Friday, October 27, 2017

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

Close to my 96th birthday, I think a lot about “unfinished business”. I can’t complain. I’ve had far more time than most to try to work things out. Call it an unfinished “search” or, better still, an unending “struggle”. As inevitable as death and corporate evasion of taxes, the business of social change is never finished.

Late though it is, I'm starting a Diary of Unfinished Business. By “diary”, I  mean stuff I’m writing mainly for myself, to help me deal with questions that disturb me, memories that are blurred, anguish about an  ominous present and a much too-murky future. Of course, the lifelong pull of social responsibility remains, and if  I have something of possible interest to share, I’ll let readers of my blog know. 

10/27/2017:

Initial thoughts are very much in the present.  While Charlottesville put torch lights on the racist heart of the fascist threat, recent events tell much about the strategies by which the anti-democrats aim to prevail. Trump and Bannon know there is a very big strategic problem they have to get around: how to cement totalitarian control when a clear and growing majority of Americans fear and detest them. Now even two Republican Senators have denounced Trump in the strongest terms, their most urgent concern that the Trump Administration is on a path toward nuclear war.


The Trump-Bannon strategy is to exploit a central flaw in the electoral system, the one that put Trump in the White House with a minority of votes. It’s not just the Electoral College; it’s the whole gamut of advantages in control of state governments, mega donors, gerrymandering and voter suppression. What it all ads up to is that there is a formula by which dictatorial rule could be sustained against the will of the majority. Mister Inside (Trump) and Mr. Outside (Bannon)* are manipulating the ultra-right primary threat to purge Congress, yes even this most hapless and reactionary GOP Congress. So Corker and Flake are forced out as prospective “losers”, and Graham bends the knee along with a whole contingent of Republicans who stake their future on Trump and Trumpism.

Another arrow in Trump’s strategy quiver appeared in the episode triggered by the death of four special forces soldiers ambushed in Niger: if challenged, call forth the generals. All the nonsense about the generals as a normalizing and moderating influence on Trump collapsed in Kelly’s angry tirade against the Congresswoman friend of the dead black soldier’s family. This was the real 4-Star General Kelly, the one who said that if it was up to him, the number of immigrants allowed into the country would be between zero and one. He was so deeply offended by the sight of the black Congresswoman speaking at an earlier event honoring two fallen FBI agents, that he could wave off her taped speech with a huge public lie.

Trump’s coterie of generals is to be feared, especially as wars and interventions have become chronic and Trump ‘ups the ante’ on nuclear catastrophe. War is tempting to a desperate regime. Military juntas are anathema to democracy, another (so far un-American) way of overruling a majority.

There is no single remedy, no easy recourse. Nothing good can happen without organized resistance in all areas of public life. And there’s nothing that can turn the tide without major victory over Trump and Bannon in 2018 and 2020.

*Army football backfield tandem, vintage 1945: Mr. Inside, fullback Blanchard, crashed the line and Mr. Outside, halfback Davis, ran around end.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

THE "NEO-LIB" LABEL

Understanding and opposing “neoliberalism” is one thing, valid and urgent. However, using “neo-liberal” as an epithet against a wide range of individuals is quite another, indiscriminate and divisive.

“Neo-liberalism” is probably the most widely used term for the economic philosophy of so-called “free market” capitalism in this age of full-blown “globalization”. The concept posits that human freedom depends on freedom for international business enterprise (corporations). That’s akin to the US Supreme Court ruling that “freedom of speech” requires that corporations be allowed to buy our elections as though they were individuals exercising our 1st Amendment rights. The reality is obviously different: as “free market” imperialism reigns and economic inequality defies any limits, freedom and democracy are diminished and severely threatened aroud the world, notably in our own United States.

Most liberals, almost all, would not conceive of corporate privilege (“free” unregulated markets) as the cornerstone of democracy and human rights. Yet many, perhaps most, might not share a leftist analysis of  “neo-liberalism” and the capitalist system.

It has become all to common on the Left to use “neo-liberal” as an epithet to label and dismiss individual liberals and progressives of varying outlooks. The label has been thrown at Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose brilliant writing  and insights on racism as related to the Obama and Trump presidencies leave room for much thoughtful discussion and debate. The same epithet has been applied to Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton, even Bernie Sanders, Rachel Maddow and to all Democratic Party representatives from John Lewis to Nancy Pelosi.

Certainly the influence of neoliberalism has a powerful impact on our political system and both major parties. The problem with applying the label indiscriminately to personalities is that it obscures some very important distinctions among political figures. It substitutes for serious evaluation of complex and contradictory tendencies that distinguish a particular individual and his or her role. It paints with the same brush many serious resisters to incipient fascism and the likes of Donald Trump and Paul Ryan, chief proponents of the most extreme policies of neoliberal dog-eat-dog capitalism. It invites antagonism and inhibits serious exchange of views among all of us now engaged in the fight of our lives to stop fascism and descent into the ultimate World War.

The course of our times has not proven any of us so righteous that we can afford immodest restraints on listening to each other. Understanding neoliberalism should contribute to greater awareness of capitalism’s dire prospects for life on our planet. Popular support for the message of Sanders here and Corbyn in Britain, challenging the “billionaire class” head-on, is a source of serious hope for turning things around.

But flinging around  the “neoliberal” epithet can divide and distract from what has to be done.  

Saturday, August 19, 2017

HEAR THIS!

I haven't blogged for a while. Now and then I get the feeling that not much of what I have to say remains unsaid as my years add up past 95.  But in this time of greatest crisis for American democracy, it's inspiring to hear millions of voices raised to reverse the coup that put Trump and his cohorts of racism and violence in the White House.

I want to share one striking voice of sanity and humanity that a friend sent my way. It's Mayor Landrieu of New Orleans speaking back in May of this year.

From Troy Duster to Bcc, me:

Thursday, June 29, 2017

YOUTUBE INTERVIEWS

It's been a while since I added a new post. I don't have a satisfying explanation either for myself or anyone who may have taken notice. I should assure my friends that I'm still alive and in reasonably good shape, though increasingly aware of how very old it is to be 95+. Despite the slowdown in new posts, I am not one iota less committed to RESISTANCE . I suppose I feel less of an urge to find something new to say amid every day's mounting noise and speculation. So I contribute to campaigns and causes beyond anything I can remember,  and I take part with neighbors and other seniors in keeping up with the news and sharing views on current events.

During the last several months, I've been interviewed for the Berkeley Historical Society about reminiscences and reflections on the American Communist movement during the last century. I was associated with Marxist youth organizations from childhood, was National Chair of the Labor Youth during the McCarthy witch hunt years and until shortly before I left the Party in 1956.

I was reluctant to spend so much time on "long ago" in the midst of today's all-consuming crisis of American democracy. I was pushed and persuaded by the two historians who did the interviewing, Jeanine Castello and Tonya Staros. The three-part interview is on YouTube and can be accessed by entering my name. If you find the time, please see the parts in correct order: I, II, and III.

Certainly this history is controversial. For me, there are many questions that remain, some that didn't find their way into the interviews, but that I am still trying hard to understand.

Anyway, if you do take the plunge, I'd love to hear your opinions. Please write to me: lwofsy@berkeley.edu

Monday, April 10, 2017

GAS, MISSILES AND THE US PRESIDENCY

No matter how many disasters arise, no matter how many miscalculations and frustrations repeat themselves, US foreign policy is fiercely resistant to change.

No two presidents could be more different than Donald Trump and Barrack Obama. One is a would-be dictator with a racist and vulgar misogynist mentality. The other is a humanist intellectual, a liberal (some would say “neoliberal” because of his commitment to the “free enterprise” capitalist foundations of our economic system). 

Both came to the White House pledging to change a failed foreign policy and to withdraw from US entanglement in endless “dumb” and losing wars. Their objectives and methods differ as profoundly as their respective characters, and Trump’s presidency is creating the greatest crisis for American democracy since the Civil War.

But a president is crudely called to order if he seems to stray from fealty to “vital interests” defined by a dominant military-intelligence-corporate complex.  

Obama had Gates, Clinton and the military chiefs to counter his “reluctant warrior” tendencies, so while he opted for diplomacy in matters such as the Iran agreement, the drones and missiles kept flying and no wars came to an end. 

Trump was turned around in one week on military intervention in Syria. Before the horrifying images appeared of gassed families and children, the pressure was on to “normalize” the National Security Council. As the Times comments, “since the forced resignation of Michael T. Flynn…, Mr. Flynn’s successor, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, has been moving to put a more traditionally professional stamp on the operations of the National Security Council.”

Nor was it lost on Trump that his increasingly unpopular presidency could use a “rally around the flag” tonic. And, indeed, the resort to instant unilateral and illegal force seems almost to “normalize” Trump, especially in the eyes of neocons and old-fashioned war hawks.

So in a world that turns up unspeakable atrocities with regularity, the instant response is a military strike — and then what? No time or place for reason, no time to verify facts, no room for the United Nations, no investment in the hard work of advancing the common interests of differing nations whose people hate and fear barbarism and war as much as we do. 

So why is it so hard to change the course of a failed foreign and military policy? Because it is ingrained in a history of imperial conquest, because it is rooted in the undying beliefs of “American exceptionalism” and supremacy — above all because “vital interests” refer not to the well-being of people, but to the demands of the most far-flung corporate and military empire ever.

That’s more than any president can be counted on to challenge, though a Trump can create more havoc even than a George W. Bush. Only relentless reality can force change, but only a finally wised-up and angry populous can bring it about.

Friday, March 24, 2017

ANOTHER GONE

S. Jonathon Singer died in February at age 92. He was a major figure in the biological sciences and a dear friend of mine.

For seven years, 1957-1964, I enjoyed an especially close learning and working relationship with Jon. Almost every day I saw his keen scientific mind at work and experienced the richness of his qualities as a person.

It began in 1957 in the Chemistry Department at Yale when I was hired on a temporary basis as a technician. It’s a tale worth retelling in these worrisome times. A local McCarthy-style campaign had ended my short-lived career as a junior high school teacher by spreading the word that I had been an organizer for the Labor Youth League, one of many organizations labeled as “subversive” by the McCarran “internal security” Board. After being unemployed for two months, I was hired by Julian Sturtevant, a close faculty colleague of Jon’s, as an act of personal kindness and a rejection of McCarthyism  (conditional on whether I could prepare and qualify for Yale’s graduate program in Chemistry).  Sparing details, it was Jon who became my mentor, encouraging me on the difficult journey to qualify, taking me on as a graduate student, then as a post-doc and collaborator at UC San Diego. It was with Jon in La Jolla that an idea I got as a graduate student came to fruition in “Affinity Labeling: a General Method for Labeling the Active Sites of Antibodies and Enzymes”.

I was a little older than Jon, and the mentoring relationship evolved into a deep family friendship.

Jon’s contributions to the understanding of fundamental biological phenomena were many and profound. Early on, while a Fellow with Linus Pauling, he collaborated in discovering the genetic basis of Sickle Cell Anemia.  The most significant of his numerous contributions was in developing a model of the cell membrane that revolutionized previous notions and laid the basis for later discoveries on how cells function and how they interact. A Retrospective on Jon, by Russell Doolittle, will appear in the forthcoming issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).

Over the years, Jon became more and more concerned about the “human condition”, the dismal state of affairs in our country and the rest of the world. He was very pessimistic and came to think that the fundamental difficulty was a genetic limitation of human intelligence, encompassing all but the rare geniuses. (He made it clear that his notion of genius did not include himself or others who were just bright and accomplished in various fields.)

So, even though Jon and I shared many values and a commitment to social justice, we often debated his diagnosis of the underlying difficulty.  I argued that it’s more a matter of an economic system that breeds enormous inequality and turns victims against each other to the advantage of neo-fascist demagogues.

I’m sure Jon felt vindicated, though horrified, by Trump’s rise to power. Surely one’s faith in a better future is being tested extremely. Still, as I wrote in my last letter to Jon, “I don’t think that the wonders of human achievement, especially culturally, belong solely to the occasional genius that randomly appears in our midst. And there’s certainly now a clear majority, of which you and I are still a part, who will resist and hopefully turn the tide against Trumpism and know-nothingism in general.”

With much love and appreciation, goodbye Jon.



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Monday, March 13, 2017

JUST AN ASIDE

While monsters occupy the White House and their minions in Congress are dead-set on robbing millions of health care, one still needs the respite of a good movie — and there are quite a few around.

We have yet to see Manchester by the Sea, but I can't imagine a more striking acting performance than Denzel Washington's in Fences. It took a while to convince myself that this was really Denzel, who is so recognizable in dozens of diverse screen roles. Of course, the play is a masterpiece by August Wilson, one of the great American playwrights of all time. And the rest of the cast is superb, especially Viola Davis.