My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

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Thursday, March 29, 2012


At the crack of dawn tomorrow, I fly to San Francisco to see my son, Patrick, [the chess Grandmaster] and my two grandchildren.  I shall not be blogging again until I return, which will mean next Tuesday.  I trust the world will not fall apart in the interim more than it already has.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


David Goldman seems to have answered my question.  According to the Wikipedia article he gave us the link to, corporations are limited in the number of shares they can own in themselves.  The entry even says, "A corporation cannot own itself."  So that's that.  And I thought I had stumbled on another example of socialism growing in the womb of capitalism.  Now go back to writing your dissertation, David!  [What is it on, by the way?]


During my daily four mile walk this morning [which turns out to do wonders for keeping my weight down, by the way], I found myself puzzling over a very curious question.  I shall not reveal the rather megalomaniac daydream I was having in which the question was embedded.  Certain things are probably better left off the world wide web.  Let me explain the question, and then perhaps someone who reads this blog will be able to suggest an answer [even though I would imagine that not many experts on corporation law are among the regular visitors to this site.]

When a company is launched, typically it is owned by the people who start it.  At some point, if it is successful, they may "take it public," which is to say they may invite members of the general public to purchase shares of stock in the company.  This is, as I understand it, what happens when a company has an IPO, or Initial Public Offering.  If all goes well, the company will then be listed on one of the major stock exchanges, and over time, shares may be very widely held by large numbers of investors.

Now, the directors of a company can choose at some point to buy back some of the shares that have been sold to the public, using funds that the company has accumulated in the course of doing business profitably.  It cannot compel investors to sell back their shares, I believe [I may be wrong about that -- please advise, if you know], but by offering to buy the shares at a price above the current market price, the company may well be successful in finding willing sellers.

So far as I know, there is no limit on the numbers of shares that a company is permitted to buy back -- 5%, or 20%, or 51%, say.  Let us suppose that the company manages to buy back all of the outstanding shares, even including those owned by the corporate managers [who may or may not be the people who started the company, of course]. 

My question is this:  When the total buy back is completed, who owns the corporation?

There is, by hypothesis, no human persons left who own any shares in the corporation, which is to say, no persons who own a share of the corporation.  So who owns the corporation?  So far as I can see, the only plausible answer is that the corporation owns itself.  I suppose some folks might think that is an acceptable answer, since both the United States Supreme Court and Mitt Romney say that corporations are people, but if that is the correct answer, it seems to generate some very odd subordinate questions.  For example:

To whom, if anyone, does the corporation have a fiduciary obligation to earn a profit if it can?

Is there any reason why the corporation should not pay its employees as much as it possibly can without going broke?

Indeed, if the company does go broke, is there anyone who can be said to have suffered a financial loss thereby?

Can there really be a functioning corporation that owns itself?  Shades of I, Robot!

I am genuinely puzzled by this, and would welcome enlightenment, particularly from experts in the theory of corporations, if there are any out there.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


I spent some time yesterday listening on-line to the first day of Supreme Court oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act, now almost universally referred to as Obamacare.  The argument yesterday was devoted to a rather arcane claim that the so-called Individual Mandate is not ripe for judicial review because the requirement that everyone have health insurance or pay a penalty does not kick in until 2014.  I am no Supreme Court watcher, but the knowledgeable commentators were in agreement that the Court will reject this invitation to kick the can down the road, and instead will tackle the challenges to the law straight up in this session.

Leaving aside the fact that the Individual Mandate was originally a Republican idea, birthed at the right-wing Heritage Foundation [a bit of Republican hypocrisy that Rachel Maddow nicely skewered in her show last night], there is in fact an interesting philosophical question at stake in the hysterical claims that the Mandate strips Americans of the last shred of their already tattered and battered freedom.

This being the United States, the attack on the Mandate is frequently couched in language that suggests, or even asserts, that while the several States have every right to enact and enforce such a Mandate if they so choose, the Federal Government has no right whatsoever to do so.  No Republican has managed to explain why a State requirement is a legitimate expression of the sacred will of the people while a Federal requirement is an indefensible invasion of individual liberty.  There is no reasonable argument for that position, so I shall simply ignore it.  [I shall also ignore the fact that this strange and incoherent argument is actually a place-holder for the doctrine of nullification, crafted by slave-holding States in an unsuccessful attempt to defend that heinous institution.]

The principal rebuttal to the attacks on the Individual Mandate takes the form of an appeal to the so-called Free-Rider Problem, so beloved by economists, especially of a libertarian bent.  For those of you who have not encountered it, the Free Rider Problem is the problem that arises when some people in a society opt out of, or shirk their responsibility to help pay for, certain public goods that cannot, by their nature, be provided only to those who have actually paid for them.  For example, suppose a nation taxes its citizens to pay for military forces intended to defend the nation against attack by foreign powers.  Should an attack occur, those citizens who have not paid their taxes are as well protected as those who have.  The attacking forces cannot be counted on to identify taxpayers and attack only them, leaving the non-tax payers unharmed.  So the non-tax payers get to "ride free," so to speak, just as they would if a town provided free bus service to all, paid for by the funds of those citizens who dutifully have paid their taxes.

In the health care case, the issue of free-riding arises because all over the United States are hospitals with Emergency Rooms that routinely provide superb medical care to those who come in the door, whether or not they have medical insurance.  The cost of the care provided to those who do not have health insurance is, of course, borne ultimately by everyone else, in the form of higher health insurance premiums, taxes, and lost revenues for the hospitals and doctors.  This, it would seem, is a classic case of a Free-Rider problem, which even conservative economists agree is soluble only by state mandated insurance or taxation.  One of the less edifying moments on yesterday's television coverage of the Supreme Court session was an interview with a very angry, indignant, self-important woman [the head of some anti-Obamacare organization whose name I cannot now recall]  who first said that it was outrageous to require her to buy health insurance if she does not want it, and then, when quizzed by Chris Matthews, said that of course she expected to be cared for in an ER if she was in an automobile accident.

If we think about the matter calmly and clearly, we can see that this is in fact not a true Free Rider situation.  The health care purchased by those who have insurance does not, strictly speaking, protect those who do not purchase health care, in the way that national defense protects tax avoiders as well as tax payers.  It is instructive to take a look at a bit of authentic American history for a little clarification.  In the nineteenth century, fire departments were for the most part private companies.  Fire was, of course, a very serious threat to those who owned wooden homes, and the fire departments offered fire insurance for a fee.  A home owner who signed up with a company was given a medallion, which he or she was instructed to mount prominently on the house.  [These medallions are now collectors' items for lovers of Americana.]  When there was a fire, the departments would rush out with their horse drawn fire trucks and water wagons.  When they got to the fire, they would look to see whether the burning house sported one of their medallions.  If it did, they would do their best to put out the fire.  If it did not, they would let the house burn to the ground.  This was a true libertarian paradise.

There is, today, no reason at all why exactly the same arrangement should not be made with regard to health insurance.  Anyone obtaining health insurance, through an employer or otherwise, could have a microchip implanted, which could be read by a scanner [these already exist for pets, of course.]  If there were an automobile accident, first responders would rush to the scene, ready to use the jaws of life to extract an injured passenger, to provide CPR if necessary, and to transport the person to the nearest Emergency Room for treatment.  But first, they would use the scanner to ascertain whether the person had health insurance.  If the answer was "no," they would then turn around, go back to base, and leave the passenger to die.  This would be a true libertarian, conservative, freedom-loving, Obamacare-hating solution.  No one would be required to buy insurance, and no health care provider would be required, or indeed, expected, to provide treatment to uninsured individuals.

Simply to state this plainly is to make it clear how absurd it is as a serious public policy proposal.  Which is why the opponents of Obamacare are, all of them, dishonest hypocrites.

Monday, March 26, 2012


More than forty years ago, when I was teaching at Columbia University, I was asked to address a colloquium that met from time to time.  Members of the faculty were given the opportunity to speak on any topic that interested them, and folks from the larger New York academic community formed the audience.  I chose to speak on John Stuart Mill, and spent the better part of an hour lambasting him before pausing for questions.  When it was all over, Hannah Arendt came up to say hello.  She was pretty obviously not too thrilled with the talk, but she asked politely what I was working on currently.  I replied, "Kant's ethics."  [I was beginning what would eventually become The Autonomy of Reason:  A Commentary on the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.]  Her face broke into a broad smile and she said, "Ah, it is so much more pleasant to spend time with Kant."

I recalled that remark yesterday as I was once again trying to decide what to say about the endless Republican contest for the presidential nomination.  It is depressing and, in the end, debasing to spend time in one's thoughts with the likes of Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.  Perhaps, I reflected, it is time once again to spend some time with Kant.  Since I have already written, posted, and archived on a tutorial on the Critique of Pure Reason, it seems to me that I should attempt a mini-tutorial on Kant's ethical theories.

When I was unable to find my copy of the Grundlegung on my bookshelves, I realized that I had taken it to Paris with a box of other books on Kant's philosophy.  Fortunately, Susie and I are headed for Paris on April 12th, so the tutorial will have to wait until then [I do not have Henri Pirenne's ability to write books entirely out of my memory.]  Even so, the prospect of returning for a bit to Kant has cheered me considerably.  Perhaps it will give me the heart to continue commenting on the political scene.  [I am also reminded of Aristotle's observation that mud does not have a form.  There are, as he said in another context, things that it is better that the Prime Mover not know.  Very wise.]

Sunday, March 25, 2012


Former Vice-President Dick Cheney just received a heart transplant, after waiting two years for a donor.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


Every so often, several seemingly unrelated bits of information come together in such a fashion as to form a coherent, integrated image -- a big picture, as it were.  Several days ago, my old friend, retired History professor Milton Cantor, a very distinguished historian of left-wing political movements in the United States, sent me a copy of a long, thoughtful letter he had sent to Senator Carl Levin.  In three tightly written single-spaced pages, Cantor detailed the series of votes Levin had taken in the Senate that in one way or another expanded the autocratic power of the presidency and eroded what have always been thought to be the core rights and protections of constitutional government, most notably the Great Writ, as the writ of habeas corpus is called.  On the same day that I received the letter, I read a blog post [I cannot now recall which of three or four different blogs was its source] that included a very striking graphic illustration of the size of the military budgets of the twenty or so most geared up nations.  Not surprisingly [I actually already sort of knew this], the United States spends annually ten times as much on defense as its nearest competitor, China, and all in all about half of all the money spent on the military world-wide.

Something about these two bits of information coalesced in my mind, and I realized that I was seeing a perfect representation of America's hegemonic imperial status in the contemporary world.  Overwhelming military dominance abroad is complemented by the establishment of an imperium at home.  The government now asserts openly that it has the right to kill anyone in the world it deems a threat to its imperium, even if that person is a citizen of the United States.  The only restraints the state now recognizes on its actions are instrumental -- the opportunity costs of military action, the deleterious effects on the members of the volunteer armed forces.

This is the reality with which we live, and it does not appear that it will change for at least a generation, perhaps longer.  To be quite honest, I do not believe there is anything any of us can do to change this reality.  I happen to think that Barack Obama is a more benign and less destructive imperial ruler than George W. Bush was or than any of the current candidates for the Republican nomination would be, and that is sufficient reason for me to do what I can to further his re-election.  But no one should be under any illusion that either Obama or anyone else who could possibly be elected President, now or for the foreseeable future, will make any fundamental changes in the imperial character of the United States.

Friday, March 23, 2012


I will not undertake to explain the facts of this case to those of you who are unfamiliar with it.   You can Google it to find out.  I simply want to say this:

The pundit commentary has been ignorant and historically blind.  This is not a hate crime.  It is a lynching, legally authorized by the laws of Florida, signed into law by that supposedly sound, sensible mature Republican, Jeb Bush.

I do not know how long it will be before the Black community concludes that it must take its defense into its own hands.  And they will be right.


Let me begin by explaining to my overseas readers the meaning of the simile from which I take the title of this post [for trope sticklers:  Local organizing : a presidential campaign :: ground game : American football.]  In American football there are essentially two ways to move the ball down the field toward the goalposts [leaving to one side penalties, interceptions and onside kicks].  The first way is for the Quarterback to take the ball from the Center, drop back, and throw it ten, twenty, or even thirty or forty yards downfield to a fleet footed wide receiver who plucks the ball out of the air before being tackled by an opposing player.  Very flashy, looks great on instant replay, seems impossibly acrobatic and precise.  The second way is for the Quarterback to hand the ball off to a running back, who charges forward, slipping between two defensive lineman who have been blocked out of the way at the last moment by several agile, quick three hundred and fifty pound behemoths.  If all goes according to plan, the Back manages to make his way four or five yards up field before the better part of a ton of flesh, bone, helmets, and shoulder pads lands on him.  When the tangle of flesh has been sorted out, he stands up, tosses the ball jauntily to the nearest referee, and walks back to his side of the scrimmage line trying not to show the effects of being hit by the equivalent of a pickup truck.  Even with the miracle of modern television coverage, it is very difficult for the fans to see what has just happened.  Those in the stands can't see a thing unless there is an instant replay on a huge screen mounted near the scoreboard or they can get television coverage on their cell phones.

Idle TV watchers like me love the flashy passes and cheer for the heroic Quarterbacks, but real aficionados will tell you that a pro game is won or lost in the "trenches," that tangle of bodies on either side of the line of scrimmage.  Each year, when the draft for the pros takes place, high profile college Quarterbacks are routinely passed over for hulking no-name lineman who have been spotted by the Offensive or Defensive Coordinators as hot prospects for strengthening the ground game.

An analogous contrast can be seen in presidential contests.  The stump speeches, the debates, the photo ops -- those are the aerial game of the campaign, very flashy, easy to watch, endlessly commented upon by the supposedly knowledgeable television pundits.  But the election is often won or lost out of view of the television cameras, in local city and county headquarters, on the streets, in dingy rooms filled with phones -- in the ground game of politics.

All of us know this, of course, in some sense of "know," but unless we have actually spent time working at the local level in a presidential campaign, we are likely to have only the haziest notion of what actually goes on, and why.  I have been a political junkie all my life, but until the 2008 campaign, during which I spent a good many hours walking the streets, sitting at tables, and entering data, I really had no clear understanding of how the ground game of a superbly run presidential campaign actually works.  I have a suspicion that many of the regular readers of this blog are in the same condition I was in before the 2008 campaign, so I have decided to write a worm's eye view of the Obama campaign, to give all of you a sense of how such a campaign functions on the ground.  I few words of general background before I begin. 

What I am calling a ground game had its origin perhaps a hundred or a hundred and twenty-five years ago in the big Eastern and Midwestern cities, where highly organized political machines mobilized the newly arrived immigrant voters, ward by ward, precinct by precinct.  The precinct workers provided invaluable services to the residents of the central cities, helping with an application for permission to put a sign in front of a saloon, arranging for a son [or less often a daughter] to get some measure of formal education, intervening helpfully when health inspectors or immigration officials came round.  In return for these services, the citizens were expected to turn out reliably on election day, enabling the ward boss to "deliver" the vote for the machine candidate.  In those days, the bread and butter of the machine was control of the local city government, from which contracts, grants, and plain old graft could be counted on to flow.  During the big-time congressional or presidential elections, these local bosses were paid off to produce the vote for the state or national candidate.

The last hurrah of this system was the 1960 presidential election, in which the last of the old time city bosses, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, delivered Illinois to Kennedy in the wee hours of the morning, "finding" precincts whose votes had not yet been reported, and -- so it is said -- voting the graveyards when he had to.

What killed the old political machines was not reformist do-gooders but the suburbanization of America.  As the upper middle class, and then the middle and lower middle class and the working class fled the inner city to the suburbs, the power and organization of the machines withered and dried up.  The only machines that remained were the now all-Black or all-Hispanic inner city organizations, which took over City hall by default.

What first Karl Rove for the Republicans and then Barack Obama for the Democrats did was to reinvent the old political machine, but in an entirely new and quite different guise.  With stable, small, local neighborhoods no longer the locus of reliable hordes of manageable voters, the problem became one of finding, identifying, and mobilizing one's supporters at election time.  This turns out to be an extraordinarily challenging task, for reasons that may not be immediately obvious.

First of all, there is always the task of finding and recruiting new voters.  Every four years, another cadre of young people who were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen or seventeen during the last election become eligible to vote.  They must first be registered, then sounded out for their political leanings, perhaps persuaded, if they are not already committed, to support one's candidate, and finally somehow gotten to the polls either during early voting or on election day.  It is easy enough to say this, but frustratingly difficult to accomplish.  There are no reliable national or even local lists of newly eligible voters.  Of course, colleges and universities are target-rich environments for the registration of new voters, and the Obama campaign last time around did a brilliant job of mobilizing them.  But fewer than half of all newly eligible voters actually attend colleges or universities, so that leaves an enormous number of other young people who need to be found and roped into the political system. 

The second problem is that Americans move around a great deal [every 3.5 years on average, if Google is to be believed].  Since there is nothing resembling a national, or even state by state, register of residences, this means that the only way to figure out who is in your district is to go door to door, saying hello, finding out whether the person on your list is the person answering the door, and then recording all of this on sheets of paper.

These time consuming and laborious efforts generate mounds of data, which folks like me then enter into a computer program that is accessible by the central office of the national campaign.  To register someone to vote, you have him or her fill out and sign a one page form.  The campaign then enters that data into a database before submitting the form to the local election board office [which, here in North Carolina, then mails out a notification to the person saying, essentially, You are now registered to vote, and here is where your voting location is.]

The campaign absorbs the data and then by computer sends out new, corrected lists of people to call, to visit in person, or to send mail to.  Suppose Mary Williams is listed as living at 123 Smith Street with phone number 919-555-1234.  A phone bank volunteer calls that number and someone answers, saying Mary Smith no longer lives there.  The next round of lists for phone banking will eliminate her name and number.  But if the sheet says "not home," then the next phone bank effort will include her.  If she answers and says she supports Obama, that fact will be recorded, so that when the campaign gets to the point of getting out the vote, she will be on the list of people to be contacted.  During early voting, those people known to be Obama supporters who vote will be eliminated from the lists, so that nobody wastes any time or effort trying to get to the polls someone who has already voted.  If someone says "I hate that socialist Kenyan Muslim worse than I hate the Antichrist," an appropriate entry will guarantee that no further effort is made to contact him.

When it comes time to walk the streets knocking on doors, the central campaign sends out maps of local streets [generated by a Google Maps app, I assume] on which there are dots showing the location of people whose doors are to be knocked on.  This is accompanied by pages listing the people corresponding to the dots, with places to enter information about whether the person is home, supports or does not support Obama, is registered, wants to volunteer, and so forth.  At the end of each day, data entry folks like me put all of that information into a program.  The next day [!!] new maps are sent electronically to the local office, removing the dots of people who have been successfully contacted, and adding new ones.

All of this is taking place simultaneously all over the United States.  The central campaign honchos keep careful track of the data, and use it to make large strategic decisions about which states should get their scarce funding resources.  In 2008, for example, at a certain point in the campaign, the central office decided there was a chance that Georgia, ordinarily a safe Republican state, might be put in play.  Paid staffers were sent to Georgia to set up offices, and the whole process began down there.  Some while later, it was concluded that although it might be possible to win Georgia, doing so would cost too much money that could more fruitfully be used in other states offering slightly better chances for electoral votes.  So the offices were closed, and the staffers shifted elsewhere.

The election will be held on November 6th, which is just about seven and a half months from now.  And yet here in North Carolina, and all across the rest of the country, Obama For America offices are open, paid staffers are in place, and volunteers are beginning to make phone calls and register new voters.  That is the ground game.  It is unglamorous, it is tedious, it is extremely labor-intensive, and it is expensive.  And it is the way elections are won.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


I have remarked in the past on this blog that because it is just as easy to think about everything as it is to think about something, philosophers tend to think about everything.  Indeed, lately, they have taken to thinking not only about everything that is but also about everything that could be -- about "possible worlds," the actual one not providing sufficient weightiness for their thoughts.  When one tries to change the actual world, on the other hand, as opposed to just thinking about it, it turns out to be very, very difficult to make even a small change, and ten times as hard to make a slightly bigger change.  This may explain why philosophers, by and large, do not try very hard to change anything [as Marx rather tartly observed in the eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach.]

Which brings me to my brief stint this morning as a data enterer in the Obama 2012 headquarters in downtown Chapel Hill, NC.  There are a variety of tasks that the campaign needs volunteers to undertake -- phonebank calling, door-to-door doorbell ringing, voter registration table staffing, and the like.  Since I hate walking door to door, talking to people I do not know, and only slightly less dislike sitting at a voter registration table accosting passers-by to ask whether they are registered to vote, I volunteered to do data entry.

Just so we are clear, data entry means entering into an Obama campaign database on a computer the coded results of phonebanking or voter registration.  Today, I was entering the results of some phonebanking that focused on the issue of health care reform.  The callers had been given printed sheets of prospects that list the name, address, and phone number of each person to be called, and little boxes to be checked indicating whether the person was at home [or the phone number was incorrect], whether the person contacted supports Obama or is a Republican or is undecided, whether the person on the other end of the phone supports HCR ["health care reform"] and is for or against repeal of HCR, and finally whether the callee would be willing to volunteer in the campaign.

There were six names to a sheet, and I was given nine sheets, so I entered the results of fifty-four calls [a very easy task that took me perhaps half an hour -- things will heat up as the campaign progresses.]  Of those fifty-four calls, I would say that in forty or more instances, the person was not home or the phone number was incorrect.  A handfull of callees described themselves as Republicans or Undecided, Several said they were opposed to HCR [but only one, interestingly, favored repeal], and perhaps three or four were supporters of Obama.

Now, think about that for a moment.  I do not know who did the calling, but the Obama volunteers in Chapel Hill tend to be of a certain age [as we say politely] and well educated, so it is a fair bet that several mature well-educated people [myself included] spent some hours gathering and entering what added up to a tiny assemblage of usable data.  It would be easy, but it would be wrong [as Richard Nixon famously said about a different matter] to conclude that this was all a colossal waste of time.

Not a bit of it.  This was exactly the sort of labor intensive results-sparse work that goes into mounting an effective nationwide campaign for the presidency.  It takes the paid and unpaid efforts of thousands upon thousands of people doing all manner of not very elevated or inspiring tasks to create a campaign that has any chance of winning.  It is far easier, and very much less effective, to write corruscating, biting, brilliant political commentary.  Very satisfying, no doubt, but not much use in actually getting enough people to the polls to win an election.

This is, after all, as it should be.  In a nation of three hundred thirty million, it ought to require the efforts of very large numbers of people to have a political effect.  The alternative is dictatorship, or, as we now see, plutocracy.

I imagine I shall be spending a good many more hours in the pleasant, airy Chapel Hill office of the Obama campaign, making very little difference in the grand scheme of things.  If I want the big picture, I can always go back and re-read the Republic.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Mitt Romney says we should elect him president because he has run private businesses successfully.  Mitt Romney also says the government should never get involved in running private businesses, such as General Motors.  So he is saying that his principal claim to the presidency is his demonstrated skill at doing something that he says a president has no business doing.  Of course, if he were running for the presidency of a socialist country, whose government owned the means of production, I could see some merit in his argument.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


I wrote briefly about my Uncle Anoch.  My sister tells me that he suffered from macular degeneration.  She also tells me, astonishingly, that with that contraption I described for backlighting and enlarging a text so that he could read it a little bit at a time, he actually read Joyce's Ulysses!  A real mensch.

Monday, March 19, 2012


I am ordinarily a pretty fast reader, but the book I am now reading, Turing's Cathedral, is astonishingly slow going.  After plugging away at it conscientiously for a while, I am only on page 137!  Still and all, it has some rather interesting things in it, aside from endless detail about the backgrounds, ancestors, and personal characteristics of each one of the scores, if not hundreds, of characters who make their appearance in the story.  The book is about the early stages of the development of the modern computer, a development in which John von Neumann played a central role.

The core of the theory of the computer can be found in the writings of Leibniz, and in the modern era, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, and -- surprisingly, Kurt Gödel -- pretty well had that nailed early on.  But the actual construction of a working model turned out to be an engineering nightmare.  The enterprise was launched at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, with von Neumann and several others overseeing the effort.  Many of the ethereal residents of the Institute looked with great disfavor on the entire project, which involved engineers who actually did things with their hands other than erasing symbols from a blackboard.  The most eminent of the humanists, the great art historian Erwin Panofsky, was apparently particularly put out by the presence of engineers.

This entire story is something that I knew nothing about [hence my decision to read the book], and aside from the endless detail, which George Dyson cannot stop himself from retailing, there are some real surprises for me.  Perhaps the thing I most totally failed to realize is that the engineers [and the theorists] had to deal with the fact that the electronic components they were able to get their hands on -- vacuum tubes, relays, and the like -- were very unreliable.

Now, this unreliability posed a major threat to the very possibility of a working computer.  The problem is this [I have the feeling I am telling you something you all know, but since I have just learned it, let me continue]:  As Leibniz foresaw, a computer essentially does certain very elementary things over and over again with blinding speed,  remembering [so to speak] the result of each step, and entering that as input into the next step.  To illustrate with a trivial example, a computer adds 5 and 7 by adding 5 and 1, then taking the result, which is 6, and adding 1 to that, then taking the result, which is 7, and adding 1 to that, and so on, until it arrives at the answer, which is 12.  [I choose the example, of course, in honor of the memory of Immanuel Kant.]  Now, when thousands of steps are being concatenated, if somewhere along the line a vacuum tube misfires or misbehaves, the entire process will yield a wrong answer.

Some way must be found to get satisfactory results from imperfect, fallible components.  And this problem, much to my surprise, was one that Norbert Wiener and others had already been struggling with in their effort to devise ways of making anti-aircraft guns more accurate when fired at enemy bombers!

I am of course typing this on a desk-top computer, in preparation for posting it on my blog.  The interaction between my brain, my fingers, and the computer is seamless [save for the fact that I am the world's worst typist, and must repeatedly backtrack and correct my typing errors -- but even that is made easier by the fact that my word processing program very politely underlines in red each word that has been garbled by my errant forefingers.]  We all know that the amount of memory required, and the speed required, for this seamless process is staggering.  But it is good, nevertheless, I find, to read about the struggles of the men and women who actually invented and physically assembled the first primitive computers.  It may have been obvious to Leibniz or Turing or von Neumann or Wiener or Gödel how the first and simplest steps would lead necessarily to the most sophisticated advanced computer operations, but the actual physical steps were not obvious to them or to anyone else, and required a very great deal of effort by a large number of superbly talented people.

This might be a good place to respond to a comment posted by Don Schneier several days ago, on the occasion of my first remarks about the Dyson book.  I have been mulling them over in my mind, and there are a few things I want to say by way of elaboration and response.  Reacting to my fantasies about having a mind like that of von Neumann, Dr. Schneier writes [Don is an old student, which is how I know to write "Dr."]:  "On the one hand, there is Spinoza's distinction between 'Intuition' and 'Reason'. But, on the other, "blinding speed" may indicate a difference in rate, not in kind, of intellectual process."

This is actually directly apposite to what I have been saying.  A computer does function by performing elementary operations over and over and blinding speed.  But though it is of course the case that von Neumann's mind worked a lot faster than mine [to put it mildly] -- indeed, if Dyson is to be believed, a lot faster than just about everybody's mind, except maybe Gödel's -- that is not, I think, the real difference between his mind and mine.

Let me try to explain to illustrate what I take to be the difference by means of a story that I think I actually told in some chapter of my Autobiography.  My favorite uncle was Dr. Anoch Lewart, the husband of my father's sister, Rosabelle.  In addition to being a fine surgeon and a wonderful man, Anoch was an intellectual.  He loved to read, and for many years was part of a reading group that also included my father.  Late in life, Anoch began to lose his peripheral vision [I forget what this condition is called], and eventually it reached the point at which he could only see what was in the very center of his visual field, under bright light.  He quite literally could not see a line of text, or even an entire word.  He had made for himself a reading box, I might call it -- a box that backlit a very much enlarged text under very intense light.  Anoch could only see a part of a word at a time, but he would laboriously scan a text, word by word, remembering what he had just seen and assembling it into a sentence.  In this way, very, very slowly, he could read entire paragraphs or even pages of text.  You can perhaps see that in a sense, he was reduced to doing what a computer does, but very, very slowly.

I thought about him once when I was in the Louvre in Paris.  I was walking through one of those seemingly interminable series of galleries, and as I passed through an arch, I glanced to my right.  There, hanging on a wall, quite unpretentiously, was one of my favorite paintings:   La Bohémienne by Frans Hals.  Now, here is the point.  Had my uncle been with me, he would have had to look at the canvas one tiny piece at a time, and struggle to integrate into a complete image what I could see immediately and grasp as a whole.  I do not think that I was doing the same thing he would have been doing, only faster.  To use a term that came into fashion with a certain school of Psychology, I grasped the entire image in a gestalt [from the German for "shape" or "form."]

Something like this, I believe, is the way von Neumann grasped formal mathematical structures.  Whereas I am compelled, when I am attempting to master a mathematical theorem, to go through the proof step by step [like my uncle], carrying along what I have learned from the previous steps until I can assemble the entire idea of the proof in my mind, von Neumann and other great mathematicians grasp the central idea of the theorem in a gestalt, immediately.  It may then take them a long time to spell out their intuition in a series of correct steps leading from premises to conclusion, but they can see the theorem in the same way I can see a painting. 

Well, back to page 138.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


I would like to spend a little time talking about the extraordinary and troubling Republican attacks on women's health and reproductive rights.  These attacks are, if anything, more deeply disturbing in their manifestations at the state legislative level than at the federal level.  I will leave it to others to address the legal and legislative dimensions of this phenomenon.  [My son, Tobias, has been doing a fair amount of press, radio, and TV on this issue, and he is far, far better equipped than I to address the legal aspects.]

The politically suicidal nature of these attacks is obvious to even the most casual observer of the political scene.  The Republicans wrote off the Black vote two generations ago when they adopted what came to be called the "Southern strategy," although it was somewhat more accurately characterizable as a Southern and Southwestern strategy.  Despite George W. Bush's efforts to reach out to the Hispanic-American community, the Republicans decided to write off that large and growing segment of the voting population with their hysterical and obsessive focus on illegal immigration from Latin America and their rejection of even so limited a legislative measure as the Dream Act.  They have done little or nothing to counteract Obama's success in appealing to young voters.  And now, bizarrely and unaccountably, they have decided to alienate the largest single block of voters in the entire electorate -- women.  I think it is reasonable to ask what on earth is going on.

What strikes me most forcefully about the metastasizing attacks on women's health and reproductive rights by male Republican legislators is the sheer mean-spirited hostility, not to say hatred, that it reveals.  Not only do these male legislators want to deny women health insurance coverage for protections and procedures previously widely accepted as a customary component of health insurance.  They want to shame women who seek such insurance protection, to humiliate them, literally to rub their faces in it by requiring that women undergo unnecessary medical procedures and then be forced to watch the results.  One recent bill [in Arizona, I believe], requires women requesting insurance coverage for birth control medications to present medical evidence that they are not using these medications for birth control!

Now, the men proposing these laws, and in many cases enacting them, are for the most part married.  They have wives, who are using birth control medications.  They have daughters who are using birth control medications.  They have sons whose wives and partners are using birth control medications.  And yet, like Rush Limbaugh, who once again performs the indispensable function of saying out loud what these men are thinking, they clearly consider women who seek insurance coverage for birth control medications to be sluts and whores.  That is their own wives and daughters whom they are describing in that manner. 

It is possible, I think, to figure out what is going on, but only if we look beneath the surface, and learn a lesson or two from Sigmund Freud.  [Those who are unfamiliar with his work may wish to consult my Tutorial on The Thought of Sigmund Freud, accessible at by clicking on the link at the top of this blog.]   A great many people [but here we are focusing on men] have deeply ambivalent feelings about all matters sexual.  They are powerfully drawn to sexual objects or potential partners, but feel deeply guilty about this attraction.  Many men are able to achieve a satisfying orgasm only with a woman whom they deem vile, or low, or unworthy -- a slut, a whore.  These men are often simultaneously attracted to and repelled by women who express sexual desire themselves.  In extreme cases, the feelings of guilt may be so crippling that they can only take pleasure in sex that is combined with punishment [the acting out of so-called bondage fantasies.]

For a very long time, the principal form of birth control was the condom, which is purchased by, brought to the sex act by, and worn by the man, who thus maintains control over the possibility of pregnancy and is able to perpetuate the fiction that the woman is a passive partner in the sex act.  But with the advent of the pill, women were finally able to take total control of their own sexuality.  By choosing to "go on the pill," a woman could decide for herself that she was ready for sex, and thus could determine, without the cooperation of the man, whether she would risk pregnancy.

This achievement by women of freedom and power terrifies some men.  It deprives them of control, it confronts them with the fact of open and acknowledged female sexuality, and it triggers in them fears and fantasies rooted in their own ambivalences and guilt about sexuality.  The emergence into the sunlight of female pornography has the same effect.  The very same men who consider women sluts and whores for wanting to purchase birth control medications themselves not only frequent prostitutes but also access readily available pornography on-line.  But they are horrified by the mere thought that there might be pornography deliberately aimed at women.

Now, all of this sounds pretty heavy and theoretical as an explanation for the fact that some idiotic politicians have chosen to introduced some punitive and destructive measures in their state legislatures.  But I really think one needs to learn something here from Freud [or from whatever other theorist of the human condition one finds insightful and helpful].  When someone does something manifestly self-defeating or self-destructive [like alienating the people whose votes one needs to get re-elected], and when this is done with an expression of feeling that seems inappropriate or out of proportion to the subject ostensibly under consideration, then an explanation is called for that goes beyond the explicit purposes that the person is overtly professing.

There is one more aspect of this curious and distressing phenomenon that ought to be mentioned.  Many, many people have thoughts and attitudes that they feel compelled by social pressure to keep to themselves.  The most obvious example is racist sentiments, which it was, not too long ago, perfectly acceptable to voice, but which these days have become quite unacceptable.  The sexual feelings and conflicts I have been discussing come under the same heading.  Now, it is psychologically difficult, indeed painful, to repress such thoughts and feelings, to maintain a public face that is so at odds with one's inner feelings.  This is by no means a psychologically cost free effort.  Sometimes, some utter reprobate just comes out and says what others are repressing.  This is met with whoops of laughter, with applause, with manifest relief that what has been bottled up has been given voice.  Suddenly, those repressed thoughts and feelings are given legitimacy, are admitted into the public space, and now there is an outpouring of very strong, hostile, angry expressions of a sort that one has not seen for a very long time.  Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum have performed this service for all the men with deeply conflicted hang-ups about sex who feel assaulted and abused by Women's Liberation and long to find a socially acceptable use for the words "slut" and "whore."

By the bye, you will notice that Santorum has moved on to a very high-profile attack on pornography.  Will it win him votes?  My guess is that deep down, he does not really care.  It must feel so good to him just to say the words.

Saturday, March 17, 2012


I spent four hours this afternoon at the Timberlyne Shopping Center in Chapel Hill with a charming professor from NC Central University registering people for the election.  This was my first bit of on-the-street activism in the 2012 Obama campaign, and as always, I was impressed, not to say awed, by the power of the Obama ground game.  The Obama campagn is making a big play for North Carolina -- the Convention will be held in Charlotte.  Last time around, we won North Carolina by a hair -- 11,000 votes or so.  But northern medical and professional types have continued to flood into the triangle area [Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill] in the intervening four years, and North Carolina is definitely tilting Blue.  If Obama carries North Carolina and Virginia again, it will be nigh impossible for the Republican candidate to assemble 270 electoral votes.

We are seven months out from the election, and already the Obama campaign has paid staff on the ground here, rounding up volunteers like me, launching a systematic registration campaign, and preparing for a big push this summer and next fall.  I have never seen anything like this level and rationality of organization in a political campaign.

The effort is of course, from one point of view, hopelessly inefficient and a squandering of people's time and energies.  In four hours, the two of us, both accomplished professionals, signed up only eight new voters.  But this is time and energy that has no other political use, so it makes sense to squander it.

I am not, as they say in the business world, a people person, so in the future, I will probably volunteer to do data entry [there are a thousand jobs that need doing, so everyone's talents and procilvities can find some use in the campaign.]  I have a score of reservations and disappointments anent Obama's first term, but this is the real world, not the fantasy world of political ideologists, and the threats posed by a Republican victory are not to be borne.

I shall report from the front lines as time goes on.

Friday, March 16, 2012


Andrew Hookum writes to point out that the book I am reading is called Turing's Cathedral, not Turing's Castle.  Quite right.  Perhaps dementia is setting in faster than I thought.


How extraordinary the internet is!  I just had an email from Norman Geras, who somehow was made aware of my recommendation of his blog, in connection with a comment on this blog.  He wrote to assure me that he had never expressed a desire to have dinner with Henry Kissinger.  He seemed as appalled by the idea as I was.  I am happy to correct the record.  Falsely being accused of expressing a desire to dine with Kissinger is probably, in some jurisdictions, an actionable offense. 


A long, long time ago [possibly sixty-five years ago, when I was a regular reader of two pocket-sized pulp science fiction magazines, Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction], I read a curious short story about a restaurant that served delicious but totally imaginary dishes to its patrons.  Since there was a significant danger that the customers might, upon leaving the restaurant, discover that they were still hungry, the proprietor had the waiters bring extremely tempting and quite real rolls and butter to the tables before the dishes ordered by the patrons were served.  The patrons would load up on the rolls, which were fortified with a variety of dietary supplements, and would never notice that the rest of their meal was an illusion.  [I cannot for the life of me recall the point of the story, or its denouement.]

I was reminded of the story yesterday evening as I launched into a seven hundred page Tom Clancy thriller called Against All Enemies that I had brought home from the library.  Tom Clancy novels are to reading what empty calories are to eating:  they produce the momentary impression that one has consumed a book, but turn out to have no intellectual or emotional nutriment whatsoever [nor any redeeming social value, but that is a matter for the Supreme Court to decide.]  After I had made my way 60 pages into the book, it dawned on me that I had already read it!  Now, I ask you, how is it possible, short of a dementia that I do not believe has yet afflicted me, to forget that one has read a seven hundred page book?  A book, what is more, that was published only last year.  I mean, could you just forget that you had read Crime and Punishment or Moby Dick?

When I checked the book out, the librarian, obviously concerned about an old guy taking out such a long book, warned me that the blue tape on the spine meant no renewals and no late returns.  I suspect I will get an odd look when I bring it back today.

That leaves me with Turing's Castle, to which I shall return.


[The title is of course a shameless steal from Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, a.k.a. Tom and Ray Magliazzi on PBS.]

I mentioned yesterday that I am reading a curious book called Turing's Castle by George Dyson, the son of the great Freeman Dyson.  The book is ostensibly about the invention of the digital computer, and I guess sooner or later it will get around to talking about that, but Dyson seems incapable of resisting even the slightest temptation to digress.  An early part of his story -- all of which is quite fascinating, by the way -- deals with the establishment of the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton.  The Institute was built on land that originally was the Olden Farm.  Now, that is an interesting fact that in a normal book would be good for a paragraph.  Dyson, on the other hand, takes us all the way back to the Revolutionary War and traces the ownership and fate of the land across three centuries.  Why?  So far as I can  make out, for no better reason than that he collected a mass of research notes along the way to writing the book, and cannot leave anything out. 

There are payoffs to this odd style of narration, however.  Chapter Four is devoted to the family background, childhood, development, and character traits one of the authentically great minds of the twentieth or any other century, John von Neumann [I shall leave to one side the rather mysterious and complex relationship between this Americanization of his name and the original Hungarian, also gone into at great length by Dyson.]   Now, I have always had secret fantasies about having a mind like von Neumann's.  Well, maybe not so secret.  I seem to recall that at some point in my autobiography, I confessed that there are two abilities whose lack I really regret -- a facility with the learning of languages and the ability to grasp deep formal mathematical structures immediately and intuitively.  [The ability to play the violin or viola like Pinchas Zuckerman is a different thing, involving as it does uncounted hours of hard practice that I was never willing to put in.]  von Neumann possessed that capacity to such a degree that even world-famous mathematicians and physicists stood in awe of him.  For those of you who are unfamilair with von Neumann, perhaps it will suffice to say that in the course of his astonishing career, he made brief forays into Logic, Quantum Mechanics, and Economics, in each of which he proved extremely important results.  He was also, of course, the creator of Game Theory, and -- this is why he appears in this book -- the seminal mind behind the creation of the digital computer.

OK, what does this have to do with me?  Well, in Chapter Four, Dyson assembles quotations from many of the people who knew von Neumann and worked with him, in which we get a picture of how his mind worked.  AND IT TURNS OUT THAT HIS MIND WORKED THE WAY MINE DOES.

Now, that is the intellectual equivalent of the old joke about the flea crawling up the elephant's hind leg and yelling "Rape!"  von Neumann's mind worked like mine?  Yeah right.  And I look like Brad Pitt, except for the face and the body.  Let me try to explain.  When von Neumann encountered a problem, he would puzzle over it until he had disassembled it into its fundamental elements, and then he would reassemble them into a story that, by its pelliucid clarity, dissolved the problem as though it had never been there.  He worked in his head, as it were, and as a consequence wrote with blinding speed.  What others had to master by a slow and linear process, step by step, he grasped in a single intellectual intuition, as though he were simply looking at a painting rather than assembling it in his mind pixil by pixil.

Now, in a debased, trivial, second-rate fashion, that is the way my mind works.,  I experience deep intellectual problems as stories, which I tell to myself over and over until I can grasp the narrative line as firmly as I can grasp the narrative line of Jack and the Beanstalk.  That is how I managed to penetrate the inner mysteries of the Critique of Pure Reason, of Das Kapital, of A Treatise of Human Nature.  And it is why I write so fast, without revisions, once I start telling the story on paper.  If it were not for the people like John von Neumann, I might think I was one helluva fellow.  It is, I suppose, what it was like to be Antonio Salieri.  Salieri was, after all, a very successful musician, as the world measures these things, court composer to the Hapsburg Emperor and all.  He just had the great misfortune to live at the same time as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was to music what von Neumann was to mathematics.

Well, this blog post is a more than ordinarily embarrassing self-revelation, so I think I will just bring it to a close and go back to reading Dyson's book.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


I have been blogging regularly for four years now, posting almost a comment a day, starting before I retired from the University of Massachusetts.  Two years ago, in 2010, I wrote and posted daily a Memoir that filled three volumes and ran to almost eight hundred manuscript pages.  While writing that memoir, I also wrote and posted, on a different blog, a book length introduction to the use of formal mathematical methods in political philosophy.  My memoir was followed by a series of lengthy tutorials on a wide array of topics:  The Thought of Karl Marx, the Thought of Sigmund Freud, Ideological Critique, How to Study Society, An Introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason, and The Philosophy of David Hume.  Having run out of topics for tutorials, I undertook a number of mini-tutorials and after that a series of Appreciations.  Taking all in all, I have poured out perhaps five hundred thousand words, not counting the many, many commentaries on the passing scene that are more typical of blogs.

The response has been extremely gratifying.  Though I have not ascended into the empyrean reaches of Lady Gaga [who scores twice as many Google hits as Jesus Christ], nor even achieved the internet fame of an Andrew Sullivan or a Josh Marshall, I have been blessed with an unusually intelligent and learned coterie of readers, whose comments have been knowledgeable, pertinent, and interesting.

But I am beginning to suspect that there are limits to the number of topics on which I can blog with even a simulacrum of competence, so I hope you will not take it amiss if I post a tad less often.  I will, of course, continue to react to the more egregious absurdities of our politics, and I am always open to requests and suggestions.  Perhaps I ought to read a book, as a way of recharging my batteries.  [At the moment, I am making my way through George Dyson's new work, Turing's Castle, by George Dyson, the son of Freeman Dyson.  It is a very odd book, apparently about the invention of the computer.]


This morning, I stumbled on the blog maintained by retired University of Manchester professor Norman Geras.  I do not agree with him in all things [he was a supporter of the war on Iraq, for example], but he writes with wit and verve, virtues all too often absent from the web.  Here is the link:

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Yesterday evening, as I mentioned earlier, Susie and I attended a performance at UNC's Memorial Hall of Bach's B Minor Mass, splendidly sung and played by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir led by Ton Koopman.  For the two of us, it was very much a stroll down memory lane.  Two thirds of a century ago, as teen-agers, we fell in love while listening to the old Robert Shaw recording of the B-Minor Mass.  The hall was packed, mostly with UNC faculty, or so it looked.  Sitting next to me was the father of a young man who had been a member of the UNC Philosophy Department until he left to go to the CUNY graduate center.

The B-Minor Mass lasts for well over two hours, not counting an intermission about three-quarters of the way through.  I had brought Susie's pocket score -- the same one she used in college when she wrote a paper on the piece -- but the lights were too low to follow it, so I put it in my lap and allowed the music to wash over me.  The broad, expansive Kyrie gave way to the excited Gloria, with tympani banging and trumpets blaring.   The soprano and the tenor did an exquisite job of the Domine Deus, and the bass exhibited a big, rich voice in the Quoniam, although he did tend to bray a bit in the higher passages.  Then the chorus returned with the vigorous Cum Sancto Spiritu, bringing the first two parts of the Mass to a close.

By now, a bit more than an hour had passed, and the music was working its spell on me.  As the chorus launched into the Credo, something unexpected happened to me.  It started with the glorious opening line of the Credo.  The tenor section states the subject of the fugue boldly in whole and half notes --  Credo in unum deum -- I believe in one God  -- with a moving continuo underneath.  Then the basses, the altos, the first sopranos, and finally the second sopranos pick up the subject.  I have always loved that moment in the Mass, and I was in fact somewhat disappointed that Koopman chose to have the tenors introduce the subject meditatively rather than triumphantly.

This was followed by the mysterious Et incarnatus est -- and He was made flesh ["incarnated"], which gave way to the exquisitely painful, sad, brooding Crucifixus -- and He was crucified.  As the last notes of the Crucifixus died away [passus et supultus est -- suffered, and was buried], the chorus, without a moment's pause, erupted into the exultant cry Et resurrexit -- and He was resurrected.  The first trumpeter's face turned beet red as he blew the notes that announce the joyous news.

Et incarnatus est.  Crucifixus.  Et resurrexit.  Here, I thought, is the heart and soul of the extraordinary Christian message.  At a single irreplaceable moment in time, the omnipotent, eternal God became flesh.  The infinite broke into the finite world, lived and suffered as a mortal man, was scourged, despised, nailed on a cross and left to die; and then, miraculously, rose from the dead and lived again.  Just so, through His intermediation, shall we live, die, and yet live again.

I write, you understand, as a life-long atheist, an unbeliever, someone who has never been a communicant of any faith, and who will go to his grave without the consolations of faith.  And yet, through the transcendent beauty of Bach's music, I was able to feel the power of the Christian message.  A lifetime spent reading philosophical disquisitions about the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal, a lifetime reading Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Maimonides and Averroes, Luther, Calvin, Kant, and Kierkegaard, combined with a lifetime steeped in the music of Bach, to give me yet again a deep emotional appreciation of the mysteries and wonders of this message that I am utterly incapable of believing.

As I sat in that auditorium, the final sections of the Credo unfolding, a strange, vagrant thought entered my mind, a thought quite unworthy of the moment, and yet impossible to put aside.  This extraordinary message, I reflected, is presented to Rick Santorum in its impenetrable mystery, and yet all that impoverished, vulgar, cheap little man can think is that it is all about sex -- about who is giving pleasure to whom, and how, and where, with or without protection.  Offered a vision of eternal life, the dirty little mind of this wretched homunculus turns to "man on dog."

It occurred to me -- and I say this as a confirmed atheist -- that what is wrong with American politics is not that Christianists have brought religion into the public space.  What is wrong with American politics is the debased, diminished, soulless, conception of religion they have brought.  These are trivial men and women, vulgar, ignorant men and women, men and women who have never felt the least tingle of divinity and would not know what to do with it if they did.

Perhaps it is just as well that i do not listen to the B-Minor Mass too often.

Monday, March 12, 2012


A new poll, released today, reveals that half of the Republican voters in Mississippi and Alabama think Obama is a Muslim, and 60% reject the theory of evolution.  Since I have almost no hair left, tearing my hair out is not an option.  Instead, I find myself harking back to an old journal article, published more than half a century ago, by the late David Riesman.  Riesman, as my younger readers may not know, was a prominent sociologist who was trained as a lawyer at Harvard, clerked for Brandeis on the Supreme Court, and after teaching law at Buffalo, joined the Harvard faculty in the Social Relations Department during the time that I was an Instructor there [i.e., in the late '50s.].  Riesman was best known for his book, The Lonely Crowd, in which, among other things, he coined the personality category terms "inner directed," "tradition directed," and "other directed."

The article in question was Riesman's attempt to explain the wide and very rapid swings in the views expressed by subjects in the then rather new genre of opinion polling.  He was puzzled by the fact that, for example, 70% of Americans might express the opinion one week that Red China should be admitted to the UN, and 65%  would express the contrary opinion a week later.  How could people change their minds so dramatically, so quickly?

Riesman suggested that what was at work was not opinion change but something more akin to status anxiety.  When a pollster came to the door [this was before telephone calling was the sole method of polling], nicely dressed, wearing a coat and tie, and carrying an official looking clipboard, the person answering the door probably felt somewhat intimidated, and was embarrassed to confess that he or she had no opinion at all about something that was apparently important to this obviously socially upscale person.  Rather than admit to having no opinion, the person would more than likely seize on whatever he or she had heard on the radio or seen on the telly that day, and offer as a settled opinion what was actually anything but.

Surely something akin to this is going on here.  Do the people being polled have a considered opinion about the theory of evolution?  Do they have any idea at all what the theory of evolution asserts?  Of course not.  What they do know is that smart-ass stuck-up Northern irreligious liberals "believe in": evolution, so they don't.  Do they actually know what it is to "be a Muslim?"  Probably not.  But they know that Muslims are not like us, and Obama is clearly not like us, so called upon to offer an opinion, they say Obama is a Muslim.

The thing that drives me wild about all of this is that these people use IPhones and IPads, are on FaceBook, get flu shots, opt for radiation therapy when they get cancer, and do all the other things that presuppose the truth of the science that they mindlessly reject.  It is a measure of my desperation and mean-spiritedness that I daydream about denying them treatment unless they sign a statement asserting that they accept the science on which the treatment is based.

It is going to be a long Spring, Summer, and Fall.


In 1948, when I was fourteen, I fell in love with Susie.  On occasion, I would walk her home from school, and we would listen to Bach's B Minor Mass on old 78 rpm records, with one of those new-fangled players that had an automatic changer, so that you could load up a stack of 78s and sit back.  The recording was by Robert Shaw conducting the Collegiate Choral.  Tomorrow evening, sixty-four years later, we shall hear a performance at UNC of the B Minor Mass with Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir.  There is a certain metaphysical unity to our lives, I like to think.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


My son, Professor Tobias Barrington Wolff, has just published an extraordinarily interesting article, which I was privileged to read in manuscript, as it were, when he completed it.  It is called "Civil Rights Reform and the Body," and can be accessed by cutting and pasting this link:

What makes the essay so interesting, to my way of thinking, is his ability to bring into fruitful conjunction materials from a diversity of academic fields [I like to believe that he got a little bit of this from me, but then, as a father, I of course take credit for what my sons do.]  In addition to his groundbreaking work on LGBT legal rights, Tobias is the leading young Civil Proceduralist in the academic legal community.

Quite the most fascinating part of the essay is the section in which he talks about the early stages of train travel in America.  That is worth the price of the entire article all by itself.


I don't know that it makes any difference, but in light of the phony "controversy" generated from the grave by the late and totally unlamented Andrew Breitbart, I think I ought to say at least a word about the late and very much lamented Derrick Bell.  I did not know Bell well, but I had enormous respect and admiration for him, both for his scholarly writings and for his courageous stand at Harvard Law School against their failure to hire a Black woman to the faculty.  Bell, you may recall, with an ironic wit that I thought was simply off the charts marvelous, once staged a "sit-in" at Harvard Law School, announcing that he would not leave his own office [!!!], to protest the failure of the Law School to tenure a Black woman.  He thereby skewered his colleagues, who were notorious for being everywhere in the world save in their offices available to students.  [Some time later, the Law School decided that its faculty were not spending enough time with students, so they set out to raise four hundred million dollars to hire some new faculty for the purpose -- I am not making this up.]

Eventually, Bell took an unpaid leave, saying that he would not return until Harvard tenured a Black woman in the Law School.  I was at UMass at the time, and I was simply outraged at the complete failure of his "radical" fellow Critical Legal Theorists at Harvard to make any sort of public fuss about all of this.  So I sent him a check for a thousand dollars to help tide him over until he got another gig.  [This was, on my part, more or less the act of a parochial boob, since Bell, at his resignation, was probably making two or three times my salary, but at least it was well intentioned.]  He responded in a very sweet letter, and told me he had donated the money to a fund that had been set up to honor his wife, who had passed away rather tragically a short time earlier.  He and I stayed in touch, on and off, and I actually had the pleasure of meeting him on at least one occasion.

The big controversy, by the way, consists of a video of Obama, then President of the Harvard Law Review, introducing Bell at a rally in Bell's support [and hugging him, horror of horrors.]  I was unaware of this fact, and needless to say, consider it one of the best things I have ever heard about Obama.

God, this is a really screwed up country.


The retirement announcement of the soon to be late and already unlamented Olympia Snowe has predictably unleashed yet another tsunami of punditry by the usual suspects about the regrettable rigidity of today's Congressional Democrats and Republicans.  This has been coupled with bathetic nostalgia for the good old days when giants of accommodation walked the halls of Congress, regularly reaching out across the aisles to craft compromises in the sacred middle of the political spectrum.  This, I believe, is what is referred to in those compressed fragments of communication called tweets as the CW of the MSM.  Those of us with pretentions to a somewhat better class of education prefer the phrase consensus gentium, believing, as we do, that it always sounds better in Latin.

Never mind the false and self-serving claim that the ideological rigidity of those on the right is mirrored by a like rigidity of the few remaining Members of Congress who can plausibly be described as "on the left."  Rachel Maddow has nicely skewered that fiction.  [I leave it to someone more agile at these things than I to provide the link in a comment.]  I should like to call into question the central thesis, namely that the vanishing breed of "moderates" like Snowe [and her colleague with the extraordinarily irritating voice, Susan Collins] are more open-minded, more flexible, more willing to engage in the quintessentially democratic act of compromise, than their more inflexible colleagues to the right or the left.

What follows is an hypothesis, not a thesis, because I do not have hard data to support it.  But I would be happy to put money on the proposition [not a Romneyesque ten thousand, to be sure, but certainly a fiver], because I am sure its central idea is correct.

Let us choose a single very large and complex issue of public policy -- health care reform, say, since we all remember the debates and maneuverings that led to the passage of the Affordable Care Act [also known, to Republicans, as Obamacare, and to some candidates for the Republican presidential nomination as Obamneycare].   In a leap of conceptual simplification worthy of a neo-classical economist, let us suppose that all the many possible positions, pro and con, on health care reform can be arrayed along a one-dimensional spectrum from left to right.  We may imagine that at the extreme left is true socialized medicine, with no insurance companies, no for-profit hospitals, and the central government paying the entire bill from the general tax fund.  Somewhat to the right of that terminus,  but still situated well to the left, is a single payer version of the current health care system.  The extreme right, we may suppose, is represented by the position of Dr. [and Congressman] Ron Paul, who says that uninsured trauma patients who show up in the Emergency Room of a for-profit hospital should be left to die -- rather like the old nineteenth century practice of letting a house burn if it did not sport a plaque showing that the owner was a subscriber to the private firefighting service.  [Those plaques, incidentally, are now valuable collector's items of Americana.]

Each member of the House or Senate, we shall now assume, can identify some point on that spectrum of positions that corresponds to his or her ideologically most preferred policy -- some complicated combination of coverages and exclusions, guarantees and options, in the maelstrom of the American health care system.  Now I am going to make a really serious conceptual simplification, genuinely worthy of a General Equilibrium theorist.  I am going to assume that each person, having located himself or herself at some point on the line, finds that each position to the left is less acceptable, the farther to the left it is from that point, and that each position to the right is also less acceptable, the farther to the right it is from that point.  [Those who have actually read my Tutorial on the use and abuse of formal models in political theory will recognize this simplification from the work of the Australian political scientist Duncan Black, but that, as they say, was in another land, and besides the wench is dead.]

OK.  Got that?  A line the points of which are different health care reform positions, arrayed from left to right, and Members of the House and Senate positioned along that line, looking with increasing disfavor to positions to their left or right according to how much farther right or left they are.  Let us suppose the line looks like this:


Now, imagine some senator positioned somewhere along the line -- to the right, let us say.  Let us invent a name for him, a name so absurd and comical that no actual senator could ever actually bear it.  I know, how about Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, or Jeff Sessions, for short?  Let us suppose that Jeff Sessions is positioned, on the issue of health care reform, like this:


Jeff Sessions, we assume, prefers the package of health care reform proposals identified by the point on the line where we have located his initials, and if he had the power to enact a bill, that is exactly the bill he would choose.  But I am betting [this is where the hypothetical part of all of this comes into play] that he would be willing to compromise to at least some extent to get most of what he wants, striking a deal with Jim DeMint to his right or Jon Kyl slightly to his left [but still securely within the conservative segment of the line, of course.]   I may be wrong, of course.  Maybe Jeff Sessions is totally and immovably inflexible on the issue of health care reform.  But I would bet more than a fiver that that is not so.  Recall our assumption that the various positions are less and less acceptable to anyone located anywhere on the line the farther away they are, to the left or the right, from where he or she is located.  It follows from this assumption [never mind the proof, if it isn't obvious] that there is a compact space of possible positions around Jeff Sessions, all of which would be acceptable to him in a compromise, if he were able to get one.  Let us suppose this situation looks like this:


Presumably, every single Senator and Representative can be modeled on the line in the same fashion.  Some will have very wide brackets around their initials, some very narrow brackets.  The width of the bracket, in this little model, is a visible representation of that politician's flexibility, or willingness to compromise.

Now, my hypothetical thesis is this:  the people located near the break between the Democratic [left] side and the Republican [right] side of the line, people like Olympia Snowe, do not in general have brackets around their initials that are noticeably wider than the brackets around the initials of people located near the left end or the right end of the line.  But because they are more often in play when one side or the other is attempting to assemble a winning coalition, they acquire the undeserved reputation for being reasonable, willing to compromise, non-ideological, or public-spirited.

I watched the very public wooing of Olympia Snowe during the health care debate, and it was my distinct impression that she had an extremely narrow bracket around her initials [so to speak].  She just happened to be located at the fault line between the two parties.  My informal guess is that the most flexible members of the Senate were actually the most liberal Democrats, who were willing to make enormous compromises to get something, anything, done.

There is of course not the slightest possibility that anyone in the MSM will take note of this, or will adjust the CW by so much as a micrometer.  That would require intelligence and the willingness to consider a new idea.