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The Disillusionment of Samuel Moyn
The Yale historian has become a prominent critic of liberalism. But what’s he for?
Bradley E. Clift for The Chronicle
By Jon Baskin OCTOBER 27, 2017
Samuel Moyn looks suspiciously like a teenager. The impression is momentarily belied by his impressive résumé: At the age of 45, Moyn is teaching his first semester as a professor of history and law at Yale University, following appointments at Harvard and Columbia. Moreover, even for an adult scholar, Moyn has well-informed views on a startling diversity of topics. Slumped across a chair in jeans and Converse in his Harvard law office last winter, he ricocheted from the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (the topic of Moyn’s dissertation and first book) to theories of political economy — something Moyn has devoted more attention to since the 2008 financial crisis — to Jonathan Littell’s 2009 novel The Kindly Ones, which Moyn called "intentionally sickening and an unquestionably brilliant success" in a review for The Nation.
On the other hand, Moyn has a social-media habit rivaling that of most teenagers.
"It’s more important for you to see Moyn’s Facebook page than the interior of his house," says Thomas Meaney, a former student of Moyn’s at Columbia. "He basically lives there. It’s like he publishes his own magazine."
On a recent visit to the page, links could be found to an editorial on the ACLU’s defense of white supremacists in the wake of Charlottesville, an abstruse law-review article on global political economy, and a conversation between the New Yorker editor, David Remnick, and the intellectual historian Mark Lilla about Lilla’s new book, The Once and Future Liberal. The comment sections under each serve as a forum for discussion among people who seem to know each other, by byline if not by face, from the middle reaches of academe and publishing. As is common on social media, the discussions tend to converge toward a self-congratulatory consensus, to such an extent that Moyn’s occasional refusal to signal where he stands on controversial articles can be a cause of consternation ("Sam, is this one of those fyi posts? Or an endorsement?" asked one commenter, nervously, under his link to an excerpt of Lilla’s book). Yet Moyn’s range of interests, his volume of activity, and the unusually high erudition of his followers make the page destination reading for an increasingly prominent community of left-liberal scholars.
It’s also a good place to start understanding Moyn’s growing influence. At the time we met, Moyn was putting the finishing touches on Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World(Belknap). Due out in the spring, the book promises to cement his reputation as one of the most trenchant critics of "liberal humanitarian" foreign policy. Yet Moyn’s reputation is also tied to his status as a model and magnet for a generation of younger historians and public intellectuals, many of them former students or mentees, who drifted into his orbit during his time in the Columbia history department from 2001 to 2014.
Moyn's reputation is tied to his status as a model and magnet for a generation of younger historians and public intellectuals.
The list includes Meaney, whose writing has appeared in the London Review of Books and The New Yorker; Timothy Shenk, an editor at Dissent and a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis; Stephen Wertheim, a historian of international relations at the University of Cambridge; Ana Keilson, a scholar of dance and politics who teaches at Harvard; James G. Chappel, an intellectual historian at Duke University; Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, a philosopher of religion at Yale; and David Marcus, the literary editor of The Nation.
"It’s difficult to think of a teacher in American academia whose students have made a greater contribution to leftist thought over the past decade," says Yascha Mounk, a lecturer in political theory at Harvard, who audited a class with Moyn in 2005.
At first glance, Moyn’s impact is difficult to explain. Although energetic and unfailingly responsive — he rarely takes more than 10 minutes to respond to an email — he is not strikingly charismatic, in writing or in person. His eagerness to speak seriously about ideas and politics, in magazines and newspapers big and small, casual conversation, and on social media, surely makes him a good fit for a time when strictly scholarly writing has begun to seem like gig work. But Moyn’s appeal also resides in another kind of versatility, one of particular interest to a generation that came of age during the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis, and that now finds itself confronting the presidency of Donald Trump: the ability to balance an uncompromising critique of liberalism with a refusal to settle comfortably into any of the usual ideological alternatives.
In the first half of Moyn’s career, there was little indication that he was on his way to becoming a public intellectual, or a prominent critic of American liberalism. His first two books, both published in 2005, were based on research he’d done as a student of Martin Jay, a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley. In Origins of the Other (Cornell University Press), Moyn tracked Levinas’s intellectual development against the spread of Protestant theology and Cold War political theory in postwar Europe. And in A Holocaust Controversy (Brandeis University Press), he examined a 1970s debate in France over what had happened in the Treblinka concentration camp. Moyn then embarked on a study of Claude Lefort, a left-wing French political philosopher perhaps best known for his controversial interpretations of his teacher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Twelve years later, Moyn says he still plans to complete his book on Lefort, once he is finished with the "detour" that began when he reviewed Inventing Human Rights (Norton, 2007), by the University of California at Los Angeles historian Lynn Hunt, for The Nation. It is for this detour, which led to the publication of his own history of human rights, The Last Utopia (Harvard University Press, 2010), that Moyn is best known today.
His shift to writing about human rights can look anomalous, but Moyn had a prior relationship with the topic. In the summer of 1999, motivated by his "romance" with the idea of a human-rights-driven foreign policy, Moyn interned on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council. America was then engaged in a military intervention in Bosnia. "I was someone who is a pretty common figure in my generation," Moyn told me. "I came of political age in the 1990s. It’s at the peak intellectually and culturally of Holocaust memorialization, and so this is abetting the sense that our agenda is institutionalizing the moral imperative ‘never again.’ Kosovo was pivotal because it was the time when finally action was taken."
Working with National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, Moyn was tasked with helping to craft op-eds like "A Just and Necessary War," published in The New York Times under President Clinton’s byline, which represented the intervention primarily as a moral crusade against ethnic cleansing. Moyn pinned the editorial to the wall of his cubicle. But in the years following his time in the White House — and especially as a student at Harvard Law School, from which he received a degree in 2001 — he soured on the intervention, coming to believe the Clinton administration had sidestepped international law to take sides in a civil war. "I was confused in that time in the White House about who I was serving," Moyn says now. "I thought I was serving humanity. But I was serving what in retrospect has to be seen as an assertion of American hegemony."
It's difficult to think of a scholar whose students have made a greater contribution to leftist thought over the past decade.
His review of Hunt’s book was Moyn’s first chance to formulate his second thoughts. As a work of history, Moyn contends, Hunt’s narrative is overdetermined. Because she is intent on presenting human rights as the culmination of a linear tradition that has "cascaded" down from the Enlightenment and the age of democratic revolutions, Hunt fails to acknowledge the role of other radical traditions — such as socialism — in later revolutionary movements, like those connected to Caribbean anticolonialism.
Characteristically, though, the essay is animated less by a scholarly disagreement than by an ethical one. To begin with, Moyn alleges that Hunt neglects what even many proponents of human rights had by then acknowledged: that the rhetoric can serve as cover for darker interests, as when George W. Bush invoked Saddam Hussein’s "rape rooms and torture chambers" to rally support for the invasion of Iraq. More distinctively, Moyn argues that, even when expressed sincerely, the human-rights consensus that emerged in the 1970s expresses a risibly minimalist ideal, which gained the support of the richer countries in part as a way to stave off calls for more demanding models of global justice (hence the "last" utopia). "Hunt’s book is for an audience for whom torture — and other visible state action — is the most grievous affront to morality," writes Moyn. "But humanitarian sentiment will seem less praiseworthy for anyone who suspects that the focus on visible forms of cruelty obscures structural wrongs that are less easy to see — even when they sometimes also cause the body to suffer, as with the pangs of hunger or the exhaustion of work."
Moyn’s confrontational stance puzzled some scholars — what kind of person thinks there’s too much focus on human rights? — and provoked others. When The Last Utopia was published in 2010, the humanitarians struck back. John Ikenberry, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, charged Moyn with failing to appreciate the subtle manner in which Enlightenment precursors like the "rights of man" had paved the way for contemporary human-rights charters. (Moyn would share his thoughts on Ikenberry in The Nation the following year.) Belinda Cooper, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, wondered why Moyn ended his story about human rights in the 1970s, when it was not until the 1990s that they truly took hold as an international ideal (a criticism Moyn thinks is valid). Gary Bass, a professor of politics at Princeton and the author of a book on the origins of humanitarianism, accused Moyn of so many transgressions — dismissal of counterexamples, caricature of opponents, "scanting" of Judith Shklar — that it is difficult to separate felonies from misdemeanors. (Moyn had written about Bass’s book, Freedom’s Battle (Knopf, 2008), in The Nation two years earlier, in a review entitled "Spectacular Wrongs.")
Moyn says it was a "learning process" dealing with the mostly negative reviews, but credits the book with giving him a public voice that he’s not been shy about using since. Eighteen years after he helped draft President Clinton’s op-ed justifying the military intervention in Bosnia, Moyn wrote another piece for the Times, this one in his own name and with a very different moral.
In "The Long Road to Trump’s War," published four days after Trump launched 59 missiles into Syria, Moyn and his co-author, Stephen Wertheim, decried not only the bipartisan demand for "action" in Syria, but also the "15 years of flailing" — a time span that includes periods dominated by liberal humanitarians like Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton — that had led to it.
Moyn worries that his public writing is "less intellectually significant" than his early academic work, but acknowledges the attraction to being part of a broader conversation. "In an age when so few people read academic books," he says, "it’s hard to imagine one’s academic vocation as just writing for the library."
Of course, it’s not that hard to imagine: Many scholars are content to write for the library — or are resigned to do so. That by 2007 Moyn started to think differently is likely due to his experience in the Columbia history department, where he began teaching on September 10, 2001.
Going back at least to Richard Hofstadter, the department has been known for producing politically engaged scholars, and Moyn was there during a particularly fertile period. Mark Mazower, a prolific magazine and newspaper writer and the author of several books on European history, joined in 2004. He demonstrated for Moyn how to "cast a critical light on the present by bringing to bear what professionals know." During the same period, some of Moyn’s graduate students were supplementing their academic work with freelance articles for magazines like The Nation, Boston Review, and Dissent.
"In Berkeley I never read The Nation," Moyn says. "We were never told by Martin Jay or Judith Butler or any of the theory folks to write for the public. Whereas all the people at Columbia drank the same Kool-Aid I did. Worse, they also had no jobs potentially to look forward to, so they learned to write and aspired to write for these various venues."
The university’s proximity to the publishing industry, and to the epicenters of the 2008 financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street, further galvanized Moyn and his students, as did the lack of boundaries within the history department, which encouraged unusually ambitious dissertation projects.
If Moyn was initially influenced by that environment, he later became an influential figure within it. When his essays came out, says Timothy Shenk, "I would drop whatever I was doing. Who else could move from a reckoning with Jonathan Israel on the Enlightenment to a survey of Elaine Scarry to assessing the politics of famine?"
Moyn helped connect several of his students with his editor at The Nation, John Palattella, whose book-review pages became a proving ground for many in the department long before David Marcus took over the section last year. Meanwhile, on Facebook, Moyn promoted his students’ articles and books in addition to cultivating the sorts of conversations that make his wall a "hub for intellectual traffic that’s a virtual version of a Viennese coffee shop," as Thomas Meaney puts it.
Much as Moyn saw in Mazower a model of how to bring scholarship to bear on public debates, Moyn’s own essays became, for some of the younger Columbia historians like Shenk, an example of how to marry "intellectual rigor and political seriousness." They also contained a more straightforward lesson. As Simon Taylor, a former student, puts it, Moyn made it "OK to really shred the literature, or the book you’re reviewing, if you genuinely think it’s wrong and have good reason."
Indeed, Moyn’s articles reveal a reliable recipe for scholarly bounty-hunting. First, find a high-status liberal-left intellectual (Elaine Scarry, Jonathan Israel, Michael Walzer, Thomas Piketty); next, connect that intellectual’s thinking to some strand of left-liberal orthodoxy (liberal humanitarianism, Enlightenment secularism, the "decent left," millennial Marxism); then, summarize the intellectual’s argument in such a way as to expose the blind spots and limitations of that orthodoxy (obsession with emergency planning, blind faith in rationalist mythology, adherence to outdated leftist theory, ibid.). Finally, conclude that, regrettably, this school of thought must be judged wanting, if we desire truly to meet our present challenges. (Pitch, repeat.)
This deflationary approach, focused less on developing an argument than on letting the air out of others’, is part of what has allowed Moyn and his students to remain nimble on today’s heavily stratified left-liberal battleground. They appear to congregate somewhere between the socialist Jacobin and the haute-liberal New York Review of Books (neither of which they tend to write for), but it can be refreshingly difficult to pin down their exact ideological coordinates.
Of course, the commitment to non-alignment comes with its own limitations — chief among them the vagueness of any affirmative agenda. "Sam is extremely good at hitting a nerve, pointing out a blind spot in ways that advance the conversation and the debate," says Julian Bourg, an associate professor of history at Boston College and a former classmate of Moyn’s at Berkeley. But "there’s a hesitancy to say what one is for, instead of being in the mode of saying what one is against." Victoria de Grazia, the Columbia historian Moyn credits with bringing him to the department, praised Moyn for having taken on the liberal "flatus around human rights," which in the 1990s had been a "new idea we could stand behind and make wars around." But, she added, "now we’ve got a reactionary regime that makes an even harsher critique of liberalism. The big question for all of us is: Where do we go next?"
The beard Moyn had grown the second time we met, at a diner in Manhattan in the summer, did not make him look any older. It did add a hint of rabbinical authority, which seemed appropriate given that Moyn was in town for a conference on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Religion is another topic Moyn knows a lot about — his most recent book, published in 2015, is about the Christian roots of human-rights discourse. Our conversation, however, focused on the prospects of political reformation: Where does Moyn think we should go next?
"I’m basically a social democrat," Moyn said, adding that he campaigned for Bernie Sanders. Sensing his answer might not be fully satisfying, he promised his new book, Not Enough, would offer up a more affirmative account of the kind of politics he supports. Yet as he said more about the book’s treatment of the New Deal, he did not sound particularly affirmative. Referring back to a critical article he’d written about the historian Tony Judt, Moyn ticked off a series of complaints about the "unreflective nostalgia" that some maintain for the postwar welfare state, which was "deeply flawed and in our country racialized." Begrudgingly, he added that the New Deal "included more people than ever before in a project of emancipatory politics. So it’s a place from which to start."
Moyn acknowledges his tendency to harp on the negative. "If I were living in the age of the New Deal, I might do what Arthur Schlesinger later did, romanticizing and glorifying it, since we didn’t know where it would go." Today, though, he sees no comparable political project to endorse. "I feel I was fooled in a certain way," Moyn says about his experience in the White House, "and I want to debunk so that people vest their hopes in the right object. Love only when there’s something lovable."
It’s an inspiring injunction, and one that speaks to Moyn’s appeal for those convinced that the "realistic" political options are "not enough" — not ambitious enough, or thoughtful enough, or humane enough — to address the consequences of decades of liberal moralism and mismanagement. It also leaves Moyn, in the cluttered slipstream of the Trump presidency, vulnerable to a powerful counterargument. "So long as the liberal international order was very strong, it made sense to point to its many flaws and hypocrisies," says Yascha Mounk. "But now that Donald Trump is attacking its most basic elements, there is a real danger that international rules will soon be set by China, Russia, and Iran. Any leftist who ignores this danger is committing a huge act of self-sabotage."
Over the summer, the case for manning the liberal barricades received support from an unlikely source. Moyn’s former adviser Martin Jay, famous for his history of the Frankfurt School, argued in The Nation that, while he sympathized with those dreaming of an alternative to liberalism, it was "for the moment … more prudent to defend what is increasingly under threat."
Moyn responded in a Times op-ed, co-written with David Priestland, a historian at the University of Oxford, and given the incendiary title, "Trump Isn’t a Threat to Our Democracy. Hysteria Is." Comparing liberal "anti-Trumpism" to the anticommunist politics of the early 1950s, Moyn and Priestland contended that "Tyrannophobia" would only reinforce the "status quo ante of free markets and social conservatism," while obscuring the urgent need "for new direction." Coming the same weekend as the white-supremacist marches in Charlottesville, the column sparked rebuttals, even from quarters usually supportive of Moyn’s ideas.
The op-ed, however, was no surprise to anyone who followed Moyn on social media. "One of Marxist thought’s greatest historians allows himself to be terrorized by Donald Trump into embracing his inner defensive crouch liberal," read Moyn’s Facebook preface to Jay’s essay. Below, in the comments section, a cavalcade of left-liberal intellectuals heartily seconded the judgment.
The commenters would probably not be able to agree on where to go next. Like Moyn and his students, however, they appeared united in their conviction that it was time to deflate the ideological configurations that had stranded us here.
Jon Baskin is a founding editor of The Point.