Excerpt from pages 53-56 of
My Brother's Keeper: A Memoir and a Message

"Professor Lazarsfeld will see you this afternoon at 3:00 in his office," I was ordered by Esther Davis, the much dreaded executive secretary of the Columbia University sociology department. Paul F. Lazarsfeld was one of the two "demigods" of the department, widely respected and feared by the junior and not-so-junior staff. (Robert K. Merton was the other.) This was going to be my first audience with his eminence. I approached it with all the assurance of someone caught in the act when nobody was supposed to be around. Only I did not have the faintest idea of what vile act I was supposed to have committed.

Lazarsfeld greeted me with a mischievous sparkle in his eye, a Viennese accent that many considered charming, and an informality that made me leery. He motioned me to sit down and started with "I understand that the students love you," like someone anesthetizing the spot before sticking in the knife. With the preliminaries out of the way, Lazarsfeld stated point blank: "You are a bright guy and may well one day make a fine sociologist, but you'd better cut out this ‘social work' stuff. It took us more than a generation to get sociology to be recognized as a science. I know you do not mean to undermine this achievement, but if you continue, you will do so anyhow. Our job is to build knowledge, not to make public pronouncements on things we know nothing about."

My first thought was of fish fat. I could taste its greasy flavor; smell its [fishy] odor. During my poorest years in Israel we could buy fish fat very cheaply, and so we had it five times a week. We became adept in turning the fish fat some days into something that seemed like seafood salad, or like a white stew, but for me fish fat came to stand for poverty, insecurity, and powerlessness.

Cornered in Lazarsfeld's office, as he was puffing on his cigar, I sensed that my future at Columbia, my dream of a secure job, indeed of an academic life, had gone up in smoke; it was back to fish fat. I still, though, did not have a clue what brought on this gotterdammerung.

I mumbled, "I am still rather green; just two years out of grad school; I'm still wet behind the ears. This is something I need to think about. Is there anything particular I should be watching out for?"

"Well," Lazarsfeld elaborated, "both Merton and I hope that this movie review you wrote is the last one; that it is not the kind of sociology you plan to practice." He then murmured, "The last thing we need is another C. Wright Mills."

Mentioning Mills was as red a flag as Lazarsfeld could have waved, and it got my full attention. Mills was a senior professor in my department. Most senior members of the department considered him a dangerous and rambunctious outcast. ("He is a radical! Never does any research!" "A publicity hound." "And you know what--he rides a motorcycle and wears a scarf around his neck!") About the nicest thing I heard about Mills was from one of his few supporters, who called him "a regular cowboy." Mills was not allowed to teach graduate students, a limitation initially also imposed on me. (Teaching graduate students separated the true academics from the "mere" teachers, who were relegated to the instruction of undergraduates, or worse, adults who sought to round out off their education, segregated in a special division called "General Studies".)

* * *

My injury to that culture turned out to be my review of Hiroshima Mon Amour, a movie that had deeply moved me. Most reviews of the movie were quite favorable but focused largely on the camera work, the acting, and the soundtrack. Some explored the story line from an individual psychological viewpoint, paying much attention to the trauma of a French girl who had an affair with a Nazi solider while Germany occupied France during World War II. (The girl was ostracized by her village.) The movie also explored her later relationship with a Japanese lover, in which she simultaneously violated three social taboos of the day: both she and her lover were married--but not to each other; their first liaison occurred before she even found out his name; and he was not merely of a different nation--but also of a different race.

I wrote in my review that the movie--which superimposes images of the ominous mushroom clouds of exploding nuclear bombs on the love scenes--aims to make us sense that unless love knows no boundaries, we shall all turn into the ashes in the ovens of some horrible nuclear holocaust. The movie conveys the pain and agony of being subject to violent hatred just because you are different. And it associated these feelings in our guts with the horrifying images of the destruction of a whole city full of people, the bombed-out Hiroshima. It superimposes the sense of hate on images of miles of roasted bodies, blinded children, dazed survivors lost among the ruins. Whatever the merits of my interpretation of the movie, it was hardly what my senior colleagues considered proper sociology--scientific and free of moral judgements and messages.

I am not sure what I told Lazarsfeld; I believe I thanked him for warning me. I spent the weekend following our meeting trying to figure out where I might go from here. Should I look for a new position, before I got kicked out? Sociology was my training and love; if I were to be dismissed by Columbia early in my career, other universities would shun me. The best I could hope for was finding a teaching job in some third-rate college in the boondocks. Should I keep my nose to the academic grindstone and my ideas to myself? Refrain from speaking publicly? These questions, in turn, forced me to examine what I was really all about. An anxious young man, keen to secure a paycheck? Someone who believed he had a duty to speak up? And if I had a calling--was I willing to pay my dues? How far was I willing to march down this road--with a two-year-old child in tow and not enough savings to pay next month's rent?

The Communitarian Network
2130 H Street, NW, Suite 703
Washington, DC 20052