A Family in History

“My grandfather was the biggest Communist in America,” he said, “and I became the biggest capitalist in Russia.”

.. Bill Browder created his hedge fund, Hermitage, in 1996. The Kremlin turned on him hard in 2005, declaring him persona non grata. He had been a thorn in the side of Putin’s oligarchs.

In 2008, the authorities arrested Browder’s fearless and whistleblowing lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky — and tortured him to death.

.. I read an obituary of Felix Browder, Bill’s father. I then realized why Bill had asked me to be more specific when I asked, “Any relation?” Felix Browder was one of the greatest mathematicians in the world. (I don’t know from mathematicians.) He was, for example, chairman of the math department at Chicago.

Earl Browder had two more children, two more sons: Andrew and William. The former became the

  • chairman of the math department at Brown; the latter became
  • chairman of the department at Princeton. And there’s more Browder talent where that came from.

.. He was named after Shakespeare, having been born on the 400th anniversary of the writer’s birth (April 23, 1964).

.. Andrew’s daughter Laura, a professor at the University of Richmond, discovered something in the KGB archives: The dear nanny had been a spy, charged with keeping tabs on Earl. Of course.

.. Earl coined the famous (or infamous) slogan “Communism is 20th-century Americanism.” He ran for president in 1936, getting some 80,000 votes.

.. Communists in America were in particularly bad odor. In early ’41, the U.S. government sent Browder to prison on technicalities: passport fraud. But that summer, Hitler double-crossed Stalin, and the United States would soon be allies with Uncle Joe.

.. FDR commuted Browder’s sentence as a goodwill gesture.

.. After the war, Browder got on the wrong side of Moscow and was expelled from the American party. He died in 1973, having spent his last years with his son Bill in Princeton

.. Raisa, a Russian mother, and a mother of three sons. A Russian-Jewish mother at that

.. Felix entered MIT at 16. He had his bachelor’s degree in two years. By 20, he had his Ph.D. from Princeton.

.. One of his undergraduate professors testified that Felix was not a party member — and, moreover, that Felix had been the best math student in the history of MIT

.. Bill Browder affirms that his father was not a Communist. Rather, he was “a hard-core leftist professor,” like all the others. “I never met one who wasn’t,” says Bill.

.. Felix was indeed drafted into the Army. Not trusted with sensitive work, he spent two years pumping gas at Fort Bragg.

.. Felix worked on his math and, for the first and only time in his life, was around regular folks.

.. Felix and his wife Eva had another child besides Bill: their son Tom. He entered the University of Chicago at 15. Today, he is a leading particle physicist, dividing his time between Hawaii and Japan, searching for the origin of the universe.
.. Bill was a rebellious kid, and he figured out how to rebel against a family of leftists: become a capitalist. He majored in economics at Chicago, whose department was a den of free-marketeers.

.. In an act of shocking gall, the Russian state is investigating Browder for the murder of Magnitsky — and three other men. Thus do the murderers finger the champion of the murdered. Putin’s predecessors in the KGB would grin in admiration.

.. He could have walked away, tending his millions, but instead he has put himself in the crosshairs of one of the most powerful and ruthless governments on earth.

Trump nominates D.C. lawyer Noel Francisco as solicitor general

Francisco had originally been named as the No. 2 in the solicitor general’s office, which represents the federal government in ­appellate courts. He might be best known as the lawyer who ­represented former Virginia ­governor Robert F. McDonnell last year when the Supreme Court unanimously overturned McDonnell’s conviction on corruption charges.

.. The solicitor general is considered to be one of the nation’s best legal jobs, and the occupant is often referred to as the “10th justice.

.. Jeffrey B. Wall, a veteran of the office who now works for the firm ­Sullivan & Cromwell, will assume Francisco’s role as principal ­deputy.

.. representatives of the Trump transition approached U.S. Circuit Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — an influential judicial voice on the right — to see whether he would be interested in the job.

.. For a time, there appeared to be two front-runners. One was George T. Conway III, a New York lawyer who received high marks from those in the Supreme Court bar and who is also married to Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway. 

.. The other was Charles Cooper, a Washington legal fixture and confidant of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

.. Cooper pulled out of consideration, and the Trump administration expanded its search.

.. he has had to recuse himself from some of the most important cases, such as the legal battle over Trump’s first travel ban executive order, because his law firm Jones Day represented parties in the dispute.

.. Francisco is a former clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia

.. Francisco was part of the team that represented President George W. Bush in the 2000 Florida presidential election recount.

.. He was raised in Oswego, N.Y., and both his undergraduate and law degrees are from the University of Chicago.

.. he represented religiously affiliated organizations that said providing contraception services for their female employees would implicate them in sin.

America’s Best University President

Several years ago Robert Zimmer was asked by an audience in China why the University of Chicago was associated with so many winners of the Nobel Prize — 90 in all, counting this month’s win by the behavioral economist Richard Thaler. Zimmer, the university’s president since 2006, answered that the key was a campus culture committed to “discourse, argument and lack of deference.”

.. “Concerns about civility and mutual respect,” the committee wrote, “can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”

.. If you can’t speak freely, you’ll quickly lose the ability to think clearly. Your ideas will be built on a pile of assumptions you’ve never examined for yourself and may thus be unable to defend from radical challenges. You will be unable to test an original thought for fear that it might be labeled an offensive one.

Trump, The University of Chicago, and the Collapse of Public Language

Writing long articles always involves muscle strain, but the parturition of this piece (which ran in the summer of 2014) was excruciating, because the material seemed to lack any conceptual edges. The ferment had been billed in the press as a “culture war.” And yet the two sides of the conflict—in terms of beliefs, ideological lineage, and language—were almost entirely the same.

.. The trouble in San Francisco, I realized, wasn’t that the warring tribes followed different doctrines. It was that they followed the same doctrine, abstractly stated, but had less and less of a way to gather and work from the abstract into the specific. Everyone was operating as a good San Francisco liberal, struggling against the establishment, outside the system, for the people.

Ironically, this meant there was less and less system left, no common terms by which the whole community could move ahead. Public language, as I put it in the piece, was coming unmoored from public process. I wondered what the future would bring if the rhetoric of our best ideals kept moving in this direction—if people of a single political identity couldn’t agree on the real sense of the words that, they were certain, gave voice to their values.

.. public conversation has begun to seem performative, incapable of producing results.

.. Self-defining language has grown easy to pass around but hard to translate into social results. “Diversity,” we know, is crucial. Yet the word means disparate things to a housing activist, a tech executive, and an admissions dean, and they end up talking past one another.

.. our community is the people who appear to understand our language, more or less, the way we do.

.. The Trump campaign, since its inception, has traded in counterfactual hyperbole, praeteritio (“a lot of people say . . . I won’t say”), and dubious innuendo. But using words as if they have no definition marks a shift.

.. Trump does not demur when it’s suggested that abstract nouns such as “bigot” and “founder” have meanings he’s transgressed. (“He’s their Most Valuable Player,” Trump said, of Obama, by way of clarification, three days after his isisremarks. “He was the founder.”) Oddly, though, the outlandish words seem not to obscure his message. When he makes his isis-founder remark, there are immediate cheers.

.. When newscasters quote Trump’s statements back to his representatives, they reply, “That’s not what Mr. Trump is saying”; his words aren’t held to convey a fixed message.

.. To know what Trump means, despite the words that he is saying, you have to understand—or think you understand—the message before he opens his mouth. That way of interpreting language is unassailable because it allows no persuasion, only self-revelation: the words don’t convey information but, like candles and jasmine perfume, serve as aesthetic trappings, prompts that may lead listeners to locate certain passionate moods in themselves.

.. In a climate where common language is not held accountable to common meaning, “taking a stand” becomes a mostly theatrical exercise.

.. He can say anything these days—because the rest of us can, too.

.. It is hard to talk about politics and language without mentioning George Orwell.

.. His point was that, especially at such moments, imprecision and easy idiom in public language carry political stakes.

.. I’ve increasingly found myself a supporter of messy public process: the legislation pushed through government slowly, in curtailed form; the interminable, fruitless-seeming town-hall meeting; many of the government’s lumbering, error-prone efforts at regulation. These processes are cumbersome, often wasteful, and inevitably infuriating. But at their best they have the virtue of occurring in a common arena, the place where all parts of a population meet. They force us, if we hope to get anything done, to translate our values and thoughts into language that communicates broadly.