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Great Minds Think Alike

by Corey Robin on August 25, 2016

In a pathbreaking ruling, the National Labor Relations Board announced yesterday that graduate student workers at private universities are employees with the right to organize unions.

For three decades, private universities have bitterly resisted this claim. Unions, these universities have argued, would impose a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach on the ineffably individual and heterogenous nature of graduate education. Unions might be appropriate for a factory, where all the work’s the same, but they would destroy the diversity of the academy, ironing out those delicate and delightful idiosyncrasies that make each university what it is. As virtually every elite university now facing an organizing drive of its graduate students is making clear (h/t David Marcus for discovering these particular links).

Here, for example, is Columbia:


What if an individual student objected to a provision in the labor contract? Would he or she still be bound by it?





Yes. Collective bargaining is, by definition, collective in nature. This means that the union speaks and acts for all students in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in the labor contract it negotiates apply to all unit members, unless exceptions and differences are provided for explicitly in the contract.





Here’s Yale:
10. What if an individual graduate student disagreed with a provision in the contract? Would he or she still be bound by it?
Yes. Collective bargaining is, as it sounds, collective in nature. That means that the union speaks for all graduate students in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in the contract it negotiates apply to all unit members, unless exceptions and differences are provided for in the agreement.

Here’s the University of Chicago:

What if an individual graduate student objected to a provision in the labor contract? Would he or she still be bound by it?

Yes. Collective bargaining is, as it sounds, collectivist in nature. This means that the union speaks and acts for all graduate students in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in the labor contract it negotiates apply to all unit members, unless exceptions and differences are provided for in the contract.

And here’s Princeton:
What if an individual graduate student objected to a provision in the labor contract? Would he or she still be bound by it?

Yes. Collective bargaining focuses on graduate students as a group, not as individuals. This means that a union would speak and act for all graduate students in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in the labor contract would apply to all unit members, unless exceptions are provided for in the contract.


Casual readers might conclude that the only thing standardized and cookie-cutter about unions in elite universities is the argument against them.

Or perhaps it’s just that great minds sometimes really do think alike.

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Donald Trump is the least of the GOP’s problems

by Corey Robin on August 18, 2016

The Associated Press ran a story earlier this week on the continuing crack-up of the Republican Party:

As he [Trump] skips from one gaffe to the next, GOP leaders in Washington and in the most competitive states have begun openly contemplating turning their backs on their party’s presidential nominee to prevent what they fear will be wide-scale Republican losses on Election Day.

Republicans who have devoted their professional lives to electing GOP candidates say they believe the White House already may be lost. They’re exasperated by Trump’s divisive politics and his insistence on running a general election campaign that mirrors his approach to the primaries.


The central weakness of the article—like so much of the reporting on the election this year—is that it posits Trump as the source of the party’s crack-up.

In actual fact, the seeds of the decline of the GOP and conservatism were sown long ago. That decline has little to do with the weaknesses of any candidate or elected official, mistakes this one or that one might have made. To the contrary, the decline reflects the strengths and achievements of both the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Both the party and the movement, in other words, are victims of their success.

The candidacy of Donald Trump, for all its idiosyncrasies, is symptomatic of two cycles of political time: one peculiar to the Republican Party, the other to the conservative movement. [click to continue…]

Last night, I had a bout of insomnia. So I picked up the latest issue of Vanity Fair, and after reading a rather desultory piece by Robert Gottlieb on his experiences editing Lauren Bacall (who I’m distantly related to), Irene Selznick, and Katharine Hepburn (boy, did he not like Hepburn!), I settled down with a long piece by Sam Tanenhaus on William Styron and his Confessions of Nat Turner.

A confession of my own first: I read Confessions sometime in graduate school. I loved it. Probably my favorite work by Styron, much more so than Sophie’s Choice or even Darkness Visible. I say “confession” because it’s a book that has had an enormously controversial afterlife, which Tanenhaus discusses with great sensitivity, even poignancy.

Anyway, I recommend Tanenhaus’s article for a variety of reasons: great narrative pace, with that perfect balance of distance and engagement; it blows hot and cold exactly where and when you need it to; and it moves with an almost symphonic sense of time, back and forth across the decades and centuries.

But here are three things I wanted to comment on. [click to continue…]

Trump’s Indecent Proposal

by Corey Robin on August 2, 2016

One of the most storied, Aaron Sorkin-esque moments in American history—making the rounds this weekend after Donald Trump’s indecent comment on Khizr Khan’s speech at the DNC—is Joseph Welch’s famous confrontation with Joe McCarthy. The date was June 9, 1954; the setting, the Army-McCarthy hearings.

It was then and there that Welch exploded:

Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

People love this moment. It’s when the party of the good and the great finally stared down the forces of the bad and the worse, affirming that this country was in fact good, if not great, rather than bad, if not worse. Within six months, McCarthy would be censured by the Senate. Within three years, he’d be dead.

Citing the Welch precedent for the Trump case, Politico perfectly captures the conventional wisdom about the confrontation:

For the first time, the bully had been called out in public by someone with no skeletons in his proverbial closet, whose integrity was unquestionable, and whose motives were purely patriotic. The audience in the senate chamber burst into applause.

 

But there are two little known elements about this famous confrontation that call that fairy tale into question. [click to continue…]

So Donald Trump Jr. went to the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi this week, where he said, vis-a-vis the Mississippi state flag, which is the only state flag that still invokes the Confederacy, “I believe in tradition.” Those Neshoba County fairgrounds are just a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi. The place indelibly associated with the murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in 1964. So that tells you a lot about Donald Trump. Junior and Senior.

But it also tells you a lot about the Republican Party. Thirty-six years ago, almost to the day, Ronald Reagan, then a candidate for the presidency, also went to the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. There, he said, “I believe in states’ rights.” That, of course, had been the slogan for decades of racial segregation and Jim Crow. Like father, like son; like Reagan, like Trump.

But it also tells you something about the Democratic Party. [click to continue…]

Gag Me With Calhoun

by Corey Robin on July 27, 2016

After weeks of embarrassing publicity and political mobilization, Yale University has been forced to rehire Corey Menafee, an African American employee who was fired for smashing a stained glass window at Yale’s Calhoun College that depicted slaves shouldering bales of cotton. For over a year, Calhoun College has been the subject of intense national controversy because it is named after one of America’s foremost defenders of slavery and white supremacy. Menafee’s actions, firing, and now rehiring gave expression, and amplification, to the controversy.

But now there’s a new source of controversy: one of the conditions of Menafee’s rehiring is that he keep his mouth shut about the case.

But in a move more familiar in corporate labor proceedings than in an academic setting dedicated to free discourse, the university included in the agreement to rehire Menafee a provision that he will no longer be able to speak publicly about his case, the university confirmed….Provision #8 in the agreement reads: “The parties agree that neither Mr. Menafee, the Union, nor the University, nor counsel for any of these, will make any further statements to the public.”

The provision sparked outrage from demonstrators who stood in support of Menafee over the past two weeks.


While gag orders like this are indeed routine in corporate litigation and settlements, the restriction on employee speech is even more routine in workplaces across America. Indeed, for workers in the United States, it is the rule rather than the exception.

But that’s not what makes this particular gag order so interesting. [click to continue…]

Last night, Donald Trump shocked the world, or at least the pundit class, when the New York Times published a wide-ranging interview Trump had given the paper on the subject of foreign policy.

Trump said some scary things: that he didn’t think, for example, that the US should necessarily come to the aid of a NATO country if it were attacked by Russia.

But he also said some things that were true. Like this:

When the world sees how bad the United States is and we start talking about civil liberties, I don’t think we are a very good messenger.

And while the article makes a muchness of Trump’s refusal to pressure Turkey over its response to the failed coup, the fact is that Obama hasn’t done anything concrete on that score either (as the article acknowledges). Nor did Obama do much about the coup in Egypt or Honduras. To the contrary, in fact.

But that wasn’t the focus of last night’s chatter on Twitter. Instead, the pundits and experts were keen to establish the absolutely unprecedented nature of Trump’s irresponsibility: his recklessness when it came to NATO,  his adventurism, his sheer reveling in being the Bad Boy of US Foreign Policy: this, it was agreed, was new.

In a tweet that got passed around by a lot of journalists, Peter Singer, senior fellow at the New America Foundation (who’s written a lot of books on US foreign policy), had this to say:


Hmm, let’s see. [click to continue…]

1.



A king who enjoins inhuman deeds

Will find enough retainers, who for grace and payment

Avidly accept half the anathema.


—Goethe, Iphigenia in Taurus


2.




In 1942, Albert Speer drafted a decree that made it a crime, punishable by death, to provide false information about raw materials, labor, machinery or products. Himmler thought it was too harsh.



3.



So contemptuous of bureaucracy and paperwork was Speer that he welcomed the Allied bombing raids on Berlin in November 1943, which partially destroyed his ministry’s offices. In a memo, he wrote:

[click to continue…]

The Clinton campaign made a major announcement today:

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will pursue a debt-free college for all policy, including a proposal to eliminate the cost of college tuition for a significant portion of the public.

Clinton’s new proposals move her beyond previous statements that she would try to make college “as debt-free as possible“ and toward making “debt-free college available to all.”

Clinton is adding three features to her plan for higher education policy, called the “New College Compact.“ They include eliminating tuition at in-state public universities for families making under $125,000 by 2021 and restoring year-round Pell Grant funding so students can take summer classes to finish school quicker.


The plan isn’t great. I think means-testing higher ed makes about as much sense as means-testing Social Security or elementary school (though, alas, we still do that in this country through local funding and property taxes). I would have preferred free higher ed for everyone.

That said, and assuming Clinton can get this plan through (a big assumption), this is still a big step forward. For three reasons.

First, lots of men and women—students and their families—will get this benefit, not in a far-off time, but soon. And make no mistake: whether you’re going to CUNY, where annual tuition is a little over $6000, or Berkeley or Michigan, where in-state tuition is about $13,000, this will come as welcome relief to a lot of people.

Second, and more important for the long term, I’ve been saying forever that the biggest challenge facing contemporary liberalism is that, from the point of view of the average taxpayer, it has so little to offer. Imagine you’re someone who lives in a house with the median household income of about $54,000 per year. You pay your taxes, but what do you concretely get for the taxes? Sure, I can point to the roads (which are often falling apart) or the schools (which are often not so good), or, down the line, to Social Security or Medicare (which, we’re often told, aren’t in great shape either, and in the case of Social Security, certainly can’t fund a retirement). But it’s hard to make the case to your average man or woman that taxes fund things that help you concretely and directly. Particularly when, at least going back to Mondale, the only message we’ve heard from Democrats on taxes is either: a) we’ll cut them; or b) we’ll increase them in order to cut the deficit and pay off the debt.

Way beyond anything between Clinton v. Sanders, this plan by Clinton is something that can, potentially, change the way people think about their taxes and what the state can do for them. It’s a step toward a political and ideological realignment.

That said, there’s this, too:

The new plan, announced by [Clinton’s] campaign Wednesday, incorporates a major plank of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) platform and is a direct result of the private meeting Clinton had with the Vermont senator in June, the campaign said.

Clinton’s embrace of one of the most popular parts of Sanders’ platform comes as she is trying to get his core supporters — including many young people worried about college debt — to enthusiastically support her candidacy in November.

Sanders gained huge support among young voters by pushing for tuition-free public colleges nationwide, and Clinton now says she would do that for families making less than $125,000.


Which brings me to my third reason.

At moments like this, you really need to get beyond the personal politics a lot of DC and media people want to make all politics into. Despite the fact that they accuse Bernie supporters of being a cult, of worshipping an ancient socialist patriarch, they’re the ones who often think of these electoral campaigns completely in terms of personality, of who’s winning and who’s losing. To my mind, this announcement today goes way beyond the Clinton/Sanders horserace or the Clinton/Trump race. If there is anyone to be celebrated here, it’s the millions of people—particularly young people—who pushed so hard during this campaign, and who have been slowly changing American politics outside the electoral realm.

One of the biggest challenges facing democracy—as opposed to liberalism—and democratic ways of thinking and doing things, is the sense, among a lot of citizens, that political action, whether in the electoral realm or the streets, doesn’t matter. That sense is not delusion; there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that on some fundamentals, it doesn’t matter, at least not yet. But you don’t change that common sense by repeating it over and over to people. Sometimes, we on the left do that. We forget that when we do, we’re not telling the average citizen anything she doesn’t already know. We’re merely repeating what she does know. And reinforcing her sense that there’s really no point in even trying to do anything, whether at the voting booth or in the streets.

It’s way too soon to say what I’m about to say, but I’ll say it anyway: If this plan of Clinton’s does come to pass—again, a big if—it could help, ever so slightly (I stress that ever so slightly), change our sense, if we claim this victory as our own (not as a beneficent handout of an elite neoliberal politician but as a response to real pressure from citizens, particularly younger citizens who have been active in so many social movements these last few years), it could help change our sense of where power lies. It could help more people see what the good activist and the smart organizer already sees: that if we could just possibly get our shit together, we might, sometimes, find power elsewhere. Not power in the abstract, but power to change the concrete terms and conditions of our daily lives.

So here’s my new (really, hardly new at all, and actually not mine) political slogan, as we enter a season of (I hope) increasing, if ultimately finite, concessions from the neoliberal state: Take this, demand more, seize all.

Update (6:45 pm)

A hepful Vox piece reports on three other elements of the Clinton college plan that we should not be thrilled about.

What you need to remember—and I had forgotten—is that today’s plan builds off the previous plans Clinton has announced. Those plans featured three elements, which, according to this article, will remain in play and will apply to the tuition-free plan:

First, the funding for the tuition-free plan will follow the Obamacare Medicaid expansion model, which—thanks to the Supreme Court—states can refuse to participate in. That’s exactly what happened with Republican states. So even within the less than $125k range, this isn’t guaranteed to be a universal benefit.

Second, students have to work ten hours a week to get the benefit. That seems like a huge boondoggle of free labor either to the university (which might wind up firing workers) or to local employers (which could do the same). Not to mention that the whole point of taxpayer-financed benefits like this is that you deserve them as a right of citizenship—and pay for them as a taxpayer—and not because you’re earning them as a worker.

John Protevi pointed out to me that in her famous Daily News interview, Clinton gave us a sense of what she had in mind:

Okay, so you’ve got the states, you’ve got the institutions and you’ve got the families, and then students who want to take advantage of debt-free tuition have to agree to work 10 hours a week. It’s work-study at the college or university, because a couple of public institutions — Arizona State University being a prime example — have lowered their costs by using students for a lot of the work. Yes, it’s free. It’s in effect in exchange for lower tuition. So I want that to be part of the deal.

And here is a nice primer on what that Arizona State program looks like in practice:
Education at Work (EAW) begins expansion outside Cincinnati, where it was founded, at Arizona State University in an innovative three-way partnership with worldwide online payments system company PayPal. Students working at the non-profit contact center will have the opportunity to earn up to $6,000 a year in GPA-based tax-free tuition assistance in addition to an hourly wage. The students will work as part-time employees in a fast-paced, collaborative contact center environment responding to social media and email inquiries.

Go PayPal!

Third, colleges and universities have to “work to lower the cost of actually providing the education — by, for instance, experimenting with technology to lower the cost of administration.” A link in the piece takes us to an article that elaborates thus:

It’s not yet clear what colleges would be required to do about costs in order to participate in the grants, but the adviser mentioned keeping spending on administration in check and using technology to lower the cost of education — for example, making it easier for some students to fulfill some requirements online. (Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Udacity, a provider of free online courses, was one of the advisers on Clinton’s plan, according to the campaign.)

The neoliberal state giveth. And the neoliberal taketh—and taketh.

 

My Resistance to Elie Wiesel

by Corey Robin on July 3, 2016

Trigger Warning: This post may upset you. [click to continue…]

I originally ran this post on my blog as two posts. I hope it works here as one. Or perhaps as one, but in two parts. Here goes…

Part 1: On Judith Butler as a Public Intellectual

I’m a bit late to the party on this article in New York about Judith Butler, which was making the rounds last week. But it’s got me thinking, again, about public intellectuals and their style of writing, a topic I addressed earlier this year in The Chronicle Review.

Now, I should confess at the outset that I’m a rank amateur when it comes to queer theory and gender studies. I read, and know, about it from a distance: from friends like Paisley Currah, from my students, and from colleagues in real life and on social media. So forgive me—and happily correct me—if what I am about to say is wrong.

The premise of the New York profile is that Butler was/is the theoretician of our contemporary politics (and culture) of sex and gender, even as that politics and culture have surpassed her in certain ways.

Taking into account that there were many writers and theoreticians who have contributed to our contemporary sensibilities and mores around sex and gender; acknowledging that none of these theories would have become remotely actual were it not for the millions of people, activists and non-activists alike, who worked to make the world more hospitable to the claims of the non-gender-conforming—the article still presumes that much in our world today would be inconceivable were it not for Butler’s original intervention in Gender Trouble. That’s the premise of the article I take to be true.

I don’t mean that to sound as if I don’t believe it to be true, though I recognize that it presumes a problematic narrative of the “Hero Theorist” who makes the world what it is. I just mean that for my purposes, it’s a necessary premise for what I really want to argue.

What struck me in reading the New York piece is that for much of the 1990s, Gender Trouble led a second, or shadow, life in the republic of letters. Where it was received, often nastily, less as a document in our ongoing arguments about sex and gender and more as an instance of Bad Writing. The article references that controversy over Butler’s writing style—a style that could be characterized as strenuous, I think it’s fair to say—but it doesn’t quite capture how heated and vicious the controversy often was. [click to continue…]

In Lorillard Tobacco Company v. Reilly, the Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts ban on tobacco advertising on First Amendment grounds. In his concurring opinion, Clarence Thomas writes:

The State misunderstand the purpose of advertising. Promoting a product that is not yet pervasively used (or a cause that is not yet widely supported) is a primary purpose of advertising. Tobacco advertisements would be no more misleading for suggesting pervasive use of tobacco products than are any other advertisements that attempt to expand a market for a product, or to rally support for a political movement. Any inference from the advertisements that business would like for tobacco use to be pervasive is entirely reasonable, and advertising that gives rise to that inference is in now way deceptive. [Emphasis added.]

There’s so much—from the history of political thought, conservative thought, and free-market libertarianism—packed into these three sentences, one might be forgiven for missing the breadth and power of what Thomas is arguing.

First, notice the explicit comparison, the affinity, that Thomas draws between commercial advertising for a commodity or product and political advocacy and action for a cause. [click to continue…]

When Muhammad Ali famously said, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong…they never called me nigger,” he wasn’t just refusing to serve in Vietnam. Nor was he peddling an anodyne “We’re all human beings, let’s be friends” piece of feel-good agitprop. He was challenging the ability of the state to define for its citizens whom they should fear and who were their enemies. He was usurping that power and claiming it for himself. As Ali said to a group of white college students, who had challenged his position on serving in Vietnam, “You my enemy. My enemy is the white people, not Viet Congs or Chinese or Japanese.”

From the time of Hobbes, one of the leading attributes of sovereignty has been the right of the state to define and determine what threatens a people and how that threat will be responded to. In the state of nature, Hobbes wrote in Elements of the Law, “every man…is judge himself of the necessity of the means, and of the greatness of the danger” he faces. But once we submit to the state, we are forbidden “to be our own judges” of the threats we are facing and how to respond to them. Except in cases of immediate physical threat to ourselves, we must now accede to the sovereign’s assessment of and decision about these threats. The sovereign, as Hobbes says in Leviathan of the state’s control over matters theological, is he “to whom in all doubtfull cases, wee have submitted our private judgments.”

This is why Ali’s challenge to the Vietnam War was so formidable. He wasn’t merely claiming conscientious objector status, though he was. He wasn’t simply claiming the authority of a higher being, though he was. He was asserting the right of the citizen to be the final judge of what threatens or endangers him. In asserting that right, Ali was posing the deepest, most fundamental challenge to the power and authority of the state.

That he also claimed to be more threatened by his own fellow citizens and government than by an officially declared enemy of the state only added to the subversiveness of his challenge. Against the state’s axis of fear, which claims that one’s enemies invariably belong to another country and thus are part and parcel of the international state system, Ali sought to rotate that axis along a different dimension: away from the international state system to the domestic system of social domination and civil subjection.

History’s Lowlifes

by Corey Robin on June 4, 2016

Some day I want to write an essay about history’s lowlifes. Harvey Matusow would be one. John Doggett would be another.

These are men, sometimes women, who crave escape from their anonymity, who want to be noticed, and will do anything, destroy anyone, to get that notice.

What fascinates me about these people is how parasitic they are on one of the nobler aspects of democracy.

Democratic movements and moments have a way of churning up anonymous men and women from the lower ranks, giving them a much longed-for opportunity to demonstrate their heroism and greatness. That’s the conceit of the musical Hamilton, and it’s not entirely untrue.

But even if you don’t go to Broadway to get your history, just read a good history of the labor movement or the civil rights movement or the women’s movement. You can’t help being awestruck by the individual talent and personal courage that breach the sometimes impersonal narratives of these storied struggles.

History’s lowlifes prey on a similar dynamic but for ends that are far more nefarious and through means that are far more insidious. Their preferred venue is not the open contest for democratic rights but the staged assault on justice and dissent. Where the genuine democrat displays her mettle and achieves her greatness in a revolution or social movement, history’s lowlife finds his level in a more populist and poisonous setting: the inquisition.

Like other, more genuine democratic moments, inquisitions summon men and women from below. Unlike other, more genuine democratic moments, they summon men and women who are willing to play their toxic roles in a drama of degradation. Out of McCarthyism you get Matusow; out of the Anita Hill hearings, you get John Doggett.

We need a better literature—actually, a literature—on these bottom-feeders of history.

The lead story in today’s New York Times is a devastating attack on CUNY, where I’ve been teaching for nearly two decades, and the state’s criminal under-funding of a once-great institution. An above-the-fold photograph of a library at one of CUNY’s senior colleges features students studying at tables, surrounded by buckets strategically placed to catch the gallons of water dripping down from the ceiling. It’s a near perfect tableau of what it’s like to teach at CUNY today: excellent, hard-working students, encircled by shabbiness, disrepair, and neglect.

Though you should read the entire piece, here are some of the highlights.

The infrastructure is collapsing

The piece begins thus—

On the City College of New York’s handsome Gothic campus, leaking ceilings have turned hallways into obstacle courses of buckets. The bathrooms sometimes run out of toilet paper. The lectures are becoming uncomfortably overcrowded, and course selections are dwindling, because of steep budget cuts….

—and it doesn’t let up, across 50 paragraphs and seven columns, relentlessly documenting an institution facing near collapse.

It reports on a college library with an entire annual book budget of $13,000—that’s less than the individual research budgets of many professors at elite universities—and books covered in tarps to protect them from rainstorms and leaky roofs. At another college, a biology professor is stalked across the stage of her genetics lecture by giant water bugs. There are computers that still use floppy disks, Wi-Fi that doesn’t work, elevators and copy machines out of commission, and more.

The piece makes a brief nod to my campus, Brooklyn College, whose “rapidly deteriorating campus” has earned it the moniker “Brokelyn College.”

I can personally attest to that. On Thursday, as I left campus, I stopped in the men’s room of our wing of James Hall. One of the two urinals was out of business, covered by a plastic sheet. I sighed, and thought back to the time, about a year ago, that that urinal was so covered for about six months. The clock in my office has been stopped for over a year. Our department administrator tried to get it fixed: it worked for two days, and broke again.

Last fall, our union launched a hashtag campaign #BroklynCollege. Go on Twitter, and you’ll see photographs like this: [click to continue…]