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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

Total Pageviews

Monday, July 31, 2017


Two people posted comments about my bitter sweet reminiscences of a time when it seemed that Marx’s approach to an understanding of capitalism might be staging a comeback.  The first is someone who uses as his or her web name Voltaire’s famous injunction about the Catholic Church, l’écrasez l’infame.”  The second signs him or herself F. Lengyel, which a little Googling suggests might be the name of a mathematician.  On this quiet Monday morning, while I wait to see whether the White House explodes, I should like to respond.

I am delighted that l’écrasez [or, to use his or her proper name, M. or Mme. Infame] found my book, Understanding Marx, helpful and even inspiring.  Indeed, I am thrilled.  That is what authors hope for and dream of!  If it is true that my little book made him/her a Marxist, what could possibly be better?

F. Lengyel also writes about the relation of Marxism to math, with a reference to Herb Gintis, who was, with his colleague Sam Bowles, an early inspiration for me when I was first digging deeply into Marx’s thought.  I have always believed that Sam and Herb [as everyone at UMass referred to them] took a wrong turn when they scuttled Marxism for Game Theory, but that is a large subject for another day.

Modern Neo-Classical economists occupy an odd and fundamentally inauthentic position in the Academy, at least to my jaundiced eye, a position illuminated in a way by the famous essay by the British novelist and scientist C.P. Snow, “The Two Cultures.”  Snow writes acerbically about the appalling ignorance of the most elementary science exhibited by supremely self-confident, even arrogant, classicists, historians, and philosophers in Oxford and Cambridge Senior Common Rooms.  The gulf between the two cultures is asymmetric, as Snow makes clear, because whereas even the most prosaic scientist will have at least heard of Shakespeare and Plato and Shelley, distinguished classical scholars experience not a scintilla of embarrassment at their total ignorance of such elementary terms as mass, acceleration, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Economists are housed in Divisions of Behavioral Science, but they queen it around as better than their fellow Social Scientists and Humanists because they make use of calculus and linear algebra.  Now the truth is that these are undergraduate subjects to a math major, hardly worth making a fuss about, but economists make much of their equations, looking down their noses condescendingly at philosophers or historians who never include an integral sign or a Sigma in their professional papers.  Philosophers, eternal wannabes, scatter backwards E’s in their prose, even when there is no conceivable need for them, and write things like “S knows that p” as though they were intoning the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Sunday, July 30, 2017


I have become, by default, the family archivist, and so it is that my big sister, sifting through a lifetime of accumulated papers, from time to time puts together a little bundle and sends it to me.  The latest packet included a tearsheet from the May 29, 1985 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education containing a portion of a long interview I gave to them on the occasion of the publication of Understanding Marx, my first book on the thought of Karl Marx.  Barbara did not have the entire interview, and I have absolutely no recollection of having given it, but when I read again what is on the sheet, I was touched and saddened by my effusions of optimism.  I had just completed a decade of intense study of the new mathematical reinterpretation of Classical and Marxian political economy published by sophisticated left economists around the world in the’60s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s.  Here are some lines from the interview to give you a sense of my boundless enthusiasm for this new development. 

“Although I don’t for a moment imagine that political movements start in somebody’s head, with a theory, I think that theories are an important part of political movements.  There comes a point when a political movement – or a possible political movement – needs theoretical tools to direct itself, and that’s starting to happen…. I have a keen sense of my own limitations and I don’t for a moment imagine that I’m capable of doing serious, theoretically innovative work in economic.”  [Mr. Wolff] sees himself as “a kind of cheerleader” for all the scholars engaged in the mathematical reinterpretation of Marx.  “I’m in favor of all of them and I’m delighted when they do this stuff because it’s marvelous and exciting…. Until I got involved in this stuff, I never showed my work to other people.  Now I have a sense of myself as being part of an enterprise that’s larger than myself…’  Summing up the shift in the course of his career, [Mr. Wolff] said, “it was like being reborn.”

            OH! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
             For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
            Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
            Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
             But to be young was very heaven! 

            [William Wordsworth, 1805, on the French Revolution]

Saturday, July 29, 2017


Painting, Art, and Politics

Jerry Fresia

 “Look Jerry, I think what you have to say about painting is very good, but drop the politics.” This was a common refrain when I first began teaching painting. But painting and politics, for me, has always been inexorably linked. Things are better these days, however. I have learned to frame my points in ways that are, shall we say, more congenial. In fact, I have even been called “warm and fuzzy” of late. But my mantra hasn’t changed: learning to paint is learning new ways to be free. And the point of it all is to become who you are most.

I began my study of painting, as a teenager, in the studio of William Schultz whose teachers before him led back to Paris of the 1880s. One key teacher-painter in this lineage who brought 19th century Parisian art theory back to the U.S. was Robert Henri.[1] Henri was recruited by Emma Goldman to teach in her Modern School of the Ferrer Society in Greenwhich Village that she and Alexander Berkman had founded in honor of the Spanish educator, Francisco Ferrer. Many of Henri’s students[2] went on to enjoy successful painting careers. Another of Henri’s notable students, however, experienced a degree of success in a field not unrelated to art. His name was Leon Trotsky. So the admonitions and caveats passed down from teacher to student within the studio, in my case, was steeped in a strong regard for individual autonomy and self-direction.

A recurrent theme of Henri’s[3] was quite simple: paintings ought to be the by-product of a mood that one might achieve by crossing into a competing realm of perception. “The object of painting a picture is not to make a picture,” taught Henri. Rather, “The picture is a by-product….[of] the attainment of a state of being…a more than ordinary moment of existence.” With this particular approach to painting, then, we find that emotions are cherished as is the sense of wonder. The understanding is that all external measures of the work, market value for example, must be pushed aside entirely as one works. We don’t look for results during the process. The notion of finish is a category mistake. It is imperative to stay in the moment. The measure of thing are the feelings that arise as we move along and that we can’t possibly know until our brush touches the canvas because the making of marks is not just an act of expression, but an act of making determinant, of realizing, who we are.

The reader will recognize this story: human life is seen as an activity of expression; moreover, the self-realization that occurs is something that unfolds from herself. Therefore, the activity of painting (for the painter) when properly understood[4] is the privileged medium through which her potential or who she is most, unfolds.

Heady stuff. But this is precisely the point at which Eeyore makes his appearance. If the above is true, then the question arises, do our institutions cohere to enable this type of freedom? Is our way of life authentic in this regard? Does everyone rightfully have the need to access this expressive activity and self-realization? Regretfully the answer is no. As brilliant entrepreneurs, we move in a different direction: we wish to master and objectify nature (and people as nature as well). We believe the world to be inherently calculable. As painter-entrepreneurs, it is not necessary that we fulfill ourselves in the process because the point of the exercise is to have the work get us through the door. Results are everything. Reason is separate from feeling and thought from senses. And as Charles Taylor points out, from the point of view of someone like Henri (or a Monet who reports that no one gets what is important to him, namely that it is necessary to stand before nature in “total self-surrender”), “These false views [are] more than just intellectual errors…but an obstacle to human fulfillment….”[5]

I have found a way, however, to have Tigger enter the discussion and relieve the anxiety of my students without disengaging from the larger critique: in this world of disenchantment and alienation, there remain “sites of Enchantment” replete with “affective attachments,” “passages” to realms of experience where we “give greater expression to play,” where nature is “lively,” where “wonder” is key, where there can be “fleeting returns to a childlike excitement about life,” and where we can “hone sensory receptivity to the marvelous specificity of things.” [6]

Now, I’m a painter and I’m not entirely sure how much of this generalizes to other disciplines of art. But I do think that what I have said here and the type of painting that I do while not “carrying a revolutionary message performs a revolutionary function.”[7] For those of you who wish to watch me paint for a minute or two while sermonizing a bit, go here:

[1] See Robert Henri, The Art Spirit (Harper & Row, 1984).
[2] For example, there were George Bellows, Robert Brackman, Stuart Davis,  Edward Hopper, and Rockwell Kent among many others.
[3] This theme has been articulated in varying degrees, as well, by such painters as Manet, Cèzanne, Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, Rothko and a number of contemporary painters such as Wolf Kahn.
[4] The notion here is that while I may be looking at the house, I don’t see the house as such, but rather the sensations that the house triggers within me as a visual artist. My work does not refer to something outside of myself. The feelings that I express and the description that happens along the way (in so doing) are one.
[5] Charles Taylor, Hegel (Cambridge University Press,1975), 25.
[6] See Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton University Press, 2001). What was marvelous about this book for me was that Bennett provided a framework for what countless painters have been saying for decades. For example, not only have painters emphasized “feeling larger” over and over again, but some painters like Cèzanne actually converse with their subject matter.
[7] Joachim Pissarro speaking of the work of his great-grandfather Camille.

Friday, July 28, 2017


This was a great moment, one of the very few we will have under Trump.  Enjoy!  The seemingly slippery Susan Collins held firm for once, and Lisa Murkowski reclaimed Alaska's reputation after Sarah Palin trashed it.  As for McCain, I would bet good money that this was his long desired and patiently awaited payback for Trump's dismissive and condescending remark about his war service.  The wheels are coming off the wagon.  For the first time in quite a while, I enjoyed the morning TV news shows.

Later on I shall have more to say about Paris, among other things.

Thursday, July 27, 2017


We flew home yesterday without incident to find this country preparing to hurt vulnerable people in a myriad of ways.  So much ugliness is being perpetrated so quickly that it is difficult to find the emotional resources for appropriate anger and outrage.

As a diversion, I will tell one small story about our Paris stay.  Susie spent a good deal of time trying to bring order into the disarray of the plant life that decorates the interior courtyard of our copropriété.  While she was working, she came across this fearsome beast and called for me to memorialize it with my IPhone.  Herewith the result.  The faint of heart are warned.

Monday, July 24, 2017


When I was a young man, words poured from my pen like a torrent of water from a fire hose.  I published my first book in 1963.  By the time I left Columbia, eight years later, my thirteenth book was in press.  The flood slowed to a stream, and then a trickle, as the years went by.  Books on Kant’s ethics, on John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, several edited books, then the long, deep investigation of the thought of Karl Marx, which yielded two books and a series of long articles.  In 1992, I transferred to Afro-American Studies, and other than a memoir of that extraordinary experience, the periodic editions of a textbook, and two volumes about my parents and grandparents never intended for publication, my pen fell silent.  For eight wonderful years I even made a serious study of the viola and played string quartets with three friends, until retirement brought that to a close.

Through the many years of silence, words had accumulated unheeded in my mind, and when I launched this blog on the last day of June in 2009, a dam broke.  Over the next few years, I wrote on-line a three volume autobiography, a book about the use of formal methods in political philosophy, and countless “tutorials,” some of them twenty or thirty thousand words long.  In all, I wrote more than 500,000 words, the equivalent of six or seven books.  And all the while, silently, for the most part unnoticed, I grew older, until, when I looked up from the keyboard, it seemed I was eighty-three years old.

Slowly, my blog acquired a small, rather distinguished circle of regular readers and commentators, a grand unending seminar in which I was as much tutee as tutor.  Somehow, after a lifetime of teaching and writing, I had found the ideal intellectual community, an international friendship of minds and voices which, or so it seemed, would sustain me for the rest of my life.

And then Trump happened.  At first, I found words to express my dismay and horror, words to encourage others to take action, to resist, words to articulate some understanding of the sheer evil that Trump and his entourage visited thoughtlessly, carelessly, on any too weak to defend themselves.  But little by little, the words grew banal, feeble, inconsequent.  The words that had been my life stilled.

Trump has made me stupid.

Saturday, July 22, 2017


There have been several news stories in the past forty-eight hours that have received a good deal of attention and about which I should perhaps comment.  The first, which is really quite unimportant, is that Sean Spicer has resigned as Presidential spokesperson, apparently because he had been sidelined by the appointment of a scrimy character named Anthony Scaramucci as head of the White House press operation.  One of the relaxing features of the present Administration is that it is possible, with no close study, to despise them all.   We will miss Melissa McCarthy’s send-up of Spicer on Saturday Night Live, but beyond that, out of sight, out of mind.

The second story, rather less attended to, is that the Senate referee [who knew they had one?] has ruled a number of elements of the Senate health care bill ineligible for a process called Reconciliation that permits bills to pass with only 51 votes.  Among the clauses not permitted is one stopping women from getting health care from any organization that supports abortion.  Since without this clause, several extreme rightwingers will not vote for the bill, it is now effectively impossible for it to pass.  To be sure, the chances of passage were already slender, but this kills the Republican health care effort dead in its tracks.  This is very good news indeed, since any version of the Republican health care legislation would be devastating for millions of people.

Meanwhile, the reliably execrable Jeff Sessions is in deeper trouble than before, always a good thing.

Mind you, one must be an utterly incorrigible Tigger to take any comfort from this news at all, but I have only one life to live, and I insist on celebrating anything that offers even the slightest warmth to my cold heart.


Jerry, your response to my brief post about my trip to the Musee d'Orsay has prompted a number of interesting comments.  Would you want to write a guest post on some aspect of art and politics?  Remember, if it should result in any significant sales, I get the usual agent's ten percent.  :)

Friday, July 21, 2017


Well, folks, here we go.  The Washington Post reports that Trump's team of lawyers are now discussing the scope of the President's power to pardon, including even whether he can pardon himself.  And it isn't even August!  So much for the Impressionists.

Thursday, July 20, 2017


Susie and I went to the Musée d’Orsay this morning, the grand museum fashioned out of what was once a train station.  I am not much for museums, I confess, but this one has a special place in my heart, in part because it was there, several years ago, that we heard an exquisite performance of Allegrhi’s Miserere by the Tallis Singers, one of the truly great experiences of my life.  The d’Orsay’s collection of Impressionist paintings is of course world famous.  Surrounded by masses of tourists [Paris has overcome its terrorist attacks and is again the premier destination in the world for tourists], I took these IPhone shots of a pair of famous paintings by Renoir.  I am not sure you can see it in my amateurish pictures, but the treatment of the dresses by Renoir is breathtaking.

Dance in the City:

Dance in the Country

Wednesday, July 19, 2017


While I was taking my morning walk [along the circumference of the 5th arrondissement], I reflected on several very significant recent developments in American domestic politics.  [I shall reserve to a later post my responses to the wealth of interesting comments about morality and international affairs.]  I refer first to the revelations regarding the meeting between Kushner, Trump jr., and Manafort and an ever expanding roster of characters, and second the collapse of the efforts of Senate Republicans to do something, anything, about the Affordable Care Act.

The daily revelations about the meeting make it more and more likely that there was a sustained, extensive, conscious, deliberate attempt by Trump himself and his closest advisors to work hand in glove with agents of the Russian government to defeat Hilary Clinton, in return for which assistance Trump would deliver a lifting of economic sanctions and other desiderata of the Putin government.  You may adopt any evaluative stance toward this effort you wish, but it is becoming more and more implausible to deny that it occurred.  Since Clinton was an historically awful candidate, she would no doubt have contrived to lose the election all on her own, but pretty clearly laws were broken, and Robert Mueller will, I should imagine, prosecute a number of the members of Trump’s family, unless, as I expect, Trump intervenes and issues a raft of plenary pardons.  I rather doubt there could be revelations sufficiently awful to prod the Republican House to vote a bill of impeachment.  We shall have to wait and see.

The failure of Senate health care initiatives is splendid news, for two reasons.  First, it stops the Congress and President from doing terrible, terrible harm to tens of millions of people.  Second, it establishes the political truth that health care is now indeed the third rail of modern American politics, as Social Security once was.  [For the youthful among you, when subways powered by electricity were introduced, the trains ran on a pair of parallel rails through which no electricity flowed.  The power was delivered by a third rail.  You could jump down onto the tracks and touch the first two rails with impunity, so long as you got back up before the next subway train ran over you, but if, when doing so, you touched the third rail, you got electrocuted.]  The third rail became first a metaphor and then a cliché for a legally established right or program it was political death to touch.

The Democrats, even those suicidally bent on resurrecting the Clintonian Democratic Leadership Council’s Third Way, have taken notice of the spontaneous upswelling of resistance to the Republican efforts to repeal the ACA and seem collectively to possess the wit to make opposition to those efforts the centerpiece of their 2018 campaign.  By one of those bizarre turns that makes politics so hard to predict, in the midst of this ground level resistance, Single Payer seems to be gaining support.

By the way, merely flying to Paris seems to have made it possible for me to squelch the tendency to view American politics as the natural center of the universe.  Very liberating.

Sunday, July 16, 2017


This will be an extended post, beginning with the personal and grandparental and ending in an extraordinary and really unforgivable bit if self-congratulation perhaps justifying an intervention or clinical help.  I apologize for this in advance, but have decided that the confessional has a place on the web.  Put it down, if you wish, to my advancing age.

My granddaughter Athena will be nine on the first of August, and I asked her mother for suggestions for appropriate presents.  Apparently on a recent family trip to Tokyo, Athena bought a little treasure box and has now begun a collection of objets d’art.  Could I find in Paris an appropriate addition to the collection?   I had not a clue, but went on a ramble in our Place Maubert neighborhood and ended up some while later in front of a shop at the end of our street called Avanti Musica which is stocked with all manner of little knick-knacks.  There I found what I hope will be the perfect gift, a decorated miniature treasure chest cum music box with a dancing ballerina.

Buying presents for my grandchildren is difficult because their doting parents have given them virtually everything that is both age appropriate and available.  Last December, faced with the same problem for Samuel, who was turning eleven, I decided that instead of asking his mother and father for guidance, I would give him a present that no one else in the world could give to him:  a copy of In Defense of Anarchism, inscribed by the author.  Now, I may be self-absorbed, but I am not yet totally dotty.  I had no thought that Samuel would welcome this present or even look at it.  But I wanted him to have some physical evidence that his grandfather was not just the old guy back East.  Perhaps in future years, even after I had passed away, he would be moved to read it.  I had the fantasy, I confess, that in nine or ten years, when he was in college, he would take a course in which the book was assigned, and could bring in his copy to show the professor.

When you have spent your entire adult life writing books and have arrived at the age of eighty-three, perhaps it is natural to wonder what it all amounts to.  Will anything you have written survive your death?  Is it all fated to blow away like autumn leaves?  I found myself thinking that perhaps this one little book, no more than an extended essay, would somehow manage to live, that it might even become, in a small and subsidiary way, a part of the canon of works in the Western tradition of political theory.

The works that have acquired that relative immortality are, in at least one way, quite similar:  although each book was written at a particular moment in reaction to a particular constellation of contemporary texts, it rises above that situational embeddedness by setting forth an argument that lays claim to universality.  No one anymore reads John Locke’s First Treatise on Civil Government, which, for those of you who have always wondered, is a devastating attack on Sir Robert Filmer’s defense of the divine right of kings.  At the time, Filmer’s position was widely held, but it very quickly was overtaken by history.  Locke’s Second Treatise, on the other hand, although manifestly a work of the late seventeenth century, is read to this day by every serious student of political theory.  The same is true of Rousseau’s Of the Social Contract and Mill’s On Liberty

Because of the peculiar circumstances under which In Defense of Anarchism was written, it contains almost no references to contemporary philosophical debates.  It is virtually devoid of scholarly footnotes and addresses a single fundamental philosophical question sub specie aeternitatis.  It could have been written two hundred years ago, not fifty-two, or indeed one hundred years from now.

Will it live?  I would like to think so.  In the nature of the case, I shan’t be around to find out, but perhaps eighty years from now, Samuel’s grandson will tell his old grandfather about a little book he has just read in college, and Samuel will take out a present from his grandfather and offer it to the young man for show and tell.

Saturday, July 15, 2017


Went to airport to fly to JFK, on the way to Paris.  After clearing security, had leisurely snack at 42nd Street Oyster House.  Strolled to gate.  Discovered flight to JFK was cancelled.  Panic.  Re-routed to direct London flight, then flight to Paris.  Major agita.  This would mean going through Heathrow, the world’s worst airport.  Got to Paris, went to baggage claim.  Waited.  Last bag came off flight.  Not ours.  More panic.  Went to baggage office.  Told by distracted young woman that our bags would arrive from Philadelphia.  Philadelphia?  What on earth were our bags doing in Philadelphia?  Took taxi to apartment, unencumbered by luggage.  Good news, everything worked.  Bad news, computer was in luggage.  Called.  Was told luggage would be delivered the next day.  Gave voice at other end the building code.  Was called next day, told luggage would arrive between one and five in the afternoon.  Waited.  Got a call.  Luggage would be delivered between five and nine p.m.  Got cranky.  Meanwhile, jets flew low overhead in Bastille Day display for Trump.  Considered emigrating to Canada.  Luggage arrived at 7:30.  Walked to Brasserie Balzar.  Assigned to table 37, my favorite.  Had a dozen snails.  Equanimity restored.  Bonjour Paris!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


I have sufficiently recovered from the shock of discovering that Donald J. Trump is following me to Paris so that I can, in the quiet of my comfortable office, make a stab at clarifying what I wrote about morality and state actions.  This exercise has helped me to come to a clearer realization that the point of view I was trying to articulate is nothing more than an elaboration or extension of the position I set forth more than half a century ago in my little tract, In Defense of Anarchism.  Say what you will, at least I am consistent.

Moral judgments, strictly understood, are appropriately made concerning the actions, intentions [and perhaps the characters] of persons.  Corporations are not persons [the United States Supreme Court to the contrary notwithstanding], armies are not persons, churches are not persons, fraternal organizations are not persons, animals are not persons [I exempt dogs from this judgment, of course], the environment is not a person, and most importantly for this discussion nation states are not persons.  Strictly speaking, no nation acts, and therefore it makes no sense, again strictly speaking, to judge that a nation’s acts have been moral or immoral, right or wrong, justified or unjustified.  People act, often claiming to act in the name of a nation, or by virtue of a position held in the government of a nation.  Almost impenetrable and unchallengeable mystifications conspire to make it seem as though nations or corporations or armies or churches are persons or possess personhood, that they, not the persons who occupy positions in them, act and can be judged to have acted rightly or wrongly.  But that appearance is always an illusion.

It makes perfectly good sense to make moral judgments about the actions of individuals, even those individuals who claim to have institutional authority by virtue of election, appointment, nomination and confirmation, divine election, or some other procedure supposedly conferring upon them rights not possessed by persons simpliciter, but those claim are always false.  Such persons may have what I called long ago de facto legitimate authority, but they never, ever have de jure legitimate authority.  That is to say, they may make those claims and succeed in getting them accepted by those against whom or with regard to whom they make the claims.  That can be described as conferring on them de facto legitimate authority.  But all such claims are always false, a fact which I try to express by the statement that no individual ever has de jure legitimate authority.

When a warplane belonging to the United States drops bombs on a battlefield area, destroying a field hospital, it is common to say that the United States has destroyed a field hospital.  People then argue about whether this act by the United States was morally justified or morally unjustified.  That is always a mystified and misleading way to speak.  The men and women flying the plane dropped the bombs, and they are morally responsible for doing so.  The men and women who ordered them to drop the bombs are morally responsible for issuing those orders.  The high command who ordered the bombing campaign are morally responsible for ordering that campaign.  The civilian individuals “in the chain of command” are morally responsible, as are all the individuals in the national administration who participated in the decision, including even the low level staffers who simply held the chairs for the big brass who sat at the table in the Situation Room.  The men and women who voted for the elected officials bear some moral responsibility.  And, most difficult of all to comprehend and acknowledge, so too do all the individual men and women who, by accepting the false claims of legitimate authority advanced by those claiming to possess authority by virtue of some process of election or appointment, strengthen those false claims and make it more likely that orders issued from on high will be obeyed all the way down to the men and women in the airplanes who actually press the buttons that cause the bombs to be dropped.

Almost four centuries ago, John Locke argued that the kings and queens of Europe were in a state of nature with one another because there was no social contract of nations analogous to the social contract of individuals about which he was writing.  This, and countless other writings over several millennia, have encouraged us to think of nations as super-persons, as it were, as unitary agents capable of making decisions and acting in ways that can be judged morally.  That is an illusion.  It was false when Locke wrote and it is false today.  America does not act, Google does not act, the Navy does not act, the Roman Catholic Church does not act, the NFL does not act, Ben and Jerry’s does not act [although of course Ben does and so does Jerry.]

If all this is true, as in fact it is, what then should each of us as an individual agent do?  Ah well, that is the real question, of course, but before we can address it, first we must clear away the illusions and mystifications of the state.  Then perhaps, as Portnoy’s analyst suggests in the very last line of the novel, we can begin.


At three p.m. today the taxi comes to take us to the airport.  Before then, I hope to write a reply to Jerry Fresia and others.  But this morning, I have learned truly disastrous news.  DONALD J. TRUMP IS GOING TO PARIS TODAY!!!!   As I was taught long ago by old Marxists, there are no accidents in history.  Obviously Trump is doing this to torture me.  I must think deeply and divine the true world-historical meaning of this conjuncture.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017


We fly off to Paris tomorrow for two weeks.  I shall blog from there as soon as we are settled in.  I want to try to clarify my post in response to Jerry Fresia, because I think, as so often happens, I did not make myself clear.  Perhaps I can do that tomorrow morning or later today.

Meanwhile, I am enjoying the discomfiture of Donald Jr.  I predict a plenary presidential pardon is in the offing.

Monday, July 10, 2017


I should like to spend a little time commenting on Jerry Fresia’s response to my North Korea story, and on a quite informative story in, the first of two to which he links.  Here is what Jerry says:

“Malcolm X insightfully noted more than half a century ago that if you read the newspaper everyday, you'll end up loving your enemies and hating your friends. A more modern version of that quip might be that if you get your news from the NYTs and MSNBC you'll live within the liberal bubble, not knowing diddly-squat about "our" official enemies.

To wit, check out these pieces on NK found in (can you imagine Rachel reporting thusly??) - all of which compels me to add, quoting Naomi Klein, that Trump is more a symptom of our malady and not the cause:

The article has a great deal of detailed information about long-range missiles in general and North Korea’s missile program in particular, a quick summary of which is that it will take much longer than popularly imagined for North Korea to develop reliable, usable Intermediate Range and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles [IRBMs and ICBMs].  But the ideological thrust of the story is what I wish to address today.  Rather than trying to summarize the article, I am going to assume that those of you who are interested have taken the time to read it.  I shall launch into my discussion with that assumption as a background.

Over the course of the last five thousand years, give or take a millennium, a number of states have sought and achieved imperial status, which we may describe as the successful exercise of significant influence and control beyond their national borders.  Many, but perhaps not all, have claimed the moral, religious, political, or racial high ground, representing themselves as deserving of their imperial sway by virtue of their superiority in one or more of these ways.  The Greeks characterized those speaking other languages as barbarians, initially a mnemonic characterization of the way other languages sounded to them [“bar bar bar”] but later a dismissal of other cultures as inferior.  Chinese rulers claimed the Mandate of Heaven.  The British manfully bore the White Man’s Burden.  The Soviets saw themselves as the avant garde of history.  And so forth.

Americans have long congratulated themselves in a similar fashion, describing their break-away slave state as the first nation in history created as the embodiment of an idea, the Idea of Freedom.  After the end of the Second World War, America appropriated the self-congratulatory title of Leader of the Free World, and went on to issue annual lists of nations that it judged to be failing to make suitable progress toward the successful imitation of The American Experiment.  In an eerie fashion, Donald J. Trump’s compulsive self-aggrandizing braggadocio is a natural extension of America’s claim to moral supremacy in the international arena.  Unreconstructed American patriots take all of this quite literally and either ignore or deny the overwhelming contrary evidence.  Enlightened liberals condemn America’s actions as a fall from grace and demand that the nation live up to its founding principles and ideals, thus granting the premise of the imperial rationalization.

I don’t imagine I have to spend any time explaining why I consider all of this arrant nonsense.  What interests me in the post is the fact that the successful claim of the moral and political high ground [successful in the descriptive sense of getting the claim accepted, grudgingly or not, by those to whom it is made] is a form of power quite as real and often quite as effective as military or economic power.  Insofar as America can present itself to the world as humanity’s moral arbiter, the embodiment of the ideal of democracy, a shining city upon a hill, a beacon held high to inspire those who are downtrodden but aspire to [American-style] democracy, it gains the capacity to shape world affairs in ways favorable to its interests.  This capacity is sometimes referred to as “soft power,” admiringly by those who value its effectiveness, dismissively by those who think to assert their manhood by valorizing weapons and uniformed soldiers.

But the power of successful claims of moral superiority is unlike military or economic power in one striking and significant way:  this power requires, for its effective exercise, that those wielding it actually believe the absurd claims they are making!  A gun, even a quite sophisticated model, does not come outfitted with an ideology.  It makes no claims, it just shoots when the trigger is pulled.   But I cannot think of a single imperial power whose rulers did not actually believe that they had the Mandate of Heaven, or bore the White Man’s Burden, or led a nation embodying The Idea of Freedom.

So, when American State Department officials or Presidents condemn North Korea as a rogue state, a sponsor of terrorism, a violator of UN dictates, a breaker of international agreements, while simultaneously ignoring America’s own sponsorship of terrorists, its repeated overthrow of democratically elected governments, its embrace of nations such as Israel whose nuclear weapons are a violation of the same United Nations regulations, part of their success in getting the world to take their condemnation seriously derives from their own belief in the supposed grounds of that condemnation.

There is nothing in the least unusual either in America’s claims or in the self-delusions of its leaders.  If America can get the world to take seriously its moral pretensions, that is a form of power quite as effective as [and rather more flexible in its deployment than] a carrier group sailing in the North China Sea.

I strongly recommend that we avoid the error of imagining that if we [I.e. America] have dirty hands then those whom the American government condemns must have clean hands.  I suggest that when it comes to nation states, we should forsake moral judgments and simply strive to understand as best we can what is happening or is likely to happen.  This is not to say that we should cease judging the world morally.  Not at all!  Each of us must choose what he or she believes right, which men and women are our comrades, as I have put it elsewhere.  We must be unrelenting in our efforts to advance what is good and combat what is evil. 

With regard to North Korea, which was the subject that provoked this post, it seems to me clear that it would be better if North Korea did not have nuclear weapons, just as it would be better if Israel did not have nuclear weapons, if India and Pakistan did not have nuclear weapons, if the United States and Russia and China and Great Britain and France did not have nuclear weapons.  It would be better if Iran were not to develop nuclear weapons.  There is simply no good argument for the existence of nuclear weapons.  But it does not surprise me in the slightest that the United States should portray North Korea’s development of missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons as a world-historical threat, nor does it surprise me that the American officials claiming that believe it themselves.  Insofar as they can get the rest of the world to believe that, they will have successfully deployed a certain measure of soft power in pursuit of America’s regional geopolitical aims.  Our time would be better spent debating whether we support or oppose America’s pursuit of those regional aims

Saturday, July 8, 2017


It is a quiet Saturday morning in this Continuing Care Retirement Community, or old people’s home, as I think of it, and a good time to respond to some recent comments.  First, I note with manifest pleasure Jerry Brown’s Trumpesque expression of the blessedness of reading my blog.  All groveling gratefully accepted.  [For those incapable of detecting irony in the absence of emoticons, this was not meant seriously.]

But on to more serious matters.  Anonymous writes as follows:  “I have some disagreements with your view on Trump and Russia that I was wondering if you could address. As you have discussed on here before, Chomsky has argued that the one decent policy to come out of the Trump administration (or sentiment) is Trump's desire to have better relations with Russia. He believes this because, even if Trump's campaign coordinated with the Russians in the 2016 election, such a relationship could avert a nuclear war between the two powers.

My concern with your view is this: even if we assume that Trump himself colluded with the Russian government in 2016 to win the Presidency, and even if Trump himself is under the control of Putin (a worst-case scenario), would this treasonous act not still be somewhat desired so as to avoid the very real threat of a US-Russia war which would result in nuclear catastrophe? Yes, treason is something to be taken seriously even in the formal democracy of the United States, but if this treason resulted in us avoiding a nuclear catastrophe, shouldn't we be at least hesitant to want Trump impeached (assuming that other figures/administrations would simply take the traditional, hostile stance towards Russia)?”

This is a very interesting and rather complex comment and question.  I shall try to address it as clearly as I can. But I should say at the outset that I am hindered by an inability to make really plausible estimates of the probabilities of the various dangers Anonymous refers to.  I cannot speak for Noam, of course, but I am somewhat doubtful that he can do much better in that regard, even though he is more knowledgeable than I.

First of all, if it is true that we now face a very serious threat of an American/Russian nuclear war, and if it is also true that Trump’s stance with regard to Russia materially reduces that threat, then there is a good argument for embracing Trumps’ Russia policy, such as it may be, as a very necessary evil.  A nuclear war would be so terrible that even if the price of avoiding it were the end of the American political system as we know it, or even the end of America’s independence as a nation, that would perhaps be a price worth paying.  I am not sure everyone these days understands just how civilization-endingly terrible a nuclear war would be.  Chomsky, of course, does.

My problem with Chomsky’s point of view, and hence with Anonymous’ question, is that I have serious doubts about the first of the premises and grave doubts, bordering on disbelief, about the second.  Let me take them in turn.

Ever since nuclear weapons were invented, there has been a great risk of accidental or unintended nuclear war and some risk, less I think, that a nuclear armed nation will deliberately initiate a nuclear war.  Short of the nuclear disarmament for which I argued and worked sixty years ago, preventing accidental or unintended nuclear war requires three things:  First, that the weapons systems be stable and well-protected [in hardened silos or on nuclear submarines] so that snap decisions do not have to be made about potential threats under conditions in which mistakes are easily possible;  Second, that each adversary possesses sufficient nuclear weapons to respond with unacceptable force [unacceptable to the opponent] to even a nation-destroying first strike;  and third, that both adversaries [or all, if there are more than two] make their aims and actions unambiguously clear, so that miscalculations, misunderstandings, and battlefield confusion are reduced to an absolute minimum.  These conditions have for the most part been met during the past half century in confrontations between The Soviet Union [afterwards Russia] and America, although there have been several terrifyingly close calls, most notably the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis [in which John F. Kennedy was the principal source of the danger, in my judgment.]  They are, I believe, met today, despite such provocative actions as the placement of weaponry in Eastern Europe by the United States and the annexation of Crimea and attempted annexation of Ukraine by Russia.  [I am not really interested in, and will not discuss, whether any of these actions was, in any sense, “justified.”]  In the absence of irrational or unpredictable actions on the part of the Americans or Russians, I do not think that the danger of nuclear war is greater now than it was five, ten, or fifteen years ago.  [I leave entirely to one side the confrontation between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, which has its own terrors and dangers].

Do I know these judgment to be true?  Good God, no.  How could I?  It is my best guess, and if Chomsky says that I am wrong, well, he may be right, but then again I may be right.

It is the second premise whose dubiousness really seems manifest to me.  Trump clearly has no idea at all what he is doing, either in domestic or in international affairs.  He has nothing remotely akin to a coherent policy, strategy, or point of view regarding Russia, and I see no sign that he will acquire one.  Of one thing I am certain:  characterizing the question as one of “having better relation with Russia” is entirely the wrong way to think about these matters.  International Relations is not relationship counseling.  Avoiding a nuclear war calls not for two men to like one another, or for them to get along, or for them to have “better relations,” and as for the relationship between two countries, all such language drawn from popular talk about interpersonal relationships is utterly irrelevant.  Avoiding a nuclear war between two nations neither of which seeks to have a nuclear war requires clarity, predictability, successful and reliable channels of communication, and rationality.

Putin is, in my utterly amateurish judgment, quite capable of behaving with self-interested rationality on the basis of clear, predictable, reliable channels of communication.  Trump is not, and in my guesstimate is just as likely to react irrationally toward Putin when they are BFFs as when they are sworn enemies.

For what it is worth, I judge that Pence would be more predictable, albeit equally despicable.

For these reasons, I am dubious about Chomsky’s expressed view concerning the relationship between Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia.

Friday, July 7, 2017


Well, Trump is sucking up to Putin and my back has stopped hurting so I think it is time to take stock.  The behavior of the President is so revolting, the actions of his Cabinet so randomly evil, the behavior of the Congressional and Senatorial Republicans so maliciously cruel that it is difficult to achieve any balanced perspective on the American political scene.  While I have been shelving books and putting up pictures, I have been turning over in my mind what I have read and seen on television lately.  The NYTIMES Op Ed piece by Penn and Stein served, like a train wreck, to concentrate my mind, and this morning during my daily walk I sorted through my thoughts.  Herewith, as best I am able, are the conclusions to which I came.

I begin with two facts that define the terrain on which political struggles are fought in America and circumscribes the realm of the possible.  First, a sizable fraction of the electorate, but by no means a majority, supports or can be brought to support progressive social and economic policies – policies that I think of as constituting enlightened welfare state capitalism.  Some fraction of that fraction is sympathetic to European style social democracy – strong labor unions, single payer health care, and the like – and a very much smaller fraction of that fraction of a fraction can actually contemplate collective ownership of the means of production without having an attack of the vapors.

Second, in round numbers, two-thirds of eligible voters vote in Presidential election years and one-third vote in off-year Congressional elections.

From these two facts I draw two conclusions, one depressing the other not so.  My first conclusion is that at least as things stand now, a robust progressive Social Democratic-style set of institutions and proposals has little or no chance of becoming the new normal, the accepted, unquestioned daily politics for which a majority will vote reflexively if nothing special is going on.  There are countries where that is indeed the norm, but America is not and is not likely to become one of them, at least in my lifetime [a short time span, admittedly.]

My second conclusion is that transient enthusiasms can have a considerable effect on the character of the government actually elected and the policies actually enacted.  With only a third of the electorate voting in off-years and two-thirds in Presidential years, intensity of preference, as rational choice theorists put it, actually makes a very great deal of difference in election outcomes.  The reason is simple: a passionate vote counts for no more than an indifferent one, but passionate voters are more likely to vote.

At the moment, for a variety of reasons, most of which have weird orange hair, the progressive fraction is more fired up than at any time I can recall, including the anti-war days of the Viet Nam era.  People are donating money, they are calling the offices of their Representatives and Senators, they are attending Town Halls, they are even volunteering to run for local public office.  This intensity of political expression and action began the day after the Inauguration, and it does not seem to be subsiding.

For these reasons, I think this is a moment, our moment, to translate the intensity on our side into some form of measurable political power.  A strong, uncompromising progressive program, strongly supportive of workers’ rights and especially union rights, a program calling for a federal minimum wage of at least $15/hr., for stringent controls of Wall Street, for higher taxes on the rich, for a trillion dollar infrastructure program --  all of that can win in  the present political climate.  Mind you, this moment will not last – no such moments do.  The coalition of actual voters making this possible will dissipate before very long, and we will have to fight endless rear-guard actions against those seeking to reverse what we have accomplished.  But I am convinced this is a moment when such programs, and the candidates who support them, can indeed win.

Clearly the touchstone issue, the mobilizer, is health care, so this is the moment when we should “defend” Obamacare by proposing to transform it into universal single payer health insurance.  We should make not merely the defense but the extension of health insurance the centerpiece of a comprehensive progressive program, and we should seek out candidates at every level who will embrace that proposal and run on it.

I believe that in 2018 the forces of reaction will be dispirited and will not turn out to vote.   Even if I am right, the moment will not last.  We must make the most of it.

Thursday, July 6, 2017


In the NY TIMES today, Mark Penn and Andrew Stein have an Op Ed column calling for the Democrats to shun the left-wing socialistic extremism of Sanders and Warren and return to the winning ways of Bill Clinton.  I am not going to summarize it.  You can read it here, if you have the stomach for it.

I think it is entirely possible that Hilary Clinton will make another run in 2020 [billed, no doubt, as her re-election campaign.]  Let us not be fooled.  Right now, the Clinton forces are the best organized, best funded, and most deeply embedded faction of the Democratic Party.  If progressives do not field a host of good candidates in 2018 and win a ton of races, we will see a replay of 2016.

If that happens, I can kiss progressive politics goodbye for as long as I figure to live.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017


For what it is worth, here is an apparently more knowledgeable discussion of the subject about which I blogged a little while ago.  This does not sound very hopeful, even if America were to pledge not to attack North Korea, as Chomsky has, I gather, suggested.  This is a scary world.  It is no satisfaction at all that I, along with many others, anticipated these sorts of problems more than half a century ago.  Saying "I told you so" as the bombs drop is right up there with Slim Pickens riding a nuke down in Dr. Strangelove  waving his hat like a bronco buster.


First of all, let us be very clear.  I do not read, write, or speak Korean.  Although one of my books has been translated into Korean, I know absolutely nothing about the country save what little I have read in English.  Even though I have spent eighty-three years in the United States, I often find it difficult to figure out what the American government is going to do.  So take what follows for what it is worth.

Newspaper reports paint Kim Jong-un as unstable and irrational and brutal, but not at all as self-destructive or self-defeating.  I am guessing he knows that if he launched a missile attack that hit any part of American soil [Alaska, if that is all he can reach -- who knows?] the result would be a nuclear response that would obliterate his country and result in his death.  Mind you, I do not know this, not at all.  I am guessing.  If what I have read is true [remember, everything I think I know, whether I learned it from CNN or Noam Chomsky, is second-hand and could quite possibly be wrong], a non-nuclear "limited" war between North Korea and South Korean and American forces would result in huge numbers of Korean deaths on both sides and a great many American deaths.

I seriously doubt that Donald J. Trump could find North Korea on a map with country labels attached, I am reasonably certain that he would not care in the slightest who got killed in a war, so long as his real estate holdings and brands were untouched.  I am extremely fearful that his tiny ego would become deeply engaged by any perceived slight from North Korea to his manhood or his magnificence.

There are extremely deeply rooted institutional obstacles to independent actions by the American military countermanding what they perceive as irrational orders from the Commander-in-Chief, but in the present circumstances I could imagine that saner heads in the Joint Chiefs would find ways to slow-walk such orders and even subvert them.  There is precedent for that during the Nixon presidency, I believe.

All of which, put together, is unsettling, to put it as calmly as I can.

Meanwhile, I am quite certain that the Trump Administration is right now doing great harm to the most vulnerable among us here in America, and will continue to do that at least until 2018 and probably until 2020.

From all of the above, I draw the simplest and most banal conclusion imaginable, namely that we must struggle to win back the House and even, God willing, the Senate, and that we must try to wrest from the Republicans the 1000 seats in State legislatures that slipped away while Obama floated above the fray with inimitable grace.  In short, I conclude that our only hope of a better future lies in banal, unexciting ordinary politics.

More anon.


We are at a perilous moment vis-a-vis North Korea.  I am not interested in apportioning blame, of which there is a great deal to go around.  That can come later.  None of us at this point can do anything other than hope that there is not a war, in which huge numbers of people would die.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017


On Sunday, I posted a brief essay in which I linked to a Nicholas Kristof column detailing some of the extraordinary gains that have been made in recent years in reducing starvation levels of poverty in the world, combating age-old scourges like leprosy, and making clean water available to those without it.  I suggested that these gains put into perspective the evils visited on us by the infantile narcissistic bully in the White House.  I was, I confess, somewhat surprised by the response of LFC, seconded by local details from S. Wallerstein.  “Before celebrating too much about the decline of extreme poverty, some things should be noted,” LFC wrote, citing, among other things, the fact that three-quarters of a billion [!] people remain in extreme poverty world-wide.  S. Wallerstein offered a few details about just how little “$1.90 a day” will actually buy in Santiago, Chile, where he lives.

As it happens, I agree with every single word both LFC and S. Wallerstein wrote, but I wondered, Why did they feel it necessary to write what they did?  To whom were their comments directed, and for what purpose?  I puzzled over this during my morning walk [to which I have returned after several days spent rehabilitating my aching and aging back] and here is what I have come up with.

There are two very different standpoints from which one can view the world: as passive, though interested, observer, and as engaged activist.  The observer and the activist have the same information available to them [although the activist may have a wealth of particular and intimate detail about one problem or region of the world that the observer lacks], but their orientation to that information is quite different.  Compare the point of view of an aid worker who spends years in the field working to reduce the extreme poverty of the men, women, and children in one village in Africa with the point of view of one of us reading Kristof’s column.  The aid worker, we may suppose, spends ten or twelve hours a day helping the people in the village to dig wells that yield clean water, teaching more productive ways of using their desperately meagre resources to increase crop yields, calling in assistance from a network of city lawyers to fight the exploitation of local landlords.  She does this not for a week, or even for a month but for years on end.  A new well is a victory, an expansion of the crop yields a triumph, one court victory against a rapacious landlord, after a series of disheartening defeats, a cause for celebration.  She is perpetually aware of how small her victories are when measured against the appalling misery and poverty in the midst of which she lives and works.  But she is a human being, not a balance sheet, and she must take heart from every advance, no matter how small, if she is to keep at her work and draw emotional sustenance from it.  For her, the Kristof column is a reassurance that she is not alone, that her work, along with that of so many others, is having a measurable impact on the world’s poorest and most powerless people.

The observer contemplates the world equanimously and with admirable balance, ever on the alert for false voices saying the crisis is over, the worst is behind us, we may relax our efforts and pursue our comfortable lives untroubled by the misery of others.  To the observer, who is, after all, not actually doing anything about poverty, or leprosy, or unsafe water, save perhaps casting a vote every two years and donating a bit of money now and again to Doctors Without Borders, the moral high ground is seized by those whose condemnation of evil is unrelenting and every positive report is rejected as a self-serving invitation to inaction.  Any celebration of progress is viewed as a form of moral back-sliding, of that worst of all political sins, moderation.  To the observer, the Kristof column sounds suspiciously like the self-satisfaction of a Clintonian.

Let me speak personally for a moment.  I have done precious little in my life save offer opinions, and thanks to certain oddities of the mid-Twentieth Century American Academy, the more extreme the opinions I expressed, the more my salary went up.  But I did after all actually do something besides offer opinions – for twenty-five years I raised bits of money to help poor Black young men and women to attend historically Black universities in South Africa.  The amounts were trivial -- $40,000 in a good year – but thanks to the exchange rate, it was enough to enable fifty or sixty young people each year to pay the portion of tuition due at registration, thereby making them eligible for government funded loans.  I was painfully aware that my bursary recipients were so few in number that my efforts did not even cause a blip in the South African university enrolment figures, but when I met the students on my annual visits, I drew encouragement and strength in my effort from their excitement, energy, and youthful enthusiasm.  I even received a cherished award after all those years in the form of an honorary degree from the University of the Western Cape, conferred on me by the titular Chancellor of the university, Archbishop Desmond Tutu himself!

Had someone sought to throw cold water on my excited reports of my trips to South Africa, pointing out to me that my efforts had failed to correct the deep-rooted educational inequities in South Africa, my response would have been that the comment entirely missed the point.  I needed any encouragement I could muster to keep at the effort for a quarter of a century, long after the novelty had worn off and the attention of lefties like myself had moved on to other inequities, other needs, other peoples.

So I should like to suggest that we allow ourselves to rejoice in Kristof’s statistics.  The magnitude of the improvement in human life summarized by those statistics is enormous.  Save the cavils and cautionary reminders for those who take Kristof’s column as an excuse for inaction.

Sunday, July 2, 2017


Two columns in the NY TIMES this morning, combined with my son Patrick’s account of a recent family trip to Tokyo, give me a striking and somewhat counterintuitive picture of the way of the world, a picture that does not bode well for America in the decades ahead.

The first column, by Nicholas Kristof, chronicles the dramatic improvement in the health and living conditions of the poorest hundreds of millions of men, women, and children in the world.  Since 1985, Kristof tells us, the incidence of leprosy, an age-old scourge of the poor and malnourished, has been reduced by 97%, and may be reduced effectively to zero by 2020.  Kristof writes, “There has been a stunning decline in extreme poverty, defined as less than about $2 per person per day, adjusted for inflation. For most of history, probably more than 90 percent of the world population lived in extreme poverty, plunging to fewer than 10 percent today.  Every day, another 250,000 people graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures. About 300,000 get electricity for the first time. Some 285,000 get their first access to clean drinking water…Family planning leads parents to have fewer babies and invest more in each. The number of global war deaths is far below what it was in the 1950s through the 1990s, let alone the murderous 1930s and ’40s.”

These figures are staggering.  If one believes, as I do, that each human life has the same worth, and that one person’s pain or suffering ought to count for as much in the universal felicific calculus as another’s, then the sheer magnitude of these improvements swamps those bad things currently being done to and by Americans that I and many others obsess over.  One does not have to be a Polyanna, not even a Tigger, to celebrate the fact that every day 285,000 people get access to clean drinking water for the first time.

The second column I read this morning is by the always interesting Frank Bruni, a lament to the increasing unlivability of his beloved New York City.  Bruni writes sadly, angrily, of the congestion in the subways, of the breakdown of the city’s infrastructure, of the eternal political antagonism between the mayor and the governor.  When I grew up in New York, seventy years ago, it was a manageable city, a human city, a city where a boy from a lower middle class family in Queens could ride the IND line to Manhattan and explore.  Later, in the 60’s, when I returned to teach at Columbia, things had become a good deal worse, especially for the shrinking working class population.  Bruni’s column suggests that the New York to which I shall be returning this Fall as a member of Columbia’s Society of Senior Scholars has become unmanageable for all but the very rich, who wall themselves off from the quotidian life of what was, and perhaps still is, America’s premier metropolis.

Patrick’s description of Tokyo –vast, modern, new, as active below street level as it is above – offered me an image of what New York might have been, had the necessary public expenditures been made over the decades to repair, replace, and expand the public spaces.  The only great city with which I am intimately familiar now is Paris, and though it is not a Tokyo, new, gleaming, utterly modern, yet it remains a thoroughly human city where one can enjoy the delights of an urban existence.

What lessons do I learn from these two columns and Patrick’s travelogue?  The first, as you might expect, is that Marx was right.  Capitalism is and remains the most revolutionary force ever unleashed on the human world, revolutionary both for ill and for good.  As Bruni writes, “For most of history, probably more than 90 percent of the world population lived in extreme poverty, plunging to fewer than 10 percent today.”  It is capitalism that accomplished this.  Marx was not a Luddite.  As he observed in a famous passage in the Manifesto,  “[T]he bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.”  [Compare this with the following remark by Sherlock Holmes:  “It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”] 

Socialism, when it comes at long last, will conquer the hideous inequality of capitalism, but the groundwork, as it were, will have been done by capitalism’s destruction of feudalism and slavery.  We may allow ourselves to dream, with Leon Trotsky, that under socialism, “[m]an will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”  [The great concluding lines of Literature and Revolution.]

The second lesson I learn from today’s proof texts and Patrick’s report is that in this century, it will not be America that leads the way to a better world.  America is very wealthy, if one aggregates rather than averages, and it is and will remain the one great military superpower, but for all that, the rest of the world may simply pass us by, so that we become an immensely rich, unimaginably powerful backwater.  The evidence suggests that our universities will continue to be the Mecca for graduate students in many disciplines, but those coming will prepare themselves for substandard living conditions, as American students traveling abroad did when I was young.  Large regions of our nation will wear virtual warning signs, “Proceed at your own risk!  The natives are poor, nasty, brutish, and short on human decency.”

Well, I seem to be in a dyspeptic mood today.  A Trump presidency will do that to you.

Saturday, July 1, 2017


When I was a boy, I lived in a tiny row house in the new development of Kew Gardens Hills in Queens, New York.  One day, my father and I rode by bus to the Jamaica Public Library where I checked out, on my father’s card, a fat, stubby book containing all four novels and fifty-six stories chronicling the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  I was enthralled, and the next Christmas, my parents gave me my very own copy, which I read and re-read until the cover frayed.  I even joined an association of Sherlock Holmes fans called The Baker Street Irregulars and every three months received their journal, filled with faux scholarly articles about disputed minutiae of the life of the great detective.  Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Holmes stories, aspired to a more distinguished career than scribbler of lowbrow detective fiction, but the popularity of the stories trapped him.  Finally, in 1893, he could stand it no longer and contrived to kill off his hero in the famous Reichenbach Falls finale of The Final Problem.  Conan Doyle was rewarded nine years later with the coveted knighthood, becoming for all time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Like his musical contemporary, Arthur Sullivan, his aspiration to the higher reaches of art had been rewarded by a tap on the shoulder and elevation to the peerage.  But the Holmes fans, who were legion, would not leave poor Sir Arthur alone, and in 1903, with a contrivance that would make a modern soap opera writer blush, he brought Holmes back from the dead in The Adventure of the Empty House.

I have been absent from these pages for only two weeks, not ten years, my time completely occupied by moving, if not to an empty house, at least to an empty apartment.  But the worst of the move is now behind me, thanks to the efforts of my son, Tobias, and my wife’s grandsons, Noah and Ezra, who gathered here two days ago to unpack my books and put them on the shelves in alphabetical order.  Although there are still many pictures to be hung [including one large canvas of abstract blue splotches which my wife and I agree looks better horizontal than the intended vertical], I am sufficiently settled in to return to my daily animadversions against the contemporary scene. 

As I anticipated, the world took no notice of my absence.  The two most notable political developments in the interim were the regrettable loss of Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District and the apparent inability of the Senate Republicans to complete the medical evisceration of the poor.  The second, which gives us reason to hope, is far more important than the first, for all the attention the by-election received.  With the soupçon of Tiggrish optimism I have managed to recapture during my absence from blogging, I allow myself to adopt the happy view that this and other by-elections portend big losses for the Republicans in the 2016 Congressional elections.  If we can produce the same magnitude of shift from Republicans to Democrats in three dozen CDs around the country, we will put paid to Paul Ryan’s Ayn Randesque adolescent fantasies.

Far more troubling is the increasing evidence of the profound mental instability of the President.  Rather than speculate on what the future holds, I will refer you to this recent analysis by my son, Tobias, who thinks more deeply and passionately about current political affairs than I can manage.

To be brutally honest, I am deeply fearful that Trump will act impulsively and dangerously on the international scene, moved in his infantile narcissistic way by an imagined slight.  We must ask seriously whether the senior military would collectively refuse to obey an irrationally self-destructive order coming from the Oval Office.

In His Last Bow, published on the eve of World War I, Holmes says to Watson, “There’s an east wind coming, Watson." Watson misinterprets the meaning of the words and says, "I think not, Holmes. It is very warm."
"Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared."
That was a simpler age, and neither Conan Doyle nor his readers could anticipate the horrors of Dachau and Buchenwald, of Dresden and Hiroshima and Nagasaki that lay not too far in the future.  Would that I could write with such sublime confidence of our own cold east wind.