When I was a junior at the University of Chicago, I took Modern Drama with the late Frank Kinahan. Professor Kinahan was famous for his contention that the great literature of the 20th Century was written by Irishmen, often under the influence of drink.
Kinahan sometimes held office hours from a stool at the Woodlawn Tap, better known as Jimmy’s. In a 1984 piece honoring the bar’s owner, Jimmy Wilson, Kinahan wrote, “There are people here who will swear they learned more at the Woodlawn Tap than they did in the Common Core,” referring to the “great books” curriculum championed by a former university president.
I enrolled in Kinahan’s course in winter, when Hyde Park is grey, freezing and under a perpetual gloom punctuated by leering gargoyles. On the first day of class, Kinahan warned us that if we were prone to melancholy, drink or suicide, the time to un-enroll was now. Our companions for the bleakest weeks would be August Strindberg (a Swede prone to psychotic attacks), Anton Chekhov (the tubercular Russian) and the American Eugene O’Neill, an alcoholic and depressive who disowned his daughter (for marrying Charlie Chaplin, 40 years her senior) and buried two sons who committed suicide, prisoners of their inherited addictions.
“There’s not a single one of them I’d have a beer with,” Professor Kinahan told us — and that was saying a lot for a man who relished his daily pints.
Students who take my Human Rights Activism class at Duke get much the same warning. Though North Carolina’s autumn leaves are spectacular, our discussion can make even the most hardened grade-grubber weep (I have tissues permanently at my desk). Genocide, mass rape, slavery, executions, prison camps, torture — by mid terms, the Holocaust comes as a kind of relief, since the Nuremberg trials of the German high command give students at least a whisper of hope for an end to atrocity.
But this year, the mood of my class was almost giddy. Of course, there was lots to lament. Since 1998, over 6 million people have died as a result of conflict and disease in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to Amnesty International. Civilian deaths are sharply up in Afghanistan. Darfur remains an impasse and North Korea is both among the most ignored and most urgent future challenges.
Yet there was also a lot of good news. Close to home, North Carolina continued its informal moratorium on the death penalty, with no one killed by lethal injection since 2006. Meanwhile, people’s appetite for death is waning. Both prosecutors and juries are moving away from capital punishment, as news of possible innocence cases and faulty investigations piles up.
Nationally, even as we refuse to fully investigate and punish past US involvement in torture, American officials, beginning with President Obama, have made it clear that torture is illegal and will no longer be tolerated. European governments have been braver, particularly in the United Kingdom, where a new Conservative government announced a formal “judge-led” inquiry into the role played by British officials in human rights abuses committed as part of the Global War on Terror.
The recent repeal if the US military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is rarely phrased as a human rights issue; yet it goes to the heart of what Eleanor Roosevelt, who led the US delegation that completed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, called the future challenge of ”actually living and working in our countries for freedom and justice for each human being.” On-going legal battles over the rights of gays and lesbians to marry – guaranteed by the Declaration’s Article 16 – are but a different front in what lawyer David Boies, who successfully challenged California’s anti-gay marriage ban, describes as one of the defining human rights quests of our times.
Who could fail to be moved by Aung San Suu Kyi’s graceful appearance this November in front of her Burmese home, for fifteen years her prison? Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Nobel who joined her as laureate that same month, heard about the award while imprisoned, yet nonetheless managed one of the most eloquent protests of his government’s policies of censorship and intolerance.
In my view, the Wikileaks drama has also undercut the West’s often hypocritical championing of free speech. Yes, there were problems with how Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder, obtained and released secret documents, putting in jeopardy the lives of sources who should have remained anonymous. Yet respected and responsible news organizations like the New York Times have handled the documents with great care and sensitivity.
These advances do not lessen the urgency of on-going atrocities; but they do demonstrate that change is not only possible, but inevitable, as long as people work toward it. When I was a student, Argentina and Chile were fearsome models of repression, with thousands “disappeared” and tortured. These countries are now punishing those responsible and inaugurating “museums of memory,” in part dedicated to fostering a robust human rights culture that may prevent future atrocities. Far from a by word for abuses, South Africa is now a model or how countries can grapple with the past and start the slow work of building resilient democracies.
What Professor Kinahan taught us was that suffering is inseparable from the human condition. But so was art and humor and the quest for understanding. My students learn that people shape the world, for good or for ill. If they choose, they can bend it toward justice, as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said.
In honor of my late professor, I’ll end by quoting one of his favorite poets, Northern Irishman Seamus Heaney. A child of “The Troubles,” Heaney has lived long enough to see even that conflict end. As he wrote in “The Cure at Troy,” …Once in a lifetime/the longed for tidal wave/of justice can rise up/and hope and history rhyme.
Let 2011 be another one of those years.*
*A shortened version of this piece ran in the January 1, 2011 edition of the Raleigh News and Observer.