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Mitchell Cohen: Following a Tradition of Dissent

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Mitchell Cohen

Mitchell Cohen has been teaching political science at Baruch College since 1982, after earning his PhD at Columbia University. His main area of expertise is political theory, and he does his best to rattle the minds of students with “the big ideas” of liberalism, social democracy and conservatism through assigned readings of the works of  John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Dewey among others. He also teaches American government.

But Cohen won’t discuss his own political views in class. “A professor’s job in the classroom is to encourage learning and debate, not the promotion of his own political views,” he says. “Students need to think for themselves and reach their own conclusions.” Still, it’s not difficult to figure out where he sits on the political spectrum.

Consider this: In 1968, during the height of the Vietnam war, and before he was old enough to be drafted, Cohen campaigned for Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN), a staunch antiwar politician who was making a run for the White House. The next year, he stuffed envelopes for author and New York mayoral hopeful Norman Mailer.

Fast forward a decade or so, and Cohen is writing and editing for provocative Dissent magazine, a publication that eschews conformity and views the world “from the left” but famously supported east European dissidents who suffered under communism. Cohen was sent by the magazine’s founder, celebrated literary critic Irving Howe, to East Germany and Hungary in 1989 to write about the end of communism. “I was at the New Year’s Eve party at the newly opened Berlin Wall,” he recalls. “It was an extraordinary experience.”

Cohen says, “I’m much influenced by European social democracy. It’s a combined commitment to political democracy and social and economic equality.”

Cohen became Howe’s co-editor at Dissent and continued for 16 years after Howe’s death in the early 1990s. Cohen still serves on its editorial board as well as on the board of Jewish Social Studies, a leading scholarly magazine. In addition he has recently written for the London Times Literary Supplement on Israel and for the New York Times Book Review on France. His earlier book Zion and State (Columbia University Press) won Baruch’s Presidential Achievement Award, and his book The Wager of Lucien Goldmann (Princeton University Press) received considerable acclaim.

Currently, Cohen is on leave writing a book that combines his love of politics with his love of opera. He’s been honored as a prestigious CUNY Writing Fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center. Only four such fellowships are awarded each year, and only one goes to a CUNY professor. Cohen’s book, which he’s been working on for a few years already, is a political biography of the 19th-century German opera composer Richard Wagner.

Cohen says, “There’s probably no figure in western cultural history who provokes more controversy than Wagner.” He has been called an anarchist  and, simultaneously, a fascist, nationalist extremist, and anti-Semite. (Wagner earned his reputation as an anti-Semite after writing an essay titled “Judaism in Music.”) Cohen’s hopes to connect Wagner’s politics to his 13 operas, which include such world-famous works as The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and The Mastersingers of Nuremburg.

Wagner, who lived from 1813 to 1883, was active in politics and wrote extensively about the topic in many essays. While employed as a court musician in Dresden, he became an anarchist and joined an oppositionist group that tried to overthrow the King of Saxony in 1849. The effort failed, and he fled into exile. “Wagner poses some of the most difficult issues that one can think about when it comes to the relationship between art and politics, and that’s why he interests me,” says Cohen.

Because of his expertise on American politics and on Wagner, Cohen has been invited to give lectures around the country and abroad, thus giving his research and representation of Baruch College extensive exposure at distinguished institutions, such as Stanford University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has recently given talks at universities in the Netherlands,  France, and Italy. His research has taken him to Germany and Switzerland as well. This coming fall, he will return to teaching at the College.

Cohen hopes his book will be out in time for the 2013 bicentenary of Wagner’s birth, but in the meantime, he says, “All I want to do is write a good book.”