December Diary: From the Political to the Personal


About a month before the election, I found myself—don’t ask how or why—in an audience listening to a speech by Jeffrey Wiesenfeld.

For those of you who are not CUNY insiders, Wiesenfeld is a former member of the CUNY Board of Trustees. He’s also an ultra-right Zionist who’s got a lot of nice things to say about Meir Kahane (“misunderstood”) and who’s been behind or involved in pretty much every dustup over Israel/Palestine that we’ve had at CUNY these last ten years or so. His most notable effort was trying to deny an honorary degree to Tony Kushner. (I was pleased to find out from his lecture that our massive pushback against him led him to lose a bunch of clients—all Jewish, he made a point of noting—from his Wall Street firm.)

Anyway, in the course of this lecture, which was basically an extended critique of the forces arrayed against the State of Israel and how anti-Zionism parallels the Holocaust, Wiesenfeld let slip something interesting. Talking about all the SJP groups and BDS movements on college campuses today, he said (almost these exact words): The biggest threat to Jews today is not the Arabs. It’s not the Muslims. It’s the Jews. 1/3 of them—mostly Orthodox, he said—love Israel and will protect it. 1/3 of them don’t care. And 1/3 of them hate it. (Most SJP groups, he said, are headed by Jews.) So, he concluded, we can only count on 1/3 of the Jewish people; the rest are useless or dangerous to us.

All of which is to say: this is the milieu from which Trump’s proposed Ambassador to Israel comes.


As I’ve argued in a piece that may or may not find a home somewhere, the Trump coalition and the Trump presidency may be far more divided and vulnerable than we think. I have a lot more in that piece about the various divides and fissures, but there’s no doubt that trade is going to be one of the immediate flash points.

More than anything else Trump said during the campaign—on race (certainly on race, actually), on immigration, even on entitlement cuts (about which he waffled)—Trump’s positions on trade were by far the most salient signs of his willingness to break with GOP orthodoxy. And there is virtually no evidence he didn’t mean it. Which the GOP’s leaders are about to discover, much to their regret:

These sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversations with the Trump team were arranged as confidential, said the reaction was one of fierce opposition. Priebus, the sources said, was warned such a move could start trade wars, anger allies, and also hurt the new administration’s effort to boost the rate of economic growth right out of the gate. One of the sources said he viewed the idea as a trial balloon when first raised, and considered it dead on arrival given the strong reaction in the business community — and the known opposition to such protectionist ideas among the GOP congressional leadership.

But this source voiced new alarm Tuesday after being told by allies within the Trump transition that defending new tariffs was part of the confirmation ‘murder board’ practice of Wilbur Ross, the President-elect’s choice for commerce secretary.

At the same time, despite making several appointments of hardliners against free trade, Trump has a Cabinet filled with orthodox free traders. Hold onto your seats!


This is a fascinating article, in spite of itself, about the aura of power that the Bannon/Breitbart operation behind Trump tries to create. If you read it quickly, it sounds scary: message discipline enforced by Bannon from on high, gets transmitted to terrified members of Congress down low.

But what’s the actual threat these guys wield? Tweets. Tweets. In other words, they’re depending on that old dream of politics watchers in the US—the presidential bully pulpit—hoping it can be more of a power than it has ever really been.

Beyond the bully pulpit, there are two kinds of threats to members of Congress: first, having funds cut off or denied to your favored pet projects in your state/district or not being able to get critical legislation that you want passed; second, being primaried if you’re up for election. In other words, this is pretty much the landscape of presidential action we already know, and the question will be whether Bannon/Breitbart with their tweets, and Trump with his, will have any more power over their own party in Congress than presidents and congressional leaders have ever had over theirs.

I have my doubts, but this is why resisting the politics of fear is so important. Power like this, resting in tweets, relies a lot on atmospherics. The purpose of that atmospherics is to magnify power: so that its wielder can hold that power in reserve, and thereby deploy it more efficiently, or because its wielder doesn’t have that much power in the first place, and needs to generate fear in order to make that power seem more potent than it is. Hobbes understood this all too well. So did the forces around Joe McCarthy. We need to understand it, too, and oppose it: not to cooperate with it, not to contribute to it, not to participate in it.


Internal dissidents and civil servants within the Department of Energy managed to secure the first victory we’ve seen against Trump, forcing his transition team to back down on a questionnaire regarding the position of DOE employees on climate change.

It’s stories like this that lead me, in part, to emphasize the cracks and cleavages, the dissonances, within the Trump coalition. As I’ve said, I don’t see my posts as organizing tools. I really am just reporting what I see and offering my interpretations. But if there is a political uptick to what I say, it’s to get us to see opportunities and take advantage of them, not to add to the considerable and justifiable fear that Trump already generates, not to be cowed or overly impressed by his rhetoric.

I’ve never quite understood an organizing model that tries to mobilize people by emphasizing how implacable, unified, and impervious an enemy is to challenge or contestation, by emphasizing how absolutely, utterly terrifying its power is. That kind of talk runs the risk of putting the awe into awful, and sometimes betrays a secret fascination with the power it decries. Maybe it’s because I’m a congenital coward (I really am), but that kind of talk makes me want to run for the hills. (Or take a nap.)

Far better, I’d have thought, to point out vulnerabilities, to show how, when challenged, these bullies can be forced to beat a retreat.

So again, no real political point here, but if you want to take one away, it’s not “be complacent, all will work out.” It’s “they’re a lot more vulnerable and disunited than you might think.”


The most important Arendt text for understanding Trumpism is not Origins of Totalitarianism but Eichmann in Jerusalem. At the heart of the latter text is not the pulverized individual or the rootless mass or populism run amok; instead we find the careerist and the collaborator, both figures of ambition and advance, working their way through the most established institutions of society.

As right-wingers in Congress introduce legislation that would punish universities (and, not far behind that, I’m sure, will be cities or states) that offer sanctuary to the undocumented, watch out for these collaborators and careerists who argue for cooperation rather than confrontation. Trumpism cannot happen without an extended network of these types, whose arguments are powerful precisely because there will be real costs at stake in any resistance.

Here’s an old post on this topic.


One of the few bright spots since the election was the overwhelming vote of Columbia grad students to unionize. Now the Columbia administration is challenging the election, in the hopes that a new Trump NLRB will overturn the Obama NLRB’s decision to recognize grad students as employees.

Even worse, Columbia deploys some of the telltale tools of Trumpism. The university claims that “tactics like voter coercion”—hmm, sounds an awful lot like voter fraud—”may have tipped the balance in favor of the union.” As if that weren’t enough, the Times reports that “Columbia also faulted the regional body of the N.L.R.B., saying a last-minute decision not to require voters to present identification might have allowed ineligible voters to cast ballots.”

This is the real face of the “normalization”: while virtually everyone in the Columbia administration, I’m sure, opposes Trumpism of the state, they’re more than happy to embrace a Trumpism of society. Any employer, I don’t care how liberal, that refuses to recognize this most basic right of its employees, is practicing social Trumpism. And ought to be called out as such.

We need to attach the label “Trumpist” to wherever we find it: in North Carolina, Michigan, or the Ivy League.


If I’m reading this Nate Cohn article correctly, it seems that in the 2016 election, Clinton did worse than Obama among black voters, among working-class white voters (where Obama had actually made major strides over his predecessors), and among working-class Latinx voters. The one group where Clinton improved upon Obama was wealthier, educated, mostly white voters.

In other words, the candidate whose calling card during the primary was that she, and she alone, could speak to issues of identity and race lost votes among working class, poorer voters of all races, and gained votes, almost exclusively, among wealthier, better educated whites.

That’s certainly speaking to issues of identity and race, but not quite in the way Clinton or her supporters meant.


I thought Michelle Goldberg got a lot of things wrong during the campaign—though who I am to throw stones? And I certainly didn’t appreciate being told by her that we on the left somehow weren’t wise or mature enough to understand political realities in the United State—even those of us, apparently, who study politics for a living and are probably at least a decade older than she is.

Nevertheless, this article by Goldberg, on a group of voters who support Planned Parenthood yet voted for Trump, is incredibly important and offers an analysis that has gone almost completely unreported in the media:

But if they’re maddening, the focus groups are also revelatory. They suggest that the Clinton campaign made a fatal mistake in depicting Trump as outside the bounds of normal conservatism. Clinton’s camp had hoped that doing so would lead Republicans to defect. Instead, it helped some people who distrust conservatism to reconcile themselves to Trump….

But many of the people in the focus groups didn’t know he’d made this assurance [to defund Planned Parenthood], and those who did didn’t take it seriously. It seemed as if Trump’s lasciviousness, which Clinton hoped would disqualify Trump with women, actually worked in his favor. The focus group participants couldn’t imagine that Trump would enact a religious right agenda….

If Democrats ever want to regain power, they don’t need to wedge Trump away from the Republican Party. They need to yoke him to it. These voters might be OK with Trump talking about grabbing women by the pussies. What they didn’t know is that they were voting for the federal government to do it.


Not long after the election, I was up at Cornell and had dinner with Seth Ackerman. We were talking about all things political, and Seth said that he thought the focus on the DNC chair race, in which congressman (and prominent Sanders supporter) Keith Ellison has made a surprisingly strong bid, was just another instance of progressives foolishly getting distracted over an essentially meaningless fight. I was inclined to agree. Chuck Schumer had already come out for Ellison, which made me think there was no way this was going to be a fight at all. And with Schumer behind him, it didn’t seem like Ellison could really make a credible claim to be taking on the establishment.

But after weeks of intense attacks on Ellison—many of them, it seems, spearheaded by the White House—I’ve begun to wonder if there is not more to the race than Seth or I realized.

Perhaps it’s a genuine reprise of the Clinton/Sanders fight from the campaign? Though if it is, how to explain Schumer and Harry Reid coming out for Ellison?

Perhaps it’s just about Israel, though again, the Schumer question intrudes.

This article has Obama-Clinton insiders basically saying that at this moment of needing to appeal to white working class voters, the last thing the DNC needs is an African-American Muslim at the helm. I gather that they think Perez, Ellison’s strongest opponent, codes more as white?

Which should, if nothing else, tell you all you need to know about how identity politics was used during the primary campaign: When it served their purposes, the Obama/Clinton wing of the party made a big to do about Sanders being white, from Vermont, and out of touch with black voters; now they’re going after Ellison for being black and Muslim. And Sanders is pushing, hard, for him.


The vacuum of leadership at the highest levels of the Democratic Party is stunning.

Besides Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Ellison, who in national office or power is speaking out against Trump?

Before the election, it was all fascism all the time; now it’s silence, wait and see.

As Jeremy Kessler suggested to me the other night, maybe all that fascism talk pre-election has been internalized. At the time, I thought that talk was just a tactical ploy. What I should have remembered is that tactical ploys can work their magic on their wielders. Tacticians can become captives of their tactics.

In any event, there’s a vacuum of leadership on the liberal left, which means there’s a real opportunity for any moderately ambitious, ideologically coherent politico or activist in her 20s or 30s—or groups of moderately ambitious politicos and activists—to make her mark right now.


Whenever I push my line that Trump and the GOP are more vulnerable than we might think, I get a lot of pushback. One frequent counter I hear is: “If there’s another terrorist attack, it’s all over. They’ll turn the country into complete and total fascism.”

I’d be the last person to claim with any certainty what would or wouldn’t happen in such an instance. (Again, I have my doubts that such an attack would do the work of the right that people think it would do, but that’s another conversation for another day.)

But I think it’s worth examining the claim less as a prediction of the future, less for what it says about Trump and the GOP or the US, than what it says about the state of the American left.

There’s an assumption built into the claim that national security and national security crises are inherently the province and the project of the right, that such situations always redound to the benefit of reactionaries and revanchists. I think that’s wrong—revealingly wrong—on two fronts.

First, historically, as much as they were moments of revanchism and repression, national security crises were also moments of advance, offering opportunities to the left.

The main moments of African American progress, as Rogers Smith and Phil Klinker argued in The Unsteady March, were times of warfare (the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War). During the Cold War, civil rights activists faced a tremendous amount of repression from the American state; they were tarred as Communists and traitors and much else. Yet, they also knew how to turn the Cold War into an opportunity for themselves.

Outside the US, similar dynamics obtain. Lenin would certainly have greeted it as news that national security was the domain of the right: Despite the setbacks World War I posed to the left, he saw it in the end as an incubator of the revolution in Russia. And would the French have abolished the monarchy outside a context of pan-European war?

I’m hardly saying we’re in a comparable situation today; we’re not. But the fact that we’re not in a comparable situation is something that needs to be interrogated, historically and critically, and not naturalized as some sort of ontological fact of politics.

What we’re facing today is, among other things, the product of the weakness of the left, both in terms of its organizational capacity and its political analysis, and the multiple ways in which the American state can conduct warfare and police the globe without mobilizing all of society. But again, these developments need to be understood historically and not reified.

Second, this change in the historical relationship between the left and crises of national security also reveals our failure on the left to fully develop something like a foreign policy, much less a larger analysis of the relationship between domestic and international politics. This was made painfully clear during the Sanders campaign.

In the face of the depredations of WWI and the abdication of the Tsar, the Bolsheviks offered peace, land, and bread. What have we to offer?

At some point, the war on terror, and its underlying assumptions, will have to be confronted by the left. We have to have an answer, an analysis, about the global situation, what the relationship is between American action and international developments, not just in the context of war but also in the context of peace. So that if/when there is another terrorist attack, we have something to say beyond “no dumb wars.” (It’s telling that Obama’s position against the Iraq War is probably the most coherent statement—on the order of peace, land, and bread—to emanate out of the liberal/left side of the spectrum since 9/11.)

The fact, in other words, that we think a terrorist attack will redound solely to the benefit of Trump and the GOP says as much about us as it does about Trump, the GOP, and the rest of the country.


One of the advantages of political trajectories like my own—where you come to the left somewhat later in life, where you start out as a fairly moderate, in some ways even conservative, liberal type, and are dragged to the left by a combination of events, friends, teachers, circumstances, reading, and your own head—is that you don’t see non-leftists (including liberals) as a permanent, intractable enemy, incapable of changing their views. You tend to see possibilities for transformation, and you have faith in things like organizing, and you tend to see liberalism as a multivalent ideology that can go in any number of ways. So while I criticize liberals a lot, I’ve always resisted the polarization that sees liberalism as a static, benighted formation or leftism as something you’re somehow born to.

The other advantage is that you don’t have to do that thing that some liberals—especially the ones with radical pasts, whether as anarchists, Marxists, Maoists, members of the ISO or the SWP or PL or whatever—do. You don’t have to slay some youthful ghost within yourself, you don’t have to patrol the boundaries of reasonableness (lest you or someone around you backslide), you don’t have lecture other people on the need for compromise and coalition, as if you were the first person in the world to discover such virtues, and you don’t have that perpetual feeling of embarrassment and anxiety about other leftists acting foolishly. Because you know—from personal experience—that even the moderate man of reasonableness can sometimes act the fool, too.


Reading Vasilly Grossman’s Life and Fate on a winter’s day up at my parents’.

I don’t know if it’s my mood, the cold, the dark, or the political climate outside, but I feel a sad sense of identification with these Jewish commissars trying, against all odds, to teach the troops that communism requires the overcoming of all forms of ethnic chauvinism, including Jewish chauvinism, because chauvinistic forms of identity are always the voice of fascism.

I also feel a sad sense of identification with these Old Bolsheviks in Stalin’s labor camps, idiotically, haplessly holding onto their sense of revolutionary virtue against all the criminals and thugs arrayed against them, these not quite yet broken Bolsheviks trying desperately to believe that their political morality is not just superior to but stronger than that brutal lowlife cynicism that always claims to be more in touch with the world than the revolution that brought the world into being.

We, all of us, seem to have been fighting this fight for a very long time.


I’ve always been suspicious of the discourse of conformity.

Whether the object of critique is totalitarianism or the midcentury man in the grey flannel suit or the denizens of the welfare state, the tendency is to depict a society without individuals, a mass of unthinking automatons, blindly following the crowd, merging themselves with the crowd, losing themselves in the crowd.

One of the reasons I love Life and Fate—and why I think novels like 1984 or treatises like The Origins of Totalitarianism (at least the last third, which everyone pays the most attention to or books like The Captive Mind are off the mark—is that it gives the lie to that image of conformity precisely at a moment when you’d most expect it: the Soviet Union during the war years.

In one of the most amazing scenes in the novel, Grossman narrates what’s running through the heads of a small tank brigade, and it’s the sheer accumulation of differentiating detail that makes you realize how wrong Orwell, Arendt, critics of the 50s, and others were/are:

One soldier was singing; another, his eyes half-closed, was full of dire forebodings; a third was thinking about home; a fourth was chewing some bread and sausage and thinking about the sausage [I love that little detail]; a fifth, his mouth wide open, was trying to identify a bird on a tree; a sixth was worrying about whether he’d offended his mate by swearing at him the previous night; a seventh, still furious, was dreaming of giving his enemy—the commander of the tank in the front—a good punch on the jaw; an eighth was composing a farewell poem to the autumn forest; a ninth was thinking about a girl’s breasts; a tenth was thinking about his dog…an eleventh was thinking how good it would be to live alone in a hut in the forest, drinking spring-water, eating berries and going about barefoot; a twelfth was wondering whether to feign sickness and have a rest in hospital; a thirteenth was remembering a fairy-tale he had heard as a child; a fourteenth was remembering the last time he had talked to his girl—he felt glad that they had now separated for ever; a fifteenth was thinking about the future—after the war he would like to run a canteen.

The humanism of that passage is so much more powerful than the putative humanism that critics of totalitarianism or of midcentury conformity in capitalist America/welfarist Britain claim to stand for.


When I assumed my three-year term as department chair in May 2014, I realized I was taking over from a long, long line of crazy hoarders.

The first thing I did was to dismantle an entire wall of filing cabinets in the chair’s office that were filled with useless paper stretching back to the 1970s. Most of the stuff was tossed; the documents of historical importance or institutional interest I had converted into electronic files or sent to the College archives. That took about a semester.

The second thing I did was to have Barbara Haugstatter, our department administrator of unflagging energy and bottomless devotion to the faculty and students, go through and toss out the pounds and pounds of crap—ancient printers, crusty blue books, and God knows what else—that had accumulated in our storage room, which is about the size of a Manhattan apartment. That has taken about two and half years. But now it has the airiness of a loft in Soho.

And last week I spent a few days completing my long dreamed of, and most cherished, project: converting the electronic Dropbox system that my genius predecessor, Paisley Currah, set up, God love him—a filing system so sophisticated and insane, only John Nash could understand it—into something more manageable that I can pass onto my successor when I step down as chair (yay!) at the end of the spring semester.

This is the legacy I’m most proud of: not our battles for academic freedom, not our internal reforms and transformations of the department, but this massive housekeeping effort.

Alas, only my mother will appreciate it.


I’ve been waiting two and half years to launch this document. Now it begins: “Notes For the Next Chair.”





  1. s.wallerstein December 26, 2016 at 2:35 pm | #

    In Orwell’s 1984 the emphasis is on conformity imposed from without out of fear. Orwell supposes (I think) that no one really believes the official discourse, but that all pretend to believe it in order to survive. Winston’s (the protagonist) lover, Julia, appears externally to believe the official line and to conform to it, but in reality believes in nothing. Even O’Brien, the member of the inner party, does not believe the official discourse, but uses it to affirm his power. Orwell’s position seems to be that the Party exists for the sake of power and that the members of the outer party (such as Winston and Julia) are expected to accept the official line as a sign of submission to power, not as a sign of deep belief.

  2. Louise Bernikow December 26, 2016 at 2:47 pm | #

    Oh Corey, all that placating, ghost-busting, it’s-only-tweets etc– ignores the fact that reproductive freedom is being chipped away daily– ohio, for ex– and those lurking conservatves, are already dancing for joy–this matters! yr fan, Louise b

  3. Timothy Dwight Williams December 26, 2016 at 5:22 pm | #

    The second part of Captive Mind, the mini-biographies of the writers Andrzejewski, Borowski, Galczynski and Putrament, is the great part and, by revealing the very different paths that led them to become officially approved socialist writers, corresponds to your point about Life and Fate. You probably know that Milosz was later highly squeamish about how the book became in some sense co-opted as part of a conservative anti-communist canon with 1984, etc. I recommend his collected correspondence with Thomas Merton, Striving Towards Being, if you haven’t read it.

  4. jonnybutter December 26, 2016 at 9:35 pm | #

    I also feel a sad sense of identification with these Old Bolsheviks…trying desperately to believe that their political morality is not just superior to but stronger than that brutal lowlife cynicism that always claims to be more in touch with the world than the revolution that brought the world into being.

    Neither POV is stronger. One is slanted downhill and one uphill. Downhill is easier but uphill is more fun, more stimulating – and humans like that. That neither POV is necessarily stronger at any given time gives me a little hope. Doesn’t mean that downhill won’t win, but does mean that there’s nothing inevitable about it. Brutal Lowlife Cynicism (BLC) certainly isn’t ‘more in touch with the world’; it’s more in touch with its own squalid, finger-sniffing, moral idiocy – an essential emptiness (and not the Buddhist kind), which it projects onto the world.

    I still can bring myself to think through the implications of the next few years only in fits and starts; life must go on, and if you think about it too much – yikes. But it’s also not all dark. Some of the unfathomability of the future is itself cause for, at the very least, less certain dread (I take what I can get!). There is so much beyond the control of the US gov (or any one national government) that at least some bad things pols here have every intention of doing, they will be unable to do for various reasons – reasons of politics, science, and ‘fate’.

    It’s quite right that the GOP is in a tricky spot in some ways – and not just because of policy disagreement and a basic disintegration – they were dealing with some of that before Trump (‘Freedom Caucus’). Prof. Robin wrote before the election about GOP problems (i.e. GOP death-by-winning), and his observations are just as useful now as then (doesn’t matter in this sense that GOP won in this election). I would bet money that ‘privately’ (as they say in DC) the mood in the GOP congressional caucuses and national party is butt clenching right now (and that the DC Dem wise hacks – like Harry Reid – know very well how freaked out they are). PR ghouls like Bannon can put out their crap all they want – I bet the flop sweat feels and smells pretty clammy in DC.

    There’s also the little thing of clear disapproval from much of the world’s populations, including from a strong majority of Americans. And that majority will likely grow larger. I don’t think most Americans, including GOP and/or Trump voters, are prepared for the coming bathos, the staggering loss of prestige the US is about to endure. Jeer Heet, a Canadian, tweeted something to this effect in the last few weeks, and wow, is he right about that. I don’t see how Trump gets from, whatever it was – 23% voter support? – to anything but lower than that.

    This loss of prestige will have some very concrete ramifications people are NOT going to like. Trump and his whole crew lying their asses off day after day will not save them politically. Of course the morons will believe,

  5. mark December 27, 2016 at 5:30 am | #

    “14 November. A nauseating picture on the front of the Guardian of Trump and Farage together, with ‘nauseating’ in this case not just a word. It does genuinely make one feel sick”

    (Alan Bennett’s Diary, 2016, LRB).

    What the EU referendum in June and the run-up to the November US election have in common is that we saw Conservatism at civil war on both sides of the pond.

    They also share having the winning Conservatives in those two contests having done so by painting financiers, those natural upper class Conservatives, as unpatriotic.

  6. Roquentin December 27, 2016 at 7:48 am | #

    George Orwell is one of the most overrated writers in history. As a former literature major, reverence for Orwell is a total pet peeve of mine as are the endless fights I get into when I criticize him. I usually start out with this line, “If Animal Farm really is a socialist text, why is it standard reading in nearly every high school in America? The very same high schools which rewrite the history books to adhere more closely to conservatism?” That is soon followed closely by saying that Orwell told the West exactly what they wanted to hear, which is why he has enjoyed such enduring popularity. The fiercest resistance often comes from self-identified socialists who admire his work, which I consider to be thoroughly reactionary. I’ve been called a “tankie” in these fights. Me, of all people, a tankie. The Bolshevik revolution may have failed, but not for the reasons Orwell thinks or wants you to think. Orwell’s most famous works like Animal Farm and 1984, serve one purpose: to tell people how awful “really existing socialism” is and make sure people don’t get any ideas about actually implementing any genuinely socialist ideas in practice. It’s all fine as branding and labeling, some empty word with no theory behind it, but the minute a government tries to actually achieve it, it becomes evil incarnate for people like this. Animal Farm is a fable, written for children, to make sure none of them get wild ideas about liberal capitalism being anything except for “the worst form of government, except for all the others.” My disdain for his work is in no small part based on how much I liked him as a teenager, and how badly manipulated I feel as an adult.

    If all this isn’t enough, let’s talk about that recently released list of “crypto-communists” Orwell gave the British government ( Orwell was a fraud, a man who used the socialist label only to argue against it, only to tell people how awful it was.

    Also, I hear you on that growing up “moderate” and ending up on the left later in life thing. I agree completely.

    • s.wallerstein December 27, 2016 at 7:59 am | #

      Orwell is an over-rated writer if your only criterion for literary quality is whether he agrees with you politically or not.

      Actually, he writes very very well. Try Homage to Catalonia, for example. Maybe his essays are his best work: Politics and the English Language, Inside the Whale, Such such were the Joys, Shooting an Elephant, Charles Dickens are all among the finest essays in English in the 20th century.

      • Roquentin December 27, 2016 at 6:30 pm | #

        Well, at least we agree that his best works are those he is less known for. I think Down and Out in Paris and London was his best, personally. If we’re speaking in purely formalist terms, Orwell isn’t a bad writer per se. I think creating pamphlet literature like 1984 and Animal Farm is poor form all on its own, but I will at least admit that they aren’t badly written.

        However, the vast majority of people who admire Orwell, at least in my experience, do not do so for formalist reasons. They admire the political content. If that is the reason the texts are admired, for how they portray the politics on the Russian Revolution and totalitarianism more generally, then criticizing those politics is absolutely fair game. If Orwell had used his mastery of the English language to write sonnets about the London Bridge, neither you nor I would have ever heard of him.

        • s.wallerstein December 27, 2016 at 7:08 pm | #


          Animal Farm is a pamphlet, although with a great sense of humor and extraordinarily well-crafted.

          I’ve never read 1984 as anti-communist in the way Animal Farm is. To me, the way that the news are managed in 1984 seems like the way they are in contemporary society. The way the enemy changes from Russia to China and back in 1984 is just what happens today: with Nixon China became good and Russia became bad and now with Trump it seems that China will become bad and Russia will become good again. Orwell’s two minute hate seems like something we see on TV today as the villain of the day is singled out. The manipulation of language in contemporary society is right out of 1984. Orwell had worked in the BBC during World War 2 so he was very aware of the way the news are manipulated in so-called democratic societies.

          However, you’re right that his early journalistic works, Down and Out and the Road to Wigan Pier are still great reading.

          • Roquentin December 27, 2016 at 7:53 pm | #

            I don’t find Animal Farm to be particularly fun, but that’s not my problem with it. It’s that it got the Bolshevik Revolution completely wrong, and is now used as straight-up capitalist propaganda in the US school system. The message is pretty clearly, at least to me, something like “Any attempts to form a socialist government will end up with the leaders being as bad as the people they replaced. In other words, things should stay the way they are, and socialism is inevitably worse than capitalism.” It’s one thing to write a book like that. I like all kinds of novels written by reactionaries. What kills me is that so many people, people who should know better, labor under the delusion that Orwell was a “socialist” in any meaningful way, let alone the patently absurd idea that Animal Farm is a “socialist” book. The hell it is. So much of what’s wrong with the left can be drawn from their admiration for that and 1984.

            I have a long, philosophical argument involving Heidegger and Marx that illustrates why I think Orwell learned all the wrong lessons from totalitarianism which I don’t really have the time to type out here. The short version is, that he’s holding on to the same misguided notions of individual authenticity Heidegger did in Being and Time, and 1984 can be read as a sort of resistance akin to not wanting to be “das man.” That’s why it’s one of these “last man” stories, where one person can magically see through the ideology no one else can. This vain, narcissistic image of oneself is why it has such enduring appeal. What this obscures is that everyone thinks he’s that guy, the one who isn’t subject to ideology. The one who sees through propaganda and “big brother.” I connect Orwell to Heidegger precisely because the latter’s reactionary politics aren’t even a question. What is abhorrent to people of this sort of mindset is the idea that individuality is largely a myth, and that everyone’s ideas come from somewhere and are mostly decided at the institutional level.

            I could go on, but you probably get the point and this post is too long as it is.

          • s.wallerstein December 28, 2016 at 6:09 am | #

            Heidegger and Orwell are very different. For Heidegger conformity (das man) is an ontological structure of dasein, something that people everywhere in all societies have. Orwell, on the other hand, in 1984 is showing conformity in a specific type of society, one which he obviously condemns: that is, for Orwell, unlike Heidegger, in another type of society, people would be less conformist. Finally, for Orwell, conformity in 1984 is based on fear: all the major characters, Winston, Julia and O’Brien see through Big Brother, but conform through fear or out of opportunism or weakness. That Big Brother watches people constantly through TV monitors indicates that many people really do not conform out of their free will.

    • yt86 December 31, 2016 at 12:16 pm | #

      Orwell was a man of his times, i.e. one in which the “White Man’s Burden” was the only way of dealing with non-white peoples who were seen as “half-devil, half-child” and who could only hope to go from one Empire’s tutelage to another (e.g. from British to German or vice versa). The other great tacitly pro-Empire “moral giant” who still excites legions of impressionable undergraduates is the Frenchman by way of Algeria, Albert Camus. He took Orwell’s paralysis in the face of Imperial “civilizing mission” of non-European peoples to another level of hypocrisy ( ). Nowadays, he is a shining beacon of morality to fans of the “Shooting and Crying” genre popular in Israel as it remorselessly proceeds with the “logic of elimination” that undergirds their settler-colonial project:

      • Roquentin December 31, 2016 at 9:29 pm | #

        I have more of a soft spot for Camus than Orwell. He definitely retained some colonialist “pied-noir” ideas, but his books weren’t written specifically to tell people how awful socialism was if put into practice. The only book that even comes close is The Rebel and that’s more about future utopias cannibalizing the preset. I will admit that his basic thesis that life is fundamentally absurd can be used as a cop-out in certain situations, to grant ambiguity in places like the “shoot and cry” genre of memoir and fiction, but in spite of all this I still like him a lot more than Orwell. Orwell had all of the orientalist tendencies of Camus, but lacked even the awareness that the entire foundation of his culture (or anyone else’s for that matter) was built on quicksand. So much of Orwell’s thought can be condensed into that “2+2=5” part of 1984, in that this is still what he was fundamentally after. The ability to state some basic, self-evident, obvious truth… if this gesture could ever possibly put things right again. That’s a far cry from a novel such as The Fall, where the protagonist eventually discovers his sense of virtue and vice, good and evil are ultimately incoherent.

        That said, I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that the protagonist of The Stranger shoots an Arab.

  7. Rich Puchalsky December 27, 2016 at 10:37 am | #

    The most salient part of December for US politics was the liberal freakout, which demonstrated that they have no central values and no credible idea of how to resist anything. “Russia attacked us, trust the CIA”.

  8. stevenjohnson December 27, 2016 at 11:04 am | #

    1. Christian Zionism, support for apartheid, anti-Communism, resistance to desegregation, support for Trump against the Republican Party establishment may be conceptually distinct but it’s not at all clear they are politically distinct. Is that the point here?

    2. Why should we think a Trump administration will not be satisfied if the stakeholders (aka the wealthy) profit? Delivering on promises to improve the economy in the sense of raising living standards for broad masses of people would require 1.) the US government is a majority rule in substance as well as form and 2.) the capitalist system is fundamentally rational enough that it can be reformed with proper policies. The proposition to allow minimal taxation on repatriation of profits abroad may bring lots of hot money home, funding even more speculative profit taking in finance.

    3. The thing about the politics of fear in Breitbart tweets is that they have the winner Trump behind them. (And Joe McCarthy had the government behind him, until he didn’t, whereupon the fear dissolved, no?) Of course Trump was not actually the winner. Equally of course it is absolutely vital for the people who campaigned against Clinton as the biggest liar, thief, warmonger, traitor, in the nation that Trump be the winner. These are not just the obvious right wingers but people who flatter themselves to be “left,” i.e., liberal in the personal virtue/ego ideal sense of being tolerant, generous, urbane, cosmopolitan even, reasonable instead of dogmatic, enlightened and modern rather than authoritarian and conventional, morally refined and aesthetically sophisticated. Thus, since it is nearly universally agreed Trump is the winner, there is no reason to think tweets are the only weapon in his arsenal. What was the point here?

    4. Trump is guaranteed to defeat in the sense that neither he personally nor the system he upholds can solve the problems they claim they want to solve. But it is a trifle premature to crow about “defeats” in the lame duck period. Even worse, a formal questionnaire on climate change makes it very obvious that an informal standard for employee opinions on climate change will hold. I am not so serenely sure as Corey Robin that employees at the DOE will administer and advise on policies based on their personal judgments about climate change science. How do we in the public at large benefit if a DOE employee is allowed to keep a job so long as their climate science opinions are safely kept in their conscience, while they are kept out of their work?

    5. The careerists and the collaborators are already here. What is not clear is precisely what this “Trumpism” thing is, except a disdain for all that politics where low life politicians wave their dirty credentials they demagogued from the rabble as if that made them somebody, when everybody knows the serious people are serious because they have money, not mere votes. Well, also glee at the proof this country isn’t about majority rule. The policy content appears to be war with China and Iran, order to be determined. The elite constituency for that is already in place, so who exactly is Corey Robin warning against?

    6. In a political discourse where working-class is defined by the absence of a college degree, and Trump is the white working-class savior (read, demagogue,) there’s no way to tag Columbia University as “Trumpist.”

    7. The idea that anybody was going to improve on Obama’s performance with African-American voters assumes that no African-American saw voting for Obama as being in some sense a validation. And the idea that more educated people (correlated with income, called “wealth” here,) might have voted more easily for Clinton has nothing to do with perceptions of her as a dyke and a cuckold assumes education has zero effect in promoting social tolerance. It’s hard to be dogmatic on these things, but it really seems like both propositions are extreme. Not as wrong as notions people vote their skin color, or “working-class” is by definition socially backward, but wrong. The implicit notion that Clinton could run against the incumbent president’s record and against the incumbent party, or against Bill Clinton’s record, is crazy.

    8. Michelle Goldberg’s belief that Trump can be welded to the Republican Party at this point fails completely because everybody and their brother knows Trump defied the party establishment. But even if this weren’t the case, it is not at all clear why she thinks the Republican Party is unpopular since they have won the most state governors, the Senate and the House. it’s true that social mores officially upheld by the Republicans, and conservatives generally, are not “conservative,” and that conservatives always lose. But social attitudes are not policies. They do not translate into politics, except symbolically. This is not political clarification but obfuscation.

    9. The idea that the DNC chair isn’t that big a deal really doesn’t fit with the claim Debbie Wasserman-Schultz rigged it so Bernie Sanders didn’t win his proper coronation as the new president. As for the confusion about how left Ellison is, that goes away if you remember Sanders isn’t particularly left either. Sanders I expect thinks Ellison would be a strong ally. I suspect others think Ellison would be easily removable when the proper time comes. Sometimes support is a noose?

    10. For there to be a vacuum of leadership on the liberal left, there would have to be such a thing. Liberalism is not left. Liberals in Popular Fronts are closer to being left, but that’s reforming a rotten system in visible collapse, which isn’t very left at all. The New Deal, which is the US version, may have started with the premise capitalism needed reforming, but admitting that in the Great Depression was more what’s called being in touch with reality, not leftism. Conservatism has many, many tasks, much to roll back and take away from the people, but there aren’t many acceptable reforms left for capitalism. The liberal left, if it really exists, is used up by its success.

    11. Some people think Trump is the reaction to the US losing its international dominance. (Do not ask me why they think imperialism can be peacefully replaced, instead of defeated.) The connection I think is supposed to be that it’s the mass of people in this country who benefit from the empire. (Don’t ask me to explain how this is supposed to work in the real world.) They believe Trump stands for stepping back the empire. (Don’t ask me to explain how anyone could really believe this.) Everyone who claimed it was Clinton who was the warmonger agreed. It’s hard to see how they will move forward after their commitment to Trump as the angel of peace. Personally, I do not think isolationism=anti-imperialism. At any rate, Sanders was what counted in acceptable politics as left. I agree Sanders did not address imperialism. I disagree this was an inexplicable oversight. Nor do I agree it can be rectified at some convenient later time.

    12. It’s not clear how thinking individuals may change their opinions requires thinking “liberalism” deserves good manners. It’s not clear how striving for humane personal relations requires seeing an ideology somehow as a person open to reform. It does seem Corey Robin feels extreme positions are foolish on principle, as ill-mannered or neurotic?

    13. Personally I can’t identify with the Old Bolsheviks. The wheel of revolution hasn’t turned my world upside down so that the powerful have been replaced by men out of my nowhere. And a further turn hasn’t put me in physical oppression, not even one leavened by the certainty that the new masters take me seriously, not least because another turn, and who knows?

    14. The news that Arendt, Orwell, etc. were wrong is not news in one sense. The left has complained about their errors since they were first committed to print. It’s remarkable how poorly publicized the news is though. Seems to me that should be a priority. As to actual conformity? Consider shopping.

  9. Gavolt December 27, 2016 at 2:10 pm | #

    Point #1 is interesting in that it frames the Zionists’ oft-employed “self-hating Jew” canard in a rather provocative way. I have always suspected this was the case, incidentally.

  10. LFC December 27, 2016 at 6:11 pm | #

    Re #14 on “the discourse of conformity” — not sure I fully agree. There can be highly individual thoughts and feelings that coexist with conformist mindsets, say on politics.

    In the quoted passage from Life and Fate, that one soldier is singing, another thinking about eating sausage etc. doesn’t nec. mean they couldn’t have the same attitudes about other matters (haven’t read Grossman, so not making a pt spec. about that book).

    The best critiques of ‘mass society’ from the ’50s have held up in certain respects and not completely lost their relevance (thinking e.g. of aspects of C. Wright Mills and others). Plenty of ‘herd behavior’ is evident today, in the midst of cultures that supposedly prize individuality.

  11. Orin T December 30, 2016 at 9:43 am | #

    Alas, only my mother will appreciate it.” And that is enough!

  12. Carolyn Doric December 30, 2016 at 7:49 pm | #

    Thank you for expanding on your thoughts. Will share.

  13. Bree Robin January 11, 2017 at 9:34 pm | #

    #15 “Alas, only my mother will appreciate it.” I do

  14. b. January 24, 2017 at 11:56 am | #

    “At some point, the war on terror, and its underlying assumptions, will have to be confronted by the left.”

    That moment was on 9/12. For the Democrats, the moments continued almost daily: PATRIOT Act, Iraq vote, 2004 primaries… if past performance predicts the future, the prospects are dire indeed.

    • b. January 24, 2017 at 11:57 am | #

      The necessary response to 9/11 should have been to not rally behind Bush, but to point out his negligence – and the bipartisan follies and even outright crimes of his predecessors, going all the way back to Carter’s support for the Taliban. If a principled stand meant losing the 2004 elections, how is that outcome different from losing – as Kerry did – on an unprincipled tap dance? You might lose an election by standing for something unpopular, but you will never win respect, let alone change minds, if you cannot speak for what you really stand for (because you do not actually stand for anything except your own benefit and pleasure – Trump – or because – Clinton – you stand for the unacceptable even on the occasions where you disregard your personal gain).

      • b. January 24, 2017 at 11:57 am | #

        The biggest danger of Trump is in preventing necessary change in the lead-up to 2018 – constitutional amendments – and 2020. It does not help anybody if Trump is followed by another Obama or Clinton, just as Obama following Bush just set the stage for Trump. The danger is not that Trump will accomplish irreversible changes, but that nobody will run for office – at any level – to actually reverse whatever he (and Bush, and frankly, Obama and Clinton I) have committed. But I am sure we will be promised again in 2020 that Gitmo will be closed.

  15. Timothy A. Poe March 8, 2019 at 4:00 pm | #

    Recently finished Life and Fate after reading this post 26 or so months ago. I read it mostly while commuting (it’s my best time to read) and I’m a bit of a slow reader and willing to stop for another book and then come back. Life and Fate is mostly terrific (the atomic theory parts hit me as very dated). The oddest related experience was speaking about the novel with a friend from Russia – he never heard of it prior to the conversation.

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