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Wednesday, April 17, 2019


One of the things I have learned in my long, mostly uneventful life is that people are not stupid.  They may be uneducated, they may be ignorant, they may be parochial, and of course they very well may be prejudiced in one or many ways, but they are not stupid.  People can size one another up pretty accurately, even at a considerable distance, about the things that matter to them.

I first was made aware of this elementary fact relatively late in life when, in the seventies, I had a shot at a variety of academic administrative positions.  Despite what I thought of as a pretty impressive resum√©, I never got past first base.  The reason finally dawned on me.  The folks evaluating my credentials said publicly that they were looking for a candidate with experience, educational imagination, flair, and a strong vita, but whether they were honest to themselves about it or not, what they wanted to know at base was the answer to one question:  If the students occupy the Administration building, will you be with them or with us?  The question was never asked, of course, but every selection committee could smell at fifty paces that I could not be could not be counted on to say “I’ll be with you,” and that would end the interview.

I thought about this after reading that long take down of Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Current Affairs by Nathan Robinson.  Here is one passage in Buttigieg’s autobiography, quoted by Robinson, that caught my eye:

“In April 2001, a student group called the Progressive Student Labor Movement took over the offices of the university’s president, demanding a living wage for Harvard janitors and food workers. That spring, a daily diversion on the way to class was to see which national figure—Cornel West or Ted Kennedy one day, John Kerry or Robert Reich another—had turned up in the Yard to encourage the protesters.
Striding past the protesters and the politicians addressing them, on my way to a “Pizza and Politics” session with a journalist like Matt Bai or a governor like Howard Dean, I did not guess that the students poised to have the greatest near-term impact were not the social justice warriors at the protests […] but a few mostly apolitical geeks who were quietly at work in Kirkland House [Zuckerberg et al.]”
“… [T]o this day,” Robinson observes, “it hasn’t even entered his mind that he could have joined the PSLM in the fight for a living wage. Activists are an alien species, one he “strides past” to go to “Pizza & Politics” sessions with governors and New York Times journalists. He didn’t consider, and still hasn’t considered, the moral quandary that should come with being a student at an elite school that doesn’t pay its janitors a living wage.”

As it happens, I was in Harvard Yard on April 21, 2001, the day the protest began.  I had been asked by a young Philosophy Assistant Professor Susanna Siegel [now Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy] to meet with her class, which had just read In Defense of Anarchism.  When I showed up at the class, Susanna told me that a group of undergraduates were planning to occupy Massachusetts Hall as part of the Living Wage Movement.  I went along to their meeting in the basement of Matthews Hall [where, fifty years earlier, I had lived as a Freshman], and when they grabbed their cellphones, laptops, and water bottles and ran off through the Yard to Massachusetts Hall, I trotted along after them with my briefcase and umbrella [there was a threat of rain.]  We all sat on the floor and sang songs while some Harvard bureaucrats bustled about fussily.  The students stayed for days, as Buttigieg indicates, but I remained only for a few hours, before going back to Susie and UMass.  When I left, I congratulated them, warned them that my experience suggested Harvard would never give in [it did not], and told them they were fighting the good fight.

That Mayor Pete was not with us that day is entirely forgivable.  That it would never have entered his mind to join us is not.


Dean said...

Plainly, he isn't stupid, but he's shallow, and I suppose it's easy to condescend to his youth and declare him immature. Yesterday he was on one or another public radio program for an interview. In response to a question asking why he has chosen politics, he replied (I'm paraphrasing here from memory) that he'd wanted to be a journalist, but the work of journalism has only an ephemeral impact on the world. Being an intellectual, on the other hand, stands a better chance of having a more lasting impact, but it's likely to occur long after the scholar is dead. So, he decided to split the difference and enter politics. Is it too cynical to infer that the limelight is what motivates him?

After hearing the interview, I can't imagine his ever uttering a sentence like, "The question was never asked, of course, but every selection committee could smell at fifty paces that I could not be could not be counted on to say 'I’ll be with you,' and that would end the interview."

Anonymous said...

Nice comment, and I wouldn't support Mayor Pete either, despite being gay myself (not that that should be a factor). However, I would add a somewhat depressing rejoinder: Mayor Pete is at least a self-confessed technocrat, elitist and careerist and given the horrible political landscape that may be better than one alternative type, which is the 'fake activist' or 'fake radical' who hides their Zuckerberg-ness under a veneer of social virtue, especially in relation to race and gender. For example in the current nomination race that would include Harris, O'Rourke, Gillibrand and Booker - all of whom would be substantially worse than Mayor Pete. The added badness of such types (over open elitists) is that they further increase fragmentation of solidarity along identity lines and make critics of their (technocratic-corporate) policies look like sexists or racists in the eyes of organs like the NYT.

Mayor Pete's aversion from the real struggles of janitors at Harvard at least also entails a suspicion of those kinds of upper-class virtue activism and perhaps suggests a trait of intellectual honesty despite his commitment to the elites. Of course I'll be supporting Bernie but I'm not optimistic!

David Palmeter said...

I hope you mean that you will not vote for Mayor Pete to be the Democratic nominee, but if he should the nominee, that you would vote for him over Trump or some third party candidate.

My own leanings are for Sanders or Warren, but I’m not overly-enthused about either of them, let alone any of the others. What I am enthused about is beating Trump, and I will vote for and donate to whoever the Democratic nominee is. That, to me is the overriding consideration.

Regardless of which Democrat is nominated, if he or she is successful in the election, the administration will not be one that delights those of us on the left. The chances of the Democrats winning control of the Senate are from slim to none. And if they get the majority, that will include people like Joe Manchin. Thirty-one of the House Democrats come from a district Trump carried. Without them, there will be no Democratic majority in the House. A Democratic president, whoever it is, will not be able to get Medicare for all, free college, the Green New Deal or anything like them through Congress even if the Democrats have House and Senate majorities. Obama couldn’t get a public option in the ACA through the Senate even with a 60-40 majority. He could not get a stimulus package through the Senate for more than a $ trillion, and needed the votes of Collins and Snow to do it. The Democrats could make some progress on health care, the environment, and college costs if the Party has control of both houses of Congress, but none if the Party doesn’t.

But that would be far, far better than we have now. There would be competent people in the important positions, and the chances of nuclear annihilation would be far, far less. No Gorsuch or Kavanaugh would be named to the Supreme Court. We could rejoin the Paris Agreement. We could stop insulting our allies and neighbors and begin working with them again on the issues we all face, particularly the environment.

But heaven on earth is not on the horizon with any particular Democratic presidential candidate. The country is much farther left now than it was a few years ago--on health care, on equality, on the environment--but nowhere near where most of us who post here would like.

Danny said...

I was there too, that day, as an accepted student attending "pre-frosh" weekend festivities. It's nice to hear your memories of that specific time, from a very different perspective. I found the protests that day fascinating, but unfortunately did not have the presence of mind to think more carefully about their meaning.

I may be nitpicking, but I wonder about Mayor Pete's incorrect chronology. April 2001 was over a year before Zuck would enter Harvard, and yet another year before he would reside at Kirkland House. It's as if he were reconstructing events just to make a political point...

David said...

4 more years of Trump's erosion of democratic institutions and norms of civility will take decades to restore. We all know America was never the country it has imagined itself to be, but the aspirational aspect of the imagination has value--and has been lost. The Democrats have no story to tell and no candidate to tell it. Mayor Pete seems a long shot still, but is more substantive than Beato. I just don't believe Sanders can win, and he is beginning to seem almost as narcissistic as Trump these days, The 20 candidates will beat each other up, spend the party's money, and Trump will win again. You will wish you had been able to vote for Mayor Pete, but perhaps can take solace in the purity of your politics.

Anonymous said...

Political purity is one way to see it I suppose. It actually strikes me more as the worst kind of leftist elitism, clever observations from the stands about the "unforgivable" intellectual dispositions of progressive, intelligent politicians like Buttigieg who are duking it out in the arena. (I know, I know, you've knocked on some doors.)

s. wallerstein said...

I'm sure that Professor Wolff and all the rest of us purists will vote for Mayor Pete in the November election if he is the candidate against Trump. Professor Wolff even supported Hillary Clinton in the last election, and it's hard to find a worse liberal hawk or corporate Democrat than Hillary.

The title of the post, "Why I won't be voting for Mayor Pete", is a good headline, sure to get more readers than, say, "Some considerations which should lead us not to be overly enthusiastic about Buttigieg". That only shows that Professor Wolff is a good communicator.

anonymous II said...

Here's a distantly parallel story:

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jesus Christ!! I had never heard of this event, but alas it does not surprise me. Right now, Columbia is fighting tooth and nail against its own graduate TAs, on whom it relies for the staffing of its iconic CC classes. They are all despicable!