Tuesday, April 24, 2007

David Halberstram, RIP

Author David Halberstram was killed in a car accident in California yesterday.

I've only read two of his books, "The Fifties" and "The Education of a Coach" (about Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick), but two's enough to know we've lost a giant of letters, and a wonderful example of a person with a view not clouded by political affiliation or partisan zeal, but instead by a realistic assessment of who we are as a people and the breadth of our potential as a nation.

Look at the commencement address he gave at the University of Michigan in the spring of 2000.

You are fortunate enough to live in an affluent, blessed society, not merely the strongest but the freest society in the world. In this country as in no other that I know of ordinary people have the right to reinvent themselves to become the person of their dreams, and not to live as prisoners of a more stratified, more hierarchical past. We have the right to choose: to choose if we so want, any profession, a venue to live and work in, any name. As much as any thing else this is what separates us from the old world, the old world across the Atlantic and the old world across the Pacific, where people often seemed to be doomed to a fate and a status determined even before their birth. We have the words of the great physicist I. I. Rabi to remind us of that special freedom, of the privilege which comes with choice. When he received the Nobel Prize, Rabi was asked by a journalist what he thought: I think he said, that if I had lived in the old country I would have been a tailor.

I do not think the stunning success of this society took place by happenstance. Both by chance—and by choice—I have become something of a historian of the second half of the twentieth century. I graduated from high school in 1951, and from college in 1955, and my professional career, throughout the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam took me through the stormiest years of much of the last 50 years. And if there is one great truth which categorizes that period in America it is that this nation has systematically become more and more inclusionary in race, gender and ethnicity—that we have made a constant and increasingly successful effort to make the playing field as level as possible, and to open doors once firmly closed.

When the question of inclusion or exclusion, one of the most basic to the concept of a state, has arisen over the years—when the status quote has been challenged—not every one has been in accord with the premise of a more inclusionary society, whether in sports, in the military or in the economy. There have always been doubters and they were always convinced, that the old ways were the best, that this impulse to open America up, much of it court-driven would somehow weaken us, that newer Americans were not as worthy as old and that the different groups hungering for a fairer share of the good life were not as worthy as those who had held power before them.

I am old enough to remember when a great many influential Americans were absolutely convinced that Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays would fail in the great arena of sports, and that our military would be significantly weakened by the integration of the armed force. You might like to wonder that when you think of Michael Jordan or Colin Powell, and their respective brilliant careers. These doubters, those who favored the status quo (in many cases it should be noted, because it favored them) also believed that the descendants of slavery who had worked so hard for so little for so long and who had been voiceless in our society for so long would somehow weaken our economy, if given a fair place in it.

The truth is, not surprisingly, that this effort to be inclusionary has made us in all ways a better, fairer and stronger society. And as for the economy being weakened by being more inclusionary I should mention to you that the year that I graduated from high school, 1951, the Dow stood at 250. Yes, that's right, 250.

I believe that this great American ideal, to be more just, to be more inclusionary, to offer to the children of others the educational possibility we would want for our own children, has given us not just strength but much of our common purpose. We still believe that we can improve ourselves and make this a better and more complete nation: we may argue with each other about the rules in the social contract, we can dispute each other's arguments, we are often cantankerous. But slowly steadily we are on our way to becoming the world's first universal culture. No wonder then that our popular culture has such power throughout the world—it is something that people all over the world can understand.

Looking at the commencement address he gave at Tulane in 2003, it's essentially the same, but with a nod toward the contemporary issues of the War on Terror and the occupation of Iraq:

But I would ask you today not to be fearful--we are not a fearful nation, we have never been one, and the members of our own families who settled in this country often after the most difficult and arduous of journeys were most assuredly not fearful people. Instead I want you to look forward to the essentially rich future which lies ahead of you, the blessed future which goes with the great good fortune of being a college educated citizen of this bountiful and most dynamic country.

This is something missed by those whose modus operandi is to complain first about America and ask questions later. We have problems, sure. But give me a country that doesn't have problems? Don't give me some two-bit European country with a social class system out of the 1600's. There is no place on this planet that matches the opportunity we provide, and the results we achieve.

It's something John Winger hit square on the head. We're the Mutts. We're the wretched refuse kicked out of every decent country in the world. But mutts are stronger than purebreds, because mutts mix the best traits and leave out the bad teeth and hemophilia you see in the British Royal family.

And that's what Halberstram was talking about.

And somehow, I think he would've been please to see the connection between Bill Murray's character in Stripes and his own Pulitzer Prize winning career...

PS - Yeltsin, Halberstram, who's next?


Gino said...

no,no, no...
not the polka dot template.
that is just sooo gay.

Callie said...

Lovely memorial, Kal.

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