc.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

Trump is especially atrocious and therefore, there were good reasons to back Hillary against him. Sanders, by participating in the primaries, seems to have been obliged to support the winner of the primaries: isn't that the rules of the game?

However, I stand by the Alberto Mayol thesis (outlined above): that the left should in general support the mainstream center-left if and only if the mainstream center-left is willing to negotiate openly and in good faith on key issues. That, by the way, is an excellent argument in favor of a 3rd party, one which is sufficiently successful in local and congressional elections to be able to negotiate its, say, 2% or 3% of the vote in key states in exchange for clear and explicit promises on the part of the mainstream center-left to carry out important reforms on key issues: say, single-payer healthcare, etc.