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Three Liberal Lives | The Nation

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Three Liberal Lives

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John Kenneth Galbraith died on April 29 at age 97, ending one of the most consequential liberal lives of the past century. As it happened, his death came just days after those of two other giants of American liberalism: Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg at age 84 and the Rev. William Sloane Coffin at 81. It would take up much of this magazine just to list the scholarly, literary, political, even prophetic achievements of these three, as well as to describe the myriad ways the world is a better place for their having lived in it. Here are just a few highlights.

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Hertzberg ran guns to Palestine in 1946, already a rabbi, an aspiring historian and vice president of the Philadelphia Zionist Region. He published an indispensable intellectual history of the Zionist ideal in 1959 and celebrated Israel's victory in 1967 but called for a Palestinian state decades before respectable Jewish opinion allowed such talk. He held fast to this position despite serving not only as the rabbi at important Conservative synagogues but also as president of the American Jewish Congress (1972-78) and vice president of the World Jewish Congress (1975-91). In addition Hertzberg condemned the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Israeli beatings of Palestinians in 1988 and Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes in 2004. He even called on America to deduct from its aid to Israel every nickel the Jewish state devoted to its illegal settlements. Israel aside, Hertzberg was large; he contained multitudes. Imagine a rabbi in Englewood, New Jersey, telling his Conservative congregation in 1967, "A vote for the Republican Party...is a vote for racism, and I forbid it as an immoral act!" Add to this a dozen scholarly books and who knows how many articles and, well... I have to stop.

Like his brother Bonesman George H.W. Bush, Coffin was born fabulously rich and found himself employed post-Yale at the CIA. He joined up, he later said, in an attempt to expiate the guilt he felt over his postwar role, as an Army liaison to the Russian military, in the forced repatriation of Soviet prisoners almost certainly murdered upon their return. This left him, he wrote, "a burden of guilt I am sure to carry the rest of my life." After his brief stint at the CIA, he was inspired in large measure by Reinhold Niebuhr to enter the ministry, and found himself appointed, at 33, Yale's youngest chaplain ever. It was a decidedly stormy tenure. In 1961 he was arrested with six others in Montgomery, Alabama, during a civil rights protest. It was the first of many. He was a founder, in 1965, of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam but grew frustrated with its ineffectiveness. In 1967 he began to offer the chapel at Yale as a sanctuary for war resisters. During the planning of a demonstration against the Pentagon that year, he helped preside at a Boston service in which he accepted 185 draft cards and 175 classification notices to be turned over to the Justice Department. This led to his conviction for conspiracy to counsel draft evasion (later thrown out on a technicality). At the time, Yale president Kingman Brewster told students and parents, "I disagree with the chaplain's position on draft resistance, and in this instance deplore his style." Coffin left Yale for New York's Riverside Church--but continued his moral leadership--before departing in the mid-1980s to head SANE/Freeze and help lead the fight for nuclear disarmament. Somewhere in there, he wrote six books and, of course, countless sermons.

Galbraith, the most famous of the three, also worked most closely within the American Establishment. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that this made his views less radical. After being hounded out of the Office of Price Administration by conservatives during World War II--for a job, believe it or not, as an editor of Henry Luce's Fortune--Galbraith moved in and out of government. In 1945 he helped write the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (with co-workers W.H. Auden and Nicholas Nabokov). The report concluded that US and British saturation bombing did not significantly disrupt the Nazi economy or break its will, something Galbraith tried to explain to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson as he worked energetically and tirelessly, albeit unsuccessfully, to talk both men out of their faulty assumptions about Vietnam. On the side he served as top speechwriter, Ambassador to India and Harvard professor, and managed to knock out thirty-three books, at least three of which helped redefine the role of economics in American political life.

As the intellectual historian Richard Pells has noted, Galbraith's distinguishing trait, as both a public servant and policy intellectual, was "to combine the roles of insider and nonconformist." This insight could apply to all three of these men, however. Coffin never lost his ties to the Establishment of wealth and power that nurtured him as a young man, and Hertzberg remained ensconced in the bosom of American Jewish officialdom. And yet each managed to retain the ability to speak the most difficult and prophetic truths to America's highest powers.

How?

Where does the courage come from to insist that you are right when all others around you are not merely wrong but wrong in ways that are morally and intellectually indefensible? And how does one retain not only one's sanity but also good humor when doing so?

In his own way, each man spoke to this question, though the answers are necessarily unsatisfying. Asked by a church group why he found himself getting arrested so frequently, Coffin replied, "I can only reassure you that I don't like to go around picking fights. Some fights pick you."

To a question about his troublemaking, Hertzberg once explained, "A rabbi should be where the real issues of society are, not where safe platitudes are to be preached.... You save your soul by saving someone else's body."

And in a moving tribute to his friend and co-conspirator, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. recalled Galbraith observing, "The emancipation of belief is the most formidable of the tasks of reform, the one on which all else depends."

Amen.

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