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Sunday, June 30, 2019


I am not comfortable with the acrimony that has crept into this blog, and since it is my blog, I bear the principal responsibility for it.  I am not by nature a happy warrior.  I do not enjoy fighting, especially with those with whom I share both a world view and a normative orientation toward that world.  During the more than six decades of my career, I have derived my greatest pleasure from thinking through complex ideas until they are clear to me and then showing those ideas, in their elegant and beautiful simplicity, to my students and to my readers.

I first recoiled from the acrimony of public political debate fifty-five years ago.   Deeply frightened by the threat of nuclear war, I had for some years been writing, speaking, and arguing in favor of nuclear disarmament with ever greater urgency until, in the midst of an angry argument in Harvard’s Freshman Union – I think with Zbigniew Bzrezinski – I snapped.  I must have wigged out, because I found myself running as fast as I could down Massachusetts Avenue toward Harvard Square, hyperventilating.

It was obvious that I had to step back from the daily struggle if I was to survive, and so I did what seemed most natural to me – I retreated into political theory.  The first result was a lengthy essay written a year and a half later that, five years further still, was published as a little book called In Defense of Anarchism.  After the events of ’68, I left Columbia for much the same reason, happily rusticating at UMass Amherst where I plunged deeply first into Kant’s ethical theory, then into the thought of Karl Marx, and finally into the creation of a doctoral program in the Afro-American Studies Department.

Now, in my dotage, I seem to have stumbled into a role that is quite unnatural for me, that of a political inside dopester, to resurrect a lovely term invented by David Riesman and Nathan Glazer.  But I am not really any sort of expert on politics.  As the cowboy humorist Will Rogers liked to say, all I know is what I read in the papers.  If I still have a contribution to make, it must be to the clarification of complex ideas, not to the handicapping of political races or to the decrying of the manifest and intractable evils of the world.

I apologize for the tone of this blog these past months.  The current political scene has once again driven me a little bit crazy.


s. wallerstein said...

You have nothing to apologize for.

Political discussions tend to get heated. I myself try to be courteous, but I'm sure that from time to time I offend someone unnecessarily.

If you're uncomfortable with heated political discussion, you should probably limit your blogging to exposing complex ideas. There's a lot of philosophy that you could teach us all. said...

Lightness of touch in dire times. That's what we need. As much as I disliked William F> Buckley's political ideology, I always enjoyed his prose---not least when concentrated on the Presidency of Nixon. Curious how little humor plays in modern political commentary, notwithstanding our host's (often) worthy efforts.

David Palmeter said...

I share your dislike of the tone political discussion seems to generate. You most certainly are not responsible for it.

Anonymous said...

I understand your desire to pull back from the pointless bickering of "politics". I've always found it abhorrent. Too much strutting. And when the curtain is pulled back too often we find "leaders" who exploit the "led" as they use their access to money, power, and sex to satiate their own dark desires.

My greatest "political" surprise was in May 1970 when I was participating in my Nth protest over Vietnam and finally stepped forward to hand in my draft card to the organizers to send back to the Pentagon. Everybody made the expected speech of how their "act" was one of glorious defiance and would soon lead to "the Revolution". I foolishly stepped forward and made the statement that giving in my draft card and subjecting myself to imprisonment and a fine was a "sadly pointless gesture". Of course I got BOOED by the crowd! They didn't want to hear that! They wanted stirring speeches of how we were the "good guys" and the other side was obviously "evil, bad to bone, and unforgivable". I was naive. Again, I wasn't "political", so I expected some respect for my viewpoint. But I discovered that the "democracy" of the street is a us-against-them politics. No nuance. No discussion. No attempt to build bridges. It was "my way or the highway". So I left!

I have no use for "politics". I do believe in speaking truth as you see it. I try to understand other points of view. I don't often connect, but I sometimes can truly see where people are coming from. I continually try to find common ground and understanding, but am usually frustrated. I discovered slowly (I'm a slow learner) that people don't really argue to understand. They argue to bludgeon, to push home a point, to show off, and to "win". Sad.

Life is too short, too complicated, too messy for street "politics" or the "democracy" of the crowd. Real change comes slowly and is built from the ground up. Its roots lie in material change (make people wealthier and many find it easier to be decent and "civil", but the paradox for me is that I've always found the wretched poor more decent than the elite crust of society). I appreciate your story Robert Paul Wolff. I enjoy reading you blog. Please don't get disheartened. But I do agree you should scold those who would misuse your blog. It is yours. It isn't "the street". You have the right to tell those who can't abide by decency to take their "politics" elsewhere!

David Palmeter said...

For those who are interested in politics, and discussing things civilly, I'm attaching a link to a column by Paul Kane in today's Washington Post about the dilemma that faced House Democrats in voting on the Senate-passed bill for funding at the Southern border.