THE PROBLEM INCLUDES US: Professor Lilla's strange remarks!


Part 1—Strange, but perhaps instructive:
In mid-December, as the year neared its end, it seemed to us that Professor Lilla made some strange remarks.

Back in November, the Columbia professor turned heads with a front-page piece in the New York Times Sunday Review—with an essay concerning a practice he called "identity liberalism."

In our view, the professor made one blindingly obvious statement in that November piece. (If you're going to name some groups, you'd better name them all.) For our money, much of the rest of what he wrote at that time was a bit unclear.

That said, Professor Lilla had seemed to criticize the practice of "identity politics." Inevitably, one of his colleagues knew what that heresy meant.

With lightning speed, Professor Franke produced a piece which linked her colleague to David Duke. So it currently tends to go over here in our part of the world.

Just like that, Lilla became a running dog accomplice of the Klan! At Vox, Sean Illing decided to check him out.

Illing interviewed Lilla at some length; if you want to read the full interview, you can do so here. But during that exchange, Professor Lilla said some things which struck us as strange—and perhaps as instructive.

Illing and Lilla were discussing Those People, the white working class. At one point, Lilla warned against "writing off a whole group of people that you need to reach if you want to be elected."

To us, that seems to make obvious sense. Soon, though, Lilla seemed to state a somewhat condescending assumption. ("People in these communities" are "voting against their own interests," he seemed to say.)

And then, the professor made the remarks shown below. These remarks strike us as strange, but also perhaps as instructive:
LILLA (12/16/16): The bottom line is that we can't win without these people. And when I'm talking about winning, I'm not just talking about presidential elections—we pay too much attention to that. The things that get done in this country are done through legislation, which means you have to win the Congress and you have to go every state in the country. The laws, moreover, get enforced in state governments, and so you if you're not competitive there, you can't guarantee that the laws you pass will get enforced.

So if we care about the people we say we care about—African Americans, women, LGBT people, Latinos—if we want to protect them, symbolic victories won't do. We have to be competitive and we have to win at every level of government, and that means sucking it up and getting the votes of everyone.
Can that be what the professor meant? On its face, he almost seems to have said that we liberals care about African Americans, women, LGBT people and Latinos—apparently full stop.

Based on what the professor said, we don't seem to care about "these people" (his term), the white working class! But since we can't win elections without them, we have to "suck it up"—degrade ourselves—and go after their votes too.

That's what the professor seems to have said. Can that possibly be what he meant?

As Professor Lilla continued, he almost seemed to express this general viewpoint again. We liberals may have to "get dirty" pursuing the white working class, he repeatedly said:
LILLA: There are all sorts of ways we can work to make America more tolerant and inclusive. But we can't confuse that work with political work. Political work is only about acquiring and using power to protect the people you want to protect.

An election is not a seminar. It is not a therapy session. It is not a chance to rewrite history. An election is only about winning, and you do what you have to do. And yes, that doesn't mean you have to pander to people, but it may mean you have to be silent about certain things and get your apron dirty.

If you want to reform the American soul, become a minister. But if you're serious about politics, you have to go where the people are and find a way to reach them, and not be afraid to get dirty.
In context, he almost seems to have said it again. "We want to protect" African Americans, women, LGBT people and Latinos. We don't seem to want to protect the white working class. Talking to them may make our aprons dirty!

That's what the professor seems to have said. Can that possibly be what he meant?

Briefly, let's be fair. In at least one basic respect, Professor Lilla's formulation doesn't exactly make seems to make sense. So maybe it's not what he meant!

What doesn't make sense in Lilla's remarks? Roughly half the members of the white working class actually are women! Meanwhile, a smaller proportion of "these people" are LGBT—and we do care about such people, according to his remarks.

Such apparent contradictions may arise when we start picking winners and losers—when we start saying we "care about" certain people and groups, but not about certain others. This may suggest that the things we seem to have said may not quite be what we meant.

In these exchanges, Professor Lilla doesn't sound a whole lot like David Duke. He does sound like the kind of figure who signals to folk in the white working class that they should listen to and vote for Republicans, right on down the line.

We liberals frequently send these whistles, perhaps not realizing that we do so. This calls a basic fact to mind as we enter a troubling new year:

Our journalistic and political systems lie in shambles. As Paul Krugman noted in yesterday's column, this state of affairs has been developing for decades.

Our journalistic, intellectual and political systems lie in ruins. All month, we'll discuss a basic point, a basic fact which can be hard for us liberals to see.

Here is the point we plan to discuss, though we know such discussion is bound to be fruitless:

A significant amount of this terrible problem may perhaps lie with Us.

Tomorrow: Should we "want to protect" this person?

Dramatis personnae to date: According to the leading authority, Professor Lilla is a political scientist, an historian of ideas, a journalist and a professor of humanities at Columbia. In the 1990s, he wrote widely on twentieth-century European philosophy, at least to the extent that such a critter exists.

During that period, he wrote The Reckless Mind, a meditation on the "philotyrannical" bent of twentieth-century continental philosophy. His most recent book, The Shipwrecked Mind, is a study of how nostalgia has shaped modern politics, from Middle America to the Middle East.

According to her Columbia Law School profile, Professor Franke is the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law, where she also directs the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law and is the faculty director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project. It seems to us that she serves on a large number of steering committees, but that could just be us.

By Columbia's admission, she is among the nation's leading scholars writing on law, religion and rights, drawing from feminist, queer, and critical race theory. With intellectual leaders like Lilla and Franke, it's hard to see how we liberals and progressives ever find ways to lose.


  1. Nice post.

    Please, oh please, don't make tomorrow's "this person" be yet another post on Rachel Maddow. Whether you're right about her or not, your Ahab obsession about her is beyond boring.

    You've got much more interesting work to do.

    1. Maddow is only one of many people that Somerby targets. Why do you care so much about Maddow and not about the others (Chris Matthews, Maureen Dowd, Ashley Parker, Amanda Ripley) who attract his attention? When Maddow commits new sins, why should they be ignored?

      Perhaps your own selective attention to Maddow is making Somerby seem more obsessed than he is? Obsession may be in the eye of the beholder.

    2. No, he's pretty obsessed. The ratio of insight to insult has been dropping pretty fast.

    3. Evidence please.

    4. I have no problem with posts about Maddow.

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  2. 1. Elected representatives don't necessarily vote the wishes of the people who elected them. Recently, Republicans have tended to vote in ways very different than polling of public opinion among their constituents. They re-elected anyway because it is hard to remove an incumbent and because voters don't elect their representatives based on their congressional voting records.

    2. Protecting the interests of demographic groups such as white working class people, doesn't mean telling them what they want to hear. For example, NAFTA has been good for most workers and for American industry. Not perfect, but generally good. White workers don't want to hear that and they believe otherwise. Someone cannot both support their interests and cater to what they want to hear -- the two are incompatible. There are many other examples of this problem.

    3. There is a difference between being a professor and being an "intellectual leader." Somerby treats these are equivalent but they are not. Maybe they were in the past but someone who studies an esoteric and highly specific topic in depth, perhaps writes books and articles for other experts about that topic, is not functioning as any kind of leader. He or she is doing a job of accumulating knowledge. The job does not involve application of those findings to real life problems. So, Somerby's sarcasm about the failure of people like Lilla and Franke to lead us out of current predicaments is misplaced. A professor is a teacher in a highly specialized field. Professors and teachers give people tools to think and lead, but they don't perform that function themselves. None do, at any level. It conflicts with their role of keeping hands off someone's thoughts and letting students reason for themselves.

  3. The idea that working class people who vote Republican are voting against their interest leads to a kind of paradox. Let's accept that lower middle class and lower class people get more from Democratic government programs than they pay in. Then, it must be the case that upper middle class and upper class people get less from Democratic government programs than they pay in.

    So, one might ask why upper middle class Democrats vote against their interest. But, that question is seldom raised.

    1. This argument only works if you calculate the more and less with respect to the same measure. Who gets more use of the roads? Commuters or truck drivers? Who gets more use of food stamps? Poor people or rich people? Who gets more use of the low inheritance tax? Rich people or poor people?

      If you calculate across the entire government, including things like infrastructure and aid to businesses and certain kinds of tax credits, I'll bet it comes out much more even. Conservatives who think they get nothing themselves but only subsidize benefits for the poor and elderly are focusing only on one kind of government service and ignoring the ones they make most use of themselves.

      It is a superficial and simplistic argument. Ultimately, it is in our interest to promote the well-being of all Americans. As Hillary noted, we succeed or fail as a nation together, not individually, so it makes more sense to calculate those gains as a nation.

      When our national measures of health become stronger we all benefit. Those measures include life expectancy, median house prices and income levels, decreasing poverty, higher literacy, not simply measures of commerce.

    2. David your odd reasoning exposes how blinded you are by partisanship. It is not a paradox and the answer to the question is inherit in Democratic policies.

      Democratics vote to help those that are less fortunate. Duh

      Republicans vote to help themselves; however, since Republicans are generally misinformed, low information voters straddled by identity hostility, they often vote against what would work best for them.

  4. It is simply a fact that liberals do not need more white working class voters than they already have. All they need is more voter turnout, or really less voter suppression. Voters that support liberals and their policies outnumber Republican voters.

  5. From Jen Sorensen at Daily Kos:

    "Along these same lines, “liberal elites” — long a Fox News favorite — is designed to shift attention away from the actual economic elites hoovering up the world’s wealth and resources, such as the Koch Brothers or Trump, and instead make one think of poodle-owning urbanites supposedly looking down their noses at everyone (while in reality voting to raise the minimum wage). It’s a frame, not a fact, and hides a deep anti-intellectual agenda."

    Why is Somerby giving aid and comfort to the right? He should know better.

    1. That's stupid horseshit. For every Koch, there's 20 Soroses.

  6. In context, he almost seems to have said it again. "We want to protect" African Americans, women, LGBT people and Latinos. We don't seem to want to protect the white working class. Talking to them may make our aprons dirty!

    That's what the professor seems to have said. Can that possibly be what he meant?

    You still don't get it, Bob? Not only do they not wish to help white males, they want them gone. Literally. If you haven't noticed, this nation is "browning," and these people are positively celebrating it and hastening it to every extent possible.

    So, no, they do not wish to discuss matters with white males, any more than you wish to discuss matters of kitchen cleanliness with cockroaches. They want whites gone, and males dis-empowered. Then the ruling class will have a nice, docile public to rule over.

    1. "They want whites gone, and males dis-empowered."

      Get off the cross. We need the wood and nails to build guillotines.


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