An Open Letter to Michael Harrington

Dear Mike:

Thanks for asking me, along with Noam Chomsky and Jason Epstein, to join a panel discussion on “Morality & Radical Political Action.” It’s an important, perhaps now the important political topic, and I hope they will accept. But I must decline for a reason they don’t share: I signed, and they didn’t, that September 20th ad in the Times you got up, as Chairman of the League for Industrial Democracy, supporting the United Federation of Teachers in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville dispute. Now, wearing the more splendiferous hat of National Chairman, Socialist Party, USA, you want me to discuss political morality. But, after the September 20 affair, I’d prefer not to. I think you led me—and others—into a false position, and I haven’t any stomach for talking about political morality, and certainly not the radical kind, under your auspices.

This letter is to tell you why I feel so strongly about it, and to provoke you to an explication of your point of view. Of the thousands of “cause” statements I’ve signed in my time, I’ve regretted more than a few but this is the first one I’ve been ashamed of, also the first time I felt I’d really been “had.” My own ignorance—and, more painful, my sloth in being so ignorant—was responsible, an aspect of which was my confidence in you, from which I assumed there was at least a prima facie validity to the statement. I soon (two weeks) discovered I was wrong and resigned from your/our Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the Right to Teach. This awakening was all the more painful because I’ve known, and respected, you for a long time. We first met in 1952 when you, then editor of The Catholic Worker, helped me find my way around while I was writing a profile of Dorothy Day—I needed no guide with Dorothy, she is beautifully obvious. Then in 1963 you published your book, The Other America, and I wrote a review-article that was widely read, summarizing and extending your great discovery; between us, we did something to force poverty into the national consciousness. So I’m sure you won’t take this letter as a personal insult—a political one, maybe—and I hope you’ll correct any inaccuracies or unfairnesses and, more important, will feel stimulated to articulate the mindset that led you to promote that ad.

Its headline was “In Defense of the Freedom to Teach.” Had it appeared three weeks later—without my signature by then—it would have had to be titled: “In Defense of the Freedom Not to Teach” since Albert Shanker, supported by a big majority of the UFT, had called, over the Ocean Hill-Brownsville issue, their third strike in a year. But the original headline has now become sadly appropriate for an ad in favor of the other side, one that would support Rhody McCoy and his principals and school board (and their dedicated new corps of teachers) in their refusal to allow Brother Shanker and his equally dedicated (to another god) UFT…

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