Archive | November, 2011

The Occupy Crackdowns: Why Naomi Wolf Got It Wrong

27 Nov

On Friday, Naomi Wolf made the attention-grabbing accusation in the Guardian that federal officials were involved in, indeed ordered, the violent crackdowns against Occupy Wall Street protesters that we’ve been seeing across the country these past few weeks.

Congressional overseers, with the blessing of the White House, told the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] to authorise mayors to order their police forces – pumped up with millions of dollars of hardware and training from the DHS – to make war on peaceful citizens.

The next day, Joshua Holland debunked Wolf’s claims on Alternet.

I don’t have anything to add to Holland’s excellent critique. Wolf gets her facts wrong, and he shows it.

To my mind, though, the problem is bigger than that:  The reason Wolf gets her facts wrong is that she’s got her theory wrong. And though many were quick to jump off her conspiracy bandwagon once Holland pointed out its flaws, I suspect that one of the reasons they were so quick to jump on it in the first place is that they subscribe to her theory.

Like many critics of state coercion in America, Wolf seems to assume that political repression requires or entails national coordination and centralized direction from the feds. But as I argued in this piece in the Boston Review in 2005, and in a much longer piece in the Missouri Law Review [pdf], that notion gets it wrong.

From the battles over abolition to the labor wars at the turn of the last century to the Red Squads of the twentieth-century police departments to the struggles over Jim Crow, state repression in America has often been decentralized, displaying that very same can-do spirit of local initiative that has been celebrated by everyone from Alexis de Tocqueville to Robert Putnam. Though Tocqueville and Putnam were talking of course about things like creating churches and buildings roads, the fact is: if the locals can build a church or a road on their own, they can also get rid of dissenters on their own, too, no?

Even where there has been coordination and direction from above, as in the epic cases of the Red Scare, McCarthyism, COINTELPRO, or now the War on Terror, what’s been most striking is how local police and officials have managed to manipulate that federal involvement to their own ends. As I wrote in the Boston Review:

What history demonstrates is that police officers often use their powers, with or without federal prompting, as instruments of larger political purpose. The danger of cooperation between federal agencies and local police is not that the former will conscript the latter into repressive programs the latter would not otherwise pursue, but that it allows the police to apply the legitimizing gloss of national security to their own pet projects of repression. During the McCarthy era, for example, southern politicians and law-enforcement officers used the language of anti-communism to outlaw the NAACP and to arrest and indict civil-rights leaders for sedition. In the Denver case already mentioned, the police used the rubric of domestic security to keep track of not only the groups cited above but also a local organization working against police brutality in the city. This past summer, during the Republican Party convention in New York City, the NYPD preemptively arrested more than 1,500 protesters—some of them obstreperous, virtually all of them nonviolent—as well as innocent bystanders. How did the mayor justify the arrest and prolonged detainment of these individuals? By drawing parallels, according to The New York Times, “between verbally abusive demonstrators and the Sept. 11 terrorists.”

… if all politics is local in the United States, as Tip O’Neill reminded us, it stands to reason that a good deal of the political repression is as well.

It’s not surprising that faced with the crackdown of OWS protests, Wolf would immediately turn to a theory of national, centralized repression. It’s part of our national DNA, on the left and the right, to assume that tyranny works that way. We’ve inherited a theory that holds, in the words of the Yale constitutional law scholar Akhil Reed Amar, that “liberty and localism work together.” Nothing, as Holland so ably if inadvertently demonstrates in his demolition of Wolf, could be further from the truth.

Update (11/29, 11 am)

This post has been getting a lot of attention, both support and push-back. There’s much interesting discussion in the comments thread here (see below).  It’s gotten warm endorsements from Lawyers, Guns, and Money and The Economist, which ran two blog posts, one of them from Will Wilkinson, with whom we’ve tangled and talked before. The Guardian did a round-up of responses to the Wolf piece, and included it there.  3 Quarks Daily picked it up.  And Al Jazeera English ran a longer version of it.  And if you’re on Twitter, there’s a lot of back and forth there as well.

Shop Talk with John Podhoretz

17 Nov

While the shit was hitting the fan at Occupy Wall Street this morning, with reporters getting beaten and writers like Keith Gessen and Sarah Leonard getting arrested, I was fighting the small fight with John Podhoretz, son of Norman, on Twitter.  (D.G Myers, who kicked the whole thing off, is a blogger at Commentary.)

  1. @OccupyWriters—getting arrested for career advancement! RT @jpodhoretz: @alorentzen @nplusonemag I smell GQ first-person article!
    November 17, 2011 12:21:21 PM EST
  2. @myers_dg @OccupyWriters @jpodhoretz @alorentzen @nplusonemag There are less honorable paths to career advancement. Nepotism comes to mind.
    November 17, 2011 1:32:09 PM EST
  3. @CoreyRobin How’s your book doing? Violently well?
    November 17, 2011 1:43:28 PM EST
  4. @jpodhoretz It’s doing fine. Very kind of you to ask.
    November 17, 2011 1:44:30 PM EST
  5. @CoreyRobin May you be blessed with readers as profoundly deep as you.
    November 17, 2011 1:45:31 PM EST
  6. @jpodhoretz The book should be right up your alley then. I’ll put one in the mail to you right away.
    November 17, 2011 2:04:22 PM EST
  7. @CoreyRobin Oh, I had it. I sent it to someone to review, but unfortunately, he thought it…unworthy of serious discussion!
    November 17, 2011 2:05:54 PM EST
  8. @jpodhoretz “Unworthy of serious discussion.” Which is why he declined to review it for Commentary.
    November 17, 2011 2:16:51 PM EST
  9. @CoreyRobin It’s OK. He’s just a terrorist anyway.
    November 17, 2011 2:18:18 PM EST

More News of the Book

15 Nov

Our last update of news about the book was October 26. Seemed like it was time for another one. As they say on Glee, here’s what you missed.


Alan Wolfe had this to say in The New Republic:

I confess to being one of those who likes to divide conservatives into their parts as opposed to treating them as a whole. Robin makes a vigorous case that I am wrong, and I am tempted by his analysis….Robin is an engaging writer, and just the kind of broad-ranging public intellectual all too often missing in academic political science.

Now I too can invoke that hoary cliche “even The New Republic,” albeit to different purposes.

John Kampfner was less enthusiastic in The Guardian/Observer. Connor Kilpatrick was more enthusiastic—very enthusiastic, in fact—in The Exiled (also check out the many comments his review sparked). The Brooklyn Rail was mixed. And National Review contributing editor John Derbyshire, as you all know, said that if he and I were stranded on a desert island, he’d kill himself. All that and more at The American Conservative.


It seems as if I’ve spent the last month of my life giving interviews or engaging in on-line dialogues about the book.  It’s been exhilarating—and exhausting. If I haven’t replied to an email or to a comment on the blog, that’s why. I can barely type another word! But I’ll try to get back to you. In the meantime…

I had a lovely and intelligent conversation with Guy Rathbun, who does interviews out of California that get syndicated on NPR.  Really interesting conversation, excellent questions.

Amanda Marcotte, the take-no-shit feminist blogger, and I talked conservatism and reproductive rights the day before Mississippians voted down the personhood amendment. It was great for me to get to talk through a set of issues that come up in my book but that don’t get a lot of traction in the reviews and commentary. My wife was more taken with Amanda’s post-punk soundtrack.

Jeff Schechtman of KVON in Northern California interviewed me.

Tom Mills, of the New Left Project in Britain, and I had a lengthy phone interview which got written up and posted in two parts.

I think I posted this one earlier, but Daniel Larison, an extraordinarily thoughtful conservative, and I had a several-weeks-long email exchange, which got reprinted at The New Inquiry. It prompted much intelligent comment, a lot from the right, and this from a U.S. News and World Report blog.

And last but not least, here’s a link where you can watch the entire conversation between me and conservative journalist S.E. Cupp that was aired on Book-TV/C-SPAN2 this past weekend. And if you want to catch it on TV one last time, it will be rebroadcast on Sunday, November 20, at 4 pm, EST.


In the last few weeks, Al Jazeera English has been publishing some of my blog posts. It’s been thrilling to see these posts and arguments disseminated to a much broader audience.  Two have already been published; three more are to come. Even if you read them already, you should check them out over there just for the commentary they prompt.

Update (7 pm)

I forgot to mention there was an excellent letter from Penny Lewis in the New York Times Book Review, responding to the Times review.

I’ll be on C-SPAN this weekend

11 Nov

Just a quick heads-up to say that I’m going to be on Book-TV/C-SPAN 2 this weekend.  S.E. Cupp, who’s a conservative journalist and television commentator, interviews me about The Reactionary Mind. Unlike many interviewers, Cupp actually read the book (I saw all the yellow post-it’s on her copy). And we have a fun Marshall McLuhan/Annie Hall moment, in which Cupp emails Phyllis Schlafly to ask her what she thinks about my argument about Schlafly; the grande dame of the right replies!  The show will be broadcast four times:

Saturday, November 12, 10 pm

Sunday, November 13, 9 pm

Monday, November 14, 2 am

Monday, November 14, 3 am

Check it out and let me know what you think.  In the meantime…


Whenever I read a professional Chomsky-basher…

9 Nov

Whenever I read the work of a professional Chomsky-basher*—you know, the person whose passport to mainstream respectability is stamped with a Chomsky-is-the-most-dastardly-person-on-the-face-of-the-earth visa—or someone who attacks anarchists or leftists in order to maintain his or her liberal street cred, I’m reminded of this passage from Hannah Arendt:

In the following chapter, Karl Marx will be criticized. This is unfortunate at a time when so many writers who once made their living by explicit or tacit borrowing from the great wealth of Marxian ideas and insights have decided to become professional anti-Marxists, in the process of which one of them even discovered that Karl Marx himself was unable to make a living, forgetting for the moment the generations of authors whom he has ‘supported.’ In this difficulty, I may recall a statement Benjamin Constant made when he felt compelled to attack Rousseau:…”Certainly, I shall avoid the company of detractors of a great man. If I happen to agree with them on a single point I grow suspicious of myself; and in order to console myself for having seemed to be of their opinion…I feel I must disavow and keep these false friends away from me as much as I can.”

* This is by no means the most egregious case of what I’m talking about, but in March 2005, The American Prospect ran a cover with the title “Between Chomsky and Cheney.” As if the man who brought us the Iraq War and the man who opposed it were equivalent evils.

When the Right Hand Doesn’t Know What the Right Hand is Doing

3 Nov

So the editors at The American Conservative have finally decided to liberate that review of my book from their firewall.  You’ll recall that the reviewer—John Derbyshire, who’s a contributing editor at National Review—didn’t like the book at all.  But here’s one concession he does make to it:

On the positive side, The Reactionary Mind at least does not snarl or sputter. It is a thoughtful, even-tempered sort of book. The old maid tendency that dominates liberal polemic in the U.S.—the shrieking, clutching at skirts, and jumping up on kitchen chairs that one gets from a Joe Nocera, a Maureen Dowd, or a Keith Olbermann—is quite absent. For this relief much thanks. Nor is the book as immaculately humor-free as most leftist productions….

…he really seems to harbor very little malice.

Now here’s how the editors at The American Conservative summarize the review on the front page of their website:

John Derbyshire slogs through Corey Robin’s liberal polemic.

Now I know I’ve complained a bit about reviewers not reading my book. But editors not reading the reviews they run in their pages? That’s a new one to me.

Update (4 pm)

Alan Koenig, who is a grad student of mine—and a far closer reader of texts than I—points out that in his last graf, Derbyshire does call The Reactionary Mind a “book of early 21st-century American liberal polemic.” So perhaps Derbyshire doesn’t read his own prose either? Or am I just under the sway of a peculiar definition of polemic?

From the American Slaveholders to the Nazis…

3 Nov

From my dialogue with Daniel Larison over at The New Inquiry:

In the American context, there is a precedent for the conservative rush to empire, which you suggest is mostly a creation of the Cold War. And that is the slaveholders. But the slaveholders developed a fascinating vision of an imperial political economy, which would be centered around the Mississippi and spread out from there to the Caribbean Basin and beyond. It would be centered on slave labor, and it was thought to be a different kind of imperialism.

And though I’ve never seen anyone discuss this, it strikes me that there are fascinating parallels to be drawn between their vision of a slave empire, based on land, and the Nazis’ vision of an empire in the East, which was also to be based on land. People often forget that Hitler had a major critique of European imperialism in that it was extraterritorial and commercial in its orientation, whereas he wanted an empire that was contiguous territorially and based on slave labor and agriculture.


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