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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…]

Richard Cohen on Tipping: To Ensure Proper Servitude

by Corey Robin on October 21, 2015

Richard Cohen has a…I’m not sure what to call it. Formally, it’s an oped in the Washington Post.* In defense of tipping. In reality, it’s more like an overheated entry from his diary. In which Cohen confesses that his feelings of noblesse oblige toward waiters are really a cover for his fantasies of discipline and punish. Where there’s no safe word. Except, maybe, “check please.”

The context for Cohen’s musings is that Danny Meyer, the restauranteur, has decided to eliminate tipping at his restaurants. This has prompted a spate of articles, praising Meyer and criticizing the anti-democratic elements of tipping. Enter Cohen.

I love tipping.

The practice originated with European aristocracy…

And he’s off. Now remember, in DC parlance, Cohen is considered a liberal.

There are four moments worth noting in the piece. First, this:

Like almost everyone else in America, I was once a waiter — and a busboy, and a short-order cook and a dishwasher — and I never felt I was groveling for tips. I did feel, as a friend told me before I went off on a wait job, “Remember, you work for the customer, not the restaurant.” If tipping doesn’t quite shift loyalties so neatly, it does put loyalties into play.

There’s the democratic nod to Cohen having once been a waiter. From Lincoln to Cohen, how many relationships of deference in the United States have been justified by reference to one’s own humble past, by invoking this escalator of social mobility, in which one begins at the bottom, serving a superior, and arrives at the top, being served by an inferior?

There’s also that invocation of loyalty. Though the capitalist workplace is often described by its defenders and critics as a glorious (or gory) space of untrammeled self-interest and personal advance, for many of its denizens, it is a domain of loyalty (and subordination). For Cohen, that loyalty is never to one’s co-workers; it is either to the boss or to the customer.

Finally, there’s that claim that when he was a waiter, Cohen “never felt I was groveling for tips.” No, I’m sure he did not. (Just as I’m sure he doesn’t feel as if he’s groveling for a different kind of tip when he sucks up to power now: once a courtier, always a courtier). There’s a reason Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, chose the waiter as one of his paradigmatic examples of “bad faith.” Wrote Sartre: “I am a waiter in the mode of being what I am not.” Cohen was/is a waiter in the mode of being what he is.

Here’s the second moment of Cohen’s piece:

The waiter is my guy for the duration of the meal. He’s my agent. He looks out for me and, if he does a good job, I look out for him. He has an incentive to give me exceptional service, not some mediocre minimum, to ensure that my water glass is full, that my wine is replenished, to make sure that the busboy does not prematurely remove the plates — that I am not hurried along so that the owner can squeeze in another sitting. The waiter is my wingman.

Again, notice the sublimation that goes on in the capitalist workplace. For most observers, I think, the relationship between a waiter/restaurant and a customer is a relatively straightforward exchange of money for service (the tip, as Cohen and others like to say, stands for “to insure promptitude”). But notice the affective element that gets introduced here: the waiter becomes Cohen’s agent, his wingman. In that exchange of money for service a bromance develops, a rather one-sided bromance, in which Cohen gets to imagine that this man—my guy—cares about him, really cares about him, as a self, a soul. And that he, Cohen, cares about the man. My guy. That this bromance is consecrated by the exchange of money is incidental or ornamental.

Or maybe not, as Cohen makes clear in this third passage:

I hesitate to mention another reason I like tipping. I like to make a difference, not just to be a bit of a big shot or be noticed or appreciated, but to give some of what I make to those who make less. I’m not flipping silver dollars into the air or hurling twenties around with abandon, but I am a healthy tipper (once a waiter, always a tipper) because this is my way of recognizing a good job. A healthy tip is like a pat on the back.

The tip is recognition of service well-performed. It shows that I care, that I notice — that I recognize what the restaurateur way back in the kitchen does not because he cannot. Why would I want to treat everyone as if they were equally good at their tasks?

The real signification of that exchange of money is that it allows Cohen—and not some impersonal mechanism like the market or the law—to distribute benefits and largesse to the staff. Partly because he wants to recognize the help, to lift the individuals among them above the dross and drab of democracy, where everyone is treated equally and no one gets noticed. Tipping is about making distinctions, about awarding distinctions, which are threatened by those egalitarian rules of equal pay for equal work.

The real object of that art of distinction, however, is not the waiter doing an excellent job but the tipper who is recognizing and rewarding him for it. Notice the ostentatious subject of virtually every single sentence in this passage: ”I hesitate…I like tipping. I like to make a difference…I make… I’m not flipping silver dollars…I am a healthy tipper…my way of recognizing a good job….I care…I notice…I recognize…Why would I want…”

In the act of dispensing rewards, Cohen gets to play the part of a lord. Money is the means of his conveyance. Circulating it advances his cause, elevates him above the crowd. Dispensing money puts his signature on the otherwise drab world of democracy and exchange.

And elevates him a particular sort of way. The last passage:

I like to reward, but occasionally I like to punish. Make my meal an ordeal, make me anxious about whether you got the order straight, and no 20 percent tip will come your way. Maybe that’s not democratic, but a meal is not a town hall meeting.

Reminds me of that passage from the ancient Laws of Manu, which de Maistre loved to cite:
Punishment is an active ruler; he is the true manager of public affairs; he is the dispenser of laws; and wise men call him the sponsor of all the four orders for the discharge of their several duties. Punishment governs all mankind; punishment alone preserves them; punishment wakes, while their guards are asleep….The whole race of men is kept in order by punishment.

If only someone would write a book about all this.

*H/t Andrew Seal.

Harvard’s grad students have launched a union campaign, and Harvard’s administration has launched its response. Internal documents from the administration to the faculty, which were leaked to me, reveal some fascinating developments in these increasingly common anti-union drives of elite Ivy League universities.

First, university administrations have grown highly sensitized to any perception that they or their faculty are using intimidation and coercion to bust unions of academic workers. So sensitized that they’ve drafted a set of four rules, replete with a handy acronym, just in case the faculty can’t remember to keep things cool.

The basic rule is: No “TIPS”

No Threats

No Interrogation

No Promises

No Surveillance

You have to appreciate the hilarity. Like most elite faculty, Harvard’s professor probably oppose a union of graduate students because they think it will sully the intellectual virtues of America’s most prestigious university. Yet here they are being instructed by that most prestigious university to oppose that union with the help of slogans and acronyms.

And believe or not: that’s the good news. The use of fear and favor can be fatal to a union drive, and it’s good that at least some portion of the faculty are being told not to go there. (Whether that message sticks once the drive really gets going is another matter.) What’s more, it shows how conscious Harvard’s administrators—really, lawyers (and probably not even in-house lawyers; there are firms that specialize in this stuff)—are that the law and the courts may not be on their side on this issue.

Second, and even more interesting , is how, having explained to the world’s leading luminaries of light and reason that they should not terrorize the workers and students with whom they work (and don’t assume these luminaries don’t need that explained to them), the administration proceeds to instruct the faculty in what they should do. [click to continue…]

David Brooks is fed up with the GOP. Today’s conservative, he says, is not yesterday’s conservative. What happened?

Basically, the party abandoned traditional conservatism for right-wing radicalism. Republicans came to see themselves as insurgents and revolutionaries, and every revolution tends toward anarchy and ends up devouring its own.

I’ve been trying to combat this argument by amnesia for yearsAs he has done before, Krugman valiantly takes up my cause today in his response to Brooks. Yet the argument keeps popping back up.

So let’s take it apart, piece by piece. Brooks says the rot set in 30 years ago, in the wake of Reagan. Let’s see how today’s conservatism compares to those loamy vintages of more than three decades past. The bolded passages are all from Brooks’ column.

By traditional definitions, conservatism stands for intellectual humility,

“The conservative principle has been defended, the past hundred and fifty years, by men of learning and genius.” (Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind)

“A successful defence of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concessions to expediency….Utopia, like ideology, is a bad word today…But an ideal picture of a society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.” (Friedrich von Hayek, Law, Legislation, Liberty, Vol. 1)

“Conservatism is in general the intuition of genius, whereas liberalism is the efficiency of talent.” (Elmer More, “Disraeli and Conservatism”)

a belief in steady, incremental change,
“Every little measure is a great errour.” (Edmund Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace)

“The American people now want us to act and not in half-measures. They demand and they’ve earned a full and comprehensive effort.” (Ronald Reagan, Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on the Program for Economic Recovery)

[click to continue…]

This Thursday night, the Society for U.S. Intellectual History is convening its annual conference in Washington, DC. I’ll be delivering the keynote address, which I’m really excited about. I’ll be talking about public intellectuals, a topic I’ve explored here before, as have many others on this blog. The full conference schedule is here; my talk is scheduled for Friday, October 16, at 2 pm, in the Hamilton Ballroom of the Hamilton Crowne Plaza Hotel. If you’re in DC, stop by and say hello. The title of my talk is: “Publics That Don’t Exist and the Intellectuals Who Write For Them.” Here’s a preview:

The problem with our public intellectuals today—and here I’m going to address the work of two exemplary though quite different public intellectuals: Cass Sunstein and Ta-Nehisi Coates—has little to do with their style. It has little to do with their professional location, whether they write from academia or for the little magazines. It has little to do with the suburbs, bohemia, or tenure. The problem with our public intellectuals today is that they are writing for readers who already exist, as they exist.

Conservative scholar Robert George has issued a “call to action” to constitutional scholars and presidential candidates who are opposed to the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. George believes the decision was wrongly decided, that it is a gross usurpation of judicial power and misinterpretation of the Constitution.

But things take an interesting turn in the statement, when George invokes Lincoln on Dred Scott to argue that, despite the Court’s ruling, we—and more important, government officials, including future presidents—should not accept Obergefell as the law of the land. That is, we, and they, should not accept Obergefell as binding on our/their conduct. [click to continue…]

Clusterfuck of Corruption at NYT Book Review (Updated)

by Corey Robin on October 1, 2015

Greg Grandin takes to Gawker to report on a clusterfuck of corruption at the New York Times Book Review:

This Sunday, the New York Times Book Review will publish a review of the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s authorized biography of Henry Kissinger, Kissinger: The Idealist. The reviewer is Andrew Roberts.

Roberts brings an unusual level of familiarity to the subject: It was Roberts whom Kissinger first asked, before turning to Ferguson, to write his authorized biography. In other words, the New York Times is having Kissinger’s preferred authorized biographer review Kissinger’s authorized biography.

Oh, and Roberts isn’t just close to the subject of the book he is reviewing. He has also been, for a quarter-century, a friend of the book’s author.

The Times, too, normally checks those things. When I’m approached about reviewing books there, I’m usually asked if I know the author or have a conflict of interest.

Last May, the Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, weighed in on the topic: How close a connection between reviewer and author (and in this case, between author, reviewer, and subject) is too close a connection? “It’s fine if readers disagree with our reviews,” the Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul told Sullivan, “but they should not distrust them.”

…Still, it’s a “tricky challenge,” Paul said, “to get someone informed but not entrenched.”

If Roberts were any more entrenched, he’d be wearing a Brodie helmet and puttees.

A spokesperson for the New York Times offered the following statement to Gawker, on behalf of Pamela Paul:

“We always ask our reviewers about any potential conflict of interest, as we define it, and disclose any possible conflicts in the review if necessary. In this particular case, we asked Andrew Roberts and were satisfied with his assurances that no conflicts of interest existed that would sway his review one way or the other.”

The Times might as well have asked Kissinger to review his own biography. Or, better, Ferguson himself, since, along with Roberts, there’s not a nano-difference between the three men, at least when it comes to controversies about war.

So how is the review itself? Contrary to the bet that an opinionated yet informed expert might turn in an exciting piece, Roberts’s essay is ponderous, and, if possible, even more hagiographic than the authorized biography itself.

“Kissinger’s official biographer,” writes the man Kissinger first asked to be his official biographer, “certainly gives the reader enough evidence to conclude that Henry Kissinger is one of the greatest Americans in the history of the republic, someone who has been repulsively traduced over several decades and who deserved to have a defense of this comprehensiveness published years ago.”

Let me be clear: I think it would be totally legitimate if, say, Ferguson, with his well-known conservative politics, were to review my new, critical book on Kissinger. That might indeed make for an engaging, fun debate; readers would know where author and reviewer stand. However, asking Roberts to review Ferguson, without acknowledging their connections, not to mention Roberts’ history with Kissinger, is a trench too far.

Thus a new genre is born: the authorized review of the authorized biography.

I should admit that I have my own vested interest in the matter. Not only is Greg a friend whose work I have discussed here over the years, but as he reports in his piece:

My friend Corey Robin had a relevant experience. When his book The Reactionary Mind was coming out in 2011, the Times contacted a widely respected intellectual historian to review it. The potential reviewer didn’t know Corey personally or professionally. Although they had never met, Corey had begun blogging that year, and he and the would-be reviewer began exchanging occasional comments on sites like Facebook. Minimal as the relationship was, the Times nixed the reviewer because of their putative entanglement.

The irony of that experience is that the person the Times wound up choosing to review my book—Barnard political scientist Sheri Berman, whose negative review (along with Mark Lilla’s in the New York Review of Books) set off a round of bitter controversy, on this blog and elsewhere, as the Times itself would go onto report—actually does know me personally. She and my wife had done cat rescue work together for years, and on several occasion I had been to her house, where we talked about political science and cats.

In related news, I‘ll be interviewing Greg about his new book on Kissingerabout which I have been blogging over at my site—on Sunday, October 4, at 12:30, at the Brooklyn Public Library. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by.

Update (October 2, 11 am)

Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times public editor, writes a quietly devastating critique of the preferred authorized biographer writing a review of the authorized biography of Kissinger:

In the italic identification line appearing with his review of a new biography of Henry Kissinger, Andrew Roberts is described only as “the Lehrman Institute distinguished fellow at the New-York Historical Society.” And that is true.

But what is also true is that Mr. Roberts had what many reasonable people would consider a conflict of interest as a reviewer: He was Mr. Kissinger’s first choice to write his authorized biography.

The Times Book Review editor, Pamela Paul, told me Thursday that she was unaware of that fact before the publication of a Gawker piece that makes much of that relationship and of Mr. Roberts’s acquaintance with the book’s author, Niall Ferguson.

Gawker’s headline: “Kissinger Biography Is Great, Says Pal of Author and Kissinger in New York Times.” Indeed, the review is kind to Mr. Kissinger and to Mr. Ferguson; it calls the book “comprehensive, well-written and riveting.”

“We rely on our reviewers to disclose conflicts of interest,” Ms. Paul said. Mr. Roberts disclosed no conflict, saying only that he had met Mr. Ferguson a few times but that this wouldn’t affect his review.

She made the point that Book Review editors cannot realistically open full-fledged investigations into their reviewers’ backgrounds. If Mr. Roberts had told editors that he had turned down the chance to write the book himself, Ms. Paul said that it might not have disqualified him as the reviewer but that she would have had him acknowledge that information in the review.

Should he have told editors? If she’d been in Mr. Roberts’s place, she said, “I would have disclosed it.”

Indeed, Mr. Ferguson and Mr. Roberts will share a London stage to discuss Mr. Kissinger and the authorized biography later this month.

My take: Both assignments were considerably less than ideal. Times readers must be able to believe that a review is an impartial assessment of a book’s merits. That assessment shouldn’t be influenced (or appear to be influenced) by deference to a fellow Times employee or by a significant relationship or circumstance — especially one that goes undisclosed to readers.

But, wait, there’s more.

Not only is Roberts, as Greg Grandin reported in his Gawker piece, a quarter-century-long friend of Ferguson’s (contrary to Roberts’s claim that they only met a few times). He also, my friend Jonathan Stein told me, co-wrote an article with Ferguson back in 1997. In a volume of essays edited by Ferguson.

Here’s the cite: Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, “Hitler’s England: What If Germany had Invaded Britain in May 1940?” in Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, ed. Niall Ferguson (London: Picador, 1997), 281–320.

One last question: How did Roberts come to be chosen as the reviewer of the Ferguson bio in the first place? He’s not exactly a natural choice in that he’s mostly written about British politics and European war in the 19th century and early 20th century; there are lot of experts on Kissinger and American foreign policy. Indeed, it was just such an expert whom the NYTBR chose to review Grandin’s book on Kissinger in the very same issue of the NYTBR that Roberts reviewed Ferguson’s bio. (And, incidentally, one can tell the difference in the choices: where Roberts’s review is a combination of pabulum and hagiography, the review of Grandin’s book is judicious, scholarly, and intelligently critical). So who suggested Roberts as the reviewer and dealt with him on his review?

On the Other 9/11: Kissinger, Pinochet, Obama

by Corey Robin on September 11, 2015

Today is the anniversary of two 9/11’s. The one everyone in the US talks about, and the one not everyone in the US talks about. Greg Grandin, who’s got a new book out on Kissinger that everyone should read, writes in The Nation today about Pinochet’s violent coup against Allende—fully backed by Kissinger and Nixon—and how Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is completing the work that Kissinger, Nixon, and Pinochet began. Forty-three years ago today. [click to continue…]

My Sunday column in Salon uses the latest campus controversy—the Duke student who refuses to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home—as an opportunity to take a second look at what these students with their trigger warnings and sensitivities are trying to tell us:

No one knows the power of literature better than the censor. That’s why he burns books: to fight fire with fire, to stop them from setting the world aflame. Or becomes an editor: Stalin, we now know, excised words from texts with about as much energy and attention as he excised men and women from the world. As Bertolt Brecht archly noted of the East German regime’s efforts to control what he wrote: “Where else in the world can you find a government that shows such interest and pays such attention to artists?”

This week, as I head back to the classroom amid controversy — from Columbia toBerkeley to Duke — over what college students will or will not read, I’m mindful of Brecht’s observation. Could it be that the men and women who most appreciate what we, professors of the humanities and social sciences, have to offer are the students who’ve been vilified as coddled and cosseted, demanding trigger warnings on syllabi or simply refusing to read the books we’ve assigned them because those books make them uncomfortable? Could it be that they, like the censor, are the ones who truly understand the power of the books we teach?

That’s why I’m less bothered than some of my colleagues are by today’s students. I see in their fear a premonition of what a book — and an education — can do. We live in an age, we’re often told, where reading has become rote or has simply disappeared. Half our students don’t do the reading; the other half submit dutiful book reports, barely registering the effect of what they’ve read.

Yet here are students who seem to understand, however faintly and problematically, what the literary critic Alfred Kazin called “the raw hurting power that a book could have over me.” They seem like throwbacks, these students: not to the Midwestern evangelism of Elmer Gantry but to the urban hothouse of the New York Intellectuals, those anxious and oversexed minds of mid-century for whom a Henry James novel or Walt Whitman poem was a holy fire. “Writing Was Everything“: that’s how Kazin titled one of his memoirs. In their refusal to read a book, in their insistence that professors warn them of the trauma it may contain, that is what students are running away from: writing that consumes them, writing that’s everything.

Even so, there’s a greater threat to reading and readers, to education itself, than trigger warnings or students objecting to a text. And that is the downsizing administrator, the economizing politician, who refuses to believe there’s any value in reading a difficult text at all. While the media debates Mr. Grasso’s refusal, I, as chair of my department, anxiously scrutinize our daily enrollment reports, knowing I have to defend courses with 12 students from administrative economizers — simply because the intimacy, attention and focus of a senior seminar doesn’t register as a value to men who can only see value when it is expressed as a number on a spreadsheet. Given the choice of defending a book to an aggrieved student or a course to a phlegmatic accountant, I’ll take the student any day: at least she and I agree that the book in question has power, and the experience of reading it, reality.

In this age of the neoliberal university, these students may be our best allies, for they seem to be among the few who understand that what we do matters. The administrator and the politician, the trustee and the pundit, think that we professors are worse than subversive; we’re useless. These students, by contrast, think we’re dangerous. Rather than dismissing them, maybe we should say: Thank you, we thought no one was listening, we thought no one cared. And then turn around and figure out how to use this as, ahem, a teachable moment — about the radioactivity of books and the fact that radiation has its uses.

[click to continue…]

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Three Not-So-Easy Pieces

by Corey Robin on August 21, 2015

I’ve spent the past few days reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and posting about it on Facebook. Rather than rewriting those posts as a single piece here, I thought I’d take some screen shots, and share them with some additional commentary. A shout-out to my friend Lizzie Donahue, whose queries to me on our daily walk this morning prompted the last and lengthiest post.

Here’s the first post.

Post 1

And here’s a short addendum to this post, where I comment further on the theme of education and Coates’s discussion of his time at Howard University.

Addendum 1

I say here that breaking with the mytho-poetic view of a heroic African past was the second great trauma of Coates’s life. I should be more precise. I mean disillusionment. But it was a disillusionment that was immensely productive. More than the loss of a specific view of things, the break with black nationalism made Coates suspicious of all master narratives, all collective platforms of totality. As an alternative, he turned to the specificity and concreteness of poetry, “of small hard things,” as he says: “aunts and uncles, smoke breaks after sex, girls on stoops drinking from mason jars.” And in that specificity “I began to see discord, argument, chaos, perhaps even fear, as a kind of power.” The “gnawing discomfort, the chaos, the intellectual vertigo was not an alarm. It was a beacon.” This is a writer for whom the struggle to see what is in front of his nose is a lifelong effort, a hard-won right to see things as they are, without mediation or adornment or chastising authority. So much so that it has made him, as we’ll see, suspicious of all collectivities, all platforms. [click to continue…]