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.”