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Fight Racism. Confirm Clarence Thomas. (Updated)

by Corey Robin on May 25, 2015

I’ve been reading Jill Abramson’s and Jane Mayer’s Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, the definitive account of Thomas’s confirmation battle, which came out in 1994. Here are eight things I’ve learned from it. Among the many surprises of the book is how men and women who were connected to the confirmation battle, or to Thomas and/or Anita Hill, and who were little known at the time, would go on to become fixtures of and issues in our contemporary politics and culture.

1. Edward P. Jones, author of The Known World, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, was Clarence Thomas’s classmate at Holy Cross. They had long conversations.

2. Clarence Thomas was head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for eight years. When Bush nominated him to the Supreme Court, Strom Thurmond proudly declared, “I’ve known Clarence since he was head of the Unemployment Commission.”

3. Gary Bauer and Bill Kristol vacationed together at the beach each summer, along with their families. In the summer of 1991, at the Delaware shore, they planned the Christian right’s campaign to get Thomas confirmed to the Supreme Court.

4. Citizens United was formed by Floyd Brown in 1988 in the wake of the failed effort to get Robert Bork onto the Supreme Court. Brown helped make the Willie Horton ad. Getting Clarence Thomas confirmed by the Senate was one of the organization’s first missions. In 2010, Thomas was part of the slim majority that ruled in favor of Citizens United in Citizens United v. FEC. Though several arguments for his recusal in the case were brought up at the time, no one mentioned Citizens United’s contributions to his confirmation.

5. One of the ads pushing for Thomas’s Senate confirmation to the Court featured a photo of Thomas with the headline “To the Back of the Bus!” The copy read:

As the left strives to keep Judge Clarence Thomas from his seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s like forcing blacks to take a seat in the back of the bus. Fight racism. Call your U.S. Senators and urge them to confirm Judge Clarence Thomas.

6. Angela Wright, one of Thomas’s accusers whose testimony was buried by the Senate Judiciary Committee, worked for Charlie Rose when he was a Democratic congressman from North Carolina. [Update: Actually, the congressman Charlie Rose whom Right worked for was not the Charlie Rose of TV fame. My mistake! Thanks to Steve Hageman and Rick Perlstein for the correction.]

7. Kimberlé Crenshaw was part of the legal team advising Anita Hill.

8. Thomas liked to say that his favorite character in Star Wars was Darth Vader.

Updated (May 26)

9. One of the charges levied against Thomas in the hearings was that he had once spoken favorably about the views of Steve Macedo, the Princeton political theorist, who was at the time a conservative (and a professor at Harvard). There was an extended colloquy during the hearings between then Senator Joseph Biden, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Thomas—Utah Republican Orrin Hatch also got in on it at one point—about whether and why Thomas was attracted to Macedo’s views on natural law and property rights.

10. Along with Kimberlé Crenshaw, Janet Napolitano, Obama’s former Homeland Security Secretary, was also part of the legal team advising Anita Hill. Now she is the President of the University of California, where Crenshaw is a professor.

11. One of the leitmotifs of Mayer’s and Abramson’s book is how much Biden botched the Thomas/Hill hearings. From beginning—when Hill’s allegations first came to light—to end, when the Senate voted to approve Thomas, Biden got played, was cowed, caved into pressure from the White House and the Republicans, or simply didn’t care or understand enough of the issue to push for a fuller and fairer investigation of the facts.

12. When Howard Metzenbaum, also on the Judiciary Committee, found out the specifics of Anita Hill’s allegations about Thomas, the Ohio senator said, “If that’s sexual harassment, half the senators on Capitol Hill could be accused.”




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Arendt, Israel, and Why Jews Have So Many Rules

by Corey Robin on May 13, 2015

For more than five decades, readers of Eichmann in Jerusalem have accused Hannah Arendt of being a self-hating Jew. In the current issue of The Nation, I turn that accusation on its head. Eichmann in Jerusalem, I argue, “is a Jewish text filled not only with a modernist sense of Jewish irony…but also with an implicit Decalogue, a Law and the Prophets, animating every moment of its critique.” The reaction against Eichmann in Jerusalem, on the other hand, often coming from Jews, ”has something about it that, while not driven by Jew-haters or Jew-hatred, nevertheless draws deeply, if unwittingly, from that well.” What explains this reaction from Jews? Perhaps, I go onto write, it has something to do with the jump, within a relatively short period of time, “from the abject powerlessness of the Holocaust to the mega-power of the modern state” of Israel. That jump “not only liberated the Jew from his Judaism but also allowed him to indulge the classic canards against it.” Arendt was one of the earliest to spot that jump; the half-century-long campaign against her, which shows no signs of abating, is but one register of its consequences.

Along the way, I talk in my piece about the banality of evil, that moment in the 1960s when Norman Podhoretz wasn’t a fool, negative liberalism, the argument last fall between Seyla Benhabib and Richard Wolin, why Jews have so many rules, Matthew Arnold, and what the wrongness of Eichmann’s readers reveals about the rightness of its arguments.

Read it here.

Frederick Douglass in Baltimore

by Corey Robin on May 3, 2015

It was hard this week not to think of Frederick Douglass while watching the news from Baltimore. So I wrote a column about it.

Across the street from Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall, where violent protests erupted last Monday afternoon, stands Frederick Douglass High School. It was from that school that students emerged at 3 p.m., only to find themselves in the crosshairs of the police. The school is named after the famed abolitionist who spent 10 years a slave in Baltimore. Anyone familiar with Douglass’ most famous work—”Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself“—cannot but feel a bitter irony in that juxtaposition of Douglass High and the riots of the past week. For once upon a time, Baltimore offered Douglass a glimpse of freedom, which “laid the foundation and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity.”

There was, in short, something about the city itself, with its forcible confrontation of difference, that made a difference. Especially in the life of this black slave: “A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation.”

Historical comparison, across the divide of two centuries, is a risky business. But it’s hard not to reread Douglass’ “Narrative” against the grain of this week’s events in Baltimore and the decades of urban poverty and police brutality that preceded them. Though urban life has experienced a revival across the U.S. in recent years, that revival is premised not on a mixing of racial and economic categories, a meeting of different peoples and nations of the sort described by Douglass, but instead on a grim machine of racial absolutism and economic separation.

Even more jarring is Douglass’ contrast between the coercion of the countryside and the relative (I stress that word) freedom of the city. So tyrannical was the regime of the plantation and its satellites that Douglass resorted to the most political of metaphors to describe it. The plantation is “the seat of government for the whole twenty farms” surrounding it.

Today’s city—if you’re working class or of color—is also policed heavily. But where the plantation’s police—the overseer, the slave patrols—did their damnedest to wrest every last ounce of labor from the slave, today’s police keep watch over the unemployed or semi-employed. In the West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray—whose death while in police custody sparked the riots—grew up, one in four juveniles is arrested and the unemployment rate is 58 percent. The plantation’s police extracted labor; the city’s police preside over its disposal.

As Alex Gourevitch shows in an article in Perspectives on Politics due out this fall, urban police departments are a relatively new phenomenon. Throughout much of European and early American history, men and women were policed by their lords, owners or employers. But with the abolition of feudalism, slavery and other systems of bonded labor, some of that policing function was assumed by the state, especially in cities, where newly freed workers tended to migrate. In fact, most urban police departments in the U.S. were created in the second half of the 19th century. Their targets were, overwhelmingly, these workers, often operating at the margins of the economy. (With time, their targets became striking workers, operating at the very centers of capitalist production.)

 



 

Greg Grandin called me on Friday.

Greg: What are you doing?

Me: Working on my Salon column.

Greg: What’s it on?

Me: George Packer.

Greg: Low-hanging fruit.

Me: Did you see that article he wrote in The New Yorker, where he says he’s bored of American politics?

Greg: Uh oh. Bombs away.

Me: That’s the first line of my column! “When George Packer gets bored, I get worried. It means he’s in the mood for war.”

So here is said column, just out this morning. Packer did say he was getting bored of American politics. In fact, he wrote a whole article on it. So I examine how his political ennui so often gives him an itch for heroism, sacrifice, and war.

Packer belongs to a special tribe of ideologically ambidextrous scribblers — call them political romantics — who are always on the lookout for a certain kind of experience in politics. They don’t want power, they don’t seek justice, they’re not interested in interests. They want a feeling. A feeling of exaltation and elation, unmoored from any specific idea or principle save that of sacrifice, of giving oneself over to the nation and its cause.

It’s not that political romantics seek the extinction of the self in the purgative fire of the nation-state. It’s that they see in that hallucination an elevation of the self, a heightening of individual feeling, an intensification of personal experience. That’s what makes them so dangerous. They think they’re shopping for the public good, but they’re really in the market for an individual experience. An experience that often comes with a hefty price tag.

Perhaps that’s why, after the Charlie Hebdo murders, Packer was so quick to man the ideological ramparts.


You can finish it here.

 

Columbia University has a renowned department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures. It boasts a faculty of 36 professors and lecturers. In the last five years, they’ve produced 52 publications on topics ranging from the regional novel to medieval heresy. This year alone, they’ve offered 119 classes, where hundreds if not thousands of students speak Spanish (as well as other languages).

The Spanish language—written and spoken—is clearly prized by Columbia University.

Unless you’re a worker.

According to a petition being circulated by the Columbia Dining Workers and the Student Worker Solidarity group, the executive director of Columbia Dining, Vicki Dunn, has banned dining hall workers from speaking Spanish in the presence of students. The students don’t like it. She also banned the workers from eating in the presence of the students, forcing the workers to dine in a closet instead. (Mercifully that ruling was revoked.) And more generally she seems to take random student complaints as an opportunity to issue arbitrary and ever-changing edicts.

The two groups are circulating a petition with the following demands:

1. Columbia dining appears to have temporarily reversed the closet rule, but continue to discriminate against workers for speaking Spanish. This must cease immediately.

2. We as students demand that Columbia administration stop using individual student complaints to justify racist and degrading policies such as the prohibition of specific languages and the relegation of workers to cramped and unsanitary spaces.

“This shouldn’t be happening in student’s names, own your own decision, don’t try to pin this on students” – Anonymous Columbia Dining Worker

3. Workers ask that from now on, all new workplace policies be written down, publicly visible, and negotiated with their unions so as to prevent continued abuses.


Please read it and sign it.

 

Do the Jews Really Not Belong in the United States?

by Corey Robin on March 29, 2015

Last September, Joe Biden spoke to a group of invited guests, including leading American Jews, about Israel as a haven for American Jews:

Folks, there is no place else to go, and you understand that in your bones. You understand in your bones that no matter how hospitable, no matter how consequential, no matter how engaged, no matter how deeply involved you are in the United States … there’s only one guarantee. There is really only one absolute guarantee, and that’s the state of Israel.

I found that a rather stunning comment from a sitting vice president. So I wrote about it for my column at Salon.
 

Yet no one has remarked upon the fact of a sitting vice president telling a portion of the American citizenry that they cannot count on the United States government as the ultimate guarantor of their freedom and safety. The Constitution, which the vice president is sworn to uphold, guarantees to American citizens the “Blessings of Liberty” and equal protection of the law. Despite that, despite “how deeply involved” Jews “are in the United States,” the occupant of the second-highest office in the land believes that American Jews should look to a foreign government as the foundation of their rights and security.

A country that once offered itself as a haven to persecuted Jews across the world now tells its Jews that in the event of some terrible outbreak of anti-Semitism they should… what? Plan on boarding the next plane to Tel Aviv? It’s like some crazy fiction from Philip Roth, except that when Roth contemplated an exodus in “Operation Shylock,” it was to imagine the Jews fleeing Israel for Poland.


I talk about JFK on the Irish, Bernard Williams and Hobbes on the state, and Malcolm X on the UN. And begin my conclusion thus: “The reason no one has been ruffled by his statement, I suspect, has less to do with any special sensitivity to Jewish experience than with an ancient, not altogether wholesome, notion that the Jews are somehow different.” Read on here.

One of the things that makes me crazy about the media’s discussion of higher education is that so much of it is driven and framed by elite schools. During the 90s, when it seemed like every college and university was fighting over whether Shakespeare should give way to Toni Morrison on the syllabus, it occurred to few pundits to look at what was happening in community colleges or lower-tier public universities, where most students get their education. And where the picture can look quite different.

The same goes today for the wars over trigger warnings and safe spaces: on both sides of the debate, this is primarily an argument at and about elite schools. Which has little to do with a place like Brooklyn College, where I teach. Seriously: just check out Judith Shulevitz’s recent piece on the topic in the Times, which got so much notice. In a 2100-word oped, here are all the institutions that make an appearance: Brown, Columbia, Northwestern, Oxford, Smith, Hampshire, Barnard, and the University of Chicago. There are fewer students in all of these institutions combined than there are at CUNY alone; between them, these institutions enroll less than .4% of all students in America (not counting Oxford, of course, though it wouldn’t really change the numbers).

This is all a long windup to a piece in this morning’s Washington Post by a Columbia philosophy professor who is teaching at a prison in New York. [click to continue…]

Some Responses to the Israeli Election

by Corey Robin on March 20, 2015

Yousef Munayyer in the New York Times:


This might seem counterintuitive, but the political dynamics in Israel and internationally mean that another term with Mr. Netanyahu at the helm could actually hasten the end of Israel’s apartheid policies. The biggest losers in this election were those who made the argument that change could come from within Israel. It can’t and it won’t.


Israelis have grown very comfortable with the status quo. In a country that oversees a military occupation that affects millions of people, the biggest scandals aren’t about settlements, civilian deaths or hate crimes but rather mundane things like the price of cottage cheese and whether the prime minister’s wife embezzled bottle refunds.


For Israelis, there’s currently little cost to maintaining the occupation and re-electing leaders like Mr. Netanyahu. Raising the price of occupation is therefore the only hope of changing Israeli decision making. Economic sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s increased its international isolation and put pressure on the apartheid regime to negotiate. Once Israelis are forced to decide between perpetual occupation and being accepted in the international community, they may choose a more moderate leader who dismantles settlements and pursues peace, or they may choose to annex rather than relinquish land — provoking a confrontation with America and Europe. Either way, change will have to come from the outside.



The re-election of Mr. Netanyahu provides clarity….The two-state solution, which has seen more funerals than a reverend, exists today only as a talking point for self-interested, craven politicians to hide behind — not as a realistic basis for peace.



Mr. Netanyahu’s re-election has convincingly proved that trusting Israeli voters with the fate of Palestinian rights is disastrous and immoral. His government will oppose any constructive change, placing Israel on a collision course with the rest of the world. And this collision has never been more necessary.



[click to continue…]

The Lives They Lived, The Lives They Touched

by Corey Robin on March 9, 2015

The year after I graduated college, I lived out in the East Bay area. I was interning at a magazine, for free, and temping (among various other jobs) to support myself.

At one of my temping gigs I befriended a woman from Carbondale, Pennsylvania. Her name was Gloria. She had long black hair, wore lots of leather and makeup, and listened to hard rock and heavy metal. I think she had a son, though I can’t remember for sure. A working-class Italian-American from back East, we didn’t have much in common except a shared love for complaining about our job and trash-talking our boss. Even so, she wound up telling me a lot about her personal life (I have vague memories of  a problematic boyfriend on the scene). She also lent me a cookbook of Italian recipes that I never returned to her.

One day, Gloria furtively pulled out a folder of clippings and told me they were about her Aunt Viola. Viola had been a mother of five in Michigan who went south in the 1960s to march for voting rights for black Americans. Gloria told me she was shot and killed. Gloria was clearly proud of her aunt, but she also said that not everyone in her family felt the same way. I had never heard of her aunt or this story.

Viola_LiuzzoI forgot about both, until years later, when I learned the story of Viola Liuzzo. I put two and two together and realized that Gloria was Viola’s niece. For many years, Liuzzo was one of the forgotten heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. But apparently she now has received her due in the film Selma, which I haven’t seen yet.

Mary Stanton wrote a lovely piece on Liuzzo back in 1999, which was revived and posted this month, but before I provide some excerpts here, I want to come back to Gloria. As far I could tell, Gloria was not a political person. She was mostly a survivor—of bad jobs, bad relationships, bad luck. Even so, she had strong feelings about racism and racial equality, rooted in a sense of obligation to her murdered aunt. Just a small reminder of how many lives a radical movement of social change like the Civil Rights Movement can touch.

From Stanton’s piece: [click to continue…]

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program for a bit of shilling. Today I start a new gig as a columnist at Salon. It’ll be bimonthly (or is it biweekly? I can never get those two words straight.) I’m excited, if a bit nervous, about this venture. But if it goes south, I’m going to blame Henry; when I asked him if I should do it, he gave me his blessing (albeit with reservations.) Anyway, here’s my debut column: on racism, privilege talk, and schools.

Facebook can be a weird place on Martin Luther King Day. Some of my friends post famous passages from MLK’s speeches. Others post statistics on racial inequality. Still others, mostly white parents, post photographs of their children assembled in auditoriums and schoolyards. These are always hopeful images, the next generation stirring toward interracial harmony. Except for one thing: nearly everyone in the photos is … white.

In her public school this year, my first-grade daughter learned that Daisy Bates helped integrate the Little Rock schools. She knows that Ella Baker, someone I’d never heard of till I went to college, was part of the civil rights movement. Meanwhile, her school has a combined black and Latino population of 15 percent, down from nearly 30 percent just seven years ago.

In school, white children are taught to be conscious of race and racism in a way I never was when I was as a kid in the 1970s. Yet they go to schools that are in some respects more segregated now than they were in the 1970s….

Microsoft Word recognizes the word “desegregate.” It doesn’t recognize “resegregate.”

The way we live now is not reflected in the way we talk. Or type.


You can read more here.

And if you have suggestions for topics I should write about in my column—stories not being reported, books not being reviewed, ideas not being discussed—please don’t hesitate to email me at corey.robin@gmail.com. I’ll be looking for material.

Awakening to Cultural Studies

by Corey Robin on February 28, 2015

Leonard Nimoy’s death reminded me of a moment in college. I don’t remember what year it was, but I was talking with a student who was writing a paper—or was it his senior thesis?—on Star Trek. The paper/thesis was about how the TV show’s representations of race filtered and processed various anxieties and aspirations of the Cold War, particularly ideas about civil rights in the US and decolonization abroad.

Recalling this conversation, I was reminded of one of the critical aspects of my college education: realizing that mass culture or popular culture was a thing, something to be studied, analyzed—read (now that was a concept: reading mass culture)—with the same critical eye that you would bring to a literary text or historical event. [click to continue…]

What Do Hannah Arendt and Mel Brooks Have in Common?

by Corey Robin on February 27, 2015

Mel Brooks, interview with Mike Wallace:

How do you get even with Adolf Hitler? How do you get even with him? There’s only one way to get even. You have to bring him down with ridicule….If you can make people laugh at him, then you’re one up on him…One of my lifelong jobs has been to make the world laugh at Adolf Hitler.

Hannah Arendt, interview with Joachim Fest:
 

In my opinion people shouldn’t adopt an emotional tone to talk about these things [the Eichmann trial], since that’s a way of playing them down….I also think you must be able to laugh, since that’s a form of sovereignty.

Human Rights, Blah Blah Blah

by Corey Robin on February 20, 2015

Of the war on terror, Christopher Hitchens once said: “I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.” Now comes Bernard-Henri Lévy, who, when asked by Jon Lee Anderson why he supported the intervention in Libya, says, “Why? I don’t know! Of course, it was human rights, for a massacre to be prevented, and blah blah blah….” Never underestimate the murder and mayhem men will make, just to escape their boredom. Every enthusiasm, though, has a shelf life. Even imperialism.

We won! UMass Backs Down!

by Corey Robin on February 18, 2015

UMass issued the following announcement today:

The University of Massachusetts Amherst today announced that it will accept Iranian students into science and engineering programs, developing individualized study plans to meet the requirements of federal sanctions law and address the impact on students. The decision to revise the university’s approach follows consultation with the State Department and outside counsel.

“This approach reflects the university’s longstanding commitment to wide access to educational opportunities,” said Michael Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement. “We have always believed that excluding students from admission conflicts with our institutional values and principles. It is now clear, after further consultation and deliberation, that we can adopt a less restrictive policy.”

Federal law, the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, requires that the U.S. Department of State deny visas to Iranian students wishing to engage in certain fields of study related to the energy sector, nuclear science, nuclear engineering or a related field at U.S. colleges and universities. To comply with the law and its impacts, UMass Amherst will develop individualized study plans as appropriate based on a student’s projected coursework and research in conjunction with an offer of admission. The plan will be updated as required during a student’s course of study.


NBC News has more on the story.

Thanks to everyone who wrote to the university to express their opposition to the university’s policy of prohibiting Iranian nationals from applying to select departments in engineering and the natural sciences. This was a story, I’m proud to say, that got broken here and at my blog (thanks to a tip from a professor in Colorado), and which rapidly got picked up in the national  media. Well done, everyone!

The Real Mad Men of History

by Corey Robin on February 16, 2015

From The Washington Post (h/t Marilyn Young):

“It’s a childish story that keeps repeating in the West,” smiled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in an interview with the BBC last week. He was dismissing allegations that his regime is attacking Syrian civilians with barrel bombs, crude devices packed with fuel and shrapnel that inflict brutal, indiscriminate damage.

“I haven’t heard of the army using barrels, or maybe, cooking pots,” Assad said, and then repeated when pressed again: “They’re called bombs. We have bombs, missiles and bullets. There [are] no barrel bombs, we don’t have barrels.”

If you think Assad doth protest too much, you’re probably right.


The Post not only cites evidence supporting the claim of the Syrian regime’s “frequent use of barrel bombs in densely packed urban areas” but also cites other instances of regimes using barrel bombs, including the US in Vietnam.

But I was more struck by the civilizational machismo of Assad’s claim that “we have bombs, missiles and bullets. There [are] no barrel bombs, we don’t have barrels.”

Like so many of the West’s defenders of just war, restrained war, and humanitarian war, Assad takes great—albeit unearned—pride in his precision weaponry. Implicit is a contempt for those pathetic, perhaps even feminized, warriors (the “cooking pot” reference), who would rely on such primitive crudities as barrel bombs.

As the Post explains, the US has its own history with such methods:


Look a bit further into the past, and you’ll find that barrel bombs were featured in an American military campaign, too.


A smart post on the War Is Boring blog details when the United States dropped barrels packed with fuel in an attempt to burn foliage in the dense forests of Vietnam and smoke out Viet Cong guerrillas:


Army crews kicked the incendiary drums out of Chinook helicopters onto suspected enemy camps. They strapped white phosphorus smoke grenades to the cylinders to set them alight.


The Air Force took the concept one step further and tried to start raging forest fires in Viet Cong base areas. The flying branch used fire barrels as well as normal incendiary bombs.



In April 1968, the United States carried out “Operation Inferno,” in which 14 C-130 cargo planes dropped dozens of 55-gallon incendiary barrels filled with fuel over southern Vietnam’s U Minh forest. The sorties sparked raging fires, but they had limited effect, as they all tended to die down once the fuel burned out. The United States also dropped barrels full of a chemical equivalent of tear gas, aimed at flushing insurgent fighters out of their bunkered hideaways.

But throughout the war, you had figures like Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy (though McNamara left the Johnson Administration in February 1968 and Bundy in 1966), stressing the reason and rationality, the precision and pride, of the American war effort. And, not infrequently, wrapping it all up in a bow of unrestrained masculinity.

Assad, McNamara, Bundy: these are the real Mad Men of history.