The Historovox Complex

I’ve got a new gig at New York Magazine, where I’ll be a regular contributor, writing on politics and other matters. Here, in my first post, I tackle “the Historovox” (my wife Laura came up with the phrase), that complex of journalism and academic research that we increasingly see at places like Vox, FiveThirtyEight, and elsewhere. Long story, short: while I firmly believe in academics writing for the public sphere, there are better and worse ways to do it. Here are some excerpts: There’s a bad synergy at work in the Historovox — as I call this complex of scholars and journalists — between the short-termism of the news cycle and the longue durée-ism of the academy. Short-term interests and partisan concerns still drive […]

Adorno in America

The history of the Frankfurt School in America is usually told as a story of one-way traffic. The question being: What did America get from the Frankfurt School? The answer usually offered: a lot! We got Marcuse, Neumann, Lowenthal, Fromm, and, for a time, Horkheimer and Adorno (who ultimately went back to Germany after the war)—the whole array of émigré culture that helped transform the United States from a provincial outpost of arts and letters into a polyglot Parnassus of the world. The wonderfully counter-intuitive and heterodox question that animates Eric Oberle’s Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity is: what did the Frankfurt School get from America? To the extent that question has been asked, it has traditionally provoked […]

A State of Emergency or a State of Courts?

The Washington Post reports this morning, “If President Trump declares a national emergency to construct a wall on the southern border, only one thing is certain: There will be lawsuits. Lots of them. From California to Congress, the litigants will multiply.” One of several elements of our time that I don’t think proponents of the authoritarianism or fascism thesis truly confront is just how much of Trump’s rule is mediated and ultimately decided upon by the courts. Whenever Trump does something, everyone automatically assumes (and rightly so) that whether he can do it or not will be settled not by his violence or the alt-right’s strongman tactics or white supremacist masses in the streets but by an independent judiciary. Now […]

What does Trump’s pending declaration of emergency mean about his power and the state of his presidency?

What does Trump’s pending declaration of a state of emergency, so that he can commandeer funds to pay for his wall, mean politically? What does it tell us about his power or powerlessness? I’ve talked on many occasions about Steve Skowronek’s theory of presidential power. In that account, presidential power is dependent on two factors: the strength and resilience of the existing regime, and the affiliation or orientation (supportive or opposed) of the president to that regime. The strongest presidents are those who come to power in opposition to an extraordinarily weak and tottering regime, who shatter that regime and construct a new one. Think Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan. The weakest presidents are those who are affiliated to a weak […]

When Adorno Had Fun

“A November 1944 letter to Horkheimer, for example, finds Adorno recalling that he ‘had a lot of fun’ meeting with the Berkeley Public Opinion group to develop preliminary questions on the ‘F-Scale.’” —Eric Oberle, Theodor Adorno and the Culture of Negative Identity, p. 152 I highly recommend Oberle’s book. It’s a little outside my usual reading these days, but it has some really fascinating readings of old and familiar texts and terrific biographical nuggets like this. I’ll be blogging about it more once I get rid of this cursed flu.

Beer Track, Wine Track, Get Me Off This Fucking Train

Yesterday, on Twitter, I tweeted a version of this claim: Beto, Harris, Klobuchar, Biden, Gillibrand, Booker: The basis of their candidacies is ultimately them, their person. That’s what they all have in common. Sanders and Warren are the only two candidates whose basis is a set of ideas, well worked out over the years, about the economy and the state. The tweet was one part of a much longer Facebook post, in which I elaborated the point. Here’s a short excerpt from that post: Among the many reasons that I have no time for the first set of candidates is that I’m so tired of these quintessentially American campaigns that are so wrapped up in the personality of the candidate, […]

Adina Hoffman’s Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures

Now that I’ve finished my Clarence Thomas book—it’ll be out in September, pre-order it now—I’m catching up on my reading. Adina Hoffman’s Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures wasn’t first on my list, but once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. Hecht was a screenwriter, the force, or one of the forces, behind films like Scarface, Notorious, Twentieth Century, and many other films. “He invented 80 percent of what is used in Hollywood movies today,” said Godard. As Hoffman explains: Screwball comedy’s airborne patter; the brooding tones of the gangster saga; the newspaper farce and its hard-boiled banter—these were among Hecht’s signature modes, and whether or not he fathered these forms, he certainly played a major role in their upbringing. Hecht […]

Neo-Nazi Fathers, Jewish Mothers, and Political Converts

I’ve got a piece in The New Yorker—my first—on political conversions. I look at the case of Derek Black, a white nationalist who is no longer a white nationalist, and Max Boot. With the help of Burke, Arendt, Isaac Deutscher, and Daniel Bell, I try and make sense of why it is that you so often see converts from left to right—and why they have such an impact on the right—but don’t often see converts from right to left with nearly the same impact. (Incidentally, that was a topic—converts from right to left—that I wrote about nearly 20 years in Lingua Franca.) Anyway, here’s a taste: Derek Black didn’t become a white supremacist. He was born one. His father, Don Black, […]

On that dreadful Brexit movie

We saw that Brexit movie on HBO last night. God was it dreadful. Set aside the fetish for elite movers and shakers behind the scenes, the conspiratorial mindset of master manipulators of public opinion. (It’s kind of a weird moment where everyone across the spectrum seems to have their own versions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.) What was most grating about the film was how utterly familiar and clichéd was the lead character Dominic Cummings, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who was the mastermind behind the Leave campaign. In Benedict/Cummings, we get—inadvertently, I’m quite convinced: self-importance; failed attempts at oracularity that wind up being platitudinous; incomprehensible scribbling on the white board, meant to signal that we’re in the presence […]

The Future of the Supreme Court in the Liberal Imagination

Imagine you’re a law student today—remembering how Gorsuch was appointed for a seat that should have gone to Merrick Garland; thinking about how Kavanaugh was appointed despite the obvious truth of Christine Blasey Ford’s claims about his attempted assault on her; and anticipating the very real possibility that Trump may get yet a third appointment to replace Ginsburg. The Supreme Court of your future will consist of a six-person right-wing majority. Two justices of that majority will forever have the stench of credible charges of sexual assault or sexual harassment hanging over them. Four justices of that majority will forever be the appointees of presidents who didn’t win the popular vote (or five justices if you throw in Alito, who […]

Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven

In shul this morning, I came upon this passage from the Talmud: “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” It’s an arresting thought, on two grounds. First, we tend to think of omnipotent power as causing fear, even terror. Yet the one thing, the Talmud says, that omnipotent power cannot determine is whether we are afraid of it. Second, we tend to think of our fear as something we don’t control, as an automatic and instinctual response to some power or threat. Yet here is the Talmud suggesting that everything within us is out of our control—except for our fear. As it happens, these two claims are similar to the arguments I’ve often tried to […]

The Scandal of Democracy: Seven Theses for the Socialist Left

1. The Supreme Court has always been the scandal of American democracy. How do you justify the power that nine unelected judges—almost all of them, historically, white men—wield in a society that styles itself a democracy? 2. That scandal reached a peak in the last third of the twentieth century, when a combination of hard-right judicial theorists (Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia among them) and nervous liberals started worrying about what was called “the counter-majoritarian difficulty” or the “counter-majoritarian dilemma.” 3. The result of that reconsideration of the Court and judicial review was, among other things, the theory of constitutional interpretation that we call originalism. Originalism held that the only justification for the Court reviewing and overruling the decisions of […]

Love and Money: On Keith Gessen’s “A Terrible Country”

The title of Keith Gessen’s new novel is A Terrible Country, but the novel is less about a country than a city: Moscow. Not just Moscow as a city in its own right, though the city is very much a character in the novel, but the experience of Moscow by an American millennial, Andrei Kaplan, a 30-something academic in flight from his failures in Brooklyn, failures of love and work, family and friends. A Terrible Country, in other words, is the anti-Brooklyn novel. If the Brooklyn of the public imagination is the place where young intellectuals move to make their lives among writers, journalists, academics, and artists, public lives that happen out of doors, in parks and readings and rallies and talks […]

Fall Talks (Updated)

It’s going to be a busy fall with lots of talks and presentations. Here’s the schedule. If you’re in the area, stop by and say hello! Tuesday, September 25 5 pm: “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump” University of Edinburgh (Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History; School of History, Classics, and Archaeology; School of Social and Political Science) Meadows Lecture Theatre, Doorway 4, Medical School, Teviot Place Tuesday, October 2 4 pm: “Invisible Man: The Black Nationalism of Clarence Thomas’s Jurisprudence” Rutgers University (Department of History and Raritan) Alexander Library, 4th Floor Auditorium 169 College Avenue, New Brunswick Friday, October 5 6 pm:“On Fear and Governance”: A conversation about Euripides’s The Bacchae with director […]

What is the connection between Ezra Pound, the Constitution, and the Steel Industry?

The steel industry is making profits, hand over fist. But it’s not passing the profits on to the workers. So the 30,000 members of the United Steelworkers Union are talking strike. If the workers wind up benefiting from the current boom, it’ll be in spite of the industry, not because of it. Which reminds me… Literary scholars know the publishing house New Directions as the publisher of Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Tennessee Williams, and Wallace Stevens, among others. It was founded by James Laughlin, scion and heir of the Pittsburgh Laughlin family, of Jones & Laughlin Steel fame, after Pound told him that he didn’t have a future as a poet. Constitutional scholars know that […]

As political scientists head to their annual convention, the workers at the convention hotels prepare to protest: Here’s what you can do

The American Political Science Association is holding its annual convention this coming week in Boston. As luck would have it, the three hotels (all owned by the Marriott chain) at which the convention is being held are in the midst of a labor dispute with the hotels’ workers, who are members of Local 26 of UNITEHERE. The issues are many, but the main one is that, as the union contract has expired and the workers renegotiate a new one, they’d like to make sure that a hotel worker should only have to work at one job—not two, not three—in order to support herself and her family. That’s the workers’ demand: “One job should be enough.” And that’s the name of […]

Freedom and Socialism

The New York Times asked me to write something on socialism and its current appeal. I did, and it’s running as this weekend’s cover story in The Sunday Review. Here are some brief excerpts: The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival. … The stories of […]

On Avital Ronell, Nimrod Reitman, and Sexual Harassment in the Academy

I wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the Avital Ronell/Nimrod Reitman sexual harassment story. Here are some excerpts: The question of sex, of Ronell’s work and stature in academe, of literary theory or critical theory or the academic left, of the supposed hypocrisy of the scholars who rallied to her side, of the fact that the alleged harasser is a woman and gay while the alleged victim is a man and gay — all of this, if one reads Reitman’s complaint, seems a little beside the point. And has, I think, clouded the fundamental issue. Or issues. What’s clear from the complaint is just how much energy and attention — both related and unrelated to academic matters — […]

The Day Zach Galifianakis Saved Obamacare

The website for Obamacare was launched on October 1, 2013. That was the same day the 2013 Republican-led shutdown of the government began. The 16-day shutdown—which was essentially caused by Ted Cruz, who held up the passage of a spending bill because the Democrats wouldn’t agree to defund the Affordable Care Act they had just passed—failed. But one of the reasons the Republicans never paid a price for the shutdown was that it got completely overshadowed by the clusterfuck of the failed launch of the website, which was called Healthcare.gov. The failure of the Healthcare.gov caused no end of tsuris for the entire Obama administration, but especially for Brad Jenkins, who was the Associate Director of the Office of Public […]

Why the argument for democracy is now working for socialists rather than against them

One of the most fascinating things, to me, about the current moment and the revival of socialism is how the whole question of democracy—not substantive or deep democracy, not participatory democracy, not economic democracy, but good old-fashioned liberal democratic proceduralism—plays out right now on the left. Throughout most of my life and before, if you raised the banner of socialism in this country or elsewhere, you had to confront the question of Stalinism, Soviet-style sham elections, one-party rule, and serial violations of any notion of democratic proceduralism. No matter how earnest or fervent your avowals of democratic socialism, the word “democracy” put you on the defensive. What strikes me about the current moment is how willing and able the new […]