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On Tuesday night, Alexandra Schwartz, a critic at The New Yorkerposted a piece criticizing the young supporters of Bernie Sanders. Ordinarily, I’d be mildly irritated by an article titled “Should Millennials Get Over Bernie Sanders?” In this instance, I’m grateful. It clarifies the dividing line between Sanders’s supporters in the electorate and the liberal journalists who can’t abide them.

First, some context. Exit polls from Iowa, according to Vox, show that “Sanders absolutely dominated young adult voters, in a way that even Barack Obama couldn’t in 2008.” Eighty-four percent of voters under 30, and 58% of voters between 30 and 44, cast their ballots for Sanders. More generally, as countless articles have noted, younger voters are shifting left, embracing ancient taboos like socialism and other heresies.

Schwartz finds this all puzzling:

Bernie would not be pressing Hillary without the support of the youth of America, a fact that I—a voter north of twenty-five, south of thirty—have pondered over the past few weeks with increasing perplexity.

Why are young people, she asks, ”rallying behind the candidate who has far and away the most shambolic presentation of anyone on either side of this crazy race?”

A second’s Google search turns up an answer: [click to continue…]

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Six Essential Readings on Donald Trump

by Corey Robin on January 28, 2016

As we move into the last days before Iowa, it’s useful to review some of the very best things that have been written on Donald Trump. Much of it is recent.

1. Hands down, I’d say Jodi Dean has penned the central text for understanding Trump.

Donald Trump cuts through the ideological haze of American politics and exposes its underlying truth, the truth of enjoyment. Where other candidates appeal to a fictitious unity or pretense of moral integrity, he displays the power of inequality. Money buys access—why deny it? Money creates opportunity—for those who have it. Money lets those with a lot of it express their basest impulses and desires—there is no need to hide the dark drives when there is none before whom one might feel shame (we might call this the Berlusconi principle). It’s the rest of us who bow down.

As Trump makes explicit the power of money in the contemporary US, he facilitates, stimulates, and circulates enjoyment (jouissance). Trump openly expresses the racism, sexism, contempt, and superiority that codes of civility and political correctness insist be repressed. This expression demonstrates the truth of economic inequality: civility is for the middle class, a normative container for the rage of the dispossessed and the contempt of the dispossessors. The .1 % need not pretend to care.

The freedom from civility, the privilege of enjoying superiority, incites different responses, all of which enable people to enjoy—get off on—this political round.

Some of the underpaid and exploited enjoy through Trump. Not only does he give them permission to…


2. Earlier this week in Salon, Steve Fraser offered a bracing comparison between Trump and his most important predecessor: [click to continue…]

I have a long piece up at The Chronicle Review on public intellectuals. It’s an adaptation of the keynote address I gave last fall at the Society of US Intellectual History. Here are some excerpts…

What is a public intellectual?

As an archetype, the public intellectual is a conflicted being, torn in two competing directions.

On the one hand, he’s supposed to be called by some combination of the two vocations Max Weber set out in his lectures in Munich: that of the scholar and that of the statesman. Neither academic nor activist but both, the public intellectual is a monkish figure of austere purpose and unadorned truth. Think Noam Chomsky.

On the other hand, the public intellectual is supposed to possess a distinct and self-conscious sense of style, calling attention to itself and to the stylist. More akin to a celebrity, this public intellectual bears little resemblance to Weber’s man of knowledge or man of action. He lacks the integrity and intensity of both. He makes us feel as if we are in the presence of an actor too attentive to his audience, a mind too mindful of its reception. Think Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Yet that attention to image and style, audience and reception, may not only be not antithetical to the vocation of the public intellectual; it may actually serve it. The public intellectual stands between Weber’s two vocations because he wants his writing to do something in the world. “He never wrote a sentence that has any interest in itself,” Ezra Pound said of Lenin, “but he evolved almost a new medium, a sort of expression halfway between writing and action.”

The public intellectual is not simply interested in a wide audience of readers, in shopping her ideas on the op-ed page to sell more books. She’s not looking for markets or hungry for a brand. She’s not an explainer or a popularizer. She is instead the literary equivalent of the epic political actor, who sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world. The transformation she seeks may be a far-reaching change of policy, an education of manners and morals, or a renovation of the human estate. Her watch may be wound for tomorrow or today. But whatever her aim or time frame, the public intellectual wants her writing to have an effect, to have all the power of power itself.

To have that effect, however, she must be attuned to the sensitivities of her audience. Not because she wishes to massage or assuage them but because she wants to tear them apart. Her aim is to turn her readers from what they are into what they are not, to alienate her readers from themselves….

Though the public intellectual is a political actor, a performer on stage, what differentiates her from the celebrity or publicity hound is that she is writing for an audience that does not yet exist. Unlike the ordinary journalist or enterprising scholar, she is writing for a reader she hopes to bring into being. She never speaks to the reader as he is; she speaks to the reader as he might be. Her common reader is an uncommon reader.


[click to continue…]

We haven’t had much commentary here on the Clinton/Sanders campaign for the Democratic nomination. I hate to disrupt the preternatural calm, but here goes…

For the last two weeks or so, I have been trying to stay focused on my work on Clarence Thomas, but all the liberal commentary on the Democratic primary has gotten me so irritated that I keep finding myself back on social media, posting, tweeting, commenting, and the like. So I figured I’d bring everything that I’ve been saying about the election campaign there, here. In no particular order. And with no effort to be scholarly or scientific. Just my random observations and musings…

1. Clintonite McCarthyism

According to The Guardian:

The dossier, prepared by opponents of Sanders and passed on to the Guardian by a source who would only agree to be identified as “a Democrat”, alleges that Sanders “sympathized with the USSR during the Cold War” because he went on a trip there to visit a twinned city while he was mayor of Burlington. Similar “associations with communism” in Cuba are catalogued alongside a list of quotes about countries ranging from China to Nicaragua in a way that supporters regard as bordering on the McCarthyite rather than fairly reflecting his views.

This is becoming a straight-up rerun of the 1948 campaign against Henry Wallace. Except that Clinton is running well to the right of Truman and even, in some respects, Dewey. It seems as if Clinton is campaigning for the vote of my Grandpa Nat. There’s only one problem with this strategy: he’s been dead for nearly a quarter-century.

As was true of McCarthyism, it’s not really Sanders’s communism or his socialism that has got today’s McCarthyites in the Democratic Party worried; it’s actually his liberalism. As this article in the Times makes clear: [click to continue…]

Ellen Meiksins Wood, 1942-2016

by Corey Robin on January 14, 2016

I came to Ellen Meiksins Wood’s work late in life. I had known about her for years; she was a good friend of my friend Karen Orren, the UCLA political scientist, who was constantly urging me to read Wood’s work. But I only finally did that two years ago, at the suggestion of, I think it was, Paul Heideman​. I read her The Origins of Capitalism. It was one of those Aha! moments. Wood was an extraordinarily rigorous and imaginative thinker, someone who breathed life into Marxist political theory and made it speak—not to just to me but to many others—at multiple levels: historical, theoretical, political. She ranged fearlessly across the canon, from the ancient Greeks to contemporary social theory, undaunted by specialist claims or turf-conscious fussiness. She insisted that we look to all sorts of social and economic contexts, thereby broadening our sense of what a context is. She actually had a theory of capitalism and what distinguished it from other social forms: that it was not merely commercial exchange, that it did not evolve out of a natural penchant for barter and trade, that it was not a creation of urban markets. Hers was a political theory of capitalism: capitalism was created through acts of force and was maintained as a mode of force (albeit, a mode of force that was exercised primarily through the economy). She was also a remarkably clear writer: unpretentious, jargon-free, straightforward. Just last week, I had started reading Citizens to Lords, and I’d been slowly accumulating a list of questions that I hoped to ask her one day on the off-chance that we might meet in person. Now she’s gone. The work continues.

The Greatest Conman of the 20th Century

by Corey Robin on January 3, 2016

Like many, I’ve long had a fascination with Albert Speer. Mine was awakened by Gitta Sereny’s Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth, which I read during a weeklong trip to Guatemala in 1997 and have since taught several times. More recently, Adam Tooze’s The Wages of Destruction, which I also recommend, gave me reason to go back to Speer.

Now I’m knee-deep in Martin Kitchen’s new biography of Speer. Which paints a dramatically different picture from that which you get from Sereny. Where Sereny depicts a man heroically, if often self-deceptively, struggling with the truth, Speer comes off, in Kitchen’s biography, as arguably the greatest conman of the 20th century, as someone who threw the cultural pixie dust of the age—anxiety about technology, technocracy, and collective guilt (rather than personal responsibility)—over his past and thereby managed to save his hide and his reputation. The truth is that he was a ruthless and remorseless slave-driver, a cynical striver and careerist of the worst sort, draping himself in midcentury conceits about modernity.

Kitchen also has a couple of brilliant nuggets about the politics of taste in Nazi Germany, and the disjunction between the regime’s ideology and its henchmen’s practices.

Like this one, on Hitler, Speer, and furniture:

The style of furniture that was extolled in the professional journals of the day as ‘furniture for the German people’ that reflected ‘the honesty, solidity and directness of a natural lifestyle’ was not to be found in the new chancellery [designed by Speer to Hitler’s specifications]. Aping the style of bygone ages, particularly if foreign and essentially aristocratic, was roundly condemned. Such gaudy luxury and ostentatious grandeur had no place in the new Germany….Speer’s approach was radically different. His was the exact reverse of the Werkbund’s. He had no taste for furniture that was designed somehow to reflect German’s racial characteristics….

Ideologically sound National Socialist furniture makers, true to the ‘Blood and Soil’ ideology, insisted that Germans should have furniture made of German woods such as pine, beech or elm. For special occasions walnut, ash or larch might be considered. Hitler and Speer wanted nothing to do with such nonsense. Only mahogany, ebony, rosewood and other tropical woods, for which scarce foreign exchange was needed, were good enough for them. This at a time when the average German had increasingly to make do with plywood, laminates and hardboard as the Four-Year Plan extended its control over civilian production….Even in furniture there was a marked contrast between that of the leadership and the masses that revealed the true nature of National Socialism and exposed the concept of the ‘racial community’ as an empty sham.


There’s also this little tidbit on art in Hitler’s chancellery:
No one seemed to have the noticed the irony of Tintoretto’s painting of the discovery of Moses among the bulrushes hanging in the cabinet room.

Tintoretto


On a different note, the the AC in the chancellery seldom worked.


Another theme in Kitchen’s biography is the relationship between capitalism and Nazism, a fraught and contested topic of several old posts of mine. While not breaking any theoretical or historical new ground, Kitchen has an eye for revelatory architectural details about that question. Like this:

Speer’s plan for Berlin underlined the fact that the headquarters of the Armed Forces and of Germany’s leading companies did not merely share the same address, but lived together in harmony….Ernst Petersen’s project for the washing powder manufacturer Henkel was next door to Herbert Rimpl’s building for the Hermann Göring Works. IG Farben was placed opposite Hitler’s palace. AEG was across the street from the Ministry of Propaganda. This sense of togetherness and of monumentality was strengthened by bunching these huge buildings together along the north-south axis.

In his Wall Street Journal review of the Kitchen biography, Tooze offers further details:
[Speer styled] himself as a pioneer of European integration for having promoted the outsourcing of production to his collaborator friends in Vichy France….Reading the shopping lists of luxuries that Speer ordered from Spandau jail, including a Group One Dunhill pipe, foie gras with truffles, Beluga caviar and a Jaeger-LeCoultre watch, one is tempted to invoke instead “American Psycho,” Bret Easton Ellis’s deathless evocation of a murderous, product-obsessed Wall Street yuppie….It is hard to think of any major industrial corporation that did not employ forced foreign labor. A shockingly large proportion even contracted with the SS for the use of concentration-camp labor, including Jewish camp inmates. Nor were the businessmen merely narrow-minded profit maximizers “doing their job.” As part of Speer’s organization, they actively shaped and mobilized the German economy for war. Most were nationalists committed to German victory. Some were Nazi ideologues. They all had reason to fear Stalin’s Soviet Union. But the system that Speer organized melded these impulses with a more abstract ethic: Its participants lived and died by the standard of ‘performance’ (Leistung). Statistics and production records were their religion, technological improvement their mantra and disruptive innovation their magic.

One last detail, which Tooze reveals in his review. One of the last books that Hannah Arendt read just before she died in 1975 was Speer’s diaries from his time in Spandau. It’s hard to resist the desire to construct what she might have made of the man. In some ways, he was the perfect target for her, more perfect even than Eichmann. Because Speer hailed from the professional upper middle classes that were Arendt’s lifelong bête noire.

Moustafa Bayoumi is a professor of English at Brooklyn College, where I teach political science. His book, “This Muslim American Life,” came out in September. It’s a fascinating collection of pieces—sometimes hilarious, often unsettling, always probing and provocative—about, well, Muslim life in America, past and present.

There’s a mini-memoir about the time Moustafa worked as a Middle Eastern extra on “Sex and the City 2″; a Philip-Roth-like story about his discovery of a terrorist named Mustafa Bayoumi in a detective novel (that really did happen); a loving deconstruction of the Islamic undertones and overtones of John Coltrane’s music (“A Love Supreme” becomes “Allah Supreme”); a harrowing essay on how the American military uses music to terrorize and torture its victims (the phrase “Disco Inferno” takes on a whole new meaning); a long and learned history of the relationship between Muslim Americans and African Americans.

The book ranges widely, but it’s held together by a single premonition: that the wrenching changes of the War on Terror have been not only legal and political but also cultural. They are not confined to foreign policy or domestic policing; they extend to the most intimate and personal spaces of social life. They have created among all of us—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—a new set of experiences and sensibilities, a new sense of community and collectivity. At the same time, Moustafa’s book is a long, sustained insistence that we understand all the ways in which people—particularly Muslim people—live their lives outside the War on Terror. “This Muslim American Life” documents the oozing influence of the state, but with its sense of humor and history, shows just how much of the Muslim American experience lies beyond that influence.

A literary critic and gifted essayist, Moustafa brings his formidable skills as a reader of texts to his analysis of contemporary political culture. He’s got that eye—and ear—for the way our most incidental phrases, those stray bits of language, betray our deepest feelings. Where other books on the War on Terror focus on high acts of state, Moustafa finds his materials in the most unexpected places: yes, in the fine print of a legal statute, but also in standup comedy, in the parables of Kafka, in the penultimate paragraph of newspaper article. His archive is everywhere.

Moustafa and I have been friends for years, and we’ve often talked over drinks or dinner, on campus and in cafés, about the topics he addresses in his book. But it wasn’t till I sat down with “This Muslim American Life” that I truly saw the unity of his vision. So I decided to do what we always do when either of us has a book or an idea we’re excited about: sit down with him and talk about it.

Salon ran the interview this morning.

 

Benedict Anderson, 1936-2015

by Corey Robin on December 13, 2015

Benedict Anderson has died. I’m hoping someone like Henry or Chris writes something more substantive in the coming days about his contributions. While I read Imagined Communities, it never touched me in the way it has so many other scholars and students. Reading people’s comments on Facebook and Twitter, I’m struck by how intellectually diverse his audience was, how ride-ranging his reach. All morning, people from so many different fields and persuasions have been testifying to Anderson’s impact upon them and their work. Which leads to a thought: I’d put Anderson up there with Clifford Geertz and, increasingly, Jim Scott as among the most influential scholars of the last half-century. All of them scholars of Southeast Asia. I’m sure other people have noticed this and/or perhaps written about this, so forgive my saying the obvious, but what is it about that region that has made it such a site of transformative scholarship and fertile reflection?

Update (10:45 am)

Somehow or other, it seems, Henry actually has already posted here on Anderson’s death. Weirdly, I only just saw it. Maybe he and I were writing at the same time? Anyway, read Henry.

Loyola University, a Catholic university in Chicago, is opposing a union drive among its contingent academic workers. On the grounds that it would violate the university’s First Amendment religious liberty.

What is at stake here, is Loyola’s guaranteed First Amendment rights of religious freedom and autonomy—essentially our right to define our own mission and to govern our institution in accordance with our values and beliefs, free from government entanglement. The United States Supreme Court long ago ruled that the First Amendment provides an exemption from NLRB jurisdiction in order to protect an institution’s religious liberty and identity. We are not alone in raising this issue, as religious institutions across the country have opposed NLRB jurisdiction in similar union-organizing situations on the same grounds that we have raised. Our position before the NLRB is not driven by anti-worker sentiment or hostility to organized labor. By raising the jurisdictional issue at the hearing, we are simply seeking to maintain our right to religious freedom, to protect the heart and soul of our institution and its mission.

Here’s what Pope Leo XIII had to say on the topic of labor unions and Catholic teaching in Rerum Novarum (1891):
The most important of all [workers’ associations] are workingmen’s unions, for these virtually include all the rest. History attests what excellent results were brought about by the artificers’ guilds of olden times. They were the means of affording not only many advantages to the workmen, but in no small degree of promoting the advancement of art, as numerous monuments remain to bear witness. Such unions should be suited to the requirements of this our age – an age of wider education, of different habits, and of far more numerous requirements in daily life. It is gratifying to know that there are actually in existence not a few associations of this nature, consisting either of workmen alone, or of workmen and employers together, but it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient. We have spoken of them more than once, yet it will be well to explain here how notably they are needed, to show that they exist of their own right, and what should be their organization and their mode of action.

Ninety years later, Pope John Paul II reiterated that position in Laborem Exercens (1981):
All these rights [of workers], together with the need for the workers themselves to secure them, give rise to yet another right: the right of association, that is to form associations for the purpose of defending the vital interests of those employed in the various professions. These associations are called labour or trade unions….Their task is to defend the existential interests of workers in all sectors in which their rights are concerned. The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensableelement of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies.

As did the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in their 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All:
The Church fully supports the right of workers to form unions or other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions. This is a specific application of the more general right to associate. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies.”(58) Unions may also legitimately resort to strikes where this is the only available means to the justice owed to workers.(59) No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing.

And just a few months ago, the Archbishop of Chicago had this to say on the topic:
Similarly, the Church has consistently taught that workers have a right to have a voice in the workplace, to form and join unions, to bargain collectively and protect their rights. And the Church has never made a distinction between private and public sectors of the work. It was not 4 Msgr. Higgins who called unions “indispensable,” but Pope, now Saint, John Paul II in his powerful and still timely encyclical “On Human Work’” Work and unions are important not simply for what a worker “gets,” but how they enable a worker to provide for a family and participate in the workplace and society. Unions are important not simply for helping workers get more, but helping workers be more, to have a voice, a place to make a contribution to the good of the whole enterprise, to fellow workers and the whole of society….Across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, ten Popes have affirmed and expanded this very vision.

For example in view of present day attempts to enact so-called right-to-work laws the Church is duty bound to challenge such efforts by raising questions based on longstanding principles. We have to ask, “Do these measures undermine the capacity of unions to organize, to represent workers and to negotiate contracts? Do such laws protect the weak and vulnerable? Do they promote the dignity of work and the rights of workers? Do they promote a more just society and a more fair economy? Do they advance the common good?” Lawmakers and others may see it differently, but history has shown that a society with a healthy, effective and responsible labor movement is a better place than one where other powerful economic interests have their way and the voices and rights of workers are diminished.

…Ad [sic] I have to admit not every claim of religious freedom is valid and the law has to protect the basic rights of all.

The Archdiocese of Chicago employs 15,000 full and part-time employees in its agencies, seminaries, schools and parishes. We strive to be a just employer. I have asked our Archdiocesan staff to review all of our human resource policies to ensure we are practicing what we preach about the dignity of work and the rights of workers. We will work earnestly to address any gaps. After all, like everyone we also need to be accountable. Because the Archdiocese is an employer, some employees and some unions may want to organize in our workplaces. Some Archdiocesan employees are already organized and we work with their union to advance our mission and our mutual obligations to workers. Others are not. And that is because some “jobs” in the Church are really ministerial positions, and must answer to a higher law than those passed by legislatures, we may have differences in this area. But if we stay firm in our commitment to principled dialogue, we can resolve differences and move forward together.


The position of the Catholic Church on the right of workers to form trade unions, even within Catholic institutions (that exception that the Archbishop of Chicago carves out at the end of his address is pretty limited and certainly does not apply to adjunct instructors at a university that does not impose denominational or sectarian obligations on its faculty or students), is clear.

In the name of the First Amendment, in the name of a religious freedom to be Catholic and to follow Catholic teachings, Loyola claims the right not to be Catholic and to suspend Catholic teachings.

When Universities Really Do Destroy the Past…

by Corey Robin on November 23, 2015

Fifteen years ago, NYU announced a plan to expand its law school by tearing down Edgar Allan Poe’s home on West Third Street, where Poe wrote “The Cask of Amontillado,” revised “The Raven,” and acquired his own literary magazine. The announcement provoked some resistance; 70 scholars signed a letter in protest. They lost. Four years later, a nine-story, 170,000 square-foot Furman Hall was formerly opened. The Poe House was completely gone; a version of its facade was reconstructed a half-block away. According to a historical preservationist:

Walking by, you would never know this was supposed to be the actual remnant of a 19th-century house. It looks tacked on. It’s a facade, literally and figuratively.

Like the capitalist society they serve, universities erase the past all the time. Most of the time we don’t care. For the sake of progress or real estate values, we live with it. Or embrace it.

When politicized university students ask that we revisit the nation’s racial past, however, that we rename buildings not to remove memory but to revise it, we become the most ardent preservationists. Even law professors who said not a word about the destruction of the Poe House.

If the revision in question is for the sake of capitalism, we sigh, whisper an All That’s Solid Melts Into Air, and move on. If it is for the sake of knowledge and anti-racism, we say no, in thunder.

What We Owe the Students at Princeton

by Corey Robin on November 21, 2015

On Wednesday, students at Princeton University occupied the president’s office. They had a list of demands regarding the status of students of color at Princeton. One of them was that Princeton remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from all campus buildings and programs because of Wilson’s enthusiasm, expressed in word and deed, for white supremacy.

Having been an undergraduate at Princeton in the late 1980s, I knew this demand would generate a lot of heat. Unlike John C. Calhoun, whose name adorns one of Yale’s residential colleges, Wilson is Princeton. He was an undergraduate there, a professor there, and the university’s president. It was from Princeton that he launched his national political career, first as governor of New Jersey, then as president of the United States. I thought to myself: no matter what your position is on the politics of naming, campus protests, discussions around race today, this is going to be interesting.

On Thursday, after a 32-hour standoff, the students’ occupation ended with, among other things, Princeton committing to opening a dialogue about possibly removing Wilson’s name from some parts of the campus. While the agreement brought the occupation to an end, I suspect the controversy has only just begun. Yale can easily get rid of Calhoun; his name was only attached to Calhoun College in 1932. Wilson is different: in part because of his national stature, in part because of his embeddedness at Princeton, in part because Princeton is, in some ways, still a Southern university.

Wilson’s past is Princeton’s present. Not just in terms of race—one need only eat at the university’s Prospect House, where many of the servers are black, to get a sense of just how many buttons are now being pushed—but in terms of how Princeton conceives itself politically. Princeton’s motto, “In the Nation’s Service,” originated with Wilson, and is fundamental to Princeton’s sense of itself as a training ground for the country’s ruling class, particularly in government. There’s simply no way Princeton can extricate itself from its entanglements with race without revisiting its entanglement with national power. Not just domestically but also internationally: Wilson did not leave his race politics behind when he headed for Versailles; they went there with him. Likewise American power and its Princeton servants.

How far Princeton is willing to bend on this issue, in other words, will tell us something about the outer boundaries of a leading university’s willingness to confront its racial past.

I dedicated my Salon column to the controversy and its resolution. I focused less on these issues I’ve discussed here, than the politics of free speech and memorialization on campus, and the contributions these students have made to our national consciousness.

And that’s why we owe these students at Princeton a debt. Universities are supposed to be educational institutions: Their first educational constituency is their students, of course, but their second is the nation. Most of us are fairly ignorant about how central race and racism were to Wilson’s politics. By forcing this question, not only on Princeton’s campus but throughout the country, Princeton’s students are actually doing the job that Princeton itself is supposed to be doing: they’re educating all of us.

Too often in our debates about freedom of speech, we assume that it already exists and that it is campus activists, particularly over questions of race, who threaten it. But what Princeton’s students have shown is that, before they came along, there was in fact precious little speech about figures like Wilson, and what speech there was, was mostly bland PR for tourists and prospective students. Even more important, Princeton’s students have shown us that it is precisely the kinds of actions they have taken — which are uncivil, frequently illegal and always unruly — that produce speech. Not just yelling and shouting, but also informed, deliberative, reasoned speech.


Besides, there’s any number of ways to take Wilson’s name off a campus building — without erasing the past. Princeton could put up a plaque that says, “This building was once named after Woodrow Wilson in honor of his achievements as president of Princeton, governor of New Jersey and president of the United States. In 2015, after lengthy campus discussions of Wilson’s racial policies — including his decision to segregate the federal bureaucracy — the university decided to remove his name from this building and to rename it the W.E.B. DuBois School of Public and International Affairs, in honor of Wilson’s most formidable critic on matters of race.”

And then we could have another debate: about how DuBois would have been appalled to see his name adorn a building on a campus where dining hall workers, many of whom are black (it’s telling that the demographic on campus that has the highest percentage of African Americans is “all other staff”), make less than a living wage if they are parents and are often treated as if they were servants.

Steven Salaita and UIUC Reach Settlement

by Corey Robin on November 12, 2015

Steven Salaita and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have reached a settlement. According to a press release from the Center for Constitutional Rights, which helped represent Steven, Salaita will receive $875,000 from UIUC. According to this press report, $275,000 of that amount is for legal fees. The UIUC has already spent $1.3 million in its own defense. All told, this effort to silence an outspoken critic of Israel has cost the university nearly two and half million dollars.

Many of us had hoped that a settlement would include Steven getting his job back. For his sake and ours: to vindicate principles we all hold dear. I would be less than honest if I didn’t say I was disappointed.

But while this was a major battle for principle, there was a person at the heart of that battle: Steven. Since he first got the news of his firing, he and his family have been through hell. A protracted legal battle would invariably have been long and difficult, its outcome uncertain. It’s all well and good for those of us on the sidelines to say he should keep fighting—and he himself might have wanted to do so—but Steven has a family to support and a life to live. If this settlement helps him do that, I stand with him. Firmly. Throughout this fight, he has had my firm support, respect, admiration, and affection; now that it is over, he has all those things even more.

I know many of you will wonder about the fate of the boycott: though different statements voiced the demand differently, many statements had insisted that the boycott would continue till Steven was reinstated. It’s difficult now to know how to proceed. Because there was never a formal body that called for the boycott, there isn’t a formal body to call it off. So I’m only going to speak for myself. The boycott, I think, has been tremendously successful in raising awareness, in turning what might have been a backdoor, behind-the-scenes legal case into a full-on battle for free speech in the 21st century; certainly the university was always very mindful of it and its effects. I’m proud of that. But I don’t see a point in continuing a fight when its chief protagonist has resolved it. I know the boycott has been tremendously hard on many departments at UIUC, particularly those departments that were most in support of Steven. For all these reasons, I see no reason to continue it. Others may reach different conclusions. I respect their decisions.

As I was finishing up this post, Steven responded to an email I had sent him with the following:

We fought hard.  I tried my very best to represent those invested in the issue with dignity and decency.  And I hope this sort of thing never happens to anybody else.

I would say that Steven did more than try his very best to represent those invested in the issue with dignity and decency. He actually did represent those invested in the issue with dignity and decency. And while I don’t have a crystal ball, I’d be surprised if any university ever tried to pull this kind of stunt again.

What In God’s Name is the Head of PEN Talking About?

by Corey Robin on November 12, 2015

I find this statement in a New York Times oped, coming from Suzanne Nossel, the head of PEN America, absolutely stunning:

SOME of the most potent threats to free speech these days come not from our government or corporations, but from our citizenry.


Anyone who can write a sentence like this simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Which is fine, but not fine when the person is the head of an organization dedicated to freedom of expression.

By “our citizenry,” Nossel is referring to the recent round of free speech wars on college campuses. Now when these issues of free speech arise on campus, you usually see an explosion of conversation about it: on the campus itself, and in the media. Far from dampening down discussion, the controversy over free speech on campus actually ignites discussion. Everyone has an opinion, everyone voices it.

And while I wouldn’t diminish the challenges to free speech that these controversies pose, the notion that that campus curbs on speech, if that is what they are, are far more common and threatening than what governments or corporations do is risible. Though given that Nossel is a former State Department higher-up, perhaps understandable. She is after all someone who has said:

To advance from a nuanced dissent to a compelling vision, progressive policymakers should turn to the great mainstay of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy: liberal internationalism…should offer assertive leadership — diplomatic, economic, and not least, military — to advance a broad array of goals.

When there are not just threats but actual abridgments of speech at the workplace—Nossel says “corporations,” referring I guess to firms’ financial lock on the political process, but as I’ve argued many times, it’s in their capacity as employers that firms really do damage to free speech—there is no such explosion as there are on college campuses. Partially because people like Nossel and the media are completely uninterested in the topic, even when the workplace in question is a university: if Nossel wrote an oped in the New York Times when Columbia prohibited its workers from speaking Spanish, I missed it.

But more important, there’s no explosion because abridgments of speech at work are so lethally effective. Workers are silenced, that is the end of the story. We never hear about it.

At one point in her oped Nossel does give a nod to the status of speech in the workplace. Here’s what she says:

Who would trade their [universities’ and colleges’] free-range spirit for the dreary sameness of a corporate office, with its federally sanctioned posters on what constitutes unlawful discrimination?

That’s where Nossel sees the threat to freedom of speech at work: in the “dreary sameness” roused by government efforts to inform workers of their rights against discrimination. There’s a suspicion on the left that freedom of speech is little more than a rationalization for racism or indifference to racism. I try to fight that suspicion all the time. But when the head of PEN America writes sentences like these, it makes that job infinitely harder.

Whatever one thinks about the current controversy over free speech at Yale and the University of Missouri, if the head of PEN America is going to leverage her pen on behalf of freedom of speech on the pages of the New York Times, she would well do to consider where the real threats to such speech lie.

When We Betray Our Students

by Corey Robin on October 30, 2015

A couple of months ago, at the beginning of the semester, I posted on Facebook a plea to my fellow faculty that they not post complaints there about their students. You know the kind I’m talking about: where students are mocked for the errors they make in class, the faux pas of the politically incorrect, and so forth. I said that I considered such public commentary a kind of betrayal, even when the students weren’t named.

Yesterday, Gothamist reported that an undercover cop had been spying for months, if not years, on a group of Muslim students at Brooklyn College, leading to the arrest of two women last spring for allegedly planning to build a bomb.

Set aside the problem of entrapment with these schemes. Set aside New York City Mayor de Blasio’s promise to stop this kind of surveillance of Muslims in New York. Let’s focus instead on the leadership of CUNY that either knowingly allows this kind of spying on our students to continue or does little to nothing to stop it.

Tolerating, actively or passively, undercover officers of the state on our campus, allowing them to spy on our students, to report back to the state what our students say, as they meet with their friends to share in their studies, swap their stories, figure out their faith, shoot the shit, or whatever it is that students do when they believe themselves to be among friends, is a betrayal. Of the worst sort.

I posted my comment on Facebook because I believe we, as faculty, have a trust to uphold with our students. That when they come to our campus, they will be allowed to try on new clothes, nudge themselves away from who they were toward who they will become, make a stab at independence, that they will be allowed to make mistakes—in full knowledge that their fumbles and foibles are safe with us.

As my friend Moustafa Bayoumi, who’s also a professor at Brookyn College, writes in his book This Muslim American Life, which is just out with NYU Press:

Americans of all types are expected to acquiesce to intrusions into their private lives, supposedly for greater security, while any objection is interpreted as “having something to hide.” But having something to hide—or having the right to hold an inner life and to be free to determine how much of yourself you show to others—is not only a guarantee of our democracy but also a necessary part of being human. Losing that right is troubling and dangerous for the same reason that Elaine Scarry identifies as the dark innovation of the Patriot Act. “The Patriot Act inverts the constitutional requirement that people’s lives be private and the work of government officials be public; it instead crafts a set of conditions in which our inner lives become transparent and the workings of the government become opaque.”

The same applies, even more so, when we are talking about students.

When we allow officers of the state onto our campus to monitor and surveil our students as they make their way into the world, to troll for trouble (even creating the circumstances for that trouble), we betray that trust. We simply cannot build a campus that is true to its mission if we allow this kind of practice to continue.

There’s a petition being circulated calling on CUNY Chancellor James Milliken to stop this practice. I urge you to sign it. And to share this post, and the petition, widely.

Sheldon Wolin, 1922-2015

by Corey Robin on October 23, 2015

Sheldon Wolin, the political theorist, has died.

In the last five years or so, we’ve seen the exit of an entire generation of scholars: David Montgomery, Carl Schorske, Peter Gay, Marshall Berman. This was the generation that taught me, sometimes literally. But Wolin’s death hits me hardest. I took two courses with him as an undergraduate: Modern Political Theory (Machiavelli to Smith) and Radical Political Thought (Paine to Foucault). The first in my freshman year, the second in my sophomore year. I would have taken more, but Wolin retired the following year. Those courses set me on my way. I would never have become a political theorist were it not for him.

There will be many texts and appreciations in the days and months to come. Wolin taught generations of students, many of whom are now leaders of the field, and their students are now teaching other students. At CUNY, we’re always swimming in his seas: Robyn Marasco, at Hunter, was the student of Wendy Brown and Nick Xenos, both of whom were students of Wolin. John Wallach, also at Hunter, and Uday Mehta, at the Graduate Center, were both students of Wolin. There’s probably no more powerful a demonstration of Wolin’s vision of political theory as a tradition of continuity and innovation, as a transmission across time, than these students of students of students.

While many of these texts and appreciations will focus, and rightly so, on the political side of Wolin—as mentor and participant and commentator on the student movements of the 1960s, particularly at Berkeley; as leader of the divestment movement at Princeton in the 1970s and 1980s; as searching public critic of technocratic liberalism, market conservatism, and American imperialism, in the pages of the New York Review of Books and his wondrous though short-lived journal democracy; as a theorist of radical or “fugitive” democracy—I want to focus here on the way he did political theory. Less the substance (though I’ll come to that at the end) than the style.

The first thing to note about Wolin’s approach is how literary it was. It’s hard to see this in some of his texts, but it was on full display in his lectures. I don’t know if Wolin was at all trained in New Criticism—I seem to recall him citing I.A. Richards’s Practical Criticism somewhere—but he read like a New Critic. The opening paragraph or page of every text was the site of an extended exploration and explication, as if the key to all of the Second Discourse was to be found in that arresting image of the statue of Glaucus which Rousseau mentions at the outset.

Chekhov has a line somewhere about how if you put a gun on the wall in the first act, you damn well better make sure it goes off in the second. Wolin paid attention to those guns, especially when they didn’t go off. He was endlessly curious about a theorist’s metaphors, asides, slips, and allusions, and mined them to great effect. Long before we were reading de Man and Derrida, he was reading like them. But without all the fuss. He just did it. [click to continue…]