Like Ronald Reagan before me, I didn’t accept the notion that the American far-Left mirrored their cousins overseas – until I actually met them. That was when I arrived at CUNY as a graduate student in history in the 1990s. The school has always had an identity as America’s largest public urban university situated in a huge melting pot. I knew that it had been affected by the 1960s, like every other university in America, but I expected that old debates would be settled, or at least transcended, as a result of the Fall of the Wall. What I got instead was a time capsule experience, where history stopped for some in the Thirties, and others, only slightly more flexible, in the Sixties.
At CUNY, the traditional political spectrums had shifted so far to the left that a New Deal and Camelot defender like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was characterized by students and faculty alike as “conservative” simply because he wrote and taught from an Enlightenment perspective. Dr. John Patrick Diggins, a historian who recently chided Republicans as soft on both Communism and terrorism in an American Prospect article, was characterized by faculty and students as a right-winger because he sought proof to back up his arguments. “Fascist,” a word much used here, I found, did not describe machine guns and race-bating but a “Western” way of thinking. The tenured radicals here had taken to heart Michel Foucault’s statement that “empiricism” was in itself a form of totalitarianism, that verbs could be fascist. But there were limits to such fashionable postmodernism. If one were to apply the postmodernist idea that history is fiction and can thus be rewritten to the sacred beliefs of the Left – say, that Richard Nixon did not really have an enemies’ list – and empiricism became important at CUNY. “That cannot be,” was the usual reply.
The Left at CUNY was not a big tent housing Social Democrats and liberals, socialists and Communists. Only the hard-Left, divisible only chronologically as either the ‘30s Left or the ‘60s Left – either Stalin or Fidel – occupied this structure. As a TA under Dr. Sandi Cooper, I was required to sit in on her European survey lectures and witnessed, not a teacher, but a fringe element of our history come to life, which in her case was the American Communist Party line in its salad days. Like one of those one-man shows in the 70s, when James Whitmore as Harry Truman or Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain communicated with audiences, Cooper was Earl Browder, William Z. Foster, Henry Wallace, or all of the above. Students who only read about the Party’s evasions, rationalizations, and moral equivocations got to experience it first hand, whatever the topic of the day. According to Cooper, the Soviet Union was capitalistically encircled in the ‘30s and Cold War (Browder, Foster and Wallace); was the only nation willing to stand up to Hitler (Browder, Foster, Wallace); won World War Two (Kruschev, Stalin, Browder, Gus Hall); and whose citizens today, buffeted by capitalism and the mob, pine for the five year plan.
Cooper lived as well as taught history by also demonstrating both the CPUSA’s selective memory loss and Soviet style airbrushing. No mention was made in her classes of Trotsky or Babel or Ehrlich and Alter’s assassinations; there were no secret speeches, no invasions of Czechoslovakia, no Chernobyl. A Russian textbook today in any secondary school in that country supplies a fuller picture. In play also was the undoctrinaire directions the Party had to travel in order to defend Stalin. Discussing FDR, Cooper dismissed his desires for a UN as “unrealistic and silly,” while Churchill and Stalin’s ideas about spheres of influence won high praise. Thus, students saw British imperialism lauded to support Stalin.
My proposed subject for research was the domestic Cold War, and with Cooper, I got a chance to travel back in time to the days of Loyalist picnics and democratic centralism. Most of all, I gained insight from her anger – over anything detrimental to the Soviet Union on her part. (When shown a copy of her “bible,” Joseph Davies’ fellow-traveling Mission to Moscow, I replied I had read it and found it good science fiction; her face turned red, and her knuckles turned white.) It made me understand how Communists, domestic and overseas, could perform their actions: nothing must compromise their vision or derail “inevitable” progress toward their triumph. But I also had my questions answered about the Left and its unMarxist love of creature comforts. Here was Orwell’s “talking gramophone,” issuing all the homilies about the working class and its travails under capitalism while herself refusing to use public transportation and complaining about the lack of heat in her office. Indeed, it was those who praised Joe Stalin (and it is “Joe” for CUNY instructors, not Uncle Joe) most fulsomely who also complained the loudest about the bad cheese at faculty receptions.
The political center at CUNY was no less inverted. Dr. Kathleen McCarthy, for instance, when teaching the American Civil War, confined herself to Northern Female Voluntary Societies who provided needed materials and welfare. Having covered this topic, she then informed us, “This is all you need to know about the Civil War.” Dr. Judith Stein confined her study of the Kennedy administration during 1962 to her own obsessions: his dealing with the steel industry and his capital gains tax cut. No mention was made of the little matter of nuclear warheads in Cuba.
Factional groups were wary of if not hostile toward each other. But there were issues that could unite them. When I confronted Kathleen McCarthy with evidence that perhaps Southern white women on plantations were involved in voluntary efforts as well, she retorted: “Well, their general, Robert E. Lee tried to escape wearing a dress.” (It was in fact, the Confederacy’s Vice President Alexander Stephens.) Meanwhile, despite contributing money to Gore’s campaign in 2000, Dr. Sandi Cooper bemoaned the fact that either way she would be hearing a Southern accent from the president.
Despite being aware of this bizarro political world, where the political “center” was actually the Left, and the Left was Stalinist, I still carried some hopeful assumptions with me on my progress through CUNY. One was that my written exams would be graded on its internal logic. I was soon disabused of this notion. I passed one of the three and was informed by those who had failed me that it was because I cited people they didn’t like. “Arthur Schlesinger Jr is a hundred years old,” Judith Stein informed me about my answer on a New Deal question. “All you wrote about was Andrew Jackson, who was a white, patriarchal male,” said Kathleen McCarthy about my answer to her question about whether the Jackson period was a democratic one or not.
I passed the second time around, but at a price: my self-respect. I figured out that what I was to study was not the historical period, but the obsessions and prejudices of the examiners. No white, patriarchal males for McCarthy, no foreign policy or Schlesinger for Stein. The resulting essays were simply regurgitations of their lectures. No attempt was made to actually answer the questions but instead to push the right buttons. I passed, but after that really had no stamina left to tailor the rest of my academic career to a particular historian’s prejudices.
But my CUNY experience was not without one more insight. The one member on the faculty who did not regard verbs or logic as fascist was Dr. Abraham Ascher. Ascher was a refugee from the Nazis. Hence, here was one academic who knew totalitarianism was about broken bones and camps, not words. He made the rest of it worthwhile.
Since then, I've only encountered academic types when I deal with academics. Not even politicians or cops evince the same self-importance or refusal to evolve with the times. But the reason academics behave the way they do is simple: there is no such thing as an internal affairs in academia. A bad cop and a bad politican can, but not always, be uncovered and punished. But at least the potential for redress is there. Not so with academics whose tenured jobs are impervious to scrutiny or punishment. With the presence of Angela Davis and Bernadine Dohrn on faculties, it is apparent that academia practices an affirmative action policy based on politics. Under the cover of cosmetic diversity, intellectual conformity lurks.
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