“Reply to a Non-Reply”

The editors headed Michael Harrington’s piece last issue a “Reply,” but they should have pondered his own title: “An Open Letter to Men of Good Will (with an Aside to Dwight Macdonald).” Or they could have used their rulers. Out of a total eighty-two inches of type—he’s even more long winded than me, by two feet—the “Aside,” which is the only direct reply to my letter, takes up twenty-three inches. And two-thirds of them are devoted not to the question but to complaints about an alleged impropriety I committed by quoting a private phone talk (leaving seven inches of specific response to my own fifty inches of specific argumentation). The allegation is true but his indignation seemed to me excessive.

Since the “duplicity,” “dirty work,” “flagrant violation of the most elementary code of friendship,” “betrayal,” etc. in one-sixth of my letter preoccupy Harrington more than the arguments advanced in the other five-sixths, I’ll begin with this embarrassing question. If only I’d been clever and just asked him in print, innocently, whether he approved of Shanker’s third strike! But I suppose he would have thought that, too, a bit duplicitous. And I suppose it wouldn’t have made it any more respectable even if I’d known, as I found out after my letter appeared, that Harrington had expressed to two other journalists of our acquaintance the same distaste for Shanker’s Third as he did to me? Yes, I feared as much. Also I’ll point out, before he does, that neither of them put it into print. But neither of them was writing him an Open Letter, into which it did fit beautifully. But as the context makes clear, he didn’t want his position publicized, and it was wrong of me to do it and I’m very sorry and will try to be more decent in the future. I suspected Harrington might be peeved but had I dreamed he’d be so upset I wouldn’t have done it.

There’s one complaint I have, if a man who has lost his character may venture it: Harrington claims my report of the phone talk is inaccurate: “garbled,” “semi-fictional,” “serious misquotation,” and climatically (he doesn’t spare the horses): “Macdonald’s second-hand and remembered transcription of this conversation—heard, so to speak, through the keyhole—is erroneous in significant sections.” I don’t understand, by the way, what he can mean by “second-hand”—does he imply somebody else, masquerading as me, was talking to him for half an hour and that I got my information from him as to what was said? But what I find strange is that after all this abuse Harrington produces only one misquotation: my quoting him as referring to “colored teachers,” on which, after observing “one might even think it malicious,” he comments: “I have not used the term ‘colored’ since I was a boy in St. Louis. When Macdonald puts the word in my mouth did he know it suggested genteel, middle-class racism?” He might have asked me that question before he used “malicious”—but he’s not on…

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