Category: Uncategorized

Max Weber: Worst Colleague Ever

In my New Yorker piece on Max Weber, which came out yesterday, I alluded to Weber’s many, often failed, forays into political life. Several folks on social media have expressed surprised about these expeditions. The facts of Weber’s political involvement don’t seem to fit with the aura of political detachment that surrounds his writing. Indeed, some of Weber’s writing can make him seem almost hermetically sealed off from the barest of political obligations, which is to communicate clearly. But Weber was intensely involved in the political life of his day. In fact, I had an entire section of my piece devoted to these involvements, and was originally going to open the essay with that as a kind of set piece. […]

Max Weber: Man of Our Time?

Max Weber died at the tail end of a pandemic, amid a growing street battle between the right and the left. What could he possibly have to say to us today? I try to answer this, and some other questions, in my review this morning, in The New Yorker, of an excellent new translation, by Damion Searls, of Weber’s Vocation Lectures. I have to confess, a little guiltily, that I get in a few shots against older leftists, of the ex-SDS type, who like to use (or misuse) Weber’s “ethics of responsibility” against the putative transgressions of younger leftists who are allegedly in thrall to an “ethics of conviction.” It’s one of those tropes in contemporary argument that I really […]

Gonzo constitutionalism on the right, norm erosion on the left

I’m in the New York Review of Books this morning, offering my thoughts on the election as part of the magazine’s series on November 2020. I make three points: The right used to be thought of as a “three-legged stool” made up of economic libertarians, statist Cold Warriors, and cultural traditionalists. Whether that characterization was true, it expressed an understanding of the right as a political entity capable of creating hegemony throughout society. That is no longer the case. Today, the right’s three-legged stool is an artifact, a relic, of counter-majoritarian state institutions: the Electoral College, the Senate, and the courts. However undemocratic these three institutions may be, they are are eminently constitutional. The most potent source of the right’s […]

CUNY, Corona, and Communism

The coronavirus has hit CUNY, where I teach, hard: more than 20 deaths of students, faculty, and staff, and counting. Yet the impact of the virus on CUNY has received almost no press coverage at all. At the same time, the media continues to focus its higher education coverage, during the coronavirus, where it always has: on elite schools. The combination of these elements—the unremarked devastation at CUNY, the outsized attention to wealthy colleges and universities—led me to write this piece for The New Yorker online: It seems likely that no other college or university in the United States has suffered as many deaths as CUNY. Yet, aside from an op-ed by Yarbrough in the Daily News, there has been little coverage of this […]

Politics in a Time of Plague

I hope this post finds all of you healthy and safe. It’s been a terrible month, more than a month, for so many people. The New York Review of Books asked me to write something about pandemics and politics. How, they asked me to consider, is it possible to do democracy under quarantine? I decided to flip the question. Much of what is called democracy, after all, presumes the quarantine of vast parts of the citizenry, that they be kept isolated, politically if not physically. So the real question, it seems to me, is how have isolated and separated men and women, often under great duress, nevertheless managed to create democracy over the ages? That’s what I wrote about here, […]

The very thing that liberals think is imperiled by Trump will be the most potent source of his long-term power and effects

John Harwood has a good piece about Trump’s downward spiral of weakness: Increasingly, federal officials are deciding to simply ignore President Donald Trump. As stunning as that sounds, fresh evidence arrives every day of the government treating the man elected to lead it as someone talking mostly to himself. … “What is most remarkable is the extent to which his senior officials act as if Trump were not the chief executive,” Jack Goldsmith, a top Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, wrote last weekend on lawfareblog.com. “Never has a president been so regularly ignored or contradicted by his own officials,” Goldsmith added. “The president is a figurehead who barks out positions and desires, but his senior subordinates carry on […]

What Michael Rogin means to me, particularly in the Age of Trump: Traditional politics matters!

A Facebook post by Lisa Duggan reminds me of the power of Michael Rogin’s book The Intellectuals and McCarthy. Though it’s less famous and influential than Rogin’s later book Ronald Reagan, The Movie, The Intellectuals and McCarthy was a formative text in my own development. It came at a critical moment in my thinking—either the year before I went to graduate school or in my first year of graduate school—and permanently left its mark. In his book on McCarthy, Rogin took aim at historians like Richard Hofstadter and social theorists like Daniel Bell who had argued that McCarthyism was essentially a form of irrational mass politics, a midcentury American populism that, though right-wing, was the inheritor of left-wing movements like the Populists or Young Bob LaFollette’s movement in the 1920s […]

At this year’s seder, don’t turn Trump into Pharaoh: treat him as a plague

Today is Purim, and so we begin the spring cycle of Jewish holidays that will culminate in Shavuos (the subject of my favorite line in all of Martin Scorsese’s films, but I digress). Naturally, I’m thinking about Passover, which we’ll be celebrating in about a month, and the meaning of the Passover story this year. At progressive and liberal seders in the US this year, there’ll be a tendency to interpret the story through the current political moment. How could there not be? Immigrants will be cast as the ancient Hebrews; Trump as Pharaoh. And just as Pharaoh is depicted in the story as a sudden appearance out of the blue—remember, for years, things had been good for the Hebrews, and then a […]

The American Terrible

Someone recently asked me: if you don’t think Trump is a fascist, what do you think is going to happen? I answered her as truthfully as I could: I don’t know. The fact is: none of us knows. Not even, I suspect, Trump or Steve Bannon. In the course of several argumens and conversations over the last few days—about Trump, what he’s up to, and so on—I’ve sometimes found myself, against my better judgment, drifting into predictions. I start out trying to think about what this current moment means, and I wind up making claims about where we’re going. That’s not a place I want to be. Not simply because my prediction about the election was so completely wrong, not simply because I’m […]

Donald Trump: His Mother’s Son

1. I pride myself on being that guy on the left who can make meaning out of even the most mindless right-wing text. With The Art of the Deal, I fear I may have met my match. About halfway through the book—chapter upon stultifying chapter about the time he flipped a housing complex in Cincinnati, the time he bought the Commodore Hotel, the time he negotiated with Bonwit Teller, the convention center he wanted to build in the West 30s—it hits me: the book reads like the memoir J. Peterman intended to write, based entirely on stories he bought from Kramer. 2. Thomas Friedman and Trump ought to get on like a house on fire: I do my own surveys and draw my […]

If you want Trump-ism to go, you have to reform the Democratic Party

A thought. One of the reasons that big business hasn’t been able to step in and reverse the electoral train wreck that is the Trump campaign is not that the racist rank and file of the GOP base has so much power that big business is helpless. It is instead that big business feels relatively assured that even if the GOP goes down to defeat, it will have a friend and ally in Hillary Clinton’s administration and neoliberal elites within the Democratic Party. Clarence Thomas, of all people, gives us a clue that this may be the thinking among these elite sectors of the business class. In his concurring/dissenting opinion in the 2003 case McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, which upheld the McCain-Feingold campaign […]

Homo Politicus ≠ Homo Wonkus

I’m always amused by the bien pensant recoil at politicians who don’t have Kennedy School-level mastery of policy details. You’d think the last half-century of American politics hadn’t seen candidates like Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, or Al Gore, wonks all who knew more about policy than your average PhD, yet whose intimacy with the arcana of state was somehow insufficient to propel them to—or keep them in—the White House. Or Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, whose relationship to policy details was, how shall we say?, attenuated, yet who nevertheless managed to completely rearrange the political furniture of our lives. Maybe, just maybe, mastery of policy detail does not a successful political actor make. And if you think Reagan or Bush […]

Same as it ever was: From Barry Goldwater to Donald Trump, “This man scares me.”

In 1964, this ad ran on behalf of Lyndon Johnson (h/t Alex Gourevitch). The man in the ad is a Republican (probably an actor) who can’t bring himself to vote for Goldwater. Because? He’s a “very different kind of man. This man scares me.” Sound familiar? Here are some excerpts: I certainly don’t feel guilty about being a Republican. I’ve always been a Republican. My father is, his father is, the whole family is a Republican family. I voted for Dwight Eisenhower the first time I ever voted, I voted for Nixon the last time. But when we come to Senator Goldwater, now it seems to me we’re up against a very different kind of a man. This man scares me. […]

The Blast That Swept Him Came Off New Hampshire Snowfields and Ice-Hung Forests

Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire Democratic primary tonight. Edith Wharton described it best: The blast that swept him came off New Hampshire snow-fields and ice-hung forests. It seemed to have traversed interminable leagues of frozen silence, filling them with the same cold roar and sharpening its edge against the same bitter black-and-white landscape. Some fascinating tidbits about the Democratic primary voters from the New York Times exit poll: 72% of the voters said that the candidates’ issues were more important to them than the candidates’ leadership or personal qualities; only 25% of the voters said that the latter was more important to them. This confirms what Jedediah Purdy argued in this excellent piece contrasting the Sanders’s candidacy with Obama’s candidacy. Obama’s […]

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Three Not-So-Easy Pieces

I’ve spent the past few days reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and posting about it on Facebook. Rather than rewriting those posts as a single piece here, I thought I’d take some screen shots, and share them with some additional commentary. A shout-out to my friend Lizzie Donahue, whose queries to me on our daily walk this morning prompted the last and lengthiest post. Here’s the first post. And here’s a short addendum to this post, where I comment further on the theme of education and Coates’s discussion of his time at Howard University. I say here that breaking with the mytho-poetic view of a heroic African past was the second great trauma of Coates’s life. I should be more precise. I […]

Kristin Ross on The Paris Commune

In 2002, I was slogging through a fellowship at NYU and feeling depressed. It was the aftermath of 9/11, and all the world was Paul Wolfowitz and Paul Berman. At our fellowship seminar, we were asked to read a book called May ’68 and Its Afterlives. I think we read it in proofs. I had never heard of it or its author, Kristin Ross. I fell in love with both after the second or third page. Kristin is one of those writers who seizes on an image and never lets you forget it. Now she’s got a book coming out on the Paris Commune; it’s called Communal Luxury. Here’s just a taste: In the decade following the massacre [of the Communards]…traces of […]

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day

My colleague at Crooked Timber, Eszter Hargittai, has this chilling, almost unbearable, post for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. You should read it. Jason Stanley also has some very moving posts on FB that I recommend. The day, which marks the liberation of Auschwitz, makes me think of that scene in Shoah where Lanzmann is moving through a Polish village as his guide, a local, points out the different homes where Jewish families once lived. If memory serves, the guide recites the names of the families and then, with some prodding from Lanzmann, gives the names of the Polish families who live there now. Or maybe it’s vice versa: the guide recites the names of the Polish families, and Lanzmann prods him about the Jews who used to live there. Regardless, you get this […]

Gleichschaltung

On Hugo Chavez… John Kerry: “Throughout his time in office, President Chavez has repeatedly undermined democratic institutions by using extra-legal means, including politically motivated incarcerations, to consolidate power.” New York Times: “A Polarizing Figure Who Led a Movement” “strutting like the strongman in a caudillo novel” Human Rights Watch: “Venezuela: Hugo Chávez’s Authoritarian Legacy” On King Abdullah… John Kerry: “King Abdullah was a man of wisdom & vision.” New York Times: “Nudged Saudi Arabia Forward” “earned a reputation as a cautious reformer” “a force of moderation” Human Rights Watch: “Saudi Arabia: King’s Reform Agenda Unfulfilled”

On Public Intellectuals

I’m ambivalent, as I’ve said before, about the category “public intellectual.” It’s precious and pretentious, and unfairly denigrates the virtues and vocation of talented scholars who devote themselves to obscure questions no one else is asking, questions that may not interest broader audiences at the time but that may, one day, be of vital importance to more than a narrow few. Or that may, regardless of people’s interest, simply advance our understanding of some small part of the universe. But if we are going to hold onto and repeatedly invoke the category, I wonder if there may not be a fundamental problem at the heart of it. Public intellectuals are thought of as not only generalist writers speaking to non-academic audiences about issues that matters, […]