The NY Times obituary on Earl Shorris is an admiring tribute to an exceptional human being:
Earl Shorris, a social critic and author whose interviews with prison inmates for a book inspired him to start a now nationally recognized educational program that introduces the poor and the unschooled to Plato, Kant and Tolstoy, died on May 27 in New York. He was 75.
The cause was complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his son Anthony said.
Mr. Shorris, who wrote a dozen books during the first 35 years of his career, many sharply critical of Western culture as sliding toward plutocracy and materialism, became best known in his final years for founding the Clemente Course in the Humanities. Established in 1995 with 25 students at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in the East Village of Manhattan, the program offers the disadvantaged a 10-month curriculum of philosophy, history, art, literature and logic. It earned Mr. Shorris the National Humanities Medal, presented to him in 2000 by President Bill Clinton.
I held Shorris in the highest esteem as both a principled left-liberal and a master essayist. As a literary genre, the personal essay’s first and greatest exponent was Michel Montaigne who always proceeded from the personal to the universal. Another master of the form is Philip Lopate whose essay on taking his incontinent aging father to a Chinese restaurant evolves into a transcendent meditation on fatherhood and death.
Earl Shorris’s last essay before his death appeared in Harper’s, a magazine that he has had a long association with. It is the quintessential personal essay titled “American vespers: The ebbing of the body politic” that begins with his latest hospitalization for the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that would shortly kill him and ending with commentary on another cancer, the military-industrial complex that is killing America.
In the middle of the night, when the hospital is in its deepest dusk, a confusing loneliness sets in. If there is no motion in the room, no sound, no sense of life in the pallid darkness, the little tremblings stop: in the perfect stillness, hope subsides; death presents itself in the guise of an analgesic. As if she knew this about the night, Sasha Stanton appeared carrying a small cup of lemon ice. It was the first food I had eaten in some days, and I took it not for hunger but for company.
Death was growing inside me. It defies the mind, like magic, for it was only death because of what had been described as the immortality metastasizing within. I was overcome by a kind of attraction to it. Nothing else had ever beckoned so! Not even the love of my wife or the faces of my sons.
Like a sonata in one movement, the piece shifts gradually toward a look at the “body politic”, with cancer a perfect metaphor for the state of things in 2012. I first heard such a metaphor from Joel Kovel, who in a talk on ecology at the Brecht Forum about 20 years ago described unregulated capitalist growth as a metastasizing tumor. Shorris writes:
Without ethics, politics has no limits. America broke the rules of living systems, and lost its balance. All the oxygen flowed to a smaller and smaller section of the body politic. The history is brief and unquestionable: close to toppling, the society momentarily pulled itself upright, and then became even less ethical, less balanced, more endangered than ever as a lawless financial system came back from death, and like a foolish patient after a heart bypass operation, continued in its old ways. With no ethical component to national politics, President Obama could deliver his 2011 State of the Union speech without ever mentioning the word “poverty,” although one in every five American children lived in poverty. Without a commitment to Hutcheson’s idea of the greatest good, which is at the core of the original American philosophy in Jefferson’s drafting of the Declaration of Independence, this may no longer be the brilliant experiment. If happiness is for the few and it produces unemployment approaching that of the Great Depression, then the shadow of evening is here.
Death is the moment when evening passes into night. I know. There is no surprise, and it often comes after a long sickness that is worse than death. When I died, I died of many things: the failing systems; the weakening of age; the exhaustion of the long war against dying. Finally, I succumbed to the lack of ethics in a California hospital, killed by filth and neglect.
I have wished for many years to be a physician to my beloved country. The means to care for it is clear. I was revived by love and ethics. And I am not unique: no man, no woman is a metaphor; that is the place of gods. I do not know who will take America in their arms to revive her.
No nation is forever.
The NY Times obit neglected to mention perhaps Shorris’s best-known and most controversial books, “Jews Without Mercy”. Written in 1971, it was the first open challenge to Jewish neoconservatives written by somebody not connected to the hard left.
Today I took the book out of the Columbia University library and scanned in the first chapter titled “Apology to Mr. Singer, Slayer of Chickens, May He Rest in Peace.” Like all of his other essays, it starts with the personal:
You were decorated with blood and feathers, praying and killing in the back room of a store on an empty block in a failed section of the town. The butcher pointed to you as if you were an advertisement. He asked if the boy wanted to watch Mr. Singer do his work. I declined to step behind the counter and through the unpainted wooden gate that led to your slaughterhouse. My grandmother laughed. She knew chickens, she knew children.
She prepared chickens in the tiny kitchen of her apartment, reaching into the hollow cavity to remove the liver, heart, and kidneys; tearing the fat from the flesh; and depositing the yellow clumps in a saucepan. She burned the feet in the fire of the stove, blackening the ends of the truncated toes. While the chicken soaked in salt water she spoke of you: You dassn’t be afraid of Mr. Singer. He’s a very learned man. When the Rabbi has a question, you know where he goes? To Mr. Singer!
This has a special meaning for me since I used to watch a Mr. Singer at work when I was a young boy. There was a ritual kosher chicken slaughterhouse in the back yard below my apartment in upstate NY and I used to watch the shochit in awe and wonder—this was before my parents bought their first TV. From my memoir scheduled to be released in August 2065:
Before long Shorris transforms himself into a kind of shochet, slicing the throats of the neocons:
Many of the converts have told of the journey across the political spectrum, although not with the detail or the honesty of Norman Podhoretz. Most of the others have begun with rationalization rather than confession, attempting to hide their newfound preference for vulgarity. Almost all of them have said that it is because they are Jewish that they have become neoconservatives. They speak for each other; they help each other with grants, consulting fees, and introductions to money and power. It is a close camaraderie for all but Daniel Bell, who resigned as coeditor of The Public Interest after he and Irving Kristol founded the magazine, and who was given into the hands of Michael Novak in the July 1981 issue of Commentary to be drummed out of the corps as one whose “imagination still operates within a Marxian horizon.” Novak, a Polish Catholic and the publicist of “ethnic interests,” the new euphemism for racism, delivered the coup de grace earlier in the same paragraph: “Bell is said to have quipped that he is a liberal in politics, a socialist in economics, and a conservative in culture. The single most systematic strength in his thinking—and simultaneously, the single most glaring weakness—is that the socialist in him frequently overwhelms both the liberal and the conservative.” The club is warm and supportive, but it is restricted. Daniel Bell, the best mind among the neoconservatives, cannot be considered a neoconservative: He simply could not bring himself to trade ethics for vulgarity.
Returning to the NY Times obit, I was appreciative of Earl Shorris’s efforts on behalf of the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities while feeling queasy about its funding from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, like so many of Bard’s philanthropic efforts. The Clemente center benefits poor Latinos, a program with the same good intentions as Bard’s Prison Initiative that allows prisoners to earn a BA while incarcerated.
If I ever had gotten to know Shorris, I would have like to ask him about Soros’s impact on the poor people of Hungary whose homes were foreclosed in the tens of thousands after the Central Bank suffered huge losses because of Soros’s insider trading. After watching the documentary “Pink Ribbons Inc.”, I am more skeptical of deep-pocketed foundations than ever, I’m afraid.
There’s something about these programs that reminds me of George Bush ‘41’s “thousand points of light”. With American higher education going down the tubes, what real value is there in setting up Potemkin Villages that show off George Soros’s good will?
Ultimately, the worldview of the left-liberal, including the best of them like Gore Vidal or Earl Shorris, is moralistic and does not consider the possibility that “mercy” is not the solution to the nation’s problems but a radical restructuring of the economy so that everybody comes into the world on an equal footing.