Saturday, February 23, 2019

Professor Dean Miller, Contrarian

I think I learned more about being a capable contrarian from Dean Miller than just about anyone. Examples abound, of course, but few live up to it. Dean loved John Masters' novels and Nevil Shute. He was also a nevil in that Urban Dictionary kinda' way. Guys like this are just an anachronism nowadays. And Dean was no bad guy, not sexist or misogynist and certainly nothing like what we expect today but, you know, in a good way.  I liked him aplenty.  He hated evil and that's good enough for me.  So here are a few more words about Dean all wrapped up in other ideas.  No one quite writes like John Masters anymore, do they?

When I arrived at the UR some 33 years ago, Religion & Classics was a new department made of old bits. We are still the only Religion Department in the country that shares its professional space with the Classicists. I am strangely proud of that since as a Sanskritist and a student of Tamil, I regard myself a classicist. My inept forays into Greek (and less so Latin) make me a very faux classicist by any professional standard. I'm not sure anymore what my profession is short of just plain college professor. Hitchens could have left his job to me in his will but it didn't work out that way. I fukcing hate "guru" and despite my best efforts get called that---more like accused---more often than I can tell you. It's a hazard of studying India? Or loving India? Or learning something? WTF knows. Anyways, none of this is about that story. This story is about a guy I met when I first got here. His name was Dean Miller.

That's a confusing name for a professional academic because you are either mistaken for a dean or you'd be Dean Dean Miller, and both of those things are truly lamentable. I can think of no job inside the university that I would like less than dean of anything. Really? Meetings? Policies? You don't get to read books all day anymore? I get that you don't grade papers and don't have to indulge the little villains, but _dean_? Man, that would suck. Well, this Dean did not suck and he was never a dean because one of the things I liked best about him was that he felt that way about being a dean. He liked to teach but apparently wasn't very popular. He loved the intellectual life and took his profession more seriously than I do. I learned not to love being an academic at least in part by watching Dean struggle with the disparity. Having an intellectual life is a prerequisite but not synonymous with being an academic. Academics is just a job, but Dean was better than that and saw it in more dignified, more lofty terms. He drank a lot too, which is how you survive.

Dean was a Korean war vet, came out of it all to get his degree in History and that was the department down the hall. He was always just a few offices away. His thing was Proto-Indo-European cultures, heroes, and Dean was a Dumezilian. Now that may not mean much unless you know what that means. Dumezil was a French scholar who read a lot, knew a lot, and made bold, indefensible statements using details no one else could master. Being a Dumezilian involves a LOT of difficult languages, a lot of myth and ritual, a lot of structural thinking and imagination, so it's got it all if you are a humanist. Dean was always more at home in the study of religion. We study everything. Much of what the Dumezilians say is strangely true and even less of it is provable. It was long out of fashion before I learned it and Dean Miller was still doing it, even to the last. And he was a character. He'd wander into your office, shoot the breeze, talk about scotch and wear a kilt to important events. He had married well and never worried about money but he wasn't about to quit his job in Rochester to return to Chicago---a far better, more interesting place, but compared to Rochester, you'd have be stuck in Scranton or Joplin or somethin'. Anyways, he hung in there not because he needed the job but because he had things to say and mostly because he liked the intellectual life. That is something I really loved about him maybe because that's about the only thing I really love about my job too.

Dean had a thick frock of white hair, wore corduroy blazers, and still went to history conferences hating everything about how things had gone. He published article after article about IE ritual and heroes and other dashing fellows, and I'm sure he taught me that when you write and what you study is really just yourself and who you want to be. He finally retired and History hired far less colorful and, to my mind, less interesting people. He wrote me a few times, I wrote back. He died at 87 last week. That's a good run. He would have preferred to keep living. Professor Dean Miller. I'd bet there aren't three people left at the UR who remember him. That's what a lifetime of work and a career buys ya'.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Moral Equivalence of War, Democracy on the Brink Must be the Norm

For President's Day I reread Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. Its most familiar bits about malice towards none and charity toward all remind us that this hope was not realized but reversed in the aftermath of his death. The Confederate traitors largely did not pay for their crimes of treason but rather freed black people who were denied just about everything including freedom. Had Lincoln's vision extended across the land to realize the new birth of freedom he'd proposed at Gettysburg perhaps we would not be where we are today.

Progress may always be incremental in a world in which we must compromise, and so by definition corrupt ideals and values to accommodate those with whom we deeply disagree. Diversity demands that we accept our differences will create controversy and deep disagreement, that we will be uncomfortable with ourselves as we struggle to fathom another whose values are so dramatically unlike our own. To build a world on compromise requires we come to the very brink of tolerance and decide which boundaries we will not cross. To refuse, to thwart and reject even the idea of compromise is how we have arrived at our current impasse.

As much as I approved of President Obama's executive actions regarding immigrant protections (though not his larger immigration policies), I lamented that he felt it necessary to take those measures because an absolutely intransigent Republican Congress had decided _even before he was inaugurated_ that everything, _every last thing_ he proposed was to be unequivocally rejected. Republicans declared the _moral equivalent_ of war on the fragile ethics that we must all choose in order to participate in compromise. No one wants to give up their cherished project or position. We may always be at the precipice of our own personal standards just to entertain the others' opinions. We may have to reject their views as unacceptable. And then what?

But this is not what has happened. What happened is not a moral equivalence. Mr Obama may have gone a step too far with executive powers but the Republican Congress had openly declared their complete unwillingness to participate in _any_ compromise, even after he had won a convincing second term. This brings me to another portion of Lincoln's second inaugural address where he writes, "Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came."

The war came not with armies poised on a battlefield in central Pennsylvania but in the halls of Congress where Republicans declared their disdain for democracy itself. We can argue whether Democrats could have behaved differently but I will not indulge further the false equivalences.

Democracy's purpose is to create the possibility of living together in plausible disagreement, it is a messy, uncomfortable business. Or at least it should be. When one side refuses to play the game at all it is not so simple as to retreat to play another day. For eight years Republicans established a norm of moral warfare in which their strategy was to use democracy for any purpose but its purpose. When Trump came along, utterly ignorant and blithely indifferent to learning anything about systems of government, Republicans got their natural leader. This is why McConnell plays the toady at this phony "national emergency." It isn't merely to placate an imbecile who is as incompetent as he is cruelly narcissistic, it is because McConnell is as craven for power. The Republican base has refused democracy and he knows it: all that is left is _their_ America in which there is no room for anything but them.

To compromise is to relinquish some portion of one's power for the sake of living another day, making a go of it, working together because the alternative is war, anarchy, discord, and collective failure. We are failing because _one side_ acts in bad faith, in contempt of the very processes that prevent "war."

With a Democratic Congress the system will not correct itself but it can be used to low the machinations of failure, the slow tempo war on democratic values. I would end only by saying that those values are _at their very best_ when we find a way to live with ourselves in some kind of compromise. Functioning, progressive democracy requires that we live in the space between what we want and what we can achieve. When the other side will not cooperate than that incongruous place becomes a battlefield and as the terms of engagement escalate the possibilities for civility deteriorate, we are left with a sham. And so we are.

What remains without a deeper reengagement of purpose will be only profit for the few, justice for the privileged, and a system that will not itself "save us." To save the system we will need the rule of law and, more importantly, a change of hearts. Will the side that has chosen a debased absolutism chooses to do the more difficult work of compromise? They showed signs in the deal they cut last week that Trump signed. When no one is really happy with the outcome we have arrived somewhere in the disturbing purgatory that allows for tomorrow.

What Trump has done with his phony declaration will not be rejected by elected Republicans until their electorate understands that being the minority they are places them in a completely untenable future should they decide compromise is too complex. Everyone wishes for simple until it arrives. Our choices are still complex despite the vile simpleton and his sycophants. That is, for now, the best thing we have going: that there is enough institutional provenance, enough history of democracy as the best worst system to survive until they can be removed from office. Of course, that depends on whether our system itself is not rigged to suit their debasement of Lincoln's most worthy proposition.

What Republicans will discover if we survive this debacle (because they will become a minority party) is that in this assault on decency and moral war on democracy they have the most to lose. What Democrats must do is hold fast and not forget to leave room in the room even for those who have chosen absolutism or nihilism as their moral standard.