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Posts Tagged ‘corey robin’

“The Vietnam War years were the most ‘politicized’ of my life. I spent my days during this war writing fiction, none of which on the face of it would appear to connect to politics. But by being ‘politicized’ I mean something other than writing about politics or even taking direct political action. I mean something akin to what ordinary citizens experience in countries like Czechoslovakia or Chile: a daily awareness of government as a coercive force, its continuous presence in one’s thoughts as far more than just an institutionalized system of regulations and controls. In sharp contrast to Chileans or Czechs, we hadn’t personally to fear for our safety and could be as outspoken as we liked, but this did not diminish the sense of living in a country with a government out of control and wholly in business for itself. Reading the morning New York Times and the afternoon New York Post, watching the seven and then the eleven o’clock TV news—all of which I did ritualistically—became for me like living on a steady diet of Dostoevsky. Rather than fearing for the well-being of my own kin and country, I now felt toward America’s war mission as I had toward the Axis goals in World War II. One even began to use the word ‘America’ as though it was the name not of the place where one had been raised to which one had a patriotic attachment, but of a foreign invader that had conquered the country and with whom one refused, to the best of one’s strength and ability, to collaborate. Suddenly America had turned into ‘them’—and with this sense of dispossession came the virulence of feeling and rhetoric that often characterized the anti-war movement.

…Of course there have been others as venal and lawless [as Richard Nixon] in American politics, but even a Joe McCarthy was more identifiable as human clay than this guy is. The wonder of Nixon (and contemporary America) is that a man so transparently fraudulent, if not on the edge of mental disorder, could ever have won the confidence and approval of a people who generally require at least a littlesomething of the ‘human touch’ in their leaders. It’s strange that someone so unlike the types most admired in the average voter…could have passed himself off to this Saturday Evening Post America as, of all things, an American.”

—Philip Roth, 1974. via Corey Robin’s blog.

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“Charles T. Schenck is remembered today less for what he did than for the image he helped inspire:  that of a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.  That image was first offered by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as an illustration of what Schenck did during the First World War, and it has since become a fixture of our discussions about the delicate balance between freedom and security, liberty and order, particularly though not exclusively in times of war.

It’s a pity that we remember the metaphor rather than the man, however, for the gap between what Schenck did and what Holmes said he did is considerable—and instructive.

Schenck was the general secretary of the Socialist Party in Philadelphia during the First World War.  Unlike their sister parties in Western Europe, America’s Socialists firmly opposed the war, even after the United States entered it in April 1917.  That summer, Schenck and his Philadelphia comrades launched a campaign against the draft.  They composed a two-sided leaflet that attacked the draft as unconstitutional and called for people to join the Socialist Party and persuade their representatives in Congress to repeal it.  If the leaflet’s language was strong—“a conscript is little better than a convict…deprived of his liberty and of his right to think and act as a free man”—it was also conventional, couched in a vernacular many would have found familiar.  One side proclaimed “Long Live the Constitution of the United States.” The other urged people to “Assert Your Rights!”

Schenck and his comrades made 15,000 leaflets and mailed most of them to men in Philadelphia who had passed their draft board physicals.  It’s unclear how many actually received the leaflet—hundreds were intercepted by the government—and no one produced evidence of anyone falling under its influence.  Even so, Schenck and four others were arrested and charged with “causing and attempting to cause insubordination…in the military and naval forces of the United States, and to obstruct the recruiting and enlistment services of the United States.”  Two of the defendants—Schenck and another party leader—were found guilty.  Schenck’s case was argued before the Supreme Court in January 1919, and the Court’s unanimous decision to uphold the conviction, written by Holmes, was delivered in March.

Holmes’s opinion was a mere six paragraphs.  But in one sentence he managed to formulate a test for freedom of speech that would endure on the Court in some form until 1968—“[The] question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent”—and in another to draw an illustration of the test that remains burned in the public consciousness to this day: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

With his disdain for socialists and rabble-rousers, Holmes would not have been pleased to see his name posthumously linked to Schenck’s.  But with his equally powerful sense of realism, he undoubtedly would have conceded the truth of Harry Kalven’s observation, in 1988, that “Schenck—and perhaps even Holmes himself—are best remembered for the example of the man ‘falsely shouting fire’ in a crowded theater.”  It was that kind of metaphor: vivid, pungent, and profoundly misleading.

Drawing on nearly forty years of his own scholarship and jurisprudence, Holmes viewed Schenck’s leaflet not as an instance of political speech but as a criminal attempt to inflict harm. In the same way that a person’s shout of fire in a theater would cause a stampede and threaten the audience with death so would Schenck’s leaflet cause insubordination in the military, hamper the war effort, and threaten the United States and its people with destruction.

Holmes knew that words were not always words:  sometimes they ignited fires—and not just the metaphorical kind.  In 1901, as chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Holmes had upheld the conviction of a man who tried to persuade his servant to set fire to his own home in order to collect on the insurance. Just as that man’s words threatened the safety and well being of his neighbors so did Schenck’s threaten the safety and well being of his, or so Holmes believed.

Whenever the government suppresses opinions or beliefs like Schenck’s, it claims to be acting on behalf of values—national security, law and order, public safety—that are neutral and universal:  neutral because they don’t favor one person or group over another, universal because they are shared by everyone and defined by everyone in the same way.  Whatever a person may believe, whatever her party or profession, race or religion, may be, she will need to be safe and secure in order to live the life she wishes to live.  If she is to be safe and secure, society must be safe and secure:  free of crime and violent threats at home or abroad.  The government must be safe and secure as well, if for no other reason than to provide her and society with the safety and security they need. She and society are like that audience in Holmes’s theater:  whether some are black and others white, some rich and others poor, everyone needs to be and to feel safe and secure in order to enjoy the show.  And anyone who jeopardizes that security, or the ability of the government to provide it, is like the man who falsely shouts fire in the theater. He is a criminal, the enemy of everyone.  Not because he has a controversial view or takes unorthodox actions, but because he makes society—and each person’s pursuits in society—impossible.

But Americans always have been divided—and always have argued—about war and peace, what is or is not in the national interest.  What is security, people have asked?  How do we provide it?  Pay for it?  Who gets how much of it?  The personal differences that are irrelevant in Holmes’s theater—race, class, gender, ethnicity, residence, and so on—have had a great influence in the theater of war and peace. During the First World War, Wall Street thought security lay with supporting the British, German-Americans with supporting the Kaiser, Socialists with supporting the international working class.  And while the presence or absence of fire in Holmes’s theater is a question of objective and settled fact, in politics it is a question of judgment and interpretation.  During the war, Americans could never decide whether or not there was a fire, and if there was, where it was—on the Somme, the Atlantic, in the factories, the family, the draft—and who had set it:  the Kaiser, Wilson, J.P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt, the Socialists, the unions, the anarchists.  Without agreement on these questions, it wasn’t clear if Schenck was the shouter, the fire, or the fireman.”

– Ellen Schrecker & Corey Robin, “Falsely Shouting Fire in a Theater: How a Forgotten Labor Struggle Became a National Obsession and Emblem of Our Constitutional Faith,Corey Robin blog. February 16, 2013.

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“A minor footnote to the controversy over Niall Ferguson’s homophobic remarks about John Maynard Keynes. Ferguson claimed that the key to Keynes’s economic philosophy is a selfishness and short-termism rooted in the fact that Keynes was gay and had no children. No kids=no future=big deficits.

What is supposed to have prompted Ferguson to these meditations was a question comparing Keynes to Edmund Burke. According to the main report, “Ferguson responded to a question about Keynes’ famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead.” As Ferguson explained in the apology he subsequently issued, “The point I had made in my presentation was that in the long run our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are alive, and will have to deal with the consequences of our economic actions.”

You’d think, for Ferguson’s claim to work, Edmund Burke would have sired a boatload of kids, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. In actual fact, he had one child, which, if my math is right, is only one more than Keynes had.  Not exactly the stuff of which allegedly grand differences of economic philosophy (self-interest versus the social good) are made. And that one child—Edmund’s son Richard—never married and died in 1794, three years before Burke died. In other words, Burke left no one behind.

Maybe that’s why Burke’s economic philosophy put such stress on the vile self-interested short-termism Ferguson is supposed to have detected in the childless gay Keynes. As he wrote after his son died:

There must be some impulse besides public spirit, to put private interest into motion along with it. Monied men ought to be allowed to set a value on their money; if they did not, there would be no monied men. This desire of accumulation is a principle without which the means of their service to the State could not exist. The love of lucre, though sometimes carried to a ridiculous, sometimes to a vicious excess, is the grand cause of prosperity to all States. In this natural, this reasonable, this powerful, this prolific principle, it is for the satirist to expose the ridiculous; it is for the moralist to censure the vicious; it is for the sympathetick heart to reprobate the hard and cruel; it is for the Judge to animadvert on the fraud, the extortion, and the oppression: but it is for the Statesman to employ it as he finds it; with all it’s concomitant excellencies, with all it’s imperfections on it’s head. It is his part, in this case, as it is in all other cases, where he is to make use of the general energies of nature, to take them as he finds them.

– Corey Robin, “Edmund Burke to Niall Ferguson: You know nothing of my work. You mean my whole theory is wrong. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.” Crooked Timber, May 4, 2013.

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“Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human:

Culture and caste.—A higher culture can come into existence only when there are two different castes in society: that of the workers and that of the idle, of those capable of true leisure; or, expressed more vigorously: the caste compelled to work and the caste that works if it wants to….the caste of the idle is the more capable of suffering and suffers more, its enjoyment of existence is less, its task heavier. (§439)

My utopia.—In a better ordering of society the heavy work and exigencies of life will be apportioned to him who suffers least as a consequence of them, that is to say to the most insensible, and thus step by step up to him who is most sensitive to the most highly substantiated species of suffering and who therefore suffers even when life is alleviated to the greatest degree possible. (§462)

…the better, outwardly more favoured caste of society whose real task, the production of supreme cultural values, makes their inner life so much harder and more painful. (§480)

Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty:

Whoever desires the regular income for which he sells his labor must devote his working hours to the immediate tasks which are determined for him by others. To do the bidding of others is for the employed the condition of achieving his purpose. (186)

[The worker] has little knowledge of the responsibilities of those who control resources and who must concern themselves constantly with new arrangements and combinations; he is little acquainted with the attitudes and modes of life which the need for decisions concerning the use of property and income produces….While, for the employed, work is largely a matter of fitting himself into a given framework during a certain number of hours, for the independent it is a question of shaping and reshaping a plan of life, of finding solutions for ever new problems.  (188)

There can be little doubt, at any rate, that employment has become not only the actual but the preferred position of the majority of the population, who find that it gives them what they mainly want: an assured fixed income available for current expenditure, more or less automatic raises, and provision for old age. They are thus relieved of some of the responsibilities of economic life… (189)

The man of independent means is an even more important figure in a free society when he is not occupied with using his capital in the pursuit of material gain but uses it in the service of aims which bring no material return. It is more in the support of aims which the mechanism of the market cannot adequately take care of than in preserving that market that the man of independent means has his indispensable role to play in any civilized society. (190)

There must be, in other words, a tolerance for the existence of a group of idle rich—idle not in the sense that they do nothing useful but in the sense that their aims are not entirely governed by considerations of material gain.  (193)

However important the independent owner of property may be for the economic order of a free society, his importance is perhaps even greater in the fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs. There is something seriously lacking in a society in which all the intellectual, moral, and artistic leaders belong to the employed class. (193)”

– Corey Robin, “The Idle Rich and the Working Stiff: Nietzche von Hayek on Capital v. Labor,” Corey Robin Blog. April 19, 2013.

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