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Eastman Goes South

Disreputable people damage organizations. John One-Man-Rule-Whisperer Eastman, the dapper daffy Harold Bloom lookalike we’ve all seen in the now-classic photograph, not only “conspired … to overthrow an election by offering a twisted argument that was beyond the pale of serious legal scholarship,” says Jeffrey Isaac, author of a great book about totalitarianism. He represents, Isaac continues, a “21st century American fascism beyond the pale” of an organization like the American Political Science Association.

He and others are pleased that at its last national meeting the APSA made January 6 rally speaker Eastman and his merry band, the Claremont Institute, eat at the children’s table (ie, all their panels had to be online), but they want more.

[It is indeed] within the power and authority of APSA leadership to censure Eastman and the Claremont Institute, by making a very public statement that they are among [quoting here from one of the APSA’s own statements about January 6] ‘those who have continuously endorsed and disseminated falsehoods and misinformation, and who have worked to overturn the results of a free and fair Presidential Election,’ and they thus deserve to be condemned.


Oooh, you want me to wrestle with the whole free speech/cancel culture thing, do you? You don’t want me to do a hit and run and move on to my next post… You want me to tell you why I don’t think your kid should stop reading anti-semite Roald Dahl but it’s perfectly okay for the APSA to boot the Eastman Gang clear out of stadium. Okay.

If you stopped consorting with great but antisemitic artists you’d miss out on a lot of great artists.

The conductor Daniel Barenboim, a Jew, is a champion of Wagner’s music, …and has made a point of playing it in Israel, where it is hardly welcome. His defense is that while Wagner may have been reprehensible, his music is not. Barenboim likes to say that Wagner did not compose a single note that is anti-Semitic. And the disconnect between art and morality goes further than that: not only can a “bad” person write a good novel or paint a good picture, but a good picture or a good novel can depict a very bad thing. Think of Picasso’s Guernica or Nabokov’s Lolita , an exceptionally good novel about the sexual abuse of a minor, described in a way that makes the protagonist seem almost sympathetic.

21st century American fascism is apparently what Eastman does (“Simply put, Eastman did everything he could to help stage a coup. He was not just expressing a controversial view; he was trying to nullify an election in a way that never had occurred in the United States… Never before have we had someone so actively try to overthrow our government… Had Pence followed the Eastman prescription, American democracy would have ended.”); good and great art is what exceptional people – some of them holding disgusting views — do. If Dahl’s stories were child-centered variations on Der Stürmer articles, that would be one thing. Eastman’s work (and political activism) on the other hand seems pretty straightforwardly committed to dismantling democracy; his once-respectable organization has become a hotbed of anti-democratic conspiracy theorists.

That organization, by the way, seems to be thriving; it has its own extensive publications, fellowships, public events, etc. No outside organization is compelled to grant it membership; and indeed from its own point of view Claremont might well ask whether expulsion from a seriously left-leaning whatever isn’t actually a blessing. Certainly they can do a lot of fund raising off of all of this.

Margaret Soltan, September 30, 2021 9:01AM
Posted in: democracy

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14 Responses to “Eastman Goes South”

  1. Rita Says:

    APSA isn’t compelled to grant Claremont membership, but it already had by the time it pushed all their panels online. Claremont had “related group” status (which seems to be a purchasable good), and had already organized its panels, which APSA had approved for the conference. Then some people noticed this, protested, and APSA forced them online. So is *that* a cancellation? APSA can presumably give any reason it wants for not permitting an organization to participate in advance, but once it approves something, the reason to remove it has to be more principled. But what’s the principle? “We don’t tolerate people who want to undermine the US Constitution”? Or “people who do illegal things”? Seems like a lot of leftist political science – that advocates socialism, or justifies violent protest – could be swept under that rug as well. Lots of participants in those things too. Is there a stable principle that a political science association could hold to?

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Rita: How is related group status “purchasable”?

    I take your larger point, and I think the stable principle – which would apply to individuals like Eastman, not Claremont – could be something like this: People who actively take part (in his case, through remarks at the rally, and in his memo about the vp throwing our presidential election) in the destruction of basic structural principles of democracy (any reasonably legit democracy, not just American) like free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power, are anathema to the democratic principles constitutive not merely of this country, but of organizations dedicated to the understanding and preservation of the country, like the APSA. Such individuals’ destructive political ideology ought not be given the implicit legitimacy conferred upon it by membership in a respectable organization.

    As for Claremont itself, I find this long and thoughtful article a good place to start in thinking about how long it is likely to find itself acceptable to rational, responsible organizations. From its final paragraph:

    I worry that soon the only place [Claremont] will have left to go is nihilistic fanaticism — that strange, ancient mix of thwarted idealism and lashing resentment that can lead to desperate, lying violence.

  3. Rita Says:

    I’m not sure exactly how it works, but I guess you pay some sort of group dues to be a “related group” in APSA, and then you pay more to have panels reserved for you at the annual conference. So you’re basically buying panels. There are a bunch of “related groups,” mostly for very specific subdisciplines like Korea Studies or identity affinities like an LGBT Caucus, but some are just outside organizations like Claremont connected in some way to the study of political science. Maybe your husband knows more; it’s bureaucratic arcana to me.

    Does a scholarly organization devoted to the study of political science have to take a position in favor democracy? Politics scientists study all regimes, not just democracies. And it would be strange to say that their study of other regimes should always be grounded in a normative effort to promote democracy. Do I have to say when I teach Plato’s Republic, for example, that even though Socrates claims that democracy is the second-worst regime, we know it is actually the best – in order to remain in good standing with APSA? Or isn’t that an open question for political science to examine? Can’t political scientists even write in favor of non-democratic regimes themselves, like almost all philosophers did before the 19th century, or would that have to be prohibited?

    I’ve seen that article but I know much more about Claremont – good and bad – than its author, so it was not so illuminating for me.

  4. Rita Says:

    I would say, from what I know, that Claremont is full of both lunatics and normal conservative scholar-types, and it’s not really clear where it will go in the future. The loons are not a recent addition; it’s hosted loons for decades but no one noticed before. So it’s not obvious that it can’t sustain the tension between lunacy and sober scholarship for a long, long time.

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Rita: I think there’s a pretty long distance between taking/studying all sorts of positions seriously critical of many forms of democracy, and actively plotting/writing to overthrow democracy in favor of naked autocracy (where the position of the vice-president, for instance, is to rubber stamp the re-election of the Strong Man). If you read my position as having anything to do with rahrah American democracy litmus tests, I must be doing something wrong.

    Here’s Damon Linker:

    Liberalism stands for the free and open society. But does that mean it must make space for those who would destroy the free and open society? If the answer is yes, liberalism would seem to have a death wish. If the answer is no, liberalism looks hypocritical: Oh, so you’re for open debate, but only if everyone debating is a liberal! There really is no way to resolve this tension except to say that liberalism favors a free and open society, but not without limits. It can tolerate disagreement and dissent, but not infinitely. And writing a memo to the president explaining precisely how he could mount a coup that would overturn liberal democratic government in the United States crosses that line.

    As for Claremont having quietly packed itself with lunatics for years – high-profile people who deny reality, let alone the legitimacy of this or that democratic procedure – yikes. If I were the APSA, I’d examine other groups admitted to the organization, and if a significant degree of lunacy characterized them as well, I’d shrug my shoulders. If, however, Claremont turns out to have distinguished itself by virtue of the dissociative disorder of a good number of its members, I’d drop them. If I were Claremont and didn’t want to go the way of Louis Althusser, I’d identify and weed out the loons, pronto.

  6. Rita Says:

    I suppose “have you acted to overthrow democracy?” is a sharper question than, “have you written provocatively in praise of undemocratic regimes?” Then, I take it, someone like Deneen or even Vermeule would not qualify for defenestration, since they are merely scribblers and not political actors?

    But, on the other hand, some academics do advise governments and political leaders, and this distinction raises new questions about what kind of advice is permissible. John Yoo? (Subject of a previous APSA kerfluffle, I think also via a Claremont-sponsored panel.) Law professors who advise court-packing to circumvent an inconvenient conservative majority? Neither torture nor court-packing is unconstitutional or intended to overthrow the regime, but they are questionable from the standpoint of democratic procedures, and motivated reasoners (eg, their enemies) could, I think, easily trace a line from point A to point B.

    What strikes me as odd about Linker’s argument here is that the agent is “liberalism,” and I get the theoretical argument, but what is liberalism in this case that it can actively police its own boundaries? The US government is not accusing Eastman or Claremont of any crime. Presumably their neighbors are not hounding them from their homes. Eastman was pressured to retire from his university, but Claremont is its own employer, and no one seems to be advocating the firing of even its leadership and most committed contributors from their other jobs. If “liberalism” is the liberal state or liberal society at large, it seems pretty indifferent to the threat posed by Eastman and CI. But APSA, a little professional association whose membership happens to be probably 75-85% fired-up liberal Democrats, is taking a stand in defense of liberalism by banning them from access to its annual meeting. What a strange, disjointed way for “liberalism” to assert itself against its enemies. Maybe APSA is the last bastion of liberal principle in a craven regime, but as a matter of determining the boundaries of liberalism, this seems like kind of a weak indicator.

    One account I came across recently about this that I think captures the dynamic of Political Science Twitter that led to the petition to cancel Eastman/CI at APSA pretty well is from Wes Yang:

    The Trump presidency radicalized America’s governing and chattering classes, who saw in his election the fulfillment of one of the dark possibilities of democracy—that the people would elect a demagogue intent on bending the arc of history backward—and felt themselves summoned to act as guardians of the Republic righting the course of that arc. We were in a state of exception that it was both their warrant and their duty to decide.

    The standards and practices that marked our professional classes as elites deserving of our trust in ordinary times (impartiality, procedural correctness) were no longer applicable. In a time of “literal white nationalists in the White House” putting “babies in cages,” these protocols would in practice end up colluding with an existential danger. Departures from those practices become not just excusable but a moral imperative. Thus was undertaken a principled abandonment of scrupulousness in reporting, proportionality in judging, and the neutral application of rules once held to be constitutive of professional authority, all in favor of a politics of emergency. The new politics demanded loyalty and unanimity in an effort to defeat the usurper at any cost. The loss of proportionality in judging and scrupulousness in reporting created an echo chamber in which the bulk of the governing and chattering classes confirmed and exacerbated self-generated fantasies and fears of foreign subversion and fascists on the march.

    You could blame me (and Yang) for not worrying enough about the future ramifications of Trump’s norm-violations. I acknowledge that I could well be underestimating Trump, the autocratic turn of the American right, etc., but I think that even if a good deal more worry is merited, it is a bit strange that the manifestations of this worry seem to be the exclusive province of academics and journalists and similar types who live on Twitter, while everyone else seems to have been content to vote Trump out of office and move on. Perhaps they are the shortsighted ones, but it is an odd way to divide up worry.

  7. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Rita: I think you probably are indeed underestimating the autocratic turn of the American right. I’m inclined not to worry about Trump himself, but I don’t think the media, the liberal elite, whatever you want to call it, is overreacting to the millions and millions of Americans indifferent or even hostile to democratic norms, established rights, etc.

    Of course there are better and worse ways of reacting to strong evidence of an existential threat to American democracy; but one shouldn’t be surprised that shocked and wounded lovers of American democracy sometimes react in disorganized, unhelpful ways.

  8. TAFKAU Says:

    I am a political scientist, though I escaped the tender clutches of the APSA some years ago. (Their annual conference, when it is held in person, has become unbearable, unless one has a taste for 7,000 or so college professors taking over every decent hotel room, restaurant seat, and barstool within a five-mile radius. I prefer the regional conferences.) So, I cannot speak with authority about how the Association decided to relegate the Clairmont Institute to attending the conference in little square boxes. My guess, however, is that it has more to do with the “American” part of the APSA’s name than with the “Political Science” part. That is, theoreticians may theorize about revolution and advocates may advocate for this or that autocratic regime (Castro was popular at some point with a few on the left, though his supporters are fewer these days, and mostly using walkers), but nobody better do something to threaten democracy in *my fucking country*.

    Did this have anything to do with the fact that APSA members are, as Rita says, at least 75% of the liberal and democratic socialist persuasion. Sure, of course it did; they are obviously going to take alleged treason from the right far more personally. But they are also political scientists, i.e., people who study the successes, failures, and stresses of political institutions. And they all went to bed on January 5, 2021, confident that America’s institutions had survived one of its greatest challenges, but had come through with flying, if tattered, colors. The January 6 insurrection forced them to reconsider that complacency. Further, everything we have learned since has made the story worse, even if, as Rita correctly suggests, most Americans have already declared the era of Trump behind us (interesting how the underestimation of Trump and COVID seems to run parallel).

    Here’s where Eastman comes in. What political scientists didn’t know back in January was that this attempted coup d’etat actually had a plan, and that plan was written by a man named John Eastman. Because they are political scientists, they now understand that this plan could well have worked. Had Mike Pence followed Eastman’s script, as we now know he almost did, what would have followed? Who would have stopped him? (I know there are fantasies about Nancy Pelosi leading the Democrats from the chamber and declaring herself Acting President, but that likely wouldn’t have happened and, in any event, it would have done nothing but send the crisis to a new level.) Would the Supreme Court have gone along? Would some of the Republican state legislatures throw in with the coup leaders? Would Trump have called out the military when the inevitable violent reactions ensued? Or, in the end, would everyone have simply decided to give Trump what he wanted because every other alternative was even more unthinkable?

    Most Americans want to move past January 6 because they know that none of this happened. Many political scientists are not prepared to move on because we know it could *well* have happened and that the blueprint is now out there for anyone who wants to try it again (under the right circumstances, of course). Our system provides no legal remedy to address those, like Eastman, who literally plotted this cancelation (there’s that word again) of an American election, and one could certain argue that no such legal penalty should exist. But if we can’t shun or “cancel” someone in this situation—-which the APSA only kinda did-—then what recourse do we have?

  9. Rita Says:

    TAFKAU: We can shun someone like this, and do, often. We shun even people who don’t do anything like these things but affiliate politically with the right. This is not a difficulty for the profession. I was only saying that

    1) APSA shadow-banning Claremont is a weird example of “liberalism” defending itself, as Linker argues. Presumably liberalism is a far bigger concern than the annual APSA conference, but if Claremont’s only blowback comes from there, well.

    You may be right that political scientists are uniquely positioned to understand threats from people like Eastman, while the rest of government and society is ill-positioned to understand or respond. But if so, that suggests that a liberalism which ultimately depends on the members of the academic discipline of political science to weather its storms is…doomed?

    2) My other point is that, once APSA pulls the plug on panels in this post facto way, it sets a precedent for future protests of this nature (and if you’re familiar with APSA, you know this is an annual occurrence – if there’s no hotel labor strike to join at that year’s venue, you gotta find another reason to march and shout), so it requires some general principle of cancellation that can’t then be wielded against the cancellers. I haven’t seen one extended so far, though I suppose we can safely say that as long as APSA is 75% left liberal, no one will go after the panels praising Chavez (one doesn’t even have to go back as far as Castro!) or rioting and looting, though they too might fall under the umbrella of promoting violent undermining of democratic procedures. Then it will be an obvious matter of academic freedom to explore liberatory new ideas.

    UD: It’s certainly possible. Personal knowledge of these people makes it hard for me to believe they are capable of much of anything except venting their bitterness at professional failure. Here is today’s dispatch on Claremont for your edification: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/10/claremont-ryan-williams-trump/620252/. Even the first paragraph is of this nature – “American is only fit for a Christian people!”, crows Claremont head, who I know is an atheist, along with every last person at CI. Hard to take this stuff seriously.

  10. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Rita: The Christian thing immediately made me think of Leo Strauss. From a 2008 book about him:

    The truths discovered by the philosophic elite “are not fit for public consumption.” Philosophy is dangerous and must conceal its chief findings. Philosophers must cultivate a mode of esoteric communication, that is, a mode of concealing the hard truth from the masses. “Only philosophers can handle the truth.” The elite must, in a word, lie to the masses; the elite must manipulate them — arguably for their own good. The elite employ “noble lies,” lies purporting to affirm God, justice, the good. “The Philosophers need to tell noble lies not only to the people at large, but also to powerful politicians.” These lies are necessary “in order to keep the ignorant masses in line.”


    So where did Strauss really stand? ”He was an atheist,” says Stanley Rosen flatly. ”They [Straussians] all are. They are epicureans and atheists.” (The epicurean comment is perhaps a reference to the late Allan Bloom, who was legendary for his enjoyment of the high life. After his death, Bloom’s esoteric life as a closeted gay man turned out to be very different from his outward posture as a proponent of traditional values.)

    While some Straussians dispute the idea that the master was a godless cynic, it does seem that Strauss wanted a regime where the elite lived by a code of stoic fortitude while governing over a population that subscribes to superstitious religious beliefs. ”He agreed with Marx that religion was the opium of the masses,” says Shadia Drury. ”But he believed that the masses need their opium.” Sociologically, Strauss’s approach would seem to work well for the Republican Party, which has a grass-roots base of born-again Christians and a much more secular elite leadership – at least in its foreign-policy wing.

  11. Rita Says:

    Well, lots to say about Strauss and religion – entire books even. Drury is an idiot about this. I’m not sure that even Marx thought religion was simply a bag of bullshit since he was also sensitive to its social ordering effects, but Strauss certainly didn’t. He thought it made important and probably permanent sorts of claims (the precise claims depending on the religion) about human origins and purposes that are difficult for philosophy to disprove, and whose disproof wouldn’t be accepted by most people anyway. (There is then a debate about whether Strauss actually disproved its claims himself, which is very funny but not that relevant.) So it’s not a matter of feeding the masses opium, but of the possibilities of politics in light of their pre-existing and intractable addiction to it.

    But the most obvious point is that if you are a Straussian ruler or aspire to be, you should at least make public shows of your own religiosity, which CI has hardly bothered to do. At least the integralists have this part down.

  12. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Rita: Yes – the integralists follow Max Bialystock: If you got it, baby, flaunt it, flaunt it.

  13. TAFKAU Says:

    Hi Rita—Sure, the APSA’s action is something of an impotent gesture, but we do what we can. I’m not sure how much shunning the Association has done over the years, at least in an official capacity, but if you can’t shun a guy who tried to bring the whole American experiment to the ground, there’s not much sense in getting out of bed in the morning. Will others shun him? Who knows? In a just world, he would unemployable and living out of a dumpster in San Bernardino. And, yeah, if Claremont’s only blowback comes from the APSA, we will know another of our political guardrails has been dismantled with no real consequence.

    We’re not doomed by any means, but we are closer to a constitutional crisis of no certain resolution than at any time since 1860, or at least 1876 (and you’ll recall that both of those crises resolved rather unpleasantly). Academic political scientists will, as usual, have very little to do with how any of this plays out, and their pleadings to the masses will likely be ignored by almost (but not quite) everyone. Our probability of surviving this latest crisis with our democracy intact will depend on journalists and politicians from both parties recognizing the crisis, facing it honestly, and acting with courage. We had just enough of that this time around, but the Republicans are quickly drumming their courageous office holders out of the party. And it may not matter: there may be a critical mass of Americans willing to accept anything as American democracy as long as we keep going through the motions, Alabama still plays Tennessee every third Saturday in October, and we still sing that godawful Lee Greenwood song every July 4.

    I’m not sure I buy your second point, which strikes me as a bit of a slippery slope argument. (First, they came for Eastman…) I have no doubt that some may wish to use the Eastman “precedent” to exile other panelists whose ideas fall to the right of, say, Angela Davis. But, again, if you can’t make a statement about someone who actually—if unsuccessfully—attempted to engineer the illegal reversal of an American national election, then what standards *do* you have? I mean, the slope ain’t that slippery. Also, there is, I think, a meaningful difference between “praising” something and participating in it. (I’d much rather, for example, have a fan of O.J. Simpson living next door than The Juice himself!) Eastman is not being shunned because he “praised” Trump. And false equivalence is still false equivalence.

  14. Margaret Soltan Says:

    TAFKAU: “dumpster in San Bernardino” — LOL

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