Van Jones Does Gershom Scholem One Better

by Corey Robin on September 25, 2013

Van Jones to Cornel West:

Do you think that you’ve shown enough love toward President Obama?…Where is the love for this president?…You’ve got the first black president, and where is the love? I understand the critique, but where is the love?”

It’s like what Gershom Scholem wrote to Hannah Arendt in response to Eichmann in Jerusalem:

There is something in the Jewish language that is completely indefinable, yet fully concrete — what the Jews call ahavath Israel, or love for the Jewish people.  With you, my dear Hannah, as with so many intellectuals coming from the German left, there is no trace of it.

Only classier.



JakeB 09.25.13 at 5:01 am

No doubt my mind is simple, but after reading this quote all I can think about is how much I love Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway.


The Raven 09.25.13 at 5:55 am

Heretics! Burn them!


Ken_L 09.25.13 at 7:04 am

I suppose there’s a reason Jones would want to reinforce the idea that Bill Kristol is a serious conservative thinker, but offhand I can’t imagine what it might be.


Mao Cheng Ji 09.25.13 at 7:30 am

But, uh, isn’t this the standard idea of identity-centric liberalism? The minorities unite with their own kind, women with women. Just replace ‘love’ with ‘solidarity’ and everything sounds fine.


godoggo 09.25.13 at 7:49 am

Yeah, that kind of solidarity can be very useful. Probably shouldn’t extend to this President, but I can understand when it does.


eddie 09.25.13 at 11:23 am

My country right or wrong?


Murc 09.25.13 at 11:32 am

I don’t know what it’s like where Van Jones is from, but in my world, you don’t get pats on the head for fulfilling the minimum requirements of your life. My boss doesn’t tell me “Good job!” for coming into work every day on time and preforming my tasks in an adequate fashion, although he does treat me like a fellow human being. His gratitude is mostly demonstrated in the form of a paycheck, though. If I want praise on top of that I’m expected to preform above and beyond.

Obama got “love” when he was elected twice, is being paid very handsomely for his service, and he and his children will never need to worry about money or health care or physical safety their whole lives. Moreover, this is a job he fought like hell to get; nobody drafted him into the Presidency.

If he wants “love” on top of what he already has, he can go above and beyond the basic requirements of the job and do things that genuinely frighten the money men and other bloodsuckers, things that carry real political risk. He could frog-march some war criminals and banksters. He could stop being a loud and proud defender of the surveillance state. He could throw open the gates of Guantanamo and dare the House to impeach him for it.


Katherine 09.25.13 at 11:48 am

The best possible response:

No, because the love is first for the suffering people.

Dead on Professor West.


Barry 09.25.13 at 12:52 pm

It’s Van Jones – examining his words for logic, reason or any factual basis is a fool’s errand.


Anarcissie 09.25.13 at 1:59 pm

Tribalism may be short-sighted, but it is not irrational.


JW Mason 09.25.13 at 2:31 pm

For the alternative view we could turn to Che Guevara (at least according to Regis Debray): “I have no wife or home or child or father or mother or brother or sister. My friends are my friends when they think like I do politically.”


Cleanthes 09.25.13 at 2:35 pm

For an alternative view, we could also turn to that other famous bearded revolutionary executed by the powers that be:

For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.


Andrew Burday 09.25.13 at 2:57 pm

Scholem’s critics here might be interested in the very next sentence in the piece Corey links to: ‘In reply, Arendt was more than happy to eschew any such “love,” which she caustically reduced to the worst elements of nationalism.’

JWM, first of all that’s AN alternative. I used to believe something like that. I don’t anymore because (1) my thinking has a history with connections to specific other people not chosen by me and (2) with particular reference to “mother”, it is misogynistic to see myself as an individual who just happens to exist rather than as the product of someone’s labor. These are two different points. One’s mother needn’t have been the most important influence on one’s thinking. But Guevara’s claim ignores both.

Corey, why do you find Jones’s comments “classier”? Scholem — for all his ornate scholar’s language and the condescending “my dear” — is calling for love of a collective. Jones is calling for love of an exemplary individual. What is better about the latter?


ISOK 09.25.13 at 3:02 pm

Good God folks. In the same transcript West called Larry Summers a “Fine man. Fine man. God bless him and be with him.” while still strongly denouncing his policies.

Isn’t that just the type of thing Jones is referring to? (Having not watched the segment I suppose it could be sarcasm, in which case I am on the wrong track.)

This is reminiscent of the debate over affirmative action, or voting rights. Should we start with an assumption of existing racial bias that needs to be forcefully reversed? Or should we adopt a “clean slate” approach and pursue color blind policies that do not come burdened with historical experience?

I would argue for the former. And the analogue here is that if we assume that Obama is facing disproportionate opposition due to his race, then it would be appropriate and prudent for those who are interested in fighting back against that specific form of opposition — again, on a racial level, which is surely Jones’ point here — to offer additional support to help expose and neutralize that opposition. Is that so outlandish?

Again, quoting Jones: “I understand the critique.”


JW Mason 09.25.13 at 3:05 pm

first of all that’s AN alternative.

No, I think it is the alternative. Your (1) and (2) are simply ways of agreeing with Van Jones and Scholem. If you fully reject them, then you fully agree with Che and Jesus. Of course, one might hope for some kind of dialectical synthesis of the two….


aretino 09.25.13 at 3:19 pm

Shouldn’t Jones have asked where the sublime and funky love for Presdient Obama was?


Corey Robin 09.25.13 at 3:20 pm

Andrew Burdy: I was being ironic.


js. 09.25.13 at 3:27 pm

Yeah, I’m with ISOK here—not really getting the Van Jones hate.


Shatterface 09.25.13 at 3:39 pm

I have no wife or home or child or father or mother or brother or sister. My friends are my friends when they think like I do politically.

Like Hitler, Stalin and Mao. And people wear this guy’s face on t-shirts.

No, I think it is the alternative. Your (1) and (2) are simply ways of agreeing with Van Jones and Scholem. If you fully reject them, then you fully agree with Che and Jesus. Of course, one might hope for some kind of dialectical synthesis of the two….

Except Jones and Scholem were calling for uncritical love for others while the two bearded Messiahs demanded it for themselves.


Phil 09.25.13 at 3:44 pm

Except Jones and Scholem were calling for uncritical love for others while the two bearded Messiahs demanded it for themselves.



Cleanthes 09.25.13 at 4:05 pm

I must congratulate Shatterface for triggering Godwin’s law at a mere 20 comments into the thread.

The issue of whether we should be loyal to our tribe, family, parents, or should we favor our ideals and fellow idealists, is a complex one. It’s been said that conservatives tend to lean towards loyalty and liberals towards idealism.

Confucius sided with the conservatives on this debate. He praised a certain judge who, having to convict his own father at the end of a trial, escaped with him in the middle of the night rather than fulfilling his duties to abstract justice.


Mao Cheng Ji 09.25.13 at 4:17 pm

It’s a bit of a jump, from your father to a fellow with a similar skin tone, isn’t it.


ISOK 09.25.13 at 4:34 pm

@21 Cleanthes, your comment reveals an important distinction. The judge in your case was prioritizing tribal loyalty to such an extent that it overwhelmed his ideals. What I hear Jones proposing is much more narrow: Keep your ideals, speak your mind, criticize away. But why not also, as a fellow member of the tribe, recognize the headwinds Obama faces as the first black President? Why not also lend support from that perspective? West certainly did so instinctively for the much less deserving Summers (unless we are now labeling misogynists as a protected class).

The inverse of your case above is a judge who prioritizes ideals over loyalty by not only convicting but also shunning the father post-conviction, as he would any other convict. The nuance Jones is arguing for is that the judge can convict his father without the further step of withdrawing his love and support.


Watson Ladd 09.25.13 at 4:34 pm

So let me get this right: Obama, for being black, ought to be supported by the blacks who are facing their fifth or fourth on the unemployment line, while the President avoids making the tough economic policy decisions that could fix this problem? Is it just me, or do blacks deserve to have the right to make their own political choices regardless of color? Who votes for Balkanized clan politics, over liberalism?


ISOK 09.25.13 at 4:35 pm

@22 Mao Cheng Ji, I think you severely undersell the shared experience of being Black in America.


TheF79 09.25.13 at 4:52 pm

I read this as less “as a black man, you should agree with the president on everything” and rather more as “pass the mashed potatoes to your crazy racist uncle at Thanksgiving.”


phosphorious 09.25.13 at 4:54 pm

The conservative preference for tribe over principle gave us eight years of Bush. Are we supposed to NOT learn from history.


Cleanthes 09.25.13 at 5:00 pm

ISOK @23, now I’m conflicted, dognabbit!

You raise a very interesting side point. There have been many cases, too, where appeals to DISloyalty towards one’s tribe, family, parents have been requests to submit and obey. As Alexander Wat illustrated in his Imagerie d’Epinal:

The executioner yawned. From his axe the blood was still dripping.
“Don’t cry, here’s a lollipop, don’t my child”
He took her in his arms. Caressed her. And she looked at the head.
At the sightless eyes. At the dumb lips.
It was the head of her father. Later on, embalmed,
sashed, it was put on a pole and nicely painted.
With that pole she marched in a parade on a sunny, populous road,
under her school placard: “Happiness to all – to enemies, death…”


ISOK 09.25.13 at 5:32 pm

@ 24 Watson Ladd, “Is it just me, or do blacks deserve to have the right to make their own political choices regardless of color? “

The answer is yes. But the key word is deserve.

Throughout the history of the US, what % of candidates at any level of government have been Black? Or perhaps a more relevant question would be: If you could assign a weighted score for each an every law based on its impact on the life of the average citizen and then trace back that law to the race of its instrumental legislative sponsor — what do you think the weighted impact of laws originating from White vs. Black legislators would be? 1,000 to 1? 1 billion to 1?

So are you saying that, in the face of this reality, any effort to reverse this entrenched bias is wrong? Or undesirable?

Or are you saying that the “right” you describe is available today? That the choices in the voting booth are no longer biased toward disproportionately narrowing the choices of Blacks and other minorities?


Mao Cheng Ji 09.25.13 at 5:55 pm

It’s good that you capitalized White and Black: clearly you feel that these are two teams playing against each other. That is, however, quite a controversial view, that you share, incidentally, with racial supremacists.


Manta 09.25.13 at 6:01 pm

There is a big difference between “loyalty to the tribe” and “loyalty to a member of the tribe”: the first one may be in some cases rational politics; the second is often dumb politics; especially since Obama’s “tribe” is first and foremost “rich and powerful person”.


William Timberman 09.25.13 at 6:02 pm

Corey Robin @ 17

…I was being ironic.

Be like Samuel Beckett: Never apologize, never explain. Otherwise, satori escapes us, and bureaucratic boilerplate rulz.


mark f 09.25.13 at 7:35 pm

Confucius sided with the conservatives on this debate. He praised a certain judge who, having to convict his own father at the end of a trial, escaped with him in the middle of the night rather than fulfilling his duties to abstract justice.

He was a cop, it was his brother and you’re thinking of Bruce Springsteen.


Dr. Hilarius 09.25.13 at 9:04 pm

West is to be commended for placing substance over symbolism. If anything Obama has been given far too much undeserved love. I voted for Obama with hope and skepticism the first time around. Attending Democratic caucuses I was dismayed to observe people projecting all sorts of expectations onto Obama bearing no relation to his rather meagre track record. In the last election I voted for Obama holding my nose.

Racial diversity in government does little to advance minority interests if all that happens is having a token minority espousing the policies of the ruling class. Would Van Jones be asking for love if Alan Keyes was president?


Cleanthes 09.25.13 at 9:06 pm

mark f. LOL. But thank you for the chance to correct the record. It was Mencius, not Confucius, and it was the king, not a judge, but it definitely was his father.

T’âo Ying asked, saying, ‘Shun being the king, and Kao-yao chief minister of justice, if Shun’s father had murdered a man, what would have been done in the case?’

2. Mencius said, ‘Kao-yao would simply have apprehended him.’

3. ‘But would not Shun have forbidden such a thing?’

4. ‘Indeed, how could Shun have forbidden it? Kao-yao had received the law from a proper source.’

5. ‘In that case what would Shun have done?’

6. ‘Shun would have regarded abandoning the kingdom as throwing away a worn-out sandal. He would privately have taken his father on his back, and retired into concealment, living some where along the sea-coast. There he would have been all his life, cheerful and happy, forgetting the kingdom


Trader Joe 09.25.13 at 9:26 pm

Then again, there’s Samuel L. Jackson’s take on giving love, as quoted in Playboy:

“Be a leader. Be fucking Presidential.”

One assumes being fucking Presidential doesn’t necessarily involve the Clinton – Kennedy definition of that word, although perhaps it was. Both Clinton and Kennedy were decidely fucking Presidential.


tony lynch 09.25.13 at 10:04 pm

Dr H – A good rule of thumb: if you have to hold your nose to vote, don’t vote.


PatrickinIowa 09.25.13 at 11:00 pm

“But, uh, isn’t this the standard idea of identity-centric liberalism?”

Empirically, no. And certainly not for socialists, which is how West describes himself.

It is the standard straw man of the right, however.


Harold 09.26.13 at 12:19 am

These are both writers whom I very much admire. Sholem had his reasons for putting down Arendt, but at this remove I don’t see why we have to participate in Sholem’s put-down of Arendt. And Sholem, as a German Jew, was putting down the left, not just the Jewish left. However, it is not as though Zionism has turned out so well in every respect either. In many respects it is the same old same old.


Anarcissie 09.26.13 at 3:03 am

Van Jones had the right question; he was asking the wrong person.


Hector_St_Clare 09.26.13 at 3:36 am

I’m on the side of Jesus and Guevara, of course, and against the liberal identity politics silliness being peddled by the likes of Confucius, apparently.


Cleanthes 09.26.13 at 3:43 am

Not only Confucius. Confucius, Mencius and one Bruce Springsteen’s song’s protagonist!


Zamfir 09.26.13 at 8:58 am

Jesus is now on the side of executing your father when he commits crime? Has anyone told Him?


Hector_St_Clare 09.26.13 at 4:34 pm

Jesus would be (i think) on the side of the death penalty being used rarely at best, and my personal view it should probably be used only for treason and related crimes. that said, he’d also be in favour of administering the law impartially, and giving more due to justice than to family relations.


Kevin Erickson 09.26.13 at 9:17 pm

Does “love” here stand in for “tempering criticism with some level of basic acknowledgement of the unprecedented filibuster abuse that imperils Obama’s ability to make even the smallest progressive changes? Or of basic acknowledgment of any of the substantial good that Obama’s achieved nonetheless, both legislatively and administratively through the executive branch”? Or If so, I side with Van Jones.

West, once my favorite living theologian (Prophesy Deliverance in particular holds up especially well), has gotten so silly. It’s the same kind of disappointment as when Peter Gabriel, in 2002, released his first single in ten years–a terrible schmaltzfunk number about the Jerry Springer show’s negative influence on society. Bad enough to make you reexamine the old work and wonder if it was ever any good. (It was.)


Bloix 09.27.13 at 3:06 am

Scholem was criticizing Arendt for blaming the Holocaust on the Jews. I see nothing in Jones’ criticism of West that is remotely comparable.


Peter Dorman 09.28.13 at 4:38 am

This is supposed to be a Turkish proverb, but I have no sources:

When the ax first entered the forest, a tree, on seeing the wooden handle, said, “Don’t worry–he’s one of us.”


YankeeFrank 09.28.13 at 7:07 pm

ISOK and those who agree — the assumption you make, and its belied by the evidence, is that Obama wishes to do differently than he has. Obama fights for what he finds important, he sticks his neck out for those he wants to. He has stuck his neck out repeatedly for the banksters, he has turned his back on the law to protect torturers and the continuing (and seemingly never ending) crimes of the financial class. He has NOT fought hard for anything that would even remotely help the poor and middle classes that are losing their life savings, homes and jobs. For them he has literally done almost nothing. He has done worse than nothing. Income inequality has exploded under Obama’s administration, even worse than under W. Passing the ACA was the one thing he has done for regular Americans and that was a Republican plan and cements in place the for-profit health insurance racket. With the exception of the social issues like gay marriage and in the military, for which he paid no political price (in fact he gained political advantage from them) he is a neoliberal doctrinaire. He HAS stuck his neck out to cut social security benefits. He HAS stuck his neck out to defend the NSA.

The idea that he is being stopped from being the liberal president he would otherwise be without such extreme opposition is clearly belied by the facts of what he does and does not fight for. He is no wilting flower. Cornel West has him dead to rights.

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