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Thursday, August 26, 2010


Lincoln Steffans, the great old turn-of-the-century muckraking journalist, tells the story in his AUTOBIOGRAPHY of the group of bored city desk reporters who created a crime wave one summer by the simple device of reporting everything that turned up on the police blotter each day. There was no actual increase in crime, of course, but the public, suddenly inundated by stories of rapes, burglaries, and murders, started demanding action from the bemused city administration. August is traditionally the silly season in American poliics and public life. The A-team of reporters are off, the public is seriously involved in going to the beach and watching the pennant races, Congress is out of session and, like as not, the president is vacationing. But the media have column inches and air time to fill, so the stories get a little wacky. Everyone understands that after Labor Day, an appropriate seriousness will descend upon the land.

It would be comforting to classify the current uproar over a proposed Muslim community center near "ground zero' as just one more bit of Silly Season news filler, but I very much fear darker angels are at work here. Xenophobic know-nothing hysteria is a constant theme in American politics. "Freedom Fries" are scarcely an innovation. Recall that when the United States entered World War I, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor fired the entire German Department. It is entirely appropriate that the most fanatical, narrow-minded medieval Christians and Jews in America should condemn all Islam for being -- fanatical, narrow-minded, and medieval. The schoolyard taunt -- it takes one to know one -- has never been more apposite.

LBJ famously said of the White House full of Harvard whiz kids he inherited from the assassinated JFK, "I just wish one of them had run for sherif." Somewhere in my heart is a voice that says of the urbane, fiercely intelligent, fundamentally decent Barack Obama, "I just wish he had once faced Bull Conner." I have given up the hope that this ugly strain in America will ever disappear. It seems to be a permanent motif of the national grand opera. Over and over again, we are forced to confront it, fight against it, beat it back, and try for a few sane moments to engage with the real world, not the world of over-heated sectarian fears and hatreds.

Perhaps there is an element of summer silliness in the current hysteria. If that is so, all I can say is that I have never looked so longingly to labor Day.


Chris said...

I was nodding my head in complete agreement with you until I read what is ostensibly an overview of Obama that seems to not chastise the War President! How can a man be a decent human being when he supports a coup in Honduras, expands a war in Afghanistan, escalates drone attacks across the entire middle-east, supports clandestine bombing in Yemen, and expands clandestine operations in several Key African states. Not to mention some other policies, such as assassination, bagram, etc etc etc.

My fellow could you!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Sigh. I know, I know. But as I explained on my blog some good while ago, I have spent so much of my life being angry at everyone and everything that I feel as though bile were mother's milk to me. I have to have some hope, or my declining years will be nothing but rages and regrets. I am not ready yet to give up on Obama, and I am terrified of the alternatives. In my next post [later today], I will say something about the NY TIMES story about the CIA funding of the corruption in Afghanistan. There are some people who seem to be cheered up by their expressions of outrage [Dickens was one, judging from the biography I am reading]. Maybe Noam is as well. But I am not, to use that wonderful old phrase from American politics, a Happy Warrior.

English Jerk said...

Dr. Wolff,

A source of hope is definitely a necessity, not just to make oneself feel better but also to inform one's long-term political goals. And the long term political goals suggested in your anarchism book involve direct democracy, which in turn depends on having hope in the fundamental rationality and decency of ordinary people (which is where Chomsky puts his hope, as he has said countless times over the years). After all, it only makes sense to say that ordinary people should have control over their lives if you have confidence that ordinary people will be able to handle the responsibility. And surely putting your hope in ordinary people is more plausible than putting your hope in a mass-murdering plutocrat?

Here's a recent Chomsky talk on Obama, among other things:

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you. As soon as I manage the complexities, I will watch it.

Unknown said...

It's pie-in-the-sky to expect better presidents and policies. Consider what we might have had in the last go-round and the overwhelming necessity for electability. The perfect is the enemy of the acceptable. The option of not voting concedes to the opposition. All too obvious to the realists.

Chris said...

Chomsky has said before, roughly "under the facade, I'm almost always seething." That said, lingering hope in Obama merely means his campaign slogans got to you!

English Jerk said...


You seem to be assuming that the current political arrangements in the US are eternal. That assumption is hardly "realism" since many different ways of organizing social and political life have existed and do exist.

Or, to put the point more generally, the fact that the political/economic system has been some particular way in the past doesn't at all determine how it can be in the future. Political and economic systems are created by human beings, and human beings are always capable of doing something different than what they've done before. Innovation in any sphere would otherwise be impossible.

The hope, in short, is not for better presidents, or better kings, or better bosses. The hope is for ordinary people themselves to have direct control over the political and economic conditions of their existence. Fulfilling that hope will involve doing more than pulling a lever in a curtained booth, of course. But doing the right thing has never been that easy.

Unknown said...

Of course our political arrangements are not eternal, but I'm not hearing any specific feasible suggestions for changing them, and in the meantime......Perhaps we could start by eliminating the money effect in politics. An interestingly pertinent article is in this week's New Yorker, "Covert Operations".

Scott said...

My alma mater fired the entire German Department? Can you point me to a reference? I'd never heard that before.

Unknown said...

Some schools do lunatic things for various reasons. My degree from BUSM "58 would have been withheld if I hadn"t caved and signed a vow of fealty to the U.S. It has gnawed at me ever since and colored my feeling toward the school in many ways.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Scott, here is a link I found quickly through Google to an article that speaks of the firing of six German profs at Michigan. Check it out.

Brenda, is BUSM Boston University School of Management?

My uncle Bob, who was a Physics and Astronomy professor at CCNY, told me the story [it is in my Memoir, I think] that at CCNY, a German professor's classes were all cancelled. He said, "Fine, you can reach me at home if you want me" and walked out. They reinstated his classes.

Unknown said...

Bob: BUSM is Boston University School of Medicine. As far as I know, I was the only one who gave them an argument about signing the statement, vow, or whatever you call such a thing. I wasn't about to waste 4 years so I signed with a protest amendment. My husband, a physicist, had already had all sorts of trouble because of some of his left wing New York cousins. McCarthy and HUAC were a real problem, as you know, but sometimes caving in to nonsense that harms only oneself is the only solution. Did they really think that signing a piece of paper was a deterrent?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Brenda, That is really despicable. And long before the malign presidency of John Silber. Of course you did the right thing. When I was a boy, in college, I had a big fight with my father iover the NY Cioty School System's decision to fire a small group of high school teachers who were members of the Communist Party. By an odd quirk of fate, ten years later, the son of one of those teachers was my student at Harvard. One of the less happy consdequences of living as long as I have is the ability to remember some of the other ugly times in America's past. By the way, how on earth did you find your way to my blog? Needless to say, I am very pleased that you did.

Unknown said...

Bob: I found your blog by pure chance, the same way I find many things on the net, and recognized your name because it was indelibly associated with the first time I saw the Three Penny Opera in NYC.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Ok, that one needs to be explained! What on earth is the connection with Three Penny Opera? A propos, Susie and I once saw a weird performance of same with Sting as Mcheath, no less, while we were on our way to Paris for a weekend to use up some frequent flier miles I accumulated by going to Sidney, Australia for the weekend to watch my son play a chess game. [top that!]

Unknown said...

I'm switching to email.

gwern said...

'sherif'? But I thought one had to be born a sherif ( :)