Tag Archives: Freddie DeBoer

Is the Left More Opposed to Free Speech Today than It Used to Be?

25 Mar

In a sharp take on the left, Freddie deBoer asks, “Is the social justice left really abandoning free speech?” Drawing on this report about an incident at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Freddie answers his own question thus:

It’s a question I’ve played around with before. Generally, the response [from the left] is something like “of course not, stop slandering us,” or whatever. But more and more often, I find that the answer from lefties I know in academia or online writing are answering “yes.” And that is, frankly, terrifying and a total betrayal of the fundamental principles we associate with human progress.

Freddie goes on to offer a rousing defense of free speech. I don’t want to enter that debate. I have a different question: Is Freddie’s sense of a change on the left—”more and more often”—accurate?

To be clear, I know exactly the phenomenon Freddie is talking about, so he’s not wrong to point it out. But from my admittedly impressionistic vantage as a middle-aged American academic, it seems far less common than it used to be.

Historically, the left has had an ambivalent relationship to what used to be derisively called “bourgeois freedoms.” From Marx’s On the Jewish Question to Herbert Marcuse’s notion of repressive tolerance, some of the most interesting thinking on the left has been devoted to examining the limits of what for lack of a better word I’ll call the liberal defense of freedom and rights. And of course this tradition of thought has often—and disastrously—been operationalized, whether in the form of Soviet tyranny or the internal authoritarianism of the CPUSA.

But if we think about this issue from the vantage of the 1960s, my sense is that today’s left—whether on campus or in the streets—is far less willing to go down the road of a critique of pure tolerance, as a fascinating text by Marcuse, Barrington Moore, and Robert Paul Woolf once  called it, than it used to be. (As Jeremy Kessler suggests, that absolutist position, which is usually associated with content neutrality, historically went hand in hand with the politics of anti-communism.) Once upon a time, those radical critiques of free speech were where the action was at. So much so that even liberal theorists like Owen Fiss, who ordinarily might have been more inclined to a Millian position on these matters, were pushed by radical theorists like Catharine MacKinnon to take a more critical stance toward freedom of speech. But now that tradition seems to be all but dead.

Something happened on the way to the censor. Whether it was the pitched battle among feminists over the MacKinnon/Dworkin critique of pornography—and their advocacy of anti-porn statutes in Indianapolis and elsewhere—or the collapse of the Berlin Wall, most leftists since the 1990s have been leery of deviations from the absolutist position on free speech. Not just in theory but in practice: just consider the almost fastidious aversion to shutting down any kind of discussion within the Occupy movement. That’s not to say that leftists don’t go there; it’s just that the bar of justification is higher today. The burden is on the radical critic of free speech, not the other way around.

Yes, one can still read of incidents like the one that provoked Freddie’s post (though compared to the past, they seem fewer and farther between). And critical issues like the relationship between money and speech are still argued over on the left. But, again, compared to the kinds of arguments we used to see, this seems like small beer.

My take, as I said, is impressionistic. Am curious to hear whether others have a different impression. And to be clear, I’m talking here about the left, not liberals, who may or may not be, depending on a variety of factors and circumstances, more inclined to defend restrictions on freedom of speech.

When Katie Roiphe and Dwight Garner keep me up at night

29 Nov

I spent last night tossing and turning over Dwight Garner’s review of Katie Roiphe’s latest book of essays. Garner’s praise of Roiphe’s prose is puzzling. This is a writer, after all, whose one talent is for making you like things you dislike just because she dislikes them (and vice versa); her voice and sensibility are that grating.

More puzzling, though, is Garner’s prose:

Ms. Roiphe’s are how you want your essays to sound: lean and literate, not unlike Orwell’s, with a frightening ratio of velocity to torque.

Set aside, if you can, the comparison to Orwell. (I know, it took me a while, too.) The sentence makes no sense. As someone more literate in physics explained to me, the only situation in which a small amount of torque could produce a great deal of velocity (and thus a frightening ratio) is one in which the mass in question—i.e., the substance of the book—is extremely slight.

It’s a strange sort of compliment to say that a writer achieves the stature of Orwell by writing about things of little to no substance, particularly since the shallow end of the pool isn’t where Garner thinks Roiphe is to be found paddling.

It’s possible of course that Garner meant this as a sly critique. The more likely explanation is that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and simply liked the sound of the sentence, meaning be damned. Which may, come to think of it, explain his affinity for Roiphe’s sentences.

(Garner’s comment immediately prompted Freddie DeBoer to go on a tear on my FB page: “Ms. Roiphe’s are how you want your essays to sound: lithe and uncircumcised, not unlike prepubescent Phylis Schlafly, with an amusing ratio of worldliness to vertical leap.” “Ms. Roiphe’s are how you want your essays to sound: gimlet-eyed and bashful, not unlike Jerome K. Jerome’s, with a enervating ratio of sinew to pomp.”)

Anyway, this is what was keeping me up last night. Luckily I awoke this morning from unsettling dreams to find in my inbox this review, which some kind soul had sent to me.  It’s not perfect but it does have some lines that set my mind at ease.

Into this cacophony, with her hands over her ears, strides Katie Roiphe. “La la la, I cannot hear you,” she bellows, producing a body of criticism that presumes culture is determined entirely by things people have said to or about her. Though her book is entitled In Praise of Messy Lives (The Dial Press, 288 pp., $25), Ms. Roiphe’s mind is neat as a pin, untroubled by the unexpected inference, the awareness of mitigating factors in television or film or literature that might unmake her arguments. If contemporary writing has shown us the dangers of having too much information to consume, one does not miss the pre-Internet era when reading Ms. Roiphe, but one also wonders how, precisely, she is spending all her time.

But Ms. Roiphe’s previously published considerations of works of art and figures on the cultural scene comprise only a minor portion of this book. In Praise of Messy Lives is a strange animal, a collection of wildly different previously published works that fancies itself a statement of writerly purpose rather than a multifarious body of work. “I am aware that there are an unusual number of people who ‘hate’ my writing, and that I have done something to attract, if not court, that hatred,” Ms. Roiphe writes in her introduction, noting that her work has a common element, namely, “[t]hemes obsessively being worked through, a worldview, sometimes actively or perversely courting the extreme.”

“Courting the extreme” is, of course, not a theme so much as a behavior;…

“I can’t help thinking,” Ms. Roiphe writes like some gone-to-seed Carrie Bradshaw, “that this particular form of moral disapproval is related to our current madness about child-rearing, or desire for $900 Bugaboo strollers, Oeuf toddler beds, organic hand-milled baby food, and French classes, not to mention …” For now, enough. Of whom is Ms. Roiphe speaking? It is impossible to tell, exactly, because she cites no examples, not a single artifact, other than the shared experience of people she personally knows.

And so it goes: Ms. Roiphe argues that “we create a cultural climate” through “casual remarks made while holding a glass of wine”—and that would be all well and good in a book of personal essays. In writing that has the purpose of clarifying the “cultural climate,” though, a co-worker telling the author “You really do whatever you want,” or the aside, “I remember hearing somewhere: ‘You have one life, if that,’” only serves Ms. Roiphe’s eternal argument: in how she lives her life, she is in the right.

And now I can move onto my day.

Update (11/30, midnight)

Someone on Twitter just reminded me—and I’m kicking myself for having not seen this—that one of Orwell’s pet peeves in “Politics and the English Language” was the use of “not un.” Here’s the man himself: “banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation.” How perfect is it that Dwight Garner would use the phrase “not unlike Orwell’s”?

 

Steven Spielberg’s White Men of Democracy

25 Nov

Two weeks ago I wrote, “When Steven Spielberg makes a movie about the Holocaust, he focuses on a German. When he makes a movie about abolition, he focuses on a white man. Say what you will, he’s consistent.”

My comment was inspired by historian Kate Masur’s excellent New York Times op-ed, which argued that Spielberg’s film Lincoln had essentially left African Americans offstage or in the gallery. In Spielberg’s hands, blacks see themselves get rescued by a savior who belongs to the very group that has ravaged and ruined them. Just as Jews do in Schindler’s List. The difference is that in the case of emancipation, blacks—both free and slave—were actually far more central to the process of their own deliverance.

Thanks in part to documents from the National Archives that historians began to rigorously amass and organize in 1976—resulting in the multi-volume Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867—students and scholars have come to a completely different view of how emancipation happened. As three of the historians who were involved in that project wrote in the path-breaking Slaves No More:

The Destruction of Slavery [the first essay in the book] explicates the process by which slavery collapsed under the pressure of federal arms and the slaves’ determination to place their own liberty on the wartime agenda. In documenting the transformation of a war for the Union into a war against slavery, it shifts the focus from the halls of power in Washington and Richmond to the plantations, farms, and battlefields of the South and demonstrates how slaves accomplished their own liberation and shaped the destiny of a nation.

Emphasizing the agency of slaves and former slaves does not simply alter the cast of characters in the drama of emancipation, displacing old villains and enthroning new heroes. Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Republicans do not play less significant parts once slaves gain an active role in their own liberation, but they do play different ones. Focusing on events beyond Washington and outside formally constituted political bodies does not excise politics from the study of the past. Rather, it reveals that social history is not history with the politics left out, but that all history is—and must be—political. The politics of emancipation in the countryside and the towns of the South makes more comprehensible the politics of emancipation inside the capitol and the presidential mansion.

Which made Spielberg’s decision to focus on Lincoln and a few politicians in Washington all the more perplexing.

After I posted my comment, the estimable Freddie DeBoer asked me a simple, blunt question: Had I seen the film I was pontificating about? Shamefacedly I admitted I hadn’t. (One of the things I love about Freddie’s writing is how quickly and cleanly he cuts into his opponents. I love it even more when I’m not one of them.) But I promised I’d see the film—in return for Freddie reading some of the historical literature. He agreed.

Last night I saw the film. I’m pleased to admit that I was wrong—but in one of those ways that reveals I was more right than I realized.

One of the points my critics made in response to my original claim—Michael Brendan Dougherty pursued this line most forcefully (on Twitter)—is that the film is a biopic called “Lincoln.” Of course Lincoln is going to be center stage. (To which my exasperated wife responded, “Schindler’s List also has Schindler in the title. So what?”)

But here’s the thing. Lincoln is most decidedly not a movie about Lincoln. The main character of the film is the 13th Amendment—and the politics of emancipation more specifically and more generally. The entire plot revolves around its passage. And what’s most fascinating about the film is that Spielberg, and his screenwriter Tony Kushner, shows that emancipation wasn’t the product of a lone heroic effort by a saintly Lincoln; instead, it depicts emancipation as a collective endeavor.

The film in fact does a remarkable job—this is one of its chief virtues, I think—of decentering Lincoln from his traditional role in our national narrative. Lincoln gets surprisingly little air time in the film. Many scenes are littered with the hapless attempts of three lowlifes—one is played by James Spader—to get lame-duck Democrats on board with the 13th Amendment through promises of sinecures and patronage. In terms of getting the Amendment passed, Lincoln’s role is rather small. He only intervenes successfully in getting two or three votes.

Lincoln is obviously important as a steward and an oracle: one of the other things I like about the film is that it shows what a fine line there is in politics between the prophet and the windbag; Lincoln’s stories and pronouncements often prompt either bemused bewilderment (in the case of William Seward, played by David Strathairn) or frustrated rage (in the case of Edwin Stanton, played by Bruce McGill). But his presidency, as it is depicted by Spielberg/Kushner, actually comports more with how the bloggers over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, and the poli sci literature more generally, understand the presidency: as a radically constrained institution, which is often buffeted by forces it can’t control—in Congress, and elsewhere.

So, yes, Lincoln plays a role in Lincoln, but it’s just that: a role. Seward, Spader and his goons, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), even crazy Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Fields)—everyone has a hand in freeing the slaves.

Everyone, it seems, save the slaves themselves.

For all the decentering of Lincoln, for all the inclusion of multiple voices, the film studiously keeps black people in the audience—literally in the gallery, in one of the closing scenes, or in the bedroom or in the foyer, waiting, watching, attending. Black characters are almost always either looking up at their saviors (even allowing for the fact that Lincoln was tall) or wistfully after their saviors, as the latter depart for the halls of power. It’s true that the film opens with black soldiers telling Lincoln all they have done in the war, and telling him all that he should still do. Mary Todd Lincoln’s black servant speaks up every once in a while, as do some other servants. But that’s pretty much it.

What is so odd about this film—and something I would not have anticipated from Masur’s op-ed—is that it really is trying to show that abolition is the democratic project of the 19th century. Democratic in its objective (making slaves free and ultimately equal) and democratic in its execution, involving a great many men beyond Lincoln himself, and a great many lowly men at that. But it is a white man’s democracy. In the film, in fact, Lincoln tells his colleagues: “The fate of human dignity is in our hands.” Our hands. Not theirs.

The inclusion of so many white players makes the exclusion of black players all the more inexplicable—and inexcusable. It’s just a weird throwback to the pre-Civil Rights era except that emancipation is now depicted as a good thing—just so long as it is white people who are doing the emancipating.

Lest I be accused—as I already have been—of imposing some kind of PC orthodoxy on a piece of mass entertainment, or of applying an anachronistic standard of inclusion to a film that marches under the banner of fidelity to historical truth, let me reiterate one point and add two others. Emancipation was not a white man’s affair. It was a multiracial affair, in which blacks, slave and free, played a central role. Spielberg and Kushner are not being faithful to the historical record; they are distorting it. Not by lying but by constructing the field glasses through which they would have us look at, and misperceive, the past.

Aaron Bady will be blogging about the film too, so I don’t want to steal his thunder. But he’s dug up two interesting factoids that are relevant: First, Spielberg was originally thinking of making a film about the relationship between Lincoln and the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This is a topic that has generated a large and growing literature. Spielberg opted not to go that route. Second, though Spielberg chose to base the film on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, he decided essentially to use three pages from the book as the basis of his story. It was his decision to focus on the few months that led to the passage of the 13th Amendment in the House.

These unforced choices—his choices—effectively precluded the inclusion of blacks as political agents in their own right. It was not the constraints of history or genre, in other words, that produced this film; it was the blinkered vision of Steven Spielberg.

And, I’m sorry to say, the blinkered vision of Tony Kushner. If you think my pre-Civil Rights claim above is unfair, consider this statement that Kushner gave to NPR, which Aaron also found and pointed out to me:

The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.

I have to confess, I was truly shocked by this comment. Though it points to events after the Civil War, it reveals a point of view that I had thought we abandoned long ago: the Dunning School of American historiography, which essentially holds that Reconstruction was a “tragic era”—and error—in which a cruel and unforgiving North decided to wreak havoc on a victimized (white) South, thereby producing Jim Crow and a century of southern backwardness. When I was in high school—in 1985!—we were taught the Dunning School as an example of how not to do history, a way of thinking about the past that was so benighted no one could possibly believe it anymore.

Yet here we have one of our most esteemed playwrights—a Marxist no less (and whose effort to reclaim an honorary degree from CUNY, which he had been denied, I steadfastly organized for)—essentially peddling the same tropes.

When you have a screenwriter with Kushner’s range of historical vision, and a filmmaker with Spielberg’s gift for compression, it should be possible to make a different film. A truer, better—and, yes, entertaining—film. For reasons I can’t comprehend, they chose not to, opting instead for a 19th century American version of Schindler’s List.

I didn’t like the original. And I’m not crazy about the remake.

Update (8 pm)

Anthony Kammer on Twitter reminded me of this great quote from Stanley Kubrick about Schindler’s List: “Schindler’s List was about 200 Jews who lived. The Holocaust is about 6 million Jews who died.” I’ve never been able to find confirmation for the quote, but it’s so perfect that I had to repeat it here.

Update (9:45 pm)

From Michael Brendan Dougherty (with whom I argued earlier; see above) tonight on Twitter:

After seeing the film, I’m closer to your view than I anticipated. I think you argued better than the other professor.

I’ll admit it: it’s always gratifying to hear this kind of thing. Though I think “the other professor”—Kate Masur—did quite well.

Update (November 26, 12 am)

On FB, Ian Zuckerman brought to my attention this great speech of Frederick Douglass on Haiti.

Speaking for the Negro, I can say, we owe much to Walker for his appeal; to John Brown [applause] for the blow struck at Harper’s Ferry, to Lundy and Garrison for their advocacy [applause], We owe much especially to Thomas Clarkson, [applause], to William Wilberforce, to Thomas Fowell Buxton, and to the anti-slavery societies at home and abroad; but we owe incomparably more to Haiti than to them all. [Prolonged applause.] I regard her as the original pioneer emancipator of the nineteenth century. [Applause.]….the freedom of Haiti was not given as a boon, but conquered as a right ! [Applause.] Her people fought for it. They suffered for it, and thousands of them endured the most horrible tortures, and perished for it.

The Fine Print: Produce Urine in a Timely Fashion or We’ll Charge You

3 Nov

Freddie DeBoer writes me:

On my local Indiana news just now: apparently there’s a law around here that if a local government employee can’t produce a urine sample in “an appropriate amount of time,” the city gets fined—$15 for a half hour, $30 for an hour, and $45 for 2 hours. A local municipality just passed an ordinance that passes these fines on to the workers themselves, under the mayor’s theory that they need to watch every dollar and “it’s part of their job to produce urine in a timely fashion.”

So they’re forcing people to pee in cups while they watch and charging them if they can’t do it fast enough.

Luckily, the city backed down; back story is unclear.

Here’s a link to the video of the story, in which the Mayor talks about “shy bladder syndrome” and the financial costs it imposes upon the cash-starved city. You’ve got to watch it.

Another prize! And other news of the blog and the book

5 Jan

Clio Awards 2011 - writerThe blog has won another award!  Cliopatra, the history blog at the History News Network, has awarded me its “Best Writer” award.  Here’s what the judges said:

Corey Robin’s new blog, CoreyRobin.com, has rapidly become a *tour de force*. Robin joins battle with contemporary issues by way of a deep engagement with the history of political thought. Although he is a passionate partisan of the left, he takes conservative thinkers seriously. Several of them have returned the favor, including Andrew Sullivan, who regularly uses Robin’s provocative posts as a launching pad for his own blogging, and Bruce Bartlett, who recently debated Robin at CoreyRobin.com. All that, and Robin’s words sparkle with a crafty combination of intelligence and wit. He is the quintessential public intellectual for the digital age.

Having majored in history as an undergraduate—my teachers included John Murrin, Lawrence Stone, Arno Mayer, Robert Darnton, James McPherson, and Reid Mitchell—and having always envied the ironic humanism of the historian’s craft (and wished we had more of it in political science, along with a greater sensitivity to time and historical context), I’m especially grateful to have won this recognition from the top blog in the historical profession.

This is the second prize this blog has won; the first was the 3 Quarks Daily 3rd prize (“Charm Quark”) for “best writing in politics and social science.”

More blog stuff

That Ron Paul post I wrote is getting a lot of attention and generating lots of discussion. Not only on the comments thread, which you should definitely check out, but on a Daily Kos post by David Mizner, the progressive writer and activist; in this Glenn Greenwald post; this Digby post; this rethink from Elias Isquith; and this acidulous—I’ve always wanted to use that word!—squib from Freddie DeBoer, whose blog you should also check out.  It’s also just been reposted at Al Jazeera English, where I suspect it will generate even more discussion.  And on Twitter, well, all hell has broken loose.  This is just one of the many tweets I received in response to the post: “your article is wrong on all accounts your a shill just regurgitating what the lame stream media keep feeding the Americ. public”.  There you go.

Interviews

In addition to that appearance on “Up With Chris Hayes“—someone just alerted me to the eye roll, caught on tape at 16:20, that I did in response to the foolish claim of one of the conservative guests that Prussian aristocrats opposed Hitler—there’s a really good, if I do say so myself, two-part interview that Philip Pilkington did with me over at nakedcapitalism.com.  Part I is here, Part II is here. Thanks to Phil’s excellent questions, I manage to talk about some thing that aren’t in the book or that I haven’t discussed much in public: how I came to write the book, Burke’s thoughts on theater and costumes, the future of the GOP, and more.

Reviews/Commentaries

Back in November, there was a mixed but generally positive review of the book in Times Higher Education. The reviewer—Joanna Bourke, a cultural historian (whose book on fear, in fact, I negatively reviewed in the New Statesman a long time ago)—said, “This little book will continue to spark controversy, but that is not the reason to read it: it is a witty, erudite and opinionated account of one of the most significant movements of our times.”

John Quiggin, an Australian economist who actually knows something about political theory, did a nice post on the book, on his blog and at Crooked Timber. Lots of comments on both.

There’s also Mark Lilla’s review in the New York Review of Books. As I said in a previous post, I’ll be responding in due course, so I won’t say anything here. But in the meantime, as one young intellectual historian put it on a blog, “Bashing Lilla’s review of Robin’s book seems to be the newest internet meme.” He’s not kidding. Political theorist Alex Gourevitch weighed in at Jacobin; Henry Farrell, a political scientist with a strong interest in theory, at Crooked Timber; and intellectual historian Andrew Hartman at U.S. Intellectual History. There’s also been some further commentary on—or inspired—by the review, positive and negative, from Ben Alpers, Andrew Sullivan, Daniel Larison, Matt Yglesias, 3 Quarks Daily, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose interesting post prompted this response from me.  According to intellectual historian Tim Lacy, “I’m wondering if Robin’s book won’t also become something of an instant classic. I say this because you don’t attract high-profile ire from the likes of Mark Lilla unless you hit a nerve.” Here’s hoping.

And last, some further mentions of the book, in passing, from Andrew Sullivan, and, more substantively, from Paul Rosenberg.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,227 other followers