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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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."





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Thursday, October 22, 2020

RUNNING ON EMPTY, GASPING FOR AIR

Twelve days.  I can hold my breath for 12 days, can't I?  So it comes down to this. After 11 years of blogging, well over 1 million words, 4.25 million views, the question is can I wait 12 more days? Perhaps I could get my doctor to put me in a medically induced coma. Would Medicare pay for that? 


If Biden is leading Trump by three or four points in three or four polls in a state and in each of those polls three or four points is "within the margin of error" is the fact that there are three or four polls any evidence that he is actually leading?


Having run out of things to speculate about, I have started making my plans for election night. From my favorite take-out Chinese restaurant, I will get General Tso's chicken and I will open a bottle of inexpensive Cabernet and I will prepare to stay up all night.  The good news is that both Florida and North Carolina are early count states and we should have their results by 9:30 or 10 PM.  It Biden takes both of them, as now seems genuinely probable, perhaps I will get some sleep.


I have a vague memory of two things that I believe Aristotle said somewhere. The first is that shit does not have a form.  The second is that the prime mover has knowledge only of general principles but like the overlord of an estate, does not trouble himself with the details that his estate manager deals with. If these memories are correct, then perhaps I ought to stop trying to say something philosophical about what can only be described as a rancid pile of dung.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

MAKING AMENDS

After my exuberant post yesterday in which I explored various successful outcomes of the election, I spent a difficult night worrying that my optimism had somehow influenced the gods of elections to punish my hubris. This morning, as I took my walk, I rehearsed various forms of Internet self abnegation in the hope that I could make amends.  “Oh,” I said to no one in particular, “I would be content if we simply took the Senate barely by 50 votes.” Then, fearing that that to was too daring, I acknowledged that I would be satisfied if we were simply to defeat Trump.

 

It all put me in mind of a conversation I had around the dinner table more than sixty-seven years ago. I was sitting in Adams House at Harvard with several friends. All of us were scheduled to graduate in June and we were worried about whether we would earn honors degrees. Bennie, who was a bright mathematics student and a royal pain in the ass, said in his high voice “well, I wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than a summa.” We all groaned and looked into our coffee cups. Someone else said, “I would be more than happy with a magna.” Then Wally said, “Magna! If I could only just get a cum.” That was Walter Gilbert, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

 

I believe the Irish do something similar when they are worried about the potato crop.  It involves saying "wurra, wurra.” 

Monday, October 19, 2020

EGGS BENEDICT

As a longtime poultry fancier, I thought I would try my hand at counting some chickens before they are hatched. As I see it, there are three likely alternative outcomes to the election that is now only two weeks away: first, that the Democrats elect Biden but the Republicans hold the Senate; second, that the Democrats elect Biden and just manage barely to take the Senate with 50 or 51 senators; and third, that the Democrats elect Biden and emerge from the election with 52 senators or more.

 

The first alternative is so horrible that I shall not comment on it here unless and until it happens. The second alternative poses a serious problem because senators Joe Manchin and Diane Feinstein have said they will not vote to eliminate the filibuster. I can imagine some political horsetrading that would get them to come around but I don’t honestly know how likely that would be. The third alternative opens up great possibilities and also poses interesting problems. Let me talk about that one (when you are counting chickens before they hatch, you get to choose the most promising eggs.)

 

If the Democrats hold the House, take the Senate with 52 votes or more, and win the presidency what is likely to happen? When Biden takes office on January 20, he will face a double crisis that demands immediate action, namely the medical crisis and the economic crisis. Although his natural instinct, honed by a lifetime in politics, will be to reach across the aisle to his friends on the Republican side and work to form a bipartisan consensus, a process that would take 6 to 9 months and end in failure, he is not going to be able to take that route because the crises will be both immediate and overwhelming. Since he will get no cooperation from the Republicans, certainly not in the first month or two of his presidency, he will be compelled to push for an end to the filibuster and then for rapid passage of a series of measures designed to save the country. This will include some major revision of the Affordable Care Act well before the Supreme Court hands down the decision on its constitutionality and also an immediate multitrillion dollar stimulus package of the sort that the Congress has already passed once before.

 

On the basis of Biden’s rhetoric, which I tend to believe, he will also seek to pass major economic legislation including an infrastructure bill, and here the normal political negotiation and give-and-take will occur.

 

After the first several months of heady bill passing, with Democratic Party self-congratulation and mutual back slapping all around, the currently papered over deep splits between the progressive and centrist wings of the party will quite naturally reemerge and then the real long-term work of those of us on the left will begin. How that turns out in the end will depend not on the character of Joe Biden but on the energy we can generate, the organization we can maintain, and the number of votes we can draw in the midterm elections of 2022.

 

Meanwhile, something weird is going to be happening to the Republican Party and I really have difficulty figuring out even in a speculative mode what that is going to be. A great deal depends on whether Trump fades from view and ceases almost immediately to be an important factor in American politics, which I think is genuinely possible, or whether on the other hand he remains a force commanding as much as 20% of the voting public. I am absolutely convinced that when he loses (God, I hope I am not jinxing things by saying "when" rather than "if") he will turn his fury on those whom he thinks betrayed him, and that means not the Democrats – whom he views as enemies – but his fellow Republicans. Ben Sasse and Ted Cruz have already started positioning themselves for the 2024 presidential race but unless the Republican Party can keep together the 45% of the voting public that supports them, neither of them nor any other Republican candidate will have the slightest chance of winning a national election. I cannot at this point imagine a realignment of the parties that would make a place for the Trumpy 20%.

 

Well, I have broken enough eggs to make an omelette so perhaps it is time to stop.

 

 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

A DARK OBSERVATION ON A SUNNY DAY

One of the most famous taglines in the Marxian corpus is the opening of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon:

 

“Hegel remarked somewhere that all great, world – historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

 

Thurgood Marshall was replaced on the Supreme Court by Clarence Thomas and now Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be replaced by Amy Coney Barrett.

 

We live in diminished times.

Friday, October 16, 2020

EIGHTEEN DAYS

There is an old Cuba Gooding Robert De Niro movie, Men Of Honor, about the first black man to train successfully as a master diver in the United States Navy. Near the beginning, as I recall, De Niro sends the trainees into a pool to test how long they can hold their breath underwater and Gooding stays underwater so long that De Niro is afraid he has drowned.  It is now 18 days until the election and I have been wondering idly whether I can hold my breath for that long.  Probably even Cuba Gooding couldn't. But what on earth is there left to say?  This Sunday early in person voting starts in North Carolina and I thought I would drive to the early voting site in northern Chatham County just to see whether there are long lines. Having already voted, and being essentially in quarantine as I have been for seven months now, there's not much else I can do. Oh, I keep giving money and I suppose that is something but one of the problems with popular democracy is that each individual doesn't really count for that much. I guess there is something to be said for dictatorship if you happen to be the dictator.


I think the odds are improving that late on election night or early the morning after we will have a winner, thereby avoiding at least some of the authoritarian moves Trump has been musing about. In my book on black studies I wrote at length about the myth that the United States is in some way an exception to the general truths about democracy and dictatorship that have been derived from observing the European experience so I will simply say that perhaps our Trump episode will begin to put that myth to rest.


We must keep firmly in mind that even if Trump loses in a landslide, he will still get perhaps 45% of the vote which means, let us say, 70 million votes to Biden's 80 million. Those 70 million people will still be with us on January 20 and for decades thereafter and Trump will not be the last con man with authoritarian fantasies to come along.  The real work will begin on January 21.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

YOU MUST TAKE THE TIME TO LISTEN TO THIS THREE PART STATEMENT AT THE HEARINGS BY SHELDON WHITEHOUSE

You will find it here.

EXPAND THE DAMN COURT

After several painful hours watching the committee proceedings for Amy Barrett, I think the case has been made.  FOUR MORE JUSTICES, regardless  of what Biden wants!

A LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE

Inasmuch as I have written a book and a journal article and I have also posted a lecture on YouTube dealing with the views of John Rawls, I will take a pass on responding to the discussion of that aspect of my blog post.

 

However, I do want to call attention to one piece of potential good political news: the folks at electoral–vote.com, whose daily analysis and posting of polls I read regularly, make the point that since Pennsylvania and North Carolina are so-called fast count states (meaning that they count absentee ballots as they come in rather than waiting until election day) it is entirely possible that we will actually have a winner declared three weeks from today on election night. We would still have to wait several days, in all likelihood, to know about the outcome of the Senate but having a winner on election night could save us a good deal of anguish and trouble.

 

It is just three weeks to go and Trump is looking weaker by the day. This is not going to be a squeaker. If you haven’t voted, for God’s sake get out and vote early.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

FOR THE RECORD

There being a limit to how much I can obsess about the election, now scarcely more than three weeks away, I have decided today to put down on paper – or the electronic version thereof – some thoughts I have had for more than 40 years. I have laid out portions of this in one form or another but I do not think I have ever pulled it all together in a systematic and coherent fashion and I would like to do so now -- for the ages, as it were. If I may characterize this effort in general before undertaking it, I will be attempting an ideological critique of a standard sociological and, in some forms philosophical, explanation of the extreme income inequality that characterizes modern forms of capitalist economies.

 

To begin at the beginning, the distinctive mark of human existence, at least for the past 12,000 years or so and perhaps for much longer, is functional differentiation of productive activities, or as Adam Smith memorably labeled it, the division of labor. Leaving aside our prehistoric ancestors, for whom inadequate evidence exists, all of us eat food we have not grown and processed, wear clothes we have not spun and woven and tailored, live in houses we did not construct, drive in cars we did not assemble, and dictate to a computer using programs we did not write.

 

Marx’s focus was on the contrast between capitalists and workers, and he seems to have believed that as capitalism developed we would move more and more into a world in which owners of capital stood over against a mass of semiskilled and more or less interchangeable workers. The key to his analysis of this situation was the concept of exploitation. But one of several important developments in capitalism that Marx failed to anticipate was the permanent existence of a steeply pyramidal array of unequally compensated jobs, all of which in the account books of corporate firms stand on the side of “labor” but whose compensation can vary, in the United States, from a minimum-wage of $7.25 an hour to managerial salaries of millions of dollars a year.

 

The most sophisticated ideological rationalization of the exploitative character of capitalism is the theory of marginal productivity, buttressed by a misinterpretation of a famous theorem by Euler. I have had my say about that bit of flannery elsewhere and shall not repeat it here. But there is a more recent “explanation” (which is to say ideological rationalization) of the job and salary pyramid that owes its origins to early 20th century sociology and has gained credence in philosophical circles by being taken up in the work of John Rawls. The key to this “explanation” is the notion that I have labeled the “inequality surplus.” (I first introduced this phrase in my little book on Rawls published more than 40 years ago.)

 

I am going to develop my argument by considering in very elementary fashion an imaginary firm that I shall call Universal Widgets, Inc. I do not believe that what I have to say will be in any way be weakened by this bit of creative imagination. Universal Widgets, I shall suppose, is a firm with 100 employees. Ninety of them perform such functions as making the widgets, boxing the finished product and putting it on trucks for delivery, cleaning toilets, emptying wastebaskets, serving as secretarial staff, and so forth. The other ten are management and run the company. All of them are employees and for purposes of this analysis I am ignoring the question of company ownership.

 

To begin, let us suppose that with these hundred workers randomly assigned to the 100 jobs, there is enough money left over after paying for such things as raw materials and utilities to pay each worker $20,000 a year – a total labor cost of $2 million. However, it turns out that if each worker is assigned to the job for which he or she is best suited, the increased efficiency thereby achieved will swell the sum available for wages to $4 million. Quite obviously, the most natural thing to do is to assign each person to his or her appropriate task and then raise everybody’s wage from $20,000 a year to $40,000 a year.

 

There are, however, two problems with this plan, one of which can actually be solved fairly easily, the second not so much. The first problem is that some of the positions in the Corporation require fairly extensive training, of the sort that may take years. Let us suppose, for the sake of simplicity, that the secretarial positions require a four-year college degree and the managerial positions require an MBA in addition, while the manufacturing, loading, and cleaning tasks only require as much training as is currently provided by universal free secondary education.  Those workers whose natural talents and abilities mark them for secretarial or managerial positions may be unwilling both to undertake the expense of college or postgraduate education and also to be off the labor market for four or six years during which they would otherwise be earning a wage. The first of these problems can of course be solved by making college or postgraduate education free, as primary and secondary education now is in the United States. In addition, the society can provide support of an appropriate sort for those who have been selected for this extended period of education.

 

So much for the difficulties easily handled. The real problem, of course, is that the people identified as suitable for managerial positions may not want to take them. Even though they have talents and abilities that will make them enormously productive in those positions, thereby increasing the total fund available for wages so much that every worker’s wage can be doubled from $20,000-$40,000, they may simply not want those jobs. Indeed, even after it is explained to them that by accepting those jobs they will be doubling their wages (we will assume that they do not care about the well-being of their fellow workers), they may be so disinclined to serve as managers that they refuse to accept the assignment. “This is not the Army!” They may protest. “I am a free American citizen. You can’t make me take that job.”

 

What to do? Well, the story goes, we can induce them to serve as managers and to undergo the undergraduate and postgraduate education required to prepare them for that position, by offering them a salary larger than $40,000 a year. Let us suppose that in order to get the ten individuals best suited for management to agree to serve as managers, we must pay them $130,000 each, or an additional $110,000, which means that he wages fund must rise $1,100,000. This is where the concept of an inequality surplus enters the analysis. With the ten individuals best suited for management serving as managers, at a salary of $130,000 a year each, the wages fund available for distribution will rise not $1,100,000 but actually $2 million. When the additional $1,100,000 paid to the managers is deducted from this fund, there will be $900,000 left over, which means that each of the remaining 90 workers will experience a rise of his or her wages from $20,000 a year to $30,000 a year. The additional $900,000 available to be distributed to the 90 nonmanagerial workers is an inequality surplus. That is to say, it is a surplus that remains after the unequal wages paid to the managerial workers are taken account of.

 

Now then, assuming that the 90 workers are not so envious of the managerial workers that they would actually prefer to make $20,000 a year so long as no one makes more than that rather than make $30,000 a year even though 10 people are going to be making $130,000 each (this is the origin of Rawls’ odd and unexplained assumption of non—envy), the unequal structure of wages in the company will, by a happy coincidence, be both explained and justified.

 

To see how bizarre this explanation actually is, let me change the example a trifle. Suppose that instead of the Universal Widgets Corporation, we are talking about a philosophy department at a university – oh, let us say the Harvard University philosophy department. The department we shall suppose consists of a number of full professors, several staff persons, and (although no one ever bothers to notice this fact) several people who clean Emerson Hall, empty the wastebaskets, maintain the grounds and do other assorted tasks.

 

Imagine a young man and a young woman in their third year of undergraduate study who are told that the needs of the society being what they are, their career options are either to be a secretary in the Harvard University philosophy department or a full professor in that department. The two are given a battery of aptitude tests and it is determined that the young man would be best suited for the secretarial position and the young woman for the professorial position. These positions they are told are equally compensated. (At this point I have to fudge with reality by pretending that the Harvard University philosophy department is a profit-making operation with the wages fund determined by the income generated by its employees – bear with me.)

 

“Well,” asks the young woman, “what are the terms of these two jobs? What does one have to do in each of them?” The person administering the battery of tests gives the following answer:

 

“If you become a secretary, you will be expected to work 40 hours a week, 48 weeks a year. You will sit at a desk, handle departmental correspondence, manage grade sheets, answer the telephone, perform a variety of secretarial tasks for the professors in the department, and respond to student inquiries. If you become a professor in the department, you will be expected to teach two courses or seminars in one semester and one course or seminar in the other semester. A course meets either three times a week for 50 minutes or twice a week for 75 minutes. A seminar meets once a week for two hours. Each semester, allowing also for final examinations, is 15 weeks long. So you will work 30 weeks a year and have the other 22 weeks completely free of official duties. In addition to teaching, you will have other obligations including class preparation, office hours, administrative duties, and – several times each semester – grading of student papers and examinations. Taking all and all, and allowing for the fact that once you have prepared a course teaching it a second time is much less time-consuming, your weekly duties during the 30 weeks a year that you are working will consume roughly 20 hours each week. To sum up, the secretarial position calls for you to work 40 hours a week, 48 weeks a year, and the professorial position calls for you to work 20 hours a week, 30 weeks a year. The positions are equally compensated. If you are assigned to these positions without reference to your abilities, then the income of the department will make it possible to pay each of you $30,000 a year.”

 

“Well,” the young woman replies, “I would rather be a secretary if that is what is involved.” The young man is more agreeable and says he would happily accept either position. Notice that it is essential to this argument that the young woman prefer the secretarial position because if she too is agreeable to either job, then the maximum productivity of the department could be achieved by making the young man the secretary and the young woman the professor. But the young woman doesn’t want to be a professor, so some way must be found to persuade her that does not require actually lowering the salary of the young man.

 

The young woman is offered $100,000 a year, $150,000 a year, $180,000 a year, and still she cannot be persuaded. Finally, someone has the clever idea of offering the young woman a semester off every seven years – the person with the idea calls it “a sabbatical.” Happily, this is enough to persuade the young woman to agree to be a professor rather than a secretary and at $180,000 a year, there is an inequality surplus in the department sufficient to raise the young man’s salary as secretary to $50,000 a year. Everybody is happy and the pay structure of Harvard University is simultaneously explained and justified.


Do I needs to argue that this is nonsense?

 

Let me end, as I so often like to do, with a little personal story. My big sister, Barbara, who has just had her 90th birthday was a phenomenally good student. In 1947 – 48, her senior year in high school, she was the grand national winner of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, later the Intel Science Talent Search. The victory gave her a prize of $2400, sufficient to pay four years of tuition at Swarthmore College where she graduated in 1952 summa cum laude in mathematics. She went on to earn a doctorate in biology at Harvard and ended a long and successful career by serving as the Ombud of the World Bank. As a teenager, Barbara took an aptitude test arranged for by our mother who was a secretary at an organization called the Child Study Association. When she finished the test, the psychologist who was administering it said to her “you have many great abilities and will go far but don’t ever be a secretary. You are completely unsuited for that position.”

 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

IDLE THOUGHTS ON A DAMP MORNING

Rain today, no walk. As I was lying in bed, I found myself thinking about this election cycle’s favorite meme, “white suburban college-educated women.” To hear the commentators tell it, this crucial block of voters is the key to the outcome of the election. What proportion of the electorate, I wondered, actually is white suburban college-educated women? So I spent a little time after I got up googling and here is what I came up with. These numbers are not precise and in one case I was forced to guess but I think they are reasonably accurate.

 

Fully fifty percent of Americans live in the suburbs. (Who knew?) Sixty percent of Americans are white non—Hispanic and (this is the guess) I am going to suppose that actually 70% of suburban Americans are white. Back when I was young it would have been much larger but the suburbs have been changing and I think this is perhaps even somewhat of an overestimate. Still, that means that 35% of Americans are white non-Hispanic suburbanites. A bit more than half of that group or women, so let us call that 18%.

 

Well, about 35% of adult white women have college degrees so, putting this altogether, 6% of the electorate is white college-educated suburban non-Hispanic women. The polling results vary but they all agree that there has been a massive shift in this group toward the Democrats, a shift that is widely touted as the key to Biden’s potential victory. Let us suppose that the shift has been 20%, which is truly massive. Well, 20% of 6% is 1.2% so all the fuss is about a 1.2% shift in the American electorate toward the Democrats.

 

These are dangerous times and I will happily take anything we can get in the way of a movement of votes away from Republicans and toward Democrats but 1.2% is not exactly a landslide or an earthquake. It is more like a gentle tidal shift.

Friday, October 9, 2020

YOU NEVER KNOW

As I have often remarked, blogging is a strange form of communication. Sometimes, I work hard on a post, thinking it through as I walk, trying to get my thoughts precisely in order. If I am fortunate, when I put those thoughts on line, they elicit three or four brief comments. Last Tuesday, gob smacked by the succession of bizarre events, I put up a lighthearted post in which I made reference to a 72 car crash on an icy road. That post has elicited, at last count, 77 comments, some of which are longer than the post itself.

 

Several of those who commented thought it would be just lovely to hear me give a Marxian analysis of a 72 car crash. Alas, would that I could. If I were Karl Marx himself, I would dash off The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, an immortal work occasioned by a similar moment of madness. As my old friend and former department chair, Esther Terry, would have said, Marx was adept at making chicken salad out of chicken shit.  But I know my limits.

 

That was Tuesday – three days ago. Since then, the entire West Wing has become infected, Trump has pulled out of the second debate, Trump has personally destroyed any chance of another desperately needed stimulus bill, taking personal responsibility for its demise, a group of right-wing terrorists have been arrested for plotting the kidnapping, trial, and death of a sitting American governor, Trump has publicly called for his Attorney General to arrest his opponent in the election, and, oh yes, a fly has landed on Mike Pence’s head. I don’t need Karl Marx to analyze this. I don’t even need Groucho Marx. I need Mel Brooks.

 

Meanwhile, time passes, I cross days off my mental calendar, and Lindsey Graham is in the fight of his life in South Carolina!

 

I spent much of my life attempting high domed large-scale analyses of Euro-American capitalism. Let me enjoy just a few days watching the clown car at the circus.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

THE MORNING AFTER THE NIGHT BEFORE

I think I deserve some sympathy. It is extremely difficult these days to blog about what is going on in the world. I mean, nobody wants a Marxist analysis of a 72 car wreck on an icy highway or philosophical reflections on a category five hurricane. Searching about for something to comment on that had not already been worked to death in social media, print, and cable news, I hit upon one very curious moment in Trump’s triumphal return to a Covid 19 – hollowed out White House. I am sure all of you have seen the video of him ascending the stairs and posing on the balcony like a two bit dictator while he saluted the departing helicopter. But you may have switched to something else before hearing him deliver a brief address to the nation in which there appeared the following words:

 

“We have the greatest country in the world. We’re going back. We’re going back to work. We’re going to be out front. As your leader, I had to do that. I knew there’s danger to it, but I had to do it. I stood out front. I led. Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did. And I know there’s a risk. There’s a danger. But that’s okay, and now I’m better. Maybe I’m immune.”

 

There is a technical term in literary criticism for this statement: it is bat shit crazy. Trump is saying that there was a terrible enemy attacking our nation and that as our leader he had to don his armor and go forth to confront it, knowing that there was danger involved, but nevertheless standing out front and leading. He had returned from that epic struggle having conquered the enemy and won immunity from it.  Now, thanks to his courage and fortitude the rest of us were safe.

 

My first thought was that this was clearly an effect of the steroids he had received as part of his treatment, that he was in a manic phase of delirium. But then I recalled something that a young Donald Trump said many years ago. He described having an active social life in New York during the AIDS crisis as “my personal Vietnam.” This recollection comforted me. It was clear that the drugs had not induced in him an artificial craziness. He was the same old crazy Donald Trump that we have always known.

 

One final word about recent news. Two national polls taken after the first debate show Biden with a 14 or 16 point lead over Trump. This is obviously unsustainable, but it means that as the polls drift back to normal, that normal will continue to be a 7 to 10 point lead which, I genuinely believe, is large enough to defeat voter suppression, vote theft, and even the dreaded Electoral College.

WHO KNEW?

Am I the only one just learning that the White House doctor is a D.O. [Doctor of Osteopathy] not an M.D.?

Monday, October 5, 2020

STAKING MY CLAIM

Careful readers of this blog will have noticed that recently a person signing himself “MS” has been posting a number of lengthy quite intelligent comments, exhibiting a particular expertise in the law. Exercising the right of all aging professors, I should simply like to point out that this person, more than 50 years ago, was for a very brief period my student. I therefore take full credit for both the intelligence and the knowledgeability of the comments. Those of you who are yourselves professors will understand that this is one of the perquisites of the profession. 

RE;IGIOUS REFLECTIONS

From my careful reading of the Old Testament and the New Testament I had gained a sense of the Lord God as a vengeful God, a relentless God, even, to be sure, a forgiving God. But I confess that until now I had failed to realize that He is also a God with a sense of humor.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE

Several days ago, I watched Joe Biden deliver a talk to members of The United Farm and Commercial Workers, a union with 1.3 million members. It was a good old-fashioned New Deal talk of the sort that one used to hear from Democrats in the 1950s. He talked about a $15 an hour minimum wage, he talked about creating millions of new jobs to rebuild America’s infrastructure, he talked about creating more millions of jobs to retrofit buildings and substitute clean energy for fossil fuel energy. I am not sure that any of the other men and women who ran for the Democratic nomination this year would ever have given that talk, with the possible exception of Bernie. It made me feel good listening to it and if we take control of the Senate and get rid of the filibuster, there is no reason why programs of that sort can’t be enacted and put into place.

 

There are all sorts of structural and historical reasons for the decline of unionization in the United States but a strong push for re-unionization combined with legislation to undo the baleful effects of Right to Work laws and with an expanded Supreme Court ready to uphold such pro – union legislation, maybe we could rebuild the Democratic Party into something like what it once was.

 

You have to give the devil his due.

JUST TRYING TO KEEP MY HEAD ABOVE WATER

I don’t think I am alone in finding the events of the past week exceedingly strange and confusing. There is an eerie calm that has settled over the nation, despite the flurry of misinformation about Trump’s medical condition. This is, after all, the last four weeks of the campaign and yet the campaign seems to have disappeared from view. As one of my friends pointed out, part of the reason for the calm is the absence of an endless series of disruptive statements, tweets, outbursts, lies, and blustering by Trump.

 

Since I am of course utterly incapable of making any knowledgeable judgment about the medical information we have received, let me focus on just two brief moments that I found striking or suggestive. The first is the 18 second videotaped statement that Trump issued from the White House before he was airlifted to Walter Reed Hospital; the second is the four-minute recorded video that he put out from the hospital – on Saturday, I believe it was, although it has been hard to keep track of these things.

 

One wag called the 18 second video a “proof of life” video, the sort of thing kidnappers offer when demanding a ransom to prove that their victim is still alive. All it lacked was Trump holding up the front page of that day’s Washington Post to prove that the video was current. More interesting was the four-minute video he put out from the hospital.

 

Am I alone in having found it quite unlike any other statement Trump has made? It was oddly subdued and completely lacking in belligerence or bluster. Trump went out of his way to comment on the bipartisan support he had received and several times said that he would not forget this support. I had the very powerful sense that he was frightened. At any rate, he was completely off his usual game.

 

Trump’s actual medical condition remains an utter mystery. Earlier today the doctors said that he would be kept at the hospital for “another period of time,” whatever that means. But just a few moments ago I saw a TV report that he might go back to the White House tomorrow, and there was commentary to the effect that he had insisted on this despite the fact that he is in the midst of a five day course of medication which is supposed to be monitored in a hospital setting. Since rather unexpectedly it was Mark Meadows who contradicted the official doctors’ report and told reporters that Trump was having serious problems, we can perhaps look forward to Trump replacing yet another Chief of Staff.

 

I eagerly await the first round of polls taken after the first debate and then a round of polls taken after the announcement of Trump’s illness. I find it impossible to believe that this will be good for his polling but people are so frozen into their positions that we may not see much of an improvement in Biden’s polling after these two disasters. Notice that the news of Trump’s illness has completely knocked off the news the anguished discussion of his support of white supremacists.

 

Twenty-nine days to go.

 

 

 

Saturday, October 3, 2020

FURTHER THOUGHTS

I watched the briefing at 1:30 PM by the White House doctor and the Walter Reed staff very closely, and several things struck me. First and most important, they let slip the fact that Trump was diagnosed 72 hours ago, which clearly means before he went to that fundraiser at his golf club. Think about that for a minute.


The second thing takes me a bit into the weeds and I thought I had a scoop here until I saw that Andrea Mitchell picked up on the same thing.  Two points: First, one of the doctors said that Trump had had his experimental cocktail 48 hours ago which means on Thursday, not yesterday as the White House doctor's office clearly suggested in their announcement. Second, the White House physician kept repeating, in answer to questions, that Trump is not on oxygen now. When he was asked whether Trump had been on oxygen on Thursday or Friday, he replied disingenuously and quickly that he was not on oxygen on Thursday. What is more, it is clear that Trump started the Remdesivir therapy yesterday.


From all of this, I infer that on Thursday night and Friday morning Trump was doing so much less well that he was put on oxygen and also started on the five day course of Remdesivir, which I gather is given to assist patients who are having trouble breathing and are on oxygen.


In light of all of this, it is impossible to say just how sick Trump was or how sick he is.


Meanwhile, this morning we learned that Sen. Ron Johnson has tested positive and so has Chris Christie. I am a little bit sensitive about using the word "obese" for men whose body mass index is a trace above normal but there is no question about Christie.


This gets more and more interesting.



A DAY TO REMEMBER

Yesterday was the strangest day I have spent in quite some time. It started at 1:30 AM when, during a nocturnal bathroom break, I read on my iPhone that Trump and his wife had tested positive for Covid. The next morning I waited anxiously for the news that Joe and Jill Biden had tested negative. The White House first said that Trump had mild symptoms, then that he had moderate symptoms, then that he had received an infusion of an experimental drug, and then that he would be helicoptered to Walter Reed Medical Center. As the evening wore on, word came out of other persons who had fallen ill, including the president of Notre Dame University. At one point, we learned that my very own Sen., Thom Tillis, had tested positive. I finally went to sleep at 8:30 PM trying to recover some of the sleep I had lost the previous night. The long day ended at 1:30 AM this morning when, once again, on a nocturnal bathroom break I learned that Kellyanne Conway and Trump’s current campaign manager, Bill Stepien, have tested positive.

 

What does it all mean? I have not a clue. People continue to vote early in record numbers but I have not the slightest idea whether this will alter the polls. The speed with which the White House went from “mild symptoms” to “infusion of an experimental drug” and then “transfer to Walter Reed Hospital” makes me wonder just how sick Trump really is. The “several days” may stretch out to weeks. A picture of the Rose Garden ceremony at which Trump introduced his Supreme Court nominee, edited with little red circles around the individuals who have been reported to be positive for the virus, indicates that those five or six people were all sitting quite close to one another in two rows near the very front, which leads me to wonder how many of the other people in those front rows will turn out to be positive for the virus.

 

Is there still a presidential campaign going on? It is rather hard to say. Of one thing I am certain, if I were one of the fatcats invited to the fundraiser where I got up close and personal with Trump after he knew that Hope Hicks had tested positive, I would think twice before I wrote a big check the Republican campaign.

Friday, October 2, 2020

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Like many people my age, I get up several times during the night and last night I learned about Trump's positive test for Covid at about 1:30 AM.  I didn't get much sleep after that and I have spent the entire morning listening to the news and trying to figure out what it means for a campaign that has now only four weeks remaining before election day. Assuming, as I think we must, that the president will recover from the virus without significant short or long-term effects, there are two possibilities: either this diagnosis will make no difference to the outcome of the election or it will hurt Trump. I don't really see how it can possibly hurt Biden. This is the mother of all October surprises, of course, and the principal effect that it will have, I suspect, is on voter turnout which is all important. Should it happen, unlikely as it is, that Trump has a very serious or even fatal case of Covid, then all bets are off.


I have just heard that the Bidens tested negative, thank God.


Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

SERIOUSLY, FOLKS

I have been somewhat puzzled, and a little distressed, by the flood of comments triggered by my response to the debate. In this post I am going to say a series of things that are not very profound and indeed perfectly obvious but which it is important to keep in mind as we go forward.

 

The central problem in making major social change is not to locate the leader with the certifiably pure heart behind whom we can march to a glorious future. Joe Biden is not such a leader. Neither is Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or AOC or Big Bill Hayward or Eugene Debs or Norman Thomas or Ralph Nader or Jill Stein, or Karl Marx for that matter. The central problem is assembling a coalition of millions or even tens of millions of men and women who will do thousands of different things in an effort to make the world somewhat better.

 

Now, I freely confess that at this time and in this place I have no confidence in a program of extralegal violent revolution. I am not ruling it out on principle, but I have noticed that the people to whom I am opposed have many more guns, so violence is probably not a good strategy. Nor is secession, although I admit I am often tempted. Living as I do in North Carolina I think a lot about emigration but at the moment I’m not allowed as an American to get into Paris, France and besides, Paris is currently experiencing an uptick in Covid infections. That leaves organized political action with an aim to electing legislators who will fight in Congress for the sorts of legislation I believe in.

 

The trouble with legislation is that it always involves compromising with people one would rather eviscerate. A key to any serious plan for progressive changes in the United States is assembling a coalition in the Senate willing to vote for progressive legislation and that means making nice to Joe Manchin. It also means giving a big bear hug to Amy Klobuchar and a whole bunch of other centrist Democrats who happen to sit in the Senate (and also, by the way, in the House of Representatives.) Now if that is just too icky for you to contemplate, then the honest thing to do is to admit that you simply are not interested in passing legislation. Then you can settle back on the sidelines and snipe at everybody who does not meet your standard of perfection. I freely admit that that is a tempting and sometimes psychologically rewarding activity, but unfortunately it doesn’t make anybody’s life better.

 

Did anybody who reads this blog ever imagine that Joe Biden would somehow morph into a champion of revolutionary change? So why does it matter whether Biden or Trump is elected? Well, if it is Biden then we can put our shoulders to the wheel and start pushing for real change, which means electing more progressive legislators and making a series of unhappy compromises. If it is Trump, then as I go into the sunset, I will probably find myself sitting in the health center here watching reports of the nomination of Ivanka Trump as our next president after Donald finally decides he has ruled long enough.

 

I would really like that not to be the last thing I see as I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

ONE DOWN

Well, I watched the whole damn thing (or at least I lay in bed with my eyes closed and listened to it, or rather I listened to most of it – my wife listened to all of it but there were times when I just had to get out of the room for a while.) What is my takeaway aside from the fact that I am cross-eyed with the lack of sleep? It is simple: Biden won big. Why do I say that? Because he did not lose. He is solidly ahead in all of the polls. Trump needed to change the dynamic of the race and he failed to do that. I predict that in the days to come we will see very little in the way of changes in the polls. At the moment roughly 1.6 million votes have been cast. By the time the next debate is scheduled to occur, it is estimated that 30 million votes will have been cast. The major threat is not a late October move by Trump but instead a legal and extralegal assault on the legitimacy of the vote ending up, or so Trump hopes, in the Supreme Court. Here I’m going out on a limb, but I doubt that a majority of the Justices would vote to overturn a clear Biden victory. Since I lived through the Bush Gore fiasco, this is more an expression of my native optimism than a solid judgment based on precedent. Happily, the Biden campaign is well aware of this threat and is doing what it can to prepare for it.

 

We were incredibly lucky last night that Trump put on the show that he did. Biden was a mediocre debater when you could hear him and if he had been faced by a serious and well-prepared opponent he might have come off quite badly but that did not happen.

 

Thirty-four days to go.

Monday, September 28, 2020

JUST SAYIN'

 If Brad Parscale were black he would be dead now.

YOU GOTTA LOVE THE DEEP STATE: A MEDITATION ON THE BOMBSHELL STORY FROM THE TIMES

Thirty years ago, I spent some time as the unpaid Executive Director of an organization named Harvard Radcliffe Alumni and Alumnae Against Apartheid, HRAAAA, or Hurrah as we liked to call it. Our goal, never realized of course, was to get Harvard to sell its shares in companies doing business in South Africa. This would have no material effect either on Harvard or on South Africa, but as I discovered in later years the psychological effect in South Africa of such divestment efforts was considerable and contributed to the eventual downfall of that system. The Harvard Development Office, the real beating heart of the institution, was, needless to say, a complicated bureaucratic operation staffed by large numbers of low level secretaries, fundraisers, researchers, and other faceless personnel, some of whom were secretly sympathetic to our cause. One of those nameless functionaries, one night, hit the “print” button on the old-fashioned computers then being used and printed out a complete list of all of Harvard’s prime donation targets, organized not alphabetically but in descending order of the amount of money Harvard calculated it could raise from each individual lifetime. The database included useful comments from the fundraisers which could be employed in tapping their prospects. My favorite listing was “Leonard Bernstein – probable lifetime donation $500,000 – will only speak to the president.” This experience did us no good since there was no way we could think of to use the information we had come by illicitly but it taught me something I had not learned from Max Weber about the way bureaucracies function.

 

This morning I read online a long detailed bombshell story from the New York Times on 20 years of Trump tax returns that they had obtained. Needless to say, the Times does not reveal its sources but I had the feeling that somewhere in the bowels of the IRS or some other bureaucratic institution was a sympathetic anti-Trumper who hit the download button and transferred all of those records onto a thumb drive which he or she brought home and sent on to the Times.

 

As many of you will already have learned even if you have not read the story, the big take away revelation is “$750.” That is the amount of personal income tax that Trump paid in 2016 and again in 2017. Trump also paid nothing at all in 10 of the 15 years before then but somehow the number “$750” carries more punch.  (In 2016, the Bidens paid $93,229.  If the Biden campaign can’t make something out of that, they should be convicted of political malpractice.)

 

What can I say about the entire detailed story which runs on for many pages? As I’m sure you have guessed, it reminds me of The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky’s great novel, as you all know, focuses on the doings of Feodor Dostoyevsky and his three sons, Alyosha, Dimitri, and Ivan. But – and I trust I am not ruining the novel for anyone by saying this – in the end it turns out to be the bastard son Smerdyakov who kills the old man. This sad sack of a character actually takes seriously what Ivan has learned from Western European intellectuals and is spouting here and there, but because he lacks soul, which Ivan possesses, he does not understand when to believe it and when to just wink at it.

 

Well, the New York Times story reveals that Trump has for decades made use of all the tax breaks and gimmicks that those big time Manhattan real estate moguls got written into the tax law, only like any other mob boss Trump stepped over the line again and again in ways that will leave them open to prosecution once he is finally out of the Oval Office. He really is the Smerdyakov of the New York real estate world.

 

Will this help in the effort to get rid of Trump? It can’t hurt. I know he isn’t going to do it, but I would love to see Biden start the debate Tuesday evening by simply intoning the words “seven hundred fifty dollars.”

Sunday, September 27, 2020

AS I FEARED, I WAS WRONG

Well, as I feared, I was wrong about the Supreme Court and the possibilities of legislation by a democratically controlled Senate and House. Many thanks to the unknown commenter who laid things out for me and thanks as well to my son who sent me a lengthy response explaining exactly why my optimism was misplaced. It looks to me as though the only thing we can do is take control of the government and expand the Supreme Court. My guess is that Biden will be very hesitant to do that so we will have to push him hard. The prospect of striking down the Affordable Care Act in the midst of a pandemic may concentrate his mind somewhat.


Nobody said this was going to be easy.

AN HOMAGE TO JEAN-LUC

Fans of Star Trek the Next Generation may recall the 1992 episode “The Inner Light.” In that episode the Enterprise encounters a space object from which radiates a strong signal that takes possession of Picard and renders him unconscious on the floor. When Picard recovers consciousness, he finds himself on a planet where, over a long lifetime, he marries, has children, has grandchildren, until finally, falling asleep one night he awakens back on the Enterprise to find that he has been unconscious not for a lifetime but for 25 minutes.

 

The current political campaign makes me wonder whether, like Picard, I have been possessed by a space object and will awaken soon to find that the last four years have been merely an elaborate dream. The present political campaign is been going on for so long that I’m surprised my grandchildren do not have grandchildren by now. Some of my readers may be too young to recall the first presidential Democratic Party nominating debate, which took place 15 months and a day ago on June 26, 2019. The South Carolina primary took place shortly before my retirement community went into lockdown and in all the intervening time, with debates, polls, scandals, and conventions, I have been sitting here staying safe and going nowhere.

 

During all of that time, the polls have been astonishingly unchanging. Indeed, when one looks at those interactive charts plotting changes in the gap between the two candidates over time, one finds that save for the inevitable sampling noise, simply nothing has changed. The impeachment didn’t make much noticeable difference, the racial protests didn’t make much difference, the pandemic didn’t make much difference, the crash of the American economy didn’t make much difference, the Democratic convention didn’t make much difference, and neither did the Republican convention. Biden has throughout this entire time maintained a lead in the national polls of between five and 10 percent, with the average usually being seven or eight percent.

 

The day after tomorrow, the first debate will take place. Voting has  started – indeed, as I repeat proudly on this blog, my absentee ballot has already been received and accepted by the Chatham County Board of Elections. With only five weeks to go, this debate is really the last time when things can change. As I see it, there are only two events that might occur during the debate that could have any effect on the election, one favorable to Trump and the other favorable to Biden. The first is that Biden might come out and reveal himself to be a stumblebum suffering from advanced dementia. That would presumably help Trump, although the Republican campaign has recently stopped saying that Biden is gaga and started complaining that he has 45 years of experience and therefore should be expected to do brilliantly. The other possible event is that Trump will come out and, forced to speak extemporaneously for more than a few moments, will start to wander incoherently in his answers and perhaps even take umbrage at one of Chris Wallace’s questions and abruptly walk out. That would presumably help Biden.

 

Assuming that neither of these occurs, I think we can assume that as we enter the last 35 days of the campaign, the polls are not going to change very much. I don’t see how they could get any worse for Trump and I think it is unlikely that they will get significantly better. What might that mean? Well, this election is widely predicted to see a record-breaking turnout, perhaps reaching 70% of eligible voters. That would be 165 million votes cast. A 7% edge for Biden, which is clearly what the polls are predicting, translates into a raw vote win of 11.5 million votes. I do not think there is any way in the world that a win of that size could be overcome by a series of razor thin wins in battleground states of the sort that put Trump into the White House in 2016. Clinton it will be recalled won the popular vote in 2016 by 2 .9 million votes, a number significantly smaller than her margin in the state of California. There is just no way that Joe Biden can run up a margin of 10 million or more votes without, along the way, taking the majority of the electoral votes.

 

The only way for Trump to win is to flat out cheat, but that is a subject for another post.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

A TENTATIVE IDEA

In this post, I should like to try something that I very rarely do. I want to think out loud. For most of my life, I have worked in my head, not putting things on paper or on a computer until I have them so sorted out in my thoughts that it is, as Kant would put it, more a pleasure than a labor actually to write down what I am thinking. In this case however I want to explore some ideas that I have not fully thought through. The principal obstacle I face to thinking them through is that I do not have any of the expert knowledge in Constitutional Law that would be required, and my son, Tobias, who does have that sort of expert knowledge, is busy zoom teaching several courses at the law school of the University of Pennsylvania, a task which as he construes it is enormously time-consuming (before beginning his two sections of constitutional law, which together enroll something like 85 students, he conducted a one half hour interview with each of the students!)

 

For much of my adult life, I and other progressive Americans have looked to the Supreme Court for protections that states or the federal legislature were unwilling to enact into law. Let me say something about three of these areas: reproductive rights, healthcare, and voting rights. In each of these three areas, hard-won freedoms and protections are now gravely threatened by the almost certain prospect of a six – three conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Many people have speculated about the possibility of expanding the court to 13 members to create a solid progressive majority of seven justices, and I have enthusiastically supported the idea on this blog. But it occurs to me that perhaps there is an alternative.

 

Suppose the Democrats take the presidency and the Senate and immediately abolished the filibuster, giving them the legislative power to enact virtually anything that does not violate the Constitution. It should then be possible, I think (this is where my ignorance of constitutional law may mislead me), to write into federal law the right to have an abortion. This would be secured, not by attempting to find this right implicitly in the Constitution, but rather legislatively. The same thing, I think, could be done to protect voting rights, and it ought to be possible to write a federal law that protects individuals with pre-existing conditions, and expands Medicare and Medicaid, and in one way or another gives everyone in the United States guaranteed healthcare.

 

My general amateur understanding is that for decades now, indeed for generations, liberals have looked to the courts to give them what they did not have the legislative power to achieve in the Congress. But this may be the moment when finally they can achieve in Congress what we need them to achieve and to do so, furthermore, without twisting and turning to find something in the Constitution or in Supreme Court precedents that can be put to a use for which it was not originally intended. I cannot for the life of me see how a conservative majority could strike down such legislation as in conflict with constitutionally mandated rights, and if they were to attempt to do so, then might be the time to expand the court.

 

I would be very interested in hearing from any of my readers who have the kind of knowledge that I lack to tell me whether what I am proposing here is in fact constitutionally possible.

THE UTTER INCOMPETENCE OF THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA

By now all of my American readers, I am sure, have heard about the flap in Pennsylvania about a group of seven military absentee ballots that were mistakenly thrown away. All of the ballots, which were opened, were for Trump. There has been endless commentary about the inappropriate role of the United States Attorney General in this matter, about his briefing of the president, of the way in which this plays into the president’s story about millions of phony absentee ballots, etc. etc.

 

But none of these high profile high paid hotshot commentators seem to have done what it took me five minutes this morning to do, which is to locate the Luzerne County website online, take a quick look at its bylaws, and ascertain that this is a Republican County with a Republican County Commissioner and a majority of Republicans on the County Council. Which means that it was Republicans throwing away ballots for Trump!

 

That is the real story Рor rather the real expos̩ of the nonstory Рand any 12-year-old could have found this out more quickly than I did. What is wrong with these people?


WHAT I WAS THINKING THIRTEEN YEARS AGO

The comments of the past few days have reminded me yet again how odd and unnatural is the activity of blogging. How did I get into this? Well, as I approached retirement from a 50 year career, I was extremely apprehensive about how I was going to fill my days and when I expressed this anxiety to my sons, Patrick suggested that I start a blog. I did that in 2007, the year before my retirement. I think I must have posted roughly 20 posts but then I stopped and did not return full time to blogging until 2009. During those first days, I don’t think I had many readers at all but I enjoyed what I was doing and so, after Susie and I had sold our house in Pelham Massachusetts and moved to a condominium in North Carolina, I started again and have been at it ever since. I went back and read several of my original posts and one in particular caught my attention. It says something that I have not seen discussed elsewhere – something that has nothing at all to do with contemporary politics, needless to say – and so I thought I would reproduce that early post here some 13 years later since there cannot be anybody now reading my blog who was around then to read it when it was first put up. It dates from June 9, 2007. Here it is.

 

June 9, 2007

Iceland, Transparency, and Language

Last Sunday, Susie and I arrived in Iceland, en route to Paris, for a three day visit with Pall Skulason and Ardur Brigitsdottir. Pall is a philosopher, and the former Rector of the University of Iceland. He and I met through a common interest in the philosophy of education, and Susie and I have spent time with Pall and Ardur in Paris and in Metz. The stopover in Iceland was arranged so that I could give a talk at the University on "The Completion of Kant's Ethical Theory in the Tenets of the Rechtslehre." [don't ask.]


Tuesday was devoted to a sightseeing ride across the Icelandic countryside -- very bleak, very beautiful, enlivened by a visit to an extraordinary waterfall. It rained on and off, and the wind was at gale force, so we spent a good deal of time in the car rather than wandering about on foot.


During one drive, Pall said a series of things about the difficulty but also the virtue of trying to write philosophy in Icelandic -- things that connected up with remarks he had made about the history of Iceland and his experience of it. These remarks triggered in me a series of thoughts related to the [as yet unwritten] third volume of the trilogy I planned long ago on the thought of Karl Marx. The first two volumes have been published -- Understanding Marx, an exposition of the mathematical foundations of Marx's economic theories, and Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, a reflection on the literary and philosophical significance of the first ten chapters of Das Kapital. The third volume, tentatively titled The Mystification of the Capitalist World, is intended to unite the mathematical economics and the literary analysis of the first two volumes with a sociological and philosophical explication of capitalism, in order to illuminate the way in which capitalism's mystifications defeat our efforts to create a more humane and just society.


The purpose of this post is to try to put down in coherent form the thoughts triggered by Pall's extraordinarily interesting observations about Icelandic history, the Icelandic language, and the unique experience of trying to do philosophy in Icelandic. Whatever there is of interest in these remarks is owed directly to him.


All of this began the day before, during a visit to Iceland's national museum. Pall observed that Icelandic is a very ancient language pretty much unchanged by time -- a fact that he demonstrated by reading without difficulty a 9th or 10th century text exhibited at the museum. He observed that Iceland's history is transparent [his term]. Its founding can be traced to a known date in the 10th century [I may have some of this wrong, for which I ask Pall's forgiveness, but the details are not important], and since the population is very homogeneous, most Icelanders can trace their lineage back many centuries. The origins of the country do not recede into the mists of legend, as do those of France, England, or Germany. I remarked that Americans make the same claim, but that their inability to confront the fact of slavery makes their story of origins mythical and mystified. [I have explored all of this at length in Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, the book I published several years ago about my experiences as a White man in an Afro-American Studies department.]

The next day, as we drove, Pall talked about the challenges posed by his attempt to write philosophy in Icelandic. The problem is that Icelandic lacks the words for many of the key philosophical terms that play so large a role in European philosophy, especially of the past two centuries. One solution to this, which he rejects, even though most of his colleagues adopt it, is simply to bring a number of loan words into Icelandic, taking them for the most part from the German, but also from the French. Now, Icelandic, as Pall explained, is a transparent language. Because it is pure, exhibiting very little in the way of influences from other languages, and really tracing itself back to a proto-Indo-European, when a native Icelandic speaker uses an Icelandic word, he or she can see immediately and without any obscurity exactly what its roots are, and what their original meanings are [since they continue to have those meanings in modern Icelandic.]

This is, when you think about it, an extraordinary fact. If a word used for philosophical purposes is derived via a metaphor from some common root, then the Icelandic ear hears that fact immediately. Since I am the world's worst linguist, I cannot give very good examples of this, but here is one. The German word for "object" is "gegenstand." Now, gegenstand literally means "standing [over] against," which, if I am not totally mistaken, is not far from the root meanings of the Latin words from which "object" is derived.

Imagine, if you will, trying to write philosophy using only words that carry their metaphorical origins, as it were, on their sleeves. I observed that the effort, which was essentially what Pall was attempting by writing philosophy using only Icelandic words, would force you to think through exactly what you were trying to say, and it would stop you from writing something that really was meaningless but sounded good, because it was expressed in words whose origins were obscured both from the writer and from the reader. [Something like "In the Post-Modern world, the de-centered self interrogates meaning by (dis)joining ego and other."]

What does all this have to do with capitalism, exploitation, and the price of gas? Well, if Marx is right [see Moneybags], the exploitative nature of capitalist economic relations is concealed from us, for the most part, by the opacity of the wage-labor relationship and the misrepresentation of commodities as quanta of objective value. Seeing through that mystification to what is really going on, Marx thought, requires not only a critique of economic theory and an unillusioned description of the sphere of production [pace Capital chapter 10] but also a clear-eyed examination of the language with which we talk about our work, commodities, profit, and a society that rests on them.

Perhaps it requires that we try to talk about our own world, as Pall is trying to do philosophy in Icelandic, in a way that makes all the metaphors manifest, all the dissimulations apparent, and all the ideological rationalizations so transparent that they immediately lose their force. The central task, for a radical critic like me, is to speak as much as possible in that fashion, as a way of combating the dominant mystifications of the public discourse of our society.

Just a thought.

 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

I checked

I called the Chatham County Board of Elections and I think I am okay.  The nice young lady at the other end of the phone told me that my vote has already been scanned into the system and will be reported on election day along with the votes cast that day. Now if only the rest of the country had the same system we would be in pretty good shape, but it doesn't, and we aren't.

NOW I AM REALLY FRIGHTENED

Well, I took the suggestion to read this article in the Atlantic and now I am really scared.  What can I do? The only thing I can think of is to call the Chatham County Board of Elections and make sure that my absentee ballot will actually be counted on election day.  If that is not the case, then I need to find out how I can take that back and vote early in person.  Some slight risk of the virus is a chance I may have to take.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

DONE AND DONE

Okay, I have donated $250 to each of four candidates or funds recommended by readers who offered suggestions. That takes care of my royalty check with a bit more added from what I save by only eating half a dinner each night with my wife eating the other half (it helps to keep my weight down.) Many thanks to all made who suggestions and let's hope it helps.

A REQUEST FOR HELP

I have a serious question for my readership. Because I am committed to keeping Susie and myself safe from the virus, and also because of physical considerations attendant upon my age, I cannot really get out and do door-to-door campaigning. I have given a fair amount of money to a variety of campaigns but I just received a check for $707 as royalties this year on my half-century old book In Defense of Anarchism, so I could afford to spread $1000 around in various campaigns. I don’t want to give to the Biden campaign – it is awash in money. Nor do I want to give to campaigns that don’t really have any chance of success, although I am perfectly willing to take a flyer. Does anybody have suggestions? It doesn’t have to be a high-profile campaign. I would be willing to give something to a state or local progressive candidate who has a shot at winning. I get 40 or 50 emails a day from campaigns all over the country asking for money, but I would appreciate suggestions from readers, whom I am prepared to trust.

NIGHTMARE SCENARIOS

All right, I will admit it, I am terrified. I just listened to a discussion with two constitutional law experts about Trump’s plan to challenge the results of the election, presumably on the grounds of some imaginary mail-in ballot fraud. What happens if, on December 8, two competing slates of electors from a number of states are presented to the Senate and the lame-duck Republicans vote to throw the election to Trump? I actually believe that if such a case made its way to the Supreme Court, despite the six – three right-wing majority, the court would throw out the phony claims. But am I confident of that? Good God, no. Since these matters are decided state-by-state, the best possible outcome would be a Biden victory so large that even the defection of several state slates of electors could not change the outcome.

 

This may actually be the second time – the first was the Civil War – when the entire future of the American political system is at stake. No kidding, I am really scared.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

A PEACEFUL DIVORCE

A friend sent this to me. As one of those who would be left behind, I have mixed feelings.It has a California feel to it.


DEAR RED STATES; WE'RE LEAVING.

 

We've decided we're leaving. We intend to form our own country, and we're taking the other Blue States with us.

 In case you aren't aware, that includes Hawaii, Oregon, California, New Mexico, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and all the Northeast.

 We believe this split will be beneficial to the nation, and especially to the people of the new country that includes Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and Washington D.C.

 We also get the vast majority of the major shipping ports. So good luck with getting goods in or out of the country affordably.

 We also get Costco, Starbucks and Boeing. You get Texas, Oklahoma and all the slave states.

 We get stem cell research and the best beaches.

We get the Statue of Liberty. You get Branson, Missouri.

We get Intel, Apple and Microsoft. You get WorldCom.

 We get 85 percent of America's venture capital and entrepreneurs. You get Mississippi.

We get two-thirds of the tax revenue; you get to make the red states pay their fair share.

 Since our aggregate divorce rate is 22 percent lower than the Christian Coalition's, we get a bunch of happier, intact families.

Please be aware that California will be pro-choice and anti-war, and we're going to want all our citizens back from Iraq at once. If you need people to fight, ask your evangelicals. They have kids they're apparently willing to send to their deaths for no purpose, and they don't care if you don't show pictures of their children's caskets coming home.

 With the Blue States unified, we will have firm control of 80 percent of the country's fresh water, more than 90 percent of the pineapple and lettuce, 92 percent of the nation's fresh fruit, 95 percent of America's quality wines (you can serve French wines at your state dinners) 90 percent of all cheese, 90 percent of the high tech industry, most of the U.S. low-sulfur coal, all living redwoods, sequoias and condors, all the Ivy and Seven Sister schools -- Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the Penn, Princeton, and Yale; and Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, and Radcliffe colleges; plus UCLA, UCB, Stanford, Cal Tech and MIT.

With the Red States, on the other hand, you will have to cope with 88 percent of all obese Americans (and their projected health care costs), 92 percent of all U.S. mosquitoes, nearly 100 percent of the tornadoes, 90 percent of the hurricanes, 99 percent of all Southern Baptists, virtually 100 percent of all televangelists, Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones and Rand Paul.

 We get Hollywood and Yosemite, thank you.

 Additionally, 62 percent of you believe life is sacred unless we're discussing the death penalty or gun laws, 44 percent say that evolution is only a theory, 53 percent that Saddam was involved in 9/11 and 61 percent of you crazy bastards believe you are people with higher morals then we lefties. (See that part about divorces. ...)

Oh, and you can have all the new COVID-19 cases since you're too dumb and self-centered to wear masks.

 

Peace out.

We are the people of the Blue States

  

THESE ARE HARD TIMES

Joe Biden was not my first choice for the nominee of the Democratic Party. Indeed, I don’t think he was my tenth choice.  But he is whom we have and I have already voted for him. By one of those twists of fate that can never be predicted, he is in the present circumstances probably our best bet to beat Trump. Absent the pandemic, I am convinced Bernie could have won and perhaps even won big but I am not at all sure that he could have won in the face of the pandemic. At any rate, we will never know. It is bad enough having to cheer for Biden now, to donate money, to vote for him, even perhaps to work for him. But if the best happens and he is elected, carrying the Senate with him, then it is going to be really hard for me to deal with the way in which he will govern. His natural instinct will be to return to the good old days, to the way things were when he was savaging Anita Hill. He has already told us that he expects after the election to establish good working relationships across the aisle with the mainstream Republicans who are, he believes, simply hiding out until Trump leaves. Never mind that that would be the wrong thing to do if those Republicans were there. They aren’t and haven’t been for a very long time.

 

However there is one thing working in our favor. The day Biden is sworn in, he will face a raging pandemic and an economy in shambles with the Supreme Court poised to terminate healthcare for half of America, to undo the gains of the LGBT Q community, to put paid to any chance of dealing with climate change, and to protect the already overwhelming power of corporate wealth. Biden won’t have a year, as Obama did, to discover that his fondest beliefs are illusions. He will have to act immediately. That will require the termination of the filibuster, the packing of the Supreme Court, and the passage of multitrillion dollar economic relief and stimulus bills.

 

Biden’s instinct will be to do the smallest amount that has any hope of dealing with the immediate crises but I don’t think he will be able to get away with that. The objective realities will be too pressing. That is the point at which all of us must bring whatever political pressure we can to bear on the new administration, even before it has found its way to the executive bathrooms. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

CLOSURE

This morning while I was on my walk, Susie got an automated call from the Chatham County Board of Elections telling us that our ballots had been accepted. When I got home, I found an email message to the same effect.  Now that is the way things ought to be done. By the way, the email indicated that the program keeping track of my ballot, managed by something called  BallotTrax, is which is located in Denver Colorado.  I am old enough to find this sort of thing remarkable even though it is quite ordinary to young folks.

FOND MEMORIES: AN HOMAGE TO THE ADDAMS FAMILY

Back in the day when Susie and I could go to Paris, one of our favorite jaunts was to the Jardin du Luxembourg in the sixth arrondissement, a long but manageable walk from our apartment for a pair of senior citizens in their 80s. The Jardin is a large park in the middle of which is a quite big open area surrounding a circular pond. Parisians sit in the chairs around the pond reading, eating their lunch, or just watching the world go by. Toy boat enthusiasts bring their sailboats to sail in the pond, some of which have little motors and are remote controlled from the shore. There is even a booth where you can rent a sailboat by the half hour. One day five years ago Susie and I went to the Jardin on a lovely spring day. As we were watching the sailboats and remote-controlled motorboats in the pond, suddenly I saw this:

 

 


 

I looked around expecting to see Pugsley Addams, with Morticia and Fester watching their little boy proudly, but in fact it was just an ordinary looking Parisian with a somewhat twisted sense of humor. It is one of my favorite Paris photographs. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

A FACT

The centerpiece of Biden’s economic plan is the assurance he has given us all that if our family income is less than $400,000 a year we will pay no additional taxes. I am sure we are all comforted by this news. Out of curiosity, I wandered around the Internet for a while until I found this interactive table that tells me that 98% of American households have annual incomes of $400,000 or less. I think Biden imagines that $400,000 a year is the top of the middle class.  By the way, half of all households in America take in one eighth of that amount or less. No doubt things are different in Scranton from what they are in Washington.  Joe has been away for a long time.