Time to Bracket that bracketing

A conference announcement recently received below. I can’t help noticing something wrong with the way they are framing this. Perhaps because the organizers forgot to use the word “lying”? They frame the matter as a tension between “liberal,” “top-down” “cosmopolitanism” and “bottom-up… supposedly excessive… nationalism.” The former “paradigm” is said to be “in crisis.”

“Under attack” does not mean the same thing as “in crisis.” Does the whole project of liberal society just collapse because a bunch of flat-earthers exist? Is US history to be rewritten because some neo-Confederates find the Emancipation Proclamation went too far?

If your social constructivism has told you to admit fascists to the company of reasonable people, perhaps you should stop listening to it. It served its purpose. Now find yourself a new “politics of truth.”


A crisis in ‘coming to terms with the past’?
At the crossroads of translation and memory

1-2 February 2019
Senate House, University of London

Over the past decade, a particular notion of ‘coming to terms with the past’, usually associated with an international liberal consensus, has increasingly been challenged. Growing in strength since the 1980s, this consensus has been underpinned by the idea that difficult historical legacies, displaced into the present, and persisting as patterns of thought, speech and behaviour, needed to be addressed through a range of phenomena such as transitional justice, reconciliation, and the forging of shared narratives to ensure social cohesion and shore up democratic norms. Such official and international memory practices tended to privilege top-down cosmopolitan memory in an attempt to counter the bottom-up, still antagonistic memories associated with supposedly excessive effusions of nationalism. In a context of the global rise of populist nationalisms and of uncertainty linked by some politicians to migration, this tendency is increasingly being challenged, capitalizing on populist memory practices evident since the 1980s and creating what might be seen as a crisis in this liberal approach to ‘coming to terms with the past’.

Yet rather than rejecting a politics based on such ‘coming to terms’, new political formations have in fact increasingly embraced it: a growing discourse of white resentment and victimhood embodied in the so-called ‘Irish slave myth’, the wide visibility of the ‘History Wars’ controversy in Australia, legislation such as the Polish ‘Holocaust Bill’, or the withdrawal of African states from the International Criminal Court are evidence of the increasing impact of a new politics underpinning memory practices, and reveal the ways in which diverse populist and nationalist movements are mobilizing previous tropes. Moreover, these new memory practices increasingly have their own alternative internationalisms too, reaching across or beyond regions in new transnational formations, even as they seemed to reverse the earlier ‘cosmopolitan’ functions of memorialization.

Scholars have for a time noted a renaissance of these memory politics in various regions, but an interconnected globally-aware account of this shift remains elusive. Building on an ongoing dialogue between two AHRC themes, Care for the Future and Translating Cultures, we aim to bring together the approaches of both translation and memory scholars to reflect on the transnational linkages which held a liberal coming-to-terms paradigm together, and to ask whether this is now in crisis or undergoing significant challenges. The event will reflect also on the ways in which institutions such as museums, tourist sites or other institutions are responding to the emergence of these new paradigms.

The conference seeks to historicize and chart the translations, networks and circulations which underpin these new memory paradigms of nationalist and/or populist movements across a range of political, cultural and linguistic contexts, welcoming contributions that chart its ideological origins and growth in transnational terms; address the ways it draws on techniques and tropes of former paradigms; analyse its relationship to new ideological formations based on race, nationalism and gender; and chart its current international or transnational formations.

Scholars might reflect on these themes in terms of:

• Education, museums, memorials and archives;
• Material cultures;
• Legal, economic and political discourse;
• Dark tourism and travel;
• Digital technology;
• Performance, rituals and new heritage practices;
• Actors and agents, e.g. migrants, activists, politicians;
• The growth of transnational networks or the translation of this new challenge, across borders.

We particularly encourage individual case studies focusing on a range of ethnic, cultural and national themes to foster a truly global and transnational discussion.

The conference is jointly organised by two Arts and Humanities Research Council themes: Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past, which affords an opportunity for researchers to explore the dynamic relationship that exists between past, present, and future through a temporally inflected lens, and Translating Cultures, studying the role of translation in the transmission, interpretation, transformation and sharing of languages, values, beliefs, histories and narratives.

Proposals of no more than 300 words, and a short CV, should be sent to Eva.Spisiakova@liverpool.ac.uk by 15 November 2018.

Funding opportunities for travel and accommodation are available, but we ask that potential contributors also explore funding opportunities at their home institutions.

My Cousin the Bot

One of the many reasons for unplugging from Facebook is the spectacle of many of my relatives avidly reposting falsehoods generated by Russian, Serbian and Montenegrin troll farms. They don’t seem to have the wit or energy to write up their own lies, but just push “Share” on items posted by nonexistent users like “jamesjo76415286,” “Survive Our Collapse,” “Sunday Gunday,” “@GenJohnKelly” (an acknowledged parody account) and “Kim Daskam.” Here’s how you relativize treason, by treating as facts a lie in multiple layers by the current occupant of the White House:

And here is how you make gun control sound like a bad idea: it “didn’t work,” supposedly, in the towns where a lot of black folks happen to live:

But an Ivanka Trump lookalike in a cowboy hat? Hell, give that girl a an AK-47 with a bump (heh heh) stock.

From an alternate universe in which numbers count for something, here’s a handy tally comparing gun laws and per-capita gun deaths. (Safehome.org.)

And here’s the international ranking:

For once, I’m not proud to see the USA as #1. (A roundup from Vox here.)

I’ve discovered that sending a friendly message suggesting that these relatives might like to check Snopes before posting doesn’t help– for them, Snopes is another liberal conspiracy, and there is no shame in being found wrong. As one cousin wrote to me, “You still believe Snopes? We don’t know anything.” If you don’t know anything, you aren’t responsible for anything, ain’t that convenient. So: The kid who shot 17 students at his former high school the other day did so, if you listen to some of my relatives, because Hillary bought him a gun and sent him out to use it, or because the FBI somehow set him up. There’s no abyss of stupidity too profound to be shared by these over-sharers, who somehow think they are saving the Republic by doing so. Team Trump over Team Truth!

Should I move to a cave in the mountains? Or am I already in a cave in the mountains and just don’t know it?

For example, a few days after the Parkland massacre, one of my relatives had this to say (or rather, repost):

So: the real issue, apparently, is not taking action to protect human lives. The important thing to do is nitpick about something Obama said, push the NRA’s long-discredited interpretation of the Second Amendment (“a well-regulated militia” was never about citizens’ right to resist their government), and cheer for upcoming civil war on our own territory. If a kid murdered people with an assault weapon, it was (a) somehow Obama’s fault, and (b) justified in the larger scheme of things, because if you disapprove of mass murder, you must have been brainwashed that way by Soros and the globalists. That’s what you might call some deep thinking from the world of suburban Southern white folks.

Another analysis shows you how my kinfolk work the moral calculus.

Fortunately, it’s just talk; but talk kills, with a little help from accompanying material factors.


Même Pas le début d’un débat

Chers amis de Berkeley, si vous êtes d’accord pour dire que le “Muslim ban” fait le lit de Daesh en formalisant une gué-guerre entre les États-Unis et l’islam, pourquoi avez-vous choisi d’exclure de votre campus un petit néo-facho du nom de Milou Ygrec? Cela fait aussi bien le lit de Fox News et du dictateur-en-herbe, qui aiment tant à se poser en victimes et qui auront maintenant le prétexte de vous peindre en ennemis du droit à l’expression, vous le savez?

Vous vous êtes peut-être dit qu’il ne fallait pas donner une plate-forme à ce personnage de la droite raciste. Eh bien, voilà qu’en résiliant l’invitation à son égard, vous l’avez comblé de publicité gratuite. Ces gens-là ne demandaient pas mieux.

Il aurait été plus astucieux de le laisser venir, puis de le descendre (intellectuellement, dis-je, non physiquement) par quelqu’un de sensé. Imposer comme condition préalable qu’il soit confronté à une opinion contraire, l’obliger à répondre aux questions du public. (Et lui faire payer les dépenses de la sécurité, car une bonne et grande manifestation pour protester aurait été de mise.) Je ne crois pas qu’il s’en serait tiré facilement, car vous êtes des penseurs, n’est-ce pas, vous avez sous la main les faits et les chiffres pour démontrer que l’idéologie de la droite facho repose sur des balivernes, ou je me trompe? L’université est faite pour ça. Si Ygrec pensait faire un meeting de campagne, vous n’aviez qu’à lui montrer que la parole à l’université est toujours soumise à la réponse et à la vérification. Lui interdire la parole, c’est une manière de dire que vous avez peur de lui, et ça, je ne veux pas le croire.

Et pensons stratégie. Taper sur Berkeley est terriblement populaire dans ce pays. C’est ainsi que Reagan a gagné sa réputation nationale en 1968. En promouvant l’auto-victimisation d’un réac à la petite semaine, vous avec peut-être gagné une de ces batailles qui font perdre les guerres– ou qui, au moins, vous enlisent dans une lutte prolongée qui n’était pas nécessaire sur le “politiquement correct,” écran de fumée qui profite exclusivement aux fascistes.

Une lutte sur les faits, d’accord. Une lutte sur l’opportunité de confronter les faits et les mensonges, non. Il est toujours opportun de tenir ce débat.


(Bien sûr, il y a une ligne à ne pas laisser franchir. L’incitation à la violence ne doit pas être, à mon sens, permise, car elle s’érige contre le droit de parole des autres. Il faudrait prévenir tout conférencier qu’au moment de proférer des paroles qui ne respectent pas les droits fondamentaux des autres, son micro sera coupé et l’événement sera terminé. Mais prétendre que tel personnage, en considération de ses opinions, incarne un danger aux autres et que sa parole est d’elle-même la violence en acte, cela revient, je crois, à donner trop d’importance, trop de pouvoir, à ces dictateurs de carton, et c’est encore réaliser leurs ambitions. N’alimentons pas les trolls!)


Jeu de Rawls

Que les gens très riches devraient se tenir à distance de la politique, c’est une idée répandue. Mais les raisons mises en avant me paraissent incomplètes. On craint que les riches instaurent une politique qui ne profite qu’aux riches, agissant en somme comme les représentants organiques de leur classe. Ou bien on craint qu’ils sapent la démocratie en achetant les votes, ce que ne pourraient pas faire des candidats moins aisés. Nous avons eu l’occasion ces derniers jours de remarquer une troisième raison de méfiance.

Les gens qui sont absurdement riches et qui l’ont toujours été n’ont pas eu les mêmes chances que d’autres à apprendre les arts de la coopération, de la conciliation, du compromis. Ils ont l’habitude de s’imposer par la force ou par la menace. Rien ne leur est plus étranger que le principe exprimé par John Rawls dans A Theory of Justice, que l’égalité des personnes exige du pouvoir public les mesures qui donneront les moins mauvaises conditions à la personne la moins bien située, plutôt que celles qui donnent les meilleures conditions à la personne la mieux située.

J’appartiens à la classe des gens plutôt bien situées. J’ai bénéficié de conditions extrêmement bonnes. Je n’ai jamais été face au mur de la faim, de l’isolation, de la pauvreté; j’ai toujours disposé de ressources. J’ai pu m’éduquer, choisir de m’affronter à certains défis, voyager, trouver un emploi qui correspondait à mes capacités, m’entourer d’amis qui m’apprennent beaucoup. Et je trouve raisonnable que je doive rendre à la collectivité une partie des biens qui me reviennent en conséquence de cette situation fortunée, et que d’autres personnes chanceuses fassent de même. Combien faut-il être fortuné pour ne pas comprendre cette simple règle du jeu, et pour vouloir garder tous les avantages pour soi?

C’est une incapacité psychologique qui devrait disqualifier quiconque de la fonction publique. Les gens qui souffrent de ce genre d’aveuglement ne se reconnaissent pas comme citoyens. Ne les reconnaissons pas non plus, pour la symétrie.



Pas de pronostics. Examen de conscience et inventaire.

Je me suis décidé de m’en tenir aux langues étrangères pour tout commentaire sur les actualités américaines. D’abord parce que cela servira de filtre: les idiots qui ont choisi un minable dictateur à leur image, et qui s’évertuent à remplir de leurs déjections toute espace qui ne soit pas dédiée à l’admiration de leur idole, trouveront dans l’emploi d’une langue étrangère un blocus à leur (faible) curiosité. Ensuite parce que, par besoin de perspective, déjà je me parle à moi-même assez souvent dans une autre langue, retrouvant dans les réflexes et les associations verbales de ces langues une contre-partie à l’appauvrissement du discours anglophone et spécialement américain quand il s’agit de la chose publique. Et troisièmement parce que je veux témoigner, tant qu’il me reste des forces pour le faire, en faveur de l’idéal cosmopolite, de l’idée que l’on naît peut-être citoyen de tel ou tel pays, mais que sa véritable nationalité se trouve partout. “Nul n’est une île.” (J’allais oublier ma règle d’éviter l’anglais.) Par les temps qui courent, il faut rappeler de telles évidences.

Je suis, naturellement, très inquiet. Il a fallu quelques 70 ans pour que les fachos trouvent le code pour casser de l’intérieur le mécanisme démocratique (le vote, l’opinion publique, et tout ça). Il a fallu de gros moyens: du bourrage de crâne, l’invention de scandales et de crises non-existantes, le passage de lois permettant à quelques-uns d’être au-dessus des lois qui condamnent les autres, la manipulation savante d’une petite dissatisfaction pour en faire le levier d’un gros recalibration du pouvoir, et l’évacuation de l’espace public américain d’un discours si peu soit-il critique à l’égard du véritable pouvoir (le business). N’oublions pas, tant qu’on y est, les faiblesses constitutionnelles qui ont permis à un candidat qui a gagné moins de votes que l’autre de recevoir l’investiture. Et à la fin ça a marché.

Les enjeux, pourtant, sont grands. Je n’ai jamais pensé que les USA étaient justifiés dans tout ce qu’ils faisaient. Comme d’autres, j’ai manifesté, j’ai signé des pétitions, j’ai donné de l’argent pour exprimer mon opposition au génocide, à la guerre décidée au hasard, à l’usage des armes de destruction massive contre les populations, à la violence routinière des juntas et des caudillos chéris par Washington. Je n’ai pas applaudi les drones. J’ai toujours pensé que le droit international, au besoin la police internationale, étaient suffisants pour résoudre tant de différends que “l’unique superpuissance existante” préférait régler de façon unilatérale. À la place de Manning et de Snowden, je pense que j’aurais fait de même. J’ai donc protesté. J’ai été mauvais patriote. Il y allait de l’honneur de mon pays.

Toutes ces critiques (et j’en ai des centaines d’autres dans mon sac, mais je vous en fais grâce) sont en toutes dirigées sur une hypocrisie typiquement américaine: l’hypocrisie qui consiste à dire que nous soutenons le droit international, mais que nous n’y sommes pas soumis. Erreur. Mais l’erreur symétrique, qui consisterait à nier en principe le droit international, est pour moi l’horreur sans fond.

C’est ce qu’on voit se profiler derrière toutes les mesures préconisées par le nouvelles administration. On fera fi des lois existantes– de toute façon on trouvera un candidat à la Cour Suprême qui entérinera les entorses. Des traités internationaux, on s’en fout. Les alliances, pfft! L’honneur, c’est un truc verbal pour faire gagner du temps à un menteur obstiné.

Dans ce moment de crise, ceux qui vivent sous les structures créées à la fin de la deuxième guerre mondiale pour permettre d’éviter une nouvelle guerre vont devoir les refaire, peut-être sans les États-Unis. Ce ne sera pas facile. Mais imaginons-nous que l’OTAN n’existe plus. Que l’Union Européenne s’écroule. Que les Nations Unies soient rebattues comme un jeu de cartes. Que le commerce international faiblisse. Que la diplomatie tire sa révérence. Que tout se décide à coups de missiles et de tanks. Sans parler de l’effondrement de la calotte polaire. Tout le monde, même les heureux habitants (heureux par définition) de la Corée du Nord, bénéficie de ces institutions menacées, et de quelques institutions encore à naître, qui ont pour mission de préserver la paix du monde et d’enrayer les menées violentes de quelques-uns. L’abolition de ces institutions-là valait-elle vraiment la préservation d’avantages fiscaux dont bénéficient une ou deux centaines de milliers de personnes (ce qui était, j’en suis persuadé, la véritable raison de l’écartement d’un gauchiste de la primaire du parti démocrate et de l’élévation à la présidence d’un fraudeur narcissique)?

Certains qui aiment prendre le ton de la diseuse de bonne aventure proclament “le siècle américain” fini. À moi qui ne croyais déjà pas au siècle américain, ça ne me fait ni chaud ni froid. J’aimerais que le siècle des nationalismes fût clos. Nos problèmes dépassent le cadre de la nation, et la nation ne nous aidera pas à les résoudre, alors pourquoi rester dans ce cadre désuet? Eh bien, parce que ça donne un sentiment de certitude, ça évite de se poser trop de questions.



Just Some Facts

Dr. Samuel Johnson to the podium! “Of the uncertainties of our present state, the most dreadful and alarming is the uncertain continuance of reason.” (Rasselas, the conclusion of the episode of the mad astronomer.)

I’m not concerned about going mad, which was a constant fear of Dr. Johnson’s. I’m worried about collective reason and the fragility of our ability to find out what is really going on in the world and to devise means of responding. For that’s what’s at stake with the whole “post-truth” thing and the attack on educated people and institutions as being an “élite” with self-serving aims. People without experience of advanced education don’t know how it works. They think it’s like sales talk: arm-waving, smoke and mirrors. Just, like, your opinion, man. Etc. And if those are the terms, who can blame them for being skeptical?

But those aren’t really the terms. Peer-reviewed scholarship is the best means we have of understanding history, biology, geology, physics, and culture. This is not to affirm that it is infallible; infallibility isn’t what it’s about. Rather, the institutions of scholarship devised since the Royal Society began meeting in the middle seventeenth century are designed to gainsay any claim to authority by Fearless Leaders or Thought Leaders of any kind. That’s what “nullius in verba,” the Society’s motto, means– “we don’t take anybody’s word for it.”

Reason is not maintained by isolated Cartesians sitting in heated rooms (or unheated attics for that matter). It requires publicly accessible institutions where the rule is that anyone is allowed to speak as long as the basis of speaking is facts and reason. That rule permits us to keep the best of what’s been discovered, as long as it hasn’t been rebutted, and to make room for innovations, however shocking.

Business, however, likes to secure monopolies, and tyrannies brook no rivals.

The fantasy of the power to create truth– you remember the bit in the interview a few years ago about that? “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. … We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Those words seemed to me a damning enough condemnation of the fool who said them, but in many other minds, they represent a maximum desideratum. (Like the quip about pussy-grabbing.)

So I am not too happy about the bossy voluntarists and anti-science people who are propelling themselves into positions from which they can do damage to the American economy of knowledge creation. (The envy of the world, need I say? And suffering from the usual condition of the prophet in its own country.) Wile E. Coyote can tell you a few things about what it’s like to go post-truth. Unfortunately, the mistakes made by this gang of post-truthers are going to fall back on all of us. We need to resist them in whatever way we can.

So, before we all get hysterical about the future, a few facts.

  1. The majority of the country did not vote for Trump. So hold off on all those ethnographies of poor whites and the left-behinds of globalization. The breakdown is: about half of eligible voters didn’t bother to vote at all (so blame them if you want to blame somebody); under a quarter voted for Clinton; even fewer than that voted for Trump, but with razor-thin margins in a few strategic states that counted big in the Electoral College; and a small percentage for the third-party candidates. So talk of a “mandate” is definitely misplaced. (That will not moderate the behavior of the people who think they have the Electoral College majority, though– they are going all-out with their most extreme nutcase people and policies.)
  2. Those who did vote Trump were, in part, the meth-addicted denizens of food-stamp counties, but also religious fundamentalists, Gamergaters and wealthy people just looking for another tax cut. It’s a funny alliance of people with little in common but resentment and a desire for power. You won’t find much in the way of principles here. Therefore, don’t ascribe an ideology where none is proven– and above all, don’t suppose that it’s a coherent, overarching ideology.
  3. Certain institutions can serve as a brake on radical policy change. The Constitution exists for a reason (there are more amendments than the Second); the courts will have their word to say, whatever happens to the Supremes; even the markets are invested in the rule of law and the stability of contracts, and the class of people owning property is much larger than in your usual kleptocracy. Don’t assume that whatever comes out of the mouth of Trumputin is what is going to happen. And donate to the civil-society institutions that have been protecting the Bill of Rights since long before your time. They will put the money to good use.
  4. This sort of thing has happened before. Read the testimony. I was lucky to find Victor Klemperer’s Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten, two volumes, in the Seminary Coop the other day. A fellow academic, a philologist, chronicling the erosion of language and reality-testing over the twelve years of the third Reich. You can take heart from the survival of such a document. (Plus, it’s printed on paper, and when I open it, it doesn’t spy on me.)

There will be a price for protecting reason and equality. Know that. People from Eastern Europe have been through this before. Some gave up; some didn’t. Be as honorable as you can. Denounce the flux of false news and the sudden respectability of racism, scapegoating and paranoia. Find people who share your values and be ready to disregard some issues (no two people agree about everything) while joining with them to rebuild the conditions for a fact-based, democratic political order.

That’s all I have for the moment.


Can You Follow The Numbers for me please?

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda gave a talk the other day at Yale. I’m far from discounting the good that Kagame has been able to do in heading up a government with a low corruption index and efficient ministries, with visible effects in raising the level of access to health care, in fostering an economy that feeds and houses Rwandans, in standing athwart any attempts to reawaken the genocidal rages of 1993-4– and yes, I know that this was accomplished by ensuring ‘political stability,’ to use a technical term for a monopoly on power. I don’t much like this form of stability, accompanied as it is by repression (in whatever degree– a lesser degree in Rwanda’s case than in most of its neighbors’). But if the alternative is civil war upon civil war, then let’s not condemn Kagame’s government too harshly for doing what they thought was necessary. Obviously in an ideal world, multi-party democracy would flourish and no one would be put at any kind of risk for articulating an opinion or running for office.

I’m not writing to excuse Kagame (though the protestors who turned up at his talk might think so), however. I’m writing to suggest that we examine critically one of the claims he made, which may have struck you as self-serving. President Kagame held that his government’s human rights record is really no one else’s business, and that HR organizations are swimming in the wake of old-fashioned colonialism.

When it comes to Africa especially there is a great deal of continuity with certain negative assumptions widely shared across governments, media, and academia, not only in this country but more generally. … I can hardly blame you, students and others, for being sometimes confused as to what is true about Rwanda or Africa. The manner in which you receive information, and have it validated, is designed to sow confusion and not build understanding…. There is a culture of making up one’s mind about Africa by borrowing assumptions, prejudices, and judgements, from trusted intermediaries, who, by the way, tend to look the same, as you may have noticed.

“The same”– i.e., white, I suppose.

For centuries, the West has preferred to relate to Africa and similar places from a position of moral superiority. There is a word for this, which I won’t use, to avoid unnecessary distraction. But let’s agree that it reveals a stunning failure of moral imagination and human empathy, apparently so profoundly embedded that it requires no further justification, even as it implicitly guides both foreign policy and higher education.

The word must have been “colonialism”– as you see, I said it already. Now the argument that only Africans are reliable sources of information, or have a right to an opinion on Africa, isn’t a good one, and if applied more broadly would be fatal to any international cooperation. It sounds self-serving. And hearers sensitive to possibilities may worry that this betokens a readiness to continue running Rwanda without the inconveniences of democracy, à la Mugabe. This is certainly worth worrying about in any situation where someone has power and might not relinquish it.

But the argument that those who are interested in human rights in Africa are leading some kind of expeditionary corps of journalists and activists, hoping to dominate and control Africa, might be tested empirically, rather than just thrown out as an emotional ploy. Someone with access to databases of charitable and political giving could, I think, easily answer the following question:

— What percentage of those who contribute to international human-rights organizations (e.g., Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch) also contribute to free-speech or human-rights organizations in their home country (e.g., for US citizens, the ACLU, NESRI, the Innocence Project, the Heartland Foundation, and so on)? What’s the dollar ratio between international and domestic giving?

If it turns out the donors are primarily interested in human-rights activism abroad, that shows us that HR organizations need to think about their priorities. If it turns out that the donors are trying to repair injustices both at home and abroad, then I say hooray for them and let’s have more of this. Because, unfortunately, a national border doesn’t keep abuse out and justice in.


Again, Never Again

So, about thirty-five years ago, my mother’s parents were alive and well, and in the summer, went to bungalow colonies in the Catskills. These were the abode of elderly people of modest means; the younger people went to the big hotels for nightlife. There was no development, no noise — just Jews in the country. As it happened, at one of these bungalow colonies, I noticed that most of my grandparents’ social interactions were with these strange, quiet people with numbers on their arms. They dressed modestly, but they didn’t cover the numbers up. And at some point, as a kid, I had to yell out the question, “Hey, Dad, why do Grandpa’s friends have numbers on their arms?” The resulting discussion was very brief; it had little to do with history, and dealt more with my asking the wrong question at the top of my lungs. But I was told that these were survivors of the Holocaust, and that they should be treated very kindly and gently. I think they adopted my grandfather because he had been very visibly maimed by the Cossacks in the run-up to the Russian Revolution, and they loved my grandmother, because she was so kind and was a wonderful cook; many of them ate very simply.

From these survivors, I learned a few things.

  1. Life could change very quickly.
  2. Hitler explicitly wrote and said what he was going to do, years in advance.
  3. People could not believe that Hitler could come to power in a democratic election
  4. The rich people sat the election out on the theory that they would make deals with Hitler once he gained power.
  5. Once Hitler gained power, he did everything he said he was going to do, and more.
  6. The day that they lost their citizenship and human rights dawned like any other.
  7. Everyone tried to save themselves, but most died trying — or of depression, or of disease, or of starvation, or of bullets, or of gas.
  8. They survived for a reason — to tell young people like me that it should never happen again.
  9. Always support the State of Israel, because it will be your home when America spits you out, as it will in time.

I believed them, little Zionist that I was. Now, of course, things look different. Israel is not a place for Jews like me. So, what’s left is America. And who appears when I check off the first few boxes on the above checklist? You know, exactly.

So, for me, this election is not about good or bad policies, ways of governing, styles of leadership. This is about life and death. And it’s about those elderly people, thirty-five years ago, who had a message to convey to me as a little boy. Never again.


Inflation Prophets

Around 2008– that is, for the non-USAns, two presidential election cycles ago– I remember a lot of dark muttering around various dinner tables about the “messianism” of Obama supporters. People on the left, that is, and some of the most philosophically and historically alert ones, were afraid that the expectations lifting the candidacy of the previously little-known senator from Illinois were going to swerve into something sinister. As it happened, nothing less messianic than Obama’s presidency could be imagined. Obama has governed within the limits of the law, not even testing those limits; far from that, he has failed to take a lot of opportunities that the law would have allowed him, and that would have made possible a deep change in our political culture (such as allowing war-crimes investigations to go ahead for the Bushocracy, before he got too deeply involved in the criminality of war himself). In Max Weber’s terms, he has let routine, not charisma, run the show. That’s the sign of a virtue. Maybe not the virtue we needed foregrounded for all of the last eight years. But a virtue nonetheless.

Messianism is certainly something to worry about. It is a symptom of an impatience that wants to throw off all legal restraints, the very restraints that make possible the “freedom” that Americans, those masters of paradox, trumpet loudest when they are trying to anoint someone as lord and master over them. For this we have historical parallels.

Countless “saviors of the twenties”… achieved a position of “great significance especially in the years of inflation from 1919 to 1923 and then again during the Depression of 1929 to 1933″… In 1922, a Berlin correspondent for the Kölnische Zeitung described these “prophets of the street” as follows: “For the past one or two years, the advertising boards in Berlin have been covered with announcements of disciples of the future and prophets who are advertising their lectures (often at considerable admission prices). Catchwords and quotations from the Bible always play a role in the advertisements. The old constellation of ideas surrounding the apocalypse has gained new life, as it did in earlier times of crisis… The existence of such prophets is a dangerous symptom of the mental state prevalent in Germany today.” (Klaus Schreiner, “Messianism in the Weimar Republic,” 311-362 of Peter Schäfer and Mark Cohen, eds., Toward the Millennium: Messianic Expectations from the Bible to Waco [Leiden: Brill, 1998], 338-339.)

The important thing about these saviors is that they promise to suspend all existing laws, treaties, and institutions, and simply “emerge as the bearer[s] of divine powers of mercy and fate” (337). One enthusiastic student essayist wrote in 1920:

In our misery, we long for a Leader. He will show us the way… The true Leader surely has no selfish motivation, just one, regal motivation, that he must be the Leader because he is it by nature…. The Leader is not guided by the masses, but by his mission; he does not flatter the masses; he proceeds harshly, uprightly, and ruthlessly, in times of good and evil. The Leader is radical; he is wholly that which he is, and he does wholly that which he must. The Leader is responsible; that is, he does God’s will, which he embodies…. God grant us the Leader and help us to achieve true fealty. (Käthe Becker, “Führerschaft, eine Rede vor der Vereinigung ‘Deutsche Jugend,'” in Deutschlands Erneuerung, vol. 4 [1920]: 563, cited in Schreiber, “Messianism,” 336.)

I have replaced “Führer” in Schreiner’s translation with the more ordinary term “Leader” in order to downplay the connotation that the word “Führer” has acquired in English as applying to one moustachioed individual only, because the date of the quotation proves that it’s not a matter of a manipulative individual or an evil genius, but of the fervent passivity of a mass movement begging to be led, pleading to be dealt with “harshly and ruthlessly.” There was a demand for a Führer, a howling demand, already years before the author of Mein Kampf stepped upon the stage. A well-prepared stage. I blame the preparers: the ones in Versailles as well as the pamphleteers, flag-wavers and revanchards.

And if someone had dealt with the root causes of the frenzy in a timely manner, perhaps the hero cult would have subsided. Inflation prophets will arise. They aren’t the evil itself but “dangerous symptoms” thereof. It shouldn’t be impossible to tap the top tax bracket, employ a few million people in infrastructure repairs, have an honest discussion about race, immigration and exclusion.

I didn’t worry too much about messianism in 2008. Perhaps I should have worried about disappointed messianism. But I do worry about it in 2016.


Battlefield Paris

This year in Chicago, I learnt about the recent massacre in Paris from a text message sent to me from Texas. Last year, when in Paris, I learnt about the murder of the Charlie Hebdo staff from an email from a friend in Vermont. Wherever you are, trying diligently, as I do now, to dodge news from the simmering world war, it gets ricocheted at you by another eruption of bullets. The only difference in experiencing the massacre in Chicago is the absence of the incessant police sirens that haunted Paris for weeks after the murders, and which a Belorussian friend in Paris now hears again, non-stop, from her apartment near the Bastille:

Я в порядке, спасибо большое за беспокойство! Да, что-то дикое произошло вчера. Всю ночь под окном сирены. На улицу страшно выходить.

[I’m all right. Thanks a lot for your concern. Yes, something wildly horrible happened yesterday. There are the sirens under my window all night long. Scary to go to the street.]

The frontline, with its transposition to Paris, narrows. Now, I find myself at only one remove from the tragedy: I happen to know people who know those who were affected directly. Our landlady, a journalist, had been in the office of Charlie Hebdo just a week before the shooting to commission a caricature from the doomed artists for her newspaper.

A colleague whom I’d met in Paris emailed in distress to excuse himself from our dinner party on the night of November 13 because two of his friends were at the punk rock concert inside the Bataclan, one of them shot (but not fatally) during the escape:

I’m a little overwhelmed right now given the tragedy in Paris last night.  Two of my friends were at the concert hall where the attack took place. They both survived, but one was shot during their escape (he is stable and will be fine). I have been messaging with friends in Paris all night and will probably continue to do so throughout the evening and I just don’t think I will be up for catching up tomorrow.

To say I’m overwhelmed is an understatement.  I honestly just don’t know what i feel or how to feel at the moment and I’m not sure I’ll be much better off tomorrow.

I apologize for the last minute cancellation but I have a hunch you’ll understand.

So crazy.  So sad.  

He, himself a lover of rock music, would certainly have been at the Bataclan with them, had not he made the decision to return to Chicago a month before to finish his dissertation.

Another message from a friend in Paris reads like this:

Deep breath. Profoundly disturbing and unsettling on all fronts — as a human, as a mom, as a parent, as an American, as a Jew, as someone living in France. Hard to believe we’ve explained both Charlie Hebdo and this to our son in less than a year…and on right on the heels of Kenya, Beirut, etc. Unimaginably sad for those affected directly — horrible beyond words. Scary to drop the kids off at school and crèche, to see my husband leave for work, and to head to French class shortly. “Fluctuat nec mergitur”, but how to keep living our lives with kids to consider. My perception of the present aftermath –based on the news/streets/Facebook– is sympathy and empathy, but also anger — can’t let “them” win — gotta live your life. In principal, yes, but as a parent, I cannot wrap my head around it all. A friend set out on a jog with her toddler in a stroller yesterday (determined to not let fear rule) — just down the street — when she encountered a man sprinting in her direction chased by undercover police with guns drawn. She doesn’t know what/who/why was happening, but was deeply disturbed by what could have happened in those few moments. 

Even if one is not yet him- or herself inside the mess, as if skirting a battlefield, one senses already the sound of bullets, fire and smoke. One lives in the war’s tangible potentiality.

That Charlie Hebdo was just a beginning was clear from the failed scenario of multiple attacks: a jogger, a policewoman, a kosher store in Vincennes. By now the “self-haters” have elaborated on their plan to take as many victims as possible, and with the closure of France’s national borders the war has indeed taken on.

Many international actors covet today influence in France for its strategic geopolitical location. The real social problems with unemployment, racism and xenophobia, and the ossified, uncreative educational system failing to integrate immigrants created a pool of disgruntled youth striving for a purpose. What used to turn into local gang wars, a condition vividly portrayed in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995), now found an idealistic wrapping in an appropriated version of Islam. A resentful army of social losers, fired up by the Hollywood style image of all-around-shooting masculinity, discovered their Muslim origins as a palliative for getting over the fact that they are not more than the disposable tools of somebody’s will.

The criminal invasion of Iraq in 2001 that the French reasonably and rationally opposed predictably destabilized the region and led to the uncontrollable Syrian civil war as well as ISIS. I can’t help sending curses in the direction of G. W. Bush and Co. who brought this bright future upon us. As I can’t help thinking that Islamic terrorism in France is an uncanny present that the United States sends back to France in ironic exchange for the Statue of Liberty.

Saddam Hussein and the Assads were, despite appearances, the best allies of the US in the war on Islamic extremism. Whatever was the corrupt oppressiveness of their secular regimes internally, they effectively and brutally kept under control oppressive stirrings of the religious kind. Now the bloody orgy induced by the “opium for the people” doesn’t have any serious opposition, and the battle has spread to the cultural capital of Europe – Paris, with Kalashnikovs aimed at the fans of music and sport.

But what about those Kalashnikovs? – A year ago in Paris, I was struck by an image on display at the French newsstands: On a cover of a journal one could see a disciplined and determined Russian cadet. At a desk with a textbook of the Russian language, he looked yearningly to one side, presumably contemplating a Greater Russia. The caption announced: “Russia has returned.” Working toward this expansionist goal, Putin’s government is building right now a gigantic Center of Russian Orthodox Culture on the quai Branly, to serve as the propaganda platform for Islam’s religious competitor in the aim of destroying Europe.

The closing of French borders in response to the attacks is one of those first little steps towards the re-hermetizing of national polities that the project of the European Union, dear to me, was trying to overcome. With the Russia-funded Front National and the Islamist fighters working in cahoots, ardently catering to each other’s unholy ideological needs, and Brussels, the capital of the EU, shut down under the highest threat level alert, the battle for Paris as a bastion of a free, secular, united Europe becomes real.

What should be done? Above all, the war in Syria and Iraq should end. It is not possible without a serious collective effort of occupation and control of those territories by the Western and Eastern democratic powers (the demand for such help had been voiced by the Syrian pro-democratic activists already in 2012) and a colossal economic investment into a reconstruction of those territories à la Marshall plan in the postwar Germany (that should have been conducted in Iraq since the occupation but was desperately botched up).

Undoing the wrongs is more difficult, more painful, more costly (in all senses) than avoiding the wrongs in the first place. But this time the United States, above all, owe it to themselves, to Europe, and to the whole of civilization.



Plus c’est la même chose.

Since the Printculture archive isn’t easily searchable from the front page, I take the liberty of putting up a direct link to one of our oldies, about caricature and the sacred, contending that the prohibition of images and the freedom of expression are at root the same thing. Thou Shalt Not, Or Thou Hadst Better Not, from 2005. (Incidentally, many of the ideas there were sparked by conversations with O Solovieva.)

And I am sad to see that, no more than in 2005, are people (many of my friends among them) willing or able to make some essential distinctions. Not only do people take it for granted that any jerk with a gun who shouts “Allah akbar!” speaks for all Muslims, they also make the Sassen Error (named for the sociologist Saskia Sassen, who in 2001 opined that the attacks on lower Manhattan were the revenge of the poor world against the rich world, conveniently ignoring the fact that the vast majority of the victims of the Taliban et consortes are poor people in the poor world); they have even found it “ironic” that the policewoman shot by one of the self-styled jihadis was a black woman from the Caribbean, as if operating on the assumption that all people of color are on “the same side.” Come on, people. You would demand subtlety and fine distinctions if someone were analyzing your social world. Do the same unto others, at least a little bit.



Another article about the failures of international aid, this time from the New Republic, and I fear the overall effect of such think-pieces will be to validate the indifference of people who were looking for a reason not to help others anyway. It’s true that celebrity jaunts to Africa, etc., have little lasting effect except perhaps on the celebrity’s public image. That’s a problem with the culture of celebrity, not of aid. It’s also true that sudden infusions of money into an economy are apt to destabilize and to have perverse effects. That’s a problem of bad planning. White Land Rovers? I would recommend steering clear of any project that involves the purchase of many white Land Rovers.

The article suggests that low overhead is not in and of itself a good marker of charitable effectiveness, that spending money on fund-raising is often a precondition for having an effect: well, here I think you must use your judgment about what is the tail and what is the dog. A low tail-to-dog ratio matters when deciding where to put one’s donations, but it’s best to concentrate on questions such as these (also legible between the lines of the article): have the intended beneficiaries themselves expressed a desire for the planned interventions? Is there a concrete plan for engagement on the part of the beneficiary population, rather than a scheme in the heads of well-intentioned First Worlders to build something, feel good about it, and abandon it? “First, do no harm” is a rule worth following even if you’re not a medical worker.

Most important is to have an accurate sense of the economic flows among which a development-assistance plan will exist. How much of the money flowing in and out of a given country is dedicated to arms procurement, to food assistance, to financial whizzbangery (including corruption)? How much does the local economy rely on expatriates remitting their paychecks? What’s up for sale, in terms of natural resources or the vital interests of the residents, and what is protected (and how well) from rent-seeking investors? The perplexed, such as yours truly, appreciate a sense of proportion about all these things.


Preconditions for Actual Politics

Once upon a time, in a country famed for its turkeys and large automobiles, little boys and girls learned in civics class and by watching the Perry Mason show that nobody could just bust into your house without a warrant showing probable cause. You might be sure that a person had done something wrong, but you couldn’t force them to confess to it. And you might be mad at them after you’d proved they’d done it, but you couldn’t subject them to “cruel and unusual punishment.” You couldn’t even make them swear on a Bible in open court if they didn’t want to.

I’m soon going to be explaining how the world works to a few little guys who rely on me for much of their information. And I’m afraid that when it comes to these old certainties, my message about inviolable human rights will be in the more complex form of “they aren’t supposed to violate them, but they will try, so be on your lookout.” Continue reading


Disincentives for Disincentivizing

Larry Lessig’s organization MAYDAY PAC attempted to support candidates who would push for comprehensive campaign reform and an end to the systemic corruption described in Lessig’s recent books Republic Lost, One Way Forward, and Lesterland. I was one of the many people who sent money to this effort. Sadly, not much came of it. In an email sent yesterday to supporters, Lessig drew a few lessons, among them:

A significant chunk of actual voters rank our issue as the most important. These voters are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. And in the right context, we believe the data show that they can be rallied to the cause.

The important qualification in that sentence, however, is also the most important lesson that this cycle taught me: “in the right context.” What 2014 shows most clearly is the power of partisanship in our elections. Whatever else voters wanted, they wanted first their team to win.

Continue reading


GAZA: Beyond Conversation

I asked a Jewish-American friend to cover the situation in Gaza. This is what she wrote in response explaining why she can’t do it. I found the text fascinating and responsive to the difficulties of a sensitive, ethical and intelligent person trying to talk about the issue– precisely the type of voice much needed in today’s discourse. I asked to publish an excerpt from her email. Here it is, with permission:

“In answer to your question, I have been considering writing on the Gaza question for weeks. But I don’t think I will. There’s a whole part of my past that I have to process, about being raised in a synagogue that was rabidly pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian. The things that were said there would not pass muster thirty-odd years later, and attributing them to their speakers would probably count as defamatory. That’s really my story: the part I can add that is not the past fortnight’s worth of partisan pontification, which I believe is available in copious supply already.

Continue reading


Ukraine/Russia and Ourselves

“The question is, where is Russia heading? This is the key problem with Putin — he is unable to deal with this issue,” said Pavel K. Baev, a Russia specialist at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. “Holding power has become the goal in itself, and there is a deep underlying feeling that this cannot end well.”

(Khodorkovsky & Lebedev Communications Center, June 9, 2014)

“Братие, друзи, славяне!” (“Brothers, friends, Slavs!”), so we were greeted weekly by Anna Stepanovna Novikova, our professor of Old Slavonic (known in the West as Old-Church-Slavonic) at Moscow State University, where many years ago I started on my academic path as a major in Russian language and literature. In my memory, I still see her vividly: a somewhat overweight, stout woman with a wild hairdo reminiscent of a coonskin cap sitting askance, dressed in a too tight brown costume, with a big black leather bag over her shoulder and a stack of books and papers under her arm. She always arrived at the very last minute, bursting into the classroom suddenly at the precise moment when our hope that the class might be cancelled this time would begin to dawn.

She used to interrogate us mercilessly about Old Slavonic verb paradigms and phonetic laws. Her frowning displeasure over mistakes was terrifying. Oppressive silence and an unforgiving gaze usually accompanied her disapproval. She was adamant that whatever we aspired to be, not knowing Old Slavonic was not an option. We were scared to death of her imperious ways. And yet, her weekly greeting sent to us from the door, with a big smile on her plain face, has stayed with me until now as a declaration of good will.

Continue reading


Do Feed the Public Intellectual

(Introducing Paul Farmer, Human Rights Program Kirschner Memorial Lecture, June 5, 2014)

Good evening and welcome to tonight’s Kirschner Memorial Lecture. I’m delighted to see so many of you here tonight, a direct acknowledgment of the significance of our Human Rights Program and a hint that our benefactors’ generosity has not been totally misplaced. The questions examined in the Human Rights Program are among the most serious questions raised in a university, and I would say that for us, specifically, in this country, with our history and assumptions, the area of health and human rights has the greatest power to change the way we see ourselves and others.

For many of us in Paul’s and my generation in the United States, the first time we heard about human rights as a field of activism, it was in connection with the denial of people’s rights to free speech and assembly, their right to emigrate, their right to seek redress, their implicit right to representative government. And we learned about this in the context of the Cold War, when it seemed self-evident that people in some part of the world benefited from the recognition of those rights, while people lacked them in many other parts of the world—not only the Soviet bloc and China, but also Latin America, Asia and Africa, where the client states of the great powers all seemed to repress their dissidents with the greatest indifference. Of course, it didn’t stop there. The response to human rights activism by official representatives of the socialist countries and by some of our own home-grown leftists was to point out how inequitably the market system distributed such basic goods as food, housing, education and medical care, goods which, it was implied, were a fair trade for civil and legal rights. The funny thing about this answer is that it was taken just as a rebuke of the West’s hypocrisy. Despite some laudable exceptions, we did not experience, even in the Carter era which made such a noise about making human rights the driving force of our foreign policy, a large-scale effort to wrap social and economic rights around the uncontestable but rather abstract goods of free speech and fair elections at home. The struggle for civil rights and equality within the US, which had concluded in the courts with a handful of imperfect measures for instituting fairness in civil life, did not carry over into an effective War on Poverty. The Great Society spent most of its surplus on weaponry, with a small percentage allocated to nagging our rivals about their bad human-rights record.

Continue reading


Cooper Union Lives or Dies Today


Cooper Union – as a unique institution of higher education; as a legacy of  visionary founder Peter Cooper; as a dream – lives or dies today. Just so you know.

Free is Not for Nothing – The Vote to Save Cooper Union by alumni trustee Kevin Slavin:

If the vote goes one way, a new, lean, careful Cooper Union will tiptoe forward, tuition-free. It will require equal parts deep sacrifice, wild ambition, and straightforward pragmatism. And it will uphold a 150+ year tradition of free undergraduate education.

If it goes the other way, all of that will disappear. Not just the free tuition, but everything that was built on it. In its place we’ll find a tragic fraud. A joke. A zombie.

Here’s some background from Felix Salmon, who has been drawing attention to the foresight of Cooper’s vision and the perfidy of recent Presidents and Boards.

The Cooper Union story recapitulates, in miniature, a shockingly large proportion of the various aspects of the  global war on public-serving higher education. Here’s to hoping the tide is turning, today.


Toward a plural theory of Anthropocenes

easterFor all I know this has been said before, but: the anthropocene is a world-concept.

The normal way to understand the Anthropocene is as a historical period, defined more or less as the era when human beings acquire the capacity to affect the ecology of the entire planet, thereby opening the door to mass extinction, disastrous climate change, and, at the limit, the disappeareance of the species. Generally people want to date it to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, though you see arguments for dating it to the beginning of agriculture. Since the challenge we are facing collectively at the moment (and for the next centuries) is the immediate result of the dramatic expansion in carbon-based energy (oil, gas) use that comes from the Industrial Revolution, my impression is that most people are inclined towards that date.

But that’s just because the scope of this environmental event is in fact the entire planet Earth. I want to suggest that we become aware of/wish to designate the Anthropocene at this crucial moment precisely because of that scope, that because like the various other -cenes (the Pleistocene, the Holocene) this era involves ecological/geological/meterological activity that is planet-wide, we feel comfortable declaring it to be “epoch”-worthy. That is, the epoch (that which can be designated by the -cene, that which is a scene for the -cene) is partially a temporal metaphor for spatial scale.

This is true of all world-concepts, and trivial. But now what we can do is to scale down the Anthropocene from the world to world, and recognize that, unlike the Pleistocene or Holocene, we can use the concept to refer to any “world” (that is, any relatively closed totality, relatively closed because like our totality it can be potentially escaped from, in our case via rocket ships/space colonization) that is capable of producing self-extinction through the manipulation of its environment.

In that case there have been other Anthropocenes, some of them, perhaps, not even human. Any virus that kills its host too rapidly–before the host has a chance to infect others–is Anthropocenic in this sense. We might also think of the series of extinctions on Easter Island as one example of a quasi-Anthropocene (resolved by the arrival of European explorers). Or, an extreme and fanciful case, of a literary character like Raskolnikov.

I am not sure that it is politically useful to think of the Anthropocene this way — it may be that there’s more traction in terms of getting people to think about how to live, or die, in it if they can have the narcissistic pleasure of imagining themselves to be historically unique. But it may also be that philosophers and other humanists could benefit from a plural theory, a theory of Anthropocenes, both as a structure for comparative analysis and as a humbling reminder that self-desctruction, when it happens, is usually a matter of degrees of difference, not kinds, from ordinary life.