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.



Tim Walters 06.04.16 at 4:05 am

Believe it or not, the first time I heard of Matusow was when I found this in the used bin and bought it: The War Between Fats And Thins. Eventually I googled him, and… wow.


Corey Robin 06.04.16 at 4:27 am

Wow is right. I never even knew about that!


kidneystones 06.04.16 at 5:03 am

From your NYT link: John Dogget: Mr. Doggett told the Senate panel that the woman who had accused Mr. Thomas of sexual harassment, Anita Hill, was ”somewhat unstable” and had a problem with men — especially with John Doggett.

”Ms. Hill’s fantasies about my sexual interest in her were an indication of the fact that she was having a problem with being rejected by men she was attracted to,” Mr. Doggett testified.

History has largely swallowed Mr. Doggett. Not so Doggett’s partner in crime: David Brock http://observer.com/2016/03/hillary-clinton-must-sever-ties-with-dirty-tricks-hitman-david-brock/

“David Brock became the chief partisan of the right, building up his reputation by tearing down Hill as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” In his vitriolic book, “The Real Anita Hill,” the writer stripped the clothes off her character, describing her as incompetent, unstable, even kinky.” http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/article/Anita-Hill-hit-man-recants-2904817.php

This was so easy, Corey. I’d almost say you planned it.

Good for you.


kidneystones 06.04.16 at 5:40 am

It’s ok to preach segregation, however, if you’re a role model.

” I want to be with my own” RIP


bruce wilder 06.04.16 at 6:05 am

Harvey Matusow — Wow doesn’t begin . . .


kidneystones 06.04.16 at 6:51 am

Right on cue – Josh Marshall whitewashes the “race” preaching right out of Ali’s obit:


Kind of cute considering Josh devotes a great deal of energy “discovering” closet segregationists just about every day of the week. When liberal icons preach segregation, it’s all good. Especially, if the icon isn’t “white.”

Ms. Kidneystones and I are ‘race traitors,’ according to Ali, and our children freak hybrids.


david 06.04.16 at 7:12 am

many democratically-endorsed causes can be horrific, even when they involve personal sacrifice and nobility

many right and just causes involve the identification and villainization of classes of former oppressors; this is how their identification as oppressors occurs


tony lynch 06.04.16 at 7:28 am

That I’m cursed to remember Herostratus.


Soullite 06.04.16 at 7:29 am

It’s sad that the people who write on this blog consider themselves intellectuals, and even sadder that sometimes other people do as well.


tony lynch 06.04.16 at 8:19 am

And now you.


Sam Dodsworth 06.04.16 at 11:25 am


There’s no sense in which your grievances against Mohammed Ali are relevant to this post, so I’m left wondering which of Corey’s lowlifes you admire so much that you feel you’ve been attacked and must lash out. I’m guessing it’s Matusow, and implicitly Joe McCarthy?


kidneystones 06.04.16 at 11:39 am

@12 Thanks for the kind thoughts. It’s probably a little complicated for you to connect willful blindness to Ali’s very public segregationist preaching and lowlifes. Hope this helps.

As it happens, I was just reading how when mobs attack Trump supporting women, the women have it coming. The common theme, of course, is hypocrisy. I don’t expect you’re ready to break out of bubble-land but the facts are extremely grim.

Marshall, to his credit, makes no effort to blame the victims of the San Jose attacks. One CBS legal reporter rightly points to the hue and cry that would ensue had a woman leaving a Hillary event been treated in a similar fashion. Marshall is equally fearless is condemning the Vox deputy editor who argues that protesters should start riots at Trump rallies.

Do you believe that liberal icons should get a free pass for advocating segregation? Cause I don’t.

Nor am I about to accept your slurs. Any further attempts to twist my denunciation of celebrity segregationists into ‘grievances’, or support for Joe McCarthy and I’ll respond rather more robustly.


Corey Robin 06.04.16 at 12:52 pm

kidneystones and people who would argue with kidnestones:

This isn’t a post about Muhammad Ali or Josh Marshall. Knock it off. We’re not debating whatever it is you want to be debating about that those topics here.


CP Norris 06.04.16 at 2:23 pm

This seems like “Vaguebooking” except not on Facebook. Vaguetimbering? Anyway am guessing the lowlifes in question are feminist Clinton fans on Twitter but I am not sure.


John Garrett 06.04.16 at 3:46 pm

Back to the topic: what about the uberlowlife: Roy Cohn?


Kiwanda 06.04.16 at 4:24 pm

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.

…and out of blogs and social media, you get any number of practitioners of:

1. Say something provocative, preferably about a large group;
2. Get negative reactions, a few of them nasty;
3. Blame all critics and group members for the nasty few. Maybe give them a disparaging group nickname. Maybe claim all criticism is as bad as the nastiest thing said.
4. Assume Victim status, and: get more followers, visibility, and credibility; give high-level testimony about your Victimhood; get donations; pick out a critic and get them attacked and/or fired as a ringleader of your harassers; make nasty attacks yourself, which is OK because you’re a Victim.
5. Rinse and repeat.


William Berry 06.04.16 at 7:01 pm

CT has long been one of my favorite blogs on socio-political affairs. The front-pagers are mostly first-rate.

The comments, sadly, not so much these days. The threads are being eaten up by pseudo-leftist (i.e., crypto-fascist) trolls. Already, in this thread, kidneystones, Ze K (both Trump fans, and one a putinista), and Soullite, right out of the block.



rootlesscosmo 06.04.16 at 9:50 pm

Around 25 years ago I had lunch with Albert Kahn, whose left-wing house, Cameron & Kahn, published Matusow’s self-accusatory “False Witness.” We got to speculating about whether there was a movie in the Matusow story and (as one will) who ought to play the lead; the name of John Belushi came up. I still think it might make an interesting movie.


Placeholder 06.04.16 at 11:47 pm

The aesthetic of this precise specimen of malignant mountebank is hard to judge. I’d suggest Eichmann if that wasn’t in Mr. Robin’s demesne but I always thought that’s what the banality of evil precisely meant.

The entire Anti-Masonic Party of the 1820s seem to have that unique distinction of being founded in a fever pitch over an unsolved murder that catapulted them to major party status before deciding they would rather be a wing of the whig-Republican right…and nominate a mason for president. That combination of mass paranoia exposing itself almost immediately into unembarrassed oportunism.


bruce wilder 06.05.16 at 12:26 am

the transformation of mass paranoia into unembarrassed opportunism

what’s the philosopher’s stone for that, do you suppose?


cassander 06.05.16 at 1:08 am

Crises breeding heroes and villains is hardly something unique to democratic movements. Lenin brought up Stalin, Mao brought up Deng Xiopang.

As for the notion that the red scare wasn’t a democratic movement, you must be joking. From 48-88, every single presidential election, save one, was won by the guy who seemed more likely to stick it to the commies. Anti-communism was a popular phenomenon, it was anti-anti communism that was elitist.


steven johnson 06.05.16 at 12:03 pm

Again, I’m a little baffled as to the point. It seems to be that there is a crying need to condemn those right wing propagandists who’ve confessed to lying. The thing is, that really doesn’t seem to accomplish much more than discouraging defections from right wing propaganda campaigns. Savaging Matusow, False Witness, is more important than exposing Whittaker Chambers, Witness? Making a pariah of David Brock is more important than vilifying Clarence Thomas?

Or is Brock’s real offense a favorable biography of Hilary Clinton? But on second thought that surely can’t be an issue. David Brock is a gay man who certainly has a place in the conservative movement. And Hilary Clinton raises no gay issues.


Dave Maier 06.05.16 at 11:18 pm

After reading Johann Hari’s amazing Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, I’d have to nominate Harry Anslinger for the lowlife hall of fame. I’d heard of him before, but yikes.


annie 06.06.16 at 4:23 pm

i remember john doggett at the c.thomas hearing very well. the committee had scheduled time when character witnesses for thomas and hill would testify. the time scheduled was one when the committee had reason to believe no on would be watching tv. the committee had made up its mind(s) of course and did not want to kindle any more anita hill sympathy.
hill’s friends were immensely impressive (their qualifications and demeanors and subdued attractiveness). wow, i thought, how many people could assemble a group of this calibre? thomas’s were mainly embarrassments, but doggett was in a class by himself–deranged, i thought.
who would ever want this man in his camp? we will hear from this doggett, i thought at the time; he’s so determined to be seen and lacks any sense of decency.


Laura Tillem 06.06.16 at 10:40 pm

Out of Anita Hill hearings you get Joe Biden. People seem to forget. Or try to forget.

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