Monday, September 20, 2010

Marty Peretz's emptiness and the corruption of Harvard

Harvard has named a professorship for Marty Peretz in Yiddish studies and proposes to honor him at a 50th anniversary of the Social Studies program this coming Saturday. 4 undergraduates have sent a pointed letter below, featuring three racist citations form Marty about Muslims, blacks and Chicanoes. If the tradition of the jews is to stand for internationalism and against bigotry, Marty is not a jew. That there is such a letter is a true and sad comment on Marty’s career, despite the largely purchased honors, and a deep one about Harvard.

I was an undergraduate in Social Studies in 1962, the second year of the program. It could be quite lively. As a senior I wrote a thesis with Barrington Moore on why there was a peasant-based Communist revolution in China but not a working-class based socialist evolution in Germany. Though I often receive information about class reunions (I also have a Ph.D. from Harvard, and the Government Department does not fail to request contributions), I received no notice of the 50th year anniversary. I would have been happy to have heard Robert Paul Wolff, whose work I have known for years. Social studies was then a multidisciplinary, social theoretical program which encouraged students to go their own way. Its leading spirit was Stanley Hoffmann, a lecturer of wonderful eloquence and irony and an exemplar in collegiality (he has also led the West European Studies program). In 2000, Hoffmann wrote a short letter to the New York Times on the Supreme Court selection of George W. Bush as President, saying presciently that darkness had fallen over America. There is little memorable in the Times of that time. But what decent person these 10 years later, here and abroad, would not agree?

I saw Marty around in Social Studies. I was in the first anti-Vietnam War movement, the May 2nd Committee, that had rallies on campus when President Lyndon B. Johnson bombed North Vietnam. I spoke at one, and was later nominated by the group to debate National Security Advisor and former dean, McGeorge Bundy, one of 6 questioners, on a panel at the end of the year. I asked Bundy how he expected to win a war against a successful peasant revolution by fighting to restore the landlords. See poem: Sanders Theater here. Most of the 800 people in the audience cheered. Saying something that is true to the powerful, even if it is attacked ferociously just then, tends to stand up over time. I had run into Marty the evening before. He encouraged me in speaking out – he opposed the war – and wished me well. I have always remembered Marty for that.

I was in Widener library around the same time and ran into John Rubinstein, a European history graduate student and social studies tutor who had a table piled high with books on early 20th century German social thought, mostly in German, some in translation – Sombart, Weber et al. I asked: “John what are you working on?”

“Oh”, he said, a little embarrassed, “death in German social thought. I’m helping Marty with his thesis.”*

“Gosh,” I said, “I thought you were supposed to write your own thesis.” On his blog, Wolff refers to Marty as a “wannabe leftist” below. Among students and junior professors, everyone knew that Marty was not quite real.

Later, Marty married a wealthy woman and purchased the New Republic. He changed it, siding with the Contras in Nicaragua – a CIA-sponsored, murderous attempt to overthrow a decent radicalism. Michael Parenti once compared the 1984 elections in Nicaragua and the United States, with equal funding and air time for 8 political parties, as opposed to the inegalitarian, two party duopoly, the Republican surge of money and in the commercial media, favorable publicity for Reagan. The Sandinistas were the “dictatorship” Reagan needed to fund the Contras to overturn. The Contras were mainly led by adherents to Somoza, the tyrant imposed by the United States to succeed the clerk in an American company brought to power by Woodrow Wilson in an aggression in 1913. If the US is friendly to nonwhite democracies, what would it mean to be inimical?

Reagan worked overtime to reduce another small country in the hemisphere which had tried to do something decent to misery (Haiti and Cuba also come to mind; fortunately no empire managed with the American Revolution). Poor Marty - having a lot of money sometimes corrupts, especially if the money is un- or badly earned.

Marty is not a scholar. He was a tutor, but he has not been a teacher for many years. He writes editorial opinions which support the government of Israel. Were it a decent government, the editorials would be decent. Unfortunately, that government brutalizes the Palestinians and is perhaps the most warlike government in the world (one thinks of the 9 murdered in international waters on the relief ship, the Mavi Marmara – see here). Some of its American supporters vilify anyone who notices Palestinians are human. But Palestinian shadows cry out in ethnically cleansed Israel (not to mention the remaining Arab citizens whom Foreign Secretary Lieberman wants to swear a loyalty oath and drive out). Yet the Israeli government, so well armed, with such a huge ally, refuses to make a decent settlement. It often seems to support a further “transfer,” a "greater" Israel.

Marty’s voice and some others are loud to persecute anyone who notices these things. No, Marty, Palestinians including Muslims and Christians, Arab citizens of Israel as well as a billion people, are human. If your gut rises up against them, something is wrong with your gut. It is being able to think about such feelings and understanding one's worst prejudices which marks off someone who will do evil acts – call for aggression against Iraq or Iran - and someone who can free herself of partisanship, and occasionally, think intelligently about politics.

Judaism started with the prophets who spoke up against the king's oppression. The prophets stood for truth against power. They stood with slaves who freed themselves from Egypt. In turn, the prophet Amos - for whom “righteousness flows down like waters and justice like an everlasting stream” - was denounced by Amaziah, the king's man. Harvard itself, as most universities, supposedly stands for truth. But veritas is often a fundraising gimmick. Except that he is no scholar, Marty is little different from Larry Summers whose views on the lives of South Africans or the capacities of women are equally foolish and base.** Serving on an advisory committee to Governor Alvan T. Fuller in 1927, Harvard President Abbot Lawrence Lowell, for whom Lowell House is name, helped send the immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti - two innocent Italian men - to their deaths.*** Marty perhaps has yet to achieve so illustrious a status.

Still in historical perspective, Marty is a sad case. The name is purchased but if anyone remembers his career, it does no honor.

Harvard is up for bidding. Universities need money and prostitute themselves to those who give it. It is not alone. Bicyclers in the Tour de France have uniforms covered with advertisements. But the money to purchase advertising has nothing to do with the courage, determination, sometimes sleek and enduring exertion and heroism of the race. In ancient political thought, this distinction is the basis of eudaimonism. A human being should engage in activities or relationships for the right reasons, not for the money’s or status's sake (see my Democratic Individuality, ch. 1; this is also the view of my teacher Michael Walzer in Spheres of Justice).

Comparably, those who run universities (the Harvard Corporation) have little to do with seeking or speaking the truth. Occasionally, they know something of it, have some affection for it, especially if those who speak the truth are not too forceful. Academia is thus truth milled down to celebrate, say, a Larry Summers. This is a fundamental tension in university life.

The Social Studies progam is honored by Stanley Hoffman, the late Barrington Moore, Robert Paul Wolff and many others. As the students’ letter suggests, to honor Marty is a disgrace. Harvard has been graced by such figures in recent times as John Rawls, Hilary Putnam, and others who say what is true and sometimes go down the line for it. But there is also big-time corruption there, the McGeoge Bundys and Henry Kissingers (war criminals), or Richard Herrnstein, Edward Banfield, Daniel P. Moynihan and E.O. Wilson (proponents of IQ testing, “lower class” culture, sexism fused with racism, and sociobiology - diverse fashions in pseudo-scientific, racist cant reactionaries can sing by and fancy themselves something more than mere bigots). As is true of all universities, the people who make Harvard deservedly well-known are often not those honored or celebrated by the University.

The following letter was recently delivered to the organizers of the Social Studies 50th Anniversary Celebration:

Dear Professor Tuck and Dr. Bernstein,

We are writing on behalf of the Harvard Islamic Society, Harvard-Radcliffe RAZA, Society of Arab Students and Latinas Unidas. In a recent blog post for The New Republic Martin Peretz, wrote:

“But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imaam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”

He had the following to say about Mexicans in another TNR piece:

“Well, I am extremely pessimistic about Mexican-American relations, not because the U.S. had done anything specifically wrong to our southern neighbor but because a (now not quite so) wealthy country has as its abutter a Latin society with all of its characteristic deficiencies: congenital corruption, authoritarian government, anarchic politics, near-tropical work habits, stifling social mores, Catholic dogma with the usual unacknowledged compromises, an anarchic counter-culture and increasingly violent modes of conflict.”

And the Washington Post reported the following remarks Mr. Peretz made about African Americans:

Citing statistics on out-of-wedlock births among blacks, Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic, said, “So many in the black population are afflicted by cultural deficiencies.” Asked what he meant, Peretz responded, “I would guess that in the ghetto a lot of mothers don’t appreciate the importance of schooling.” Mfume challenged Peretz, saying, “You can’t really believe that. Every mother wants the best for their children.” Peretz agreed, then added, “But a mother who is on crack is in no position to help her children get through school.” Some in the audience of 2,600 young Jewish leaders hissed at Peretz’s remarks.

We acknowledge Mr. Peretz’s right to hold and express these views, but we are disturbed that he is honored at Harvard University by being invited to speak at the Social Studies Anniversary Celebration on September 25. Such an invitation lends legitimacy and respectability to views that can only be described as abhorrent and racist in their implication that the rights guaranteed by the U.S. constitution should be withheld from certain citizens based on their religious affiliation.

While the organizers of the Celebration cannot be held accountable for every statement made by its guests, we the undersigned take great exception to Harvard giving such ideas a platform, and we worry that in so doing the University, and the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies in particular, will be alienating a large segment of its student body. In light of these concerns, we respectfully ask that you reconsider having Mr. Peretz as one of the Celebration’s speakers, or at least that he be publicly challenged to defend views that are, in our opinion, indefensible.


Abdelnasser Rashid, Harvard Islamic Society
Maricruz Rodriguez, Harvard-Radcliffe RAZA
Annissa Alusi, Harvard Society of Arab Students
Beverly Pozuelos, Latinas Unidas

Here is Robert Paul Wolff's blog comment:


Two weeks from now, Susie and I will go to Cambridge, MA for the fiftieth anniversary celebration of an undergraduate interdisciplinary program at Harvard called Social Studies. I was the first Head Tutor of the program in 1960-61, as readers of my Memoir will recall. There is a day-long program of symposia and speeches on Saturday, September 25th, and I have been penciled in to make a few remarks at the lunch, which will be held in the Adams House dining room. On the program with me, I am very sorry to say, will be Martin Peretz, who was involved with Social Studies a little later than was I.

Back in 1960, Marty was an egregious little wannabe hanger-on to the group of young proto-lefties who called ourselves "The New Left Club of Cambridge," but subsequently, he married money, bought The New Republic, and turned that fine old progressive magazine into a flack for the State of Israel. Marty has done well for himself, if you ignore the sort of person he is. It seems there is a Martin Peretz Professorship of Yiddish Literature at Harvard, no less. A scholarship fund will now be set up in his name at Harvard, and he will be honored at the lunch.

When I heard that I was going to be sharing the podium with Marty, I thought seriously about canceling. I don't know how much time I have left on this earth, and somehow spending even a lunch of it in the presence of Marty Peretz doesn't strike me as a good use of my time. But I am genuinely proud of my small role in the establishment of Social Studies, and besides, Susie and I have arranged to have dinner Friday evening with our old friends, Milton Cantor and Margaret Taylor. So we will go.

Now I read that Marty has shot his mouth off about the controversy surrounding the proposed Muslim community center near the former World Trade Center in New York. Here is what he is quoted as having said: 'But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.'

Apparently a doctorate from Harvard isn't what it is cracked up to be. Marty is under the impression that the First Amendment protections are a 'privilege' -- which, I am sure, he imagines he has earned. I wonder whether he has remembered to register as an agent of a foreign power.

I told Anya Bernstein, the current Head of Social Studies, that I was well brought up and will behave myself at the lunch, but I begged her not to seat me next to Marty at the head table. She agreed.
Posted by Robert Paul Wolff

*On the issue of death. Heidegger who made Sein zum tode – being toward death and living an authentic life - central in Continental and even slowly perhaps Anglo-American philosophy was not among the readings. He was the most egregious imperialist and Nazi among these thinkers, but the importance of his argument is not debatable. Social studies did not, generally speaking, include philosophy though Robert Paul Wolff was among the original tutors. But the field then meant to push disciplinary boundaries.

**At the World Bank, Summers sent around a memo proposing that the U.S. should dump industrial poisons in the waters off South Africa because the low life expectancy of South Africans would prevent radiation or chemical toxin from taking them. But five year olds who die of cancers brought to South Africa or Somalia by Western “waste” were overlooked by Summers. If he were not so wellknown and inventive an economist – enough even to have gotten in with Obama – this example might suggest that he is, as a statistician, a fool.

***Lowell also sought to restrict Jews to 15% of Harvard undergraduates and prevent blacks from living in the freshmen dorms. The Overseers overruled him. Though Lowell tried to recruit Harvard scabs for the 1919 Boston policemen's strike, he commendably - a rare instance - supported the young Harold Laski's right to support it. Lowell admired Southern segregation and worked for the Immigration Restriction League, its honorary Vice-President. Following Woodrow Wilson, he became an early President of the American Political Science Association. See here.


louisproyect said...

This is a great post! I am a Bard College graduate who has been appalled by what Leon Botstein has done to my alma mater in close collaboration with Peretz, who was named to the board in 1987 just around the time that Ben Linder was murdered in Nicaragua. Here's my take on the current controversy:

Charles Wolverton said...

Although I agree on every substantive point, I am surprised to see E.O. Wilson on your list of reprobates. My understanding is that the controversy over his book was largely manufactured for preemptive rather than objective reasons - Pinker argues that, wiki (FWIW) confirms, and in documentaries Wilson seems an unlikely candidate for a latter day Hitler. Are you sure he belongs on the list?

Alan Gilbert said...

Dear Charles,

E.O. Wilson was a liberal Southerner who opposed bigotry toward gays and lesbians and made them genetically adaptive. Gays help nurture children. This is decent, and intellectually amusing (most of the more reactionary sociobiologists have no such sympathy).

In On Human Nature, he asserts: in hunter gatherer societies, men hunt, women stay at home. In the affirmative action society of today, women do not stay at home, and this has a genetic cost. But he further asserts: he is value neutral. As argument, this is silly - he knows nothing historically or about the subjection of women - and self-contradictory. Though he imagines he should be "value-neutrality" (having a methodological prejudice), he was actually opposing affirmative action and trying to drive women out of academia (holding "values" that are mistaken and in practice, oppressive).

Wilson is a fine student of ants and in favor of the diversity of species. He is in many ways an attractive character, particularly in this age of destruction of species and quite possibly an environment in which humans can survive. But he is also, sadly, a foolish biological reductionist about humans, a sexist and racist. The influence of his sociobiology is to make people stupid about history or social theory (this "theory" is now emerging in political "science" to the detriment of the poor students who take it up. Wilson's sociobiology just undergirds prejudices, or at best seems to affirm the obvious (though once again, he is morally better on gays even if it doesn't follow from his general simplemindedness about humans). His work propogates and sanctions leading forms of bigotry. But he is, as you suggest, a more complicated case.

Charles Wolverton said...

Alan -

Many thanks for your detailed reply. To the extent there is evidence to support charges of sexism and racism against EOW, I'll defer to your judgment. But to the extent that his - or anyone's, eg, Murray's - work is subject to abusive use, I can't get too stirred up.

Those who are inclined to prejudice will, of course, jump on any supporting evidence - but they'll always be able to find some or will just make it up. However, my rejoinder to claims like "members of group X tend to have this or that deficiency" is to ask "OK, but what we should do about that?", and to suggest that whatever we decide to do we must treat everyone with the deficiency equally. Eg, we might decide to shuttle all children who have low IQ into a menial labor career path starting at an early age. This approach is equitable across race, gender, etc., but presumably would be immediately rejected - few are going to want to gamble that their kids might be so treated ("veil of ignorance"). This is just an adaptation of the maxim (by whom I don't recall) that if you want to make sure an onerous law is never passed, make sure it is framed so as to apply to everyone.

Anyway, thanks again - and good luck at the luncheon!

- Charles

Rick Perlstein said...

This is the pithiest explanation of the tragedy of Vietnam I've ever, ever, ever seen: "I asked Bundy how he expected to win a war against a successful peasant revolution by fighting to restore the landlords." So splendid.

Alan Gilbert said...

I was at the time both willing to debate Bundy and wary. It was for a senior, even one with a fair amount of choutzpah (all the graduate students and junior professors in the May 2nd committee nominated me) an honor and a test. I met with a friend, a sociology graduate student in Barrington Moore's seminar, Larry Robinson, and took a while to work out the question. Your response means a lot.

Charles - The next post will include some more detail on Herrnstein, Murray and the New Republic shortly. There is an importance to careful argument here since pseudoscience (which includes most of political science and behavioral psychology), especially when of nefarious consequence, needs to be revealed for what it is.

As of now I am not going to the luncheon (not invited) though I am still considering it. But good luck to Robert Paul Wolff and all the others - a large number in the Social Studies program, over 500 apparently - who have made their stand clear.

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