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Janet Malcolm and Joshua Cohen

by Corey Robin on June 19, 2021

Janet Malcolm has died. I, along with three other writers, wrote something about her for The New Republic.

Like Orwell, who thought Homage to Catalonia would have been a good book had he not turned it into journalism, Malcolm described her writing as a failure of art. Only writers who invent, she said, can write autobiographies. Journalists like her could not. They lacked the ability to make themselves interesting. The light of their work was powered, almost entirely, by the self-invention of their subjects.

You can read the rest of it here.

On Tuesday, at 7:30 pm (EST), I’ll be interviewing Joshua Cohen about his amazing new novel, The Netanyahus. You can sign up for the online event here. I can’t say enough good things about the novel—it’s about Jews, Israel, the Diaspora, identity politics, campus politics, declining empires, tribalism, nose jobs, and more. And Cohen is just an extraordinarily fertile mind, a genuine novelist of ideas, who’s also very funny. Should be a fun event. I hope you’ll join us. Again, sign up here.

Philip Roth has been in the news, as has Palestine. By sheerest coincidence, a piece I’ve been mulling over—on the uncanny convergence between the lives and concerns of Roth and Hannah Arendt, particularly when it came to Jewish questions such as Zionism—came out in The New York Review of Books this morning. It starts with the Blake Bailey controversy, but goes on to explore what the surprising parallels between these two writers, who knew and respected each other, has to say about the left, Jewish identity politics, and American political culture today.

In 2014, the mystery writer Lisa Scottoline wrote an instructive essay for The New York Times about two undergraduate seminars she took with Philip Roth at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s. One of the courses was the literature of the Holocaust. Hannah Arendt was on the syllabus.

In his five-page discussion of those years at Penn, Roth biographer Blake Bailey makes no mention of this course or Arendt. Instead, he focuses on the other course, “The Literature of Desire,” and Roth’s erotic presence inside and outside the classroom. In the wake of the allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior that have been made against Bailey, the omission may seem small or slight. Yet it is telling. As Judith Shulevitz argues in a searching analysis of the allegations and the biography, Bailey is as incurious about Jewishness as he is about the reality of women. When the two come together in the form of Arendt, his interest seems, well, nonexistent.

The result is a life stripped of one of its vital currents. Arendt was a real presence for Roth, and the unexpected convergence between their biographies and concerns, particularly regarding Jewish questions, is as uncanny as the doubles that populate Roth’s novels.

The difference between the two writers is obvious. She was born in Germany in 1906; he was born in Newark in 1933. She fled Hitler and never looked back; he fled his parents and kept going home. She wrote The Human Condition; he wrote Portnoy’s Complaint.

Yet, throughout the postwar Jewish ascendancy in America, as other writers and scholars eased their way into the conversation, Arendt and Roth distinguished themselves—not by stirring up the little magazines but by contending with the Jews. Summoning the anxious wrath of a still vulnerable community, Roth and Arendt occupied a singular position: defending the margin against the marginalized, refusing the political pull and moral exaction of an embattled minority. Today, at a moment of rising anti-Semitism and increasing polarization, when the tendency, even among writers and intellectuals, is to circle the wagons in defense of team and tribe, their shared archive of heresy among the heretics pays revisiting.

You can read on here.

I have a new piece up at The New Yorker. I take stock of the debate over whether Trumpism is an authoritarian/fascist/tyrannical formation.

Throughout the Trump years, I consistently argued that that what I call the strongman thesis (just as a catch-all way of describing the various terms that were used for Trumpism) was not the most helpful way of thinking about what was going on with Trump or on the right. While acknowledging in this piece the data points in favor of that thesis (and also the problems with it), what I am really trying to do here is to step back from that debate and examine what was really driving it.

Long story short: Where liberals and leftists saw power on the right, I saw, and continue to see, paralysis. Not just on the right, in fact, but across the political spectrum. And in an odd way, it was the centuries-long dream of democratic power that helped frame liberals’ and the left’s misunderstanding and misrecognition of that ongoing political paralysis.

As I argue in the piece’s conclusion:

This is the situation we now find ourselves in. One party, representing the popular majority, remains on the outskirts of power, thanks to the Constitution. The other party, representing the minority, cannot wield power when it has it but finds its position protected nonetheless by the very same Constitution.

We are not witnesses to Prometheus unbound. We are seeing the sufferings of Sisyphus, forever rolling his rock—immigration reform, new infrastructure, green jobs—up a hill. It’s no wonder everyone saw an authoritarian at the top of that hill. When no one can act, any performance of power, no matter how empty, can seem real.

Anyway, have a read of the piece at The New Yorker, and after you’re finished, feel free to weigh in here with your criticisms, compliments, queries, and complaints.


Worst Colleague Ever

by Corey Robin on November 13, 2020

In my New Yorker piece on Max Weber, which came out yesterday, I alluded to Weber’s many, often failed, forays into political life. Several folks on social media have expressed surprised about these expeditions. The facts of Weber’s political involvement don’t seem to fit with the aura of political detachment that surrounds his writing. Indeed, some of Weber’s writing can make him seem almost hermetically sealed off from the barest of political obligations, which is to communicate clearly.

But Weber was intensely involved in the political life of his day. In fact, I had an entire section of my piece devoted to these involvements, and was originally going to open the essay with that as a kind of set piece. For a variety of reasons, my editor and I decided to kill it.

But I thought I’d share it here.

* * * *

Max Weber, a scholar of hot temper and volcanic energy, longed to be a politician of cold focus and hard reason. Between the 1890s, when he launched his academic career, and his death from pneumonia in 1920, Weber made repeated incursions into the public sphere of Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany—to give advice, stand for office, form a party, negotiate a treaty, and write a constitution.

Most of these forays were failures. Officials didn’t listen; opportunities disappeared; proposals were rejected; amendments were ignored. Time and again, particularly after defeat, Weber would disavow any political ambition. But in the end, he couldn’t deny, as he confessed to a friend, that his “secret love” was for “the political.”

Why did Weber never manage the transition from pen to power? He was a riveting speaker, attracting legions of listeners from inside and outside the academy. He had good instincts and enviable judgment. His political antenna was so finely tuned, his map of the terrain so expertly drawn, he seemed to know, at every corner, which way to turn.

Despite a nervous breakdown in 1898, which drove him from the classroom for twenty years, and crippling bouts of depression that sent him to spas and sleeping pills, he rarely suffered from the thought that others might know better than he. “If one is lucky” in politics, he observed toward the end of his life, a “genius appears just once every few hundred years.” That left the door wide open for him.

Even in the delirium of his final days, Weber could be heard declaiming on behalf of the German people, jousting with their enemies in several of the many languages he knew. So appointed for politics did he seem that the philosopher Karl Jaspers, his close friend and most ardent fan, wondered whether Weber hadn’t “unconsciously” arranged his own derailment of destiny.

The truth is less exotic. Simply put, Weber was impossible to work with. His “intellectual superiority was a burden,” sighed his wife Marianne. His “ethical standards were inordinate.” Though offered as exoneration, as if Weber were too good for this world, the comment suggests how exasperating he could be. “The Germans,” Goethe said, “make everything difficult, both for themselves and for everyone else.” Weber made things very, very difficult.

Every move, every maneuver, had to be just so. After agreeing, during World War I, to speak publicly on behalf of a propaganda outfit for the war, Weber complained that he had been instructed not “to be too precise” in his formulations. “That is not my way.” What was his way? “Taking things to an extreme; I cannot do otherwise.”

For a man so clear-eyed about the larger questions of power, both its shifting balances and long-term tendencies, Weber could be myopically exacting about the minutia of a moment. “A politician must make compromises,” he announced after withdrawing from yet another party to which he had been briefly attached; “a scholar cannot justify this.” But that was just a fancy way of saying nobody did anything right—which in politics, as in families, may be the wrongest position of all.

Weber’s refusal of compromise put him into frequent, often needless, conflict with comrades and colleagues. “He bubbles over,” one scholar remarked, “but he bubbles over for too long; first he should bubble, then he should flow.” Weber never flowed. Even Marianne acknowledged that his “constant criticism of the political conduct of his own group was disquieting.”

Far from making him look principled, his intransigence made him seem unsteady, even explosive. Weber could blow up anything. Anticipating his arrival at what was slated to be a tense meeting of the faculty, a historian commented to the art historian sitting next to him, “The most excitable man in the world is about to storm in.” As it happens, Weber was the picture of calm at that meeting, delivering what the art historian would call a “Hellenic” performance.

But there’s a reason, beyond mental illness, that he was thought of as unstable and inconstant. A supernova of energy, Weber lacked the critical element that distinguishes the dilettante from the professional: staying power. Every burst of light left behind a black hole.

* * * *

If you missed the New Yorker piece, you can check it out here.

Max Weber, man of our time?

by Corey Robin on November 12, 2020

Max Weber died at the tail end of a pandemic, amid a growing street battle between the right and the left. What could he possibly have to say to us today?   I try to answer this, and some other questions, in my review this morning, in The New Yorker, of an excellent new translation, by Damion Searls, of Weber’s Vocation Lectures.

I have to confess, a little guiltily, that I get in a few shots against older leftists, of the ex-SDS type, who like to use (or misuse) Weber’s “ethics of responsibility” against the putative transgressions of younger leftists who are allegedly in thrall to an “ethics of conviction.” It’s one of those tropes in contemporary argument that I really don’t like.

Anyway, this piece took me a year and a half to write, and went through eleven drafts. I’ve never worked so much on a shorter piece of prose, I don’t think.

Many thanks to our Henry, who read an earlier draft, and to the awesome editors and fact checkers (who saved me from a critical error in translation) and production folks at The New Yorker. I also highly recommend the new book on Weber, Arendt, Habermas and more, by political theorist Steven Klein, which I discuss in the piece, and which informed my critique.

A taste:

Weber delivered the first of the two lectures, on the scholar’s work, on November 7, 1917, the day of the Bolshevik Revolution. One year later, a wave of revolution and counter-revolution swept across Germany. It didn’t break until after Weber delivered his second lecture, on the politician’s work, on January 28, 1919. Weber makes occasional, if oblique, reference to the swirl of events around him, but the dominant motif of both lectures is neither turbulence nor movement. It is stuckness. The particles of academic and political life have slowed to a halt; all that was air has become solid.
Weber’s complaints will sound familiar to contemporary readers. Budget-strapped universities pack as many students as possible into classes. Numbers are a “measure of success,” while quality, because it is “unquantifiable,” is ignored. Young scholars lead a “precarious quasi-proletarian existence,” with little prospect of a long-term career, and the rule of promotion is that “there are a lot of mediocrities in leading university positions.” Every aspiring academic must ask himself whether “he can bear to see mediocrity after mediocrity promoted ahead of him, year after year, without becoming embittered and broken inside.” The “animating principle” of the university is an “empty fiction.”
The state is equally ossified. …
When Weber constructed his theory, it was less a description than a prayer, a desperate bid to find friction in a world supposedly smoothed by structure. He was hardly the only social theorist to over-structure reality, to mistake the suspended animation of a moment for the immobilisme of an epoch. Tocqueville suffered from the same malady; Marcuse, Arendt, and Foucault shared some of its symptoms as well. But Weber needed the malady. The question is: Do we?

You can read the rest here.

I’m in the New York Review of Books this morning, offering my thoughts on the election as part of the magazine’s series on November 2020. I make three points:  

  1. The right used to be thought of as a “three-legged stool” made up of economic libertarians, statist Cold Warriors, and cultural traditionalists. Whether that characterization was accurate, it expressed an understanding of the right as a political entity capable of creating hegemony throughout society. That is no longer the case. Today, the right’s three-legged stool is an artifact, a relic, of counter-majoritarian state institutions: the Electoral College, the Senate, and the courts.
  2. However undemocratic these three institutions may be, they are are eminently constitutional. The most potent source of the right’s power is neither fascism nor authoritarianism; it is gonzo constitutionalism.
  3. Should the Democrats win the White House and the Senate come November, they will have to engage in a major project of norm erosion just to enact the most basic parts of their platform. Should they do so—eliminating the filibuster, say, for the sake of achieving voting rights for all citizens—we will see that norm erosion is not how democracies die but how they are born.

Check the rest of it out here. And if all goes well, I should have a piece on the new translation of Max Weber’s Vocation Lectures coming out soon.

CUNY, Corona, and Communism

by Corey Robin on May 9, 2020

The coronavirus has hit the City University of New York, where I teach, hard: more than 20 deaths of students, faculty, and staff, and counting. Yet the impact of the virus on CUNY has received almost no press coverage at all.

At the same time, the media continues to focus its higher education coverage, during the coronavirus, where it always has: on elite schools.

The combination of these elements—the unremarked devastation at CUNY, the outsized attention to wealthy colleges and universities—led me to write this piece for The New Yorker online:

It seems likely that no other college or university in the United States has suffered as many deaths as CUNY. Yet, aside from an op-ed by Yarbrough in the Daily News, there has been little coverage of this story. Once known proudly as “the poor man’s Harvard,” CUNY has become a cemetery of uncertain dimensions, its deaths as unremarked as the graves in a potter’s field.  
The coronavirus has revealed to many the geography of class in America, showing that where we live and work shapes whether we live or die. Might it offer a similar lesson about where we learn?…  
During the Depression, the New York municipal-college system opened two flagship campuses: Brooklyn College and Queens College. These schools built the middle class, took in refugees from Nazi Germany, remade higher education, and transformed American arts and letters. In 1942, Brooklyn College gave Hannah Arendt her first teaching job in the United States; an adjunct, she lectured on the Dreyfus affair, which would figure prominently in “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” In the decades that followed, CUNY built more campuses. Until 1976, it was free to all students; the government footed the bill.  
What prompted this public investment in higher education was neither sentimentality about the poor nor a noblesse oblige of good works. It was a vision of culture and social wealth, derived from the activism of the working classes and defended by a member of Britain’s House of Lords. “Why should we not set aside,” John Maynard Keynes wondered in 1942, “fifty million pounds a year for the next twenty years to add in every substantial city of the realm the dignity of an ancient university.” Against those who disavowed such ambitions on the grounds of expense, Keynes said, “Anything we can actually do we can afford.” And “once done, it is there.”  
Public spending, for public universities, is a bequest of permanence from one generation to the next. It is a promise to the future that it will enjoy the learning of the present and the literature of the past. It is what we need, more than ever, today. Sending students, professors, and workers back to campus, amid a pandemic, simply because colleges and universities need the cash, is a statement of bankruptcy more profound than any balance sheet could ever tally.

Since it came out on Thursday, I’ve learned of three additional deaths at CUNY, all students in their last year at Lehman College: Daniel DeHoyos, Zavier Richburg, and Lenin Portillo. The Lehman College Senate has voted that they all be awarded posthumous degrees. That brings the total number of deaths at CUNY that I know of to 26.

Speaking of the activism of the working classes, I also wrote for The Nation an essay on the communist, which doubles as a review of Vivian Gornick’s classic The Romance of American Communism, which has recently been reissued, and Jodi Dean’s excellent work of political theory, Comrade.

The communist stands at the crossroads of two ideas: one ancient, one modern. The ancient idea is that human beings are political animals. Our disposition is so public, our orientation so outward, we cannot be thought of apart from the polity. Even when we try to hide our vices, as a character in Plato’s Republic notes, we still require the assistance of “secret societies and political clubs.” That’s how present we are to other people and they to us.
The modern idea—that of work—posits a different value. Here Weber may be a better guide than Marx. For the communist, work means fidelity to a task, a stick-to-itiveness that requires clarity of purpose, persistence in the face of opposition or challenge, and a refusal of all distraction. It is more than an instrumental application of bodily power upon the material world or the rational alignment of means and ends (activities so ignoble, Aristotle thought, as to nearly disqualify the laborer from politics). It is a vocation, a revelation of self.
The communist brings to the public life of the ancients the methodism of modern work. In all things be political, says the communist, and in all political things be productive. Anything less is vanity. Like the ancients, the communist looks outward, but her insistence on doing only those actions that yield results is an emanation from within. Effectiveness is a statement of her integrity. The great sin of intellectuals, Lenin observed, is that they “undertake everything under the sun without finishing anything.” That failing is symptomatic of their character—their “slovenliness” and “carelessness,” their inability to remain true to whatever cause or concern they have professed. The communist does better. She gets the job done.

The left has good reason to be wary of the stern antinomies of the comrade. The freedom that goes by the name of discipline, the suppression of difference in the name of solidarity, the words of emancipation as window dressing for authoritarian constraint—we’ve been down this road before. We know where it ends, and neither Gornick nor Dean denies that ending. Nor do they provide an easy way around or out of it.

Gornick interprets the tragedy of communism through Greek myth. Helen awakens in Paris an intense love, one he never knew before. He is turned outward, directed to another soul in a way he is not accustomed to. He becomes larger than himself. Then the love takes on a life of its own, eclipsing its object. Love becomes the object, the feeling and need; Helen disappears from view. All manner of mayhem and destruction follow. Dean interprets the tragedy through psychoanalysis: The healthy ego ideal of the comrade becomes the ravenous superego. In the same way that the superego feeds off the transgressions of the id, growing ever more powerful from the punishment of impurity, so do comrades turn inward, generating a feeding frenzy of their own. Collective power, once a source of freedom, becomes a prison.
There’s a reason Gornick and Dean turn to myth and psychoanalysis, respectively. Each, in its way, is a story of unhappy endings, in which the conclusion is written from the start. Yet even if we don’t head down the path of authoritarian communism, even if we avoid that unhappy ending, we’re still left with other bad endings that neither psychoanalysis nor myth can account for. Not only has capitalism run rampant since the fall of communism, and not only has the left yet to find a replacement for the parties and movements that once created socialism in all its varieties, but even the contemporary left has not left behind the challenge of reconciling freedom and constraint….

You can read the rest of the piece here.

Since it’s been a while since I posted at Crooked Timber, I thought I’d alert folks to some other writing I’ve been doing recently at the New York Review of Books online: one, a piece on the Iowa Caucuses (remember them?) and minoritarian democracy; and the other, on what the isolation of the pandemic means for democracy.

Hope everyone is healthy and safe.

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas: On sale today!

by Corey Robin on September 24, 2019

I’ve been on an extended hiatus from Crooked Timber. Trying to finish a book, teaching new classes, and generally trying to stay off the internet to get some new writing and thinking done. But I’m really happy to come back to announce that The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, a book I’ve been working on for six years and periodically blogging about here, goes on sale today.

With the help of a rave review in this morning’s New York Times. In the Times, Jennifer Szalai writes:

It’s a provocative thesis, but one of the marvels of Robin’s razor-sharp book is how carefully he marshals his evidence. He doesn’t have to resort to elaborate speculation or armchair psychologizing, relying instead on Thomas’s speeches, interviews and Supreme Court opinions. Just as jurists make ample use of the written record, Robin does the same.

The result is rigorous yet readable, frequently startling yet eminently persuasive.

It isn’t every day that reading about ideas can be both so gratifying and unsettling, and Robin’s incisive and superbly argued book has made me think again.

If you’d like to read a little more about the book, there was a long excerpt of it two weeks ago in The New Yorker. It also has been widely reviewed—among other places, in BookforumThe AtlanticHarper’s, and National Review, which, despite the criticisms, called the book “thoroughly researched and engagingly written…a valuable and overdue engagement.” I was also interviewed about the book in Vanity Fair.

You can buy the book at Amazon, or if you prefer other vendors, there’s a list here.

I hope you will get the book. I worked long and hard on it, and not only do I think it does something new, but I think that you’ll learn something new. A lot of people have an understandable block against Thomas, not really wanting to hear much about him at all. This book won’t convince you he’s any less dangerous or toxic than you already think he is. Nor is it designed to do that. Instead, it will convince you that he’s far more interesting, and speaks to many more constituencies, than you might have thought. And is, therefore, perhaps, even more dangerous and unsettling. And thus worth learning about.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

I’ve been getting a lot of queries about Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky. Briefly, Thomas spends all but a few paragraphs of his twenty-page opinion outlining what he sees as the eugenicist dimensions of abortion and birth control. This, as many have noted, is a new turn in Thomas’s abortion jurisprudence. Thomas essentially argues here that abortion is the way that women select and de-select the kinds of children they’re going to have.

What’s more, while much of the discussion on the right in this regard focuses on how considerations of the sex of the fetus or the presence of Down syndrome may influence the decision to have an abortion, Thomas focuses overwhelmingly on questions of race. Indeed, he spends an inordinate amount of time in his opinion rehearsing the role of racism in Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement. He discusses her work in Harlem and among African Americans in the South, as well as the connections between Nazism and eugenics. From there he goes to abortion. Reading Thomas, one comes away with the sense that abortion has nothing to do with the autonomy or equality of women but is instead a racist practice to control the size of the black population. The same goes for birth control.

At one point in the opinion, Thomas makes a point of noting the NAACP’s concerns during the 1960s about the racist dimensions of the birth control movement:

Some black groups saw “‘family planning’ as a euphemism for race genocide” and believed that “black people [were] taking the brunt of the ‘planning’” under Planned Parenthood’s “ghetto approach” to distributing its services. Dempsey, Dr. Guttmacher Is the Evangelist of Birth Control, N. Y. Times Magazine, Feb. 9, 1969, p. 82. “The Pittsburgh branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” for example, “criticized family planners as bent on trying to keep the Negro birth rate as low as possible.” Kaplan, Abortion and Sterilization Win Support of Planned Parenthood, N. Y. Times, Nov. 14, 1968, p. L50, col. 1.

At another point in his opinion, Thomas slyly mentions that the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade cites the work of an extraordinarily influential and renowned British legal scholar who, according to Thomas, flirted with eugenics:

Similarly, legal scholar Glanville Williams wrote that he was open to the possibility of eugenic infanticide, at least in some situations, explaining that “an eugenic killing by a mother, exactly paralleled by the bitch that kills her misshapen puppies, cannot confidently be pronounced immoral.” G. Williams, Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law 20 (1957). The Court cited Williams’ book for a different proposition in Roe v. Wade, 410 U. S. 113, 130, n. 9 (1973).

By the time the opinion is over, it seems like abortion and birth control are simply a Nazi-style mode of racial management of the demographics of a population.

However extreme this opinion may be, it is very much in keeping with Thomas’s overall approach to constitutional questions. I have a book about Clarence Thomas, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, coming out on September 24, and I don’t want to give too much of it away, so let me just say this: One of Thomas’s most consistent moves in his jurisprudence is to take constitutional matters that left and right disagree about but nevertheless argue about on similar terms—Thomas consistently takes these matters and transforms them into questions of race. He does this with the Establishment Clause: where both sides are debating questions of religion, he makes it all about race. He does the same with the Takings Clause: where both sides are debating questions of eminent domain, he makes it about race. He does this with campaign finance: where both sides are debating speech and the First Amendment, he makes it about race. In each instance, he takes the topic at hand and says, nope, this is really about race. And goes from there.

What’s more, as I show in the book, this isn’t just a ruse or a way of trolling the left. It’s not just a simple playing of the race card. It’s, well, you’ll have to read the book. Which, as I said, is out on September 24 and which you can pre-order now.

There’s also a lengthy footnote in Thomas’s opinion in Box, where he compares the thinking underlying eugenics to that which underlies disparate impact, a doctrine that falls under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. He cites the work of the conservative black economist Thomas Sowell. I think Thomas’s jurisprudence on disparate impact, as well as the impact and influence of Sowell upon Thomas, has been radically misunderstood. But again, I don’t want to give away too much of the book here. So…

Update (2 pm)

My wife Laura, who works in the reproductive rights movement, just made an excellent point about the parallel between Thomas’s opinion and the Anita Hill controversy. During the Senate confirmation hearings, when Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment, there was a struggle in the commentary that boiled down to this question: Who gets to be black? Thomas and his supporters presented him as the embattled voice of the black community; Hill was depicted as a treacherous woman in alliance with liberal groups, trying to bring the black man—and with him, the black community—down. Thomas was black; Hill was a woman: that was the way the controversy played out, at least on one side. This was one of the many explosive insights at the heart of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s pioneering article “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.”

Fast-forward to Thomas’s opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood. Studies show that black women are far more likely to get an abortion than other women. Support for abortion among black women is among the highest of any demographic group. And as Jamila Taylor argued, because black women are more likely to live in states with restrictive abortion laws, they have a lot more to lose from Thomas-inspired or Thomas-inflected opinions. So who gets to be black here? Once again, in Thomas’s world, it’s not black women; this time, it’s the fetus.


On Eric Hobsbawm and other matters

by Corey Robin on May 9, 2019

I’m in The New Yorker this morning, writing about Richard Evans’s new biography of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, explaining how the failures of Evans the biographer reveal the greatness of Hobsbawm the historian:

Hobsbawm’s biographer, Richard Evans, is one of Britain’s foremost historians and the author of a commanding trilogy on Nazi Germany. He knew Hobsbawm for many years, though “not intimately,” and was given unparalleled access to his public and private papers. It has not served either man well. More data dump than biography, “Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History” is overwhelmed by trivia, such as the itineraries of Hobsbawm’s travels, extending back to his teen-age years, narrated to every last detail. The book is also undermined by errors: Barbara Ehrenreich is not a biographer of Rosa Luxemburg; Salvador Allende was not a Communist; one does not drive “up” from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles.* The biography is eight hundred pages because Hobsbawm “lived for a very long time,” Evans tells us, and he wanted “to let Eric tell his story as far as possible in his own words.” But, as we near the two hundredth page and Hobsbawm is barely out of university, it becomes clear that the problem is not Hobsbawm’s longevity or loquacity but the absence of discrimination on the part of his biographer.

Instead of incisive analyses of Hobsbawm’s books, read against the transformations of postwar politics and culture, Evans devotes pages to the haggling over contracts, royalties, translations, and sales. These choices are justified, in one instance, by a relevant nugget—after the Cold War, anti-Communist winds blowing out of Paris prevented Hobsbawm’s best-selling “The Age of Extremes” from entering the French market in translation—and rewarded, in another, by a gem: Hobsbawm wondering to his agent whether it’s “possible to publicize” “Age of Extremes,” which came out in 1994, “& publish extracts on INTERNET (international computer network).” Apart from these, Evans’s attentions to the publishing industry work mostly as homage to the Trollope adage “Take away from English authors their copyrights, and you would very soon also take away from England her authors.”

Hobsbawm was obsessed with boredom; his experience of it appears at least twenty-seven times in Evans’s biography. Were it not for Marx, Hobsbawm tells us, in a book of essays, he never would “have developed any special interest in history.” The subject was too dull. The British writer Adam Phillips describes boredom as “that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins.” More than a wish for excitement, boredom contains a longing for narrative, for engagement that warrants attention to the world.

A different biographer might have found in Hobsbawm’s boredom an opening onto an entire plane of the Communist experience. Marxism sought to render political desire as objective form, to make human intention a causal force in the world. Not since Machiavelli had political people thought so hard about the alignment of action and opportunity, about the disjuncture between public performance and private wish. Hobsbawm’s life and work are a case study in such questions. What we get from Evans, however, is boredom itself: a shapeless résumé of things starting and nothing beginning, the opposite of the storied life—in which “public events are part of the texture of our lives,” as Hobsbawm wrote, and “not merely markers”—that Hobsbawm sought to tell and wished to lead.


Down the corridor of every Marxist imagination lies a fear: that capitalism has conjured forces of such seeming sufficiency as to eclipse the need for capitalists to superintend it and the ability of revolutionaries to supersede it. “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality,” “The Communist Manifesto” claims, “while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.” Throughout his life, Marx struggled mightily to ward off that vision. Hobsbawm did, too.

But what the Communist could not do in life the historian can do on the page. Across two centuries of the modern world, Hobsbawm projected a dramatic span that no historian has since managed to achieve. “We do need history,” Nietzsche wrote, “but quite differently from the jaded idlers in the garden of knowledge.” Hobsbawm gave us that history. Nietzsche hoped it might serve the cause of “life and action,” but for Hobsbawm it was the opposite: a sublimation of the political impulses that had been thwarted in life and remained unfulfilled by action. His defeats allowed him to see how men and women had struggled to make a purposive life in—and from—history.

The triumph was not Hobsbawm’s alone. Moving from politics to paper, he was aided by the medium of Marxism itself, to whose foundational texts we owe some of the most extraordinary characters of modern literature, from the “specter haunting Europe” to the resurrected Romans of the “Eighteenth Brumaire” and “our friend, Moneybags” of “Capital.” That Marx could find human drama in the impersonal—that “the concept of capital,” as he wrote in the “Grundrisse,” always “contains the capitalist”—reminds us what Hobsbawm, in his despair, forgot. Even when structures seem to have eclipsed all, silhouettes of human shape can be seen, working their way across the stage, making and unmaking their fate.

You can read it all here.

Also, as many of you know, for the last two years, I’ve been making the case that Donald Trump’s presidency is what the political scientist Steve Skowronek calls a “disjunctive” presidency. Over at Balkinization, I use the opportunity of my deep, deep agreement with the great Jack Balkin—whose views on so many things I share, and who also has argued for Trump as a disjunctive presidency—to raise some questions about our shared position, and where our analysis may go awry. You can read that here.


* Several astute readers pointed out to me that this locution of traveling “up” somewhere is often used in Britain to signify going from a smaller to a larger place rather than traveling from south to north. I passed the information on to my editor at The New Yorker, and they’ve now cut the phrase from the text. I’m leaving it here because, well, the error was mine, and in a passage where I’m pointing out Evans’s errors, I should acknowledge my own.

David Brion Davis, the pathbreaking Yale historian of slavery and emancipation, whose books revolutionized how we approach the American experience, has died. The obituaries have rightly discussed his many and manifold contributions, a legacy we will be parsing in the days and months ahead. Yet for those of us who were graduate students at Yale during the 1990s and who participated in the union drive there, the story of David Brion Davis is more complicated. Davis helped break the grade strike of 1995, in a manner so personal and peculiar, yet simultaneously emblematic, as not to be forgotten. Not long after the strike, I wrote at length about Davis’s actions in an essay called “Blacklisted and Blue: On Theory and Practice at Yale,” which later appeared in an anthology that was published in 2003. I’m excerpting the relevant part the essay below, but you can read it all of it here [pdf].

* * *

As soon as the graduate students voted to strike, the administration leaped to action, threatening students with blacklisting, loss of employment, and worse. Almost as quickly, the national academic community rallied to the union’s cause. A group of influential law professors at Harvard and elsewhere issued a statement condemning the “Administration’s invitation to individual professors to terrorize their advisees.” They warned the faculty that their actions would “teach a lesson of subservience to illegitimate authority that is the antithesis of what institutions like Yale purport to stand for.”

Eric Foner, a leading American historian at Columbia, spoke out against the administration’s measures in a personal letter to President Levin. “As a longtime friend of Yale,” Foner began, “I am extremely distressed by the impasse that seems to have developed between the administration and the graduate teaching assistants.” Of particular concern, he noted, was the “developing atmosphere of anger and fear” at Yale, “sparked by threats of reprisal directed against teaching assistants.” He then concluded:

I wonder if you are fully aware of the damage this dispute is doing to Yale’s reputation as a citadel of academic freedom and educational leadership. Surely, a university is more than a business corporation and ought to adopt a more enlightened approach to dealing with its employees than is currently the norm in the business world. And in an era when Israelis and Palestinians, Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs, the British government and the IRA, have found it possible to engage in fruitful discussions after years of intransigent refusal to negotiate, it is difficult to understand why Yale’s administration cannot meet with representatives of the teaching assistants.

Foner’s letter played a critical role during the grad strike. The faculty took him seriously; his books on the Civil War and Reconstruction are required reading at Yale. But more important, Foner is a historian, and at the time, a particularly tense confrontation in the Yale history department was spinning out of control.

The incident involved teaching assistant Diana Paton, a British graduate student who was poised to write a dissertation on the transition in Jamaica from slavery to free labor, and historian David Brion Davis. A renowned scholar of slavery, Davis has written pathbreaking studies, earning him the Pulitzer Prize and a much-coveted slot as a frequent writer at the New York Review of Books. He represents the best traditions of humanistic learning, bringing to his work a moral sensitivity that few academics possess. Paton was his student and, that fall, his TA.

When Paton informed Davis that she intended to strike, he accused her of betraying him. Convinced that Davis would not support her academic career in the future—he had told her in an unrelated discussion a few weeks prior that he would never give his professional backing to any student who he believed had betrayed him—Paton nevertheless stood her ground. Davis reported her to the graduate school dean for disciplinary action and had his secretary instruct Paton not to appear at the final exam. In his letter to the dean, Davis wrote that Paton’s actions were “outrageous, irresponsible to the students…and totally disloyal.”

The day of the final, Paton showed up at the exam room. As she explains it, she wanted to demonstrate to Davis that she would not be intimidated by him, that she would not obey his orders. Davis, meanwhile, had learned of Paton’s plan to attend the exam and somehow concluded that she intended to steal the exams. So he had the door locked and two security guards stand beside it.

Though assertive, Paton is soft-spoken and reserved. She is also small. The thought of her rushing into the exam room, scooping up her students’ papers, engaging perhaps in a physical tussle with the delicate Davis, and then racing out the door—the whole idea is absurd. Yet Davis clearly believed it wasn’t absurd. What’s more, he convinced the administration that it wasn’t absurd, for it was the administration that had dispatched the security detail.

How this scenario could have been dreamed up by a historian with the nation’s most prestigious literary prizes under his belt—and with the full backing of one of the most renowned universities in the world—requires some explanation. Oddly enough, it is Davis himself who provides it.

Like something out of Hansel and Gretel, Davis left a set of clues, going back some forty years, to his paranoid behavior during the grade strike. In a pioneering 1960 article in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, “Some Themes of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature,” Davis set out to understand how dominant groups in nineteenth-century America were gripped by fears of disloyalty, treachery, subversion, and betrayal. Many Americans feared Catholics, Freemasons, and Mormons because, it was believed, they belonged to “a machine-like organization” that sought “to abolish free society” and “to overthrow divine principles of law and justice.” Members of these groups were dangerous because they professed an “unconditional loyalty to an autonomous body” like the pope. They took their marching orders from afar, and so were untrustworthy, duplicitous, and dangerous.

Davis was clearly disturbed by the authoritarian logic of the countersubversive, but that was in 1960 and he was writing about the nineteenth century. In 1995, confronting the rebellion of his own student, the logic made all the sense in the world. It didn’t matter that Paton was a longtime student of his, that she had many discussions with Davis about her academic work, and that he knew her well. As soon as she announced her commitment to the union’s course of action, she became a stranger, an alien marching on behalf of a foreign power.

Davis was hardly alone in voicing these concerns. Other respected members of the Yale faculty dipped into the same well of historical imagery. In January 1996, at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, several historians presented a motion to censure Yale for its retaliation against the striking TAs. During the debate on the motion, Nancy Cott—one of the foremost scholars of women’s history in the country who was on the Yale faculty at the time but has since gone on to Harvard—defended the administration, pointing out that the TA union was affiliated with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. Historians at the meeting say that Cott placed a special emphasis on the word “international.” The TAs, in other words, were carrying out the orders of union bosses in Washington. The graduate students did not care about their own colleagues, they were not loyal to their own. Not unlike the Masons and Catholics of old. It did not seem to faze Cott that she was speaking to an audience filled with labor historians, all of whom would have recognized these charges as classic antiunion rhetoric.

One of the reasons Cott embraced this vocabulary so unselfconsicously was that it was a virtual commonplace among the Yale faculty at the time. At a mid-December faculty meeting, which one professor compared to a Nuremberg rally, President Levin warned the faculty of the ties between the TAs and outside unions. The meeting was rife with lurid images of union heavies dictating how the faculty should run their classrooms. It never seemed to occur to these professors, who pride themselves on their independent judgment and intellectual perspicacity, that they were uncritically accepting some of the ugliest and most unfounded prejudices about unions, that they sounded more like the Jay Goulds and Andrew Carnegies of the late nineteenth century than the careful scholars and skeptical minds of the late twentieth. All they knew was their fear—that a conspiracy was afoot, that they were being forced to cede their authority to disagreeable powers outside of Yale.

Cott, Levin, and the rest of the faculty were also in the grip of a raging class anxiety, which English professor Annabel Patterson spelled out in a letter to the Modern Language Association. The TA union, Patterson wrote, “has always been a wing of Locals 34 and 35 [two other campus unions]…who draw their membership from the dining workers in colleges and other support staff.”

Why did Patterson single out cafeteria employees in her description of Locals 34 and 35? After all, these unions represent thousands of white- and blue-collar workers, everyone from skilled electricians and carpenters to research laboratory technicians, copy editors, and graphic designers. Perhaps it was that Patterson viewed dishwashers and plastic-gloved servers of institutional food as the most distasteful sector of the Yale workforce. Perhaps she thought that her audience would agree with her, and that a subtle appeal to their delicate, presumably shared, sensibilities would be enough to convince other professors that the TA union ought to be denied a role in the university.

The professor-student relationship was the critical link in a chain designed to keep dirty people out. What if the TAs and their friends in the dining halls decided that professors should wash the dishes and plumbers should teach the classes? Hadn’t that happened during the Cultural Revolution? Hadn’t the faculty themselves imagined such delightful utopias as young student radicals during the 1960s? Recognizing the TA union would only open Yale to a rougher, less refined element, and every professor, even the most liberal, had something at stake in keeping that element out.

In his article, Davis concluded with these sentences about the nineteenth-century countersubversive:

By focusing his attention on the imaginary threat of a secret conspiracy, he found an outlet for many irrational impulses, yet professed his loyalty to the ideals of equal rights and government by law. He paid lip service to the doctrine of laissez-faire individualism, but preached selfless dedication to a transcendent cause. The imposing threat of subversion justified a group loyalty and subordination of the individual that would otherwise have been unacceptable. In a rootless environment shaken by bewildering social change the nativist found unity and meaning by conspiring against imaginary conspiracies.

Though I don’t think Davis’s psychologizing holds much promise for understanding the Yale faculty’s response to the grade strike—the strike, after all, did pose a real threat to the faculty’s intuitions about both the place of graduate students in the university and the obligation of teachers; nor did the faculty seem, at least to me, to be on a desperate quest for meaning—he did manage to capture, long before the fact, the faculty’s fear that their tiered world of privileges and orders, so critical to the enterprise of civilization, was under assault. So did Davis envision the grotesque sense of fellowship that the faculty would derive from attacking their own students.

The faculty’s outsized rhetoric of loyalty and disloyalty, of intimacy (Dean [Richard] Brodhead called the parties to the conflict a “dysfunctional family”) betrayed, may have fit uneasily with their avowed professions of individualism and intellectual independence. But it did give them the opportunity to enjoy, at least for a moment, that strange euphoria—the thrilling release from dull routine, the delightful, newfound solidarity with fellow elites—that every reactionary from Edmund Burke to Augusto Pinochet has experienced upon confronting an organized challenge from below.

Paton’s relationship with Davis was ended. Luckily, she was able to find another advisor at Yale, Emilia Viotti da Costa, a Latin American historian who was also an expert on slavery. Da Costa, it turns out, had been a supporter of the student movement in Brazil some thirty years before and was persecuted by the military there. Forced to flee the country, she found in Yale a welcome refuge from repression.

Do You Believe in Life After Hayek?

by Corey Robin on March 4, 2019

Sorry about the title; advertisements for The Cher Show are all over New York these days, so the song is in my head. Anyway…

In the Boston Review, the left economists Suresh Naidu, Dani Rodrick, and Gabriel Zucman offer an excellent manifesto of sorts for a new progressive economic agenda. I was asked to respond, and in a move that surprised me, I wound up returning to Hayek to see what we on the left might learn from him and his achievement. Here’s a snippet:

Far from resting neoliberalism on the authority of the natural sciences or mathematics (forms of inquiry Hayek and Mises sought to distance their work from) or on the technical knowledge of economists (as Naidu and his co-authors claim), Hayek recognized that the argument for capitalism had to be won on moral and political grounds through the political arts of persuasion.

Here’s where things get interesting. Though Hayek famously abandoned formal economics for social theory after the 1930s, his social theory remained dedicated to elaborating what he saw as the essential problem of economics: how to allocate finite resources between different purposes when society cannot agree on its most basic ends. With its emphasis on the irreconcilability of our moral ends—the fact that members of a modern society do not and cannot agree on a scale of values— Hayek’s point was fundamentally political, the sort of insight that has agitated everyone from Thomas Hobbes to John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas. Hayek was unique, however, in arguing that the political point was best addressed, indeed could only be addressed, in the realm of the economic. No other discourse—not moral philosophy, political theory, psychology, or theology—understood so well that our ultimate moral values and political purposes get expressed to others and revealed to ourselves only under conditions of radical economic constraint—when one is forced to assign a limited set of resources to different ends, ends that favor different sectors of society.

Morals are not really morals if they are not material, Hayek believed. Outside the constraining circumstance of the economy, our moral claims are so much wind. Inside the economy, they assume force and depth, achieving a revelatory clarity and profundity….

The intrinsic links between moral and economic life as well as the intractability of moral conflict, the incommensurability of our moral views, were the kernels of insight that animated Hayek’s most far-reaching writing against socialism. The socialist presumes an agreement on ultimate ends: the putatively shared understanding of principles such as justice or equality is supposed to make it possible for state planners to conceive of their task as technical, as the neutral application of an agreed upon rule. But no such agreement exists, Hayek insisted, and if it is presumed to exist, nothing will reveal its non-existence more quickly than the attempt to implement it in practice, in the distribution of finite resources toward whatever end has been agreed upon.

Hayek translated moral and political problems into an economic idiom. What we need now, I would argue, is a way to uninstall or reverse that translation.

In the rest of the piece, I briefly (very briefly) sketch out, with the help of Polanyi, what that might mean. This is something I hope to be developing further in an article I’m writing with Alex Gourevitch on socialist freedom. But in the meantime, here’s the Boston Review piece in full.

Marshall Steinbaum and Alice Evans also have excellent responses.

The Historovox Complex

by Corey Robin on February 20, 2019

I’ve got a new gig at New York Magazine, where I’ll be a regular contributor, writing on politics and other matters. Here, in my first post, I tackle “the Historovox” (my wife Laura came up with the phrase), that complex of journalism and academic research that we increasingly see at places like VoxFiveThirtyEight, and elsewhere. Long story, short: while I firmly believe in academics writing for the public sphere—Crooked Timber remains the Gold Standard as far as I’m concerned—there are better and worse ways to do it. This should be a topic of interest to lots of folks around here, and I’m grateful to Henry for offering his initial thoughts on the matter to me, though in retrospect I wish I had incorporated one of his points.

Here are some excerpts:

There’s a bad synergy at work in the Historovox — as I call this complex of scholars and journalists — between the short-termism of the news cycle and the longue durée-ism of the academy. Short-term interests and partisan concerns still drive reporting and commentary. But where the day’s news once would have been narrated as a series of events, the Historovox brings together those events in a pseudo-academic frame that treats them as symptoms of deeper patterns and long-term developments. Unconstrained by the protocols of academe or journalism, but drawing on the authority of the first for the sake of the second, the Historovox skims histories of the New Deal or rifles through abstracts of meta-analysis found in JSTOR to push whatever the latest line happens to be.

When academic knowledge is on tap for the media, the result is not a fusion of the best of academia and the best of journalism but the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, we get the whiplash of superficial commentary: For two years, America was on the verge of authoritarianism; now it’s not. On the other hand, we get the determinism that haunts so much academic knowledge. When the contingencies of a day’s news cycle are overlaid with the laws of social science or whatever ancient formation is trending in the precincts of academic historiography, the political world can come to seem more static than it is. Toss in the partisan agendas of the media and academia, and the effects are as dizzying as they are deadening: a news cycle that’s said to reflect the universal laws of the political universe where the laws of the political universe change with every news cycle.

The job of the scholar is not to offer her expertise to fit the needs of the pundit class. It’s to call those needs into question, not to provide different answers to the same questions but to raise the questions that aren’t being asked.

Everyone knows and cites Orwell’s famous adage: “To see what is front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Less cited is what follows: “One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it.” To see what’s right in front of one’s nose doesn’t mean seeing without ideology. It means keeping track of how we think and have thought about things, being mindful of what was once on the table and what has disappeared from view. It means avoiding the gods of the present.

The job of the scholar, in other words, is to resist the tyranny of the now. That requires something different than knowledge of the past; indeed, historians have proven all too useful to the Historovox, which is constantly looking for academic warrants to say what its denizens always and already believe. No, the job of the scholar is to recall and retrieve what the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin described as “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present.” The task is not to provide useful knowledge to the present; it is to insist on, to keep a record of, the most seemingly useless counter-knowledge from the past — for the sake of an as-yet-to-be imagined future.

The whole thing is here.

Adorno in America

by Corey Robin on February 15, 2019

The history of the Frankfurt School in America is usually told as a story of one-way traffic. The question being: What did America get from the Frankfurt School? The answer usually offered: a lot! We got Marcuse, Neumann, Lowenthal, Fromm, and, for a time, Horkheimer and Adorno (who ultimately went back to Germany after the war)—the whole array of émigré culture that helped transform the United States from a provincial outpost of arts and letters into a polyglot Parnassus of the world.

The wonderfully counter-intuitive and heterodox question that animates Eric Oberle’s Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity is: what did the Frankfurt School get from America? [click to continue…]

The Problem of Max Boot

by Corey Robin on January 25, 2019

I’ve been thinking about political converts for a long time. At The New Yorker, I take up the problem of Max Boot, who probably needs no introduction, and Derek Black, who was a leading white supremacist and then renounced it all.

Here’s a taste:

Max Boot, a longtime conservative who recently broke with the right over the nomination and election of Donald Trump, registered as a Republican in 1988. At the time, Boot writes in “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right,” he wanted to join the “party of ideas.” A movement of highbrows, conservatism was the work of the “learned, worldly, elitist, and eccentric lot” of writers at National Review, “far removed from the simple-minded, cracker-barrel populists who have taken control of the conservative movement today.” It was a movement, Boot explains at the outset, “inspired by Barry Goldwater’s canonical text from 1960, The Conscience of a Conservative. I believed in that movement, and served it my whole life.” A hundred and seventy-five pages later, Boot inadvertently lets slip that reading Goldwater’s “actual words” was something he hadn’t done until after Trump’s election. Throughout his three decades on the right, it appears, Boot believed in the tenets of a book he never read.

But it turns out that the problem of Boot and Black goes much deeper than what books were or weren’t read. If you compare the conversions from left to right–think Arthur Koestler, James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, and so on–with those from right to left, you find something interesting.

Curiously, the movement from right to left has never played an equivalent role in modern politics. Not only are there fewer converts in that direction, but those conversions haven’t plowed as fertile a field as their counterparts have.

Why is that? Find out here.