Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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, September 24, 2018

A PUZZLEMENT


There is something that has puzzled me for quite some time, and perhaps a reader with genuine legal knowledge can help me out.  It is established that the Trump campaign was approached with the offer of material from the Russian government detrimental to Hillary Clinton and her campaign, and that senior members of the campaign, including the campaign chair, agreed to meet for the purpose of discussing this offer.

Leave aside everything else, including whether the Russians actually possessed such material.  Why are those facts, as they stand, not evidence of a conspiracy between the Russians and the Trump campaign to affect the election?

I TOLD YOU SO

And so the evidence emerges of other Kavanaugh incidents, just as I [and the rest of the civilized world] predicted.  It is really worth reading this New Yorker story by Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow.  It seems that Kavanaugh's drunken and sexually aggressive behavior was well known to fellow Yalies and was the topic of contemporaneous email chatter.

Hardly a surprise.

Now the always eager Michael Avenatti announces that he has, as a client, yet a third woman with a Kavanaugh story to tell.

I think we may yet defeat Kavanaugh.  Whether McConnell can railroad through a substitute nominee before the new Congress is sworn in remains to be seen, but if he cannot, and if the Democrats can retake the Senate, then Chief Justice Roberts can preside over an eight-person court until 2020.

Fair is fair.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

THIS IS UNSPEAKABLE

Read this.  The world is unspeakable.

GETTING OLD

Once again, I found a five hour stint driving to the meetup place, canvassing, and driving home very tiring, but it was well worth it.  The candidate himself was there to start us off, as well as his mother, and his grade school teacher.  All politics is local.  Six weeks to go.

Meanwhile, I am beginning to believe that Kavanaugh will not make it to the High Court.  If we can take back the Senate, we can hold the seat open for two years until the 2020 election.

This is beginning to feel like the Sixties.  Social and political forces are moving underneath us in ways that are hard to predict.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

DOING MY BIT

I am off in a ninety minutes to spend five hours canvassing for Ryan Watts here in the NC 6th.  Actually, the canvassing will only take three hours, but I live at the eastern end of the 6th and we are doing our door-to-door in Greensboro, at the western end, so it will take me an hour to get  there and an hour to get home.

Meanwhile, all hell is breaking loose at the national level.  I think if Dr. Blasey Ford testifies on camera, Kavanaugh will go down.  As for Rosenstein, the fact that Trump has not summarily fired him says a good deal about how vulnerable Trump is.

With all of this going on, I am preparing to lecture on Tuesday about the ideological significance of linear homogeneous functions.  How weird is that?

Friday, September 21, 2018

A SERIOUS CONSIDERATION OF THE KAVANAGH MATTER


Enough of court packing fantasies.  Let me try to think through the probable consequences of Brett Kavanagh’s confirmation.

Very quickly after that confirmation, a case would come before the High Court that would result either in the overturning of Roe v. Wade or in a restriction of its application so severe as to constitute de facto reversal.  [At this point I proceed without any real legal knowledge, so the reader should be wary of my conclusions.]   This would not make abortion illegal in the United States.  It would simply leave in place and once again in force existing state anti-abortion laws.  In many states, encompassing, I believe, a majority of the population, abortion would be legal.  There would be some pro-abortion states [Massachusetts?] in which anti-abortion laws that had never been reversed but had simply been overruled by Roe would suddenly once again become state law, and would have to be removed by state legislative action.  There would be anti-abortion states where laws designed to make abortion impossibly difficult to obtain would be replaced by outright prohibitions.  The issue of abortion would become the determinative factor in struggles for control of state legislatures.  There would be an attempt in Congress to pass a federal prohibition on abortion, and although it would be expected to be upheld by the Supreme Court, it would, I believe, fail to get the necessary votes.

Thus on the issue of abortion, America would become two nations under one flag.

But that would not be the end of it.  Middle class and upper middle class women in anti-abortion states desiring an abortion would have the option of traveling to abortion-legal states, where they could obtain an abortion safely, legally, and privately from a health clinic.  This would of course include the wives and daughters of publicly anti-abortion male politicians.  The overturning of Roe would affect most immediately the tens of millions of women whose economic circumstances made such private medical trips prohibitive or whose understanding of the medical realities and available options was limited by their education and the nature of their medical care and insurance.

This would be a cruel, hypocritical, and in my judgment unsustainable state of affairs.  But I think it is almost certainly the state of affairs we would see come to pass if Kavanagh were confirmed.

Will he be confirmed?  I don’t know.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

THERMONUCLEAR OPTIONS

If Kavanagh is confirmed, the political fallout may cost the Republicans some House seats, and even control of the Senate.  But the possible consequences, not only for reproductive rights but also for the environment and any hope of a rebirth of unions would likely be catastrophic, for a good deal longer than I for one can hope to live.

There is an alternative, other than the States' Rights option discussed here a while back.  A simple majority in both houses plus the presidency is sufficient to alter the size of the court.  Congress has done this six or seven times in the past, although not in the 20th or 21st centuries.

The time has come to think about serious steps, of the sort that senior Democrats are quite obviously unwilling to consider.

DISTURBING NEWS

A friend tells me reliably that Winnie the Pooh has been banned in China.  It seems someone noticed a resemblance between President Xi Jinping and the lovable bear and posted several comparison pictures online, which went viral.  This fundamentally changes my view of the Chinese government.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

SAD NEWS

I have just learned, from David Auerbach, that Sylvain Bromberger has died.  Sylvain was an old, old friend from my Harvard graduate school days, and we were then briefly colleagues at the University of Chicago from 1961-63.  He spent most of his career at MIT.  Not too long ago, when I gave a talk at MIT, we reconnected briefly.  I have lovely memories of Sylvain, who was universally not only admired for his intelligence but loved as a human being.  A little later on, I will write something of my memories of him.  Sylvain was 94 when he passed away.

Monday, September 17, 2018

A QUESTION FROM A CONCERNED FATHER

Donald Trump has a great deal of money.  This has enabled him to give Don Jr. a good life, even though young Trump is clearly brain-damaged.  But couldn't the father have at least found an orthodontist who could do something about those front teeth?

WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?

Yesterday, a quiet Sunday, hits on this blog went from their usual roughly 1000-1200 a day to 10,280!  Does anyone know what happened?  Is my secret name Christine Blasey Ford?

I BELIEVE

1.  Brett Kavanagh did in fact do, as a seventeen year old prep school student, what he is accused of having done.

2.  He did not do this sort of thing just once.  Men who do this do it again.

3.  Sooner or later, another woman will surface with her story.

I have absolutely no knowledge of the matter.  We shall see.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

A RESPONSE TO SOME COMMENTS

There has been extended comment here concerning Marx's Labor Theory of Value.  This is a subject on which I have written extensively over many years, and I am not going to repeat myself here, but interested readers who are prepared to deal with some serious mathematics are invited to follow the link at  the top of this blog to box.net and there to find my paper, "A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx's Labor Theory of Value."  Those somewhat put off by math can read Understanding Marx for a primer.

By the way, Marx's claim that there is a tendency for the rate of profit to fall has been refuted mathematically, first by Okishio and then by Sam Bowles.

If I may summarize twenty years of work in a sentence, Marx was right that Capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class but wrong that the key to proving this is the distinction between labor and labor power.

SERIOUSLY IMPORTANT

The journalist David Leonhardt has this Op Ed in the NY TIMES this morning.  It is, I think, one of the most important and insightful pieces I have read in a very long time.  Here is just one fact cited by Leonhardt that stood out for me.  The official unemployment rate in the United States is currently just below 4%.  But the percentage of men age 25-54 who are not employed is slightly below 15%.

Think about that fact.  In an economy as close to official full employment as you are ever likely to see, 15% of adult men in prime wage earning years are unemployed, and two thirds of them do not even show up in the topline unemployment figures because they have simply given up looking for work.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics experts know this, of course.  Their work is the source of the figures Leonhardt cites.  But virtually none of the public discussions of economic affairs mention these figures, nor do these facts play any role in policy debates in Washington.

Why don't these men [and women, of course] show up in the official unemployment figures?  Because those figures are generated by monthly household sampling conducted by the BLS, whose employees ask, as they go door to door, "Are you now employed full time or part time?  If you are not employed, have you looked for work in the last month [or, in some surveys, two months]?"

If the answer to the first question is "no" and to the second question is "yes," the person is counted as unemployed.  But if the answer to both questions is "no," the person is not counted.  That person is considered not to be in the labor force.

If you think about this simple set of facts for a moment, much of contemporary politics makes much more sense.

CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE


Some of you may recall Whiplash, a 2014 movie about a brutally demanding music instructor and a promising young drummer.  The movie won an Oscar for J. K. Simmons, an old, familiar character actor who plays the instructor.  Currently, the Farmers Insurance Company is running a series of ads featuring Simmons, with the tagline, “We know a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two.” 

One of Farmers’ competitors is Progressive Insurance, famous in the ad world for a series of commercials featuring Flo, a character played in countless ads by actress Stephanie Courtney.  Flo has become as famous as the GEICO gecko, a cartoon character with a Cockney accent advertising yet a third insurance company.

In the most recent Progressive Insurance ad, a group of salespeople are rehearsing a commercial song under the direction of a choral conductor who, in a brilliant bit of interior homage, imitates the character played by J. K. Simmons in Whiplash.

The idea of doing an advert sendup of the character played in the movies by the actor now making competing ads is, in my opinion, absolutely brilliant.  I have no idea who in the ad company working for Progressive had the idea, but he or she should get a Clio [the ad world’s Oscar.]

How can I be so sure the ad was the idea of a single ad writer, and not the product of a committee?  Because it is a really good idea, and I know a thing or two about really good ideas because I’ve had a really good idea or two.

Friday, September 14, 2018

HURRICANE MUSINGS


As you can imagine, much of my attention is focused on the progress of the hurricane that is now swamping the coastal regions of North Carolina.  We should be in no danger here, but the rain will be very heavy, and I am hoping I can fly out next Tuesday to teach my Columbia class.

At the start of my last lecture, before launching into my discussion of Marx’s analysis of the mystifications of capitalism, which involved, among other things, an extended contrast between a Catholic church and a supermarket, I suggested to the students that for their mid-semester essay, they might consider attempting a demystification of their experiences as Columbia undergraduates.

I have gathered some data that I shall present to them next Tuesday, by way of assistance, should they choose that topic to write on.  [Yes, I realize some of them may be reading this blog.  Such is life.]

Here are the facts I gathered.

This is the fiftieth anniversary of the great Columbia student uprising, which occurred while I was teaching there.  In 1968, Columbia tuition was $1900 a year.  Using an online Consumer Price Index calculator, which I shall introduce them to, I find that $1900 in 1968 is the equivalent of $13,650 in 2018.

In 1968, the minimum wage was $1.60/hr.  If a student worked all summer, for 16 weeks, 40 hours a week at a minimum wage job, he [there were no female Columbia undergraduates then] could earn $1024.  With a term time part-time job, fifteen hours a week, he could make another $768.  In short, it was possible in 1968, albeit hard, to work your way through Columbia and graduate without a burden of student debt.

But Columbia tuition is not currently $13,650.  It was, last year, $57,208.  If a student were to find a $10/hr job, above minimum wage, he or she [big improvement] would have to work 5,720 hours to earn tuition for the year, or 110 hours a week year round, clearly impossible.

Two important data points:  First, the Columbia education in 1968 was quite as good as the Columbia education in 2018.  Second, faculty salaries have risen only slightly faster than inflation – in 1968, I was a senior professor making $19,000/yr, which in 2018 dollars is $136,500, and although that is probably low for a senior professor’s salary today, it is not very low.

So:  Here are three facts to demystify:

1.         You could work your way through Columbia without student debt in 1968, but not in 2018.

2.         The education has not gotten noticeably better in fifty years.

3.         The professors are not paid dramatically more in constant dollars.

Question:  How come?

Hint:  In 1968, the students seized the administration building.  In 2018, 30% of graduating seniors go into investment banking.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

BRIEF UPDATE


Another trip to New York to teach at Columbia.  Once again, I stayed over at Union Theological Seminary.  [No jokes, please.  They have cheap barebones rooms a block from the campus.]  Needless to say, I monitored the hurricane, and continue to do so.  We will get, at the very least, an enormous amount of rain.  

I am beginning to get the feel of this gig.  It does not feel like a trip so much as a commute.  Eleven more classes, reaching into December.

Meanwhile, this Saturday’s door to door canvassing for Ryan Watts has been postponed, thanks to the impending hurricane.  I shall post so long as there is power.

Monday, September 10, 2018

A TERRIFIC TAKE ON THE ANONYMOUS OP ED

This morning I came across this essay, by Patricia Roberts Miller of UC Berkeley, on the identity of the author of the NY TIMES anonymous Op Ed.  I recommend it.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

THE PASSAGE OF TIME


I have been blogging for somewhat more than nine years, during which time I have written a staggering number of words for The Philosopher’s Stone.  When I began, I was a youthful seventy-five, recently retired after half a century of teaching.  Now I am a mature eighty-four, launching a new career as a Peripatetic Philosopher and wondering whether I will make it to the century mark.  Recently, this blog seems to have reached beyond lift-off to a sustainable orbit.  The comments section is filled with essay-length contributions even when I am away.  I feel like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein who, after pounding on the breast of the monster and shooting it with repeated electric shocks, finally cries out exultantly: It’s alive!”

I shall probably write fewer lengthy posts during the time that I am teaching at Columbia, not merely because of the need to prepare but also because the class gives me an opportunity for expression that has for the past decade been provided by this blog. 

Not to worry.  You cannot keep a garrulous old codger quiet.

Now, anybody have a clue who wrote the anonymous Op Ed?

Saturday, September 8, 2018

A FEW WORDS ABOUT THE TWENTY-FIFTH AMENDMENT


Everyone who has been paying any attention to American politics is aware of the discussions that have sprung about concerning the feasibility of removing Trump from office by invoking the 25th Amendment to the Constitution.  It is obviously never going to happen, but I would like to explain why I think it would be a very bad idea.  Trump is obviously not incapacitated.  He has not had a stroke or a major heart attack.  He is quite capable of playing a round of golf or giving a [rambling] ninety minute public speech.  He is not in a persistent vegetative state.  He is not in a more severe stage of dementia than Ronald Reagan was.  He is just an ignorant, impulsive narcissistic bully utterly incapable of performing the normal functions of an American president.

Why then am I opposed to invoking the 25th Amendment?  Quite simply, because if the Vice President, the cabinet, and Congress were to reverse the express choice of the American voters in that fashion, I think it is absolutely certain that there would be an irresistible push to do the same thing to a genuinely radical President, were one ever by some miracle to gain the White House, regardless of his or her personality traits.  Indeed, the policies of such a President would be taken as evidence of his or her instability.

President Obama had it exactly right in his maiden political speech yesterday.  The most effective check on Trump’s craziness is the vote, not the 25th Amendment.  Four years ago, as he noted, only 20% of eligible young people voted in the midterm elections – Twenty percent!  One in five!  [Actually, he was rounding up for emphasis.  The figure was 19%]

If some of those rolling their eyes and hashing their tags at Trump would just pause in their tweeting and snapchatting long enough to go to the polls and vote, we could start to turn this country around.

Friday, September 7, 2018

SPLIT PERSONALITY


I am living in two worlds, and it is disorienting.  My mind is entirely absorbed by preparations for my Columbia class.  On Tuesday I begin what will be three classes – six hours – devoted to explicating the first ten chapters of Capital.  On my morning walks, I deliver little interior lectures, organizing my thoughts in a coherent narrative that weaves together literary theory, economic theory, English history, and ideological critique in a seamless, comprehensible series of lectures.  As I work in my head, I am oblivious of the world around me, and despite the dramatic nature of the material I am explicating, I am at peace with myself.

At the same time, the world is exploding.  I am so furious about the confirmation of Kavanagh that I can scarcely contain myself.  I hang on the responses to the anonymous NY TIMES Op Ed.  I watch Kamal Harris and Corey Booker light into Kavanagh, positioning themselves for the 2020 presidential race.  And of course, I kvell as Serena Williams blasts her way to the finals of the U. S. Open.

The New York trip was a greater physical effort for me than I anticipated.  It is clear that I shall need a day or two to recover after each expedition.  I suppose at eighty-four I should have been prepared.  Todd, a youthful whippersnapper in his late seventies, is off to Mexico, having returned from Chile in time for our class.  Ah, youth.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

BRIEF REPORT


Despite the best efforts of the Columbia bureaucracy, the first meeting of the course was a rave success.  This is going to be fun.  The only problem is that with both Todd and me there, the students are going to have to be ruthless to get a word in edgewise.  But the entire expedition was exhausting.  At eighty-four, the mean streets of Manhattan are no cakewalk for me.

Monday, September 3, 2018

A NEW ADVENTURE


Tomorrow, before dawn, I shall set out for RDU airport to start a new adventure in my long life.  On a day on which the temperature threatens to hit 95 in the Big Apple, I shall fly to LaGuardia, catch a cab to Morningside Heights, and after touching base in various offices and having lunch with Todd Gitlin in the Pulitzer building café, I will go upstairs with him to launch Sociology GU4600, “The Mystifications of Social Reality.”   I feel a little as I did in 1958 when I went to the first meeting of my section of Social Sciences 5 to begin surveying two millennia of European history for a class of Harvard preppies who had learned a good deal more Roman history at Choate, Groton, and Philips Academy than I had managed to swot up in the preceding several months.

Columbia these days turns out to be less efficiently run than a V. A. hospital, if that can be imagined.  Over the last sixty years, I have one way or another taught at close to two dozen colleges and universities, and Columbia is by several orders of magnitude less well run than any of them, private or public, big or small, rich or poor.  Thus it is that as students begin the first day of the new semester, they will find that our course [alone among all the others] is listed on line as meeting in a room TBD.  We shall see whether anyone shows up.

Every Tuesday this fall, save Election Day, I shall fly up to New York, sometimes returning that night, sometimes staying over.  This means that there will be a regular hiatus in my blog postings, but I will keep you informed as to how it all goes.

Wish me luck.

UPDATE

Alas, we were not approved to adopt the cat.  It seems we could not realistically offer the cat a twenty year guaranteed home.  Now, the agency facilitating the adoption knew that before it sent us on the wild goose chase [are wild geese especially hard to catch, or does “wild” modify “chase,” not “goose”?]  Susie was bitterly disappointed, and I wrote a stern email to the agency.  It would be easier to adopt a Russian baby, were it not for the Magnitsky Act.

Rats.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

READING TEA LEAVES


Several commentators have raised once again questions about critiques of Piketty’s work, and I would like to address them, but that will take a while since the questions are complicated, and a little later this morning Susie and I will be going to meet a cat we are interested in adopting [the central question is whether the foster parents approve of us as adopters], so let me start this morning with the guilty plea of somebody named Sam Patten.  Why may it matter?

The central question of the Mueller investigation is whether the Trump campaign, and Trump himself, conspired with the Russian government to try to tilt the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.  This is not an investigation of whether the activities of the Russians affected the outcome.  No one can know the answer to that.  However, we do know that Clinton lost for two reasons:  She was the worst candidate imaginable, and she ran a godawful campaign.  So why do I care?  Because if Trump’s complicity can be proved, it will deal a death blow to him and also to the Republican Party.

Mueller has now established, I believe, that the Russians did two things to influence the campaign.  First, they hacked into the email accounts of Clinton, the DNC, and others, and leaked the hacked emails in ways designed to hurt her chances.  Second, they used social media to target swing voters with messages ostensibly from Americans.

Most attention has focused on the first of these actions, in part because of the public discussion of the Trump Tower meeting at which Russian agents offered the hacked emails to Trump campaign representatives.  So everyone wants to know whether it can be proven that Trump himself had advanced knowledge of the meeting and approved its purpose.

The second Russian effort was more complicated, for two reasons.  First, to pay for ads on social media platforms, one must provide an authenticatable identity, and the Russians wanted to keep their involvement secret.  Second, to be effective, such a social media campaign just have access to a huge database of voters, identifying them by location, gender, age, race, religion, ethnicity, income, past voting behavior, and party registration, a database of the sort that political parties in the United States now develop and maintain.  [In my own local efforts, I have encountered the Obama campaign program VoteBuilder, and it is extraordinary.]

In February, Mueller indicted a host of unreachable Russians for the social media actions, along with one American nonentity.  On February 20th of this year, I wrote a post in which I quoted this bit from a news story:  “Separately, Mueller’s office announced that Richard Pinedo, of Santa Paula, California, had pleaded guilty to identity fraud. Pinedo, 28, admitted to running a website that offered stolen identities to help customers get around the security measures of major online payment sites. It was not made clear whether his service had been used by the Russian operatives.”

Poor Mr. Pinedo, just an enterprising young man stealing online identities, had gotten swept up in the biggest legal case of the century.  That answered the first question:  How did the Russians get the false identities?  That left the second question: Where did they get the fine-grained voter data for their efforts?  Enter Cambridge Analytica, whose records Mueller subpoenaed.  Cambridge Analytica did data work for the Trump campaign?  And who headed up the Trump campaign’s data efforts?  None other than golden boy Jared Kushner, husband of Trump’s Number One daughter and secret passion, Ivanka.

But that left one link missing in the chain from Trump to Putin.  Enter Sam Patten.  Sam Patten, in addition to working for the pro-Russian Ukraine faction, also had links to Cambridge Analytica.

Aha!  If Patten, who is now cooperating with Mueller, can connect Cambridge Analytica to Pinedo and to Kushner, then the chain is complete.

That is why it matters that on the last day before the magic September 1 deadline, Mueller’s grand jury handed up an indictment against obscure Sam Patten.

Stay tuned.

Friday, August 31, 2018

SERIOUS STUFF


Relatively long time readers of this blog may recall that four and a half years ago I wrote a 9,000 word review of a major book by Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-first Century.  Piketty’s work was based on research he carried out with Emmanuel Saez.  Today, Paul Krugman linked in Op Ed essay to a new journal article by Piketty, Saez, and a young Assistant Professor, Gabriel Zucman entitled “DISTRIBUTIONAL NATIONAL ACCOUNTS: METHODS AND ESTIMATES FOR THE UNITED STATES.”  I have just spent most of the morning reading it, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to dive deeply into the structure of economic inequality in the United States.  The growth in inequality in the United States in the last thirty years is astounding.  Speaking as an interested amateur, I was especially impressed by the methodological transparency of the essay.  The authors make quite clear the places where their data fall short or they are compelled to make ad hoc assumptions not yet supported by evidence or theory.  The essay is hard going, at least it was for me, but the picture it paints is compelling.  To cite just one among many conclusions of the essay, since the 1980s, the bottom half of the adult population has experienced no aggregate growth in real income whatsoever.  What is more, within that group, it is retirees who have experienced real income growth through Social Security and health insurance.  The working age portion of the bottom 50% have suffered a significant decline in real income.  By the way, the instincts of the Occupy Wall Street protestors were exactly correct.  It is the top 1% that has experienced almost all the growth in income over that time.

If you are interested, you can find the article here.

PRE-CAPITALIST LONGINGS


An easy non-judgmental affability is a useful personality trait in an entrepreneur.  If you are in the cut throat business of wresting a profit from heartless competitors, it is best to adopt a hale fellow well met public face, for today’s market enemy may be tomorrow’s investment friend.  Hence, the popularity of fraternal organizations – the Elks, the Masons, the Knights of Columbus – where two men, each of whom would happily drive the other into bankruptcy, can share drinks, slap backs, tell stories, and in general preserve that façade of congeniality on which tomorrow’s business deal can be built.  By contrast, aristocrats are prickly, proud, stubborn, and prone to nurse grievances, as Alexis de Tocqueville observes in his classic work, Democracy in America. 

Like all good Marxists, I applaud capitalism as a revolutionary way station on the road to socialism, but I must confess to a secret nostalgia for those pre-capitalist traits of the aristos.  This anti-historical longing of mine was called from its resting place deep in my soul by the elaborate funeral arrangements made by John McCain in preparation for his death from brain cancer.

McCain had many faults, as the commentators on this blog have noted at length, but he had certain endearing traits, and one, which speaks to his quasi-aristocratic life, was on full display this week.  I speak, of course, of his infinite capacity to be personally and visibly affronted.

The organizing and defining incident of McCain’s persona was his captivity in North Viet Nam.  I am not speaking of the truth of the matter, but rather of what it meant to him.  On that five year captivity and torture was built both his self-understanding and his political career.  When Donald Trump cavalierly dismissed that experience, saying that McCain was only a hero because he got captured [“I prefer those who don’t get captured”], he sought to rip away McCain’s reason for being, his essence, his claim upon our admiration. 

It was, I thought, transparently obvious that McCain’s dramatic thumbs-down on the repeal of Obamacare was a middle finger to Trump.  But like the aristocrats of old, McCain neither forgot nor forgave.  So it was that when he confronted the inevitability of his own death, he deliberately devised funereal rites specifically intended to achieve a final retribution for Trump’s insult.

McCain began by excluding Trump from the proceedings, thereby depriving Trump of his most precious possession – the daily news cycle. Trump has been compelled to endure an entire week devoted to someone other than himself.  But that was only the start.  He invited both George W. Bush and Barack Obama to the funeral, a second slight.   Then, as a final insult, McCain invited, as a memorial speaker, a Black NFL player!  All the proceedings lacked was a biblical reading by Stormy Daniels.

I must confess it.  I like a man who can hold a grudge even from beyond the grave.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

SOME THOUGHTS PROMPTED BY DAVID PALMETER


David Palmeter posts a comment on a subject that has obsessed me for a long time, namely whether it is wiser for the Democratic Party to nominate progressive candidates in an attempt to increase turnout of their supporters or nominate centrist candidates in an attempt to woo soft Republicans, as it were.  He notes that this cycle the primary voters are opting again and again for the progressives.  Mr. Palmeter is appropriately agnostic about which is the better strategy for progressives, since what is at issue is a prediction of future voter behavior, not matters of principle or ideology.  He and I and most of the readers of this blog prefer the progressives if we can elect them. 

Thus far, voters seem to me to be behaving with extraordinarily refined judgment.  When a seat is assured for the Democrats, they nominate an Alexandra Octavio-Cortez.  When the race is an uphill battle for a deep red seat, they nominate a centrist Conor Lamb.  And when a succession of elections has seen centrist Democrats go down to defeat again and again, they choose an Andrew Gillum or Stacey Abrams in what may just prove to be successful efforts to boost turnout enough to win against the odds.  From a purely practical strategic perspective, it doesn’t get any shrewder than that.

David Palmeter observes that switching a voter from R to D is, arithmetically, twice as valuable as getting a lazy D to the polls, and he is of course right.  But I am still of the opinion that boosting turnout is the more promising tactic.  [I am here setting aside a different consideration, namely the value of building a progressive coalition long term.]

The central fact of American politics is that scores of millions of eligible voters don’t vote.  In presidential elections, roughly 60% of eligible voters vote.  In off year elections, roughly 40% vote.  The country is awash in voters who, if they would only come out on election day, would vote Democratic [the same, of course, is true of those who would vote Republican, although  Republicans are more likely than Democrats actually to vote.] 

This is why talk of impeachment is probably counterproductive.  Trumpists seem not terribly wedded to Republicans as a brand, as opposed to being loyal to Trump himself.  What we want to do is excite the Democratic Party base while not agitating the Trumpists, who tend to be low probability voters as a general rule.

All of this is tediously and offensively mainstream, I know, but it is the reality we are living with.  The hard, painful fact is that as we sit here worrying about just exactly how to be appropriately radical, the Republicans are filling the federal judiciary with hard right judges who will hand down disastrous rulings for the next thirty years.  It may be that in years to come [probably after I am dead, as it happens], the only available strategy for radicals will be to try to take over state and local governments and fight in whichever regions of the country seem receptive to our ideas.

These are bad times.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

CROSS-CULTURAL LINKAGES

I watched the Monty Python sketch that MS linked to, and midway through realized it was an OxBridge version of that old African-American word game, Playing the Dozens.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

BIG NEWS [LOCAL]

A three judge Federal Appeals Court panel has once again found North Carolina's gerrymandered Congressional districts unconstitutional, and has raised the possibility that a new map will have to be re-drawn before November!  I have not yet been able to find out what this would mean for the 6th CD and for the chances of Ryan Watts, the young man for whom I have been working in his effort to unseat Mark Walker.  Any redrawing of the map could only help us.

The 6th CD cuts heavily Black Guilford County right in half, the line actually running down the middle of the campus of NC A&T, one of the two historically Black college campuses in Greensboro, the 6th CD's biggest city.

Stay tuned.

Monday, August 27, 2018

A FEW WORDS


I want to say just a few words in response to the flood of comments triggered by my son’s YouTube posting, which I reproduced here.  I really am not interested in arguing about the matter, but this is my blog, which is to say my weblog, and so I shall exercise that privilege.

John McCain’s political positions were anathema to me, as I am sure everyone can guess.  It is also the case that I know about, at least informally, his past as a privileged army brat and perennial screw-up.  [I recall reading that he crashed a number of planes during training before he even went to war.]  He chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, which is simply off the charts awful.  But when he was captured, and tortured, and was offered the chance to go home as an admiral’s son, he chose the stay a prisoner until his fellow prisoners were released.  Nothing in my own life enables me to even imagine making such a choice.  I have no doubt he was, in some way, trying to live up to his father’s expectations, or atoning for his screw ups, or even [though I suspect not] making a cold-eyed calculation of future political advantage.  None of that impresses me, since every courageous act [as well as every other kind of act] is rooted in childhood experiences, parental expectations, and other pre-moral psychological forces.

But he did it, and I honor him for it, even though I was bitterly opposed to the war and believe it was conducted on the American side as a series of war crimes.  Well, you may ask [as I am sure someone will want to], does that mean you would honor a German who made an analogous choice while fighting in a war to wipe out the Jews? And the answer is, yes.

Perhaps I say this because I am old, and painfully conscious of the limitations of life and its brevity.  Perhaps I am simply aware that I have never been presented with such a choice, and honestly do not know what I would do if I were.

Well, there are many fine blogs written by those of us on the left, so if you now feel that you can never again read what I write without a sense of revulsion or betrayal, feel free to click on one of them.

ONE CAN BUT DREAM

I await news that Mueller has indicted Don Jr.  The informal deadline is this Friday.  Hope springs eternal ...

COUNTING DOWN TO SEPTEMBER 4TH


A week from tomorrow I travel to New York for the first meeting of the seminar Todd Gitlin and I will be teaching at Columbia [Todd is in Chile for a week giving lectures.]  After the class, I shall be meeting Charles Mills for dinner.  Charles, I have just learned, is now a Distinguished Professor at the City University Graduate Center in Manhattan.  Many years ago, I became acquainted with his work when I served as an external evaluator for his tenure.   Charles’ first book, The Racial Contract, is, in my judgment, one of the very best works of political theory of the last half century.  I consider it more important than, but of course not held in such high esteem as, A Theory of Justice.  Todd and I will be assigning it in our course.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

A BETTER VOICE

As usual, my son Tobias shows himself to be a better man than I am.  Here is what he posted on FaceBook about John McCain:



I am stepping away from what is supposed to be a short vacation to offer this one observation about the passing of Senator McCain and the encomiums that are being widely offered in memory of his military and political career.
I had many political disagreements with Senator McCain over the years, often about vitally important issues. There will be time enough to explore those. I also sometimes took issue with the narrative that surrounded his political career. But there are precious few politicians who do not curate their image and story, and there was a lot of substance behind Senator McCain’s image.
I do not care right now whether Senator McCain sometimes, or even often, fell short of the ideals that people are now invoking to celebrate his memory. Let us remember him at his best, as we all hope to be remembered. What I do care about is whether the people invoking those ideals actually believe in them.
John McCain was a patriot. He loved the United States. And I believe he always sought to defend this country as best he could, even if sometimes imperfectly. Let us talk now about patriotism — true patriotism. Let us talk now about deep commitment to the ideals of democracy, decency, and public service that people are now invoking in praise of the Senator. Let us ask who among us — and particularly, who among those singing his praises the loudest — is failing to defend those same vital principles.
The United States is under attack by a hostile foreign power. Our democracy was assaulted in 2016 and is being assaulted still. And the Oval Office is occupied by a man who has contempt for the idea of public service, who has no love of country and no commitment to others, who has surrounded himself with thugs and mobsters, and who cares nothing for anyone or anything but himself. The current occupant of the presidency is the antithesis of everything that Senator McCain is celebrated for. Whether Senator McCain deserves every piece of praise is not the issue — let us remember him generously. The issue is the members of that chorus of praise who are actively working to undermine those very principles by supporting and apologizing for and giving cover to the systematic attacks on the rule of law, the national interest, and basic human decency that are the daily fare of this appalling administration.
Make space for the celebrations of Senator McCain. There will be time enough to debate the details of his long record of public service. But now, right now, hold to account the people who are participating in that celebration. Do not let them invoke the narrative of Senator McCain without demanding that they be held to the standard they are trumpeting and held responsible if they have flagrantly violated that standard, as so many have.
Now is a time for decency. Remembering Senator John McCain in the best possible light is simple decency. But now is also a time for taking values and principles seriously. Do not let the enablers of this national crisis of democracy go unchallenged when they try to wrap themselves in Senator McCain’s memory.
Top of Form

METAMORPHOSIS


When I was a boy, I read a short sci fi story in Astounding Science Fiction, told in the first person, about an astronaut who is stranded on a planet that had been inhabited, in times gone by, by lizard-like creatures.  After struggling to survive, he finds things growing easier for him, until he catches sight of himself in a fragment of a mirror and realizes he has turned into a lizard.

Last week, I uttered a word of praise for Jeff Sessions after he declared the independence of the Justice Department.  Today, the thought crossed my mind that we might miss John McCain.

I am afraid to look in the mirror.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

WEARY, BUT IN A GOOD WAY

I am back from three hours of canvassing in Chatham County for Ryan Watts, the young man trying to knock off the execrable Freedom Caucus member Rep. Mark Walker in the NC 6th CD.  In my youth, this stint would have been no biggie, but at eighty-four, I tire rather more easily.  We were canvassing in an upscale development full of McMansions, each one set apart from its neighbors by lots of grass and space, which of course meant lots of walking between houses with long curving walks and prominent signs saying "private residence" [I guess so that no one mistakes them for public buildings.]  Our list included only registered Democrats, the idea being not to persuade them but simply to get them to come out and vote.

I would guess the houses range from $750,000 to several million each.  A development called Colvert Farms, maybe because it was built on the site of an old farm.  The organizer who mobilized us and sent us off with VoteBuilder maps [a creation of the Obama campaigns] is sixty-six years my junior, having just graduated from high school.  

American politics is strange.

POP QUIZ

If you have nothing better to do, try this.  I got 15 out of 17.  Not bad.

Friday, August 24, 2018

LIFE'S LITTLE EPIPHANIES


A moment ago, I was watching a cable news discussion of the current political mess with the lawyer who represented Spiro Agnew during his troubles as sitting Vice-President.  The discussion called to mind one of the loveliest moments of my life. 

My first wife and I had not too long before relocated from a wretched New York semi-slum apartment that Columbia grandly allocated to me as a full professor in the Philosophy Department to a glorious Federal style three story home in Northampton, Massachusetts where we moved when my wife and I took up positions in the English and Philosophy Departments at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  I was still a rabid Mets fan, even though we were now in Red Sox territory.

My pine-paneled book lined third floor study looked out both on a back patio and also on Barrett Place, a lovely dead end street in the Smith College area of Northampton.  I had a tiny portable TV set with rabbit ears that I brought up to my study so that I could keep track of the Mets’ battle for the National League championship.

It was there that I sat on October 10th, the sun streaming in the windows on a crisp fall day, working on my next lecture, watching the Mets win the final game of the National League playoffs against the Cincinnati Reds and listening to the spot announcements of Spiro Agnew’s resignation.

Life does not get much better than that.

THE GREATEST POSSIBLE COMPLIMENT

Abbie Hoffmnan famously wrote a book titled Steal This Book.  What greater compliment could an author hope for than to have his or her book stolen?  Jeffrey Kessen, may his tribe increase, quotes from a recent FaceBook post by someone who, in 1983, stole my book, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity, from a library!  That is infinitely better than a positive review.

This has definitely made my day.

SATIRE IS NOT DEAD

Read this, especially the very last line.

THOUGHTS HIGH AND LOW ON AN EARLY FALL MORNING IN AUGUST.


1.         The medium of the blog never fails to astonish me.  I pour my heart out in a series of deadly serious multi-part on-line essays, some as much as 30,000 words in length, and the response is quiet, respectful, rather muted.  I post two brief, humorous remarks, one about the Manafort trial and the other evoking some phrases from the Watergate era, and instantaneously there is a blizzard of comments, the first eliciting 19 and the second 22.  Perhaps the Zen Buddhists have it right – less is more.

2.         I try to follow Michelle Obama’s advice and go high when my opponents go low, I really do.  But I am only human.  So I must confess that the pictures of Eric and Donald Jr. inspire me with loathing.  I do understand that we must not judge people by their looks, and as someone who has been afflicted all his life with a disfiguring array of facial tics and involuntary grimaces, I take this caution to heart.  But I really, really yearn to see those smug smiles wiped off the faces of the Trump boys.  That moment may be approaching.

3.         Rather unexpectedly, in the midst of the discussion about the decision of the Manafort jury, a mini-dispute broke out about the epistemological views of David Hume.  I must confess that I did not expect things to turn in that direction, but since they have, let me say a few words about some ways in which modern readers tend to misunderstand the Treatise of Human Nature.

Hume is perhaps most famous for his refutation of the claims made for causal inference, a refutation that takes no more than a portion of one paragraph of Section 3, part iii of Book I of the Treatise, a section with the title “Why a Cause is Always Necessary.”  In that section, Hume offers a brief but devastating critique of causal inference, and his argument is justly famous.  But Hume is not a pyrrhonian sceptic of the ancient Greek sort, as he makes explicitly clear.  Most of part iii is actually devoted to an imaginative, albeit somewhat speculative, explanation of our natural tendency to believe causal reasoning, a tendency that he has absolutely no interest in undermining.  Hume would have understood and approved the charge to the jury that they must decide whether a defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  He coins the phrase “natural belief” to describe our inescapable human belief in causal judgments.  As Hume says, famously, in section 1 of part iv, "belief is more properly an act of the sensitive, than of the cogitative part of our natures.”

Perhaps the most extraordinary and creative part of Hume’s argument is found in the very next section of part iv, which extends uncharacteristically for 31 pages.  Hume argues there that even after we have accepted causal inference as an ineliminable component of our mental processes, we must still recognize that our belief in the continued and independent existence of objects goes beyond anything that causal reasoning can establish.  This is, in my judgment, the philosophically most interesting section of the Treatise, a view that was shared, I think, by some early twentieth century British empiricist philosophers, most notably H. H. Price.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID

I receive the Harvard alumni/ae magazine every two months or so, and always turn to the back to see who has died.  In my most recent copy, which got misdirected and finally showed up, there was news that Stanley Cavell had passed away last June.  Stanley and I were at Harvard at the same time, in the late '50s.  I have written about him in my autobiography, and shan't repeat any of the stories here.  But he was a presence at Harvard and in Anglo-American philosophy, and I thought I should note his passing.  Stanley was older than I.  He died at the age of 91.

I WAS RIGHT!!!!

This story reveals that, as I suspected, one holdout juror blocked the Manafort jury from finding him guilty on all eighteen counts.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

MEMES OF THE TIME


We who are old enough to have lived through Watergate have burned into our minds certain phrases that capture those times.  Three that stand out for me are “modified limited hangout,” used by Erlichman in one of the taped Oval Office conversations, “plausible deniability,” a perennial favorite, and of course the premier phrase, “unindicted co-conspiritor.”

Before this mess is over, we shall have need of all three, I suspect.


A GOOD DAY


What are we to make of yesterday’s events?  I am going to resist the natural temptation of the left-leaning public intellectual to seek some deep and of course contrarian interpretation. My personal reaction is this:  we are in a war, a long, difficult, frustrating war.  It is hard to keep my spirits up as I watch, day after day, the cruel, heartless, unjust, exploitative actions taken both by my sworn enemies and by my supposed friends.  I am eighty-four years old, and I despair of living long enough to see anything remotely resembling justice, equality, or even simple decency break out in the land of my birth, my maturity, and my old age.  So I have decided to enjoy to the full every good day with which I am blessed, and yesterday was a good day.

Two thoughts, one about the Manafort verdict, the other about the Cohen affair and the performance of Cohen’s lawyer, Lannie Davis.

The Manafort verdict was puzzling, as many TV commentators noted.  Why find Manafort guilty of one of the four charges of failing to file a foreign bank account and hang on the other three, when the evidence in all four was identical?  Why was he not found not guilty on any of the 18 charges?  I have a theory.  I think most of the jury [maybe all but one] thought Manafort was guilty on all the counts, and one [maybe a Trump loyalist?] wanted to acquit him of everything, and the jury cut an internal deal.  Notice that the charges fell into three categories and the jury found him guilty of at least one charge in each category.  We may never know the truth, but then, we may.  Sometimes juries talk.

There was a great deal of discussion this morning of the unusual fact that Cohen’s guilty plea was not accompanied by a an agreement to turn state’s evidence, even though Cohen chose, as he did not have to, to implicate Trump in his plea of guilty to the two campaign finance charges.  After the formal proceeding, Cohen’s lawyer made very public statements that his client had big info on Trump and the Trump Tower meeting and wanted to talk.  Broadcasting this, rather than saying it privately to Mueller, was, various talking heads observed, very odd.  Meanwhile, the Washington Post had a cryptic statement to the effect that Mueller does not need Cohen’s testimony.  My speculative hypothesis:  Mueller has everything he needs about that meeting without Cohen, and Cohen is desperately trying to sell a deal to Mueller to reduce his jail time.

Well, you can see where my head has been for the past eighteen hours.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

GOING OUT ON A LIMB

I have a theory regarding which of the 18 counts the Manafort jury cannot agree on.  Manafort is charged with misrepresenting his true assets in order to get a 16 million dollar loan from a small Chicago bank.  But it was testified to that the bank president, who had dreams of glory, wanted a cabinet appointment.  It is plausible that Manafort got the loan not because he exaggerated his collateral but because he pandered to the bank president's ambitions [not a crime in our glorious political system.]

If I turn out to be right, you heard it here first.

THE MYSTERIOUS ENGLISH LANGUAGE


This post may be overtaken by events before it is even online, but I cannot resist.  The jury in the Paul Manafort trial has just sent a tantalizingly ambiguous note to the judge.  They ask, if we cannot reach agreement on a single count [of the eighteen], how shall we fill out the jury response form?

This could mean:  we have agreed on 17 counts, but are at odds on the 18th – which would almost certainly be good news for the prosecution.

Or it could mean: we have not agreed on a single count, not one.  Which would be spectacular news for the defense.

Ah, English!

Monday, August 20, 2018

WHERE ARE THOSE 95 THESES WHEN I NEED THEM?


The Roman Catholic Church has split twice in its two millennium long run:  first in 1054, not quite a thousand years ago, when the Eastern Orthodox Church split off, and then, just half a millennium ago, when part of the church splintered into an array of Protestant sects.  Do the appalling new revelations of deep-rooted, pandemic, unending priestly sexual abuse of parishioners signal yet another existential crisis? 

It does not seem to me likely that a theatrical display of hair shirt self-flagellation will suffice this time.  These are not merely the inevitable failings of human beings called to a standard of sanctity beyond all but the handful of saints.  As a lifelong atheist, I shun the use of the term “evil,” which has a religious meaning, but what is now being exposed to view must be seen by true believers as no less than the work of Satan himself.

I can fully understand how devout Catholics can continue to pray, to atone, to believe, but I cannot see how they can bring themselves to receive Holy Communion from a parish priest who, it is more than likely, is complicit in, aware off, in denial about, if not himself a participant in, the abusive acts.

But weighing as an anchor on the Church is the enormous accumulation of property and the career ambitions and awards of a worldwide bureaucracy of cardinals, monsignors, bishops, nuncios, abbots, and deacons.

There is a solution, of course.  Let the nuns take over to cleanse Holy Mother Church.

Fat chance.

AN APPEAL

A while ago, I had a lovely email from a woman in India who is a philosophy student and came across my Kant lectures.  I have just received the appeal below from her.  I never post appeals of this sort on my blog, but I decided after some reflection to make an exception.  If for no other reason, it is an interesting voice from halfway around the world.  Here it is:


I have been thinking of writing this for the last three days. What prevented me from doing it is the apprehension that whether this is the right platform or place to do it. Considering the kind of intellectual discussions on this place, perhaps, it is wrong. But sometimes, situation demands one to set aside such apprehensions and swallow whatever little pride one has. I am in exactly such a situation. Let me start by apologising to Prof Wolff and the regular readers of this blog for using this place to make an appeal/request for contribution.

I am from India and a couple of months back, Prof Wolff had kindly offered me some space to talk about the place I hail from. Well, India is a large and diverse country and I am from Kerala, one of the southern states in India. For the last one week, my state has been reeling from incessant rains and related floods and landslides. As per official estimates death toll has crossed over 300. The toll is likely to rise further as people are still trapped in buildings and rescue teams are yet to reach them.  India is still an under developed country, although the federal government likes to pretend that we are just two steps away from being developed. As a result, Kerala is still largely dependent on individual contributions to tide over the unprecedented crisis. Economic loss is over Rs 8,000 crore (Rs 10 million = Rs 1crore). So, if any of you are willing to contribute (whatever little), it will be of immense help. Another reason for making this appeal on this place is that at present, rupee is sliding against dollar with $1= Rs 70. In other words, my one rupee contribution may not fetch a slice of bread, but your one dollar can help the disaster affected people buy two packets of bread. Just for comparison, one relief camp in one district need on an average 65 kg of rice (that is our staple food) and an average quality rice will cost Rs 35/kg. There are close to 100 such camps in most districts depending on the severity of the condition.

For contributions you can go to Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief fund and the site is:  www.donation.cmdrf.kerala.gov.in
Google and Amazon have also set up contribution links.
https://www.amazon.in/b?ie=UTF8&node=8891257031

For those, who are not familiar with Kerala, 12 out of 14 districts in the state have been affected. It is the only state in India, where a Communist (though namesake) government is in place. It was also in Kerala in 1957 that the world’s first democratically elected Communist government assumed office. Historically it has great significance as Kerala is the state in India with the highest HDIs. Also, most of India, including the central (Federal) government ruled by the right-wing BJP.  Not that any of its matters when seeking funds for disaster relief.

I offered this background as I want you all to make an informed decision. I am aware of many cases where people (especially from third world countries) have set up fraud online accounts to seek money. As a precautionary measure, I urge, anyone who is considering to contribute, to go to Google and check for news on Kerala floods. Alternatively, you can go to YouTube and type Malayalam news live. Mute it and just see the visuals. That will give you an idea about the situation.

I don’t live in Kerala anymore. India has 29 states. I live in Hyderabad in Telangana state. My parents in Kerala left their house yesterday with just two bags – one with clothes and another documents. I would say they were among the fortunate ones as they managed to leave the house when the ground floor got inundated. Most people had to leave without anything but wet clothes they were wearing. And, that will haunt them in the coming days. In all probability, these poor souls will be asked to prove (with documents) that they are alive. Thanks to our red tape. Besides, my parents did not go to a relief camp. They went to my aunt’s house. Yet, it was a challenge for my 63-year-old mother and 70-year-old father to wade through the waist-deep water for about 20 minutes to reach the main road.
Finally, I want to add another caveat. Corruption is (reportedly) rampant in India. Kerala is comparatively better but not free from corruption. There is a chance that 10-15% (lower limit) of the total contributions (not individual) may go to line the pockets of the officials. That is a chance we Indians take when we contribute money. If you are also willing to take that chance for a larger cause, kindly contribute. It can go a long way in reducing the suffering of people. Thank you all for your patience.

Prof Wolff, you can decide not to publish this if you think it is not suitable for this platform. I felt I should do this as I did not want to regret for not doing it later. Thank you.

Sreekala

Sunday, August 19, 2018

AFTER LABOR DAY


It is now only sixteen days until the first meeting of the course Todd Gitlin and I shall be offering in the Columbia University Sociology Department this fall.   On this lazy, muggy Sunday, I thought I would take a break from Giuliani and Omarosa and other tropical diseases and spend a few moments putting down in an organized way the thoughts with which I shall introduce the course and its rationale to such students who show up on September 4th.

The students will all have completed the mainstay of Columbia’s required General Education program, a course somewhat confusingly called Contemporary Civilization – confusing because it begins with Plato and does not reach the eighteenth century until the second semester.  I thought therefore that I would take as an entry point a famous passage from the Phaedo.  About two-thirds of the way through the dialogue, Socrates pauses to reflect on his own intellectual development.  As a young man, he reports, he was much taken with the speculations of the physicists who wrote about the behavior of physical particles and such matters.  They could explain well enough how he, Socrates, came to be sitting in this prison awaiting his imminent death.  They could speak of the muscles and bones whose movements and disposition accounted for his sitting there with his legs crossed in the prison cell.  But they could say nothing of why he was there, what reasons had led him to conclude that inasmuch as the people of Athens had voted to condemn him to death, he thought it right to submit to their decision rather than escape and go into exile, as his disciple Crito had urged him to do [in the dialogue of that name.]

Just at this moment, I will explain to the students in the class, we can see drawn a distinction that would come to form the fundamental dividing line of theoretical investigations for the next two millennia and more of Western Civilization: the distinction between investigations of nature, which by the seventeenth century were called Natural Philosophy, and investigations of the purposive doings of human beings, which were called Moral Philosophy, or, in German, Naturwissenschaft and Geisteswissenschaft.

But near the end of the eighteenth century, there began to emerge a third sphere of investigation, reducible neither to the objects of natural philosophers nor to those of moral philosophers: Society.

This new object of study made its appearance first in the writings of a group of French and English thinkers who eventually came to be called Political Economists:  the Physiocrats Turgot and Quesney and the Scotsman Adam Smith, most notably.  These thinkers sought in the affairs of the marketplace some semblance of the order and regularity that Galileo, Kepler, and Newton had found in the motions of terrestrial and celestial bodies.  Indeed, in an effort to borrow in his investigations the authority of those famous Natural Philosophers, Smith, in his greatest work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, distinguished between the fluctuating prices at which goods sold from day to day and the stable, expectable “natural” prices that experienced commercial men came to expect, and described those natural prices, or values, as “centers of gravity” drawing the variable market prices to them. 

Thus was born a third branch of investigation to take its place next to Natural Philosophy and Moral Philosophy, namely Social Philosophy, or Sozialwissenschaft.  Over the next century, this new sphere of investigation differentiated itself into special sub-fields.  Anthropology, Sociology, Political Science, and Psychology took their place beside Economics.  Eventually, all of these branches of study took up residence in universities as the Faculties of Natural Science and Mathematics, Humanities and Fine Arts, and Social and Behavioral Sciences.

However, although for purposes of bureaucratic university organization, these three branches of inquiry were treated as equal and coordinate, the new sphere, Social Sciences, differed fundamentally from its elder cousins, Natural Philosophy and Moral Philosophy.  The ground of this distinction was not at first recognized by the thinkers who brought the Social Sciences into existence.  It fell to Karl Marx to recognize the mark of difference and to make of it the centerpiece of his revolutionary thought.  For Marx saw, as no one before him had in true depth and clarity, that Society, the object of investigation of the new discipline, is fundamentally, essentially mystified.  Its true nature is systematically concealed from our view in the interest of those men and women who exercise power and control in society.  Taking over a term that had gained currency in German thought through the work of Georg Friedrich Hegel, Marx revealed the fundamental laws of society to be ideologically distorted and concealed from view beneath a mystified surface misrepresentation.

Marx’s object of study was the political economy of capitalism, but each branch of the new Social Sciences has its own distinctive mode of mystification.  And it is those mystifications of social reality that we shall study in this course.

We begin, as we must, with Marx’s greatest work, Volume I of Capital, which shall occupy us for three weeks.  Then we shall read some of the writings of the three greatest thinkers of the field known as Sociology:  Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Mannheim.  Mannheim will introduce us to the structure and nature of Ideology, and we shall then apply this concept to the discipline known as Ethnology by an intensive study of an ideological critique of that discipline, Land Filled With Flies, by the Marxist ethnologist Edwin Wilmsen.  Following our engagement with Ethnology, we shall turn to Political Theory, and read an excoriating critique of the classical theory of the social contract by the Jamaican philosopher Charles Mills, The Racial Contract.  The semester will conclude with Martha Nussbaum’s critique of gender studies, Sex and Social Justice.