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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

A CRITIQUE FROM THE ANTIPODES

It seems somehow appropriate that a lengthy, well-thought out critique of my recent post about the true story of America should come from the other side of the world.  Professor Charles Pigden, of the University of Otago Philosophy Department in Dunedin, New Zealand emailed me the following extremely interesting essay, inviting me to post it here.  I do so with great pleasure, and shall endeavor to respond tomorrow.

"The ‘Oxford Philosophy’ sketch from Beyond the Fringe concludes with something like the following snatch of dialogue (I say ‘something like’ because I haven’t been able to track down a script on the web):

First Philosopher:
So can philosophy be of assistance in everyday life?

Second Philosopher:
Oh yes, I think  so. Just the other day I was in a shop and the assistant replied to some query with  ‘Yes’ . ‘What do you mean by “yes”?’ asked the customer.  ‘I mean “yes”’ replied the assistant. And here I felt that we had some ordinary people  – quite, quite ordinary – discussing an issue with real metaphysical implications   and that I, as a philosopher, could actually help them.

First Philosopher:
And did you? Help them I mean?

Second Philosopher:
Well no, they were both in a bit of a hurry.

Now although Professor Wolff is himself a distinguished philosopher, it does seem to me in this instance that I, as another philosopher, can be of assistance to him in solving a problem of everyday life,  namely how to deploy a certain line of anti-Trump (and, more broadly, radical) rhetoric with a clean intellectual conscience.  The line of rhetoric can be summed up in the slogan ‘Trump betrays everything that is best in the American Way.’ My point is that so long as you think that there are SOME things in the American political tradition that you can celebrate, then this a line you can honestly take,  since Trump is against almost everything in the American tradition that can reasonably be regarded as good.  Now although Professor Wolff’s response to this is based on a wealth of historical knowledge which I cannot hope to equal (much of it acquired in his period as a Professor of Afro-American Studies), it is also based on what seems to me to be a philosophical mistake.   Subtract the mistake and the history will not  prevent him from adopting the rhetorical strategy  that I suggest.

The nub of his response is the story of Shapiro’s suit. On the morning of his daughter’s wedding, the tailor Schneider supplies the unfortunate Mr Shapiro with a suit so asymmetrical and apparently badly cut that it can only be made to ‘fit’ him if he limps about like Quasimodo or the title character in  a particularly hammy production of Shakespeare’s Richard III.  But this is not incompetence on Schneider’s part. No, no, it is all  part of Schneider’s fiendish plan to entice customers to his establishment, by impressing them with his  apparent to cut  a suit to fit somebody as badly deformed as Shapiro must needs appear to be.  From Schneider’s point of view the unequal pants legs and the excessively large waist are not defects but features,  things he engineered into the suit on purpose as part of his insanely devious plan to advertise his talents as a tailor.   So too with the American political tradition.  It is not a tradition founded on an ideal of freedom that has been very imperfectly realized.  It is not like a suit designed to set off the (reasonably acceptable) frame of Mr Shapiro on his daughter’s wedding day but which fails to do so because of  the tailor’s spectacular incompetence.  Just as Shapiro’s suit was DESIGNED to look a mess from the word ‘Go’, so the American system was DESIGNED from the word ‘Go’ to promote and perpetuate racial inequality and (perhaps) economic inequality and plutocracy as well. 

‘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.  … 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.’

 Professor Wolff clearly thinks that the American system is analogous a ) to a suit and b) to a computer program (hence the ‘bugs and features’ terminology).  But both suits and computer programs  are typically designed in a top-down sort of way by one or more people in accordance with a coherent  plan. (No coherent plan, no suit; no coherent plan, no program; though, as we shall see, the latter is subject to some qualifications.) This means that there is a fact of the matter  which makes  it true or false whether this or that is a bug or a feature.  Something is a feature if it is a part of the plan and a bug if it is inconsistent with the designers’ collective intentions.  Thus the uneven pants legs on Shapiro’s suit are features from Schneider’s point of view, even if they are bugs from Shapiro’s, since they force the unfortunate Shapiro to hobble about like Marty Feldman’s Igor in The Young Frankenstein. If Schneider had been an honest man and not the insanely devious scoundrel that he is, they would have been bugs since an honest Schneider  would have been trying to deliver  what Shapiro’s thought he had been paying for,  that is, a decent suit which would make him look good as the father of the bride.

But consider this example.  Suppose the well-known Silicon Valley firm of Ali & Roberts has developed an encryption system, ‘SuperEnigma’ which is designed to preserve the confidentiality of their clients’ emails.  Emails are automatically encrypted at source and then sent in a code (which is programmed to update itself on a daily or even an hourly basis) to a protected server which then passes them along to their intended recipients at which point they are automatically decrypted.  Ali & Roberts’ system is supposed to protect not only the contents of their clients’ emails but also their meta-data since it is supposed to be impossible for a third party to determine who they have been communicating with.  Developing SuperEnigma was a massive task and Ali & Roberts subcontracted some of the coding to Pamela Wong Associates.  But unbeknownst to Ali & Roberts, Wong is secretly in the pay of the FBI.  And she builds in a ‘trapdoor’  which enables the FBI to intercept and decode selected emails and to recover the meta-data of A&R clients of whom they are suspicious.   Now is the fact that the system is now penetrable by the FBI a bug or a feature of the SuperEnigma system? . It seems that there is either no answer or two answers to this question.  No answer, because the SuperEnigma system was not designed in accordance with  a single coherent plan but in accordance with two plans one of which was inconsistent with the other.  This means that there is not a coherent set of collective intentions such that  FBI-penetrability is either part of the plan or inconsistent with the plan. Thus there isn’t a truthmaker either for the claim the penetrability is a bug or for the claim that penetrability is a feature.   Two answers, because penetrability by the FBI is a bug according to some of the designers (Ali & Roberts Inc) but a feature according to others. (Pamela Wong Associates). 

OK so now for the philosophical mistake which I would suggest undermines Professor Wolff’s response.  His argument presupposes that political traditions are similar to suits or to unsubverted computer programs, that is that they are analogous to artefacts designed in a top-down sort of way in accordance with a consistent set of intentions.  It is for this reason that he can use the terminology of bugs and features and it is for this reason that he can illustrate his view with the story of Shapiro’s suit.  But political traditions, polities and even constitutions (whether these are construed as living documents or as time-bound artefacts) are not like Shapiro’s suit nor are they like the general run of computer programs.   Instead they are like my imaginary SuperEnigma program only very much more so.  They are the products of opposing forces that push and pull in different directions. They are not designed in a top down sort of way by people with a consistent set of intentions. On the contrary, the key creators of a political tradition are often not consistent either with one another or with themselves.  It is not just that the creators as a group don’t have a consistent set of intentions. It is often the case that the intentions of the individual creators do not form a consistent set.  To take an obvious example you can be a slave-holder such as Jefferson who disapproves of slavery without wishing to give up his own slaves.   Thus you develop an ideological stance which implicitly undermines slavery without doing anything very practical to put it into effect. (Jefferson and others were, so to speak, a collection of political St Augustines ’Lord, make us abolish this iniquitous institution  - but not yet!)  To begin with maybe it’s the ‘but not yet’ that is effective but over time the universalist (and hence anti-slavery) principles may come to predominate. Even a less ambivalent slave-holder than Jefferson may be compelled by circumstances to adopt an ideological stance that is in tension with his practices as a slave-holder.   Thus in order to defend yourself against a potential oppressor  you may find it necessary  to appeal to an ideology of universal human rights which can subsequently be used against you and your heirs either by the people that you currently oppress, or, later on, by their descendants and their champions. Hypocrisy is the homage the vice pays to virtue but a process of ideological debate can gradually compel vice to  approximate the virtues that  it hypocritically professes, especially if the balance of power shifts against it.  (Interestingly much the same kind of process can work in the opposite direction. In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx  shows how, in order to maintain their class power, the Party of Order [in the Second Republic]  had to systematically undermine the Liberal principles to which their socialist and democratic opponents appealed, leaving themselves ideologically and politically defenseless when Napoleon III struck them down in his proto-fascist coup of the 2nd December 1851.)  A more interesting case of is that of actors whose intentions are formally consistent but unrealizable in practice (hence contingently inconsistent) .  Again Jefferson supplies an example.  What he seems to have wanted was that the Western lands should be settled without injustice to the indigenous population.  The two objectives are not logically inconsistent but they could not both be realized in anything approximating the actual world. The Western lands were indeed settled  but the injustice was horrific. However, it is still possible for Native Americans nowadays  (as the Maori have done rather more successfully in Aoteroa/New Zealand) to appeal to settler principles to condemn settler practices and in some cases to extract a measure of compensation for past wrongs. 

My real point  however is this.  Since traditions, polities and constitutions are the products of differing and inconsistent intentions,  there is often no fact of the matter (or too many facts of the matter) to determine whether one of their products  is a feature or a bug.  At best we can say that it is a feature according to some and a bug  according to others.  Thus it is with slavery and the subsequent history of racial inequality in America. These are features according to racist politicians and their supporters  and bugs according to those who condemn the policies pursued in the name of the principles professed (and sometimes partially implemented). The fact that those who signed the Declaration of Independence were ambivalent, if not downright cynical, about the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights  does not mean that you cannot appeal to the Declaration of Independence to condemn either racial inequality or the violation of Human Rights.  Sure, these things were features of the system for some, but they were also bugs for others.  And you can appeal to what is best in the tradition  - to the intentions and the rhetorical tropes according to which  these things are bugs - to condemn those for whom they are features.   And you can do it furthermore without intellectual dishonesty.  This was the strategy of Dr Martin Luther King, and through we could wish that it had worked better, it one of the few strategies that has worked at all.  Witness his ‘I Have a Dream’  speech which represents the culmination of a life-time of political activism: 


“Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: - 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
It would not have been helpful, and – in the absence of the appropriate truthmakers – it would not even have been TRUE  if a much younger Dr Robert Wolff had piped up. ‘Yes, Dr King but racial inequality is not a bug but a feature of the American political tradition.’ For the American political tradition is not the kind thing that can have  either unequivocal bugs or unequivocal features." 

18 comments:

s. wallerstein said...

Martin Luther King has been canonized as a saint, but in his day he was harshly criticized by black power activists and then by the Black Panthers for not being sufficiently critical of the American political tradition.

Perhaps if a leader as charismatic as King had spoken less of "dreams" and more of structural racism and how it benefits capitalism, we might not need a Black Lives Matter Movement 50 years after his assassination.

So it may very well be that when Professor Wolff, who has the expertise of an ex-white man, one who has dedicated several years of his live to studying African-American history,criticizes the American political tradition as he does, he is doing what Martin Luther King should have been doing before his tragic murder.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

S. Wallerstein, I think you underestimate King. At the time of his death, he was leading workers' protests for higher wages and better working conditions. he was not a saintly temporizer. He was not Malcolm X, to be sure, but he put himself on the line again and again.

s. wallerstein said...

I lived through that era and I am aware of King's involvement with workers' struggles and his criticism of the War in Vietnam. It was King who called the U.S. the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world". That's a quote from memory, which may not be exact.

In fact, my criticism was not so much directed towards the man, Martin Luther King, who, as I recall, declared himself a "democratic socialist", but towards the image of King, found in the media and used in Professor Pidgen's arguments against you, the King of the "I have a dream" speech, as if that was the only thing he had ever said.

In an interview someone asks Chomsky about his opinion of King's "I have a dream speech" and Chomsky visibly winces. Chomsky then explains that he has a very favorable opinion of King as an activist, but that he's allergic to appeals to dreams, simply because (and I agree with Chomsky) to carry out real lasting change you have to explain things rationally to people and to appeal to their rational side (almost everyone has one) so that people come to understand the system that they are struggling against and how to change it.

I'm not saying that King never tried to get people to rationally see how the system works, only that a watered-down version of King, the King of dreams, has been foisted on us by the media and by the system.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I quite agree. There is a long history of White America anointing one Black man or woman as a "good Negro" while condemning any others who raise their voices in protest. During the time that Du Bois was excoriated, Booker T. Washington was held up [incorrectly, by the way] as the Good Negro. King was celebrated while Malcolm X was condemned. Sidney Poitier was the Good Negro of film for a long time in much the same way. It is an old story, quite familiar to African-Americans.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

If intention imposes an anisotropic structure on narrative time, and there are multiple, logically incompatible intentions, then narrative time is anisotropic in many ways, that is, there are multiple historical asymmetries, although perhaps not multiple narratives. Sounds like an interesting dissertation topic....

LFC said...

I've read Prof. Pigden's essay quickly and find myself generally in agreement with it, at least on the practical point of whether the Founders' words can be used (in good faith and without intellectual dishonesty) to support policies that the Founders themselves would have disapproved of (or, at best, been highly ambivalent or conflicted about). I'd think that Danielle Allen's book on the Declaration of Independence (which was the subject of a symposium at the blog Crooked Timber quite a while ago) might be helpful here. (I haven't read the book but I did read that symposium, not that I remember the symposium all that well.)

On MLK and the 'I have a dream' speech: I don't agree w S. Wallerstein. Yes, the full range of MLK's speeches and positions should be remembered, not just one famous speech, but there is a place for soaring and inspirational rhetoric.

If you read a transcript of Thurgood Marshall's oral argument in Brown v. Bd of Education (Marshall, not yet on the Sup Court, was the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs), the most powerful moment is not when he is discussing legal technicalities and points of doctrine and precedent, but when he paints in broader terms the unfairness of de jure segregation in public schools (black and white children in the South can play together without causing riots or disturbances, but when it comes to going to school together, as it's as if there is "some magic in it" that makes that unacceptable to the local authorities and legislatures and large parts of the white population).

The phrase "some magic in it" has no legal significance, but that passage is what I remember best from having read a transcript of Marshall's argument. Analogously, MLK's appeal for the country "to live out the meaning of its creed" may not move Chomsky, but it certainly moved a lot of people. It is memorable.

The notion that the 'I have a dream' speech is just pablum that has been appropriated and co-opted by liberals to pull the teeth of the more radical MLK is, I think, not really right. It's one of the great orations, along with, say, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and (probably) Douglass's "What, to the Slave, is the 4th of July" that encapsulate some of the best aspects of the American political tradition.

I think Prof Pigden is right that (most) national political traditions don't have features and bugs. What they have is contradictory aspects and conflicting tendencies, and to deprive oneself of recourse to those aspects of the American political tradition that support progressive and even radical, structural change seems to me politically self-defeating, logically dubious, and strategically senseless.

Anyway, it's appropriate to be having this discussion on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. day, which is Jan. 15.

Anonymous said...

I think we all could reasonably agree that the SuperEnigma example Prof. Pigden gave is as crucial to his argument as Shapiro's suit is crucial to Prof. Wolff's.

Let's, then, examine the SuperEnigma example. If I understood him well, the hypothetical software SuperEnigma (marketed by Ali & Roberts) had what a final-user (presumably, a purchaser) would have called a "bug", which rendered SuperEnigma unfit for purpose. Said "bug", however was not the result of a coding mistake; it was instead deliberately introduced in the code without Ali & Roberts knowing it.

Prof. Pigden's purpose is to illustrate that something can be a bug for some (the user and Ali & Roberts) and a feature for others (Pamela Wong Associates-the subcontractor-and the FBI). I believe we can all agree with him on that.

That being the purpose of his example, Prof. Pigden leaves it at that.

I think that was a mistake, for the example allows for further elaboration. This may be relevant to his dispute with Prof. Wolff.

Given the information available to them, Ali & Roberts can in good conscience advertise SuperEnigma as an internet privacy/security wonder. That's not unethical behaviour, they aren't guilty of misleading advertising. They just don't have the full information.

Ali & Roberts, in other words, are not cheating their consumers. They are not cheats; they were cheated, too.

Things would have been different if Ali & Roberts knew their product was compromised. In that case, it would have been unethical to sell SuperEnigma to the public as the silver bullet to privacy/security problems: they knew it had a backdoor.

I think, for Prof. Wolff, it's this second situation that best characterizes American Exceptionalism: people know there are "backdoors" and, yet, they keep selling SuperEnigma as the silver bullet.

Musing Marxist said...

"As long as you think there are some things in the American tradition that you can celebrate." I think folks who have adopted Professor Wolff's "critical stance" --- as he put it in his Christmas message --- toward America will have trouble with that.

Imagine that Apartheid South Africa elected a leader who decided to abandon all of the stock, paternalistic justifications for Apartheid --- it's better for blacks and whites, it preserves peace for the benefit of all South Africans, etc. --- and instead baldly averred that Apartheid's singular purpose was to preserve white supremacy, which was fine because black folks' interests don't matter. One could say that this new leader was "betraying the best in the Apartheid South African tradition" because, at it's best, that tradition at least pretended to care about (or was deluded into thinking that it cared about) the well being of all South Africans, black and white. But such a response would be ridiculous and even immoral; it would implicitly hold up as a moral standard a tradition to which the only civilized response is thoroughgoing repudiation. The only respectable critique of some particularly monstrous defender of Apartheid is from outside of that tradition: he's the worst of the worst. Not "he's betraying the best traditions of Apartheid." It will not do to implicitly accept the Apartheid tradition as a moral standard. (Theoretically, of course, you can slice the salami thinly enough by claiming to be treating only "the best of the Apartheid tradition" as the relevant moral standard or object of celebration. But I think this way of slicing the salami will ultimately do violence to the structural integrity of some of the core concepts --- of a "moral standard" and perhaps a "tradition" --- that are at play.)

In any event, if you think the American tradition is in a similar boat, then you'll surely have a similar problem trying to criticize Trump as a betrayal of that tradition.

Jerry Fresia said...

In determining "bugs" from "features," it may be useful not to conflate the Declaration of Independence, signed by 56 men in 1776, and the US Constitution, signed by 39 men, in 1787. Only 6 men signed both. The politics internal to each document, as well, were quite different, if not in conflict.

The first document, justifying a war of independence, was supported by a cross-class coalition of Founders, including professionals and farmers and artisans, men and women. and some African Americans.

By 1787, this democratic uprising had issued in resistance to policies favored by the professional class, some of it armed, in all 13 states. The Framers of the US Constitution, exceeded their charge to amend the Articles of Confederation, and instead created a document that authorized a new centralized national government with a standing army. The Framers checked the democratic achievements and aspirations of many of our Founders. Many have viewed the US Constitution as marking a counter-revolution. I quite agree.

s. wallerstein said...

LFC and others,

Sure the "I have a dream speech" is moving.

I'm moved by lots of things: the "I have a dream speech", the Marseillaise, Rule Britannia, the Star Spangled Banner, Dylan's With God on Our Side, We Shall Overcome, the Internationale, Solidarity Forever, Diamonds and Rust, Like a Rolling Stone, Churchill's Blood, Sweat and Tears speech, etc.

It's fine to be moved by lots of things, but you can't base a political movement on that. You need a rational analysis, and moving stuff do not provide that besides the fact that any normal person is moved by anything that has some emotional link to their past, even if that contradicts other things that move them.

Marxism provides a basis for a rational analysis (see Professor Leiter's recent podcast on Marxism in the Elucidations Podcast, link in Leiter's website) as does African-American studies. Professor Wolff has expertise in both Marxism and African-American studies, so it would be shame if he ceases to use all the intellectual tools he commands to analyze the current situation in the U.S. and how it arose.

Remember that this discussion is not about the metaphor of bugs, but about whether critics such as Professor Wolff should cease using all their powers of critical analysis and join that sector of the anti-Trump movement, the mainstream sector, which criticizes Trump by showing that he contradicts the so-called American political tradition.

I'm not saying that mainstream critics of Trump should cease using the tools at their command either, by the way. Let a thousand anti-Trump flowers bloom!!!

LFC said...

@ s wallerstein

In his post of Dec. 30, called "a reply to Prof Pigden," Prof Wolff poses the issue as how he can participate "relevantly" in the anti-Trump "conversation" or movement while at the same time remaining true to his view that the U.S. was not "founded on an ideal of freedom" but rather was from the beginning a settler colonial state grounded on racial inequality and chattel slavery.

That's not so much a philosophical as a practical question, and I don't really have a great answer for it. I suppose Prof Wolff could take the line of 'look, there's nothing much good in American history or 'the American political tradition', but we might as well not make things even worse" -- and Trump does the latter, therefore he must be opposed.

I'm not suggesting that Wolff join the 'mainstream' anti-Trump movement (whatever that means, exactly) and go to rallies toting a paperback copy of Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America. There are various kinds of opposition to Trump, and it's fine w me if Wolff aligns w the 'Chapo Trap House millennial-leftist' version of that opposition (terms I borrow from an Andrew Hartman column in WaPo's 'made-by-history' series that appeared last summer), or does his own thing. Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure there are ways to oppose Trump without making any explicit reference at all to 'the American political tradition' or U.S. history.

P.s. I think Jerry Fresia, above, is right about not conflating the Decl. of Independence and the Constitution.

Anonymous said...

If we cannot identify which aspects of the political order are features and which are bugs, then the notion of political tradition itself is incoherent--at least if the notion of political tradition is supposed to connote "legitimacy" based on the intentions of political actors. This is because we cannot really know the intention of any political actor, much less follow the causal chain of intentions back to those of the political founders. Even "all men are created equal" is in doubt--the founders might have uttered a contemptuously guttural 'eqqqqqual' as they were drafting the Declaration of Independence.

LFC said...

@ anonymous

The Declaration is mostly Jefferson's work, and there is, I'm sure, a lot of work by historians that can illuminate what was in his mind. We "cannot really know the intention of any political actor" is true invariably only for values of "really" that make the point of limited pertinence in this context.

I'd suggest, btw, a reading of Annette Gordon-Reed, "America's Original Sin: Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy," Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2018. It's relevant to this discussion.

David Levinson said...

We shouldn't discount the potential of "A City on the Hill" as an organizing tool. At present I am working with a group of "Dreamers," DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students. Over 700,000 in the U.S., along with millions of parents, they represent an important struggle for civil rights. I am proud to say that the head of our statewide organization is an alumnus of my college. By standing the Dream on its head, they have flourished by appealing to an ideology that continues to flourish - THE American Dream. Although I'm skeptical, it appears that Congress may enact legislation that offers some modicum of protection to these effervescent Dreamers.

P.S. I had the privilege of taking a course with Professor Wolff as a graduate student in the late 1970s. As someone laboring in the bowels of academe, I greatly appreciate the lifelong learning generated by his scholarship and this blog. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

"Professor Wolff clearly thinks that the American system is analogous a ) to a suit and b) to a computer program (hence the ‘bugs and features’ terminology). But both suits and computer programs are typically designed in a top-down sort of way by one or more people in accordance with a coherent plan."

Aggressively professional nonsense. Professor Wolff is discussing the use of certain slogans appearing in the work of distinguished historians of American History. Slogans aren't exactly devoid of purpose, and they could be said to be apt or not.

LFC said...

@ Anonymous

The issue as I see it in terms of rhetorical and political strategy is not whether the "city on a hill" slogan is inapt and should be avoided, but whether one can or should appeal to the words of the Declaration in support of radical change. Such an appeal does not require buying into the slogans of 'city on a hill', 'last best hope of mankind', 'indispensable nation', and all the other paraphernalia of American exceptionalism.

Forget suits, computer programs, bugs/features and all that, and focus on the question of political/rhetorical approach, and the discussion might be advanced more.

P.s. Prof Wolff took his examples from mid-20th century textbooks, e.g. Nevins and Commager. A look at the full range of textbooks that have been used over the last, say, 40 years in high school and college U.S. history survey courses might -- or might not -- yield a rather different picture of how those you refer to as "distinguished historians of American history" have narratively packaged or framed the past for a student audience.

Anonymous said...

Correction. I should have quoted prof Wolff's phrasing verbatim: "...the successive editions of the three most successful and widely respected college American History texts of the 20th century... ."

It would have been better not to have left myself open to the inconsequential debater's point that consideration of "the full range textbooks" other than "..the successive editions of the three most successful and widely respected college American History texts of the 20th century..." would have yielded a different picture of American history. "Distinguished" could sound like an endorsement--which it wasn't--but I could count on you to suggest as much.

LFC said...

I wasn't suggesting that your use of "distinguished" was an endorsement of those historians by you. It's obvious that it wasn't.