Thursday, 10 November 2011

Judging a Jew is not per se Anti-Semitic: A Personal History

Accusations of anti-Semitism have made me re-analyze the biggest year (yet!) in my life, 1961. I had clambered from high school teacher in 1956 to Ivy assistant professor in the Penn’s new Annenberg School of Communication (with a pitstop at Trenton State), where de facto at Penn I wrote the new curriculum based on what I had learned about American media during Ford and Carnegie grants. I maneuvered Gilbert Seldes in as Dean and became his gofer, questioning whether Charles Lee (ne Levy) was a good move as Vice Dean, cultivated an instant friendship with fellow Mick Charlie Hoban as professor of communication education. I taught media history, from Cave Painting to Conic strip as they used to say.

My favorite course was Media Policy, every Thursday night faculty dinner with a media leader, followed by a freeforall debate with the students who had just listened to the visitor’s timely lecture. The point was to understand better who moved and how he/she shaked the status quo. Lee, who had been the first Jew in Penn’s English Department, was a trimmer. No tough questions. Softballs till I was bored. I saw this course as the ethical center of the curriculum. He demeaned it by being the too genial host.

Thus in spite of my being thrilled by my rapid academic advance, I was so disillusioned by his stalemating that I gladly took the first most challenging assignment in my life—first director of the Institute of American Studies at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii, a post the sociologist David Riesman recommended me for because of my unique blend of media and American Studies. The Asians were to learn technology to modernize, the Americans to comprehend Asian languages and culture to humanize.

The only fly in this ointment was another Jew, Seymour Lutsky, appointed my Number 2 without a word of my approval. He, I learned to my dismay, had been in the CIA for the 10 years since an Iowa PhD. His job was to monitor at parties and such Asian and American students for leftishness. The only public assignment we gave him was a lecture on architecture that was so ill-informed, we were too embarrassed to ask him again. Because the State Department was largely funding this innovation, we just pretended to ignore him. I’m not being malicious, only truthful, when I say he was the dumbest Jew I ever met. And there are damn few of those!

The interim director, Charles Bouslog—otherwise English chief, put us sight unseen in this dinky house in Manoa, empty because a pal of his was on sabbatical. My wife and I and our three children (9,7,and 5) has just spent two glorious years in a Louis Kahn designed home in Greenbelt Knoll, Philadelphia’s first racially integrated community. And it was my wife’s first college teaching job. Besides the president of the University reduced my promised $13,000 salary by $3,000, with no appeal! (Ignorance of the law made me fume silently instead of suing him for breach of contract.)

Here’s where Greenbelt Knoll reenters our picture. One of our headline neighbors, chosen to make integration plausible, the Rev. Leon Sullivan (known locally as the Lion from Zion—Baptist Church that is) confronted me one Saturday morning at the community pool in 1960 with a tirade on Walter Annenberg’s temerity in talking about raising media standards while censoring Sullivan’s Boycott of TasteeKake (you don’t hire blacks, we don’t buy your cakes!)

Bright and early Monday morning I was being frisked like a common criminal by the porter who ran the elevator to Walter’s 13th floor eyrie in the Inquirer Building. The first thing that caught my eye was a huge poster on his desk reading I WILL SO LIVE MY LIFE AS TO HONOR THE MEMORY OF MY FATHER! That’s Moe he referring to, the Moe who dumped opponents newspapers in Milwaukee and Chicago into the Illinois River, and spent time in the federal pokey for income tax evasion!

When I explained to Annenberg the purpose of my visit, he was stunned and speechless, trying to comprehend the motivation of an untenured assistant professor accosting him in his lair. (It reminded me of our first Annenberg School meeting a few years before with UP prexy Harnwell. While waiting for the rest of the conferees to assemble, I teased Walter by wondering if the vastly expanded comics section announced in the Inquirer the day before was raising standards. Academics I discovered are such Uriah Heaps when confronting their donors that they are speechless when teased. (What a grim fate!)

He finally called in his lawyer Joe First, whose wife Elizabeth was working for a Ph.D. and bugging me, as if Annenberg clout could somehow shorten her doctoral quest. Joe had no ideas. He called in his executive editor, E.Z.Dimmittman, who offered in his Southern drawl, “We tried a colored boy last summer, but he never worked out. We had to let ‘em go.”

Stunned, I replied: “What in the hell has that got to do with censoring your news coverage of a black boycott!” Silence ensued. I wrapped up this nonmeeting of minds with a warning: “The Reporter magazine is breaking this story next week and if you have any dignity left, you’ll beat them to the draw.” They didn’t, of course. And Walter stumbled along, riding shotgun with Frank Rizzo until his star “Investigative” reporter was dumped for outright fraud. He who had fled the shame of his father in Chicago then sold the Inky as quick as he could find a buyer.

Gilbert told me sadly when I “retreated” to Philly to rejoin the Annenberg School (as promised) that Charlie and Walter had voted NO. He was sad as he told me. But we ended our days together tight, sharing our mutual joy in Goldie Hawn on TV in his New York apartment. After all, Gilbert was my first and greatest mentor. The first Jews I ever met was in 1944 (aged 17) at Great Lakes Training Center’s radar tech program, full of smart, friendly Jews, who were represented laughably higher than their percentage of the population—well, because most Jews are smart and well-educated.

Shall I make a list of my faves? Harvey Goldberg, one of Ohio State’s greatest teachers, who as a grad student at Western Reserve showed me how to be political active and scholarly, simultaneously. And Harvey Wish, who directed my dissertation. And Mortimer Kadish who wiped my Jesuitical medieval slate clean with one semester of Logical Positivism. And Kenneth Goldstein at Scholastic Teacher who introduced me to weekly journalism. And I.F.Stone, for whom I awarded the first (alas, and last) IZZIE, for the best investigative student journalism in Stone’s tradition—to Arizona State for their quarterly analysis of Arizona media.

And Studs Terkel, who brilliantly tutored me on how to take the common man seriously. And Bertrand Goldberg, the best student the Bauhaus ever had(in Mies’s last class, 1933), but which institution has never given him an exhibition. When we last talked (in 1995, two years before he died) he proudly claimed that he had remained faithful to the Bauhaus promise of fidelity of good design for the working classes for 62 years, the only one who can say that. Walking Chicago’s streets with Bernie and his dogs was the best seminar I ever had on architecture.

So don’t talk to me about anti-Semitism: a dumb Jew is a dumb Jew (Lutsky) and a gutless Jew is a gutless Jew (Lee ne Levy). And an arrogant Jew (Annenberg) is an arrogant Jew. And Jews who think a mediocre Jewish captive is worth a thousand Palestinians express a truly dangerous hubris, just as building illegal (by international law)settlements is a bid for voluntary self-extinction. And Jews who bomb Syrian atomic installations and threaten Iran are playing the End Game. Self Chosen Peoples (Jews and Americans, for a start) are urged to join the Human Race, before there isn’t any. Amen.

P.S. My failing memory is irresponsible for my not citing two Good Jews who made my life fuller. Dave Funt, an Annenberg grad who followed me to Honolulu and capably supervised our many media ploys. And Herb Gans who taught me by his example that sociology at its best is a central part of the humanities.

No comments: