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Wednesday, March 7, 2012


I have been a political junkie all my life.  My earliest political memory is the day FDR died [I was eleven].  At fourteen, I went to a Henry Wallace rally at Yankee Stadium [but it rained, and I ended up watching a no-hitter at the Polo Grounds -- you can look it up in my Autobiography.]  What really brought home to me my political addiction was an evening I spent in 1966 in a Cotswald cottage outside London.  A brief explanation is called for.

Ernest Gellner was a very well known and widely read Czech-English philosopher, sociologist, and anthropologist who made a big name for himself in 1958 with the publication of his first book, Words and Things, an excoriating attack on the so-called Ordinary Language Philosophy that was then all the rage in England, and was leaking over into the United States.  Shortly after the book came out, Gellner spent some time in Cambridge, MA [and, if memory serves me, went out briefly with my big sister, Barbara, who was then taking a doctorate in Biochemistry at Harvard.]  I got to know him, and we became friends.  For years, we corresponded and on rare occasions saw one another.

In 1964, when I went to Columbia University, one of my new colleagues was Charles Frankel, a student of Ernest Nagel who did social and political philosophy [tragically, some years later, Frankel and his wife were killed in their home in Westchester during a robbery.]  Charlie was pretty far along in organizing an international conference for the Social Science Research Council, to be held at a posh villa in Italy, when he was tapped by LBJ to be Assistant Secretary of State for Cultural and Educational Affairs.  He asked me to take over the last few organizational chores for the conference, which I did.  On my way home from the conference, I passed through London and took the opportunity to visit Gellner and his wife and family in their Cottswald cottage.  The date was March 31, 1966, which just happened to be election day in England, so after dinner was over and the children were put to bed, Ernest, his wife, and I sat down in the little living room and watched the results on an old black-and-white television set.  I had not the foggiest idea who any of the candidates was, and aside from a general preference for Labour, no clue what the election was about.  And yet I watched mesmerized as the results came in and were put up on chalk boards by the commentators.  It crossed my mind, as I sat there, that I must really be a hopeless political junkie if I could be fascinated by election results in a contest I knew nothing about.

All of which brings me to last night, which was Super Tuesday in the Republican Presidential Primary race.  I have been following every up and down of this seemingly endless process with the obsessive attention appropriate to a political junkie.  I watched in horror as Bachmann rose and fell, as Trump wafted into the stratosphere like a child's balloon slipped from its fingers and then popped, as Perry self-destructed, as Cain had his moment in the sun, as Gingrich did his best to steal Christmas.  Good grief, I even read the man's doctoral dissertation.  How much deeper in the weeds can one go?

But as the weeks have turned into months, and a year and more has gone by, I feel like a little boy who has finally been taken by his parents to a Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey circus, only to discover that it is clowns all the way down -- no trapeze artists, no lion tamers, no jugglers, not even a pretty lady equestrian, just one clown after another with a silly grin painted onto his face hitting his fellow clowns with a slapstick and staggering around the center ring in oversized shoes.  I never thought I would hear myself saying this, but at long last, I just don't care.  Last night, I watched Rachel Maddow and John Heilmann and Michael Steele and Chris Matthews vamping for hours until the first results dribbled in, and as the numbers started appearing on the screen, I gave it up and went to sleep.

Oh, I will watch the conventions -- both of them -- and I will settle in for election night with a pizza and a bottle of good red wine.  But for the moment, I have had about as much of Romney and Santorum and Gingrich and Paul as I can stomach.  Will someone please pile them back into the tiny car they tumbled out of and drive them off stage?


Superfluous Man said...

I wonder if Callicles would find any difference between old men prattling and lisping about philosophy and old men prattling and lisping about politics.

Nothing personal intended insomuch as this question is coming from a (relatively) old man himself, who often finds himself often prattling and lisping about both, at least since I discovered this blog.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think he would consider us to be uttering large and important speeches in the public space. I loe the passage because it always pulls me up short when I start congratulating myself on being a philosopher.

Superfluous Man said...

I've put the Callicles comment in perspective as explaining the unique perspectives of youth and his or her introduction to philosophy being a means of entering adulthood. My explanation must necessarily be in song this time, and in this case, through a folk song.

I'll let Judy Collins introduce the concept as she explains the song and its words Pete Seeger:

full text of the song by its writer at this link:

I therefore introduce the song to explain Callicles in that it explains that the teaching philosopher in all likelihood shatters the illusions of youth through his methods, yet it is one which is necessary for the youth to enter the world of adulthood. The songs portrays this necessary rite of passage as a sad, sentimental one.

On the other hand, I would think the teacher would get a pass from Callicles.

The adult gets a pass from me by anology from one of Dylan's other songs (from his acoustic period which I find to be virtually the only worthy one) and that song is "Forever Young". The antithesis would be a song from Ecclesiastes that Pete Seeger put to words "Turn, Turn, Turn" (to everything there is a season).

In case you wanted an odd explanation but perhaps through a different path to the brain as a mechanism to put the quote from Callicles in a different perspective. If you choose to follow this explanation, enjoy the songs. They're quite short and their meaning is easy to get. Hopefully others can see the analogy.

High Arka said...

It is so damned annoying that the Republicans won't just get out of the way and let Obama continue ordering the murder of children, threatening war with Iran, and forcing all U.S. citizens to purchase insurance products from private health care conglomerates.

Those dangerous clowns!

Joseph Streeter said...

Our of curiosity, which party was Ernest Gellner supporting in the 1966 British election? There was a discussion about his political leanings in the letters page of the LRB quite recently.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Dear Mr. Streeter, I honestly have no recollection, but given my own politics, I think I would have remembered if he was not supporting Labour. If I am not mistaken, he moved somewhat to the right in later years, But that may be wrong.

Joseph Streeter said...

Thanks. The discussion in the LRB was prompted by a review of John Hall's recent biography of Gellner, which apparently does not mention his politics very much (at least, not his particular political allegiances). The reviewer suggested that Gellner probably supported the Harold Wilson government of the 1960s, but that he turned to the right in the 1970s. You may well have read it already, but the review and subsequent letters are here:

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Are you the DPhil dissertation student in ancient history at Oxford? If so, your dissertation topic sounds quite interesting.

Joseph Streeter said...

Yes, that's me. I'm trying to write it up at the moment (and feeling a bit frustrated about it at the moment!). It's very gratifying that the topic has interest for people outside my field though.

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