My Christmas Picks

The American Spectator, which is a fairly right-wing magazine, asked me and several others to make some recommendations for Christmas reading.

I appreciate their insistence on calling it Christmas rather than holiday reading: no pretense that by “holidays” we mean anything other than Christmas. (Whenever anyone tells me holiday season is the time of love and good cheer, I remind them that Hanukkah celebrates the overthrow of occupying forces and the smiting of enemies. My kind of holiday.)

Given the audience, I thought The American Spectator could use some Babeuf and communism. So I recommended, among other texts, Babeuf’s defense at his conspiracy trial and a sympathetic study of Soviet spy Anthony Blunt.

Here’s what I say about the latter:

The other book is Miranda Carter’s Anthony Blunt: His Lives. Ever since he was exposed as a Soviet spy in 1979, Blunt has been the subject of speculation and scrutiny. So great are the contradictions of his story that it almost writes itself. A Communist whose friends were killed in the Spanish Civil War was also the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. An art historian whose job it was to detect the fake and the fraud was himself a fake and a fraud. The cool appraiser of classicism was the hot lover of mystery and intrigue. But where most commentators have taken their lead from George Steiner, who found in Blunt an almost arctic inhumanity, Carter offers a warmer, if more depressing, picture. Among friends and colleagues, Blunt was supportive and caring; in the tutorial, he was passionate and engaged. It was this cloistered fraternity rather than grand ideology that led him to become a spy. As his star rose in later life, long after he had ceased to work as a spy, he distanced himself from his past and ultimately his inner life. Ironically, it was as an ex-communist that Blunt most resembled the stereotypical Communist.

You can read the whole thing, including my other picks, here.


  1. Roquentin December 19, 2013 at 11:52 am | #

    Can I admit I’ve consciously tried to make myself say “happy holidays” instead? I guess that’s another way of saying your comment about merely paying lip service to secularizing Christmas. I’m reminded of a comment I made to my sister two years ago when we had a talk about the relationship between Christmas and Christianity (she’s a biochemist and atheist now as well). I said something like “Christmas hasn’t had anything to do with Christianity for a long time. Who gives a shit if they say happy holidays?” It’s mostly a festival of conspicuous consumption. That said, I’m way more attached to it psychologically than I’d like to admit and have incredibly fond memories of celebrating it growing up. I learned that the hard way when I thought I could stay out here during Christmas and it wouldn’t matter. It depressed the shit out of me. This same sister is also now fighting to make sure her wedding doesn’t take place in a church and isn’t done by a priest.

    Also, during my first couple of years after entering corporate America and dealing with the dirty, backstabbing world of office politics I went through a phase where I read everything about political infighting I could find. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War was of particular influence on me at that point. I even read Clausewitz. But in the end, it came down to the conversation between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche…or maybe what Nietzsche articulated in The Birth of Tragedy alone. Do you become ascetic, self-denying, andattempt to turn away from life and its unsavory aspects, or do you embrace the battle in all its rotten glory? I was obsessed with this question for quite some time. I’d wager a book on the Red Scare would be pretty good for that sensibility.

  2. Malcolm Schosha December 19, 2013 at 12:14 pm | #

    Corey wrote: “Whenever anyone tells me holiday season is the time of love and good cheer, I remind them that Hanukkah celebrates the overthrow of occupying forces and the smiting of enemies. My kind of holiday.”

    Hanukkah is frequently called the Festival of Lights, and it celibates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem following the revolt against the Greek occupation. It does not celibate the “smiting of enemies” but the re-lighting of the Temple lights. It is a very minor Jewish holiday, but the menorah (the nine-branched candelabrum) is an old Jewish symbol, and was often used as a symbol of the Jewish people long before the six pointed star (Magen David) that is used these days.

    Corey, I thought you actually knew something about Judaism, but apparently not.

    • Corey Robin December 19, 2013 at 2:39 pm | #

      “Corey, I thought you actually knew something about Judaism, but apparently not.”

      Malcolm: This is my blog. You are my guest here. Please act accordingly or you will not longer be my guest here.

      • Malcolm Schosha December 19, 2013 at 6:19 pm | #

        Corey, instead of defending your statement or conceding that you had made a mistake, you have chosen to threaten me with banning from your blog. If you think you will drive a benefit from silencing disagreement with your statements, then you should do so.

  3. Corey Robin December 19, 2013 at 7:36 pm | #

    Malcolm, as I said, my blog, my guest. Keep up the rudeness and nastiness, and you’re out.

    • Malcolm Schosha December 20, 2013 at 7:50 am | #

      Corey, show me anything I wrote on your blog that as the slightest more rude or nasty than you have said to me, and I will not hesitate to apologize for it.

      For instance when in a recent previous blog I said that I could not see the double standard that you saw, instead of explaining you replied with this post:


      Corey Robin December 18, 2013 at 7:36 pm

      “I don’t see a double standard.”

      And I don’t doubt that you never will.

      In other words, you chose to make a rather judgemental comment about me, rather than explain your reasoning. Try to remember, Corey, that you give the impression that you are writing here as “Professor of Political Science, Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center”. If that is not the case you should make that more clear.

  4. ed scott December 20, 2013 at 9:31 am | #

    Corey, what triggered my reflection is a sentence quoted below to another in the same article. The first,
    “Among friends …Blunt was supportive and caring…passionate and engaged. It was this cloistered fraternity rather than grand ideology that led him to become a spy.”
    “I’m not sure why, but I can never get enough of the moral drama that ensues between two likeminded souls—lovers, comrades, friends—when one betrays the other for the sake of advancing his cause or position or interests.”
    You raise three moral scenarios; first, “- when one betrays … for the sake of advancing his cause or position”, second and different, betrayal because of self interest. The self interest betrayals are the common every day experience. Betrayal from fidelity to a cause might be the type of betrayal that alienated Mandela’s family, or the betrayal of a judge who convicts a friend because of the idea of equality under law.
    The third moral sensibility is that of Blunt, as you describe him, loyal to his friends, leading to historic damnation in his case.

  5. Benjamin David Steele December 20, 2013 at 4:44 pm | #

    I’ve come to more often say “Happy Holidays”. The main reason is that I work in customer service type job. Also, I work in a very multicultural town. I work with and serve people of a diversity of faiths besides Christianity. Besides, I’m not a Christian. I have no particular attachment to saying “Merry Christmas” or whatever. For me, holidays are just about friends and family. All the religious stuff is just background noise.

  6. BrianO March 20, 2014 at 7:11 am | #

    I’m (very) late to this, but there was a claim made by Christopher Hitchens — in his anti-religion mode — that Hannukah was an ‘invented’ holiday created so that Jewish children didn’t feel left out during Christmas time. I’m not likely to find anything in the mainstream regarding this, so does anyone (including Prof. Robin) have any information on the true origin of this holiday?

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