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Wednesday, October 3, 2018


This is a comment about Senator Susan Collins of Maine, although it may at first glance not seem to be.

I resigned a senior professorship in the Columbia University Philosophy Department and joined the Philosophy Department of the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1971.  Only somewhat later did I discover that the UMass department was deeply divided between a majority of members who thought of themselves as Analytic Philosophers and a small minority who did not.  Inasmuch as I had been trained at Harvard by Willard Van Orman Quine and Nelson Goodman, among others, generally considered premier Analytic Philosophers, I was rather surprised to discover that the UMass majority clique did not want me around and did not think that what I did was philosophy at all [the most damning judgment they could issue about anyone, in their eyes.]  I threw in my lot with the minority, with whom it was possible to have a serious conversation.  Over the next twenty-one years, until I decamped for the Afro-American Studies Department, those of us in the minority fought a series of departmental battles, the details of which I have described in my online autobiography.

One of the members of the majority was a man who was universally viewed as a real gentleman and a first rate philosopher, a decent, thoughtful, reasonable man completely free of the animus that, in my eyes and those of my fellow minority members, characterized the most vocal and implacable members of the majority.  When an issue arose, he would listen to our arguments and concerns attentively, ask us probing questions, nod thoughtfully at our answers, and like as not confess himself to be deeply torn and even, on occasion, genuinely on the fence.  He was, in all ways, the very model of a modern philosopher, if I may channel my inner Gilbert and Sullivan.

There was only one problem.  In twenty-one years, he never voted with us on any issue large or small.  Not once.  He hemmed, he hawed, he hesitated, he meditated, his face was a visible manifestation of his inner torment.  And yet, not once did his fair, unbiased, objective review of the facts and arguments lead him to vote for our point of view.

Perhaps unreasonably and unfairly, I grew to hate him more than I hated his openly partisan colleagues.


MS said...

I see where you’re going with this. What you say about the professor in question may also be true about Sen. Collins. I hope not.

The same is somewhat true about Rachel Mitchell, the prosecutor retained by the Republicans. She made an earnest effort during her questioning of Dr. Ford to give the impression that she was fair-minded and even-handed. She used facial expressions that gave the impression she was sympathetic to Dr. Ford’s accusation; at one point she even said that no one should have to experience what Dr. Ford did. Then she issued her report, which in my view, was a total hatchet job and revealed that she was a dissimulating partisan hack.

What is the psychological explanation for people who behave this way? (I know, psychoanalyzing people from a distance is risky, especially if, like me, you do not have a medial degree.) I suspect that, basically, they want to be liked. They want to give the impression that they are open minded and considerate, so then they can retreat to the protection of their self-interested biases with a clear conscience.

Again, I hope that Sen. Collins, as well as Sen.’s Flake and Murkowski, are not such people.

howard b said...

So loyalty to the Republican party trumps loyalty to the USA

Anonymous said...

Susan Collins is a weathervane. She’s always sniffing the air to sense which way the political and social winds are blowing, and you can usually count on her to make up her mind when the political costs or advantages (to her) are pretty much obvious. For example, she came out against Trump in 2016, when everybody thought (as the polls were teaching us) that Trump had no chance against HRC. Big surprise, and Collins had to atone for it—with the Republicans—by introducing her “friend” Jeff Sessions to the Senate as Trump’s Attorney General nominee. Even that wasn’t very risky: it’s not as if the Senate didn’t already know Sessions--that jackass-garden gnome hybrid. Long before that she was against same-sex marriage—until it was obvious that continuing to be against it would likely mean that she’d lose the vote in the southern half of Maine, where most of the state’s residents live. She’s voted for all of Trump’s judicial nominees, and she’s thereby had her hidden hand in Trump’s and the Federal Society’s ongoing wrecking of the federal lower courts. She voted for Gorsuch. And so on. She’s risk-averse, and she gets away with it. She’s also a legacy Republican, and she’d never veer from that. I’ve lived in Maine all my life, except for several years spent in Boston (90 miles away) while I was in school. I’ve voted against her every time that she’s run for anything (governor—she lost (with 23% of the vote); senator—maybe four times, all of which she’s won). That said, I don’t hate her; I just think she’s a drip and shouldn’t be where she is. And allegedly she votes about 40% of the time against the Republican Party line, so she’s not quite as two-faced as the erstwhile UMass philosophy department chairman. But she’s bad enough. And vapid enough. Don’t expect anything courageous from her. By the way, the liberals in Maine see through her.

Anonymous said...

I meant "the Federalist Society," not "the Federal Society." I could say more about Susan Collins--except, there's really nothing to say. Imitation Plain Vanilla.

MS said...

howard b,

They would disagree with your premise.

They would contend that loyalty to the GOP and loyalty to the USA are one and the same.

Howie said...

Dear MS

I doubt the USA will ever win the Olympic Gold in Hockey versus Russia ever again.
They're hallucinating or are James Bond villains

Howie said...

What I mean is that they confuse the flag and Monday Night football to switch sports and a mercenary Jesus for patriotism.
If that's what they stand for they could do something to themselves that only humans and certain species of nematodes are capable of doing

Anonymous said...

Prof. Wolff's colleague reminds of another colleague of mine just like that. The consensus in my department was that it is an acquired skill to appear on the fence. It is well-crafted in thought and action to evoke as little backlash as possible. In that respect, Collins's votes are just that. Whether she votes for or against the GOP, her choice indicates minimum backlash. It worked well until the recent gofundme setup for a challenger.

Howie said...

Dear MS

You may read Collins well. My question to you is whether Reaganism and Trumpism are one and the same. Collins seems to be more conservative than fascist and may rationalize her foolishness and cowardice to herself. Did the Republican party always stand for rentier capitalism and war mongering on a grand scale? Did they always have it in against the average American?
She may be too old to change her ways or she might be too obtuse to notice the ground shift under her toes.
Be that as it may there is no point in having a political position unless you act upon it- being moderate might just be for her a campaign pose

MS said...

I suspect the loyalty of most Republicans to their party is best understood as a form of tribalism, loyalty to the town’s sports team, as David Palmeter explained in an earlier comment. This is Trump’s GOP, and it is nothing like the GOP of Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits, Edward Brooke, or even Ronald Reagan. But the initials are still the same – the Grand Old Party, like the Yankees, Chicago Cubs, etc. Their loyalty gives them an identity, it’s a tradition, and traditions are hard to break (I can hear Tevye singing in the background).

I don’t know as much about Sen. Collins as does Anonymous above, but she has broken w/ her party on some issues. She voted w/ Sen. McCain against repealing Obamacare. She has supported legislation to increase background checks on gun sales and has received a C+ rating from the NRA. She was the only Republican to vote against the confirmation of Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA; she also joined Democrats opposing the repeal of regulations put in place during the Obama administration restricting oil drilling on public lands.

So, I believe there is hope. Voting in favor of Kavanaugh’s confirmation may be a bridge too far for her, especially if Murkowski will join her in opposition, so that she is not the only female Republican opposing confirmation. The FBI has interviewed Deborah Ramirez and I assume she told them the same thing she told the New Yorker. In that case, I don’t see how he can get 50 votes for confirmation. Sen. Flake said on national TV on Sunday that if Kavanaugh lied about anything during the Senate hearing, his confirmation would be doomed. Well, in response to a question by Sen. Feinstein, he testified that Ramirez’s accusation was false. I assume (perhaps naively) that the Republican senators who pushed for an FBI investigation (Flake, Murkowski, Collins) would not have done so just to placated the Democrats and would take inconsistencies raised by the investigation seriously.

I guess we’ll know by Friday.

Anonymous said...

Ms: As I mentioned, Collins votes something like 40% of the time with the Democrats. The socio-political winds she's attuned to are those that are blowing in Maine. Collins is a less shrewish version of the not-lamented Olympia Snowe, who played the same pseudo-independent, Maine-populist Republican bumpkin act in the Senate until just a few years back, when she turned 65 and had enough of pretending to care about the public, and retired to count her money and write a silly, self-serving book that's already been forgotten. (Collins is 65 now.) Medicaid, Obamacare, Pruitt, Gun Background Checks--bah, there's nothing in Collins's votes that took any courage or independence, given the general mindset of the voters in Maine. (There are more registered Democrats up here than registered Republicans--and more "unenrolled" (i.e. independent--more of whom "lean" Democrat than Republican) than either D or R taken separately. Also, we have the oldest demographic profile in the country--so you can guess (correctly) what that means when it comes to health care and other pendant "senior" issues. And we're also the least (or thereabouts) religious state in country--and the whitest. Collins knows which side her bread is buttered on, and she's no ideologue. Yeah, I don't know where she'll come down on this Kavanaughty thing, but she's not one to take chances. Our other Senator (an Independent), Angus King, has already come out against the nominee, and also did not vote to confirm Gorsuch (because King found Gorsuch "evasive"). Collins voted for that character. And we're supposed to shrug that one off--as usual. And so on. That said, Michigan is a much more polictically important state than Maine is, and I wish you well with the fight out there.

MS said...

And now we have the NYT report alleging that the Trump siblings engaged in gift and estate tax evasion. Even Donald's older sister, a federal judge, participated in the scheme.

What a despicable family. A pox on all their houses, mansions, hotels, golf courses, ....

The New York statute of limitations for criminal tax fraud has run, but the federal statute has not. And J. Kavanaugh has taken the position in published law review articles that a sitting President cannot be indicted.

We are descending deeper and deeper into the nether realms of Hades.

Anonymous said...

The tax fraud is not so far away from what many legitimate companies do. I read the nytimes article as well... It sounds bad but it is a common occurrence. At most they may be fined or reassessed but not much will come of it... In this society being a corporate entity is more financially advantageous than being a W-2 paid employee.

s. wallerstein said...

The right is seemingly criticized above for its tribalism. As far as I can see, we, the left, are as tribal as the right. I don't see anything wrong with that because people everywhere seem to organize themselves into formal or informal tribes.

The reason for opting for the left isn't that it's less tribal, but that its goals are more just, more democratic, less destructive to the environment, more open to recognizing sexual diversity, less racist and less misogynistic.

People seem to have a need to belong to a tribe, be it a religious one, an ethnic one or a political one, and the left is my tribe. I have no other.

Michael S said...

Looks like Trump might get what he wants - a campaign chant to which enough of his base will march to the polls in the midterms; viz., lowering the likelihood of impeachment - and the Reps will get their 20-year SCOTUS majority. Enough cover for the waverers to vote for Kavanaugh; enough of a pushback to fire up the base. Regrettably suspect thinking otherwise is wishful.

Thinking that most of them will (in some form) get it when it comes around in 4-12 years, isn't, I hope. Though I imagine Trump will die as happy and as free (that is, not much of either) as he's always been; and by the time anything changes, if anything does, it'll be too late to do anything about Kavanaugh.

RE philosophers and commitment - in my experience, with a few exceptions, I'd rather have the non-analytic than analytic philosopher, with me, in a fight of any sort. You don't get the putative benefits of cold pure abstraction without losing something at the same time.