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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Sunday, January 31, 2021

PASS THE POPCORN

With a week to go, Trump and his entire legal defense team have gone their separate ways. According to the reporting I heard, the problem was that Trump wanted them to argue that he had really won the election and it had been stolen from him. One can only hope that he decides to represent himself. It is cold and wet in North Carolina right now and I need something to cheer me up. This is a truly bizarre time. Marjorie Taylor Greene is now the face of the Republican Party – not Ronald Reagan, not George W. Bush, not Mitch McConnell, not even Richard Nixon but Marjorie Taylor Greene! I did not get any presents for Christmas, not even a lump of coal, but this is better than a pony (with or without the horse shit.)

Saturday, January 30, 2021

ASIDE FROM THAT, MRS. LINCOLN, HOW WAS THE THEATER?

These days I am suffering the effects of political whiplash. The new Biden administration seems to me to be proceeding in a much more favorable manner that I had any reason to hope for. It is handling the pandemic quite as well as one could ask, despite troubling news about new variants of the virus. The flood of executive actions not only reversed a number of appalling actions by Trump but also staked out new ground economically (mandating a rising minimum wage in jobs controlled by the federal government), as well as in such areas as gender rights. All of us lost sleep over the prospect of Biden pursuing the mirage of bipartisan legislation, only to see him make clear moves toward enactment through reconciliation procedures after only 10 days in office. Commentators reading tea leaves suggest that the opposition of Manchin and Sinema to the ditching of the filibuster is soft enough perhaps to permit even statehood for DC. In short, the early signs are far more promising than I could have dreamed.

 

At the same time, the Republican Party is coming apart at the seams. Since the election of Biden, I have not seen a single coherent statement by any prominent Republican of what legislative alternatives they would prefer to Biden’s huge recovery bill. Instead, the news is filled with the craziness of Marjorie Greene, the attacks by Matt Gaetz on Liz Cheney, speculation about which foot McCarthy kissed when he went to see Trump, and reports of the belief in Republican circles that the California fires were caused by space lasers controlled by George Soros. Since a large enough section of the faithful Republican electorate is completely in thrall to Trump, there is no coherent political resolution of this civil war.

 

If I were Joe Biden (how is that for a counterfactual conditional, you logic buffs!), I would send out very delicate feelers to several Republican senators inviting them to leave the party and declare themselves Independents, consulting with Schumer about plum committee assignments and some hand in drafting bits of legislation near and dear to their hearts. The quid pro quo would be their willingness once and for all to kill the filibuster. This would make radicals like me scream bloody murder but it might very well consign the Republicans to permanent minority status and turn the United States into one great big California.

 

All of this assumes that we do not experience a series of political assassinations like those that made the 1960s so horrific.

 

As I say, I find this head spinning.

Friday, January 29, 2021

LET US ALL JUST HAVE A LAUGH

One of the reasons that I have posted so little in the last several days is that I have been consumed by anger and a feeling of depression at what is happening in America these days, even though I am only a fortnight away from my second vaccine shot, which you would think would cheer me up. So I thought I would spend today giving you one example of the wit in movies and then invite any who wish to post comments to give us other examples that they like.

 

My example comes from an old Clint Eastwood movie. All of us are familiar with the movie cliché of the couple who, consumed by desire for one another, stumble into an apartment and start tearing their clothes off, dropping them on the floor as they make their way to the bed. In the non—R-rated versions, we never see them naked on the bed making love. We simply see the trail of clothing leading up to the bed: a shoe, a bra, a sock, an undershirt. I have no idea what imaginative director created this trope but it is now so stale that one yawns when it begins and it no longer has the power to arouse.

 

In the Clint Eastwood movie, he plays a Secret Service agent tasked with defending the president (I think, I may misremember that). His partner is a female Secret Service agent and sure enough, they get the hots for each other and go to his or her apartment. The scene starts conventionally enough but the director, with what I consider a marvelous wit, shows us a somewhat different trail of dropped accoutrements: a side arm, a pair of handcuffs, a bra, a bit of body armor. When I saw it I laughed out loud. It was such a lovely bit of inter-textual critique, as the lit crit people say. I do not remember much else about the movie but I will never forget that scene.

 

Okay. That one is mine. I invite you to contribute yours for the general amusement of the readership and to lighten the burden under which we all labor these days.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

I HAVE A FAVOR TO ASK

If I include the time I spent as a graduate student teaching fellow, I taught for 54 years. During all of that time I would meet my students face-to-face, get to know them as best I could, lecture to them, respond to their questions and comments, meet them during office hours, and in general interact with them in a way that people did, at least in those days. I had the same relationship with my colleagues at the various institutions where I taught. When I retired 12 ½ years ago I waited a bit and then started this blog as a way to continue my lifetime of teaching and discussing.

 

The blog has been great fun but in one important respect I have found it unsatisfying. I cannot really consider blogging a form of conversation because I never see the people with whom I am talking and all too often I have no way of knowing the identity of the people who comment on the blog, even those who comment almost daily. I find this very strange, I confess, but more than that deeply troubling. Blogging is in this way more unnatural than emailing or even engaging in that most recent of modes of communication, zooming.

 

So I have a request to make of all of you who comment on the blog. I would like you please to identify yourselves by your real names when you post comments – not by initials, like “LFC” or by what I assume is a nom de plume, “Marcel Proust,” but by your actual names. This is not the same thing as the two of us being in the same room talking to one another but it is a step in that direction. Some of you do this of course. S. Wallerstein and David Palmeter and Chris Mulvaney and Warren Goldfarb, for example.

 

I gather, though I do not understand such things, that in some cases Google does not permit you to put your name on the comment but you can always add it to the end of a comment.

 

Some of you may be hesitant to put your name to politically charged comments which can then follow you for a lifetime in the cloud. As someone who achieved life tenure at the age of 30, I am in no position to be critical of such hesitancy. But I really would prefer whenever possible to know with whom I am talking. 

Monday, January 25, 2021

THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE

There are two possibilities and I have not the slightest idea which one of them is correct, but we will find out quite soon. The first possibility is that Biden genuinely believes that he can reach out across the aisle and legislate in the way that he did 30 years ago, continuing to believe that despite the experience of the Obama administration in which he played a central role. If he believes that, then he will continue futilely to reach across the aisle and get his head handed to him again and again until it is too late to accomplish what he needs to accomplish in order to win the midterms.

 

The second possibility is that he quite well understands how little he can get done in a bipartisan fashion and has decided to make an enormous show of trying for a short period of time before “his hand is forced” by the virus and the economic crisis and he is “compelled” to opt for killing the filibuster, after which he can give statehood to DC, enact the progressive program of legislation that he is laid out, and leave the Republicans to stew in their own juices.

 

As I say, I do not think we will have to wait months and months to see which way this plays out. Biden is not stupid and he may have understood from the start that the pandemic was politically a blessing in disguise precisely because it would make it possible for him to appear to be doing things out of necessity that he actually wants to do. We shall see.

 

While I have your attention, let me note on another matter that if Dr. Anthony Fauci is correct that we need to vaccinate 75% or 80% of the population by the end of the summer to go back to something resembling normal, then that means (the arithmetic is simple) 2 million vaccinations a day from now until then. We are currently above 1 million a day before any of Biden’s bold plans have been put into effect at all so 2 million a day is, I believe, quite achievable. It irritates me to see the White House spokespersons continue to describe 100 million vaccinations in 100 days as a brave, bold initiative when that level has already been achieved, but I grant that it is good politics so I will grumble on my little blog but otherwise keep my mouth shut.

DEEPLY DEPRESSING

This essay published five days ago by Anne Applebaum is deeply depressing and very persuasive.  If she is right, and it is hard to disagree, this country has a far larger problem than even I realized.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

A LITTLE SPECULATION WITHOUT BENEFIT OF MODERN MONEY THEORY

Biden wants to spend $1.9 trillion to address a variety of problems caused by the vaccine. Needless to say, Republicans are now objecting to spending so much money that the federal government does not have. It is worth asking what such an expenditure will actually cost the government.

 

Since the government does not have the money, it must borrow it. It does this by issuing IOUs which are called treasury bills and treasury bonds. In order to entice people with money to lend it to the government, the government must offer to pay them. Since the gimlet eyed wonks who handle these matters are constitutionally stingy, they pay as little as they can get away with. Currently the U.S. Treasury is paying a rate of 0.13% on two year treasury notes. That means that to borrow $1 trillion, it must promise to pay back $1,001,300,000,000 in two years.

 

However, there is a catch. The treasury borrows the money in January 2021 dollars, but it does not pay the lender back two years from now in 2021 dollars. Instead, it pays the lender back in 2023 dollars. So we have to factor in the rate of inflation to see whether those future dollars are worth more or less than current dollars and if so by how much.

 

Well, as Yogi Berra noted wisely, it is difficult to make predictions especially about the future but we can at least ask what the current rate of inflation is. That is something we know, and with a little searching around on the web we find that the current rate of inflation is 1.4%.

 

This means that lenders around the world are actually paying the U.S. Treasury 1.27% of their money for the privilege of being permitted to lend it to the United States! Unless the United States goes into a serious depression economically (I am of course not speaking about emotions) and suffers a negative rate of growth, the United States can make out like gangbusters by borrowing money at these rates.

 

We have not yet asked what the US government plans to do with the money it is being paid to borrow. If it invests that money productively by giving it to individuals who will go out and spend it or to small businesses that will use it to generate revenue by staying open, then some of what the government spends will come back to it in the form of tax revenues. It is above my pay grade to figure out how much that is likely to be, but since the government is already been paid to borrow, any tax revenues that are generated by its expenditure of the money it has borrowed is just gravy.

 

I know next to nothing about these matters and yet even I can figure this much out, so why is Mitt Romney, who made a fortune at Bain Capital, complaining that it is too soon for the federal government to undertake such large expenditures as those proposed by Biden?

Saturday, January 23, 2021

MORE IDLE THOUGHTS, SOME HAPPY

Biden has just issued an executive order mandating a $15 an hour minimum wage for all federal employees, including federal contractors. It was only one election cycle ago that the proposal for a $15 minimum wage, put forward by Bernie, was viewed as a far out radical dream with no hope of enactment. This is one more example of the importance of pushing progressive proposals from the ground up and getting them into mainstream debates. I wrote about this 60 years ago in some obscure publication. It is not exactly a new idea.


Meanwhile, it is increasingly clear that Trump will not be convicted in the Senate trial, leaving him looming as a vast obstacle to Republican political hopes for the future. If as venal and crafty an operator as Mike Pompeo thinks it is politically advantageous to call American muulticulturalism a myth, as he has just done, then I think we can assume that it  will be a long time before the Republicans decide actually to make a play for black and brown votes.  


The latest reports indicate that fully one in five of the demonstrators on January 6 were present or former military personnel. We have some hard times ahead of us, I am afraid.


Yesterday 1,800,000 vaccine shots got into the arms of Americans. If the damned virus will just not mutate in a way that makes it protected from the vaccines, we may survive this terrible trial. I have 16 days until my second shot. But it now seems that even after that I must wear a mask and socially distance when I go out. Sigh. I guess the traditional Parisian double embrace is out for the foreseeable future.

Friday, January 22, 2021

AND YOU THOUGHT I COULD NOT GET ANY MORE TRIVIAL

This morning, as I was idly scanning the front page of the online New York Times, scrolling down at the very bottom I came on a little story with this headline:

 

“Your cat isn’t just getting high off catnip.”

 

As I thought about that sentence the following thought occurred to me. You could make seven sentences with seven entirely different meanings merely by moving the location of the word “just.” Watch:

 

Just your cat is not getting high off catnip.

Your cat just is not getting high off catnip.

Your cat is just not getting high off catnip.

Your cat is not just getting high off catnip.

Your cat is not getting just high off catnip.

Your cat is not getting high just off catnip.

Your cat is not getting high off just catnip.

 

Arguably the last two have the same meaning.

 

I think this is an observation with not the slightest deeper significance.

HAPPY THOUGHTS

1.   The picture of Bernie at the inauguration that has gone viral.

2.    Dr. Anthony Fauci at yesterday’s press briefing, almost giddy at having been released from his bondage to Trump.

3.    News that Mitchell McConnell is facing a challenge to his Senate leadership from Republican senators unhappy with his negative statements about Trump.

4.   Joe Biden always speaking of good “union” jobs, not just good jobs, when he talks about his goals for his administration.

5.   The knowledge that my second dose of vaccine is only 17 days away.

6.   Not having heard anything from or about Trump in 72 hours.

 

And now for some important matters that the mainstream media have somehow failed to put together, even though doing so only requires sixth grade arithmetic. Dr. Fauci says that we need 70% to 85% of the population vaccinated in order to get back to something resembling normal life and he hopes that this can be accomplished by the end of the summer, which means in eight months. This will require roughly 2 million vaccinations a day. Currently we have just hit roughly 1 million a day, and that is before any of the actions planned by the new administration have gone into effect. My guess is that the 2 million per day goal is entirely achievable with the kind of all court press the new administration is putting on. Say what you will about Joe Biden, he is not politically stupid and I suspect his medical experts laid all of this out to him before he declared his dramatic goal of 100 million vaccinations in his first hundred days, knowing full well that he would far exceed it and be able to claim a dramatic victory. This is the political equivalent of what they call in football basic blocking and tackling and it is nice to have a Democratic administration that knows how to do these fundamentals.


Now, if you choose to comment on this blog post, please spare me the doom and gloom. I know all of that and I have been dooming and glooming for the past 70 years. Let an old man enjoy a few moments of pleasure.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

INAUGURATION DAY

I spent a lot of time off and on yesterday watching portions of the inauguration in the aftermath. Even the banality of a great deal of it was an enormous relief. Coming on the heels of the insurrection in that very same place two weeks earlier, I found it strangely moving to have three former presidents introduced, one by one, in the order in which they served. It lent a certain poignancy to the phrase “a peaceful transition of power.”

 

Late in the afternoon I devoted 15 to minutes watching a little ceremony that seemed to me perfectly to capture the very best of Joe Biden and also his deepest limitations. Biden was administering the oath via zoom to upwards of a thousand newly appointed administration officials who do not require Senate confirmation. The faces of the appointees appeared on large television screens in gallery view, perhaps 50 at a time on each screen, with the display changing periodically so that over the course of the ceremony all of them had their moment in the sun. The administration of the oath takes only a few moments but Biden spoke for almost 12 minutes in total. He did not have a prepared speech so his remarks were rather scattered and informal but they showed him at his best. At one point he told them, “if I see you speaking in a disparaging way to anyone I will fire you on the spot, no if’s and’s or but’s.” I think he really meant it and it said something fundamentally decent about his character.

 

Then, at about 5 ½ minutes into his remarks (You can see the entire talk here) he said something that brought me up short and made me realize how fundamentally clueless he is in certain important ways. Because I wanted to say something about it on this blog, I wandered around on the Internet until I found a video of the talk and carefully played it, stopping periodically so that I could copy his words down as accurately as possible. Here is the portion that struck me so powerfully:

 

  …to root out systemic racism. We have reached the point in my view when the American people realized they did not realize before just how much systemic racism still exists because they did not live in circumstances with large minority populations whatever the background circumstances were and all of a sudden they see what happens to George Floyd with his nose being pushed up against the curb suffocating to death and murdered and they said my God that really happened …”

 

There it was in full view. When Biden uses the phrase “the American people” he means the white American people. It did not take the murder of George Floyd to alert black Americans to how much systemic racism still exists, whether they live “in circumstances with large minority populations” (which is to say, with themselves) or not. Mind you, Biden was as a newly inaugurated president legitimating the phrase “systemic racism,” something that I think our first black president never actually did. Biden was doing this at a time when he was taking significant executive action to address some of the aspects of systemic racism. And yet, even in this moment, he simply could not grasp the fact that he sees white America as America and black America as not quite truly, really, America.

 

Biden had just brought about the installation of the first black vice president. He had just appointed an historic number of minority men and women to his administration. He had been elected, and he knew that he had been elected, by the votes of black Americans. And yet he just could not see it. It is not just a matter of age. I am almost 10 years older than he is. And it is not that he is a bad person, despite Anita Hill and all. He is just blind.

 

What is it, then, that opened my eyes? It was not some divine revelation on the road to Damascus. Quite simply, it was picking up and moving from Bartlett Hall on the west side of the University of Massachusetts campus to New Africa House on the east side of the campus. After I had completed that simple move, I viewed my university and beyond that the world from a different standpoint – literally, I was standing in a different place with different people around me and after a while I began to see the world as they saw it because of where I was standing. I was not visiting, I had moved, and from that simple move flowed an entirely new way of understanding my world.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

THE OLD ORDER PASSETH

In the end, Trump seems not to have pardoned his children or himself. I say “seems” because my son informs me that there is no constitutional or legislative requirement that a pardon be made public. He may have issued pardons to his children and himself and tucked them into his pocket to be produced when needed, but I confess that strikes me as incompatible with his character.

 

There will be much to be grateful for when Joe Biden assumes the presidency in roughly 2 ½ hours. Much to be grateful for, but also some things to regret and others to view with apprehension. I personally experience a certain distress at the prospect of having Joe Biden feel my pain every day for the next four years, publicly and lugubriously, even when I am in fact not in pain. It makes me long for Oscar Wilde who famously said “a man would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of little Nell.” Oh well.

 

Let us leave the prosecution of the insurrectionists to Merrick Garland, who is, I remind you all, a graduate of the Social Studies program at Harvard of which I was the first head tutor. Our job starting right now is to do everything we can to strengthen the progressives in Congress and to win as many seats in the 2022 elections as possible.  A luta continua


Tuesday, January 19, 2021

FOND MEMORIES PROMPTED BY QANON

I read an interesting discussion yesterday of the likely future of QAnon, whose central organizing prediction is about to be refuted tomorrow with the inauguration of Joe Biden. The author of the piece (the link to which I have lost, alas) compared the prediction to the end times prophecies of Charles Russell which eventually morphed into the substantial religious organization known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. It all put me in mind of an experience I had 55 years ago or so while I was teaching at Columbia. I lived then in a Columbia owned apartment on the fifth floor of a building on 115th St. between Amsterdam and Morningside. One Sunday morning there was a knock on the door and when I answered it I found myself confronting two well-dressed, polite, but very insistent Jehovah’s Witnesses who had left their headquarters in Brooklyn to seek converts in the unlikely territory of Morningside Heights.

 

I really was in no mood for a fruitless theological debate but not wanting to be impolite I hit upon what turned out to be a foolproof response to their opening pitch. “I am terribly sorry,” I said earnestly, “but I cannot talk to about these matters.” “Why not?” the more forward of the two demanded. “Because,” I explained, “I belong to a religious sect that does not permit me to talk about any matter relating to religion with someone not in the sect.” “What sect is that?” he demanded to know. “Alas,” I replied, “I am not permitted to say.”

 

It brought the interaction to an immediate dead stop and they left. I felt a little badly since is a philosophy professor I thought I had a professional obligation to engage with them, rather like an off-duty doctor who comes upon someone having a heart attack. But I had not yet been to Zabar’s to get my weekly portion of bagels and smoked salmon and I was just not up to the challenge.

Monday, January 18, 2021

EACH OF US HAS A CONTRIBUTION TO MAKE

Sixteen years ago I published a little book the principal purpose of which was to call into question the standard popular and academic myth of American Exceptionalism. I spoke about the origin of the European settlements in North America Not as a city upon a hill but rather inas what had come to be called in some circles a White Settler State. I freely confess that when I wrote the book, it simply never occurred to me that I would see an armed insurrection against the United States government fostered and encouraged by the President of the United States.

 

As more of the seemingly endless stream of videos make their way onto cable news, it is becoming clear how close we came to a genuine disaster encompassing the capture and execution quite possibly of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence.

 

This does not strike me as the time for elegant ironic commentary, but at the age of 87 in the midst of a pandemic I am not really sure what contribution I can make. Perhaps I should reproduce here the passage I quoted 3 ½ years ago from Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments:

 

“When Philip threatened to lay siege to the city of Corinth and all its inhabitants hastily bestirred themselves in defense, some polishing weapons, some gathering stones, some repairing the walls, Diogenes seeing all this hurriedly folded his mantle about him and began to roll his tub zealously back and forth through the streets. When he was asked why he did this he replied that he wished to be busy like all the rest, and rolled his tub lest he should be the only idler among so many industrious citizens.”

Saturday, January 16, 2021

MORE IDLE THOUGHTS

The events at the US Capitol were so appalling and the details that continue to come out so unnerving that I find it almost impossible to comment intelligently about them. Lying in bed last night at 2 AM tossing and turning, I distracted myself by explaining to an imaginary group of students the origin of the phrase "it is a feature, not a bug." I gave as an illustrative example the Trump administration's deliberate policy of separating little children from their parents at the border, explaining that the pain-and-suffering this action caused was not an unfortunate side effect of the policy but was in fact intended as a disincentive to migrants – it was thus a feature of the policy, not a bug. Having explained the phrase, I  went on to use it in order to explain the large and growing inequality of income and wealth that characterizes capitalist economies. The unequal accumulation of wealth is the central point of capitalism, it is its reason for being, it is thus a feature of capitalism, not a bug.


All of this is obvious and old hat – or perhaps weak tea - but it was comforting to give a little lecture in my head as a way of enabling me to drift off to sleep, rather like telling old familiar fairytales to a restless child.

Friday, January 15, 2021

JUST ANOTHER DAY IN THE SHINING CITY ON A HILL

I am very much encouraged by the reports of the $1.9 trillion bill that Biden wishes to rush through the Congress. It is way more progressive than anything we could have reasonably hope for from Biden when he was on his way to securing the nomination. Is it perfect? Of course not, but if passed it will make an immediate and very big difference to huge numbers of people who are in desperate circumstances. Tucked into it, by the way, is an increase in the minimum wage to $15, something that was a progressive wet dream only a few years ago. The legislative device that will be used to get it through Congress is called Reconciliation, a process which circumvents the filibuster.   In the Senate, the process gives an outsized role to the Chair of the Budget Committee. And who will that be? Bernie Sanders.

 

I mention all of this first because I am, as you know, a naturally optimistic person. Now for the bad news. When Trump is gone, convicted or not in the Senate as the case may be, those tens of millions of fanatic supporters will remain, and as I have often remarked, they are the ones with the guns. New reporting of the events in the Senate chamber as the mob approached makes it clear that the extraordinary bravery and quick wittedness of Capitol policeman Eugene Goodman may well have saved the life of Mike Pence. Think what you will of the vice president, we really could do without a vice presidential assassination.

 

I am also anxiously waiting to see whether Trump issues a blanket pardon to all of the insurrectionists on his way out the door. He could perfectly well do so and it would protect them from federal charges, which means things they did in the District of Columbia. Fortunately his narcissism is so great that he probably cannot bring himself to think about them as he struggles to protect his financial interests and plan pardons for his children. It would be too delicious if his irritation with America’s Mayor causes him to refuse a pardon for Giuliani.

 

Back to the good news. Speaker Pelosi is apparently planning to impose $5000 and $10,000 fines on members of the House who refuse to go through metal detectors and insist on carrying weapons onto the floor of the House, these fines to be deducted directly from their congressional paychecks. I am awaiting the reports of their cries of outrage.

 

I know this is all trivial but I have been in lockdown for 10 months and I have to take my pleasures were I can find them.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

THIS IS HUGE

It is now reported that Mitch McConnell is said to be pleased that Trump will be impeached and considers that he committed impeachable offenses. This means that my analysis was correct and that things are moving very rapidly. It remains to be seen how the millions of Trump supporters will respond.


I can see the merit in the old Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." 

INTERIM THOUGHTS

These are tumultuous, unsettled, uncertain times and it would be foolish of me to try to predict how things will go in the next few weeks, but I would like to stand back a bit while I watch reports obsessively on television, and make a few remarks about what I think might develop over the next several months. Let me say to begin that I am becoming more and more aware of how important the victories of Warnock and Ossoff will prove to be.

 

The Republican Party is clearly in crisis, triggered in part by the extraordinary fact that Republican senators, members of the House of Representatives, and even the vice president himself were threatened in the Capitol not in their role as representatives of others but in their own personal physical selves. Being rushed to safety by members of the Secret Service with guns drawn while a mob bangs on the doors really does seem to concentrate the mind something awful.

 

Here, stated briefly, is what I think may happen once we get past the present period of crisis. I think it is quite possible that several Republican senators will leave the party, declare themselves to be Independents, and vote with the Democrats in return for various political favors in legislation and the like, an eventuality made possible by the victories in Georgia. This in turn will increase the probability of statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, giving the Democrats a comfortable majority in the Senate and even making it possible to kill the filibuster. The enormous grassroots support for Trump will not disappear and there will be many Republican members of the House and some Republican senators who will continue to rely on it.  But so long as Trump (and Don Junior, his mini-me) continues to play an active role in national politics it will be impossible for the Republicans to maintain the unstable coalition of forces that has made them so successful in local and congressional politics despite their repeated failures at the presidential level.

 

If such a realignment takes place, it will have the effect, as I have observed before, of shifting Biden’s legislative program somewhat to the right. However, the way will be open for progressive forces to continue to build their strength in the party, if they have the wit and energy to seize that opportunity.

 

As an old guy who learned what he knows about politics when the mimeograph machine was still cutting edge, I am endlessly fascinated and surprised by how much information can be acquired through technology about the identity of the individuals who were part of the insurrectionist mob. I love the fact that even those rioters who were not so stupid as to take selfies and post them on social media from inside the Capitol building can nevertheless be placed there thanks to the fact that they all have cell phones that were turned on. I mean, good Lord, who needs secret police!

 

One final observation. Josh Hawley, as I noted, clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts. I would love to know what Roberts thinks about his protégé now.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

COMING TOGETHER AND MOVING ON

Let me begin by reproducing a Facebook post by my son, Prof. Tobias Barrington Wolff:

 

“One of the things that is making me so angry that I cannot yet process it is simply this: You know who has never engaged in a violent insurrection against the U.S. Capitol and destroyed and defiled the seat of Government? Black Americans. Native Americans. Chinese Americans. Female Americans. Japanese Americans. Mexican Americans. Muslim Americans. Jewish Americans. Guatemalan / El Salvadoran / Nicaraguan Americans. LGBQT Americans. Despite the decades and centuries of history that could make those groups feel, you know, “angry” or “frustrated” or “not listened to” or “not seen” or “like they cannot make politics work for them.”

We are going to talk about this, White fragility be damned.”

 

First of all, the importance of all of us “coming together.” Politics in the United States is a never ending activity of compromise, even on matters near and dear to our hearts. It Involves running for election to public office, which requires persuading large numbers of people with quite diverse interests, passions, and commitments to join in voting for a candidate who is never the ideal and perfect representation of the totality of one’s beliefs. It continues with the enacting of legislation, the drafting of which involves endless compromise with those seeking different outcomes from one’s own desired goals. All that is required to participate in this political process is the willingness to continue to fight for what one believes in.  All of that is coming together.

 

There is no coming together with those who attempt by violence to destroy the political process itself. There is only war. After one wins the war, there can be a time for reconciliation but not before. As my son rightly points out, the assault on the Capitol was carried out not by those who have for generations been abused and oppressed and exploited, but by those who feared that their dominant position in America was beginning to slip away from them and who could not bear the thought of sharing their power with those whom they had for so long dominated. Those now issuing calls for us to “come together” are the Neville Chamberlains of American politics

 

As for “moving on,” there will be time for that after we have located, charged, tried, convicted, and jailed every last one of those insurrectionists whom we can find. I see no reason why that should interrupt Biden’s ambitious plans for his first hundred days.

 

One final word before I stop. Biden has chosen for his Atty. Gen. someone who was an undergraduate majored in the Social Studies Program of which I was the first head tutor at Harvard 60 years ago. I hope he is not going to make me sorry for what I did.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

THE LAST FOUR DAYS

I assume that all of you, at least here in the United States, have spent a good deal of time watching the televised reports of the attack on the US Congress. Fairly quickly a number of the more notable participants have been identified, charged, and taken into custody. In my bighearted generous way, I hope that each of them will be found guilty of multiple offenses and required to serve the maximum penalty for each offense consecutively, not concurrently.

 

Two things have struck me about all of this, one of which I think I have already commented on. The first is that it is now part of the received wisdom of the mainstream media that the treatment of the insurrectionists was gentle because they are white and would have been brutal had they been black. This is not exactly news but it is nice to have it repeated endlessly and without question on CNN and MSNBC.

 

The second is that the participants in this failed insurrection were clearly not, by and large, working-class Americans suffering hard times and attracted to Trump because they thought he would champion the needs and interests of the working class against those of the privileged. I would be willing to bet, on the basis of what I saw these past few days, that the average household income of the participants is above the national average. I rather like the fact that one of the more striking figures identified and charged is a retired U.S. Army Lieut. Col., not exactly somebody suffering from hard times.

 

The situation is changing so rapidly that it would be foolhardy to make a series of predictions that might well be contradicted by the facts before I could get them up on my blog but nonetheless, let me sketch out as a possibility something that it seems to me is developing in the Republican Party.

 

As everybody has observed, there is a struggle underway for control of the Republican Party and for what I will call, for want of a better term, its soul. Most of the congressional Republicans in the House and Senate at this point are sticking with Trump out of fear that they will lose the votes of his supporters, but a small number of Senators and Representatives are distancing themselves from him. This is the perfect moment for Biden to do what he desperately wants to do and is probably best able to do, namely reach “across the aisle” and forge what old line communists used to call a United Front. One could even imagine Lisa Murkowski and perhaps one or two other senators transferring their allegiance to the Democratic Party or at least declaring themselves Independents while voting with the Democrats. This would have the effect of moving Biden’s agenda somewhat to the right while simultaneously making it much more likely that the agenda would become law.

 

Such a marginal realignment, combined with the steady shift in the composition of the electorate, could make the Republican Party more or less permanently a regional minority party.

 

I wish I could stick around long enough to see how this will all play out over the next 20 years.

Friday, January 8, 2021

GOOD NEWS PERSONAL

Susie will be vaccinated on January 16 and I will be vaccinated on January 18. Who knows? Some Sunday in March we might go out to a restaurant for dinner! It does not get any better than that.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

FORTY-EIGHT HOURS

This has been, how shall I say it, one of the more unusual 48-hour periods in my life. Let me try in a preliminary way to come to terms with what has happened in the past two days.

 

It started Tuesday morning when I spent a little bit more than an hour listening to the entire phone call between Trump and the Georgia Secretary of State. It was interesting in several different ways. First of all, it was obvious that Trump had spent a great deal of time absorbing conspiracies and fevered speculations from fringe media. He seemed to have them all ready to hand in considerable detail. For those who wonder how he spends his days when he is not watching Fox News or tweeting, I think the answer is that he is really quite busy seeking out and adopting any fantasy that feeds his need to believe that he did not lose the election. I thought the relatively few remarks by Mark Meadows were interesting. That must be what it was like to be a courtier in the time of Mad King George.

 

At this point I was simply passing time while I waited for the vote reports to come in from Georgia. By late in the evening, Warnock and Ossoff were behind anywhere from 80,000 votes to 120,000 votes behind. When a large dump of 170,000 votes came in from one of the Atlanta area counties, Warnock took a significant lead and Ossoff was only several thousand behind. Because of the location of the outstanding votes, it was clear that both were going to win and finally at about 1:30 AM I went to bed.

 

I staggered out of bed at about 6 AM on Wednesday, skipped my morning walk, and settle down groggily to wait for the formal declaration that the Democrats had recaptured the Senate. Meanwhile, I watched the beginning of what I thought would be a lengthy and tedious charade in Congress as Republicans challenged a number of state electoral vote reports and thereby triggered for each state challenged two hours of debate followed by a vote.

 

The most interesting and amusing part of the beginning of this affair was the touching speech by Mitch McConnell, who, recognizing that he had lost control of the Senate, suddenly discovered his inner patriotism and gave a heartwarming defense of the supposedly purely formal procedure. It led me to believe that McConnell was positioning himself to retain some fraction of his now much diminished power by indicating his readiness to work “across the aisle” in a way that has eluded him for the past 12 years.

 

Then Secret Service agents hustled in to lead the vice president away and all hell broke loose. I assume everyone reading these words knows as well as I and perhaps better what then happened. I will just make a few comments on aspects of the entire affair that struck me particularly strongly.

 

First of all and quite remarkably, it is now part of the mainstream consensus gentium that had the mob been black the response would have been totally different. Since I have spent much of the last 25 years of my life arguing and saying in print some version of this, always aware that my opinions put me on the fringe, it was quite an experience to discover that I was now firmly located in the mainstream. Joy Reed even redeemed herself in my eyes with an impassioned statement of this previously unacceptable truth without the slightest hedging or compromise on her part.

 

I get the sense that this affair has significantly weakened the Republican Party. There was unfortunately some loss of life – the latest report I have heard is that four people were killed. But the whole business could have been a very great deal worse.

 

I have no idea what we can anticipate from the last 13 days of Trump’s presidency. I do hope a lot of people go to jail for this and not just the little people but that may be too much to hope for.

 

My most fervent hope is that I can get a little sleep. I have discovered that at the age of 87 I can no longer pull all nighters with impunity.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

I JUST FUND OUT

 Bernie will be the chair of the Senate Budget  Committee.  :-)

YES!

 YES!  YES!!  YES!!!


I stayed up five hours past my usual bedtime until it was clear that the Democrats would win both Senate seats in Georgia. God bless Stacy Abrams. There will be more than enough time in the next two years to complain bitterly about everything that the Democrats fail to do, but this morning is for celebration.

Monday, January 4, 2021

YOU MIGHT WANT TO RECONSIDER YOUR CRITICISM OF ME :)

A few days ago, after observing that Ted Cruz went to Harvard Law School and Josh Hawley went to Yale Law School, I made a snarky remark about the Ivy League. Several of you were quick to question my animadversions. I just heard Anthony Scaramucci, who has now become all anti-Trump, remark that he had taken Lawrence Tribe's constitutional law class at Harvard several years after Ted Cruz did.


I rest my case, hem hem.


By the way, Hawley clerked for Chief Justice Roberts and Cruz clerked for Chief Justice Rehnquist. Do you suppose they both belong to Mensa?

Sunday, January 3, 2021

MEA CULPA

It is now clear that if the Republicans had the votes in the House and the Senate they would simply cancel the results of the election and install Trump in the White House for another four years.

 

Rather late in life, thus, I realize that I have spent the last 70 years and more simply taking for granted the fundamental procedural processes of American government. I have been aware all my life of the many ways in which, either legally or illegally, Democrats and Republicans have suppressed the vote, stolen votes, distorted vote totals, and in myriad other ways twisted and gamed the political system for their benefit. But I freely confess that it never occurred to me that the elected representatives sitting in the House and the Senate would, if they had the votes, simply cancel a national election.

 

Since I am of course well aware of this sort of thing having happened in other countries, this shows that at some very deep level, despite my published rejections to the contrary, I have bought into the myth of American exceptionalism. It is a sad and humbling recognition and I have not yet fully integrated it into my understanding of the American political situation, but I am trying.

 

The people I disagree with have all the guns, and at my age I probably could not shoot straight anyway.  Hence violence is not for me a viable option. I am left with the necessity of relying on such institutions as have shown themselves, at least for the present, resistant to the dictatorial inclinations of the Republican Party. Fortunately both the courts and the military have proved reliable, although how long they will continue to be so it is impossible to predict.

 

Some of you will, no doubt, expressed surprise or scorn that I could have been so naïve. So be it. For someone as naturally optimistic as myself, it is a sad realization to come to at the age of 87. 

Friday, January 1, 2021

THE PITS

I have always found the eight days between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day to be the absolute pits. Nothing is open, the usual TV shows are not on, the amount of daylight is at its smallest of the year, and between Christmas and New Year's Eve comes my birthday. The Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association used to meet and perhaps still does meet on December 27 – 29th which meant that it was always on my birthday so I might as well amuse myself if not my readers by telling again my favorite story about the APA.


It must have been in 1952 or maybe 1953 that the APA met in New York and since I was home from college for the holidays I went. I was standing around with a group of Harvard philosophy department graduate students desperately trying to look older than I was when the great man himself – Willard Van Orman Quine – walked up and greeted us. He looked around the circle and then said to me, "well, Wolff, you must be the youngest person here." I wanted the earth that open up and swallow me. He went on, "Good to see you here. The sooner you start coming to these things, the sooner you will realize they are not worth coming to." Then he walked away.


I think that was the same meeting at which I made the remarkable discovery that actual people wrote the books that we were reading in our courses. I was wandering around aimlessly when I saw a man leaning up against the wall just standing. He had a name tag on and I edged closer to see what it said. The name tag read "Wilfrid Sellars." I had just finished taking a course in which we read some things in a collection edited by Hospers and Sellars and strange as it may seem, it had not occurred to me that those were actual human beings.  It was a revelation.


Well, as you can tell, I am just doing what musicians call vamping till ready. Even my walk this morning on a dark and drizzly New Year's morning did not provide me with anything of interest to say. It is now four days until the Georgia senatorial elections and although the turnout figures are promising I am steeling myself to discover that the Republicans have salvaged control of the Senate.


One final thought that did occur to me as I walked. Commentators always say that Ted Cruz is smart because he went to Harvard Law school. Now they are saying that Josh Hawley is smart because he went to Stanford and Yale law school. I think it is about time that we take these and other similar facts as establishing that going to an Ivy League school is not in fact evidence of great intelligence.