Archive | December, 2011

I’m going to be on TV

30 Dec

I’m going to be on “Up With Chris Hayes” (MSNBC) this Sunday, between 9 and 10 am (EST).  Talking with Chris about The Reactionary Mind, the GOP campaign, and more. Yes, that’s 9 am on New Year’s Day.

Fight Club, or That’s the Year That Was

26 Dec

I only began blogging in June. But because so many of my readers are new to the blog and we’re approaching the end of the year, I thought it might be fun to review some of the blog’s greatest hits.

Traffic to the blog has been growing steadily every month, with the blog on some days getting nearly 6,000 hits. My two most popular posts, by far, were this roundtable on the Obama presidency from August and my recent take on Christopher Hitchens.  My personal favorite, which hasn’t generated nearly as much traffic, was this discussion of Ross Douthat’s views on sex.

In general, though, what seems to generate the most traffic are the periodic arguments I get into with various other bloggers. The debates can be divided into roughly three topics:

Capitalism and the State

The first big debate I got into was with Matt Yglesias about economic policy and the limits of neoliberalism. That series of exchanges wound up provoking one of the summer’s biggest arguments among liberal left bloggers. But it has remained an abiding theme of this blog, generating some further arguments with people like Will Wilkinson and friendly exchanges with friends like Mike Konczal.

Social Movements and the State

Obviously, questions of neoliberalism cannot be separated from the state. But on this blog, we’ve had a separate set of arguments with bloggers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Adam Serwer, on the one end, as well as writers like Naomi Wolf, on the other, about the nature of the American state, the sources of its coerciveness, its potential as a transformative agent, and the limits and possibilities of progressive change.

Conservatism and the Right

Given my scholarly interests and the topic of my recent book, it’s not surprising that I’ve written a lot about the right. What is surprising, at least to me, is that through the blog, I’ve managed to engage quite a few prominent voices on the right. Andrew Sullivan has been a frequent interlocutor. More recently, I’ve mixed it up with Bruce Bartlett. Sometimes, my exchanges with the right have been edifying; other times, not so much. I’ve disagreed with critics of my views on the right. I’ve talked about Anne Coulter, Sam’s Club Republicanism, Ross Douthat (again), and the relationship between the American slaveholders and European fascism.

Oh, and there was this little disagreement—and this one—with Melissa Harris-Perry.

And I won a nice prize.

And that’s pretty much the year that was. Look forward to more discussion with all of you in the new year.

Reactionary Minds

20 Dec

The Masters of the Universe don’t take kindly to the accusations of Occupy Wall Street, and they’re fighting back. Here are some verbatim quotes from the transcripts of their own defense, which toggles between a haughty contempt for the lower orders and a genuine, self-pitying sense of persecution.  Gee, if only someone would write a book explaining this…

“Who gives a crap about some imbecile? Are you kidding me?” Bernard Marcus, co-founder, Home Depot

“Acting like everyone who’s been successful is bad and because you’re rich you’re bad, I don’t understand it.” Jamie Dimon, CEO, JP Morgan Chase

“Instead of an attack on the 1 percent, let’s call it an attack on the very productive.” John A. Allison IV, BB&T

“If I hear a politician use the term ‘paying your fair share’ one more time, I’m going to vomit.” Tom Golisano, founder, Paychex Inc.

My taxes are “more than a medieval lord would have taken from a serf.” Peter Schiff, CEO, Euro Pacific Capital

“I am a fat cat, I’m not ashamed.” Ken Langone, co-founder, Home Depot

“You’ll get more out of me if you treat me with respect.”Leon Cooperman, chair, Omega Advisors

My Blog Wins 3rd Prize

19 Dec

Charm Quark3 Quarks Daily, one of the classiest outfits on the internet, has awarded me 3rd Prize  in its annual competition for “the best blog writing in politics & social science.” Harvard professor Stephen Walt, a formidable blogger in his own right and a model to younger academics like myself, was the judge. This is the post that won me 3rd Prize, which is officially called “Charm Quark.”  And this is what Walt had to say about it:

Why are today’s so-called “conservatives” so enamored of far-reaching social and political transformations, not to mention costly and ill-fated efforts to export “liberty” at the barrel of a gun?  Far from being traitors to true conservatism, Robin argues that today’s conservative radicals are drawing upon a tradition of discourse dating back to Edmund Burke’s fear that established orders cannot generate the passion and commitment needed to vanquish revolutionary movements.  To defeat Jacobinism and its various revolutionary successors, in short, die-hard “conservatives” have to fight fire with fire.  And from these deep roots arises a “conservatism” that takes no prisoners and leaves few traditions unscathed.  It is the “conservatism” of NSC-68 (which told Cold Warriors not to shrink “from any means, overt or covert, that could frustrate the Kremlin’s design”), of the Patriot Act, and of today’s drone wars and targeted killings. It takes real imagination to help us see Burke afresh, and Robin provides it here.

Having only begun to blog in June of this year—here’s my first post—I can’t tell you how thrilled and honored I am by this award.

My warmest congratulations to Kenan Malik and David Graeber, who won 1st (“Top Quark”) and 2nd (“Strange Quark”) Prize, respectively. I’m very pleased to be in such company.

“Yes, but”: More on Hitchens and Hagiography

18 Dec

Reading more of the commentary on Christopher Hitchens’s death—and the reaction to those of us disinclined to join the hagiography—I’m struck by a consistent line I hear from some of his admirers and followers: “Yes, he was wrong on Iraq, but…”  And then any one of a number of claims follow: he was a brilliant raconteur, a steadfast opponent of authoritarianism, a lovely stylist, a sensitive critic, a hilarious polemicist, a bon vivant, a loving and lovable mentor to younger journalists, a loving and lovable friend, and so on.

I want to focus on that “Yes, he was wrong on Iraq, but.”

First, Hitchens wasn’t just wrong on Iraq; he was wrong on the war on terror. As soon as 9/11 happened, Hitchens saw in the limited counter-terrorism effort against Al Qaeda a civilizational war against “Islamofascism.” The mere fact that I use the word “effort” is the kind of thing that would have sent him—and for a time, a great many others—into a rage. But in the end, that’s all the war on terror is—increasingly, was—and it is to his (though not only his) lasting shame that he ever saw, and longed to see, more in it than that.

Second, the problem isn’t just that Hitchens was wrong on Iraq and the war on terror; it’s how he was wrong.  As I showed in my previous post, Hitchens’s words betrayed—actually, since he made no secret of it, displayed seems the more appropriate word—a cruelty and bloodlust, a thrill for violence and apocalyptic confrontation, an almost sociopathic indifference to the victims of that violence and confrontation, that are disturbing and frightening. What’s more, he included these feelings among his reasons for wanting to fight the war on terror.

Some might consider such confessions honest and brave. They are not. What’s honest and brave is to acknowledge these feelings in oneself and to seek to curb their influence on one’s reasoning.  Not celebrating them, in the vein of politicians and propagandists in 1914 who sent men to die in vain. Hitchens’s is not the voice of the Enlightenment; it’s the voice of the men who brought that dream to an end, when they welcomed the bloodbath of the First World War as a relief from the tedium and boredom they had evidently been suffering from throughout the long nineteenth century.

Last, that people can so quickly pivot from Hitchens’s position on the war to his other virtues—and nothing in this or my previous post should be construed as a denial of at least some of those virtues—tells us something about the culture he helped create and has left behind. It’s a culture that has developed far too easy a conscience about, and sleeps too soundly amid, the facts of war.

Had Hitchens been wrong about the Soviet Union, say, in the way he was wrong about Iraq, there’d be no forgiveness, no loving memories of late-night drinks and dinners. That’s not merely because the Soviet Union was the enemy of the United States or a murderous tyranny or because Iraq was an American war. It’s because we have come to a point in our culture where war is viewed as a neutral tool of state or an instrument of national salvation and human progress—and, in either case, as something that simply does not touch “us” in its concrete facts of blood and death. Us being the people who are not the victims of our wars and the men and women who are not required to fight those wars.

I said in my previous post that Hitchens was not an internationalist but a narcissist. Reading the commentary since his death, it’s become clear to me that he had plenty of company.

Christopher Hitchens: The Most Provincial Spirit of All

16 Dec

On the announcement of his death, I think it’s fair to allow Christopher Hitchens to do the things he loved to do most.

Speak for himself:

[On the use of cluster bombs by the US in Afghanistan] If you’re actually certain that you’re hitting only a concentration of enemy troops…then it’s pretty good because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they’re bearing a Koran over their heart, it’ll go straight through that, too. So they won’t be able to say, “Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.” No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words.

Speak about himself:

I should perhaps confess that on September 11 last, once I had experienced all the usual mammalian gamut of emotions, from rage to nausea, I also discovered that another sensation was contending for mastery. On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy–theocratic barbarism–in plain view….I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.

Hitchens had a reputation for being an internationalist. Yet someone who gets excited by mass murder—and then invokes that excitement, to a waiting audience, as an explanation of his support for mass murder—is not an internationalist.  He is a narcissist, the most provincial spirit of all.

Only a writer of Hitchens’s talents could do justice to the culture that now so shamefully mourns him.

Update (11:45 am)

Many seem to view Hitchens’s undeniable talent as a writer as a mitigating factor in their assessment of his legacy. Such arguments have a long history. On this question, I take my cues from one of our finest critics:

The simple yet appalling fact is that we have very little solid evidence that literary studies do very much to enrich or stabilize moral perception, that they humanize. We have little proof that a tradition of literary studies in fact makes a man more humane. What is worse — a certain body of evidence points the other way. When barbarism came to twentieth-century Europe, the arts faculties in more than one university offered very little moral resistance, and this is not a trivial or local accident. In a disturbing number of cases the literary imagination gave servile or ecstatic welcome to political bestiality. That bestiality was at times enforced and refined by individuals educated in the culture of traditional humanism. Knowledge of Goethe, a delight in the poetry of Rilke, seemed no bar to personal and institutionalized sadism. Literary values and the most utmost of hideous inhumanity could coexist in the same community, in the same individual sensibility….

…I find myself unable to assert confidently that the humanities humanize. Indeed, I would go further: it is at least conceivable that the focusing of consciousness on a written text which is the substance of our training and pursuit diminishes the sharpness and readiness of our actual moral response. Because we are trained to give psychological and moral credence to the imaginary, to the character in a play or a novel, to the condition of spirit we gather from a poem, we may find it more difficult to identify with the real world, to take the world of actual experience to heart…The capacity for imaginative reflex, for moral risk in any human being is not limitless; on the contrary, it can be rapidly absorbed by fictions, and thus the cry in the poem may come to sound louder, more urgent, more real than the cry in the street outside. The death in the novel may move us more potently than the death in the next room. Thus there may be a covert, betraying link between the cultivation of aesthetic response and the potential of personal inhumanity.

—George Steiner, “To Civilize Our Gentlemen,” in Language and Silence

Update (December 18, 3:15 pm)

I’ve written a follow-up post to this one.  Punchline: “Last, that people can so quickly pivot from Hitchens’s position on the war to his other virtues…tells us something about the culture he helped create and has left behind. It’s a culture that has developed far too easy a conscience about, that sleeps too soundly amid, the facts of war.”

It Was 20 Years Ago Today

4 Dec

Twenty years ago, to the day, I participated in a strike.  My very first one. I suspect that as human beings, we have the capacity for one, maybe two, genuinely radicalizing experiences in our lives.  This was mine.  As I wrote in a New York Times op-ed years later (read first page here, second page here):

How did a university founded in revolt against old Boston come to practice such lordly rule? Because it can. Unlike Harvard, which must compete with large private employers, other major universities and cultural institutions, Yale is by far the largest employer in New Haven. In 1965, Yale accounted for one out of every 20 jobs in New Haven. Today, because of a combination of Yale’s growth and New Haven’s decline, Yale employs more than 11,000 workers — one out of every five jobs in the city.

I used to have one of them. In 1990 I arrived at Yale as a graduate student. Some of my colleagues had begun to unionize, but I thought they were silly. We aren’t workers, I said, and I didn’t come to Yale to join a union. Yes, graduate students do a lot of teaching and grading — but that was an honor, not a burden. True, one dean had compared us to rats. Still, I resisted.

A year later, graduate students went on strike. I did, too — reluctantly. But on the picket line, something happened to me. As we marched around the freshman quad, an undergraduate yelled out his dorm window, ”Get back to work.” For the first time in my life, I felt like a maid. And suddenly I realized that this was how other workers at Yale — in the dining halls, the labs, the offices — routinely felt. I kept marching, determined never to forget what it’s like to work at a place like Yale.

This headline from the Yale Daily News on the day after we walked out captures the spirit of the day.  And this look back, from today’s New Haven Register by my friend and former comrade Kathy Newman, provides some lovely testimony from other friends and former comrades.

Ross Douthat Channels Georges Sorel

3 Dec

Ross Douthat, writing in today’s New York Times (“The Decadent Left“):

Yes, Occupy Wall Street was dreamed up in part by flakes and populated in part by fantasists. But to the extent that the movement briefly captured the public’s imagination, it was because it seemed to be doing what a decent left would exist to do: criticizing entrenched power, championing the common good and speaking for the many rather than the few.

The union rallies and the Keystone demonstrations, by contrast, represented what you might call the decadent left, which fights for narrow interest groups rather than for the public as a whole.

Whatever your politics, there’s arguably more to admire in the ragtag theatricality of Occupy Wall Street than in that sort of self-righteous defense of the status quo. Even if it has failed to embrace plausible solutions, O.W.S. at least picked a deserving target — what National Review’s Reihan Salam describes as the “moral rupture” created by Wall Street’s and Washington’s betrayal of the public trust.

Better a protest movement that casts itself (however quixotically) as the defender of “the 99 percent” than a protest movement that just represents Democratic interest groups. And better a left that flirts with utopianism than a left that adheres to the dictum attributed to Leonid Brezhnev during the Prague Spring: “Don’t talk to me about ‘socialism.’ What we have, we hold.”

Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence (1908):

The whole of classical history is dominated by the idea of war conceived heroically: in their origin, the institutions of the Greek republics had as their basis the organisation of armies of citizens; Greek art reached its apex in the citadels; philosophers conceived of no other possible form of education than that which fostered in youth the heroic tradition…social Utopias were created with a view to maintaining a nucleus of homeric warriors in the cities, etc. In our own times, the wars of Liberty have been scarcely less fruitful in ideas than those of the ancient Greeks.

There is another aspect of war which does not possess this character of nobility, and on which the pacificists always dwell.The object of war is no longer war itself; its object is to allow politicians to satisfy their ambitions:

The syndicalist general strike presents a very great number of analogies with the first conception of war: the proletariat organises itself for battle, separating itself distinctly from the other parts of the nation, and regarding itself as the great motive power of history, all other social considerations being subordinated to that of combat; it is very clearly conscious of the glory which will be attached to its historical rôle and of the heroism of its militant attitude; it longs for the final contest in which it will give proof of the whole measure of its valour. Pursuing no conquest, it has no need to make plans for utilising its victories…

This conception of the general strike manifests in the clearest manner its indifference to the material profits of conquest…

Politicians adopt the other point of view; they argue about social conflicts in exactly the same manner as diplomats argue about international affairs; all the actual fighting apparatus interests them very little; they see in the combatants nothing but instruments.

My Response to Bruce Bartlett

3 Dec

Bruce Bartlett was a senior policy adviser in the Reagan White House and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under George H.W. Bush. He’s worked with and around conservatives—from Jack Kemp and Gary Bauer to Ron Paul and the Cato Institute—for decades. In recent years, he’s become a major critic of the Republican Party and the right, joining the ranks of Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, and other conservative apostates. He is, to cite a t-shirt my three-year-old daughter likes to wear, “kind of a big deal.”

So I was more than pleased when he decided to respond, in the comments section, to my most recent post on the utopianism of Sullivan’s brand of conservatism. Given Bartlett’s stature, and my hope for further dialogue, I’ve decided to post our little exchange. For context, read my post on Sullivan.

* * *

Bruce Bartlett: I think you are much too dismissive of the Burkean strain of conservatism that was an important part of the Republican philosophy until quite recently. In their own ways, I think Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush 41 were all Burkeans, as was 1997 GOP nominee Bob Dole. Clearly, Bush 43 was not and there is certainly no evidence of small-C conservatism anywhere in the Republican Party or the conservative movement today. But times can change. All that is really needed is a leader for the Sullivan/Frum/Bartlett philosophy to have an impact. Great oaks from little acorns grow.

Corey Robin: First, Bruce (if I may), welcome to the blog! Very exciting to have you round these parts. Second, since you’re someone who knows the GOP and the conservative movement from the inside — and at the highest levels — I’m very eager to hear your perspective on all this. Particularly eager to know how/why you think the figures you cite were all Burkeans. Definitely elaborate! But for now I’d say three things in response:

1. As Philip says above, I don’t believe Burke was a Burkean (perhaps in the same way Marx is supposed to have famously said, “I am not a Marxist.”) I’d be eager to explain why, but if you’re at all interested, you can check out this post: Or, if you’re really interested, I’m happy to send you my book The Reactionary Mind, in which I make the case at greater length. Feel free to email me your address at

2. I think the second half of your statement here gives the game away. You say “there is certainly no evidence of small-C conservatism” in the GOP or on the right. Yet, you think a great leader can, through force of leadership, make something that does not exist come into existence. That seems like a decidedly non-Burkean sensibility to me. In fact, it’s downright Jacobin. In the same way that the Jacobins, at least according to the conservative critiques like Burke’s, were supposed to have imposed an alien ideology on inhospitable soil, on soil that offered up no native or indigenous elements that would be receptive to the Rights of Man. And they did it, again goes the conservative critique, because they believed in the capacity of the revolutionary will, embodied in their leadership, to impose itself on and against the force of circumstance. The syntax of your claim moves in the same direction.

3. Lastly, often when people say Reagan was a Burkean what they mean is that he was pragmatic, realistic, that he responded and was sensitive to the institutional resistances to his agenda, that he was adaptive, willing to change course as circumstances dictated, etc. I think we need to be wary and leery of that definition of Burkeanism. For two reasons. First, it’s not what Burke himself thought, or at least not simply thought; and indeed, he often castigated his allies for their pragmatism and so-called realism, which he thought was a cover for cravenness. Second, that kind of pragmatism and realism — a sensitivity to circumstances, etc. — is hardly the monopoly of the right or even the Burkean right. Lenin has often been described in exactly the same terms (as against, supposedly, the greater rigidity of Trotsky and his followers.) As someone who certainly kept his eye on the prize, but who had a great deal of tactical savvy, and knew how to adapt to circumstances and be sensitive to certain institutional constraints and resistances. I suspect any successful revolutionary — genuine revolutionary, that is — must possess a certain amount of that kind of supple realism. It kind of goes with the territory.

Anyway, very eager to hear thoughts on any and all of this. And more important very eager to get your own insider perspective on all this.

Thanks for writing.


Reality Bites: Andrew Sullivan’s Utopian Conservatism

1 Dec

In a nice post about Peter Viereck, a mid-century American conservative who the New Yorker rightly rescued from obscurity a few years back, Andrew Sullivan makes the following observation:

…there is a distinctive conservative strain of non-violence, pragmatism, restraint and limited government that is at peace with the New Deal. How else to expain Eisenhower or the first Bush or Reagan in some moods?

Equally, there has been a long tradition of the kind of conservatism that is ascendant today: relishing violence and war, ideological, revanchist and in favor of limiting government but not of limiting other forces inimical to liberty, like rentier classes, or a fusion of corporate interests and legislation.

As some of you know, I’ve been poking at Sullivan about this distinction for some time. In a nutshell: my argument is that the second tradition Sullivan cites is what conservatism is all about; his argument is that any account of conservatism ought to include the first tradition as well.

Sullivan doesn’t dismiss my argument:

Viereck preceded [William F.] Buckley and was almost instantly de-legitimized in a manner that the “conservative movement” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) has become quite adept at (see: Sullivan, Bartlett, Frum et al.) What Viereck reveals is that in some ways, the new leftist critiques of conservatism (like Corey Robin’s stimulating, if uneven, series of essays) have a point.

He just thinks, as he’s argued before, that my argument is incomplete.

Sullivan admits that Viereck was a minority voice on the right, famously excommunicated by National Review for “passing off his unexceptionably Liberal sentiments as conservatism”: Viereck argued that conservatives should support the New Deal and labor unions, and opposed McCarthyism and favored the Democrats.  Sullivan clearly sees himself (as well as fellow fugitives David Frum and Bruce Bartlett) in a similar light: as a lonely heretic on the right, trying to bring some moderation to the movement. That made Viereck homeless in the 1950s, and it’s what makes Sullivan homeless today.

There’s just one problem with this story: conservatives aren’t supposed to be homeless, they aren’t supposed to be fugitives. Theirs, as Bill Buckley liked to say, is “the politics of reality.” Indeed, just yesterday, Sullivan said the same thing: “I believe conservatism is about facing reality.” But if your position proves time and again to be a chimera—as the great historian of British conservatism John Ramsden has written, with the exception of Robert Peel and Stanley Baldwin, no Tory leader has ever pursued a Burkean program of preservation through reform, and even Peel could not persuade his party to follow him—at what point does it run the risk of quitting the field of politics altogether and retiring to the reliquary of pure theory and idle speculation?

Back in the heyday of Cold War polemics, there was a phrase tossed around on the left—alternatively, “actually existing socialism” or “real socialism”—intended to signify the gap between Marxist ideal and communist reality. It was used sincerely and ironically, by defenders and detractors of the Soviet experiment alike. But in the hands of a certain type of Marxist purist, it came down to this: yes, the Soviet Union is a disaster, but once we have a true socialist society, all will be peace, love, and understanding. I’m simplifying and exaggerating, but you get the point.

Sullivan’s conservatism, like Viereck’s and others’, often has the same flavor. But where purists of the left have nothing to apologize for or be embarrassed about—theirs, after all, is a self-professed politics of utopia—conservatives of the Sullivan variety have some explaining to do.  For by their own definition and identification, they have excluded themselves from that family of political impossibility. Theirs, to repeat, is a politics of reality, not utopia.

Utopia, it’s often been remarked, has a literal meaning in the original Greek is a word with Greek roots that mean “no place.” I would submit that if you have to reach back more than a half-century to Eisenhower (the notion of Reagan or Bush I being at peace with the New Deal is hard to square with any narrative of American history I’m familiar with) to find a place on the right for your political ideal, then your politics are as utopian as that of the most radical leftist, who, after all, also believes that his Promised Land is a mere half-century out of reach.

Update (December 3, 8:15 pm)

Bruce Bartlett, who was one of Ronald Reagan’s top policy advisers and served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Bush I, has weighed in on the comments section. I urge you to read his thoughts on all this.

Update (December 3, 11 pm)

Just to give you another example of the right’s utopianism, this is from Ross Douthat’s column today. We’ve talked about Douthat before, how his views on sex betray an agonistic desire for self-overcoming. Here he is today, in a piece titled “The Decadent Left” (the right, as I argue in my book, is obsessed with decadence), talking about how much he appreciates Occupy Wall Street; unlike self-interested and narrow groups like unions, says Douthat, OWS fights for something larger than itself. The right is infatuated with the politics of impossibility, even when—particularly when—it comes from the left.

Better a protest movement that casts itself (however quixotically) as the defender of “the 99 percent” than a protest movement that just represents Democratic interest groups. And better a left that flirts with utopianism than a left that adheres to the dictum attributed to Leonid Brezhnev during the Prague Spring: “Don’t talk to me about ‘socialism.’ What we have, we hold.”


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,881 other followers