Author: Bruce Robbins

The Young Karl Marx

The Young Karl Marx (dir. Raoul Peck) opens in a forest. The forest is almost painfully beautiful. Peasants are gathering sticks for firewood — only dead wood from the forest floor, nothing that’s still growing. Suddenly they are attacked by police on horseback. Some are killed. We see their bodies, eyes open. The scene is historically accurate in at least two senses: landowners in the wine-growing area of Trier, where Karl Marx was born, were just then asserting exclusive ownership over common lands where tradition afforded villagers limited but important rights, like the gathering of firewood. And it was this local...

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Thank You For Your Service

Even if they haven’t seen the movie, people above a certain age will remember Jack Nicholson’s final speech in A Few Good Men: “You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.” Nicholson, a colonel in the Marines, is confessing to his guilt for having had one of his men beaten to death. He confesses because he believes he was right, and he believes that, deep down in places they don’t talk about at parties, his fellow Americans know he was right. Sometimes defending the nation will require breaking the rules.  It will require getting your hands dirty. In the midst of America’s many high-energy debates about immigration and the building and manning of walls, there is a simple moral truth that has been overlooked.  It’s that truth, I think, that has made this maiden effort by Aaron Sorkin one of the most quoted speeches in Hollywood history.  It’s the same truth that gives such emotional sizzle to the formula “thank you for your service,” and does so even when those words sound, as they often do, and not just to veterans, shallow, ignorant, and insufficient.  The truth is that we depend on people far away over the horizon, doing and suffering unspeakable things so that we can live our more...

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Unconcealed Weapons: A Modest Proposal

It should be clear to everyone that the gun control debate, which roared back onto the nation’s agenda with the terrible shooting last week in Florida, is fundamentally misguided. Yes, we care about our children. And no, “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. This time we must do something. But giving guns to teachers is clearly insufficient. What teacher would have time to draw their so-called “concealed weapon,” suddenly faced with an enraged, resentful young man holding an automatic rifle that is not concealed? The most likely reaction would be that of the Parkland school’s security guard, who cowered...

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Belonging on the Left: An Appreciation of Stanley Aronowitz (Part II)

This is the second part of an assessment and appreciation of the sociologist and cultural critic Stanley Aronowitz. In part one, Bruce Robbins reflected on Stanley Aronowitz’s influence, both as a scholar and as a political and public intellectual. *** Another option is laid out very clearly in Russell Jacoby’s 1987 book The Last Intellectuals. Jacoby describes Stanley as “himself almost a transitional figure, illustrating the passing of the older independent intelligentsia and the rise of the professors.” I pause briefly on this “almost,” partly in order to note that Jacoby characteristically does not himself pause to explain it....

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Belonging on the Left: An Appreciation of Stanley Aronowitz (Part I)

People who write about intellectuals in the United States have tended to express a certain melancholy admiration for the so-called “New York Intellectuals.” The New York Intellectuals were political, there was never any doubt of that; in the 1930s in particular, when they flourished, they were even extremely political. There has been a good deal of questioning of the political commitments of those who have come after them, and of course also about the NY intellectuals themselves in the later stages of their careers. But there was no doubt that they were intellectuals—which is to say intellectuals rather than...

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