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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Trahison des Clercs at the University of Pennsylvania

Earlier this month a conference was held at the venerable University of Pennsylvania.  The purpose of the conference was to promote boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel -- BDS.  Not to put too fine a point on it,  it was a Hate Israel conclave.  (Cf. the report by Guy Herschmann)

This being a free country, people have a right to organize hatred of Israel;  that is as American as apple pie, or at least as American as Ku Klux Klan.  No complaint there.  

But the conference was not just an expression of free speech.  What was planned there, what was advocated in at least one of the sessions, was the subversion of the independence of scholarship and university teaching. 

Of course we know that in Soviet times the universities were told to preach the state doctrines, and we know that the Nazi universities were there to advance the truth according to Adolf Hitler. And there is also an older notion, in some quarters,  of religious faith as the supreme arbiter of  what is to be taught.  Against all these threats from various quarters, we want an independent profession of scholarship, one of free inquiry and free discussion, with a clear line separating it from propaganda and indoctrination.

Yet here, in the halls of one of the most prestigious universities of the world, one of its full professors of English, Amy Kaplan, gave a seminar on how to press an hate-Israel message in the academic curriculum:
My question falls on Professor Norton's statement that Boycott may not be the most important part of BDS, and is kind of the closest to where we live as academics and also with Professor Kaplan's call to think about a positive program on BDS, a positive aspect of the Boycott [of Israel]....And that's um about teaching in the classroom about BDS and how, not just in our life as professional producers of knowledge, and scholars, but as teachers, how can that be formed in this pedagogy, especially I guess when the course is not dealing directly with material that has to do with Palestine"
Well I don't know how you can, how you can address the issue if you're not dealing with a course that has no content or relationship to it.... But I know that, I mean, you can make courses that have content. I mean, for example, I happen to know that you're interested in prisons, and the literature and culture about, you know, prisons, so you can teach a course on which you included prison as a really, really big thing, not only in the political life of Palestinians, but also in their literature and in their poetry, so that will be kind of an ideal way -- you take a thematic course, and you bring in themes from this issue, and literature is really a great way to teach students about what's going on -- students they think, they know they have an ideological line, a political line, and then they read, you know, they read darwish, they read, you know, The Pennoptimist and it opens up a whole new world -- so that's my answer to that.
This exchange was widely reported on the internet.  I myself wrote to the University president,  Amy Guttmann, that "it would seem that Professor Kaplan may need to be reminded that there is a line between propaganda and teaching, and that we really should try not to cross it , at least not in this deliberate,  blatant, and gross way.  What do you think ?"  And no, I did not receive a reply from the good President.  On the other hand the Chair of the English department at Penn, Nancy Bentley, has issued the following statement in response to a blog by Elder of Ziyon:
I can say I didn't agree with the way the blog characterized Professor Kaplan's comments on the recording. The blog stated the following: 
"At the Q&A session, another teacher asked Kaplan how to incorporate the BDS memes of demonizing Israel into college courses, even when the course has nothing to do with "Palestine." And Professor Kaplan answered him. Here we have a professor at an Ivy League university explicitly calling on like-minded educators to shoehorn hate of Israel into every one of their classes." 
This characterization is not accurate. Contrary to the claim that Professor Kaplan believes that political views on Israel-Palestine should be forced into college courses that have nothing to do with that subject, Kaplan explicitly said she didn't think that was feasible: "I don't know how you can address the issue if you're not dealing with a course that has no content or relationship to it." 
She took the position instead that certain kinds of thematic courses, such as prison literature or prison history, would have an inherent relation to the topic of Israel-Palestine (as one case among others). Prison writing is a well established area in literary studies, as is the history of prisons. Any search of data bases will reveal this neutral fact of academic history. And I fail to see how the case of the Israeli-Palistinian [sic] conflict would be inherently inappropriate as a case study for a thematic course of that sort, just as with courses like war literature or the literature of mourning and violence. If you can explain how this is not the case, I'd be happy to comment. 
"For these academics, college is not about teaching but it is merely a platform for them to spout their political views at their captive audience." This assertion on the blog does not seem accurate to me either, since Professor Kaplan expressed the idea that only courses in which Israel and Palestine were relevant to the advertised course theme would be logical candidates for discussing these questions. Such courses (prison writing, war and literature, etc.) are not required of English majors or SAS students, so discussions of the politics of the Israeli-Palestine conflict would never be forced on a "captive audience."
 So here, according the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania, the problem is solved.  We will not indoctrinate our English majors -- that would be bad -- but we will indoctrinate more specialized students, only those.

What the U. of Penn. should have said, but what is has failed to say so far, is simply that it will not indoctrinate.  That it will present controversial topics in a way to allow students to appreciate and to learn about various points of view.  Present the student with various points of view.  Let him judge.

But education in this sense -- in a sense that is clearly distinct from indoctrination -- is absent from the mental world of the zealot.  We can hardly blame Professor Kaplan for this problem.  A look at her resume confirms the primacy of her zealotry over scholarship, and zealotry, like thrall, is probably not something that can be abandoned by will power alone.  That is one of the reasons that we look to universities for institutional safeguards.  And, so far at least, the great University of Pennsylvania is clearly failing us.

So here is my challenge to the University of Pennsylvania:  when the Israel-Palestine conflict comes up in any course, for whatever reason, make sure that students will be informed, in an even-handed manner, that there is an Israeli point of view in addition to that of its detractors.  Can you commit to that, U. of Penn ?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Death of a Stalinist

Bill Mardo (1923-2012)

and his vozhd  1878-1953

It seems that a Mr. Bill Mardo, né William Bloom, died in New York on January 20 of this year.  Seven days later the New York Times ran a 750-word obituary on the gentleman which may well be the most mindless obit ever written.

It seems that this Mr. Mardo was one of three such comrades who wrote columns in the Daily Worker during the nineteen fifties in which they urged that African-American baseball players be hired by the major leagues.  Obviously, the failure of the baseball industry to accomplish integration so late was shameful.  But did this comrade have anything to do with the belated integration of black players ?  The NYT obit has no doubt that he played a leading part.  But the obit writer here, Richard Goldstein, seems blissfully ignorant of the actual role of the American Communist Party in mid twentieth century America.

During the whole period of Mardo's tenure at the Daily Worker, the Communists constituted a small conspiratorial group totally devoted to the interests of the Soviet Union and to Stalin.  Any interest they had in African Americans was consistently subordinated to their devotion to the Soviets. The details of the Communist stance of "the Negro question" has been documented by a number of historians;  a very convenient source is Maurice Isserman's Which Side Were you On ? (1982).  Mr. Goldstein has either never read these sources or has chosen to disregard them.

Mr. Goldstein does furnish some details of Mardo's life that should have aroused at least some curiosity.   But no, to Goldstein everything appears to be as normal and American as apple pie.

On Mardo's name change, this is what Goldstein writes:  
Mr. Mardo was born William Bloom in Manhattan on Oct. 24, 1923 .... He changed his name to Mardo as a tribute to his sisters Marion and Doris when he began his career in journalism ...
As a tribute to his sisters !  What could be more natural than that ?  What loving brother could possibly do less than change his last name to honor his sisters ?  The fact that Communists in that era took on "party names" for conspiratorial reasons does not seem to be known by Mr. Goldstein.  In the case of Jewish Communists, the party names were almost invariably "Americanized" to hide the Jewish origins of these comrades.

And then, somewhat later, 
He left the newspaper to work as a Washington reporter for the Soviet news agency Tass in the early 1950's ..
Again, what could be more normal, more American, than to have a young American reporter (who by the way never went to college and never learned other languages, as far as we know) to work for the Soviets in Washington ?  And no, Mr. Goldstein has never heard of just what the Soviets were up to in those days of the Cold War.  Why mention a thing like that, anyway ?

But it does seem that this generation of readers needs to be reminded of just what the CPUSA was doing in those days, especially in regard to the civil rights of African Americans.  An African American sociologist of the time, Horace Cayton Jr., put it most succinctly:
... the record shows that where and when the Communists seemed to be fighting for Negro rights, their objective was simply to strengthen the hand of Russia.  When this was accomplished, they abandoned the fight and turned to somethings else ...  (cited in Maurice Isserman, Which Side Were you On ? 1982)
While the CP gave verbal support to civil rights issues before 1941, such support was  muted after the Soviet Union was attacked by Germany on June 22 of that year.  Overnight,  support for the war became the overriding issue. The Communists throughout were antagonistic to the  Civil Rights movement of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.  Just before June of 1941, these two leaders were denounced by the CP as "war mongers" because they were sympathetic to the cause of the Allies while Stalin was in a pact with Hitler.  After June of 1941, these Black leaders were denounced by the comrades as insufficiently pro-war.

And, obviously, neither the Daily Worker, nor its Comrade Mardo, could find any fault whatever in the Soviet Gulag, nor in the Soviet oppression of Jews.  In this they were in stark opposition to the whole Civil Rights movement of the 20th century.   The last words have to go to Martin Luther King, who wrote in support of the Soviet Jewry movement:

The New York Times 
January 16, 1965
I am profoundly shocked by the treatment of the Jewish people in the Soviet Union. I would like strongly to endorse the moral protest and appeal of conscience to the Soviet Union published as an advertisement in The Times Jan. 14.I should like to add my voice to the list of distinguished Americans of all faiths who have called the injustices perpetrated against the Jewish community in the Soviet Union to the attention of the world.
The struggle of the Negro people for freedom is inextricably interwoven with the universal struggle of all peoples to be free from discrimination and oppression. The Jewish people must be given their full rights as Soviet citizens as guaranteed by the Constitution of the U.S.S.R. itself.
The anti-Jewish tone of the economic trials must cease. The free functioning of synagogues should be permitted. There should be no interference with the performance of sacred rites. The religious and cultural freedom of this old Jewish community should be re-established.
In the name of humanity, I urge that the Soviet Government end all the discriminatory measures against its Jewish community. I will not remain silent in the face of injustice.
Martin Luther King Jr.Atlanta, Ga., Jan. 14, 1965