I learned this afternoon that my 6th grade Hebrew teacher, Riva Thatch, passed away yesterday at the age of 92.
While I don’t use the vast majority of the things I learned in Mrs. Thatch’s class these days — my Hebrew is awfully rusty — I know she laid the foundation for all the rest of my education by doing something so simple: Mrs. Thatch loved me. She wanted the best for me and she somehow managed to make that clear to me — and remember, I was a rambunctious, goofy, irritating, nerdy, girl-chasing 6th grade boy. I’m not so naive as to imagine that Mrs. Thatch was alone in caring about me and about my education as much as she did; it’s just that, at that impossibly awkward and important time in my life, I really noticed her caring.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had many truly excellent teachers, from my kindergarten teacher to my undergraduate and dissertation advisors. My own decision to become an educator was so obviously shaped by these generous men and women who assigned me homework, graded my papers, corrected my many mistakes, encouraged me to learn, and cared so deeply about me as a person.
An exceptional talent, gone far too soon.
What follows is a guest blog post written by my friend and colleague David P. Forsythe, the Charles J. Mach Distinguished Professor of Political Science (Emeritus) at the University of Nebraska. He is the author of more than 100 books and articles in the field of international relations, most recently The Politics of Prisoner Abuse: The United States and Enemy Prisoners After 9/11. Forsythe is widely regarded as having been among the first to help establish the study of human rights and humanitarian affairs in the discipline of political science.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the 4th of July. It would have been eminently symbolic if Nelson Mandela had died December 10th, International Human Rights Day. No single person better personified the notion of human rights in modern times than Mandela, who passed from this life on December 5 at the amazing age of 95. Despite 27 years of prison which included stretches of hard labor, his body proved as strong and vibrant as his mind. Both were devoted to fighting South Africa’s version of racial segregation.
Mandela’s incarceration was entirely legal under the laws of white minority government in that nation. But the idea of human rights rests on the argument that there is a universal set of personal rights which are fundamental for securing a life with dignity, whatever this or that national law might say. After all, the Nazis had laws too.
How then are we to know what those universal rights are? We could rely on philosophers, whether they believed in natural law or not. A practical answer is that all the states of the world meet and negotiate a set of fundamental personal rights. This is what happened on December 10th in 1948 when the UN General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights without dissenting vote (but with 8 abstentions). Human rights treaties followed to convert diplomatic agreement into law.
Universal human rights do not implement themselves. People like Mandela have to take up the challenge of securing implementation. This he did first through peaceful protest and legal argument, then later through support of armed action when the white authorities increased repression. From jail he continued to lead the opposition to apartheid in the name of the rights of all regardless of color and other superficial distinctions like gender or economic status.
Those South Africans with vested interests in the status quo resisted for a long time with brutal determination. Such elites always do, because human rights are not given. They are wrestled from below in a political process. The white minority South African elite yielded not to superior moral and legal logic, but because they finally recognized that given the pressures they faced, their own self-interests could only be protected in rainbow democracy. All-race elections occurred there in 1994, and a free Mandela voted for the first time in his life.
Americans now praise Mandela, from President Obama to Tiger Woods. But U.S. foreign policy was slow to decisively oppose apartheid in South Africa. Nebraska acted earlier, applying economic pressure through the Unicam as Senator Ernie Chambers led the fight to deny state pension fund investments to companies profiting from racial discrimination in South Africa.
Commentators now sermonize about how South Africans should keep alive Mandela’s memory and his determined but politically shrewd commitment to universal human rights. Americans might do the same as we continue to debate immigration reform, health care reform, and other perplexing questions such as what to do about violation of human rights in Syria. Universal human rights might indeed prove important in shaping national developments. Mandela (and Jefferson) believed in that possibility.
Nelson Mandela has died at age 95. The world has lost one of its great heroes.
Here’s a short snippet about Mandela’s uniqueness from an article I published a couple of years ago on the role played by forgiveness and reconciliation in restorative justice:
Perhaps the most recognizable contemporary example of unilateral forgiveness is Nelson Mandela, who seems to harbor no resentment toward those who imprisoned him on Robben Island for 27 years. Govier (2002, p. 71) argues that
When Mandela reached out to his former enemies and did whatever he could to assure them that they would suffer no evil at his hands, he did not do this in response to acknowledgement and expressions of remorse on the part of white leaders. Nor was he responding to a community that had apologized for the wrongs of the past and indicated a commitment to deep and widespread moral transformation.
It is undoubtedly because Mandela had so much about which he could have been justifiably angry that his forgiveness has inspired so many in South Africa and around the world. The unilateral forgiveness that he offered to white South Africans was not seen by anyone as a sign of weakness or willingness to forget the past, but instead has gained him nearly universal admiration for his ‘openness, acceptance, and lack of bitterness’ (Govier 2002, p. 71). Indeed, Mandela’s decision to spend New Year’s Eve 2000 on Robben Island signified both his remembering of apartheid and his triumph over the conditions that system imposed on him and all black South Africans. Govier (2002, p. 61) rightly argues that ‘What is at issue in forgiveness is not whether suffering and wrongdoing are remembered, but how they are remembered.’
Govier, T., 2002. Forgiveness and revenge. London: Routledge.
As a result of these fantastic SNL sketches I watched in middle school, Germond was almost certainly the first political reporter whose full name I knew.
Today we remember Stéphane Hessel, one of the greatest friends and relentless advocates of the United Nations. The last surviving drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights died this week at the age of 95. Our colleagues in Brussels made a tribute to him.
Ronald Dworkin, a legal philosopher and public intellectual of bracingly liberal views who insisted that morality is the touchstone of constitutional interpretation, died Thursday in London. He was 81.
I had the pleasure of spending several hours with Professor Dworkin over lengthy dinners, in Berlin in 2005 and in Lincoln in 2008. On both occasions, Dworkin was an engaging conversationalist, who took more interest in my work than I could have anticipated he would … especially since some of the work we discussed was my criticism of his ideas on human dignity.
Rabbi David Hartman, the American-born director of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, passed away on Sunday. He was 81.
Hartman was one of the world’s leading Jewish philosophers and a promoter of diversity among Jewish theological trends.
Menachem Lorberbaum, a professor at Tel Aviv University who worked closely with Hartman at the institute, said he “inspired a whole new generation of teachers in Jewish philosophy and theology.”
Lorberbaum said Hartman will be known for his accomplishments on religious ethics, and as “a pioneer of interfaith dialogue.”
“He was committed to the notion that morality precedes Jewish law,” he said.
I teach David Shipler’s book Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land every year in my class on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and quotes from Rabbi Hartman are featured throughout that book; they are most often presented as a counterpoint to some of the virulent statements in opposition to pluralism that Shipler unearths in conversations with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, citizens, and students.
It’s fortunate that Hartman inspired a new generation of Jewish teachers because his position on interfaith dialogue is a necessary corrective to the potential polarization that comes from a deep immersion in one’s own religious faith … especially in the midst of a conflict that is often cast as occurring between religions.
GOPers on Facebook never let me down.
Robert Bork passed away today; one Republican Facebook friend of mine shared the news and the very first response from some other Republican friend of my friend was about how it’s just as well that Bork never made it onto the Supreme Court in the 1980s because President Obama would now be able to replace him with someone more liberal (which, incidentally, would be just about anyone).
That’s one heck of an obituary for an old conservative warhorse.
How many of you dreamed of becoming an astronaut?
“MCA was with it and he’s my ace”
Yesterday, Adam Yauch passed away. I heard about it, saw all the tweets and Facebook status updates, but couldn’t write anything that would really capture how I felt. There are a whole lot of people (for example, the A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin, Grantland’s Amos Barshad, and the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones) who have already written excellent obituaries for both Yauch and the band. I’m just going to write about my relationship with The Beastie Boys’ music, which stretches back to 1987.
Licensed to Ill was the first album that I owned, on cassette. My mother bought it for me and gave it to me when I came home from a two-week sleep-away sports camp that I didn’t much like. And then she bought me Paul’s Boutique, also on cassette, when it came out. There is no chance that she knew what she was buying. For as long as I could find them, I bought subsequent albums on tape too … all the way through Hello Nasty, after which I couldn’t find tapes. When I was in college, I bought the CDs of those older albums and, still later, I burned those CDs so I could carry the MP3s around with me.
My neighborhood friends and I used to put Licensed to Ill in the boombox and then hang out in front of one of our houses, trying to learn skateboarding tricks; we were too young to really know what we were listening to, but we memorized all the words. I still know every word to every song on Licensed to Ill.
I saw The Beastie Boys live twice in the early 1990s, when I was in high school. The first time, at the State Fair Coliseum Detroit on New Year’s Eve 1992, is probably the best concert experience I’ve ever had. I went with a bunch of my new friends from high school; they were all at least two years older than me. I can’t imagine what I told my parents I was doing, but I’m sure I didn’t say that I was going downtown to see The Beastie Boys. I also can’t remember if I borrowed someone’s ID, but I can’t imagine it was an all-ages show and I’d just turned 15. At midnight, they played “Time for Livin’” and the place went crazy.
I chose the above picture because it’s the poster I had on the wall in my room in high school and in college. I’m pretty sure I still have it, rolled up in a tube in the attic in my house. The music of The Beastie Boys runs through my life, from my skating days in the mid-’80s to my contemporary political theory class, where I use “In 3’s” to illustrate a point from Foucault’s The Order of Things. Whenever I wanted to smile or sing or yell, I put on a Beastie Boys album from the ’80s or ’90s.
What was it about The Beastie Boys? They weren’t the best rappers — though I maintain that Check Your Head is still one of the best rap albums — or the best songwriters. But they were smart, funny, and pretty edgy. Their jokes and swagger appealed to the nine-year-old who first heard them in 1987 and then later their concern for the rights of others (and for those they’d disrespected on early albums) continued to appeal to the thirty-year-old who was passionate about human rights. And, of course, they were Jewish, a fact that was undeniably a large part of what drew my friends and I to them in the first place.
There’s a tremendous sadness at the loss of Adam Yauch that I didn’t really expect and didn’t know what to do with. It felt odd to mourn someone I didn’t know until I reflected on it for a day or so. It’s a sadness for his family and friends, people I hope are comforted in some small way by the obvious impact that Yauch and his music had on the lives of millions. But, selfish as it might sound, it’s also largely a sadness at my own loss, at the rupture of a connection with my childhood that had held pretty firm until yesterday.
Our childhoods disappear in such little pieces — Star Wars action figures given away to a neighbor, artwork lost in the move to a new house, stuffed animals packed away in boxes — that we often don’t really notice. This piece, for me, was a terribly big one.
The story of Demjanjuk’s various arrests, imprisonments, trials, convictions, appeals, and even exonerations is a fascinating one; it’s filled with mistaken identity, legal wrangling across decades and continents, and — of course — some of the worst crimes one group of people ever perpetrated against another. Though he spent most of his life at liberty, Demjanjuk ended his life as a convicted criminal, found guilty of being an accessory to the murders of tens of thousands of people as a guard at the Sobibor death camp.
This quote, from a BBC piece written during Demjanjuk’s trial in 2011, really captures what is at stake for victims and co-victims in the aftermath of systemic, gross violations of human rights:
The public benches are full of the relatives of those who died, and if you talk to them, they often do not express certainty that the man in the corner with the baseball hat is the man who herded their family members to their deaths.
For them, often, the important thing is that the trial has taken place. They feel that Sobibor and the sufferings of those murdered there need to be recognised. You detect that they think it is an under-reported horror story.
Most important for the survivors and for the families of those who died, Demjanjuk’s trial in Germany offered an opportunity for a fuller accounting of the crimes committed by the Nazis at Sobibor. It’s very likely to be the last major public trial of crimes from the Nazi period.
When I read about Joe Paterno’s passing this weekend — on two separate occasions, strangely — I found it impossible to separate the coaching legend of so many decades from the sexual abuse scandal of recent memory. For good or ill, one event or choice can fundamentally alter public perception of a person’s life and legacy.
Indeed, this is a central element of the book project on classical heroism that I just finished. The image of ourselves that we want to present to the world isn’t necessarily the one that will actually be presented or accepted, especially if there is some sort of anomalous behavior that doesn’t fit with that image. At bottom, there are only so many decisions we can make in a short lifetime, which is why each decision we make matters a great deal.
Now, it’s almost certainly the case that few people will be able to line up every single decision and say, “Everything you see here tells one complete, clear, and consistent story about me.” But it’s so important to think critically about what we do and say because of the basic fact of our existence. As Shakespeare (5.5.27-29) pointed out, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more.” Macbeth, into whose mouth Shakespeare puts these words, is nearing his own death and is correct that the most basic fact about human beings is that their lives are brief.
But he is wrong about the very next line that he utters, for life is not necessarily “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (5.5.29-31). Macbeth might be somewhat consoled by this conclusion; he has done terrible things to others in his pursuit of power so that his life has turned out to be one that has been lived badly. But each life, however brief, can have great significance if lived well. As Janusz Korczak wrote, “The lives of great men are like legends – difficult but beautiful.”
That the best lives are filled with hardships whose navigation or endurance contributes substantially to their virtue is an idea that runs throughout the stories handed down to us from the Greeks. This is why we continue to find these stories so compelling. And it’s also the reason why we still find the lives of contemporary moral heroes to be so compelling: These are people who assign more weight to living a good life than they do to living a long life and who, as a result, end up risking more than most other people.
In no small part, they do this because they understand the stakes.
If we cling to the false hope that we might somehow stretch out our lives, we fail to recognize the finitude of our choices and thus we fail to imbue each decision or action with the importance that it rightly ought to have. When human beings face the fact of their mortality, when they give up all hope for continued existence, then they are able to think most clearly about the sort of life they want to have lived. It is only in doing so that morally heroic action becomes a possibility.