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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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Wednesday, October 30, 2013


LFC asks:  "I'm sure you've dealt with this in your memoirs, but I am interested in the evidentiary basis (as the lawyers would say) for your statement that Walzer supported Nixon during the impeachment proceedings."  I do in fact tell the story in my Memoirs, but here it is again, quoted verbatim from that source:

[I]n the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, I was called in Northampton by a young political scientist in New York who told me that a group of political scientists were trying to raise the money to take a full page ad in the TIMES calling for the impeachment of Nixon.  The TIMES, rather hard-headedly, wanted the money for the ad up front, and this young man was calling to ask whether I could help him reach Barry Moore or Marty Peretz for contributions.  I told him to forget about Barry -- like many upper class types with inherited money, Barry was quite stingy when it came to giving it away.  But I was pretty sure I could reach Marty through Mike.  I phoned Mike, exchanged pleasantries, and then explained why I was calling.  There was a long pause at the other end of the line.  Very softly, Mike said, "well.... you see .... we are supporting Nixon."  I was so astonished that I exploded, asking him what on earth he was talking about.  There was an even longer pause.  Then, in a sweet, sad voice, almost as though he were describing something being done to him, rather than something he was doing, he said, very hesitantly, "Well... you see ... Israel."  Nixon, whatever his crimes, had adopted a strongly pro-Israel policy, and that, it seemed, trumped all other considerations.

I was so embarrassed for Walzer that I got off the phone as fast as I could, and have not talked to him again.  Ever since that time, it has seemed to me that Mike's work, whatever its ostensible subject, is really about Israel.  Freud says somewhere, talking about the conduct of a psychoanalysis, that if there is any subject that it is not permitted to discuss freely in an analysis, sooner or later the entire analysis comes to be about that subject.



In a comment on my last post, Jerry Fresia asks:  " is the music that results [i.e., from quartet playing] a by-product of a state of being? A spirit that is more than the whole, that issues from the assemblage of four musical agents conversing in harmony?"

The simple answer is, Yes when the music is made by great musicians, not so much when it is made by patzers like me.  Have you ever watched Yo Yo Ma playing the cello?  [I have actually seen him in person only once, some years ago at Tanglewood in Western Massachusetts, but I have seen him on television many times.]  When he plays the Bach suites for unaccompanied cello, he leans back and pulls his upper body a little bit away from the neck of the cello as though he were not so much playing the suites as listening to them.  They are rather difficult to play [trust me -- I have spent a good deal of time trying to play the viola transcriptions], but he has so thoroughly transcended the purely technical problems of playing the notes that he seems not to need to pay attention to them.  [Mstislav Rostropovich played the cello the same way.]  Ma is clearly hearing something in the music that he is effortlessly succeeding in transforming into his performance.

At their very best, string quartets are an intense, complex conversation among the four musicians.  Quartet playing is the ultimate cooperative enterprise.  There is absolutely no reward for playing the loudest or getting to the end of the piece first!  When you watch a great quartet -- the Boromeo comes to my  mind since I once listened to them play from a distance of only fifteen feet or so -- you see them constantly looking at one another as much as at the sheet music, smiling, nodding, interacting endlessly as they play.  With a great quartet -- but not so much even with a merely good professional quartet -- what emerges is a seamless complex polyphonic unity that is much, much more than the sum of individual notes.

Now, achieving that perfection is very hard.  Each of the members of the quartet must be an absolute master of the notes on the page, and the four players must spend many hours deciding the tempo, the dynamics, and the phrasing of virtually every measure.  Only then can they, like Yo Yo Ma, transcend the technical problems of playing the notes and truly make music.

Each great quartet is different, both because of the sound of each instrument and because of the musical interpretation and interpersonal dynamics of the four members of the quartet.  The Boromeo, for example, is dominated by the enormous power of the two women, who play viola and cello.  In other quartets, the first violinist defines the sound of the group.

What was it like for me to play for a number of years in the same amateur quartet?  Well, it goes without saying that it was NOT like being Yo Yo Ma!  First of all, each of us was, in one way or another, struggling simply to play the notes in tune and in the correct tempo.  My quartet mates were all vastly experienced, having played all of their lives.  What this means, fairly precisely, is that they did not get lost.  They could count [essential in quartet playing] and they knew the music so well that if they lost their way for a measure or two they could immediately get back in.  I, on the other hand, was playing each quartet for the first time, and it was a real effort not to get lost and screw up the entire group.

Now, as a matter of fact, once I got better, as a result of lessons and practice, I actually made a sound with my beautiful viola that was as good as, and in some cases better than, the sound being made by the others, but that counts for much less in quartet playing than it does in solo playing.  The arrangement of the quartet placed me to the left of the cellist, Barbara Davis.  Barbara is a solid cellist -- not nearly as accomplished or facile as the first violinist, Don White.  But Barbara has a beautiful tone, and it was a constant source of pleasure for me to hear her in my right ear playing those deep, grounded notes in a Haydn or Mozart or Beethoven quartet.  Barbara Greenstein, the organizer of the quartet whose sad death brought an end to my playing, was far and away the most experienced of the group, having under her belt almost seventy years of quartet playing.  She handled the second violin parts easily, though without making a beautiful sound, but she was always looking out for me [I sat opposite her, with Don White to my left] and very often she would look over the top of our music stands and give me a nod to help me find my way in a difficult passage.

I once read Indivisible by Four, the account by Arnold Steinhardt of his life as the first violinist of the great Guarneri String Quartet.  It was clear from the book that the relationship among the four members of the quartet was, in its way, more intimate and intense than their marital and other real world relationships.  [Since they toured for half the year, they spent more time with each other than with their spouses!]  For a cinematic rendering of the relationship of the members of a quartet, I strongly recommend last year's movie A Late Quartet, with an astonishing and uncharacteristic performance by Christopher Walken.

So, the short answer to Jerry's question is:  No, not for the likes of me.  But still, there are moments, there are moments.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


If you have ever looked closely at someone playing a viola, you can see that it is, unlike playing the piano, say, a very unnatural activity.  You hold the instrument under your chin with your left hand, your left elbow pulled way underneath more or less as though you were bracing a rifle for target shooting, and you pull the bow across the strings with the right hand -- that is unless you are Cary Grant in that great old romantic comedy, Indiscrete, in which case you do it all backwards.  Everything is fine so long as you are just playing open strings.  However, once you start actually playing notes with the fingers of your left hand , and especially if you need to shift into higher positions with  your left hand to get at notes higher on the strings, you really need to be able to hold the viola between your chin and your shoulder without actually propping it up with your left hand.  That is when the problems start.

You see, most people have a gap between chin and shoulder that is considerably larger than the viola is thick, so either you have to scrunch your shoulder up to grip the viola, or you have to push your chin way down, or you have to put something on the viola that fills the empty space -- some sort of brace or shoulder rest.

Well, these exist, and many people use them, including me.  They tend to be padded adjustable metal gadgets that grip the underside of the viola and are curved in what the manufacturer thinks is the precise complicated shape of your shoulder blade.  I have always found them monstrously uncomfortable, but I absolutely cannot play without one, so I just have to suck it up.

When I took my viola out two weeks ago after a five and a half year hiatus in my playing, I attached my shoulder rest to the underside of my viola, whereupon it promptly fell off.  Apparently in the intervening time the little rubber sleeves that cushioned the prongs gripping the viola had hardened and lost their flexibility.  When I drove up to Chapel Hill Strings to get my bow re-haired, I asked the proprietor, Jennifer, if she had any shoulder rests.  She took a few out and I tried them, but it was obvious to her that I was very uncomfortable.   There was a fancy new shoulder rest, she said, for about sixty-five dollars -- would I like her to get one?  Definitely, I answered.

When I returned to pick up the bow, she showed me this even more elaborate shoulder rest, which looked for all the world like the brace the hospital puts on you when you have broken your shoulder.  But that was no better.  Finally, more or less as a throwaway line, she took out a little round felt pad, three inches in diameter, with a smaller sticky part on the underside to hold it to the bottom of the viola.  Needless to say, I was sceptical.  How could this little pad do what all those elaborate shoulder rests could not?  But I took off the piece of paper covering the sticky spot, pressed the pad to the underneath of my viola, and put the instrument under my chin.

It was magical!  The viola sat comfortably on my shoulder.  I could remove my left hand and hold the instrument with my chin and shoulder, I could shift up and down the strings, and there was no pain.  How much was this little gem?  Five dollars!

I don't anticipate giving concerts any time soon, but playing Mozart's C Major viola quintet tomorrow evening should be a great deal more fun.

Monday, October 28, 2013


One of the much touted virtues of capitalism is that it dissolves all ancient feuds, religious passions, and ideological antagonisms into the cash nexus.  The entrepreneur cannot afford to yield to irrational antipathies because the object of his obloquy today may be a customer tomorrow.  Here in the United States, we associate this capitalist temperament with the hale fellow well met hearty false cheerfulness of the Mid-Western businessman.  I first encountered the phenomenon on the occasion of the wedding of my first wife's young brother.  Cynthia's father was a successful Sears Roebuck executive who, during her teenage years, ran the Cleveland group of Sears stores.  Jim Griffin was what might be called a political Catholic.  I never was able to figure out whether he had any genuine religious beliefs, but he raised enough money for the church to be made a Knight of Malta by the Pope, sat on the Board of John  Carroll University, and at one point was Chair of the National Catholic Boy Scouts of America.  My marriage to Cynthia was, as they used to say in the old days, a scandal to the faithful, and many of Griffin's Catholic business friends cut him dead for a while because of it [thereby revealing that they had not entirely internalized the capitalist ethos.]

But Cynthia's brother was marrying in the church, and so we all gathered in Shaker Heights for the wedding.  [Griffin had to get a special dispensation at the downtown club to which he belonged to bring a Jew along for the rehearsal dinner.]  Now, I knew that the people I would be meeting had shunned Griffin for a while because of me, so I was uncertain what sort of reception I would get, but I was determined to behave myself and not embarras Cynthia, putting on my Sunday go to meeting smile for the reception.  Despite my preparations, I was completely unprepared for the treatment I received.  People who considered me one generation from having horns came up to me, took my hand in both of theirs, and said with oleaginous sincerity, "Oh, Bob, I am so glad to meet you.  I have looked forward to this for such a long time."  I was completely inadequate to the occasion, and never managed to get more than a strangled "Please to meet you" out of my mouth.

But we radicals, having rejected capitalism on high ideological grounds, are free from such social hypocrisy.  Indeed, the besetting sin of those of us on the left is a tendency to hold grudges over matters of principle for days, weeks, or even decades.  Freud's wonderful phrase, "the narcissism of small differences," perfectly captures our ability to convert minor disagreements about subordinate theoretical matters into lifelong feuds.

All of this flashed through my mind as I sat in the Carolina Cafe eating my lemon poppy seed muffin and doing the NY TIMES crossword puzzle.  Because the Monday puzzle is dead easy, I finished it long before I had eaten my muffin, and my eye caught a story at the top of Page 3 of the Arts section where the puzzle was located.  It seems that Dissent Magazine is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary, and the story about the gathering at the New York headquarters of the American Federation of Teachers was headed by a photograph of the celebrants, one of whom was Michael Walzer.  Walzer, as readers of this blog no doubt are aware, is a famous political theorist, Professor at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, and long-time co-editor of Dissent.

Mike and I were friends back in '59 to '61, when I was a young Instructor at Harvard and he was a grad student in the Government Department.  But a dozen years later, during the Nixon impeachment days, Mike chose to support Nixon because Nixon was a good friend of Israel.  That caused a breach that has lasted another forty years.  Maybe I should practice a firm two-handed handshake and a cheery smile.  I mean, do I really want to take all of that to my grave?

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Through Brian Leiter's blog, I have just learned of the passing of my old Columbia colleague Arthur Danto.  Arthur is surely one of the most important philosophers of art of the twentieth century, perhaps the most important in America, and there will be many obituaries and appreciations.  Since he was directly responsible for my writing the extended essay that became In Defense of Anarchism, perhaps I can best add a small personal remembrance by telling that story.

When I arrived at Columbia in 1964 as a newly appointed Associate Professor, I was only thirty.  Arthur was forty, one of a group of young turks [the others included Sidney Morgenbesser and Richard Kuhns] who were attempting to remake the Columbia Philosophy Department.  The most important problem confronting me as I assumed my professorial duties was financial, not philosophical.  I was about to enter a full-scale four times a week psychoanalysis, and with an annual salary of nineteen thousand dollars, it was obvious that I was going to have to tap dance pretty fast to pay the bills.  No sooner had I settled into my Columbia owned rent-controlled slum apartment on West 115th street than Arthur offered me a way to cover some analyst bills.

Harper and Row publishers had launched a project called Harper Guides.  These were to be large volumes, handsomely bound in half-calf, written by collections of academics, purporting to give the latest news in an academic field.  There was to be a Harper Guide to History, a Harper Guide to Art, a Harper Guide to Politics ... and a Harper Guide to Philosophy, edited by Arthur.  [When I asked the General Editor at Harper, Fred Wieck, who on earth would ever read these monstrosities, Fred responded, "Well, we are aiming more at the book-buying than the book-reading public."]

Arthur had rounded up a splendid collection of hotshots to produce the various essays in the volume:  Bernard Williams on Ethics, Norwood Hanson on the Philosophy of Science, Richard Wollheim on the Philosophy of Art, among others.  But Isaiah Berlin had just turned him down for the Political Philosophy chapter and Arthur was desperate, so he offered it to me.  "What is the advance?" I asked.  "Five hundred on signing," Arthur answered.  "I'll do it," I said, "when do you need it?"  "Next September."  [This was October.]  I took the money, used it to pay my analyst for five weeks, [$25 a session], and filed away the information that in eleven months Arthur would need an eighty page essay describing the forefronts of the field of Political Philosophy.

I finally got around to tackling the essay the following summer, when I was teaching both sessions of Columbia's Summer School.  I did not actually know what was going on in the forefronts of Political Philosophy, since even then I was not "keeping up with the field," but Fred Wieck had made it pretty clear that no one would ever read the damned thing, so I figured I would just write my political philosophy and be done with it.  Building on a paper I had been reading here and there, originally called "The Fundamental Problem of Political Philosophy," I banged out an essay in three weeks and sent it off to Harper and Row, thereby fulfilling my contract.  I doubt Arthur ever read it.

Time passed, and the project languished, passing from Wieck to Al Prettyman and finally ending up on the desk of Hugh van Dusen, the Editor of Harper Torchbooks, a very successful classy paperback line.  By now years had gone by, and I had been referring to my essay in footnotes of other things I was publishing as "forthcoming" even though it never seemed to come forth.  Finally, in the Spring of 1970, I called van Dusen and asked whether it would be all right for me to quote lengthy sections of the essay.  Hugh was rather embarrassed, and said of course.  Then, I had a stroke of genius.  "Why not publish it as a little book?" I asked.  Van Dusen, who was always looking for short paperbacks to bring out, jumped at the idea.  "We could publish all ten of them as series!  But your title, 'Political Philosophy,' isn't very good.  Do you have an alternative?"

When I was a boy, my parents had, stored in the attic of our little row house, an ugly green-bound set of the complete works of Mark Twain.  I had spent some happy hours up there reading through many of them, including a volume of "Literary Essays."  Among the lesser known of the essays was Twain's marvelous resurrection of the much maligned wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Harriet.  The essay is entitled "In Defense of Harriet Shelley."  For some reason, that essay popped into my mind, and I said to van Dusen, "How about in Defense of Anarchism"?  "Great," Hugh replied, and several months later the little book appeared, to be followed by all the other essays for the ill-fated Harper Guide to Philosophy.

Arthur was one of a kind.  He will be missed.

Saturday, October 26, 2013


More than a week later, I am still recovering from this wretched cold.  Nevertheless, this morning I decided to take my four mile walk.  My computer, which claims to know the temperature outside my apartment, said it was 32 degrees, so out came the long thermal underwear, the turtleneck shirt, the sweater, the long workout pants, the hoodie and the gloves.  Off I went, looking like nothing so much as the Pillsbury Doughboy in Ghostbusters.  Not surprisingly, I did not see a single person walking, jogging, running, or cycling.  But the walk went well, and I assume that I am indeed getting better, albeit slowly.

Meanwhile, I am practicing Mozart's C Major viola quintet, K515, in order to join an existing quartet for an evening next week.  Even in a Mozart quintet the second viola plays a good deal of what we in the game call sewing machine music [repeated eighths for four or eight bars, as a support for the interesting stuff being played by everyone else.]  Oh well, you have to start somewhere.

I am making strenuous efforts to find quartet mates.  It is dawning on me that even in Chapel Hill, a protected outpost of sanity and progressive politics in an increasingly insane North Carolina, there are not that many people who play amateur chamber music.  During all the years I lived in Western Massachusetts, I was only dimly aware how unusual a place it is. 

I am keeping track of my two predictions -- that there will be no more shutdown or debt limit crises, and that the flap over the botched runout of the insurance exchanges will evaporate -- and I shall revisit them when appropriate either to trumpet my wisdom or to eat crow.

Thursday, October 24, 2013


A reader of this blog, hearing that I have been sick, and knowing that my interests are rather eclectic, sent in the following lovely account of an incident from a trip she took some years ago.  I reproduce it here for its charm, pleased that it has not a word in it about the Affordable Care Act, or anything else now being debated endlessly by the bloviators on cable TV.

When we were in Marrakech (perhaps fifteen years ago) we stayed at the lovely Mamounia hotel.  We had been told by friends that one must take a guide to see the extensive Soukh and so, despite our bent for going unguided, we did. [The wisdom of this advice was handily borne out the day after the tour with guide.  I pride myself on my fine sense of direction.  Just as we had with the guide, we set out from the hotel, down to the left, around the first bend, through the first archway to…  a warren of narrow little pathways leading this way and that, completely undistinguishable from one another, not by shops – leather goods, colorful tshotshkes, thises and thats; not by topography – all led down a gentle slope; not even by smell – the redolent mix of coffee, leather, donkey and spices was persuasive in all directions.  Immediate capitulation, back to the hotel.   Another tour with a different guide to the ceramics factories and the tanning fields, the latter only bearable when carrying a sprig of mint held closely under the nose.]  But I digress.

Our guide, tall and well spoken, led us down that road to the left of the hotel, around the bend and through an archway which looked like the way into the next street.  Magically, however, we were in a large carpet store.  Our guide stood at the entrance and started a lively conversation with someone in the store.  An elegant keffiyehed and lavishly moustachioed gentleman in a flowing ivory bisht instantly met us as if we were long lost friends.  “Pliz – some mint tea” he invited.  We demurred, realizing that he was intending to sell these fool tourists a carpet.  Both of us motioned that there was no carpet in our future.  “Not wurry.  For your eyes only,” quoth he.  [this “for your eyes only” has become a refrain with us ever since].

We found ourselves sitting at a tiny tin table on a platform-like mezzanine and, indeed, hot mint tea was poured from an impressive height from a lovely brass teapot into a pair of ornately etched glasses.  “For your eyes only,” our charmer repeated, standing next to us, as a pair of twelve year old boys wearing only thobe pants climbed atop a mountain of carpets and started slowly flipping over one carpet at a time so one of its corners met the middle of the opposite side.  We watched, deliberately motionless, and never uttered a sound.  “What color do you like?” asked Keffiyeh.  We looked at each other as if English were Urdu.  He repeated the question in French.  No reaction.  In German, nothing.  Italian – niente.  Spanish – nada.  He asked what language might suit.  I replied in Hebrew that I did not understand.  He replied in perfectly passable Hebrew.  Ok. The gig was up.  We told him, in English, that there was absolutely no room in our house for a carpet and that we did not need one.  “Not wurry.  For your eyes only”.

Mint tea was ceremoniously sipped (leaves inconspicuously lifted off tip of tongue and deposited on the inside rim of the pretty glass), carpets were energetically, rhythmically flipped.  Two statues watched the performance.  Some fifteen carpets into the presentation, Keffiyeh quiety said “Aah, I see you like pink”.   Had my pupils dilated a micron’s worth?  Had I inhaled for a nanosecond longer than previously?  Had one of my pinkies given me away?  There ensued a classic ballet of Middle Eastern negotiations.  [I had had much practice in this art:  when I was a little girl – eight, nine, ten years old - in Palestine, it had fallen to me to do the elaborate orange-purchase dance with “our Arab”. “Moukh” – my name for mohammed – would ring our doorbell on the third floor of our apartment building in Tel Aviv.  One of the five of us would open the door and find him, all three hundred pounds of him, sitting cross legged on the little mat at the door, holding up a banged up brass beam scale (the kind Justice uses), a bunch of stones in one of its bowls, some oranges stolen from the nearby Pardess (orchard) in the other.  Immediately I would be called to deal with him – I was not only the bargaining expert but, because I could imitate an Arabic accent in Hebrew, he understood me best. “Three for a Groush,( a Groush was one hundred Mils, ten Groush to the Lira, or Palestinian Pound)”  Moukh would offer.  I would immediately close the door in mock insultedness.  Promptly, the doorbell rang again, I would wait the interval he needed to settle down again and hold up his scale.  When I opened the door, the price was five for a Groush.  We then performed our little dance of counteroffers, interspersed with his wonderful stories about his financial woes: The wife had been an amazing bargain originally – she only cost a horse and a little laundry setup, and what a find:  she was huge with a bottom THIS big!  But now, misery: the last gold tooth, her third, was the last she was getting.  If the dentist finds another one was needed she would be sent back to her father.  Ultimately, the scale came into play as I would propose that however many oranges fit into the one bowl to offset the big and the little stones in the other one would be mine for a Groush.  So we ended up with eight to ten oranges for a Groush, and he had a 100% profit every time.]

Back in Marrakech, when we finished our courtship of the carpet, I had gotten Keffiyeh down from 4,000 Dirham (a Moroccan Dirham is worth about 12 cents American) to 350 Dirham and felt so very proud of myself.  (he was surely laughing up his loose sleeve, but for us the theater alone was worth it).  Now he took us to the “expediting room” where a young boy with nut brown skin and liquid black doe eyes folded our purchase into a small package and offered to mail it home for us.  “How much?” we asked.  “Fifty American dollars”.  “Surely you are joking,” we said.  “We will mail it ourselves.  Where is the post office?”  a long explanation, in French, with all manner of names of plazas and turns ensued, a handle was put on our package, and we set forth to find the post office in the heat of the day.  En route we stopped at a silversmith’s and bought a guaranteed unique scarf pin in silver and malachite for one of our daughters. Bargained it down to half its quoted price.  five minutes later we passed another little shop which had the same pin in the window at the price I had bargained ours down to.  At length, we arrived at the post office and there paid forty nine American dollars to mail home our carpet which, to this day, adorns my husband's office.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


I am moved this morning to a lengthy reflection on my career as a mediocre amateur violist, prompted by the fact that I have just begun once again, rather tentatively, to play, after a six year hiatus.  Those of you looking for trenchant commentary on the passing scene will have to be patient.  I shall return to snarking at wacko birds tomorrow.

When I was a little boy growing up in New York City, I studied the violin.  Since I came from a family that was at least nominally Jewish, this statement qualifies as what Saul Kripke called a metaphysical truth that is necessary though not knowable a priori.  I "took" -- as the saying then was -- from Mrs. Zacharias, whose son Gerald was an MIT professor influential in the pedagogical development of the New Math and whose brother was an Admiral commanding the Pacific fleet during WW II.  Mrs. Zacharias' spinster daughter, Dorothea, who taught piano, was rumored to have once been briefly engaged to Ira Gershwin.  My parents bought me a violin and bow for $68.  Lest you look down your nose at this paltry sum, I will note that it was slightly more than twice the monthly payment on the thirty year mortgage held by the bank on our Tudor style row house in Kew Gardens Hills.

I had talent -- a genetic trait of little Jewish boys, I believe -- but I did not practice much.  In those days I was possessed of the odd fantasy that playing in  tune, like having naturally curly hair, was something you were born with.  All through high school I served in the Forest Hills orchestra, with the consequence that to this day I have a only a sketchy grasp of the words to our National Anthem.  While everyone else was singing it during school assemblies, I was playing it with the rest of the orchestra.  You can form an idea of just how awful the orchestra was if I tell you that I was the concertmaster.

In 1950, I graduated from high school, put childish things behind me, and went off to Harvard to become a philosopher.  I took my violin case with me, at my parents' insistence, but it remained closed for my entire Harvard stay and for many years thereafter.  In 1984, as my first marriage, to Mary Cynthia Griffin, was coming to an end, I was moved to haul out the fiddle and play again.  One evening, Cindy, who by then was a senior professor of Humanities at MIT, invited a colleague, composer John Harbison, to dinner, with his wife Rose Mary Harbison, a concert violinist who specializes in contemporary music.  When Rose Mary heard that I had started to play again, she asked to see my violin.  After a few strokes across the strings she said, with a casual brutality that I associate with TV police coroners, "Your bow is dead."  [Whenever I recall that moment, I am reminded of James Thurber's short short story about a woman who writes in with a drawing of her dog, asking what breed it is.  His answer:  "I think that what you have is a cast-iron lawn dog. The expressionless eye and the rigid pose are characteristic of metal lawn animals. And that certainly is a cast-iron ear. You could, however, remove all doubt by means of a simple test with a hammer and a cold chisel, or an acetylene torch. If the animal chips, or melts, my diagnosis is correct."]   Stung by Rose Mary's death sentence, I went right out to a local violin shop and spent the exorbitant sum of three hundred dollars on a new bow.  This was my very first realization that in the playing of stringed instruments, the bow is an important part of one's equipment.

When the marriage came to a definitive end, I decided to try my hand at string quartets as an effort -- in the language of the soaps -- to "move on with my life."  It turned out that in the Boston suburbs of those days, there was no shortage of mediocre violinists, but a real dearth of violists of any sort, so I put away my violin again and became a violist.  This is, by the way, not as big a transition as you might imagine.  The viola is bigger than the violin, and strung a fifth lower -- CGDA, not GDAE -- but the techniques are quite similar.  Indeed, many years later, I discovered that in the world of serious amateur quartet playing, there are a number of enthusiasts who regularly switch from one instrument to the other, and there are even carrying cases fitted out to hold both a viola and a violin -- sort of like a gunslinger who carries both a pistol and a sawed-off shotgun in his attaché case.  By now I was a senior professor with a hefty salary, and I invested in a three thousand dollar viola with appropriate bow.  [By the way, many years later, I donated my violin to Deerfield Academy, where my viola teacher, Dolores Thayer, was working as a part-time instrument instructor.  I took my sixty-eight dollar fiddle to Stammel Strings in Amherst for a tax deduction appraisal.  Matt Stammel looked at it and suggested a six thousand dollar estimate.  When I thanked him for what struck me as an act of larcenous generosity, he pointed to a violin for sale hanging in a row in his shop.  It was the virtual twin of my instrument and had a $6000 price tag.  It seems that an old violin is not really like a used car.]

After I married Susie, the new viola went back in the closet and stayed there for almost fifteen years.  One day, we were shopping for veggies at an organic food market on Belchertown Road in Amherst when we ran into Barbara Greenstein, a fellow Pelham resident.  We got to talking, and Barbara, who was a lifelong quartet player, invited me to sit in for quartets.  I made the customary demurrals about my general incompetence, designed to protect me from the scorn of the three other players when they actually heard me, but Barbara, a generous, supportive, totally wonderful person, insisted.  This chance encounter led to an intense eight year long effort on my part to become a genuinely decent amateur string quartet player.  Our quartet met weekly at Barbara's house, and the three others waited with an astonishing patience while I slowly brought myself up to their level of performance.

A few words about amateur quartet playing for those of you who have never had the experience.  Solo musicians worry a great deal about playing in tune and making a lovely sound, but both of these, while of course very important in professional quartet playing, are secondary in amateur quartets.  What is absolutely essential is not to get lost, because if three of you are playing measure 79 and you are playing measure 77, the entire enterprise grinds to a painful halt.  Keeping track of where you are may be reasonably easy for the first violinist, who more often than not is playing the melody, but the violist is probably playing what in the pop music world would be called backup, since even Haydn and Mozart do not always manage to craft a melodic line for the violist.  So counting is crucial, and experience matters more than the beauty of one's sound.  My three fellow musicians had been playing string quartets for a total of perhaps one hundred and forty years, and the music was in their bones.  Even the most famous quartets were terra incognita to me, and I practiced feverishly before each session.

Year after year, I took an hour and a half lesson each week from Loree [as she was known] and tried to practice an hour a day.  Real musicians, of course, prepare for their careers by practicing eight hours a day or longer, but I was not on my way to Carnegie Hall.  [Old New York music joke:  student with a violin case on his way to hear a concert asks an old man, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?  Old man answers, "Practice, practice."]  After about four years, it became clear that my three thousand dollar viola had become an impediment rather than an aid to my progress.  Loree suggested I might consider a better instrument.  Well, I had saved up some money from the royalties on a Philosophy textbook [About Philosophy, now in its eleventh edition], so off I went to Stammel Strings to see what they had for sale.  After trying out a number of instruments in their second floor practice rooms, I fixed on a gorgeous sixteen inch instrument made by the Northampton, MA luthier Marten Cornellissen.  At seventeen thousand dollars, it was hardly cheap, but it had a lovely sound, and I figured all those hours of practice had earned me some self-indulgence.  I asked Barbara Greenstein to accompany me for the choice of a bow, and she agreed to listen to me while I tried out an assortment.  As music, I brought along my one "performance piece," the Prelude to the Second Bach Suite for Unaccompanied Cello, arranged for viola.  [Violists play a lot of arrangements of violin or cello music.  It is one of the many ways in which we don't get no respect.]  After trying several bows in the two to three thousand dollar range, I picked up a bow made by the French archetier Benoit Roland, who now lives in Boston.  In 2012, Roland achieved mass media fame by winning a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."  As soon as I began to play with the Roland bow the difference was obvious.  The Cornellissen viola began to sing.  Despite the fact that it was priced at five thousand dollars, I bought it without hesitation.

At my next lesson, I proudly presented my new viola and bow for Loree's inspection.  She looked at them, played a few bars, and then said dryly, "Now you have no excuses."

After almost eight years of wonderfully rewarding quartet playing, Barbara, who was by now one of my dearest friends, suffered a recurrence of the cancer she had earlier defeated, and after a brief illness, she passed away.  I scrounged around for some playing opportunities in the next few months, but my heart was not in it.  Quartet playing is often compared to a musical conversation, and to an extent that I had not fully realized, the personal relationship among the four of us was as important to me as the making of music.  When I retired that Spring and Susie and I moved to Chapel Hill, I made some unsuccessful efforts to locate quartet opportunities, and then simply put away my lovely viola and bow.  There they have sat for five and a half years, until several months ago, it occurred to me that perhaps I might put them out on long term loan to an aspiring young professional violist who would enjoy making music with them.  This sort of arrangement is of course common with famous old instruments crafted by Stradivarius or Guarneri or Amati -- instruments that would bring millions in the New York auction market.  But although I was quite sure that my instrument and bow were of performance quality, I was genuinely unsure whether they were good enough for this sort of loan arrangement.  My secret fantasy, of course, was that Susie and I would be invited to a concert where the program would read "Mr. ***'s instrument is on loan from Robert and Susan Wolff of Chapel Hill, NC."

I wrote to Daniel Stepner, the first violinist and musical director of a splendid early music ensemble, Aston Magna, whose Great Barrington concerts Susie and I attended every summer when we lived in Western Massachusetts, but his rather desultory reply suggested to me that reality was not keeping step with my fantasy.  Then, a week before I came down with this interminable cold, something ticked over in me and I decided to have one more go at amateur quartets.

I took my viola case out of the closet and opened it after five years.  It says a good deal about the quality of the instrument that it was still perfectly in tune.  But hairs from the bow were starting to come loose, so I took everything up to the Chapel Hill Violin Shop for the instrumental equivalent of a lube and oil change.  Jennifer, the proprietor, looked at the bow and said, "Hmm.  I think you have mites.  You need to get some Sevin and fumigate your case."  I ordered a can from Amazon while she took the bow to be re-haired, and when the Sevin arrived, I sprinkled it liberally inside the case, left it over night, and vacuumed carefully [Sevin is nasty stuff.]  Finally, the bow was ready.  I closed the door to my study, took a deep breath, and pulled the bow across the strings, uncertain whether I had retained any of my hard-won playing skill at all.  To my relief and surprise, it did not sound too bad.

What to practice?  I decided to start with some scales.  Despite my lifetime of intermittent experience playing the violin and the viola, Loree had wisely treated me like a new student,  starting me off with a C Major scale.  Week after week, I progressed through the twelve major three octave scales, from C Major to B Major, Loree instructing me that I should begin each practice session  by playing scales "to warm up."  Loree also introduced me to the possibilities of playing different numbers of notes on the same bow -- one note per up bow and one per down bow, two per up and down bow, etc., all the way to twelve notes on a bow.  We also went through the three different minor scales in each key, as well as arpeggios and double stop scales -- thirds, fourths, sixths, and octaves [fifths sound terrible on a violin or viola].

Over time, I devised my own little routine to counteract the sheer boredom of it all.  It went like this:  Each time I practiced, I would play the C Major three octave scale very slowly, one note on each long drawn out bow.  Then I would move up half a step and play the D-flat Major three octave scale slowly, two notes on a bow, trying to make the time for each up or down bow the same as for the C Major scale.  And so it would go:  three notes on a bow for the D Major three octave scale, four notes on a bow for the E-Flat Major scale, all the way  up to twelve notes on a bow for the three octave B-Major scale, always trying to make the time for each up or down bow the same as for the original C-Major scale.

While I was waiting for my bow to be re-haired, I would lie in bed and play these scales in my head, reacquainting myself in my imagination with the viola.   The first time out, I managed to get all the way to ten notes on a bow for the A major scale, but after that it sounded so awful that I just played the last two scales on separate bows.

OK, back in the saddle.  Now what?  Jennifer put me in touch with a real estate agent whose quartet would be open to trying a Mozart viola quintet.  Obviously not a permanent solution to my search for a quartet, but a start.  So I am now practicing the second viola part to K515, Mozart's C Major string quintet.  There is a good deal of what quartet players call "sewing machine music"  [repeated eight notes for bars on end as an underpinning for the melody being played by the first violin] but you have to begin somewhere. 

Maybe this is the rebirth of my quartet playing.  maybe the instrument will just end up back in the closet.  We shall see.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Faithful readers will recall that twenty months ago I had a terrible scare.  I returned home from a Paris visit on Christmas Eve and proceeded to get very, very sick with what felt like a really bad flu.  Along the way to recovering, I was tentatively [70% chance] diagnosed with stage 4 terminal lung cancer, which - let me tell you - really puts things in perspective.  After I had had every test known to medical science, the doctors threw up their hands and said they had no idea what was wrong with me.  One very sympathetic young cardiologist recommended Ibuprofen, which actually helped.  So I got over whatever I had picked up in Heathrow Airport [an enormously expensive medical facility outside London devoted to collecting and circulating all the germs in the world] and went on living.  Among the fringe benefits of the world class medical care I received was the assurance that I was HIV negative.

Well, last Thursday, I came down with a cold -- my first illness since my [imaginary] brush with death.  After my coughing made it impossible for Susie to sleep, I started taking Musinex, which actually helped, despite the fact that I have always been prejudiced against it since I don't like the bilious yellow cartoon nasties in its TV ads.  I am still not back to taking my morning walk, but since it would appear that I am once again going to survive, I figure I had better return to blogging before you all drift away to social media and forget me.

I want to say a word or two about the problem-plagued rollout of the Affordable Care Act website, but first let me whine for a while about the lack of respect that the world shows for sufferers of the common cold.  It is a fact universally acknowledged that having a cold really sucks.  Like as not, your head is stuffed up, your entire body aches, you lose your appetite, and if - like me - you are prone to post-nasal drips, pretty soon your chest becomes congested.  Now all of this ought to earn something akin to the sort of touching concern that was shown to me even by mere acquaintances when I announced that I had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, but if I say I have a bad cold, the response is a knowing nod and a manifest lack of concern.  "Oh yeah, I had that" is about as good as one gets.  The general attitude seems to be that if everyone has had what you have, then you are not deserving of any special sympathy.  Now we are all mortal, so you might expect that folks would respond to the statement that you are dying with a nod and an off-hand "yeah, I've got that," but that is not how it works.

I pledge to be more sympathetic the next time a friend says, "I've got a cold."

Which brings me quite naturally to the less than impressive roll-out of the Federal sign-up website for the insurance exchanges [those run by the states that have rational governors seem to be doing quite well.]   We all know the problems -- cursors that hang, buttons that take you nowhere when you click on them, sequences of screens that leave you high and dry five screens in.  I think we can all agree that the Department of Health and Human Services would have been well advised to outsource the whole project to, Netflix, or FaceBook.   Partisans of the President have noted with a sort of Titanic lifeboat cheerfulness that the unmanageable demand simply proves the popularity of the program.  Opponents of the ACA, once they got over their feverish attempt to crash not a website but the entire world economy, have started to crow that the flawed rollout confirms their view that Obamacare is a trainwreck.

Once again, I am going to make a prediction.  In my last post before being hit with this less than life-threatening illness, I noted that in the blogosphere, one is typically not held accountable for one's incorrect predictions, but as in that post, I hereby promise to revisit the subject if this prediction turns out to be wrong.  Quite simply, I am confident that the problems with the ACA website will turn out to be totally trivial and unimportant.  They will be fixed, more slowly than the President would like, to be sure, but they will be fixed, and a year from now, no one save the hapless programmers will remember them.  Millions upon millions of people will sign up, insurance under the ACA will indeed be cheaper than before and even cheaper than originally estimated.  And the Tea Party crazies calling for the dismantling of the federal government will add ACA health insurance to Social Security and Medicare as programs to which they have a God-given right and which must not be touched when the oppressive socialist Obama regime is finally toppled.

The smarter right wingers know this to be true, and it is what really scares them.  Despite their best efforts, they have not succeeded in rolling back either Social Security or Medicare, and in the three years before next presidential election, Obamacare will takes its place in the Pantheon of third rail social programs [if I may thoroughly scramble several already overused metaphors].

[Explanation of "third rail social program" for those of you not intimately familiar with the New York subway system:  If you stand in an IRT, IND, or BMT subway station in New York City and look over the edge of the platform, you will see two rails on which the trains run and a third rail, beyond those two and parallel to them, that supplies the electricity to the trains.  As a child, you are urgently instructed by your parents that under no circumstances are you to jump down onto the tracks to recover a hat or scarf or even -- heaven forfend -- a violin case, because if you touch the third rail, you will die.  For generations, it was part of the folk wisdom of Congress that regardless of one's ideological aversion to Big Government, one must not touch Social Security, because it was the third rail of politics -- touch it and you die.]

Thursday, October 17, 2013


[For my overseas readers, the title of this post refers to the now banned practice in the National Football League of slamming the ball as hard as possible into the ground in the end zone after scoring a touchdown, as a way of celebrating and rubbing your opponents' noses in it.]

This is as good as it gets in politics, short of winning a blowout election, so partisans to the left of what passes these days for the center might as well enjoy it, because things won't get any better and are certain to get worse.  Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi have scored a stunning absolute victory in their struggle with Ted Cruz, the Tea Party faction of the House, and the increasingly powerful and influential right-wing money machines such as Jim DeMint's Heritage Action Committee.   They have faced down the Republicans and forced them to accept a complete capitulation.  All the Republicans got from this exercise in self-immolation was -- and you really have to love the genius of American politics -- a tiny last minute smidgen of pork for Mitch McConnell to take home to Kentucky.

One of the scary things about predictions, as opposed to explanations of past events, is that they  either turn out to be true or false, but political commentators in America these days have the memories of mayflies.  Predictions they made even last week are forgotten, no matter how wrong they were, and shamelessly, they go right on predicting.  Well, I am going to make a prediction, and in several months' time, when it is confirmed or disconfirmed, I will either spike the football in the end zone and do a little victory dance or I will, figuratively speaking, eat my hat.  [I no longer actually wear hats, fortunately.]  My prediction is this:  When one or the other of the two deadlines built into the just-signed agreement is about to come due, the right-wing Republicans will once again try to hold the country ransom to their demands, and no one will take them seriously.  They will discover that their threats simply cannot command the fear and trembling in the Republican caucus required to make them credible or effective.  Obama, Reid, and Pelosi have faced them down, and they will find themselves isolated within their own party.

Does this mean that we are in for a spate of progressive legislation?  Of course not.  I am an optimist, not an idiot.  We are very, very far from a situation in which anything resembling progressive legislation has the slightest chance of being enacted into law.  The reason for this is that the American electorate has chosen to send to Washington legislators whose political complexion ranges from centrist pro-capitalist to right wing end times reality denying crazy.  No one in the Congress today holds political opinions with which I can unhesitatingly identify.  Indeed, the last  time someone was elevated to public office to whom I could give my heart and soul was 1917, when my grandfather was elected to the New York Board of Aldermen on the Socialist ticket.  [I speak hyperbolically for effect, of course.  There have been others.  They just don't happen to have been members of my immediate family.]

In the struggle just ended, Obama played his cards with characteristic skill, content to remain virtually invisible in the last forty-eight hours because he knew that his identification with the deal would exacerbate the hatred of him in a way that might have interfered with the closing of the deal.  Obama has many faults, some of which I have spoken of on this blog, leaving it to Chris to broadcast others in his rather more excited fashion.  But anyone who is genuinely interested in American politics should, I think, take a moment to recognize real political skill when it is exhibited.


1.  Chris is right about the Democrats and the "public option."  My apologies.

2.  Jim, thank you for that extremely informative account of the Massachusetts experiment.  It has vastly more important detail than I could have conjured up.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Anthony Tsontakis has offered an interesting and thoughtful comment on my September 20th blog post:  "Why Does the Right Hate Obamacare?"  [Every so often Brian Leiter links to this site and for a day or two my site visits are off the charts.  I assume that Mr. [Dr.?] Tsontakis was directed to that relatively old post by Leiter's recent link.]  Here is the entire comment:

"Robert, I would be curious to hear what you might think of a counter-hypothesis formulated along these lines--one that does not make reference to racism to explain the hysteria. Here is an outline of the counter-hypothesis (very roughly formulated): The hysteria can be explained by a fundamental philosophical disagreement between, say, Republicans and Democrats, or the political right and the political left. On this theory, three things would be relevant about the ACA: 1) It effectuates a large-scale redistribution of wealth; 2) It effectuates a large-scale intervention by the government into the economy; and 3) It rearranges social relations on a fairly massive scale. I think what I mean by (1) and (2) is fairly straightforward. What I mean by (3) is that the ACA rearranges relations between individuals and state governments, individuals and the federal government, individuals and employers, individuals and health insurance companies, employers and state and federal governments, and between the state and federal governments themselves (and perhaps more). I think (1), (2), and (3) are fair descriptions of at least some of the major things that the ACA does, speaking, of course, in very broad and general terms. If that is right, then I would think it natural for people ideologically disposed to the right-wing of the political spectrum to be vehemently opposed to the ACA, because the ACA violates philosophical principles that are profoundly important, if not outright fundamental, to the political right."

Before I offer a response, let me make one thing quite clear.  My knowledge of the beliefs and sentiments of those on the right is based entirely on things I have read or have seen on television.  I have never had a conversation with a committed right-wing opponent of the Affordable Care Act, nor have I even, to the best of my knowledge, met one.  You would be quite correct in inferring that I live in a left-wing bubble [called Chapel Hill -- before that, I lived in a left-wing bubble called Amherst, MA, and before that I lived in the right wing bubbles called Morningside Heights, Hyde Park, and Cambridge.]   If this strikes you as disqualifying my from having an opinion, you are free to ignore the rest of this post.

Anthony Tsontakis states as fact three things about the Affordable Care Act.  I have my doubts about the truth of his claims, but for purposes of this response I shall assume that he is correct about all three.  I do this because my post sought to explain not the principled opposition of conservatives to the ACA, if in fact there really exists such principled opposition, but rather the intense -- in my view hysterical -- hatred that those on the right voice for the ACA and for the person principally associated with it, Barack Obama.  It is that intense animosity that I sought to anatomize.

First things first.  The central features of the ACA entered public discourse in America as a set of conservative Republican proposals put forward by the right-wing Heritage Foundation as alternatives to the single-payer model of health care reform advanced by the centrist Democrats of the Clinton Administration.  The principal aim of the Heritage Foundation thinkers was to preserve the private insurance core of the American health care model, despite the fact that this reliance on private insurance has driven American health care costs far above those in other mature industrial capitalist national economies.  These much higher costs impose a significant drag on the competitiveness of the transnational sector of American capitalism, a consideration that weighs heavily with conservative defenders of American capitalism.  The most controversial element of the Heritage Foundation proposals -- what is now called the Individual Mandate -- was dictated by a well-known and universally acknowledged fact about all insurance schemes, which is that they can be made affordable only if the population covered includes those less likely, as well as those more likely, to file claims.

The model proposed by conservatives received one trial prior to the passage of the ACA -- a health care system reform enacted into law in Massachusetts by a [then] moderate Republican governor, Mitt Romney.  During the 2008 presidential campaign, liberal and left-wing Democrats argued vehemently for a single-payer reform, rejecting as insufficiently redistributive and inadequately progressive the Heritage Foundation/Mitt Romney model.   After his election, President Obama made a major and ultimately successful political effort to enact a comprehensive reform of America's health care system.  Despite controlling both houses of Congress, Democrats were quite incapable of overcoming Republican opposition to a single-payer reform, and were forced to settle [by the skin of their teeth!] for the conservative Heritage Foundation plan pioneered by Romney in Massachusetts.  One of the compromises forced on the Democrats as a means of holding the support of "blue dog" Democrats and winning the crucial support of a tiny handful of moderate Republicans was a postponement of implementation of several of the most controversial features of the ACA until after the 2012 elections.

In light of this well-known and quite uncontroversial history, I find it unlikely, to say the least, that the explanation of the present right-wing opposition to the ACA is that, in Anthony Tsontakis' words, it "violates philosophical principles that are profoundly important, if not outright fundamental, to the political right."  The core ideas of the ACA did not violate those principles in the late '90s, when those ideas were advanced by the political right, and I am quite unaware of any deep, far-reaching change in the philosophical principles of the political right in the intervening time.

A secondary support of my thesis is the evidence that even the most intense opponents of the ACA are found, repeatedly, to support particular elements of that program when those elements are presented to them without any association to the ACA.  I have in mind the covering of children on their parents' health insurance until the age of 26, the elimination of pre-existing medical conditions as a reason for refusing private health insurance, the lifting of lifetime caps on benefits, and so forth.

There is even some fragmentary polling data that suggest that the real object of the antipathy of many opponents of the ACA is simply the name "Obama."  When asked which they prefer, the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, a number of people say that they like the ACA and hate Obamacare.

Finally, I will mention again the striking fact that occasioned my original post, namely the element of hysterical hyperbole characterizing the utterances of the opponents of the ACA.  Now, as I indicated when I began this response, my knowledge of that hyperbole is entirely secondary.  It is certainly possible that the media, with their well-known penchant for what we might call shock-journalism, have deliberately featured the wildest and most irrational opposition to the ACA, thereby concealing from view the measured, reasoned, principled views characteristic of the great majority of opponents.  Maybe so.  But I doubt it.

So, for all these reasons, I doubt that Anthony Tsontakis is correct.  If he is wrong and I am right, then we are confronted with the question to which my original post was addressed:  Whence the extraordinary, hysterical animus?  My explanation may of course be wrong, but I think my question is pertinent, and calls for factors that are much psychological and ideological as they are factual or philosophical.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Idly clicking on links on my blog creating site, I discovered a huge number of comments in a Spam file, many of which are serious comments that should have been in the regular comments section of this blog.  I have no idea why Google classified these as Spam.  Does anyone have a clue how this works, and what I can do about it?


Lest some of you meteorological whizzes get too worked up, I should explain that I actually saw the gibbous moon yesterday evening when I walked across the street to get Susie and me some after-dinner ice cream.  The moon set too early this morning for me to see it at six-forty a.m. on my way out for my walk.  The last line of my post was a bit of poetic license.


Thank you all for the lovely comments about my blogging.  You cannot know how much they mean to this old philosopher.

Chris, I have begun the Kilman book on the TSSI, and when I manage to plow through it, I will write a post about what I have learned.  But you must be patient.  This old brain does not function with its former speed, which even when I was young could hardly have been described as lightning quick.


On 15 April 1912, the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sank.  Among the passengers was Harry Elkins Widener, a young Harvard graduate on his way home from Europe.  To honor his memory, his mother gave 3.5 million dollars to his alma mater to build the Harry Elkins Widener Library.  Widener sits on the southern edge of Harvard Yard, its rear backing on Massachusetts Avenue and its majestic flight of marble stairs looking across the central quadrangle of Harvard Yard to Memorial Church, where, on 9 June 1962, Cynthia Griffin and I were married.

When I arrived at Harvard in September 1950 as a sixteen year old Freshman, Widener was the center of the Harvard world.  Entering the front doors, one climbed broad stairs to a landing halfway to the second floor, where there was a room that memorialized Mrs. Widener's son.  If you entered the room instead turning and continuing on, a lady rose from her chair and began, in a singsong voice, "Harry loved his books..."  On the second floor, running the entire north side of the library, was the enormous Reading Room.  To the right was a much smaller room housing the entire card catalogue of the library -- bank on bank of narrow oblong drawers filled with little cards.  You could slide out a wooden support, flip through the cards in a tray until you found your book, write down the number on a call slip with one of the stubby pencils provided, and then present the slip at the big arced desk to one of the librarians.  Much more satisfying was to show your Harvard ID card and be admitted through a narrow door to the stacks themselves.  There could be found every book ever published, or so it seemed to a young man fresh from Forest Hills High School.  It was in that card catalogue room, on November 22 1963, that I was looking through a tray when I noticed several people gathered at the librarian's desk whispering agitatedly.  When I drew near to find out what was up, I learned that the President had been shot in Dallas.

Widener was imposing, forbidding, massive and not completely welcoming to undergraduates.  In 1949, the year before I first entered Harvard Yard, a brand new library had been opened in the Southeast corner of the Yard catering to undergraduates.  Lamont Library was low and modern with large glass windows and blond wood that reminded me of my parents' dining room set.  One of its most attractive innovations was a room in which one could listen to records checked out from the library's huge collection.  [Younger readers of this blog will simply have to accept it on faith that there was a time, within the personal memory of some who are still alive, when one did not have all literature, film, art, and music on one's pocket phone.]

One of my favorites was a recording of a new play by Christopher Fry, The Lady's Not For Burning, a romantic comedy in verse set in late medieval England.  The central character is Thomas Mendip, played on the recording by a young John Gielgud.  I recall only one line from the play.  Early in the first act Thomas reports that when he entered the town, "the moon was gibbous and in a high state."  I was in those days a hopelessly romantic young man, and that play spoke to me as no other with which I was familiar.

All of which is an extremely roundabout way of saying that when I stepped out of my condominium building this morning to take my daily four mile walk, I looked up and saw that the moon was gibbous and in a high state.

Monday, October 14, 2013


Thank you for the generous and supportive comments to my pathetic post about blogging.  Wikipedia tells me that Sally Field's famous line in her Oscar acceptance speech was actually an allusion to one of her lines in Norma Rae, a fact that was lost on most commentators [and on me as well, even though I have seen Norma Rae.] 


In 1812, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry and his compliant State Legislature redrew the lines of state senatorial districts in bizarre ad hoc ways to favor Gerry's Democratic-Republican Party.  Thus was born the portmanteau word Gerrymander.  [Portmanteau words, as Lewis Carroll explained, are words designed to carry several bits of linguistic clothing in a single piece of linguistic luggage.  "frumious" is a portmanteau word, made from the fusion of "furious" and "fuming."]  It has become commonplace in discussions of the present political contretemps to ascribe to gerrymandering the imperviousness of the Tea Party Republicans to widespread popular disapproval of their tactics, and there is no doubt a small element of truth in this bit of mainstream media wisdom.  But it is worth pointing out that as a general explanation of what is going on, it is wrong.

The American political system is a winner-take-all system, as Professor Lani Guinier has pointed out in a well-known series of scholarly papers.  Representatives are chosen from geographic districts [unlike the system in South Africa, for example], and a simple plurality of the votes cast gives the seat to a candidate.  The result is that many of the votes cast are "wasted," in Guinier's evocative term.  She means by this not the votes cast for other candidates [they may be frustrated, but they are not wasted], but rather all the votes cast for the winning candidate over and above those required to secure the election.  If a candidate wins with 65% of the votes cast, as many U. S. Representatives of both parties regularly do, then almost a quarter of the votes that she receives are wasted, for she will win with or without them. 

The centrally important fact about the distribution of voters inclined to vote for Democrats or for Republicans is that the voters are, to a truly remarkable extent, residentially segregated -- people tending to vote for Democrats [or Republicans] by and large move to places where there are many other people tending to vote for Democrats [or Republicans].  The reason for this is simple:  voting tendencies are powerfully affected by income, by race, by religion, by ethnicity, and by level of educational attainment, among other things.  Rich people tend to live with rich people, and rich people tend to vote for Republicans.  Highly educated people tend to vote for Democrats, and highly educated people tend to live with highly educated people.  There are Black neighborhoods, Latino neighborhoods, gay neighborhoods, Catholic neighborhoods, and so forth.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, their supporters are more highly residentially segregated than are the supporters of Republicans.  Hence more votes for Democrats than for Republicans are wasted in elections.  In the Senatorial and Presidential elections [but not in the election of members of the House] this anti-Democratic Party tendency is multiplied by the peculiar allocation of Senate seats and Electoral votes mandated by the U. S. Constitution.

It is in fact true that in the last two general elections, the Republicans have benefited somewhat from real gerrymandering -- from the drawing of geographically implausible district lines, following the 2010 census, to secure the election of Republicans.  But that is not the principal source of their advantage in House elections.

What can supporters of the Democratic Party do?  The answer is simple, but very unappealing:  move to heavily Republican districts in sufficient numbers to overcome the Republican Party numerical advantage.  Now, I am willing to give money to the Democrats.  I am willing to walk door to door for the Democrats.  But am I really willing to live my life in a hotbed of Evangelical Tea Party enthusiasts?  There are limits to the sacrifices I will make for my ideals.


I have been blogging now steadily for five years.  During that time, I have put up one thousand five hundred eighty posts, many of them quite lengthy, and these have occasioned six thousand three hundred thirty-five comments.  All of that is as nothing compared to the traffic at the popular blogs, of course, but I do this myself and relatively rarely simply link to what someone has said elsewhere.  All in all, that is a pretty big pile of chopped chicken liver, as they used to say where I grew up.

I have been delighted and touched by the evidences of regular readers, some of whom have been coming to this site for almost as long as it has been operating.  The quality of the comments is astonishingly high, especially when one compares them to what shows up on the better known blog sites.  I have had a troll or two, and there are the inevitable hitchhikers who say "nice blog" and then proceed to sell their wares, but some really interesting debates have developed in the comments section.  I am a great disappointment to Chris, I fear, but the young are always disappointed in the old -- how could it be otherwise?  Lord knows, I was pretty disappointed with my elders when I was young.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me is the discovery of what triggers comments and what does not.  I suppose I should have anticipated that I would receive a blizzard of comments on my report of reading Newt Gingrich's doctoral dissertation -- horror stories are always popular.  But I have been puzzled -- and, I confess, disappointed -- that my several comments about the extraordinary work now being done in many branches of Biology has apparently captured no one's interest.

The hardest part of blogging for someone like me who has spent his life attempting to write serious stuff is simply finding something to say every day.  On some days, I seem not to be able to stop myself, but there are other days when the prospect of putting up a post creates in me a yawning void.  I envy the chaps in piano bars who can say , "And now for a medley of favorite hits," and proceed to play tunes they have played countless times before.  Even someone afflicted as I am with logorrhea runs dry from time to time.

Fortunately [if I may speak paradoxically], the sheer horribleness of the world offers an endless series of opportunities to view with alarm.

I began blogging out of desperation at the prospect of retirement and it has grown on me, so I shall carry on until at long last my two forefingers can no longer bang out the words.  There has been one good consequence of all this writing:  The article on me on Wikipedia no longer says that I am dead.