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On Public Intellectuals

26 Jan

I’m ambivalent, as I’ve said before, about the category “public intellectual.” It’s precious and pretentious, and unfairly denigrates the virtues and vocation of talented scholars who devote themselves to obscure questions no one else is asking, questions that may not interest broader audiences at the time but that may, one day, be of vital importance to more than a narrow few. Or that may, regardless of people’s interest, simply advance our understanding of some small part of the universe.

But if we are going to hold onto and repeatedly invoke the category, I wonder if there may not be a fundamental problem at the heart of it. Public intellectuals are thought of as not only generalist writers speaking to non-academic audiences about issues that matters, but also as moral voices and political actors, men and women who say the unsayable, speak truth to power, confront injustice and oppression, and any one of a number of cliches that fall under the broader rubric of political prophecy.

That sort of vocation requires three things:

  1. Knowledge: A deep understanding of an injustice or oppression and why it needs to be confronted.
  2. Judgment: A political sense of how to confront it, how to marshal whatever combination of rhetoric and force that will ensure that even if it is just a voice speaking out in the wilderness, it is a voice out of the whirlwind rather than lost to the wind.
  3. Courage: An ability and willingness to act on that knowledge and that judgment, whether in speech or deed.

If these are the requirements, I’m not sure intellectuals are necessarily the best candidates for the job.

Intellectuals, particularly on the left, sometimes think the question of political involvement can be reduced to having “good politics,” that elusive combination of metaphysics and morals, truth and values, that used to go by the name of “the right line.” But when it comes to a political struggle of the sort where we might look to intellectuals, public or otherwise, for guidance, I’ve often not found that those with the right line are the best guides: they haven’t a clue where that line goes or how we might get there. Most important of all, they underestimate just how hard it will be to get there, how many forces are arrayed against them, and how easily and quickly they will succumb to those forces.

Looking back on her early years as an academic-in-training, and the collaboration with the Nazis so many of her colleagues would ultimately engage in, Hannah Arendt had this to say:

My early intellectual formation occurred in an atmosphere where nobody paid much attention to moral questions; we were brought up under the assumption: Das Moralische versteht sich von selbst, moral conduct is a matter of course. I still remember quite well my own youthful opinion of the moral rectitude we usually call character; all insistence on such virtue would have appeared to me as Philistine, because this, too, we thought was a matter of course and hence of no great importance—not a decisive quality, for instance, in the evaluation of a given person. To be sure, every once in a while we were confronted with moral weakness, with lack of steadfastness or loyalty, with this curious, almost automatic yielding under pressure, especially of public opinion, which is so symptomatic of the educated strata of certain societies, but we had no idea how serious such things were and least of all where they could lead.

Courage is not always a virtue; it depends on cause and context. But neither is it a common virtue. Not simply because most of us aren’t brave but also because courage requires judgment and knowledge. Possessing all three at the same time is a rarity. Why we would think to look for it among intellectuals is not clear.

Let’s Make a Deal

21 Jan

I promise not to blame Obama for not doing what the Republicans prevent him from doing, not to exaggerate the power of the presidency, to acknowledge the constraints of a bicameral Congress, the reality of Blue Dogs and unreality of Green Lanterns, if…

…you STFU about SOTU, POTUS, and the next presidential election.


NYPD Goes Full Mario Savio

8 Jan

Mario Savio, on the steps of Sproul Hall, 1964:

There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

From today’s New York Times:

One arraignment courtroom instead of two. Clerks watching “Batman” on their computer screens and playing with their cellphones as they wait for something to happen. And Manhattan’s night court shutting down an hour early because there are no more cases to call.

Those were scenes from the city’s arraignment courts in the third week of a precipitous drop in arrests by the New York Police Department. The usual chaotic bustle of the courts — the odd mix of transgressors, from murderers to fare-beaters — has given way to unusual scenes of tranquil inactivity.

“It’s slow, crazy slow,” Marcy Seckler, a veteran Legal Aid lawyer, remarked with a smile, as night court started in Manhattan on Tuesday.

Things did not pick up: Over the course of the night, only 30 defendants came before Judge Abraham Clott, who often rubbed his eyes and yawned. On a typical night, he would see 60 to 90 defendants. No more than 12 people sat in the courtroom at any time, and court officers checked their watches and wandered away from their posts.

At 12:15 a.m. Wednesday, the judge looked out into the gallery and its nine rows of benches, which were all empty. There were no prostitutes, no one accused of publicly drinking or urinating — and there had not been any all night.

Judge Clott declared the session over — 45 minutes early.

For the last two weeks, New York City police officers have sharply curtailed making arrests and issuing summonses. Only 347 criminal summonses were written in the seven days through Sunday, down from 4,077 in the same period a year ago.

The sharp downturn magnifies a continuing divide between the rank-and-file and Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose standing had fallen so low among uniformed officers that some turned their backs to him at the funerals of two slain officers.

The number of cases handled by the arraignment courts fell 36 percent in December compared with the same month last year, and most of the drop came in the last two weeks of the month, court officials said.

Just in the last two and a half weeks, arraignments for misdemeanors have fallen about 60 percent, to 2,581, from 6,395. The drop was more pronounced for people arrested for violations, like disorderly conduct: a 91 percent decline to 97 cases, compared with 1,157 over the same period a year ago.

The Age of Acquiescence

7 Jan

My friend Steve Fraser has a book coming out called The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power. Comparing our contemporary Gilded Age to the original, Steve asks why in the late 1800s, the concentration of wealth and extremes of inequality sparked an explosion of mass rebellion that lasted well over a half-century, whereas today, with some isolated and episodic exceptions, we see, well, acquiescence. Not consent, not apathy, but acquiescence. It’s a word that makes me shudder. As Steve says, the men and women of the nineteenth century witnessed the violence of capitalist development and managed, out of that hellhole, to conjure and wage war on behalf of an entirely different vision of society. But we live in a “windowless room,” where we it’s difficult to see beyond capitalism. Part of that, he says, has to do with the “fables of freedom” we’re told, where freedom is equated with, reduced to, the free market. At the dawn of the Cold War, he points out, the US claimed it was defending freedom, not capitalism, because capitalism was still in such bad odor. Now the two are considered identical. But another part, he adds, is that the first Gilded Age was a society developing itself through accumulation, while today’s is a society that is de-developing itself through disaccumulation. (In his blurb for the book, Greg Grandin calls it “Piketty with politics.”)

Just before the holidays, Steve was on the Bill Moyers Show, talking about the book. Have a watch here, then buy the book. Once I get my copy, I’ll be blogging about it some more.

Baghdad, Yesterday, Jerusalem, Tomorrow

4 Jan

I’ve just begun reading Baghdad, Yesterday, an engrossing memoir by Sasson Somekh, an Iraqi-born Jew who, like many Iraqi Jews, left* Baghdad for Israel in 1951. Somekh is now a professor emeritus of Arabic literature at Tel Aviv University. It reads likes a series of dispatches from life in Baghdad in the 30s and 40s. But one thing that surprised me—Somekh only mentions it in passing—is that after Saddam’s regime was ousted with the American invasion of 2003, “Iraqi Jews in exile, along with their descendants, were invited to participate in the elections that took place in Iraq at the beginning of 2005.” I didn’t know anything about this, but it’s apparently true. The tragedy and injustice of Jews who were expelled from Arab countries after 1948 is often thrown up as a conversation-stopper whenever the question of the Nakba or Palestine arises. I couldn’t help think that next time someone does raise that point, we should point to this invitation to Iraqi Jews (can we imagine Israel doing anything comparable for Palestinians in exile?) as a way of continuing that conversation.

*Somekh uses the language of “left” rather than fled or was exiled or expelled or driven out. I’m not far enough into the memoir yet to know what the circumstances of his leaving were, so I’m going to rely on his usage for now.

Even the liberal New Republic…

29 Dec

supports third party challenges that would forcing the Democrats to lose a presidential election in order to produce a change in the party’s ideological direction:

In the spring of 1983, the magazine ran a cover story…declaring that the Democratic Party needed to lose the 1984 election. Longtime liberal subscribers recoiled with horror. But Fairlie wanted a defeat that would shock a sclerotic party into reform and recovery, not a Republican triumph. In fact, the essay did a good job laying out the path that Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council would follow on the way to the election of 1992.

When The New Republic makes this argument from the right, TNR-style liberals like David Bell, writing in the LA Review of Books above, welcome it as a healthy dose of clear-eyed realism.

When leftists make this sort of argument from the left, TNR-style liberals like Sean Wilentz, murmuring darkly of “left-wing utopianism,” invoke Dostoevsky. Seriously.

From Galicia to Brooklyn: Seven Generations of My Family

28 Dec

800px-Jewish_cemetery_RymanówThis is a photograph of the Jewish cemetery in Rymanów, a town in southeastern Poland about two hours from Krakow. To the east is Ukraine, to the south, Slovakia. The entire area was part of the Galicia region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from which so many Eastern European Jews came to the US and elsewhere.

Rymanów’s Jewish population dates back to the fifteenth century; the town had a distinguished line of Hasidic rabbis. After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, they set up a POW camp near Rymanów, where after 1941 they killed about ten thousand Soviet soldiers. They then used the camp as a transit camp for the area’s Jews, who were sent to various extermination camps to be murdered.

Rymanów is also the closest place that we can trace—on my mother’s mother’s side—my family’s origins.

My great great great grandfather was Arthur Sohn; my great great great grandmother was Lena Gross. Arthur and Lena had Moishe in 1832.

My other great great great grandfather was Abraham Zalmanowitz; my other great great great grandmother was Pearl Cohen. Abraham and Pearl had Faiga or Faigie sometime around 1852.

Moishe and Faigie were married sometime before 1880. Faigie was Moishe’s second wife; his first wife had died.

Moishe and Faigie had five kids. Their youngest was Pauline, who was born in 1892 in Rymanów. Their second eldest was Rebecca, who was born in 1882; we don’t know where.

Moishe, Faigie, and their five children—including Rebecca—emigrated to the States not long after Pauline was born, in the 1890s. I don’t know if Rymanów was the town they had been living in or was simply the town in which Pauline was born. But it’s the only specific location we have for this side of my family.

Rebecca, or Becky, had a daughter, also named Pauline (my Grandma Pauline), and two other children: my Aunt Bea and my Uncle Leo.

Pauline had my mom, who had me.

With my daughter Carol, that makes seven generations. From Galicia to Brooklyn.


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