kurt's nightmare

Generally, I post once a week. Topics are randomly selected and depend mostly upon whether it's baseball season or not. Other topics will include sex, politics, old girlfriends, music, and whatever else pops into my little brain. If you'd like to read, or ignore, my blog about China: http://meidabizi.blogspot.com/

Location: Dayton, OH, Heard & McDonald Islands

I'm an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton. I represent no one but myself, and barely do that. I'm here mostly by accident.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Conversation Remembered

I read in today's New York Times of the passing of Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, a prominent Chicago Rabbi who I once met, if only briefly, but it reminded me of both the power of ideas and the power of conversation.

For those interested in the details, the obit can be found here (registration required):

Rabbi Wolf's obituary

I worked for several years at the faculty club (The "Quadrangle Club") at the University of Chicago. There are, indeed, several stories about this place, from meeting famous people (Nadine Gordimer, John Kenneth Galbraith, Angela Davis, Arnaldo Momigliano, Elmo Zumwalt, among others), kids at a bar mitzvah entertaining themselves by throwing rocks at passing cars, walking into the club one morning when it seemed to be hosting every African-American woman in Illinois (and possibly Indiana) over 6'3", and many others, some amusing, some disturbing.

I worked weekends, and mostly tried to ignore people and read. Mostly I read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, and sometimes I got on a roll, really getting into the text (sometimes in the German, sometimes not) and thinking about stuff really hard. I was trying to write a dissertation on this thing, and I had a good job that paid me (minimally), allowed me to read a lot, fed me lunch, and gave me an opportunity to flirt with the waitresses and the occasional faculty wife. (To no avail, in all cases, except one: another story.)

One early afternoon, I was poring over the Transcendental Aesthetic, where Kant discusses his ideas about space and time (or, these days, space-time). Hard stuff, and some of the material I find most (the following is a pun for Kantians and Kantian hangers-on) counterintuitive.

At the counter, a guy yells at me "What are you reading?" I tell him, figuring he's some clown (in spite of the fact that this club really didn't really attract many clowns). He nods, and then says "Ask me any question, any question at all; I can answer it."

So I took him up on it, and asked him how the thinking self, which imposes temporal conditions for sensible impressions to be received (the form of intuition of time), discovers that it is in time, and how it situates itself within that time. (The beauty of the University of Chicago is that one can say such things without feeling self-conscious, the only fear being whether the question is well-posed or not.)

He nodded again, said it was a hard question, and couldn't answer it. (The latter being a fairly unusual answer to hear at the University.) But—and it was clear this was important—he told me to write his friend Steven Schwarzschild, a philosopher at Washington University (St. Louis) and send him both the guy's regards and my question.

We chatted a bit more, and he left. He told me his name was Jack Wolf, and that he was a Rabbi on the North side. We had a very pleasant conversation, and I took his advice and wrote Schwarzschild, who quickly replied with a very long and detailed letter, very helpful, and which also helped me discover the whole exciting world of Marburg neo-Kantians, specifically Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp. (Soon after Schwarzschild wrote, I wrote him back, he responded, and then died, relatively young. A couple of years later, I began a correspondence with another outstanding scholar, J. Michael Young, who wrote back and then, within weeks, died. also at a relatively young age. I started to think I had certain epistolary powers that I should only use for good.)

Rabbi Wolf invited me to come talk with him sometime, and, of course, I didn't. In spite of his friendliness (and what I discovered our compatible politics and, maybe, philosophical orientations), I was a bit intimidated and, naturally, a bit lazy. I regret very much not having done so; I've thought back many times about our encounter, and realize that this was someone I could learn a great deal from, both in terms of pure intellectual engagement, but also in terms of the mysterious region where ideas and reality interact.

Off and on, I've read a good bit by and about the Marburg neo-Kantians. Hermann Cohen is, to my mind, underrated, while his student Ernst Cassirer (no slouch, to be sure) is much better known. I've thought about pursuing that material in a more systematic, rigorous and scholarly way, but the Germans, French and Italians are all over it, and the whole laziness factor interferes. But I've learned much from them, and I owe it all to a ten minute conversation with Jack Wolf.

I learned one other thing, from that conversation and from the many times I've reflected upon it: the meaning, and importance, of one of the great words English has borrowed from Yiddish:


Rabbi Wolf was a Mensch.

Requiescat in pace.

Friday, December 12, 2008


As I watch the bail-0ut debate over Ford, GM, and Chrysler (particularly the last two), the various news (and lack thereof) about the specifics of the TARP, mostly I just have a sneaking suspicion that a number of corporations are using the current financial crisis to dump payroll. I expect them also to use it as leverage to screw around with health-care plans and pensions, to introduce, wherever possible, two-level wage schemes, and, of course, to bust a (relatively) strong union.

I think everyone should have access to health care. I think everyone should have the opportunity to join a union, that workers should have some degree of leverage comparable to that of management, and that rather than workers being told that tenure is a quaint doctrine held onto by bitter and obsolete professors, everyone should get some degree of job security when he or she has shown sufficient ability at doing a given job.

Health care, a voice in determining one's working conditions, and job security. Ha ha ha!

That's why they call me "Dr. Pollyanna."

Friday, December 05, 2008

My Friends

John McCain, in 2000, was a serious challenger to George W. Bush. He was attacked from the right, for all sorts of things, including some incredibly nasty push-polling in Michigan and South Carolina. He lost.

There is nothing new below, but after ruminating a bit, here’s the concession speech the John McCain of 2000 could have offered in November of 2008. That he didn’t is just one more indication of why he lost on his second go-around.


My Friends:

I used to talk the talk, and walk the walk. I have tried to reach across the aisle, and working with a serious liberal, got McCain-Feingold passed. At attempt, however feeble, to at least start thinking about campaign finance reform. As a Senator from Arizona, I know a bit about the challenges of immigration and its reform. I have spoken out in favor of that reform. I’ve taken other positions out of step with neo-conservatives and those who claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan.

My friends, the response from Republicans and conservatives was deafening. Indeed, in spite of the fact that I actually won the nomination, they pretty much still hate me. Romney lost because, as Huckabee put it, he looks like the guy who laid you off. He also seems not to believe in anything. Tancredo believed in some things; mostly that saying nothing about anything but the threat of immigrants was a winning platform. He was wrong. Huckabee as probably as nuts as Tancredo, but with a sense of humor and with a sharp sense of self-awareness. Giuliani supported, relatively speaking, gay rights and gun control, had some issues with adultery, and is about as much a Yankee as you can get: not happening. Thompson didn’t seem to want even to run for, let alone be, President. James Gilmore, Sam Brownback, Tommy Thompson? Sure. And Ron Paul, well, the Republicans really don’t want radical fissure between their conservative wing and their libertarian wing exposed so baldly.

My friends, the campaign I ran sucked. Rather than dealing with the evangelical and conservative base of the Republican Party as Democrats traditionally do with their base (liberals and/or African-Americans), and say “Who the hell else are you going to vote for?,” I chose another strategy. I appealed to that base. I embraced those I had once called “agents of intolerance.” (They didn’t change; I did.) I let my proxies call my opponent a Socialist, one who “pals around with terrorists.” I didn’t play the race card so much, but when it got played, I looked the other way. When my campaign went over the top, I once or twice grumbled, but my heart didn’t seem to be in it. Somehow, I decided that the immoral tactics to which I succumbed in 2000 were now appropriate.

My friends, I cemented this strategy by nominating Sarah Palin, a know-nothing with a family that looks like the target of Republican ads, a tendency to ignore questions or, worse, answer them and reveal her profound silliness, and with experience that made Obama look like Henry Clay.

My friends, I also made sure to say, early on in the campaign, that I didn’t know much about the economy, but that I was reading Alan Greenspan’s book. Oops.

My friends, the only way I could have won this election, given the disaster that was in the office I sought, was to appeal to suburban voters, soccer moms, Reagan Democrats, and put together a coalition along with those who had no other place to go. Instead, I chose to insult those potential supporters by thinking Palin would be an asset, and by insisting how proud I was of putting such a person so close to the most powerful political position in the world. I confirmed this kind of strategic foolishness by generally having little to say about health care, the economy, education, or the environment: issues those potential supporters care about.

My friends, I ran a campaign with no ideas, and gave very little indication that the standard rap—Bush’s 3rd term—wasn’t pretty damn accurate. I didn’t do well in the debates, I’m not a good stump speaker, I misspoke on occasion reinforcing worries about my age (compounding the Palin factor). My experience was enormous, relative to Obama’s: but that argument’s wind was taken out of its sails by Obama’s riposte that it was those—Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Phil Gramm, etc.—with vast experience that had gotten us where we are today. And I clearly didn’t think experience was all that important, given that I selected Palin. Yes, the rumors are true that the right wing of the GOP vetoed my preferred choice: Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge. I succumbed to that veto. Perhaps things would have been different had I chosen one of them, or convinced Condoleezza Rice to run with me.

My friends, the Republicans had to come up with someone interesting, who brought new (but good) ideas, and challenged the status quo. Someone who energized people. Someone who really did stand for change. I wasn’t that person. The conventional wisdom was that given the facts on the ground, it would have been hard for any Republican to win this year: the conventional wisdom was right. In fact, I’m surprised I did as well as I did, and I don’t here want to go into the worries I work hard to suppress about why that is.

My friends, if you were someone who might have voted for me but didn’t, perhaps you’re worried about your mortgage. Perhaps you’re worried that we’ve wasted trillions in Iraq. Perhaps you’re worried about a catastrophic illness, or being able to send your kids to college. Perhaps you’re just sufficiently worried about your financial future, and your children’s prospects, that you no longer view Mexicans coming to the US to work, or two lesbians getting married, as the potent threat it somehow used to be.

My friends, I lost because I deserved to. And because I say “my friends” too much.