Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 23, 2010

Going toe-to-toe with Leon Botstein

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 8:48 pm

I just returned from a day and a half at Bard College for commencement weekend and the 45th anniversary of my graduating class. Unlike the handful of other reunion celebrants, my interest was not so much in basking in nostalgia but instead reflecting on and chronicling changes at the school under President Leon Botstein’s stewardship, arguably the most famous college administrator in the USA. I came up to Bard armed with a Panasonic camcorder and will post a Youtube movie later on.

The campus was abuzz with rumors that President Obama would be making a surprise visit to Bard during commencement. The absence of helicopters and Secret Service men in shades an hour or so before the event started put an end to the rumors but it was not clear whether this was ever in the works at all. Botstein made light of the rumor during his remarks but left it open that it might have happened.

In some ways, Bard would have been a perfect complement to Obama’s other appearance that day: West Point. One academy symbolized American military power in defense of imperialism and the other symbolized peace, love and understanding. Maybe.

Things have been changing. Not long after I graduated, West Point was considered the enemy. Nowadays, in sync with Obama’s triangulation strategies, Bard has figured out ways to collaborate with the training ground for killers. The two schools have an exchange program described thusly on Bard’s website:

In the program’s first year, Bard and West Point students took joint seminars each semester on international relations theory taught by Jonathan Cristol, Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Studies at Bard College, and Scott Silverstone, Associate Professor of International Relations at the United States Military Academy. The classes met jointly several times during term, with Bard students visiting West Point and cadets traveling to Annandale-on-Hudson. In the fall, Silverstone gave a well-attended public lecture at Bard entitled ‘Preventive War, American Democracy, and the Challenge of a Shifting Threat Environment.’ In May, six Bard seniors attended West Point’s Project’s Day, and presented the findings of their senior theses to West Point faculty and cadets.

I suppose most Bard students and alumni would find this to be a good thing, but not the Unrepentant Marxist. Sad, inflexible me.

For nearly the past 25 years I have been communicating my discontent with such developments to Botstein, the first time in 1987 when I discovered that Martin Peretz had become a member of the board of trustees not long after Ben Linder had been murdered by contras in Nicaragua. Ben was an engineer trying to construct a small-scale hydroelectric dam as a sponsored project of Tecnica, the volunteer group that I belonged to. After his death, our volunteers helped to finish the project. During the war on Nicaragua, Martin Peretz had been one of the most vocal defenders of the contras on the “left” alongside Village Voice columnist Paul Berman.

I wrote Botstein a letter dripping with sarcasm over his choice of Peretz as well as Bard graduate Asher Edelman, a leveraged buyout operator who served as the model for Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”. To my surprise, Botstein wrote back a lengthy letter defending his choices and scolding me for imposing a litmus test. One supposes that if Martin Peretz, to use a flight of imagination (but not that much so considering former New Republic editor Peter Beinart’s NY Review article), had been stumping for the PLO, that would have become a litmus test.

Once I began blogging, Botstein had to contend with my impudent views being shared by the rest of the world. Our beefs were no longer private.

Apparently, my articles have drawn blood. So I learned around 6:00 last evening when I was hanging out on the steps of Ward Manor, a mansion that had been acquired by the school in 1964 and turned into a dormitory. I had a room there in the fall term of 1965 down the hall from Chevy Chase and remember my days there fondly.

All of a sudden I noticed Botstein headed right at me surrounded by an entourage made up of his handlers, people from the admissions and alumni offices. He approached me and started to speak in a fairly loud voice, commanding the attention of the large group of alumni there. To the best of my memory, this is what we had to say to each other:

Botstein: So here’s the famous Louis Proyect, the man who has been attacking me for many years now accusing me of the worst kinds of offenses in the most vicious way, who has devoted himself to damaging my reputation near and wide to the point that even my own children read his blog…

Me (interrupting him): Leon, have you been drinking?

Botstein: No, I am quite sober.

Me: Well, I don’t see why you are so upset. After all, didn’t you say in your commencement speech that Bard graduates should attack the status quo? That’s all I’ve been doing over the years. You have your job raising money and I have mine as a critic.

Botstein: Well, you are not being fair in the way you write about me…

Me: Leon, you have to understand. Man, I used to love you (two glasses of wine had made me a bit mushy) but when I learned that Martin Peretz had been named to the board, I got really angry. My compañero Ben Linder had been murdered by the contras that Peretz backed.

Botstein: Things are a lot more complex than you see. Martin Peretz was an old friend of mine from Harvard and he was playing an important role in helping to formulate programs at Bard.

Me: (At this point, I was trying to change the subject a bit and opened up the comic book memoir I worked on with Harvey Pekar and turned to the chapter on Bard.) Leon, take a look at this. There’s Chevy Chase. And look over there, that’s me discussing the Communist Manifesto with Heinrich Blucher in the coffee shop. (Blucher was a teacher at Bard who was married to Hannah Arendt.)

Botstein: (Apparently still fixated on defending his reputation) I have to point out that Hannah Arendt and I have this much in common. Critics attacked her for supporting Martin Heidegger but she had her reasons for doing so that were not well understood.

I was not interested in prolonging the conversation, but I almost wanted to ask him what were the main points of convergence between Martin Peretz and the infamous Nazi philosopher. I could think of a dozen right off the bat.

During the entire time this conversation was going on (and I have left out perhaps half of it because the lapse of time and the two glasses of wine make them a bit of a blur), one of Botstein’s handlers kept glaring at me and announcing that I was holding up the schedule by belaboring the president. I didn’t say anything to her, but chuckled at the idea that I was at fault. Botstein had accosted me after all.

While all of this was going on, my camera was at a nearby table. I doubt that I could have recorded the conversation since he would have understood how ridiculous he looked to a normal person. Here he was, America’s most famous college president, guest on countless television shows, author of numerous op-ed pieces in prestigious newspapers, adored by students and alumni alike, and he is still bothered by what a marginal figure like me has to say.

The explanation, of course, is rather simple. In his heart of hearts, as he lies in bed in night, he can’t get the thought out his head that I am right.

27 Comments »

  1. I loved the reply: “Leon, have you been drinking” — especially when you actually had been.

    I frankly don’t think he’s all that “adored by students and alumni alike” nor do I think such a person really has a “heart of hearts” as he’s more of an academic sociopath.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 23, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

  2. Louis, No wonder I like you so much!! Poor guy. He just wants to be loved by all.

    Comment by michael yates — May 23, 2010 @ 10:11 pm

  3. Wow! So the relentless criticism of all that is does get to the bastards!

    Big Brother, one recalls, needs to be loved as well as feared and obeyed instantly. So your withholding of love has hurt poor Leon. What a pathetic ass hole, he must be. You should have told him to “suck it up!” and that there was more coming.

    I am beginning to read all that is going on as a crisis of liberalism. But one needs the concept of bad faith to really understand what Botstein and others are all about.

    BTW I loved the reference to Hannah Arendt’s “good” reasons for defending Heidegger.

    ae

    Gary

    Comment by Gary MacLennan — May 23, 2010 @ 11:36 pm

  4. I bet he was blubbering to his entourage all morning about you before that incident, otherwise they wouldn’t have come along for backup 🙂

    >Poor guy. He just wants to be loved by all.

    Look again at his picture, even his bow-tie is sad…

    Comment by Antonis — May 23, 2010 @ 11:36 pm

  5. I guess that the correct answer to your question as to whether Botstein had been drinking was yes. I would have thought that his entourage would have rushed away from you right away to prevent him from embarrassing himself.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — May 24, 2010 @ 12:49 am

  6. What psychobable!! You are clearly delusional. Poor chap! You really need help. Asher Edelman

    Comment by Asher Edelman — May 24, 2010 @ 2:02 am

  7. Let us know when you check yourself in to a helpfull place. There will surely be someone of us to help out !!

    Comment by Asher Edelman — May 24, 2010 @ 2:04 am

  8. I honestly don’t know if this is the real Asher Edelman or an impostor but I would advise him to stick to things he knows about rather than trolling a blog like this. Surely there must be an opening for him at Goldman Sachs if they need another lowlife bankster.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 24, 2010 @ 2:17 am

  9. Louis… But I thought the real Asher Edelman was an impostor.

    Comment by Richard Greener — May 24, 2010 @ 2:57 am

  10. Louie–this is a wonderful portrait, layered, nuanced, captures the complexity of situation
    and personality with humor and sadness, both of which apply. There is a great definition of
    personality as defined by Mark Twain as “a machine driven by self-interest and a craving for
    approval.” I think your portrait of Bottstein captures this. We know, too, that the ability
    to deal honestly according to one’s own lights requires a degree of development beyond
    either of these. Social conscience is also inconsistent with self-absorption. On the other hand,
    Leon has created a world where we once played that reflects his ambitions for good and ill,
    many trade-offs. I think Bleucher and Arndt would have interesting things to say about this.
    But can anyone clarify what Bottstein is referring to in Arndt’s relationship to Heidigger?
    Well done, Louie. You let the moment speak for itself. All best, Paul

    Comment by Paul Pines — May 24, 2010 @ 3:19 am

  11. Your Pekar style memoir sounds fun. Any more info on that?

    Comment by Michael Pollak — May 24, 2010 @ 3:44 am

  12. Paul… It is generally agreed that a very young Ms. Arndt had an affair with Heidigger while studying with him for her doctorate. Since Heidigger became a Nazi, I suppose that’s what Leon had in mind. What that has to do with our friend Louis is beyond me.

    Comment by Richard Greener — May 24, 2010 @ 4:10 am

  13. The memoir is supposed to come out in 2011 but frankly I am worried that Random House might balk at publishing it for one reason or another. They would pay Pekar since he is under contract but would let the book die. In that case, he can go to another publisher but I am getting antsy.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 24, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

  14. Louis,

    From the 3rd graph where you mention Bard as a compliment rather than a complement to West Point to your misspelling of Arendt, this post follows everything else of yours I have read concerning Leon.

    Unfortunately I was not at Commencement/Alumni Reunion this year, but I did watch the live stream from my bed at Smilow Cancer Center at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Obviously I would have preferred being in Annandale.

    My first remembrance of your criticism of Leon was your scathing denunciation of Asher Edelman because at that moment he and his partners were involved in a union dispute with waiters at Smith & Wollensky. As a lifelong supporter of unionism I understood well your position, but your naivete is appalling.

    Where, Louis, do you suppose private educational institutions find financial supporters? Is every Trustee of every college and university supposed to meet your litmus test of political purity?

    Louis, I have known Leon since he began his tenure at Bard. Were it not for him there would be no Bard today, no Alumni Weekend, no Commencement with or without Barack Obama. Have I always agreed with every single initiative of his? Of course not. Do I think, as an active alumnus, that the Bard community is beyond fortunate that Leon has chosen to stay all these years? Yes a thousand times over.

    It’s odd Louis that I never see you at Commencement. Many members of your class of 1965 show annually. Stan, Cynthia and others, but not you. And I would have been there (I had reservations) had I not become ill. Maybe you’ll show again next year and we can discuss, in person, your grievances about Leon Botstein.

    Jim Fine
    Bard 1968

    Comment by Jim Fine — May 24, 2010 @ 3:14 pm

  15. Jim… At our age many of us from the “Old Bard” have been kept from visiting Annandale by medical difficulties. But that’s hardly reason to inflict them upon Louis who thankfully is able to still get around. And isn’t pointing out spelling errors rather childish? I do wish you a speedy and complete recovery.

    Richard Greener
    Bard Class of 1963

    Comment by Richard Greener — May 24, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

  16. Jim, thank you for the correction on “complement/compliment” but I am quite sure that Hannah Arendt is the correct spelling.

    Also, Asher Edelman had nothing to do with Smith-Wollensky. This was strictly a problem with Odyssey Partners, the investment firm run by Leon Levy.

    Well, I don’t begrudge Leon Botstein lining up the support of a bunch of crooks. This is a very old tradition in American history going back to the robber barons who gave us Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon et al. Not to speak of the colleges that were financed by proceeds from the slave trade. Just don’t ask me to keep my mouth shut when I disapprove of the rich bastards who get their name on a building with their ill-gotten gains.

    As far as there being no Bard without Leon, I see this somewhat differently. I think that the Bard I went to disappeared sometime in the 1980s. The school has the same name but it is an entirely different institution. This would be the latest phase in the school’s evolution. 1) Seminary 2) Experimental college akin to Antioch, Black Mountain et al. 3) What it is today, which might be more accurately called Soros College or something like that since it his big bucks (and other hedge fund crooks) that keeps it alive. I personally wouldn’t have minded it going under rather than turning into what is today, namely the mother-ship of a worldwide network of colleges that Emily Fisher described as “outposts” of Bard College–like al Quds University. It amazed me that she didn’t get the colonial implication of a word like outpost. Who knows, maybe she did.

    I stopped going to commencements (and alumni cocktail parties) about 10 years ago. I have no connection to the college but only went up there to do some filming. I am preparing a Youtube documentary with my take on the Gehry building, etc. The link will be prominently displayed here.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 24, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

  17. Lou,
    I’m really sorry now that I missed the reunion. My excuse is not my health which is excellent–having ‘industrialized’ into a blue collar job in ’74 when I was a member of a Trotslyist group, the IS. Work has kept me in good shape. However, my wife, whose only contact with Bard over the years has been the alumni magazine and endless appeals for contributions, would have thrown me out of the house if I spent the money to fly the 3000 miles from Oakland. She is a hotel worker in San Francisco, lately on strike more often than at work.

    I think what the reference to Heidigger is about is that Blucher thought that Heidigger somehow made a case for human freedom. I wrote my senior thesis for Blucher on Heidigger in ’64. This was before the full story of his Nazi role or the affair of Arendt’s with Heidigger was known. I never did figure out how BEING AND TIME advanced the case for human freedom. In any case Blucher taught me to believe that what I do can make a difference. Nothing seemed more natural to him that one of his students would be a young socialist. I cannot believe that he would have preferred the Bard we attended to the Bard that exists today.

    It was good to hear from Paul and Richard on your blog.

    Comment by Paul Mueller — May 24, 2010 @ 6:05 pm

  18. Lou IS right. Where Bard goes the University of Chicago follows:

    The Chicago Boys’ Free Market Theology
    By MICHAEL HUDSON

    Many academics recently received a petition signed by 111 University of Chicago faculty members, explaining that “without any announcement to its own community, [the University] has commissioned Ann Beha Architects, a Boston firm, to remake the Chicago Theological Seminary building into a home for the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics (MFIRE) and has renewed aggressive fund-raising activity for the controversial Institute.”

    It would be hard to find a more fitting metaphor than what the press release characterizes as “conversion of the Seminary building into a temple of neoliberal economics.” Even the acronym MFIRE seems symbolically appropriate. The M might well stand for Money in Prof. Friedman’s MV = PT (Money x Velocity = Price x Transactions). And the FIRE sector comprises finance, insurance and real estate – the “free lunch” sector whose wealth the Chicago monetarists celebrate.

    Classical economists characterized the rent and interest accruing to the FIRE sector as “unearned income,” headed by land rent and land-price (“capital”) gains, which John Stuart Mill described as what landlords made “in their sleep.” Milton Friedman, by contrast, insisted that “there is no such thing as a free lunch” – as if the economy were not all about a free lunch and how to get it. And the main way to get it is to dismantle the role of government and sell off the public domain – on credit.

    As Charles Baudelaire quipped, the devil wins at the point where the world believes that he does not exist. Paraphrasing this we may say that free lunch rentiers achieve economic victory at the point where government regulators and economists believe that their returns do not exist – and hence, do not need to be taxed, regulated or otherwise subdued.

    See full article here: http://www.counterpunch.org/hudson05242010.html

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 24, 2010 @ 9:58 pm

  19. I was recruited in early 1967 by a group of common friends at the University of Chicago to talk to Leon Botstein about the Vietnam war. Although this was already quite late in the game, Botstein was still on the fence regarding the war, concerned about the spread of Communism, the “domino effect,” etc. Although he listened to what I had to say and conceded some of my points, I didn’t come away with the impression that I had penetrated his ideological armor. This was U of C after all, and Leo Strauss and Alan Bloom were ascendant. Perhaps Botstein later came to his senses about this watershed issue of his generation, but I tend to think he remained neutral, as befits his Swiss background. After that several-hour session, my next “encounter” with him was more than 40 years later, when I sent him a letter protesting his treatment of Joel Kovel, which included a reminiscence of our student disputation. In return, I received a form letter.

    Comment by Stuart Newman — May 24, 2010 @ 10:07 pm

  20. Like imperialism itself, neo-con liberalism in academia is truly global:

    As Gideon Levy wrote recently in Ha’aretz:

    “At the head of an important Israeli college stands a man who doesn’t understand a thing about democracy.”

    [Full Aticle linked below:]

    http://www.counterpunch.org/levy05212010.html

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 24, 2010 @ 11:13 pm

  21. just another elitist ass who thinks his sh*t doesn’t stink

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 25, 2010 @ 6:01 pm

  22. OK Lou, they’re all part of a dirty game. But be careful what you wish for.

    Comment by tom dengler — May 27, 2010 @ 2:57 am

  23. [OK Lou, they’re all part of a dirty game. But be careful what you wish for.]

    What’s that supposed to mean? If he wishes for the demise of the dirty game why should he be careful?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 27, 2010 @ 6:28 am

  24. At a small website called “Academic Jobs Wiki” (www.academicjobs.wikia/wiki/Academic_Jobs_Wiki) Bard is on their list of “Universities to Fear”, mostly because of Botstein’s actions. According to one anonymous poster (and they’re all anonymous) the college fires loads of non-white and gay adjuncts, the Dean’s Office lies to the faculty, toadying Botstein gets faculty members power, there are issues of discrimatory hiring practices, searches for new faculty are regularly voided, etc. The writer summed it up as “a culture of fealty, fear, and lies.” The only people who do well in Botstein’s dictatorship are chrome-dome himself and an unnamed academic labor lawyer in NYC who specializes in Bard College cases. Louis, he’s unhappy that he can’t fire you or bully you into doing his infernal will.

    BTW, people from Virginia Commonwealth University and Texas A&M Texarkana have hacked into the Fear list and deleted commentsabout their schools in the past, which I think says a lot about the control freak mentality of certain sections of academia.

    Comment by Strelnikov — July 9, 2010 @ 3:38 am

  25. Louis, a couple of years before you arrived at Bard there was a meeting of the whole community–students, faculty, administration, kitchen workers, buildings and grounds people, alumni who had never left, all packed into the old gym. The topic was on the order of “What the fuck should we do, shut the place down and walk away with heads high, or make some compromises which will certainly ultimately lead to something we won’t like?” I remember Bleucher walking up and down, arguing both sides and doing his gadfly thing–which mantle, by the way, you inherit. It was a long night and there were many impassioned speeches and noble sentiments expressed. In the end, people drawing salary or about to graduate having sway, the sense of the meeting was that the college would do what had to be done in order to continue to exist…in whatever shape or form. And the rest, as they say, is history. Reamer Kline, Botstein’s predecessor, does not get the credit he deserves for unmaking what the school had been. By the time Botstein arrived I believe he had pretty much a blank canvas, and it so happened that his tenure has been contemporary with education becoming the education industry, and, I don’t know, maybe he has made a valiant futile effort to resist the trend, maybe he laps it up, maybe he invented it. And here’s my point–it doesn’t matter. Keep doing what you do, Louis.

    Comment by Daniel Pinkwatrer — December 17, 2010 @ 8:18 am

  26. I follow these posts with great interest, having struggled to sustain a context of exploratory education in the Music Department at Bard, as its Chair beginning in 1973; this struggle (arm in arm with my close colleague Elie Yarden) culminated in my being separated from the “mainstream” music department to form an autonomous program entitled Music Program Zero, which sustained until 1997. The conundrum of institutional survival vs. “the school we would all want to teach or study in” was, for me, quite real; my only solution was to coexist ethically with the conventional college evolving around me while navigating an educational course informed by different purposes and perceptions, as a service to those students who sought and felt they needed and benefited from that route to learning. There is a Music Program Zero group on Facebook to attest to the lingering imprint of our work for those who cared about it.

    Comment by Benjamin Boretz — January 29, 2011 @ 2:39 am

  27. “In his heart of hearts, as he lies in bed in night, he can’t get the thought out his head that I am right.” There are many things I can think of to describe Proyect’s thoughts and words. “Chuckled at the idea that I was at fault. Botstein had accosted me after all.” So many things to say about his actions. In the almost 40 years I have been associated with the college, many wonderful things have taken place at Bard; sadly, there have also been serious losses. Of the merely unfortunate things to have happened during Bard’s history, Louis Proyect, having now read much of your raving pseudo-dialectical rants, I think your attendance and continuing engagement at Bard is and was a catastrophe.

    Permission is not given to duplicate, print elsewhere, quote, or use or repeat in any fashion, this remark.

    Comment by Constance Clemmons — November 29, 2016 @ 3:20 pm


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