My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

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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Thursday, December 31, 2009


Although this blog was officially launched several years ago, I only began blogging regularly in June of this year. In reviewing those eight months of posts, I was struck by two things: First, how much I have written. This is not a big-time blog with editors and unpaid interns and all. It is just me, typing away with two fingers and then correcting my endless typos.. A lot of words have gone up on the screen and whirled away into cyberspace in that time. Second, the large numbers of people who have contributed to the blog over the months.

First of all, there were my two guest bloggers, Ann Davis and Barbara O'Brien [each of whose posts, in my feckless senile way, was introduced as "my very first guest blog." Sorry about that, Ann.]

Here is the list, as complete as I could make it in my quick review, of all the folks who have posted comments.

Far and away the two busiest commentators have been Ann, of guest post fame, and NotHobbes, from Scotland [with whom I had a spirited debate about who should be considered Scotland's most famous son or daughter.]

Then there were Rodrigo from Brazil, Jennifer, Ajrosa [these last two are actually former students from my Afro-American Studies days], Matthew, IKant [an intriguing handle -- my Massachusetts license plate was IKant], RVincent63 [a classmate of Jennifer and Ajrosa, who helped me set up the blog], David, Todd, ElPutoAlpha, from Spain, Avril, Matias Penengo, Jamie, Bev, Experiment, from Canada, Rob, Eoin [pronounced "Owen," he tells me], Dan., Robert, EggsMaladict from Australia [a wonderful handle, that], Kius from Spain, Gene Callahan, Maciek from Poland, Mlange, adavisa, and, of course, the bizarre Chinese language comments that turned out to be some sort of advertisement for chat rooms or dating services or porn sites [the automatic translation program that I found on line was a little ambiguous].

And all of this does not include the people who chose to send me a direct email rather than post a comment on the blog.

When I began, at the suggestion of my older son, Patrick, my younger son, Tobias warned me that a blog was a lot of work, and he was right. But Patrick's suggestion has turned out to be a good one indeed. It has been enormously rewarding for me to discover the ways in which I could reach out not only to people whom I know but also to people whom I do not know, but who have paid me the great compliment of taking the time to react to my posts.

Thank you to all of you -- those who comment, and those who simply read the blog and move on. I shall try to keep things going in the coming year. Those who know me, especially from my classroom efforts, have every reason to expect that I will never run out of things to say.

And now, a Happy New Year to all.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


The advent of the movie Avatar has got me thinking about words one is familiar with, but cannot quite remember the actual meaning of. [We have not yet seen the movie. I am allergic to movies you have to wear special glasses to watch, but Susie wants to see it, so we shall go before it moves on.] Herewith some of my favorite mystery words.

Let us begin with avatar itself. Strictly speaking, an avatar is a human or animal embodiment of the Hindu deity Vishnu, but the word has migrated into more common usage [how often does one have an occasion to talk about animal embodiments of Vishnu?] to mean the embodiment of an idea or a spirit of any sort. So, for example, it would be appropriate to describe Senator Sessions as an avatar of stupidity, or Angelina Jolie as an avatar of sensuousness. Barack Obama could be described as the avatar of cool.

My second choice is a word that has proved a great disappointment to me. Some while back I was searching for a nice orotund phrase [another good one, that] to describe David Brooks. I wanted to call him "an egregious, crepuscular twit," which rolled off the tongue very satisfyingly. Ever cautious, I checked the definition of "crepuscular," and it turns out to mean "having to do with twilight." What a total waste! I mean, "crepuscular" sounds like a particularly nasty term of excoriation [which, by the way, means "to tear or wear the skin off, to abrade."] Why squander a word that resonant on the twilight? Oh well. It goes into the cubbyhole with nocturnal, matinal, and quotidian.

Avuncular pretty much means what it sounds like, namely kind in an uncle-y sort of way. The strict meaning is "of or pertaining to a maternal uncle" [i.e., your mother's brother], but if your mother doesn't have any brothers, I think you can get away with using it to describe your father's nice brother, or even a genial and thoughtful older professor [like me.] The actor Edmund Gwenn, who played characters like Santa Claus in The Miracle on 34th Street was, we might say, an avatar of avuncular.

My next word is actually one whose meaning I know, though most people do not. Meretricious is from the Latin, meretrix, and it literally means "falsely alluring, like a prostitute." [I think that is a quite unnecessary knock at women in the sex trade, but that is neither here nor there.] So a meretricious argument is a sexy bit of logical flim-flam.

Disinterested is one of those words with a very useful meaning that has been corrupted by misuse so that not only the word but, to some extent, the meaning has been lost to us. Disinterested does not mean "uninterested." "Uninterested" is a perfectly good way of saying "not interested." "Disinterested" means "not swayed by interest," impartial as a judge is expected to be. One can have a very great interest in a disagreement or conflict of interests, and yet be totally impartial in judging the rights and wrongs of the matter. One can be disinterested.

A rather curious phrase is memento mori. It sounds as though it ought to have something to do with recollections of death, and in a sense it does. But the literal meaning is rather particular. Apparently, in the Roman Empire, it was the custom, when a general was accorded a triumphant march through the Eternal City to commemorate a victory, for a slave to walk along behind him, whispering in his ear "memento mori," which means roughly, "remember that you too shall die." The idea was to dissuade the general, at the moment of his greatest acclaim, from taking too exalted a view of himself. I think we could have used a bit of that during the Bush years.

Let me close with one more desperate and fruitless effort to get people to stop saying "you and I" when they mean "you and me." "He has offered to give free passes to the concert to you and I" is NOT PROPER ENGLISH. Would you say, "He offered to give a free pass to the concert to I?" Of course you wouldn't. "He offered to give free passes to the concert to you and me" is a short hand way of saying, "He offered to give a free pass to you and he offered to give a free pass to me." It is obvious what happens to people's brains. They know that "He and I went to the movies" is correct. So when they start to form the phrase "he and " they automatically put in "I" as though they were starting a sentence, even when in fact the phrase "him and me" is what is actually called for. "He offered to give free passes to you and I" is a sort of raised pinkie, white doily, prissy proper thing to say, a misguided stab at elegance. I spend a good deal of my time yelling at the television set when supposedly educated people make this mistake. I am very pleased to report that several evenings ago, I actually hear Rachel Maddow make this mistake and then instantly correct herself. I knew there was a reason why I totally love her.


On December 8th, Maciek, in a comment to my blog post, writing from Poland, asked why my family left Suwalki, Poland. Somehow, I failed to see his question, but yesterday, in reviewing the year's posts, I found it. So, Maciek, my apologies, and here is the answer, as I know it. In the nineteenth century, my father's family was named Zarembovitch. They lived in Suwalki, Poland, as I mentioned. Apparently times were very hard, and something close to famine hit the area, so in the 1870's, member of the family left Suwalki and emigrated to Paris, France. There they took up residence mostly in the Jewish section, in the Marais [near rue des Francs Bourgeois], and worked as capmakers, tailors, and so forth. My father's great grandfather was one of those who brought his family to Paris, and one son, Abraham, decided to continue on to America in 1880, shortly after my father's father was born. At Castle Garden in New York [the entry point for immigrants before the more famous Ellis Island was opened], the Immigration Officer asked him for his name. He said, "Abraham Zarembovitch." "Not in America," the official replied. Abraham's brother, Wolf Zarembovitch, had preceded him to America, and had met him at Castle Garden. "What is your name?" the official asked the brother. "Wolf," he replied. "Very well," the official decided, "you are Abraham Wolf." Somehow, an extra "f": got added to the name, and we became the Wolff family. My grandfather, Barnet Wolff, then a baby, grew up to become a leader of the Socialist Party in New York City and the inspiration to me, many years later, for my own political career.

I only learned about the Suwalki roots two years ago when I discovered that I have Parisian relatives -- two retired science professors named Andre and Jacqueline Zarembowich.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Today's post will be a blog about blogs, or, as they say these days, a meta-blog.

[Historical footnote. The prefix "meta-" has come to have the meaning of higher or better or transcendent. So most folks think that metaphysics is somehow about things that are higher than, or transcend, the physical -- such as extrasensory perception, or out of body experiences. The prefix has also come to have the meaning of "second order." Metaethics is not theories about what is good and bad and what we ought to do, but rather is theories about theories about what is good and bad and what we ought to do. The term "metaphysics" came into modern usage, of course, via the essays by Aristotle known as The Metaphysics, and since those essays deal with the nature of Being and other "first things", as Aristotle called certain fundamental questions, the term acquired its modern meaning. But in fact, the essays known as The Metaphysics are simply the texts that, in an edition reintroduced into Western Europe from the Islamic world, came after the book known as The Physics. Now, in Greek, "that come after the Physics" is "ta meta ta physica," so the essays,to which Aristotle gave no name, became known as The Metaphysics.]

Anyway, back to metablogging. One of the things I do as a committed blogger is to surf the web and check out other blogs. Indeed, although I read the NY TIMES every day [mostly for the obituaries, the op ed essays, and the puzzles], I get most of my news from a small group of blogs. So, as a public service to my readers, who all probably have better things to do with their time, here is a guide to the blogs I routinely check.

I. The Huffington Post, accessible at . Started by Arianna Huffington, conservative turned liberal, this is far and away the flashiest of the blogs, with vast amounts of material, big, brightly colored visuals, and a determinedly left bias. The Huffington Post is a strange cross between a rad-lib rant and a trashy gossip sheet. Here you can find the very latest information about the health care struggle or the torture debate, and also the dirt, with photos, of Tiger's multiple mistresses. It is worth checking out her bio on

2. Talking Points Memo, a blog started by Josh Marshall and now staffed by a growing array of politicos, bloggers, and technonerds. You can find it at Like Huffington, Marshall is firmly on the left. Unlike Huffington, he actually does investigative reporting, and is more and a more a source for breaking stories, cited by the mainstream media. TPM is heavy on Washington politics, but mostly omits the trashy gossip that Huffington seems to thrive on. During the exposure of Sarah Palin's clay feet, Marshall broke some key stories. TPM also regularly includes extended comments from its readers, as well as guest pieces.

3. The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan's blog, which is available at Sullivan is an interesting character -- an extremely intelligent and well-educated English gay HIV positive writer who takes conservatism very seriously [Michael Oakeshott, that sort of thing] and grew so disenchanted with George W. Bush that he supported Obama for the presidency. The Daily Dish is a much more personal blog than the Huffington Post or TPM, and although Sullivan has a number of people on his staff, the voice is always distinctively his. There are four subjects about which Sullivan cares deeply, and they absorb the lion's share of his blog. They are: the current state of conservative theory and practice, Gay Rights, the popular upheaval in Iran, and anything scandalous concerning Sarah Palin. On the debates currently roiling the conservative intellectual and political world, Sullivan is a very valuable guide for those of us who do not ordinarily consort with right-leaning types. On Gay Rights he is solid, but not particularly innovative. But, of course, I may be more plugged in to that world than most straights because of the prominent role played in it by my son, Tobias. On the events in Iran he is marvelous, posting pictures and tweets and email messages and texting from protesters in the streets virtually as they are happening. Sullivan is playing a genuinely important role in that on-going struggle, and he puts the mainstream media to shame, both by his commitment and by the speed and skill with which he brings events virtually in real time to as large audience. But it is on the matter of Sarah Palin that Sullivan is the most fun. he was fast off the blocks with loud doubts about the story of Trig's birth, questioning whether the baby really is Palin's, and he has stayed with the larger story, giving readers a front row sweat to every suit, countersuit, rumor, and speculation about the divine Sarah.

4. On a much more serious note, Juan Cole's Informed Comment is the place to go for scholarly commentary on Middle Eastern affairs by a leading scholar in the field. His blog is at Cole is fluent in Arabic and some other regional languages, and really knows the politics of Iraq and Iran in the way that many of us know the politics of the United States. No one in his right mind would try to stay current on American politics by reading someone who does not know English and does not have an intuitive grasp of the nuances of Democratic and Republican Party politics. By the same token, it is insane to look for guidance on Middle Eastern affairs to some self-styled "terrorism expert" who cannot read, write, and speak the languages of the region. Cole's blog is bare bones, not much more technologically sophisticated than this blog, but he is well worth a visit.

Finally, I will mention The Daily Kos, at and FiveThirtyEight, at The Daily Kos is the site started and headed up by Markos Moulitsas, a young political activist. Kos, as he is known, is totally focused on getting Democrats elected to public office at every level from dog catcher to president. He keeps track of primary challenges, election contests, fund-raising and the like in virtually every Congressional District in America, functioning as a sort of modern-day political reporter for the hometown newspaper. he has been tremendously successful in raising money nationally for scores of candidates who never make the national news and hence could not otherwise reach potential supporters outside their region. [I gave $100 once to a list of nineteen promising Democratic challengers trying to win Republican House seats, and received a raft of letters from the candidates thanking me for my $5.26 contribution.] The site regularly runs two features, one of which I really enjoy, the other of which has not captured my loyalty. The first is an "Abbreviated Pundit Round-up," which gives mostly tongue in cheek and totally biased summaries of the day's op ed columns. The other is an "Open Thread and Diary rescue," which gives a second life and a large audience to blog posts from ordinary folks that would otherwise not be noticed. The principal lesson of these rescued diaries is that there are simply thousands and thousands of intelligent, knowledgeable people saying substantive things about every conceivable topic under the sun. My lack of interest is, no doubt, a consequence of the fact that, so far as I know, this blog has not been "rescued." Sigh.

Finally, there is, the creation of the ultimate technonerd, Nate Silver. {In a charming reversal of the flow of influence, Silver's success as a blogger has led to his appearances on the Rachel Maddow Show and other such MSM sites. Silver is a skilled statistician, whose special contributions to the blogosphere are sophisticated analyses of the masses of data spewed out by polling firms and the like about elections. [The title of the blog,l of course refers to the number of members of the House and Senate combined]. During the recent presidential election, multiple visits to the site each day were an absolute necessity. In off years, Silver has a bit of trouble coming up with data to massage, but he is always fun to read, especially if you are an election junkie, as I am.

And there you have it -- my contribution to Metablogging. The surf is up!

Monday, December 28, 2009


Thanks to NotHobbes for pointing out that I failed to create usable lnks in my previous post. After massive frustration, it is all fixed now. I really need a twelve year old girl to help me with this. You can now access my Memoir and my multi-part essasy on the ideal univerrsity by following the links embedded in the post. Enjoy.


Those of us who spend our lives reading, writing, and teaching philosophy are accustomed to the glacial pace at which the field moves. There are bursts of splendid activity -- fourth century B. C. Athens, seventeenth and eighteenth century Northern Europe -- but there are also stretches of five hundred years or more in which not much of note happens. I am reminded of the lovely passage in T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone in which Merlin turns Wart [the young Arthur] into a mountain so that he can get some sense of the perspective from which mountains experience change.

After a lifetime lived at this tortoise pace, the mayfly existence of a blog is unsettling. No sooner have I posted a comment than it disappears into cyberspace, and my blog cries out for new content. Today, the first of my seventy-seventh year, my blog will be devoted to recalling to mind some extended essays that I posted as long ago as last summer. Those of you who have been with me from the start will no doubt remember them, but there seem to be some folks who have joined us along the way, and this recollection is for them.

There are two lengthy texts that have been stored on a website provided by the University of Massachusetts, accessible from a link provided in this blog. Here they are:

First of all, the book length Memoir I wrote six years ago, in the month before my seventieth birthday, entitled A Harvard Education: A Memoir of the Fifties. You can access each chapter by clicking on the following links:

The second extended post laid out in detail my conception of the ideal liberal arts college. This is a fantasy I have indulged on and off over the years -- in a sense a footnote to my 1969 book The Ideal of the University. The entire multi-part essay can be found at:

Finally, there is the eight part essay on South African higher education and the story of my founding of University Scholarships for South African Students. This is not archived, but can be found scattered among the August 2009 posts, which you can access by clicking on that date at the top left of this blog.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


As I am now hours away from my seventy-sixth birthday, my thoughts turn naturally to the birthdays of my youth, back in the years just after World War II. I have never been one for presents, and it is now more than five decades past the time when I either expected or really wanted them, but I do recall fondly what may well have been my favorite birthday present of all.

Right about when the war was ending, my father took me to the Jamaica branch of the New York Public Library and helped me get my own library card. The first book I took out was a stubby fat copy of THE COMPLETE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, all sixty stories and novels. I read them almost in one sitting, in much the way that young people today gobble up Harry Potter. That Christmas/Birthday [since I was born two days after Christmas, my presents were always combined], I got my very own copy. It had a bright red cover, and very thin pages. Over time, the cover frayed, the pages began to yellow, and a few pages even tore, but I clung to the book and read it over and over.

In 1946, The Baker Street Journal was founded, a publication of the official organization of Holmes fans called the Baker Street Irregulars. [For those unfortunate souls who have never read the canonical works, the Baker Street Irregulars were an informal collection of rag-tag street urchins in Victorian London who were Holmes' eyes and ears in the lower classes. He would dispatch them on missions and they would bring back snippets of useful information.] I subscribed to the Journal for several years, possibly from its very inception. Its format -- if this tells you anything -- was larger than ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION and GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION, but a good deal smaller than Colliers, Life, and The Saturday Evening Post. The articles in those days were all deadly serious faux scholarly exercises based on the collectively agreed upon fiction that Sherlock Holmes and John Watson were real people who had actually resided at 221B Baker Street under the tutelary eye of Mrs. Hudson.

The Sherlock Holmes stories are a fascinating collection of late Victorian light fiction. One of the surprising facts about them is that there is almost no violence, of the sort we have become accustomed to even in the traditional country house English mysteries by Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, or John Dickson Carr. Indeed, in some of the stories there is not even an indictable crime.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, like that other Victorian creative figure, Sir Arthur Sullivan, aspired to the status of a serious artist, and he grew to hate his immensely popular creation. Eventually, in a desperate effort to be rid of him, Conan Doyle killed Holmes off at the Reichenbach Falls, but the public were having none of it, so Conan Doyle was compelled to bring Holmes back to life, rather in the fashion of modern television soap operas, papering over the contradiction with the implausible story that Holmes had survived the Falls and had been traveling for several years in the East to sample the wisdom of that part of the world. Indeed, so little did Conan Doyle think of his characters that in one passage, famous among aficionados, he misplaced the wound that Dr. Watson had suffered from a Jezail bullet in Afghanistan, shifting it from the shoulder to a leg.

As a boy, I dreamed of one day publishing my very own article in the Journal, but that was not to be. [My first publication was actually a Letter to the Editor of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, written as a sixteen year old Harvard Freshman.] Somewhere in the rocky passage from boyhood to manhood, my copy of the COMPLETE SHERLOCK HOLMES was lost. I do not anticipate mumbling "rosebud" as I expire, but I do wish I had somehow managed to hang onto that tattered book.

When I next arise, I shall officially be on the downward slope toward octogenarian status. It has been a good run, withal, but much too short.


The mother of a young woman whose doctoral dissertation I directed wrote a book about her [the mother's] experiences with Fundamentalist Christianity. That book will be made into a movie. In the movie, the author will be played by the actress who is currently appearing with George Clooney in his latest film, Up in the Air. So, I figure I am linked to George Clooney by four degrees of separation. How cool is that? Inasmuch as George Clooney undoubtedly knows Kevin Bacon, I am linked to Kevin Bacon by five degrees of separation. Do you suppose Kevin Bacon knows Angelina Jolie?

Friday, December 25, 2009


All of us, I imagine, have a soft spot in our hearts for Al Gore. Robbed of the presidency by a judicial coup worthy of a banana republic, he sucked it up and made himself the international voice of global warming, winning, along the way, a Nobel Prize, an Academy Award, and a Pulitzer Prize -- surely a feat never to be matched.

This morning,I was idly surfing the web [yes, yes, it is Christmas morning -- I must get a life], when my eye fell on a startling phrase: "Martin Peretz, Al Gore's mentor and one of his closest advisers...." "That can't be right," I said to myself, but a bit of googling confirmed that Peretz had been one of Gore's undergraduate Government instructors at Harvard, and had gone on to become a close advisor to the future Vice-President.

Let me tell you a story about Marty Peretz. This goes back a ways. It starts half a century ago in Cambridge, Mass, when I was a young Instructor in Philosophy and General Education at Harvard, and part of an informal group of left-leaning young academics who called ourselves, rather self-importantly, The New Left Club of Cambridge [for those too young to remember, The New Left Club was an important left-wing organization in England and the founder of The New Left Review.] It was an interesting group: Gabe and Joyce Kolko, who went on to do really interesting writing on the left [it is worth looking up Gabe Kolko's early book, Wealth and Power in America.]; Michael Walzer, a political theorist who taught Government for many years at Harvard before relocating to the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study; Gordon Feldman, Nadav Safran, even, believe it or not, Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, later to become fanatic rightwing neo-cons. I was friendly with all of them, and in fact we used to gather every so often for bag lunches in my office. In those days, Marty Peretz was an obnoxious sycophantic little wannabe who hung around with us trying to get accepted into the group. He had gone to Brandeis, where he had attached himself to the columnist Max Lerner.

The defining moment for our group was Kennedy's invasion of Cuba. We had all supported Kennedy enthusiastically [despite Barrington Moore's cautionary warning to me one day that there was not a dime's worth of difference between him and Richard Nixon]. Kennedy, after all, was a Harvard graduate, a liberal, an author [we did not then know that it was Ted Sorensen who had actually written Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage], and to top it off, his wife spoke French. What was not to like? But when he invaded Cuba, each of us had a dark moment of the soul. Kennedy was a liberal. If liberals invaded Cuba, then we were not liberals. But what were we? Faute de mieux, we decided we were Radicals, even though that notion had very little content for us beyond "not a liberal like Kennedy."

Max Lerner the next day wrote a column in the New York POST defending the invasion, and Peretz, ever the suck-up, sided with Lerner, which pretty much finished him, in my eyes anyway.

Time passed, and we scattered. I went on to the University of Chicago, then for seven years to Columbia, and in 1971 to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. In 1973, when I was living in a lovely federal style brick house on a quiet dead end street in Northampton, I got a call one day from a young man who introduced himself as a political scientist in New York City. He was part of a group called Political Scientists for Impeachment who wanted to place an ad in the NY TIMES calling for the removal from office of Richard Nixon. The TIMES, not surprisingly, wanted the money for the ad up front, and he was calling to ask whether I could get in touch with Barrington Moore, Jr. and Martin Peretz. Peretz by this time had married rich and had bought himself The New Republic magazine, which until then had been a pretty good left-liberal journal of opinion.

I told the caller that there was no use getting hold of Moore -- he never gave money to anything, even though he was, in a modest way, independently wealthy. [The caller knew that I knew Moore because Barry, Herbert Marcuse, and I had published a little book together in 1965]. But I thought I could reach Peretz through Walzer. I hadn't talked to Mike in a while, but I knew he was at Harvard, so I found his number and gave him a call. We spent a little time catching up -- I asked him how his wife and daughter were, he asked about my wife and two small sons -- and then I explained why I had called.

There was a long pause -- so long I was afraid the connection had been broken. Then, in a soft voice, Walzer said, "Well, you see, we are supporting Nixon." I was so stunned I was sure I had misheard him. I had never even met anyone supporting Nixon. I spluttered and protested for a bit, asking in a dozen different ways what on earth he was talking about. There was another pause, even longer than the first, and then, in that sweet, soft voice that Jewish men use when they are explaining sadly why they are stabbing you in the back, he said, "Well, you see, Israel."

Suddenly, the scales fell from my eyes. Despite his anti-semitism [now well documented by the White House tapes], Nixon was, for geo-political reasons, a strong supporter of the state of Israel, and that fact, apparently, trumped all other considerations in the eyes of Peretz and Walzer. I was so embarrassed for Walzer that I made a few inane remarks and got off the phone as fast as I could. That was thirty-six years ago, and despite the fact that Michael Walzer and I are both prominent American political theorists, I have never spoken another word to him to this day.

So that Martin Peretz is Al Gore's old instructor, mentor, and close political advisor.

It makes one think.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


For those of you who cannot get enough of Palin debunking, the prime site is Andrew Sullivan's blog [google it]. Sullivan, a bright, articulate, gay conservative having serious problems with the contemporary turn of the Republican Party [he supported Obama in the campaign] is obsessed with Palin -- her lies, the mystery surrounding the birth of her youngest child, Trig, her endless self-promotion. His latest post concerns the things that Levi Johnston [the father of Bristol's baby] has been saying about Palin. There is something deliciously low about reading Sullivan's endless ruminations about Palin -- rather like slumping in front of the tv eating Smorrs from the carton and watching reality shows. It has absolutely no redeeming value, which is to say it is political pornography. I, of course, would never read it. I just pass this along as a public service.


As a compulsive news junkie, I have spent countless hours listening to the political flacks and pundits spin events within seconds of their occurrence. No happening is too important, too serious, too elevated to be trivialized by their inane speculations and self-serving interpretations. On this Christmas Eve [big play for "eve" in the NY TIMES crossword puzzle today], I find myself wondering what the spin doctors would have made of the birth of Jesus.

"This could turn out to be a real boon for the Pharisees if they play their cards right."

"I have just received a tweet from an anonymous source who says Joseph and Mary are not married. Maybe that is why they were denied a place at the inn."

"Later today we will be airing a twelve hour marathon program devoted entirely to exploring in depth the role that the media played in the impregnation of Mary."

"Peter Hart is with us by satellite phone. Peter, you have just done a focus group with some shepherds watching their flocks. What do they have to say about the birth?" "Well, Chris, as your old mentor Tip O'Neil used to say, all politics are local. The shepherds want to know, Is it good for the Jews?"

These and other irreverent thoughts went through my head as I sat in my living room at seven a.m. this morning, delaying my morning walk long enough to see the health care reform bill pass the Senate by an historic 60-39 vote [I have not been able to find out which Republican missed the vote.] Sure enough, no sooner had Vice President Joe Biden, in his role as presiding officer, announced the vote than the MSNBC and CNN talking heads started "interpreting" it for those of us presumably unable to recognize an historic moment when we see one. Right away, the mainstream media types started predicting that the victory would cost the Democrats seats next November, that the bill would be hard to "sell" to the American people, that the defection of a deeply conservative Southern Democrat betokened hard times ahead for Obama.

A little reality check, please. Obama ran on health care reform, he made health care reform his number one priority in his first year as President, he stuck to health care reform even while attempting to pull America back from the brink of a second Great Depression, and he is now one conference report away from delivering health care reform. As he himself said, "I may not be the first President to attempt health care reform, but I will be the last."

If Bush Two or Bush One or Reagan or Ford or Nixon had delivered a legislation triumph of this magnitude, the commentators would be falling over themselves announcing The Second Coming. [They still talk about Reagan that way, despite the fact that his presidency was an unrelieved disaster for the America people.]

So let us all take a deep breath and spend tomorrow reflecting on what has just been achieved. I shall go into hibernation until the conference reconciliation is completed and Pelosi and Reid have mustered, for the last time, the votes needed to pass this huge bill. Then, barely pausing for celebration, Obama and Congress will pivot to the creation of jobs, and devoted their energies to jump-starting an economic recovery.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Herewith the first guest post on this blog. I repeat that anyone is welcome to submit a guess post for the blog.

Cancer Treatment and Health Care Reform

One argument you may hear against health care reform concerns cancer survival rates. The United States has higher cancer survivor rates than countries with national health care systems, we’re told. Doesn’t this mean we should keep what we’ve got and not change it?

Certainly cancer survival rates are a critical issue for people suffering from the deadly lung mesothelioma cancer. So let’s look at this claim and see if there is any substance to it.

First, it’s important to understand that “cancer survival rate” doesn’t mean the rate of people who are cured of a cancer. The cancer survival rate is the percentage of people who survive a certain type of cancer for a specific amount of time, usually five years after diagnosis.

For example, according to the Mayo Clinic, the survivor rate of prostate cancer in the United States is 98 percent. This means that 98 percent of men diagnosed with prostate cancer are still alive five years later. However, this statistic does not tell us whether the men who have survived for five years still have cancer or what number of them may die from it eventually.

Misunderstanding of the term “survivor rate” sometimes is exploited to make misleading claims. For example, in 2007 a pharmaceutical company promoting a drug used to treat colon cancer released statistics showing superior survival rates for its drug over other treatments. Some journalists who used this data in their reporting assumed it meant that the people who survived were cured of cancer, and they wrote that the drug “saved lives.” The drug did extend the lives of of patients, on average by a few months. However, the mortality rate for people who used this drug — meaning the rate of patients who died of the disease — was not improved.

But bloggers and editorial writers who oppose health care reform seized these stories about “saving lives,” noting that this wondrous drug was available in the United States for at least a year before it was in use in Great Britain. Further, Britain has lower cancer survival rates than the U.S. This proved, they said, the superiority of U.S. health care over “socialist” countries.

This is one way propagandists use data to argue that health care in the United States is superior to countries with government-funded health care systems. They selectively compare the most favorable data from the United States with data from the nations least successful at treating cancer. A favorite “comparison” country is Great Britain, whose underfunded National Health Service is struggling.

It is true that the United States compares very well in the area of cancer survival rates, but other countries with national health care systems have similar results.

For example, in 2008 the British medical journal Lancet Oncology published a widely hailed study comparing cancer survival rates in 31 countries. Called the CONCORD study, the researchers found that United States has the highest survival rates for breast and prostate cancer. However, Japan has the highest survival for colon and rectal cancers in men, and France has the highest survival for colon and rectal cancers in women. Canada and Australia also ranked relatively high for most cancers. The differences in the survival data for these “best” countries is very small, and is possibly caused by discrepancies in reporting of data and not the treatment result itself.

And it should be noted that Japan, France, Canada and Australia all have government-funded national health care systems. So, there is no reason to assume that changing the way health care is funded in the U.S. would reduce the quality of cancer care.

Barbara O’Brien


In response to my post about Obama's style of politics, Ann writes, "This second response feels betrayed by the pragmatism, even as I understand how it may be necessary." What can this possibly mean? Disappointed? To be sure. Hungry for more progressive change? Of course. But betrayed? By whom? The use of that word can mean only one thing: that Obama had it within his power to enact a much more progressive piece of legislation, as he had many times indicated he wished to do, but chose not to do so for unacknowledged and reprehensible reasons -- such as that he is a secret conservative, who does not believe in progressive change, or that he has been bought off by malign special interests.

But anyone who paid even the slightest attention to the agonizing process knows that Obama does not have it within his power to pass a significantly more progressive piece of legislation. Indeed, on the basis of the last half century of evidence, it would have been a pretty good bet that neither he nor Nancy Pelosi nor Harry Reid had the power to pass any health care reform legislation at all!

I have said this before on this blog, and I will keep saying it, because it is the truth: It is the American people, by electing the Senators and Representatives who now sit in Congress, who have frustrated the desire of liberals for progressive change. It is not correct to say that the American people have betrayed us, because they have never in any way promised us progressive reform. This simply is not a progressive country. It is a reactionary country with a large liberal minority. I hate that. I have fought it all my life. I will fight it until I die. But I do not imagine that my progressive hopes and dreams have been betrayed by Barack Obama or anyone else.

If the compromises made to assemble majorities in the House and Senate were necessary, then they are not a betrayal! Let it be noted that even in the House, where the Democrats have a large majority and a strongly pro-choice Speaker, a viciously anti-abortion amendment was rammed through with an absolute majority of the votes.

The only genuine betrayal in recent American politics was the Supreme Court's judicial coup d'etat in 2000. That truly was a betrayal, of the Constitution, of the rule of law, of the five Justices' oath of office, and of the American people.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


In response to an earlier post today, Ann asks what Obama's style is. The answer is going to take me a while, so I have decided to make it an independent post rather than a response to a comment.

Let me begin, as I so often do, with a story. Last summer, Susie and I, along with many, many others, volunteered to work in North Carolina in the Obama presidential campaign. A meeting was called in the nearby town of Hillsborough for all those who signed a sheet offering to work in some way in the campaign, and we drove up to a rather nice home donated for the occasion by a sympathizer. Running the meeting were two very young paid staff -- Shilpa, a UNC student on leave for a year, and Andrew, a veteran of the primary campaign in his native Iowa, now traveling the country wherever he was needed.

Perhaps eighteen of us or so gathered in a large circle and Andrew said that we would begin by having each person tell how he or she had come to be involved in Obama's bid for the presidency. This was not to be a quick name-and-profession intro, uttered in an all but inaudible voice. As Andrew made clear from his own story, which started us around the circle, the idea was to really tell us all just what Obama's campaign meant to each of us. After two or three people had taken their turn, I began to get impatient. I was there to get my marching orders and start campaigning. A quick calculation suggested it might take an hour and a half or more to get all the way around the circle. But this was not my show, so I sat quietly waiting my turn.

After a while, three things dawned on me. The first was that this technique was the hallmark of the Obama campaign, and was undoubtedly being repeated in hundreds of living rooms around the country. Andrew and Shilpa had been briefed and trained in Chicago, and were enacting a ritual that the campaign had mandated. The second was that this ritual, tedious though it might be to me, was having the effect of actively involving everyone there in a way that allowed them to take ownership of the campaign and see themselves as active co-creators of it. The third was that almost certainly, this technique had been adapted from Obama's experience as a community organizer.

All of you, surely, have heard the story Obama told countless times on the campaign trail of the meeting at which just this ritual had been enacted. A young White girl spoke a long time about what it meant for her to have an opportunity to work on the campaign. When the turn came around to an old Black man, he just gestured quietly at the White girl and said, "I am here because of her." Tears came to my eyes the first time I heard Obama tell that story, and even now it has the power to move me.

So the first answer to Ann's question is this: Obama is at heart a community organizer, and the techniques, the modalities, the emotions of that role infuse his presidency as it infused his campaign. Presidents differ enormously in the way in which they interact with the people they seek to lead. Roosevelt inspired us by his patrician grace, his moving rhetoric, his deep commitment to progressive ideals. But one cannot imagine him sitting in a circle like that one in Hillsborough, listening, really listening, as each person spoke. Clinton was larger than life, a force of nature, desperately wanting us to love him and willing to give all of himself to win our adoration. Eisenhower had a calm authority that came, I suppose, from having led the largest and most successful invasion in modern warfare. Jack Kennedy was a rock star, a Princeling, distant but intimate, impossibly handsome.

Community organizing is hard work, especially when the community is a Black ghetto in South Side Chicago. Your goals are defined by the needs of the people you are trying to organize -- a stoplight at a dangerous intersection, better garbage collection, a stop to police brutality, more city jobs, tax breaks to keep local businesses from moving to the suburbs. You must lift people's spirits and make them believe in the real possibility of mass action and people power, while being willing to bargain with unsympathetic city bosses and settle for what you can get. You need a shrewd understanding of what is possible, while never losing sight of the collective good for which you are fighting.

As I have remarked before on this blog, one key to understanding Obama's style of governing is the extraordinary line he used to such brilliant effect in his stump speeches. To his adoring audience, he would say, "We are the change we have been waiting for." Think for a moment, really think, what that line means. He did not say, "I am the change you have been waiting for," nor did he even say, "You are the change you have been waiting for." He said, "We are the change we have been waiting for." The "we" here is not the slate of politicians up for election, nor the government employees waiting in Washington, D. C. for a new administration. It is all of us, including Obama himself, who together are ready to change this country. There was never a suggestion that our role would end, and his begin, when the election results were in.

The second clue to Obama's style is his ineffable cool. I recall - do you? - the wonderful moment when, in a speech on the stump, he referred to criticism of himself, and with a Cary Grant-like gesture, brushed his lapel as if to brush off a flea. Little moments like that tell us more about character than the imposing set speeches written by a stable of writers and delivered with the aid of transparent teleprompters. Obama is the coolest man to occupy the presidency in living memory [who knows what Thomas Jefferson was like?]

Put all this together, and I think you have a clue as to how Obama's style as a politician explains his role in the health care reform struggle. This really is his victory, despite the fact that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid carried the water for him, and Rahm Emanuel played eminence grise.

Does that help, Ann?


It is now virtually certain that the Senate will pass the health care reform bill currently before it. We must still suffer through the agonies of the Senate-House conference, but the odds are very great that sometime before his State of the Union address to the assembled members of Congress, the President wll sign a final bill, with as much in the way of bells and whistles, flourishes and furblows, as the White House staff can manage.

When this happens, it will be an enormous political victory for Obama, regardless of the details of the bill, and a terrible defeat for the Republicans. It did not have to be this way, of course. Had the Republicans accepted Obama's offer of bipartisanship, they could have won a bill much closer to what they say they are in favor of, and they would have shared the credit, going into the off-year elections.

But that is not what they wanted. No sooner had Obama taken the oath of office than Republicans began to say, openly and unashamedly, that their primary goal was to make Obama's presidency a failure. Gambling that at least one Democratic senator would break ranks, despite Harry Reid's best efforts, and, in all likelihood, privately hoping that Robert Byrd would expire before the final vote [a hope that devoutly Christian, born-again, but terminally stupid Tom Coburn actually gave voice to on the floor of the Senate], they dug in their heels, doubled down, bullied Olympia Snowe into behaving herself, and went for broke.

The victory, should it occur, will give Obama tremendous momentum going into 2010, just in time to throw his entire administration behind an effort to create jobs.

There is no evidence of which I am aware that the majority of Republicans care two cents about health care. Some of them are in the bag to the health industry lobbies, no doubt, but that is as true of the Democrats as of the Republicans. No one is more beholden to the health care insurance industry than Joe Lieberman, the "Senator from Hartord," as he is referred to, but even he, in the end, has gotten on board, after extracting some concessions for the industry that owns him.

If it comes to pass [he says, crossing the eight fingers with which he is not typing], it will be an extraordinary vindication for Obama's style of governing. And the Republiocans will have given it to him.

Historically, it has been conservatives, not radicals, who cherished ironies, but these days, one must get one's pleasures where one can.

Monday, December 21, 2009


Those of us in what is sometimes referred to as the twilight of life are prone to read the obituaries each day in the NY TIMES. Whom have I survived? Is this a day when all the dead notables are younger than I, or have they all -- rather promisingly -- managed to last at least a decade longer than I have thus far? As the years pass, the first group grows and the second group shrinks, needless to say.

Today, after reading Paul Krugman's minatory piece and Ross Douthat's feeble effort at philosophical depth [he makes David Brooks sound profound, an accomplishment roughly the equivalent of making Jeff Sessions sound intelligent], and doing the crossword puzzle [always embarrassingly easy on Mondays], I turned to the obituary page, and there read a lengthy remembrance of Lincoln Gordon. You probably won't recall him -- I had trouble placing him, despite the fact that I lived through the entirety of his adult career. He made it to ninety-four, a safe eighteen years beyond my own soon to be seventy-six.

As the first sentence of the obit tells us, he was a diplomat, an educator, the President of The Johns Hopkins University, and LBJ's Ambassador to Brazil. He was a lifelong Democrat who played an important role, after the election of Jack Kennedy, in the formulation of what became known as The Alliance for Progress. He wrote a number of books on foreign affairs, mostly with relation to Latin America, none of which I have read. All in all, I thought, a long and honorable life of public service.

Then , in the midst of the fourteen paragraph obit, I read the following:

"Dr. Gordon took up the ambassadorship in Brazil in 1961 at a time of high inflation and just as a left-wing president, Joao Goulart, took office. President Goulart was deposed in a right-wing military coup in 1964. Accusations that Dr. Gordon, his staff and the Central Intelligence Agency had been involved in the coup were repeatedly denied. But in 1976, nearly a decade after stepping down as ambassador, Dr. Gordon acknowledged that the Johnson administration had been prepared to intervene militarily to prevent a leftist takeover of the government."

And there it was. An honorable life of public service, devoted, when necessary, to overthrowing a popularly elected president on behalf of a gang of brutal thugs, all to avoid the disaster of another government in the Western Hemisphere more concerned with the welfare of the people than with the profits of American companies. By a liberal democratic administration!

No, I don't think the revolution will be coming any time soon. The rapture would be a better bet.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


I just listened, live on C-Span, to Sheldon Whitehouse addressing an almost empty Senate [the crucial cloture vote is scheduled for one a.m. tonight.] It was the strongest, most uncompromising, best-delivered condemnation of Republican tactics that I have ever heard. if you would like a boost, search for it on line and listen for a while. It made me feel good -- something in short supply these days. For those of you who do not know, Whitehouse is the junior senator from Rhode Island. A nice factoid: his wife, a marine biologist, is the step granddaughter of Edmund Wilson.


As we close in on a Senate health care reform bill, Howard Dean and a number of other voices on the left have suddenly started calling for the bill to be defeated. has launched a campaign to attack the most liberal senators for failing to fight more vociferously for the public option. This is just madness, a petty pouting at the compromises that had to be made to overcome a Republican filibuster.

I have said this before, and I will say it again. If you are looking for a target for your anger, aim it at the drug companies, at the health care industry, or -- most appropriately -- at the American people. If they were willing to elect sixty Bernie Sanders and Russ Feinbergs, we would live in a socialist paradise. The liberals in the Senate have been fighting a rearguard action since they stepped onto the field of battle. Those forty Republican senators pretty accurately represent perhaps forty percent or more of the American people. Barack Obama won less than 53% of the popular vote. Almost 47% of those voting chose John McCain and Sarah Palin. That is the reality of the American political landscape. Obama positioned himself only moderately to the left of center on the issues, and still only pulled less than 53% of the vote. What is going on in the Senate right now is a complex, messy, infuriating, excruciating, but quite accurate reflection of that reality.

You want Bernie Sanders to call the tune? So do I. Fine. Don't hold protest meetings in Greenwich Village, or Cambridge, Mass, or Berkeley, California, or Hyde Park, Chicago. Hold them in Ogden, Utah or Charleston, South Carolina. Never been to Ogden or Charleston? Wouldn't go on a bet, because they are not your kind of people? Then stop complaining and take what you can get!

Saturday, December 19, 2009


The oldest, simplest, and most easily comprehensible explanation of dramatic military, political, or economic events is the conspiracy theory: Brutus conspiring with the assassins of Caesar, Hotspur conspiring with Glendower, politicos in a smoke-filled room, fat cats forming secret cartels in posh boardrooms. The facts may be devilishly hard to come by, but the explanation is alluringly simple. All really good spy novels [one of which, by Daniel Silva, I am now reading] take it as their fundamental premise that things happen because people [good or bad, as the case may be] get together in secret and plot them. The benign version of this principle of explanation has been given a name by historians: The Great Man Theory of History. From this principle flow the exposes and the biographies of important men and women that regularly show up as History Book Club selections and on best seller lists.

For somewhat more than two centuries now, the very best social scientists have labored to free us from the meretricious attractions of conspiracy theories, and to replace them with deeper, more complex [and, inevitably, less exciting] structural explanations of major historical movements. The forefather of these efforts is Adam Smith's Invisible Hand, but it is in the writings of Karl Marx that the debunking of conspiracy theories really hits its stride. Marx sought the "laws of motion of capitalist economy," and he brushed aside as superficial and "utopian" the notion that the personalities or individual plans and intentions of economic actors played any important role in the unfolding of those laws. He considered ludicrous the notion that economic crashes were caused by greed, or that the rigors of the factory floor were traceable to the malign intentions of entrepreneurs. Since Marx wrote, all of the great social theorists have followed the same path. "Social relationships of production," "manifest and latent functions of social institutions," "socio-economic status," even "the paranoid style in American politics," which last, despite its apparent appeal to the character of individual personalities, is really a social explanation of political phenomena.

It is always a bit of a comedown, for those of us who cut our eyeteeth on structural/functional explanations of social phenomena, to discover that bad people really do get together behind closed doors and plot. Why slog through all those pages of Max Weber and Karl Mannheim and Robert Merton and Talcott Parsons if all we need is a few more Daniel Ellsbergs?

I have labored long and hard in this blog to find a structural explanation for the current fate of the health care reform bill. And yet now, as we approach the final hours, it really does seem as though the pettiness, mean-spiritedness, and bitterness of one passive aggressive wretch explains more than all of my structural/functional theorizing.

It was Marx's view that individuals do not make history. Classes make history, structures of production and exploitation make history, economic contradictions make history. The Napoleons and Wellingtons, the Lincolns and Booths, even the Hitlers and Stalins, simply ride the wave of history.

Who knows? Maybe I should spend my time reading Matt Drudge rather than The Statistical Abstract of the United States.

Friday, December 18, 2009


I am not an enormous fan of Paul Krugman, perhaps because he was an early and fervent supporter of Hillary Clinton in the presidential primary. But his column today in the NY TIMES on health care is exactly right. If I were technologically more sophisticated, I would put an link right here on which you could click, but you can simply go to and find his column on the front page. I recommend it.

Meanwhile, I am engaged in the far more important mission of locating somewhere that I can buy the one brand of cat food that Murray is willing to eat. Were I religious, I would conclude that God is testing me.


As many of you no doubt know, a large pre-winter storm has been working its way East. The weather predictions here in Chapel Hill call for perhaps as much as an inch of snow. Judging from what happened last year when we had a touch of snow one day, the entire Triangle area will close down for a week, all services will cease, people will stop driving, and emergency relief workers will set out on snowshoes with backpacks of candles and cans of food to rescue stranded travelers. Meanwhile, we relocated Northerners will snicker and smirk and cover our mouths to conceal our laughter at these wimpy Southerners. This, of course, is the way Minnesotans would respond to denizens of the Bay State when we would freak out over a mere foot or two of snow. I guess there are Inuits who have a good laugh at Minnsotans.

These days, when my emotions are in turmoil over the train wreck of health care reform and the parlous condition of my cat, Murray, it is oddly soothing to have some weather to grouse about.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Four weeks from now, I will launch my series of lectures on The Thought of Sigmund Freud in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke University. Today, I ordered from a digital voice recorder. I would like to upload my lectures to my blog, but I can not figure out how to do it. Pictures, yes, but voice recordings, not so. Can any of you make suggestions about how I might do this? There is, of course, the possibility that no one in the world is interested, but the very act of blogging presupposes a certain narcissistic self-involvement, so I shall simply assume that someone out there wants to know what I have to say about Freud.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Richard III's great entrance line, "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York," is of course bitterly ironic and malicious in its true intent, but as is the case with many of Shakespeare's words, the line so perfectly captures an idea that it has become detached from its dramatic context and resides in our mind as the perfect expression of a complex feeling. That was the way I, and countless others, felt when Barack Obama miraculously ascended to the presidency. For many of us on the left, that winter of our discontent had lasted for so many winters, springs, summers, and falls that it seemed -- if I may descend from the sublime to the slightly ridiculous -- as though we were trapped in the endless frost of Narnia's Ice Queen.

I am not a fool, and by virtue of having long ago declared myself a radical [when another sun of York, Jack Kennedy, invaded Cuba], I am schooled to expect that the best American politics can offer falls tragically short of the fulfillment of my chiliastic dreams. I paid attention to Obama when he declared, late and soon, that he would pursue the war in Afghanistan. I knew, as any armchair Marxist must, that in an economic crisis, it would be the interests of the monied classes that would be served first by even a Democratic Congress. I confess not to foreseeing that so egregiously obnoxious a self-server as Lawrence Summers would be set atop the new administration's economic team, but a better choice would have made only a marginal difference, after all. And as for Joe Lieberman, about whom I have said more than enough, the Senate throughout my long life has been filled with moral excrescences in positions of eternal longevity. After all, I watched Strom Thumond run for the presidency when I was a boy of fourteen, and it is only by surviving as long as I have that I finally saw the old bastard die. Trust me. To paraphrase Lloyd Bensen, I knew Strom Thurmond, and Joe Lieberman is no Strom Thurmond.

And yet, and yet. Is that all we can say? Must we, like the intellectuals in Stalin's Russia, perform an "inner migration" and seek in the safety of our studies and coffee houses, in the pages of our books and the lines of our poetry, some escape from a world we can neither love nor change? There is too much in me of Tigger and not enough of Eyeore to settle into resignation, even as I find myself only eleven days from my seventy-sixth birthday.

My situation is made more complex by the fact that none of the things that distress me, with one signal exception, have the slightest measurable effect on my actual life. I am financially secure, with two pensions and Social Security, none of which is at all threatened by the current economic crisis. Like many Americans, though not nearly enough, I have excellent health care insurance. The vagaries of old age are apolitical in their incidence, and can hardly be attributed to the ideological coloration of this or any other administration. It is only Obama's failure, thus far, to fulfill the promises he made to the LGBT community that touch me, through the fortunes of my younger son. If truth be told, my emotions at this moment are completely engaged with the health of my cat, Murray, whom we brought home yesterday evening from yet another stay at the vet, with instructions for eight doses of different medications a day. It was his fate, and not that of the Medicare Buy-In Option, that destroyed my sleep last night.

Nevertheless, as the readers of this blog will know, I care deeply about the larger ideological and political turmoil that is currently engaging the nation. Somehow, I must strive to achieve and maintain some balance in my estimation of that turmoil. I must try -- to use a phrase that I have always most particularly and personally hated -- to take things philosophically. I knew that Obama was not the Second Coming, and not having any expectations of the advent of the Rapture, I fully expected to go to my grave with all my fillings and crowns intact. [For those of you mystified by this last turn of phrase, I strongly recommend Googling "rapture" and discovering what tens of millions of your fellow countrymen believe.]

There are, so far as I can see, only four possible responses to the world as we now find it. The first is to embrace the revolutionary vision of a coming upheaval, and hope to live long enough to see it. But for the reasons that I have detailed in my paper, "The Future of Socialism," that is a forlorn hope. Whatever the future will bring, a genuinely humane democratic socialism is not in the cards. The second is resignation and bitterness, for which there is ample justification, heaven knows, but that is simply incompatible with my penchant for engagement [things always sound a great deal more important in French]. The third is emigration, but that is, for me, an unappealing fantasy. There are no better worlds awaiting the determined emgrant -- not France, not England, not Cuba, not Sweden or Norway or Finland. The popular music is just as bad everywhere!

Which leaves the least dramatic of the options -- soldiering on, making a small difference in the way one can, speaking out for what one believes, and trying, either face to face or through the magic of the internet, to find a community of comrades with whom one can make common cause. That, after all, was the greatest appeal of the socialist vision when my grandfather embhraced it, more than a century ago, and it remains the most reliable consolation today. None of us is going to get out of this world alive, as the old saying has it, but as we march toward our inevitable death, let us at least march together, arms linked, singing the Internationale or Bruce Springsteen, as the case may be.

Monday, December 14, 2009


It is a slow Monday morning, foggy here in Chapel Hill. I have a half hour before I take my four mile walk [I hate to start while it is still dark -- I cannot see where to put my feet], so I thought I would take a few minutes to explain why I hate Joe Lieberman so much.

It isn't really political, although right now he is threatening yet again to destroy the coalition for health care reform. Objectively speaking, Lieberman's voting record in Congress is reasonably liberal -- certainly vastly more so than the voting record of Sessions or Kyl or McCain or Hatch or any of the other Republican senators. No, the reason is personal, even though I have never met Lieberman, nor even seen him in person.

There is a certain kind of Jewish man for whom the phrase "passive aggressive" was coined. This is a sweet, slightly sad man with a wry smile about his lips, whose voice is soft and a trifle crooning, who will tell you to your face how much he cares for you and feels your pain, and then knife you in the back every chance he gets. He tends to marry a strong woman to whom he professes undying devotion, even as he shares unvoiced with his fellow men the secret that they are all afraid of their wives. He never exhibits strong passions of any sort -- not anger, not lust, not even real love. Each time he does a sneaky, vicious, underhanded, immoral thing, he gets a sad look on his face as though it were something being done to him, rather than something he has done. In effect, he lives his entire life in the passive rather than the active voice, acknowledging no responsibility for the pain he inflicts, and managing always to communicate that it is hurting him so much that his victim really ought to feel pity for him, rather than rage at what he has done. These passive aggressive Jewish men are, at bottom, bitter. Their supposed sweetness is all sham, made doubly intolerable by their inability ever to admit that it is a sham.

My family was full of men like this. My rage at them is visceral and deeply rooted. To keep from becoming that way, it was necessary for me to reject the unspoken offers of love and affection that came from them, because the price of that love was a willingness to be complicit in the shared lie that they were really decent honorable men. For those who recall my rant about the recent film, A Serious Man, the root of my revulsion was the presence in the movie of an entire community of such men.

Every time I watch Lieberman on television, and hear that sad little catch in his voice, see that sweet, sorrowful smile, I recognize him for the snake he is and want nothing more than -- in the words of the Old Testament that I am sure he carries with him always -- to crush him under my heel.

Well, that was fun. Now for my walk.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Yesterday, I mentioned that I was fuming at Freud's The Future of an Illusion because he seemed to me to be tone deaf to religion. I have now finished reading the short book [I don't read very fast], and in the final pages, he redeems himself. Freud shows himself to be, perhaps, the last unreconstructed Enlightenment rationalist, deeply committed to the conviction that only scientific reason can serve us well in our parlous journey through life. Freud famously said, "Where Id was, let Ego be." The true force of this maxim is somewhat lost in the translation from the German, because in English, the convention has been adopted of using the Latin terms for "it" [Id] and "I" [Ego], whereas in German they are rendered precisely as Es and Ich. "Where It was, let I be," is the proper translation, and it captures perfectly Freud's belief that it is the conscious rational self that is the true I, for all that, as was the first to show us scientifically, that self arises out of, and is forever built on, the instinctual drives and energies that he refers to as It.

Freud hated America, a fact the irony of which has been often noted, inasmuch as psychoanalysis had its most enthusiastic reception in the United States. The Future of an Illusion was published in 1927, during the reign of Prohibition in America. Here is Freud's biting comment on what was happening on this side of the Atlantic:

"That the effect of religious consolations may be likened to that of a narcotic is well illustrated by what is happening in America. There they are now trying -- obviously under the influence of petticoat government -- to deprive people of all stimulants, intoxicants, and other pleasure-producing substances, and instead, by way of compensation, are surfeiting them with piety."

This passage has an eerily contemporary ring. What Freud failed to recognize was the iron grip that religious illusion has on all strata of society, not merely on those whom Freud persisted in calling the lower orders. Despite the flourishing of so-called higher education in this country, Americans of all strata remain irrationally and inseparably wedded to religious beliefs of the most anti-scientific character. Where, save in the United States and in Iran, can one find candidates for public office enthusiastically denying the simple evidence of scientific truth?