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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Whenever you have some sort of medical condition or procedure, no matter how rare it may be, people pop out of the woodwork and say, "Oh yeah, I had that."  Cataract surgery is in fact a rather common procedure, and now that I have had it, it seems to me that everyone I know over the age of thirty has already undergone it.  The point of the procedure is of course to enable you to see the rest of the world more clearly, but one of the unanticipated side effects of the surgery has been an insight into myself, which, as I shall now explain, is a curiously appropriate consequence.

The surgery is designed to eliminate a clouding of the lens of the eye [that is what cataracts are] by removing the clouded lens and replacing it with an artificial lens [all in about seven to nine minutes of actual surgery time, believe it or not.]  But the new artificial lens can be fashioned so as to give one 20-20 vision.  Thus it is that for the first time since I was a teenager, I can now walk around and function quite nicely without glasses.  I will still need glasses for reading or using a computer [or inserting an earring for my wife if she cannot do it herself], but not for driving or going to the movies or watching television.

A number of people have told me even after having cataract surgery, they have chosen to continue wearing glasses, even if that means getting bifocals that have plate glass for the distance part and corrective lens for the reading part.  When I ask why on earth they would do that, they say, like as not, "I would feel naked and exposed without my glasses.  I am accustomed to hiding behind my glasses."

But I am delighted not to have to wear glasses.  I even allow myself the fatuous fantasy that it makes me look, dare I say it, more handsome [or at least less plain.]  Why am I so different?  Because, I now realize, all my life, whenever I wanted to withdraw from the world and become invisible, I accomplished this by taking my glasses off.  I felt that if I could not see other people, who without my glasses were simply blurs, they in turn would not be able to see me.  So it is that at a cocktail party or public gathering, when I felt oppressed by the loud voices and endless faces, I would quietly slip off my glasses and retreat into myself.  It even seemed to me that the sounds diminished when I could no longer see anything at all clearly.

By having cataract surgery, I have forfeited this means of escape.  Somehow, I have the feeling that putting on my reading glasses will not have quite the same effect.

Monday, July 30, 2012


I had the second round of cataract surgery this morning, so in a couple of days I should be in great shape.  At the moment, I cannot read anything smaller than a billboard, but I will overcome that soon, I trust.  Bear with me

Saturday, July 28, 2012


My conscience will not let me alone until I confess. After a run of a little over a hundred wins in FreeCell, which took me over the 97% mark, I made a stupid blunder, and used one undo, which I ordinarily do not permit myself, to recoup, after which I went on to win, and have now racked up another fifteen wins. I am afraid any records I set will have to be accompanied by an asterisk.


Yesterday evening, Susie and I went to a neighbor's apartment to welcome the launching of the London Olympics.  Regaled by several kinds of cheshire cheese, ale, mead [no kidding], clotted cream, Scotch Eggs, and Nutella, we watched what must be the weirdest opening ceremonies ever.  Did I see the Queen of England escorted in by James Bond?

Thus far, today, I have seen ping pong, duelling, beach volleyball, and badminton.  There has to be something better than that happening, right?  At the next Olympic Games, a new sport is going to be introduced:  Free Style Men's Making a Fool of Oneself.  Mitt Romney is already the odds on favorite to take gold.

Friday, July 27, 2012


Tony Flood appends a brief comment to a segment of my autobiography, suggesting that I could not possibly have commented on Isaac Deutscher's keynote address to the Socialist scholars Conference in 1970 because Deutscher died in 1967!  Needless to say, he is correct.  I did some Googling, and it would appear that the conference, at the old Commodore Hotel, actually took place in 1966, a year before Deutscher died.  My apologies for the mistake.  I know I am not hallucinating, because in my file drawer is a folder with my written-out comment, labeled "Comment on Deutscher Address at Socialist Scholars Conference."  As the UNCF likes to observe, a mind is a terrible thing to lose.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Earlier today, I received word that the Spencer Foundation has approved my request for a $25,000 grant to fund the research component of the program I shall be running at Bennett College.  Dania Francis will be conducting the research.  This is a small but essential first step in what I hope will be a series of grants to underwrite the Bennett project.  The distinguished sociologist Christopher Jencks was instrumental in making contact for me with the Spencer Foundation.  "Lifting as we climb."


As happens from time to time, Brian Leiter linked to my prediction that Obama will win the election, producing a spike in visits to this site and more than the usual number of comments.  William Blattner, who is, unless Google has failed me, a member of the Georgetown University Philosophy Department, calls me out on the characterization of Mormonism as "weird and creepy," asking "Do you really want to insult an entire denomination, a worldview, a set of deep commitments held by a great many people? That does not seem consonant with the generally high tone of your blog."  I think Professor Blattner deserves some sort of response.
First of all, let me say -- if I may borrow a phrase from the listings in Jobs in Philosophy -- that as an atheist I am an Equal Opportunity Offender.  I would prefer not to go out of my way to be offensive, but I have no hesitation in saying that Jews, Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Muslims [not to mention Scientologists -- don't get me started], decent, intelligent, and well-meaning though they may be, believe things that are patently absurd, and -- what is not exactly the same thing, pace Tertullian -- false.

Professor Blattner is correct that in calling Mormonism "weird and creepy" I was, in part, meaning to suggest compendiously that the tenets of Mormonism, if actually aired to a larger mostly Christian audience, would strike those folks as weird and creepy, a fact that would work against Romney's political ambitions.  But I did also mean to own that characterization, so perhaps I should say a bit more about why I describe the Church of Latter Day Saints and its doctrines in this patently offensive fashion.  Again, since I am an atheist, drawing invidious distinctions among doctrines all of which I consider manifestly false is something of a mug's game.  It is a bit like trying to say which September swoon of the Red Sox is the most egregious.  Nevertheless, I said it, so I had better defend it.

Weird first, then creepy.  Mormonism is one of a number of nineteenth century offshoots of Christianity [Shakerism is another considerably more attractive instance] that begin with the teachings of traditional Christianity, and then spin off alternative theological doctrines, leading in some cases to variations that look very little like the original teaching [although from a distance -- say from India or Japan or China -- what strike me as dramatic differences may look like no more than minor and marginal deviations.]  Mormons believe that the Garden of Eden was in the United States.  They believe that there are many worlds, and that an especially devout and highly placed member of the Church of Latter Day Saints may, when he ascends to heaven, be put in charge of his own planet [clearly a rather impressive consolation prize for a Mormon presidential candidate who fails to get 270 Electoral Votes.]  Compare the belief, fervently held apparently many scores of millions of Americans, that we are in the End Times, rapidly approaching the Rapture, at which moment, the saved will ascend bodily to heaven, leaving behind clothing, jewelry, fillings, dental bridges, and prosthetic limbs.

Now, I find those beliefs weird.  Never mind false.  False doesn't even come into it.  Just weird.  Clearly this is an aesthetic judgment, and though Kant claims that aesthetic judgments can achieve "subjective universality," there is, I admit, an element of personal taste at work here.  I don't find weird, in quite the same way, the standard Christian belief that the Son sits at the right hand of the Father in Heaven, but if someone wanted to claim weirdness for that familiar teaching, I would be hard pressed to dispute her.

Creepy is a different thing altogether.  It is useful to invoke the familiar distinction between church doctrine and church practice or organization.  I find the doctrines of Mormonism to be weird, but I find the practices of the Church of Latter Day Saints to be creepy.  How so?  Well, by all accounts that I have read or have watched online, Mormons conduct themselves, like many American religious cults, in a secretive and controlling fashion, dominating the lives of communicants, drawing a sharp line between what can be shown to outsiders and what goes on within the church, banning or ostracizing deviant members of the church, interceding between members of a family and attempting to ban faithful family members from having anything to do with heretics, and so forth.  Mormonism is, of course, not at all alone in behaving this way.  Many cults exhibit the same behavior, including some sects of Born-Again Christians, not to mention [once again] the Scientologists.  And I find this sort of behavior, wherever it appears, creepy.  It makes my flesh crawl.  I say "wherever it appears" advisedly, because I have the same reaction to the various political cults that wrap themselves in the name of Karl Marx or Leo Strauss.

Well, enough is enough.  As Aristotle observes, mud does not have a form, so there is not much to say about it [except that he did not say "mud."]   I hope Professor Blattner will forgive me my descent into subjectivity. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Well, one eye is now 20-20 and the other is 20-400.  Even reading schlock fiction is difficult.  It surprised me that having my eyes out of whack diminished my ability to follow even a mildly complicated plot.  Bear with me.  In two weeks, my cataract surgery will be completed and I shall be reborn, with 20-20 distance vision and appropriate reading glasses.

While I bide my time, perhaps I can offer my own explanation for Romney's mysterious and self-defeating refusal to release his tax returns.  Speculation has been uncontrolled, needless to say, with elaborate hypotheses being floated as to what is in those returns [zero tax rate in some year due to carry-over paper losses?  Participation in the government's get-out-of-jail-free card for Swiss bank account abusers?   Donations to the Mormon Church so large as to force discussion of Romney's  central role in that secretive and cultish religion?]

Herewith my own thoughts, quite unsubstantiated by anything resembling evidence, of course, but not for that reason inferior to the competing explanations.  I think Romney and his wife [and his sons, for all I know] are so completely possessed of a sense of impervious entitlement that they are just offended by the request that he release his tax returns.  Romney is like one of those grandees of the ancien regime whom Tocqueville described so vividly in Democracy in America.  Ann Romney's wonderfully revealing remark, "We have given you people all you need to know" captures perfectly the Romneys' tone-deaf sense of noblesse [without the oblige, I am afraid.]

It is of course still possible that he may conclude that he must bend to the whims of the riff-raff and show a bit of leg, as they used to say, releasing a bit of a return here, another bit there.  But I would bet a fiver that he never just dumps the whole mess on the press and takes his lumps.  Oddly enough, even George W., who was, as Ann Richards famously said, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, did not exhibit that degree of cluelessness about what is required to become president.

Continuing my fact-free speculation, I would guess that the source of this impervious sense of entitlement is as much Romney's elevated role in the Mormon Church as it is his great wealth.  I gather from what I have read that questioning those in authority is not exactly encouraged among Mormons.  If ever one needed that fine old expression, infra dig, Romney's attitude evokes it.

Now we must pretend to care about synchronized swimming and the modern pentathlon for several weeks.  I am practicing my "USA USA" chant.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


I have just had cataract surgery and my monitorn has died (I am writing this from my IPad) so I am out of commission for a while. Sorry about that. I will be back shortly to respond to the comments and all.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Several days before we left Paris, Susie and went to Shakespeare and Co. for something to read.  I chose Jeffrey Deaver's continuation of the James Bond series.  She chose Harvard musicologist Christoph Wolff's new book on Mozart's last years.  The Deaver did not keep me occupied very long [it was actually rather good], so on the plane home I read most of Mozart At The Gateway to His Fortune [the title is taken from a Mozart letter].  The thesis of the book is that, contrary to the received wisdom of the current Mozart scholarship, the music Mozart composed in the three years before his untimely death [in 1791] does not reveal him to be brooding on his mortality and aware of his impending demise.  It shows him to be in the full power of his creativity, experimenting with new forms, optimistic that in the immediate future he will be making a great deal more money [always a concern to the profligate Mozart].  the last chapter is devoted to the enormous amount of unfinished music that Mozart left at his death -- something about which I knew nothing at all.

Those of you who have difficulty reading a score will find some of the book slow going, but it is mostly biographical rather than musicological.  If you are looking for something to read in August, you might think about this book.  Or, of course, you could read the latest James Bond adventure.  Deaver actually has a brief passage in which he explains why a martini is to be "shaken, not stirred."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


In his lovely retelling of the Arthurian legends, The Once and Future King, T. H. White imagines Merlin preparing the young Arthur for his future role by turning him into a wide variety of natural beings, living and dead, so that "Wart" can learn to see the world from every possible perspective.  When Arthur is turned into a mountain, he gains insight into the eons-long succession of eruption and erosion that shapes a mountain's life.

By contrast, political commentators have the attention span of Mayflies.  An hour for them is a lifetime, a day an eon.  All of them are obsessed with a question that will, after all, be decisively answered only 101 days from now:  Who will win the 2012 presidential election?  You might think that a touch of gravitas, if not simple prudence, would restrain them from making predictions that risk almost immediate refutation.  But since all they have to offer is their opinions, they must forge on, announcing with conviction what the morrow will bring.

As a blogger, I am structurally committed to the role of commentator on the passing scene.  Accordingly, I hereby lay down my marker:  Mitt Romney will not win the presidency [and Obama will be re-elected.]  What follows is an analysis based in part on the work of others, in part on my own idle reflections during the long flight from Heathrow to Raleigh-Durham that brought Susie and me home on Sunday.

To win a presidential election between two candidates, one of them must amass 270 electoral votes.  Nothing else matters.  It is generally agreed that Obama is certain to take some states [New York, California, Massachusetts, for example] and Romney is certain to take others [Texas, South Carolina, Utah, Georgia, etc.]  Analysts have slightly varied lists of these sure things.  Some actually give Obama enough states to yield more than 270 electoral votes, but most think that he can count on perhaps 250 to 260.  Romney is thought to be able to count on between 190 and 210.  The remaining states, usually referred to as "Battleground States," will decide the election.

Obviously, the challenge facing Romney is quite different from that facing Obama.  Obama need merely win one or two of the states that are up for grabs, in a number of which polls now show him with small leads.  Romney, on the other hand, must run the table.  Even if he wins Florida and Virginia and Ohio, which would be an extraordinary accomplishment, he will lose if he lets Michigan or North Carolina slip away.

What does Romney have to offer voters that will persuade them to give him this sweep of the battleground states?  Well, if we remember that most Americans pay very little attention to politics and public affairs [forty percent were quite unaware that the Supreme Court had even handed down a ruling on the Affordable Care Act, let alone how it had decided], I think we can confidently say that Romney has available to him just four arguments, each of which is simple enough to put on a bumper sticker:  He was a governor, he is a rich businessman, he is a Mormon, and he looks presidential.

Romney's service as a governor has been ruled out by the unfortunate fact that he was, as governor, the pioneer in the health care reform that yielded Obamacare.  Too much attention to his governorship will alienate his base, whose enthusiastic support he needs if he is to have any chance of winning.

Romney cannot run on the fact that he is a Mormon [as Mike Huckebee ran for the nomination in 2008 on the fact that he is a born-again Christian], because Mormonism is actually, when you look at it, a rather weird and creepy sect that denies some of the central tenets of Christianity.  Most American know nothing at all about Mormonism, and pretty clearly Romney's electoral chances depend on things staying that way.

Romney does really look presidential.  He would be perfect in a rightwing version of West Wing.  But you cannot win the presidency merely by looking like a president.

So that leaves Romney's great financial success at Bain Capital, the company he founded and ran until -- depending on which documents you look at and whom you listen to -- 1999 or 2002.  Romney's entire case for his candidacy can be summed up in four simple sentences [as many other people have pointed out]:  The American economy is a mess.  Obama has not fixed it.  I am a successful businessman.  I can fix it.

The Obama campaign, which understands all of this far better than I, and has understood it for as long as Romney was even a speck on the horizon, has poured all of its efforts and much of its money into attacking Romney's tenure at Bain.  And they have been successful in this sense:  they have made his record as a businessman a matter of controversy.

It really does not matter whether you think the Obama campaign or the Romney campaign is winning that argument.  So long as they have made Romney's one claim to fame a matter of controversy, Romney is not going to be able to run the table by winning virtually all of the battleground states.

I conclude that it is virtually certain that Romney will not win the election, which means that Obama will.

Friday, July 13, 2012


Which, unlike "Play it again, Sam," is a line that actually appears in the movie.

Our four weeks here in Paris have come to an end, and we are packing to leave tomorrow for Chapel Hill.  Awaiting me is cataract surgery and the exciting Bennett initiative.  It should be a busy summer and fall.  I shall be out of touch for a few days [we are taking the Eurostar, staying in a hotel at Heathrow, and then flying home direct on Sunday.]  Perhaps, echoing Romney, I should say that although I am the sole properietor of this blog, I shall not be in charge of it for two days, and therefore I am not responsible for anything that appears on it.  However, I am afraid I cannot claim that in the interim I shall be saving the Olympic Games.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


In his oft-quoted poem, To a Louse, Robert Burns offers the importunate plea: “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us.”  I find it especially difficult to keep firmly fixed in my mind the obvious truth that others do not know my writings quite so intimately as I know them myself.  If somewhere in the torrent of words I have poured onto the page in the last fifty-five years I have said something, no matter how obscure the publication, I imagine that everyone with the slightest interest in my opinions must be completely familiar with it, making it unnecessary for me to repeat myself.  The truth, alas, is otherwise.

The failure of the world to attend to my maunderings, comical as it is, has a more serious social correlate.  There are many truths, at one time well and widely known, that have now almost passed out of the collective mind, so that it is well worth the effort to repeat them, even though in doing so one is simply rehearsing old understandings.

This thought, perhaps appropriate to one in his autumnal if not indeed in his wintry years, occurs to me often as I read with dismay the ignorant and foolish things about socialism that appear in America’s public discourse, said even by those who genuinely ought to know better.  Recently, our loss of collective wisdom about the nature and meaning of socialism was highlighted in an exchange on this blog, and just two days ago, it was brought home to me forcefully by a moving, heartfelt, but deeply misleading Op Ed essay in the pages of the NY TIMES written by the great Czech film director Milos Forman.

The purpose of Forman’s essay was to defend Barack Obama against the bizarre charge, endlessly repeated by Republicans of all stripes, that he is a socialist.  Drawing on his horrendous experiences of the Soviet-imposed tyranny in his native land that wrapped itself in the honorific “socialist,” Forman assured his readers that nothing Obama has done or sought to do bears the slightest resemblance to the “socialism” under which he and his friends and associates suffered in Czechoslovakia. 

Forman was of course quite correct on both counts.  Obama is no socialist, however you interpret that term, and what Obama seeks for America bears no relation to what was done during the Soviet era in any part of the Eastern bloc.  It is also completely understandable that Forman should be forever averse to any regime or movement announcing itself as socialist.  Each of us is more indelibly formed by the experiences of his or her life than by a theoretical understanding of terms drawn from Political Economy. 

I am reminded of an email exchange I had with a young man in Czechoslovakia thirty years ago.  Some things I had written in In Defense of Anarchism spoke to him, prompting him to contact me.  When I told him that I was then engaged in a deep study of the thought of Karl Marx, he was appalled by the information.  To him, “Karl Marx” was a hashtag for “oppression, exploitation, and corruption,” and he could not imagine how the author of In Defense of Anarchism could find anything of value by following that link.

Nevertheless, there is an important body of social knowledge and insight that is lost to us by this corrupted use of a once quite well understood term, and I believe that we will be better positioned to move beyond our present unsatisfactory stage of socio-economic development if we recapture that knowledge and insight and use it to form a critique of contemporary America.  What I will say in the next paragraphs is so far from originality as to deserve the epithet “banal,” save that even such intelligent and knowledgeable writers as Paul Krugman seem completely to have forgotten it.

Markets, like the poor, have always been with us, at least for the past five or six thousand years, and perhaps for much longer than that.  Quite ancient writings from the Middle East give evidence of a sophisticated system of exchange involving some form of money and accounting systems to keep track of it.  The existence of markets goes hand in hand with a division of labor, for as soon as systematic agriculture and the domestic of animals begins [roughly ten thousand years ago, judging from the archeological evidence], the need arises for some regular exchange between the growers of crops and the tenders of flocks or herds, not to speak of those whose specialized activity produces clothing, shelter, hunting implements, and the weapons of war.

The eighteenth and nineteenth century laisser-faire theorists, whose unacknowledged social role was to justify the devastating impact of the new economic order on English society, portrayed capitalism as simply rational economic activity cleansed of the stultifying superstitious constraints of feudalism.  Buying and selling in the market, the production of commodities for exchange rather than for use, and the startling accumulations of great wealth that resulted, were presented as nothing more than simple rationality manifesting itself in society.  Previous socio-economic forms – slavery, imperial appropriation, and feudalism – were characterized as different ways in which irrationality infected the economic activities of society.  Once these corruptions were cleared away, leaving human reason to express itself fully, the natural result was capitalism.  The resulting social dislocations – peasants displaced by the enclosure of lands, slums peopled by unemployed proletarians, cycles of economic boom and bust – were justified as inevitable and quite temporary blemishes that would disappear once the full rationality of laisser-faire capitalism conquered the last redoubts of feudal superstition and privilege.

The early critics of this voracious new social and economic order – the authors whom Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels dismissed disdainfully as “utopian socialists” – saw clearly the evil consequences of the new capitalism, and were endlessly creative in imaging alternative ways of organizing the economic activities of a society.  But they lacked any coherent theoretical response to the claim of the laisser-faire liberals that capitalism is simply human rationality writ large.

It was left to Karl Marx to develop just such a theoretical response.  Marx understood that capitalism is no more, and no less, than one stage in a series of developmental economic stages that are distinguished from one another not by their degree of rationality, but by the identity of the social class that controls the means of production and the socio-economic forms that result from that control.  The defining characteristic of capitalism is not rationality freed of the constraints of superstition, but rather a monopolization of the means of production by one class, which then forces the rest of society to convert its capacity for creative productive labor into a commodity sold to the owners of the means of production, for whom all economic activity is merely the production of commodities sold in the market for a profit.

Marx quite well understood the explosive force of this new way of organizing human productive activities.  He himself described capitalism as the most revolutionary force yet to appear on the historical scene, and he was right in that assessment.  Capitalism vastly expanded society’s ability to produce goods and services, while however immiserating those whose labor was the source of this cornucopia of commodities.

With profound insight, Marx argued that the transition to a new and more humane organization of society’s productive activities could take place only when capitalism had advanced so far in its rationalization of production that production for human use could effectively and efficiently replace production for the private profit of the owners or controllers of the means of production.   For this reason, Marx expected the push for socialism to come in the most advanced sectors of the most fully developed capitalist economies.  Instead, a regime claiming to take its inspiration from Marx and calling itself “socialist” appeared in feudal Russia, a backwater of the capitalist world in which scarcely any of the elements of even the first stages of capitalism had matured.  The result, not at all surprisingly [and fully anticipated by some of the early Bolsheviks], was a brutal, inefficient command economy that bore no discernible relation to what Marx conceived socialism to be.

However, as someone might have said but I think did not, the victorious get to write the dictionaries, and so “socialism” came to mean, in the twentieth century, whatever Stalin and his henchmen were up to.  The success of a peasant revolution in China which also wrapped itself in the mantle of Marx pretty much sealed the fate of the word.  The collapse of the Soviet empire then permitted the beneficiaries and celebrators of advanced post-industrial and financial capitalism to proclaim the world historical victory of capitalism over socialism.  Socialism, it was said, was dead, save for the effete and incomprehensible dithering of some European folks who, since they spoke foreign languages, could be conveniently ignored. 

The effect of this series of historical conjunctures was to take us all back to the period of the early nineteenth century, when capitalism was equated with rationality simpliciter.  And by a rather devious, not to say diabolical, maneuver, capitalism was equated with the rule of markets.  To criticize capitalism was thus to suggest that markets were unnecessary.

But all of this is arrant and ignorant nonsense.  Marx’s critique of capitalism had nothing whatsoever to do with the desirability of markets for final goods, which is to say for the goods and services consumed by the members of society.  His critique concerned the private ownership and control of social means of production – factories, farms, fisheries, forests, and their accumulated representations, financial capital.  The capital that gives Capitalism its name is the product of the collective productive efforts of the men and women who do the work in society, and it ought to be controlled by them and put to productive uses that serve their needs and desires.

Those who now control capital will resist to the dying breath of the hired thugs any attempt to deprive them of their control.  For a number of reasons that I have explored in my essay, “The Future of Socialism,” it is quite unclear whether that control can ever be wrested from the hands.  [There I go again, imagining that everyone is familiar with my writings. Oh well.]

But what happened in Eastern Europe or Mainland China in the twentieth century was not socialism.  And markets are not, and have never been, the differentia specifica of capitalism.

Monday, July 9, 2012


Ca marche, as they say over here.  Ten committed faculty at Bennett College have volunteered to participate in the first year of our new program.  Letters have gone out to sixty in-coming first year students inviting them to enter the program.  Six of the ten faculty members have already responded to my email letter of greeting, and when I return to Chapel Hill in a week, I shall set up a meeting with as many of them as are available during this vacation period.  Dania Francis, the Duke University advanced doctoral student, has almost completed a draft of the Research Protocol that we shall submit to the Spencer Foundation for approval.  Not too bad for a slow summer period when it is so difficult to get anything done in the Academy.

These are early days, of course, but thus far, we seem to be on schedule.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


Our tiny apartment here in Paris sits midway down the one-block street called rue Maître Albert [named after Albertus Magnus, the teacher of Thomas Aquinas], between Place Maubert and Quai de la Tournelle in the 5th arrondissement.  Place Maubert is a lovely space bisected east to west by Boulevard St. Germain and crisscrossed by no fewer than seven other streets.  In the middle of the Place is a very small triangular park, with a little patch of grass and a fountain.  On the east side of the park sits our café, Le Metro [so named because next to it is the Maubert-Mutualité Metro station on the Number 10 line.]  Whenever we are here, Susie and I spend a good deal of time sitting in Le Metro, drinking a kir or a café noisette and a déca allongé, and watching the world go by.

On one of the other sides of the little park are several benches, and for years now, we have watched a little old oriental lady sitting on one of the benches, hands crossed primly in her lap, sensible hat atop her head.  She has been as much a fixture as the fountain.  On rare occasions, she tosses some crusts of bread onto the grass for the pigeons, but for the most part she just sits.  She is the first person we look for when we return to Paris.

At the end of rue Maître Albert, just where it empties into the Place, is an oriental grocery shop offering an exotic assortment of fresh and dried or packaged foods, one of which – cinq épices -- is an essential ingredient in my hazelnut encrusted rabbit loins dish.  It is, or has been, called Thanh Binh, and since this is actually the heart of the Vietnamese district in Paris, it is one of a great many Vietnamese shops and restaurants in a five block radius of our apartment.  Fifty yards away, facing Thanh Binh on rue Lagrange, is another Vietnamese grocery store, Thanh Binh Jeune [i.e., Thanh Binh Junior].  Pretty clearly, when Thanh Binh’s son grew up, the old man set him up in his own shop.  Susie and I conceived the fantasy that the little old lady on the bench is Thanh Binh’s mother [and Thanh Binh Jeune’s grandmother], and was just keeping an eye on things.

The last time we were here, Thanh Binh was closed for major renovations.  Peering inside, we could see that all the shelves and display racks had been removed, new flooring was being put in, and a staircase was being constructed from the interior of the shop to the floor above.  Now, six months later, we have returned, and Thanh Binh is no more.  A new shop has opened, announcing itself as carrying Japanese and Oriental delicacies. 

Now comes the urban mystery.  The little old oriental lady is gone.  No longer does she sit on her park bench, watching Thanh Binh’s shop.  Her place has been taken by a different little old oriental lady, somewhat fuller of figure and rounder of face, but wearing very much the same sensible hat.

Can it be that the property that changed hands included sitting rights on that park bench, so that Thanh Binh’s mother was forced to vacate, making place for the mother of the new shopkeeper?  Alas, the rules of urban politesse, combined with complex language barriers, keep us from finding out.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


I was in London in 1964 when the Beatles' first movie, A Hard Day's Night, was released.  I actually saw it in a theater in Trafalger Square -- pretty cool.  I loved it [indeed, I even loved the music, believe it or not].  My very favorite line in the movie is delivered by the harrassed TV producer tasked with putting on the show that is the frame for the movie.  He grows increasingly desperate as showtime approaches and the gallivanting lads have not returned to the studio. Finally, in exasperation, he cries, "If they do not show up in ten mintes, I am going to be doing "The News in Welsh."

I thought of that last evening as Susie and I idly surfed our now functional TV set, checking to see which stations we can actually get.  I am afraid I was unfairly negative when I wrote, on this blog, that there is nothing to watch.  In fact, we can get the news in French, the news in English, the business news in English, more business news in English, the news in Arabic, the news in Japanese, the news in Russian, the news in several other Slavic languages that I was unable to disambiguate, and fifteen regional news stations from every corner of France.

On one of the English language news stations [SkyNews?], I caught an interview with a distressed young member of la jeunesse d'orees nouvelles" -- a French version of a Wall Street wunderkind -- who was reacting to the announcement that the new socialist government plans to impose a tax of 75% on annual incomes above one million Euros.  "Seventy-five percent on over a million Euros," he said in manifest anguish, "what is the point of working hard?"

I wanted to put my fist through the screen on the off chance that it would connect with his pretty face.  "Right, you spoiled bastard," I screamed, "why don't you knock off after you have made a million and let someone else take over the hard work of screwing up the economy?"  I suspect he could not hear me.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Since my postings about my struggles with FranceTelecom were intended as humorous [however far they may have fallen short of that mark], I do not want to go too deeply into the question of consumer satisfaction in a socialist state.  That would be a bit like mounting a full-scale Foucault/Barthes/Derrida analysis of a Groucho Marx routine [something, I am sad to say, that has on occasion been produced by otherwise unoccupied cultural critics.]  But on a lazy 4th of July morning, after an invigorating six kilometer walk at six a.m. through the streets of Paris, it might not be over the top to say just a few words about the comments provoked by my feeble attempts at humor.

First of all, my old friend Jim Smethurst is of course right about France and FranceTelecom.  I cannot speak authoritatively about Verizon, but I do have a good deal of experience with Time Warner Cable, and save for the fact that I am fluent in English, there is not much to choose between the two experiences.  Periodically my phone, internet, and TV service back home goes all weird, and the most helpful advice I get when I call the [to be sure toll free] tech assistance number is to unplug everything, wait two minutes, and plug it all in again.  This, I might say, is the exact same advice I received here in Paris, thus exemplifying the globalization of consumer dissatisfaction.

But seriously, folks:  Socialism has virtually nothing to do with retail merchandising and consumer satisfaction or dissatisfaction.  It has everything to do with collective control of the means of production, and the guiding of investment and social savings decisions by considerations of human need rather than private profitablity.  In the United States today, tens of millions of men, women, and children struggle in poverty while high-end gated communities sprout like toxic muchrooms.  That is a malapportionment of social resources that results from the capitalist organization of the means of production.

Some state run  bureaucratic operations run with astonishing efficiency in the complete absence of market regulation or the discipline of competition.  Two striking examples are Medicare and the United States Army, both of which I have experienced personally.  Some do rather less well.  The Treansportation Security Administration comes to mind [the folks who cheerfully pat you down and feel you up on your way to an airplane.]

In a socialist society, there is plenty of room for your neighborhood grocery store, and also for Steve Jobs and Bill Gates [both of whom, so far as I am concerned, deserve to be very rich just as much as do LeBron James or Lady Gaga.]

Well, I am perilously close to attempting a literary critical analysis of a Groucho Marx routine, so I shall knock it off and have breakfast.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Faithful readers of this blog will know that I have been locked in a death struggle with FranceTelecom, my telephone/internet/television provider, in an effort to actually get something on my TV set beside a message that says, in French, "Welcome to Orange [FranceTelecom's new name for itself], Please be patient for several moments."

I have made five trips to the Orange "boutique" on Boulevard St. Michel, forming a strong personal bond with Jean-Francois Bucci, the young English speaking salesman.  I have swapped out my old "decodeur" for a new one, and swapped that one out for another new one.  I have unplugged the system and replugged it, I have ascertained the correct way to insert my personal card in the decoder box [a card which has, from an American's point of view, the rather unfortunate name "maligne TV," which in French means "my TV line" but in English sounds suspiciously like "malign TV," which fits perfectly my experience.]  I have been told, variously, that I need a new decoder box [done, twice], that FranceTelecom is doing work on the lines and will be done on July 9th [apparently a total fabrication invented by the telephone technician I reached on the "English" phone line], and that the computer thinks I have a high definition TV set, which I do not have, and so is sending the wrong signal to me.

Today, one week after swearing a blood oath not to relent until I get something, anything, on my TV set besides that irritating message, I unpacked the new decoder box, installed it, waited while it booted itself up twice, entered my ten digit client number and the last four digits of my nine digit account number, and ---  IT WORKS.  I have triumphed over the most intransigent redoubt of French bureaucratic incompetence.  I am exultant, proud, humble, grateful, relieved, exalted.

There remains only one very small problem.  With one hundred sixty-two channels at my disposal, there is not a single one worth watching.  Oh well.  Nothing is perfect.

Monday, July 2, 2012


Yesterday, the sun was shining, the breeze was warm, the streets were almost deserted on a Sunday morning, and so it seemed a good time for us to take our traditional Segway outing to the Jardin des Plantes, at the eastern edge of the 5th arrondissement.  For those of you who are not acquainted with this bit of technological wizardry, a Segway is a two-wheeled individual people mover powered by a battery and stabilized by an ingenious system of gyroscopes in the platform on which one stands.  To move forward, one presses down with the toes, and the Segway, sensing the pressure, rolls forward.  Pressure with the heels slows it to a stop; more pressure makes it roll backwards.  Rotating the left grip turns the Segway on a dime left or right.  Susie suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, making walking increasingly difficult for her, but standing on the Segway, she floats along the sidewalk as though on a magic carpet.  When we take strolls around our quartier, I walk very slowly, holding her hand to help steady her.  When she rides the Segway, however, the slightest pressure from her toes has her moving forward at five or six miles an hour, so that I must trot alongside to keep up.

Our route takes down rue Maitre Albert and along the quais, past Rotisserie du Beaujolais, one of our favorite restaurants, then past the Institut du Monde Arabe and a branch of the Universite de Paris, until we come to the Jardin.  Since our Segway is classified as a bicycle, rather than as a wheelchair, say, we cannot bring it into the Jardin, so we chain it to the iron fence that fronts the entrance and proceed from there on foot.

The Jardin is a magnificently laid out botanical garden next to Paris’ zoo.  In addition to the formal gardens, it features a museum of evolutionary paleontology and of course a restaurant – La Baleine [the whale] -- which we have never actually tried.  I am a total naïf when it comes to plants.  I can spot a rose, a pansy, and maybe a Bird of Paradise [because of my trips to South Africa, where it flourishes], but Susie was trained as a botanist and has been a lifelong gardener, so for her a trip to a botanical garden is a coming home.  Like all of us who have reached our late seventies, she suffers the occasional “senior moment,” that distressing condition in which a word or name one has known all one’s life just will not come when called.  Rather charmingly, this means that she sometimes forgets the common name of a plant or flower, while yet being perfectly able to recall the Latin name conferred on it by Linneaus and his successors.

The Jardin has undergone something of a reorganization, a fact that we learned by stopping to read the helpful little signs and explanatory placards scattered throughout the gardens.  The enormously long rectangular central portion of the gardens is laid out so that as one progresses from start to finish, one is actually moving up the phylogenetic tree, from the earliest and simplest plants to more complex flowering plants and trees.  Like any total amateur, my eye was caught by the biggest and showiest plants, but Susie would pause at a little growth that seemed to me to have no redeeming value, pointing out its distinctive features, whether it was about to bloom, and what its relationship was to something I might actually recognize.

Meanwhile, an endless stream of joggers of all ages and sexes and stages of physical fitness trotted by on the gravel pathways that run between alleys of Sycamores around the perimeter of the Jardin.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


After our daily visit yesterday to the offices of FranceTelecom in pursuit of the chimera of television reception, Susie and I decided to walk home through the ancient streets of what is now tourist central, past l'eglise St Severin, rather than along Boulevard St. Germain.  We stopped at a cafe for a coffee, watching two men carefully edge their car into a parking space just barely long enough to contain it.  The sky was blue, with puffy white clouds, and everyone in Paris seemed to be out on the streets.  I noticed an unusual number of them walking toward Place Maubert, and it occurred to me maybe a "manifestation" was in the offing.  But when we finally wandered up rue Lagrange [named after the mathematician, of course] to the Place, we discovered an enormous gathering of people getting ready to launch a Gay Pride parade.  Yesterday, it seems, was Gay Pride day in France.  As we edged to the curb to watch, the parade set off on its long route to Place de la Bastille.  We watched for almost an hour as the most heterogeneous collection of people imaginable streamed by.  Periodically, a huge flat bed truck would pass, gaily decked out, with music booming from speakers so loud I could feel it in my teeth.  Tall young men on high heels dessed in wedding gowns garnered the most attention, of course, but I was more moved by the occasional middle-aged man or woman walking by, pretty clearly there in solidarity with a son or daughter.  Tears came to my eyes as I thought of my son, Tobias, and his long struggle to win for himself and all the other LGBT folks in America rights they should long ago have had.  Finally, we went back to our apartment, but hours later, the sounds of the parade passing through Place Maubert still could be heard.  There must surely have been hundreds of thousands of marchers in all.

Today, I read that Francois Hollande, the new socialst President of France, has promised that within a year gay marriage and adoption will be legal in France.  In France, of course, these matters are decided only at the national level, since there is nothing resembling the tradition of states' rights that makes America's legal landscape so complex.  Francois Mitterand, the last socialist President, ended the practice of capital punishment.  Don't try to tell me that the Socialist Party victory makes no difference!  The absence of a vibrant, viable socialist party in America is only one of many ways in which we have failed to evolve.  The Greatest Nation On Earth indeed.