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Jumaane Williams and the Brooklyn College BDS Controversy Revisited

6 Jun

There’s a long profile of NYC Councilman Jumaane Williams in BKLYNR, a new Brooklyn-based magazine, by Eli Rosenberg. It’s a fascinating read of a fascinating politician, who played a less than fascinating role during the Brooklyn College BDS controversy. Williams is a former student of mine, and he and I wound up in a heated Twitter argument about his role.

In his piece, Rosenberg discusses the Williams and the BDS controversy at length. You should read the whole article, but I’m excerpting the BDS part here:

The perils of navigating the dual worlds of politics and activism were resoundingly clear earlier this year. Two leaders of a movement critical of Israel — pioneering gender theorist and activist Judith Butler and Palestinian rights activist Omar Barghouti — were scheduled to speak at Brooklyn College in an event billed as a lecture on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which advocates for economic protests against Israel. The event was sponsored by a student group, Brooklyn College Students for Justice in Palestine, but the college’s political science department had signed on as a co-sponsor.

A couple weeks before the event, another student organization, the college’s United4Israel chapter, posted a petition online that expressed “deep concern” over the school’s co-sponsorship of the lecture. By the time Harvard law professor and Brooklyn College alum Alan Dershowitz weighed in a week before the event with a Daily News op-ed that called it a “propaganda hate orgy,” the story had bloomed into a full-blown controversy.

Local politicians like assemblymen Dov Hikind and Steven Cymbrowitz, who both hail from heavily Jewish districts near Brooklyn College, organized a press conference to denounce the college. Much of the city’s political establishment soon weighed in on the controversy, with nearly all of everyone coming down heavily against the school.

A self-proclaimed “progressive” coalition officials sent a letter to college president Karen Gould, signed by a who’s who of politicians in the city — including four of the top Democratic candidates for mayor — expressing “concern” that the college had signed onto the event and accusing it of stifling academic freedom. A group of ten council members, led by Lew Fidler, penned a letter to Gould asking her to cancel the event entirely, and hinted that the CUNY school’s funding, some of which passes through the city council each year, could be affected by the decision.

For a couple of days, as event spiraled into a larger and larger story, Williams and his office were quiet on the issue. It was a notable silence given both Williams’ strong connections to the school and its political science department, as well as the simple fact that its 26-acre campus lies squarely in his district.

But on February 1, Williams’ office released a copy of a letter the councilman had sent Gould. “I have concerns regarding the sponsorship by the Political Science Department of this event,” Williams wrote. “I am asking for your intervention with Chair Paisley Currah in an effort to allow both sides of this hot-button matter to be discussed with equity, preferably in the same forum. If that cannot be accomplished, I urge the removal of the department’s sponsorship of this event.”

The chorus of voices was getting louder for the department to cancel the event; media across the globe picked up the story, with articles in the Jerusalem Post and Al Jazeera in addition to the city’s major news sources. Glenn Greenwald weighed in on the pages of The Guardian, calling the liberal politicians a “lynch mob.”

For a moment, it seemed Brooklyn College would have to buckle. But it stood its ground and, at the last minute, received some support from an unlikely ally. At a press conference on Hurricane Sandy relief, Mayor Bloomberg, prompted by a reporter’s question, forcefully defended the college’s right to hold the event.

“If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea,” he said. “The last thing we need is for members of our city council or state legislature to be micromanaging the kinds of programs that our public universities run.”

In two minutes, any steam left behind the movement to get the college to cancel or change the event was gone. The idea of the mayor, the most powerful official in New York City and an avid supporter of Israel, announcing his support for the school caught the rest of the establishment off-guard.

Most of the city’s politicians who had so loudly protested the event released statements in support of it. The so-called progressive group of politicians sent a follow-up letter to Gould, thanking her for her “leadership on the issue,” and expressing support for the college and its forum. Council members Steve Levin and Letitia James revoked their support for the letter they had inked earlier in the week, claiming they “unsigned” it. And Williams released another statement expressing support for the forum and “confidence” in the state of academic freedom at Brooklyn College.

“No institution of learning should stifle voices in a debate, no matter how controversial or problematic they may be,” he wrote.

But the damage had already been done.

“The gr8 progressive @JumaaneWilliams ‘supports views expressed by my fellow alumnus Alan Dershowitz’ on #BDS event … SMH,” remarked Alex Kane, an editor at progressive sites AlterNate and Mondoweiss, on Twitter. Soon Williams’ feed and Facebook page were ablaze with comments from academics, progressive journalists, and enraged commenters.

Corey Robin, a political science professor at Brooklyn College who served as the department’s unofficial spokesman during the controversy and a former professor of Williams, entered into the most heated debate with him, in a lengthy exchange that Robin published online.

By the end of the hour-long debate, during which Williams was thoroughly chided by Robin, the councilman conceded numerous points to the academic and had assumed the role of a chastened student, referring to Robin as “professor,” and admitting that he would definitely “do more homework,” in the future.

“What I was trying to get across was correct. I don’t think that got across in my first letter,” Williams said recently. “I had not spoken to the chairperson, which I should have done. So my intention with the first letter was basically to say that there needs to be some rules about how sponsorship happens, and that everybody should have access to that sponsorship.”

Still, if you believe people like Robin, the event may yet come back to haunt him.

“He’s the pride and joy of the department, but people were surprised and are not going to forget that easily,” said Robin. “Everyone expected that Christine Quinn would do what she did, but I think we all expected more of him. I expected more of him.”

Williams has made a career out of calling it like he sees it, cultivating the image that he is the rare politician who will speak the truth without regard for the consequences. But part of that veneer was lost with the week’s events.

“It takes a Republican mayor who is horrible on many issues that progressives care about to explain that politicians do not meddle with curriculum or extracurricular discussions to people like Christine Quinn, Jumaane Williams, and Brad Lander?” said Robin. “It shows there are real constraints on liberalism and leftism in New York.”

Dobbs said the dust-up demonstrated the fundamental conflict between Williams’ identity as an activist and as a politician. “They’re incompatible,” said Dobbs. “Most people believe that politicians and elected officials are leaders, but actually they follow much more than they lead.”

Perhaps most damaging for Williams reputation was the perception of him as weak and susceptible, vulnerable in the game of politics.

“The media misunderstands liberals and thinks they want someone who is pure, but what the left really wants politicos who are shrewd about power and use it to achieve progressive goals,” said Robin. “He got played on this one; the moral reasons are very troubling, but it’s also very a troubling politically. He should have been shrewder about this. He went to Brooklyn College, he should have called the damn school, found out the facts first and spoken as an alum, to say ‘I understand the issues around this, I understand the department. Let me tell you about what I learned.’ It would have been a very moving statement. Instead he comes out looking like a chump.”

In the new issue of Jacobin…

5 May

The latest issue of Jacobin came out the week before last. It’s already generating a lot of discussion and debate. Just a few highlights.

1.  Jonah Birch’s interview with NYU sociologist Vivek Chibber about Chibber’s new book on subaltern studies and postcolonialism theory has pissed a lot of people off.

Here’s Chibber:

A typical maneuver of postcolonial theorists is to say something like this: Marxism relies on abstract, universalizing categories. But for these categories to have traction, reality should look exactly like the abstract descriptions of capital, of workers, of the state, etc. But, say the postcolonial theorists, reality is so much more diverse. Workers wear such colorful clothes; they say prayers while working; capitalists consult astrologers — this doesn’t look like anything what Marx describes in Capital. So it must mean that the categories of capital aren’t really applicable here. The argument ends up being that any departure of concrete reality from the abstract descriptions of theory is a problem for the theory. But this is silly beyond words: it means that you can’t have theory. Why should it matter if capitalists consult astrologers as long as they are driven to make profits? Similarly, it doesn’t matter if workers pray on the shop floor as long as they work. This is all that the theory requires. It doesn’t say that cultural differences will disappear; it says that these differences don’t matter for the spread of capitalism, as long as agents obey the compulsions that capitalist structures place on them. I go to considerable lengths to explain this in the book.

Here’s one of Chibber’s critics, University of Chicago English professor Chris Taylor:

When Jacobin published Vivek Chibber’s “Marxist” polemic against postcolonial theory, I wanted to write a counter-polemic. In fact, I did. As both a Marxist and a postcolonialist, I felt like Chibber was forcing me to choose sides where sides did not need to be chosen. After all, Chibber has to make several logical leaps in order to land his criticism of postcolonial theory; in a very real way, he has to invent it. The most obvious problem with Chibber’s argument is the representativeness he ascribes to the South Asian Subaltern Studies collective—for Chibber, they epitomize postcolonial theory in all its anti-Marxist glory. The second most obvious problem with Chibber’s argument is his refusal to count as constitutive of postcolonial theory all anticolonial Marxist thinkers whose work was foundational for, or retroactively incorporated into, the postcolonial canon: George Padmore, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, Walter Rodney…

And here’s one of Chibber’s critics’ critics, Paul Heideman, who’s a grad student in American studies at Rutgers Newark:

Chris Taylor’s post (“Not Even Marxist: On Vivek Chibber’s Polemic against Postcolonial Theory”) presents what purports to be a quite sharp critique of Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital. He takes the book to task for being un-dialectical, for orthodoxy-mongering, and a host of other theoretical sins. As the most extensive response to the book yet published, it has garnered a good deal of positive attention from those uncomfortable with Chibber’s promotion of a frankly universalistic theory and his attacks on the fetishization of particularism.

Unfortunately, Taylor’s article deserves none of the attention it has received. It exemplifies the kind of evasiveness and non-engagement which typifies the culture of the academic left. What are presented as incisive blows against the intellectual architecture of the book are in fact a series of passages that, at their best, do not even contradict the arguments made in the book and, at their worst, descend into mere name-calling.

And that’s the nice stuff. It’s a lot more heated on Facebook and Twitter.

2. Laura Tanenbaum, who’s one of my favorite writers, makes her Jacobin debut. Here she revisits some of the classic feminist texts of the 1970s (you need a userid and password, and I guess a subscription, for this one, which means…you should get one!):

In texts like [Adrienne Rich's] Of Woman Born and Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, women thinkers built on their understanding of the relationship between biology and the oppressive division of the sexes. They asked how we had organized ourselves in social and economic relations, what the consequences of these organizations were, and how it might be done differently. The result was not a laundry list of “issues” to be dealt with, but an analysis of a system that deforms everything from work and family to art and science. It’s an analysis that continues to resonate, even as public discourse declares on the one hand that feminism’s goals have been accomplished, and on the other that they were always impossible.

3.  Jeremy Kessler is another writer you should watch. He’s a grad student in history (and the Law School too?) at Yale, and he’s got a very sharp and shrewd mind about politics and the law. In this issue, he offers up a smart take on Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.

The intended moral of Fear Itself, that the American state crafted by southern domination was necessary lest democracy fall to dictatorship, is the product of rhetorical excess and unexamined political assumptions. Ironically, it is Katznelson’s adoption of the language of fear and the logic of emergency, so often used to justify dictatorship, that leads to his portrayal of the southern New Deal as the only viable path the United States could have taken out of its mid-century crisis.

4. The magazine devoted an entire section to Palestine. A whole bunch of articles, headed off by this editorial:

Why now? Because almost without anyone noticing, the movement in solidarity with Palestinian rights — with all its solipsisms and ultra-leftist foibles, its quarrels and magnetic attraction for eccentrics, opportunists, and, yes, the occasional antisemite — has grown to become one of the most important, inspiring, and fast-growing social movements in the country.

Palestine is no longer a dirty word on college campuses. The last Students for Justice in Palestine national conference attracted well over 300 delegates from more than 140 colleges and universities across the country, converging on Ann Arbor to discuss capitalist state formation in Israel, solidarity among prisoners, colonialism, the persistence of the occupation, refugee rights, and remarkably, with a minimum of rancor and sectarianism, the Syrian conflict.

Much of the energy that in the past would have found its home in student antiwar movements has migrated to the cause of Palestine. That is not without its problems: after all, children are gunned down by helicopter gunships in Afghanistan as surely as they are gunned down by snipers in the Gaza Strip. But the bloom of student interest in this old and bloody colonial conflict is something the Left ought to take interest in, because the Left is not just an idea but also the masses in motion, and scarcely anywhere — except for the environmental movement — are young people in motion with such a mix of revolutionary élan and disciplined militancy as they are in the case of Palestine.

But radical action has outpaced radical understanding. In part, that is because young people have gotten involved just at the moment when the Palestine question is in unprecedented political and ideological flux.

5. And, last, the magazine’s editor Bhaskar Sunkara, well, I’ll let him speak for himself:

It’s an old adage of city life: commute home to masturbate, but don’t masturbate during the commute. Such are the reasonable burdens of living in a society.

Last week I was reminded that this sentiment isn’t universally shared. On a Euclid Avenue-bound C train…

There’s a lot more. Check it out.

Shulamith Firestone and the Private Life of Power

9 Apr

In The Reactionary Mind, I wrote:

One of the reasons the subordinate’s exercise of agency so agitates the conservative imagination is that it takes place in an intimate setting. Every great blast—the storming of the Bastille, the taking of the Winter Palace, the March on Washington—is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power: “Here is the opposition to woman’s equality in the state,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote. “Men are not ready to recognize it in the home.” Behind the riot in the street or debate in Parliament is the maid talking back to her mistress, the worker disobeying her boss. That is why our political arguments—not only about the family but also the welfare state, civil rights, and much else—can be so explosive: they touch upon the most personal relations of power.

Feminism—and the backlash against it—is the paradigm case of the battle over the private life of power. As historians have shown, the attack on Women’s Lib gave the modern conservative movement what it needed to achieve its counterrevolution in 1980. But to understand why that was the case, we have to recall just how radical feminism truly was: it sought to disrupt concrete and tangible relationships in the most private relations of power.

In the current issue of The New Yorker, Susan Faludi has a wonderful profile of Shulamith Firestone, who died last August. Firestone was a pioneering radical feminist whose book The Dialectic of Sex did for feminism what Camus did for existentialism: it gave it a language and a shape, a fixture and a feel. But Firestone was not just the master of suspicion; she was also the master of disruption, organizing actions that confronted male power exactly where it lay: not merely in the far-off halls of Congress or the Supreme Court, but also in the office, the factory floor, the kitchen, the bedroom, the left-wing meeting. Understanding that sexist domination was above all in-your-face, she responded and agitated in kind.

By then, the groups that Firestone had founded, and a host of offshoots, were making headlines with confrontational protests and street theatre. They disrupted state abortion-law hearings in Albany; occupied restaurants that wouldn’t serve “unescorted” women; conducted a “Burial of Traditional Womanhood,” in Arlington National Cemetery (the deceased wore curlers); released dozens of white mice to wreak havoc at a bridal fair at Madison Square Garden; held an “ogle-in” on Wall Street, to dole out some payback to leering men; and, most notorious, hurled brassieres, high heels, pots and pans, copies of Playboy, and other “instruments of female torture” into a Freedom Trash Can at the Miss America pageant, in Atlantic City. When Firestone was fired from a waitressing job and her boss withheld her wages, feminists stormed the restaurant and made him pay her on the spot.

But there was perhaps no better example of the catalytic power of radical feminism, the dynamite it perpetually set off—and that set off the conservative movement, which began attracting men made uneasy and unsettled by these very personal and intimate challenges to their power—than the publication of The Dialectic of Sex itself. For, as Faludi shows in a wonderful vignette, there was back story to that publication in the back offices of the book’s publisher William Morrow.
Meanwhile, “Dialectic” was stoking a small revolution at the Morrow offices. The female employees began asking questions: Why were all the secretaries and publicists women? Why were the few female editors underpaid? “We started having lunchtime meetings behind closed doors,” Sara Pyle, an assistant in the publicity department at the time, told me. “We all stopped wearing our little heels and skirts.” What made the women at Morrow “go a bit nuts,” Pyle said, was the book’s unvarnished radicalism. “Firestone took Marx further and put women in the picture,” she said. “This was our oppression, all laid out.”
The wonder of the feminist movement is not that it provoked a backlash—any movement worth its salt will—but that it managed to achieve so much, and so fast, despite the counterrevolution that would soon arise to crush it. Now that’s something we can all truly lean into.

Why Did Liberals Support the Iraq War?

25 Mar

In September 2005, on the fourth anniversary of 9/11, The Nation ran a long piece I did on liberal support for the Iraq War and for US imperialism more generally.  By way of Paul Berman, Michael Ignatieff, Christopher Hitchens, and Peter Beinart—as well as Judith Shklar and Richard Rorty—it addressed what I thought and still think are some of the deeper political and intellectual roots of the liberals’ support for the Iraq War. On the tenth anniversary of the War, I thought I might reprint that essay here. Some things I got wrong (Beinart, for example, went onto have something of a turnabout on these issues; it wasn’t Oscar Wilde but Jonathan Swift who made that jibe). Other issues I over-emphasized or neglected. But still, it’s got some useful stuff there. Without further ado…

• • • • •

It’s the fourth anniversary of September 11, and Americans are getting restless about the war in Iraq. Republicans are challenging the President, activists and bloggers are pressing the Democrats and liberal hawks are reconsidering their support for the war. Everyone, it seems, is asking questions.

Two questions, however, have not been asked, perhaps because they might actually help us move beyond where we are and where we’ve been. First, how is it that few liberals and no leftists in 1968 believed that Lyndon Johnson, arguably the most progressive President in American history, would or could airlift democracy to Vietnam, while many liberals and not a few leftists in 2003 believed that the most reactionary President since William McKinley could and would export democracy to Iraq?

Second, why did certain liberals who opposed the war in Iraq refuse to march against it? The reason they gave was that left-wing groups like ANSWER, which helped organize the antiwar rallies, failed to denounce Saddam’s regime. Yet many of those who could not abide an alliance with ANSWER endorsed the war in Afghanistan–even though it was waged by a government that recently invaded three Caribbean countries, funded dirty wars in Latin America and backed the government of Guatemala, the only regime in the Western Hemisphere condemned by a UN-sponsored truth commission for committing acts of genocide. Politics, of course, often entails an unhappy choice of associations. But if the deeds of the US government need not stop liberals from supporting the war in Afghanistan, why should the words–words, mind you, not deeds–of leftists deprive the antiwar movement of these very same liberals’ support?

Both questions register a fundamental shift among liberals, and on the left, since the 1960s: from skepticism of to faith in US power, and from faith in to skepticism of popular movements. During the Vietnam era, liberals and leftists believed not only in social justice but also in mass protest. Whether the cause was democracy at home or liberation abroad, men and women afflicted by oppression had to organize themselves for freedom. Yes, some of yesterday’s activists were blind to coercion within these movements, and others joined elite cadres bombing their way to liberation. Still, the animating faith of the 1960s was in the democratic capacities of ordinary men and women, making it difficult for liberals and leftists to believe in conquering armies from abroad or shock troops from on high.

Many liberals, and some leftists, no longer hold these views. Their faith is guided not by the light of justice but by the darkness of evil: by the tyranny of dictators, the genocide of ethnic cleansers and the terrorism of Islamist radicals. Despite their differences–some of these liberals and leftists support the war in Iraq, others do not; some are partial to popular movements, particularly those opposing anti-American governments, while others favor constitutional regimes, particularly those supporting the United States–theirs is a liberalism, as the late Harvard scholar Judith Shklar put it in a pioneering essay in 1989, that seeks to ward off the “summum malum” (worst evil) rather than to install a “summum bonum” (highest good). Reversing Augustine’s dictum that there is no such thing as evil–evil being only the absence of good–today’s liberal believes there is only evil and progress is measured by the distance we put between ourselves and that evil.

Hostility to popular protest and indulgence of American power follow naturally from this position. Mass movements, liberals claim, are blind to evil or apologize for it. Sometimes they actively court it. In their reckless pursuit of utopia, they march men and women to the gulag or into shooting galleries of terrorism and civil war. Only a politics of restraint can shield us from the temptations of violence. While such a philosophy would seem to militate against George W. Bush’s empire, many liberals have concluded that evil in the world is so titanic that only US power can deliver us from it.

Straddling minimalism at home and maximalism abroad, many of today’s liberals are inspired by fear. This “liberalism of fear,” as Shklar called it, is not to be confused with the terror Americans felt after 9/11 or with Democratic timidity in the face of Republican success. No, today’s liberal believes in fear as an idea–that it inflicts such suffering on men and women that we can assess governments by the degree to which they minimize it. Fear is the gold standard, the universal measure, of liberal morality: Whatever rouses fear is bad, whatever diminishes it is less bad. In the words of Michael Ignatieff, liberalism “rests less on hope than on fear, less on optimism about the human capacity for good than on dread of the human capacity for evil, less on a vision of man as maker of his history than of man the wolf toward his own kind.”

Though leftists in the sixties certainly spoke of fear, they viewed it not as a foundation but as an obstacle, a hindrance in the struggle for freedom and equality. Whites resisted civil rights, James Baldwin observed, because they were possessed by a “sleeping terror” of ceding status and privilege to blacks. Blacks, in turn, were like “the Jews in Egypt, who really wished to get to the Promised Land but were afraid of the rigors of the journey.” The goal was to eliminate or overcome fear, to take one step closer to the Promised Land. This required not only courage but also an ideologically grounded hope for progress. Without an answering vision of social justice, no one would make the journey.

Many contemporary liberals have given up that hope, turning what a previous generation saw as an impediment into a path. Fear is no longer an obstacle but a crutch, a negative truth from which liberalism derives its confidence and strength. “What liberalism requires,” according to Shklar, “is the possibility of making the evil of cruelty and fear the basic norm of its political practices and prescriptions.” Liberal values like the rule of law and democracy obtain their worth not from reason or rights–which many liberals no longer believe in as foundational principles–but from the cruelty and fear illiberal states and movements routinely inflict upon helpless men and women.

Today’s liberals are attracted to fear for many reasons, including revulsion at the crimes of the last century and the miserable state of the postcolonial world. But one of the main reasons is their belief that fear possesses an easy intelligibility. Fear requires no deep philosophy, no leap of reason, to establish its evil: Everyone knows what it is and that it is bad. “Because the fear of systematic cruelty is so universal,” Shklar wrote, “moral claims based on its prohibition have an immediate appeal and can gain recognition without much argument.” Once liberals realize that they are “more afraid of being cruel”–and of others being cruel–“than of anything else,” Richard Rorty has argued, they need not worry about the grounds of their beliefs.

How did a philosophy so averse to utopia and violence get hitched to the American empire? I don’t just mean here the war in Iraq, about which liberals disagreed, but the larger project of using the American military to spread democracy and human rights. How did liberals, who’ve spent the better part of three decades attacking left-wing adventurism, wind up supporting the greatest adventure of our time?

The answer is that liberals need fear: to justify their principles, to warn us of what happens when liberalism is abandoned. And so they are driven abroad to confront the tyrannies that make life miserable elsewhere, in order to derive confidence in their own, admittedly imperfect but infinitely better, regimes. A souped-up version of Churchill’s adage that democracy is the worst possible government except for all the others, the liberalism of fear sends writers and fighters to foreign lands in search of themselves and their beleaguered faith. In the words of Ignatieff:

 When policy [in the Balkans] was driven by moral motives, it was often driven by narcissism. We intervened not only to save others, but to save ourselves, or rather an image of ourselves as defenders of universal decencies. We wanted to show that the West “meant” something. This imaginary West, this narcissistic image of ourselves, we believed was incarnated in the myth of a multiethnic, multiconfessional Bosnia.

The moral exhilaration of which Ignatieff speaks is closely linked to the revival of an activism discredited since the sixties–an activism, ironically, liberals helped to defeat but now miss and mourn. The military incursions in Bosnia, Ignatieff notes, were “a theater of displacement, in which political energies that might otherwise have been expended in defending multiethnic society at home were directed instead at defending mythic multiculturalism far away. Bosnia became the latest bel espoir of a generation that had tried ecology, socialism, and civil rights only to watch all these lose their romantic momentum.”

Bosnia was certainly not the first time that liberals looked to a benighted regime abroad in order to compensate for the stalled pace of domestic advance. In 1792 France’s Girondins sensed that their revolution was in peril. Beholding long-suffering peoples to the east, they decided to export progress and promptly declared war on… Austria. And it was Robespierre, so often denounced as a utopian scourge, who issued this prescient warning to his distracted comrades: “No one loves armed missionaries.”

Nor was Bosnia the last time. Since 9/11 liberal hawks–and their fellow fliers on the left–have turned the rest of the world into a theater of social experiment and political reform, endorsing foreign expeditions in the name of an enlightenment they can no longer pursue at home. They have opted for a detoured radicalism, which, like all detours, paves a convenient path to an obstructed destination: yesterday Afghanistan, today Iraq, tomorrow ourselves. Though the peregrinations of Christopher Hitchens are by now familiar to most readers of these pages, his confession after 9/11 reveals how easily internationalism can slide into narcissism, the most provincial spirit of all:

 On that day I shared the general register of feeling, from disgust to rage, but was also aware of something that would not quite disclose itself. It only became fully evident quite late that evening. And to my surprise (and pleasure), it was exhilaration…. here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated. On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan…. On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism. I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials. And because it is so interesting.

More recently, Paul Berman has called the war in Iraq this generation’s Spanish Civil War. Berman’s own biography, of course, makes mincemeat of the analogy. Spain’s civil war demanded, in Stephen Spender’s words, “a very personal involvement.” But unlike George Orwell, André Malraux or any of the other writers who fought for the Spanish Republic, Berman has yet to pick up a gun to defend the Iraqi government. Martha Gellhorn claimed that Spain’s foreign fighters “knew why they came, and what they thought about living and dying, both. But it is nothing you can ask or talk about.” Yet all Berman can do is talk… and talk and talk. Meanwhile, the only international volunteers who seem to believe that Iraq is worth fighting and dying for are joining the other side.

But the real reason Berman’s analogy does not hold up is that where yesterday’s progressive insisted that the struggle for freedom and equality was a two-front war–“if freedom and equality are not vouchsafed” for “the peoples of color” at home, A. Philip Randolph wrote in 1942, “the war for democracy will not be won” abroad–Berman and his allies hope to find in Iraq precisely what they cannot find in the United States. Trotskyists of defeat, they export revolution not in order to save it but in order to evade it.

Liberals and leftists panning for political gold in the wreckage of downtown Baghdad–or New York–is not a pretty sight, which has led some critics to chalk up these scenes to illicit motives. But the infatuation with political fear and imperial deliverance from evil cannot be explained away as mere opportunism. It has a long history in modern politics, arising whenever reform comes up against reaction, whenever movements for progress lose their bearings and buoyancy. At such moments of doubt, nothing can seem as real as fear itself, nothing more tempting than to make evil–and the fear it arouses–the basis of all politics.

It was Alexis de Tocqueville, I think, who first noticed this tendency. In one of his lesser-known writings on the French Revolution, Tocqueville noted the inevitable deceleration and disillusionment that consume failed movements of reform. After every great defeat comes a great despair. Comrade accuses comrade of treachery or cowardice, soldiers denounce generals for marching them toward folly and everyone is soon seized by what Tocqueville described as the “contempt” that broken revolutionaries “acquire for the very convictions and passions” that moved them in the first place. Forced to abandon the cause for which they gave up so much, failed rebels “turn against themselves and consider their hopes as having been childish–their enthusiasm and, above all, their devotion absurd.”

Since the 1960s, liberals and leftists have been beaten at the polls and routed in the streets. Equality no longer propels political argument, and freedom–that other sometime watchword of the left–is today the private property of the right. Unable to reconcile themselves to their loss, liberals and leftists are now seized by the contempt and embarrassment Tocqueville described. Berman cringes over the “androidal” complexion of sixties sectarians, with their “short haircuts” and “flabby muscles,” their “flat tones” of Marxism so “oddly remote from American English.” Others wince at the left’s lack of patriotic fervor and national identification, its hostility to all things American.

Lacking confidence in the traditional truths of God and king and the revolutionary truths of reason and rights, Tocqueville hoped that his contemporaries might find succor in the idea of fear, which could activate and ground a commitment to liberal ideals. “Fear,” he wrote, “must be put to work on behalf of liberty.” And so he dedicated himself to a career of liberal pursuits whose only success would be a scheme of mild improvement in Algeria–and leadership of the counterrevolution in 1848.

So has it been with today’s liberals: However much they may argue for domestic reform, it is liberalism’s conquering thrusts abroad–and assaults on the left at home–that earn their warmest applause. Again, other factors explain this turn to empire and fear, including the appalling violations of human rights throughout the world and the left’s failure to respond adequately to those violations. But given this vision’s periodic appearance at moments like ours–one could also cite the case of cold war intellectuals offering their own politics of fear after the setbacks of the late 1940s–it would seem that the appeal of fear has as much to do with defeat and disillusionment as it does with the stated concerns of its advocates.

If Oscar Wilde is right–that you can’t reason a man out of a position he has not reasoned himself into–it’s not likely that the liberals of fear will be persuaded anytime soon to give up their faith. (Indeed, proving that nothing succeeds like failure, Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, has taken the Democrats’ defeat last November as the signal for a renewed commitment to the liberalism of fear.) Responding to political forces beyond their control, they won’t cede their beliefs until a vigorous movement marches past them. The question for the rest of us is: What should that movement stand for?

For some on the left, liberalism is a bankrupt project, hopelessly compromised by its alliance with capital and indulgence of empire. These critics see liberalism as a weak tea–too suspicious of social movements, too soft on capitalism. They long for a stronger brew: if not Marxism, then some notion of radical democracy.

No dispassionate observer of American liberalism would dispute these charges, and some liberals happily plead guilty to them. But what critics and defenders of liberalism overlook is how often liberalism has inspired the most radical of transformations. The war against slavery, the fight for industrial democracy, the struggle for women’s rights, civil rights and sexual freedom–each of these battles was waged in the name of liberty and equality, twin pillars of the liberal ideal.

Hoping to emancipate men and women from all manner of domination, America’s greatest social movements have sought to extend liberalism’s promise to every sphere of social and political life: the family, the workplace, sexuality and so on. Liberalism’s earliest armies marched against the personal–and physically coercive–rule of kings and lords. Its later militants have made war on the equally personal and physical rule of husbands and fathers, slave owners and overseers, bosses and supervisors. That idea–of freedom from external control, of personal volition, of saying no to those who rule and ruin us–is as radical today as it was in the time of John Locke.

Even America’s most left-wing voices have found in liberalism a useful vocabulary to advance their claims. Big Bill Haywood defended the general strike as a potent form of electoral democracy: It “prevents the capitalists from disfranchising the worker, it gives the vote to women, it re-enfranchises the black man and places the ballot in the hands of every boy and girl employed in a shop.” Malcolm X did not favor the bullet over the ballot; he insisted that “it’s got to be the ballot or the bullet,” that America had better live up to its ideals lest it face a more violent uprising. Stokely Carmichael defined black power as “the coming-together of black people to elect representatives and to force those representatives to speak to their needs,” which is a fairly good gloss on liberal pluralism. And we would do well to recall that the Black Panther Party repeatedly invoked the Constitution in its ten-point platform. More recently, Katha Pollitt has argued in these pages that if America took seriously the liberal commitment to equal opportunity, everyone would have “safe housing…healthy diets, doctors, fresh air…well-stocked libraries open all week”–Sweden itself.

There is perhaps no better measure of how radical and disruptive liberalism truly is than the ferocity of American elites’ resistance to it. It took more than a half-million lives to eliminate slavery. American workers suffered more strike-related violence than workers in Western Europe–just to get an eight-hour day, freedom of association and a weekend. And imagine how many feet would have to march–and heads would have to roll–to secure the equal opportunity Pollitt envisions.

Liberalism’s radical critics are not wrong about its failings and compromises. Nor would they be wrong to point out that the defenders of America’s old regimes have used liberal language to fend off challenges to their power. Slaveholders invoked the rights of private property, employers prized the freedom of contract, and big business still warns against big government. But these are not liberalism’s only or finest statements. If we are to recover its throatier voices and political momentum, we would do well to recall those moments when it marched as the party of movement rather than when it swilled as the party of order.

Of course, liberal hawks might argue that this history of liberal activism perfectly expresses their purposes in the Middle East. Indeed, Hitchens has mustered Thomas Paine and the American Revolution for his war against Islamo-fascism, arguing that America is once again fighting for “the cause of all mankind.” Beyond pointing out the evident hypocrisy–and wild implausibility–of a government reneging on the most basic liberal commitments at home while trumpeting its final triumph abroad, what’s a progressive to say to this? If we object to the marriage of human rights and American military power, what do we propose instead?

Again, American history provides an instructive answer. In the past, America’s most radical liberals looked to the rest of the world not as a tabula rasa for imperial reform but as a rebuke to illiberalism at home or a goad to domestic transformation. “Go where you may,” Frederick Douglass declared in 1852, “search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”

In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. reminded Americans that “the nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” Even mainstream leaders of the National Organization for Women argued in 1966 that the American feminist movement was not a beacon to the world but “part of the worldwide revolution of human rights now taking place within and beyond our national borders.”

America under the Patriot Act is obviously not America under slavery, and the anticolonial movements that inspired King and feminists in the 1960s have not fared well. Yet this history reminds us that American liberalism, at its best, has always been internationalist, but its internationalism has meant taking instruction and provocation from abroad rather than flying freedom across the water.

Liberalism’s past also reminds us of another, more sobering, fact. During the second half of the twentieth century, progressives were able to look abroad for inspiration because there was something for them to look to. They could believe in international democracy because there were actual movements fighting for it–not under the kitschy banner of the American empire or through staged photo-ops of toppling statues but for real. If we on the left have a hard time today summoning the same belief, it’s because at the very moment those activists were heralding liberation movements elsewhere, the United States was doing everything it could–successfully, we now know–to destroy them.

It’s true that there are democratic movements today–in Latin America, the Middle East and Central Asia–that deserve and receive progressives’ support. But there’s always the risk of the US government hijacking them with arms or handouts. And though liberal hawks like to cite the occupations of Germany and Japan as models for current or future US interventions, we should remember that the New Dealers who led those occupations were far more liberal than the occupiers of today and–until something fundamental changes in the United States–tomorrow. Foreign assistance or interventions are not likely to generate democracy abroad if the powers doing the assisting or intervening are so resolutely antidemocratic at home.

So if we find ourselves at a loss when challenged by liberal hawks–who are right, after all, to press us on how to promote democracy in Iraq, human rights in Sudan and so on–it’s best, I think, first to admit defeat. We don’t know, because we lost the great battles of the twentieth century: not just for social democracy and anti-imperialism but for social democracy and anti-imperialism with a human face. Having admitted defeat, perhaps we can begin to figure out a better answer.

Lucille Dickess (1934-2013): American Radical

2 Mar

Photo of Lucille Dickess by Virginia BlaisdellOn February 21, Lucille Dickess died at the age of 79. Lucille worked as the registrar of the geology department at Yale University and served as the president of the clerical and technical workers union, Local 34. (This photo of Lucille was taken by Virginia Blaisdell.)

I can still remember the first time I saw and heard Lucille speak. It was at a rally on Beinecke Plaza, I think in the spring of 1991. She had white hair, looked like a suburban grandmother, and breathed fire. I had always thought of union workers as burly white guys. I never thought that again. She was, to me, what the labor movement at its best is about: transcending easy and lazy stereotypes of who we are, forging the most unexpected solidarity among men and women who are so different from each other in so many way. And she was very funny. I’ll miss her.

The New Haven Independent (h/t Zach Schwartz-Weinstein) has published some excerpts from an interview with Lucille.  If you want a sense of how radicalizing an experience joining a union can be, you should read all of it.  (And keep in mind that Lucille had been a scab before she joined the union.) Here are some highlights:

I had totally rejected the UAW because they told us they were going to do it, and not to worry about anything.  “Sign the card, we’ll take care of everything.”  When HERE [Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union] came in, it was different.  With HERE it came down to, “This will be your union, and you’ll have to make of it what you will.”  Now, none of us knew anything about unions, really, so this was an amazing step we took, just to say, “The worst thing here are job descriptions and salaries.”  But how in the world do you fix that?  Where do you begin to fix that?

Well, the HERE organizers said, “You have to talk to everybody,” and that made sense to me.

I loved the structure.  Loved it.  I just loved it.  I’m responsible for sixty-one people.  I know who’s got trouble at home, who’s got trouble at work, who’s being threatened.  This was so satisfying, mathematically, and physically, and emotionally, and practically.  A lot of people were very afraid to get involved.  I was hearing from people, “I’m afraid I’ll get fired.”  “I don’t know anything about unions.”  “You have to pay union dues.”  “I’ll get in trouble.”  “Nobody else here is interested, it’s only me.”  There were probably as many reasons as there were people, when you got right down to it.

Right after I became president of Local 34, I was invited to a Local 35 membership meeting so people would get to meet me.  I told them that I had scabbed.  Because I’d been asked to work in dining halls when one of the strikes was on.  I was just divorced, there was no sign of any child support coming in, and also my husband had signed bankruptcy, so everybody in the world was coming after me for all of these bills he hadn’t paid, and I still had one child at home.  So I didn’t give a thought to the fact that people were out on strike – all I thought was, I can make some extra money.  And I went into dining halls and I scabbed, I told them.

I just wanted them to know: don’t ever write anybody off, because I changed.  I came all that way from non-thinking, not knowing, and I learned, and so here’s where I am now.  So a lot of people were not too thrilled to hear me say this, but afterwards Tom (Gaudioso) said to me, “I’ve got to give it to you: you had a lot of balls to say that to them.”  And I said, “Well, I wanted them to understand somehow that when we were crossing their lines, we weren’t thinking, we weren’t conscious of what was going on, and shame on us that we didn’t find out about it.  But once we did, we learned: here’s how you do.”

35 was always a model to me.  They really were.  To accept us, who had crossed their lines for so many years – to accept us as their partners, to work together and never mind our differences, to put aside all that resentment and hurt and join together so closely that we were really brothers and sisters.

Years later, I bumped into (a woman from the picket line) and she said, “You know, that was the most wonderful thing I ever did in my entire life.”  And I would bet, if you went around and asked everybody who was out on the line in that strike, you’d have 95% of them say the same thing.  Absolutely.  Because you were taking the power yourself.

Update (March 2, 7:30 pm)

David Sanders, with whom I organized at Yale and who is now a union organizer up in Canada, posted a reminiscence of Lucille on my FB page. I wanted to share part of it here:

I have two memories in particular of Lucille. One was her retirement speech where she said: “First I was a daughter, then a wife, then a mother but I didn’t become a woman until I became a sister in the union.”

Falsely Shouting Fire in a Theater: How a Forgotten Labor Struggle Became a National Obsession and Emblem of Our Constitutional Faith

17 Feb

Did you ever wonder where the metaphor of falsely shouting fire in a theater comes from? Several years ago, I was co-writing a book about American political repression with Ellen Schrecker, the brilliant historian of McCarthyism. We came across a fantastic article by University of Texas legal scholar Lucas Powe that made a strong case for where Oliver Wendell Holmes, who came up with the metaphor, might have gotten the idea for it. Ellen followed up Powe’s hypothesis with some extensive sleuthing in the Michigan archives, and what follows is the result of her research and our writing.

Sadly, Ellen and I never finished that book. We did, however, write drafts of a few chapters, some prologues and preludes, and an introduction. What you’re about to read was meant to be a prologue to part 1 of the book, in which we were going to analyze the connection between political repression and national and domestic security (Part 2 was supposed to look at the role of violent and non-violent sanctions in repression; Part 3 would have examined the full array of legal, illegal, and extra-legal modes of repression). Security and repression is a subject I’ve written about at great length elsewhere, and some of the discussion below presumes the theory I have developed in those writings.

In any event, the possible true story of the false shout of fire in a theater is a great story on its own, and Ellen and I both wanted to make sure that it saw the light of the day. So with Ellen’s permission I’m posting our piece here.

For the sake of readability, I have eliminated all of our footnotes. But for those who want to follow up the sources, I’ve added a bibliography here that lists all the sources we cite and consulted in writing this piece, and I’ve posted a pdf of the original text, which contains all the footnotes.

• • • • •

All public facts are to be individualized, all private facts are to be generalized.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, “History

Charles T. Schenck is remembered today less for what he did than for the image he helped inspire:  that of a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.  That image was first offered by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as an illustration of what Schenck did during the First World War, and it has since become a fixture of our discussions about the delicate balance between freedom and security, liberty and order, particularly though not exclusively in times of war.

It’s a pity that we remember the metaphor rather than the man, however, for the gap between what Schenck did and what Holmes said he did is considerable—and instructive.

Schenck was the general secretary of the Socialist Party in Philadelphia during the First World War.  Unlike their sister parties in Western Europe, America’s Socialists firmly opposed the war, even after the United States entered it in April 1917.  That summer, Schenck and his Philadelphia comrades launched a campaign against the draft.  They composed a two-sided leaflet that attacked the draft as unconstitutional and called for people to join the Socialist Party and persuade their representatives in Congress to repeal it.  If the leaflet’s language was strong—“a conscript is little better than a convict…deprived of his liberty and of his right to think and act as a free man”—it was also conventional, couched in a vernacular many would have found familiar.  One side proclaimed “Long Live the Constitution of the United States.” The other urged people to “Assert Your Rights!”

Schenck and his comrades made 15,000 leaflets and mailed most of them to men in Philadelphia who had passed their draft board physicals.  It’s unclear how many actually received the leaflet—hundreds were intercepted by the government—and no one produced evidence of anyone falling under its influence.  Even so, Schenck and four others were arrested and charged with “causing and attempting to cause insubordination…in the military and naval forces of the United States, and to obstruct the recruiting and enlistment services of the United States.”  Two of the defendants—Schenck and another party leader—were found guilty.  Schenck’s case was argued before the Supreme Court in January 1919, and the Court’s unanimous decision to uphold the conviction, written by Holmes, was delivered in March.

Holmes’s opinion was a mere six paragraphs.  But in one sentence he managed to formulate a test for freedom of speech that would endure on the Court in some form until 1968—“[The] question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent”—and in another to draw an illustration of the test that remains burned in the public consciousness to this day: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

With his disdain for socialists and rabble-rousers, Holmes would not have been pleased to see his name posthumously linked to Schenck’s.  But with his equally powerful sense of realism, he undoubtedly would have conceded the truth of Harry Kalven’s observation, in 1988, that “Schenck—and perhaps even Holmes himself—are best remembered for the example of the man ‘falsely shouting fire’ in a crowded theater.”  It was that kind of metaphor: vivid, pungent, and profoundly misleading.

Drawing on nearly forty years of his own scholarship and jurisprudence, Holmes viewed Schenck’s leaflet not as an instance of political speech but as a criminal attempt to inflict harm. In the same way that a person’s shout of fire in a theater would cause a stampede and threaten the audience with death so would Schenck’s leaflet cause insubordination in the military, hamper the war effort, and threaten the United States and its people with destruction.

Holmes knew that words were not always words:  sometimes they ignited fires—and not just the metaphorical kind.  In 1901, as chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Holmes had upheld the conviction of a man who tried to persuade his servant to set fire to his own home in order to collect on the insurance. Just as that man’s words threatened the safety and well being of his neighbors so did Schenck’s threaten the safety and well being of his, or so Holmes believed.

Whenever the government suppresses opinions or beliefs like Schenck’s, it claims to be acting on behalf of values—national security, law and order, public safety—that are neutral and universal:  neutral because they don’t favor one person or group over another, universal because they are shared by everyone and defined by everyone in the same way.  Whatever a person may believe, whatever her party or profession, race or religion, may be, she will need to be safe and secure in order to live the life she wishes to live.  If she is to be safe and secure, society must be safe and secure:  free of crime and violent threats at home or abroad.  The government must be safe and secure as well, if for no other reason than to provide her and society with the safety and security they need. She and society are like that audience in Holmes’s theater:  whether some are black and others white, some rich and others poor, everyone needs to be and to feel safe and secure in order to enjoy the show.  And anyone who jeopardizes that security, or the ability of the government to provide it, is like the man who falsely shouts fire in the theater. He is a criminal, the enemy of everyone.  Not because he has a controversial view or takes unorthodox actions, but because he makes society—and each person’s pursuits in society—impossible.

But Americans always have been divided—and always have argued—about war and peace, what is or is not in the national interest.  What is security, people have asked?  How do we provide it?  Pay for it?  Who gets how much of it?  The personal differences that are irrelevant in Holmes’s theater—race, class, gender, ethnicity, residence, and so on—have had a great influence in the theater of war and peace. During the First World War, Wall Street thought security lay with supporting the British, German-Americans with supporting the Kaiser, Socialists with supporting the international working class.  And while the presence or absence of fire in Holmes’s theater is a question of objective and settled fact, in politics it is a question of judgment and interpretation.  During the war, Americans could never decide whether or not there was a fire, and if there was, where it was—on the Somme, the Atlantic, in the factories, the family, the draft—and who had set it:  the Kaiser, Wilson, J.P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt, the Socialists, the unions, the anarchists.  Without agreement on these questions, it wasn’t clear if Schenck was the shouter, the fire, or the fireman.

There are fires in politics, but where and what they are, who set them, how they can be put out, and who will put them out—these are political questions, the subjects of controversy and debate.  How we answer these questions—and whether they become questions at all (for not all threats and dangers become items of public discussion)—will reflect in part who has power and who does not, whose ideas are influential and whose marginal, whose interests are salient and whose negligible.

In politics, we’re never in Holmes’s theater, enjoying the show until someone comes along and ruins the evening.

Or maybe we are.

On Christmas Eve in 1913, the Ladies Auxiliary of the Western Federation of Miners local in Calumet, Michigan, held a party for the children of copper miners who had been on strike against their employer, the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, since July. About 500 children and 175 adults packed the second-floor auditorium of the Italian Hall in Red Jacket, a small mining town on the Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts out onto Lake Superior.  The miners were mostly immigrants from the peripheries of Europe—Finland, Italy, and the Balkans—but their children were one in their quest for the nuts, candy, and presents from Santa that the Ladies Auxiliary had provided.

As the children lined up in the front of the large room, someone shouted “Fire.”  Nobody smelled smoke or saw flames, but the panicked children and adults rushed to the main exit at the back of the hall.  They raced down the stairway, a few stumbled on the steep steps, others piled on top of them, and still others, unable to stop the onrush behind them, piled on top of the pile.

The stampede was over in minutes.  The tangle of bodies in the stairway was so dense that rescuers out on the street could not pull any victims out from the bottom.  They had to go through the hall and lift them from the top.  Seventy-four people died, most of them children, some still clutching their Christmas presents.

To this day, no one knows who, if anyone, shouted fire.  One possible explanation is that a child had fainted and that someone cried for water.  Water—or its Finnish equivalent vettä—sounds like watra, which means fire in Serbo-Croatian.  Many witnesses, however, claim that they saw a man with a Citizens’ Alliance—a local anti-union group of businessmen—button on his lapel enter the hall, shout “fire,” and run down the stairs. To their dying day, survivors claimed that the stampede was the work of a company man.

That was the version of the story that Woodie Guthrie immortalized in his 1939 ballad “The 1913 Massacre”:

The copper-boss thugs stuck their heads in the door

One of them yelled and he screamed, ‘There’s a fire!’

A lady, she hollered, ‘There’s no such a thing!

Keep on with your party, there’s no such a thing.’

A few people rushed, and it was only a few

‘It’s only the thugs and the scabs fooling you.’

A man grabbed his daughter and carried her down

But the thugs held the door and he could not get out.

And then others followed, a hundred ore more

But most everybody remained on the floor.

The gun-thugs they laughed at their murderous joke,

While the children were smothered on the stair by the door.

 

And it might well have been the version Holmes would have read about.  The Calumet fire was widely reported throughout the country—Congress held hearings about it and the copper strike in 1914—and Holmes was an avid reader of newspapers.  He also loved the theater and had a passion for fires.  He told a friend “that whenever there was a fire in any direction he would be glad to go to it with me even if he had to be routed of bed.”  His friend added that “it would not have surprised me had he left the Bench to witness a fire while the Court was in session.”

We’ll never know for sure if Holmes knew about the Calumet tragedy and whether it inspired his metaphor, though University of Texas legal scholar Lucas Powe has made a strong case for that claim.

Yet even in Calumet, in a crowded hall on Christmas Eve with children unwrapping their presents in peacetime, the metaphor fails.  The strikers in the Italian Hall and their families were united, but what brought them together was a bitter standoff with Calumet and Hecla about wages, safety in the mines, the introduction of new machinery, the pace of work, and, most of all, whether the workers would have a union or not.

For decades, Alexander Agassiz, the Boston Brahmin who ran the company, had refused to negotiate with the miners, declaring in 1874, “We cannot be dictated to by anyone….Wages will be raised whenever we see fit and at no other time.”  Forty years later, Calumet and Hecla was still refusing to negotiate:  as the chair of a congressional committee said, “There is little we can do to end the strike.  The operators will not employ a single union man.  The remaining strikers can go back to work if they surrender their union cards, otherwise they will be compelled to some other part of the country to earn a livelihood.”

Set aside the controversy about whether or not there was a shout of fire and who the shouter was (though the fact that there was a controversy indicates how difficult it is to apply Holmes’s metaphor—in which there is not supposed to be any controversy—to politics).  If there was a shout of fire, and if the shouter was indeed a member of the Citizens’ Alliance, he would hardly have been the universal enemy of Holmes’s metaphor; he would have been more like John Brown, a terrorist to some, a hero to others.

Rather than unite a divided Keweenaw Peninsula, the tragedy at the Italian Hall divided it even further.  After the stampede, the wives of the Citizens’ Alliance went house to house to dispense to the survivors the $25,000 the anti-union group had raised; doors were slammed in their faces.  “The Western Federation of Miners will bury its own dead,” declared union president Charles Moyer, who had been in the region since September to monitor the strike’s progress.  “The American labor movement will take care of the relatives of the deceased.  No aid will be accepted from any of these citizens who a short time ago denounced these people as undesirable citizens.”

On December 26, a group of fifteen men burst into Moyer’s hotel room.  The men “piled on me like a pack of wolves,” he later testified, “kicking and striking and cursing.”  A revolver accidentally went off, hitting Moyer in the back and shoulder.  The men grabbed Moyer and another union official, dragged them through town to the railroad station, put them on board a train for Chicago, and warned Moyer “if you ever come back to this district again we will hang you.”

The following day, local authorities arrested the editor and several employees of the local radical Finnish newspaper Tyomies, which first publicized the accusation that the Citizens’ Alliance had caused the stampede, and charged them with “conspiracy to publish mis-statements calculated to incite riot.”  Two weeks later, on January 15, 1914, the Houghton County Grand Jury indicted Moyer and 37 other unionists for participating in a conspiracy that “instituted a general strike…with the purpose and intent of causing and compelling the employees of the companies…to cease work and to shut down and prevent the operation of the mines.”  Nine days after that, the same grand jury refused to indict Moyer’s attackers.

Holmes’s metaphor was supposed to illustrate the unity of society in the face of an alien danger and the right of the government, grounded in neutral and universal principles, to suppress that danger. But Calumet, like Schenck, reveals the opposite:  a society divided—not just in the face of danger but over the face of danger—and a government selectively deciding whom to protect and from what to protect them.

While Holmes’s metaphor obfuscates the realities of Calumet and Schenck, it also reveals a deeper nexus between them.  Why, after all, might Holmes have remembered and reached back to an incident from the nation’s bitter labor history to describe an equally bitter conflict over war and peace?

Perhaps it is because there is an intimate connection between public safety and private authority.  A safe and secure nation, many believe, is publicly united—and privately obedient.  Workers submit to employers, wives to husbands, slaves to masters, the powerless to the powerful.  A safe and secure nation is built on these ladders of obedience, in its families, factories, and fields.  Shake those ladders and you threaten the nation.  Stop people from shaking them and you protect it.

In Billy Budd, Herman Melville tells the story of the Bellipotent, a British naval ship on her way to the Mediterranean to fight the French.  The year is 1797, and the French enemy is in possession of—or possessed by—a revolutionary ideology of freedom and equality.  The British navy is writhing with discontent, most notably over the impressments of its sailors.  Thanks to the “live cinders blown across the Channel” from revolutionary France, writes Melville, that discontent has “been ignited into irrational combustion.”  Mutiny, and the threat of mutiny, is everywhere.  One in particular, the Nore Mutiny of May 1797, is “a demonstration more menacing to England than the contemporary manifestoes and conquering and proselyting armies of the French Directory.”

Disorder at home and danger abroad, domestic obedience and international security, safety and submission, insecurity and revolt—all are seamlessly intertwined in this tale about the British navy during the French Revolution that is also a tale about the American struggle over slavery and perhaps about the labor movement as well. (Melville began Billy Budd in 1886, nine years after the Great Upheaval.  1886 saw a massive strike wave—1400 strikes—that culminated in the Haymarket tragedy.  Melville was still working on Billy Budd in 1891, when he died, just one year shy of the showdown at Homestead.)

Like the plantation and the factory, the navy, in Melville’s telling, is a labor-intensive operation:  the “innumerable sails and thousands of cannon” of the ship “worked by muscle alone.”  Like the Nore Mutiny, slave rebellions throughout the Americas were sparked by the French Revolution, an influence Melville took up more directly in Benito Cereno.  And like the rhetoricians of both slavery and abolition, Melville resorted to the language of fire to describe the all-encompassing threat of a conflict over power and authority: the Nore Mutiny was to the British Empire, he wrote, “what a strike in the fire brigade would be to London threatened by general arson.”

“Men feared witches and burned women,” wrote Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California.  That’s true, but men also feared women and burned witches.  It is that traffic—between the uppity and the unsafe, the insurgent and the insecure, the immoral and the dangerous—and the alchemy by which a challenge to a particular social order becomes a general threat to the whole, that is the real story of how a fire in a theater, which may or may not have happened in the way various men and women think it happened, became a national obsession and an emblem of our constitutional faith.

Bibliography

William Beck, “Law and Order During the 1913 Copper Strike.” Michigan History LIV (Winter 1970).

Jeremy Brecher, Strike! Cambridge: South End Press, 1997.

Michael Kent Curtis, Free Speech, “The People’s Darling Privilege”:  Struggles for Freedom of Expression in American History. Durham:  Duke University Press, 2000.

The Finnish Experience in the Western Great Lakes Region:  New Perspectives, ed. Michael G. Karni, Matti E. Kaups, and Douglas J. Ollila, Jr. Turku, Finland:  Institute for Migration, 1975.

William B. Gates, Jr., Michigan Cooper and Boston Dollars:  An Economic History of the Michigan Cooper Industry. Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1951.

House of Representatives Subcommittee of the Committee on Mines and Mining, Hearings on “Conditions in the Copper Mines of Michigan,” 63rd Congress, 2nd session (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1914).

Michael H. Hunt, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven:  Yale University, 1987.

Vernon H. Jensen, Heritage of Conflict:  Labor Relations in the Nonferrous Metals Industry Up to 1930. New York:  Greenwood, 1968.

Larry Lankton, Cradle to Grave:  Life, Work, and Death at the Lake Superior Copper Mines. New York:  Oxford University Press, 1991.

Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor, in Melville’s Short Novels, ed. Dan McCall. New York:  Norton, 2002.

Stephen H. Norwood, Strike-breaking & Intimidation:  Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth-Century America. Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

H.C. Peterson and Gilbert C. Fite, Opponents of War, 1917-1918. Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 1957.

Richard Polenberg, Fighting Faiths:  The Abrams Case, the Supreme Court, and Free Speech. New York:  Viking, 1987.

L.A. Powe, Jr., “Searching for the False Shout of ‘Fire.’” Constitutional Commentary 19 (Summer 2002).

David M. Rabban, Free Speech in Its Forgotten Years. New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Yosal Rogat and James O’Fallon, “Mr. Justice Holmes:  A Dissenting Opinion—The Speech Cases.” Stanford Law Review 36 (July 1984).

Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919)

Arthur W. Thurner, Rebels on the Range:  The Michigan Copper Miners’ Strike of 1913-1914. Lake Linden, Michigan:  John H. Forster Press, 1984.

Peter Trubowitz, Defining the National Interest:  Conflict and Change in American Foreign Policy. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927)

The White Moderate: The Greatest Threat to Freedom

21 Jan

Every year, on Martin Luther King Day, I’m reminded of these words, from King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

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

Update (January 21, 8:15 am)

This is also another passage it’s useful to remember:

I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

The fiscal cliff is just Act 2 of a 3-Act Play

2 Jan

I’m still mulling over the fiscal cliff deal that’s just been ratified by Congress.

My one thought so far is that part of the reason some progressives are saying it’s not so bad is that the deal, for the most part, focuses on taxes. And while the deal has the unfortunate element of making permanent a great many of Bush’s tax cuts, which were temporary, and not raising nearly the amount of revenue that might have been raised if the tax cuts had simply been allowed to expire ($3.9 trillion over a ten-year period), it does have the benefit that it raises about $600 billion in revenues, eliminates some tax benefits for the rich (though not nearly to extent that allowing the Bush cuts to expire would have), extends unemployment insurance for a year and protects the earned income tax credit for the poor.

But we have to remember that the deal is really only the second act of what seems to be shaping up as a three-act drama.  Act 1 was last summer, when Obama and the Republicans agreed to nearly $1 trillion in non-defense spending cuts over a ten-year period.  That set of cuts is now in place, promising, as the White House said last summer, to “reduce Domestic Discretionary Spending to the Lowest Level Since Eisenhower.”

Act 2 is the fiscal cliff deal. As I say above, it focuses mostly on taxes, and because it didn’t touch things like Social Security or Medicare, which Obama had been pushing for, some progressives feel relief. But it’s Act 2, as I said. If we keep in mind Act 1, what we have so far is $1 trillion in non-defense cuts and $600 billion in tax increases.

Which brings me to Act 3: the debt ceiling and delayed sequester negotiations that are set to begin in late February/early March. Unlike the negotiations over the fiscal cliff, where Obama simply could take away the Republicans’ tax cuts by waiting them out, the debt ceiling negotiations will put the GOP in a much stronger position. Obama wants something, and only the Republicans can give it to him. So now they’ll say to him: all the movement has to be on the spending side. And aside from the issue of cuts to the Pentagon, he’ll have very little to negotiate with.

Ed Kilgore describes the upcoming confrontation over the debt ceiling/sequester thus:

So the supposed moment of bipartisan satori that supposedly culminated with the House’s action last night has increased the already formidable sentiment within both parties to make the upcoming confrontation One for the Ages. I would guess that by sundown today about 95% of the Republicans in both Houses who voted for the “cliff” bill will have made public statements swearing bloody vengeance on the Welfare State in exchange for an increase in the debt limit. And even before the deal was sealed in the Senate, the president was already vowing not to make the concessions Republicans will demand.

When it comes to intransigence, whom are you going to believe? The Republicans or Obama. That’s why liberals, even those who aren’t that ruffled by the specifics of the fiscal cliff deal, are nervous.

Regardless of whom you believe, all of the action is going to happen on the spending side. So when the play’s over, what we’ll have is $600 billion in tax increases, and some number of trillions in spending cuts. Some of those cuts will come from the Pentagon, which is good, but…well, you see where I’m going.

Update (noon)

Here’s a good roundup of reactions to the deal.

Update (3 pm)

Digby has a must-read. She also makes an important point in her conclusion:

So you see what a bind we’ve been put it with this ridiculous austerity fetish? We’re going to be arguing about cutting even larger chucks of the budget at a time when we desperately need to be adding to it.

(Oh, and by the way, it’s not as if the tax hikes they just voted for could be used for any of that. Every penny of it is slated to pay down debt incurred during the time when the Republicans starved the beast and spent like sailors. What a racket.)

I didn’t deal with the whole austerity question here, though I have in the past. In a bad economy, tax hikes are always austerity measures. But the one hope is that the monies they provide will go to funding programs. In this case, the money is solely to pay down the debt. And if history is any guide, as soon as the GOP is a position to wreak their havoc, they’ll just run up the debt again. Unless someone finally makes the case for taxes as something other than a way of reducing debt and deficits, we’ll be stuck where we are.

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.

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