U.S. Intellectual History Blog

My Ambivalent Relationship with the Nation

By my title, you might expect to read something deep about my vexed relationship with the American nation. In the midst of end-of-semester grading, something as interesting as that will have to wait. Instead, I briefly offer you an example of why this long-time subscriber to the Nation magazine has what might be termed a love-apathy relationship with that bastion of American left-liberalism. On the one hand, as the last left-ish weekly newsmagazine, it’s an important institution. On the other, I’ve grown tired of the stale predictability of its editorials, which critique the Democrats from the left until it comes to election time, when the specter of Republican rule disciplines Katrina vanden Heuvel’s editorial board to step into line. I’ve become weary of most of the Nation columnists, who harp on the same issues over and over and over: Naomi Klein on the immorality of corporate rule, Katha Pollitt on the constant threat to women, Gary Younge on how weird American racism seems to a black Brit, Eric Alterman on the lack of liberalism among the so-called liberal media punditry. It’s not that these writers are always or even often wrong, it’s just that dead horses can only be beaten so many times. The only Nation columnist whom I still enjoy reading is that eclectic old Marxist Alexander Cockburn, which speaks to my own interests, but also to the fact that he mixes up his topics enough to keep me coming back. And because he slays conservative and liberal orthodoxies. He even makes counterintuitive, almost deranged arguments denying human-made global warming that I can’t help but laugh at.

Keeping such ambivalence and apathy in mind, I was on the verge of letting my subscription lapse, but decided to re-up based on four wonderful essays that appeared in recent issues. I guess my faith has been restored, for now. Here are links and very brief synopses to these four essays. Enjoy! (I can access the entire articles at the Nation website, but I am unsure if this is because they are free to everyone or if I can get behind the pay wall due to being a subscriber).

1. Corey Robin, “Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom.” In this essay, CUNY political scientists Corey Robin criticizes how liberals misidentify the source of conservatism’s appeal. The article is generated from his forthcoming book, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. He writes: “Confident that no one short of a millionaire could endorse the right’s economic ideology, everyone from Clintonite centrists to radical populists has treated conservatism as essentially a politics of distraction and delusion.” Instead, he argues that conservatism is appealing because it has best tapped into the deep well of American rhetoric on freedom. He wishes the left would follow suit, and make the case that big business thwarts freedom, not government. We should argue for an empowered government to enlarge freedom, instead of as a source for security and equality, which endorses a passive conception of politics.

2. Joshua Clover, “Swans and Zombies: Neoliberalism’s Permanent Contradiction.” This is a highly entertaining review of two books on neoliberalism. I quote Clover’s concluding sentences: “The current catastrophe is a rare creature, to be sure. But it is not a black swan; it is a zombie. It is the last crisis come calling, and the one before that and before that again—not just returned but fortified by the intervening years and the deferral of a reckoning. This crisis that keeps returning, now dressed in finery, now in rags, is evidently not a monster sprung from one particular deviation. Global crisis is, increasingly, the unnatural natural state of modern capital. It will not be laid to rest by fiddling with the alignment of parts, much less returning to a previous mode—these parts, these modes, are what set it shambling forward, hungry, blindly grasping, in the first place.”

3. Martha Nussbaum, “What Makes Life Good?” Nussbaum, University of Chicago philosopher, uses empirical, on-the-ground evidence from her studies of women in south Asia to make the case that “measurements of economic growth fail to capture many facets of well-being.” It’s not a novel argument, but the essay puts it in line with what she describes as a new theory of social justice: the “Capabilities Approach.” She describes this approach: “Unlike the dominant approaches, it begins with a commitment to the equal dignity of all people, whatever their class, religion, caste, race or gender, and it is committed to the attainment, for all, of lives that are worthy of that equal dignity. Both a comparative account of the quality of life and a theory of basic social justice, it remedies the major deficiencies of the dominant approaches. It is sensitive to distribution, focusing particularly on the struggles of traditionally excluded or marginalized groups. It is sensitive to the complexity and the qualitative diversity of the goals that people pursue. Rather than trying to squeeze all these diverse goals into a single box, it carefully examines the relationships among them, thinking about how they support and complement one another. It also takes into account that people may need different quantities of resources if they are to come up to the same level of ability to choose and act, particularly if they begin from different social positions.”

4. Vivian Gornick, “History and Heartbreak.” This is a review of The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg that is beautifully written and will be of interest to anyone who even remotely agrees with Luxemburg’s basic philosophy: “From earliest youth, Rosa had looked upon radical politics as a means of living life fully. She wanted everything: marriage and children, books and music, walks on a summer evening and the revolution. Personal happiness and the struggle for social justice, she said, shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. If people gave up sex and art while making the revolution, they’d produce a world more heartless than the one they were setting out to replace.”

15 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew: As you know from comments on your Facebook page, I really enjoyed the Robin article. As a p.s., another topic that needs to be reclaimed is the politics of terrorism (still). What I mean here is that if those politics were reclaimed by the Left, then we would be more creative in terms of “defense” spending (less on military, and more on world-wide humanitarian issues). – TL

  2. “He even makes counterintuitive, almost deranged arguments denying human-made global warming that I can’t help but laugh at.”

    That wacky Alex! You know, as a scientist, I like reading essays about the sciences, and they aren’t spoiled for me by their inclusion with the writings of this one guy who makes these counterintuitive, almost deranged arguments denying the Holocaust. I mean, so what if those picky historians, and lots of other people, care about getting it right.

  3. Rich: I like Cockburn’s essays on global warming denying because even while being wrong, he points to many of the liberal orthodoxies in the arguments put forward about global warming, such that cap-and-trade or any other market solution would really make a difference. And comparing global warming denial to Holocaust denial is not what I would call apt.

  4. I think it’s very apt. Of course I’m familiar with Godwinning (and all other Internet traditions). But a whole lot more people are likely to die, at this point, because of global warming denial than because of Holocaust denial. And it’s equally risible as an intellectual position. I wonder if you’d like someone’s essays pointing out liberal orthodoxies about WW II even as the author denies that the Holocaust happened.

    By the way, I’m familiar with approximately no one who likes cap-and-trade. It was a position that liberals adopted under duress in order to try to get moderates on board, when nothing else seeming to be working. Of course with the shifting Overton window in the U.S., cap-and-trade itself is now considered to be a socialist plot by conservatives. But liberals that I know of almost all favor a carbon tax, if they like market measures at all. Many don’t.

  5. Even if you’re right that global warming is likely to kill more people than those who died in the Holocaust, the fact that it has yet to happen (in such great numbers) and the fact that such deaths, if they do occur, will be the result of collective negligence, some of it criminal, not of the intentions of a racist and murderous regime, makes the denial analogy inapt.

    But whatever, we’re making silly rhetorical arguments. I really like Cockburn’s essays and agree with most of his points, though firmly disagree with his global warming denying. Maybe I’m wrong to think that the latter doesn’t discount the former.

  6. “Even if you’re right that global warming is likely to kill more people than those who died in the Holocaust […]” — that’s not what I claimed. I wrote that more people are likely to die because of global warming denial, at this point, than because of Holocaust denial.

    I don’t really see how I’m supposed to elevate this over the level of a rhetorical argument. We’re talking about rhetoric, after all. There’s no response that can be made to “I really like Cockburn’s essays” other than “OK, that’s nice”. But I would think that you’d rethink your agreement with most of his points given that on the only one he makes in which there really is a definitive answer, he’s determined to be wrong for political reasons.

  7. RIch: I think Cockburn is definitively right on a host of issues. But I guess I should be more precise with my asides, because my enjoyment of Cockburn was tangential to the point of this post–an “OK, that’s nice” point that’s not really that much fun to debate. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  8. Not to thread jack, but this post is another place where I want to express my frustration at present and future business models to monetize the periodical industry (with apologies to NPR’s On the Media).

    A little over a year ago, I decided to switch my Nation subcription from the print edition to the electronic edition. The magazine itself encouraged this. They get nearly as much money from me and they save a ton of money. Using less paper and not having to physically move a magazine is of course also good for the environment (if you believe that kind of pwog nonsense! 😉 ). I also thought that it would be convenient to have access to The Nation from any computer…and possibly from mobile devices.

    Turns out, however, that The Nation totally doesn’t have its act together when it comes to electronic subscriptions. They send an e-mail with a link to the e-version of each issue. But if you just go to the website, it’s nearly impossible to find it. And there are at least two or three separate ways to log into the website, only one of which manages to recognize me as a subscriber. As a result, I feel as if I don’t have access to The Nation unless I can find the damn e-mail from them. As for iPad/iPhone access, The Nation charges an entirely separate (and rather high) fee for access to the magazine via iPad, so I can’t read it on my iPad.

    And just to be clear here: I have no problem with paying for The Nation. But I’d rather just pay for it once. And I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that, given the imperfect, competing ways in which I might purchase it, the most sensible one for me is an old-fashioned hardcopy subscription which gives the lowest profit margin to the magazine and creates the most environmental damage.

  9. Ben: I was never tempted to go with the web-only subscription because I like paper in my hands when reading and because The Nation’s website is a mess. It takes me forever to find what I’m looking for there.

  10. Andrew: I’m with you on this. I let my subscription lapse a couple of years ago. Have been meaning to resub.

    I got tired of some of the voices in the Nation always trying to maintain ideological purity. I remember a particularly galling editorial about Jim Wallis and the evangelical Left. It was a Katha Pollitt piece. The identity politics tribalism of the Left was on full display.

  11. LD: I’ve read that article. It’s first rate. I think Deresiewicz nailed my experiences in higher ed—as a grad student, administrator (advising especially), and (visiting) professor. I think his descriptions and prescriptions are right on. – TL

  12. Oh that’s just great. I am waiting — hoping — for somebody to say, “No, it’s not as bad as all that.”

    But so far the consensus is that, yes, it is as bad as all that.

    This is when I have to put on my historical thinking cap and realize that not only social institutions but our very frame of conceptualizing them are alike changeable and changing. We are seeing the demise of a particular configuration of the community of knowledge and how we know it as such — but I would like to think that a community of knowledge will continue. I would like to think that the University will survive in some recognizable form.

    One thing’s certain: we’re living in a liminal moment, and I’m not so sure I like what’s on the other side of the doorway.

  13. Three thoughts….

    First, thanks for the link to the Deresiewicz article. It’s a must read.

    Second, it is as bad as all that.

    Third, he’s right, the only hope is for us happy few with tenure to organize and start fighting back. But like most such calls, Deresiewicz isn’t very specific about how we might do so. I’m happy to urge everyone to join AAUP (and everyone should join AAUP). But AAUP is not going to solve these problems, though I have no sense of what might. I look forward to reading an article some day that’s as smart as Deresiewicz’s but that starts where he concludes.

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