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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."




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Sunday, December 31, 2017

CHATTELS MOVABLE AND IMMOVABLE

I wrote too quickly, and mesnenor offered a more accurate account of “chattel slavery,” but the situation was actually more complicated even than he or she indicates.  In the English Common Law [and elsewhere] a distinction was drawn between chattels movable and chattels immovable or real.  Furniture, clothing, jewelry, cattle, etc. were chattels movable; land was chattels immovable.  [Hence in French, meuble is furniture and immeuble is real estate.]  When a man of property died, his chattels movable were the first parts of his estate to be sold off to pay his debts, thus protecting the land.  You would think that slaves would be chattels movable, but if they were sold off first with the furniture, the widow would be left with land and no one to work it, so in a series of court cases in the American colonies that defied logic, slaves were declared chattels real or immovable, thus safeguarding the heirs.  The best detailed account of this can be found in a fascinating book called Southern Slavery and the Law, by Thomas Morris.  [At least, I found it fascinating.  I got it put on the list of Fifty Major Works of Afro-American Studies that we required all doctoral students to read and write papers on in the first year Major Works seminar, but the students hated it and it was dropped from the list.]

Saturday, December 30, 2017

HOT OFF THE PRESSES

My Black Studies book is now converted from WordPerfect to WORD and has been uploaded to box.net, available via the link on this page.  Who knows?  Maybe someone will read it.

A REPLY TO PROFESSOR PIGDEN AND OTHERS

Professor Pigden has written a long and eloquent response to my cri de Coeur of six days ago [“A Question for Christmas Eve.”]  I agree with virtually everything he says, and yet I am not content to adopt the voice he articulates for us.  In explaining why, I encounter a problem that, I suspect, afflicts many writers who have grown long in the tooth:  I went into all of this in a book I published a dozen years ago, and so feel that there is no need to go into it again, and yet that book sold almost no copies and therefore, so far as the reading public is concerned, does not exist.  The book, which dealt with my experiences in the University of Massachusetts Department of Afro-American Studies, is called Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, an homage to a novel by James Weldon Johnson well-known in Black American circles.

Rather than rewrite here the two chapters in which I dealt with this question, I am going simply to reproduce the joke with which I begin the first of those chapters.  Then I will be able in a few words to complete my response to Professor Pigden.  Here is the joke:

“Sam Shapiro’s daughter comes home from college at the end of her Junior year and announces at the dinner table that she is to be married in two weeks time.  Mrs. Shapiro goes into panic overdrive and starts to plan a modest wedding for three hundred.  Her last words to Mr. Shapiro, before taking over the den as headquarters for the planning operation, are “You are going to need a new suit.”

Mr. Shapiro sighs, and goes to see Schneider the Tailor.
  
“Schneider, I need a new suit, and there’s no time for fittings.  My daughter, Tiffany, is getting married in two weeks time.  It’s got to be a real fancy suit.”

“Mazel tov!   Not to worry.  I will make you such a suit, your own relatives won’t know you.”

Schneider measures Mr. Shapiro up one side and down the other, all the while assuring him that there is nothing to worry about.  “Just come back the morning of the wedding,” he tells Mr. Shapiro, “wearing your good shirt, your good underwear, and your good shoes.  The suit will look like it was born on you.”

Two weeks later, not having spoken more than ten words to Mrs. Shapiro or Tiffany in the interim, Mr. Shapiro goes back to Schneider the Tailor, with his shirt, his shoes, and underwear all just waiting to be graced by the perfect suit.  Schneider whisks out the suit with an air of triumph, and tells Mr. Shapiro to try it on.

Mr. Shapiro slips on the trousers, and his face falls.  The pants are a disaster.  The right leg is three inches too long, and slops over his shoe.  The left leg is four inches too short, revealing a quite unappealing ankle.  And the waist is too big, so that the pants sag dangerously low on the Shapiro midsection.  Mr. Shapiro lets out a cry of anguish, and turns on Schneider.  “Schneider, you idiot!” he yells.  “What have you done?”

“Now, now” Schneider croons, “don’t worry.  Just extend your right leg to make it a bit longer.  Now hike up your left hip, so that the leg pulls up.  And if you will remember to keep your stomach pushed out, the pants fit perfectly.”

Mr. Shapiro is beside himself, but the wedding is in one hour, and there is nothing for it but to make the best of a bad situation.  He extends and hikes and pushes, and the pants more or less cover his lower half without falling down.

Now Mr. Shapiro slips on the jacket, and this is an even worse disaster, if that can be imagined. One sleeve is too long, the other is too short, and there is a bunch of cloth over his right shoulder blade that has no discoverable function at all.  Schneider the Tailor guides him through another series of contortions - one arm down, the other arm up, the shoulder hiked to fill the extra cloth, and finally, clammy with anxiety, Mr. Shapiro steps into the sunlight and makes his way carefully down the street toward Temple Beth Israel.

As he walks, concentrating fiercely on his left leg, his right leg, his left arm, his right arm, his stomach, and his shoulder, a nicely dressed stranger approaches him on the street and says, “Excuse me, but could you tell me the name of your tailor?”

“My tailor!  My tailor!” shouts Mr. Shapiro.  “Why do you want to know the name of that scoundrel?”

“Well,” says the stranger, “I figure any tailor who can cut a suit to fit a man shaped like you must be a genius with the needle!”

**********
Mr. Shapiro is America.  His new suit – Schneider’s folly – is the story White people have been telling about this country for the past four centuries.  In recent times, textbooks have tinkered with the story, pushing a leg out here, hunching up a shoulder there, trying to make the story fit the facts of the American experience, but the suit never really fits.  The only thing to do, at long last, is to give the story to Good Will and write a new one that really fits the facts.”

In the rest of the chapter, I examine in detail the successive editions of the three most successful and widely respected college American History texts of the 20th century, showing how they adjust to the times by tinkering with their account of the American experience.  But it is Schneider’s Wedding Suit all over again.  In the next chapter, I tell the real story of America, as I learned it from my colleagues in the Afro-American Studies Department and from the countless books I read about Black history.

America is not, was not, and never has been a country founded on the Idea of Freedom, imperfectly realized at first and then, through struggle, little by little brought into greater conformity with its founding ideal.  America was, from Colonial days, a Settler State built from the 17th century onward on unfree labor.  By a complex process taking more than a century, that unfreedom was codified as racially defined chattel slavery.  As the saying has it in this digital age, slavery was a feature of America, not a bug, and today, a century and a half after the official end of slavery, racial inequality remains a feature of American society, not a bug.  It is, like the inequality of women, a foundational structural arrangement for creating and perpetuating inequality.

The problem I tried, however ineptly, to articulate in that Christmas Eve post, is that with the exception of most Black and some few female intellectuals, no one who speaks in the public sphere shares this view, and would find it alien and even incomprehensible if confronted with it.  How then can I speak so as to be true to my understanding of the facts and also relevant to the conversation?


Friday, December 29, 2017

ANOTHER STRAW IN THE WIND

For me, the last eight days of the year are a special circle of Dante's Inferno.  Not only are they an endless three-day weekend, when nothing is open and even the mail is disrupted, it is also a time when one's favorite TV hosts are on vacation and the scrubs are suited up.  In addition, there is nothing to watch but wall-to-wall retrospectives of the year's news, which I have already absorbed, digested, excreted, and tried to forget.  The days are short, the nights are long, the sun is low in the sky even when it is up, and worst of all, you are supposed to be chuckling and cheerful and happy.  SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, does not begin to capture it.

In the midst of all this gloom, an obscure Republican operative, recruited to flesh out an MSNBC panel, made an observation that brought a warm glow to my heart and momentarily lifted me out of the Slough of Despond.  Talking about the probability that 2018 would see a Democratic electoral wave, he said, "the Democrats cannot wait to vote."

"My God," I thought, "that is exactly right.!  We are not just prepared to voted, or likely to vote, we cannot wait to vote."  All across America there are millions of people who are eager to cast a ballot against Trump and the Republicans.  I have never seen this kind of energy on the left..

This is going to be a good year.  Now, can we just dispense with New Year's Eve and get back to regular order?

QVELLING

Qvelling is what a Jewish mother does when her son gets into an Ivy League school or her daughter earns a Ph. D.  Well ...

This morning I received my very first email message from a grandchild, my just turned twelve year old grandson Samuel Emerson Wolff, who wrote to thank me for the fancy chess set I gave him.  It was a very well-composed, mature email message, written on his new laptop.  His father assured me that the chess set was Samuel's idea, not something pushed by dad, who is, of course, a famous grandmaster [another example of qvelling.]

Tip O'Neill famously said, "All politics is local" [he meant "are"].  Well, in the end, all of life is local, and this email takes precedence in my mind even over the Doug Jones victory.  I look forward to playing Samuel on the new set.  He will probably win, but that is just fine with me.  When Patrick was Samuel's age, he was a Master.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

THANK YOU, ALL

I thank you all for your kind birthday greetings.  Blogging about my birthday was a transparent request for congratulations, of course, but I am shameless in that regard.  I was struck once again by how extraordinary the web is, for all that we take it for granted.  Jerry Fresia, an old and valued commentator, lives, he says, in a small town in Northern Italy.  S. Wallerstein, perhaps the most prolific commentator, lives in Chile.  Other participants in our on-going conversation live in Australia, England, and all over the United States.  It is impossible to imagine an event that would bring us all into the same room, and yet we quite easily and casually converse with one another daily.

Surviving another year has left me quite chipper.  This morning, as I took my 6 a.m. walk in sub-freezing weather, I reflected on the electoral victories we have won this past year and the many, many more I believe we will win in 2018.  I am old enough to recall the Sixties [which, strictly speaking, happened as much in the early Seventies], and the breadth and depth of progressive mobilization now far exceeds what I recall then.  This is a deeply divided country, but we are the majority, damn it.  If we come out and vote, we can once again transform America.

I have now watched 76 episodes of Resurrection: Ertugrul, which I thought was the end of the series.  I was all set to blog about what I have learned from it about Islam, Turkey, and the like, but then I noticed that there are another 110 episodes in a Second Series!  Even for someone as compulsive as I, there are limits.  Perhaps I should read a book.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

MILESTONES, OR AT LEAST PEBBLES

Today is my eighty-fourth birthday.  Yesterday I had an MRI on my spine and brain.  If the test confirms that I have a spine and a brain, then I shall continue to fight for justice and equality for a good many more years.  I have decided, provisionally, to slow down when I hit one hundred, but that could change if the times call for it.

Let me take this opportunity to thank all of you who have followed this blog for the past nine years, either commenting or lurking [as I believe the current cant has it].  You have all kept me young in spirit, if not in years.

Organize!

Monday, December 25, 2017

ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH, DEAR FRIENDS, ONCE MORE

We have spent eleven and a half months decrying the Trump disaster, mocking him, expressing our contempt for him and all those who bow to him.  Now we approach the year of revenge.  Already, the victories in Virginia and Alabama and many other less well-publicized races have set the scene.  For the first time in memory, virtually every House Republican seat will be actively contested.  Howard Dean’s Fifty State Strategy has been revived and launched.  There is good reason to believe that at least two more indictments or guilty pleas are imminent in the Mueller investigation.  Why?  Because in the numerical court docket of sealed indictments, there were four listed between those of Manafort and his son, and only two of them – Papadopoulos and Flynn – have been unsealed.  The generic Democrat/Republican polls average a 13 point advantage for Democrats, well over the 8% or so required to overcome the gerrymandering and wasted-vote concentrations that favor Republicans.


In this dead zone of days between Christmas and New Year, filled with endless bowl games, playoff games, godawful feel good movie revivals and fatuous Year-in-Review TV specials, let us gird up our loins and prepare for battle.  This is one we can win.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A QUESTION FOR CHRISTMAS EVE

On this day before Christmas, I should like to try to come to terms with a problem that has been troubling me for almost a year: how to speak and write about Donald Trump in a manner that expresses my dismay at his fascistic tendencies and the harm he is inflicting on America’s political institutions and culture while at the same time remaining true to the critical stance I have adopted toward this country for the last sixty years of my life.

Let me begin to explain what I mean with one simple example.  Increasingly in recent months, mainstream political commentators on cable news programs like MSNBC and CNN have stripped away their cautious professionally neutral language and spoken openly about Trump’s flagrant violation of the norms and traditions of American public life.  They appeal to their viewers urgently to defend America’s long tradition as a City Upon a Hill, as a nation born of a faith in freedom, as a society that has since its birth sought to perfect the democratic vision of the Founding Fathers.  I applaud the willingness of even Republican commentators to condemn Trump as a fascist, and I hope against hope that their voices will encourage millions of Americans to vote against him and his Republican toadies.

BUT:  I do not believe that America is a City Upon a Hill.  I do not believe that America is a nation born of a faith in freedom, nor do I believe that America has, since its birth sought to perfect a democratic vision.  I have written an entire book arguing that this story of America, articulated in the most influential college American History texts of the twentieth century, is a myth completely in contradiction to the historical truth. Were I to try to utter the condemnations of Trump in the words used by an ever greater chorus of public commentators and intellectuals, those words would stick in my craw, choking me.

And yet, I know quite well that at this moment it is urgently necessary to forge as broad a coalition as possible in opposition to Trump and his enablers.  I doubt that such a coalition can be encouraged with complex, nuanced criticisms, challenging the unquestioned faith of those I seek to mobilize in an America that I believe is a fantasy.

Another example:  Terrified of the Mueller investigation, Trump has launched an all-out assault on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, an assault that is countered by those same cable news commentators who speak and write in glowing terms of the professionalism, honor, independence, and incorruptibility of career FBI agents.   I have great hopes for the Mueller probe, and I view any attempt by Trump to fire Mueller a threat to American democracy.

BUT:  I am quite old enough to remember J. Edgar Hoover, the Red Scares, the attack on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the persecution of progressives, and all the other horrors of these noble professionals.  How can I vocally defend Mueller against Trump without saying things I know to be false?

A third example:  I view Trump’s foreign policy, insofar as he actually has one, as a dangerous embrace of dictators and tyrants and a threat to peace.  But every time I hear America described as “the leader of the Free World” and a “champion for democracy” I must struggle with an involuntary urge to throw up.  Old as I am, I cannot keep in my mind the list of the democratically chosen governments that America has in my lifetime overthrown or tried to overthrow, starting with the Mossadegh government in Iran when I just was nineteen years old.  I first protested publically against one such effort – the bay of Pigs fiasco – fifty-seven years ago.   And yet, I really do think that Trump’s chaotic and authoritarian foreign policy is even worse than what has preceded it in the post-World War II world.


So my question for all of you is this:  How can I, and others like me, at one and the same time join in a politically effective assault on Trump while remaining true to our admittedly unpopular and contrarian view of America?

Friday, December 22, 2017

THE PASSAGE OF TIME

Today is the twelfth birthday of my grandson, Samuel Emerson Wolff.  We are separated by seventy-two years.  My father's father and I were separated by fifty-four years.   I have a very powerful sense today of the passage of time and the arc of life. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

SAID MUCH BETTER THAN I COULD

Professor Todd Gitlin of Columbia University is one of the finest voices in America on the left.  A former president of SDS, the author of fifteen books, and, I am proud to say, my student fifty-seven years ago, he is an important leader of the Resistance.  He just sent me the following, which I reproduce here with his permission.

As the UN General Assembly readied to vote on a resolution condemning the United States for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (it passed, 128 to 9), Trump’s Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, is reported by the Times to have written to the members of the General Assembly as follows: “As you consider your vote, I want you to know that the president and U.S. take this vote personally.”

Personally!

Nothing new, in one sense. Of course Donald Trump takes everything personally: a branded steak and a bottle of water, an Arnold Schwarzenegger rating, the height of a rival and the size of his rivals’ genitals, the weight of a beauty contestant, a football player’s posture, ad infinitum. But now, fancying that he has ascended to a truly royal realm, the Brander-in-Chief has gone yet one further: He is treating foreign policy as a personal plaything. It is back to the Shakespearean days when the king of France was known as “our cousin France.” Then it was understood that nations were the personal properties of their rulers. In and of themselves, they constituted the public domain. They were the sole active agents of history, and everyone else was a subject—subject, ultimately, to their will. To insult a nation was to insult the monarch, and vice versa.


In 2005, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not yet President of Turkey but only Prime Minister, the Turkish state made it a crime (Turkish Penal Code Article 301) to “insult Turkishness.”   Under this law, the novelist Orhan Pamuk, among many others, was prosecuted. Trump’s desired world is one in which disagreeing with American foreign policy is insulting Americanness—which is insulting Trump—which is lèse-majesté. His majesty will not be trifled with. Who do the petty rulers of these little piss-ass countries think they are? Do they brand hotels? Are their names stamped onto the sides of beef? Donald Trump ran to become CEO of America. He now holds himself to be, in his sole person, the American brand. He is the august Hirer and Firer. He is, as Garry Wills wonderfully put it, Big Rocket Man. He was elected to reign. Since January 20, 2017, there are no longer civil servants; they are "his" servants,  to carry out his whims and tweet his praises. In command performances, Cabinet members assemble  in the throne room to pay homage. Welcome to the wide and wonderful world of His Excellency Donald Trump, Making America Royal Again.

MORE BULLETINS FROM THE ENGLISH/TURKISH FRONTLINES

For some time now, one of the evil characters [the wife of Ertugrul’s brother] has been complaining, if the subtitles are to be believed, about “that ominous girl” [Halime, Erturgrul’s beloved and, historically, the mother of the first ruler of the Ottoman Empire].  This has mystified me, because that simply isn’t an adjective one would use in English to describe a person.  So, learning from my wise and faithful commentators, I first asked Google for the Turkish translation of “ominous.”  Back came “ugursuz” [never mind the diacritical marks.]  Then I asked Google what the English is for “ugursuz” and up popped “sinister,” which makes perfectly good sense.  [All of this reminds me of Mark Twain’s delightful essay, “The Awful German Language,” which I read as a boy.]  Now, of course, “sinister” is from the Latin for “left,” the opposite of “righteous” or “filled with rectitude,” so I guess a Turkish translation of an English newspaper story about the sinister acts of Donald Trump might make him out to be left-handed.

THE DELIGHTS OF INTERNATIONAL BINGE WATCHING

I have returned to Resurrection: Ertugrul.  Things are getting interesting in Episode 49 [don't start!]  The subtitles continue to delight.  The bad guy, who is the blood brother of the Shah, father of the hero, is pushing the hero's brother for the slot of next shah.  The subtitles repeatedly have him referring to this sturdy young warrior as "my niece."  Apparently, there is something about Turkish that mixes up "niece" and "nephew" in translation.  Either that or this is Turkey's #metoo moment.

BLECH!

Today is the Winter Solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year.  What we now call Christmas, the mythical anniversary of the birth of Jesus, was originally and more sensibly a celebration of the return of the Sun and hence of the rebirth of life.  It is only appropriate that atheists like myself should on this day be compelled to suffer the rejoicing of thieves and murderers masquerading as Republicans, drunk with joy at their success in stealing from the poor to give to the rich.  What an appalling country this is. 

And yes, that one vote victory in Virginia has turned into a tie, to be decided by a drawing of straws or a pulling of slips from a hat.  I suppose when someone has dumped garbage on your head, it is only to be expected that you should at that very moment also slip on a banana peel.


I am going to retreat into my binge watching and continue the countdown to my birthday.  Even Tiggers have the right, now and then, to give a middle finger to the universe.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

HOW TO STAY SANE

Look, either I have to find some way to get through the day or I can just give up and kill myself.  One of my coping mechanisms is to watch snippets of The Big Bang Theory on YouTube.  This is one of my favorites.  Each of us must find his or her way to stay sane.

By the way, I am now on Episode 48 of Resurrection: Ertrugul.

TIME TO GET REAL

Because we have, quite properly, been focused on the disaster called Trump, we, or at least I, have been less attentive to the harm threatened by the Republican Party.  It is time, however, to think about how to undo the calamitous harm that the Republicans have done to America with the tax bill they are in the process of passing.  This legislation is the fulfilment of desires Republicans have harbored for more several generations.  As someone wryly observed, Paul Ryan has been dreaming of this moment since he first read Atlas Shrugged.

Most attention has been directed to the increase this bill will bring about in America’s already extraordinary inequality in the distribution of income and wealth [the latter being far more unequally distributed than the former] and to the assault on health insurance contained in the legislation.  But we must not lose sight of the longer term consequences, which are intentional and truly disastrous.  The bill will dramatically increase the yearly deficit and therefore the national debt.  Republicans mouth assurances that the loss of revenue will be made up by increased economic growth, but they do not really believe that and in fact would be disappointed if it were to turn out to be true.

The real purpose of increasing the debt is to create a justification for doing what Republicans have wanted to do since the nineteen thirties:  dismantle the entire social democratic welfare state.  Their dream is to be “forced” to privatize Social Security, end Medicaid, diminish and then end Medicare, and in general return America to where it was during the Great Depression.

Can they be stopped?  Never mind our dreams of socialism.  Can we hang onto such protections as eighty years of struggle have secured for the poor and for those genuinely in the middle class [which is to say, households with annual income of fifty to sixty thousand, not one hundred to two hundred thousand]? 

There really is only one answer to that question, and it isn’t revolution.  I mean, let’s get real.  The answer is the vote.  We need at an absolute minimum to take back and then hold onto the House.  We need to fight as hard as we can to take back the Senate [allowing us to block more Gorsuches before it is too late].  Then we need to take the Presidency, and start undoing some of the damage.  I realize that this is not an intellectually interesting answer, one that allows us to cite recherché social theorists or talk about Marx [my personal favorite pastime].  It is about as much fun as flossing or counting calories.  But it is our only chance.


The wind is blowing in our direction.  When you win an unwinnable Senate seat in Alabama and take a Virginia House of Delegates seat in a recount by one vote, you know this is your time.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

YOU GOTTA LOVE DEMOCRACY

Good grief.  “Election officials in Newport News said Tuesday that Shelly Simonds beat incumbent Republican Del. David Yancey by 1 vote. The recounted votes still must be certified by a court Wednesday, although officials expected that no ballots would be challenged.”  This makes the Virginia House 50/50, with two recounts to go.  I really do think this is our year.

THE MIRACLE OF MODERN MEDICINE

For six months or more, I have suffered a curious loss of feeling in the soles of my feet and a diminution in feeling as far up as my ankles.  After enough blood was drawn to satisfy a phlebomatist and sophisticated tests were performed on my extremities, my doctor pronounced that I was suffering from idiopathic neuropathy.  That sounded pretty serious, so I looked it up.  It means, roughly, that there is something wrong with my nerves, my body is doing it to me, and they haven't a clue what is wrong.

Meanwhile, forty-five years ago I was diagnosed with asymptomatic sarcoidosis, which cleared up after a few years [according to chest x-rays], so the day after Christmas, I will have an MRI of my spine and brain to see whether there is anything wrong that is sarcoid related.  I already know I am spineless.  Perhaps the MRI will reveal that I am also brainless.

I am so grateful to be living near a world class medicial center.

Monday, December 18, 2017

WHAT IS TRUTH? ASKED JESTING PILATE

Jerry Fresia’s recent contribution to the comments about Trump raised in my mind once again a question about which I have brooded on and off for many years.  To put it as pretentiously as I can, How do we know anything about the world?  I do not have in mind Descartes-style doubts of the cogito, ergo sum variety.  I mean more mundane matters.  Let me explain.

I know that a portion of Eggbeaters [whites only eggs in a cardboard container] in a frying pan on my electric stove takes some while to start to cook.  I know that because I make an Eggbeater omelet every morning for breakfast [along with half an orange and a piece of multi-grain toast with nothing on it.]  But how do I know that Betsy DeVos is the U. S. Secretary of Education?  Indeed, how do I know that there is a Department of Education with a Secretary?  Hell, how do I know there is a United States with a government in which there are Cabinet Secretaries?  I have never visited the Department of Education, although I have [I think] been to Washington, D.C.  I have certainly never met or even seen in person someone purporting to be Betsy DeVos, and if I had, I would have had no way of ascertaining directly that she [or he  -- who knows?] is the Secretary of Education.  I have actually met someone whom I was told was the head of a Department of Education, but that was in South Africa [or so I was told – it might have been Nebraska for all I knew.]

I am being silly, right?  Facetious.  But not really.  My point is that some of what I think I know I know on the basis of direct experience, like where the bathroom is in my apartment.  But almost everything I know about the world I learned by reading about it or hearing someone on television talking about it or hearing about it from someone I do not know personally and for whose trustworthiness therefore I cannot really testify.  There have been times and places [or so I have read] in which most of what people knew they knew by way of personal experience:  which plants are edible and which are not, how much work it takes to fell a tree, when it is wise to plant a field of wheat, how to skin a seal.  But this is not one of those times and places and I am not one of those people.  I am entirely reliant for almost all of my knowledge of the world on a vast accumulation of what other people say.

One of the pieces to which Jerry links reports tests that show that the quantity of data supposedly obtained from the DNC could not have been the result of a hack because the time in which it was said to have been hacked is too short for that size file.  The authors of the piece, who report having performed a series of tests, say that only a direct download from the DNC computers could have done the job.  Hence, they conclude, the DNC site was not hacked by Russians [or anyone else, presumably.]

This is fascinating, although I do not quite see how it undermines the claim that the Russians mucked about with our election.  But never mind that.  Just as I have no direct knowledge at all of the people who claim that the DNC was hacked, so I have no direct knowledge of the people who wrote that article.  Nor, I take it, does Jerry or anyone else reading this blog.

So, what is one to believe?  Is it possible that an organ of the government could simply be lying to us?  Presumably yes.  After all, look at the lies about WMD in Iraq.  But were there WMD in Iraq, after all?  Indeed, is there an Iraq?  Are there any nuclear weapons at all in the world, or is that just a fireside story to scare little children?  I was alive when the United States nuclear bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Rather, I was alive when it is said that the United States did.  I also sat in front of an old black and white TV set with rabbit ears and watched Ruby shoot Oswald.  Or at least, that is what I am told I saw.  But then, I also sat in front of a [different] black and white set with rabbit ears and watched a man walk on the moon.  And we all know what some people think about that claim.

George Orwell [Eric Blair] wrote a chilling book about a state whose government undermines the distinction between truth and fiction.  It doesn’t really matter whether there was really a George Orwell, because the chilling lessons of that book remain even if it turns out that it was typed by monkeys banging randomly on typewriters.  But could our grasp of the world be threatened by a deliberate effort to mislead us about even the most elementary political facts?


Well, someone just all but disappeared me from Wikipedia.  One more edit and I will vanish from The Cloud as though I had never existed.  It gives one pause.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A SPONTANEOUS CAVIL

The Editorial Board of USA TODAY has been basking in the praise it has received for writing, “A president who would all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a whore is not fit to clean the toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library or to shine the shoes of George W. Bush.”  I am all for condemnations of Trump, but when I read that editorial opinion, I found a thought coming unbidden to my mind. 

There will be toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library when it gets built.  Someone will have the job of cleaning them.  In Chicago, where the library will be located, I believe, that person will almost certainly be a Black man or woman, getting about as little pay as the law currently allows in Illinois.  If George W. Bush wears shoes that will take a shine, he may choose to have them shined, in which case that job, in Texas, will probably be done by a Latino man or woman.  There are tens of millions of men and women in America who are doing these and similar jobs for very little money.  They are decent, hard-working men and women who would, I am sure, like a raise, and my guess is that many of them take a certain pride in doing well the jobs they have.  The much-praised one-liner from USA TODAY clearly implies that only a low-type person would have one of those jobs, and Trump is not even that low – he is lower.  No one, after all, would think to write, “A president who would all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a whore is not fit to perform brain surgery on Barack Obama or write a legal brief for George W. Bush.”


If we want to craft a progressive politics for the future, we might start right there.

IT FEELS AS THOUGH WE ARE APPROACHING A CLIMAX

In the Senate, Republican hold-outs caved, the appalling "tax" bill will pass, and House Republicans are preparing the way for an all-out assault on Mueller.  Meanwhile, popular opposition to Trump builds, and in eleven months, the Democrats will probably take control of the House and even, if everything falls into line, the Senate.  It feels as though we are approaching a crisis shortly after the new year.

Trump and the Republicans have done grave damage to the well-being of working-class Americans, but some at least of that danage can be repaired if the Democrats can retake control of the government.  

The ground level surge in progressive activism gives me some cause for hope, but I cannot deny that this country is very close to fascism.

As I approach my eighty-fourth birthday, now only eleven days away, it takes all of my energy to maintain hope and defeat despair.  

Thursday, December 14, 2017

AN INTERESTING OBSERVATION FROM AN UNLIKELY SOURCE

William Kristol, whom I have hated for years [a hatred he inherited from his father and mother] made the following very interesting observation on an MSNBC talk show regarding the Alabama election.  As anyone knows who was watching the vote tallies, there were more write-in votes than Doug Jones' margin of victory -- somewhat more than 20,000 in all.  But there were no other races on the ballot.  That means that more than twenty thousand people went to the trouble of going to the polls simply in order not to vote for either Moore or Jones  Pretty clearly these were Republicans.  So they were so deeply opposed to Moore that, while unable to vote for a Democrat, they felt compelled to go out and not vote for Moore rather than just staying home.

Remarkable.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A QUESTION OF TRANSLATION

As you know, I have been binge-watching a Turkish soap opera called Resurrection:Ertugrul, which features English subtitles.  In the episode I am now watching, one of the evil characters is represented as saying to the equally evil counselor to a rather naive Emir, "Only the weak nebbishes threaten, Commander Nasir."

Can anyone tell me the colloquial Turkish for "nebbish"?

THIS COULD BE THE START OF SOMETHING BIG

No need to go on at length about Doug Jones' win in yesterday's Alabama special Senate election.  The turnout in the Black community was spectacular.  I especially liked the exit poll showing that women with children under eighteen living at home went big for Jones.  This is a Lysistrata moment.

With Jones replacing Luther Strange, we only need Susan Collins to flip and the tax bill is defeated.  Collins is flippable, since her excuse for voting aye was a series of promises from McConnell that the House Republicans have made it clear they will not honor.  But wait, you say.  The Senate will slow-walk Jones' seating until the tax bill passes.  No doubt.  But consider.  There are 48 Democratic Senators [47 without Franken].  Last time I checked, there were 24 hours in the day.  If each of those Democratic princes and princesses can bestir him or herself to deliver thirty minutes of random talk a day, the Democratic bloc can stage a collective filibuster that will stop passage of the bill until Jones is seated.  Couldn't McConnell kill the filibuster with a point of order that requires only a simple majority to overrule a pro forma ruling from the chair?  Yes, but there is a good deal of evidence that McConnell is unwilling to take that extreme step, since it would consign the Republicans to impotence the next time the Democrats seize control of the Senate.

At least it is worth a try.  What is wrong with the Democrats in the Senate?  [Do not flood the comments section with answers.]

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

BACK TO WHAT REALLY INTERESTS ME

As I returned to my file drawer of unpublished writings after a day in New York having meetings at Columbia, I came across an extended discussion, written I know not how many decades ago, about the epistemological questions posed by the writing of historiographical narratives.  I had quite forgotten that I had written this, but as I read through it, I reflected that these are issues in which I have been interested for sixty years.  Over the next day or two, I am going to reconstruct some of my thoughts in one or two extended posts.  Meanwhile, I await the reports of the voting now going on in Alabama.  This could be big.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

DAY OFF

No posts tomorrow.  I shall be spending the day at Columbia University.  I shall explain when I get back.

PAST MY SELL BY DATE

For some years, there has been a fairly lengthy artiucle about me on Wikipedia.  When I looked at it today, I found it had been reduced to a single sentence.   It would appear that on October 2nd last, someone decided I had passed my sell by date.  sic transit gloria mundi.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

THE DOZENS, BRITISH STYLE

The Dozens is an African-American verbal competition in which men trade insults, each one more outrageous and exaggerated than the last, until one of the competitors gets off an insult so brilliant and over the top that the rest collapse in laughter and confess themselves beaten.  It is one example of the verbal imaginativeness and mastery of the Black community [other examples are Signifying, Loud Talking and of course Rap, as well as the musical variation, jazz riffing.]  But skill at spontaneous verbal competition is not restricted to African-Americans.  Here is a lovely British example I just came across on YouTube, courtesy of Monty Python.

YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP

Columbia University Professor of Graeco-Roman History, William Harris, 79, credibly accused of sexual harrassment of female graduate students over a thirty year period, has been severely punished by the University.  Columbia has reduced his teaching load.  That will teach him!  Here is the story in today's NY TIMES

Friday, December 8, 2017

AN HYPOTHESIS

A recent poll reveals that 71% of Alabama Republicans do not believe the many women who have accused Roy Moore of molesting them when they were girls.  This has been taken by cable news commentators as a sign of (1) excessive tribalism (2) inside the bubble thinking or (3) sheer stupidity.  I should like to offer an alternative explanation for this and many other instances of seemingly incomprehensible opinion poll results.

I begin by assuming that people generally are neither so stupid nor so ignorant as to be unable to negotiate everyday life.  Most Americans may not know quite where Syria is or what the nuclear triad is or what the difference is between a Sunni Muslim and a Shi’a Muslim, but they do know how to find their way to the grocery store and they may even be able to make spot repairs on an automotive vehicle.

So what is up?  Well, here is my thought.  It is not strictly true that 71% of Alabama Republicans think Roy Moore’s accusers are lying.  What is true is that 71% of the Alabama Republicans who agreed to respond to a pollster answered “no” when asked whether they believe Roy Moore’s accusers.  So what is the difference? you ask.  Quite a bit, I suggest.  [I am here drawing on a very interesting journal article written sixty years ago or more by David Riesman at the dawn of public opinion polling.]  When a Roy Moore supporter is asked that question by a pollster, he or she understands immediately and intuitively that what is really being asked is “Whom do you support?  Moore or Jones?”  If, as is quite possible, that person believes the women but supports Moore anyway, he or she will be perfectly well aware that saying so opens the way to accusations of sexism, immorality, a failure of religious faith, or – worst of all – being a backwoods know-nothing Southern yahoo.  The answer that springs most immediately to mind in that situation is f**k you!  But being polite, as Southerners tend to be, he or she just says “no.”


Just a thought.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

ASTROLOGICAL INTIMATIONS

I have written here in the past about the jigsaw puzzles that I have become addicted to since Susie and I moved to Carolina Meadows.  When we arrived almost six months ago, the maven of the jigsaw table was Mary Anne Clarkson, who has sadly passed away.  This morning, Susie and I finally completed our greatest challenge, an extremely difficult 1008 piece puzzle depicting the twelve signs of the Zodiak.  Here is the picture I took when we finished.

                                                                   

If you look very closely, you will see that one piece is missing.  This is not a Zen thing.  It just got lost.

SCHMUCK!

So I write a post about the BLS Statistical Abstract, and LFC delicately points out that the last  time I alluded to that treasure trove of data, he informed me that it is no longer published.  I am such a schmuck.  My apologies to one and all.  Now, if I could just find my glasses ...

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

HISTORIOGRAPHICAL MUSINGS

In his classic eighteenth century work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon identified the end of the Roman Empire and the onset of the Dark Ages as 476 a.d., the year that Romulus, the emperor of the Western Empire, was defeated by Odoacer.  [It is easy to remember the year of publication of Gibbon’s vast tome because it was the year in which David Hume died – 1776.  – a little Philosophers’ joke.]  This periodization was pretty much accepted by European historians until the early years of the 20th century, when the great Belgian historian, Henri Pirenne, advanced a new and controversial thesis, namely that it was not the fall of Rome in the fifth century but the expansion of Islam in the late seventh and early eight century, allowing them to take control of Mediterranean shipping, that plunged Europe into the Dark Ages.

My first teaching job, in 1958, was an Instructorship at Harvard requiring me to co-teach a big General Education course devoted to European history from Caesar to Napoleon.  Since I knew absolutely nothing about European history [or American history, for that matter] I spent several frantic months reading 20,000 pages of European history to prepare.  Among the books I read was Pirenne’s 1937 work Mohammed and Charlemagne, in which he put forward what came to be known as the Pirenne thesis.

What struck me most powerfully about Pirenne’s bold thesis was how scanty his evidence was for it.  A scattering of sixth century references to Mediterranean trade sufficed to sustain his claim that European trade with North Africa continued well past 476 a.d.  That was coupled with a passage or two from Gregory of Tours’ sixth century pot boiler, A History of the Franks.  A complete rewriting of the history of Europe on the basis of a handful of data points!

All of which initiated what has been my lifelong fascination with the difference in explanatory models employed by historians with too much data [such as historians of the French Revolution] as contrasted with historians with too little data.

Many years after I had left Harvard, I began my deep study of the thought of Karl Marx, and this led me to the discovery of the bottomless ocean of facts and figures called The Statistical Abstract of the United States, published annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, a branch of the Department of Labor.  [Here is the official description from their website: “First published in 1878, the Statistical Abstract serves as the official federal summary of statistics and provides over 1,400 tables of benchmark measures on the demographic, housing, social, political, and economic condition of the United States.”]

I have often reflected that historians of medieval Europe would sell their souls for one page from one year of a Statistical Abstract of Burgundy or Provence or Tuscany or London from the eighth or tenth or thirteenth century.  By contrast, historians of the French Revolution or the First World War or the New Deal have so much information available to them that they are compelled to make choices in what documents they read, choices that inevitably embody theoretical presuppositions and ideological biases.

These reflections and recollections were prompted by the current discussions of the hideous tax bill now grinding its way through the Congress on its way, almost certainly, to passage before Christmas.  It is impossible, from anecdotal evidence alone, to form any accurate picture of the economic condition of Americans, just as it is impossible to learn much about the lives of ninth century Burgundian peasants from a handful of documents and some paintings and artifacts.  But the BLS gives us precise information on thousands of subjects.  Let me cite a few statistics I extracted from BLS spreadsheets in half an hour of Googling [in the old days, I would order the annual Statistical Abstract every year, but I long ago discontinued that practice.]

First of all, since I have spent my life in the Academy, some facts about educational attainment.  In 1950, the year I started my education as a Freshman at Harvard, only 6% of adult Americans 25 or older had a four year Bachelor’s degree.  So few people went to college that High Schools graduated kids twice a year, in January and in June.  Fifty-five years later, in 2015, that percentage had soared to 32.5%, which means that even after that rise, more than two-thirds of adult Americans do NOT have college degrees.  As I have observed on this blog in the past, that means that two out of every three adult Americans cannot even aspire to a job as a doctor, a lawyer, a management trainee at a large corporation, an FBI agent, a High School, Middle School, or Elementary School teacher, and in many cities, not as a police officer either.  I am not saying that two-thirds of Americans do not have those jobs; I am saying they cannot hope to have those jobs.

The data on median individual and household earnings are equally striking.  In 2014 [not much changes from year to year], median weekly earnings for workers employed full time were $668 for those with only a High School diploma or the equivalent, but $1193 for those with a B.A. or better.  As anyone knows who lives in this country and pays the bills, that is a world of difference.  Notice: these are median earnings.  That means that fully half of the just-HS workers make less than that.  The proportional gap for household income is even more striking.  Households in which the highest educational attainment of any of the workers in the household is a High School diploma had a median annual income last year of $43,331, while households in which the median income for households in which at least one person had a B.A. was $90,368!

The American people are, as a whole, considerably poorer than you might imagine from public discussions of tax code rewrites and such, and they have, as a whole, considerably less in the way of educational attainments.  The graduates of the least noteworthy among America’s two thousand BA-granting campuses are still, as a group, vastly better off than the two-thirds of Americans who have not graduated from a four year college or university at all.


Well, this is the sort of information that some idle Googling reveals, thanks to the BLS.  How Henri Pirenne, Fustel de Coulanges, Marc Bloch and their colleagues would have loved to have access to such information for the fabled Middle Ages!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

TIGGER DOES A L;ITTLE DANCE

Robert Mueller, it is reported, has issued a subpoena to Deutsche Bank for records relating to Trump's finances.  Things are looking up.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

PASSING THE TIME

To pass the time and take my mind off the horrors that unfold daily in our proto-fascist country, I have been binge-watching on Netflix a Turkish [!!] TV serial called Resurrection: Ertugrul.  I am currently watching episode 13, but never fear, it seems there are 72 of them in all.  This is apparently an enormously popular Turkish TV show, watched by an implausibly large percentage of the entire population of our NATO ally.  The show is about a small nomadic tribe of 13th century folks who make their living by herding sheep and weaving blankets.  The hero is a handsome, upstanding moderately bearded member of the tribe named Ertugrul, who is the son of the Bey, or leader, of the tribe.  The love interest is an attractive young woman named Halime who shows up in the tribe’s campgrounds with her father and young brother and quickly captures Ertugrul’s heart, to the dismay of a local beauty who has her hopes set on him.  The entire show is in Turkish, but there are English subtitles [and also subtitles available in a dozen other languages.]  The subtitles are a hoot, since they are filled with the sorts of grammatical mistakes that a rushed and not entirely fluent English speaking translator might make.

After watching three or four episodes, I got curious as to whether these characters were actually based on historical figures. Wikipedia supplied the answer.  Ertugrul and Halime were the parents of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire [that settled the question whether the two of them would end up together, robbing the series of some of its suspense, at least for me.]  This show is clearly a cultural part of Turkey’s current turn toward Islam and away from NATO and the West.

In Episode 11 or so, one of the villains, a Roman Catholic churchman and supporter of the Templars, who are contemplating another Crusade, goes to a bookstore [or so it seems to be] in Aleppo, where he encounters a distinguished elderly man with a full white beard [all the Muslims have beards except the very young men, and of course the women].  He asks the shop’s proprietor whether he has a certain book, and is told “of course.”  When he offers to buy it, the elderly chap gives it to him as a gift, and says, “I wrote it.”  As the villain is leaving with the book, he turns to his flunkey and says, “That man is Ibn Arabi.” 

A tone of awe in the villain’s voice led me to look up Ibn Arabi.  Well, as some of you doubtless know but I did not, Ibn Arabi is one of the most famous figures of all Islam, a Sufi mystic who wrote countless works and plays a central role in Muslim religious and intellectual history.  It is a bit like watching a shlock technicolor historical flick in which Charlton Heston, playing a Roman centurion, meets an old Jew in Jerusalem who says he is a follower of Jesus and his name is Peter.


Obviously everyone in Turkey knows all of this and gets a little thrill from such moments.  Great fun.

ANY FLOTSAM IN A SHIPWRECK

I have often observed that in this world I am a Tigger, not an Eeyore.  Let me offer a bit of wreckage for you to grab on to in this tsunami of bad economic news from the Senate.  You can cling to this for nine days, barely keeping your head above water.  If Roy Moore loses the Senate race in Alabama [deo volente], then a single Republican defection during the vote on the compromise emerging from the House-Senate conference will sink the tax bill.  Since the Senate version is loaded with ad hoc additions, each designed to snag a particular recalcitrant Republican senator, McConnell may not be able to carry the conference report across the finish line.

At my age, nine days of hope is not to be sneezed at.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

SICK AT HEART

I am so depressed by the cruel, destructive money grab passed last night by the Senate that I cannot even take pleasure in the Flynn guilty plea.  It would, in times like these, be comforting to believe in an avenging God.  When I recover my composure, I would like to write something about the role that norms of honor and public morality would have to play in a socialist society.  

Friday, December 1, 2017

RESPONSE TO SOME COMMENTS

First, to Matt’s report that a Google search reveals a goodly number of printed references to the article I said had been ignored.  My principal response is:  WOW!  WHO KNEW?  Well, I would, if I ever bothered to read what other people write.  I knew about John Roemer, of course, a super bright mathematically very sophisticated Marxist who wrote a reply to my article at the time [well worth reading.]  But I had no idea anyone else had noticed it.  Thank you, Matt. You have made an old man happy.


About bitcoins.  I read up on them once but know next to nothing about them.  The article linked to is great fun, and basically correct about Marx.  I recommend it.  Bitcoins raise very interesting questions about the nature of money, a subject that interested me a good deal for a while, and about which I wrote a lengthy and unsuccessful analytical paper for my files [nothing I would ever want to share.]  Early in my explorations of mathematical economics, I noticed the curious fact that in General Equilibrium systems of equations there did not seem to be any variable for money.  I pointed this out to a UMass economics graduate student who was taking the Mathematical Microeconomics course I was sitting in on, and he looked at me as though I were an idiot and said, “But of course not!”  It struck me that a super-sophisticated model of a capitalist economy with no place for money probably had a few conceptual flaws, but I knew enough to keep my mouth shut.