On Up With Chris Hayes this morning, Chris offered some badly needed revisionist wisdom about conservatism. He mentions a certain book by a certain political theorist…Start watching at 5:40. And if you haven’t bought that certain book of that certain theorist, it’s now available, at last, in paperback, for $13, here. Maybe you should, um, buy it.
So much has happened today it’s hard to keep up. So a quick round-up of the news (and some items from yesterday).
1. The major development of the day is that City Councilwoman Letitia James has publicly retracted her signature to that Fidler letter, which threatens to cut off funding to Brooklyn College and CUNY, a point Fidler doubled down on in an interview tonight.
2. This morning, Brooklyn College President Karen Gould delivered a powerful defense of our department and of academic freedom.
3. That defense has now been endorsed by the New York Times. In a strong editorial, the Times writes:
We do, however, strongly defend the decision by Brooklyn College President Karen Gould to proceed with the event, despite withering criticism by opponents and threats by at least 10 City Council members to cut city funding for the college. Such intimidation chills debate and makes a mockery of the ideals of academic freedom.
The sad truth is that there is more honest discussion about American-Israeli policy in Israel than in this country. Too often in the United States, supporting Israel has come to mean meeting narrow ideological litmus tests.
4. This morning, Glenn Greenwald made the strongest argument for why this has become a classic showdown between the state and the freedom to propound heterodox and alternative views. We are now, as Glenn reminds us, reprising the battle between Guiliani and the Brooklyn Museum. Only it’s the City Council and Brooklyn College. And as I asked earlier in the day: Where does Mike Bloomberg stand on this? This article in the Forward also focuses us on the question of what will the state do.
5. My colleague Louis Fishman in the history department, who’s a specialist in the history of the Middle East, wrote a terrific post today. You should read it.
7. One small point that has gotten very little attention in all this brouhaha. Our department wrote a letter to our students over the weekend (which we also issued as a public statement). We reiterated our long-standing policy of entertaining requests for co-sponsorship from any and all student groups, departments, and programs, but we also made a point of noting that “since this controversy broke, no group has contacted the political science chair requesting the department’s co-sponsorship of a specific event or actual speaker representing alternative or opposing views.” To date, we still not have received any such request.
8. There is a petition out there, which has garnered more than 1500 signatures in less than 24 hours. Please sign and circulate it; there is a plan, I’m told, to present it at some point later this week.
9. I don’t have phone numbers or contacts, but I urge you to find them and call/email the city councilors on this letter, sans Letitia James, who are standing by their threat to de-fund CUNY if Brooklyn College does not meet their demands that we speak only the words they want spoken. I also urge you to contact any of the progressive officials who signed off on this letter, particularly the members of Congress—sans Nadler; he’s hopeless—and Bill de Blasio and Brad Lander.
10. If you haven’t had a chance yet to watch Chris Hayes’s magnificent summation of everything that’s at stake in this controversy, well, watch it. Here.
11. And now my favorite moment in this whole controversy. Zujaja Tauqeer, a former student in my modern political thought class and now a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, wrote a terrific letter to President Gould, laying out her position on this controversy. No matter how difficult things can get at Brooklyn College and at CUNY, it is students like Zujaja who remind me of what I’m doing and why I am doing it. She gets the last word.
Dear President Gould,
I hope this letter finds you well. As a Brooklyn College alumnus, a Rhodes Scholar, and the commencement speaker and class representative for the 2011 graduating class, I urge you to continue upholding the principles of academic freedom and to allow the Political Science Department to co-sponsor, as originally planned, the panel discussion on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that has been scheduled to take place at BC.
As you and Provost Tramontano are aware, I know all too well how fragile freedom of speech can be. As a beneficiary of political asylum by the US, I am horrified to see the kinds of perverse tactics used to marginalize minority communities and viewpoints in less developed countries being introduced in an American public educational institution for the express purpose of stifling the freedom of speech, and therefore the freedom of conscience, of students and faculty. Elected officials and trustees who hold the public trust are now trying to force you to join them in betraying that very trust. They are seeking to deprive the Political Science Department of its right—and responsibility—to sponsor discussions that may conflict with the convictions of those in a position of power.
As a Rhodes Scholar selected from Brooklyn College, I have tried my utmost to represent my alma mater as a progressive institution whose commitment to freedom and toleration vindicate the sacrifices students and alumni like myself have made to pursue a liberal arts education here. Though in the past BC has stumbled in its effort to preserve civil liberties on campus, I am confident that as president you will capably show that academic freedom, so crucial to critical scholarship and democratic citizenship, is non-negotiable.
I recall at this time the motto of our school—nil sine magno labore. We cannot ensure for future students and faculty the freedoms promised to them as citizens of this country if we as an institution back down from the effort needed to uphold those very freedoms now when they are threatened by vested interests. If I can support you in any way in helping to make this case to my fellow alumni, our elected officials, and our donors, please do not hesitate to call upon me.
Zujaja Tauqeer ‘11
One of the lines of argument about Lincoln that has intrigued me most is this one, which Will Boisvert states over at Crooked Timber:
But the movie’s focus is on…snakey retail politics. That’s what makes the movie interesting, in part because it cuts against the grain of Lincoln hagiography by making him a shrewd, somewhat dirty pol.
Will isn’t alone in this. I’ve seen David Denby, Anthony Lane, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Chris Hayes offer eloquent statements of the same thesis: that what makes Lincoln great is that it shows how his greatness consists in so many acts of smallness. Politicking, horse-trading, compromise, log-rolling, and the like.
What’s interesting to me about this line of argument is, first, that it hardly cuts against the standard historiography of Lincoln. Ever since David Donald’s Lincoln Reconsidered, which came out in 1947, and Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay in The American Political Tradition (1948), we’ve known about this Lincoln. When it comes to Lincoln, we lost our virtue a long time ago, yet somehow, in 2012, we’re all still virgins. (Pace Pauline Kael.)
But beyond the historiography, there’s a larger cultural question: What is it about this country that makes any description of the moral cesspool of politics seem like the revelation of a brave new truth? Particularly among otherwise sophisticated cultural brokers like Lane et al? I mean these are men steeped in the Western canon; David Denby even wrote a book about that. Yet somehow they’ve never absorbed the lessons of Henry V? Or The Prince? Or Max Weber?
I think it was D.H. Lawrence, in his Studies in Classic American Literature (though my copy is in storage so I can’t know for sure), who first cottoned on to this peculiarly American dynamic whereby innocence gives way to cynicism, without ever achieving anything like a mature and stable or permanent sense of realism. So that every time we stumble across some banal item of reality—Lincoln was a politician! Politicians politick!—we draw back in shock and awe at the haunting truth of it all, as if we had just been handed the tablets at Mt. Sinai. (O’Brien speaks of our “authentic wonderment” at Spielberg/Kushner’s decision to set the saintly Lincoln against “a more detached and analytical surveying of circumstances.”)
Understood in this light, the realism of Lincoln is just the flip side of the hagiography of Lincoln. Only a country steeped in myths of innocence would find the most conventional and boring kind of realism about politics to be the trumpet blast of Truth, Brave Truth.
We see these quicksilver shifts, from innocence to cynicism or realism, in the culture all the time—though sometimes they go in the reverse direction. Think of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, how the wise-cracking cynic Jean Arthur becomes a true believer. Or Dave, where the Sigourney Weaver character makes the same pilgrimage. (Interestingly, in both cases it’s a woman who loses her cynicism and discovers her innocence via falling in love with a man.)
But whether it’s the cynic discovering or recovering her innocence, or the innocent losing his innocence, the story of politics in this country is always the same, toggling back and forth between two positions that are little more than the competing wisdom of juveniles.
It’s basically the truth of the 5 year old set against the truth of the 15 year old. And any time the 15 year old speaks, we’re expected to murmur, in hushed wonder: brave, bold, true, wow. If you’re a 5 year old, I can see why that would be the case. If you’re a 45-year-old, as I am, it’s a bit tougher. Or at least it should be.
In the past few weeks, there’s been a flurry of articles about employers coercing or intimidating workers to vote for their preferred candidates (usually Republican). This is not a new topic on this blog, but the brazenness of these efforts is beginning to get a fair amount of traction elsewhere (in part because of the election).
Anyway, here’s a quick roundup:
1. Alec McGillis kicked off the most recent round of stories with this report in The New Republic on Murray Energy’s forcing its workers to support Romney. (Though I had already commented on this story back in August, McGillis has a lot of new details.)
2. Mike Elk then broke the story, in In These Times, of the Koch brothers trying to get their workers to vote for the right candidate. (In case you missed Gordon Lafer’s followup on the hypocrisy of the Kochs, check this out.)
3. Mike then followed up—again, in In These Times—his piece with a report on Romney’s own role in encouraging this kind of behavior.
Then there was a bunch of thoughtful analyses of what all of this means…
5. In Salon, Josh Eidelson placed it in some historical context (with some quotes from me).
6. In The New Republic, McGillis speculated that it reveals how vulnerable employers now feel.
7. At Gawker, the inimitable Mobuto Seko Seko—no, not that one—did what only he can do, which includes, in what may be a first, citing a Crooked Timber post at Gawker (the one I wrote with Chris Bertram and Alex Gourevitch last summer.)
8. And last weekend, Chris Hayes had a lengthy roundtable on the issue (though I think most of the panelists, especially Josh Barro, got the free speech implications of the issue almost completely backward.)
But if you really want to understand what this all means, and why it happens, you should buy my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea. Part II—”Fear, American Style”—explains not only how it is that a liberal democracy can tolerate all this employer intimidation and coercion, but why and how it actually encourages, even requires, it. You also get to see one my favorite lines from Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge” —”How could mere toil align thy choiring strings?”—put in the service of political analysis: to suggest how central work and the workplace are to the organization, coordination, and execution of political repression in America.
Update (11 pm)
For some idiotic reason, I forgot this excellent piece from Mark Ames on the same topic. I can’t think of anyone in the media who has devoted as much attention to this issue, throughout the years, both as a reporter and as an analyst. Mark was also one of the very few, from the very beginning, to take notice of my work on this issue, and he’s continually made sure to keep it right there in the spotlight.
Update (11:05 pm)
Steven Sherman, a FB friend, reminds me of this piece in Business Week, just one of several, on David Siegel’s instructions to his employees.
Update (11:07 pm)
Bill Moyers is on it!
I’m going to be on Up With Chris Hayes this Sunday morning, sometime between 8 and 10. Not sure yet on the specifics, so check back in.
Update (5 pm)
Looks like I’ll be on between 8:40 and 9:05. But these things can change, so…
Here’s the video of my appearance on New Year’s Day on Up With Chris Hayes. I got to talk Reactionary Mind with Chris and a panel of guests that included Amanda Marcotte, feminist blogger extraordinaire; Noah Kristula-Green, managing editor of FrumForum; and Michael Brendan Dougherty, political editor of Business Insider. Amanda’s on the left, Noah and Michael are on the right. Politically speaking.
On Thursday, September 29, The Reactionary Mind was officially launched. Because of Rosh Hashanah—Shanah Tovah to all of you!—I haven’t been able to keep up with the whirlwind of commentary and activity around the book. With time, I hope to have lengthier, more substantive responses to the thought-provoking reactions I’ve read. But in the meantime, I just wanted to give you all a quick roundup and a reminder.
Onto the reactions.
Salon interviewed me about the book and contemporary conservatism more generally. Salt Lake City’s NPR station did an interview with me. Doug Henwood interviewed me for his show, which airs on KPFA in Berkeley. This week, I’m going to be interviewed for the C-SPAN Book TV show After Words; once I get a link, I’ll post it.
Thanks to that guest post I did over at Mike Konczal’s Rortybomb, which you might have read here on the blog, the book has gotten the attention of some heavy-hitters in the blogosphere, with combined readerships of, well, a lot of people.
Andrew Sullivan, whose writings have served as an immensely useful provocation to me throughout the decade, offered a thoughtful response.
Everyone’s saying that Robin’s new book on this very subject, The Reactionary Mind is awesome.
We’ve been mulling this over for some time and I still don’t have adequate answer to the problem. But I think I might be edging toward some insight in reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. I’ll keep you posted.
You should also check out the comments on both of Digby’s posts and on the guest post I did for Mike as well.
Elias Isquith did yet another post on the book, the fourth of a series of fascinating posts in which Isquith takes up a particular theme of the book and applies it to some contemporary issue, whether it be the death penalty or the GOP’s obsession with cunnilingus (I’m not kidding). I’ve really enjoyed watching him work his way through the book, and seeing what he does with it. I think you will too.
Over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Scott Lemieux used The Reactionary Mind to launch a lengthy discussion of David Brooks and college sports. Some of you know how I feel about sports, of any kind, but I’ll take the props however I can get ‘em.
But by far, my favorite piece of news: Don’t know if you’ve been following the Occupy Wall Street protests, but they’ve slowly begun to capture the imagination of America and the world. Apparently, they have a library down there. Charles Petersen, who copy edited the book, tweeted over the holiday that “@CoreyRobin ‘The Reactionary Mind’ at the #occupywallstreet library.” Caleb Crain, who writes lovely essays for the New Yorker, tweeted “Also spotted in the @occupywallst library: John Dewey, Noam Chomsky, @CoreyRobin.” Couldn’t ask to be in better company. And here’s the photodocumentary evidence:
Speaking of tweets, I did catch this one, from the formidable Brad DeLong, just before the holiday: “Finished reading The Reactionary Mind : Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin.” Would love to hear what he thinks…