On Speaking Small Truths to Power

Scan 4I inherited my father’s papers after his death. I’ve been going through them, slowly, in an attempt to put them into some kind of order. My father was a journalist for most of his professional life, so his papers consist mainly of old newspaper pieces, news articles, examples from a column he had for a while called Humble Pie, and then masses of editorials from late in his career when he had become an editorial writer.

I think my father always wanted to be an editorial writer. He had to work his way up to that, though. He actually began his journalistic career as a sports writer. I haven’t found any of those articles, but I did come across a mysterious letter from 1962 that referred to one of them. The letter was from the city clerk of the city of Madison, IL. “Your column in the March 19th issue of the Evening Journal,” it reads

left a profound effect upon the officials of the City of Madison, Illinois and all loyal Madison High Basketball fans. Newspapers are generally inclined, like so many of us, to soft pedal certain controversial issues. Such was not, however, the way in which your article was written. Its frankness, while it did not give Madison a victory against Belleville, certainly brought to light the handicap to which our team was subjected.

It is therefore with the utmost sincerity and humility that I, as City Clerk, extend to you on behalf of the City Officials and citizens of the City of Madison, Illinois a thank you for a fine job of honest reporting and impartial journalism.

Very truly yours,

Percy Lux

City Clerk

Madison, Illinois

What, I wondered could have prompted such a letter? What was the “controversial issue”? Articles on the sports page don’t generally have a “profound effect” on readers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate the article among my father’s papers. Fortunately, I had the date and the name of the newspaper in which it appeared, so, with the help of Debbie Ross and Teri Barnett, of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL, I was able to get a copy.

“The Illinois High School Association has been accused of high-handed and autocratic conduct many times,” my father’s article begins. “But its incredible blunder in assigning Fred Gibson of Centralia as one of the officials in the Granite City Sectional Tournament last week will long rank in the minds of many area basketball fans as the rankest kind of injustice to Madison High School.”

Let me set the scene. Madison High School’s basketball team was scheduled to face off against Belleville High School’s team in the Granite City Sectional, part of the first round of the Illinois State High School Basketball Championships. Centralia, which had long had one of the best high school basketball teams in Illinois, was favored win its sectional game and hence to face off against the winner of the Granite City Sectional. Centralia thus had an obvious interest in the outcome of the latter game. Madison was unbeaten, but Belleville was not. So they would naturally rather face Belleville than Madison, which means they must have hoped the long-shot Belleville would win.

Fred Gibson, the man referred to in my father’s article, was, again, from Centralia. Moreover, Gibson was known to be hard on the type of “aggressive, pressing defense” employed by Madison.

“Coaches of teams involved in tournament play,” my father wrote “each list a number of officials who might be assigned to work that tournament. As nearly as possible the IHSA tries to assign to a particular tournament the two officials who received the highest ranking.” Madison’s coach had understandably rated Gibson “as low as possible” on his list of officials for the Granite City Sectional. According to the article, the assistant to the executive secretary of the IHSA had assured the coach, Madison’s principal, and a Madison High School board member, that Gibson “would not work on any game involving Madison.”

Despite these assurances, however, Gibson was selected to officiate at the Granite City Sectional, the game that would determine who his own home team would face in the next round of the state high school basketball championship.

The game did not go well for Madison. Gibson, true to form, was hard on them, with the result that their all-stater Don Freeman was “out nearly half of the game.” Madison couldn’t overcome this handicap and eventually lost.

The reaction of Centralia’s players, when they received the news of Madison’s defeat, was reportedly euphoric. According to one observer “[t]hose kids cheered like they had won the state championship.” And, indeed, they did go on to beat Belleville in the next round of the tournament.

There is no accusation in the article of foul play on the part of Referee Gibson. The charge is rather that because of Gibson’s obvious conflict of interest, the IHSA had behaved badly in picking him to officiate that game.

“Officials,” my father wrote, “like Caesar’s wife, must avoid the appearance of evil, and Gibson, a Centralia official, is not the proper man to assign to a tournament where Centralia has a consuming interest in the outcome of the tournament.”

High School basketball is to Illinois almost what high school football is to Texas. And nowhere, it appears, is it more important than at Centralia. “For nearly 70 years,” observes Robert Bittner in an article from 2004, “the Centralia Orphans have been the ‘winningest’ high school boys basketball team in the United States.” Predominantly-white Centralia had been on a more than 30-year-long winning streak by 1962 when it feared facing off against the more racially-mixed Madison. Fortunately for Centralia, the IHSA helped to ensure that those fears were not realized.

So what was the controversial issue? Was it simply that the IHSA may have been biased in favor of Centralia and may have allowed that bias to influence its selection of Gibson to officiate at the Granite City Sectional? Or could it have been even more sinister? Could the bias have stemmed from racial prejudice? I doubt there is anyone around anymore who could answer that question.

What is clear is that Madison felt cheated, and its city officials were moved that someone had the courage to make their case in print. They weren’t just moved. They were “profound[ly]” affected.

It is a small thing, a basketball game. It isn’t a small thing, though, to feel one has been cheated. Such feelings can fester for years, souring a person’s view of human nature and society. Enough such injustices, or perceived injustices, small though they may be, can eventually make it impossible for a person to be truly happy. People are profoundly social and cannot realize their full potential for happiness except as individual elements in a web of relationships that form a harmonious and mutually supportive community. A persistent lack of faith and trust in others makes for an unhappy life.

I think my father understood that, and that’s why he kept the letter from Madison’s City Officials. He went on to speak larger truths to larger powers and was often in trouble with his editors, first because of his involvement in the civil rights movement, and later because of his views on the conflict in the Middle East. I think he understood, however, that no injustice is so small that it doesn’t rankle, doesn’t pollute the psyche of its victim.

Who would have thought that an article about a high school basketball game could be so important?


(I would like to thank Debbie Ross and Teri Barnett of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL, both for helping me to locate my father’s article and for sending me a copy it. An earlier version of this article appeared in the 20 June 2018 issue of Counterpunch.)

On The Presence of Things

IMG_1991My father died in January and his death has forced me to face a question for which I still have no answer. The issue is the relation of the psyche, or what I will call the “spirit,” to the material world. Since Plato, we’ve tended to think of human beings as defined more by their minds than by their bodies. This view is probably most pronounced among religious people, for whom the material world, including our physical bodies, are encumbrances from which we will one day be liberated. Our attachment to material things, or to physical reality more generally, is viewed as a kind of disease of which we cannot help but long to be cured.

Strive as we might, though, it appears we cannot be cured of it. When a person we love dies, we are almost never content simply to commune with their spirit, or to remember them in our thoughts. We crave relics that testify to their earlier physical reality, their tangibility.

When my father died, I took on the task of clearing out his apartment. This was not merely to help my siblings, but because I wanted to be among his things. It was comforting. In the beginning, when the apartment was just as he left it, it seemed almost as if he were still alive, as if he had just stepped out and might walk through the door any minute. I knew he wouldn’t, of course, but there was something comforting in the fact that his home was still there, just as he had arranged it. It was a physical expression of who he was and it gave him a physical presence even though he could no longer be physically present himself. As the days passed, though, and the apartment was gradually emptied as things were boxed to be shipped or given away, it became excruciatingly painful, like witnessing a wasting away of flesh.

I had difficulty parting with anything and, in fact, I kept many of my father’s things, things I know I will probably never use. Some things, such as the little metal box my sisters and I had bought him when we were children, and which he always used to store his cuff links, I have kept purely as mementos. That box sits now on my own dresser. I open it periodically and examine its contents. There’s nothing in it of any value, only a few pairs of cuff links, and some screws and safety pins, but looking at my father’s things makes me feel closer to him somehow.

My father was a writer. I also have his papers. It isn’t just the thoughts expressed in them, though, that are important to me. I’m attached to the papers themselves, to the faded and dirty typescript of his unpublished novel, to the yellowed copies of his newspaper articles. I’m scanning everything to preserve it and so I can share it with the rest of my family. If I were “prudent” I’d dispose of the originals once the process is complete. I don’t have a lot of storage space. I won’t dispose of the originals, though. I debated doing that and that debate is what prompted these reflections.

Religious people often think that contempt for the material world is supported by scripture. I suppose it is, at least to a certain extent, or in a certain respect. And yet, Genesis has God looking on physical creation and pronouncing it “good.”

Most contemporary philosophers are materialists of some sort. That is, they don’t believe in the non-material “mind” the way Plato did. And yet, the difficulties of reducing inherently subjective mental phenomena to inherently objective neurobiological phenomena, as Tom Nagel famously showed in his now classic article “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” appear intractable. The philosopher John Searle is as uncomfortable as are most contemporary philosophers with what is called “substance dualism,” or the view that reality comprises both physical and non-physical substances. To his credit, however, he is unwilling to ignore the difficulties of what is known as “mind-brain reductionism.” Even if you can map all mental phenomena, such as the joy one feels on being in the company of a loved one, onto neurobiological phenomena, you can’t actually completely “reduce” the former to the latter. Something is lost when you do that. We can all see, in principle anyway, the neurobiological phenomena, but we don’t experience the joy they represent. The experience itself is lost in the reduction.

Searle wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to acknowledge the intractability of the problems associated with mind-brain reductionism while at the same time avoiding the stigma of substance dualism. His answer is a new kind of substance monism –– not materialism, but “physicalism.” He believes that materialists operate with a very crude understanding of what it meant for something to be physical, an understanding that had remained essentially unchanged since the Enlightenment. People in the Enlightenment thought they knew what physical substance was. It was solid. It had extension, etc., etc. Searle argues, however, that since the advent of quantum theory we can no longer claim to have a good grasp of what a physical object is, that all of physical reality had become profoundly mysterious.

Perhaps all of reality is one substance, one substance pronounced “good” by God. Perhaps that’s why we are so attached to things, to the things that have meant something to us in our lives, such as toys from childhood, awards we have won, things we’ve created with our own hands, or gifts from those we love. Perhaps that’s why we are so attached to the things that meant something to those people, even if that meaning was merely utilitarian. Perhaps it is because our things are a physical extension of our selves. Perhaps we feel diminished when we lose something because we are diminished. The artist Al Gury lost nearly everything he had in a fire recently. I can’t even imagine what that would be like. Memories cannot substitute for the actual physical presence of one’s things. Memory is important, of course. If you couldn’t remember the meaning a thing had for you, then its physical presence would be meaningless. The presence of the thing adds depth, though, to one’s experience of the memory of its significance.

Even more mysterious, I think, is the fact that it is enormously important that the thing in question is the original. A facsimile of a treasured object does not elicit the same depth of emotional response, the same feeling of connection with the past, that the original does. This isn’t a physical property of the object, of course. We can be fooled when some cherished object is broken and then surreptitiously replaced. If we find out this happened, though, we’re disappointed. We want the original. A facsimile is better than memory alone, but it is not the same as the original. Why? Perhaps Searle’s insight holds the answer. Perhaps, if he is right that all of reality is made up of one substance, then it makes a difference whether one has the right bits of it. A facsimile is less “right” than the original.

My father’s things are now spread about my house. His cuff-link box is on my dresser. His books are on my bookshelves. His pictures are on my walls, and the hutch that he made is in my kitchen. I look at these things as I move about the house, and I feel closer to him. Religion, with the exception, to a certain extent anyway, of Catholicism, has tended to discredit this feeling. That is, religion has tended to give spiritual significance to only the non-material, to our memories of those we have lost rather than to their things and the meaning those things have for us. This does a disservice I would argue, however, to human beings, because human beings are physical beings who cannot help but have a deep emotional attachment to physical reality. It does a disservice to creation as well, because physical reality, whatever it ultimately is, is a part of reality, even if, perhaps, it is not the whole of it.

I am taking careful care of my father’s things, and this act of caring for them is comforting. It is, in a strange way, almost as if I am caring for him. It isn’t just his things that have come, since his death, to command my attention. I’m so grateful for the fact that my father existed, that he was a part of physical reality, that I am trying to be a better steward of the whole of it, and that has been enormously comforting as well, though I am still uncertain concerning how best to articulate why.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the  March 7, 2018 issue of Counterpunch. I’m indebted to the editor, Jeff St. Clair, for his excellent suggestion of a title. I am indebted, as well, to a reader, Henry Galmish, for reminding me that Catholicism is better than Protestantism at recognizing the spiritual significance of material reality.)

A Cure for Academic Bullying

Portrait caricatureWorkplace bullying is an increasing problem. Books are being written about it, and there is even a Workplace Bullying Institute. The problem isn’t restricted to the business world. Books such as Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It, Bully in the Ivory Tower: How Aggression and Incivility Erode American Higher Education, and Workplace Bullying in Higher Education suggest that bullying is a particular problem among academics.

Unfortunately, academic bullying is often allowed to go on unchecked. That’s just how academics are, people think. What can you expect? It’s hard to control tenured faculty, administrators argue, because there is little you can do to discipline them.

Rot starts from the top, though. The failure of administrators to curb academic bullying and other forms of professional misconduct on the part of faculty is the reason academic departments become dysfunctional. Faculty harass and bully one another with impunity. Distressed administrators have even been known to reward trouble makers in a misguided attempt to win their goodwill, not realizing that the trouble makers see such gestures as a sign of weakness and a green light to cause even more trouble.

Bullying can sometimes take such unequivocal forms as yelling at and or publicly disparaging the victim, but micro-aggressions are the bully’s trademark because there are innumerable opportunities for them and because no single micro-aggression ever appears sufficiently heinous to warrant disciplinary action. Micro-aggressions include such things as a consistently condescending tone of voice on the part of the bully toward her target, repeatedly interrupting the target when she attempts to make a point in a department or committee meeting, laughing or making faces or whispering to colleagues when the target speaks and failing to respect the target’s authority as a committee chair, program director, or academic advisor. (More examples of bullying are listed in an article entitled “Tackling the Menace of Workplace Bullying” on the website Law Crossing.)

People usually try to ignore micro-aggressions. Sometimes they even worry they’ve imagined them. People don’t expect to be relentlessly taunted and goaded. Human beings are social creatures and evidence suggest that their default position relative to others is trust (see, for example, Louis Quéré, “The Cognitive and Normative Structure of Trust,” and Guido Möllering, “The Nature of Trust: From Georg Simmel to a Theory of Expectation, Interpretation and Suspension”).

That people are social creatures and, all other things being equal, generally decent, kind, sympathetic and empathetic toward those with whom their lives bring them into contact holds, I believe, the key to controlling academic bullies, and any other kind of bully for that matter. People don’t like bullies. Since all human beings, as social creatures, want to be liked, bullies can be controlled, to a large extent anyway, if not entirely, by simple public condemnation of their behavior. Someone in a position of authority has to make it clear that the offending behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Academic departments, like other professional communities, become toxic when people in positions of authority are reluctant to do this.

The absence of an open condemnation of unacceptable behavior makes people fearful that if they express disapproval of such behavior, they’ll draw the attention of the bully and become her next victim. Worse, rather than expressing disapproval, many people will try to ingratiate themselves with the bully in order to insulate themselves from attack, hence rewarding the bully socially for her bullying behavior.

A bully whose behavior is positively reinforced by frightened colleagues quickly becomes out of control. There are ways, however, to discipline faculty, even tenured ones. They can be denied authority on committees, excluded from departmental social functions and given teaching schedules that effectively isolate them from the rest of the faculty. In extreme cases they can be excluded from serving on committees, assigned undesirable courses, have their teaching loads increased and be denied promotion and sabbatical leave.

Ideally, a code of professional conduct that clearly indicates what sorts of behavior are considered unacceptable would become part of the bylaws of the department, college, and or university. This code can then be referred to when taking disciplinary action. Such a code isn’t necessary, however, for disciplining academics for bullying and other forms of professional misconduct. There are myriad ways chairs and other upper-level administrators can make clear to faculty that they will not tolerate unacceptable behavior.

The safest and most effective way to discipline faculty, however, is simply to openly condemn bad behavior. A statement by the chair at a department meeting that harassing and badgering colleagues, raising one’s voice at a colleague, rolling one’s eyes, or making a face when a colleague is speaking, are all unacceptable, can have a dramatic effect because everyone will know at precisely whom these remarks are aimed. Few things are so humiliating for an adult as to have it pointed out publicly that she is behaving chronically like an ill-mannered child. It’s humiliating, and human beings, being social creatures, are sensitive to public humiliation.

A subtle wave of relief will ripple through those present at the meeting because they will feel that finally, there is something they can do when they are the victims of bullying by colleagues: they can complain to the chair. A wave of relief will ripple through the faculty and people will begin, gradually, to band together against the bully or bullies.

I’ve spoken so far only about the general harassment and bullying of colleagues. Everything I have said about that, however, is equally true of other forms of unacceptable professional behavior, such as sexual harassment. There have been several highly publicized cases of sexual harassment among academics in recent years. Emphasis has tended to be placed on the harassers themselves. The problem I believe, however, is less the individuals than what would appear to be a lack of moral leadership in the environments that have allowed the harassment to take place. It isn’t difficult to communicate to a colleague that that sort of behavior is unacceptable. It it continues over a period of weeks, months, or even years, it’s because those in authority have decided to look the other way.

A department chair needs to have the courage to publicly condemn unacceptable behavior and upper-level administrators such as the dean of the relevant college need to support the chair in such condemnations. I have seen firsthand the effect that strong moral leadership can have on a department and the effect that the absence of such leadership can have.

Few people, it seems to me, understand the nature of moral authority. A moral leader is not a “nice” person in the sense in which people generally understand that term. A moral leader is not someone who tries to look the other way when people behave badly, or endeavors always to interpret malevolent behavior in a way that makes it appear benign. Sometimes people’s behavior is conspicuously ill intentioned and interpreting it in any other way can have disastrous consequences.

Plato addresses this problem in an early examination of what constitutes just behavior in his Republic. “[E]veryone would surely say,” observes Socrates, “that if a man takes weapons from a friend when the latter is of sound mind, and the friend demands them back when he is mad, one shouldn’t give back such things, and the man who gave them back would not be just” (Republic, 331 c-d). Giving back the weapons wouldn’t be just, of course, because the the “mad” man is going to use them for malevolent purposes and may do things that he will likely later regret himself when he has recovered his sanity.

People are sometimes ill intentioned and it is not a kindness toward anyone to fail to acknowledge that. Certain forms of behavior are unacceptable, however, quite independently of the intentions behind them. The reluctance to recognize unacceptable behavior as such is not equivalent to being “nice.” It is cowardice and people in positions of authority who suffer from this conflation of decency and cowardice can wreak untold damage on those over whom they have authority.

A moral leader is not necessarily perfect. No human being, after all, is perfect. A moral leader is not necessarily a warm, effusive person, not necessarily outgoing or gregarious. A moral leader may lack a sense of humor. There are numerous other personal flaws from which they may suffer. What makes a moral leader, or what gives a person moral authority, is that they exhibit an unwavering commitment to decency and fairness, that they openly and unequivocally condemn unacceptable behavior while at the same time, continuing to evince respect for those who engage in it.

That is, unacceptable behavior must be quickly an unequivocally condemned. It is important to appreciate, however, that only the behavior should be condemned, not the people who engage in it. Anyone can behave badly, at least occasionally, and an environment where harassment and bullying have become the rule rather than the exception encourages people who would not otherwise behave in such a way, to do so as a form of self defense.

A moral leader is someone who can make clear, both that certain forms of behavior are unacceptable, and that they expect even those who engage in them habitually are capable of reforming themselves. People need to feel that they can redeem themselves when they’ve behaved badly. A moral leader is someone who makes clear that they believe everyone under their authority is perfectly capable of behaving properly and that only such behavior is acceptable.

A moral leader has to have the courage to condemn unacceptable behavior, knowing that doing so will expose their own behavior to closer scrutiny than most people are comfortable with. It takes a lot of courage to throw the first stone, so to speak, particularly since none of us is without sin. A moral leader has to have that courage, however, or we are all lost.

(This piece originally appeared in May 2, 2017 issue of Counterpunch under the title “Academic Bullying and the Vacuum of Moral Leadership in the Academy.”)

On Collective Guilt

Ruth_Andreas-TitelWe can’t leave the Holocaust alone. That might be a good thing if we had the courage to view it honestly. We don’t though. We insist that it’s a puzzle we continue to try to solve, ostensibly so that we will know where to place blame, and in that way also know how to ensure that it will never happen again. We refuse, however, to place blame where it really belongs and so we keep turning it over and over, searching for something we will never find.

Why the Germans? Why the Jews? are questions that Götz Aly takes up in a new book the title of which begins with these questions (Metropolitan Books, 2014). Aly’s theory, not particularly novel, is that the social and economic advances made possible for Jews in Germany as a result of a series of legal reforms in the various German states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made them objects of envy. “Not all Nazi voters,” acknowledges Christopher R. Browning in a review of Aly’s book, “were anti-Semitic, but they at least tolerated Nazi anti-Semitism” (“How Envy of Jews Lay Behind It,” The New York Review of Books, January 8, 2015).

“But how to explain,” Browning continues, “this ‘moral insensibility’ and ‘moral torpor’ of 1933-1944, which underpinned the ‘criminal collaboration’ between the German people and the Nazi regime?” The answer Aly offered first in Hitler’s Beneficiaries (Metropolitan Books, 2005), was material gain. Aly’s new work supplements the motive of material gain with a “new morality” involving race theory that would justify such collaboration.

Many Germans remained unconvinced, however, by the new race theory. Many Germans were, in fact, untroubled by the legal reforms that had made possible the flowering of the Jewish middle class. Many Germans had even championed these reforms.

What happened to those people?

The journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, who lived in Berlin during the war, gives us some insight into what happened to them in the diary she kept from 1938-1945. Initially, at least, they were not helping the Nazis. Her entry for Nov 10, 1938, the day after the infamous Kristallnacht,“ gives moving testament to that fact. At half past nine in the morning Andreas-Friedrich took a bus to her office. “The bus conductor looks at me,” she writes,

as if he had something important to say, but then just shakes his head, and looks away guiltily. My fellow passengers don’t look up at all. Everyone’s expression seems somehow to be asking forgiveness. The Kurfürstendamm is a sea of broken glass. At the corner of Fasanenstraße people are gathering–a mute mass looking in dismay at the synagogue, whose dome is hidden in a cloud of smoke.

            ‘A damn shame!’ a man beside me whispers … [W]e all feel that we are brothers as we sit here in the bus ready to die of shame. Brothers in shame; comrades in humiliation” (Berlin Underground 1938-1945 [Paragon House, 1989).

When she gets to the office, her editor, whom she observes, was “rumored to have a tinge of Nazism, ” says “one doesn’t dare look people in the eye anymore” (21).

“They’ve dragged all them all away–all the Jewish men they could get hold of,” begins her entry for the next day.

Only those who were warned in time have escaped the raid. Thank Heavens, a good many were warned. Hundreds managed to disappear at the houses of friends; hundreds sought shelter with strangers and found it. One little seamstress took in two Jewish fugitives; she didn’t even know their names or where they came from. Workingmen in the Frankfurter Allee brought back to the Jewish shop-owners the merchandise that was scattered over the street. They didn’t say a word, just tugged sheepishly at their caps. The chief surgeon of a hospital is hiding a wounded rabbi in the back room from the bloodhounds of the Gestapo.

            While the SS was raging, innumerable fellow Germans were ready to die of pity and shame” (p. 25).

The next line of the translation reads “Almost all our friends have people quartered on them.” If one goes to the original German edition of the diaries, however, the text continues

Women are dashing about the city today with mysterious bundles under their arms, meeting one another on street corners: Shaving articles for Doctor Weißmann. A clean shirt for Fritz Levy, night things for Jochen Cohn. One tries, as much as possible, to look after those in hiding. It isn’t advisable for them to come out of hiding yet. What happened yesterday could continue today (Der Schattenmann [The Shadow Man], Suhrkamp, 2nd ed. 2012, p. 38).

Then comes the line “Almost all our friends have people quartered on them.” There is no ellipsis to indicate material was omitted. One could argue it doesn’t matter because what makes it into the translation makes clear that the general reaction of Berliners to Kristallnacht was one of horror. Still, the omitted material makes even clearer how widespread among gentiles was sympathy for the plight of the Jews.

Interesting, eh? People running about the city collecting the necessary articles for friends, and in some cases even strangers, they’re protecting. Jews being given shelter by countless German gentiles. Workmen returning to Jewish shop-owners merchandise that had been scattered on the street. What happened to those countless Germans who were sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, to those countless “brothers in shame”?

What do you think happened to them? What happens to people who try to help others as it becomes increasingly clear what such assistance might eventually cost them? Some continue, despite the danger, some go into resistance groups such as “Uncle Emil,“ the one with which Andreas-Friedrich became associated, but most do not.

Andreas-Friedrich “looks lovingly” at the man who whispers “A damn shame!” at the sight of the burning synagogue.

“It occurs to me,” she writes, “that this is ”really the time to call your neighbor ‘brother.’ But I don’t do it. One never does; one just thinks it. And if you really do pluck up the courage for a running start, in the end you just ask, ‘Pardon me, could you tell me the time?’ And then you are instantly ashamed of being such a coward” (p. 19).

Why couldn’t she do it? Why couldn’t she acknowledge to the man that she also condemned what had happened the night before? Why couldn’t any of the people on the bus who were hanging their heads in shame, in silent shame? Why doesn’t one do it?

Years ago I saw a nature program that focused on a litter of wolf cubs. There were three cubs in the den. One emerged, however, days before the other two. He was bold, he was courageous. He was eager to explore the outside world. Ah, I thought to myself, he will be the alpha wolf. He will grow up to be the leader.

One day, though, the brave little cub came home from his explorations with an injured foot. He left again the next day, undaunted by his grisly experience of the day before, but that evening, he did not return. He never returned again. Who knows what had gotten him, but something clearly had.

Several more days passed after the disappearance of the first little cub before the two remaining ones peeked out, trembling, bodies pressed together, from the mouth of the little den. Another day still passed before they had the courage actually to emerge fully from the shelter of their home.

And suddenly I understood why human beings are such a miserable craven lot. Natural selection has ensured that cowardly individuals have a higher survival rate than courageous ones. They live longer, produce more offspring. So it isn’t our fault, really, that we’re such a miserable, craven lot. It’s in our genes.

And yet it is our fault because cowardice isn’t the only thing that’s in our genes. We have somehow also evolved a conscience. We know, as Aristotle expressed it in the Nicomachean Ethics, that there are things we ought rather to “face death” than do (Book III 1). And yet few of us have the courage to face death to do the right thing. Few of us even have the courage to say “brother” to another who affirms the values we purport to hold dear.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes in the February 16th issue of The New Yorker that the Germans “failed miserably” to draw a line between the innocent and the guilty after the war. She writes, in fact, that to say they “failed miserably” would be “generous” (“The Last Trial”). That’s true, of course, though in a different sense, I think, than the one Kolbert meant, because the line, drawn properly, would encircle us all, all except for the few whose willingness to martyr themselves to do the right thing places them not outside the group, but above it.

We are all guilty of the cravenness that paved the way for the Holocaust, the glass through which we keep seeing darkly, which we keep turning over and over in a vain attempt to escape our own reflection. If we had the courage to recognize ourselves in it, then perhaps we could learn from it. But courage, sadly, is precisely what we lack.

(This piece is dedicated to my dear friend and German tutor of many years, Ebba Mørkeberg 1924-2014.  It originally appeared in the of Feb 17, 2015 issue of Counterpunch.)

When Bad Things Happen to Good Academics

I wonder sometimes what makes people go bad. There doesn’t seem to be any logic to it. James Gilligan, a forensic psychiatrist who has worked with serial killers, writes that nearly all of them have been abused as children. That makes sense to me. I’m inclined to think that people are like other animals, that if they get what they need when they’re young, they grow up to be well- adjusted members of their species. We know how to make an animal, a dog for example, vicious: simply mistreat it. My understanding is that that works on pretty much any animal. If it gets what it needs when it’s young, it will turn out to be a fine adult. If it doesn’t it won’t, it’s that simple.

I like this view, not simply because it’s humane, but also because it’s optimistic. It gives us a formula for wiping out cruelty and intolerance. We just need to work to ensure that people get what they need. We need to make sure that parents don’t have so many financial worries that they cannot be sufficiently attentive to their children, or worse, that they end up taking out their stress on their children. We need to make sure that every person, every job, is accorded respect, that people are treated with dignity, etc., etc., and eventually cruelty and inhumanity will become things of the past. That’s a tall order, of course, and perhaps it’s idealistic, but it’s something to aim at anyway. There was a time when people said things such as poverty and hunger could never be wiped out. But we’ve made great strides in eliminating them, and have even eliminated them completely in parts of the world. It’s widely believed now to be a question of will, not of practical possibility. If we want to eliminate poverty and hunger, we can.

I like to think that the same thing is true with cravenness and cruelty (meaning that it can be wiped out if we have the will to do so) and generally, I do believe it. But sometimes I’m confronted with examples of what seems to be completely gratuitous and inexplicable viciousness from people whose lives to all outward appearances anyway, would seem to be pretty cushy, people who give no evidence (no other evidence anyway) of having been abused as children. The mystery of why some people go bad gives me a certain sympathy with John Calvin, and others who believe in predestination, or the view that some people are just inherently bad. I don’t really believe that, but in my weaker moments, I wonder if it might not be true.

There are just so many variables. Is it not enough to have loving and attentive parents? Can having been picked last for a team in gym class cause a wound that festers for years leading finally to generalized suspicion and paranoia as an adult? Can one slight on the playground explain a vicious and unprovoked attack on a colleague years later?

My mother once said that in her experience, religion made good people better and bad people worse. (Both her parents were ministers in the Assemblies of God church.) The same thing, sadly, seems to be true of academia. I don’t believe there is a better life than that of a tenured academic. Hardly ever in human experience are the stars aligned so perfectly as they are in the lives of tenured academics. Teaching of any sort is fulfilling but most teaching doesn’t come with the job security and other material benefits routinely accorded to the tenured academic. To be paid to teach, not to mention to read, and write, well, it’s like winning the lottery.

I had some wonderful teachers when I was in college. This led me to believe that teachers were, in general, not simply wiser and more learned than the average person, but also kinder, more considerate, more understanding and tolerant. This made sense to me because they had what appeared to be wonderful jobs. How could anyone not be happy with such a life, I asked myself, and how could anyone who was happy fail to be anything but nice?

Since then, however, I have learned that two kinds of people enter academia: (1) well adjusted people, people who are basically kind and decent, sympathetic and empathetic, people who love to read and sometimes (though not always) also to write, people who like people in general and like to think that in their own small way they are doing something to better the human condition, and (2) maladjusted people who like to use their learning as a club with which they can intimidate others, people who suffer from varying degrees of paranoia, people possessed of a messianic zeal to single-handedly save humanity from what in their fevered imaginations they believe to be the ravages inflicted on it by the forces of evil they take to be embodied in the form of despised colleagues, people who spend more time plotting to undermine and even publicly humiliate these colleagues than they spend on teaching.

There is almost no way to check the damage the latter sort of academic can cause once he or she becomes tenured. They sit plotting and poisoning the air in their departments until they retire, and they do not generally retire until very late in life because they thrive on conflict, a kind of conflict that it is hard to find outside a professional context. When, as sometimes happens, I’m confronted with the spectacle of the damage such people can do, the havoc they can wreak in an otherwise harmonious community of scholars, the pain they can cause to colleagues for whom they have conceived a pathological dislike, I have a certain sympathy with the anti-academic element in our vociferously anti-intellectual society. Academics are not really the plague that they are increasingly represented as being, but there is, lamentably, a sizable contingent that gives the rest of us a bad name.

All Over America the Lamps are Going Out

Agee photo finalThese are bad times. I thought of James Agee’s beautiful and heartrending work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men when I heard the verdict in the Zimmerman case. There’s an account, very near the beginning of the book, of Agee’s and Walker Evans’s encounter with a young black couple that made me think, when I first read it, how far we had come from those dark days. Agee and Evans had found a church they wanted to photograph. The church was in a relatively deserted wooded area and was locked. As the two men were wondering whether to force their way in, a young black couple came walking by. The couple, Agee writes,

[w]ithout appearing to look either longer or less long, or with more or less interest, than a white man might care for, and without altering their pace, … made thorough observation of us, of the car, and of the tripod and camera. We spoke and nodded, smiling as if casually; they spoke and nodded gravely, as they passed, and glanced back once, not secretly, nor long, nor in amusement. (p. 36.)

Agee decides to go after the couple to ask them if they know where to find a minister or someone else who could let them into the church. Agee, being Agee trails behind them at first simply observing them “taking pleasure… in the competence and rhythm of their walking in the sun, … and in the beauty in the sunlight on their clothes.” They are obviously courting, both dressed in their Sunday best. He in “dark trousers, black dress shoes, a new-laundered white shirt with lights of bluing in it, and a light yellow soft straw hat,” she in “a flowered pink cotton dress” and “freshly whited pumps.

“I was walking more rapidly than they,” explains Agee, “but quietly.” Still, before he had gone far, the couple, as if they could sense his presence, turned back and looked at him “briefly and impersonally, like horses in a field.” Agee waved at them, but they’d already turned away again. He began to walk faster, but was impatient to catch up to them, so he “broke into a trot. At the sound of the twist of my shoe in the gravel,” writes Agee

the young woman’s whole body was jerked down tight as a fist into a crouch from which immediately, the rear foot skidding in the loose stone so that she nearly fell, like a kicked cow scrambling out of a creek, eyes crazy, chin stretched tight, she sprang forward into the first motions of a running not human but that of a suddenly terrified wild animal. In this same instant the young man froze, the emblems of sense in his wild face wide open toward me, his right hand stiff toward the girl who, after a few strides, her consciousness overtaking her reflex, shambled to a stop and stood, not straight but sick, as if hung from a hook in the spine of the will not to fall for weakness, while he hurried to her and put his hand on her flowered shoulder and, inclining his head forward and sidewise as if listening, spoke with her, and they lifted, and watched me while, shaking my head, and raising my hand palm outward, I came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they, closely, not touching now, stood, and said, still shaking my head (No; no; oh, Jesus, no, no, no!) and looking into their eyes; at the man, who was not knowing what to do, and at the girl, whose eyes were lined with tears, and who was trying so hard to subdue the shaking in her breath, and whose heart I could feel, though not hear, blasting as if it were my whole body, and I trying in some fool way to keep it somehow relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, … [said] ‘I’m very sorry! I’m very sorry if I scared you! I didn’t mean to scare you at all. I wouldn’t have done any such thing for anything.’ They just kept looking at me. There was no more for them to say than for me. …. After a little the man got back his voice, his eyes grew a little easier, and he said without conviction that that was all right and that I hadn’t scared her. She shook her head slowly, her eyes on me; she did not yet trust her voice. Their faces were secret, soft, utterly without trust of me, and utterly without understanding; and they had to stand here now and hear what I was saying, because in that country no negro safely walks away from a white man, or even appears not to listen while he is talking. … I …  asked what I had followed them to ask; they said the thing it is usually safest for negroes to say, that they did not know; I thanked them very much, and … again, … I said I was awfully sorry if I had bothered them; but they only retreated still more profoundly behind their faces, their eyes watching mine as if awaiting any sudden move they must ward, and the young man said again that that was all right, and I nodded, and turned away from them, and walked down the road without looking back. (pp. 37-39.)

I remember when I read this passage the horror that came over me to think that anyone would ever have to live with such constant fear. That couple had been frightened, even if only briefly, for their lives.

I knew what it was like to be pursued. I was one of the very few white children at my school for most of my childhood and though the black children who knew me were almost always kind to me, the ones who didn’t know me, the ones I might encounter at recess or walking to or from school, were not. I’d been chased before and been called names and had things thrown at me. I once had a glass bottle thrown at me. It shattered just in front of me so that I could feel the force of the tiny fragments against my shins. I’d learned very early to keep walking, no matter what what was going on behind or in front of me, I’d learned somehow by instinct, I think, not to display fear. Of course I couldn’t ignore people either. I had to acknowledge them, but I couldn’t appear to be afraid. I don’t know why, exactly, that worked, but it did and I knew somehow, even as a child, that it would.

So I identified with that couple. I knew what it was like to affect nonchalance when you are really very afraid. I knew the intricacies of the subtle etiquette of self defense and how it kicks in automatically at such times. I identified with this couple. But still, I had never been afraid for my life.

There are not words to describe what it must be like to live that way, to live with an ever-present fear for one’s very life. I remember when I read that passage I thought to myself, thank God, thank God black people do not have to live like that anymore.

These are bad times.

(This piece was originally published in Counterpunch, 24 July 2013.)

On Death and Dying

Otis elementary school 2One of the most frightening things, I think, about dying is that we do it alone. Of all the natural evils for which one would like to blame the creator, this seems one of the worst. It would have been so much better, wouldn’t it, if we left this life in groups, left perhaps with the people we came in with, with the children we remember from our earliest days in school, and perhaps also with the people we have come to love, if they are suitably close to us in age. If we could go in groups, as if on a field trip, it would be easier.

But we go alone, even those unfortunates who die in accidents that take many lives die effectively alone because they don’t have time, really to appreciate their fates as shared. They say the people who remained on the Titanic sang as the ship went down. That’s what I’m talking about. It would be so much better, so much easier to bear if we were assigned a time along with many others. We could begin to gather a little before that time, all of us who were assigned to leave together, we could begin to gather and prepare ourselves and share with one another the joys and sorrows of our lives. If we did that, I think we would realize that our lives had really all been variations on the same theme, that we were not so different from one another as we had thought.

I’m not certain if I believe in life after death, even though I am very religious. I’m not certain what it would be for. I doubt I will be ready to leave this life when my time comes. I think I’d like to live much longer than I know I will, say three or four hundred years. I think I’d eventually get tired of living though, so the prospect of living forever is not all that appealing.

It seems to me, however, that if there is life after death, that that place where we will all go (and I believe we will all go to the same place because I am a universalist), wherever it is, that we will all actually arrive there together. Even though each of us will die individually, alone, if we go anywhere, it is to eternity and since there is no temporal change in eternity, there cannot be any arriving earlier or later. Where we will go will be where everyone will go at the same time, or where everyone, in a sense, already is. There will be no waiting for the loved ones who die after us. They will be there waiting for us, so to speak, when we arrive, even if they are in the bloom of youth when we leave.

When I think about death, which I do more and more as I get older, I wonder if perhaps part of the point of it, of the horrible specter of that trip one must take alone, is precisely to make us understand that we never really are alone. And by that I don’t mean simply that God is always with us, although I do mean that also. I mean that we are all part of the whole of humanity, that we are connected to everyone and, indeed, to every living thing.

There is a poem I love by Molly Holden that conveys this sense of connectedness very well. It’s called “Photograph of Haymaker, 1890.” It goes like this:

It is not so much the image of the man
that’s moving — he pausing from his work
to whet his scythe, trousers tied
below the knee, white shirt lit by
another summer’s sun, another century’s —

as the sight of the grasses beyond
his last laid swathe, so living yet
upon the moment previous to death;
for as the man stooping straightened up
and bent again they died before his blade.

Sweet hay and gone some seventy years ago
and yet they stand before me in the sun,

That’s not the whole of the poem. I left out the last couple of lines for fear of violating copyright. You can read the whole of it though if you go to Poetry magazine. Of course the poem is about the haymaker in that it’s about mortality which is inseparable, I think from temporality. Time passes, people pass, as they say. The haymaker will pass, just as the grasses he’s cutting down in the vigor of his manhood. And he is gone now of course the man who was young and vigorous in that photo taken so long ago.

I love to read philosophy and learn that others who lived and died long before me had precisely the same thoughts that I have had. I feel suddenly linked to those people in a mystical way. I feel as if they are with me in a strange sense, that we are together on this journey we call life, even though they completed it long ago.

Kierkegaard speaks often about the idea of death and how one must keep it ever present in his thoughts. I did not understand this when I first read it, but I believe I do now. To think about death, really to think about it, to think it through, will bring you right back around again to life and what a miracle it is, and by that I don’t mean your own small individual life, but all of it, life as a whole, and you will be filled with reverence for it. You will be kinder to every creature.

And you will feel less alone.

This piece is for Otis Anderson, February 6, 1959 – July 14, 2013.