Archive by Author

On the death of Gabriel García Marquez

23 Apr

Greg Grandin writes in The Nation:

Born in 1927, Gabriel García Márquez was 87 when he died last week. According to his younger brother, Jaime, he had been suffering from complications caused by chemotherapy, which saved his life but accelerated his dementia, a disease that apparently ran in his family. He’d call his brother and ask to be reminded about simple things. “He has problems with his memory,” Jaime reported a few years back.

Remembering and forgetting are García Márquez’s great themes, so it would be easy to read meaning into his senility. The writer was fading into his own solitude, suffering the same fate he assigned to the inhabitants of his fictional town of Macondo, in his most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Struck by an insomnia plague, “sinking irrevocably into the quicksand of forgetfulness,” they had to make signs telling themselves what to remember. “This is a cow. She must be milked.” “God exists.”

The climax of One Hundred Years of Solitude is famously based on a true historical event that took place shortly after García Márquez’s birth: in 1928, in the Magdalena banana zone on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, not far from where the author was born, the Colombian military opened fire on striking United Fruit Company plantation workers, killing an unknown number. In the novel, García Márquez uses this event to capture the profane fury of modern capital, so powerful it not only can dispossess land and command soldiers but control the weather. After the killing, the company’s US administrator, “Mr. Brown,” summons up an interminable whirlwind that washes away not only Macondo but any recollection of the massacre. The storm propels the reader forward toward the novel’s famous last line, where the last descendant of the Buendía family finds himself in a room reading a gypsy prophesy: everything he knew and loved would be “wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men…because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”

It’s a powerful parable of imperialism. But the real wonder of the book is not the way it represented the past, including Colombia’s long history of violent civil war, but how it predicted the future.

One Hundred Years of Solitude first appeared in Spanish in Buenos Aires in May 1967, a moment when it was not at all clear that the forces of oblivion had the upper hand. That year, the Brazilian Paulo Freire, in exile in Chile and working with that country’s agrarian reform, published his first book, Education as the Practice of Freedom, which kicked off a revolution in pedagogy that shook Latin America’s top-down, learn-by-rote-memorization school system to its core. The armed and unarmed New Left, in Latin America and elsewhere, seemed to be in ascendance. In Chile, the Popular Unity coalition would soon elect Salvador Allende president. In Argentina, radical Peronists were on the march. Even in military-controlled Brazil, there was a thaw. Che in Bolivia still had a few months left.

In other words, the doom forecast in One Hundred Years was not at all foregone. But within just a few years of the novel’s publication, the tide, with Washington’s encouragement and Henry Kissinger’s blessing, turned. By the end of the 1970s, military regimes ruled the continent and Operation Condor was running a transnational assassination campaign. Then, in the 1980s in Central America, Washington would support genocide in Guatemala, death squads in El Salvador and homicidal “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua.

Political violence was not new to Latin America, but these counterinsurgent states executed a different kind of repression. The terror was aimed at eliminating not just opponents but also alternatives, targeting the kind of social-democratic solidarity and humanism that powered the postwar Latin American left. Hundreds of thousands of people were disappeared and an equal number tortured. Hundreds of communities were, like Macondo, wiped off the face of the earth.

It is this feverish, ideological repression, meant to instill collective amnesia, that García Márquez so uncannily anticipates in One Hundred Years. “There must have been three thousand of them,” says the novel’s lone survivor of the banana massacre, referring to the murdered strikers. “There haven’t been any dead here,” he’s told.

A year and a half after García Márquez published that dialogue, a witness to the October 2, 1968, Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City cried, “Look at the blood… there was a massacre here!” To which a soldier replied, “Oh lady, it is obvious that you don’t know what blood is.” Hundreds of student protesters were killed or wounded that day by the Mexican military, though for years the government denied the extent of the slaughter. Even the torrential downpour in One Hundred Years is replicated at Tlatelolco: as Mexican tanks rolled in to seal off the exit streets, one witness recalls that “the drizzle turned into a storm…and I thought that now we are not going to hear the shooting.”

As a young writer, García Márquez felt constrained by the two genre options available to him: either florid, overly symbolic modernism or quaint folklorism. But Gaitán offered an alternative. Upon hearing that speech, García Márquez “understood all at once that he had gone beyond the Spanish country and was inventing a lingua franca for everyone.” García Márquez describes the style as a distinctly Latin American vernacular that, by focusing on his country’s worsening repression and rural poverty, opened a “breach” in the arid discourse of liberalism, conservatism and even Marxism.

García Márquez flung himself through that breach, developing a voice that, when fully realized in One Hundred Years, took dependency theory (a social-science argument associated with the Latin American left that held that the prosperity of the First World depended on the impoverishment of the Third) and turned it into an art form.

If Castro is autumn’s patriarch, Allende is the democratic lost in history’s labyrinth. Drawing on his by then finely tuned sense of historical existentialism, García Márquez presents Allende as a fully realized Sartrean anti-hero, alone in the presidential palace, “aged, tense and full of gloomy premonitions.” The Chilean embodied and confronted an “irreversible dialectic”: Allende’s life proved that democracy and socialism were not only compatible but that the fulfillment of the former depended on the achievement of the latter. Over the course of his political career, he was able to work though democratic institutions to lessen the misery of a majority of Chileans, bringing them into the political system, which in turn made the system more inclusive and participatory. But his life, or, rather, his death, also proved the opposite: democracy and socialism were incompatible, because those who are threatened by socialism used democratic freedoms—subverting the press, corrupting opposition parties and unions, and inflaming the military—to destroy democracy.

Read it all here, at The Nation, and then make sure to buy Grandin’s latest book The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World—the true story behind Melville’s Benito Cereno. That old cliché about truth being stranger than fiction? There’s a reason it’s a cliché…

Classical Liberalism ≠ Libertarianism, Vol. 2

22 Apr

Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy,  A Treatise on Political Economy (1817):

The truly sterile class is that of the idle, who do nothing but live, nobly as it is termed, on the products of labours executed before their time, whether these products are realised in landed estates which they lease, that is to say which they hire to a labourer, or that they consist in money or effects which they lend for a premium, which is still a hireling.—These are the true drones of the hive…

Luxury, exaggerated and superfluous consumption, is therefore never good for any thing, economically speaking. It can only have an indirect utility. Which is by ruining the rich, to take from the hands of idle men those funds which, being distributed amongst those who labour, may enable them to economise, and thus form capitals in the industrious class.

Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (1960):

There must be, in other words, a tolerance for the existence of a group of idle rich—idle not in the sense that they do nothing useful but in the sense that their aims are not entirely governed by considerations of material gain.

What today may seem extravagance or even waste, because it is enjoyed by the few and even undreamed of by the masses, is payment for the experimentation with a style of living that will eventually be available to many.

The importance of the private owner of substantial property, however, does not rest simply on the fact that his existence is an essential condition for the preservation of the structure of competitive enterprise. The man of independent means is an even more important figure in a free society when he is not occupied with using his capital in the pursuit of material gain but uses it in the service of aims which bring no material return. It is more in the support of aims which the mechanism of the market cannot adequately take care of than in preserving that market that the man of independent means has his indispensable role to play in any civilized society.

Tyler Cowen, “Capital Punishment” (2014):

Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity….Consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others….The nineteenth century, with its high capital-to-income ratios, was in fact one of the most dynamic periods of European history. Stocks of wealth stimulated invention by liberating creators from the immediate demands of the marketplace and allowing them to explore their fancies, enriching generations to come.

For “Classical Liberalism ≠ Libertarianism, Vol. 1″, see here.

Tyler Cowen is one of Nietzsche’s Marginal Children

22 Apr

Tyler Cowen reviews Thomas Piketty:

Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity. Piketty’s own book was published by the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, which received its initial funding in the form of a 1949 bequest from Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., an architect and art historian who inherited a good deal of money from his father, a vice president of Bankers Trust. (The imprint’s funds were later supplemented by a grant from Belknap’s mother.) And consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others.

Notice, too, how many of those names hail from the nineteenth century. Piketty is sympathetically attached to a relatively low capital-to-income ratio. But the nineteenth century, with its high capital-to-income ratios, was in fact one of the most dynamic periods of European history. Stocks of wealth stimulated invention by liberating creators from the immediate demands of the marketplace and allowing them to explore their fancies, enriching generations to come.

Nietzsche’s Marginal Children:

In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek developed this notion into a full-blown theory of the wealthy and the well-born as an avant-garde of taste, as makers of new horizons of value from which the rest of humanity took its bearings. Instead of the market of consumers dictating the actions of capital, it would be capital that would determine the market of consumption…

As this reference to “future wants and desires” suggests, Hayek has much more in mind than producers responding to a pre-existing market of demand; he’s talking about men who create new markets—and not just of wants or desires, but of basic tastes and beliefs. The freedom Hayek cares most about is the freedom of those legislators of value who shape and determine our ends.

 

More interesting is how explicit and insistent Hayek is about linking the legislation of new values to the possession of vast amounts of wealth and capital, even—or especially—wealth that has been inherited. Often, says Hayek, it is only the very rich who can afford new products or tastes….

The most important contribution of great wealth, however, is that it frees its possessor from the pursuit of money so that he can pursue nonmaterial goals. Liberated from the workplace and the rat race, the “idle rich”—a phrase Hayek seeks to reclaim as a positive good—can devote themselves to patronizing the arts, subsidizing worthy causes like abolition or penal reform, founding new philanthropies and cultural institutions….

The men of capital, in other words, are best understood not as economic magnates but as cultural legislators: “However important the independent owner of property may be for the economic order of a free society, his importance is perhaps even greater in the fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs.”

Three Theses (not really: more like two graphs and a link) on Nazism and Capitalism

22 Apr

Commenters on my little Nazism and capitalism post are claiming that the graph tells us nothing about the Nazis and capitalism; it only tells us that the economy improved under the Nazis. As it did in the United States under FDR. So maybe the graph plotting capital’s return under Nazism just shows general improvement in the economy in the 1930s, an improvement widely shared throughout the industrial world?

Luckily, Suresh Naidu, the kick-ass economist at Columbia, supplied me with the following graphs.

This first graph, which comes from Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, compares the share of national income that went to capital in the US and in Germany between 1929 and 1938. Suresh tells me that the share roughly tracks capital’s rate of return. Long story short: capital was doing better under the Nazis than under FDR. Not because of overall increases in economic performance in one country versus another but because of the economic policies of the regime. Or so Suresh tells me. (Usually academics are supposed to acknowledge their debts to their friends and readers but own all errors as their own: in this case, I’m blaming everything on Suresh.)

 

From Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

From Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

 

The second graph—which comes from this fascinating article by Thomas Ferguson and Hans-Joachim Voth, “Betting on Hitler: The Value of Political Connections in Nazi Germany“—tracks the stock market’s performance in Britain, US, France, and Germany, from January 1930 to November 1933. As you can see, in the early months that Hitler came to power, Germany’s stock market performance was quite strong, outstripping all the others; it’s not until July that it even crosses paths with Britain’s, the second best performer.

 

From Thomas Ferguson and Hans-Joachim Voth, "Betting on Hitler: The Value of Political Connections in Nazi Germany"

From Thomas Ferguson and Hans-Joachim Voth, “Betting on Hitler: The Value of Political Connections in Nazi Germany”

 

The last tidbit I want to share is this article by Germà Bell, “Against the Mainstream: Nazi Privatization in the 1930s,” from The Economic History Review. Phil Mirowski sent it to me, after I shared with him the Bell article on the language of privatization that I cited in my previous post. This article also has some fascinating findings. From the abstract:

In the mid-1930s, the Nazi regime transferred public ownership to the private sector. In doing so, they went against the mainstream trends in western capitalistic countries, none of which systematically reprivatized firms during the 1930s.

 

Why Does the Winger Whine? What Does the Winger Want?

20 Apr

At National Review Online, Jonathan Adler writes:

Over at the progressive blog, Crooked Timber, Corey Robin lists “Eleven Things You Did Not Know About Clarence Thomas.”  The items Robin lists shouldn’t surprise avid court watchers, or others who have paid much attention to the conservative justice.  Judging from the comments, however, several of the items were quite a revelation to CT’s readership.  I can only imagine the surprise if Robin had blogged on Justice Thomas’s jurisprudence, further challenging the caricature of Clarence Thomas that continues to dominate so much liberal commentary about him.

Actually, a fair number of commenters at CT claimed not to be surprised by these revelations at all.

In any event, you’d think Adler would have been pleased that a group of progressives were having some of their misconceptions about Thomas challenged, if not dispelled. Instead, he complains about the fact that the misconceptions of a group of progressives are getting challenged, if not dispelled. Apparently the only thing worse than the left not knowing something about the right is…the left learning something about the right.

Wingers whine when we don’t pay attention to them; they whine when we do pay attention to them. Why do they whine so much? What does the winger want?

From The Reactionary Mind:

“The 1960s are rightly remembered as years of cultural dissent and political upheaval, but they are wrongly remembered as years stirred only from the left,” writes George Will in the foreword to a reissued edition of Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Several decades ago, such a claim would have elicited puzzled looks, if not catcalls and jeers. But in the years since, the publication of a slew of books, each advancing the notion that most of the political innovation of the last half-century has come from the right, has led historians to revise the conventional wisdom about postwar America, including the 1960s. The new consensus is reflected in the opening sentence of Ronald Story and Bruce Laurie’s The Rise of Conservatism in America, 1945–2000 : “The central story of American politics since World War II is the emergence of the conservative movement.” Yet for some reason Will still feels that his kinsmen are insufficiently appreciated and recognized.

Will is hardly the first conservative to believe himself an exile in his own country. A sense of exclusion has haunted the movement from the beginning, when émigrés fled the French Revolution and Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre took up their cause. Born in the shadow of loss—of property, standing, memory, inheritance, a place in the sun—conservatism remains a gathering of fugitives. Even when assured of his position, the conservative plays the truant. Whether instrumental or sincere, this fusion of pariah and power is one of the sources of his appeal. As William F. Buckley wrote in the founding statement of National Review, the conservative’s badge of exclusion has made him “just about the hottest thing in town.”

While David Hume and Adam Smith are often cited by the more genteel defenders of conservatism as the movement’s leading lights, their writings cannot account for, as we have seen, what is truly bizarre about conservatism: a ruling class resting its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood, arguably for the first time in history. Plato’s guardians were wise; Aquinas’s king was good; Hobbes’s sovereign was, well, sovereign. But the best defense of monarchy Maistre could muster was that his aspiring king had attended the “terrible school of misfortune” and suffered in the “hard school of adversity.” Maistre had good reason to offer this defense: playing the plebe, we now know, is a critical weapon in the conservative arsenal. Still, it’s a confusing defense. After all, if the main offering a prince brings to the table is that he’s really a pauper, why not seat the pauper instead?

Conservatives have asked us not to obey them, but to feel sorry for them—or to obey them because we feel sorry for them. Rousseau was the first to articulate a political theory of pity, and for that he has been called the “Homer of the losers.” But doesn’t Burke, with his overwrought account of Marie Antoinette that we saw in chapter 1—“this persecuted woman,” dragged “almost naked” by “the furies of hell” from her bedroom in Versailles and marched to “a Bastile for kings” in Paris—have some claim to the title, too?

Or just listen to Chet Baker…

 

Or this lovely version from Thelonious Monk…

Next time someone tells you the Nazis were anti-capitalist…

20 Apr
From Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy

From Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy

 

h/t Suresh Naidu

Update (5 pm)

On Twitter, Justin Paulson brought this fascinating article from The Journal of Economic Perspectives to my attention. It’s called “The Coining of ‘Privatization’ and Germany’s National Socialist Party.” Apparently, the first use of the word “privatization” (or “reprivatization”) in English occurred in the 1930s, in the context of explaining economic policy in the Third Reich. Indeed, the English word was formulated as a translation of the German word “Reprivatisierung,” which had itself been newly minted under the Third Reich.

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Eleven Things You Did Not Know About Clarence Thomas

17 Apr

1. The first time Clarence Thomas went to DC, it was to protest the Vietnam War.

2. Clarence Thomas grew up a stone’s throw from the Moon River that Audrey Hepburn sang about in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

3. In the 1970s, Clarence Thomas kept a Confederate flag on his desk. [Correction: It was the Georgia State flag, which features quite prominently the Confederate stars and bars. It was a large flag, apparently, and he hung it over his desk.]

4. There’s a law review article about Clarence Thomas called “Clarence X?: The Black Nationalist Behind Justice Thomas’s Constitutionalism.”

5. Clarence Thomas attended antiwar rallies in Boston where he called for the release of Angela Davis and Erica Huggins.

6. Clarence Thomas told Juan Williams that “there is nothing you can do to get past black skin. I don’t care how educated you are, how good you are—you’ll never have the same contacts or opportunities, you’ll never be seen as equal to whites.”

7. Clarence Thomas is the only Supreme Court justice to have cited Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois in his opinions.

8. In college, Clarence Thomas hung posters of Malcolm X on his wall, memorized his speeches, and studied his writings. “I’ve been very partial to Malcolm X,” he told Reason in 1987. “There is a lot of good in what he says.”

9. Clarence Thomas does not believe in color-blindness: “I don’t think this society has ever been color-blind. I grew up in Savannah, Georgia under segregation. It wasn’t color-blind and America is not color-blind today…Code words like ‘color-blind’ aren’t all that useful.”

10. Yale Law scholar Akhil Reed Amar has compared Clarence Thomas to Hugo Black:

Both were Southerners who came to the Court young and with very little judicial experience. Early in their careers, they were often in dissent, sometimes by themselves, but they were content to go their own way. But once Earl Warren became Chief Justice the Court started to come to Black. It’s the same with Thomas and the Roberts Court. Thomas’s views are now being followed by a majority of the Court in case after case.

11. Clarence Thomas resents the fact that as a black man he is not supposed to listen to Carole King.

Being in Egypt: When Jews Were a Demographic Time Bomb

13 Apr

From the Haggadah:

And they did us evil, those Egyptians. They made us seem malevolent, as it is written: Behold, the nation of the children of Israel has become too many and too massive for us. Let us find a solution for this before they further multiply.

Two points. First, the evil that the Egyptians did to the Jews was to construe them as malevolent, as wicked. Second, their wickedness consisted in becoming a massive nation within a nation. The Egyptians understood the wickedness of the Jews, in other words, by virtue of the demographic challenge they posed to the Egyptian nation.

I’m not big on readings of the Haggadah that seek to extract contemporary political instruction from the text. Often those sorts of exercises seem more facile than fertile. But it’s hard for me not to see a kind of parable of contemporary Israel/Palestine in this passage.

Where a generation ago the Palestinians were construed as wicked primarily in terms of the terrorism they were supposed to threaten Israel with, nowadays the threat is understood to be almost entirely demographic. Even if every Palestinian were to lay down his or her arms, their mere existence as a people within the borders of Israel is understood to be a malignant growth within the nation. Actually, according to Wikipedia, that understanding of the demographic threat has always been there; it just has become more prominent in recent years, perhaps because of the cessation of most forms of violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

This understanding of the demographic time bomb—itself a revealing phrase—is something that unites Zionists of all stripes. A few years ago, writing in Commentary, Michael Oren identified “the Arab demographic threat” as one of “seven existential threats” facing Israel.

 

Estimates of the Arab growth rate, both within Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, vary widely. A maximalist school holds that the Palestinian population on both sides of the 1949 armistice lines is expanding far more rapidly than the Jewish sector and will surpass it in less than a decade. Countering this claim, a minimalist school insists that the Arab birthrate in Israel is declining and that the population of the territories, because of emigration, is also shrinking.

Even if the minimalist interpretation is largely correct, it cannot alter a situation in which Israeli Arabs currently constitute one-fifth of the country’s population—one-quarter of the population under age 19–and in which the West Bank now contains at least 2 million Arabs.

Israel, the Jewish State, is predicated on a decisive and stable Jewish majority of at least 70 percent. Any lower than that and Israel will have to decide between being a Jewish state and a democratic state. If it chooses democracy, then Israel as a Jewish state will cease to exist. If it remains officially Jewish, then the state will face an unprecedented level of international isolation, including sanctions, that might prove fatal.

Ideally, the remedy for this dilemma lies in separate states for Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The basic conditions for such a solution, however, are unrealizable for the foreseeable future. The creation of Palestinian government, even within the parameters of the deal proposed by President Clinton in 2000, would require the removal of at least 100,000 Israelis from their West Bank homes. The evacuation of a mere 8,100 Israelis from Gaza in 2005 required 55,000 IDF troops—the largest Israeli military operation since the 1973 Yom Kippur War—and was profoundly traumatic. And unlike the biblical heartland of Judaea and Samaria, which is now called the West Bank, Gaza has never been universally regarded as part of the historical Land of Israel.

Notice the stress Oren puts on “ideally”—even he thinks a two-state solution to the “demographic threat” isn’t likely— and the challenge he sees in removing the settlers from the West Bank (and the small numbers of settlers he mentions).

Now here’s the more liberal Peter Beinart speaking recently at Columbia:

You cannot permanently hold people without a passport, without the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, and the right to live under the same legal system as their neighbors who are of a different religion or ethnic group. Israel either solves that problem, by giving Palestinians a state of their own which you and I both want or– or– Israel will ultimately have to give citizenship and voting rights to Palestinians on the West Bank in the state of Israel, which will mean the end of the Jewish state of Israel.

And it is because of my fear of that that I write much of what I do on this very subject.

Beinart’s more optimistic, I think, about the prospects of a two-state solution. But the same understanding of a demographic time bomb is there.

Wherever you live, it is probably Egypt: Thoughts on Passover

12 Apr

The first night of Passover is on Monday, and I’ve been thinking about and preparing for the Seder. I had a mini-victory this morning, when I was shopping for fish in Crown Heights. The guy at the fish store told me that thanks to the Polar Vortex, 90% of Lake Huron is frozen. Which means no whitefish. Which means no gefilte fish. So I put on my best impression of Charlotte in Sex and the City —”I said lean!”—and managed, through a combination of moxie and charm, to get him to give me the last three pounds of whitefish and pike in Crown Heights. Plus a pound of carp. Which means…gefilte fish!

Food is the easy part of the seder. The hard part is making it all mean something. When I was a union organizer, I used to go to freedom seders. Being part of the labor movement, I found it easy to see points of connection between what I was doing and this ancient story of bondage, struggle, and emancipation (a story, however, that we never seem to really tell at Passover).

Then, as my feelings about Zionism became more critical, I found a new point of connection to Passover: using the Seder, and the Exodus story, as a moment to reflect upon the relationship between the Jews, the land of Israel, and possession of that land, to ask why we have to think of emancipation in terms of possession at all. For a while there, we’d hold seders with readings from Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution and Edward Said’s brilliant critique of Walzer in Granta: “Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution: A Canaanite Reading.”

But nowadays, the Seder is harder for me. I’m more puzzled by the meaning of slavery and emancipation; I find it more difficult to make the connections I used to make. The Haggadah seems stranger, more remote, than ever.

So I asked folks on Facebook to make some suggestions for supplemental readings. Jade Larissa Schiff, a political theorist at Oberlin, suggested Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. I’ve taught this text more than a dozen times, to undergrads and grad students. But I’ve always been leery of using it at Passover. There are few things more embarrassing than being at a seder where relatively privileged people talk about being slaves. But I gave it a re-read.

Turns out, there’s quite a bit in the text that’s relevant. I don’t want to steal the thunder from our seder, but here are just a few passages that jumped out at me. I share them with you all, whether you’re going to a seder or not, in the spirit of the holiday. And in the spirit of what Walzer says about the meaning of the Exodus story in the closing passages of Exodus and Revolution:

We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about the meaning and possibility of politics, and about its proper form:

—first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;

—second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;

—and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.

1. In this passage from chapter 6, Douglass describes his discovery of the subversive power of reading (in a later passage, he’ll describe the misery that can come with the self-knowledge that reading brings). Reading is on my mind this year for a couple of reasons. First, my six-year-old daughter began reading this past year. In the mornings, she sometimes gets up early, and sneaks a half-hour to read a page or two from one of the Harry Potter books. You can see the sense of autonomy and independence, and the subversion of authority that Douglass talks about (we try to tell her not to get up before 7), at work there.

But, second, New York, like the rest of the country, is in the middle of a battle over high-stakes testing, with an increasing number of parents simply opting out of the testing regime. Last week, parents, teachers, and students at my daughter’s elementary school held a rally to protest the latest round of tests in New York. Elizabeth Phillips, the principal of the school, wrote an oped in the Times about the insanity of eight-year-olds being forced to sit for three days as their futures get determined. It’s like the bar exam!

Anyway, reading Douglass, I got to thinking about how this activity—reading—which has been a source of joy and wonder, of subversion and autonomy, for so many children across so many decades, is now being reduced to the most mindless form of drudgery on behalf of a phantom meritocracy.

Here’s Douglass:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

2. In this passage from chapter 8, Douglass describes how his grandmother was treated when she got old and sick, nearing death. Nothing more demonstrated “the infernal character of slavery,” writes Douglass, than the disregard she was shown by her master when she was no longer useful to him. The emphatic nature of this passage—the “base ingratitude” of sending someone who is no longer useful off to die being the signature of slavery—made me wonder about how we often warehouse the elderly in homes. And what kind of slavery we’re sustaining thereby. Here’s Douglass:

If any one thing in my experience, more than another, served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing of slaveholders, it was their base ingratitude to my poor old grandmother. She had served my old master faithfully from youth to old age. She had been the source of all his wealth; she had peopled his plantation with slaves; she had become a great grandmother in his service. She had rocked him in infancy, attended him in childhood, served him through life, and at his death wiped from his icy brow the cold death-sweat, and closed his eyes forever. She was nevertheless left a slave—a slave for life—a slave in the hands of strangers; and in their hands she saw her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren, divided, like so many sheep, without being gratified with the small privilege of a single word, as to their or her own destiny. And, to cap the climax of their base ingratitude and fiendish barbarity, my grandmother, who was now very old, having outlived my old master and all his children, having seen the beginning and end of all of them, and her present owners finding she was of but little value, her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die! If my poor old grandmother now lives, she lives to suffer in utter loneliness; she lives to remember and mourn over the loss of children, the loss of grandchildren, and the loss of great-grandchildren….

The hearth is desolate. The children, the unconscious children, who once sang and danced in her presence, are gone. She gropes her way, in the darkness of age, for a drink of water. Instead of the voices of her children, she hears by day the moans of the dove, and by night the screams of the hideous owl. All is gloom. The grave is at the door. And now, when weighed down by the pains and aches of old age, when the head inclines to the feet, when the beginning and ending of human existence meet, and helpless infancy and painful old age combine together—at this time, this most needful time, the time for the exercise of that tenderness and affection which children only can exercise towards a declining parent—my poor old grandmother, the devoted mother of twelve children, is left all alone, in yonder little hut, before a few dim embers. She stands—she sits—she staggers—she falls—she groans—she dies—and there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death, or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains. Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

3. In this passage from chapter 10, Douglass describes the surveillance regime of one of his masters, Edward Covey. I was struck in reading this by the parallels with so many surveillance systems in the contemporary workplace, whether it be for maids in a hotel or white-collar workers. Particularly the emphasis on not knowing if you’re being watched or not.

Mr. Covey was one of the few slaveholders who could and did work with his hands. He was a hard-working man. He knew by himself just what a man or a boy could do. There was no deceiving him. His work went on in his absence almost as well as in his presence; and he had the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us. This he did by surprising us. He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly, if he could do it secretly. He always aimed at taking us by surprise. Such was his cunning, that we used to call him, among ourselves, “the snake.” When we were at work in the cornfield, he would sometimes crawl on his hands and knees to avoid detection, and all at once he would rise nearly in our midst, and scream out, “Ha, ha! Come, come! Dash on, dash on!” This being his mode of attack, it was never safe to stop a single minute. His comings were like a thief in the night. He appeared to us as being ever at hand. He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush, and at every window, on the plantation. He would sometimes mount his horse, as if bound to St. Michael’s, a distance of seven miles, and in half an hour afterwards you would see him coiled up in the corner of the wood-fence, watching every motion of the slaves. He would, for this purpose, leave his horse tied up in the woods. Again, he would sometimes walk up to us, and give us orders as though he was upon the point of starting on a long journey, turn his back upon us, and make as though he was going to the house to get ready; and, before he would get half way thither, he would turn short and crawl into a fence-corner, or behind some tree, and there watch us till the going down of the sun.

4. In Exodus and Revolution, Walzer points out (at least I think he does; it’s been a while) that one of the elements that made bondage in ancient Egypt bondage was the fact that the slaves had to work so much. It wasn’t merely the coerciveness, but the omnipresence, of work that they suffered and experienced as slavery. Labor was everything; labor was everywhere. In this passage, also from chapter 10, Douglass makes a similar point. It brought to mind some of the debates that several writers in and around Jacobin have been having over the last several years about the left and the politics of work: should our stance be to reform or reorganize work, to make it more just and share its burdens more equally, or to oppose it entirely, to reduce if not eliminate it? Here’s Douglass:

If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree.

In Egypt, indeed.

Chag Sameach.

Upcoming Talks and Events

27 Mar

I’m giving a bunch of talks and papers in the coming weeks.

Tomorrow, Friday, March 28, I’ll be speaking at Syracuse University on “Being a Public Intellectual: It’s Easier—and Harder—Than You Think.” At 2pm. 304 Tolley.

On Tuesday, April 8, I’ll be speaking at the New School’s Economics Department Seminar Series on “Nietzsche, Marginalism, and the Austrian School.” At 4 pm. Room D1009, Albert and Vera List Academic Center, 6 E. 16th Street.

On Friday/Saturday, May 2/3, I’ll be speaking on Clarence Thomas and black conservatism at a conference on African-American political thought at the University of Washington in Seattle. Exact date and time to be announced, but it looks like it’ll be in the Communications Building, Room 202.

If you’re in any of these neighborhoods, stop by and say hello.

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