Jacob Heilbrunn

Harvard's Martin Peretz Uproar

In Saul Bellow's novel Mr. Sammler's Planet, Artur Sammler, the elderly Jewish protagonist who survived the Holocaust in Poland and became an English professor at Columbia, finds himself heckled by radical students for upholding traditional literary values. Bellow, who had been hooted down at San Francisco State College in 1968 by the left, used his experience to chronicle the debility of liberalism. Liberalism has gone soft, too liberal, in effect, to defend itself. The result is that New York, the former haven for the Jews, is crumbling: "You opened a jeweled door into degradation, from hypercivilized Byzantine luxury straight into the state of nature.”

These are, more or less, the themes that have preoccupied neoconservatives for the past several decades, prompting Sam Tanenhaus to call Mr. Sammler's Planet the classic neocon work. Bellow himself was denounced as a racist, particularly for his belief that the West was culturally superior to the Third World. "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?" he once mockingly asked.

Now another neoconservative is coming under fire. For several decades Martin Peretz has championed neocon stances at the New Republic (where I once worked). Now Peretz's detractors, whom he himself has assiduously, joyously collected, are gloating over his comeuppance for making the truly crazy statement that life is cheap to Muslims en masse and that in his "gut" he wasn't convinced they should enjoy constitutional rights. Since then, Peretz has apologized twice.

It's done little to quell the controversy. A new field of Peretzology has opened up, in which his detractors have combed over his writings, discovering numerous fulgurations about Muslims and other minorities. Even the Guardian has weighed in. While doing research for a book on neoconservatism, I came across letters and statements from Peretz, when he was in his left-wing incarnation during the 1960s, taking extremely personal shots at Irving Kristol and Walter Goodman. This is the kind of writing that Peretz, a provocateur and someone who thinks tribally, revels in. Now it has become a bazooka aimed at him.

At Harvard this weekend protesters decried the establishment of a research fund in his name. The Crimson says,

Members of the Social Studies community pressed the committee during question and answer sessions to explain its decision to honor Peretz—who many said had a 30-year history of issuing hateful language towards blacks, Latinos, Arabs, and Muslims. And at a luncheon during which
Peretz was recognized, nearly ten attendees walked out.

Some of these feuds with Peretz go back half a century and clearly center on his influence at the New Republic. Thus one former tutor at the Social Studies committee, Robert Wolff, is quoted in the Crimson as saying that "there are a lot of Jews here [at Harvard], and that’s not an issue that they’re ready to confront openly.”   (Does Wolff mean too many Jews?) On his blog, Wolff writes,

It is not at all difficult to figure out the real sources of the vast corpus of disgusting statements by Martin Peretz. The answer requires only one word: Israel. Why is it that while these high-powered social theorists were extolling Social Studies' fruitful union of historical research and theoretical analysis, none of them could find a moment to refer to the transformation of left-wing Jewish social theorists into Neo-cons and Peretz' transformation of The New Republic from a liberal journal into a right-wing apologist for war against Muslims?

This is too simplistic. The New Republic does remain a liberal journal, probably more liberal than it has been in decades. And why should Harvard have refused to establish the fund? That would have raised the question of whether Peretz should ever have been on the faculty in the first place. Wouldn't it have been more hypocritical of Harvard to refuse the money than to accept it?

To my mind Todd Gitlin has captured the moment best:

I should add that I write more in sorrow than anger, for once upon a time—it seems like centuries ago—Marty Peretz was my political friend and teacher (approving, along the way, my adolescent wanderings in (quasi-Marxism). Even across political divides of later years, I have (ill-advisedly) bitten my tongue after reading his diatribes against “the Arabs” over the years. But in the thick of a xenohysteria that stands to worsen as the country churns in panic and miasma, I think it essential to underscore that those with the privilege of the public ear are obliged to take intellectual standards seriously. The life of the mind is not the life of the spleen.

The truth is that Peretz has already been punished enough. His own process of radicalization, first on the left, then on the right, may be coming to an end. A classic New York intellectual who relishes taunting his adversaries, Peretz is now on the receiving end of what he likes to dish out. At the very moment he was supposed to receive his crowning honor his reputation is being pilloried.