INTERNATIONALISM, INTELLECTUALS, ISRAEL an interview with Bruce Robbins

Bruce Robbins is a professor in the department of English & Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His most recent book is entitled Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence.

IAN TRUEGER: I’d like to start with a quotation. You said, “every American except the very poorest has an objective and appreciable interest in the continuing exploitation of the rest of the world, the siphoning off of resources so as to support a disproportionate level of comfort here.”You talk about how inaction is built in to the system we inhabit. Given the interests that the American public have in continuing this exploitation, how can they be expected to take any action?

BRUCE ROBBINS: I don’t believe that people always act on their self interest, at least in a crude and absolute way. I mean humanitarianism is a reality, for example, and I don’t think humanitarianism should be understood as always self interested, although sometimes it is. It certainly has been in American foreign policy on any number of occasions. I also have a dialectical view of history and, I suppose, of social action. I think that there are impulses, even within consumerism, which would encourage people to recognise the political meaning in their acts of individual, seemingly private consumption, and also want to fashion, by acts of consumption, a different self than the self that they put up with for the time being. The locavore movement, the “eat local” movement, involves people being willing to forsake certain things to which they have access in the marketplace in order to live more sustainably, according to their ethical principles. It’s not a reason for immense hopefulness, but it’s something. That, it seems to me, finds a certain support in the asceticism which is, going back to Max Weber, one of the impulses of the capitalist system. It’s not a solution in its own right, but it’s enough to suggest that on the one hand, we are asked by capitalism to be hedonists and buy all the things that get made, and on the other hand, we’re asked by capitalism to be ascetics, to delay our gratification and to fashion ourselves and so on. These things are at war with each other and at the point where they pull in different directions, there are possibilities for politics to happen.

IT: I guess this ties in to your whole idea of the ‘sweatshop sublime,’ which you describe as a moment of enlightened consumer consciousness. In your essay on the subject, you talk about how for any internationalist anti-globalization politics to emerge, such a moment needs to manifest itself in a meaningful way. What’s your diagnosis?

BR: There are times when I feel encouraged and there are times when I feel extremely discouraged. There are times when I feel that people, in this country in particular, are extraordinarily provincial, and unaware of the way decisions that are made here have consequences on people living in other places. It’s like – I have enough to worry about just feeding my family, I’m not gonna worry about that; I’ll let them worry about it. These are discouraging thoughts, obviously. It may be, down and dirty, that we won’t think about it unless we get a very strong push from somewhere else. It’s possible that in the decline of American hegemony, there is a sort of hope for global justice. There’s certainly no guarantee. The idea that the US would be replaced by a new global hegemon, say China, is no guarantee anything would be fairer, even for the Chinese. But you know, there are moving parts, there’s lots of rising and falling going on, and within that it seems to me it’s at least worth making some kind of effort.

IT: In your book as well as in the social sciences at large, the term ‘toothless liberalism’ seems to be thrown around a lot, almost to the point of it being a kind of joke. What do you make of this?

BR: I mean it’s certainly an argument that is made about cosmopolitanism a lot, that it’s toothless – how many divisions does it have – never enough, right? How much real power lies behind it? So that’s one sense of toothless liberalism. The other one is the sense in which liberal cosmopolitanism is toothless, in that people feel like they’ve done their duty when they’re nice to people who look different or talk different or eat different food, and by eating different food they’re somehow making themselves world citizens. I don’t think that actually accomplishes anything.

I guess I meant toothless in reference to the wider liberal American public, which seems to champion the whole idea of ‘tolerance’. In the documentary about Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim’s East West Divan orchestra, Barenboim condemned the term, saying that tolerance means accepting while saying “although”. It doesn’t imply stepping out of oneself. It’s a bit perfunctory.

I’m not a fan of tolerance among other things because it can be a little condescending. It’s not a word that I use. I’m not against it, but it’s not part of my program.

IT: You said, I think, in your essay ‘Blaming the System’, that ignorance isn’t an excuse anymore with the rise of media-technology. Do you place any hope in that?

BR: Yeah, I do. I mean I think that the people who’ve done polls have discovered somewhat dishearteningly that most people will use the Internet to find opinions that are like the ones that they already hold rather than expose themselves to views that are different. But even if that’s true, it doesn’t mean it’s going to stay true. The technology is there for people to listen to and hear other voices. I’m not enough of a media person to be able to say what kind of a change would be necessary in order for that technology to do the work that I think it can do, but I do believe it can help. I think it will depend on your generation, not on my generation, because you guys are sort of born into this.

Perhaps not as much as you think! I’d like to segue into talking a bit about the role of the intellectual. You’ve talked in some of your essays about how activism can give way to a certain kind of self-aggrandizement, and I was wondering how you locate that within the academy itself?

I don’t believe that to do the work of a literary critic well is to become an activist. To do the work of a literary critic well is to do the work of a literary critic. It’s to talk in an interesting way about literature or culture more generally. I don’t think that there’s a natural connection with activism. I think it’s a temptation for people [academics] to think that they have fulfilled all their citizenly duties by doing the work that they have to do anyway in order to get paid. That’s a very comforting thought but it’s not the way things work. So, you want to be an activist – some people are good at it, some people want to do it – they’ll probably have to find something that they can do outside the university. I mean, I’m not against certain themes of activism which are really intrinsic to the university – the protection of fellow scholars for example, as in the MLA resolution which is being voted on right now. That’s certainly something that calls for activism within the university by scholars. Or guaranteeing more or less fair wages and decent working conditions for the very large number of non-tenure track faculty who now work in universities – this is an obvious thing that should generate activism in universities. But even then, I hope people will do both of those things.

IT: But in terms of those people who seek to fulfil a public intellectual role, in say, the vein of Edward Said, or Slavoj Žižek, renouncing capitalism at large – how far do you think these denunciations actually get outside the academy? Do you think they transgress the boundaries of the ivory tower?

BR: I’m quite optimistic about that actually. Said is a good example, but if you want an even more dramatic one, take someone like Noam Chomsky. Chomsky is, if not the most famous intellectual in the world, then certainly one of them, and he did something that I hope the younger generation will aspire to emulate, that is to say, at least those who are going to become scholars. He took a reputation that he had acquired in the academy, a kind of a prestige based on his achievements in the academy in linguistics, which had nothing to do, at all, with the public. To quote Sartre, he got involved in stuff that was not his affair. No-one was asking him to talk about it. And he did it very well, using a kind of training and a kind of access to resources of information that not everybody has, and an ability to express himself that presumably all of us as academics have some degree of. He turned that, through very hard work and commitment, into his status as number one public intellectual in the world. Same story with Said – Said started his career simply as a very brilliant literary scholar.

IT: Apparently he taught no classes on the Middle East his entire time at Columbia.

BR: No, he never did. I had the good fortune to take a class at Harvard with him while I was a grad student. He never talked about that at all. His course was on theories of the origin of language. But he clearly had trained himself to speak and write. He probably had, to some extent, to speak and write in a less academic way in order to do that, but there was a certain amount of training, a certain amount of capital, if you like, that he could use – that he could cash in on – in order to get himself heard on a more public stage, and that’s what he did. And I think that’s something that people can do on a smaller scale, with, you know, an op-ed for your local newspaper. You don’t realize how good you are at doing things that most people are not good at. You don’t realize until you try it.

IT: With that in mind, what do you think of Said’s notion of the intellectual as first and foremost an oppositional figure?

BR: I am not a big believer in the intellectual speaking truth to power, as I tried very feebly and timidly to say to him when he gave me the ‘Representations of the Intellectual’ lectures to look over right before giving them. There’s no answer in that to the question of why power would listen. So if you want a theory of the intellectual, you need a theory of the intellectual as situated in a social landscape, not as a heroic isolated individual somehow facing a Power with a capital P. I think we need a much more detailed notion of where power is located, rather than a kind of mythic one, and we need a much less mythic idea of the heroic, isolated individual. This applies to Orwell as well. Frankly – I don’t know – on a certain level, everyone wants to be the lonely hero standing up to power, the guy standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square or whatever – well, where are all the other people? We need a model which includes all the other people.

IT: If I’m right, that’s what you were trying to say in your essay ‘Said and Effort,’ where you were talking about how Said does have a mode of belonging; he is situated within a landscape, that of the Western academy, despite any of his protestations to the contrary.

But on the subject of Orwell – what role is he going play in your upcoming project?

BR: I’m fascinated by an episode in Orwell’s life which hasn’t been much talked about. In 1932-33, he worked for the BBC World Service, and was in the position of trying to talk South Asians into joining the war effort against the Nazis, which was, as he realized, a very, very hard sell, because they knew their colonizers up close and personal, but who were the Nazis to them? The Nazis hadn’t done anything to them, whereas the British had put a lot of them in jail, and some of Orwell’s friends who he asked to be on the show with him said -Why George, why should I do this? And this goes back in a way to the Eat Local stuff, the question of what one eats. I have found some very strange elements in those radio broadcasts having to do with rationing, in which Orwell is much too enthusiastic, to the point where some of his bosses in the Ministry of Information actually censored him, because they thought-no one is going to believe this, that you’re saying everyone is so happy about rationing. And I make a connection between those broadcasts, and the enthusiasm he expressed for rationing, with arguments he made earlier, about how if you want anti-fascist solidarity – if you want solidarity between the British working class and the Indian equivalent – you’re going to have to demonstrate that people in England are willing to level out the access to resources between themselves and Indians, which at this point is something like twelve to one. If even workers in Sheffield are enjoying so much higher of a standard of living than the Indians that I’m talking to, how am I going to get the Indians on our side? Answer: you’re going to have to demonstrate, to the Indians, that people in Sheffield – let alone people in the more prosperous South – are willing to live on less. I think, and I want to argue, and no one else has said this to my knowledge, that Orwell had discovered – granted only because of the solidarity of the war effort – but I think the conclusion he was drawing was, if they [the British] are willing to do it during the war effort, there might be a moral equivalent to war. Other motives might produce the same result [equitable resource distribution]. Anyway, that’s my piece on Orwell.

Raymond Williams famously characterized Orwell as both ‘exile and vagrant’, and I think this is a really important idea to bear in mind when considering Orwell’s work. Orwell came from the social milieu of the English upper middle class, but his commitment to democratic socialism saw him shun these ties. To what extent do you see vagrancy as a prerequisite to preaching about social equality? Is Orwell’s example one to emulate?

No. No. I think a simple no is probably the only answer. I mean it worked for him. That’s great, and it gave us a heroic figure and a heroic set of stories, frankly, which continue to inspire people, and I’m glad they do. I think you can get there by many, many different routes. I’m a little bit suspicious of the idea that you have to sacrifice yourself, you have to pay with your own life with your own comfort, in order to act in a committed way, in order to have any effect on the world, in order to be believable when you speak about justice in the world.

IT: It’s too Christian?

BR: Markedly Christian, I think.

There is a certain asceticism involved in it. But the reason the idea really interested me is that in the UK – in his time as now, I’m sure – the term ‘champagne socialism’ comes up a lot, and I think to an extent you can extend that to a lot of people within the academy who preach ideals. What do you make of that whole term?

Well, I think it’s unfair to a lot of people who don’t have champagne every day. We have versions of the same thing. I mean the sort of trust fund hipster, I suppose, is another term. People are trying to reinvent themselves – and sometimes in quite interesting ways, according to interesting principles, and have a little bit of family money behind them enabling them to do that. There’s a very, very long history in which independent incomes have contributed sometimes to very good causes. I mean, how did Karl Marx stay alive? It was other people’s money. He worked very hard, he wrote his paper articles and so on, but if it hadn’t been for – not mainly his own family, although a little bit his own family – Kapital would not have gotten written. The other side of this is, I’m really interested in the rentier as a figure. This is not the same as champagne socialism; this is a word we don’t even know how to pronounce – it’s a French word meaning living off unearned income.

As it turns out, Orwell was fascinated by this figure. I wrote something about this. Because he saw it all around him and you know, he didn’t say champagne socialism, but he did certainly talk about people who lived off unearned income. At the moment when he wrote The Road Wigan Pier, he really thought that it ought to be possible to make a cross-class alliance. This alliance would have been between hardworking people of the working class and hardworking people of the middle class, against people who basically could live off unearned income, which had been not just the aristocracy but also middle class, bourgeois people living off their investments. I’m fascinated by the fact that so much of the discrepancy in income and wealth these days depends on inherited wealth, yet we have not managed to politicise the figure of the rentier, the figure of the person living off interest from bank accounts and stocks and bonds and so on.

IT: I wanted to talk about your recent work in regards to Israel. Your film Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists was sort of an endeavor to separate the terms, or the association between, Zionism and being Jewish in the United States. Do you think there’s any hope to be able to do that in a meaningful way because of institutions like AIPAC?

BR: Yeah! I’m glad you asked about my hopefulness, because then I can really emphasize my hopefulness. That’s what my little documentary is about. There really is a change that has happened, and is continuing to happen, in American Jewish opinion. There are lots and lots of signs of it. One of them is the emergence of a kind of anti-AIPAC lobbying group called J Street, which can do some of the work that AIPAC does, except for different causes. There are political battles that AIPAC has lost lately and very visibly lost, like wanting us to bomb Iran. They were basically told – Sorry, we’re not gonna make policy based on what you want. And then there are lots and lots and lots of very small signs of young people in particular who have been raised with the heritage of the civil rights movement, and who are applying the principles of the civil rights movement to the Middle East also, something which in my generation absolutely had not happened. So you’ll find people, sixteen year olds even, who when they think of Israel think of human rights violations, and as opposed to thinking socialism and kibbutzim, they’re thinking bad behaviour. And that seems to me to have crept into many, many media areas and into public opinion insidiously, and I think, frankly, the champions of Israel, right or wrong, are scared, because they feel like they’re starting to lose their hold on the next generation. And I think they’re right to be scared, because they are, and they should draw conclusions and behave differently.

IT: That sounds heartening.

BR: Sorry if that’s too heartening.

IT: That doesn’t really sound like a paradigm shift though, it sounds more like a de-escalation.

BR: It’s pretty gradual. I mean I’d like to see it happen faster. There are a lot of things that are sayable that, ten or twenty years ago were not sayable.

IT: But do you think that this movement is too lethargic, given the fact that Israeli settlements keep expanding?

BR: I think dialectically, for better for worse – it’s my heritage – so I think that the fact that Israel has just kept stealing Palestinian land shamelessly and playing the American government for fools, increasing the settlements and the land thefts and the land thefts and the settlements, whatever they say they just keep grabbing more and more land – as many people have said, they’ve killed the two state solution. The two state solution is no longer viable. And that’s bad in a way, but in another way it means that all of a sudden the one state solution is really on the agenda, by default. Only because they’ve behaved so badly that they’ve shut off an avenue which many people would have embraced. I myself, some years ago, not ten years ago, might have just said, OK, go back to the green line, go back to the borders of 1967, have two states, it’s not really fair, but maybe it’s the best that the Palestinians are gonna do. Now, people like me are saying – it has to be one country, one man one vote, a country of all its citizens on an equal basis. That’s a much more radical solution, in a way, than the two state solution.

IT: I guess my last question in order to round stuff off concerns your work in regards to the MLA boycott of Israel. First, how does that fit into your conception of cosmopolitanism, and second, what’s your progress on that?

BR: The resolution is being voted on from now, I guess, till May. The resolution is a mild and reasonable and academically-centered resolution: it just asks for the MLA to speak with the State Department about discrimination that the State Department itself acknowledges has been committed against anyone with an Arab name, a scholar, who tries to teach or do research or attend a conference in the occupied territories. It’s interesting, there’s an article in today’s Haaretz in which the Israelis have apparently agreed to stop discriminating in exchange for some kind of special visa status, which is hysterical as far as I’m concerned because it means they’re admitting to exactly the kind of discrimination that, according to the people who are arguing against the resolution, was not happening. It really does boggle the mind when you hear people, as I heard at the MLA – Cary Nelson, Russell Berman, people like that – say, “There is no discrimination, you have no evidence of discrimination.” And then the Israeli government comes out and admits that it is discriminating. I call on them to draw upon the conclusion from the Haaretz article of today. Are they discriminating if they say they’re discriminating? Is that good enough evidence, is that strong enough? It speaks to the Israel ‘right or wrong’ people, who simply won’t take anything as evidence of Israeli misconduct.

I think when dealing with that kind of dogmatism, with the Israel ‘right or wrong’ people, or indeed the Israeli government, you can’t try and look for consistency.

You can look but you won’t find it.