January Journal

As some of you know, more and more of my commentary now appears on Facebook rather than on this blog. If you’re not averse to joining Facebook, you can catch it there; I encourage you to do so, as the conversations can be quite lively and good, involving lots of different folks. I’m maxed out on friends, but you can follow me. But since a lot of readers don’t want to join Facebook, I’m going to try to make it a regular feature—monthly or semi-monthly—to catch you up to speed on what I’ve been saying there. I’m going to collect various Facebook posts and post them here as a kind of regular journal or diary. Some will be out of date by the time you read them here. But that’s the way daily commentary goes. I did one for December, which took us through the 26th; here’s one for the remainder of that month and since then.

January 26, 2017

Like so many other people, I loved Mary Tyler Moore, who died yesterday, as a comic actress. But her most astonishing and unexpected performance, for me, was when she played the mother of a son who had died and another son who tried to kill himself in Ordinary People. The movie was obvious and of its moment, and I could do without the shtick of Donald Sutherland and Judd Hirsch. But Mary Tyler Moore carried that entire film and gave it whatever credibility it had.

January 26, 2017

Sometimes, not always, politics is war by other means. Not just for a few small sects but for large-scale groups and populations. I don’t mean war in the sense that one group is trying to dominate another; that’s continuous, always there. I mean war in the sense of overt, ongoing, declared battle between those groups.

We seem to be in one of those moments.

One of the things we’ll have to get used to in this moment is the strange whipsaw effect of daily struggle, of seeing defeat mutate, quicksilver, into victory, and then seeing that victory slip through our fingers like it was never ours to have. That’s the way war is. (If you’ve ever been through a strike, you have a visceral sense of this.) Everything is temporary, not much lasts.

We have to learn to survive that, to know that when Trump delivers an executive order, that’s not fate, that’s just the day’s rout, which can be turned into tomorrow’s route. Conversely, when we win some small victory, it may be just an overture to another defeat.

I guess what I’m saying is, above all, we need resilience. And patience.

January 25, 2017

Like an increasing number of mayors across the United States, Philadelphia’s mayor announced today that his city would be willing to go federal funds in order to remain a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants. (Boston’s mayor was even more forceful on the issue.)

This move is so historically resonant.

Think back to 1975, when New York City was bankrupt and needed help from the feds, and Gerald Ford told the city, in that famous Daily News headline, Drop Dead. That was the beginning, as historians like Josh Freeman and Kim Phillips-Fein and social theorists like David Harvey have argued, of the full-scale neoliberal assault on social democracy in NY, America’s “Red Vienna.”

Fast-forward 42 years to 2017, and it’s cities telling the feds: Drop Dead.

Let’s hope that one day we will look back on this moment as a comparable signal of the dawning of a new era.

January 25, 2017

If you didn’t make it to the rally in defense of Muslims, immigrants, and refugees at Washington Square Park tonight, you missed out. I’ve been pretty hard on the Democrats, particularly elected officials, but I have to say: Tish James, our NYC Public Advocate, and Scott Stringer, our City Comptroller were terrific. They said everything you’d want to hear from an elected official, and who knew Stringer was so feisty? Someone from the City Council said the city was laying plans not only for NYC to be a sanctuary city (a phrase all the electeds repeated again and again) but, if necessary, to forgo federal funding to do it. Obviously, it was all words; actions will matter more. But it was immensely reassuring to be there, along with thousands of people committed to the basic proposition that there are no strangers in NYC. As I told the woman next to me, who worried that she hadn’t lived in NY long enough to qualify, “You’re here. That makes you a New Yorker.”

The rally was sponsored by CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. That in itself is significant. I remember after 9/11 and throughout the aughts, CAIR was treated by many in the mainstream, including liberals and Democrats, as a radioactive organization. That’s how palpable the fear was: not simply the fear of Muslims but the fear of being identified or associated with Muslims. That so many of New York City’s elected officials turned out tonight for a CAIR rally is really, from the point of view of just 10 or 15 years ago, astonishing.

Related to this: Scott Stringer made a point of emphasizing his ties, as a Jewish official, to the Muslim community. More, it seemed, than to any other group. He said it at the beginning of his speech and at the end.

Both points—about CAIR and Stringer—are a testament to an ironic byproduct of 9/11: the ways in which so many Muslim Americans have been politicized and mobilized by the war on terror, something Moustafa Bayoumi first tipped me off to back in those dark days, but which we’re seeing everywhere now.

The fundamental rejection of Trump among these elected officials was also surprising—and inspiring. Tish James said Trump was not her president. Stringer called Trump an idiot, his voice dripping with contempt. The various speakers, many of them electeds, repeatedly shouted “Dump Trump” and other slogans. It was light years away from how George W. Bush walked on water in his first term, not just among Republicans but also among Democrats and the liberal media.

So what does this all mean? We are facing a very dark moment. The national Democratic Party seems to be toggling somewhere between disastrous and hopeless. But we are, as a people, and in some respects as a polity, so much further along than we were after 9/11.

January 25, 2017

This is a good compendium of what is going on at the state level in terms of criminalizing dissent. It’s important to remember that this type of criminalization—amped up punishments for blocking traffic and the like—began after 9/11. We forget, but Section 802 of the Patriot Act, passed by a large bipartisan majority in Congress, defined “domestic terrorism” as “acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws” and that “appear to be…intended to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” Many civil libertarians warned at the time that this would produce a wave of even more draconian copycat legislation at the state level. And it did. An Oregon bill—it may not have passed, I’d have to check—from 2003 defined a terrorist act as “any act that is intended, by at least one of its participants, to disrupt…commerce or the transportation systems of the State of Oregon.” It imposed automatic prison sentences of 25 years to life, without parole, for those found guilty of violating the law.

January 24, 2017

A note to anyone who reads my posts:

If you’re planning on popping up in a comments thread about Trump, and mouthing off about how I should now apologize for being part of a Bernie or Bust or Never Hillary or whatever name you come up with contingent, let me set you straight on a few things.

One, you’re a guest, and most likely, an uninvited guest, who’s plopping down on my living room floor like a drunken fool, taking advantage of my hospitality and your fellow guests’ politeness just so you can ride whatever hobbyhorse your ignorance and a six-pack have set you on for the evening.

Second, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I was certainly not part of any Bernie or Bust or Never Hillary crew, I didn’t support Jill Stein, and most of the people who participate in my comments threads weren’t and didn’t either. Nor am I going to allow you to vilify people who were part of those contingents; they have their reasons for their politics, and if you’re going to show up at my house, you’re going to respectfully engage and critique those reasons. And if you can’t, you can take that shit to Reddit or whatever Democratic hack blog you ordinarily cruise for clicks.

Last, please don’t make me start rehearsing all the ways in which the candidate you apparently are devoted to, sucked. I’ve really tried to avoid that kind of point-scoring since the election—in part because I got some big things wrong about the election; in part because people I love and care about were avid supporters of Clinton; in part because many of my readers were avid supporters of her, and I try to be respectful of them; and in part because I see all these folks as my allies or potential allies, and think that decency requires my not gloating or being nasty and cruel—but if you’re going to make me start going over all the ways in which Clinton should have been able to destroy a candidate who had the worst favorability ratings in the history of polling, a candidate so loathed by his own party that he could never even muster a majority of votes in the primaries on his behalf, then I will. Just before I block you.

January 24, 2017

So expect to hear this name a lot in the coming days: Neil Gorsuch. He’s emerging as one of Trump’s top two choices to replace Scalia on the Supreme Court. Those of us old enough to remember the name might recall that Gorsuch’s mother—Anne Gorsuch—ran the EPA into the ground under Ronald Reagan. Appointed to head the EPA through the influence of right-wing donor and beer magnate Joseph Coors, Gorsuch tried repeatedly to stop the agency from eliminating lead from gasoline and was cited for contempt of Congress when she refused to hand over documents regarding her disastrous handling of the Superfund, which was supposed to eliminate toxic waste. She was finally forced to resign, and her #2 at the EPA and partner-in-crime—Rita Lavelle, another Colorado crony—was convicted of perjury over the scandal. Why, you might ask, do I bring this all up? Because anyone who tells you Donald Trump is a fundamental break with Ronald Reagan is full of shit.

January 24, 2017

This is great, right?

On Tuesday, Democrats led by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) unveiled a proposal to spend $1 trillion over the next 10 years to repair old bridges and roads, expand bus and rail systems, modernize ports, highways, airports, schools, grids, and much, much more. Unlike Trump’s plan, this would be accomplished through direct federal spending.

Lots and lots of money for all the things people want and need. Simple, direct, bold, with that magic number: a trillion dollars!

Now just imagine if Hillary Clinton had done something like that during the campaign. Rather than the word salad (and skimpy numbers) you find here:

Clinton would increase federal infrastructure funding by $275 billion over a five-year period, fully paying for these investments through business tax reform. Of these funds, she would allocate $250 billion to direct public investment. She would allocate the other $25 billion to a national infrastructure bank, dedicated to advancing our competitive advantage for the 21st century economy. The bank would leverage its $25 billion in funds to support up to an additional $225 billion in direct loans, loan guarantees, and other forms of credit enhancement—meaning that Clinton’s infrastructure plan would in total result in up to $500 billion in federally supported investment. The bank would also administer part of a renewed and expanded Build American Bonds program, and would look for opportunities to work with partners in the private sector to get the best possible outcomes for the American people.

January 23, 2017

At this point, you have to acknowledge that the higher echelons of the Democratic Party are the functional equivalent of a death cult, shuffling in and out of a mausoleum housing the recently departed, embalmed leader:

Hillary Clinton’s victory over Trump in the popular vote underscores the potential use of promoting her as a surrogate for the next crop of candidates.

About ten years ago, I had an epiphany: You only become a grownup when you realize there are no grownups. Maybe it’s time to apply the same logic to the Democratic Party.

January 22, 2017

Many people on the left, including quite a few liberals (Obama’s speechwriter!?), seem to have this reaction to Richard Spencer getting punched: They find it immensely satisfying, at a personal level, and viscerally enjoy seeing it, but they’re worried that it is a terrible move, strategically.

I have almost the exact opposite reaction.

Strategically, according to Spencer’s own confession, the effect of him getting punched might be quite good: he’s now afraid to go out and speak, and he’s extremely worried that this will be what is he is known for, rather than his ideas. That’s good, right?

Personally, however, I recoil at seeing this, and can’t bear watching it. A few months before my eight-year-old daughter was born, I was assaulted like this about a half-block from the apartment where my wife and I were living at the time. Not for money, not for any personal reason, but just because I had been marked for a random attack. It was terrifying, and it took me years to get over it (it didn’t help that it was so closely timed to my daughter’s birth). I had already hated violence, at a personal level, and this incident just made it all the more concrete for me.

While I remain conflicted about the political uses of violence on the left (I’m not a pacifist), and have zero interest or desire in using this incident to launch a “this is what is wrong with the radical left” thread, I can never experience any kind of personal satisfaction or relish when I see someone attacked like this.

January 21, 2017

I’m not sure Steve Bannon knows what he’s talking about:

Mr. Trump’s team said the speech was modeled on the inaugural address of Andrew Jackson, who took office in 1829 after a similar populist movement lifted the anti-establishment candidate….Much of the speech was written by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, two of Mr. Trump’s top advisers, a White House official said. “I don’t think we’ve had a speech like that since Andrew Jackson came to the White House,” said Mr. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor.

Whatever Andrew Jackson’s record once in office, his First Inaugural is almost the opposite of Trump’s.

Jackson makes an explicit point of his fidelity to the Constitution, specifically, the importance of freedom of the press. He talks about how important it is to have a limited conception of presidential power. He pledges to enhance the role of the states, and advances what is known as a compact theory of the Constitution and federal government (something Reagan, incidentally, emphasized in his First Inaugural as well.) He says he’s going to dedicate himself to electoral reform in order to counteract the effects of patronage. He dedicates a good portion of the address to getting rid of the public debt. I don’t think any of these things appear in Trump’s address. Jackson emphasizes the importance of balancing the various sectors of the economy—agriculture, manufacturing, and commerce—where Trump seems to think the entire economy lies in a bunch of factories in the Midwest.

Bannon is supposed to be Trump’s intellectual. I see why.

January 21, 2017

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a fairly ubiquitous left critique of the 1960s social movements, which held that an initially universalist movement of the commons got derailed by “special interests” of black people, gay people, and above all else, women. It’s a testament to how far we’ve come that one of the largest mobilizations in recent memory is today’s Women March, led by women and in the name of women, in which women, men, boys, girls, grownups—a new commons—participate.

January 19, 2017

I’ve been wondering why the farewells to Obama leave me cold. There’s his politics, obviously, which aren’t mine, and the many policies of his that I disagreed with. There’s the presidency, which is not an office that inspires my affection or respect. But in the end, I think it was something he once said about Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon, the heads of Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan—”I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen”—that helps explain, at a personal rather than political level, my distance from him and his presidency.

This was a man who—whatever his criticisms of the American system, whatever his awareness of its injustices and failings, whatever his eloquence on the topic of its injustices and failings (I still believe his speech on Jeremiah Wright, my favorite of all of his speeches, is one of the finest, most astonishing pieces of American rhetoric in the last half-century)—believes that its men of money are shrewd men of standing, sage men of insight and perspicacity, men who see things that the rest of us don’t see, deserving men who are oh so very good at what they do. This was a man who believed in such men, who enjoyed the company of such men.

Obama is a complicated man, his presidency not reducible to simple judgments. But in that moment, he revealed something about himself that left me cold.

January 19, 2017

American journalists and intellectuals love to make fun of French intellectuals as irrelevant peddlers of abstruse jargon. You know who didn’t think that? The CIA.

This is a declassified report from 1985, where the CIA takes a long look at the decline of leftist intellectuals in France and the rise of more conservative voices like Bernard-Henri Lévy and André Glucksmann. The report makes a point of noting how important it is that Foucault—”France’s most profound and influential thinker” (Foucault’s publishers should put that CIA assessment as a blurb on all his books)—has welcomed these criticisms of the left. The CIA’s overall conclusion is that this shift in intellectual opinion in France will “increase bickering between the two leftist parties and within the Socialist Party, and…will probably increase voter defection from both Socialist and Communist camps.”

January 18, 2017

Wow, this news of a symposium on behalf of David Abraham, upon his retirement, takes me back.

In the early 1980s, before many of my young comrades were born, Abraham, a Marxist historian, was drummed out of the history profession. An untenured professor at Princeton, he was accused of fraud and all manner of malfeasance in the writing of his book on the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Lawrence Stone, no leftist, said of the attack, “I’ve never seen a witch hunt like this in forty years in two countries.” Having been the victim of a vicious campaign against him by H.R. Trevor-Roper, which sent him fleeing to America, Stone knew from whence he spoke. Abraham retooled himself as a lawyer and had a second career as a law professor at the University of Miami. Now he’s retiring.

There are second acts in America after all. Sometimes they even include retirement at a decent age.

January 18, 2017

This a three-part series of photographs of two women—Ellen Siegel and Ghada Karmi, one Jewish, the other Palestinian—protesting together: first in 1973, then in 1992, and again in 2001.

I can’t tell you at how many levels I am moved by this series.

First, there’s the obvious difference between these two women and the differential status of their right to Palestine.

Second, there’s the fact that that difference persists across many decades. Despite all efforts to the contrary.

But, third, notice how the passage of time reinforces the deeper unity between these two women. Originally stated in the first photo, it is a unity born of political solidarity rather than identity, or perhaps, better put, a solidarity forged across and through identities, which is the true and most miraculous meaning of solidarity: not the erasure or silencing of identity but the connection created, through ideas and actions, from seemingly conflicted identities. But with time, the photos express a more human solidarity, as reflected in the aging process, seen in the faces of two young women, two middle-aged women, and two elderly women.

January 18, 2017

It’s great that Betsy DeVos is getting grilled like this before the Senate, and being exposed for the laughingstock she is. Let’s not forget, however, that what she says here is identical to what Georgia Democrat and civil rights hero John Lewis said during the primaries against Bernie Sanders and in defense of Hillary Clinton.

Bernie Sanders: “Will you work with me and others to make public colleges and universities tuition free though federal and state efforts?”

Betsy Devos: “Senator I think that’s a really interesting idea and I think it’s really great to consider and think about, but I think we also have to consider the fact that there’s nothing in life that’s truly free. Somebody’s going to pay for it.”

Here’s what Lewis said about Bernie’s plan for free college back in February:

I think it’s the wrong message to send to any group. There’s not anything free in America. We all have to pay for something. Education is not free. Health care is not free. Food is not free. Water is not free. I think it’s very misleading to say to the American people, we’re going to give you something free.

January 18, 2017

Tomorrow, CUNY faculty and staff will get their first paycheck reflecting the new raises we negotiated and won in our last contract fight plus something like six or seven years of retroactive back pay. People stand to get thousands of dollars in retroactive pay in one paycheck.

My colleagues and I are excited—we’ve been waiting for this moment for years—and if you’re friends with anyone who works at CUNY, you may have seen a lot of chatter online about this. We’ve been talking about what we’ll do with the money, about whether to put the money into retirement or something else, and so on. And it struck me how different that is from the culture of other universities where people don’t talk about their salaries (except behind each other’s backs), where there is so much quiet but unacknowledged jostling around that issue, where you have to go out and get competitive offers from other universities in order to secure a promotion or pay raise.

Andrew Hacker, who many of you might know as the longtime contributor to the New York Review of Books and/or brilliant critic of the use of quantitative data in social policy debates about race, inequality, and poverty, once told me how relieved he was to be a professor at CUNY, where he always knew what he and his colleagues were getting in pay and benefits, where pay was never a question of merit or status or administrative favor but instead the anonymous and impersonal working of a union contract, born of worker power. And he’s right.

We have a lot to complain about at CUNY—and God knows, when it comes to complaining, I never miss my turn at bat—but one of the nicest things about the place is this sense of camaraderie and solidarity we feel with each other over issues like pay and benefits and working conditions, the kind of gallows humor that brings people together in the context of less than optimal conditions. (I know there are also deep and profound divisions within the union: between adjuncts and full-timers, between senior colleges and junior colleges, between staff and faculty. Unions aren’t utopias, and we’ve a long way to go in our own backyard.)

I often laugh to myself that it feels like we’re the teachers in Welcome Back, Kotter, thrown together by the shared challenges of our situation. There are worse things.

January 17, 2017

I didn’t think anything could add to my elation today upon hearing the news of Chelsea Manning’s sentence being commuted. Then Judith Miller served up this morsel, on a silver platter.

January 17, 2017

The backdrop to this story about a centrist think tank called “Third Way” using its money to get the Democratic Party to rethink their message is not that the Democrats just got their asses handed to them by Trump; it’s that the neoliberal Clinton wing of the party wants to make sure that it holds onto power against any challengers from the left:

Part of the economic message the group is driving — which is in line with its centrist ideology — is to steer the Democratic Party away from being led into a populist lurch to the left by leaders like Sen. Bernie Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

The Clinton wing of the Democratic Party (Neera Tanden is playing a big role in this effort) is not going to go gently. It’s their house, after all, and they won’t vacate the premises without a fight.

Also, the article makes clear that the argument over the meaning of the word “populism” has jumped from the pages of academic journals and tony European magazines of opinion to the halls of power; it’s clear that the neoliberals are gearing up to use it against the left in every way they can.

“Populism is inherently anti-government,” Cowan said. “That works if you’re a right-wing conservative, like Donald Trump. That doesn’t work if you’re the party of government.” He added: “You can’t meet right-wing populism effectively as a matter of politics or governing with big government liberal populism….”

Populism is inherently anti-government? This dude might want to read this book.

Some enterprising magazine editor ought to commission a smart historian type to write an essay on the use and abuse of the word “populism.” I know versions of this have been done before, but seeing how these centrist neoliberal types are using it against the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party—and seeing how arguments over the meaning of the term have been playing out in the European context, and how that then gets mobilized in the very different US (and even Latin American, though I know less about that) contexts, so that Sanders becomes the equivalent of Trump and Brexit—it strikes me that it’s time to update the Populism Wars of the 20th century.

One could go back to the original battle between Hofstadter and his critics, which was in the end less about the Populists then it was about midcentury Cold War liberalism and its critics on the left; make a brief stop at the battles occasioned by Sam Huntington’s work in the 1970s and 1980s (from the democratic distemper claims of 1975 to the “promise of disharmony” and “creedal passions” concerns of 1981); and wind up with today’s battles over the word.

It’s seldom the case that an academic argument spills over into the political realm as often as this one has. And that in itself is worth investigating.

January 16, 2017

I’m noticing on social media that people’s mood about Trump seems to have shifted a bit in the last 24 to 48 hours. They seem more buoyant, even hopeful. I think it’s because they’re now fighting or seeing other people fighting. Which is at it should be. As Hobbes said, power is “like to fame, increasing as it proceeds.” When it gets challenged, when its course is interrupted, it seems diminished. Which gives its opponents a sense of possibility.

January 16, 2017

In a much-read article on Obama’s reading habits, Michiko Kakutani writes:

Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped — in his life, convictions and outlook on the world — by reading and writing as Barack Obama.

I find statements (and pieces) like this really grating.

First, as Tim Barker says, it’s not remotely true: Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson are far more recent precedents for the reading presidency, but their not unblemished records of militarism and racism would disrupt the saintly parallel that Kakutani is going for.

Second, the error reveals the embarrassing faux (and fawning) intellectualism of the reading classes.

Third, and last, there seems to be an implicit assumption in all these types of pieces that reading and writing improve us, that the humanities humanize, that an intellectual in office is better than an illiterate. Yet some of history’s greatest monsters were avid readers. Some, it turns out, were also avid, even tasteful, editors.

You would think that after the 19th century, when so many monsters were born from books (does no one read Dostoevsky anymore?), and the 20th century, when concentration camp commandants listened to Beethoven in the morning and read Goethe at night, when the phrase “the best and the brightest” achieved its full ironic meaning, when the political figures who revealed themselves to be most interested in the written word were the KGB, that we could have retired this conceit of the intellectual in power.

Apparently not.

I came across the following passage in one of Keynes’s essays last night, as I was prepping for the course I’ll be teaching at the Graduate Center this coming semester. I was going to post it as a commentary on the Vox set, but now it seems like a good addendum to this comment on Obama’s reading and writing. Keynes’s statement reveals another reason why I’m so distrustful of the valorization of the educated mind in politics: that discourse is often just the idiom of class snobbery, the language of class rule:

Ought I, then, to join the Labour Party? Superficially that is more attractive. But looked at closer, there are great difficulties. To begin with, it is a class party, and the class is not my class. If I am going to pursue sectional interests at all, I shall pursue my own. When it comes to the class struggle as such, my local and personal patriotisms, like those of every one else, except certain unpleasant zealous ones, are attached to my own surroundings. I can be influenced by what seems to me to be Justice and good sense; but the Class war will find me on the side of the educated bourgeoisie. But, above all, I do not believe that the intellectual elements in the Labour Party will ever exercise adequate control; too much will always be decided by those who do not know at all what they are talking about;…

—John Maynard Keynes, “Am I A Liberal?”

January 15, 2017

A Republican congressman in Colorado intended to convene a small meeting with his constituents to talk about the Affordable Care Act. Hundreds of outraged and concerned citizens showed up, forcing the congressman to slink away under cover of police protection. This is how to do it. Just keep targeting these politicians, one by one, forcing them to confront the consequences of what they may do.

We’ve no idea how this will go down, of course, whether it will stop the GOP or not, but one of the reasons the story is so important is that it shows people mobilizing against the GOP in their own districts. That in itself, regardless of whether they win, matters more than we realize.

One of the worst by-products of the Obama era has been the reification of the red/blue state divide (which is ironic given that Obama launched his national career by challenging that distinction and in some cases helped to undermine it). A lot of Obama’s defenders—with all their talk of “can’t get it past Congress” and the like—have contributed to this sense of the GOP’s district-by-district, state-by-state impregnability. The focus on GOP gerrymandering, I’m afraid, sometimes adds to that sense; it’s as if, by constantly describing the GOP as acting with impunity, we help them act with impunity. These Republican areas become forces of nature that we simply cannot control.

We need to get past this sense, and that’s why I keep banging on about the Republicans’ vulnerabilities. We do ourselves no favors when we act as if the GOP is some kind of promontory that cannot be reached or breached.

January 15, 2017

Scenes from Davos

Part I:

All of those dignitaries need security. During the conference, Davos transforms into a veritable fortress. Roadblocks restrict traffic on the city’s main streets and checkpoints spring up outside each venue. At the Congress Center, where the main panels take place, and at each hotel that hosts parties and talks, attendees pass metal detectors, armed guards and beneath the watchful eyes of sharpshooters.”

Part II:

But beyond lectures and panel discussions, the agenda also features more esoteric attractions. One notable event is a simulation of a refugee’s experience, where Davos attendees crawl on their hands and knees and pretend to flee from advancing armies.

January 15, 2017

Stephen Salaita writes:

I wish the performers eschewing the inauguration were as discerning about playing in Israel, which actually practices all the horrors Trump has threatened.

I want to I want to second what Steven says, and while I hate to dilute its pungency and pithiness, I want to add something.

According to the most recent Pew poll, for the first time ever in the history of the Pew poll, “Democrats are about as likely to say they sympathize more with the Palestinians (31%) than with Israel (33%); 11% say they sympathize with neither, while 8% sympathize with both and 17% do not offer an opinion.”

Trump may have given us an opportunity here to develop a new kind of common sense with regard to Israel/Palestine, at least among the center and liberal left. In the same way that I think we should be labeling all universities that seek to deny graduate students the right to organize as Trumpist, so should we take the legitimate disgust that people have toward Trump and remind them that Israel is already—and has long been—Trumpist. We should seize upon every moment and opportunity, as Steven does here, to make this linkage.

January 12, 2017

This is an excellent piece by Matt Taibbi on what we do and don’t know in the Russia Trump story, and more important, on the bad dynamic between the media, the intelligence agencies, and the political establishment. The overall sense you get is that everyone is pressing their short-term interests against each other, deploying information and disinformation and misinformation with almost reckless abandon, without any eye for the long term. Not unlike the neoliberal markets we so often hear about. By the end, when Taibbi demands that we have “an immediate unveiling of all the facts and an urgent public investigation,” you almost have to laugh: Who is in any position to do that? Whom would anyone trust? No one is in charge, no one is minding the store. So desperate and deadly are these elite actors’ moves against each other, it’s kind of a low-rent Hobbesian state of nature. Time for some game theory.

January 12, 2017

It’s interesting. The CIA, Wikileaks, the Russians, the NSA, the NYT, the FBI, Buzzfeed: they can get, leak, and publish all kinds of dirt on everyone, from the lowliest citizen to the soon-to-be most powerful man on earth. But the one thing they can’t seem to get—or, if they can get it, don’t want to share—is a rich man’s tax returns.

January 11, 2017

So the one part of this whole story of the president, pee, and prostitutes that has significance—that has had significance, since the story of the CIA’s claims of Trump’s Russia connection first came to light following the election, and continues to have significance—is that the intelligence agencies are clearly out to get Trump.

One could make the claim that the slow drip-drip (sorry) of these revelations will undermine Trump’s legitimacy. I do happen to believe, in my old-fashioned political theory way, that authority and legitimacy matter a lot for the exercise of power, but if you want to attend to that, I’d focus more on Trump’s catastrophically low poll numbers and the growing divisions within the Republican Party. In our fear-driven zeal to paint Trump out to be a populist Hitler, we’ve not sufficiently attended to the fact that he really lacks a popular base of support.

But back to the intelligence agencies. The question is: What is driving them? Greg Grandin and I were just chatting and he speculated that rather than it being some grand structural battle within the security establishment over the fate of US global power and alignments, it might be much pettier. This is the intelligence agencies’ personal retribution for his attacks on them, Chuck Schumer’s “six ways from Sunday” that they have to get back at him. Maybe, but it seems like they picked the fight with him, not vice versa.

But if it is over grand strategy—they fear his Russian overtures, etc.—why are they being so hapless about it? These are intelligence agencies. Surely they have to understand that Trump is not shameable either on sexual grounds or even on his ties to Russia (again, that’s hardly a new story).

The one possible thing that I could imagine would embarrass and compromise Trump politically is what Hillary Clinton said in the debate: he’s not nearly as rich as he says he is, and in fact, may be one step away from debtors’ prison. But if that is true, the intelligence agencies surely could release his tax forms, surely could dig up old depositions that have been sealed and all the rest.

So I’m left with two questions here: First, what is the intelligence agencies’ end game, and, relatedly, why are they doing this? Second, why are they so bad at it?

January 10, 2017

The man was caught on tape, bragging that he likes to grab women by the pussy. But people still think he’s going to be brought down by the scandal or shame of pee and prostitutes. I wish people would get their stories straight: one day he’s Adolf Hitler; the next, he’s Hester Prynne. In the meantime, I give this little squib three days, five days tops.

January 10, 2017

Whenever you get depressed about politics, whenever you feel terrorized about the power of the right and their seeming invincibility, remember that this man, too, once did bestride the narrow world. Like a Colossus.


January 9, 2017

I think we may be missing the full significance of the Republican contretemps over the repeal of Obamacare.

Back in the glory days of the GOP, here’s how it would have gone down: there would be a drumbeat of proclamations about the magic of the market; celebrations of the native initiative and capacity of the American individual and songs about the creative destruction that would ensue with the obliteration of this complicated jerry-rigged, impossible to understand, state program; and a ribbon-cutting ceremony where the program would be given a happy public burial.

In the midst of his assault on various government programs—at the height of the worst recession since the 1930s—Ronald Reagan went onto the radio and declared:

You know, there really is something magic about the marketplace when it’s free to operate. As the song says, “This could be the start of something big.”

There was massive unemployment everywhere, and that is what the man said!

Or read his First Inaugural or various addresses on the budget in his first two years in office. It was all about unleashing the power of the market, the dynamism of the American people, which had been shackled by the clumsy chains of government.

George W. Bush may have been the last president to have tried that tack with his failed attempt to privatize Social Security.

But look at what the GOP is doing today, with a program that is of far more recent vintage and has a lot less public standing and stature than Social Security has. No paeans to the power of the market, no happy talk of what might happen once we sweep it all away. Instead, they’re talking about repealing parts of it (though not all of it), but with no plan for those repeals to go into effect until some unspecified date in the future. And rather than saying, voila, we get rid of it and the market takes over, there they are, tying themselves in knots over what to replace Obamacare with!

The old GOP would have laughed at the idea of replacing it. Today’s GOP is operating in a context where they have to replace one program with another, where they know that happy talk about the market just won’t cut it. So they have to replace Obamacare with another government program—again, you have to be attuned to the irony here—but of course they have no idea what that is, so they’re hoping they can somehow smuggle it in under cover of darkness, or hide their confusion and uncertainty until it’s safe to go public.

However you look at it—and this is no prediction about whether they’ll succeed or not—the very machinations they’re engaged in show how much the ground beneath them has shifted, how much less certain they are that their basic convictions tack any kind of popular sensibility.

January 8, 2017

So the Modern Language Association just voted down BDS this past weekend. Not just once, but twice.

So I ask all of you who support that move. John Kerry has now declared the window for a two-state solution to be rapidly closing (he actually said in 2013 that it would be closed by 2015, but whatever). Many liberal Zionists have said that if Israel doesn’t do something soon about the settlements or for a two-state solution, it will be an apartheid state (actually, they’ve been issuing this warning for years, but whatever). Now we have Israel under the control of one of the most right-wing governments in its history, and the US has just elected a president who tells that government: full-steam ahead. We are staring down the barrel of at least four to eight years of darkness.

So I ask all of who support the MLA vote on BDS: What’s your plan? Lots of petition-signing? Some sternly worded emails? A group letter to the New York Review of Books? Criticize BDS all you want, but tell me: What is your plan?

January 5, 2017

One of the key assumptions of contemporary liberal discourse in America is that liberalism is cosmopolitan and globalist while the alt-right and dinosaur left retreat to a hardline, atavistic, nationalist defense of borders. Meanwhile, actually existing liberalism is freely throwing around bizarre accusations of treason, hyperventilating about violations of American sovereignty (which, we should be clear, mean little more than that politically relevant conversations between the elites of a political party got leaked to the citizenry of the nation that has to vote on the leaders of that party), making wild claims that the elected leader of that nation was essentially put into office by the machinations of a foreign power (rather than by the very institutions that nation’s much venerated Founders devised), and fanning the flames of international antagonism.

January 4, 2017

So Bernie takes to the Senate floor today with a huge blowup of Trump’s tweet during the campaign saying he’d never cut Medicare, Social Security, or Medicaid. Bernie says:

This is what he asked millions of elderly people and working-class people to vote for him on. These are the principles that Donald Trump ran and won the presidency on.

The Republicans are getting ready to go after Medicaid and Medicare, so this seems smart, right?

Meanwhile, the geniuses at the DNC have a different strategy:

Key priorities for the new DNC war room will be to shine a spotlight on Trump’s conflicts of interest with his business enterprises as well as on Russia’s alleged interference during last year’s campaign.

January 1, 2017

Of all the criticisms of the concept “neoliberalism,” the one that has the least validity, to my mind, is that the word is too subject to ambiguity, contestation, abuse or misuse—that it means too many things, that we can’t agree upon its meaning—to be politically or intellectually serviceable. If someone can find me one political concept—name it: rights, liberty, equality, liberalism, conservatism, socialism, freedom, the market, communism, property, individualism—that is not burdened by these same features, you’ll have achieved something remarkable and rare. Ever since Hobbes—”To conclude, the light of human minds, is perspicuous words, but by exact definitions first snuffed and purged from ambiguity … And, on the contrary, metaphors, and senseless and ambiguous words, are like ignes fatui; and reasoning upon them is wandering amongst innumerable absurdities; and their end contention and sedition, or contempt.”—it has been a dream of political utopians that if we could settle upon the meaning of our words, we could settle or at least move past our political disagreements. It’s never happened. It never will.

December 30, 2016

As Matt Yglesias tweeted today: “Win-win.”


December 30, 2016

A tweet from Jamil Smith:

You know, we have a definition of treason in this country. It’s in the Constitution. And the U.S. Code. And praising the leader of a foreign nation, which is not a declared enemy of the United States, for not escalating a diplomatic crisis ain’t it. It’s not even borderline treasonous.

And just out of curiosity: when Trump starts accusing all of his opponents of treason, what are you going to do? Fall back on the very definition you’ve so happily traduced?

December 30, 2016

I wonder if the decriers of “fake news” realize how much they partake of the world they decry.

Across the political spectrum—from George Will to Harry Reid, from Donald Trump to Al Gore—there is a belief that the Iraq War was, in Gore’s words, “the single worst strategic mistake in American history.” One of the main contributing factors to that war was the false claim that Iraq had WMD. This claim was reported and re-reported, hyped and re-hyped, sold and re-sold, packaged and re-packaged by the mainstream media, most notably by Judith Miller at the New York Times. It was, in every sense of the term, fake news.

Now you would think that the marriage of fake news and the worst foreign policy disaster in American history would be memorable enough to lead at least some of the grownups in the room to be leery of claim that fake news is new and that its deleterious effects are new. The fact that it doesn’t—the fact that Judith Miller, the NYT, and the Iraq War seem like the lost script of an ancient civilization—is a datum that belongs alongside the proverbial Trump voter whose truth claims seem impervious to the facts of the world. Both parties partake of the same eternal present, where there is no memory, only desire.

December 29, 2016

I just saw the news on Twitter that Joyce Appleby has died. Not only was she a tremendous historian, who challenged all manner of civic republican orthodoxy, taking on one shibboleth after another with a kind of no-nonsense bullshit meter that comes from deep learning and long experience, but she was also a sharp writer who knew how to deliver a sentence. On top of that, she was extraordinarily generous to me, reading my work, offering commentary, and blurbing my last book.

I’ll cherish one of her last emails to me:

I can’t think of an event that more clearly distinguishes my world from yours, Corey. I advised you to say as little as possible about bad reviews. You trumpeted your objections on your web site, and you land a story on the front page of the NYTimes Arts section. Congratulations. It is a new world.

Not only because of its aplomb and good cheer and generosity but also because it shows that peculiar historian’s sensibility of being attuned to the passage of time.

She was one of the greats. I’ll miss her and her work.

December 28, 2016

There’s something surreal about the state of the Israel/Palestine debate in this country. John Kerry makes a speech today, warning that if we don’t act soon, the two-state solution may be in jeopardy. Liberals swoon: Unprecedented! Conservatives seethe: Unprecedented!

Meanwhile, on April 18, 2013, John Kerry said:

I believe the window for a two-state solution is shutting. I think we have some period of time – a year to year-and-a-half to two years, or it’s over.”

In other words, according to Kerry, as of April 18, 2015—more than a year and a half ago—the two-state solution was finished.

We live in a kabuki republic, where everyone makes these stylized gestures, entirely rhetorical, that mean nothing. And everyone knows they mean nothing. Yet everyone acts as if they mean something.

December 27, 2016

Primo Levi, “About Obscure Writing”:

The effable is preferable to the ineffable.


  1. Brett January 27, 2017 at 3:19 am | #

    My worries about the Spencer punch are a bit more concrete. What happens if the next person who tries something like this isn’t as good at concealing their identity as the person who sucker-punched Spencer? At the very least, they could be facing personal and professional ruin from group-sourced attacks – and it’s definitely a possibility that they’d face bodily harm or death in response. And that’s if the retaliatory efforts don’t latch on to the wrong person.

    I’ve just decided I’m not going to relitigate the 2016 primary. Living through it once was enough.

  2. jrjh January 27, 2017 at 3:28 am | #

    Hi Corey. Usually, enjoy and agree with your analysis, but have to say the riff on the Democratic Party is a bit unconvincing. Namely because their equivalent in parliamentary systems are also in the same inept state of disarray. Look at Labour in the UK, the Socialists in Spain. The traditional left parties are all out of power, for the most part, in Europe, no matter the political system. The common thread is the adopting of centrist policies after Clinton’s success in the 90’s, which helped cause the post 2008 crash. So basically these left parties would all have to admit their world view was wrong. This inability, combined with the lack of alternative, is the real cause, it seems to me.

  3. Ramesh January 27, 2017 at 5:08 am | #

    Thank you for posting this diary. Reading this I have realized I am not as screwed up as the world w politicians + intelligence community put together.


    For Facebook posts to be made public so the hoipolloi on the internet can see it too:

    When I post something, how do I choose who can see it?



    I can not believe in 28 years both Ellen Siegel and Ghada Karmi have aged as shown in photos. They look like diff people.

    • Corey Robin January 27, 2017 at 7:34 am | #

      Virtually all my FB posts are public.

      • Ramesh January 27, 2017 at 8:25 am | #

        I am now signed up for Facebook. Following the usual people. So if your posts can be publicly viewable by anyone, even if not signed into Facebook, one can post a link on Twitter. Just an idea. Thank you for all your efforts in different social media.

        • Ramesh January 27, 2017 at 7:52 pm | #

          In theory if country and age restrictions are removed then a non Facebook user can see a user’s timeline. But FB makes it so difficult to find and change these settings. A walled garden. In frustration I deactivated my FB acct. Will be content to wait till Corey posts his monthly journals.

  4. Tom Moody January 27, 2017 at 8:13 am | #

    Hi, I’ve been following your blog posts here and on Crooked Timber and didn’t realize until recently you were a Facebook user. Thanks for recycling your FB content here — on what Google calls the “public internet” — even though it’s painful to see so much activity accruing to colonialist-monopolist Mark Zuckerberg’s benefit! It would be great if you could spearhead a move by high profile writers/thinkers away from that terrible environment, by just posting your work here and then recycling “teasers” on Facebook, or (gasp) not using at all. Moderating comments is a pain but some trade-offs have to occur in order to cut loose from a dating-site-turned-world-algorithmic forum. Apologies for the off-topic rant, I appreciate your writing and research.

    • Corey Robin January 27, 2017 at 9:12 am | #

      Tom, I actually began blogging and using Facebook in just that way: I would post here, and post teasers on FB. Over time, more and more of the content migrated there. It’s just a much easier medium to use, to post quickly and comment quickly. It also encourages a kind of informality that even when I’m blogging, which is also informal, I can’t quite achieve here anymore. For some reason. But I agree: it would be better if all discussion weren’t colonized there. We’ll see.

  5. Ramesh January 27, 2017 at 10:06 am | #

    This monthly journal post shows how much has happened or the stuff we were forced to endure. A monthly digest. ???? Lot of work for Corey.

  6. Rich Puchalsky January 27, 2017 at 10:28 am | #

    “Some enterprising magazine editor ought to commission a smart historian type to write an essay on the use and abuse of the word “populism.””

    SEK is dead.

    I asked John Emerson, but he’s discouraged.

    I’ve now been a blog commenter for long enough so that I know who would be best suited to write about this things, but they’re gone.

  7. David Egan January 27, 2017 at 10:42 am | #

    Thanks,Corey, for reposting your recent epistles to your original blog. I am not a great user of Facebook and would not like to miss any of your ‘mindgrams’. I encourage you to keep presenting your thoughts in a refreshingly balanced forum. Thanks again.

  8. Nic Johnson January 27, 2017 at 11:27 am | #

    Are you maxed out on friends, or just friend requests?

    And perhaps you have this set for a reason, but people who merely “follow” you cannot comment on your posts.

  9. LFC January 27, 2017 at 12:15 pm | #

    I’m not on FB, so I appreciate the re-postings here.

    The 1985 CIA report on French intellectuals, as excerpted here, is amusing/interesting, but it has, from this excerpt, a sort of make-work feeling, as if some CIA analysts didn’t have enough to do. By ’85 the French Socialist Party was closer to a center-left party than a leftist one, so a bit weird from that angle too. (Re the refs to Foucault: he died in ’84, iirc, so this CIA report must have been in prep for a while before being released or finalized in ’85.)

    On Obama as reader: the humanities and reading don’t necessarily ‘humanize’, but they can. After all, isn’t that part of the justification for what CR and those in similar jobs do (for part of their time): namely, teach the canon of political theory, or (imaginative) literature etc.?

  10. xenon2 January 27, 2017 at 12:40 pm | #

    ‘One, you’re a guest, and most likely, an uninvited guest, who’s plopping down on my living room floor like a drunken fool, taking advantage of my hospitality and your fellow guests’ politeness just so you can ride whatever hobbyhorse your ignorance and a six-pack have set you on for the evening’.

    I haven’t noticed any ‘guests’ who behaved like that in your wp or twitter accounts.
    I have resisted having an account at fb, all these years.

    Do I sense a class difference between ‘academia’ and ‘six-pack’ drinkers?

    • Corey Robin January 27, 2017 at 1:51 pm | #

      Shorter xenon2: I haven’t noticed x, and I’m not on the main medium where x is being called out. Therefore, that means x probably doesn’t occur and your complaining about it can be attributed to some sort of class bias on your part.

  11. Rich Puchalsky January 27, 2017 at 3:39 pm | #

    “They find it immensely satisfying, at a personal level, and viscerally enjoy seeing it, but they’re worried that it is a terrible move, strategically.”

    In re: Spencer punch: I think it’s important to read anarchists on this. (Not that CR isn’t. I have no idea what CR does or doesn’t read, I’m just making a general comment.)

    I’ll write more about this on my blog, but punching fascists is inevitable, given what’s happening. “Inevitable” in the sense that someone is going to do it, whether or not you think it’s a good idea. Someone can make sure this doesn’t happen in a local action, as happened with the Montana town that Nazis were going to march in, but it takes actual, sustained coordination with anarchist organizers. And that will necessarily give them some influence over events. (In the Montana town, local organizers forestalled an armed counter-demonstration by anarchists by engaging with them, and this had the effect of making the locals more motivated to have a confrontational stance that kept the Nazis from marching.)

    In addition, liberals can’t contribute to the “Trump Presidency is approaching fascism” rhetoric and then complain when people take them seriously. Taking them seriously means that face-punching is a minimal, restrained reaction.

  12. s.wallerstein January 27, 2017 at 3:56 pm | #

    Thanks for reposting your Facebook stuff for us non-Facebook users.

  13. xenon2 January 27, 2017 at 4:12 pm | #

    Sui generis sum

  14. stevenjohnson January 27, 2017 at 5:26 pm | #

    Seems to me the genuinely private places on the internet probably don’t exist. But if they do, you get to them with a password.

  15. jonnybutter January 27, 2017 at 8:03 pm | #

    the higher echelons of the Democratic Party are the functional equivalent of a death cult, shuffling in and out of a mausoleum housing the recently departed, embalmed leader..

    It’s hard to believe this is really real, but it seems to be. The link below goes a DailyMail.com (??) story about HRC considering having her own tv show to ‘lay the groundwork’ for her next run for pres in 2020.

    The whole PR posture just plain bizarre – the crap newspaper/site, the ridiculous idea of HRC having a television show. It all seems to be from a parallel universe, or The Onion.

    • LFC January 28, 2017 at 7:34 pm | #

      Isn’t the Daily Mail a fairly right-wing British tabloid? I’d view this piece w some skepticism, just based on your description.

      • jonnybutter January 28, 2017 at 8:08 pm | #

        yes, I didn’t read closely enough. I’m appalled at myself. The source is Ed Klein. Garbage. Duh.

        In other news, I wish I lived near a major international airport. Protesters at JFK and elsewhere are making my heart un-shrivel a little! YAY

  16. Dennis Claxton January 28, 2017 at 1:37 am | #

    I tried Facebook once or twice and didn’t like it. I know I’m missing a lot but after reading this link I’m even more hesitant https://antidotezine.com/2017/01/22/trump-knows-you/

  17. Mental Mouse January 30, 2017 at 4:50 pm | #

    Another person here who doesn’t see you on Facebook, because I’m not registered. (And frankly, I don’t want to encourage them.) I’m very impressed with your writing, I’ll be checking back here from time to time.

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