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Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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

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

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018


There is currently a great deal of alarm being expressed in the public sphere over the evidence [which I consider reliable] that the Russian government has attempted, and continues to attempt, to influence American elections surreptitiously.  Some people on the left respond to these expressions of alarm by calling attention to the many successful efforts by the American government to influence the outcome of elections abroad or indeed simply to bypass the electoral process and overthrow foreign governments, charges that I consider to be well-established. 

I am never entirely clear what conclusion I am supposed to draw from this left response.  That America is reprehensible?  To be sure.  That the mainstream expressions of alarm are hypocritical?  No doubt.  But there is sometimes an additional implied assertion, namely that we on the left ought not therefore to share the alarm being expressed, and this I believe is wrongheaded.  Let me explain why.

I want to see the United States changed in very deep, fundamental, and far-reaching ways.  I can summarize these changes briefly with the slogan, suitable for a bumper sticker, “Make America Socialist.”  I am too old and too wise to imagine that anything remotely like this will happen soon, if indeed ever, but that is what I want, and I am pleased, indeed thrilled, by any steps taken in that direction.

Leaving aside divine intervention or the arrival of benevolent space aliens, I can see only two ways in which the changes I want can come about:  through the electoral process, or violently and extra-legally.  It is my considered opinion that violent social revolution in the United States is right up there in likelihood with the Second Coming.  Which leaves the electoral process.  That is why I welcomed the emergence on the national scene of Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a Democratic Socialist even though his policy proposals are really FDR New Deal Liberalism.  That is why I was delighted by the appearance and electoral success of Democratic Socialist Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.  And that is why I am tickled to read that among young people, “socialism” ranks high as one of their preferred economic and political systems, despite the fact that almost none of those responding to the poll have any coherent notion of what socialism is.

I want candidates like Ocasio-Cortez to run for election and win.  There are only two ways that can happen.  Either people supporting such candidates come to the polls, vote for them, and have their votes recorded and counted, or some foreign or domestic hackers meddle with the voting process to the benefit of socialist candidates.  I can see very little evidence that those currently screwing with the electoral process electronically are inclined to do so to the benefit of left candidates.

Which explains why I am alarmed when Russians meddle with our elections.

But, some will respond, desperate not to be seen agreeing with those they hate, what about gerrymandering and voter suppression?  Why aren’t you alarmed about that?  But that is a silly question.  Of course I am alarmed about gerrymandering and voter suppression.  I have been for generations.  Indeed, if we recall that the most successful voter suppression effort in American history was Jim Crow, I can say that I have been alarmed about voter suppression my entire very long life.  Now doing something about gerrymandering and voter suppression requires, among other things, gaining control of state legislatures.  And how do we do that?  Either by spending millions of dollars essentially bribing state legislators or by electing progressive state legislators.  We on the left are not entirely without financial resources, but the noblest among us [perhaps foolishly] look askance at bribery.

Which leaves us, once again, with elections.

Look, the big structural problem with capitalism is that it puts most of the power in the hands of capital.  That is a feature, not a bug, from the standpoint of defenders of the existing order.  All we on the left have to fight with is the truth [good luck with that] and numbers, great big overwhelming numbers.

Which is why I am alarmed by efforts, foreign or domestic, to screw with the electoral process.

Monday, July 30, 2018


Once more I am reminded of the chasm between high theory and the quotidian details of political action.   It all feels like one of Shakespeare’s history plays or comedies, in which the scenes of drama or love at the very highest level of art and seriousness alternate with scenes of low farce.

After meditating on the terrifying possibility of a nuclear attack on North Korea or Iran triggered by the narcissism and infantile rages of Donald Trump, I turn my attention to trying to get the Ryan Watts Congressional campaign to keep track of the responses to my fund-raising mailing so that when I send a second appeal after Labor Day I can build into the letters a thank you for prior donations.  Not exactly rocket science, but it just might induce a few to give again, and at an even higher level.  Of such considerations is an on-the-ground political campaign constructed.

Saturday, July 28, 2018


Some of you have expressed concern that Trump, in a pique or to distract attention from his worsening legal peril, will launch an attack on Iran.  This is a prospect that keeps me up at night, and I am not soothed by the thought that John Bolton is whispering in his ear.  I suppose we must hope that he is so in thrall to Putin that he will not dare without getting Russian clearance, which I should like to think he would not get.  In the face of such dangers, it seems feckless to soldier on trying to elect a Democrat in the NC 6th CD, but I think we must teach ourselves to operate on several planes simultaneously.  Launching a cruise missile strike on forewarned Syrian airbases, all the while eating a large piece of chocolate cake, is his infantile notion of exercising his war powers.  Unfortunately, a one-off air attack on Iran would have catastrophic consequences.

Short of pulling up stakes and fleeing the country, I do not see what else I can do save add my tiny bit to the political struggle.

Friday, July 27, 2018


I think Trump is on the ropes, and now is the time for us to pile on.  I will keep working for young Ryan Watts here in the NC 6th CD, a long shot to be sure.  If you are lucky enough to live in the district of one of the new progressive Democrats or Democratic Socialists popping up, get out there and work your tail off.  If you live in a safe district, as I did until last year, try to donate something to any one of many good candidates.  In Midterms, enthusiasm is what matters most, since turnout is so low.  

The Trump administration is doing constant and immeasurable harm to any victim it can find, from immigrant families to bald eagles.  It will take a long time simply to repair the damage, let alone move forward.

But look on the bright side.  Some vandal unmoored one of the DeVos family's ten yachts, and it suffered some damage before they could corral it. 

As I was walking this morning at 4:50 a.m. under a glorious full moon, a vagrant thought crossed my mind:  Why couldn't the sixties have happened in my eighties rather than my thirties?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018


The Trump government has released a transcript and video of the joint press conference Trump and Putin held immediately after their Helsinki meeting.  As you will no doubt recall, it was televised live.  During that press conference, an American reporter asked Putin whether he had wanted Trump to be elected President, and Putin said [or the interpreter represented him as saying] "yes."

In the transcript just released by the White House, this exchange is missing.  On the video, it has been excised.

I do not think we need speculate anymore about whether Trump desires to be an authoritarian dictator on the Orwellian model.  The only question remaining is whether he will succeed.


A great deal has been said about the fact that Trump had no aides with him during his two hour meeting with Putin in Helsinki.  Even more is being said about the fact that more than a week later, his Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and Director of National Intelligence seem not to have been briefed on the content of that meeting, including any agreements that Trump and Putin reached.  I have the very strong suspicion that this absence of briefing is a consequence of the fact that Trump cannot remember what he said or agreed to.  This is, of course, appalling, but it has an up side.  If Trump cannot recall what he said, then he cannot implement the agreements.  I do not think George Orwell foresaw the possibility of an incompetent authoritarian dictator.

Sunday, July 22, 2018


Spending several days cleaning up a database, merge printing letters of appeal for the campaign of young Ryan Watts, and then wrestling my cranky HP inkjet printer so as to merge print a corresponding set of envelopes [the printer every so often seizes up on the envelopes] had a quite unexpected side effect.  It gave me a sense of peace, however brief.  For a few days, I felt that I was actually doing something about the political disaster unfolding in plain view.  Now, I am painfully aware that what I was doing did not even rise to the level of a drop in the ocean, but I was doing it, not just talking about it.  At this point, I do not even know whether the effort will raise any money.  The next two weeks should tell.

As I have observed somewhere before on this blog, so long as you are just thinking about things, you might as well think about everything, since it is no harder than just thinking about something.  I mean, why think about trolley cars when you can think about the world historical mission of Capitalism?   But if you want to actually change the world, it takes an enormous effort to make a small change, and ten times as much effort to make a somewhat bigger change.

Taking back the House is really a rather small step, and it would be fatally easy to sit back and observe that taking the House will have very little effect on American imperialism or the crushing consequences of capitalism for the world’s poor.  But taking back the House is at least something.  Now that something, small as it is, requires flipping twenty-three House seats, and flipping just one of them requires an entire four month political campaign, and an entire four month political campaign requires raising serious money, and raising serious money requires sending letters to thousands and thousands of people, and preparing just five hundred of those letters requires that someone do what I did these past few days. 

Academic intellectuals are not accustomed to toiling in the vineyards.  They are not even accustomed to running a vineyard.  They are usually not satisfied with anything less than considering the theoretical preconditions of vineyards in general.  That is why good old Karl Marx observed that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."

Saturday, July 21, 2018


Well, I have cranked out another 185 fundraising letters to folks here at Carolina Meadows [this time to those registered as Unaffiliated], so I think I will take a break before merge-printing the matching envelopes and say something about the controversy I stirred up by describing the anti-Trump TV commentators as “privileged” and “self-congratulatory.”  I was being flip, but the underlying issue is actually quite interesting and deserving of some extended commentary.

I shall begin by reminding you all yet again of a few statistical facts that I allude to quite frequently.  First, only one-third of adult Americans have college degrees.  Two-thirds do not.  Second, median household income in 2016 [the latest figure I could find] was $59,039.  In other words, one-half of all American households had annual income that year of less than that amount, the other half had more.  For example, if a husband and wife both work full-time jobs for the year, taking two weeks of unpaid vacation each year, the husband earning $20 an hour driving a panel truck delivering furniture around town and the wife earning $10 an hour cleaning houses, the two of them are rather better off than half of all American households.  Keep those statistics in mind.

Cable news, which I watch more or less obsessively, typically features a host [Wolf Blitzer, Ali Velshi, Nicole Wallace, Anderson Cooper, all those Fox News types, and so forth], a rotating panel of regular commentators, and special guests brought on for their expertise in the story of the moment.  There are also reporters in the field – people talking into handheld microphones checking in from a political rally, a hurricane, a bus crash, a demonstration, or some other newsworthy event – and these reporters will quite often interview someone on site, a police chief, a student in a high school where there has been a mass shooting, a person attending a political rally.

I am quite sure, without having taken the trouble to check, that virtually every single cable news host, commentator, panel member, special guest, and field reporter is a college graduate, and most of them are graduates of one of the top 200 or so colleges and universities among the more than 2,600 Bachelor’s Degree granting institutions of higher education in America or their foreign equivalents.  The only members of the non-college two-thirds who ever appear on TV are people being interviewed in the field.  The majority without college degrees have educational credentials inferior to the minority who are graduates, and they know it.  What is more, they may be uncredentialed, but they are not stupid.  Ask yourself how they feel about the fact that one of them is on TV always as the object of the news report, never as the subject, always being asked “what it felt like,” never “what it means.”  If you are heavily into Lit Crit and Identity Theory, you might even want to employ the currently fashionable term “being othered.” 

Let me give you as an example of what I am talking about something I saw on old-time TV maybe fifty years ago or so.  I was watching a right-wing talk show called The Firing Line, the brainchild of that rather odd, exquisitely cultivated and educated icon of American conservatism, William F. Buckley, Jr.  Buckley had invited onto his show a White couple from the rural south who had protested [as I recall] the fact that their child was being told things in school about evolution that conflicted with their Fundamentalist Protestant beliefs.  Also on the show were a pair of big city lawyers defending the School Board.  Buckley was a devout Roman Catholic, not a Protestant, but he was on the side of the parents in this dispute.  The couple were clearly of very modest means, dressed in their Sunday Go To Meeting best for the TV appearance and visibly ill at ease.  The opposing lawyers were impeccably dressed and quite casually fluent.  Now Buckley was with the parents in this fight, but he treated them more or less as specimens, not as people.  By his every facial grimace and ironic vocal tone when talking to the lawyers, he managed to communicate, as clearly as if he had said it, “You and I, we are alike, for all that we are on opposite sides in this dispute.  I can easily imagine you coming to my elegant apartment for one my famous harpsichord performances.  These benighted folks, whose cause I thoroughly embrace, are however infra dignitatem.”

The regulars on cable news travel in the same social circles, regardless of their political affiliations.  They know one another personally, often run into one another at social events, and exhibit toward one another, even in the midst of vigorous, even heated, political disagreements on television, a variety of verbal cues and body language that communicate to anyone capable of noticing [which is to say, everyone] that they are all members of the same social circle.  Let me cite one example, to me at least quite striking.  Michael Cohen, universally described now as “Trump’s fixer,” has been much in the news lately.  Donnie Deutsch frequently appears as a panelist on Morning Joe on MSNBC, principally, so far as I can make out, because he knows Cohen personally and speaks with him often, despite the fact that Deutsch is clearly a New York Democrat.  One of MSNBC’s hosts is “The Rev,” Reverend Al Sharpton, an old time associate and follower of Martin Luther King and a fixture in the Civil Rights Movement.  The Rev has a weekend morning show on MSNBC, but he was just on yesterday because he had had breakfast with Cohen, whom he knows, and was there to report what he had learned.  My eyes popped open when this fact was dropped.  Sharpton knows Cohen well enough that when Cohen wants to reach out to a media figure to peddle some spin about himself, he calls The Rev??!!  When I was young, we used to make fun of the Old Boy’s Network of Oxford and Cambridge graduates in England, but this is head-spinning.  My mother-in-law, now departed, had a phrase that she would mutter when someone Jewish was mentioned.  She would say, half under her breath, “unser leute,” which in German or Yiddish, means “our people,” which is to say, one of us, an insider, someone basically o.k.

When I described the anti-Trump TV commentators as “privileged” and “self-congratulatory,” this is what I was talking about.

Friday, July 20, 2018


A new poll is out this morning purporting to reveal that 71% of Republicans approve of Trump’s handling of Russia in Helsinki.  This has the commentariat pulling out its collective hair, wondering despairingly what has happened to their father’s Republican Party.  Now I bow to no one in my conviction that Republicans are the spawn of the devil [please, spare me the feverish insistence that so are Democrats – I know all that, but that is not the point of this post.]  However, polls like the one referenced are no particular evidence of this truth.  Three times before, in 2010, 2012, and 2015, I have written about this subject here.  I am going to reprint what I said in 2015, because I am old enough and retro enough to imagine that if you have written something once, and still believe it, there is nothing to be gained by writing it differently a fourth time.  Here is what I wrote:

“If news reports are to be believed, 54% of Republicans believe that President Obama is a Muslim [and 100% of them, I assume, consider being a Muslim an especially bad thing.]  When I read reports like this, I despair for my fellow homo sapiens.  The scores of millions of Americans presumably represented by the poll respondents hold critical jobs -- as traffic policemen, as bus drivers, as doctors, as lawyers, as chicken pluckers.  If the polls are to be believed, a sizeable fraction of the cars approaching me here in North Carolina on Interstate 40 at a combined speed of 160 miles an hour are driven by motorists completely unhinged from reality.  Is it safe for me to drive?

Thus troubled, I looked within for reassurance.  Deep in the far recesses of my memory I found a faint trace of an article written almost seventy years ago by two of the great figures of mid-twentieth century American sociology, David Riesman and Nathan Glazer.  I am sure those names are completely unknown to you, although you may be familiar with some of the terms they gave to our conversation about public affairs -- "other-directed, "inner-directed," "inside dopester."

With remarkably little effort, I located this essay by means of Google and a few key words:  "The Meaning of Opinion," by David Riesman and Nathan Glazer, Public Opinion Quarterly, Volume 12, No. 4 [Winter 1948-49], pp. 633-648.  Read it!  It is so far superior to anything written by sociologists and public opinion pollsters today as to take one's breath away.

How can it be that 54% of Republicans think Obama is a Muslim?  The answer -- not simple at all -- is that public opinion polling is a socio-psycho-dynamically complex interaction between the poll-taker and the respondent in which the manifest content of the question and answer are a very imperfect representation of the latent interactive processes taking place in the polling.

In the simplest terms possible, I suggest that the answer to my despairing question is this:  When a pollster asks a respondent the manifest question "Is President Obama a Muslim?," the respondent at some level experiences this as the quite different latent question, "Do you like President Obama?"  The respondent understands quite well, even if not consciously, that to give the patently true answer "No" to the manifest question would actually be to give the answer "Yes" to the latent question.  So the respondent answers "Yes" to the manifest question, not wanting to be trapped into expressing any sort of support or sympathy for Obama.  The poll taker dutifully records this as a "yes" to the manifest question rather than what it really is, a "No" to the latent question.

I am quite confident that if a polling organization were to ask a statistically representative sample of Republicans  "Does President Obama have horns?," a significant percentage of respondents would say "Yes," even though all of them have seen Obama on television many times and know quite well that he has no horns.”

American voters, by and large, have no actual opinions about tariffs, Brexit, Russia, NATO, Putin, the rule of law, the balance of powers, the Constitution, or indeed about democracy.  Most voters could not find Russia on an unlabeled world map and haven’t a clue what the letters NATO stand for, let alone what it is and does.  They have plenty of opinions about their jobs, their families, their neighborhoods, their churches, their health insurance, and the successes and failures of their favorite sports teams, opinions that are, epistemologically speaking, factually well-grounded.  But opinions about NATO, tariffs, Brexit, and Putin are, like tastes in soft drinks, coffees, movies, and clothing, status markers in our society, markers that are quite well understood by everyone.  The support for Trump is, I am convinced, an expression of racial and status anxiety in a society in which a minority of adults get a huge majority of the rewards, all the while congratulating themselves publicly on having earned them, thereby telling the majority not only that they are screwed but that they deserve to be screwed and have only their own inferiority to blame.  All of those condemning Trump on television, without exception, are, and can easily be seen to be, members of that privileged self-congratulatory minority.  The pollsters may have thought they were asking, “Do you approve of Trump’s handling of Russia?” but everyone being polled heard “Are you with the privileged few or with the great unwashed?”  Well, for a long time, they would try to suck up by answering “No” but now they offer the polltaker’s version of the middle finger and say “Yes.”

Joe Scarborough is shocked.

Thursday, July 19, 2018


Well, I got hold of a database of the 397 residents of Carolina Meadows who are registered Democrats and cleaned it up so that I could use it to generate personalized letters from me asking for money for the young man running here in the NC 6th CD to upset right wing Freedom Caucus Republican Mark Walker.  Today, I drafted a letter and had it copied 400 times at the UPS store.  Then I merge printed the 397 letters with address and greeting.  After that I generated 397 matching envelopes.  I will turn them over to the campaign so that volunteers can fold and stuff them, put in return envelopes, seal them, stamp them and send them out.

Needless to say, this does not quite rise to the level of deep thinking about Das Kapital, but it just might help us flip one more seat in November.

I am reminded of this delicious passage from Kierkegaard's great short masterpiece, Philosophical Fragments:  "When Philip threatened to lay siege to the city of Corinth and all its inhabitants hastily bestirred themselves in defense, some polishing weapons, some gathering stones, some repairing the walls, Diogenes seeing all this hurriedly folded his mantle about him and began to roll his tub zealously back and forth through the streets. When he was asked why he did this he replied that he wished to be busy like all the rest, and rolled his tub lest he should be the only idler among so many industrious citizens. Such conduct is at any rate not sophistical, if Aristotle be right in describing sophistry as the art of making money." 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018


Consider the abject, pathetic display that we saw in Helsinki and in the Singapore meetings with Kim Jong Un the other month. Consider also the fact that, despite the endless bluster and threats about the Special Counsel and the obvious fact that the investigation is moving ever closer to implicating the grifter directly, as yet the White House has not attempted to fire Mr. Mueller or act directly against him, contenting itself instead with petty actions around the margins that are corrupt and injurious and corrosive to the rule of law but ultimately ineffectual.

I contend that these facts lead to several conclusions.

First. The unstable madman is a pathetic weakling and coward. He is an autocrat by nature, but a frightened and empty attempt at an autocrat who constantly tests the waters but will only act when he believes there is no risk.

Second. Pushback works. Resistance works. He has been largely ineffectual at stopping the investigation because he believes it is not safe for him to take bold action.

With all the damage and harm and destruction of this band of thugs, it would be easy to lose sight of what we are accomplishing through resistance. Every day that this pathetic, weak madman does not feel safe enough to levy a frontal assault on our democratic institutions is a day that we are succeeding.

Keep it up.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018


One of the great attractions of speculation is that it is untethered by the rules of evidence.  What could Putin have on Trump?  I agree that it is not a salacious videotape.  My guess is that Trump is deeply in debt to Putin's oligarchs and is threatened with financial ruin if he gets out of line.  I have long wondered whether Trump has much less money than he claims and much less even than he appears to have, judging from his life style.  It is genuinely odd.

Look, these are hard times, politically.  You have to take pleasure where you can find it, and if Trump is now crashing and burning, well, enjoy it, even though it leaves the underlying rot in American life and economy unaltered.

Nobody has commented on my evolutionary biological reverie.  I had hoped someone who actually knows something about the subject would respond, and either correct me or expand on what I had said.


I watched the Putin-Trump press conference.  I do not speak Russian, but I do speak English.  I also have the average human being's ability to read body language.  My personal judgment?  Putin has something on Trump.

Monday, July 16, 2018


My exchange with Jerry Fresia has now become much more serious than a dispute between two old lefties.  Since I think his latest extended comment must be read, I will reproduce it at the end of these remarks, rather than simply suggest that you hunt it up in the comments section.

Jerry’s statement is a cry from the heart, a cri de coeur, as the French say, and it takes precedence over everything I wrote in my previous posts.  We are, in this life, not disembodied spirits, but real human beings who have been born into a specific moment in time and have lived specific, concrete lives, lives that shape what we experience and believe.  Jerry has earned his deep-rooted skepticism about everything the powers that be proclaim in a way that I have not earned my readiness to credit Robert Mueller’s investigation.  Since I knew McGeorge Bundy and Henry Kissinger personally before they become lying defenders of America’s imperial brutality, I feel a certain confidence in my evaluation of them as lying sacks of shit, but to the larger world, they were no less credible than Robert Mueller.

I hope this investigation leads to Trump’s downfall, or at least to his political emasculation, whatever the underlying truth may be, but as regards the truth, we must simply wait and see.

Here is Jerry’s comment:

“First let me say that I hate being a fly in the ointment and, as well, I hate having to take positions that might even bolster Trump's claims of fake news. I will add that the latter part of your post is perfectly reasonable and I am attempted to say, "Yeah, that makes sense. I can accept that." But there's a big BUT that prevents me from doing so.

You haven't addressed two aspects of the situation that just flat out bug me. One has to do with trust, the other with the smearing of leftists. My guess is that you would probably agree that the CIA and FBI have have lied to the American people so many times on so many important issues (including Mueller re the WMD/Iraq debacle) that refusing to trust what the national security state declares as truth is rational. So for me, the issue has less to do with epistemology than it does with heartfelt trauma.

Your work with African Americans and South Africans seems to have had a searing impact on you and your point of view. We all probably have these kinds of searing, gut wrenching experiences that impact whom and what we trust. I was an intelligence officer with the Air Force during the Vietnam War. I never saw combat but I had a very high top secret clearance and I saw not only the reality of the horror of that war, I saw the orders of various barbaric missions days in advance of those order being carried out. It was painful watching all that unfold. But here's the kicker: as these events unfolded, government spokespeople and the media ALWAYS lied about was going on. There was no doubt about this from where sat. I knew various media military analysts knew almost as much as I did. I even tried to be a whistle blower but was rebuffed.

I had volunteered. But I was duped. I felt betrayed. It became clear to me that my life, not to mention the lives of the Vietnamese didn't count for squat. As time went on, I would learn (thanks to academics such as yourself) that the systems of betrayal had no limits. The US military tested bacterial weapons on unsuspecting Americans in San Francisco (MKULTRA), to cite one example of the contempt gov officials can have toward ordinary people. The CIA lied to JFK about the Bay of Pigs, knowing it would fail while telling him it would help oppressed Cubans overthrow the authoritarian Castro (had JFK, by the way, not shown enormous resolve in refusing US air support, revolutionary Cuba would never have survived). I believe that Malcom X, JFK, MLK, RFK, Fred Hampton and many Black Panthers, along with so many young African Americans today have been either murdered or their murders covered up by the national security state. And so what is behind all this mayhem and mendacity? Well, it begins with a simple fact that you have so eloquently explicated time and again: capitalism requires the exploitation of workers. And so it is not surprising that Martin Niemöller's first targeted population (First they came for the communists....") were leftists challenging fascism.

I once believed it all. I seriously drank the kool-aid. But those days are long gone. Mueller et al may be right. But I won't grant him that validation, not until he is shown to be correct in a court of law or in some process that permits his case to be challenged publicly on the evidence. I'm like the wife, I suppose, who has been cheated on many times. Trust the bastard? Never again.”


The exchanges in the comments section triggered by Jerry Fresia’s comment and my response raise very interesting questions about what we know and how we know it.  To an extent that most of us do not often reflect upon, our knowledge of the world is socially grounded, not the product of individual observation or the formulation and confirmation and disconfirmation of hypotheses.  Let me offer, as a start, a few trivial examples and then a more serious extended example, all without venturing into politically or ideologically contested territory.

I believe that Jerry Fresia exists, that he holds a doctorate from UMass and is a distinguished and successful artist.   I believe this because I have read it online.  What is more, I believe that there is a single individual who repeatedly over the years has commented on this blog, and that this individual is the very same Jerry Fresia.  But I have never met Jerry Fresia, nor have I observed him writing and posting comments to this blog, and if someone claimed that this blog persona is the creation of a right wing conspiracy designed [somewhat unsuccessfully, to be sure] to sow discord on the left, I would have no sound counterevidence and would be reduced to ineffectual sputtering.

You who read this blog believe, I should imagine, that it is written by an American philosopher in his eighties named Robert Paul Wolff, but with the exception of Tom Cathcart, Charles Parsons, and a few others, including my sister Barbara, none of you has actually met me or talked to me.  For a long time, you could learn quite a bit about this character Robert Paul Wolff by going to Wikipedia, but some while ago one of Google’s internal police force decided the article on me was unsourced and with a keystroke wiped out all of it but the very first sentence.  Should that minatory figure revisit the entry, I may be completely obliterated, thereby, so far as the Cloud is concerned, becoming just one more bot.

I also believe that Pelham, Massachusetts, where I lived for twenty-one years, lies to the northeast of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I moved in 2008.  Why do I believe this?  Because a variety of maps show that it does.  To be sure, I have twice driven between the two cities, following interstate highways for most of the distance, but if I were called on to demonstrate to a sceptic the geographic relationship of the two towns I would be forced to appeal to generally accepted authorities, including the orientation display in the driving mirror of my 2004 Camry.  Someone who doubts such well-known facts is a nut, a kook, a conspiracy junkie, right?

Well, consider this case.  Charles Darwin, as we all know, launched modern evolutionary biology with his theory of natural selection.  But Darwin had no idea of the mechanisms of biological evolution.  It was the work first of Gregor Mendel and then of Thomas Hunt Morgan that located this mechanism in the genes lying on chromosomes in the cells of living things.  [Personal aside:  Hunt worked with fruit flies, specifically Drosophila Melenogaster, because they have unusually large chromosomes that are visible using the microscopes available in the early 20th century.  My sister, Barbara, won the national Westinghouse Science Talent Search in 1948 with research on phenocopies in Drosophila Melenogaster, and as a consequence during much of her senior year in high school, we ate dinner each evening in the Wolff household under a small cloud of fruit flies that had escaped from our basement and come up looking for food.]

The result was something in evolutionary biology known as the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis, given dramatic confirmation and specification by Watson and Crick’s demonstration of the double helix structure of the chromosome.  This synthesis dominated evolutionary biology for many, many years, yielding Nobel Prizes and other social recognitions of the brilliant work of several generations of scientists.

There were a few fringe dissenters, of course, as there always are in science, as in life.  One was a woman name Lynn Margulis, best known as the wife of the astronomer and TV superstar Carl Sagan.  Early in  her career as an evolutionary biologist, Margulis put forward the bizarre hypothesis that very early on, maybe two billion years ago or so, at a time when life was extremely primitive and organisms did not even have cellular structures with nuclei, two distinct organisms merged in a process she called symbiosis.  One of the two went on living inside the other, and when the host reproduced, so did the visitor, independently.  According to Margulis, the essential structures in modern cells known as mitochondria are the descendants of that early symbiosis.  What is more, she claimed, such symbiotic mergings continue.

Well, established evolutionary biologists scoffed, Margulis had trouble even publishing her papers, and she spent her career in the sticks first teaching at Boston University and then at UMass Amherst, where we overlapped for ten years, although I am sorry to say I never met her.  Margulis championed a number of fringe theories, including the claim that the 9/11 twin towers attack was a false flag operation and that the towers collapsed not as a result of the impact of the airplanes but because of timed detonations of bombs placed strategically in the buildings.

Clearly a nut, right?  Right, except for one inconvenient fact.  Her theory of symbiosis turns out to be correct, and is now regarded in the profession as one of the foundations of modern evolutionary biology, along with the work of Darwin, Hunt, and Watson and Crick.

 I think the specifications in the indictments secured by Mueller are reliable, I genuinely do.  Will it turn out, some months from now, that Trump consciously and deliberately conspired with Putin.  I have no idea, although I strongly suspect he did.  Is the investigation a deep state conspiracy designed to frustrate the legitimate will the American people as expressed in the 2016 election.  Of course.  Does that make the charges false?  Of course not.  I think the charges are true.  I also suspect that if an establishment candidate had engaged in the same behavior, it would have been buried.  Does that mean Trump is no worse than Bush or Obama or Clinton?  Nope.

Is that all perfectly clear now?

Saturday, July 14, 2018


I have just read the entire 29 page indictment handed down by the Grand Jury against a group of Russian military intelligence officers.   You can read it here.  I urge you to do so as well.  It is quite remarkable.  Mueller and his team seem to know a good bit about each of these Russians:  their names, their cover names, their ranks, the precise addresses of their offices, the time to the minute when they logged on, began to hack, planted malware, tried to erase evidences of their hacking, and on and on.  For all I know, Mueller knows what they have for breakfast.  I wouldn’t be surprised.

Do I believe what the indictment says?  Yes I do.  I also believe a man walked on the moon, that vaccinations can protect children from infectious diseases, and that the sun rises in the east. Could I be wrong about all of these beliefs?  Of course.  I have read Descartes’ Meditations I and II.  I know the difference between logical certainty and well established fact.  Do I understand the difference between an indictment and a conviction? Yes, in fact I know that too. 

Do I think there will, before too many months have gone by, indictments of Americans who conspired with the Russians?  I do, actually.  Is this speculation on my part?  Of course.  We shall have to wait and see.

Thursday, July 12, 2018


After Serena Williams powered her way into the Finals at Wimbledon, I spent some time idly watching a pathetic array of Republicans do everything they could to harass FBI Agent Peter Strzok during his testimony before their committee.  They managed to establish three facts:

1.         Strzok was personally extremely opposed to Donald Trump being elected president.
2.         Strzok believed that the FBI had evidence that Trump was conspiring with the Russians to gain an advantage in the election, evidence which if revealed would hurt Trump’s election prospects.
3.         Strrzok did absolutely nothing to reveal this evidence to the public before the election.

If we assume that the Republicans desired that Donald Trump be elected president, why are they not pinning a medal on him?

[The question is a mocking rhetorical question, for those who have trouble identifying irony.]

Wednesday, July 11, 2018


David Baldacci is an enormously successful schlock fiction writer whose titles, if book jackets are to be believed, have sold 130 million copies worldwide.  I picked up a copy of his recent 2017 book, End Game, in the Carolina Meadows library and am now eighty pages from finishing it.  About a fifty pages ago, it suddenly dawned on me that the character who is going to turn out to be the bad guy has a life story that point for point parallels that of Donald Trump.  Suddenly, what was a rather mediocre read has taken on new interest.


Alert students of the higher reaches of the intellectual sphere will have seen the distressing stories about the distinguished Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.  It seems that Professor Dershowitz, who summers on Martha’s Vineyard, has been shunned lately by the elite inhabitants of that storied vacation retreat who, because of his defense of President Trump, have stopped inviting him to their dinner parties.  Dershowitz, exhibiting admirable restraint, has compared this behavior to McCarthyism.  But I think a more substantive legal argument can be advanced.

It is of course second nature to a famous constitutional law expert like Dershowitz that the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution “prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines, or cruel and unusual punishments.”  What is more, the Supreme Court has ruled that the “cruel and unusual punishments” clause applies to the states as well.   It is beyond dispute that banishment from a Martha’s Vineyard dinner party is cruel and unusual, and it is surely a very small reach indeed to extend the constitutional prohibition from states to vacation resorts.

I am no scholar of the law, but I think Professor Dershowitz has a legitimate cause of action.  Inasmuch as such suits can be costly, and Dershowitz, as an emeritus Harvard professor, is compelled to live on whatever pension that financially strapped institution provides, I propose that all fair-minded defenders of the rule of law launch a gofundme effort.  I am prepared to commit a penny to the effort, and if one hundred million good Americans will join me, Professor Dershowitz will have the beginnings of a defense fund.

I mean, fair is fair.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018


In recent posts, I have spoken of Trump as leading America into fascism.  Rather than continue in that dramatic rhetorical fashion, I thought today I would say something of a general nature about the structure of American politics.  My conclusion, to get very much ahead of myself, will be that what is wrong with American politics, and what can be fixed, starts at the bottom, not at the top.  My characterization, I hope, will also illuminate the ways in which current trends in America do and do not resemble those that brought Hitler and Mussolini to power.  [The fasces, the symbol of power that gives us the word “fascism,” is ancient Roman in origin, and has been adopted by many political movements since.]

The drafters of the U. S. Constitution gave to the political structure of the new Republic three structural characteristics that, taken together, form the distinctively American political system.  First, they adopted a federal structure that left autonomy and power to the several states.  Originally, the federal government was strikingly weak, making seniority in the Senate, for example, almost as important as the presidency.  The modern imperial presidency that we have come to take for granted is really a product first of the Great Depression and then of World War II and the ensuing Cold War.

Second, the Constitution was deliberately designed, in accordance with political theories current in the 17th and 18th centuries, to make the Senators and Representatives dependent on and answerable to their territorially defined constituents.  The expectation was that the private career self-interest of the representative would make him or her [it was originally always him] sensitively attuned to constituents’ interests and desires.  It is not a corruption of American democracy that Senators and Representatives conform their votes in the Legislature to the prejudices of their constituents rather than to the national interest or the ideals of democracy.  It is a feature, not a bug, as folks like to say these days.  Nor should we imagine that the moral character of Republicans is necessarily inferior to that of Democrats.  There is really nothing to choose, from a transcendental perspective, between Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer.  Each represents his constituents quite effectively and sensitively.

Third, the election of the president was to be determined by each state’s electors rather than by the popular vote.  We are all painfully conscious of this feature of American democracy because the last two Republican presidencies have come to that office after losing the popular vote.

These structural characteristics, particularly the first and third, are in no way integral to democracy ­per se.  In South Africa, for example, voters choose political parties, not candidates.  Each party nominates an entire slate, in order of party preference, long enough in theory to fill the legislature.  The party’s national share of the popular vote determines which segment of the list, counting from the top, goes into the government.  Thus, no person in South Africa can identify his or her representative, and members of the legislature do not have a defined body of constituents.  The third characteristic, the Electoral College, is of course unique to America.

With this as the fundamental structure of American democracy, there are two features of the contemporary operation of the political system that, more than any other, deserve our attention.  One of these is vastly more important than the other.

The first feature is the role of money in elections.  Although this feature routinely gets enormous attention by progressive critics of the system, particularly in the aftermath of the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, it is in fact relative to other factors not terribly important.  America is a very large and very wealthy country, and elections are not very expensive.  In a full-scale presidential campaign these days, the two parties together spend about as much in total as Americans will spend that year on peanut butter, namely ~2.5 billion dollars.  There are more than enough super-rich lefties to fill the coffers of the Democratic Party, and if a candidate wishes to go the Bernie Sanders route, well, ten million supporters donating $25 each will provide 250 million dollars.  What is more, whereas television is expensive, social media are virtually free.  A lack of money on the left does not explain why America is teetering on the edge of fascism.

The second feature, which is the key to everything that is currently politically wrong with America, is that vast numbers of Americans eligible to vote do not bother to do so.  This has nothing to do with voter suppression efforts, by the way, which operate at the margins.  The simple fact is that in presidential elections, only 55-60% of the eligible voters vote, and in mid-term elections, only 35-40% vote.  Once again, this is not inevitable.  Currently, there are about ten democracies around the world that actually require all citizens to vote.

So, as I have often observed on this blog, in the American political system as it currently operates, the secret to success is mobilizing and motivating one’s supporters.  [Gerrymandering, which currently favors Republicans, is entirely a consequence of the success of the Republicans in bringing their supporters to the polls in mid-term and off-year state elections.]  The Democrats actually have a majority share of the electorate in their support, and for a variety of demographic reasons, their advantage is over time improving.

Why then are we not having fun?

There are many reasons, but one stands out, in my view, above all the others.  A large part of the White majority is affronted, offended, frightened, angered, and bewildered by the patent fact that America is moving inexorably toward majority non-white status.  These emotions dominate and even put into eclipse economic interest, with two consequences:  First, enabling Republicans to successfully serve the interests of big business by playing on the racial fears of Whites whom they are economically screwing; and Second, enabling an opportunist like Trump to drop the dog whistles and go full frontal fascist.

What can we do?  Sigh.  It is such a letdown to follow this highfalutin analysis with a banal punch line, but the answer is simple.  Vote.

Sunday, July 8, 2018


I have had my fun with establishment American economists, likening them to denizens of Plato’s Cave, building brilliant careers on guessing at the succession of images flickering on the cave wall.  Still and all, fair is fair, and though they are biologically incapable of forming the words “Karl Marx,” the best of them really are good at predicting shadows.  So this morning, I shall tip my hat to Paul Krugman, shadow guesser supreme, who in this Op Ed column does a nice job of anatomizing the self-destructive inanity of Trump’s trade wars.


I was rather struck by the fact that my post entitled “Two EMail Messages” provoked only two comments, both of them simply links to other sites.  I fear the point of the post may have been lost.  My purpose was to contrast the prosaic and utterly unremarkable content of the phone script with Phil Green’s beautifully articulated cry of despair, something I would have been proud to write had I his polemical skill.  I was trying to illustrate how mundane actual political work is, at the ground level.

I have now made my first 19 calls, leaving the remaining 12 for this afternoon.  The result?  I left 10 messages on answering machines, was told that 5 numbers were disconnected, got one no-answer [no answering machine], one weird sound, was told tartly by one woman to please remove her from our call list, and spoke to one enthusiastic supporter who thanked me for my service.  Is this really a good use of the time of a man who is, as Clint Eastwood puts it in one movie, a legend in his own mind?  Indeed it is.  Since I have nothing better to do, the opportunity cost is zero.  But there is more to it than that.  Let me explain. 

The fundamental fact about midterm elections in America is that most eligible voters don’t vote.  Roughly 35-40% of those who can vote bother to do so.  Republican Freedom Caucus member Mark Walker has won the 6th North Carolina CD the two times he has run by about 59-41%.  For the sake of numerical simplicity, call it a 60/40 district.  This is an enormous hill for young Democratic challenger Ryan Watts to climb.  It would seem that he must persuade one out of every six Republicans to switch parties, an impossible task.  But appearances can deceive.  Consider.

Suppose that in November the Republicans in the N.C. 6th CD are a tad dispirited, and not energized because Trump’s name is not on the ballot.  Let us imagine that they turn out at a low but not at all impossible 33%.  At the same time, suppose the local Democrats are fired up, by babies torn from mothers’ arms, by Mueller indictments, by the threat of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and come to the polls in numbers more to be expected in a presidential year, say 50% of them.  Now 1/3 of 60 is 20, and ½ of 40 is also 20, and suddenly a 60-40 district becomes a 50-50 race, in which an upset is entirely possible.

What has to happen for this fantasy to become reality?   Here we come to the on the ground reality of American politics, which is that organizationally, it is radically decentralized.  I am not just talking about the fact that the political organization of each state is a world unto itself, but that this decentralization reaches right down to the county level.  Sometimes, in presidential years, a national campaign achieves a startling degree of efficiency, as in fact Obama’s two campaigns did, but for the most part, and especially in off-year elections, candidates must rely on the organizational muscle of the local party, and that varies greatly from state to state, county to county.

For whatever historical reason, the North Carolina Democratic Party is a rather pathetic mess, so much so that in 2008 and 2012, when I worked here for Obama, I observed that his campaign staff simply bypassed the state party.  It made no use, for example, of the state party’s outdated and inadequate database of voters, addresses, phone numbers, and party registration.  If Ryan Watts is to achieve a Democratic voter turnout sufficient to turn a 60/40 district into a 50-50 race, he is going to need accurate voter records.  Now, Chatham County, where I live, is one of the few Democratic bastions in a Republican CD, and it has a pretty good county Democratic machine, but Alamance County, 30 miles to the northwest, does not.  So the Chatham County Dems are offering a helping hand to the Alamance County Dems by making calls to update the lists and reach out to supporters in Alamance.

And that is why I sat at my desk yesterday, and will sit at my desk today, working my way down the list of numbers and reading from my script.

Saturday, July 7, 2018


When I got up this morning, there were two email messages for me, aside from the flood of political money appeals.  In light of the vigorous discussion that has sprung up in response to my post about ringing doorbells, I thought I would reproduce both of them here.  I cannot imagine a more striking contrast.

The first message was from a volunteer with the Ryan Watts Congressional campaign.  She had sent me a list of 30 names and telephone numbers, and I had promised to call them this weekend.  This is the “script”:

“Hello, I am (name) ______ a volunteer with Ryan Watts' Campaign, Ryan is our 6th Congressional District Democratic Candidate. We are inviting you to Ryan's Town Hall on Thursday, July 12th, 6:30 pm to 8:00 pm, auditorium at Alamance Community College in Graham. Will you be able to attend the Town Hall?  Thank you.”

Alamance is a town roughly in the middle of the 6th CD, just off Interstate 85.

The second message was from Philip Green, a well-known political scientist and radical activist, a professor emeritus from Smith College, a member of The Nation editorial board, and the author of many fine books.  Phil and I first met in Sunnyside, Queens.  He was three and I was two.  It is said we rode on occasion in the same baby carriage on Skilman Avenue.

SEVEN THESES        Phil Green. 7/4/18

I.    The Present

Engels proclaimed in the 19th Century that the choice was "Socialism or Barbarism."  The suspense is over. The barbarians are not at the gates, they're inside. More, they're inside the Temple: ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, Orthodox Christians in Russia, fundamentalists in the Islamic world, evangelical Christians in America. The New Testament as a blueprint for theocratic tyranny and contempt for the weak, the stateless, the needy. No need for Attila; any minister will do.

II.  The Constitution

Stalin famously asked "How many divisions does the Pope have?"  The answer is not recorded, though we know the Pope won in the end.  Donald Trump has asked, over and over again, "How many divisions does the Constitution have?"  And the answer, over and over, has been crystal clear to him: None.  Lots of handwringing by liberal lawyers on MSNBC, exegeses of what this or that passage really means, outcries by Democrats. Drops of fresh tears in the ocean of salt. The 14th and 15th Amendments and the Voting Rights Act are dead. In the latter case Vladimir Putin, the international gangster whose boots he lovingly licks, will help cement the elimination of "free and fair" elections. The 1st and 2nd Amendments are perverted beyond recovery; due process (Amendments 4, 5, and 6) and the Rule of Law have been effectively abolished, the DOJ turned into a "Handmaid" of tyranny.
    The President is the most powerful person on the Planet; nothing he has done or does can be overturned) no matter what happens in the Midterms.  The Supremes, soon to be instantiated as the High Court of Theocracy and Autocracy, as well as an obeisant Republican Party, will ensure all that. The Constitution is indeed, as has sometimes been said, but a piece of parchment. Shreddable. Or like Wiley E. Coyote, it's been running off the edge of a cliff while pretending it wasn't falling.  Gravity has won.

III.  The Police State

Concentration camps.  A legitimized Gestapo that rules at will, wherever it goes, with brute force behind it.  Geheimestaatspolizei. Violence cannot be contained  at a border. The knock on the door is the Law. Militarized police enforce White Supremacy. As one German commentator put it, we have "Anti-Semitism without Jews."  On this Continent, Muslims and Central Americans will serve just as well.  Not to mention transsexuals. And uppity young blacks. And women who don't treat their fetuses with proper respect.

IV.   "Totalization"

Let us celebrate all those clever accommodationsists who predicted the "end of ideology," the "triumph of liberal democracy," and best of all, the end of "totalizing theories," i.e.  Marxism, i.e., "totalitarianism."  Just as the final totalization of all, the unregulated "free" market, was taking over everywhere.  Like those TV sports analysts who lucidly explain why something is happening one play before the opposite comes crashing to life.
    Totalization: in a perfect inversion of Michael Walzer's Spheres of Justice, there is no sphere of social living that can justly resist that take-over, nothing that can't be bought or sold, no scrap of welfare that can't be dispensed with, except of course the military budget, the first-resort instrument of white male justice and the capitalism with which it has made its peace.  Ralph Miliband coined the term "totalitarian capitalism" to describe China. Or coming to theater near you,  government by the Kochs, the Adelson, the Thieles, the Mercers. But sure, Leon Golub can hang his art anywhere.

V.  Fascism

The climb may have  been difficult, but the descent is proving to be easy.The  recipe is simple. The Devil's Bargain: the plutocracy gets the votes of the white supremacy tribe–by no means limited to the so-called "working class." In return, the Authoritarian Populist mob, its appeal to violence unrestrained, gets to rule over its opponents in the name of "The People." When I hear that phrase I reach for my passport.  In the immortal words of Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
    Liberals keep complaining incredulously, "but they're voting against their own interests!" Fateful misunderstanding.  For nihilism and bigotry, there's always work to be done. The only requirement is a leader who will call that spirit from the vasty deep. The mob then votes for the grandest self-interest of all: revenge.  Schadenfreud. Ressentiment. Straight out of Central Europe, the train is on its way To The Munich Station. Smash families? Steal children? The best "fuck you" money can buy. Melted ice caps lapping at our shores? "There will be rain tonight...Let it come down." "Find what occurred at Linz/What huge imago made a psychopathic god." Or in Queens. The license to say "Fuck you" to everyone you hate, or feel hard done by, or envy, or above all, feel dispossessed by:  robbed of your centuries-old reward of over-representation.

VI.   Resistance

The police are either legitimate or they are not.  If they are, nothing more to be said.  If not, nothing will come out of nothing. Not marches in the park, not articles in The Nation, not even female veterans of combat running for office everywhere. Good for morale. But they only understand force.  Masses: blocking the Courthouse steps, as in Poland; taking over the forbidden voting places; keeping ICE out of churches, workplaces, homes.  Fighting back.  Not going gentle: making them know what they have to do, and forcing them to do it–letting everyone see their true colors, the stakes, the cost. Losing, but not surrendering.

VII.   The Future?

Nothing is fixed; it's not only shit that happens.  But,

"...imagine a boot, stamping on a human face..."

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins."

Philip Green

Thursday, July 5, 2018


I am not offering to ring doorbells and make calls out of faux man of the people humility.  If there were something more consequential I could do, I would do it.  I am beside myself with despair and apprehension, and I need to do something.  Working for the local Democratic challenger is something, and if I can manage to multiply my vote by getting others to the polls, then I need to do it.  Will my efforts all by themselves make the difference?  Of course not.  Will my efforts and those of a relatively small number of others -- twenty, thirty, fifty others -- make the difference?  Very possibly.  I won't know unless I try.  I don't like the mechanics of campaigning.  It is not my preferred way to spend the summer and beyond.  But these really are perilous times.


I am genuinely flattered by the comments by Jerry Fresia and S. Wallerstein.  However, I shall persevere with my journeyman work of knocking on doors and making calls, or whatever else the Watts campaign wants me to do.  None of that will interfere with my writing, which I do for the most part in my head anyway.  I rather doubt I am suited to be a Thomas Paine.  My inclination is to engage in analysis rather than to issue calls to arms.  I have been writing for sixty years, and I do not think asnyone ever put me on a banner or a bumper sticker.

By the way, I just went on line to check out Paul Krugman's latest Op Ed column for the TIMES, and found this opening sentence, which captures perfectly everything I hate about him:

"As I wrote the other day, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may call herself a socialist and represent the left wing of the Democratic party, but her policy ideas are pretty reasonable."

He really is insufferable.


When Susie and I moved south to Chapel Hill, NC, we found ourselves in a blue puddle surrounded by a red sea.  The fourth Congressional District of North Carolina is a safely Democratic enclave that has been represented for thirty years [save for a brief two year lapse] by David Price, a reliably liberal Democrat who holds a Yale doctorate in Political Science and taught at Duke before entering Congress.  He wins re-election each time he runs by anywhere from 15 to 30 points.  As a consequence, voting in Chapel Hill was pleasant but politically pointless.  I might just as well have stayed home.

A year ago, we moved again, this time five miles further south to Carolina Meadows, the continuing care retirement community that is now our home.  Thanks to the precise and thoughtful planning of the Republican majority in the state legislature, Carolina Meadows lies about four and a half feet inside the 6th CD, an equally reliable Republican stronghold.  The 6th CD is represented by the execrable Mark Walker, now in his second term.  Walker is an extreme right-wing member of the House Freedom caucus, briefly famous a short while ago for opining, after the Catholic House of Representatives Chaplain was abruptly fired by Paul Ryan, that the House needed a chaplain with a wife and children – which is to say, not a Catholic.  Walker, by the way, was a Baptist minister for twenty years.

The 6th CD is what the political insiders call an R +9 district, which is to say it usually goes for the Republicans by 18 points, more or less [+9 means 9 points over 50%, not 9 points over the Democrat.]  This year, Walker is being challenged by Ryan Watts, a 27 year old graduate of UNC Chapel Hill making his political debut.  Watts is no fire breathing liberal, but he has articulated a standard moderately progressive program, in hopes that a blue wave will carry him to D.C.  Manifestly, Watts has a big hill to climb, but after all, Conor Lamb eked out a win in a Pennsylvania R +10 district, so hope springs eternal.  I have volunteered to work for the Watts campaign, at least during the next eight weeks before the Fall Columbia semester begins.

In midterms, the whole game is turnout, of course.  The norm is for 35-40% of the eligible voters actually to go to the polls.  Carolina Meadows is in Chatham County, one of the few D-leaning counties of the 6th CD.  Carolina Meadows itself, as I have reported, is a hotbed of support for the Democratic Party, but getting people here to vote is not difficult.  Carolina Meadows is actually the voting location for our precinct, which means the my fellow old folks can vote on their way to the dining room or the library.  The rest of Chatham County, to our south, is mostly rural land with a few urban centers, such as Pittsboro and Siler City, and there ought to be some Democratic votes to harvest there.

I do not much enjoy politicking, if the truth be told, but I volunteered for Obama and walked door to door for Clinton, so while I diet, I will do what the Watts campaign wants me to do, and hope that I can bring a few lazy souls to the polls.  I think this is the most important election I have participated in since I first knocked on doors in East Cambridge for Adlai Stevenson in 1956.

All politics are local.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018


Among today’s news stories was a report that the Trump administration, not surprisingly, will oppose considerations of race in college admissions.  As I walked this morning, I carried out an argument in my head, as I so often do, this time against a defender of the administration position arguing in typical self-righteous fashion for college admissions based solely on merit, on demonstrated academic accomplishment or promise.  Rather than key my discussion today to the fact that it is the Fourth of July [we anarchists are not big on national holidays], I thought I would put in some coherent form the substance of my imagined argument.  As always, I find it useful to begin with some statistics and some history [save when talking about Kant, but that is another matter entirely.]

Higher education on the North American continent is 382 years old, if we take the 1636 founding of Harvard College as our terminus a quo.  Over that time, there have been four significant changes in the undergraduate portion of American higher education, all of them taking place in the fifteen years or so after World War II.

The first change was the explosion of public higher educational institutions, dramatically and permanently changing the balance of private and public institutions.  Until the end of WW II, the private sector dominated, even though, as a consequence of the Land Grant Act of 1862, a sector of state universities came into existence.  Although private colleges are created only rarely, so many state university campuses and state college systems have come into existence in the past sixty or seventy years that there are now more than 2,600 college and university campuses in the United States offering four year degrees.

The second change was the transformation of regional colleges and universities into national [and even international] institutions.  Before the war, schools like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, Michigan, et al. served mostly local clientele.  It was unusual, for example, for someone from the Midwest or far west or deep south to go to college in New England.  Starting after the war, schools actively sought nationally representative student bodies.

The third change was the dramatic rise in the number of applicants to the most highly sought after colleges, a change in part resulting from the sharp increase in the number of young people seeking higher educational degrees [I leave to one side the deeper question whether they were seeking higher education.]  A few anecdotal statistics will illustrate this change.  In 1950, when I started my undergraduate education at Harvard, only 5% of adult Americans had college degrees.  Ninety-five percent did not.  Sixty eight years later, 35% of adult Americans have college degrees, still a small minority, but seven times as many proportionately.  When I applied 1949 for admission to Harvard, 2200 young men applied, 1650 were admitted, and 1250 of us showed up to form the class of ’54.  It was much easier to get into Harvard when I applied than it is today to get into the University of Massachusetts.

There was a fourth change, the change that has given rise to the debate about so-called Affirmative Action.  It was a response both to the dramatic rise in the number of high school graduates seeking college degrees and to the transformation of colleges and universities from regional to national aspirations.  Let me explain, again by the use of an anecdote.  By 1960, I had my doctorate, had done a stint in the army, and was an Instructor at Harvard, living in Winthrop House as a Resident Tutor [free room and board in return for talking to undergraduates.]  One day McGeorge Bundy stopped by to visit the Senior Common Room.  He was then Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, before he went off to Washington to be Jack Kennedy’s National Security Advisor and oversee the Bay of Pigs and America’s entry into Viet Name.  He remarked that Harvard now was getting 5000 applicants a year [two and a half times as many as a decade earlier, but of course nothing like the 42,742 who applied this past year.]  Bundy said, “One thousand are clear admits, one thousand are clear rejects, and the real problem is making decisions about the remaining three thousand, every one of whom has something to be said for him.”

In short, elite colleges went from having admissions requirements to designing and implementing admissions policies.  Until that period, colleges had simply specified the preparation required for admissions – so much Latin, so much mathematics, and so forth.  But the flood of applicants at the elite schools presented a problem.  Many more young people were applying for admission than there was room for, so some deliberate choices had to be made about what one wanted the entering class to look like.  This was not a problem at the majority of colleges and universities, be it noted.  They were fighting to fill their classrooms.  But with the competition for good jobs in the economy and the rising educational credentials for those jobs, made possible by the increase in the number of college graduates, the value of a degree from an elite college soared, and so did the pool of applicants.

The first result was an expansion of the college bureaucracies.  Entire Admissions Departments, headed up by Deans of Admissions, came into existence.  Little by little, decisions were made at the administrative level that translated in to admissions policies.  A number of admissions criteria were put in place around the country, not only in the private higher educational sector, but in the elite public sector as well.  Everyone these days is aware of at least some of these criteria, but it is worth enumerating them to focus our attention on just how much of a change in admissions practices they involved.  Here are just a few:

1:         Private colleges adopted the policy of giving preference to applicants one of whose parents had attended the college – so-called “legacies.”
2:         Co-educational colleges sought to establish and maintain a rough gender balance.
3:         Colleges actively sought to achieve geographical distribution, sending admissions personnel on recruiting missions to secondary schools in underrepresented regions of the country.
4:         Colleges sought to achieve and maintain a balance of undergraduates pursuing degrees in the Arts and Humanities, in the Social Sciences, and in Natural Science and Mathematics.
5:         Colleges sought to restrict the number of Jewish undergraduates [now a somewhat less popular criterion of admissions or rejection.]
6:         Colleges sought to recruit young men with special gifts or potential in intercollegiate sports.  Later, this policy was extended to young women as well.
7:         Colleges sought to maximize their impact on the larger society by recruiting students who gave evidence of a desire to go into public service of some sort.


In the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, northern elite colleges began admitting, and then even recruiting, students of color.  And all hell broke loose.  People of the highest and most unimpeachable principle, who had caviled not at all at admission preferences based on legacies, on gender balance, on regional distribution, on fields of concentration, on religion, on sports ability, or on ambitions for public service, suddenly discovered that they were academic purists, concerned that admission be based on academic accomplishment or ability alone.

It would be otiose to observe that these objections are transparently racist.

What in earth would an undergraduate body be like that was recruited solely on the basis of academic considerations?  My personal example, which may of course be dated now, is the contrast I observed between the students walking the halls of Harvard and of MIT.  The Harvard students looked as though they had responded to a call from central casting for a TV advertising gig:  handsome, pulled together, neatly dressed, pleasingly varied in their racial and cultural diversity.  The MIT students were utterly different: tall, short, fat, thin, geeky, black, white, red, brown, yellow, weird.  Pretty obviously one could see that all they had in common was smarts.

The case giving rise to the dispute about affirmative action is the manifest effort of Harvard to hold down the proportion of Asian students, who are the new Jews.  I have no doubt the new assault on affirmative action will succeed, but I do not think I can bear the smug assertions by the supporters of this assault that all they care about is academic ability.  Puleeese.