Friday, October 13, 2006


Bettina Aptheker and her father

To be honest, Herbert Aptheker was never much of a hero to me to begin with. He was dubbed the "last intellectual" within the Communist Party, but I think that honor goes to Howard Fast. Aptheker's work was not only dogmatic, but uncreative. His daughter however, a very charismatic professor at UCSC and a heroine of the Free Speech Movement, was and is a heroine of mine. She packs them in and her students, particularly the young women, find themselves embarking on an intellectual journey that will affect them forever.

I should say that as I grew older I found Bettina A. to be a bit dogmatic. Although she'd long since left the CP, her politics were and probably still are a bit straightjacketed by "dialectical materialism" and "surplus value." She made it onto David Horowitz' dangerous professors list because she is extremely influential on her students, and while I find the whole concept of the list ridiculous, the fact is that her classes are hardly balanced in terms of politics. And I did lose a little bit of respect for her when she refused an invitation of a friend of mine to speak at a woman's group meeting in my friend's hometown, saying basically that she prefers the audience of students. I guess the real world can be frightening.

But she is a brilliant woman, who cares about her students. Despite rumors that she was a "ball-breaker," she always treated me and any other male student I know of with respect. And her classes are quite compelling and interesting despite what I consider in my middle age to be a lack of intellectual balance. She is candid about her feelings, and her greatest strength is her ability to integrate those feelings into her intellectual endeavors which bring them vitality. And she is uncanny in her ability to help young women, particularly those troubled, channel their anger productively. And at this latest point in her life, she's setting a terrific example.

I hadn't thought about her for years. I was greatly saddened to read this article. While I find the whole revival-of-repressed-memories thing dubious, her account is pretty detailed and it's apparent to me that she believes what she is writing because she is clearly in pain for doing so. She does not hate her father. However:
"I looked back and waved," she writes, describing one of their leave-takings at the Berlin Wall, "and he waved back. He looked very small and distant in the shadows of the wall. It was the first time I had ever seen him in this way. He no longer loomed larger than life."
I don't think I'll pick up her book. But she's going to be bucking some denial from radical cliques. Portside is already refusing to discuss it. I can understand somewhat. Herbert Aptheker is no longer around to defend himself. However, the cat's out of the bag and we're talking about a community that excels in denial - from Stalin's mass murder to the undemocratic character of their own party. They won't let one of their few remaining icons go without some struggle.

Photo source.

How do you know portside won't discuss it? The link doesn't make it obvious.
Off site chatter, beginning with this.

Shhh! Don't talk about Herbert Aptheker

By Jesse Lemisch

The volume of off-list e-mail that I have received since History News Network
published my "About the Herbert Aptheker Sexual Revelations " on October 4
( articles/ 30519.html) , "plus some noticeable gaps in what is
available on-line - all this leads me to the conclusion that a certain public
silence in response to the news about Herbert Aptheker's sexual molestation of
his daughter Bettina may be another chapter in the strange history of American
Communism. Fellow Red Diaper Babies and former Communists seem to want to sweep
this under the rug. (One friend, formerly in the Party, speculates that Bettina
left the party "too soon" and thus lacks sympathy among Cp-ers.) I am also
seeing a lot of gender solidarity, in which males of all political persuasions
exercise more skepticism towards female than male testimony, in some cases
weeping crocodile tears for the unjustly accused Herbert who some of them
otherwise detested. That vixen, Bettina! (Next they will accuse her of seducing
Herbert when she was three.) There is a tendency on the right to rally to
Herbert's support because of an increasingly puritanical sexual politics that
sides with the male in such episodes: gender solidarity trumps politics. (Very
few women have so far taken this position.)

It should be reported that somebody (not I) sent a copy of Chris Phelps's
article on Bettina's IntimatePolitics to Portside around Sunday October 3.
Portside is the normally fairly catholic and inclusive "discussion and debate"
list of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, the sane
wing of the former CP. As of this writing, nothing about this matter has been
posted there. Famous Red Diaper types have refused comment. "Dirty linen."

Here are some of the things pouring into my inbox:

1. Why did Bettina wait until her parents Herbert and Fay were dead and couldn't
answer? This answers itself. The question seems to be rooted in the same sort
of emotional deficiency that I mentioned in my earlier piece. Although I can see
arguments on both sides, I can't imagine criticism of a daughter's decision not
to confront her parents with this. It reminds me of the story about a left
organization preparing a statement about the Middle East which condemned Israel.
One member of the group endorsed the statement but asked, comically, whether it
would be possible to defer the statement until her parents died. There's no
final answer as to which is the best way, but it's weird that people should
attack Bettina for a decision that any of us might well make. I find myself in
frequent dialogue with my dear mother around much milder questions that I
nonetheless couldn't bring myself to ask when she was alive. The rest of you
don't have this problem, and forthrightly accuse your parents of their crimes
right away, lest they die before you work up the courage. Right?

2. "Recovered memory" is unreliable. Granted. The fine PBS documentaries some
years back about the alleged sexual abuse during child care rightly challenged
this kind of testimony, and there was much criticism elsewhere in the
literature. But I do believe that the agenda of this challenge is sometimes to
deny, in a general way, childhood sexual molestation. As we know, Freud himself
was back and forth on this, and finally yielded to conservative pressures in
denying his earlier claims that such existed, retreating to the position that
children only had fantasies of sexual abuse. (Note that with Bettina, we are
dealing with an academic in her 60s, and although being an academic is hardly
proof against lying, this is certainly not the stereotypical false accuser,
drooling and mewling about night-time visits from Ol' Beelzebub.) There is no
doubt whatsoever that such horrors as this do exist, and in large quantities.

3. "Tell me the truth, Jesse, do you really believe Bettina's tale?" writes one
old friend. Should we believe those who make claims like Bettina's? The major
denial that I have heard from a range of people from left to right is that it's
a "he said, she said" situation, and nobody will ever know. What is this, Mike

In a statement confusing the difference between history and the law, Mel
Dubofsky writes, "Bettina's recovered memories are less than convincing evidence
and certainly would not suffice in a court of law. (His statement also gives us
a left version of the old gentleman's club argument: "Personally, I find it hard
to believe that the Herbert Aptheker whom I met 40 odd years ago was a
pedophile, let alone an incestuous one." ) We want rigor in the social sciences.
Of course, we cannot predict with certainty what the outcome will be in any one
particular case. But we do have solid data on the vast under-reporting of such
activities, the shame and stigma involved in reporting them, and the
pervasiveness of such behavior. (Ask your female friends/relatives, and don't be
too shy to ask about Uncle Hymie, and how Aunt Rose let it happen. Oy vey.) Thus
rigor in the social sciences dictates an openness to such charges rather than a
dismissal which is in fact rooted in the retrograde sexual politics that's
floating around like a toxic cloud in these bad times. It's preposterous - and
ultimately ideological - to say that we historians can't resolve contradictions
in the sources: that's what we do for a living. One historian who has written me
has unknowingly put himself out of work with his remark, "I don't know how this
can be discussed or debated in any reasonable manner when only one party to the
past in question may be subject to query." Wow, if you have testimony from only
one party to a past dispute, you're on permanent sabbatical.

It's been my experience in history that _expression of methodological concerns,
though entirely legitimate, is often a mask for ideologically based political
disagreement. Yes, I am arguing that it is sound social science to begin with
the assumption that such claims have a significant likelihood of being true, and
must be confirmed or disconfirmed by other contextual evidence. Selective
skepticism of the sort we are seeing is usually ideologically driven. The
contextual evidence on Bettina, including her lack of animus, the understanding
way in which she presents this, and much else, comes down on the side of
credibility. Phelps sees in Bettina's account an absence of rancor and sees her
book as "a mature and, ultimately, redemptive work." And as I am about to send
this off, I see that Bettina will be giving a paper at the American Studies
Association meeting next week on "'Don't Ask, Don't Tell"': Keeping the
Communist Party Straight, 1940s-1970s. " Good for Bettina, working at the
intersection between history and her own experience, and talking about it. We
should all talk about it.

Jesse Lemisch

Angela Davis is coming to HSU. She has been Bettina's friend dating back to childhood. I'll be very curious to see if she sticks up for her friend.

I'm glad you posted this. I just found out about it the other day when I was doing my daily google news search. But it's hard to find much info. Nothing on Portside, nothing in the PWW or PA...

This is why I left the CP/YCL. These people will do anything to get what they want or to convince you they are right. They would rather preserve an icon than let the public know the truth.

Of course it really has very little to do with the CP. It's just that cults and extreme political movements tend to defend their leaders.

DSA members don't like to admit that Norman Thomas worked for the CIA. The Trots don't like to talk about Trotsky killing workers at Kronstadt. And of course, most recently, Republican leaders tried to cover for their own pervert.

Unlike you, I think he was actually a fairly talented writer. But now I can't stand to look at his books. I wonder if International Publishers will discontinue them...
"was and is a heroin of mine.".

I believe it's heroinE, Eric. Heroin is the narcotic. Or maybe you did mean heroin?
Here's something else we have in common, Eric -- we each have former professors on Horowitz's "Dangerous Professors" list.

What a sham. I wrote back to a friend of mine at Berkeley J-School -- Orville Schell is one of the most dangerous professors in America? Huh? He wrote back: "Yeah, dangerous to the crab canapes, maybe."
Thanx for the thoughtful comments! I'll respond later. Don't have a lot of time at the moment.

Thanx for the spellcheck Fred. I always assumed the spelling was the same for both. Like I've said, I'm a horrible speller, and if spellcheck doesn't pick it up, I probably won't either.
One thing about spellcheck; it doesn't detect proper use of a word. Heroin is spelled correctly so it won't help. Just like...what's the word; Synonyms? Words that sound the same but aren't spelled the same like "they're" and "their". I screw those up sometimes myself.
I wonder who reads this...I have my commie story relevant here. Our activist commune back in the day attracted the attention of a dedicated Communist organic agri-businessman who posted the million dollar bail to get Angela Davis out of jail. More than a decade after the failure of our commune and failures of his several attempts to organize his prime San Quaquin valley farm into a working farm commune/collective, he came to me and more or less handed over control of his non-profit organization that owned everything. I had to walk away from that one as I couldn't deal with him any better than all the others--big guy and non-stop commie sales-pitch was too much but his heart was in the right place kinda..for atheists I suppose. His wife and child were blown up in a car bomb when he successfully opened up a co-op freight trucking line. Heavy duty stuff too might have been an encouragement for me to seek other places to peddle my communitarian papers.
Shane - I certainly agree that all movements exhibit a certain amount of denial about internal inconsistancies, but aside from the holocaust deniers I've encountered no group that takes it to such extremes. How could so many CPers and fellow travellers have visited the Soviet Union during the 1930s and missed the fact of millions of deaths during the Lysenko-induced famines, and seven million dead in death camps in the late 30s? The scale of denial is mindboggling.

When I moved away from Marxist-Leninism towards DSA type politics, Norman Thomas never came up. What I got was "you killed Rosa Luxembourg!" Okay, social democracy owes for one body. Two if you include Liebnecht. Social democracy has its problems, but mass murder and denial thereof has never been part of the equation.

But don't mind me Shane. My feelings on the subject are somewhat aggravated by family dynamics. When I signed up as a Trot in high school, it didn't go over well with the CP faction of my family.

The Rosenbergs were guilty as sin by the way. The trial was a sham, and the whole thing was probably a set-up. But they were guilty, or at least certainly Julius.

Hiss I have questions about. Even after the Venona revelations.
Hank - I've been on a discussion list with some lefty professors who are offended that they didn't make it on the list.

I find it very interesting that Todd Gitlin is on the list. Gitlin's more often than not accused of being a right winger these days.
One good fucking by a real man and Bettina will be baking cookies for the PTA.
"...but aside from the holocaust deniers I've encountered no group that takes it to such extremes."

Really? There are a lot of wackos out there. I've met plenty of Maoists who deny the horrific nature of the Shining Path. Plenty of Zionists who try to hide the nasty history of Israel. Plenty of Irish Republicans who try to downplay the IRA blowing up little kids.

Stalin killed more people, but that doesn't mean that official Communism is some how more evil or more deceitful than any of these other terrible groups and ideologies.

To think that is to buy into Michael Harrington style cold-war hysteria. Anti-Communism is just as nutty as Communism. And considering the USSR is gone, it doesn't matter much these days.

"Social democracy has its problems, but mass murder and denial thereof has never been part of the equation."

Agreed. Although, you did leave out World War I. Communists wouldn't have been so popular if so many Socialists hadn't acted like Joe Lieberman.

I share many of your feelings. I started to gravitate toward DSA after leaving the YCL, but I soon came to the conclusion that I didn't want to trade in one narrow ideology for another, even a less violent one.

Those kinds of limitations are not helpful to me in any of the work that I do.

At some point we really should have an in-depth conversation about this stuff.
10:16am - One good fucking by a real man and you might finally come out of the closet and stop insulting women to make yourself feel better.
And considering the USSR is gone, it doesn't matter much these days.

No, except that I see patterns repeated with new objects of affection. "Women in black" comes to mind. Most leftists, feminists, and other educated women in the Middle East itself see the burka as a symbol of oppression - hence the women who tossed them into piles in the streets of Kandahar and burned them. Women in Black is based on the comments of a few Muslim women who have visited universities and guilted impressionable liberals into rejecting "cultural imperialism," and into a romantic view of some pretty scary people and oppressive tendencies. But to even bring up the particular oppressiveness of certain elements of Islam is to bring on a frantic defensiveness from activists who only believe we have the right to criticize other cultures when they side up with our right wingers. So they end up apologizing for religious bigotry that results in acid being thrown in women's faces.

It's the same pattern - one of the reasons the anti-war movement is so pathetically hapless despite a huge tide of sentiment against the war.

At some point we really should have an in-depth conversation about this stuff.

Love to!
10:16 - Debated whether to strike you post, and decided to leave it. It's very educational.
I'm not sympathetic to his political views, but Herbert Apatheker deserves to be criticized the things he really said and did. And the fact is that recovered memories are simply unreliable. That kind of therapy (described by Bettina Apetheker) just as easily produces memories of past lives or alien abductions (depending on the prejudices of the therapist and client). And I very much doubt that the LA Times would have printed an article accusing aliens. (You can read the letter I wrote to the Times here.)

So while this is a pretty interesting discussion, it's mostly irrelevant to what acually happened. I do not doubt that Bettina really believes these memories. So do alleged alien abductees. Without corroborating evidence, everyone else should just suspend judgment.
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