Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 15, 2021

Joel Kovel spills the beans on Leon Botstein

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 2:52 pm

Joel Kovel

Leon Botstein

Long-time readers of this blog probably recall that I have written numerous articles in opposition to Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College since 1975. My first reaction to Botstein was positive. But after Martin Peretz had joined the Board of Trustees, I changed my mind. As president of the board of Tecnica, a sort of small-scale radical version of the Peace Corps that sent volunteers to Nicaragua, the murder of Ben Linder in Nicaragua in 1987 hit home since we were providing material aid to his project. Ben was working on a weir—a small scale dam—that would produce electricity for peasants in the north. Meanwhile, Peretz was promoting the contras in The New Republic. That led me to write an angry letter to Botstein about the mockery he was making of educational values. While Peretz was attending Board meetings, his “freedom fighters” were burning schools and killing teachers.

Botstein wrote back taking great offense at having his values held up for scrutiny. Since he has an ego bigger than the Grand Canyon, the idea that he wasn’t perfect got his juices flowing. Within a few years, I went to work at Columbia University and began writing further critiques of Botstein around a number of questions including the addition of Pom Wonderful CEO Stewart Resnick to the board. Using his great wealth, Resnick got preferential treatment for his farms in California even at the expense of nearby people not being able to flush their toilet because the farms were sucking up all the available water.

A year after I wrote my letter to Botstein, Bard hired my old friend and comrade Joel Kovel to become the Alger Hiss professor, a post funded by his family. For a number of years Joel enjoyed an idyllic existence at Bard, not that different from what I experienced as a student. But when he began criticizing Israel, he got on Botstein’s wrong side. Botstein was a Zionist, a stance that probably had a lot to do with him adding Peretz to the Board. Peretz once said, “Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.” He further questioned whether Muslim-Americans deserve the “privileges of the First Amendment.”

After he wrote “Overcoming Zionism” in 2007, the University of Michigan publishers decided to drop it after powerful Zionist donors to the school threatened to end their support.  A campaign around this censorship was mounted but Botstein did not say a word, implicitly siding with the move against him. Two years later, his contract as Alger Hiss chair was not renewed and his supporters, including me, began taking up his cause. Joel once told me that I should avoid using the word “fired” because he was in delicate settlement talks with the school that would be jeopardized by claims of their liability. When they arrived at a settlement, it included a non-disclosure agreement that he keep his views on Botstein and Bard College to himself.

In 2017, his memoir “The Lost Traveller’s Dream” appeared. A year later he was dead.

Recently, I got around to read it in the hope that he would spill the beans on Botstein and Bard despite the non-disclosure agreement. He did not disappoint. He must have got Leon even more pissed than my letter about Peretz. Below are 3 excerpts from the memoir that showed his utter contempt for Botstein but also revealed the rancor the relatively apolitical faculty held toward his haughty manner of running the school as if he were a feudal lord.

Bard had a leader who preached pure progressivism while ruling like a despot (pages 233-236)

BUT WOODSTOCK WAS NOT ALL that gave me hope after 1988. I now had an academic home base, a nine-hundred-acre campus overlooking the Hudson River. There were magnificent trees, a few traditional buildings and a few modern ones, a pathetic library, and a lot of peace and quiet. As a boy in love with learning I used to fantasize about a place like this (though not the library), where I would walk about—in academic garb, no less—and talk of high things with high-minded people. There would be no father yelling imprecations, no strife-torn world invading the Arcadian sanctuary of learning. I had nearly forgotten this dream since I stepped into the turbulence of medicine and for many years thereafter. Now it seemed I had arrived in Arcadia, and at a senior level, no less. It was a glory to drive there from my Willow home across the gorgeous Hudson River. I could teach what I wanted and how I wanted, with no more than seven classroom hours a week for two courses, and students of a generally progressive disposition. There were no departmental limits, as I belonged to no department yet circulated through all; there was nobody looking over my shoulder, no need to jockey for aca-demic turf, no need to get caught ij in the endless minutiae of committee work, no bureaucracy in my way, plenty of tennis courts, and parking so abundant that I never had to worry about getting a place in my whole twenty-one years at Bard College, in the ghost town of Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. What could go wrong?

The man presiding over this riverine Shangri-La was tall, of a frowning, owlish aspect and formal ways. Reason tells us that Leon Botstein once must have been a tiny baby who needed his diaper changed. But sometimes one thought Leon might be a space alien planted in storied Annandale complete with bow-tie and Adorno-esque affectation, sent by the Gods to rule over the little fiefdom of Bard. This he did by the time-honored means of artful control over the funding process, by which the mainstream of the college’s fiscal blood supply originated from a hand-picked Board of Financiers held in place by his charisma, to be dispensed by Leon according to an ethos of Liberal Reason and Academic Freedom.

Bard therefore had a leader who preached a pure progressivism while governing a pure despotism. It was an excellent web to ensnare the liberal will, and it made Botstein larger than life in the eyes of the Bard community. Many a time in my early years did I wonder how the college would ever get by if he were hit by a bus, or was lured to another institution (indeed, it was rumored that he was being considered for Secretary of Education in the Gore administration). Would not the financial spigots be immediately turned off?1 Would not our tycoons go elsewhere? How helpless the school was against Botstein’s power; how fortunate that he was so enlightened. And how ridiculous that power was so centralized in one executive’s hands; how much would a decent new-fashioned bureaucracy have been appreciated instead of this arbitrary exertion of authority.

Soon after my arrival Leon and I had a few lengthy and interesting conversations in which we staked out, so to speak, the ground between us. I found him to be always on stage, always wary, and very bright—though not so bright as he thought. It also seemed that Botstein was trying to recruit me as a kind of agent to report to him about the Social Studies Division to which I belonged. He professed a considerable contempt for the hacks working there as he tried to set me up as a trusted insider working with him in a strategic way. So I inferred, and so I desisted—and after a while our intimate conversations wound down and I settled into a long and, for the first twelve years at Bard, pleasant routine.

I soon noticed that the first-rate circumstances of the college had done little to improve the esprit of the faculty. A cheerless bunch, they were united only by discreet hatred of their President, which they mainly shared endlessly with each other. By and large, I liked them and they seemed to like me, though there was quite a bit of circumspection in our interchanges, and none of the passion that bubbled so often through cracks in my rambunctious soul. Politically they were mostly on the left-liberal side of things, and seemed grateful for my presence and vicariously sympathetic to it, calling me “the conscience of Bard” and such for my various enthusiasms and outrages.

Hatred of Leon welled forth from his exploitation of the tenure process. I assume it is any college president’s prerogative to intervene in tenure. But no one I know of routinely turned this into a show trial, in which, after all the evidence had been painstakingly gathered, the college community would bate its collective breath and wait the definitive decision of the Lord High Executioner concerning the wretch whose career had been placed in presidential hands. It was impossible to avoid the conclusion that every so often Leon would perversely overturn a tenure decision that had seemed overwhelmingly positive according to all the recognized criteria of academic virtue, simply to show everybody who was boss and in whom all the power lay as to the future of Bard. Never did any importuning or petitioning move the Liberal King to reverse an opinion of strategic importance. The inevitable results of these manipulations were, first, to stimulate a coterie of toadies and in-formers who would sidle up to mid-level administrative posts in the Permanent Botstein Administration; and, second, to secrete the elixir of fear and loathing that flowed through the collective veins of the faculty.

Tycoons like billionaire George Soros (pages 311-313)

As an active member of the Jewish community, I recognize that the American Jewish community is disproportionately generous to American higher education. For the president of an institution to express his or her solidarity with Israel is welcomed by a very important part of their support base.

— Leon Botstein, Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan 5, 2014

Bard College, where I spent the last 21 years of my academic career, was touted by the gaming pages that announce such things as the school that had “put the ‘liberal’ in liberal arts.” in this spirit the college’s van was turned over to students to drive the 250 miles to Washington, DC for a hearing ensuing upon arrest for protesting on the steps of the Supreme Court. As for myself, during my years as its Alger Hiss Professor, the college generously supported my race for the Senate in 1998, essentially giving me a leave of absence so long as I made it an open tutorial for students who wanted some rough and tumble exposure to the harsh world of electoral politics. The name of Bard College and that of Leon Botstein, its “President for Life,” may be regarded as freely interchangeable. It was Botstein cum Bard who saved my floundering career when I was down and out. This gave me the space to teach what I pleased no matter how contrary to established wisdom, to publish four substantial books, and do interesting things like march against the Apartheid regime of South Africa, cross the U.S. blockade of Cuba, or take over the reins of a quirky journal with the modest goal of bringing down the capitalist system to save the world from ecological degeneration and collapse. And it was Bard cum Botstein that crushed the selfsame career, In remarkably short order, hard times befell me: first, estrangement around the turn of the Millennium, then increasing exclusion, and finally, in 2009 upon return from the Belem Social Forum where we had launched the Second Ecosocialist Manifesto, outright expulsion.

THE BATTLE TOOK PLACE ACROSS two fronts. The first evolving from a funding mechanism to keep Bard afloat by turning the Board of Trustees into a reliable year by year source. Wealthy folk we needed, generous and eager to be swayed by a charismatic president; not old money then, but new and fluid money, such as comes from finance. In this way, small, dreamy Bard became an instrument of finance capital, the most dynamic sector of the Number One society of the United States of America.

Capitalism, based in the endless accumulation of money, itself the “liberal” society. The same word is advanced by “progressives” who stand for modernity, for example politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, philosophers like Karl Popper, and tycoons like billionaire George Soros — notwithstanding that capitalism widens the gap between rich and poor, leaves nature in ruins and for the last forty years, has inflicted upon our world the devastation we call “neoliberalism.” Thus liberalism breeds upon itself and turns into nightmare.

Soros was introduced to Bard, along with my Senate campaign of 1998, when Botstein announced association with the acclaimed financier as a structural change for the once lethargic college directly (though his wife was to join the Board of Trustees), but sort of a Godfather, with Leon Botstein as consigliere to carry out the global agenda of Soros’ Open Society Foundation and its numerous projects of “democracy enhancement.” It was not long before the Open Society college combined with the far more powerful forces of the Council on Foreign Relations, the beachhead for which was created when James Chase joined the faculty in 1989, a year after I assumed the Hiss Chair. Now poor Alger had to endure the further indignity of being posted on the ground taken over by the National Security State that had made him an outlaw. Soon, CFR was joined by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, just across the Hudson River, the combination transforming the school that put the liberal in liberal arts into a bastion of neo-conservatism. It got worse. Early in the new Millennium I returned from a leave of absence to learn that one Walter Russell Mead had occupied my office while I was gone. Mead was, believe it or not, the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, a post he held until 2010. Quel Honneur! He became full-time at Bard after 2004 as the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities, a redoubt from which he could cheer on the invasion of Iraq.

Joel says goodbye to Bard College (pages 329-331)

MEANWHILE, IN ANNANDALE ON HUDSON, the denouement of my Bard career was bring prepared as the calendar crept up on 2009 and the days of my contract dwindled down to a not-so-precious few. Having endured the first course in Zionism I had taught at Bard, I was off to Belem over Christmas for the World Social Forum and the Second Draft of the Ecosocialist Manifesto. I looked to my six months off campus coming up, but my five-year contract was expiring, and Bard had prepared a reckoning: too dreary to detail but necessary to ponder and in any case, to document. And so I will compress my version of what occurred to supply a selection of bulleted points before turning to the next stage of my travels.

My situation differed from most others of this kind in that the last thing I wanted was to have my job back, a fate akin to a prison sentence. My best hope was modest, a gracious departure, without rancor; and I tried to make this wish known. Whether because of sensitivity that any separation agreement might be seen as prejudicial on their part, or from sheer vindictiveness—or more likely, from both of these motives—Bard elected to claim that of course there was no question at all of any political motive by the college, and chose to get rid of me by alleging incompetence and irrelevance at a time of budgetary hardship (the “Great Recession” was then raging). It appeared a hastily prepared letter from Dean Michele Dominy with all the charm of a Pink Slip telling me to leave my identity card at the door.

I refused to accept what amounted to an allegation of senility and protested. This triggered a Blitzkrieg on the college’s part in which vindictiveness was rampant and all stops were pulled. Botstein turned a routine full-faculty meeting which I missed, in to character assassination, alleging my lying, psychopathy and paranoia; similar charges were launched over the faculty email list serve. Dean Dominy and Professor Amy Ansell from the Social Studies Division called a meeting of students in which my defects were laid forth. This provoked a revolt among sectors of the student body, my only ally in the furor, which included allegations from students assigned to the committee handling my case, that there seemed to be actual tampering with the evaluations used as evidence.

THIS WOULD HAVE BEEN VERY INTERESTING evidence for a lawsuit I could have brought alleging defamation of character. There were other major irregularities, for example, the fact that the faculty committee evaluating me was chaired by Prof. Bruce Chilton, an arch Zionist who among other things had spoken on national radio during the destruction of Gaza taking place at this time, opining that the havoc could be legitimated by Just War theory. Yes, that’s what tin. man said; after all, he was a theologian, the Episcopal chaplain at Bard (a fact of some interest in view of my forthcoming religious turn) and director of Bard’s extensive programs in this area. In better times at Bard, Chilton had been supportive of my work, including History and Spirit. He even said that he had supported my rehiring and had been deeply offended by my hostile reaction to his role, poor fellow.

All of this (and there is more) requires no further comment. My position was that I was being subjected to what amounted to an inquisition and that I had the option to seek recourse in a law suit that won, could be devastating to the college. I also had a lot of people on my side, including the group founded during the 2007 fracas with Overcoming Zionism. Committee for Open Discussion of Zionism, which contained a number of fine and prestigious lawyers, for example, Michael Smith, Michael Ratner (deceased, a great loss to humanity, in 2016), Abdeen Jabara, Barbara Harvey, and Dennis James, the latter of whom who served admirably as my first-line legal adviser, and added top-notch anti-Zionist intellectuals like Terri Ginsberg and Jonathan House, a psychoanalyst who had organized The NY Hospital System when we both were House Officers. ‘

PERSONALLY, I THOUGHT THE SUIT could be won, and that it would have positive political impact aside from the settlement itself. I was emotionally disposed to do so, having been driven into a fine rage by the treatment I had received over the years. Weighing against the decision to sue was a definite prospect: that suing would almost certainly ruin the later years of my life. I knew this myself and all my legal advisers felt the same—and that was that. So I had to forego the fond dream of seeing Leon Botstein, Bruce Chilton, et al. squirming in the Dock under oath. I wanted to be Free from Bard, Free at Last!, and a lawsuit of this kind is at base, nothing but a set of leg-irons.

I even wanted to be free from writing and talking about that desolate place, but not so free as would have been the case had I accepted the final terms demanded by Bard’s legal team, namely, that in exchange for a package of unspecified paltry “benefits” that is, “an “amicable settlement,” all I needed to do was to pledge: a) to never write or speak publicly about anything that transpired between the college and myself regarding this affair; and b) that in the spirit of this, I would see to it that all references to it as had found their way onto the internet, would be deleted. Rather akin to peeing while bathing in the ocean and removing all traces from the briny waves. Oh, and also: that I could never write this memoir. Next case!

May 24, 2020

St. Marks Place

Filed under: art,bard college,Film — louisproyect @ 8:07 pm

Click to play

As I watched Richard Allen’s six-minute film “St. Marks Place”, I couldn’t help but remembering what I wrote about the old New York of my youth in a piece about the pandemic:

Slowly but surely, everything that endeared New York to me has died largely because of the predatory nature of real estate development as symbolized by the evil presence in the White House.

Jeremiah Moss, who blogs at Vanishing New York, just posted about the photographer Robert Herman, who jumped to his death from the 16th floor of his Tribeca apartment building last Friday night. Herman’s suicide note read, “How do you enjoy life?”

Like Jeremiah, Richard has the old New York in his heart, reflected not only in the film but in his book of photography titled “Street Shots/Hooky: New York City Photographs 1970s” that captures the vitality of the city before it became gobbled up by CVS’s, HSBC’s and 75-story condos filled with hedge fund managers. I am not sure about the availability of the book but if it piques your interest, drop me a line at lnp3@panix.com and I’ll put you in touch with Richard. The last time I saw him in NY, he had a carton of the books that he was dropping off at local bookstores, at least those that hadn’t been put out of business by Amazon.

Photos from Street Shots/Hooky: New York City Photographs 1970s:

Of all the people I knew at Bard, there were only three that I have been in touch with in recent years. One was the great poet Paul Pines who died of lung cancer in 2018. Now there are two people I remain in touch with, Richard who will be making films until he dies and Jeffrey Marlin, my chess partner who will be writing fiction until the grim reaper carries him away. All three of us are prime candidates for a COVID-19 torpedo attack but we hope that social distancing will keep us going.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that the four years I spent at Bard College and the eleven in the Trotskyist movement were very intense. In the first instance, spiritually and socially. In the second, politically. And at Bard College, my memories of Richard are most vivid.

He was part of a crowd that included Kenny Shapiro, Blythe Danner, Lane Sarasohn, and Chevy Chase. I loved Blythe and Chevy but couldn’t take Kenny, who died in 2017. Despite my distaste for Kenny, I have to admit that he was very talented. When he graduated Bard, he moved to NY and developed an off-off-Broadway show called “Channel One” that featured Lane, Chevy and Richard’s satire on network TV. Eventually, that became a movie called “Groove Tube”.

If you go to Richard’s Vimeo channel, you can see Richard bouncing off a brick wall in a brief film (this was in the days of Super-8) followed by a very young Chevy Chase in bell-bottom jeans performing in a homage to the days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

But for the best slapstick comedy, I recommend Richard’s “One-armed bandit” that won the Sony Pictures Classic Short Film prize at the 2018 Asbury Park Music and Film Festival. Look carefully and you’ll see Chevy playing a cop in the final moments.

April 15, 2020

Motorcycle Madness

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 10:19 pm

While under COVID-19 house arrest, I have to figure out ways to pass the time. Mostly, I am reading Marxist literature both in print and online but find myself more and more surfing the net to find interesting things to share on FB or in the instance below mostly for my own amusement. Absent a byline, I still recognized this article I wrote for the Bard Observer in 1965. It was the only thing I wrote for the student newspaper in my four years there. When I was in the SWP, I may have written a single article but can’t be sure. It was only after I got involved with putting out the Nicaragua Network Newsletter in the 1980s that I began to write on a regular basis. This was at a time when using Ventura desktop publishing was a big deal. After getting on the Internet at Columbia in 1991 did I begin to become “the prolific idiot” as Marc Cooper once put it.

My motorcycle referenced in the article:

Motorcycles Return After Near Extinction

What is it that turns people on about motorcycles? For about two semesters now the vast majority of students at Bard have been going berserk about bikes. Listen to conversations; one is constantly hearing references to “the machine I’m bringing up in couple of weeks” or “the one I’m definite getting as soon as I can get some scratch together”. Mention, in a loud enough voice, “blown Vincent”, Yamaha YDS-3 or Triumph TT Special, and everyone’s ears prick up. Chicks included. One girl insists that she’s getting one, a Triumph Tiger Cub is the one for her.

It’s not difficult to understand the fascination attached to motorcycles. I think it works on several levels. First, there is the aesthetic sensual appeal. Bikes are just so good looking. There is nothing so fine as a new machine with just enough chrome and a tasteful paint job. Hondas have won a number well-understood awards in the design field. Cycle pipes and mufflers flowing back gracefully along the length of the frame are a key element in aesthetic design. Some scramblers incorporate pipe-layout that would make Calder green with envy—the Honda dirt machine for example. The sounds that come from bikes are also something else. A throbbing roar coming from a straight pipe, can be a tuned megaphone, is as appealing to some people as music. (I have a friend who is composer studying at Julliard, and who is considering writing some musique concrete with cycle sounds.) Part of the sensual appeal of bikes is the plain thrill of acceleration in the open air. Going 0 to 60 in 5.1 second (figures for a Norton 750) with nothing about you is just unreal. Steering a cycle is also a great experience; one steers by leaning. Let’s say there’s a 20 mph- curve. You come into it at fifty, downshift into third and take it at thirty-five without the slightest difficulty Just lean.

On another level, bikes are fascinating because they’re so inexpensive to purchase and operate. Most bikes get at least seventy five miles to the gallon, with some light weights getting 120 to the gallon. Name one car that can come near that. Last semester I spent about 5 bucks on gas for a huge amount of getting around. Some people say you can’t use them in the winter, so they’re not good transportation. Baloney. Just as long as the roads are dry, you can use them and can even be reasonably comfortable.

For the benefit of newcomers to Bard, I’ll try to give a brief survey of the bikes at Bard in the nearly four years I’ve been here—and the students who drove them. When I was a freshman there were two guys, Arnie Melk and Fred Feldman, who looked like less prominent members of the cast of The Wild One. Fred went through about four bikes at Bard. They were all used and often falling apart, and unmuffled. His best machine was a 650 AJS which had been painted pop art pink. Arnie had a Harley which he claimed was a 74 inch; I’m skeptical. There was Bill Tinker who owned a hilarious old Indian with ape-hangers. Steve Dane, a good old friend, had a Ducati 50 cc that was unmuffled. At a distance it sounded like a furious mosquito. Mark Kennedy had a Beesah 250 [BSA] one year and then traded it in for a new Ducati Diana. Mark was probably the most skilled rider ever at Bard. These people left Bard a long while ago. After their exit, the only rider was Dave Jacobowitz; his sturdy Matchless 350 single was a good “thumper” and not very fast. Dave is now hot to get a Matchless 750 scrambler. Good luck, Dave. Last semester, it seems that everyone decided to finally make the big leap. Chester Denton came up with a fantastically hot 650 Beesah scrambler. Joe Ribar had two bikes at once—a groovy old single-cart 650 Beesah and a Zundapp 250 which is not so groovy. Don Moore now owns the Beesah but has blown the head gaskets, tch-tch. Peter Schabacker bought a stunning BMW which was really the center of attention. Mr. Herdman has a smaller BMW which he keeps in immaculate condition, much to the Director of Admission’s credit. Joel Morrow bought a very pretty Ducati Monza. And I bought a 175 Jawa which is as slow as molasses, but is cheap to own and run. My next bike will probably be a hot 250, maybe a Bultaco which is a screaming Spanish bike. The latest bike on campus is Steve Lipson’s YDS-3 Yamaha which goes 0-60 in less than eight seconds and has five forward gears. It is a very fine bike.

December 30, 2019

Richard Greener (1941-2019): a good friend passes on

Filed under: bard college,obituary — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

For regular readers of this blog, you might recall references to Richard Greener over the years. I’ve reviewed his first novel in the Locator series titled “The Knowland Intervention” and conducted three interviews with him, one of which had him sharing thoughts with Jeffrey Marlin, who has also made several appearances here.

A week ago I learned that Richard had died. He was 78 and living on borrowed time for many years as a heart transplant recipient. An entry for Richard in Encyclopedia.com explains how he became a novelist late in life:

A series of heart attacks in the 1980s sidelined former broadcast industry executive Richard Greener, and over the next decade his health deteriorated to the point that he was confined to bed and named to a heart transplant list. The desire to write fiction came out of a need to alleviate the boredom of bed rest and the pain associated with his heart condition. “I was able to sit at my computer, particularly at night, and avoid chest pains by sitting up straight and writing, it was a great help,” Greener told ForeWord Magazine editor Cymbre Foster. In 2006, his brother-in-law sent Greener’s manuscripts to some agents, and within nine months a publisher agreed to print two completed novels. It was around this time that Greener’s transplant came through, and he was able to celebrate his books’ publication with a new heart.

As for the “broadcast industry” reference, Richard was the president of WAOK in Atlanta, Georgia for decades—a radio station serving the needs of the city’s Black community, whose success was helped by the skills of a white Jew. When Richard used to show up at Black radio conferences, the audience was always surprised to see that its legendary president was not Black. If you want to hear Richard expound on the vicissitudes of radio, the interview below is very much worth listening to. As someone who grew up loving radio, his words as an insider meant a lot to me. Immediately beneath it is an interview I conducted with Richard about James Brown, a business associate of his for many years.

And just beneath that is an interview with Richard and Jeffrey Marlin, who has been a friend for 58 years after I began following him around like a puppy dog at Bard College as a freshman in 1961. Jeffrey and Richard started Bard four years earlier as freshman, so their friendship went back 62 years.

Jeffrey and Richard were two of the leading lights of what we used to call “old Bardians”. This meant representatives of the culture at the college Walter Winchell called “the little red whorehouse on the Hudson”. I can say it was little but not much of a whorehouse or red. The student body was just over 400 and most students were apolitical. What politics there were depended a lot on the initiatives taken by Richard, Jeffrey and the iconoclasts around them. In 1961, they came up with the brilliant idea of forming the Welcome the Bomb Committee that was a reaction to Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s mandatory fallout shelter proposals. They told Bard students that if we welcomed the bomb, it would be less hostile. A ceremony was held on the quad that was culminated by Peter Barney firing off a miniature cannon that he brought back from a sailboat trip around the world. You could hear the thing going off across the Hudson river. The student newspaper reported on the rally:

Welcome Bomb Rally Held Here

The Welcome the Bomb Committee held its first community assembly on the lawn in front of the gym on Sunday, October 1. Grand Imperial Wizard Jeff Marlin presided over the ceremonies, which opened with a cannonade supplied by the deft broomstick of Peter Barney. Chaplain Aaron Goldstein intoned the invocation. He invoked the blessings of the Great Bomb, Lord of Hosts, calling for it to descend to earth quickly so that it might receive a suitably ecstatic reception. Wizard Marlin then made a brief speech outlining the Committee’s policies. He said that if a man arrived at a party in his best attire and found the guests diving under sofas and into closets upon his appearance, he would certainly feel hurt and angry. Similarly, Marlin said, the Bomb is deeply saddened at our frantic preparations for shelters and alarm systems. Unless we make haste to welcome it joyfully, it will come to us in anger. “If we welcome the Bomb,” said Wizard Marlin, “the Bomb will welcome us. If we are hostile to the Bomb, the Bomb will be hostile to us. A hurt Bomb is a hostile Bomb.” Marlin also stated that the Committee was against fresh-man regulations. He refused to clarify this statement. Choral Director Richard Greener next led the audience in a rendition of the Committee’s anthem, “Welcome the Bomb.” Orchestral Director Bob Marrow accompanied on the recorder. Grand Fusilier Barney then set off another symbolic holocaust, and Chaplain Goldstein concluded the ceremonies with the Benediction.

I barely knew Richard at Bard. He lived in Albee dorm with Jeffrey and me but on an upper floor. In my mind’s eye, I can see him walking down the steps wearing blue jeans, a blue denim work-shirt and a green corduroy jacket, usually on his way to the pool hall on campus with a scowl on his face. He was an ace pool player—that’s my strongest memory of him at the time.

It was only after I graduated and moved to New York that I got to know him a bit better. By 1967, I had become a fire-breathing Trotskyist and anxious to convert others to my beliefs. One afternoon I agreed to help Richard move to a new apartment and accompanied him and Jeffrey in a U-Haul van they had rented. For the entire day, I proceeded to give my proletarian revolution spiel to Richard. Jeffrey had heard this numerous times and was smart enough to tune me out. After I was finished, Richard confessed that he found it convincing and worrisome even if he had no intention of going within six feet of the SWP. I only wish that I could turn the clock back and been as skeptical as them.

Both of them came from socialist households, to one extent or another. Richard’s dad was in the CP and Jeffrey’s was a labor lawyer for the SP-dominated garment workers union. Like many Bard students, rebellion was expressed much more in terms of culture than class struggle. Since I was so much in awe of upperclassmen like them, I was willing to forsake my conservative politics just to be socially accepted.

Both Jeffrey and Richard made a trip to Nicaragua in the late 80s as part of a Tecnica delegation. Although I did not join them, I was happy to hear that they made contacts with Sandinista radio management even though a project never materialized.

This was around the time that Richard’s health began to decline and his trips to New York dwindled. Each time he came up, I was always happy to talk to him. As you can tell from the interview I did with the both of them, they remained larger than life well into their seventies.

Over the past ten years or so, I shared two or three phone calls a year or so with Richard—partly to offer some companionship during the shut-in required by his heart transplant and partly to listen to a unique and charismatic personality. Since he took medication to desensitize his immune system from rejecting a foreign organ, it came at a cost. Every time he went out to a concert or any other event with lots of people close by, he always ran the risk of suffering some communicable disease. Despite the drawbacks, including a horrific recovery period after the transplant that he documented here, it was a vast improvement over dying from heart disease 30 or 40 years ago.

For all of the well-deserved contempt that Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg deserve, it does provide a social foundation that allows people like Richard to stay in touch with friends. Of all the people who I knew from Facebook, Richard’s comments always were always most welcome even when we disagreed.

This was his last post on FB and well worth including as a measure of his intelligence and humanity:

Common to all human thought, I think, two areas stand alone obliterating truth and fact and instead overwhelmed by lies and invention. They are, of course, Love and History. Love I leave to the memoirists, who truth be told, are little more than novelists writing about themselves. But, History provides the core of most human belief, and here with apologies to my Native American friends (if I had any) is the real story of Thanksgiving, first published about 10 years ago but still worth reading every year and especially to be remembered as the NFL shamelessly thanks the American military for the freedom to play football.

The True Story Of Thanksgiving
By Richard Greener
Novelist, writer, author of The Locator novels, basis of the FOX TV series “The Finder”.
11/25/2010 10:04am EST | Updated November 22, 2016

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

The idea of the American Thanksgiving feast is a fairly recent fiction. The idyllic partnership of 17th Century European Pilgrims and New England Indians sharing a celebratory meal appears to be less than 120 years-old. And it was only after the First World War that a version of such a Puritan-Indian partnership took hold in elementary schools across the American landscape. We can thank the invention of textbooks and their mass purchase by public schools for embedding this “Thanksgiving” image in our modern minds. It was, of course, a complete invention, a cleverly created slice of cultural propaganda, just another in a long line of inspired nationalistic myths.

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September 7, 2019

The Unrepentant Marxist’s years at Bard College

Filed under: bard college,Kevin Coogan — louisproyect @ 3:44 pm

This is from the unpublished comic book I did with Harvey Pekar intended for a “Bard in the 60s and 70s” Facebook group I belong to. It is being posted according to Fair Use laws that permit brief excerpts of copyright material to be quoted verbatim for purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching, and research, without the need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder.

June 17, 2018

Harvard University, bias against Asian-Americans, affirmative action and “life itself”

Filed under: Academia,affirmative action,bard college,Education — louisproyect @ 9:18 pm

Edward Blum, using Asian-American student grievances to destroy affirmative action

Towards the end of the very fine documentary “The Chinese Exclusion Act” that I reviewed for CounterPunch on Friday, May Ngai, the radical history professor at Columbia University, weighs in on the new forms of discrimination that Chinese face even as the vicious racism directed against coolie labor has ended:

So in the late ’60s and early ’70s you have a disproportionate number of highly educated Asians who came in under the 1965 Act. This is a period of an expanding economy in the United States, with more and more R&D work; technical work. Now, a curious consequence of the Hart-Celler Act is that we’re still left with the idea that Chinese are other. They may not be the Yellow Peril of the 19th century and early 20th century. But now they’re the super-achieving students who keep your kids out of college – right? So they’re either evil or super-achievers.

So when I saw the headline on a NY Times article from two days ago titled “Harvard Rated Asian-American Applicants Lower on Personality Traits, Suit Says”, my immediate reaction was to side with the legal action that forced Harvard to turn over admission records in compliance with a suit being filed against the school for discrimination, especially since this was just a variation on what Jews faced once upon a time. A court document prepared by the Students for Fair Admissions stated: “It turns out that the suspicions of Asian-American alumni, students and applicants were right all along. Harvard today engages in the same kind of discrimination and stereotyping that it used to justify quotas on Jewish applicants in the 1920s and 1930s.”

It turns out that the founder of Students for Fair Admissions, who is not a lawyer, is a Jew named Edward Blum whose purpose it is to connect aggrieved students, who see themselves as victims of affirmative action, with attorneys all too happy to turn back the clock. He helped get the gears in motion in a suit against the University of Texas at Austin two years ago on behalf of two white women–Abigail Noel Fisher and Rachel Multer Michalewicz—who were angry that Black and Latino students with lower grades than theirs were admitted to the school under affirmative action. The Supreme Court rejected their claims. What will happen as Trump nominates more racists in this term and the one likely to follow in 2020 is predictable.

Blum is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “The Unintended Consequences of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act”. What’s that you ask? It stipulates that states and counties with a history of discriminatory voting practices are not permitted to change the rules for elections without first persuading the Justice Department (or a court) that their new policies will improve, or at least not harm, minority representation. So when Mississippi or Alabama decide to screw Black people out of the right to vote, people like Blum are on the side of the racists. Blum got his way in 2013, when the Supreme Court threw out Section 4 in a suit he helped initiate. Without Section 4, Section 5 is toothless.

In fact, Blum’s last big assault on racial equality took place last year when he heard about a proposed state law that would require had forced Poway, California to redo its voting districts so Latinos would have a better chance of winning elections.

How does Blum get funding for the work he does? It turns out that most of it comes from the Searle Freedom Trust, a rightwing foundation founded by Daniel Searle, the deceased pharmaceutical billionaire who stated its goals on its website as “creating an environment that promotes individual freedom and economic liberties, while encouraging personal responsibilities and a respect for traditional American values.”

In a follow-up article in today’s NY Times, you get a feel for the wariness some Asian-Americans about what Blum is up to. Titled “Asian-Americans Face Multiple Fronts in Battle Over Affirmative Action”, it identifies Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos in the USA as suffering higher degrees of poverty than Chinese or Japanese-Americans and being sympathetic to affirmative action.

In 2010, T.K. Park, who blogs as Ask a Korean, replied to a query about whether practices such as Harvard follows was an injustice since it limited the numbers of Asian-American admissions:

You might be surprised, because the Korean actually does think it is a good thing.

First of all, allow the Korean to first state his preferred end result: meritocracy must be an important element in college admissions. The meritocracy must involve clearly stated criteria such as test scores, quality of extracurricular activities, quality of letters of recommendation, and so on. And the Korean is not advocating that college campuses mirror exactly the local or national racial mix. There must be some sort of middle ground. The Korean does not know where the proper middle ground is. But the middle ground is probably not the 55 percent Asian American campus as it is in University of California, Irvine.

To explain why the Korean thinks so, allow the Korean to quote John Dewey: “Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” Because the Korean experienced two drastically different educational systems (Korean and American,) the truth of Dewey’s quote resonates even stronger with him. In fact, many of Korean educational system’s flaws (despite its numerous strengths) can be traced to this: Korea treats its schools as a place where students prepare for the real world, as opposed to treating it as the real world in and of itself. Thus, learning knowledge is emphasized, while learning social skills gets a short shrift.

The same principle must apply to colleges. College is not a meal ticket given for a certain set of “good behaviors”. It is a place where one receives education. And if colleges do not adequately reflect the “life itself” as Dewey said, they cannot provide adequate education.

What is missing from the discussion about “reverse discrimination” is any engagement with the broader question of competition among different ethnic groups to succeed in the high stakes game of musical chairs, where admission to an Ivy college will open doors to professional success after graduation.

Last year, a friend of mine who is a professor at Columbia revealed to me that there were four suicides between September and January, 2017. This was not just Columbia’s problems. In 2013, there were three suicides at Harvard. While not an Ivy, NYU is certainly a place that is on any A-List. I remember when George Rupp met with us in Columbia’s IT department to tell us that the competition between his school and NYU was intense. I got a chuckle out of him telling us that the appointment of some high-profile Marxists like Jon Elster had helped our reputation.

So, what do you expect when schools become pressure cookers in such competition? For NYU students, something had to give. After two students jumped from the upper floors walkway to their death inside the Eleanor Bobst Library, the administration enclosed the 12-story atrium with perforated aluminum screens in an effort to prevent suicides, just like they have done at the Golden Gate and George Washington bridges.

The most poignant story, however, was MIT’s. On April 10, 2002, Elizabeth Shin, a Korean-American student, self-immolated in her dormitory room. Even though she sent multiple emails to faculty members threatening suicide, the school ignored the warning signs. The night before she had burned herself to death, she even tried to plunge a knife into her chest but had a failure of nerve. A NY Times article dated April 28, 2002 conveys the hopes her parents placed in her:

For the Shins, M.I.T., whose undergraduate population is 30 percent Asian-American, was the gold standard. Elizabeth was accepted at Yale too. It is possible, her mother says wistfully, that Elizabeth would have been happier there. She was an artistic soul, and if her SAT’s were any measure, she was stronger in English — she got 799 out of 800 on her SAT verbal and her SAT II writing test — than in math and science. But Elizabeth wanted to do something important with her life, like find cures for diseases, as she put it. If that is your goal, her father says, and you get into M.I.T., ”you don’t think twice about it.”

”As far as M.I.T., to me, it’s the best institution on earth,” Cho Shin says.

Back in 1961, I was a junior in high school and well on my way to admission to Columbia University since I had no competition for the valedictorian award. But since my mother worried so much about my alienation and unhappiness from high school, she and the principal agreed that the best thing for me was to skip my senior year and go to Bard College on an early admission plan. Who knows? That might have saved me from jumping out a window. I sometimes think about what it would have been like to be a freshman at a male-only college where every other valedictorian was competing with me and themselves to stand out.

Bard College, as Ask a Korean cited John Dewey, was a place that reflected “life itself”. Armed with a Bard degree, it was likely that Merrill Lynch would have hired a Harvard graduate rather than me but to Bard’s credit it was a place where you would be inculcated against the values that Merrill Lynch represented.

Although I am a bit skeptical about the claim that John Dewey was experimenting with democratic socialism (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/01/john-dewey-democratic-socialism-liberalism), I do give him credit for helping places like Bard College to create an environment where students don’t kill themselves over the stresses associated with Ivy schools.

In the 1930s, Bard and Sarah Lawrence became models of Deweyite precepts about higher education. His followers at Columbia University transformed an Episcopalian-oriented training ground for the clergy into Bard that some called the “Hudson Valley experimental school.”

An August 5, 1934 NY Times article titled “CURRICULUM IS REVERSED; New Plan at Bard College Is Designed to Give the Student’s Interest Freer Play” indicated how revolutionary the approach would be:

Second, the particular abilities, interests and purposes of the student himself [it became co-ed in 1944] will be the centre around which he will be permitted, under guidance, to build his own course of study. He will not be looked upon as so much material to be run into a mold but as an individual whose growth is to be stimulated and nourished. The student, as soon as he enters, will select one general field of study in which he will try his powers. The field be selects as his own will presumably be the one in which he has been most interested and has demonstrated most ability before coming to college.

That’s what we need, schools in which students are not “material to be run into a mold”. Ironically, it is just such schools that have become historically superseded by the corporatization of higher education and forced into bankruptcy. Ultimately, the goal should be to destroy corporatization in all its forms and allow students to prepare themselves for jobs in a socialist society that are not “bullshit”, as David Graeber puts it. Just as we have entered a new Gilded Age, history is crying out for a new Progressive movement that counted John Dewey among its leading lights. But given the class realities of a decaying capitalist system, the only progressivism that has a chance of succeeding today is one that is based on the need for working people to take power in their own name.

May 21, 2018

Old Bardians

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

Dalt Wonk

Jeffrey Marlin (on the right)

Richard Allen

When I entered Bard College in 1961, I soon heard the term “old Bard”, which was a reference to the halcyon days before it became just like every other college. If you were blessed enough to have attended the old Bard, you were called an “old Bardian”. As a freshman, I sought out the companionship of old Bardians because they were the enlightened ones.

If you weren’t sold on the old Bardians legend, you might regard them as the mental patients running the institution just the Alan Bates movie “Queen of Hearts”. That good old Bard was what Walter Winchell called the “little red whorehouse on the Hudson”. I can tell you that despite being defiantly opposed to the status quo, there was very little red about it unless you considered Max Lerner to be a Communist (not an uncommon perception in 1961).

Bard was part of a collection of private colleges that incorporated “experimental” educational theories. This included Black Mountain, Goddard, Antioch, Bennington, and Franconia as well. To escape inevitable financial collapse, all of these schools were forced to become more conventional. In an obvious nepotistic maneuver (he married the chairman of the board of trustee’s daughter), Leon Botstein—then only 23—became President of Franconia in 1970 in order to turn the place around. The ultrarightist William Loeb published an article in his Manchester Guardian with the headline: “Bare Debauchery at Franconia College: Sex, Liquor, Drugs Rampant on Campus” that made it sound even cooler than Bard. Apparently Leon was in over his head since the school went broke on his watch. He has been much more successful in turning Bard around even though the school might have been renamed Botstein College in light of his now 43-year tenure.

As you probably already know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I have been feuding with Leon since 1987 when Martin Peretz became a board of trustee member. At the time I was very involved with Sandinista Nicaragua and was shocked to see someone who supported Reagan’s war that included destroying schoolhouses put in such a position.

Somewhere along the line Leon must have decided to keep me out of the loop because about 4 years ago I noticed that I was no longer receiving communications from the school. It was one thing to be spared requests for donations to the endowment fund that was flush from the millions that George Soros had poured into it but I missed getting the print edition of the alumni magazine. I could read it online but it was probably designed by someone who felt the need to torment people with poor vision such as me. It could not be downloaded into a pdf and if you magnified a page, it would only be readable for that page. Every time you turned a page, you had to remagnify it once again. Since the alumni magazine was typically 100 pages or so, that was a pain in the ass.

I finally complained to the alumni office and they told me that they would put my name in the alumni database (how it got dropped was another question.) About a year ago I stopped getting communications once again. Was it my open letter to a Bard professor who had appeared in Leo DeCaprio’s movie on climate change? Maybe he and Leon didn’t like being reminded that board of trustee member Stewart Resnick had a long and sordid anti-environmental rap sheet, from stealing water in Fiji to using his political clout to do just about the same thing in California. To keep his pistachio nut plantation going, poor people in the area had to cross their fingers when it came to being able to flush their toilets.

So I called the alumni office again and left a message about not getting mailings. Since nobody called back, I guess I am still on Leon’s shit-list. A fair trade-off, I suppose

Today, my only connection to the school is to the old Bardians that I have stayed in contact with over the years or reconnected with over the net.

For me, old Bardians are the kind of people that Jack Kerouac described in “On the Road”:

[…]the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!

But they are also literally old like me and still going strong. Like me, they will probably die working on a film or a novel and take their last breath as believers in the need to live a bold and creative life—just the kind of life that Socrates led in ancient Greece. If there was thing our guru Heinrich Blucher (Hannah Arendt’s husband) made clear in his Common Course, it was the need to fight to the death for truth and for beauty.

With that as background let me refer you to some works by old Bardians that have come my way recently.

In March, 2011 an article appeared in the N.Y. Times titled “Life and Art, Side by Side in the French Quarter” that profiled a married couple that go by the name Dalt Wonk and Josephine Sacabo. I knew them as Richard Cohen and Mary Alice Martin and there were no two more beautiful people at Bard both on the surface and in their soul. Dalt became a writer and Josephine a photographer, using their base in the French Quarter of New Orleans as an ongoing inspiration.

Referring to her provenance, a New Orleans reporter noted that “Josephine’s influences are the French Symbolist poets. But being a Latina, she has that sort of magic realist DNA in her blood.” (You can see her work at: http://josephinesacabo.com/).

Recently Dalt sent me a copy of a 2002 collection of short stories based on his plays titled “Spiritual Gifts” that is redolent of Tennessee Williams. Set in the French Quarter, his mostly Black and poor characters are struggling to assert their dignity against crushing poverty, including a once-famous rhythm and blues singer named Grace who now in her old age stays afloat by working as a cleaning lady in a nightclub. An elderly Black man named Emile passes out flyers on the street but insists on wearing a suit and tie, even in the baking heat.

These are the kinds of people who have become victims of Hurricane Katrina as the city’s elite chose to ethnically cleanse exactly the people who made it a gumbo of distinct ethnicities and cultural backgrounds.

While “Spiritual Gifts” is out of print, I can recommend a more recent work from Luna Press that serves as a reminder of the old New Orleans just as the life that Dalt and Josephine live is a reminder of the old Bard. The 2014 French Quarter Fables is based on Dalt’s Aesop-like tales and is described on the publisher’s page as:

Little animals wearing clothes. Hard to resist in their bittersweet comic struggles.

These fables are, in a sense, Dalt Wonk’s love letter to the French Quarter — his home for over 40 years. The animals, flowers, and insects are almost all Quarter denizens: a frog in his courtyard lily pond, a rat in the stone riprap on the levee and a roach in the kitchen of a restaurant. They call to mind people you know. Difficulties you’ve faced.

A sample page:

As the French Quarter is to Dalt Wonk, so is Far Rockaway to Jeffrey Marlin, my friend of 57 years and long-time chess partner. A recent fairly serious illness led him to consider the problem faced by older married couples when the death of one will leave the survivor in what might be a lonely and untenable position.

This led him to write a novel titled “A Wolf Behind Every Tree” that can be purchased from Amazon.com. Written in the voice of a young Jamaican handyman named Felix, it shares the identification with the underdog found in Dalt’s “Spiritual Gifts”.

While the Rockaways are not specifically mentioned in Jeffrey’s novel, it is clear to me that the narrative is as much about life in this peninsula that was ravaged by a hurricane just like New Orleans. In fact, the handyman Felix is based on a Caribbean native who helped make Jeffrey’s house livable in the months following superstorm Sandy.

The plot centers on Felix’s role in cleaning out the garage of a despairing and elderly man who has chosen to kill himself after his wife’s death has made his own life not worth living. Cleaning out the garage is a prerequisite for being able to drive the old man’s car inside where it can become an instrument for suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning, just like “Death of a Salesman”. While Felix might subconsciously be aware of enabling a suicide to take place, he also held out the possibility that the man’s recent visit to see his son and grandchildren in Colorado might have given him reason to go on. As so often happens with Tolstoy’s unhappy families, including his own, suicide is the only rational choice even if an irrational state power in thrall to organized religion robs you of that choice.

The novel is very timely given the likelihood that a Trump presidency and successive reactionary presidencies will only deepen such tendencies. “A Wolf Behind Every Tree” is a welcome contribution to the ongoing debate.

Last month my old friend Richard Allen, who was a couple of years behind me at Bard, dropped me a line to let me know that his “One-Armed Bandit” had received the Sony Classics Short Film Prize at the 2018 Asbury Park and Music Festival.

This is a 12-minue 1971 Max Sennett-style silent comedy (sans subtitles since none are really needed) that features Paul B. Price as a bandit with one arm in a sling who accosts a well-dressed man walking through what looks like the ruins around Avenue D on the Lower East Side that evoke the New York City of the late Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities”. The moral of the story is that you need two arms to do a proper stick-up.

This is a New York that Richard was intimately familiar with as a denizen of a long lost bohemia in the 70s that like the rest of the city has become gentrified. Like Josephine Sacabo’s homage to the French Quarter, Richard paid his own homage to this world in a photography book titled “Street Shots / Hooky: New York City Photographs 1970” that can be purchased here. Like “One-Armed Bandit”, it is a comedy of errors as the blurb indicates: “Photographs and story about a New York City bike messenger who begins filming a movie called Hooky using kids on East 3rd St. It turns into a turf war with the Hells Angels who live across the street. Someone is knifed to death and a great fire guts the building. The author escapes, barely.”

“One-Armed Bandit” grew out of a skit that Richard worked on with Ken Shapiro and Chevy Chase, another couple of old Bardians, on Channel One—the off-off-Broadway revue that was turned into “Groove Tube”. You can’t see his face but the cop who pursues the one-armed bandit is Chevy.

Like every other old Bardian, Richard is still going strong as he wrote me: “My new Movie HOME COOKIN – Over 100 Years in the Making – 87 Min. – you’ve seen unfinished pieces -should be back from color correction in Toronto in a week or so and that will be done after 5 years almost.

It seems funny to say, but I feel my best years and most success is still in front of me. I attribute this to a good sense of imagination. Want to read the new script SMALL POTATOES?

I wrote Richard back telling him to send it along.

March 5, 2018

Millionaire leftist Bard professors removed from Alexis Tsipras’s cabinet

Filed under: Academia,bard college,economics,Greece — louisproyect @ 5:03 pm

Dimitris Papadimitriou

Rania Antonopoulos

Husband and wife Dimitris Papadimitriou and Rania Antonopoulos are big-time post-Keynesian economists at Bard College who just resigned from Alexis Tsipras’s cabinet. It seems that Antonopoulos was receiving a 1000 euro per month housing subsidy for her rental apartment in the swanky Kolonaki neighborhood in Athens even though the couple were multimillionaires. Apparently this did not sit well with ordinary working people suffering through a terrible austerity.

The right-wing press in Greece dug up the dirt on the couple and used it to scandalize Syriza since it is perceived as not serving the bourgeoisie adequately. Think of Fox News going after Obama and you’ll get what has been taking place. Neos Kosmos, a newspaper based in Melbourne, Australian with no discernible ties to the right-wing as far as I can tell, supplied the economic data on the two economists:

According to their tax records, the couple declare an annual income of more than half a million dollars, while their assets and property portfolios are valued in the millions. The Greek media report that the couple owns a luxury villa of 300 sq.m. plus 180 sq.m. supplementary space, 80 sq.m. swimming pool on the island of Syros; a 110-square-meter apartment in New York; a 31.6 sqm apartment in Glyfada, Athens; assets in stocks and bank deposits worth of more than 3,000,000 euros.

The last time I saw such opulence married to “socialist” pretensions was back in 2007 when Jared Kushner’s newspaper—the NY Observer—reported that Trotskyist chieftain Jack Barnes had just sold his West Village condo for a cool $1.87 million.

Interestingly enough, despite her wealth, Antonopoulos went out of her way to file for the housing subsidy as she indicated in a statement to the press:

According to Law 4366/2015 which entitles non-parliamentary members of the government to receive a residence subsidy, since they do not own a home in Athens, I have requested and received a significant amount as a rent subsidy. This provision of the legislator has been enjoyed since 1994 by all non-Athens deputies without any other income conditions.

Many months after its institutionalization I was informed that as a non-parliamentary member of the government I am entitled to a subsidy, and indeed by my colleagues. So I filed an application and since then I have received a total of 23,000 euros for two years.

What a little piggy. She and her husband have a joint income of $520,000 per year and still she applies for a housing subsidy as if she were a single mom working at Walmarts with 3 kids to support. Even after she got caught with her grubby fingers in the till, she  refused at first to resign as the Greek Reporter indicated on February 26th.

Dimitris Papadimitriou and Rania Antonopoulos came to Greece with ambitious plans to rescue the country from the hole that German bankers had dug. He ran the Jerome Levy Institute at Bard, a think-tank devoted to post-Keynesian wisdom, and was a Hyman Minsky scholar. Minsky is a big favorite with “progressive” economists, especially after the 2007 mortgage-backed securities meltdown. He writes all about the instability that plagues the capitalist system through chronic boom and bust cycles.

For Minskyian theory to work, it has to focus almost exclusively on the financial sector, which of course economists like Paul Krugman tended to do. Ooh, those dirty, rotten banks. However, it misses out on the real problem facing American capitalism, namely the declining rate of profit that is a function of the system’s need to replace people with machinery—and hence reduce the amount of surplus value that can be wrung from their muscles. Anwar Shaikh, who happened to have been on the staff of Jerome Levy Institute at one point, just came out with a massive study of this process. Papadimitriou’s dissertation at the New School was about the measurement of the rate of surplus value in Greece. I guess studying it helped him to extract it later on in life.

Needless to say, bourgeois economists, like the inner cadre at Jerome Levy Institute, step gingerly around the question of capitalism itself since they are far too wedded to the system on a material basis and understand as well that Keynesianism still has plenty of purchase in elite circles. Who wants to hear from an annoying Marxist, especially when his or her ideas clash with owning mansions, yachts, and million-dollar paintings. In other words, like all of the people serving on the Bard College Board of Trustees.

Bard College and its president-for-life Leon Botstein embody a culture in which people like Dimitris Papadimitriou and Rania Antonopoulos can flourish. Back in 1995, I came into contact with a union organizer from Local 100 of the Restaurant Workers Union named Brook Bitterman who was trying to apply pressure on Jerome Levy to come to terms with the workers Bitterman represented at Smith and Wollensky, one of Levy’s businesses. I gave Bitterman a copy of the Bard College alumni directory that he used for a direct mail campaign to get the mostly pinko graduates to demand justice for the workers as enunciated in a letter the union sent to Dimitris Papadimitriou:

Dear Dr. Papadimitriou

We are writing to express our concern about what we perceive to be a striking contradiction between the goals and work of the Jerome Levy Institute of Economics and the private business affairs of its founder and chief supporter, Leon Levy, who also serves as a Trustee of Bard College.

Over the past several years, the Jerome Levy Institute – Bard College’s first post-graduate institution – has become a respected outlet for academics and policy analysts concerned with growing income inequality and crisis-prone financial markets. As a union of low wage, mostly immigrant and minority restaurant workers, Local 100 is very familiar with the growing inequality in the American labor market. Many of our members and their families have also seen firsthand how financial market developments, such as the leveraged buyout frenzy of the 1980s, can have a profoundly negative impact on the quality of their lives.

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Not long after this campaign began, I received a letter from the president of the Board of Governors of the Bard Alumni Association taking great umbrage at Local 100’s campaign. It stated: “Many of our trustees, overseers, advisory board members, donors, alumni/ae, faculty, administrators, parents of students and students, have business relationships — some of which may be deemed by you or others as ‘controversial’ — unrelated to their relationship with the College. It would hardly be appropriate for us to inject ourselves into those relationships. Such is the case with the alleged relationship between Leon Levy and Smith & Wollensky.”

Yeah, who the hell would want a Bard College alumnus like me poking around in the private affairs of Leon Levy or Rania Antonopoulos? Maybe that’s the reason I’ve been removed from the Bard College alumni database and no longer receive communications from the school, either in the mail or electronically.

August 8, 2017

A weekend in Hudson

Filed under: bard college,Catskills,Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:17 pm
Hudson, NY

My primary purpose in going to Hudson, NY was to attend a screening of Lucas Jedrzejak’s documentary “Ketermaya” on Sunday, August 6th,  a film I first saw at the 2017 Socially Relevant Film Festival in March of this year. The screening was organized by Danette Gorman who was also at the SR 2017 festival and was inspired by the film to show solidarity with Syrian refugees determined to forge ahead despite dire circumstances. They are a microcosm of the freedom struggle that continues after six years of the regime’s genocidal attack on civilians.

Unlike other films about Syrian refugees that tend to be stories about their desperate flights across Europe or the Mediterranean and subsequent estrangement from an aloof if not hostile Swedish or German society, “Ketermaya” is a different kind of film. It is a testimony to the unquenchable spirit of the Syrian people and particularly the children of this refugee camp who will be the future leaders of a free Syria someday if there is any justice in this world and if there are enough people like Lucas and Danette to help make the critical difference.

Another motivation was to return to a town I had visited with some frequency when I was at Bard College in the early 60s. About a twenty minute drive from Bard, Hudson was in decline just like other towns and villages along the Hudson River. What all of them had going for them was a stunning view of the river and the Catskill Mountains behind it that I enjoyed from my dorm window at Ward Manor, a mansion the school purchased in my junior year. One night I came back around 8pm to see Bob Dylan in a salon on the ground floor playing an electric guitar with some of Bard’s folk musicians. I listened to them play for a bit and walked back to my room wondering why Dylan had gone electric.

Ward Manor

In a stroke of luck, Danette found lodging for me and my wife in the house of her friend Agi in the hills above Hudson. The view, as indicated above, was spectacular. Our host was nicknamed Agi since it easier to pronounce than her Hungarian birth name.

Her story was remarkable.

During WWII, when she was only three years old, she was among the Jews living under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg. As a Swedish diplomat assigned to Budapest, he was able to issued protective passports and to keep Jews like Agi and her parents alive in buildings designated as under Swedish protection. As an ally of Nazi Germany, Hungary obviously sought ways to help carry out the Final Solution. One day a gang of machine-gun touting Hungarian militia members swarmed into her building and ordered her and everyone else to line up on the street. With death staring them in the face, Wallenberg’s limousine showed up at the last minute. Using his authority as an official representative of Sweden, he ordered the fascists to disperse.

Why would Soviet Russia have had Raul Wallenberg arrested in January 1945, the month of my birth, and sent to the Lubyanka prison camp near Moscow where he died two years later? Since the USSR had no use for “bourgeois democracy”, there are no records of the charge against him, which were probably as bogus as all the others that took place under Stalin. What we do have is a record of Soviet leader Nikolai Bulganin’s order for his arrest:

On Saturday during lunch at Agi’s home, Lucas referred briefly to his own exposure to Stalinist criminality. In high school, he had a teacher who was notoriously strict and demanding—the sort of man who would throw a heavy keychain at the blackboard to get the attention of an unruly class. One day, he closed the door to the classroom and told the students that he was going to tell them the truth about the massacre in Katyn. 23,000 Polish officers were executed in 1940 for no other reasons than that they were officers. This occurred when the USSR was in control of the eastern half of Poland as part of the secret protocols of the Malenkov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact. It was the determination of men and women like this high school teacher, as well as Lucas’s parents, to be free that put them on a collision course with the Kremlin, which finally culminated in the emergence of Solidarity in 1980.

Like Lucas, Agi knew what it meant to be part of a powerful anti-bureaucratic movement. Like many Hungarian youth, she started off seeing some benefits in Communism, especially its ambitious athletics program modeled on the USSR’s but when she joined a massive protest march in 1956, she felt the same way that Poles would feel in 1980 and Syrians would feel in 2011—free at last, to repeat Martin Luther King Jr’s immortal words.

As I have said hundreds of times before, the Western left has a deficit problem. Seeing Washington as a kind of absolutely evil presence in the world, it tends to demonize any movement receiving its aid. This leads it to excuse oppressive behavior by the Kremlin on a consistent basis, just like the Communist Parties did in the 30s and 40s. When there was a USSR, one might explain this as motivated by good intentions even if it objectively helped Stalin have Wallender arrested or invade Hungary and Poland. But with Putin supposedly being one of the wealthiest men in the world today according to some experts and Assad’s crony capitalist cousin controlling 60 percent of the Syrian economy, there can be no excuse.

With 150 people showing up for the screening of “Ketermaya”, it was obvious that human rights trumped geopolitical foolishness. Like anybody else who has seen the film, they understood that Syrians deserve our support and solidarity.

There are good reasons why Hudson would serve as a “sister city” to Ketermaya, to recall the term activists used in the 1980s when places like Park Slope in Brooklyn would link up with a Nicaraguan city that had been a victim of Reagan’s contra war. What better way to oppose American foreign policy than to act as a citizen of the world sending medicine or computers to people under siege? Agi described Hudson as a city with many liberal-minded New Yorkers who moved there because they could no longer afford the rents in Park Slope. Among them were a sizable contingent of gays and lesbians who flocked to the there in the mid-80s when it was rapidly becoming a center for antique dealers, a business long favored by gay men and women. Wikipedia refers to this development:

In the last few years, perhaps encouraged by the number of gay business owners among the original antiques dealers, Hudson has become a destination for gay people who have opened new businesses, moved here from larger urban areas, and who have been in the forefront of the restoration of many of the city’s historic houses. In 2010, Hudson High School made history when openly gay seniors, Charlie Ferrusi and Timmy Howard, were named prom king and queen. During the same year, Hudson hosted its first gay pride parade, which was attended by several hundred people.

Since January, Americans have been agonizing over the direction of the country with a racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, Islamophobe in the White House. While a lot of the discussion veers toward electoral strategy, there was something about the positive example of Hudson that deserves consideration by the left.

Aided by the Presbyterian Church in Hudson, which is as progressive as any Unitarian church I have ever seen, Danette Gorman has taken the initiative to create an alternative America that embodies the true spirit of this country. Only arriving in Hudson around the same time she saw “Ketermaya”, she raised money to fund a needs assessment trip to Lebanon. Her next step is to organize a meeting at the church to get people involved. So instead of bemoaning the evils of a know-nothing president, she and her fellow Hudsonites are acting to create a different reality, one in which solidarity across borders in the interests of peace and fair play reigns supreme.

If you want to support Danette Gorman’s project to help the children of Ketermaya, please go to https://www.helpsyriaskids.org/ and help spread the word.

Finally, as someone who recognizes the power of “Ketermaya” to cut through the stereotypes of Syrians as fanatics and potential terrorists, I am hoping to recruit college students in NY to help organize a screening when the fall semester starts. Ideally, it would include Skype connections to Lucas for a Q&A and with the children of Ketermaya who love connecting with people in the West to tell their story. Contact me at lnp3@panix.com if you find this trailer inspiring, as surely you will.

October 18, 2016

A letter to a Bard College Center for Environmental Policy professor

Filed under: bard college,Ecology — louisproyect @ 1:41 pm

Dear Gidon Eshel,

Let me start off by introducing myself. I graduated Bard College in 1965 and blog as the Unrepentant Marxist. In that capacity, I have written 91 articles on ecology since 1991 (just a coincidence) mostly triggered by a talk that Joel Kovel gave at the Brecht Forum in NYC a few years earlier where he likened capitalist growth to metastasizing tumors. Does the name Kovel ring a bell? He used to teach environmental studies at Bard College until Leon Botstein fired him in 2009 for his anti-Zionist writings.

When I am not writing about politics, I review films—mostly documentaries such as Leo DeCaprio’s “Before the Flood” that I saw at a press screening last night. Among the Green activists and thinkers he spoke to in the course of his travels around the world was you. In making the case for eating less beef, you raised very important questions about the impact cattle have on climate change both through the clearing of forests for grazing, the discharge of methane and the unconscionable waste of water that raising such animals requires.

When I saw you identified as a Bard professor, a lot of memories I have had about the institution rose to the surface like the ‘madeleine moment’ in Proust. To start off, I could not help but remember the first encounter I had with Botstein a few years before I got on the Internet and that was conducted by snail mail. When I discovered that Martin Peretz had become a member of the board of trustees, I reminded Botstein that he had been stumping for aid to the Nicaraguan contras in the New Republic, in contradiction if you will to the values Bard College stood for. I asked Botstein how he could defend the values of a liberal arts education when Peretz called for the funding of counter-revolutionaries who burned schoolhouses to the ground in Nicaragua.

You may or may not be aware that the Sandinista revolution to a large extent was fueled by the displacement of small farmers from their land, which was to be used instead for cattle ranching as Robert G. Williams pointed out in “Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America”. This occurred in places like Matiguas, a “municipo” of Matagalpas where some 30 percent of the land had been covered by forests, but by 1976 deforestation had leveled 95 percent of the land. Where 8 percent of the land had been used to grow corn and beans in 1963, by 1976 the percentage was 1 percent. By contrast, cattle grazing land, which was 39 percent in 1963, grew to encompass 94 percent of the land ten years later. All that dispossession so that fast food restaurants could be supplied.

Speaking of Peretz and the Bard College board of trustees, I see that he remains a life trustee. I suppose being a life trustee goes hand in hand with Botstein being a president-for-life. I have no idea what Peretz brings to the table except deep pockets since it is evident that as New Republic publisher/editor, he had the same kind of understanding of ecological issues as the Koch brothers who were lambasted in DeCaprio’s film. He allowed contributing editor Gregg Easterbrook to write articles that were a slap in the face not only to Leo DeCaprio but professors like you who were hired out of the funds that Peretz coughed up. In many ways Easterbrook’s global warming skepticism was far more harmful than Rush Limbaugh’s since he carried the imprimatur of a liberal magazine–liberal at least by reputation. For example, there was a cover story in the May 1998 New Republic by Easterbrook that included this priceless observation:

So far, greenhouse gas emissions have not caused temperatures to increase as much as scientists and their computer models predicted. Over the course of the twentieth century, the mean global temperature has risen only about one degree Fahrenheit–not a number worth losing any sleep over.

As it happens, Peretz is fairly typical of the people Botstein has added to the board who combine liberal and even Green pretensions with a record that contradicts the values of your department. Like Peretz, Stewart Resnick is a life trustee and also like Peretz has the kind of deep pockets that have allowed Botstein to expand Bard College to the point that it is no longer recognizable to me as a graduate of the little red whorehouse on the Hudson as Walter Winchell once put it. The Resnicks put up the funding for a new science laboratories building but that funding was only made possible by Stewart Resnick’s plundering of the poor and the vulnerable. Of course, that goes with the territory as recent research on how slavery benefited Ivy League schools.

I would refer you to a Mother Jones article written in August about the Resnicks that should be required reading for you and everybody else in your department. It is titled “Meet The California Couple Who Uses More Water Than Every Home in Los Angeles Combined” and begins:

Rafaela Tijerina first met la señora at a school in the town of Lost Hills, deep in the farm country of California’s Central Valley. They were both there for a school board meeting, and the superintendent had failed to show up. Tijerina, a 74-year-old former cotton picker and veteran school board member, apologized for the superintendent—he must have had another important meeting—and for the fact that her own voice was faint; she had cancer. “Oh no, you talk great,” the woman replied with a warm smile, before she began handing out copies of her book, Rubies in the Orchard: How to Uncover the Hidden Gems in Your Business. “To my friend with the sweet voice,” she wrote inside Tijerina’s copy.

It was only later that Tijerina realized the woman owned the almond groves where Tijerina’s husband worked as a pruner. Lynda Resnick and her husband, Stewart, also own a few other things: Teleflora, the nation’s largest flower delivery service; Fiji Water, the best-selling brand of premium bottled water; Pom Wonderful, the iconic pomegranate juice brand; Halos, the insanely popular brand of mandarin oranges formerly known as Cuties; and Wonderful Pistachios, with its “Get Crackin'” ad campaign. The Resnicks are the world’s biggest producers of pistachios and almonds, and they also hold vast groves of lemons, grapefruit, and navel oranges. All told, they claim to own America’s second-largest produce company, worth an estimated $4.2 billion.

The Resnicks have amassed this empire by following a simple agricultural precept: Crops need water. Having shrewdly maneuvered the backroom politics of California’s byzantine water rules, they are now thought to consume more of the state’s water than any other family, farm, or company. They control more of it in some years than what’s used by the residents of Los Angeles and the entire San Francisco Bay Area combined.

Finally, there is George Soros who while not being a board member (his ex-wife of course is) symbolizes more than anybody on the planet the dichotomy between professed values and action. I am sure you are aware that his millions were critical in transforming Bard College into what it is today, a major institution with satellites across the world carrying the Bard brand name.

As it happens, Soros is demonized by the rightwing press for his funding of the Tides Foundation and the Environmental Defense Fund but as is the case with the Resnicks, a lot of the money comes through investments totally at odds with the stated values of such groups.

For example, the Guardian reported on August 19, 2015 that Soros is pumping money into coal companies:

Billionaire climate philanthropist George Soros invested more than $2m (£1.3m) in struggling coal giants Peabody Energy and Arch Coal in recent months, despite having once called the fuel “lethal” to the climate.

Filings with the Securities and Exchange commission show that between April and June this year Soros Fund Management (SFM) bought more than 1m shares in Peabody ($2.25m), the world’s largest private coal company, and 500,000 shares in Arch ($188,000).

The firm, which Soros chairs, bought the large stakes for bargain prices. Peabody and Arch are giants of the US coal sector but have suffered massive declines in recent years, losing more than 98% of their value. SFM made a similar move in 2014 by investing $234.4m in coal and gas company Consol. Those shares were sold off after a few months as gas prices continued to fall.

Soros is not only into coal. He is also apparently into fracking as the Huffington Post reported on November 3, 2014:

One of the world’s legendary investors is upping his bet on Argentina’s shale oil and gas industry in a show of confidence for shale production in South America’s largest unconventional prize — and a big boost for both supermajors and smaller players making big waves in the heart of new discovery areas.

George Soros has doubled his stake in YPF SA, the state-owned oil company in Argentina, which sits atop some of the world’s largest shale oil and gas resources, and is about to get even larger following a new discovery over the last couple of weeks of a second key shale play.

Argentina holds an estimated 27 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil and 802 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable shale gas, much of it located in the Vaca Muerta, an enormous shale formation in the Neuquen basin — the second-largest shale gas deposit and the fourth-largest shale oil deposit in the world.

As you may or may not be aware, DeCaprio weaves in some interesting information into his documentary about the very fine film he made last year called “The Revenant”. He thought it was important to make a film that showed the despoliation of nature carried out by those who colonized North America. You can see him and the director studying a 19th century photograph of a small mountain of pelts with a grinning hunter in front of it, about which he commented that these men took no moral responsibility for the world that they would leave their descendants.

It turns out that “The Revenant” ran into some major problems in filming on location in northern Canada since there had been no snow to speak of in an unseasonably warm winter. (Today in NYC the temperature will be going up to 85.) So they had to pick up the cameras and the rest of the gear and fly 9000 miles to Argentina where deep snow could be found. Who knows? Maybe by the time YPF SA gets finished, that snow will be history as well.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect

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