“Ain’t I a Person?”

"Blue Girl" Pablo Picasso, 1902

“Blue Girl” Pablo Picasso, 1902

“Ain’t I a Person?”

What’s a person? Am I a person? All the time? Is God? What’s going on when people say yes or no to questions like that?

Jerry and I were in D.C. this week to celebrate the 20th anniversary of an organization, now in the capable hands of his successor, that Jerry founded to promote excellence in higher ed.  I’d fought a good fight or two alongside some of the people at the celebration, including one former colleague at Brooklyn College.

“How are things at Brooklyn these days?” I asked him. “Is the core curriculum still perishing? How are the students? Do you have anyone you can call a colleague? What level can one assume in teaching? How ‘Palestinized’ is the campus now?”

Since its founding, Brooklyn College, like the borough itself, has boasted a strong presence of gifted, yeshiva-trained, orthodox students. Self-respecting, sturdy boys and girls who take their Judaism for granted. Overt anti-semitism would have been considered bizarre.

My colleague, who is not Jewish, understood what I was asking. The anti-semitism is not covert, he responded. It’s open, jeering and unembarrassed. The Jewish students stick together and are in defensive mode.

I thought about this. He was not talking about differences of opinion.

“I enjoy argument,” I said, “where there is at least some overlap of information and the different interpretive frames are allowed recognition by the parties. But to argue back against pellets of verbal hate is not possible for me. In such cases, I can’t say a word. I simply turn to stone.”

My colleague nodded agreement, though he’s better at ordinary verbal combats than I am.

“For myself, as Jewish, I feel fear. But for the students, I feel so sad and sorry! Recently a foreign diplomat said that anti-semitism is like alcoholism. No matter how many years you’ve been sober, one drink and then you can’t stop. It’s addictive and toxic for the brain. What you tell me about the college sounds so much worse than the Brooklyn of ordinary, garden-variety corruption, when the fix was in. Now it sounds gothic — as if there’s nothing for it but to get the exorcist!

The briefing over, we parted in sad, friendly understanding.

What’s this got to do with being a person? Well, when you think of a person, you don’t think of someone silent because “turned to stone.”

A woman I know, for whom I have the highest regard, recently celebrated a milestone birthday. Among its trophies was an online photo album, showing her in babyhood, middle childhood, lovely teenage and young-girl-in-flower-hood. Then, after the shocks of early adult life, a more settled, granular, emphatic appearance, mouth turned down at one corner – so as not to have to chew on more than any woman can swallow. She has saved lives of endangered women, risked her own, and put all her life capital into righteous combats. I honor such a life.

But oh, that young girl in flower! That innocent, trusting, happy child! If you ask me why I write this column, it’s to protect — or bring back – that happy child!

I would like to call that child the real – if missing – person, in the photo-documentary of a woman’s life. I think the grown woman, the fighter, is fighting for her. But the happy child is not so easily recovered.

What is a person? What, in these two stories about “missing persons,” has sent some fraction of the woman’s self into hiding? Maybe fear, maybe shock, maybe the loss of what you might call collegiality. By that I mean the precious sense of commonality in projects of action. Failing that sense of allied or compatible purposes, something has to be kept out of sight. For its own protection. So it’s missing from the person, or – in shorthand –

the person is missing.

For myself, I would like to be able to hold fast to that unimpeached, inner core and be able, at the same time, to venture out to do combat when that’s called for, in a world whose dangers are not imaginary but real. More peaceably, I’d hope to be wholly present to a friend, in sunshine and shadow, but not drown in my own empathy.

Efforts in this direction proceed – often as not – under threat. Were there no threat, we would be whole, and wholly present, at all times. In every circumstance, in all vicissitudes, we’d be

the person who we are.

The God whose help I call on when I am most religiously sincere is the Person who helps me to be the person I really am.

The idea being: 

it takes one to know one.






About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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