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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

Saturday, December 16, 2017


The Editorial Board of USA TODAY has been basking in the praise it has received for writing, “A president who would all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a whore is not fit to clean the toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library or to shine the shoes of George W. Bush.”  I am all for condemnations of Trump, but when I read that editorial opinion, I found a thought coming unbidden to my mind. 

There will be toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library when it gets built.  Someone will have the job of cleaning them.  In Chicago, where the library will be located, I believe, that person will almost certainly be a Black man or woman, getting about as little pay as the law currently allows in Illinois.  If George W. Bush wears shoes that will take a shine, he may choose to have them shined, in which case that job, in Texas, will probably be done by a Latino man or woman.  There are tens of millions of men and women in America who are doing these and similar jobs for very little money.  They are decent, hard-working men and women who would, I am sure, like a raise, and my guess is that many of them take a certain pride in doing well the jobs they have.  The much-praised one-liner from USA TODAY clearly implies that only a low-type person would have one of those jobs, and Trump is not even that low – he is lower.  No one, after all, would think to write, “A president who would all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a whore is not fit to perform brain surgery on Barack Obama or write a legal brief for George W. Bush.”

If we want to craft a progressive politics for the future, we might start right there.


Anonymous said...

Capitalism, such a boon for humanity.

We have a president who might be fit, at least, to write for USA Today.

s. wallerstein said...

Very insulting to people who do low paying jobs.

If someone were to make a remark as sexist as that remark is classist, the outrage would be overwhelming.

In Chile, hardly a paradise free of class prejudices, no one could say that publicly (they could say that privately in certain rightwing circles, to be sure) and get away with it. Such a remark would be immediately condemned, somewhat hypocritically, by the left, by the center and even by the right. Still, the limits of what you can say publicly communicate something about a society's values.

The report of the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights shows that the U.S. is turning into or has turned into a land where the poor don't count as human beings, not even in the rhetoric of newspaper editorials.

Charles Pigden said...

Well said Professor Wolff.

However, this is not to say that for a a high-status person to clean the toilets would not be a (for them) a severe punishment. I have often wondered about sentencing wealthy wrong-doers to what might be called class-death. Rather than sticking them jail, how about reducing them to the living standard of, say, somebody on the thirtieth percentile. We could be generous about it. They could get a small house in some midwestern state and a small pension plus reasonable health-benefits. They would be allowed to supplement their income by working but not for a wage over a certain small sum and not in any managerial or consultative capacity. (They would be slinging hash at McDonald's or perhaps working as a teacher's aide at a primary school.) Any attempt to help them on the part of former friends would also be punishable by class-death. And of course the state could confiscate their assets to be used for the public good.

Ed Barreras said...

Good point. I usually take mental note of this kind of thing when it’s fast-food workers being disparaged. But this entirely slipped my attention.

I do think, though, that there’s something inherently degrading about being the person charged with dealing with human excrement. No one wants to draw that straw. The only way to mitigate that degradation, it seems, is to insist that everyone share the responsibilty or else (the solution more congenial to capitalism) to pay the job for what it’s “worth.” Consider nurses, who also clean toilets, basically (among their other responsiblities), but who are well-paid and held in relatively high esteem.

s. wallerstein said...

Ed Barreras,

Many years ago I worked for an agency which sent me to the home of severely "disabled" (I know that is no longer the correct word, but sorry, I don't know what the word used now is) people, and I had to deal with their excrements. I didn't find that degrading at all. I know that I sound preachy but I would find it a lot more degrading to work for a company which pushes cigarettes or for the Pentagon or for the CIA or even as a Wall St. trader. It was good honest work helping others and there is never anything degrading about that. End of sermon.

By the way, I was not especially well paid for that job.

David Palmeter said...

My immediate reaction on reading the article was amazement that “MacPaper,” USA Today, would write such an editorial. I saw it as a very positive development, adding significantly to the growing opposition to Trump. It took a few moments or the other point to sink in: someone has to clean toilets and it disparages them to compare them to Trump.

My reaction to this point is visceral. My father worked on an assembly line in a typewriter factory. A couple of years after WWII ended, the workers went on strike. (There were a lot of strikes at that time as workers sought to make up for the wage controls imposed during the War.)
My father supported the strike, but still needed to feed the family, so he got a job digging ditches--literally--for the local Water Board. There were no backhoes in those days; it was pick and shovel. Every day my mother would make his lunch and I would take it to him--it was a small town and not far for a kid to walk.

Seventy years later, I can see him sitting on the side of the ditch they were digging, taking a big swig of water, and eating the sandwich I brought. The lesson from that that has stuck with me all these years is that any honest work is an honorable undertaking. To refer to a President who isn’t among the most loved by this blog, Bill Clinton said something to the effect that people who work hard and play by the rules shouldn’t live in poverty in this country. They shouldn’t be disparaged by the work they do either.

Jerry Fresia said...

Excellent comment.

The editorial reveals just how much classism is part of the social fabric. Notice how the "me too" movement accepts that exploitation of women when that exploitation is the exploitation of labor.

Amarnath said...

David Palmeter,

Your dad taught you a lesson (without words) that stayed with you all your life.
Similar event in my life.
When I was about six (1954) we moved to a Air Force base, near Hydrabad,India. My father and I went to a grocery store and my father purchased a month's supply. The owner of the store was very pleased and to show his gratitude, he held his right palm supported by the left hand. On the palm was perched a full packet of cigarettes (in those days all men, particularly military personnel smoked) and on top of it a match box. My father politely refused and I still remember that. I was never tempted in my whole life.

Ed Barreras said...

S. Wallerstein,

I would say the degradation most of us would experience at being forced (through economic necessity or otherwise) to clean other peoples’ shit has to do with factors that are biologically based, immediate, and visceral.

Then again, we tend to admire doctors for their ability to embody a clinical, scientific detachment from the often-disgusting realities of biology. The body is a machine and doctors are its mechanics.

Interesting, too, that we tend hold in high esteem the professions that deal with sick peoples’ excrement, though the person who cleans up healthy peoples’ poop in a restaurant is considered the very bottom of the labor/social totem pole. Somehow the caretaker function serves as a mitigating factor. Yet I can’t see any rational reason why it should be so.

s. wallerstein said...

Ed Barreras,

You jump from the fact that there are biological mechanism which produce disgust in all of us when we are confronted with other peoples' shit to the idea that we find it degrading to clean other peoples' shit. That I find other peoples' shit disgusting does not necessarily imply that I find it degrading to clean it.

What I find degrading in work situations is being ordered around, having to smile at the boss's stupid jokes, not being able to counter the boss's stupid political opinions and having to do things that go against my ethical options, for example,
in my case as a translator, having to translate things which contain ideas which I find

Ed Barreras said...

Perhaps I didn’t make myself sufficiently clear, but I agree with you. My point was that while most of us would think it’s degrading to dispose of other peoples’ shit, that sense of degradation is highly dependent on our attitudes and on social context. Janitors, for example, aren’t usually held in high regard; and it’s common to hear the fact that they’re laborers charged with cleaning toilets cited as the reason they *shouldn’t* be held in high regard. (Thus, the president “isn’t fit to clean toilets”, meaning, he’s even lowlier than a janitor). On the other hand, nurses are held in high regard, yet they too deal with other people’s excrement. So what gets cited as a marker of the janitor’s low station (i.e., his cleaning toilets), is overlooked in the case of nurses. As I said, this is irrational.

s. wallerstein said...

Ed Barreras,

Ok, we agree. It's nice to agree with you for once.

Have a good day!

We're voting today in Chile in the run-off presidential election. I voted for Guillier,
the more progressive option, although hardly as leftist as the candidate I voted for in the first-round, Beatriz Sanchez. The rightwing candidate is billionaire Sebastian Piñera. There are no polls published two weeks before the election and the race seems so close that no one dares to predict the results. It depends on the turn-out: if few people vote, Piñera will probably win since the wealthy and upper middle class generally always vote.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...


Matthew Kramer said...

During the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Cornell in 1979, I worked every weekday morning as a janitor in one of the main dormitories. My principal responsibility in that role was the cleaning of toilets. I excelled in that task -- the chief prerequisite of which is an absence of squeamishness -- and I took pride in my proficiency at it.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Professor Kramer, welcome to the blog.

Henry said...

No one has commented on the respect that USA Today's editorial gave to war criminal and torturer George W. Bush. Bush did far more evil than Trump has done so far. I recognize Trump's potential to outdo Bush, but he hasn't yet.

Felicia Nimue Ackerman said...

Denigrating Donald Rump by saying he isn't fit to clean toilets or shine shoes implies that those jobs don't require much in the way of good traits. It doesn't imply that "only a low-type person would have one of those jobs," just that those jobs don't require the exercise of the worker's higher traits. But this implication is false, since those jobs require perseverance. I endorse the obvious points that those jobs are honorable, that people who do them deserve respect, and that Donald Rump does not. The poem below is a revised version of one that first appeared in Options Magazine.

Evil, stubborn, prone to grump,
That's my view of Donald Trump.
Has he virtues that I've missed?
Here's a comprehensive list: