Archive | December, 2012

Highlights from Jacobin

27 Dec

The latest issue of Jacobin is now online, and it’s fantastic. Before I give you some highlights, let me make a pitch: subscribe or donate to Jacobin. I’m a contributing editor, so I’m biased. But I know I’m not alone in saying it’s one of the newest, freshest magazines around. It was founded by an undergrad in his dorm room (seriously). But, hey, Trotsky was 25 (or 26?) when he led the St. Petersburg Soviet in 1905 and Martin Luther King was 26 (or 25?) when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So who knows where this can go? In any event, subscribe, donate, help out.

I’ve got a piece in the new issue on the politics of national security.  Via Hobbes, the War on 1812 (yes, the War of 1812), World War I, and Trayvon Martin, I argue that the problem we face is not that we live in a world of Hobbesian states, but that we live in a world of failed Hobbesian states.  Though we claim there’s a tradeoff between freedom and security, we repress only some people’s rights and offer only some people security. What’s worse, there may be no way around that, a fact that liberals have yet to confront. To their peril.

Security is an ideal language for suppressing rights because it combines a universality and neutrality in rhetoric with a particularity and partiality in practice.  Security is a good that everyone needs, and, we assume, that everyone needs in the same way and to the same degree.  It is “the most vital of all interests,” John Stuart Mill wrote, which no one can “possibly do without.” Though Mill was referring here to the security of persons rather than of nations or states, his argument about personal security is often extended to nations and states, which are conceived to be persons writ large.

Unlike other values — say justice or equality — the need for and definition of security is not supposed to be dependent upon our beliefs or other interests and it is not supposed to favor any one set of beliefs or interests.  It is the necessary condition for the pursuit of any belief or interest, regardless of who holds that belief or has that interest.  It is a good, as I’ve said, that is universal and neutral.  That’s the theory.

The reality, as we have seen, is altogether different.  The practice of security involves a state that is rife with diverse and competing ideologies and interests, and these ideologies and interests fundamentally help determine whether threats become a focus of attention, and how they are perceived and mobilized against.  The provision of security requires resources, which are not limitless.  They must be distributed according to some calculus, which, like the distribution calculus of any other resource (say income or education), will reflect controversial and contested assumption about justice and will be the subject of debate. National security is as political as Social Security, and just as we argue about the latter, so do we argue about the former.

Because the rhetoric of security is one of universality and neutrality while the reality is one of conflict and division, state officials and elites have every motivation, and justification, to suppress heterodox and dissenting definitions of security.  And so they have, as Hobbes predicted they could and would.  But because a neutral, universal definition of security is impossible to achieve in practice, repression for the sake of security must be necessarily selective:  only certain groups or certain kinds of dissent will be targeted.  The question then becomes:  which groups, which dissent?

Because government officials are themselves connected with particular constituencies in society — often the most powerful — they will seldom suppress challenges to security that come from the powerful; instead they will target the powerless and the marginal, particularly if the powerless are mobilizing to threaten the powerful.  So the US government during WWI made it illegal to urge people, like the Socialists, not to buy war bonds — but it did allow a Wall Street adviser to counsel his client not to make a bad investment.

Or, when Congress passed the Sedition Act in 1918, which made it illegal to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the United States government or the military or to bring these institutions “into contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute,” the Republicans attempted to insert an amendment that would have protected themselves and their constituencies, who were aggressively criticizing Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic leadership of the US government.  “Nothing in this act shall be construed,” the amendment read, “as limiting the liberty or impairing the right of an individual to publish or speak what is true, with good motives and for justifiable ends.”  Suppressing dissident socialists or activists against the draft was fine; suppressing dissenting Republicans was not.

But there is a second reason why security has proven the most potent justification for the suppression of rights.  And that has to do with the liberal tradition, which historically has offered the greatest theoretical resource for opposition to the suppression of rights.  While liberalism as a theory has given us excellent reasons to oppose the use of coercive state power on behalf of religious or moral orthodoxy, it has given us far fewer reasons to oppose the use of that power on behalf of security.  In fact, if we look at three touchstones of liberal discourse — Locke, Mill, and Oliver Wendell Holmes — we find that each of them actually provides excellent justifications for the use of coercive and repressive state power in the name of security.

Each of these writers tried, in his way, to prevent the state from using its coercive power on behalf of some controversial question of ideology or belief: for Locke, it was religion; for Mill, it was morality; for Holmes, it was politics.  And each of them formulated a test or condition for when the use of such power was legitimate:  for Locke, it was to protect “the security and safety of the commonwealth”; for Mill, it was to prevent harm; for Holmes, it was to thwart a “clear and present danger.”

The assumption behind the proscription against using coercive power in the first set of cases — religion, morality, and politics — and the endorsement of it in the second set of cases — the security and safety of the commonwealth, harm, or a clear and present danger — was not only that the first set was a source of controversy and division while the second set was not.  It was that the first was by its very nature a source of controversy while the second was by its very nature a source of unity.  Unlike religion, morality, and politics, in other words, security offered the basis for an uncontroversial exercise of coercive state power.

As we have seen, this assumption has not been borne out by reality.  But that failure has not stopped liberals from arguing, as the saying goes, that politics stops at the water’s edge.  And so when they have tried to chastise conservatives for using security for political ends (even though they do the same thing themselves), they have often found themselves, particularly since the Reagan years, hopelessly outgunned.  Having endorsed — indeed, invented — the idea that security is not, properly speaking, a subject of and for the political arena, liberals cannot possibly hope to beat their opponents at a game which their chief theoreticians claim does not even exist.

Seth Ackerman has a piece on market socialism. It has some fascinating details like this:

Because the neoliberal Right has habit of measuring a society’s success by the abundance of its consumer goods, the radical left is prone to slip into a posture of denying this sort of thing is politically relevant at all. This is a mistake. The problem with full supermarket shelves is that they’re not enough — not that they’re unwelcome or trivial. The citizens of Communist countries experienced the paucity, shoddiness and uniformity of their goods not merely as inconveniences; they experienced them as violations of their basic rights….

In fact, the shabbiness of consumer supply was popularly felt as a betrayal of the humanistic mission of socialism itself. A historian of East Germany quotes the petitions that ordinary consumers addressed to the state: “It really is not in the spirit of the human being as the center of socialist society when I have to save up for years for a Trabant and then cannot use my car for more than a year because of a shortage of spare parts!” said one. Another wrote: “When you read in the socialist press ‘maximal satisfaction of the needs of the people and so on’ and … ‘everything for the benefit of the people,’ it makes me feel sick.” In different countries and languages across Eastern Europe, citizens used almost identical expressions to evoke the image of substandard goods being “thrown at” them.

And this:

Around the time of the Soviet collapse, the economist Peter Murrell published an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives reviewing empirical studies of efficiency in the socialist planned economies. These studies consistently failed to support the neoclassical analysis: virtually all of them found that by standard neoclassical measures of efficiency, the planned economies performed as well or better than market economies.

Seth’s piece is filled with surprises (to me, at any rate), and it’s refreshingly clear of piety and dogma.

Peter Frase has a piece on the old and the new Baffler. Frase’s one of my favorite writers, and this piece is a good example of why that’s the case. He’s open and generous but never pulls his punches. And as always, he uses his targets as an opportunity to open out onto the culture in the widest way possible:

“Lazy, reflexive libertarianism” fits the era in which the Baffler emerged, but does it really fit ours? At a time when capitalist apologetics and “There Is No Alternative” resignation were emanating even from allegedly radical quarters, there was value in reminding us that the market was still “the God that sucked.”

Cultural studies was degenerating into a bizarre kind of obscurantist populism that found agency and resistance in every television sitcom. Investment boosterism elevated stock market speculation into an ecstatic demos in which the common man could command his own destiny. Drinking Mountain Dew and listening to Pearl Jam was sold as a revolutionary act. Even the best cultural criticism of the era, like the online magazine Suck.com, tended toward cynical snarking and what Fredric Jameson called “blank irony,” a degenerate form of ridicule that no longer recognizes any authentic standard of comparison for the things it derides.

Snark and sarcasm, on the one hand, and market boosterism on the other, still dominate the discourse, but their content and purpose has changed. Today’s culture is characterized not so much by pervasive nihilism as by a series of peculiar inversions, in which the Onion presents incisive news analysis in the guise of satire and TV news passes off cheap entertainment as useful information. Some of the most class-conscious and bitingly political commentary in the popular media can be found on Gawker, ostensibly a gossip site. These publications are the descendants of the Generation X culture of the nineties, but their young writers tend to use humor more as a container for sincere rage than as a vehicle for narcotizing apathetic detachment.

This represents an incipient failure mode of what Mark Fisher calls “Capitalist Realism,” the condition in which all political alternatives are obliterated, and the system persists through sheer inevitability rather than legitimacy. The tech bubble represents, in retrospect, capitalism’s last serious attempt at an overarching positive ideology, which Frank aptly diagnosed as market populism. What remains in the wake of its collapse is a grim politics based on fear — fear of terrorism, the Tea Party’s fear of the Other, and the fear generated by economic insecurity and high unemployment. The housing bubble briefly graced the fear era with a parody of a positive ideology. But the notion that we can all be rich by selling ever-appreciating houses to the next greater fool was weak sauce even by the standards of market populism.

Beneath the scares and bubbles there remains the exploitation of labor, which leads inexorably back to dissatisfaction and revolt. The thinkers of the young left have revived interest in Italian autonomist Marxism, which posited the resistance of workers at the point of production as the motor of history that impelled capitalists to transform their own productive relations. This approach is at least well-suited to the conditions of cultural workers churning out content for websites that soak up the attention of bored office workers. By identifying an appetite for class war in their audience, the blogging proletariat, doing a new kind of piece-work, has turned the amoral hunger for page views to subversive ends. This is not subversion in the shallow discursive sense of mediocre nineties cultural theory, but in that of fomenting solidarity with real movements, from striking fast food workers to Strike Debt activists.

Anyway, you can read these articles here. And, again, subscribe or donate here.

My Top 5 Posts of the Year (and a little extra)

26 Dec

It’s that time of year, so I thought I’d do my own Top 5 posts of the year (my posts, that is). My criteria were various: posts I liked (even though they didn’t get much attention), posts that helped me think about new things in new ways, posts that I thought were important interventions in some larger debate.  Anyway, here they are. In no particular order.

1. When Hayek Met Pinochet: This series of posts captures what I love about blogging. One Sunday morning last summer, Greg Grandin emailed me an article in some obscure economics journal about Hayek’s involvement in Pinochet’s Chile. I printed it out, hopped on a train for a day trip to the Jersey Shore with my daughter, and read the piece. I was totally jazzed by it. I had thought I had read all there was to read on the topic, but this article by three economists contained many revelations and offered ways of thinking about the relationship between libertarianism and authoritarianism that I hadn’t considered. So when I got back that night, I wrote a post on Hayek von Pinochet. The post took off, doing one of the things I like for this blog to do: bring attention to excellent scholarship that many people might not otherwise read. In the post, I also made a stray comment that provoked the wrath of the pro-Hayek crowd. That reaction sent me down the rabbit hole of the Hayek archives at the Hoover Institute at Stanford. Five posts and two weeks later, I came out. I’m quite proud of the result: a combination of political theory, detective work, and OCD.

2. Let It Bleed: This was an epic post that I wrote with Chris Bertram and Alex Gourevitch about libertarianism and the workplace. Like the Hayek series, it began innocently enough. Julian Sanchez had written a post about his work at Cato, and picking upon a few threads in his post, I wrote a response. That response generated its own responses from a group of libertarians, and suddenly Chris, Alex, and I had a 6000-word post on a major topic of contemporary politics on our hands, a post that was also, if I say so myself, an important intervention in contemporary theory. It was a lot of fun working with Alex and Chris—despite our common convictions, each of us brings quite different approaches to the table—and I think the piece, which we posted over at Crooked Timber, stands as a good model of serious academic work that can be done in the blogosophere.

3. We’re Going to Tax Their Ass Off: Like my Hayek series, this post was kicked off by my reading an article. Bruce Bartlett had sent me a great piece he did on the history of taxes and the Republican Party. That piece was very much on my mind when I appeared on Chris Hayes’s show at the end of the summer. I mentioned its argument on the show, several folks asked me to expand on it, and I did. I also enjoyed working on the piece because I got to do a fair amount of research on taxes, which is not a topic I often write about (though it is a topic I often think about; a libertarian friend from grad school, Princeton politics professor Keith Whittington, and I have talked forever about writing a history/political theory of taxation, from the ancient Greeks to today). Again, the serendipity of the blog world.

4. Anti-Semite and Jew: This post never got any attention, but it’s a personal favorite. I don’t write much about Zionism or Judaism, but there was something so peculiar and irritating about what Jeffrey Goldberg had said on the topic that I couldn’t pass it by without saying something. One of the other things I love about blogging: it’s compulsiveness. Once I get seized on a topic for a post, I can’t let it go. Anyway, even though this post involved topics far afield of my scholarly expertise, it’s probably the most personal post I’ve done. I dug into the issues, and found out a bunch of stuff I didn’t know about.  And said something, I think, that no one else said. And hopefully made Goldberg think twice about his sloppy use of language.

5. Isn’t It Romantic?: Unlike the previous post, this one lay more in comfort zone, academically speaking. Sam Goldman, a young political theorist, had written a response to The Reactionary Mind in The American Conservative. Unlike much critical commentary on the book, Sam’s forced me to do some real work and think about my argument. Thanks to his provocation, I was able to articulate how different Burke’s theory of history is from what you find in conventional accounts of Burke, and how Maistre’s theory of sovereignty undermines traditional notions of monarchy. I can see why this post didn’t get much attention, but I hope folks will take a second look at it.

6. Forced to Choose: This is one of my shortest posts of the year (only one paragraph). But it gets at the core of what I’m thinking about these days in my new book project: “capitalism as existentialism.” I often feel that we on the left miss or misconstrue the moral underpinnings of the free market. I don’t subscribe to that theory nor am I compelled by it. But I can see why people would be, and I think it’s important for us to grapple with it. Anyway, it’s a short promissory note for the future, which I hope to be expanding on next year.

So that’s it: my top 5 and a little extra. I had a bunch others that I liked (a bunch more I didn’t like!) Am curious which posts you guys liked most, disliked most, etc. Let me know!

Happy New Year!

Update (3:30 pm)

I just wrote this on a FB post and thought I’d say it here:

This list is a testament to three of my favorite things about blogging: its serendipity, its compulsiveness, and its conversational nature. If you love talking to people, if you love the surprise of a conversation, its twists and turns, drilling down into a topic with friends and enemies—blogging can’t be beat.

Rimbaud Conservatism

22 Dec

All this talk of arming teachers and training children to rush psychopaths who are outfitted with machine guns semi-automatic weapons reminds me of a moment in high school.

But first, a recap.

In the wake of the Newtown killings, writers on the right have suggested we should teach children to turn on their assailants, rushing them en masse. Here’s Megan McArdle writing in The Daily Beast:

I’d also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.

McArdle is a libertarian. You know, the type who believes you can’t derive Rawlsian-style social justice from self-interested premises—that shit would never work—but that you can adduce from those very same premises a mass death instinct of the sort that powered the Red Army to victory against the Nazis. When it comes to public goods, libertarians think we’re all free riders; in the face of crazed killers, we’re all comrades.

And here’s Charlotte Allen—about whom the less said, the better—writing in National Review Online:

There was not a single adult male on the school premises when the shooting occurred. In this school of 450 students, a sizeable number of whom were undoubtedly 11- and 12-year-old boys (it was a K–6 school), all the personnel—the teachers, the principal, the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the “reading specialist”—were female. There didn’t even seem to be a male janitor to heave his bucket at Adam Lanza’s knees. Women and small children are sitting ducks for mass-murderers. The principal, Dawn Hochsprung, seemed to have performed bravely. According to reports, she activated the school’s public-address system and also lunged at Lanza, before he shot her to death. Some of the teachers managed to save all or some of their charges by rushing them into closets or bathrooms. But in general, a feminized setting is a setting in which helpless passivity is the norm. Male aggression can be a good thing, as in protecting the weak — but it has been forced out of the culture of elementary schools and the education schools that train their personnel. Think of what Sandy Hook might have been like if a couple of male teachers who had played high-school football, or even some of the huskier 12-year-old boys, had converged on Lanza.

As Amy Davidson of the New Yorker observed in response:

One image that comes to mind is the soldiers sent to die in outmoded frontal assaults against machine-gun embankments in the First World War….

As the mother of a twelve-year-old who might be described as husky, or at least big for his age, I do teach him that he has an extra responsibility to, for example, stand up for littler kids who are bullied—to never be a bystander. But I greatly resent the idea that he should throw himself in front of a bullet because a grown congressman isn’t brave enough to throw an N.R.A. lobbyist out of his office.

The World War I reference is apt. There is something bloodcurdling about grownups speaking so blithely about sending children off to their deaths. As if these kids don’t have a future of their own, as if they are all to be sacrificed on the altar of whatever K Street Moloch the right happens to be worshiping at this particular hour.

Which brings me to my story. In my junior year of high school, ABC televised a film, The Day After, about what the world would look like after a nuclear war. This was a time, some of you might recall, when talk of “nuclear winter” was all the rage. One of the strongest memories I have of the film was of its depiction of that winter. Dust and debris were everywhere; they looked like snow flakes of death, made to match the color of Jason Robards’ hair.

After the film was aired, Ted Koppel convened a panel of worthies—Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, Brent Scowcroft, Elie Wiesel, Carl Sagan, and William F. Buckley—to debate its implications. I can’t remember much of what was said, but one comment from Buckley has stayed with me all these years (see 2:45 in this video link).

In response to a provocation from Wiesel—who asked how it was possible for his co-panelists even to talk about a nuclear war, as if such a war could be fought and won (one wonders where Wiesel had been all those years)—Buckley said:

I think we do have to talk about it. Dr. Kissinger, twenty-five years ago, got hell for consenting to talk about it. So did Herman Kahn. The fact of the matter is here we are talking about all the tensions we’re going to be living on, fifteen years from now, twenty years from now. Well, the implied assumption is we’re going to be alive fifteen years from now, twenty years from now. That’s pretty good news, isn’t it?

Someone else on the panel, perhaps Scowcroft, muttered an encouraging “yep,” and Buckley went on. Until Koppel broke in:

Fifteen years may be pretty good news to men of your generation and mine. I suspect that some of our children might regard that as a rather limited life span.

The conservative imagination is supposed to prize longevity and continuity. It is the wisdom of old men. Yet here we have its most genteel modern tribune sounding like Edna St. Vincent Millay, happily mooting his own extinction and that of his child, declaring the shelf life of civilization to be little more than the life span of a reckless teenager. This is not Rambo conservatism but Rimbaud conservatism, betraying less a disregard for death than an insufficient regard for life.

Which is why, for the umpteenth time, I reject the notion that there has been some kind of downward trajectory on the American right since Buckley (or Burke, for that matter). What we hear from the Allen’s and McArdle’s of today is no different from what we heard from the Buckley’s of yesterday. The right has always been interested in violence and death. It has seldom been a country for old men—except the old men, and apparently women, who dream of the slaughter of young children.

Statement of Support for Erik Loomis

19 Dec

I and my fellow bloggers at Crooked Timber have written this statement below in support of Erik Loomis, who is being targeted by a vicious right-wing campaign of intimidation. Please go to the Crooked Timber site and voice your support for the statement. Also, and perhaps more important, please send an email of support for Loomis to the following top three administrators where he teaches:

Dean Winnie Brownell: winnie@mail.uri.edu
Provost Donald DeHays: ddehayes@uri.edu
President David Dooley: davedooley@mail.uri.edu

Thanks!

● ● ● ● ●

Erik Loomis is no stranger to this blog. A gifted young scholar of US labor and environmental history, Loomis is also a blogger at Lawyers, Guns and Money. Many of us have tussled and tangled with him, most recently over whether leftists should vote for Obama. We have often disagreed with Loomis, not always pleasantly or politely, and he has certainly given as good as he has got.

But now we must stand by Loomis’s side and speak up and out on his behalf, for he has become the target of a witch hunt, and as an untenured professor at the University of Rhode Island, he is vulnerable. Loomis needs our solidarity and support, and we must give it to him.

This past Friday, in the wake of the tremendous grief and outrage millions of people felt over the Newtown mass shooting, Loomis tweeted the following:

I was heartbroken in the first 20 mass murders. Now I want Wayne LaPierre’s head on a stick.

Wayne LaPierre is the head of the National Rifle Association.It seems obvious to us that when Loomis called for LaPierre’s head on a stick, he had in mind something like this from the Urban Dictionary:

A metaphor describing retaliation or punishment for another’s wrongdoing, or public outrage against an individual or group for the same reason.After the BP Oil Spill; many Americans would like to see Tony Hayward’s head on a stick, myself included.

Ever since putting someone’s head on a stick ceased to be a routine form of public punishment—indeed, the last instance of it we can think of is fictional (Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, though it references an actual event from the French Revolution)—calling for someone’s head has been a fairly conventional way to express one’s outrage or criticism. Two months ago, for example, right-wing blogger Glenn Reynolds voiced his anger over the State Department’s lax provision of security in Benghazi by demanding, “Can we see some heads roll?”Yet that very same Glenn Reynolds is now accusing Loomis of using “eliminationist rhetoric.”

Other conservative voices have joined in. The Daily Caller says Loomis “unleashed a flurry of profanity-ridden tweets demanding death for National Rifle Association executive Wayne LaPierre.” Townhall put Loomis’s tweets in the context of NRA members and leaders getting death threats. And just this morning, Michelle Malkin wrote at National Review Online:

What’s most disturbing is that the incitements are coming from purportedly respectable, prominent, and influential public figures.Consider the rhetoric of University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis….

Unfortunately, Loomis is not alone….

So, it’s come to this: Advocating beheadings, beatings, and the mass murder of peaceful Americans to pay for the sins of a soulless madman. But because the advocates of violence fashion themselves champions of nonviolence and because they inhabit the hallowed worlds of Hollywood, academia, and the Democratic party, it’s acceptable?

Blood-lusting hate speech must not get a pass just because it comes out of the mouths of the protected anti-gun class.

This campaign has now brought Loomis into the crosshairs of the state and his employer.Loomis has already been questioned by the Rhode Island State Police, who told him that someone had informed the FBI that Loomis had threatened LaPierre’s life. Loomis also has been hauled into a meeting with his dean.  And now the president of the University of Rhode Island, where Loomis teaches, has issued the following statement:

The University of Rhode Island does not condone acts or threats of violence. These remarks do not reflect the views of the institution and Erik Loomis does not speak on behalf of the University. The University is committed to fostering a safe, inclusive and equitable culture that aspires to promote positive change.

We do not expect any better of the orchestrators of this campaign—this is what they have done for many years, and doubtless will be doing for years to come. We do expect better of university administrators. Rather than standing behind a member of their faculty, the administration has sought to distance the university from Loomis.Even to suggest that Loomis’s tweet constitutes a “threat of violence” is an offense against the English language. We are dismayed that the university president completely fails to acknowledge the importance of academic freedom and of scholars’ freedom independently to express views (even intemperate ones) on topics of public importance.  This statement—unless it is swiftly corrected— should give alarm to scholars at the University of Rhode Island, to scholars who might one day consider associating themselves with this institution, and to academic and professional associations that value academic freedom.

However, this is not merely a question of academic freedom. It also speaks to a broader set of rights to speak freely without the fear of being fired for controversial views that many of us have been flagging for years. Everyone should be clear what is going on. As a blogger at Atrios has pointed out, what the witch hunters want is for Loomis to be fired. Indeed, the calls have already begun (see comment thread here). Though Loomis has a union, his lack of tenure makes him vulnerable.

We insist that the University of Rhode Island take a strong stand for the values of academic freedom and freedom of speech, that it not be intimidated by an artificially whipped-up media frenzy, that it affirm that the protections of the First Amendment require our collective enforcement, and that all employers—particularly, in this kind of case, university employers—have a special obligation to see that freedom of speech become a reality of everyday life.

We urge all of you to contact the following three administrators at the University of Rhode Island:

Dean Winnie Brownell: winnie@mail.uri.edu
Provost Donald DeHays: ddehayes@uri.edu
President David Dooley: davedooley@mail.uri.edu

Be polite, be civil, be firm.We also call upon all academic and other bloggers to stand in support of Loomis. We invite others who wish to associate themselves with this statement to say so in the comments section to this post, and to republish this statement elsewhere.

Chris Bertram, University of Bristol

Michael Bérubé, The Pennsylvania State University

Henry Farrell, George Washington University

Kieran Healy, Duke University

Jon Mandle, SUNY Albany

John Quiggin, University of Queensland

Corey Robin, Brooklyn College

Brian Weatherson, University of Michigan

Taxes, and Cuts, and Drones: Obama’s Imperialism of the Peasants

17 Dec

In my very first post as a blogger, I wrote the following:

One problem with liberals in the tax debate is that they don’t realize just how little Americans actually get from the government. When the government doesn’t provide you with universal health care, a decent pension, good schools, or accessible and affordable public transportation, why should you want to pay taxes? The answer, of course, is not for Americans to pay less but for government to spend more. As Thomas Geoghegan explains here, “people are willing to pay taxes that they spend on themselves.”

Ezra Klein is now reporting more details on what the impending fiscal cliff deal between Obama and the Republicans is going to look like: among other things, it includes cuts in Social Security benefits, and if this Dylan Matthews post from last week is correct, tax increases that would be slightly regressive in their effects (I’m not talking here, obviously, about the tax increases that would come from undoing some of the Bush tax cuts).

So that’s the deal: We raise taxes. And what do we get in return? Lower benefits. Genius!

As I wrote in the London Review of Books during the Summer 2011 debt ceiling negotiations:

If there’s a master text for this moment, it’s Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire. Not the over-cited first time as tragedy, second time as farce line, but his astonishingly prescient analysis of the reactionary behaviour of the French peasantry during the Bourbon and July monarchies. Though the 1789 Revolution and Napoleon had liberated the peasants from their landlords, the next generation of peasants was left to confront the agricultural market from small private holdings that could not sustain them. They no longer had to pay their feudal dues, but now they had to pay their mortgages and taxes to a state that seemed to do little for them. What the state did provide, under Napoleon III, was imperial spectacle. That wasn’t nothing, as Marx noted, for in and through the army the peasants were ‘transformed into heroes, defending their new possessions against the outer world, glorifying their recently won nationality, plundering and revolutionising the world. The uniform was their own state dress; war was their poetry.’ This Marx called ‘the imperialism of the peasant class’.

In Marx’s analysis we see the populist underbelly of the debt crisis, indeed of the last four decades of the right-wing tax revolt, from Howard Jarvis’s Proposition 13 of 1978, which destroyed California’s finances by putting strict limits on property tax increases, to the Tea Party. Liberals often have a difficult time making sense of these movements – don’t taxes support good things? – because they don’t see how little the American state directly provides to its citizens, relative to their economic circumstances. Since the early 1970s, with a few brief exceptions, workers’ wages have stagnated. What has the state offered in response? Public transport is virtually non-existent. Even with Obama’s reforms, the state does not provide healthcare or insurance to most people. Outside wealthy communities, state schools often fail to deliver a real education. In such circumstances, is it any wonder ordinary citizens want their taxes cut? That at least is change they can believe in.

And here Democrats like Obama and his defenders, who bemoan the stranglehold of the Tea Party on American politics, have only themselves to blame. For decades, Democrats have collaborated in stripping back the American state in the vain hope that the market would work its magic. For a time it did, though mostly through debt; workers could compensate for stagnating wages with easy credit and low-interest mortgages. Now the debt’s due to be repaid, and wages – if people are lucky enough to be working – aren’t enough to cover the bills. The only thing that’s left for them is cutting taxes. And the imperialism of the peasants.

The Four Most Beautiful Words in the English Language: I Told You So

14 Dec

It was hard not to think of Gore Vidal’s aperçu when I read this piece on Cory Booker in the New York Times this morning.

When snow blanketed this city two Christmases ago, Mayor Cory A. Booker was celebrated around the nation for personally shoveling out residents who had appealed for help on Twitter. But here, his administration was scorned as streets remained impassable for days because the city had no contract for snow removal.

Last spring, Ellen DeGeneres presented Mr. Booker with a superhero costume after he rushed into a burning building to save a neighbor. But Newark had eliminated three fire companies after the mayor’s plan to plug a budget hole failed.

In recent days, Mr. Booker has made the rounds of the national media with his pledge to live on food stamps for a week. But his constituents do not need to be reminded that six years after the mayor came into office vowing to make Newark a “model of urban transformation,” their city remains an emblem of poverty.

Cory Booker’s promise — captured in two books, two documentaries and frequent television appearances — was to save a city that had been hemorrhaging residents, industry and hope since the riots that ripped it apart 45 years ago. But a growing number of Newarkers complain that he has proved to be a better marketer than mayor, who shines in the spotlight but shows little interest in the less-glamorous work of what it takes to run a city.

…Mr. Booker is better suited to speechmaking in Washington than to governing a state.

They say Mr. Booker’s frequent Twitter posts to his 1.3 million followers, his appearances on television and at gatherings of moguls and celebrities — he was out of town nearly a quarter of the time between January 2011 and June 2012, according to The Star-Ledger — have distracted him from the local trench work needed to push his agenda. Business leaders say he dazzles at news conferences, but flags on the follow-through. Residents have wearied of the outside fascination for the mayor whom Oprah Winfrey called “a rock star” and Jon Stewart on Wednesday referred to as “the superhero mayor of Newark.”

Taxes have risen more than 20 percent over the past three years, even after the city laid off about 1,100 workers, including more than 160 police officers. Crime has risen, and unemployment is up. Schools remain under state control, and the city’s finances remain so troubled that it cannot borrow to fix its antiquated water system. While new restaurants have risen near the Prudential Center downtown, those in the outer wards were placed under a curfew this year because of shootings and drug dealing.

“There’s a lot of frustration and disappointment,” said Assemblyman Albert Coutinho, a Democrat representing Newark. “People feel that the mayor basically is out of the city too much and doesn’t focus much on the day-to-day.

Asked about complaints from residents and business owners that garbage is not picked up, abandoned buildings are not boarded up and public spaces are in disrepair, the mayor talked about a new system that allows him to track which streets need snowplows and which departments are paying for too much overtime — even when he is out of town.

He invited a reporter to see the system in action. He then called to apologize that he could not be there: “I’m in and out of New York all day.”

Instead, his staff demonstrated the system. Mr. Booker was on his way to host a reading at a bookstore on the Upper West Side, filmed by CNN. He then spoke at a benefit at Cipriani and attended a movie premiere at Google’s New York headquarters. Afterward, he announced on Twitter, “I sat on a panel with Richard Branson.”

Yes, I told you so.

An Open Letter to Glenn Greenwald

12 Dec

Dear Glenn:

I liked your recent post criticizing those film critics who are championing Zero Dark Thirty despite its false depiction (and implicit celebration) of the role of torture in capturing Osama bin Laden.

But I think you’re going about this business of criticizing film critics all wrong.

Here’s a little pro-tip I learned in my recent foray as an amateur critic of Lincoln.

Apparently it’s not good form to ask a film to be something other than what it is. You can’t criticize the film you didn’t see—only the film you did see. (I know, James Agee makes a hash of that distinction, but he’s no Roger Ebert.)

In your case, that means you have to criticize the criticism we have, not the criticism you wish we had. So if the critic is defending a film that glorifies torture, you can’t criticize said critic for defending said film. That’s like taking Spielberg to task for not including in a film about black emancipation more depictions of blacks emancipating themselves and pushing for emancipation.

Instead, you should…beats the shit out of me.

Best,

Corey

New York Times: It’s Not Like Bradley Manning is O.J. Simpson or Something

6 Dec

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has criticized the Times‘ decision not to send a reporter to cover Bradley Manning’s pretrial testimony. Good for her. Times Washington Bureau Chief David Leonhardt, however, defends the paper’s decision.

We’ve covered him and will continue to do so. But as with any other legal case, we won’t cover every single proceeding. In this case, doing so would have involved multiple days of a reporter’s time, for a relatively straightforward story. The A.P. article recounting the main points of Mr. Manning’s testimony about his conditions of confinement that ran on page A3 of The Times conveyed fundamentally the same material as a staff story would have. And Charlie Savage covered his conditions of confinement, as they were being debated, in two previous articles: http://goo.gl/dvFV0, http://goo.gl/gYTX7.

Again, though, readers can definitely expect more coverage of Mr. Manning in the weeks to come.

Not so good for him.

Cause here’s the deal. Once upon a time, there was a trial involving O.J. Simpson. Nicole Brown Simpson, his ex-wife, was found dead on June 12, 1994. After that, the Times ran 494 stories—and that was before the jury had even been sworn in on November 2, 1994. Then the Times ran 453 stories—and that was before the prosecution even made its opening statement on January 4, 1995.  And then the Times ran 1110 stories—before the jury delivered its verdict on October 3.

The reporting pieces were written by senior Times staffers such as Seth Mydans, David Margolick, and Francis X. Clines. And the commentary elicited the efforts of William Safire, Russell Baker, Anna Quindlen, Frank Rich, Brent Staples, A.M. “Out of My Mind” Rosenthal, Michiko Kakutani, and more.

So I think Mr. Leonhardt can spare a reporter or two to tell us what Bradley Manning has to say.

Update (1 pm)

I should have mentioned this in my original post: If you want the whole story on Bradley Manning, you have to read Chase Madar’s book The Passion of Bradley Manning. Chase has been on this case for a long time; would that the Times took his lead.

A Question for A.O. Scott and Ta-Nehisi Coates

4 Dec

Ta-Nehisi Coates is sponsoring a fascinating conversation between himself, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, and historian Kate Masur about the film Lincoln. It’s a real treat to read these three distinct and expert voices engage with each other; I’m eager to hear Kate’s response to what’s been said so far.

Both Coates and Scott bring up an interesting point that I hadn’t really considered about the film: not only how it represents the Civil War as fundamentally a fight about slavery, but also how radical, even revolutionary, that is in the context of American film history. I don’t know a lot about film history, but that makes a lot of sense to me.

But it also raises a question for me. Both Coates and Scott seem to assume—they’re not explicit about this, so I emphasize the “seem”—that movies are the medium of mass culture, the vehicle by which people learn their history. Scott writes:

And I also think that, within the history of American film and of pop-cultural depictions of the Civil War more generally, it is radical in ways that have not been sufficiently noted.

I have no confirmation of this from any source, but it is my hunch that some of the intention in making Lincoln was to offer a corrective to Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, films that are hardly taken seriously as history but that nonetheless still constitute part of the fantasy life of the Republic. You could say that Spielberg and Kushner propose a counter-fantasy.

Coates is more explicit:

Thus the reason I think we don’t see more liberals engaging in a full-throated defense of Lincoln is that the opposing view—the one that animates films like the Gone With Wind and Gods and Generals, which animates television shows like Hell on Wheels, which finds people holding Secession Balls and celebrating the attempt to raise a republic premised on white supremacy—has no respect among anyone who’s seriously thought about the issue.

Think about it like this. There’s been a great debate roiling the academy between people like Sean Wilentz who think we underplay the importance of politicians, and historians who emphasize the actions of activists and radicals. This has been a pretty heated debate, and I think we see it play out in Lincoln. But it’s not like Wilentz is trying to “clean” slavery. The role of politicians and radicals in democracy is a legit and interesting debate in a way that debating states rights vs. slavery just isn’t.

Conservatives, as they have in other intellectual arenas, have simply fled the field. The result is that when you see a film like Lincoln, what you find is liberals hotly critiquing the film because things that may seem revolutionary in the grand sweep of American politics aren’t among people who’ve spent years thinking about Lincoln’s legacy and the Civil War.

Coates says that the wrong view of the Civil War—that it wasn’t about slavery—”has no respect among anyone who’s seriously thought about the issue.” The implication is that the right view is mostly, or even only, held by academics and serious readers.

What both Scott and Coates are leaving out of their account of mass culture is the most common cultural institution of all: the school. Not everyone sees Lincoln, but everyone does go to school. (And as Aaron Bady pointed out to me in an email, how many people have seen Birth of a Nation?) Of course, Coates and Scott aren’t really saying that people only get their history from film, but they are suggesting that film is the cultural medium by which the polity narrates its history to itself. But aren’t schools—public and private— the more likely medium of the mass cultural transmission of history, and a better, or at least comparable, indicator of how the polity understands itself?

And then the question becomes: what are students learning about the Civil War in the schools? Coates, Scott, and Masur agree that the historiographical consensus is that slavery lay at the root of the Civil War. Insofar as history teachers in the schools are trained to some degree in their field, wouldn’t that consensus be taught in the classroom? Found in the textbooks?

To answer this, we’d have to look at state curricula, and as Connor Kilkpatrick pointed out to me in an email, Texas plays an outsized role in creating textbook content. So that’s not promising. And a fair number of teachers, particularly of a previous generation, were schooled in a kind of soft-left critique of the Northern position during the Civil War, which gave the impression that it was all about greedy northern capitalists. In addition, if you read comments threads of many blogs (not the most reliable indicator of mass opinion but still), the Lost Cause theme is out there. Coates has been rightly flagging this crap for years, and it plays a big role, as he says, on the Right.

Still, I’d be curious to find out how the Civil War is taught today in the schools. And here I defer to Coates and Masur, as well as my readers, many of whom are public school teachers who would definitely know a lot more about this than I do.

Because I’m wondering if there isn’t a vast majority—somewhere between the history profession and the Lost Causers that surround the Ron Paul movement that Coates speaks of—that both Coates and Scott are leaving out.

That said, I did overhear this on 12th Street, not more than an hour ago.

So I was telling her about Lincoln, but I didn’t want to give it away and say that he got shot.

Update (1:10 pm)

Well, that was fast. Henry Farrell just sent me a link to this post he wrote last year. Long story short, I’m probably wrong (though Henry doesn’t talk about the schools or curricula).

I became a US citizen yesterday, after spending some time over the previous few days reading the US civics study guide to study for the citizenship exam (since I am a political scientist, it would have been particularly embarrassing for me if I had failed it). For better or worse, it’s hard for me to switch off my inner social scientist. Hence, I started paying a different kind of attention when I read that ‘states rights’ is one of three acceptable answers to the civics question ‘name one problem that led to the Civil War’ (slavery and economics are the other two). My understanding, perhaps mistaken, is that ‘states’ rights’ is typically employed as an explanation by those who would prefer to forget (as Ta-Nehisi Coates notes; also here) that it was one particular right – the right to own slaves – that was what was really at stake in the conflict. The study guide goes on to elaborate that:

The Civil War began when 11 southern states voted to secede (separate) from the United States to form their own country, the Confederate States of America. These southern states believed that the federal government of the United States threatened their right to make their own decisions. They wanted states’ rights with each state making their own decisions about their government. If the national government
contradicted the state, they did not want to follow the national government.

after which it does get into a discussion of the relationship between slavery and economic systems in North and South, and its relationship to the Civil War.

This – of course – was only a very small part of the event in question (and in any event I got asked a completely different set of questions on the day) – but it was interesting. Tests of this kind are a very useful way of gauging what is accepted, and what is not accepted as part of the official national narrative, especially when, as in the US, there is no national history curriculum. I was surprised that this was part of the accepted (or at least acceptable) narrative…

Update (2:30 pm)

Kate Masur has a very powerful response to Coates and Scott.

Tony argues that the film is a “radical” contribution to the film history of the Civil War because it doesn’t trade in Lost Cause nostalgia or the hackneyed idea of the tragic “brothers’ war.” I don’t quite agree with that interpretation. What I want to emphasize here, however, is that by deciding to focus on Lincoln’s struggle to abolish slavery, Spielberg and Kushner ensured that the film would be seen within another history: the history of films about struggles for black civil rights and equality. In that context—with its benevolent white heroes and patient, passive African Americans—the film is decidedly not innovative.

I agree that this is not a reactionary film. It does not repeat many of the historical inaccuracies and white supremacist messages of earlier films about the Civil War. It does not argue that Lincoln was a tyrant or that African Americans were better off in slavery. But isn’t that setting the bar awfully low? Aren’t we entitled to expect a bit more from people as smart and well-financed (and liberal) as Spielberg and Kushner?

Jefferson’s Race Obsession is a Response to Emancipation, not Slavery

2 Dec

Thanks to some provocative comments from my friend Nikhil Singh, and a spirited critique of my post from someone at Crooked Timber, it occurred to me that we may really be missing the significance of Jefferson if we think of him solely in the context of slavery (and I may have contributed to that). As both scholars and defenders of Jefferson have pointed out, Jefferson was not a fan of slavery. He had grave moral doubts about the institution, which he expressed in Notes on the State of Virginia and elsewhere, even if he almost never acted on them. Especially in his earlier years, he thought emancipation was inevitable (though that belief got somewhat more strained as time went on).

But if we shift our lens of analysis from slavery to post-slavery, Jefferson’s writings on race, which I explored at length yesterday, assume a far more illuminating—and ominous—cast. For what Jefferson is clearly trying to grapple with, in a way that few other theorists of his time are, is: what in the world are we (whites) going to do with these people (blacks) once they are free? How can we share this land with creatures that are so obviously inferior and subordinate and other? And the solutions he comes up—not just colonization but actual deportation (or extermination through race war)—reflect his orientation to the future, not to an institution that he doesn’t believe will exist much longer, but to a post-emancipation situation.

Jefferson’s haunting obsession, in other words, is black freedom, not black slavery—and indeed he spent quite a bit of time drawing up legislative codes in Virginia that would have imposed major liabilities and restrictions upon the movement and freedom of free blacks.

And it is in that light that we start to see the European parallels. For what was the Jewish Question of the 19th century if not an extended meditation on what we Germans or Europeans were going to do with this ancient inscrutable people who, thanks to Napoleon, had suddenly been thrown among us. Among us, but not of us. Simply read Richard Wagner’s Judaism in Music (1850) to get a taste of an equally cultivated European grappling with a similar problematic as Jefferson.

And the answers, of course, that Jefferson mooted—deportation, elimination—point us, as I said, forward. It’s not to say he was a fascist; too many other elements would have to cohere for that to occur. But he was laboring in nearby vineyards. Again, because unlike many of brethren, North and South, he truly grappled with the problem of how a dominant majority must deal with a despised minority when it has been forced upon the national scene.

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