Nudnikerie: My Album of Antisemites

Studio Interior with ‘The Steeplechase’
Edgar Degas, 1881

Nudnikerie: My Album of Antisemites

Nudnik: “A nudnik is not just a nuisance; to merit the status of nudnik, a nuisance must be the most persistent, talkative, obnoxious, indomitable, and indefatigable nag.”  The Joys of Yiddish, by Leo Rosten.

As for “Nudnikerie,” the coinage is mine.  I hope and trust it will pass into general usage.

Conceivably, readers might be hoping that they won’t be reading any more columns about antisemitism.  Maybe they won’t because the world suddenly cures itself of its Oldest Hatred problem.  Or because Abigail died and came back Swedish (a hope she sometimes expresses).

Sorry. As it happens, I’m currently going through an immense manuscript on the subject of antisemitism, written by a first-rate British philosopher.  I’m not reading it for fun.  It’s been sent me as a referee.  I’m one of those peers who are asked to contribute what is called “peer review.”

As I read, certain scenes pass quite naturally before my mind.  Darkened corners of memory are lit up.  I relive my own encounters with real-life antisemites.  They didn’t try to kill me, so I use “nudnik,” which is a comical term.  The scenes are painful nonetheless, because, in many cases, I am remembering people I knew well and liked or loved, before they assumed that character.

Antisemitism is wrongly defined as a rejection of The Other.  In some cases, the remembered individuals and I had been close for years, shared personal stories and faced the storms of life together, as friends do.  In such cases, the change in outlook toward me was heralded by changed attitudes toward themselves.  Here are three stories from the Album.

One friend was a German woman.  She had come to this country as a G.I. bride, but was divorced with kids when I knew her.  If she hadn’t changed in that particular way, she’s a woman I might have included in that charmed number of European women in midlife whom I sometimes cite as possessing — in their very being and carriage, in their way of setting a cup of tea, or moving with slow grace from one room to another – a whole encyclopedia of womanly arts.  When we got a chance to sit down over tea, we would talk in the way women sometimes can, with nothing held back.

So what happened?  Well, I’m not sure.  All I do know for a fact is that she read the chapters on the Holocaust in the first edition of A Good Look at Evil.  It includes a discussion of German complicity.

Everything functioned as if this was indeed, as it was self-styled at the time, an act of the national will….  Orders did not have to be given.  Far-reaching interpretations and creative implementations welled up from every stratum of national life.

I didn’t write that out of bigotry.  It was based on my reading of the evidence.  But I can understand why, if it appeared to misrepresent her family or personal circle, she would feel affronted.  She’d been an athletic teenager when Hitler was in power.  She probably won swimming contests where you had to say “Heil Hitler.”

However, that doesn’t explain why she started reading books like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, citing it to me as a reliable source.  When I saw it on her table, I picked it up and said to her,

“That’s Hitler’s bedtime reading!  It’s like reading pornography!  Would you have pornography in the house with your children?”

Perhaps, as a local friend has suggested, it was a kind of breakdown, or early onset of dementia — as a delayed reaction to war-time trauma.

That might be.  The human soul is mysterious.  The only thing I can cite was a cumulative, darkening pessimism in her that had begun to worry me as it accelerated in the years preceding her transformation.

In another case, the man had been a friend of my husband’s since graduate school.  As it happens, he was a priest.  There was also some reason to think that he’d made a wrong career choice way back when.

Anyway, when Jerry and I married, one of the changes that Jerry experienced was the profound religious turn described in his book, God: An Autobiography, as told to a philosopher.   Before that, Jerry had held a high-minded naturalistic worldview: what you see is what you get, but you should try to live up to a high standard all the same.  Once his outlook was so dramatically expanded, Jerry, as a newcomer to the world of religious experience, confided in his old friend the priest.  Who turned out to have little to offer, aside from detached comments and deflection.

It may be that Jerry’s spiritual encounter reminded his friend that he was in the wrong business.  He’d never had a vocation for the priesthood.  If he wanted to break with Jerry to avoid the discomforts of this realization, what better way than to pick a quarrel with Jerry’s wife?

One afternoon, the three of us met at a nice restaurant for what Jerry and I expected would be a convivial lunch.  Instead of a natural flow of conversation, the friend force-marched it to the topic of Israel and insisted I respond to a loaded question from him.  My reluctant words triggered his interrupting to lay it down that, on these matters (which he had brought up) he “couldn’t talk to an American Jew!”

Now the word “Jew,” flung in one’s face as a one-syllable epithet, is meant to be insulting.

In three ways, ladies:

(1) A man talking to a woman ought to acknowledge her as a woman.  To erase the sex difference in that way is ungallant and therefore threatening.  (Sorry if this is not the current view.  The current view does not help women protect themselves or recognize when a social protection has been removed.)

(2) I didn’t hold whatever view I expressed because I was “an American Jew.”  I held it because I thought it was true.  The ad hominem attack demeaned me in a second way: as a thinking being.

(3) To autocratically terminate the discussion you yourself began is to violate collegiality, friendship and civility.

What do I really think was going on?  Jerry’s friend did not care to face the possibility that he had chosen the wrong path for his life.  His sudden antisemitism was a distraction, sadly provided by the current culture and therefore ready-to-hand.  It had the purpose of aiding his project of evasion and self-deception.  Hey, good luck with that!

My third case was a group phenomenon, which I have written about before in these pages.  It concerns the group of let-us-say peaceniks who, for some years, disfigured the central square in our town by meeting there once a week for two hours, rain and shine, to hold up placards denouncing Israel as deserving of more scorn and vilification than any other country on this planet.

I considered them a menace to the social – and possibly physical – safety of their Jewish neighbors in the town, who include me.   I had pressed our then rabbi to undertake a succession of initiatives whose aim was to persuade them to cease and desist their Nudnikerie.  Nothing worked.

WHY WHY WHY? I complained to Christian friends.  I’ve tried everything I can think of.  All that’s happened is that I’m the one who’s lost standing.  And they are still feeling like the good guys, while they hold up signs in the middle of the town square that express the latest update on the Oldest Hatred.

One of these Christian friends had a suggestion.  Why not meet at an outdoor café adjacent to the town square, Jerry and me and two sympathetic Christian women friends, to pray and discuss our own religious experiences, within sight of the Vigilantes, but not trying to engage them?

So we did that.  We had a nice, confiding discussion though it didn’t seem to have any effect on the Nudniks.  We were about to fold it up when I had the sudden impulse to join hands in a circle and address some quiet but audible words to God:

Lord, I’ve tried everything I know to touch their minds and open their hearts.  Nothing’s worked.  Could You please show them what they need to see and know? Could You show them how to stop menacing their neighbors?

When I looked up again — so help me! — they had disappeared.  I guess they’d concluded their Vigil and just closed it up, but gee – so quickly!  And so help me, whether because I stopped driving by the town square at the Vigil hour, or because eventually they shut it down –

I never saw them again.

 

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Homage to Milbridge

Homage to Milbridge

Last week, Jerry and I spent two whole days in Milbridge, Maine, bookended by travel days of which (the return trip) the less said the better.

About the state of Maine, I smile when, looking down, I can see Maine from the plane as it descends to the Bangor airport.  Milbridge has a special resonance with my whole soul and body.

Why do I feel that way?  It’s a real feeling, not an imagined one.  Let me go over its layers, the mille feuilles of the feeling.

First, my parents purchased the house in Milbridge, with its view of Narraguagus Bay, at a long-ago time when I was in what you might call a dismantled state, far away in a fishing village on the Portuguese coast.  My mother said:

“Someday, Abigail will be herself again and she will want a place to come to.”

This indeed came to pass, as did many of my mother’s visions of life-in-the-long-term.  It was not precognition, I think.  It was her loving, intuitive sense of the directionality of a life.  In the years when my parents were alive, I would come to recognize the house as a summer place of refuge and renewal for me.

When the complete cast of characters that made up our world in Milbridge was alive and well, it was a landscape of gaiety and country adventures: outdoor games, picnics, trips to the State Fair and Maine rodeos (in which friends competed), cantering through the grassy fields, sailing, canoeing and shared town events.  The triumphs of life and the fun.

The trials as well.  The last illnesses of my parents unfolded there and my father died in the Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth.  After my first marriage ended in divorce, a local sage reassured me:

“There’s lots more fish in the sea,” possibly thinking that it was time I looked over some of the local mariners.

It was in Milbridge that the long-distance call came from New York that my seven-year job fight had been won.  I went promptly to tell old friends Frank and Ada Graham and do some cartwheels on their lawn.

After the deaths of both parents, I was pretty much alone, without mother, father, husband, child or sheltering siblings. There was a person, then in my life, who spread defamatory fictions about me in the circle of my New York City friends – and was believed! – by people who personally knew no evil of me.  It led me to discover one of Abigail’s Adages: “Slander is always believed.”

Not in Milbridge.

There people know you in the round.  If you want to do something you don’t want the whole town to know, don’t do it in Milbridge.  By the same token, if you want to make up a damaging story about someone of whom the town knows no evil:

Don’t do it in Milbridge.

After my job was secure, I could turn to getting my father’s posthumous philosophic manuscript published.  Once the book had appeared to favorable reviews, I felt that the house was no longer the sole visible evidence of my parents’ presence in the world.  Since the house and its obligations also tied me to my ill-wisher, I felt the time had finally come to sell the house.

As I began to gather the needed proofs of ownership, some unforeseen problems surfaced.  My parents had been pretty smart people but, when it came to buying a rural property, they were babes in the woods.  My father had bought the shore strip for $500 from a neighbor — who didn’t own it!  There was also a right-of-way that we didn’t own.  So the rectangular half-acre of land continuing on the other side of the road and abutting the Bay that they thought they owned was actually a triangle that stopped short of the road on the near side.  A property of that size and shape is unsaleable.

I learned that the right-of-way was owned by a man of about 99 years of age who had myriad descendants.  If I couldn’t get him to sign off on the sale, I’d be spending the rest of my days tracking down his heirs.  But who knew how to find him?  The shore strip turned out to be the property of a couple who lived in Massachusetts.  They too would not be easy to find, much less do business with.

Enter Shirley Kennedy, a local friend and champion barrel racer.  Shirley knew the who, the when, and the whereabouts of everybody in the locality.  Leading the way on horseback, she tracked them all down: the aging shore strip couple from Massachusetts and the old man with the right-of-way.  If you can picture the scene, it sure didn’t hurt that we were on horseback when we found them.

These days, our house has become unrecognizable to me.  It was purchased by two southern ladies who’ve filled it out with stepped gardens, patriotic bunting draped over the porch, and the porch itself reconfigured to appear more mansion-like and imposing than it ever looked in our day.  I stop by the house when we’re in town, to peer at it, trying to see if I can recognize one molecule of how it was when it was ours.  Nope. Not even a ghost of it is ours now.  It’s all theirs — but I’m always relieved to see it well taken care of with its new air of splendid permanence.

There are other ghosts, as the tally of people I still know thins out.  After my parents died, when I first drove up from New York to uncrate their things, now shipped from their vacated New York apartment to the house on Bayview Street, I worried how it would be, getting all their forwarded possessions set to rights, working alone in the now-uninhabited house.  Would it feel scary?  No, I said to friends.  It wasn’t as I’d feared.  It wasn’t bad.  Instead, I reported:

The silences are friendly.

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Wingeing, Death and Debility

Wingeing, Death and Debility

Years ago, I was in the Australian Blue Mountains, climbing the rockiest, thorniest, steepest wilderness trail that I could ever hope never to find.   We were a troop of philosophers from Sydney University’s Department of General Philosophy, doing a Bush Walk.  My then husband was in “the other department” (Traditional and Modern Philosophy), but what the heck.  Why turn down a chance to explore the Australian Bush?

Actually, I was discovering many reasons to turn down that chance, and muttering about my discoveries as we huffed and puffed our way up the steep mountainside.

“Stop wingeing!” my then spouse said sharply under his breath.  He was an American, but concerned that we fit in with the stiff-lipped Aussies.  Puzzled, I asked, also under my breath,

“What’s wingeing?

 And what’s wrong with it?”

Well, obviously, it can go too far.  But, on the other hand, what’s right with it?  An example of what’s right with it comes to mind from here in Bucks County, years later.  I had a non-Jewish friend in my congregation, Dale, who decided to convert to Judaism.  She did me the honor of asking me to be a witness to this momentous soul change.  Since I don’t think being a Jew is all that much of a picnic, I questioned her as we drove to the mikvah.  Was she doing this under any misunderstanding?  Did she really know the ramifications?  By the intelligent thoughtfulness, thoroughness and wholeheartedness of her answers, it became clear to me that she did.

At the time of her conversion, Dale was beset with multiple health problems.  She was coping with the pain and the trouble, with a stoicism that would have done any Aussie proud.

Not long after, I and another friend, Susan, had a date to meet Dale for brunch.  When she failed to show up, when our phone calls rang and rang with no response, Susan remarked that, if anything were really wrong and we neglected to find out, we would never forgive ourselves.  So we drove to Dale’s place, found her car in the yard and her door still locked.  We alerted the landlord, he alerted the police, they broke in and … they found her.

One night, not long after the funeral, congregant friends gathered to share our remembrances of Dale.  I said that, while I didn’t doubt Dale’s comprehension of the Judaism to which she had converted, all the same, I felt there was one aspect of her new way of life that she had never mastered.  If only she had learned to kvetch, she might be alive today!

What’s the best way to live?  What’s the best way to die?  The Aussie way?  The Jewish way?  Or what?   Socrates said that the study of philosophy is a preparation – he must have meant the best preparation — for death.  The other day, a philosopher friend remarked that she and I ought to get together for the purpose of studying the interesting topic of how to die.  Which leads me to wonder, how do you study that?

There are people, some of them friends of mine, who believe that this vale of tears is the preparation (the antechamber) leading (in the best case) to an incomparably better afterlife.  So, in line with that expectation, we should keep our eyes on the prize and live accordingly.

There are others, also friends, who are pretty sure that … this is IT.  That’s all she wrote, there ain’t no more.  Just make sure you get frequent checkups.  But if you have to die, at least hold up the side.  Do it right.  Don’t winge.

We have seen that Socrates, in the 4th century BCE, described philosophy itself as a preparation for death.  But in the 17th-century, Spinoza, also a great and noble philosopher, said, “The free man thinks of nothing less than death.”  Who is right?

What do I think?  Well, I don’t think the “this is IT” people are right.  Why not?  Because by now there’s a helluva lot of empirical evidence that consciousness survives the body’s death.  Highbrow opinion professes to know nothing of this data, but it’s there all the same.  In a generation or less, I believe the mounting evidence will become undeniable.

If that’s the case – I mean if the soul isn’t just the body – then, on some level, we already know it.  What that suggests to me is that fashionable orientations toward the-dark-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel – so pervasive if you devote a few doom-and-gloom hours to The New York Review of Books or The New York Times Book Review – involve distortions of our experience in the here and now.  These clever writers are bending the evidence of things unseen.  Spinoza writes, “We feel and know by experience that we are eternal.”  We know, we feel, we sense intuitively, that hope is not stupid and death does not have the last word.

What’s the inference, with regard to learning how to die?  The best preparation for death is to live as fully into the present, as truthfully into how it really is with us – intellectually, in feeling, in aspiration, in purpose — as we do anyway on our best days. Which I guess also means, winge or kvetch when you want to, provided you don’t make yourself too obnoxious.  Real life is not a continuous picnic, though one can have fun all the same.

So the view of Socrates, that philosophy is a preparation for death and the view of Spinoza, that the free man thinks of nothing less than death are one and the same.

We prepare for death when we are fully alive.

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Paradigm Shifts

Paradigm Shifts

We live under the sheltering umbrellas of our worldviews.  To the point where we would feel naked if we were caught in the street without them.

That being the case (that we run around conceptually clothed, whether we know it or not) – I’m always fascinated to learn of instances where an individual changed his or her conceptual garments.  How does anyone dare to do that?

Since I have worn a fair number of different worldviews, I keep track of when and why I changed any one of them.  For example, the other day Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, made an appearance in the Doylestown Bookshop to talk about his new book, The Gift of Anger.  I coaxed Jerry to lay down his many burdens and come out with me to hear Gandhi’s grandson.  As it turned out, Arun had known his grandfather well and taken a major influence from him during the formative years of early adolescence.  Arun has a presence of enormous sweetness.  It brought vividly back my days as a  pacifist, when Gandhi was my first love (for someone I did not know personally).

When did I change this lovely garment for the more everyday one I’ve worn since?  Well, it was in Paris.  I was out for a solitary stroll on the beautiful Isle Saint Louis.  Where I was accosted by three or four young Parisian thugs bent on taking liberties.  Without a second’s hesitation I said,

Voulez-vous que j’appelle la police?

and they faded away like the relatively well-behaved young thugs they were.

It’s possible that your average conscientious objector would’ve found a way to rationalize the inconsistency of appealing to armed gendarmerie while professing nonviolence.  But I hadn’t been a pacifist long enough to know how to do that.  So I stopped dead in my tracks, took in the plain fact that I didn’t believe, in practice, what I professed to believe in words, and stopped calling myself a pacifist.  Then and there.  Voila!  Paradigm shift!

Since I was also a young philosophy student, trained to follow the argument where it led, this complete change of conceptual clothes rocked my world but didn’t threaten my identity.

Right now, I’m reading a book by a philosophically sophisticated former Muslim who tells how he was led, by the same Socratic principle of following the argument, to abandon his former faith and turn Christian.  Since I’m neither a Muslim nor a Christian, the book offers me a fascinating case study of a person whose change of paradigm did affect and threaten his deep sense of who he is.

The author, Nabeel Qureshi, is of Pakistani origin.  When this happened, he was a young med student, living here in the States with his devout family and he considered himself a missionary for Islam.  As the story begins, he has a good friend and study partner who is a dedicated Christian.  Each is convinced he is right and neither is afraid of no-holds-barred argument.  I’ll just give one example of the claims on which their disagreements turn.

The Qur’an states that Jesus was crucified but didn’t die on the cross.  The Christian claim that the disciples found his tomb empty is crucial to the Christian creed.  If he never died, then, of course, he never rose from the dead.

The argument between the two friends gets down to blood and gore.  The Christian friend points out that “the Romans used what’s called a flagrum, a whip that was designed to rip the skin off the body and cause excessive bleeding.”  Apparently, if the Romans wanted you dead, you were going to end up dead.  The condemned were half dead by the time they were nailed to the cross.  Then the gospels report blood and water gushing out when the Romans pierced Jesus’ side with a spear.  The Muslim friend argued that this shows that Jesus was still alive since his blood was still circulating.  The Christian rejoins,

“What was the water?  What the author of the gospel calls ‘water’ is either the serum after it has separated [which only happens after death] or it was fluid from around the heart.  Either way, Jesus had to be dead in order for there to be ‘blood and water.’”

I won’t go into more of the argument between the two friends, which ranges over many more particulars recorded in the gospels.  What is striking is that, in this instance, the Christian side appears to both participants to have made the stronger case!

What gripped me about this Muslim/Christian argument was its total freedom from the usual muffled, muted condescension that is so often a feature of interfaith occasions.  In the more frequently found cases, either nobody believes anything much, so they actually share the same faith – in natural science and being nonjudgmental.  Or, each has a real religious commitment based on conviction, which – if the one is true would make the other false – and they’re each too nice to say so!

What would interfaith dialogue be like if the dialoguers said all that they really thought and then sat down to argue it out, each resolved to follow the argument where it led?

Suppose we loved truth more than our worldview?

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In the Hall of Mourning, There are Many Mansions

Elmer Sprague in His Prime

In the Hall of Mourning, There are Many Mansions 

A friend got in touch Sunday evening a week ago to tell me he’d been scheduled for the gravest kind of surgery in the morning.  My friend has been a colleague and witness to many of my life’s twists and turns, the rough and the smooth. The report after surgery?  If the medical experts are to be credited, he is looking at about a year of “heroic” treatment, postponing but not preventing the end.

Medical verdicts do not negate collegiality.  I feel that we are going through this life-and-death tunnel together, as we went through so much else.

What is death?  And btw, what do we aim for in life?  I think one hopes to have a certain degree of integration of mind and body.  The way a painter, when he paints, doesn’t ask, what part’s my mind and what part is my body.  Since life is not a painting, the real-life “integration” is achieved when what I say is what I really think and a fair guide to what I will do, on fitting occasions.  One wants to get body – or field of action — and mind together in one package.

It takes a good while before one begins to learn how to do that.  But – if such are the great lessons of life — death seems to ask one to undo all the work one has expended to get on good terms with one’s body.

There is a rabbinic midrash [story or lesson drawing out the meaning of a Biblical text] that captures my point.  In the story, God comes to Moses to inform him that it’s time for him to die.  Moses protests.  They go back and forth, Moses advancing one reason after another why it’s a bad idea, and God still insisting that it’s time.  Finally, Moses comes to his last argument:

“I will never have a body as beautiful

as the body of Moses!”

God can only answer with a kiss on the mouth of Moses.  In God’s kiss, the soul of Moses is lifted from his body!

What does the story mean?  We don’t think of Moses in aesthetic terms.  That’s not because the Bible glosses over the plain fact that some people are lookers.  Like Sarah as a bride, the young Joseph or the young David.  All those characters were good to look at.  But Moses is not young by the time he has his last argument with God.  It’s not the beauty of youth that he’s trying to defend.  What then?

He’s trying (my guess is) to protect the beauty of a put-together, grownup life.  It’s a life where he has sought the truth.  His word is good.  You can depend on it.  He will do what he says, so far as he is able.  You can see that at a glance.

Ideally, philosophy should help one get into that condition. Yet Socrates said that all philosophy is the study of how to die.

I am truly puzzled.  If philosophy (or whatever method one finds) enables one to integrate thought and action and thus achieve “the body Moses had,” then philosophy is what helps one to live.  How can it also help one to die?  Wouldn’t death, from the vantage point of such an achievement, be the hardest job you could give to a philosopher?  A nearly impossible, always unwelcome job?

I’m talking about what a dear and close philosophical colleague is facing.  What we all must face.

Wasn’t Socrates wrong?

It’s like going to be hanged when you’re innocent of the crime for which sentence has been passed.  Wouldn’t you think, this shouldn’t be happening!

There are theological doctrines that deem none of us innocent.  Okay, I mean relatively innocent.  Innocent of cynicism, of deliberate wickedness, of not being who you say you are.  Sufficiently innocent so that you can say, “I’ll never have a body this beautiful” – no matter how you look cosmetically.

No.  A body/mind harmony like that cannot possibly want to separate body from mind, or think such a tearing-apart anything other than premature.

If God wants such a person to quit this life without further argument, He will have to spirit him out of it

                          with a parting kiss.

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Shunning

Shunning 

We are social beings, so nobody likes to be shunned.  I first encountered shunning after I wrote a letter to Proceedings and Addresses.  That’s the journal where schedules for philosophic meetings are posted, academic publishers place ads for their books and journals, the editor lines up the obits for the fallen colleagues and the speeches of the recently renowned can be read.

My letter defended a woman philosopher who had publicly complained about certain feminist philosophers who, she claimed, urged the editor of a magazine not to publish her essay critical of their kind of feminism.  It seemed to me that women whose common goal was the liberation of women should not try to suppress views that differed from the ones they happened to hold.

Not long after, I was at a conference on Moral Psychology whose participants included feminists hostile to the woman philosopher I had defended.  At lunchtime they all sat together.  I was fully visible, seated nearby at a table for one.  They pointedly didn’t ask me to join them.

Later I had occasion to tell the story to a student, a bright young woman, as it happens, gay and feminist.

“Well,” she commented, “you didn’t want to eat with those people anyway.”

She had me pegged right.  I enjoy my own company and didn’t mind lunching alone.

Along the shunning lines, I think of what happened to Herman Badillo.  He had been borough president of the Bronx, a congressman, the first Puerto Rican mayoral candidate, and – at the time of this incident — Chair of the Board of Trustees of The City University of New York.  Badillo had an abrasive manner and many enemies, but he was a strong supporter of higher education at the public universities, to which he felt he owed his own career in public service.  Anyway, somebody who didn’t like Badillo got wind of remarks he’d made about demographic changes in New York.  The new groups included Mayans and Incas whose facial features and customs showed no European admixture.  As Badillo described them, they resembled the figures carved on pre-Columbian bas reliefs.  His enemies needed no further ammunition.  They quickly denounced him as a bigot and he was shorn of his former political influence.

I was not a chum of Badillo’s, but I wrote a letter to the New York papers denouncing the gang-up.  I may have been one of his few defenders.  The formerly powerful New York politician called me at home to thank me.

Then there was the drumming out of Larry Summers when he was president of Harvard University.  Summers spoke at a conference convened to determine why there weren’t more women in the hard sciences.  (I can tell you why there’s not Abigail in the hard sciences, but let’s not go there.)  In his speech, Summers canvassed a wide range of possible answers.  Was the cause external, i.e. discrimination?  Or was it internal, e.g. women’s preference for other fields and activities?  The mere mention of the second possibility was all his numerous campus enemies needed.  Women professors in the audience complained of feeling faint when they heard the words of Larry Summers.  (That tells me why these ladies weren’t in the hard sciences.  Hard to concentrate when you have to keep reaching for your smelling salts.)

I got involved because, at that time, I belonged to the American Association of University Women.  The AAUW put out a brochure  explaining to Summers (himself no dummy) his “mistakes.”  Since the brochure had been issued in the name of the membership, this member read it through carefully.  Then I wrote the leadership, pointing out errors of fact and logic that I’d found in their brochure.  As I recall, they didn’t choose to answer.

Irritated, I forwarded my letter to Larry Summers who was soon to be removed from his post at Harvard.  Like Badillo, he wrote back, lonely but grateful.

My goodness! I thought.  You can meet a lot of formerly important people this way.  The way you could have met Parisian aristocrats if you didn’t mind riding along with them in the tumbrils taking them through the streets of Paris to the Place de la Revolution and the waiting Guillotine!

I know more stories like this — touching peers, colleagues and contemporaries – than there is room to tell here.  The tide is beginning to turn, I think, and the thought police no longer have the public space entirely to themselves.  But perhaps a moment of silence is due, to honor those unsung heroes who fought for the right to speak their minds long before the tide turned, and went down in the fight.

In 1933, Stephen Vincent Benet wrote a poem about Cotton Mather (1663-1728).  Mather was the Puritan divine who inspired the Salem Witch Trials, where people were accused of imaginary crimes and  hanged on the strength of the accusations.

Grim Cotton Mather

Was always seeing witches,

Daylight, moonlight,

They buzzed about his head,

Pinching him and plaguing him

With aches and pains and stitches,

Witches in his pulpit,

Witches by his bed.

Nowadays, nowadays,

We’d say that he was crazy,

But everyone believed him

In old Salem town

And nineteen people

Were hanged for Salem witches

Because of Cotton Mather

And his long, black gown.

Old Cotton Mather

Didn’t die happy.

He could preach and thunder,

He could fast and pray,

But men began to wonder

If there had been witches—

When he walked the streets

[They] looked the other way.

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Sacrificial Acts

 

Sacrificial Acts

A review of mine, written in support of an author I greatly admire, was just accepted for publication.  It was written at the sacrifice of long-postponed time and energy that, right now, I really needed to expend on behalf of my own book.  However, come to think of it, I’ve never had an editor accept an essay more readily.  It just slid right in.

It’s occurred to me that, several times in the past, I succeeded better at an effort when I didn’t do it for me.   I don’t mean that I got “ego” out of the way, whatever that means.  What’s ego?  What’s necessary life force?  Which is which?

I mean, I was more effective when – consciously and deliberately – I did it at the sacrifice of my known interests.

Let me give you some examples.  When my philosopher father died, he left his unpublished manuscript on two 17th century philosophers, Thomas Hobbes and Benedict de Spinoza.  Everyone I knew advised me to put his manuscript aside “for later.”  I had my own life to live, they said.  Life is for the living.  Rise above your “father fixation” – yeah yeah and blah blah.

The fact was that I had just returned to full-time employment after a seven-year struggle to get back a job from which I’d been fired unjustly.  So there was professional prudence in the general recommendation to rebuild my c.v. with work that had the Abigail stamp on it – rather than take any side trips to bring out my father’s posthumous work.

To me on the other hand, it was unthinkable to turn aside from the implicit commitment to his work that he died assuming I would honor.

To support my efforts in that cause, whenever I could, I would ask to teach Modern Philosophy, which includes Hobbes and Spinoza.  And that was why, when an invited speaker on Spinoza failed to show up before an assembled crowd waiting to hear his speech, I was asked to fill in for him.  My impromptu talk was deemed a great success, saving the college from public embarrassment. The amazing result was that my promotion — stalled till then – suddenly sailed through.

A second example.  A few years later, a different administration decided, God knows why, to completely revamp the college’s award-winning curriculum – around the borough of Brooklyn!  You know: geography of Brooklyn, poetry of Brooklyn, history of Brooklyn?  Now, we had students from all over the world, and they didn’t come to the college to learn about Brooklyn.

I decided, over my dead body!  Allied with one other faculty woman, a distinguished historian, we resolved to fight it through to the finish, win or lose.

In view of the time it would take to fight this fight, and also meet my teaching obligations, my personal life would have to be put on hold.  At the time, my personal life consisted in visits to nearby museums or tea with friends.  Both had to be sacrificed.  Adieu personal life!

Though my colleague and I did succeed in winning a fair amount of faculty support, we knew that the administration still held cards enough to override dissenting opinions from inside the college.  We would need to go outside, if we were to have any chance to win.

I contacted a number of organizations known to care about higher education.  Only one of these responded, an organization in Washington D.C. run by the former chair of the philosophy department at a well-regarded university who had also run a federal agency.  Jerry L. Martin cared about the same issues I did and was obviously a much more experienced strategist than I was.  We talked long distance every day and I would follow through on his advice.

All the same, I was pretty astonished when we actually won. Meanwhile, without ever having met in person, Jerry had fallen in love sight unseen, and I fell in love when we met.  We got married and

my personal life has never been better.

What’s the moral?  I don’t know exactly.  In one case, I sacrificed career advancement and got career advancement back, enhanced.  And then I sacrificed personal life and got personal life back, better than I’d ever known.  It can’t be that sacrifice always brings rewards in the same coin as what you sacrificed.  These happy endings – extraordinary as they are – are just too neat for me or anyone else to take them as typical.  It can’t be right to expect a happy ending as the payoff for one’s sacrificial act.

I wasn’t trying to be sacrificial.  I was only trying to do what the situations seemed to call for.  That’s something to celebrate in itself.

Perhaps Providence simply decided

to join the celebration.

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