My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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

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

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Monday, October 31, 2016


Later today, I shall deliver and record the eighth in my series of lectures on the Critique of Pure Reason.  Today I get to the Analogies of  Experience, which is, in my judgment, the second most  important section of the Critique, yielding pride of place only to the Deduction.  This has been a very difficult lecture to prepare, despite the extra time afforded by my trip to Paris.  The lecture series concludes next Monday, the day before the election.  It occurred to me that there might actually be people more interested in watching the election results than in attending my last lecture.  

There is no accounting for tastes.  :)  

[I have added the emoticon because it seems some readers of this blog have a somewhat underdeveloped sense of humor, and find it difficult to tell when I am joking.]

Saturday, October 29, 2016


After a long, exhausting, but uneventful flight, we are again in Chapel Hill.   The latest twist on the email matter is the last straw.  I shall canvas for Clinton this coming week and vote early, but I cannot any longer watch television or read the news on the web.  I am beyond stressed out.

I spent some time during the flight re-reading much of the Analogies of Experience of the Critique.  There is so much there that I cannot hope to cover it all in my penultimate lecture Monday.

Should Clinton win, and be re-elected, I will be ninety before I dare hope again.

Oh, by the way, I watched The Force Awakens on the flight.  I freely admit that I teared up when an aging Han Solo and a timeless Chewbaka appeared to reclaim the Millennium Falcon.

Friday, October 28, 2016


I was guided by the FaceBook page of my son, Professor Tobias Barrington Wolff, to this lengthy article about the large, well-funded and quite sophisticated political operation being built by the small cadre of alt-right people around Trump.  I urge you to read it.  It is quite troubling and very important.  In essence, this group of people are attempting to build the American equivalent of the right-wing nationalist parties that are a growing component of the European political scene – the Front National in France, the UK Independence Party [UKIP] in England, and so forth.  If the authors of the essay are correct [and I see no reason to doubt them], this new movement will target the leaders of the Republican Party in an effort at a hostile take-over.  My son wisely counsels against reacting with schadenfreude

What will be the reaction of a Clinton White House?  I think the answer is obvious.  The rational response, guided by a desire to secure Clinton’s 2020 reelection, will be to move to the right in an effort to scarf up the non-Alt-Right Republicans horrified by the likes of Steve Bannon and his neo-Nazis.  Those of us on the left will of course respond by increased pressure on Clinton to move left, or at least not right.  But such pressure is likely to be ineffective, especially on a sitting President.

We are in for a very difficult time.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016


Professor Steven Pittz posted an interesting comment about my remarks in Lecture Seven on the conflict between Kant's First Critique theory and his moral theory.  Rather than reply here, I have decided to take a few minutes at the start of Lecture Eight next Monday to address his comment.  Those interested in the matter can check that out as soon as Lecture Eight goes up on YouTube.

Monday, October 24, 2016


Let me just report that the power has gone out in my kitchen.  When it rains, there is a hurricane!

However, I have made two important discoveries. First, yesterday evening we had dinner with two of my favorite people, Anne Berry and Philip Minns, both of whom are professional simultaneous translators [I am in awe.]  I told them my sad tale about Orange and Philip informed me that the sign I saw in the two Orange shops warning that abusive language directed against Orange employees will be prosecuted can also be seen in government offices and the Metro.  In short, all France is beside itself at bureaucracy, not just at Orange.

Second, this morning I called the English language Orange help line to get the number I need in order to swap my TV decoder box [cable box, we would say] for a new one, and the woman on the line was extremely friendly and helpful!  From tbis I deduce that the intolerable rudeness and unhelpfulness I have encountered at Orange stores is not the fault of Orange.  It is built into the French language.  The very same employees, when speaking English, are as friendly as North Carolinians.

I wonder whether Noam Chomsky has observed this in his deep study of language.

Friday, October 21, 2016


Yes, I know there are only seven, but my recent experiences here in Paris convince me that an eighth circle is badly needed.  Suffice it to say that for the last thirty-six hours, I have done very little besides trying to get my television and phone to work.  Yesterday, I walked [in some cases a long way] four times to two different offices of the local cable company, called Orange [previously, when it was owned by the state and worked, it was called FranceTelecom.]  In the first office, on the right bank, while I was waiting an hour to be received by a technical expert, I noticed a sign on the wall that said [in French, of course] roughly that abusive language and threats directed at employees would be treated as a criminal offense and would be dealt with harshly.  "That's odd," I thought idly.  When I went to the second Orange office, here on the Left Bank, I noticed the same sign, at roughly the same time that I was growing uncontrollably angry at the dismissive, unfriendly, unhelpful response of a woman working there whom I have had run-ins with before.

And then it struck me.  Everyone in France must be so furious at Orange employees that they have become the objects of perpetual abuse -- hence the signs.  Ordinarily, as you know, my sympathies are with the workers, but I have my limits.  The extra level of Hell would be full up if I had my way.

After an Internet search I signed up for International Service on my cellphone, but I was unable to complete a local Paris call.  I had been given a number to call for a "code" with which I could persuade the wretched woman in the local store to exchange my television decoder box for a new one -- apparently what I need.  Two lengthy calls to very helpful Verizon ladies in the United States later, and with some additional complications to arcane for this blogsite, I was able to call the number.  Alas, by now it was 5:01 p.m. here in Paris, and a cheerful English language recording told me the office closed at five.  It will reopen on Monday at nine a.m.  It seems there is nothing for it but to spend the weekend working on my next Kant lecture.

Oh, did I mention that yesterday morning, I saw the two little batobuses Yves Montand and Jean Gabin at their accustomed mooring?  Some things in Paris can be relied upon.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


I am in Paris, and here is Lecture Seven in my series on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


In a short while, the taxi will come to take us to the airport, and we shall fly to Paris for a short stay, returning on October 29th.  By the time we arrive tomorrow morning, local time, Lecture Seven should be on YouTube.  I will provide a link, and if some kind soul puts a notice on Reddit, it should get a healthy share of views.  I can now see that two more lectures will carry me to the end of the Transcendental Analytic, with the final lecture being delivered on November 7, the day before the election.

It seems appropriate, somehow.


I wrote In Defense of Anarchism when I was thirty-one [though it was not published until five years later.]  It was a youthful work, full of insouciant bravado.  How apt were Wordsworth’s lines, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven.”  The argument of my little tract was so simple that it could have been stated in a short paragraph with room left over for embellishment.  Further along in the text, I drew on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous critique of English representative democracy to break a lance for something I imagined as television democracy [“The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free; they are so, in fact, only during the election of members of parliament: for as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains, and are nothing.  And thus, by the use they make of their brief moments of liberty, they deserve to lose it.”]

Television democracy rested on the conviction that men and women, offered the opportunity to give direct legislative expression to their desires and convictions, could be relied on to inform themselves, vote their interests, and set aside irrational hatreds and anxieties.

It is more than half a century since I wrote that tract, and in this terrible election season, I am forced to reflect that it is perhaps Yeats rather than Wordsworth to whom I must look for guidance.

                   And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
                   Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Monday, October 17, 2016


I just finished reading this fascinating survey of research done in Europe and America regarding the roots of the rise of far right nationalist parties.  It is quite troubling.  Bottom line:  Trump's appeal really is xenophobic racism, not economic anxiety.  I strongly recommend it.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


With three weeks to go, it is now clear that Hillary Clinton will win the election, taking the popular vote by a 4 or 5 percent margin and the electoral vote by 320-340 votes.  [By comparison, Obama won the 2012 popular vote by 3.9% with 332 electoral votes.]  The popular vote margin could go as high as 6-7%, and there is a very small chance of an electoral college blowout of 400 or more.  There is a good but not great chance – maybe 2/3 -- that the Democrats will end up with the 50 Senate seats they need for control, and no realistic chance of their taking the House.

This is therefore a good time to address a matter that has received a good deal of attention lately, and is much misunderstood.  The point I wish to make is quite general, and has nothing in particular to do with the two people currently competing for the presidency.  I could make it directly with reference to Hillary Clinton, but her name is now so toxic on this site that it would be difficult for me to get my readers to attend thoughtfully if I were to couch my argument in reference to her candidacy.  Indeed, I really suspect that if I were to put forward a syllogism in Barbara with “Hillary Clinton” as one of the terms in the major premise, there are some who should know better who would refuse to grant the validity of the argument.

So, let us suppose Bernie had won the nomination, and were now in the last weeks of his campaign.  Let us also suppose, for the sake of argument, that Bernie really is a socialist, as he says.  I have seen no evidence of that, by the way.  His policies are essentially indistinguishable from those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, but let us take Bernie at his word.  Imagine now that WikiLeaks releases a collection of hacked email messages between Bernie and his wife, Jane.  In one of them, Bernie tells his wife about a talk he gave to the annual meeting of the Socialist Scholars Conference.  [I spoke on two occasions to that group back in the day, but I have no idea whether it still exists.]  The Socialist Scholars Conference would of course not have paid Bernie $250,000, but we may suppose that they hosted a brunch for him catered by Zabar’s.

It is easy to imagine Bernie saying to the assembled socialists, “You and I understand that what America needs is collective ownership of the means of production, but I cannot say that in a political campaign, because if I did, I would have no chance of winning.  So I talk about billionaires and the one percent and I rail at banks too big to fail, because those have a wide appeal.  You see, in politics, it is necessary to have both a public and a private position.  [These are the words from one of Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street bankers.]

Had Bernie ever said this, he would have been quite right.  The American political party system is one of broad uneasy coalitions of scores of millions of men and women with very different interests and commitments.  In presidential campaigns, the inevitable and unavoidable compromises are made not, as in a parliamentary system, among parties each of which has an unambiguous stand on major issues, but within each of the two major parties, by compromises the selling of which to the electorate requires a distinction between the public and private positions of the party candidates.  This is not a shocking revelation of the corruption of our politics; it is the normal and inevitable result of the need to achieve some sort of governing coalition in a nation of three hundred thirty million very diverse people.

What, after all, are the alternatives?  A parliamentary system, which has its own strengths and weaknesses, or the war of all against all.  What makes Clinton despicable is not that she has “both a public and a private position.”  It is what the private position is.  But we always knew that about her.  So please, let us have no more channeling of Claude Raines in Casablanca [“I am shocked, shocked, that there is gambling in Rick’s place.”]

Friday, October 14, 2016


I have led a quiet, protected, uneventful life, or so it has seemed to me.  I was born into a stable middle-class family that was virtually unaffected either by the Great Depression or by the Second World War.  I pursued a conventional educational path leading, with no more than the usual uncertainties, to a tenured professorship at the age of thirty.  My military service, such as it was, occurred during one of those rare moments when the United States was not at war, and though I had some measure of success as an academic and as an author, I did not even quite rise to the level, in Mel Brooks’ classic phrase, of being “world famous in Poland.”  My first series of video’ed lectures, On Ideological Critique, had a quite modest success, drawing more viewers than I had ever seen in a classroom but, judging by the other YouTube clips, so few as not even to be worth taking note of.  Under these circumstances, it was quite easy for me to assure myself that I cared a great deal more about being a good teacher and a clear writer than I did about achieving even a fleeting moment of fame, let alone the fifteen minutes that Andy Warhol had promised.  I compared myself to M. de St. Colombe, playing his viola da gamba for hours on end in a little wooden shack, oblivious to the attractions of Versailles.

Then I began my current series of lectures on the Critique of Pure Reason, and quite inexplicably, they drew thousands of views on YouTube.  In a matter of weeks, my carefully cultivated fa├žade of spiritual purity crumbled, and I found myself anxiously checking the tally of views of each lecture.  The crash of the viewership for the sixth lecture sent me into John Bunyan’s Slough of Despond.  I found myself crying pathetically, like Marlon Brandon in the taxi with Rod Steiger, “I coulda been a contender; I coulda been somebody!”

Fortunately, a long-time reader sent me an email message, in which he recalled me to myself.  Here is what he wrote, in part:  “Your job is to speak to those who remain.  I would remind you that you have mentored individuals, giving them hours of your time.  Do not get snagged on the “popularity” nettle.”

I realized that he was right, and returning to my hut, picked up my viola da gamba, (all of which was made easier, needless to say, by the fact that there was then a sharp uptick in the views of Lecture Six.)

Thursday, October 13, 2016


Let me first say that I have been stunned by the flood of lengthy and thoughtful comments triggered by my brief post.  One never  knows.  There is only one small comment I wish to make, about a comment posted by Chris a while back, but first let me express my puzzlement at the dramatic drop in views for my latest Kant lecture.  Here are the figures on the first five, as of this morning:

Lecture One:  13548 views
Lecture Two:   8695  views
Lecture Three: 3467 views
Lecture Four:  4995 views
Lecture Five:  4955 views
Lecture Six:     290 views

That is very odd.  Can anyone suggest an explanation?

Now, to the comments, which now number 43!  Early in the thread [is that the right term?], Chris wrote this:

"Articles like this are proof the Democrats of today are the Republicans of yester-year, and the economic spectrum is radically to the right of FDR:
[Goldman Sachs in meeting with Democratic party fund raisers ask to silence Warren and other progressive Democratic goals]

But again, I guess that's the sane and reasonable party. Tell me, if that's so, were the 80s Republicans sane and reasonable then too? Nixon must have been a beacon of sanity when he had that extremely progressive regime that implemented OSHA, and the EPA!"

It seems pretty clear Chris intended this as a sarcastic rhetorical question, but unfortunately the correct reply is "relatively speaking, yes."  I am old enough to remember every administration since that of FDR, and the appalling truth is that things have become in certain ways so much worse that Nixon today would be a moderate or Blue Dog Democrat.  I was not joking when I described Clinton as an intelligent and experienced Republican.  If all of our best efforts are successful, at this point the most we can realistically hope for is to turn the clock back several generations.  Bernie Sanders would have been a mainstream Democrat when I was young.  That will tell you what a hole we are in.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016


Here it is, the sixth lecture on the Critique.  A warning:  This one is hard, very much in the weeds.  Enjoy!

Monday, October 10, 2016


Unwisely, I watched the debate yesterday evening, and I feel unclean as a consequence.  Leave aside the presence of women who have accused Bill Clinton, a really classy move by Trump.  Leave aside Trump's bizarre snuffling, which after the last debate led Howard Dean to speculate that he is snorting cocaine.  Far and away the most important and chilling moment was Trump's threat to use the machinery of the legal system, were he elected, to put Clinton in jail.  With that threat, Trump took us into the realm of banana republics and modern dictatorships.  In any sane world, that single moment would once and for all time completely disqualify him for public office.

This election cycle has reminded us how fragile democratic institutions and practices are.  Those of us who seek radical change must recognize that there are really only two routes to such change:  electoral victory and violent revolution.  In this country, considering which segment of the general public has the guns, violent revolution is not the avenue to progressive transformation.  That means that we must hope for, and work for, a preservation of the institutions of political democracy.  

I think last night should put paid to any left-wing fantasies that Donald J. Trump could be a vehicle for progressive change.  Those of us on the left who do not like Clinton have no choice but to do what we can to ensure her election and then, without so much as a pause to catch our breath, turn to electing, at every level, the most progressive candidates we can find.  If we cannot muster the votes to win city councils, state legislatures, and majorities in the House and Senate, then we have no hope of transforming American society.

I realize that working to elect a progressive to a seat on the local School Committee is a come-down from theorizing about world-historical revolution, but if you cannot be bothered, then you have no right to complain when Creationism is taught in your neighborhood schools.

Now I shall cleanse my mind by reviewing my notes for today's sixth lecture on the Critique of Pure Reason.

Sunday, October 9, 2016


When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, in the first years of the 1950’s, Clarence Irving Lewis was the grand old man of the Philosophy Department.  In my senior year, 1952-53, the year Lewis retired, he taught three courses, including the legendary course on the First Critique, and I took all three.  I thought then, and have thought ever since, that Lewis was the greatest philosopher I ever studied with, greater than Willard Van Orman Quine, greater than Nelson Goodman.  Lewis’ Big Book was Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation, published in 1946, and  needless to say, I read it cover to cover, but it was Lewis’s Kant course that started me on the path that leads now to my videotaped lectures on the Critique of Pure Reason.

This morning, while taking my morning walk, I began to run over in my mind the lecture I shall be delivering and recording tomorrow.  I have reached the deepest and most difficult section of the Critique, the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding in the First Edition.  My copy of the Critique is littered with snippets of orange-colored post-its marking the passages I intend to read out and explicate.  I brooded for a while on my walk about one of the most complex elements of Kant’s theory, puzzling over how best to explain it.  And then I suddenly realized that the very best way to make sense of it was by invoking Lewis’ theory of “non-terminating judgments.”

“My God,” I said to myself, “the old boy really knew what he was doing!”

It has only taken me sixty-three years to figure out the connection between Lewis’ life-long study of Kant and his own epistemological theory.  Better late than never, I suppose.  I would like to think he would be pleased that I finally get it.

Saturday, October 8, 2016


Fifty-eight years ago, with a newly minted doctorate in Philosophy from Harvard University, I began my career teaching European History at that august institution.  Inasmuch as my only previous contact with the subject was Mr. Wepner’s sophomore course at Forest Hills High School, you may well wonder why on earth Harvard asked me to lecture on the history of Europe “from Caesar to Napoleon.”  It is a long story, told in detail in my Autobiography.  As I feverishly plowed through scores of works of historiography so as not entirely to disgrace myself, I was struck by one very interesting contrast between the work of medievalists like Pirenne, Ganshof, and Bloch and that of historians of the French revolution, such as Greer, Cobban, and Lefebvre.  The medievalists, who had much less in the way of primary sources than they would have liked, were forced to reconstruct entire centuries from bits and snatches of data, whereas the historians of the French Revolution, who had so much more primary material than they could possibly use, faced the challenge of what selection to make from it all.

This observation from the very start of my long career occurred to me this morning as I reflected on the events of the past two weeks. All well-run, well-staffed political campaigns devote time and resources to digging up bad things about their opponent that they can use to cast him or her in an unflattering light.  This effort is known as “opposition research,” or oppo, as it has come to be called.  Conventional wisdom has it that the release of oppo should be staged and timed for maximum effectiveness.  The very best oppo appears in the public space without seeming to have come from the campaign, thus lending it greater credibility.

Say what you will about Hillary Clinton [and I have had my say here in past posts], she is running a high-powered professional campaign, and I am absolutely sure that somewhere in the bowels of the Brooklyn office is an unmarked room filled with beady-eyed oppo pros who have, for a year now, been searching out every possible negative thing that can be said about Donald J. Trump.  They are, in the world of opposition research, like those historians of the French Revolution who were so swamped with data that they were constantly forced to pick and choose.

Now think about recent revelations:  First, the trap set for Trump by Clinton and sprung in the first debate, concerning Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe; then the mysterious appearance of pages from the 1995 state tax returns filed by Trump.  And now the video of his 1995 conversation with Billy Bush.  On the record, only the first of these was a product of Clinton campaign opposition research, but with no evidence at all, I am absolutely convinced that all three issued from that unmarked room at Clinton headquarters, carefully timed for maximum effectiveness.

I don’t like Clinton, although I am doing everything I can to help her carry North Carolina, but there is enough of Niccolo Machiavelli in me to feel a surge of admiration for a skillfully administered hatchet job.  My guess is that Trump doesn’t know what has hit him.

Thursday, October 6, 2016


I have been too busy with my lecture preparations even to reply adequately to the many interesting comments that have been posted recently, but I wanted to call your attention to this very important article, which details a strike now being conducted by as many as 24,000 inmates in many prisons.  The focus of the strike is the slave labor system that is a central part of the American "correctional" system.  I urge you to read it.  More is going on in America than just this interminable election campaign.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016


I watched Lecture Five through, as I do each lecture, just to check that the mike worked and that I did not screw up somehow.  [I did -- the story about Jonathan Bennett should have been about Jonathan Cohen.  Oh well.]  What I saw was a garrulous old man speaking easily and telling endless stories in the interstices of the Kant explication.  Nothing could be easier, I seemed to be communicating.  

Ah, would that it were so!  Let me reproduce a post I wrote and put up a bit more than a year and a half ago.  It is especially applicable today.  Here is what I wrote.

February 13, 2015

I am sure we all remember the famous scene from The Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion finally gain admittance to the inner sanctum of the Great Wizard, each hoping to ask there for his or her heart's desire.  They are met by a terrifying spectacle -- a large curtain, from behind which emanate clouds of smoke and the loud voice of the wizard.  As they stand there, frightened and uncertain what to do, Dorothy's Cairn Terrier, Toto, jumps out of her arms, grabs a corner of the curtain in his teeth, and pulls it back to reveal the mountebank, Frank Morgan, cranking levers and wheels and shouting into a big horn. I evoked that scene last Wednesday when I was explaining to my students the concept of demystification, so central to the opening chapters of Capital

I did not think to tell them about a personal experience I had almost forty years ago of which I was reminded this morning on my early walk while musing on how to weave The Wizard of Oz into some thoughts I have been having about the experience of being a writer.  In 1977, my first wife, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, published A Feast of Words, a brilliant literary biography of Edith Wharton, and was invited to speak at a little book event [a sort of micro-mini book tour.]  On the program with her was Garson Kanin, who had just published Hollywood, a memoir of his time as an actor, writer, and director.  Kanin was married to Ruth Gordon, a very highly regarded actor and film writer.  I had the impression that Kanin felt about Gordon the way Mel Brooks feels about Anne Bancroft -- that she was the light of his life and that it was a blessed miracle that she had agreed to be his wife.

I was too nervous about the affair simply to take a seat in the audience, so I stood at the side of the room.  After Cindy spoke -- quite well, of course, I needn't have worried -- Garson Kanin was introduced.  He was a dapper little man with a lively, charming manner.  He clasped his hands behind his back casually and proceeded to tell a series of delightful stories about Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, and all the famous movie folks he knew.  He appeared to the audience relaxed and entirely at ease.  But from where I was standing, I could see his hands, and throughout his talk, he wrung his hands violently, his fingers writhing like snakes in a basket.  It was obvious to me, but not to the audience, what it was costing him to project his easy, casual manner.

I take both of these stories as metaphors for my experience as a writer and teacher.  I strive to achieve a light, easy, casual style as I expound the most complex matters, seeming, I imagine, merely to be putting out words as they pop into my head -- a garrulous old man full of stories.  The truth is that out of sight, my hands are clasping and unclasping, my fingers writhing, as a search for just the right phrase.  Even when my writing goes well, as for the most part it does, I am exhausted when it is done, and I turn compulsively to solitaire games, crossword puzzles, or low-brow television to recoup my energies.

There are some writers -- and a good many philosophers -- who do their best to show the anguish, fearing, I imagine, that they will not be thought serious if it seems that what they are doing has cost them too little effort.  But I am not one of them.  My hero is David Hume, who skewers a doctrine or dismantles a tradition with such ease that if you are not paying very close attention, you may fail to notice the full power of his disarmingly charming sentences.

Now I must clasp my hands behind my back and thrash out my preparations for the next lecture.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


Here it is, all you Kant fans, Lecture Five in my series on the Critique of Pure Reason.  Lots of good stuff, so enjoy!

Monday, October 3, 2016


Yesterday, my wife and I saw a new movie, Queen of Katwe, a true story about a young girl from a slum in Kampala, Uganda who was taught to play chess by a Christian missionary and turned out to be a prodigy, winning national championships and pulling her young widowed mother out of poverty with her successes.  It is a nicely made film, pretty predictable, but it had an enormous emotional impact on me because it brought together two of the most powerful and important experiences of my life:  being the father of a chess prodigy who went on to become a famous International Grandmaster, and for twenty-five years running a scholarship organization for poor Black South African students going to historically Black universities.  It was as though the film had been made especially for me!

One of the things very nicely done by the director, Mira Nair, is the striking representation of the contrast between the lives of the desperately poor slum dwellers and the privileged existence of the wealthy Ugandans and their faux British schools and lives [complete with cricket games and such.]  She makes clear the political and gendered importance to the entire slum neighborhood of a poor girl defeating the wealthy, condescending boys at a private school.

By the way, the movie was made by Disney.  Credit where credit is due.

Sunday, October 2, 2016


Never having actually seen The Big Bang Theory in prime time, I have been watching clips from past seasons on YouTube.  Speaking as a Marxist conversant with the theory of capitalist exploitation, I should like to offer the opinion that the recent negotiations that won, for the stars of the show, a wage of a million dollars each per episode, resulted in a perfectly fair and reasonable settlement.


All right, I admit it, I have been sneaking a look at the polls and at the political coverage.  I will leave to others the endless discussion of Trump's disgusting attacks on Alicia Machado.  But this lengthy piece in the Washington Post got me thinking once again about something that has long been on my mind.  The Post piece gives an extended portrait of a Trump supporter who, among other things, believes a wide array of bizarre conspiracy theories.  I am not talking about the claim that Obama was really born in Kenya and spirited into the United States as what might be called a real-life Manchurian candidate, equipped with phony birth notices in Hawaiian newspapers and a name -- Barack Hussein Obama -- designed to appeal to gullible American voters.  After all, some scores of millions of Americans claim to believe that.  I am referring to a number of conspiracies now making the rounds that I had never heard of, such as the claim that Obama is gay, that Michelle is really a man, and that Malia and Sasha are not the children of the Obamas but were kidnapped [I am not kidding -- read the article I linked to above.]

How, one asks, can anyone believe such things?  Now, to be sure, the person featured in the Post article has serious mental issues, but she is not alone in her beliefs.  Think of those millions of clinically normal people who believe that Obama is not an American citizen.  What is going on?

Here are my thoughts, for what they are worth.  The vast majority of those who profess to believe these conspiracy stories are perfectly normal men and women who can navigate the demands of everyday life quite well.  They get up in the morning, make breakfast, send their kids off to school, go to work, hold down averagely demanding jobs with average efficiency, mow their lawns, get their cars serviced, remember birthdays, pay their taxes [unlike their hero, Donald Trump], and do not get more than ordinarily lost when finding their way to the supermarket.

Now, if you tell them that Michelle Obama is a man and that Michelle and Barack kidnapped Sasha and Malia, they will nod sagely and say, "I always knew there was something off about that family."  But if you tell them that their TV set is really a toaster and that their next door neighbor is a gerbil, they will nervously edge toward the door and think of calling 911.

In short, there is a disconnect in them between their averagely rational capacity to negotiate their directly sensed world and their utter inability to grasp and hold even elementary facts about the socio-political [or indeed the scientific and technical] world to which they are connected solely by the system of information transfer on which we all must rely.  After all, I have met Obama only once, at a White House Christmas party to which I was taken, as a guest, by my son, Tobias.  Or at least I was told it was Obama.  How do I really know?  Indeed, how do I know I was in the White House?  It might all have been a Potemkin village.  I have never met a sitting senator in my life, nor a member of the Cabinet.  I think I watched [on television] a man walk on the moon, but then I also think I saw Ewoks on Endor.  What direct evidence do I have that the first was real and the second was not?

Most of us use hand-held phones and such like devices every day, but precious few of us actually know, all the way down to the molecular level, how those things work.  If I tell you that there are tiny men and women in your phone who speak to you when you think you are calling someone, you really are not equipped to demonstrate to me that I must be wrong.

We live in a social and political world that has almost no direct connection to our felt experiences and first-hand knowledge.  Once our belief is shaken in the authority figures who putatively inform us about that world, any conspiracy theories we are offered seem as plausible as the authorized stories sensible educated people are expected to accept.

One of my very favorite philosophical passages comes from the Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes.  In Chapter 6 of Part I, which carries the lovely title, "Of the Interior Beginnings of Voluntary Motions; Commonly Called the Passions; And the Speeches by Which They Are Expressed," Hobbes offers this pair of definitions:  "fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed, RELIGION;  not allowed, SUPERSTITION."

There is really nothing more to be said.