Saskia Sassen, “transnational citizen”

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Saskia Sassen

Let’s start with the highlights of her CV. Her books on globalization and urbanization have been translated into twenty-one languages. Born in the Netherlands, she grew up in Buenos Aires and studied in France, Italy, Argentina, and the U.S.; she’s taught sociology at Harvard and the University of Chicago, and now divides her time between Columbia University and the London School of Economics. She has a bushel full of impressive-sounding establishment affiliations – she’s a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, of a National Academy of Sciences panel on cities, and of something called the Committee on Global Thought, no less, and has accumulated awards and honorary degrees aplenty from places like the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, the University of Poitiers, and the Royal Stockholm Institute of Technology.

In short, she’s as establishment as it comes. Routinely, however, Saskia Sassen presents herself as a fearless anti-establishment radical and “transnational citizen” whose bag is proffering “counterintuitive” solutions to pretty much all the world’s major problems. This fearless-radical pose has won her a kind of cult following that’s rare, to say the least, among professors of the social sciences. A few years back, when she was teaching at the University of Chicago, a recent social-sciences grad student at that institution reported that many of his friends there “were staunch followers of Saskia Sassen – in fact, she was their raison d’etre there.”

A 2014 profile in Le Monde breathlessly pointed out that this globalization expert is also a world-class globetrotter: “Today in Bilbao, yesterday in New York, tomorrow in the U.K….” The irony that went utterly unmentioned by Le Monde‘s awestruck correspondent was that, even though Saskia Sassen burns a lot more than her fair share of jet fuel, she’s a world-class global-warming scold who, in a May 2014 piece for Salon, solemnly browbeat readers about the dark and dire consequences of “global CO2 emissions.”

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Sassen and Sennett at home in New York

As it happens, one of the few members of the sociology profession whose fame matches or even exceeds Saskia Sassen’s is her husband, Richard Sennett, who shares her far-left politics (he was a red-diaper baby), her preoccupation with globalization and urban issues, her hand-wringing concern about CO2 emissions and global footprints – and, ahem, her jet-setting lifestyle and two glorious homes in New York and London. For both Saskia Sassen and Sennett, hating capitalism has paid off big-time. A 2001 Guardian profile gushed over their “spacious, almost surreally well-ordered flat” in the heart of London, with a “roof terrace offer[ing] a dazzling view of an apparent jumble of warehousing and wasteground, a scene of brutal slate-grey beauty.” Six years later, a piece in the real-estate section of the New York Times described their “picturesque former carriage house on a cobblestone alleyway just off Washington Square Park” in Manhattan, in which Sennett had been living for twenty-eight years and for which they paid the landlord – Sennett’s employer, New York University – a monthly rent that was “below market rates.”

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Sassen and Sennett’s Manhattan dining room

But this luxury, reported the Times, came at a cost: namely, guilt. (The piece was actually titled “The Guilt of Having a Good Thing.”) Bennett admitted that he felt guilty about living in this “gated community,” from which pedestrians were banned between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. After all, as he pointed out, he’s written himself “about the evils of gated communities.” Why live in one, then? Because “I’m not a sufficiently moral person to abandon this house.” He laughed as he accused himself of suffering from “a moral failing.” The refusal of both Saskia Sassen and Sennett to practice what they so vociferously preach made one wonder just how deep the guilt actually went; and Sennett’s laughter as he accused himself of “a moral failing” raised the question of just what the level of hypocrisy in that household is.

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Richard Sennett

The Times was curious about the details of the couple’s lifestyle. Sennett explained that he and Saskia Sassen “divide up our clothes so that 50 percent are in London and 50 percent in New York.” And he “admitted — sheepishly — to owning duplicates of favorite items,” such as cellos. “I have a cello here and a cello in London, which may seem over the top,” he said. “But after 9/11 it became so difficult to travel with my cello.” Saskia Sassen, for her part, admitted, apropos of a recent trip to a conference in Mexico City: “I like a good comfortable plane ride.” Unlike her husband, however, she wasn’t quoted as accusing herself of “a moral failing.” No surprise there: she comes off as a hell of a lot more strident and self-righteous than he does. One gets the impression that she considers herself quite the moral icon. What with their two terrific homes and their constant air travel, their global footprint is obviously much bigger than most people’s – but one images that Saskia Sassen, at least, feels that they’ve earned it. They’re the exception. It’s all for the cause. For the rest of us, they’re certainly a great poster couple for leading the good life while preaching fiercely against it.

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The exterior of Sassen’s and Sennett’s “former carriage house” in Greenwich Village

Global warming, to be sure, is far from the only crisis on her busy agenda. She also frets about the perpetual crisis in Middle East, and considers Israel to be at the root of the whole problem. In her writings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she consistently depicts Israel as a brutal militant aggressor and Hamas as a benign force – a supplier of food and water, medical supplies, and other services that’s always being put on the defensive by the IDF. Saskia Sassen demonstrated the extent of her hostility to Israel back in 2004, when, as Stanford law prof Peter Berkowitz put it, she “storm[ed] off the stage” during a University of Chicago panel discussion about the Middle East, outraged that the panel was composed of both pro- and anti-Israel voices. As Berkowitz later wrote,

the panel consisted of Professor Saskia Sassen, who spoke on behalf of transnationalism, or principles and forms of government that transcend the nation state; myself, discussing nationalism and how Israel could be both a liberal democracy and Jewish state; Professor Anne Bayefsky…of Columbia University Law School, who analyzed the double standard the U.N. has applied to Israel for decades; and Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Yale University geneticist, who sought to equate Zionism with Nazism, racism and apartheid.

What happened on that panel? According to Berkowitz, here’s how it went down:

After listening to Professor Bayefsky recount the many and varied ways that the U.N. had singled out Israel among all the nations of the world for special condemnation and Professor Qumsiyeh single out Israel as indistinguishable from one of the most heinous regimes in human history, Professor Saskia Sassen knew which opinion needed to be denounced…..Saskia Sassen explicitly upbraided the calm, lucid analyst of U.N. hypocrisy toward Israel (and me implicitly), and sided with the hate-mongering purveyor of the monstrous falsehood that Israel was in principle no different from the regime that murdered six million Jews for no other reason than that they were Jewish.

Here’s what she actually said on the panel in reaction to Bayefsky’s remarks: “We cannot make any headway even in our academic discussion if we talk about the Israeli government as a pure victim the way two of the speakers explicitly or implicitly did….We need to recognize that the Israeli state has operated with excess power in a situation of extreme asymmetry.” Which to her, presumably, meant that a panel discussion on the issue should also be characterized by “extreme assymetry” – in favor, naturally, of the Palestinian side.

And then she walked out – “after she had spoken for a second time,” noted Berkowitz, “but before she could be challenged.” By doing this, charged Berkowitz, “She showed that she held her own opinions to be beyond criticism and regarded her opponents’ opinions as unworthy of serious debate….Taking her conduct and comments together, one is led to conclude that Professor Saskia Sassen objects to sharing a stage with people who hold views that differ from hers; that she finds offensive the obligation to confront evidence and arguments put forward on behalf of positions she dislikes; and that she has forgotten or is unaware that the kind of debate that educates is debate with people with who hold the opposite opinion.” In short, Berkowitz concluded, she had exhibited “the high-handed and authoritarian habits that have become second nature for many faculty on campuses across the country.”

sassensennett3Saskia Sassen’s ardent engagement with such issues notwithstanding, her big bugaboo isn’t global warming or the brutal tyranny of Israel. It’s capitalism. For her, the overarching cause is “social justice,” and Public Enemy #1 is capitalist oppression (a conviction she shares with her late friend and mentor, Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm). She speaks of “capitalism’s deepening crisis” and of “the end of financial capitalism.” In her view, the current global financial system is suffering from a terminal ailment, and there’s no hope of saving it. “It is too late,” she maintains. What we need to do, Saskia Sassen prescribes, is “to definancialise our economies, as a prelude to move beyond the current model of capitalism.”

And what’s the ultimate symbol of capitalism’s rot, as Saskia Sassen sees it? Apparently, the phenomenon of distressed-security funds – which she, echoing Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, doesn’t hesitate to call “vulture funds.” Saskia Sassen despises those funds. They’re “a problem to be taken seriously,” she asserts, because they “threaten capital markets and the economic stability of many countries – and in doing so put the entire international economic system at risk.” When Fernández – in an effort to avoid paying her country’s debt to one such fund, Elliott Associates, as ordered by a U.S. judge in 2014 – took the case to the International Court of Justice, Saskia Sassen lent the President her full support. Of course she did: when you’re a “transnational citizen,” you support transnational institutions. This is one woman who trusts diktats by the UN (up to and including its absurd Human Rights Council) as zealously as she distrusts the free market, the American judiciary, and the West-based international financial order.

Then again, it’s easy, fun, and hip to be a “transnational citizen” who sneers at everything Western when you’ve got dream homes in the world’s two financial capitals and are constantly traveling the globe on a Western passport. “Transnational citizen,” indeed.

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