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Monday, September 27, 2010


The events at Harvard on Saturday were fascinating, distressing, and exhausting. Today, I am going to write about the controversy surrounding the remarks of Martin Peretz and Harvard's decision to accept the $650,000 or so donated for a scholarship fund in his honor. Tomorrow, I will write about a number of ways in which I found the experience personally illuminating and instructive.

The event was a daylong celebration of the 50th anniversary of an undergraduate interdisciplinary program at Harvard, Social Studies, of which I was the first Head Tutor in 1960-61. The program was stocked with eminent people -- Adele Simmons, former president of Hampshire College and also of the MacArthur Foundation, Amy Gutman, president of the University of Pennsylvania, Michael Walzer, world-famous political theorist now at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, Seyla Benhabib, Professor of :Political Science and Philosophy at Yale, E. J. Dionne, the Washington Post columnist, and so forth. The program consisted of a morning panel, a lunch at which I was listed as "principal speaker," an afternoon panel chaired by Walzer, and then a lecture by Amy Gutman, who was introduced by her opposite number, Drew Faust, president of Harvard. There was an evening reception that Susie and I skipped because it was too far for Susie to walk.

The entire event was accompanied by a very vocal protest by a large number of Harvard students carrying beautifully made signs on which were printed a selection of the ugly and appalling things Peretz has said and published over the years. A great video of the protest is already up on YouTube, and I encourage everyone to view it.

Readers of this blog know that I anguished a good deal about whether I should even attend the event. In the end, I decided to do so because the program was altered so that no announcement of the scholarship fund would be made at the lunch at which I was scheduled to speak. I learned on Sunday morning that there was a small dinner Friday evening at which the honoring of Peretz was done. I was not invited to it. :)
I had my say about the scholarship business during my luncheon speech, and I will try to reproduce what I said about the matter on this post [I spoke ex tempore, and have never actually written down what I said, so I shall reconstruct it from memory.] I had intended to let that be my sole comment on the affair, but I was so appalled by what was said during the panels and question period, especially by Walzer, that when a Harvard Crimson reporter interviewed me after the end of the day's proceedings, I unloaded a good many less than temperate, but deeply felt remarks, none of which I regret or have any intention of taking back. Some of them will be in the story in today's Harvard Crimson, and I invite you to find the story on the web and read it.

In my luncheon remarks, I told some amusing stories and said something in a connected way about why it is that in the core sophomore course that has defined the program for half a century, the same authors -- Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, etc. -- remain on the reading list. I will not bother to try to reproduce that part of my talk. Then I paused and said:

"There is one more matter about which I feel I must say something. I refer to the controversy to which Richard Tuck referred in his opening remarks this morning [ed. Tuck, the current head of Social Studies and a splendid man, had said a few words about the controversy during his welcoming speech, distancing himself from the content of Peretz's statements.] I have anguished a great deal about this matter, at one point uncertain whether I ought even to attend the celebration. If I were a religious man, I could let my bible fall open at random, relying on The Lord to guide me to a chapter and verse in which I might find some wisdom. But since I am an atheist, that course was not open to me. So I did the next best thing. I took down my copy of Volume One of Das Kapital. As I turned the old, familiar pages, covered with my underlinings and notes, my eye fell on this famous passage from the great chapter on Money. Since you are all former or present Social Studies students, I am sure you will all recall it. Here is what Marx says.

'Because money is the metamorphosed shape of all other commodities, the result of their general alienation, for this reason it is alienable itself without restriction or condition. It reads all prices backwards, and thus, so to say, depicts itself in the bodies of all other commodities, which offer to it the material for the realisation of its own use-value. At the same time the prices, wooing glances cast at money by commodities, define the limits of its convertibility, by pointing to its quantity. Since every commodity, upon becoming money, disappears as a commodity, it is impossible to tell from the money itself, how it got into the hands of its possessor, or what article has been changed into it. Non olet, from whatever source it may come.'

Marx assumed that the working men and working women for whom he wrote this book all had a classical education, but since I did not, I was forced to look up the source of the Latin tag, non olet. It seems that in the time of the Emperor Vespasian, the Roman state raised a little extra money by taxing the public urinals. One day, Vespasian sent his son, Titus, to collect the taxes from the urinals. Titus was offended by the task, which he considered beneath him, and when he returned he flung the money at his father's feet. Vespasian looked down with equanimity and remarked languidly, "Pecunia non olet." The money does not stink.

In the realm of higher education, Harvard is an imperial power, so quite naturally it adopts Vespasian's point of view toward the money it accepts, Pecunia non olet. But from its founding, fifty years ago, Social Studies has held itself to a higher standard, and so I would hope that it will reject this money for a scholarship, because pecunia olet. The money stinks."

That is what I said. It got some applause, and I sat down. When each of the past Head Tutors was introduced in turn, Marty took the occasion to mumble a few words about the cowardly attacks on him. [Since I attacked him in his presence, why he thought the attack was cowardly is a mystery.]

In the afternoon panel, several of the speakers alluded to Peretz, and many of the questioners from the floor brought it up. The defense of Marty was, I found, simply incredible. One person after another said that he was a much-loved teacher, as though that somehow excused thirty years of ugly, racist outbursts. The attitude was, if I may put it this way, as though Marty was a fine fellow with the unfortunate habit of farting in public. It was not until the very end of the afternoon session that a young women asked a question that should have been center stage throughout: How did Peretz's appalling views affect his teaching?

The absolute low point of the day, for me, was Michael Walzer's defense of his old friend. Walzer began by telling the audience that in 1969, when Harvard students seized the administration building in an anti-war protest, he and Marty formed a committee to defend them, and most of the advocacy for the students was carried out by Marty. This, we were supposed to conclude, earned Peretz a pass on four decades of ugly racist rants. Then Walzer, widely considered one of the preeminent political philosophers of the present day, sank to a really appalling low. He looked at one of the questioners who had attacked Peretz and said, "Have you examined every writing and footnote and every email of each member of the Standing Committee?" At that, the audience groaned, and he shut up.

What was really going on? I tried to explain this to the Crimson reporter, and a quote from me on this may appear in the story [in the middle of last night, the reporter emailed me to check the quotes before the story was put in final form.] Let me back up a bit and try to get some perspective. This was a gathering of more than four hundred former and present Social Studies majors -- possibly the largest assemblage of sophisticated social theorists since the last garden party of the Frankfort School for Social Research. These are people who think nothing of discerning the deeper ideological meaning in Afghan popular music or Tibetan architecture, or teasing out the epistemological filiations between Foucault and Montesquieu. And yet, confronted at their own conference by a massive protest, the best they could come up with was "Marty is a nice guy."

It is not at all difficult to figure out the real sources of the vast corpus of disgusting statements by Martin Peretz. The answer requires only one word: Israel. Why is it that while these high-powered social theorists were extolling Social Studies' fruitful union of historical research and theoretical analysis, none of them could find a moment to refer to the transformation of left-wing Jewish social theorists into Neo-cons and Peretz' transformation of The New Republic from a liberal journal into a right-wing apologist for war against Muslims?

In his fine old book on the Frankfort School, THE DIALECTICAL IMAGINATION, Martin Jay remarks wonderingly on the fact that almost to a man, those brilliant theoreticians, to whom Social Studies owes so much, vehemently denied any significance in the fact that most of them were from upper middle class German Jewish assimilated families. [See Jay, pages 31 ff.]

I have already told the story in my Memoir of my 1973 phone call to Michael Walzer, and the discovery that he and Peretz were supporting Nixon in the impeachment controversy because Nixon was a strong supporter of Israel. Well, here we were in this huge, elegant auditorium in Harvard's Science Center, and the assembled intelligentsia, a great many of whom are indeed Jewish, evinced not the slightest interest in the historical and political roots of the controversy kept by Harvard's security forces from intruding on their happy reminiscences.

As I was talking with Susie the next morning about the events of the previous day, I realized that what mattered most to me was not to betray the trust of the students in the protest outside, or their supporters inside the meeting. Although my luncheon remarks were brief and amusingly erudite, they had a bite. I was, in the end, the only person on the program all day to speak out against the decision to honor Peretz by accepting the donations in his name. I guess I shan't be asked back in 2060 at the one hundredth anniversary celebrations. Oh well.


M said...

For those interested, the article in the Harvard Crimson can be found at

Mitchell J. Freedman said...

Michael Walzer is fairly consistent on protecting elites. I didn't hear that sort of defense with respect to Ward Churchill. And of course Walzer thought the worst of Noam Chomsky before Chomsky even noticed him...Sad for me is that my hero Michael Harrington was very close to Walzer, and Walzer wrote the greatest smack down of Jeanne Kirkpatrick's thesis on totalitarian v. authoritarian regimes I ever read.

I also just bought Walzer's "Radical Principles" used of course, and it is really very good.

mushie said...

Robert, you are the greatest!

Ioannis said...

Professor, I can hardly wait for tomorrow's post!

Стивен said...

How did Peretz's appalling views affect his teaching?

The question answers itself:

"Ask yourself: Have you ever -- ever -- read an editorial in The New Republic that does not take the Israeli government's side in a dispute? Was Israel wrong to invade Lebanon in 1982? Did it use excessive force during the first or second intifadas? Was it really so smart to destroy Yassir Arafat's encampment while he was inside it? Was last year's invasion of Lebanon a mistake? Was the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas morally unimpeachable? Is it possible that Israel's leaders -- unlike every set of leaders that have ever ruled any nation -- are always right? And is it possible that for the first time in history, two nations -- one, a tiny, beleaguered state in the Middle East, surrounded by hostile countries, the other, a North American superpower, unmenaced on its borders and surrounded by friendly neighbors -- just happen to have interests that are identical in absolutely every situation?"

Brian said...

It's quite possible that the author of this post is a pompous, obsequious non-entity, who never had an independent thought in his life, and who substitutes airheaded preening and facile group-think for moral reasoning.

Actually, judging from the text, I should amend to "It's almost certain..."

Josh said...

I love the suggestion that a guy opposing Peretz is obsequious, and that Robert Paul Wolff is unoriginal. It's like that guy in the Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

chris said...

Somebody should remind all and sundry of what has happened to Norman Finkelstein for daring to desert the Zionist cause and criticizing Israel for its heinous behaviour. Peretz honored by Harvard; Finkelstein fired by that mediocre "university" in Chicago.

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

Chris, you just hit upon the reason why I chose to be anonymous. As an academic job-seeker, you don't want to leave a trail of politically sensitive comments on the web. I'll start using my name when I have tenure.

Brian said...

Josh (on the slight chance you check this blog the next day),

Within his academic peer group, the author is entirely obedient and unoriginal. Just as it took no courage for a member of the Harvard Humanities faculty to join the idiot mob driving out Lawrence Summers from his position as president of Harvard for his alleged sexism, it takes zero courage for professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst to join the gang of academic and literary twits presently denouncing Peretz for his alleged anti-Muslim racism.

Just because a position is popular within a group, doesn't mean it's false. But the quality - or lack thereof - of the reasoning in the above post suggests that Wolff has placed the primal pleasure of tribal sycophancy over the more subtle rewards concomitant to intellectual independence.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Brian, if you are going to be personally abusive, I think you owe it to me to tell me who you are. I am not sure we can have a fruitful exchange, but at least some elementary courtesies would be observed.

ADG said...

It seems top me that a distinction needs to be made between a "blog" especially one such as this one and, say, a piece of systematic analysis that might (Brian?)be publishable in a serious magazine or academic journal. I disagree with a lot of what Professor Professor Wolff says in his daily blog, BUT it is his blog and his opinions (many of which I also agree with). If you want to make the argument, that RPW is not original or not very bright (a big mistake in my view for he is both even if one disagrees with him, at times) go over to the 'formal models' blog. Here Prof. Wolff moves in way (for it was/is a tutorial) that you might find undermines some of your personal remarks about him. I am a professor at a liberal arts college and plan to use his tutorial in my 'methods' seminar (one that is critical of "math solves all problems" approaches that have become so boring and profoundly useless in both political science and economics)--no doubt there are those (think Gary King at Harvard) for example, that might disagree with Wolff's arguments in his formal models blog, but Wolff's analysis is systematic and well argued. To expect this (always a 'scholarly'/systematic analysis) in a "personal blog" that is purposely opinionated --and Wolff does not hide that this what he is doing -- is probably not all that wise or helpful. My two cents. And to the he/she that is not tenured yet: given the climate on academic campuses today. Don't use your name until you are tenured. :-)


cheyney said...

This may be a quibble, but as one of the students involved in the events of Harvard 1969 I have absolutely no memory of Peretz doing anything to defend us. Moreover, after a sit-in the previous fall, Walzer said we had destroyed the ant-war movement at Harvard by our rash actions. Historical revisionism, once again.

Thanks, RPW, for speaking out!

Kal said...

@Brian: "alleged anti-Muslim racism"

LOL. That is all.

Ralph said...

Placing "the primal pleasure of tribal sycophancy over the more subtle rewards concomitant to intellectual independence" seems a pretty spot-on description of ol' Marty & his partners in thoughtcrime. Too bad Brian used the term "tribal sycophancy," though. While it's certainly accurate, it cuts a little to close to the Zionists motivational bone these days, don't it?

Ralph said...

Placing "the primal pleasure of tribal sycophancy over the more subtle rewards concomitant to intellectual independence" seems a pretty spot-on description of ol' Marty & his partners in thoughtcrime.
Too bad Brian used the term "tribal sycophancy," though. While it's certainly accurate, it cuts a little to close to the Zionists motivational bone these days, don't it?

David Sucher said...

Ought there be a parallel to "Godwin's law" about Hitler...maybe now "Woolf's law" about Israel?

I was struck by Prof. Woolf's out-of-the-blue, incomplete yet allusive words:

"It is not at all difficult to figure out the real sources of the vast corpus of disgusting statements by Martin Peretz. The answer requires only one word: Israel."

And? Now we shall start the analysis? You dropped "it" in there but didn't follow through.

Martin Peretz' stupid and reprehensible remarks are about Peretz and his mind, his fears about death. (I am sure you are a smart-enough man to see the leap.) Your clever phrasing seeks to broaden the Peretz issue and make it appear as if Israel fosters and/or everyone who support Israel( to whatever degree) shares Peretz' views.

Peretz = bad words
Peretz = Israel
Israel = bad words

Of course I know that _you_ didn't mean that Israel is the source of all wickedness. But your reference could have fooled others.

D. Ghirlandaio said...

Washington U. named a building for donor, international arms dealer and whore-monger extraordinaire Adnan Khashoggi.

They changed the name when he defaulted.

Eric said...

@ D. Ghirlandaio: Are you sure about "Washington University?" The Adnan Khashoggi Center I remember was at American University in Washington, D.C.

D. Ghirlandaio said...

American University in Washington, D.C.
My mistake. I looked it up and then typed the wrong word!