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 […]

The Question of Russia and the Left: A response to Ryan Cooper

For the past week, there’s been a lot of discussion on Russia, Putin, Trump, and how leftists are responding to the issue. I’ve been participating in these conversations on social media. This past weekend, the conversation got a little crazy, when Columbia Law lecturer and Harper’s contributor Scott Horton engaged in some wild and irresponsible speculation about how the Russians may be backing certain Democratic primary candidates in the current elections. This morning, Ryan Cooper weighed in on the issue at The Week. I disagree with where he comes out on the issue. I want to say at the outset that I consider Cooper an ally. I don’t know him personally, but I very much admire his work. We follow each other […]

On Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Palestine, and the Left

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose candidacy I’ve championed and worked for since May, had a bad moment late last week. Appearing on the reboot of Firing Line, Ocasio-Cortez was asked by conservative host Margaret Hoover to explain her stance on Israel. The question left Ocasio-Cortez tongue-tied and equivocating. Here was the exchange: MH: You, in the campaign, made one tweet, or made one statement, that referred to a killing by Israeli soldiers of civilians in Gaza and called it a “massacre,” which became a little bit controversial. But I haven’t seen anywhere — what is your position on Israel? AOC: Well, I believe absolutely in Israel’s right to exist. I am a proponent of a two-state solution. And for me, it’s not — this […]

On Liars, Politics, Michiko Kakutani, Martin Jay, and Hannah Arendt

A long piece by Michiko Kakutani on “the death of truth” is making the rounds. In it, she quotes Arendt: Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the 20th century, and both were predicated on the violation and despoiling of truth, on the knowledge that cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false […]

The Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse

During the Roosevelt Administration, they were known as the Four Horsemen (of the Apocalypse). They were Justices Butler, McReynolds, Sutherland, and Van Devanter. They voted, again and again, against the New Deal. This is what they looked like. Tonight, with Trump’s choice of Brett Kavanaugh, we have the Five Horsemen. They are Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and, once he’s confirmed, Kavanaugh. They will vote, again and again, against whatever progressive legislation Congress and the states manage to pass in the future. This is what they look like.              

Did Anthony Kennedy ever sniff glue? And other stories of nominations past

Last week, after Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, Donald Trump declared, “Outside of war and peace, of course, the most important decision you make is the selection of a Supreme Court judge.” As we await Trump’s announcement on Monday of this most important decision, let’s take a gander at the history of nominations past. 1. In 1990, when George H.W. Bush was casting about to replace retired Supreme Court justice William Brennan, the consensus candidate in the White House was Ken Starr. 2. Starr got nixed by Dick Thornburgh, who was Bush’s Attorney General. Thornburgh thought Starr was too much of a squish, not sufficiently hard-right, especially about presidential power. 3. Today, Thornburgh is one of […]

How eerie and unsettling it can be when people change their minds: From Thomas Mann to today

In the wake of the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a number of people have been commenting, complaining, celebrating, noticing how quickly mainstream liberal opinion—in the media, on social media, among politicians, activists, and citizens—has been moving toward Sanders-style positions. And without acknowledging it. Positions, policies, and politics that two years ago were deemed beyond the pale are now being not only welcomed but also embraced as if the person doing the embracing always believed what he or she is now saying. This, as you can imagine, causes some on the left no end of consternation. For some legitimate reasons. You want people to acknowledge their shift, to explain, to articulate, to narrate, perhaps to inspire others in the process. And […]

The Creative Class Gets Organized

The staff of The New Yorker—the people behind the scenes: editors, fact checkers, social media strategists, designers—are unionizing. They’ve even got a logo: Eustace Tilly with his fist raised. If you’re a loyal reader of the magazine, as I am, you should support the union in any way you can. Every week, they bring us our happiness; we should give them some back. They’re asking for letters of solidarity; email them at newyorkerunion@gmail.com. If you look at their demands, they read like a tableaux of grievances from today’s economy: no job security, vast wage disparities, no overtime pay, a lot of subcontracting, and so on. The creative class used to see itself and its concerns as outside the economy. Not […]

Conservatism and the free market

National Review just ran a review of my book, which Karl Rove tweeted out to his followers. The review has some surprisingly nice things to say. It describes The Reactionary Mind as “well researched and brilliantly argued” and praises my “astonishingly wide reading…masterly rhetorical abilities…wizardry with the pen.” But on the whole the review is quite critical of the book. Which is fine. I’ve gotten worse. But I couldn’t help noticing the appositeness of this. Here’s the National Review on my book: At no point in his book does Robin make any effort to account for the influence of Enlightenment-era classical liberalism on modern conservatism….[Adam] Smith’s influence on later conservatives is ignored. And here’s Bill Buckley, the founder of National Review (and […]