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Ron Radosh

Monthly Archives: August 2012

If Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are to win the White House, they have to succeed in getting the votes of the still-undecided swing voters. With the Democrats in an all-out war based on painting the Republican nominees as the devil incarnate who hope to destroy the well-being of the poor, the dispossessed, women, and all minority groups, the effort to destroy the Democratic and left-wing narrative should be front and center for the Republican Party and its supporters.

Hence, the speech that should have been seen by most TV viewers of the RNC 2012 convention — but which most of the viewers at home did not see — was the little-noticed yet important testimony of Jane Edmonds,  Mitt Romney’s secretary of Workforce when he was governor of Massachusetts. Coming before the speeches of Clint Eastwood, Marco Rubio, and Romney himself, it is not surprising that it was missed. But if you flipped channels, most networks — regrettably, even including Fox News — decided instead to give viewers the wisdom of their panel of pundits.

Edmonds, viewers at home would have found, is an African-American woman who proudly called herself a “liberal Democrat.” In a strong and firm voice, Edmonds told the delegates and those who did watch her speech that the Romney she got to know well when he was governor was a supporter of women, appointing them to high positions in his administration.  Moreover, she noted that Romney was a bold, strong administrator who worked hard on behalf of the people he represented.

“The late Stephen Covey,” Edmonds said, “writes about 2 kinds of people: one type is all about themselves and their success. The other type works as hard as they can — and certainly succeeds, but their success is motivated by doing good for others. That’s how I see Governor Romney. He is authentic.”

Her very presence indicated that even a self-proclaimed liberal who is also an African-American and a woman can unashamedly and publicly give her support to Romney’s campaign. This undercuts the Democratic narrative in one fell swoop. It is not surprising that a network like MSNBC would choose not to broadcast her short moment in the program, but that most including Fox News did the same is inexcusable.

Destroying the left-wing narrative is particularly important in our current time, when, as Joel Kotkin points out in a very important analysis, there is an “unseen class war” raging in our land, of a type that most commentators have ignored. Kotkin notes that Democrats will base their campaign on trying to convince most Americans that “rich business folks” are responsible for the economic troubles facing the middle class, who feel worse off than they ever have in decades.

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Woody Guthrie would have been 100 years old this year and celebrations and tribute concerts have been held not only in the United States but all through Europe. You can get the various details here.

But the New York Times ran the most left-wing, guilt-tripping contribution on his legacy in its Weekend section last Sunday. The piece, written by Lawrence Downes, begins by noting that to attend the gala final concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., one has to buy tickets that range from $80-175. For a singer who in a good year may have earned $70 in one month — when he was employed by CBS to do a radio program — such a price for people to listen to his songs would have infuriated him.

The publicity for the concert reads: “Through his unique music, words and style, Guthrie was able to bring attention and understanding to the critical issues of his day.” To which I would say, sometimes. He came to attention by what is most likely his most outstanding work, Dust Bowl Ballads, in which Guthrie chronicled the impact of the dust storms throughout the Southwest that drove thousands of poor farmers from Oklahoma and elsewhere to flee however they could to California and the Salinas Valley, where they could eke out a living picking crops.

No one who listens to these can doubt his talent, his humor, and his concern for those he knew well. “Talking’ Dust Bowl Blues” is filled with humor and irreverence, and although imitated by scores who wrote their own talking blues for years thereafter, nothing comes close to Woody’s originals.

But Mr. Downes’ concern is that there has been a “sentimental softening and warping of Woody’s reputation,” because the truth was that the “saintly folk hero” was really an “angry vigilante — a fascist-hating, Communist-sympathizing rabble-rouser.” He complains that his most well-known song, “This Land is Your Land,” has been “truncated and misinterpreted” because the “pan is off the flame.”

Mr. Downes is obviously referring to the last two verses, which Guthrie himself never sang — and which now both Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen regularly include — about how he saw a sign that said “Private property, no trespassing, but on the other side it said nothing, that side was made for you and me.”

Just don’t try to trespass on any of Bruce’s million-dollar properties — unless you want the police arriving and throwing you in the hoosegow, which Woody himself knew quite a lot about.

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I recently finished reading Paul Kengor’s important new book The Communist: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor, Frank Marshall Davis, which I’m reviewing for a forthcoming issue of National Review. One of the points that Kengor raises is the question of how important a mentor is for any young person, especially when his relation to the individual he is mentoring takes place during the impressionable high school and early college years. Kengor argues that contrary to what mainstream journalists have claimed, Davis was a most influential figure in Obama’s life and a man who obviously led Obama to the very left-wing stance he took when he entered college.

Did Obama ever have a real conversion experience, and consciously move away from the type of politics that Davis espoused? The truth is that we don’t know, since our president has never been upfront about it at all. Many people, of course, have moved from communism to either social democracy, liberalism, or conservatism. The late Irving Howe departed from Trotskyism to become a social-democrat; Whittaker Chambers moved from communism to a deep religious conservatism; in our own time, my friend David Horowitz moved from the ranks of the communist left to become a major conservative intellectual and activist.

Readers of my own memoir, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, know that over many years, I too began a long move away from the left-wing milieu in which I grew up. One of the chapters in my book is about what I somewhat facetiously call “the Commie high school” that I attended from 1949-1955, the “progressive” Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Begun by Irwin, a disciple of the educational philosophy of John Dewey, the school became a virtual who’s who of the emerging Old and New Left from the 1930s through the 1970s. Its graduates include the Weather Underground’s Kathy Boudin; the Communist African-American leader Angela Davis; the late folksinger Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary; the former publisher and editor of The Nation, Victor Navasky; the wives of both Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger; and the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Michael and Robert Meeropol. The elementary school is named the Little Red Schoolhouse, and many of us called it “the little Red schoolhouse for little Reds.”

Recently, I was interviewed by a writer who is working on an official history of the institution. He asked me to take a guess as to how many of those who taught at the school when I attended were actually members of the CPUSA. I told him that all the teachers were either sympathizers or fellow travelers, but I could only say for certain that I knew two or three who were definitely members. I was shocked when he told me that, in fact, almost everyone teaching when I was there was an actual CP member, and that even the school’s principal was a communist (I thought of him as simply a left-leaning civil libertarian).

So the questions arise. What paths did the graduates of that era take? Have any of them changed and broken out of the left-wing box in which they were educated? Aside from myself, I know of only two others, Abby Thernstrom and Elliot Abrams. At the last class reunion I attended, almost all my classmates had the same views they held when they attended EI.

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In my last column, I wrote a critique of the activist professor Peter Dreier’s new book. Dreier wrote an answer, which appeared as comment number 7 and which I reprint below.

Peter Dreier

Thanks to Ron for taking my book seriously. Everyone I profile in the book — The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century — contributed to making America a better society. In the introduction I point out that they were “heroes but not saints.” I don’t agree with everything they said or did.

Teddy Roosevelt was an imperialist and something of a racist, but he was also an early environmentalist and pro labor. Thanks to the pioneering Meat Inspection Act — which TR supported after socialist Upton Sinclair’s book THE JUNGLE raised awareness of the awful conditions in slaughterhouses — our food is safer. Ron says that the book has two presidents, but it has three; he omits Lyndon Johnson. He was wrong on Vietnam and other foreign policy issues, but his support for the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and the war on poverty merits his inclusion in the book. I don’t forgive Alice Paul’s anti-semitism, but I admire her remarkable work on behalf of women’s suffrage. I don’t agree with Margaret Sanger’s support for eugenics, but her courageous advocacy of women’s reproductive freedom was a blow for human rights.

Ron asks why I didn’t include “businessmen, entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers and other Americans who were not defined by their politics?” The book does include scientists (Albert Einstein, Henry Wallace, Rachel Carson), and businessmen (Tom Johnson, Wallace), as well as athletes, musicians, Supreme Court justices, organizers, social workers, playwrights, theologians, academics, and others. I also admire entrepreneurs like Julius Rosenwald and Edward Filene who devoted their energies and fortunes to social philanthropy, a proud American tradition.

Because the book defines “greatest” as those who helped made the U.S. a more humane and democratic society, it is inherently about politics.

Ron says “all his entries are pro-Communist.” Ron knows this is wrong. Quite a few were strongly anti-Communist, including Walter Reuther, Bayard Rustin, Allard Lowenstein, and Michael Harrington, and of course Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Most of the people I profile in the book were not involved with Communists one way or another, including Louis Brandeis, Jane Addams, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, John Kenneth Galbraith, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Cesar Chavez, Billie Jean King, and Thurgood Marshall.

Some of the 100 people in my book were liberals and reformers, some were progressives, some were radicals and revolutionaries. Some were Socialists.

Ron looks at 20th Century America through the lens of whether someone was or wasn’t in (or sympathetic to) the Communist Party. Of the 100 people in the book, a small handful — including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Harry Hay, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Betty Friedan, and others — were either in the CP or its front groups dealing with labor, women’s rights, and civil rights issues. I look at their overall contributions to society, which were incredibly positive. They are lifelong reformers and radicals. They are not defined simply by the few months, or even the few years, they were involved with the CP and its orbit.

Ron’s is simply wrong about my take on Bayard Rustin. From his work with King on the Montgomery bus boycott (1955) to his work with Randolph on the March on Washington (1963), Rustin was not a public figure, as his biographer, John D’Emilio discusses at great length. His most important contributions to the civil rights movement were mostly behind-the-scenes, because King and others considered his homosexuality and radical affiliations a liability.

Finally, Ron also makes a serious error in relying on Stanley Kurtz’s book about Obama to learn anything about me. The book mentions me in a few places as having some influence on Obama’s political views. I am hardly one of the “main characters” in the book, as Ron suggests. More importantly, Kurtz has no evidence of my having any influence — directly or indirectly — on Obama. I’ve never met Obama. I have no idea whether Obama ever read anything I wrote or ever heard me speak. Neither does Kurtz, which is why he uses words like “probably” and “possibly” to describe a relationship that never existed. Kurtz’s book is not history or biography; it is conjecture and paranoid conspiracy theory. Ron is misguided to rely on it.

My book is about the great figures of America’s liberal and progressive movements — women’s rights, labor, civil rights, environmentalism, peace, human rights, gay rights — and the many ways they’ve made America a better country. From women’s suffrage to workplace safety, from Social Security to the Civil Rights Act, from the progressive income tax to the minimum wage, from the Environmental Protection Act to laws requiring seat belts and nutrition information, they helped transform ideas that were considered radical to taken-for-granted common sense. We all stand on their shoulders.

Because I believe dialogue and argument are important and that our side — rather than that represented by Dreier — is correct, I welcome this chance to bring his remarks to attention in my own column, and to proceed to answer him. First, I thank Dreier for writing a serious response to my critique of his book, and for avoiding ad hominem remarks so typical of many on the Left. It is important to have the opportunity to debate serious issues with one’s opponents, and it is to Dreier’s credit that he obviously agrees with this and has sought to engage me on our very real differences.

First, Dreier has a traditional and I believe very wrong-headed comprehension of the reforms of the Progressive era and its aftermath, including the New Deal. I am surprised that he seems unfamiliar with the pioneering work of an entire group of left-wing historians of the 60’s and 70’s, including Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism, my friend the late James Weinstein’s The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, and my friend Martin J. Sklar’s masterpiece, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism. These scholars, like the late libertarian economic historian Murray N. Rothbard, (with whom I co-authored a book, A New History of Leviathan, that you can download free on the internet), all of whom provide a very different paradigm of our past than the one favored by Dreier.

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The Nation magazine is playing a trick on me. I regularly receive a lot of books, since publishers know I review many and they’re hoping I’ll respond by writing up the one they are pushing. Many are conservative books; others histories; others simply by publishers who know I’ve written on a topic that their new book covers.

But until now, Nation Books, an imprint of the Perseus Book Group, has never sent me one of the books by any of their left-wing authors. But two days ago, I received a copy of Peter Dreier’s new book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. Dreier is the E. P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College, and happens to be one of the main characters of Stanley Kurtz’s new book on Obama’s radical redistributionist plans for a second term (he has an entire section).

I know why I received the book. Dreier, a man I have met personally and who is a good friend of a good friend of mine, sent me a nasty e-mail a few years ago. He went bananas after I wrote one of my critical articles about Pete Seeger (one of his heroes in the new book) and told me that not only was I one of the worst people on earth, but that he knew that the only thing that got me up in the morning was the desire to drive to Wal-Mart, shop there, and hence oppress the poor. I responded to him that he should complain to his other great hero, Bruce Springsteen, since just that week the singer had announced that his new CD would be exclusively sold at Wal-Mart! I then got in my car and, to make myself feel good, drove to Wal-Mart and did some grocery shopping.

So the reason I got the book — I know how publishers and their publicity departments work — is that Dreier asked them to mail it to me. Expecting me to take the bait and attack the book, he could then come up with a line for an ad: “The reactionary right-wing writer Ron Radosh hates this book, so you know it has to be good,” or something along those lines. So, indeed, I accept the challenge, and henceforth will make some serious observations about what Dreier has written.

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