February 28, 2009
February 27, 2009
McCain backs Obama’s Iraq troop withdrawal plan
WASHINGTON (AP) – Sen. John McCain, who lost the presidency to Barack Obama last fall, is supporting Obama’s new plan to pull most U.S. troops out of Iraq by the fall of 2010.
McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview Friday he thinks the plan is “significantly different” from the one Obama pushed during his campaign.
During the campaign, Obama had advocated a complete withdrawal within 16 months of taking office.
McCain said that members of Congress were told in a White House meeting Thursday that the majority of troops in Iraq now would be kept there through the end of the year to protect against violence during Baghdad elections next December. Then, even as troops begin to leave, some 50,000 forces would be kept behind to advise the Iraqi troops.
Comments on Rate My Professor about Bruce Chilton, the mouth-breathing chaplain and Zionist warhawk who served on Joel Kovel’s evaluation committee:
–Terrible class. He gives no syllabus and when i asked him for one by email, he ignored me. He loves the sound of his voice and will talk for hours without stopping. When his views are threatened, he gets super defensive. He is arrogant, does not teach and bases your grade on only one or two assignments. AVOID.
–Worst class I’ve taken at Bard. Chilton did not care at all about the students, and “taught” by having us attend his lecture series, where he repeated to a group of seniors the same things he’d already said to us. Not courteous when pressed and does not grant extensions or assign helpful reading. (We never even read any of the bible – what?)
–To be avoided like the PLAGUE, unless you like being talked at.
–This is easily the worst class I have ever taken at Bard. I have no idea what I was supposed to learn from it. I think he was making it up as he went along, and realized halfway through the course that he had no point. He seems intelligent, but at least during this course he failed to pass along any interesting ideas or information.
–I served on several committees with him in my 4 years at Bard, and NEVER did I feel that he respected students’ opinions or their contributions. Likes to hear himself talk, usually done without making a point.
February 26, 2009
David Kettler, a 79 year old Bard professor, tried to stake out a midway position between Botstein and Kovel in a comment on that atrocious Inside Higher Education article that read like it was written in the President’s office. You will note his annoyance at the temerity of bloggers getting involved with the case, an obvious reference to riffraff like me. He is then answered by a pre-law student. Quite frankly, the maturity and wisdom of the student persuades me that the school would be in better shape if it was administered by the students.
As a colleague of Joel Kovel, who has at times agreed and at other times disagreed with his politics, who has often learned from him in both kinds of cases, and who regrets his involuntary departure, I welcome Cary Nelson’s suggestion that Joel Kovel’s allegations be subjected to an AAUP grievance procedure. As I understand those procedures, however, the inquiries are not conducted on blogs, but under conditions where charges of complicity and duplicity against colleagues are confidentially and prayerfully considered, and inferences from protest NOT made and related constructions are not taken very seriously. Does anyone seriously think that they have learned anything at all from the fact that no one objected when the conductor of an Israeli orchestra, who is also the President of the College, played two national anthems on a cultural-commercial occasion on campus?
Let’s first do some serious editing, an academic habit that should be harder to break than Joel finds it, and then put the remaining firm questions into the appropriate process. The terms and conditions of Bard faculty are under a collective agreement with the local AAUP. As a former head of a faculty union in Canada, I wish that the contract were more solidly grounded, but there are academic freedom guarantees and grievance procedures. The local chapter would be the logical starting point. If it appeared that the chapter was insufficiently experienced or otherwise unable to function independently, it would be in order for the President of the AAUP to send some wise heads to Bard to talk with the local officials and if necessary set up a special outside hearing commission on behalf of the locals. Isn’t that the point of organizations?
The people denounced by Joel’s attack include members in good standing of the AAUP, and the evidence pertinent to the charges should not be bandied around in public. I regret not only Joel’s broadside but also the action of my longtime friend and patron, Leon Botstein, in making his CEC evaluation public. But the main thing is that Cary Nelson should get going on his real job, which is to make our organization credible in these matters by acting in accordance with the procedures that legitimate it, instead of writing op eds to blogs. Do I need to legitimate myself by saying that I (mostly) agree with Kovel’s analysis of the Palestinian situation and that I was myself once–long ago–an academic freedom case? I suppose so, since that seems to be the norm in this medium.
Having served as a student representative in Bard’s facutly evaluation process, I can corroborate that the faculty member mentioned by Prof. Kovel should have recused himself under the provisions of the Faculty Handbook.
I think Prof. Kettler’s insistence that the AAUP take this case makes some sense for the overall preservation of faculty and administrative rights. But I don’t really really follow his argument that it was unethical for Prof. Kovel to make these allegations public. From the perspective of faculty solidarity, it makes sense. But his argument is leaving out one of the biggest stakeholders in this decision: Bard students. As pro-union as many of us are, the AAUP isn’t really a union, and in any case we aren’t AAUP members and don’t really enjoy the rights of academics. So it’s not clear to me why we might share in the obligation to keep this debate out of the public sphere. Whether or not Prof. Kovel remains at Bard is an issue for the student body; it has a significant effect on the image of the school as well as the content of other classes taught by instructors who aren’t in line with President Botstein politically. The publicty surrounding this case, and the student response to President Botstein’s decision, will also affect the sorts of prospective college students who will eventually come to Bard.
Also, I have it on good information that members of the Bard faculty have been warned not to involve themselves in this case in defense of Prof. Kovel. So we can hardly assume that Prof. Kettler’s reaction, reasoned as it is, is representative of Bard faculty opinion.
This was just received from Professor Kettler. Oddly enough, the reference to “sputtering” was not to anything I have written here, but an email to the Marxism list that referred to his comment above. In other words, Botstein has his vassals reading the archives of the mailing list I moderate. I don’t blame them for trying to keep track of me. I am very dangerous.
Dear Mr. Proyect,
Google indicates that you have picked up and reproduced my message about Joel Kovel’s grievance to “Higher ed.” That pleases me, since I believe that my argument for respecting and thus strengthening local organizations is worth broadcasting, even if your version of “Marxism” seems not to have heard about the importance of solidarity, organization, and collective responsibility. “I’m a victim” never impressed the old guy. Try to imagine him running a blog! I see him now on Facebook, soliciting “friends.”
I regret to say, however, that I had never heard of you before Google spoke, and therefore could not have been “sputtering” about anything you may have said on any medium. My remark was aimed directly, as the message indicated, at Cary Nelson, the President of an association of which I am a member. We’ve had a very useful and mutually respectful correspondence about the matter since then. Try it sometime.
Scheduled for theatrical release in September 2009, Philippe Diaz’s “The End of Poverty?” was a feature presentation at the 2008 African Diaspora Film Festival. After watching this documentary last night, I feel confident in stating that there is no sharper critic of the capitalist system in the film world than Philippe Diaz. This amazing movie not only explains how global inequality has its roots in 1492, but also allows the victims of “Western civilization” to speak for themselves. Indeed, the movie will remind you of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous reply to a Western reporter who asked him what he thought of Western civilization. He answered, “I think it would be a good idea.”
The documentary begins by putting third world poverty into historical context. Although it wisely draws upon expert witnesses indisposed to openly use Marxist terminology, there is little doubt that the movie’s implicit inspiration for its analysis of colonialism and dependency comes from chapter thirty one of Volume One of Capital, The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist, where Karl Marx writes:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.
In keeping with his determination to allow the victims of this process to speak for themselves, Diaz goes to Potosi where miners escort him into a section of the mine that commemorates its earliest victims. (It should be mentioned that Diaz, unlike Michael Moore, does not interject himself into the film. That, plus his revolutionary politics, distinguishes him from the popular but essentially liberal documentary maker.) Quoting Eduardo Galeano, one miner states that the silver extracted from the mines could have been used to build a bridge from Potosi to Europe. He adds that a bridge could have also been made with the bones of the miners who perished in the silver mines-an estimated 8 million succumbed to the hardships imposed by the Spanish rulers. Another miner, clearly educated in his nation’s class history rather than its classrooms, observes that the mita, a form of Incan forced labor adapted to the emerging capitalist system, required miners to live and work underground for periods of up to six months.
Even for those who are well-schooled in the history of imperialism, including myself if you will allow me a moment of immodesty, there are some revelatory moments. One expert points out that the Dutch lacked the resources and the capital to develop capitalism on its own. It “jump started” its economy by colonizing the islands now known as Indonesia. I was far more informed about the relationship between Great Britain and the slave trade outlined in Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery” but now feel strongly motivated to learn more about the Dutch thieves commemorated in those Rembrandt paintings.
“The End of Poverty?” conducts interviews with workers and peasants across the planet, from Bolivia to Brazil in Latin America to Tanzania and Kenya in Africa. As inured as I am to the brutality of imperialism, I practically bolted from my chair to locate a phone number or email address for an agribusiness named the Dominion Group that has made life hell for Kenyans. Having lived on and worked the same farmlands for hundreds of years, they were robbed of their livelihood when Dominion dammed a nearby river in order to irrigate their legume crop that was strictly for export. In a fine article that appeared in the Nation Magazine, Laura Flanders detailed the impact:
Dominion Farms, an affiliate of Dominion Group, based in Oklahoma, moved into Siaya in 2003 through an arrangement with the local and state authorities. After several years of negotiations, Dominion CEO Calvin Burgess leased public land from the government on a pledge to develop a high-tech fish and rice farming operation that he promised would bring jobs, reduce hunger and make Siaya and neighboring Bondo provinces the “breadbasket” of Kenya. (In the United States, Dominion builds for-profit prisons and federal buildings.)
Until Dominion came along, the people of this part of Kenya made their living drawing water from the local Yala River. They raised goats and cows and farmed small plots of land. Widows and children harvested papyrus and sisal from the nearby swamp from which they crafted rough mats and baskets. A major habitat for endangered fish and birds, the Yala Swamp is recognized by environmentalists as one of the richest and most delicate ecosystems in East Africa. The half-million or so local residents weren’t rich but they were self-sufficient, says Owiti. Now they’re forced to live on the generosity of churches or on the corporation’s handouts.
“Development should not bring harm to the local community,” said Owiti at the World Social Forum. But that, she says, is just what has happened. In the last four years, Dominion Farms has built a dam on the Yala River, drained much of the swamp, subjected the fields to aerial spraying and drowned not only public land but, residents claim, private property without legal authority.
Dominion offered residents compensation to leave their homes (generally 45,000 Kenyan shillings, approximately $64). Many, like Salome, a local grandmother, refused, but their land was submerged anyway. “I grew cabbages, I made mats, I planted maize and millet. Now all my fields are flooded,” said Salome.
For those that remain, the company’s dam blocks access to the river, the one available source of fresh water. “Now they want us to use standing water,” explained Paul Obeira, another Yala Swamp resident. But with the standing water comes infection. Malaria and typhoid rates are rising. Now aerial spraying is killing livestock. “I have lost 110 goats and our women are suffering from health problems because of the spraying,” added Obeira. Dominion Farms has applied for a permit to spray the pesticide DDT, which has been banned in this part of the world because of its negative health consequences.
Although Diaz’s documentary does not mention him anywhere, it is obvious that the title of the film is a rebuttal to Jeffrey Sachs’s “The End of Poverty”. Sachs was the architect of the neo-liberal “shock therapy” that ultimately led to the revolt that placed Evo Morales in power. In more recent years, Sachs has positioned himself as a prophet of global equality and has toured with U2’s Bono in well-publicized missions to lift up the natives. Obviously, unless the capitalist system is abolished, there is little that Sachs’s measures can do. Indeed, that is the whole point of the movie.
Ironically, Bono has just moved his music-publishing business from Ireland, one of Europe’s most underdeveloped capitalist countries, to Netherlands in order to shelter its song-writing royalties from taxation. Ireland now joins the ranks of countries alongside Java that have been screwed by the Dutch.
Jeffrey Sachs is one of Columbia University’s most visible “public intellectuals” and now runs the The Earth Institute, a think-tank devoted to all sorts of ideological flim-flammery, including the notion that chemical farming is what Africa most desperately needs to relieve hunger.
Another economics professor/celebrity at Columbia University is Joseph Stiglitz who is one of the experts interviewed in “The End of Poverty?” Although Stiglitz is obviously not an unrepentant Marxist like me, he certainly makes a lot more sense than Sachs since he focuses more on changing social structures rather than Bono-Sachs’s style aid. One has to wonder however whether Stiglitz still believes that China, his model for the developing world, is still viable. In the past year or so, over 25 million workers have been fired from their jobs in the coastal export manufacturing zone and forced to return to the impoverished countryside.
In the final analysis, it is only central planning and production for human need rather than profit that can relieve such suffering. In years past, this kind of proposal would have been dismissed as “socialism”. With the financial crisis tearing the world apart, that might not be a scare word any longer. As a recent cover of Newsweek put it, we are all socialists now. Of course, my idea of socialism varies greatly from Newsweek, but at least the newsweekly allows people like me to get our foot in the door. One must assume that after another two or three years of growing unemployment worldwide, that door will be smashed down by colossal social forces led by the poor people Diaz so generously gave a voice to.
I also strongly urge you to watch Diaz’s “The Empire in Africa”, which is available from Netflix. This movie is about the civil war in Sierra Leone and, unlike most documentaries about suffering in Africa, indicts the imperialists and the UN. Here’s an excerpt from my review:
As the violence deepened in Sierra Leone, the UN “came to the rescue”, just as the expensive full-page savedarfur.org ads in the NY Times call for now. Using Western funding from aboveground and clandestine sources, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was elected President with a clear mandate to stop the killing. A long-time employee of the UN, he had the enthusiastic support of the US, Great Britain and France who understand how to manipulate the international body to their own devices. He also had support from ECOMOG, an armed force made up of contingents from a number of African nations, with Nigeria supplying most of the muscle. In other words, Sierra Leone was a model for what is called for in Darfur. As those who urge “humanitarian” intervention in Darfur keep telling us, an effective fighting force made up UN and or African nations is all that is needed to save innocent lives. Nobody should have any such illusions after watching “The Empire in Africa”.
February 25, 2009
February 24, 2009
Not long after I posted my rave review of Slumdog Millionaire, an old friend from Bard College whose politics can be described as a shade to the left of the Nation Magazine, informed that he did not care for the movie at all. Here are the final paragraphs of his review that appears on a group blog initiated by Richard Greener, another Bard graduate and old friend:
What I remember most vividly are the scenes of homicidal communal violence, universal indifference to the fate of helpless children, their blinding, maiming and daily exploitation (all presented as normal features of life in the big city) the routine use of torture on the merest suspicion by everyday police (this little station keep electrical equipment on hand for the purpose) and a general, straightforward, unabashed level of social snobbery so smarmy as to register in the pit of the stomach.
This is, however, no expose. The extensive scenes noted serve only as background for a facile and ultimately silly romance devolving on the conceit described. The action is camera driven. The tension relies on manufactured delay and forced uncertainty. The characters aspire neither to depth, texture, nor personality. The girl is typically beautiful notwithstanding the dreadful scar inflicted by her vedddy vedddy bad tormentors.
Most strikingly, the creative sensibility betrays no larger or principled interest in its depiction of abominations. The fiendish use of small children is mere local color.
Those with strong stomachs and a taste for formulaic melodrama in distant lands may buy it. Many have and no doubt will. I found it the creepiest motion picture I have seen in a long, long time. Creepier still is the popular practice of describing – and, I must conclude, experiencing – Slumdog Millionaire as a “feelgood” movie.
Since I have lots of respect for my friend’s opinion (he shamed me into disavowing my conservative political beliefs in 1961), I found myself thinking more and more about whether my take on the movie was correct. Although I obviously can’t retract the pleasure I took in the movie as entertainment, was my take on the movie’s politics still valid? This is what I said in my review:
As should be obvious from the plot, “Slumdog Millionaire” is a very old-fashioned rags-to-riches love story. Indeed, as should be clear from the screenplay’s similarities to “Oliver Twist”, there is something positively Dickensian about Jamal’s story. In the same way that class distinctions in Victorian England forced a sensitive novelist to take up the plight of the poor, so were the makers of Slumdog Millionaire inspired to expose the brutality of life in the slums of Mumbai, a point of view that can not be found in Thomas Friedman’s gushing over the benefits of globalization in India. Indeed, what distinguishes Slumdog Millionaire from conventional Bollywood efforts is its determination to call attention to the realities of slum conditions in India. In doing so, they have much more in common with some of the more critical-minded Indian movies like Deepa Mehta’s “Water,” a film also about children being forced to become beggars, and Shonali Bose’s Amu, which takes up the question of the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. Like the main character in Amu, the three children in Slumdog Millionaire also lost their parents as a result of anti-Moslem violence.
As I read my words now for the first time since I wrote them, I feel relatively sure that I got this movie right especially in my description of it as “Dickensian”. Although I have many problems with George Orwell, especially the Stalinophobia of his latter years, I find his essay on Dickens most instructive, particularly in its ability to see the value of his novels despite their Victorian prejudices. This, in particular, seems to hit the mark:
The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens’s attitude is at bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’. It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system. Nowhere, for instance, does he make any attack on private enterprise or private property. Even in a book like Our Mutual Friend, which turns on the power of corpses to interfere with living people by means of idiotic wills, it does not occur to him to suggest that individuals ought not to have this irresponsible power.
This would certainly apply to Slumdog Millionaire as well. By comparison, Amu is far more politically incisive-a function no doubt of the radical politics of the husband and wife who produced and directed this terrific movie. The anti-Sikh violence in Amu is depicted as based in reactionary institutions that would seek scapegoats in non-Hindu peoples, while the anti-Muslim violence in Slumdog is unexplained-we witness it almost as a natural phenomenon, like a cyclone. Furthermore, the deliverance of Slumdog’s hero from poverty is seen in strictly Dickensian terms, as a function of coincidence and the generosity of decent people. Of course, as a formula for transforming the slums of India, this is virtually useless.
In the Guardian Newspaper’s Comment is Free blog, City University professor Hirsh Sawhney takes exception to the movie’s imposition of “Western values” on India:
After watching the film, viewers are left to infer that slums are horrid, rancid places because of beggar masters, Hindu zealots and Muslim gangs. Of course these forces play their role in perpetuating misery. But in reality, slums are an international problem caused by an intricate set of entities: corrupt government officials, gargantuan multinational corporations and suspect IMF structural adjustment programs.
Playing it safe, Boyle doesn’t implicate any of these entities. As a result, his movie does allow us to believe that we have been responsible global citizens by engaging with the intensity of third world slums. We in the audience even feel genuine sympathy for destitution. But at no point do we have to forsake the delusion that abject poverty and inequity are strictly foreign things for which we share no culpability.
In fact, far from spreading the blame for global poverty, Boyle’s film actually suggests that the west is the solution to India’s problems. Protagonist Jamal only escapes his ceaseless cycle of squalor and crime once he makes it into the orderly, democratic world of a British call centre. This call centre, in turn, delivers him to his fateful redemption on Millionaire. The subtext is clear: things are really bad in urban India but healthy servings of western values are just what the doctor – and the Academy judges – ordered.
While I am sympathetic to Sawhney’s obviously leftist perspective, I truly wonder how any movie can identify the cause of slums in IMF structural adjustment programs, unless you are talking about a documentary. I also doubt that the call centre in Slumdog has the redemptive qualities ascribed to it by Sawhney. Most people probably reacted to it in the same way I did, as an alienating, exploitative white-collar sweatshop.
Another leftist critique of Slumdog appeared in Counterpunch. In Slumdog Millionaire’s Dehumanizing View of India’s Poor, author Mitu Sengupta, a professor at Ryerson College in Canada, argues:
It is no secret that Slumdog is meant to reflect life in Dharavi, the vast sprawl of slums at the heart of Mumbai. The film depicts Dharavi as a feral wasteland, with little evidence of order, community or compassion. Other than the children, the no-one is even remotely well-intentioned. Hustlers and petty warlords run amok, and even Jamal’s schoolteacher is inexplicably callous. This is a place of sheer evil and decay.
But nothing is further from the truth. Dharavi teems with dynamism, and is a hub of small-scale industries, whose estimated annual turnover is between US$50 to $100 million. Nor is Dharavi bereft of governing structures and productive social relations. Residents have built strong collaborative networks, often across potentially volatile lines of caste and religion. Many cooperative societies work together with NGOs to provide residents with essential services such as basic healthcare, schooling and waste disposal, often compensating for the formal government’s woeful inadequacy in meeting their needs. Although these under-resourced organizations have touched only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, their efforts must be acknowledged, along with the fact that slum-dwellers, despite their grinding poverty, have lives of value and dignity, and a resourcefulness that stretches far beyond the haphazard, individualistic survival-of-the-fittest sort shown in Slumdog.
In the end, Slumdog presents a profoundly dehumanizing view of the poor, with all its troubling political implications. Since there are no internal resources, and none capable of constructive voice or action, all “solutions” must arrive externally. After a harrowing life in an anarchic wilderness, salvation finally comes to Jamal in the form of an imported quiz-show, which he succeeds in thanks only to “destiny.” Must other unfortunates, like the stoic Jamal, patiently await their own destinies of rescue by a foreign hand? While this self-billed “feel good movie of the year” may help us “feel good” that we are among the lucky ones on earth, it delivers a patronizing, colonial and ultimately sham statement on social justice for those who are not.
While I find Sengupta’s observations correct, I have to repeat the same concern I had with Sawhney’s disappointment over the absence of an analysis of the role of IMF structural adjustments. What kind of film can both be an Indian version of Oliver Twist (this is really what it was when you stop and think about it) and fully describe the roles of NGO’s and coops? The answer is none.
February 23, 2009
Three major donors to Bard College
Over on the Facebook group set up to protest the firing of Joel Kovel, a former Bard professor who had run afoul of Leon Botstein cautioned that not much could be done unless sufficient “muscle” was applied on the Board of Trustees. If that is the case, then I doubt anything can be done since the most powerful figures on the board (or who serve in an ex officio status like George Soros) are Wall Street hedge fund operators who are constitutionally incapable of responding to the wishes of Bard students and professors. The sad fact is that despite the halo that surrounds academia, colleges are run more and more nowadays as capitalist enterprises. And if you are going to run your college like a capitalist enterprise, who better to serve on a board than hedge fund operators?
The chairman of Bard’s board of trustees is one Charles P. Stevenson Jr., a Yale graduate in the hedge fund business who lavished millions of dollars to establish a new library at Bard called appropriately enough the Charles P. Stevenson Jr. Library. For some reason, these hedge fund cowboys have a thing for libraries. Last year the New York Public Library renamed its main library the Stephen A. Schwarzman Library in return for this hedge fund magnate’s contribution of $100 million to its $1 billion capital fund drive.
Stevenson lives in 740 Park Avenue and serves as the president of the co-op’s board. The building has been “celebrated” as the richest apartment building in the world in Michael Gross’s book. His website states:
For 75 years, it’s been one of the most lusted-after addresses in the world. Even today, it is steeped in purest luxury, the kind most of us can only imagine. Until now. The story of 740 Park Avenue sweeps across the twentieth century, and Michael Gross tells it in glorious, intimate and unprecedented detail. From the financial shenanigans that preceded the laying of the cornerstone, to the dazzlingly and sometimes decadently rich people who hid behind its walls, this is a sweeping social and economic epic, starring our wealthiest and most powerful old-money families–Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Bouvier, Chrysler, Houghton and Harkness–and today’s new-monied elite: Bronfman, Perelman, Kravis, Steinberg, Koch and Schwarzman.
Get that, Bardians? Decadently rich. How does the president of this building’s board end up as the chairman of the board of trustees of a college that Walter Winchell once called the little red whorehouse on the Hudson?
You know who else lives in 740 Park Avenue? (That is until he gets thrown out for not being able to pay his maintenance.) None other than fellow hedge fund operator Ezra Merkin, who I strongly suspect was recruited to serve on the Jerome Levy Institute board through his connections to neighbor Charles P. Stevenson Jr. This Ezra Merkin just happened to be Bernie Madoff’s chief conduit of funds and depleted Bard College’s endowment by 3 million dollars invested in the Ponzi scheme. Bloomberg.com reported:
Merkin is also “considerate, articulate, intellectual and he seems thoughtful,” said Bruce Greenwald, who served as a governor with Merkin of Bard College’s Levy Economics Institute. “I’m shocked that he got sucked into this.”
Well, I’m not shocked at all. That’s what hedge fund operators are all about. The evidence of the past year or so is that there is a tissue-paper thin dividing line between hedge funds and Madoff’s racket. They are basically card sharps who gamble on their customer’s investments, including my employer Columbia University whose endowment lost 15 percent of its value from investments foisted on the institution by its own Ezra Merkins.
Speaking of the Levy’s, I have already reported on the battle that took place between this hedge fund operator and the waiters at Smith and Wollensky in the 1990s. Apparently that’s not the least of Leon Levy’s shenanigans. As it turns out, old Leon was not above trafficking in purloined antiquities of the sort that disappeared from Iraq in the early stages of Bush’s war as the Harvard Crimson reported on April 6, 2006:
Archaeology experts from three colleges this weekend criticized Harvard and other universities for taking money from a philanthropist whose personal antiquities collection contains some artifacts, they say, were of dubious origin.
Leon Levy-a well-known Wall Street investor who died in 2003-and his widow Shelby White started the Shelby White-Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications at Harvard in 1997 to support research on terminated and unpublished field work from sites in Greece, Turkey, Cyrpus, Iran, and the Middle East.
The program has awarded $6 million over the past decade.
But archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, and the University of Cincinnati say that because Levy and White’s own artifact collection was obtained through questionable means, academic institutions like Harvard should not take money from them.
According to Philip J. King, head of the Harvard program, many artifacts held by collectors have been attained as a result of illegal looting and grave robbing of historical sites, taking them out of their important original context.
Although it is beyond the scope of this article to get into the controversy surrounding stolen art, the wealthy nations that own the museums in which they are on display (the Met, the London Museum, etc.) argue that they are in the proper place since the poor countries from which they were stolen lack the resources to care for them properly. As someone who has visited Turkey on multiple occasions, this kind of argument galls me almost as much as Leon Botstein’s “explanation” for Kovel’s firing.
Finally, when it comes to hedge fund operators, Bard has the good fortune to be the apple in George Soros’s beady eye. His ex-wife Susan sits alongside Charles P. Stevenson Jr. on Bard’s board of trustees and George himself functions as a kind of informal secretary of state to and primary revenue-stream for Bard’s rapidly expanding Empire of satellite colleges.
In 2006 France’s highest court rejected Soros’s bid to overturn an insider trading conviction, leaving what the International Herald Tribune called “the first blemish on his five-decade investing career.” He was fined about 2 million dollars for buying and selling Société Générale shares in 1988 after receiving information about a planned corporate raid on the bank.
I would say that the real blemish on Soros’s career has nothing to do with insider trading but rather his extra-business activities which amount to a kind of shadow government. Using the billions of dollars accrued through currency speculation and other hedging strategies, Soros funded anti-Communist movements in Eastern Europe that have frequently led to real suffering.
From 1991, his Open Society Institute channeled more than $100 million to the pro-Western opposition. Political parties, publishing houses and “independent” media such as Radio B92 were bankrolled in order to turn Yugoslavia into a capitalist democracy conforming to his own libertarian ideology. The Serbs have been the prime recipients of Soros’s philanthropic efforts.
In 2006 unemployment reached 27 percent in Yugoslavia, a number greater than that suffered by Americans during the Great Depression. Of course, that’s what happens in “Open Societies” not constrained by that nasty Stalinist habit of guaranteeing a job. In the final analysis, freedom for George Soros is measured by the ability of a businessman to make a profit without government interference. He doesn’t want to appear as if money is all that is necessary for the good life. Citizens must have the right to criticize their government, just as Bard students have the right to criticize their President. Of course, when you have hundreds of millions of dollars at your disposal-like Stephenson, Levy, and Soros-your criticisms will carry more weight than some alumni making a living as a white collar worker. But that’s how the system works. As Orwell once put it, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Richard Seymour’s The Liberal Defence Of Murder
by Louis Proyect
Seymour, Richard: The Liberal Defence of Murder, Verso Press, 2008, ISBN-13: 978-1-84467-240-0, 358 pages.
(Swans – February 23, 2009) To get straight to the point, Richard Seymour’s The Liberal Defence of Murder is a masterpiece of intellectual history and political agitation that is to the early 21st century what Julien Benda’s La Trahison des Clercs was to the post-WWI period. One supposes that as long as capitalist war continues to plague humanity, there will be a need for such a book every generation. Richard Seymour’s astonishing accomplishment is to rise to the occasion on his debut literary undertaking. Making a seamless transition from the blogosphere to the printed page, the young man associated with the popular Lenin’s Tomb blog proves that an old-fashioned book still has its uses.
In a sense, I am the ideal reader for such a book since I have had many of the same concerns as Seymour going back to the outbreak of war in Kosovo a decade ago. Some of the doubts I had about liberal opinion in the first Balkans war in Bosnia now came to a head as I saw one prominent intellectual after another cheering for the NATO bombing of the Serb republic. Many of them had come of age politically during the Vietnam War, including Michael Ignatieff. Despite having ostensibly learned to dig beneath their government’s justification for war after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, many an ex-peacenik was now ready to join the bandwagon for war in the Balkans. They were now ready to believe that the Serbs had slaughtered Kosovar civilians in Racak, just as some intellectuals took LBJ at his word when he blamed the Vietnamese for attacking American destroyers without provocation.
As it turns out, the Michael Ignatieffs of this world were simply reverting to form as Richard Seymour ably demonstrates in a tour de force of intellectual history. As accustomed as I was to this sordid history after doing some of my own research over the past 10 years, I was not prepared for the examination of more than 200 years of imperialist apologetics of the kind we now associate with Ignatieff, Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen, Norm Geras, et al. The most startling revelation for me was how widespread this tendency was, even among writers I had always considered unblemished.
Take, for example, Alexis de Tocqueville who I knew only as a sharp commentator on American society in the 19th century who defended French colonialism’s right to impose its will on Algeria on the basis of its Arab citizens being “half-savage.” Tocqueville also dismissed American Indians and African slaves as being incapable of participating in a democracy for the same reasons.
February 22, 2009
With the exception of the 10 years I spent in the Trotskyist movement, my four years at Bard College from 1961 to 1965 were the most intense of my life. I entered Bard at the age of 16, a voluntary exile from my oppressive high school. As a freshman, I was elated to discover that Bard was a haven for people exactly like me. Moving into my dormitory in early September, I was amazed to hear another student reciting lines from Arthur Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell” in the original French as he walked upstairs to his room. I had arrived! Whether it was heaven or hell, I didn’t care. Just as long as it wasn’t Fallsburg Central High School.
Bard was part of a handful of “experimental” colleges that had been launched in the early 20th century in a bid to integrate work and study. Others included Black Mountain College, Antioch and Goddard. The first two have folded and a downsized version of Goddard continues. Apparently contemporary American society is not a fertile ground for educational institutions that go against an ever-increasingly corporate grain.
Bard would have suffered the same fate unless it had been “rescued” by Leon Botstein, who assumed the office of President in 1975 at the tender age of 29. He was always the wunderkind, having graduated from high school at the age of 16-like me. He lined up his first job as President of Franconia College in 1970, setting a record for the youngest man to hold such an office in American history. Of course, it helped that his father-in-law was on the board of trustees of Franconia. From an early age, Leon grasped the importance of such old boy’s networks, which are essential to the capitalist system-including its blue chip colleges and universities.
Although Botstein landed the Bard job on the strength of his achievements at Franconia, some blame him for the school’s ruin. In the year he left for Bard, Franconia went bankrupt. His successor there claimed he had been left a $339,000 debt. Botstein prefers not to talk about Franconia, which was a kind of internship for him. He muses “It was such a long time ago”, which was for him “a youthful rite of passage that he likens to a hospital residency.”
That is according to a fascinating interview with the wunderkind that appeared in the October 4, 1992 N.Y. Times Sunday Magazine. The Times reports that “mention of the college’s closing, and any attempt to blame its demise on him, uncorks indignation that counters his happy public image.” He told the interviewer, “his usually well-crafted sentences unraveling in a sputtering rage”:
When I was offered the job, many people said you’re committing professional suicide. Don’t deviate. Stay on the track. Be an assistant professor someplace, blah, blah, don’t, you know, don’t, don’t take any risks.
In the mid-1970s Bard College was supposedly in the danger of going bankrupt and Leon Botstein was hired to rescue it. Rescue it he did, but in the process he turned the school into a completely different type of institution. It became larger and more prestigious. The Bard I knew was a haven for “losers” like Chevy Chase, who had flunked out of Dartmouth or many lesser-known free spirits who were probably much less interested in material success than the average college student today. After all, it was the prosperous early 60s and getting a job was not the ordeal it is today.
Not long after I dropped out of the SWP in 1978, I went up to Bard for graduation ceremonies-it must have been around 1983 or so. Now that I had cut my ties with people I had known since 1967, I was hoping to develop new social networks-possibly with other Bard graduates. At least that was the hope. The most interesting part of the graduation ceremonies was Leon’s address to the assembly in which he quoted some 19th century philosopher, as he put it, who was urging young people to go out and change the world or words to that effect. He then revealed that it was Karl Marx who said these words.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Leon was quite skilled at leftist camouflage, so necessary to sustain one’s credibility in a college that Walter Winchell called the “little red whorehouse on the Hudson.” He was still up to his old tricks when he told the graduating class of 2008 to follow the example of one Abe Osheroff:
About a month ago, my eye caught a lengthy obituary, with a photograph, of one Abe Osheroff in the New York Times. He died in his early 90s on the West Coast. I doubt if anyone in this vast crowd has ever heard of him. I certainly hadn’t. Mr. Osheroff grew up on the Lower East Side, went to City College in the early 1930s, and joined the Communist Party. His claim to fame was that he was a veteran of the Lincoln Brigade and fought on behalf of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.
Despite the defeat of the Republic, Mr. Osheroff, like most Lincoln Brigade veterans, remained fiercely idealistic and committed to progressive causes. Mr. Osheroff made a documentary on the Spanish Civil War. He was a carpenter and a kind of professional gadfly, protesting and speaking out against all sorts of injustice and causes, including the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq. He became a legend in the Pacific Northwest, an embodiment, if not a caricature, of the left-wing Jewish, liberal activist, born of working-class parents, armed with convictions forged in the competitive and inspiring crucible of City College in the era of the Great Depression.
Mr. Osheroff, like many of his fellow fighters on behalf of Republican Spain, believed that if only the democracies of the world had not been so cowardly, and had actually risen to the defense of the Republican government, Franco would have been defeated and, in turn, Hitler and Mussolini. The carnage and catastrophe of the Second World War would have been prevented. But as Mr. Osheroff got older, he realized the outcome of his generation’s last “great cause”-its failure-was less important than the experience itself. What one does, he concluded, ought not to be measured by the result-the success or failure-but by the principles that guide one’s behavior. The obituary concluded with this observation from Mr. Osheroff: “If you need a victory, you aren’t a fighter, you’re an opportunist.”
I wish to commend Abe Osheroff’s insight to the Class of 2008. As you go forward to choose what you do and how you do it, whether in the private sphere or public arena, if you first calculate the odds for success and failure and avoid risk, you will not only show cowardice but cheat yourself. Be fighters. Resist the temptation to shrink from the odds. It is finally those who challenge the conventional wisdom of probabilities who change the calculus of reality and contribute something new to the world around them.
After having wised up to Leon years ago, I was no longer in any mood to put up with bullshit about some poor harassed commie like Abe Osheroff and dashed off an email to Leon congratulating him for having the chutzpah to praise Abe after he had replaced Joel Kovel with a professional red-baiter in the Alger Hiss chair. Usually he ignores my barbs, but this time he wrote back saying that he probably could do nothing to please me. I suppose that was true, especially after I learned from an alumni newsletter in 1987 that he had appointed Asher Edelman and Martin Peretz to the board of trustees.
Asher Edelman, a leveraged buyout artist and Bard Graduate, served as the inspiration for the Gordon Gecko character in “Wall Street”. Edelman’s takeovers often resulted in the permanent unemployment of “excess” workers. Edelman had gained some notoriety that year as an adjunct professor in the Columbia Business School. He promised $100,000 to any student who could identify a suitable target for a corporate takeover. Columbia was so red-faced that they instructed Edelman to withdraw the offer. I imagine, given Leon’s skills as a fundraiser, that he must have viewed Edelman as the perfect addition to the board, mammon-worshipping and all.
Peretz was even worse. In 1987, I had become very involved with sending volunteers to Nicaragua. On trips there, I was always dismayed to hear reports on schoolteachers being tortured or killed by the contras funded by Reagan and trained by the CIA. Peretz hailed them as freedom-fighters in the pages of his magazine The New Republic.
In disgust I sent Leon a letter (this was before the days of email) congratulating him on the new additions to the board. I was sure that they would open up enormous fund-raising possibilities even though one was a crook and the other a propagandist for torturers and murderers. He wrote back a long reply defending his actions. From that moment on, I figured out that I was dealing with someone who had the character of a bourgeois politician. You know how difficult it was to get George W. Bush to admit he ever did anything wrong? That pales in comparison when you are dealing with Leon Botstein.
By the early 1990s, Leon had access to the kind of funding he needed to transform Bard. The goal was to turn it into a quasi-Ivy League college and nothing would stand in the way.
One of his first brainstorms was to set up a Henry Luce chair, one supposes to balance the Alger Hiss chair established around the same time. I mean, after all, if you are going to honor somebody who was hounded by the McCarthyites of the world, you’d better make room for a champion anti-Communist like Henry Luce. Critics, according to the 1992 NY Sunday Times Magazine profile, viewed the incongruity of endowing chairs for both Luce and Hiss as “opportunism”. His upbraided the interviewer:
People have so little tolerance for dissent. What happened to free thought? Individual ideas? What happened to Thoreau? What happened to this tradition in America? You’re either for ’em or agin ’em. What are we discussing, subtle issues with a meat cleaver?
I suppose that Leon finally resolved this contradiction by replacing Joel Kovel with Jonathan Brent in the Alger Hiss chair. Hiss, as you probably know, was hounded by McCarthyites for supposedly being a Soviet spy. So why not put Brent in the chair named after this victim of anti-Communism? After all, Brent has only made a career out of trying to “prove” that American Communists were part of a vast espionage network orchestrated out of the Kremlin. When I first discovered that Brent would now occupy the Alger Hiss chair, I sent Leon a congratulatory email on the appointment. He had topped recent Republican Presidents, starting from Reagan, who had appointed men to run government agencies whose aims they were hostile to. Jonathan Brent was Leon Botstein’s James G. Watt.
Going from strength to strength, Leon next convinced multimillionaire investor and liberal Leon Levy to set up an Economics Institute at the College. Like Leon Botstein, Leon Levy is quite skilled at speaking out of both sides of his mouth. In the 1990s he occasionally wrote for the New York Review of Books, where his preoccupations about income inequality and “irrational exuberance” were presumably intended to redress injustices in America, just as long as they didn’t impact his personal fortunes as I would soon learn.
Not long after I discovered the Internet at Columbia University in the early 1990s, I signed up for the Progressive Economics Network mailing list (PEN-L) where I ran into a trade union organizer who was on the list. He had sent a message to PEN-L asking if there were any Bard College graduates there. It seemed that the Levy offspring were owners of an upscale steakhouse in Manhattan whose waiters were attempting to win bargaining recognition. The organizer needed an alumni directory so that letters informing them about the situation could be sent out. It gave me sheer pleasure to send said directory to the union as well as to learn that the administration went ballistic over the “misappropriation” of school property.
It turns out that Bard College, like just about all institutions of higher education in the U.S., have about as much regard for its own workers as the Levy family had for its waiters. Not long after I posted my blog article about Kovel being terminated, another trade union organizer named Chris Townsend chimed in:
I led the organization/unionization of the service staff workers at Bard College more than 20 years ago. The workforce had suffered for decades in a captive company union, set up and run by Bard. From the time we started organizing until the day we triumphed we were witness to every despicable tactic imaginable by the college. Countless bogus NLRB delaying tactics, attempted terrorization and alternate bribery of workers, surface bargaining, you name it. We finally shoved Mr. Botstein off-balance by revealing our intent to publish an ad in the NYTimes revealing the fact that he was a member of the American Federation of Musicians (at least back then) and that, among other things, his college paid women “cleaners” one dollar per hour less than male “janitors” for the same work. He seemed concerned enough about it to order his underlings to settle a union contract with us. I never had much faith or trust in liberals, and nothing I experienced with the Bard management changed my mind. Good luck in your struggle, Joel!
Not satisfied with having a multimillionaire like Leon Levy in his stable, Leon next moved up the food chain and landed a real whopper: George Soros, a bonafide multibillionaire. As it turned out, the first step was lining up Susan Soros, the investor’s wife. Showing a talent for deal making that would have landed Leon a high-paying job on Wall Street, he figured out that the best way to cement relations with George was to get his wife on his side. And what better way to do that than to provide a prestigious position for her in Bard’s rapidly expanding empire in just the way that his father-in-law once landed him a job running Franconia.
In 1991 Susan Soros was turned down for the job of director of graduate education at the Cooper-Hewitt/Parsons School of Design. So with $20 million of her husband’s money, she started her own school at 18 West 86th Street. Naturally, she couldn’t get away with calling it the Susan Soros Museum, but Botstein suggested that calling it the Bard College Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts might work. One can only assume that such a generous gesture has benefited Bard College in ways that transcend art.
At the 2000 commencement ceremonies, Susan Soros was on hand to present an honorary degree to Ludmila A. Verbitskaya, the first female rector of the State University of St. Petersburg in Russia. Ms. Verbitskaya profusely thanked Botstein for all the help Bard College had made available in the transformation of her institution into one befitting Russia’s new ‘open society’. The Open Society Foundation, as should be well-known at this point, was established by George Soros to foster support for free market fundamentalism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. That victory ensured that a generation of Russian youth would end up as Yeltsin-era alcoholics, drug addicts or prostitutes. It was only with Putin’s closing down of that “open society” that some kind of normalcy has returned to Russia.
I have to admit that I get enormous pleasure discovering that I am not only the only Bard graduate who is fed up with president-for-life Leon Botstein. The Facebook group set up to discuss and organize around the termination of Joel Kovel has tapped into a powerful mood of disaffection from Bardians who came of age during the Botstein era, unlike me:
The issue at hand is neither politics nor religion.
Censorship and Discrimination are intolerable in any institution. Their occurrence is even more disgraceful at a school renowned as a haven for liberal thought and intellectual dissent.
However, Professor Kovel’s experiences do not exist in a vacuum. There is a clear history of bias against faculty and students who disagree openly with President Botstein.
The man is an ivy tower despot, more intent on furthering his personal & political agenda and pet projects than the welfare of Bard College, its students, or its faculty.
Further, he is willing to use his unadulterated power as President to malign names and destroy careers of anyone out of step with his “Vision”.
And, as a long time film buff, I was particularly happy to see faculty member Adolfas Mekas, the legendary avant-garde director, weigh in:
I was shocked to read Prof. Joel Kovel’s letter addressed to Bard Faculty. Is this “New” Bard? Has Bard joined Taliban and other theocracies? A College where freedom of expression/conviction is no longer tolerated? What is next? Do you recant? To the stake! Terminate him! Can you imagine this happening in the “Old” Bard? The faculty would be outraged and come to class with their mouths taped, and the student power would shut down the College. To the barricades!
PS If the Administration had known what I have said in my classes (before and after tenure), I would have been terminated fifty times over.