The Other Night at Philadelphia

Back in the 1950s or 60s, can’t remember when it was, Diana Trilling had an essay called “The Other Night at Columbia.” It was meant to be a mordant, ironic musing on a poetry reading at Columbia University by Allan Ginsberg, who had been a student of Trilling’s husband, the Columbia professor and literary critic Lionel Trilling. I’m sure I’m misremembering the details, perhaps even the overall mood and ethos of the piece; it’s been a long time. What I vaguely remember is this: Despite Trilling’s attempts to make the essay into a larger comment about littler manners and morals, what you come away with, more than anything else, is her total emotional investment in…Columbia. Even when she’s trying to be critical, she completely identifies with the institution. She repeats detail after lovingly remembered detail of Lionel this, the Dean that, Professor So and So this, the students that. It’s unsettling: here is this uncommonly intelligent critic, so smart and humane in every way, so able to cut through cant as if it were so many slabs of rancid meat, yet so in thrall to an institution of such abject smallness (that’s how, if memory serves, Lionel Trilling described it in some of his private writings), an institution that would never see fit to hire or accept her as an equal, despite her manifestly superior talents. Anyway, that’s how I feel during these conventions and moments of collective euphoria over our candidates, particularly as I read the commentary on social media. I apologize, in advance, for how I know this statement (and others I’ve made throughout this week on social media) must seem to some, perhaps many, of you. I’m not unaware of how sneering or snooty, even obnoxious, my distance and disdain comes off, particularly if you only know me on the page or in the ether; I regret that. There’s some element, I’ve come to realize, of psychic investment, for all of us, in this election, that goes beyond the specific policies and platforms and parties. And who am I kidding, thinking I can distance myself from it all? It was Trilling (Lionel, that is), after all, who famously wrote: “There is only one way to accept America and that is in hate; one must be close to one’s land, passionately close in some way or other, and the only way to be close to America is to hate it; it is the only way to love America.” I guess I just wanted to explain to you all why I—and perhaps others—feel so alienated from the scene. Well, not really explain; that’s a longer post. But at least acknowledge—

32 Comments

  1. bystander July 29, 2016 at 11:46 am | #

    Appreciate the sentiment and share it. There is nothing to do but pick up the pieces and build forward…. but what an intensely revealing experience this campaign has turned out to be. We came so close… and, yet, were so far away. Would always be so far away.

  2. Hal Ginsberg July 29, 2016 at 11:48 am | #

    I appreciate these comments Professor. I have tried in every way possible to convey rationally and calmly why I believe the Democratic nominee is neither progressive nor honest but her die-hards are unable to hear any criticism without lashing out. I try not to take it as a sign of an intellectual failing on my part that I cannot reach these people. But it seems so obvious to me that Mrs. Clinton is an extremely problematic standard-bearer that I cannot help but think I must be lacking in some way since I have had no success persuading her disinterested supporters.

    • paintedjaguar July 30, 2016 at 8:42 pm | #

      “her disinterested supporters”

      Anything but, at least for many of them. And they will do their best to crucify anyone who looks to be actually rocking the boat.

      But I understand what you meant to say. Blinders and earplugs 24/7 are the order of the day for Clintonites.

  3. xenon2 July 29, 2016 at 11:53 am | #

    I didn’t watch the DNC convention. The day before, I had seen the promotional video at the center of page 1 nyt.It celebrated #nohillary coronation.Little girls could dream of of becoming president one day.

    I have a few words to add to that:

    Margaret Thatcher
    Yulia Tymoshenko
    Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

    #nohillary probably approves of Suu kyi,
    as a lot oil as recently been found there.

  4. Eric Apar July 29, 2016 at 11:53 am | #

    It’s pretty galling to hear people evaluate these convention speeches as if they were purely a matter of delivery and stagecraft. All of the speeches were decent enough. They were nice to listen to, and there really wasn’t much to object to in any of the major speeches from the center-left of the party (the Obamas, the Clintons, Tim Kaine, and Joe Biden).

    But, really, that’s the problem. The Obamas (both Michelle and Barack) are truly excellent speechmakers, but listening to the praise their speeches have garnered, you’d think they were laying down the foundation for an enduring policy agenda. “Be kind to people and uphold American values” isn’t an enduring policy agenda, no matter how nice it sounds.

    What gets my blood boiling is that the very same people who shower praise on the Obamas and the Clintons for their presentation and delivery, without taking stock of the absence of a real policy agenda, are the ones lecturing the Bernie Sanders wing of the party about the need to be “serious” and “realistic.” Are these the Very Serious People I’m supposed to model myself after? They’re not serious; they’re shallow. And what they’re offering up isn’t “nuanced”; it’s just pure air.

    Reading over some of the emails from the DNC hack, I was reminded of your post about your encounter with Neera Tanden. What the (admittedly few) emails I saw told me was that these Very Serious People are, in fact, a lot of narcissists more interested in feuding with the Morning Joe crew than in reckoning with economic injustice in this country.

    • Jeff Donnelly July 29, 2016 at 12:10 pm | #

      Ditto

    • Heliopause July 29, 2016 at 1:44 pm | #

      “‘Be kind to people and uphold American values’ isn’t an enduring policy agenda, no matter how nice it sounds.”

      Exactly.

      Frankly, I think this week was the high point of the HRC Presidency (assuming she wins). She has no positive agenda that will be broadly acceptable to Paul Ryan, and before she even gets that far she has to fend off Benghazi, emailgate, Clinton Foundationgate, and on and on. Then there’s the persistently tepid economy and potential for another large-scale setback. So remember these four days as the zenith of the Hillary Clinton Admin.

    • Bill Michtom August 7, 2016 at 3:55 pm | #

      “the center-left of the party (the Obamas, the Clintons, Tim Kaine, and Joe Biden).”
      Please! Bernie is center-left. The folks you mention are the right wing of the party.

      • Eric Apar August 8, 2016 at 10:05 am | #

        I meant in relative terms, as measured against the center of the political spectrum in the United States. On an international scale, you’re probably right.

        • Bill Michtom August 8, 2016 at 11:49 am | #

          My personal campaign to stop defining politics in US-centric terms.

  5. Daniel T Peters July 29, 2016 at 11:54 am | #

    I also appreciate the comment, the awareness of how one comes across “on the page, or throught the ether” especially. Know that your writing helps brother. Know that your work helps. Even in that wasteland of social media.

  6. Thomas Shapiro July 29, 2016 at 11:54 am | #

    It is useful to think of the political spectrum as circular instead of linear. The Utopians of extreme left and right become contiguous at 12 “midnight.” America ,whatever it’s People’s illusions about Exceptionalism may be,is no Utopia. Historically, there is more than enough to hate and love. But, Corey, to quote Joe Lewis: we do the best we can with what we are given. Secretary Clinton is no Donald Trump. Who ever and what ever American era are your models for leftist perfection, Clinton and Sander’s are who we have been given. This is a passionate heterogeneous nation of political philosophies, races, ethnicities, religions, heritages, cultures and regions. Each presumes its vision of the good society comes to its acolytes as revealed truth. Presidents must accommodate their governing philosophy to this diversity and to the diverse legislature they elect. So, yes, be alienated from “the circus of political conventions ” and then appreciate how much more alienated we would be if Senator Sander’s had failed to turn Mrs.nClinton and the Democrat Party toward your Utopian vision of Liberal nirvana .

    • Bill Michtom August 7, 2016 at 4:04 pm | #

      If Sanders had been at all successful, Cornell West would not have abstained from voting on the Dem platform.

      As to “Presidents must accommodate their governing philosophy to this diversity and to the diverse legislature they elect,” the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq speak loudly to the ability of presidents to maintain right-wing policy regardless of the diversity, not to mention the ability of Obama to make W’s policies a bi-partisan consensus.

  7. s. wallerstein July 29, 2016 at 12:18 pm | #

    I think that one can successfully distance oneself from the political scene, especially if it becomes too depressing, dishonest or stupid.

    Turn off the television. Don’t look at the social media. Put on some good music. Read poetry. Read Nietzsche. Read Epicurus or Lucretius. Have a glass of wine or a beer.

    That works.

  8. Joseph F July 29, 2016 at 1:20 pm | #

    Here’s the thing. The GOP has become increasingly reactionary over the past generation, with Trump/Pence being their pure distillation. Their firewall, the Supreme Court, finally hangs in the balance. Clinton, for all her faults, is the only hope of reversing that and perhaps moving us toward a more democratic society, for example, by doing away with partisan gerrymandering. It worked wonders in California (Bernie delegates notwithstanding). The prospect of a Trump presidency is too ghastly to even contemplate.
    So it’s really kind of a no-brainer, isn’t it?
    And so your finely-honed critiques are really kind of beside the point, aren’t they?

    • Corey Robin July 29, 2016 at 1:53 pm | #

      If they are beside the point, what does that make this comment, which is a critique of a pointless critique?

    • Eric Apar July 29, 2016 at 2:17 pm | #

      In my experience, liberals and leftists in 2016 have tended to view Hillary Clinton through one of two prisms: either as a relatively benign alternative to oblivion in the form of a Trump presidency, or as an irredeemably empty and corrupt politician. The first interpretation gives rise to the insistence that all criticism of Clinton is for naught; the second to a kind of fatalistic dismissal of the notion that a Clinton presidency might, after all, hold some promise.

      Neither of these frames gets it right. To my mind, the right way to view a Clinton presidency is as a potential vessel for a progressive agenda (with the emphasis on “potential”), whatever distaste you might have for Clinton herself or for the brand of politics she’s represented to this point. The way to bring that potential to fruition is not to insulate her from attack in the interest of defeating a greater enemy; nor is it to retreat into a marginal world of discontented leftists. It’s to hold her feet to the fire. And we can’t keep the pressure on her if the specter of a reactionary president cows us into submission.

      • Bill Michtom August 7, 2016 at 4:07 pm | #

        Yes!!!

    • Tom, sfba July 30, 2016 at 12:34 am | #

      Joseph F.: You need to realize how truly important a critique such as that offered by Corey is in these circumstances.

      Political theater, whether necessary or not, seems to be a device we use to get organized, make a case, move forward. But with the observed lack of actual ideas or policies, it is a bit dull. Politics is the art of the possible, and at any given time that will be a disappointingly small box.

      Corey is one of the few writers I’m aware of whose work and approach tends to move beyond the no-brainer logic of constrained choice and open the mind to new ways of seeing and understanding the situation we inhabit, shining light in ways that helps us sense new possibilities, ways of expanding the box.

  9. Brendan Walsh July 29, 2016 at 2:16 pm | #

    Corey I feel similarly, though from a different subject position from you–one that you are largely responsible for! Check out my most recent FB post if you will. I am likewise afraid of being perceived by friends and acquaintances as obnoxious.

  10. Dean C. Rowan July 29, 2016 at 3:10 pm | #
  11. Roqeuntin July 29, 2016 at 3:38 pm | #

    I’ve been thinking a lot about Adorno recently. Time and time again he, together with Horkheimer, cut straight to the core of what was wrong with the political system in the US like no man before or since. I haven’t read all the material out there, obviously, but no one else I’ve read even comes close. Adorno, fresh of of fleeing Nazi Germany, had the right kind of eyes to see America for what it was and had fearlessness and tenacity to say it. He understood so much of our supposed freedom was just a disguise for manipulation and oppression of another kind. Time and time again his observations, painful as they may be, have been proven to be dead on…absolutely right on the money. He’s slowly become a hero of mine, for whatever that’s worth.

    Listening to people praising Obama’s speech, where he was more or less battling with the GOP over who has earned the right to take over Reagan’s legacy was almost too much to take. I saw articles in the Washington Post talking about it like it was a good thing. My only thought was “have these people lost their minds?” Stamp a blue Donkey on neoliberal rhetoric and suddenly everyone’s cheering. I’m starting to think that speech Melania Trump lifted from Michelle Obama was the purest representation of what this election actually is. Both sides mouthing the same Horatio Alger bullshit about upward mobility it’s always been, with only the slightest of variations. Clinton likes to talk about smashing glass ceilings. As if a 1% that was racially and gender diverse would be any less of a 1%. These people don’t want to change a thing.

    And then, the constant brawls with friends about my decision to vote Stein. I just can’t. At this point I almost want to tell people “Vote for whoever you want. None of it matters anyways.”

    • Eric Apar July 29, 2016 at 4:13 pm | #

      There’s too much fixation on whom erstwhile Bernie Sanders supporters intend to vote for in November. We’re all bringing different calculations to bear on whether to vote Clinton or Stein. Some simply can’t stomach voting for Clinton; others can’t tolerate the idea of potentially throwing the election to Trump by casting a protest vote. Some think a protest vote for Stein sends a message to the Democratic establishment; others think it’s a nullity.

      All of these intuitions are, I think, basically defensible, and I’ll leave it to individual Sanders supporters to decide which ring truest to them. We need to extend our time horizon beyond November. The relevant question for me is not what we do on November 8 but what we do the day after.

      • Bill Michtom August 7, 2016 at 4:13 pm | #

        I think about what Goldwater’s supporters did to take over the GOP and turn it into the horror show it has been since then. Perhaps we should try to take over the Dems, precinct by precinct.

        • Eric Apar August 8, 2016 at 10:08 am | #

          Agreed. If the fight ends in November, it’s lost.

  12. Jean Wagner July 29, 2016 at 5:45 pm | #

    Corey,

    You don’t know me. but I have been reading your blog for a long time know. What you’ve describe above is much like how I see myself as an American in this current political moment: “…sneering or snooty, even obnoxious, my distance and disdain comes off…”

    And yet the alienation and disappointment at every point of every major election has almost always overwhelmed me. So, reading your blog helps me feel at least a bit less of it. It strikes me as a good thing, no matter how painful, to feel passionate enough about “one’s land” as Trilling calls it (but how patriarchal and capitalist that term seems to me) — even if that passion is hate, disappointment or even fury much of the time.

    I don’t know if it will ever be possible for me to accept America as it is, but it is helpful for me to read your blog — and those of a few others — in order to make peace with living my life here as I do. I cannot disconnect emotionally from these elections, and so I struggle to accept the ugliness of my feelings and the loneliness and lack of pride that I feel in the greater American community

    Thanks for sharing yours.

    • Corey Robin July 29, 2016 at 7:06 pm | #

      Thank you for writing, Jean. Your note cheered me up.

  13. It is worth noting that the Hillary pushers have been unable to mount any kind of a good defense of Ms. Clinton herself, beyond ScaryTrump or insults hurled at progressives.

    A blogger/journalist whose work I have followed for the past few years presents what I would call the only good argument for pulling the lever for Hillary — and he observes that it offers nothing kind about Hillary.

    Putting it simply, there are people that this guy cares about and in his clearly tormented feelings finally concludes that he cannot let Trump loose upon those people.

    The blogger/journalist is Shaun King, as a hard-core Bernie-guy as one could find. He wrote for Daily Kos for years and has moved on over to the New York Daily News. Mr. King chronicles the activities of Black Lives Matters and did readers the solid of chronicling the unceasing crimes against Blacks by this nation’s police forces. This is the column he wrote for the News: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/election/king-stop-donald-trump-voting-hillary-clinton-article-1.2726614

    For those of you who want to hear him talk about, you it can go here to KPKA’s “The BradCast”: http://bradblog.com/?p=11778. He takes the host’s questions in defense of his decision.

    What sets Shaun King very, very far apart from those who come here to defend Clinton is that he does NOT do that. Nor does not mock Sanders’ supporters or accuse them of whatever the Hillary-bots imagine. He comes from a place of respect and understanding — something that is sorely lacking in H-bots.

    Mr. King makes a compelling argument. The reason that it is compelling is because it is a compassionate argument. ABSOLUTELY NO Hillary-bot has proffered anything that fits that description, either here or anywhere else. King’s bona fides are unassailable if you, like yours truly, are a regular reader of Shaun King.

    I voted for Obama to stop McCain/Palin. I voted for Obama again because Obamacare bridged coverage for my severely disabled daughter between her age and the documentation of the permanence of her disability. I am not a fan of Obamacare because it is a big bennie for private insurance carriers and the big Pharma. I wanted the “Public Option”. But Obamacare saved my daughter.

    For those who want a Hillary victory in November — most of you people have proven to have been the very worst pitchpersons for her. You suck at your job. Offensive. Atrocious. Sad.

    Herewith, I am handing you an argument on a silver platter. Refuse it at your peril. And ours.

    For now, while I will got to the polls (try and make me stay home, I dare you…) I am at the point that I don’t know what to do once I get there. That condition may change tomorrow.

    Have a good weekend.

    • InWonder July 30, 2016 at 4:09 am | #

      I used to read Shaun King and followed him on Twitter throughout the campaign. I unfollowed him once he offered up his very sad, very unpersuasive justification for voting for Hillary. I felt bad for him, honestly. At one point, he tweeted that he’d have to get really, really high to vote for her, but he’d do it. That’s…not a great argument. I don’t think a lot of people will be persuaded by him that won’t be persuaded by the rest of the propaganda. It’s just more appeal to authority, Trump’s a boogey man. But Clinton is also racist and fascist. In fact, she’s more fascist given the government/corporate collaboration and corruption pushing her into power, and the uttering empty personality cult being used to hide that engine. And she’s the one who actually has worked to kill and starve and unjustly jail people of color, while using more polite racist language than Trump. She’s also demonstrably extremely incompetent at governance, except for the part where she corrupts every person she touches and enriches her family and her allies.

      I don’t know whether King really believes that twaddle or needs to say he’ll vote for her to keep his media job. But his claims and your embrace of them remind me a bit of Corey’s description of Diana Trilling and Columbia. The Democratic Party does not want you, in any way that matters. It does not care for you. Putting Clinton in office guarantees numerous terrible things that might actually be avoided if she is not elected, particularly the Russian land war and the TPP. And if she is elected, she will move immediately to purge the left. What do you think the convention was about? Her people have already made overt threats, and gottten people fired and suspended from their jobs.

      Personally, I don’t feel snooty. I’m afraid. My greatest fear is Clinton getting elected. I wish I felt like I would be safe in the face of what she wants to unleash, but I’m not.

      • InWonder July 30, 2016 at 4:20 am | #

        I’m replying to my own post to apologize, in that I wrote that comment after taking a big break in the middle of composing it. It didn’t end up specifically being a reply to you, Mr. Pruden, and I regret making it seem that way. But I don’t think King’s going to persuade a lot of people. And I’m glad your daughter was saved.

        The reality is that there IS no good argument for electing Hillary Clinton. I know she tends to hire incompetents, but at this point, the entire American media elite is working for her. If there WAS a decent argument, someone would have found it by now.

  14. jonnybutter July 30, 2016 at 12:01 am | #

    The idea that someone would feel alienated because of ‘snootiness’ is a familiar smear, but an odd one, because it implies having *chosen* to be alienated. Not to be grand about it, but I feel profoundly alienated from US politics, and it’s certainly not a feeling I would choose. Does anyone choose real alienation?

    I (was active Bernie supporter) live in a very blue state, so I don’t have to vote for HRC, but I wouldn’t think twice about it if I lived in a purple one. Trump can’t be president. King lists lots of good reasons for that, Trump’s racist nationalism being the essential one, but think of how many other problems no one has even dared to think about yet!

    I don’t really buy the idea that HRC would have won the primary even if all the state elections were fair and square, because I don’t think closed primaries and other corruptions grandfathered (‘grand forefathered’ in some cases) into our system, provide a ‘fair and square’ – i.e. democratic – baseline. But he’s right that our choice is a stark binary, and that awful as HRC and the regular Dems are, President Trump is unthinkable – not remotely worth the overall degradation. Other Scary Monsters we’ve been confronted with in the past (Goldwater, Reagan) were at least politicians. Trump is not really anything. He’s not even up at Berlusconi’s level, really.

    But I have to admit that sometimes – I guess when I’m feeling extra snooty – I do feel grimmer about the whole thing. I understand why some people want, or think they want, to see a meltdown, to see political culture in DC disintegrate. But I think a little reflection shows that it just isn’t worth it. Molly Crabapple tweeted that we should vote for HRC and then stay in the streets for four years to protest against what she does. That makes more sense to me than preferring a meltdown, because the latter is such an expression of powerlessness.

  15. jonnybutter July 30, 2016 at 8:52 am | #

    I am voting for who I want my opponent to be post November 9th and that person is Hillary Clinton.”

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