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Thursday, August 13, 2020


Being virtually confined to my apartment by the threat of the virus has not really made any measurable change in my ability to have an effect on the world in which I live. During the first 86 years of my life I was free to move about as I wished and during that long time nothing I did made any noticeable difference to more than the handful of people with whom I came in contact. But I was able to keep alive the illusion that what I did made a difference. So I voted and worked for candidates and took part in protests and gave bits of money and wrote books and letters to the editor, and got myself arrested in a anti-apartheid protest (this last more or less as a lark.) I even actually ran for office once in 1977. There were two open seats on the Northampton Massachusetts school committee and I managed to run third for one of them in a three-person race.

But now I am confined to my apartment save for my morning walk, a quick trip downstairs to get the mail, an even shorter trip to the end of the hall to throw the garbage in the garbage chute and of course – most exciting of all – my occasional trips to the dentist or the doctor. Thus confined, I delude myself into thinking that if only I could get out I could do something, anything, to make a difference. Unless I am much mistaken, my situation is not much different from that of the folks who comment on this blog. And yet the anger and intensity of the comments seems to suggest that it will make a very big difference which of us has adopted the correct judgmental standpoint.

I wish it were so. It would be so invigorating to discover that winning an argument actually had the effect of changing the world. But alas, if I could persuade everyone who has ever visited this blog to act exactly as I specify the net observable result on the world would be zero. However, many decades ago I chose to make it my life's work to have opinions and it is too late to find another line of employment. So I shall go on offering my opinions, though not making the mistake of supposing that persuading anybody will change anything.

I can see the subtle attractions of dictatorship, at least to the dictator.


Jerry Fresia said...

I read this blog for your opinions and your tutorials - not to mention the wonderfully developed writing style - and, of course, the French and Latin phrases that signal erudition. Oh...and the jokes, of course.

Back to "what is to be done," Francis Fox Piven and Deepak Bhargava have written a provocative essay, "What if Trump Won't Leave?"

They make the case, convincingly, that he has the "tools" to steal the election and that he is likely to try. And their proscription? Massive and militant street action that must begin now.

We're toast.

LFC said...

I agree on the specific point that winning arguments does not equal changing the world. On the other hand, the post as a whole may be exaggerating for effect. By RPW's own account his S African scholarships helped lots more than a "handful". The cumulative effect of individual actions is hard to see and measure except probably in long retrospect; see the famous concluding passage of _Middlemarch_, the one w the phrase "incalculably diffusive" in it.

I would offer the probably unwelcome suggestion that a diet of cable TV commentary, computer solitaire, taking photos of cats on ladders, etc. may be encouraging, in the circumstances of quarantine, morose brooding. Whereas reading a book might also lead to brooding of a downbeat sort, but at least you would possibly be encountering a p.o.v. or argument or some other things you hadn't run into before, which in turn wd likely be interesting to the blog's readers.

s. wallerstein said...

Very few of us make a noticeable difference to more than a handful of people. Why not be satisfied with having made a noticeable difference to a handful of people? Aren't those handful of people important?

If you wanted to reach millions, you should have taken up the guitar, not the viola.

If I were to die this afternoon, I can only think of one person who I'm fairly sure would cry. A few more might miss me and a few might rejoice because they'd inherit some money earlier than they had planned. Otherwise, no one would even notice and I'm not engaging in self-pity, merely trying to convey a realistic sense of how much someone who has spend his or her life reading too many books matters to the rest of humanity.


Echoing S. Wallerstein, it's impossible to imagine that anything at all will come from these human pebbles -- the comments, the political observations, the blog battles, the deep analyses and debates over Kantian categories and Marxian economics, the quips, the jokes, the ruminations, the self-indulgence and genuine concern, the mastery of a few books. Still ... as long as the pebbles roll down the right side of the hill. I heard that somewhere.

Thilini Prasadika said...

How I got to know you was through the digital prints you leave on this blog and YouTube. The work you've done 'outside' the digital world, which I don't have access to (unless in some digital form) is very promising and inspiring! This is the kind of life I aspire to live someday: if it ever gets to that, to leave the 'comfort' of the four walls of my room and to commit my life's work to something greater rather than brooding over journals and research papers and how I could secure a job in the academic world.

Anonymous said...

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

Chris said...

I read a book by Sandra Steingraber 6 or 7 years ago called Raising Elijah. She is an ecologist, and the book's subtitle clarifies its purpose - "Protecting Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis".

One thing I took from that book is that I as a parent can move every pebble in my control in the right direction. I can limit my purchase and production of ecological contaminants to the utmost of my ability, and it is ultimately not enough without regulatory and systemic change. The point is not that pebbles don't matter, but that they are not sufficient in and of themselves.

My day is brightened when Feedly shows me the professor has posted, and most of the comments are quite good as well. Alas, I have to agree however, with the professor and s wallerstein, that our individual actions are akin to the band playing as the ship goes down. It makes things more pleasant, it is what is in front of us to do, and it ultimately doesn't matter if the ship sinks.

Eric C said...

@Anonymous 10:32pm - I like that

Anyone who has shared ideas in the Academy and has taught as many students over decades as RPW, with many of those students in turn going on to become teachers themselves, has undoubtedly touched countless lives in immeasurable ways. It goes without saying that not all important effects are measurable or even noticeable. (And that's before we say anything about the South African scholarships program, to which LFC rightly points.)

Eric C said...

Professor, are you active on other social media (eg Twitter)? It seems we are at a historical moment that is ripe with possibility. I am seeing a number of people calling for a general strike by American workers on Sept 1. But many of those calling for actions like a strike don't seem to have very concrete ideas about where to go next, how to translate protest marches, strikes, and other large-scale demonstrations of dissatisfaction into meaningful systemic changes. I suspect a large part of the reason for that is that folks today don't know the history of past social movements. What worked, what didn't.

There is a lot that could be accomplished from the confines of an apartment. Unlike with Gramsci, it's possible to get your message out to thousands of others in an instant. You just need to find the right platform.