Thursday, May 28, 2015


I'm migrating this site and its content over to I won't be updating here any more, so click over.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

My 15 minutes, one year later

My latest column for Inside Higher Ed updates my viral essay from March 2014 about the job market, and asks us to use a bit of Rawls to think about our fate:
And for those of us who do (or will, in my case) have the privilege of working as part of an increasingly rare model that supports our activity as researchers, I have increasingly found myself thinking about what we do and do not deserve, in the manner of the philosopher John Rawls. For Rawls, we cannot possibly deserve our lot in life. This is for many reasons: our skills and attitudes depend on accidents of birth and parentage, for example. More fundamentally, the qualities that we happen to possess are (or are not) valued in certain ways by our particular social arrangement at our particular point in time.
Rawls, famously, suggests that we should design a just society from behind a veil of ignorance, not knowing which position in it we will occupy after our birth. Under these conditions, Rawls thinks, we would grant everyone basic rights, and those inequalities that exist would exist only insofar as they benefited those least well-off. It would be hard to argue, looking only at the system of higher education employment that we have today, that it would meet any kind of Rawlsian standard of justice.
Those of us who have had good fortune to be on the tenure track need to be humble about our luck. We have indeed worked hard for our position, so it can be difficult to feel that we don’t deserve it. But the number of astonishingly talented people who also deserve what we have should shame us from such feelings. We are not behind a veil of ignorance, and we cannot build a new order from scratch. But we should make sure that we are attentive to ways that we can use our positions to improve conditions for those who are least well-off. We cannot deserve our privilege, and they deserve no less.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Review of Deborah Cohn's "The Latin American Literary Boom"

A review I wrote of Deborah Cohn's The Latin American Literary Boom and U.S. Nationalism during the Cold War that will appear in the journal The Latin Americanist.

If the search for the great (North) American novel goes on, the great Latin American novel was thought discovered in 1970. That was the year that the English translation of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude appeared and became a sensation in the English-speaking world. It was the second work by a Latin American writer to make the New York Times bestseller list (after Jorge Amado’s Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon), and it represented the height of the “boom” in Latin American letters. The literature of the boom generation, for good and for ill, continues to provide readers from around the world with metaphors and points of reference for understanding Latin American politics, society, and history. But, as Deborah Cohn argues in this subtle and rewarding book, the boom happened neither precisely by accident nor by design. It was the complex result of multiple factors, including the work of Spanish publishing houses and literary agents, the solidarity of a small group of talented Latin American writers, the international appeal of the Cuban Revolution, and the Cold War politics of institutions and foundations in the United States.

It is the U.S. Cold War politics of the boom that are the primary subject of Cohn’s book, and they form a particularly rich vein for thinking through problems of cultural transmission. Most of the authors of the boom were resolutely left-wing—sympathizers and defenders of the Cuban Revolution. García Márquez would be famous for his decades-long friendship with Fidel Castro. And many of the novels of the boom explored the decadence of the Latin American bourgeoisie and had clear anti-capitalist interpretations. Yet U.S.-based foundations and organizations with anti-revolutionary Cold War outlooks contributed to making the boom possible. As Cohn writes, “Latin American literature’s circulation in the United States thus paradoxically benefited from both hegemonic and anti-hegemonic forces—that is, from endeavors that stemmed from commitments to anti-revolutionary and revolutionary politics alike.” (4)

To make the argument, Cohn moves through investigations of a number of institutions that had Cold War agendas at work in the background but were made into something more complex than that by their participants. She begins with a description of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, which denied visas to foreigners with suspected ties to Communism, a provision that caused intermittent problems for many Latin American writers. The subsequent three chapters cover the meeting of International P.E.N. in New York in 1966, the growth of Latin American literature studies in U.S. universities in the 1960s, the translations sponsored by grants from the Association of American University Presses, and the Ford- and Rockefeller-funded Center for Inter-American Relations (CIAR). The foundations that sponsored these organizations had Cold War objectives—P.E.N. even received some money from CIA fronts.

But in all cases, Cohn weaves complex arguments about the consequences of institutional action, seeing less capacity for ideological control than previous scholars who have examined related topics. The P.E.N. meeting, for example, was a key moment for various Latin American writers, many of them on the left, to meet each other and consolidate the connections that sustained the “boom” as a community. And the CIAR, similarly, promoted left-wing writers and perspectives. In Cohn’s words, “Cold War efforts to neutralize the Communist threat motivated public and private support for the cultural production of a region of great political interest to the United States, creating a space for authors associated with the rising tide of Marxism in Latin America and, by extension, for the expression and dissemination in their works of the ideology that the state was trying to eradicate.” (149)

This is an admirably subtle, and, in my view, convincing argument. But perhaps it is not as surprising as it first appears: both the Ford and Rockefeller foundations were going through politically progressive moments in the late 1960s and 1970s, and practiced some “self-criticism” regarding their sponsorship of earlier “Cold War” projects. Emir Rodríguez Monegal, who edited the magazine Review for CIAR for a time, was fresh off of the exposure of the CIA connections of his previous effort—the infamous Mundo Nuevo—and was eager to demonstrate that he had been an independent socialist all along. And it is not clear that the “boom” literature would always read to North American audiences as “Marxist”—as Cohn points out, modernist literary techniques that were widely used by “boom” writers like Gárcia Márquez were associated with anti-Communist politics in the United States, though not in Latin America. But Cohn’s book is an important and rewarding study that should be of interest to scholars from multiple disciplines, and even to those outside Latin American studies who work on Cold War institutions. She has succeeded in making the politics of the boom simultaneously more complex, and more intelligible.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Review of Phillip Deery's "Red Apple"

I did a review of Phillip Deery's new book "Red Apple" for the Australasian Journal of American Studies.

In the absence of any objection, I'll post the review below.

Red Apple. By Phillip Deery, Fordham University Press, New York, 2014, pp. xi + 252.

Few areas of historical scholarship are as contentious as that of American Communist history, for the questions that it seeks to answer are still politically charged. How much of a threat was Communism to American society, and what kind of response was justified as a result? Scholars run the risk of being seen as apologists for Stalinism on the one hand, or for McCarthyism on the other. The great contribution of Red Apple is to show the value of going small to address these big problems: in five tight and partially self-contained chapters, it uses intimate portraits of individuals to give some texture to the period of the early Cold War. The result is a careful and balanced history that shows us how lives were shaped by the politics of the era.

Each of the five chapters in Red Apple stands on its own, but there are some unifying themes. Each takes place in the city of New York at the dawn of Cold War repression, from 1945 through to the early 1950s. The introduction states that the book is about ‘the effects of McCarthyism,’ although this is truer of some chapters than others. [1] The first three chapters are effective, though not necessarily unsurprising, accounts of anti-Communist repression. The first chapter deals with the case of Edward Barsky, a surgeon at Beth Israel Hospital and member of the Joint Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee, a body created in 1942 to aid Spanish Republican refugees then in France. The JAFRC came to be seen by the FBI and other agencies of the U.S. government as a Communist ‘front,’ and members of its executive committee, including Barsky, were held in contempt of Congress for refusing to disclose their donor lists. Barsky served his prison term, only to find on release that his medical license was not renewed. The second chapter concerns the well-known Communist writer, Howard Fast, who was also jailed as a member of the board of the JAFRC and similarly found opportunities closed to him after his release. The third chapter deals with the less known cases of two professors at New York University, Lyman Bradley and Edwin Burgum, who were fired from NYU after invoking their Fifth Amendment rights before Congress. Of this group, Fast and Burgum were members of the Communist Party, but Bradley and Barsky were not. Yet they were all criminals in the eyes of the government, and, in a climate of McCarthyism, their troubles extended to their relationships with private institutions. These three chapters nicely illustrate the manner in which different government and private agencies worked “together,” even without coordination, to punish those who were perceived as a threat to national security because of their political commitments.
The final two portraits, of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the lawyer O. John Rogge, are somewhat different in tone and composition. (They are based on excellent articles that have appeared in American Communist History and Cold War History, respectively.) These are not straightforward cases of McCarthyist repression, but instead chronicle the difficulties that the Cold War climate created for independent thinkers. As a Russian, Shostakovich would seem an outlier among the book’s major figures, but he appeared in New York as part of the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace, better known as the ‘Waldorf Conference’ of 1949, at the behest of Stalin. (‘Peace’ became a major theme of Soviet propaganda during the early Cold War, though Deery argues that the Waldorf Conference was only partially organized by Communists.) There, Shostakovich had to engage in humiliating self-criticism he did not believe in order to safeguard his own life and that of his family. O. John Rogge, meanwhile, was the JAFRC’s lawyer, concerned in the late 1940s with what he saw as creeping fascism in the United States, and also a frequent guest at the Soviet-aligned Peace events. Yet he was also an independent thinker, and generally the only delegate at ‘Peace’ events who would criticize both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (instead of only the former) for their belligerence. In 1950, Rogge made an open break with the Soviet peace groups and formed his own Independent Americans for Peace. He was seen as a traitor by the Communists but not fully trusted by the professional anti-Communists, and he met with little success. In addition to advancing what little is known about the Soviet-aligned Peace movement, these two chapters show thoughtful individuals trying to engage with the ethical dilemmas of the early Cold War, and will be of particular interest to historians of the period. They should also be useful in the classroom, where they will give students much material to use and think about.

The virtues of the book’s rather narrow focus do also entail some limits. The research is thorough and comprehensive but perhaps not expansive, drawing extensively from New York University’s Tamiment Archives and from FBI files that the author obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. The sources are perfectly appropriate for a study of post-war repression, but they can’t contain any great revelations of Soviet thinking or action. And though the book does not aim to be a comprehensive look at the phenomenon of McCarthyism, all of the major characters are white, male professionals.

Yet taken together, the multiple biographies of Red Apple make an important argument. There really were Communist ‘front’ organizations, but, as Deery puts its, the idea of the Communist ‘front’ is ‘problematic, not axiomatic.’ Some were more tightly controlled than others, and organizations like the JAFRC were ‘consistent with, but not rigidly determined by the doctrines of party leaders in New York and Moscow.’ [12] Deery’s is not an argument for the equivalence of Stalinism and McCarthyism: he makes plain that, of all the characters, only Shostakovich’s life was in danger. Dissent in the United States did not mean death. Yet these well-drawn portraits serve as a kind of existence proof: these lives were damaged by McCarthyist anti-Communism, and no one was made safer for it. That in itself is an important result.

University of California, Berkeley

Monday, October 27, 2014

Syllabus for Spring 2015: Ideologies of Social Justice in the Twentieth Century

Political Economy 160

Ideologies of Social Justice in the Twentieth Century

Professor Patrick Iber
Spring 2015 / MW 4-5:30 / 56 Barrows
Office Hours: Stephens 140; Friday 12-2

The twentieth century has been called the “century of the intellectual” because of the important role that men and women of letters played in debating, creating, and legitimizing the intense ideological conflict that defined the era. This course will use their writings to examine the ideological foundations of the century’s major political movements: from Communism, fascism, and libertarianism to feminism and anti-colonialism. How did each movement define social justice and injustice? What historical circumstances created and shaped their beliefs? And what should we learn from the bloody twentieth century’s debates about political economy when thinking about what we should do in the twenty-first?

Course texts:

Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction, Verso, 2007, ISBN 1844671437, 978-1844671434, $25.

Csezlaw Milosz, The Captive Mind, Vintage, 1990, ISBN 0679728562, 978-0679728566, $13.

Clayborne Carson (ed.), The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Warner Books, 2001, ISBN 0446676500, 978-0446676502, $16.

Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, Monthly Review Press, 2001, ISBN 1583670254, 978-1583670255, $10.

James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism, Princeton University Press, 2014, ISBN 0691161038, 978-0691161037, $13.

Week 1: Introduction

W, January 21: Introduction to the class

Week 2: What is Ideology?

M, Jan. 26: No class meeting
W, Jan. 28: What is ideology?: discussion of Eagleton’s book

Terry Eagleton, Ideology: A Very Brief Introduction

Week 3: Major Ideas in Political Economy I: Communism

M Feb. 2: Lecture: Communism and the Beginning of the Short Twentieth Century
W Feb. 4: Discussion

Lenin, The State and Revolution, Chapter 5,

Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, Chapter 6, “The Problem of Dictatorship,”

Stalin’s conversation with H.G. Wells, 1934:

Week 4: Major Ideas in Political Economy II: Fascism

M Feb. 9: Lecture: The Logic of Fascism’s Rise
W Feb. 11: Discussion

Giovanni Gentile and Benito Mussolini, “The Doctrine of Fascism”

Week 5: Major Ideas in Political Economy III: Anti-fascism

W, Feb. 18: Ken Loach, Land and Freedom [film in class]

Week 6: Major Ideas in Political Economy IV: Market Fundamentalism / Conservative Libertarianism

M, Feb. 23: Lecture: What does conservatism seek to conserve?
W, Feb. 25: Discussion

Friedrich Von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, [condensed version, pdf available], pp. 39-89

Ayn Rand, Anthem,

Week 7: Major Ideas in Political Economy V: Liberalism

M, March 2: Lecture: What is liberal about liberalism?
W, March 4: Discussion

Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty”

Edward Shils, “The End of Ideology?,”

Michael Sandel, Justice, Chapter 6 on John Rawls, pp. 140-166

Week 8: The Self and the Global I: Ex-Communism

M, March 9: Lecture: Ideologies and the Cold War
W, March 11: Discussion

Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind

Week 9: The Self and the Global II: Feminism

M, March 16: Lecture: The Gender Line
W, March 18: Discussion

Woolf, A Room of One’s Own [especially chapters 3 and 6]

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Introduction and Chapter 1,

SPRING BREAK, March 23-27

Week 10: The Self and the Global III: Decolonization and Third World Liberation

M, March 30: Lecture: The Core and the Periphery
W, April 1: Discussion

Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism

Week 11: The Self and the Global IV: Civil rights and anti-racism

M, April 6: Lecture: The Color Line
W, April 8: Discussion

Carson (ed.), Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Week 12: Ideas Shaping the Contemporary World I: Late Neoconservatism

M, April 13: Film: Arguing the World  
W April 15: Discussion

Jeane Kirkpatrick, “Dictatorships and Double Standards”

William Kristol and Robert Kagan, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 1996,

National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2002,

Week 13: Ideas Shaping the Contemporary World II: Environmentalism

M, April 20: Lecture: The Idea of Environmental Justice
W, April 22: Discussion

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, pp. 1-37

Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (13 December 1968): 1243-1248.

Chris Hayes, “The New Abolitionism,”

 Week 14: Ideas Shaping the Contemporary World III: Post-libertarianism

M April 27: Lecture: The State and the Legacy of the Short Twentieth Century
W April 29: Discussion

James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism

RRR Week, May 4-8
Final paper due: May 15

Insofar as grades interfere with your learning, you should ignore them. The most important thing you can do in a semester is to work to improve as a reader, writer, and thinker. But since we must do grades, this is how they will be determined:

1) Participation: 24%. Good participation is thoughtful and considerate of your role within a community of learners.

2) 11%: discussion document. Once during the semester, you will sign up to bring in a primary document relevant to that week’s readings. It could be a piece of art, music, or a document, but it should be carefully chosen to illuminate a significant debate or dilemma regarding the ideology under examination that week. You can send it to me to be displayed on screen, or you can make copies, depending on what would be appropriate. You will briefly explain your object to the class (just two or three minutes, please!) and pose a question for brief discussion. One presentation will take place at the end of Monday’s class, and one at the beginning of discussion on Wednesday.

3) 32%: two short papers. Twice during the semester, you will write a short paper of approximately 4 pages (1000 words). At least one of the papers needs to be done by week seven of the class. The short paper should imagine what that week’s thinkers would identify as one of the major problems facing the world today, and how they would want to respond to that challenge. I will comment on your first paper and grade it on a credit/no credit basis. The second paper will be given a letter grade.

4) 33% final project. Your final should be a medium-length research project. You can present it either as a traditional paper, as a web site, or as an art project. Written projects should be about 12-15 pages or the online equivalent. One possible final project would involve finding an intellectual or literary review. Examine it in its most important year(s).  What was its project, politically and aesthetically?  How did it expect to achieve its goals?  Who contributed to it and why?  As a useful exercise, I would encourage you to do this without consulting the secondary literature. An alternative final paper structure would involve writing a short intellectual biography of a person of interest to you. An art project or performance is a riskier final and would have to be connected directly to the themes of the class. Whatever you choose, please make the time to visit me at least briefly during office hours to talk about your plans.