Hedges & Wolin (5/8) – Can Capitalism & Democracy Coexist? Interview with Professor Sheldon Wolin by Chris Hedges on The Real News Network

Click for Interview and Text of Wolin Interview by Chris Hedges on The Real News Network

Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize Winning journalist, publishes Mondays on Truthdig — Two decades as a foreign correspondent in 50+ countries and has written nine books, including “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America” (2008).


HEDGES: Professor Sheldon Wolin, taught politics for many years at Berkeley and later Princeton. He is the author of several seminal works on political philosophy, including Politics and Vision and Democracy Incorporated. We will get to the nature and role of USA as superpower. You were in the crew of a B-24, the flying fortresses on 51 combat missions, starting with Guadalcanal when the Americans took it over, to support MacArthur’s strategy of island by island, taking them back from the Japanese and getting closer and closer to Japan proper — prior to invasion. And then the other unfortunate mission we had was to chase the Japanese Navy, which proved disastrous, because we received awful losses because these big lumbering aircraft, particularly flying low trying to hit the Japanese Navy–and we lost countless people in it, countless. I finished my missions. And the Air Force was at that point preparing for the invasion of Japan, which, of course, didn’t actually take place.

HEDGES: Where were you when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

WOLIN: I was on a road to Miami Beach to visit–I had my wife, and we were going to visit my mother.

HEDGES: Did you at the time recognize the significance of that?

WOLIN: I didn’t. But we quickly learned about it, because some people I was associated knew some of the men involved in the development including Oppenheimer who ran into his own trouble with the Un-American Activities people because he turned on the nuclear program producing the weaponry.

HEDGES: From your own experience, you write about the military and you write about superpower status, what did you learn from being in the giant bureaucracy of the military itself.

WOLIN: We were all so young — 19 to 23. So we were all extremely inexperienced and impressionable, and we were flying these giant bombers and going into combat not knowing anything about what it meant — So the experience was always quite traumatic in a lot of ways — Didn’t register until much later. Some of the people I knew registered it very soon with psychological casualties of men, boys, who just couldn’t take it anymore — couldn’t stand the strain of getting up at five in the morning and get into these aircraft and go and getting shot at for a while and coming back to rest for another day. I think the fact we were so young saved most of us, because we didn’t know what was going on, basically. Later in our lives we began to appreciate and realize what we had been through — some sense of what it had meant, all stored in our suppressed memories of bad incidents that happened. I went through a period of being very inward-looking. Remember from the moment I got out I went back to undergraduate school to finish my degree and then I jumped right into graduate training and became overwhelmed by numbers with not much time to digest things. The I was scouting for a job and that pressure never really gave me a chance to relax — faced with tenure and publication and teaching exacting a toll. I suppose I did relax a bit when we finally got tenure, but even then it was very competitive in publication — Constantly pressured to write and write and write. — I think I was fortunate enough to enjoy writing. It’s hard to explain to people how difficult it is to write — it simply has to be forced in a lot of ways.

HEDGES: You were at Harvard in the 1950s, and this was when the academy was being purged driven out — a long list of great, great scholars and academics who were targeted from outside and within the academy and pushed out. And this was something that coincided with the development of your own formation as an intellectual and as a writer. And I wondered how that experience also affected you, because you held fast to a very kind of radical critique.

WOLIN: I had a very peculiar experience when hired at Berkeley, because I didn’t realize the position I was taking was one occupied by a man who refused to take the loyalty oath. When I did learn it, of course, I felt kind of guilty about the whole thing. Yeah, he lost the job. He quit. I said to myself I don’t have to worry about the loyalty oath, ’cause I’ve taken it in the military many, many times, so that it’s nothing new to me. But later on you began to think about it more and realize that maybe there was a larger issue there than you thought, because it meant that you were accepting a certain orthodoxy from the outset and that you weren’t quite as free as notions of academic freedom suggested you were. It was a rude awakening for a lot of us, I think, because we also were carrying the wartime propaganda that we were the forces of freedom and open society and all the rest of it. And then to find ourselves cramped for expression in the postwar Cold War war was not pleasant. I didn’t enjoy those years of teaching. It settled down later, but didn’t settle down for much, because we then had the fracas of the ’60s, too, which was very disturbing and upsetting to all the academic routines.

HEDGES: How much damage do you think those purges, triggered by the McCarthy era in the early ’50s, did to the academy?

WOLIN: I think it did a lot to people, but often in ways they weren’t quite aware of — A definite chastening and deadening effect on academic inquiry and political expression — And it became normal. You accepted those things really unconsciously.

HEDGES: When you say “those things”, what are you talking about?

WOLIN: How far you question government policies, how far you question dominant values, what you said about the economy, and things of that sort. So you faced the students with a far less critical attitude than you should have had, and it took a long while to disentangle from that kind of Limits. Since academic jobs were scarce, you always swallowed whatever you had to swallow to get a job. So you may have been a radical in graduate school or undergraduate school, but you knew that you couldn’t carry that torch as a prospective faculty member.

HEDGES: I talked to Larry Hamm, who at Princeton organized the anti-apartheid movement in the ’70s, and he said of roughly 500 Princeton faculty, there were only three or four, yourself included, who joined those demonstrations.

WOLIN: Yeah, that’s true — We paid a price. I think the most humiliating episode for me was when some of the undergraduates were protesting Princeton investment in South Africa and they wanted to present their case to the alumni. And the alumni had a meeting, and the kids were supposed to present it. And at the last minute, the kid that was leading the group got a little cold feet, and he said, would you come in with me? And I should have said no, but I didn’t. So I went in with him. And I’ve never been jeered quite so roundly by the alumni sitting there waiting to be talked to by the students about investment in South Africa. Some of them called me 50-year-old sophomores and that kind of thing. It was a difficult experience. But the students did well. They held their own.

HEDGES: It was one of the largest Princeton student demonstration — Larry Hamm is a remarkable organizer and very charismatic and deep integrity and is still doing it in Newark today. I wondered whether that experience says something about the University and professors’ cowardice?

WOLIN: Oh, I think it did. I think all those events of the ’60s on, on through the ’70s, did. My experience at Berkeley was that the faculty suddenly realized they were a kind of significant body that could stand up against the regents and take a stand when they thought there was interference with academic freedom for messing around with curriculum and influencing faculty hiring and so on. It was a very, very grim chapter. But the effect was to make you very, very much on guard against the rule of the graduated students and their influence in the university, because at Princeton you had, like at very few other places, lots of concentrated money, and the university were dependent on that to a large extent — Alumni had a position that I didn’t experience anywhere else in terms of their prominence they exercised over a lot of matters they had no business dealing with. It was an education in alumni relations, the like of which I never had anyplace else.

HEDGES: When you came back from the war, you went to Oberlin, and then you went to Harvard. Many of the academics at these institutions during the war had served in positions of some authority in Washington, had certainly integrated themselves into the war effort. And I wondered if you thought this was a kind of turning point in terms of academia fusing itself, the way business had, with the military, you know, intellectually, in terms of serving the ends of superpower?

WOLIN: It certainly had some influence, at seminars professors active in Washington during the war, were really quite uncritical of government actions — They never detached from their government self-importance — My Harvard experience with faculty was very unnerving in a lot of ways. The chairman of the department had been in Washington during the war with one of the agencies controlling prices and wages, but he never threw his weight around or tried to rely on Washington experience as the answer to all lectures. He was a very good man and a very serious academic. But others were infatuated with their own self-importance so we learned nothing from them in class — it just was a very disheartening kind of experience — Some could hardly bother teaching the subject matter but simply share experiences of their inflated roles in government — I have never seen such a parade of academic egos in my life — so marked by the Washington experience.

HEDGES: Was that an important rupture for academia? Going back to Julien Benda’s Treason of the Intellectuals, where he writes about how it is not the role of the intellectual to formulate policy, to adjust the system, but to stand back with a kind of integrity and critique it. You had that combination of the fusion of academia with Washington, carried forward in the ’60s under Kennedy and others, coupled with the anticommunism. Did you consider that a kind of radical destructive force within academia when set against the prewar.

WOLIN: Yes, it certainly was significant set of constraints you didn’t really recognize till later, about what you could teach and how you would teach and what you wouldn’t teach. That influence was very great in influencing what questions they dare NOT ask.

HEDGES: Well, and also it’s who’s let into the club.

WOLIN: Yeah. Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed.

HEDGES: I mean, [Staughton Lynd], one of our great historians, pushed out of Yale for going on a peace delegation to Hanoi during the war, blacklisted, gets a law degree–he’s still working on behalf of, at this point, prisoners and workers in Youngstown, Ohio.


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