My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Friday, December 30, 2022


Those of you who live in America have no doubt heard about the curious case of George Santos, the newly elected Republican representative from Long Island who appears to have lied about every single element in his biography. I reflected that I have only known one real pathological liar in my life. In the summer of 1953, after I graduated from Harvard, I got a job as a counselor at Camp Winamac, an eight week sleep away camp in the Berkshires. One of the little boys in my cottage was an odd sort who lied about everything. He lied about where he was from, what his parents did, whether he had brothers and sisters, and everything else. He did not seem to do it for any purpose, to gain status or rebut criticism or to claim abilities that he did not have. He simply lied all the time. It was weird and a little creepy. It looks to me as though George Santos may be one of those peculiar characters.

Thursday, December 29, 2022


I remain mesmerized by the prospect of chaos in the House of Representatives next Tuesday when the new Congress meets, is sworn in, and attempts to choose a Speaker. There will be 434 representatives (the fourth Virginia district is vacant because of the death of the recently reelected Democrat and will be filled on February 21 in the special election that will almost certainly be won by the Democrats.)


What will happen next Tuesday? There are two possibilities: the first is that between now and then Kevin McCarthy manages to find something he has not already given to the crazies in his party that will win one or more of the five holdouts to his side. The prospect of that happening is, so far as I can tell, rather dim. The second possibility is that McCarthy, Hakim Jeffries, and Andy Biggs be nominated. Jeffries will get 212 votes, Biggs will get five votes or possibly more, and McCarthy will fall short of the 218 he needs. At that point, another vote will be held (apparently almost immediately.)


There then seem to be three possibilities: McCarthy will succeed in bribing one of the five holdouts – perhaps by reinstating the old rule that a single member of the House can at any time call for a vote on vacating the chair. The second possibility is that everybody will vote the same in the second round as in the first. The third possibility, if one is to believe the rumors, is that someone will nominate Steve Scalise. At that point, I imagine, Biggs will withdraw and a vote will be held. Jeffries will still get 212 votes, Scalise will get some number – 50, 75, 100, who knows – and McCarthy will get the rest. No one will have 218 and yet another vote be called.


I do not think McCarthy is going to bow out and support Scalise. What is more, my guess is that McCarthy has at least four loyalists plus himself who will block Scalise from getting the required 218. At this point, all bets are off. The Democrats are sitting there with an enormous block of 212 votes, and very quietly, guided by the wisdom and experience of Nancy Pelosi, Jeffries will be meditating about whether there is some move the Democrats can make.


There are 19 Republicans who won their seats in districts that Biden carried in the presidential election. They are not likely to want a total crazy as Speaker.  Furthermore, we must remember that the Speaker does not have to be a member of the House. I simply have no idea how this is going to play out, but remember, until a Speaker is chosen, committee chairs cannot be appointed and so Jim Jordan cannot launch his 24 hour a day investigation of Hunter Biden.


My plans for January 3 include a supply of candied popcorn and a soft cushion.


Marc Susselman writes:  “Prof. Wolff, I don’t want to be a nag, but I have raised this question several times, and it is one of the big questions to which you have alluded in the past: On what basis does one decide on what side one should be on? If one does not deduce it syllogistically, and one does not intuit it, how does one make that decision, and if it is based on one’s gut feeling, how does that differ from intuiting it?”


I hesitated to respond to this question because I have talked about it so often in the past but if you wish, I shall repeat here what I have said in various ways and in various places.


Let me begin almost 60 years ago. When I wrote In Defense of Anarchism in the summer of 1965 (not published until five years later) I assumed without much thought the truth of Kant’s claim that there is a fundamental principle of morality knowable by reason alone and valid for all moral agents as such. Having been hired by Columbia to teach ethical theory, I lectured each year on the subject, devoting considerable attention to Kant’s great work the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Having found – or so I believed – an argument in the First Critique for the causal maxim, I searched in vain in the bowels of the Groundwork for an argument for the validity a priori of the fundamental principle of morality.


In the spring of 1968, when I was traveling to New Brunswick twice a week to teach as a visitor at Rutgers University (it was there that Marc studied with me), students at Columbia occupied several buildings to protest both Columbia war work and her plan to take a portion of Morningside Park to build a new gym which would not be open to the residents of Harlem (protests that I strongly and publicly supported.) The next semester, I was back to lecturing on ethical theory, struggling unsuccessfully with the Groundwork. One day (a story I have often told) a student in the class who had been active in the building occupations stopped me after class to ask why it was so important to me to find that argument in Kant. I answered that if I could not find such an argument, then I would not know what to do. As I have often reported, he looked at me rather like a parent looking at a much loved but not very bright child, and said “first you must decide which side you are on. Then you will be able to figure out what to do.”


At the time, I dismissed this as undergraduate ignorance and continued my fruitless quest for an argument in Kant’s writings that would support his claims for his fundamental moral principle. Eventually, five years later, I published a commentary on the Groundwork in which I acknowledged my inability to find a satisfactory argument in Kant’s writings.


As the years went by, I came to recognize the deep wisdom of the undergraduate’s observation. I came to the conclusion that each of us in life is confronted with a choice – not a conceptual problem, but a choice. Each of us must decide which side he or she is on. This is a genuine life choice, not a temporary substitute while we search for an argument. Am I on the side of the exploited or on the side of the exploiters? Am I on the side of the oppressed or on the side of the oppressors?


The unavoidable and stark reality of this choice was brought home to me forcefully in my 1986 visit to South Africa. During my six weeks there, teaching the thought of Karl Marx to undergraduates at the University of the Witwatersrand, I traveled one day to Pretoria and had dinner that evening with Koos Pau, a professor of philosophy at Rand Afrikans Universitat (RAU).  Pau was on leave from his professorship to serve as the number three man in the education division of the apartheid government. He was intelligent, well read, knowledgeable – rather like a sophisticated Nazi. It was obvious to me that there was no argument I could give to persuade him that he was on the wrong side of the barricade and it was equally obvious, in South Africa at that time, that which side you were on was the most important decision you could make.


So it is, that for the last half-century or so I have embraced the view that one’s fundamental political commitments are a matter of life choice, not philosophical argument. I am sure there are many reading this you will find what I say unsatisfactory and who will insist that if I have no better argument than that, then I really have no argument at all.


So be it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022


Thank you all for your birthday wishes. They warmed my heart.

As I look back over my long life, I find that I have spent most of my time thinking about eight or ten big questions, to which I return again and again. The first big question I tackled was my attempt to find a straightforward, coherent argument in the Critique of Pure Reason that began with a premise that David Hume could not consistently deny and led by simple logical steps to a proof of the causal maxim. I found that argument, at least in a form that satisfied me, a little less than sixty-three years ago and set it forth three years later in my first book, Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity.


One of the earliest questions to which I have not found a satisfactory answer to this day can be stated simply in this fashion: Given the world as it is, not as we wish it would be, what ought the foreign policy of the United States to be? It is easy enough to criticize what the United States does and to call out the hypocrisy of its public pronouncements. I did that publicly for the first time almost 62 years ago when I chaired a Cuba Protest Rally at Harvard (an event that got somewhat less local attention than I had hoped because it coincided with a student protest of Harvard’s decision to print its diplomas in English rather than in Latin,) and I have been doing it ever since. That takes very little knowledge or courage or thought. But then when I ask myself, What ought the foreign policy of the United States to be? I find myself torn and uncertain.


I am not asking what minor tweaks or adjustments in America’s foreign policy I would like to see a Democratic administration make. Nor am I interested once more in assigning blame – Lord knows there is plenty to go around. No, I am asking a deeper and more difficult question: given all the facts on the ground as they are, and leaving entirely to one side the possibility of actually putting such a policy into effect, what ideally should the foreign policy of the United States be right now?


Speaking broadly, I can see three possibilities. The first is what I think of as the Luxembourg or Swiss policy: the United States could withdraw all its troops back within its borders, dramatically reduce the size of its military budget, withdraw from all “entangling alliances,” and as it were mind its own business. If countries want to invade one another, engage in extensive slaughter, deny the rights of women or gays, or Christians, or Jews, or Muslims, or Hindus, overthrow democratic regimes and replace them with autocratic regimes and do all manner of other evil things, that is their own business so long as they do not threaten the territory of the United States and its citizens.


The second possibility is what I think of as the modern Monroe doctrine: United States carves out a portion of the world – let us say, North, Central, and South America, and declares that so long as the rest of the world keeps its hands of this territory, it can do as it wishes.


The third possibility would be some form of progressive militaristic interventionism: using the enormous military power of the United States for what I think of as good rather than what I think of as evil.


As I say, it is easy to expose the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the US government in all of its Democratic and Republican iterations. But doing that does not answer the question, What ought our foreign policy and military policy to be?


I simply do not know what I think.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022


Today I enter on my ninetieth year, which is to say I am eighty-nine. There are number of things I want to say, but first things first. When I created this blog many years ago, I put a rather dorky picture of myself on it. There is a better picture of me on my Wikipedia page – it makes me look rather like an old KGB operative. Well, I trimmed my beard this morning and here is what I look like at the age of eighty-nine.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022


I have always hated this time of year, an endless series of four-day weekends and forced jollity. As I approach my 89th birthday in just six days, I have taken to protecting myself by meditating on three upcoming events in which I shall take a great and mean-spirited pleasure: Kevin McCarthy’s hopeless struggle to become Speaker of the House, the report of the special grand jury to the Fulton County DA in Georgia, which with any luck will lead to the indictment of Trump, and the coming to fruition of the Justice Department’s investigation of the stolen classified documents case. These are terrible times and one must take one’s pleasures where one finds them.

Saturday, December 17, 2022


At first, I proposed teaching a graduate course in the UNC philosophy department called “The Use and Abuse of Formal Methods in Political Philosophy.” The department said they did not have the money for such a course, so I suggested a series of non-credit lectures in the department this spring. There was a good deal of interest in that idea, but then the question arose of finding me a handicap accessible room and a graduate student who could assist me with various technical matters. A student volunteered, but all the room assignments are frozen until after the first week of the semester in January. I do not yet know whether I will be able to offer the lectures.

So I sit and wait.

Friday, December 16, 2022


 Oh well, I must be getting old.

Thursday, December 15, 2022



Reflections on



Paul Guyer

Robert Paul Wolff

Department of Philosophy

University of Massachusetts at Amherst



            Readers of the Critical Philosophy are well aware - I find myself inclined to say painfully aware - of Kant's penchant for issuing teleological judgments couched in the late scholastic language of faculty psychology. The Critical Writings are filled with assertions that Nature dictates such and such purposes for Productive Imagination, or that Reason in its Practical Employment has an interest in this or that. At times, Kant multiplies faculties of the mind like a mad phrenologist driven to feats of hypostatization by an unusually bumpy skull.

Accompanying these statements, which are legion, are dogmatic claims about the systematic completeness of the Critical Philosophy, which, Kant tells us repeatedly, is one of its distinguishing marks. Kant frequently construes the supposed completeness of his system as an evidence of its truth, as when he says, in the opening paragraph of the Transcendental Analytic, that 'The completeness and articulation of [the system of pure concepts] can at the same time yield a criterion of the correctness and genuineness of all its components.' [A6S=B90]

How, as critical, philosophically engaged readers, ought we to interpret such claims as these? How ought we to respond to them? At the outset, we can, I think, assert with absolute confidence that Kant intended to make such claims, believed them - at least in some sense of belief - and in fact set great store by them. He would have reacted quite negatively to the suggestion that they are, one and all, illegitimate echoes of a philosophical tradition which he, more than any other single author, devastatingly and permanently discredited. Nevertheless, that is patently the truth.

Consider, for example, the following passage, taken from the second paragraph of The Regulative Employment of the Ideas of Pure Reason, the portion of the CRITIQUE from which Professor Guyer draws the preponderance of his citations.

Everything that has its basis in the nature of our powers must be appropriate to, and consistent with, their right employment - if only we can guard against a certain misunderstanding and so can discover the proper direction of these powers. We are entitled, therefore, to suppose that transcendental ideas have their good, proper, and therefore immanent use, although when their meaning is misunderstood, and they are taken for concepts of real things, they become transcendent in their application and for that very reason can be delusive. [A643=B671]

On its face, this passage is doub1y absurd - first, by virtue of its invocation of a quite groundless teleology, and second by its reliance on a classification of powers or faculties of the mind for which Kant can offer no justification whatsoever.

I take it this harsh judgment would find widespread acceptance today, but it might be worth recollecting just what is wrong with faculty psychology in its teleological mode. The problem with discourse about faculties of the mind is that we have no direct access to those faculties that would allow us to identify them, differentiate them, and ascertain their normal, not to say their appropriate, functions. I can get at the liver and the kidneys, either by physical examination, by x-ray, or by autopsy. I can observe their functioning, and draw conclusions about what they do in the body, and even - in some not entirely indefensible sense - about what they are 'supposed' or 'intended' to do - this latter a harmless teleology that can be cashed either by the medical notion of healthy functioning or by the evolutionary notion of adaptability.

But neither Kant nor we can obtain direct access to the Understanding, the Imagination, Reason, Judgment, or Sensibility. Hence these titles can legitimately be employed only as the empty names of the loci of certain observable, or inferrable, activities, capacities, powers, or functions of the mind. In the CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON, Kant almost always recognizes this fact. When he observes, or infers, two activities of the mind whose structures differ, he imputes them, appropriately to two distinct faculties. In some passages, Kant explicitly recognizes that faculties are merely place-holders for activities, as in the First Edition Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding, when he remarks that 'The unity of apperception in relation to the synthesis of imagination is the understanding' - a statement which is puzzling until we realize that it means: The Understanding is the empty name we assign to whatever faculty of the mind it is that brings the manifold or diversity of sense materials to the unity of apperception by means of the synthetic activity which we arbitrarily impute to Imagination.

In the central argument of the FIRST CRITIQUE, I can think of only one place where Kant relies illegitimately on his faculty psychologizing - namely, in the Metaphysical Deduction, when he argues, in backwards fashion, that the forms of unity in synthesis must correspond to the forms of unity in judgment because both judging and synthesizing are activities of the Understanding [A79=B105-6].

The teleological utterances are equally unacceptable. Faculties of the mind, even if we were able to locate them directly, could only be assigned purposes if we imagined them to be the products of a purposeful creator.

My own view is that we students of Kant must master this aspect of the Critical Philosophy - must, in William S. Gilbert's immortal words, learn up all the germs of the transcendental terms - that we must become entirely clear on the role that a teleology of mental faculties plays in the CRITIQUE and the other works of the Kantian corpus - and that we must then set it to one side as virtually without philosophical merit or promise. In short, it has always seemed to me that Kant's ebullient elaboration of the architectonic in all it effulgent complexity has no more intellectual importance than Berkeley's discourse on the virtues of tar water or Newton's fascination with astrology.

Professor Guyer, with what I can only regard as heroic patience, has chosen to take a different tack. Provoked - if that is the word - by Kant's decision to reassign the ideal of systematicity from the faculty of pure theoretical reason to the faculty of reflective judgment - a decision, one would have thought, as fraught with philosophical significance as the telephone company's decision to reassign its subscribers in the city of Worcester to the 508 area code - he undertakes, by a painstaking review of Kant's remarks on systematicity, to extract from it a philosophically interesting conclusion. It is a testimony to the acuteness of his philosophical insight and the masterfulness of his scholarship that he is moderately successful. When one is squeezing blood from a stone, a few drops will suffice. One does not expect a transfusion.

The central question, as Professor Guyer quite properly insists, is whether Kant can produce some argument for the claim that complete systematicity of the natural laws produced by the understanding is a condition of the possibility of subjective consciousness. If Kant could plausibily maintain that we cannot even be conscious unless our experience is sufficiently regular to ground the search for systematic unity, then he could cash the teleological assertions about tasks set for Reason by Nature in a genuinely interesting way.

Professor Guyer and I disagree about whether Kant has something resembling a cogent argument for the claim that subjective consciousness presupposes a synthesis governed by the a priori rules labelled the categories. But we are, I take it, in complete agreement that regardless of the status of the argument of the Deduction, Kant cannot plausibly ground analogous claims for the Ideal of systematic unity of the totality of our knowledge of nature. Nevertheless, as is so often the case when one is puzzling over the Critical Philosophy, Kant manages to raise philosophically interesting questions even in the least promising precincts of his conceptual terrain. What is at stake in this issue of systematicity?

As I understand Professor Guyer, he thinks there are two things. The first is the relation of the Causal Maxim, which Kant attempts to establish in the argument culminating with the Second Analogy, to particular causal laws. The Second Analogy asserts, in effect, that there must be valid causal laws to be found which assert necessary connections among the events that constitute the experienced world. But the proof - assuming for the moment that it is sound - is not constructive. That is to say, at best it demonstrates the existence of causal laws, but does not specify procedures for identifying them. Kant does not, in fact, have much to say about the problems of justifying induction and grounding scientific explanation that have occupied philosophers of science during the past century and a half. Nor does he ever make clear in what way the synthesizing activity of the understanding confers necessity on particular scientific judgments. We know from the Introduction to the METAPHYSICAL PRINCIPLES OF NATURAL SCIENCE that he thought all true science must be mathematical in form, and that might encourage us to impute to Kant some version of the story that scientific theories are uninterpreted formal systems which, as a whole, have been set in relation to the world. Thus, the discussion of systematicity might be construed as an attempt to specify the criteria by which we can identify the correct structure of scientific laws.

If that is in fact what Kant had in mind, then it seems to me not at all a bad move on his part. The effort in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to produce a logic of induction that could justify individual causal judgments by appeal to bodies of observational reports proved less promising, in the end, than the alternative idea of treating formally organized systems of scientific laws as the units to be justified or rejected.

The second issue that Guyer sees Kant as raising is how to justify the heuristic or methodological principles of scientific inquiry. Why ought we to construe the unification of previously disjoint bodies of scientific laws as an advance in our understanding of nature? Why is it a step forward for Newton to identify a single set of premises from which both the laws of terrestrial motion and the laws of celestial motion can be derived? Was it scientifically appropriate for Einstein to devote the latter part of his life to a search for a unified field theory uniting Relativity Theory with the theory of electro-magnetic phenomena, a major goal of contemporary physics? And, more fundamentally still, what ground, if any, do we have for supposing that such unifications are waiting to be achieved?

Something that looks curiously similar to the Kantian theme of conditions of the possibility of experience has surfaced recently in the cosmological speculations of such theoretical physicists as Stephen Hawking. In his recent book, A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, Hawking repeatedly invokes what modern physicists call the 'weak anthropic principle.' Hawking writes:

The weak anthropic principle states that in a universe that is large or infinite in space and/or time, the conditions necessary for the development of intelligent life will be met only in certain regions that are limited in space and time, The intelligent beings in these regions should therefore not be surprised if they observe that their locality in the universe satisfies the conditions that are necessary for their existence.

Somewhat later, discussing what is now called string theory, Hawking again invokes the anthropic principle to explain why only four of the ten or twenty-six dimensions required by the theory are actually flattened out into what we call space-time, rather than being curved in upon themselves into a space of very tiny size. The answer, he suggests, lies in the laws governing gravitational attractions between bodies. In three dimensions, the attraction between two bodies is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. In four dimensions, it is inversely proportional to the cube, in five dimensions to the fourth power, and so forth.

'The significance of this,' Hawking exp1ains, 'is that the orbits of planets, like the earth, around the sun would be unstable: the least disturbance from a circular orbit ••• would result in the earth spiraling away from or into the sun. In fact, the same behavior of gravity with distance in more than three space dimensions means that the sun would not be able to exist in a stable state with pressure balancing gravity. It would either fall apart or it would collapse to form a black hole••• On a smaller scale, the electrical forces that cause the electrons to orbit round the nucleus in an atom would behave in the same way as gravitational forces. Thus the electrons would either escape from the atom altogether or would spiral into the nucleus. In either case, one could not have atoms as we know them.

It seems clear then that life, at least as we know it, can exist only in regions of space-time in which one time and three space dimensions are not curled up small.

                                                            [Hawking, pp. 164-5]

This talk of curled up dimensions and black holes may seem a far cry from Kant's concerns with systematicity, but perhaps we can see the anthropic principle as a descendant of the Critical Philosophy's central theme, which is that reflections on the conditions of the possibility of knowledge in general yield at least conditionally a prior conclusions about the requisite structure of an acceptable theory of nature.


My younger son, Tobias, stopped by with his little dog Spark on their way driving back to Palm Springs. It was a great treat to spend the day with him. As I look back over my long life, I can say with confidence that the best thing I ever did was to contribute my bit to the creation and raising of Patrick and Tobias. Everything else dwindles into insignificance.

Thursday, December 8, 2022


 (I refer readers to the second season of Star Trek.)  So now two more documents marked "classified" have turned up in a storage locker owned by Donald Trump.


When I got up in the middle of the night, as I often do, I read on my phone that the New York Times employees union was calling a strike. They asked readers in support of their efforts not to do the daily crossword puzzle or WORDLE puzzle online.  This is one of the greatest sacrifices I have ever been called on to make but my convictions are firm and I know which side of the barricade I stand on so, gritting my teeth, I have complied.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022


On January 3, 2023 I presume that Nancy Pelosi will have the speaker's gavel until a new speaker is elected. If Republicans cannot get their act together and days go by without anybody winning the Speaker's position, does she remain in the chair for all of that time?  What powers if any does she exercise at that time?


About 57 years ago or so, I passed through London on my way home to New York from a conference in Italy and spent an evening visiting Ernest Gellner and his family in their cottage south of London (I knew Gellner because in the 50s, when he was visiting Harvard, he briefly dated my sister.) It turned out that the day I spent with Gellner was election day in England so we sat in his cottage and watched the results come in on television. I knew absolutely nothing about English politics and had never heard of any of the candidates but I was mesmerized, as I always am, by election results. I have no idea why they fascinate me but they always have.


Yesterday evening, I stayed up well past my bedtime watching the results of the runoff election in Georgia until finally, at about 11:30 PM, MSNBC and CNN called the race for Warnock.  I have not had so much fun in a very long time. It was made all the more delicious by the fact that earlier in the same day a jury found the Trump organization guilty on all counts in the civil trial in New York City. Generally speaking I am in despair about what is happening in the United States so I have to take my pleasures where I find them and yesterday was a really good day.


Now, on to the indictment of Trump.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022


Andrew sent me a picture of his car with the passenger side window broken. The caption to the picture read "Awful day today.   I had two volumes of the works of Hegel in my car and someone broke in and left two more."

You got to love him!


I should like to make a few speculative comments about the case argued before the Supreme Court yesterday or the day before. Since I have no knowledge of the law whatsoever save what my son, Tobias, has explained to me on occasion, my comments have no particular weight. Perhaps Marc Susselman or someone else can comment.


Suppose I am a devout Catholic who wants to start a bookstore. I decide that I will not carry in the bookstore any books listed on the index librorum prohibitorum.  A customer enters my shop and asks for a copy of Samuel Richardson’s famous novel Pamela. I reply that I do not carry that book because it is prohibited by the Catholic Church. Does he have a complaint against me? Of course not. Suppose I am a portrait painter and I open a shop that offers to paint portraits of customers dressed as saints, with halos and crosses hanging around their necks. An atheist enters the shop and asks to have his portrait painted, but says that he does not want the halo and the cross.  I reply that I do not do portraits of that sort. Does he have a complaint against me? Of course not. Suppose he responds, “Very well, I like your portraits so much that I am willing to have you paint me with the halo and the cross.” Do I have a right to refuse to paint him on the grounds that he is not a believing Catholic? No. I have a right to specify the way in which I will paint him but I do not have a right to refuse to paint him even though he is willing to have me follow my announced and customary fashion, simply because I disapprove of him on religious grounds.


Suppose that I want to open a business in which I design websites for weddings. I specify that although these websites can vary in a variety of fashions according to the desires of the customers, all websites will on every page of the site carry the statement “the designer of this website believes that same-sex marriages are against the will of God and therefore are sinful.” Do I have a right to do this? Of course I do, just as I have a right to open a bookstore that only sells books that are not on the Catholic index. Suppose a gay couple comes to my shop and says “we want you to design our website for our wedding, and even though we are a gay couple, we like your website so much we are willing to have each page of the website say 'the designer of this website believes that same-sex marriages are against the will of God and therefore are sinful'.”  Do I have a right to refuse to create a website for them even though they accept the fact that I will put on each page the statement that I consider their wedding to be sinful and against the will of God? No, I do not.





Monday, December 5, 2022


Are others as struck as I am by the cognitive dissonance between the happy cheerful smiling faces of the people advertising a variety of medicines and drugs on television and the somber voice underneath it all describing the horrific side effects that may result from using the substance? I am delighted that the manufacturers are required by law to include these warnings but I wonder what effect they have.All

Sunday, December 4, 2022


This is,to put it mildly, a strange time. Enormous and possibly significant popular protests in China and Iran, the largest active volcano in the world errupting, Republicans unable to figure out what to do with the tiny majority they have won in the House of Representatives, and a former president and leading candidate for the presidency in 2024 dines with someone who loves Hitler and then, in reaction to an obscure report about Twitter, says that the U.S. Constitution should be abrogated so that he can be appointed to the presidency forthwith.

Completely unable to find anything intelligent to say about these various developments, I took refuge this morning as I so often do in my own words (hence the reference to Mr. Toad.)  I read once again my unpublished 14 page comment on a conference I attended many years ago on Kant and the law. It is, I think, one of the funniest things I have ever written and if you have nothing better to do on a lazy Sunday I recommend it to you. Its title is "Why, Indeed?" and it can be found in the collection of "My Stuff" by following the link at the top of this page.

Friday, December 2, 2022


Napoleon famously said, "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."  I am just going to sit here quietly and watch the Republican Party self-destruct. My guess is Nancy Pelosi has advised her caucus to do the same. What with the world going to hell in a hand basket, there is not much fun these days so you have to take the amusement where you find it.

Thursday, December 1, 2022


As readers of this blog know, I have an older sister, Barbara, who lives in a Continuing Care Retirement Community in Southern California much like the one in which I live here in North Carolina. Barbara is 3 ½ years older than I am so I think of her as my big sister, even though she is now even shorter than I am. Barbara went to school before I did, of course, and when she came home she would want to play school, with her as the teacher. Since I was the only little kid around, I was the pupil and so it was that she taught me to read. Along with all of her other accomplishments, Barbara was a great dancer and when I got to be 12 or 13 she taught me the Foxtrot and the Lindy Hop.


Well, eighty years or so have passed, and she is still teaching me things I need to know. Yesterday, through the miracle of FaceTime, I spent 40 minutes talking to Barbara about this and that. Barbara has for some time been in a wheelchair and she has regular caregivers, who come to her apartment to help her.  As my Parkinson’s gets worse, I am forced to face the fact that at some point I will need the help of caregivers to manage my life, especially so that I can continue to look after my wife. I am, to be honest, somewhat humiliated by this fact and also resistant to it. I cannot figure out quite how it would help to have someone in the apartment a certain number of hours each week since the things with which I need help seem scattered throughout the day and more or less random in their occurrence. I asked Barbara how she handled having caregivers and patiently, slowly, she explained it to me.


This is a dance quite as challenging as the Lindy Hop and I am grateful once more to have a big sister to teach me how to do it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022


I have just learned that In Defense of Anarchism will be translated into Arabic and published in Kuwait.  I guess it is too much to hope that it will be translated into Farsi and published in Iran.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022


One of the continuing challenges in teaching is to figure out what your students do not know. Especially when teaching graduate students, this is difficult because graduate students have learned to put on their game faces and pretend to understand everything, hoping desperately that what they do not understand will be explained along the way without their having to acknowledge that they are mystified. I watch a good deal of cable news and I am struck by how often the “experts” who appear on those shows completely fail to understand what the audience does and does not know. Let me give you some recent examples.


Yesterday, I was listening to a well-known newspaper reporter talk about something she learned through a “foyer” request. I knew that “foyer” or “foya” is the way that the acronym FOIA is pronounced. I also knew that the letters FOIA stand for Freedom of Information Act, a federal law that for almost half a century has made government records available to ordinary citizens. I knew that, and of course everybody on the show knows that, but I would be willing to bet that 80% or 90% of the viewers did not know that and therefore did not really understand what the newspaper reporter was talking about. What is more, it simply never occurred to the host of the show to take 10 seconds to explain it so that the viewers would know what was being talked about.


Here is another example, which I will flesh out with my own made up explanation. Whenever defense or intelligence experts appear on a show to talk about the classified documents that Trump took to Mar-a-Lago with him, they make reference to the possibility that these documents will compromise “sources and methods.” Since this phrase reappears so often in the discussions on television, I assume it is a standard expression used by people who spend their life dealing with government secrets of one sort or another. But the phrase is never explained and therefore it is never clear to ordinary listeners like me exactly how Trump’s having those documents could compromise “sources and methods.” I thought about it for a while and I came up with the following hypothetical example.


Suppose some branch of our government is trying to keep track of who is in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle of advisors. This is important, we may suppose, for getting some insight into his plans regarding the war in Ukraine. Imagine that one of our spies in Moscow, masquerading as a McDonald’s hamburgers executive, learns of some low-level nobody whose job it is to bring tea and coffee and snacks to Putin when he is meeting with people in his office. This nonentity sits in the pantry until a buzzer tells him to get up, pick up a tray, and bring the snacks into Putin’s office. He does so without saying a word and leaves, and he has been doing this every day for years. Our spy somehow gets to this nobody and persuades him to keep track of the people he sees there and report any changes. Some while later, after the information has been passed back to CIA headquarters in Langley, an analyst writes a memorandum calling attention to the fact that there has been a change in the circle of Putin’s closest advisers. He does not say where the information comes from, simply that it is well confirmed.


If one of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago guests manages to take a picture of this document surreptitiously when it sits in Trump’s desk drawer and passes the picture back to Moscow, folks there pretty quickly can figure out that the information must come from one of only three or four people who have regular access to Putin’s inner office.  Our “sources” have been compromised.


This would take only a few moments to explain to several million viewers, who would then have a much clearer idea of why experts are so exercised by the fact that Trump took these documents and kept them in an insecure fashion.


Here is a third example. Senate rules dictate that if the Democrats and Republicans each have 50 senators, then all committees have equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, which makes it very difficult for the Democrats to issue subpoenas and also very difficult to get Biden’s judicial and other nominees through committee to the floor of the Senate. If Warnock wins, that will not change control of the Senate, but it will dramatically change what the Democrats can do with their control. This is not rocket science and has actually been mentioned once or twice on cable news shows that I have watched but most of the time the commentators talk as though nothing major is at stake in the runoff as the Democrats already have 50 senators.

Monday, November 21, 2022


Seven years ago, in 2015, I did a deep dive into the rules governing the allocation of Republican Party convention delegates in the different states, and demonstrated on this blog that if Donald Trump could get a steady 30 – 35% of the voters in the various primaries, he would win enough delegates to secure the nomination even without the so-called “superdelegates” allocated by Republican Party rules. I am not aware that any of the states have made significant changes to their rules, which essentially gives the winner of a primary all or most of the delegates. It is my impression, although only that, that Trump can reasonably expect to command at least 1/3 of the delegates in the upcoming primaries for the 2024 election. If, as seems likely, as many as a dozen candidates announce their candidacy, then unless Ron DeSantis can actually secure more than half of the delegates not committed to Trump in the early primaries, Trump will start to build up what will appear to be an unbeatable lead in delegate commitments. The anti-Trump forces in the Republican Party could forestall such an event by all combining behind a single non-Trump candidate, but we know that will not happen.


By the way, being in jail is not an obstacle to running for president. Just ask Eugene Victor Debs, five-time nominee of the Socialist party in the first part of the 20th century, who ran for president the fifth time in 1920 while in jail and got 3 million votes.


Sunday, November 20, 2022


For those who did not recognize the passage quoted by Fritz Poebel in his comment, you will find it in the second paragraph of the Introduction to David Hume’s great work A Treatise of Human Nature. I have long believed that Hume is the greatest philosopher to write in the English language. I first studied the Treatise in the fall of 1951 and love to return to it from time to time.


Well, well, well. Samuel Alito has been outed as having leaked an important Supreme Court decision 10 years ago. John Roberts must be beside himself.


It occurred to me yesterday as I lay in bed thinking that this is now the 75th anniversary of an event that loomed large in my family and in my own teenage years. In 1942, the Westinghouse Corporation established something called the Science Talent Search, a nationwide competition for high school seniors which involved both a written examination and a report of an individual science project. The chair of the biology department in Forest Hills High School, Paul Brandwein, decided to make a big push for the Westinghouse in 1947–48, and my big sister Barbara was one of a number of students at Forest Hills who entered the Westinghouse. She not only did well enough in the examination to be one of the 400 students nationwide to win Honourable Mention, her research project was good enough for her to be selected as well as one of the 40 students who went to Washington DC for a week-long visit, during which the students were interviewed about their projects. (Forest Hills had four winners that year, an astonishing accomplishment.)

At the end of the week, the review committee selected one boy and one girl (that is the way they were talked about in those days) as grand national winners and Barbara was the Westinghouse grand national girl winner. She won a $2,400 scholarship, which paid for four years of tuition at Swarthmore College, from which she eventually graduated summa cum laude.


Barbara’s research project was on phenocopies in Drosophila Melanogaster, which is to say fruit flies. She conducted her research in the basement of our little house in Kew Gardens Hills but some of the critters got loose and would migrate upstairs to the dining room where they hovered in a little cloud over the dinner table each evening.


After many years, the Westinghouse Science Talent Search became the Intel Science Talent Search, and is apparently now the Regeneron Science Talent Search.  Alexandria Ocasio–Cortez was a winner of the Intel competition her senior year in high school.


As Barbara’s little brother, I was of course expected to try out for the Westinghouse as well. My first thought for a project was to take metalworking shop, make a pair of slide calipers, and go to Chinatown to measure their heads of first and second generation Chinese-Americans to see whether there was any difference. When that did not pan out, I had a go at an analysis of the flora and fauna of a pond in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.  Eventually I did some silly analytic geometry project. I did get an Honorable Mention and can still remember telling my girlfriend, Susie (now my wife), how disappointed I was. She tried to convince me that it was still something to get an Honorable Mention, but I knew better.



Saturday, November 19, 2022


In Blazing Saddles, Madeline Kahn does a spectacular send-up of Marlene Dietrich as Lili von Shtupp singing “I’m Tired.”  That is the way I feel. I am sure some of it is age and my struggle with Parkinson’s Disease, but even if I were younger and healthier, I think I would simply be weary of the endless disputes with those who are all on the same side of the great political divide as I am.


Next semester, I have offered to give a series of free lectures in the UNC Philosophy Department on “The Use and Abuse of Formal Methods in Political Philosophy,” and I hope they can be arranged.  Lord knows, those lectures will not make the world a better place, but I would find it peaceful and soothing to spend my time explaining rational choice theory and collective choice theory and Game Theory to interested graduate students. I mean, it cannot do any harm (save, perhaps, to the reputation of John Rawls, but he can survive my animadversions.)

Thursday, November 17, 2022


                                         Will Trump get the nomination?


Loyal readers of this blog with good memories will recall that seven years ago I carried out a series of speculations and calculations about the Republican nominating process based on information I found online concerning the rules of the various states for selecting delegates to the nominating conventions. The rules governing the selection of delegates in the Republican states, which I do not believe have been changed, give an outsized advantage to an individual who wins a mere plurality of the votes in primary elections. If Trump really has a 35% to 40% block of faithful supporters who vote in primaries, my guess is that he can lock up the nomination before enough people leave the field so that he is only competing against one or at most two opponents in later primaries.  If he gets the nomination, he will lose the election in a landslide. If he does not get the nomination, my guess is he will persuade enough of his supporters not to vote to throw the election to the Democrats,


Speaker of the House


You have all, I am sure, read of the problems Kevin McCarthy is having assembling 218 votes for his bid to be Speaker of the House.  He has the support of a majority of the Republican House members, but he needs all but two or three of them because the entire House votes to choose the Speaker. 


Recall that one does not have to be a member of the House of Representatives to be chosen as Speaker.  If the 214 or so Democrats in the House can pull four or five Republicans with them, they can choose someone to serve as Speaker who is not a member of the House.  Is there someone who might fill that bill?


Let me propose Liz Cheney. To be clear, Cheney’s politics are what used to be called right wing Republican, so there is no way that she would agree to serve as Speaker in order to advance a progressive legislative agenda. But she might very well be prepared to agree to use the power of the Speakership to block efforts, for example, to impeach Biden and other members of his administration.


Just a thought.




Tuesday, November 15, 2022


Sorry to have been away. I am still trying to process the unexpected results of the election. The fact that one week after the election there is still a very slender chance of the Democrats holding the House is astonishing. Considering how well the Democrats did down ballot, I think our little effort giving money to the DLCC was a good choice.


I am coming to the end of my UNC course, which will very probably be the last course I ever teach. The UNC philosophy department does not have the money to hire me in the next academic year and the limitations placed upon me by the Parkinson’s give me little hope of being able to continue beyond that time. However, I have offered to give a series of noncredit lectures next semester on Formal Methods in Political Philosophy and since I am not asking to be paid, I think it may be possible.


I think I will be here to see the 2024 election but that may be my last. I was born the year that FDR was inaugurated for the first time and had almost finished college before I saw a president who was not a Democrat. My older son, Patrick, was born shortly before Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection and I was up in the middle of the night giving Patrick a bottle and watching television in the kitchen when I heard the news that Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated.


I was in the card catalog room of Widener Library looking for a book when I noticed a little group of people gathered around a radio at the checkout desk and discovered that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.


I went to my first political rally in the fall of 1948, a Henry Wallace rally at Yankee Stadium, and when it rained ended up with my friend Johnny Brown watching a Rex Barney no-hitter in the Polo Grounds across the river.  (It is said that when Orthodox Jewish boys start to study Talmud, the teacher puts a drop of honey on the page and tells the boy to kiss it so that ever after he will associate the sweet taste of the honey with the study of Talmud.  I think seeing a no-hitter on the evening that I had intended to attend a political rally had a somewhat similar effect on me.)


Well, it is time to start preparing my lecture on Herbert Marcuse’s 1969 book, An Essay on Liberation.



Saturday, November 12, 2022


There is a good chance that the Democrats will hold the Senate and an outside chance, against all odds, that they will hold the House. The Democrats have done quite well down ballot with the little bit of financial help we gave to the DLCC. 


With only 51 senators at best, here would be little or no chance in the next two years for the Democrats to pass progressive legislation, even if they were by some miracle to hold onto the House. But there is a silver lining.


Many of the provisions in the several pieces of large social and economic legislation that the Democrats passed in the first two years of Biden’s ministration only start to kick in January 1 or even later. Meanwhile, there is reason to hope that in the next year and a half inflation will ease significantly.  So the Democrats should be well positioned to win the 2024 election.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022


I have made an important discovery about myself. I do not do well with only four hours of sleep.

I think we have a very good chance of holding the Senate and even an outside chance of holding onto the House.  That outcome would be little short of a miracle. I have had somewhat the same thought that Marc Susselman expressed about the 2024 election.  If Trump does not get the Republican nomination, I doubt that he will run as an independent candidate but he will almost certainly try to take as many of his own supporters as he can away from the Republicans and that would have the same effect.

The first item on my bucket list, as they call it, is to sit in front of my television set and see Trump led away in an orange jumpsuit.  It does not seem too much to ask for.

Next Monday I start lecturing on Marcuse.  I am not sure whether that is perfectly appropriate or wildly irrelevant. We shall see.

Now, let me take a nap…

Tuesday, November 8, 2022


While I wait for the results to come in, frozen into an immobility of apprehension, let me make one more observation about “tactical nuclear weapons.”


I assume that we are all familiar with the distinction between military strategy and tactics. Strategy may be planned with maps and sand tables, but tactics, according to long-established military wisdom, can only be learned on the battlefield. That is one reason, among others, why those who wish to rise to the rank of general are well advised, early in their careers, to command a platoon or company in battle.


Only two nuclear weapons have ever been used in battle – the two fission devices that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing several hundred thousand Japanese in two momentary flashes.  Neither of those was in any recognizable sense a battlefield use of a nuclear weapon. Several generations of military officers have enlisted, been commissioned, risen to general staff status, retired and died without any of them ever using or even reading about the use of a nuclear weapon on a battlefield.


Thus, when television commentators or military experts or even men and women in uniform talk about “low yield tactical weapons” they have no more direct knowledge whereof they speak then they would if they talked about light sabers.


Will Putin use one or more nuclear weapons in Ukraine? God, I hope not but I have no idea. However I am quite sure of one thing – neither he nor any of his generals has any real idea what a “tactical” use of such a weapon would be.

Sunday, November 6, 2022


 I thought you might find this one of historical interest.

The Farrakhan Fiasco:

The UMass Amherst Reaction to Louis Farrakhan’s Visit

Seven months ago, on March 9th, Minister Louis Farrakhan came to speak at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. An audience of roughly two thousand listened to a three hour speech that was, according to most reports, lively, informative, inspiring, and forceful.

The university administration's reaction to Farrakhan's visit can charitably be described as hysterical. A month before Minister Farrakhan was scheduled to speak, the Chancellor, David Scott, assembled most of his senior administrators and a good many faculty and staff at his home for a lengthy strategy session, after which he issued a two-page statement in which he delicately balanced his commitment to the Constitution and the ideals of free debate against what he described as the ugliness of Farrakhan's message and the pain it could confidently be expected to cause among what he tastefully referred to as certain "communities."

In the face of Farrakhan's visit, which it clearly viewed in roughly the way medieval Europe viewed the approach of the armies of Ghengis Khan, the administration mobilized the entire university. The March 4 issue of the Campus Chronicle, under the headline "Programs, Workshops Pose Counterpoint to Speech," described some of the defensive measures prompted by the impending threat to the university community: A two-week video series on the Housing Services Cable Network "spotlighting the Jewish and African-American cultures"; a workshop for faculty, teaching assistants, residence directors, and student leaders on "Leading Difficult Discussions" guided by three representatives of the Social Justice Education Program; two meetings at the offices of the university Ombud at which trained student mediators from the Multicultural Student Conflict Resolution Team would provide "an opportunity to listen to concerns, issues and feelings related to the Farrakhan speech [before the evening of the speech, note]; an afternoon lecture entitled "Talking About Race, Learning About Racism,"; a session that same afternoon on "Beyond Blacks and Jews: How Students Can Be Allies for Each Other"; another session, the next afternoon, entitled "Anti-Semitism: What's It All About"; and finally, on the night of Farrakhan's visit, a protest co-sponsored by the Newman Center, United Christian Foundation, Episcopal Chaplaincy, Hillel, and other groups.

Grant Ingle, director of the campus's Office of Human Relations, described clearly and rather revealingly the purpose of this extraordinary flurry of activity. "This isn't simply a controversial speaker coming that we have to suffer through," he said. "It's also an educational opportunity." The question explored at meetings he attended was, he said, "how can we come together as a campus in responding to a controversial speaker like Louis Farrakhan?" [Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 11,1994, p.9]

This image of the members of a university community facing a controversial speaker shoulder to shoulder, rather like wildebeest turning to confront a marauding lion, is rather startling, to say the least, as is the notion that controversy on a university campus is a trial to be "suffered through." But that is not the focus of my observations today. Nor shall I address the substance of Farrakhan's remarks, inasmuch as I did not attend his lecture, and know about it only through a partial transcript, the accounts of several of my students, and fragmentary newspaper reports.

My interest in the Farrakhan affair can be summed up in two words: Why Farrakhan? Why was the university thrown into panic by the prospect of a Farrakhan visit? Why did the entire administration, from the Chancellor on down, treat an announced lecture as a threat to the safety, the sanity, the integrity, the very life of the university community? What does this reaction tell us, not about Farrakhan, but about those who run the university? And, inasmuch as the university's reaction to Farrakhan, however bizarre, was of a piece with the reaction of many other American institutions, officials, and individuals to Minister Farrakhan, what does this affair tell us about significant segments of American society?

The administration's answer to these questions can be inferred easily enough from the opening lines of the statement issued by Chancellor Scott a month before the lecture:

The messages from Mr. Farrakhan's organization are prompting intense discussions and deep soul-searching not only among the communities which feel directly the pain of the hate and stereotypes from those messages but also among various quarters of the African American community.

It is to be expected that the same discourse and emotions would take place on our campus at the news of the impending visit of Mr. Farrakhan at the invitation of students.

But this cannot possibly be an adequate explanation of the university's reaction. It is a principle of reason widely understood and well established that what counts as a good reason in one case must count as a good reason in all relevantly similar cases. Now, there are many, many speakers whose messages cause pain to members of the university community and prompt intense discussions in various quarters - speakers who defend the theses of Sociobiology, for example; speakers who celebrate the fall of communism, or the virtues of the free market, or the Christian promise of salvation; speakers who call for "the end of welfare as we know it," or advocate the death penalty; and speakers who insult the intelligence and mock the sufferings of the poor by claiming that in a capitalist economy workers are paid a wage equal to their marginal product.

All of these speakers, and many more, prompt intense discussions and deep soul-searching among the communities which feel directly the pain of the hate and stereotypes from those messages, and yet the Chancellor is not moved by the prospect of their appearance on campus to pull up the drawbridge, lay in provisions for a siege, call emergency strategy sessions at his home, and issue statements to the university community.

My colleague, Michael Thelwell, put his finger on the essential point in a follow-up article printed by the Valley Advocate a week after Farrakhan's visit. Thelwell was asked by the Advocate reporter, "The basic question is, What is your response to the Farrakhan lecture?", and his reply was, "What is your interest in writing about this? Why are you writing about it?"

Michael was not merely being puckish, though he is perfectly capable of that. His point was that the reaction of the entire university and newspaper community to Farrakhan's visit was so disproportionate to the event as to call for an explanation. Clearly, there are certain as yet unidentified differentia that distinguish Farrakhan's visit from all others. What might they be?

The answer appears quite simple: Farrakhan had in the past made statements attacking Jews, among others, statements which others considered ugly and exaggerated. But that cannot possibly be the end of it, because countless speakers make statements that others find ugly and exaggerated.

There are in fact two reasons for the special response to Farrakhan. One of them was perfectly well understood by everyone involved in the affair, though it was not considered acceptable to mention it. The other is equally obvious, though perhaps not so readily available to the self-consciousness of most members of the UMass Amherst community.

The first reason, of course, is that there are well-organized groups of American Jews who have succeeded in getting institutions such as UMass to treat their personal concerns as politically important, regardless of any actual threat to their legally protectable interests. Neither the Nation of Islam nor any other African-American organization or grouping poses any real threat to the interests of American Jews, regardless of what their representatives may say in public speeches. The members of the UMass Amherst Jewish community who protested Farrakhan's visit have no grounds to fear that his language will be transformed into actions inimical to their interests. But they have succeeded in getting others to treat their personal distress or outrage as a fact of such public significance that an entire university campus must be mobilized to provide a context for their distaste for Farrakhan's

Contrast this situation with the reaction of those on welfare for "the end of welfare as we know it." Those statements, uttered in quite socially acceptable language by everyone from the Governor on up and down the political hierarchy constitute an immediate threat to the well-being of welfare recipients. Mothers already struggling simply to feed and clothe themselves and their children must daily face the real and imminent threat of cuts in their support payments, or even a termination of support all together. Since I am not myself a mother on welfare, I cannot pretend to speak for those who are, but an abstract consideration of the matter suggests to me that at least some mothers on welfare find such statements ugly and offensive. Would the Chancellor mobilize a month of defensive seminars and training sessions in preparation for a campaign visit from Mitt Romney or William Weld? I imagine not.

Lest it strike you as too outré to take notice of the sensibilities of welfare mothers, consider an example closer in substance to the Farrakhan affair - the sociobiological attempt to justify the discriminatory treatment of African-Americans. The "pain and the hatred from the messages" of the late Richard Herrnstein, of E. 0. Wilson, of William Shockley, and of countless other socially respectable academics, is felt quite as keenly in the part of the university community I inhabit as any caused by Farrakhan's speeches, yet no strategy sessions have been called at the Chancellor's house to counteract those effects.

The political power of the official Jewish community in America is, of course, not unique. It is a general fact about American public life that there is a sharp distinction between those groups whose interests possess political weight, and hence are accorded respect by governments, by universities, by media commentators, and even by the courts, and those other groups whose interests, however intensely felt, fall outside the realm of public acknowledgement.

The distinction is dynamic and fluid, changing over time in response to political struggle. The greatest victory any group can win in American politics is the fight to become one of the officially recognized interest groups, whose private sensibilities and substantive interests are accorded political significance. One of the striking changes of the past fifteen years or so has been the dramatic decline in the ability of the African-American community to win or preserve political weight for its interests.

I said that there were two reasons for the special response to Farrakhan's visit. The second is that for a very long time in America, white society has found it necessary, at any given moment, to demonize one or two Black leaders, as the price for allowing the rest to enter the circle of social and political acceptability. Having enslaved, oppressed, and exploited people of African descent, whites in America quite reasonably fear an angry response. So they encourage docility, submission to their laws, a willingness to talk, and most of all a commitment to non-violence in those who emerge as leaders in the Black community. Above all else, they cherish and celebrate those leaders whose behavior, speech, and demeanor demonstrate that they look to the white community for validation or approval. Nothing is more threatening than Black leaders who seem more concerned with the approval of their own followers than with admission into the clubs, restaurants, study groups, commissions, universities, or symposia of whites.

In each age since before the Civil War, we can find one or a few Black men and women - more often men than women, interestingly enough - who are seen as outrageous, unacceptable, evil. One of the odder aspects of this familiar phenomenon is that a previous generation's demon may, by a curious metamorphosis, join this generation's pantheon of honored Black leaders. W. E. B. Du Bois was demonized in this fashion during the time when Booker T. Washington was the white man's favorite Negro. Malcolm X stood in as demon during Martin Luther King, Jr.'s apotheosis. We remember faintly, with some bemusement, that King was attacked both for his opposition to the Viet Nam War and for his unconscionable attempt to transform a safely Southern voting rights struggle into a fight for economic justice in the slums of Chicago. And in one of those extraordinary miracles of self-conscious self-delusion, by which history is stood on its head, we now make movies and television specials about Malcolm in which, through the very act of reminding ourselves how thoroughly he was once vilified, we somehow tell ourselves that he was, all along, a tame, proper, acceptable Negro, fit for inclusion in syllabi of even the most inoffensive college curriculum.  

In the end, the Farrakhan fiasco at UMass Amherst is a lesson not in language, but in power. It is a lesson in the power of the Jewish community to win protected status for its sentiments and sensibilities, and in the inability of the Nation of Islam to win the same status for its concerns. It is, of course, also a lesson in the ability of excluded groups to play on the phobias of those within the circle of acceptability, so as to win a degree of attention they would otherwise be unable to command.

In addition, the Farrakhan affair reminds those of us who need reminding of the effort by the white community to deny to the African-American community autonomy in the choice of its leaders. Even such moral monsters as William Bennett, John Silber, George Will, Pat Buchanan, Phil Gramm, Newt Gingrich, and Pat Robertson, who, given their way, would inflict unimaginable suffering on tens of millions of Americans, are treated with respect and forbearance by the arbiters of American social acceptability. One cannot imagine the University of Massachusetts mobilizing itself to "suffer through" a visit from any of these gentlemen.

As always, speech is the garb in which power conceals itself. And the charge of uttering offensive speech is a disguised call for the repression of a group whose interests are a threat to those with power.

Since the Farrakhan affair was about power, not language, and since all politics, as the late Tip O'Neill reminded us, is local, let me conclude with a wonderfully clear and self-aware statement by one of the students who invited Farrakhan to the campus. In the Advocate interview quoted earlier, Mike Thelwell concluded with these remarks:

[T]he students have a legitimate - and this is the most saddening part - need. Those who invited him do in fact feel marginalized on this large white campus. At a public discussion before he came, I asked, "why do you do it?" One student said, "there is this facade and rhetoric of cultural diversity, but there is no real discussion of conditions in our communities, and we thought Farrakhan would do that. When we bring other speakers no one pays attention, it's business as usual. We invited Farrakhan and now the President returns our phone calls and there is discussion in every area of the campus.