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Thursday, September 30, 2010


One of the commentators ["Wallyverr"] asks a very probing question about the study of society. Has Social Studies outlived its usefulness, he [she?] asks, suggesting that Foucault, Habermas, and de Beauvoir, among other authors added to the core reading list, are not in the same league with the originals: Smith, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, et al. I actually had an elaborate answer to that question in the main body of my remarks at the Social Studies lunch, but in my first blog on the affair, I only reproduced the final portion of my little speech, the portion devoted to the Peretz affair.

Since I did not write any of this down, I must reconstruct what I said from memory -- and you will understand that it was crafted for the event, not as a general discussion of how to study society. Still and all, what I said expresses some thoughts that are apposite to Wallyverr's question, so I shall try to reproduce here what I said. Those who find this much attention to Social Studies too parochial can just take a break from this blog until I return to Sarah Palin and Christine Donnelly. [I see that Donnelly has been falsifying her educational resume. That always strikes me as just dumb, since it is the easiest thing to check. Probably better to claim that you are a Mafia informant in the Witness Protection Program.]

Leaving aside some introductory remarks, here, as best I can reproduce it, is what I said at the lunch, before turning to the Peretz fiasco.

"But why is it that the core readings in Social Studies have not changed for fifty years? [I actually had with me the original reading list from 1960-61]? I will try to answer that question with yet another story from the early days of Social Studies, but it will take me a moment to sketch the background, so bear with me.

"In the early '50s, a famous Swarthmore social psychologist named Solomon Asch did an experiment to study the effect of social pressure on belief and perception. [Asch published an article about his research in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. You can find it if you Google it.] Briefly, Asch put a small group of young college men in a seminar room and told them he was studying perception. In fact, only one young man was a real subject; the others were Asch's collaborators. Asch then showed the men two cards. On the first were three straight lines of very unequal length. On the second was one line, obviously equal in length to one of the three lines. He asked each student in turn which line on the card of three the single line matched. At first, as he went around the table, everyone gave the same correct answer. But then, as he showed them successive pairs of cards, everyone but the last to be called on [who was the real subject] gave the same obviously wrong answer. The first or second time around, the real subject, looking puzzled or troubled, gave the correct answer, but as the experiment continued, with everyone in the room giving a wrong answer, a significant percentage of the subjects -- more than a third -- started to go along with the group and give the wrong answer also. When Asch interviewed these men later -- the ones who had switched to the wrong answers -- some said they just did not want to "spoil the experiment." Some said that at first they thought everyone was wrong, but after a while they began to think something was wrong with their own judgment. And some even said that although the line chosen by the group looked unequal to the other line, when they looked closely they could see that it was really equal.

"The experiment was much commented upon, and everyone took it as distressing evidence of the effects of social pressure on conformity of behavior. But I was interested in another aspect of the experiment. It occurred to me that in order to perform the experiment, Asch had first to take a position on what the correct and incorrect answers were. Otherwise, he would just have statistics about shifting public opinion, which would reveal nothing about the distorting effects of social pressure. Well, obviously, you will say. After all, Asch needed simply to put a ruler down next to the lines and measure them.

"I first read the Asch experiment in the early Fall of 1960, just as Social Studies was starting. One day, in October, I ran into Barrington Moore on the street and we stopped to chat. [I had already explained that Barry and I co-taught one of the first Sophomore group tutorials that first year, and I spoke of what an extraordinary educational experience this was for me.] This was during the run-up to the 1960 presidential election in which John F. Kennedy was running against Richard M. Nixon. Everyone at Harvard was mad for Kennedy, of course. He was a Harvard man, his wife spoke French, and he had even won a Pulitzer Prize -- although we did not know then that Ted Sorenson had written the book for which he won the prize. I talked excitedly to Moore about the campaign, and said that I hoped Kennedy would win. Moore looked down his long, aristocratic nose at me and then said, 'There's not a dime's worth of difference between them.' Then he walked on.

"I thought that was just Barry being his usual contrarian self, but Kennedy got selected, and the first thing he did was to invade Cuba. The scales fell from my eyes and I realized Barry was right. Now, even back then, social scientists were doing a good deal of public opinion polling, but I thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting for someone to do a study of why so many voters perceived Kennedy and Nixon as unequal when they were obviously equal?'

"'Ah well,' you will say. 'To do such an experiment, the social scientist would have to be able to look beneath the surface appearances of society to the underlying socio-economic reality. AND THAT IS PRECISELY WHAT THE STUDY OF SMITH AND MARX AND DURKHEIM AND FREUD AND WEBER TEACHES US TO DO. Each of these authors, in his different way, goes beneath surface appearances to examine underlying social and economic realities. That is why those authors have been on the reading list for fifty years.

"But, you will protest, it is easy enough for Asch to determine whether two lines are equal or un equal in length. He just lays a rule down next to them and measures them. But to say that Kennedy and Nixon are equal, the social scientist must take a political or ideological position. Any such investigation is, as the French used to say, guilty. That is, it is inseparable from some ideological stance. How will we as students know what ideological stance to take?

"You are correct. And what is more, Smith and Marx and Durkheim and Freud and Weber cannot answer that question for you. I will give you an answer, by telling you another story, this time from my years teaching at Columbia. In 1968, as some of you will recall, the students occupied several buildings and brought the university to a screeching halt for two weeks. The next semester, I was teaching a course in which I was anguishing over my inability to find, in the text of Kant's GROUNDWORK OF THE METAPHYICS OF MORALS, an absolutely valid a priori proof of the universal validity of the fundamental moral principle, the categorical Imperative. After class one day, one of the students came up to talk to me. He was one of the SDS students who had seized the buildings, and I knew that he was active off campus in union organizing. 'Why are you so concerned about finding that argument?' he asked. Well, I said, if I cannot find such an argument, how will I know what to do? He looked at me as one looks at a very young child, and replied, 'First you have to decide which side you are on. Then you will be able to figure out what you ought to do.'

"At the time, I thought this was a big cop-out, but as the years have passed, I have realized the wisdom in what he said. I want [I now said] to direct these next remarks to the undergraduates who are here today. [There were maybe two dozen among the 200 people at the lunch]. As you complete your studies and go out into the world, you have a decision to make. You must decide who your comrades are going to be in life's struggles. You must decide which side you are on. Will you side with the oppressed, or with the oppressors? Will you side with the exploiters, or with the exploited? Will you side with the occupiers, or with the occupied? I cannot make that decision for you, and neither can Smith and Marx and Durkheim and Freud and Weber. All I can do is to promise you that if you side with the oppressed, with the exploited, with the occupied, then the next time you decide to seize a building, I will be with you."

Then I went into my little speech about the Peretz affair.

I do not know whether this answers your question, Wallyver, but it is what I said last Saturday.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


I have been thinking some more about the Harvard visit, and would like to say a few things about Afro-American Studies that have nothing whatsoever to do with Peretz. They do have something to do with Social Studies, and also with the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard, as opposed to the UMass department in which I served for sixteen years, twelve of them as Graduate Program Director of our doctoral program. [I have talked about all of this in them last chapter of my book, AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN EX-WHITE MAN, but since no one has ever read that book, I will not be repeating myself.]

The fundamental organizational or structural fact about American universities is that tenure is through departments. Faculty positions -- called "lines" -- are assigned to departments and reside in departments. When a professor retires or leaves for any reason, the department tries -- sometimes successfully, sometimes not -- to retain control of the line, so that they can recruit someone else to fill it. The size of a department is measured by the number of tenure lines it has.

Quite often, universities create programs that do not reside in departments. These programs are staffed either by professors appointed to non-tenure track lines, or else by professors who have an appointment in a home department which controls their line. If these programs are in favor, they may be the recipients of large amounts of what is called "soft money," awarded to them directly out of the discretionary budget of the Provost or President, not out of the budget of a Dean. So long as times are good and they retain the good will of the central administration, they can flourish, and be the envy of cash strapped departments, but without tenure lines and departmental status and the protection of a Dean to whom they report, such operations are in a permanently perilous situation.

Forty years ago and more, in reaction to the Civil Rights Movement and the arrival on northern campuses for the first time of large numbers of Black students, colleges and universities around the country rushed to respond to the protests and pressure from the new group of students by creating Programs, Committees, Degree Programs, and Centers of Black Studies, Afro-American Studies, or Africana Studies. Roughly five hundred such programs were rushed into existence. In only a small handful of cases, however, were stand alone real departments created with tenure track lines and a reporting line to a Dean [Humanities or Social Sciences, typically]. Sometimes, so-called departments were created in which the faculty held joint appointments with established departments. In those cases, the Black Studies professors could get tenure IF THEY WERE ABLE TO PERSUADE THEIR HOME DEPARTMENT TO USE ONE OF THEIR SCARCE LINES FOR IT. But the simple fact was that at any moment, a university could terminate a department of Black Studies, once the political pressure was off, and farm the faculty out to the departments in which they held joint appointments.

When the excitement about civil rights waned, the number of such operations dwindled to roughly two hundred. UMass was one of the very small number of schools where a real, free standing department was created, in which people got tenure. As a result, despite the endless budget crises that afflicted Massachusetts, the department survived, and eventually created only the second doctoral program in the country [after Temple.]. Harvard, by contrast, created a department in which EVERY SINGLE PROFESSOR HOLDS A JOINT APPOINTMENT. When Skip Gates assembled his famous "dream team," he situated every one of his high profile catches, including himself, in a Real department. Once this group got around to developing a doctoral program, they institutionalized their belief that Afro-American Studies is not a real discipline by requiring every one of their doctoral students to earn an M. A. in a "real" department -- History, English, Government, Sociology. Skip raised a ton of money, and still does, but he either never asked for, or never got, real departmental status.

Social Studies, now fifty years old, is a program run by a committee of senior faculty from real departments. It has had a series of junior non-tenure track faculty, and has never acquired real departmental status. That fact, of which the folks running Social Studies are painfully aware, is the defining fact about the program. Even after fifty years, which is a very long time, Harvard could at any moment terminate the program without breaking tenure.

This may sound like inside baseball to those of you who are not academics, but it is as important to the reality of Social Studies as the arcane rules of the Senate are to Congressional legislation.


Here is the long email I received from a former Social Studies student. I think it shows, better than anything I could say, just how remarkable the Social Studies students have been, and how much they somehow managed to learn, despite what I describe as crippling inadequacies in the program. I am not going to respond to the criticisms he offers, mostly because I agree with them. All I can say is this: I wish there were a way for me to put together a class of students consisting of all the people who have made wonderful comments on my blog over the past year. What fun that class would be to teach!

Dear Professor Wolff,

I read with great interest and appreciation your blog posts on the 50th Anniversary Celebration of Social Studies. As an alumnus of the Social Studies program myself, I had several thoughts in response to them. My first instinct was naturally to post them as a comment to your blog, but I've decided instead -- at first, at least -- to address them to you privately, in an email. The email is, as yet, unwritten, but I suspect it will be fairly lengthy. I know you're busy and that you receive lots of correspondence, so I understand, of course, if you're unable to read through it. Certainly, you shouldn't feel obligated to respond.

First of all, let me introduce myself. My name is Rob, and I'm currently a second year graduate student in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. I grew up in Jamaica Plain (that's a neighborhood in Boston, as I assume you know) and attended high school at Boston Latin School (despite which, I am sad to report, I would still have had to look up "olet," had you not provided the translation -- it's been a long time!) -- so I suspect you've encountered several of my classmates during your years at UMass. After graduating from Harvard in '03, I spent the next several years teaching U.S. History, Economics, and Participation in Government in a vocational high school in East New York (that's a neighborhood in Brooklyn), then running an after-school tennis and literacy program for middle schoolers in the Boston Public Schools, and finally teaching Business Ethics as an adjunct at nights at Brooklyn College, working days as an education policy advisor for a New York City Council Member. My father was an English teacher at the Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester during the Boston busing crisis, but was suddenly laid off in the year I was born -- in part because of the Reagan budget cuts.

I include all of this biographical minutiae first, I suspect, because of the natural asymmetry between how interesting we all find our own lives, and how interesting others find them -- but also because I hope they demonstrate that I have, at least for a person still relatively inexperienced, some perspective on the issues of institutional character that you bring up in your second post, in which you discuss (among other things) the relative merits of Social Studies and STPEC, and those of Ivy League vs. public institutions more generally. Also, because I have come to admire you, both through your writings and through what I've learned about the things you've done in your career, I hope you'll recognize in the activities listed above that I might be something of an admittedly less accomplished kindred spirit.

So, before launching into some very measured criticisms, let me first say that I am among the very many that feel that your memoirs constitute a wonderful exception to the truism about asymmetry of interest that I mentioned in the paragraph above, and, furthermore, that as an alumnus of Social Studies who was unable to attend the 50th Anniversary Celebration, I am deeply grateful to you for your eloquent and pithy expression of disappointment at the Committee's decision to honor Marty Peretz -- disappointment I am in full sympathy with.

That said, here are a few comments that are more or less critical. First of all, in your comments on Social Studies, I think you overrate the importance of ideological purity -- or, to use maybe a more accurate, sympathetic term, intellectual integrity -- in education. I say "overrate" because I agree with you, very strongly, that these are matters of deep educational importance -- in much the same way, though even more pronounced, that I think an important criterion in the quality of an artwork (which is, after all, a piece of communication) is the integrity of the artist. (This, incidentally, is why I have no intention of reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.) "We learn," you say, "how to act courageously and effectively not only by mastering texts and grasping concepts -- accomplishments that are essential, I believe -- but also by coming to see how these intellectual skills are inseparably linked to traits of character -- courage, honesty, integrity." And thank goodness someone is still saying that! But you also say:

I could not learn social theory from Marty Peretz, because who he is would interfere fatally with what he was supposedly teaching me. And what is more, I could not learn social theory from someone who would make excuses for Marty Peretz as "a wonderful teacher." So, whatever generations of Social Studies students may think, and however famous Michael Walzer may be, they were not learning how to be fighters for social justice from him. Nor could I learn to be a fighter for social justice from a program that, when the money was dangled, was willing to honor the likes of Peretz.

I think this is a very unhelpful overstatement, for a variety of reasons. First of all, I am a graduate of this program -- the one that took the dangling money -- and a graduate of Harvard University, which (as you point out) was undoubtedly even more grasping than the Committee on Social Studies. Yet your quote suggests that this lack of integrity makes it impossible for me, as a student of this concentration, at this institution, to have learned social theory, or developed a sense of social justice (at least, not as a result of my education in this program). But this is just wrong, and for several very important reasons. For one, it ignores students' own agency in their education. The protesting students you admired in your posts were Harvard Social Studies students, and I very much doubt that their decision to protest, and the arguments they used to justify their position, were wholly divorced from the education they've received in Social Studies. I remember, when I was a high school teacher, opening my unit on American slavery by reading aloud, with my classes, Frederick Douglass's speech, "What to the Slave Is the 4th of July." The night before the first time I taught that particular class, I reread part of Frederick Douglass's autobiography in preparation, and remembered, to my astonishment, that one way he learned how to read was trading food with local white children in exchange for lessons in the alphabet. It seems unlikely that this experience was not part of his development into one of our country's greatest men of letters and champions of social justice, and, though I know nothing about the intellectual integrity of the children who required Douglass's lunch in exchange for reading lessons, I doubt that Douglass's education would have been held hostage had they not been good Liberals, or good Marxists, or lacked the courage of their convictions. Finally, I remember teaching my senior Economics students largely from my coursepack from Social Analysis 10, the year-long introductory Economics course that I had to take to fulfill a Social Studies requirement, and which, at the time, was taught by Martin Feldstein (who, as I'm sure you know, was previously the Chair of President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisors). I can't say that it was Prof. Feldstein who inspired me to become a high school teacher in East New York, but, thanks in large part to what I learned as a student in his class, I was able to teach my students about (for instance): basic supply-and-demand curves, Gini coefficients, the supposed trade-offs between equality and efficiency, the structure of current debates over taxation,cap-and-trade, and school vouchers, and the operations of the Federal Reserve System (among many other things), while their classmates with other economics teachers were learning things like how to balance a checkbook, how to calculate the tip on a restaurant bill, how to open a savings account, and how to make a personal monthly budget. (Incidentally, I did teach these things too! They're important! I also tried to teach them how not to get ripped off by cell phone and credit card companies.) My point being, thanks to my own agency as a student, but thanks also to what I learned from Professor Feldstein, I believe I was able to empower my own high school students to engage as responsible citizens in our political process (particularly with regard to economic debates) in ways that they are too often not taught.

Second, I think your statement above is altogether too breezy in its equation of the administrative decisions of a body that exercises ultimate bureaucratic authority over an educational program with the education provided within that program, which is, in large part, constituted by the interactions inside the classroom between students and their teachers, and interactions outside the classroom between students, and between students and the works that they read. The fact that the administrators of the Social Studies concentration and their bureaucratic superiors were, in this instance, corrupt, does not invalidate or fatally undermine the fact that many (though, undoubtedly, too few) of the faculty members and tutors who teach in Social Studies have great intellectual integrity, and are excellent educators. (When I taught in the New York City Public Schools, the Department of Education was headed by Joel Klein, whose incessant and self-aggrandizing cheerleading of the fatuous "No Excuses" approach to education reform was, in my opinion, not only lacking in integrity, but insufferable to boot. Though the trickle-down effect of his policies was often a thorn in my side, as an educator you must know that there is a sanctity to a teacher in her classroom that, if she is at all clever, is extremely difficult for a bureaucrat to violate. Needless to say, I do not believe that it was impossible for my students to learn a sense of social justice in my classes because we met under the bureaucratic auspices of the New York City Department of Education.)

Finally, I don't even think your most explicit point -- that one cannot directly learn a sense of social justice from one who lacks personal integrity -- is wholly right. I don't mean this as any defense of Marty Peretz, of whom I know nothing beyond a few of the more salacious facts that have been circulating in the public. (Facts, incidentally, that I think more than sufficient to support the conclusion that it is shameful for Social Studies to be honoring him.) But, as a general point, human beings are complicated, and, as an interaction between several human beings, teaching is even more complicated. I had a colleague named Jeff [not his real name] at Aeronautics High School (the vocational school I've been reminiscing about -- again, not the real name of the school) who had the personality of a small time Rush Limbaugh. He loudly taunted me, my students, and a friend I had asked to chaperon on the morning of our field trip to the United Nations. He might very well have said things much like Marty Peretz has in the teachers' lounge; and he once interrupted a session of state exam grading by standing on the front classroom desk, detaching and waving the room's American flag, and blasting this song from his computer; once, while I was observing his class (I was supposed to be learning from him, as a "master" teacher), a student threw a crumpled paper at him while his back was turned: he told the class that the first student to tell him who did it would receive an automatic A, and after several students volunteered the information, he gave the student who threw the paper an F for the semester. (Incidentally, I don't think he ultimately followed through on that promise, though I don't know.) Some of this (like the taunting) I took in stride with a laugh -- the controversy only made my students more interested, anyway -- some of it, particularly the last, I found completely reprehensible. Nonetheless, in many ways, Jeff was a wonderful teacher. He was always engaged with, and wanted to engage, his students. He loved U.S. History and had an irrepressible enthusiasm everyday for his class. In short, many, many students in New York City had worse teachers -- many students at Harvard did, too. Certainly, there were ugly things about Jeff, and intellectual integrity is a long way from the first phrase that comes to my mind when I think of him. His good characteristics as a teacher don't excuse any of that ugliness, but neither does the ugliness wholly invalidate the good aspects of Jeff's teaching. And I, for one, am thankful to be able to see and appreciate both sides of Jeff, in no small part because good teaching is a beautiful thing. (Incidentally, in spite of Jeff's considerable efforts, his students did not, by and large, become little Limbaugh zombies -- this, I think, is related to the first point I made. But they did leave his class, more often than not, arguing jovially (if sometimes superficially) about U.S. History, or U.S. politics. And often they had me the next semester! So, although I didn't worry too much about correcting any Reagonimic leanings (I hoped the facts of the historical record might do this), I did try to deepen some of what had been superficial.)

Next, I want to address, only for a short moment, your more general criticism of Harvard. (Or, if "criticism" is too strong a word, imputing more rigor than your contemplations intended, then your negative attitude -- which I do not assume constitutes the whole of your feelings towards the institution.) In short, I share it, and for many of the same reasons that you describe. (In fact, I was nominated by my classmates for whatever was the Harvard hating award in our senior yearbook -- I was mostly surprised that a sufficient number of classmates even knew who I was to make the nomination). So these comments fall more in the line of personal reflection, than they do criticism. But the reflection is this: it can be very easy, I've come to think, to criticize Harvard, as a Harvard graduate. This is because though we criticize, we don't lose any of the benefits that come with being Harvard alumni. Upon learning that we've graduated from Harvard, people are generally inclined to respect our intelligence just for that reason; we're more likely to get jobs, or be accepted to graduate or professional school. Often, when we meet people in positions of power, we find that they too went to Harvard, and can (even inadvertently) forge some small but beneficial personal connection discussing which house we were in, or how times have changed in this or that way, etc. But we also doubtlessly benefit in less superficial ways from having gone to Harvard: from the (in many, though not all ways) excellent education we received there, and especially from the many brilliant classmates we had. None of this, of course, makes me an unabashed Harvard patriot -- I am still far closer to being the opposite -- but it has, in recent years, given me the uneasy feeling that, when I criticize Harvard without (at least occasionally!) acknowledging the good things it's given me, I'm having my cake and eating it, too. I look good, like a person of high integrity, by disowning the advantages of superficial and unjustified origin that I've had as a Harvard alumnus, but, though disowning them, I continue to benefit from them. That uneasy feeling has led me, recently, to temper (not mute) my criticisms of the institution by acknowledging alongside the good things it's given me. Chiefly, as the years have passed, I cannot help but be grateful to Harvard for the amazing group of friends that I met there who, six years later, are still some of the most important people in my life. They are, I think, special, and though I have mostly luck to thank for meeting them (I'm convinced that they stand out from the vast majority of my Harvard classmates) I don't think the fact that I met them at Harvard is wholly incidental to some of the features of that institution. I'll repeat, here, that I don't think any of this contradicts any of what you wrote -- it's just a related reflection that I wanted to share.

It does, however, lead me to one final criticism. In the second of your posts, you wrote:

Now, many of the people at UMass are quite as smart and intellectually accomplished as those at Harvard. I will put Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis up against anyone in the Harvard Economics Department, and I had three or four colleagues in Afro-American Studies who were clearly more than a match for Skip Gates or Tony Appiah or even the irrepressible Cornell West. But at Harvard [and elsewhere in the Ivy League] there is all that money, and all those titles [everyone sits in a name chair], and all that attention and reverence in the media.

I like the way you phrased your first point, about the strength of your colleagues in UMass's economics department. But I found the tone of your second comment, about Af-Am departments, unnecessarily snide and ungenerous. It is, of course, a very small point. But Anthony Appiah was a teacher of mine at Harvard -- one of my very best teachers, in point of fact. Whether true or not, I don't see what purpose it serves to publicly point out that unnamed colleagues of yours at UMass are smarter and more intellectually accomplished than he is. I don't object to this as a potential fact -- the more brilliant and accomplished people there are teaching students, the better, of course -- but why is it necessary to make the point by comparing Anthony Appiah (or anyone else, by name) unfavorably with them? The effect is to divert attention from the wonderful and brilliant colleagues that you do not name, and to subtly disparage Professor Appiah's own intelligence or accomplishments -- as if they are overblown by the money of the institutions that employ him. (This is something, incidentally, that he himself would certainly not deny. Nonetheless, it seems graceless to bring it up for little reason, and without any explication. If you think it important to point out that Professor Appiah as an individual receives much more credit than he deserves, then take the time to argue the point and explain why it's important. Otherwise, leave individual names out of the unfavorable side of the comparison, and focus on the people you want to compliment.)

I don't know how well you know Professor Appiah, or how well acquainted you are with the entirety of his work. Certainly, you're entitled to your opinion of him -- and of course the logic of your statement doesn't at all exclude the possibility that that opinion is a very high one. Furthermore, I very much agree with you that intellectual brilliance is to be found in many places outside the walls of elite institutions -- I had excellent students and amazing colleagues at Transit Tech and at Brooklyn College, as well as at Harvard. That said, I want to let you know that Anthony Appiah is, without a doubt, one of the most impressive and brilliant minds I have ever encountered, anywhere. Additionally, he is, in my experience, a wonderful teacher, who cares about his students, and is passionate, as you are, about social justice. Obviously, the two of you aren't in complete agreement in your views about politics and economics, but I can tell you with complete confidence that, both as a teacher and as a writer, he has taught me very much about social justice, and helped me better understand who I am, and the world around me. I'm a better teacher and a better person thanks to his efforts, and though you may not approve of this or that of his opinions, I think you would approve heartily of many of the things that I and other of his students have been able to do, in part thanks to him.

Of course, your small statement doesn't logically contradict any of that. Nor, I am sure, has it done any real injury to Professor Appiah. Nonetheless, as a reader of your blog, I found it unpleasant, unwelcome, and unnecessary to come across a mildly unkind statement about a favorite teacher of mine -- just as I would have felt it unwelcome and uncalled for to read, out of the blue, an unfavorable comparison of my wonderful high school U.S. History teacher, Dr. Lambert, or my excellent Plato teacher, Raphael Woolf. Dr. Lambert and Professor Woolf are certainly less famous than Professor Appiah, but I am no less grateful to him for the effort and care he took to teach me, and to write the excellent work he has written, than I am to them. That makes me want to defend him as I would them, even if the defense seems overblown compared to what must seem to you (and him!) either a small offense, or no offense at all.

Finally, in general, I think statements of the form "So-and-so is more than a match for so-and-so" are just fostering an unpleasant environment in philosophy in general, that distracts us from what's beautiful about our discipline. Almost always, I find your writing a force against this trend, but the trend is becoming, in spite of your and others' efforts to focus on more meaningful matters, a frightening disease. Everywhere you turn people in our community are wasting time in childish discussions about the comparative "quality" of this or that person, or whose intellect is the greatest, or whose influence is the wisest, or which journal is the best, or which department is the most distinguished, ad nauseam. This is not to mention the prevalence of discussion within our community that is focused on branding this or that person a "hack" or a "no name" whose inferior work "one would hope would not pass muster even at an undergraduate level," etc. There are, of course, times when issues like this need to be brought to the fore -- your just criticism of Marty Peretz is one example. But the general obsession with discourse like this in our community is a huge turn-off to lots of people with decent hearts, who are disinclined to revel in a sense of superiority for its own sake, and who will therefore probably tune us out when we do make such comparative points when they are truly necessary. And then, of course, there is the fact that philosophy is about so much more than this.

Anyway, the length at which I've made this point misrepresents the extent to which I think it is weighty in this one small instance. I just wanted to bring to your attention that that the way you phrased your point there rubbed me the wrong way, and struck me as a small step in the wrong direction, along the lines I described above.

My apologies for writing such a long email. Thank you, again, for all of the wonderful work and writing that you're doing. And, if you've gotten this far, thanks so much for indulging me in reading all the way through. Please let me know if you think your blog would benefit from any portion of this being posted in the comments section, and I'll do so. Please also don't feel obligated to respond.

I hope we get a chance to meet in person someday! Sincerely,

Rob Willison


My two blog posts on the Peretz business at Harvard have prompted a very lively series of responses -- a few simply abusive, most very thoughtful. I have not yet replied because yesterday was a day from hell. I began the day in the dentist's chair, being told that I needed a root canal. On my way back into the dentist's office after some x-rays, I managed to step on and break my glasses. Between that appointment and the afternoon session in which the root canal was started, I hustled over to the oculist to get the glasses repaired. Somehow, my mind was not on the blogosphere.

However, it is a new day [if not, as Gwyneth Paltrow says in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, a new world], and I am catching up on all the comments. I received one very long, very sympathetic email that took me severely to task for a number of things I said, and if the sender agrees [I have asked], I will post it as a Guest Blog.

Let me, as a place holder, say just one thing [well, two, as I read this over] in response to some of the comments. My blog is, as I am sure you have noticed, very personal. People who want to see me in full objective academic mode can read one or another of the twenty-one books I have published. My two blog posts were a very powerful and personal reaction to a series of events that I found deeply troubling. Nevertheless, in everything I said in those two posts, the only one I actually regret saying was the gratuitous snipe at Anthony Appiah -- not at all called for. I apologize. [This is one of the things I was criticized for in that long email.]

Someone [I have been reading the comments very fast and don't have them in front of me now] made what I consider a very good point, one that lies behind much of what I said, namely that the public discourse in America is skewed and shackled by the unacceptability of talking openly and honestly about Israel and America's extraordinary fealty to its - rather than America's - national interest. That, and much more, was what was contained in my brief comment to the Crimson reporter -- a comment that triggered a quite heated series of comments on this blog.

Just think about this for a moment. Everyone who knows Peretz and knows THE NEW REPUBLIC is aware of the intensity of his commitment to a pro-Israel stance, one furthermore that identifies with the most right-wing strain of opinion in Israel. It takes no wit at all to see the connection between his views on Israel and his derogatory statements about Muslims. Here was a gathering of enormously knowledgeable and highly intelligent people who identify themselves as social theorists [the largest such gathering, I said, trying to make a little joke, since the Frankfort School held its last garden party], and yet, unless I am mistaken, I was the first person all day who uttered the word "Israel." Am I the only person who finds that more than a little significant?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Yesterday, I had my say about the Peretz mess at Harvard. Today, I would like to try, in an introspective fashion, to clarify to myself [and the entire blogosphere, of course] the rather complicated feelings aroused by my brief return to Harvard. To signal in advance my conclusion, I came to realize once again that my decision to leave the Ivy League thirty-nine years ago was wise.

Initially, the return was a good deal of an ego trip. People treated me as though I were somebody, despite the fact that I was surrounded by a number of real somebodies. E. J. Dionne said twice what an honor it was to meet me. Amy Gutman, in her big lecture, mentioned me as someone whose writings had inspired her. Outside Robbins Philosophy Library in Emerson Hall, a graduate student came up to me rather excited and said, "Aren't you Robert Paul Wolff?" When I allowed as how I was, he blurted out, "Oh, I know a great deal about you!" [referring to my Memoir.]

All of that was simply wonderful, for about half a day. Then, it began to feel burdensome. Why?, I wondered. Slowly, it began to dawn on me. Harvard is a collection of people who are Somebodies. Many of them have acquired that status legitimately, a few perhaps not. But everyone is expected to cooperate in and acknowledge everyone else's somebody-status. It is all quite casual and understated, but very definitely present in the social climate. Now, I have no hesitation at all in expressing my admiration for many of the genuine scholars there, as I do anywhere. But the feeling tone is, if I may put it this way, political, not intellectual. It is rather like the elaborate and utterly false courtesy that members of the United States Senate show to one another. "My good friend, the distinguished Senator from North Dakota." That sort of thing.

There is a reason for this faux-courtesy in politics. When Harry Reid speaks to Jeff Sessions, regardless of what each may think of the other, that is all of the people of Nevada speaking to all of the people of South Carolina, through their representatives, and it is to all of those people, not to the person who happens to represent them, that the courtesy is being shown. But nothing at all like that is true in Academia. Each of us is there on his or her own merits and footing, representing no one.

The effect is to make the interactions at Harvard elaborate, exaggeratedly courteous, but meretricious. I was flattered by E. J. Dionne's deferential greeting, but the simple fact is that in his panel presentation, after praising me, he went on to praise Peretz. Well, I don't really want to be mentioned in the same breath with that wretched man, and I don't want to have to smile while it is being done.

After a while, I found myself comparing the feeling tone of the occasion with that at the University of Massachusetts, where I spent thirty-seven years. Now, many of the people at UMass are quite as smart and intellectually accomplished as those at Harvard. I will put Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis up against anyone in the Harvard Economics Department, and I had three or four colleagues in Afro-American Studies who were clearly more than a match for Skip Gates or Tony Appiah or even the irrepressible Cornell West. But at Harvard [and elsewhere in the Ivy League] there is all that money, and all those titles [everyone sits in a name chair], and all that attention and reverence in the media. By the end of the day, it was an enormous relief to talk honestly to the Harvard Crimson reporter and say what I really thought about what was going on.

The next morning, when Susie and I were having an early breakfast at the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square, I began to sort through my thoughts about the Social Studies program, which was, after all, the real focus of the event [Peretz being simply an unwelcome distraction.] Once again, I was able to gain some perspective by comparing it with UMass. As readers of my Memoir know, when I arrived at UMass from Columbia in 1971, I started an undergraduate interdisciplinary program called Social Thought and Political Economy [STPEC], which I conceived quite consciously as a left-wing version of Social Studies. Now, by every possible objective measure, Social Studies stands head and shoulders above STPEC [which also continues to exist to this day, now almost forty years later]. The students are academically stronger, the instructors are, on average, academically more accomplished, the demands made on the students are academically much greater, and the senior honors theses written by the Social Studies students are in a different league from those written by the STPEC students [Amy Gutman spent much of her speech reminiscing about her 197 page honors thesis, which she thought of at the time, she said with amusement, as her life's work].

And yet: I honestly think STPEC is a better program. What can I possibly mean by that? Well, to put it as simply as I can, if by some miracle anyone were to offer STPEC $650,000 to honor someone of the ilk of Marty Peretz, I can say with absolute confidence that it would be turned down. And if the UMass Development Office tried to cram the money down STPEC's throat [as it might, since at UMass, unlike Harvard, offers of $650,000 are as rare as hen's teeth], the Director and staff of STPEC would be at the head of the group of students marching on the Administration Building to protest. At Harvard, the protestors were outside and the Directors of Social Studies were inside. At UMass, they would have been outside with the students [as I thought I should be too, to be honest.]

That is very heartwarming, to be sure, but what does it have to do with the academic quality of the program? Here is my answer, one that it has taken me a lifetime to learn. Programs like Social Studies and STPEC have it as their mission to teach students how to understand the socio-economic realities that lie beneath the often beguiling and glittering surface appearances the social world presents to us. What is more, the people who run Social Studies and STPEC [as well as the only person who was in at the founding of both of them -- namely me] hope that students will fight in their lives for justice and equality, using what they have learned to make them more effective. But we learn how to act courageously and effectively not only by mastering texts and grasping concepts -- accomplishments that are essential, I believe -- but also by coming to see how these intellectual skills are inseparably linked to traits of character -- courage, honesty, integrity.

Perhaps I could learn multivariate calculus from Marty Peretz, however unpleasant an experience that might be. But I could not learn social theory from Marty Peretz, because who he is would interfere fatally with what he was supposedly teaching me. And what is more, I could not learn social theory from someone who would make excuses for Marty Peretz as "a wonderful teacher." So, whatever generations of Social Studies students may think, and however famous Michael Walzer may be, they were not learning how to be fighters for social justice from him. Nor could I learn to be a fighter for social justice from a program that, when the money was dangled, was willing to honor the likes of Peretz.

I am not what Gramsci called an organic intellectual. My old friend Enver Motala in South Africa is an organic intellectual. He has spent his life in worker education programs in townships and unions. I am an academic through and through. But after my first thirteen years teaching at Harvard and Chicago and Columbia, I finally came to realize that I am not an Ivy League academic. I feel more comfortable in the grubby surroundings of UMass than in the elegant architectural gems at Harvard. To get into Widener Library at Harvard, I need special permission, obtainable on a temporary basis because I am a Harvard alumnus. But I can get into Davis Library here at UNC, Chapel Hill, simply because I am a resident of North Carolina. That feels right to me,.

All of which brings me to the conclusion I announced at the beginning of this blog post. Returning to Harvard after fifty years reminded me that I made the right decision when I walked away from a senior professorship at Columbia to spend the rest of my career at a land grant school.

Monday, September 27, 2010


louis Cooper, who was at the Social Studies conference, reminds me that Bradford deLong, in the morning sesion, spoke against the Peretz fund. I have asked him to remind me what deLong said [I was there, but have forgotten], but before he does, I just wanted to acknowledge the correction.


The events at Harvard on Saturday were fascinating, distressing, and exhausting. Today, I am going to write about the controversy surrounding the remarks of Martin Peretz and Harvard's decision to accept the $650,000 or so donated for a scholarship fund in his honor. Tomorrow, I will write about a number of ways in which I found the experience personally illuminating and instructive.

The event was a daylong celebration of the 50th anniversary of an undergraduate interdisciplinary program at Harvard, Social Studies, of which I was the first Head Tutor in 1960-61. The program was stocked with eminent people -- Adele Simmons, former president of Hampshire College and also of the MacArthur Foundation, Amy Gutman, president of the University of Pennsylvania, Michael Walzer, world-famous political theorist now at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, Seyla Benhabib, Professor of :Political Science and Philosophy at Yale, E. J. Dionne, the Washington Post columnist, and so forth. The program consisted of a morning panel, a lunch at which I was listed as "principal speaker," an afternoon panel chaired by Walzer, and then a lecture by Amy Gutman, who was introduced by her opposite number, Drew Faust, president of Harvard. There was an evening reception that Susie and I skipped because it was too far for Susie to walk.

The entire event was accompanied by a very vocal protest by a large number of Harvard students carrying beautifully made signs on which were printed a selection of the ugly and appalling things Peretz has said and published over the years. A great video of the protest is already up on YouTube, and I encourage everyone to view it.

Readers of this blog know that I anguished a good deal about whether I should even attend the event. In the end, I decided to do so because the program was altered so that no announcement of the scholarship fund would be made at the lunch at which I was scheduled to speak. I learned on Sunday morning that there was a small dinner Friday evening at which the honoring of Peretz was done. I was not invited to it. :)
I had my say about the scholarship business during my luncheon speech, and I will try to reproduce what I said about the matter on this post [I spoke ex tempore, and have never actually written down what I said, so I shall reconstruct it from memory.] I had intended to let that be my sole comment on the affair, but I was so appalled by what was said during the panels and question period, especially by Walzer, that when a Harvard Crimson reporter interviewed me after the end of the day's proceedings, I unloaded a good many less than temperate, but deeply felt remarks, none of which I regret or have any intention of taking back. Some of them will be in the story in today's Harvard Crimson, and I invite you to find the story on the web and read it.

In my luncheon remarks, I told some amusing stories and said something in a connected way about why it is that in the core sophomore course that has defined the program for half a century, the same authors -- Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, etc. -- remain on the reading list. I will not bother to try to reproduce that part of my talk. Then I paused and said:

"There is one more matter about which I feel I must say something. I refer to the controversy to which Richard Tuck referred in his opening remarks this morning [ed. Tuck, the current head of Social Studies and a splendid man, had said a few words about the controversy during his welcoming speech, distancing himself from the content of Peretz's statements.] I have anguished a great deal about this matter, at one point uncertain whether I ought even to attend the celebration. If I were a religious man, I could let my bible fall open at random, relying on The Lord to guide me to a chapter and verse in which I might find some wisdom. But since I am an atheist, that course was not open to me. So I did the next best thing. I took down my copy of Volume One of Das Kapital. As I turned the old, familiar pages, covered with my underlinings and notes, my eye fell on this famous passage from the great chapter on Money. Since you are all former or present Social Studies students, I am sure you will all recall it. Here is what Marx says.

'Because money is the metamorphosed shape of all other commodities, the result of their general alienation, for this reason it is alienable itself without restriction or condition. It reads all prices backwards, and thus, so to say, depicts itself in the bodies of all other commodities, which offer to it the material for the realisation of its own use-value. At the same time the prices, wooing glances cast at money by commodities, define the limits of its convertibility, by pointing to its quantity. Since every commodity, upon becoming money, disappears as a commodity, it is impossible to tell from the money itself, how it got into the hands of its possessor, or what article has been changed into it. Non olet, from whatever source it may come.'

Marx assumed that the working men and working women for whom he wrote this book all had a classical education, but since I did not, I was forced to look up the source of the Latin tag, non olet. It seems that in the time of the Emperor Vespasian, the Roman state raised a little extra money by taxing the public urinals. One day, Vespasian sent his son, Titus, to collect the taxes from the urinals. Titus was offended by the task, which he considered beneath him, and when he returned he flung the money at his father's feet. Vespasian looked down with equanimity and remarked languidly, "Pecunia non olet." The money does not stink.

In the realm of higher education, Harvard is an imperial power, so quite naturally it adopts Vespasian's point of view toward the money it accepts, Pecunia non olet. But from its founding, fifty years ago, Social Studies has held itself to a higher standard, and so I would hope that it will reject this money for a scholarship, because pecunia olet. The money stinks."

That is what I said. It got some applause, and I sat down. When each of the past Head Tutors was introduced in turn, Marty took the occasion to mumble a few words about the cowardly attacks on him. [Since I attacked him in his presence, why he thought the attack was cowardly is a mystery.]

In the afternoon panel, several of the speakers alluded to Peretz, and many of the questioners from the floor brought it up. The defense of Marty was, I found, simply incredible. One person after another said that he was a much-loved teacher, as though that somehow excused thirty years of ugly, racist outbursts. The attitude was, if I may put it this way, as though Marty was a fine fellow with the unfortunate habit of farting in public. It was not until the very end of the afternoon session that a young women asked a question that should have been center stage throughout: How did Peretz's appalling views affect his teaching?

The absolute low point of the day, for me, was Michael Walzer's defense of his old friend. Walzer began by telling the audience that in 1969, when Harvard students seized the administration building in an anti-war protest, he and Marty formed a committee to defend them, and most of the advocacy for the students was carried out by Marty. This, we were supposed to conclude, earned Peretz a pass on four decades of ugly racist rants. Then Walzer, widely considered one of the preeminent political philosophers of the present day, sank to a really appalling low. He looked at one of the questioners who had attacked Peretz and said, "Have you examined every writing and footnote and every email of each member of the Standing Committee?" At that, the audience groaned, and he shut up.

What was really going on? I tried to explain this to the Crimson reporter, and a quote from me on this may appear in the story [in the middle of last night, the reporter emailed me to check the quotes before the story was put in final form.] Let me back up a bit and try to get some perspective. This was a gathering of more than four hundred former and present Social Studies majors -- possibly the largest assemblage of sophisticated social theorists since the last garden party of the Frankfort School for Social Research. These are people who think nothing of discerning the deeper ideological meaning in Afghan popular music or Tibetan architecture, or teasing out the epistemological filiations between Foucault and Montesquieu. And yet, confronted at their own conference by a massive protest, the best they could come up with was "Marty is a nice guy."

It is not at all difficult to figure out the real sources of the vast corpus of disgusting statements by Martin Peretz. The answer requires only one word: Israel. Why is it that while these high-powered social theorists were extolling Social Studies' fruitful union of historical research and theoretical analysis, none of them could find a moment to refer to the transformation of left-wing Jewish social theorists into Neo-cons and Peretz' transformation of The New Republic from a liberal journal into a right-wing apologist for war against Muslims?

In his fine old book on the Frankfort School, THE DIALECTICAL IMAGINATION, Martin Jay remarks wonderingly on the fact that almost to a man, those brilliant theoreticians, to whom Social Studies owes so much, vehemently denied any significance in the fact that most of them were from upper middle class German Jewish assimilated families. [See Jay, pages 31 ff.]

I have already told the story in my Memoir of my 1973 phone call to Michael Walzer, and the discovery that he and Peretz were supporting Nixon in the impeachment controversy because Nixon was a strong supporter of Israel. Well, here we were in this huge, elegant auditorium in Harvard's Science Center, and the assembled intelligentsia, a great many of whom are indeed Jewish, evinced not the slightest interest in the historical and political roots of the controversy kept by Harvard's security forces from intruding on their happy reminiscences.

As I was talking with Susie the next morning about the events of the previous day, I realized that what mattered most to me was not to betray the trust of the students in the protest outside, or their supporters inside the meeting. Although my luncheon remarks were brief and amusingly erudite, they had a bite. I was, in the end, the only person on the program all day to speak out against the decision to honor Peretz by accepting the donations in his name. I guess I shan't be asked back in 2060 at the one hundredth anniversary celebrations. Oh well.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Susie and I are back home after three days in Cambridge. I have a great deal to say about the Social Studies celebration, about Martin Peretz, and about some deeper reflections prompted by the event. At the moment I am attending to my cat, who is very needy after our absence, but tomorrow, I shall start what may be several days of blog posts about the experience. I learned some important things about myself as well as about Harvard and the world. See you tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Susie and I leave for Cambridge at the crack of dawn tomorrow [Thursday]. I will report on events there when I return.


I see that Larry Summers is leaving the government to go back to Harvard at the end of this year. I am sure we are all delighted to see him go, but before we draw any optimistic conclusions concerning a shift in Obama's economic policy, I would just point out that Harvard has a very strict policy about leaves. If a tenured professor takes a leave of more than two consecutive years, he or she is required to resign his or her tenured position. The rule was enforced even in the cases of MacGeorge Bundy and Henry Kissinger, both of whom elected to remain as National Security Advisers. Summers, who is nothing if not self-interestedly ambitious, probably figures that having now totally fouled up at least three jobs [World Bank, Harvard President, Presidential economic advisor], he might have a hard time finding a paying job if he allowed his tenure to lapse.


Yesterday, as I was putting the finishing touches on my informal, spontaneous remarks for the Harvard Social Studies lunch, I pulled down my copy of the Aveling and Moore translation of CAPITAL, Volume One, to check a quote. It had been a while since I had held the book in my hands, and as I turned the pages looking for the passage [it was, as I thought, in the chapter on Money], I felt waves of nostalgic warmth flow through me. There were the slick white pages of the International Publishers paperback, the cover held on by strips of packing tape, the pages covered with my underlinings, notes, comments, and questions, some in black, some in red. I thought, as I so often do, how deep is my attachment to the physical presence of certain books, an attachment that cannot be transferred to a computer screen or digital display.

There are only a few books to which I am attached in just this way. The very first was the lovely, stubby black-covered Selby-Bigge edition of David Hume's A TREATISE OF HUMAN NATURE, on which I wrote a part of my doctoral dissertation. The pages are nubby and cream colored, with a quite distinctive feel and even smell. Once, in the Reading Room of the British Museum, I held in my hands Hume's own copy of the TREATISE. I imagine the scholars who first undertook to decipher the Dead Sea Scrolls felt a similar tingle of divinity.

My copy of the Kemp-Smith translation of Kant's FIRST CRITIQUE is laden with marginal notations in several inks and pencil. In that volume, I can see my initial response to a passage -- a simple question mark. This is then crossed out, and the words "Oh, I see," set in its place. Now, I cannot recall either what puzzled me or what I thought the explanation was.

David Ricardo's PRINCIPLES OF POLITICAL ECONOMY, in the great eleven volume edition of Ricardo's works and letters by the equally great Piero Sraffa, has much the same look and feel as the TREATISE and my many volumes of the Oxford translation of the works of Aristotle. There is something about English book publishers of a certain era.

Utterly different in look and feel, but equally beloved, is the slender hard-covered volume of Kierkegaard's PHILOSOPHICAL FRAGMENTS, the two and a half page Preface to which is, I think, the most beautiful philosophy ever written.

I have spent a good deal of my life engaged in politics, or thinking and writing about issues of great public moment, but the simple truth is that I am a man of the book, not the barricade. I was fortunate, as a sixteen year old Freshman sixty years ago, to be able to immerse myself in these and other books, shutting out the world save for letters and visits to Susie. How I wish, in my old age, that I could recapture that innocence.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Last night, I woke up troubled about what to do at the upcoming Saturday Social Studies celebration at Harvard. I anguished for two hours, from about 1 am to 3 am, and finally decided that rather than go to the lunch and then, in a showboat fashion, get up and walk out, the mature and reasonable course of action was to write a simple, sober explanation for my inability to participate in a celebration of Peretz, and just not go to the lunch, asking the Head of Social Studies to read my letter at that event. Having decided this, I went back to sleep for an hour and a half or so. Then, this morning, I discovered that Peretz had disappeared from the "final" program, and I had been promoted to "principal speaker." So, that means I can go after all and tell the stories I had planned to tell about the old days.

Sigh. This is not exactly the most important thing happening in the world today, but you play the cards life deals you. I will be sure to report on this blog afterwards what happens. Does anybody but me actually care about this?

Monday, September 20, 2010


While I wait to find out what the Harvard Committee on Social Studies decides to do about their decision to honor Marty Peretz on Saturday, at the lunch where I am scheduled to speak [ugh], I thought I would add a few scholarly footnotes to his ugly rant. I see that Peretz has taken the occasion of Yom Kippur to "atone" for his remarks. I think it is too much to hope that he has seen the light.

The part of his remarks that got the most initial attention was his suggestion that the protections of the First Amendment are a "privilege" that Muslims have not earned. [By the way, the word "privilege" comes from the Latin for "private law," suggesting that a privilege is a special legal dispensation for the benefit of a single person.]

But the more offensive part of his remarks was what he had to say about Muslims. "But frankly," he wrote, "Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims." I thought I might just remind everyone what that oft-used phrase actually means. What it does NOT mean is that Muslim lives are unimportant, or are thought to be unimportant by Muslims or anyone else. That is what Peretz meant, but in this, and in so much else, he simply shows himself to be ignorant.

The first use of the phrase appears to be in King Lear, Act II, Scene iv, but the following passage from David Ricardo's great work, THE PRINCIPLES OF POLITICAL ECONOMY, conveys the correct meaning in economic and social theory. This is from Chapter V, "Of Wages":

"It is not to be understood that the natural price of labour, estimated even in food and necessaries, is absolutely fixed and constant. It varies at different times in the same country, and very materially differs in different countries. It essentially depends on the habits and customs of a people. An English labourer would consider his wages under their natural rate, and too scanty to support a family, if they enabled him to purchase no other food than potatoes, and to live in no better habitation than a mud cabin; yet these moderate demands of nature are often deemed sufficient in countries where "men's life is cheap", and his wants easily satisfied. Many of the conveniences now enjoyed in an English cottage, would have been thought luxuries at an earlier period of our history."

The point here is that when wage goods [food, clothing, shelter] are cheap, then it costs relatively little to reproduce labor by keeping the worker alive and raising his or her children. To this, Ricardo adds the very important point that there is a social and conventional element in the determination of the subsistence wage, a fact that helps to explain a good deal of the content and direction of labor struggles over the course of the life of capitalism. [I have written about this in my book, UNDERSTANDING MARX].

What Peretz was trying to say is that the he thinks the lives of Muslims are of little moral worth, and are thought to be so even by Muslims themselves. On occasion, the Israeli government arranges for the exchange of a single Israeli soldier who has been captured, in return for releasing from their jails a number of Palestinian captives. This is sometimes taken to show the relative value the two sides place upon their comrades. The Israelis tend to forget the Nazi practice of killing ten or one hundred villagers when the resistance managed to kill one Nazi soldier.

I am still uncertain what I shall do on Saturday.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


A while back I let off steam with an intemperate anti-religious blast. Most of you, wisely, chose to ignore it, but one very bright young man just graduated from Yale and on his way to Israel to study for the rabbinate took the time to write a complex, intresting reply. Here it is:

Professor Wolff has kindly agreed to allow me to guest-post here; in May, I graduated from Yale, and now I learn at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa []. If you like this piece, you may enjoy my blog, Like Them that Dream [].

In a recent post on religion [], Professor Wolff argues, “the religious beliefs of serious Jews, Christians, and Muslims are vile, absurd, and totally incompatible with even the least evolved secular moral sensibility.” Nor should religious people reinterpret ugly texts using tortured hermeneutics: “If… [Leviticus] is the Word of Almighty God, then it is for us to obey it, not to interpret it until it conforms to our modern sensibilities… It is the book burners, the woman stoners, the homosexual killers, who are truly religious. Theirs is the real face of religious faith.”

I do not speak for “serious” Christians or Muslims; frankly, I don’t even speak for many Jews. I do think Wolff is wrong about my Judaism, so I will defend forceful, non-literal biblical interpretation. But I have a problem: whether literalism is right or wrong, it’s certainly faster than the alternative. Citing a verse takes a moment; subjecting that verse to rigorous theological, historical, textual, and literary interpretation takes years. As a full-time student, I do not have that time. For that reason, and because I’m less interested in religious polemics than in neat textual quirks, I’ll argue indirectly, giving a tiny example of how the Jewish religious tradition can work. At the end I’ll explain the implications of my exegesis; if you’re unsatisfied, leave a comment (on my blog []) and I’ll defend myself more explicitly.

Let’s start, somewhat arbitrarily, with what 4 Maccabees [] thinks of Joseph. The text [], which probably dates from between 100 BCE and 100 CE, is a panegyric on martyrdom and reason’s control of the passions. Framed by Antiochus Epiphanies’ persecutions of the Jews in the second century BCE -- which are recorded with debatable historicity in 1 Maccabees – 4 Maccabees interprets a variety of biblical texts to its ends. Here’s what it says about Joseph:

It is for this reason, certainly, that the temperate Joseph is praised, because by mental effort he overcame sexual desire. For when he was young and in his prime, by his reason he nullified the frenzy of his passions. Not only is reason proved to rule over the frenzied urge of sexual desire, but also over every desire (4 Maccabees 2:1-4, cited in James Kugel, In Potiphar’s House [], 21.

In the biblical story (Genesis 39 []), Potiphar’s wife unsuccessfully attempts to seduce Joseph and then frames him for attempted rape. How does 4 Maccabees approach this text?

First, it uses Joseph as an early example of a tradition of Jewish resistance to outside gentile temptation; the book is framed as a discussion between Antiochus and several Jews, whom he is trying to sway to eat non-kosher food, thus deserting their religion (as Potiphar’s wife – in this telling – encourages Joseph to do). But just like Joseph, these later Jews resist: “Why do you delay, O tyrant? For we are ready to die rather than transgress our ancestral commandments.” 4 Maccabees turns a number of biblical figures into precursors for its own ideology of martyrdom, self-restraint, and strict adherence to tradition. This typology isn’t present in the biblical text: rather, it’s a narrative the exegete uses to make sense of the text in terms of his own life and world.

4 Maccabees radically opposes Hellenization, following the original Hasmoneans – i.e. the Maccabees – who, if we wanted our own inexact, secularist typology, would be the precursors to the Taliban, imposing religious law [] and smashing idols. On the other hand, the paradigm with which the book approaches Hellenization, in which the rational intellect opposes base material passions, is cribbed more or less directly from Stoicism [] – that is, from Greek philosophy. Stoicism, a sophisticated ancient philosophy [], contained a system of metaphysics, logic and ethics. In its popular form, it preached the rule of reason of the passions and taught that a right-thinking person could be as happy being tortured on the rack as sitting at a feast. These ideas permeate the exegesis of Joseph from this period, as another bit of Jewish exegesis reveals:

Not even in my mind did I yield to her [Potiphar’s wife], for God loves more the one who is faithful in self-control in a dark cistern than the one who in royal chambers feasts on delicacies with excess… For when I had been with her in her house she would bare her arms and thighs that I might lie with her. For she was wholly beautiful and splendidly decked out to entice me, but the Lord protected me from her manipulations [Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Kugel 24].

The idea that the religious life to aspire to takes place in a dungeon does not come from the Hebrew Bible. Think of the famous Psalm 23: religious trouble for the Psalmist is represented physically as “the valley of the shadow of death,” the life with God, thus: “You prepare a table before me / in the presence of my enemies. / You anoint my head with oil; / my cup overflows.” That theology is all throughout the psalms: spiritual trouble is physical trouble, religious fulfillment, material happiness. The idea relates closely to the basic bargain of Deut. 11:13-21: obedience to God results in material prosperity, disobedience in famine. Sin is death, virtue life. Later, Jewish exegetes were exposed to – and convinced by – Stoic and other Hellenic ideas about the uncontrollable, intemperate nature of physical desire and its proper subordination to reason.

In the Pentateuch, deserting god is a physical act: one strays from god and goes away from the centralized temple cult, to the “high places” of other gods. One couldn’t be “in the house” of Hellenism, clinging to an inner consciousness of God: God is associated with particular geographical parts of the physical world. The whole 4 Maccabees paradigm depends on a dualistic attitude that just isn’t in the Hebrew Bible. Later Jewish exegetes interpret Joseph the way they do, as a resistor of Hellenism, only in light of Hellenistic ideas. Neat irony, yes?

Well, it gets better (I think). I’ve drawn these selections from In Potiphar’s House, [] one of James Kugel’s excellent books on early biblical exegesis (midrash []). If you’re suspicious of my picture of a Stoic Joseph, look at the first chapter of Kugel’s book in conjunction with some sources on Stoicism: there’s a lot more where these sources came from. But interestingly, Kugel never mentions Stoicism. He’s interested in midrashic form – what exegetical rules midrashim follow and how they works as logical structures, not what themes they engage. Only once does he seriously engage thematic questions, in an unscholarly moment in his introduction:

… [T]he book’s title, In Potiphar’s House… obviously comes from the group of essays concerning the story of Joseph which make up the first part of the volume. But there is another sense in which it might indeed apply to the material as a whole. For ancient Jewish biblical exegesis, however much it may have drawn on tendencies and actual material developed earlier in the biblical period, first appears in distinct literary form during the Hellenistic period. Hellenistic culture… was an extraordinary human achievement… [which] presented strong temptations to the Jews during their centuries-long encounter with it… And so, in considering the Jewish biblical exegesis of this period – midrash at an early stage – one cannot but think of its bearers’ position within the surrounding cultural environment as similar to that of Joseph in Potiphar’s house. Like Joseph, they were deeply impressed, and no doubt influenced, by their contact with that house’s inhabitants… And yet: if Joseph was changed and, in the story, likewise tempted in Potiphar’s house, he nevertheless remained, in another sense, profoundly true to his origins. So one might say of rabbinic exegesis that, while many of its concerns and formulations were undoubtedly influenced by Hellenism, it is nonetheless also an expression of the survival and continuity of elements that go back to biblical times, elements that are often prominent in the very biblical texts which are the subject of so much rabbinic contemplation and creativity. In this sense, then, these essays are all concerned with tracing the story of Joseph in Potiphar’s house. Indeed it is my hope that, through them, an old rabbinic topos discussed below will likewise acquire a certain metaphorical dimension, suggesting how, amid the vicissitudes of the late- and postbiblical period and in full-face contemplation of an understanding of the world so different from their own, Jacob’s children nevertheless managed to keep the image of their father’s face ever before them.

4 Maccabees used Joseph as an example of how a Jew ought to resist Hellenism; Kugel uses Joseph as an example of how midrash resists the temptations of Hellenism. But in doing so, he uses a paradigm for temptation that’s drawn from Stoicism -- the Hellenic culture itself. Of course, the paradigm of Joseph’s faith probably seems quite natural to Kugel: the myth of the faithful Jew in the midst of wondrous, secular intellectualism could easily seem appealing to the “Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University” (from the book’s dust jacket).

How does all of this refute Wolff? Well, I contend that Jews have often, and significantly, read their bible in the manner of 4 Maccabees and Kugel, using ideas from outside, not totally conscious of the lines between what’s in the text and what’s outside of it. Perhaps they would not accept the distinction, but even when they do imagine a dialectic between tradition and the new, the terms of that dialectic are themselves part of that dialectic. This happens not just when the texts are read as philosophy or stories, but also on a legal level. Authoritative, normative halakha – even, perhaps especially, that of the most Orthodox – depends heavily upon “tortured,” not-straightforward readings of texts. A metaphorical reminder to keep God’s word with you all the time yields the obligation to bind leather amulets on head and arms []; the commandment to live by God’s laws becomes permission to break them in the case in which they threaten death []; the law of the rebellious son is simply read out of existence [] … the examples are endless. This complex, historically determined, agenda-laden reading is not a modern invention; it’s my tradition.

Talking to American Protestants – who are often suspicious of traditional interpretation and privilege “plain, common-sense meanings,” I often hear the question, “do Jews read the Bible directly, without any assumptions?” I take that to be Wolff’s challenge (he is a Protestant atheist), and I don’t understand it. What does it mean to read a text directly? A text which is 2000 years old, in a foreign language, from a culture long-lost, one which is unconsciously built into my language, one which has been endlessly translated, reworked in art, commented upon, ad nauseum – how could one have the chutzpah to imagine a “direct” reading of such a text. And why should one want such a reading?

Saturday, September 18, 2010


In six weeks, Susie and I are going on a Massachusetts Audubon bird-watching safari to the Serengetti Plain in Kenya. In preparation, I have just bought, on line, a Bushnell combination camera and binoculars that allows me to take pictures [and videos] of what I see, enlarged, through the binoculars. So, some time in late November, I shall post pictures from the Serengetti. There are some technological innovations that I think are really neat!

Friday, September 17, 2010


Well, these things have a way of metastasizing. First I was contacted by The Daily Beast about l'affaire Peretz. Then the NY TIMES called me. Then I was invited to sign a petition put together by graduates of the Harvard Social Studies Program protesting the plan to honor him with a scholarship fund in his name [I signed]. And still a week to go. At the speed with which storms blow up and blow over these days in cyberspace, all of this may be forgotten by the time I get to the celebration eight days from now.

Meanwhile, on another front, I was deeply saddened to see that Christine O'Donnell is backing off from her youthful condemnation of masturbation. Is there no one left willing to take a stand on principle? Will videos of her surface in flagrente delicto? It is at times like these that I find myself going to the Wonkette site.

Lovers of The Lord of the Rings [of whom I am one] will recall the next to last chapter of Volume Three, "The Scouring of the Shire," in which Frodo and Sam and company, back from world-historical wars, encounter and drive out of the Shire the once-powerful Saruman and his accomplice, Grima Wormtongue, who are much diminished from their former eminence as minions of Sauron, and reduced to doing charleton's tricks to scare hobbits.

The sheer triviality of the right-wing these days, dangerous though it is, makes me nostalgic for my youth, when one's enemies were worthier opponents.

By the bye, I see that a group has surfaced defending the Church in its persecution of Galileo for suggesting that the earth orbits the sun. There is quite literally no absurdity that will not be embraced by some sizable segment of the American public. I think I shall retreat into my study and practice the viola.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


The always appalling William Kristol, son of Trotskyite turned neo-con Irving Kristol, borrowed from recent history to put down America's leading opponent of masturbation and now Republican nominee for the U. S. Senate from Delaware, Christine O'Donnell. After O'Donnell compared herself to Kristol's creation and heroine, Sarah Palin, Kristol said, "I know Sarah Palin, I like and admire Sarah Palin, and with all due respect, you are no Sarah Palin." [I may have the quote slightly off, but that is the gist.] This was part of a desperate and unsuccessful effort by the GOP Establishment to avoid losing a senate seat once thought a sure pick-up.

For my younger readers, who do not recall the 1988 Presidential campaign, this was an echo of Lloyd Bentsen's deathless put down of his opponent, Dan Quayle, in their only debate. The moment is burned into my mind because I was on my way to Adelaide, Australia, to watch my son, Patrick, play in the World Junior Chess Championship [Patrick, then 20, was representing the United States.] I was changing planes in L. A. on my way from Hartford to Honolulu, and then to Sydney and Adelaide. As I was walking through the terminal, I saw the debate on a TV set and stopped to watch for a few moments. In response to Quayle's assertion that he had then as much experience as Jack Kennedy had when he ran for the presidency [Bentsen was very much older, ans was playing the experience card], Bentsen said, "Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."]

Like all Dukakis supporters, I enjoyed Bentsen's putdown. But I feel I need to rise to Dan Quayle's defense at this time. Mr. Kristol, I remember Dan Quayle, even though I cannot say I like him, but Mr. Kristol, Christine O'Donnell is no Dan Quayle.

It is a measure of how low the Republicans have sunk that they their "Dan Quayle" is now Christine O'Donnell.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Another primary day has come and gone, and once again, the right wing crazies have unseated viable, electable Republican candidates for national office. Everybody's favorite, I am sure, is Christine O'Donnell, now anointed as the Republican standard-bearer for the Delaware senatorial seat vacated by Joe Biden. O'Donnell is of course most famous for her strong stand against masturbation. O'Donnell's opponent, eminently electable Republican Mike Castle, has apparently declined to endorse her. As one wag put it, "Mike told her to go f**k herself, which of course she won't do."

The assault by the Tea Partiers on the Republican establishment is a threat and an opportunity. The threat is that in this dismal off-year election, these troglodytes will actually get elected, and spend the next six years making Jon Kyl and Jeff Sessions look sane. The opportunity is that if we can mobilize our voters, we can defeat these appalling characters, hold onto the Senate, and maybe even hold on to the House as well.

But to do this, we must get off our collective bums and start campaigning. It is not necessary to change minds -- always difficult in door to door canvassing. There are enough safe Democratic votes out there to do the trick, if we can just get them to the polls and let their reflexes do the rest.

This is not the time to rehearse your disappointments with the Obama administration. If you think it is not worlds better than what is slouching toward Bethlehem waiting to be born, you are seriously deluding yourselves. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Having plowed my way heroically through that enormous literary biography of Charles Dickens, I decided to turn to lighter fare, and read Gerald Elias' second detective novel, DANSE MACABRE. Elias is a professional violinist, Associate Concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, former member of the Boston Symphony First Violin section, and the author of two murder mysteries whose main character is an irascible old blind violinist named Jacobus. The novels, needless to say, are filled with string instrument arcana [write about what you know about].

Somehow, the combination of reading the Elias novel and the completion of a variety of tasks that I had been attending to [the eleventh edition of a text book, etc.] produced an unexpected shift in my internal emotional economy. Two days ago, I did something I had not done for more than two years. I opened my viola case. The first thing I discovered, to my astonished delight, was that my viola was still in tune. I decided, very slowly, to return to the viola, trying to recapture some of the limited facility I had acquired in eight years of serious study and practice, and then perhaps seeing whether I could find like-minded amateurs in the area who wanted to play string quartets.

After tightening my bow and adjusting the chin rest, I tried playing a C major three octave scale, very slowly, one note on each long drawn out bow. I reminded myself to lighten up on the bow, allowing the sound to emerge naturally, rather than pressing too hard. I played the scale, up and down, several times, trying to improve my sound when I shifted to the third position on the D string. This accomplished, I decided to try a little game that I used to play to relieve the boredom of scales.

I put a new battery in my electronic metronome and set it for the slowest possible speed. Then I played the three octave C major scale again, one note on each bow, timing each bow stroke. up or down, to coincide with two ticks of the metronome. When I was satisfied with the sound, I started again, playing the same scale at the same bow speed, but this time two notes on a bow. This has the effect, of course, of doubling the speed at which I play the notes. Now I repeated the scale, with three notes on a bow, but with the bow moving at the same speed. This is a trifle tricky, because when you do this, you are playing three notes against two ticks, but it is not too hard to hear, or feel, in one's head. This was still slow enough, of course, so that actually playing the notes was no trouble.

Next came four notes on a bow -- an easy one because you are simply doubling the rate at which you play the notes -- two notes each time the metronome ticks, four notes on a down bow followed by four notes on an up bow. Fives, however, are really tricky -- hard to feel or hear -- and I cannot say I did too well matching the bow changes to the metronome ticks. I played all the notes, five on a bow, but I kept playing a little too fast or a little too slow. Sixes, on the other hand, are easy, because basically you are playing triplets, one triplet to each tick, two triplets on a down bow and two on an up bow.

Sevens, like fives, are very hard to coordinate with the metronome. They are also a little hard to count, but I cheat. I count a triplet followed by a four, then I change bows. If you play only quartets from the classical period, you never ever find yourself counting sevens, so that is all right.

Eights are getting to be pretty brisk, four for each tick of the metronome. In classical music, four-four time is quite common [indeed, it is called common time -- see the death bed scene in AMADEUS with Mozart dictating the great Requiem Mass to Salieri --at one point, Mozart says to Salieri, "common time"], so counting comes pretty naturally.

Nines are actually easy. You are playing three triplets, and it is rather like waltz time. One-two-three one-two-three one-two-three. By now, the notes are going pretty fast, so you have to be quite sure of what you are playing, in order to concentrate on the counting.

Tens, like fives, are hard to coordinate with the metronome. Counting them is a matter of counting five twice, but I have an edge. When I do my morning power walk, I very often count the number of paces from one point in the walk to the next [a pace being left-right], so I am quite accustomed to counting by tens.

Elevens are the most unnatural number in the entire sequence, but there is one really nifty thing about elevens. An octave has eight notes, [C D E F G A B C], so you would think a three octave scale would have twenty four notes, but the last note of the first octave is also the first note of the second, and likewise for the second and third, so there are really twenty-two notes in a three octave scale, and twenty-two is exactly twice eleven. That means that on the way up, one down bow and one up bow is all you need to complete the entire sequence. [On the way down, there are twenty-one notes, because you do not repeat the top C].

And so we come to twelves, which are sets of four triplets. These are really easy to count, although the breaks between up bows and down bows are not natural, as with elevens.

Finally, I finish up this little game by playing the entire run going up on one bow, and the entire run coming down on another. [If I try really hard, I can actually play the whole six octave run, up and down, on one bow, but it sounds godawful. I do not have the kind of superb bow control required to make that sound like music.]

Yesterday, I did the whole thing all over again, this time with a C-sharp major three octave scale. Today I will do it with a three octave D major scale. I will keep progressing up by half-tones, day by day, until I have played all the possible three octave major scales.

Now, here is the neatest fact. In a one octave chromatic scale, there are exactly twelve notes [C C-sharp D E-flat E F F-sharp G A-flat A B-flat B]. So, if you match each note to a different number of notes on a bow, you can on the same day play a series of twelve major three octave scales, each using a different number of notes on a bow. When I was deep into my study of the instrument, I used to do that as a kind of mental test, keeping track simultaneously of the speed of the bow, the intonation of the notes, the key signature of the scale, and the number of notes on a bow. If you do this, you end up reacquainting yourself each day with every note on the instrument that you are ever going to have to play. It is a way of saying "Good morning" to the viola.

Monday, September 13, 2010


This morning, as I do every morning, I went to the Carolina Cafe, on the first floor of my condo building, for a decaf coffee and poppyseed muffin and the opportunity to spend a few quiet moments doing the NY TIMES crossword puzzle. But the Monday puzzle is always dead easy [it gets harder as the week progresses], and I had finished it even before eating the first half of my muffin. Casting about for something to occupy myself with while I ate the second half, I turned to the Op Ed page. Douglas Copeland, a playwright, had a silly little column of made-up words about this and that, one of which, however, really enchanted me: "Rosenwald's Theorem: The belief that all the wrong people have self-esteem."

Then I plowed through Paul Krugman's column, which managed to make me angry about the US Government's lack of response to China's manipulation of the renimbi [I can't even pronounce "renimbi."] But at the bottom of the column was this absolutely lovely piece of Found Art: "Ross Douthat is off today." My heart swelled. I thought to myself, Ross Douthat is off every day! How wonderful that the NY TIMES has finally recognized that fact.

These are hard times. You take your pleasures where you find them.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


I tried, in a sober and non-confrontational fashion, to respond to C's comment about my atheist rant. I wrote a long reply, and clicked on "publish." The Binary God who inhabits cyberspace chose to mock me by posting my reply three times ["What I say to you three times is true."] Those who are alert to such signs may make of this what they will. My faith in reason is shaken but not destroyed.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


My first father-in-law, James Griffin, was a self-made man. Although he never finished high school, he worked his way up the corporate ladder to the Vice-Presidency for Public Relations of Sears Roebuck and Co. Griffin was what I think of as a social Catholic. During the almost thirty years that I knew him, I never spotted in him the slightest suggestion of genuine religious belief or sentiment, but he had been made a Knight of Malta by the Pope for his fund-raising prowess, and was, at one point, head of the Catholic Boy Scouts of America. Since my plan to marry his daughter, Mary Cynthia, was a "scandal to the faithful" in Shaker Heights, where the Griffins lived, Cindy and I had to be married in Appleton Chapel in Harvard Yard by a compliant Episcopal priest. I still remember Jim Griffin, at the reception, chatting amiably with David Riesman as though he knew who Riesman was and shared his progressive view of the world.

Griffin was considered a "good Catholic," but of course he was really no sort of Catholic at all. That is to say, he did not take with life-altering seriousness the spiritual and doctrinal message of the Roman Catholic faith. In that way, he was as one with many other Americans whose Catholicism or Protestantism or Judaism does not interfere with their secular pursuits.

All of these essentially secular Americans, who turn up in Gallup Polls as church-goers and believers, stand in stark contrast to the smaller, but still enormous, number of Americans who take their religion really seriously, and actually attempt to live their lives as their faith teaches them to do. I have in mind the wacko preacher in Florida who conceived the brilliant idea of burning some Qu'rans, and the Senatorial candidate who is opposed to masturbation as "lust in one's heart," and the Creationist evolution-deniers, and the ever helpful American Protestants who have been encouraging their African co-religionists to kill homosexuals.

Book burning is, of course, an old Christian custom, not at all some weird Fascist aberration invented by over-enthusiastic Nazi Gauleiters. The Inquisition was as likely to burn a heretical book as a heretic, and if Wikipedia is to be believed, the Chinese, in this as in so much else, stole a march on the West. "Following the advice of minister Li Si, Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the burning of all philosophy books and history books from states other than Qin — beginning in 213 BC. This was followed by the live burial of a large number of intellectuals who did not comply with the state dogma."
We in the West look on in horror, and properly so, at the stoning to death of women in Iran. But they are here merely following the law laid down in Leviticus 24, a book which all good Muslims accept as prophetic. If, as scores of millions of Americans claim to believe, that Book is the Word of Almighty God, then it is for us to obey it, not to interpret it until it conforms to our modern sensibilities. Now, those with a smattering of biblical learning will of course quote Jesus, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." But let us recall that Jesus himself said, in Matthew 17, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil."

The simple fact is that the religious beliefs of serious Jews, Christians, and Muslims are vile, absurd, and totally incompatible with even the least evolved secular moral sensibility. To excoriate the Reverend Terry Jones for his proposal to burn a collection of Qu'rans, and then insist indignantly that President Obama is a Christian, as though that were a quite acceptable thing for a modern man or women to be, is rank hypocrisy. It is the book burners, the woman stoners, the homosexual killers, who are truly religious. Theirs is the real face of religious faith.

Friday, September 10, 2010


I take my title today from the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns that put Clint Eastwood on the map. After making A Fistful of Dollars, he made A Few Dollars More [and then The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly]. Well, the discussion we have been having about capitalism has triggered some interesting replies and rejoinders, so I want to say just a few more things before we move on to other topics.

The central question under debate seems to be whether it is possible somehow adequately to ameliorate the oppressions, exploitations, and gross inequalities of capitalism without altering the fundamental structure of a capitalist economy and society, which is to say private ownership and control of the means of production, wage labor, and production of commodities for profit rather than production of goods for human consumption and use.

The very first question one must answer is, Who is doing the ameliorating? It is dangerously deceptive and self-deluding to talk about capital grants and redistributions and so on without asking who it is that is doing all of this. Who, in a capitalist economy and society, has the power to fundamentally alter the structure of ownership so that ownership of the capital of the society is equally shared among all of the members of the society? The answer, of course, is Those who now own the capital or control it. And what will motivate them to carry out such a redistribution of ownership and control? Nothing, so far as I can see.

But this question actually is a good deal less interesting than a more fundamental one. Our modern economy is built on large-scale integrated production processes. You may think [though I have my doubts about it] that industrial agriculture can be replaced by a vast number of small-scale farms and ranches without a loss of efficiency in food production, but surely no one imagines that automobile production can be efficiently managed by means of boutique automobile production, nor can modern hi-tech health care delivery be carried out without large expensive hospitals stocked with MRI machines et al. Even if you somehow persuade the owners of capital to pass out shares of stock in such a manner that each person in the America owns one three-hundred millionth of the total capital of all the enterprises in our economy [a fantasy truly heroic in its detachment from reality], the enterprises themselves will continue to be organized as they are now. If the owners -- which is to say the entire population -- now mandate that that capital be managed and used for the good of all the owners, i.e., the entire population, then what you have is socialism, and the revolution has been completed. Capitalism ceases to exist. [As one commenter pointed out].

Am I in favor of that? Hell, yes. But I have no illusions that it is going to occur, at least without a revolutionary transformation in the beliefs and the behaviors of the entire population.

Short of socialism, there are of course many, many ways in which the worst of capitalism can be ameliorated. Again, one of the comments pointed out that this would require the rebirth of the union movement. All one need do is carry out a cross-national comparison of the various mature capitalist economies in the world to see that what we have in the United States is on the very worst end of the spectrum. Other countries provide a more equal income distribution and a stronger social safety net, all within the structure of a capitalist economy.

So what is the advantage of capitalism, that would lead us to make any possible adjustment in it rather than get rid of it? Well, that is a long story, and I have written about that too at length. I am really not going to repeat here everything I have said elsewhere.

Let me conclude by saying that we are still in coconut territory. Postulating the passing out of "capital shares" without asking who is going to do the passing out and why, is as feckless as supposing that two people on a desert island passing coconuts back and forth are somehow going to tell us anything about capitalism.