Starting to Understand the Reactionary Mind

My Brooklyn College colleague Corey Robin‘s new book, The Reactionary Mind, has, thanks to its provocative thesis (and its brilliant prose, a rare quality in an academic book), sparked a great deal of discussion in academic and non-academic circles alike. Given the relevance of the book to modern American political life, and its provision of an intellectual history of conservatism, the Wolfe Institute at Brooklyn College–where I serve as faculty associate–has decided to make the book the subject of this semester’s faculty study group. We will meet once a month to discuss the book’s arguments and analysis; I will lead the discussion. (The Wolfe Institute conducts such faculty study groups every semester; last semester I discussed Alexander NehamasNietzsche: Life as Literature; Nietzsche, incidentally, is classified as a conservative by Robin.)

Unfortunately, this rather humdrum business of a bunch of academics getting together to read a book and discuss it, seems to have been rather bizarrely misunderstood–by some–as an ideological exercise of sorts. Professor Mitchell Langbert of the National Association of Scholars described, in a blog post, the study group’s planned activity as a “discussion…at taxpayer expense,” possibly an exercise in “taxpayer-funded ideology,” and wonders whether I will “permit disagreement” and whether “the democratic ideologies of Stalin and Mao will be used to illustrate Robin’s and Chopra’ commitment to freedom and democracy.” Professor Langbert also emailed Professor Robert Viscusi of the Wolfe Institute and myself (making sure to copy Brooklyn College administrators, though he got the email addresses wrong), and said, among other things:

I am offended at and concerned about the announcement that you released yesterday concerning a talk about conservatives at the Wolfe Institute. The talk is ideological, and your announcement is offensive to the few, suppressed Brooklyn College conservatives not already eliminated from their jobs via ideologically motivated personnel decisions. Calling American conservatism a reaction against democratic challenges and claiming that conservatives defend power and privilege against freedom movements are red herrings. The fishy scent is evident in your lumping together Ayn Rand, John C. Calhoun, and Edmund Burke. Have you sponsored speakers who can explain why doing so is ill informed?

Professors Chopra and Robin are entitled to their political views, but do you intend to offer balance? If the Wolfe Center sponsors ideological attacks on conservatism, do you also offer balance with a speaker or two who know something about conservatism?

I remain puzzled as to how a “faculty study group” could be confused with a “talk” and how the activities of a study group devoted to a discussion of a book’s arguments could be construed as the promulgation of an ideology. The invitation to the study group was sent to all Brooklyn College faculty members, presumably a diverse group that includes political orientations of all stripes. As Professor Robert Viscusi put it, “As many points of view will be represented as the participants choose to espouse.” My task is to lead the discussion, not to censor disagreement.

The problem might be, of course, that merely reading and discussing the book is offensive to some. To that sensibility I have nothing to say.

Update (February 10th): In my original post, I forgot to mention that Professor Langbert appeared to have copied Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the CUNY Board of Trustees member who, last year, had played a significant role in the university’s disastrous decision to deny Tony Kushner a honorary degree. (The decision was subsequently reversed.) Mr. Wiesenfeld joined the fray by writing:

This is the curse of academia: no honest debate. Just shut your opponents down. Ahhh…but if political islamists come along, the liberalls[sic] cower. Nothing like implied or real threats of violence to take campus control. Checkpoints and BDS conferences anyone?

My reactions to this message are the same as above. I have added a link to “BDS conferences” so that readers can understand the reference.

Update (February 18th): Professor Langbert has responded to the post above in another blog post (at the National Association Scholars blog).

8 comments on “Starting to Understand the Reactionary Mind

  1. Langbert is a BC professor with a long history of confusing things so as to have a justification for a partisan rant. Common practice among the professional hysterics who insist on “balance” in the academy but no other institution.

    What are the odds that Langbert has read Corey’s book before objecting to this study group? Another standard practice of right-wing hacks: take offense at things you imagine other people are doing or saying.

    And, of course, we know how much of the college’s budget is “tax-payer funded” and how much is tuition, so that claim, too, doesn’t stand up to empirical inquiry either.

  2. Samir Chopra says:


    I doubt that Professor Langbert has read the book. And I’ve never understood the “balance” argument myself.

  3. Noson says:

    Interesting post.Thank you.

    The “balance” argument is made by some on the left when talking about talk radio.

  4. […] Last week at Brooklyn College, the Wolfe Institute‘s Spring 2012 Faculty Study Group met to discuss Corey Robin‘s The Reactionary Mind, which aims to identify substantive theses central to that political tradition by way of an intellectual history of conservatism; more precisely, by close readings of some central works of the conservative canon. (The Faculty Study Group is organized by the Wolfe Institute every semester to read and discuss an academic work of interest; this semester’s selection of The Reactionary Mind had already generated some pre-discussion co….) […]

  5. […] The Reactionary Mind. The selection of this book for reading and discussion resulted in an angry outburst from Professor Mitchell Langbert, protesting the choice of the book, and who, in reading from the Alan Dershowitz playbook, demanded […]

  6. […] student newspaper, he doubled down on his comments. For as long as I’ve known of him and his activities here at Brooklyn College, Langbert has been desperately hoping that the right-wing assault troops of the new media will […]

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