H. Bruce Franklin: Tenured RadicalHistorians in the News
Jacob Laksin, at frontpagemag.com (1-18-05):
Criminal justice is not, strictly speaking, H. Bruce Franklin’s bailiwick. But that hasn’t stopped the professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University from becoming one of the most prominent exponents of the radical Left’s tales of the supposed “horrors” of the American penal system.
In one recent contribution to the unabashedly leftist internet newsletter Historians Against the War, Franklin contended the torture that took place at Abu Ghraib prison is actually “commonplace” in U.S. prisons. But despite what such inflammatory rhetoric may suggest, Franklin is no mere fringe left-wing activist. Besides holding an endowed professorship at Rutgers, Franklin is a habitué at colleges and universities; according to his biography, he has delivered some 500 speeches on campuses across the country. A media favorite, Franklin also frequently appears on radio and TV, where he is generously described as “one of America's leading cultural historians.” His 18 books (which include 1972’s The Essential Stalin—an anthology of the dictator’s writings for which Franklin penned an affectionate introduction—as well as several book-length screeds against the Vietnam War) are highly esteemed by a sympathetic commentariat.
As his vitriolic attack on the U.S. prison system indicates, however, public prominence has not tempered Franklin’s radicalism. Opposed as a matter of principle to incarceration, Franklin holds that criminalization of criminals is a crime: “Imprisonment itself, even when relatively benign, is arguably a form of torture,” Franklin writes in his article for Historians Against the War. Mindful of the possibility that this view has its skeptics outside the peripheries of the Left, Franklin proceeds to tick off a damning rap sheet of charges against the American penal system: “Beatings, electric shock, prolonged exposure to heat and even immersion in scalding water, sodomy with riot batons, nightsticks, flashlights, and broom handles, shackled prisoners forced to lie in their own excrement for hours or even days, months of solitary confinement, rape and murder by guards or prisoners instructed by guards—all are everyday occurrences in the American prison system,” he insists.
As his source for this allegedly pervasive sadism, Franklin cites an article by one Anne Marie Cusac, which, he explains in his footnotes, appeared in the July 2004 edition of the Prison Legal News. “This monthly journal is an excellent source of information about the routine abuses of the American prison and the myriad legal cases contesting these abuses,” Franklin gushes. How this relates to the Prison Legal News is unclear, however, since that is not the article’s source. In fact, Cusac, a leftist writer and a longtime anti-prison activist, originally wrote the article for the socialist-leaning Progressive magazine, a fact Franklin likely knows. And Cusac’s story had its own shortcomings. In support of her charges of pandemic abuse at U.S. prisons—which she claimed, on no credible evidence, laid the seedbed for the abuses of Abu Ghraib—Cusac could muster only a few reports, from the left-wing Amnesty International, detailing several isolated incidents at only a few prisons
Not that this deterred Franklin from unashamedly maiming the facts. In addition to conflating the reports of isolated abuse in U.S. prisons with the abuse at Abu Ghraib—there were, for example, no instances of sodomy with flashlights at U.S. prisons, as Franklin blithely asserts—and wildly exaggerating the prevalence of other abuses, Franklin could adduce no evidence for his tendentious claim that such abuses were “everyday occurrences.” Franklin nonetheless berated the “American public” for supporting “institutionalized torture.” By this loaded phrase, Franklin meant nothing more than the detention system itself—or as he called it, the “hundreds of Abu Ghraibs that constitute the American prison-industrial complex.”
Franklin was still dealing in these distortions several weeks prior to the presidential election. In one October philippic for the leftist Web site Truthout.org, Franklin argued that the re-election of George W. Bush would amount to nothing less than Armageddon. Foamed Franklin, “Environmental protection will be decimated, legal challenges to the tortures carried out daily in the hundreds of Abu Ghraibs in the American prison-industrial complex will be tossed out, basic Constitutional rights and liberties will be jettisoned, the disenfranchisement of poor people will accelerate, and there will be no legal way to prevent the right-wing forces in power to steal any election they choose, whether by electronic voting machines or more old-fashioned methods such as purging voter rolls or tossing out thousands of ballots.”
The prospect of a George W. Bush reelection clearly contributed to Franklin’s October meltdown. But the proclivity for radical leftist vaporizing, hardly a one-time occurrence, is a hallmark of Franklin’s opposition to the American prison system. For instance, at a speech he delivered at the 2000 Modern Language Association Convention in Washington, DC, Franklin put forth a number of preposterous claims. First, he insisted that the so-called “culture war” was in reality a systematic campaign by whites to strip American minorities of their civil rights. “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been effectively repealed by the criminalization of the poor, especially people of color, through the so-called war on drugs, racial profiling, unleashed police, and felony disenfranchisement,” Franklin raged, adding, “Make no mistake about it. The prison-industrial complex is a major component of a strategy in the culture wars. While disintegrating Black and Latin communities, it attracts the white working class with a carrot--prison-related jobs--and a stick--fear of people of color, imaged as a criminal underclass.” Franklin then inveighed against maximum security prisons by claiming, with his standard contempt for logic, that their existence was evidence of their treachery: “Grotesque experiments in dehumanization are being conducted in the form of ‘supermax’ prisons,” Franklin intoned. For his peroration, Franklin reserved the wisdom of a communist dictator. Alleging that Americans were de-funding schools in order to put up prisons, Franklin said,“…we are beginning to become aware that, in the words of Ho Chi Minh eighty years ago, one of the great ‘atrocities’ of the ‘predatory capitalists’ is substituting prisons for schools.”
Franklin’s claims about American schools do not stand up to serious scrutiny—but the eminent professor undoubtedly knows something about communism. In 1972, Franklin was dismissed from his teaching post at Stanford University after inciting a horde of radical students to attack, on at least two occasions, several buildings at the campus. At the time, Franklin didn’t just quote Ho Chi Minh—he openly celebrated him. As an assistant professor of English, Franklin, then an unabashed Maoist, founded the Venceremos (“We Shall Overcome”) Organization, a Maoist splinter of the prominent California leftist group, Students For a Democratic Society. Declaring its commitment to “armed struggle,” the Venceremos cheered Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese forces, urging a Maoist revolution across the globe. Since his days as a co-founder, in 1969, of the communist Revolutionary Union, Franklin had proclaimed that this revolution would take place by the mid-seventies.
Along with many in the front lines of the incipient revolution, Franklin was unwilling to wait. So, in an effort to expedite the onset of the Maoist utopia, Franklin sought out a more militant profile, engineering the break with the RU that would give rise to the Venceremos, whose members were far more amenable to violent tactics. Taking the Black Panthers as their model, the Venceremos called on soldiers in Vietnam to attack their superiors, demanded the sabotage of American war planes, and appealed to activists to attack police officers and “liberate” American prisons. According to some accounts at the time, one Venceremos directive called for members to carry at least four kinds of fire arms, including automatic weapons, a pistol, a rifle and a shotgun; other reports suggested that Franklin went so far as to supply plastic explosives to the Black Panthers.
Having suffered Franklin’s increasingly militant activities for several years, Stanford’s faculty committee finally had enough in 1972. After leading protestors in an occupation of Stanford’s computer center, Franklin exhorted them to resist any attempt by police to clear them from the building, an order they refused to follow. In the aftermath of the incident, a hearing was called. By a count of 5 to 2, the faculty voted to fire Franklin.
Ever the radical, Franklin would not leave without a fight. In June of 1972, Franklin published an attack on the university, which he titled “Where All Freedoms but Stanford's Are Academic.” Protesting that his academic freedoms had been violated, Franklin also sued the Stanford to reinstate him. But after the siege of the computer center, Franklin’s efforts to present himself as a political martyr found few takers among Stanford’s rattled faculty. As Richard W. Lyman, Stanford’s president from 1970 to 1980, later explained, “[Franklin] became the most conspicuous leader of the radical anti-Vietnam movement on campus and he became eventually a self-declared Maoist, which wouldn't have got him fired, although he sometimes said later he was because he was a Maoist. That isn't the case. He was fired because he had, in fact, to use ordinary layman's language, incited people to riot. And that is a crime if you can prove it and we proved it to the satisfaction of the faculty advisory board and then in the courts later.” And, indeed, Franklin has never attempted a defense of his actions, preferring instead to excise all evidence of his role in the extremism that roiled Stanford in the 70s. Franklin’s 2000 anti-Vietnam book, titled Vietnam And Other American Fantasies, presents a strikingly sanitized rendering of his Venceremos days: “Teaching the Vietnam War during the 1960's and early 1970's meant giving speeches at teach-ins and rallies; getting on talk shows; writing pamphlets, articles, and books; painting banners, picket signs, and graffiti; circulating petitions and leaflets; coining slogans; marching; sitting in; demonstrating at army bases; lobbying Congress; testifying before war-crimes hearings and Congressional investigations; researching corporate and university complicity; harboring deserters; organizing strikes; heckling generals and politicians; blocking induction centers and napalm plants; and going to prison for defying the draft. It is hard to convey the emotions that inspired those actions.” Harder still, for Franklin, is acknowledging what those actions really were.
Franklin’s dismissal from Stanford came as a blow to Venceremos, if not a permanent one: Many of its members would go on to form the ranks of the leftist terrorist outfit, the Symbionese Liberation Army. For his part, Franklin emerged unscathed from the affair. Indeed, rather than capsizing his academic career, his reputation for left-wing militancy served to launch it. In January of 1973, Franklin published an attack on “Professors of the U.S. Empire.” Within a year, he was once again one of them. Franklin went on to positions as a visiting lecturer at top-tier institutions like Yale and Wesleyan; in 1975, Franklin joined the faculty at Rutgers University, his salary paid by the same “predatory capitalists” for whose demise he had been agitating just several years earlier, and whom he would continue to revile throughout his career. In 1987, Franklin was accorded an endowed professorship, becoming the John Cotton Dana Professor at Rutgers.
Even as he has eagerly accepted the opportunities proffered by the academic establishment, Franklin has never disowned his radical faith. Not limiting himself to attacks on the U.S. prison system, Franklin has continued to cheer a host of leftist causes. Among them is his enthusiasm for Cuba’s communist dictatorship, a partiality he shares with his wife, Jane Franklin, a leftist writer and longtime apologist for the Castro regime with ties to its New York-based advocacy agency, the Center for Cuban Studies. Though it is Jane Franklin who can more frequently be heard heaping praise on Cuba’s “established system of human rights,” and declaring its health and education systems “a model for the rest of the world,” the husband and wife team jointly insist that Cuba is the victim of U.S. terrorism. When, in June of 2002, a Miami court found five Cubans guilty on charges of spying for Cuba, Franklin immediately denounced the decision. Scoffing at the notion that the “rogue state” the United States had any right to judge Castro’s agents, Franklin hailed them as heroes. “I don’t think there’s any question these people were here to try protect Cuba from various acts of terrorism carried out by people from Florida,” he told one radio interviewer. Warming to this anti-American theme, Franklin further contended that the Cubans were perfectly justified in spying on the United States. “The issue has come back to the fact that the United States government has been engaged in and complicit with decades of acts of terrorism against Cuba. What exactly are the Cubans supposed to protect against this?”
When not volunteering alibis for Cuba’s espionage, Franklin indulges his other penchant: rehabilitating the excesses of the Vietnam-era anti-war movement as a glorious chapter in American history. Advocating a distinctly radical stripe of academic historicism, Franklin argues that the history of the United States can be understood only in the context of the anti-war movement. “Nor can we understand what America is becoming if we fail to comprehend how the same nation and its culture could have produced an abomination as shameful as the Vietnam War and a campaign as admirable as the 30-year movement that helped defeat it,” Franklin has written. To sustain this self-flattering narrative, Franklin has determinedly avoided any mention of the horrors visited on the South Vietnamese by the Communist victory, and his “history” of the Vietnam movement, traced in a number of his books, is a study in moral vacuity. In Franklin’s version of the Vietnam War, the brutal reign imposed on the country by North Vietnam’s communist regime was actually the culmination of Vietnam’s quest for autonomy. “Countless Americans came to see the people of Vietnam fighting against U.S. forces as anything but an enemy to be feared and hated,” Franklin has said. Indeed, according to Franklin, “Tens of millions sympathized with their suffering, many came to identify with their 2,000-year struggle for independence, and some even found them an inspiration for their own lives.”
Franklin made a rare concession to recorded history in a 2000 article for the Nation, in which he allowed that the pullout of the United States had spelled devastation for Vietnam. In keeping with his standard practice, however, Franklin reposed the blame not with the invading Communist forces, but with the United Sates, chiding Americans because they have “forgotten our government's pledge to help rebuild the country it destroyed despite all our opposition.” It is a measure of his commitment to glamorizing the anti-war movement that Franklin, a science fiction aficionado, has conscripted the show Star Trek into his cause. In 1992, Franklin authored an introduction for an exhibit that appeared at the National Air and Space Museum, called “Star Trek and the Sixties.” Invoking an argument that owed more to fiction than science, Franklin wrote that one 1969 episode of the show demonstrated that the deaths of black soldiers in Vietnam were a function of white racism.
Of late, Franklin has pressed his boundless enthusiasm for the Vietnam anti-war movement into the service of adulating the current crop of anti-war leftists. In 2003, he saluted the protestors who demonstrated against the war in Iraq for their greater “consciousness.” What Franklin had in mind was the conspiracy-mongering Left’s conviction that the U.S. foreign policy is secretly conducted by all-powerful corporations. As he declared at the time, “It is now commonplace knowledge that our government and its foreign policy are controlled by multinational corporations, and this consciousness was widely shared only in the very late stages of the movement against the Vietnam War.” That there existed other explanations for the course of U.S. policy struck Franklin as a proposition too incredible to entertain. “Of course no sensible person could possibly believe that the aim of war in Iraq is the welfare of the people of that country,” said Franklin, insisting that, “Our government's motives are blatantly clear. Hence the apt slogan, ‘No blood for oil.’”
By any objective standard, Franklin’s fact-averse assessment of the American prison system, his inveterate willingness to whitewash both the violent tactics and the tragic achievements of the Vietnam-era anti-war movement, and his conception of U.S. foreign policy, which would do justice to the conspiracy theories of the most ardent jihadist, all call into question his competence to teach a class called American Studies. Yet if such questions are to be raised, they will have to come from outside the purviews of higher learning. From the perspective of many of his colleagues, as well as the universities that have seen it fit to employ him after his belligerent days at Stanford, Franklin’s extremist views are hardly deserving of censure.
On the contrary, they are broadly embraced. A recent course on American politics at the University of California in Los Angeles, for instance, included Franklin’s Vietnam and Other American Fantasies as required reading. Explaining his motivations in assigning Franklin’s book, Vinay Lal, a UCLA history professor, made it clear that he was drawn to its radical leftist message. Conveniently glossing over the fact that history, like criminal justice, falls outside Franklin’s area of expertise, Lal noted that his book offered the salutary advantage of depicting the United States as an irredeemable aggressor bent on subjecting the free world to its will. “Though many commentators have unthinkingly rehearsed the cliché that after 9/11 all is changed, our other principal text”—Franklin’s book—“comes from one of the most respected scholars of American history, whose relatively recent inquiry into the meaning of the Vietnam war in American life suggests that nothing has changed, insofar as the US remains on course in exercising its ruthless dominance over the rest of the world.”
Nor is Lal the first to incorporate one of Franklin’s books into the curriculum at a respected university. A 2000 class at the University of Rochester featured Franklin’s “From Realism to Virtual Reality: Images of America’s Wars,” a book that argues that, throughout the Vietnam War, the U.S. waged a propaganda campaign “to reverse the role of victim and victimizer.” Countless other colleges have made use of Franklin’s MIA: Mythmaking In America, which advances, among other spurious claims, Franklin’s belief that the Nixon administration fabricated stories of POWs missing in Vietnam in a bid to deflect public criticism of the war.
An uncharitable observer may point out that Franklin is an expert on none of these subjects. If there is anything to distinguish those of his works that are now mainstays on college curricula across the country, it is the radical leftist politics on which their central themes rest. Unfortunately, far too many educators share Franklin’s values.
comments powered by Disqus
- Voting opens soon for the leaders of the OAH in 2017
- A team of science historians are attempting to re-create recipes from sixteenth-century alchemy texts
- David Kennedy recalls his dinners with President Obama
- When Kellie Jones Wanted To Study Black Art History, The Field Didn’t Exist. So She Created It Herself.
- Michael Honey: The 60’s activist turned historian