Tag Archives: Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Uncharacteristically Obtuse Mr. Chait

20 Mar

Jonathan Chait is no dummy. He’s one of the smartest political journalists around. So this bit of obtuseness in his critique yesterday of Ta-Nehisi Coates caught me by surprise.

Coates has been writing a series of pieces interrogating the idea of the culture of poverty, the notion that African American poverty is rooted in a deep tradition of bad values, bad behavior, bad choices, especially among black men. This idea used to be the exclusive preserve of the right; a milder version of it has since migrated to the liberal left.

In his latest dispatch, Coates wrote this:

Certainly there are cultural differences as you scale the income ladder. Living in abundance, not fearing for your children’s safety, and having decent food around will have its effect. But is the culture of West Baltimore actually less virtuous than the culture of Wall Street? I’ve seen no such evidence.

Here’s Chait in response:

Coates dismisses the culture objection in his latest piece by asking sardonically, “is the culture of West Baltimore actually less virtuous than the culture of Wall Street?” I think the example undermines his point. I have no idea how to compare Wall Street to West Baltimore, but it’s clear that Wall Street has an enormous cultural problem — which is to say it has normalized kinds of behavior that many of us consider bad.

Actually, the example undermines Chait’s point. Because Coates isn’t challenging the notion that Wall Street behavior isn’t bad or that there’s not a culture of bad behavior on Wall Street. He’s challenging the notion that it’s bad behavior, or the culture of bad behavior, that explains, in whole or in part, poverty in the black community.

All those guys on Wall Street act like jerks; yet somehow they don’t wind up poor.  That’s Coates’s point. If the culture on Wall Street is not more elevated than that of West Baltimore, something other than the culture on Wall Street and the culture in West Baltimore has to explain the wealth of the one and the poverty of the other.

“The rich are different from you and me,” Fitzgerald is supposed to have said to Hemingway. “Yes,” Hemingway responded, “they have more money.” The conversation, of course, never happened. Even so, Hemingway got it right.

A Question for A.O. Scott and Ta-Nehisi Coates

4 Dec

Ta-Nehisi Coates is sponsoring a fascinating conversation between himself, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, and historian Kate Masur about the film Lincoln. It’s a real treat to read these three distinct and expert voices engage with each other; I’m eager to hear Kate’s response to what’s been said so far.

Both Coates and Scott bring up an interesting point that I hadn’t really considered about the film: not only how it represents the Civil War as fundamentally a fight about slavery, but also how radical, even revolutionary, that is in the context of American film history. I don’t know a lot about film history, but that makes a lot of sense to me.

But it also raises a question for me. Both Coates and Scott seem to assume—they’re not explicit about this, so I emphasize the “seem”—that movies are the medium of mass culture, the vehicle by which people learn their history. Scott writes:

And I also think that, within the history of American film and of pop-cultural depictions of the Civil War more generally, it is radical in ways that have not been sufficiently noted.

I have no confirmation of this from any source, but it is my hunch that some of the intention in making Lincoln was to offer a corrective to Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, films that are hardly taken seriously as history but that nonetheless still constitute part of the fantasy life of the Republic. You could say that Spielberg and Kushner propose a counter-fantasy.

Coates is more explicit:

Thus the reason I think we don’t see more liberals engaging in a full-throated defense of Lincoln is that the opposing view—the one that animates films like the Gone With Wind and Gods and Generals, which animates television shows like Hell on Wheels, which finds people holding Secession Balls and celebrating the attempt to raise a republic premised on white supremacy—has no respect among anyone who’s seriously thought about the issue.

Think about it like this. There’s been a great debate roiling the academy between people like Sean Wilentz who think we underplay the importance of politicians, and historians who emphasize the actions of activists and radicals. This has been a pretty heated debate, and I think we see it play out in Lincoln. But it’s not like Wilentz is trying to “clean” slavery. The role of politicians and radicals in democracy is a legit and interesting debate in a way that debating states rights vs. slavery just isn’t.

Conservatives, as they have in other intellectual arenas, have simply fled the field. The result is that when you see a film like Lincoln, what you find is liberals hotly critiquing the film because things that may seem revolutionary in the grand sweep of American politics aren’t among people who’ve spent years thinking about Lincoln’s legacy and the Civil War.

Coates says that the wrong view of the Civil War—that it wasn’t about slavery—”has no respect among anyone who’s seriously thought about the issue.” The implication is that the right view is mostly, or even only, held by academics and serious readers.

What both Scott and Coates are leaving out of their account of mass culture is the most common cultural institution of all: the school. Not everyone sees Lincoln, but everyone does go to school. (And as Aaron Bady pointed out to me in an email, how many people have seen Birth of a Nation?) Of course, Coates and Scott aren’t really saying that people only get their history from film, but they are suggesting that film is the cultural medium by which the polity narrates its history to itself. But aren’t schools—public and private— the more likely medium of the mass cultural transmission of history, and a better, or at least comparable, indicator of how the polity understands itself?

And then the question becomes: what are students learning about the Civil War in the schools? Coates, Scott, and Masur agree that the historiographical consensus is that slavery lay at the root of the Civil War. Insofar as history teachers in the schools are trained to some degree in their field, wouldn’t that consensus be taught in the classroom? Found in the textbooks?

To answer this, we’d have to look at state curricula, and as Connor Kilkpatrick pointed out to me in an email, Texas plays an outsized role in creating textbook content. So that’s not promising. And a fair number of teachers, particularly of a previous generation, were schooled in a kind of soft-left critique of the Northern position during the Civil War, which gave the impression that it was all about greedy northern capitalists. In addition, if you read comments threads of many blogs (not the most reliable indicator of mass opinion but still), the Lost Cause theme is out there. Coates has been rightly flagging this crap for years, and it plays a big role, as he says, on the Right.

Still, I’d be curious to find out how the Civil War is taught today in the schools. And here I defer to Coates and Masur, as well as my readers, many of whom are public school teachers who would definitely know a lot more about this than I do.

Because I’m wondering if there isn’t a vast majority—somewhere between the history profession and the Lost Causers that surround the Ron Paul movement that Coates speaks of—that both Coates and Scott are leaving out.

That said, I did overhear this on 12th Street, not more than an hour ago.

So I was telling her about Lincoln, but I didn’t want to give it away and say that he got shot.

Update (1:10 pm)

Well, that was fast. Henry Farrell just sent me a link to this post he wrote last year. Long story short, I’m probably wrong (though Henry doesn’t talk about the schools or curricula).

I became a US citizen yesterday, after spending some time over the previous few days reading the US civics study guide to study for the citizenship exam (since I am a political scientist, it would have been particularly embarrassing for me if I had failed it). For better or worse, it’s hard for me to switch off my inner social scientist. Hence, I started paying a different kind of attention when I read that ‘states rights’ is one of three acceptable answers to the civics question ‘name one problem that led to the Civil War’ (slavery and economics are the other two). My understanding, perhaps mistaken, is that ‘states’ rights’ is typically employed as an explanation by those who would prefer to forget (as Ta-Nehisi Coates notes; also here) that it was one particular right – the right to own slaves – that was what was really at stake in the conflict. The study guide goes on to elaborate that:

The Civil War began when 11 southern states voted to secede (separate) from the United States to form their own country, the Confederate States of America. These southern states believed that the federal government of the United States threatened their right to make their own decisions. They wanted states’ rights with each state making their own decisions about their government. If the national government
contradicted the state, they did not want to follow the national government.

after which it does get into a discussion of the relationship between slavery and economic systems in North and South, and its relationship to the Civil War.

This – of course – was only a very small part of the event in question (and in any event I got asked a completely different set of questions on the day) – but it was interesting. Tests of this kind are a very useful way of gauging what is accepted, and what is not accepted as part of the official national narrative, especially when, as in the US, there is no national history curriculum. I was surprised that this was part of the accepted (or at least acceptable) narrative…

Update (2:30 pm)

Kate Masur has a very powerful response to Coates and Scott.

Tony argues that the film is a “radical” contribution to the film history of the Civil War because it doesn’t trade in Lost Cause nostalgia or the hackneyed idea of the tragic “brothers’ war.” I don’t quite agree with that interpretation. What I want to emphasize here, however, is that by deciding to focus on Lincoln’s struggle to abolish slavery, Spielberg and Kushner ensured that the film would be seen within another history: the history of films about struggles for black civil rights and equality. In that context—with its benevolent white heroes and patient, passive African Americans—the film is decidedly not innovative.

I agree that this is not a reactionary film. It does not repeat many of the historical inaccuracies and white supremacist messages of earlier films about the Civil War. It does not argue that Lincoln was a tyrant or that African Americans were better off in slavery. But isn’t that setting the bar awfully low? Aren’t we entitled to expect a bit more from people as smart and well-financed (and liberal) as Spielberg and Kushner?

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.


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.


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.

Still Batshit Crazy After All These Years: A Reply to Ta-Nehisi Coates

3 Jan

Jumping off from Mark Lilla’s negative review of my book in the New York Review of Books—about which more later, though if you’re looking for a hard-hitting response, check out Alex Gourevitch’s demolition at Jacobin—Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a helpful corrective to Lilla’s claim that “political apocalypticism” is a recent development on the right.

It’s interesting that Lilla raises Buckley here. People often bring him up as foil to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, as an example of a time when conservatism was sane. But that Buckley joke has always struck me (a college dropout) as batshit crazy. I constantly hear about the sober-minded Buckley, but it’s tough for me to square that with the man who posited that the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church might lay at the feet of  “a crazed Negro” and basically worked as a press agent for apartheid in South Africa. (But National Review is against the drug war, so it’s fine.) From a black perspective, modern conservatism’s batshit phase began in Birmingham.

One of the reasons I wrote The Reactionary Mind was to challenge this refrain, which you hear on the right and the left, that today’s conservatism is fundamentally crazier—not being a licensed professional, I prefer the term “more radical” or “more extreme”—than yesterday’s. As I  state on p. 43:

As the forty-year dominion of the right begins to fade, however fitfully, writers like Sam Tanenhaus, Andrew Sullivan…claim that conservatism went into decline when Palin, or Bush, or Reagan, or Goldwater, or Buckley, or someone took it off the rails.  Originally, the argument goes, conservatism was a responsible discipline of the governing classes, but somewhere between Joseph de Maistre and Joe the Plumber, it got carried away with itself.  It became adventurous, fanatical, populist, ideological.  What this story of decline overlooks…is that all of these supposed vices of contemporary conservatism were present at the beginning, in the writings of Burke and Maistre, only they weren’t viewed as vices.  They were seen as virtues.  Conservatism has always been a wilder and more extravagant movement than many realize—and it is precisely this wildness and extravagance that has been one of the sources of its continuing appeal.

So, naturally, I agree with Coates’s claim that there’s no great disjuncture between the Buckley of the 1960s and contemporary conservatism.  (Readers interested in these continuities should check out Kevin Mattson’s Rebels All!.)  And in my book, I offer many more instances of the ways that modern conservatism and visions of a racial apocalypse are intertwined. (Though if you want a real sense of that fusion, Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland is the place to start.)

Nixon, according to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks.” And of course there is this classic National Review editorial from 1957:

The central question that emerges [from the civil rights movement] is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.

That “for the time being” adds a nice touch of dread: the end may be nigh.

But I’d like to suggest that Coates’s dating of the beginning of “conservatism’s batshit phase” needs to be pushed back a bit. Like a hundred and seventy-three years bit.

As I’ve argued repeatedly, from its very inception in the reaction against the French Revolution, conservatism has contained within itself some of the most wild and extravagant visions of war and apocalypse.  It was none other than the supposedly level-headed Edmund Burke who, when confronted with the Jacobin challenge, declared, “The madness of the wise…is better than the sobriety of fools.” Burke was fully prepared to see and stare down the coming apocalypse, by any means necessary: Jacobinism “must be destroyed,” he insisted, “or it will destroy all of Europe.” By Jacobinism he meant not simply a political movement but an “armed doctrine.”  Each and every expression of that doctrine would have to be exterminated: “If it can at all exist, it must finally prevail.”And far from arguing that the destruction of the Revolution would bring a return of the tried and familiar, he insisted that whatever came next would in fact be “in some measure a new thing.”

It’s arguments like these—and my book features many more of them throughout the 19th and 20th century—that led me to choose as the epigraph to my book this lovely passage from a letter Emily Dickinson wrote to a suitor she kept at bay: “Dont you know that ‘No’ is the wildest word we consign to Language?”

Now Coates has an important qualifier to his claim about conservatism’s history: “From a black perspective, modern conservativism’s batshit phase began in Birmingham” (my emphasis).

But even from a black perspective, I would argue, the batshit—sorry, extremism—goes way back.  Some of this, of course, is not news to Coates, who’s been writing at length about the history of slavery and white supremacy in this country. John C. Calhoun’s constitutional vision, which is featured in virtually every anthology of the conservative canon, is absolutely rooted in the defense of slavery. (Manisha Sinha’s The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina is the definitive account; her discussion of Calhoun’s stance on the tariff and its relationship to slavery, which Coates also discusses here, is positively riveting.)

And as I discuss in my book, virtually every major defense of slavery, from Thomas Jefferson’s to William Harper’s, ends on a note that should be familiar to any student of European fascism, the apex of right-wing apocalypticism.  If the slaves are set free, warn the slaveholders, there will have to be a final solution to the Negro Question: either deportation or elimination. (Though it’s not considered polite to say so, it’s important to remember that, as late as 1941, the Nazis were mulling over the same options.)

Beating the drums of race war, Jefferson warned that emancipation would “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one race or the other.”  The only alternative was an “effort…unknown to history.  When freed, he [the slave] is to be removed beyond the mixture.” Anticipating the writings of Robert Brassilach, the French fascist who argued that compassion meant that Jewish children should be deported along with their parents, Thomas Dew claimed, “If our slaves are ever to be sent away in any systematic manner, humanity demands that they should be carried in families.” With abolition, Harper concluded, “one race must be driven out by the other, or exterminated, or again enslaved.” (Drew Gilpin Faust’s The Ideology of Slavery and Paul Finkelman’s Defending Slavery are excellent anthologies of pro-slavery primary documents.)

The relationship between conservatism, slavery, and white supremacy is a complicated one, and I by no means wish to suggest either that all conservatives were pro-slavery—some, including Burke, were not—or that liberalism does not have its own intimate relationship with slavery and racism, as the example of Jefferson reveals. (The latter topic has generated a vast literature, but two useful places to begin are Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract and, more recently, Dominic Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History.)

But mere opposition to slavery hardly made conservatives abolitionist: far from it. When confronted with the actual question of emancipation, the intransigent demand to politically transform societies of deeply rooted domination into societies of freedom—Ground Zero, as I argue in my book, of the reactionary mind—virtually all of them sang a different tune (see chapter 4 of Patrick Allitt’s generally sympathetic survey The Conservatives).  As I put it on pp. 27-28:

Today’s conservative may have made his peace with some emancipations past; others, like labor unions and reproductive freedom, he still contests.  But that does not alter the fact that when those emancipations first arose as a question….his predecessor was in all likelihood against them.  Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is one of the few contemporary conservatives who acknowledge the history of conservative opposition to emancipation. Where other conservatives like to lay claim to the abolitionist or civil rights mantle, Gerson admits that “honesty requires the recognition that many conservatives, in other times, have been hostile to religiously motivated reform” [of the sort that produced the last two centuries’ worth of black freedom movements] and that “the conservative habit of mind once opposed most of these changes.” Indeed, as Samuel Huntington suggested a half-century ago, saying no to such movements in real time may be what makes someone a conservative throughout time.

And, again, we can date this to 1789. One of the issues conservatives worried about in the French Revolution was that it might spur slave revolts and revolutions throughout the Americas. (John Adams, incidentally, voiced a similar concern about the impact of the American Revolution.) In a speech before Parliament in April 1791, Burke warned that any “constitution founded on what was called the rights of man” would open a “Pandora’s box.”

As soon as this system arrived among [the French]…every mortal evil, seemed to fly open, hell itself to yawn, and every demon of mischief to overspread the face of the earth.  Blacks rose against whites, whites against blacks, and each against one another in murderous hostility; subordination was destroyed….

Four months later, on the night of August 21, black slaves fired the first shots of the Haitian Revolution. As with so many things, Burke’s was a prophetic voice. Small wonder he called for not a little bit of madness and mayhem in response: “Acquiescence will not do; there must be zeal.”

Long after the slaves had thrown off their masters in Haiti, that revolution—and its predecessor revolution in France—would haunt the memories of the master class in the South. In response, they would not only tighten their coercive hold on the black population—as well as the national government—but they would also begin to promulgate the most elaborate notions of white supremacy, some based on religion, others, more far-reaching, based on science.

Not only did these notions justify the enslavement of blacks, but they also helped create the cozy inclusiveness of a white herrenvolk democracy. Racism and slavery made whites, no matter how different their holdings, equal. As Calhoun put it:

With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.

Not only would such a notion help conscript all whites, whether masters or not, in the defense of slavery, but it would also provide, as Thomas Dew would note, an enormously potent toxin against the egalitarian notions and movements then roiling Europe and Jacksonian America.  Radicals, Dew wrote, “wish all mankind to be brought to one common level. We believe slavery, in the United States, has accomplished this.”  By freeing whites from “menial and low offices,” slavery has eliminated “the greatest cause of distinction and separation of the ranks and society.”

More than a century later, pioneers of the Southern Strategy would find a similar utility—as they sought to beat back the New Deal, the Great Society, and the egalitarian movements of the Sixties—in the avenging armies and arguments of white supremacy.

From Bristol in 1789 to Birmingham in 1963: not such a long journey, after all.  Apocalypse then, apocalypse now.

Update (January 4, 11:45 am)

Lauren Kientz Anderson offers some fascinating follow-up material on white supremacy in the South here. (And if you don’t know or follow the U.S. Intellectual history blog, you should. It’s got great stuff and great writers.)

Shitstorming the Bastille

19 Sep

On Saturday night, I wrote a post about a curious argument I’ve noted among a subset of liberal bloggers. On the one hand, they claim Obama is radically constrained (by Congress, the Republicans, etc.); on the other hand, they claim progressive activists and citizens are radically unconstrained. I noted that activists and citizens are far more constrained than Obama and that a chief constraint they face is the federated and decentralized nature of the American state and politics.

At least that’s what I thought my post was about.

I went to sleep, checked in on the blog the next morning, and then went apple-picking with my daughter and some friends in upstate New York. I got back Sunday night to find that I had unleashed a shitstorm on the Twittersphere.  Only it wasn’t about any of the points I note above. It was about a single sentence at the end of my post: “The French took the Bastille in four hours; it took American workers 100 years to get a goddamn weekend.”

That was a sentence I myself had tweeted, but rather than grapple with the point it was making, the twitterati decided to school me in French history. My chief tutor was a young journalist and blogger named Adam Serwer. He’s a sharp writer whose work I’ve been happily following and admiring for about a year, first at the American Prospect and now at Mother Jones. As far as I know, French history is not one of his areas of expertise. But he’s a smart fellow, with a great deal of confidence in his smarts, and so saw fit to instruct me in the basics.

In a series of tweets to me and others, he noted the following (these are reproduced verbatim):

really? the storming of the bastille and the russian revolution are examples of a LACK of institutional barriers? [After my Bastille comment, I had written the following two sentences: “That’s not because American workers are less radical or their leaders less militant; it’s because the levers of political power that ordinary citizens can use here are so diffuse. Radicals in Russia seized a block of Petrograd one day and brought down tsarism the next; their American counterparts have had to labor in every hamlet, county, city, and state to engineer much less dramatic transformations.”]

absolute monarchy = kind of a big institutional obstacle

why is it that it took “hundreds of years” for labor to get a weekend, but prior centuries in Russia and France don’t count?

and yet! 100 years to get a weekend still seems like not a lot of time compared to how long france and russia were autocracies

so just so we’re clear, you understand that French monarchy existed for centuries before the storming of the bastille right?

maybe I misunderstood. It’s just that the guy you’re defending seems to think French monarch was ended in four hours

the historical analogy at the end is really ridiculous.

well thats the other thing. Labor’s results compared to French/Russian revolution also far more desirable

Oh my.  Not since I took Robert Darnton‘s course on 18th century France have I received such an energetic critique of my views on French history. If only Serwer were as close a reader of me or of that history.

If I’m understanding his tweets correctly, Serwer’s objection goes something like this: The French monarchy existed for centuries. That demonstrates not only its absolutism but also its resistance to fundamental challenges from below. It didn’t take the French masses four hours to get rid of the monarchy; it took them four, seven, ten (I’m not sure, for Serwer, what the statute of limitations on feudalism is) centuries—and another century and half to establish anything like a decent democracy. So which country faces the greater institutional obstacles, Serwer asks rhetorically: France or the United States?

Serwer’s objection might have some force if the French people did indeed spend all those centuries organizing for the overthrow of the Old Regime. But they didn’t. (In fact, it’s not clear that when they did finally overthrow the Old Regime that they even knew they were doing that.) I’m not quite sure how one builds a case for the monarchy’s centuries-long resistance to the movement for its overthrow in the absence of any movement for its overthrow, but I’m all ears.

The demand for a shorter day and work week, by contrast, was a consistent and focused demand of American workers—as well as their European counterparts—from about the 1830s onwards. And in 1937, they got it.

One of the reasons the French masses did not work for centuries for the overthrow of what Serwer calls “absolute monarchy” is, as any intro European history student will tell you, that absolutism didn’t come into theory, must less practice, until the 17th century.

(Though my colleague David Troyansky, who’s a French historian, tells me there’s some evidence of a centralizing project, not called absolutism, as early as the 16th century, but it was a negotiated process, involving and incorporating many local players, and hardly a simple imposition from on high.)

Absolutism was a project of early modern theorists like Hobbes and Bodin and Bossuet and of monarchs like Louis XIV, who ruled France from the second half of the seventeenth century through 1715.  A project, not an achievement. For while Louis XIV was more successful at that project than most, his successors in France were not. Who, after all, does Serwer think agreed to convene the Estates General? And why does he think Louis XVI did it? Because he was so strong?

What the early modern monarchs did manage to achieve—and it was, again contra Serwer, fairly late in the game that they achieved it—was to amass the symbols, if not always the substance, of the French state in their person. Against the fractures of feudalism, they provided their subjects with a remarkable lesson in the potency of condensation, of the importance of giving definite shape and centralized form to dispersed modes of power.

So when the revolutionaries in the Estates General set out to act, one of their first orders of business was to convert themselves into a National Assembly. And when the revolutionaries in the street managed to take the person of the king—as well as Paris—captive, they were in a position to act with remarkable dispatch. Not to bring democracy or workers’ rights into being, as Serwer and some of my other readers wrongly assume me to be saying, but to overthrow feudalism.

So, yes, Mr. Serwer, the French did take the Bastille in 4 hours—that is, in fact, true—and when they finally decided to overthrow the Old Regime, they managed to do it fairly quickly. And one of the reasons they were able to do it so quickly is that there was a locus of symbolic power in France, and an imperfectly yet steadily centralizing state apparatus, that provided them with the levers and instruments to achieve that transformation.

In the United States, activists have often wanted but seldom had those levers and instruments. Not for lack of trying: as I’ve argued elsewhere, the entire history of American social movements has been about trying to bring the power of a—often sadly non-existent—centralized state apparatus to bear on private regimes of power (on the plantation, in the family, and in the workplace), to use a decentralized, federated national state to break the back of private autocracies. In the process, these activists have managed, on occasion, to centralize the national state, but only rarely and often imperfectly.

The overwhelming trend has been one of resistance to those attempts.  And the reason that trend has been so successful is that the American state is not nearly as unified or centralized—not by accident or because of the vagaries of history but by constitutional design—as other states.  This kind of programmatic decentralization gives local elites, with all their ideological legitimacy, economic power, and coercive power, an automatic and tremendous advantage. And even when local or state-level activists manage by some small miracle to achieve victory, they are immediately confronted by a sea of hostile forces around them, in nearby states and the federal court system—not to mention federal armies—that often overturn their victories.

So if we simply imagine some of the labor wars in copper country of Colorado, or in West Virginia’s coal country, we see a level of violence and Jacobin ferocity that certainly parallels that of the revolutionary street fighting in Paris.  But what we don’t see is the demonstration effect that revolutionary Paris had throughout the French countryside.  Nor do we see, except rarely, a national state that would be able to take those local victories (more often defeats) and turn them into national achievements.

So that’s why, to bring this all back to where we began, I get a little impatient when liberal bloggers tell citizens and activists, as Matt Yglesias did recently, that activists can “in principle force their way onto the agenda if there [is] enough will and organization.” I believe in will and organization, but as none other than Adam Serwer noted in his response to Yglesias, those activists will often by “thwarted by structural forces beyond their control.” Precisely.

Just a quick shout-out and thanks to David Troyansky and French historian Kieko Matteson, who kindly read through this post and pointed out some errors. Needless to say, any errors that remain are entirely my own.


Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, I got notice that Ta-Nehisi Coates, who really kicked off this whole argument, had responded to my original post. It’s kind of a strange response that labors under the belief that I think history is bunk. That belief is apparently evidenced by my question to Coates, “I mean, seriously, do we really need yet another post about Jim McPherson’s Battle Cry for Freedom?” (As one of Coates’s reader correctly notes, the title is actually Battle Cry of Freedom. Oy, I hate making those kinds of errors.)

In response to that question, Coates writes:

The subtext of that critique is that the notion that the stories of the past have no real import on the struggles of the present. Perhaps more generously, addressing history doesn’t really address the struggle. In either case, I disagree.

That’s some subtext. How about we look at the actual text instead? In my post, I noted that Coates doesn’t seem to have a clue about what’s going on in the progressive activist world, and I suggested that rather than expound on a book that’s nearly a quarter-century old,  he should get his facts straight about the present. Personally, I don’t think those two tasks  need be at odds, but since he’s clearly failing at the one, I figured that his (not mine or someone else’s) analysis of the present would, at this point, probably be better enhanced by an accurate picture of that present than by further reading in the past.

I did find it amusing to be accused of indifference to history—my post concludes on a historical comparison and an argument about the historical constraints on American activism, going back to the Founding era—and even a one-second glance at my bio would tell you that I’m a historically trained and oriented political scientist. (The sub-title of my first book is “The History of a Political Idea.”) I guess for Coates that’s the kind of research that needs to fall by the wayside in favor of his forays into the past.

After treating me to a dutiful lecture on the virtues of historical knowledge, Coates concludes thus:

Finally, I think it’s important to be able to intelligently evaluate politicians who enlist the past in their causes, as they so often do. In the matter of hippie-punching, I couldn’t help but notice that Robin agrees. I don’t want to sound ungracious, but I noticed in his agreement, he skipped past the historical foundation and went for the present conclusion. I take that as my failure, as a progressive, to duly emphasize and elucidate the history.


Don’t be so hard on yourself, Mr. Coates. It wasn’t your failure to duly emphasize and elucidate the history that led me to ignore it in favor of what you wrote about the present. It was that I actually happen to already know that history, and felt it wasn’t your rehashing of it, so much as your analysis of the present, that was worthy of remark.

If Everybody’s Working for the Weekend, How Come It Took This Country So Goddamn Long to Get One?

18 Sep

Ta-Nehisi CoatesTa-Nehisi Coates went after liberals the other day for being too whiny. Those who complain about the compromises and capitulations of Obama—”Team Commie,” as he calls them—have only themselves to blame. They haven’t done the hard work of organizing citizens to put pressure on the pols in Washington, particularly conservative Democrats resisting Obama’s jobs program.

I was a little puzzled by this post. Its hectoring tone (“being taken seriously involves actual work”) sounds a lot like the one Obama uses when he attacks “griping and groaning” liberals—a tone ably skewered by none other than Ta-Nehisi Coates in a New York Times op-ed, which I wrote about in an earlier post.

It’s also not clear who exactly Coates is talking about here. Most of the liberals and leftists I know who criticize Obama spend their lives working to elect more progressive politicians, not only in Congress but throughout the country. They know full well that if things are going to change, it’s not going to come from Obama or the Democratic Party but from social movements and grassroots activism.

If he’s at all uncertain about this, Coates might want to speak to some of my union friends in New Haven, who’ve spent the better part of a year organizing a slate of progressives to take over the Board of Aldermen from crappy incumbents. I realize this is a far cry from the aerial heights of DC, but if you want to put pressure on the top, you have to have people turning the screws at the bottom.

Here’s how you build that infrastructure of change (I’m just talking about the electoral path; as any activist knows, there are lots of other equally important paths). First you get a progressive Board of Aldermen in New Haven. Then you get a lock on the state legislature in Connecticut. From there you take it to the state congressional delegation, until finally you’ve kicked the shit out of Joe Lieberman and got two fairly liberal senators in Congress—or at least two senators who feel themselves beholden to your power. And you do that in every state. It doesn’t always work, of course—Lieberman’s still in the Senate—but that’s how it’s done.

Coates gets the principle: “People who talk of primarying Obama need to pick smaller targets–and thus elicit bigger results.” He just happens to believe he’s the only one who does.

Not a day goes by that I don’t get 100 emails or FB posts, linking me to yet another story of on-the-ground activism: sometimes the activism is electoral, sometimes it’s legislative (phone banks to call your congressman, buses to Washington to meet with a senator, that kind of thing), sometimes it’s more raucous: workers occupying state legislatures in protest of some bill, citizens marching on banks, longshoremen shutting down ports, and so on.  This is just the stuff of daily conversation among progressives, the Talk of the Town of the left.

Could there be more of this? Absolutely. But that Coates doesn’t know, or at least doesn’t speak, about even these stories is telling.  Of not just failure on his part, though it is that. I mean, seriously, the dude is a journalist. How hard is it, before he picks up a pen, to pick up a phone and ask someone in the labor movement or a grassroots organization what they’re doing?

But Coates’s silence is also indicative of a bigger problem confronting the left: the shroud of media indifference under which it labors. Most of the stories that come across my transom are never reported in the New York Times or magazines like the Atlantic where Coates works. Not because activists haven’t tried to get the media’s attention but because Coates’s colleagues simply don’t care about them, and if they do care, probably don’t like them very much. Far more interesting to talk about the Tea Party and right-wing activism than to talk about activism on the left.

If each of us is going to put our shoulder to the wheel, why doesn’t Coates start with himself?  Not with a harangue about how we fail to realize that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t happen because “Martin Luther King was a really nice guy.” (The one orbit of the political universe where you can be sure the origins of the Civil Rights Movement are properly understood is on the left.)  But by challenging his colleagues at his magazine to report more on these stories, and by challenging himself to do the same. I mean, seriously, do we really need yet another post about Jim McPherson’s Battle Cry for Freedom?

Media silence and indifference is just one of many constraints the left faces when it tries to change things. I hope to say more about those constraints in a later post.  Some of them are obvious: the money power on the right; the barriers against union organizing, about which I’ve written; the corporate funding base for non-profits that is hostile to campaigns for economic democracy; the obstacles to voter registration and turnout (Coates blithely recommends more voter-registration, seemingly unaware of the right’s massive campaign to make voting nearly impossible for a great many citizens). Some of them are less obvious.

But anyone who knows anything about organizing knows, first, that it’s far more difficult than anyone who’s never organized realizes, and, second, that anyone who’s never organized—i.e., most people—hasn’t a clue as to just how hard it is.

And here we come to the final irony of this discussion. As Coates admits, his post was inspired by a series of posts from Matt Yglesias, who has spent the last however many months explaining to the rest of us that presidents are not all-powerful; they confront a ginormous apparatus of resistance in Congress, the courts, the states, and elsewhere.

Yet somehow, in the view of Yglesias and Coates, the left has a virtually Jacobin capacity to change the world: if we will it, it will be.  This is how Yglesias puts it, in a statement Coates quotes approvingly:

If you’re a progressive and you feel that the political system isn’t doing what you want, it’s misguided to look at this as a personal failure of elected officials. It’s, if anything, a personal failure of you and people like you. Justice and equality doesn’t just happen because it’s nice, people need to make it happen. If it’s not happening, then its advocates are failing.

Think about that last sentence: if justice and equality are not happening, it’s not because liberals and progressives face all sorts of roadblocks to making it happen; it’s that they’re simply not doing their job. They’re talking to each other on the interwebs instead of getting out there and doing the hard work.

Reading these two, you get a rather remarkable picture of the political universe. If Obama makes a call to a conservative Democratic senator from Delaware, it’ll go nowhere. But if little old Mrs. Murdle from Wilmington, quietly getting by on her Social Security, makes a call to her senator, mountains will move.

(I’m not being facetious here; Yglesias really does recommend calling your elected official as one of the two key things you can do to make change; the other is to argue with moderates and conservatives and apolitical folks who don’t support progressive policies. For the record, I’ve been doing both for years, probably for almost as long as Yglesias has been alive. But the fact that I and my comrades are supposedly not doing these things  is “the most underrated prop of conservative dominance in the United States.” )

Of course, it’s not enough for Mrs Murdle—or me—to call my congresswoman or senator; at a minimum, I have to do it with thousands of other men and women. Not just in the 11th congressional district in New York where I live but in at least 217 other congressional districts throughout the country and in at least 26 states (or 31 if you now accept the filibuster-proof requirement that seems to be de rigueur in the Senate).

Effective citizen action, in other words, has to be, at a minimum, concerted.  And guess what:  all those veto points against presidential action that Yglesias and his ilk love to cite apply ten thousand times more to social movements and concerted citizen action. Not by accident—and not because we’re apathetic or clueless—but by design.

Remember the Federalist Papers you read in college? It wasn’t the presidency that Madison and Hamilton wanted to constrain (quite the opposite, in fact.) It was the Congress, especially the House, and behind the Congress the people acting in their collective capacity. That’s what the American system was set up primarily to check. As Madison put in Federalist 10, a large republic is better than a small one because

you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other….communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

So that’s the basic institutional design. And again, it affects ordinary citizens far more than it does presidents.

I’m not saying it’s impossible; it’s just difficult. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, but it does mean that writers who show such tender regard for the constraints facing a president should be a little more sensitive to the constraints facing progressives. And perhaps be more attentive to those constraints in their writing and avoid issuing injunctions that we just need to work harder.

The most remarkable feature about American politics is not, as many critics throughout the years have had it, that more change doesn’t happen here; it’s that any change happens at all. I mean, think about it: The French took the Bastille in four hours; it took American workers 100 years to get a goddamn weekend. That’s not because American workers are less radical or their leaders less militant; it’s because the levers of political power that ordinary citizens can use here are so diffuse. Radicals in Russia seized a block of Petrograd one day and brought down tsarism the next; their American counterparts have had to labor in every hamlet, county, city, and state to engineer much less dramatic transformations.

Failure is the American activist’s daily bread; always has been. And if you think, Messrs. Coates and Yglesias, that’s due to a lack of will or hard work on the left, I suggest you think again.

Update (9/18, 9:30 am)

Re failure and American activism, I forgot (failed?) to mention the single best book on that theme: Eve Weinbaum’s To Move A Mountain.  Check it out.

America, Where Selling Out is the Right Thing to Do

28 Jul

In an excellent piece about Obama’ s troubled relationship with his liberal base, Ta-Nehisi Coates hints at something I’ve long felt but have yet to see discussed in print:

Obama has been much praised for the magnanimity he shows his opposition. But such empathy, unburdened by actual expectations, comes easy. More challenging is the work of coping with those who have the disagreeable habit of taking the president, and his talk of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” seriously.

Among the pundits and the polite, there’s no greater virtue for a political leader than to break with his base and embrace some point or principle of the opposition. In practice, at least since the 1970s, this has meant Democratic politicians getting praise for breaking with their liberal base (Carter, Clinton, Obama) and Republican politicians getting praise for working with their conservative base (Reagan, Bush).

But even if the principle were universally applied, it would still make little sense. Though this is certainly not the only way to think of morality, we  usually assume that a good deed or virtuous act requires some kind of sacrifice or imposes some sort of difficulty on the doer or the actor.You know, I give up a portion of my time or income to help out the homeless shelter down the street. I don’t, but you get the idea.

What’s odd about the pundit principle is that betraying one’s friends, allies, and beliefs for the sake of personal advance is the easiest thing to do. That’s why politicians, at least on the left, do it every day. Pundits do it too; that’s how they get to be pundits. In fact, you might say it’s the American Creed, what William James famously described as “the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success.”

But in the eyes of the pundits, selling out is the hardest—and therefore the right—thing to do. And you know what? I don’t think they’re being insincere; I think they really believe it.

That’s the craziness—or genius—of America. We take a vice, and make it a virtue.


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