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New York Times smears Studs

Studs Terkel’s longtime publisher Andre Schiffrin joins comments by Victor Navasky and Howard Zinn, weighing in on “a particularly nasty attack” on Studs in the New York Times by Edward Rothstein.  As Shiffrin summarizes: “Rothstein depicted Studs as a covert Marxist, twisting his interviews to claim that he invented an alienated populace.”

In his essay, Rothstein employs a basic technique of red baiting — a sleight of hand whereby anybody holding any position that is held by communists is therefore a communist.  Sid Lens, the late Chicago labor leader and peace activist who had been a Trotskyist, tells in “Unrepentant Radical” how he used to satirize this during the red scare of the 1950s.  When union members asked whether he was a communist, he’d say, “Yes, I’m a communist — and I killed my mother, too — and I tell you, two plus two equals four.”

The McCain campaign used this technique when they accused candidate Obama of being a socialist after he spoke of spreading the wealth.  Sure, socialists support this, but so do progressives and, indeed, Republicans. (James Madison called for measures to “reduce extreme wealth toward a state of mediocrity and raise extreme indigence toward a state of comfort.” Abraham Lincoln established the first progressive income tax, and William Howard Taft proposed the Sixteenth Amendment when the income tax was ruled unconstitutional.  The modern income tax, established in 1916, initially applied only to incomes over $3,000 — at the time, about the top 1 percent of the population.  As the House Ways and Means Committee reported back then: “The tax upon income is levied according to ability to pay, and it would be difficult to devise a fairer tax.”  Red flags, anyone?)  Since he’s never backed a flat tax, or called for abolishing food stamps or the earned income tax credit, John McCain also supports spreading the wealth.

Rothstein takes the same intellectually dishonest approach with Studs in discussing his book “Working”: “his vision of work…is an obvious translation of a traditional Marxist view of the alienation of labor.”  But in fact the Marxist theory (which is pretty technical and abstract, focused on the decreasing economic status and power of workers as a class as their productivity increases — and not at all on how folks feel about their jobs) is one part of a much larger tradition.  According to Erich Fromm, writing on Marx’s theory, “The whole concept of alienation found its first expression in  Western thought in the Old Testament concept of idolatry.”  Studs would like that.  And his view of work was closer to the more moral and visceral critiques of Henry David Thoreau and Johnny Paycheck.

Of course, tying Studs to Johnny Paycheck or the Old Testament wouldn’t suit Rothstein’s purpose, which is to discredit him.

Rothstein uses the term “Marxist” again, near the end of his essay, with Studs’ wardrobe as the indisputable evidence.  “Nearly every one of the positions approvingly intimated by him seems to fit models shaped by Marxist theory; he even wore something red every day to affirm his attachment to the working class.”  Navasky comments on this, noting that Studs “appreciated the various honors bestowed on him over the years, but of none was he prouder than having been blacklisted”  —  “We can imagine Studs riffing, ‘to be blacklisted when alive and redbaited after death — too good to be true.'”

Rothstein closes his piece with his clincher, the ultimate proof that Studs should be dismissed as beyond the pale of acceptable discourse — a 2001 blurb for Bill Ayers’ memoir.  (He neglects to mention Studs’ fellow blurbers — Scott Turow, Hunter S. Thompson, Rosellen Brown, Tom Franks, Edward Said.)   Schiffrin comments: “This borrowing from the McCain-Palin playbook, just as their tawdry political campaign was drawing to a close, was a reminder that McCarthyism has not disappeared from the American scene. Even after his death, Studs had to suffer the kind of attack that came close to ruining his life in the 1950s, not on some Internet Drudge Report but in the pages of the establishment’s leading paper.”

The other part of Rothstein’s complaint is that Studs manipulated his interviews to impose his own views over those of his subjects. “The difficulty is for readers who presume they are being presented history without perspective, just a series of oral histories.”  (Let’s just posit that “history without perspective” is a contradiction in terms.)  Schiffrin points to the Chicago Historical Society’s online archive of interviews from Studs’ 25 years on WFMT and tapes from the books.  You can hear Studs’ interview technique, always pushing subjects to clarify; actually, you can hear him listening.  You can sit there with book in hand and follow along as you listen to the raw material; you can see how Studs shaped it in the editing process (recently described in Michael Lenehan’s fascinating interview with Studs, published earlier this year in the Chicago Reader) and how true the published versions are to the source.

Studs always stood up to bullies; Rothstein takes on the odious task of smearing a dead man.  Brave fellow.


We previously linked to Amy Goodman’s wonderful 2007 interview with Studs; the Progressive has posted a 2004 interview with Studs by another of his descendants, David Barsamian.

“I’m called an oral historian. I have no idea what that means. It means I’m a nonacademic, really. In my books, you can find the astonishing wisdom and eloquence of people who have never spoken of their lives before.”

He complains that he was never listed in Red Channels, the blacklisting bible of the broadcasting industry. “All sorts of people were on it: Arthur Miller, Zero Mostel, Lillian Hellman. Where is me? I don’t find my name on it. And I felt like a blue-haired dowager who didn’t make the Social Register. You know what I attribute that to? New York parochialism.”

Barsamian asks who Studs would interview, if he could go back in time.  Now, he probably wouldn’t turn down Karl Marx, given a chance, or Eugene Debs, his father’s hero.  But who does he list?  George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, and Tom Paine.  Perhaps Rothstein had better get to work on them.

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Category: authors, civil liberties, history


One Response

  1. Gordon says:

    right on, Curtis!

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