Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 10, 2010

Email exchanges with a Bard College human rights professor

Filed under: Academia,bard college — louisproyect @ 2:25 pm

Roger Berkowitz

Last Wednesday I got a Bard College alumni email newsletter, something I have mixed feelings about—not unlike the reaction I have to Goldman-Sachs alumni emails. Both institutions epitomize the mixture of smug self-satisfaction and hypocrisy that drives an unrepentant Marxist like me up a wall.

The Bard newsletter had the usual tidbits about what alumni and professors were up to but a link to an article by a Human Rights professor named Roger Berkowitz caught my eye. For the past 15 years at least, Bard has operated as a wing of the George Soros Open Society/New York Review of Books/Human Rights Watch establishment. In practice, this axis has been all about unleashing oceans of ink on the world about Evil Slobodan Milosevic but nary a word about Nato’s uranium-tipped armaments in the Balkans wars.

Berkowitz, who runs the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, has built up an impressive CV lecturing and writing about evil dictators and such. His article “Approaching Infinity: Dignity in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon” is a fairly typical contribution from this Camus and Koestler-adoring crowd that makes the patently obvious claim that “Politics can follow no law but the law that the ends justify the means.” This is something that Koestler and Hannah Arendt fought against apparently.

Of course one might wonder why Bard ever considered extending an invitation to have President Obama speak at the 2010 Commencement (he had to cancel) in light of these considerations. Just yesterday the NY Times reported: “A federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled that former prisoners of the C.I.A. could not sue over their alleged torture in overseas prisons because such a lawsuit might expose secret government information.” So how did Obama, a politician who promised to clean up the Augean stable of human rights abuses under his predecessor, react to this news?

The sharply divided ruling was a major victory for the Obama administration’s efforts to advance a sweeping view of executive secrecy powers. It strengthens the White House’s hand as it has pushed an array of assertive counterterrorism policies, while raising an opportunity for the Supreme Court to rule for the first time in decades on the scope of the president’s power to restrict litigation that could reveal state secrets.

I guess the idea is that the ends do justify the means, as long as it they are being pursued by the “good guys” invited to speak at a college that enjoys bragging about its human rights credentials.

Berkowitz’s article, titled Why we must Judge, appears in Democracy: a Journal of Ideas that is edited by Michael Tomasky, a tiresome hardcore supporter of President Obama.  As the title of the article implies, it is a reminder to its readers that it is necessary to make judgments about evil dictators:

To judge the Iraq War morally wrong, and to judge the harassment of suspected illegal immigrants unconstitutional, reflects a sound mind. However, to condemn the characterization of an autocratic and cynical despot who gasses his own citizens as evil, and to refuse to see that those who enter this country illegally undermine our system of taxation, reduce the wages for working Americans, and contribute to a culture of corruption and lawlessness, is something else.

Of course, it is one thing to make such a point and another to tug at Leon Botstein’s sleeve and urge him to reconsider an invite to President Obama in light of what Koestler wrote about Stalinist illegality and repression. After all, those in the know understand that Leon is a bit of a bully and does not appreciate professors on his payroll judging him rather than those figures deserving of Orwellian hate minutes. That is left to impudent alumni like me who act on ethical imperatives rather than writing self-important articles about them.

Berkowitz’s article called attention to the kinds of “business leaders” (a euphemism for scumbag capitalists) that have been ravaging American society:

Are business leaders right to hire those who have earned hundreds of millions while destroying their companies?

This sentence prompted me to ask him in an email: “Oh, I don’t know. Where would the Bard College Board of Trustees be without such people?” To which he replied: “Who do you have in mind?” I responded thusly:

Asher Edelman and Charles Stephenson: corporate raiders

Leon Levy (deceased): his Odyssey Fund was brutal toward workers (http://www.marxmail.org/bitterman.htm)

Bruce Ratner: using insider political connections, ran roughshod over Brooklyn residents to create a dubious Sun Belt type development.

George Soros (an uber-board member): repeatedly broke laws to make profits, the latest instance being fined millions of dollars for illegal speculation against Hungary’s largest bank.

Stewart Resnick: in bed with the Fiji dictatorship to extract mineral water to sell to the prosperous.

As expected, he did not appreciate the men who provide the funding that allows him to teach in a pleasant environment along the Hudson River being “judged” in this fashion. He wrote me back:

Hi Louis

Do we know each other?

these are damning characterizations. I don’t know all these folks. But those whom I know I have a much more positive impression of than you do. Certainly, they are not people who ran companies into the ground by acting irresponsibly, which is what the quote you referred to below from my article was about. On the contrary, many of them saw the insanity of the last decade and then profited from the crash.

I must say I find your characterizations simplistic.  Are you suggesting that these businessmen are so evil that Bard shouldn’t associate with them? I find that a hard argument to share. Your one-sided characterizations to the side, these are quite respected people you are talking about.


I will conclude with my response, although something tells me that the correspondence will continue. I have a way of getting under the skin of people like Roger Berkowitz and Leon Botstein:

> Hi Louis
> Do we know each other?

Not really. I graduated Bard College in 1965 and have been in a running battle with Leon since the late 80s after Martin Peretz was added to the board. When I saw a link to your article in the latest alumni newsletter email, I decided to have a look. I am quite interested in questions of ethics, the super-rich and academia.

I was president of a nonprofit whose volunteers were working in Nicaragua with an engineer named Ben Linder who was murdered by the contras. At the time Peretz’s New Republic was a major voice for contra funding. I wrote Botstein a letter *judging* Peretz that he took strong exception to, based on “free speech” considerations. Politics was not a litmus test for board selection, he told me. Well, that’s obviously a truism when it comes to the connections between the malevolent rich and academia going back to the days of Andrew Carnegie.

> these are damning characterizations. I don’t know all these folks. But
> those whom I know I have a much more positive impression of than you
> do.

Obviously. This is called rallying around the flag. All politics, including academic politics, is imbued with this.

> Certainly, they are not people who ran companies into the ground by
> acting irresponsibly, which is what the quote you referred to below
> from my article was about. On the contrary, many of them saw the
> insanity of the last decade and then profited from the crash.

Well, look, the financialization and hyper-speculation of the American economy has resulted in mass misery. I am 65 years old and have seen the consequence of job loss, foreclosure, etc. on people I know. Hedge fund managers and owners of private capital firms are to blame for this. That is something that is *on record*. That sector of the American economy is well represented on the Bard board. Of course, Leon was simply doing what college presidents have been doing since the early 1900s when he lined up a crook like George Soros (through his wife Susan). This is the way the system works. Read Upton Sinclair’s book on academia for more information.

> I must say I find your characterizations simplistic.  Are you
> suggesting that these businessmen are so evil that Bard shouldn’t
> associate with them? I find that a hard argument to share. Your one-
> sided characterizations to the side, these are quite respected people
> you are talking about.

Frankly, I don’t give a rat’s ass about who Leon puts on the board. My only interest is in calling attention to it through postings on my blog (that Leon’s son reads to his great chagrin) and in my prize-winning video “Leon and Me” (my wife gave the prize, a kiss on the cheek.)


  1. Telling the mouse that the master who supplies his cheese does so at the expense of the cow will hardly stop the rodent from eating. But good luck anyway…

    Comment by Richard Greener — September 10, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

  2. Richard, as I said above, I am not interested in changing anything at Bard. I only write these sorts of things to prompt Botstein’s son to call him up and ask if he has seen my latest outrage. I take deep pleasure in imagining the look on his face.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 10, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

  3. Well then… by all means continue to bait your trap. Too bad we can sit on the steps of Albee watching the rats run for cover.

    Comment by Richard Greener — September 10, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

  4. What postmodernist claptrap! Whenever these Berkowitz types are caught shit-handed, suddenly all judgement and politics and moral standpoints become a backward manichean fanaticism, ideological (another postmodern aphorism) etc, while to them, supposedly, everything suddenly is not black and white, everything is relative, is somehow cultural and not political and other such platitudes.

    Yet they never hold their relativistic ideol… oh hang on, can’t use that word, views, when it comes to imperialsim (surely an antiquated term alluding to Stalinism and old-fashioned cold-war politics, that is irrelevant nowadays) or those in power (again another irrelevant term back from the accursed age of old-fashioned class politics of envy), adotping the stance of the character Hacivat in Turkish shadow-theatre: quarrelsome towards the poor and weak, while worshipful towards the Pasha, bowing down until his forehead hits the floor.

    Comment by Antonis — September 10, 2010 @ 10:26 pm

  5. It is a comment like Antonis’s that keeps me going.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 10, 2010 @ 10:46 pm

  6. “Why we must Judge” Hah! Perfect title for the smug and self-righteous.

    Comment by haensgen — September 10, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

  7. George Orwell had some interesting things to say about ‘enlightened’ thinking that’s part of the George Soros Open Society/New York Review of Books/Human Rights Watch outlook:

    All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment’, demands that the robbery shall continue. A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, ‘making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep’.

    Also, a more useful take (PDF) on the Human Rights-wallahs from a less ‘enlightened’ prof in the neighborhood.

    Comment by sk — September 11, 2010 @ 2:18 am

  8. I wish I had a “sound mind” so that I would understand how “those who enter our country illegally […] contribute to a culture of corruption and lawlessness” by working hard and taking care of their families.

    Also, I wish my mind were sound enough to understand that “people who ran companies into the ground by acting irresponsibly” ought to be condemned, while people who “profited from the crash” should be praised. Apparently a crime spree which does not end with sirens and lights is not a crime spree at all. (Not that the “ends justify the means,” of course).

    And maybe I would understand why “quite respected people” ought to be exempt from “damning characterizations.” I admit that my lack of a sound mind prevents me from understanding why a “quite respected” criminal is any less a criminal.

    Comment by Dave Palmer — September 11, 2010 @ 5:44 pm

  9. Another Orwell remark (from the posthumous diaries) seems to me more appropriate:

    “Is it any wonder why everyone hates us so?”

    Comment by John Halle — September 11, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

  10. sk – thanks for linking that PDF filed article entitled “Ethics and the Rearmament of Imperialism” linked above and below:

    Click to access Ross.pdf

    It’s freaking brilliant! The NYU author Kristin Ross is my new hero.

    I’ve been trying to articulate something like this thesis since the collapse of the Soviets. I really think it’s important that Louis review the article so we might prompt a discussion and foster some common ground as I’d be curious to know who and why sombody would object to the worldview articulated by the author, which can be summed up thusly:

    When it comes to the Pentagon’s “humanitarian assistance” in places like Somalia (Evil Warloards); the Balkans (mass rape & ethnic cleansing); Iraq (where the US was to be greeted as liberators) and now Afghanistan (where it was falsely reported by TIME that the Evil Taliban cut off a woman’s nose for some petty crime) — “The obligation of assisting the victims of absolute evil becomes indistinguishable from the deployment of an unlimited military power–a police force charged with bringing order to any part of the world where evil may be lurking.” — Kristin Ross NYU

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 12, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

  11. Arundhati Roy has also spoken on why Human Rightists are viewed with suspicion even in places where wholesale torture and murder are the norm:

    Apolitical (and therefore, actually, extremely political) distress reports from poor countries and war zones eventually make the (dark) people of those (dark) countries seem like pathological victims. Another malnourished Indian, another starving Ethiopian, another Afghan refugee camp, another maimed Sudanese . . . in need of the white man’s help. They unwittingly reinforce racist stereotypes and re-affirm the achievements, the comforts, and the compassion (the tough love) of Western civilization. They’re the secular missionaries of the modern world.

    Here’s a recent picture from one such country that is touted as a “shining” beacon for it’s part of the world.

    Comment by sk — September 12, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

  12. Right sk. A. Roy has brillaintly elucidated this paradigm consistently, and for quite some time, which is ultimately not so novel but still so rare & eloquent it’s always refreshing. It’s in fact a critique of imperialism that were he alive Trotky would have employed. Even Louis touches upon the connective tissue which fuses “humanitarian interventions” with the “Cruise Missile Left” but what’s so neat about the Kristin Ross article is how it traces ideological origins to the failure of the New Left of the 60’s to build a movement that goes beyond some admittedly important victories for identity politics (like feminism & gay rights) — that is, a movement which actually touches a hair on capitalism’s head. Amazing how actions that erect such an elaborate facade of righteous good intentions are in reality pavements to hell.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 12, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

  13. The writings of Diana Johnstone and Kirsten Sellars are also useful in charting the trajectory of this “coercive consensus”.

    Comment by sk — September 12, 2010 @ 11:14 pm

  14. Yes, yes, sk. Two more excellent articles that really piss me off & disgust me simultaneously. Like one of the authors said, such a worldview is “heresy”! Thanks for posting them.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 13, 2010 @ 2:00 am

  15. […] turn out the Samantha Powers of the next generation. I first got wind of Berkowitz last year when I stumbled across an article he had written describing undocumented workers as those who enter this country illegally undermine […]

    Pingback by Bard College professors attack Occupy Wall Street « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 22, 2011 @ 7:32 pm

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