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coreyrobin

Three Thoughts on BDS and Liberal Zionism

by Corey Robin on December 13, 2014

So this is an interesting development.

A group of prominent liberal Zionists—including Michael Walzer, Michael Kazin, and Todd Gitlin—is calling for “personal sanctions” against “Israeli political leaders and public figures who lead efforts to insure permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank and to annex all or parts of it unilaterally in violation of international law.” The personal sanctions they’re calling for include visa restrictions imposed by the US state.

Three thoughts about this move.

First, good for them. It’s limited and makes several assumptions that I don’t accept, but it ratchets up the pressure. That’s great.

Second, it shows just how aware these intellectuals are of the power of BDS. There’s little doubt that without BDS—especially the ASA academic boycott—this never would have happened. Indeed, as Haaretz explains, the group that organized this statement was formed in 2013 explicitly in response to BDS. [click to continue…]

Saskia Sassen…Willem Sassen…Adolf Eichmann

by Corey Robin on December 7, 2014

Marc Parry has a poignant, almost haunting story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Saskia Sassen, the Columbia sociologist and urban theorist, whose father was Willem Sassen. If you’ve read Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem—or are a close reader of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem—you’ll know that Willem Sassen was a Dutch Nazi who joined up with the SS. More important, he was part of a circle of Nazis in postwar Argentina, where he led a series of interviews with Adolf Eichmann, in which Eichmann outs himself as a committed anti-Semite and firm believer in the Final Solution. The Sassen interviews have always been a part of the Eichmann/Arendt story, but they have become especially important in the last few years with the publication of Stangneth’s book.

I bought and read the book back in September, and it was then that I realized that Saskia, who I’ve met and been in touch with over the years, was the daughter of Willem. I had no idea about the connection. But then I looked up Willem Sassen’s Wikipedia page, and there it was, for anyone to see. I asked a bunch of fellow academics, all of them readers or colleagues of Saskia. None of them knew about the connection either.

At one level, this is much of a muchness. There’s an entire generation of children, now grandchildren and great grandchildren, of Nazis and their fellow travelers, and they’ve all had to come to terms with the actions of their parents and grandparents. Saskia’s career and contributions have nothing to do with her father. Nor should they. I can certainly identify with her desire to be known on her terms: she was but a child when her father was conspiring with Eichmann to rehabilitate the latter’s reputation and that of the Nazis more generally.

What’s interesting to me about the story—in addition to the sheer and sad drama of any of us having to confront who our parents are and what they may have done in the past—is, given Saskia’s stature, how few of us knew about this story. Particularly with its cognate connection to Arendt. As I’ve been writing over these past few months, the Arendt/Eichmann story is of perennial interest, and the Sassen chapter of that story has become increasingly important. What’s more, Saskia’s husband—Richard Sennett—was a student of Arendt’s. And Saskia was part of a circle around Susan Sontag, who was also connected to Arendt in the 1960s, and who shrewdly cornered Saskia one day in the 1980s and asked her, “So what is your story in Argentina?”

As Stagneth documents, in the 1950s, it was common knowledge among government sources and agents, from Germany to Israel, that Eichmann was hiding out in Argentina. Everyone knew it, yet no one really seemed to know it. There’s a similarly purloined letter quality to this story about Saskia Sassen. In addition to the Wikipedia page, Saskia has given some interviews about her father over the years. Yet few people, even her closest friends, knew about it. As Parry reports in one of the most moving parts of the article, the urban sociologist Susan Fainsten has known Saskia since they were colleagues at Queens College many years ago.


Fainstein considers Sassen a good friend. She even had Willem Sassen to dinner (a “charming elderly gentleman,” as she recalls). Yet Sassen didn’t tell her about his history. Only later, in part through reading about Eichmann Before Jerusalem, did Fainstein, who is Jewish, come to appreciate its significance. “I wish she had told me,” Fainstein says, “and given me the option of inviting him to dinner or not on that basis.”

To me, this is really a story about secrets that aren’t secrets, fugitive knowledge that’s hiding in plain sight.

Update (11 pm)

Just because, judging by some of the initial comments, I feel like we’re heading into a major clusterfuck of a comments thread, even by Crooked Timber standards, I want to make clear what I’m saying here and what I’m not saying, and why I posted this. As anyone who’s been reading my posts here these past few months knows, I’ve been fairly obsessed with the Stangneth book and the larger issues of the Arendt/Eichmann controversy. The Sassen file in that archive is hugely significant. So merely to find out about the filial tie between Saskia Sassen and Willem Sassen is of interest. But that’s not why I wrote this or what draws me to the story. What fascinates me—aside from the near universal quality of the story itself, insofar as it is about children confronting and coming to terms with the mystery and otherness of their parents, something that very few of us manage to do with any kind of grace or equanimity; again, a topic I’ve written about here before—is that this was a story that wasn’t hidden yet few people knew about. And it’s not an incidental story, insofar as the players are pretty big deals in their various worlds. Again: Arendt, Eichmann, Willem Sassen, Saskia Sassen. And the reason that that doubly fascinates me is precisely that it doesn’t seem as if Saskia actually kept it a secret. As I mention, and the article discusses, she gave interviews on the topic; it was on Wikipedia. That said, I don’t think she was obligated to tell people about this; I’m more struck by the fact that she did, yet so few people, even her close friends, knew. So for me this whole story is really about a puzzle: about how certain things can be in plain sight, yet not seen or known. The purloined letter, as I mentioned.

The real problem with The New Republic

by Corey Robin on December 6, 2014

The New Republic is coming to an end. And the autopsies have begun. So have the critiques. But the real problem with The New Republic is not that it was racist, though it was. It’s not that it was filled with warmongers, though it was. It’s not that it punched hippies, though it did. No, the real problem with The New Republic is that for the last three decades, it has had no energy. It has had no real project. The last time The New Republic had a project was in the late 1970s/early 1980s, when it was in the journalistic vanguard of what was then called neoliberalism (not what we now call neoliberalism). That is what a great magazine of politics and culture does: it creates a project, it fashions a sensibility. The Spectator did it in the early 18th century, Partisan Review in the 1930s did it, Dissent in the 1950s did it, and The New Republic in the 1970s/1980s did it. I’m not saying that I like that last project; I don’t. I’m just saying that it was a project, and that it was a creation. Love them or hate them, great magazines gather the diverse and disparate energies of a polity and a culture and give them focus. They shape assumptions, they direct attention, they articulate a direction. The New Republic hasn’t done that since I was a teenager. (That’s the irony/inanity of Stephen Glass’ famed—really, fabled—fabulism: there was nothing fabulistic about it at all. His lies weren’t stretchers. They were social truths: they played to, repeated, every conventional assumption of the age of which the magazine was capable.) That’s why virtually every obituary for the magazine that’s been written by people of roughly my age opens or closes with a memoir of one’s high school experience; the entire constituency of the magazine seems to be suffering from a Judd Apatow-like case of arrested development. In the last three decades, The New Republic has generated controversy, clickbait, talk of the town. It’s sponsored solid journalism, smart criticism, bad policy and bloody wars. God knows, it has not suffered for talent or intelligence. But what it hasn’t done is create a sense or sensibility, a deep style in the Nietzschean sense. It has instead been living off the borrowed energy and dead labor of its past. It has long ceased to be the place where the intellectual action is. To mourn its demise now is to mourn something that disappeared years ago.

More News on the Steven Salaita Case

by Corey Robin on December 5, 2014

1. Thirty-four heads of departments and academic units at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wrote a scorching letter to the University of Illinois’s new president. With some startling information about the effect the boycott is having on the University:

More than three-dozen scheduled talks and multiple conferences across a variety of disciplines – including, for example, this year’s entire colloquium series in the Department of Philosophy – have already been canceled, and more continue to be canceled, as outside speakers have withdrawn in response to the university’s handling of Dr. Salaita’s case. The Department of English decided to postpone a program review originally scheduled for spring 2015 in anticipation of being unable to find qualified external examiners willing to come to campus. Tenure and promotion cases may be affected as faculty at peer institutions consider extending the boycott to recommendation letters.

Most troubling of all, the ability of many departments to successfully conduct faculty searches, especially at the senior level, has been seriously jeopardized. While the possible negative effects on even junior searches remain to be seen, the Department of History has already abandoned a previously authorized senior search in U.S. history this year in recognition of the bleak prospects of attracting suitable applicants in the current climate. An open rank search in Philosophy attracted 80% fewer applicants at the rank of associate or full professor than a senior search in the same area of specialization just last year.


I had no idea about these canceled or crippled searches and the postponement of a program review. That is a major development, as anyone who’s ever been part of a search or program review knows, and it shows just how pervasive the opposition to the university’s handling of the case has been—or, if not outright opposition, how corrosive to the university’s reputation the case has been. What’s more, that sense of the university’s contamination shows no signs of easing up. If anything, it’s getting worse. [click to continue…]

Scabs, Scantrons, and Strikes at the University of Oregon

by Corey Robin on November 22, 2014

From the Department of You Can’t Make This Shit Up…

Grad students at the University of Oregon are about to go out on strike.

Last year, we talked here about how the faculty at the University of Oregon were trying to negotiate a fair contract with the administration. You’ll recall that the administration wasn’t doing itself any favors with its outlandish efforts to deny faculty privacy and encroach on faculty autonomy outside the university. Because of the pressure we managed to put on the administration, we helped to get the faculty a good contract. Now we need to stand with the grad students and their union fight. Only this time, the administration is being even more outlandish.

At the heart of the dispute is a demand by the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTTF) for two weeks of paid leave for illness or childbirth. The city of Eugene, which is where the University is located, mandates that all workers in the city get sick leave benefits. But university employees are exempted from the policy, so the GTTF has to bargain for the benefits.

Now it just so happens that the university’s interim president, Scott Coltrane, is a sociologist who’s a leading national spokesperson for the importance of…good family leave policies. He’s been featured in The Atlantic and on NPR. He was even at the White House last June to speak about how important these policies are. Well, he certainly wouldn’t be the first academic who talks left and walks right.

But here’s where things get really delicious. [click to continue…]

Darkness Visible: The Depression of George Scialabba

by Corey Robin on November 13, 2014

Many of you will know George Scialabba simply as “geo,” one of our most thoughtful, incisive, and funny commenters at Crooked Timber. You may not know, however, that George has a day job. Two, actually. One is as the manager of a building at Harvard. The other is as one of our most brilliant contemporary essayists and critics. I discovered George’s essays about a decade and a half ago, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

One other fact about George you may not know: he has been suffering from acute depression for nearly a half-century.

In The Baffler today, he has a memoir of sorts about that depression. It’s really a record of the memos, emails, reports from the various doctors, therapists, psychiatrists he has seen over the years. While I’ve read some of the memoirs/reports of depression—William Styron’s and Andrew Solomon’s—George’s collection of documents is oddly more harrowing and desperate than those memoirs. Because you see just how baffled and helpless the doctors and helping professions often are as well. Every few years, they have to reinvent the wheel, it seems, and start from scratch.

What also marks George’s piece is his attention to the political economy of mental illness and its treatment. His conclusion, I fear, will be overlooked:


Let me bring this melancholy chronicle up to date. The last record printed here is dated July 2012. Things remained bad through August and September. In early October I began a three-month medical leave of absence, with pay; I had taken a similar leave in 2005, when the depression was at its worst. Harvard has a generous provision for medical leave, perhaps because of the presence of a strong union, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW). Once again, the medical leave made possible a course of electroconvulsive therapy, this one only about half as long as before.


What would have happened if I had not received those medical leaves is something I’d rather not think about. At the least, a psychological ordeal would have eventuated in a financial calamity. The combination of an enlightened employer and a strong union is one that ever fewer Americans enjoy. Universal financial security is probably the single best countermeasure to the depression epidemic. It would certainly be more effective and more humane—and even, perhaps, cheaper—than providing antidepressants and ECT.



Anyway, you should read it. Here also is a piece in the Boston Globe about it. And an interview with George, too.

David Ricardo: Machiavelli of the Margin

by Corey Robin on November 13, 2014

In my grad seminar this semester at the CUNY Graduate Center, “The Political Theory of Capitalism,” we’ve been exploring how some of the classics of modern political economy translate, traduce, transmit, efface, revise, and/or sublimate traditional categories of and concepts in Western political theory: consent, obedience, rule, law, and so forth.

Through economic thinkers like Smith, Ricardo, Keynes, Schumpeter, Jevons, and the like, we try and read political economy as the distinctively modern idiom of political theory. In the same way that religion provided a distinctive language and vocabulary for political thought after Rome and before the Renaissance, might not economics provide modern political theory with its own distinctive idiom and form? In other words, our interest in the political moment of economic discourse is not when the state intervenes or intrudes on the market; it’s when economic discourse seems to be most innocent of politics. That’s when we find the most resonant and pregnant political possibilities.

I’ll give you an example.

For the last several weeks we’ve been reading and talking about Ricardo’s On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, which I have to admit, damn near killed me. Turns out it’s really hard to teach a text you don’t understand.

But one of the more interesting—and, at least to me, semi-intelligible—arguments in Ricardo is his account of rent. (I don’t think the problem is Ricardo; it’s me.) For it’s there, in his chapter on rent, that he introduces the idea of the margin. I could be wrong, but I don’t see anything like a notion of the margin in other parts of the book. It’s all in his chapter on rent. (Ricardo experts or intellectual historians: is that right? Are there other places in Ricardo’s texts where he talks about the margin? Were there other theorists prior to Ricardo who talked about it?)

Now that in and of itself is interesting: Is there something to be gleaned from or learned about the idea of the margin from the fact that it arose, for Ricardo, in the context of a discourse on rent? [click to continue…]

So I know I wrote this in The Reactionary Mind:

Beyond these simple professions of envy or admiration, the conservative actually copies and learns from the revolution he opposes. “To destroy that enemy,” Burke wrote of the Jacobins, “by some means or other, the force opposed to it should be made to bear some analogy and resemblance to the force and spirit which that system exerts.”

This is one of the most interesting and least understood aspects of conservative ideology. While conservatives are hostile to the goals of the left, particularly the empowerment of society’s lower castes and classes, they often are the left’s best students.


Sometimes, their studies are self-conscious and strategic, as they look to the left for ways to bend new vernaculars, or new media, to their suddenly delegitimated aims. Fearful that the philosophes had taken control of popular opinion in France, reactionary theologians in the middle of the eighteenth century looked to the example of their enemies. They stopped writing abstruse disquisitions for each other and began to produce Catholic agitprop, which would be distributed through the very networks that brought enlightenment to the French people. They spent vast sums funding essay contests, like those in which Rousseau made his name, to reward writers who wrote accessible and popular defenses of religion.

Even without directly engaging the progressive argument, conservatives may absorb, by some elusive osmosis, the deeper categories and idioms of the left, even when those idioms run directly counter to their official stance. After years of opposing the women’s movement, for example, Phyllis Schlafly seemed genuinely incapable of conjuring the prefeminist view of women as deferential wives and mothers. Instead, she celebrated the activist “power of the positive woman.”…When she spoke out against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), she didn’t claim that it introduced a radical new language of rights. Her argument was the opposite. The ERA, she told the Washington Star, “is a takeaway of women’s rights.” It will “take away the right of the wife in an ongoing marriage, the wife in the home.” Schlafly was obviously using the language of rights in a way that was opposed to the aims of the feminist movement; she was using rights talk to put women back into the home, to keep them as wives and mothers. But that is the point: conservatism adapts and adopts, often unconsciously, the language of democratic reform to the cause of hierarchy.


Still, I was surprised to read this in the International Business Times:

White supremacist organisation, the Ku Klux Klan is rebranding as the “new Klan” by trying to increase membership to Jews, black people, gays and those of Hispanic origin.



Some black people have already expressed an interest in joining, after John Abarr organised a summit with civil rights groups.


Abarr, who has claimed that he is a former white supremacist, told the Great Falls Tribune, “The KKK is for a strong America. White supremacy is the old Klan. This is the new Klan.”


Abarr has organised a peace summit with religious groups and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) next summer.


The KKK organiser from Great Falls, Montana told the Associated Press that he filled out a membership card to NAACP, not only paying the $30 enrollment fee but also adding a $20 donation.


Jimmy Simmons, a president of the Montana NAACP chapter, said that while he questioned the use of the letters KKK, if the peace summit took place, he would “take a strong look” at joining the Rocky Mountain Knights.


“If John Abarr was actually reformed, he could drop the label of the KKK,” said Rachel Carroll-Rivas from the Montana Human Rights Network. “They know that their beliefs aren’t popular, so they try to appear moderate. I think it’s just a farce. Our mission for the last 24 years has been to shine a light on hatred.”


However, the more traditional elements of the organisation were unhappy about the direction Abarr is heading in.


Bradley Jenkins, Imperial Wizard of the KKK, said: “That man’s going against everything the bylaws of the constitution of the KKK say. He’s trying to hide behind the KKK to further his political career.”


In 2011 Abarr, describing himself as a former KKK organiser, ran as a Republican for Montana’s seat in the US House of Representatives, reportedly believing there would be a backlash against President Obama’s re-election.


According to an Associated Press report at the time, Abarr’s manifesto included “promises to legalize marijuana, increase mental health programs, keep abortion legal, abolish the death penalty… and ‘save the White Race.’”


At the time mainstream Republicans denounced Abarr as a racist. ”There’s no room for racism in our party,” said Rich Hill, a former Republican congressman who lost the 2012 election for Montana’s governor. “That is not what we are about, and we have never been about that.”

In the post just before me, Chris writes:

Yesterday I was listening to BBC Radio 4, and they were remembering the people who died, shot by East German border guards. It doesn’t seem to occur to our official voices of commemoration that there are parallels today with the thousands who die trying to escape tyranny, war or poverty and who drown in the Mediterranean, perish from thirst in the Arizona desert, or with those who the Australian government turns back at sea or interns offshore.

He’s right. Years ago, I reviewed two books on migration, immigration, and exile—one by Caroline Moorehead, the other by Seyla Benhabib—for The Nation. Here’s a factoid from that review:

 

Between 1994 and 2001, at least 1,700 migrants from Mexico died trying to reach the United States. Throughout its entire existence, by contrast, exactly 171 people died trying to cross the Berlin wall.

And that, mind you, was under the Clinton regime, before the last decade and a half of agitation around the extension and elaboration of a security wall between Mexico and the United States.

And just in case anyone missed the parallels between the Berlin Wall and the separation wall in Israel, Palestinian activists are on the case (not that anyone in the Western media noticed them, as Chris notes). [click to continue…]

One of the more recent criticisms I’ve read of Eichmann in Jerusalem—in Bettina Stangneth’s and Deborah Lipstadt’s books—is that far from seeing, or seeing through, Eichmann, Arendt was taken in by his performance on the witness stand. Eichamnn the liar, Eichmann the con man, got the better of Arendt the dupe.

For the sake of his defense, the argument goes, Eichmann pretended to be a certain type of Nazi—not a Jew hater but a dutiful if luckless soldier, who wound up, almost by happenstance, shipping millions of Jews to their death.

Arendt heard this defense, and though she never accepted the notion that Eichmann was an obedient soldier (she thought he was a great deal worse than that), she did conclude that Eichmann had “an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” Eichmann was hermetically sealed off from the world, from the perspective of people who weren’t Nazis. Because the “more decisive flaw in Eichmann’s character was his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view,” he “never realized what he was doing.” He knew he was sending Jews to their death; he just didn’t grasp the moral significance of that act, wherein its evil lay, how others, including his victims and their families, might see it.

According to evidence presented by Stangneth and Lipstadt, Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel was indeed a performance on Eichmann’s part. The truth is that he was a rabid anti-Semite who took initiative and on occasion defied the directives of his superiors in order to make sure even more Jews went to their death; at one point, Lipstadt reports, he even personally challenged Hitler’s order to allow some 40,000 Hungarian Jews to be released for emigration to Palestine via Switzerland.

At every stage of his career, Eichmann knew what he was doing. In power, he did it with zeal; out of power, in the dock, he tried to pretend that he hadn’t, or that if he had, that he had no choice.

Arendt’s vision of the banality of evil, her critics claim, rests upon a failure to see this, the real Eichmann. Eichmann the trickster, Eichmann the con man, rather than Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel.

As I’ve written before, I think there’s something to this argument about Arendt’s failure to apprehend Eichmann’s performance as a performance. Arendt sometimes, though not nearly as often as her critics claim, did take Eichmann at his word, and it never seems to have occurred to her that he would have had the cunning—and necessary self-awareness—to fashion an image of himself that might prove more palatable to the court.

But if Eichmann was indeed a liar, that, it seems to me, argues in favor of Arendt’s overall thesis of the banality of evil, not against it. Once you work through the implications of Eichmann the liar—as opposed to Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel—it becomes clear that it is Arendt’s critics, rather than Arendt, who have not only failed to come to terms with his evil, but who also may have, albeit inadvertently, minimized what he actually did.

So let’s work this one through. [click to continue…]

David Brooks, Edmund Burke, and Me

by Corey Robin on October 23, 2014

David Brooks:

Burke is famous for his belief in gradual change….I’m sticking to my Burkean roots. Change should be steady, constant and slow. Society has structural problems, but they have to be reformed by working with existing materials, not sweeping them away in a vain hope for instant transformation.

Edmund Burke on the East India Company:
It is fixed beyond all power of reformation…this body, being totally perverted from the purposes of its institution, is utterly incorrigible; and because they are incorrigible, both in conduct and constitution, power ought to be taken out of their hands; just on the same principles on which have been made all the just changes and revolutions of government that have taken place since the beginning of the world.

Me:
The other reason I have dwelled so long on Burke is that though he’s often held up as the source of conservatism, I get the feeling he’s not often read….Sure, someone will quote a passage here or a phrase there, but the quotations inevitably have a whiff of cliché about them—little platoons and so on—emitting that stale blast of familiarity you sense when you listen to someone go on about a text he may or may not have read during one week in college.

David Brooks:
Gail, as you know I have a policy of teaching at colleges I couldn’t have gotten into, and as a result I find myself teaching at Yale….I just got out of a class in which we discussed Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”

Adolph Eichmann, Funny Man

by Corey Robin on October 22, 2014

One of the criticisms often made of Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial was that she found Eichmann funny. Throughout Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt can barely contain her laughter at the inadvertent comedy of the man, which was connected to her claim of his banality and to the ironic tone she adopted throughout the text. Many at the time found her tone flippant and her irony distasteful; since then, her appreciation of Eichmann’s buffoonery has been seen as a sign, to her critics, of her haughty indifference to the suffering he inflicted.

Yet, in reading about the trial, it’s quite clear that Arendt wasn’t the only one who found Eichmann funny. So did the courtroom, which periodically broke out into laughter at the accidental hilarity wafting down from the witness stand. As Deborah Lipstadt reports:

This was not the only time Eichmann seemed oblivious to how strange his explanations sounded. Servatius [Eichmann’s lawyer] asked him about a directive he had issued ordering that trains deporting Jews carry a minimum of one thousand people, even though their capacity was for only seven hundred. Eichmann claimed that the seven-hundred figure was calculated on the basis of soldiers with baggage. Since Jews’ luggage was sent separately, there was room for an additional three hundred people. The gallery erupted in laughter.

Laughter, Arendt observed in a 1944 essay on Kafka, “permits man to prove his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.” Those moments of laughter in Eichmann in Jerusalem—and in the courtroom—did not reflect an indifference to cruelty or suffering but a will to divest them of their unearned gravitas.

Laughter does not minimize evil; it denies evil the final word.

Of Collaborators and Careerists

by Corey Robin on October 17, 2014

The announcement of the death of David Greenglass has got me thinking a lot about collaborators. Though much of twentieth-century history could not be written without some discussion of collaborators—from Vichy to Stalinism to the Dirty Wars to McCarthyism—the topic hardly gets a mention in the great texts of political theory. Eichmann in Jerusalem being the sole exception.

In my first book on fear, I tried to open a preliminary discussion of the topic. That discussion drew from a wide range of twentieth-century experiences, in Europe, Latin America, the US, and elsewhere, as well as from my reading of Eichmann and Montesquieu’s Persian Letters.

Reading over what I wrote, I’d say I failed. I was so intent on breaking apart the conventional understanding of the collaborator as someone who aids and abets a foreign enemy that I wound up broadening the category too much. So intent was I, also, on breaking apart the three-legged stool of perpetrator-victim-bystander—where was the collaborator in all this, I wondered—that I wound up conflating low-level perpetrators with collaborators; I now think there’s an important difference there.

That said, I thought I’d reprint my discussion here. As I said, political theorists have yet to grapple with the problem of collaboration. Or careerism, which is a related topic. One day, when I’m in my dotage, I’d like to write a book, a kind of political theory of careerism and collaboration. Arendt thought we should take our theoretical cues from actual political experience; political theory was first and foremost an attempt to understand what we are doing. That’s why she wrote books and essays on totalitarianism, revolution, action, and other political phenomena. But when it comes to careerism and collaboration, we have yet to understand what we are doing. So here goes. [click to continue…]

There’s got to be a better way to prepare for class

by Corey Robin on October 14, 2014

There’s got to be a better way to prep for class. First I read the assigned text, taking notes while I’m reading either in the back of the book or, when space runs out, in a little pocket notebook that I carry. Then I read through those notes, highlighting specific passages or commentary that might be relevant for lecture and discussion. Then I re-type some (hopefully more coherent) version of those highlighted notes in a Word file, organizing them in some kind of thematic fashion or outline. (Sometimes I divide that step up into two: first, I retype all the highlighted notes in a Word file; then I organize those notes into outline form in a new Word file.) Once I have some basic sense of the themes I’ll be talking about and the passages I want to focus on, I prepare my lecture (whether it’s a grad seminar or an undergrad class, I always do some interwoven combination of lecture and discussion). All the while I’m trying to do some secondary reading to help me figure out what the hell is going on in or around the text. There’s got to be a better way to prep for class.

Since I blogged about Arendt and Eichmann on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I figured I’d do the same on Erev Yom Kippur.

Actually, there’s a reason I’ve been thinking about the Arendt/Eichmann controversy of late: it’s heating up again. This time, prompted by the publication in English of Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem. I’ve been reading the book, which offers a full-scale reconsideration not only of Eichmann but of how Eichmann presented himself at court in Jerusalem. In the background, inevitably, is Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Stagneth’s is an uneven book, which starts out with great promise (its opening set piece is almost worthy of Arendt), but performs the nearly magical feat of being both tendentious, maniacally repeating its argument over and over again, and wayward; it’s both polemical and dilatory.

One potentially fascinating angle of the book, which I haven’t seen Stangneth develop, at least not yet, is why Arendt wasn’t more interested in Eichmann’s performance at Jerusalem as a performance. Arendt, after all, had an especially theatrical conception of politics, understanding all that we do in the public sphere as a kind of performance, a mask we wear, a role we inhabit. And no one reading those opening pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem could fail to see just how theatrical is her sense of the “show trial” in Jerusalem. And yet Arendt refuses to apply those insights to Eichmann himself. Rather than see him as performing a part (Stangneth does a good job of showing that that is exactly what Eichmann was doing at Jerusalem), Arendt sees Eichmann as being subsumed by, or subsuming himself in, his role. That is, in part, his blankness, his banality, for Arendt. It’s understandable that Arendt would resist seeing Eichmann in Jerusalem as a performance: that is, after all, the point of her book. Even so, it’s a fascinating wrinkle in the story, one that I hope Stangneth will pursue at some point in the book.

Back to the Arendt/Eichmann wars. They seem to flare up every decade or so. What’s truly astonishing is that the wars continue today, more than a half-century after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. With the exception of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, what book has managed, 50 years later, to stir up so much wrath and rage? With books like the Bible or Capital, it’s more understandable: they, after all, are immediately linked to a political or religious movement. But Eichmann in Jerusalem is not.

Or perhaps it is… [click to continue…]