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Saturday, October 20, 2018


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.


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


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.


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


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


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


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?