Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

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Thursday, August 16, 2018


[In the metaphysical poetry of 16th century England, a complaint is a song, a poem, by a spurned lover to his beloved.  Thus the title of Philip Roth’s breakthrough novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, is a witty double entendre, for the novel is both an account of Alexander Portnoy’s emotional disorders that bring him into psychoanalysis and also a love song to his beloved, which is to say, of course, to his mother.]

In the past few days, I have revealed myself on this blog to be a prig, a prude, a reactionary when it comes to English usage.  Indeed, were I more of a fan of the old TV show Seinfeld, I might even describe myself as a Language Nazi.  I quibble over presently, I fulminate against beg the question, I draw a line in the sand at the incorrect use of “transpire” to mean “happen” rather than “become known” [it originally means “to breathe about.”]

I am, of course, well aware that in these actions I stand not on solid ground but rather on linguistic quicksand.  Comparative Linguists are fond of pointing out that language evolves and grows and changes endlessly, despite the efforts of William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White.  Indeed, one often finds that although people living close to one another can understand one another quite well, one can, by a series of geographical dislocations, end up with two communities, speaking ostensibly the same language, who are mutually incomprehensible.  I once listened to Noam Chomsky on YouTube describing this well-known phenomenon.  Nobody, he observed, ever actually speaks Correct English.  What made his discourse especially delicious was that it was couched easily, effortlessly, fluently in precisely the Correct English that he was claiming no one speaks.

So why do I do it?  There are two reasons, and the purpose of this post is merely to set them forth, not, heaven knows, to try to infect others with my disorder.

The first reason is that there are endlessly many logical distinctions available to be made, and in my view one of the functions of language is to make them.  “That poses a question so urgent that it virtually demands to be raised” means something different from “That simply assumes what you claim to be trying to prove and thus reduces what you have said to a miserable tautology.”  This is a real distinction.  It can obviously be expressed in many different ways.  Which we choose is a matter of convention, and conventions in language, as in dress or body adornment, change over time.  But using “begs the question” to mean both obliterates a real distinction, and thus contributes to the coarsening and dumbing down of discourse.

The second reason is aesthetic, not logical.  One of my principal aesthetic pleasures is the contemplation of the work of an artist who simultaneously embraces and transcends the formal constraints of an art form.  Consider, as an example, the fugue.  The rules of musical composition governing the writing of a fugue are severe indeed, stipulating as they do the sequence of voices or lines, the interval at which each enters, and so forth.  In the hands of a journeyman composer, these restraints are all too evident, and conspire to produce a work that is tedious and predictable.  But not when Bach writes a fugue.  Bach plays with the rules, teases them, inverts them, all the while conforming to them rigorously.  The result is a beauty that seems both spontaneous, free form, utterly expressive, and yet is a perfect instantiation of the inviolable rules of the fugue.  Thus, we may imagine, God played with His laws of Nature as He created the world.

Language is, to be sure, a medium of communication, but it is also an art form in the right hands.  A great writer produces graceful, seemingly effortless prose that articulates with precision complex concepts while conforming strictly to the rules that define correct usage.  The language of Plato, of Marx, of Hume – and yes, of Chomsky at his best – is as much a work of art as a Bach fugue or a Dickinson poem.  It takes our breath away.

It is not easy to write in this manner, even if, like Moliere’s bourgeois gentilhomme, one has been speaking prose all one’s life without knowing it.  It requires focused attention and much practice.  I recall once watching Yo Yo Ma play the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.  As he played, he leaned back, away from the instrument, as though he were listening to the music rather than producing it, while his arms and hands did the most complex, precise things to create that music.  Since I am an amateur mediocre violist, who has actually played one of those Suites arranged for my instrument, I have some dim sense of the years of endless work that the young Yo Yo Ma did to achieve that magical transcendence.

That, in a few words, is why I flinch when someone is described as disinterested when what is meant is that she is uninterested.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


“Decimate” is now used as a synonym for “wipe out” or “obliterate” but that is not its original meaning.  Two thousand years ago, when a Roman legion had performed disastrously or had disobeyed orders in battle, as an extreme punishment its soldiers were lined up and every tenth soldier was put to death – the legion was decimated.  The aim was not to obliterate the legion but to enforce strict and harsh discipline.

This is an utterly useless piece of information, but it is interesting.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018


In response to my light-hearted little post about a borrowed jug, MS made a series of three enormously knowledgeable and interesting comments.  Rather than let them languish in the comments section, where only the most devoted readers will find them, I decided to combine them into a "guest post" so that everyone will read what he/she had to say.

Here they are:

As your son will tell you, pleading in the alternative is a standard methodology that is taught in first year Civil Procedure. It can be very infuriating. In the example provided by Dean, the pleading is not as absurd as it may appear. Whether a contract has been formed, and what its terms are, can be a complex fact issue when there is no written document to memorialize what was agreed on, if anything. So the defendant is disputing whether, as a matter of law, an oral contract was formed by the words the parties exchanged; if the court determines that a contract was formed, then, he claims, the plaintiff, not the defendant, breached it.

What Giuliani is doing he may think is like pleading in the alternative, but it is not as sophisticated.

Regarding the nature of oaths, I need to expand a bit on my comment in the previous blog entry relating to alternative pleading. The example of alternative pleading regarding the contract is easily defended for the reasons I gave – whether a contract has been formed can be a complex combined factual/legal issue, particularly in the absence of a written document. However, the example of the borrowed jar is quite different. Whether a jar existed, whether it was borrowed; whether it was broken, etc., are not complex legal issues. They are solely factual allegations that are either true or false. What the imaginary pleader in the case of the jar is doing is relying on the burden of proof – it is the plaintiff, the person suing for the alleged broken jar, who, by law, has the burden of proving every factual element of his/her case. So, rather than admitting that there was a borrowed jar and that it was broken, the defendant is denying each of the elements and telling the plaintiff to prove them. Pleading in the alternative with respect to such factual allegations, however, is not without its risks. Under the federal court rules, a party that continues to deny factual allegations in the face of strong evidence that the factual allegations are accurate (e.g., a document signed by the defendant indicating s/he borrowed the jar) can be sanctioned by the court with an assortment of penalties, e.g., reimbursing the plaintiff’s attorney for the legal expenses required to prove the allegation true.

What does this have to do with what Giuliani and Trump are doing? Most of Giuliani’s double-talk relates more to factual issues, like whether the jar was borrowed, rather than combined factual/legal issues, like whether a contract was formed. Moreover, Giuliani is not (as of yet) representing Trump in a legal proceeding, ala’ Clinton’s deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit. Remember when President Clinton was castigated for answering a question during that deposition by saying, “It depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.”? His answer, although criticized as being “legalistic,” was a perfectly good answer to a very badly worded question by Jones’ attorney. The attorney, using the present tense, asked Clinton a question about whether he was having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton focused on the use of the present tense and gave a perfectly acceptable answer in a legal proceeding. From this perspective, contrary to the shouts for his impeachment, he did not commit perjury. Clinton was a defendant in a civil lawsuit; he had every right to be particular in his answers and to expect that the plaintiff’s attorney ask questions in a professionally worded manner.

What President Clinton did in the course of a deposition, however, was not an acceptable answer outside the context of a legal deposition. When addressing the American people at a news conference, for example, when acting as the President of the United States, he had an obligation not to give cunning, legalistic answers to questions. Although in that context he had not taken an oath prior to testifying, he had, as Trump has, taken an oath of office specified in Aritcle II, Sec. 1 of the Constitution to, “faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and ... to the best of [his] Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Article II, Sec. 3 of the Constitution provides that the President “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.... .” I submit that when Giuliani, on Trump’s behalf, gives blatantly contradictory answers to factual questions – none of which relate to issues of national security – as if he is pleading in the alternative in a legal proceeding, Trump, via Giuliani, is violating that oath.

I agree that Giuliani will not be sanctioned by any court for his conduct. But that is primarily because his representation of Trump is not part of any legal proceeding. But the point I was attempting to make in my earlier comment, perhaps a bit obscurely, is that precisely because it is not related to a legal proceeding, his conduct on behalf of a mendacious President is much worse. In a legal proceeding, Giuliani’s tactical maneuvering, his “pleading in the alternative,” would, up to a point, constitute legitimate advocacy on behalf of his client. But outside the context of a legal proceeding, we have a right to expect a degree of candor, a degree of consistency, in our President that, in a legal proceeding, might be regarded as poor gamesmanship. The President should not need to recite an oath to tell the truth, with his hand on a bible, to be expected to tell the truth at a press conference. Yes, it is true, that most politicians and most presidents, bend the truth. But, as President Obama noted in his recent speech in South Africa, it used to be when a politician was caught in a lie, s/he at least would affect embarrassment. Trump, aided and abetted by Giuliani, doubles down on the lies. He lies more than any other President has done; and then he contradicts the lies, and lies about the lies. For all of Nixon’s faults, and there were many, when he declared, “The American people have the right to expect that their President is not a crook. Well, I am not a crook.” he at least recognized that there was a standard of decent behavior that the President owed the country, even though he failed to live up to that standard.

By his outlandish advocacy on behalf of Trump, Giuliani is doing serious harm to the office of the President that will have a lasting, deleterious effect on this country. Trump’s critics express legitimate concerns about the repercussions his policies will have on international relationships and voice concern that he may do something rash militarily in order to prove his manhood. But even if, hopefully, none of these worse case scenarios come to pass, the harm that Trump’s behavior is causing to the psyche of this country will last well after he is long gone. He is teaching the young people in this country that the way to be successful in life is to lie, cheat and bully your opponent. Giuliani’s contradictions in defense of Trump is legitimizing that behavior.

Monday, August 13, 2018


is that the readership is full of people who know all sorts of things really well that I do not know or about which I have only a sketchy awareness.  At its best, it is like an extended Senior Common Room conversation over sherry.


Fifty-seven years ago, I taught an upper class undergraduate course in Harvard’s General Education program called “Value and Reality in Western Society.”  Part One of the course dealt with The Problem of Loyalty in Contemporary America.  Part Two was devoted to An Analysis of Historical Materialism.  Doing some background reading for Part One, I found myself one day in the reading room of the Harvard Law School.  I can still recall the look and feel of the long library tables, at one of which I sat reading a law review article about the origins of the modern practice of having witnesses in a trial testify under oath.

The author of the article [who was, I recall, a woman, but her name is long since lost to me] explained that the oath a witness swears in court originated as what she called a conditional self-curse.  That is, the witness said, in effect, “If I should testify falsely, let God damn me to eternal hell fire.”  This conditional self-curse was taken so seriously by all involved that if a witness issued uttered it, his testimony was accepted forthwith as reliable, since it was unimaginable that anyone would call down upon himself so terrible a punishment.  The modern phrase “so help me God” uttered ritually by witnesses “taking the oath” is a compressed and fragmentary remnant of the original conditional self-curse.

This has absolutely nothing to do with anything, but I thought it was interesting.


I have a dim memory of an ancient case in the English Common Law, dating maybe from the 12th or 13th century, concerning a man who was sued for damages by a neighbor who charged that he had borrowed a jug and returned it cracked.  His defendant’s argument went something like this:  The jug does not exist; I did not borrow it; I returned it whole; and it was broken when I borrowed it.  I think this is now called “arguing in the alternative.”

It reminds me of Rudy Giuliani’s defense of Trump.


As I was reading the daily pundit summary on Daily Kos, I came across this fascinating account of the anti-Asian paranoia in the early part of the twentieth century that led eventually to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  I mention it here because it gives me the opportunity to tell once again a family story of which I am very proud.  Faithful readers of this blog will recall that my paternal grandfather, Barnet Wolff, was a leader of the Socialist Party in New York City during the first quarter of the last century.  In 1910, he went as a delegate [representing the Jewish Agitation Bureau!] to the annual Socialist Party convention in Chicago.  At the convention, I am appalled to have to report, the assembled socialists voted in favor of excluding Asian workers from the United States.  But my grandfather, God bless him, voted against the proposal.

For my account of the affair, you can read pages 22-5 of Barney’s Political Career archived at, accessible via the link at the top of this page.

Sunday, August 12, 2018


Well, if nothing else, I seem to be able to provoke a flood of comments and disputes.  Let me expand on one of the several things Jerry Fresia said, the idea of circumventing the Electoral College without a Constitutional amendment that would be nearly impossible to pull off.  The idea, for those of you not familiar with it, is this:  One by one, state legislatures pass a law instructing their Electors to vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote nationally, regardless of whether that candidate has won the popular vote in that state, these laws to take effect only when enough states have signed on to yield a majority in the Electoral College.  This is completely consonant with the Constitution.  Since the Electoral College has 538 votes, a group of states having in total one half plus one, or 270 Electoral votes, must join the effort for the system to be implemented.  Remarkably, it is already the case, as Jerry notes, that states having a total of 165 Electoral votes have passed such laws, leaving only 105 to go.

As an anarchist who believes that all state authority is illegitimate, I take a transactional view of these matters.  Since the political forces I favor currently command a popular majority nation-wide [thank you, California], and seeing as how demographic trends promise to only increase that majority, I am all in with this idea.  Note that the Democratic candidate has won the popular majority in six out of the last seven presidential elections.  Such a system would, of course, totally alter the pattern and structure of campaigning, since under it, running up the vote in California or New York would be quite as effective as fighting for wins in closely divided states.  Candidates would go where their popular votes were, not where the Electoral votes are.

As for at-large slates of Congressional candidates, I have mixed feelings about that reform.  On the one hand, it would make it possible for minority parties to gain Congressional representation.  On the other hand, it would eliminate the current direct relationship between a constituent and his or her representative.  I would be interested in hearing what folks think about the idea.

Saturday, August 11, 2018


I had some further thoughts triggered by the Berman/Robin controversy [and thanks to Dean for his/her kind remarks].  They concern the subject, now much under discussion in the media, of the relationship of those identifying themselves as Democratic Socialists or Social Democrats to the main body of Democratic Party elected officials and operatives.  It strikes me that it is less than helpful to draw elaborate comparisons with European struggles between the two wars.  My reason is as follows.

Multi-party parliamentary politics always poses for the members of one of the parties, especially one of the smaller parties, a problematic choice: whether to work with, perhaps even to join, one of the larger parties, thereby gaining some measure of political power, but at the price of compromising severely with one’s principles and programs; or alternatively to remain separate and thus able to preserve the authenticity of one's principles and programs, but at the price of giving up even such power as participation in a coalition might afford.

I do not see this choice as a matter of existential purity, as it would be perhaps for a religious splinter sect convinced that precisely its interpretation of holy writ is the only pathway to salvation.  Rather, it is a choice forced on the party by the structure of parliamentary politics.

The American political system is not a parliamentary system, a fact that makes minor party political efforts unsuccessful save in the most unusual of circumstances.  The Greens, the Libertarians, and other minority parties are in general doomed to failure by the structure of the American political system.  The fight between the left of the Democratic Party and the establishment wing is taking place within the party.  Next January, if the Democrats have retaken the House, all the candidates who are elected on the Democratic ticket, whatever their political orientation, will choose a Speaker of the House and share around the committee chairmanships.  The fights will go on, just as they have in the Republican Party, and as the successes of the so-called Freedom Caucus demonstrate, unified minorities can have considerable success.  But the experiences of European Socialist, Communist, Social Democratic and other left parties do not, I believe, offer useful lessons or guides to American left activists.


Once again, an interesting discussion has erupted in the comments section, this time triggered by a piece by Sheri Berman in the Washington Post.  [She is a member of the Barnard College Political Science Department, and I have just sent her an email suggesting that we meet for coffee some Tuesday in the fall.]  The comments here deal with her review of a book by Corey Robin, which I have not read, but one line in the Post piece prompts me to say a few words.  Early in the article, Berman writes: “Central to Marxism was the belief that capitalism’s internal contradictions would inevitably lead to its demise.” 

This is a standard line about Marx, repeated so often as to become little more than background music in discussions, but I think it betrays a deep misunderstanding of Marx’s analysis of capitalism, and the purpose of this post is to explore and clarify the matter.  [Some of you will have read my essay, The Future of Socialism, archived at  You may want to amuse yourself for the next few moments by contemplating the miraculous success of the Boston Red Sox.]

The problem, if I may get ahead of myself, is that Marx’s central idea has been so totally absorbed and internalized by absolutely everyone writing today about society and economics that no one recognizes it any more for the revolutionary idea that it was when Marx first advanced it.  It is rather like Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, which is simply assumed to be obviously true by everyone, including those engaged in bashing Freud.

Marx looked at the development of capitalism in England and saw a centuries-long process resulting from the decisions, choices, and struggles of countless men and women:  the enclosure of agricultural land to be used for pasturing wool-bearing sheep, which drove displaced peasants to flock to the big cities and become, in Marx’s evocative phrase, a “reserve army of the unemployed;” the movement of weavers and spinners from their cottages, where they were part of the “putting out system,” into large buildings called “make-eries” [i.e., factories];  the transformation of making-by-hand [“manufacturing”] into machine production, which robbed the workers of the hard-won traditional skills and reduced them to semi-skilled machine tenders; the gobbling up of small firms by larger firms in the competition of the market; the seemingly endless series of booms and busts produced by overproduction and underconsumption; the rising self-awareness of workers, made aware of one another by being brought together into the factories, and the consequent formation of labor unions, which would have been unthinkable during the period the putting-out system and cottage labor; and so on and on.

All of this was utterly new when Marx advanced it, but today it is part of the intellectual air we breathe, not at all the property of “the left.”

Writing when he was, and looking at the world as he saw it, Marx believed that these deep, broad developmental trends were moving in the direction of greater concentrations of capital, increased organization of labor, and ever more disruptive swings of the business cycle, all of which, he hoped and believed, were leading toward a trans-national upheaval.

This anticipated upheaval, be it noted, was not thought by him to be a behind-the-scenes metaphysical movement of world historical forces, a materialist version of the Immanent Unfolding of Reason or a secular version of God’s Plan for the Universe and Man.  What is more, Marx wrote surprisingly little about what he thought the outcome of these deep social and economic movements would be.  Capital, after all, taking into account the Theories of Surplus Value, which is officially Volume Four, runs to 5,000 pages.  One would be hard pressed to cobble together more than 100-200 pages by Marx on the post-capitalist world.  Marx did, however, tell us that the next stage after capitalism would grow “in the womb” of capitalism, just as capitalism had grown in the womb of feudalism.

Marx conceived of the “inevitability” of socialism in somewhat the way that modern climatologists conceive of global warming: as the slow working through of manifest present tendencies including the deliberate actions of human beings.

In my essay referenced above, I try to think about what those tendencies might be in capitalism as it is currently constituted.  I then identify three big tendencies that Marx got wrong, mistakes that, taken together, help to explain why things have not thus far turned out as Marx anticipated.

But none of this constitutes the claim that “capitalism’s internal contradictions would inevitably lead to its demise.”

Well, all of this may seem to have little or nothing to do with the debate between Berman and Robin, but I wanted to get it off my chest.  Now, about those Red Sox …

Friday, August 10, 2018


There have been a number of interesting comments lately pointing me in different directions.  Let me begin with Robin McDugald’s question:  “I understand it may have something to do with the over-all thrust of your course, but could you offer a brief word on why the reading and discussion of Wilmsen’s book—a book I’m completely unfamiliar with—takes up such a large part of it?”

Good question.  The authors whose writings are assigned in the course are Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Karl Mannheim, Edwin Wilmsen, Charles Mills, and Martha Nussbaum.  I can be absolutely certain that every student will have heard of Marx, because he is included in the required readings for the famous Contemporary Civilization course that they will have been required to take as first or second year undergraduates at Columbia.  Inasmuch as the course is being offered in the Sociology Department, I think I have a right to assume they have heard of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim.  I mean, that is like assuming that Lit students have heard of Shakespeare and Jane Austen.  Mannheim may be a stretch, but they are, after all, Columbia students, so they will at least know how to fake it.  Mills and Nussbaum look like add-ons to satisfy the PC police.  But Wilmsen?  Who he?

The overarching theme of the course is the thesis that the Social Sciences, unlike the Natural Sciences or the Humanities, are inherently and unavoidably ideologically mystified.  The three weeks spent on Wilmsen are, in a way, the heart of the course.  Let me explain.

Ever since Marx launched the enterprise of ideological critique [I know, I know, it was Hegel, but I hate Hegel, so leave me be], the most sophisticated thinkers in the nineteenth and twentieth century intellectual tradition have been writing in ever more elevated and atmospheric ways about ideology, false consciousness, mystification, alienation, and such like things.  Their prose soars so far above the landscape below that reading it can make one feel lightheaded from a lack of facts.  Real ideological critique, of the sort that Marx and Mannheim carried on with such brilliance, requires a combination of detailed, particular knowledge with rarefied theoretical analysis that is rare indeed, even in such legendary haunts as the Frankfurt School for Social Research.  To do ideological analysis well, you must steep yourself in the object of your critique.  No one would think of offering an ideological critique of the novels of Dickens without knowing them inside and out, and knowing as well an enormous amount about the social, economic, and political milieu in which they were written.

Wilmsen’s book, Land Filled With Flies, is a devastating ideological critique of the work of a group of ethnologists led by the distinguished Canadian anthropologist Richard Lee.  Lee and his associates devoted years to a detailed study of the Zhu, a people living in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana and South Africa.  Wilmsen himself spent many years living with the Zhu, learning their language, getting to know them, recreating their history and that of the larger Kalahari from colonial archives. 

The result is, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant pieces of work ever written in the Social Scieces.  Wilmsen’s critique calls into question not only the legitimacy of the work of the Lee group but of Ethnography itself as a discipline, and it does so in the service of a Marxist perspective. 

My pedagogical message to the students in the class is this:  If you want to engage in ideological critique, this is the sort of work you must do.  You must combine an understanding of the general theory of ideological critique with a hard won mastery of the detail of the object of your critique.  Wilmsen’s book, aside from being in my estimation fascinating, is a perfect case study of how to do ideological critique.

That is why, along with such famous folk as Marx, Weber, Durkhim, and Mannheim, I devote three weeks of a thirteen week course to a book by Edwin Wilmsen.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018


One of the various anonymi  [anonymata?] asks that I say a few words about alienation and point to some readings.  The locus classicus is of course Marx’s 1844 manuscript on alienated labor, part of the 1844 Manuscripts, working papers written in Paris by the 26 year old Marx.  The subject is of the very greatest interest because it is one of the two points in Marx’s thought at which the broad structural analysis of capitalism intersects with the focused analysis of the subjective experience of the individual in a capitalist society [the other is his dscussion of ideological mystification.]  The central undertaking of the so-called Frankfurt School in Germany in the 1920’s and early 30’s was to carry through a fusion of Marx’s analysis of capitalist economy and society with Freud’s new understanding of the functioning of the individual mind, especially of the unconscious.  Hence the work of the Frankfurt School can be understood as an updating of Marx’s early work in the 1844 manuscripts and associated texts [such as the German Ideology.]  The works of Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, among many others, can be read on this subject with great profit.

The concept of alienation itself is provocatively ambiguous, a fact that Marx uses to great advantage.  In the law, “to alienate” means “to transfer ownership of.”  But the word also carries the meaning “to make an enemy of, to distance oneself from.”  In the Manuscripts Marx plays on this ambiguity, noting that workers by their labor create capital which, because it is owned by the capitalist, not by them, becomes their enemy and oppresses them.  Because the labor process, the activity of laboring, is under the control of and routinized by the capitalist, the worker becomes alienated from his or her own human nature, which is to collectively and purposefully transform nature so that it serves human needs and desires.  Hence, “to be a good worker” comes to mean “to work in an inhumane and spiritually stultifying manner, steadily, obediently, profitably.”

Well, that is a start.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018


Draft Week by Week Course Outline

Sept. 4:            Intro to seminar.  No assigned reading  
Sept. 11:          Marx, Communist Manifesto, Capital Chapter 1  
Sept. 18:          Marx. Capital, Chapters 2-6                                  
Sept. 25:          Marx, Capital, Chapters 7-10                                
Oct. 2:             Durkheim, Suicide, Preface, Introduction, Book III,                          Chapter 1
                        Max Weber, Economy and Society, Part One,                                    Chapters I and III, i-v   
Oct. 9:             Weber, Economy and Society, Part Two, Chapter XI
                        Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of                                                Capitalism, begin   
Oct. 16:           Weber, The Protestant Ethic finish                            Oct. 23:           Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, Parts I, II      Oct. 30:           Mannheim, Part IV, Edwin Wilmsen, Land Filled                                  With Flies, Chapters 1-2.
Nov. 13:          Wilmsen, Chapters 3-5                                                Nov. 20:          Wilmsen, Chapters 6-7                       
Nov. 27:          Charles Mills, The Racial Contract                           Dec. 4:             Martha Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, excerpts 

Written work:                          Short paper, due Oct. 9
                                                Final paper, Dec. 14


As I have several times mentioned, come fall I shall be flying up to New York each Tuesday to teach a course at Columbia University.  Jerry Fresia asked to see the syllabus, so I thought I would post it here after saying a few words about how the course came to be.

Something more than a year ago, I was elected to a group at Columbia called The Society of Senior Scholars.  The society is a group of thirty or so retired professors, most but not all retired from Columbia, who are interested in continuing to teach.  The Society has its roots in Contemporary Civilization, a legendary General Education course created at Columbia in 1919, which is required, along with other courses, of every Columbia undergraduate.  Some members of the Society teach sections of CC, as it is referred to, while others teach elsewhere in Columbia.

I am, I believe, the only member of the Society who does not live in the Greater New York area.   CC meets twice a week, for two hours each time, and it would be impossible for me to come to the city twice a week, so I cast about for something else to teach.  One of the people who had nominated me for the Society suggested that I create an upper level interdisciplinary course that could serve for a small group of Juniors and Seniors as a sort of capstone or consummation of their undergraduate education.  I jumped at the chance and very quickly came up with a proposal for a course dealing with a range of materials that I have been thinking about, teaching, writing about, and recording YouTube videos about for the past forty years.  The theme of the course that I proposed is the phenomenon of ideological distortion, mystification, and rationalization that characterizes all of the disciplines grouped together as Social Sciences and that distinguished them from the Natural Sciences and also [although this is debatable] from the Humanities.  I called the course Mystifications of Social Reality.

The folks I was talking with at Columbia were enthusiastic about the proposal, but there was a problem.  I am not a member of any department or other regularly established Columbia body [the Society does not count, for some obscure reason], so I am not authorized to offer a course.  This bureaucratic obstacle had everybody stumped until someone said, “Of course, if you co-teach it with a faculty member, there will be no problem.”  So, whom could I get?

The person who nominated me suggested a very senior member of the faculty of the famous Columbia School of Journalism who is also, as it happens, an Adjunct Member of the Sociology Department, a man named Todd Gitlin.  I was absolutely delighted by the suggestion.  Todd has had a long and brilliant career as a strong voice and active presence on the left in America, starting when he served as the third president of Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS as everyone knows it.  He has published many books and it would be simply delightful for me to collaborate with him on the course.  It all so happens, unbeknownst to the person who made the suggestion, that in 1960, fifty-eight years ago, Todd was my student at Harvard!

So there it is.  On Tuesday, September 4th, Todd and I will meet a small class [limited to 20] in a room yet to be decided, and launch Mystifications of Social Reality.  Later today, I will post the syllabus we have settled upon.

Monday, August 6, 2018


In the past few days, the comments section of this blog has taken a turn with which I am very unhappy, and I have only myself to blame.  The flood of comments was triggered by my post yesterday morning [good grief, was it only yesterday morning?] in which I commented on a brief YouTube Noam Chomsky clip to which “Heraclitus” had supplied a link.  These comments provoked just the sort of agitated and somewhat hostile back and forth on the left [in which I participated] that I have always decried and tried to stay out of.  In this post, I want to step back and make some general observations about political action, especially in pursuit of the sorts of goals that I think I share with most of my readers.

As I have observed before, political change is not like brain surgery, in which the slightest slip of the hand can mean death or terrible injury.  I prefer to liken political change to a landslide, in which an entire mountainside is transformed by an enormous flood of boulders, uprooted trees, rocks, clods of earth, but also pebbles and grains of sand, all tumbling, rolling, bouncing, pitching down a slope.  In the Civil Rights Movement, the greatest popular political movement of my lifetime, one sees huge boulders like John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King rolling down the mountainside, along with small trees, like my UMass colleague in the Afro-American Studies Department Mike Thelwell, who ran the SNCC office in D. C. for a while.

But if nothing moves save for those few big objects, the result is not a landslide, and the mountainside is not transformed.  For that transformation to happen, everything, small as well as big, must be in motion.  If you are one of the pebbles or grains of sand, your participation in the landslide will make little or no observable difference, but without you and all the other pebbles and grains, it will not be a landslide.

The greatness and also the besetting sin of intellectuals is that they try to think about everything, not merely about something.  If all you are doing is thinking, then of course the one is as easy as the other.  But when it comes to political action, for most of us it is all we can manage to do just something – to be a pebble or a grain of sand.  The trick, if you are intellectually inclined, is not to make the mistake of imagining that arguing in grand terms about everything is any sort of substitute for actually doing something.

That is why I spent several days writing and merge printing some fundraising letters for young Ryan Watts here in the NC 6th CD, which, Lord knows, is about as pebbly a thing as it is possible to do.

Now, I am, for better or worse, an intellectual, so I will continue to opine on the big picture, since that is what we intellectuals do.  But I am not going to get into arguments about that big picture with folks who, I hope, are tumbling down the mountain with me.  It is enough that we are tumbling down the same side.

Sunday, August 5, 2018


Well, one day under the weather is a reasonable price to pay for 97% protection against shingles.  Now, as to that clip from Noam Chomsky, which you can view here.  Noam starts by pooh-poohing the foofaraw about Russian interference in the 2016 election, indicating by his tone of voice as much as by what he says that he considers it pretty small beer.  [How’s that for two old fashioned slang expressions and one cliché in a single sentence?]  Then he moves on to a recent scholarly study that shows in granular detail the influence of money in American politics, which he suggests is much greater than any effect Russian efforts at interference might have had.  The second part of the short interview concerns the shape of post-war European power politics.  Let me say something about the first two points.

Were it not disrespectful to someone whom I like personally and for whom I have the very greatest esteem, I would be tempted to respond, “Duh!”  Big money plays a big role in American politics!  Who knew?  The ability of big money to shape politics is a fundamental structural fact not only about American politics but about the politics of all capitalist states.  The state exists in a capitalist economy for the purpose of facilitating the smooth and unchallenged exploitation of the working class, and one of the principal ways in which Capital accomplishes this in capitalist democracies is by shaping electoral outcomes.  Big money in American politics, to use again a catchphrase I have invoked before, is a feature, not a bug.

Does it therefore make no difference how that money is allowed legally to influence elections?  That depends on whether you think there is any point in trying to make American capitalism less harsh, less exploitative, less inhumane, even though those ameliorations are only at the margin.  I do think so.  Hence, for example, I decry the notorious Citizens United Supreme Court decision.  Did corporate and private wealth play a major role in American politics before that decision?  A silly question.  Would it continue to do so if the decision were reversed?  Equally silly.  Does the decision therefore matter?  That is a question worth debating.  My answer is yes.  Hence, I think it matters who sits on the Supreme Court.  Now, it goes without saying that every member of the Supreme Court now and for as long as matters has been nominated by a President, Democrat or Republican, who was committed to the capitalist exploitation of labor [though not of course under that description.]  I think we can also agree that all of the ice at the North and South Poles will have melted [and hell, correspondingly will have frozen over] before there is a workable majority on the Supreme Court ready to rule that capitalism is unconstitutional.

So I quite agree that the effect of the Russians on the 2016 election, whatever it may have been, pales into insignificance [another cliché] next to the influence of money.  Why, therefore, do I care about it?

The answer is simple.  I think Trump is a more serious threat to everything I care about than Clinton would have been, bad as she is and was, and I think his manifest conspiring with the Russians, which has taken place in plain view, may yet bring him down.  That’s it.  That is why I care.  Not because I believe it is besmirching the purity of the American political system, envy of the world; not because I think once he is gone America’s role as The Leader of the Free World, A City Upon a Hill, The Last Best Hope of Humanity, will be restored.  Just because I think the Russia thing may bring him down.

But if that is why I care about collusion, why don’t I care about Stormy Daniels and hush money?  Why don’t I care about the use of New York apartments to launder the dirty money of Russian oligarchs?  I do care!  And for exactly the same reason.  As the talking heads have now become fond of observing, it was tax evasion that sent Al Capone to jail.

I have had my say on the last part of Noam’s comments, concerning post-war Euro-American power politics, so I will pass on that.

Saturday, August 4, 2018


On Thursday I had my second Shingles vaccine shot, and as anticipated, it had a bad effect on me.  I spent most of yesterday laid up, but will be back tomorrow blogging.  I would like to say something about the Noam Chomsky interview to which someone with the handle "Heraclitus" linked in a comment.  

And so, to steal a line from Pepys, to bed.

Thursday, August 2, 2018


It was a long walk, and after I had concluded all the thoughts outlined in the previous post, I got to thinking about cell phones.  Cell phones!  Why cell phones?  Well, yesterday was my granddaughter Athena’s tenth birthday, and my son Tobias, who has been staying at his house in Palm Springs, was due to fly up to San Francisco for the birthday party.  I was hoping I could reach him there on his cell phone and maybe talk to him, to his older brother Patrick, and to Athena, all together.

Then an odd thought occurred to me.  How would my cell phone know that Tobias was in San Francisco, and not in Palm Springs?  If we were still in landline days, I would call Palm Springs and get the answering machine if he had already left.  Then I would hang up and call Patrick’s landline to see whether everyone had gathered yet for the party.  But if I call Tobias’ cell phone, he will answer it whichever place he is at.  Indeed, I might get him in his car on the way to the airport, or in the cab going from SFO to Patrick’s home.  If at the last minute he had been called back to Philadelphia, I would reach him there.

Now I have a vague untechnical grasp of cell towers and all of that.  I understand that when I call Tobias, the signal is passed from cell tower to cell tower, from North Carolina to Palm Springs – or to San Francisco, or to wherever else Tobias happens to be.  But since, when I call him, even I may not know where he is, the signal must go to every single cell tower in the United States.  I mean, he might even have come to North Carolina to surprise me with a visit, and he might actually be standing outside my apartment door ready to knock when I call him.

And since there is nothing technically special about my cell phone or his, it must be the case that every single call made by anyone anywhere in America goes to every single cell tower in America, and hence is available to me [or to anyone else] no matter where in America I am.

It gives one pause.


I walked very early this morning, starting at 4:30 a.m., so early that I did not see any of the dogs with whom I have made friends.  As a consequence, I had time to think, and the result is that I have a number of things I want to say.

First of all, let me acknowledge that as an old man, I really do not fully appreciate the threats and challenges faced by young people making their way these days in the world of work.  I say this by way of apologizing for the hard line I have taken here on anonymous [and pseudonymous] comments.  To be sure, during the years before I was awarded tenure at Columbia [which is to say before 1964], I made myself reasonably obnoxious, challenging the President and the Dean of Harvard and the President of the University of Chicago while I was teaching there, as well as alienating numerous senior professors here and there.  But I was fortunate, and these breaches of academic etiquette did not cost me very much.  [I did lose jobs I wanted at Hunter College, Boston University, and Brandeis because of my political statements, but in retrospect I was better off not getting those jobs anyway.]  However, it would seem that things are a great deal harder now, and I am sorry that I have failed to take that into account.  Let us just agree that commentators, named or unnamed, will try on this blog to remember that we are comrades, not enemies, and will write in that spirit.

Second, my invocation of a line from The Sting was not meant as a comment on the dispute concerning Russia.  Its purpose was to remind us all that in politics, one never gets all that one wants, even when one wins, so one must be willing to take what victory brings and recognize that it will never be enough.  Even if we managed by some miracle to elect enough Ocasio-Cortez’s to control the House, and enough Bernie Sanders to control the Senate, and Elizabeth Warren as President, that dream world would probably just take us back to the glory days of the New Deal, which was not, I can report, a socialist paradise.  In reality, even a brilliant electoral success would yield much less.  Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, as the Good Book says.

Third, I want to offer my own take on Trump’s incendiary tweet that Jeff Sessions should end the Mueller investigation right now.  [Those who sigh at these words and conclude that I am just an apologist for the Democratic National Committee are advised to turn off their computers and go read some Gramsci.]  Almost immediately after that tweet appeared, Trump’s lawyers called the mainstream media and went on television explaining that he was not giving an order, just expressing an opinion, as though he were himself merely a talking head on a cable news show.  The anti-Trumpers responded by proclaiming this an impeachable offense and opined that Trump had walked it back because he knew that firing Mueller would drive the Congressional Republicans into dangerous opposition.  I think all of that is way too complicated, and gives Trump more credit for rationally self-interested action than he deserves.

The explanation, I suggest, is much simpler.  Trump, like many narcissistic bullies, is a coward.  He became a media darling on The Apprentice by intoning each week the signature line “You’re fired!” but that was a scripted bit of theater, rehearsed and performed for the cameras.  The reality is that Trump has proven himself to be too weak and cowardly to fire anyone to his or her face.  He sends his underlings to do the job, and when they protest, as White House McGahn did when told to fire Mueller, Trump backs down.  Commentators have endlessly drawn parallels with the Saturday Night Massacre, but in that case, Nixon actually ordered Elliott Richardson to fire Archibald Cox.  When Richardson refused and resigned, Nixon ordered William Ruckelshaus, next in line, to fire him, and when Ruckelshaus also refused and resigned, Nixon gave the order to Robert Bork, who complied.  Say what you will about Nixon, he was not a spineless coward and blowhard.  Trump is.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018


Let me add a cautionary warning to my efforts to promote on the ground political action.  Most of you probably recall The Sting, starring Redford and Newman.  Near the beginning of the movie, Redford goes looking for Newman to learn how to pull off the Big Con against Robert Shaw, who has had one of Redford’s buddies murdered.  He finds Newman sobering up in a whore house, and asks about the Big Con.  Newman agrees to help, but warns Redford:

“You're going to go for him.  I don't want a hothead looking to get even, coming back saying......"It ain't enough." 'Cause it's all we're gonna get.”

This has for years been my mantra in political work.  I could give it a deep psychodynamic ideological interpretation out of Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, but you get the idea.  Nothing in politics, not even a revolution, turns out to be everything you wanted, and if you cannot live with that reality, then best you don’t even try.


Jerry Fresia writes, “I just don't see electoral office holding as the only way our life chances are authored.”  You are quite correct, Jerry, but if I may respond in the same metaphor, although they are not the only way our life chances are authored, they are a principal way in which those chances are published.  That is, in our country at this time, one way, indeed the most important way, in which life chances are transformed from demands or proposals into facts for large numbers of people is through their enactment into laws which then shape the actions of both people and bureaucratic structures.  Health insurance, union rights, auto emissions standards, workplace safety regulations, anti-war movements, voting rights protections, LGBT rights, and so forth.  All spring from demands of citizens [and others] and then are enacted into law by representatives responsive to those demands.  For those actually getting themselves elected, the office may be a career move, whatever their convictions, but they are vehicles for the translation of upswellings of demand into laws.  Not the only way, to be sure, but in our country at this time, a very important way.


Let us try to establish some ground rules.  

First, this blog is intended as a a conversation, not as an exercise in polemic or verbal mud-wrestling.  If you are so wrought up that you cannot speak civilly, then take it elsewhere until you calm down.  

Second, especially if you are going to be abusive or insulting, simple courage requires that you not hide behind "anonymous."  If you are going to address another commentator by name, then identify yourself by name.  If Google for some reason does not permit you to sign a comment with your name, you can identify yourself in the body of the comment.  The only reason for remaining anonymous is a genuine fear of retaliation.  If you have such a fear, and it is legitimate, explain it in your comment.

Third,  the besetting sin of left wing politics is the sort of factional feuding characteristic of religious sects.  Try to remember that in a country of three hundred and thirty million people, any successful political movement will necessarily involve the cooperation or collaboration of groups with many serious differences of belief and commitment.  Members of a religious sect seeking eternal salvation may believe that doctrinal purity takes precedence over all else, but political actors who think that their greatest threat comes from those close to them on the political spectrum rather than from those at the opposite end doom themselves to marginalization.

Does that mean that progressives must yield to centrists, that rebels must fall in line with party hacks?  No, it doesn't.  How do those in the left wing of the Democratic Party gain greater power?  Well, first of all, they get themselves elected to something.  Then they join with other leftists who have gotten themselves elected.  If enough of them get elected, they begin to be able to wield power in a state legislature or in the House of Representatives or even in the  Senate.  Why is American politics so awful?  One reason is that large swathes of the American public are awful.  I am sitting here in North Carolina represented in the House of Representatives by a poisonous ex-pastor.  Why?  Because large numbers of my fellow Tar Heels cannot be bothered to go to the polls and vote on election day.

Finally, I am eighty-four years old.  I have been fighting these battles for more than sixty years.  I have spoken publicly, in print and in person, more times than young people can imagine.  I have earned the right to expect those reading this blog to acknowledge that lifetime of action and to understand that it is not necessary to say everything one believes every time one speaks.  If that is too difficult for you to acknowledge, then go somewhere else.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018


There is currently a great deal of alarm being expressed in the public sphere over the evidence [which I consider reliable] that the Russian government has attempted, and continues to attempt, to influence American elections surreptitiously.  Some people on the left respond to these expressions of alarm by calling attention to the many successful efforts by the American government to influence the outcome of elections abroad or indeed simply to bypass the electoral process and overthrow foreign governments, charges that I consider to be well-established. 

I am never entirely clear what conclusion I am supposed to draw from this left response.  That America is reprehensible?  To be sure.  That the mainstream expressions of alarm are hypocritical?  No doubt.  But there is sometimes an additional implied assertion, namely that we on the left ought not therefore to share the alarm being expressed, and this I believe is wrongheaded.  Let me explain why.

I want to see the United States changed in very deep, fundamental, and far-reaching ways.  I can summarize these changes briefly with the slogan, suitable for a bumper sticker, “Make America Socialist.”  I am too old and too wise to imagine that anything remotely like this will happen soon, if indeed ever, but that is what I want, and I am pleased, indeed thrilled, by any steps taken in that direction.

Leaving aside divine intervention or the arrival of benevolent space aliens, I can see only two ways in which the changes I want can come about:  through the electoral process, or violently and extra-legally.  It is my considered opinion that violent social revolution in the United States is right up there in likelihood with the Second Coming.  Which leaves the electoral process.  That is why I welcomed the emergence on the national scene of Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a Democratic Socialist even though his policy proposals are really FDR New Deal Liberalism.  That is why I was delighted by the appearance and electoral success of Democratic Socialist Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.  And that is why I am tickled to read that among young people, “socialism” ranks high as one of their preferred economic and political systems, despite the fact that almost none of those responding to the poll have any coherent notion of what socialism is.

I want candidates like Ocasio-Cortez to run for election and win.  There are only two ways that can happen.  Either people supporting such candidates come to the polls, vote for them, and have their votes recorded and counted, or some foreign or domestic hackers meddle with the voting process to the benefit of socialist candidates.  I can see very little evidence that those currently screwing with the electoral process electronically are inclined to do so to the benefit of left candidates.

Which explains why I am alarmed when Russians meddle with our elections.

But, some will respond, desperate not to be seen agreeing with those they hate, what about gerrymandering and voter suppression?  Why aren’t you alarmed about that?  But that is a silly question.  Of course I am alarmed about gerrymandering and voter suppression.  I have been for generations.  Indeed, if we recall that the most successful voter suppression effort in American history was Jim Crow, I can say that I have been alarmed about voter suppression my entire very long life.  Now doing something about gerrymandering and voter suppression requires, among other things, gaining control of state legislatures.  And how do we do that?  Either by spending millions of dollars essentially bribing state legislators or by electing progressive state legislators.  We on the left are not entirely without financial resources, but the noblest among us [perhaps foolishly] look askance at bribery.

Which leaves us, once again, with elections.

Look, the big structural problem with capitalism is that it puts most of the power in the hands of capital.  That is a feature, not a bug, from the standpoint of defenders of the existing order.  All we on the left have to fight with is the truth [good luck with that] and numbers, great big overwhelming numbers.

Which is why I am alarmed by efforts, foreign or domestic, to screw with the electoral process.

Monday, July 30, 2018


Once more I am reminded of the chasm between high theory and the quotidian details of political action.   It all feels like one of Shakespeare’s history plays or comedies, in which the scenes of drama or love at the very highest level of art and seriousness alternate with scenes of low farce.

After meditating on the terrifying possibility of a nuclear attack on North Korea or Iran triggered by the narcissism and infantile rages of Donald Trump, I turn my attention to trying to get the Ryan Watts Congressional campaign to keep track of the responses to my fund-raising mailing so that when I send a second appeal after Labor Day I can build into the letters a thank you for prior donations.  Not exactly rocket science, but it just might induce a few to give again, and at an even higher level.  Of such considerations is an on-the-ground political campaign constructed.

Saturday, July 28, 2018


Some of you have expressed concern that Trump, in a pique or to distract attention from his worsening legal peril, will launch an attack on Iran.  This is a prospect that keeps me up at night, and I am not soothed by the thought that John Bolton is whispering in his ear.  I suppose we must hope that he is so in thrall to Putin that he will not dare without getting Russian clearance, which I should like to think he would not get.  In the face of such dangers, it seems feckless to soldier on trying to elect a Democrat in the NC 6th CD, but I think we must teach ourselves to operate on several planes simultaneously.  Launching a cruise missile strike on forewarned Syrian airbases, all the while eating a large piece of chocolate cake, is his infantile notion of exercising his war powers.  Unfortunately, a one-off air attack on Iran would have catastrophic consequences.

Short of pulling up stakes and fleeing the country, I do not see what else I can do save add my tiny bit to the political struggle.

Friday, July 27, 2018


I think Trump is on the ropes, and now is the time for us to pile on.  I will keep working for young Ryan Watts here in the NC 6th CD, a long shot to be sure.  If you are lucky enough to live in the district of one of the new progressive Democrats or Democratic Socialists popping up, get out there and work your tail off.  If you live in a safe district, as I did until last year, try to donate something to any one of many good candidates.  In Midterms, enthusiasm is what matters most, since turnout is so low.  

The Trump administration is doing constant and immeasurable harm to any victim it can find, from immigrant families to bald eagles.  It will take a long time simply to repair the damage, let alone move forward.

But look on the bright side.  Some vandal unmoored one of the DeVos family's ten yachts, and it suffered some damage before they could corral it. 

As I was walking this morning at 4:50 a.m. under a glorious full moon, a vagrant thought crossed my mind:  Why couldn't the sixties have happened in my eighties rather than my thirties?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018


The Trump government has released a transcript and video of the joint press conference Trump and Putin held immediately after their Helsinki meeting.  As you will no doubt recall, it was televised live.  During that press conference, an American reporter asked Putin whether he had wanted Trump to be elected President, and Putin said [or the interpreter represented him as saying] "yes."

In the transcript just released by the White House, this exchange is missing.  On the video, it has been excised.

I do not think we need speculate anymore about whether Trump desires to be an authoritarian dictator on the Orwellian model.  The only question remaining is whether he will succeed.


A great deal has been said about the fact that Trump had no aides with him during his two hour meeting with Putin in Helsinki.  Even more is being said about the fact that more than a week later, his Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and Director of National Intelligence seem not to have been briefed on the content of that meeting, including any agreements that Trump and Putin reached.  I have the very strong suspicion that this absence of briefing is a consequence of the fact that Trump cannot remember what he said or agreed to.  This is, of course, appalling, but it has an up side.  If Trump cannot recall what he said, then he cannot implement the agreements.  I do not think George Orwell foresaw the possibility of an incompetent authoritarian dictator.

Sunday, July 22, 2018


Spending several days cleaning up a database, merge printing letters of appeal for the campaign of young Ryan Watts, and then wrestling my cranky HP inkjet printer so as to merge print a corresponding set of envelopes [the printer every so often seizes up on the envelopes] had a quite unexpected side effect.  It gave me a sense of peace, however brief.  For a few days, I felt that I was actually doing something about the political disaster unfolding in plain view.  Now, I am painfully aware that what I was doing did not even rise to the level of a drop in the ocean, but I was doing it, not just talking about it.  At this point, I do not even know whether the effort will raise any money.  The next two weeks should tell.

As I have observed somewhere before on this blog, so long as you are just thinking about things, you might as well think about everything, since it is no harder than just thinking about something.  I mean, why think about trolley cars when you can think about the world historical mission of Capitalism?   But if you want to actually change the world, it takes an enormous effort to make a small change, and ten times as much effort to make a somewhat bigger change.

Taking back the House is really a rather small step, and it would be fatally easy to sit back and observe that taking the House will have very little effect on American imperialism or the crushing consequences of capitalism for the world’s poor.  But taking back the House is at least something.  Now that something, small as it is, requires flipping twenty-three House seats, and flipping just one of them requires an entire four month political campaign, and an entire four month political campaign requires raising serious money, and raising serious money requires sending letters to thousands and thousands of people, and preparing just five hundred of those letters requires that someone do what I did these past few days. 

Academic intellectuals are not accustomed to toiling in the vineyards.  They are not even accustomed to running a vineyard.  They are usually not satisfied with anything less than considering the theoretical preconditions of vineyards in general.  That is why good old Karl Marx observed that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."

Saturday, July 21, 2018


Well, I have cranked out another 185 fundraising letters to folks here at Carolina Meadows [this time to those registered as Unaffiliated], so I think I will take a break before merge-printing the matching envelopes and say something about the controversy I stirred up by describing the anti-Trump TV commentators as “privileged” and “self-congratulatory.”  I was being flip, but the underlying issue is actually quite interesting and deserving of some extended commentary.

I shall begin by reminding you all yet again of a few statistical facts that I allude to quite frequently.  First, only one-third of adult Americans have college degrees.  Two-thirds do not.  Second, median household income in 2016 [the latest figure I could find] was $59,039.  In other words, one-half of all American households had annual income that year of less than that amount, the other half had more.  For example, if a husband and wife both work full-time jobs for the year, taking two weeks of unpaid vacation each year, the husband earning $20 an hour driving a panel truck delivering furniture around town and the wife earning $10 an hour cleaning houses, the two of them are rather better off than half of all American households.  Keep those statistics in mind.

Cable news, which I watch more or less obsessively, typically features a host [Wolf Blitzer, Ali Velshi, Nicole Wallace, Anderson Cooper, all those Fox News types, and so forth], a rotating panel of regular commentators, and special guests brought on for their expertise in the story of the moment.  There are also reporters in the field – people talking into handheld microphones checking in from a political rally, a hurricane, a bus crash, a demonstration, or some other newsworthy event – and these reporters will quite often interview someone on site, a police chief, a student in a high school where there has been a mass shooting, a person attending a political rally.

I am quite sure, without having taken the trouble to check, that virtually every single cable news host, commentator, panel member, special guest, and field reporter is a college graduate, and most of them are graduates of one of the top 200 or so colleges and universities among the more than 2,600 Bachelor’s Degree granting institutions of higher education in America or their foreign equivalents.  The only members of the non-college two-thirds who ever appear on TV are people being interviewed in the field.  The majority without college degrees have educational credentials inferior to the minority who are graduates, and they know it.  What is more, they may be uncredentialed, but they are not stupid.  Ask yourself how they feel about the fact that one of them is on TV always as the object of the news report, never as the subject, always being asked “what it felt like,” never “what it means.”  If you are heavily into Lit Crit and Identity Theory, you might even want to employ the currently fashionable term “being othered.” 

Let me give you as an example of what I am talking about something I saw on old-time TV maybe fifty years ago or so.  I was watching a right-wing talk show called The Firing Line, the brainchild of that rather odd, exquisitely cultivated and educated icon of American conservatism, William F. Buckley, Jr.  Buckley had invited onto his show a White couple from the rural south who had protested [as I recall] the fact that their child was being told things in school about evolution that conflicted with their Fundamentalist Protestant beliefs.  Also on the show were a pair of big city lawyers defending the School Board.  Buckley was a devout Roman Catholic, not a Protestant, but he was on the side of the parents in this dispute.  The couple were clearly of very modest means, dressed in their Sunday Go To Meeting best for the TV appearance and visibly ill at ease.  The opposing lawyers were impeccably dressed and quite casually fluent.  Now Buckley was with the parents in this fight, but he treated them more or less as specimens, not as people.  By his every facial grimace and ironic vocal tone when talking to the lawyers, he managed to communicate, as clearly as if he had said it, “You and I, we are alike, for all that we are on opposite sides in this dispute.  I can easily imagine you coming to my elegant apartment for one my famous harpsichord performances.  These benighted folks, whose cause I thoroughly embrace, are however infra dignitatem.”

The regulars on cable news travel in the same social circles, regardless of their political affiliations.  They know one another personally, often run into one another at social events, and exhibit toward one another, even in the midst of vigorous, even heated, political disagreements on television, a variety of verbal cues and body language that communicate to anyone capable of noticing [which is to say, everyone] that they are all members of the same social circle.  Let me cite one example, to me at least quite striking.  Michael Cohen, universally described now as “Trump’s fixer,” has been much in the news lately.  Donnie Deutsch frequently appears as a panelist on Morning Joe on MSNBC, principally, so far as I can make out, because he knows Cohen personally and speaks with him often, despite the fact that Deutsch is clearly a New York Democrat.  One of MSNBC’s hosts is “The Rev,” Reverend Al Sharpton, an old time associate and follower of Martin Luther King and a fixture in the Civil Rights Movement.  The Rev has a weekend morning show on MSNBC, but he was just on yesterday because he had had breakfast with Cohen, whom he knows, and was there to report what he had learned.  My eyes popped open when this fact was dropped.  Sharpton knows Cohen well enough that when Cohen wants to reach out to a media figure to peddle some spin about himself, he calls The Rev??!!  When I was young, we used to make fun of the Old Boy’s Network of Oxford and Cambridge graduates in England, but this is head-spinning.  My mother-in-law, now departed, had a phrase that she would mutter when someone Jewish was mentioned.  She would say, half under her breath, “unser leute,” which in German or Yiddish, means “our people,” which is to say, one of us, an insider, someone basically o.k.

When I described the anti-Trump TV commentators as “privileged” and “self-congratulatory,” this is what I was talking about.