Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."





Total Pageviews

Monday, September 30, 2019

YOU DO WHAT YOU GOTTA DO


Sometimes you just have to relieve the tension with a little trolling.  Earlier this afternoon I looked up Jim Jordan’s website and then called one of his Ohio offices.  I said to the woman who answered the phone:

“Hello.  I am looking at the Congressman’s impressive website, and I read his bio.  I could not find any mention of his military service, but I felt sure he served.  Can you tell me which branch of the military he served in?”

She replied, rather curtly, “He did not serve.  He went to college.”

“Oh,” I said, “I guess he had bone spurs” and hung up.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

MEMORY TRICKS


Earlier today, while my wife and I were out shopping, we tried without success to recall the name of a very familiar restaurant in the nearby town of Carrboro.  We were having what folks in our retirement community call a “senior moment,” a familiar occurrence, alas.  Not of itself a notable event.  But as we drove on, I reflected that I could easily and precisely recall where the restaurant is, how to drive to it, what it looks like, what is on the menu, several times when we have been there – virtually everything about it but its name.

This is characteristic of such senior moments.  Several years ago I was unable for some time to recall the name of a famous operatic soprano, Kathleen Battle. I would go and get the CD I have of her singing arias with Winton Marsalis accompanying her, I would say to myself “Kathleen Battle, Kathleen Battle, KB, KB” and yet ten minutes later I could not recall her name, even though I could hear her in my head and even sing along with some of the arias.

So today I started to wonder, where in the brain are stored all the details I can recall of the restaurant, and where is stored its name?  Has anyone done research on this phenomenon? 

Is there someone out there reading this who knows?

LIGHT READING

Well, I have now read the "transcript" of the phone call and also the whistleblower's report.  It is worth reading the transcript for one reason:  to get the flavor of the Ukraine President's cringe-worthy sycophantic sucking up to Trump.  It is over the top.  I now understand why Trump thinks the phone call was "perfect."

Saturday, September 28, 2019

A LITTLE SCHADENFREUDE IS GOOD FOR THE SOUL

I admit it, I am a little giddy with the developments of the past week.  I am allowing myself to take pleasure in the discomfiture of my enemies, fully aware that I may be disappointed.  As Paul Newman says to Robert Redford in The Sting, it won't be everything I want, but I have to be satisfied and walk away.

I agree with Ed Barreras that we really need one more significant defection to put a cherry on it, but these are early days, and Trump does not inspire to-the-death loyalty, so I am hopeful.  There are all the people the whistleblower talked to in the White House.  One or more of them may be feeling a trifle queasy at this point and wondering whether they really want to go down with the ship.

It is clear that the Trump White House is a leaking badly, and every reporter from New York to Washington is working non-stop to catch any drops that fall from the sieve, so I expect more revelations, even as I type these words.

Now I think I will relax and read the full texts of the phone call and the whistleblower report, which I deferred until my Marx lecture was complete [I have some sense of priorities!]

GAME ON

The House of Representatives will vote Articles of Impeachment, almost certainly before Thanksgiving.  How can I be so sure?  For three reasons:

First, a majority of the members of the House have announced that they are for impeachment.

Second, the Democrats have stated that if the Administration fails to honor subpoenas, the first of which went out yesterday, they will construe that failure as Obstruction of Congress and add it to the other Articles, thus depriving the Administration of any opportunity to stall.

And Third, because Speaker Pelosi and Chairman Schiff have openly identified Thanksgiving as their target date, something they would not do unless they believed they could meet it.

This will be only the third time a President has been impeached [Nixon resigned before he could be impeached], and it is worth pausing to note the speed with which the ground has shifted beneath Trump's feet.  It is also a time to tip one's hat to Nancy Pelosi, who has played this flawlessly, with of course massive help from Trump.

When the Articles of Impeachment land with a thud on Mitch McConnell's desk, they will present an impossible choice to half a dozen Republican Senators up for reelection, including McConnell himself.

Will Trump serve out his full term of office?  It is too soon to judge, but if one or several of the White House officials who served as the whistleblower's sources decide to save themselves and come forward, there is no telling.

Friday, September 27, 2019

THIS IS MOVING SO FAST

It is hard to keep up.  Key figures in the House are now talking about completing the impeachment investigation and House vote before Thanksgiving!!  As someone old enough to remember Watergate, I am astonished by the speed with which secret information leaks out.  It took thirty years or so for Mark Felt to be identified as Deep Throat, the source for Woodward and Bernstein.  It has taken days for the NY TIMES to publish identifying characteristics of the whistleblower.  

I sit at my desk working up lecture notes for Tuesday's class and periodically nipping into the kitchen to check MSNBC or CNN for late-breaking developments.

This is the class in which I quote from the script of the Burt Reynolds movie Stick by way of explaining what capitalists do.  Those with short memories or who are new to this blog can check my post for June 1, 2015.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

FOR THE FIRST TIME

I think it is genuinely possible that Trump will not serve out his entire first term.  He will not be convicted in the Senate [impeachment is now certain], but at some point he may resign, if he can secure the assurance of a plenary pardon from President Pence.]

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

DO NOT POOH POOH THAT UKRAINE PHONE CALL

Remember, they got Al Capone on tax evasion.

THERE AND HOME AGAIN [TO QUOTE BILBO BAGGINS]

Yesterday was a remarkable day for me.  I got up at  5 am, traveled to New York, poured my heart out in one of the most intense two hour lectures I have ever delivered,  and then flew home.  All the while, the political world was turning upside down.  I have been in a heightened state ever since.  We shall see what it all means, but about the lecture I have no second thoughts.

Lord, I love teaching.

Monday, September 23, 2019

WHILE I WAS OTHERWISE OCCUPIED


The world seems to go on even when I stop talking about it for a few days.  Some items that call for comment, in no particular order:

1.         Thomas Cook Tours has collapsed, leaving 150,000 Brits stranded in this place and that.  The British Government is launching a massive repatriation effort.  Back when I was young, Thomas Cook was tours, just as Oxford and Cambridge were university education.  I guess not all of this can be blamed on Boris Johnson, but some of it can be blamed on Margaret Thatcher.

2.         Elizabeth Warren continues her slow, steady rise in the race for the nomination.  I am beginning to think Biden really is toast, or will be once the toaster heats up.  This is quite separate from the non-scandal concerning his unfortunate and ill-fated son, Hunter.

3.         We saw Downton Abbey yesterday.  It is a simply perfect movie.  I freely confess that tears came to my eyes during the last scene, the ball.

4.         Some data I extracted from Google earlier this morning, courtesy of the BLS: 
   Median weekly wages for full time workers with high school diploma [2018]  $730
   Median weekly wages for full time workers with BA [2018]  $1198
            So, for 2/3 of Americans, the median wage is $730, and for the other third, the median wage is 65% higher. 

5.         Now that Donald Trump has admitted committing high crimes and misdemeanors, we may ask why he has not been, and will not be, impeached and removed from office.  The answer is not Nancy Pelosi’s timidity or Jerry Nadler’s indecisiveness or the fecklessness of the Congressional Democrats or the gutless cowardice and criminality of the Senate Republicans, or any other such facts.  The reason is that since World War II, the delicate balance between the Congress and the Presidency has been destroyed.  For a variety of reasons, most notably America’s embrace of an imperial world stance, the Presidency has grown in power and inviolability until now the only constraint on a President other than defeat at the polls is some fragment of remaining shame or honor, neither of which the electoral process is designed to reward.

We might say, if literary allusions help, that Trump is the Smerdyakov to the Ivan of Reagan or Clinton or Bush.

6.         Brian Leiter tells me that visitors to my blog now get a Google warning that the site is unsafe.  Is that true?  And if it is, what do I do about it?

Sunday, September 22, 2019

WEED WHACKING


My brief and quite obviously humorous post yesterday elicited no fewer than twenty comments, not counting my own response to one of them.  Perhaps I should say a few words by way of explanation.

In her scattershot and rather ebullient posts, Anonymous says at one point “Theory is good, beautiful, and easy. The hard part is to implement in the world a vision that both lifts the people economically and gives rise to beauty, thought, progress, knowledge, lively political conversations, freedom, and a truly better future.”  [I say “her” because I cannot tell from the post Anonymous’ gender, and the constraints of proper English require me to make some assumption.  If I am wrong he can correct me.]

I could not agree more with her sentiment, and indeed I believe I have said as much several times in this space, though perhaps not so eloquently.  Why then do I write about theory?  I might reply, as Kierkegaard did in the Preface to Philosophical Fragments:  “When Philip threatened to lay siege to the city of Corinth, and all its inhabitants hastily bestirred themselves in defense, some polishing weapons, some gathering stones, some repairing the walls, Diogenes seeing all of this hurriedly folded his mantle about him and began to roll his tub zealously back and forth through the streets.  When he was asked why he did this he replied that he wished to be busy like the rest, and rolled his tub lest he be the only idler among so many industrious citizens.”  Kierkegaard adds, “Such conduct is at any rate not sophistical, if Aristotle be right in describing sophistry as the art or making money.”

At Hampshire College in Massachusetts forty years ago or so, I gave a talk the thrust of which was that Philosophers had hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways, whereas the point was to change it [a sentiment I lifted from Marx, needless to say.]  A student raised his hand and asked, “So why then do you write books?”  My response was no more than a prosaic version of Kierkegaard’s poetic vision.  “Social change requires many people doing many different things,” I replied.  “Some people organize protests, some people raise money, some people hand out fliers, some people lock arms and sit down to block traffic.  I write books.  It is not by any stretch of the imagination the most important task, but it has some utility, and I am good at it, so that is what I do.”

Now a word about CAPITAL.  Marx, like Jesus [and equally unfairly, I might add], has been burdened with responsibility for the inhumanities perpetrated in his name.  But Marx had nothing to say about the Bolshevik Revolution, which occurred fifty years after the publication of CAPITAL, nor did he offer comments on the Chinese Peasant Revolt thirty-two years further on, or the Cuban Revolution, yet thirteen years further still.  He did, on the other hand, have an enormous amount to say about the economic theories of his European predecessors.  Indeed, if we consider Volumes One, Two, and Three, and throw in the three volumes of the THEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE, one might reasonably conclude that he had more to say about the economic theories of his predecessors than about anything else.  Anonymous may find theory easy as well as good and beautiful, but Marx did not think so, and he devoted much of his time in CAPITAL to struggling with it.

As I see it, Marx dealt with, among others, three big theoretical issues in CAPITAL.  The first was a problem recognized by Ricardo, namely that prices are proportional to labor values only when all sectors employ equal proportions of direct and embodied labor.  Marx believed he had a solution to that problem, but surprisingly he put off stating his solution until Volume III.

The second issue, dealt with immediately in Chapter One of Volume One, was Marx’s very important recognition that it is abstract socially necessary labor and not ordinary concrete labor that is at stake when one makes claims about the relation of prices to labor values or the distinction between necessary labor and surplus labor.  Marx’s intuitions here are spot on and mathematically very sophisticated, for all that he lacked the formalism to express them precisely.

The third issue, which goes to the heart of his central theory of exploitation, was that his predecessors were unable to explain why there is any profit at all in a fully realized competitive capitalist economy.  The first six chapters of CAPITAL are devoted to generating this problem, refuting the feeble explanations of his predecessors, and then presenting his solution, which turns essentially on the distinction, introduced by Marx, between labor power and labor.

My view is that Marx’s solution to Ricardo’s problem is brilliant and almost right.  His treatment of the second issue is dead right.  And his solution to the third problem is wrong, even though Marx’s most important inference from that solution is in fact correct, namely that Capitalism rests essentially on capitalists’ exploitation of workers, regardless of how enlightened, well-meaning, and woke they are.

I shall endeavor to communicate all of that to my students.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

DEEPER INTO THE WEEDS


In some religions, there is a distinction between the exoteric doctrines taught by the priests to the faithful and the esoteric doctrine reserved for the initiates.  The question posed to the priests is when, and whether, to lift the veil and allow the masses to glimpse the sacred Mysteries.

As I prepare my next lecture, I confront a version of this dilemma.  I shall, on Tuesday, rehearse Marx’s mocking debunking of the feeble and absurd explanations given by Vulgar Economists for the existence of profit in a capitalist economy [no, it is not that the entrepreneurs live frugal lives and save, nor is it that they earn the wages of management, nor do they all somehow manage to buy cheap and sell dear].  Then I shall reveal the Word, which is that profit is but the money appearance of the surplus labor extracted from the workers.  From which it follows that:

CAPITALISM RESTS ON THE EXPLOITATION OF THE WORKING CLASS.

It is a dramatic story, brilliantly told by Marx in the opening chapters of CAPITAL.  But there are secret truths, Mysteries known only to me and a tiny handful of others, truths unknown not because I have concealed them but because, alas, so few people have read the journal article in which I revealed them.

The secret truth is that Marx’s explanation of the source of profit is wrong, even though he is absolutely right that Capitalism rests on the exploitation of the Working Class.  My problem is this:  Shall I reveal this truth to my class?

Why ever not? You ask.  Considering the fortune they being charged for a Columbia education, do they not have a right to learn the Mysteries?  To be sure.  But just as the ancient Mysteries of Eleusis required fasting and mortification of the flesh, so the Mysteries of Marx require Mathematics, a mortification more painful than self-flagellation to most college students.

This dilemma has kept me up at night.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

INSIDE BASEBALL


I don’t know whether anyone is interested in this, but I will post it in case someone is.  I said in class on Tuesday that Ricardo could not figure out what to do with the case in which there are unequal capital/labor ratios [unequal organic composition of capital] and Marx had an answer that almost worked.  It worked when the economy is on what is now called a Von Neumann balanced growth path.  A graduate student in the course asked me where he could find an exposition of that and I drew a blank, so I wrote him this email:

            We start with Ricardo, who spent some time analyzing an imaginary economy with only one commodity – corn is Ricardo’s choice.  If there is only one commodity, then the only inputs into production are corn and labor.  One unit of corn is taken as money, the wage is some amount of corn, and the profit rate is paid in corn units.  Not surprisingly, everything in this model is simple and unproblematic.  Prices are proportional to labor values, the total profit in the system is equal, in corn money units, to the surplus labor extracted from the labor inputs, and so forth.

            Now fast forward to Sraffa, who not only wrote the very important monograph Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities [1960] but also edited the splendid 10 volume edition of the complete works of David Ricardo.  In his monograph, Sraffa analyses an economy with nothing but “basic” commodities and no “luxury goods,” a basic commodity being defined as a commodity required directly or indirectly in every line of production, and a luxury good being defined as a commodity that is not required, directly or indirectly, in the production of all commodities.  [Mathematically, this means that the square matrix of input coefficients is a non-negative non-decomposable matrix, although Sraffa never uses that language – is this clear?]

            Sraffa defines a notional complex commodity which he calls a “standard commodity”, consisting of quantities of all the basic commodities so chosen that the balance of the components of the Standard Commodity exactly equals the proportions of basic commodities in the economy when it is balanced, so that there is no excess or shortfall of demand.  Sraffa then proves that every economy with no luxury goods but only basic commodities can, by the workings of competition with each producer seeking to maximize profits, be brought into balanced form.  Thus it can be thought of as though a quasi-one commodity economy, the commodity being that Standard Commodity.  For details, see Chapter Six of my book, Understanding Marx, especially the Technical Appendix. 

            A Balanced Growth Path is a growth path in which the excess of each commodity in one cycle, which is to say the excess over and above what is needed to run the economy for another cycle at the same level, is just enough to expand production in the next cycle with no shortfalls or excesses of inputs.  Von Neumann proved a famous theorem about capitalist economies on a Balanced Growth Path which essentially shows [he did this before Sraffa, by the way] that any capitalist economy without luxury goods has a balanced growth path in which all surplus output in one cycle is reinvested in expanding the scope of production in the next cycle.  [If you Google “Von Neumann balanced growth theorem” lots of results pop up.]

            Now, it is easy to prove that in a Sraffian Standard Commodity economy or alternatively in a Von Neumann economy on a maximal Balanced Growth path, Marx’s claim is correct that total profits are proportional to total surplus labor.  This is obvious because such an economy is in effect a one commodity economy in which the inputs and outputs consist of quantities of the Standard Commodity.



LGA BLUES

Tuesday, after my class, I spent an hour with a student.  Then, at 5 p.m., I caught the M60 bus at Broadway and 116th street for LaGuardia.  I got home and into my apartment at 12:15 that night.  Just another seven hour trip courtesy of LaGuardia and its endless delays.  I love the teaching but the commute may kill me!

Monday, September 16, 2019

WHISTLING TO KEEP MY SPIRITS UP


One of the problems I have faced in preparing my up-coming Columbia lectures is that there is simply not enough time to say everything I want to say in the three remaining seminar meetings devoted to Marx.  Obviously one solution is to refer the students to the books I have written, but I was concerned that I might scare them away from the first book, Understanding Marx, if I mentioned that it had math in it.

Well, some years ago when I was working pro bono at Bennett College, an HBCU in Greensboro, I surfed the web until I found the state-wide standards promulgated by the North Carolina State Board of Education for all public schools K-12.  There I discovered that the math I use in the body of the text of my book is required to be taught in all North Carolina schools in grade 9.

So I shall say to my Columbia students, by way of encouragement, that if they made it through the Freshman year of high school, they can handle my book.

As teachers, we do what we can.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

IDLE SPECULATION ON A SLOW SUNDAY


Stymied in my lecture preparation by the fact that I have too much to say and not enough time in which to say it, I decided to relax by reminding myself of the rules governing the Iowa caucuses and by checking 538.com for the last month and half of Iowa polls.  It was as I thought.  Candidates getting less than 15% in the first round are eliminated and their supporters sort themselves, if they so choose, among the remaining possibles.  For the past six weeks, the polls indicate that only Biden, Sanders, and Warren would make it past the first round, freeing up anywhere from 45% to 28% of caucus goers to reassign themselves. Biden leads all the polls, save for one outlier, but the two crucial questions are obviously: First, which candidates can get their supporters to the caucuses? and Second, who is the second choice of those caucus goers freed up by the cut?

I think [which is to say, I hope against hope] that this is bad news for Biden.  If his current lead is more or less his ceiling, then Warren or Sanders should beat him out for the win.  Since the number of delegates at stake is tiny, what matters is the momentum and publicity of the win, not the actual group of delegates awarded.  My hope is that his huge lead among the African-American vote, based apparently on his popularity with older Black voters, will evaporate should he come out of the caucuses [and perhaps also the New Hampshire primary] a loser.

I really, really, really don’t want Biden.

IMPORTANT NEWS FLASH

The twin towers existed!  I have epistemically solid proof.  I just received this message from my son, Patrick:

"I can tell you how you can be pretty certain the Twin Towers existed. Anand played the 1995 World Championship match against Kasparov there, and I was Anand’s second, thereafter writing a book about the match. I went into one of those towers (I forget which one) many times."

Now, if my sister had only bagged a job in the West Wing ...

Saturday, September 14, 2019

EPISTEMOLOGICAL MUSINGS


I had intended to turn immediately to my Marx lecture this morning after my walk, but the discussion in the comments section proved too interesting, so let me say a bit about what, somewhat presumptuously, might be labeled popular epistemology.  In short, how do I know, indeed do I know, that 9/11 was the work of Al Qaeda terrorists seeking to strike a death blow to American Democracy?

I might think to begin by asking how I know that the twin towers were actually destroyed on September 11, 2001, but that would reveal a distressing credulity.  Clearly, I must first ask how I know that there ever were two tall buildings in lower Manhattan commonly referred to as the twin towers.  You think I jest, but I am serious.  How do I know that?  Indeed, do I know that?

I grew up in New York [well, Queens, which is not quite the same thing], and after leaving in 1950 for college, I returned in 1964 to teach at Columbia.  But Wikipedia says the World Trade Center was built in 1973 [if you can believe Wikipedia], and I left Columbia in 1971.  I never saw the twin towers in person, nor can I recall talking about them with anyone who saw them up close.  To be sure, I have seen pictures of them, but in some of those pictures King Kong is climbing up the side of one of them and then jumping to the other, so I am not sure I can rely entirely on those pictures.

Clearly, my belief in the existence of the twin towers depends on what in the old days was called the consensus gentium.  But that same consensus has it that the destruction of the buildings was the work of Al Qaeda, and I am a trifle puzzled how to know which bits of common knowledge to accept and which to reject.  I mean, I was alive when Jack Kennedy was assassinated, or at least when it is said he was assassinated.  I never met the man.  I went to college with his baby brother, Teddy, but I never met him either, so that is no help.  Maybe LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover spirited him away, put out the unlikely story that a loser named Lee Harvey Oswald shot him, and then kept him alive, wearing an iron mask, until he died during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.  Stranger things have happened.

So I am reduced to assessing probabilities, since my personal knowledge is, speaking generally, inadequate even to establish decisively something as non-controversial as the existence of Iowa.  And I must say that it strikes me as implausible that Cheney and company arranged for a bunch of Taliban backed Saudis to slam some hi-jacked planes into two big buildings and the Pentagon so that they would have an excuse for attacking Iraq.  If that was the plan, why on earth didn’t they just recruit some Iraqis for the job?

More to the point, I have enjoyed enormously the contributions of Jerry Fresia to our on-going conversation, but I have never met Jerry, nor do I know personally anyone who has told me that he or she has.  I believe that Jerry is an accomplished artist with a doctorate from UMass, but maybe, in the immortal words of our glorious leader, he is a four hundred pound man in his mother’s basement.

Friday, September 13, 2019

CHANGING COURSE

In preparation for writing about Piketty, I did a search of this blog, initially to locate the dates of my original review, and discovered that I have written quite a lot about Piketty.  So I decided instead to return to the preparations for my next Marx lecture at Columbia.  I then found, as Hannah Arendt once said to me about Kant, that it is "so much more pleasant to spend time with Marx."

BEFORE I BEGIN


I promised today to revisit Piketty, but before I do, let me comment briefly on some of the reactions to yesterday’s post.  Jerry Fresia suggests that someone high in positions of power knew of the attack sufficiently in advance to plant explosives in a third building near those slated for attack, and this complicity extended even to news reporters who claimed the building was collateral damage of the attack while it could be seen standing behind the reporter.

This is an extraordinary, apparently incredible accusation.  What do I think of this?  Do I know whether it is true?  Of course not.  Do I believe it?  I am, on this question, agnostic.  If it is true, would it change my understanding of the world?

Well, if it is true then I would be compelled to acknowledge that Bush, Cheney, and their compatriots, whom I have always thought of as sinister, cruel, heartless, hypocritical criminals, are actually … sinister, cruel, heartless, hypocritical criminals.

Which brings me to Piketty.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

THREE LITTLE THINGS


I want later today to return to the Piketty book and talk about its implications some more, but first, brief comments about three things that arose while I was in New York:  9/11, the Taliban at Camp David, and the firing of Bolton.

9/11:   The attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001 is universally considered the defining moment of modern twenty-first century America, the transformative event that has shaped everything that has come after, an event that people of all political persuasions memorialize by ritually recalling where they were when they first heard of it.

It was also, statistically speaking, not a very big deal.  Roughly 2,800,000 people die each year in America, which is to say somewhat more than 7,600 a day.  The three thousand or so deaths in the attack were thus a blip, the equivalent of a single day with ten extra hours in it.  That number is dwarfed by the body count of many other disasters:  the number of Americans who die each year because of the denial of readily available medical help, the number of Americans who die each year from opioid overdoses, the number of Americans who die each year from gunshot, the number of Americans who have died in wars ostensibly initiated in response to the 9/11 attacks, and so forth.

Just sayin’.

The Taliban at Camp David:  The bloviating classes were aghast at the insensitivity of even considering inviting Taliban leaders to Camp David in the very week of the sacred 9/11 remembrances.  Their collective horror at the thought somehow was transformed into the notion that the Taliban had something to do with 9/11 but that, of course, is nonsense.  9/11 was a Saudi Arabian manned operation, a fact that led the Bush administration to suspend the nation-wide grounding of commercial aircraft sufficiently to allow a bunch of high placed Saudis to fly home before public outrage trapped them in this country.

The Taliban are cutthroat religious fanatics, to be sure, but they are our cutthroat religious fanatics.  We did not create them, but we funded them and provided them with the shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles with which they could down the Soviet helicopter gunships that were wreaking havoc with the Mujahadin during the ill-fated Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  [For movie fans, the go-to film is of course Rambo III.]

They have a greater claim to a Camp David invitation than does Prince MBS.

John Bolton:  Bolton is a genuinely dangerous man, and I am delighted to see him gone.  His summary dismissal highlights the odd but welcome fact that Trump is a dove.  A belligerent dove, a bullying dove, a bombastic dove, an ignorant dove, a feckless dictator-loving suck up of a dove, but a dove nonetheless.  This is a dangerous world.  We must take our comfort where we can find it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

NU,NU? VAT DENN?


I am back from New York, and as I anticipated, the opportunity to spend several hours teaching a group of bright undergraduates and graduate students has restored my equanimity.  This morning, while waiting At LaGuardia for my flight home, I had a chance to read through the many comments to my last two posts.  I am extremely grateful to the expressions of support, which mean a great deal to me.

A particular comment, by one of the anonymati, caught my eye.  Here it is:

Anonymous said...
Bob is not about to shut down this pulpit - every so often he likes to threaten to do so, in order that we will all tell him how much we adore him. Patterns, people: learn to recognize them.

To which the only possible response is, Well duh!  [Or is it doh?  I am never sure.]  The comment is presented as a snarky revelation, and yet nothing could be more obvious.  I take it this particular Anonymous is not an actor or a musician or a professional athlete or a university professor, or indeed anyone else who thrives on the applause of the crowd.  I have just spent several weeks following the U. S. Open tennis tournament on TV, and again and again I watched ferociously competitive players encouraging the crowd to cheer as a way of keeping their energy up.

Why on earth does Anonymous suppose I write a daily blog?  Not for the money, Lord knows, and at eighty-five, with my career more than a decade behind me, it is not in hopes of professional advancement.  As for such immortality as I may achieve, I leave that to my books.

Who among the academics in my readership will deny eagerly reading student evaluations to see what they say?  Almost seventy years ago, when I was an undergraduate, there were no official student evaluations, but at Harvard, the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, each semester issued the Crimson Unofficial Guide in which it reproduced, unedited and utterly unbalanced, undergraduate opinions of their professors.  Senior members of the Harvard faculty scorned such ephemera as infra dignitatem, but on the day that the Guide came out, they could be spotted slinking to the kiosk in the middle of Harvard Square to buy a copy.  I particularly recall the scathing pans recorded every term of a senior Government professor and Big Deal, William Yandell Elliott.  As you might expect, it was young Instructors and Assistant Professors who tended to get the most favorable reviews.

So, Anonymous and others, if from time to time, wearing my heart on my sleeve, I encourage the crowd to cheer, do not be surprised.

Now, as the preacher says in a Black church, can I get an Amen?




Monday, September 9, 2019

TIME TO COOL IT

I am off before dawn tomorrow to lecture on Marx at Columbia.  By the time I return, Wednesday morning, I shall be my usual implacable self.  Upon reentering this retirement community, I shall almost immediately go to a meeting of the Building and Grounds Committee of the Residents' Association to defend a controversial proposal put forward by myself and our building's representative on the committee calling for red dots to be placed on the list of residents posted at the elevator next to the names of people who, in the event of an emergency, will need help descending the stairs from the second and third floors.  This is a proposal fraught with complexities that must be debated publicly.

And you thought all I worried about was the transition from late capitalism to socialism.

WHY I AM UNHAPPY

I have been so upset by the tone and character of the comments section these past few days that as I walked this morning I gave serious consideration to closing down this blog, assuming I could figure out how one closes down a Google blog.  I have been especially angry at the sneering and insulting remarks of the person called Talha.  I shall remove every one of this person’s comments that I can find and ban him [?] from the blog.  If you are eager to interact with Talha, you can find another platform on which to do it.  Fair warning: it won’t be more than several months before you are the target of his contempt.

Meanwhile, I think it is worth taking some time to explain why I am upset.  First of all, let me assure Chris that I am not a snowflake who melts if someone says an unkind word to me.  In justification of Talha’s mean-spirited remarks, Chris invokes Lenin, Trotsky, and Rosa Luxemburg!  Really?  Let us not get above ourselves!

This sort of infighting has a long, primarily religious history, in Christianity, in Islam, and for all I know in Buddhism and Shinto.  If one longs for eternal salvation and believes that every syllable of every word of revealed text is divinely inspired, then the fate of one’s soul may hang on the tiniest doctrinal quibble.  But there is no God of Revolutions who will bless us with Socialism if only we can find the correct position on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.  There are only men and women who have made common cause in the struggle for justice.

Now, in that struggle, as I have said here before, what matters most of all is simply, Which side are you on?  Are you on the side of the exploiters, or on the side of the exploited?  Are you on the side of the oppressors, or on the side of the oppressed?  All of us who are on the side of the exploited and the oppressed are comrades, regardless of our judgments concerning tactics or the correct analysis of the facts.

In the quasi-religious version of politics that too often passes for ideological purity, it may be a matter of [figurative, never literal] life and death precisely which candidate for office you think best, or which reading of the Grundrisse you favor.  But in the real world of political action, accomplishing anything requires the solidarity of millions or tens of millions of people who have all chosen the same side of the struggle, even though they cannot even all agree on whether the sun rises in the East or the West.  It is self-defeating, not to say rude, to adopt a tone of contempt toward a comrade.

Now, the mistake I made, apparently, was to believe that all of us who read and comment on this blog are comrades in the struggle for justice in this country and around the world – not merely idle observers, but comrades.

But in the anonymous, dispersed world of blog commentators, is comradeship impossible?  Perhaps so.  I may simply be bound to earlier modes of human interaction that were prevalent when I was young.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

ESTABLISHING GUIDELINES

Talha, your abusive language is not welcome here.  I am going to remove your comment and ask you not to write in that vein again.  It is simply not acceptable on this blog.

Furthermore, I think it is cowardly of you to make such comments while hiding behind a pseudonym.  How on earth do you plan the change the world if you cannot even say whom you are?

Saturday, September 7, 2019

LIFE'S LITTLE PLEASURES


Many, many years ago, a group of German scholars in East Germany [before reunification] undertook to produce a complete scholarly edition of the works of Marx and Engels, adorned  with the full panoply of traditional Germanic scholarship.  Because this edition was, at least officially, intended for the Communist masses, the volumes were quite cheap.  For years I had a standing order at Blackwell’s Bookstore in Oxford for each new volume as it appeared.  The beautiful volumes, bound in blue, cost three or four dollars each, and the entire set sits on the shelves of my Paris apartment.  International Publishers then brought out, volume by volume, an English language edition, which sits on the shelves of my apartment in North Carolina.

One of the delights of these volumes is the identifications of individuals mentioned or included [in the case of letters] in the text.  Here is what I found this afternoon in the Name Index for Lincoln:

Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865)  American Statesman, a leader of the Republican Party; President of the United States (1861-85); under the influence of the masses carried out important bourgeois-democratic reforms during the Civil War, thus making possible revolutionary methods of warfare; was shot by a slave-owner’s agent in April 1865.

Ah, the good old days!

WHILE I CONTINUE MY LECTURE PREP


I have been overwhelmed these past few days by the unbridgeable gap between what I have to say about Marx and the amount of time I have to say it in the course Todd Gitlin and I are teaching.  Even so, I have been paying attention to the news, so herewith a few idle observations.  But first, yet another confession.  I actually did not know what a sharpie is until last week. 

My principal reaction to the altered weather map was that it was such a manifestly, transparently, embarrassingly childish act on Trump’s part that it bespoke a degree of mental deterioration that even I had previously not attributed to him.  What on earth did his addled brain think he was doing?  But I was much cheered by the fiasco because it makes Trump a laughing stock, which is just exactly what we want as the election draws closer.  [By the way, look up the etymology of fiasco.  Like that of baroque it is fascinating.]   Equally revealing was the fact that the White House staff, or what is left of it, was unable to stop Trump from making a total fool of himself.

Here at Carolina Meadows there is a special unit in the Assisted Living wing for residents who are suffering from dementia.  The Assisted Living wing is called The Fairways, and the Dementia unit is called the Greens, because they are adjacent to the golf course that wends its way through the Carolina Meadows grounds.  Perhaps Trump could be persuaded to sign himself in with the understanding that he would have dibs on tee times.

Serena plays for the title this afternoon.  Fingers crossed.

Friday, September 6, 2019

CONFESSION, IT IS SAID, IS GOOD FOR THE SOUL


I have a confession to make.  Although I have been blogging almost daily for more than ten years, during which time I have posted perhaps a million words, bogging is not at the core of my being.  Teaching is.  Now that I have once again begun making weekly treks to New York to teach at Columbia, my mind is utterly absorbed by plans for next Tuesday’s lecture.  The course begins with three classes by me devoted to Marx, and though this is not, as they say out west, my first rodeo, I desperately want to get it right, to say clearly, forcefully, coherently some portion of what I think about the greatest student of society ever to live and write.

That is not all I think about, of course.  A part of me is absorbed in Serena’s bid for her twenty-fourth major title.  Another part of me is enjoying Trump’s misadventures with a sharpie.  And in the background, casting a cloud even over Serena’s march to the title, are the real problems besetting the world.  But I cannot do much of anything about them, and I can do something about my teaching.

So it is that as I walk each morning I deliver, in my head, portions of my planned remarks, shaping them, making mental notes of details to check when I am again in front of my computer, editing out amusing stories that I love to tell but which take up too much precious time, wondering on occasion whether any of the twenty young men and women in the class can possibly care as much as I do about what I shall say.

This is when I am most fully alive.  So it has been since I began teaching sixty-four years ago, and so it will be until finally, regretfully, I must stop.


Monday, September 2, 2019

WHILE I AM AWAY


I have been puzzling over how to take up Jerry’s suggestion, and I have some problems.  For example, how can I keep track of how many people join in a group effort, such as calling Jeffries’ office?  I can handle half a dozen or even a dozen contributions to the Friday Lists, but not hundreds.  What else might we do?

Why don’t you all discuss it in the comments section while I go to New York tomorrow.

BROODING ABOUT BIDEN


I have three questions about Biden.  The first is a snap to answer, the second and third not so much.  The first question is, Do I want him to get the nomination?  Easy peasy.  The answer is NO.  Unfortunately, my preference counts for zilch.

The second question is, Will he get the nomination.  To be honest, I thought he would fade, but as John Malkovich as Teddy KGB says to Matt Damon in Rounders, Biden keeps hanging around, hanging around.  In this RealClearPolitics poll average, Biden gets 28.9%, Sanders gets 17.1%, Warren gets 16.5%, and the rest fall away from that.  The rules of the delegate selection process being what they are, these are the only three candidates currently scoring high enough in the polls to win delegates in state primaries.  But they only get 62.5% of the total vote in these polls, so the question is, where do the other 30+% go after the candidates at the bottom drop out?  I would like to think that those voters will go to Sanders or Warren, but I have no evidence at all for that belief.  The single most important factor is the preferences of Black voters, who now choose Biden so overwhelmingly that they are all by themselves propping him up.

I do think no one coming into the Convention will have a majority of the delegates, in which case we are in for quite a bumpy ride.

Finally, the third question is, If Biden gets the nomination, will he win the election?  There are two plausible answers, and I haven’t a clue which one is right.  The first answer is that the Democratic electorate is so fired up, so eager to vote Trump out of office, that the Democrats could nominate a plastic lawn ornament and it would win.  The second answer is that Biden inspires no excitement or loyalty whatsoever, and is therefore the only one of the top four or five contenders who could actually lose to Trump by failing to get the voters to the polls.

I am terribly fearful that some version of the second answer is true, which means taking the nomination away from Biden is crucial.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

RANDOM THOUGHTS ON A LABOR DAY WEEKEND


1.         I got hold of the Greg Grandin book, The End of the Myth from Amazon, and have actually read the first nine pages.  It looks really good, and I may have something to say about it when I have read some more.

2.         On Tuesday, before dawn, I drive to the airport and begin my semester of teaching at Columbia.  Thanks to an app called CourseWorks, I can look at pictures of the nineteen students who have signed up so far [limit is twenty.]  I also Googled them.  They look like a very interesting collection of undergrads and grad students.  On the first day I have decided to wear my old T-shirt that reads, in bold red letters, “Free The Fogg 19.”  I shan’t bother to explain here what that means, but if anyone is interested, the story starts at p. 576 of my Autobiography and runs for four pages.

3.         I have been brooding about Jerry Fresia’s suggestion that I try to mobilize calls to Hakeem Jeffrey’s office.  Do Representatives listen to calls from people not in their districts?  I am no good at organizing, for all that I am in favor of it, but this blog is a resource that ought to be used and this would not be the first time I devoted time and energy to something I am not good at just because I ought to.  What do people think?