Michael Brooks Last Show: Vivek Chibber

In his short life, Michael Brooks, became legendary on the left for his ability to say often exactly what needed to be said when it needed to be said.

But he also possessed an even more conspicuous ability to get his guests to do the same.

Here is Vivek Chibber of NYU on Brooks’s final show saying one of the things we very much need to be hearing now:

(Jacobin Weekend 7/18/2020, 55:00-58:00 Very lightly edited.)

“By the 70s and 80s, what happens is that the trade union movement is decimated (as are the communist and socialist parties) and the left is reduced to certain individuals in certain places who have certain values, almost all coming from the middle class. And there’s only one place left for them to go and that’s the university. When they go into the university they thought they were on an island (like Survivor), and they would subsist on that island and gather their forces and come back out when conditions were better.

“What they did not fully understand and many of them refuse to admit, this is not an island. Universities have a class and an institutional context. Universities are mainly a place where professionals come for upward mobility. And when you put a bunch of socialists and Marxists in universities and you give them university jobs, they are going to sooner or later start internalizing the aspirations, ambitions and goals of university life. Which is upward mobility not organizing.

“Even if they want to organize, how are they going to do it? You’re sitting in a fucking classroom. You’re imagining what you’re going to do if you ever start organizing and 15 to 20 years into it, who have you been recruiting into your organization? Grad students. People who want to get jobs for themselves, people who see things that are problematic but who, as their numbers increase, the odds are that what they’re pissed off about is what they’re not getting.

And so you turn from an anticapitalist left to an anti-discrimination left. And the left today is fundamentally an anti-discrimination left. What does that mean? It wants to remove restrictions from upward mobility. That’s its fundamental goal. it is so structurally and institutionally removed from people who are manual laborers, blue collar laborers, who work for wages and a living, it’s very hard for them to conceptualize what that world is, they don’t instinctively care about it.

“And so the left today, the university left, has no interest in organizing beyond itself. The level of contempt and paternalism and condemnation that I’ve seen for working people, you literally have to come in and fill out a form to be deemed worthy of being supported.

This is the basket of deplorables. It’s not just Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton is just the more visible end of the progressive intelligensia. It’s the go to position, you go to any meeting of the left today, how do we deal with the working classes’ conservatism, their X, their Y, and how do we teach them.

“The position of declassé intellectuals for 120 years was our job was to learn about their conditions and make ourselves relevant to them.

The position of the left now is how do they become worthy of us.”

Chomsky on the Left, Free Speech and the Authoritarian Mind

Those of us who have been politically engaged over the past few decades will find little new in what Michelle Goldberg refers to in her Times op-ed as the left’s “free speech problem.” My introduction to it was in 1978 when the ACLU supported the American Nazi Party’s application to march in Skokie, Illinois.

Much of the left, most conspicuously, the alphabet soup of self-defined Marxist organizations, inveighed against the liberals who aligned with the ACLU.  One of these “liberals” was Chomsky and while I don’t remember his being personally attacked for his stance, in a few years he would be. That occurred during the so-called Faurisson affair involving French academic Robert Faurisson accused of “falsification of history” by the French courts for having published a volume denying the existence of Nazi death camps.

Chomsky viewed this as a clear instance of suppression of speech, noting then, as he has routinely, that freedom of speech means nothing unless it applies to those whose views one finds abhorrent, as was clearly the case in this instance. This triggered considerable outrage from across the spectrum of the French left which mirrored the Marxist left here in denying that “Nazis had the right to speak.”

While there was no word for it at the time, this led to Chomsky being “cancelled” from French intellectual life. His formerly august reputation shattered, denunciations of Chomsky’s supposed Nazi sympathies (consistent, it was claimed with his harsh criticism of the policies of the Israeli state) deriving from the moderate to extreme left.


The similarities in the environments which led to Chomsky’s cancellation then during the Faurrison affair and now obscure certain differences relevant to the discussion. Among these was the role of the French Communist Party and other Marxist formations which were still viable, exerting considerable influence on elite discourse. They recognized that defense of free speech and other so called “bourgeois” rights constituted an implicit attack on those regimes they were ideologically and in some cases institutionally aligned with, namely, the Soviet Union and, to a lesser degree, China. Promotion of individual rights and liberties including free speech were a staple of cold war propaganda, massively financed, we now know, by Western intelligence services and even those far from being fellow travellers were taken aback by its cynicism and dishonesty.

That the protection of these regimes and the authoritarian ideology on which they were based was, for better or worse, a central concern of the French intellectuals attacking Chomsky during the Faurisson affair raises an obvious question: how should one explain the left’s rejection of Chomsky’s views now? There is, after all, no longer any Soviet Union to protect and the communist parties in their orbit have long ago collapsed. Furthermore, given that it has historically been directed against the left by the state, it is a bit baffling to observe leftists arguing for suppression and/or dilution of free speech rights. That this is a dominant left tendency has been apparent in the numerous challenges which Chomsky’s views and those supporting them have received in recent days including many on my own facebook wall.


The answer, in my opinion, has to do with certain subtly anti-democratic attitudes prevalent in sectors of the left. That the public should be marginalized from circles of real, objective power, is, of course, a foundational component of right wing political philosophy. That it has a left variant is less commonly understood, with Chomsky being one of the few to have registered its significance.

Specifically, this was the view associated with Lenin, as Chomsky observed in a 1986 essay where he noted “the great appeal of Leninist doctrine to the modern intelligentsia.” Chomsky continues, citing Bakunin’s critique of Marx, “This doctrine affords the ‘radical intellectuals’ the right to hold State power (becoming) the ‘State priests,’ . . . that rules it with an iron hand.” Chomsky also noted that nearly identical attitudes are congenial to statist liberals of the West, Robert McNamara’s managerial perspective overlapping closely with Lenin in its commitment to insulating a technocratic nomenklatura from popular demands and aspirations.

Coinciding with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the political formations beholden to it has been an erosion of organized labor and the working class base of the left coalition. As Dustin Guastella and others have pointed out, what remains of the left is largely dominated by what Barbara and John Ehrenreich identified as the Professional Managerial Class (PMC), often downwardly mobile segments of it to be sure but whose high level of education and relatively privileged backgrounds have conferred on them a distinctive set of attitudes.

Among these is a sense of entitlement of their “right” if not to hold and exercise state power, at least to be socially and organizationally deferred to by those who lack the capacity or expertise as these are defined within the dominant culture. When they are challenged, their tendency is not to attempt to convince but to denigrate the legitimacy of the challenge, particularly if this derives from those unacculturated within the linguistic and social norms of the PMC, aka the deplorables.

This tendency is most conspicuous in the frequent dismissal “I don’t need to educate you” invoked by those promulgating the toxic conventional wisdom of race relations associated with the influential best seller White Fragility. Its relevance here inheres on its being based on the assumption that those granted access to decision making circles already should know the answers to all of the relevant questions.  Those who don’t have tacitly admitted their guilt and are silenced through reprimands and humiliation.


The principle of free speech is directly antithetical to this deeply inculcated belief of the PMC and so it’s not surprising to find the negative reactions that we do in the current controversy. That said, it is rare for those challenging Chomsky to directly state their rejection of it. Free speech is, after all, a bedrock principle enshrined in the U.S. constitution and the legal system one which the PMC is ultimately invested in defending-at least nominally. What we therefore tend to see is a soft rejection generally prefaced by a pro forma endorsement of free speech inevitably followed by the qualification that certain groups (most notably Nazis but sometimes others) don’t deserve it.

Chomsky’s response to this is well known: those embracing it mirror exactly Stalin and Hitler who also agreed with free speech for those whose views they approve of. While the point is clear and obvious, it has had to be continuously reasserted for centuries: if you don’t believe in free speech for those holding views you find most detestable, you don’t believe in free speech at all.

The cancel culture mania of the last few years has revealed liberals’ and leftists’ supposed embrace of free speech to be highly elastic, if not altogether tenuous. The most minuscule expressions of non-conformity are met by left social media influencers unleashing their twitter followers with the goal of “ratioing” the unfortunate dissident into compliance. When this is not sufficient to silence them, it is often followed by tangible consequences, particularly when the campaign involves notification of the target’s employer, as has occurred to me on several occasions.

While it would be an exaggeration to compare the stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere we are now enduring with Mao’s China or the Soviet Union under Brezhnev or Stalin, it has been increasingly recognized that it is not one we should be comfortable with having created. Some, most notably Ben Burgis in this perceptive segment with Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara, have argued that it is a major reason for our failure to create a mass constituency for our politics, something which should be obvious to anyone with open eyes. I’m inclined to agree and hope others will at least begin to engage in a discussion about it.

Free Speech and the The Left: The Harper’s Letter in Context

1) Given that it has been a central concern of the left for three centuries, it should surprise no one that a letter supporting free speech rights was signed by leftists. It should also surprise no one that various neoliberal ghouls whose demonstrated contempt for free speech is exceeded only by their capacity for hypocrisy also signed it.

2) One might think that the overwhelming response by the left would be to expose the latter, citing their cynical and opportunistic brandishing of a right to free speech they routinely deny to others.

3) Alas, what has occupied many of us has been something entirely different albeit familiar, namely issuing a constant stream of denunciations of those on the left who signed. Most of these targeted Chomsky, probably the most high profile signatory but also the most predictable with a sixty year record of signing similar appeals.

Continue reading Free Speech and the The Left: The Harper’s Letter in Context

Who Am I?

John Halle

Pianist and composer John Halle’s musical career began in the late 1970s as a jazz musician in San Francisco where he performed with Eddie Henderson, Sonny Stitt, Mark Levine, Freddie Hubbard and many others. He has also performed works by Bach, Beethoven, Ravel and Debussy in Berkeley, New York, Cambridge in solo recitals as well accompanying for his wife, the violinist and violist Marka Gustavsson and his son Benjamin, a double bass player.

A widely performed composer, he is a founding member of the composers collective Common Sense. Halle’s recent works include Amen Choruses, released on violinist Julie Rosenfeld’s Grammy nominated New Music for Violin and Piano, the critically acclaimed Sphere(’s) for the Friction Quartet and, most recently, Street Music for the Mana Sax Quartet. 

A prolific writer on music, politics, and culture, his work has appeared in Current Affairs, Jacobin, New Politics and the New Haven Register.

Halle recently retired from an academic career which included faculty positions at Yale and the Bard College Conservatory of Music. In this capacity, he taught some of the younger generation’s most celebrated composers including winners of the Pulitzer Prize and Academy Awards.

He is currently embarked on a fifteen city tour where he will present and discuss his own works for solo piano as well as works by Bach Debussy and Errol Garner.


Hi everyone,

Here is information for my ultra low budget, DIY, grassroots, (anti)social media enabled whistle stop tour. The question marks indicate cities I will be passing through but where I have yet to arrange a performance venue. If you’d like to help me out by sponsoring me, it’s not hard. All I need is a space (a small hall or medium to largish living room) and a decent piano-preferably in tune (which I’ll pay for). Let’s talk.

If you are in these areas and would like to attend, let me know and I’ll provide you with more information.
(Contact me at halle AT bard DOT edu for more info).

Jan 29: Bronx NY
Feb 1: Syracuse NY (Fundraiser for Bernie Sanders)
Feb 2: Buffalo NY
Feb 4: Cleveland OH/Ann Arbor MI ?
Feb 5: Chicago (house concert)
Feb 6: Chicago: University Illinois, Chicago
Feb 9: Boulder CO Muse Performance Space w/clarinetist, composer Conor Abbott Brown (premier of new work)
Feb 11: Salt Lake City
Feb 14: San Francisco Center for New Music sponsored by the Common Sense Composers Collective
w/ Mana and Friction Quartets/Conor Brown/Bob Kenmotsu
Feb 15: Santa Rosa CA
Feb 16: Sebastopol CA Community Church
Feb 17: Piedmont CA (Piedmont Gardens)
Feb 18: Berkeley CA
Feb 21: Los Angeles/Arcadia CA (Clarke Center)
Feb 23: Tucson AZ
Feb 25: Austin TX?
Feb 26: Little Rock AR?
Feb 28: Columbia MO/University of Missouri
Feb 29: Chicago ?
March 1: Morganstown WV
March 2: Washington, DC  ?
March 3: College Park Maryland/University of Maryland
March 4: NYC /Philadelphia
March 5: Home
March 21: Olive, NY Library Piano Plus Series w/Mana Quartet

Greta Thunberg’s Magic Word: Strike!

For some of us who were there, Friday’s Climate Strike brought back memories of Feb. 15, 2003 when one to two million of us flooded the streets of New York City.

It was a huge organizational success, over 3000 groups collaborating to bring together what remains the largest demonstration in history.
But our pride in accomplishing what we did should not obscure the bitter truth: we failed.

“When the people lead, the leaders will follow,” we told ourselves.

But they didn’t.

Continue reading Greta Thunberg’s Magic Word: Strike!

Against Nutpicking

1) Nutpicking refers to “The practice of sifting through the comments of blogs, email threads, discussion groups and other user generated content in an attempt find choice quotes proving that advocates for or against a particular political opinion are unreasonable, uninformed extremists.”

2) The nutpicking tactic was deployed most conspicuously by David Brock for the Clinton campaign to smear Sanders supporters as racist and sexist Bernie Bros.

3) That Sanders supporters were nothing of the kind was, of course, obvious to everyone, including Brock himself and those cynically deploying the smears.

4) The same can be said of Working Families Party national director Maurice Mitchell’s “nutpicked” accusations of racism and those circulating them.

5) These are a bad faith tactic to evade releasing the results of the WFP endorsement process.

6) The results will almost certainly show what we have come to expect: strong multiracial, rank and file support for Sanders versus support for Warren among organizational leadership.

7) 1) – 6) are not criticisms of WFP’s endorsement process but rather of the WFP leadership’s failure to abide by it by releasing the results of the vote total and by smearing those who are requesting they do so.

8 ) Nut picked smears deployed by the Clinton 2016 campaign against Sanders were unacceptable then and just as unacceptable now. All 2020 DP primary candidates should repudiate them and the figures associated with the tactic, including Brock himself.

Will MIT Move Beyond the Koch Era?

In separate open letters circulated on August 23rd, MIT President L. Raphael Reif referenced two of MIT’s major contributors.

In one, Reif expressed gratitude for David Koch’s “longstanding devotion to the Institute”. In the other, Reif issued “a profound and humble apology” for accepting the contributions of Jeffrey Epstein.

Both Koch and Epstein, as should be obvious, left the world a significantly worse place due to their presence in it, though most would agree with the results of this informal poll that Koch was “responsible for more human suffering.”

This point was soon reinforced by Hurricane Dorian slamming into Continue reading Will MIT Move Beyond the Koch Era?

Bernie Sanders Does Not Feel Your Pain

Bernie Sanders’s stump speeches are often criticized for neglecting his personal story including a hardscrabble Brooklyn upbringing and the early death of both of his parents. Sanders’s failure to “share his feelings” is sometimes contrasted to the “I feel your pain” emotionality of Bill Clinton.

What this omits is what has become increasingly obvious to the victims of Clinton’s economic policy. Clinton’s personal affinity with average citizens masked an underlying lack of concern and even contempt towards their suffering. Sanders’s reticence is the polar opposite, of a piece with a campaign based on a profound sympathy and solidarity with the victims of economic violence.


What Sanders understands is that for a fraction of the population, the experience of normal human emotions, including pain, has by now become a form of privilege.

Continue reading Bernie Sanders Does Not Feel Your Pain

Essays on politics, music and culture.