Jackson Lears

Jackson Lears teaches at Rutgers and is the editor of Raritan. He is writing a cultural history of animal spirits in America.

The story of smoking in the United States is usually presented as a struggle between heroic scientists and activists on the one hand, fighting to get the truth out to the public, and mendacious tobacco industry executives on the other, manipulating members of Congress. Eventually truth and health prevail. In The Cigarette: A Political History, Sarah Milov provides a more interesting and...

Inside Every Foreigner: America Intervenes

Jackson Lears, 21 February 2019

FDR’s capacious style of leadership has vanished from the scene. In the shadow of the Pentagon, no one dares to reassert a sceptical perspective. This is a major loss. Despite his attraction to missionary diplomacy, FDR remained committed to a traditional notion of international law, which allowed nations to respond militarily only if their own or others’ territorial boundaries had been violated. Not even his most expansive formulations included ‘regime change’. How he would have responded to the militarist posturing that passes for foreign policy debate in Washington today, who can say?

I figured what the heck: Seymour Hersh

Jackson Lears, 27 September 2018

The world​ needs Seymour Hersh. Without his indefatigable reporting, we would know even less than we do about the crimes committed by the US national security state over the last fifty years. While most of his peers in the press have been faithfully transcribing what are effectively official lies, Hersh has repeatedly challenged them, revealing scandalous government conduct that would...

We can gauge the corrosive impact of the Democrats’ fixation on Russia by asking what they aren’t talking about when they talk about Russian hacking. For a start, they aren’t talking about interference of other sorts in the election, such as the Republican Party’s many means of disenfranchising minority voters. Nor are they talking about the trillion dollar defence budget that pre-empts the possibility of single-payer healthcare and other urgently needed social programmes; nor about the modernisation of the American nuclear arsenal, which raises the risk of the ultimate environmental calamity, nuclear war.

Mysterian: On Chomsky

Jackson Lears, 4 May 2017

In​ 1971, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault faced off on Dutch television, or at least that’s what their host, Fons Elders, kept prodding them to do. They were discussing the idea of human nature, and though Elders knew they shared a left libertarian politics, he assumed they would have philosophical disagreements, that Chomsky would defend the idea of an essential human nature, rooted...

Robert Moses was a modernist pharaoh. Over the forty years from the early 1930s to the late 1960s, he became a virtual dictator of public works in all five boroughs of New York and much of its suburban surroundings. Almost singlehandedly, through chicanery, fraud and bullying, he created the modern infrastructure of the New York City area: expressways, tunnels and bridges, but also parks, beaches, swimming pools and high-rise housing projects.

The Long Con: Techno-Austerity

Jackson Lears, 16 July 2015

‘Why is there​ no socialism in the United States?’ the German sociologist Werner Sombart asked himself in 1906 – it was also the title of his most famous book. The question was misconceived. During the several decades before the Bolshevik Revolution, socialism was as American as apple pie. In the presidential election of 1912, nearly a million Americans – 6 per cent...

We came, we saw, he died: Clinton’s Creed

Jackson Lears, 5 February 2015

The rise of identity politics in America was a tragic necessity. No one can deny the legitimacy or urgency of the need felt by women and minorities to have equality on their own terms, to reject the assumption that full participation in society required acceptance of the norms set by straight white males. Yet even as the public sphere grew more inclusive, the boundaries of permissible debate were narrowing. Critiques of concentrated power, imperial or plutocratic, became less common. Indeed, the preoccupation with racial and gender identity has hollowed out political language, the void filled by an apparently apolitical alternative.

No Crying in This House: The Kennedy Myth

Jackson Lears, 7 November 2013

The story begins with a rollicking Irish Catholic clan, athletic, photogenic and as rambunctious as any crowd of kids in a Frank Capra film. They are presided over by Joseph Kennedy, a fabulously successful self-made father with connections in Hollywood, Wall Street, Washington and London, and by Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, a devout but fashionable Catholic mum, as at home on the golf links or...

Reasonable men can dream monstrous dreams. It is the lesson of the 20th century: a lesson articulated from various perspectives since Adorno and Horkheimer wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment amid the wreckage of World War Two. Defenders of the Enlightenment can cogently argue (and many have) that Nazi science was a grotesque caricature, that the Holocaust was a betrayal of the Enlightenment rather than a fulfilment of its fatal dialectic. But it is harder to make that case with respect to the development of nuclear weapons.

For nearly six decades, the figure of George Kennan has loomed over US foreign policy. Long before his death in 2005, at the age of 101, he had become a professional wise man: institutes and libraries were named after him and he was the recipient of mandatory encomia on official occasions. John Lewis Gaddis’s biography is a tombstone-sized tribute, based on unlimited access to its...

To those of us who hoped that Barack Obama’s election marked a departure from right-wing rule, the president’s failure of leadership has been stunning. Seldom have insurgent expectations – even sceptical, guarded ones – been deflated so swiftly. From the moment he announced his staff and cabinet appointments (Rahm Emanuel, Timothy Geithner, Lawrence Summers, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates et al) it was clear that Obama meant to play by the same Washington rules that created the policy disasters he inherited from George W. Bush. Obama had retreated into politics as usual. He never looked back. One did not have to be a sentimental utopian to be disappointed.

Divinely Ordained: God loves America

Jackson Lears, 19 May 2011

For generations, the American Civil War has been shrouded in clouds of millennial nationalism. Few events in US history have been as susceptible to providentialist narratives of inevitable moral triumph: stories of an exceptional nation reborn into its modern form, cleansed of its original sin of slavery and ready to shoulder its redemptive responsibilities in the drama of world history....

Mad Monkey: ‘Matterhorn’

Jackson Lears, 23 September 2010

For more than three decades, the makers of American opinion have evaded the full significance of the Vietnam War – the mendacity, the brutality, the futility. The collective amnesia has been exacerbated by a counter-offensive from the right. Like German nationalists after World War One, American revanchists tell a story of a stab in the back: they insist that the American...

Naderland: Ralph Nader’s novel

Jackson Lears, 8 April 2010

In certain precincts of American political culture, the mere mention of the name Ralph Nader still provokes scowls. Many Democrats remain convinced that Nader’s presidential campaign in 2000 cost Al Gore the White House and ushered in the calamitous reign of George W. Bush. The obsession with Nader is at first puzzling: blame for Bush’s ascendancy can be traced to many other...

From The Blog
22 February 2018

The anti-Russian hysteria in Washington has slipped beyond self-parody. We now have front-row seats in a theatre of the absurd, watching the media furor explode after Robert Mueller’s ‘indictments’ of 13 Russians and three Russian companies for interfering in the 2016 presidential elections. Mueller’s actions deserve the scare quotes because they are not really indictments at all. The accused parties will never be extradited or brought to trial. Nor is it clear that their actions rise to the level of crimes. The supposed indictments are merely dramatic accusations, a giant publicity stunt.

From The Blog
17 July 2014

According to conventional American wisdom, a crucial lesson emerged from the Second World War: the world could not get along without us. This assumption animates the foreign policy elite that has dominated US public discourse for seven decades: the bipartisan interventionist establishment that includes Congress and the executive branch as well as significant parts of the academy and the press. Madeleine Albright summarised the perspective in 1998, when she called the United States the ‘indispensable nation’.

Owing to a typesetting error, the printed version of my essay ‘What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Russian Hacking’ contained a misstatement suggesting that the Democratic National Committee hired an anti-Russian think tank, the Atlantic Council, to investigate the theft of their emails. The online version is correct: it makes clear that the DNC hired the cybersecurity firm...

Chomsky says

3 May 2017

Noam Chomsky is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. From the centre and the right he has been vilified for his alleged anti-Americanism, and from the left for his supposed complicity with Pentagon-supported research at MIT. Hilary Rose takes this latter tendency and runs with it, concluding that Chomsky’s putative failure to condemn all military-funded projects at MIT ‘helped...

Please Not Hillary

5 February 2015

My evaluation of Hillary Clinton’s record was not an attempt to hold her to some impossibly high idealistic standard, as Tom McBride seems to think (Letters, 5 March). On the contrary: my aim was to take her exceptionalist world view seriously and to sort through its policy consequences using the available evidence. Her most prominent achievement, to take the most egregious example, turns out...


4 July 2013

Albion Urdank’s defence of NSA surveillance is confused and misinformed (Letters, 8 August). Urdank believes that Edward Snowden should have stayed and stood trial, just as Daniel Ellsberg did. Ellsberg himself disagrees, recalling that even after he was indicted in 1971 for espionage, theft and conspiracy, he was allowed out on bail and left free to speak at anti-war rallies throughout the country....


19 May 2011

Clifton Hawkins provides me with an opportunity to clarify the ideology of ‘free labour’ that pervaded the North during the American Civil War (Letters, 30 June). Free labour involved more than the opportunity to sell one’s labour or the product of one’s labour; it also implied the promise of accumulating property through hard work, of becoming a self-made man. This ethos of...


8 April 2010

Peter Connolly thinks I want to ‘exonerate’ Ralph Nader for his role in the 2000 election of George W. Bush (Letters, 13 May). He is mistaken. For years I have been angry with Nader for his perverse insistence on contesting the race in Florida. But I do want to complicate the explanation for Gore’s loss, beyond a simple demonisation of Nader. Republican fraud and Supreme Court partisanship...

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