Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023
Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023. St...
Saturday, December 30, 2023
Saturday, December 23, 2023
I am not going to try to parse the controversy over Professor Claudine Gay 's resignation from the presidency of Harvard, because she as a person is a symptom, not a cause, of what is wrong in academia. Neither her relatively modest scholarly credentials nor her public relations approach are in the least bit unusual. The days when distinguished scholars or scientists ultimately became heads of universities are long gone, and I can't name a single president of a leading private institution or flagship state university who took office with particular new educational goals that he or she wanted to implement. Our graduate schools seem less likely than ever to turn out groundbreaking young scholars in the humanities or social sciences, and nearly every college in the country suffers from the administrative bloat that makes college unaffordable. Recently an interesting Wall Street Journal op-ed by President Greg Weiner of Assumption University in Worcester, Mass.--who proudly identifies himself as the first Jewish president of a Catholic college--argues that Jewish students--or, he might have added, any kid with real intellectual ambition--ought to check out certain Catholic colleges like his own, that still dedicate themselves to free inquiry. Elite institutions, he says rightly, have lost their way. They cannot easily regain it. Weiner, in his mid-fifties, appears to be the kind of historically oriented political scientist who dominated that field in my youth but is very hard to find on the faculties of major institutions today. He has written books about James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He also writes powerful and sophisticated op-eds, one of of which I found here.
I would today like to identify perhaps the single biggest change in the attitude towards what a college education should do over the length of my own academic career, which now spans 58 years. Until the last fifty years or so, higher education was supposed to turn a young man or woman into a visibly different person by teaching them things they had not known and exposing them to new thinkers. This included learning new languages, including, for most of the nineteenth century anyway, Latin and perhaps even Greek. Young humanists immersed themselves in the politics and the literature of the distant past, and learned new perspectives on politics and on life. College initiated them into an intellectual elite that had developed itself over the centuries.
Three developments that coincided with my own youth radically changed that attitude. The first, I think, was the enormous expansion of higher education undertaken to educate my own generation. While graduate schools were thriving in the 1950s and 1960s, the demand for new faculty rapidly outran the supply of genuine intellectuals who chose that career. The second was the Vietnam war, which told my generation that it did not have to believe anything that the older generation said. And the third and perhaps the most influential was the emergence of new groups of female, nonwhite and gay academics who took a different view of what higher education was really for. Here I have to be very clear about what I am saying. The women, nonwhites and increasingly out gays who entered academia in the 1960s and 1970s in larger numbers included quite a few, some of whom I knew very well, who were entirely faithful to earlier traditions and did excellent work. Others, however, decided for various reasons that our intellectual traditions mainly tended to preserve the supremacy of straight white males, and only served their interests. The attitude that the traditional curriculum revolved around straight white male concerns persists to this day--and having gone through college in the late 1960s, I think it completely misrepresents how straight white males experienced college. My Harvard class of 1969 was very well educated in high school but all of us were bowled over during the first term by the amount of work we were expected to do and by the new ideas and concepts that we had to absorb. That was so true that we were more than happy to receive Bs and even Cs and C+s in some of our courses, as I documented in A Life in History, and accept the Bs as genuinely good grades.
The new view held that colleges and universities had to change both the composition of their faculties and the subjects they studied to meet the needs of women and minorities--both of whom had been important parts of American higher education for quite a while. Those who pushed that view argued that politics, society, and intellectual life had simply reinforced their oppression, and that the university, as the 1962 Port Huron statement said, was the place to begin overthrowing it. Forty years or so later, this view has been institutionalized to suggest that the real purpose of universities is to narrow students' intellectual horizons, instead of broadening them. They are encouraged--not only in course work, but in freshman orientations and by new bureaucracies--to believe that they should simply be learning more about themselves, their own experiences, and people who "look like them." That more specifically means studying a new history of oppression that will teach most whites (especially straight men) that they are oppressors while teaching the rest of the students that they are oppressed and have special needs of their own that college must address. And these ideas have gone further than that now, insisting that even the sciences and professional education must change to "decenter whiteness" and replace their traditions with something new.
Something else seems to have accelerated these trends in the last twenty years or so. As bureaucracies and faculties get bigger and colleges get more expensive, they are increasingly beholden to students whom they cannot afford to offend. That means, among other things, grade inflation--who wants to pay today's prices to get a B? It means extraordinary sensitivity to student protests, and opposition to anything that might make any particular group of students uncomfortable. It means more competition among elite institutions for well-off foreign students, another increasing group. It means a great reluctance, now on display, to offend any students among protected groups, who also represent more and more of the student body, especially at public institutions. And it means that the key decisions for every university--how much to charge and what to spend the money on--are made not by outstanding faculty, but by full-time career administrators bidding in numerous ways for the students who can afford their vastly inflated prices. In these conditions college faculties cannot do much to hold off the anti-intellectual trends throughout our society--led by the simple decline of reading--that are leaving our western heritage behind.
The western world built up it intellectual tradition by training generations of scholars and teachers to take certain ideas of free inquiry seriously, and immersing them in a continually evolving canon of basic texts. All of that required dedication and years of work--which the genuine intellectuals among us, whom I have always believed are scattered at random throughout our society, put in largely out of love, not duty. Most of today's universities deny their students that experience, and that is why those traditions are very endangered species. Our leading institutions can still rely on their reputation and their role as pipelines into well-compensated professions, and therefore are unlikely to undertake drastic reforms. Perhaps some smaller institutions--many of which are threatened with financial catastrophe--could make the necessary changs, which could safe money and improve their educational product at the same time.
Saturday, December 16, 2023
In preparation for a big interview (you'll hear more when the time comes), I've been reviewing my own new book (see above), and have reached the period of the early Cold War, when the American government and the American people became accustomed to a worldwide role. The biggest turning point in this process was the Korean War, which moved the emerging conflict with the USSR and its new Chinese ally from a mainly political front until a military one. The Soviets, nearly all Americans believed, wanted to spread Communism all over the world, just as the Germans and Japanese had wanted to extend their domination in the Second World War. The North Korean attack--approved, we now know, by Stalin, although it was Kim Il-Sung's idea--proved that they would take advantage of any opportunity to do so by force. West Germans and western Europeans shared that view, and immediately pushed for West German rearmament and a stronger NATO. Simultaneously the Soviet explosion of an atomic weapon triggered a new race for hydrogen bombs. The young historians who argue today the Cold War was a conscious conspiracy by US elites to extend American power have shut their eyes to the impact of the two world wars. Yes, Truman and Eisenhower overreacted in certain circumstances, sometimes with tragic consequences, but their assumptions seemed quite reasonable at the time, not only to them but to the American people. That was still true when Lyndon Johnson followed those assumptions into the Vietnam War, and even when Ronald Reagan revived them in the 1980s.
My book makes something else clear as well: a new consensus has infected the foreign policy elite of both parties since the fall of Communism in 1989. That consensus holds that the United States is now the unique, indispensable world leader, capable of and responsible for the resolution of any crisis anywhere in the world. That idea has been echoed again and again by every President from the first Bush through Joe Biden--with the notable exception of Donald Trump, who at this moment seems to have the best chance of anyone of winning the next presidential election. That assumption led the first Bush into the Gulf War and Panama, Clinton into the Kosovo war and into Haiti, Bush II into his crusade in Central Asia and the Middle East, Obama into Libya and back into Iraq, and now, Biden into extensive support for Ukraine. It could also lead us into war with Iran or with China over Taiwan at almost any moment.
It is now clear, however, that there is no longer any consensus among the broader public in support of this world role. The Republican party no longer recognizes any need for the national security state as it has evolved or the policies which it supports. Republican Senators blocked military promotions for months, and have left dozens of key diplomatic posts vacant rather than approve Biden's nominees. House Republicans are blocking aid for Ukraine and Israel until they get their way on another fundamental national security issue, the control of our border and immigration. The so-called progressive wing of the Democratic party has also turned against the assumptions of the national security state, not only with respect to Israel, but in the Ukraine war as well. All this is bound to affect the attitudes of other nations, including allies, who must increasingly realize that they cannot depend on the word of the American president because the president no longer can count on the support of his nation overseas. There are two big reasons, I think, why this has happened.
The first relates to the insularity of our foreign policy establishment. From Biden on down, they are so convinced of their own righteousness that they see no need to make a big effort to justify what they are doing to the rest of the nation. (The Democratic Party has the same problem with respect to domestic issues, including climate change and immigration.) Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan all took to the airwaves regularly to explain major military and diplomatic initiatives and treat the public as a real partner in their enterprises. Biden has not done this even once, relying, wrongly, on quick sound bites from the White House to maintain public support. The prime time radio or television address, which played a critical role in US politics from FDR through Reagan, has fallen into disuse. Partly, of course, that is because Americans are now so deluged with entertainment options that they are much less likely to listen to it--but we all pay the price for that in other ways.
The second reason relates to parallel developments in domestic politics. Average Americans trusted FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan because they also believed, rightly or wrongly, that their policies were improving their own lives. These presidents routinely linked their defense of freedom overseas to their efforts to build a stronger society at home. After forty years of increasing inequality and political fragmentation, that bond too has been broken. Both parties focus their appeals on particular constituencies--their bases--and not on the needs of the nation as a whole.
Re-reading the speeches of George W. Bush, one sees clearly that he (and Karl Rove) wanted very badly to recreate the atmosphere of 1940-1 or of the early Cold War. Like FDR and Truman, he spoke of an existential worldwide threat requiring a great campaign to overcome--but he exaggerated the threat, on the one hand, and chose strategies that only made things worse, on the other. Obama stuck to the Bush game plan in Afghanistan and revived it in Libya and then Iraq, while presiding over a very slow recovery from the financial crisis. The government has failed to restore our confidence because so little of what it has done has worked. Now, in sharp contrast to Eisenhower in 1956-7 or Nixon and Kissinger in 1973, it is utterly failing to exert any real control over what is happening in the Middle East. All this relates, as I have said many times, to a general collapse of authority throughout our society that began more than half a century ago. We haven't hit bottom yet.
Monday, December 11, 2023
In 1977, I believe, I made the acquaintance of a Boston-area rare book and art dealer named Bill Young through Steve Flink, a mutual friend. On the first of many afternoons that I spent at his house, it developed that he was an avid student of the case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants who had been executed in 1927 for a double murder during a robbery in South Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1920. The case had been controversial for more than half a century, and I was fairly familiar with it myself. Bill, it turned out, was convinced that both men were innocent, and that the prosecution had substituted a key piece of evidence--a bullet fired from the Colt automatic Sacco was carrying when he was arrested--to make their case. Over the next few months, he convinced me that he was probably right. During that same year Governor Michael Dukakis issued what amounted to a posthumous pardon to the two men, and the state released more material that revealed that the state had falsified another key part of its case. In 1979, Bill was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and on the last day that I saw him I agreed to take over his research and try to turn it into a book. Five years later, with the help of a research assistant--a former student of mine named Michael Levitin--I turned it into a book, Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti, listing Bill and myself as the co-authors. It re-ignited the controversy and got a lot of favorable reaction, and for a while some law professors were using it in courses.
The case, it is fair to say, had become the most controversial criminal case in US history during the 1920s, triggering huge demonstrations both in the US and around the world, and retaliatory bombings by some of Sacco and Vanzetti's fellow anarchists. I am convinced that it was a terrible miscarriage of justice, marked by a number of instances of prosecutorial misconduct. In particular, the prosecution kept critical evidence from the defense--something that the Warren Court turned into grounds for overturning any conviction in which such things occurred. That evidence included the minutes of the grand jury inquiry into the case, which Michael Levitin discovered in the Harvard Law School library, which showed how much certain eyewitnesses had changed their story and included statements by the medical examiner tending to confirm that one bullet had been substituted by the prosecution.
Thanks to an intrepid documentary film maker named Liz Collin and her writer JC Chaix, I am inclined to believe that we have lived through a comparable miscarriage of justice over the last three years: the convictions of Derek Chauvin and three other police officers for the murder of George Floyd. The documentary, The Fall of Minneapolis, can be watched for free here or on youtube. I am indebted to Glenn Loury and John McWhorter for bringing it to the attention of their listeners, including myself, on Glenn's substack and youtube channel, here. As usual, Glenn and John repeatedly called a spade a spade rather than referring to it metaphorically as a shovel, as Mark Twain would say. I will now try to summarize what I have learned. Collin and Chase have also published a book laying out their findings, It is selling very well on amazon but it is only in forty libraries in the United States so far, none of them within 300 miles of my home here in Watertown. Collin, it should be noted, is the wife of Bob Kroll, who at the time of Floyd's death was a the president of the Minneapolis police union.
There are two critical findings in the film, one of which casts grave doubt as to how Floyd died, and the second which may lead eventually to the dismissal of the murder case.
To begin with--and I had seen this reported before--the original autopsy report, written by the Minneapolis medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Floyd, found no evidence of asphyxiation due to pressure on his neck or elsewhere. Instead, it found that Floyd suffered from serious heart disease, and that he had methamphetamine and a large dose of fetanyl in his system when he died. Body cam footage, of which more in a moment, shows him with some kind of drug in his mouth during his argument with the police officers. The two doctors hired by the well-known attorney Benjamin Crump who said that Floyd died of asphyxiation did not in fact perform an autopsy, according to the film--they simply presented a different conclusion based on the medical examiner's data. By the time the initial official report was complete, several days after Floyd's death--it took that long to get the toxicology report--the nation and the world had already decided that Chauvin had choked him to death with his knee because of the cell phone video that a bystander had recorded, and demonstrations and riots were raging in Minneapolis and elsewhere. The film leaves the impression that the medical examiner felt he had no choice but to change his original conclusion that Floyd had died of some mixture of heart disease and the effect of the drugs he had taken. It is one of the bedrock principles of American law that no one can be convicted of murder absent clear proof of the corpus delicti, that is, that foul play caused the victim's death. The question of how the two independent pathologists, Michael Baden and Allecia Wilson, whom Crump hired, reached their conclusion needs final clarification. Dozens of news accounts indicated that they had performed a "second autopsy," but Collin's book, They're Lying, and the film, insist that they only reviewed the medical examiner's finding.
That is not all. The film presents many minutes of police body cam footage of officers' attempts to detain Floyd for at least ten minutes--before Chauvin was even on the scene. Floyd becomes extremely agitated as soon as the officers approach him in his car, and refuses all their commands. He also says, repeatedly, "I can't breathe"--well before he is under any restraint from the officers. Floyd was a large, powerful man--bigger than any of the officers--and the film shows how scary the whole encounter was for them. According to the film, much of this footage had never been shown before they put it in their movie. This is a point where I need more information--I have received Collin's book and looked for a definite statement that this footage was denied to the jury (it was definitely denied to the public before the trial), but I haven't found it. If in fact the prosecution kept this footage out of the hands of the defense, that could, it seems to me, lead to the dismissal of the entire case.
Last, but hardly least, high-ranking officers of the Minneapolis police testified that the technique Chauvin used to hold Floyd down was not part of his training or the SOPs of the police department. That, it seems, was a lie, as the film shows with pictures from a training manual. And it also shows other angles seeming to show that Chauvin's knee was on Floyd's shoulder, not his neck. We also know that Floyd had been repeating "I can't breathe" many minutes before Chauvin put him in that position.
Chauvin and his three fellow officers were eventually convicted of different offenses in both federal and state courts, and are serving concurrent sentences of 22.5 years for Chauvin and several years each for the other three men. Very recently Chauvin survived an assault in prison during which he was stabbed more than twenty times. Meanwhile, a substantial portion of the Minneapolis police force has quit in the wake of the case and the riots that followed, in which one precinct was forbidden to try to prevent rioters from taking over and destroying their building. (That is described at great length by officers who were on the scene, and who make impressive witnesses.) Crime has significantly increased in Minneapolis, even though political leaders backed away from their initial enthusiasm for "defunding the police."
The death of George Floyd and the near-unanimous conclusion that a police officer had murdered him while other officers looked on had a tremendous effect on American life. Not only did it lead to many weeks of demonstrations, some of them violent, in many American cities, but it triggered the "racial reckoning" that led to putting a new national holiday on the calendar, popularizing the 1619 project, and winning much broader acceptance for the idea of the United States as a hopelessly racist society. And yet, it seems entirely possible that Floyd wasn't murdered at all, but simply died from a combination of hypertension, heart disease, and a combination of fetanyl and meth. Because of the case's impact, the new documentary may turn the case into a Republican talking point for the foreseeable future--all the more so since both President Biden and Vice President Harris did not wait for the trial to jump on the bandwagon and claim that Floyd was a victim of police brutality and racism. And in the current climate, I cannot imagine how a new investigation could possibly enjoy the trust of large numbers of the American people, for whom the Floyd case is as settled as anything could be. The case will have far more enduing consequences than Sacco and Vanzetti ever did. Meanwhile, I urge you all to watch the movie.
Saturday, December 02, 2023
Having subscribed to the New Republic for about thirty years and appeared in it a few times when Marty Peretz ran it, I eagerly made my way through his autobiography The Controversialist a week or two ago. It was apparently much in demand in the west suburbs of Boston, and it took months for the library consortium to come up with a copy for me. The book has drawn numerous reviews on line, most of which seem to make the same points about him and his career, and I will not go into those at any length. Regarding his sexuality, as they note, Peretz declares himself gay in the book but says very little about that side of his life, never mentioning a single male sexual partner--and I don't care. Nobody owes the public a thorough account of their sex life. Peretz's book deals with his contributions to American public life, just as A Life in History dealt almost exclusively with my career in academia. Incidentally, I have no idea if Peretz has a google alert for his name active, but if he somehow happens to read this piece, I am sure he would enjoy A Life in History. Like his book, it has a great deal of information about the inner workings of Harvard, with which we were both so closely associated for so long. That common association eventually brought us together for a while, but I will leave that story for the end of this piece.
Peretz was born in 1939 in the Bronx to immigrant Jewish parents from Poland. His father was a successful small businessman and landlord. Peretz graduated from Bronx High School of Science, one of New York city 's competitive high schools, and probably in the 1950s the most difficult school in the country to get into. He got into Princeton but went to Brandeis instead--and this leads me to my first relatively original observation about this book.
Peretz in his heyday at the New Republic, particularly from the 1980s, despised the label "neoconservative," but he certainly was a center-right figure and as he admits, his foreign policy views generally accorded with those of recognized neoconservatives. Thus many have forgotten or do not know that until the mid-1970s he ranked as a leftist--and his leftism dated from before leftism once again became fashionable. He had, he tells us, two mentors at Brandeis. The first was Herbert Marcuse, the Marxist, founder of critical theory, and prophet of the New Left, to which Peretz clearly belonged at least until a fateful conference in Chicago in 1967. He evidently had more political influence upon the young Peretz than Max Lerner, his second mentor, and a devout believer in the American experiment. Yet at no time in the book does Peretz really tell us anything substantial about his leftist beliefs in that era. The Marcuse book that hand the most influence upon him, he says, was Eros and Civilization--because it encouraged young people to explore their sexuality. He describes some relatively early civil rights activism, and in 1962, he joined the quixotic Senate campaign of Harvard professor H. Stuart Hughes, whom I became friendly with in graduate school, an independent run against Teddy Kennedy that called for a more reserved Cold War foreign policy. He also mentions his sympathy for Fidel Castro. In the middle of the decade, he like so many others became a committed opponent of the Vietnam War, and in 1966 he took up the cause of Biafra, the secessionist Nigerian province that the Nigerian government brutally suppressed By 1967, he was helping to organize a Chicago conference of white and black leftists who were looking for a candidate to challenge Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination in 1968. By that time he had married a very wealthy heiress, Anne Deveraux Labouisse, who became his political partner and whose fortune made him a significant political contributor, at least by the more restrained standards of the 1960s. What is completely missing from this account of his youth is any indication of his views on economic questions--surely a remarkable omission from one who counted the leading Marxist of the mid-twentieth century as one of his mentors.
About twenty years ago, Judith Klinghoffer wrote an interesting book, Vietnam, Jews, and the Middle East, showing how the 1967 Six Day War had shifted the identities and the politics of many American Jews by awakening new feelings for Israel. Some of them, she showed, noticed that the United States emerged in that crisis as one of Israel's few friends, and therefore began to favor an aggressive US foreign policy around the world in the hope that it would make Israel more secure. Peretz makes clear in his book that his identification with Israel went back much further than 1967, but the war's aftermath changed his trajectory for another reason. At the Chicago conference of radicals, black militants took over, spurned any white input, and insisted on passing an anti-Zionist resolution. The black-Jewish alliance on civil rights was coming to an end. Peretz remained a dove on Vietnam, and indeed became a significant player (in his account at least) in the Eugene McCarthy campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1968. He also participated in the McGovern campaign in 1972--although he tells us that he wound up voting for Nixon, partly, he says, because he was sure McGovern "had [Israel] in his sights." I too supported both McCarthy and McGovern, and got to know McGovern slightly, and for what it is worth, I think he was a far superior public servant to McCarthy and a much friendlier human being.
Two years later The New Republic was up for sale, and Peretz bought it. He rapidly changed its personnel and its political line, from moderate left to center-right--although as he points out, some leftist material continued to appear in it on some topics for a long time. He went through a great many editors, a process he details without ever conceding that he was not an easy man to work for. He continued to teach at Harvard (more on that later), and he brought a number of former students into the magazine. He writes rather fulsomely about many of these subordinates, especially Leon Wieseltier, his long-time literary editor, whom he describes as a genius--a judgment in which I cannot concur. The New Republic became a very reliable supporter of Israel--although not always uncritical--and, in the 1980s, a supporter of Ronald Reagan's anti-Communist counteroffensive in the Third World. The left wing of the Democratic Party, it is fair to say, became its most common target. Yet I came away from the book feeling that Peretz's personal likes and dislikes had an extraordinary degree of influence on its political stances. Bill Clinton's policies, in retrospect, seem very similar to Peretz's preferences, and he also had elevated Peretz's former student and protégé, Al Gore, to the Vice Presidency. But Peretz clearly disliked the Clintons, and probably the worst piece ever to appear in The New Republic was Betsy McCaughey's scurrilous, utterly discredited attack on Clinton's health care plan--for which Peretz refuses to apologize. He did not much care for Barack Obama either, and I don't think there is any reference to Obamacare in the book at all.
What struck me more than anything else in the book, however, was Peretz's worldview--an unusual one in his youth that has become a mainstream one now, especially although not exclusively on the left which he now despises. He is an avowed, unalloyed tribalist. This is not merely with respect to his Zionism. It colors his whole world view and his reaction to numerous individuals. He is profoundly skeptical about our whole foreign policy establishment because it tries, in theory at least, to treat all the peoples of the world equally. He does not believe in an American melting pot. And his tribalism--like that of many others--emerges most strikingly in his views of other members of his own tribe--Jews whom he believes to be too little interested in their Jewishness. His list of such people includes Harvard colleagues like Adam Ulam and David Riesman, George Soros, and Madeleine Albright and John Kerry, whose Jewish forbears renounced their Judaism. (I did not know--or I had forgotten--that John Kerry's paternal grandparents were converted Jews.) This was perhaps his generational rebellion. His own father, he tells us, was a proud American, and the Jews of the GI generation (like my own father) believed for the most part in assimilation, which not a few of them changed their names to achieve. Peretz doesn't. He believed in Jewish power within the system, and that is what he was trying to achieve.
I had to laugh at one passage in the book about The New Republic and the personnel he brought in. It occurs at the end of a long discussion of his favorite subordinates there--Leon Wieseltier, Michael Kinsley, Rick Hertzberg, and Charles Krauthammer. Here it is.
"Together we were upstarts--young and pluralist, Jewish and intellectual, not afraid to provoke. But we also came with the imprimatur of the best institutions: Harvard, Columbia, and Oxford. We weren't like anything old Washington had ever seen We were not on anybody's invitation list in those days. What we had was their attention. And we used it.
"Those people thought they had me pegged as a smart-ass pushy Jew. But they didn't expect the heft, the sheer braininess. They didn't expect the intellectual commitment. We had in our hears the worst atrocity in recorded history, and it affected our thinking, our approach, on the issues of the day. We were something altogether new. There had never been such a widely read magazine of Jewish journalists before.
"Mike and Rick, who served as the actual editors, didn't care much about the Jewish stuff. But Charles and Leon, who identified, were the authoritative voices in the pages. So, though this was never my conscious plan, the New Republic was a break for identifying Jews and Zionists in Washington."
The phrase "this was never my conscious plan" reminds me of one of the funniest lines Woody Allen ever wrote, in Manhattan, when he is arguing with his ex-wife (played by Meryl Streep) over whether he actually tried to run her and her female lover over with his car. "What would Freud say?" she asks. "Freud would say I tried to run you over," he replies. "That's why he was a genius."
Oddly, Peretz, who prides himself on being different, was a pioneer of the trend towards tribalism that has transformed American life over the last half century. The leaders in that trend, I would suggest, were the Zionists like himself and the black radicals who took away the leadership of the left at the Chicago conference in 1967. It has now spread not only to every major ethnic group, but also to different genders and people of different sexual orientations, and it has destroyed, for the time being, the possibility of any broad consensus among Americans. Partly because I have never felt that I had a tribe, I have been immune from the trend myself. Tribalism, as Peretz seems to understand, is contrary to the lessons of the Enlightenment, which thought that reason could overcome tribal loyalty. In the middle the the last century that seemed to be happening in the United States. Now we have been on a different path, which Peretz, in his own small way, contributed to. This, I am now inclined to believe, is a natural human reaction--too much universalism breeds tribalism, and vice versa.
Ultimately, a newer tribalism struck a big blow to Peretz's reputation and self-esteem. The book ends very sadly. In 2010, he and Anne, his political and social partner for so long, divorced. In 2012 he had to sell The New Republic to Chris Hughes, a tech wunderkind who immediately transformed it. And in the midst of this, writing a blog, he ignited a firestorm by protesting that Muslims did not "raise their voices against . . .planned and random killings all over the Islamic world," and suggested the Muslims in America were "worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse." He apologized for that when it triggered a firestorm of criticism, but it turned a 50th anniversary event at Harvard in his honor as an opportunity for students and some faculty to blast him.
I think I have faithfully conveyed the gist of The Controversialist--Peretz's memoir--yet I also know that my portrait has been too negative--because of the one brief, revealing experience that I had with him myself from 1979, I believe, though 1983. This leads to his Harvard experience, and mine.
Peretz owed his career as a Harvard teacher (never a professor) to a loophole in the university's structure. He earned his Ph.D. in Government in the early 1960s, just when the new major Social Studies was developed by my future friend Stanley Hoffmann. Drawing on faculty from the Government, History, Economics and Social Relations departments, Social Studies became an elite major that annually attracted some of Harvard's best students. Its introductory sophomore tutorial revolved around Tocqueville, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Freud. (In recent decades, it has added Foucault and Habermas.) Peretz, along with Barrington Moore, Jr., because a permanent, although untenured, faculty member within that program, although I don't believe he ever published any scholarly work other than a few academic reviews. He also taught a full-year course, I believe, annually in the freshman seminar program, where Al Gore was his most famous student. He was evidently a very effective teacher and he kept his finger on the pulse of undergraduate life through his students.
In 1979, when I was an Assistant Professor of history at Harvard, I decided to approach Peretz to see if I could review a polemic, The Real War, which Richard Nixon had just published, for The New Republic. I simply telephoned him out of the view. "I know about you, I've heard of you," he said immediately, indicating that we had had students in common. He told me to go ahead, turning me over to his literary editor Jack Beatty(whom he later let go), and I wrote the review, which appeared. I wrote at least one more review, of Dangerous Relations by Adam Ulam, for them in the next year or two.
In 1983, The New Republic was preparing a twentieth anniversary issue devoted to John F. Kennedy. I talked to Beatty about writing a piece about how Kennedy had been misunderstood by many recent commentators, and he told me to go ahead. I wrote the piece, focusing on Kennedy's skill as a politician--but Beatty didn't like it. I appealed to Peretz, and got a call back a few days later. "Good piece!" he said, and it ran. The week that it appeared, George Higgins, a Boston Globe columnist, devoted part of a column to the whole issue, focusing on two of the articles in it. I quote:
"For Its Issue of November 21, The New Republic put together four extended assessments of John F. Kennedy. This Is the sort of duty which devolves upon opinionated journals about national affairs - one accedes helplessly to the argument that It Is expected of them, but still cringes slightly as the barn doors creak open once again and display the same old tired war horses snorting In their stalls.
"Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr, is the wheelhorse of that stable, naturally. He held a valid White House pass during JFK's tenancy, and he Is a trained historian. He. Is also no mean hand with the English language, and that's all to the good, of course.
"The trouble Is that Arthur Schlesinger has been around this track more times than old Tom Fool. Years ago he got wind of the reports that his President may not always have been a gentle, perfect knight. He heard there were those who thought he showed more profile than he did courage. As any friend would, Schlesinger became Incensed. He sallied forth to smite the sacrilegists, and In the heat of battle made claims for the martyred leader which would have made the man himself dissolve In gales of laughter. Mildly rebuked for those excesses, Schlesinger took umbrage and not heed, and blustered out still more extravagances.
"Now he appears to think he's stuck with them. and so we have this treatise on "What the Thousand Days Wrought," which seeks to subsume Into JFK's short years In office most of the progressive trends of the current century. It's rather embarrassing. .
"More realistic, I thought, was David Kaiser's knowing portrait of the President as a gut bucket politician, ·cozening the scribblers and hornswoggling Drew Pearson. I don't think there's any need to flounder around madly seeking reasons to beatify a smart politician, whose achievements in part rest upon his skillful use of sham. John Kennedy did not wrest the nomination out of Lyndon Johnson's grasp by yanking some damned sword out of a stone: he got It by being smarter, craftier and mean, and I think he ought to get the credit for his well-honed wits. Kaiser gives it to him, and it's quite refreshing."
I appreciated Marty Peretz's decision to run the piece, obviously, and I appreciate it even more now, having found from The Controversialist that he personally disliked Kennedy intensely at the time that he ran for president in 1960 and apparently never changed his mind very much. This whole story shows a side of him that I can't help admiring. He evidently trusted his student's opinion of me, and he genuinely liked what I had written for him. Unfortunately I could not manage to establish a good relationship with Leon Wieseltier when he succeed Beatty as literary editor, and I stopped writing for TNR. And I am sorry to report that in 2014, when it published an anthology of articles from its one hundred years of existence, it included Schlesinger's article from the JFK anniversary issue but not mine, which you can read here.
Peretz and I were part of a particular Harvard, one where students loved the humanities and social sciences and the best faculty enjoyed bringing out the best that they had to offer. The reading lists of those years would be unheard of today--quantitatively and qualitatively. And as teachers, we both took advantage of the opportunities that that institution offered. That was why, really, those pieces of mine ever appeared in The New Republic, and for that I am still grateful.