Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Austin Haigler asks whether locals [i.e., non-UNC folks] will be able to sit in. Sure. Nobody is going to check IDs at the door. As for questions, I discovered during previous videotaped lectures that the little lavalier mic I use picks up questions from the audience perfectly, so of course I will encourage people to ask questions and make comments.
Tuesday, January 16, 2018
I shall be delivering and videotaping a series of lectures this semester on The Thought of Karl Marx. The lectures will take place on Mondays in the same room where I lectured on The First Critique. As before, the lectures will be posted each week several days after they are videotaped. I am hoping to start on Monday, January 19th, but that is not yet definite. I would imagine there will be perhaps eight or nine lectures in all, maybe more.
Monday, January 15, 2018
Well, we have now endured three days of intense, thoughtful discussion of the urgent question, “Is Donald Trump a racist?” This very quickly metastasized into the question, “Are Trump’s supporters racists?” and the subordinate question, “Are Trump’s policies racist?” Trump has announced that he is not a racist, but for some reason that statement has not been considered dispositive, so I suppose I have a certain responsibility as a blogger to weigh in.
My first problem is that everyone engaged in this discussion speaks or writes as though being a racist were a psychological trait, either inherited, like perfect pitch, or acquired, like a love of oysters. People who have the trait racist are said to be prejudiced, which means literally that they prejudge others, in advance of getting to know them, solely on the basis of their skin color and other associated physical characteristics. One can, of course, be prejudiced in favor as well as against, but nobody seems to think it is a bad thing to be prejudiced in favor. I am, for example, unthinkingly inclined to view with approbation persons who speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences. Is this disgraceful or blameworthy? Well, perhaps, inasmuch as it probably inclines me to undervalue the opinions of what Gramsci would have called organic intellectuals.
Racism is talked about as a trait that can be difficult to ascertain, even for the person who is said to possess it. So we are all enjoined to examine ourselves for elusive signs of it, rather like seventeenth century Protestants who wrote spiritual diaries in an effort to suss out signs of election or damnation.
Now, all of this is simply nonsense. What is more, it is seriously counterproductive nonsense. So let me offer a few observations designed to change the discussion somewhat. To keep this to a manageable length, I am going to rely on things I have written and published, most notably in my book Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, archived under the title “Black Studies Book” at box.net. People of African origin were brought forcibly to this country as prisoners for the purpose of extracting from them hard physical labor, first in agriculture and later in virtually every branch of production and personal service. As my old colleague in Afro-American Studies, John Bracey, remarked one day in our first year doctoral seminar when I was going on about the racist prejudice of the slave owners, “Bob, the settlers did not come to this country, look around, and then say, ‘this is a beautiful and fertile land. It has everything we need except for some Black people to hate. Let’s get some and bring them here so that we can discriminate against them.’” Black people, like white indentured servants, were brought to these shores to work so that those who brought them could get rich, as indeed some of them did. Over a period of a century and more, the status of Black prisoners was transformed into hereditary chattel slavery while the status of White indentured servants was transformed into legally free citizenship.
The slave owners did not hate their slaves, any more than they hated their horses, cattle, or shoes. Since the slaves were, in fact if not in law, persons, some slave owners developed human sentiments about them, both positive and negative, but that in no way altered the legal status of the slaves as things. The slaves did not want to be liked. They wanted to be free.
After the emancipation of the slaves, an elaborate structure of law and custom was erected for the purpose of extracting cheap labor from the Freedmen and Freedwomen while denying them any political power. A century and a half of dangerous and painful struggle by Black men and women somewhat, but by no means fully, challenged those laws and customs. It is still the case today that the descendants of the slaves, as well as many others who look like them physically, are paid less for their work, are educated in inferior schools, are denied equal access to the rungs of the steep job ladder that characterizes America’s unequal economy and society.
It is of little interest or significance whether White people like Black people in America, and it certainly makes no difference how Donald Trump feels about Black People. What is of interest and significance is that Black people are systematically treated less well than White people in America, and that the people Donald Trump has chosen for his Cabinet and senior Administrative offices are doing everything in their power to make that unequal treatment worse as fast as they can. Leaving entirely to one side the fact that he presides over the federal justice system in America, could any self-respecting person, Black, White, Brown, Yellow, Green, or Puce care what Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III feels about him or her?
It is instructive to compare the subject of racism with sexism. For at least as long as there have been historical records, women have been systematically treated less well than men in virtually all walks of life. Until quite recently, women have been excluded by law and custom from every aspect of social, economic and political life that carries with it wealth or power or social honor: from politics, from the military, from business, from the Academy, from law, from medicine [at least since medicine was actually able to do something about illness.] But the men carrying out and benefiting from this exclusion have mothers, wives, daughters, mistresses, concubines. No doubt some of them are woman-haters. There is no accounting for taste. But the second class status of women is not a consequence of animus, and it is not sustained, even today, by a personality trait called sexism.
So it does not matter what Donald Trump feels in his heart [assuming he has one.] It only matters how people of color are treated. Black people can live with the fact that White cops hate them, just so long as those cops don’t gun the[RW1] m down.
Saturday, January 13, 2018
One of the secondary consequences of the Trump presidency is insomnia. I lay awake at two a.m. last night obsessed by daydreams of magical powers that enabled me, anonymously and instantaneously, to make Mar a Lago, Trump Tower, and every other object associated with Trump disappear suddenly and permanently, causing Trump excruciating psychic pain [I have an active fantasy life.] After a while, my thoughts migrated naturally to the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. By now fully awake, I turned the matter over in my mind and concluded that it would be both unwise and unnecessary to try to remove Trump from office by that constitutional device.
Since this may take a while, let me begin by reproducing the text of the Amendment:
“Section 1. In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.
Section 2. Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.
Section 3. Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.
Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.”
The principal purpose of the amendment is to handle situations in which the President is temporarily or permanently physically incapable of performing the duties of the office. This could be because he or she was to undergo general anaesthesia. [Interesting side note: When I was growing up in a small row house in Kew Gardens Hills in Queens, there was an alley behind the house that separated our row from the next street over and gave access to tiny garages. In the house behind us lived a big kid, Eric Goldstein, who grew up to change his name to Eric Cassell and have a distinguished career as a professor of medicine. Eric did some fascinating research using the theories of child cognitive development of the great Child Psychologist Jean Piaget, showing that adult patients recovering from general anaesthesia took a long time to regain an adult level of cognitive abilities, as measured by Piaget’s tests. Eric helped me make a splendid layout for the model trains I bought with the hundred dollars my parents gave me as a substitute for a bar mitzvah.] The Amendment also deals with cases of permanent but not fatal incapacitation, brilliantly lampooned in that great old Kevin Kline/Sigourney Weaver movie Dave, with Frank Langella in an over the top performance as the evil Special Assistant to the President.
Trump’s erratic and despicable behavior and the widespread desperation anent his presidency has sparked discussions of invoking the 25th Amendment on the grounds that Trump is unfit mentally to hold the office of President. Let me address first the issue of Trump’s malign effect on America’s domestic life, and then discuss separately the cataclysmic threat his presidency poses to the very survival of modern civilization, thanks to his access to and control of America’s nuclear arsenal.
I begin by reminding us all that just short of sixty-three million Americans voted for Trump, despite, or perhaps because of, having available to them everything anyone could ask for in the way of information about his character and behavior. Is he a racist? Of course he is, as evidenced by his embrace of the birther myth. Is he a sexist predator on women? On the Access Hollywood tape, he tells us himself that he is. Is he a xenophobe? His announcement speech declares as much. Is he a trash-talking bully? His debate performance settled the question. Is he a crook, a cheat, and a deadbeat? The evidence was public and overwhelming before the election. And yet, sixty-three million Americans voted for him.
If we are to take seriously the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment, we must distinguish these characteristics from the quite separate question of mental incapacitation, of early stage dementia. Now, moving into a Continuing Care Retirement Community has given me, as a layman, a new insight into the issue of dementia and associated incapacities of old age. Dementia and its precursors are a regular part of life in a CCRC. Indeed, in the Assisted Living section of the community, there is a wing devoted to dementia patients in which thoughtful and kind care is given to residents who have reached that stage in the deterioration of their cognitive faculties.
What are the evidences of a decline in cognitive faculties? Well, one sign is scattered memory loss – senior moments as they have come to be called, although I like to say that we old people have trouble remembering things simply because we know so much more than young folks. Losing your keys repeatedly, struggling to recall what day it is, putting something on the stove to boil and then forgetting about it, so that the water boils away and the pan is scalded – all of these are or can be signs. But judging from my layman’s observation, a man or woman who suffers the onset of dementia does not suddenly go from being a pleasant, moderately progressive, somewhat garrulous codger to being a flaming racist or warmonger or narcissistic bully.
Trump may be ignorant, a braggart, incapable of focusing for more than a moment on anything but himself, but it would appear that he has always been that way. After all, he was in full possession of such cognitive faculties as he ever had when he called newspapers, posing as his own publicist, to tout his success with women.
If you re-read the 25th Amendment, reproduced above, you will see how high a bar would have to be cleared politically to invoke that Amendment successfully. But what worries me most about the 25th Amendment route is the certainty that once it had been used to oust Trump, it would be used by conservatives, moderates, and most supposed progressives if we ever succeeded in electing a President committed to real collective-ownership-of-the-means-of-production democratic socialism. Would such a commitment be taken as evidence of diminished cognitive capacity? Well, it is so taken now in most of America’s university Economics Departments.
I conclude that so far as domestic affairs are concerned, the response to a Trump is a wave mid-term election.
Which brings me to the matter of nuclear war. Readers of this blog will know that I am genuinely terrified by the danger that Trump, either in a fit of pique or to divert attention from the onslaught of the Mueller investigation, will launch a nuclear attack. Literally anything that can stop this from happening is worth doing. But the 25th Amendment is a slow, unwieldy political process, quite incapable of interrupting a catastrophic Trumpian action. Read the Amendment. By the time its requirements were met, the bombs would have done their damage.
What then can we do? I think there is an answer. It would require a greater degree of bi-partisan cooperation than seems remotely conceivable, but less than the degree of bipartisan cooperation required by the 25th Amendment. The present control system of nuclear weapons was designed at a time when it was believed that there was a serious threat of a nuclear first strike from the Soviet Union that would so completely disrupt American governmental and military communications that the normal chain of command would be shattered. So it was arranged that the President could circumvent that chain of command and order the use of nuclear weapons directly within minutes of news of an in-coming missile attack.
It would be perfectly possible – and infinitely to be desired – for the Congress to pass a law restoring the normal chain of command for the use of nuclear weapons. This would require a smaller majority than is called for by the 25th Amendment, and it would permanently reverse a policy for which there is no longer a justification.
Will this happen? Alas, no. Hence we are forced to hope that we survive while we work to regain control of the House of Representatives.
Friday, January 12, 2018
All of you by now have heard Trump’s characterization yesterday, during an Oval Office meeting on immigration, of the nations of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America as “shitholes.” At times like these, I reach for my Bible. The deafening silence from the leaders of the Republican Party in Congress called to my mind what Jesus had to say about the Pharisees, as quoted in Matthew 23:27 “for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.” We atheists are impoverished by the unavailability to us of the theological category of evil.