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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…]

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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.

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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.

State Department Expresses Surprise Over UMass Policy

by Corey Robin on February 14, 2015

My sister Melissa just sent me a piece from today’s Boston Globe on the UMass Iranian student situation. The big blockbuster in the piece is this:

The college’s new policy, which appears to be rare if not unique among US universities, appeared to catch the US State Department by surprise

The State Department had no idea that this policy was in the offing, and more important, seems to believe or suggest that the policy may be unnecessary.
A US State Department official said that the department was aware of news reports about the UMass decision but that there had been no changes in federal policy regarding Iranian students and he could not say why UMass would change its policy. The department will contact UMass to discuss the decision and will answer any questions from other academic institutions about the law, the official said.

“All visa applications are reviewed individually in accordance with the requirements of the US Immigration and Nationality Act and other relevant laws that establish detailed standards for determining eligibility for visas and admission to the United States,” the official, who declined to be quoted by name, said in an e-mail.

US law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering,” the official continued. “Each application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis.”


Got that? It is not US law that prohibits Iranian nationals from applying and enrolling in UMass’s engineering and natural sciences graduate programs; it is UMass itself that is doing that.

In one graf, the UMass Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement, Mike Malone, claims that the policy was developed in consultation with faculty and students (though every student and faculty member I’ve talked to at UMass claimed they only learned of the policy from my blog).

But in a later graf Malone gives a different story:

Malone said that after discussing the issue with outside legal counsel and with faculty at other institutions, administrators believe UMass is in the mainstream of American institutions in having such a policy, though it is rare to publish it.

The moment this story broke and I began talking with sanctions experts, one of whom works for a law firm that specializes in these questions (see update here), I got nervous. Forgive what I’m sure is an overwrought historical excursus, but which may be illuminative nonetheless.

Back during the McCarthy years, institutions like UMass—and outside academe as well; in Hollywood and other parts of the culture industry; and throughout the economy as a whole—were often run by nervous administrators and managers and CEOs who wanted to be in compliance with the government. These weren’t the true-believer anticommunist types, of which there were many; these were just run of the mill, apolitical or even liberal, apparatchiks whose first duty, they felt, was to their job and their institution.

Uncertain about the law and government rules, fearful that if they broke them they or their institutions would suffer, these administrators turned to outside consultants—often, lawyers—for “advice.” Except that the advice industry was itself stacked with two types: either true-believing anticommunists, who had a vested interest in purging the country of reds and leftists and liberals and more, or bottom-liners (and bottom-feeders) whose livelihood depended upon institutions like UMass needing their “advice.”

The combination of this advice industry and nervous administrators was lethal: through some elaborate dance of advice and consent, repressive policies were propounded. Not by force, not by threat, but voluntarily, consensually. The advice-givers would just offer a neutral-sounding statement of the facts, making sense of a byzantine and elaborate set of rules and procedures to harried and overworked administrators; and then the harried and overworked, and fearful, administrators would take the most conservative reading of that advice, playing it safe, and propound the most draconian version of the rules.

A “clearance industry”—seriously, that was what it was called—was set up, in which individuals would go through elaborate rituals of repentance, to prove they were no longer communists or even sympathizers; and if they didn’t go through the rituals, which were institutionalized and regularized everywhere, they were blacklisted and purged. That’s how McCarthyism worked; that’s how it touched so many millions of lives.

It wasn’t simply the state that was the problem in other words; it was the relay system of coercion that private actors in civil society set up, that radiated the state’s power far beyond what it was capable of, that made the whole system of repression as widespread as it was. This, incidentally, was precisely the kind of society Hobbes envisioned in Leviathan: not simply an all-powerful singleton sovereign, but an army of preachers and teachers, working in churches and—wait for it: universities—who would extend the power of the sovereign far beyond what it could muster.

I don’t want to over-read the UMass story. But that mention of seeking “outside legal counsel” and my conversation yesterday with one representative—perfectly well meaning and well intentioned, from what I can gather—of that advice industry makes me worried that the policy at UMass, and other institutions as well, is being driven by a similar dynamic. Particularly when you throw in the State Department’s surprise and clear statement that this policy is not actually required by US government policy.

In other news, after yesterday’s announcement here (see update) that UMass had taken down the policy from its website, it now seems to be back up.

This announcement was recently posted on the website of the graduate school of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst:

The University has determined that recent governmental sanctions pose a significant challenge to its ability to provide a full program of education and research for Iranian students in certain disciplines and programs. Because we must ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations, the University has determined that it will no longer admit Iranian national students to specific programs in the College of Engineering (i.e., Chemical Engineering, Electrical & Computer Engineering, Mechanical & Industrial Engineering) and in the College of Natural Sciences (i.e., Physics, Chemistry, Microbiology, and Polymer Science & Engineering) effective February 1, 2015.

The full announcement and reasoning—namely, that the university is trying to act in accordance with all the twists and turns of the US sanctions regime—behind this new policy can be found here.

I’m waiting to hear back from some experts on the US sanctions policy as to whether the University is fairly grappling with constraints imposed by the US government or just going rogue.

But while I wait to hear back, I can’t help being reminded of the shitshow we saw when American Studies Association voted for an academic boycott of Israel.

You’ll recall that many self-proclaimed defenders of academic freedom at the time made a lot of noise about the threat that the boycott posed to academic exchange and international conversation. Even though nothing in the ASA vote precluded the exchange of individual scholars or students between the United States and Israel and the organization took great pains to stress that they were calling for institutional boycotts rather than a boycott of individuals.

Well, we don’t need to reprise that argument here. Because now we very clearly have a public university, claiming to act in accordance with US policy, officially banning Iranian national students from applying to entire graduate schools.

Will those putative defenders of academic freedom from the BDS fight speak out against this policy—and speak out far more forcefully than they did then— since this policy really does threaten academic freedom in the way they imagined the academic boycott did?

Or will they defend the university’s decision on the grounds of national security or the need for universities to act in accordance with US law? If they take that path, they’d be admitting a point many of suspected all along: that academic freedom really is not their highest value at all.

What will those defenders of academic freedom say—and, more important, do—now?

While we wait and see what they do, it’s very important that we get word of this policy out. Someone emailed me about it tonight, and I looked all over the internet and could not find a single mention of it. Do other universities have similar policies? Let’s try and gather information and make sure that people in the media and academia and civil liberties organizations know about this.

Updated (February 13, 12 pm)

So I’ve spoken with a few sanctions experts. More on that in a minute. First, some other updates. [click to continue…]

Elizabeth Kolbert has a chilling and heartbreaking article in this week’s The New Yorker about the attempt to bring the surviving apparatchiks of the Holocaust to justice, seven decades after the Second World War’s ending.

She writes of three generations of effort to prosecute and try these men and women. In the second phase, many—most of them mid-level perpetrators—got off.

In 1974, an Auschwitz commander named Willi Sawatzki was put on trial for having participated in the murder of four hundred Hungarian Jewish children, who were pushed into a pit and burned alive. (The camp’s supply of Zyklon B had run short.) Sawatzki was acquitted after the prosecution’s key witness was deemed unfit to testify.

Approximately a million Jews were killed at Auschwitz, and along with them at least a hundred thousand Polish, Roma, and Soviet prisoners. According to Andreas Eichmüller, a German historian in Munich, sixty-five hundred S.S. members who served at the camp survived the war. Of these, fewer than a hundred were ever tried for their crimes in German courts, and only fifty were convicted.


But now we’re into the third generation, where there is less forgiveness, more of a desire to see justice done. The problem, of course, is that almost all of these murderers and their accomplices are dead or dying. [click to continue…]

The Epic Bureaucrat

by Corey Robin on February 5, 2015

Hannah Arendt often seems to counterpoise the epic nature of political action, the glorious and distinctive deeds of ancient heroes, to the anonymous and impersonal processes of modern life. Where is the Achilles of bureaucracy, the Pericles of the corporation? Nowhere, she appears to say: we live in an age where everyone behaves, no one rules.

Patchen Markell has an excellent article, “Anonymous Glory,” in the latest issue of the European Journal of Political Theory showing how subtly and carefully Arendt helps to undermine that distinction. The opposition she appears to draw between ancient action and modern behavior, between glorious deeds and impersonal processes, is not nearly as stark as we might imagine on a first—or second or third—read of her work.

There’s actually a wonderfully illustrative moment for Markell’s argument in the history of the New Deal. Hallie Flanagan—immortalized by Cherrie Jones in The Cradle Will Rock—was the head of the Federal Theater Project, which was an agency of the WPA, hiring actors, directors, stagehands, writers, and more, to, well, put on a show. In an article in 1939, in The Virginia Quarterly Review, she captures what Markell is talking about, turning the statistics of unemployment and poverty—and the Federal Theater Project’s efforts—into a glorious and heroic epic. “The bare statistics of Federal Theater,” she writes, “are in themselves a drama.” [click to continue…]

A Tale of Two Snowballs

by Corey Robin on February 1, 2015

I grew up in Chappaqua, New York, which is 20 miles northwest of New Rochelle. Both towns are in Westchester County, but they’re different.

Chappaqua’s population is 81% white, 12% Asian, and 2% black. Its median household income is $100,000. Its poverty rate is less than 4%. New Rochelle’s population is 47% white, 19% black, and 28% Latino/a. Its poverty rate is more than 12%. Its median household income is $67,000.

But here’s how I really know the difference between the two towns.

When I was growing up, my friend Mario, who’s no longer alive, came over to play. It was a snowy day. We decided to throw snowballs at cars. Our position protected by a tall hedge, we packed the snowballs tight and started hurling them onto the street. We did it for a while, till we heard a car screech and stop. And then we ran like hell.

About five or ten minutes later, my dad called out for us. The police were in the driveway. We got a stern talking-to, my parents yelled at us, and that was that.

Last Wednesday, a group of kids (it’s hard to say for sure, but they seem to be black; they’re definitely not white) were having a snowball fight in New Rochelle, somewhere near Lincoln Avenue and Hemingway Avenue. A snowball fight with each other.

A cop showed up, the kids dropped to their knees, and as this video shows, the cop drew his gun, shouting, ”Don’t fucking move, guys.” He proceeded to frisk one of them, while keeping his gun on him, and then another.

There’s a report that the cops were responding to a call about a gun, but no one has confirmed it. The person taking the video, a woman, says, “They were having a snowball fight. This group of guys was having a snowball fight and now a cop has a gun on them.”

Update (8:30 pm)

I just found a Daily News report on the incident, which came out after I posted this. According to the News, the cops are claiming they responded to a 911 call about a teenager pointing a gun, in a group of teenagers, at someone else. They also claim that they have a transcript confirming the call, which they may release. As soon as the cops arrived, they claim, the kid with the gun took off. That is the point, they say, where the video begins. They also say there was no snowball fight going on prior to their arrival. I have no idea what the basis of that claim is.

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/westchester-pulls-gun-teens-snowball-fight-article-1.2099426

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day

by Corey Robin on January 28, 2015

I highly recommend that everyone read Eszter’s moving, almost unbearable post, in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, about her father’s experience as a three-year-old in the camps. The day, which marks the liberation of Auschwitz, makes me think of that scene in Shoah where Lanzmann is moving through a Polish village, as his guide, a local, points out the different homes where Jewish families once lived. If memory serves (it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it), the guide recites the names of the families and then, with some prodding from Lanzmann, gives the names of the Polish families who live there now. Or maybe it’s the reverse: the guide recites the names of the Polish families, and Lanzmann prods him about the Jews who used to live there. Regardless, you get this terrible feeling of dread as you think about the generations of Jews who once lived in these homes, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not, but often uneasily. You think about their gentile neighbors who for centuries longed to see them gone. And then they were.

Opinions May Vary

by Corey Robin on January 27, 2015

On Hugo Chavez…

John Kerry: “Throughout his time in office, President Chavez has repeatedly undermined democratic institutions by using extra-legal means, including politically motivated incarcerations, to consolidate power.”

New York Times: “A Polarizing Figure Who Led a Movement” “strutting like the strongman in a caudillo novel”

Human Rights Watch: “Venezuela: Hugo Chávez’s Authoritarian Legacy”


On King Abdullah…
John Kerry: “King Abdullah was a man of wisdom & vision.”

New York Times: “Nudged Saudi Arabia Forward” “earned a reputation as a cautious reformer” “a force of moderation”

Human Rights Watch: “Saudi Arabia: King’s Reform Agenda Unfulfilled”

The Touchy Irving Howe

by Corey Robin on January 14, 2015

Last night, I was trying to find a comment I had remembered Irving Howe making about Hannah Arendt, and I found myself holed up, late into the night, with a volume of his criticism. I run into these sorts of detours a lot. I set out for a destination, and before you know it, it’s 2 am, and I’m miles away from where I need to be.

I’ve read Howe’s criticism many times before, but I never noticed just how touchy he is about what he perceives to be the haughtiness of authors and critics. Howe is sensitive, perhaps too sensitive, to the power dynamics of fiction and criticism: how writers look down on the people they’re writing about or the readers they’re writing for, how they create scenes and settings in which the sole object is to put on display the superior sensibility that conjured them.

The first time I noticed this tendency in Howe was in his essay on George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle, which he reviewed in Commentary in 1971:

A phalanx of crucial topics, a tone of high-church gravity, a light sprinkle of multilingual erudition, a genteel stab at prophecy—it’s easy to imagine the strong impression Mr. George Steiner’s lectures must have made when first delivered for the T.S. Eliot Memorial Foundation at the University of Kent. And now, when we read his first sentence announcing that his book is written “in memoration” of T.S. Eliot, we are prepared for some decidedly high-class prose.

High-class prose. Well, I thought to myself, it’s Steiner, who is a terrible snob, often embarrassingly so. Even when he’s talking about fucking, Steiner can’t help sounding pretentious (“The mathematics of sex stop somewhere in the region of soixante-neuf; there are no transcendental series.”)

But then, as Howe goes on, the resentment gets hotter. [click to continue…]

The Internationalism of the American Civil War

by Corey Robin on January 11, 2015

One of the topics I’ve long been interested in is the traffic between the European right and the slaveholding South in the US. We know a fair amount, now, about the relationship between the abolitionist movement in the US and the European left, including Marx, but less about the impact that slavery and its defense had on the European right.

What first piqued my interest in this issue was reading Nietzsche. Nietzsche talks a lot about slavery in his work, and it’s long been the conventional wisdom that his references here are metaphorical and philosophical rather than contemporary and literal. I’ve had my doubts about that, as I’ve written.

One can hear in the opening passages of “The Greek State” the pounding march not only of European workers on the move but also of black slaves in revolt. Hegel was brooding on Haiti while he worked out the master-slave dialectic in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Though generations of scholars have told us otherwise, perhaps Nietzsche had a similar engagement in mind when he wrote, “Even if it were true that the Greeks were ruined because they kept slaves, the opposite is even more certain, that we will be destroyed because we fail to keep slaves.” What theorist, after all, has ever pressed so urgently—not just in this essay but in later works as well—the claim that “slavery belongs to the essence of a culture”? What theorist ever had to? Before the eighteenth century, bonded labor was an accepted fact. Now it was the subject of a roiling debate, provoking revolutions and emancipations throughout the world. Serfdom had been eliminated in Russia only a decade before—and in some German states, only a generation before Nietzsche’s birth in 1844—while Brazil would soon become the last state in the Americas to abolish slavery. An edifice of the ages had been brought down by a mere century’s vibrations; is it so implausible that Nietzsche, attuned to the vectors and velocity of decay as he was, would pause to record the earthquake and insist on taking the full measure of its effects?

There’s also Nietzsche’s tantalizing reference in his notebooks to Harriet Beecher Stowe as the inheritor, along with Rousseau and the French Revolution, of Christianity:
The French Revolution as the continuation of Christianity. Rousseau is the seducer: he again unfetters woman who is henceforth represented in an even more interesting manner—as suffering. Then the slaves and Mrs. Beecher-Stowe. Then the poor and the workers.

According to my friend Harrison Fluss, Domenico Losurdo’s long anticipated biography of Nietzsche, which came out in Italian years ago and is about to appear, finally, in English, discusses this and related passages (which don’t get much treatment in the literature), suggesting that Nietzsche may have been more aware of the question of slavery on this side of the Atlantic than we think.

In any event, I got a book in the mail a few weeks ago that begins to deal with the larger issue of the slaveholding South and the European right: Don Doyle’s The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War. It’s about a much larger topic, as the title suggests, and I haven’t really dived into it yet, but I’ve read one chapter and the intro and have already learned some fascinating things. [click to continue…]

Even the liberal New Republic…

by Corey Robin on December 29, 2014

supports third party challenges that would forcing the Democrats to lose a presidential election in order to produce a change in the party’s ideological direction:

In the spring of 1983, the magazine ran a cover story…declaring that the Democratic Party needed to lose the 1984 election. Longtime liberal subscribers recoiled with horror. But Fairlie wanted a defeat that would shock a sclerotic party into reform and recovery, not a Republican triumph. In fact, the essay did a good job laying out the path that Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council would follow on the way to the election of 1992.

When The New Republic makes this argument from the right, TNR-style liberals like David Bell, writing in the LA Review of Books above, welcome it as a healthy dose of clear-eyed realism.

When leftists make this sort of argument from the left, TNR-style liberals like Sean Wilentz, murmuring darkly of “left-wing utopianism,” invoke Dostoevsky. Seriously.