Politics and pop, past and present.
Harvard University. (Flickr/Kelly Delay)
He’s probably the first person ever to lose his job because of his Harvard PhD dissertation: Jason Richwine, let go by the Heritage Foundation on Friday. The problem: he co-authored their position paper opposing immigration reform; and then somebody discovered that his PhD thesis at Harvard’s Kennedy School was dedicated to the proposition that Hispanics have lower IQs than white people. Not even the Heritage Foundation wanted to go there—so after two days trying to answer embarrassing questions, he left quietly.
But how did he get a Harvard PhD for work that even the Heritage Foundation wouldn’t accept?
The dissertation, uncovered by Dylan Matthews of The Washington Post, titled “IQ and Immigration Policy,” was accepted in 2009 by the Kennedy School of Public Policy. In it, Richwine argued that there are genetic differences in intelligence between races, and that they will persist for generations to come. He’s a disciple of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, whose book The Bell Curve made a similar argument back in 1994.
The problems with all the work purporting to link “race” and “intelligence” have been well-known for decades. First, the concept of “race”: There is no “Hispanic race.” It’s a census category, not a biological one. What we call “Hispanics” in the United States includes Indian peasants from Yucatan and doctors from Mexico City (and Madrid). Second problem: the concept of “IQ.” The inventors of the IQ test claimed it measured “innate intelligence.” But of course what the test really measures is test-taking ability. Our peasant from Yucatan probably wouldn’t do as well as the kid from Beverly Hills High. Both “race” and “intelligence” are culturally constructed notions, not biological or genetic facts. None of this is hard to understand.
Nevertheless, Jason Richwine concluded his dissertation, “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.” The question is: how did Harvard decide this discredited idea was worth a PhD? In other words, who at Harvard approved this travesty?
The dissertation was approved, as all dissertations are, by a committee of three. The chair was George Borjas, an conservative economist who writes about immigration for National Review and The Wall Street Journal. Borjas told Slate’s David Weigel, “I have never worked on anything even remotely related to IQ, so don't really know what to think about the relation between IQ, immigration, etc.… In fact, as I know I told Jason early on since I've long believed this, I don't find the IQ academic work all that interesting.” Not exactly an endorsement of the dissertation.
The second person on the committee was Richard Zeckhauser. He studies investing, not immigration, and his Harvard faculty website describes him as “a senior principal at Equity Resource Investments (ERI), a special situations real estate firm.” He told Wiegel that “Jason’s empirical work was careful,” but that he was “too eager to extrapolate his empirical results to inferences for policy.”
The third member of the committee is the big surprise, and the big problem: Christopher Jencks, for decades a leading figure among liberals who did serious research on inequality—a contributor to The New York Review of Books, the author of important books, including Inequality: Who Gets Ahead?, The Homeless and The Black White Test Score Gap. Christopher Jencks knows exactly what’s wrong with the studies purporting to link “race” with “IQ.”
Richwine concluded his dissertation, “From the perspective of Americans alive today, the low average IQ of Hispanics is effectively permanent.” Why would Christopher Jencks decide that that dissertation was worth a Harvard PhD? I asked Jencks whether he would comment. He replied “Nope. But thanks for asking.”
No less than Rush Limbaugh has cited the approval of the dissertation by Christopher Jencks, “a renowned left-wing academic,” as proof that the young man is being railroaded.
The last word in this story goes to a study published in 2012 in the journal Psychological Science. “In an analysis of two large-scale, nationally representative United Kingdom data sets (N = 15,874),” the researchers wrote, “we found that lower general intelligence (g) in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood.”
Across the country, students are rising up against racism and austerity. Read StudentNation for a rundown of first-person takes.
Yoko Ono speaks at the launch of Artists Against Fracking in New York, August 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Fox News featured the story: The Independent Oil & Gas Association, our friendly frackers, filed a formal complaint against Yoko Ono and her organization, Artists Against Fracking, claiming the group is violating New York state law by failing to register as lobbyists.
You might view the complaint, and the news coverage, as a measure of the success of the campaign launched by Yoko and her son Sean Lennon, who have been joined by more than 200 well-known people, including Salman Rushdie, Jeff Koons, Alec Baldwin, Martha Stewart, David Geffen, Anne Hathaway, Jimmy Fallon and Lady Gaga—with her 34 million Twitter followers. In Albany in January, Yoko and Sean delivered an anti-fracking petition to Governor Cuomo with more than 50,000 signatures. Also in January, she and Sean and Susan Sarandon led a bus tour of Dimock, Pennsylvania, where the local water supply has been contaminated by fracking. And she recently released a video called “Don’t Frack My Mother,” featuring celebrities such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Susan Sarandon.
The frackers seem to have forgotten that “the right of the people” to “petition their government for a redress of grievances” is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
The complaint, filed at the end of March with the state's Joint Commission on Public Ethics, argues that lobbying groups that spend more than $5,000 are required to register and report their finances, and that Artists Against Fracking is such a group.
A spokesman for Artists Against Fracking told the AP that the group and its individual members don't have to register as lobbyists. "As private citizens, Yoko and Sean are not required to register as lobbyists when they use their own money to express an opinion,” David Fenton said. “There's also no lobbying requirement when you are engaged in a public comment period by a state agency." After the public comment period, Fenton said, “Artists Against Fracking will consider registering. Up to now, there has been no violation because they are entitled to do this as private citizens with their own money."
Public opinion polling helps explain the problem for the oil and gas drillers. Seven months after Artists Against Fracking was formed, the March 20 Quinnipiac poll reported that people in New York state were opposed to fracking for the first time, with 46 percent opposed and 39 percent in favor. "There's no doubt the celebrities had an effect," Quinnipiac pollster Maurice Carroll told the AP. "As far as I can tell, they made all the difference.”
How to catch corporations for lying about political transparency? Read Lee Fang's analysis.
Veteran J.J. Asevedo, left, sits at a news conference announcing a lawsuit at the Los Angeles VA, June 8, 2011. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)
Greg Valentini is a homeless vet in Los Angeles who took part in the initial invasion of Afghanistan and participated in the assault on Tora Bora that sought Osama bin Laden. He’s also a plaintiff in the class action suit brought by the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU-SC) arguing that the VA has “misused large portions of its West Los Angeles campus and failed to provide adequate housing and treatment for the people it was intended to serve.” (See my Nation article “LA’s Homeless Vets.”) Valentini was a private in the 101st Airborne, and the lawsuit describes his service in Afghanistan: “He took part in significant ground fighting, under nearly constant sniper fire and mortar bombardment” and “witnessed the gruesome deaths of numerous civilians, including children.” He was redeployed to Iraq, where he again experienced heavy combat. He received six decorations for his service.
Steve Lopez, the legendary Los Angeles Times columnist, has been following Valentini. When he came back from Afghanistan, Lopez wrote, Valentini “ended up in post-combat hell, living in a tent by the Long Beach Airport, bathing in a lake and eating out of garbage cans.” He “doesn’t enjoy reviewing the harrowing details of his combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and his later descent into suicidal fantasies, homelessness and drug addiction.” He also told Lopez “I don’t want to be a whiny vet.” He “blames the bulk of his problems on himself, rather than the VA.” But he does think it would help other homeless vets who have severe emotional problems if they could live in the VA dorms on its Brentwood campus in West LA.
The problem is that the land, donated 125 years ago for housing disabled veterans, today houses nobody. That’s why the ACLU-SC is suing the VA. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of the ACLU-SC Foundation.) Veterans of the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, WWI and WWII lived there for decades. But since the 1970s, the dormitories have been empty, and the VA has rented parts of the site to a Rent-a-Car company and a hotel laundry, along with a neighboring private school and UCLA, which use the land for athletic fields. Meanwhile homeless veterans sleep on the street outside the locked gates.
Every Sunday afternoon for the last five years a group of veterans have demonstrated in Los Angeles outside those locked gates, waving at the cars going past on Wilshire Boulevard on their way to the beach, carrying signs that read “Bring our homeless veterans ‘Home,’” and “In the deed we trust.” The deed in question is dated 1888. The VA acknowledges that the deed required that the land be used for housing disabled vets, and that the land was used for that purpose until the 1970s. But, the VA told the court, the deed is not enforceable without specific legislation by Congress. The VA said—and the court agreed—that no veteran, and no descendant of the family that donated the land (also represented by the ACLU) can enforce that deed. That’s the law, Judge Otero said, although it “may seem shocking.”
On Sunday, March 3, the vets’ group, led by Robert Rosebrock, held an event commemorating the 125th anniversary of the donation of the land to the government for veterans’ housing. The speakers included Anneke Barrie, a college student whose grandmother, Carolina Winston Barrie, is one of the ACLU plaintiffs and a direct descendant of Arcadia B. de Baker, the woman who donated the land in 1888. Standing in front of the locked gates, Anneke Barrie told the fifty demonstrators that the land was intended to provide veterans with “living quarters, food, recreation, amusements, religious instruction, employment opportunities, and medical care”—and it did that, for decades. The failure today of the VA and elected officials “to guard this precious heritage and unique gift is beyond shameful,” she said. “It is criminal.”
The LA story points to larger problems with the Obama administration and the VA. In Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last September, he said, “When you take off the uniform, we will serve you as well as you’ve served us, because no one who fights for this country should have to fight for a job or a roof over their head or the care that they need when they come home.” He and his secretary for veterans affairs, Eric Shinseki, have declared they will end homelessness among veterans by 2015. Veterans are 50 percent more likely to become homeless than the average American, and homeless vets account for nearly 20 per cent of the people living on the streets and in shelters. At the rate the VA is working, there will still be tens of thousands of homeless vets in 2015. And LA is the capital of homeless vets in America.
But instead of housing homeless disabled vets, the VA makes a lot of money from leasing its land in Brentwood, although they did their best to keep that secret. Congressman Henry Waxman, whose district includes the VA land, told Ina Jaffe of NPR, “We’ve never been able to get a lot of the details of exactly how much money they got and how that money was used.” NPR filed an FOIA request for the long-term rental agreements, on the basis of which Jaffe estimates that, “over the past dozen years, the VA Health Care Center of West Los Angeles has taken in at least $28 million, and possibly more than $40 million.”
The ACLU lawsuit challenging the VA leasing practices is being adjudicated now, after US District Judge S. James Otero rejected VA motions to dismiss the case. Mark Rosenbaum, lead attorney for the ACLU-SC in the case, hailed that ruling last March as “the first time in the nation’s history that a federal court has held the VA responsible for assuring that severely mentally disabled veterans have access to housing and services…they require to heal the wounds of war.” Otero ruled that “Congress’ intention was to ensure that the [VA’s] land was used primarily to benefit veterans,” rather than a rent-a-car company or a hotel laundry.
The VA replies to critics that it is spending $20 million to refurbish one building that will house sixty-five vets. Rosebrock says they could house thousands of vets for a fraction of that in a tent city at the site. He points to the tent cities that housed Vietnamese refugees on military bases around the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975. In South California, he says, 1,000 tents and Quonset huts were erected at Camp Pendleton in six days by 900 Marines and civilians, providing housing for 50,000 Vietnamese refugees. If we could do it for Vietnamese refugees, Rosebrock says, we can do it for homeless veterans—many of whom, incidentally, served during the Vietnam War.
But instead of housing homeless vets, the VA land in West LA was used in March to provide parking for the Northern Trust PGA Golf Tournament held nearby at the elite Riviera Country Club. Hundreds of late-model Jaguars, Mercedes and BMWs parked under the ancient eucalyptus trees, while homeless veterans sat outside the gates. Residents around the golf course didn’t want public parking on their streets, Rosebrock says, “so the golf tournament attendees park on sacred grounds where veterans from the Civil War once walked.”
Meanwhile another of the ACLU plaintiffs, a homeless Vietnam vet, “was going through the garbage on the VA campus in Brentwood,” Rosenbaum reports. “He received a citation for stealing government property. He had to pay a fine of over $100.”
Read Jon Wiener's primer on the VA-vet land war in the April 8 issue of The Nation.
The flag of California, flying at San Francisco City Hall. (Wikimedia Commons/Makaristos)
Here’s how California treats its public colleges and universities: first, cut public funds, and thus classes; then wait for over-enrollment, as students are unable to get the classes they need to graduate; finally, shift classes online, for profit. That’s the way Laila Lalami, UC Riverside creative writing professor, explained it in a recent tweet, and that’s pretty much the whole story behind the bill introduced this week by the Democratic leader of the state senate, Darrell Steinberg. His bill requires California’s community colleges, along with the twenty-three Cal State schools and the ten-campus university, to allow students to substitute online courses for required courses taught by faculty members. The key to the proposal: the online courses will be offered by profit-making companies.
Steinberg argues, correctly, that the state’s colleges and universities have an obligation to offer the courses they require for graduation. Right now hundreds of thousands of students are prevented from graduating on schedule because they can’t get into required lower-division courses. That’s shameful, and intolerable. But it’s a crisis created by the legislature, when it cut hundreds of millions from the state’s higher education budget over the last few years.
Advocates of the new plan downplay the for-profit aspect and emphasize instead that they want to “mobilize technology” to “help students achieve their dreams.” But National Review Online rightly emphasized the key element of the plan (while providing their own ideological spin): the proposal will “break the higher education cartel” by bringing in profit-making corporations with a different “business model.”
Advocates of the plan told the Los Angeles Times that it represents “a watershed moment for higher education” that will encourage the rest of the nation to take similar steps. Since the Democrats hold super-majorities in both houses of the California legislature, the bill is sure to pass—and Governor Jerry Brown is likely to sign it into law.
The companies that make a profit by providing required courses online include Coursera, edX and Udacity, the big three. Coursera is “the leader of the pack,” according to The New York Times. In less than a year, it raised $22 million in venture capital. The big issue for investors, the Times reports, is whether “anyone can figure out how to make money” in this new business. James Grimmelmann, a New York Law School professor who specializes in computer and Internet law, told the Times, “I expect all the current ventures to fail…. it’s maybe a decade later that somebody figures out how to do it and make money.”
A big problem for Coursera’s profits is that it currently promises to keep some courses available to poor students worldwide for free—although qualifying for credit towards graduation costs money.
Replying to the doubters, one Coursera “financier” told the Times that “monetization is not the most important objective for this business at this point.” What is important, he said, is that “Coursera is rapidly accumulating a body of high-quality content that could be very attractive to universities that want to license it for their own use.” Potential investors should therefore “invest with a very long mind-set.”
The profits in this new online course business come not only for “certificates of completion” paid by students—which can be $50 per course—but also from licensing fees from universities that replace their own faculty with online video instructors. Under Coursera’s contract with colleges, the Times explained, “the company gets most of the revenue; the universities keep 6 percent to 15 percent of the revenue, and 20 percent of gross profits. The contracts describe several monetizing possibilities, including charging for extras like manual grading or tutoring.”
The sponsors of the California proposal promise that educational quality will be guaranteed because three faculty members will be asked to review the online courses provided by for-profit companies.
What kind of educational experience will California college students have in these online courses? Instead of interacting in a classroom or lecture hall with the instructor and other students, they will sit at home alone in front of their computer monitor, watching videos of lectures, reading assigned materials online, and then taking machine-graded quizzes. Maybe that’s why less than 10 percent of students in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) finish the courses they sign up for.
With a 90 percent dropout rate, we have reached the final step in the process: after cutting the budget, waiting for overenrollment, and then shifting classes online for profit, finally you can blame the students for failing to “mobilize technology” to “achieve their dreams.”
What will Charlie Koch do to buy off politicians next? Read Lee Fang’s analysis.
(Photo by Tom Haller. Copyright Yoko Ono.)
February 18 is Yoko Ono’s 80th birthday—it’s a day to celebrate her art, music and activism. She’s done more in the last year than most of us do in a decade: campaigned against fracking and honored Julian Assange; mounted a major retrospective of her art in London last summer at the prestigious Serpentine Gallery, and another, bigger one in Frankfurt in February at the celebrated Kunsthalle Schirn; and made music with the Plastic Ono Band.
The anti-fracking campaign has been her biggest political undertaking in several years. First there were the billboards and full-page ads in The New York Times (and also The Nation): “Imagine There’s No Fracking”—addressed to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, signed “Yoko and Sean” (her son, Sean Ono Lennon).
But the anti-fracking campaign involves a lot more than billboards. She organized Artists Against Fracking, and signed up more than 200 people, including Salman Rushdie, Jeff Koons, Alec Baldwin, Martha Stewart, David Geffen, Anne Hathaway, Jimmy Fallon—and Lady Gaga, with her 34 million Twitter followers. In Albany in January she delivered an anti-fracking petition to Governor Cuomo with more than 50,000 signatures. Also in January she and Sean and Susan Sarandon led a bus tour of Dimock, Pennsylvania, where the local water supply has been contaminated by fracking. And now she is running a new TV ad.
She explained the problem with fracking concisely in The New York Times letters column in December: “Evidence shows that there is no amount of regulation that can make fracking safe.… 6 percent of the wells leak immediately and 60 percent leak over time, poisoning drinking water and putting the powerful greenhouse gas methane into our atmosphere… We need to develop truly clean energy, not dirty water created by fracking.”
And the campaign had a victory last week, when Governor Cuomo announced a delay in the decision on fracking for more study of health effects. The New York Times story quoted Donald Trump as spokesman for the pro-fracking forces, and Yoko as the voice of the opposition.
“Imagine There’s No Fracking” of course recalls a certain song that begins “Imagine there’s no heaven,” which in turn was based on Yoko’s 1964 book Grapefruit, with its conceptual art “instructions”: “imagine one thousand suns in the sky…” The anti-fracking billboards also recall her antiwar activism in the 1960s, when she and Lennon put up billboards in Times Square in 1969, and then in cities all over the world: “War is Over: If You Want It.”
On another front, she honored Julian Assange at a public event in Manhattan on February 3. At her annual Courage Award ceremony, she told an audience of activists, artists and some diplomats that “Julian Assange took a courageous step by rightfully returning what belongs to the public domain. For that reason, I believe we need to stand behind him.” Assange, who has taken refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, accepted the award via two of his legal counselors: Baltasar Garzón Real of Spain—he’s the prosecutor who pursued Pinochet for crimes against humanity—and Michael Ratner, the legendary President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who delivered Assange’s acceptance speech to the audience that included Laurie Anderson, John Waters, Lou Reed and Daniel Ellsberg.
Earlier in 2012 Yoko honored Russia’s feminist punk band Pussy Riot, two of whom are currently in jail after criticizing Vladimir Putin. She also paid tribute to Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 while she was protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes.
Then there are the retrospectives of her career as an artist, a career which began before the Beatles and continues today, fifty years later. From the beginning she has mixed conceptual art and performance art. Her work has been playful and sometimes painful, and includes films as well as those “instructions” that require the viewer’s participation.
One of my favorite recent discoveries was a piece in the highly-regarded land art group show, “Ends of the Earth,” last year in LA at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I had never thought of Yoko doing work related to people like Robert Smithson of Spiral Jetty. But the land art show opened with Yoko’s Sky TV from 1966: an old TV set broadcasts a live feed, from a video camera on the roof, of the sky above the museum. It’s surprising and delightful, and “real” in way that’s different from everything else in the museum. It’s also a pioneering work of video art. (Sky TV is a permanent installation in New York City at the Asia Society.)
And we have her music—especially the unforgettable “Walking on Thin Ice” from December, 1980. The “Thin Ice” video is part of the Frankfurt retrospective, along with Sky TV.
One more thing that made this past year a good one: for those who were still wondering whether Yoko broke up the Beatles, Paul McCartney declared officially that she did not. When John met Yoko in 1968, he explained, “part of her attraction was her avant garde side.… She showed him another way to be, which was very attractive to him. So it was time for John to leave”—but “he was definitely going to leave, one way or another." The story was headline news.
And of course we have Lennon’s wonderful songs about her: from the 1969 song about their wedding, that begins “Standing on the dock in Southhampton,” to Lennon on the 1971 Imagine album, singing “In the middle of the night I call your name…” to 1980’s Double Fantasy, and “Even after all these years/I miss you when you’re not here…”
To celebrate her 80th birthday she’s playing a live concert in Berlin at the legendary Volksbuhne, the “People’s Theater,” with the current Plastic Ono Band, headed by Sean.
Happy Birthday, Yoko!
Thanks to Steven Spielberg and his film Lincoln, we’ve been hit by a new wave of management wisdom supposedly gleaned from the film’s central character. Business Week ran a piece titled “Career Lessons from Spielberg’s Lincoln.” The New York Times called theirs “Lincoln’s School of Management.” Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book on Lincoln and his cabinet, Team of Rivals, famously provided the basis for some of the movie, has been back on the “leadership advice” circuit.
“Lincoln’s presidency is a big, well-lit classroom for business leaders seeking to build successful, enduring organizations,” Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, told The New York Times. So what can today’s corporate managers learn from Lincoln’s example?
“Lincoln never made permanent enemies,” Doris Kearns Goodwin said in a recent post-Spielberg talk. She forgot to add, “except for the five million white people in the Confederacy.” And John Wilkes Booth.
Business Week’s number-one Lincoln lesson is basic: “Short-term pain for long-term gain.” The magazine forgot to explain that although the “short term” of the Civil War was a mere four years, the “pain” was considerable: 750,000 deaths North and South—probably too many for today’s corporate leaders to inflict on their own employees.
The management wisdom Entrepreneur magazine found in Spielberg’s Lincoln: “Get comfortable with conflict.” The conflict in question, of course, was the biggest and most destructive war of the nineteenth century (after the Napoleonic wars). Some would say Lincoln was never “comfortable” with the death and destruction—but when it comes to today’s CEOs, maybe it’s “different strokes for different folks.”
The New York Times Sunday business section recently ran a huge piece on page one informing “executives, entrepreneurs and other business types” about “the Lincoln school of management,” written by Harvard Business School historian Nancy F. Koehn. As the Civil War stretched on with no end in sight, and Union armies took heavy losses, Lincoln described himself “as nearly inconsolable as I could be and live.” Professor Koehn says you can also get depressed from running a business—because of problems like “supplier delays” and “late payments.” Those fearing that the supplies, and the payments, will never arrive, should learn a lesson from Lincoln: he “never gave way to his darkest fears.”
The Spielberg film showed Lincoln visiting battlefields and talking to soldiers. Goodwin, who has been on the Lincoln management advice circuit for years, as Tom Frank has noted, found another lesson here: practice “management by walking around.” For example, mortgage bankers could walk around the decaying neighborhoods where they foreclosed on the houses and evicted the people. That’s not my idea—that’s advice from Lincoln.
Entrepreneur magazine says that those who want to know “how to lead revolutionary change at your startup or small business” should follow Lincoln’s example and “take an interest in others.” But of course it depends which others you are talking about. One example: the “others” whom Lincoln declared free in the Emancipation Proclamation and whom he recruited to his army to fight for their freedom. “Taking an interest” in them is indeed a lesson we can learn from Lincoln.
And there are some key moments in Lincoln’s life that the management advice people have neglected. One came in his Second Inaugural Address, when he declared that, if the Civil War continued “until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” he would conclude that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
As Eric Foner observed in his book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, Lincoln was “reminding the country that the ‘terrible’ violence of the Civil War had been preceded by two and a half centuries of the terrible violence of slavery.” Here, Foner continues, Lincoln was asking the entire nation, “what were the requirements of justice in the face of those 250 years of unpaid labor?” On that topic, our management advice experts are strangely silent.
For more lessons of history and social justice, check out Tom Tomorrow’s “Constitutional Law 101.”
Pope Benedict. (Flickr)
Reports continue to develop on the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse of children by priests. Now, a powerful documentary is telling the whole story on TV: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, which is playing on HBO for the month of February. The filmmaker is Alex Gibney, who won the Academy Award for best documentary for Taxi to the Dark Side, on torture in Afghanistan. His other films include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. I spoke with him recently for KPFK-FM in Los Angeles.
Jon Wiener: You start your film at a Catholic school for the deaf in Milwaukee in 1972. The heroes of your film are a small group of deaf guys who went public as adults with the truth about what a priest had done to them when they were students at the school. You interview the deaf men, but they can’t talk—they speak in sign language. And yet they are wonderfully articulate. It’s amazing to watch them—as you translate in voice-over.
Alex Gibney: The four guys had all been students at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee. They had all been abused, and as young men, just post-college, they had banded together to see if they could stop this abuse from continuing. They were the first people in America to make a public protest about sex abuse of children by priests. They spent many years trying to have their voices “heard.” Yes they can’t speak, but they are so expressive—you can see on their faces and in their hands their testimony, which is at once horrible but also gripping. They maintain a sense of humanity and humor and idealism despite all of this.
The timing here is significant. When did the Church hierarchy first hear about the problem of pedophile priests? Was it this Milwaukee case in 1972?
Certainly not. Documents going back to the fourth century show that the Church was aware of a pedophilia problem. We also learn in the course of this film that, in the 1940s and ’50s, there was a man named Gerald Fitzgerald who ran an order called the Servants of the Paraclete, charged with dealing with pedophile priests. He became so concerned about the number of priests who were abusing children that he actually put a down payment on an island off the coast of Grenada to house pedophile priests there. That didn’t happen.
The story really has two parts: what the priests did to the boys, and what the Church did to the priests. What did the Church do?
Very often the “treatment” for pedophile priests was prayer. And then they’d send them back out. Basically, what the Church did was to cover it up. We interview one person in the film called a “fixer.” He was a Benedictine monk. His job was to go around to parishes where there had been pedophile priests, bringing a bag of money to pay people off and make confidentiality agreements—to buy people off.
When you say “the Church knew,” who exactly are we talking about?
It had been believed for many years that bishops were basically on their own, dealing with these matters as they saw fit. That was the fiction that Rome had advanced. But it turns out that, to defrock a priest, you had to go to Rome. Only a pope can do that. Those issues went to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who ran an organization called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—formerly known as “the Inquisition.” In 2001 Pope John Paul II decided to give Cardinal Ratzinger all the authority on all sexual abuse cases.
Where is Cardinal Ratzinger now?
Now he is Pope Benedict XVI.
So who is the most knowledgeable person in the world about priests abusing children?
Pope Benedict. Every report starting in 2001 came to his office.
The first part of the story is what the priests did to the boys. The second part is what the Church did to the priests. And there is a third part: What did the Church do for the victims?
Almost nothing. The overriding concern of the Church was not justice for the victims, not protection of victims. It was to care for the priests. Pope Benedict said he was very sorry for the victims, but you can see in the actions of the hierarchy that their concern is for protecting the Church from scandal, and also protecting their brother priests.
One of the significant parts of the story is how civil society managed to take over from the religious hierarchy and demand justice and dispense justice—either through financial claims or through criminal prosecution. At the end of the day, you see committed people—including some priests—who understand that there’s a crime here, and that they have to fight against it. Part of the story is people coming together in order to make that happen.
You show Patrick Buchanan and some guests on Fox News saying the lawsuits and the media attention to sexual abuse by priests are “an attack on the Church.” Are they right?
No. There’s moving moment in the film where Father Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who has testified for the plaintiffs, says “many people ask me why I don’t testify on behalf of the Church in these cases. I tell them I always testify on behalf of the Church.” He means that “the Church” is the 1 billion Catholics who are its members. The parishioners, the faithful, in his opinion, are the church. This film is not anti-Catholic. It’s anti-crime. This is a crime story. And a story about a cover-up of criminals.
What about you? Are you Catholic?
I was raised Catholic. I’m not a practicing Catholic now. I’m very much a cultural Catholic; my identity was shaped by having been Catholic.
Your documentary is subtitled “Silence in the House of God.” Obviously that refers to the silence of the church in the face of these crimes. But does it also refer to the deaf men who made the first complaints, using sign language, back in 1972?
It does indeed. Theirs was a more beautiful silence—the silence of those signs, that ultimately led to reform and change.
Joseph P. Kennedy, center, links arms with his sons, John F. Kennedy, left, and Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (AP Photo)
As we head toward the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination later this year, a new book has revealed the striking differences between JFK and his father, Joe Kennedy, on the bedrock fact of American politics during that era: the Cold War. JFK’s declaration in his famous inaugural address is well known: the US should “pay any price, bear any burden” to fight communism everywhere in the world. Virtually unknown, until now, is the fact that a decade earlier his father had declared the entire Cold War “politically and morally” bankrupt.
This story is told in the new book The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by my friend David Nasaw. The New York Times named it one of the ten best books of 2012, but reviewers have barely mentioned Kennedy’s Cold War critique, focusing instead on his isolationist arguments at the outset of WWII.
Joe Kennedy’s position on the Cold War was simple: Communist rule of Russia and Eastern Europe, and also China and Korea, was terrible for the people who lived there, but not a threat to American security—and thus the US should not prepare to fight in all those places. Instead, American wealth and energy should be focused on developing the domestic economy.
Kennedy had been American ambassador to Britain before and during WWII and had been discredited and disgraced by his support for appeasement of Hitler. But with the beginning of the Cold War, he returned to public eye.
On March 12, 1947, Truman asked Congress to provide military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey—which, he said, where threatened by Soviet aggression and subversion. “The free peoples of the world look to us for support,” Truman said. Historians regard that speech as the opening shot of the Cold War, proclaiming the doctrine of containment, the commitment of the US to challenge the USSR everywhere in the world outside the borders settled on at the end of WWII.
The very day Truman addressed Congress, Joe Kennedy was featured in a New York Times column (by Arthur Krock) where Kennedy argued that the US should focus not on fighting communism abroad but rather on restoring its peacetime economy, which, he felt, could easily slip back into depression. He said the US should “permit communism outside the Soviet Union to have its trial”—a statement that today seems amazing. “In most of these countries,” Joe Kennedy said, “a few years will demonstrate the inability of communism to achieve its promises.”
The column “thrust Kennedy into the center of the national debate,” Nasaw writes. “His recommendations were immediately and universally condemned in editorial pages across the country as ‘the new appeasement.’” The only public support for Joe Kennedy in The New York Times was a letter to the editor from A.J. Muste, the pacifist and leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
A month later The New York Times gave Kennedy space on the front page of the business section to defend his position. He argued there that spending millions to fight communism abroad should be opposed on economic grounds alone. The proposed Cold War military budgets, he argued, “will seriously affect the economic well-being of our country.”
Later that year he explained his position in a speech in Cambridge, Massachusetts: “I do not think it is the spread of Communism that is dangerous,” he said. People were embracing Communism because “they are discontented, insecure and unsettled and they embrace anything that looks like it might be better than what they have to endure.”
When the Korean War began in 1950, Joe Kennedy renewed his critique of the Cold War, calling Truman’s policies “suicidal” and “politically and morally” bankrupt. “He challenged every central tenet of the Cold War consensus,” Nasaw writes. The Soviets, Kennedy argued, were not committed to expanding their empire; Moscow did not control Communist parties and regimes everywhere in the world; negotiations with the Soviets would not be seen as weakness, and would not stimulate them to take aggressive actions.
What to do? “A first step...is to get out of Korea,” he declared, adding that the US should also “get out at every point in Asia we do not plan realistically to hold in our own defense”—that meant ending support for Chiang Kai-Shek in Formosa and for the French in Indo-China. And that was only the beginning: the next step was “to apply the same principle in Europe.” It was not the responsibility of the US to keep Asia, or for that matter Europe, from going communist.
When it came to domestic politics, however, Joe Kennedy was hardly “soft on communism.” He was a big supporter of Joe McCarthy, and he sent flattering letters to J. Edgar Hoover, urging him to run for president. His purpose, Nasaw points out, was not to fight the Reds, but to gain Hoover’s assistance when he needed it.
Joe Kennedy’s fears that Cold War military spending and foreign aid would push the US economy back into Depression turned out to be erroneous. Especially in places like Southern California, the aerospace industry brought an economic golden age. But in the long run, Nasaw rightly suggests, Kennedy was not wrong. Spending on the military did divert investment from infrastructure, public education, industrial modernization and social programs.
And some of Joe Kennedy’s predictions proved to be truly prescient. Joe argued in 1950 that “Mao in China is not likely to take his orders too long from Stalin”—and indeed the Sino-Soviet split came in 1960. Korea was a disaster and a defeat for the US, and of course Vietnam turned out to be far worse. Eventually the US did have to give up on the Nationalists in Formosa. And in the longer run, Joe Kennedy was also right about the biggest issue of all: the USSR did collapse on its own.
FX's new show, The Americans, revisits the Cold War. Read Jon Wiener's analysis.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. (Flickr/Ninian Reed)
The best thing about The Americans, the new spy show on FX, is that the Soviet spies are not Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They are a different married couple—Russians, sent by the KGB from Moscow to Washington, DC. The show begins shortly after Reagan takes office.
The show features sex that is better than the sex on Downton Abbey but not as good as Girls.
If Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin of Homeland had been assigned to this case, they would have caught Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, the stars of The Americans, in episode one.
Ron Radosh, David Horowitz & Co. will be unhappy with this show (of course they are unhappy about so many things) because the spies in question are not American communists. They would have a point there—the most successful Soviet spies in the United States were not Russians. I’m not talking here about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Historians today pretty much agree that Julius was a spy but that he didn’t give the Soviets the secret of the A-bomb; Ethel was innocent but was framed by her brother David Greenglass because the FBI threatened to indict his own wife.
The real A-bomb spies, the people at Los Alamos who really did help the Soviets build their bomb in the late 1940s, were Klaus Fuchs, a German refugee who was arrested and convicted, and Theodore Hall, an American whom the FBI suspected of spying at Los Alamos but who was never arrested. After spying for the Soviets, he had a long and happy life as a distinguished scientist in Britain; late in life he admitted to his crime—and said he never would have done it if he had understood the nature of Stalin’s terror. (See Joseph Albright and Marcial Kunstel’s book Bombshell.) Klaus Fuchs served ten years and was released; Theodore Hall never served a day in jail. Meanwhile, as readers may have heard, the Rosenbergs were executed.
During the Reagan years portrayed in The Americans, the most succesful Soviet spy of all time was at work—and he wasn’t Russian either. He was another American, CIA official Aldrich Ames. In 1985, Ames was named the CIA’s chief of counterintelligence for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He gave the Soviets the names of all of America’s spies inside the Soviet Union. They were all arrested and executed—that story is told by Tim Weiner in Legacy of Ashes. He got away with it for seven years, before being arrested in 1994. Unlike Julius Rosenberg and Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall, he didn’t do it because he believed in the ultimate goals of communist society; he did it for $2 million. That would make a good TV show, although a depressing one.
The Americans is about Soviet spies in the United States; why not a show about American spies in Russia? That would take some imagination, since the US didn’t have any spies in the Soviet Union for virtually the entire duration of the Cold War. According to Tim Weiner, “over the whole course of the cold war, the CIA had controlled precisely three agents who were able to provide secrets of lasting value on the Soviet military threat, and all of them had been arrested and executed.”
As for the plot of The Americans, “implausible” is too generous a word; suspending disbelief turned out to be impossible for us. The eighties music, however, was pretty good—if you like Fleetwood Mac.
What’s the buzz in post–Fleetwood Mac Russia? Read Katrina vanden Heuvel and Alec Luhn’s interview with opposition rocker Yuri Shevchuk.
Detail, "Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo."
A Rembrandt portrait that had been protected by Columbia student protesters in 1968 and later sold by Columbia for $1 million is back on the market this year, with a price tag of $47 million. The story of the 1658 painting, Man with Arms Akimbo, has many lessons, starting with the folly of universities selling art to make money.
When radical students at Columbia occupied several buildings, including Low Library, the administration building, in May 1968 to protest university complicity in the Vietnam War, the painting hung in the office of then president Grayson Kirk. According to The New York Times, the student occupiers agreed to allow police to remove the painting to protect it.
Student radicals in 1968 were criticized as barbarians out to destroy the university and all that it stood for. But the students at Columbia protected the university’s Rembrandt—and then the university put it in storage, and sold it in 1975 in a secret transaction with a private collector. A painting that should have been on display disappeared from public view for the next forty years—in exchange for which the university got $1 million. So who were the real barbarians?
Universities selling art made headlines in 2009, when Brandeis announced it would sell off the paintings in the university’s Rose Art Museum, including works by de Kooning, Warhol and Lichtenstein, to make money for the school. Outraged protests from the university community and the art world led the trustees to back away from the decision. Columbia’s 1975 sale provides an early example of the practice.
Another lesson: it’s hard to keep a secret. The 1975 sale of the Rembrant was discovered by The New York Times, that paper reported, “when the Columbia office of art properties was asked about…its availability for sale.” The university then issued a statement, declaring that “Columbia feels this is an appropriate time to transform the painting into an income-producing asset by adding the proceeds of its sale to the university’s endowment. The buyer wishes to remain anonymous, and the university has agreed not to disclose the purchase price.” But, the paper reported, “one person in Columbia’s office of art properties said the painting had brought over $1 million.”
Also: selling old masters eventually makes the seller look foolish, because the prices always go up. According to the online inflation calculator, $1 million in 1975 dollars is equivalent to a little over $4 million today; so Columbia sold for a rock bottom price—and the buyer got a great bargain. The Rembrandt, which had been donated to Columbia in 1955 by Huntington Hartford II, the A&P supermarket heir, was bought in 1975 by J. Seward Johnson, son of the founder of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical company. It then disappeared from public view for forty years. After Johnson’s death in 1983, his wife, Barbara Piasecka Johnson, inherited it. She sold it in 2009 to Las Vegas casino mogul Steven Wynn for $33 million, at that point a record for a Rembrandt.
It reappeared on the market last year, when it was described as a “blockbuster offering,” the “star” of the European Art Fair in Maastricht, the Netherlands, with a price tag of $47 million. It had no takers at that price. It was exhibited this summer as part of the “Rembrandt in America” show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and is currently listed for sale by Otto Naumann Ltd.
Finally: all Columbia undergrads were, and still are, required to take Art Humanities, a survey of masterpieces of Western art, including Rembrandt. The purpose is to instill a respect for this great tradition. Apparently that respect was not shared by the Columbia administration.
For a recent sampling of student protest against university doubletalk, check out last week's "Dispatches from the US Student Movement" at TheNation.com's Extra Credit blog.