Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 31, 2010

Two videos about Bard College

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 1:53 pm

My long time readers are probably aware that I have been using the Internet to criticize the President of Bard College, my alma mater, for more than 15 years over things like the appointment of the wretched Martin Peretz to the board of trustees, the transformation of the school effectively into an arm of George Soros’s Open Society Institute, and most recently the sacking of Joel Kovel for his anti-Zionist writings.

Using new tools at my disposal (IMovie and Vimeo), I have made a couple of videos that should be of interest. Just a word on why I am using Vimeo rather than Youtube. Unlike Youtube, Vimeo does not enforce a 10 minute time limit for uploaded videos, something that was very important to me for the sake of continuity.

The first is an interview I conducted with Joel Kovel where he discusses his experience working at Bard College over a 21 year period. It can be seen at:

The other is something I call “Leon and Me”, which stars yours truly as he takes the viewer on a walking tour of the campus on the occasion of my 45th anniversary reunion weekend. It is a mixture of nostalgia and political commentary with some good jokes, I believe:

August 30, 2010

Thoughts provoked by the Platypus

Filed under: Academia,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 2:26 pm

Last April I wrote about Platypus, a group of young academics with Eustonite politics. I thought that I had said about all that was worth saying but felt inspired to have one more go at it after participating in a thread on the Kasama Project website. This is run by Mike Ely, whose Maoist politics I do not share, but who strikes me as a remarkably intelligent and principled person.

Mike was taking exception to an interview that Platypus had conducted with Jairus Banaji, an Indian professor who I have read in the past for ammunition in the transition to capitalism debate involving Maurice Dobb, Robert Brenner et al. The interview focused on the Naxalite movement in India and Arundhati Roy’s sympathetic “Walking with the Comrades” article, which Banaji and the Platypus interviewers care little for. Banaji’s main complaint is that the Naxalites appear to have no program for India’s urban working class.

Unlike Banaji, I have no problem with movements led by Maoists. In fact, I consider the Chinese Revolution one of the epochal achievements of humanity in the 20th century despite the fact that it departed from classical Marxist norms. How can one not cheer a revolution that rids the country of a despotic landlord class in league with imperialism?

Upon further reflection, it dawned on me that I have run into Platypus type people before who remind me of those “end of the world” cartoons that appear in the New Yorker magazine, you know the kind—it shows a guy in a robe with a long beard carrying a sign with “Repent” or some such thing.

Leftists who support the Naxalites, the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, Cuba, etc. are impure in their eyes. They need to repent or else a mighty flood will come along and destroy them. Like Noah, the Platypus is building a Marxist ark that true believers will board in order to survive. They are dead serious about this as evidenced by their article On surviving the extinction of the Left.  Of course, it is a bit of a stretch to think in terms of a survivalism based on a set of ideas, for that after all that is what these young professors and graduate students have to offer, not an actual ark or anything else of material value.

My first encounter with a group of leftists trying to save the left from itself was back in 1996 when members of Syracuse University’s Revolutionary Marxist Collective (RMC), who published a campus newspaper called the Alternative Orange, showed up on the original Marxism list. These were graduate students who took their cue from a troika of professors: Mas’ud Zavarzadeh and Donald Morton at Syracuse, and Teresa L. Ebert at Albany State. They proposed that it was only they who understood Marxism and everybody else was an impostor. Modesty was not one of their virtues.

Like Chris Cutrone, a number of the RMC’ers had been members of the Spartacist League and had assimilated sectarian Trotskyist politics into academic jargon. Stephen Tumino, now a professor at the U. of Pittsburgh, really laid it on thick in an article titled What is Orthodox Marxism and Why it Matters Now More Than Ever Before:

Any effective political theory will have to do at least two things: it will have to offer an integrated understanding of social practices and, based on such an interrelated knowledge, offer a guideline for praxis. My main argument here is that among all contesting social theories now, only Orthodox Marxism has been able to produce an integrated knowledge of the existing social totality and provide lines of praxis that will lead to building a society free from necessity.

It is only Orthodox Marxism that explains socialism as an historical inevitability that is tied to the development of social production itself and its requirements. Orthodox Marxism makes socialism scientific because it explains how in the capitalist system, based on the private consumption of labor-power (competition), the objective tendency is to reduce the amount of time labor spends in reproducing itself (necessary labor) while expanding the amount of time labor is engaged in producing surplus-value (surplus-labor) for the capitalist through the introduction of machinery into the production process by the capitalists themselves to lower their own labor costs.

This article was written in 2001, when these people made their last attempt to present their ideas in a journal dedicated to their cause. Now they have been fully absorbed into bourgeois society.

My prediction is that the Platypus group will also have a very short shelf life since there is not much future in denouncing the rest of the left for having rotten politics. Unless you have a very big endowment like the Socialist Labor Party, you tend to go out of business rather quickly.

That being said, I believe that groups like the RMC, the Platypus and the Spartacists have a very important role to play nonetheless since they can serve as a pole of attraction for people like themselves who might mistakenly join a group like the ISO or Solidarity. If you think of the left in biological terms, the Platypus is something necessary for the healthy functioning of the body. I will leave to your imagination the part I am referring to.

Back in 1995, a couple of local NY professors named Randy Martin and Michael E. Brown wrote an article in “Socialism and Democracy” titled “Left Futures” that has some interesting insights (despite the convoluted academic prose it is wrapped in) that relates to all this, especially the following:

One of the more dramatic casualties of seeing the history of the left undialectically, exclusively in terms of failures which reflect dispositions built into socialist and communist politics, was a weakening of support on the part of many democratic socialists for the Cuban and Nicaraguan Revolutions, on the grounds that neither government was “democratic.” The principle of this rejection was undefineable as typically stated, and in no case was it or could it have been generalized rationally to other more favored nations. The judgment was, in that form, anti-historical and inconsistent with any notion of politics as a self-reflective and complexly mediated development of organization, consciousness, direction, definition, and power.

When we refer to this as a casualty, then, we mean that it is a casualty for the North American left’s understanding of itself: In particular for attempts to reconcile prescriptions for reforming that left with descriptions and analyses of what is happening elsewhere in the world. We are not claiming that particular cases should never be evaluated and criticized, but only that being judgmental in so categorical a way is inconsistent with respecting the types of non-institutional political processes which are inevitable as such under conditions which generate a left (including the left attempting to reform itself). Such a categorical attitude assumes as well that referring to historical conditions of those instances of social/political action which make it necessary and possible to reflect on further prospects of action is merely incidental to such reflections and, indeed, can only be disruptive of them.

The efforts to generate socialism within and against the global dominance of capital are recognizable along two dimensions. The first includes attempts, however fitful, deformed, or immature, to struggle for a social economy, for which the production of social life in general has priority over production for profit. The second includes all organizations in which the forms of participation–and their mediations–are conceivably consistent with the interdependence and forms of association which Marx referred to as the society of the producers beyond the producers of society. It follows that socialism and democracy are two aspects of the same politics as they are of the same theoretical problematic even when their expressions are historically compromised. It also follows that any process by which the left can be said to develop will be one which is as internally critical as it is externally articulate. From this point of view, the left’s future is, as always, now; and “now” is a distinctly historical present, both in its need to incorporate a past it nevertheless must transcend and in its need to recognize the activist, ideological, and theoretical elements which continue to constitute it despite the momentary desire of so many to redefine it beyond recognition and, apparently, beyond hope.

But this “now” is also a process of self-reflection and learning. For whether part of a distant and glorious past or an as yet unachieved future, an idealized conception of socialism–negative or positive–makes the future utterly obscure if only because practice, infinitely mediated as it can only be, is never perfectible. Therefore the idealist prospect of practical perfection can never be a basis from which to cross the utopian divide into a perfectly progressive state of being. Indeed, it can only render all present efforts as in perfect error. It is, as we hope we have shown, just such an implicitly negative utopian perspective which yields the current self-defeating desire for a yet newer, true left.

Amen.

(Contact me at lnp3@panix.com if you want to read the entire Martin-Brown “Left Futures” article.)

August 27, 2010

Restrepo

Filed under: Afghanistan,antiwar — louisproyect @ 10:11 pm

(A guest post by Dan DiMaggio)

The War in Afghanistan Hits Home: Michael Enright, Restrepo, and the Heart of Darkness

By Dan DiMaggio

On Tuesday, 21-year old Michael Enright stabbed a New York City cab driver because he was Muslim. Enright grew up in upstate Brewster, New York, the town next to mine, in an overwhelmingly white and conservative county that was the only one east of the Hudson River won by John McCain in 2008. He just recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, where he was embedded with a group of soldiers who he was making a film about for his senior thesis.

There has been a concerted attempt to distance Enright’s crime from the Islamophobia being whipped up by the right wing. James Taranto, editor of the Wall Street Journal’s online editorial page, actually claimed it’s “a plausible theory” that Enright really stabbed the cab driver as part of his own personal left-wing conspiracy to “advance the narrative that America is filled with anti-Muslim bigots whose hatred is behind the opposition to the Ground Zero mosque.” Yet the Daily News reports a police source divulged they found a journal belonging to Enright calling Muslims “killers, ungrateful for the help they were being offered, filthy murderers without a conscience.” Presumably this was all part of his master plan, according to Taranto.

It seems more likely, though, that whatever Enright saw in Afghanistan had a severe impact on him. He said he was making his film, titled “Home of the Brave” (see trailer at: ), because he “realized there’s never been an introspective look into what it’s like being an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old soldier … They grow up really fast, and also they’re still young and youthful. I thought that could be a really interesting story”.

It does make for an interesting story – but Enright was not alone in seeking to document it. Restrepo, a 2010 documentary by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, does what Enright claims he hoped to do. Their film provides an insightful glimpse of the transformation of U.S. soldiers over the course of the war – a transformation that at times resembles scenes from the Heart of Darkness. Enright himself was clearly not immune to this process.

Junger and Hetherington say they aimed to make “a documentary that does not contain political commentary and is purely experiential … We wanted to give people the experience of what it’s really like [in Afghanistan].” Because Restrepo lacks the usual devices found in Hollywood glamorizations of war, Junger says, “We’ve been told our movie has no commercial value”. Yet it is of major value in helping to understand a war little understood by most Americans, despite the presence of 100,000 U.S. troops there and growing media attention, Afghanistan, and the war there, remain little understood by most Americans. WikiLeaks’ recent release of 92,000 pages of documents should help, but for those looking for a more concise accounting of the futility of this war (and its possible impact on people like Enright), Restrepo is highly recommended.

Junger and Hetherington “embedded” themselves with a single company during their tour in the Korengal Valley, one of the areas which has seen the most fighting, in 2007. While there is much that is unique about the Korengal, it also serves as a microcosm of the entire war effort in Afghanistan, in particular the experience of U.S. soldiers there.

Although this is now the longest war in U.S. history, Afghanistan is still a far-off locale of which almost all Americans are ignorant. One soldier recounts how he heard monkeys howling the first night, and could not sleep because he thought it was the Taliban, pressing close. While the troops eventually become more accustomed to this environment, the people of Afghanistan, in whose interests this war is supposedly being fought, remain a seemingly impenetrable mystery. One of the film’s shortcomings is its limited portrayal of the experience of ordinary Afghans, but their sparse appearance serves to highlight the soldiers’ alienation from Afghan society.

Most of the Afghans we see are village elders who arrive for weekly “shuras” (councils) with U.S. military officers. These appear to routinely descend into farces, with U.S. officers treating the elders like children, a characteristic behavior of more “civilized” colonial occupiers. The officers promise the elders that “we will make you richer” by flooding the Korengal with roads, jobs, and health care if they cooperate in rooting out “the bad guys” (the Taliban). The Afghans respond, “You kill the enemy, that’s okay – but our concern is that you’re killing ordinary people on their land.”

In an astounding display of imperial arrogance, the leading U.S. officer, who took over from an apparently even more brutal commander named McKnight (whose watch resulted in many prisoners in Bagram and scores of civilians dead), asks that they “wipe the slate clean” and give the U.S. a fresh start. Can you imagine the Afghan elders – or the Taliban, for that matter – asking the U.S. to “wipe the slate clean” for 9/11, for which they were not even responsible? It also baffles the mind to see U.S. officers assume that the best way to win over Afghans is through bribery, which might help explain why they have found their best allies among the warlords who have made immense profits off the occupation (mirroring the American warlords running Halliburton and Blackwater), while the Taliban at times gains support for at least having some sort of moral code.

Afghans have seen more than enough over the past 9 years to know that no change in command will result in any meaningful differences in the war or their lives. Indeed, one of the first operations carried out under the new command in the Korengal results in 5 “enemy” dead, along with 10 women and children. More recently, at the national level, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has even appeared on national TV in Afghanistan to apologize for the deaths of civilians – yet all the while, the death toll continues to increase under his watch, with the official count of civilian casualties up 31 percent over the past year. Military officials profess shock when Afghans blame the occupying forces as much, if not more, than the Taliban for these casualties – as if the Afghans had asked U.S. and NATO forces to come occupy their country, or as if grief and outrage followed the simple laws of arithmetic. Somehow, by the twisted logic of the U.S. military, the Taliban – and now WikiLeaks – are to blame for the violence in Afghanistan, rather than the U.S. government.

These are necessary imperial fantasies, to go along with the idea that U.S. can somehow manage to win over Afghan hearts and minds, at the same time as bombing wedding parties and conducting nighttime raids on homes. The cynical wisdom of the soldiers in Restrepo at times bursts through this charade. Reminiscing about home, one soldier tells another about his family’s ranch, the charm of which he struggles to describe, ultimately settling on defining it as a place with a lot of land where you can go hunting. “Just like here [in the Korengal],” the other responds. “Yeah, but we’re not hunting animals, we’re hunting people here,” sighs the soldier with the ranch. “Hearts and minds!” concludes the other.

It’s chilling to watch the process of dehumanization at work among the troops. As they see their friends killed or severely wounded, as they are continually shot at, as any hopes of winning over the support of the local population seem to disappear, the frustration and anger grows, along with a desire to avenge the deaths of their fellow soldiers. In a Heart of Darkness moment, some of the soldiers report that they get excited when Taliban forces come close, because they yearn to see the faces of those they are killing.

This takes a toll psychologically, as the filmmakers chronicle through post-combat interviews at a military base in Italy. It hurts to see Cortez, a good, light-hearted soldier, always smiling, explain, through an awkward grin, how he is incapable of sleeping, preferring to stay awake rather than see his friends die again in his nightmares. The soldiers in Restrepo suffer an understandable pessimism about being able to re-integrate into society. The film helps provide a glimpse into why a record 245 Army members killed themselves in 2009 (and a monthly record of 32 committed suicide in June 2010). One wonders whether similar psychological processes occurred for Michael Enright, leading him to stab the Muslim New York City cabbie. No one emerges from these wars the same, and for all the talk about winning hearts and minds in the Islamic world, the war has done much to continue to fan the flames of Islamophobia in the U.S.

What is all this for? Why does the U.S. have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan? Restrepo does not deal with this question. The single point it does drive home is the absolute futility of the war in Afghanistan. As the film ends, the screen reports that for all the efforts of these soldiers, the U.S. was forced to withdraw from the Korengal in April 2010. As the Washington Post reported, “A new set of commanders concluded that the United States had blundered into a blood feud with fierce and clannish villagers who wanted, above all, to be left alone. By this logic, subduing the Korengal wasn’t worth the cost in American blood.” Eventually, no matter how many troops are sent to Afghanistan, no matter how many drones are flown, and no matter how many billions are spent, the U.S. will be forced to draw the same conclusion on a national scale.

Why, then, does this war continue, if it’s doomed to failure? Because the U.S. cannot just admit defeat without doing major damage to its military prestige and its ability to boss around the rest of the world. Because the U.S. political system is dominated by cowards who are more than willing to sacrifice lives for votes – the leaders of the Democratic Party must not allow themselves to be outhawked by the Republicans, must pose as vigorous and responsible defenders of the empire, in order to continue to reel in big money donations and the fawning praise of the corporate media. Because Afghanistan, for all its remoteness, is located in a strategic area of the globe – not only does it border Pakistan, it also borders China, Iran, and the resource-rich former Soviet republics. The Bush administration launched the war initially not just as a display of U.S. power, but also as a brazen attempt to establish a foothold in areas formerly securely locked in the Russian sphere of influence.

The mainstream media continues its claims that the war is really about helping the Afghan people, or about eliminating Al-Qaeda. Time Magazine recently featured a front-cover picture of a woman who had her nose cut off by the Taliban, with the title “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.” The NY Times, in its latest editorial on “The State of the War in Afghanistan,” repeats the fantasy that this war is going to stop Al-Qaeda, and says the U.S. would also do enormous damage to its moral and strategic standing if it now simply abandoned the Afghan people to the Taliban’s brutalities.” Yet as the South Asia Solidarity Initiative writes, “In its nine long years, the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan has done nothing to improve the conditions for people in Afghanistan, especially for women… There has been a general increase in violence and civilian deaths because of occupation. By 2009, the U.N. human development index ranked Afghanistan 181 out of 182 countries. The maternal mortality rate in Afghanistan reveals the highest ever documented.. .The United States has consistently chosen the side of fundamentalist allies at the expense of Afghan women, and has always sought its own gains in the region.” You can imagine the Taliban’s counter to the NY Times – “The Taliban would do enormous damage to its moral and strategic standing if it simply abandoned the country to U.S. brutalities.”

What then, is to be done? Unfortunately, the anti-war movement has all but disappeared. Even the WikiLeaks revelations have generated almost no response, aside from some important but small demonstrations in defense of Private Bradley Manning. In response to the Obama administration’s recent attacks on the “professional left,” the most prominent anti-war politician, Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich, just pledged not to run against the president in the 2012 presidential primaries, because, he said, “What we have to do is focus on coming together for the purposes of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan.” As if pledging unconditional support to Obama, the man responsible for escalating the war in Afghanistan, instead of threatening to run against him for his pro-war policies, is a good strategy for ending the wars. It feels as if the anti-war left has never been in more of a state of demoralization and disarray. And yet opposition to the war is at an all-time high, at 43 percent in the most recent USA Today/Gallup poll (8/3/10).

There is really no shortcut to ending the wars other than rebuilding a powerful anti-war movement, from the bottom-up. This means starting or revitalizing anti-war organizations (such as Bradley Manning defense committees), organizing speaking tours of anti-war vets or prominent anti-war journalists, writing letters to the editor, passing out leaflets, developing websites, writing songs and poems and organizing fundraising concerts, collecting petition signatures to demand politicians stop funding the war, running independent, anti-war candidates for office (who will not get sucked into the quagmire of the two-party system), taking a stand against Islamophobia like the campaign against the Ground Zero mosque, and linking up with other social movements, from immigrant rights to the movement to defend education.

But it can start with something as simple as going to see Restrepo, and telling your friends about it.

August 26, 2010

War Don Don

Filed under: Africa — louisproyect @ 3:20 pm

Once again, HBO defies the ideological consensus of the liberal media, including PBS. Just a week ago, the premium cable network aired a documentary that had the audacity to portray a Maoist combatant in Nepal in a favorable light. Now it has scheduled (Wednesday , September 29, 8pm) a documentary about a war crimes trial in Sierra Leone that dares to ask the question whether justice was being served, even if chief prosecutors—Americans one and all—are cocksure in their conviction that it was.

War Don Don (Sierra Leone pigeon for “The war is over”), was directed by Rebecca Richman Cohen, a former law student who was part of the defense team for a man accused of war crimes in Sierra Leone. She soon learned about the trial of  Issa Sesay, a military leader of the RUF, a rebel group infamous for amputating the limbs of civilians and other atrocities. The film begins with David Crane, one of the chief prosecutors, describing his duty in Manichean terms:

…This is a tale of horror, beyond the gothic into the realm of Dante’s inferno…. These dogs of war, these hounds from hell… These were the leaders, the commanders of an army of evil, a corps of destroyers and a brigade of executioners bent on the criminal takeover of Sierra Leone, once the Athens of West Africa. Today, due to these indictees, a sodden backwater, marred and broken, lapping against the shores of civilization.

When I was giving my opening statement, I can remember looking directly at Issa Sesay. I didn’t see anything. It’s the first time in my life that I actually looked into the eyes of a human being and realized they have no soul. The hairs on the back of my neck actually bristled. From my point of view it was almost a religious experience.

Slowly but surely, we learn that Issa Sesay was anything but what Crane described. The tribunal was unable to establish any link between him and the atrocities. Furthermore, the film makes fairly clear that the RUF was not organized on a chain of command basis. This was a rebel movement that contained both freedom fighters and common criminals. Despite Crane’s dogmatic assertion that the movement was nothing more than a criminal enterprise, the film supplies evidence that it was corruption, dictatorship and poverty that created the conditions that led to the formation of the RUF.

War Don Don makes a good companion piece to Philippe Diaz’s The Empire in Africa,  a penetrating analysis of how British and American money interests, particularly in the diamond trade, led to the civil war with its tragic consequences. This movie is available from Netflix and highly recommended.

The moral posturing of people like David Crane is all the more disgusting in light of the war crimes associated with the “war on terror” over the past 9 years or so. Ironically, the Americans were able to convict a top commander of the RUF for crimes that were out of his control, while there has never been a top member of the American military brass in Iraq or Afghanistan who has been court martialed for the crimes of men and women who were under their control. As has been the case since WWII, war crimes tribunals are only carried out by the victors, not the losers. Crane previously held the post of director of the Office of Intelligence Review in the Pentagon, something that surely qualified him for being put on trial rather than serving as a prosecutor in a war crimes tribunal.

The chief defense counsel was Wayne Jordash, a British attorney of African descent who believes:

You have to have some empathy with the human condition… If everything seems hopeless, if you seem so poor, if there is no prospect of becoming richer so that you can support your family and provide yourself with the basics, then the choice between picking up a gun or remaining in the dust, I’m not sure that should be so difficult for people to understand.

At some point in the movie, he stresses the need to get away from good-evil dichotomies in understanding what happened in Sierra Leone, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the dichotomy does apply to a side-by-side comparison between him and David Crane.

The kangaroo court in Sierra Leone cost the USA 225 million dollars, much of which went to paying off witnesses for the prosecution. It continues now with the prosecution of Liberia’s Charles Taylor, who like Slobodan Milosevic or Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, functions in the demonology of Western media  fixated on such individuals in a manner reminiscent of the “minute of hate” in Orwell’s 1984.

One of the people most associated with this demonization project is the Hollywood celebrity Mia Farrow who has been testifying in the trial of Charles Taylor. Her testimony against the model Naomi Campbell, who supposedly received diamonds from Taylor (he is accused of buying guns with the proceeds of diamond smuggling), has made a big splash in the gossip columns of newspapers around the world.

I recommend that my readers have a look at what I wrote about Ms. Farrow (and her son) in a post titled Darfur, microcredit loan-sharks and Woody Allen’s creepy son Subsequent to writing this article, I learned that she advocated hiring the infamous Blackwater Corporation, guilty of countless war crimes in Iraq, to intervene in Darfur. Such are the blind spots of American liberalism that such an outrageous suggestion can be made. Of course, that is what happens when you live in the heartland of imperialism. You lose the capacity to think critically and begin to operate on the basis of jungle savagery. Beneath the pieties of a David Crane or a Mia Farrow are the fangs of a viper.

Put “War Don Don” on your calendar if you have HBO or know a friend who does. It is not to be missed.

August 25, 2010

El Judío Maravilloso

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

From Jewish Roots in Brooklyn, a Sizzling Salsa Star

Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Larry Harlow, known as “El Judío Maravilloso” (“The Marvelous Jew”), conducting rehearsals.

By LARRY ROHTER

Little in Larry Harlow’s lineage suggested that he would someday become one of the most important figures in the history of salsa. But for more than 40 years now, Mr. Harlow has been affectionately known in the Latin music world as “El Judío Maravilloso” (“the marvelous Jew”), a pianist, songwriter, producer and arranger with an unerring feeling for clave, Latin music’s five-stroke beat, and an ear for hits.

Mr. Harlow helped create the Fania Records sound that came to define salsa and also discovered and shaped the careers of many of the genre’s top stars, like the singer Ismael Miranda. His own work for the label ranges from snappy dance numbers like “La Cartera,” “Señor Sereno” and “Abran Paso,” to an ambitious suite called “La Raza Latina,” which was recorded in 1977 and will be performed live for the first time on Saturday night by a 40-piece orchestra as part of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival.

“Larry is a gringo with clave, who understands and respects our music, but also knows how to be innovative,” said the singer and actor Rubén Blades, who early in his career sang with Mr. Harlow’s band and will be the featured singer in Saturday’s free show. “Most of the people at Fania, no matter what their age, could be very conservative. But Larry came in with an open mind and renovated the format, adding new ingredients, new chords, new instruments, and that created enthusiasm and led to tremendous success for a lot of people, including me.”

Born Lawrence Ira Kahn, Mr. Harlow, 71, comes from a family of musicians with roots in Brooklyn. His mother, Rose Sherman, was an opera singer; a grandfather played piano for silent films and in the Yiddish theater; and his father, a vaudevillian and orchestra leader who used the stage name Buddy Harlowe, for many years led the house band at the Latin Quarter nightclub, run by Barbara Walters’s father, Lou.

“I was brought up backstage there,” said Mr. Harlow, who adopted his father’s stage name in a slightly altered form. “When I was a kid, 10 or 11 years old, Barbara and I used to sit in the booth next to the spotlight, and we saw every show that came in there, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Joe E. Brown, Sophie Tucker.”

When he was about 5, he began studying piano. But Mr. Harlow says his fascination with Latin music began as a teenager, when he would “hear this strange music coming out of the bodegas and the mom-and-pop record stores and the bars” as he walked to his classes at the High School of Music and Art on West 135th Street in Hamilton Heights.

From there it was just a short step to joining Latin dance bands that played the five boroughs during the school year and the Catskills mambo circuit in the summer. He enrolled at Brooklyn College but eventually took off for Havana, where he attended music classes by day and hung out in clubs and dance halls at night.

During that sojourn in the late 1950s, “I became salsified, totally absorbed into the Latin culture,” he said. “The music wasn’t called salsa yet, but I became an Afro-Cuban nut, just studying the history and the old photographs and going to see Beny Moré, Orquesta Riverside and all those people in person.”

Returning to New York just as Fidel Castro came to power, he resumed playing as a sideman until forming his own orchestra, which had a distinctively brassy sound that paired trumpets and trombones with his percussive piano. When Fania Records was founded in 1964, the Dominican bandleader Johnny Pacheco, the label’s co-founder, was searching for new talent, saw Mr. Harlow’s band and immediately signed him to a contract.

“The first thing I noticed was that he really knew how to play Latin music,” Mr. Pacheco recalled this week. “He had the band set up, and they were pretty tight, but when he took a solo, that’s when he really got me. He used to take incredible solos. You could tell he had really listened to Peruchín and all those guys in Cuba. The scales he used to play, I was flabbergasted. He really was El Judío Maravilloso.”

During his years at Fania Mr. Harlow made more than 40 albums under his own name and produced about 200 more for other artists signed to the label. He and Mr. Pacheco played together in the Fania All-Stars supergroup, at sites as large as Yankee Stadium, and also oversaw the making of “Our Latin Thing,” the 1972 documentary film that took Fania-style salsa to a global audience.

“He became a pillar,” Mr. Pacheco said. “He was very good in the studio. He had the knowledge of the music, he could write, he worked fast, and he knew how to sit behind the controls and get the best out of guys, even if they didn’t have experience and had never recorded before.”

With a “salsa opera” called “Hommy,” Mr. Harlow helped revive the career of the singer Celia Cruz. He also led campaigns for musicians’ rights, paying for an audit of Fania’s books when he suspected that he was being cheated of royalties, and for Latin music to be given greater recognition at the Grammy Awards, which resulted in his receiving a lifetime achievement award from the organization in 2008.

“More than anyone else, Larry Harlow is responsible for the Latin Grammy” awards, said Aurora Flores, who covered the salsa scene for Billboard magazine at the height of the Fania era, wrote the liner notes for Mr. Harlow’s “Greatest Hits” CD and now leads the salsa band Zon del Barrio. “Because of his persistence and his tenacity, our music was no longer relegated to the general ethnic category, where we were competing with Eskimos.”

Mr. Harlow’s fascination with all things Cuban also led to his immersion in the religion known in English as Santeria. He has been a santero, or Santeria priest, for many years, and though he plays down its importance, joking that his mother used to say that dressing in the all-white vestments of that office made him “look like Mister Softee,” it gives him credibility and perhaps even inspires a certain apprehension among his colleagues.

“I gained a lot of respect,” Mr. Harlow said. “People didn’t mess with me anymore, I got accepted, and I also protected myself from whatever outside influences there are. It was, ‘If you’re going to mess with me, I’ll mess with you right back.’ ”

In recent years Mr. Harlow has toured as the leader of the Latin Legends band. Occasionally he also plays or records with a much younger generation of musicians who have grown up hearing his records and admire his eclectic approach, like the alternative-rock group Mars Volta.

“I grew up with rock ’n’ roll, but college is when a lot of us Latinos discovered our roots, and Harlow was there for us as we were doing that,” said Agustín Gurza, a Los Angeles music critic and historian who wrote the liner notes for a remastered and just-reissued recording of the bilingual “Raza Latina” suite. “He brought some of that rock style and sensibility that was easy for us to relate to. With his long hair, panache and showmanship, he made the music sound fresh and feel hip, so that it was cool to be a salsa fan.”

But esteem for Mr. Harlow may be highest among the musicians who continue to play salsa. Bobby Sanabria, the percussionist and music educator who will be playing drums at Saturday’s show, is 18 years younger than Mr. Harlow and remembers that when he was in high school in the early 1970s, the talk in the lunchroom often turned to Mr. Harlow’s latest record.

“Larry’s music and influence are still all over the place,” he said. “Whenever you see albums that say ‘produced by Larry Harlow,’ you know they are going to sound pristine and powerful, with clarity in the voice and horns and the percussion up front. That’s the prototypical New York sound, and that’s because of Larry.”

(NY Times, 8/14/2010)

August 24, 2010

Defamation is on Youtube

Filed under: middle east — louisproyect @ 7:32 pm

This first-rate documentary that I reviewed at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/11/20/defamation/ can now be seen online in its entirety. It is basically a profile on Norman Finkelstein and Abraham Foxman. Despite the fact that the director is Israeli, he is more sympathetic to Finkelstein.

Rumbling in the Communist Party ranks

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 6:44 pm

Impressions of the CPUSA convention Written by A Group of Delegates

Editor’s note: a number of delegates to the recent CPUSA convention have forwarded to MLToday the following document, reflecting their considered, collective opinion of the 29th CPUSA Convention.

Many friends and comrades have asked us: what really happened at the CPUSA Convention on May 21-23, eleven weeks ago, at Party headquarters in New York City?

So far, there are only the self-congratulatory appraisals, one by Party chair Sam Webb and another by his supporter John Case. Both are champions of the social reformist trend in the Party.

In the view of the Communist (that is, the Marxist-Leninist) wing of the CPUSA, however, the May 21-23, 2010 convention was a disaster. We see the Convention as a scandalous retreat from the US Party’s honorable history of principled struggle. The Convention was a retreat from socialism, class struggle, political independence, and internationalism. The Convention gave up ground on the fight against racism, imperialism, and monopoly.

It was not a convention rich in substance. What little substance there was, was objectionable, and came in the Main Report and the Composite Resolutions, which are available in full at www.cpusa.org/a-way-out-of-the-deepening-crisis/ and http://www.cpusa.org/29th-national-convention/.

The Main Report

Sam Webb’s report could have been written by any liberal. When his followers dutifully referred to it as “brilliant,” many a delegate could barely believe it.

It is known that one or more members of the National Board (NB) urged Sam Webb to take into account preconvention discussion critical of his line. He refused, calling such criticism the outpouring of a “small minority.” In the old days many ideas in preconvention discussion — even if critical of the leadership — would have been taken into account and discussed in the Main Report. That did not happen this time.

His Main Report is full of Straw Men deployed against his left critics in the Party. Skillful at writing opportunist double talk, Webb can compose sentences that, to the unwary reader, sound like common sense. Read more closely, however, his formulations throw open the door through which have marched the reformism, tailism, and American Exceptionalism that are aggravating the crisis in the CPUSA. For example:

Enclosing him [Obama] in a narrowly defined, tightly sealed political category – as many on the left and right do – is a mistake…it also goes in the direction of pitting the president against the working class and the people. That the right does this is no surprise. But when left and progressive people do it, it is wrong strategically and thus extremely harmful politically.

Read full: http://mltoday.com/en/subject-areas/communist-forum/impressions-of-the-cpusa-convention-914-2.html

The Housing Question

Filed under: financial crisis,housing — louisproyect @ 3:45 pm

Thousands of people hoping to get federal housing assistance fill the Tri-Cities Plaza in East Point, Ga., on Wednesday. Sixty were taken to hospitals as a result of scuffles and sweltering heat at the shopping center

Among the “entitlements” targeted by the ruling class today is home ownership, something that had been elevated to the same plane as motherhood, the American flag and apple pie in the 1950s. But lately the same kind of “concern” over social security going broke has been mounting for this quintessential symbol of the “American system”.

Robert J. Samuelson wrote about How a homeownership fetish hurt the American dream in the August 23rd Washington Post. Odd to see such a cherished goal likened to leather, bikini underwear and stiletto heels. He states:

In an ideal world, we would discard failed policies. We would trim or end the mortgage-interest tax deduction. We would curtail the GSEs’ loans and guarantees (the promise to repay mortgages that default). The consequences need not be dire. The homeownership rate, already down to 67 percent from its 2004-06 peak of 69 percent, would probably stabilize in the mid-60s. People would save more for down payments. Mortgage rates might rise a bit.

The GSE’s are Government Sponsored Enterprises, namely Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, that have made cheap credit available, while the mortgage interest tax deduction is one of the primary incentives for buying rather than renting a home. From what I have heard over the years, including from the late Peter Camejo who was my informal financial adviser for a time in the early 80s, this mortgage deduction amounts to found money. At the time I was living in Mitchell-Lama subsidized housing so it didn’t matter that much to me. Now that the subsidy has ended and I am paying $2450 per month, I am more inclined to think about buying something—just when that found money might disappear. Aw, shucks.

The Wall Street Journal reported more or less the same thing on the 20th:

A consensus seems to be forming among policy makers on Capitol Hill: Housing subsidies need to be reduced over the next handful of years.

However, some legislative observers are worried about what that will mean for affordable rental homes.

“I think we’ve not paid close enough attention to rental housing and the advantages of that,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

“Not everyone can or should have a single-family home, and I think government should think more clearly about how it can help with respect to rental housing,” he said.

The matter of rental units came up during a forum on housing finance and the role of government on Tuesday.

Reading such articles summons up the image of a time machine. The pages of a calendar peel off as we head back to the 1930s and earlier, long before New Deal programs convinced working people that American society was the best thing that ever happened to them.

The goal of the ruling class appears to turn the clock back to the pre-WWI period when housing was intended primarily for the well-heeled. In Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen’s invaluable “Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened”, the story of the transformation of home ownership is laid out in popularly written but Marxist terms. (Some of the book can be read on Google.)

Unlike programs such as social security or Medicare, affordable housing would benefit both bosses and workers. That at least was the argument of enlightened segments of the bourgeoisie, including Edward Filene, the founder of the famous Boston department store where I worked briefly in 1973.

In 1925 Filene wrote a book titled “The Way Out” that proposed solutions to what he considered a wasteful class struggle, including a Fordist approach to housing. He urged that houses become as cheap as the Model A, using the technology of the factory floor (Filene believed in Frederick Taylor’s principles) applied to home building. His belief in mass-produced goods and consumption is just the sort of thing that Gramsci analyzed in his prison writings.

Despite fitful attempts to fulfill Filene’s vision, home ownership in the 1920s remained an elite privilege. It was only in the 1930s that the government got involved in making this a reality for the masses. As was the case across the board, the New Deal approach to housing was Keynesian rather than socialist. Construction was seen as a way to stimulate the economy. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) founded in 1934 was the primary tool to grease the wheels of a stalled economy. The FHA promoted home ownership through low-interest, 30 year mortgages now deemed counter-productive by pundits in the bourgeois press.

Alongside the FHA, the New Deal also established public housing projects of the sort that were more familiar in the European social democracy through the Public Works Administration (PWA). These projects were often co-sponsored by trade unions, such as the Carl Mackley development in Philadelphia that was supervised by Catherine Bauer, the executive director of the AFL. It had swimming pools, tennis courts and a library.

As might be expected, the Republican Party was hostile to such initiatives. After WWII, the USA was at a crossroads. There was a huge housing shortage, affecting many of the soldiers who had risked their lives in Europe and the Pacific. Something had to be done but there were ideological differences about how to do it.

These differences came to a head in Senate hearings on the housing shortage run by the infamous red-baiter Joe McCarthy in 1947 and 1948. Best known for his fascist-like attack on the CPUSA, McCarthy was also determined to block any government program that smacked of “socialism”, including housing like the Carl Mackley project.

Early in the hearings he toured the Rego Park Veterans Housing Project in Queens, NY which he described as “a deliberately created slum area, at federal expense…a breeding ground for communists.” Despite his ultraright politics, McCarthy opted for a solution not that much different from that embodied in Edward Filene’s book and in the FHA, namely a partnership between government and private industry that would kill two birds with one stone: satisfy the yearnings for home ownership by the workers and corporate profits.

McCarthy intimidated witnesses favoring public housing in the hearings just as he would bully Communists in a couple of years. But Anne Alpern, solicitor general for the city of Pittsburgh, used her ten minutes to defend a perspective that is under siege once again today:

I think of Washington not as some foreign power, but as a part of our democracy; and by working together we can establish a better government… We require central planning and that’s what we have in Washington… I believe in a democracy. People are entitled to the right to live and in that is the right to live decently.

The New Deal FHA became the chief instrument through which low-cost housing became available to the working class, but without any commitment to the underlying egalitarian values that some new dealers espoused. This was an FHA that was much closer to the sensibilities of Harry Truman, a red-baiter himself who was after all the sponsor of the first Cold War anti-Communist legislation that Joe McCarthy would use as a basis for further purges.

According to Baxandall and Ewen, this was a FHA that tolerated shoddy housing consisting of “small rooms, crackpot prefab schemes, and shacks resembling emergency war housing.” The home builders associations sided with the FHA and against the public, including the Lustrom Corporation, builders of factory-produced houses made of metal (!) that were lauded in company literature written by Joe McCarthy himself.

With the expansion of the American economy and a steady increase in wages, workers were able to buy bigger and better homes through the use of 30 year, low interest mortgages and a tax break on interest payments. The purchase of houses fueled the economy and everything went swimmingly well until 2008 when the economy ran into a brick wall. Instead of figuring out a way to maintain the standard of living of the American working class, the people who run society are figuring out ways to support the extravagant life style of the people on top—to hell with the people on the bottom as these two items would demonstrate:

EAST POINT, Ga.—The weak economy has expanded the ranks of people chasing the limited number of federal housing vouchers, leading to a surge in applications nationwide and chaotic scenes here this week.

Sixty people were taken to hospitals Wednesday in this Atlanta suburb after a lengthy wait and an angry mob scene in a sweltering shopping-center parking lot. Those treated for heat exposure and injuries from scuffles were among 30,000 people who had lined up for a waiting list for just 455 vouchers to cover part of their rent.

Some camped out for nearly three days in temperatures that neared 100 degrees, including pregnant women, elderly in wheelchairs and people who drove down from New York City and Philadelphia, hoping to get on the waiting list in East Point for Housing Choice, or Section 8, vouchers.

The number of public housing units and vouchers has fallen in the past decade, as public housing blocks have been torn down, costs have risen and federal budgets have stayed flat. Waiting lists for vouchers in most major U.S. cities have been closed in recent years.

Those who make it onto the lists often have to wait for eight to 10 years to receive a voucher, which is a guarantee that a local housing authority will pay a portion of the tenant’s rent directly to the landlord. High unemployment and rising rents have made these vouchers even more of a precious commodity.

Read full: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703321004575427712156175190.html

NY Times July 28, 2010
Conan O’Brien Sells Duplex for $25 Million
By ELIZABETH A. HARRIS

CONAN O’BRIEN has more than 1.24 million followers on Twitter. (As a frame of reference, the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has about 6,900.) His Twitter bio reads, “I had a show. Then I had a different show. Now I have a Twitter account.”

Mr. O’Brien also had a sprawling duplex in the Majestic, the Art Deco co-op building at 115 Central Park West — but not anymore.

That apartment was just sold to David M. Zaslav, the chief executive of Discovery Communications, for $25 million, one of the highest prices paid for a Manhattan apartment this year.

Onward and upward, Coco!

The apartment was listed with John Burger, a managing director of Brown Harris Stevens, for $29.5 million. Chris Poore, a senior vice president of the Corcoran Group, represented the buyer.

Mr. Burger said he was not authorized to discuss the transaction, and Mr. Poore could not comment either. But according to people with knowledge of the deal, Mr. Zaslav is getting a fully furnished apartment with seven bedrooms, eight-and-a-half bathrooms and three terraces.

Mr. O’Brien was the host of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” for 16 years before moving to Los Angeles for a brief but dramatic stint as the host of “The Tonight Show.” That arrangement dissolved early this year, and Mr. O’Brien walked away with a $45 million settlement, some $33 million for himself and the rest for his staff.

Later this year, he’ll start a new show on TBS.

Further reading: http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2007/07/27/the-housing-question/

August 20, 2010

Don’t let the bedbugs bite

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 5:55 pm

About 3 or 4 months ago I ran into R., a Columbia University librarian who had been reassigned to a much more stressful position under the impact of budget cuts. R., something of a kidder, was in a bleak mood. He hated his new job and complained about a number of illnesses associated with growing old—he is about the same age as me. But worst of all, he had been devastated by a bedbug invasion of his apartment that had forced him to get rid of many of his belongings. He sounded practically suicidal.

I was reminded of R. recently when I got an email on the New York Film Critics Online listserv about a press screening being moved to a new location. The original one—AMC 25 near Times Square—had been closed because of bedbug infestation as AP reported:

Bedbugs have attacked a popular movie theater in Times Square as New York battles the persistent pests. The AMC Empire 25 in Times Square was sprayed overnight and reopened Wednesday. A guest at the AMC Magic Johnson Harlem 9 theater also reported a bite in late July.

Spokesman Justin Scott said all AMC theaters in Manhattan were inspected. He said the chain takes every report seriously and acts to ensure the health of guests and employees.

Unlike some other calamities that are visited disproportionately on the poor, the bedbug does not make class distinctions as a New York Magazine article pointed out:

Margaret is an attractive woman, mid-thirtyish, possessed of all the happier contradictions of 21st-century noblesse. She’s elegant yet unpretentious; driven but in a laid-back sort of way. You would recognize her surname. Her husband, she says, laughing, “is one of those vilified bankers.” She is a career woman herself, expert in the field of marketing with a wealth of international experience, proficient in several languages, speaking mainly French to her young son. Her family’s apartment is in the East Eighties. It is large, immaculate, and well appointed. Margaret, barefoot, wiggles her toes as she sits beneath a Richard Serra. Works by other notable modernists hang elsewhere.

Margaret and her family moved here from Tribeca last fall. The place was just what they wanted—newly renovated and much closer to their 4-year-old son’s school. But within a few weeks, Margaret’s son (let’s call him James) woke up with welts on his chest. Margaret wasn’t alarmed; she figured it was a rash or virus, the kind of thing kids get every day. But when the welts lingered, then more showed up—on James’s back and arms and legs—Margaret took him to the pediatrician. The doctor initially regarded the marks as an atypical form of chicken pox. In the following weeks, however, after James’s welts became infected and began appearing in still more places, Margaret took him to a pediatric dermatologist. That doctor diagnosed the problem as mosquito bites, and recommended the family “bomb” the apartment. Not long after, Margaret and her husband began noticing that they, too, had bites. That’s when Margaret inspected her son’s bed. “I saw these minuscule black creatures,” she says. “I’m squeamish, but I reached out and squashed one. It was filled with my son’s blood. And they were all over. I turned the headboard around and saw all the eggs. At which point I screamed.” Margaret did some Internet research, then called an entomologist. When the bug expert conveyed his conclusion to Margaret, she was horrified, disgusted, and not a little concerned for her family. And although she is no snob, Margaret couldn’t repress an uncomfortable thought: that people who live in multimillion-dollar apartments in the tonier precincts of the Upper East Side are just not supposed to have bedbugs.

Some blame the outbreak of bedbugs on immigration. A November 27, 2005 NY Times article stated:

In the bedbug resurgence, entomologists and exterminators blame increased immigration from the developing world, the advent of cheap international travel and the recent banning of powerful pesticides.

VDARE, the anti-immigration website, has an article on bedbugs with this bit of nativist trash:

So, I would suggest that it is not a coincidence that bed bugs have returned with a vengeance in  Southern California, with its millions of  poor immigrants, living sometimes three or four families to a dwelling and going out daily to clean our  hotels, and motels and our wealthier private homes.

In terms of international travel, perhaps it is the globe-trotting wealthy who are more to blame than the poor, citing the New York Magazine article once again:

Insisting that there’s not a problem—that bedbugs only happen to other people—may actually contribute to the problem. The longer you avoid the issue, the more the bugs proliferate. The number of large, multi-unit apartment buildings is another factor, Eisenberg says—it’s easy for the bugs to hop from one apartment to the next. He also says travel may make well-heeled families uniquely susceptible to infestation, as families jet around the globe and carry back bloodthirsty hitchhikers.

Catherine and her family live in the East Seventies (like Margaret, Catherine doesn’t want her real name used). Her family’s problem started about two years ago. “I noticed some marks on my arm,” she says. “Then we went to the Caribbean, and when we got there, I noticed bites on my baby’s face.” When the family got back home, Catherine noticed dark dots on her baby’s bed. Her pediatrician recognized the bites right away. “Do you want the real nitty-gritty disgustingness?” she asks, referring to her daughter’s bed. “The dark dots were the bugs going to the bathroom. It was excrement. You could also see drops of blood. When you move, the bugs think you’ll discover them—so they spit out the blood and run.”

The other thing you hear in media reports is how the ban on DDT is to blame. In a variation on the dubious sympathy for Africa’s poor emanating from Spiked Online and other anti-environmentalist sources, we are led to understand that a wave of the DDT wand will fix everything.

But as is the case with DDT, you are dealing with insects that develop resistance to the pesticide with truly alarming results. On the authoritative website New York Versus Bed Bugs, you can read a useful article titled No DDT, thanks, we’re good . It debunks the arguments made for DDT both against malaria and bedbugs. With respect to bedbugs, it has a link to an article in Pest Control Technology, an industry publication, titled Insecticide-Resistant Bedbugs: Implications for the Industry. The facts are not reassuring. Using a dose 10 times the norm, insect populations in New York State and elsewhere were rated as having zero percent mortality. That’s ZERO.

This is a serious public health problem. While bedbugs do not spread disease, they can make your life a living hell and incur major expenses to exterminators and for clothing/household goods replacements. It requires a massive campaign to isolate the bugs and spread public awareness about how to prevent their spread. Does anybody expect the Obama administration to spearhead such a campaign? I don’t.

The longer I am witness to late capitalism in its senescence, the more I am reminded to the USSR in the 1980s. This is a society that is falling apart at the seams and that lacks any kind of bourgeois leadership to resolve the most pressing problems of public health, infrastructure, etc. Perhaps a visitation of bedbugs into the Obama household will shake things up, but after seeing this feckless president in action for the past two years, probably not.

August 19, 2010

Behind the attack on tenure

Filed under: Education — louisproyect @ 5:35 pm

As has happened in past economic crises, the ruling class is using this one as an opportunity to drive down the cost of labor. In a highly revealing article on the Mott Apple Juice strike, the NY Times reported:

Tim Budd, a 24-year employee who belongs to the union’s bargaining team, said he was shocked by one thing the plant manager said during negotiations.

He said we’re a commodity like soybeans and oil, and the price of commodities go up and down,” Mr. Budd recalled. “He said there are thousands of people in this area out of jobs, and they could hire any one of them for $14 an hour. It made me sick to have someone sit across the table and say I’m not worth the money I make.”

While there are no obvious similarities between college professors and such blue collar folks at first blush, there are growing signs that the people who run the United States do put them in the same category, at least on the basis of a gathering storm against tenure, an “entitlement” that the rich bastards would like to get rid of, along with Social Security and all the rest.

As is increasingly the case, the propaganda against tenure is coming from nominally liberal sources in tune with the Obama agenda. On August 11th, Christopher Beam, a snot-nosed Columbia University graduate from the class of 2006, told Slate readers:

As tuition climbs and universities struggle to pay their bills, tenure is starting to look unaffordable. Keeping a professor around indefinitely—tenure means they can’t be forced to retire—simply costs a lot.

Megan McArdle, an insufferable libertarian at Atlantic Monthly who tends to support Obama on most questions, is more concerned about how tenure is responsible for mediocrity:

Since I don’t know of many cases where this has happened, I find it hard to believe that tenure is crucial to preserving the spirit of free inquiry at our nation’s colleges. I’m sure it’s protected more than one scholar from getting fired after making stupid remarks to a class.

Well, all I can say is that the lack of tenure for journalists is no guarantee against stupid remarks, based on Ms. McArdle’s hack work.

Stepping up a bit from the gutter, we find some prestigious academics making the same case. Mark C. Taylor, the chairman of Columbia University’s religion department, has written a book titled Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities that urges an end to tenure. In an April 26, 2009 op-ed piece in the NY Times, Taylor opined:

Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising.

I have a somewhat different take on the matter, having seen my old friend John Hartman, a sociology professor at Columbia University, not have his contract renewed just at the point where a renewal would have been tantamount to entering the charmed circle of tenuredom. This is quite common at Columbia and other ivies, which prefer this form of exploitation rather than using contingent labor. John McLaren, an economics professor at Columbia who received the same treatment as John Hartman, wrote a blistering commentary titled “Worst Mistake I Ever Made” that details the con game that goes on:

Imagine my surprise, then, to be informed that the tenured faculty had just voted, in effect, to expel me from the department. (I felt a bit the way Tommy in Goodfellas must feel, when he shows up to the ceremony to promote him to ‘made man,’ only to realize that it is the last party he will ever attend.) The chairman explained the reasons for this outcome succinctly, in words that will stick with me: “The department decided that after last year’s hiring it is difficult to make the case to tenure one more person in international.” In other words, despite this same chairman’s emphatic reassurances a few months earlier that I could not be turned down for promotion based on a field constraint, here he was calmly explaining that I had just been turned down for promotion based on a field constraint. And I was out of a job.

It was not that much of a coincidence, I should add. When John Hartman went through the same ordeal, he described the sociology department as being run by academic Mafiosi.

While there is nothing in Mark C. Taylor’s background to dispel the notion that he is just a more elevated hack than Beam or McArdle, it was with a keen sense of disappointment to learn that Andrew Hacker had jumped on the “down with tenure” bandwagon.

In today’s NY Times, there’s a review of his Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It co-written with Claudia Dreifus, an adjunct professor.

In one of the first articles I ever wrote on the Internet, long before the days of blogging, I reviewed Andrew Hacker’s Money, about which I said:

For those at the bottom of the ladder, the boom years have brought nothing but economic suffering as Hacker’s statistics indicate. Black male college graduates get only $739 for every $1,000 going to their white counterparts by the time they are between the ages of thirty-five and forty-four. The only explanation for this is racism. Nothing angers Hacker more than the notion that blacks are a privileged group. Addressing the resentment toward affirmative action programs, Hacker notes that it is the public sector that has done much more to remedy past injustices than the private sector, especially the military, postal service, health, education and social services. Continuing efforts to balance federal, state and municipal budgets are not only detrimental to those who benefit from the programs, but to those who administer them as well.

Meanwhile, Claudia Dreifus’s credentials are even more impressive, at least in the opinion of Jesse Lemisch who described her as having an “honorable history in the left and feminism” in a New Politics article on their book, which the NY Times described in the following terms:

The authors’ deepest scorn is reserved for the claim that good teaching depends on research, and their most extreme proposal is that universities drastically reduce the amount of research they support, by “spinning off” medical schools and research centers, discontinuing paid sabbaticals and abolishing the current system of promotion and tenure, a system that tends to reward research productivity more than effective teaching.

Despite the neoliberal drift of most NY Times book reviews, even this reviewer was leery of their position on tenure, adding parenthetically:

(The authors raise interesting questions about tenure and its alternatives. Like many critics of tenure, though, they have a keen eye for abuses of power but are remarkably sanguine about the capacity of the First Amendment to shield scholars from pressure exerted by those with the power to fire them.)

Lemisch, a sometimes irascible fellow but generally with good cause, wrote:

To my dismay, the book turns out to be propaganda for a neoliberal program of cuts in higher education, part of the international retreat from earlier social gains in pensions, vacations, education, health care, and part of the attacks on social services and on public employees. Although I was never an Obama fan, I guess I feel a little like those who were, but who now see their illusions smashed by another blast of right-wing centrism — in Hacker and Dreifus’s case, dressed up as liberalism.

What is entirely missing from the calculations of Beam, McArdle, Taylor and Hacker/Dreifus is any recognition that tenure has pretty much disappeared anyhow. I reviewed three books—The Last Professors, How the University Works and Reclaiming the Ivory Tower—that told a sad story about the inexorable replacement of tenured posts by adjunct labor.

Marc Bousquet, the author of How the University Works is quite clear about how the same process that is undermining the Motts strikers is also undermining college students. In such a brave new world, the distinctions between the factory and the university are rapidly disappearing. We learn that Metropolitan College in Louisville, a place filled to the brim with adjunct professors, worked out a deal with local corporations to supply cheap labor from the student body:

Rather than relieving economic pressure, Metropolitan College appears to have increased the economic distress of the majority of participants. According to the company’s own fact sheet, those student workers who give up five nights’ sleep are typically paid for just fifteen to twenty hours a week. Since the wage ranges from just $8.50 at the start to no more than $9.50 for the majority of the most experienced, this can mean net pay below $100 in a week, and averaging out to a little over $120. The rate of pay bears emphasizing: because the students must report five nights a week and are commonly let go after just three hours each night, their take-home pay for sleep deprivation and physically hazardous toil will commonly be less than $25 per shift.

If you are interested in the question of tenure, I recommend Michael Cameron’s concise but highly informative Faculty Tenure in Academe: The Evolution, Benefits and Implications of an Important Tradition that is based largely on Walter Metzger’s research. Metzger and Richard Hofstadter wrote what amounts to a classic text on academic freedom, although it suffers a bit from conventional liberal thinking. For example, Metzger thinks that it is simplistic to blame big business domination of the boards of trustees for infringements on academic freedom, something I find hard to accept based on my experience with Columbia University, the New School and Bard College, three institutions I know inside and out.

What caught my eye in particular was Cameron’s putting the rise of tenure in an economic context:

The most significant changes to the tenure system occurred in the post-World War II era, as soldiers returning from the war were able to take advantage of the newly mandated GI Bill and descend upon America’s colleges and universities (Metzger, 1973). This phenomenon led to the quick expansion of colleges and universities and, in return, a severe shortage of professors. To overcome this problem, colleges and universities began to offer formal tenure as a “side benefit,” and the number of tenure issuances increased significantly.

In other words, tenure arrived just the same way that everything else “good” about the American system arrived after 1945, as a bonus of victory over the Nazis and Japanese, the ruin of Europe, the elevation of the US economy to first place in the world in terms described by Time Magazine publisher Henry Luce as “the American Century”.

Now that all that is unraveling, tenure will be thrown to the wolves just as every other entitlement won during the depression and consolidated throughout the 50s and 60s. The only thing that will stop this attack is the resistance of the college professorate/proletariat, tenured and adjuncts alike. Professors of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!

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