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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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Monday, June 30, 2014


The Batobus is one of the amenities Paris offers to its tourist trade.  The Batobuses are flat-bottomed scow-like boats that cruise up and down the Seine in circular routes, roughly between the Eiffel Tower to the west and the new Mitterand Library to the East.  After buying a ticket at any of the stops along the route, you can hop off to see Notre Dame or the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower and then hop back on the next Batobus passing by.  A ticket buys you one complete round trip.  This morning at 6:15 a.m., as I was nearing the end of the first half of my walk along the Seine, I noticed six Batobuses moored two by two for the night on the Left Bank.  The first four had names like Bastille and Odeon, but the last two, rather smaller than the rest, were named "Jean Gabin" and "Yves Montand." 

I thought that was kind of cool.

Sunday, June 29, 2014


I have just finished reading a very striking book recommended to me by my big sister, Barbara:  Neanderthal Man:  In Search of Lost Genomes, by Svante Pääbo.  It tells, in fascinating detail, the successful effort over thirty years and more to reconstruct and sequence the genome of Neanderthal Man from bones as much as forty thousand years old.  The narrative gripped me because I have been interested in Neanderthal Man since my early teens, during which I would go repeatedly to the Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to stare at the crania and jawbones and femurs displayed on glass-covered tables.  But Pääbo’s book also interested me for a quite different reason, which I shall write about today.

Imagine, if you will, that you are attending, at the University of Massachusetts, one of the meetings called on special occasions for the assembled faculties of Humanities and Fine Arts, Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Natural Sciences and Mathematics, or HFA, SBS, and NSM, as we referred to them – a budgetary crisis, perhaps, or the seizure of the Administration Building by protesting students, or the installation of a new Chancellor.  There you are, in a large lecture hall, surrounded by five or six hundred of the members of the Arts and Sciences faculty.  Many are men, a good many are women, most are white, a handful are black, some are old, some are young, some are fat, some are thin, most are dressed casually, although here and there one can spot a tie and jacket or a dress.  But all are Professors, and since the discussion, such as it is, touches on matters that are the special academic territory of no one, it is quite impossible to tell which department someone is from unless you happen to know him or her.  It would be natural to imagine that what unites them – each one is a Professor, after all – quite dwarfs whatever differentiates one from another.  And yet, as Pääbo’s book brought home to me yet again, nothing could be farther from the truth.

What do academics do day by day in the course of their professional research careers?

Philosophers read books and journal articles, think, talk to colleagues, and write essays which they send off for possible publication to academic journals.  They also review the journal submissions of other philosophers [anonymously] and these days perhaps post comments on blogs.  It is extremely rare for two or more philosophers to co-author a journal article or a book – indeed, the only great piece of philosophy I can think of that bears the names of two authors is Principia Mathematica by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead.  Philosophers also go to professional meetings, where they deliver or comment on or simply listen to professional talks, but those activities are in the nature of outings, we might say, rather than an essential part of their research,

Anthropologists gather up their camping gear and travel to parts of the globe that they, at least, consider remote [although the people who live there do not, of course, consider them remote, since they are home.]  They spend a good deal of time learning a language that is perhaps only spoken and not written, and they try to forge personal relationships with people on whom they have dropped in as if from the sky.  They spend a year or more “in the bush” learning as much as they can about the religious beliefs, family relationships, burial practices, and ways of getting a living of the community they come to think of as “their people,” before returning to their home campus, where they write up what they have learned.  Usually, although not always, they travel in groups, and since such expeditions are expensive, they spend time back home writing funding proposals.

Paleontologists spend a good deal of time scouring promising-looking rock outcroppings or hillsides for signs of fossilized bones, very often in very lightly populated areas.  They set up camp and stay for weeks or months, almost always in groups.  Once they find a bone, they painstakingly brush away the surrounding dirt, trying to reveal the bone without damaging it.  Then they bring it back to their home campus and study it with whatever sophisticated equipment they can muster.  Quite often, the small group camped out at a dig consists of a senor Professor and his or her graduate students.  When it comes time to write up the finding along with speculations about its origins, the research report will carry three or four or even ten or twelve names.  The precise order in which those names are listed is of the very greatest importance for all involved, as it has significant implications for the career of each.

Biochemists, Chemists, Microbiologists and the like do all of their work in groups.  To enter that academic profession you must be accepted into someone’s lab, there to wash bottles and do other menial chores until you work your way up to actually designing new experiments.  There is a ferocious on-going competition among laboratory groups to publish first, with the Nobel Prizes, the big research grants, and the name professorships going to the winners.  It costs a great deal to set up a science lab these days – ten years ago or more, when I was till at UMass, the rule of thumb was that when a department in the sciences hired a new Assistant Professor, it would cost half a million to outfit him or her with a lab.  By contrast, the principal expense incurred by the hiring of an Assistant Professor in the Humanities was the name plate for the new faculty member’s office door.  [When I moved to Afro-American Studies in 1992, I found in my new desk drawer an old nameplate from a previous occupant – it read “James Baldwin”!]

Pääbo describes in the most extraordinary detail the teamwork required by fifteen or more superb, highly trained specialists to extract the traces of Neanderthal DNA from ancient bones, testing for and setting aside the inevitable pollution of the ancient materials both by bacteria and by the countless humans who had handled them over the ages.  One of the great strengths of his account is the honestly with which he details the personality quirks and conflicts that interfered with, and in some cases actually improved, the functioning of the group.

There is nothing like this – I repeat nothing – in the field of Philosophy, nor in Literary Criticism, Historiography, Sociology, or Political Science.  Each of these fields has its own distinctive array of experiences, of course, but they are utterly different from the experiences recounted by Pääbo.  It is obvious that these differences in the daily professional routines of the various academic disciplines must find some reflection in the substance of what their practitioners produce, and yet very rarely is this fact discussed.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


I have always been charmed by the Roman Catholic Church's teaching regarding sainthood.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with its lineaments, here is a quick review.  The Church teaches that, generally speaking, even those whom the Lord God chooses, in his Infinite Mercy, to gather to his bosom after their death for an eternity of bliss must first suffer a rather long period of torment in Purgatory as a punishment for their many sins.  However, there are a rare few whose lives on earth have been so exemplary that they are granted a reprieve from Purgatory and go directly to Heaven upon their passing, there to sit by the right hand of God.  Since these few are even now in the presence of the Almighty, prayers directed to them by the faithful may be passed along to His Mightiness.  Those granted this extraordinary free pass directly to heaven [not even passing Go and collecting $200] are called Saints.  Hence the practice of praying not to God Himself but to one or another of the saints.  Who are the saints?  Well, strictly speaking, only God knows, but the Church has taken it upon itself to identify those possessing this extraordinary charisma.  And, as Max Weber noted more than a century ago, since charisma is inevitably routinized, it comes down to an Office of the Holy See, staffed by Cardinals and such, rummaging about for evidence that prayers directed at unusually holy dead folks have worked miraculously, thereby demonstrating that they are indeed in Heaven, with God's ear, and thus are saints.  Bureaucracy being what it is, these days it takes three authenticated miracles to be declared a saint.

We atheists are denied these blessings, of course, but I have always thought that the Cloud is for us a simulacrum of true Heaven, for there our thoughts, our tweets, our selfies, our e-mails, our verbal slips and deepest thoughts live forever, though our bodies may rot.  IT Saints, I suppose, can expect to go straight to the Cloud on their physical passing.  But I am afraid I am not one of their number, for I have, for the past week, been in IT Purgatory, and there is no sign that I shall be released anytime soon.

When I arrived in Paris, my computer worked but my Internet access did not.  Several frantic trips to the local France Telecom shop, carrying my heavy computer and my "LiveBox," resulted in my old LiveBox being swapped out for a new one.  I brought it home, and it did not work.  I arranged for a "rendez-vous" [i.e., a home visit] with a FranceTelecom technician, who could not come until yesterday [for a fee of 115 Euros, or roughly $150!!].  Meanwhile, my computer died, and I went out and bought a new one, for almost a thousand dollars.  It has a French keyboard, so the Q is where the A is supposed to be, and like that.  I turned it on and thoughtlessly chose the option that changes the keyboard to an American keyboard, because the salesman told me I could buy little stickers to put on the keys so I know what I am typing.  But no one has ever heard of these little stickers and I cannot figure out how to change the keyboard back.  The technician came, two hours late, and after an hour, had managed to get the TV working, but not the Internet.  He announced that the LiveBox was defective, and told me to take it back for a new one.  I did so.  I brought the new one home and could not get it to work.  Meanwhile, my old computer had started working again [Why?  Well you may ask, little grasshopper.]

I have a new rendez-vous arranged for Friday.

I amend my earlier religious observation.  I am not in IT Purgatory.  I am in IT hell, which means I am one of the damned, and there is no hope for me.

How am I writing this?  I am at an Internet cafe fifteen minutes' walk from my apartment.  I have purchased one hour of time, and a little counter in the corner of the screen tells me I have 10 minutes left.

How is Paris?  Who knows?

Thursday, June 19, 2014


This is a test to see whether I am actually posting something on my blog.  Here we go.

Monday, June 16, 2014


Susie and I leave later today for a seven week stay in Paris.  As always, I shall be on the Internet once we get there, and will continue blogging about philosophy, economics, world events, cooking, and my early morning walks through the streets of Paris. 

I am sure the irony of reports of possible US -Iran cooperation is lost on no one.  Perhaps the chicken hawk neo-cons will be secretly grateful now that we did not follow their advice and invade Iran.
The US has, in my judgment, peripheral interests at best in the outcome of the present conflict, but Iran's vital national interests are directly engaged, because a return to power of Iraqi Sunni forces would once again create a hostile regime on its Western border.

As we were having a quiet dinner at a local restaurant yesterday evening, I note thanks to my peripheral vision that France had defeated Honduras in the World Cup.  No doubt Paris will be talking of little else when we get there.  I confess that Soccer leaves me cold, but I am sure that reveals a deep flaw in my character.

By the way, am I the only person who has noticed that each of the great team sports has its own distinctive crowd noise?   I can tell from the crowd sounds alone whether it is a baseball, basketball, football, or soccer game on the telly.

a bientot a Paris.

Saturday, June 14, 2014


I very much hope that you have all read William Polk's important essay on the events in Iraq, posted here yesterday.  Today, I am going to make a series of observations intended to complement, but in no way to displace or amend, his arguments.  What I have to say has application to many other issues of national and foreign policy, but it is, I think, particularly apposite to the Middle East situation.

I inaugurate my remarks with several quotations from the writings of the great twentieth century conservative English philosopher, Michael Oakeshott.  Some of you find it odd, I know, that I should have a fondness for a thinker who is one of the darlings of the apparatchiks at right-wing think tanks, but I would remind you that Oakeshott's excoriation of the intellectual tradition that he labels "rationalist" is matched by Marx's disdain for the Utopian Socialists who were among the most notable partisans of the rationalist mentality.  By the time I have finished, you will perhaps understand what I think we have to learn from Oakeshott.

Let me begin with a portion of a single sentence from "Rationalism in Politics," the title essay of Oakeshott's most important book.

"The conduct of affairs, for the Rationalist, is a matter of solving problems..."

Against this conception of politics, Oakeshott counterpoises his own view of politics as the participation in a tradition of activity.  He says of the rationalist several paragraphs later, "He is not devoid of humility;  he can imagine a problem which would remain impervious to the onslaught of his own reason.  But what he cannot imagine is politics which do not consist in the solving of problems, or of a political problem of which there is no 'rational' solution at all."

What can Oakeshott mean by this, and how can it help us to understand the situation in Iraq?  The key lies in the unthinking invocation of what I can label inappropriate metaphors.  We are accustomed to describe the conflict between the Shi'ia and Sunni in Iraq as a "problem," to which competing solutions are now being offered.  But the use of the word "problem" and its associated terms, such as "solution," implies that it is possible to give a correct characterization of the current situation, an unambiguous description of a different situation we wish to see come into being, and a repertory of tools and techniques that we might employ to accomplish that end.  And this way of thinking, I suggest, is wrong.

What are some legitimate examples of problems?  Finding a vaccine to protect humans against polio was a problem, solved initially by Jonas Salk.  Constructing a workable atomic bomb was a problem, solved by the team of scientists and engineers who made up the Manhattan project in the last years of World War Two.  Putting a man on the moon was a problem, set for America by John F. Kennedy and solved by the scientists and engineers of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

What is an example of a pseudo-problem -- a task or policy goal or desideratum that sound like a problem but in fact is not a problem at all?  Nation-building is an example of a pseudo-problem.  Nations are never built, constructed, or erected.  Nations are sets of political and institutional arrangements rooted in and evolving out of the history and traditions and past actions and experiences of groups of people.  Trying and failing to build a nation is never a case of a lack of resources or a failure of will or a shortage of experts.  Nation-building always fails because "building a nation" is a phrase that has no coherent meaning.  Consequently, there is no genuine meaning that can be give to the question "How can we contribute to the building of a stable democratic Iraq?"

An associated example of a pseudo-problem is "training indigenous forces."  The United States has devoted an enormous amount of time, effort, and resources to training the Iraqi military, only to have the troops we have trained throw down their weapons, shed their uniforms, and flee into the night when confronted by attacking ISIS troops [who are not terrorists, by the way, but that is neither here nor there.]  The natural reaction to this turn of events is to conclude that we have not trained them well enough, but that is a total conceptual confusion.  The ISIS forces, after all, have not been the beneficiaries of our training, or, so far as I can make out, of the training of anyone else.  Clearly, the failure of the Iraqi forces has nothing to do with the success or failure of their training.  I am sure they know how to operate their weapons just as efficiently as do the ISIS forces [which seem to be using some of the same weapons, originally supplied by the American military.]  Incidentally, since the establishment of the United States was made possible by the defeat of a well-organized national army by a collection of citizen-combatants manifestly less well trained than their enemies, you might have thought American politicians and military experts might have understood this.

Am I saying that the United States cannot in any way influence affairs in the Middle East?  Of course not.  We have been influencing affairs in the Middle East for at least sixty or seventy years, and perhaps longer.  We influenced affairs in the Middle East by forging close and supportive ties with the regimes controlling large reserves of oil.  We influenced affairs in the Middle East by overthrowing a secular democratic government in Iran and installing a puppet Shah.  We influenced affairs in the Middle East by arming the Taliban during their successful struggle against Soviet invaders.  We have influenced affairs in the Middle East by aiding and enabling Israel's occupation and domination of the Palestinians.  We influenced affairs in the Middle East by first making chemical weapons available to Saddam Hussein during his war against Iran and then by invading Iraq and overthrowing Hussein.  We have had an enormous influence on events in the Middle East.  What we have never been able to do is "solve" whatever "problem" we think at the moment the Middle East poses.  Our failure is never a consequence of inadequate information or weakness of will or insufficient resources.  It is always a consequence of the fact that neither the Middle East nor any other region of the world poses "problems" to which there are "solutions."

Well, sufficient unto the day, as my uncle used to say.



Friday, June 13, 2014


I was about to attempt some comments about the events in  Iraq when this extremely important long essay from William Polk arrived in my in-box.  I urge you to read all of it carefully.  Tomorrow, or later today, I will make some additional comments.

             America appears once again to be on the brink of a war.   This time the war is likely to be in Syria and/or in Iraq.  If we jump into one or both of these wars, they will join, by my count since our independence, about 200 significant military operations (not all of which were legally "wars") as well as countless "proactive" interventions, regime-change undertakings, covert action schemes and search-and-destroy missions.  In addition the United States has  provided weapons, training and funding for a variety of non-American military and quasi-military forces throughout the world.  Within recent months we have added five new African countries.    History and contemporary events show that we Americans are a warring people. 
            So we should ask:  what have we learned about ourselves, our adversaries and the process in which we have engaged?

            The short answer appears to be "very little."

            As both a historian and a former policy planner for the American government, I will very briefly here (as I have mentioned in a previous essay, I am in the final stages of a book to be called A Warring People, on these issues), illustrate what I mean by "very little."     

            I begin with us, the American people.  There is overwhelming historical evidence that war is popular with us.  Politicians from our earliest days as a republic, indeed even before when we were British colonies, could nearly always count on gaining popularity by demonstrating our valor.  Few successful politicians were pacifists. 

            Even supposed pacifists found reasons to engage in the use of force.  Take the man most often cited as a peacemaker or at least a peaceseeker, Woodrow Wilson.  He promised to "keep us out of war," by which he meant keeping us out of big, expensive European war. Before becoming president, however, he approved the American conquest of Cuba and the Philippines and described himself as an imperialist; then, as president, he occupied Haiti, sent the Marines into the Dominican Republic and ordered the Cavalry into Mexico.  In 1918, he also put American troops into Russia.  Not only  sending soldiers: his administration carried out naval blockades, economic sanctions, covert operations -- one of which, allegedly, involved an assassination attempt on a foreign leader -- and furnished large-scale arms supplies to insurgents in on-going wars.

            The purpose, and explanation,  of  our wars varied.     I think most of us would agree that our Revolution, the First World War and the Second World War were completely justified.  Probably Korea was also.  The  United States had no choice on the Civil war or, perhaps, on the War of 1812.    Many, particularly those against the Native Americans would today be classified as war crimes.  It is the middle range that seem to me to be the most important to understand.   I see them like this.

            Some military ventures were really misadventures in the sense that they were based on misunderstandings or deliberate misinformation.  I think that most students of history would put the Spanish-American, Vietnamese, Iraqi and a few other conflicts in this category.  Our government lied to us -- the Spaniards did not blow up the Maine; the Gulf of Tonkin was not a dastardly attack on our innocent ships and Iraq was not about to attack us with a nuclear weapon, which it did not have.

            But we citizens listened uncritically.   We did not demand the facts.  It is hard to avoid the charge that we were either complicit, lazy or ignorant.  We did not hold our government to account.

            Several war and other forms of intervention were for supposed local or regional requirements of the Cold War.  We knowingly told one another that the "domino theory" was reality:  so a hint of Communist subversion or even criticism of us sent us racing off to protect almost any form of political association that pretended to be on our side.  And we believed or feared that even countries that had little or no connections with one another would topple at the touch -- or even before their neighbors appeared to be in trouble.  Therefore, regardless of their domestic political style, monarchy, dictatorship. democracy., it mattered not, they had to be protected.   Our protection often included threats of invasion, actual intervention, paramilitary operations, subversion and/or bribery,  justified by our proclaimed intent to keep them free.  Or at least free from Soviet control.  Included among them were Guatemala, Nicaragua, Brazil, Chile, Italy, Greece, Syria, Lebanon, Iran,  Indonesia, Vietnam and various African countries. 

             Some interventions were for acquisition of their resources or protection of our economic assets.  Guatemala, Chile, Iraq, Iran and Indonesia come to mind.

            Few, if any,  were to  establish the basis of peace or even to bring about ceasefires.  Those tasks we usually left to the United Nations or regional associations.

            The costs have been high.  Just counting recent interventions, they have cost us well over a hundred thousand casualties and some multiple of that in wounded; they have cost "the others"  -- both our enemies and our friends -- large multiples of those numbers.  The monetary cost is perhaps beyond counting both to them and to us.  Figures range upward from $10 trillion.

             The rate of success of these aspects of our foreign policy, even in the Nineteenth century, was low.  Failure to accomplish the desired or professed outcome  is shown by the fact that within a few years of the American intervention, the condition that had led to the intervention recurred.  The rate of failure has dramatically increased in recent years.  This is because we are operating in a world that is increasingly politically sensitive.  Today even poor, weak, uneducated  and corrupt nations become focused by the actions of foreigners.  Whereas before, a few members of the native elite made the decisions, today we face "fronts." parties, tribes and independent opinion leaders.   So the "window of opportunity" for foreign intervention,  once at least occasionally partly open, is now often shut.

            I will briefly focus on five aspects of this transformation:

             First, nationalism has been and remains the predominant way of political thought of most of the world's people.  Its power has long been strong (even when we called it by other names) but it began to be amplified and focused by Communism in the late Nineteenth century.  Today,  nationalism in Africa, much of Asia and parts of Europe is increasingly magnified by the rebirth of Islam in the salafiyah movement.  

             Attempts to crush these nationalist-ideological-religious-cultural  movements militarily have generally failed.  Even when, or indeed especially when, foreigners arrive on the scene, natives put aside their mutual hostilities to unite against them.  We saw this particularly vividly and painfully in Somalia.   The Russians saw it in Çeçnaya and the Chinese, among the Uyghur peoples of  Xinjiang  (former Chinese Turkistan).

            Second, outside intervention has usually weakened moderate or conservative forces or tendencies within each movement.  Those espousing the most extreme positions are less likely to be suborned or defeated  than the moderates.  Thus particularly in a protracted hostilities, are more likely to take charge than their rivals.  We have seen this tendency in each of the guerrilla wars in which we got involved; for the situation today, look at the insurgent movements in Syria and Iraq.  (For my analysis of the philosophy and strategy of the Muslim extremists, see my essay "Sayyid Qutub's Fundamentalism and Abu Bakr Naji's Jihadism" on my website,

            What is true of the movements is even more evident in the effects on civic institutions and practices within an embattled society.  In times of acute national danger, the "center"  does not hold.  Centrists  get caught between the insurgents and the regimes.   Insurgents have to destroy their relationship to society and government  if they are to "win."   Thus, in Vietnam for example, doctors and teachers, who interfaced between government and the general population were prime targets for the Vietminh in the 1950s.

            And, as the leaders of governments against whom the insurgents are fighting become more desperate, they suppress those of their perceived rivals or critics they can reach.   By default, these people are civilians  who are active in the political parties, the media and the judiciary .  And, as their hold on power erodes and "victory" becomes less likely, regimes  also seek to create for themselves safe havens by stealing money and sending it abroad.  Thus, the institutions of government are weakened and the range of enemies widens.  We have witnessed these two aspects of "corruption" -- both political and economic -- in a number of countries.  Recent examples are Vietnam and Afghanistan.

            In Vietnam at least by 1962 the senior members of the regime had essentially given up the fight.  Even then they were preparing to bolt the country.   And the army commanders were focused on earning money that they sold the bullets and guns we gave them to the Vietminh.  In Afghanistan, the regime's  involvement in the drug trade, its draining of the national treasury into foreign private bank accounts (as even Mr. Karzai admitted) and in "pickpocketing" hundreds of millions of dollars from aid projects is well documented.  (, the monthly reports of the American Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.) 

             Third, our institutional memory of programs, events and trends is shallow.  I suggest that it usually is no longer than a decade.  Thus, we repeat policies even when the record clearly shows that they did not work when previously tried. And we address each challenge as though it is unprecedented.   We forget the American folk saying that when you find yourself in a hole, the best course of action is to stop digging.   it isn't only that our government (and the thousands of "experts," tacticians and strategists it hires) do not "remember" but  also that they have at hand only one convenient tool -- the shovel.  What did we learn from Vietnam?  Get a bigger, sharper shovel.

             Fourth, despite or perhaps in part because of our immigrant origins, we are a profoundly insular people.  Few of us have much appreciation of non-American cultures and even less fellow feeling for them.  Within a generation or so,  few immigrants can even speak the language of their grand parents.  Many of us are ashamed of our ethnic origins.

            Thus, for example, at the end of the Second World War, despite many of us being of German or Italian or Japanese cultural background, we were markedly deficient in people who could help implement our policies in those countries.  We literally threw away the language and culture of grandparents.   A few years later, when I began to study Arabic, there were said to be only five Americans not of Arab origin who knew the language.  Beyond language, grasp of the broader range of culture petered off to near zero.  Today, after the expenditure of  significant government subsidies to universities (in the National Defense Education Act) to teach "strategic" languages, the situation should be better.  But, while we now know much more, I doubt that we understand other peoples much better.

             If this is true of language, it is more true of more complex aspects of cultural heritage.  Take Somalia as an example.  Somalia was not, as the media put it, a "failed state;"  it was and is a "non-state."  That is, the Somalis do not base their effective identify on being as members of a nation state.    Like almost everyone in the world did before recent centuries, they thought of themselves as members of clans, tribes, ethnic or religious assemblies or territories.  It is we, not they, who have redefined political identity.  We forget that the nation-state is a concept that was born in Europe only a  few centuries ago and became accepted only late in the Nineteenth century in Germany and Italy.  For the Somalis, it is still an alien construct.  So, not surprisingly,  our attempt to force them or entice them to shape up and act within our definition of statehood has not worked.   And Somalia is not alone.  And not only in Africa.  Former Yugoslavia is a prime example: to be 'balkanized' has entered our language.  And, if we peek under the flags of Indonesia, Burma, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq,  the Congo,  Mali, the Sudan and other nation-states we find powerful forces of separate ethnic nationalisms.

            The effects of relations among many of the peoples of Asia and Africa and some of the Latin Americans have created new political and social configurations and imbalances within and among them.    With European and American help the  governments with which we deal have acquired more effective tools of repression.  They can usually defeat the challenges of traditional groups.  But, not always.   Where they do not acquire legitimacy in the eyes of significant groups -- "nations" -- states risk debilitating, long-term struggles.  These struggles are, in part, the result of the long years of imperial rule and colonial settlement.   Since Roman times, foreign rulers have sought to cut expenses by governing through local proxies.  Thus, the British turned over to the Copts the unpopular task of colleting Egyptian taxes and to the Assyrians the assignment of  controlling the Iraqi Sunnis.  The echo of these years is what we observe in much of the "Third World" today.  Ethnic, religious and economic jealousies abound and the wounds of imperialism and colonialism have rarely completely healed.   We may not be sensitive to them, but to natives they may remain painful.  Americans may be the "new boys on the block," but these memories have often been transferred to us.

             Finally, fifth, as the preeminent nation-state America has a vast reach.  There is practically no area of the world in which we do not have one sort of interest or another.  We have over a thousand military bases in more than a hundred countries; we trade, buy and sell, manufacture or give away goods and money all over Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe.  We train, equip and subsidize dozens of armies and even more paramilitary or "Special" forces.   This diversity is, obviously, a source of strength and richness, but, less obviously, it generates conflicts between what we wish to accomplish in one country and what we think we need to accomplish in another.  At the very least, handling or balancing our diverse aims within acceptable means and at a reasonable cost is a challenge. 

            It is a challenge that we seem less and less able to meet.

            Take Iraq as an example.  As a  corollary of our hostility to Saddam Husain, we essentially turned Iraq over to his enemies, the Iraqi Shia Muslim. (I deal with this in my Understanding Iraq, New York: HarperCollins, 2005, 171 ff.) There was some justification for this policy.  The Shia community has long been Iraq's majority and because they were Saddam's enemies,  some "experts" naively thought they would become our friends.    But immediately two negative aspects of our policy  became evident:  non-specialists:  first, the Shiis took vengeance on the Sunni Muslim community and so threw the country into a vicious civil war .  What we called pacification amounted to ethnic cleansing.  And, second,  the Shia Iraqi leaders (the marjiaah)  made common cause with coreligionist Iranians with whom we were nearly at war all during the second Bush administration.  Had war with Iran eventuated, our troops in Iraq would have been more hostages than occupiers. At several points, we had the opportunity to form a more coherent, moral and safer policy.  I don't see evidence that our government or our occupation civil and military authorities even grasped the problem;  certainly they did not find ways to work toward a solution.  Whatever else may be said about it, our policy was dysfunctional.

             I deserve to be challenged on this statement:  I am measuring (with perhaps now somewhat weakened hindsight) recent failures against what we tried to do in the Policy Planning Council in the early 1960s.    If our objective is, as we identify it, to make the world at least safe, even if not safe for democracy, we are much worse off today than we were then.   We policy planners surely then made many significant mistakes (and were often not heeded), but I would argue that we worked within a more coherent framework than our government does today.  Increasingly, it seems to me that we are in a mode of leaping from one crisis to the next without having understood the first or anticipating the second.  I see no strategic concept; only tactical jumps and jabs.

            So what to do?

             At the time of the writing of the American Constitution, one of our Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris, remarked that part of the task he and others of the authors  put it, was  “to save the people from their most dangerous enemy, themselves.”   Translated to our times, this is to guard against our being "gun slingers."  All the delegates were frightened by militarism and sought to do the absolute minimum required to protect the country from attack.  They refused the government permission to engage in armed actions against foreigners except in defense.  I believe they would have been horrified, if they could have conceived it, by the national security state we have become.  They certainly did not look to the military to solve problems of policy.  They would have agreed, I feel sure, that very few of the problem we face in the world today could be solved by military means   So,  even when we decide to employ military means,  we need to consider not only the immediate but the long-term effects of our actions.   We have, at least, the experience and the intellectual tools to do so.  So why have we not?

             We have been frequently misled by the success of our postwar policies toward both Germany and Japan.  We successfully helped those two countries to embark upon a new era.  And, during the employment of the Truman Doctrine in Greece, the civil war there ended.   There were special reasons for all three being exceptions.  Perhaps consequent to those successes,  when we decided to destroy the regimes of Saddam Husain and Muammar Qaddafi,  we gave little thought of what would follow. We more or less just assumed that things would get better.  They did not.  The societies imploded.  Had we similarly gone into Iran, the results would have been a moral, legal and economic disaster.  Now we know -- or should know --  that unless the risk is justified, as our Constitution demands it be by an imminent armed attack on the United States, we should not make proactive war on foreign nations.   We have sworn not to do so in the treaty by which we joined the United Nations .  In short, we need to be law abiding,  and we should look before we leap.

             Our ability to do any of these things will depend on several decisions.

            The first is to be realistic:  there is no switch we can flip to change our capacities.  To look for quick and easy solutions is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

             The second  is a matter of will and the costs and penalties that attach to it.  We would be more careful in foreign adventures if we had to pay for them in both blood and treasure as they occurred. That is, "in real time."  We now avoid this by borrowing money abroad and by inducing or bribing vulnerable members of our society and foreigners to fight for us..  All our young men and women should know that they will be obliged to serve if we get into war, and we should not be able to defer to future generations the costs of our ventures.  We should agree to pay for them through immediate taxes rather than foreign loans.

             The third is to demand accountability.  Our government should be legally obligated to tell us the truth.  If it does not, the responsible officials should be prosecuted in our courts and,  if they violate our treaties or international law, they should have to  come before the World Court of Justice.  We now let them off scot-free.  The only "culprits" are those who carry out their orders.

             Fourth, in the longer term, the only answer to the desire for better policy is better public education.  For a democracy to function, its citizens must be engaged.  They cannot be usefully engaged if they are not informed.  Yet few Americans know even our own laws on our role in world affairs.   Probably even fewer know the history of our actions abroad -- that is, what we have done in the past with what results and at what cost. 

            And as a people we are woefully ignorant about other peoples and countries.   Polls indicate that few Americans even know the locations of other nations.  The saying that God created war to teach American geography is sacrilegious.  If this was God's purpose, He  failed.   And beyond geography, concerning other people's  politics, cultures and traditions, there is a nearly blank page.  Isn't it time we picked up the attempt made by such men as Sumner Wells  (with his An Intelligent American's Guide to the Peace and his American Foreign Policy Library), Robert Hutchins, James Conant and others (with the General Education programs in colleges and universities) and various other failed efforts to make us a part of humanity? 

               On the surface, at least, resurrecting these programs is just a matter of (a small amount of) money.  But results won't come overnight.  Our education system is stodgy, our teachers are poorly trained and poorly paid, and we, the consumers,  are distracted by quicker, easier gratifications than learning about world affairs.  I had hoped that we would learn from the "real schools" of  Vietnam and other failures, but we did not.  The snippets of information which pass over our heads each day do not and cannot make a coherent pattern.  Absent a matrix into which to place "news," it is meaningless.   I have suggested in a previous essay that we are in a situation like a computer without a program.  We get the noise, but without a means to "read" it, it is just gibberish. 

            Our biggest challenge therefore comes down to us:  unless or until we find a better system of teaching, of becoming aware that we need to learn and a desire to acquire the tools of citizenship, we cannot hope to move toward a safer, more enriching future.

             This is a long-term task. 

            We had better get started.

William R. Polk

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


Yesterday, Eric Cantor, House Republican Majority Leader, lost his Republican primary against a Tea Party nobody named Brat.  Consequently, instead of ascending to the august position of Speaker of the House when John Boehner's expected resignation occurs next January, Cantor will be leaving the House.  This is very, very big political news here in the United States, and as a blogger I have an obligation to express an opinion about it, so here goes.

Let me begin by explaining a few things for my overseas readers, of whom there seem to be a fair number.  The position of Speaker of the House of Representatives is a constitutionally mandated office [Article I, Section II], elected by the full membership of the House.  Oddly, the Speaker need not be a Member of the House [just as the Pope and Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church need not be ordained priests.]  Under present law [not specified in the Constitution], the Speaker stands second in line behind the Vice President for ascension to the presidency in case of the death or incapacitation of the holder of that office.

The position of House Majority Leader is not constitutionally mandated, and only came into existence in 1899.  The House Majority Leader, as the title suggests, is chosen by the majority caucus.  The position is politically very important, inasmuch as the Majority Leader schedules bills for consideration by the House, oversees committee appointments, and in many other ways plays a major managerial role in the House.

Since no one in the commentariat had so much as heard of Brat before last night, opinion is a trifle unformed as yet about why this all happened, but one thing is clear:  Brat's entire campaign was focused on the issue of immigration reform.  Cantor was widely understood as believing that something ought to be done by the House Republicans in order not to totally write off the growing Hispanic vote.  Despite Cantor's last minute efforts to represent himself as opposed to any sort of compromise on the issue, voters were not fooled, and the rabidly anti-Hispanic Republican base gave Brat a resounding 11 point victory.

The implications of this upset for national politics are huge.  Let me sketch them.

First, immigration reform of any sort is totally dead for the next two years.  If the Majority Leader can lose a safe reelection over this issue, no Republican member of the House is going to be willing to touch the issue with a ten foot pole.  This in turn pretty much concedes the 2016 presidential race to the Democrats.

Second, the prospects of several important Republican presidential hopefuls just took a severe  turn for the worse.  Both Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have made immigration moves -- subsequently withdrawn, to be sure -- in more or less overt efforts to position themselves as rational alternatives to the right-wing loonies who are currently sucking up all the oxygen in the pre-run up to the 2016 nomination frenzy.  With Chris Christie pretty much toast because of the scandals surrounding bridge closures and other things, that leaves those usually referred to as "grown-ups" or "sane persons" or "the Establishment' in the Republican Party with no obvious figure to back for the nomination.  Hence, the chances of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul just got a good deal better.

Should we go into the second half of 2015 with no plausible Republican Establishment counter to the crazies, that at least opens the door a trifle to an Elizabeth Warren challenge to the inevitability of the Clinton juggernaut.  Why?  Because if the Republicans do indeed nominate a crazy, then even someone as far to the left as Warren might have a good shot at winning a presidential race, especially since she, like Clinton, could be expected to run extremely well among women, while also holding Blacks, Hispanics, and young people [Obama's winning coalition.]  And if it actually looks as though Warren could win, then there is a very large segment of the Democratic base that would defect to her from Clinton, who is viewed as a sure winner but not much loved by liberals.

Several times in the past I have made predictions and offered to eat crow [or my hat] if I proved to be wrong.  Not this time.  This is rank speculation of the most ungrounded sort.  Take it for what it is worth.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014


David Marans has created a rather lovely gallery of logicians through the ages, including even my old apartment mate Charles Parsons.  You can find it here.  Take a look.


I make much in these blog posts of my plebian cultural tastes.  I am forever going on about how many games of FreeCell I play and the schlock novels I read.  Now this is not a mere Internet pose.  I really did watch The Young and the Restless daily for more than twenty years.  I really do read schlock novels, although I stopped reading Robert Ludlum novels after I discovered that he is dead and his novels are being written by Clive Cussler [who is now so successful that his novels are written by someone else -- sort of like Ford motor cars being made even after Henry Ford died.]  And the FreeCell win counter tells me that on this computer alone I have played more than 8,500 games.

Why do I do this?  Mostly, it is because it amuses me to represent myself as a cultural doofus when I have spent my life explicating the arcana of the philosophy of Kant, the economic theories of Marx, and the finer points of Game Theory.  But partly it is because I am painfully conscious that I am not, as I repeatedly observe, a true scholar, inasmuch as I cannot really read German, know very little math by the standards of real mathematicians, and have never actually taken a course on Economics in my life [although I did teach Introductory Micro once.]  I think I figure that if I say it first, I will forestall the inevitable scoffing by those who really are expert in the various fields I pretend to have mastered.  My intellectual life is a constant high wire act without a net.

Perhaps the most often repeated of my self-deprecations is the meme I have fashioned [if I may appropriate a useful word] of myself being dragged off to see good films by Susie despite my preference for shoot 'em ups with no redeeming social value.  Now, I really do like movies featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger or Steven Seagal or Tom Cruise [despite his regrettable embrace of Scientology], but recent experience is compelling me to reconsider  my self-description.

Last weekend, Susie dragged me off, for the third time in a row, to see a good film at the local Indie theater, and yet again, I left the theater thanking her for making me pass up the latest blockbuster at the multiplex across the street.  This time the movie was Chef, a modest little feel-good movie about a gifted cook who cuts loose from the constraints of a successful restaurant [owned by the villainous Dustin Hoffman] and finds his inner artist running a sandwich truck.  Oliver Platt does a nice turn as a restaurant critic, and Scarlett Johansson, whom I have always found a trifle weird, shows up to advantage as the chef's gorgeous, successful [at what?] ex-wife.  The movie is really about a father's bonding with his son, and the most violent scene is the chef's brutal dismembering of a pile of vegetables with his trusty chef's knife.

Now look.  Despite my life-long infatuation with Kant, I am an empiricist at heart, so when evidence piles up that one of my cherished beliefs is false, I feel a certain compulsion to reconsider.  Maybe I actually like good movies.  Who knew?

However, just today, the Arts section of the NY TIMES has a full-page ad for a new Jason Bourne book.  My heart fluttered as I anticipated, in the fullness of time, yet another Matt Damon classic.  Old habits die hard.

Monday, June 9, 2014


I have been hard at work, and Volumes III and IV of Pebbles From the Philosopher's Stone, containing selected posts from 2011 and 2012, are now available on  I have spent so much time in the past few days re-reading past posts and sorting them into these volumes that I have the quite false impression that I have been posting a great deal on my blog, but in fact I have been more or less absent.  I shall try to correct that before I go to Paris a week from today.

Sunday, June 8, 2014


Nicholas Denyer at Cambridge University in England e-mails me to point out that in Chapter xxi of Mansfield Park there is in fact a reference to the slave-trade.  Many thanks.

Just to show you how old I am getting, I actually knew that line and quoted it in  my OLLI talk, but I forgot it when I wrote the blog post.  Sigh.  Keep on keeping me honest!

Saturday, June 7, 2014


In 1993, Edward Said published Culture and Imperialism, a splendid collection of essays exploring the connection between the great works of modern European culture and the imperial adventures of the major European nations.  [Said spent virtually his entire career at Columbia, and from 1964 to 1971, I was privileged to be his colleague on the Columbia faculty, and to know him, although not as well as I would have liked.  I still have a warm and very gracious note that he sent to me in 1990, long after I had left Columbia.]   One of the most striking essays is a dramatically deviant reading of Mansfield Park concerning Jane Austen's relationship to the English slave trade and slave plantations of the new world.  Since neither "slavery"  nor its cognates appears in the novel [there is, in fact, only one direct use of the term in any of Austen's novels, in Emma], Said's essay was, as literary critics would say, a "strong reading."

Six years after the publication of the book, Patricia Rozema, a Canadian film maker, released her  stylish rendition of Mansfield Park with none other than Nobel Laureate Sir Harold Pinter as Sir Thomas Bertram.  Susie and I saw the movie at the Amherst Cinema, a small "art film" theater in downtown Amherst, MA.  We were only a little way into the movie when it became obvious to me that Rozema had been powerfully influenced in her cinematic rendering of the novel by Said's essay.  She had taken the allusions to Sir Bertram's "interests" in Antigua [i.e., his ownership of slave plantations], which in the novel serve principally to account for his absence from Mansfield Park during the critical middle portion of the novel, and turned them into the moral and emotional pivot of the story.   [Readers of the novel will recall that its centerpiece is the anxious question whether Fanny and Edmund will ever get it on.]

Not long after I saw the movie, my sister, Barbara, invited me to come to Washington, D.C. to give a talk to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program in which she had been teaching sophisticated courses on evolution and microbial genetics.  I chose to combine Said, Rozema, and Mansfield Park in a talk entitled "Jane Austen and the Dark Underside of British Capitalism."  Some library research turned up fascinating information about Austen and the abolitionist struggle against British slavery of which Said may have been aware but to which he made no allusion in his essay.  Austen, despite leading a famously reclusive life, in fact had several sources of detailed information about slavery.  Her favorite brother served on British naval vessels charged with interdicting the slave trade, and her father was close friends with, eventually the executor of the estate of, the owner of several slave plantations in the New World.  There was thus every reason to suppose that she was quite well aware of the role of slavery in the development and flourishing of the British economy.  [For those who are unaware of this role, I recommend the splendid old book by Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery.]

The boffo ending of my lecture was my recounting of the landmark Somersett case.  Briefly, an Englishman, Charles Stuart, bought James Somersett in Virginia and in 1769 brought him to England.  In 1771, Stuart decided to send Somersett back to Virginia to be sold.  Somersett escaped and with the aid of three abolitionists managed to bring the his plea for freedom into an English court.  The judge, in a landmark decision, freed Somersett.  The core of his opinion is contained in the following words:

"The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory.  It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law.  Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say that the case is allowed or approved by the law of England:  and therefore the black must be discharged."  [The Justice is here contrasting Positive Law with the unwritten Common Law.]

The judge who handed down this decision was none other than Lord Mansfield.  Who can doubt that therein lies the origin of the title of Austen's novel?

Which brings me to Belle.

I wanted to see Belle [even though it is a "good" film] because I was attracted by the theme of a young woman of mixed race being brought up in an aristocratic English family of the 18th century, and because the trailer revealed it to be a visually gorgeous film.  Save for the explicitly racial theme, the story could have come straight out of Austen:  the daughter of an English aristocratic naval officer and a slave woman is raised as the companion of a young White girl of the same age on a lavish estate.  By a twist of fate, the Black girl has an inheritance, from her long deceased father, of "two thousand a year" [recall Piketty], although she is of course not at all a suitable bride for a man of high birth.  Her sister, despite her impeccable breeding, is penniless because the entire estate of her father is entailed elsewhere.  Much of the film is devoted to the completely open and mercenary machinations of the White girl's mother, who seeks a husband with a sufficient fortune to compensate for her lack of an inheritance, and by the complex marital fate of the Black girl [Belle], who has the requisite fortune but the wrong color skin.

BUT:  The master of the lavish estate, father of the White girl and guardian of Belle, is none other than England's Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield!  Well, as soon as I realized that, the movie took on a much deeper and richer meaning for me, and I found myself struggling to hold back tears through much of it.

In the movie, the dramatic counterpoint to the marital prospects of the girls is Lord Mansfield's struggle to decide how to come down on a major case before him, earlier than the Somerset case, involving a slave ship, the Zong.  The Lord Chief Justice, played by the always admirable Tom Wilkinson, eventually decides against the ship owners in a decision that struck at the heart of the British slave trade.

The premise of the movie, by the way, is historically accurate.  There actually is a painting of the two young women that for many years hung in the Mansfield estate, and the Zong case is a real case of English law, decided by Lord Mansfield.

Two thumbs up, as Siskel and Ebert would have said.