Narrator: Michael Kaplan
Interviewer: John Tortorice
Date: 24, 25, 26 February 2019
Transcribed: Teresa Bergen, Skye Doney
Total Length: 2 hours, 55 minutes, 40 seconds
Michael Kaplan biography:
Michael Kaplan graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1970 with a major in History (B.S.). He subsequently attended UW-Milwaukee, graduating with an M.S. in Educational Psychology in 1973. His career can be divided into three primary periods: first, employment in many of the major Jewish agencies in Milwaukee, especially the Jewish Community Center where, in coordination with his first significant employment mentor, Tybie Taglin, he helped facilitate a wide range of activities for adults and children. The second period included employment by various neighborhood associations in Milwaukee and the State of Wisconsin in community development. Since 1984, Michael has worked in the mental health/addictions field as a counselor, group therapist, and case manager. In the late 1990s, he entered the third period of his career, opening a private practice and for many years keeping an office in downtown Portland. At age 74, Michael still sees three clients.
For many years, he was a volunteer/consultant to foundations in post-communist Hungary and Romania promoting evidenced-based mental health and addiction treatment. Michael’s family had roots in Hungary (and Germany as well as in what is today Ukraine). Perhaps the most poignant consultation/training was an invitation to speak about “Burn Out Among Mental Health Professionals” in both Hungary and Romania in May 2014.
A seasoned skier (he learned to ski as a student at UW-Madison) and climber, Michael still enjoys a season pass to ski on Mt. Hood, Oregon. Next year at the age of 75, he will be able to ski for free, as his favorite ski resort, Mt. Hood Meadows, will give him a free senior pass. Skiing has taken him all over the USA, as well as Switzerland, Austria, and Slovakia. Among the mountains he has climbed are Mt. St. Helens, South Sister, and Steens Mountain. He is grateful to have a true partnership with his ski and climbing partners on and off the mountains.
Michael has also been involved as a supporter of the UW-Madison Department of History and Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies. In honor of George L. Mosse and many others, Michael sponsors several annual graduate student awards in History and Jewish Studies. He is grateful to both Departments for their selection of many outstanding recipients.
24 February 2019:
Tortorice: Yes. We’re ready to roll here. Okay. My name is John Tortorice. And I am here in Tucson, Arizona with Michael Kaplan. It’s February 24, Sunday, February 24, 2019. Michael, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for the Mosse Program Oral History Program. So perhaps we should go back to the beginning. So, where were you born? And when?
Kaplan: Okay. First of all, thank you. I was born in Hyde Park, a neighborhood on the South Side in Chicago. And I was born in 1947.
Tortorice: So in what kind of background, milieu, were you born into? Secular Jewish? Observant?
Kaplan: Well, formally we went to a reform synagogue but, never really other than the high holy days. So we never went to services Friday night or Saturday. I did go to Sunday school there. And I used to get into trouble because I would go into the kitchen and take snacks that were not mine. But I have fond memories of the synagogue. It was a famous synagogue, K.A.M. And the rabbi was very famous, Jacob Weinstein. So I think many family members were members of that synagogue.
There was a lot about my family I was not aware of, especially as a child. My father seemed to have no relatives. Certainly not in Chicago. And seemingly none anywhere else. My mother had grown up in Hyde Park, as did many of her aunts and my great-aunts and cousins and so on and so forth. My mother’s family, her father was German Jewish. His father had immigrated to the United States. My grandfather maintained they came from Parmesan, or actually Alsace. But when I went to Germany, I found out that they came from the Frankfurt area.
On my mother’s side with her grandmother, that family had come from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Actually when they immigrated, it was still the Dual Monarchy. But they came from the Hungarian-speaking region.
Tortorice: And what was her maiden name?
Kaplan: My mother’s maiden name was Oppenheimer. But the Hungarian part of the family was Newman, or Neumann. And both names reflected the imposition of family names on Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Tortorice: So was it an extended family on your mother’s side? Did you feel that you were part of an extended group, aunts and uncles, grandparents?
Kaplan: Well, they were—yes and no. I mean, a lot of my mother’s relatives were quite different from her. First of all, some of them were quite educated. Her aunt had gone to the University of Chicago and had done something close to kind of social work. I think actually she worked for a settlement house. My mother, I’m not even certain if she graduated from high school. Because she ran off, she eloped at age seventeen and married my father, who was in his thirties. And he had already gone through two marriages. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was quite upset about that. They eloped to South Carolina, where the age of consent was less than eighteen.
So yes, I felt a part of this family. But also quite different. Because I knew they were different. They were more educated. They were also more financially secure. So, in and out, kind of.
Tortorice: So and you have one brother.
Kaplan: Two brothers.
Tortorice: Two brothers, okay.
Kaplan: I have an older brother, Jack, who’s a career military soldier. He was in the army and he retired as a colonel. Then I have a twin brother, Billy. That would be the name that people knew him in Madison, although I think he prefers William, maybe Bill. And my twin brother had some employment with the state of Wisconsin. But then when he moved to Washington, DC, he worked for the Institute for Policy Studies and a couple of congressmen. I think he worked for Senator [George] McGovern (1922-2012). He worked for Representative [John] Conyers (1929-2019), and then another congressman. But most of his employment in the last thirty years has been self-employed. He would write blogs. I think he wrote for the, excuse me, he wrote for the Wisconsin State Journal. He had a regular column there. And then it was a blog.
Tortorice: Really? I didn’t know that.
Kaplan: I also had two half-sisters, although I never used that term “half-sister.” I found that kind of stupid and idiotic. I regarded them as my sisters. And they were older than us. So I remember, I had fond memories of my sisters meeting me at the elementary school that I went to, Kenwood, in Hyde Park. And my oldest sister, in my eyes, was very pretty. She was a model. She was smart. My other sister, Andrea—the first one was Donna—also was, in my eyes, very pretty and very intelligent. And Andrea especially was very loving toward me as a child. So they regarded me as, they were very nice and sweet to me.
Tortorice: So was your family politically active? Were they engaged in local politics?
Kaplan: That’s a good question. My grandfather Will Oppenheimer was involved to some extent in local politics. I know in the 60s he was a precinct captain for the Daly regime, Mayor [Richard J.] Daley (1902-1976). But he wasn’t a true believer. I mean, he did that probably for reasons connected with maybe business, friendship, other things. Other relatives, hard to say. My Uncle Doc, that’s what his nickname was and that’s what we called him, he was a doctor. And he read a wide range of things. And when I was in high school, he would give me everything from the communist newspaper to something far right. And was he political? I don’t really know. He was certainly very intellectual and very well read.
Lillian, Uncle Doc’s wife, a separate aunt, she was a great aunt, well I think she was a mix of moderate and liberal democratic views. My mother really, she was not particularly political. My father, not particularly political. Although he was somewhat conservative in some ways, especially when the 60s happened. He became much more conservative.
Tortorice: So were there any family members that, it sounds like your Uncle Doc was someone that influenced you? Or were there other family members or teachers from your early school years, high school, that really motivated you or got you interested in reading and politics?
Kaplan: I’ll talk about my family members first. You’re right. You’re correct. My Uncle Doc, Uncle Edwin, was very influential. Because he would give me a wide range of books, particularly when I was sixteen and up. Sixteen, eighteen. So I had books by Hegel, which I never really understood at that age. I had a two-volume history of prostitution which was very dull and boring, but the kids, my neighbors who would see it, they would grab it and then they’d open it and find out it was dull and boring. Gave me a lot of other books. So he was pretty important.
My grandfather was someone who probably went only to grade school, but was a very smart guy. He was born in Mississippi. His parents had landed in New Orleans when they emigrated from Germany. But his influence on me was a counter to my parents. My parents were extremely difficult when I was growing up. My mother was quite violent and used to beat the kids up. Violent with, you know, obvious, especially in hindsight, mental illness. My father was sort of indifferent, kind of a broken guy. So my parents were not particularly influential in terms of education, politics. Or even, I would say, in terms of the ability to form attachments. Whereas these other relatives were more important. My grandfather was kind to us and tried to do his best. He took us, he gave us a bow and arrow and took us bowling, played catch with us.
My father never played any sports. I didn’t understand that until much later. My father had grown up in the Russian empire, in the Soviet Union. So he had no connection with any American sports. He emigrated, or he was able to come to America at age seventeen. His father brought him over. He had been born here but his parents separated and then they divorced. And then he went back with his mother to the Russian empire. And then grew up also in the Soviet Union. But because he was born here, even though he was taken back as an infant, when his father sent for him, he was able to come back.
Tortorice: Because in those years, there was very strict control on who could get in the country, after 24.
Kaplan: Absolutely. Right. He came in the early 20s. I think 23, perhaps, 24. I don’t have any documents in front of me. I do at home, so I know the date, but I don’t remember it.
My teachers that were important, looking back, I don’t see many teachers in my grammar school that was all that important. But in high school, I had a really good history professor, Angus James Johnson. And he had a PhD in history. I went to New Trier, which is in Winnetka, Illinois. And that was at that time—
Tortorice: That’s a good school.
Kaplan: Yeah, it was the top public school in America. And you could take a multitude of different languages, if you wanted. You could take advanced placement classes. And I think I took, I know I took advanced placement in history, American history, because I got six credits for that. I don’t think I took any others, but I had a PhD in English, Dr. Guest, and he was quite good, too. So, Guest and Johnston were very important to me.
Tortorice: I shouldn’t inject my own life into the interview, but I went to a high school that was similar. Madison West. And it’s extraordinary how influential that experience was. And those few teachers that really sparked you to a love of reading and learning. It really was very important. Because I don’t think I would have got that anywhere else.
Kaplan: Absolutely. With hindsight, I can see that I would not even have been able to do the higher-level reading that I was exposed to in Madison as a freshman had I not taken that AP history course and had I not taken the English class with Dr. Guest where we read pretty important novels and we had great discussions and commentary by him on that. So, yeah, it was absolutely important to me.
I did a little sports in the high school. I played soccer. Not very well. We had a Turkish coach, Turkish-Jewish coach. And the high school had a high level of overt antisemitism and racism. And I remember some of the students were making fun of the coach because he spoke with an accent. And he called them out on it and there was never any nasty comments thereafter. He was a great guy. Matt Baker was his name, I think.
Tortorice: So and you felt that there as antisemitism directed personally to you?
Kaplan: Oh, yes. Yeah. I mean—
Tortorice: You experienced it.
Kaplan: Not only did you experience it in comments, but there was one suburb in particular, Kenilworth which was in between sort of Winnetka and Wilmette are adjacent, those two. Kenilworth had restrictive covenants and other policies that forbade homeowners to sell to Jews and others. And at one point a then would have been called Negro family, but of course we don’t use that term anymore. African American, Black American family moved in. I remember some of the kids were dying, thinking that was the end of the world. And I was laughing. They were so busy guarding the back door against the Jews, an African American family got in. (laughs) But yeah, it was very antisemitic.
But there were, on the other hand, there were also a lot of kids that were not affected by that. I did have one kid I was friends with, Wally Deer who, he didn’t graduate with us, so I don’t know what ever happened to him. But he invited me over to his house. And I don’t know whether he was aware I was Jewish or not, but it turned out he was a believer in the American Nazi Party. That was the exception. Nobody else was like that. I mean, he was clearly unhinged and I never went back to his house again. But he was totally wacky. And why he invited me over, I have no idea. But I never went back.
Tortorice: Well, in that area, of course, is where Skokie and the Skokie demonstrations and all of that. You never know what you’re going to—
Kaplan: Oh, you mean the demonstrations against, the Nazi demonstrations later on in the early 70s.
Tortorice: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
Kaplan: Yeah, yeah, I remember that. Because I had been a member of the ACLU but I dropped my membership because I realized I could not support—I had mixed feelings. I just was very conflicted. Because Skokie had a huge, you know, they had a huge proportion of survivors from the Shoah, the Holocaust. And I thought it was just wrong that these Nazis could march there, even though I know they have rights under the constitution. And I don’t think those rights should be taken away. But I didn’t want to overtly support the ACLU at that time.
Tortorice: So it sounds like you were an engaged and good student in high school.
Kaplan: I was a poor student.
Tortorice: Oh, were you?
Kaplan: I mean, I had a bunch of learning disabilities that I became aware of as a child. Because I had trouble with speaking. I had a speech tutor. I would mispronounce and get words confused. And sometimes I still do when I get too nervous. And then I had trouble with math and spelling. Later when I got my master’s degree in psychology much after that, I started doing some personal exploration you know that I have dyslexia, that I have ADHD. And well, some of the scales that I scored myself on at the lower end on those scales, yeah, I have some evidence of those things. Did I meet the full diagnostic criteria? No, probably not. But yeah, I had some. You know, so there was that, those hurdles to leap over. So I was very inattentive, very dreamy. And you know, I could be lazy. Some things, I was good at. Some other things, I was not so good.
Tortorice: So, you arrived at UW in 65 with your brother.
Kaplan: Right. Correct. My twin brother.
Tortorice: So in those years, a lot of students from your area came to UW. Almost automatically, it seemed like. There was a lot of interest in the university. It was considered a very excellent school.
Kaplan: Mm hmm. Absolutely.
Tortorice: Very reasonably priced. Paul Soglin told me that from his class there were sixty-seven kids that came to UW. But then after the early riots in the university, and the legislature limited the number of out-of-state students, the next year there were four students from his high school who came. So, that changed. But in the time that you came to UW, there were huge numbers of students from the Chicago area and the suburbs that came.
Kaplan: Absolutely. Yeah.
Tortorice: So you probably, and your brother, were steered here, perhaps? But you knew about the university. You probably came with a coterie of people that you knew?
Kaplan: I knew some people. And I wasn’t steered toward the university. I steered myself. I only applied to two universities when I was in my senior year: Washington University in Saint Louis, which I got into, and UW-Madison, which I got into. And I think you’re correct. There was almost an automatic, especially if you went to a school like New Trier. The people that came up there to Madison, I really wasn’t friendly with in high school, and I generally was not friendly with them in Madison. There was a woman I had taken to the senior prom who I later, you know, on again, off again friendship with. But or at least acquaintance with in Madison. But I remember when I took her to the senior prom, I think I got drunk. I know I got drunk. And I threw up. And I kind of ditched her early.
Tortorice: Oh, gosh. (laughs) Not a good date.
Kaplan: Not a good state. Although you know, part of it was, I was already starting to be conflicted about my sexual orientation. I couldn’t clearly articulate that, but, you know, I already knew. And I really wasn’t interested. I only took her to the prom because my mother insisted I take a date to the prom. But then I cut the evening short and got drunk instead.
Tortorice: So were you a social young man? I mean, were you part of a group in high school?
Kaplan: Yeah. Much more than my twin brother. I had a lot of guy friends. And my best friend in high school was Tim Neary, and he and I were the center of a small group of guys. Tim was brilliant. And his mom was very important to me. He didn’t have a father present. Parents had divorced long ago. But his mom used to take us to the Art Institute, to foreign movies. You know, taking us out to dinner. And I was really best friends with him. He went to Case Western Reserve and then he became, got a PhD ultimately in I think biology. Did a lot of important work on the anatomy of the frog, I think. Frogs were his specialty. Did a lot of important work early on. Anyway, yeah, he was my best friend. So yeah, my twin brother didn’t have so many friends, actually. He hung around with my friends.
Tortorice: So there’s this stereotype of identical twins of being extremely close and socializing together, spending all of their time together. Did you feel that way with your brother in those years at least, or when you were younger?
Kaplan: Well, we were fraternal twins, although we looked so much alike that people thought we were identical. But already in high school, he was combing his hair back and trying to look a little different.
Tortorice: From you.
Kaplan: From me. And I from him. I actually moved out of the bedroom we shared. I think I was a junior. I moved into the guest bedroom. Didn’t tell anybody. I just moved one day. My parents accepted it. By then, my mother was no longer as violent. I think mainly because I was a lot bigger. And it was just, it was just not a wise thing.
Tortorice: She was violent to you physically.
Kaplan: Oh, yeah. I mean, she once bashed my older brother’s head into a wall. And she was incredibly violent. In fact, when I was a student in Madison at one point, she got really pissed off at me—excuse my language—and she was going to call the police. And I said, “Why don’t you call the police?” She hesitated for a second. I said, “The police will come here. They will see you. They will see me. And they won’t be taking me away.” And that was really the end of the worst overt verbal violence. Physical violence had already ceased, because I was just too big. But the verbal violence still went on back then.
You know, getting back to your question about my twin brother and I, you know, he hung around with my friends. He was clearly influenced by my development of political instincts in my junior and senior year, especially—
Tortorice: So you were the one that really got that started.
Kaplan: Correct. Yeah, I became convinced the war in Vietnam was wrong by the end of my junior year. I mean, I could already see—and then in my senior year, it only got worse. Especially that summer with the faked attack on American naval ships.
Tortorice: That would have been 64? The summer of 64, you graduated—
Kaplan: I think the summer of 65 was the—
Tortorice: Okay. Right before you came to Madison.
Kaplan: Yeah. I might be wrong. It might have been 64. I just, you know, at age seventy-one now, I don’t remember as clearly the dates.
Tortorice: Well, the Gulf of Tonkin, I think, was 64.
Kaplan: Okay, then it would have been 64. Your memory might be right. I’m sure it’s better than mine.
Tortorice: After (laughs) LBJ was reelected, then it was in the fall.
Kaplan: Right. That’s right. In fact, I remember I took a bet from a guy who was a Goldwater supporter. And he bet me that Goldwater was going to win. I said, “How about 25 bucks?” Which was a lot of money in those days. But of course he lost. And to his credit, he gave me the 25 dollars.
Tortorice: And you took it. (laughs)
Kaplan: And I took it. He was a crazy rightwing guy.
Tortorice: Oh my gosh. So you already had this interest in politics and were engaged and understood that the war was a huge mistake, especially for your generation.
Kaplan: Right. And I was reading a lot of other things. I was reading things by and about Norman Thomas (1884-1968). I went to hear Norman Thomas give a lecture, the American Socialist Party leader. And Uncle Doc had given me all kinds of documents to read. And sometimes we would have fun with them. Like once my friend Tim and I went to the John Birch bookstore at night. I think it was in Winnetka, maybe it was another suburb, I can’t remember. But we left, I put the Daily Worker, which was the communist newspaper, in the mailbox. It didn’t have a name on it so they couldn’t trace it to anybody, but I thought it would be a fun thing to do.
Tortorice: So you and your brother, along with many of your contemporaries from the Chicago area, decided to come to University of Wisconsin. And you arrived with a political awareness in place in the fall of 65.
Kaplan: Mm hmm. Correct.
Tortorice: So what was Madison like when you first arrived? What were your impressions of Madison in those years?
Kaplan: Wow. It was, you know, first we had to live in a dormitory. So I lived in, I believe, Ogg West, I guess. And my twin brother lived on the lake, Lake Mendota in one of the—
Tortorice: Lakeshore dorms.
Kaplan: Yeah. I think, not the really nice old dorms, but the other set of dorms further down. Closer, I think, to Picnic Point. So we were separated. And what was it like? Well, dorm life was pretty oppressive. You had to share your room with a roommate. My first roommate was this poor guy from rural Wisconsin. And really, I had nothing in common with him. And I was probably an arrogant guy, you know, young kid. So he moved out and I got another roommate. And that roommate was awful. I was sorry that, in short order, that the other guy had left. And then I got a third roommate who was much better. His father was a judge in Wisconsin. Art was really a decent guy.
Tortorice: Do you remember his last name?
Kaplan: Not really.
Tortorice: I just was wondering if—never mind.
Kaplan: Can we take a short break for a second?
Tortorice: Sounds like it is. Okay, after a brief break, we are resuming our interview with Michael Kaplan. So you arrived in Madison and were in the dorms and had some roommate issues your first semester, which is not uncommon. Those were the years where there was a strict policy in place for in loco parentis.
Tortorice: That actually George Mosse was on the committee that revised all of those rules a few years later. So you’re in the dorms and starting to settle into Madison. So, did you take history courses right away when you were in Madison? I mean, is that where your interest was?
Kaplan: Well, I had a strong interest in history. And I’m certain, my memory is not perfect on this, I knew that Madison had a good history program. So that was one of the reasons why I self-selected Madison, as opposed to another campus.
Tortorice: So you had already heard of the history department—
Kaplan: Right. Right.
Tortorice: —as one of the best in the country.
Kaplan: Yeah. I’d not heard of George or other history professors by name, but I knew that it was a good history department. So I started taking history courses right away. But I also had a lot of trouble in school. And I remember we had an orientation at Camp Randall. And you were speaking of in loco parentis. And one of the speakers for the administration said to us, it was incredibly cold. He said, “Look to the left. Look to the right.” And gave a percentage, which was quite high, of how many people would flunk out and would not be there within the year. And of course at that time, if you flunked out, you ended up being drafted in many cases.
Tortorice: That was probably Dean [Theodore] Zillman, George’s bête noir. (laughs)
Kaplan: Yeah. So that was a fairly, and it was just a huge number of people in Camp Randall.
Tortorice: It was a huge, those were the large, first huge classes.
Tortorice: Because the university at that point believed in this idea of, well, the culture believed in this idea of universal free, basically free higher education. Which lasted about five years. Ten years, at the most. And you were one of those first huge classes that came through.
Kaplan: Right. And I was very lucky. My grandfather paid for my education, because my parents did not have any money. And my father would have preferred I go to some kind of school that was quite different than Madison.
Tortorice: Oh, that’s great.
Kaplan: So, you know, the in loco parentis was really quite oppressive. You had to wear a tie and a coat to the Sunday meals. Which were frequently overcooked and not particularly appetizing. So I would ditch the Sunday meals and go somewhere else to eat.
Tortorice: And you had to be in every evening at a particular time, and no interactions with opposite sex, I imagine.
Kaplan: Well, the opposite sex interactions, yeah, you were not supposed to. But I know students violated that. As far as our having a curfew, I think it applied to the women, but not to the men. My memory might be in error on that.
Tortorice: So you, in your first semester, already took a history course.
Kaplan: Right. Right.
Tortorice: And do you recall what course that was?
Kaplan: Well, I think I took one of the introductory courses that George taught my freshman year. And I don’t remember the name of it.
Tortorice: History 3 or something like that?
Kaplan: I just don’t remember the name, John. But I remember I had read a novel called The Painted Bird (1965) by Jerzy Kosiński (1933-1991), which had a horrifying picture on it by Hieronymus Bosch. And it was basically a novel of a kid of uncertain origin, possibly Jewish, maybe something else, who had survived the Nazi killing fields in Poland. And I gave it to George to read. I just happened to stop by his office. And I was kind of this shy, timid kid. And he read it. He said he liked it.
Tortorice: He probably knew about it, I would think, before you told him about it. And it was typical of him to welcome you and to welcome this recommendation and not say, “Well, I’ve already read that,” or, “I know about that book.” So I think that’s really—
Kaplan: Yeah, he was a nice guy. And of course his class was, you know, quite interesting. Although not an easy class to take. There was no, you know, invented curve. So if you got a B or an A, you had to work for it.
Tortorice: Oh, yeah. I would say that he, this was a serious business for him. And he expected the students to be very attentive and serious and, from my understanding, he could be quite aggressive if they weren’t. You felt that you were in a place where your attention was demanded. And as we said, it wasn’t easy. He deliberately made it hard.
Kaplan: It certainly was not easy. I never experienced any aggression from him, whatsoever. I know he was, he could, at least in the early years when I was there, he could be pretty harsh with some women. (laughs)
Tortorice: Yes. Yes. In the class, who he felt were not up to snuff.
Tortorice: Or students who weren’t being attentive.
Tortorice: And you’re saying in particular it was the women that he—
Kaplan: I just have very vague memories. It wasn’t something really way over the top. But if he saw somebody who clearly was, you know, looked like they were there not for good reasons, and/or not working and were talking during his lecture—
Tortorice: He’d let them know.
Kaplan: He’d let them know.
Tortorice: In that way, he would let the rest of the students know what was expected.
Kaplan: Right, right.
Tortorice: Well that whole question of George and his female students is one that is worth exploring. And how he changed over the years. And also the milieu that he came from and the period that he came from.
Kaplan: Sure. Absolutely.
Tortorice: And perhaps some also personal issues. We won’t go into that right now, but it certainly was there.
Kaplan: And I wouldn’t say that George was any better or any worse than anybody else, you know.
Tortorice: Right. That’s true. His generation.
Kaplan: It was just a different time period for a woman in university at that time.
Tortorice: And there certainly weren’t any women professors in the department, God forbid. Yes.
Kaplan: And not that I would say any of us or most of us even thought that a significant issue, that would include the female students. It just was. You just accepted it. We didn’t have that kind of awareness of oh, there’s no women. Maybe there should be women.
Tortorice: Well, as an aside, I think we have been looking at the SDS handbook from, I believe 1967, we decided when that was from, or maybe a little later?
Kaplan: Sixty-six or 67. I think 66, maybe.
Tortorice: Which lists a number of organizations and, well, ideas and concerns of SDS. But women’s liberation and the women’s movement is not mentioned, which I think is very telling. (laughs)
Kaplan: Yeah. And there were lots of other groups that weren’t mentioned. There’s no mention of gays. And there’s a shallow understanding of minorities or other minorities. So, yeah.
Tortorice: So you started to take history courses. You took this first course from George. Were there other courses or professors that you recall from those early years?
Kaplan: There certainly were. Now I’m not clear on the timelines, but I took a class in Russian history from Michael Petrovich (1922-1989). I took a number of classes with Harvey Goldberg (1922-1987). I did with Mosse, too. I believe at least two classes. I took many other history classes. One in Chinese history.
Tortorice: With Boardwell? Boardman? Eugene Boardman (1910-1987)?
Kaplan: No, it wasn’t Boardman.
Tortorice: Maurice Meisner (1931-2012)?
Kaplan: Yeah, Meisner. I took a class in Chinese history with Meisner. And there were still other history classes. But it’s so long ago, John, I can’t tell you the exact times when I took these. And I don’t have a transcript in front of me with my grades. I threw that out a long time ago. (laughter)
Tortorice: Well, in any case, because I was there a few years after you, what a great department.
Kaplan: Oh, yeah.
Tortorice: I hate to put words in your mouth. But I mean my God, what an education.
Kaplan: You know, even at the time I realized Mosse was a standout professor. And my best friend, Tim, visited me in Madison and I took him to a lecture with George. It might have been my own class that Tim sat in on. And he thought he was a pretty good lecturer, too.
Goldberg was a great lecturer. But Goldberg, Harvey Goldberg, he was more theatrical. I mean, George could be theatrical, too, on the stage when he was lecturing. But there was something about Harvey that was almost staged to a larger extent. I mean, he would get very dramatic. He took off his glasses. And then it was as if there was a tape-recording running, tape recorder running, and he would start. And he also wasn’t, he didn’t—he had stronger biases than George. And George was more interested in the students. You never saw Harvey in the Student Union sitting down with his students at that time. George held court at a table in the cafeteria when the weather was not good, and maybe sometimes even when the weather was good. (laughs) But sometimes outside as well on the Union terrace. And you know, you could engage in those conversations even as an undergraduate.
Tortorice: Well, were you aware that George was Jewish?
Kaplan: I knew he was Jewish. I knew he was a German Jewish refugee.
Tortorice: He made that clear. Because in those years, his focus on Jewish history came through his regular courses.
Kaplan: Right. Right. And even if he had not been clear about it, by then I knew enough about Nazi history and Jewish history in central Europe. I first became aware of the Holocaust in the 50s as a child. One of my relatives was, he had survived Auschwitz. I can’t remember exactly, but he must have told me as a small child that his family had been murdered there, meaning his wife and children. And also, I was a small child, at some point after that, my father went to some kind of trade fair in Chicago. And he and my older brother brought back a book on Auschwitz that was published by the Polish government communists. And the pictures were horrifying. I’d never seen pictures like that. People that were naked, people who were on their way to the gas chambers. I found out much later in life that a lot of those pictures were actually of Hungarian Jews being murdered.
Tortorice: And that was your background.
Kaplan: Right. On my mother’s side. And of course even on my father’s side. When I finally went to Ukraine to meet his half-sister, my Aunt Sara, and my first cousin, Semen, which would have been his nephew, I found out that some of our relatives had been murdered by the Einsatzgruppen.
Kaplan: Yes. In Ukraine. There was a city called Mariupol where his uncle was murdered.
Tortorice: So that was, in your generation, in those years, that was not a major topic of study. Certainly in school you didn’t learn anything about it, I assume.
Kaplan: It wasn’t a major topic in school, no. That’s correct.
Tortorice: How about in the, like in the synagogue, or in the Jewish community? Was this an important topic? A central topic to Jewish identity in those years? Was it known about?
Kaplan: It was not yet a central topic. And I think my family was a kind of symbol of the difficulty. Because the people in my family that had survived the Nazi period, Sandor, his family had been in Auschwitz, he actually had lived in Chicago at one point but returned to Hungary. You know, I didn’t find out about that until much later. I assumed he’d always been in Hungary. He spoke with a thick Hungarian accent. And then his wife Ilona, her children, her son and father were murdered. Excuse me, her son and husband were murdered. And she ended up in Ravensbrück, I think that’s the name of the camp. So, yeah, we knew in the family about these people. And we even knew he had gone to Germany in the first war crimes trial of SS by the German government. In Frankfurt. But it was compartmentalized. And you didn’t talk to these people about this subject. They didn’t talk about it. It’s interesting. When I was a small child, I learned more from Sandor than I did when I was a teenager. And also he had moved to Arizona for health reasons. His health was never good after being in Auschwitz. So, it was compartmentalized. It wasn’t widely discussed. I don’t remember anything in the synagogue about it.
Tortorice: Or in school. Public school.
Kaplan: No. Certainly not in public school.
Tortorice: So you came to Madison and did you connect with the Jewish community? What was it like to be Jewish in Madison in 1965? Did you feel discrimination? Did you feel any sense of outsider status?
Kaplan: Definitely outsider status. Because there were openly antisemitic people in the state legislature. They were using code language. Everybody, not everybody, but many of us knew they were talking about New Yorkers demonstrating and acting out and calling for restrictions on out of state people. We knew that was directed against Jewish people, many of us. But in the same breath, we compartmentalized it. So it wasn’t talked about, this is antisemitic, by a lot of people that I was familiar with.
As far as other Jews, I was, on the one hand I felt subconsciously, maybe, drawn toward them. And then at the same time, felt different. Especially if they came from a more overtly Jewish background. Because mine was secular. It was also the problem of my father’s identity. By then I knew my father had not grown up in America. Because I found old photographs of him as a much younger person in my older brother’s closet.
Tortorice: So he had never told you this.
Kaplan: No. No. In fact, he would tell things that would confuse his origins. Or he would let stories stand uncorrected that confused his origins. So growing up, I thought at one point his family, his mother had gone to Argentina or to South Africa. But that was never the case. His mother died in Ukraine in the 1950s, I found out much later.
Tortorice: What do you think that was all about? It’s not that unusual, if you think about Madeleine Albright’s (b. 1937) family, and many other examples of not, in a sense, wanting to burden their children. They wanted their children to be American, I suppose, and to not be burdened by history. Do you think that was the motivation? Or was there something else going on?
Kaplan: Well, you know, he wasn’t an intellectual. And I doubt he thought things through like that. But I think there’s at least two possible factors. One, you know, coming from the Soviet Union to America. And then falling out, having a falling out with his biological father who brought him over, he was cut off from family. So he, I found out much later that he sent money to them in the 30s and the Second World War cut that off. He sent packages. So he was cut off. They were, his, there were some family in America, but he had nothing to do with them. Then there was family in Ukraine that he had left, then part of the Soviet Union. So again, I don’t think it was he didn’t want to burden us. But I think he wanted to become American. And he didn’t want that talked about. Because it was possibly a bit dangerous at times in the United States in the 50s to acknowledge you came from a communist country.
The other factor which he may have been significant, I think he grew up, because he didn’t have a father present, he may have been teased by people, his peers. He spoke some Yiddish. And one of the words that I remember he using was “mumser,” which I think is a bastard. Which would have been synonymous with being born out of wedlock. And he, you know, he was very, he would make fun of Sears Roebuck babies, people who were adopted. And I think that was a protective attack to protect his own insecurities. But it’s difficult to know. I never had, really, any intimate conversations with my father. A lot of this stuff I pieced together by interviewing people in the 80s and the 90s who knew him. So I knew when he came to America, he didn’t speak a word of English. He just spoke Russian. And of course some Yiddish. He had grown up with a secular background in the Russian empire and then communism. In fact, he was even in the communist in the Komsomol, I found out in the late 80s, no, in the 90s. I found out about this in the 1990s.
Tortorice: But he had no overtly political agenda for you from, that was not something that he discussed, obviously, with you, his own political history.
Kaplan: No. And he didn’t regard, probably, that as really something that he authentically believed in. But rather that was something that had been, he grew up in that milieu and he had left it and then that was left. And he was rather conservative. I mean, he voted Democrats for I think possibly up to Nixon. I don’t know who he voted for after Nixon. Including Nixon. He might have voted for Nixon. But he was for the war in Vietnam and he was not sympathetic to civil rights. And my mother was prejudiced as well. So.
Tortorice: So you’re in Madison. You’re taking courses in the history department. You’re getting settled in. So what motivated you to get involved politically in the antiwar movement, and I gather in SDS, even. I think it’s hard to explain what it was like in those years in terms of the feeling of empowerment and potential. And also that circle around the history department. Because you had something like six hundred doctoral students, graduate students in the department. And you had these huge enrollments in these courses.
Kaplan: Mm hmm. Yeah.
Tortorice: And this was one of the major, well, pillars of the antiwar movement, I assume, that a lot of the people who were most active were from the history department.
Kaplan: Many of them were. You know, I would explain my attraction as kind of a slow and steady movement in, and then a slow and steady movement out. So I was already against the war by the time I came to Madison. And then I got active in going to antiwar meetings, including SDS. SDS did not have like a formal membership where you signed up and paid your dues and you got a card. But I went to SDS meetings. I also went to some Young People Socialist League meetings. But I felt SDS was, it was something that, it resonated with me more than Young People Socialist League. And the Young People Socialist League, they had these crazy factions. Of course, eventually SDS did the same. But—
Tortorice: So we’re talking here about 1966, maybe 67 already?
Kaplan: Well, I was already going to antiwar meetings in 65 and 66. And actually there was a funny incident that happened. It was a “we won’t go” statement. People were, if they were drafted, they wouldn’t go. And it was published in the Daily Cardinal. And I was walking around in the dorm and people were congratulating me on my bravery. And I had no idea what the hell they were talking about. And someone pointed to the Daily Cardinal. So I read it. And there was my name on the list. Now how my name got on the list, I have no idea to this day. I thought for a brief while that maybe I should talk to these people and take my name off the list. And then I thought no, that would look really bad. So I just left my name on the list. And at that time, you didn’t know what was going to happen if you did such a thing. You didn’t know whether there would be retaliation or not. But I thought okay, if there’s retaliation, I’ll have to live with it. And also I didn’t want to look bad by taking my name off the list.
And then I decided you know, I wouldn’t go. I didn’t really understand the consequences of that if you actually were drafted and you wouldn’t go what would happen to you. Because I was still a kid. I was eighteen, nineteen. Because when I graduated from New Trier, since my birthday was in July, I was seventeen in June when I graduated in ‘65. And then I was still a teenager while this was going on. So it was just a funny, strange thing. (laughs) So I was so brave. Well, I wasn’t brave; it was accidental. (laughs) I was an accidental so –called quote unquote “brave” student. You know?
What else did I get into? Well, there were demonstrations. I think the Dow Chemical demonstration was 67?
Tortorice: Sixty-seven. October. Yeah.
Kaplan: So I was on Bascom Hill. Kind of part of the demonstration yet not part of the demonstration. My twin brother was in the Commerce Building, which I didn’t know at the time. I didn’t find out about that until afterwards. And I think he, you know, he saw far more than I did. Although I was teargassed. All of a sudden, they were launching teargas and I saw these police beating people. I heard, I remember hearing the billy club. There’s a certain sound when a billy club hits a head. You don’t forget it. I mean, it’s really a, it’s a special sound. It’s not like anything else.
It was pretty awful. I got much more active as a result. There was, I think there was a candlelit demonstration, a big one. There was also a demonstration where we formed a line. And when the faculty took a vote on this, and they had to walk, the faculty had to walk in between and then walk out. I can’t remember George’s position on that exactly. You may have a better handle on that than myself.
Tortorice: Well, that’s—George said that he was against the war from the beginning. And I think that’s true. He never supported the war. He was way too smart for that.
Kaplan: That I knew. Yeah. But I was thinking, what did he stand for on the Dow demonstration, because I can’t remember.
Tortorice: Well, his role in the [David] Maraniss book [They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967 (2004)], George is given this key role of pleading the students’ position at the faculty meeting. And yet we have not been able to, and Maraniss cites certain documents that he came across from a closed meeting. We have not been able to locate those documents or confirm that. I think George was criticized and in some cases broke friendships, ostracized by certain faculty members on campus because of his more balanced approach. He certainly was not in favor of some of the things that the students did.
I recall something in particular about the Dow protests and how he went to the administration to modify some of their approaches to students that had been arrested, etcetera. So I think he did play an important role. I don’t think necessarily that this was appreciated by the students. I think they felt that he was just not supportive of their role.
Kaplan: My memory is in accord with yours. I seem to remember he was critical of the students, but he was also at the same time pointing out some of the mistakes of the administration. And I think your summary is accurate. My memory is kind of tricky, because I’m not certain what George said or did not say. And there have been so many books about the time period. Some people approached me to be in their books, some did not. Maraniss I never heard from, even though my twin brother is included in his book. And even though my twin brother mentions my older brother, who was in Vietnam at that time, for odd reasons unknown to me, my twin brother doesn’t mention me.
There was another book, Rads or Reds or something [Rads: The 1970 Bombing of the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin and Its Aftermath (1992)]—
Tortorice: By Tom Bates. Right.
Kaplan: Yeah. And I think he lived in Portland, Oregon. Yeah, he did. He interviewed me but I didn’t end up in the book I think because I had changed so much by then he seemed to be disappointed in me. So.
Tortorice: Now it’s my—
Kaplan: I’ll tell you how that got set up, even.
Tortorice: So we were talking about, before this little break, we were talking about the lines of students that gathered outside the faculty meeting. And this would have been in 67, right after Dow.
Kaplan: Yeah. It seems like that’s correct. I know that there had been a demonstration organized by some faculty members either before or after that which marched from the Memorial Library up to the State Capitol. It was a silent march. But then there was this famous faculty meeting. And a lot of the students were quite upset. I’m certain I was quite upset at the time, but again, it’s hard to know exactly what I was feeling and thinking then, because it was so long ago. And a graduate student, rather than, he did a really smart thing. Instead of letting people scream and shout and, you know, he said, “You should all be quiet and form a line. Two quiet lines. And the faculty will walk between you.” And that turned out to be very effective. All the students were quiet, for the most part. I don’t know this graduate student’s name. But I know he was an African American guy.
Tortorice: It was history.
Kaplan: Yeah, I think he was a history student.
Kaplan: But I’m not 100% about that. But he was very smart and very wise. He was older than us and he understood the value of a symbol, which this was. This discipline, quiet set of two lines in which the faculty had to walk. And I remember even George walked between us. But I—
Tortorice: Maybe that came out of the civil rights movement. I wonder. Like the South. Well, anyway. So you remember the faculty walking through there? Anyone else that you remember in particular walking down that perp walk?
Kaplan: Well, there were other faculty I’m certain that I knew. But—
Tortorice: You don’t remember Harvey Goldberg.
Tortorice: No. He may not have even gone to that meeting.
Kaplan: Yeah. I don’t even remember Harvey Goldberg speaking, although he might have or he might not have. I just don’t know. I remember George speaking. And one of the reasons I remember George is he had kind of a thick German accent. And so you know, that’s something that sticks with you. It imprints in your brain, and so you remember that.
Tortorice: And of course he’d been studying European youth movements for all of his career. So he was so well-prepared for this kind of evidence of political engagement. I mean, he wasn’t unprepared, unlike some of his colleagues. And he didn’t overreact.
Kaplan: I think you’re right. And then of course I have the advantage of hindsight. I now know that he was active to some extent himself as a young person.
Tortorice: Yes. Yes.
Kaplan: So he had, he could see more clearly than most of those folks the complexities of this antiwar movement. Yeah, there was a lot of arrogance. Yeah, there was a lot of acting out, a lot of stupidity. But there was also a lot of decency and moral clarity. Because although I knew that there were things wrong with the communist point of view even then, although I was silent sometimes regarding that. I didn’t want to alienate my peers. But nevertheless, the war in Vietnam was a moral issue. And you could see, as the war progressed, you could see things like tiger cages where people were tortured. Of course I also knew that when the American prisoners of war started to return, they clearly showed evidence of torture. And when you saw American POWs being interviewed, it was like watching The Manchurian Candidate (1962). They were clearly not speaking voluntarily. I knew this. But on the other side, I also knew of all the torture by the South Vietnamese and Americans participated in some of that. I knew about Operation Phoenix, when they were burning down the hamlets and executing all kinds of people. I knew about the effects of napalm, I saw photos, horrific photos of children suffering horrific injuries. You know I still remember this. In fact, sometimes when I would have intrusive images in rather peaceful surroundings, you know, these images would stay with me.
Tortorice: So as far as you remember, how was this, was this an organized movement? Was there a structure? I mean, how were demonstrations called? I mean, what was the political entity that directed this? Was there? Or was it really more from many different directions?
Kaplan: In the early years, say 65, 67, and perhaps even a bit later, very decentralized. Not particularly well organized. The meetings were often chaotic. The people that were the most disciplined tended to be people like Frank Emspak, who if he was not a member of the Communist Party, he was pretty close to the party. And everybody knew that. He was one of the sort of, there was an organization, End the War, something, I can’t remember the exact name. But Emspak was the spokesman for that. Whereas the SDS people tended to be less disciplined. Which was an attractive thing. Because the old-style communists were not particularly attractive for many reasons. Part of it was the youth culture. Part of it was some of the crimes of communism were already pretty obvious. And you know, they were older and kind of fuddy duddies. Emspak dressed a certain way that was old and fuddy duddy. And he was older, anyway. The left, the New Left people, SDS, were just different. But not well disciplined. And the demonstrations, one never knew how things were going to end up. I think the administration, or some of the people in the administration, thought that things were far more planned than they actually were.
I remember going up Bascom Hill. There was this Italian group doing an Italian partisan song, going up Bascom Hill to, they happened to be in town. I think it was just more by coincidence rather than, they were recruited to be on the hill. So they marched up the hill. So, yeah, very disorganized. Eventually it became more organized and it became also apparent that there were police provocateurs. The Madison Police Department had a number of police agents. There was a guy called Mark Bogans who, he used to talk about doing violent things. And by I think 68, 69, we either knew he was crazy, or he was a police agent. And it turned out he was a police agent. He blew his cover, I believe, over a drug bust.
Tortorice: Did you know a woman named Julie Maynard?
Kaplan: Name is familiar, but I don’t remember her.
Tortorice: She also was a provocateur and was a police agent.
Tortorice: And really spent the rest of her life in Madison and really was somewhat ostracized. And, I think, felt a lot of guilt about it. And really had a tragic life. She died very young.
Kaplan: Hmm. Well, there were other people that were accused of being agent provocateurs, or people who cooperated with the police and the FBI. Probably the most well-known is Ken [Kenny] Mate. But I don’t know that he was or he was not. But that’s what I heard.
Tortorice: Because he was at the 60s reunion. And he’s a good friend of a friend of mine. So that really interests me. I will check up on that one.
Kaplan: Yeah. I know he got ostracized because he attacked one of his girlfriends. He was physically violent with her. And that kind of pushed him off to the side. He was kind of a loudmouth and character. But I don’t know that he was or was not an agent provocateur cooperating with the police.
Tortorice: So there wasn’t a lot of structure. But it seems, if I recall, that almost every night there was some kind of meeting called, there was some kind of political engagement that could be pursued. It was a very exciting time in that way.
Kaplan: Oh, yeah.
Tortorice: It didn’t leave a lot of time for studying, I can imagine. (laughs)
Kaplan: Yeah, it impacted on my studies. And I was a bad student to begin with. Because you could sit at literature tables, you could read the literature, you could protest corporations recruiting on campus. And eventually it spread into the classrooms. People could protest the way teaching was done. And we eventually, there was a group of us that formed the History Students Association. And that led to some acting out against the history faculty.
Tortorice: So do you remember specific instances of that?
Kaplan: Well, one that one of my roommates reminded me of that I had forgotten, maybe repressed, I apparently, after Dow, I think, this occurred. There was a meeting maybe in the law university or the law college. And the history faculty and history students, and the history faculty didn’t pass a resolution that we thought they should pass. And I remember getting up and saying, “You guys are full of bullshit! And in case you don’t know what that stands for, it’s B-U-L-L S-H-I-T.” Which of course was absolutely stupid, you know, especially in hindsight. But even then I felt somewhat guilty. But I was angry. I lost my temper.
Tortorice: Was this a class that you were in, or was it—
Kaplan: No, this was some faculty meeting.
Tortorice: Was George at it? Do you recall?
Kaplan: I don’t remember.
Tortorice: I think he remembers being confronted by students at some of the meetings and essentially the faculty getting up and walking out. Do you recall that happening?
Kaplan: I’m certain it happened. Because I heard of things like that. But my memory is not that good anymore about that period. So I can’t remember the specifics.
Tortorice: But it became something that bleached into the student relationship with the faculty—
Tortorice: —of the establishment and the current political structure that had allowed things like Vietnam to take place.
Kaplan: Well, right. Eventually you know, people were producing research pamphlets on the university as an arm of the American military. And of course Madison did not have a lot of military research, or research that had clear military implications. The one place that was tagged as having that was the Army Math Research Center. And I knew people that wrote about that. Jim Rowen, for example. Who, I think he’s in Milwaukee. Yeah, he lives in Milwaukee at this point. He worked for the Milwaukee Journal, and he may still do some writing for them, but I’m not certain. Anyway, he married one of Senator McGovern’s daughters. And I think two of Senator McGovern’s daughters went to Madison. One tragically died of alcoholism. She froze to death outside a bar. I think maybe in the 70s? Yeah, maybe in the 70s. [Teresa McGovern, (1949-1994)].
Tortorice: So, we’re in the middle of the protests. We’re, it’s an exciting time. Now you had mentioned that you were arrested.
Kaplan: Oh, yeah.
Tortorice: What happened there?
Kaplan: Well, there was a demonstration, kind of roving demonstration where we moved around the campus, occasionally blocking traffic, whatever. And near Van Hise and near Ag Hall, on the street below those buildings, the police saw me. And either because they recognized me, and I think, you know, I was not an important person in SDS. But because I was a twin and we were visible, you know—
Tortorice: Was your brother more active? Was he more high profile?
Kaplan: He became more active, especially after I left. But when I graduated ahead of him, I left Madison almost a year ahead of him. Anyway, they saw me on the street and I think they probably recognized me. And all of a sudden, I was being hustled off by police with huge billy clubs, lifted up by the scruff of my jacket. My twin brother’s yelling, “Leave my brother alone!” And I’m thinking Bill, please don’t say anything. They’re going to beat the crap out of me. Fortunately, they didn’t. They just put me on a bus and then I was taken to jail. But I was bailed out by the students who collected bail money. And we got Mel Greenberg as our lawyer. The charges were eventually dismissed because the policemen didn’t show up in court. But yeah, I remember I was terrified they were going to beat the shit out of me because they knew who I was.
These guys were really angry. I mean, they were bringing cops in from the countryside. And they regarded a lot of us as, you know, we knew they regarded us as New York Jews. Chicago Jews. As well as, you know, outside agitators and that kind of crap. So we knew that if we got arrested, things were not going to go well.
Tortorice: Well and in some ways, that was the beginning of a split between the university and the wider state population that just grew and grew.
Kaplan: Yeah. Yeah.
Tortorice: And the university didn’t really respond to it until fairly recently. That’s my own opinion. But anyway, you were bailed out. You weren’t actually imprisoned for very long.
Kaplan: No. I was in jail a short time. Nothing bad happened to me in jail. I had my own cell.
Tortorice: You were not (laughs) molested or, I shouldn’t say—
Kaplan: Nobody touched me.
Tortorice: Okay. Did you have any conversations, direct conversations with George Mosse about the student protests and about—
Kaplan: We talked about Vietnam and some other things. But you know, I was only a teenager or a guy in my early twenties. George was an important faculty member. I was kind of shy. Although by then I called him George. And you know, he let students call him by his first name. You know, I was rather unimportant. He had students that would sit at the table with him who knew more than me in terms of intellectual pursuits. I had a roommate, Jeff Herf, who would often talk with George. But I was more shy, withdrawn. And also, I was having my own troubles. I had a lot of depressive episodes throughout my time in Madison, which I never shared with people. Because they wouldn’t have understood and there was too much stigma with it. And also, I was conflicted about my sexual orientation. Again, you couldn’t talk about that stuff, especially before 69.
Tortorice: Did you think there was any university support for students who were having issues with depression and anxiety and that sort of thing? It seems to me that it was pretty much sink or swim.
Kaplan: It was sink or swim. There were some faculty and/or people in the dean’s office that occasionally helped people. I know Harvey Goldberg helped one guy who became an important part of the Board of Visitors for the Center for Jewish Studies. Now I’m trying to think, he and his wife do music together. Harvey Goldberg was very nice to him. And I know that George talked to students and probably helped them a lot.
But in my case, it was a dean, Jack Cipperly, he was very kind to me. He and his wife Kay had no children. And I don’t know if Jack realized I was depressed. He certainly knew I had troubles, because he called me in to meet with him because my grades weren’t doing a great job. And I was in danger I might possibly have to drop out or bounce out. He was very kind to me. I went to a couple of movies with him. You know, he was a really sweet guy. He and his wife, I still know them to this day. They’re wonderful people.
Tortorice: So he somehow understood that you were having difficulties. And he, in a subtle way, in a respectful way, he provided you with attention and support.
Kaplan: Right. Yeah, he did a great job. I mean, especially given that there were no formal supports that were easily accessed or available, or even perceived as easily accessed and/or available. So, yeah, he did a nice job.
Tortorice: Great. So, well, that brings up this whole question of whether you—
Kaplan: Well, there’s one other thing I should go back. When I was arrested, my picture ended up, oddly enough, on the front page of the Capital Times. I forgot all about that. So then I became much more well known. But it was sort of by accident. Anybody could have been arrested. Anyone could have been on the front page.
Tortorice: It’s amazing.
Kaplan: There was not something special about me. But people assumed it was.
Tortorice: How did your parents react to that?
Kaplan: Well, I told my mother I was arrested. She got very upset. I never talked to my father about it, although I found out later he lost business. He was a salesman selling lighting fixtures. And some people refused to do business with him. Probably partly because of that picture. I think he had a copy of it. But I don’t know that for sure. But I forgot all about that. I was on the front page of the Capital Times. It must have been in 68. You could probably find it in the archives. I had really long hair.
Tortorice: We’ll have to find that picture. Put it with your interview. (laughs)
Kaplan: Yeah. Okay. Sorry to interrupt you. Yeah. Sorry to interrupt you.
Tortorice: Oh, no problem. So, that brings up this whole question of sexual identity and dealing with that in a period where the university certainly wasn’t supportive. In fact, there had been purges in the years just prior to your arrival.
Tortorice: It probably was a very repressed and repressive time for a gay man.
Kaplan: Very repressed. And sadly, the New Left and SDS had their own repression regarding that. I mean, I remember this one woman, Silvia Baraldini (b. 1947), who later became really a whacked out, far left person. She participated in a bank robbery and people got killed, a guard or two policemen or a guard got killed. She eventually was let out to spend time in prison in Italy. And then the Italian government released her. But what I remember is she called Harvey Goldberg a fag.
Kaplan: She didn’t say that about Mosse. But pretty much, well, a lot of people knew that Harvey and George were gay. They didn’t talk about it, but you know, they would make innuendoes.
Tortorice: She didn’t call Harvey a fag to his face—
Tortorice: This was something that in conversation—
Kaplan: I don’t even know why she did it with me. But I heard it and I was quiet, although I was really pissed off at her. And I never held her in any esteem thereafter.
Tortorice: She probably was involved in that situation in Chicago where there was that, you know—
Kaplan: The Weathermen, you mean?
Tortorice: Mm hmm.
Kaplan: She might have been. I don’t know. I mean, I was, well, we’ll talk about sexual identity. We’ll get into other things about antiwar movement in Chicago and whatever else you want to talk about that. So I’ll let you lead the questioning?
Tortorice: So you were dealing with your sexual identity in a very repressed time. Well, tell me about the challenges. Did you come out as gay? Or was it more a slow process? Did you meet other people?
Kaplan: It was a slow and steady process. I think the whole not in of coming out, especially now at age 71, you’re never done coming out. You’re always coming out to somebody. So, yeah, I met people who were openly gay on campus and some people who were not openly gay. The people that were openly gay on campus, they had a lot of harassment and stigma. But not probably as bad as some of the time periods after that. I mean, I didn’t see much evidence of violence.
Tortorice: Do you remember any names of the people that were openly gay?
Kaplan: Or at least perceived as gay. Well, there was one guy, Steve A. who had relations with Harvey Goldberg and that I had relations with, sexual relations with Steve at one point thereafter, I think around 1970. But yeah, you know, it was difficult. I didn’t know how I fitted in. Because I was increasingly not fitting in in SDS because I was gay. And especially when the Black Panthers developed. They were at times, I mean, they did some good things. But they also had a lot of negative things. They could be antisemitic. They were very homophobic, especially in late 69, early 70. Then they became supposedly more sympathetic to gays. But I was finding myself not at home.
And then I was also distancing myself from the left anyway. Again, it was slow and it was back and forth. There was the purge of Jews in Poland by the Communist Party, which really hit me hard. It’s funny that such an event like that would hit me so hard. But it did, because it was so clearly antisemitic, and nobody talked about it. And that kind of worried me.
But not fitting in with the left anymore. And the left became more and more obsessed with action and direct action and this kind of stuff. Take another break, please.
26 February 2019:
Tortorice: Good morning, Michael. We are back in Tucson for part two of the interview with you. Today is Monday, February 26. Thank you again for agreeing to do this.
Kaplan: You are welcome. Good morning.
Tortorice: Good morning. So we ended yesterday beginning to talk about issues of sexual identity. But let’s go back to your engagement with political protest and your time at UW studying between 1965 and 1970. Tell me about 1968. And you had mentioned previously that in some ways circumstances had dictated your profile in the movement. That you were on the front page of the local paper by a fluke. That you were listed as protestor by a fluke. It wasn’t really your own motivation. But I assume going to the Democratic Convention in 1968 was something that you did. And that you were very keen on doing.
Kaplan: Let me just back up. I was motivated to be in the antiwar protests that landed me on the front page. What I wanted to suggest is I was no more important than anybody else.
Tortorice: I see.
Kaplan: And so that my picture on the front page was just an accident. Or, as you put it, a fluke. But the motivation was there. It was just by being on the front page, it didn’t make me any more important than anybody else. But I think the media needed something, some image to focus on. And it was much more than it really was, that picture.
Tortorice: Okay. So tell me about 1968. Were you engaged with the [Eugene] McCarthy (1916-2005) campaign? Were you at that point a fan of liberal democracy? Had you switched to a more establishment view of the process? Or were you still pretty much alienated, and you went to the Democratic Convention to protest?
Kaplan: I think I was conflicted. I thought Eugene McCarthy was insufficient and had some failings. But on the other hand, I hoped that he might succeed. When Kennedy ran, Robert Kennedy (1925-1968) ran, I was more sympathetic. And particularly as events unfolded in 1968, he was very eloquent following the murder of Martin Luther King [Jr. (1929-1968)]. Which, by the way, when King was murdered was the day when I’d been running for student president for the United Campus Party [United Community Action]. I was defeated that day, fortunately. Because in hindsight especially I really would have had no idea how to run the student government.
Tortorice: So what motivated you to run?
Kaplan: I’m not really certain. You know, my twin brother was suggesting I run, and some other people did. You know, my memory of that time is rather vague. But there were four people on the ticket. There was myself as president. There was Peter Abbott as vice president. Lyle Greenman as treasurer and Ann Kottler as secretary. I think Ann Kottler was maybe the most sane of all the four of us. But anyway, I was quite happy when I lost. I think that was a blessing.
Anyway, Martin Luther King being murdered was far more important. And then of course there was the subsequent murder of Robert Kennedy. When Robert Kennedy was murdered, I thought the prospects for liberal democracy were not great. As I said earlier, I was a slow movement into the New Left, and a slow movement out. And there were great periods of being conflicted. So we talked briefly about what happened to the Jews in communist Poland in 67. And I was just very disappointed and distraught over what was clearly an antisemitic purge. And then in 68, there were all kinds of events going on in the world. You know, there were the murders, there were the political murders in the United States. But there were also the protest movement in Czechoslovakia, which resulted in the eventual replacement of reformist communist government over the old regime. And so the war in Vietnam was just a part of all of that. And in hindsight, I can see that the antiwar movement simply had insufficient appreciation of the particular persecution dilemmas of African Americans in the United States, let alone things outside of the United States.
Anyway, I was conflicted about liberal democracy at that time. I think if Robert Kennedy had not been murdered, and had he gone on to win the nomination and perhaps the presidency, things might have worked out quite differently, and I might have left the New Left, so to speak, earlier than I did.
Tortorice: So tell me about how you decided to attend the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. Was that something that was common? I mean, Chicago is fairly close to Madison. You had strong connections in Chicago. It would be logical that you would go. Tell me about your experiences there. Your motivation for going, what happened, the aftermath.
Kaplan: I can only speak for myself. But I think, I didn’t have a particularly well thought out plan to go and do this or do that. It just seemed like okay, it’s going to be in Chicago. I was born in Chicago, lived in Chicago, I’m going to go. And I attended the demonstration against the Democratic Convention against the war in Vietnam in Grant Park with my twin brother and also my best friend at the time, Tim Neary. And as we were lining up to demonstrate, we could see the National Guard. I think we could certainly see the Chicago police. But we were further back in the demonstration. By the time we reached Michigan Avenue, there had already been a lot of breaking of billy clubs on heads, arrests and bloodshed. I had one memory of a guy being pushed against a plate glass window and falling into the plate glass window. My friend Tim had been born with a leg that limps. So he limped. And he couldn’t run very fast. And I wasn’t going to leave him behind, but I was terribly frightened that I was going to get clubbed over the head because police were going pretty crazy. I understand that other memories of the demonstrations have some people throwing things at the police. And that very well may have happened. I never saw it, though. From where I was situated, I just saw the police violence.
So Tim and I somehow managed to get away. I’m not sure if my brother was with me at that point or not. I don’t remember. But I do remember Tim and I sort of somehow getting away. It was very sad. it was very, you know, my association of the Democratic Convention and the antiwar movement during that day or days was basically we were being defeated because on the floor of the Democratic Convention, Richard Daley and many others were basically ensuring that Hubert Humphrey (1911-1978) was going to be nominated. And Hubert Humphrey had shown no willingness to disengage from Vietnam. So it was a pretty sad day.
By the way, there was a demonstration of Black Americans, African Americans, led by the Poor People’s Campaign, it was occurring also in 1968 at the Democratic Convention.
Tortorice: Ralph Abernathy (1926-1990), right?
Kaplan: Yeah. Yeah, I think he was there. They, we saw the remnants of that demonstration at some point during the day where so many terrible things happened. And then that night, or maybe the next night, I can’t remember, I saw a local talk show, Irv Kupcinet (1912-2003) and he was interviewing I think Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) and a bunch of others. Ginsberg, of course, had been a leading sort of figurehead protest leader. But he wasn’t actually in charge of anything, he just was there. Anyway, Ginsberg was quite eloquent in terms of basically when Kup was minimizing the police brutality, he was eloquently speaking about that.
One of my roommates from Madison, John Wechter, his brother was arrested then, Paul Wechter. But you know, whether you got arrested or didn’t, it was largely a matter of luck. Or bad luck (laughs) in Paul’s case.
Tortorice: And you weren’t, yourself, weren’t arrested.
Kaplan: No, I was not arrested. You didn’t have to do anything to get arrested. Just being at the demonstration, and if the police singled you out, you were arrested. Of course, some people may have done some things. But as I say, the people that I was with, I saw no aggressive actions against the police. I’m not saying it didn’t happen; I just didn’t see it.
Tortorice: Did you meet any people that you recall at this event? Any notable people with high profiles or others that you can recollect?
Kaplan: I think before the actual demonstration at Grant Park making its way to Michigan Avenue, I think we had gone to Lincoln Park the day before and seen some stuff. So I saw some so-called high-profile leaders, but I didn’t meet them personally. And I remember what became the Chicago Seven. I knew who they were, of course. Those were the people singled out as the leaders by the government for prosecution. But it was in many ways symbolic of a lot of things done by the antiwar movement, done by SDS. The leadership was not something that could tightly control things and orchestrate things. It was more informal and highly decentralized. It’s not like we were given instructions how to line up and where to go or anything like that.
Tortorice: Because it was portrayed as being, well, organized, structured and dictated by a kind of leftist conspiracy in the press. And in many people’s minds. Which of course then resonated so strongly in the fall election.
Kaplan: Right. And I think that’s just simply not supported by the facts. It was a very decentralized movement. Leaders were quote unquote “leaders.” They weren’t people that had great control over the individuals demonstrating. They didn’t have you know, a lot of money to spend. They didn’t have, there was no conspiracy. And actually, I think the conclusion of the Chicago Seven trial, well actually the daily events of that trial and the eventual conclusion and the eventual appeals and the overturning of the verdicts proved that there wasn’t any kind of a conspiracy.
Tortorice: Have you ever seen that movie by Haskell Wexler (1922-2015), Medium Cool (1969)?
Kaplan: Yeah, I did.
Tortorice: That’s a wonderful film about these events. So in the fall, you were back in Madison. In the fall of 68. So you had a couple more years there. Anything stand out in your mind? Classes? What were individuals, what were your experiences in those last two years at Madison?
Kaplan: Well, as SDS broke apart into more precise factions, people were sympathetic to the Weathermen, and then there was another group, I’m trying to remember the precise name for that group. Well, there was actually more than two groups. There were a number of groups. I kind of distanced myself more and more from that stuff. I was less interested in that. And I was preoccupied with more myself, my mood. I was quite depressed. And then also my coming to terms with my sexual orientation. So I continued to take history courses and continued to be modestly engaged in the antiwar movement. But I would say that my involvement was on a slow and steady decline out of that movement and into something less and less precise.
Tortorice: Did you focus more on the study of history at that point, as you pulled back from that more intense political engagement? Were you more engaged in the departmental opportunities or structures? If I recall those years, it was, there was such a sense of excitement and engagement with the study of history that there was this sense that history could explain both the past, but a path to the future. I mean, a real, almost messianic belief in the power of history amongst those people who were so sparked to political awakening, political consciousness.
Kaplan: Well, that was true for me I would say before the Democratic Convention. I think after the Democratic Convention, perhaps less so. You know, I was, the Czechs had been crushed by Soviet tanks. Not to say that there was any analogy between what happened in Chicago at the Democratic Convention. But the antiwar movement had its ass kicked, so to speak, in Chicago in 1968. Martin Luther King had been murdered. There had been riots and rebellions all over the United States in one African American community after another. And unfortunately, with little to show for it except a lot of death and destruction. And you know, especially in hindsight, I can see that the murder of King and Kennedy, those were the death knells of a hope in transformation of liberal democracy at that time. At least for me. I mean, but the question is, what to replace it with? And I was becoming more and more disenchanted with the notion of a socialist America. But as I say, it was a slow movement out. So I would go back and forth. So sometimes I could be still very supportive of either Democratic Socialism, whatever that meant. I think it was about as vague then as it is today.
And of course the Black Panthers were starting to develop. And you know, I was supportive of them to some extent. And certainly they were being persecuted by the FBI and in some cases even assassinated by local police and/or FBI. Although some of the individual Black Panthers certainly were not saints. And they had a lot of baggage anyway. They eventually slipped over into antisemitism and a lot of homophobic stuff. So that made it difficult, especially in 69 and 70. So I became more and more an outsider.
Tortorice: So tell me about the Black students strike in the spring of 1969, which essentially shut down the university. You had tanks on the street because the governor called out the National Guard. And you had a famous confrontation where George Mosse’s class was taken over by African American activists. And we have that on tape. It’s fascinating material. That, I think, was, in many ways, a culmination of that kind of beginning phases of the protest and a kind of transfer into a more aggressive, in-your-face politics that then, in the next year, between the beginning of 69 and the end of 70, you saw this kind of really radicalization.
Kaplan: I don’t remember any tanks on the street, by the way. They had armored—
Tortorice: Yeah, probably that. I’ve seen, I remember the army rolling down University Avenue. Probably they weren’t tanks, because they probably would have probably ground up the pavement. So, yeah. Armored vehicles. Because it was the National Guard, after all.
Kaplan: As far as the Black student strike, I was very conflicted. There weren’t many Black students on campus. There were very few Black faculty. I mean, I never had a Black faculty member while I was on campus. I never took a class from a person who was African American, Asian or Hispanic. I did have a roommate for a while who became a famous historian who was originally from Jamaica. He was a Black man, obviously.
Tortorice: What was his name?
Kaplan: Colin Palmer (b. 1944).
Tortorice: Colin Palmer.
Kaplan: Colin. C-O-L-I-N. He’s still alive and he’s a famous historian. Very nice guy. But he was one of the few people that I knew. There was another fellow that I knew, Woody White, who was an American, African American guy. But there were very few Black students. Very few voices of Black protest. So when the Black students, the few that existed, organized, I did not know many of these people. Most of them. Overwhelmingly, I did not know most of them. I knew a few who they were. There was another fellow that I knew, I think he developed schizophrenia. He was a very smart guy, but I can’t remember his name. He was a graduate student.
Tortorice: There was a Clarence Sherrod, I remember.
Kaplan: Oh, yeah. I remember him now.
Tortorice: He was very visible. There were a number of—
Kaplan: Yeah. And there was a couple. They eventually married, I think. Okay, so I didn’t know many of these people. As I say, the Black presence on campus was rather small. Then all of a sudden we had this Black students strike. On the one hand, I could be sympathetic to the sense of exclusion that people felt on the basis of being Black. On the other hand, as you put it, things were getting very aggressive. Not just from the Black students, but the predominantly white New Left as well. So taking over the classroom, no, I wasn’t sympathetic to that.
Tortorice: Shutting down the university.
Kaplan: I wasn’t sympathetic to that, either. But did I say anything against it? No. I basically was more and more caught up in myself. More and more over-focused on myself.
Tortorice: Some of, if I recall, some of the motivation of the strike was related to some of the incidences at some of the Black—I’m sorry, some of the other campuses in the system. It wasn’t a system quite then, but other UW campuses that weren’t at that point affiliated, actually, with UW. But there was some very blatant racist attacks on African American students and others in the system, in the pre-system university. I can’t’ recall if it was Oshkosh or where in the system.
Kaplan: Or Whitewater
Tortorice: Stevens Point or Whitewater or something like that. And then there was this case of Finley Campbell (May 1977). I don’t know if you remember that, who was somebody that was one of the few African Americans who was in the position to get tenure and was denied tenure. And that had resonances with the then-ultimate establishment of African American studies. But I remember those things that came together at that one time, in around February 1969. And I remember that the university was essentially, especially in the humanities, closed down. And so many classes were canceled and professors gave across the board As to all the students. Or met off campus. So there must have been an incredible level of support for this on the part of students who were not African American who combined this with dissatisfaction with their parents, with the culture, with the war, with everything. It was a very powerful moment, I would say.
Kaplan: I don’t know if there was that much support as much as acquiescence. Because people were, many students were clearly disillusioned with what was going on in the United States. But I don’t think most of the white students really knew enough about how the African American students felt on campus, what they were thinking. There was very little social contact.
Tortorice: But then how did they get such a huge level of support? Do you think it was just that people wouldn’t cross picket lines, or they didn’t want to be seen as—or maybe it was just an opportunity to skip class, you know.
Kaplan: Well, maybe for some it was an opportunity to skip class. But I think there was a tremendous disappointment that the United States seemed to be going downhill in every respect. I mean, there was the continuing terrible trauma of the war in Vietnam. But then there was right alongside of it the terrible traumas that had been happening in Black America, with all the riots and rebellions after Martin Luther King’s murder. So I think people were stunned by the, it was one blow after another. And I’m not sure how much genuine positive affiliation with the strike there was as much okay, we’re not going to oppose it.
Tortorice: Mm hmm. We’re not going to attend class, we’re not going to—
Kaplan: We’re not going to attend class. But I don’t think they really, you know, knew what was going on.
Tortorice: The issues. Well, I think what you’re saying, that that was in a sense the reaction to those assassinations and the events of 68, a kind of delayed reaction, that makes a lot of sense, too. That it wasn’t so much the specific issues.
Kaplan: I took Bob [Robert] Starobin’s (1939-1971) Black history class. I think he was the first professor to teach a Black history class.
Tortorice: Bob Starobin?
Kaplan: Yeah. He was a really interesting guy. He was a guy who, I didn’t realize at the time, but he had some mental health issues. You know, he could be quite depressed. And he eventually committed suicide, I think in 1970. I saw him in the summer of 70 in San Francisco. He was pretty, he was already coming apart. And I was coming apart myself, so I couldn’t, I was kind of hyperaware of not only myself but of other people. But Bob was a great teacher and lecturer and introduced me to a lot of things that I had not previously read about African Americans. I think there was just a lot of ignorance on the part of white people about things pertaining to Black people. And sometimes a lot of pretense. Like people pretended they really knew more than they really knew. We didn’t know shit, for the most part.
Tortorice: Well, Madison was essentially an apartheid city, even in those years. This was not something you learned at school.
Kaplan: Right. Right.
Tortorice: You didn’t learn it in your history classes. In fact, it was largely suppressed all over the country. This was just the beginning of that.
Kaplan: So when you asked me was there support, you know, support would be correlated with awareness and knowledge. And I don’t think there was great awareness or knowledge of things pertaining to Black people.
Tortorice: But sympathy.
Kaplan: Sympathy. Acquiescence. Confusion. I think those might be words that might more accurately describe what went on. And some acting out by some white people pretending that they knew more than they really knew. Trying to, and in some cases, I even remember some white activist putting down some Black students for not being militant enough. So if you can imagine.
Tortorice: My God.
Kaplan: You know, I practically choked on that one. I witnessed that. I’m not going to say anything about specific names. Not that I can remember. But you know, the ones that I do remember, I’m not going to talk about.
Tortorice: Well, is there anything else you want to say about that aspect of your life before we move on to the identity, sexual identity issues and personal issues?
Kaplan: I don’t think there’s much more I can add. Because my memory is kind of clouded a bit with the passage of so much time. What is it, 2019, and these events happened so long ago in 1968, I would just be, I’m not certain I can add much more.
Tortorice: Okay. Well, we discussed briefly yesterday your experiences related to homophobia, misogyny on the part of the left. The culture of homophobia at that time. As you started to understand your own sexual identity, being in that environment must have been extremely upsetting and harming to you as an individual to witness this. But to have sympathy for the political engagement but then to understand the limitations of personal empathy on the part of politically engaged people that you identified with. This must have been. So you had mentioned specific examples of this.
Kaplan: Well, here’s one of the dilemmas. Some of the most beloved professors who were enamored by the left were gay individuals. And students knew this. George Mosse. Harvey Goldberg.
Tortorice: The students did know this.
Kaplan: Yeah. Many students knew this.
Kaplan: I certainly knew it.
Tortorice: That’s so interesting.
Kaplan: So on the one hand, they either admired these people or—
Tortorice: Dismissed the fact that they were gay, they just overlooked it.
Kaplan: And right next to it, they either dismissed the fact that they were gay or they sort of suppressed it. I’m going to say a couple of things, complicated things. On the one hand, looking back in hindsight, I was too much of a victim. I didn’t take sufficient responsibility for myself and tended to blame forces outside myself. Society, homophobia, that sort of thing. On the other hand, these things really did exist. One could lose one’s job for being gay. One could not get hired for being gay. One could lose one’s housing for being gay. And just before I came to Madison, there had been some purging of gay individuals in the University Club. And there’d been, and I knew there were people that I met in the late 60s, early 70s, who had been arrested for essentially being gay. So there were real hardships attached to being gay. But there was also a kind of, on my part—I’m not going to speak for anybody else—there was also a reluctance to take responsibility for myself and get beyond being a victim. And some of that I was more vulnerable to because I was very depressed. So I was sinking more and more into a depressed state. You know, it went up and down. But it was very difficult.
Okay, so about the homophobia and the left, yeah, that was quite significant. Particularly in 69 and 70 as things gay began to be talked about. Partly because some people were coming out. There were the Stonewall riots in 69. And Black Panthers were becoming more and more public and well known. And they were very homophobic and antisemitic. Which was another dilemma, because I was Jewish. And the left in many cases didn’t properly address these things. You know, here I’m talking about the white left, SDS. But the same would be true of people who were African American. Must have been really hard, for example, to be a Black gay person at this time. Because you were dealing with racism from your white peers. And then you were also not being accepted by African American leftists.
So, you know, I was coming out in the late 60s. And then I graduated in, well, classes ended in December of 69. I got my degree in early January of 70. And a dean who had been very helpful to me, Jack Cipperly, gave me a present on stage. It was the famous winnowing and sifting plaque that students had given the University of Wisconsin. And it was a nice gift to give me as I was crossing the stage to get my degree.
And then I temporarily went to Chicago and lived with my parents for a while. Then I lived with a roommate in Old Town in Chicago. Then I eventually took off to go to California and experience California with a guy that I was attracted to. Nothing happened. And then I went back to Milwaukee after. I was quite depressed. And went back to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where my twin brother was living. Got briefly involved in the left again. And then I formally came out. You know, publicly. And that caused quite a lot of upheaval.
Tortorice: In your family or amongst your friends?
Kaplan: Well, eventually with my family. But among some of the left people that knew me, some were very accepting, some were not. Some didn’t know what to make of it.
Tortorice: That would have been about seventy—
Kaplan: It would have been in the winter of 1970.
Tortorice: Winter of 70. Okay, that early.
Kaplan: Yeah. I was drafted at some point either in 70 or 71. And I got out of the draft by just telling them that I was gay, which was the truth. And that was a funny/sad experience. I went to the draft physical and when I told them I was gay they put me in a room with people, some clearly mentally ill, some God knows what. And people were doing all kinds of strange things. And so the psychiatrist for the army asked me if I was active or passive, and I wasn’t certain what the right answer was. So I sort of split the difference and I said, “I’m both.” And he got aghast. I mean, he looked like death warmed over after I told him that. Then he, but he didn’t mark me 4F. He marked me 1Y, which meant that I could be called up in an emergency. So I wasn’t automatically classified 4F. But anyway, it was enough to get me out of the army. And it was truthful.
My mother wanted to know how I avoided getting drafted so I wrote her this angry sort of, especially in hindsight, overly self-absorbed letter. She told me never to come home again. Then my older brother who was in Vietnam, he had joined the army voluntarily. Gone to ROTC in college and become an officer. He wrote me this crazy letter from Vietnam saying I’d brought disgrace on the family. (laughs) And I never responded. Oh, yeah, I did respond to him. I told him, well, at least I’m not killing women and children, which was kind of over the top, I suppose. I was angry. Too much a victim. Probably a better course of action would have been to simply ignore it, proceed with my life. But I could give as much as I could, you know, I gave back as much as I got.
Then I wrote my mother a crazy letter, too. No, maybe, I didn’t write her after she told me never to come home again. I didn’t write her. But the letter that I wrote her was kind of crazy, explaining how I got out of the draft.
Tortorice: Well, that is an extraordinary story in itself. So you are in Milwaukee. What did you do during the 70s? Were you in touch with George still? With people at the university?
Tortorice: I recall that you then went to work for the Jewish community in Milwaukee for a period?
Kaplan: Well, eventually I applied and was accepted for graduate school. And I started in the fall of 71. But before I started, I moved back to Madison. That summer, I lived in Madison that summer. And then became more active with some gay liberation people. I’d also been active in some gay liberation stuff in Milwaukee. There was a demonstration that I went to at the Milwaukee Arts Center. There were twelve of us, maybe ten or twelve of us. It was a pathetically sad and small demonstration and not representative of anything.
But yeah, I did have some contact with George. Eventually when I was in graduate school, I got a job at the Jewish Community Center’s day camp. And then I got a job working at the center itself. When I was working at the center with my wonderful supervisor, Tybie Taglin when we invited George Mosse to speak at the Jewish Community Center. That would have been around I think 75, 1975. So there was a period of time, some gap between when I had more contact with him.
Tortorice: And did he remember you from—
Kaplan: Oh, sure. Yeah. In fact, after the lecture, he came over to my place. We talked. He liked my television set. It was a black and white but there was something very aesthetically pleasing to him about the TV design. It had a yellow frame. Very unusual for American TV, which is one of the reasons I bought it. I liked the design. And without missing a beat, I asked him, we didn’t say I’m gay, he’s gay. We just started talking about gay bars in London, because I was going to London. So it must have been 74 or, it must have been 74, maybe 75 when he spoke in Milwaukee. Because then I went to London in 75 and I did go to some of the gay bars he told me about. Yeah, I had, by that time, much more sympathy for his major political teaching that I got from him, which was the theory and practice of liberal democracy. And by then, I was pretty clear in my head that that was the best system.
Tortorice: But also the failures of that system, its vulnerabilities, right? I mean, that was I think what he also focused on. The limitations.
Kaplan: Yeah, I understood the failures. Particularly in regards to race in the United States. Foreign policy excesses. Inequitable treatment. The problem is that all the other systems were even worse. So, socialism was a catastrophe. Social democracy, which was really an amalgam of liberal democracy and some concepts borrowed from democratic socialism, that worked. But Sweden was never this socialist ideal, as some people thought. It was more a higher-functioning liberal democracy with social democratic policies and values.
Tortorice: But also a very small, homogenous, prosperous country.
Kaplan: For a long time, prosperous. Then they had to, as globalization began to inflict pain upon them, they had to make even more of a transition to a more capitalist model. So I understood the deficiencies, but there was nothing better. And I had by then become really disenchanted with most things left wing.
But you know, I never completely left it. Because even when I worked at the Jewish center, there was a guy that used to drop the English version of the Morgen Freiheit, which was the communist Jewish newspaper. And I would read it. And I read Jewish Currents, which was a left wing Jewish journal. I even wrote an article for them with a woman about being gay employees in a Jewish communal institution, and the difficulties of that. We had to do the article anonymously because it wasn’t safe to write openly about that. You could lose your job.
Tortorice: Do you still have a copy of that?
Tortorice: It would be great to put it with your archive.
Kaplan: I threw it away some years ago. Sorry. And whatever left-wing periodicals and newspapers that I had, I donated in 1983 to the Fromkin Collection at the UW Library in Milwaukee. So they have any pamphlets and brochures from that time period.
Tortorice: Okay. That’s good to know to connect with this interview. That’s excellent. Well, as an aside, speaking about George and gay London, he told me a story that his colleague John Phelan (1924-1976), who was a very noted professor of Latin American history in Wisconsin—
Kaplan: Oh, yeah, I knew him.
Tortorice: —who was a repressed gay and an extreme alcoholic.
Kaplan: Yep, I knew him.
Tortorice: Yes. Yes. He was a figure on the gay scene in Madison and would go to bars and pick up undergraduates and whatever. One time George arranged for him to stay in London with a friend of his, Paula Quirk. And so in the middle of the night, like two in the morning, Paula gets a knock on her front door. And there’s John with no pants on coming home. It was some kind of confrontation in London. (laughs) And I remember George and Paula talking about that. And she’d say, “George, you sent that man to me that was a total drunk. And he came home without his pants.” (laughter)
Kaplan: Phelan, by the way, attended a study group at a house that I lived in on Regent Street. There were about five of us in the study group. And we were studying Marxist/Leninist thought. And that would have been, I don’t know, God, I can’t remember what year that was. Maybe 68. And it was clear that he was there, he had no interest in Marxism. But he did have an interest in some of us. (laughs)
Tortorice: Yes. There you go. (laughter) But he was a very distinguished scholar. Great historian, from what George said. Anyway, so you were working there. So you did maintain some contact with George over the years.
Kaplan: Yeah. Yeah. And I even had contact with some other professors. I helped bring Maurice Zeitlin to the Jewish Community Center to talk about the coup in Chile, and how that affected the Jewish community. So yeah, I had, and I was regularly visiting Madison. I saw George a number of times.
Tortorice: Was he supportive? Did you feel he was empathic? That he was somebody you could talk to about personal issues? Because I recall that, at least with his graduate students, he was, in some ways, a therapist. Not only that, but he helped them financially when they got in difficulties. But often supported them through what I would characterize as talk therapy on the phone. That he would have these long conversations with individuals related to their issues in their lives. And I always thought that was quite stunning, given that he was doing so many other things in his life.
Kaplan: He was a very decent guy. But I’m afraid I was already on my way to being an alcoholic. So the likelihood of me having that kind of talk with him was nil. You know, as soon as I started going to gay bars in Milwaukee, which would have been in 1970, I mean, I was drinking alcoholically. I was drinking to get drunk. So no, I didn’t have that kind of conversation with him. But he was a decent fellow. And I could see that at the time. But I was really increasingly feeling not good about myself, feeling not good about other people. Cynical. Depressed. And, above all, alcoholic. It’s a lethal mixture, to be cynical, depressed, and alcoholic. It doesn’t have a good ending unless you stop drinking.
Tortorice: Given the challenges that you faced, it’s surprising that you didn’t even have additional issues. That you weren’t more self-harming. And the fact that you came out of that is—
Kaplan: It is remarkable. I mean, I stopped drinking at age forty. So now I’ve got, I’m seventy-one now. So I’ve got thirty-one years of being sober. And I got some excellent psychiatric help after age forty. Although even before, I had, saw one psychiatrist in Milwaukee, Margaret Goldman. And although it was a, because I was drinking at that time. And she didn’t know about that, and I didn’t talk about that with her. She was still a helpful person. But, so I was lucky. Although my last psychiatrist, who I saw for many years, Hank Grass, said it was more than lucky. I mean, I sought out good psychiatric help and stayed with them. I screened out people who would not have been helpful. And so, yeah, there was a part of me that was healthy. I think that dichotomous thinking, okay, you’re an alcoholic, so therefore there’s nothing healthy about yourself, that’s kind of, you know, that’s a myth. It’s like lots of other myths that George taught me about. It’s an artificial construction and it’s highly dichotomous. Because you know, it’s yes, no, mutually exclusive. And so there was always a healthy part of me that could be empathic, could be kind, could be self-aware, aware of others. But you know, as long as you’re drinking and as long as you’re not sufficiently aware of your actual psychological makeup, you’re going to be underdeveloped in that area. And as I certainly was.
So, you know, I got my master’s degree in educational psychology and I completed it while I was at the Jewish Community Center. And you know, and I continued to read history. I continued to have contact with people in the field. But you know, I was an amateur. I was not a scholar. Gradually I lost more and more support with people in Madison, including George. And my favorite dean, Jack Cipperly and his wife Kay and others. And I worked for the Jewish Community Center. Then I took off to Europe for six plus months. Went all over Europe. Saw some family in Hungary and Germany, through marriage in Germany. Switzerland, I skied in Switzerland at Zermatt. I almost fell into a crevasse at Zermatt. (laughter) Among my many skiing accidents over the career of my life.
And then in 83, I went to Chicago briefly to go to law school. I’m not certain why I did it. I was still looking for something to do with myself. And I hated law school and I didn’t like Chicago.
So I moved out to Oregon and I continued to drink for a few years. And then in 88, January 88, I stopped drinking and eventually went to work in the mental health field. And I had some special expertise, partly because I had mental health training and partly because I was a recovering alcoholic. So I helped set up the state’s first dual diagnosis project, one of the first in the country which dealt with persistent mental illness and alcohol and drug addiction. And worked in community mental health for many years. Got more and more sober. Got more and more psychologically aware. And eventually opened up my own practice. Had a practice in downtown Portland. And the main focus of the practice was people with persistent mental illness, but not exclusively.
Tortorice: And addiction issues?
Kaplan: Yeah. Addiction issues. Yeah. And that was a pretty good run. I did okay with that. There was a psychiatrist who I saw, Jack Butler, he taught me about the concept of the good enough therapist, which I think comes from a British psychiatrist, [Donald] Winnicott (1896-1971). And I didn’t know exactly what that meant for the longest time. But I knew it was the antithesis of the self-absorbed therapist, the narcissistic therapist.
Tortorice: Or maybe what you were looking for to solve all your problems. That idea that the therapist somehow was going to be a savior.
Kaplan: Yeah. That certainly was part of the picture as well. And you know, I did that in my own work. So I would tell people later on that, you know, I can’t cure you, but we can work together so you can better manage your life. And the emphasis was on working together. Which was also a good reminder to avoid the trap of narcissism and all-knowing and grandiosity and self-absorption, which you can fall into whether you’re drunk or not drunk.
Tortorice: Or an academic or non-academic. (laughs)
Tortorice: Well, maybe this is the point where we should end it for now.
Kaplan: Well, why don’t we talk about current politics?
Tortorice: Oh, yes, of course. Yes.
Kaplan: Yeah. Let’s skip over to that.
Tortorice: Unless you want to take a break and we could do that after we go—I mean, unless you want to continue now. That’s fine with me. Do you want to just finish it up?
Kaplan: Let’s take a break and I’ll talk to you for a second.
Tortorice: Okay. We’re going to take a short break
Kaplan: Easily, something about George.
Tortorice: Okay, so we are back after an unintended interruption.
Kaplan: So I want to talk to you a little bit more about the crisis in Hungary. Because this transition from liberal democracy, which was the system put in place post-communism, and now effectively buried by the Fidesz Party, led by Victor Orbán in Hungary, that has evoked more memories of George Mosse than I ever realized could happen in my life. Because I saw firsthand the dismantling of liberal democracy. I mean, in a way that George had seen in Weimar Germany. And then in addition, I saw an incredible antisemitism, led by a man who is not necessarily an antisemite. Orbán Victor, Victor Orbán, he’s not necessarily an antisemite. And Trump was probably not an antisemite. But they both used the myths of antisemitism. And that’s remarkable that at this late stage, I’m running back to George Mosse to have some understanding of what’s going on.
And then I’m running back to George Mosse and understanding the misuse of respectable bourgeois civilization that both Trump and Victor Orbán encourage. Especially in Hungary, you can see the over-the-top support of the family, the disempowerment of women, the homophobia. That’s state policy now. They’ve abolished gender studies in Hungarian universities. You cannot teach that anymore. And that includes even Central European University has had to drop it. And Central European University has been forced out of Budapest. Of course, that’s the university that George Soros helped develop, which has an international reputation for top scholarship. It produces some of the best scholars in the world. It’s the top, it’s one of the best places in Hungary. It’s been forced out because Orbán can’t control it. So I’ve gone back to George’s books about the nationalism, racism, and sexuality. And I forget the title of this one book, but he wrote it later in life, I think in the 80s or the 90s. And I’ve consulted these books, which has helped me understand better the events in Hungary and now to some extent the events in the United States.
But also now in Israel. Because unfortunately in Israel, the current government there, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, has been perfectly willing to abandon liberal democratic concepts. Ranting against the free press. Ranting against George Soros for funding non-governmental organizations that are active in Israel. Of course, George Soros only gives a small amount of money. These organizations get money from far more, get larger amounts of money from many other sources. But Netanyahu has explicitly allied himself with the anti-liberal regimes in Central Europe, in Poland and Hungary. And has even interfered with legitimate scholarship of the Shoah regarding Poland. Threw the Hungarian Jews under the bus regarding Orbán’s misuse of history as to what Hungarians did to their fellow Hungarians, what non-Jewish Hungarians did to their fellow Jewish Hungarians during the Second World War.
People don’t realize it was not Germans who deported the Jews from Hungary. It was essentially 200 to 300,000 Hungarians that deported their fellow Hungarians to Auschwitz. And then the Germans murdered them in Auschwitz. But absent the Hungarian cooperation, that couldn’t have happened. Of course, absent the German mass murder, it couldn’t have happened.
Tortorice: They worked in tandem.
Kaplan: They worked in tandem, that’s true.
Tortorice: That was true in many parts of Europe.
Kaplan: Yeah. So here’s this regime in Hungary attempting to blur the Hungarian responsibility for the Shoah. And Netanyahu’s making an ally of this guy. He is ruining the prospects for democracy, survival in Israel. That it’s under siege and threatened in a way that it’s never been since the state of Israel was established. And now he’s made a member of his coalition an explicitly racist party in Israel. So I think George would be just aghast at this stuff. Because he used to warn Israel. He said, “I know about the Masada complex.” You know, probably not to some Israelis’ delight. And he warned them about other consequences if you deviated from basic precepts of liberal democracy. If you invoked militarism, racism, nationalism.
Tortorice: And also that the Holocaust, to some extent, needed to be put in its context. Maybe not transcended, but not fetishized. Not becoming the be-all and end-all of Jewish identity. And used in a very politicized way.
Kaplan: Absolutely. The first time I went to Auschwitz—the only time, actually—was 1988. And I remember after going through that experience, I had to make a choice. I was either going to succumb to a kind of despair and maybe even hate, or I was going to have to find a way to make some peace and put it in a more proper place in Jewish civilization. Jewish civilization could not be based on being victimized repeatedly throughout history. That’s true. That’s partly what happened. But Jewish civilization had to be much more. It had to be about ethics. It had to be about tolerance. It had to be about culture, language, art, you know, as well as religion. It had to be about a lot of things. It can’t be just about suffering. It can’t be primarily about suffering. That can only lead to death. You can’t have life instinct with that.
Tortorice: One thing that you could make somewhat of a case, that most (phone rings), most of human history is about suffering, persecution, disadvantage. But what is unique about Jewish civilization is this other aspect that you’re talking about. I mean, it’s a matter of course of debate and degree and whatever.
Tortorice: But I think that that’s so true.
Kaplan: So I think kind of tying things all together here, you know, as I’m thinking and talking with you today, and in the past, in recent days as well, George has continued relevance right down to the present, and I think he will into the future. Because he helped bring to life a lot of neglected parts of the human condition, human history, that had not been properly studied. And then he also helped put them into a better balance. And the way to live and the way to find meaning is not to succumb to despair or victimhood. And it’s also not to hide from the truth, to hide from what’s actually going on. So, I think sadly some Jews today are sticking their heads in the sand if they support Trump. And I think I can make a case if they’re supporting Netanyahu as well (phone rings).
25 February 2019:
Tortorice: Okay. We’re back. It’s January 25, 2019, and I’m here with Michael Kaplan for our—
Kaplan: February of, February.
Tortorice: What, I said January. (laughs) February. Sorry about that. And we’re here to discuss current politics. And both Michael Kaplan’s take on current politics, but also what he thinks George would say about events today. One question I have is, you mentioned that in 68-69, there was a feeling on the part of students that the world was going to hell, and therefore they had to make a stand and get out on the streets and be engaged. Surprisingly, we aren’t seeing that too much. Maybe in 2019 we’re seeing the beginnings of that. But one thing I’ve noticed is the apathy of students in the last twenty, thirty years. And you could make the case that things now are certainly much worse than they were in 1968. Do you have any explanation for why there isn’t more engagement on the part of students now?
Kaplan: That’s a good question. I think the material conditions are so different today. So today when you go to university, whether you’re in state or out of state, the tuition is so high. The student debt is so enormous. There are real consequences if you don’t complete your degree and you have such high debt. And people are very focused on what are they going to do after university? First, because they know they’ll have to pay off this debt. Second because they know they need to start the proper job in order to enhance their prospects later on in life. So I think people are very concerned about that. That helps explain the shift away from certain majors. So a lot of the liberal arts majors have been in decline since the 60s. Now part of that is a long-term of materialism trajectory as the, so to speak, the market in liberal arts overproduced PhDs in the 60s in terms of the available placements. And then many of the state governments reduced funding for these same liberal arts departments.
In Wisconsin, in particular, there’s been a huge problem with the most recent Republican governor, [Scott] Walker, such that I think in some state campuses, there’s some liberal arts departments that are being eliminated as we speak. So part of it is material. Students have a very different point of view than we did in the 60s.
Part of it is, they’re not as directly affected. When you’re going to be drafted and sent to Vietnam, you have indirectly and/or directly a greater incentive to be concerned about that part of politics.
Then, of course, there’s the persistent problem of racism in American life. And we have not found satisfactory solutions. We go up and down. So the election of President [Barack] Obama, while it was a great achievement and for some people it even suggested a so-called “post-racial” America, that was not the case. He was a remarkable politician who got elected. But it didn’t necessarily advance the average African American’s chances within our society.
So we have this persistent problem with racism that’s very difficult to solve. We have the material conditions. There’s no direct threat by the draft to the students.
Tortorice: Well, in one thing, not to interject my own opinions, but you could say that the system coopted any kind of threat from the young, both by indenturing them to huge debt. That idea of a free or an economically available access to higher education or universal access was a brief phenomenon. It ended quite quickly. And universities bought into the idea of chronic tuition raising and spending money on all kinds of things that were not directly related to teaching. So, plus, you had such an uptick in the sophistication of marketing, merchandising, advertising. So the ideology of consumerism and materialism has become so potent. Even more potent. I think some of those things are. And then, of course, the technological changes that have reshaped social engagement on the part of the young. I mean, I think, there are a number of reasons for it, but I think the ones that you gave are the key ones.
Kaplan: And the ones that you’re raising are also important. I mean, when you look on a campus today, because I visit Madison on a regular basis, and you see how enamored people are with their cellphones, (laughs) and their various technologies that go along with that, and WhatsApp and Facebook and everything else, you know, we’re very self-absorbed in the technological aspects.
Tortorice: But then also what they expect from a university—
Tortorice: And where they expect to live, and where they expect to exercise, and where they expect to socialize.
Tortorice: Which this all costs a huge amount of money. And then the level of protection, and the level of support. Which the university never, didn’t provide. And it didn’t cost them anything, because they didn’t provide it.
Kaplan: You could get some of that when I was a student in Madison in the 60s. But you also had a lot more opportunity to live and interact with so-called “regular people.” And often in regular neighborhoods. And increasingly as you know, that’s not the case in Madison. There are these kind of student ghettoes up in the sky, the high-rise buildings. I mean, I remember the tuition I paid for graduate school in Milwaukee was in the hundreds of dollars. That was the best investment I ever did. I got a master’s degree for nothing. You can’t get that anymore.
Tortorice: Certainly not. So in terms of current politics, what do you think George would think? I mean, we spoke a bit about his focus on the vulnerabilities of liberal democracy, and how the left in particular had to guard against self-referential bubble thinking, and all those strategies that George mentioned in how to deal with the weaknesses the left had in relation to the right in dealing with mass culture.
Kaplan: Well, it’s hard to know exactly what George would think about what’s going on currently. But I think he would be alarmed about not just the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, but his base, what Trump’s base has been capable both before the election, during the election and after the election. Some of the rallies where reporters were pushed around and roughed up and some people who protested were actually beaten up, were like frightening. And Trump’s attacks on the free press, especially the liberal free press, as enemies of the people. You know, language that comes right out of Stalinist Soviet Union and out of Nazi Germany. Because they used those terms, as you know, in the court systems of those countries. Of the legal systems.
I think he’d be alarmed about Trump saying regarding the Charlottesville incident, where people were, there was at least one woman who was killed, murdered [Heather Heyer (1985-2017)], by a far-right Nazi sympathizer, and other people injured when he drove his car into a group of people intentionally. And Trump said there were good people on both sides, which was absolutely nonsense. I mean, the other side were actually chanting Nazi-like language, “We will not be ruled by Jews,” and carrying torches, like the Frankenstein movie, almost. I think he’d be frightened and aghast by that stuff. Maybe not surprised. Because he could see more clearly than a lot of people, especially in hindsight. And as I’ve reread his books in the last twenty years, I can see how he was very clear-sighted about many things. But I think he’d be still frightened about what the heck’s going on in this country.
The dog whistles to antisemitism and racism where Trump, just before the election, had this campaign brochure where these three people in the, it was actually a TV commercial, I think, where the three people were Jews representing globalism and conspiratorial finance, clear tropes of antisemitism. Clear symbols of antisemitism, not only in the current time, but going back in the twentieth century, if not before. So I think he’d be really alarmed by the open expression of racism, antisemitism. The murder of Jews at that synagogue in Pittsburgh [27 October 2018] is still a further example of that. The murder of the Black parishioners in that church in South Carolina. I think that was during the Obama administration. So it shows that that crap was already fermenting back then if not before then. I would say even before then, it was there. So I think he’d be alarmed.
As to what to do about it, I think he would double down and say okay, although the liberal democratic system is the best, we have to be really careful to have a social safety net. We have to be really careful to make sure that people are not excluded from the society. So the fact that large numbers of white working class people have been de-industrialized and lost their jobs and livelihoods and hit by this plague of public health catastrophes—higher suicide rates, opiate drug addiction—I think George would be among the first to be aware that that needs some policy and programmatic solutions.
Tortorice: And also the concentration of wealth, and those kind of—
Kaplan: Yeah, the concentration of wealth. We have more concentration of wealth today than at any time in our history. Extremes of rich and poor. (phone rings)
Tortorice: So sorry.
Kaplan: So, and that’s worrisome because with the greater concentrations at the top, we actually had more liberal sense of equality during the [Dwight D.] Eisenhower (1890-1969) years than we do today. And of course, Eisenhower was a conservative. But he was a smarter conservative than the so-called conservatives today.
Tortorice: Well I think it’s amazing how sophisticated and effective a certain branch of the right, which we used to consider the far right, have become in using the methods of mass politics. Much more sophisticated than the left. And I know that was something that George was very much aware of. And also the power of nationalism, racism, all of those things. Antisemitism. He certainly didn’t think those things would disappear.
Kaplan: Well, that’s right. And George taught me, we talked about this informally over the last couple of days, the power of myth. Which I understood to some extent when I took his classes. But I really understood far more in the 1990s, and then since the year 2000. It’s an emotional construct. It’s human-created. It’s a way of looking at things, a way of explaining things, that is the antithesis of reason, although it may have some reasonable elements in it. And it has a great power. And the right understood this far more than the left in many countries in Western and Central Europe. The left—it’s not really the left—Stalinist Russia, the Soviet Union made use of some myths. And they exploited antisemitism in the service of certain state myths, and Russian nationalism during the Second World War. But even the myth of the heroic worker and even though they were victimizing the working class in the Soviet Union, I mean, they ran that myth into the dirt.
But the right in America has been much more successful than the left in the use of myths. And these emotional constructs of nationalism and the superiority of the white race and hyper masculinity, and they all go together, of course. And George saw that, particularly as he got older in the 80s and 90s, if not before.
Tortorice: He really brought this all together, didn’t he?
Tortorice: He brought together how the universality of myth and how closely it is related to how humans perceive the world. And how easily manipulated it is to benefit political aesthetics and political programs.
Kaplan: Yeah, he was an excellent psychological guy in terms of really understanding the power of unconsciousness, subconscious, emotional reasoning. I mean, he really understood that in a way that the left then and now still does not grasp. People want to argue rationally with Trump supporters. That’s a big mistake. You are not going to get very far. It’s not rational. People want to joke about Trump. And he’s been a gift to late-night comics. But it doesn’t do much to move his supporters. It does a great deal to activate the people that are already critical of Trump, but very little to change people.
Tortorice: Well and you know, it’s easy to laugh and think you’ve done something.
Tortorice: Or to sneer. But actually you’ve done nothing. It lets you off the hook.
Kaplan: Right. Right.
Tortorice: Yeah. So, well, maybe this is where we at this point should end.
Kaplan: Well, let’s talk a little bit about Hungary and Israel.
Tortorice: Oh, yes.
Kaplan: What George would say about Israel today and Hungary.
Tortorice: And also Europe. Yeah, I think that’s very important. Because I think we are at a turning point in Europe. And your engagement in Hungary, and with your Hungarian Jewish background, you will have some insights into what’s going on.
Kaplan: And just to kind of give a little background even for that. You know, when I was a kid and a teenager and a young person in Madison, this was not stuff that I talked about. You know, I was aware, vaguely, that my father had come from the Russian empire, Soviet Union. And I was aware vaguely that some of my relatives had been murdered in the Holocaust involving Hungarian Jewry. But it wasn’t something we openly talked about or discussed. And that was not unusual. That’s what most people with those kinds of family heritages did at that time. But as I became more connected with that stuff, because I went to Hungary the first time in 1976 when it was still communist. Saw my relatives, and then kept going back. And then I saw the fall of communism in Hungary. And then I eventually connected with the surviving relatives in the Soviet Union and saw the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. And met my father’s sister, my aunt and my first cousin and that sort of thing. I got very, I got even more, a better take not only on other people but myself, and began to appreciate I could apply more of George’s teaching to my own family situation and to what I was seeing in Central Europe.
And in Hungary, I became quite involved, indirectly, as the ups and downs of post-communism happened. And eventually in Hungary a fellow became prime minister, Viktor Orbán, or in Hungarian it’s Orbán Viktor, because the family name comes first. He made terrific use of democracy to kill democracy. So he, once in power the second time, he had lost once and he vowed never to lose again, he took advantage of the construct of myths. Whether he understood it directly or not, he made great use of the nationalist myth, the antisemitic myths, particularly using George Soros, who was a Hungarian Jew and had escaped communist Hungary, survived the Holocaust and ended up in the United States and became a multimillionaire, as a symbol of globalism and Jewish conspiracy without having to utter the words “Jewish conspiracy.” But he knew perfectly well what he was doing. And he destroyed the democratic Hungary. Hungary no longer became a rule of law; it was rather the law of rule. The law of rule replaced rule of law. And all of the normal checks that you need in liberal democracy were eliminated. The independence of the courts, the—(loud background noise)
Tortorice: We’re going to stop here because of interference. We’ll be back.
26 February 2019
Tortorice: Okay. We’re back again for one final session after another interruption. So, Michael, please let us know.
Kaplan: Well, I just wanted to add, you know, regarding Israel. I’ve been to Israel many, many times. Six, seven times. And I’ve never been as hopeless as I am today. And yet, I think you have to put your, you have to have some hope that things can and will get better. And there are sufficient people in Israel who have an awareness of the limitations of the current politics in this current regime. I have to have hope that that point of view, the alternative point of view can prevail. Just as I have to have hope that Trump will be defeated in 2020.
And I think George must have had hope. Otherwise, he couldn’t have continued to live his life after having escaped from Nazi Germany. So he’s got to be a model of a hopeful point of view.
Tortorice: Pessimistic optimism.
Kaplan: That sounds good to me.
Tortorice: Optimistic pessimism, as George called it.
Kaplan: Sounds good to me. Sounds good to me. And that’s a good way to end our discussion today.
Tortorice: Well, thank you so much, Michael, and thank you for your strong support for University of Wisconsin, for George L. Mosse’s legacy, and for your friendship. And for coming here and spending this time talking about your education and about George. Thank you, Michael.
Kaplan: Well, thank you. I hope I’ve been of some help.
Total time: 2 hours, 55 minutes