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Monday, August 6, 2018


In the past few days, the comments section of this blog has taken a turn with which I am very unhappy, and I have only myself to blame.  The flood of comments was triggered by my post yesterday morning [good grief, was it only yesterday morning?] in which I commented on a brief YouTube Noam Chomsky clip to which “Heraclitus” had supplied a link.  These comments provoked just the sort of agitated and somewhat hostile back and forth on the left [in which I participated] that I have always decried and tried to stay out of.  In this post, I want to step back and make some general observations about political action, especially in pursuit of the sorts of goals that I think I share with most of my readers.

As I have observed before, political change is not like brain surgery, in which the slightest slip of the hand can mean death or terrible injury.  I prefer to liken political change to a landslide, in which an entire mountainside is transformed by an enormous flood of boulders, uprooted trees, rocks, clods of earth, but also pebbles and grains of sand, all tumbling, rolling, bouncing, pitching down a slope.  In the Civil Rights Movement, the greatest popular political movement of my lifetime, one sees huge boulders like John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King rolling down the mountainside, along with small trees, like my UMass colleague in the Afro-American Studies Department Mike Thelwell, who ran the SNCC office in D. C. for a while.

But if nothing moves save for those few big objects, the result is not a landslide, and the mountainside is not transformed.  For that transformation to happen, everything, small as well as big, must be in motion.  If you are one of the pebbles or grains of sand, your participation in the landslide will make little or no observable difference, but without you and all the other pebbles and grains, it will not be a landslide.

The greatness and also the besetting sin of intellectuals is that they try to think about everything, not merely about something.  If all you are doing is thinking, then of course the one is as easy as the other.  But when it comes to political action, for most of us it is all we can manage to do just something – to be a pebble or a grain of sand.  The trick, if you are intellectually inclined, is not to make the mistake of imagining that arguing in grand terms about everything is any sort of substitute for actually doing something.

That is why I spent several days writing and merge printing some fundraising letters for young Ryan Watts here in the NC 6th CD, which, Lord knows, is about as pebbly a thing as it is possible to do.

Now, I am, for better or worse, an intellectual, so I will continue to opine on the big picture, since that is what we intellectuals do.  But I am not going to get into arguments about that big picture with folks who, I hope, are tumbling down the mountain with me.  It is enough that we are tumbling down the same side.


Jerry Fresia said...

"The trick, if you are intellectually inclined, is not to make the mistake of imagining that arguing in grand terms about everything is any sort of substitute for actually doing something."


What is the syllabus of your course with Todd Gitlin? Will you be discussing the history of recent strategies (60s)? How do you avoid obvious partisanship vis-a-vis Trump. No doubt you'll have Trumpeters in the class.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think I shall do grand theory and Todd, who has been an active part of radical action in the last fifty years or so, will emphasize the real world. The trick is to be honest while making students feel empowered to disagree. It will be a trick.

After Todd and I make final tweaks, I will post the syllabus.

LFC said...

Btw this piece by Jeffrey Isaac (which I skimmed) may be worth a look:

The gist seems to be that Trump et al. may be preparing the ground for a claim that a Dem victory in the Nov. 2018 midterms will be illegitimate because of, among other things, Russian interference. Not a reason to stop talking about Russian interference in 2016 but an indication of how, jujutsi-like, the Trump people may be trying to take lemons and make lemonade (or something...)

Dean said...

Slightly OT, but this new story from New Yorker about "municipalism" in Barcelona is fascinating:

It reads like a mash-up of (mildly utopian) second wave feminism and, well, Prof. Wolff's own practical, incrementalist take on the realities of politics.

Jerry Brown said...

Professor, one of the problems with lefties, or liberals, or whatever, is that even when we all might want to go to pretty much the same destination, we will always argue about how to get there. Which route to take, what mode of transportation, that kind of thing. But at the same time, that is also one of our greatest strengths I think. People arguing with you may not be fun always, but it does show they are interested in what you write and think. I hope you don't get too unhappy about this. Now if we wanted to go to some completely different destination in some other direction, well, the arguments are going to be much, much more bitter, and maybe you should get unhappy about it.

David Palmeter said...


One difference between 2016 and 2018 is that the polls picked Clinton to win. A Democratic win of the House this year is being widely predicted by the polls and talking heads, so, should the Democrats win, it would simply confirm the pre-election predictions. No surprise, as there was in 2016,

LFC said...

@ David Palmeter

That's true, but the Trump people could still make an effort to cast doubt on the results. I'm not saying such an effort would be all that successful. Just noting that the Isaac piece seemed to go in that direction... as I say, I didn't do more than skim it. That Public Seminar site btw is quite good, I think, though it's not one of my habitual, regular stops, online habits, like most habits, being not easy to alter.

Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Wolff,

I think there may be many liberal (and non-liberal) people out there in internet and tv land that feel that the Prez. is unstoppable and invincible--and therefore they feel like abandoned political sheep whose politics have become meaningless. Isn't this the time in U.S. politics when Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy is needed the most? A time when the basic tenets of philosophy should explain to us that goodness will triumph over evil? That is why I have typed the following paper over the past four hours. That, if you're Republican or Democrat, the reality of our universe still has a good purpose whether you support the Prez. or not...

How do I know that if I am really stuck in a Total Rekall machine, my life is not meanigless in my reality?

(1) I must first begin with the assumption that I could, possibly, very well be, inside a Total Rekall machine.

(2) Now I am not omnipotent or omniscient, so I am not in charge of all realities around me or out there. I have a finite awareness, so I am not an infinite God or a God. Therefore, I am not the First Cause or ultimate creator of my own existence.

(3) Either God (or a non-God who has more power than me) has subjected me to this reality. Now there can only be one God, since according to Plato's Euthyphro, multiple Gods would not be in agreement with one another--so there would be no omniscience in the universe in that situation, therefore, they wouldn't be Gods nor each have the power of knowledge of only one ultimate God in the first place.

(4) But no matter how many realities exist, it is my belief that there could not be an infinite number of realities, since the number of objects found inside an infinite number of realities, would amount to more number of objects than the number of infinite number of realities--since there would be two or more objects in two or more realities. (And therefore there cannot be an infinite number of realities, since an infinite number cannot be outnumbered to begin with--which the totality of objects found in an infinite number of universes would do.) And since there exists only a finite number of realities, then because they are different in some way because of being finite, and they had therefore different finite beginnings of space-time and matter, then one reality existed first and the rest followed. (For it can only be logical that only an infinite number of realities can each have an infinite past. Otherwise there would be one beginning of a universe's past and therefore, a taking away of an infinite past to all other universes. For all infinite realities must be static and not dynamic.) Therefore, there exists a First Cause (or Creator God) of all existing realities. That also means that those subjecting me to the Rekall machine are either God or his creations. And this must be factual since I am not the cause of my own reality.

(5) No matter who is subjecting me to this Rekall machine, and since God exists, he is the God of all realities, and, therefore, my imprisonment inside this Rekall machine will always be for the greater good, no matter how nefarious my Rekall machine guards or captors are. That all being said, the greater good is the ultimate end (or telos) of existence of my reality too. And God being all-knowing he knows everything about goodness as well--and it's superiority over all evil. And since he is an all-powerful being, he is all-good, since it takes more patience, strength, and wisdom to be good rather than evil. Therefore, I must try to be good and try to do good, since as Socrates said: 'the unexamined life is not worth living.' And that's true even if I'm at Rekall...

s. wallerstein said...

Besides contributing my pebble or grain of sand to the cause, I come here for intellectual stimulation.

Professor Wolff's posts are thought-provoking, and the regular commenters are uniformly well-informed, highly intelligent and politically wise. Even though the arguments can get a bit heated, no one insults anyone else, and that is a relief. So for me (and I suspect for some others) it's a bit of morning intellectual ping-pong to get the neurons working and to stave off senility. I do crossword puzzles too.

So even if we don't change the world (and I hope that we do), our conversations, even our more "agitated and hostile" ones, help keep our minds in shape and that's a worthy cause in itself.