Category: Uncategorized

Exeunt UK, Enter Europe


Stefan Zweig circa 1900.

The causes and consequences of the British exit are currently being pored over by every conceivable news organ, think tank, and political and economic institution. I don’t think I can add anything original to the torrents of analysis but can point to a good overview of the crisis and a piece that offers useful historical perspective [full disclosure: Mark Mazower was my doctoral thesis advisor].

However, as the Brexit news streamed out I looked to the newly translated book of essays by the great Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig. His writing was from the precipice – Europe on the verge of war, at the onset of the Great Depression, during the fascist rise. Although pessimism born of exile got the better of him (how many more did the Nazis kill indirectly and remotely?), his writing during these moments of crisis always expressed an optimism in Europe, or his idea of a possible Europe. Zweig’s Europe was humane, heterogeneous, and cosmopolitan. His vision deserves to be recalled at moments like these. So, here are two quotations drawn from Messages from a Lost World. The first is from Zweig’s unfinished essay on European unity. The second is the epigraph of the anthology taken from Nietzsche.


For us who have found ourselves here reunited around an idea, I feel there is no longer a need to discuss the necessity and compelling logic of that idea, for to do so would simply be to waste time. All the leading heads of state, intellectuals, artists and scholars have been convinced for some time now that only a slender allegiance by all states to a superior governing body could relieve current economic difficulties, reduce the propensity for war and eliminate anxieties aroused by the threat of conflict, which are themselves one of the primary causes of the economic crisis. Our sole common task, then, is now to shift our ideas from the sphere of sterile discussion to one of creative action…The European idea is not a primary emotion like patriotism or ethnicity; it is not born of primitive instinct, but rather of perception; it is not the product of spontaneous fervor, but the slow-ripened fruit of a more elevated way of thinking. It entirely lacks the impassioned instinct which fuels patriotic feeling, and thus the sacro-egoism of nationalism will always cut more keenly through to the average man than the sacro-altruism of the European ideal, because it is always easier to be aware, through a spirit of devotion and veneration, of one’s own kind than of one’s neighbor.

Stefan Zweig, “The Unification of Europe: A Discourse” (1934)


Thanks to the pathological alienation which the nationalistic idiocy has established and still establishes among European peoples, thanks as well to the short-sighted politicians with hasty hands who are on top today with the help of this idiocy and have no sense of how the politics of disintegration which they carry on can necessarily only be politics for an intermission, thanks to all of this and to some things today which are quite impossible to utter, now the most unambiguous signs that Europe wants to become a unity are being overlooked or willfully and mendaciously reinterpreted.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886)

Why New York Should Vote For Bernie Sanders


Bernie 1963

Bernie Sanders getting arrested in 1963 while trying to desegregate Chicago schools.


            Tomorrow, New York State will have a fairly decisive vote in the Democratic primary process. If Bernie wins, that would be eight states in a row and would seriously undermine Hillary’s expectation of coronation rather than nomination. If he loses, this makes his path to the nomination much more difficult, if not nearly impossible. By now there have been various pieces from Hillary supporters ranging from thoughtful statements to moronic ALL CAPS SCREEDS. Bernie supporters have mirrored this spectrum with important reminders about Hillary’s record and, unfortunately, have written pieces that try and fail to rationalize his flawed position on guns. I hope what I say below will lean more towards one side of the spectrum than the other.


Why Bernie?

I have never before given money to a campaign, volunteered, or waited hours to attend a political rally. I have done all three for Bernie and plan to vote for him tomorrow for mainly one reason: morality. Whereas many people of good faith in the Clinton camp see Bernie’s attacks on inequality as a useful if monotone focal point in this year’s campaign, I see inequality, or better put, social justice as the basis for interest in politics per se. If the (im)moral vision of Donald Trump is enough to compel liberals to froth at the mouth and even suggest re-registering as Republicans to back Marco Rubio [as if he’s somehow “better” than Trump], why shouldn’t moral values determine the candidate that one is truly for? There are essentially three answers usually proposed in response by Clintonites.

The first stock answer from Clinton supporters has been as follows: Bernie represents everything I hope and wish for, but I think it won’t be achievable and Hillary might be able to actually do something. Many of the people who say this voted Obama, effectively moving from “Hope” to “Nope.” This question of idealism and pragmatism is certainly not a new one.

There is a section in Plato’s Republic—a pretty good book on politics—that directly takes up this tension between idealism and realism. After having theorized a fairly elaborate system of social organization in service of creating a perpetually just city, Socrates is asked by Glaucon if any of this is even possible. In response, he asks,


“Do you think that someone is a worse painter if, having painted a model of what the finest and most beautiful human being would be like and having rendered every detail of his picture adequately, he could not prove that such a man could come into being?

No, by god, I don’t.

Then what about our own case? Didn’t we say that we were making a theoretical model of a good city?”


The point, of course, is that the theoretical vision matters, and particularly at this moment—during a campaign—where every single candidate on all sides is in “I’m gonna”-mode. Remember when Barack Obama was going to close down GITMO and have the most transparent administration in history? The prison camp is still there, and his administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers and journalists under the Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined. I voted for Obama twice. The first time gleefully, the second, grudgingly. Who knows? I might have buyer’s remorse with Bernie, too. However, at this point in any campaign we only have the candidate’s record of past decisions, behaviors, and moral vision for the future. I think, as (strangely) do many Hillary supporters, Bernie wins in this regard.

The second objection usually levied by Clintonites against Bernie is the idea that he focuses too much on the economy. I think they have a point here to a certain extent. Social justice is not just economic justice; it also involves racial justice. We are in America, after all. However, the Sanders campaign offered a robust series of objectives for countering institutional racism months ago and has incorporated Black Lives Matter activists into the upper echelons of the campaign staff. Add to this the fact that Bernie literally marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested in Chicago for protesting housing segregation, was one of the few Congressmen to back Jesse Jackson’s presidential bid, and has fought for social welfare legislation his entire career. This last point is important. Though it may be true that socio-economic justice is not equivalent to racial justice, it is equally true that racial justice cannot be achieved without socio-economic justice. A person who happened to believe this deeply was MLK.

The last indictment of Bernie by Clintonites is that he is unwilling to dirty his hands in order to get things done. In some cases, they actually revel in Hillary’s Machiavellian approach to politics and tendency to use military force to advance her given policy. Once again, MLK’s views are both important and relevant here: it is wrong to use immoral means to achieve moral ends. Bernie has refused SuperPAC money and lobbyist cash, because he rightly believes that they are not the solution to but the problem of contemporary American politics. He has also indicated that he would be much more reluctant to use force to “solve” political problems. He appears to be the only candidate running that understands what is unique about military force: the moment it is used, all things thought to be constants become variables. Consequently, there has to be a very good plan for the peace after the use of force. In other words, war should only be used as an instrument within a larger plan for a durable political solution. It’s odd to say, but it seems like Bernie knows his Clausewitz better than Hillary.

In sum, since in political campaigns we only have the moral vision and actions of the candidates to go on, it is precisely those candidates whose principles coincide most closely with our own that should be our obvious choice. With the options we have tomorrow, Bernie Sanders is the clear choice by all accounts.


Why Not Hillary?

Hillary supporters often worry that after the party “inevitably” anoints its candidate that Bernie supporters will not come around and unify the Democrats. Their fears are well founded. I would find it very difficult to vote for Hillary, though, to be frank, should she become the nominee I probably would vote for her in the general election. However, I am adamantly against her in the primary. Why?

First of all, let me dispense with red herring of sexism. Yes, Hillary Clinton has been subject to sexist ridicule that no male candidate has had to suffer through. This is incontestable and attests to the fact that we live in a depressingly misogynistic society. It does not, however, make her a choiceworthy candidate. I, too, would be overjoyed with and prefer to have the opportunity to vote in our first female president. I’d prefer to because it’s about goddamn time, and I want my daughter to see a woman at the pinnacle of power. I’d like that woman to be Elizabeth Warren. If she were the other Democratic candidate today, as much as I like Bernie, I’d drop him like a bad habit.

Now that that is out of the way, I want to provide my rationale as to why Hillary Clinton is not only a lesser candidate than Bernie but actually a bad one for anyone who has left-wing or progressive values. Since her days as First Lady, Hillary Clinton has been a standard-bearer of the neoliberal establishment, at once playing up a half-hearted social liberalism (cf. DOMA and “don’t ask, don’t tell”) and initiating class warfare from above. It is Clintonism that midwifed the deliberate abandonment of the working class by the Democratic party, turning what could have been a resuscitation of LBJ’s war on poverty into a war on the poor. Hillary Clinton was not an innocent bystander during this era. Instead she embraced racist dog whistling (“superpredators” and “bringing them to heel”) and denigrated struggling single mothers as “deadbeats.” Nor are these statements merely antiquarian outliers, but rather take current form in Hillary’s calls for poor students to have “skin in the game.”

The main reason I cannot vote for Hillary Clinton, however, is her view on foreign policy. While Hillary might be better on guns at home than Bernie, she’s immoral and incompetent on guns abroad. It is baffling to me that anyone with self-professed progressive values could be taken with what is often described as her “nuance” and “firm grasp” of foreign policy. Policy-wonkishness is not tantamount to good judgment. This brings me to her foreign policy guru: Henry Kissinger. When Hillary touts the original Darth Vader as a fan of her work—a man who literally has the blood of hundreds of thousands of innocents on his hands—I am awestruck that anyone could consider voting for her. Yes, Bernie stumbles when asked about foreign policy and sounds pretty bad. Hillary seems very comfortable with foreign policy questions and sounds much worse.

This latter point is the grand irony of the question of the pragmatism often brandished as the clinching element for the undecided-yet-leaning-Hillary voter. Henry Kissinger was the master of short-term, Machiavellian pragmatism. This approach brought the backing of the cruel regime of the shah of Iran, produced the rise to power of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and helped place General Pinochet and his death squads in power in Chile, to name just a few policy outcomes. Or, as Barrett Brown has brilliantly put it, he represents the-ends-justifies-the-means-and-oops-we-fucked-up-the-ends-too foreign policy establishment. It was this Kissingerian pragmatism that brought about Hillary’s Iraq War vote and her latest adventure in Libya. Thus far, up to 175,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq and nearly 30,000 have been killed in Libya; both countries have become havens for ISIS and various other terrorist groups.


So, New Yorkers, when you go to the polls tomorrow, please remember that you are voting for candidates who are making claims about what they will do. At this point, all we have to go on are their past actions, their claims, and the moral implications of both. And going on that, Bernie Sanders is the clear choice.





Cruz Control and the American Way


Photo Credit: Reuters

“We will do what we can to help them fight this scourge, and redouble our efforts to make sure it does not happen here. We need to immediately halt the flow of refugees from countries with a significant al Qaida or ISIS presence. We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” TED CRUZ


Ted Cruz’s response to the Brussels’ terrorist attacks has been rightfully and roundly criticized by liberal media outlets and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. However, what the liberal outrage gets wrong about Cruz’s suggestions is that such measures would be out of step with American traditions and security policy. As recently as 2014, the NYPD had a special branch of its intelligence division, the Demographics Unit, dedicated to running surveillance specifically on the NY-metro area Muslim community at large, from kebab stand workers to mosque attendees to Muslim student associations as far off as Philadelphia. This is to say nothing of the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) of the late 1950s-1970s that infiltrated and tried to disrupt the activities of, among others, left-wing student organizations, anti-Vietnam War protestors, and members of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. To “patrol and secure” whatever the majority of the American population happens to fear at a given moment is firmly within the traditions of American security policy. Ted Cruz’s call for specialized surveillance of an entire group of the American populace for the sake of security is actually the reappearance of an old theme in American history. Recall that the first organizations that resembled police forces in America were the mounted slave patrols that were tasked solely with finding African Americans. To identify and watch over a particular swath of the population is not some sort of aberration but rather the norm in the American way of security. This is American policy on autopilot—cruise control is Cruz control.

To register that such an approach is within the traditions of American policy-making and execution is, of course, not to endorse it. Such ways of providing security have been and will be disastrous to the American Muslim community. They should be opposed on moral, pragmatic, and legal grounds, and in that order. The reason for this is that while the US has had a relatively short history of dealing with terrorism done in the name of Islam, the example of French security policy vis-à-vis its Muslim community across the 20th century can point us to the folly of adopting such an approach.


“To identify and watch over a particular swath of the population is not some sort of aberration but rather the norm in the American way of security. This is American policy on autopilot—cruise control is Cruz control.”


From 1925 until approximately 1980, the Paris Prefecture of Police had a specialized unit whose only tasks were the political surveillance and criminal investigation of Muslims from France’s North African colonies, Morocco, Tunisia, and, most importantly, Algeria. This police service had number of monikers but was generally referred to by police officials and the press as the North African Brigade. Its main task was to collect information on the entirety of the Muslim community in Paris and repress anti-colonialist and nationalist feeling. It didn’t work. What it did do was further entrench a hierarchy of belonging in France. After 1947, Algerians living in France were by law French citizens. However, with the specialized policing program they were not treated as such, and this fact was not lost on them. Thus, not only was it deeply immoral to treat an entire segment of the population as suspects rather than citizens based simply on their identity, it also did not produce the intended results. That is to say, all three North African colonies gained independence, and North Africans in France became increasingly wary of any interaction with the French police. While legal opposition to such policies might be useful insofar as they constitute opposition per se, what French and American history demonstrate is that the laws can always be tweaked in times of crisis to legalize government actions. The French invented the “state of emergency” during the Algerian War to provide the government security forces with a freer hand, and the US passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, aka the USA PATRIOT Act, in 2001. Shortly thereafter, American lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel redefined torture, which, incidentally, the French had also used extensively in Algeria in the late 1950s.

America has some great traditions. The demonization of entire communities in the name of security is not one of them. Ted Cruz’s proclamations about essentially criminalizing Muslim identity should be rejected. But don’t waive the Constitution in his face to denounce such recommendations. There could well be a process whereby Muslim surveillance becomes constitutional given what has been approved by our legislature and judiciary. The September 18, 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force and the November 13, 2001 Executive Order on Military Commissions have created the grounds for perpetual war coupled with the near suspension of habeas corpus since 2001. The fragility of law during times of emergency, real or imagined, has been known since antiquity. The Roman statesman Cicero noted, “In times of war, the law falls silent.” Events like these terrible attacks in Brussels, which involve equal parts tragedy, fear, and anger, are a test for American society. They can also act as a reminder to mobilize the forces of collective morality so we can hopefully get out of cruise/Cruz control.





The Resistible Rise of Donald Trump


            ( Photo credit: Robyn Beck/Agence France Presse)


Is Donald Trump a fascist? He certainly sounds like one.

So strong are the parallels of Trump’s language to the fascist rhetoric of the 1920s and 1930s that I shifted my history curriculum to compare Mussolini and Hitler’s speeches and policies with those of Trump and other members of the political class.

Case in point: On Sunday, November 15, 2015, Jeb Bush argued that only Christians should be allowed into the country; Ted Cruz concurred. The next day, Chris Christie stated that Syrian orphans under the age of five should not be allowed into the US. On Wednesday, the Mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, David Bowers, issued a statement suggesting Muslim refugees meet that same fate as Japanese-Americans who were herded into concentration camps during WWII. Finally, on Thursday November 19th, Donald Trump proposed that Muslims in America be specially registered and identified. So, in the span of five days, senior members of the American political class (all Republicans barring Mayor Bowers) called for religious exclusion at the borders, concentration camps, dual legal and surveillance regimes for Muslim Americans, and special insignia.

The most outspoken of the lot, Donald Trump, has emphasized his belief that Muslim immigration to the US should be explicitly banned—call it a Muslim Exclusion Act.

It sounds fascist, right? No, says Vox Media.

The constellation of academic stars Vox queried about whether or not Donald Trump is a fascist categorically rejected the label. Ranging from the usual excruciating academic jargon (“Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism”—Roger Griffin) to much more useful arguments (describing fascism as a type of politics “obsessed with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood”—Robert Paxton), each highly respected scholar rejected the descriptor “fascist” for one reason: Trump continues to embrace the democratic process. They argue that because Trump has not questioned the political legitimacy of democracy itself, he cannot be a fascist and thus has much more in common with the “right-wing populism” of France’s Front National. But this conclusion is problematic, and overlooking its deep flaws might well be contributing to what seems to be Trump’s irresistible rise.

“The exact mimicry of German National Socialism or Italian Fascism is a dangerous measure for assessing the moral and political identity of contemporary political movements. Everyone falls short of Hitler.”

First, the term “fascism” need not be rendered an ineffective description just because it is not an exact mirror of the classical fascism of the 1920s and ’30s. Should Bernie Sanders not be called a democratic socialist because his platform isn’t a carbon copy of, say, the Weimar Republic’s Social Democrats? Conservatism also means something quite different today than what was articulated by Edmund Burke, but the term is still useful as a category to identify a certain body of thought and action. As Mark Twain noted, history never repeats itself, but sometimes it rhymes.

No, Trump does not have an army of Trumpshirts beating political opponents in the streets, but he has responded positively to violence committed in his name, suggesting that his followers are either “very passionate” or that the victims might have deserved to have been “roughed up.” Coupled with statements about a specialized legal regime for certain citizens and a motto that emphasizes reanimating a latent, authentic America, Trump has the rhyme and meter of fascism down pat.

Second, while Mussolini and Hitler were not voted into power and relied on the use or threat of force to engineer executive appointments, their parties did use the democratic process to field candidates, thereby gaining popular legitimacy and shifting their ideologies from the lunatic fringe to the mainstream. The anti-democratic nature of fascism reveals itself as such only when it hits the limits of democratic processes. Currently, these processes appear to be going just swimmingly for Donald Trump.

Lastly, it’s true that Trump’s campaign may have more in common with the reactionary right-wing populism of France’s Front National than Mussolini’s Fasci di Combattimento. However, it’s true only insofar that these are different political movements in different national and historical contexts. The flaw in this analysis hinges on the fact that 1) fascism is always paired with a heavy dose of right-wing populism, but, more importantly, 2) it forgets the fascist origins of the Front National itself. The Front National’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen has a long list of fascist sympathies, from his admiration of the Vichy collaborationist leader Marshal Philippe Pétain to being fined for having sold records of Hitler speeches. Additionally, when the Front National was founded in 1972, it was a mélange of violent, extreme-right wing, neo-fascist groups, such as l’Ordre Nouveau (The New Order). Le Pen viewed the jack-boots and violence as not immoral but unproductive and by 1974 convinced the membership to start wearing respectable suits. He also eschewed the language of anti-democracy and instead repurposed the rhetoric of French republican universalism to identify those—Muslims and former colonial subjects—who were too particular to be worthy of inclusion in French society and politics. In a deft piece of political jujitsu, Le Pen re-invented the republican tradition and used its themes of assimilation and the separation of church and state as a rationale to exclude certain people at the borders and to draw internal borders in French society.

This should be a warning to those who want to write off Trump as simply an American Le Pen. Le Pen’s Front National is an illustration of how fascist ideas can easily coexist with and utilize democracy to further entrench these ideas. The recent electoral success of Jean-Mare Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, is a testament to the political evolution of fascism: fascist in content, democratic in form.

The exact mimicry of German National Socialism or Italian Fascism is a dangerous measure for assessing the moral and political identity of contemporary political movements. Everyone falls short of Hitler. The great German-Jewish philosopher, and refugee, Hannah Arendt warned of becoming so obsessed with totalitarianism as the ultimate in evil that we become “blind to the numerous small and not so small evils with which the road to hell is paved.”

In essence, Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies are these small evils and must be resisted at every step. It’s deeply troubling that though many in the Republican establishment have disavowed his remarks, many others have also said they would support him should he become the presidential nominee.

When in power would Trump dismantle the US government with an Enabling Act, demand an oath of personal fealty by the military, or institute anti-Muslim legislation? I’m not sure. Unlike former president George W. Bush, I make no claim to be able to see into men’s souls. However, I am sure that it is the duty of all Americans to resist the rise of Donald Trump to ensure such questions remain in the realm of theory and not practice.