Jon Wiener | The Nation

Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener

Politics and pop, past and present.

Gore Vidal: At 10, I Wanted to be Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney in Beverly Hills, California, in 2012. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Mickey Rooney, who died April 6, had many fans, including 10-year-old Gore Vidal. “What I really wanted to be,” Vidal wrote in his memoir Point to Point Navigation, “was a movie star: specifically, I wanted to be Mickey Rooney.” The inspiration? Not the “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” musicals Rooney made for MGM with Judy Garland—it was his role as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt and released in 1935, when Rooney was 14. “I wanted to play Puck, as he had,” Vidal recalled.

Gore took his first step toward becoming a movie star in a 1936 newsreel, when he took off and landed a plane—under the supervision of his father, the director of Air Commerce for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The idea was to show that anybody could fly a plane, even a kid. So Gore took off and landed for the cameras—and then faced the newsreel interviewer. But he had trouble speaking; “I resembled not Mickey Rooney but Peter Lorre in M,” he recalled. “My screen test had failed.”

Nevertheless Mickey Rooney’s Puck changed Gore Vidal’s life. “Bewitched” by the performance, he recalled, “I read the play, guessing at half the words; then, addicted to this strange new language, I managed to read most of Shakespeare before I was sixteen.” Vidal became a writer instead of a movie star, and the rest is history.

Even today Rooney’s Puck remains striking. David Thomson wrote in his Biographical Dictionary of Film that the performance remains “one of cinema’s most arresting pieces of magic.”

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I ran into Mickey Rooney on a LA–New York flight shortly after Gore Vidal’s memoir was published. He looked old and tired. I asked him if he had seen what Gore Vidal wrote about him in his new memoir. He said “no,” and made it clear that he was irritated at the unwanted interruption. I told him how inspired the young Gore had been by Mickey’s Puck. Rooney paused, and then smiled his famous smile. “Gore Vidal—wow!” he said.

He thanked me, and I went back to my seat.


Read Next: Jon Wiener commemorates the life and work of Gore Vidal.

When Peter Matthiessen Was Silenced by his Publisher

Peter Matthiessen

Writer Peter Matthiessen in the yard of his house in Sagaponack, NY. (AP Photo/Ed Betz)

Peter Matthiessen, the legendary writer who died April 5, had one of his most important books withdrawn from publication for seven years as a result of attacks by government officials and the cowardice of his publisher, Viking Penguin. 

It's a story overlooked in many of the obits. Published in 1983, In The Spirit of Crazy Horse provided a passionate and solidly documented account of the events that culminated in a 1975 gun battle on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota between FBI agents and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) that left two agents and one Indian dead. The book also described the miserable history of government treatment of Native Americans in South Dakota.

The New York Times Book Review called In the Spirit of Crazy Horse  “one of those rare books that permanently change one’s consciousness.” The Washington Post called it “extraordinary,” “complex,” and “powerful.” The Los Angeles Times called it  "A giant of a book...indescribably touching, extraordinarily intelligent." 

In the trial following the shootout, Leonard Peltier, an Ojibwa-Sioux AIM activist, was convicted of murdering the agents; now 69, he is serving consecutive life sentences at a federal penitentiary in Florida. Matthiessen’s book presented compelling evidence that Peltier was innocent.  Others agree; Amnesty International, among others, has called for his release.

Shortly after the book’s publication, South Dakota’s governor, William Janklow, filed a libel suit against Matthiessen and his publisher, Viking Press, seeking $24 million in damages. He said the book was defamatory because it portrayed him as “a racist and a bigot.” An FBI agent involved in the case, David Price, filed a second suit for $25 million, claiming he too had been defamed when the book portrayed him as “corrupt and vicious” in his treatment of Indians on the reservation.

Viking Penguin didn’t wait for a judgment against them before taking action against Matthiessen. The publisher responded to the lawsuits by destroying the copies of the book it had in its warehouse and taking it out of print.

Litigation proceeded for seven years in four different courts in two states, with Martin Garbus representing Viking and Matthiessen. Matthiessen was supported by amicus briefs from Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron, John Irving, Alfred Kazin and Susan Sontag of PEN. 

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The libel cases were finally thrown out of court in 1990. ''Speech about government and its officers, about how well or badly they carry out their duties, lies at the very heart of the First Amendment,” declared Judge Diana E. Murphy of the US district court in Minneapolis. “It is this form of speech which the framers of the Bill of Rights were most anxious to protect. Criticism of government is entitled to the maximum protection of the First Amendment.''

Viking at last reissued the book as a Penguin paperback in 1991. In the meantime, the strongest and most eloquent case for Peltier’s innocence, and one of Matthiessen’s greatest books, had been kept from the public—for seven years.

Matthiessen was “horrified and indignant” over the destruction of his books, his wife Maria told me. “I did not agree to the destruction of my books,” Matthiessen himself told me in a 1993 interview for The Nation. “I didn’t know about it. They never should have withdrawn the book in the first place.”

[Adapted from Jon Wiener, “Murdered Ink,” The Nation, May 31, 1993.]


Read Next: Jon Wiener on the censorship of Hindu history books in India

The Talibanization of Hindu History in India

Indian flag

A Hindu demonstrator waves India's national flag (Reuters/Amit Gupta)

When Penguin Books announced on February 11 that it would withdraw from India and pulp The Hindus: An Alternative History in response to a lawsuit claiming the book “has hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus,” it was only the latest in a series of surrenders by distinguished publishers in the face of militant Hindu fundamentalism. The book, by Wendy Doniger, a distinguished professor of religion at the University of Chicago, had been described by Pankaj Mishra, writing in The New York Times, as “a salutary antidote to the fanatics” who seek “a culturally homogenous and militant nation-state.”

Debates about alternative views of Indian history, William Dalrymple wrote in The New York Review of Books in 2005, “have in India become the subject of political rallies and mob riots.” The most disturbing precursor to Penguin’s decision came in 2005, when Oxford University Press withdrew a scholarly book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, by James W. Laine, a professor at Macalester College in St. Paul. Oxford acted after an attack on one of India’s leading centers of historical research, the Bhandarkar Oriental Institute in the town of Pune, southeast of Mumbai. As Dalrymple describes the incident, “Just after 10 AM, as the staff were opening up the library, a cavalcade of more than twenty jeeps drew up. Armed with crowbars, around two hundred Hindu militants poured into the institute, cutting the telephone lines. Then they began to tear the place apart. The militants overturned the library shelves, and for the next few hours they kicked around the books and danced on them, damaging an estimated 18,000 volumes before the police arrived.”

The Institute’s crime? Laine had thanked the institute in the acknowledgements to his book, which offended Hindu nationalists because, as Dalrymple explains it, Laine wrote that the parents of the seventeenth-century Hindu leader Shivaji “lived apart for most if not all of Shivaji’s life,” adding that some Indians “tell jokes naughtily suggesting that his guardian Dadaji Konddev was his biological father.” That was taken as a suggestion that the Hindu hero was illigitimate. In respose to protests, Oxford quickly withdrew the book from the Indian market, and was promptly criticized by many leading Indian newspapers for succumbing to what one described as the “Talibanization” of India.

But the campaign against the Oxford book and author continued. The militants who carried out the attack in Pune held public meetings, Dalrymple reports, “announcing that they wanted every Indian named in the book’s acknowledgments to be arrested, questioned, and tried.” Election campaigns were underway, and the prime minister issued a “warning to all foreign authors that they must not play with our national pride. We are prepared to take action against the foreign author [Laine] in case the state government fails to do so.” The Congress Party, heir to Nehru, “announced that they had instructed the CBI (the Indian equivalent of the FBI) ’to arrest Laine through Interpol,’” Dalrymple reports.

Wendy Doniger, author of the book Penguin has just withdrawn, is no stranger to Hindu fundamentalist protests, and not just inside India. In 2003 she gave a lecture on the Ramayana, the great Hindu epic, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where Dalrymple was moderator. He recalled that “midway through the lecture, a man stood up, walked threateningly toward the podium, and threw an egg at Doniger, which narrowly missed her. During the questions that followed the lecture, Doniger faced a barrage of insults from a group who had come with the egg-thrower, and who maintained that as a non-Hindu she was unqualified to comment on their religion.”

After Penguin agreed to withdraw and pulp the Wendy Doniger book, PEN India declared that “the removal of books from our bookshops, bookshelves, and libraries, whether through state-sanctioned censorship, private vigilante action, or publisher capitulation are all egregious violations of free speech that we shall oppose in all forms at all times.”

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Arundati Roy wrote an open letter to Penguin, which she said was “my publisher”: in The Times of India, she declared, “Everybody is shocked at what you have gone and done….Even though there was no fatwa, no ban, not even a court order, you have not only caved in, you have humiliated yourself abjectly before a fly-by-night outfit by signing settlement.”

But Wendy Doniger herself said in a statement released by PEN India, “I do not blame Penguin Books, India.” They “took this book on,” she explained, “knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit.” The “true villain” of this case, she said, is not Penguin but rather “the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardizes the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book.”

Arundati Roy replied that Penguin has “all the resources anybody could possibly need to fight a legal battle.” Had the publisher stood its ground, she told Penguin, “you would have had the weight of enlightened public opinion behind you, and the support of most—if not all—of your writers.” Many others agreed, including the National Book Critics Circle in the US, which had named The Hindus a finalist in 2009 for its nonfiction prize. It called on Penguin Books India to “reconsider its deplorable decision,” calling it “a de facto act of self-censorship that will only contribute to a further rolling back of free speech in India.”

Read Next: 2014 could be a rocky year for US-India relations.

Pete Seeger’s Biggest Day

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger in concert. (Flickr/Jim)

November 15, 1969—“Vietnam Moratorium Day”—nearly half a million people gathered on the mall in Washington DC, to protest the war, and Pete Seeger was on the stage. “I guess I faced the biggest audience I’ve ever faced in my life,” he told me in an 1981 interview. “Hundreds of thousands, how many I don’t know. They stretched as far as the eye could see up the hillside and over the hill.”

The song he sang was “Give Peace a Chance,” John Lennon’s first non-Beatles recording. He had wanted to sing it in the US, but Nixon’s INS wouldn’t let him in the country, so he sang it, and recorded it, at a bed-in in Montreal.

“I’d only heard the song myself a few days before,” Pete recalled, “and I confess when I first heard it I didn’t think much of it. I thought, ‘That’s kind of a nothing of a song, it doesn’t go anyplace.’ I heard a young woman sing it at a peace rally. I never heard Lennon’s record. I didn’t know if the people there had ever heard it before. But I decided to try singing it over and over again, until they did know it.

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“Well, we started singing, and after a minute or so I realized it was still growing. Peter, Paul and Mary jumped up onstage and started joining in. A couple of more minutes, and Mitch Miller hops up on the stage and starts waving his arms. I realized it was getting better and better. The people started swaying their bodies and banners and flags in time, several hundred thousand people, parents with their small children on their shoulders. It was a tremendously moving thing.”

Pete Seeger’s great work was not just singing the songs, but getting everybody else to sing them—getting his audience, us, to sing. A lot of us had that experience: for me it was at Coffman Memorial Union at the University of Minnesota, when I was a kid, and Pete was onstage alone with his banjo, and we were all singing, in harmony. Of his concerts, Robert S. Cantwell wrote, “Pete spread wide his arms as we sang to him, and it changed me. It was 30 years ago, and I have not changed back.”

Read Next: Peter Dreier chronicles the life and legacy of Pete Seeger.

Dick Cheney in Nixonland

Dick Cheney

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Dick Cheney came to the Nixon Library this week to talk about his new book, Heart—it’s about his five heart attacks and his heart transplant. When our most hated vice president visits the library of our most disgraced president, you look forward to a good night. So my friend Howard and I went to Yorba Linda, expecting a festive evening of Obama-bashing and a twisted trip back through the glories of the Bush years.

It turned out to be mostly a book event. Signed copies were for sale; Cheney did a Q&A about his book and took a few friendly questions. But the evening ended up as it had to: with Obamacare.

The news of Cheney’s heart transplant, in March 2012, had been welcomed by comedians everywhere. Jon Stewart declared it “the greatest joke setup ever.” Jay Leno had the best line: “This weekend, 71-year-old former Vice President Dick Cheney received a heart transplant. And I thought this was nice: they let him shoot the donor himself.”

On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart acted out the transplant surgery with himself as the surgeon; the old heart leapt out of Cheney’s chest and bit the terrified surgeon on the neck.

David Letterman said, “Finally all of those midnight trips to the graveyard with the hunchbacked assistant have paid off.”

Joan Rivers summed it up: “Rather surprised Dick Cheney got a heart, after lasting all these years without one.”

The Cheney event was held in the Nixon Library’s “East Room,” an exact replica of the room in the White House, with giant chandeliers, ornate wainscoting and a dozen flags in a row—except that the Yorba Linda version had two giant video screens so the audience of several hundred could see Cheney. The Q&A, conduced by Frank Gannon, a former Nixon assistant, was surprisingly lighthearted, given the somber subject of the book. Gannon’s list of questions couldn’t have been simpler: Tell us about your first heart attack—you were 37. Now tell us about your second.

Howard whispered to me, “It’s the organ recital.” He was referring to the old Jewish joke about the dinner table conversation of the aunts and uncles: “My liver isn’t doing so well,” “My kidneys hurt,” “I have angina.”

“Your third heart attack was my favorite,” Gannon said. It happened on the way into the House chamber in the Capitol to hear Reagan’s 1988 State of the Union speech. “I passed out,” Cheney said, and collapsed onto the floor. His press aide, who was with him, told him afterwards that “several of my colleagues, on their way to the speech, stepped over my body,” and kept going. As he told the story, Cheney chuckled. Those darn Congressmen.

After describing his heart transplant, Cheney thanked his doctor, who is his co-author, and the donor, who is anonymous. Howard whispered, “Notice that he didn’t thank God?”

The only question that got a big, excited response from the audience was, “Can you comment on Obamacare?” What was most significant in Cheney’s answer was what he did not say—the things said by right-wing media at the time of his transplant. The New York Post for example had run the headline, “Beware Obamacare: It might’ve killed Cheney.” The argument was that those dreaded “death panels” would have ruled that Cheney was too old—he was 71—and he would, therefore, have been denied a transplant. Breitbart.com said Obamacare required looking at cases like Cheney’s “as an avenue toward survival of the fittest.” The blog RedState declared, “A Poorer Man Than Dick Cheney Might’ve Died if ObamaCare was in Full Effect”—because of those death panels.

But as Gawker.com pointed out, pre-Obamacare transplant ethics already required that the age and future health of potential recipients be considered.

Cheney’s answer to the question about Obamacare was limited to a criticism about the tax on medical devices: “It really worries me,” he said, since stents had kept him alive for years. “I can’t think of a worse notion. If you want less of something, tax it”—an argument that the device tax will stifle innovation. Obama replies that all the industries that gain a windfall from the expansion of medical coverage should be taxed to help offset the cost of that expansion. But thirty Senate Democrats have called for the repeal of the device tax, including Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota, which happens to be the home of Medtronic, one of the country’s largest device manufacturers.

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In any case it’s a tiny part of Obamacare, significant primarily as a Republican talking point.

Cheney had only one other argument against Obamacare: “A lot of Americans aren’t going to have the ability to go with one doctor”—which, he said, was the key to his successful treatment. Therefore, he concluded, Obamacare is “a bad idea; if I had my druthers, I’d repeal it.” This won lots of applause. My friend Howard said, “But 50 million Americans have no doctor at all, and they will get one under Obamacare.”

The hour came to an end. The audience applauded warmly; Cheney grinned and waved goodbye, and we headed up the freeway, back to liberal L.A.

Read Next: Zoë Carpenter on the NSA’s bad week.

Five Best Kennedy Assassination Books


November 22 is of course the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. I haven’t read all 1,000 books about it, but I have five favorites:

Don DeLillo, Libra
“We will build theories that gleam like jade idols,” says DeLillo’s surrogate, a CIA historian writing the secret history of Dallas. “We will follow the bullet trajectories backwards to the lives that occupy the shadows, actual men who moan in their dreams.” In the novel, two CIA veterans of the Bay of Pigs seek to arouse anti-Cuban sentiment by organizing an assassination attempt by a Castro supporter. But in their plan, the assassin—with an identity “made out of ordinary pocket litter”—will miss. DeLillo, as John Leonard wrote in The Nation, “is an agnostic about reality.”

Stephen King, 11/22/63
When Jake steps thru the secret passage in Al’s Diner in Maine, it takes him back to 1958; can he stick around and change the course of history by stopping Oswald before November 22, 1963? And what if he discovers that the conspiracy theorists were right, and JFK was shot by someone else? Eight hundred and fifty wonderful pages of time travel romance and adventure in a world where the food tastes better and the music is more fun—and where history itself resists change, with all its might.

Robert Caro, LBJ: The Passage of Power chapters 11–13
The assassination seen through LBJ’s eyes, one car back in the motorcade in Dealey Plaza: after Oswald’s first shot, Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood shouted, “Get down! Get down!” Then LBJ “was on the floor, his face on the floor, with the weight of a big man lying on top of him,” as the two cars sped toward Parkland Hospital. When they arrived, Agent Youngblood said, ‘I want you and Mrs. Johnson to stick with me and the other agents as close as you can. We are going into the hospital and we aren’t gonna stop for anything or anybody. Do you understand?’ ‘Okay, pardner, I understand,’ Lyndon Johnson said.”

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Norman Mailer, Oswald’s Tale
Mailer in his reporter-researcher mode: at age 70, he spent six cold months in Minsk, where Oswald had lived with his Russian wife Marina for thirty months starting in 1960. Mailer interviewed fifty people and used the KGB’s tapes from Oswald’s bugged apartment to paint a vivid picture of the dullness and misery of their lives. Mailer said he started “with a prejudice in favor of the conspiracy theorists,” but he found Oswald to have been a lonely Marxist megalomaniac and an angry loser. In the end, Robert Stone wrote in The New York Review of Books, Mailer had to conclude that “absurdity and common death gape far wider beneath us than high conspiracy, tragedy, or sacrifice.”

Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History
An encyclopedia of assassination conspiracies, with each and every one refuted, “revealed as a fraud on the American public.” One thousand six hundred oversize pages, plus a CD with 1,100 pages of notes, written by the legendary criminal prosecutor. “No group of top-level conspirators,” he argues, “would ever employ someone as unstable and unreliable as Oswald to commit the biggest murder in history, no such group would ever provide its hit man with a twelve-dollar rifle to get the job done, and any such group would help its hit man escape or have a car waiting to drive him to his death, not allow him to be wandering out in the street, catching cabs and buses to get away, as we know Oswald did.”

Read about the bloody origins of Veterans Day.

Hollywood, Hitler and Harvard

(Courtesy of Youtube user Harvard University Press)

It doesn’t happen very often that a leading critic calls on a university press to withdraw and then reissue a corrected version of a scholarly book. But it’s happening now—the book is The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by Ben Urwand; the publisher is Harvard University Press, and the critic is David Denby of The New Yorker, who said in a radio interview with me, “I have called for Harvard University Press to withdraw it and get him to rework it.”

Urwand claims to show “for the first time” what he calls a “bargain” made in the 1930s between the Hollywood studios, headed mostly by Jews, and “Adolf Hitler, the person and human being.” The “bargain” was that the studios “followed the instructions of the German consul in Los Angeles,” changed film scripts and cut scenes the Nazi official objected to, and cancelled planned anti-Nazi films—in exchange for continuing to distribute films and make money in Germany.

Denby reviewed the book and wrote a follow-up blog post, agreeing with Urwand that Hollywood was timid and cowardly in responding to the rise of Hitler, but calling the book “recklessly misleading.” Other reviewers have made similar criticisms. Even some of those thanked by Urwand in his acknowledgements are criticizing the book. David Thomson is perhaps our greatest film writer, author of the indispensable Biographical Dictionary of Film and more than a dozen other wonderful books, and film critic for The New Republic. He told me “there are quite a lot of ways in which one can find fault with the book.” He described “mistakes and misjudgments,” and “a certain recklessness in the book and that’s not been kindly served by the publisher.”

The problem for Thomson, Denby and others starts with the book’s title: The Collaboration. There is a huge scholarly literature on “collaboration and resistance” in World War II. Typical topic: “the French: bystanders or collaborators?” A collaborator, according to the Cambridge dictionary, is “a person who works with an enemy who has taken control of their country.” Urwand knows this, but insists his title is okay because he found the German word for “collaboration” in the Nazi documents from the 1930s describing their relationship with Hollywood studios. That doesn’t work. “This is not a case of collaboration in any sense of the word,” Thomson concluded. “It was a mistake to call the book that.”

The second problem comes with the book’s subtitle: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler. There were two notorious “pacts” with Hitler—the Munich pact of 1938, where the French and British let Hitler have his way with Czechoslovakia, and the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, where the two agreed not to go to war and instead divided up Poland. It’s wrong to use the same term to describe the actions of Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner and the others.

Urwand told me in an e-mail that the criticism of his book has been so strong “because this material is so new and so shocking.” But his critics have said precisely the opposite: Although Urwand has provided a great deal of new documentation, the story he tells is one we already know. Urwand claims to “reveal” for “the first time” the close cooperation between the Hollywood studios and the Nazi government, but several books have already done that, most recently Hollywood and Hitler, by Thomas Doherty, published by Columbia University Press in April 2013. As The New York Times Book Review explained, Doherty shows that “Nazis were all but invisible in American movies at the time when depicting their savagery might have done the most good,” and that “a great majority of American studios went out of their way to avoid any mention of the ominous political developments in Germany from the moment of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 until well into 1939.” They also backed away from depicting anti-Semitism or indeed any Jewish subject matter. Doherty shows how the key figure for the studios was the German consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling. The motivation of the studio heads, as the Times Book Review put it, was “largely commercial”—they “did not want to risk the loss of a major European market by offending Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, whose censors decided which foreign films would be shown in Germany.”

Doherty relied primarily on the trade press, while Urwand did massive archival work. His book includes sixty-five pages of endnotes, reporting on his research in five German archives and a dozen more in the US, including much more on Gyssling than Doherty found. But what he documents is basically the same story. Thomson told me, “It’s true that a lot of Hollywood was cowardly, compromising, opportunistic, looking out for its own interest. But why be surprised about that? That’s the nature of Hollywood. There’s a way in which the book is unduly outraged by things that a more experienced Hollywood commentator would understand as being part of the system.”

Another problem for Urwand: the leading Jewish defense organizations urged the studios not to make movies about anti-Semitism or Hitler. Urwand acknowledges that the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Committee both urged the studio heads not to make films that might lead people to blame the Jews for fomenting another war. Thus greed and cowardice were not the only motives.

Urwand writes as if the main source of pressure on the studios to change scripts and kill projects came from Gyssling, the Nazi consul, but as Doherty shows, the more insistent demands for changes came from the Production Code Administration, the “Hays Office,” headed by Joseph I. Breen, a prominent Catholic layman--Denby calls him an anti-Semite, but Doherty disagrees.  Breen insisted that anti-Nazi material be cut from films, citing a statement in the code that “all nations shall be represented fairly.” Sometimes Breen responded to letters from Gyssling, but more often he acted on his own. Urwand replies that the Hays Office was a creation of the studios, which is true, and he suggests that the studio heads could have replaced Breen if they wanted. That however is hard to imagine; would these Jews really fire a prominent Catholic because they wanted to make pro-Jewish films?

And it wasn’t just the Nazis that Hollywood was cooperating with. The studios submitted to censorship from all kinds of people all the time, as Doherty and others have shown, to hold on to audiences in particular foreign countries and also in the United States. Films were cut or altered at the request of the British, the French and even the Japanese; and also in response to demands in the US from Catholic groups, temperance groups, women’s groups, and local censorship boards in places like Chicago and Kansas City. The film studios were not in the business of protecting the First Amendment rights of artists; their number-one concern was to avoid offense to anyone.

The more original parts of Urwand’s book have gotten the harshest criticism. Urwand describes the film Our Daily Bread, directed by King Vidor, as a “Hollywood movie that delivered a National Socialist message.” Denby points out that it was in fact a left-wing film that the Nazis liked for their own peculiar reasons. Urwand’s “treatment of the King Vidor film is very misguided,” Thomson said.

Thomson also cited the conclusion of the book as especially problematic. Urwand told The New York Times that the only time he ever shouted in an archive was when he found documents showing that Jack Warner and other studio heads took a Rhine cruise in July 1945 on Hitler’s yacht. What exactly was Urwand shouting about? Hitler, of course, was dead by that point, and the war in Europe was over; their host was General George Marshall. The studio heads had not only visited the Rhine but also the death camp at Dachau. “They had seen firsthand one of the sites where the murder of the Jews had taken place,” Urwand writes. But after returning to the US, “they did not put it on the screen.” That’s the last thing in his book. So even when there was no more money to be made by collaborating with Hitler, the Jews who ran the studios still didn’t expose his crimes against their people! “The boat trip at the end is really kind of fatuous,” Thomson says. “It makes the book seem more reckless than it might be.”

Urwand also makes a mistake historians are supposed to avoid: instead of exploring the historical context around his central characters, he judges them by what we subsequently learned. Yes, the studio heads failed to see that the Holocaust was coming. But as Doherty has written, in the 1930s “the Nazis had not yet become what they are now: a universal emblem for absolute evil. From our perspective, the rise of Nazism looks like a linear trajectory, a series of accelerating events terminating inevitably at the gates of Auschwitz. But at the time, the endgame of Nazism was not so clear. Most Americans, including the Hollywood moguls, had no inkling of the horrors to come.”

There’s a deeper issue for some of the critics. People like Denby object to the book in part because it comes close to arguing that the Jews who ran Hollywood were so greedy they would cooperate with Hitler himself, selling out their own people to make money. It’s an age-old anti-Semitic trope. Urwand, perhaps anticipating this theme, emphasizes his status as the child of Jewish refugees from anti-Semitism. At his website he describes himself as “the son of Jewish immigrants: his father was forced to leave Cairo, Egypt in 1956, and his mother fled Budapest, Hungary the same year.” He also says that, as an undergrad at the University of Sydney, he “won the prize for best history thesis for his work on Steven Spielberg and Schindler’s List.

The book does have at least two significant supporters. Harvard published the book with quotes on the back cover from Greil Marcus and Richard J. Evans. Marcus has written many well-known and much-admired books on American popular culture, including one on the film The Manchurian Candidate. He is described by Urwand in his acknowledgements as the person who “guided me from the moment I first stumbled upon materials in the archives,” and as someone who “has been unbelievably generous and constantly inspiring.” Marcus told me he did not want to add anything to his statement on the jacket, where he describes the book as “a tremendous piece of work, fully sustained, building momentum charged by thrillingly detailed storytelling, increasing suspense, and a consistent movement from outrages to atrocities, with a stunning conclusion of heroism and tragedy.”

Evans, who has written what is widely regarded as the definitive history of Germany in World War II, is quoted on the jacket praising the book as “full of startling and surprising revelations, presented…without any moralizing or sensationalism.” But “moralizing and sensationalism” are exactly what many critics found in the book. When I asked Evans what he thought of the critics’ arguments, he replied that he had reviewed the manuscript for the press; “I have read David Denby’s critique,” he said, “and others as well. I am not in any way convinced by them. If you read them carefully, they are either so general and rhetorical as to carry no conviction, or they pick up extremely minor points that in no way affect the overall argument.” He concluded that Urwand had written “an oustanding work of scholarship that should provide cause for reflection, not prompt knee-jerk reactions from people who are intelligent enough to know better.”

But it’s hard to find supporters of the book among other historians who study the subject. The Hollywood Reporter described Deborah Lipstadt, the award-winning Holocaust historian at Emory, as a “prominent defender” of Urwand in the controversy, citing her quote in The New York Times that the book could be a blockbuster.” But she made it clear in that interview that she had not yet read the book—and she told me it is not correct to describe her as a “defender” of Urwand’s work.

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I e-mailed six Berkeley faculty members thanked by Urwand in his acknowledgements, asking for their comments on the criticisms of the book. Waldo Martin and Anton Kaes did not respond. Kathleen Moran said she had not read the book. Urwand’s dissertation committee consisted of Leon Litwack, a leading historian of African-Americans (see update with comment from Litwack below), and Carol Clover, who has written a book on horror films, and who said she could not comment because she had not read the published book. The only one who defended Urwand was Martin Jay—he’s a distinguished intellectual historian and scholar of visual culture. He raised the issue of what he called “the time-dishonored anti-Semitic trope” of the greedy Jew. “Ben was aware of this issue,” Jay wrote, “but felt his evidence led him to those very conclusions.” Jay called Denby’s pieces “over-the-top,” especially what he called “the silliness of saying it was a scandal that a university press like Harvard didn’t check facts, as if this were a function of university press staffs.” Jay acknowledged that Denby raised two “valid questions”: “the 20-20 hindsight issue: the moguls were still unaware of the true nature of Nazi anti-Semitism,” and the fact of “Jewish anxiety over playing into the hands of American anti-Semites who were looking for any opportunity to blame the Jews for wanting another war.” But, he said, Urwand’s “evidence suggests there was more to the story.”

There is one possible source of the problem identified by both Denby and Thomson as the “recklessness” of the book: Harvard University Press took the unusual step of hiring an outside publicist, Goldberg McDuffie, to promote what had started as a Berkeley history PhD thesis. Goldberg McDuffie represents best-selling authors as well as companies like Amazon, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. Some have suggested that the exaggerated claims for the book’s “collaboration” thesis are the work of the big-time publicist and a publisher eager for a bestseller, rather than the mild-mannered author. Thomson says Urwand was not served well by the press, and that the problems in the book could easily have been solved by an editor. “If you had a much more moderate title,” he said, “straightaway the book would have slipped into a different position.”

Other scholars who have faced intense and widespread criticism of their books have responded to critics with long detailed essays, sometimes in scholarly journals—for example David Abraham on German business and the Nazis, and Daniel Goldhagen on the Catholic Church and the Nazis. Urwand in contrast has written a five-paragraph letter to The New Yorker, only part of which was published in the magazine. His published letter restated his argument for using “collaboration” as his title. In the four paragraphs the magazine did not publish, but which he sent to me, he noted that the Hayes office was a representative of the film industry, and took up a couple of lesser issues, including how the studios got their money out of Germany. His published letter concluded, “It is time to face the actions of the Hollywood studios.” He told me he has no plans for any further response to his critics.

In the meantime, History News Network, a widely read website, polled historians on Denby’s proposal, asking, “Should Harvard University Press conduct a review of ‘The Collaboration’?” As of this writing (September 30), 62 percent said “yes,” with ninety-one people voting, and only 33 percent said “no.”

The director of Harvard University Press, William P. Sisler, has made it clear they’re not going to do that, and in fact the only books that get withdrawn by the publishers have authors who are guilty of massive research errors, systematic fraud or plagiarism. I know of only one scholarly book by a historian that has been withdrawn and reissued: Collapse of the Weimar Republic: Political Economy and Crisis, by David Abraham, withdrawn by Princeton in 1984 after Abraham conceded his footnotes contained significant errors, and republished in a corrected version in 1986 by Holmes and Meier. (That story is told in my book Historians in Trouble.)

But even if you set aside Denby’s proposal and arguments, you still have Jeanine Basinger’s judgment. She’s a distinguished historian of film who teaches at Wesleyan, and her review, in The Wall Street Journal, concluded that Urwand’s book “clamors for attention and makes sensation out of facts that film historians have already weighed.” In addition, “he has judged the past from the informed awareness of the present, elevating the bad judgment and greed of individuals into actual political collaboration. His book does not prove it.” That seems right to me.
UPDATE Oct. 1: Berkeley historian Leon Litwack writes, "Ben was my student and I supervised the dissertation. He impressed me from the very outset. The depth and quality of the research, the imaginative and critical powers he brought to the book, the resources he uncovered, the literary skills he demonstrated place the book at the top of the scholarship on the subject. I am hardly surprised at the  controversy it has generated. Hollywood's record on the African American experience speaks for itself."

Rape Settlement at Occidental College: Victims Barred from Campus Activism

Attorney Gloria Allred is shown speaking with students and alumni who allege Occidental College administrators violated federal standards for dealing with their rape, sexual assault or retaliation claims.  April 18, 2013 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Occidental College, the Los Angeles school where thirty-seven students and alumni filed a federal complaint last spring about rape on campus, has quietly settled with at least ten of the complainants. Under the settlement, negotiated by attorney Gloria Allred, the ten received cash payments and are barred from participating in the Occidental Sexual Assault Coalition, the campus group that organized the campaign that has resulted in a federal investigation.

The settlement, reported by the Los Angeles Times September 19 on page one, immediately provoked criticism. Danielle Dirks, a criminology professor who has been active in the campaign, told the Times that requiring “the women to remain silent and not to participate in campus activism could have a chilling effect at Occidental.” “Part of the reason so many women have come forward is because other assault survivors have been able to speak openly about their treatment,” Dirks said.

The settlement negotiated by Allred, Dirks said, “effectively erases all of the sexual assaults and the college’s wrongdoing.”

Allred, asked to comment, said in an email, "Our clients have made a choice to resolve this matter. It is a confidential matter."

Rebecca Solnit, who has written about sexual assault for TomDispatch and Mother Jones, commented, "If rape a form of silencing, what is silencing a form of? Rape?"

Under the federal civil rights complaint filed last year, the thirty-seven said the school had “deliberately discouraged victims from reporting sexual assaults, misled students about their rights during campus investigations, retaliated against whistleblowers, and handed down minor punishment to known assailants who in some cases allegedly struck again.”

Faculty and staff joined students in criticizing the administration of Oxy president Jonathan Veitch. In May, 135 faculty members and ninety-four administrators and staff members signed a resolution in support of Oxy students regarding sexual assault issues.

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Stories about victims of rape at Oxy have been published in the LA Weekly and Bloomberg News, among other places.

Investigators from the federal Office for Civil Rights are expected to arrive on campus soon.  Allred said in her email that the students involved in the settlement  "are free to participate and serve as witnesses and discuss the alleged sexual assaults and/or rapes" in the federal investigation, and also "in any campus proceeding and in any legal proceeding and/or in any court of law."

Chloe Angyal writes about why it is important for survivors of sexual assault to tell their stories.

A Modest Proposal to Bomb Both Sides in Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry. (AP Images)

“Brutality of Syrian Rebels Posing Dilemma in West”—that story in The New York Times on September 5 reported that “many rebels have adopted some of the same brutal and ruthless tactics as the regime they are trying to overthrow.” The dilemma: how can we punish Assad for his violations of international law, when his opponents are also in violation—in this case, killing prisoners?

The Times called this a “foreign policy puzzle.” But there’s a solution to this puzzle. Some have suggested the solution is: don’t bomb Assad. Those people are spineless and unprincipled. The obvious solution is simple: bomb both sides.

The principles enunciated by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are clear and uplifting: it’s our job to punish evildoers. It’s our job to send a message, so that others will not follow the example of evildoing. Those who oppose sending a message will be responsible for whatever evil follows.

Kerry made it clear that those who refuse to support American intervention against Assad will be responsible the next time the Syrian regime “gasses its citizens”—and they will also be responsible “when North Korea or Iran attempts to use nuclear weapons.” But of course the same argument applies to the other side: those against bombing the opposition with also be personally responsible if Iran attacks Israel with nuclear weapons.

The evidence in the New York Times is irrefutable: video tape of horrifying executions, smuggled out of Syria. As Secretary Kerry said (speaking of Assad’s crimes), “We know these things beyond the reasonable doubt that is the standard by which we send people to jail for the rest of their lives.” Everybody agrees it is a violation of international law to execute prisoners. As Secretary Kerry said, “Even countries with whom we agree on little” agree on that.

Those against an attack on the Syrian opposition—again, Secretary Kerry’s argument is powerful—“could be compared to those who would vote against action to the case of the St. Louis, a ship carrying Jewish refugees from Germany that was turned away from Cuba, the United States and Canada in 1939—and had to return to Europe, where many of its passengers eventually died in Nazi camps.” That’s Nazi camps, people!

To quote Secretary Kerry once more: “The world wonders whether the United States of America will consent, through silence, to standing aside while this kind of brutality is allowed to happen without consequence.”

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As the president has said, “Assad must go.” Now we need to add, “And the opposition must go.” Who then should govern Syria? Again, the answer is simple: the United States of America.

Greg Mitchell tracks those in the media who are asking the right questions about Kerry's inflated casualty figure.

Victory for Homeless Vets in LA

On Wednesday, June 8, 2011, veteran J.J. Asevedo, left, sits at a news conference where it was announced that a lawsuit has been filed against the federal government at the Los Angeles Veterans Administration center in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/ Reed Saxon, File)

A federal judge in Los Angeles ruled August 29 that the Department of Veterans Affairs has been violating federal law by leasing land on its West LA campus for a hotel laundry, movie set storage, a baseball stadium for UCLA and a dog park. The lawsuit, brought by the ACLU of Southern California and others on behalf of homeless disabled veterans, argued that the 400 acres of Veterans Administration land in Brentwood, in West LA, is supposed to be used for housing disabled veterans.

Federal Judge James S. Otero ruled that the VA is prohibited from leasing its land to private parties “totally divorced from the provision of healthcare,” Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU’s chief counsel, said the ruling will return the campus to its true mission. “Those who served this nation in our time of need, now the VA is going to have to serve them in their time of need,” Rosenbaum said.

Los Angeles has more homeless vets living on the streets than any other American city—6,000 on any given night, according to the most recent count. And as the war in Afghanistan winds down, more will be arriving.

The land was donated in 1888 explicitly for housing homeless vets, and for the next eighty years, tens of thousands of vets lived there, at the Pacific Branch soldiers’ home. But for the past several decades, the dormitories have been empty, and over the years the VA has leased parts of the site for other purposes. Meanwhile, homeless veterans have been sleeping on the street outside the locked gates. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of the ACLU-SC Foundation.)

Particularly in need of help are vets with severe mental disabilities and those suffering from PTSD, brain injuries and other disorders. Housing is key to treating their medical problems, and there’s a regional VA medical center across the street from the empty dorms in Brentwood. The VA, however, argues that it has no legal or other obligation to provide housing for mentally disabled vets. It has acknowledged in court that it is required to provide medical services, but it argues that it has no responsibility to provide housing, even though these vets are too disabled to get to the hospital’s outpatient clinic on their own.

Under the order, nine leases are void, including Twentieth Century Fox Television and UCLA and the private Brentwood School, which have sports facilities on VA land. The judge gave the lessees and the VA six months to terminate the leases—or appeal his decision. The ACLU is urging the VA not to appeal: “Every day an appeal is pending the VA is putting the needs of private school students and college students over our veterans,” Rosenbaum said.

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Meanwhile, the VA has been saying for a long time that it is going to house disabled homeless vets in Brentwood. More than five years ago, it designated three buildings for renovation. Congress appropriated $20 million for the first one in 2010, but ground was not broken until this past January, with a completion target of spring 2014. What do you get for $20 million? The VA says it will refurbish fifty-five apartments, forty-five as single rooms and ten as doubles, housing a total of sixty-five people. That’s around $300,000 per person. “That’s ridiculous,” says Robert Rosebrock of the Old Veterans Guard, which has been demonstrating every Sunday for five years outside the locked gates. “We could build a tent city and house thousands of homeless vets for that money.”

Earlier coverage in The Nation: “LA’s Homeless Vets,” “Homeless Vets vs. the VA: an LA Story Continues.”

Michael Sorkin calls for architects to refuse to design chambers of living death.

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