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Saturday, June 29, 2019


I have been brooding about something for a long time, and I have decided to try to think it through in the medium of this blog.  I do not see my way clear on this matter, so somewhat uncharacteristically you will see me feeling my way to a conclusion in public, as it were.

My question can be stated simply:  How should I think about American politics and public life?  I do not mean by this which candidate should I support or what policies should I favor or what practical political action should I engage in?  I mean rather how should I think in an ongoing way about the norms and modes of behavior that are desirable in the public and political life of the country in which I live?

Let me begin, as I am wont to do, by reviewing briefly the arc of my own long engagement with public affairs.  My grandfather was a lifelong socialist of the Eugene Debs Norman Thomas variety, and my father and mother courted at Circle One of the Young People’s Socialist League in New York City, but by the time I was a little boy, they were FDR New Deal Democrats, although they did send me to a red diaper pre-school, the Sunnyside Progressive School.  I was a Henry Wallace supporter at fourteen, in 1948, but my serious involvement in public affairs did not begin until ten years later, when as a young Harvard Instructor I became deeply committed to nuclear disarmament, a cause I spoke publicly for and published on both at Harvard and later at the University of Chicago.  I have always dated the turning point in my political life as the morning of April 18, 1961, the morning after the unsuccessful effort of CIA backed Cuban exiles to overthrow the new Castro government.  Until that point, despite my vocal leftwing politics, I considered myself a Liberal.  But Kennedy was a Liberal and he had invaded Cuba, so I was forced to recognize that I was something else.  As a place holder, I called myself a Radical, with very little idea what that might mean.

It has been fifty-eight years since that day in April, and much has changed in the world and in my understanding of it.  I have devoted a good deal of time thinking about, writing about, and in small ways taking action in response to the seemingly endless series of evil things the American government has done domestically and abroad.  I need not catalogue them; you know them all.  But until quite recently, I gave very little thought to the norms of public behavior that were presupposed and served as the backdrop for my political activity.

Let me give you a very simple example.  Let us suppose I am a dedicated supporter of Bernie Sanders, as a consequence of which I volunteer to canvass for him in the North Carolina  Democratic primary, which this year is part of Super Tuesday, March 3rd, and hence is very politically consequential.  Despite my thoroughgoing disenchantment with the United States and my deep knowledge of the endlessly evil ways in which American local, state, and federal government officials have acted for the past 232 years, I expect the local volunteer precinct workers actually to count the votes for Bernie that I have corralled and guided to the polls by my efforts.  I will be alert to the possibility of fraud, perpetrated perhaps by malign Biden supporting poll workers, but I will be righteously angry if I detect such fraud.  I will not smile a superior, supercilious smile and say that since America is a slough of hypocrisy, I am neither surprised nor outraged.  

In short, despite my deep disagreements with mainstream political commentators, I share their professed belief that a democracy depends for its success and survival on norms of civic behavior whose public flouting and endless violation pose a threat to the possibility of social justice.  And this is true not only for precinct poll workers but for Senators, Congresspersons, Presidents, judges, Cabinet officers, and everyone else who plays a role in the public life of a democracy.

Many of those commentators earlier in their careers served in Democratic or Republican administrations whose hands drip, Picture of Dorian Gray style, with the blood of countless victims, and I am so accustomed to shouting this fact at the TV screen that I forget how completely I believe in and indeed count on the norms of public discourse and behavior that they and their political employers have violated.

I say I want socialism.  Well, socialism can replace capitalism either peacefully or violently.  If peacefully, then the electoral processes by which this happens will require that countless thousands or tens of thousands of public officials adhere to those norms even when the votes are going against them.  What is more, the administration of a socialist state will demand a level of public honesty greater than anything we see in the administrations of capitalist democracies.

If violently, then there may well be an exciting period of transition during which commitment to The Cause substitutes for quotidian norms of public behavior.  But as Max Weber noted in another context, all too soon we see the routinization of charisma, and as the ecstasy of revolution gives way to the grind of administration, our protection against the inevitable lure of corruption and oppression will be those same norms, even if they are now rechristened Socialist Morality.

It is for this reason that I really do believe Donald Trump is an existential threat to the ideals I still cherish at eighty-five, and that it is a serious mistake to say, albeit perhaps merely for the sake of provocation, that a Beto presidency would be worse than a second Trump term.


Chris said...

Is it possible the decorum and demeanor you appreciate and revere is tantamount to the charm of the slave holding South? I.e., the charm is superficial and surface level, and only utilized as a disguise to preserve abject cruelty, policy, and institutions? The charm of Obama allowed him to drone strike an american, deport millions, expand wars, and do the bidding of wall street, because at least he was 'a nice man'. We could fill in a further slew of triangulating corporate dems. Trump, while doing some but not all of these things, cannot rely on his charisma to get away with brutality. Nor could Cheney. O'Rourke could. So if charm is the facade that allows the endemic cruelty to persist, as it did in the old South, maybe your last statement isn't quite correct...maybe?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Well, you managed to completely misunderstand me and also insult me all in your first sentence. I give up. I will go play FreeCell.

howard b said...

Harold Bloom would say something about Emerson and the American Sublime- the woods are full of free men and women, but they are lovely, dark and deep.
I think it is a warp inbred into our wood and not necessarily some kind of shackle of an iron cage

howard said...

I'm saying the dark side was always there from the get go, but it is being whipped up and institutionalized- like a Disney Moby Dick.
Sometimes I wish Lincoln had nuked the south after evacuating all the decent and innocent people there residing.
We had a chance to tame the American monster, but alas, I feel some faith, because we are the real moral majority

decessero said...

Chris, Given that you have known Professor Wolff for many years, it is difficult to believe that you have both the thoughts and the ill manners to write what you did! You know RPW's beliefs well enough and his history of actions on the side of the angels! Or is it so impossible for you to get your head around the concept that one can achieve the goals you and he have in common while maintaining decorum, good manners and yes, something you seem to oppose ex cathedra: charm. Three suggestions: 1. cool off. 2. reread what he wrote. 3. try a polite apology.

Dean said...

I agree that Chris's comment misses your point wide of the mark. But a couple other things about it are unclear to me. First, the norms of public behavior you extol in your example do *not* have to do with fraudulent ballot counting, but with the behavior of those who, upon observing the commission of fraud, would fail to call it out? The implication is that in response to our no-holds-barred ideological commitments our norms have eroded to the point where some will tolerate blatant abuse of the system if that abuse works in their favor. Surely this circumstance is wholly independent of Trump?

Second, I'm just not getting the transition from the penultimate to the final paragraph. What about everything you've said before illustrates how Trump is an existential threat? Trump is certainly no role model for the "public honesty" required for a system to work, but political leaders rarely (never?) are.

Anonymous said...

To hold revolutionary ideals is to live the life of Sisysphus.

I generally disagree with Marx but I do accept that real revolutions are grounded in the material culture. But beyond that they are grounded in social culture. Real change comes bottom up brick by brick, relationship by relationship.

Technical and material advances create new possibilities for culture and civilization. Religions and social movements create new possibilities for culture and civilization. To think that a single person, or a revolutionary clique can "install" a revolutionary change is the height of nonsense. I think of the idealism Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman took to Russia in 1920 only to realize with horror the vicious and callous actions by the Lenin regime.

What the neocons got so horribly wrong in their "idealized" excuse for invading Iraq was that you can build a civilization top down. You can't instill democracy.

As for those impatient for "the Revolution". Life is a crazy blind unfolding. We are caught up in this web of entanglements of life, i.e. in evolutionary biological meanderings, unplanned technological upheavals, and social/religous "movements" that sweep us along. To a very large extent we are bystanders observing our own lives and history as it sweeps forward. It is noble to want to steer it. But it is foolish to think we have that control. Ego maniacs may try to control it, but invariably they have dark impulses that soon pollute whatever noble inclination they claim to be driven by. We act, we have to act, but we also have to realize that we are only part of a very large and largely incomprehensible flow of history.

I liked your brooding thoughts because they are both honest and true. I admire your revolutionary zeal, but even more I admire your human decency and honesty. There will be no "revolution" instilled by a dictatorship of the proletariat. You are right to lean hard on democracy. It is a weak tool, but it ultimately is the only real humane tool for change. I do hope you stand back and appreciate the life you've lived and the wonders you've been able to see and experience. Sure, there is much horror. But Nature is utterly indifferent to our suffering. We are here only as part of the "big show" that she puts on as she drives mindlessly "forward".

Chris said...

I will consent to misreading the post, but insulting in the first sentence? Huh? What? Someone explain this to me.

Chris said...

"You know RPW's beliefs well enough and his history of actions on the side of the angels!"

Agree, I'm totally obvious to this perceived insult. What insult did I make? Quite vexed over here!

Chris said...

I feel quite bad. I never intended to insult Professor Wolff. So let me please explain what was going through my head, and if someone can point out to me the blind spot in my written execution, or thought process, please do. I don't want to be akin to that entrenched racist whose blinds spots make him think he's an egalitarian.

I believe Professor Wolff was arguing something along the lines of, there's a certain decorum and formal procedure across the political-cultural landscape which he supports. And it's the very same decorum and procedure which can both (hopefully) attain socialism, but also maintain the status quo. Commitment to fair voting, respect and trust of your colleagues, etc., are needed for either of those two outcomes. That's what I thought Professor Wolff was arguing, but I suspect I'm wrong given the push back.

I almost edited my response with a second post but had to jet. I was arguing that the decorum and formal proceedings, especially at the 'upper' levels of society (not at the voting booth levels) are insincere, false, and historically contingent. Hence why I was suggesting, perhaps the polish of an Obama or George Stephanopoulos, are similar to the decorum and formal proceedings of Leonardo DiCaprio in django unchained, or really any character in a well-executed Faulkner novel or Southern Gothic novel. They appear pleasant, and they appear normalized, but it's strictly a surface appearance, whereas the actual causal attitude and structure at work is heinous. So there’s the veneer of the old south and then the facts on the ground that give rise to the veneer. My point was, might not the present American political landscape, the culture and political juncture Wolff is referring to, be tantamount to that? Note tantamount, NOT IDENTICAL (I’m not accusing anyone of being a slave holding 19th century racist). The media, and our various elites and overlords can appear polished, charismatic, and respectful precisely because they aren't.

That's the point I was beating towards. If that point is insulting, I don't see how it is, but I'm willing to concede it is upon explanation. What I can say with certainty is not a single word in that opening sentence, or any sentence I wrote, contained a *conscious* effort on my end to insult Professor Wolff. (But I could be unconsciously disrespectful, and that's what I need explained to me, please).

Anonymous said...

There's actually an interesting discussion of the limits of discussion (as embodied in Habermas's later works) here:

Dean said...

Chris: I'll take a stab at explaining how the first sentence, almost a rhetorical question, is insulting. When you write, "I was arguing that the decorum and formal proceedings, especially at the 'upper' levels of society (not at the voting booth levels) are insincere, false, and historically contingent," you're not referring to the kind of decorum ("norms of public behavior") to which Prof. Wolff was referring. The kind to which you refer is purely a consequence of privilege, e.g., Obama's "polish." If I read him correctly, Prof. Wolff means not that sort of superficial assumption of politeness and propriety, but to behaviors once generally and conventionally accepted as truly virtuous (not hypocritical) norms that work to remedy inevitable lapses in the effectiveness of the legal system, e.g., reporting fraud at the ballot box, regardless of whose side will benefit from it. This is vastly different from, say, Southern hospitality, a privilege grounded in slavery. Yet your question tacitly characterizes Prof. Wolff's remarks as advocating for that privilege.

Dean said...

Er, I see I've been scooped by Prof. Wolff in a new post.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

I want to respond to Chris now, and I will post a more thoughtful piece in a day or two on how I see the political crisis we are now suffering through.

Civility is a concept that dates back to Erasmus. To be civilized means one knows how to live in society where our actions are governed by rules of behavior known to all. These standards may also limit our freedom, but that limitation is understood to be in the best interests of all. Politics needs civility, and clear norms of conduct or, frankly, there would be fistfights on the floor of the house and senate every day.

There is no common ground between our political parties as a rule. Without norms of behavior, you might say in a legislative session that sos and so is a f-----g idiot. With norms, you say "I profoundly disagree with the distinguished gentleman from Nebraska." Which way of acting will support a functioning governmental body and which will not. Your belief that norms of behavior are a useless veneer is in significant ways untrue. Erasmus would argue that rules of behavior are what distinguishes human from animals.

Chris said...

I don't ever recall categorically stating that norms of behavior are a useless veneer. First, I actually think they have a use, which I made quite clear. Second, I did not make a claim about ALL norms of behavior. Third, in order for me to believe some set of behavior is a false veneer, I have to know the difference, which I do, and support. I'm more than happy to give to the homeless, help elderly people with physical activities, wait my turn in line, and wear clothes outside. That level of order is prudent and just. I also know it's operating at a different level than a slave master's charm, or, oh I dunno, Biden's folksy smile, and Bush's 'aw shucks' disposition. In order for me to see the latter I must know the former, vise versa.

Now I'm thinking I'm the one being misread...

Chris said...

Dean, you say tacitly. I think everyone has read a POSSIBLE tacit claim, as an explicit endorsement. Which is rather unfair to me... Should I get an apology?

Dean said...

Prof. Wolff responded in the next post by simply quoting your question, I assume because he reads it as insulting on its face. I hedged my insinuation (accusation, whatever) by characterizing it as, arguably, rhetorical, and as tacit, i.e., at least implicit. I did so, because you did not write, for instance, "The decorum and demeanor you appreciate and revere is tantamount to the charm of the slave holding South." Had you written those words, I wouldn't have pulled the punch (if you'll forgive the pugilistic figure of speech). The fact that "tantamount to" doesn't mean precisely "equal to" doesn't help much, as I read it. I get that you didn't intend the reading some are favoring here. But I don't get how you can't see that we reasonably (i.e., not uncharitably) arrived at it.

Dean said...

I'm gonna chew on this a bit more, reflecting on Chris @4:36PM. A comparison of the "veneer" of the Old South to today's media superficiality is a misstep in at least a couple ways. First, it's presentist. The opportunism of today's media doesn't map meaningfully to the exploitation of the antebellum South. These days, as always, there are lots of crass, opportunistic people who maintain a pretense of decorum. But their pretensions don't function the way Southern hospitality did. Today's polished media figures (Chris Hayes?! Rachel Maddow?!) are, fundamentally, cynical careerists. That's not remotely "tantamount to" stereotypical decorum of Southern charm, which wasn't simply a cover for slavery. The latter is not "strictly a surface appearance"; the former is. Second, the comparison misses Prof. Wolff's point, which had nothing to do with maintaining politeness and polish. He's talking about norms that police the mechanisms of good government, such as the refusal deliberately to miscount or destroy ballots (or to fail to report such behavior), or peaceful concession in the face of an electoral loss, as opposed to, say, a refusal to call a guest a liar to his face on a TV or radio show one is hosting.