A Romanian rediscovers Communism – at Columbia University

Columbia University

If the name of Columbia University has cropped up so often on this website, it’s because few American institutions of higher education are so crammed with tyranny-loving ideologues. It was Columbia, let’s remember, that invited then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to address its students. Columbia economist Joseph Stiglitz has enriched himself by serving as a “consultant” to corrupt regimes such as the Kirchner thugocracy in Argentina – regimes that, in turn, he has then publicly praised as being on the up-and-up. (Can you say “quid pro quo”?) Hamid Dabashi, who teaches Middle East and Asian Languages, equates Gaza to Auschwitz, downplays the Holocaust, and calls Zionists “hyenas.” Sociologist Saskia Sassen, an outspoken enemy of capitalism and Israel, commutes weekly between her luxurious homes in New York and London while also flying constantly all over the glove to scold audiences for the size of their carbon footprints. As we noted the other day, Kathy Boudin, the cop-killing mother of San Francisco’s newly elected DA, teaches at Columbia. So does Jamal Joseph, who was sentenced to over a decade for his role in the same crime. Joseph Mossad is a gay man who serves as an apologist for the brutal treatment of gay man in the Muslim world. And Gil Anidjar teaches a course in which, ignoring Arabic autocracy throughout the centuries, and dropping down the memory hole the monstrously aggressive Muslim wars of conquest against Europe and other Christian lands, he presents Arabs as having consistently, throughout history, been Europe’s victims – period.

Andrei Serban

It’s gotten so bad that Andrei Serban, a film, theater, and opera director who in 1969 fled communism in Romania – where he was director of the Romanian National Theater – and who is a longtime tenured professor in Columbia’s theater department, has now decided that it’s time to flee Columbia, too, which he describes as being “on its way to full-blown communism.” One example: he had felt pressured to cast a male-to-female transgender student in the female lead of Romeo and Juliet, even though he felt the individual in question wasn’t up to the job. One example: during a departmental search for a new faculty member, a dean insisted that the vacancy couldn’t be filled by the person Serban considered most qualified, because the candidate in question was a white male heterosexual. “I felt like I was living under communism again,” Serban commented.

Meryl Streep in The Cherry Orchard

Serban is hardly an old fogy. In Paris he studied under Peter Brook, whose radical, experimental stagings of new and classic works of theater revolutionized the art of modern theater directing. Serban brought his innovative approach to the U.S., where he directed Meryl Streep in a Lincoln Center production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Liev Schreiber in a Public Theater staging of Hamlet. Serban has also directed numerous classics, ranging from The Merchant of Venice to Lysistrata, at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, directed operas at the Met in New York and the Opéra Bastille in Paris, and plied his trade at other prestigious venues around the Western world. Throughout his career, his name has been a byword for cutting-edge theater, making him a darling of the high-cultural establishment. All the more ironic, therefore, that such a figure should feel compelled to quit a plum job at an American academic institution because he felt that the guiding political ideology of that institution had shifted too far away from classical liberalism in the direction of the lockstep collectivist groupthink that he thought he had escaped half a century ago in totalitarian Romania.

A further irony: Serban he explained his decision to quit Columbia in an October 26 interview with a TV station in his formerly Communist homeland, which is now a free country.

Those lovable Black Panthers

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Bobby Seale and Huey Newton

Reviewing Stanley Nelson‘s new documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution back in January, John DeFore of the Hollywood Reporter gave a big thumbs-up to its admiring portrayal of Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and company. If you didn’t know anything about the Panthers, you’d come away from DeFore’s review – or, one gathers, from Nelson’s film (which was aired earlier this year on PBS) – believing that the Panthers were, in essence, an endearing crew of human-rights activists who were devoted to charity work and whose repeated clashes with police reflected not any predilection to violence on their own part but the cops’ ferocity and racism. Yes, DeFore acknowledges the film’s lack of objectivity, but is quick to add that “[s]traight history is not the whole point here.”

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Detroit Black Panthers at a Free Huey demonstration, 1969

DeFore isn’t alone; audiences at Sundance and other film festivals have cheered Nelson’s film lustily. It took Michael Moynihan, writing in The Daily Beast on July 25, to remind – or inform – readers that the Black Panthers were, in fact, bloodthirsty totalitarian-minded thugs who committed “revenge killings, punishment beatings, purges, [and] ‘disappearances.’” Nelson’s film, Moynihan complained, is pure hagiography, omitting “almost anything that reflects poorly on the Panthers.” By emphasizing the Panthers’ style – the way they dressed and moved and talked – and soft-pedaling their ideology, Nelson managed to dance around the fact that the Panthers were, in Moynihan’s words, “ideological fanatics” who were guided, as the Panthers’ own newspaper put it, by “the revolutionary works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Chairman Mao, Comrades Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, and other great leaders of the worldwide people’s struggle for liberation.”

blackpanthers1To peruse old issues of that newspaper, notes Moynihan, is to encounter passages about “racist imperialist faggot honkey[s],” innumerable pictures of Kim Il-Sung and Mao Tse-Tung, “paeans to demented Albanian Stalinist Enver Hoxha,” and, time and time again, “glowing references to Josef Stalin” by such Panther eminences as Eldridge Cleaver, David Hilliard, and Bobby Seale. But Nelson drops all this troublesome baggage down the memory hole. While he tells the Panthers’ story mostly through the personal accounts by former members, moreover, he consistently whitewashes those accounts. For example, ex-Panther Jamal Joseph, now a faculty member at Columbia University, was (notes Moynihan) “sentenced to 12½ years in prison for his part in the infamous 1981 Brinks armored car robbery, which resulted in the death of three innocents.” Joseph is one of the main talking heads in Nelson’s film;  but his “very long rap sheet…is never mentioned.” 

On May 2, 1967, Black Panthers amassed at the Capitol in Sacramento brandishing guns to protest a bill before an Assembly committee restricting the carrying of arms in public. Self-defense was a key part of the Panthers' agenda. This was an early action, a year after their founding.
Panthers occupy California State Capitol, Sacramento, 1967

Moynihan’s conclusion? Nelson’s film has its share of cinematic pizzazz, but he’s “an astonishingly bad journalist.” Why?

Because a good journalist would have forced [interviewees] Joseph, [Ericka] Huggins, [Flores] Forbes, and [Landon] Williams to confront their own pasts and the Panther’s violent legacy, while steering them away from rote banalities accusing the FBI of provoking their murderousness. A good journalist would have brought in voices critical of the party from other expanses of the civil rights movement (like the late Bayard Rustin). A good journalist might look at the actuarial table for Panther members and wonder why more Panthers were killed by fellow black nationalists than by the pigs.

But of course, it looks as though journalism was the last thing Nelson had in mind here. What he was going for was celebration – a celebration of brutal, tyrant-worshiping hoodlums. And one crowd of film buffs after another has joined in his applause.