Wednesday, April 23, 2014


By its latest shameful edict supporting bans against affirmative action, the Roberts Court proved again the truth of what Justice Sotomayor declared in powerful dissent: race matters! The decision also showed that courts matter: they change lives.

A graphic in the New York Times (4/22/2014) shows that in states that have banned affirmative action, the gap between the percentage of black and Hispanic residents of college age and the those admitted to the main state universities has swelled. The gap is most dramatic in California for Hispanic youth. Worse still, the percentage of black freshmen at UC Berkeley is 2%, and at UCLA it’s 3%.

Read that not as “statistics”, but as dreams deferred, young lives discounted. Anyone who has ever been involved in college admissions knows outstanding doctors and others in worthwhile careers who would never have had a chance without affirmative action: conscious efforts to counter the crushing inequality of opportunity imposed by racism. Nor would we have Supreme Court Justice Sotomayer. (That goes for Justice Thomas as well, although he needed a full court press by a GOP establishment that exploits racism as a cornerstone of its political strategy.)

The Roberts Court has set me to imagining what might have been if its present majority had been around to decide cases from 1954 to 1969. I can’t help thinking how my life, among countless others, might have turned out very differently. These were years in which major decisions advanced civil rights in education and voting, and in striking down Jim Crow laws. These were years in which many outrages rampant under “McCarthyism” were declared unconstitutional or checked by the Supreme Court. Of course the vital force that propelled positive actions by the federal courts (and the Executive branch) was grass roots struggle, with much courage and sacrifice.

In the rebound from McCarthyism starting in 1954, the federal courts gutted the Smith Act, two McCarran Acts, and the “loyalty oaths” that were imposed on academia and the teaching profession. Overruled were government demands for membership lists of organizations deemed “subversive” as well as the denial of passports to critics of US policies.  By the time the unconstitutional witch hunts were overturned, step by step over more than a decade, dozens had served long prison terms, some were crippled and even killed in prison, thousands were barred or forced out of jobs, and inquisitions run by racist dominated “Un-American” committees had invaded every corner of American life.

To make it personal, I was cited under the McCarran Internal Security Act in 1954 and denied an academic position at the State University of New York in 1964 because of the terms of the Feinberg “loyalty” law. If the McCarran Act had been upheld, I would have been ordered to turn over the membership lists of the Labor Youth League. When (not if) I refused, the penalty by law was 5 years in jail and $5,000 fine for each day of refusal to comply! Justice Scalia, who enjoys a joke, would have found that hilarious.

Courts change lives. The Roberts Court has slammed its door on on the aspirations of America’s young people of color for equality of opportunity.

Sadly, the Supreme Court is currently the most functional branch of the federal government.  This is not the first time in our history that it has endorsed racial oppression. But the Roberts Court can be reigned in if the forces of political climate change are progressive and determined — that may be suggested by the inability of the Roberts majority to stem the tide of Gay Rights. Sooner rather than later, a prime democratic objective has to be to override the Roberts majority’s contempt for democracy and the people who constitute Romney’s 47% (or should that be 99%?).

It’s far from easy, but the Court has to be changed for the better in the next several years, or it will continue changing lives for the worse.

Friday, April 11, 2014


Anthony Tommasini, music critic of The New York Times, recently wrote a long article about political pressure on some leading musicians to protest policies of their respective governments. The focus was on two brilliant conductors, Gustavo Dudamel of Venezuela and Valery Gergiev of Russia.

How artists interact with society is a venerable and complicated question, and Tommasini’s article is certainly timely. I am fond of Tommasini as a music critic, whose judgments are insightful and never insensitive. But in this article, I think conventional (conformist) political narratives limit his objectivity.

Tommasini appreciates Dudamel’s concern and devotion to the young musicians drawn from poverty-stricken areas into the remarkably successful El Sistema, nurtured under successive Venezuelan governments. But he takes for granted the narrative of those pressuring Dudamel to condemn his government. Dudamel has spoken against violence and for the right of protest. I don’t know his views on the huge divide between rich and poor in Venezuela, or on the US State Department’s history of intervention and support for coups against democratically elected governments in Latin America, including in Venezuela. But it’s a disgrace to gang up on him for not going along with “our” side as defined by “our” media. And if his main concern is protecting El Sistema and its thousands of young artists, that establishes him as a real hero to go along with his place among the world’s foremost musicians.

The Gergiev story is not straightforward, but some similarities appear. Human rights issues are necessarily of international concern, whether involving suppression of social protest or repression based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. The Russian government is among those with intolerable restrictions denying Gay rights, and those policies should be protested everywhere. Gergiev’s position on the issue is limited to the assertion that his orchestras don’t discriminate, far from a convincing declaration of conscience and social responsibility. But it’s quite another matter to demand that Gergiev and Anna Netrebko, the celebrated opera singer, denounce their government and take “our” side in the renewed antagonism between the “West” and Russia.

The problem with Tommasini’s version is its conformity to “official” legend. Apparently it's not bothersome to pressure artists from Venezuala and Russia, while ignoring the outcry against repression by regimes considered our "allies". Tommasini does give a passing salute to Zubin Meta, the conductor of the Israeli Philharmonic, for publicly opposing the settlements and occupation policies of the Israeli government. But few of Israel’s outstanding musicians have spoken up against the colonial occupation and suppression of the Palestinians.

Nor in Tommasini’s essay is there a glance in the mirror, no hint that musicians in the United States may have an obligation to speak out on a host of oppressive foreign and domestic policies. Some of our artists have taken stands of dissent, including in periods of repression when it wasn’t easy. That arises from conscience, persuasion and courage when necessary, not from political targeting.

There is something wrong about what Tommasini calls the “Political Cacophony” challenging musicians. Making Dudamel and Gergiev convenient foreign targets is more a matter of political manipulation than of social responsibility. It’s hard to be taken seriously about human rights when selective focus conforms to prevailing political bias.

Friday, April 4, 2014


After too many years to count, I found myself back in a high school classroom yesterday and again today. Kevin, my grandson, is teaching English literature and two of his classes have read Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” and seen a movie about McCarthyism. I was invited to be interviewed about the McCarthy years as I experienced them.

For an hour in each class we talked about “witch hunts” and related issues going back to my parents’ time, starting during World War I, and my own memories from childhood up to the present. As you may imagine, everything was on the table: the struggles and contributions of “reds” to social progress; communism and “red scares”; the FBI’s hounding of civil rights and anti-war activists; present day “surveillance”, deportations and racial profiling — too long a list to fill out here.

There was a warm feeling of connection despite more than seven decades of separation by age. We enjoyed and respected each other. For me, it was a wonderful time. It brightened my day even after the latest 5-4 abomination by the Roberts Court.