On Thursday, right-wing blogger Erick Erickson posted Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's undergraduate thesis, which discussed socialism in New York in the first third of the twentieth century. Then the Princeton University archivist made Erickson take it down, citing copyright restrictions. Now it has been posted again, elsewhere, and the White House has promised to release both the Princeton thesis and her Oxford thesis on the exclusionary rule.
Though the hoopla may seem excessive, Elena Kagan's nearly nonexistent paper trail has fueled bloggers' interest in these writings. Liberals and conservatives alike are now poring over the undergraduate thesis, drawing out some useful observations. That's not to say, of course, that the predictable uproar over "socialism" isn't present.
- 'Kagan's Socialist Thesis' That's Erick Erickson's succinct way of summing up the 130-page paper. In his original posting on the thesis, he asserts that "this proves Elena Kagan is an open and avowed socialist. The woman declares that socialists must stick together instead of fracture in order to advance a socialist agenda, which Kagan advocates." He also reminds readers that this was written "at the height of the cold war [sic]."
- 'A Study in the "Futility of Dogma"' That's apparently how Kagan's thesis adviser, Princeton historian Sean Wiltentz, summarized the work, and Politico's Ben Smith agrees. "The thesis is a piece of history, quite good, and quite confident in dismissing the opinions of scholars of the movement like Daniel Bell." He reviews the content of the thesis, which argues that the absence of a strong socialist movement in America owed at least as much to missteps by the early Socialist Party as to the more often-cited external factors. Notes Smith: "She does write from a general sympathetic position: The story, she concludes, is 'a sad but also a chastening one for those who, more than half a century after socialisms decine, still wish to change America.'" Overall, he thinks the thesis, with its common-sense conclusion, reveal's Kagan's practicality more than anything else.
- It's Wrong, It's Irrelevant, and I Have No Idea If It's Socialist, proclaims progressive Matt Yglesias: "you can't attribute the failure of American socialism primarily to contingent poor decision-making by U.S. socialists." Thus dismissing Kagan's central argument, he adds: "I really have no idea what the probative value of this thesis is supposed to be. I wrote a senior thesis back in 2003 and already by 2010 I don't think the stuff I argued was right." Finally, he says if "by whatever standard Barack Obama is a socialist, then I'm sure Elena Kagan is one too." He thinks conservatives have "watered the concept of 'socialism' down" to the point of rendering the whole debate meaningless.
- Why People Are So Obsessed With Theses "This meme penetrates right-wing mythology of the left," argues Pema Levy at Campus Progress, citing Obama's supposed radical Islamic sympathies. "They thrive on finding hidden radical agendas or Nazi connections in moderate liberals. And the idea that someone has harbored radical ideas for 30 years, as demonstrated in a thesis, is great fodder for this conservative theme."
- Pretty Tame The thesis is "an even-handed assessment of the Socialist Party's brief window of effective politicking in New York during the early 20th century," decides Newsweek's Seth Wells. "In fact, the bulk of her academic work paints a picture of radicals demanding more change than the American system wants to handle." He's of a similar mind to Levy, thinking the matter overhyped, but he sees a different cause: the feeding frenzy is to be expected in "this post-SEO world," he argues, where "the proximity of a Democratic nominee's name to a bugaboo keyword like 'socialism' turns out to be irresistible."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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