Oral History: Peter Abbott

Narrator: Peter Abbott
Interviewer: John Tortorice, Skye Doney
Videographer: William Tishler
Date: 5 October 2018
Transcribed: Skye Doney
Total Time: 38 minutes
Editing: Kyle Jenkins, Greg Konop

Peter Abbott biography:
Born May 4, 1947, to Jewish refugees from Nazified Austria. My biological father, Josef Breuer, lost his entire family to the Shoah, leaving Vienna after a tip-off from a fellow Communist (and police officer). My mother’s father, Oscar Brock (originally: Oskar Brüch) was taken to Dachau for a time, but released before the war started. The family (my mother and her parents) made it out to Italy, then, as that country got too Nazified, they left for the USA.

My parents met at an Austrian Youth Club in New York. They divorced when I was 3, and my mother remarried when I was 4 to Hy Abbott, a Brooklyn-born Jew of immigrant parents from Russia and Poland, who officially adopted me when I was 10. None of my parents were religious, but all were politically active. My mother, Susan, was (like her mother, Paula Brock) a commercial artist and Hy was her agent. He later took on other clients, mostly commercial photographers.

After they married, my mother and Hy moved from Washington Heights in Brooklyn to Manhattan’s upper west side, where I attended public elementary and junior high school, later attending the Bronx High School of Science and, after graduating, UW-Madison. The family spent summers on Fire Island, where we lived in a cottage my mother designed, and where I also began my career as a news reporter, starting with the weekly Fire Island News.

I was politically active, as well, starting with my first political event, a SANE rally at Madison Square Garden when I was 14, a couple of months after the Cuban missile crisis. Later, in high school, two friends and subway-to-school friends and travel mates, Mark Schaeffer and Nathan Tarcov, persuaded me to join the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL). Nathan and I also joined and became active in the East Harlem chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (East River CORE), which had a heavy YPSL presence at the time.

After moving on to Madison, I immediately began working for the “official” student newspaper, The Daily Cardinal, moving up to News Editor in my junior year. I was mostly active in the anti-Vietnam-war movement, though in its more moderate wing, since I was not a booster of the North Vietnamese government, nor its South Vietnamese ally, the National Liberation Front — nor was I enamored of a revolution here at home (except in the most general sense, supporting a radical democratizing of the US political economy).

After graduation in 1969, I signed up with VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps, who assigned me to the Milwaukee Public Library because of my “verbal skills” (not so much my people skills, they hinted). I helped start a bi-lingual Spanish-English newspaper for the Mexican and Puerto Rican communities on the south side and worked on the grape boycott in support of the migrant worker organizing campaign led by Cesar Chavez.

In mid-1970 I spent the summer in California, then wended my way back to New York. After a few odd jobs, I joined the Suffolk County McGovern campaign on Long Island and, afterward, stayed on as a reporter for a local weekly. A year later, an old friend and housemate in Milwaukee, Chuck Miller, persuaded me to come back and join his company, which developed correspondence courses for the soon-to-be-defunct Career Academy. Chuck, a photographer, and I and a third partner, artist Judy Conway, then started our own graphic arts company, Images, which lasted about 10 years.

Without going through my whole résumé, I was variously employed or self-employed (and often unemployed) as a journalist and graphic artist until my last job as news editor of a suburban weekly in Waukesha County, where I worked until I was “involuntarily retired” in 2009.

I’ve remained politically active, off and on, most recently chairing the County Grounds Coalition, which, after a 3-year grassroots campaign, successfully saved a 60-acre natural wildlife habitat, Sanctuary Woods, from the developer’s bulldozer. Sanctuary Woods is now permanently protected as part of the adjacent Milwaukee County Grounds Park.

I signed up for the first George L. Mosse online course after my wife, Cathy Kendrigan, having heard Lucy Cooper and I talking about our old European history professor over the years, discovered it online. It was shortly after Charlottesville, adding greater impetus to signing up for the course. And Mosse’s teachings, both back in Madison in the 1960s and today online, continue to resonate, as the January 6th insurrection reminds us.

I just wish the pro-democracy forces here had the media savvy to burn that date into the public consciousness as much as D-Day, 9/11, and the 4th of July.

Interviewee note: 24 January 2023
So, just to add a tidbit to the record, the one thing I do remember from George Mosse’s address to the meeting was, “Who decided to invite Dow Chemical during Peace Week?” The students listening to the meeting (who later formed the two lines of silent protest between which the faculty had to pass through on the way out) cheered that line, but one more radical woman stood up as the cheering stopped and shouted repeatedly, “They’re selling you out! They’re selling you out!” Memory, of course, is a tricky business, especially after more than 50 years, but I remember at least parts of those events, including the one I just recounted, very vividly, even visually.


Doney: So we’ll start with the very basic question. What is your name?

Abbott: My name is Peter Abbott.

Doney: And where are you from?

Abbott: I live in Milwaukee now. I’m from New York originally.

Doney: And when did you attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison?

Abbott: From 19–, fall of 1964 to January of 1969.

Doney: So why did you choose to come to UW from New York? Was it, what attracted you?

Abbott: Well, I had a friend who went here, who started going here two years before me. She was like my closest friend. And so that was made it my number two choice. My first choice was Berkeley, but my parents objected me to going that far from New York. So we compromised on the middle of the country and I wound up in Madison. That’s basically it.

Doney: And what did you study when you were at UW?

Abbott: Well, I was in the ILS [Integrated Liberal Studies] program to start with. But I quickly chose history as my major. I thought I’d be a good background for a future career in journalism so I could understand better what I, what I was reporting on. And in the second semester of my sophomore year, I took my first, or it was the first semester as my elective while I was in ILS, was George Mosse’s introduction European history, introduction to European history. And that’s, I was totally impressed the first minute he started talking. And I think he says, I’m here to destroy your illusions or your slogans, one or the other. And he went through the slogans he was destroying, which was, the first was the idea that this is a democracy. It’s not, it’s representative government. And the other one I forget with the other one is off hand. I’ll remember it tomorrow,

Doney: “The people.”

Abbott, Oh, yes. Exactly. The other illusion is “the people.” There is no “the people.” The question is, which people are you talking about? And so I was zeroed in, focused in right away from there.

Doney: Was that the only course with Mosse that you took? Or did you take…?

Abbott: No, I took four semesters, I took the two semesters of the introduction and then two semesters of European cultural history. So that was, and then I but in the introductory course. I was selected along with Lucy Cooper as one of those who would be, instead of having a TA, we would visit groups specifically with him as our TA in effect. And that was quite a thing too. It’s where, growing up in the United States, I didn’t have the full sense of what antisemitism was like.


And I remember during that course he made a passing reference to the blood libel. And we all looked at each other like what is that? He says, “you don’t know what the blood libel is? Oh, you innocents.” And he explained it to us, and I got a fuller sense of what it was like to be Jewish in an anti-Semitic country where you’re only 1% of the population or less, as opposed to growing up in New York where we are, if not a majority, certainly large enough to have a major role in the life of New York. So it was a whole different world he was coming from and which my parents, or my mother and her parents had come from.

Doney: Where did, where did your mother come from?

Abbott: Vienna, Austria. And she was also, but they moved around. They had also spent some time in Berlin. In fact, she and her parents were in Berlin, at for Kristallnacht [9 November 1938]. And she talked about how one day she was going to school playing with classmates Jewish and non-Jewish. The next day, the classmates she’d been playing with, when she walked down the street would cross to the other side to avoid her. Same kids, next day. And that’s when she knew they were going to have to leave.

Doney: Did you get involved with the student movement as an undergrad?

Abbott: Oh, yeah.

Doney: How did that come about? And what was the extent of your involvement?

Abbott: Well, actually, I was involved in high school. In high school, I joined the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). We went, and I a chapter of CORE, was a socialist, got involved in, in East Harlem. We went, went door to door trying to organize a Tenants Union. And so I was already active before I even got there. There was a YPSL chapter in Madison, not very big, and I joined that. Over the years that went on, I gradually drifted away from it because they moved too far to the right, while I was moving leftward. So I was involved at first with civil rights support work. And then as the Vietnam War heated up, particularly after Johnson’s election, I got involved mostly in anti-war work. All the demonstrations that were involved. I was also but my principal involvement was with The Daily Cardinal there outside of the classroom. I spent many hours working on that and reporting on everything, not just protests, but, you know student government, the life and dorm life, there, so.

John Tortorice: Did you know Joel Brenner?

Abbott: Oh sure. He was the one who beat me out for the editorship. I still resent him for that. Because he had only worked there for a short time and I’d been there ever since, first day of my freshman year, I walked into The Daily Cardinal and started working for it. He came in late. He’d only been there for a year and he got the job because he lobbied well with the Cardinal board.

Tortorice: Do you know that he was the head of counterintelligence under Bush two?


Abbott: I had no idea. The only thing I knew afterwards was that he worked for Proxmire.

Tortorice: Shocking. Yeah. Oh well.

Abbott: Wow. I’ll have to look him up. Joel Brenner. But there’s probably a lot of Joel Brenners. How do I narrow it down for the Google search?

Tortorice: So he was in touch with us about taking the course. So maybe we could put you in touch with him. We’ll see.

Abbott: Yes, sure. I’m more interested in, my editor when I was the news editor there and my junior year was Eileen Alt who became Eileen Alt-Powell, married another reporter, Joe, John Powell. And I had more of a relationship with her friends and I was more impressed with her. And she had quite a career afterwards as well. A world, a globe-trotting journalist.

Doney: As a student, did you see like an interplay between the journalistic work that you were doing and the history courses?

Abbott: Only when I was covering the antiwar protests really. And it was not just Mosse’s course, of course, but Goldberg’s course because he was more directly involved with it, but Mosse was too. He gave his opinions and he supported the antiwar, he thought we should get involved more in electoral politics, supporting peace candidates, like somebody who was running for governor at the time. David Carley (1928-2009), he was the peace candidate, even though it was just running for governor. Oddly how things turn out though. When Robert Kennedy (1925-1968) became the anti-war candidate for president, David Carley supported Hubert Humphrey (1911-1978) because the more liberal wing of the party originally was more associated with Humphrey, the more moderate wing with John Kennedy. And so they switched sides because they kept their personal ties regardless of their position on the war. So the Kennedy people stuck with Kennedy were anti-war and so the pro-Humphrey people, but they stuck with Humphrey, you know. Personal connections make a bigger difference. That’s something I learned following that. Personal animus, personal friendships have more to do with where you wound up politically aligned than your positions on the issues.

Doney: Interesting. How did your Madison experience then influence your career?

Abbott: Well, my Madison experience, particularly with The Daily Cardinal, influenced my career. Because I went on to into journalism off and on. But also I learned, and my mother is an artist too, as well as my grandmother, and I had an artistic bent I think I may have inherited. And I got involved in layout and page layout as well as the journalistic side. So I pursued a career first in journalism. And then when I got back to Milwaukee, I, my friend who’s a photographer and another friend who was an artist.


And the three of us formed a graphic arts company. I was to be the writer, but I, I pursued the graphic side of it as well, the graphic design side. So between then and now, I’ve been variously employed and unemployed in two careers: journalism and graphic arts.

Tortorice: So what was the history department like in those years? Did you take courses with William Appleman Williams?

Abbott: Yes, I did, with Williams and Goldberg and William O’Neal. I thought again, pursuing the journalistic background idea, I thought I should be more focused on American history. So I took William O’Neal and he was my faculty advisor. And then I took Williams and Goldberg and Mosse. And I think I took something in diplomatic history from somebody names Sell, I think, I think it was Soviet foreign policy. I think he focused on that.

William Tishler: Was it Senn? Was it Al[fred] Senn (1932-2016)?

Abbott: Senn. Yes. Right.

Tortorice: Right. Sounds like a great education, that’s for sure.

Abbott: Yeah. I, I’m, I have one of my regrets is that I might have pursued an academic career, but I decided I had to leave. I had to get involved in the real world. That’s why I so I joined Vista, became a Vista Volunteer. For those of you don’t know, that’s like the domestic Peace Corps. And they assigned me to Milwaukee. I thought I needed to get involved in the real-world and Mad-, as long as I was in Madison. And I thought the, the far-left had gotten kinda loony. And, and I thought it was like an incubator of insanity to be in that bubble in Madison. So I was glad to go to Milwaukee and see how my ideas would work out in the real-world, not just against competing ideologies in Madison. So, and the first thing I involved with besides Vista, once I got there was the grape boycott. Somebody I knew, a socialist I knew, in Madison had gone up to Wautoma and had organized Obreros Unidos, a Farm Workers Union. And then he came to Milwaukee, he thought the success of the local union depended on the success of the grape boycott. And I ran into him at the Spanish center because I was assigned to the South, Side by the Milwaukee Public Library, my sponsor. He said, Hey Peter, he knows, um, we kind of get together a house of people, you know so we can all share the rent. And so I moved in with him and we were involved with the grape boycott and that became Solidarity House, which in turn was across the back alley from the Casa Maria Hospitality House, who were also involved in anti-war activities. So that was my initiation in Milwaukee.

Tortorice: So Peter, were you here when Father [James] Groppi (1930-1985) was active in all of that, those demonstrations?

Abbott: This was a little bit later, but we used to take trips to Milwaukee, Lucy Cooper, and I, who was my girlfriend at the time.


We used to come up to Milwaukee to participate in the marches. Father Groppi’s marches. After I got here, those were over. But I got, became friends with Dismas Becker (1936-2010) who had, had been a participant in those marches and was another priest, in fact. Although he left the priesthood like Father Groppi did and got married, like Groppi did. But at the time he was not only he became leader of the Welfare Rights Movement and was in Madison, led them the, the take over the state capital in Madison. Got beaten by police. And well, and he was one of the people I most admired in Milwaukee. He later moved on to electoral politics and became the majority leader for the Democrats in the State Assembly and was a member of DSOC [Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee] at the time, and DSA, what we know as DSA now when it merged with NAM, the New American Movement. And it was great to have a majority leader of the state assembly as a member of our local socialist group here.

Tortorice: Especially one that had taken it over at one time. That’s extraordinary.

Abbott: Yeah.

Tortorice: That was quite an event.

Abbott: That takeover of the state capital? Yes, it was.

Tortorice: That was an amazing week in Madison.

Abbott: He had went along with the majority. He actually had, Dismas, had actually advised against it because he thought if you’re taking over the seat of government, that’s revolution and we’re not really ready for that. You know, it’s not a good idea at this time. But the group went, so he went. And the rest is history as they say.

Tortorice: I don’t think most people realize what it was like here in Milwaukee in those years and what confrontation meant to the city, to the establishment here, to the African American community. I think that’s a history that we’re not familiar with here in Wisconsin.

Abbott: It turns out that my work with the graphic arts company I mentioned, made. Our clients were mainly local anti-poverty agencies and the, who had, and the staff of that had come out of the Civil Rights Movement, basically, not only in the African-American community, but in the Latino community. So which I was more directly involved with because I was one of the group that founded La Guardia, which is the bilingual Latin American community newspaper, was then at the time, the founders were Lalo Valdez and Roberto Hernández. So there was a unity of the Puerto Rican, and Mexican-American communities which didn’t exist in a lot of other cities. And I was there for technical expertise in both graphic arts and journalism. I wrote some of the articles and I laid out the paper. So, and pasted it up  and showed them what materials they needed to buy and all those press on letters for headlines, you know, and then we got typesetting equipment and I would do some of the typesetting.


So, so that was a big part of it too. And so again, then we went on to the after Vista and La Guardia I was involved and like I said, in the graphic arts company. And we were working for these agencies who came out of the Civil Rights Movement. And that was, and as a result of that, I then got involved more with the African-American community. Some of our clients were there and we used some of their printing. There was a printer called Precious Baldwin. And we used some of her, she was a vendor for us. And that led to more connections with and there was a bar called Toran’s [Tropical Hut], I think Toran’s or Toran’s, which is like a community center at the time. And then I remember we did a there was a fundraiser, a football team, football game fundraiser, and we did the program book for it. And the back page was two of the most prominent members of the black community, owned a funeral home, Terrance and Orville Pitts (1933-2015). And there had a third partner name Graves. So there was a funeral Pitts, Pitts, and Graves funeral home. So I thought it was there were the great names in the Milwaukee community. I was wondering if they knew what it sounded like. They probably did.

Doney: That’s great.

Tortorice: So, do you think experiences in Madison really shaped your subsequent commitment to well, we could say social justice or was that something you, that came from your family background? Did the combination of the two really resonate.

Abbott: I think it came. It came mostly from my family background, from growing up in New York where there were so many. I remember the first political action was I went to a SANE [National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy] political rally in 1961 when I was all of 14 at Madison Square Garden. A friend of mine, Mark Schaeffer, said I’m going, you know, want to come with? I said sure. And my parents were all behind it, you know. They’re all for it, as my fact, I remember one of my first political talks from my mother came when we were in the car listening to the radio. And there was one of these air raid drills. And there were protesters out, you know, defying it by going out into the streets and saying, No, we’re not going underground, we’re not going into a local subway station, we’re coming out and saying this is just a mentality preparing us for war. You know, I said those people are crazy, don’t they learn the lesson, the world war, of Pearl Harbor and you know, gotta be prepared. And my mother explained all what what they were doing and why that was, you know, that this was baloney, the air raid drills were baloney.


They were just saying, they were trying to normalize war or an upcoming war. And so that began my political thinking actually was from that conversation.

Doney: Interesting. Let’s jump to the class for a little bit.

Abbott: Yeah.

Doney: How did you hear about the online class?

Abbott: Well, actually it was from my wife [Catherine Kendrigan]. She got an email or something in the mail. I forget which, and she said, “Look.” And she’d gone to, she was like two years behind me in Madison. And she had taken Goldberg, but not Mosse. And at that time, Mosse had somewhat of a bad reputation among the Left. And so she didn’t take him. He was somewhat misogynistic. He had, I remember one in one of our classes, him saying, There has been no great artist or writer who was a woman or, no, words said better, but the same basic effect, you know, cultural history as a male, a male pursuit. And I, not being that educated on at the time, just thought that was just a little side thing, you know. But anyway, my wife, so my wife, had heard me talk about Mosse and Lucy talk about him and his importance to us, and so when she saw that the course was available online, she bought it to our attention and also said we should organize a study group around it. So that was all her idea. So and I think that was really because one thing I want to, one thing that attracted me to take the course, not just the nostalgia for it or my wife’s interest in it, but because of what it was happening with the Trump election and the rise of white nationalism here. I thought I needed to get back in touch with, you know, a better, deeper, deeper understanding of it. So I took the course with that in mind and I thought it was great. We had a study group because then our discussions could be around its relevance for today’s politics and what, how that might inform our actions in response to it.

Doney: Were their particular lectures or readings that helped with that conversation or that stand out to you now?

Abbott: I would say the, the citations from the novels that going through the, the, even, especially the soft core antisemitism that provided the backdrop for that softened peopled up and opened people up for the hardcore Nazi stuff later on. And then relating that to like the soft core bigotry of American anti-black racism. And how that provide some of the background noise for the hardcore stuff. The, “I’m not a racist, but” kind of stuff. And like I said, also particularly it.


And what’s one of the, one of the members Art[hur] Heitzer, particularly wanted us to focus on what we could do now, or how [Mosse] could help us understand how he could combat racism in the US today. And like I’ve mentioned to you before, the, that Richard Spencer victory speech, hail Trump, hail victory. And then seeing it again on YouTube after taking the course, made me realize how deep seated, at how connected that was to what I had been reading. Because I didn’t really connect it until the course. Clearly Spencer is well-read in his fascist history. Then not much on anything else, no, not much or anything else. So it reminded me that the conventional wisdom, you know, that progressives should focus on, you know, economic issues because we can’t take on the culture which is, you know, cultural battleground tilts against us while the economic battle ground tilts for us and it ain’t enough. That ain’t going to work. Because the emotions of the cultural appeal will trump the economic appeal every time. Not to coin a pun there.

Doney: How did the, did the class then change, or deepen your understanding of racism and antisemitism?

Abbott: Well actually, I thought, well one thing I’ve thought a couple of, well, a couple of things there. It deepened it because I learned about how racism is so can be run so deep that you don’t even have to have a race. You can just make it up. As in making it up that Jews are a race, you know, because in the absence of, of the Africans in Europe, they had to make up a darker race. And you couldn’t use Italians because they were allies. So because they were Fascist even before Hitler so, or before Hitler’s rise. So Jews were the stand in and also they were vulnerable. They were, like you said, like the course showed, I didn’t realize they were only 0.75% of the population. Which makes it. And also that this therefore is a difference. There’s also part of the course told us that instant recognition was important. So they had to make up all the common racial characteristics. The big nose, you know, the hairy body, the short stature, disproportion that, and they had to make it all up. So you can see through people through that prism, even though they didn’t match that look in, uh, in the way American racism is both harder and easier, harder because African Americans are a bigger part of the population and have more white supporters. And in part. But it’s also easier because there is instant recognition for, of most African Americans in this country.


So that, that informed my understanding of it too. But also Art Heitzer, did add some things to it in terms of emphasizing the structural nature racism in this country. And I think in this country, the structural racism came first. Slavery came. And, and the ideology came as a way of rationalizing the, the slavery and the Jim Crow and slavery by another name through the prison system and mass incarceration today. The, so. And then also there’s the question of religion.

Because like I said, I’ve discussed with you before that there’s a thinner line between religion and racial antisemitism and, and racism. That has always been, I mean, the slave owners and the Confederacy were all good Christians, so were the abolitionists, you know. And there’s also a line in Mosse’s, in one of Mosse’s books about when he goes through all these novels and so-forth, he says, yet, the parish priest preaching antisemitism, even though it wasn’t racial antisemitism, probably had more effect than popular novels. I also think that there’s another, that it also, religious antisemitism, while it did leave the out of conversion or baptism. Still softened people up for the racial antisemitism. So it was easy to transpose from one to the other, especially with the influence of the parish priest, whether either a parish priest or minister, either on the Protestant or on the Catholic side of the line in Germany.

Doney: Can we talk about the mechanics of the study group? You guys met on Sundays?

Abbott: Yeah, we met on weekends because one of us has to work every day. That was my wife. And we met we met, so we met on weekends. We met, first we met at Art and Sandy’s house. And then we met once or twice at my house. I’ll turn this off. And so that was a very congenial atmosphere. We didn’t meet Rusty until that dinner, but we’re glad we did because we then we appreciate his comments online which we thought were among the most insightful. So we had a discussion, we had a debate about the importance of economic, the political economy versus culture. I prefer the, the multi-causal approach that Mosse sometimes talked about. Although I think he gave short shrift to the political economy over culture.


I think you have to take it partly. You know, sometimes one is more dominant, sometimes the other is. And you have to appreciate, you know, not apply your analysis first and then look at the reality afterwards. You look at the reality and, and let the broader understanding coming from both analyses, apply to it, but you look and see, you know, which is predominant in the situation. You let the reality determine your outlook as much as the analysis you bring to it. I’m right now reading Mosse’s autobiography, Confronting History, he talks, I’m like a quarter of the way through it, but he talks about his complicated relationship to Zionism. I want to read more about that because I remember in one of the, in the Cornell lecture he talked about the settler moving, movement as having racist aspects to it. And so I’m not the Zionist he was. I used to call myself a Zionist, but not anymore. So I’m wondering what, what conclusions he came to us as he evolved.

Tortorice: Well, I was thinking about the resonance of that one lecture where he talks about the divisions and the Jewish community and how that made them so vulnerable to Nazi exploitation and persecution.

Abbott: Right, and it carried with them to the concentration camps, the same divisions of the religious and nonreligious, the liberals, the communists, and socialists.

Tortorice: And, and I think that probably was the origin of his Zionism, not only what happened after. Because before the war, his family, he was anti-Zionist. They were anti-Zionist. And he was in some ways trying to flee his Jewishness in a way that it was really the experience of the war and the post-war period and the founding of Israel because he went there right after the State was founded. But I think it was that sense of solidarity.

Abbott: His family wasn’t just anti-Zionist, they were also anti-socialist, and anti-communist. His left-wing sister [Hilde L. Mosse], when she said she was voting for the Social Democrats, her father was horrified. Their father was horrified.

Tortorice: They were liberals.

Abbott: They were liberals.

Tortorice: They have a real belief in progress and all of that huge ideology…

Abbott: Positivism. The Liberal Party was so inept though. They also, because I got this, I took another, another other professor I took was Richard Hamilton, the political sociologist. And he talked about the evolution of that party. In particular, they had stopped campaigning in rural areas.

Tortorice: In Germany.

Abbott: In Germany, yeah. They took on and they merged with a paramilitary group.


So because every party had to have one and they changed their name to the State Party. So whatever followers they had around the country, especially outside of urban centered, would go to the ballot box, go to the polling place looking for the old party name and it wasn’t there. So they had to look for somebody else. Whereas the Nazis were campaigning in the countryside. And he gave an example where one side of the street only voted for the Nazis because the, the, the, the motorcycle brigade just went up one side of the street. They wanted to try and cover as much ground as possible. I want to talk to people on one side of the street and that side voted Nazi, the other side vote for whoever they used to vote for. So the other parties didn’t campaign, you know. But especially the Liberal Party. They changed their name, they took on. They became, called themselves the State Party because the fascist side of the equation we’re, we’re elevating the state is this as the embodiment of the nation. And so they changed their name to it. So they, they were erasing the distinctions they had between themselves and the far right. The statist right.

Doney: Yeah. I’m not sure, Mosse calls himself sometimes, going back to Zionism, a cautious Zionist, sometimes an optimistic Zionist, sometimes an idealistic…

Abbott: Sometimes a liberal Zionist.

Tortorice: Zionism of the, of the heart. Is what he, you know, it’s that question, of the left in Israel now that is so alienated from the state. And yet they’re still convinced Zionists in the sense that they serve in the army. And they really are the backbone of that culture and yet they’re totally alienated from their government.

Abbott: Well the army itself…

Tortorice: You don’t see that here, you don’t see Americans on the left volunteering to be officers in the military on the front line. So that, that I mean, that commitment I think comes out.

Abbott: I remember the invasion that led to the Six-Day War. My friend Michael Kaplan and I were talking about going over there and volunteering.

Tortorice: You knew Michael? You know Michael?

Abbott: Sure.

Tortorice: He’s someone we’re very much in touch with.

Abbott: He’s still? Well I’d like to be in touch with him too. He and I, there was a left-wing student political party, UCA [United Community Action], he was on the top of the ticket as the presidential candidate. I was the vice presidential candidate. The year before that, when the party was founded by Freddy Ciporin and John Coatsworth, Lucy Cooper was the Vice Presidential candidate, in fact, led the ticket because the presidential candidate was a nice guy, but he did. When we were having events, he would be out in the kitchen talking to the workers back there, you know, and not talking to the people who are going to vote. You know. So he was like a non-factor, but Lucy was a dynamo.

Tortorice: Gosh. We have to get all of you together.

Abbott: I can show you a picture on my phone later if you want. I have a picture of a campaign poster with me and Michael Kaplan on it.

UCA Campaign Poster

Doney: Yeah, absolutely.

Tortorice: Can you send that to us?

Abbott: Sure.

Tortorice: Send that to Skye, we’ll send it to Michael.


Abbott: He was in YPSL too until the national group came and met with us. Met, had it’s a National Committee meeting then and they were so they were pro-war it turned out, in the Vietnam War and we all had to leave. But, you know, he left. He was just appalled. I was too, I left later because I knew all these people, So he had some personal ties with them. But, you know, I drifted away because it was just they were off the wall, you know.

Tortorice: Yeah. He funded a prize  in the History Department.

Abbott: Wow. Michael did?

Tortorice: Yeah, he’s a big supporter.

Abbott: We were close friends until that and then we, by the time we were campaigning, I think I was still a member and but he had drifted. He had quit. And but we both campaigned at UCA [United Community Action] and he used to YPSL bait me every once in a while. Yeah, I’ll show you the picture. I’ll send you the, I’ll email you the picture. As far as history as a tool for understanding what’s going on today and informing my political actions today. I mean, one. Another book that I read, as I mentioned earlier was Goldberg’s biography of Jean Jaurès (1859-1914) and I was looking at the debates they were having then. And those were and they and they’re having the same debates today as they were having then about [Georges] Clemenceau (1841-1929), when they were, when Jaurès, was success, eventually successfully campaigning for separation of church and state to get the church out of the public schools. Clemenceau was debating against this, he says now God, then if you take God out of the classroom, then God will be the state. I thought that was an interesting argument, you know. But there were other arguments about how socialists supposedly would be the, the statists who would suppress freedom. But look, who is suppressing freedom today it’s the forces of the right, the monarchy, the church and the, I’m leaving one out. Monarchy, the church and the old, the old aristocracy. And the business community. Of course, they were the ones who were standing on the other side of the liberation of the working class from their poverty. So this was an interesting debate. I think it has great relevance today, you know, and I was interested in, I have to go back over it, Jaurès’s arguments on the other side. I think it affects the liberals of today as well. Because they’re basically on the Social Democratic side of the debate. And the, the cultural side of the debate is similar. You know, we don’t have the monarchy or the, we do have the religious right. We don’t have an aristocracy. We, we do have a corporate aristocracy who are accumulating every ounce of economic growth into their own coffers.


But it also reminds me that the cultural debate sometimes trumps it. Now, of course, there’s a lot of money behind that to make it the dominant debate. Today. I, I’ve always thought until Trump that the swing vote was not some sort of moderate vote that’s taking some from column A or some from column B. They really, they do that. But it’s really the populist. It’s really a populist swing vote. And if they swing on cultural issues, they’ll turn right. If they swing on economic justice issues, they’ll turn left. And I said, not just economics because talk about lunch bucket issues. Just how much money is taken out of, or put into your pocket is not enough. You have to make it, you have to need the moral messaging to make it a cultural issue as well. And so the, and the only way for the left to win is to unite a cultural moral message with the economic issue. So it’s not just about materialism, it’s about justice.

Tortorice: Or not so much just about identity politics and those kind of divisions.

Abbott: Yeah, but that’s sort of the, basically we have white identity politics, you know, that is really running rampant right now. And some of what’s called identity politics, I think is kind of a smear because it is really about justice politics. You know?

Tortorice: But that’s how, perception has to be countered by the left in an effective way to make it a more universal message.

Abbott: Right, because to defend identity politics rather than saying no, it’s not just identity politics, it’s about justice politics.

Tortorice: Right?

Abbott: It’s another way of putting it, re-framing it as George Lakoff would say.


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