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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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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 – or rather the real exposé of the nonstory – and 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.

WHY I BOTHER

I must confess I am somewhat puzzled by the general tenor of many of the comments on this blog. When I or others talk about changes in this country that are worth fighting for, up pop a number of commentators to assure us that we are not likely to succeed, whether because of the weaknesses and failings of professional politicians or because of the inadequacies of the general population. To which the only response I can think of is “duh.” Does anybody reading this blog think that I and the others are starry eyed Pollyannas? I have been on the losing side of political battles for a bit more than 60 years now. Even if I am slow, you would think that by now I would have learned that my chances of success are something less than stellar. But what is the alternative? I am not compelled to go on fighting because my personal situation is safe, comfortable, and affluent. So I could, if I chose, simply sit on the sidelines and do my best to discourage anybody who tries to fight and make a difference. I choose not to do that, but I do not need to delude myself in order to keep my spirits up. As I have written many times and have said to students even more times, the secret to remaining in the fight is to find something you can do to contribute to that fight that you actually enjoy doing. That way, you will keep doing it even when you are losing or when the attention of the world has turned elsewhere. Some people like going to demonstrations. They should do so. Some like knocking on doors or passing out petitions or writing to Congresspersons and senators. They should do that. I like writing and I like raising money out of my computer so that is what I have been doing for most of my life. Is that enough?  Of course not. Is it the most important thing to do? No. It is just a contribution that I enjoy and that I can therefore keep doing month after month, year after year, decade after decade. 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

Well, it is not difficult to figure out what we need to do. The problem is getting enough people behind us to do it.

 

1. Win the presidency and take back the Senate.

2. Abolish the filibuster in the Senate.

3. Add two seats to the Supreme Court and while we are at it, add two more circuit courts of appeals and a raft of progressive appeals court judges. This just takes majorities in both houses of Congress and the signature of the president.

4. Grant statehood to the District of Columbia, adding two more reliably Democratic senators. This also just takes majorities in both houses and the signature of the president.

5. Then start passing a raft of progressive legislation to recapture so much of what we have lost in the last 30 or 40 years and to advance some measure of social justice and greater equality of wealth and income.

 

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it? The problem is not figuring out what we need to do. The problem is getting what is basically a conservative, even reactionary, country to do it.

 

I think we will win the presidency and I am increasingly hopeful that we will take back the Senate. I think it is almost certain that Biden will try to “work across the aisle with my friends in the Senate on the Republican side,” but unfortunately for him and fortunately for us, he is going to discover what Obama never quite got through his head, that the Republicans of today are not really interested in working across the aisle. I suspect that the desperate urgency of the virus and the consequent economic disaster will put such pressure on Biden to get something done immediately that perhaps he will be forced to agree on getting rid of the filibuster.

 

If the Republicans succeed in filling the Ginsberg seat with a reactionary, the pressure to expand the Supreme Court will be enormous. Whether that pressure will be sufficient, I do not know. By the way, a fact well known to constitutional historians but of which I was until recently blithely ignorant, the size of the Supreme Court has been changed several times in American history although not, I think, in the 20th century.

 

The real problem will be getting the Senate – and perhaps the House as well – to pass genuinely progressive income redistributing legislation. We know that Biden doesn’t want to do that – he said so to a group of Wall Street bankers and I take him at his word. The House Democratic Caucus has been moving to the left lately but it is nowhere near as far left as it would need to be to pass the sort of legislation I have in mind. The fault for that does not lie with the politicians whose names we know but with the scores of millions of people who elect them. So that is what the struggle will have to focus on in the years to come. 

Friday, September 18, 2020

THIS IS A TERRIBLE DAY

The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an incalculable tragedy. I will leave it to others more knowledgeable than myself to talk about her legacy. Trump and McConnell will do everything in their power to replace her now with the most right wing justice they can find. We need four votes from the Republicans to block that. Murkowski perhaps, Collins almost certainly since to do otherwise would condemn her to certain defeat, Romney conceivably, leaving us one vote short under the best of circumstances.


What can a President Biden do?  The obvious answer is expand the court.  Two additional justices would create a six – five balance with the Chief Justice, as now, sometimes coming over to the liberal side. I think Biden would have no choice but to move for such an expansion because he would face a revolt from his own party if he failed to do so. That along with the death of the filibuster would create the possibility for some sort of liberal legislation.  


This is so bad that I find it difficult to think clearly about the path forward. All we can do is make sure that Biden is elected and then try to repair the terrible damage that will be done before he takes office.

NO TIME OFF FOR GOOD BEHAVIOR

As I have several times remarked, Susie and I live in a retirement community just south of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It is now just six months since the directors of the community closed down the dining halls, the lecture halls, the exercise room, and all the other public spaces and went on virtual quarantine. In all of that time, I have not been to a restaurant, a movie theater, a concert, a lecture, or indeed any other form of social entertainment. I have not been to a supermarket, or to any other kind of store. In fact, with the exception of several trips to doctors or to the dentist, I have not been inside any building other than the apartment building in which I live and in that apartment building, I have been only in my own apartment and in the hallways, lobby, and elevator. Even when I had to get my car inspected for the annual registration, I was able to take it to the local Toyota dealer, sit outside, and wait until my keys will returned to me. My sole concern during this six months has been to ensure that neither Susie nor I contract the virus. My best guess from the flood of information I have seen or read is that it will be the better part of another year before this changes. Chatham County, where the retirement community is located, has only suffered something like 57 deaths from the virus but because it is a sparsely populated county the rate per hundred thousand residents is among the highest in North Carolina.

 

To be sure, in those six months I have taught five meetings of my seminar at UNC Chapel Hill on the thought of Karl Marx, I have made several guest appearances in a course on the philosophy of Kant taught in Laramie, Wyoming, I have done a podcast in Sri Lanka, and I happily attended my big sister’s 90th birthday party in Southern California, all thanks to zoom.

 

This is not really how I expected to be spending my 87th year and the first half of my 88th year but, as our glorious leader is prone to say, it is what it is. Lord knows, I am immensely better off than scores of millions of my fellow Americans who now cannot put food on the table, cannot send their children to school, are losing their jobs, and are threatened with losing their homes. So I will just go on blogging and playing with my cat until I can go back to my Paris apartment.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

A LITTLE SOMETHING TO CHEER YOU UP

Rachel Bitecofer – the other Rachel, as she likes to call herself – is a data junkie who achieved a certain reputation by calling the 2018 election very accurately. She doesn't post much but here is her latest analysis of the race, and it is enough to warm the hearts and allay the anxieties of such as we.  Not to put too fine an edge on it, she gives Biden a 99.5% chance of winning.  You can't ask for better than that. 

IT KEEPS GETTING BETTER

This morning, after logging in to the Chatham County Board of Elections site with my contact information, I got an automated call informing me that the post office had received my ballot and was in the process of delivering it to the Board of Elections.  Now if the rest of the country could just be as advanced and forward-looking as North Carolina, we would be in good shape.

WE DO THINGS RIGHT IN NORTH CAROLINA

I just went online to the website of the Chatham County Board of Elections to see whether I could track my absentee ballot.  Sure enough, the site tells me that they sent me my ballot on September 11 and were informed on September 16 by the post office that my ballot was on the way back.  When it arrives they will tell me that as well. I am old enough to be astonished by this degree of informational precision and I am anxious enough about the election to be reassured. I believe in North Carolina absentee ballots are opened and recorded as they arrive which means that as soon as the polls close on election day all of those absentee votes will be added to the reported totals. Now if only the rest of the country were as advanced as North Carolina we could stop worrying.


We are now 45 days from the election itself. The polls are stable, Trump is flailing, and if everybody can just keep calm and vote I think we can pull this off. The latest South Carolina polls show Lindsay Graham in a dead heat for a Senate seat that he should be winning going away. Susan Collins is down five or six points in Maine and our chances of taking the Senate back get better each day.


That is all on the bright side. The real news is that scores of millions of people cannot put enough food on the table, have lost or are losing their jobs, are threatened with losing their housing, and are facing a pandemic that is not abating. But if the election goes as now seems probable, we on the left will have the best opportunity in several generations to make fundamental changes in this godforsaken country. It remains to be seen whether we will have the will, the organization, and the energy to make that happen.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

THIS AND THAT

Danny responded to my disparaging remarks about Herman Kahn in a way that, I feel, requires some comment although I really do not want to go down that rabbit hole yet again. Sixty years ago I spent a good deal of time dealing with Kahn’s big book, On Thermonuclear War. The book is a fraud, a farrago of pseudo-arguments essentially designed to justify the first strike nuclear policy advocated in those days by some branches of the military. I debated Kahn before a thousand people at Jordan Hall in Boston and I spent a great deal more time back in the day than I like to recall with the details of his book.

 

As for game theory, I have said what I have to say about it in my other blog. That blog was actually a connected series of posts over two months in 2010 that constituted a short book on the use and abuse of formal methods in political philosophy. The book is archived at box.net if anybody is interested.

 

Meanwhile, we are only 48 days from the election, early voting has started here in North Carolina and will start elsewhere as soon as Friday, and as each week goes by the polls virtually do not move. We have had July surprises, August surprises, September surprises, and very possibly we will have October surprises but I am more and more confident that none of them will do anything to change the basic shape of the election.

 

I trust most of you saw the clips of Trump’s latest interaction with reporters in which he trotted out his new shiny object, “herd mentality.” Lord, that man is an idiot. I did a little rough calculation this morning as I walked and if I understand the data that the experts have been putting out, in order to achieve herd immunity America would have to suffer somewhere more than another 1 million deaths from the virus. Trump couldn’t care less, but it is nice having him on tape pushing the idea so that the rest of us can hold his feet to the fire about it.

YES! (PUMPING FIST)

 Yesterday evening, Susie and I were idly watching television and I switched to Turner Classic Movies, where I found an old Alfred Hitchcock movie Stage Fright. It features, among many great old actors, Marlene Dietrich playing a somewhat over the hill singer and actress. At one point in the movie Dietrich on stage launches into a seductive number called, if I remember correctly, “I am a lazy lover.” As she reclined on a divan and started singing I erupted. “But that is exactly Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles singing I’m Tired!” I ran off to my study to consult Google and sure enough it is recognized as the Dietrich number that Kahn is satirizing. Now I grant you this does not rank up there with the discovery of radium or the proof of the fundamental theorem of Game Theory, but I was triumphant. It is small victories like this that make it possible for me to carry on in isolation as I wait the interminable 48 days until the election.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

MORE RESPONSES TO COMMENTS

I have been sitting here at my desk with my absentee ballot in front of me, meditating on the important choice I must make: whether to vote for Biden or for Trump. The exercise of the right of suffrage is the most important responsibility confronting a citizen in a democracy and I must give this careful thought. Weighed down by the gravity of the matter, it occurred to me that I might take a break from these citizen labors to respond to several of the comments provoked by my story about having tea with Bertrand Russell.

 

I love the Douglas Hofstadter story. I have my own Douglas Hofstadter story in a manner of speaking and it is a very odd one. I told the story 10 years ago on my blog as part of my online autobiography but 10 years in cyberspace is an eternity so I thought perhaps I would reproduce my little account here. This is part of what I had to say about my first year teaching at Columbia, which was 1964 – 65.

 

“The third outstanding student from that year is a real mystery. I taught a graduate course on Political Philosophy, in which I unpacked my "Fundamental Problem of Political Philosophy" paper and set forth the argument of what became In Defense of Anarchism. There was a brilliant student in the class who is listed on my hand-written grade sheet simply as D. Hofstadter. He was far and away the best student in the class, and earned an A+. For thirty years, I have thought that student was Douglas Hofstadter, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Gődel, Escher, Bach. But when I Googled him to check, it turned out that he went to Stanford. What is more, I sent him an email, and he replied that it was definitely not he. So there were apparently two brilliant D. Hofstadters at the same time. Would the real D. Hofstadter please check in?”

 

Someone else mentioned Henry Kissinger. I knew Kissinger 60 years ago when I was a young instructor at Harvard and he was a prominent young Government Department professor. I hated him even then, though I was hardly alone in that feeling. I was very vocal in my opposition to nuclear weapons and he was rather condescending and dismissive of the views of those of us who were pushing that point of view. Still I will have to say, he invited me to make a presentation on the subject to his seminar. This was a seminar he taught every year and it actually came to play, in later years, a significant role in American foreign policy because a steady stream of young men from prominent and powerful families in third world countries came to Harvard to study and took the seminar. Some years later when Kissinger became Nixon’s national security advisor, his professorial relationship with these young men who in the intervening years had become important people in their own countries gave him an outsized influence that he used to his advantage. I did have the pleasure of scoring one little point on Kissinger in the seminar. He had written his doctoral dissertation on Bismarck, I believe, and although he put himself forward as possessing expert knowledge in the new field of deterrence theory, he actually had no grasp at all of the Game Theory that deterrence theorists drew on to give their ruminations an air of science. I had been learning up the mathematics behind the work of people like Herman Kahn (a real fool) and Thomas Schelling (a genuinely distinguished thinker), and I thought in my talk to the Kissinger seminar that I would make some reference to it. Kissinger had, some weeks earlier, published a scornful letter in the Harvard Crimson disparaging the work of disarmament proponents like myself by saying that this was a “very serious subject.” When I met with Kissinger in his office before the seminar meeting began, I asked whether there was a blackboard that I could use. Kissinger asked why I would need one and I explained that I wanted to put some math before the students. Kissinger got a kind of nervous and squirelly look and said “is that really necessary?” “Well,” I said with a very sober look on my face, “it is a very serious subject.” I went on to teach for a while at the University of Chicago and Kissinger went on to oversee the Vietnam war and win the Nobel Prize so I don’t think I can view my exchange with him as an unalloyed victory.

 

But the most remarkable part of Eric’s lovely comment was the revelation that he started studying the organ when he was four. How on earth did that come about? The organ? The drums, maybe. Certainly, especially if one is Jewish, the violin. And of course the piano. But the organ? Are there quarter size organs like quarter size violins? There is surely more to that story than Eric has given us.

 

Finally, Jordan asked whether I have ever thought about writing fiction. Since I love telling stories one might think that that was a natural direction in which I might turn but in fact I have not ever tried my hand at fiction and I am absolutely certain that I would be simply awful at it. I could imagine writing a didactic novel in which the main character is transparently my mouthpiece spouting the views that I hold on this or that, but I do not really think of that as fiction. Real fiction writers create people, scenes, interpersonal interactions and crises and resolutions. Real fiction writers clearly love their characters and inhabit them as they write. I have on several occasions read statements by novelists who describe their characters as coming to them demanding that their stories be told. Nothing remotely like that has ever happened to me. I suspect that being a real writer of fiction requires that the author give himself or herself up to the characters and their lives in a way that I cannot imagine doing. On the other hand, I could in my fantasies imagine myself as a sort of philosophical Garrison Keillor. 

GAME ON!

Yesterday the mail brought absentee ballots for Susie and me from the Chatham County Board of elections. Today we shall fill them out (I have a few questions about down ballot races which are not clearly a Democrat against a Republican) and then we shall send them back. North Carolina has a system for tracking one's ballot online so I can tell when it arrives and is recorded. Well, that is two. Now we just have another 150 million or so to go. I signed up to do a little low energy campaigning – going door to door putting door hanger messages on door knobs, no personal interactions. Chatham County is solidly, although not overwhelmingly, Democratic so the more votes we can get out here the better it will be in the state races.

Monday, September 14, 2020

BY POPULAR DEMAND (HEM HEM)

Aesgir observes rather tartly that I am not loath to tell the same story twice on this blog and on that basis encourages me to tell the story about my tea with Bertrand Russell. Well, as all of you must by now have realized, it takes almost no encouragement to get me to tell a story so I will.

 

The story begins more than a century ago when a young man named Henry Sheffer made an important logical discovery: Sheffer found a Boolean operator from which all the other Boolean operators could be defined. This was in those days a big deal and after he published it it was enough to get him tenure at Harvard in the philosophy department. For a while, he was riding high and then disaster struck. The posthumous papers of Charles Sanders Peirce were opened and it was discovered that Peirce had 30 years earlier discovered a different Boolean operator with the same property (there are as it happens only two – Sheffer had discovered one and Peirce had discovered the other.)   Sheffer did not take it well. He got sort of freaky, became very secretive about his work, and refuse to allow auditors in his classes. Sheffer retired in 1952, my sophomore year.

 

In 1954, after getting my Master’s degree at Harvard I got a traveling fellowship that allowed me to wander around Europe for a year. One of my professors, Hiram McClendon, arranged for me to meet Bertrand Russell. When I was at Oxford that fall, I wrote to Russell and he invited me to come to tea at his home in Surrey south of London. On the appointed day I took the train up to London, made my way to his home, walked around the block until it was the exact moment that I had been invited, and pressed the buzzer. It was quite a modest home, considering that Russell was an Earl, a peer of the realm, and one of the most famous people in England. Russell’s fourth wife answered the door and showed me in. The house had a central staircase and standing at the top of the staircase was none other than Bertrand Russell, looking, as you will know if you have seen photographs of him, rather like a plucked chicken. He invited me up to his study and offered me tea and pound cake. Almost immediately it became clear why he had consented to see me. Russell had been quite impressed by Sheffer’s work and in the second edition of Principia Mathematica had made extensive use of Sheffer’s innovation. I had been introduced to him as a logic student from Harvard and so Russell wanted to pick my brains to find out what Sheffer had been working on all those years. Alas, by then I had taken every course on logic in the Harvard philosophy department except Sheffer’s course.

 

When this became clear to Russell the light went out of his eyes but he was, after all, a peer of the realm, so he had good manners. “What are you interested in?” Russell asked me. “Well,” I said – you must remember I was only 20 years old and he was 82 – “I was interested in mathematical logic but now I am interested in Kant’s ethics.”  “Oh” he said somewhat quizzically, “you prefer fiction.”

 

Well, I had just about enough moxie left in me for one comeback, and I had, when I was in high school, read Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. So I stuttered, “W w w well, s s sir, you st st studied k k Kant yourself, d d did you not?” Russell looked off into a distance that was forever closed to me and said musingly “I have not studied Kant seriously since 1897.”

 

The tea went downhill from there and when I left I was so crushed that I did not even write home to my parents to tell them I had seen the great man.

ME AND BERTIE

I checked and discovered that I never did tell the story of my tea with Russell on this blog, but then I realized that I told the story at the beginning of my second lecture on the Critique. Still and all, it is a lovely story. Russell is one of only two truly famous people whom I have met – the other is Desmond Tutu – but I have told the story of my two meetings with the Archbishop in my autobiography so it is there if anybody is interested. I have never met any famous American politicians, nor have I met any really famous novelists, painters, sculptors, musicians, stage actors, or movie stars. I once saw two young actors come into Zabar's on a Sunday – I think it may have been Jeff Goldblum and George Segal – but of course I didn't speak to either of them and they weren't famous when I saw them.

I HOPE QUINE WOULD BE PROUD OF ME

 70 years ago at just about this time in September, I packed my few belongings, went to Grand Central Station, took the shore line to South Station in Boston, took the T to Harvard Square, walked across Mass. Avenue to Harvard Yard and began my education as a freshman at Harvard. The very first course I took was Philosophy 140, Willard Van Orman Quine’s course on symbolic logic, and almost the first thing I learned from Quine, something hammered into me so that I would never forget it, was the distinction between use and mention. Although I started out my life as a logic student, I soon took the path of the Rake’s progress first to the history of philosophy, then to social and political philosophy, and then – Lord help me – to such things beyond the pale as Marx’s economics and even Afro-American studies. So I didn’t have much professional use for the distinction between use and mention, but along the way I became addicted to crossword puzzles and there I found repeatedly that a clear grasp of that distinction is absolutely essential.

 

For almost 6 months now I have been doing the New York Times crossword puzzle online, a choice I made because my handwriting has gotten so bad that I can scarcely read what I write. One of the side benefits of doing the puzzle that way is that the app keeps track of how I do, telling me for each day of the week my average speed and my best speed of solution. As those of you will know who are also addicted to the Times puzzle, Mondays are the easiest of the week, but sometimes they have a little gimmick in them and today that gimmick was three long across solutions in which the letters “itti” appear in sequence. The solution to another long across clue was “have it both ways.” Not have “it” both ways, which is what a Quine student would expect but simply “have it both ways.” This deliberate confusion of use and mention is one of the standard tropes in crossword puzzle clues and every time it comes up I get a slight frisson of pleasure and a sense that I am a boy once again taking Philosophy 140.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

ON THE OTHER HAND

 As I think I have remarked before, I now check with a site called electoral – vote.com each day to see what is happening in the shifting polls. This site has a useful chart called “tipping point state” which lists all of the states and the District of Columbia in order of the margin that Biden or Trump has in the latest polls with the Biden states listed first. The chart goes from dark blue (certainly for Biden) through lighter blue to barely blue to white (tied) and then to barely red, darker red, and deep red. For each candidate, the state that would tip him into victory is identified with a little pointing finger icon.

 

Today the situation is this: to win, Trump must first take all of the dark red states, which only give him 78 electoral votes, then the lighter red states which bring him up to 120 electoral votes, then the four barely red states (Arkansas and Iowa, in which he leads by 2%, and North Carolina and Texas in which he leads today by 1%). Then he must take all five states that are barely blue (Georgia, Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Ohio) which Biden currently leads by anywhere from 1% to 4%, and then Trump must take Arizona where Biden leads by 5% and finally, in order to get over 270, Trump must take Pennsylvania where Biden leads by 5%. He must completely run that table without missing a single state in order to get over 270.

 

As things now stand, unless there is some significant shift in the polls, I simply don’t see how he is going to manage that.

SUNDAY MORNING FREAKOUT

 As we all know, in 2016 Clinton beat Trump in the popular vote by roughly 2.87 million votes. Commentary tends to focus on the 70,000 votes more or less by which Trump won three Midwestern states. What is less often talked about is the fact that Clinton took California by 4.27 million votes, which means that outside of California Clinton lost the popular vote to Trump by 1.4 million votes.


It is a depressing fact that this is a much more right wing country than those of us in the left-wing bubble tend to recognize.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

MY KEVIN BACON MOMENT

 

Five years ago I wrote a little post for this blog on the concept of degrees of separation in the course of which I noted that I am connected to Jeremy Bentham by only two degrees of separation. In view of the fact that Bentham’s greatest and most often read work was published 240 years ago, this is a reasonably remarkable fact. For those who did not read that post or have forgotten it, I will explain briefly that in 1954 I had tea with an 82-year-old Bertrand Russell. Russell’s godfather was none other than John Stuart Mill – my first degree of separation – who in turn was the godson of Jeremy Bentham, my second degree of separation. Thus the undergraduates in the course on the thought of Karl Marx that I taught at UNC Chapel Hill this past semester are in turn connected to Bentham by three degrees of separation.

 

I am afraid I cannot say the same of Plato.

YOU STILL DON'T GET IT


All right, I guess I’m just going to have to talk about this. Here is Wallerstein’s comment:

“My sister worked for many years in Queens. Most of the people she worked with are Trump supporters (she's not one) and from how she described them, the implicit association in the original post between coming from Queens and misusing the English language as expressed by an ex Ivy League philosophy professor with radical politics views would just confirm them in their support of Trump whom they identify with, among other reasons, because he does not speak like an ex Ivy League philosophy professor with radical views, who they imagine looks down on them.”

This misunderstands my original post in so many different ways simultaneously that it is rather hard to sort them all out. In the first place, I was not expressing my views about the relative merits of Queens and Manhattan, which views, I might say, are virtually nonexistent. (Just to avoid yet one more misunderstanding, I am not saying there is no difference between the merits of Queens and Manhattan, simply that I have no views about those merits, such as they may be.) I was referring in my comment to what I had read about Trump’s father as a way of trying to understand Trump’s decision to give 18 tape-recorded interviews to Bob Woodward, a choice so insanely against self-interest as to cry out for explanation. When it comes to the feelings of real estate developers about one another I have, as they say, no skin in that game.

Secondly, there is absolutely nothing in that original post that has anything in the slightest to do with any sort of connection between coming from Queens and misusing the English language. I come from Queens, after all, and I don’t misuse the English language. Now if you can take a deep breath and get past whatever personal hangups you may have, it will be obvious to you that in my view Trump’s use of the word “strenuous” is not in any ordinary sense a misuse of language that has anything at all to do with whether one was or was not at some point long in the past an Ivy League professor with or without radical views.

I try very hard in these posts and elsewhere in my writing not to make points in a flat-footed, clunky, prosaic manner. I try – I leave it to others to decide whether I succeed – to write with a certain quickness of wit and lightness of touch, relying on my readers to grasp my meaning rather than trying to cram it down their throats. 

If we can leave to one side Queens, Manhattan, Trump, and politics, why do I seem to care so much about language? Well, would you be surprised if a professional musician cared about whether a performance was played in tune? Would you be surprised if a professional dancer cared about whether someone’s movements were graceful? Would you be surprised if a professional tennis player cared about whether someone served aces? Language is my art, it is my sport, it is the way in which I strive to express myself and to create things of beauty. So I am more than ordinarily sensitive to Trump’s strange misuses of language. As for the clearly implied accusation of snobbery in Wallerstein’s comment, may I remind him and the rest of you that I walked away from Manhattan and the Ivy League 49 years ago, in part because I was offended by that snobbery.

A PROPOS ACCENTS

 I spent a long time convinced that the GEICO gecko is Australian until I read a knowledgeable and definitive analysis that revealed that he is Cockney. Accents can be tricky.

I AM LOST

 

The comments about my post yesterday have become truly bizarre. Nothing I wrote had anything at all to do with how people in Queens talk as opposed to how people in Manhattan talk. I cannot even begin to imagine where that comes from. What was I referring to? Well, I have read (obviously I have no idea whether this is true or not) that Fred Trump, Donald’s father, wanted to be accepted by the big socially well-established real estate developers who operated in Manhattan and felt shunned by them. Donald Trump, I imagine, picked up that attitude from his father. Trump’s sycophantic attitude toward those whom he perceives as strong is well known. I was simply suggesting that it extended to Bob Woodward and that that explained both why he agreed to an extended series of taped interviews and also why he tried in those interviews to sound knowledgeable, failing to do so because of his misuse of “big” words. I should have thought this was obvious from what I wrote.

 

My comment about the Columbia University Board of Trustees was based on something I heard half a century ago when I was still at Columbia. According to the story I heard, Columbia owned the land on which Rockefeller Center is built, obviously an enormously valuable property. They were charging something like $3 million a year in rent which was ridiculously below what they should have been getting. The Columbia board in those days had a heavy representation of high dollar Manhattan real estate developers who certainly should have known what that property was worth. In 1969, the year after the student uprising, we were told that Columbia was in terrible economic shape and as I heard the story, it took the next president a decade to repair the damage to Columbia’s finances.

 

What on earth does this have to do with whether it is all right to make fun of the way people in Queens talk but not all right to make fun of the way African-Americans talk? I don’t even know how one would go about making fun of the way people in Queens talk. I guess since I come from Queens I don’t think I have a Queens accent, I just talk. And at least when I was a boy there was certainly nothing that could be called a Manhattan accent although there was something that could be called a Brooklyn accent. I leave it to the linguists among my readership to decide whether there was something that could be called a Bronx accent or a Staten Island accent.

Friday, September 11, 2020

THE CURIOUS ENGLISH LANGUAGE

 

Surely all of you who live in the United States have now listened numerous times to the audio clips of Trump talking to Bob Woodward. Never mind the sheer awfulness of Trump revealed by these clips – that goes without saying. I was fascinated by their tone. Trump was clearly sucking up to Woodward, trying to impress him, trying to show him that he, Donald Trump, had the inside scoop on the virus and understood it. Once again, I was struck by Trump’s language. Explaining to Woodward how dangerous the virus is, Trump described it as worse even than a “strenuous” flu. Quite obviously, Trump does not know what “strenuous” means, simply that it is a big word for “very bad.” Just like his father, Trump reveals himself there to be a wannabe from the outer boroughs trying to make it with the big boys in Manhattan. (A personal note: I was reminded of the fact that the year after the big 1968 uprising at Columbia University, which hysterical professors and administrators thought would ruin the University, it was revealed that those same big deal Manhattan real estate brokers had so mishandled Columbia’s endowment during their time as trustees that it took the next president of Columbia 10 years to repair the damage.)

 

This morning, as I was musing on all of this, I found myself for no reason that I can explain thinking about all the words in the English language that end in –umble. I have in mind bumble, crumble, fumble, grumble, humble, jumble, mumble, rumble, stumble, and tumble. To which can be added numb and dumb. What a strange language English is.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

MISSED OPPORTUNITY

 As I’m sure you all know, Michael Cohen was released from prison to home confinement because of the danger of contracting the coronavirus. A day or two ago I saw an interview with him from his home. Afterward, it occurred to me that he was no more confined than I am, but at least he got to commit a crime. Oh well, another missed opportunity.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

PUZZLED


Look, there is only so much one can say about this wretched political situation we are in. It is now after Labor Day and I am in full freak out mode, so rather than obsess about today’s polls I will take a moment to write something about two nonpolitical matters that have puzzled me for many years. I invite all the help I can get from those of you who have specialist scientific knowledge that I lack.

The first of these matters is clouds. Back in the day when we all took airplanes, all of us had the experience of flying through discrete layers of clouds – two or even three – at different levels above the ground. I can recall, as every passenger can, looking down 25,000 feet at a layer of clouds and then, as one descends toward landing, going through that layer of clouds back into clear air and then into another layer of clouds and perhaps even into a third layer before landing. My question is this: why do clouds form in discrete layers in this way? I have only the vaguest notion of what a cloud is – a lot of water droplets, I guess – but no idea at all of why these clouds form at one elevation rather than another and at several discrete elevations in the same area. Does anybody know the answer?

The second thing that has always puzzled me is friction and I think I may have actually mentioned this before. What is friction? Why do my clothes slide onto my body easily when I am completely dry and yet catch and stick when I am wet? I’m sure there must be a simple answer to this question but I am utterly mystified by friction. Anybody?

And then of course there is Joe Biden’s poor showing in the polls with Hispanic voters, but I said I wasn’t going to talk about politics so let that go.

GOODBYE MR. CHIPS


A while back I wrote a post about my experiences in South Africa and someone identified simply as “unknown” posted a very kind comment to which I responded enthusiastically. Today that person identified himself as Ivor Sarakinsky, a scholar who now teaches at the University of the Witwatersrand. Curious, I googled his name and came up with a video of him being interviewed on recent events in South African politics. This was quite gratifying but there was something strangely wrong with the video. It was of a bearded middle-aged man and I’m quite sure that none of the students I taught 34 years ago in South Africa were bearded middle-aged men! I am afraid I am having another one of those Mr. Chips moments.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

A COMMENT PROVOKED BY A COMMENT


During Chris Mulvaney’s delightful comment about getting bounced from Georgetown, he mentioned my UMass course Introduction to Social Philosophy. There are several nice stories connected with that course which I thought I would tell on this first day after Labor Day when the weather is getting a bit cooler and my anxiety level about the election is rising.

As part of my first teaching job at Harvard, I served as the first head tutor of a new undergraduate interdisciplinary concentration called Social Studies. (Close readers of the news may recall that Merrick Garland, Obama’s ill-fated nominee for the Supreme Court, majored in Social Studies as an undergraduate.) When I got to UMass in 1971 I decided that I wanted to create what was essentially a left-wing version of Social Studies, to which I gave the name Social Thought and Political Economy. The UMass computer rendered this as STPEC, or stepic, as it was usually referred to. Since this was an extremely low budget operation (the initial budget for the program was zero), I hit on the idea of having students in the program take an assortment of courses in the relevant social sciences and humanities capped by a senior seminar that would be taught by two senior members of the faculty from different departments (thus guaranteeing that it would be “interdisciplinary.”) The first year, the senior seminar was taught by myself and my friend and colleague in the political science department William Connolly (who, among his many other accomplishments, was the key figure in transforming the economics department into the best collection of Marxist economists in the United States.)

Word got out to juniors in the program that the senior seminar was brutally hard and in response to their anxiety, I created a junior seminar that would prepare them to take the senior seminar. I got a young professor at Mount Holyoke College, Tracy Strong, to teach the junior seminar but he laid a heavy rap on the students and word got back to the freshmen and sophomores in the program that the junior seminar required preparation that they did not have. Once again I responded, this time by creating a new introductory course – philosophy 161, Introduction to Social Philosophy – to prepare the students to take the junior seminar so that they would be ready to take the senior seminar. Thus began a tradition in the program of making its development student – driven, a tradition that was maintained and greatly expanded by Prof. Sara Lennox when in 1980 she took over directorship of STPEC because I had moved to Boston and would only be commuting back two or three days a week.  STPEC still flourishes and in three years, when I am 89 years old, I have every hope of returning to Amherst for its 50th anniversary celebration.

One day during the first year that I was teaching philosophy 161, a young woman in the class came up to me after a lecture with a complaint. I should explain that the Pioneer Valley where UMass is located had an extremely vibrant women’s movement and UMass itself had a strong women’s studies program that in time became an independent department. The young woman objected to the fact that when I lectured, I always used the male pronoun even when I was referring to groups of people that included women as well as men. I thought about that for a bit and realized she was right so starting with the next class, I adopted the practice of alternating between the male and female pronouns more or less ritually (I prefer this solution to using “they” or “them” or “their.”)

It was typical of UMass in those days that the needs, interests, and demands of students played an important role in what professors did and said. I have thought about this from time to time and it seems to me that it would have been much less likely for students at Harvard or Columbia to play such a role, for all that they were willing to seize a building or organize a strike. (I leave aside the University of Chicago which, in the early 1960s when I taught there, was very much a world of its own.)

Monday, September 7, 2020

WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE PARIS


As readers of this blog are well aware, my wife and I have a little apartment on the left bank in Paris, half a block from the Seine catty corner from what is now, alas, a shattered Notre Dame. We were scheduled to make a short trip to our apartment at the end of February during the UNC spring break, but the virus arrived in Paris and in an excess of caution I canceled our trip. It now looks as though it will be next summer before we can return and I miss it terribly. Every time I see a movie set in Paris I search for signs of streets or shops that I know and my heart swells with pleasure when I spot one.

Yesterday I was passing the time watching a 1991 movie on Netflix called Company Business with the unlikely starring combo of Gene Hackman and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Most of the movie takes place in Washington and Berlin but the end of the movie is set in Paris. There were scenes on one or another of the bridges across the Seine, several of which I have walked across many times. And there is a long sequence in and on the Eiffel Tower. But very near the end, Gene Hackman spends the night in a hotel and when he leaves the next morning he turns right to walk up the street. As he did that, I thought to myself “that looks familiar” and sure enough the next moment I saw a little restaurant three doors down from the hotel called The Tea Caddy. I whooped in delight. The Tea Caddy is one of our favorite places to go. It is run by an English lady, as the name suggests, and offers an assortment of teas and coffees and light lunches. It is right around the corner from a famous tourist attraction, Shakespeare and Company, and across the street from Square René Viviani, famous principally for being home to what is said to be the oldest tree in Paris.

My oddest movie – Paris – recognition experience occurred when Susie and I were watching Woody Allen’s movie Midnight in Paris. When the opening credits are rolling on the screen, one sees a series of brief shots of famous sites in Paris. Among them is one of the movie complexes in Place de l’Odéon. We were actually seeing the movie in that theater and when it appeared on the screen the entire audience let out a shout of recognition. It was the next best thing to having a walk on part in the movie.

Well, none of this has anything at all to do with the election. North Carolina started sending ballots out on Friday and I am waiting for mine to arrive. Apparently, once you send your absentee ballot in you can go online and find out whether it has been received. You can also take it to an early voting site and just feed it through the machine. One way or another, I will make absolutely sure that my vote counts. By the way, I saw an interview with the woman who runs the election bureau in North Carolina and she said that they start counting the absentee ballots when they arrive, so she expects that on election night 90% or more of the results will be reported. I am still convinced that the nightmare scenario been so widely discussed is unlikely to occur, according to which the early reports show Trump winning the Electoral College and declaring victory before the absentee ballots have been counted. I am convinced people are so eager to vote that the flood of absentee ballots expected will actually come in early, not on the days after election day. To be sure, in that same interview the person in charge of the Michigan elections was asked and she said they were not allowed to start counting absentee ballots until election day itself so she thought it would be the better part of a week before they knew the results.

Sigh. This post was supposed to be a momentary escape from the anxiety of the election but it crept in nonetheless.