More on Rich People; Islamophobia at Harvard

by Chris Sturr | October 01, 2010

Elvis on TV

Elvis on TV

(1) Follow-up on yesterday’s post:  If you didn’t get your fill of the controversy about the whiny U. of Chicago law professor, check out two more good posts today from Brad DeLong, here and here.  The second one has a bunch of links to other commentary on the affair. The New Rule for the Internets DeLong cites is particularly funny (main rule–If you make six figures, you’re not allowed to claim you’re poor on the Internets).

(2) I promised a report on the Marty Peretz/Harvard controversy, so here it is:  Last spring I got an invite to the 50th anniversary celebration of the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, the undergraduate program at Harvard where I taught for four years.  The celebration happened last Saturday, and I attended most of the events.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I saw this article in the New York Times, about a controversy that had arisen around Marty Peretz, editor of The New Republic, who was to be honored at one of the Social Studies events.  Apparently, Peretz, who has a track record of saying horrible racist things, often stemming from his virulent pro-Israel stance (which many blame for ruining TNR), had made some nasty Islamophobic remarks on his blog, including questioning whether Muslims deserve free speech, and claiming that Muslim life is cheap, “especially to Muslims.” He later backed down from the former claim (though not for the latter, which he defended as simply a statement of fact). See his apology for the “embarrassing sentence” about free speech here. (It seems as if a critical column by Nicholas Kristoff prompted his apology.) Later, on Yom Kippur, Peretz made a further statement of atonement.

Anyhow, I found out about all this in the NYT article, which went on to say that Peretz’s statements were putting Harvard and Social Studies in a difficult spot, since former students of Peretz had taken up a collection of some $500K to endow a research fund for Social Studies undergraduates.  The fund would be named for Peretz, and he would be honored for his teaching at the 50th anniversary events.  Meanwhile, activists on and off campus (including from within Social Studies, I later found out) were pressing Harvard and Social Studies to reject the money.

The event at which Peretz was to be honored was a luncheon honoring all the former “Head Tutors” of the program (Peretz held this position in the 70s).  On the original program for the anniversary events, two speakers were listed–Robert Paul Wolff (who was the first Head Tutor) and Peretz.  After all the controversy arose, the department put out a revised program, in which Wolff was listed as the speaker.

I went to the luncheon, and was proud to be among a group of Social Studies tutors and former tutors who walked out when Peretz spoke (briefly–each of about seven head tutors spoke).  Robert Paul Wolff was indeed the main speaker, and he was fantastic.  I have always known him as the author of In Defense of Anarchism; he’s also a philosopher who taught at UMass Amherst for many years.  D&S collective member Larry Peterson, who was our chief blogger at the depths of the financial crisis, studies with Wolff in the 80s and always spoke of him highly.

Anyhow, Wolff gave a beautiful speech honoring Social Studies and its history, with an emphasis on its radical roots, and ended with a brief but sharp denunciation of Peretz in which he, beautifully, quoted from Capital vol. I. The passage he quoted was the one about how money is the universal commodity, and from the point of view of exchange, it doesn’t matter what the source of a particular pile of money is–it is as good as any other money. In this context Marx uses the Latin phrase, “pecunia non olet,” “money doesn’t stink.”  Wolff explained the origin of the phrase (details here), in a tax on urinals levied by the emperor Nero.  Supposedly when when “[Nero's successor] Vespasian’s son Titus complained to him about the disgusting nature of the tax, his father held up a gold coin and told him, ‘Non olet!’ (‘It doesn’t stink!’).” Wolff’s lesson: with respect to the money donated in honor of Islamophobe Peretz, Harvard is taking Vespasian’s “imperial” position, but Wolff wanted to go on record that in this case, this money does stink.

As I said, I wasn’t there for Peretz’s short remarks, but I heard that he made some comment (presumably alluding to Wolff, and maybe to Brad DeLong (see below)) about some professors saying things in order to get applause.  So much for atonement…

The controversy cast something of a shadow over the celebration–the issue came up at all of the events–but in the end, the fact that protesters held up signs outside all the events and pressed the issue during question periods, and even some of the speakers–not just Wolff–criticized Peretz, redeemed the celebration, in my view. I was also pleased to find out that the Social Studies administration, staff, and a majority of tutors and students, were against honoring Peretz; it was apparently the “Standing Committee” (the senior faculty) who refused to back down. You’d think that having tenure would give you some backbone, but on the other hand, you probably have to sell out to get tenure in the first place.

Two of former students of Peretz, including E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and someone named Jamie Gorelick, whom I hadn’t heard of but who is clearly a big shot, spoke at an afternoon panel;  they were apparently among the people who organized the Peretz honor. In the question period, people asked them (again) how they could honor Peretz; they insisted that they were honoring his teaching, not all of his views.  He has always had views that we disagree with, they said.  What seems ridiculous to me about this defense is the idea that the things Peretz wrote (and he has a long track record of saying horribly racist things, so this was not just some anomalous “embarrassing sentence”) are just “views”, as if he believed in supply-side economics or astrology or something. In the current Islamophobic climate, in which people are getting attacked and killed, this is more than just a “view” or even bigotry.  One wonders what Peretz would have to say to get people to back off, or does his excellent teaching give him a permanent free pass? One can surmise that the Standing Committee didn’t want to piss off major donors–presumably the folks donating to the research fund shell out even more for the alma mater at other times of the year.

The speaker who came off worst, in my view, was Michael Walzer, the liberal political theorist from Princeton.  At one point in the same question period he asked whether the people who were piling on Peretz had read every blog post and footnote of every member of the Social Studies standing committee (as if there might be others with equally abhorrent views).  There was a collective groan, and some heckling, from an audience that otherwise really didn’t seem to want to dwell on the Peretz affair. Peretz and Walzer (and Dionne and Gorelick) are all old pals, which underlined for me the extent to which this was all about cronyism and personal loyalty.

As I said, Robert Paul Wolff was the highlight of the celebration for me.  He apparently agonized in advance, on his blog, about whether to even attend the event (read about it here;  there are several other posts on his blog that relate to the controversy).  I am really glad he decided to attend.  Another highlight of the proceedings, apparently, was Brad DeLong’s comments in the morning session, which I missed.  He was brave enough to criticize Peretz.  Here’s the draft of the speech (from his blog), but people who attended the session gave a different account of what he said.  Apparently he said something to the effect that you want to cut people slack for saying dumb things, but when you read Peretz’s comments, the only reasonable reaction is, “What the frickety frack?”  (That version was on his blog, I swear, a few days ago, but I can’t find it now. Maybe he took it down because he thought it was too silly, but I thought it was great.)

–Chris Sturr

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