Posts by author:

coreyrobin

Greg Grandin called me on Friday.

Greg: What are you doing?

Me: Working on my Salon column.

Greg: What’s it on?

Me: George Packer.

Greg: Low-hanging fruit.

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

Greg: Uh oh. Bombs away.

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

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

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

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

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


You can finish it here.

 

{ 33 comments }

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

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

Unless you’re a worker.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Please read it and sign it.

 

{ 44 comments }

Do the Jews Really Not Belong in the United States?

by Corey Robin on March 29, 2015

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Some Responses to the Israeli Election

by Corey Robin on March 20, 2015

Yousef Munayyer in the New York Times:


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


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


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



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



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



[click to continue…]

The Lives They Lived, The Lives They Touched

by Corey Robin on March 9, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


You can read more here.

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

Awakening to Cultural Studies

by Corey Robin on February 28, 2015

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

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

What Do Hannah Arendt and Mel Brooks Have in Common?

by Corey Robin on February 27, 2015

Mel Brooks, interview with Mike Wallace:

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

Hannah Arendt, interview with Joachim Fest:
 

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

Human Rights, Blah Blah Blah

by Corey Robin on February 20, 2015

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

We won! UMass Backs Down!

by Corey Robin on February 18, 2015

UMass issued the following announcement today:

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

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

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


NBC News has more on the story.

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

The Real Mad Men of History

by Corey Robin on February 16, 2015

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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



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

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

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

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…]