The Wind of Change: What’s Happening in Venezuela?

(The following is a guest post by Alissandra Stoyan, a PhD candidate in Political Science at UNC – Chapel Hill. Her research examines how presidents pursue ambitious reform efforts in a democratic context. She has conducted field work in Latin America, and her dissertation examines recent Venezuelan politics as one of her primary cases.)

I am happy and I see a great future for Venezuela… Enough words have been said, enough fighting has occurred, enough disasters have taken place. The failures are over and done with, I feel sure of this and happy about it. I feel optimistic because, as my grandmother used to say, you can smell the wind of change, it is in the air.” – Hugo Chávez, February 10, 2004. Quoted in Guevarra, Aleida. 2005. Chávez, Venezuela & the New Latin America: An interview with Hugo Chávez. New York: Ocean Press. Pp 110.

It started on February 2. In San Cristobal, a city in the mountains near the Colombian border, students from three local universities were outraged over the violent assault and attempted rape of a fellow student. These twenty-somethings have only known the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Socialism of the 21st Century, and the leadership of Hugo Chávez. They were about 4 years old when Chávez won the presidency with an overwhelming 56% of the vote in a single round. The following year, a new Constitution was written to re-found the state and drastically change the political process in Venezuela. They grew up with access to free health care and free education, including their current university education. Political polarization has been a constant; they and everyone they know are either Chávistas or anti-Chávistas because there has never been much in-between. Insecurity and impunity has risen dramatically throughout their lives. The number of homicides tripled in Venezuela between 1996 and 2006, according to the NGO Venezuelan Violence Watch. In 2012, the Venezuelan homicide rate was 73 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. In the same year, neighboring Colombia had a rate of approximately 31 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants and the US had a rate of 4.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. Likewise, the economy is in a dire condition. As they think about graduation, these students face rising inflation (currently 56%), widespread shortages of goods, and uncertainty over future employment. Eva Golinger, author of The Chávez Code, has referred to the student movement as “Occupy Wall Street in reverse,” implying that Venezuelan students are siding with the 1%. Likewise, Chávez’s ‘old guard’ laments that the younger generation is ungrateful for what they have, without respect for the epic triumph against neoliberalism and entrenched elite interests.

Untitled

(Rodrigo Abd/AP)

In “Is Venezuela Burning?,” published in Jacobin, Mike Gonzalez rightfully demonstrates that the issues in Venezuela are actually much deeper and more complex than they appear on the surface. The protests in San Cristobal might have remained an isolated incident, never to be reported in international media, if not for the involvement of prominent opposition members and the harsh and disproportionate response of the state. The opposition has seized this moment as an opportunity to channel discontent toward Nicholas Maduro’s removal after only 10 months in office. Leopoldo López, an economist educated in the US, and Maria Corina Machado, an opposition congresswoman, have called for ‘La Salida,’ a strategy to force Maduro to step down. With their involvement, protests have spread to nearly every major city in Venezuela. As one twitter user quipped: “Carlos Andrés Pérez had a Caracazo. Maduro has a Caracazo, Valenciazo, Barquisimetazo, Bolivarazo, Maracaibazo…”

More widespread confrontations have led to new grievances related to the states’ response to protest, particularly surrounding issues of self-censorship of the press and the strong-handed and repressive tactics of the police and other government agencies. Greater focus has also been directed at the violence perpetrated by armed colectivos, motorcycle-riding paramilitary groups in defense of the revolution. One of the largest groups, the Tupumaros, lost one of its own leaders and is also allegedly responsible for another death in these protests. As conflict peaked on February 12, the Venezuelan intelligence service (SEBIN) disobeyed direct orders by taking to the streets with their weapons. Maduro has vowed to hold them accountable, removing the head of the agency and arresting several officials in connection to deaths. On February 19, López was arrested, effectively becoming a martyr for the radical opposition’s cause. President Obama, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch all condemned his arrest. David Smilde, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America has an interesting take on the potential political incentives for Maduro to foster confrontation and keep López in the spotlight as the leader of the opposition, and so does Francisco Toro at Caracas Chronicles. Lastly, the military has moved into Táchira to quell protest, and there were reports of an internet and media blackout there. Reading of these developments, I can’t get Simón Bolivar’s words out of my head: “Maldito el soldado que apunta su arma contra su pueblo“: Cursed is the soldier who aims his gun at his own people.

Maduro

(Rodrigo Abd/AP)

The dead are young, members of both sides of this conflict. El Universal has generated an interactive map (Spanish) of those who’ve died. On February 12 in Caracas, some of the first to die were: Bassil Da Acosta (24), a student protestor, and Juan “Juancho” Montoya (51), a well known colectivo leader and pro-government community activist. Both were shot in the head. A little later on the same day, another protestor, Roberto Redman (31) was shot in the face with rubber pellets. On Feburary 17 in Sucre, José Ernesto Ménedez (17) was run over at a protest by a vehicle driven by a PDVSA worker. On February 19 in Valencia, student and beauty queen, Génesis Carmona (22), was shot in the head. Julio Eduardo González (25), an attorney, crashed his car trying to drive around a barricade. And that evening, Geraldine Moreno (23), a student, was shot in the face with rubber pellets in front of her family’s home. On February 20 in Mérida, Delia Elena Lobo (37) died from injuries sustained when she drove her motorbike into a barb wire barricade. In Lara, Arturo Alexis Martínez (58) was shot in the chest while cleaning up debris in the street. He was the brother of Francisco Martínez, Congressman for the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV). On the evening of February 21 in Caracas, Elvis Rafael Durán (29) drove his motorbike into a wire that had been stretched across the road by protesters, slitting his throat. In response, the government has issued an arrest warrant for retired General Angel Vivas, who sent this tweet (Spanish) the day before the incident, suggesting the tactic to the opposition for combating the colectivos. Since then, Vivas has been resisting arrest at his home, dressed in a flak jacket and armed with an assault rifle and a handgun. His supporters built barricades in the street and cheer him on as he vows not to surrender. On February 23 in Caracas, José Alejandro Márquez (43) was beaten by the Bolivian National Guard and was declared braindead. On February 24 in Táchira, Jimmy Vargas (34) was hit in the head with a canister of tear gas launched by the Bolivarian National Guard, lost his balance, and fell from the second story of a building. That same day in Cagua, Johnny Carballo (43) was shot in the head by tupamaros (armed motorists). At least one additional unidentified young man was shot on February 25 during the looting of a grocery store in Maracay. In total, there have been nearly 150 wounded and over 500 detained, though the vast majority have been released.

Bed

(Meridith Kohut/New York Times)

Maduro is not Chávez. He is politically weaker and lacks the charisma of his predecessor. Still, he has gone to great lengths to invoke the iconic leader. On February 17, in the midst of this conflict, he resurrected Chávez’s tweets from a year ago: “Sigo aferrado a Cristo y confiado en mis médicos y enfermeras. Hasta la victoria siempre!! Viviremos y venceremos!!!“: I am still clinging to Christ and trusting in my doctors and nurses. Toward victory always!! We’ll live and we’ll overcome!!! Though cancer would take Chávez’s life in less than a month, his words promise immortality – the immortality of his revolution. These days, it seems, Maduro sigue aferrado a Chávez. The picture below recently appeared in Slate with the caption: “Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro hold a protest…” It’s telling that, a year later, the imagery of the revolution still belongs to Chávez. The crucial question is whether Chávistas are abandoning Maduro. Is the ‘son of Chávez,’ losing support among his base? The answer will determine where these protests are headed and whether they might slip out of Maduro’s control. So far, the Chávista governor of Táchira has distanced himself from the government (Spanish). He reacted against the government’s repression, particularly the decision to send fighter jets over his state. He said: “When Chavez was in government I had autonomy in my language and my thoughts, and I will maintain it now more than ever.” But the blog post by Francisco Toro, linked above, indicates that it’s unlikely that this will spread beyond the middle class.

Crowd

(Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images)

Another key issue is the inability of the opposition to develop a coherent plan. As Jorge Ramos Ávalos, a Mexican journalist and news anchor for Univision, put it (Spanish): “The old and rotten is dying, but the new has not yet been born.” His sentiment is clearly biased toward the opposition but it also illuminates a central problem with all this protest. The radical opposition has failed to develop a useful dialog beyond ousting Maduro. On this point, Maduro is an upstanding democrat. He has stated that the opposition should instead be preparing signatures for a 2016 recall referenda, a legal mechanism in the 1999 Constitution, to remove him from office with a majority of the popular vote. Ultimately, what are protestors trying to achieve and can Maduro respond adequately to their grievances? Capriles has begun to develop an agenda and at least a preliminary list of demands (Video in Spanish, list begins at 15:51), which includes: freeing all detained students and López; ending persecution, repression, and permitting exiled Venezuelans to return; disarming the paramilitaries; among other things. Some are reasonable, some are vague, and some are very unlikely.

The Maduro government and its supporters are maintaining that these protests are a plot by the radical opposition to draw international intervention (Spanish). Early on, there were reports of the opposition destroying its own neighborhoods to make it look like the work of the colectivos and to incite more protest. Steve Ellner, social scientist and author of Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chavez Phenomenon, has underscored the idea that the opposition is primarily responsible for violence. Moreover, Eva Golinger spoke of an international conspiracy to commit economic sabotage, with elites hoarding products to provoke shortages and promote panic among the population. In this view, the United States is trying to “make the economy scream” in Venezuela, a la Nixon and Allende. More recently, the Maduro administration has contended that the former president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, is playing a role in the violence. They claim that the opposition is working with Colombian mercenaries to fuel violence and caste blame on the government.

It’s hard to determine what’s going on from a desk in Chapel Hill, NC. The degree of misinformation as these events have unfolded demonstrates that Venezuela is perhaps more polarized than it has ever been. No one tells both sides of the story; everyone has an angle. In the chaos of early protests, even Venezuelan scholars and experts tweeted more questions than answers: “Can we confirm this? Is there proof?” On February 13, I scanned my twitter feed for news and a repeating image caught my attention. There were two men, one with a camera and the other with a gun trained on each other. It turned out that it was taken in Singapore and had nothing to do with Venezuela (see this and other examples of false tweets debunked here and here). Today, Maduro and his supporters are using the hash tag: #MaduroHombreDePaz. Meanwhile, outside on UNC’s campus, someone has diligently scrawled in chalk: #SOSVenezuela #PrayForVenezuela. Searching twitter for those hash tags unleashes a string of images and YouTube videos (like this one) that make me feel sick and helpless. Even if I was among the barricades in the streets of Caracas, I’m not sure if I’d know what to believe. The truth in Venezuela, as in many places, always seems to lie somewhere in between.

Crowd2

(Meridith Kohut/New York Times)

The situation is all the more dangerous given that there appears to be no tractable middle ground in Venezuela. Both sides are calling for peace but it’s unclear what they mean. Capriles appeared to be willing to negotiate with Maduro, but on Monday he rejected a meeting with the president. Demanding López’s release, Capriles said: “I’m not going to be like the orchestra on the Titanic. I’m not the musician. The boat is sinking, and I’m the one who’s playing the music? No sir, Nicholas, you’re not going to use me.” Is that really the wind of change in the air? I’m not sure, but one thing is certain. Where there is no room for compromise, where there are only Chávistas and anti-Chávistas, fascistas and anti-imperialistas, as it has been for fifteen years now, it’s difficult to envision a peaceful and democratic way forward.

The Left’s Omertà

You can’t be a star for what you say, only for the way you say it. Far from being driven apart by differing opinions, [Christopher] Hitchens and [Robert] Conquest were drawn together by their common love of language. The long consequence of their encounters in those years can be enjoyed in the opening pages of Hitchens’ little book Orwell’s Victory (2002) [ed.: Why Orwell Matters in the U.S.], where its author is to be found conceding that Conquest might have had a point about the Bolsheviks all along. But those who never doubted that he did can’t expect credit for having been right. What we can expect is to be dismissed for having been on the Right. To be a liberal democrat was considered reactionary then, and to have been so then is to be considered reactionary now. People who have abandoned erroneous opinions would be giving up too much if they ceased to regard people who never held them as naive. As Revel pointed out, the Left demands a monopoly of rectification.

— Clive James, criticizing one of his friends while writing on Solzhenitsyn, As of This Writing, p. 225 of the 2003 Norton hardback.

I have enjoyed and profited from much of Corey Robin’s writing, but lately he’s been tilting at windmills just a bit. Last year he famously charged Hayek, and with him the rest of the right — the definition of which seems to be those for whom Robin does not care — of pronounced übermenschy tendencies. The convoluted and conspiratorial reasoning of that essay was more reminiscent of a Dan Brown plot or a Glenn Beck chalkboard than Robin’s earlier work. I objected to that article at the time and hoped it was just a misfire, but since then he’s conjured more and more smoke from less and less fire. The Petreaus Affair was, quite simply, not worth the time and effort that was put into it. The BDS/ASA kerfluffle, in which Robin insisted that boycotts were unprincipled only if they were in response to other boycotts, was even more absurd. (If you don’t support BDS and the ASA boycott guess what! You’re a “latter-day McCarthyite“. There should be a version of Godwin’s Law for McCarthyism, which we’ll come back to in a minute.)

Now he has written this:

James Madison, Federalist 51:

The constant aim is…that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.

Elia Kazan, on why he named names:

Reason 1: “I’ve got to think of my kids.”

Reason 2: “All right, I earned over $400,000 last year from theater. But Skouras [head of Twentieth-Century Fox] says I’ll never make another movie. You’ve spent your money, haven’t you? It’s easy for you. But I’ve got a stake.”

Which led to an exchange somewhat limited by the 140 character cap:

As I said, I understood Robin’s attempt at making a point. But the point is invalid, and Robin’s blind spot is disturbing. If Kazan’s testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) evidenced a public disaster then the disaster had occurred well before Kazan entered the room. Kazan’s choice was to speak truthfully to a democratically-elected legislature — at a time when the Democratic party controlled the House, Senate, and Presidency — that was investigating sabotage against the government of the United States, or to defy it. At first he defied it. Under increasing pressure he named eight names, all of which were already known by the HUAC. Of those, one was already dead, another also testified and contracted with Kazan to name each other so both would avoid blacklists (they did), and the others continued to work on the same New York stages that Robin indicates were more than good enough for Kazan. Kazan’s reputation was the most damaged of any as the result of this event. So where’s the public disaster?

All of those Kazan named were members of or fellow travelers with the same American communist party (CPUSA) that was allied with Stalin before and after the war (including before, during, and after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) and that had “tried” Kazan via an internal judicial proceeding for the crime of being insufficiently activist when doing so would have cost Kazan his career at a stage when he wasn’t well off. Kazan kept his ideals but left the Party as a result. It is worth repeating: Kazan’s livelihood was threatened by American communists in the 1930s, well before Congress came calling. If the CPUSA had been successful in their longer-term revolutionary aims his livelihood — and given the Stalinist proclivities of the American Party at the time, perhaps his life — would have been jeopardized once again. Even after leaving the Party Kazan remained an ideological communist until the Hitler-Stalin pact destroyed what illusions still remained. That was his Kronstadt moment, as it was for many communists.

So what principle was at stake for Kazan, exactly, that he should have sacrificed his own interest to avert “public disaster”? To defend those who had previously bullied him and would undoubtedly do so again if given the chance? To support the members of and sympathizers with a Party that had stuck with Stalin through his murderous show trials, his cynical alliance with Hitler, and his imperial occupation of Eastern Europe? What kind of principle is that? Or, as Kazan put it to Arthur Miller,

To defend a secrecy I don’t think right and to defend people who have already been named or soon would be by someone else… I hate the Communists and have for many years, and don’t feel right about giving up my career to defend them. I will give up my film career if it is in the interests of defending something I believe in, but not this.

This is not hard to understand. There are some people in my life for whom I would sacrifice quite a lot. There are others for whom I would sacrifice a much smaller amount. And there are still others for whom I would sacrifice nothing, because they have wronged me and those that I love or because they espouse principles that I find repugnant. By all accounts, Kazan considered the question in earnest and recognized no principle worth defending. From my vantage point it is difficult to disagree: CPUSA was a repugnant institution, and members of repugnant institutions should not be guaranteed lucrative positions in glamorous industries if only they can convince everyone to hide the fact of their membership, whether it has lapsed or not. Still, rather than acting vindictively, Kazan testified in a way that would cause the least pain for himself and for those around him: he named names already named. He then used the career he saved to make numerous movies from the perspective of the non-communist and non-authoritarian left, including Viva Zapata! the year after his HUAC testimony and On the Waterfront the year after that.

I will agree with everyone who says that the HUAC over-stepped its bounds by miles, that many or most of the members of the HUAC were more concerned with political gain than principle, and that the entire scene was noxious. But the left’s valorization of all those who refused to testify before HUAC and vilification of those who did raises a different set of questions. Who today would side with Alger Hiss over Elia Kazan? Because when Hiss perjured himself concerning his own espionage — as the result of a libel trial Hiss initiated against Whittaker Chambers, it must be remembered; he brought it on himself in more than one way — he not only bamboozled the left but also catalyzed HUAC into the McCarthyite machine in the first place. (It also jump-started the previously mediocre career of Richard Nixon.) And it was a perjury. Nor was Hiss the only one. Had Harry Dexter White lived a bit longer he would have become even more famous than Hiss.

Kazan was brought before HUAC four years after White lied under oath and then died under the strain and two years after Hiss was convicted. In between those two events Richard Nixon graduated from the House to the Senate and McCarthy went on the war path. Both of those events would have been much less likely had the postwar left not unthinkingly supported Hiss. Meanwhile, Kazan did not commit espionage, falsely accuse others of libel, perjure himself, or otherwise discredit the anti-communist left for decades. He did not create a political launching pad for McCarthy and Nixon. He did not reveal any new information. It is quite possible that he did not even materially injure anyone’s life or reputation, at least beyond the extent that he would have been injured had he refused to name already-known names. And if Kazan repudiated the CPUSA — an organization that acted in secrecy with the avowed goal of demolishing the non-Soviet left and destroying the American state — by 1952 it was certainly worth repudiating. According to the International Committee of the Fourth International (in a post pillorying Kazan’s defenders, no less):

Tragically for them and the working class as a whole, the Communist Party by the time of the blacklist had been destroyed as a vehicle of progressive social change. It was a Stalinist party, with a cynical and treacherous leadership, loyal to the twists and turns of the bureaucracy in Moscow.

How is this not worth denouncing? The Trotskyists may be biased but they are not wrong. And yet it is Kazan who is scorned rather than Hiss, despite the fact that the latter did exponentially more damage to the credibility of the left than the former. Kazan contributed to the purging of Bolsheviks from the left — a necessary precursor to the social democratic gains of the succeeding decades — at the expense of making eight members of America’s upper class slightly less materially comfortable.

Why is this so objectionable? According to Robin, it is because Kazan acted in his “private interest” while being interrogated by a government action that he opposed and initially resisted. Robin believes Kazan should become an object lesson for why the Right is wrong. Nevermind that Kazan remained a liberal all his life. Nevermind that Kazan’s testimony, in the context in which it was given, was not merely a question of private interest. Had Kazan wanted to do more damage to the left he undoubtedly could have.

Corey Robin’s post is mood affiliation in pure form. I have no idea what Robin actually thinks of Hiss. Everything he has written about this period acknowledges only reactionary suppression, never the possible reasons for it. The index of both his books contain no mention of Hiss, Google reveals nothing written by him on the subject, and the proceedings from this conference have transcripts for every single speaker but Robin. The silence is curious for someone who has written so extensively on the issues that Robin has, especially when his indices reveal multiple entries for Chambers, communist collaborators, and the Red Scare. Robin is definitely not ignorant. The question is whether he is credible. He increasingly reads like an out-of-time 20th century apologist for anything that is not Right.

Of course, Robin is only using Kazan to discredit Madison and then, via some unclear transitivity, modern-day right reactionaries or maybe the entire structure of American governance. But why? Madison was one of the strongest of the nascent America’s republicans, and in the snippet Robin pulls (as elsewhere) he essentially adopts the language of Rousseau. Here is what happens during the elipses in the quote Robin provides above:

… to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other…

That is, Madison wishes for a broad distribution of power, and constant competition among those who would seek it, so that none of them may ever fully obtain it. Robin finds this objectionable because private power is one part of that equation. This is expressing too much and too little all at once. Can private interests cause public disaster? Of course. Does this imply in any way that private interests ought to be abolished? There is not a single data point in history that recommends this conclusion. The irony in all of this, of course, is that Robin finds Kazan’s collaboration with the government objectionable. If a democratically-elected government in which all branches are controlled by the only left party with substantial popular support does not meet his criteria for “public interest” then what would? It was 1952… the other options were not appealing.

Christopher Hitchens once displayed the attitude Clive James criticized by writing about the “loyalty oath”: “If Hiss was wrong, then Nixon and McCarthy were right. And that could not be.” But it was, in this case even if in no others, and it remains so, and Kazan either knew it or sensed it. The movement that coalesced in defense of Hiss’ fabrications is not worth defending now. It galvanized all the worst reactionaries in the postwar era. It contributed nothing to the improvement of the lives of the working class. None of the names Kazan gave were even a part of the working class, nor did they represent it. Meanwhile, the language is important: only the credulous take loyalty oaths. Kazan broke omertà 62 years ago, and Robin isn’t finished with him yet. 

The nice thing about history is that we get to see how it ran. It turns out that the greatest period for the working class occurred in the United States in the twenty years after Kazan testified. This flowering was not a product of CPUSA agitation but of the incrementalist liberals like Kazan that they opposed. Meanwhile, a short four years later, another Kronstadt moment would occur. At that moment who was overdue for reflection: Kazan or his former friend Arthur Miller, who attacked Kazan by writing The Crucible? They later reconciled, and once Miller finally got around to protesting the suppression of expression in the USSR his works were subsequently banned. He at least learned the lesson. (Sort of. He refused to put his name to an open letter protesting Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie.)

The journalist Elmer Davis once wondered “How long will these ex-Communists and ex-Sympathizers abuse the patience of the vast majority which had enough sense to never be Communists or Sympathizers at all?” Quite a long time, apparently. Robin’s ability to castigate the usual suspects — Burke, Buckley, and Bush — has always been impressive, but by this stage one wonders if he’s run out of turf. When he has moved into new areas he has displayed reactionary tendencies of his own: if it ever was Right it can’t ever be right. This is demoralizing for those of us who identify with the left but have no interest in genuflecting to “radical” absolutists of yesteryear or today. In the end such demands will only produce ambivalence in many, as they did in Kazan:

I don’t think there’s anything in my life toward which I have more ambivalence, because, obviously, there’s something disgusting about giving other people’s names. On the other hand . . . at that time I was convinced that the Soviet empire was monolithic…. I also felt that their behavior over Korea was aggressive and essentially imperialistic…. Since then, I’ve had two feelings. One feeling is that what I did was repulsive, and the opposite feeling, when I see what the Soviet Union has done to its writers, and their death camps, and the Nazi pact and the Polish and Czech repression…. It revived in me the feeling I had at that time, that it was essentially a symbolic act, not a personal act. I also have to admit and I’ve never denied, that there was a personal element in it, which is that I was angry, humiliated, and disturbed–furious, I guess–at the way they booted me out of the Party…. There was no doubt that there was a vast organization which was making fools of the liberals in Hollywood…. It was disgusting to me what many of them did, crawling in front of the Party. Albert Maltz published something in few Masses, I think, that revolted me: he was made to get on his hands and knees and beg forgiveness for things he’d written and things he’d felt. I felt that essentially I had a choice between two evils, but one thing I could not see was (by not saying anything) to continue to be a part of the secret maneuvering and behind the scenes planning that was the Communist Party as I knew it. I’ve often, since then, felt on a personal level that it’s a shame that I named people, although they were all known, it’s not as if I were turning them over to the police; everybody knew who they were, it was obvious and clear. It was a token act to me, and expressed what I thought at the time….
I don’t say that what I did was entirely a good thing.

What’s called “a difficult decision” is a difficult decision because either way you go there are penalties, right? What makes some things difficult in life is if you’re marrying one woman you’re not marrying another woman. If you go one course you’re not going another course. But I would rather do what I did than crawl in front of a ritualistic Left and lie the way those other comrades did, and betray my own soul. I didn’t betray it.

A vibrant 21st century left does not need to assume every position of its 20th century forebears. It can, and should, be reflective. It can, and should, be willing to acknowledge the gains made by the liberal capitalist compromise. And it can, and should, acknowledge that loyalty oaths and secrecy pacts were mistakes of the past, while openness and transparency — even in the face of persecution — is self-recommending. Rather than excoriate a potential liberal ally for making a reasonable choice under duress sixty years ago we can, and should, try to build broader coalitions rather than narrower. Any left that seeks to sublimate all private interests into knee-jerk collectivism in the 21st century, or any other, is doomed.

The Open Letter Opposing Legislative Meddling in University Politics

I speak for none of the Jilted other than myself but I wanted to pass along this open letter, addressed to various legislative bodies in the U.S. who are trying to politicize universities in what I think is an unproductive way. Or, to quote from the letter:

Academics and commentators—including Crooked Timber bloggers—disagree over the American Studies Association’s decision to endorse an academic boycott of Israel. There should be far less disagreement over two bills recently proposed in New York’s and Maryland’s state legislatures. These bills prohibit colleges and universities from using state monies to fund faculty membership in—or travel to—academic organizations that boycott the institutions of another country. Designed to punish the ASA for taking the stance it has, these bills threaten the ability of scholars and scholarly associations to say controversial things in public debate. Because they sanction some speech on the basis of the content of that speech, they run afoul of the US First Amendment.

Read the whole thing and consider signing it if you agree. I did, and so have an impressive list of academics, media figures, and concerned citizens from all over the political spectrum. Here is why.

I disagree completely with the ASA’s boycott, as does one of the writers of the letter, and I argued with Corey Robin (the other writer, who supports the ASA) over this topic on Twitter. As it happens, the university that employs me withdrew its institutional membership with the ASA over this question; while I probably would not have gone so far I appreciate the reasons it did so and am not offended by them. I disagree with the BDS movement on both philosophical and pragmatic grounds.

But I oppose cynical legislative meddling into institutions of higher education even more. Universities and colleges are quite good at self-policing while remaining inclusive and moderate; we don’t need politicians picking and choosing which groups are above board and which are not. Moreover, the ASA’s “boycott” was so toothless as to be inconsequential; holding education funding hostage for petty politicking could obviously be quite consequential.