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Friday, April 12, 2019


Rather than continue the discussion right now, I shall spend a moment putting on paper some thoughts that passed through my mind on my rain-truncated walk this morning.  These will be brief, so I shall eschew elaborate explanations.

When the 1960 presidential race came around, I was twenty-six and teaching at Harvard.  Like pretty much everyone else in the Winthrop House Senior Common Room, I was wildly for Kennedy.  One day, Barrington Moore Jr., with whom I was co-teaching a sophomore honors tutorial, remarked to me that there was really no difference between Kennedy and Nixon.  I thought he was mad, and only somewhat later realized that he was essentially right [although eventually I concluded that Kennedy was actually more dangerous.]  During that time, the young Gloria Steinem was a regular columnist for New York magazine [not to be confused with The New Yorker.]  She was assigned to follow the Nixon campaign, and one week she wrote a remarkable column, printed as I recall on the last page of the issue, describing a revealing moment on the Nixon campaign bus.  It was late at night and everyone was exhausted.  Steinem was seated next to Pat Nixon, and from fatigue and stress, Pat’s famous perfect public face slipped just for a moment, a moment that Steinem captured and memorialized.  Pat Nixon started talking bitterly about Jack and Jackie, the beautiful people to whom everything in life had been given.  “Dick and I could not even go to the senior prom because Dick had to work as a waiter,” Pat complained.  It was a cry from the heart, and captured perfectly a difference between them that was deeper than policy or politics.  I had read The Brothers Karamazov during my first graduate year while I was cramming for the doctoral general examinations [I also read The Fountainhead – I was very young.]  When I read Steinem’s piece, I thought to myself, “Nixon is the Smerdyakov to Kennedy’s Ivan.”   By a bizarre irony, this relationship has reappeared, with Trump playing Smerdyakov to Obama’s Ivan, except that Trump actually has had a Kennedyesque life of unearned wealth and privilege, and yet, despite that fact, resents and lusts after Obama’s universal acclaim.

You see, there is something to be said for a liberal education.


Anonymous said...

Excellent! There is something deeper than "politics". Humans are humans with jealous, envy, desire and lots of other "petty emotions". They drive us in complex and surprising ways. I'm not saying that politics is unreal. No. It is yet another dimension of what is an incredibly complex thing called "being human".

I support your drive from utopia, but my feet remain stuck in the mud. I realize the failings of humans. This point came home to me back in May 1970 when as part of a post Kent State killings protest I joined others and burned my draft card and did the obligatory "speech". But rather than give the "right on brothers!" and "we shall overcome!" speech, I pointed out the ultimately uselessness of our "gesture". Sure it carried danger and it was a rallying point, but it was a hollow gesture in the face of the immense power of the state and its instruments. Of course I was booed. I admit I was shocked. I was the one "breaking the law" and taking the step toward illegality in an effort to move society away from its war-ever-war course. But the mass, the crowd, the smugly safe "protestors" didn't want to hear my existential cry of despair, a despair knowing that while I had to act, the act itself was impotent. But the crowd wanted "fresh meat" and a self-congratulatory speech about how potent our protest was and, I hate to say it, there was "light at the end of the tunnel" if we just persisted in our puny street demonstrations.

Life is complex. The future is a surprise. At best we struggle and find meaning, but ultimately even "the cause" that those who want to change the world is riddled with the foibles of petty humanness. The "revolution" is never won because below the strata of ideology is the mucky mess of feeble humans and their complex and conflicting emotions and desires which even they themselves do not fully understand.

Your story of the Ivan vs Smerdyakov points this out. And, yes, the world is poorer as college has moved away from its role of teaching culture, history, and thought to being the "multiversity" of Clark Kerr and the job training centres they are now. But nothing if forever. We read literature to "educate" ourselves and put ourselves in tough with the broad panoply of historical culture and open ourselves to the possibilities of the future. That's the real "revolution". Not just the ideological fight for a new material substrate and new institutional superstructure, but new roots for humanity.

Dean said...

In his 2017 biography of Nixon, John Farrell writes:

Years later, she would tell journalist Gloria Steinem: “I never had time to think about thinks like…who I wanted to be, or who I admired, or to have ideas. I never had time to dream about being anyone else. I had to work…I’ve never had it easy. I’m not like all you…all those people who had it easy.” Had she asked, Pat would have discovered that Steinem’s childhood was, if anything, even tougher than her own.

Chris said...

Far be it from me to criticize or even improve Professor Wolff's Dostoevskian analysis of Trump (lord knows Dostoevsky may well be the greatest author to have ever lived), but there's something powerful truthful and disconcerting about Don Delillo's analysis of Trump.

Interviewer: Who is Trump?

DD: I don't think he's playing a role. I think he is the role. I don't think he's aware of a kind of self-consciousness. I don't think he's self-aware, self-conscious. I think it all simply flows into the broadcast schedule.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, where does that appear?

Chris said...

In this interview, for Delillo's book Zero K, towards the end:

I'm a huge Delillo fan. After Steinbeck, he's the great American author.

Jerry Fresia said...

Looks like you weren't the only one believing that JFK was the more dangerous of the two.

David Zimmerman said...

Granted.... Kennedy almost killed us all during the Cuban Missile Crisis.... which does make him a very dangerous president.

However, there is a case to be made that Kennedy would have wound down and, sooner rather than later, ended the Vietnam war had he not been murdered before he had a chance.

Whereas Nixon cynically prolonged that war for five long, bloody years after he undermined the peace talks Johnson was pursuing during the 1968 campaign by going behind Johnson's back and persuading the South Vietnamese that they would get a better deal from him than from Humphrey. Not that Johnson did all that much to help his Vice President win the race.... but Nixon behaved appallingly during it, and then extended the war into Cambodia and deeper into Laos when he was President, aided by the vile Kissinger.

So, was Kennedy on balance more dangerous than Nixon? I don't think that the Vietnamese people would agree with that.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think Nixon did more harm than Kennedy, but I think Kennedy was more dangerous than Nixon. There is a distinction. Whether Kennedy would have backed out of Viet Nam after getting us in is beyond our ability to determine. The self justifying recollections of Bundy, McNamara, et al. do not persuade me.

David Zimmerman said...

Professor Wolff, I do take your point about the "self justifying recollections of Bundy, McNamara, et al."

However, the fact is that Kennedy never expanded the war in Vietnam anywhere near the extent to which Nixon did, or indeed at all. Perhaps that is because he never had the opportunity to do so, dying as he did in 1963, but I don't think that that iOS the explanation.. There really is no evidence that he would have wished to prolong that war.

As for the distinction between "being dangerous" and doing more harm," please offer more explanation. Is it that the first is a "disposition" concept, whereas the second is an "achievement" concept? So that a person can be more dangerous than another if he has a disposition, however unrealized, to bring about harm, even if the other person actually brings about more harm?

If so, what is the evidence of Kennedy's greater disposition to bring about harm [albeit unrealized] than Nixon's? What do you have in mind?

Charles Pigden said...

I would say that Trump is not so much Smerdyakov to Obama's Ivan as Smerdyakov to the whole GOP's Ivan. He rips off the veneer of civilisation that covered their sleaze, greed and dishonesty. For years they have been pushing policies that benefit the top 5% and gaining popular support by appealing to white voters' xenophobic and punitive passions. Hitherto it was done with a certain amount of finesse. Now it’s all out in the open. Hitherto they lied discretely. Trump’s lies are obvious. Hitherto Republicans have pretended to revere the constitution, Trump treats it with contempt. Hitherto Republicans have sugar-coated the politics of greed with the pretence of piety. Trump does not bother to pretend. Hitherto they have posed as friends to liberty. Trump’s authoritarian and indeed fascistic impulses are there for all to see. But in a way it’s worse than Ivan’s relationship with Smerdyakov. Once Ivan realises that Smerdyakov embodies his own dark side, he rejects him. The GOP consists of Ivans who have chosen to *become* Smerdyakov. It’s as if Ivan had said to himself ’So Smerdyakov is me minus the veneer of intellect and nobility? Very well then. I will throw away my intellect and nobility and become what I have truly been all along!’

Like you say, there is lot to be said for a liberal education.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Professor Pigden, bravo! You took a throwaway line and turned it into a brilliant dissection. Well done!

Jerry Fresia said...

I agree with you that one ought not rely on self-serving recollections or court historians, regarding Vietnam and Kennedy. JFK was "at war" with his military during his tenure. He resisted them throughout at very key points and in June of 63 publicly came out against Pax Americana, no small step forward.

Regarding Vietnam, it is difficult to sort out what were the initiatives (as in Cuba) advanced by the CIA behind JFK's back - such as the assassination of Diem among others (which was then covered up by the fabrication of cables, as confessed to by E Howard Hunt). We do know that NSAM 263, approved by JFK in Oct 63, authorized the removal of 1,000 US troops by the end of '63 so that they could all be removed by 65. This memo was rescinded days after the assassination.

Several military experts (L. Fletcher Prouty among them) and historians on the subject (contrary to Chomsky's "internal record" search) point to several instances where Kennedy opposed the introduction of combat troops.

This is not to relieve JFK of the responsibility that is rightfully his.

Chris said...

Kennedy never would have backed down from Vietnam, he explicitly escalated tensions and explicitly stated that he wanted to expand the war if given a second term. Chomsky covers all this perfectly well in his vietnam war book.