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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

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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.

Stay tuned.

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  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.

Thursday, January 11, 2018


Matt says he cannot find Autobiography of an Ex-White Man on  It is there, under the title "Black Studies Book."  I should have checked before I sent people to look for it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018


The comments engendered by the colloquy between Professor Pigden and myself has been, to my way of thinking, uncommonly thoughtful, scholarly, and interesting, even by the rather high standard maintained in the give and take of comments on this blog.  I was particularly taken by Musing Marxist’s thought experiment about South Africa, in part because of my thirty year long experience there.  Rather than pick at this and that point in one or another of the comments, I thought I would tell you briefly about the context of the joke about Mr. Shapiro’s Wedding Suit with which I began the second chapter of my book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.  It will help to frame the general response I wish to make. 

The book is an affectionate testimonial to my colleagues and students in the UMass Afro-Am department, from whom I learned so much and with whom I spent the happiest sixteen years of my half century long teaching career.  In the first chapter, I told the story of how I came to join the department and what I learned there.  I then undertook first to tell the received story of America, and then to follow that with a rendition of the true story of America, as my colleagues had taught it to me.

The device I chose to set the stage for my account of the true story of America was an analysis of the changes that were introduced into the treatment of slavery in successive editions of the three most prestigious and successful American History college textbooks of the middle of the twentieth century:  America:  The Story of a Free People, by Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager;  The Growth of the American Republic, by Samuel Eliot Morrison and Henry Steele Commager;  and The American Pageant, by Thomas A. Bailey.  Nevins, Commager, and Morrison, as some of you surely know, were giants of the academic History profession, Pulitzer Prize winners, multiple times presidents of the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association.  Bailey, whose textbook was as successful as theirs, was not quite as revered as they, but he was nevertheless honored by his profession with presidencies and awards.

Each text went through many editions and was used in classrooms over periods of forty years or more.  I managed to track down almost all the editions of each, and I read through their treatments of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and [in the latest editions] the Civil Rights Movement.  The emendations to those parts of the text, edition by edition, were extraordinary, a documentary testament to the changes taking place in the larger society and to the pressures the authors were under to make their texts palatable to successive generations of students.  I shan’t try to recapitulate here my account in the second chapter of my book.  You can take a look at it if you wish by following the link on this site to

What I found so striking was this:  each text began, in the first edition, with a reverential rendering of the standard story of America as a City Upon a Hill, an exception to the nations of Europe or Asia, the only nation founded consciously as the embodiment of an idea, The Idea of Freedom.  Slavery was treated as a “peculiar institution,” as an afterthought, as a minor blemish on a nation conceived in Freedom.  The slaves were described as child-like, happy, well-treated by their loving and thoughtful masters.  Very slowly, a word or a phrase or a paragraph at a time, each new edition was revised, until, by the sixth or eighth or tenth edition, the original account of slacery was all but obliterated.  And yet, at no point was the premise of the story challenged.  America remained The Land of Freedom, the exceptional land, the only nation self-consciously established as the embodiment of an idea, the Idea of Freedom.

It seemed clear to me that even these distinguished and enormously accomplished historians, despite their command of all the latest scholarly research, were so deeply in thrall to a fundamentally false story of America that they were incapable of writing the simple truth of America so long as they clung to that original story.  Struggling to capture the peculiarity of this literary and conceptual situation, I hit upon the device of the old joke about Mr. Shapiro’s wedding suit. 

The central point of my little book was that it was not reading thousands of pages and swotting up masses of facts that enabled me to liberate myself from that false story.  It was actually moving across campus, joining a new department, making a life commitment to the fate of the collective academic and political project on which my new colleagues had embarked, and thus in the precise literal sense of the expression adopting a new standpoint, a new point on campus where I stood [and sat, and taught] that opened my eyes.

Now, clearly, if the times call for it, I can do what Professor Pigden suggests.  I remind you that only fourteen months ago, I was walking door to door in Durham, canvassing for Clinton, for whom I felt a deep contempt, cheerfully encouraging people to come out and vote for her.  But what I find difficult, if not impossible to do is to issue a full-throated call for all of us to be true to the ideal of America as a Land of Freedom, as the Leader of the Free World, as the Last Best Hope for Mankind, and struggle to make American what it has always been and aspired to be, A City Upon a Hill.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018


It seems somehow appropriate that a lengthy, well-thought out critique of my recent post about the true story of America should come from the other side of the world.  Professor Charles Pigden, of the University of Otago Philosophy Department in Dunedin, New Zealand emailed me the following extremely interesting essay, inviting me to post it here.  I do so with great pleasure, and shall endeavor to respond tomorrow.

"The ‘Oxford Philosophy’ sketch from Beyond the Fringe concludes with something like the following snatch of dialogue (I say ‘something like’ because I haven’t been able to track down a script on the web):

First Philosopher:
So can philosophy be of assistance in everyday life?

Second Philosopher:
Oh yes, I think  so. Just the other day I was in a shop and the assistant replied to some query with  ‘Yes’ . ‘What do you mean by “yes”?’ asked the customer.  ‘I mean “yes”’ replied the assistant. And here I felt that we had some ordinary people  – quite, quite ordinary – discussing an issue with real metaphysical implications   and that I, as a philosopher, could actually help them.

First Philosopher:
And did you? Help them I mean?

Second Philosopher:
Well no, they were both in a bit of a hurry.

Now although Professor Wolff is himself a distinguished philosopher, it does seem to me in this instance that I, as another philosopher, can be of assistance to him in solving a problem of everyday life,  namely how to deploy a certain line of anti-Trump (and, more broadly, radical) rhetoric with a clean intellectual conscience.  The line of rhetoric can be summed up in the slogan ‘Trump betrays everything that is best in the American Way.’ My point is that so long as you think that there are SOME things in the American political tradition that you can celebrate, then this a line you can honestly take,  since Trump is against almost everything in the American tradition that can reasonably be regarded as good.  Now although Professor Wolff’s response to this is based on a wealth of historical knowledge which I cannot hope to equal (much of it acquired in his period as a Professor of Afro-American Studies), it is also based on what seems to me to be a philosophical mistake.   Subtract the mistake and the history will not  prevent him from adopting the rhetorical strategy  that I suggest.

The nub of his response is the story of Shapiro’s suit. On the morning of his daughter’s wedding, the tailor Schneider supplies the unfortunate Mr Shapiro with a suit so asymmetrical and apparently badly cut that it can only be made to ‘fit’ him if he limps about like Quasimodo or the title character in  a particularly hammy production of Shakespeare’s Richard III.  But this is not incompetence on Schneider’s part. No, no, it is all  part of Schneider’s fiendish plan to entice customers to his establishment, by impressing them with his  apparent to cut  a suit to fit somebody as badly deformed as Shapiro must needs appear to be.  From Schneider’s point of view the unequal pants legs and the excessively large waist are not defects but features,  things he engineered into the suit on purpose as part of his insanely devious plan to advertise his talents as a tailor.   So too with the American political tradition.  It is not a tradition founded on an ideal of freedom that has been very imperfectly realized.  It is not like a suit designed to set off the (reasonably acceptable) frame of Mr Shapiro on his daughter’s wedding day but which fails to do so because of  the tailor’s spectacular incompetence.  Just as Shapiro’s suit was DESIGNED to look a mess from the word ‘Go’, so the American system was DESIGNED from the word ‘Go’ to promote and perpetuate racial inequality and (perhaps) economic inequality and plutocracy as well. 

‘America is not, was not, and never has been a country founded on the Idea of Freedom, imperfectly realized at first and then, through struggle, little by little brought into greater conformity with its founding ideal.  America was, from Colonial days, a Settler State built from the 17th century onward on unfree labor.  … As the saying has it in this digital age, slavery was a feature of America, not a bug, and today, a century and a half after the official end of slavery, racial inequality remains a feature of American society, not a bug.’

 Professor Wolff clearly thinks that the American system is analogous a ) to a suit and b) to a computer program (hence the ‘bugs and features’ terminology).  But both suits and computer programs  are typically designed in a top-down sort of way by one or more people in accordance with a coherent  plan. (No coherent plan, no suit; no coherent plan, no program; though, as we shall see, the latter is subject to some qualifications.) This means that there is a fact of the matter  which makes  it true or false whether this or that is a bug or a feature.  Something is a feature if it is a part of the plan and a bug if it is inconsistent with the designers’ collective intentions.  Thus the uneven pants legs on Shapiro’s suit are features from Schneider’s point of view, even if they are bugs from Shapiro’s, since they force the unfortunate Shapiro to hobble about like Marty Feldman’s Igor in The Young Frankenstein. If Schneider had been an honest man and not the insanely devious scoundrel that he is, they would have been bugs since an honest Schneider  would have been trying to deliver  what Shapiro’s thought he had been paying for,  that is, a decent suit which would make him look good as the father of the bride.

But consider this example.  Suppose the well-known Silicon Valley firm of Ali & Roberts has developed an encryption system, ‘SuperEnigma’ which is designed to preserve the confidentiality of their clients’ emails.  Emails are automatically encrypted at source and then sent in a code (which is programmed to update itself on a daily or even an hourly basis) to a protected server which then passes them along to their intended recipients at which point they are automatically decrypted.  Ali & Roberts’ system is supposed to protect not only the contents of their clients’ emails but also their meta-data since it is supposed to be impossible for a third party to determine who they have been communicating with.  Developing SuperEnigma was a massive task and Ali & Roberts subcontracted some of the coding to Pamela Wong Associates.  But unbeknownst to Ali & Roberts, Wong is secretly in the pay of the FBI.  And she builds in a ‘trapdoor’  which enables the FBI to intercept and decode selected emails and to recover the meta-data of A&R clients of whom they are suspicious.   Now is the fact that the system is now penetrable by the FBI a bug or a feature of the SuperEnigma system? . It seems that there is either no answer or two answers to this question.  No answer, because the SuperEnigma system was not designed in accordance with  a single coherent plan but in accordance with two plans one of which was inconsistent with the other.  This means that there is not a coherent set of collective intentions such that  FBI-penetrability is either part of the plan or inconsistent with the plan. Thus there isn’t a truthmaker either for the claim the penetrability is a bug or for the claim that penetrability is a feature.   Two answers, because penetrability by the FBI is a bug according to some of the designers (Ali & Roberts Inc) but a feature according to others. (Pamela Wong Associates). 

OK so now for the philosophical mistake which I would suggest undermines Professor Wolff’s response.  His argument presupposes that political traditions are similar to suits or to unsubverted computer programs, that is that they are analogous to artefacts designed in a top-down sort of way in accordance with a consistent set of intentions.  It is for this reason that he can use the terminology of bugs and features and it is for this reason that he can illustrate his view with the story of Shapiro’s suit.  But political traditions, polities and even constitutions (whether these are construed as living documents or as time-bound artefacts) are not like Shapiro’s suit nor are they like the general run of computer programs.   Instead they are like my imaginary SuperEnigma program only very much more so.  They are the products of opposing forces that push and pull in different directions. They are not designed in a top down sort of way by people with a consistent set of intentions. On the contrary, the key creators of a political tradition are often not consistent either with one another or with themselves.  It is not just that the creators as a group don’t have a consistent set of intentions. It is often the case that the intentions of the individual creators do not form a consistent set.  To take an obvious example you can be a slave-holder such as Jefferson who disapproves of slavery without wishing to give up his own slaves.   Thus you develop an ideological stance which implicitly undermines slavery without doing anything very practical to put it into effect. (Jefferson and others were, so to speak, a collection of political St Augustines ’Lord, make us abolish this iniquitous institution  - but not yet!)  To begin with maybe it’s the ‘but not yet’ that is effective but over time the universalist (and hence anti-slavery) principles may come to predominate. Even a less ambivalent slave-holder than Jefferson may be compelled by circumstances to adopt an ideological stance that is in tension with his practices as a slave-holder.   Thus in order to defend yourself against a potential oppressor  you may find it necessary  to appeal to an ideology of universal human rights which can subsequently be used against you and your heirs either by the people that you currently oppress, or, later on, by their descendants and their champions. Hypocrisy is the homage the vice pays to virtue but a process of ideological debate can gradually compel vice to  approximate the virtues that  it hypocritically professes, especially if the balance of power shifts against it.  (Interestingly much the same kind of process can work in the opposite direction. In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx  shows how, in order to maintain their class power, the Party of Order [in the Second Republic]  had to systematically undermine the Liberal principles to which their socialist and democratic opponents appealed, leaving themselves ideologically and politically defenseless when Napoleon III struck them down in his proto-fascist coup of the 2nd December 1851.)  A more interesting case of is that of actors whose intentions are formally consistent but unrealizable in practice (hence contingently inconsistent) .  Again Jefferson supplies an example.  What he seems to have wanted was that the Western lands should be settled without injustice to the indigenous population.  The two objectives are not logically inconsistent but they could not both be realized in anything approximating the actual world. The Western lands were indeed settled  but the injustice was horrific. However, it is still possible for Native Americans nowadays  (as the Maori have done rather more successfully in Aoteroa/New Zealand) to appeal to settler principles to condemn settler practices and in some cases to extract a measure of compensation for past wrongs. 

My real point  however is this.  Since traditions, polities and constitutions are the products of differing and inconsistent intentions,  there is often no fact of the matter (or too many facts of the matter) to determine whether one of their products  is a feature or a bug.  At best we can say that it is a feature according to some and a bug  according to others.  Thus it is with slavery and the subsequent history of racial inequality in America. These are features according to racist politicians and their supporters  and bugs according to those who condemn the policies pursued in the name of the principles professed (and sometimes partially implemented). The fact that those who signed the Declaration of Independence were ambivalent, if not downright cynical, about the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights  does not mean that you cannot appeal to the Declaration of Independence to condemn either racial inequality or the violation of Human Rights.  Sure, these things were features of the system for some, but they were also bugs for others.  And you can appeal to what is best in the tradition  - to the intentions and the rhetorical tropes according to which  these things are bugs - to condemn those for whom they are features.   And you can do it furthermore without intellectual dishonesty.  This was the strategy of Dr Martin Luther King, and through we could wish that it had worked better, it one of the few strategies that has worked at all.  Witness his ‘I Have a Dream’  speech which represents the culmination of a life-time of political activism: 

“Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: - 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
It would not have been helpful, and – in the absence of the appropriate truthmakers – it would not even have been TRUE  if a much younger Dr Robert Wolff had piped up. ‘Yes, Dr King but racial inequality is not a bug but a feature of the American political tradition.’ For the American political tradition is not the kind thing that can have  either unequivocal bugs or unequivocal features."