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The Higher Sociopathy

by Corey Robin on July 28, 2014

In the annals of moral casuistry, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of the perils of moral reasoning than this defense, brought to you by The New Republic, of the slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza:

We can say that there is a principle worth fighting and dying for: Civilians cannot be used to make just wars impossible and morality will not be used as a tool to disarm. And once we have that principle, the proportionality calculation changes. The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground; but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally. It is the protection of that world, one in which moral soldiers still have a fighting chance, that justifies Israel’s operations against Hamas today. And it is that greater cause that decisively outweighs the terrible toll in innocent life.


That’s the last paragraph of a piece that attempts to confront one of the many challenges of defending the Gaza war: namely, that on a critical principle of just war theory—the proportionality principle, which states that “the military value of a target must outweigh the anticipated harm to civilians”—Israel, as the author acknowledges, “may seem to fail the test.”

 

Can we confidently say that the anticipated harm to innocents is justified by Israel’s expected military gains? The degrading of Hamas’ rocket capabilities, and most of all the destruction of its terrifying network of offensive tunnels (fortified by the limited cement that Israel permitted into Gaza for humanitarian purposes) are valuable military goals. But as the Palestinian death count rises above 500 [editorial note: it’s now over 1000]many of these civilianI find myself bewildered: Are these tunnels really worth the lives of all those children?


A normal person might be drawn up short by such a question. A normal person might answer that maybe, just maybe, the war isn’t worth it. But a normal person is not a philosopher of war.

Rather than confront reality, the philosopher of war resorts to reason. If the problem is the mismatch between the terrible grandeur of the means and the pedestrian poverty of the ends, don’t rethink your means, much less the war; simply inflate the ends.

There is, however, a way out of this paradox. And we find it at the moment we realize that Hamas’ actions have made this war about more than Israel or Palestine; it’s a war about future of morality in armed conflicts. For if Israel declines to fight, we live in a world where terror groups use their own civilians, and twist morality itself, to bind the hands of those who try to fight morally. In this world, cruelty is an advantage, and the moral are powerless in the face of aggression and indiscriminate attack. And make no mistake: The eyes of the world are on Hamas, and terrorist groups worldwide willas they have for generationslearn from the tactics of Gazan terrorists and the world’s reaction. So if Israel allows Hamas’ human shields to defeat it now, we will all reap the results in the years to come.


And that’s how we come to that gruesome last paragraph.

The Gaza war, you see, is not a war over tunnels. It’s not even a war in defense of Israel. It’s a war about…war, a war in defense of just war. Once upon a time, crackpots thought they were fighting a war to end all wars. That was its justice. Now they’re fighting a war in order to make just war possible. That is its justice.

The theory of just war is supposed to impose limits upon the launching and fighting of wars. It’s a condition of, a constraint upon, war. But here it becomes the end—both the aim and the justification—of war. Because that is the aim of Israel’s war, “civilians cannot be used” to make such a war “impossible.” They must instead be used to make it possible.

Hannah Arendt would have had a field day with this kind of reasoning: how it takes an action that it acknowledges to be dirty, puts it through the ideological rinse cycle, and makes it come out clean; and how it turns the manufacture of human corpses into the instrument of a higher law. It’s not, as the idealist would have it, that the law places a condition or constraint on the manufacture of corpses. Nor is it, as the cynic would have it, that the law provides an excuse or justification for the manufacture of corpses. It’s something stranger, more terrible: the law requires the manufacture of corpses.

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A Gaza Breviary

by Corey Robin on July 27, 2014

1. One benefit of the carnage in Gaza is that it has given people who’ve never said a word about the carnage in Syria an impetus to say a word about the carnage in Syria.

2. On Friday night, there was a fundraiser for “Friends of the IDF” at a synagogue on the Upper West Side. On Shabbat. Which means cessation, stopping.

3. “It’s all but inevitable…that civilians will die.” A law professor defends Israel’s actions in Gaza.

4. Next time someone tells you that an academic boycott is a bad idea because Israeli universities are bastions of dissent against the Israeli state:

Tel Aviv University is giving students who serve in the attack on Gaza one year of free tuition.


“Tel Aviv University embraces and supports all the security forces who are working to restore quiet and security to Israel, including its students and employees called up to reserve duty,” the institution says in 24 July statement on its official website. [click to continue…]

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When Presidents Get Bored

by Corey Robin on June 17, 2014

According to the Financial Times (h/t Doug Henwood), Obama is bored in the White House. The smallness of politics is tedious; he longs for more exalted pursuits:

“Just last night I was talking about life and art, big interesting things, and now we’re back to the minuscule things on politics,” Mr Obama complained after a dinner last month with Italian intellectuals in Rome. His cabin fever is tangible. On the plus side, there are only two-and-a-half years to go.


Reminds me of another thoughtful man in power. Alexis de Tocqueville served in the Chamber of Deputies throughout the July Monarchy. Despite his rhetorical support for liberal-ish democracy, the reality—parliaments, the rule of law, legislative haggling—bored him to tears. A “little democratic and bourgeois pot of soup” was how he described it to one of his closest friends. “Do you believe,” he wrote another of his correspondents, “that the political world will long remain as destitute of true passions as it is at this moment?” What is “most wanting,” he wrote another, is “political life itself.”

Beware politicians pining for “political life itself.” These men of ideas—what Theodore White called “action intellectuals”—tend to look for that life in the most deadly of places. [click to continue…]

My Dirty Little Secret: I Ride the Rails to Read

by Corey Robin on June 14, 2014

Like most academics, I read articles and books. Unlike most academics (maybe, I don’t really know), reading has become harder and harder for me. Not simply because of the distractions that come with department politics, administrative duties (come July 1, I’m chair of my department), advising grad students, and teaching. I wish it were as noble as that. No, the reason I find it so difficult to read these days, now years, is the internet.

Which is why I was so relieved to read this wonderful post by Tim Parks about how difficult it is now to read. [click to continue…]

What Made Evangelicals Come Out of the Closet?

by Corey Robin on May 30, 2014

In The Reactionary Mind, I briefly argued that much of the energy behind the Christian Right came not from its opposition to abortion or school prayer but its defense of segregation. Based on early research by historians Joseph Crespino and Matthew Lassiter, I wrote:

Evangelical Christians were ideal recruits to the [conservative] cause, deftly playing the victim card as a way of rejuvenating the power of whites. “It’s time for God’s people to come out of the closet,” declared a Texas televangelist in 1980.


But it wasn’t religion that made evangelicals queer; it was religion combined with racism. One of the main catalysts of the Christian right was the defense of Southern private schools that were created in response to desegregation. By 1970, 400,000 white children were attending these “segregation academies.” States like Mississippi gave students tuition grants, and until the Nixon administration overturned the practice, the IRS gave donors to these schools tax exemptions.


According to New Right and direct-mail pioneer Richard Viguerie, the attack on these public subsidies by civil rights activists and the courts “was the spark that ignited the religious right’s involvement in real politics.” [click to continue…]

When Intellectuals Go to War (updated)

by Corey Robin on May 27, 2014

On the recommendation of my colleague Shang Ha, I’ve been reading Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. There I came across this letter from Arnold Schoenberg to Alma Mahler, dated August 28, 1914. Ross only quotes a snippet, but here’s a lengthier excerpt:

Meanwhile, you have certainly already heard of the glorious victory of the Germans against France, England, and Belgium. It is among the most wonderful things that have happened. But it does not surprise me: it is not any different from the war of the Greeks against the Persians….My friends know it, I have often said to them, I never had any use for all foreign music. It always seemed to me stale, empty, disgusting, cloying, false, and awkward. Without exception. Now I know who the French, English, Russians, Belgians, Americans, and Serbians are: barbarians! The music said that to me long ago.[...] But now comes the reckoning. Now we shall send these mediocre purveyors of kitsch back into slavery.


Schoenberg was hardly the only artist to support his team during the First World War. But what strikes me in his stance here is something you often see when intellectuals go to war: [click to continue…]

Sheryl Sandberg claims to speak for working women. Especially poorer working women, according to the spokeswoman for Sandberg’s Lean In foundation: “The principles of Lean In are just as, if not more, important to women with lower incomes.”

So now comes Sandberg’s big test: Will she stand up for, and with, the women workers at a Hilton DoubleTree hotel in Cambridge, which is on a property owned by Harvard University? The workers want to be represented by a union. The hotel is resisting them. And Harvard isn’t helping.

Sandberg is going to be at Harvard this week, delivering a Class Day speech. The female employees at the hotel have asked to meet with her.

What happened next will not amaze you. [click to continue…]

Stalinism on the Installment Plan

by Corey Robin on May 20, 2014

One of the most frequent motifs in the literature on Stalinism is that of the dissenter who confesses to a crime he never committed. What made Stalinism so depraved, in the eyes of intellectuals, was not that it jailed or slaughtered men and women by the millions; it was that it was that it got those men and women, who were plainly innocent, to affirm their guilt to a waiting world.

Here in the US, we don’t need to force people to confess to crimes they didn’t commit (though we certainly do that, too). No, to truly validate our system, we conscript the defendant’s soul in a different way.

A state-by-state survey conducted by NPR found that defendants are charged for many government services that were once free, including those that are constitutionally required. For example:



  • In at least 43 states and the District of Columbia, defendants can be billed for a public defender.

  • In at least 41 states, inmates can be charged room and board for jail and prison stays.

  • In at least 44 states, offenders can get billed for their own probation and parole supervision.

  • And in all states except Hawaii, and the District of Columbia, there’s a fee for the electronic monitoring devices defendants and offenders are ordered to wear.


These fees — which can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars — get charged at every step of the system, from the courtroom, to jail, to probation. Defendants and offenders pay for their own arrest warrants, their court-ordered drug and alcohol-abuse treatment and to have their DNA samples collected. They are billed when courts need to modernize their computers. In Washington state, for example, they even get charged a fee for a jury trial — with a 12-person jury costing $250, twice the fee for a six-person jury.


It would be short-sighted to see these policies as mere cost-saving measures. Their function seems as ideological as it is financial. As one court administrator in Michigan put it:

The only reason that the court is in operation and doing business at that point in time is because that defendant has come in and is a user of those services. They don’t necessarily see themselves as a customer because, obviously, they’re not choosing to be there. But in reality they are.


That these policies overwhelmingly target the poor only adds to their allure: What better way to reform capitalism’s losers than to force them to pay to play?

In the same way that the Stalinist show trial was meant to model the virtuous comrade—so dutiful to the ideals of communism that he would sacrifice his very life in order to validate the cause—so does the American criminal justice system model the virtuous capitalist: so committed to the ideals of the free market that he’s willing to pay the price, in both senses of the word, of his crime.

The War on Workers’ Rights

by Corey Robin on May 19, 2014

I have an oped in the New York Times on the Republican war on workers’ rights at the state level. My conclusion:

The overall thrust of this state legislation is to create workers who are docile and employers who are empowered. That may be why Republican legislators in Idaho, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Ohio, Minnesota, Utah and Missouri have been so eager to ease restrictions on when and how much children can work. High schoolers should learn workplace virtues, says the conservative commentator Ben Stein, like “not talking back.” Early exposure to employment will teach 12-year-olds, as the spokesman of an Idaho school district put it, that “you have to do what you’re asked, what your supervisor is telling you.”


And if workers don’t learn that lesson in junior high, recent Republican changes to state unemployment codes will ensure that they learn it as adults. In 2011, Florida stipulated that any employee fired for “deliberate violation or disregard of the reasonable standards of behavior which the employer expects” would be ineligible for unemployment benefits. Arkansas passed a similar amendment (“violation of any behavioral policies of the employer”). The following year so did South Carolina (“deliberate violations or disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect”) and Tennessee. The upshot of these changes is that any employee breaking the rules of her employer — be they posting comments about work on Facebook, dating a co-worker or an employee from a rival firm, going to the bathroom without permission — can be fired and denied unemployment. Faced with that double penalty, any worker might think twice about crossing her boss.


What might Adam Smith, often claimed as the intellectual godfather of the American right, have said about these legislative efforts? “Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen,” wrote Smith in “The Wealth of Nations,” “its counsellors are always the masters. When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters.”


Indeed.


The oped is based on Gordon Lafer’s eye-opening report last fall for the Economic Policy Institute, “The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011-2012,” which you should also read.

The Gender Gap in Political Theory

by Corey Robin on May 13, 2014

I just wanted to give a quick shout-out to an important new blog—Ms. Perestroika—that’s keeping track of the gender gap in academic political theory. It just started, but already it’s got informative posts on recent job searches and hires, the publication record of Political Theory, whose books are getting reviewed and by whom, and the composition of panels at the Western Political Science Association. This seems like an important initiative, so I wanted to make sure folks knew about it.

Clarence Thomas’s Counterrevolution

by Corey Robin on May 8, 2014

What follows is a talk I gave at the University of Washington this past weekend on my working paper “Smiling Faces Tell Lies: Pessimism, Originalism, and Capitalism in the Jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas.” The paper is still incomplete. I only managed to write about Thomas’s theories of racism and how they intersect with his philosophy of constitutional interpretation. In the coming months, I intend to expand the paper to talk about Thomas’s views on capitalism, and how they inform his jurisprudence about the Commerce Clause, the Takings Clause, and more. Ultimately, this paper will be published by the University of Chicago Press in a volume on African-American political thought, edited by Melvin Rogers and Jack Turner. Other contributors will include: Cedric Johnson on Huey Newton, Nikhil Singh on Malcolm X, Lawrie Balfour on Toni Morrison, Michael Dawson on Marcus Garvey, Naomi Murakawa on Ida B. Wells, Jason Frank on Langston Hughes, Tommie Shelby on Richard Wright, Danielle Allen on Ralph Ellison, and many many more. It’s going to be fantastic. But until then, here’s my talk on Clarence Thomas. If you’d like a copy of the paper, email me at corey.robin@gmail.com.

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Yesterday, Nikhil Singh said that more than any other figure in the African American canon, Malcolm X is someone who everyone thinks they know. Clarence Thomas, I’ve discovered in the past six months, is also a figure who everyone thinks they know. In the interest of dispelling that expectation, which many of you may share, I’d like to present five facts about Clarence Thomas that perhaps you didn’t know.

  1. The first time Clarence Thomas went to Washington, DC, it was to protest the Vietnam War. The last time that Clarence Thomas attended a protest, as far as I can tell, it was to free Bobby Seale and Erikah Huggins.

  2. Clarence Thomas does not believe in color-blindness: “I don’t think this society has ever been color-blind,” he said in 1985, in the third year of his tenure as head of the EEOC. “I grew up in Savannah, Georgia under segregation. It wasn’t color-blind and America is not color-blind today…Code words like ‘color-blind’ aren’t all that useful.” Or, as he told Juan Williams in 1987, “there is nothing you can do to get past black skin. I don’t care how educated you are, how good you are—you’ll never have the same contacts or opportunities, you’ll never be seen as equal to whites.”

  3. When Clarence Thomas was in college he memorized the speeches of Malcolm X; two decades later, he could still recite them by heart. “I’ve been very partial to Malcolm X,” he told a libertarian magazine in 1987. “There is a lot of good in what he says.”

  4. There’s a law review article about Clarence Thomas that’s called “Clarence X?: The Black Nationalist Behind Justice Thomas’s Constitutionalism.”

  5. Clarence Thomas resents the fact that as a black man he’s not allowed to listen to Carole King.

Now, the truth is that there’s nothing all that surprising about the fact that Clarence Thomas is black and conservative. There’s a long tradition of black conservatism in this country. And from Edmund Burke to Ayn Rand, conservatism always and everywhere has been the work of outsiders, men and women who hail from the peripheries or margins of the national experience.

Nor, in the end, is Clarence Thomas’s early engagement with black radicalism all that surprising. After all, one of the great clichés of the twentieth century is the young left-wing radical graduating to middle-aged conservatism. And as Cedric Johnson, Michael Dawson, and other scholars have reminded us, there’s a deep affinity between conservatism and parts of the Black Power/Black Nationalist tradition.

But here, I think, is what is surprising about Clarence Thomas: First, he’s a Supreme Court justice who has managed in his jurisprudence to incorporate rather than repudiate some of his early commitments to Black Nationalism and Black Power; I think it’s fair to say no other Supreme Court justice has done that. And, second, Thomas is a constitutional originalist, and a rather radical one at that. Unlike any other justice—not Scalia, not Roberts, not Alito—Thomas wants to restore the Constitution to the meaning it had in 1789.

How Thomas has been able to marry an incredibly bleak vision of the black past, a vision rooted in black nationalism, to a document that is not only the fountainhead of that past but is also, on his account, the source of an alternative black future—not, as Thurgood Marshall and other liberal constitutionalists would have it, because it is a “living Constitution,” but precisely because it is dead: that is the basic puzzle of Clarence Thomas and what makes him, I think, more interesting than many of us realized. [click to continue…]

The Calculus of Their Consent

by Corey Robin on May 5, 2014

In addition to Kieran’s terrific write-up yesterday on Foucault’s engagement with Gary Becker, I want to recommend Kathy Geier’s very smart treatment of, among other things, feminist critiques of Becker’s theory of the family.

There are many ideas in Becker’s Treatise on the Family (originally published in 1981; republished in a revised version in 1991) that are problematic and/or offensive to feminists. For one thing, there is the assumption that economic actors behave selfishly in markets but altruistically within families — a theory that’s objectionable in both parts. There’s also the matter of how, in the words of Deirdre McCloskey, “the family in Becker’s world has one purpose, one utility function — guess whose? — unproblematically unified in the way that the neoclassical firm is supposed to be.” [click to continue…]

Queering the Strike

by Corey Robin on May 1, 2014

In The Empire of Necessity, Greg Grandin gives us a fascinating history of the phrase “to strike.” Seems like a good story for May Day.

The phrase to strike to refer to a labor stoppage comes from maritime history and is an example of how revolutionary times can redefine a word to mean its exact opposite. Through the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth century, to strike was used as a metaphor for submission, referring to the practice of captured ships dropping, or striking, their sails to their conquerors and of subordinate ships doing the same to salute their superiors. “Now Margaret / must strike her sail,” wrote William Shakespeare in Henry VI, describing an invitation extended by the “Mighty King” of France to Margaret, the weaker Queen of England, to join him at the dinner table “and learn a while to serve / where kings command.” Or as this 1712 account of a British privateer taking a Spanish man-o’war off the coast of Peru put it: “fir’d two shot over her, and then she struck,” and bowed “down to us.” But in 1768, London sailors turned the term inside out. Joining city artisans and tradesmen—weavers, hatters, sawyers, glass-grinders, and coal heavers—in the fight for better wages, they struck their sails and paralyzed the city’s commerce. They “unmanned or otherwise prevented from sailing every ship in the Thames.” From this point forward, strike meant the refusal of submission.


Not unlike how gays and lesbians owned the word “queer.”

The New York Times reports on a complicated Supreme Court case involving the First Amendment rights of a public employee in Alabama (h/t Mark Ames). The case boils down to this: Edward Lane, a state employee, was subpoenaed to testify at a federal trial about the corruption of another state employee. As a result of his testimony, Lane was fired by his boss. Lane claims that his First Amendment rights were violated; the lower courts have ruled against him. Now the Supreme Court is considering the case.

But this in the Times report is what caught my eye: [click to continue…]

Countering Thomas Piketty’s critique of inherited wealth, Tyler Cowen suggests that such dynastic accumulations of private wealth may be a precondition of great art:

Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity. Piketty’s own book was published by the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, which received its initial funding in the form of a 1949 bequest from Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., an architect and art historian who inherited a good deal of money from his father, a vice president of Bankers Trust. (The imprint’s funds were later supplemented by a grant from Belknap’s mother.) And consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others. [click to continue…]