A Life

(written August 2010)
As an eighteen-year-old Brooklyn College student, decades ago, I became a “professional revolutionist.” This meant that I, together with my student comrades would spend most of our time in a course I called “cafeteria” where we tried – for the most part unsuccessfully – to convince Stalinist students that the Soviet Union had betrayed socialism and the working class.

I also distributed leaflets with that message before a meeting of a Stalinist dominated maritime union. An over six foot sailor took one look at my leaflets and threw me into the gutter.

We were right about Stalinism, but we were wrong in regarding World War II, as an imperialist war, which like the First World War would end in widespread social revolution. I declared at the time, “The exploiters of the world are sitting on a powder keg.”

Years later our views of the Soviet Union began to be confirmed for the world by Khrushchev’s 1956 speech. When asked whether he regretted what he had done under Stalin, he replied: “I am up to my knees in blood and I hear the voices of my dead comrades.”

I wondered whether my sailor assailant had learned the truth about the Soviet Union which he defended so valiantly against me.

Now, as a retired philosophy professor, I can no longer claim the title of “professional revolutionist.” But I can say that the habits of rational argument, first honed in those early years, remained with me, both in philosophy and in politics.

The next fifty years I spent much of my time teaching, teaching, teaching, from first grade through graduate school.  I taught many different courses including philosophy of religion. I think that if God appears in my after life, I would inform him that I have refuted all the arguments for his existence.

In 1963 and 1966 I published articles strongly criticizing Hannah Arendt’s view that in the Holocaust, almost all Jewish leaders cooperated with the Nazis in the murder of Jews “to an extraordinary degree.”
[1] Her claim I said, was made in shocking disregard of available evidence.[2] After reading one of the articles, Sidney Morgenbesser, the late Columbia University philosopher, said “Arendt isn’t so bad. She just leaves out little words like 'not.'”

I opposed the Vietnam War and organized a teach-in at Brooklyn College. My other anti-war activity took place in England in 1969 when I met regularly with Americans to discuss opposition to the war. I should add that I held the umbrella of an anarchist student at an anti-war rally so that he would not be accused of wielding a deadly weapon.

En route to Oxford in 1968, where I was to be a visiting scholar at Wolfson College, I attended an international philosophy congress in Vienna.

It was the year of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and although I planned to visit Prague, the border was closed. I distinctly remember a newsreel of Shirley Temple, the America ambassador kissing the American flag as she left.

A Czech student escaped to the Vienna Congress and immediately selected me as his savior.  I and a colleague obtained a visa and put together money to send him to the United States.  But it seemed that he had friends - six of them.  So we obtained more visas, collected more money and dispatched them all on Icelandic Airlines to a mid-western American university.  

At the congress I and a friend met with three Soviet philosophers near the ferris wheel in an amusement park just outside Vienna (Was it the same amusement park, the same ferris wheel, filmed in “The Third Man” ?) I learned later that the third philosopher was there to watch the other two. They told me that they were going to Oxford to study the philosophy of Sir David Ross (an intuitionist philosopher whose work could not be further from Marxism).

Were they telling the truth? Here is why I never found out. The Soviet philosophers whom I had met in the amusement park outside Vienna had been invited to Oxford University.  But just before the first meeting of the Oxford philosophy club, two dons were composing a letter, saying in polite language that because of recent Soviet conduct they should get lost.


SEX DISCRIMINATION IN UNIVERSITIES

I never criticized the feminist movement but I felt that women with real ability - like me for example - had done pretty well and didn’t need them.

I began to change when I discovered that, although there was nothing wrong with my teaching evaluations or publication record the chairperson would prevent me from being promoted unless I took on almost half of the secretary’s departmental work.  This would free her to be his personal secretary.

But the ex-professional revolutionist knew how to fight back. He finally collapsed and I became an associate professor.

I wondered whether other academic women had failed to obtain the advancement they deserved. I remembered Eleanor Kuykendall who had died of cancer. At one time she had been a part-time lecturer in my department. Although she had more philosophical ability than some of the men who were promoted to tenure track positions (with my support) she was never promoted to that rank.

I read studies showing widespread sex discrimination in universities. For example, in 1972 a team of sociologists, who had performed a carefully controlled study, concluded that “sex discrimination is rampant in academe.”[3]

Then I acted on what I read.

In the early seventies, universities were required  by the government to take “affirmative action” to end sex discrimination by setting reasonable numerical goals for hiring women and minorities by departments that had clearly excluded them.  

In the next decade much of my political activity consisted in arguing for numerical goals. I spent three months organizing a New York Times ad with three thousand (ten dollar) signatures and lots of endorsements from academic VIPs: Nobel Laureates, Distinguished Professors and the like.

The upshot was that President Ford invited two professors - a male academic who opposed numerical goals and a female academic who supported them. Referring to a particular study, she stated that women in that study “produced more.” President Ford asked “produced more WHAT?”

He concluded that the paper work of universities had to be reduced but the numerical goals would be kept because of all that support for them out there (The New York Times ad?).

But the conservative campaign against numerical goals using a misleading analogy with quotas (like those that had excluded Jews from professional schools) was successful. Definite numerical goals have been abandoned in favor of an indefinite concept: “diversity.”

One consequence of my campaign for affirmative action was the hostility which I engendered from some academic men. Often when they lost out on a job they blamed it on affirmative action - (without relevant evidence) and in some cases where they could take it out on me – they did so.

My activity on behalf of affirmative action was not limited to academic women. In 1991 I published a book Racism and Justice: The Case for Affirmative Action which turned out to be a great success (Cornell University Press). It is also available now in the Questia on-line library. The book has been used in ethics, social philosophy and black study classes. My husband was riding on a bus when he heard two black teenagers discussing it.  

CONCLUSION

I look back now when, as an eighteen year old professional revolutionist I issued the revolutionary declaration that the exploiters of the world were sitting on a powder keg. I was wrong then.  But why? Because the Communist International which was supposed to be the agent of world revolution had become the foreign agent of the Soviet Union, a class society for whom workers power was anathema.

How does my revolutionary declaration stand now?

Note the World Social Forums involving hundreds of thousands of people declaring “a better world is possible”; the seismic knowledge that today’s children will have a lower living standard than their parents; the takeovers by workers of bankrupt businesses in Latin America; the widespread land invasions by impoverished agricultural workers around the world; a disastrous global financial crisis with high worldwide unemployment rates especially among young workers leading to protests in countries as varied as Latvia, Chile, Bulgaria and Iceland, strikes in Great Britain; the riots in 2008 that plundered the streets of Greece, invoking solidarity actions throughout the world.

This last prompted a Christian Science Monitor journalist to write: ”Athens is not as far away as we think… .”

Greece gave us philosophy. What new gift does Greece have for us now?

 

 

 



[1] Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt, The Viking Press, N.Y. 1963.

[2] Gertrude Ezorsky, “Hannah Arendt Against the Facts” New Politics 2, 4 (1963). Gertrude Ezorsky, “Hannah Arendt Answered” Dissent Vol. XIII Number 2, March-April (1966).

[3] See Helen S. Astin and Alan E. Bayer, “Sex Discrimination in Academe” Educational Record (Spring 1972) p.115, a study of the sixties. It was cited in my Philosophy and Public Affairs article “Hiring Women Faculty” (Fall 1977) v.7 number 1, p.83.