Eyal Press is a Nation contributing writer and the author of Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict That Divided America (Picador). He is a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.
Bringing more churchgoers into the fold poses a complex challenge for Democrats.
Most Americans long ago stopped believing that George W. Bush is what he
claimed to be during the 2000 presidential campaign: a compassionate
Daniel Pipes has made his name inveighing against an academy overrun by political extremists. But he is nothing if not extreme in his own views.
The New School University is one of Manhattan's most storied progressive institutions. But don't tell that to the people who work there.
Eyal Press is working on
a book about the abortion wars in Buffalo, New York.
In these jittery times, many Americans see torture as justified.
The re-education of former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz.
One year after the story broke that a Navy SEAL team under his command
was involved in an atrocity during the Vietnam War, former Nebraska
Senator Bob Kerrey stood before a packed hall in lower Manhattan as the
keynote speaker at a three-day conference on human rights. The
conference--"International Justice, War Crimes & Terrorism: the
U.S. Record"--took place at New School University, where Kerrey is
president, and grew out of Kerrey's own suggestion that his experience
in Vietnam be turned into an "educational moment." On hand were an array
of prominent writers (David Rieff, Samantha Power), advocates (Aryeh
Neier, president of the Open Society Institute), public officials
(former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke) and judges (Richard Goldstone,
former chief prosecutor at the international criminal tribunals for the
former Yugoslavia and Rwanda).
But while the conference featured lively panel discussions on important
subjects like prosecuting war crimes and responding to terrorism, Kerrey
was noticeably cagey when it came to discussing how his own experience
might shed light on America's culpability for human rights violations in
Vietnam. "When I said I hoped to turn my revelations last spring into an
educational moment," he announced, "I did not intend to meekly submit to
cross-examinations or self-indulgent one-sided criticism of US foreign
policy during the war in Vietnam."
Fair enough, but that is hardly what has happened in the year since
Gregory Vistica's excellent article on the incident involving Kerrey's
Navy SEAL unit appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Vistica
presented two conflicting versions of the incident in question.
According to Kerrey and five other platoon members, a group of
Vietnamese civilians was inadvertently killed following an exchange of
fire in the village of Thanh Phong, where US commandos were searching
for a representative of the National Liberation Front. According to the
more damning account of former Navy Seal Gerhard Klann, however--a
version corroborated by several Vietnamese survivors--roughly a dozen
women and children were lined up and executed at close range that night.
Five more civilians were killed at knife-point before the team had
reached the village.
When the story first appeared, the charges were deemed serious enough
that Human Rights Watch called on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for
an "urgent, thorough and independent inquiry" of the case. "For the US
to ignore allegations of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions as
have been made in this case would seriously undermine efforts around the
world to enforce these essential standards," the organization stated.
Twelve months later, all talk of investigating the Kerrey incident has
evaporated. Kerrey, meanwhile, has continued to preside over the New
School, a university with a proud progressive history that has found
itself enmeshed in moral and political controversy. Dismayed that Kerrey
never told school officials about the operation until the story made
international headlines, the Graduate Faculty Student Union called for
him to step down. But the Board of Trustees stuck by him, and the
faculty wavered, issuing a statement that Kerrey's public acknowledgment
should serve as an occasion for the United States "to consider its own
record in Vietnam against the standards it imposes elsewhere."
At least some faculty members are now regretting that decision, for the
controversy about Kerrey's past has been compounded by growing rancor
over his vision of the New School's future. In March, Kenneth Prewitt,
the popular dean of the school's vaunted Graduate Faculty of Political
and Social Science, resigned after concluding that "the emphasis was on
revenue flows rather than building academic excellence." At a public
forum in March, Prewitt revealed that at one point a provost suggested
awarding cash bonuses to deans who increased the number of
tuition-paying students in their divisions, a notion Kerrey admitted was
his own "bad idea." Other faculty members believe Kerrey has not been
straightforward about the future of the university's core division, the
Graduate Faculty. In March the GF was informed it would have to cut its
budget by $5 million to become self-sustaining (virtually all doctoral
programs rely on subsidies from other divisions to stay afloat). When
Kerrey was questioned about his plans in the Times, he reversed course,
indicating that the subsidy might actually increase. At a faculty dinner
two nights later, an associate dean who asked whether this was true was
reportedly told by Kerrey not to believe everything he read in the
Such lack of forthrightness is reminiscent of Kerrey's handling of the
Vietnam story. When Klann's account first appeared, after all, Kerrey
did not flat-out deny it ("I'm not going to make this worse by
questioning somebody else's memory"), but he accused the media of
"collaborating" with those who want to believe the worst about America.
He expressed anguish and regret ("If I'd have lost both arms and both
legs and my sight and my hearing, it wouldn't have been as much as I
lost that night"). But he hired public relations adviser John
Scanlon--who orchestrated the campaign against tobacco industry
whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (and has since died)--to spin the story.
In his keynote address, Kerrey did advocate more thorough training of US
troops in the laws of war, but he also complained that critics who harp
on Vietnam have made America excessively cautious about using force
Perhaps we should expect nothing different from a public figure whose
reputation is his livelihood. But many people do expect more from the
New School. "I really question the wisdom of the university leaders
here," said John Kim, an army veteran who attended the conference and
heads the New York chapter of Veterans for Peace. "If he had come out
openly and admitted his wrongdoing and apologized to the victims, I
would support him. But I think the trustees and students and faculty
should demand his resignation until there is an independent
investigation or he comes forward with a full admission of his role."
We must hold countries accountable for economic abuses just as we do for torture.