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?

Of Collaborators and Careerists

17 Oct

The announcement of the death of David Greenglass has got me thinking a lot about collaborators. Though much of twentieth-century history could not be written without some discussion of collaborators—from Vichy to Stalinism to the Dirty Wars to McCarthyism—the topic hardly gets a mention in the great texts of political theory. Eichmann in Jerusalem being the sole exception.

In my first book on fear, I tried to open a preliminary discussion of the topic. That discussion drew from a wide range of twentieth-century experiences, in Europe, Latin America, the US, and elsewhere, as well as from my reading of Eichmann and Montesquieu’s Persian Letters.

Reading over what I wrote, I’d say I failed. I was so intent on breaking apart the conventional understanding of the collaborator as someone who aids and abets a foreign enemy that I wound up broadening the category too much. So intent was I, also, on breaking apart the three-legged stool of perpetrator-victim-bystander—where was the collaborator in all this, I wondered—that I wound up conflating low-level perpetrators with collaborators; I now think there’s an important difference there.

That said, I thought I’d reprint my discussion here. As I said, political theorists have yet to grapple with the problem of collaboration. Or of careerism, which is a related topic. One day, when I’m in my dotage, I’d like to write a book, a kind of political theory of careerism and collaboration. Arendt thought we should take our theoretical cues from actual political experience; political theory was first and foremost an attempt to understand what we are doing. That’s why she wrote books and essays on totalitarianism, revolution, action, and other political phenomena. But when it comes to careerism and collaboration, we have yet to understand what we are doing. So here goes.

 • • • • • 

By conventional understanding, a collaborator is one who assists an enemy, helping groups to which he does not belong threaten groups to which he does belong. (1) But this definition, it seems to me, is too restrictive. It presumes that a group is a discrete whole, that once in it, we can’t get out of it or have competing affiliations.

Collaborators, however, cannot be so neatly bound. Some do not entirely belong to the group they betray; others, like the French fascists of Vichy, have a deep affinity for the enemy they aid. Informers are perhaps the most common kind of collaborator, but they are notorious chameleons, making it virtually impossible to pin down their affiliations at all.

Knud Wollenberger, an East German dissident who secretly kept the Stasi apprised of his wife’s subversive activities, claims that his collaboration was entirely consistent with his membership in the couple’s oppositional circle. One way to challenge the government, he explains, was “through open dissidence, and the other way [was] through government channels. I was on the inside and the outside at the same time.” (2)

Harvey Matusow joined the American Communist Party in 1947, began informing on it in 1950, recanted his testimony in 1954, and then lied about all three phases of his career in his memoir False Witness, published in 1955. So promiscuous were Matusow’s politics, it is impossible to know what he had been false to, except the truth. The title of another FBI informant’s memoir—I Led Three Lives (as Communist, informer, and “citizen”)—was more apt, suggesting the multiple identities the collaborator regularly assumes. (3)

I don’t wish to carry this notion of multiple affiliations too far. Wollenberger could very well be rationalizing a past of which he is ashamed, and Matusow may simply be the hollow man many at the time suspected him to be. Whether we belong to one group or another in some existential sense, in the course of our lives we do incur moral obligations to our comrades and friends, whom we betray when we aid our opponents.

But to avoid the question of identity that restrictive definitions of collaboration entail, I will use the definition contained in the word’s Latin root collaborare: “to work together.” By collaborator, I simply mean those men and women who work with elites and who occupy the lower tiers of power and make political fear a genuinely civic enterprise.

Collaborators may be low- or mid-level perpetrators; suppliers, like the warehouse in Jedwabne, Poland, which provided the kerosene local residents used in 1941 to burn a barn containing 1,500 Jews, or Ford and General Motors, which funded a Brazilian security outfit that interrogated and tortured leftists; attendants (cooks, secretaries, and other supporting staff); or spies and informers. (4) Though all are not equally compromised by their deeds, each is guilty of complicity.

The collaborator is an elusive figure. With the exception of The Persian Letters and Eichmann in Jerusalem, he seldom makes an appearance in the literature of political fear. One of the reasons for his absence, I suspect, is that he confounds our simple categories of elite and victim. Like the elite, the collaborator takes initiative and receives benefits from his collaboration. Like the victim, he may be threatened with punishment or retribution if he does not cooperate. Many collaborators, in fact, are drawn directly from the ranks of the victims.

Perhaps then we can distinguish between collaborators of aspiration, inspired by a desire for gain, and collaborators of aversion, inspired by a fear of loss. The first are akin to elites, the second to victims. But even that distinction is too neat. Elites also fear loss, and victims hope for gain, and as the economist’s notion of opportunity costs attests, the hope of gain often informs the fear of loss. (5)

Collaborators serve two functions. First, they perform tasks that elites themselves cannot or will not perform. These tasks may be considered beneath the dignity of the elite: cooking, cleaning, or other forms of work. They may require local knowledge—as in the case of informers, who provide information elites cannot access on their own—or specialized skills.

We often think of torturers, for example, as thugs from the dregs of society. But torture is a weapon of knowledge, designed to extract information from the victim, often without leaving a physical trace. The torturer must know the body, how far he can go without killing the victim. Who better to assist or direct the torturer than a doctor? Thus, 70 percent of Uruguayan political prisoners under that country’s military regime claim that a doctor sat in on their torture sessions. (6)

Second, collaborators extend the reach of elites into corners of society that elites lack the manpower to patrol. These collaborators are usually figures of influence within communities targeted by elites. Their status may come from the elite, who elevate them because they are willing to enforce the elite’s directives. (7)

More often, their authority is indigenous. Figures of trust among the victims, they can be relied upon to persuade the victims not to resist, to compound the fear of disobedience the victims already feel.

During its war against leftist guerillas in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Salvadoran army worked closely with such indigenous leaders. In 1982, a battalion officer informed Marcos Díaz, owner of the general store in the hamlet of El Mozote, with friends in the military, that the army was planning a major offensive in the region. To ensure their safety, the officer explained, the townspeople should remain in the village. Though many in El Mozote thought such advice unsound, Díaz was the local potentate who knew the army’s ways. His voice held sway, the villagers did as they were told, and three days later, some eight hundred of them were dead. (8)

Because their functions are so various, collaborators come in all shapes and sizes. Some travel in or near the orbit of elite power; others are drawn from the lower orders and geographic peripheries.

One common, though unappreciated, influence upon their actions is their ambition. While some collaborators hope to stave off threats to their communities and others are true believers (9), many are careerists, who see in collaboration a path of personal advance. In Brazil, for example, torture was a stepping stone, turning one man into the ambassador to Paraguay and another into a general, while doctors advising the torturers in Uruguay could draw salaries four times as high as those of doctors who did not. (10)

Whether the payment is status, power, or money, collaboration promises to elevate men and women, if only slightly, above the fray. Nazi Germany’s Reserve Police Battalion 101, for example, was a unit of five hundred “ordinary men,” drawn from the lower middle and working classes of Hamburg, who joined the battalion because it got them out of military service on the front. All told, they were responsible for executing 38,000 Polish Jews and deporting some 45,000 others to Treblinka.

Why did they do it?

Not because of any fear of punishment. No one in the 101 faced penalties—certainly not death—for not carrying out their mission. The unit’s commander even informed his men that they could opt out of the killing, which 10 to 15 of them did. Why did the remaining 490 or so stay?

According to Christopher Browning, there were different reasons, including anti-Semitism and peer pressure, but a critical one was their desire for advance. Of those who refused to kill Jews, in fact, the most forthright emphasized their lack of career ambitions. One explained that “it was not particularly important to me to be promoted or otherwise to advance. . . . The company chiefs . . . on the other hand were young men and career policemen who wanted to become something.” Another said, “Because I was not a career policeman and also did not want to become one . . . it was of no consequence that my police career would not prosper.” (11)

Though ambitious collaborators like to believe that they are adepts of realpolitik, walking the hard path of power because it is the wisest course to take, their realism is freighted with ideology. Careerism has its own moralism, serving as an anesthetic against competing moral claims. Particularly in the United States, where ambition is a civic duty and worldly success a prerequisite of citizenship, enlightened anglers of their own interest can easily be convinced that they are doing not only the smart thing, but also the right thing. They happily admit to their careerism because they presume an audience of shared moral sympathy. How else can we understand this comment of director Elia Kazan in response to a colleague’s request that he justify his decision to name names? “All right, I earned over $400,000 last year from theater. But Skouras [the head of Twentieth-Century Fox] says I’ll never make another movie. You’ve spent your money, haven’t you? It’s easy for you. But I’ve got a stake.” (12)


(1) According to Jan Gross, the word “collaboration” first took on this negative connotation—as opposed to the more neutral notion of two parties working together—with the Nazi invasion of France, whereupon it was used to refer to natives of occupied countries who colluded with the Germans. Jan Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 5, 205-6.

(2) Tina Rosenberg, The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism (New York: Vintage, 1995), xiii.

(3) Herbert A. Philbrick, I Led Three Lives: Citizen, ‘Communist,’ Counterspy (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1952); Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Boston: Little Brown, 1998), 310-13, 344-349.

(4) Gross, 97-100; Lawrence Weschler, A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, 1998), 44.

(5) Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope (New York: Modern Library, 1970, 1999), 42; Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958), 19.

(6) Weschler, 126.

(7) Levi, 33.

(8) Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War (New York: Vintage, 1993), 17, 20, 23, 50, 59.

(9) Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 77-82; Victor Navasky, Naming Names (New York: Penguin, 1980, 1991), 3-69; Gross, 37-40, 60-62, 65, 91, 123-125; Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: HarperCollins, 1992, 1998), 162, 177, 180, 196-200, 202.

(10) Weschler, 76, 127.

(11) Browning, 1-2, 55-77, 169-170; Bauer, 37.

(12) Stefan Kanfer, A Journal of the Plague Years: A Devastating Chronicle of the Blacklist (New York: Atheneum, 1973), 173. Even if Kazan had refused to testify and been penalized by Hollywood, he undoubtedly could have had a thriving career as a Broadway director—a point he affirmed before his death. Bernard Weinraub, “Book Reveals Kazan’s Thoughts on Naming Names,” New York Times (March 4, 1999), E1.

Princeton Hillel Ponders Barring Princeton Professor from Speaking at Event on His Own Campus

16 Oct

A PR flack for the Israeli government at Princeton’s Center for Jewish life is thinking of barring a Jewish professor of history at Princeton from speaking at Princeton’s Hillel. Because that professor has the wrong position on Israel.

Inside Higher Ed reports:

As one of the student organizers, Kyle Dhillon, the president of the Princeton Committee on Palestine, explained it, his group and two others – Tigers for Israel and J Street U Princeton – got together at the end of the summer to organize a panel on the Gaza conflict. They planned to invite Princeton professors – including Max Weiss, an associate professor of history and Near Eastern Studies – and they decided to seek co-sponsorship from the university’s Center for Jewish Life, an affiliate of Hillel International.

The center could provide funds and space, Dhillon said, and also lend the event greater legitimacy. “It wouldn’t be a student-only event; it would also have some university weight behind it.”

But Weiss’s inclusion as a potential speaker proved a problem. In a Sept. 8 email to the student organizers, a redacted version of which was provided to Inside Higher Ed, Slav Leibin, a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to Hillel, wrote, “I would like to bring to your attention that Max Weiss has recently signed a public statement supporting boycott of Israel. This issue complicates the program for us, as it is Highly sensitive for a CJL [group] to sponsor a program with a speaker who made a statement like this, which is one of the red lines in our Israel policy.”

“Let’s deliberate about this issue in more depth before sending an official invitation,” Leibin’s email continued.

Hillel International’s guidelines for campus-based Israel activities prohibit the organization from partnering with or hosting individuals or groups that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, that deny “the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders” and that otherwise “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel.” Weiss is among the signatories of an August letter from Middle East studies scholars calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

“When I got word of this about a month later on Oct. 7, I was saddened and concerned to learn that campus life and the exercise of free speech here on campus at Princeton were in fact being policed, monitored and determined in the final analysis by non-academic members of the Princeton community, indeed someone who is here at Princeton with a specifically political and to a lesser extent cultural mandate,” said Weiss, who penned an op-ed titled “Is the Center for Jewish Life stifling free speech on campus?” that was just published in The Daily Princetonian.

Weiss noted in the op-ed that Leibin is on Princeton’s campus through a partnership between Hillel and the Jewish Agency for Israel, a nonprofit organization: “Although technically autonomous, the JA effectively operates as an advocate for the government of Israel,” Weiss wrote. “For someone representing the JA to bar a member of the Princeton faculty from sharing his or her expertise and perspectives is no more acceptable than it would be for an envoy of the Chinese, Canadian or any other government to do the same.”

According to Hillel’s website, the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows “are charismatic young professionals who have served in the Israel Defense Forces. In their roles on campus, they share personal experiences of modern Israel through the lens of its socially progressive values and its accomplishments in technology, life sciences, and the arts.”

Waiting for all those historians and scholars who were so exercised by the ASA boycott, which would have barred not a single historian from Israel from speaking on an American campus, to raise a fuss about this.

David Greenglass, 1922-2014

14 Oct

David Greenglass has died. Actually, he died over the summer. He was 92.

In the Book of Daniel, there’s an Aramaic phrase for an informer: Akhal Kurtza. Its literal translation is “to eat the flesh of someone else.”

By his own admission, David Greenglass made up testimony that sent his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the electric chair. David Greenglass was worse than an informer.

Update (9:30 pm)

In 2001, Greenglass was interviewed by Bob Simon for 60 Minutes. Here’s a brief account of part of that interview.

Why did think Julius and Ethel maintain their silence to the end? Greenglass has an answer: “One word: stupidity. My sister was not very smart about what she did. She should’ve confessed.”

But many saw the Rosenbergs as martyrs. There was great sympathy for Michael and Robert, their two young sons, orphaned by their own uncle.

Greenglass hasn’t seen the Rosenberg children since the trial. What would he say to them today? “I would say I’m sorry that your parents are dead. You’re basically the real victims of those, of the attitude of the people the time of their deaths.”

He would not apologize for his role. “I can’t say that,” he says. “That’s not true. I had no idea they’re gonna give them the death sentence.”

Greenglass says he had affection for his sister, and still does. “I do. I’m sorry, very sorry, that she made such a very bad decision,” he says, laughing. “She should have said “I did’t, I wasn’t a spy, but I, I heard my husband say it.’ That would have been fine.” He holds Ethel responsible for her own death.

At the trial, the Rosenbergs’ lawyer said in his closing remarks, “You may remember this: ‘Any man who will testify against his own flesh and blood, his own sister, is repulsive, revolting.'”

Greenglass is unfazed by this quote. He says he has a clean conscience: “I sleep very well.” He has never visited his sister’s grave, but admits that he has been haunted by his experience 50 years ago. “To some degree, yeah. But every time I’m haunted by it, or say something, my wife says ‘Look, we’re still alive. We have our kids. Everything’s OK.'”

There’s got to be a better way to prep for class

13 Oct

There’s got to be a better way to prep for class. First I read the assigned text, taking notes while I’m reading either in the back of the book or, when space runs out, in a little pocket notebook that I carry. Then I read through those notes, highlighting specific passages or commentary that might be potentially relevant for lecture and discussion. Then I re-type some (hopefully more coherent) version of those highlighted notes in a Word file, organizing them in some kind of thematic fashion or outline. (Sometimes, I divide that step up into two steps: first, I retype all the highlighted notes in a Word file; then I organize those notes into outline form in a new Word file.) Once I have some basic sense of the themes I’ll be talking about and the passages I want to focus on, I prepare my lecture (whether it’s a grad seminar or undergrad class, I do a combination of lecture and discussion). All the while I’m doing some secondary reading to help me figure out what is going on in or around the text. There’s got to be a better way to prep for class.


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