John is a retired schoolteacher who taught middle and high school history for over 25 years in Canada and the U.S. He now lives in Amherst, MA. He has two children, ages 36 and 28, both of whom live in Canada. He has a list of about 65 articles and books he wants to write – one, for example, on an old dissertation topic, the role of history in the political philosophy of David Hume.
I grew up outside of Savannah, Georgia, in a rural area. Neither of my parents had more than a 7th grade education. I have no idea why I started reading the things I did, science, math and philosophy in particular, but I just got interested. I had teachers who would mention things and I would run off and read them. Novels were more problematic – all of those crazy, subtle emotional words, which were hard to think with. I preferred to think my way through John Dewey or try to think through Descartes and Spinoza and Kant. I remember reading the METAPHYSICS OF MORALS. I am sure I did not understand it at the time. A lot of “overreaching.” I was still in high school. My teachers didn’t know I was reading these things. School was hardly challenging. I did my homework on the bus. I had some good teachers and very bright classmates in spite of being in the middle of the Deep South during those years, which would have been ’57- ’61. One of the reasons I got into the sciences was that there was a terribly big jump into trying to promote the sciences after Sputnik. There was a group that conducted a talent search and I got picked up along with a lot of other raw talent using the Westinghouse science exam they administered to find us. I got to take special seminars with all of the scientists in the area while I was still in high school.
I applied to Harvard and my high school principal said to me, “How can you do this, you have no money?” I didn’t know his son was applying to Harvard that same year…When I left Savannah on the train there was a brass rail down the middle – colored on one side, whites on the other. That’s how I grew up. Occasionally I would talk with classmates at Harvard who would ask me, “Why aren’t you prejudiced?” They knew other southerners there. But I didn’t have any prejudice – at least not other than what could be uncovered in dreams perhaps. I just rejected it. Maybe it was that I had grown up so poor. I didn’t have the black color, but I had the same poverty. We didn’t have indoor plumbing. I grew up on a little dirt road outside of Savannah. All my relatives were sharecroppers and poor people. When I said I was going to Harvard they didn’t know what it was. I believed I could go because of reading Alfred North Whitehead’s AIMS OF EDUCATION as a model. I like to joke I misunderstood him because his model was really the Harvard Business School and I went for an undergraduate education.
I knew about politics, but I was at times offended because people believed that since I was from the South I couldn’t possibly be “enlightened”. I would bristle. You can tell I have very little southern accent. I got tired of answering questions about why you people hate blacks. The crisis for me came with civil rights work. I went to hear Claude Weaver, a Harvard classmate, who talked about the Mississippi Summer Project; he described Mississippi in great detail and that got me interested in the Freedom Summer Project. Then I went to a meeting in Roxbury and Fanny Lou Hamer was there. She still had her bruises from being beaten in the jail for “daring to vote”. I was outraged. I understood what she was up against. I spotted a Ku Klux Klansman in the audience. I have a good eye. I know the faces of southerners. There is a certain face. He was there as a spy and I told people, “This man is a spy.” I had grown up in the South. I know southern types. It stamps you – where you live and your climate leaves a stamp on you. It was easy to spot.
I went to Mississippi after that. I was in Biloxi and later in Macomb. It used to be called the church bombing capital of the state because there were so many bombs. In fact, the restaurant I ate in the day before was rubble. It looked like it had been hit by a mortar, but it was blown up by dynamite. It was in a black neighborhood. They finally caught two guys who turned out to be demolition experts with army experience. My family didn’t know what I was doing with Freedom Summer. It was a tutoring program, which took place at Freedom Schools. I was ostracized by my family. My father wouldn’t talk to me for two years – no contact. This was the summer of ’64. When I came back I took time off in the middle of my senior year. I took a leave of absence and then came back and finished in the spring of ’66. When I left I got a draft notice and I filed for a student deferment because I was on leave from school and was fully intending to go back. They granted me that. I didn’t really want to go back to school after Mississippi. I wanted to go to New Orleans and be a writer. I didn’t care about finishing. I got a lot of pressure from my family. My mother wanted me to graduate. It wasn’t fear of the draft at that point.
I had mixed feelings about the military. I come from a military family. All of my family are big on the Army, Air Force and Marines. I still don’t know what I would have done if I had been drafted at that point. If I had been asked to take a step forward I might have done it and gone into the Army. In fact, I looked at Officer Candidate School. I took a test for it. I might have done that. I grew up wanting to go to West Point. I almost applied. I talked to the recruiter. I asked him about the philosophy department at the Point. He looked at me like I had crawled out from under a rock and that was it. I never took one step beyond that. I probably could have used the discipline, since I was a little undisciplined, but it was not for me otherwise.
So I took 4 1/2 years to graduate from Harvard, but I got to keep my scholarship. At the time I was reading political philosophy – Rousseau and Nietzsche. In the middle I stumbled into Hegel and I needed an extra half-year to read Hegel. They voted the scholarship extension to me. After I graduated I drifted. My roommates pushed me to fill out an application to the graduate school of education so I wouldn’t get drafted. They actually filled it out for me and made me sign it. I was very ambivalent about the draft. I am not very decisive and certainly I wasn’t at that time. I got accepted to Harvard with a fellowship and took courses required to receive a master’s in teaching for elementary education, but I left before I finished. I didn’t really want to teach. I’ve been a reluctant teacher all of my life.
I didn’t want to be in the U.S. I didn’t agree with the war. I knew what the problems were. People I knew were communists and they offered me a chance to join the party. I said, “I can’t do it. I don’t believe in the historical inevitability of communism. I am very much more conservative.” The first thing I did was sort of humorous. I was going to go to Japan and send my draft board a letter from Nagasaki or Hiroshima refusing to go. My friends were saying things like, “You can probably get a job as a westerner in Japanese movies.” We had it all figured out until we got to the Japanese consulate in N.Y.C. The woman there didn’t understand what I was talking about. She said, “We don’t have immigration.” We were in shock then.
So Canada made more sense and Quebec in particular because I wanted to be in a foreign culture, but I didn’t want to be that far away from my family where they couldn’t visit or I couldn’t visit. My family and I had reconciled. My mother had come up to north for my graduation. By that time my father and I had agreed to disagree and we didn’t talk about it. They drove me to the airport and they knew I was going to Canada. They sort of knew I was going out of protest. Technically I didn’t have to go. I hadn’t yet received a draft notice. It was my way of protest. I didn’t agree with the policies on Vietnam. I didn’t want to be in a country that was waging war on adolescents with guns. Vietnam had muddled communism and nationalism inextricably and you couldn’t rip one out without the other. That was their form of patriotism and it was their country. So what are we bombing them for? I wrote a letter to Congressman Hagan of Georgia to express my views and to protest the war. I never mailed it, but I made copies and handed them out at Harvard Law School with my neo-conservative friends. They thought it was funny to help me hand out a Vietnam protest letter at Harvard Law School. A lot of little ironies. I had a funny group of friends. It was a well-reasoned letter and I was very serious and everything in it is still appropriate. I didn’t send it because Hagan was a typical southerner and it would have ended up in the circular file folder.
I considered going in as a CO. I went to Atlanta to talk to a friend’s husband who is still there. Spencer B. King, III, is a professor of cardiology. He had been in a MASH unit in Vietnam as a cardiologist. He showed me 200 slides of Vietnam and explained to me why I couldn’t go in as a CO because you had to carry a gun to pick up the wounded – an M-16 in one hand and the wounded in the other. We looked at the whole situation. I saw things that were not supposed to be in his possession – aerial photos of the camp. Every time they went out, they would get picked off by a sniper. They finally got mad and burned the village to the ground, which doesn’t win the minds and hearts of the people. I saw pictures that were never published. The ones where the wounded were really visible. I used to think MASH was just fiction. It wasn’t. It’s exactly what happened. He showed me a picture of a beer party the night before when they laid out the wounded. “These will survive. These have priority.” Among those who wouldn’t survive was the son of his commanding officer. (John becomes emotional and holds back tears.) What a thing to have to call your commanding officer for…How could it not get to you. And then a story about two American companies shooting each other in combat, each thinking the other was Vietcong. One was armed with M-1s and one with M-16s. The M-1’s, unless you got hit in a vital organ, you were O.K. But the M-16’s had a very high-speed bullet and a very small bore. If it hits your arm it blows it completely off because there’s so much lateral force because of the speed of the bullet. It’s a horrible weapon. Worse yet, they wouldn’t admit there was an overheating problem. The guys in the foxholes after firing a couple of rounds with the M-16, it jammed, so all they had was a big stick to defend themselves. There was a guy who offered to fix it. He had an invention, but the Army denied having the problem. Eventually it was forced out of them by the newspapers and they took his invention.
I got all of this from this doctor in Atlanta. I got a really clear picture of what it was like. I saw slides of Saigon and of roadside fruit stands that were blown away the next day. I had so much the same experience in Mississippi. A place would look perfectly normal one day and then it would be obliterated the next. I knew perfectly well what was going on. When I was in Mississippi I woke up in the middle of the night. We had intercoms – 2-way radios with us all the time – and we heard that one charge has gone off; there were still 9 unexploded charges – 10 sticks of dynamite thrown onto a guy’s lawn and one had exploded. He was arrested and charged with stealing electricity and operating a garage without a license. Actually there was a police car in his front yard that he was fixing up, but it didn’t keep him from going to jail. Those explosives were typical of those intended for a church or a rally. Another place I slept, the entire wall of the living room was missing. 10 sticks of dynamite did go off successfully and took the whole wall out. That was the night before I got there. They would drive around with their license plates taped up and just toss these explosives. They were part of the APWR – Americans for the Preservation of the White Race. They were highly armed with grenades and machine guns. They had raided an armory and had high-powered assault weapons. In a way I was in a war and here was another one. As much as I believe in anti-communism, and I was very conservative in that respect, I couldn’t see what we were doing in Vietnam. It was too muddled. Why should we do that and support Tito. It was stupid. There was no logic to it.
I did pass the test for OCS and I would have gone to Officer Candidate School, but I would have been on the front lines. I had to believe in the war to do that. I could see from talking to the doctor in Atlanta that there was no way not to shoot people who weren’t at all guilty of anything other than being in the wrong place. It was an unwinnable situation. I remember a Harvard mathematician who said, “No theorem is as complicated as this war.” People who simplify it just don’t get it.
So my parents actually drove me to the airport. My father hadn’t wanted to go into the army. He was in the National Guard. He hadn’t wanted to go to war either. I had an uncle who hid out in the barn because he didn’t want to leave his girlfriend. She visited him in jail for 2 years. But, on the other hand, I had an uncle who was a prisoner of war in Germany and another who is my favorite uncle and was in the military police. He was always a driver or a bodyguard for high-ranking officers.
I flew to Montreal. I had gone with a Swiss classmate from the School of Ed, Doris Winkler. She lived in Montreal. That’s how I got to thinking about going there. She drove me with most of my belongings, but I flew in to get my landed immigrant status. I was prepared. I had all the necessary paper work. I even had a signed, sealed chest x-ray from Harvard Medical services. I arrived exactly at the stroke of midnight on June 30th 1967, as the fireworks were going off to celebrate Canada Day, which is July 1st. I had a German doctor who attended me at the airport who said he got all nervous when he heard the explosions because he had been in London during World War II. I figured out that he probably had not been in London but was more likely to have been in Berlin! It took me about 20 minutes to go through immigration, which was some sort of record. All they wanted to know was whether I had the possibility of a job and whether I would be a teacher or would need some more teacher training.
I had done everything possible. I had prepared myself. I was wearing – unusual for me – a jacket and tie. I even had a tie pin and a London Fog over my arm. I had a briefcase full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but it was a new briefcase. I looked pretty spiffy for that crossing. A friend of mine figured I might have a headache because I was prone to migraines so he had given me some kind of headache tablets. I finally got through all of the hoops and I am outside of the airport. I am clear. I’m across the border. It was like a scene from when Harriet Tubman takes that guy across the Canadian border and he says, “Great God, almighty, I am free at last.” I took out the vial of tablets to take one and I said, “What?” I was in shock. It was full of marijuana. I had taken all of this incredible care in crossing the border and this friend thought it would be funny to give me this vial of marijuana instead of the headache tablets. I immediately threw it in the garbage. I needed the aspirin more than I needed that.
There was a draft dodgers’ hostel below the tracks. There were a couple of students and a fellow who was a world traveler, Tony, from Australia. I remember helping the two students get ready to sail in the Royal Regatta in Ottawa. In fact they came in 2nd place and got photographed with Prince Philip. Tony sent the photograph to his mother Down Under, because he said she was big on the queen. For him it was just one more adventure. The other guys ran the Montreal Draft Resisters Counseling Center and they had this hostel where we stayed. It felt like the atmosphere from Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.” Everybody was waiting for landed immigrant status. They didn’t trust me because everything had happened too fast for me. I had done it in record time. I was dressed too well. They started spelling their names for me thinking I would be reporting on them to Washington since I must be a CIA agent. Part of it was they were seeing me walking up and down outside the place listening to a radio. I was listening to French stations teaching myself French. It was a very paranoid environment so that’s all it took.
I met a lot of interesting people, other draft dodgers. The most interesting was a guy who came with his wife. His lawyer had advised him to come to Montreal to stay. He had a wife and they had just had a baby. She was legally blind. She could only read three letters at a time. He was an art therapist on a psychiatric ward in N.Y.C. He was needed by this woman. He figured it would eventually work out to get landed immigrant status so he stayed with me and his wife delivered the baby prematurely. He would come back to the apartment and say, “She gained two more ounces today!” Her mother was a nurse and flew in from California to help them and it eventually worked out. They were a great couple.
The most famous resister I encountered was Jesse Winchester, the folk singer. Jesse landed on the street. Jesse arrived with the shirt on his back. As soon as he got his draft notice, he just hopped on a plane and headed straight to Montreal. He accosted these two guys who gave him a place to stay. One of them, Sy Dardick, started and still runs Vehicule Press. They put him up and he eventually got an apartment. He had his electric guitar and he was from Memphis. He was in a bind, too. He also had mixed feelings because he had the same kind of family background – southern and the south is very pro-military. There were things he wouldn’t sing. There was a wonderful song I heard him sing many times in nightclubs there entitled, “Jesus Christ Was a Teen-ager, Too.” It was very funny, but he wouldn’t record it because it would offend his mother. Jesse had a conservative streak. He had another song about twigs and seeds left at the bottom of a marijuana bag, which was really funny, too, and could have been a real best seller, another “Puff the Magic Dragon”, but Jesse wouldn’t record that one either. He’s stubborn that way. A lot of people sang his songs – “A Brand New Tennessee Waltz”, Judy Collins, Joan Baez did another. He’s a very good singer. He was a major figure in Montreal.
I helped out for a while with the counseling center. I helped one guy who was Canadian. I told him, “You just need to file your student deferment thing. You’re not even American. You’re only subject to the draft if you’re working in the U.S. You don’t need to worry.” I got him to fill his papers out and fly back. Another guy was a Marine who was probably the worst character I ever met in my whole life. I don’t think he meant to be, but he had a split personality with a sadistic streak. I hope he stayed out of the Marines. He would have been a very bad soldier. He would tell me stories about going to the zoo and tormenting the snakes. He had gotten a girl pregnant and taken the money her family had given them for an abortion and fled to Montreal. He was AWOL. He just took the money. One evening of talking to him was enough. I called him from outside my apartment and said, “I am coming back to my apartment and I don’t want to see you there anymore.” But I did help other people.
I ended up working in a school called Sir George Williams University. It had started in a YMCA and become a university. They called it the Concrete Campus. It was an alternate to McGill. They forced a marriage between Sir George and Loyola, which was run by Jesuits, and called it Concordia. They share resources, but reluctantly. The French didn’t want to support two English universities. At the time I worked in the library in the stacks and they put me in government documents because of my background in political science at Harvard. I filed government documents during my first winter there and it went down to 30 below.
There were a lot of draft dodgers who got employed in the libraries. It was like when I had briefly gone to New Orleans to write, there was a kind of subterranean community. I was part of it for a time. I was very busy learning French. I ended up marrying a French Canadian, but she never spoke a word of French to me, except when she swore. I had to learn it on my own. In my mind I was going to be a Canadian, which is why I gave up my citizenship. I wanted to go back to school and I knew I needed a fellowship. The Canadian nationals weren’t keen to give fellowships to people who were going to go back to the States, so one way of doing that was to give up my American citizenship, which you can do. That was another adventure. I had an argument with Arvid Holm, who was the U.S. Counsel General who told me he would blacklist me forever – that I would never be able to return to the U.S. I had gone to him to find out about renouncing my citizenship and he was so offended by that he got into this argument with me. I am not one to get into such confrontations. I was a little non-plussed. I wanted to go on the 4th of July, but they weren’t open. His argument was basically that I owed the country so much. I said, “Yes, but this war is totally unjust. I can’t abide it and this is my protest.” I did eventually want to go back and I had talked to friends about my options if I wanted to return and they weren’t sure. This was a friend who was second in his class at Yale Law School. He asked his professors. They didn’t know the answer. I wanted to leave the possibility open. I knew there were French people who protested against the Algerian War and left the country. They were never able to come back. The French bureaucracy is so unrelenting. My thinking at the time was, if I don’t refuse the draft I am not a criminal and I had never refused to take the step forward.
It was shortly after the confrontation with Holm that I got my draft notice. I had to report to the Boston Army Base for the exam. I flew from Montreal back to Boston to take my exam. So I went through the exam in Boston after having been in the clear in Canada. I had a piece of wire in my leg that I gotten while in high school so technically I would have probably been rejected anyway. They tell you to waddle and I couldn’t, but the guy was checking off all of these tests, but he wasn’t even looking. He wanted to get to his golf game. The wire didn’t even come up. This guy was just processing us. Unless we were obviously crawling or paraplegic, we were O.K. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. If I didn’t pass the exam I wouldn’t give up my citizenship. I might come back. It was part of the ambivalence.
When I passed, and it was obvious that I had because the guy wasn’t even looking at my inability to waddle, which is still true, they give you a second form, a moral exam. I balked. I refused to sign it. I didn’t know about some of the organizations that I had to disavow. I was very polite. They were very polite, but they didn’t know what to do with me so they sent me away. They rescheduled me for a week later and I had to be interviewed by an Army Intelligence officer. I stayed in Cambridge. He was a young officer and we went over what I would and would not agree to and I have a copy of the form in my file. Would I agree to support the Constitution of the United States? Of course, wonderful Constitution. Would I say I had never been at any meetings where communists were present? I said, “How do I know. I have been to any number of meetings.” The funny thing was that despite being young and relatively shy at the time, I guess I had a kind of confidence because he asked me if I wanted a lawyer and I said, “No, but if you feel comfortable having one it’s O.K. with me.” I can’t believe I said that. He was just very nervous. I was very straightforward. I gave my reasons. I said, “I don’t want to contribute to an Orwellian future for the United States of America. I wanted to know the national security relevance of every organization I was being asked about. Cervantes Fraternal Society? Maybe it’s a front, maybe not. Explain it to me. I know the Ku Klux Klan. I can disagree with them. I don’t want anything to do with them. Chopin Cultural Society? He wrote the ‘Revolutionary Etude’, but…” So we agreed to that. I signed off on it, but left many organizations out. I have no idea what effect that had. I went back and I never heard from them.
They asked me about psychiatric records. Well, I had lost a girlfriend freshman year and seen a Harvard psychiatrist. That tied them up for some time. Then I went back to Canada. I figured it would take quite a while for them to process everything, because I didn’t do the ordinary things. It would tie them up for some time, by which time I had renounced my citizenship. It was July 11, 1967 that I became a stateless person and I remained a stateless person for 5 years and 4 months. The whole thing took 11 days from when I had first arrived in Montreal. I came to some serious conclusions about staying in Canada.
Eventually I heard from the draft board. I was re-classified. I had done everything by the letter and spirit of the law. Would I let them know if I changed my residence in Canada? I told them exactly where to find me – where I lived and where I worked. I told them I would inform them if I changed my residence. I told them I was planning to stay in Canada. I told them that I had given up my citizenship. My local draft board classified me 1-E, which I presume is still my classification since I am still not a U.S. citizen. It’s “alien not currently liable for military service”. If I had come back I would have been 1-A. I have always been in good standing with my draft board.
So once I had resolved the issue with the draft board what I had was landed immigrant status, but I was a stateless person. I had a little white card, but I had no citizenship. I had to wait 5 years and 4 months, which was the soonest I could become a Canadian citizen. For those years I had no passport so I could not travel outside Canada. I went to Toronto in ’69 to graduate school. I met neo-conservatives there. The person I studied Constitutional Law with there was Walter Berns. He was prominent at Cornell when the blacks had the confrontation there and he and Alan Bloom resigned and went to the University of Toronto. I studied with both of them. Bloom was there for the period I was a grad student there. We didn’t see eye to eye, but I was careful not to let him know that. It was hard to work with Bloom. Saul Bellow’s portrait of Bloom in RAVELSTEIN is quite accurate. I never signed up for a course with him because I didn’t trust him. He was one of the Straussians (named for Leo Strauss, a German philosopher and neo-conservative founding father) all of whom are ardent anti-communists.
I taught political science and Canadian government while at Toronto and while at York, which was essentially just up the street, I taught federal/provincial relationships. York University, interestingly enough, had a group of left wing people. One had written a history of the Communist Party in the U.S. I worked with Norman Penner and his father, Jacob Penner, was one of the few communists ever elected to public office in North America—an alderman in Winnipeg in the Thirties. Norman was still a member as far as I could tell. Despite his party affiliation he was not an ideologue; he was a real political person. He knew many people by their first names and most of what was going on in politics in Canada and elsewhere. I was his assistant in this course on Canadian government. So here I was working with one Canadian who was a communist and studying with highly influential neo-conservatives. I am a quiet person. Straussians being Straussians have their own form of paranoia or curiosity and wanted to know about me. Bloom liked to interfere in everyone’s lives – arrange girlfriends, a big gossip. I told them enough to satisfy their curiosity. They realized I wasn’t going to drop a bomb or anything.
I went to one meeting with Bloom. He did everything he could to test your character. He introduced me to this professor who was about my age to see if my being an older student would affect my interaction. The way I found to distance myself from Bloom was to be stupider than I was. Not that I had to work very hard at it. I would ask a stupid question and that took care of it. He wouldn’t bother me after that. Berns would leave you alone. He doesn’t push and probe. Not Bloom – he’s a totally different character, a cross between Milton Berle and the Mad Hatter. He looked a lot like Milton Berle.
The question is what happens now. I have been back in the U.S. since ’86. I told myself I would wait to see if Gore was elected in which case I would probably have tried for citizenship, which I could have done after 5 years of being here in ’91, but I didn’t. I continue to hesitate. I am not sure how people would feel about it. There’s still a lot of anger around the Vietnam issues. Look what happened in ’04 with Kerry’s candidacy and his Vietnam record. Are there people who don’t want me here, who don’t want me to become an American citizen again, who want me to go back to Canada? I am not a confrontational person. I would go back.
I was even reluctant to do this interview. There’s a question on the application for American citizenship that asks: “Did you ever seek to avoid military service by going overseas?” What’s the answer to that for me? I would answer no. I don’t know what they would think. I have this concern about how people would respond. There’s been this reversion under this administration regarding who the enemy is. I am an alien. Yes, I am white, but my status is still “other” and there has been much hostility directed at those who are “other”. Now it’s changing. It’s becoming impossible to put a spin on wounded people coming back. Iraq veterans, I believe, are going to lead this next phase of the anti-war movement. They can’t lie. The Administration didn’t learn from Vietnam. They learned in terms of trying to manage the publicity, but they didn’t learn from the mistakes that were made. They’ve screwed this up royally.
When I first came back I wasn’t sure about regaining my citizenship. I wanted to see where the country was. I felt generally at home and welcomed by some people, but I don’t know generally if there is acceptance. In Canada I know of a group of draft dodgers who got together in Vancouver either last year or the year before and they got a lot of hostility from Canadians. It was another generation and they don’t really understand what Vietnam was like. They don’t have any sense at all. It’s like when I went back to Georgia from having been in N.Y. to see what a non-segregated society would be like. They don’t have a clue about the civil rights movement. They don’t understand what trouble it was, black or white. It’s mind-boggling to me. They don’t have an understanding of history. The same is true with the Straussians. They have a canon and it is a rather narrow set of big guns– like Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Hobbes. Bloom rejected my thesis at first, my thesis on Hume, because he wanted me to read Hobbes first, because his master’s voice came through Hobbes. I disagree with that. When I look at the ancient world I am more attracted to the approach of Jacob Burckhardt (The great discoverer of the age of the Renaissance with regard not only for its painting, sculpture and architecture, but for the social institutions of its daily life as well) who wrote The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).) He also wrote about the civilization of the Greeks, who were very contentious, litigious people, but what Burckhardt did as an historian would be to read not just the big guns, but also every small writer going. He was a cultural historian. That context is missing in the Straussian teachings. They teach a few books known extremely well almost line for line. I partially understand what they are up to, though you almost have to be in their inner circle to see it up close. It goes back to Plato and Aristotle. The most profound teachings were delivered orally as they are in Zen Buddhism. Oral teachings are primary. The writings are secondary. It bothers me that the historical dimension is de-emphasized—though I am no Hegelian or historicist. They put the political at the primacy – the regime becomes the most important thing. If you don’t have a historical sense, it’s disconnected, lobotomized. They don’t have a sense of history. You need the historical context and it’s morally ambiguous. I call myself a Plutarchan conservative. He was very much a historian and very much a family man. In the Vietnam era I felt like a dangling man. I’ve read Bellow’s book (THE DANGLING MAN) and the dangling man may be the epitome of the age in some key ways. Of course, Bellow got it right. I love Bellow.
I continue to keep a low profile, invisible to everyone. It’s a habit now. I still have my old habit of shyness, though I can speak easily to an audience of 300. The fact is—theoretically–I could still be hauled off to Guantanamo in the middle of the night since I have no American citizenship. I am also subject to possible arbitrariness when it comes to my social security payments. It shouldn’t happen because there’s a treaty between the U.S. and Canada vis a vis social security. So I worry about my social security payments, which keep me in my retirement, not a prince’s wages, but it’s there. It’s a little nerve-wracking. Also, if you’re a resident alien, you can’t be out of the country for a year or you have to start all over again. You have to be here five years straight and I’ve been here since ’86. In fact, I have been here longer than I was in Canada (19 years), but I feel more Canadian than I do American. How do you explain that? For one thing I was Canadian, married to a French Canadian with children who are Canadian.
I tend now to be more philosophical. I am not indifferent to politics. Barak Obama appeals to me in terms of coming back towards the middle of the road. He’s a sane voice in the wilderness. But the outcome of the 2008 election isn’t going to determine things for me. I’ll just do it probably, but I am not sure when that will be. For one thing there’s a big price tag – $400. I don’t know how a dishwashing immigrant does it. Where are you going to find that money? I have friends who will lend it to me if I get to that point. I have dreamed about the whole question of nationalism. I realize I am American. There’s no way around it. We are nationalistic by virtue of body movements. Count Keyserling, (Count Keyserling is the author of numerous books, many of which were best sellers in the 1920’s in Europe, North America, and South America, including The Travel Diary of a Philosopher, America Set Free, Europe, The World in the Making, The Book of Marriage, Immortality, Creative Understanding, South American Meditations. Count Keyserling is the first Western thinker to conceive and promote a planetary culture, beyond nationalism and cultural ethnocentrism, based on recognition of the equal value and validity of non-western cultures and philosophies), “Americans walk like blacks and have the souls of red men.” Or maybe it was Jung. They were both a little skewed in the way they approach things, but there is truth in it.
I have never attempted to tell this story and I didn’t want to pre-formulate it. It was painful, which I knew it would be, but in some ways I didn’t expect. I didn’t know the image of the photograph from Vietnam was going to be so painful for me to recall. The same is true of the civil rights movement memories. Thinking about seeing the bruised and battered Fannie Lee Hamer is difficult. There’s a lot of emotionality attached to much of this. And then the Canada story. Americans just don’t understand how different Canada is. Even Canadians have a hard time with it. I taught at a very fancy private school in Montreal, typical of a school like Dalton, where I also taught in Manhattan. The headmaster once got mad about the French only law in Quebec. He said, “They should just submit it to the Canadian Supreme Court.” I should have bit my tongue, but I didn’t. I explained to him the difference between the two courts. They have to declare it constitutional. They don’t have the same latitude of judgment that the American Supreme Court has. They don’t follow precedents in the same way. Canadians haven’t got a clue. One of my books-to-be-written is called CENTRIFUGAL FEDERALISM – LOOKING AT CANADA AND QUEBEC. Quebec has always been a drag on the centralization of authority in Canada along with the geography, which is a pretty big drag. I am glad that I came to know the country so well…