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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

NOSTRADAMUS LITE


I am back from my ninth trip to New York to teach at Columbia.  It is now just seven days until the election, so it is time for me to prognosticate.  I am not talking about how the election will turn out, but about what will happen after the Democrats retake the House.  [I am aware that there is a chance they will fail to do so, but since I plan to kill myself in that eventuality, I need not concern myself with it.]

Herewith my prediction.  Like all pundits, I shall take full credit for it if I am right, and totally forget that I made it if I am wrong.

So:  The day after the results are in, Trump will without the slightest evidence of unease or hesitation pivot to being a non-partisan supporter of DACA guarantees, comprehensive immigration reform, infrastructure spending, guarantees for those with pre-existing conditions, and whatever else Democrats want that does not negatively affect his own financial interests.  Overtly, covertly, or implicitly, but in all events unmistakably, he will communicate it to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer that he will work cooperatively with them for the next two years so long as they squelch the Democratic lust for investigations of him or his family and allow him to summarily shut down the Mueller probe. 

This will pose a terrible dilemma for the Democrats, and I fear there is a grave danger that they will succumb, in which case they will pave the way for Trump’s re-election and the death of what remains of constitutional democracy in America.

Monday, October 29, 2018

SOCIALISM?


One of the Anonymati [Anonymouses?  Anonymice?] asks that I write a critique of the oh so sober, serious analysis of socialism, complete with charts and graphs, produced by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors.  After more than sixty pages of objective, balanced consideration, the Council comes to the surprising conclusion that socialism is a bad idea, economically.  The Council’s principal point of comparison is Nordic countries [are they confusing socialism with cross-country skiing?]

The big news, of course, is that Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors actually thinks it is worth their time and effort to write the report.  Much has been made, and rightly so, of the fact that the Trump Republican Party has welcomed Nazis, Klansmen, racists, and anti-Semites in from the cold.  Who would have predicted that they would also give a shout out to us socialists?

Why am I writing about this today, after a horrifying week capped by the slaughter of Jews in a synagogue?  Because I am desperately trying to stay sane, that is why, and writing about alternative universes, like one in which socialism is actually possible, is one way to do that.

I have read the Executive Summary of the report and scanned through the report itself, but I do not intend to take issue with it, and my reason for not doing so is the real subject of this post.  Let me begin by reminding you that Karl Marx, who wrote 5000 pages, more or less, on the history, anatomy, laws of motion, and mystified ideology of capitalism, wrote maybe 50 or 60 pages, if that, about socialism.  It was not a lapse in memory on his part.  He had a reason for not writing about how socialism would work, and that reason is the very heart of his economic and historiographical theory.

Marx believed that just as capitalism had developed slowly, organically, within the existing socio-economic system of feudalism, so too the social relationships of production appropriate to socialism would develop within the structure of capitalism until the contradiction, as he called it, between the two would produce a revolutionary transition.  Socialism would not come about as a result of manifestos, or theoretical analyses, or counter-cultural utopian experimental communities.  Rather, the inner development of capitalism itself would create the new social relations of production out of which socialism would emerge.  In effect, capitalists themselves would be the gravediggers of capitalism.  Taking this claim seriously, I tried in my essay, The Future of Socialism, to think through what those inner developments might be.  If you are interested, you will find it archived at box.net, accessible via the link at the top of this page.

Marx did not think that the transition to socialism could be advanced by arguments that socialism would be a good thing, in effect a plank in a political platform.  I am delighted that folks are once again calling themselves socialists and that the president’s Council of Economic Advisors thought it a useful expenditure of their energies to write a 70 page paper explaining why socialism would be a bad thing, not to say Nordic.  But arguing with their critique would be a waste of time.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

NINE DAYS


Another day, some more poll work, another home-grown terrorist shooting.  Two generations ago, much of my wife’s family lived in the section of Pittsburgh where the incident took place, and some of them are still there.  Needless to say, she was quite concerned, as was I.

We may take back the House on the 6th, but the evil that has always been abroad in this land, now raising its head once again, will still be with us.  We have no choice but to fight it relentlessly.

If Nate Silver is to be believed, young Ryan Watts has very little chance of upsetting Mark Walker here in the NC 6th CD, but he may well reduce Walker’s margin from 18 points to 5 or 6, which should put it genuinely in play in 2020.  I leave it to other candidates better situated actually to flip their districts.

One does what one can.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

THE WEBERIAN THEORY OF BUREAUCRACY, AND THE REALITY OF SAME


I have just returned from my eighth weekly trip to New York to teach at Columbia.  I travel Delta, which runs a number of short non-stop flights from Raleigh-Durham Airport to LaGuardia.  I always book the 8:00 p.m. return flight when I do not stay over and the 9:30 a.m. return flight when I do.  But on occasion, I arrive early enough at the airport to make the earlier 6:29 p.m. flight, and this morning, since I stayed across Grand Central from LaGuardia at the Aloft hotel, I actually got to the airport and through security in time to make the 6:30 a.m. flight.  I buy the cheapest possible ticket [no checked luggage, no advance seating, and no changes.]  Four times now I have tried to get on an earlier flight.  Each time, I have presented my ticket to the Delta agent at the gate and requested a change.  The first time, the agent put me on the earlier flight, no problem.  The second time the agent said it would cost me $75 to change flights [I declined.]  The third time, I decided to pay the seventy-five bucks, but was told even if I did my ticket could not be changed.  This morning, the agent made the change and actually pre-boarded me [I chatted her up and was as pleasant as I could manage.]

Meanwhile, in our course, Todd Gitlin has just finished lecturing on Max Weber’s analysis of bureaucracy.

The reality does not always match the theory.

My favorite example of this comes from fifty-five years ago  When I was a young Instructor at Harvard, I lived for two years, from 1959 to 1961 as a Resident Tutor in Winthrop House [free room and board and one is supposed to talk to the undergraduates, thereby enriching their education and relieving senior faculty of the necessity.]  One of my colleagues in the Winthrop House Senior Common Room was Richard Taub, a sociologist doing a doctorate in what Harvard called the Social relations Department.  By 1963, Richard had gone off to India with his wife, Doris, to do his doctoral research.  [He has for many years been a distinguished senior member of the University of Chicago Sociology Department.]  He wrote me several wonderful, long letters about his experiences there.  I hope he will not mind of I quote from one of them.  It is a perfect illustration of the gap between Weber’s formal analysis of bureaucracy and the reality on the ground.  Here is what he wrote:

“Doris and I fit outside of the category system and we have a hell of a time.  Whenever we visit a government office or do business with more than a few rupees, we must convert the relations into personal ones.  Example and absolutely typical.
Me:  I would like a coal permit.
Bureaucrat:  You are coming from England?
Me:  No, I am coming from America.  I would like a coal permit.
Bureaucrat: For how many days you are staying?
Me:  I have been here three months and I plan to stay another year.  Now may I have a coal permit.
Bureaucrat (to peon):  Cha Lao (bring tea).  (To me): You are perhaps working for the government?
Me: No, I have come here to do Sociology.  I would like a coal permit.
                        ETC.
And so it goes.  Until he knows all about me.  We have then had tea and either his cigarettes (and I have given him some in return) or pan (betel leaves stuffed with spices which everyone around here is more or less addicted to) and then he asks, “now what is it that you are wanting.
This used to infuriate me – especially when we were in a hurry, or just wanted to make a purchase.  But now, with the first question, I recite a speech which covers all the questions he will have, we have tea, and then get on with the transaction.  The next time I see him, he will ask me how much money I am making, is my wife here with me, what kind of food I eat etc.  But once the relationship is personal, the guys will do anything for you.”

Monday, October 22, 2018

SESQUICENTENNIAL

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, America's greatest social scientist, Black or White, was born in Great Barrington, MA one hundred fifty years ago.  Du Bois was a towering figure in the intellectual life of this country, and a seminal figure in the struggle for the full liberation of the descendants of America's slave population.  One of my proudest boasts is that for the last sixteen years of my half century long teaching career, I served in a department that bears his name.  I would like to think that I did not dishonor the name.

In 1935, Du Bois published Black Reconstruction in America, an extraordinary work whose central thesis was finally incorporated into the established White historiographical academic world half a century later.  Du Bois was the first Black scholar to earn a doctorate at Harvard, and as part of his studies, he actually traveled to German to see Max Weber.

Du Bois played a central role in the founding of the NAACP, and late in his almost century long life was an important figure in the post-colonial liberation of African nations.

My UMass colleague, John H. Bracey, tells this story about Du Bois as an illustration of his importance in the Black community.  Back in the day when trains were segregated and the staff of train porters was entirely Black, Du Bois was on a trip, staying in his compartment in the evening because he would have been banned from the dining car.  There was a knock on the compartment door, and a porter appeared, carrying a tray.  He laid out linens and silver and proceeded to serve Du Bois a full dinner.  When Du Bois tried to pay him, the porter demurred, saying, "Never let it be said that Dr. Du Bois rode on my train and was not served dinner."

MAJOR PROGRESS

Last night, in the middle of the night, our cat came up on the bed, purring, and permitted me to pet her and scratch her head for fifteen minutes or more.  I think I know how Jane Goodall felt [well, not really, but still.]  Meanwhile, Nate Silver gives the Democrats a 6 in 7 chance of taking the House [I am afraid the Senate is a very long shot.]  I am doing what I can here in the NC 6th CD, and trying to stay sane.  I keep reminding myself of Paul Newman's cautionary words to Robert Redford in The Sting, which I have quoted here before and shall not repeat.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

MEMORIES


I just watched the third in my series of video lectures on Ideological Critique as a refresher for a forthcoming lecture on Mannheim in my Columbia course.  I watched my discourse on Mannheim’s ideological analysis of time consciousness, and then my attempt at an extension of it to the case of  space consciousness.  I wrap that up with an ideological analysis of the revolutionary orientation toward space, which concludes with my story about a Columbia student’s remark in 1968.  I had forgotten that I managed to attach to the very end of the lecture a brief video of Pete Seeger singing “Which Side Are You On?”

I wept for what we have lost.

LOCAL COLOR


While the commentators on this blog debate high theory, I thought as a change of pace I would offer a bit of what the news media call local color.  Yesterday, I spent several hours in Pittsboro as a poll greeter at an early voting site.  Pittsboro is the county seat of Chatham County and in this mostly rural central North Carolina county, its population of a bit under 4,000 makes it an urban center.  My job was to hand out long blue cheat sheets to arriving voters, if they would have them, competing in genteel fashion against Republican greeters similarly tasked.  Word among those of us under the blue tent was that at least one of the opposing team was a paid operative, suggesting that the Republicans were having trouble recruiting volunteers.

This being an off year with neither a governor nor a senator up for grabs, the lead candidate on our ballot is Ryan Watts, the young man running for the US House from the 6th NC CD.  As previously reported here, I have canvassed for Ryan up north [Greensboro] and down south [Sanford], but Nate Silver, in his latest handicapping of the House races, gives Ryan only a 1 in 7 chance of upsetting Mark Walker, the right-wing sitting Rep, so I am not holding my breath.  The ballot is full of candidates for local county offices, about which I know nothing at all, but while I was on duty, I took a break and voted early, laboriously blacking in each oval identified on the cheat sheet.

The hot items this year, aside from the Congressional seat, are the race for the NC Supreme Court and six malicious, deceptively described state constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the Republican controlled legislature.  I met Anita Earls, our candidate for the court, at a Carolina Meadows fund raiser, and she is clearly first rate.  For some mysterious reason two Republicans are running against her and will presumably split the red vote, so my fingers are crossed.  There is no problem picking and choosing among the amendments.  They are all awful, so “Vote No on the Six” is an easy message to communicate.

There I stood, on a gorgeous sunny fall day, trying to waylay arriving voters before they crossed the 50 foot boundary marked on the paving of the parking lot, beyond which campaigning is forbidden.  Turnout was very heavy, with people waiting in their cars for parking places [nobody walks to the polling place.  This is America, after all.]  Anecdotally, I can report that the Dems were in the lead, at least at this polling place.  We handed out many more of our blue cheat sheets than our opponents handed out their white ones.  [A cheat sheet, by the way, is a sample ballot already filled out the right way.  For as long as I have been doing this sort of work, which is to say for about sixty years, this has been the preferred way of corralling our vote.]  As you might expect, every African-American voter who showed up took one of our blue sheets, save for those who smiled and said they already had one.

Despite the piggish behavior of a large young man campaigning for one of the Republican candidates for County Commissioner, the scene was peaceful, friendly, casual, indeed idyllic.  This is what democracy ought to look like.  Needless to say, there are countless places around the country, including right here in North Carolina, where blatant racially encoded voter suppression is in full swing, and the outcome of the election nationally may well be determined by those efforts.  But none of that was on display on Thompson Street in Pittsboro yesterday.

Is there a larger lesson to be learned from my experience [aside from the advisability of wearing a hat so as not to get a sunburn]?  Nope.  Not so far as I can see.  I just thought the account would amuse you, and perhaps lower the temperature a bit on this blog.

Friday, October 19, 2018

GENTLY, GENTLY


As the election approaches, I am afraid, all of us are getting testy, myself more than most.  Let us all take a deep breath and remember that none of us is the enemy.  A world in which the spectrum of political opinions exhibited by the American electorate roughly matched the range of opinions expressed on this blog by myself and commentators would be my dream world.

I am off to spend several hours handing out Democratic Party cheat sheets [lists of candidates and ballot initiatives with a guide how to vote] at an early voting station.  Each of us must find his or her own way to survive these times, but whatever our disagreements with one another, you are all my comrades.

RETRO-GENETICS


As I am sure you all know, there was at one time a lively debate in the field of Biology about what was called the inheritance of acquired characteristics.  If a proto-giraffe stretched its neck to reach succulent leaves high on trees, would its offspring inherit that slightly elongated neck, until after many generations the modern giraffe had evolved.  And so forth.  Not so intensively studied is a phenomenon that I have observed in my own life, namely, parents acquiring the characteristics of their children.  I mention this because from time to time I am surprised and rather moved by the wisdom of my children, which I am quite sure they did not get from me.  Quite to the contrary, I seem to acquire some of their wisdom by a sort of reverse genetic mutation.

The most recent example of this curious phenomenon is a thoughtful and very moving email from my older son, Patrick, in response to my cry of despair in the post entitled Night Thoughts.  With his permission, I reproduce it here.

“Your Monday post, “Night Thoughts,” touched me, and I wanted to share three thoughts with you about it.

  1. As you well know, there is no such thing as the inherently legitimate state. The state can do the right thing, it can act for the greatest good, or it can behave in any other way as assessed by autonomous moral agents. But there is no form of state action or decision-making that arrogates to it the authoritative right to do X simply by nature of its being. Nor is there even any way for the state to channel the “will of the people,” since there is no such thing. (See Condorcet, Arrow, etc.) And to make things even worse, given the fundamental difference between judging “ought” versus “is” in the world, it is inevitable that reasonable, informed people (put aside for now all the unreasonable, uninformed people) can and will disagree all the time about what ought to be done. Yet, we all have to find a way to live together. Anarchism may be a useful intellectual endeavor, but anarchy is no way to live! The political life is therefore both absolutely necessary and inherently frustrating. There is not and never will be such a thing as a utopia. We will always have profound, difficult disagreements: that is the tragic fact about politics.

  1. There is a saying that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.” I think this misses the point. Over short periods of time (where “short” can be an entire adult lifetime) various kinds of enlightened tyrannies can be significantly better in the outcomes it produces for the people. But eventually, power passes to the fool, the knave, or worse. When that happens, we must have strong institutions, protected rights and freedoms, and limitations on power. The strength of democracy is not that it produces the best outcomes for the people: rather, its strength is that it allows the people to survive the worst outcomes. Donald J. Trump is the poster child. I’m sure we could imagine a worse leader – although I hope we don’t ever test this hypothesis during my children’s lifetime! – but he is plenty bad. In Russia he might be Putin; in Argentina he might be Peron; in China he might be Mao. But in America we still have free elections, he is highly unpopular even during the height of the current economic cycle, and already the political tide appears to be turning. I say this not to be complacent in any way, but to reassure you that while our current president is certainly doing plenty of damage, our country’s guardrails are holding up.

  1. If you “have been sustained all these years by the belief that if only the people could be brought to see the truth, they would throw off their chains and seize liberation,” then you have been guided by too narrow a view of history. There is no single moment where the arc of human progress reaches its conclusion. The road bends and winds forever and ever, and even a single, long lifetime is not enough to know where it leads. Consider if you had been born in 1776. You would have grown up hearing stories of the Revolution. You would have come of age during the Constitutional Convention, and the first President you would have known would have been George Washington. Then, your adult lifetime would have seen both the rapid expansion of the American promise, and the systematic betrayal of its ideals. You would have railed against slavery and the annihilation of the Native Americans – both to no avail. You would have seen the degradation of American politics, to the point that the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner was beaten nearly to the point of murder by the slave-owning Representative Preston Brooks. At the age of 84, you would be rightfully bemoaning the unraveling of the Union and the imminent Civil War, which would turn out to be far worse than you could have imagined. And yet, the road continued past that dark time and reached new heights that could not have been imagined at the time. We do not choose the age in which we live, and we do not know how our history will eventually be written. All we can do is continue to live it.

Do not despair. It was never that good, and it will be eventually be much better. And then it will be worse again, and then it will be better, and on and on.” 


Thursday, October 18, 2018

WHERE HAVE I BEEN HIDING


For almost ten years, I have been pouring words out non-stop, and I find that I am, at least for the moment, running dry.  I have written so much I cannot recall it all.  A week ago in our Columbia course, while lecturing on Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Todd Gitlin made reference to the mini-tutorial I had written on the book and pointed students to it.  I had totally forgotten I had written it.

So I have taken a few days off, and the comments section has more or less exploded.  Rather than try to respond to everything that has been posted by the readers of this blog, I signed up to do some time tomorrow at the early voting locality in Pittsboro, NC, handing out a blue ballot sheet guiding Democrats how to vote on such things as the ballot amendments [easy – vote No on all of them] and the non-partisan candidates for Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court [a little trickier – the answer is Anita Earls.]

Like MS, I have no patience for people who refuse to vote for the lesser evil because they are offended or bored or enchanted with the Progressive of the Moment.  This is a genuinely desperate time, and it is not at all clear that when the dust settles we will still have enough of a democracy even to be able to fight for what we believe in.  Should anyone be nursing fantasies of violent upheavals, I will remind them that our opponents have most of the guns.

Nineteen days.

Monday, October 15, 2018

AND AGAIN

Off to New York, for the seventh meeting of my course.   Back late Tuesday night.

NIGHT THOUGHTS


Inasmuch as this is my web log, or blog, I think it appropriate that I engage in some reasonably public navel gazing.  For some time now, I have been deeply, ungetoverably troubled, not to say unhappy.  I am not referring to elevated, sophisticated distress, the untergang des Abendlandes brooding we intellectuals deploy as our shtick.  I am talking about a pit-of-the-stomach lying-awake-at-night unhappiness that is momentarily lessened, but not ever dispelled, by a favorable round of polls or the victory of a Democratic Socialist primary winner in a safely Democratic seat.  

Lord knows, I have been unhappy about the way of the world at least since Jack Kennedy invaded Cuba and America embraced its nuclear weapons in a cosmic death hug.  I have seen Martin and Malcolm and Jack and Bobby killed, I have survived Nixon and Reagan and Clinton.  Trump is surely a uniquely despicable man, but at least he has not yet started a war, which sets him apart from a number of his post-1945 predecessors.  Why then, when I am sitting quietly and the facial muscles supporting my reflex smile relax, does my wife look at me and say, with concern, “You look so unhappy”?

To be sure, I am eighty-four, and the end of my life is a great deal closer than my middle years.  But my health is good, my children are flourishing, I am embarked on an exciting new venture in New York, and I am, by any reasonable measure, rich.  I mean, the only other people I know with apartments in Paris are my friends who live there.  So why so blue?  It is, as the King of Siam is wont to say in The King and I, a puzzlement.

The source of my distress is not the manifest evidence of the sheer evil of our political rulers.  I have known that for many decades.  Rather, it is the recognition that half of my fellow Americans are ready to embrace that evil when it is presented to them without the slightest simulacrum of the appearance of humanity and decency.  Hypocrisy, La Rochefoucauld observed, is the tribute vice pays to virtue.  Fascism, we might add, is not having to say you are sorry.

I have been sustained all these years by the belief that if only the people could be brought to see the truth, they would throw off their chains and seize liberation.  Why else write all those books unmasking the imperial aims of America’s “moral world leadership,” those manifestos demanding the end to voter suppression?  Why march for peace, for social justice, for Gay liberation, for women’s rights?

With luck, we will flip the House.  In 2020, we may take back the Senate and the Presidency.  But as I slip and slide into my nineties, those scores of millions will still be there, ready to embrace the next fascist poseur.

And after I am gone, as my grandchildren approach middle age, the water level will rise and the world’s billions will be displaced by changes that even then will be denied not only by the rich, who will have relocated to higher ground, but by the swamped cheering, chanting masses who elect and reelect them.

Is it any wonder I cannot sleep?

Now, when is my next canvassing appointment?



Saturday, October 13, 2018

THE RETURN OF THE IRREPRESSIBLE


I have been silent on this blog for several days while the discussion in the Comment section has once again blossomed.  In part this has been a consequence of my trip to New York, the grading of midterm papers, and a bit of fearsome weather locally.  For the most part we have just had high winds and drenching rains, but yesterday, as I was driving about doing errands, I found my way blocked by a very tall pine trip that had snapped off three or four feet above the ground and had crushed a parked car.  Something of a cautionary experience.

The principal reason for my silence is my despair at the way of the world.  I feel like a soldier hunkered down behind a building under fire from the enemy, and in that condition, I do not find myself moved to meditate on the theory of just war.  Three and a half weeks from the election, all I care about is turnout.  I do what I can canvassing, and I try not to despair.

Adding to the tumult in my life is a new rescue cat whom we acquired three weeks ago.  She is charming and playful but still too scared to let us hold her, although last night, after we turned the lights off, she hopped up on the bed and – as I lay very quietly – peered at us soulfully before hopping back down.  Progress.

Here is a picture.




A friend suggested we call her Ginsburg because she looks as though she is wearing a black robe with a white collar.  We shall see.

Monday, October 8, 2018

INTERESTING

Howard Berman, a frequent contributor to this blog, offers this link to an interesting little piece by Corey Robin.

THOUGHTS OF A PEBBLE POSSESSED OF SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS


Readers of this blog have several times heard me invoke the image of a landslide as a metaphor for revolutionary political action.  Traditional literature and historiography concerns itself with the doings of kings and queens, generals and emperors, landed aristocrats and dynastic successions.  The common people enter their accounts either for the purposes of low comedy or as a backdrop for heroic actions.  [Erich Auerbach is brilliant on this theme in his classic work of comparative literature, Mimesis.]  But modern political action requires the participation of hundreds of thousands, indeed of millions of men and women, most of whom even in the most detailed histories remain nameless.  These are the pebbles and clods of dirt and rootlets, transforming the tumbling fall of one large tree or one boulder into the landslide of my metaphor.

The door to door canvassing that I did yesterday, tiring as it was to this eighty-four year old, was no more than one tiny pebble, rolling hopefully [which is to say, full of hope] down a hillside.  Will it be part of a landslide that obliterates the always execrable Mark Walker of the NC 6th CD?  Only time will tell.

Now the most minor of actors, unlike pebbles, are self-conscious, and some even have blogs.  On their blogs, they are big voices, embracing centuries and invoking giants – Marx, Malcolm, Martin, Mao.  But loud though their voices may be, they are still only pebbles in what they hope will prove to be a landslide.

Some may find this discouraging, but I find it reassuring, even inspiring.  After all, if I really believe all that sophisticated social and political theory that I read, assign to students, and on occasion try my best to imitate in my own writings, then history ought to be made by multitudes, not by famous men [and latterly, women.] 

If you reject so minor a role as beneath your dignity as an intellectual, then you are not a pebble in a landslide.  You are merely part of the audience for a soliloquy.  And soliloquies are, after all, lonely speeches, even if it is you who are soliloquizing. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

PUTTING IN MY TIME


I am back now from a long day of door to door canvassing in Sanford, NC, at the very southern part of the 6th NC Congressional District.  What with driving there and back, it was almost six hours of grunt political work.  I hope it made some difference.  Once again, I was reminded of the difference between theorizing about politics and actually engaging in it.

And so to bed, to quote Samuel Pepys.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

DOING TIME


Well, I am signed up to canvass tomorrow from 2-5 pm in the bowels of Chatham County. One of the side benefits of political grunt work is that you get to see parts of your town or county that you would otherwise not likely visit.  When I ran for the town School Committee in Northampton, MA in 1977, I got to know the town by walking the wards with my then young son Patrick in an unsuccessful campaign [my first and only run of office.]  The town is heavily Catholic and I thought a son named Patrick might con the voters into thinking I was also, but they were too shrewd for that bit of political subterfuge.

A WELCOME VOICE IN A DIFFICULT TIME

I have become enamored of Alexandra Petri's distinctive satirical voice.  Here is her response to the Kavanaugh debacle.  She can take her place next to Swift.

GIRDING UP MY LOINS

I spent a very bad night.  It is petty and irrational of me to focus my rage and despair on Collins.  She is contemptible, but not as destructive as, say, McConnell, but there it is.  I am a small person.

The Supreme Court is lost for a generation, and at eighty-four, I have no hope of seeing light from that quarter.

So we fight.  We fight for women, we fight for the working class [yes, even for the benighted Trumpites,[ we fight for a higher minimum wage in those states where we have a majority, we fight for clean air and water, we fight for decent health care, we fight even though at best we shall merely be saving some portion of what we thought we had won, some measure of what old folks like me grew up taking for granted as the legacy of the pre-war New Deal.

And to soothe our souls, lift our spirits, and amuse the young, we shall "sit upon the ground and tell sad tales about the death" of Marx.

This morning, I shall contact the Ryan Watts campaign and volunteer for another day of canvassing.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

WEATHER FORECAST


Like many, I have been obsessed by the Kavanaugh nomination, the testimony, and the aftermath.  In this post, I am going to offer my opinion of how this will play out.  I am now quite sure that the nomination will succeed.  I predict that Murkowsky will vote no, but Collins and Flake will vote yes.  Since that will ensure the success of the nomination, Manchin and/or Heidkamp may then cast yes votes in an effort to help them in November.  Were the nomination to fail, a clean rightwing nominee would be frog marched through the Senate and confirmed before January, regardless of whether the Republicans retain control of the Senate. 

The yes vote on Kavanaugh will be a permanent stain on Collins’ legacy and the Maine voters may very possibly defeat her in 2020.  Much has been made of the importance to Trump of having Kavanaugh on the court in case a subpoena or impeachment case comes before the court, but I actually doubt that is significant.

If, as I expect, Kavanaugh is confirmed, the surge in enthusiasm on the right, much commented on in recent days, will die away, but the Left will become incandescent, and that may very well determine the outcome of the November election.  Kavanaugh will immediately take his seat on the High Court, but that, I am convinced, will not be the end of the matter.  Between now and November, and possibly beyond, more and more people will come forward to confirm the charges against him and quite possibly to level new charges as well.  This will be a continuing nightmare for the Court, and for the Republicans.

Meanwhile, in a year or two, Roe v. Wade will be overturned, and much more besides that is truly horrible will become law.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

AN APPARENTLY IRRELEVANT REMINISCENCE


This is a comment about Senator Susan Collins of Maine, although it may at first glance not seem to be.

I resigned a senior professorship in the Columbia University Philosophy Department and joined the Philosophy Department of the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1971.  Only somewhat later did I discover that the UMass department was deeply divided between a majority of members who thought of themselves as Analytic Philosophers and a small minority who did not.  Inasmuch as I had been trained at Harvard by Willard Van Orman Quine and Nelson Goodman, among others, generally considered premier Analytic Philosophers, I was rather surprised to discover that the UMass majority clique did not want me around and did not think that what I did was philosophy at all [the most damning judgment they could issue about anyone, in their eyes.]  I threw in my lot with the minority, with whom it was possible to have a serious conversation.  Over the next twenty-one years, until I decamped for the Afro-American Studies Department, those of us in the minority fought a series of departmental battles, the details of which I have described in my online autobiography.

One of the members of the majority was a man who was universally viewed as a real gentleman and a first rate philosopher, a decent, thoughtful, reasonable man completely free of the animus that, in my eyes and those of my fellow minority members, characterized the most vocal and implacable members of the majority.  When an issue arose, he would listen to our arguments and concerns attentively, ask us probing questions, nod thoughtfully at our answers, and like as not confess himself to be deeply torn and even, on occasion, genuinely on the fence.  He was, in all ways, the very model of a modern philosopher, if I may channel my inner Gilbert and Sullivan.

There was only one problem.  In twenty-one years, he never voted with us on any issue large or small.  Not once.  He hemmed, he hawed, he hesitated, he meditated, his face was a visible manifestation of his inner torment.  And yet, not once did his fair, unbiased, objective review of the facts and arguments lead him to vote for our point of view.

Perhaps unreasonably and unfairly, I grew to hate him more than I hated his openly partisan colleagues.

Monday, October 1, 2018

IF YOU'RE RIGHT, YOU'RE RIGHT


Well, I predicted it [as did everyone else.]  No matter what restrictions are placed on the FBI investigation, people will come out of the woodwork with new stories about Kavanaugh.  “But they all concern his youth and college days,” it is said.

Wait for it.  This is only Monday.

A RESPONSE TO ONE COMMENT AMONG SCORES


There has been a flood of comments on this blog [and a four or five fold increase in views, a result of Brian Leiter’s kind words and link].  I should like to respond calmly to just one, by LFC.  Here is what he or she said:

“I think all I was trying to suggest -- and probably I didn't say it very well -- is that Wolff's Freudian take on Kavanaugh is theory-influenced (or theory-laden) speculation, and that's different from the people-watching analogies he used. Maybe "hazardous" was the wrong word. I just think it's different than common-sense inference.”

I don’t agree with that distinction.  Let me explain why.  All human beings, for as long as anyone can tell, have engaged in efforts to interpret the feelings, motives, and behavior of other human beings.  These efforts, successful or not, all involve observation, memory, the forming of hypotheses, the checking of those hypotheses against new observations, the making of generalizations arising out of those efforts, and the remembering of past observations, hypotheses, and generalizations.  Some people are astonishingly good at interpreting the feelings, motives, and behavior of others.  Some are not so good at it.

In my opinion [and this is, I know, a matter of considerable debate among Philosophers of Science,] there is a continuum rather than a sharp dichotomy between what ordinary people do and what trained scientists do.  And ordinary people of any period in history tend to incorporate into their explanatory efforts what they know about the scientific discoveries of previous periods.  My examples of ordinary “people watching” were intended, perhaps unskillfully, to indicate that continuum.

In my interpretation of Kavanaugh’s testimony, I drew on my layman’s knowledge of psychoanalytic theory, derived principally from the quite limited and narrowly focused experiences of my own psychoanalysis.  I also drew on my first-hand experiences with people and my [mostly] second-hand knowledge of American Catholic social milieus.  

It might be useful here to tell once again a story from fifty years ago.  One evening in New York, I attended a very chi-chi gathering of Upper West Side intellectuals at a meeting of something called The Theater for Ideas.  The topic of the panel discussions was “The Hidden Philosophy of Psychoanalysis,” and one of the speakers was the famous psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim.  [In the audience, by the way, were, among others, William Schuman, Susan Sontag, Sander Vanocur, and Norman Mailer.  It was that sort of event.]  After Bettelheim’s talk, feisty little neocon Sidney Hook got up and said, pugnaciously, “There is nothing new in what Freud said.  Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare could do what Freud could do!”  Bettelheim replied calmly, “That is true.  Dostoyevsky could do what Freud did, and Shakespeare could do what Freud did.  But Freud taught us to do it.”

Correctly or incorrectly, I was trying to do what Dostoyevsky did and what Shakespeare did, and what Austen and Dickens and Proust and countless other novelists have done, which is to make sense of a striking and extremely memorable public self-presentation.