A Review of Andrew Feffer's New Book "Bad Faith"Historians in the News
Robin Marie Averbeck has a PhD in American history from UC Davis and studies post-war liberalism.
In Bad Faith: Teachers, Liberals, and the Origins of McCarthyism, historian Andrew Feffer challenges us to rethink both our standard narrative about the emergence of McCarthyism and our conventional political categories. Such substantial and consequential arguments are supported by a remarkably detailed exploration of a little-known episode of anticommunist persecution that took place in New York between 1940 and 1942; the Rapp-Coudert hearings. While Feffer takes his readers through the process that eventually led to the firings or forced resignations of more than 40 teachers at City College of New York and Brooklyn College, he also situates this outcome as deeply connected to conflicts from within New York teachers’ unions themselves – in particular, disputes between liberals and leftists that reached back into the 1930s and involved some of the most respected representatives of the liberal creed. As a result, Feffer challenges more common ways of approaching the relationship between liberals and leftists. As he writes, we cannot “sufficiently understand the legacy of American liberalism, nationally and internationally, without better understanding its contempt for the left, for Marxism as well as communism, and its role in clearing the postwar world of competing ideologies and points of view.” Moreover, he also presents us with a story filled with dilemmas and dynamics that will ring eerily familiar not only to anyone who has participated in ideological struggles within the Democratic Party, or anyone ever involved in union politics, but also anyone in academia who ever had to worry about finding a job.
The Rapp-Coudert hearings conducted by the New York state legislature began in December of 1940, headed by a reform-minded liberal Republican, Paul Windels. Born in Brooklyn, Windels had built his political career by the side of Fiorello La Guardia, assisting in his campaigns and later serving in his administration. When the hearings began, Windels assured the press that he would not conduct a careless witch hunt, engaging in hearsay or punishing teachers for their personal political beliefs alone. However, these words would come to have little meaning in an era when a legislative inquiry could subpoena witnesses and documents, convict them of contempt for not cooperating, and all the while deny them legal defense in the course of the hearings. Not surprisingly, Windels and the committee used every trick in the book to back accused teachers into a corner, leaving them with only bad options. By the time the hearings wrapped up two years later, dozens had lost their jobs and the left’s presence in the teacher unions of New York City had been greatly weakened.
At heart of the committee’s investigations was the belief that communist instructors were using their classrooms and their influence as teachers to brainwash and recruit students into the communist cause. More than half a century before David Horowitz published an entire book listing the names of professors supposedly partaking in such schemes, Windels and his committee successfully employed the same tropes and accusations to attack the lives and livelihoods of dozens of teachers. Not surprisingly, little evidence existed for this claim; not only were communist teachers careful to avoid any impression of political bias in their courses – after all they had much to lose in a political environment where being a communist was a serious liability – but when debating the issue of their responsibility as teachers and as communists, the vast majority had taken the position that radical education ought to be pursued through workers’ education, not through public colleges. No matter – the committee’s determination to see premeditated brainwashing at work resulted in sometimes ridiculous misreadings of the evidence. In one rare case of a teacher actually bragging about rifling the feathers of his conservative students, the scolding he received from his colleagues was interpreted by the committee not as evidence for the rarity of such proselytizing but evidence that his colleagues did not appreciate the instructor being so explicit and thus giving up the game – according to the committee, communists believed that real indoctrination had to be subtle to be successful.
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