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Gleichschaltung

27 Jan

On Hugo Chavez…

John Kerry: “Throughout his time in office, President Chavez has repeatedly undermined democratic institutions by using extra-legal means, including politically motivated incarcerations, to consolidate power.”

New York Times: “A Polarizing Figure Who Led a Movement” “strutting like the strongman in a caudillo novel”

Human Rights Watch: “Venezuela: Hugo Chávez’s Authoritarian Legacy”

On King Abdullah…

John Kerry: “King Abdullah was a man of wisdom & vision.”

New York Times: “Nudged Saudi Arabia Forward” “earned a reputation as a cautious reformer” “a force of moderation”

Human Rights Watch: “Saudi Arabia: King’s Reform Agenda Unfulfilled”

Can it be? A New Republic that’s not self-important?

22 Dec

Just before he launched The New Republic, Herbert Croly told the New York Times that the magazine would “devote a good deal of attention to the feminist movement, in general.” In his opening statement as editor of the magazine, Gabriel Snyder suggests that he intends to make good on that commitment. In part by hiring more women writers, in part by opening the magazine to the world from which it has been cloistered for so long.

But if our founders sat down today to settle on the best way to achieve this mission, they would not have picked a weekly printed magazine and ignored a vast array of digital publishing possibilities. And just like any publication with hopes of success in the world of 2014, they would want The New Republic to be better at welcoming into our fold readers, writers, and editors who reflect the American experience as it exists today.

As we revive one proud legacy of The New Republicthe launching of new voices and expertsthose new voices and experts will be diverse in race, gender, and background. As we build our editorial staff, we will reach out to talented journalists who might have previously felt unwelcome at The New Republic. If this publication is to be influential, and not merely survive, it can no longer afford to represent the views of one privileged class, nor appeal solely to a small demographic of political elites.

As Jeremy Kessler observed on Twitter, Snyder’s is a shrewd use of history: claiming the spirit of the magazine’s founders in order to free the magazine of that cramped vision that gets forged in the corridor between Harvard Yard and Leon Wieseltier’s townhouse. And that grating gravitas that made reading the magazine such a trial.

Snyder’s detractors will say that there’s a disconcerting absence of politics or ideas in his statement. I say: there’s a refreshing absence of politics and ideas in his statement. So much of the magazine’s self-importance was caught up in its sense that it was launching perpetual “insurrections of the mind.” Snyder’s modesty—intellectual, political, and stylistic—comes across as a welcome relief. At least for now.

Who knows? Maybe something good will come of this.

Update (9:30 pm)

This post by Phil Weiss makes me think that there really may be more to this shift from the old to the new New Republic. A whole demographic of the culture is giving way, maybe, to a more multicultural, less geographically specific and centered sensibility. The New Republic was, in many ways, a holdout from the postwar era, more the aura of a holdout, really. Through Wieseltier, it was meant to be the voice of Wilson and Trilling, of New York, of seriousness. It wasn’t really, which is what made the magazine a kind of kitsch. But now, with Snyder’s statement and hiring decision, perhaps we can finally say good bye to all that.

Final Thoughts on The New Republic

14 Dec

Alex Gourevitch and I have a piece in Al Jazeera America on the demise of The New Republic. Here are some excerpts:

“When intellectuals can do nothing else they start a magazine,” socialist critic Irving Howe, an erstwhile contributor to The New Republic, said. If he’s right, what does it mean when that magazine dies? That intellectuals have something else to do? Or that it’s no longer an intellectual magazine?

The New Republic was founded by intellectuals whose main aspiration was to represent the moral authority of the state and its culture over and against the self-interest of capital. Not by aligning with the labor movement or a socialist party but by bringing to bear the force of reason itself, as represented by the state, upon the small men of money. In its self-understanding, The New Republic has stood apart by standing above, a Platonic republic of mind taming the passion of the market.

But the oft-observed irony that the magazine has been buried by the very class it was meant to contain is no irony at all. For The New Republic had a hand in its undoing.

Here, at least, The New Republic remained true to one of its original tendencies. The magazine’s founders cheered U.S. entry into World War I as an opportunity to transmute domestic differences into national unity. Troubled by his former editors’ militarism, Randolph Bourne formulated the epigram “War is the health of the State.” They rejected him as soft and unpatriotic. So began the magazine’s primitive accumulation of political influence, casting off its left wing like so many vestigial body parts of the past.

In “1919,” John Dos Passos described Bourne “hopping along the grimy old brick and brownstone streets still left in New York, crying out in a shrill soundless giggle: War is the health of the State.” Reading The New Republic of the last three decades, it’s clear why. That manic mantra, repeated by Bourne three times in his essay on “The State,” reveals the mindlessness of the high-minded warrior. Whether it’s the Kaiser or the Commies, Noriega or the Sandinistas, the incantation is always the same: murderers are on the loose, appeasers are preparing their way, it’s time to march.

In the end, the brittleness of that rhetoric, its freakish remove from any discernible reality, gave the game away: Since the 1980s, when the magazine managed to engineer a genuine shift in sensibility, The New Republic had lost its way. Subsisting on a diet of ginned-up controversy — The Bell Curve! Hack Heaven! The cheapness of Muslim life, most notably to Muslims! — it had become a magazine about a magazine, its “contrarianism” contributing less to the world of ideas than to the brand (and scandals) of its writers and editors. What it lacked was a project: not a line but that metabolism of thesis and antithesis that marks the formation of any new way of thinking about power, privilege and prerogative.

“There is no discernible social ideal behind all the clever counter-punching,” former TNR literary editor Alfred Kazin complained about the magazine in 1989. “I wish I could think of TNR as moving beyond post-leftist crowing — beyond a certain parvenu smugness…I wish I could think of TNR as moving beyond the bristling, snappy, reactive common sense of the disenchanted liberal. There are worlds within worlds, even in Washington.” But in Washington they were, Kazin reminded his readers, “and no real ideas ever start here.” It was no longer an intellectuals’ magazine. Time to become a “sustainable business?”

Hughes has made much of the magazine’s return to New York. But there’s Kazin’s New York, an immigrant metropolis full of social friction, where new projects — and magazines, like The New Republic — are born. And there’s Hughes’ New York, the seat of capital. However much the magazine believes it belongs to Kazin’s New York, it has spent the better part of the past four decades preparing its return to Hughes’ New York. For all the intellectual highways and political byways its writers and editors were willing to traverse, the bridge too far was one they crossed long ago.

The problem with The New Republic

5 Dec

The New Republic is coming to an end. And the autopsies have begun. So have the critiques. But the real problem with The New Republic is not that it was racist, though it was. It’s not that it was filled with warmongers, though it was. It’s not that it punched hippies, though it did. No, the real problem with The New Republic is that for the last three decades, it has had no energy. It has had no real project. The last time The New Republic had a project was in the late 1970s/early 1980s, when it was in the journalistic vanguard of what was then called neoliberalism (not what we now call neoliberalism). That is what a great magazine of politics and culture does: it creates a project, it fashions a sensibility. The Spectator did it in the early 18th century, Partisan Review in the 1930s did it, Dissent in the 1950s did it, and The New Republic in the 1970s/1980s did it. I’m not saying that I like that last project; I don’t. I’m just saying that it was a project, and that it was a creation. Love them or hate them, great magazines gather the diverse and disparate energies of a polity and a culture and give them focus. They shape assumptions, they direct attention, they articulate a direction. The New Republic hasn’t done that since I was a teenager. (That’s the irony/inanity of Stephen Glass’ famed—really, fabled—fabulism: there was nothing fabulistic about it at all. His lies weren’t stretchers. They were social truths: they played to, repeated, every conventional assumption of the age of which the magazine was capable.) That’s why virtually every obituary for the magazine that’s been written by people of roughly my age opens or closes with a memoir of one’s high school experience; the entire constituency of the magazine seems to be suffering from a Judd Apatow-like case of arrested development. In the last three decades, The New Republic has generated controversy, clickbait, talk of the town. It’s sponsored solid journalism, smart criticism, bad policy and bloody wars. God knows, it has not suffered for talent or intelligence. But what it hasn’t done is create a sense or sensibility, a deep style in the Nietzschean sense. It has instead been living off the borrowed energy and dead labor of its past. It has long ceased to be the place where the intellectual action is. To mourn its demise now is to mourn something that disappeared years ago.

Copyrights and Property Wrongs

26 Sep

Jeffrey Toobin has an interesting piece in this week’s New Yorker on the effort of individuals to get information about themselves or their loved ones deleted from the internet.

Toobin’s set piece is a chilling story of the family of Nikki Catsouras, who was decapitated in a car accident in California. The images of the accident were so terrible that the coroner wouldn’t allow Catsouras’s parents to see the body.

Two employees of the California Highway Patrol, however, circulated photographs of the body to friends. Like oil from a spill, the photos spread across the internet. Aided by Google’s powerful search engine—ghoulish voyeurs could type in terms like “decapitated girl,” and up would pop the links—the ooze could not be contained.

Celebrities who take naked selfies, ex-cons hoping to make a clean start, victims of unfounded accusations, the parents of a woman killed in a gruesome accident: all of us have an interest in not having certain information or images about us or people we care about shared on the internet. Because it provides such a powerful sluice for the spread of that information and those images, Google has become the natural target of those who wish to protect their privacy from the prying or prurient eyes of the public.

In Europe, Toobin reports, the defenders of the right to privacy—really, the right to be forgotten, as he says—have had some success. In the spring, the European Court of Justice upheld the decision of a Spanish agency blocking Google from sharing two short articles about the debts of a lawyer in the newspaper La Vanguardia. While the newspaper could not be ordered to take down the articles, the Court held that Google could be “prohibited from linking to them in any searches relating to” the indebted lawyer’s name. As Toobin writes:

The Court went on to say, in a broadly worded directive, that all individuals in the countries within its jurisdiction had the right to prohibit Google from linking to items that were “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed.”

While the decision has quite a bit of support in Europe, it has been widely criticized in the United States as a violation of the First Amendment, threatening both freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Where the right to privacy is held to be “a fundamental human right” in Europe, claims Stanford scholar Jennifer Granick, Americans are more sensitive to issues of freedom of expression; they prefer to deal with the privacy issues, if they do deal with them at all, in a piecemeal fashion. Europe’s position, as Toobin explains, comes out of the continent’s long experience with state surveillance, with governments making use of personal data in ways that presumably the American state has not.

And yet…

As Toobin goes onto explain, Americans can legally protect themselves from unwanted scrutiny or embarrassment on the internet through a different legal instrument: copyright law.

Because Google is extremely sensitive to the legal claims of those who own specific words or images, it steadfastly refuses to link to copyrighted materials and images (or allow people to post copyrighted videos on YouTube, which it owns.) So if a celebrity were to take a selfy, or if the Catsouras family owned the photographs of their daughter—they tried, unsuccessfully, to get the California Highway Patrol to give them the copyright—Google could be forced, or persuaded, to stop linking to any sites that posted them. That threat of copyright violation can be very effective.

In August, racy private photographs of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and other celebrities were leaked to several Web sites….Several of the leaked photographs were selfies, so the women themselves owned the copyrights; friends had taken the other pictures. Lawyers for one of the women established copyrights for all the photographs they could, and then went to sites that had posted the pictures, and to Google, and insisted that the material be removed. Google complied, as did many of the sites, and now the photographs are difficult to find on the Internet, though they have not disappeared. “For the most part, the world goes through search engines,” one lawyer involved in the effort to limit the distribution of the photographs told me. “Now it’s like a tree falling in the forest. There may be links out there, but if you can’t find them through a search engine they might as well not exist.”

I don’t have much of an opinion about the fundamental issue in the article: the battle between the right to privacy and freedom of speech. Toobin presents the various arguments on all sides of the question, and it’s pretty clear that the European approach, favoring the right to privacy, raises many difficult legal and institutional issues.

What I’m more struck by is how little traction the right to privacy has in the United States, as compared to the claims of copyright.

I don’t know much about copyright law, either in the US or in Europe, but I can’t help wondering if one of the reasons its claims are so potent here, trumping those of privacy, is that copyright is  a property right.

The right to privacy, of course, is historically intertwined with property rights: in the Griswold decision, for example, which struck down Connecticut’s ban on contraception, Justice Douglas cited the Third Amendment, which forbids the quartering of soldiers in private homes, as the basis for a broad constitutional right to privacy. Even so, the right to privacy is not nearly as dependent on the claims of property as is copyright, which is a variant of intellectual property (patents and so forth).

Where copyright is designed to protect a person’s ownership over a text or image on the theory that that ownership benefits the public—if an author can reap the full monetary benefits from the production or sale of a text or image, she will be encouraged to produce those texts and images—the right to privacy is designed to protect a person’s claims against the public. Copyright protects a person’s property by conscripting it on behalf of the public (at least in theory); privacy shields a person from the public.

It’s interesting that an allegedly individualistic US is less sensitive to these issues of privacy than an allegedly collectivistic Europe, but the rights of privacy in the cases Toobin cites don’t involve any property rights. Save the damage to one’s reputation, which might gain some traction from the law if a person were powerful, but gets virtually none when a person is not.

The whole discussion reminds me of another Justice Douglas opinion: his concurrence in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld Title II of the Civil Rights Act. That provision made it illegal for restaurants, inns, and public accommodations to discriminate on the basis of race. The Court claimed that Title II was a legitimate exercise of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause. The majority held that Congress had the power to regulate interstate commerce, that the travel of African Americans to and from the South involved interstate commerce, and that ending segregation in these public accommodations would facilitate such travel.

In his concurring opinion, Douglas conceded that Congress had the right to use its interstate commerce powers in these ways, but he was discomfited by the Court’s resting Title II on that basis. He would have preferred to rest it on Congress’s power under the 14th Amendment.

Though I join the Court’s opinions, I am somewhat reluctant here, as I was in Edwards v. California, 314 U.S. 160, 177, to rest solely on the Commerce Clause. My reluctance is not due to any conviction that Congress lacks power to regulate commerce in the interests of human rights. It is, rather, my belief that the right of people to be free of state action that discriminates against them because of race, like the “right of persons to move freely from State to State” (Edwards v. California, supra, at 177), “occupies a more protected position in our constitutional system than does the movement of cattle, fruit, steel and coal across state lines.” Ibid. Moreover, when we come to the problem of abatement in Hamm v. City of Rock Hill, post, p. 306, decided this day, the result reached by the Court is, for me, much more obvious as a protective measure under the Fourteenth Amendment than under the Commerce Clause. For the former deals with the constitutional status of the individual, not with the impact on commerce of local activities or vice versa.

But American being America, commerce ruled. And rules. Like property.

What was it those two dudes said? “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.”

An Archive For Buckley, Kristol, and Podhoretz Interviews?

16 Jul

In the summer and fall of 2000, I interviewed William F. Buckley, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz for an article I was writing for Lingua Franca. The article where Buckley compared capitalism to sex (both boring), Kristol complained that there was no one on the right with the political imagination of Marx, and Podhoretz (who I never quoted) cited a list of resentments so long it would make the Underground Man blush.

I have four cassette tapes from those interviews that I would like to have transcribed and also converted to audio files that could be posted on the web. I’m hoping there’s an archive somewhere that might be interested, so I don’t have to pay for this. But I’m also prepared to pay someone if necessary.

Anyone have any suggestions?

Feel free to email me at corey.robin@gmail.com.

 

The Disappointment of Hannah Arendt (the film)

28 Jun

So I finally saw Hannah Arendt this weekend.

As entertainment, it was fine. I enjoyed the tender portrayal of Arendt’s marriage to Heinrich Blücher (though the rendition of her relationship to Mary McCarthy was painful to watch). I loved the  scenes in their apartment. Even though the depiction of its style and decor was more Mad Men than Morningside Heights, and the roominess, airiness, and light of the apartment gave little suggestion of the thick and heavy German hospitality for which Arendt and Blücher were famous. And, yes, a lot of the dialogue was painfully wooden and transparently devoted to narrative exposition, but I didn’t mind that so much.

My real problem with the film is that I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why it was made. As my wife pointed out to me, it doesn’t shed any new light on the Eichmann controversy or Arendt. There’s nothing in it you wouldn’t know from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography or those drive-by summations of the Eichmann controversy that you get in standard intellectual histories of the period. So why make the film?

Films of this nature are supposed to dramatize something you can’t see in—or understand from—other genres. But does Hannah Arendt do that? I know there was much talk when it came out of the way that it captures on screen the process of thinking, but frankly I found those to be some of the more embarrassing scenes in the film. It’s a Hollywood producer’s idea of thinking: resting on the sofa, eyes closed, smoking, an idea crosses the thinker’s mind, eyes open. That that may have been how Arendt in fact did think—parts of it fit with Arendt’s own descriptions (not the cheesy eyes opening bits)—doesn’t quite redeem it, for the simple reason that seeing it on the screen doesn’t add anything to reading about it on the page.

I suppose one could argue that the film brings this story of Arendt and the Eichmann controversy to viewers who didn’t know anything about it. And that’s not nothing. But Hannah Arendt—who managed not only to bring stories to readers who didn’t know anything about them, but to tell those stories in a new and distinctive way, in part by the pioneering nature of her genre-bending writing—deserves better than that.

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