Saturday, October 9, 2010

Are aggression and racism part of the beautiful clock which is a University? Letters from Tracy Strong and Roscoe Hill

Tracy Strong, Roscoe Hill and Don Will rightly noted that in my last post on the protests at Harvard against its honoring of Marty Peretz's racism, I misidentified Bill Coffin, chaplain at Yale in 1970, as its President, in place of Kingman Brewster. See here, here, and here.

That the Yale community had a strikingly different leadership from Harvard at the time, one not interested in punishing or criminalizing student protest against racism and war, is revealed in Roscoe’s comments. For instance, Bobby Seale was to appear in New Haven on May 1, 1970 and would be falsely charged with a murder there. See here. Seale was also part of the Chicago 7 trail, brought to the courtroom in chains by “Judge” Hoffman. Fierce demonstrations took place in New Haven. Reverend Coffin said, "All of us conspired to bring on this tragedy by law enforcement agencies by their illegal acts against the Panthers, and the rest of us by our immoral silence in front of these acts." A lawyer himself, Brewster averred, "I personally want to say that I'm appalled and ashamed that things should have come to such a pass that I am skeptical of the ability of Black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the U.S." With regard to protests against the war, there were no expulsions from Yale.* Coffin and Brewster were unusually intelligent university leaders. But any sense by a university administration that students were raising serious issues about racism and aggression - ones that, as a matter of honor in a university needed to be debated - was another universe from Harvard. Harvard administrators hid belligerent prejudices behind a sanctimonious aura of self-importance and fear of the "other," and the police. That the students were right on these great issues - broadly speaking, now an uncontroversial point - and that the administration was wrong in suppressing discussion was not said even at the Social Studies gathering 40 years later. Perhaps that would have invited the recognition that the students are today right about Peretz. Put differently, in 1970, Yale was better than Harvard, more honest about racism in the country - it is perhaps harder to miss in New Haven - and more into conflict resolution and even conversation, though, of course, no utopia.*

Tracy, who was also part of the Harvard strike, recalls a woman who jumped in fear from a second floor window in University Hall and broke her back. This, too, is an important addition. Harvard used the harshest methods against students, and struck repeatedly against protestors. Tracy recalls a comparably hysterical faculty discussion about expulsion at the New School which was ended by the great political theorist Hannah Arendt with the acid comment: “these are students, not criminals.” That saved the New School leadership from scorn from ordinary people, “these are not administratrators and important faculty members, but poseurs and thugs.”

A university is based on what John Rawls calls a mutual regard among persons of different comprehensive views. Here, too, disagreement and civil disobedience may play a role. In the broader democratic regime Rawls sketches, civil disobedience is a fundamental part of a decent political theory: resistance to an unjust law (or policy) within the context of overall fidelity to the laws. This is a striking change brought about in American democratic theory - see also Michael Walzer's essay "The Obligation to disobey" - as a result of the Southern civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King. In Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? (1999), ch 5, I develop Rawls’ position further. We live in an oligarchy with two parties, one conservative, one reactionary, distinguishing themselves in elections by negative campaigning often about non-issues. Of course, this is no longer quite true in America, where one of the parties is authoritarian and aims through ever renewed war, dragging the other party along, and global warming and joblessness, to destroy America and possibly human life on the planet to advance mindlessly the profits of 1/10 of 1%. It took Tina Fey to reveal who Palin is and O’Donnell one cannot satirize. That party (and many "blue-dog" Democrats) live in a nonuniverse of belligerent and racist make-believe. To take the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a model (there were aspects of it in the Obama-Clinton competition, for instance, Obama’s speech on race) is unfair comparison.

The other party is corrupt – in thrall to the war complex - but recognizes, say, the importance of jobs, or with some, the need to get out of Afghanistan. In such an anti-mutual regard, anti-debate system, decency will always be defended by protest from below. It is the anti-war movements and not their shadow Obama, which uphold a common good; the environmental movement which brings solar panels to the White House and fights against global warming. Only movements from below for jobs or against foreclosures – including mass nonviolent resistance to injustice - might head off some of the worst ravages of depression. Civil disobedience is not just, in Thoreau’s phrase, “a majority of one”; it is what honors American principles of freedom of conscience or “freedom from want” (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) in an era of decline and fall. In such a setting, a wise democracy or legal system would hesitate to punish civil disobedients. Given great crimes - or ones increasingly and widely suspected to be great - that go undebated in the mainstream media absent such protest, a democracy would give those who participate in nonviolent sit-ins - trespass - or blocking of streets very minor punishments, if any.

But to conjure such a vision in this oligarchy with parliamentary forms – where 2 million are imprisoned, 1 in every 3 adults, possibly 40% of the world’s prisoners drawn from 3% of the world’s population – everyone but elite war criminals, many for victimless (drugs) or nonviolent offenses, at greater expense per capita than educating children even in a depression, well…

As Larry Summers also revealed in his tenure as President, Harvard sometimes is hubris.** It looks down on mere Vietnamese, bombed with Harvard-discovered and propagated napalm, looks down on black people in the South demonstrating for freedom, down on mere students who protested against aggression and racism. Not so many faculty at Harvard sought to heal these wounds though Stanley Hoffmann and Michael Walzer stood out in seeking conversation and protesting the war. One could learn here from the principle of Aristole's poliical philosophy; a common good-seeking regime seeks to reach toward or recognize its dissident members, not to brutalize them. Yale participated in many similar evils as universities, very hierarchical and needing money, do (ten years later, the University of Denver still did classified weapons and counterinsurgency research in Thailand for the Pentagon). Hierarchy is often the opposite of truth. But in 1970, Yale President Brewster and Reverend Coffin reached out to – in Coffin’s case joined – anti-war and anti-racist protests. They spoke not for the evil that American society did, but for its hope of universal freedom, including freedom of conscience and dissent. Their words, as those of Mayor Bloomberg here*** recently or Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California on climate change capture shining principles. Coffin and Brewster sought to resolve differences through recognition of what rightly concerns the protestors, not banish them into the outer darkness. As Roscoe says, even though the New Haven police sometimes used tear gas, Yale’s policies produced no bitterness. It remained a University and, however corrupt some of its policies, stood for something. Harvard, sadly, did not.

As Tracy also notes in his letter, Wassily Leontieff, a refugee from Russia in 1925, spoke in the faculty debates at Harvard of the University as a great and intricate clock. And a university is. It can be a place of wonder. What goes on in good teaching and in diverse student discoveries, something that can happen almost daily, illustrates a very deep human possibility. In his story, Leontieff conjured a wonderful suitor for the hand of the beautiful princess as offering this clock to a king. He had seemingly done “the most amazing thing” and won the contest.

Yet one might ask Wassily, are war and racism (not to mention patriarchy and homophobia), ingredient to a modern university which seeks money from the US government and corporations, inevitably part of such a clock? To so massive a degree? In Vietam (say, napalming children...)? Leontieff was silent. Yet as a faculty member, he was under no compulsion to be so. One of the saddest things about universities is when tenured professors, in this case, out of fear, but often to gain scraps, throw away the truth (in a rare moment, Henry Kissinger once observed of the status hierarchy of academia: the smaller the stakes, the fiercer the conflict).****

Leontieff snobbily likened students protesting against Harvard’s involvement in Vietnam or racism to a “crude oaf” – one incapable of culture – who smashed the clock. And everyone agreed, horrified, that this “was the most amazing thing.” So the king kept his silly word and married his daughter to the oaf. An otherwise decent man, Leontieff, who invented input-output tables and contributed to planning as a way to fight depressions, relieve inequalities and secure economic growth, here revealed empty class prejudice – even against Harvard students! Perhaps he was inadvertently speaking of himself. Perhaps this speech was the most amazing thing...

Leontieff’s beautiful metaphor about universities – surely better than Berkeley President Clark Kerr’s jargon about “the multiversity” which students greeted with protest and songs – was poisoned by failing to notice injustice, failing to seek the truth even if one was unprepared – the Harvard administration certainly was – to honor it fully. His statement violates what makes a university (or a democracy) great – that it takes seriously conscientious differences among its members, gives them a hearing, does not shut off debate even when painful, recognizes civil disobedience, makes or at least deliberates on changes where possible, does not insist on napalm or training officers for Vietnam, or teaching and publicizing, without debate, racism (for instance, no debate was organized by Harvard over Richard Herrnstein’s or Edward Banfield’s racist views - see here and comments) and does not say, of those who dare to act upon the truth, with the, in this respect, lost Alexander Gerschenkron: “beat them, beat them, beat them.” After all, said Hannah Arendt, these are students….

"Dear Alan,

A minor correction -- Bill Coffin was Chaplain at Yale, not President; he later became the head minister of the Riverside Church in NYC and was one of the first to support gay rights from the pulpit. Later was president of SANE/FREEZE.

A more substantial one: as I recollect during the police attack on University Hall a woman jumped from one of the windows and broke her back.

Does not Moore suggest that the American Revolution (the Civil War) was too late and incomplete -- more allied -- though not the same -- with the iron and rye of Germany than with the French. The methodology of the book is essentially that of The XVIIIth Brumaire -- and that led even Marx into some quandries (see the end about the statue of Napoleon coming down from the column in the Place Vendome)*****


Friday, October 01, 2010 2:21 PM

Dear Alan,

I recall no discipline or expelling [at Yale], and certainly no Expunging. From your account, I infer the Harvard admin took a much harder line than the Brewster (cum Coffin) crowd. I do not have the bitter taste about it all that you justifiably have. Roscoe

Friday, October 01, 2010 1:21 PM

Dear Roscoe,

Thank you very much. Were the student strikers disciplined/expelled?

All the best,

Friday, October 1, 2010 8:51 am

Dear Alan,

Brewster & Coffin worked together to ease tensions, address the students concerns. There was a student strike at Yale too. I do not recall Brewster's view on the war, but he certainly displayed significant support and compassion for the student concerns. And the Chicago Seven member Bobby Seale (?) was then in the New Haven jail on some charge or other. That was the setting where Brewster (his degree was in law) was widely quoted as saying he "doubted that a Black man could get a fair trial in this country." All over the east coast that spring, there were small bumper sticker sized posters that said "New Haven - May 1". I am sure they were at Harvard. Thousands descended. National Guard called in. This was the same spring as Kent State & Jackson State. But in New Haven, there was tear gas but no gun shots. Enough. I was a Yale faculty member then, hence the memories. r

Thursday, September 30, 2010 6:24 PM

Dear Roscoe,

Ah, the perils of memory. You are right and I will correct it. Brewster was against the war, wasn't he? I seem to remember some negotiations of a more conflict-resolving sort though perhaps again inexact.

Best wishes,

From: Roscoe Hill Date: Thursday, September 30, 2010 5:59 pm Subject: minor correction

Dear Alan,

Your current very interesting blog entry says: 'some person like Reverend Coffin, then President at Yale, who fiercely opposed the war, might have talked us out of the building.' William Sloane Coffin was then CHAPLIN at Yale. Kingman Brewster was President. Thought you would want to know.

*There were punishments at Yale over student and faculty demonstrations against racism toward campus workers. During the spring of 1970, a black woman with a heart condition was made to stand on her feet all day in the cafeteria, to work through scheduled breaks. Finally, after asking for a break for several hours, she threw a glass of cranberry juice in the manager’s face and sat down. She would have been fired, but two hundred students occupied the office of the cafeteria manager and held him there, arguing, until he relented. Though she was rehired, one of the young faculty members present, David Levy, an economist, was forced to leave Yale.

**For example, Summers on dumping toxic waste off South Africa - a memo he circulated at the World Bank - or his remarks about the capabilities in science of women.

*** Bloomberg is, however, awful on mass protest, jailing demonstrators and passersby at the Republican Convention in 2004 in an old warehouse full of toxic materials for 4 days…And yet his current stand - again, one of shining principle - vastly outweighs the other. Put differently, he fills the role, is, in this circumstance truly, the mayor of New York.

**** In the Crito, the democratic laws ask Socrates: will you escape and render your high words hypocritical for a banquet?

*****I will check over Moore, but his main argument is that the Civil War eliminated the possibility of a fascist development in the United States comparable to Germany. The South was still a center of racism and plantations – and linked through the army – a feature missed in Mills’ otherwise striking Power Elite - to a continuing threat of fascism in the country. For instance, in 1935, an attempted military coup almost overthrew FDR. I don’t recall that Moore had any analytic or political vision about these latter points.

Robert Paul Wolff reported in his talk at the Social Studies luncheon being enthused in 1960 about Kennedy, a Harvard man, author of what turned out to be the ghost-written Profiles in Courage whose wife spoke French. He ran into Moore, who looked down “his long aristocratic nose” at Wolff – though a banker’s son, Moore had a distant and somewhat aristocratic mien - saying the truth abruptly: “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between them.”

For a long time, I believed this, too. But I have since watched the “Fog of War” – the Errol Morris film about Pentagon secretary Robert McNamara - where, according to McNamara, Kennedy was wise enough to listen to Tommy Thompson, an ambassador to Russia who had lived with Khrushchev. and recommended that the President honor a reasonable message from Russia, fearful of the devastating and uncontrollable consequences of war, rather than launch an obliterating attack against Cuba (General Lemay’s advice). Here was a paradigm case of civilian control of the military (something missing so far in the Obama administration). Cuba, as McNamara discovered only in the 1990s, already had nuclear missiles aimed at the East Coast and Castro, in perhaps his worst moment, had recommended to Khrushchev, if Cuba were attacked, to fire them...

Since Kennedy had this wisdom, many of us are are here to discuss the matter. About Vietnam, Kennedy, like Obama today, got rotten advice from many (all in his cabinet including McNamara, who misremembers himself at the time). John Kenneth Galbraith, my father’s friend and colleague, was then ambassador to India, visited Vietnam for Kennedy and wrote messages to the President warning against escalation. It is, of course, easier not to escalate than to reverse track once the escalation is locked in. Kennedy did not (further) escalate. Johnson did...

The joint chiefs of staff at that time, headed by General Lyman Lemnitzer, proposed a plot to disguise Americans as Cubans, murder some citizens in American cities, and launch an attack on Cuba. Kennedy rejected it. There is no way to prove that Kennedy was assassinated for refusing these escalations – that the Warren Report is foolishness for the public record does not establish anything else – but it would not be surprising. This post links to those I am writing on Petraeus and the fearsome role of the American military in the worst aspects of the war complex, for instance, here.

So Moore (and I once upon a time and Wolff now) are mistaken that there was not a dime’s worth of difference between the candidates. Except for Jimmy Carter, no other President in this period might have avoided these two conflagrations. But even Carter on January 1, 1977 toasted the Shah as “beloved by his people” (even among decent people, being or even wanting to be President, goes to one's head). McCain stood admirably for the Senate torture resolution against Bush, only to melt away, long before the last Presidential election, into nothing.

Of course, there was no way to tell, in the 1960 election, that this was the case about Kennedy. In fact, he even won by red- and phallic-baiting Nixon (Eisenhower supposedly created a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union). And Nixon surprisingly later engaged with China. But those who think there is no difference between Cheney and Obama or Palin and Obama or Petraeus and Obama - however much we need a mass movement from below against war and for jobs or possibly a third party growing out of fighting for such things - are making a mistake.

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