My Stuff

https://umass-my.sharepoint.com/:f:/g/personal/rwolff_umass_edu/EkxJV79tnlBDol82i7bXs7gBAUHadkylrmLgWbXv2nYq_A?e=UcbbW0

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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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, October 20, 2021

APOLOGIA PRO VITA SUA

Why, some may ask, do I write of my afflictions, my stumbling falls, the diminution of my physical self? Why do I not instead write of Kant, Marx, capitalism, exploitation, oppression, protests, strikes, even of Trump and Bannon, Bernie, and AOC?

 

In response I offer the great villanelle by Dylan Thomas, which has appeared in this space before.

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

PROVERBS 16:18

The Good Book tells us “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”  Sigh, in this as in much else the Bible is a source of wisdom. What follows has nothing to do with the death of Colin Powell or with what we all hope will be the eventual incarceration of Steve Bannon. Rather, it concerns a purely personal experience the effects of which have dominated my thoughts for the past four days. Those seeking high-minded left-wing commentary on the public world will have to search elsewhere today.

 

Some while ago I told the world that I have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. There is not much doctors can do for people afflicted with the disease save prescribe a medication with the tradename Sinemet, which my doctor has already done for me. But the available research literature does make it clear that the one thing the patient himself or herself can do to postpone the progress of the disease is to engage in aerobic exercise that raises the heart rate to 100 or more for at least half an hour.

 

Well, for many years my principal source of exercise has been an hour long early morning walk and some while ago I actually got a wrist heart monitor from Amazon.com which allows me to measure my heart rate (and all sorts of other things, of course, tech being what it is these days.) The physical therapist with whom I worked briefly in September counseled me to concentrate on taking longer steps and walking faster. Following her advice, I fairly quickly shortened the time it took me to do my 2 2/3 mile walk from 67 minutes to as fast as 55 minutes – an accomplishment in which I took an inordinate pride, despite the fact that even at my fastest I would on occasion be passed by a little old lady walking a dog. With the heart monitor, I learned that I was getting my heart rate up to 95 or higher after the first half of the walk and increasing that level for the second half. I was puffed up with the importance of this accomplishment and made sure, each time I returned to our apartment, to tell my wife exactly how many minutes my walk had taken and how high I had raised my heart rate. I began to think that I would live as long as the woman who used to occupy the apartment across the hall from ours and has just passed her 99th birthday.

 

Then disaster hit. On Thursday, I barreled along in my usual fashion getting my heart rate up in the 100 range but as I neared the end of my walk I began to do what neurologists call “festinating.”  This means that my steps got faster and faster and shorter and shorter despite my efforts to control them. I stumbled into the lobby of my building and half fell against the wall, squatting down and propping myself up against the wall with my hands and the top of my head. I was completely unable to stand up and finally lowered myself onto the carpet and lay there immobile. Fortunately, I must have pressed my security pendant when I lay down because in four or five minutes two of the security men at Carolina Meadows came by and hoisted me to my feet. I was able to walk to the elevator and get into our apartment, weak and shaken and quite frightened.

 

I am trying to get in touch with my neurologist – a process that always takes several days – but I think there are really only two options. Either she increases my medication, if that is indicated, or I will have to get myself what is called a recumbent exercycle (needless to say, Amazon offers several dozen options), after which instead of taking my morning walk I will sit in my study and pedal for 35 or 40 minutes, four or five days a week.

 

An unpleasant experience, to be sure, but what is the big deal? Well, I have become rather well-known around Carolina Meadows as an early morning walker and a great many people have commented on seeing me and have praised me for my persistence in my early morning walks. I have taken an inordinate pride in the reputation I have acquired, one which is enhanced by my practice of wearing shorts even in freezing weather, a fact that others comment on with wonder.

 

Clearly, putting off the hideous end stages of Parkinson’s disease takes precedence over the stroking of my ego, so I will do whatever my neurologist recommends. But I will be sad to give up my daily morning walk.

 

Pride doth indeed go before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

NEW WINE IN OLD BOTTLES

Eric linked to an article, which I read and posted an enthusiastic comment about, and I have preordered the new book by the authors of the article, which is due to be published in early November. I found the article fascinating, provocative, and informative but also intensely irritating. I thought I would spend some time today explaining something of the background to the article, why I think it is important and also why I found it irritating. Obviously the best thing you can do is read the article and/or the book when it appears, but anybody who is interested could hunt up lectures four through seven of my 10 lecture series on the subject of Ideological Critique available on YouTube.

 

This will take me a little while so settle down (or drift off to WhatsApp.)

 

The available paleontological evidence indicates that Homo Sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years, plus or minus. Until the last 6000 years or so of that period, just about all the evidence we have of the doings of human beings was what could be dug up out of the ground and inspected. Since mostly what lasts is bones and stones, scientists have had to make do with whatever they could figure out from that hard stuff about what human beings were up to. Hominids more generally appear to have developed in East Africa maybe as much as several million years ago and one way and another they migrated across the land bridge that then existed between Africa and the Middle East and from there to Europe, to central and eastern Asia, Southeast Asia, and even, maybe 15,000 years ago or maybe longer, to North, Central, and South America.

 

There is a good deal of evidence that hominids, including human beings, have had tools of various sorts for  a million years or more. There is artwork in caves and elsewhere dating back 40 or 50,000 years. At some point, Homo STheapiens (and other hominids? Who knows) developed language.

 

How did human beings live? Well, from their teeth and other evidences we can infer that they were from the beginning omnivores, eating both meat and such plant materials as fruits, nuts, and the like.

 

And that is pretty much it, as far as the evidence goes, until maybe 10,000 years ago or thereabouts. At some point, in the late 19th century, more as a reflection of their own social norms than on the basis of much in the way of evidence, anthropologists decided that for the first 190,000 years or so men hunted and women gathered, so the anthropologists started calling early human beings “hunter gatherers.”

 

Then, rather late in the history of the human race, some big things happened. The standard story is this:  roughly 10,000 years ago in an especially fertile area located between two Middle Eastern rivers (or, as they say in Greek, in Mesopotamia) people learned how to tame wild animals and they learned how to cultivate, grow, and selectively develop plants. People became farmers and shepherds. More or less at the same time, which is to say over several thousand years, people started building permanent dwellings from clay, wood, stone, and animal hides and to live in cities. We know this happened because we can dig up the remains of the cities, sometimes only the foundations of the buildings but sometimes entire dwellings.

 

This much is not disputed by Graeber and Wengrow, at least as I understand them from the article Eric linked to. But agriculture, domestication of animals, and city building were of course just the beginning. Then, in the relatively brief span of 10,000 years or so, which is scarcely the blink of an eye in the history of the human species, we get kings, queens, armies, generals, slaves, plutocrats, and even – God forgive us – philosophers.

 

The standard argument goes something like this. For the first 190,000 years or so, people had all they could do just to chase down game and scrounge up nuts and berries and stay alive. Even if we assume a functional differentiation between what women did and what men did (and that, recall, is pure speculation), there was not enough extra food to support people to spend their time practicing various crafts rather than gathering food. But with the extra food from herds of animals and fields of grain, it was possible to support people whose sole function it was to build, to spin, to weave, to carry weapons and compel people to do the bidding of those who had gotten their hands on extra food and could parcel it out. By the time human beings got around to inventing writing, maybe 6000 years ago or so, all of this was so well-established that it seemed a law of nature.

 

Now apparently (I have not been keeping up, for which I apologize) ideological defenders of the current god-awful state of affairs have been arguing that there is an inseparable link between the domestication of animals and the development of agriculture and the building of cities on the one hand and full-scale economic inequality and oppressive state authority on the other, so that you cannot have New York or Rome or Beijing or Podunk or TV or cell phones or 7 ½ billion people without Jeff Bezos and the Democratic Party.

 

Well, lately, which is to say in the last 40 years or so, all manner of interesting anthropological evidence has cropped up about people who seem to have managed in one way or another to have avoided this Hobson’s choice. Graeber and Wengrow cite a whole lot of examples of people who manage functional differentiatio in their productive activities without authoritarian social organization. They also cite a lot of interesting recent archaeological research suggesting that there must have been differences of wealth and power back in the good old hunting and gathering days. So the standard story, they suggest, is wrong. Human beings did not hunt and gather in small socially undifferentiated groups until the explosion of the Neolithic Revolution.

 

All of this, as I say, is fascinating and I look forward to reading their book. But I wish they would get rid of the geewhiz snarky tone. Edwin Wilmsen did a much better job of this in his work LAND WITHOUT FLIES, which I discussed at great length in my YouTube lectures.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

EXTRAORDINARY

I have just finished reading the comments on my brief celebration of William Shatner's journey to the edge of space.  I do honestly believe that if I were to reproduce here a picture of the famous element of the Sistine Chapel in which God reaches out a finger and gives life to Adam, the commentary would be completely focused on the question whether God had a little dirt under His fingernail.


Get a life!

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

BEAM ME UP, SCOTTY

Now look, I am a serious person. I made a good living for 50 years pontificating about God, Freedom, Immortality, and anything else you wish to mention. I blog, for God's sake, which means that I consider my opinions worthy of memorialization in the cloud.  But when 90-year-old Capt. James T Kirk of the USS Enterprise goes up in a rocket, my heart flutters a little.


Beam me up, Scotty

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

THE VIRTUES OF PREPARING ONE'S LECTURES - ADVICE FROM A SUPERANNUATED PROFESSOR

Rereading Rousseau in preparation for teaching next semester has had on me interesting effect that I did not anticipate. It made clearer to me the present situation in the United States. I realized that by any reasonable 21st century construal of Rousseau’s analysis, it is not accurate to say that it is uncertain whether the United States will remain a representative democracy. It is more accurate to say that the United States is not now a representative democracy, if indeed it ever was. Let me explain.

 

The United States is formally or legally a representative democracy in which one of the two major parties no longer believes that control of the levers of government should be determined by elections. Instead, right now, the Republican Party with the active support of perhaps 35% or 40% of adult Americans, believes that elections are legitimate only when its candidate wins. I do not mean this puckishly or for dramatic effect. I mean quite literally that Republicans at the local, state, and national level are right now attempting to arrange things so that they will never again “lose” an election. In this effort, they are supported by scores of millions of Americans. Now, any time you find 80 million or more people believing something, it goes without saying that there will be countless reasons why they believe it, countless ways in which they believe it, and countless ways in which they act out of this belief. 


Some of the Americans who believe that only elections in which the Republican wins are legitimate believe that because they are white supremacist racists. Others believe it because they are fundamentalist Christians. Still others neither believe it nor disbelieve it but simply find it in their interest to act as though they do. But the total net effect is that somewhat less, but not much less, than half of adult Americans no longer have any functional, operational belief in representative democracy.

 

Regardless of what happens in the 2022 or 2024 elections – regardless of whether Republicans are literally able to steal the 2024 presidential election, as they are now deliberately, openly, systematically preparing to do – it is clear that the United States is not in the usual understanding of this term, a representative democracy, Wwhich is to say a polity in which it is generally accepted that control of government should be determined by democratic elections of representatives.

 

Because I so much fear what the Republicans will do with the vast power of the American government if they succeed in seizing control of it, I believe that all of us must do everything in our power to stop them, and that may even involve pretending that we believe American democracy is at risk. But the simple fact is that American democracy no longer exists.

 

If you respond that it never has existed, I will not argue with you. After all, the next book on my reading list is a little tract entitled In Defense of Anarchism.

 

I freely confess that it was rereading Of the Social Contract that cleared my mind and made all of this transparently obvious to me in a way that it had not quite been before.

 

There is something to be said for preparing to teach a course.

Monday, October 11, 2021

COURSE PREP

I have now completed my rereading of Rousseau’s Of the Social Contract. Once again, I am astonished by how much of it I had completely forgotten. For example, in Book 4 there is a succession of chapters totaling 20 pages in my edition about ancient Rome that the students can without loss skip over. On the other hand, there is a great deal that Rousseau has to say about the political states of his day that carry with it the clear implication that he would consider the United States to be absolutely anything other than a legitimate state with a sovereign people. I can see some interesting discussions developing in class about that subject.

 

Today I will start rereading the third book to be assigned in the first segment of the course – my little book In Defense of Anarchism. It has been quite some time since I have actually reread that essay and as with the Locke and Rousseau, I will be curious to see what is in it that I have forgotten about.

 

This is fun.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

NAMES

My grandfather on my father’s side was born in Paris in 1879 and was named Barnet. The family name was Zarembowich.  In 1880 his parents emigated to the United States, entering at Castle Garden New York. A skeptical immigration official renamed his father Abraham Wolff and so, at least in America, we became the Wolff family. My grandfather was an active member of and a  leader in the Socialist party in New York City, and had a comrade named Abe Shiplacof. When my grandmother, Ella Nislow Wolff and Abe Shiplacof’s wife both became pregnant, Barney and Abe made a little agreement that the first one to have a son would name him Karl Marx. Abe’s wife had a boy, so when my father was born shortly thereafter he was named Walter Harold Wolff, a name of no significance. When the two wives became pregnant again, it was agreed that the first one to have a boy would name him Friedrich Engels, but once again the Shiplacofs won the race and so my uncle was given the name “Robert Ingersoll” after a 19th-century orator known as “the great agnostic.”

 

My parents’ first child was my big sister Barbara, who almost immediately was nicknamed Bobs.  When I was born, I was named Robert Paul, but it was impossible to have two children in the family named Bobs and Bob, so I became Rob. At some point during my growing up I declared my independence by announcing that I would be known to the world as Bob. To this day, I am known as Bob to my friends but Rob to my family – except for my cousins, the children of my father’s younger brother, Benjamin. For some reason, Barney and Ella did not give Ben a middle name and this lack apparently rankled so deeply that after Ben married Fanny, he gave his two children two middle names each to compensate.  The two of them, inheriting from their father an appreciation of the importance of middle names, always referred to me and addressed me as “Robert Paul.”

 

When my first wife was pregnant with our first child, we debated about names if it were a boy. We were both rather taken by “Jonathan Edward” but gave that up when we realized that the little boy’s initials would be JEW.  We settled, for no particular reason, on Patrick Gideon Wolff. Since I do not like the name Pat I called our son even when he was a little baby Patrick. Later on, I took to calling him by his initials PG and this morphed into “Peege” which was my special nickname for him. Nobody else in the world called Patrick “Peege” until he started as a teenager competing in high-pressure chess tournaments. The other young hotshot chess players heard me calling him “Peege” and they thought it was amusing so for a while that was what he was called in the chess world.

 

My younger son we named Tobias Barrington Wolff, the middle name coming from his godfather Barrington Moore, Jr.  Since he was a delightfully cherubic little boy, he quite naturally came to be known in the family as Toby. This ended one day when he informed me soberly that henceforward he would be known as “Tobias.” I took this as it was intended, not as a request but as a command, and from that day to this I have never called him “Toby” again.

 

So I was “Rob” to my family, save for my cousins Tony and Cora, to whom I was “Robert Paul” and I was “Bob” to the world. I became “Robert Paul Wolff” as a result of a series of comic confusions when I was a young man at Harvard. Starting when I was a 17-year-old sophomore and continuing on as a young Instructor at Harvard I made a good deal of noise about one thing and another politically and got confused with a very prominent, rather conservative, and also rather fat Professor of History named “Robert Lee Wolff.” To distinguish myself from Prof. Wolff, who by 1961 was chair of the Harvard History Department and publicly offended by being confused with a young left-wing whippersnapper, I adopted “Robert Paul Wolff” as my professional name and it has stuck to me for the past 60 years.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

SHAKESPEARE SONNET XXIX

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes

I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
   For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
   That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

DOWN TIME

Faithful readers of this blog, of which there appear to be a few, will have noticed that I have not been posting much lately. In part this is because I find the world excessively depressing and it is not, as they say, ego syntonic for me constantly to be crying “alack and alas.” But it is also that after a lifetime in the Academy I have not developed the routinized work habits so cherished by capitalist employers.

 

Sometimes words pour from me as water from the tap, filling the page and lapping over onto the margins. But then there are times when I simply am not moved to write. My thoughts never stop, but the need to express them publicly is quiet.

 

These days I am obsessed by the efforts to push myself to walk faster each morning so that my heart rate gets up to the level at which, so the doctors have told me, I shall postpone the development of my Parkinson’s disease. For amusement, I do complicated jigsaw puzzles which I find oddly satisfying. That and rereading the texts that I shall be assigning next semester keep an 87-year-old man adequately busy.

 

Never fear. If experience is any indication, I shall soon enough be troubling you, if not deaf heaven, with my bootless cries.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

MARC ZUCKERBERG

I do not like Marc Zuckerberg. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I did not like the character representing Marc Zuckerberg played by Jesse Eisenberg in the 2010 movie The Social Network. So I am delighted that he is getting his ass in a sling over the role that Facebook and some of his other possessions have played in the corruption of American politics. I hope he gets everything that is coming to him, although I seriously doubt that he will. But leaving that to one side, the question what if anything Congress should do about Facebook raises some very interesting issues that I have been idly brooding about.

 

The New York Times and the Washington Post are newspapers. They publish news, op-ed comments, reviews, and of course a ton of advertisements. Much of that content is written and edited by employees of the newspapers and there are all sorts of laws regulating what they are and are not permitted to publish. If they deliberately, maliciously publish lies about people damaging those people’s lives, careers, and even safety, they can be sued and may end up having to pay large damages.

 

The newspapers are – or at least were in the good old days when I was young – written on paper and on typewriters and printed on printing presses with ink. In the summer of 1952, when I worked as a copy boy on the old Herald Tribune, I saw those printing presses and typewriters and rolls of paper.

 

When a newspaper publishes something that violates the law and is sued or even charged with a criminal violation, nobody attempts to go after the companies that make the printing presses and the typewriters and the paper and the ink. It is certainly true that without the printing presses the newspapers could not publish (at least in the good old days) but that fact does not make them liable for the violations of law committed by the newspapers using those presses.

 

Marc Zuckerberg says that Facebook is not a newspaper. Its employees do not write the content that is posted on Facebook pages. Facebook, he says, is simply a platform. It is the technological modern version of a printing press or a typewriter or ink or paper.

 

In some sense he is clearly right. Facebook is not a newspaper. It is not a cable news program. It is not the evening news. It is merely a platform. Nevertheless, it and its various subordinate possessions (Instagram, WhatsApp, and the rest) are causing immeasurable harm around the world. Something needs to be done and I freely confess that it is not clear to me what that something is.

Monday, October 4, 2021

CRANKING UP TO RETURN TO THE CLASSROOM

I have started doing my preparation for the course I will be teaching at UNC Chapel Hill in the spring. My preparation consists for the most part of rereading the books I shall be assigning. Two days ago I finished rereading John Locke’s Second Treatise Concerning Civil Government. It has been perhaps 55 years since I last read it and I had completely forgotten how much of it is backward looking, arguing against the divine right of kings and such. I realized that to make sense of it to the students I would have to do some stage setting and context explication.

 

Yesterday I started rereading Rousseau’s Of the Social Contract. I was absolutely stunned. Rousseau is so powerful, so on point, so provocative that I wanted to start teaching right then and there. I also realized that it is really against Rousseau, not Locke, that I am arguing in In Defense of Anarchism.

 

When I am finished rereading Rousseau, I have to decide which selections from A Theory of Justice I want the students to read. I only want them to read about 125 or 150 pages from the first part of the book. My problem is that I must hold down the amount of money they are expected to spend and the Rawls book is almost $40. I may try to scan what they are required to read into a PDF file and post it on the course website.

 

Fortunately The Racial Contract by Charles Mills is in a Kindle edition and I am hoping all the students can handle that.  (So are two of the books by me that I want them to read but that is another matter.)

 

Since I cannot actually do anything about the world except give money to organizations and candidates, it depresses me to brood endlessly about how badly things are going, and unlike some of those who read this blog, I am not really much gripped by the question whether what I see developing in this country is fascism, authoritarianism, white supremacist panic, or just the good old USA. But planning to go in front of a group of students and teach really grips me. It has all my life and even now at the age of 87 it still does.

 

Sorry to of been away from this site for a week. If anybody cares, I can report that I have cut 10 minutes off my 67 minute morning walk and brought my heart rate up over 100 during at least half of it, so if the literature on Parkinson’s is to be believed, I will be around for some while yet.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

IF I WERE ONLY A CONCERT VIOLINIST AND NOT A PHILOSOPHER

If you are Itzhak Perlman and you announce a concert in which you will play the Beethoven Violin Concerto, nobody complains “But you already played that once, why are you playing it again?”  If you are Barbra Streisand and you start singing People, nobody grumbles “that again! Why don't you sing something new?” So if you are a philosopher and you have what you think is a really good idea and you write it up and publish it somewhere, you ought to be able to come back to it and explain it again without generating a chorus of complaints, right? Fat chance!

 

Well, as I was taking my morning walk today, pushing as hard as I could to get my heart rate up and all that, I thought to myself, “Why don’t you write a blog post today about your critique of the concept of an inequality surplus, which lies at the heart of John Rawls’s theories and also is taken for granted by virtually all modern sociology, economics, and political theory?” when I got home, I went to the search facility on my blog and sure enough, it turns out that I have already explained that idea three or four times in the last 13 years.

 

Now I think this is a genuinely important and powerful argument, and one to which I have never read or heard a satisfactory response. It is as close as I am ever going to come to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto or, for that matter, to the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute. But I devoted a whole blog post to the idea just one year ago.

 

If you go back and take a look at my blog post on October 11, 2020 you can find out what I am talking about.  That post generated a long series of comments, almost all of which (with the exception of those posted by somebody who identifies himself or herself as “purple library guy”) seemed completely to miss the point of my argument, so maybe it would not be so bad if I play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto again.

ONE MORE TIME

I was eleven years old when World War II ended and there were never any stories told in my family about relatives who died in the Holocaust, although more than half a century later I learned that 30 members of the Parisian branch of my extended family were killed in Auschwitz. But for some reason, from an early age, I was obsessed by the thought of how important it is to recognize a threat before it is too late to respond. I could not stop thinking about the Jews who could have gotten out of Germany in time had they been willing to leave all their belongings behind and simply run. I watch the television reports, mesmerized, of people trapped in traffic jams trying to leave a city before a hurricane hit, having waited too long to get out. During the Cuban missile crisis I was in Chicago. My VW was loaded with dried food and a Geiger Counter and I had plane reservations for my wife and myself to take us both to Canada and to Mexico (depending on which way the wind was blowing.)

 

Perhaps that is why I am compelled to keep talking about the dangers of a stolen president election that is still three years off. I do not really care about the proper definition of the word “fascism.”  But I care deeply about acting now to forestall what are clearly the conscious, deliberate Republican plans to steal the next election and install a dictatorial ruler who will end anything resembling Democratic elections in America.

Monday, September 27, 2021

AND THEN

There is this. 

OUT OF THE MOUTH OF MY ENEMY COMES TRUTH

Although there is much in this essay by Robert Kagan with which I disagree, he is fundamentally right about the threat the United States faces.  It is worth reading.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

THE STATE OF THINGS ON A LOVELY EARLY FALL DAY

It is now clear that sizable portions of the Republican Party are seriously and systematically planning a fascist coup.  It would be a mistake, I think, to take comfort in the buffoonish and clearly psychologically diminished leader of that coup, our former president. The lawyer who drafted the memorandum laying out the steps to be taken on January 6, after all, clerked for Clarence Thomas, and although that is not evidence of good character, it is I am afraid evidence of adequate intelligence and legal knowledge.

 

I really do not think we can tell at this point whether the plotters will succeed.  Lord knows, a great many prominent people in the Democratic Party are aware of the threat and are trying to alert the public to it. What can any of us do? The simple answer is, anything we can to try to turn out enough votes to overcome all the efforts to suppress the vote and subvert the count.

 

I cannot tell whether Biden recognizes or acknowledges the seriousness of the situation. Nothing in his long career has prepared him for such a threat and he is clearly temperamentally unsympathetic to the sorts of responses that a crisis of this nature calls for, but he is not a fool and perhaps he is capable of appreciating the danger that his reelection might simply be stolen from him.

 

My days are absorbed by the concern I feel for my health and that of my wife, about which at least there are things I can do. I began my long engagement with politics obsessed by fears of nuclear war and I seem to be ending it with fears for the end of democracy in America. Hardly appropriate for someone who considers himself a Tigger, not an Eeyore.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

ANOTHER LOSS

These are terrible times. For the first time in my life, I am genuinely fearful that America will descend into full on fascism. I watch each daily wrinkle – the comic end to the Arizona farce, for example – and take what hope I can, but as I do my morning walk, pressing as hard as I can to get my heart rate up and thereby to postpone the depredations of Parkinson’s, I wonder whether my life will end not with a whimper but with a bang.

 

Yesterday I learned of the loss of yet another old friend, Jules Chametsky, who at the age of 92 passed away in Amherst, Massachusetts. When I was young, 92 seemed unimaginably ancient. Now, at 87, it is one election cycle around the corner.

 

Rather than trying to achieve some elevated wisdom about the dumpster fire we call America, let me honor the memory of Jules by retelling here a story I have told in my autobiography.  Those of you who have read my autobiography can move on to other things unless, like me, you enjoy the retelling of old stories.

 

One day in the late summer of '48, Johnny Brown and I set out from Kew Gardens Hills to attend a Wallace rally at Yankee Stadium.  When we got there, it was raining, and we decided that our politics were not serious enough to get us to stand in the rain just to hear political speeches.  As we left the stadium, the rain let up, and it occurred to us that right across the river the Dodgers were playing the Giants at the Polo Grounds.  Since we were both avid Dodgers fans, we walked across the bridge, paid our way into the cheap seats, sneaked down in the nearly empty ball park to the expensive seats, and, after the rain finally let up, watched Rex Barney pitch a no-hitter.  It is the only no-hitter I ever saw, and it is forever associated in my mind with progressive politics.

Well, that is the story, and I have, or think I have, visual memories of each element of it --- the rally at Yankee Stadium, the walk to the Polo grounds, and the no-hitter.  As I prepared to write this bit of my memoir, I went on line to check the component parts of the story.  Sure enough, I found an account of Rex Barney's no-hitter against the Giants, which mentioned a one hour rain delay and showers in the sixth, eighth, and ninth innings.  September 9, 1948.  I also found an account of the Wallace rally at Yankee Stadium.  It turns out Pete Seegar was on the program, which may in fact have been the real inducement, for me at least.  But the rally was held on September 10, 1948, not September 9!   So regardless of what I think I remember, I could not have walked with Johnny Brown from the rally to the game.  Did I really go to the rally at all?  Did I go to the game one night, and the rally the next?

A month or so after writing that paragraph, I was having lunch with a group of friends in Amherst, all of them professors at the University of Massachusetts, where I was teaching.  I told the story as a humorous example of the fallibility of memory, but one of the group, a marvelous old left-wing emeritus Professor of English named Jules Chametzky, said “But I have been telling that story for fifty years.  I was there.”  “What do you mean,” I asked, mystified, “you were there?”  “Yes,” he said, “I was one of Vito Marcantonio’s lieutenants.  [Marcantonio was a Congressman and a left-wing member of the American Labor Party.]   My story is that fifty thousand people showed up for the rally, and when it was rained out, all fifty thousand came back the next night!”

So my memory is correct!  The rally and the ball game were the same night, and it did rain on the rally. 

 

Jules was a wonderful man, a scholar, a teacher, the founding editor of The Mass Review, a lifelong radical. He will be missed by many of us around the world.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

A LITERARY ODDITY

When my son Jefferson Barnes Fordham Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Tobias Barrington Wolff was a little boy, I used to read to him every evening before he went to sleep.  After I had read The Hobbit to him and had worked through several volumes of the Narnia stories, I cast about for something else to read and thought it might be fun to go through Around the World in Eighty Days.  But it turned out, to my surprise, that the vocabulary was too difficult and I had to give it up.  Despite the elaborate mythology, Tolkien was much easier for him to understand then Jules Verne.

SERENDIPITY

 I spent more than an hour this morning watching the Tanner lecture given a year ago at the University of Michigan by Charles Mills. It turned out an absolutely perfect complement to the course I will  be teaching at UNC Chapel Hill in the spring semester. Here is the course description:


Course description for Philosophy 370

Spring, 2022   Instructor: Robert Paul Wolff

 

The defining feature of the modern state is de facto legitimacy, the claim made by the state to have the right to issue laws and compel obedience to them. The most important argument supporting this claim to have been put forward in the last 350 years is the theory of the Social Contract. This course will be devoted to an in-depth examination of that theoretical justification for the authority of the state. The course will be divided into three roughly equal segments. In the first segment, we will look at two classic texts that set forth different versions of the theory of the social contract: John Locke’s Second Treatise C6oncerning Civil Government and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract. In the second segment, we will examine an extremely influential modern revision of the theory put forward by the famous American philosopher John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice. In the third segment, we will examine a powerful racial and ideological critique of the tradition of the social contract by the important Jamaican philosopher Charles Mills, set out in his book The Racial Contract. Each segment will be concluded in an unusual manner to be revealed at the first meeting of the course.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

A STORY ABOUT CHARLES MILLS, AND A PLEA FOR HELP

Jordan asks for stories about the late Charles Mills. I will tell just one which is perhaps appropriate because it is also a plea for assistance from anyone out there who can help.

 

Long ago, in the early 1990s, I received a request from the chair of the philosophy department at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle to serve as an external reviewer in the tenure case of a member of their department. The candidate was Charles. I said sure and shortly thereafter I received a packet of material. The principal item in the packet was a draft of The Racial Contract. Well, they did not need me to tell them that it was brilliant and that Charles deserved tenure, which of course he got. But in the packet was also an unpublished paper that I read with the very greatest delight. It was a racial and ideological reading of The Lord of the Rings, in which Mills demonstrated with great wit that Tolkien’s famous trilogy was built on a racially encoded hierarchy of European peoples in which the highest position was occupied by the tall blonde Scandinavians (the elves), and the lowest was occupied by the swarthy short southern Europeans (the orcs.) I read the paper with delicious pleasure and asked Charles, after I had gotten to know him, why he had never published it. He said he was afraid that if it appeared under his name it would hurt his career.

 

Some years later, I went looking for the paper in my study and could not find it. Now you have to understand that I am a real packrat when it comes to anything professional. I mean, I have a separate folder for every course I have ever taught with the comments I made on student papers, going all the way back to 1955 when I was a 21-year-old Teaching Fellow in Rafael Demos’s Philosophy 1 course at Harvard.  I have the notes I took in undergraduate courses and copies of the papers I wrote for them.  I wrote to Charles in great distress, telling him that I had somehow misplaced my copy of his paper and asking for a new copy. He told me that he also had mislaid it and that he did not have a copy of it anywhere.

 

This paper is a real gem so I am taking this opportunity to issue a plea to my readership. Does anybody out there have a copy of Charles Mills’s paper on The Lord of the Rings? If so, I would dearly love a Xerox of it.

SAD NEWS, TERRIBLE NEWS

Just a moment ago, I learned that Charles Mills died yesterday evening. Charles was a wonderful man, a brilliant philosopher, the author of a book, The Racial Contract, that I believe is one of the most important pieces of political philosophy of the 20th century. I shall be assigning it in the course I am teaching in the UNC philosophy department next semester. Charles was only 70, far too young to leave us. I could tell stories about Charles but this is not the time. In the midst of a devastating pandemic and a crumbling American political system, with global warming upon us and crushing inequality everywhere we look, it is a small personal loss that hurts the most.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

TO EXPLAIN

Okay. I figured I was going to have to explain my deliberately provocative remark.

 

The productivity of labor has been rising steadily for millennia, both as a consequence of the invention of laborsaving devices (such as the saw, the hammer, the shovel, the spinning Jenny, the power loom, the wheel, the cart, the automobile, locomotive, and so forth) and as a consequence of the increased skill of workers. But in the capitalist system that Friedman celebrates and thinks of as the apotheosis of human development, the lion’s share of the benefits of this increase in productivity goes to the legal owner of capital in the form of profit. So it is that although productivity in the United States has risen by 400% since the 1950s, working men and women – or at least those of them who can find jobs – still work 40 hours a week or more, many of them compelled to take several jobs simply to pay for a decent life.

 

Suppose an automobile production plant in which 1000 employees work is automated, so that more cars can be turned out with only 200 employees. Any rational capitalist will invest in the automated machinery, dramatically reduce the workforce, and pocket the increased profits, while the lucky 200 who get to keep their jobs are trained on the new machinery and continue to work 40 hours a week. An alternative way of responding to the automation would of course be to divide the workers into five shifts, each of which would work two weeks on and six weeks off (very much like the workload of professors at elite private universities, but never mind that.)

 

Friedman cannot really imagine a world organized to benefit the workers rather than the capitalists so he makes jokes. Obviously, the rational solution would be to hire all of the men whose labor would be required to dig using shovels, then invest in steam shovels, and reduce the number of hours each man is required to work by 80 or 90% while keeping their wages unchanged.

 

No, Milton Friedman was not stupid, at least as intelligence is ordinarily measured in our society. He was quite quick-witted.  Nor was he ignorant, at least he was not ignorant of the things one was required to know in order to become a professor of economics at a great private university. Quite the contrary. Was he cruel? I do not know. Did he have a dog? Was he nice to the dog?

MY MORNING WALK

The physical therapist with whom I have been working is a very competent young woman, although she seems to be about 11 years old (but then, at my age, everybody younger than 50 seems to be about 11 years old.) She referred me to several research articles on Parkinson’s, from which I got two important takeaways: first, the medication I am taking, although it addresses some of the symptoms, does nothing to slow the progress of the disease; and second, most importantly, aerobic exercise raising my heart rate to 100 or more and keeping it there for half an hour will, if done regularly four or more times a week, actually measurably slow down the inexorable advance of the disease. So for the past week I have been pushing myself to walk as hard and fast as I can each morning and I have successfully been getting my heart rate into the target range and keeping it there for the second half of my walk.  My goal is to hold off the last stages of Parkinson’s for so long that I die of something else before I am ever consigned to a wheelchair.

 

This morning, as I was plugging along, urging myself “longer steps, faster, longer steps, faster,” I found myself thinking for no reason at all about an old story I had heard somewhere about the famous right wing Nobel Laureate in Economics Milton Friedman. Sure enough, Google popped the story up, not surprisingly on the American Enterprise Institute website. Here it is:

 

“While traveling by car during one of his many overseas travels, Professor Milton Friedman spotted scores of road builders moving earth with shovels instead of modern machinery. When he asked why powerful equipment wasn’t used instead of so many laborers, his host told him it was to keep employment high in the construction industry. If they used tractors or modern road building equipment, fewer people would have jobs was his host’s logic.

“Then instead of shovels, why don’t you give them spoons and create even more jobs?” Friedman inquired.”

 

This, I reflected, is Friedman at his very best: stupid, ignorant, and cruel. Needless to say, he is a God among modern economists.

Friday, September 17, 2021

A REPLY TO A READER, WHO SHALL REMAIN GENUINELY AND LEGITIMATELY ANONYMOUS

A reader of this blog, moved by some problems he has faced, has written to me asking whether I think there is any basis for his strong belief that some things are simply always wrong. Without quoting him directly or in any way revealing his identity, I thought I would answer with a blog post since this question is obviously of very broad interest and importance. The question he raises is one to which I have given a great deal of thought over the course of my life and, as I have said in various places, it is a question on which I fundamentally changed my mind at one point in my life. So I will have a go at answering him here in the hopes that my answer will be of interest to others as well.


I was not raised in any religion. As I have recounted somewhat puckishly in my autobiography, when I reached the age at which other little Jewish boys were bar mitzvahed, my mother told me that I was the product of a mixed marriage. “Your father is an agnostic,” she said, “and I am an atheist.” Still, my parents offered to send me to Hebrew school if I wanted to have a big party and get lots of presents, but the alternative they offered – a hundred dollars to buy some presents for myself – seemed more attractive so I took it, thus severing my connection with organized religion. I confess that I do not find religion a very helpful answer to the question my blog reader posed. Either what God commands He commands because it is right, in which case I am left with the question why it is right. Or what God commands is right because He commands it, regardless of what that is, in which case I am reduced to the status of a mushroom, as the background bystanders in the early computer games were called.

 

I spent a good deal of time in the earlier part of my life looking unsuccessfully for an argument that would satisfactorily support the claim that there are universal moral principles demonstrable by reason alone that tell me what I ought to do (the way in which I formulate the question makes it obvious that I was influenced more than anything else by the teaching of Immanuel Kant.) Indeed, when I wrote In Defense of Anarchism I still believe that such an argument could be found, as a careful reading of that little book will reveal. Having grappled with Kant, I was not, as you can imagine, much impressed by the vastly less powerful arguments of Rawls.

 

Eventually, I embraced my failure as a deeper truth and concluded that each of us in this life must decide, as I chose to think of it, who our comrades are and who are our enemies, or as I also liked to think of it, which side of the barricade we choose to stand on. I found that I was liberated, not enfeebled, by the recognition that I was forced to choose what sort of life I would lead and what principles I would bind myself to autonomously.

 

My liberation comes with a price, of course. I was forced to acknowledge that no amount of argument, no assemblage of facts, no appeal to conscience or to sentiment or to the consensus gentium could promise eventual agreement about fundamental principles of morality. Many people, I am well aware, find this an unacceptable conclusion and refuse to embrace the fact of struggle as the human condition. I think I can hold my own against them in an argument but I have nothing to offer them to alleviate the discomfort that my position causes them.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

THE UTTER FATUOUSNESS OF "INFORMED" COMMENTARY

Since the appearance of snippets from the new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, there has been a great deal of talk about the appropriateness of General Milley’s back channel communication with the Chinese. He is coming under criticism for violating the chain of command and civilian control of the military and suchlike crimes. Assuming the reports are correct, I will just say that I am enormously relieved that he did what he did.

 

Almost none of the people going on about this on television were alive when the United States dropped two small virtually experimental fission bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and managed in the blink of an eye to kill more than 200,000 people. Most of them are not even old enough to remember the Cuban missile crisis. They talk about the possibility of a nuclear “exchange” as though they were discussing the swapping of baseball cards or dinner invitations. A nuclear “exchange” between China and the United States would probably kill scores of millions of people, not in a generation or in a year or in a month or in a day but in 20 minutes.

 

Is there anybody who seriously wants to claim that such a world historical disaster would be preferable to violating the principle of civilian control of the military? I began my long career of political commentary by shouting at anyone who would listen about the dangers of nuclear weapons. In those days my opponents were academics and think tank residents who trotted out what they mistakenly thought were game theoretic arguments to shill for one or another branch of the American military – people like Herman Kahn and Henry Kissinger. I thank the God in whom I do not believe that in the intervening 75 years no other nuclear weapons have been used.  I would be happy if on my deathbed I can say the same.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

OCCASIONALISM

Jerry Brown asked whether I have any views on Occasionalism. I confess that is not something to which I have given much thought (or perhaps I should say, to which God has given much thought through me) but a little reflection suggests that if taken seriously, it is a very strange view.

 

Let us suppose that it took me one second to dictate the phrase “Blogs are weird.” There are 1 billion nanoseconds in a second. That means that during the time I was dictating that three word sentence, God created the universe anew 1 billion times. Each time He did this (God apparently likes to be referred to as masculine and since He is all in all, I think we should play along) He created the universe ex nihilo, unconstrained by anything He had done previously, such as beginning through me the dictation of the three word sentence. But of course between any two nanoseconds there is on this theory a timeless eternity that could in principle be filled by an infinity of worlds.

 

Well, you get the idea. Someone might claim to be comforted by this thought but of course that would simply be a misleading shorthand way of saying that God comforts Himself by this thought, for there is nothing but God and God is all in all and so forth and so on.

 

Now one might ask, if one has not been paying attention, why someone who believes this would bother to write it in the comments section of a blog, but once again that would be a fundamental mistake because it is God who is writing in the comments section on His own blog (and of course it is also God who, through me, is mistakingly thinking that this is my blog.)

 

There are, we are told, one and ½ billion people who believe this, to whom can be added the more than 1 ½ billion who believe the Christian story and all those other folks with their religious beliefs. Or rather, we are to suppose, God is endlessly, uncountably infinitely many times, creating a new a world that is simply Himself writ small in which for his own incomprehensible amusement he chooses to contemplate himself in various ways through these various people.

 

On an entirely different matter not quite at the same elevated level, our little cat, Chloe, is settling in quite nicely and after one day of picking at the food we put out is now eating us out of house and home. In these difficult times, it is good to find so simple a pleasure, or, to quote Pooh Bah, an innocent source of merriment.

Monday, September 13, 2021

BLOGS ARE WIERD

 I post a brief comment about adopting a cat and my lack of response to 9/11, and the result? An extended discussion of occasionalism. Who could have predicted?

Sunday, September 12, 2021

TWO PERSONAL THOUGHTS ON A QUIET SUNDAY

1.         Yesterday, the television was consumed by wall-to-wall coverage of memories, pontifications, analyses, and the such prompted by the 20th anniversary of the attack on the Manhattan twin towers.  It reminded me of something that has long puzzled me about myself. The suicide attacks by Saudi Arabian followers of Osama bin Laden had little or no emotional effect on me. I listened to the reports as they came in, I watched on television the collapse of these two enormously tall buildings, I realized that a great many lives had been lost, but it was not then and has not been since a defining moment in my life, a moment about which I would always say “I remember where I was when I first heard of it” and so forth. Since I am the only person of any political persuasion I have ever met who has said something like this, I realize that I must just be a very odd person but there it is. I remember vividly where I was when I first heard of the assassination of Pres. Kennedy. I remember precisely what I was doing when I heard that Bobby Kennedy had been shot. I even recall how as a small boy I got the news of the death of FDR. But this extraordinarily dramatic attack, which forever changed the geography of lower Manhattan – part of the city, after all, in which I grew up and in which I lived for seven years while teaching at Columbia – just did not have much impact on me. I do not see any larger significance in this, but this is, after all my web log, or blog, so I thought I would mention it.

 

2.      Yesterday was also significant, at least in my little household, because Susie and I went to the headquarters of the local animal services department and picked up the little cat we had decided to adopt. She has settled in spectacularly well, running all over the apartment exploring, using the cat box, eating food, climbing up to look out the window at the birds that come to our birdfeeder, even hopping up on our bed several times in the middle of the night – all in all a total success and one that nicely fills the hole in our hearts left by the loss of our much loved Kitty. We started the adoption process by going online and looking at the pictures posted there of 20 or 30 cats available for adoption. Initially we chose to have a personal meeting with a young cat named Tigger, to whom I was attracted for obvious reasons. But when we went to the kennel last Tuesday we were not terribly taken with Tigger. However, we did see an enchanting young kitty to whom the kennel owners had given the unappealing name of Eda, and after spending some time with her we decided to adopt her (after a good deal of discussion, we have given her the name Chloe which I think suits her much better.)

 

As we were driving home yesterday a thought occurred to me that I confess rather ashamedly had never in the same way crossed my mind before. As I was congratulating us on finding and adopting a delightful little cat, I thought to myself, “but suppose we had been adopting a little girl. Suppose we had gone to the orphanage thinking to adopt one child but after spending some time with her had found her not especially responsive or interesting, and had then switched to a different child at the orphanage who took our fancy more.” I was appalled by the heartlessness of this thought and realized – this is the part about which I feel shame – that I had never in the same way thought about adoption like this before.  Now I am not totally dumb. I mean, this theme about which children get adopted from orphanages plays a small but significant role in the TV series about which I have made such a fuss, The Queen’s Gambit. But the sheer naked transactional character of adoption had never before been thrust on my mind in quite the same way.

 

Friday, September 10, 2021

HURRAH!!!

 It works.  OK, read 'em and weep.  

LET'S TRY THIS AGAIN

 Okay, here we go again. Would someone please copy the link at the top of the page under the heading My Stuff, plug  it into your command line and see whether it takes you to everything I have stored in box.net. It is not an actual link but maybe it is the next best thing. Let me know whether it works.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

BALM FOR THE TROUBLED SOUL

Since I really do not want to participate in a debate about whether Jill Stein and Ralph Nader are narcissists, and because I am so upset about what is happening in the world right now that I need for my own psychological well-being to retreat a little bit into the realm of theory, let me write something about the whole complex issue of the left right political spectrum. Those of you who are only comfortable fulminating or casting aspersions can take a short break while I talk to whatever readers out there share my interest in theory.

 

The metaphor of the left right political spectrum dates back, of course, to the time of the French Revolution when the most anti-monarchical and radical delegates to the National Assembly sat on the left side of the meeting hall and the supporters of monarchy sat on the right. The assumption, often unexamined, that underlies the image is that the issues before an assembly or electorate can be arrayed one-dimensionally in such a way that wherever one positions oneself on that array, the closer anyone else is to one’s own position in either direction the more likely one will be to agree with that person. So a moderate Democrat is more likely to agree with a liberal Democrat than with a radical Democrat and also more likely to agree with a moderate Republican than with a conservative Republican.

 

Now this is a very powerful assumption that is true only rather rarely. Just to choose a real example, when I was a young man very active in the campaign for nuclear disarmament, I made common cause with Catholic pacifists who did not at all share my views about reproductive freedom as well as with libertarian anarchists who took a position diametrically opposed to my own on the question of forced redistribution of wealth.

 

Even if the left right political spectrum is a reasonably accurate representation of the views of members of the House or Senate, it is not at all reasonable to assume that someone occupying a position in the middle of the spectrum will have broader or more accommodating views to either side than someone occupying a position much farther left or right. To be sure, because of the two-party structure of American politics, someone who occupies a middle position more likely will be found voting with members of the opposed party, but it might very well be that he or she has in fact a very narrow spread of positions with which he or she can find accommodation. It might be, and frequently is, that someone on the far left is prepared to reach much farther along the spectrum to work out a compromise than someone routinely classified as a “moderate.”

 

The left right political spectrum does have one intriguing logical characteristic, however. To explain it, I must go back to the 18th century and the work of the great Enlightenment figure Condorcet.  Condorcet demonstrated (and perhaps discovered, I am not sure) what has come to be referred to as the paradox of majority rule. It turns out that a group of voters, each of whom has perfectly consistent preferences among three or more alternatives, may by a process of majority rule arrive at an inconsistent collective preference order.

 

To see that this is so, consider the simplest possible case, one of three voters, A, B, and C, and three alternatives, X, Y, and C. Assume that A, B, and C have the following quite consistent preferences among three alternatives:

 

A:    X > Y > Z

B:   Y > Z > X

C:   Z > X > Y

 

When the three vote for X against Y, X wins because both A and C prefer X to Y.

When the three vote for Y against Z, Y wins because both A and B prefer Y to Z.

From which it follows, if the group is to be consistent, that it must prefer X to Z.

But in fact, since both B and C prefer Z to X, majority rule requires that the group prefer Z to X.

 

This is not a trick, it is a genuine contradiction. Kenneth Arrow, in a doctoral dissertation that eventually won him the Nobel Prize for Economics, generalized this result and demonstrated that no mode of collective decision-making that meets a quite minimal and reasonable set of constraints – roughly those of majority rule and similar systems of group decision-making – can avoid this distressing contradiction.

 

Now the nifty thing – demonstrated by an Australian political scientist named Duncan Black – is that if the preferences of the individuals voting can be arrayed accurately along a single two-dimensional left right spectrum, then majority rule is guaranteed to yield a consistent choice.

 

Nerds like me really dig this sort of thing and I must confess that writing about it has soothed the savage breast.

Monday, September 6, 2021

YOU HAVE BEEN BUSY

I have been dealing for several days with personal matters that have taken me away from this blog and when I returned to check things out, I discovered that my very brief recent post had triggered 112 comments, a record I think. This morning, before taking my walk, I read through them all, and on my walk I sorted out in my mind what I wanted to say about this tsunami of opinion.

 

Let me begin with the distinction, which I am sure I have several times drawn before on this blog, between two very different images of progressive or transformative political action: brain surgery and a landslide. If you think that radical political action is like brain surgery, then you will suppose that it is a precise and delicate matter in which it is desperately important to perform the operation in precisely the correct manner – one wrong move can leave the patient paralyzed or, worse still, dead. For the past 200 years, a good deal of debate on the left seems to have been motivated by this image of political action. I saw this up close at the University of Massachusetts almost 50 years ago when five young Marxist economists were hired simultaneously into tenured positions in the economics department and almost immediately split into three factions.

 

The alternative view, to which I subscribe, is that social change or political action is like a landslide. I like to compare the modern civil rights movement in the United States to an enormous landslide down the side of a mountain. Here comes a tremendous boulder – Fannie Lou Hamer. Then a huge tree uprooted and tumbling down the mountainside – Malcolm X. Then an entire outcropping of rock that lets loose – Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Now there are two things about a landslide. The first is that it does not consist only of these highly visible and very notable objects – the boulder, the tree, the outcropping. If those are the only things that roll down the side of the hill, then although they will be quite striking as they tumble down, the hill, when they are all done falling, will not be transformed. The landslide also includes middle size boulders, rocks, pebbles, small trees, bushes, twigs, clots of dirt, even little bits of dirt. All of that taken together is the landslide and when the dust has settled the entire side of the mountain is changed forever.

 

The second thing about a landslide is that more than anything else what matters is what side of the mountain it takes place on.

 

As I read those 112 comments, I reflected that all of us were tumbling down the same side of the hill, bumping into each other, knocking one another this way and that, producing a lot of dust so that it was hard at times to see exactly what was going on, but nonetheless all of us on the same side of the hill contributing, or so we hoped, to a landslide that would forever transform the American mountainside.

 

Not all of us end up being Fannie Lou Hamer. Indeed, for most of us even our names are lost in the dust of history. But in the end what matters is whether we were on the right side of the hill tumbling down with all those big boulders and trees, making up a part of a transformative landslide.

 

Now one thing I have learned in more than 65 years of political activity is that life being what it is, you will only stick with an activity if you find something to do that you actually enjoy so that you will keep doing it even when the band goes by and the headlines change and it is no longer the moment. Leaving aside the metaphor of the landslide, there are many different tasks that are required of those who want to change the world. There is carrying placards and marching; there is standing on street corners handing out flyers; there is sitting at a desk making phone calls; there is giving money and there is raising money; every so often there is voting and of course there is going door-to-door trying to get other people to vote. Sometimes, if the moment calls for it, there may be running guns. And it may even that someone needs to be writing books.

 

Almost half a century ago I gave a talk at Hampshire College in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. I explained to the students that historical change was not by and large made by people writing books, so one of the students asked me "then why do you write books?” I answered, “writing books is not by any stretch of the imagination the most important thing one can do but I am good at it and I enjoy it so I do it. It is not a major contribution to social change but it is some sort of contribution, somebody needs to do it, and since I enjoy it I know I will go on doing it even when the band has moved on and is playing in another festival.”

 

I do not actually like taking part in demonstrations. Oh, I have done it of course. On January 21, 2017 I schlepped up to Washington DC and took part in the Women’s March to protest the election of Trump. I got a couple of good pictures from it on my cell phone but I did not much enjoy it. It is just not my thing. But one of the consequences of my involvement in the anti-apartheid movement at Harvard University is that I discovered I am good at raising money out of my computer by sending out mailings and it is something I like to do, so in 1990 I founded a little one man scholarship organization for poor black men and women in South Africa who wanted to go to historically black universities there and because I liked doing it, I stuck with it for 23 years. Was that a major accomplishment? Of course not. I helped about 1600 young men and women go to university during those 23 years but that was such a small number that it is scarcely a blip in the South African educational statistics. But the important thing is, I did it.  I stuck with it because I enjoyed doing it. I figure, if I may return to my metaphor, that I was a middle sized rock rolling down the hillside of racial liberation – not a boulder, not a tree, but maybe not just a pebble either. That is really the most one can ask in a lifetime.

 

That was my first thought about the comments as I started my walk. I had some other thoughts as well, but since this one took me more than a thousand words to express I will stop here and leave the other thoughts for subsequent posts.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

FANTASIES

 For a fraction of what it cost Jeff Bezos to take his ride to the stars, it would be possible to fund a system that offers any young Texas woman who wants an abortion a flight to California and back and an overnight stay at a hotel near a clinic. All those Taliban style private enforcers planning to sue anyone who aids the young woman in getting an abortion would have a difficult time bringing their actions in California courts. If I knew how to run an Internet-based go fund me operation I would start an organization myself. The time has come to stop relying on politicians and the courts to protect us against the fascist madness abroad in this land.


This is going to get a lot worse, not better.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

BY HOOK OR BY CROOK

When I called the UMass OIT help desk to figure out how to get access to all the things I have archived on box.net, I was told that they had put in a work order and I would hear from the folks handling this sort of thing. When I did not hear, I called again and was told that the people who answered the phone have absolutely no contact the people who are actually doing the work, even though they are in the same building (!!). But a nice young man told me how to get access to my materials, and it worked. So I have put a URL at the top of my blog under the heading "my stuff" and it works. The only problem is it is not a link so instead of clicking on it, you have to copy it and put it in your command line and then you can get to my stuff. This is roughly the equivalent of driving across country by hooking up a team of oxen to your Jaguar but if it works, it works. So my stuff is again available. At some point, the inaccessible folks handling these sorts of things will get around to it and then presumably I can substitute a link and be marginally a resident of the 21st century.


Enjoy.

STORM CLOUDS ON A RAINY MONDAY

Forget about Afghanistan and set to one side for a moment our concerns about Covid. I think we are approaching a moment in this country when the rule of law is going to be genuinely called into question. I have had this thought for some time as a consequence of the widespread efforts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to lay the groundwork for the simple overturning of the results of a presidential election. But the news out of Texas today strengthens my conviction.

 

Many of you will have read or heard about the Texas antiabortion law that went into effect today, making it a criminal offense for woman to have an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. By choosing to remain silent, the Supreme Court has tacitly given its imprimatur to this punitive piece of medieval legislation. Later in this court’s current term, it will have the opportunity to reverse Roe V Wade, an opportunity it will almost certainly take.

 

I think it is at least an open question whether a majority of Americans will docilely accept these developments. Consider first the threat to the 2024 presidential election. Suppose, as is highly likely, a Democrat (probably Biden) wins a huge popular majority and a substantial electoral majority, which latter is then undone by the actions of state Republican controlled legislatures who choose to ignore the popular vote in their states and instead send Republican electors to the Congress. Will California and New York and Massachusetts and Virginia and all the other Democratic states really just accept that result? I have serious doubts. What then?

 

More immediately, will scores of millions of women who have grown up in an America in which abortion is readily available agree to go back to the time of dangerous back alley abortions?

 

Americans have shown themselves to be willing to submit with little protest to exploitation and rampant economic inequality, but I am not sure they will accept the overturning of a presidential election or the imposition of sharia law on American women.