Interview: Professor David Eisenbach
Written by Bwog Staff
He’s the guy who wanted to bring Gilchrist back to Columbia, and the only presidential campaign communications director you might also run into on College Walk. Bwog correspondent Christopher Morris-Lent was sat down with his former Lit Hum teacher to chew over free speech, gay rights, and why Mike Gravel is an American hero. Illustration by Julia Butareva.
Is it true that you haven’t left Columbia since arriving in the fall of 1990?
DCE: It’s very true. I’ve spent my adult life more or less around Columbia University.
Give the peanut gallery a quick summary of how you’ve been occupying yourself since you first got here.
DCE: First as an undergraduate I did a modern European history major, specializing in the Second World War. After that I went to Teachers College. Then I taught for a few years, just right on 106th Street at a high school for kids who were convicted for crimes and actually incarcerated there. Then I went back and got a Ph.D. in History while teaching at the Manhattan School of Music. (Ed.: Dave’s also been teaching Lit Hum for five years.)
Didn’t you also write a book or something?
DCE: Last year I published Gay Power: An American Revolution – it’s the first history to explain how the gay rights movement altered the entire American political and social landscape and transformed life for gays and straights. When people ask why I wrote about this, I tell them that these brave gay activists expanded freedom of all Americans. They began a public debate about something that was completely ignored and out of that debate came liberation for everyone. That’s why I call it an “American Revolution.” By the way, two chapters of my book describe events at Columbia: the creation of the first gay student group and the first gay student lounge.
Tell me more about teaching at MSM.
DCE: There’s lots of flexibility in teaching there – for example, I offer a course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies.
Is there then a chance you might teach something other than Lit Hum at Columbia?
DCE: I teach a course called “Governing the News Cycle: American Media and Politics, 1950 to present” in the summer session and this spring I’m teaching a history of the Presidency and presidential elections. The primaries will be going on, so there’ll be a lot of class discussion about what’s happening right now.
So what inspired you to conceive of and consummate Friendly Fire?
DCE: The Minuteman fiasco last year. After that I was constantly reading all these news articles and editorials bashing Columbia for its inability to maintain a commitment to free speech. I decided that Columbia needed a forum that was nonpartisan so that people could walk in there and engage in discourse in an open setting – it was designed for an open discussion of controversial ideas.
Any connections between the philosophy behind Friendly Fire and your laissez-faire Lit Hum teaching style?
DCE: My feeling is that truth comes out through debate and discussion. The only way in which we as a free society are going to survive is if we have a free and open airing of ideas. And so that was the idea behind Friendly Fire, and that’s the idea I bring to every Lit Hum class. Plus, it’s a lot more fun that way.
To date: who have been your most and least successful guests on FF?
DCE: Arianna Huffington was my most successful guest, and I can’t say that I’ve had an unsuccessful guest – I was unsuccessful in bringing Gilchrist to Friendly Fire, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Care to share this story?
DCE: As I said, I created this series after reading editorials in the Daily News and the NY Times that blasted Columbia for its handling of the Minutemen scandal. All of them said that Columbia needed to bring Gilchrist back to show it could handle free speech. I agreed and was determined to have him on Friendly Fire, so I decided to invite him back this fall on the one-year anniversary of the melee. The original hope was to also have Karina Garcia (Ed.: a former Lit Hum student of Eisenbach’s) back. She and I had some discussions but she decided not to do it. CPU, which now sponsors Friendly Fire, had a choice of whether to go ahead with the event with Gilchrist alone or try to find someone else to debate him, but they just felt that at the end of the day it was going to upset too many people and cause too much bad blood between them and various campus organizations like the Chicano Caucus and the Socialists, so they decided not to go through with it.
Did you have any trepidations or reservations?
DCE: No! None whatsoever. I felt it was going to be a healthy moment for the university. I perhaps have a naive faith in the rationality of mankind such that, given a certain level of security and general sense of decorum, we could have pulled it off, and it would have sent a message to the world that Columbia can indeed handle free speech. I think that had we been able to subject Gilchrist to tough questions, that he would have had to confront realities that I don’t think his ideology acknowledges. I disagree with Jim Gilchrist, but I definitely think he has a right to say what he wants to say.
What’s the rest of your lineup looking like this year? Any chance of getting Mike Gravel to make a cameo appearance?
DCE: Yeah, but it’s not easy. I’m the communications director for his campaign, and even I’m having trouble setting up a date. When you’re running for president, you’re all over the place all the time. But I’m trying to get him in here sometime during December.
Sweet. So what are your official duties on the Gravel campaign?
DCE: Well, I manage the media message (exclusively), and I write the speeches and prepare him for the debates.
How do you feel about his treatment on the debates?
DCE: I think it’s dreadful. This week NBC announced that they weren’t going to invite him to the next debate because he hasn’t raised enough money. If you don’t think our media is controlled by corporations and money, then you’re delusional. And this is a prime example of that. It’s a shame because our democracy is threatened by a number of things but money is the ultimate threat.
Aside from that, how have things been going?
DCE: Great! Considering we haven’t raised even a half-million dollars. The idea that you could run a campaign without a million dollars in today’s politics – I never would have thought it was possible. And it wasn’t possible ten years ago. The difference is the Internet, and this is where I come in. I know how to work the Internet – it’s the unpaid media that we focus on. We’ve been doing a great job of it, and we’ve been getting a lot of support. When the corporate media giants cut you off, though, it’s hard to fight that.
What are you guys hoping to accomplish with the campaign?
DCE: We want to stop two wars: the war that is now raging in Iraq, and the war that is impending in Iran. Mike has consistently argued that his presidential opponents in the senate – Obama, Clinton, Biden, Dodd – could use their powers – the machinery of the senate, procedural votes, filibuster – to stop the war. Yet they refuse to do it. And he’s been the one to point out in the debates and on the stump how the Bush administration is going to push us into another war with Iran. And it’s the knowledge – the voicing of these things, the urging of the American public to look at both wars separately and empower them to stop them – that makes Mike Gravel, in my book, a true hero.
War with Iran? Tell me more.
DCE: There are factions within the Bush administration – led by Dick Cheney, of course – who want to attack Iran. Though we don’t have the troops and resources for a full-scale invasion, they think that bombing is going to do it. They’ve realized they can’t sell the war by talking about the Iranian nuclear threat – experts say that the Iranians won’t have a nuclear bomb for ten years. So they’ve moved on to Plan B, which is to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist faction. They’re a military and political force consisting of around 125,000 members that has ties to just about every power base in Iran. And to label them a terrorist group – which is what Congress, including Hillary Clinton, voted to do weeks ago – we’re making it impossible to deal diplomatically with Iran, which will result in a skirmish, which will erupt into a war.
Since we’re on the topic of Iran, what did you think of Ahmadinejad’s visit?
DCE: I thought the invitation was great, but the execution was questionable. I understand what it’s like to be bashed in the press, as Lee Bollinger was, mercilessly, for days, and to feel the need to come out publicly and clarify that you aren’t a terrorist or an anti-Semite or something like that, but I think he should have restrained himself. This is the idea of Friendly Fire – tough questions from me, from the audience, will force the guest to defend themselves. And I thought that the best part of the entire event was the Q&A from the audience. Ahmadinejad really exposed himself when he said there were no homosexuals in Iran.
How would you respond to the liberal establishment’s allegations that Gravel’s campaign is somehow undermining or delegitimizing their positions?
DCE: Well, there aren’t any other candidates that confront the issues as boldly as he does. Kucinich is good on the issues, but he never calls out the candidates, like Mike does – asking Hillary whom she was going to start a war with next, or Obama whom he wanted to nuke, for example. Gravel is the only one who has nothing to lose, and therefore he has the ability to be honest. I mean, if you look at the last debate, Tim Russert was asking questions like, “What’s your favorite Bible passage?” or “Do you think there should be smoking zones in restaurants?” or “Red sox or Yankees?” – just these ridiculous, asinine questions. You’re not going to get honest coverage from the networks – but it has to come from someone, and Mike Gravel is the only one who brings out the real issues. At least when he gets the chance to.
So Gravel’s rhetoric is actually moving the party to the left.
DCE: I would say he’s moving the party to the truth. As an example, Mike has pointed out that as long as you deprive gays of the right to marry, then they remain second-class citizens. And Edwards and Obama, who previously advocated civil unions only, have recently warmed to the idea of gay marriage. On the other hand, Hillary has refused to admit that she made a mistake. Weeks ago I told a friend who works for Obama that he needs to quit the ‘above it all’ act and start going after Hillary like Gravel does. According to Sunday’s NYT, Obama now says he’s going to start attacking Hillary on Iran and other issues. Once again Mike Gravel blazed the way.
So you see Gravel as a kind of embodiment of the principles behind Friendly Fire, in that his campaign forces the mainstream Democratic candidates to engage with his views and reconcile their own with reality?
Right. The point is pushing people to not accept necessarily the common wisdom, but to think, and talk, and debate, and out of that mix there might be a lot of hurt feelings – Mike Gravel pisses people off constantly – but we’re gonna be in a better place than if we shut down all debate and silently march off to war.