Vivian Gornick’s eternal Stalinist nostalgia

Vivian Gornick

We last discussed Vivian Gornick a couple of months ago, when we took note of a piece she’d written for the New York Times romanticizing Stalinism. Gornick’s exercise in nostalgia, we observed, was pretty much a boiled-down version of her repulsive 1978 memoir The Romance of Communism. In her piece, as in her book, she portrayed American Communists as superior souls, driven by convictions that the non-Commie rabble were too ignoble to possess.

When we weighed in on Gornick’s Times essay, we hadn’t yet caught up with another recent item bearing her byline – namely, an article for the Nation entitled “Getting Even.” The subject was Diana Trilling (1905-96), the occasion a new biography of Trilling by Natalie Robins entitled The Untold Journal.

Diana Trilling

Who, you ask, was Diana Trilling? She belonged to a circle of midcentury Manhattan writers who went by various names – sometimes the New York intellectuals, sometimes the Partisan Review crowd, and sometimes (by insiders) The Family. Among her fellow Family members were Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, William Phillips, Dwight Macdonald, Philip Rahv, Delmore Schwartz, and, not least, Trilling’s own husband, Lionel, who was a professor of literature at Columbia University and a highly respected literary critic.

Most of the New York intellectuals were leftists, but none of them were, like Gornick, Stalinists; several of them would have identified, for a time anyway, as Trotskyites, although the Trillings were more moderate in their politics, pretty much personifying the mainstream liberal anti-Communism of the day. Lionel’s most celebrated book, indeed, was a collection of essays entitled The Liberal Imagination.

Lionel Trilling

And Diana? She started out reviewing fiction for The Nation and went on to write social and cultural criticism and to publish three collections of essays, a biography (of a famous murderess), and a memoir. During her marriage to Lionel (who died in 1975), she also, as Gornick puts it, “kept house, organized their increasingly busy social life, and took an active hand in aiding her husband with his work.” That aid was by no means inconsiderable: Lionel was a subtle thinker but not a fluid writer, and Diana, by all accounts, edited him heavily and made him readable.

She called herself a “family feminist.” Any reasonable person would admire her as a model professional woman, one who managed to combine a respected career with a responsible family life. But this doesn’t do it for Gornick. In Gornick’s view, Diana Trilling wasn’t enough of a feminist – or, perhaps more accurately, wasn’t the right kind of feminist.

But even more troubling for Gornick than Diana’s take on feminism was her (and Lionel’s) view of Communism. Now, for any sensible person, the Trillings’ rock-solid anti-Communism is self-evidently admirable, especially given the tendency of many members of the New York crowd to look fondly on the Soviet Union (or, at the very least, to refuse to judge it harshly). Diana’s later distaste for the New Left and all its epiphenomena (hippies, student revolts, sit-ins, campus takeovers, the Black Power movement) also seems sane, mature, and prescient – especially, again, when viewed alongside the desperately puerile efforts by Family members like Norman Mailer to become a part of the youth movement and thus be seen as au courant, hip, with-it.

Joseph Stalin

It’s no surprise that Gornick, an old Stalinist, has a problem with Diana’s politics. Here’s what Gornick has to say on the topic:

Communism in the United States was the great bugaboo of Diana’s life. From the mid-’30s on, she saw it as a threat to American democracy worthy of the highest moral outrage. Making no distinction between communists in the Soviet Union and those in the United States, she described the Communist Party USA as the evil within that operated under a “chain of Communist command” and that was bent on “the entrapment of innocents.”

Whom does Gornick think she is fooling? It has long since been established that the American Communist Party’s every move was indeed directed by the Kremlin. Its members were, in a very real sense, in the service of evil. They were the tools of a monstrous totalitarianism. There was no operative distinction between Communists over here and over there. Diana Trilling understood that more than half a century ago; Vivian Gornick, now in her eighties, is still in some perverse kind of denial about it. Gornick’s indictment of Diana’s politics continues:

The Trillings

She often thought it more important to fight this evil within than to secure and protect civil liberties, and she could truly never understand why this made others see her as a reactionary. To read her today on communism (with either a lowercase or capital “C”) is jaw-dropping, alternately ludicrous and frightening. Not once in all of her red-baiting diatribes does an insight emanate from anything that might resemble an emotional imagination.

What is Gornick criticizing Diana Trilling for here? She’s criticizing her, apparently, for seeing Communism precisely for what it was, for looking at it with unblinkered eyes, for refusing to buy into any of the rose-colored propaganda that filled so many of the intellectual and literary journals of the time, for seeing through the efforts of American Communists to hide behind freedoms they had sworn to destroy. Gornick, whose view of Communism has been befogged by sentiment throughout her adult life, is criticizing Trilling for not sharing her own repellent delusions. Good for Trilling. Shame on Gornick. 

The Communist Party isn’t radical enough for Johnny E. Williams

During the last two days we’ve been looking at sociology professor Johnny EricTrin Williams, who, in June, over two decades after earning his Ph.D., finally did something to attract notice beyond the Hartford, Connecticut, campus of Trinity College, where he teaches: he wrote a couple of tweets in which he basically called for race war.

Johnny Eric Willams

One thing that’s interesting about working on this website is how you keep running into the same people. Googling away for clues to Williams’s past, we found very little – let’s just say he’s not exactly ambitious or prolific – but one thing we did run across was a document that linked Williams to a couple of our old pals on this site, namely world-class race hustler Cornel West, who is currently on the Harvard faculty, and Bob Avakian, head of the Communist Party USA. The document was a statement by an organization calling itself “Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

Mumia Abu-Jamal

Mumia, of course, is a former Black Panther and cop-killer who was sentenced to death in 1982, whereupon bien pensant types around the world rallied to his support, presenting his conviction as a symbol of American injustice and racism and campaigning to have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. That effort eventually bore fruit in 2001; Mumia is now serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison.

Bob Avakian

But on to the statement by the “Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal,” or EMAJ for short. The statement was critical of a November 15, 2014, event at New York’s Riverside Church, where Avakian and West discussed “Revolution and Religion: The Fight for Emancipation and the Role of Religion.” EMAJ, which noted that it had “supported the event beforehand,” was nonetheless unhappy with the discussion because of its “singular focus on one predominating voice, of its disrespect for black radical leadership and all leaders of color, and of its failure to uphold the radical democratic values needed in revolutionary movements.”

Cornel West

In other words, West and Avakian, the latter of whom, at least, is an advocate of violent, murderous totalitarian revolution in the United States, were not radical enough for the members of EMAJ. The EMAJ statement went on to quote an essay by Mumia and Angela Davis, who, as we’ve seen on this site, was an accessory to murder. The essay envisioned “a socialist future” that would involve “the abolition of institutions that advance the dominance of any one group over any other”; in writing their essay, they drew on “Black, indigenous and other traditions.”

Avakian and West at the Riverside event

This, complained the EMAJ, was something that West and Avakian, but mainly Avakian, had failed to do at the Riverside event. In the view of EMAJ, Avakian, who is white, had taken up too much time, which “was disrespectful of Dr. West,” who is black. To EMAJ, this amounted to “an implicit racism” and a sense of “white privilege and white supremacy.” EMAJ condemned “what we witnessed at Riverside: one white revolutionary lecturing for more than two hours while a Black revolutionary sat on the stage. This is not what revolution looks like in the U.S.”

The EMAJ statement was signed by fifteen individuals, most of whose listed affiliations with academic institutions – among them Evergreen State College, Columbia University, and Union and Princeton theological seminaries. Williams was one of them. This, then, is the kind of nonsense in which he has been involved in recent years when he might have been engaged in serious sociological research.

Matthew Hughey

Oh, well. The good news is that on June 26, the president of Trinity College put Williams on a leave of absence for his racist Facebook and Twitter posts. The bad news: the American Association of University Professors criticized Trinity for violating Williams’s “academic freedom” we suspect he’ll be back soon enough. Colleagues, too, rallied around Williams. From Inside HigherEd: “Matthew Hughey, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and friend of Williams’s, said he ‘was merely the latest target of a campaign by the right-wing white supremacist outrage machine with the goal of silencing academics’ working to eliminate oppression.” (We’ve previously discussed Hughey on this site, by the way.) Our guess: Williams will be back in the classroom soon enough, likely doubling down on his hatred and infecting heaven knows how many students with it.

A thumbs-up for (believe it or not) the New York Times

Peter Andreas

On this site, we’ve long been critical of the New York Times for its consistent readiness to publish op-eds, memoirs, and even news stories that whitewash Communism. In recent weeks, for example, we’ve singled out Peter Andreas’s affectionate recollection of his Maoist mother and Vivian Gornick’s nostalgia, as her title put it, for the days “When Communism Inspired Americans.”

Harvey Klehr

So when the Times runs something sensible on the topic, we feel obliged to give the Gray Lady a tip of the hat. Such is the case with veteran scholar Harvey Klehr’s splendid, comprehensive articleAmerican Reds, Soviet Stooges,” which appeared in the Times on July 3.

Dalton Trumbo

While the Times, like many other liberal mainstream media, routinely likes to portray American Communists (such as the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo) as essentially benign super-liberals who had little or or no real connection to the Soviet Union, Klehr, perhaps America’s leading expert on the topic, firmly corrects the record, stating flat-out that “the Communist Party of the United States of America was an instrument of Soviet foreign policy,” taking orders directly from the Kremlin on its policy positions and its choice of leaders.

Earl Browder

“In both 1929 and 1945, Moscow demanded, and got, a change of party leadership,” recalls Klehr. When Earl Browder fell afoul of Stalin and was ousted as party head, “virtually every Communist who had hailed Browder for years as the symbol of an Americanized Communism then shunned him. He was even forced to find a new dentist and a different insurance agent.”

Adolf Hitler

Klehr recounts other specific Kremlin-directed actions by the CPUSA, some of which we’ve discussed previously on this site – notably the Party’s shifting positions on FDR and the war with Hitler. “Anyone who remained a Communist for more than a few years,” notes Klehr, “had to be aware that the one constant [in the Party] was support for whatever policy the Soviet Union followed. Open criticism of the U.S.S.R. was grounds for expulsion.” Soviet lies were echoed faithfully. The CPUSA

insisted that the show trials during Stalin’s purges had uncovered a vast capitalist plot against the Soviet leader. Party members dutifully repeated Soviet fabrications that Trotsky had been in the pay of the Nazis. Worst of all, many Communists applauded the execution of tens of thousands of Soviet comrades, denouncing those who were executed as bourgeois spies and provocateurs. When Finnish-Americans who had returned to Soviet Karelia in the late 1920s and early ’30s to build socialism were purged, their American relatives were warned by party authorities to remain silent, and most did so.

Nikita Khrushchev

As Klehr notes, the CPUSA was funded by Soviet money – delivered, ironically, by two double agents who were really working for the FBI. Klehr also points out that hundreds of CPUSA members were also outright Soviet spies. As we’ve observed more than once here, it wasn’t until Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech,” in which he outlined in grisly detail the brutal crimes of Stalin, that many members of the CPUSA were convinced of what he had already been obvious for years to virtually all other sentient beings. Thanks to Khrushchev, CPUSA membership dropped from a high of nearly 100,000 to fewer than 3,000 in 1959.

Vivian Gornick

Peter Andreas to the contrary, American Communism wasn’t adorable. Vivian Gornick to the contrary, it wasn’t inspiring – except to a bunch of very troubled people whose twisted psyches caused them to prefer tyranny to freedom. A big thanks to Harvey Klehr for providing a timely reminder of the dark reality of the CPUSA – and, amazing though it sounds to say this, thanks, as well, to the New York Times for bringing his article to us.

Who is Kathy Dettwyler?

Kathy Dettwyler (center, in dress) with students, 2016

During the past few days we’ve been studying the responses of several ethically challenged commentators to the arrest and imprisonment of American student Otto Warmbier – who died on July 19 – by the brutal regime of North Korea, which accused him of removing a propaganda poster from a hotel corridor. Instead of recognizing Warmbier as a victim deserving of sympathy, writers at Salon and Huffington Post, and so-called comedian Larry Wilmore, either criticized him for his supposed disrespect for his totalitarian hosts or made fun of him for having gotten himself into trouble in the Hermit Kingdom in the first place. But worst of all was Kathy Dettwyler, an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware, who on her Facebook page and in a reader comment posted at the website of National Review, actually tore into Warmbier after his death. To their credit, her bosses at the University of Delaware were quick to issue the following statement:

Otto Warmbier at his press conference in North Korea

The comments of Katherine Dettwyler do not reflect the values or position of the University of Delaware. We condemn any and all messages that endorse hatred and convey insensitivity toward a tragic event such as the one that Otto Warmbier and his family suffered.

The University of Delaware values respect and civility and we are committed to global education and study abroad; therefore we find these comments particularly distressing and inconsistent with our values. Our sympathies are with the Warmbier family.

This statement was soon followed by another one indicating that the university would not be rehiring Dettwyler after the present semester.

Kathy Dettwyler, breastfeeding expert

We were so disgusted by Dettwyler’s remarks about Warmbier that we decided to find out more about her. It turns out that Dettwyler is an “expert” on breastfeeding. She is sometimes described as a “breastfeeding advocate” – which means, basically, that she believes in breastfeeding babies until long after they have ceased to be babies. In one article she suggests that it is reasonable to keep breastfeeding a child until somewhere between the ages of three and eight. A brief career summary: after studying at UC Davis and Indiana University, she has bounced from one college faculty to another – the University of Southern Mississippi, Texas A&M, SUNY Plattsburgh, Millersville University.

University of Delaware

After her remarks about Warmbier made national news, The Review, a newspaper published at the University of Delaware, ran a piece about her stating that she had “earned a reputation” at the college “for incorporating her political beliefs into her teaching.” The article quoted junior Nicolas Diclaudio, who had taken two anthropology courses taught by Dettwyler. According to Diclaudio, Dettwyler “would routinely go on political tangents, oftentimes making derogatory remarks about President Donald Trump and his supporters….Dettwyler’s classroom activity became seriously unacceptable when she began to include her political beliefs in academic assessments, asking questions with intentional ideological bias.”

A question about Donald Trump and his supporters from a test by Dettwyler, along with the “correct” answer: true.

“I would always pick the answer that I knew she wanted because I didn’t want it to affect my grade,” Diclaudio told The Review. “Me and some of my friends would stop going to class and just read the textbook because her lectures got out of hand.” The Review noted that Diclaudio was not surprised by Dettwyler’s remarks about Warmbier; on the contrary, the student referred to Dettwyler’s Facebook post on Warmbier as “The most Kathy thing I’ve ever seen.” Student comments about Dettwyler at the website Rate My Professors confirm Diclaudio’s report: “It’s her opinion or no opinion…will give you attitude if you ask certain questions.” “She is very opinionated and blunt.” “Easily the rudest professor I have had at UD.” “She’s extremely rude.” “Way too opinionated to the point where she becomes unprofessional.” “Very opinionated and can be perceived as rude.” “Very opinionated and rude.” “Extremely strict and rude. She thinks she created Anthropology and hates America….She’s horrible and obnoxious.” “Insufferable. I’ve never experienced a professor who’s as self-important…one of the rudest people I’ve ever had the displeasure of meeting.” “Unbelievably rude when students disagree with her but she tells us to question authority.”

While various national media failed to get any comment out of Dettwyler, she did respond to an inquiry by The Review, stating that “A couple of students complained about my comments in class about Trump, when what I did was talk about statements he himself had made, and lead the students through and analysis of the underlying cultural beliefs they reflected….This is part of my job as an anthropology professor.”

Kathy Dettwyler: spitting on Otto Warmbier’s corpse

Otto Warmbier

The last couple of days, we’ve been dwelling over the terrible story of Otto Warmbier, the American student held prisoner by North Korea and returned home last month in a coma. Our focus has not been on Warmbier, who died on June 19 in Cincinnati, but on the creeps at Salon, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere who chose to respond to Warmier’s arrest not by recognizing it as the act of a reprehensible totalitarian dictatorship but by denouncing – or ridiculing – Warmbier himself.

Kathy Dettwyler

To be sure, all these criticisms of Warmbier took place while he was still alive (and in a North Korean prison). Even worse was Kathy Dettwyler, an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware, who after Warmbier’s death, mind you, wrote a few breathtakingly callous things on her Facebook page and in a readers’ comments section at the website of National Review: “Is it wrong of me,” she asked, “to think that Otto Warmbier got exactly what he deserved?” She maintained that Warmbier was “typical of a mindset of a lot of the young, white, rich, clueless males who come into my classes” and who “cry about their grades because they didn’t think they’d really have to read and study the material to get a good grade. They simple deserve a good grade for being who they are. Or instead of crying, they bluster and threaten their female professors.” There was no indication that Dettwyler had any knowledge about Warmbier’s academic conduct or performance: apparently the fact that he was a white male college student was enough for her to come to certain conclusions about him

Warmbier’s funeral

“These are the same kids,” wrote Dettwyler, “who cry about their grades because they didn’t think they’d really have to read and study the material to get a good grade….His parents ultimately are to blame for his growing up thinking he could get away with whatever he wanted. Maybe in the US, where young, white, rich, clueless white males routinely get away with raping women. Not so much in North Korea. And of course, it’s Ottos’ [sic] parents who will pay the price for the rest of their lives.”

Again, there’s no evidence whatsoever that Warmbier thought he could get away with anything; and there’s certainly no excuse to equate him with a rapist. His alleged crime wasn’t rape – it was ripping a piece of paper off of a wall. And there’s no way of knowing whether Warmbier even did that. All we really know about what happened to him in North Korea is that he was arrested, imprisoned, and obviously abused so brutally that it ended up killing him. All these people’s criticisms should be directed against the totalitarian monsters of Pyongyang who tyrannize their own people in the same way they tyrannized Warmbier.

We’re talking, after all, about a country where a couple of hundred thousand political prisoners are being held under primitive conditions, are forced to perform back-breaking slave work under dangerous circumstances, and are in constant danger of either starving or freezing to death. But no: certain people on the Western left are so drenched in postmodern cliches about identity-group-based power and victimhood that when they see a story of this kind, their first instinct is to empathize with the non-whites, however monstrous, and to come down hard on the white male, however innocent.

No, Warmbier should never have set in North Korea. But did he deserve to die for his naivete?

Salon, Wilmore, HuffPo vs. Otto Warmbier

Otto Warmbier

Yesterday we looked at some of the more repulsive responses to the case of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who was arrested last year while on a tour of North Korea and, in June, was returned to the U.S. in a coma and died a few days later. As we’ve seen, a Huffington Post contributor named La Sha was one of several commentators who mocked Warmbier and blamed him for his own fate. Knowing only that Warmbier had been imprisoned for the alleged crime of taking down a propaganda poster, La Sha decided that he was a victim of his own white male privilege. She actually compared him Warmbier to the Aurora, Colorado, mass murderer:

La SHa

When you can watch a white man who entered a theatre and killed a dozen people come out unscathed, you start to believe you’re invincible. When you see a white man taken to Burger King in a bulletproof vest after he killed nine people in a church, you learn that the world will always protect you….What a mind-blowing moment it must be to realize after 21 years of being pedestaled by the world simply because your DNA coding produced the favorable phenotype that such favor is not absolute. What a bummer to realize that even the State Department with all its influence and power cannot assure your pardon. What a wake-up call it is to realize that your tears are met with indifference.

La Sha actually criticized Warmbier for his lack of “respect for the national autonomy” of North Korea. And she concluded her comments by comparing his plight in North Korea to her own situation as a black woman in the United States:

…living 15 years performing manual labor in North Korea is unimaginable, but so is going to a place I know I’m unwelcome and violating their laws. I’m a black woman though. The hopeless fear Warmbier is now experiencing is my daily reality living in a country where white men like him are willfully oblivious to my suffering even as they are complicit in maintaining the power structures which ensure their supremacy at my expense. He is now an outsider at the mercy of a government unfazed by his cries for help. I get it.

Larry Wilmore

Similarly, after Warmbier’s arrest, the terribly unfunny Larry Wilmore, who at the time had a program on Comedy Central, responded to Warmbier’s arrest and show trial by making fun of Warmbier’s name and addressing him, with a sneer, as “frat boy.” Salon agreed, running a piece in which it described Warmbier as “America’s biggest idiot frat boy.” Affinity Magazine, which markets “social justice” to a teenage readership, tweeted a piece of advice that, it argued, Warmbier should have heeded while in North Korea: “Respect their laws.”

But there was, believe it or not, even worse in store. Tune in tomorrow.

Otto Warmbier: Blaming the victim

Otto Warmbier under arrest

We wrote last year about Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who went on a tour of North Korea only to find himself sentenced to 15 years at hard labor for supposedly stealing a propaganda banner from a corridor in his Pyongyang hotel – and who, last month, in a horrific denouement, was returned to the U.S. in a coma only to die several days later. In our account of the Warmbier case last year, we took a look at the firm, Young Pioneer Tours (YPT), that arranged the group trip in which he took part – but that, in the aftermath of his tragic experience, has ceased organizing vacations to the Hermit Kingdom.

Warmbier in court

A quick recap on YPT: according to its own website, it was founded by Gareth Johnson, a Britisher who has a great “love for the people and culture” of North Korea. The site also quoted from a YPT official, Shane Horan: “I’m passionate about travel to so called ‘rogue nations’ and changing people’s often incorrect perceptions of them.” YPT’s promotional materials directly addressed potential vacationers’ concern about safety in North Korea: “How safe is it? Extremely safe! Despite what you may hear, North Korea is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit. Tourism is very welcomed in North Korea, thus tourists are cherished and well taken care of.”

Warmbier and fellow tour members in Pyongyang, prior to his arrest

Far from being cherished and well taken of, however, Warmbier was arrested at the airport in Pyongyang when he was about to return home. He was put on trial and, on March 16 of last year, sent to prison. YPT issued a statement to the effect that it was “continuing to work closely with relevant authorities to ensure a speedy and satisfactory outcome for Mr Warmbier.” Well, that didn’t exactly work out. 

La Sha

Far from showing any remorse, YPT kept whitewashing North Korea. And meanwhile Warmbier was undergoing – well, no one outside of Kim Jong-un’s empire knows exactly what he underwent. It now seems clear that he was savagely abused. Nobody remotely familiar with the reality of North Korea should have been surprised at the thought that the incarcerated American was undergoing brutal treatment. But that thought didn’t stop many appalling people in the U.S. from blaming Warmbier for his own fate – and, in effect, taking the side of the North Korean regime. At the Huffington Post, for example, a writer named La Sha took palpable pleasure at the news of Warmbier’s prison sentence, writing that “the shield his cis white male identity provides here in America is not teflon abroad.” The “reckless gall” Warmbier had demonstrated in North Korea by supposedly snatching a propaganda poster, argued La Sha, was “an unfortunate side effect of being socialized first as a white boy, and then as a white man in this country.”

As a “benefactor…of all privilege,” suggested La Sha (she later referred to his “alabaster American privilege”), Warmbier had developed an “arrogance,” a “subconscious yet no less obnoxious perception that the rules do not apply to him, or at least that their application is negotiable.” But there was more. As we’ll see tomorrow, La Sha actually compared Warmbier to the Aurora, Colorado, mass murderer.