Thursday, September 30, 2010

Nonviolence and the brittleness of Harvard

At the 50th anniversary of social studies, Stanley Hoffmann spoke on tape of two great protests, the Harvard strike of which I was a leader, and the recent and massive dissent, within social studies and nationwide, about Peretz’s racism. I admire the student protest against Harvard’s naming of a research fund for Peretz. See here. And the students were, in both cases, mainly nonviolent (did not destroy property or hurt anyone). In the strike, however, some did escort deans to the exits at University Hall (one was accused of touching an elbow). That was more dramatic. But the greatest difference was police intervention at 5 am at University Hall including beatings (protestors were bloodied, one nose was broken), 200 arrests, and a strike that followed for the next week.

As I walked into the morning session this past Saturday, the head tutor of social studies of my time, Rick Hunt, now grand marshal of the University, was there and I gave him a hug. “You know,” he said, “ I wrote about you in my autobiography.”

“Oh,” I said, “what did you say?”

“Everything was falling apart. Someone was speaking from the steps of Widener library. You were standing there with a cup of coffee in your hand. You finished the cup, took it over and put it in the garbage can. And I knew everything was going to be all right.”

As an account of the great issues of the American aggression in Vietnam and the University’s role in it, Rick’s is lacking. It is also no early ecological thought (nor was I aware of such things at the time). It reflects the terrible image created by President Nathan Pusey of Harvard that the 500 of us who sat in against the Dow Chemical Company were not, as we thought, protesting against the napalming of children – the photograph of a 9 year old girl running naked down a dirt road burning had recently appeared in mainstream American newspapers – but that we were “nihilists,” who wanted “to tear Harvard down stone by stone and jump up and down in the rubble.” My subsequent career is a counterexample (there are many others). But when the President of Harvard says something really stupid – much like President Bush – it commits itself to the minds of quite a number of other important people. Harvard is often very good educationally but sometimes a hierarchical order, where people yearn to be “somebody” and to hear requests from the President as Amy Gutmann spoke about in the afternoon (and yes, I too, if asked – I wouldn’t be – by Barack Obama to do something honorable about which I was competent, would think about doing it). But I am very grateful that Rick saw my gesture then – one of ordinary politeness, connected to some concern about people who work on campus – as a memory of order in the midst of what seemed to him chaos.

Stanley Hoffmamn recalled the early leaders of social studies, including the economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron. I took courses with Gerschenkron, a Marxian historian on the development of serfdom in Russian agriculture and the rebellions against it in the 19th century as well as a Menshevik exile from the revolution. Gerschenkron’s Bread and Democracy in Germany sees the preconditions for the triumph of Nazism in the influence of the Junkers, the landed aristocracy and officer class, allied with the capitalist iron oligopoly. As Barrington Moore would emphasize, the weak 1848 German Revolution failed to overturn this aristocracy, Gerschenkron was thus the source of Barrington Moore’s vision of Nazism. No predominant capitalism and class struggle from below, no eugenics from the United States enter this account. Moore draws an absolute contrast of Germany with France which had had a successful democratic revolution. He forgets the leader of Vichy - Nazi-puppet - France, the World War I hero General Petain. He forgets that Charles de Gaulle, a corporal in exile, and Madame Michelin - the French were not then notably anti-sexist - were the leaders of the resistance, the elite genocidally pro-Nazi. All this is missing from Moore’s and Gerschenkron’s approach. That the American government could not be waging a genocidal aggression in Vietnam – even thugh Moore* strongly opposed the war – or that authoritarianism from the Right was also an American possibility were too easily dismissed in Moore's and Gerschenkron's nonetheless significant contrast.

I had written a long paper comparing Gerschenkron and Lenin on Russian agriculture. Lenin’s book on the latter, volume 3 of his Collected Works, is a powerful study, based on the third volume of Marx’s Capital, of the combination of capitalist and serf oppression, the one superimposed on and magnifying the other. Gerschenkron, I too remember, as Stanley said, had many books strewn on the shelves of his office. If he liked you, he offered the good sherry hidden behind the books (I had some with him, not that I could tell). If he didn’t like you, he supposedly fed you bad sherry.

Harvard has a shining status in education, and some there imagined it a Winter Palace. Gerschenkron saw the students taking over the building as the Bolsheviks had overthrown the tsar. He identified fiercely with the administration. The students politely but firmly showed administrators out of University Hall. For touching a dean’s elbow, Carl Offner, a math graduate student and a fine, rather shy person, was expunged from Harvard. This means that Harvard afterwards denied that he had been associated with the place. That Harvard smugness – a pretention to Christ’s power at the Last Judgment - has always been hard for me and perhaps others to bear.

Students sat in University Hall and discussed what to do (including as Stanley said, how, if at all, to get out of the situation). But the 700 or so in the Building and the thousands outside were prepared for a long sit in. Some person like Reverend Coffin, then President at Yale, who fiercely opposed the war, might have talked us out of the building. But it is hard to state the panic that possessed the Harvard administration and many of the faculty. Even Stanley, as elegant, insightful and delicately ironic a teacher as I can imagine and for whom I have enormous fondness, was caught up in this (served on the punishments committee). Still, he and Michael Walzer and some others on the faculty strove to help people in an out of control situation. As Stanley reported Gerschenkron’s statement, ”What you must do to such people is beat them, beat them, beat them.”

At the 50th Anniversary on Saturday, Richard Tuck, fellow political theorist and Director of the Social Studies Program, told me that when I was asking the question I reported yesterday here, the police came up from the back and asked him whether I was one of the student agitators and they should arrest me. “No,” he told them, “he’s faculty, just asking a question.”

Actually, the Harvard police were unusually restrained, asking picketers outside Adams House to move back on the sidewalk and let people pass, but arresting and tasering no one.

The picketers, about 100, had devastating signs – among the best I have seen - composed entirely of words from Peretz. It is sad and frightening that one man can have produced so many “wild and wounding words.” This last phrase Peretz said on the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur, with the insight that his words were particularly wounding toward Muslims. Peretz almost reached a point of decency here, from which he might have found the person he once was. At the 50th anniversary, there was no sign of this, however.

He held a private dinner for 50 friends, Rick Hunt told me, the night before. The only honorable thing he could have done was to ask that the award not be named for him – atonement for his remarks of 10 days ago ought to mean something. With a tidal wave of justified mass anger breaking over him, he could also not have come to the celebration. That would have been wise. But Marty is, as Robert Wolff says, a supporter of Likud in Israel, and just too used to intimidating others. Perhaps a year of reflection might make a difference – taking in just how apt the criticisms were - but he tried to shut his ears and brazen it out.

The protestors, however, found Peretz as he came out the back door of the Science building and walked him and Michael Walzer across campus chanting loudly (there is a film of this "party for Marty" here). I have some trouble with this. Michael was an early supporter of the civil rights movement. He walked with Marty because Marty is his friend. Bigotry needs to be confronted, but Peretz is no longer young. It seemed to me too much. The words of the signs against Peretz would have been at least as powerful without the chanting just then. The demonstrators did nothing menacing or untoward. Nonetheless…

When they reached Adams House, Peretz went in to the lunch. There, as a concession to the protests including by many teachers, the Social Studies program had removed him as a speaker. Robert Paul Wolff, the first head tutor, made the one speech here. He invoked the section in Capital, volume 1, on the circulation of commodities and money. Money, Marx says, non olet. As Wolff relates, the Roman emperor Vespasian taxed the urinals and sent his son, Titus, to collect the loot. Titus threw the coins down angrily before the Emperor, the task, he thought, beneath him. "Pecunia," Vespasian responded, " does not stink." Wolff said that Harvard takes any kind of cash. But Social Studies should have higher standards. This money stinks.

These words etch the corruption of the fund vividly. But I also agree with Steve Walt here, who points out that Harvard turned down $2.5 million from the President of the United Arab Emirates because he funded a think tank promoting anti-semitic and anti-American propaganda. Walt says: apply the standard evenhandedly. Peretz’s 30 years of bigotry means the University should have accepted money in his name neither for the Professorship in Yiddish Studies, nor for this research fund. Harvard, too, has a standard higher than this, which it has flagrantly violated. It could have stood shiningly for freedom of conscience – as Mayor Michael Bloomberg does - and against a wave of anti-Arab bigotry. It does not.

When Peretz was honored as former head tutor, 6 social studies teachers stood up, turned their backs on him and walked out, the women in high heels, clicking. They came back for subsequent head tutors. They are among 15 who signed the statement of over 500 protesting against the taking of the money. Peretz said a few words, including that those who criticized him were cowards.

Michael Walzer chaired the afternoon panel, which also included two of the leading contributors to Marty’s fund, Jamie Gorelick and E..J. Dionne. I saw the film of the walk over, have now learned the main elements of Wolff’s speech, and can see why Michael was disturbed. He pointed out that he and Marty had worked to save the undergraduates in the Harvard strike, all in social studies he thought, and the grad students, many in philosophy, from having their careers cut off. I know at the time that a request came down from the Board of Trustees to the Government Department to fire me as a teaching assistant. Michael drafted a response, refusing and saying to charge me through the regular punishments procedure - the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities - if there were charges to be made. Especially given Michael’s uneasiness about the student movement, what he did was commendable, and I believe him that Marty did such things also and am grateful to both of them. But that Marty was against the Vietnam war 40 years ago and did some things to achieve leniency toward the protestors does not remove 30 years of pretty much unbroken racism. Even so, none of this would have provoked demonstrations if Marty had not blogged in a vicious way toward Muslims 10 days before the Social Studies gathering. In Clifford Bob’s phrase here, what does it mean when a powerful editor says the First Amendment applies only to him and not to those whom he opposes?

Michael then made the sad argument that I who had asked a critical question earlier and others should read the entire works of all the social studies professors and would find equally awful things to criticize.

He also later asked me if I had checked the context of Marty’s remarks in the Spine. I said: no and that I would. Unfortunately, they aggravate the lack of respect for persons. Peretz starts with baiting all Middle Easterners as of "alien philosophy" and committed to "foreign governments, foreign insurgencies." It was as if a Junker were speaking in the 1920s, of East European Jews in Prussia. That Marty's allegiance to Israel is his leading conviction is so overpowering that the word "projection" glimmers in neon over his words about others. Peretz says:

"In fact, there has not been a single rally or demonstration in America aimed at Muslim or Arab interests or their commitments to foreign governments and, more likely, to foreign insurgencies and, yes, quite alien philosophies. I suggest that this is largely the case because Americans are so fearful of being accused of bias, however the injustice of the charge might be."

"This is certainly not the situation in Britain and France, Germany and Denmark, Holland and Spain where a demo against the Arabs or the Pakis or the Algerians or the Moroccans or the Turks and Muslims more generally is a regular feature of the political landscape and where parties win parliamentary seats precisely because they campaign with Islamists and islam as the targets."

"Of course, Muslims and Arabs do not not act in America as they do in the increasingly Islamicized but non-practicing Christian and democratic sovereignties of Europe. Still, I wouldn't close my eyes or our eyes to the increasing number of both naturalized and native-born citizens who enlist in the Islamic terror networks of our time, here and abroad."

"Liberal political theory has virtually ignored the philosophical, legal and ethical questions posed by the threatening demographics of Europe. Is not western society, imperfect as it may be but immensely more liberal than the domains of Islam, obliged to defend its own...and their future. Immigration is key to this discussion, and it's the one issue that no one wants to discuss. Imagine what the Times would say if the matter became a subject of real public discourse."

Peretz worries about whether the US will be "overrun by Muslim immigrants like Europe" and seems to yearn for the racism there. He disregards the aid and brutality of the United States government – for instance, Rumsfeld in providing Saddam the poison gas to use against the Kurds at Halabja. He even refers unself-consciously to “Pakis,” a racist term of abuse in England since the 1960s. Peretz says Nick Kristof agreed that his statement about “Muslim life is cheap, especially to Muslims” is "factual." But this is just a standard racist idea, like General Westmoreland’s about the Vietnamese while committing genocide against them.

Peretz also looks down on Palestinians as a people incapable of forming a state. Turn the medal, Marty: it is of the Jews that European and American bigots used to speak in this way. John Rawls’s original position is a good test for your words. Just imagine them applied to you and those you love. As Edward Said says wonderfully in Orientalism, Palestinians often listen to anti-semitism toward Jews and know that it is just the same as anti-semitism toward Arabs. In the 1930s, how many good Germans, even how many elite Protestants at Harvard parties,** snickered at the idea of a Jewish state?

Jamie Gorelick and others suggest that social studies people learn to argue and disagree, and this is just another disagreement. Peretz’s statement demeans a billion and more people, and as the social studies standing committee members and over 500 graduates and teachers in the program averred, is a matter of repugnant, anti-democratic harm in a context of a sweeping national campaign of bigotry (remember the black electrician threatened by the racist rally at Ground Zero for looking "Muslimish"). If Peretz had supposed the Vietnamese revolutionaries were Laplanders or misidentified Karl with Harpo (my favorite among the Marx brothers) or embraced one of hundreds of interesting if slightly dotty alternative explanations of social phenomena, say the sunspot theory of the current economic depression, those, however heated, would have been mere disagreements....

Several students, Arab-American, Chicano, black and white, asked insightful questions from the floor, for instance, just what kind of teacher was Peretz? See here and here. Richard Tuck then said perhaps the issue had been fully discussed and that there should be questions to what the panelists had otherwise said. The case was clear. A movement from below had disrupted the rituals of power. Intellectually, it was no contest.

*A philanthropic banker on the afternoon panel joked about Moore, a banker's son and a sometimes difficult person, for going skiing in the alps while being a "Marxist." Moore started at Harvard as an appointee in the Russian Research Center, whose task, Alex Inkeles, the director, said "was to shake the faith of intellectuals in Marxism." HIs first two books, though very intelligent, reflect this aim. That he moved toward reading some of Marx and a distant sympathy with some of Marx's ideas - he never liked the Russian or Chinese revolution, for example - only reveals an admirable intellectual honesty.

**My father, Richard Gilbert, was an instructor at Harvard for 15 years until 1937. No Jew could then be promoted at Harvard, until everything changed: after World War II.

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