There’s got to be a better way to prep for class. First I read the assigned text, taking notes while I’m reading either in the back of the book or, when space runs out, in a little pocket notebook that I carry. Then I read through those notes, highlighting specific passages or commentary that might be potentially relevant for lecture and discussion. Then I re-type some (hopefully more coherent) version of those highlighted notes in a Word file, organizing them in some kind of thematic fashion or outline. (Sometimes, I divide that step up into two steps: first, I retype all the highlighted notes in a Word file; then I organize those notes into outline form in a new Word file.) Once I have some basic sense of the themes I’ll be talking about and the passages I want to focus on, I prepare my lecture (whether it’s a grad seminar or undergrad class, I do a combination of lecture and discussion). All the while I’m doing some secondary reading to help me figure out what is going on in or around the text. There’s got to be a better way to prep for class.
Via Deborah Agre comes this civil rights song, “It Isn’t Nice,” by Malvina Reynolds.
It isn’t nice to block the doorway,
It isn’t nice to go to jail,
There are nicer ways to do it,
But the nice ways always fail.
It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice,
You told us once, you told us twice,
But if that is Freedom’s price,
We don’t mind.
In 1947, Milton Friedman and George Stigler traveled together to Europe for the inaugural meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society. In 1992, Friedman reminisced about that trip in a memorial to Stigler, who had died the previous year. Here’s the conclusion:
One incident above all impressed George and me. In the course of a spirited discussion of policies about the distribution of income among a group that included Hayek, Machlup, Knight, Robbins, and Jewkes among others, Ludwig von Mises suddenly rose to his feet, remarked, “You’re all a bunch of socialists,” and stomped out of the room.
Last week, Gloria Steinem had this to say:
If you added up all the women who have been murdered by their husbands or boyfriends since 9/11, and then you add up all the Americans who were killed by 9/11 or in Afghanistan and Iraq, more women were killed by their husbands or boyfriends.
PolitiFact then confirmed the truth of her claim.
How can this be, you ask? How can something that is so dangerous to the population (at least a majority) not galvanize political attention and public policy in the same way that something less dangerous does?
That was a question that inspired my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea. Here’s what I wrote there:
Political fear can work in one of two ways.
First, leaders or militants can define what is or ought to be the public’s chief object of fear. Political fear of this sort almost always preys upon some real threat—it seldom, if ever, is created out of nothing—but since the harms of life are as various as its pleasures, politicians and other leaders have much leeway in deciding which threats are worthy of political attention and which are not. It is they who identify a threat to the population’s well being, who interpret the nature and origins of that threat, and who propose a method for meeting that threat. It is they who make particular fears items of civic discussion and public mobilization.
This does not mean that each member of the public actually fears the chosen object: not every American citizen, for instance, is actively afraid today of terrorism. It merely means that the object dominates the political agenda, crowding out other possible objects of fear and concern.
In choosing, interpreting, and responding to these objects of fear, leaders are influenced by their ideological assumptions and strategic goals. They view danger through a prism of ideas, which shapes whether they see a particular danger as threatening or not, and a lens of political opportunity, which shapes whether they see that danger as helpful or not.
I elaborated this argument in a more recent piece that I wrote for Jacobin.
It is not necessarily a widespread fear of foreign or domestic threats — real or imagined — that compels the state to abridge civil liberties. When the government takes measures for the sake of security, it is not simply translating the people’s fear of danger into a repressive act of state. Instead, the government makes a choice: to focus on some threats and not others, and to take certain actions (but not others) to counter those threats. Merely think of the attention — and money, staff, countermeasures, and air time — the US government has lavished upon terrorism as opposed to automobile accidents or climate change, even in the wake of Katrina, Sandy, and a host of other life-threatening weather events.
Even though this power to define the objects of public fear suggests that danger or harm is whatever the state says it is, Hobbes did believe that there were real dangers that threatened a people. The sovereign had every reason to make the proper determination of what truly threatened the people and to act only upon those determinations. The sovereign’s interest in his own security dovetailed with the people’s interest in theirs. So long as the people were, or at least felt, secure, they would obey the sovereign; so long as they obeyed the sovereign, he would be secure.
Hobbes also assumed that the sovereign would be so removed from powerful constituencies in society — in his time, the church and the aristocracy — that the sovereign would be able to act on behalf of an impartial, disinterested, and neutral calculation of what truly threatened the people as a whole and of what measures would protect them. Because the sovereign’s power depended upon getting these calculations right, he had every incentive not to get them wrong.
The reality of modern state power, however, is that we have inherited some of the worst aspects of Hobbesian politics with none of its saving graces. Governments today have a great deal of freedom to define what threatens a people and how they will respond to those threats. But far from being removed from the interests of and ideologies of the powerful, they are often constrained, even defined and constituted, by those interests and ideologies.
To cite just one example: it is a well known fact that African Americans have suffered as much from the American state’s unwillingness to protect them from basic threats to their lives and liberties as they have from the willingness of white Americans to threaten those lives and liberties. Throughout much of US history, as legal scholar Randall Kennedy has shown, the state has deemed the threat to the physical safety of African Americans to be an unremarkable danger and the protection of African Americans an unworthy focus of its attentions.
In the Hobbesian account, this constitutes a grievous failure; in America, it has been a semi-permanent boundary of state action. At the most fateful moment of white-on-black violence in US history, in fact, the national government deemed the threat to African Americans a relatively minor item of public safety, unworthy of federal military protection; by contrast, it deemed the threat to employers from striking workers an public emergency, worthy of federal military protection.
When we talk about the politics of fear, this is what we mean.
If you want to learn more, buy my book!
But Cynthia Ozick has also said some terrible things about the Palestinians. Like this from the Wall Street Journal in 2003:
By replacing history with fantasy, the Palestinians have invented a society unlike any other, where hatred trumps bread. They have reared children unlike any other children, removed from ordinary norms and behaviors. And they have been assisted in these deviations by Arab rulers who for half a century have purposefully and pitilessly caged and stigmatized them as refugees, down to the fourth generation. Refugeeism, abetted also by the United Nations, has itself been joined to the Palestinian cult of anti-history….
…Out of Israel came monotheism, out of Greece philosophy, out of Arab civilization science and poetry, out of England the Magna Carta, out of France the Enlightenment. What has been the genius of Palestinian originality, what has been the contribution of the evolving culture of Palestinian sectarianism? On the international scene: airplane hijackings and the murder of American diplomats in the 1970s, Olympic slaughterings and shipboard murders in the 1980s….
But the most ingeniously barbarous Palestinian societal invention, surpassing any other in imaginative novelty, is the recruiting of children to blow themselves up with the aim of destroying as many Jews as possible in the most crowded sites accessible….
From anyone, this would be ugly stuff.
But from the author of these words—
Four hundred years of bondage in Egypt, rendered as metaphoric memory, can be spoken in a moment; in a single sentence. What this sentence is, we know; we have built every idea of moral civilization on it. It is a sentence that conceivably sums up at the start every revelation that came afterward….”The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
—it’s almost unbearable.
The political science department at Brooklyn College, of which I am chair, has initiated a search for our Belle Zeller Visiting Professor, which is a two-year position in the department.
Previous holders of the Belle Zeller chair include awarding filmmaker Stanley Nelson, noted historian Genna Rae McNeil, and prominent journalists such as Gary Younge, Juan Gonzalez, and Liza Featherstone, who is our current Belle Zeller chair.
We are looking for a nationally recognized scholar, journalist, writer and/or practitioner in one or more of the following fields: labor, education, health, urban politics, environment, criminal justice, racial equality, national security, immigration, and gender and LGBTQ justice.
Review of applications to begin January 15, 2015 and will continue until the position is filled.
For information on the position and how to apply, please visit www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/facultyjobs and scroll down to 11298.Please share this post widely.
It’s Erev Yom Kippur, and I’ve been talking, a lot, about Arendt.
So via Amy Schiller, who is my student at the Graduate Center, come these perhaps more appropriate words from a perhaps more appropriate text for the holiday, The Human Condition.
The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility is the faculty of forgiving….forgiving relates to the past and serves to undo its deeds…Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell….In this respect, forgiving and making promises are like control mechanisms build into the very faculty to start new and unending processes.
Happy New Year. And have an easy fast.