The Problem with Liberalism Today

29 Oct

Over at The National Interest, my Crooked Timber co-blogger Henry Farrell has a dissection of a certain strand of contemporary liberalism—embodied in the critiques of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald offered by Sean Wilentz, George Packer, and Michael Kinsley—that is well worth reading.

Some highlights:

Yet their problems go deeper than sloppy practice and shoddy logic. For one thing, Wilentz, Packer and Kinsley are all veterans of the Clinton-era battles between liberals and the Left. Wilentz in particular poses as a latter-day Arthur Schlesinger, shuttling backwards and forwards between his academic duties and his political fealties. As for Packer, he has championed a muscular liberalism, pugnacious in the fight against moral purists at home and political Islam abroad. And Kinsley, a veteran of the wars over neoliberalism, has always been a contrarian with a talent for repackaging the common wisdom of the establishment as something edgy and counterintuitive.

Each has manacled himself to an intellectual identity forged in decades-old combat with the Left. Each, as a result, is apparently incapable of understanding the actual challenge that Greenwald and Snowden pose to American politics.

Snowden and his companions have shown that national-security liberals’ arguments for deference rest on false assumptions. The truth is that not only are America’s overseas interventions problematic by themselves, but they are also increasingly undermining domestic liberties. Intelligence efforts that are supposed to be focused abroad turn out to have sweeping domestic consequences. It’s impossible to distinguish intelligence data on domestic and foreign actors. Security officials in various countries can work together across borders to circumvent and undermine domestic protections, actively helping each other to remake laws that restrict their freedom of operation. And at home, officials can use these new arrangements to work around and undermine civil rights. This commingling of domestic and international politics is complex and poorly understood. It helps explain why national-security liberals have such difficulty in comprehending—let alone refuting—Snowden’s and Greenwald’s arguments.

Hence, it is unsurprising that Wilentz should view Greenwald and Snowden—the one a left-wing skeptic of American foreign policy, the other a libertarian skeptic of the state—with unabashed horror. What is rather startling, given Wilentz’s prominence as a writer and historian, is the absence of a coherent argument to structure and discipline his detestation.

The whole exercise in amateur taxidermy has the rhetorical purpose of stitching two very different claims together, creating the illusion that they are naturally conjoint. The first is that Wilentz’s antagonists are enemies of the “modern liberal state.” The second is that they are enemies of the “national security state.” The first, obviously, is rather more likely to worry liberal readers than the second. However, Wilentz’s evidence largely concerns the second. He eschews logical argument in favor of a superficially impressive accumulation of quasi-relevant details about his antagonists’ personal histories, which appear intended to suggest connections where none exist.

The resulting artificial monstrosity, like P. T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid, doesn’t hold up on close examination. Bits fall off if you poke it at all hard. If Wilentz’s underlying thesis—that it’s profoundly illiberal to oppose government spying—were expressed in seven words rather than seven thousand, it would be so obviously ridiculous as to be unpublishable in a serious magazine.

GEORGE PACKER’S indictment of Snowden and Greenwald is better structured than Wilentz’s, and by far better written. Perhaps no writer alive is as skilled as Packer at conveying an air of weary and hard-won rectitude in a world of ethically ambiguous choices. It is unfortunate that this moral aristocratism is so deplorably misemployed. If anything, Packer’s article is more actively misleading than Wilentz’s.

Perhaps, then, Packer’s patrician disdain can in part be forgiven. What is quite unforgivable are Packer’s own dubious standards of argument, which are starkly at odds with his de haut en bas style of ethical condescension.

Kinsley here exemplifies a broader problem. Halpern has observed that Kinsley and other critics of the leakers like to focus on Greenwald’s and Snowden’s purported personal flaws rather than the issues that motivated them to act. Put differently, Kinsley, Wilentz and Packer have a hard time distinguishing between personality and politics. Each apparently believes that Greenwald’s and Snowden’s radical political beliefs show them to be paranoid demagogues, while their paranoid demagoguery demonstrates the worthlessness of their radical beliefs. This circular reasoning allows them to circumnavigate the difficult question of whether Snowden and Greenwald might be largely right, and what this might mean for liberalism.

In short, Wilentz, Packer and Kinsley are a dismal advertisement for the current state of mainstream liberal thought in America. The fundamental problem is not that they’re disagreeable to their opponents (who can certainly be disagreeable themselves). It isn’t even that their unpleasantness is hypocritical (although it surely is). It is that the unpleasantness and hypocrisy conceal an intellectual void. When the screen of misrepresentations, elisions, prevarications, misleadingly curtailed quotes, historical grudges and ad hominem attacks is removed, there is nothing behind it.

This absence is all the more depressing because Wilentz, Packer and Kinsley are probably as good as it gets. There are no prominent national-security liberals who have done better—and a few who have done worse, lapsing into baroque conspiracy theories. Their failure is not simply a personal one. It’s the failure of an entire intellectual tradition.

WHY DO national-security liberals have such a hard time thinking straight about Greenwald, Snowden and the politics of leaks? One reason is sheer laziness. National-security liberals have always defined themselves against their antagonists, and especially their left-wing antagonists. They have seen themselves as the decent Left, willing to deploy American power to make the world a happier place, and fighting the good fight against the knee-jerk anti-Americans.

This creates a nearly irresistible temptation: to see Greenwald, Snowden and the problems they raise as antique bugbears in modern dress. Wilentz intimates that Greenwald is plotting to create a United Front of anti-imperialist left-wingers, libertarians and isolationist paleoconservatives. Packer depicts Greenwald and Snowden as stalwarts of the old Thoreauvian tradition of sanctimonious absolutism and moral idiocy. Kinsley paints Snowden as a conspiracy-minded dupe and Greenwald as a frustrated Jacobin.

Yet laziness is only half the problem. A fundamental inability to comprehend Greenwald and Snowden’s case, let alone to argue against it, is the other half. National-security liberals have enormous intellectual difficulties understanding the new politics of surveillance, because these politics are undermining the foundations of their worldview.

If you’re still interested in this topic after you finish Henry’s piece, which again is something you really have to read, you might want to check out my own meditation on the fate of the national security liberal in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq War. Mine is now a bit outdated, since it doesn’t engage with the questions of surveillance that Henry raises. But it gets at, I think, what happens to a national security liberalism that was historically oriented around its attack on the left when that left is no more.

Liberalism Then and Now

27 Oct

Historically, liberalism was proffered as an answer to the left. That is what gave it its political heft and social depth. For the last half-century, it’s been proffered as an answer to the right. Therein lies the problem.

Dayenu in Reverse: The Passover Canon of Arendt’s Critics

26 Oct

One of the more recent criticisms I’ve read of Eichmann in Jerusalem—in Bettina Stangneth’s and Deborah Lipstadt’s books—is that far from seeing, or seeing through, Eichmann, Arendt was taken in by his performance on the witness stand. Eichamnn the liar, Eichmann the con man, got the better of Arendt the dupe.

For the sake of his defense, the argument goes, Eichmann pretended to be a certain type of Nazi—not a Jew hater but a dutiful if luckless soldier, who wound up, almost by happenstance, shipping millions of Jews to their death.

Arendt heard this defense, and though she never accepted the notion that Eichmann was an obedient soldier (she thought he was a great deal worse than that), she did conclude that Eichmann had “an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” Eichmann was hermetically sealed off from the world, from the perspective of people who weren’t Nazis. Because the “more decisive flaw in Eichmann’s character was his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view,” he “never realized what he was doing.” He knew he was sending Jews to their death; he just didn’t grasp the moral significance of that act, wherein its evil lay, how others, including his victims and their families, might see it.

According to evidence presented by Stangneth and Lipstadt, Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel was indeed a performance on Eichmann’s part. The truth is that he was a rabid anti-Semite who took initiative and on occasion defied the directives of his superiors in order to make sure even more Jews went to their death; at one point, Lipstadt reports, he even personally challenged Hitler’s order to allow some 40,000 Hungarian Jews to be released for emigration to Palestine via Switzerland.

At every stage of his career, Eichmann knew what he was doing. In power, he did it with zeal; out of power, in the dock, he tried to pretend that he hadn’t, or that if he had, that he had no choice.

Arendt’s vision of the banality of evil, her critics claim, rests upon a failure to see this, the real Eichmann. Eichmann the trickster, Eichmann the con man, rather than Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel.

As I’ve written before, I think there’s something to this argument about Arendt’s failure to apprehend Eichmann’s performance as a performance. Arendt sometimes, though not nearly as often as her critics claim, did take Eichmann at his word, and it never seems to have occurred to her that he would have had the cunning—and necessary self-awareness—to fashion an image of himself that might prove more palatable to the court.

But if Eichmann was indeed a liar, that, it seems to me, argues in favor of Arendt’s overall thesis of the banality of evil, not against it. Once you work through the implications of Eichmann the liar—as opposed to Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel—it becomes clear that it is Arendt’s critics, rather than Arendt, who have not only failed to come to terms with his evil, but who also may have, albeit inadvertently, minimized what he actually did.

So let’s work this one through.

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To repeat: At the heart of Eichmann’s evil, Arendt believes, was a certain kind of cluelessness about what it was that he did, which was rooted in his inability to see how his actions and statements might appear to another person, particularly someone who had been the victim of his acts. Eichmann might admit, as he did on the stand, that the Holocaust was “one of the greatest crimes in the history of Humanity,” but those were just words. He simply did not grasp the meaning of what he did. Or said.

Arendt offers plentiful evidence for this claim, some of which cannot be construed as lies on Eichmann’s part. After she writes that Eichmann “never realized what he was doing,” for example, she says:

It was precisely this lack of imagination which enabled him to sit for months on end facing a German Jew who was conducting the police interrogation, pouring out his heart to the man and explaining again and again how it was that he reached only the rank of lieutenant colonel in the S.S. and that it had not been his fault that he was not promoted.

That Eichmann thought he had found a sympathetic audience for his sob story of slights and snubs at the hands of the SS in the form of a German Jew—whose father, Lipstadt informs us, Eichmann knew to have been killed at Auschwitz; perhaps Eichmann even thought his interrogator might identify with him as a fellow victim of the SS—was an indication, Arendt believed, of his inability to think from “the other fellow’s point of view,” an inability that outlasted his time in the sun with the Nazis.

But it was when he was on the witness stand that Eichmann truly proved himself a thoughtless man. For when Eichmann presented himself in what he clearly thought was an exculpatory light he only wound up indicting himself even further. This, for Arendt, was the horror—and comedy—of the man.

Eichmann thought he was offering himself up (whether sincerely or not) to the court as a more palatable specimen, not realizing: first, that given what he did (and admitted to having done), there was nothing he could do or say that would redeem him; and, second, that the exculpatory examples he offered were only further confirmation of his evil.

Arendt writes, for example:

None of the various “language rules,” [the Nazis’ various euphemisms for their murderous deeds, what Eichmann called “winged words”] carefully contrived to deceive and to camouflage, had a more decisive effect on the mentality of the killers than this first war decree of Hitler, in which the word for “murder” was replaced by the phrase “to grant a mercy death.” Eichmann, asked by the police examiner if the directive to avoid “unnecessary hardships” was not a bit ironic, in view of the fact that the destination of these people was certain death anyhow, did not even understand the question, so firmly was it still anchored in his mind that the unforgivable sin was not to kill people but to cause unnecessary pain. During the trial, he showed unmistakable signs of sincere outrage when witnesses told of cruelties and atrocities committed by S.S. men—though the court and much of the audience failed to see these signs, because his single-minded effort to keep his self-control had misled them into believing that the was “unmovable” and indifferent—and it was not the accusation of having sent millions of death to their death that ever caused him real agitation but only the accusation (dismissed by the court) of one witness that he had once beaten a Jewish boy to death.

This is the sort of passage that makes critics of Arendt think, ah, there she goes again, giving Eichmann the benefit of the doubt, taking him at his word, assuming he’s more humane than he in fact was.

Let’s assume for the sake of the argument, however, that Arendt’s critics are wrong, that she was not taken in by Eichmann and that she had him, at least here, pegged right. Any reader of this passage can see that her point is not that Eichmann was humane but that he was morally and politically—and ultimately intellectually (though not psychologically)—deranged. That he could willingly participate in a plan to exterminate millions—something he admitted to on the stand, Arendt reminds us—but think that his crimes were mitigated by the fact that he neither caused people unnecessary pain nor ever laid a hand on a poor Jewish boy and in fact was genuinely outraged by any sign of cruelty by the SS: that for Arendt was a sign of his failure to recognize the enormity of his crime, to truly understand what he had done.

Now let’s assume for the sake of the argument that Arendt’s critics are right, that she was in fact taken in by him and that this was all a big lie for the witness stand. It doesn’t change her point at all; in fact, it only strengthens it. That Eichmann could willingly participate in a plan to exterminate millions but nevertheless think that the court would somehow conclude he wasn’t so bad because he didn’t cause people unnecessary pain nor ever lay a hand on a poor Jewish boy—and then, on the basis of that lunatic assumption, deceive the court in the hope that it might get him off or get him a lighter sentence: that too should be taken as a sign of his failure to recognize the enormity of his crime, to truly understand what he had done. For who but Eichmann could possibly believe that that mitigated his crime in any way?

Whether Eichmann believed what he said or was lying to save his ass, his failure to think—the banality of his evil—is demonstrated by the fact that he assumed there might be something he could do or say that would get him off the hook. Even at the moment when he was facing his own death, he couldn’t imagine the enormity of his crimes, how they would appear to others.

At the heart of Arendt’s assessment, then, is the idea that once Eichmann set down the path of mass murder of the Jews, nothing he did or didn’t do, nothing he said or didn’t say, could change, alter, soften, or otherwise mitigate that fact. It was that enormous. To think otherwise was not to understand the enormity of the crime.

One can cite other examples from Eichmann in Jerusalem. Like this one:

Bragging was the vice that was Eichmann’s undoing. It was sheer rodomontade when he told his men during the last days of the war: “I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews…on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.” He did not jump, and if he had anything on his conscience, it was not murder but, as it turned out that, that he had once slapped the face of Dr. Josef Löwenherz, head of the Vienna Jewish community, who later became one of his favorite Jews. (He had apologized in front of his staff at the time, but this incident kept bothering him.)

Again, the point is clear: if Eichmann is sincere, he’s a fool who punishes himself with the thought that he once slapped a Jew’s face but sleeps peacefully over the fact that he shipped millions of Jews to their death; if he’s lying, he’s also a fool who thinks that his performance of remorse over slapping a Jew would somehow weigh against, in the judgment of the court, his shipment of millions of Jews to their death. In either case, he hasn’t grappled with the enormity of his crime.

Arendt did not believe that this kind of cluelessness was peculiar to Eichmann; it was rife throughout the Nazi high command.

Himmler’s order in the fall of 1944 to halt the extermination and to dismantle the installations at the death factories sprang from his absurd but sincere conviction that the Allied powers would know how to appreciate this obliging gesture; he told a rather incredulous Eichmann that on the strength of it he would be able to negotiate a Hubertusburger-Frieden—an allusion to the Peace Treaty of Hubertusburg that concluded the Seven Years’ War of Frederick II of Prussia in 1763 and enabled Prussia to retain Silesia, although she had lost the war.

And far from seeing this thoughtlessness as a sign of the petty bourgeois origins of Eichmann, Arendt found it at the highest rungs of society. She could barely contain her disbelief at the aristocratic conspirators of 1944 who tried to kill Hitler but thought, like Himmler, that they could negotiate a “just peace” with the Allies that would allow Germany to keep Austria and the Sudetenland (the fruits of Hitler’s earliest crimes of aggression) and a “’leading position for Germany on the Continent.’”

# # # # #

Once we realize how little of Arendt’s banality thesis hinges upon whether Eichmann was a liar or a believer of his own bullshit, we begin to see that there is something peculiar about the claim that Arendt was taken in by Eichmann.

As a simple empirical observation, the claim is perfectly plausible and unobjectionable, and indeed, as I’ve already said, can shed some interesting light on Arendt’s other ideas about performance and lying.

But Arendt’s critics want to use Eichmann the liar as a cudgel: not against Arendt in error (most philosophers make errors) or even against Arendt the dupe. No, they want to make Arendt into, if not an abettor of or apologist for evil, than at least an evader or minimizer of evil, who denies the wickedness of the Holocaust by insisting on the banality of one of its perpetrators.

Richard Wolin makes the point simply and directly:

It is at this point that the ultimate stakes of the debate over Eichmann’s “banality” emerge most clearly. For if Eichmann was “banal,” then the Holocaust itself was banal. There is no avoiding the fact that these two claims are inextricably intertwined.

And should the implication not be clear, he makes it plain:

What should have been clear then and should certainly be clear now is that if the Holocaust was banal, then it was not evil.

It’s not clear how any of this follows logically (if Jefferson was a benevolent slaveholder, does slavery become benevolent?), but Arendt’s point was just the opposite: the Holocaust was evil, Eichmann was banal, and the terrifying puzzle at the heart of it all—she called it “fearsome, word-and-thought-defying”—was how could such a smallness be a source, if not the source, of such a terrible largeness?

Lipstadt is more balanced and circumspect in her final judgment of Arendt, but she too ventures into some strange territory.

Lipstadt begins with a claim about Arendt and Eichmann in Jerusalem that, on its own terms, is straightforward enough:

Her work, even as it tried to explain critical aspects of the most extensive genocide in human history, submerged the most fundamental and indispensable elements of this event. She ignored the bedrock of the Holocaust: the long, tortured (torturing) history of anti-Semitism.

Nor, however, can one dismiss the way in which she so seamlessly elided the ideology that was at the heart of this genocide. She related a version of the Holocaust in which anti-Semitism played a decidedly minor role.

Unlike some of her defenders, I think Arendt does underplay Eichmann’s anti-Semitism. (Oddly enough, a similar charge could be leveled at her Origins of Totalitarianism, a book that has never aroused the kind of wrath and rage that Eichmann has.) Unlike her critics, however, I don’t see Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism as the moral failure on her part that they apparently see it as. I simply think she was wrong, and while her error is symptomatic of certain blinders she had, those are not the sort of blinders that should turn Eichmann or its author into an occasion for an exorcism.

But for Lipstadt and other critics, they are. For Arendt’s refusal to see Eichmann’s anti-Semitism is part and parcel of her fraternization with, even indulgence of, the anti-Semitism of her friends and lovers.

Hannah Arendt spoke with many voices. One modulated itself for the likes of Mary McCarthy and her set, many of whom delighted in and felt liberated by a Jew’s severe critique of Ben-Gurion, Israel, and her fellow Jews. Her comments freed them from having to self-censor when they spoke of Jewish matters….This Arendt may also have been subliminally writing for her teacher and former lover, the revered philosopher Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazi Party in 1933, ejected Jewish professors from the university where he severed as rector, affirmed Nazi ideals, and never recanted his wartime actions.

At one point, Lipstadt even compares Arendt to Eichmann:

She was guilty of precisely the same wrong she derisively ascribed to Adolf Eichmann. She—the great political philosopher who claimed that careful thought and precise expression were of supreme value—did not “think.” She wanted to provoke her readers to re-evaluate their assumptions, but she either did not care or did not fully consider how her caustic comments might be heard by them.

(It never seems to have occurred to Lipstadt that the only reason we (and she) are still talking about Eichmann in Jerusalem a half-century after its publication is that, for all of its caustic comments, the book has managed, like all great works of political theory, to consistently provoke its readers to reevaluate their assumptions.)

Hovering around the edges of these statements is the suggestion that Eichmann in Jerusalem enabled a genteel anti-Semitism—liberating the long suppressed feelings of Arendt’s goyish friends—and trafficked in its far more malignant forms, channeling the spirit of the Nazi Heidegger and mirroring the thoughtlessness of the Nazi Eichmann. In other words, sleeping with the enemy.

# # # # #

There’s no question that Arendt herself believed that the Nazis had committed a crime of massive proportion and that Eichmann had a major, if overstated, hand in that crime. And unlike Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, and a great many others in Israel and elsewhere, Arendt had no doubt that Eichmann ought to hang for his deeds (even Ben-Gurion, Lipstadt claims, had momentary doubts about that). Even if Arendt underplayed Eichmann’s anti-Semitism, even if she got his banality wrong, she was absolutely clear that he had helped perpetrate one of the greatest mass murders in history, that he was a moral catastrophe of the highest order, and that he should hang for his crimes. None of these final judgments of hers was dependent on her assessment of his anti-Semitism or banality. For Arendt, it was enough that he was a mass murderer and an ethical catastrophe that he should hang.

So why all the high dudgeon of her critics? Why this operatic suggestion from them that by minimizing his anti-Semitism and insisting on his banality Arendt was somehow letting Eichmann off the hook? It’s almost as if, to these critics, sending millions of Jews to their death, and being a moral catastrophe, is not in fact enough. Certainly not enough for Eichmann to hang.

The reaction of Arendt’s critics makes me wonder whether Eichmann the liar might not have had a point, whether there might not have been a method to his madness on the stand. His gamble on the stand was that if the court could see how little he enjoyed his work, how little taste for blood he actually had, how upright he was in the execution of his duties, they’d let him off the hook.

Whether this was a strategy or the truth wouldn’t have made a difference to Arendt. In either case, she would have concluded, he was guilty of mass murder; in either case he was a moral catastrophe; in either case, he was banal; in either case he should hang; in either case he was evil. But maybe what her critics are saying is: if he was a mass murderer and banal, if he was a mass murder and not anti-Semitic, then somehow his crimes really would be less. As Wolin says, no banality, no evil.

At Passover, we sing a song called Dayenu. Dayenu means “it would have been enough,” it would have been sufficient, it would have sufficed. We sing it in honor of all the things God did for us, as Jews, in the Exodus and after that. After we cite each one of these things God did for us, we say, Dayenu, it would have been enough. The cumulative force of the song is that just one of these things would have been enough, but God did so much more. Had God only led us out of Egypt, it would have been enough. But God also led us across the Red Sea. And had God only led us across the Red Sea, it would have been enough. But God also drowned our enemies there. And had God not only drowned our enemies there…you get the picture.

It seems as if, for Arendt’s critics, there’s a kind of reverse Dayenu at work. Their Passover canon goes like this: Had Eichmann only been a mass murderer, it would not have been enough. Had Eichmann only been a mass murderer who was also an ethical catastrophe, it would not have been enough. Had Eichmann only been a mass murderer who was also an ethical catastrophe and would have been hanged for his deeds, it would not have been…you get the picture.

On Arendt and Jewish Collaboration with the Nazis

25 Oct

Here’s another interesting factoid that I just learned from Deborah Lipstadt’s The Eichmann Trial.

For all the abuse heaped on Arendt for what she wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem about the issue of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis—leading some to claim that she put the Jews and the Nazis on the same level, a charge that Lipstadt unfortunately indulges*—there’s an irony to the trial that few have noticed.

In the words of Lipstadt:

The law under which Eichmann had been tried, the 1950 Nazis and Their Collaborators Law, was instituted in response to grassroots pressure from survivors, not to punish Nazis, but to punish Jews. The Knesset did not adopt the law in anticipation of the arrival of Nazi war criminals in Israel. The intent of the law was to ensure that Jewish survivors who had “collaborated” with the Nazis by serving as Kapos or the like were punished.

* “She [Arendt] saw symmetry between the Nazis and their victims where there was none.” (175)

What’s the point of having a political theory of American insanity when American insanity so seamlessly theorizes itself?

23 Oct

From Jezebel (h/t Anthony Galluzzo):

A proposed new law in Arizona would give employers the power to request that women being prescribed birth control pills provide proof that they’re using it for non-sexual reasons. And because Arizona’s an at-will employment state, that means that bosses critical of their female employees’ sex lives could fire them as a result. If we could harness the power of the crappy ideas coming out of the state of Arizona, we could probably power a rocket ship to the moon, where there are no Mexicans or fertile wombs and everyone can be free to be as mean a cranky asshole as they want at all times! Arizona Heaven!

Yesterday, a Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed Republican Debbie Lesko’s HB2625 by a vote of 6-2, which would allow an employer to request proof that a woman using insurance to buy birth control was being prescribed the birth control for reasons other than not wanting to get pregnant. It’s all about freedom, she said, echoing everyone who thinks there’s nothing ironic about claiming that a country that’s “free” allows people’s bosses to dictate what medical care is available to them through insurance. First amendment. The constitution. Rights of religious people to practice the treasured tenets of their faiths, the tenets that dictate that religious people get to tell everyone who is not of faith how they’re supposed to live, and the freedom to have that faith enforced by law. Freedom®.

I was going to say that if you wanted to understand this peculiarly American insanity from a political theory perspective, you could start with this post I did on “Birth Control McCarthyism” or this piece I wrote on “Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom.”

But then I thought: what’s the point of having a political theory of American insanity when American insanity so seamlessly theorizes itself?

Sheldon Wolin’s the reason I began drinking coffee

23 Oct

Sheldon Wolin‘s the reason I began drinking coffee.

I was a freshman at Princeton. It was the fall of 1985. I signed up to take a course called “Modern Political Theory.” It was scheduled for Mondays and Wednesdays at 9 am. I had no idea what I was doing. I stumbled into class, and there was a man with white hair and a trim white beard, lecturing on Machiavelli. I was transfixed.

There was just one problem: I was—still am—most definitely not a morning person. Even though the lectures were riveting, I had to fight my tendency to fall asleep. Even worse, I had to fight my tendency to sleep in.

So I started drinking coffee. I’d show up for class fully caffeinated. And proceeded to work my way through the canon—Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, along with some texts you don’t often get in intro theory courses (the Putney Debates, Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, and for a last hurrah: Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations)—under the guidance of one of the great readers of the twentieth century.

More than anything else, that’s what Sheldon Wolin was: a reader of texts. He approached The Prince as if it were a novel, identifying its narrative voice, analyzing the literary construction of the characters who populated the text (new prince, customary prince, centaur, the people), examining the structural tensions in the narrative (How does a Machiavellian adviser advise a non-Machiavellian prince?), and so on. It was exhilarating.

And then after class I’d head straight for Firestone Library; read whatever we were reading that week in class; follow along, chapter by chapter, with Wolin’s Politics and Vision, which remains to this day the single best book on Western political theory that I know of (even though lots of the texts we were talking about in class don’t appear there, or appear there with very different interpretations from the ones Wolin was offering in class: the man never stood still, intellectually); and get my second cup of coffee.

This is all a long wind-up to the fact that this morning, my friend Antonio Vazquez-Arroyo, sent me a two-part interview that Chris Hedges conducted with Wolin, who’s living out in Salem, Oregon now. From his Wikipedia page, I gather that Wolin’s 92. He looks exactly the same as he did in 1985. And sounds the same. Though it seems from the video as if he may now be losing his sight. Which is devastating when I think about the opening passages of Politics and Vision, about how vision is so critical to the political theorist and the practice of theoria.

Anyway, here he is, talking to Hedges about his thesis of “inverted totalitarianism”:

In classic totalitarianism, thinking here now about the Nazis and the fascists, and also even about the communists, the economy is viewed as a tool which the powers that be manipulate and utilize in accordance with what they conceive to be the political requirements of ruling. And they will take whatever steps are needed in the economy in order to ensure the long-run sustainability of the political order. In other words, the sort of arrows of political power flow from top to bottom. Now, in inverted totalitarianism, the imagery is that of a populace which is enshrined as the leadership group but which in fact doesn’t rule, but which is turned upside down in the sense that the people are enshrined at the top but don’t rule. And minority rule is usually treated as something to be abhorred but is in fact what we have. And it’s the problem has to do, I think, with the historical relationship between political orders and economic orders. And democracy, I think, from the beginning never quite managed to make the kind of case for an economic order that would sustain and help to develop democracy rather than being a kind of constant threat to the egalitarianism and popular rule that democracy stands for.

Capitalism is destructive because it has to eliminate the kind of custom, mores, political values, even institutions that present any kind of credible threat to the autonomy of the economy. And it’s that–that’s where the battle lies. Capitalism wants an autonomous economy. They want a political order subservient to the needs of the economy. And their notion of an economy, while it’s broadly based in the sense of a capitalism in which there can be relatively free entrance and property is relatively widely dispersed it’s also a capitalism which, in the last analysis, is [as] elitist as any aristocratic system ever was.

Have a listen and a watch. Part 1 and then Part 2.

David Brooks, Edmund Burke, and Me

23 Oct

David Brooks:

Burke is famous for his belief in gradual change….I’m sticking to my Burkean roots. Change should be steady, constant and slow. Society has structural problems, but they have to be reformed by working with existing materials, not sweeping them away in a vain hope for instant transformation.

Edmund Burke on the East India Company:

It is fixed beyond all power of reformation…this body, being totally perverted from the purposes of its institution, is utterly incorrigible; and because they are incorrigible, both in conduct and constitution, power ought to be taken out of their hands; just on the same principles on which have been made all the just changes and revolutions of government that have taken place since the beginning of the world.


The other reason I have dwelled so long on Burke is that though he’s often held up as the source of conservatism, I get the feeling he’s not often read….Sure, someone will quote a passage here or a phrase there, but the quotations inevitably have a whiff of cliché about them—little platoons and so on—emitting that stale blast of familiarity you sense when you listen to someone go on about a text he may or may not have read during one week in college.

David Brooks:

Gail, as you know I have a policy of teaching at colleges I couldn’t have gotten into, and as a result I find myself teaching at Yale….I just got out of a class in which we discussed Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”


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