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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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




Total Pageviews

Monday, June 25, 2018

AS I WAS SAYING


During the two weeks that I was in Paris, my blog inaccessible to me, a very great deal has happened, and I would like over the next few days to address much of it here, but as I plow through the accumulated mail, shop for staples, and try to catch up with local matters, I need to say something about the horrendous disaster playing out across America, as parents seeking asylum are forcibly separated from their children, possibly forever.  Yes, yes, I know this is not the worst thing the American government has done, or even indeed is currently doing.  But sufficient unto the day. 

Rather than recycle news reports, which fortunately are receiving wall to wall coverage, I shall exercise the privilege of the blogger and step back a bit to try to get some perspective on what is happening.

It is always my preference to connect general or theoretical observations to personal experiences, a habit, I realize, that some of my readers enjoy and that irritates others.  So be it.  Since the worst non-American regime of which I have had personal experience was the apartheid regime in South Africa, I shall start there.  When I first visited South Africa in 1986, the old regime was still in power, and eighty percent or more of the population was oppressed by the state and excluded from political participation or access to much of the economy.  I knew that.  The whole world knew that.  And yet, much of my visit, which was spent on university campuses in Johannesburg and Durban, was on a daily level indistinguishable from time I had spent on American campuses.  The people I met were delightful, extremely well-educated, for the most part impeccably progressive, even radical, and seemingly as free as those I knew at home.  The hideousness of the regime was not, at the sensory level, at all apparent to me, nor did it have any noticeable impact on my experiences.  As I continued to visit South Africa, returning more than forty times over a period of a quarter of a century, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, the organization he headed, the African National Congress, was unbanned, Mandela was elected president, apartheid officially ended, and the country was transformed.  And yet, my daily experiences after liberation were not markedly different from my experiences before liberation.

I begin with this personal experience because I want to say that we are witnessing the arrival of fascism in America, and whether it succeeds or fails to take control of the country is very much in doubt right now.  This will sound hyperbolic, even to those who share my moral and political perspective, but I mean it seriously.  I have been obsessed all my life by the haunting fear that if I had lived in Germany in 1933, wrapped up as I would have been in the exciting intellectual and artistic world of the Weimar period, I would have been incapable of recognizing the true magnitude of the threat posed by Hitler and his National Socialist party.  At that point, the actions of the Nazis would probably have had as little effect on my immediate life as the apartheid regime did on my visits to South Africa.

Oh, I know how different the two cases are, but that is not the point.  The point is that often, if one waits to act until the evil affects you personally, you have waited too long.  Trump proclaims that he wants to expel asylum seekers without judges or hearings or other elements of due process.  He tells us that he wants to be a dictator and he rails against procedural restrictions on his willful attacks against any who displease him in any way.  He tells us that he is a fascist, or rather he would if he knew what the word means.  All I can think of is the immortal line by Maya Angelou, so often quoted:  “If someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time.”

What then follows?   I will try to address that question later on, today or tomorrow.  Suffice it to say that driving Sarah Huckabee Sanders from a restaurant is a good start, albeit a tiny one.

28 comments:

s. wallerstein said...

Welcome back...

David Palmeter said...

Welcome back. You’ve been missed.

I need to take exception to one thing in your post: your approval of driving Sarah Huckabee Sanders out of a restaurant. This is not an apology for her. She’s a liar who enables a greater liar. But I don’t believe we should permit those who offer goods and services to the public to discriminate among their clientele on the basis of political positions, race, sexual orientation, religion or what have you. Those who run restaurants to serve the public have no more justification in turning away a customer for political beliefs than those who run bakeries to serve the public can turn away customers because of their sexual orientation.

howard b said...

There is something in the zeitgeist that paralyzes political action on the left- I can't say what. That troubles me. Sometimes not resisting is assisting the regime- we have lives to lead, sure. I think that the right has won the kulturekampf in that the man on the street thinks they are on the side of right and the common man.
As for Sanders let her cook for herself. She expects good manners that is deference from us subjects. She is nothing more than Trump's belch. She is an ugly belch

Anonymous said...

Re: Sarah Sanders: Let her eat wedding cake.

howard b said...

I mean it seems that the right has the initiative on public discourse and that they are controlling the means of power and like some evil Freddy Kreuger are turning off the lights and cutting the cords.
It's as if they have carte blanche to act as they so please because of the some kind of grace and charisma.
Like Barry Goldwater advertised: in your heart you know he's right.
They have through relentless polemicizing and power grabbing claimed the de jure mantle of legitimacy so nothing they can do is wrong

s. wallerstein said...

The right can do no wrong?

Trump's policy of separating children from their parents has produced an impressive wave of indignation, not only in the United States, but also worldwide.

The U.S. seems very divided between left and right, and actually, as you know, Hillary Clinton got more votes than Trump (let's add Jill Stein's votes to that too).

That seems to be the case in many societies. In the recent elections in Colombia the right won, but the left got their best vote in years in the run-off election. Chile is also divided almost 50-50 between left and right (I use voting statistics), even though our current president, PiƱera, is rightwing.

howard b said...

I mean how it is perceived. It seems like they have the initiative and are winning the kulturekampf. I'm on your side S Wallerstein. Are you predicting a backlash? I do hope that Trump with his genius IQ is being reckless and I do hope he doesn't take us down with him and I do hope something better comes at the end of it. But living in the states, even if you stay away from TV gets to you

howard b said...

S Wallerstein, I don't see any effective opposition and resistance. The longer he remains in power the more legitimacy accrues. Plus the fact that he has radicalized the Republican base is appalling and disturbing

s. wallerstein said...

I'd say that Trumpism has more or less reached its limit of electoral support. There are groups of the U.S. population which Trumpism simply cannot win over: African-Americans, liberal well-educated young people, gays, feminist women, etc. That doesn't mean that he can't be re-elected because the electoral college is tricky.

So, yes, he won the kulturkampf with the groups that were vulnerable to his discourse, but the U.S. in 2018 is a much more diverse society than was Germany in 1933, and there are groups that are out of his reach. In fact, Chile is today a much more diverse society than was Germany in 1933.

Now Trump is obviously in a position to do a lot of damage, but no, it is improbable that he will become the fuhrer acclaimed by the vast majority of U.S. citizens or residents
as we see Hitler in the Triumph of the Will.

howard b said...

The rope a dope method wins some fights. But we need to knock him out of the ring. Yes, there's cause for hope, still they control all three branches of government.
Since 2000 and 2016 I have learned the lesson that the Republicans will do anything to gain and retain power. Can they hold down a nation of millions? You tell me: what's the track record of a minority which controls the means of power to rule over a majority? That's why Professor Wolff raises the case of South Africa. What makes you feel America should be any different than other authoritarian leaning countries like Turkey or Hungary or England?

s. wallerstein said...

I know very little about Turkey or Hungary, but I read the Guardian (U.K.) and the BBC website everyday (and listen to programs online from the BBC), and the U.K. is not an authoritarian country. In fact, the state-run BBC is as independent of the current rightwing Theresa May government as is the mainstream media in the U.S. today. I spent 11 of the 17 years of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and I know how authoritarian governments treat the media.

South Africa emerges from the a situation of colonialism, which is not comparable to the U.S. today.

As I said above, I believe that the very diversity of the U.S. voting population makes very improbable an outright fascist government there. I also said and I will reiterate that Trump can do a lot of harm without necessarily being a fuhrer of sorts.

Howard Berman said...

I would say that the UK is heading in the direction of the Dickensian and reactionary if not authoritarian. They are not a democracy in the same sense that the USA used to be- as for America you can get an idea of the rot in the tree from inside more than from a view from the BBC.
I don't see the political use of a pollyannish policy.
I had a Marxist colleague at work, very well educated who was sure the establishment would never allow Trump to come to power.
Well guess what?
We have very little perilously keeping our democracy from sinking.
I don't see how a positive attitude or a theoretical reserve helps in the fight.
It's better to overestimate the foe.

Anonymous said...

I'm beginning to see that the comparison between Weimar Germany in 1933 and the US today isn't as far-fetched as some commentators seem to insist: remember that it some years before the Holocaust.

Anonymous said...

Chuck Schumer: Calling for the harassment of political opponents is "not American"

The above is an headline from a popular website today. Schumer is not only wrong, but incredibly dense to the problem at hand. Asking a patron to politely leave the establishement is not harassment. Where was Schumer when dozens and dozens of people of color are kicked out of establsments everyday for no reason?

People like Schumer are the silent enablers.

David Palmeter said...

There's a difference between a patron harassing another patron in a restaurant and the owner refusing to serve a patron. Patrons are not in the business of selling public accommodations; owners are--and therefore should serve all comers. Moreover, an owner has a responsibility not to allow harassment of others because of race, gender or whatever. Harassment is very different from simply saying something in a conversational tone of voice as one patron passes another's table on the way in or out.

I have no first hand knowledge of where Schumer was when people of color were were being kicked out of establishments every day for no reason, but I know he wasn't in Congress at the time. I know of nothing in his record to suggest that he wasn't a supporter of civil rights at the time. It's hard to imagine anyone getting elected from New York who wasn't.

Anonymous said...


David Palmeter,

Schumer was born and in congress and the leader about the period I'm talking about. I am referring to Schumer silent on when Black Lives Matter takes hold. Now he finds it necessary to speak up but for the wrong reasons. About harassment, you bring up unrelated issues. I'm referring to an owner polietly asking a patron to leave, which happened in the Sanders case. But I find your arguments deflect facts or lame or both.

David Palmeter said...

There was a time--a long, long time--when owners impolitely asked African Americans to leave. Had they been polite about it, that wouldn't have made any difference.

David Auerbach said...

I think this piece gets it right about all the "pearl clutching" about incivility.
There are all sorts of valid reasons a restaurant owner can ask a customer to leave. Being Black isn't one of them. Being part of child kidnapping scheme is.

RobinM said...

I agree that “if one waits to act until the evil affects you personally, you have waited too long.” But I’m not so sure that “driving Sarah Huckabee Sanders from a restaurant is a good start.” Neither am I comfortable with the claim that (to quote from the NYT column approvingly referred to by David Auerbach) “there’s an abusive sort of victim-blaming in demanding that progressives single-handedly uphold civility, lest the right become even more uncivil in response.”

To go to this last first, my concern with civility has nothing to do with whether or not the right becomes even more uncivil in response. My concern is with whether or not civility—in my view a hard-won and, as present circumstances make very clear, quite precarious social good—is itself fought for, and how might one best do that.

Is civility an ultimate social good? I’d say not. But the questions surrounding it surely apply to the issues raised both in professor Wolff’s post and in the responses to it. I would not suggest that anyone here is advocating anything goes. At the same time, or so it seems to me, some of the remarks are quite casual respecting boundaries to action.

To try to pre-empt a rejoinder the present moment makes all too likely, no, I don’t believe Trump’s supporters and enablers reject all boundaries (though it would be harder to maintain that, whether one thinks of him as a spoiled infant or a sociopath, Trump has ever respected boundaries to his own actions). But surely we in opposition can’t just marginalise the question of boundaries to our own actions.

I doubt anyone here is contemplating Brutus as an example to follow—and whatever would-be Brutuses there are out there should be reminded that the first one, while getting rid of a king, brought into being an oligarchy which lasted for several hundred years, the early continuance of which required him to sacrifice his own children, while the actions of the second Brutus occasioned a vicious civil war and the inauguration of an autocracy which oscillated between the more and less brutal for many more hundreds of years. Or to revert to something more recent and more parochial: what did the Weather Underground ever achieve? But even in the case of actual and unquestionable fascism/nazism, it’s interesting to contemplate the fact that after the event such things as the fire bombings of Dresden and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have aroused deep concern: did we overstep some limits?

Over-the-top extreme cases, I’m sure, but I hope my actual point remains clear, that in advocating what might be done we cannot disregard the parallel need to talk about limits. Some of the things being said—such as the ridicule of “pearl clutching”—surely trivialise what should be a serious question for all of us all of the time and especially in this time and place: How far is it morally and politically legitimate to go in the present circumstances. It’s not just a matter of consequences, though these certainly deserve serious consideration, it’s also a matter of what we stand for. Perhaps I’m mistaken in thinking that too much of the opposition to Trump focusses on what we are against?

Professor Wolff alludes to his own moral and political perspective, and I imagine I’d be co-aligned with him. But I do hope he will say something explicit about limits in his further reflections.




howard b said...

Dear Robin

If people in government use their power to harm the ruled that is called a tyranny.
Tyrants and those who are their coolies like Sanders are personae non grata and have no or little legitimacy. Rudeness is not a form of incivility but an act of civil disobedience.
She got the message. It hurt and she was humiliated. It is the modern equivalent of tarring and feathering.
She should rethink her whole life if she were smart

RobinM said...

I didn't quite get how hideous tarring and feathering was until I recently read a book in Bernard Cornwell's series on the American civil war, Howard. Generally, I'm not in favour of that either. As to the rudeness you refer to, I don't see it as an act of civil disobedience, I see it as an unthought out, passion driven response to immediate possibilities. I don't criticize the passion. I see it as completely legitimate in the face of the provocations you sum up as tyranny. But I still maintain that our response should be as much thought guided as it is passion driven and that we should have a care that we do not compromise our own values. To put it otherwise, it seems to me that Trump-driven hyper-corruption of society has already spread quite some way beyond the Republicans. I'd rather not see it spread further.

Howard B said...

Dear Robin,

sometimes you lose when you stay above the fray. Trump and his people are human.
Though I felt exactly as you do until recently, I'd point out that this is a power struggle, this isn't even a House Divided, all the rules of the House may very well be torn down. I don't think we should resort to violence- but the party leadership is failing to confront Trump at all. This isn't the eighties and nineties of Hendrick's book on how the game is played, The Power Game. Trump and the Republicans aim low and take the high road at the same time. The same old strategies won't cut it- striking back for it's own sake gives people comfort for a while. But Trump politically lives off of his image of invulnerability. That's how charisma and yes he has it works and that's how the mob which supports him and eggs him on works, If someone an opponent skilled enough had put the (expletive) in his place long ago, we wouldn't be here today.
As for morality, even Martin Buber who thought everyone had an infinitely precious soul argued publicly with Gandhi against practicing peaceful non resistance against Hitler.
Politeness is not an ultimate value it is relative to support a civil society. We are not going to bring back that civil society by being nice to morons, assholes and fascists.
Just like a woman in an abusive relationship has a right to fight back, so do we
We need a leadership to present a united front against these fiends until they come to their senses and the threat is over
The people are expressing their rage at the Republicans and their frustration at the failures of the democratic party which is to gutted and gutless to do anything. There is too much to lose to worry about manners

Howard B said...

Let me better organize my argument

#1. The rules of the game have changed
#2: Civility is an ideal not an absolute value
#3 The current leadership is failing
#4: The people are frustrated and angry
#5: Being polite is too weak and is passive resistance
#6: We need to fight fire with fire to a point
#7: We need to meet the Republican strategy of going low and taking the high road with our own strategy, perhaps the same
#8: You have to fight evil with some kind of show of strength, not just passive resistance
#9: There is too much at stake but to realize that on a political level we are in some kind of civil war and that the Republicans will do anything to further their power

s. wallerstein said...

If I may break into this conversation…

The way to defeat Trumpism is through the vote. You have to win the midterm election and then defeat Trump's probable re-election bid in 2020.

Now will being polite win you votes against Trumpism or not?

I have no idea, but in case, it seems to me that being rude to Trumpists is hardly a major war crime or atrocity and if that stirs up support against Trumpism, fine. If that alienates people against the anti-Trump resistance, then be polite.



RobinM said...

I didn’t intend to get into a long exchange. And I imagine there are others who’d like to get on to something different. So this will be my last word on the subject.

As to s.w.’s query, “will being polite win you votes against Trumpism or not?” I’d guess it will win some and lose some. Beyond that, I can’t begin to guess. Neither do I think being rude to Trumpists is a major atrocity. And as I think I said, I don’t take civility to be an absolute value, though I do take it to be an important one (which to my chagrin, I often fail to live up to in the heat of the moment).

But I am still interested in the question of limits. I’d agree with you, Howard, that, as I too see it, the Democratic Party leadership isn’t exactly pressing an attack on the Republicans that satisfies the emotions of their supporters; neither have they persuaded a majority of their supporters that ca’ canny is a winning electoral strategy. To make it clear, I’m not now nor have I ever been an admirer of the Democratic leadership or even of the Democratic Party—though some of my best friends are Democrats, I’m not sure how many of them are democrats. At the same time, when you say “We need a leadership to present a united front against these fiends until they come to their senses and the threat is over,” to call them fiends, doesn’t that imply that they are beyond being human to such a degree that anything may be done in relation to them.? Isn’t that the mirror image of far right religious fundamentalism? Isn’t that the way we fear too many of them view us?

I’m not arguing for quietism. I’m not arguing for politeness per se. I’m trying to urge judiciousness in what we say and do. And I’m also arguing that we have to be careful not to get so engaged in the struggle that we lose sight of what we ourselves aspire to stand for. We don’t want a Pyrrhic victory, do we?

I don’t mean to be uncivil when I say that I think it may be a confusion of terms, when you say in 9 that “on a political level we are in some kind of civil war,” but when you go on to say that “the Republicans will do anything to further their power,” aren’t you in fact saying anything goes on their side, so we have no choice but to behave likewise? Anything goes? There are no limits we should observe?

But let me conclude on what some will see to be a truly perverse note, returning to s.w.’s remark respecting the midterms and the next Presidential election: doesn’t it matter at all who replaces whom in Congress and in the White House so long as they aren’t Trumpists or Trump? I seem to recall William Morris said something about winning a victory only to discover you hadn’t won at all and the struggle had to be undertaken anew. I am, however, willing to go along with the notion that Trump and his ilk have to be defeated, but not at all costs, and I don’t expect to find myself in any new and wonderful place should he and they be ousted. That Gini index (see the later blogpost) for the US will still be there, and many presently outraged anti-Trumpists will, I’m sure, be doing their best to make sure it remains.

Anonymous said...

Civility hasn't been an issue on the identarian left (as opposed to the actual left). Consider the mixed messages common on the Internet: 1- the reasonable message that by now anyone civilized is feminist in the ways that matter; 2- the assertion that men are trash; 3- the journalistic denial that there are any such messages as (2), or if there are, the feelings of the intended targets are of no concern--moreover, what they might do at the voting booth is inconsequential; and 4- the smug assertion, offered without evidence (sometimes by professional philosophers engaged in metaphysical speculation) that if statements like (2) alienate potential allies, they weren't allies to begin with.

Jerry Fresia said...

Very good point. Not hyperbolic at all.

howard b said...

To empathize with the restaurateur who kicked out Sanders from his establishment: people see Trump and the Republicans acting and talking as if they were imposing a perhaps fascist regime on the country and the leaders in the democratic party are seemingly doing nothing about the matter whatsoever. So if the higher ups are botching the job, the grassroots takeover.
The Republicans wish to impose a draconian authoritarianism on the nation. I take them at their word. For the past fifty years they've proven repeatedly that they'd do anything to gain absolute power. Maybe I'm panicking, but what's stopping them? The Supreme Court? The Democratic party?
Politics is politics, but this situation is devolving largely because the Republican party is the party not just of Fox, but of Trump, into a street fight in part.
The opposition needs a leadership to mastermind the opposition.
Maybe ejecting Huckabee showed poor judgment, but if there were a leadership actually effectively fighting people wouldn't feel the need.
It's basic psychology and for all we know, Trump wants to be the first king and last President.
Plus people in the democratic establishment, who only know how to play by the old rules which are failing us, feel a loss of control when people on the street do something for themselves.
The leaders should pay attention to what their constituents want