Open letter to Michael Ratner on the Nicholas De Genova affair


posted to on April 3, 2003


Hi, Michael


I am not sure you remember me, but we met back in 1988 after the FBI conducted a "sweep" on returned Tecnica volunteers, claiming that we were part of an espionage network running high technology out of Nicaragua through Cuba into the USSR. As you will probably recall, things died down after protests were heard from mainstream publications including the NY Times. They asked quite sensibly why somebody repairing a tractor in Nicaragua should be the subject of an espionage investigation.


I had no idea that you were working at Columbia University, where I have been a programmer for the past 11 years or so. Apparently, as an adjunct in the law school you are teaching people how to apply the lessons of the arrest of Pinochet in Spain to other human rights violations. I have to say that this question has been hotly contested on the Marxism listserv I moderate (which is being cc'd with a couple of other progressive listservs). An Argentine comrade who knows full well about repression tends to agree with Fidel Castro's assessment that it was up to the people of Chile to bring Pinochet to justice, not Spanish courts. Since the same judge in that case is now ready to throw his gavel across the Atlantic at Subcommandante Marcos's noggin for solidarizing with Basque separatists, who knows.


Let me turn now to the matter at hand. I find myself more and more aggravated about the neo-McCarthyite crusade against Columbia professor Nicholas De Genova, whom I've never met but have heard good things about. Furthermore, I am very unhappy about the way that you, Eric Foner and Jean Cohen responded to the bourgeois press when this matter first came up. (I include the Columbia Spectator here, because from what I've seen of it lately, there's not much difference.)


Perhaps in the rarefied world of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Columbia Law School, you don't get much opportunity to hear what the average Joe is saying and thinking about this. In the cubicles adjacent to me at work, where you find a mix of libertarianism and conventional liberal thinking, the mood has really turned ugly. Furthermore, on Monday I was astonished to find an email viciously attacking De Genova in an Administrative Information Services listserv I am subbed to, which mainly deals with questions on how to fill out a salary adjustment form, etc. Somebody outside the University sent it, using an anonymous hotmail address. How he obtained our listserv address is beyond me. It made me feel a little like the characters in "Night of the Living Dead", with the zombies trying to break through the door.


I am absolutely convinced that when you, Eric and Jean Cohen lashed out at Nicholas as some kind of skunk who crashed your party, it made him more vulnerable to the attack which was gathering steam in the Rupert Murdoch media, CNN and all the other braying dogs of war. This was a calculated attack to single out and destroy a vulnerable member of our movement. It reminds me of how a bunch of marauding jackals will go after a young or sick antelope in a herd. Poor Nicholas's mistake was to speak from the heart rather than the head. For this he has to put up with death threats and intimidation from the jackboot contingent at Columbia.


When you really get down to it, he made a faux pas. His words, which to this date have not appeared in print or the net, were the verbal equivalent of that famous photo of Jane Fonda sitting in the turret of a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun in 1969. For her solidarity with the Communist enemy, her career was nearly destroyed. Since Nicholas De Genova is not a big name Hollywood actor, his prognosis is far more guarded.


I think the worst behavior came from Jean Cohen, who told the Columbia Spectator that "At the last minute someone couldn't speak, and he just kind of appeared," adding that "... He ended up on that platform by accident, almost by manipulation." Sounds like he's some kind of outside agitator, doesn't it? Somebody should tell Jean Cohen to get off her high horse, although I wouldn't do that myself considering her obvious appetite for revenge.


When you really boil the whole thing down, Nicholas De Genova is not being ostracized for summoning up images of dead American GI's being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. His problem is that he has essentially declared to the world of bourgeois opinion that he does not support "our side". If he left out the reference to Mogadishu and said something like "A victory for the Iraqi people would be a victory for humanity", perhaps he would not have become the target of a Cointelpro-type campaign under the auspices of the yellow journalism mob. But then again, given the temper of the times, they still might have been calling for his head.


In any case, I don't mean any disrespect for the fine work you are doing defending victims of repression. Nor would I gainsay the importance of Eric Foner's life-long commitment to telling the history of America's popular movements. I would only say that if something like the De Genova affair ever crops up again, you should think twice about making statements to the bourgeois press to the effect that Nicholas was "beyond the pale", etc. I am sad to say that this encouraged the nascent fascist movement in the USA to strike boldly at our movement. As the Wobblies used to say, "An Injury to One is an Injury to All".