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.

Me:

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.”

Adolph Eichmann: Funny Man?

22 Oct

One of the criticisms often made of Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial was that she found Eichmann to be so unintentionally funny. Throughout Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt can barely contain her laughter at the inadvertent comedy of the man. Many at the time found this distasteful; since then, her ironic appreciation of Eichmann’s buffoonery has been a sign, to Arendt’s critics, of her haughty indifference to the suffering he inflicted.

Yet, in reading about the trial, it’s quite clear that Arendt wasn’t the only one who found Eichmann funny. So did the courtroom, which periodically broke out into laughter at the accidental hilarity wafting down from the witness stand. As Deborah Lipstadt reports:

This was not the only time Eichmann seemed oblivious to how strange his explanations sounded. Servatius [Eichmann's lawyer] asked him about a directive he had issued ordering that trains deporting Jews carry a minimum of one thousand people, even thought their capacity was for only seven hundred. Eichmann claimed that the seven-hundred figure was calculated on the basis of soldiers with baggage. Since Jews’ luggage was sent separately, there was room for an additional three hundred people. The gallery erupted in laughter.

Laughter, Arendt observed in a 1944 essay on Kafka, “permits man to prove his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.” Those moments of laughter in Eichmann in Jerusalem—and in the courtroom—did not reflect an indifference to cruelty or suffering but a will to divest them of their unearned gravitas.

Laughter does not minimize evil; it denies evil the final word.

Ah, Princeton: Where the 1950s never died

21 Oct

One day I really have to write an essay on my absolutely all-time favorite magazine: Princeton Alumni Weekly.

In this week’s edition, a letter writer named Houghton Hutcheson—of course—from Bellaire, Texas—of course—writes a grumbling missive about an earlier feature on Jennifer Weiner. Weiner is the fiction writer who’s been on a campaign to broaden our definition of literature to include books often relegated to the chick lit shelf.

After the usual harrumphing about how there’s no such thing as gender in Literature, Hutcheson coughs up this hairball:

Mirroring her [Weiner's] own life experiences, many of her featured characters are “plus-size women.” Let’s be honest; do you know any men who would find this formula appealing?

I dunno. Many of Homer’s characters are strapping, bloodthirsty warriors. Many of Swift’s characters are giants or midgets. Many of Mann’s characters are phlegmatic hypochondriacs. And yet, for centuries, women have somehow managed to get past the outer trappings of these characters. So why is it so inconceivable for Houghton Hutcheson from Bellaire, Texas to get inside the mind of a plus-sized woman? Oh right: because there’s no such thing as gender in Literature.

Ah, Princeton: where the 1950s never died.

Congratulations, John Adams: You Got CUNY’d

21 Oct

On Twitter tonight, The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, whose book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century I discussed on Memorial Day, was tweeting about the protests that greeted the Met premiere of John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer.

Here are just some of Ross’ tweets.

 

 

I feel like John Adams and the Met just got the kind of treatment that we at CUNY get whenever we raise the issue of Israel/Palestine. The same gang mobilizes to shut us down. Indeed, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who until recently was on the CUNY Board of Trustees and tried to deny Tony Kushner an honorary degree because of his stance on Israel, was at the protests tonight, leading the charge.

Here are some more Ross tweets.

 

 

Congratulations, John Adams: you just got CUNY’d.

When I draw comparisons between libertarians and slaveholders…

19 Oct

When I put libertarians and slaveholders in the same orbit, libertarians go ape-shit.

But when they do it

We treat John C. Calhoun as a precursor of modern public choice theory. Calhoun anticipates the doctrine of public choice contractarianism as developed by Buchanan and Tullock and expands this approach in original directions. We consider Calhoun’s theory of why democracy fails to preserve liberty and Calhoun’s suggested constitutional reform, rule by unanimity. We also draw out parallels between Calhoun and Hayek with regard to theories of social change and Hayek’s analysis of “why the worst get to the top.” The paper concludes with some remarks on problems in Calhoun’s theory.

—it’s all good.

Of course, it helps if you can resolve that pesky question of slavery like so:

Furthermore, Calhoun furnishes only weak ethical foundations for his advocacy of the concurrent majority…

This lack of ethical foundation shows up in Calhoun’s defense of slavery, which continues to hurt his reputation and draw attention from his more valid and interesting contributions.

H/t Suresh Naidu

George Lakoff and Me

17 Oct

In the current issue of The Nation, in an article called “What Liberals Don’t Understand About Freedom,” George Lakoff writes:

FDR, in giving his Four Freedoms speech of 1941, suggested that Democrats’ mission was to expand human freedom. Yet today Democrats have ceded the very concepts of freedom and liberty to Republicans. It’s time to take freedom back as the central Democratic issue.

For conservatives, individual responsibility is central: democracy provides the “liberty” to pursue your own interests, without any help from others (which would make you dependent and weak) and without any responsibility for others.

This is the exact opposite of the progressive view…democracy is about citizens caring about one another and working through their government to provide public resources that allow freedom for all.

The same is true of individual private life. Physical well-being is fundamental to a free life. If you do not have access to health care and you get cancer, you are likely to be trapped not only in debt peonage by the healthcare industry, but in physical anguish or death. So-called “women’s issues” are freedom issues, too—the freedom for individuals to be able to control their own bodies, and follow their doctors’ advice. Without safety regulations for our food and water supply we are not free. Without highways or air traffic controllers or an air force that trains most of our pilots, we would not be free to travel without fear for our safety.

The freedom to control one’s life and participate in our democracy is what unites progressives. Yet, very few progressives actually say this out loud. Progressives are bad at communicating the interdependence of issues and hence the links among forms of freedom.

In the April 6, 2011 issue of The Nation, in a piece called “Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom,” I wrote:

Conservative ideas have dominated American politics for thirty years. The centerpiece of that dominance is the notion that the market equals freedom and government is the threat to freedom.

If there is to be a true realignment—not just of parties but of principles, not just of policy preferences or cognitive frames but of deep beliefs and ideas—we must confront conservatism’s political philosophy. That philosophy reflects more than a bloodless economics or narrow self-interest; it draws from and drives forward a distinctly moral vision of freedom, with deep roots in American political thought.

The secret of conservatism’s success—as any reading of Reagan’s speeches and writings will attest—has been to locate this notion of freedom in the market. Conservative political economy envisions freedom as something more than a simple “don’t tread on me”; it celebrates the everyman entrepreneur, making his own destiny, imagining a world and then creating it.

We must confront this ideology head-on: not by temporizing about the riskiness or instability of the free market or by demonstrating that it (or its Republican stewards) cannot deliver growth but by mobilizing the most potent resource of the American vernacular against it. We must develop an argument that the market is a source of constraint and government an instrument of freedom. Without a strong government hand in the economy, men and women are at the mercy of their employer, who has the power to determine not only their wages, benefits and hours but also their lives and those of their families, on and off the job.

Armed with universal healthcare, unemployment benefits, public pensions and the like, I am less vulnerable to the coercions and castigations of an employer or partner. Not only do I have the option of leaving an oppressive situation; I can confront and change it—for and by myself, for and with others. I am emboldened not to avoid risks but to take risks: to talk back and walk out, to engage in what John Stuart Mill called, in one of his lovelier phrases, “experiments in living.”

George Lakoff writes New York Times best sellers, teaches at Berkeley, is a big-time political consultant who advises presidential campaigns, and judging by his speaker’s bureau page and press profile, gets gazillions of dollars just to talk to people. And to write stuff like this.

What am I doing wrong?

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