Archive | January, 2012

A Most Delightful Fuck You

31 Jan

Pardon my French, but there really are no other words to describe this letter, written by Jourdan Anderson, an ex-slave, to his former master in 1865.

I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

Read the whole letter to get the full effect: the cool yet cutting irony, the quiet yet lethal charges it levels, and the righteous indignation and defiance that lie just beneath the surface. It gives a good sense of what emancipation was all about, as a lived experienced on the ground. At its best, emancipation really was this kind of fuck you—delightful for the slave, less delightful for the master.

In my work on the right and its reaction to the left, I always try to keep these personal confrontations—which are nevertheless fraught with political meaning and drenched in political context—in mind. It’s always been my sense that what is missing in our scholarship and discussions of the right is precisely this lived experience of subjugation and emancipation, what it means for the oppressor and the oppressed. As I write in The Reactionary Mind:

Every great political blast—the storming of the Bastille, the taking of the Winter Palace, the March on Washington—is set off by a very private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power.

Anti-Semite and Jew

27 Jan

As someone who identifies as Jewish—who periodically goes to shul, celebrates some if not all of the holidays, and tries at least some (ahem) of the time to get off the internets for shabbos—yet opposes Zionism, I thought I’d heard all the charges that have been and could be made against me and my tribe. But yesterday, Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic writer and one of the leading voices of liberal Zionism in this country, threw a new one into to the mix.

In my experience, those Jews who consciously set themselves apart from the Jewish majority in the disgust they display for Israel, or for the principles of their faith, are often narcissists, and therefore seem to suffer from an excess of self-regard, rather than self-loathing.

What caught my eye (really, my ear) was not the evident wrongness of the claim, starting with the lazy assumption that those who oppose the State of Israel are somehow setting “themselves apart from the Jewish majority.” It was that “excess of self-regard.” Whether Goldberg knows it or not, or was conscious of it when he used it, that charge has a pedigree in Jewish—or rather anti-Jewish—history.

To be sure, there is within Judaism an injunction, and more generally an ethos, not to separate oneself from the Jewish people. The Wicked Son at the Passover Seder asks, “What does this service [or ritual or story] mean to you?” His wickedness lies in that final hissing “to you”: he refuses to acknowledge that in addition to being an “I” he is also a “We.” Verses in the Pirkei Avot enjoin us not to hold ourselves apart from the community. There’s also a Halachic stipulation that for the sake of practicality and communal living, Jews must abide by legal rulings regarding everyday ritual and civil law. Despite the many differences and disagreements it generates, Judaism is not really a religion of individuals or individualism; it is the religion of a people. Am Yisrael: the people of Israel.

But, as far as I can see, there is little in the tradition that views the dissenter as somehow haughty or superior, narcissistic or self-regarding. And while friends more knowledgeable than I joke that one can always find evidentiary support in the Talmud for some claim or other, this particular one would probably require some digging. If it exists, it’s a subterranean position. And how could it not be? For every two Jews, goes the old saw, there are three opinions. If every unorthodox statement were treated as a symptom of overweening arrogance or pride, well, there’s not enough room in the universe—let alone the Talmud—to contain such a lexicon of self-regard.

In fact, the only document I can think of that even approximates such an accusation is Annie Hall. Think of those scenes where a young Alvie Singer presses his existential concerns (“The universe is expanding”) upon his parents only to be told by his mother, “What is that your business?” and, later, “You never could get along with anyone at school. You were always outta step with the world.” Or perhaps that scene in Hannah and her Sisters where Mickey (the Woody Allen character) tells his parents he’s thinking of converting to Catholicism because he’s afraid there’s no God or life after death, and his father replies, “How do you know?” and his mother, less indulgently, “Of course there’s a God, you idiot! You don’t believe in God?” Aside from these hints that the questioner of—or deserter from—the faith is somehow punching above his weight (and, of course, the characters here are speaking the language of parents rather than Judaism), it’s hard to find this specific rhetoric of accusation that I’m talking about, in which the dissenter is impeached as a presumptuous snob, in the Jewish tradition.

But if you’re not in the mood for digging deep, if you want quick and easy access to that rhetoric, simply put your hand into the garbage can of anti-Semitism. For it is there, in the rubbish of ancient and modern history, that you’ll find the accusation that the Jew who refuses to conform to the ways of the dominant culture—with the culture now understood, of course, to be non-Jewish—is smug and superior, that he assumes he knows better and believes he is better than the majority. Because how else are we to understand a minority insisting upon its own ways over and against the majority?

Robert Wistrich’s A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad is a veritable compendium of such accusations, from ancient pagans to Vichy officials to Brezhnev’s Soviet Union to the modern Arab world (making full allowances, as Wistrich does not, for the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism). Over and over, one hears the complaint from the anti-Semite that the Jew has set himself up not only in opposition to, but in judgment upon, the dominant culture. And that in doing so he has presumed himself to be better than that culture.

Of course, that accusation often preys upon the complicated—and by no means uncontroversial—notion of chosenness within the Jewish tradition. Bernard Lazare, the Jewish radical who wrote the first genuine history of anti-Semitism just before the Dreyfus Affair (and whose work had a tremendous influence upon Hannah Arendt), offered a version of this claim. In Wistrich’s lucid paraphrase:

Bernard Lazare was convinced that the “revolutionary spirit of Judaism” had been a major factor in anti-Semitism through the ages. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Karl Marx were prime examples of Jewish iconoclasts of their time. The Jews, by creating an intensely demanding God of morality and justice whose stern monotheism brooked no toleration of alien deities, threatened the natural order. The prophetic vision of an abstract transcendent Godhead above nature, a deity without form or shape, who had nonetheless created the universe and would in the fullness of time redeem all mankind, was disconcerting, powerful, and mysterious to the pagan world. It was rendered especially irritating by the Jewish claim to be a “chosen people,” a “kingdom of priests,” and a ferment among the Gentiles. Anti-Semitism could best be seen as an instinctive response by the nations of the world to this provocation—to the uncanny challenge of an eternal people, whose refusal to assimilate defied all established historical patterns. Hatred of the Jews was often combined with fear, envy….

Though it seems quite wrong to me to locate the sources of anti-Semitism in anything Jews do or say—and that’s not really Lazare’s point, I don’t think—there can be no doubt, as Wistrich shows, that anti-Semites have consistently chosen to interpret the Jewish insistence on separateness and difference (leave aside the more difficult notion of chosenness) as a bid for superiority.

Conversely, and ironically, for writers like Tom Paine, it is precisely this insistence upon setting themselves apart that has been not only the glory of the Jewish people but the guarantor of whatever is democratic and egalitarian in their culture. In Common Sense, Paine takes up a lengthy disquisition on the question “of monarchy and hereditary succession.” There he makes a special point of noting that the Jews were originally without a king and were governed instead by “a kind of republic administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes.”

But the temptation to monarchy dies hard, Paine observes, even among the Jews.  And the reason it dies hard is that the desire to conform, to abandon one’s ways in the face of outside pressure, dies harder. So frequently does Paine recur to the lures and dangers of imitation and conformity—”Government by kings was first introduced into the world by the Heathens, from whom the children of Israel copied the custom”; “We cannot but observe that their motives were bad, viz. that they might be like unto other nations, i.e. the Heathens, whereas their true glory laid in being as much unlike them as possible”—that we might say for Paine (at least in Common Sense; Age of Reason sounds a different note) it is the Jew’s refusal to conform that most guarantees his democratic and egalitarian credentials.

For Jeffrey Goldberg, it’s the reverse. It’s the Jew who sets himself apart from the dominant culture—Goldberg’s referring to mainstream Judaism, of course, rather than the culture as a whole, but the structure of the argument is the same—who is making a bid for superiority. And in this respect, Goldberg is aligning himself with neither Judaism nor democracy but their antitheses.

It’s ironic that what started this whole discussion, for Goldberg and excellent journalists like Spencer Ackerman, was the use of the controversial term “Israel-Firster” by critics of Israel and the ensuing debate over whether or not it’s anti-Semitic. I don’t have much of a dog in that fight: I’ve never used and would never use the term, not because it questions the patriotism of American Jews but because it partakes of the vocabulary of patriotism in the first place, a vocabulary I find suspect and noxious from beginning to end. Even so, I’m amazed that someone who is so quick to find anti-Semitism in the words of others is so careless about its presence in his own.

* * * * *

A special word of thanks goes to Jeffrey Shoulson for walking me through the thickets of Jewish liturgy and commentary. Jeff’s an old friend from college and graduate school, whose book Milton and the Rabbis: Hebraism, Hellenism, and Christianity won the Salo Baron Prize for First Book in Judaic Studies from the American Academy of Jewish Research. He’s a professor of English at the University of Miami, where he’s now working on a book called Fictions of Conversion: Jews, Christians, and Cultures of Change in Early Modern England, due out next year with University of Pennsylvania Press. It goes without saying that any errors in this post are entirely mine.

Gossip Folks

21 Jan



The New York Times did a lengthy piece about about The Reactionary Mind and the controversy it has aroused. Favorite line: “To Mr. Robin there is no actually existing Burkeanism anywhere.”

The book continues to be a subject of much discussion on the blogs: positive, negative, and much else.  This is just a sampling of what’s been said about it: hates it; likes it; doesn’t like it but thinks about it; writes about it a lot (as in five times a lot, but with a lot of interesting historical counterpoint and information); uses it for contemporary analysis; and situates it within the contemporary literature of the left.

I’ve also done a few more interviews that you might want to check out.

I did an Occupied Media interview via Skype with Taryn Hart.  That was a first for me.  The Skype part, I mean.

I also had a conversation with Sam Seder over at his Majority Report.

Last, there was this interview with Global Dispatches, in which we talked more than I usually do about the contemporary politics of the GOP.

And tomorrow (Sunday, January 22) night at 8 pm, I’ll be dropping by for a second time at Balloon Juice, where they’ll be continuing their book club discussion of The Reactionary Mind.

Something’s Got a Hold On Me

20 Jan

Etta James has died, so I’ve been listening to some of her music.  Perhaps you’d like to, too. This is one of my favorites, though there are so many.


From the Slaveholders to Rick Perry: Galileo is the Key

19 Jan

In honor of Rick Perry’s decision to quit the race, I’m reprinting one part of this blog post from September, which discusses what I still think is the most memorable moment of the entire campaign: when, in one of the early debates, Perry invoked Galileo in defense of his position on climate change.



The most arresting moment of the debate was when Rick Perry invoked Galileo in defense of his skepticism about climate change.  Here’s what he said:

The science is not settled on this.  The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet to me is just nonsense.  Just because you have a group of scientists who stood up and said here is the fact. Galileo got outvoted for a spell.

That line has got everyone spinning; google Rick Perry and Galileo, and you get 471,000 results. But while everyone churns out their pet theories, let’s  remember that Galileo has long held a special place in the mind of the Old South. Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, famously invoked Galileo in defense of the slaveholders’ conviction that “the negro is not equal to the white man” and “subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

The comparison between Galileo and the slaveholder was as far-fetched as Perry’s, but like Perry, Stephens defended it on the ground that his position was a fugitive knowledge, a heresy that would one day become orthodoxy.  “This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science.”

Other slaveholders (Josiah Nott, John C. Calhoun) made the same comparison; Calhoun also invoked Francis Bacon, Stephens also invoked William Harvey. Their point was that like those great heresies of early modern science, the southern science of race would one day triumph and be recognized the world over. It’s the way the white southerner has always negotiated his contradictory self-understanding of being both victim and victimizer. Again, Stephens:

As I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo it was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests?”

And so, I assume, says Rick Perry to himself and his followers about their equally dubious science of climate non-change.

Easy To Be Hard: Conservatism and Violence

19 Jan

This is the second post in my (very) occasional series of excerpts from The Reactionary Mind. (You can read my first, on Justice Scalia, here.) This excerpt is from chapter eleven, “Easy to Be Hard,” in which I examine the relationship between conservatism and violence. I’ve removed all the footnotes; if you want to follow them up, buy the book!

(Fun fact: an earlier version of this chapter appeared two years ago in The Chronicle Review.  It drove Jonah Goldberg crazy: “This piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education may be one of the uniformly dumbest piece [sic] of intellectual claptrap I’ve read in a good long while.”)


I enjoy wars. Any adventure’s better than sitting in an office.

—Harold Macmillan

Despite the support among self-identified conservative voters and politicians for the death penalty, torture, and war, intellectuals on the right often deny any affinity between conservatism and violence. “Conservatives,” writes Andrew Sullivan, “hate war.”

Their domestic politics is rooted in a loathing of civil wars and violence, and they know that freedom is always the first casualty of international warfare. When countries go to war, their governments invariably get bigger and stronger, individual liberties are whittled away, and societies which once enjoyed the pluralist cacophony of freedom have to be marshaled into a single, collective note to face down an external foe. A state of permanent warfare—as George Orwell saw—is a virtual invitation to domestic tyranny.

Channeling a tradition of skepticism from Oakeshott to Hume, the conservative identifies limited government as the extent of his faith, the rule of law his one requirement for the pursuit of happiness. Pragmatic and adaptive, disposed rather than committed, such a sensibility—and it is a sensibility, the conservative insists, not an ideology—is not interested in violence. His endorsements of war, such as they are, are the weariest of concessions to reality. Unlike his friends on the left—conservative that he is, he values friendship more than agreement—he knows we live and love in the midst of great evil. This evil must be resisted, sometimes by violent means. All things being equal, he would like to see a world without violence. But all things are not equal, and he is not in the business of seeing the world as he’d like it to be.

The historical record of conservatism—not only as a political practice, which is not my primary concern here, but as a theoretical tradition—suggests otherwise. Far from being saddened, burdened or vexed by violence, the conservative has been enlivened by it. I don’t mean in a personal sense, though many a conservative, like Harold Macmillan quoted above or Winston Churchill quoted below, has expressed an unanticipated enthusiasm for violence. My concern is with ideas and argument rather than character or psychology. Violence, the conservative intellectual has maintained, is one of the experiences in life that makes us feel the most alive, and violence is an activity that makes life, well, lively. Such arguments can be made nimbly—“Only the dead have seen the end of war,” as Douglas MacArthur once put it —or laboriously, as in the case of Treitschke:

To the historian who lives in the world of will it is immediately clear that the demand for a perpetual peace is thoroughly reactionary; he sees that with war all movement, all growth, must be struck out of history. It has always been the tired, unintelligent, and enervated periods that have played with the dream of perpetual peace….However, it is not worth the trouble to discuss this matter further; the living God will see to it that war constantly returns as a dreadful medicine for the human race.

Pithy or prolix, the case boils down to this: war is life, peace is death.

This belief can be traced back to Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. There Burke develops a view of the self desperately in need of negative stimuli of the sort provided by pain and danger, which Burke associates with the sublime. The sublime is most readily found in two political forms: hierarchy and violence. But for reasons that shall become clear, the conservative—again, consistent with Burke’s arguments—often favors the latter over the former. Rule may be sublime, but violence is more sublime. Most sublime of all is when the two are fused, when violence is performed for the sake of creating, defending, or recovering a regime of domination and rule. But as Burke warned, it’s always best to enjoy pain and danger at a remove. Distance and obscurity enhance sublimity; nearness and illumination diminish it. Counterrevolutionary violence may be the Everest of conservative experience, but one should view it from afar. Get too close to the mountaintop, and the air becomes thin, the view clouded. At the end of every discourse on violence, then, lies a waiting disappointment.

The Real Martin Luther King

16 Jan

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

— Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, 1963


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