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coreyrobin

I’ve been getting a lot of queries about Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky. Briefly, Thomas spends all but a few paragraphs of his twenty-page opinion outlining what he sees as the eugenicist dimensions of abortion and birth control. This, as many have noted, is a new turn in Thomas’s abortion jurisprudence. Thomas essentially argues here that abortion is the way that women select and de-select the kinds of children they’re going to have.

What’s more, while much of the discussion on the right in this regard focuses on how considerations of the sex of the fetus or the presence of Down syndrome may influence the decision to have an abortion, Thomas focuses overwhelmingly on questions of race. Indeed, he spends an inordinate amount of time in his opinion rehearsing the role of racism in Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement. He discusses her work in Harlem and among African Americans in the South, as well as the connections between Nazism and eugenics. From there he goes to abortion. Reading Thomas, one comes away with the sense that abortion has nothing to do with the autonomy or equality of women but is instead a racist practice to control the size of the black population. The same goes for birth control.

At one point in the opinion, Thomas makes a point of noting the NAACP’s concerns during the 1960s about the racist dimensions of the birth control movement:

Some black groups saw “‘family planning’ as a euphemism for race genocide” and believed that “black people [were] taking the brunt of the ‘planning’” under Planned Parenthood’s “ghetto approach” to distributing its services. Dempsey, Dr. Guttmacher Is the Evangelist of Birth Control, N. Y. Times Magazine, Feb. 9, 1969, p. 82. “The Pittsburgh branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” for example, “criticized family planners as bent on trying to keep the Negro birth rate as low as possible.” Kaplan, Abortion and Sterilization Win Support of Planned Parenthood, N. Y. Times, Nov. 14, 1968, p. L50, col. 1.

At another point in his opinion, Thomas slyly mentions that the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade cites the work of an extraordinarily influential and renowned British legal scholar who, according to Thomas, flirted with eugenics:
Similarly, legal scholar Glanville Williams wrote that he was open to the possibility of eugenic infanticide, at least in some situations, explaining that “an eugenic killing by a mother, exactly paralleled by the bitch that kills her misshapen puppies, cannot confidently be pronounced immoral.” G. Williams, Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law 20 (1957). The Court cited Williams’ book for a different proposition in Roe v. Wade, 410 U. S. 113, 130, n. 9 (1973).

By the time the opinion is over, it seems like abortion and birth control are simply a Nazi-style mode of racial management of the demographics of a population.

However extreme this opinion may be, it is very much in keeping with Thomas’s overall approach to constitutional questions. I have a book about Clarence Thomas, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, coming out on September 24, and I don’t want to give too much of it away, so let me just say this: One of Thomas’s most consistent moves in his jurisprudence is to take constitutional matters that left and right disagree about but nevertheless argue about on similar terms—Thomas consistently takes these matters and transforms them into questions of race. He does this with the Establishment Clause: where both sides are debating questions of religion, he makes it all about race. He does the same with the Takings Clause: where both sides are debating questions of eminent domain, he makes it about race. He does this with campaign finance: where both sides are debating speech and the First Amendment, he makes it about race. In each instance, he takes the topic at hand and says, nope, this is really about race. And goes from there.

What’s more, as I show in the book, this isn’t just a ruse or a way of trolling the left. It’s not just a simple playing of the race card. It’s, well, you’ll have to read the book. Which, as I said, is out on September 24 and which you can pre-order now.

There’s also a lengthy footnote in Thomas’s opinion in Box, where he compares the thinking underlying eugenics to that which underlies disparate impact, a doctrine that falls under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. He cites the work of the conservative black economist Thomas Sowell. I think Thomas’s jurisprudence on disparate impact, as well as the impact and influence of Sowell upon Thomas, has been radically misunderstood. But again, I don’t want to give away too much of the book here. So…

Update (2 pm)

My wife Laura, who works in the reproductive rights movement, just made an excellent point about the parallel between Thomas’s opinion and the Anita Hill controversy. During the Senate confirmation hearings, when Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment, there was a struggle in the commentary that boiled down to this question: Who gets to be black? Thomas and his supporters presented him as the embattled voice of the black community; Hill was depicted as a treacherous woman in alliance with liberal groups, trying to bring the black man—and with him, the black community—down. Thomas was black; Hill was a woman: that was the way the controversy played out, at least on one side. This was one of the many explosive insights at the heart of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s pioneering article “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.”

Fast-forward to Thomas’s opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood. Studies show that black women are far more likely to get an abortion than other women. Support for abortion among black women is among the highest of any demographic group. And as Jamila Taylor argued, because black women are more likely to live in states with restrictive abortion laws, they have a lot more to lose from Thomas-inspired or Thomas-inflected opinions. So who gets to be black here? Once again, in Thomas’s world, it’s not black women; this time, it’s the fetus.

 

On Eric Hobsbawm and other matters

by Corey Robin on May 9, 2019

I’m in The New Yorker this morning, writing about Richard Evans’s new biography of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, explaining how the failures of Evans the biographer reveal the greatness of Hobsbawm the historian:

Hobsbawm’s biographer, Richard Evans, is one of Britain’s foremost historians and the author of a commanding trilogy on Nazi Germany. He knew Hobsbawm for many years, though “not intimately,” and was given unparalleled access to his public and private papers. It has not served either man well. More data dump than biography, “Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History” is overwhelmed by trivia, such as the itineraries of Hobsbawm’s travels, extending back to his teen-age years, narrated to every last detail. The book is also undermined by errors: Barbara Ehrenreich is not a biographer of Rosa Luxemburg; Salvador Allende was not a Communist; one does not drive “up” from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles.* The biography is eight hundred pages because Hobsbawm “lived for a very long time,” Evans tells us, and he wanted “to let Eric tell his story as far as possible in his own words.” But, as we near the two hundredth page and Hobsbawm is barely out of university, it becomes clear that the problem is not Hobsbawm’s longevity or loquacity but the absence of discrimination on the part of his biographer.

Instead of incisive analyses of Hobsbawm’s books, read against the transformations of postwar politics and culture, Evans devotes pages to the haggling over contracts, royalties, translations, and sales. These choices are justified, in one instance, by a relevant nugget—after the Cold War, anti-Communist winds blowing out of Paris prevented Hobsbawm’s best-selling “The Age of Extremes” from entering the French market in translation—and rewarded, in another, by a gem: Hobsbawm wondering to his agent whether it’s “possible to publicize” “Age of Extremes,” which came out in 1994, “& publish extracts on INTERNET (international computer network).” Apart from these, Evans’s attentions to the publishing industry work mostly as homage to the Trollope adage “Take away from English authors their copyrights, and you would very soon also take away from England her authors.”

Hobsbawm was obsessed with boredom; his experience of it appears at least twenty-seven times in Evans’s biography. Were it not for Marx, Hobsbawm tells us, in a book of essays, he never would “have developed any special interest in history.” The subject was too dull. The British writer Adam Phillips describes boredom as “that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins.” More than a wish for excitement, boredom contains a longing for narrative, for engagement that warrants attention to the world.

A different biographer might have found in Hobsbawm’s boredom an opening onto an entire plane of the Communist experience. Marxism sought to render political desire as objective form, to make human intention a causal force in the world. Not since Machiavelli had political people thought so hard about the alignment of action and opportunity, about the disjuncture between public performance and private wish. Hobsbawm’s life and work are a case study in such questions. What we get from Evans, however, is boredom itself: a shapeless résumé of things starting and nothing beginning, the opposite of the storied life—in which “public events are part of the texture of our lives,” as Hobsbawm wrote, and “not merely markers”—that Hobsbawm sought to tell and wished to lead.

***


Down the corridor of every Marxist imagination lies a fear: that capitalism has conjured forces of such seeming sufficiency as to eclipse the need for capitalists to superintend it and the ability of revolutionaries to supersede it. “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality,” “The Communist Manifesto” claims, “while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.” Throughout his life, Marx struggled mightily to ward off that vision. Hobsbawm did, too.

But what the Communist could not do in life the historian can do on the page. Across two centuries of the modern world, Hobsbawm projected a dramatic span that no historian has since managed to achieve. “We do need history,” Nietzsche wrote, “but quite differently from the jaded idlers in the garden of knowledge.” Hobsbawm gave us that history. Nietzsche hoped it might serve the cause of “life and action,” but for Hobsbawm it was the opposite: a sublimation of the political impulses that had been thwarted in life and remained unfulfilled by action. His defeats allowed him to see how men and women had struggled to make a purposive life in—and from—history.

The triumph was not Hobsbawm’s alone. Moving from politics to paper, he was aided by the medium of Marxism itself, to whose foundational texts we owe some of the most extraordinary characters of modern literature, from the “specter haunting Europe” to the resurrected Romans of the “Eighteenth Brumaire” and “our friend, Moneybags” of “Capital.” That Marx could find human drama in the impersonal—that “the concept of capital,” as he wrote in the “Grundrisse,” always “contains the capitalist”—reminds us what Hobsbawm, in his despair, forgot. Even when structures seem to have eclipsed all, silhouettes of human shape can be seen, working their way across the stage, making and unmaking their fate.


You can read it all here.

Also, as many of you know, for the last two years, I’ve been making the case that Donald Trump’s presidency is what the political scientist Steve Skowronek calls a “disjunctive” presidency. Over at Balkinization, I use the opportunity of my deep, deep agreement with the great Jack Balkin—whose views on so many things I share, and who also has argued for Trump as a disjunctive presidency—to raise some questions about our shared position, and where our analysis may go awry. You can read that here.

 

  • Several astute readers pointed out to me that this locution of traveling “up” somewhere is often used in Britain to signify going from a smaller to a larger place rather than traveling from south to north. I passed the information on to my editor at The New Yorker, and they’ve now cut the phrase from the text. I’m leaving it here because, well, the error was mine, and in a passage where I’m pointing out Evans’s errors, I should acknowledge my own.

David Brion Davis, the pathbreaking Yale historian of slavery and emancipation, whose books revolutionized how we approach the American experience, has died. The obituaries have rightly discussed his many and manifold contributions, a legacy we will be parsing in the days and months ahead. Yet for those of us who were graduate students at Yale during the 1990s and who participated in the union drive there, the story of David Brion Davis is more complicated. Davis helped break the grade strike of 1995, in a manner so personal and peculiar, yet simultaneously emblematic, as not to be forgotten. Not long after the strike, I wrote at length about Davis’s actions in an essay called “Blacklisted and Blue: On Theory and Practice at Yale,” which later appeared in an anthology that was published in 2003. I’m excerpting the relevant part the essay below, but you can read it all of it here [pdf].

* * *


As soon as the graduate students voted to strike, the administration leaped to action, threatening students with blacklisting, loss of employment, and worse. Almost as quickly, the national academic community rallied to the union’s cause. A group of influential law professors at Harvard and elsewhere issued a statement condemning the “Administration’s invitation to individual professors to terrorize their advisees.” They warned the faculty that their actions would “teach a lesson of subservience to illegitimate authority that is the antithesis of what institutions like Yale purport to stand for.”

Eric Foner, a leading American historian at Columbia, spoke out against the administration’s measures in a personal letter to President Levin. “As a longtime friend of Yale,” Foner began, “I am extremely distressed by the impasse that seems to have developed between the administration and the graduate teaching assistants.” Of particular concern, he noted, was the “developing atmosphere of anger and fear” at Yale, “sparked by threats of reprisal directed against teaching assistants.” He then concluded:

I wonder if you are fully aware of the damage this dispute is doing to Yale’s reputation as a citadel of academic freedom and educational leadership. Surely, a university is more than a business corporation and ought to adopt a more enlightened approach to dealing with its employees than is currently the norm in the business world. And in an era when Israelis and Palestinians, Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs, the British government and the IRA, have found it possible to engage in fruitful discussions after years of intransigent refusal to negotiate, it is difficult to understand why Yale’s administration cannot meet with representatives of the teaching assistants.

Foner’s letter played a critical role during the grad strike. The faculty took him seriously; his books on the Civil War and Reconstruction are required reading at Yale. But more important, Foner is a historian, and at the time, a particularly tense confrontation in the Yale history department was spinning out of control.

The incident involved teaching assistant Diana Paton, a British graduate student who was poised to write a dissertation on the transition in Jamaica from slavery to free labor, and historian David Brion Davis. A renowned scholar of slavery, Davis has written pathbreaking studies, earning him the Pulitzer Prize and a much-coveted slot as a frequent writer at the New York Review of Books. He represents the best traditions of humanistic learning, bringing to his work a moral sensitivity that few academics possess. Paton was his student and, that fall, his TA.

When Paton informed Davis that she intended to strike, he accused her of betraying him. Convinced that Davis would not support her academic career in the future—he had told her in an unrelated discussion a few weeks prior that he would never give his professional backing to any student who he believed had betrayed him—Paton nevertheless stood her ground. Davis reported her to the graduate school dean for disciplinary action and had his secretary instruct Paton not to appear at the final exam. In his letter to the dean, Davis wrote that Paton’s actions were “outrageous, irresponsible to the students…and totally disloyal.”

The day of the final, Paton showed up at the exam room. As she explains it, she wanted to demonstrate to Davis that she would not be intimidated by him, that she would not obey his orders. Davis, meanwhile, had learned of Paton’s plan to attend the exam and somehow concluded that she intended to steal the exams. So he had the door locked and two security guards stand beside it.

Though assertive, Paton is soft-spoken and reserved. She is also small. The thought of her rushing into the exam room, scooping up her students’ papers, engaging perhaps in a physical tussle with the delicate Davis, and then racing out the door—the whole idea is absurd. Yet Davis clearly believed it wasn’t absurd. What’s more, he convinced the administration that it wasn’t absurd, for it was the administration that had dispatched the security detail.

How this scenario could have been dreamed up by a historian with the nation’s most prestigious literary prizes under his belt—and with the full backing of one of the most renowned universities in the world—requires some explanation. Oddly enough, it is Davis himself who provides it.

Like something out of Hansel and Gretel, Davis left a set of clues, going back some forty years, to his paranoid behavior during the grade strike. In a pioneering 1960 article in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, “Some Themes of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature,” Davis set out to understand how dominant groups in nineteenth-century America were gripped by fears of disloyalty, treachery, subversion, and betrayal. Many Americans feared Catholics, Freemasons, and Mormons because, it was believed, they belonged to “a machine-like organization” that sought “to abolish free society” and “to overthrow divine principles of law and justice.” Members of these groups were dangerous because they professed an “unconditional loyalty to an autonomous body” like the pope. They took their marching orders from afar, and so were untrustworthy, duplicitous, and dangerous.

Davis was clearly disturbed by the authoritarian logic of the countersubversive, but that was in 1960 and he was writing about the nineteenth century. In 1995, confronting the rebellion of his own student, the logic made all the sense in the world. It didn’t matter that Paton was a longtime student of his, that she had many discussions with Davis about her academic work, and that he knew her well. As soon as she announced her commitment to the union’s course of action, she became a stranger, an alien marching on behalf of a foreign power.

Davis was hardly alone in voicing these concerns. Other respected members of the Yale faculty dipped into the same well of historical imagery. In January 1996, at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, several historians presented a motion to censure Yale for its retaliation against the striking TAs. During the debate on the motion, Nancy Cott—one of the foremost scholars of women’s history in the country who was on the Yale faculty at the time but has since gone on to Harvard—defended the administration, pointing out that the TA union was affiliated with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. Historians at the meeting say that Cott placed a special emphasis on the word “international.” The TAs, in other words, were carrying out the orders of union bosses in Washington. The graduate students did not care about their own colleagues, they were not loyal to their own. Not unlike the Masons and Catholics of old. It did not seem to faze Cott that she was speaking to an audience filled with labor historians, all of whom would have recognized these charges as classic antiunion rhetoric.

One of the reasons Cott embraced this vocabulary so unselfconsicously was that it was a virtual commonplace among the Yale faculty at the time. At a mid-December faculty meeting, which one professor compared to a Nuremberg rally, President Levin warned the faculty of the ties between the TAs and outside unions. The meeting was rife with lurid images of union heavies dictating how the faculty should run their classrooms. It never seemed to occur to these professors, who pride themselves on their independent judgment and intellectual perspicacity, that they were uncritically accepting some of the ugliest and most unfounded prejudices about unions, that they sounded more like the Jay Goulds and Andrew Carnegies of the late nineteenth century than the careful scholars and skeptical minds of the late twentieth. All they knew was their fear—that a conspiracy was afoot, that they were being forced to cede their authority to disagreeable powers outside of Yale.

Cott, Levin, and the rest of the faculty were also in the grip of a raging class anxiety, which English professor Annabel Patterson spelled out in a letter to the Modern Language Association. The TA union, Patterson wrote, “has always been a wing of Locals 34 and 35 [two other campus unions]…who draw their membership from the dining workers in colleges and other support staff.”

Why did Patterson single out cafeteria employees in her description of Locals 34 and 35? After all, these unions represent thousands of white- and blue-collar workers, everyone from skilled electricians and carpenters to research laboratory technicians, copy editors, and graphic designers. Perhaps it was that Patterson viewed dishwashers and plastic-gloved servers of institutional food as the most distasteful sector of the Yale workforce. Perhaps she thought that her audience would agree with her, and that a subtle appeal to their delicate, presumably shared, sensibilities would be enough to convince other professors that the TA union ought to be denied a role in the university.

The professor-student relationship was the critical link in a chain designed to keep dirty people out. What if the TAs and their friends in the dining halls decided that professors should wash the dishes and plumbers should teach the classes? Hadn’t that happened during the Cultural Revolution? Hadn’t the faculty themselves imagined such delightful utopias as young student radicals during the 1960s? Recognizing the TA union would only open Yale to a rougher, less refined element, and every professor, even the most liberal, had something at stake in keeping that element out.

In his article, Davis concluded with these sentences about the nineteenth-century countersubversive:

By focusing his attention on the imaginary threat of a secret conspiracy, he found an outlet for many irrational impulses, yet professed his loyalty to the ideals of equal rights and government by law. He paid lip service to the doctrine of laissez-faire individualism, but preached selfless dedication to a transcendent cause. The imposing threat of subversion justified a group loyalty and subordination of the individual that would otherwise have been unacceptable. In a rootless environment shaken by bewildering social change the nativist found unity and meaning by conspiring against imaginary conspiracies.

Though I don’t think Davis’s psychologizing holds much promise for understanding the Yale faculty’s response to the grade strike—the strike, after all, did pose a real threat to the faculty’s intuitions about both the place of graduate students in the university and the obligation of teachers; nor did the faculty seem, at least to me, to be on a desperate quest for meaning—he did manage to capture, long before the fact, the faculty’s fear that their tiered world of privileges and orders, so critical to the enterprise of civilization, was under assault. So did Davis envision the grotesque sense of fellowship that the faculty would derive from attacking their own students.

The faculty’s outsized rhetoric of loyalty and disloyalty, of intimacy (Dean [Richard] Brodhead called the parties to the conflict a “dysfunctional family”) betrayed, may have fit uneasily with their avowed professions of individualism and intellectual independence. But it did give them the opportunity to enjoy, at least for a moment, that strange euphoria—the thrilling release from dull routine, the delightful, newfound solidarity with fellow elites—that every reactionary from Edmund Burke to Augusto Pinochet has experienced upon confronting an organized challenge from below.

Paton’s relationship with Davis was ended. Luckily, she was able to find another advisor at Yale, Emilia Viotti da Costa, a Latin American historian who was also an expert on slavery. Da Costa, it turns out, had been a supporter of the student movement in Brazil some thirty years before and was persecuted by the military there. Forced to flee the country, she found in Yale a welcome refuge from repression.

Do You Believe in Life After Hayek?

by Corey Robin on March 4, 2019

Sorry about the title; advertisements for The Cher Show are all over New York these days, so the song is in my head. Anyway…

In the Boston Review, the left economists Suresh Naidu, Dani Rodrick, and Gabriel Zucman offer an excellent manifesto of sorts for a new progressive economic agenda. I was asked to respond, and in a move that surprised me, I wound up returning to Hayek to see what we on the left might learn from him and his achievement. Here’s a snippet:

Far from resting neoliberalism on the authority of the natural sciences or mathematics (forms of inquiry Hayek and Mises sought to distance their work from) or on the technical knowledge of economists (as Naidu and his co-authors claim), Hayek recognized that the argument for capitalism had to be won on moral and political grounds through the political arts of persuasion.

Here’s where things get interesting. Though Hayek famously abandoned formal economics for social theory after the 1930s, his social theory remained dedicated to elaborating what he saw as the essential problem of economics: how to allocate finite resources between different purposes when society cannot agree on its most basic ends. With its emphasis on the irreconcilability of our moral ends—the fact that members of a modern society do not and cannot agree on a scale of values— Hayek’s point was fundamentally political, the sort of insight that has agitated everyone from Thomas Hobbes to John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas. Hayek was unique, however, in arguing that the political point was best addressed, indeed could only be addressed, in the realm of the economic. No other discourse—not moral philosophy, political theory, psychology, or theology—understood so well that our ultimate moral values and political purposes get expressed to others and revealed to ourselves only under conditions of radical economic constraint—when one is forced to assign a limited set of resources to different ends, ends that favor different sectors of society.

Morals are not really morals if they are not material, Hayek believed. Outside the constraining circumstance of the economy, our moral claims are so much wind. Inside the economy, they assume force and depth, achieving a revelatory clarity and profundity….

The intrinsic links between moral and economic life as well as the intractability of moral conflict, the incommensurability of our moral views, were the kernels of insight that animated Hayek’s most far-reaching writing against socialism. The socialist presumes an agreement on ultimate ends: the putatively shared understanding of principles such as justice or equality is supposed to make it possible for state planners to conceive of their task as technical, as the neutral application of an agreed upon rule. But no such agreement exists, Hayek insisted, and if it is presumed to exist, nothing will reveal its non-existence more quickly than the attempt to implement it in practice, in the distribution of finite resources toward whatever end has been agreed upon.

Hayek translated moral and political problems into an economic idiom. What we need now, I would argue, is a way to uninstall or reverse that translation.


In the rest of the piece, I briefly (very briefly) sketch out, with the help of Polanyi, what that might mean. This is something I hope to be developing further in an article I’m writing with Alex Gourevitch on socialist freedom. But in the meantime, here’s the Boston Review piece in full.

Marshall Steinbaum and Alice Evans also have excellent responses.

The Historovox Complex

by Corey Robin on February 20, 2019

I’ve got a new gig at New York Magazine, where I’ll be a regular contributor, writing on politics and other matters. Here, in my first post, I tackle “the Historovox” (my wife Laura came up with the phrase), that complex of journalism and academic research that we increasingly see at places like VoxFiveThirtyEight, and elsewhere. Long story, short: while I firmly believe in academics writing for the public sphere—Crooked Timber remains the Gold Standard as far as I’m concerned—there are better and worse ways to do it. This should be a topic of interest to lots of folks around here, and I’m grateful to Henry for offering his initial thoughts on the matter to me, though in retrospect I wish I had incorporated one of his points.

Here are some excerpts:


There’s a bad synergy at work in the Historovox — as I call this complex of scholars and journalists — between the short-termism of the news cycle and the longue durée-ism of the academy. Short-term interests and partisan concerns still drive reporting and commentary. But where the day’s news once would have been narrated as a series of events, the Historovox brings together those events in a pseudo-academic frame that treats them as symptoms of deeper patterns and long-term developments. Unconstrained by the protocols of academe or journalism, but drawing on the authority of the first for the sake of the second, the Historovox skims histories of the New Deal or rifles through abstracts of meta-analysis found in JSTOR to push whatever the latest line happens to be.


When academic knowledge is on tap for the media, the result is not a fusion of the best of academia and the best of journalism but the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, we get the whiplash of superficial commentary: For two years, America was on the verge of authoritarianism; now it’s not. On the other hand, we get the determinism that haunts so much academic knowledge. When the contingencies of a day’s news cycle are overlaid with the laws of social science or whatever ancient formation is trending in the precincts of academic historiography, the political world can come to seem more static than it is. Toss in the partisan agendas of the media and academia, and the effects are as dizzying as they are deadening: a news cycle that’s said to reflect the universal laws of the political universe where the laws of the political universe change with every news cycle.



The job of the scholar is not to offer her expertise to fit the needs of the pundit class. It’s to call those needs into question, not to provide different answers to the same questions but to raise the questions that aren’t being asked.


Everyone knows and cites Orwell’s famous adage: “To see what is front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Less cited is what follows: “One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it.” To see what’s right in front of one’s nose doesn’t mean seeing without ideology. It means keeping track of how we think and have thought about things, being mindful of what was once on the table and what has disappeared from view. It means avoiding the gods of the present.


The job of the scholar, in other words, is to resist the tyranny of the now. That requires something different than knowledge of the past; indeed, historians have proven all too useful to the Historovox, which is constantly looking for academic warrants to say what its denizens always and already believe. No, the job of the scholar is to recall and retrieve what the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin described as “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present.” The task is not to provide useful knowledge to the present; it is to insist on, to keep a record of, the most seemingly useless counter-knowledge from the past — for the sake of an as-yet-to-be imagined future.



The whole thing is here.

Adorno in America

by Corey Robin on February 15, 2019

The history of the Frankfurt School in America is usually told as a story of one-way traffic. The question being: What did America get from the Frankfurt School? The answer usually offered: a lot! We got Marcuse, Neumann, Lowenthal, Fromm, and, for a time, Horkheimer and Adorno (who ultimately went back to Germany after the war)—the whole array of émigré culture that helped transform the United States from a provincial outpost of arts and letters into a polyglot Parnassus of the world.

The wonderfully counter-intuitive and heterodox question that animates Eric Oberle’s Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity is: what did the Frankfurt School get from America? [click to continue…]

The Problem of Max Boot

by Corey Robin on January 25, 2019

I’ve been thinking about political converts for a long time. At The New Yorker, I take up the problem of Max Boot, who probably needs no introduction, and Derek Black, who was a leading white supremacist and then renounced it all.

Here’s a taste:

Max Boot, a longtime conservative who recently broke with the right over the nomination and election of Donald Trump, registered as a Republican in 1988. At the time, Boot writes in “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right,” he wanted to join the “party of ideas.” A movement of highbrows, conservatism was the work of the “learned, worldly, elitist, and eccentric lot” of writers at National Review, “far removed from the simple-minded, cracker-barrel populists who have taken control of the conservative movement today.” It was a movement, Boot explains at the outset, “inspired by Barry Goldwater’s canonical text from 1960, The Conscience of a Conservative. I believed in that movement, and served it my whole life.” A hundred and seventy-five pages later, Boot inadvertently lets slip that reading Goldwater’s “actual words” was something he hadn’t done until after Trump’s election. Throughout his three decades on the right, it appears, Boot believed in the tenets of a book he never read.

But it turns out that the problem of Boot and Black goes much deeper than what books were or weren’t read. If you compare the conversions from left to right—think Arthur Koestler, James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, and so on—with those from right to left, you find something interesting.
Curiously, the movement from right to left has never played an equivalent role in modern politics. Not only are there fewer converts in that direction, but those conversions haven’t plowed as fertile a field as their counterparts have.

Why is that? Find out here.

The American Political Science Association is holding its annual convention this coming week in Boston. As luck would have it, the three hotels (all owned by the Marriott chain) at which the convention is being held are in the midst of a labor dispute with the hotels’ workers, who are members of Local 26 of UNITEHERE.

The issues are many, but the main one is that, as the union contract has expired and the workers renegotiate a new one, they’d like to make sure that a hotel worker should only have to work at one job—not two, not three—in order to support herself and her family. That’s the workers’ demand: “One job should be enough.” And that’s the name of their campaign, which you can read more about here.

Additionally, the workers are frustrated by the hotels’ cynical use of environmentalism to cut costs and increase the burden on workers.

Whenever you go to a hotel these days, you see these signs: don’t wash your towels every day, save the environment. Or don’t opt for housekeeping, make the planet green. Sounds great, right? For the workers, it’s a nightmare. According to this eye-opening expose in the Boston Globe:

But the housekeepers who would otherwise be cleaning these rooms, many of them immigrants, say the increasingly popular programs are cutting into their livelihoods by reducing their hours, making their schedules more erratic, and — ironically — making their jobs harder. That’s because rooms that go without housekeeping for several days are often a wreck — trash piled up, shower doors coated in gunk, crumbs in the carpet, and hair everywhere.

I can’t help noting the irony: The hotel industry, which depends on the carbon-emitting and planet-destroying activity of millions of people hopping into their cars and driving to the airport where they then fly hundreds and thousands of miles to their destinations, happily gives its customers the opportunity to do their little bit for the planet by cutting workers’ hours and making their lives and jobs harder. I guess this is the hotel version of carbon offsets, and as is often the case, it’s working class people of color, many from the Global South, who pay the price.

I reached out to one of the officers at Local 26, who said that the union is not asking people to boycott the hotel or to refuse to cross picket lines. At least not yet. Instead, here are three things the union would like members of APSA to do:

  • Sign this pledge to support Marriott workers at this dispute develops.

  • Refuse the “Make a Green Choice/Your Choice” program at check in.

  • Participate in an informational picket and action that is planned at the Sheraton, one of the main hotels of the convention, on Thursday, August 30, at 1 pm.

 

I wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the Avital Ronell/Nimrod Reitman sexual harassment story. Here are some excerpts:

The question of sex, of Ronell’s work and stature in academe, of literary theory or critical theory or the academic left, of the supposed hypocrisy of the scholars who rallied to her side, of the fact that the alleged harasser is a woman and gay while the alleged victim is a man and gay — all of this, if one reads Reitman’s complaint, seems a little beside the point. And has, I think, clouded the fundamental issue. Or issues.

What’s clear from the complaint is just how much energy and attention — both related and unrelated to academic matters — Ronell demanded of Reitman, her student. At all hours of the night, across three continents, on email, phone, Skype, in person, on campus, on other campuses (Ronell berates Reitman when he does not accompany her to the weekly lectures she is giving at Princeton that semester; according to Reitman, she even punishes him for this act of desertion, removing him from a conference she was organizing and at which he had been slated to present), in apartments, classrooms, hallways, offices, subway stations (there are multiple scenes at the Astor Place stop, with Ronell either insisting on walking Reitman to the train or keeping him on the phone until he gets on the train), and elsewhere. It’s almost as if Reitman could have no life apart from her. Indeed, according to the complaint, when Reitman had visitors — a member of his family, a friend — Ronell protested their presence, seemingly annoyed that Reitman should attend to other people in his life, that he had other people in his life. That really is the harassment: the claims she thought she could make on him simply because he was her advisee.

The issue of sex always clouds these discussions. One side focuses on the special violation that is supposed to be sexual harassment; the other side (including many feminists) accuses the first of puritanism and sex panic. Try as they might, neither side ever gets beyond the sex.

Hanging over all of these exchanges, unmentioned, is the question of power. This is a grad student trying to make his way in an institution where everything depends on the good (or bad) word of his adviser.

The precinct of the academy in which this story occurs prides itself on its understanding of power. Unfortunately, that understanding is often not extended to the faculty’s dealings with graduate students, where power can be tediously, almost comically, simple. Cross your adviser in any way, and that can be the end of your career.

In her various responses to the case, Ronell implies that people on the outside of these relationships don’t understand the shared language, the common assumptions, the culture of queer and camp (and of being Israeli, which both she and Reitman are). As soon as she went there, my antenna went up. It reminded me of communitarians in the 1980s and 1990s, who made similar arguments about local cultures, that people outside of them don’t understand the internal meanings of the specific codes and customs, particularly when those codes and customs are oppressive toward women or gays and lesbians or people of color, that people on the outside don’t understand how differently that oppressiveness might read to someone on the inside. And it also reminded me of Judith Shklar’s admonition to the communitarians: Before you buy the story of shared codes and customs, make sure to hear from the people on the lower rungs, when they are far away from the higher rungs, to see how shared that code truly is.

For all of Ronell’s talk of shared codes and such, there is one experience, one code, in this story that every academic — gay, straight, male, female, black, white, brown, trans, queer — has shared: being a graduate student.


And here is the whole piece.

One of the most fascinating things, to me, about the current moment and the revival of socialism is how the whole question of democracy—not substantive or deep democracy, not participatory democracy, not economic democracy, but good old-fashioned liberal democratic proceduralism—plays out right now on the left.

Throughout most of my life and before, if you raised the banner of socialism in this country or elsewhere, you had to confront the question of Stalinism, Soviet-style sham elections, one-party rule, and serial violations of any notion of democratic proceduralism. No matter how earnest or fervent your avowals of democratic socialism, the word “democracy” put you on the defensive.

What strikes me about the current moment is how willing and able the new generation of democratic socialists are to go on the offensive about democracy, not to shy away from it but to confront it head on. And again, not simply by redefining democracy to mean “economic democracy,” though that is definitely a major—the major—part of the democratic socialist argument which cannot be abandoned, but also by taking the liberal definition of democracy on its own terms.

The reason this generation of democratic socialists are willing and able to do that is not simply that, for some of them, the Soviet Union was gone before they were born. Nor is it simply that this generation of democratic socialists are themselves absolutely fastidious in their commitment to democratic proceduralism: I mean, seriously, these people debate and vote on everything! It’s also because of the massive collapse of democratic, well, norms, here at home.

First, you have the full-on assault on voting rights from the Republican Party. Then there’s the fact that both the current and the last Republican president were only able to win their elections with the help of the two most anti-democratic institutions of the American state: the Electoral College and the Supreme Court. In both cases, these men won their elections over candidates who received more popular votes than they did. There’s a lot of words one might use to describe a system in which the person who gets fewer votes wins, but democracy isn’t one of the ones that comes immediately to mind. Any notion that anyone from that side of the aisle is in any position to even speak on the question of democratic values—again, not robust democratic values but minimal democratic values—is a joke.

Second, you have the Democratic Party. Massively dependent in its nomination process on super-delegates. Massively dependent in its district-level wins on low voter turnout, in districts where the party structure resembles the Jim Crow South, as described by V.O. Key. You have incumbents like Joe Crowley who’ve not had to face a primary challenge in so long that, as we saw in the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they don’t even know how to wage much less win electoral campaigns. You now have, in the case of Julia Salazar’s race for the New York State Senate (whose campaign I really encourage you to donate to), an incumbent, Martin Dilan, who’s trying to forgo an election challenge from her simply by forcing Salazar off the ballot, with the help of, you guessed it, the least democratic branch of the government: the courts. I can imagine the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) folks saying to these Dems: you really want to have a debate with us about democracy? Bring it on.

And last you have this very sophisticated take by Seth Ackerman, who has become in a way the intellectual guru behind the whole DSA strategy, on how the party system in America works. Right around the 2016 election, Seth wrote a widely read (and cited) piece, which has become something of a Bible among the DSA set, on how to think about a left party that can avoid some of the pitfalls of third-party strategies in the US.

Here, in this interview with Daniel Denvir, the Terry Gross of the socialist left, Seth explains how much our two-party system looks like those one-party states that socialists of the 20th century spent their lives either defending or being forced to criticize in order to demonstrate their bona fides.

Again, what I think this shows is that, maybe for the first time in a very long time, socialists have the democracy side of the argument on their side.

Here’s Seth:

In most places in the world, a political party is a private, voluntary organization that has a membership, and, in theory at least, the members are the sovereign body of the party who can decide what the party’s program is, what its ideology is, what its platform is, and who its leaders and candidates are. They can do all of that on the grounds of basic freedom of association, in the same way that the members of the NAACP or the American Legion have the right to do what they want with their organization.

In the United States, that’s not the case at all with the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. We’ve had an unusual development of our political system where, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the bosses of the two major parties undertook a wave of reforms to the electoral system that essentially turned the political parties into arms of the government, in a way that would be quite shocking — you could even say “norm-eroding” — in other countries.

If you took a comparative politics class in college during the Cold War, it would have discussed the nature of the Communist system, which was distinguished from a democratic system by the merger of the Party and the state, becoming a party-state. Well, the United States is also a party-state, except instead of being a single-party state, it’s a two-party state. That is just as much of a departure from the norm in the world as a one-party state.

In the United States, the law basically requires the Democrats and the Republicans to set up their internal structures the way that the government instructs them to. The government lays out the requirements of how they select their leaders and runs their internal nominee elections, and a host of other considerations. All this stuff is organized by state governments according to their own rules. And of course when we say state governments, who we’re talking about the Democrats and the Republicans.

So it’s a kind of a cartel arrangement in which the two parties have set up a situation that is intended to prevent the emergence of the kind of institution that in the rest of the world is considered a political party: a membership-run organization that has a presence outside of the political system, outside of the government, and can force its way into the government on the basis of some program that those citizens and members assemble around.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose candidacy I’ve championed and worked for since May, had a bad moment late last week.

Appearing on the reboot of Firing Line, Ocasio-Cortez was asked by conservative host Margaret Hoover to explain her stance on Israel. The question left Ocasio-Cortez tongue-tied and equivocating. Here was the exchange:

MH: You, in the campaign, made one tweet, or made one statement, that referred to a killing by Israeli soldiers of civilians in Gaza and called it a “massacre,” which became a little bit controversial. But I haven’t seen anywhere — what is your position on Israel?

AOC: Well, I believe absolutely in Israel’s right to exist. I am a proponent of a two-state solution. And for me, it’s not — this is not a referendum, I think, on the state of Israel. For me, the lens through which I saw this incident, as an activist, as an organizer, if sixty people were killed in Ferguson, Missouri, if sixty people were killed in the South Bronx — unarmed — if sixty people were killed in Puerto Rico — I just looked at that incident more through . . . through just, as an incident, and to me, it would just be completely unacceptable if that happened on our shores. But I am —

MH: Of course the dynamic there in terms of geopolitics —

AOC: Of course.

MH: And the war in the Middle East is very different than people expressing their First Amendment right to protest.

AOC: Well, yes. But I also think that what people are starting to see at least in the occupation of Palestine is just an increasing crisis of humanitarian condition, and that to me is just where I tend to come from on this issue.

MH: You use the term “the occupation of Palestine”? What did you mean by that?

AOC: Oh, um [pause] I think it, what I meant is the settlements that are increasing in some of these areas and places where Palestinians are experiencing difficulty in access to their housing and homes.

MH: Do you think you can expand on that?

AOC: Yeah, I mean, I think I’d also just [waves hands and laughs] I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue. You know, for me, I’m a firm believer in finding a two-state solution on this issue, and I’m happy to sit down with leaders on both of these. For me, I just look at things through a human rights lens, and I may not use the right words [laughs] I know this is a very intense issue.

MH: That’s very honest, that’s very honest. It’s very honest, and when, you, you know, get to Washington and you’re an elected member of Congress you’ll have the opportunity to talk to people on all sides and visit Israel and visit the West Bank and —

AOC: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that that’s one of those things that’s important too is that, you know, especially with the district that I represent — I come from the South Bronx, I come from a Puerto Rican background, and Middle Eastern politics was not exactly at my kitchen table every night. But, I also recognize that this is an intensely important issue for people in my district, for Americans across the country, and I think what’s at least important to communicate is that I’m willing to listen and that I’m willing to learn and evolve on this issue like I think many Americans are.


Let’s be clear. This is not good. Prompted about her use of the word “massacre,” Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t stay with the experience of the Palestinians. Instead, she goes immediately to an affirmation of Israel’s right to exist, as if Israelis were the first order of concern, and that affirming that right is the necessary ticket to saying anything about Palestine. Asked about her use of the phrase “occupation of Palestine,” Ocasio-Cortez wanders into a thicket of abstractions about access to housing and “settlements that are increasing in some of these areas.” She apologizes for not being an expert on a major geopolitical issue. She proffers liberal platitudes about a two-state solution that everyone knows are just words and clichés designed to defer any genuine reckoning with the situation at hand, with no concrete discussion of anything the US could or should do to intervene.

Even within the constraints of American electoral politics, there are better ways — better left ways — to deal with this entirely foreseeable question. Not only was this a bad moment for the Left but it was also a lost opportunity: to speak to people who are not leftists about a major issue in a way that sounds credible, moral, and politically wise.

As soon as I saw this exchange, I posted about it on Facebook. [click to continue…]

A long piece by Michiko Kakutani on “The death of truth: how we gave up on facts and ended up with Trump” is making the rounds. In it, Kakutani quotes Arendt:

Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the 20th century, and both were predicated on the violation and despoiling of truth, on the knowledge that cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

Arendt’s words increasingly sound less like a dispatch from another century than a chilling description of the political and cultural landscape we inhabit today…


This is an Arendt quote that gets thrown around a lot these days, for obvious reasons, but it gives a very partial view of Arendt’s position on truth and lies. Sam Moyn pointed this out on Twitter. Sam also urged folks to read Martin Jay’s book on the question of lies and politics, which includes an extensive discussion of Arendt.

I haven’t read Jay’s book, but I did read a draft of it, or part of it, for a talk he gave at Columbia years ago. It was the Lionel Trilling Seminar, and I, along with Princeton poltical theorist George Kateb, was asked to be one of the discussants. I remember being a little discomfited by Jay’s treatment of Arendt. So I dug up my comment, and thought I’d reproduce it below. I think it suggests why Kakutani’s gloss is too simple, but also why Jay’s gloss (at least the earlier version of it; again, I didn’t read the final book) may be too simple, too.

The bottom line, for me, about Arendt’s treatment of lies and liars is this: One of the reasons she was so unnerved by liars was that the way they did politics was so close to how she thought politics ought to be done. She wasn’t endorsing lying or embracing liars. She just thought the distinction between the liar and the truth-teller was too easy because opposing oneself to reality—which is what the liar is doing, after all—is part of what it means to act politically. Part of what it means; not all of what it means. For Arendt also thinks there is a necessary dimension of factuality that undergirds our political actions. It’s part of our task as political beings to preserve that web or ground of factuality. It is between these two dimensions—opposing oneself to factuality, preserving factuality—that the political actor, and the liar, ply their trades.

By the way, I should note the date of that exchange with Jay: October 2008. We were still in the Bush era. The entire discussion—of lies and facts, the disregard for facts, and such—was framed by the Iraq War and the epic untruths that were told in the run-up to the war. It should give you a sense that the world of fake news that so many pundits seem to have suddenly awakened to as a newborn threat has been with us for a long time. The Bush era may seem like ancient history to some, but in the vast, and even not so vast, scheme of things, it was just yesterday.

Here are my remarks about truth and lies, Arendt and Martin Jay. [click to continue…]

In the wake of the primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there’s been a dramatic shift in mainstream liberal opinion—in the media, on social media, among politicians, activists, and citizens—toward Sanders-style positions. People who were lambasting that kind of politics in 2016 are now embracing it—without remarking upon the change, without explaining it, leaving the impression that this is what they believed all along.

As you can imagine, this causes no end of consternation in certain precincts of the left. For some legitimate reasons. You want people to acknowledge their change in position, to explain, to articulate, to narrate, perhaps to inspire others in the process. And for some less legitimate, if understandable, reasons: people are pissed at the way Sanders-style politics was attacked in 2016; they feel that they were unfairly maligned; they want folks to own up to it. That’s understandable from a human point of view, but it’s not really the way you build a coalition or a movement. Every mass movement is built on converts, and if the first thing a convert hears when they show up at the shul is ” Apologize. Apologize. Pull out his eyes.” (mixing my cultural touchstones here, I realize)—well, you can see where this is going. Or not going. If the left is going to grow, everyone should be welcome to join, without having to hand over a bill of lading upon their arrival.

But I’m not bringing this up now either to settle scores or to enforce some kind of norm of the welcome mat. I’m actually just super interested in this phenomenon, in this kind of change at the both the human and the political level. By “this kind of change” I don’t meant the deep transformations that some political people undergo over the course of a lifetime: the proverbial Whittaker Chambers-style migration from left to right, for example, that we saw throughout the 20th century. That’s a deep, one-time change that you don’t easily go back on. I mean more these micro-shifts that happen under the pressure of events, the subtle coercions of new opinion, the ever-finer movements we all make to keep up with the flow, so as not to be left behind.

I just finished reading the letters of Thomas Mann, who’s an exemplary figure in this regard. Leading up to World War I, he was a fairly standard old-school conservative militarist/nationalist. That continued until the end of the war. After the war, he became a dedicated liberal defender of Weimar. Once the Nazis took over, his liberalism morphed into a humanist anti-fascism. By the end of the war, that antifascism had come to include overt sympathy with communism and the Soviet Union (he even praised Mission to Moscow on aesthetic grounds!) That continued into the late 1940s, when he supported Henry Wallace for president and was outspoken in his opposition to HUAC.

But then, around 1950 or so, you begin to see, ever so slightly and subtly, Mann’s opinions starting to change once again. He never comes out in defense of McCarthyism, but you begin to feel a chill and distance toward the left. His criticisms of the repression in the US begin to modulate and moderate. Till finally, in a 1953 letter to Agnes Meyer, his close friend and matriarch of The Washington Post, he confesses that he has decided not to publicly oppose McCarthyism in the New York Times. He reports to her that when he was asked—”probably by someone on the ‘left’”—what he thinks about the censorship and restrictions on freedom in the US, this was his reply: “American democracy felt threatened and, in the struggle for freedom, considered that there had to be a certain limitation on freedom, a certain disciplining of individual thought, a certain conformism. This was understandable.” Though he adds some sort of anodyne qualification at the end of that.

It just about broke my heart. That “left” in scare quotes (previously Mann had seen himself as a part of the left), the clichés about freedom and the Cold War, the betrayal of all that he had said and done in the preceding decades—and most important, the seeming inability to see that he was betraying anything at all.

Who was the real Thomas Mann? The German militarist, the Weimar liberal, the humanist antifascist, the Popular Fronter, the Cold War liberal? Who knows? All of them, none of them? I think in the end, his most authentic moment was probably during the 1920s and early 1930s, when he made the migration from German nationalist to humanist antifascist. That was the one true shift that he could endure and narrate. But everything after that? It was just the way the game was being played. And he was a player. Not a self-conscious, strategic player. More un-self-conscious, moving with the times. Less player than played. As the climate of opinion changed during the war, he changed with it. And then at the onset of the Cold War, he changed again. But always without seeming to realize what he was doing. Watching how his positions changed—within a very short period of time—without him even seeing it, without him even remembering what he had said, a mere three years prior, was eerie and unsettling. And heart-breaking, as I said.

During the McCarthy years, Arendt wrote in a letter to Jaspers how terrified she was of the repression. It wasn’t just the facts of the coercion she saw everywhere. It was how quickly it happened, how the mood of the moment had gone so suddenly from a generous and capacious liberalism to a cramped anticommunism. “Can you see,” she wrote, “how far the disintegration has gone and with what breathtaking speed it has occurred? And up to now hardly any resistance. Everything melts away like butter in the sun.” Victor Klemperer notices and narrates a similar shift among his friends and colleagues in his diaries of Nazi Germany.

We’ll never know what combination of incentives and forces and genuine beliefs are at play in one person’s shifting positions. And like I said, I welcome the change that is happening today. But I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that I was sometimes unsettled by it. Particularly when it’s unacknowledged.

Intellectuals like to think of themselves as above this kind of thing, but I think we’re especially prone to it. We live in the world of ideas, with an emphasis on that word “world.” The world is not what goes on in our heads; it’s what’s happening out there, between heads. Intellectuals want to be in that space of the in-between (that space was something Arendt talked about a lot). They want to be in the swim. That can make them chameleons of the first order.

Intellectuals are probably not that different from anyone else in this regard, but they do like to take and defend positions as if they were emanations of pure reason. Or the products of an unblinkered empiricism. The proverbial “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Which always gets attributed to Keynes but was in all likelihood said by Paul Samuelson.

I confess I’m always suspicious of these “when the facts change” types. In part because the most pressing fact that seems to change people’s opinions is…other people’s opinions.

Among intellectuals, that doesn’t always lend itself to an honest narration of change. Just the opposite: it can become an ever-shifting, ever-more baffling, and often unacknowledged, litany of changes.

Not sure what there is to be said about that. Just noting how universal, if sometimes eerie, it is.

The Creative Class Gets Organized

by Corey Robin on June 6, 2018

The staff of The New Yorker—the people behind the scenes: editors, fact checkers, social media strategists, designers—are unionizing. They’ve even got a logo: Eustace Tilly with his fist raised. If you’re a loyal reader of the magazine, as I am, you should support the union in any way you can. Every week, they bring us our happiness; we should give them some back. They’re asking for letters of solidarity; email them at newyorkerunion@gmail.com.

If you look at their demands, they read like a tableaux of grievances from today’s economy: no job security, vast wage disparities, no overtime pay, a lot of subcontracting, and so on.

The creative class used to see itself and its concerns as outside the economy. Not anymore.

A few years back, I read Ved Mehta’s memoirs of his years at The New Yorker under editor William Shawn. Shawn helped Mehta find his first apartment: he actually scouted out a bunch of places with a real estate broker and wrote Mehta letters or called him about what he had seen. Shawn got Mehta set up with a meal service. The money was flowing. Again, not anymore.

The sea change isn’t just economic; it’s also cultural.

When we first started organizing graduate employees at Yale in the early 1990s, we got a lot of hostility. And nowhere more so than from the creative class. People in the elite media really disliked us. Many of them had left grad school or gone to fancy colleges, and we may have reminded them of the people they disliked when they were undergrads. (Truth be told: sometimes we reminded me of the people I disliked when I was an undergrad.) In any event, they saw us as pampered whiners, radical wannabees, Sandalistas in seminars. It was untrue and unfair. It didn’t matter. Liberals have their identity politics, too.

As some of you know, my union experience didn’t end happily. I lost three out of four of my dissertation advisers. And two of them wound up writing me blacklisting letters. After that, I wrote a mini-memoir-ish essay about the whole experience. I had great ambitions to be a personal/political essayist; this was my first stab at the genre. Part of my dissertation had been on McCarthyism and the blacklist, so I wove that into my essay: the experience of writing a dissertation that I wound up living a version of in real life.

I shopped it around to The New Yorker. I even called a top editor there after they turned it down. He answered the phone. That’s how things rolled back then. It was an awkward conversation.

I sent the essay to another top magazine. An editor there read and rejected it. I can’t remember if we spoke on the phone or corresponded by mail, but I remember his objection clearly. He didn’t like my comparison between my being blacklisted and McCarthyism. McCarthyism, he said, was about people going to jail; my essay was about people losing jobs and careers (which had happened to one of my fellow unionists, a student of the conservative classicist Donald Kagan).

The editor, of course, was wrong about that. Relatively few people went to jail under McCarthyism. Thousands upon thousands, however, lost their jobs and careers. That’s what McCarthyism was: political repression via employment. It didn’t matter. He knew what he knew.

Fifteen years later, there was a union drive at the magazine where this editor worked. He led it. He was fired.

My piece wasn’t great; it should have been rejected. I was an amateur, and it needed work. But I can’t help feeling that some part of the disconnect back then—the easy ignorance and confident incuriosity that so often pass in the media for common sense—had to do with where the creative class was in the 1990s: liberal on everything but unions.

Again, not anymore.

Conservatism and the free market

by Corey Robin on May 19, 2018

National Review just ran a review of my book, which Karl Rove tweeted out to his followers.

The review has some surprisingly nice things to say. It describes The Reactionary Mind as “well researched and brilliantly argued” and praises my “astonishingly wide reading…masterly rhetorical abilities…wizardry with the pen.” But on the whole the review is quite critical of the book. Which is fine. I’ve gotten worse.

But I couldn’t help noticing the appositeness of this.

Here’s the National Review on my book:

At no point in his book does Robin make any effort to account for the influence of Enlightenment-era classical liberalism on modern conservatism….[Adam] Smith’s influence on later conservatives is ignored.

And here’s Bill Buckley, the founder of National Review (and the modern conservative movement), to me, as quoted in my book:

 

The trouble with the emphasis in conservatism on the market is that it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex.