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coreyrobin

On the death of Gabriel García Márquez

by Corey Robin on April 23, 2014

Greg Grandin writes in The Nation:

Born in 1927, Gabriel García Márquez was 87 when he died last week. According to his younger brother, Jaime, he had been suffering from complications caused by chemotherapy, which saved his life but accelerated his dementia, a disease that apparently ran in his family. He’d call his brother and ask to be reminded about simple things. “He has problems with his memory,” Jaime reported a few years back.


Remembering and forgetting are García Márquez’s great themes, so it would be easy to read meaning into his senility. The writer was fading into his own solitude, suffering the same fate he assigned to the inhabitants of his fictional town of Macondo, in his most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Struck by an insomnia plague, “sinking irrevocably into the quicksand of forgetfulness,” they had to make signs telling themselves what to remember. “This is a cow. She must be milked.” “God exists.” [click to continue…]

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At National Review Online, Jonathan Adler writes:

Over at the progressive blog, Crooked Timber, Corey Robin lists “Eleven Things You Did Not Know About Clarence Thomas.”  The items Robin lists shouldn’t surprise avid court watchers, or others who have paid much attention to the conservative justice.  Judging from the comments, however, several of the items were quite a revelation to CT’s readership.  I can only imagine the surprise if Robin had blogged on Justice Thomas’s jurisprudence, further challenging the caricature of Clarence Thomas that continues to dominate so much liberal commentary about him.


Actually, a fair number of commenters claimed not to be surprised by these revelations at all.

In any event, you’d think Adler would have been pleased that a group of progressives were having some of their misconceptions about Thomas challenged, if not dispelled. Instead, he complains about the fact that the misconceptions of a group of progressives are getting challenged, if not dispelled. Apparently the only thing worse than the left not knowing something about the right is…the left learning something about the right.

Wingers whine when we don’t pay attention to them; they whine when we do pay attention to them. Why do they whine so much? What does the winger want? [click to continue…]

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Eleven Things You Did Not Know About Clarence Thomas

by Corey Robin on April 18, 2014

1. The first time Clarence Thomas went to DC, it was to protest the Vietnam War.

2. Clarence Thomas grew up a stone’s throw from the Moon River that Audrey Hepburn sang about in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

3. In the 1970s, Clarence Thomas kept a Confederate flag on his desk. [Correction: It was the Georgia State flag, which features quite prominently the Confederate stars and bars. It was a large flag, apparently, and he hung it over his desk.]

4. There’s a law review article about Clarence Thomas called “Clarence X?: The Black Nationalist Behind Justice Thomas’s Constitutionalism.”

5. Clarence Thomas attended antiwar rallies in Boston where he called for the release of Angela Davis and Erica Huggins.

6. Clarence Thomas told Juan Williams that “there is nothing you can do to get past black skin. I don’t care how educated you are, how good you are—you’ll never have the same contacts or opportunities, you’ll never be seen as equal to whites.”

7. Clarence Thomas is the only Supreme Court justice to have cited Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois in his opinions.

8. In college, Clarence Thomas hung posters of Malcolm X on his wall, memorized his speeches, and studied his writings. “I’ve been very partial to Malcolm X,” he told Reason in 1987. “There is a lot of good in what he says.”

9. Clarence Thomas does not believe in color-blindness: “I don’t think this society has ever been color-blind. I grew up in Savannah, Georgia under segregation. It wasn’t color-blind and America is not color-blind today…Code words like ‘color-blind’ aren’t all that useful.”

10. Yale Law scholar Akhil Reed Amar has compared Clarence Thomas to Hugo Black:

Both were Southerners who came to the Court young and with very little judicial experience. Early in their careers, they were often in dissent, sometimes by themselves, but they were content to go their own way. But once Earl Warren became Chief Justice the Court started to come to Black. It’s the same with Thomas and the Roberts Court. Thomas’s views are now being followed by a majority of the Court in case after case.


11. Clarence Thomas resents the fact that as a black man he is not supposed to listen to Carole King.

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The first night of Passover is on Monday, and I’ve been thinking about and preparing for the Seder. I had a mini-victory this morning, when I was shopping for fish in Crown Heights. The guy at the fish store told me that thanks to the Polar Vortex, 90% of Lake Huron is frozen. Which means no whitefish. Which means no gefilte fish. So I put on my best impression of Charlotte in Sex and the City —”I said lean!”—and managed, through a combination of moxie and charm, to get him to give me the last three pounds of whitefish and pike in Crown Heights. Plus a pound of carp. Which means…gefilte fish!

Food is the easy part of the seder. The hard part is making it all mean something. [click to continue…]

In a sharp take on the left, Freddie deBoer asks, “Is the social justice left really abandoning free speech?” Drawing on this report about an incident at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Freddie answers his own question thus:

It’s a question I’ve played around with before. Generally, the response [from the left] is something like “of course not, stop slandering us,” or whatever. But more and more often, I find that the answer from lefties I know in academia or online writing are answering “yes.” And that is, frankly, terrifying and a total betrayal of the fundamental principles we associate with human progress.


Freddie goes on to offer a rousing defense of free speech. I don’t want to enter that debate. I have a different question: Is Freddie’s sense of a change on the left—”more and more often”—accurate?

To be clear, I know exactly the phenomenon Freddie is talking about, so he’s not wrong to point it out. But from my admittedly impressionistic vantage as a middle-aged American academic, it seems far less common than it used to be. [click to continue…]

This peculiar preoration by Geoffrey Gray in The New Republic (h/t Aaron Bady) about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370—

I’ve found myself asking a different question: Do we really want to find this missing plane at all? The families of the victims deserve answers, of course, but as the days go on and more nautical miles are searched for missing debris, there’s an undeniable urge for investigators to keep on looking, not find anything, and let the mystery endure.


The New York Times’s Farhad Manjoo argues that the “terror” isn’t only that we can’t find the plane, but being off the grid itself, untethered to our friends and family. I disagree. Our “hyperconnectivity,” as he calls it, is the very reason we need this mystery right now. In a moment dominated by the radical adoption of new technology, with reports of the NSA’s massive snooping, talk of Amazon drones making deliveries like toilet paper door to your doorstep, or checking the status of a flight through a pair of Google glasses, we need to feel that there is at least something out there that the grand orchestra of satellites and supercomputers can’t find or figure out.


It’s more than a tad ironic, but apropos, that it took a missing airplane—one of man’s greatest technological innovations—to remind us that there’s still some mystery left to humanity.


—reminds me of something Hannah Arendt said about T.E. Lawrence in The Origins of Totalitarianism: [click to continue…]

I have a piece up at Al Jazeera America, “The responsibility of adjunct intellectuals,” which follows up on my post about the whole Nick Kristof/public intellectuals kerfuffle. Just an extension of some of the arguments I made there. Here are the highlights:

In the 1990s the philosopher and Arts & Letters Daily editor Dennis Dutton ran an annual Bad Writing contest in order to highlight turgid academic prose. If the contest were still around, this passage from The American Political Science Review might be a winner:


For a body of n members, in which there exists a group large enough and willing to pass a motion, let the members vote randomly and declare the motion passed when the mth member has voted for it, where m “yes” votes are required for passage. Define as the pivot the member in the mth position and note that there are n! (read “n factorial,” that is 1 · 2 · … · n) such random orderings of n voters (that is, the permutations of a, b, · · · , n). Then define the power, p, of a member, i, thus: pi = ti/n!, where ti is the number of times i is pivot.


As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out, this is the kind of writing that has estranged the reading public from academia. A generation ago, political scientists were public intellectuals. We wrote lucid prose. We spoke to the issues of the day. We advised President John F. Kennedy. But now all we care about is math, jargon and one another.


There’s just one problem with what I’ve just said. That passage from The American Political Science Review appeared in 1962, the second year of the Kennedy administration. [click to continue…]

David Brooks: Better in the original German

by Corey Robin on March 11, 2014

Isaac Chotiner thinks David Brooks is not making sense. That’s because Chotiner’s reading Brooks in translation. He needs to read Brooks in the original German.

Here’s Brooks in translation: [click to continue…]

James Madison and Elia Kazan: Theory and Practice

by Corey Robin on February 19, 2014

James Madison, Federalist 51:

The constant aim is…that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.


Elia Kazan, on why he named names:

 

Reason 1: “I’ve got to think of my kids.”


Reason 2: “All right, I earned over $400,000 last year from theater. But Skouras [head of Twentieth-Century Fox] says I’ll never make another movie. You’ve spent your money, haven’t you? It’s easy for you. But I’ve got a stake.”

Look Who Nick Kristof’s Saving Now

by Corey Robin on February 16, 2014

For the last few months, I’ve had a draft post sitting in my dashboard listing all the words and phrases I’d like to see banished from the English language. At the top—jockeying for the #1 slot with “yummy,” “closure” and “it’s all good”—is “public intellectual.”

I used to like the phrase; it once even expressed an aspiration of mine. But in the years since Russell Jacoby wrote his polemic against the retreat of intellectuals to the ivory tower, it’s been overworked as a term of abuse.

What was originally intended as a materialist analysis of the relationship between politics, economics, and culture—Jacoby’s aim was to analyze how real changes in the economy and polity were driving intellectuals from the public square—has become little more than a rotten old chestnut that lazy journalists, pundits, and reviewers like to keep in their back pocket for whenever they’re short of copy. Got nothing to say? Nothing on your mind? Not to worry: here’s a beating-a-dead-horse-piece-that-writes-itself about the jargony academic who writes only for her peers in specialized journals that only a handful of people read.

To wit, Nicholas Kristof’s column in today’s New York Times: [click to continue…]

Silence and Segregation

by Corey Robin on February 14, 2014

Toward the end of his life the legendary French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would lead his seminars in almost absolute silence. Though he suffered from some kind of aphasia, Lacan’s silences are often held to signify more than silence. In keeping with his theory, they mark a presence. Silence speaks.

I thought of Lacan when I read this statement from Clarence Thomas, which Jonathan Chait flagged the other day.

My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up. Now, name a day it doesn’t come up. Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn’t look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I’d still be in Savannah. Every person in this room has endured a slight. Every person. Somebody has said something that has hurt their feelings or did something to them — left them out.


Critics of Thomas like Chait see this kind of talk as either outright lies or utter foolishness. Can Thomas really believe that the segregated South of his youth was less race-conscious than today? Does he really believe that not talking about race (if southerners did in fact not talk about race) signifies the absence of race consciousness?

But the immediate pairing of these two sentences in Thomas’s talk—”I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up.”—is too suggestive to leave it at that.

Look carefully at what Thomas is saying: I personally desegregated a white school; we never talked about race. The juxtaposition is so jarring, it can only be read as a kind of Lacanian gap. That fissure is precisely where the secret of the sentences is to be found. However unintentional or unconscious, it signals the connection between absence and presence, silence and segregation.

If you think I’m over-reading this, remember that silence has long been a racially fraught topic for Clarence Thomas. He doesn’t ask questions during oral argument at the Supreme Court. Why? Because, he has said, he was teased when he was younger for speaking English in the Geechee/Gullah dialect of black slaves and their descendants. So he learned to keep quiet, as an undergraduate, at Yale Law School, and now on the bench. Silence was a protective mechanism against racist humiliation, a marker not of the absence of race but of the presence of racism.

There’s a structural, even causal, relationship between those two sentences of Thomas. And, despite his protestations, he knows it. Somewhere, somehow.

Death and Taxes

by Corey Robin on February 14, 2014

Last year I wrote, somewhat tongue in cheek, that socialism is about converting hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness.

This is what I meant.

Socialism won’t eliminate the sorrows of the human condition. Loss, death, betrayal, disappointment, hurt: none of these would disappear or even be mitigated in a socialist society. As the Pirkei Avot puts it, against your will you enter this world, against your will you leave it. (Or something like that.) That’s not going to change under socialism.

(Oh, by the way, Happy Valentine’s Day.)

But what socialism can do is to arrange things so that you can deal with and confront these unhappinesses of the human condition. Not flee from or avoid them because you’re so consumed by the material constraints and hassles of everyday life.

I was reminded of that post reading this wonderful piece by Anya Shiffrin about the death of her father.

Last spring, André Shiffrin, the legendary publisher, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (he died in December). A New Yorker through and through, he nevertheless decided to spend his last months in Paris, where he and his wife had an apartment and where he had been born. It proved to be a wise move, as Anya explains. [click to continue…]

Did Bob Dahl Really Say That? (Updated)

by Corey Robin on February 9, 2014

As many of you probably know, the Yale political scientist Robert Dahl has died. The Monkey Cage is promising to post personal reflections from a former student next week, but in the meantime they have a roundup of the various obituaries. The Times obituary was quite good. I found this passage especially arresting.

Professor Dahl, who taught at Yale for 40 years, provided a definition of politics memorized by a generation of students: “The process that determines the authoritative allocation of values.”


When I first read that, I thought to myself, “Wow, Dahl was more of a Nietzschean than I realized.” I’ve only read a few of Dahl’s books, but I hadn’t ever stumbled across that particular statement or sentiment in any of them. I posted it on Facebook with the header, “Bob Dahl, Nietzschean.”

But then I googled it and couldn’t find Dahl saying it anywhere, save in the Times. And then I got suspicious. Wrongly attributed statements, as readers here may remember, are a bit of an obsession of mine. So I asked around on Facebook, and thanks to the efforts of Harrison Fluss, who’s a philosophy grad student at Stonybrook, and Rafael Khachaturian, who’s a poli sci grad student at Indiana University, I was able to piece together the following letter to the writer of the Times obit. I hope they manage to make a correction. If they don’t, they might be unwittingly inaugurating decades of misconception.

If I’ve gotten any of it wrong, feel free to correct me in the comments. As I say, I’ve only read a few of Dahl’s books; I’m by no means an expert. [click to continue…]

Jewfros in Palestine

by Corey Robin on January 31, 2014

Tablet has a moving piece by Samantha Shokin, a Brooklyn-based writer, on how a semester in Israel helped change the way she felt about herself, particularly her bodily self-image as a Jewish woman. Shokin writes:

I spent a lifetime hating my Jewish hair—straightening it, covering it, or otherwise finding ways to diminish its presence. A trip to Israel is what it took for me to realize my hair was wonderful all its own, and much more than just an accessory. [click to continue…]

The Beauty of the Blacklist: In Memory of Pete Seeger

by Corey Robin on January 29, 2014

Pete Seeger’s death has prompted several reminiscences about his 1955 appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). And for good reason. Two good reasons, in fact.

First, Seeger refused to answer questions about his beliefs and associations—up until the 1940s, he had been a member of the Communist Party—not on the basis of the Fifth Amendment, which protects men and women from self-incrimination, but on the basis of the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech.

While invoking the Fifth was not without its perils—most important, it could put someone on the blacklist; individuals who invoked it frequently found themselves without work—it had the advantage of keeping one out of jail. But the cost of the 5th was clear: though you could refuse to testify about yourself, you could not refuse to testify about others.

So Seeger invoked the First Amendment instead. A far riskier legal position—the Court had already held, in the case of the Hollywood Ten, that the First Amendment did not protect men and women who refused to testify before HUAC—it was the more principled stance. As Seeger explained later, “The Fifth means they can’t ask me, the First means they can’t ask anybody.” And he paid for it. Cited for contempt of Congress, he was indicted, convicted, and sentenced to a year in prison. Eventually the sentence got overturned.

Second, not only did Seeger refuse to answer questions about his associations and beliefs, but he also did it with great panache. [click to continue…]