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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 speaking terms with me any more except for one call from him to bawl me out, which he did, loudly, until his moral indignation overcame him, as I was trying to get in a word, and he hung up on me. Since nobody can not be on writing terms with anybody, I’ll tell him the answer is No. I didn’t know “colored” was a genteel-racist term. Myself, I’ve always used “Negro”—with a capital N, please—until lately when I’ve adopted the ungenteel, unracist term, “black,” which they seem to prefer—it used to be considered vulgar-racist, these things change in time. And in place: perhaps “colored” doesn’t seem pejorative to me because I was brought up in New York and not in St. Louis. In any case, I can’t see how this sole example he gives to support his repeated charges of misquotation can reasonably be called either “serious” or “significant.”

But let’s get down to business. My letter was devoted mostly to demonstrating, or trying to, that two crucial statements of fact in the “Freedom to Teach” ad Harrington circulated and I signed (for a while) were in fact not facts. (1) The Ocean Hill board did not fire the UFT teachers last May, as the ad stated three times; they had no power to deprive them of employment, which is what “firing” means except in UFT dialectics; they had tried to “transfer” them, involuntarily, out of the district for reassignment to some other district by the Board of Education, something they thought they might have the authority to do—their powers in this as in other crucial respects were not well defined by either the Marchi Bill or the Board, whether from inadvertence or calculation. (2) Decentralization was the issue, the real one not the formal one of “due process” the UFT insisted on for tactical reasons. And the UFT was not for it—unless “decentralization” be defined in the Pickwickian sense Shanker and Harrington use—as was shown by its massive lobbying in Albany last spring which helped to defeat the stronger, more specific Regents’ Bill—and its attempt, unsuccessfully, to defeat such liberal Assemblymen as Jerry Kretschmer and Al Blumenthal who defied the UFT on the Regents Bill—see Sol Stern’s detailed account in Ramparts. Also, of course, by its three city-wide strikes last fall, each of which had for its chief aim the removal of Rhody McCoy and his principals and the local board at Ocean Hill.

On (1): Harrington doesn’t defend using the emotive “fired” as against the accurate but unexciting “transferred” in his/our ad, indeed he doesn’t mention that word, of which, I imagine, he and Shanker are by now heartily sick. His total comment on (1) is: “I remain convinced that a due process issue was very much at stake and that the ad was right on that basic count. But since I don’t want to stir up old animosities, I would simply refer Macdonald, or any one else who is interested, to Maurice Goldbloom’s excellent critique of the NY Civil Liberties Union’s report.”1 I have read Goldbloom’s paper, twice; it is objective in style and specific in documentation. The first reading, I was impressed, even a little worried, would I have to change my mind again, and so soon? A second and more analytic reading—without benefit of the NYCLU’s rebuttal which came later, I might add—reduced its impact considerably. It has the virtues, and the defects, of a brief by a competent but not imaginative lawyer whose aim is to score points rather than to tease out the truth in the style of Learned Hand or Jerome Frank or Clarence Darrow.

Goldbloom’s points often seem solid enough, until one puts them in the broader, sloppier context of the reality (which of course one has to know something about). Then one finds, or I did, that his scrupulous documentation and clear argumentation mostly supports irrelevancies (as the pages devoted to the activities of “Sonny” Carson and other black racists with hardly a perfunctory stab at connecting them with Ocean Hill). Or quibbles: he cites the UFT’s support of the Marchi Bill as evidence of its being for decentralization without mentioning it did so in order to kill the stronger Regents’ Bill. Or non-sequiturs: “Unilateral removal from a completely decentralized district would be dismissal, as this [the Ocean Hill transfers] was intended to be.” But there isn’t complete decentralization yet and so Ocean Hill’s intentions, which were not good, granted, were only day-dreams and Goldbloom has merely invented a novel kind of anachronism that might be called “futuristic” or “projective.”

He does have two real points. The appointment by the Ocean Hill board, and Mr. McCoy, of Herman Ferguson as one of their new principals shortly after he had been indicted for conspiring to murder Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Whitney Young of the Urban League—he has since been convicted and sentenced—was disgraceful, irresponsible, inexcusable, and, as Goldbloom puts it in his low-keyed style—what a relief after Harrington’s—“it hardly contributed to an atmosphere of confidence.” I’d add that anybody who even in fantasy—for the affair seems not to have gotten beyond that level—could think that eliminating Mr. Wilkins and Mr. Young would change anything is not mentally qualified to conduct a nursery school. That the Ocean Hill board shouldn’t have realized this is also shocking.

Goldbloom’s other point is semisolid—a half point, let’s say. He claims and backs it with a press quote from Dr. John Niemeyer, of the Bank Street College of Education, who wrote an important report on the controversy last spring that both sides cite, that the Ocean Hill board rejected an offer from Superintendent of Schools Donovan to make the transfers in a routine way without publicity and insisted on making an issue of them as a way of asserting—and testing—their power. This is denied by McCoy, who says he wanted to do it quietly but was forced by Shanker and the Board to bring charges and thus get into a public showdown with the teachers. His version is backed by knowledgeable observers not connected with Ocean Hill. It’s a complicated story and I’m not sure which version is right, something of both maybe. So—a half point to Goldbloom.

On (2), the question of decentralization: Harrington says he is “convinced that the UFT was genuinely for decentralization” because in 1966 Shanker asked him to write an article advocating it. Also because later (date unspecified) he, Harrington, as chairman of the League for Industrial Democracy, helped organize several conferences “which brought together union leaders, black advocates of community control and people from City Hall and the Ford Foundation…. The experience convinced me that the union was indeed for decentralization even though it differed with some of the black leaders present…. Not being a licensed moralist like Dwight Macdonald [he doesn’t let go of an advantage, a real pro] I am not at liberty to report on these closed meetings in any detail.” Okay, who am I to judge, my license has expired. But, without going into scabrous detail, might he not have given us just a teeny hint as to why “the experience convinced me the union was indeed for decentralization”? Just enough to give the reader some way of deciding whether Harrington was intelligent as well as convinced. I’d also be curious to know, hope I’m not being prurient, on what issues the union “differed with some of the black leaders present.” I suppose we’ll have to wait until The Revolution opens the Harrington Archives like the Bolsheviks in 1918 or the Columbia strikers with Dr. Kirk’s (rather dull) correspondence files last spring. Until then, if he must be so discreetly uninformative, he would be better advised not to bring up such delicate subjects. The striptease has its charms, but not in serious discussion.

Even if we grant that Shanker was for decentralization in 1966, I don’t see what this shows about his stand today. Two years ago decentralization may have been, for the liberal leader of the liberal UFT—I intend no irony by the adjectives, alas—a beautiful ideal. But it has become an ugly reality now that the Ford Foundation has funded and the Lindsay administration has created, responding to recent pressures from the black ghettos, three functioning experimental districts, with a good chance of the experiment soon becoming standard throughout the whole school system. This new order of things, which may or, if the UFT prevails, may not be enacted into law this spring by the state legislature, is doubly threatening to a white union like the UFT. Technically, bargaining will be more difficult, since agreements must be reached not with one central Board of Education, but with many—thirty is the Board’s own recent proposal—autonomous local boards. And racially, while the Board of Education, and its bureaucracy, are practically all white, many of the new districts—half of them if their composition reflects that of the city’s public school population—will have predominantly non-white governing boards. Shanker’s rule-or-ruin strategy in his three anti-Ocean-Hill strikes will not ease future relations between the UFT and such non-white decentralized districts as may be created. His injection of racism by circulating among his mostly Jewish rank-and-file as examples of “the kind of thing” that goes on in ghettos (like, say, Ocean Hill?) anti-Semitic black racist tracts was, likewise, not calculated to make things easier when and if the school system is decentralized. The latter was one of many criticisms of the UFT in my Letter that Harrington didn’t take up; maybe he’s working quietly on the inside.2

Of the three-quarters of Harrington’s Open Letter which is addressed to those “men of good will” the most striking characteristics are antique political narrowness and (perhaps-therefore?) often slight relevance to the educational topics he thinks he is discussing. “The great impetus for the decentralization controversy in New York came from two Republicans, John Lindsay and McGeorge Bundy,” he begins one paragraph, later throwing in a sneer at “corporate liberalism.” Why Republicans should still be automatic villains even to the Chairman of the Socialist Party after four years of a Democratic administration in Vietnam, I don’t see; nor what’s so bad about “corporate liberalism”—would he prefer “corporate conservatism”? Republicans or not, Bundy and Lindsay have given our black communities new hope for at last maybe getting their kids educated, and new pride by proposing to hand over to them the control of their local schools—up to now they have had as much say as the patient does in running the hospital. In either socialist or Socialist terms this would seem to be a good thing. Chairman Harrington isn’t impressed, however, he’s after bigger game:

Now they are joined by the Urban Coalition in backing a scheme which is the very essence of Let Them Eat Cake. In order to get the children of Harlem up to the educational level of those in Scarsdale it is not necessary to invest in decent housing, build new towns, create genuine full employment, or even make a modest little contribution to improving the quality of the slums right now. It can all be done by that magic change in the Board of Education which is going to abolish the three centuries of racism which are so incarnated in our basic economic institutions. What becomes almost obscene about such a reactionary shell-game…is that these very same corporate chiefs are right now planning an increase in unemployment in order to protect the stability of prices and the worth of the dollar in Scarsdale at the expense of the poor in Ocean Hill meeting the Business Council—which is about as close to an executive committee of the American haute bourgeoisie as one can get, and contains some of the most socially conscious Give-a-Damners in the country—discussed hiking the jobless rate to 5 1/2% or 6%. And although there has not been much candid talk about the scheme since, there have been enough hints that the Nixon Administration will fight inflation in this cruel manner.

Where to begin? The long passage about the Let Them Eat Cake scheme is a heavily ironical paraphrase of a silly ad put out by the Urban Coalition entitled “If It Works for Scarsdale, It Can Work for Ocean Hill” which argues that Scarsdale has good schools because it has 5,122 students and seven school board members, or one for every 732 students, and New York City has poor schools because it has 1,100,000 students and thirteen Board of Education members, or one for every 84,615 students. Some truth here, namely, there are too many students under the central control of one Board of Education and its Livingston Street bureaucracy and breaking the monolith up into thirty-three autonomous districts would be a big improvement. But it’s on the whole one of those brainstorming gimmicks that make copy writers think they’re creative. It has no connection with Bundy, Lindsay, Rhody McCoy, Kenneth Clark, Jason Epstein, or any other serious proponents of decentralization, including John Lotz and his colleagues on the Board of Education who have just produced a realistic, sober, and workable plan for decentralization that will be voted on in Albany this spring.

The ad has no connection with anything, indeed, except Harrington’s polemical convenience, and if I may speak as one with some experience, breaking a butterfly on the wheel goes down only with the most unreflective type of reader. The thoughtful kind may wonder why he wasted so much space—twice as much actually, as he found it convenient to devote to refuting my arguments in an Open Letter that was addressed to him—on demolishing a statement which, at most, proved the publicity department of the Urban Coalition is not bright. And Harrington then offers us this statistical clincher: “Those seven board members in Scarsdale accomplished their prodigies in part because they spent $1,211 per capita on each child while rural Georgia was paying out $265 a year and Cleveland $447.” What’s wrong is that Harrington has simply left out the figure for New York City, which is what he and the ad are comparing Scarsdale with. I’m sure it was an oversight due to simple ignorance and in no way connected with the fact that the New York City figure squashes flat his argument that Scarsdale “accomplished prodigies,” as against rural Georgia and Cleveland, because it spent so much more per capita on its schools. For New York is now spending per capital on its public schools not much less than, what Scarsdale does: $1,000 as against $1,200.

Finally, in the passage quoted above, Harrington has concocted what we Trotskyists used to call “an amalgam.” And of the crudest kind of linkage—the late Senator McCarthy’s trick of “guilt by association.”3 First Lindsay and Bundy appear, penitentially garbed as Republicans. Then “they are joined by the Urban Coalition in backing a scheme which is the very essence of Let Them Eat Cake.” They didn’t join the Urban Coalition, which would be normal behavior for individuals—the U.C. “joined” them, which is abnormal, in fact impossible behavior for an organization. Anyway they are “joined” and they and the U.C. are next glimpsed “backing” a Let Them Eat Cake “scheme.” However it’s not a scheme but, as Harrington describes it, a foolish one-shot ad which doesn’t commit its sponsor, the U.C., to anything and has no connection with the original pair, Lindsay and Bundy, except that the ad, the U.C., and they all agree about decentralization (just as the Trotskyists, the Nazis, etc., all agreed about Stalinist Russia). Next we learn that “these very same corporate chiefs” (no names given and back reference unclear, are Bundy and Lindsay still implicated or only that U.C. which joined them?) are planning to force unemployment up for the benefit of Scarsdale and ruin Ocean Hill. Then it seems these chiefs have joined some other chiefs in the Business Council, which is really sinister—haute bourgeoisie no less—and not just hypocritical and absurd like the U.C. (though it includes some of the U.C.) and the B.C. has “discussed” hiking the jobless rate “to 5 1/2% or 6%” and there are “enough hints”—how many are enough, I wonder—that the Nixon Administration will join, or possibly be joined by, “these very same corporate chiefs” plus the U.C., the B.C. and, now let’s see, what’s become of those two Republican decentralizers?

Harrington’s leitmotif is reconciliation: Forgive and Forget, or in General Grant’s unmemorable words, Let There Be Peace. “Nothing constructive will be accomplished by rehearsing the old issues at this point, for what is needed is reconciliation between the black parents and the union teachers, difficult as that may seem…. If the strike is over, as I fervently hope, it is time for the most earnest discussion, not for recrimination.” (I should have thought an even more appropriate time would have been before the strike was over but let it pass, let it pass.) A full-page pro-UFT ad in the Times of November 24th got up by Harrington’s colleague at the L.I.D., Tom Kahn, sounds the same note: “There must be reconciliation…. Parents, teachers and community groups will have to forge a strong alliance. They will have to organize and stand together, black and white, overcoming the bitterness and frustration that now separate them.”4

I hope it’s not too cynical to detect beneath these pieties a change of tactics rather than of heart. Neither document makes any specific concessions to the opposition, as against heartwarming generalities addressed to men of good will. Furthermore, both Harrington’s letter and Kahn’s ad were composed while Shanker was still rejecting all settlements of his third strike which, for all they knew, might continue for a second five weeks, yet they venture no criticism of Shanker’s intransigence nor express any concern for the survival of the Ocean Hill experiment, the symbol of decentralization against which it was directed. “So,” writes Harrington, “there is not a simple conflict of right and wrong but an antagonism of two rights.” Whenever he argues concretely, however, there seems to be only one right. So, conclude I, tactics. Now that direct attack has failed to wreck community control in Ocean Hill, an armistice is proposed, to be followed by negotiations.

As a man of peace, if not good will, I’m for armistices and for sitting down amicably at any “negotiating table” in sight. But I wonder if they realize the complexities of “decentralization” and “community control”; certainly Harrington’s letter doesn’t seem to. But I’ve run out of space and must postpone till another issue some notes on what these emotion-laden generalities mean in specific terms of educational and social practice.

  1. 1

    Entitled “The Burden of Blame,” the ACLU report put the burden partly on the Board of Education—before Mayor Lindsay made new appointments last fall that made it more sympathetic to community control—but mostly on the UFT, whose role the report summarizes: “The UFT has used ‘due process’ as a smokescreen to obscure its real goal, which is to discredit decentralization and sabotage community control.” It may be had, free, from the NYCLU, at 156 Fifth Ave., New York 10, N.Y., as may a rebuttal of Goldbloom’s main arguments. The Goldbloom critique, well worth reading, may be had, as Harrington noted, from Room 1105, 112 East 19th St., N.Y.C.

  2. 2

    Henry Addis of Bayside High School objects, among many other items, to my reference to the “mostly Jewish rank-and-file” of the UFT. “It is a long time since a union has been identified as a ‘predominantly Jewish organization,’ ” he writes, adding ironically: “Perhaps Jews should now keep quiet?” I described the UFT as mostly Jewish because (a) it is and (b) that fact, as the above passage indicates, is as relevant to the UFT-Ocean Hill conflict as the fact that most of those involved in Ocean Hill (except for the teachers!) are black. Why doesn’t Mr. Addis object to my saying that?

  3. 3

    I wonder why Harrington’s friend and elder counselor, Max Schactman, didn’t warn him, or at least smooth down some of the rough edges. Max was very good on amalgams in the old days. The Stalinists were always trying to amalgamate us with the Nazis or the Liberty League or the Dies Committee because we detested Stalin and so did they, but Max was always on the job “exposing the amalgam.”

  4. 4

    Although this was a lineal successor to the September 20th ad of the Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the Right to Teach of which Harrington and Kahn were co-chairmen, the intervening two months, which included Shanker’s third strike, seem to have put some strain on the original Ad Hoc group that supported him. Tom Kahn was now the sole chairman, the name was changed to “the Ad Hoc Committee for Justice in the Schools,” and although I gather it was circulated to the signers of the September 20th ad, only nine of them signed this one, not including such recognizable “names” as Daniel Bell, Robert Heilbroner, Sidney Hook, Irving Howe, Leon Keyserling, Reinhold Niebuhr, Harold Rosenberg, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Also not including Michael Harrington. There were about three times as many signatures as to the September 20th ad, beginning with Elliott Abrams (“Student, Harvard University”) and ending with Norman Zukowsky (“President, International Leather Goods, Plastic and Novelty Workers Union”) with in between a thick sandwich of equally familiar names—though my eye did pick up three “names,” two not unexpected, Louis Hacker and Seymour Lipset, but the third a bit of shock: Meyer Schapiro. Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère?

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