A writer and his eventful life.
The name Budd Schulberg is likely to evoke only faint recognition. Yet the film On the Waterfront, which he wrote, remains a legendary classic, and his first novel, What Makes Sammy Run?, still defines an American archetype. Schulberg would have turned 100 this year, and the occasion serves as a fitting opportunity to revisit the life and work of a man who was both a portraitist and portrait of his time. He was by turns an ardent Communist, a vengeful ex-Communist, a World War II intelligence recruit, and a firsthand witness to Nazi atrocity—not to mention show-business royalty of a kind.
Seymour Wilson Schulberg was born in 1914 to a life of privilege in New York City. His father, Benjamin Percival Schulberg, preferred “B.P.” to the Anglo name on his birth certificate, just as his son would prefer “Budd.” B.P. rose from modest means on the Lower East Side to become first a newspaperman, then a writer of what were called “photoplays,” and eventually one of the pioneers of the Hollywood film industry. As the son of the production chief at Paramount Studios, Budd could call his playground the backlot of the movie studio that his father had helped create. But B.P. was squeezed out of Paramount in a classic Hollywood palace coup, a move aided and abetted by his penchant for excessive drinking, womanizing with numerous actresses he “kept” on a secret payroll, and gambling. (One night, according to Budd, B.P. lost $20,000 in a card game to Zeppo Marx.) He was forced to work as a producer at lesser studios and was eventually reduced to putting ads in the trade papers offering his services to any studio that was interested. The elder Schulberg died in 1957, when his son was at the zenith of his own film career.
B.P. and his wife, Adeline, were political progressives and loved literature, particularly Dickens, Melville, and the great 19th-century Russian writers. They read aloud to Budd and his brother and sister every Sunday morning when they were growing up, and Budd was, in his own words, “virtually programmed” to be a writer. (His father had let him sit in on story conferences at the age of 10.) Budd later said his mother “was determined I was going to be a combination of Stephen Crane and John Galsworthy.” He told the Paris Review in 2001 that he felt it “a very heavy obligation” and wondered, “What if I couldn’t do it?…It was an obligation pressing on me all the way.” But Schulberg would make good on that obligation to become, in the words of his father, perhaps “the only novelist who came from Hollywood instead of to Hollywood.”
Schulberg went to Dartmouth, where his friends were intellectuals and literary aspirants. Like many young people at the time, they were appalled by the ravages of the Depression and unimpressed by President Roosevelt’s efforts to restore America’s economic health. Schulberg traveled to the Soviet Union in 1934 and was quickly converted. He joined the Communist Party during the period known as the Popular Front, when Moscow taught American Communists how to make Communism seem as appealing as possible to ordinary Americans. The party coined slogans such as “Communism is 20th-century Americanism” and “Communists are liberals in a hurry.”
According to the historian Ronald Radosh, when Schulberg returned to his hometown of Hollywood, “he recruited more people to the Communist movement in that early period than perhaps anyone else.” There’s a clear contradiction in an Ivy-educated Hollywood prince ardently throwing in his lot with a “workers’” movement. One might chalk up such a move to admirable idealism. Yet in the biographies of many of the young men who joined the party at this time, one detects the addition of a common personal element: resentment at having been demoted from a position high in the pecking order. For Schulberg, perhaps the seed of resentment was planted at age 17, when he saw his father humiliated in status-conscious Hollywood.
The Communist Party offered the newly déclassé a chance to join the society of the future. In that society middle-class intellectuals would manage “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” They could regain lost power while enjoying the virtuous feeling of being on the side of the angels. In other words, they could have it both ways—always an appealing option. That Stalin eventually murdered most of the intellectuals in the Soviet Union’s new ruling class and replaced them with apparatchiks is something that the American Communists either did not fully know about or chose to ignore.
But Schulberg was no mere party hack; he wanted to be a serious writer. Early on, he managed to get a job as a junior screenwriter for the independent producer Walter Wanger on a modest light comedy set in Dartmouth during the winter carnival, a setting Schulberg knew well. He was paired with an older screenwriter now down on his luck: F. Scott Fitzgerald. Schulberg had deeply admired Fitzgerald’s books but considered him a relic of the Roaring Twenties. And since Fitzgerald had partly created that decadent age, Schulberg also viewed him as a target. Earnest young Communists such as Schulberg held the excesses of the Twenties responsible for the economic collapse that followed. The pairing was a typical clash of generations: Schulberg was in his twenties, Fitzgerald in his forties; Schulberg was a Communist, Fitzgerald gradually had become a Roosevelt supporter, like Schulberg’s own father.
Yet Schulberg appreciated Fitzgerald’s talent and achievements, and he understood that the masterful Great Gatsby was as much an indictment as a celebration of the culture of the Twenties. The two shared much in the way of artistic and moral sentiment even though Schulberg was at the beginning of his career and Fitzgerald was reaching the end of his. Both had experienced a fall; both were toiling in Hollywood’s vineyards to make ends meet; and both were working on novels about Hollywood, Fitzgerald feverishly attempting to finish his ultimately unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, and Schulberg working on the novel that became What Makes Sammy Run? By the time the odd couple flew to Dartmouth to take notes on the winter carnival there, a genuine bond had formed between them.
The trip did not go well, to put it mildly. Fitzgerald had been struggling with his alcoholism for years and occasionally fell off the wagon. As Schulberg later recounted, they were talking to some students on a nearby ski slope when Fitzgerald got into an argument with one of the jocks. “Don’t you know who I am? I’m F. Scott Fitzgerald!” he boomed, and things quickly fell apart. The drinking went on unabated, and Fitzgerald was soon fired from the project. He used his now meager income to continue writing The Last Tycoon, which was eventually published in 1941, a year after his death. What Makes Sammy Run? came out the same year.
Fitzgerald had read Schulberg’s manuscript and was relieved to find that it didn’t overlap with his own. But it’s plausible that he drew on his conversations with Schulberg in creating Tycoon’s narrator, the young Hollywood-raised daughter of a studio boss. It’s noteworthy that the three novels that are arguably the greatest Hollywood novels ever written, Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), The Last Tycoon, and What Makes Sammy Run? were published just before America entered the Second World War, when Hollywood cinema was at its fabled peak. Fitzgerald’s book romanticizes film culture, West’s turns it into a surreal nightmare, and Schulberg’s uses it as the setting for something much closer to home.
What Makes Sammy Run? is the story of a rising Hollywood heel, Sammy Glick. He’s a young guy “in a hurry,” an amoral hustler rapidly moving up from the Lower East Side of Schulberg’s father. Glick’s ascendance is viewed with fascination and alarm by the less ambitious, more socially concerned Al Manheim, a newspaper drama critic. The book crackles with energy and brilliant dialogue, a style very much influenced by the “hardboiled” sensibility of the time. It’s the lean, bracing style made famous by Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain, among others. Schulberg’s novel is bold and gripping from the first line, and it never lets the reader go:
The first time I saw him he couldn’t have been much more than sixteen years old, a little ferret of a kid, sharp and quick. Sammy Glick. Used to run copy for me. Always ran. Always looked thirsty.
“Good morning, Mr. Manheim,” he said to me the first time we met, “I’m the new office boy, but I ain’t going to be an office boy long.”
“Don’t say ain’t,” I said, “or you’ll be an office boy forever.”
Sammy made a huge impression on readers at the time. It also sparked a backlash. Some critics saw in Sammy Glick a classic anti-Semitic portrait and accused Schulberg—as some would accuse Philip Roth a quarter-century later—of being a self-hating Jew.
Such criticism ignored the book’s assorted positive Jewish characters. Indeed, far from being a simple document of self-hatred, the novel is more accurately understood as a reflection of the snobbery that cultured sons feel toward their self-made fathers. Having been born to wealth and furnished with an expensive education, such sons frequently look down on the scratching and clawing their elders had to do to make comfort and opportunity possible. It’s no surprise that photos of the young B.P. Schulberg conform uncannily to Budd’s descriptions of Sammy Glick.
The book is also informed by the elitism of intellectual Communists. Party members claimed to speak in behalf of the working class while frequently disdaining the workers’ limited education and culture. The irony of the Hollywood screenwriter with his fat salary and radical politics remains plangent, then and now. Yet behind the irony a certain logic was at work. The screenwriter held both his bosses and the unwashed masses in contempt. It was he alone, the thinking artist, who truly understood virtue.
Schulberg created a character who struck a nerve, and the name “Sammy Glick” came to be a synonym for every amoral striver, just as in the previous decade Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbitt” had become a term to describe the complacent middle-aged, middlebrow businessman. What Makes Sammy Run? was turned into two different musicals for the stage, in 1964 and 2006. After the second of these, Schulberg lamented that “young men come up to me and tell me how much they admire Sammy Glick.”
Perhaps that’s why Schulberg’s Communist Party chiefs didn’t like the manuscript when he dutifully showed it to them. Sammy was just a little too charismatic, a little too alluring. And the emphasis on Sammy’s psychology was an insult to the social-realist explanations for behavior that the party insisted on. (Schulberg does make it a point to have the narrator, Al Manheim, visit the Lower East Side neighborhood from which Sammy sprang, suggesting that such deprived economic conditions will inevitably give rise to more Sammy Glicks.) The party’s literary mandarins told Schulberg in no uncertain terms that the book was not to be published. But Schulberg was enough of an artist to insist on the intrinsic value of his creation and chose to publish the book and leave the party.
During the Second World War, Schulberg served in the Navy before moving to the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. There he worked with the director John Ford in the documentary unit tasked with making propaganda films to explain the meaning of the war to American servicemen. As a result, he was one of the first Americans to see Nazi concentration camps after they were liberated. After witnessing the horrific results of Nazi ideology, his next assignment was to help interrogate Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Schulberg had her examine footage of films and point out Nazi leaders who would shortly be on trial for their crimes. (Ironically or not, Schulberg’s 1953 collection of short stories is titled Some Faces in the Crowd.)
In 1950 he published his novel The Disenchanted, a thinly veiled portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald during his last, desperate days. The book drew heavily on Schulberg’s experiences with Fitzgerald, and if the portrait is harsh, it’s also compassionate and powerful. It became a successful play and, like Sammy, a musical, if one can imagine such a thing. For a moment, Schulberg was the type of American success that Sammy Glick dreamed about. But the following year he volunteered to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, to be questioned about his earlier activity with the Communist Party—and to name names. To the chagrin of many of his former comrades, Schulberg cooperated.
In this, he was far from alone. One of the Hollywood Ten (a group of writers and directors fired for their suspected Communist ties), director Edward Dmytryk, originally refused to cooperate and was sent to prison for contempt. After being released, he appeared before the committee again as a friendly witness and provided the requisite names, hence making himself employable in Hollywood once again. He went on to direct The Caine Mutiny. Stage and film director Elia Kazan—perhaps the most reviled figure among those called to testify to this day—cooperated with the committee right away, though not without some anguish.
But however mixed their motives might have been for cooperating, Schulberg and Kazan both clearly harbored a long-festering resentment for their former political associates. Kazan had been called on the carpet by the party in the mid-’30s for refusing advice on how to direct a play he was mounting at the Group Theatre. He told the party members they knew nothing about theater and insisted on directing the play the way he thought proper. He was vilified and humiliated by the party for years after. Both Schulberg and Kazan had felt the sting of the Communist Party’s authoritarianism, and yet they, along with the playwright Clifford Odets, gave the names only of those who had already been singled out or about whom the committee already knew.
After Schulberg was cleared by the Committee—he spent the first half of his life alternately damned and praised by various official committees—he continued to write novels, among them The Harder They Fall, a boxing story that became Humphrey Bogart’s last film. (Schulberg wrote about the sport throughout his life and became the first boxing editor for Sports Illustrated.) But it was his collaboration with Kazan in 1954 that produced perhaps his greatest work, On the Waterfront. It won him and Kazan Oscars and remains a high-water mark for postwar American cinema.
Yet here, too, Schulberg generated controversy. Some critics charged that the film was contrived as a justification for “snitching.” Terry Malloy, the hero portrayed by Marlon Brando, works on the waterfront and stands up to a corrupt union boss. Were Schulberg and Kazan offering an allegory of their HUAC testimonies and spinning it so that they were heroes, too? This remains a popular interpretation, but more recent scholarship, as well as Arthur Miller’s own autobiography, has shown that Miller had been working on the story as early as the late 1940s, long before Schulberg and Kazan (and Miller himself for that matter) appeared before the committee. The early version was called The Hook. Kazan was slated to direct the film, but Miller withdrew his screenplay for reasons unrelated to the present matter. Years later, Kazan learned that Schulberg had been working on a similar story himself. So the origins and deeper meanings of On the Waterfront remain, as with every great work of art, shifting and ambiguous. Undeniable, though, are the film’s power; its compelling, on-location, black-and-white, “documentary” photography; its beautiful score by Leonard Bernstein; and its ability to move audiences for more than 60 years.
Schulberg and Kazan’s follow-up to On the Waterfront was A Face in the Crowd (1957). Based on one of Schulberg’s short stories, it portrays an uneducated, guitar-strumming unknown named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, who, with the help of the savvy TV producer Marcia Jeffries, rises to the top. Rhodes becomes a folksy TV personality whose endearing on-screen demeanor is sharply at odds with the increasingly power-hungry egomaniac played, rather histrionically, by Andy Griffith. In a way, Rhodes is another Sammy Glick, only from Arkansas instead of the Lower East Side. His rise is observed with increasing horror by the producer and her friend, a thoughtful, earnest, liberal journalist named Mel Miller. The film is one of the first to show the potentially dangerous effects of television, as hustlers like Rhodes manage to reach a position in which they’re able to select, advise, and promote politicians as they see fit. Again, one can see a trace of Schulberg’s residual snobbery here. Mel Miller easily could be a stand-in for the young, educated progressive Schulberg, and in fact the character is writing a book to expose Rhodes. The film is strident and moralistic, but there is great artistry on display. Schulberg’s script and Kazan’s deft, energetic direction—he often cuts to a scene just as the action has already started, and quickly fades out while the action is still continuing—make it a prophetic and unforgettable roller-coaster ride.
Nothing in the remainder of Schulberg’s career matched the heights of his work from the 1940s and 1950s, but he continued to write just the same. One of his novels, Sanctuary V (1969), was a jaundiced take on the Cuban revolution. He wrote short stories, such as the modern gem “A Table at Ciro’s” (1941), as well as scripts and journalism. Perhaps more important, Schulberg embarked on a project to teach writing to poor teenagers in Los Angeles, an experience that became a book in 1967, From the Ashes: Voices of Watts. The better part of his social conscience had never left him. Along with his memoir Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince (1981), he wrote another book of reminiscences, the highly entertaining (and sobering) The Four Seasons of Success (1983), in which he relates how a group of writers he knew well—Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, William Saroyan, and Thomas Heggen—dealt with success.
Heggen’s story is particularly moving. The young writer achieved instant fame as the author of the novel Mister Roberts, which became the long-running play and then film starring Henry Fonda. But he confessed to Schulberg: “Everyone is now waiting for my second book. But I don’t have one. I used everything I knew to write Mister Roberts. What else can I possibly do?” He slashed his wrists in his bathtub and died at age 30. Surely the darkest season of success, and an imaginable alternative ending to Schulberg’s post-Sammy life.
Budd Schulberg was made of sterner stuff. Despite temptations from Hollywood, the winds of political extremism, the dangers of American success, and the inner turmoil of fear and resentment, he lived nearly 100 years. He had a typically messy Hollywood personal life, with four marriages (his third to the actress Geraldine Brooks) and five children. In his later years, he found serenity far from Hollywood, in Quogue, New York, observing swans. This he naturally turned into a book, Swan Watch (1975). What made Schulberg run? The answer is to be found in his impressive body of work, which will endure.
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What Made Budd Run?
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.