A Fond Farewell to Jonathan Schell

The writer Jonathan Schell, who taught courses at Yale on non-violence and nuclear arms through 2012, died of cancer last night at his home in Brooklyn. Although I doubt he would have put it this way, or even thought of himself this way, he was a luminous, noble, bearer of an American civic-republican tradition that’s inherently cosmopolitan and embracing, and he drew on deep wellsprings that few others knew how to plumb.

From his beginnings as a brave young Vietnam War correspondent for The New Yorker, to his meticulous yet sweeping case for nuclear disarmament in The Fate of the Earth, through his magisterial re-thinking of both state power and people’s power in The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, as well as in his wry but rigorous assessments of politics for The Nation, Jonathan took the best of that distinctively American, progressive civic-republican tradition – and, it seemed to me, of a WASP cultural sensibility about which he was ambivalent and humorously self-deprecating – and poured it into the beginnings of a transracial, global civil society.

Jonathan set a powerful example of how to dissent and struggle for sweeping change even while showing defenders of conventional wisdom that they, too, have some good intentions that they ought to live up to. When another author I knew was fretting about having come close to receiving an award that was denied to him at the last moment, Jonathan said, impishly, “Well, you know, most awards are really just a certain stratum of society’s way of petting you on the head and taming you.”

Award-seekers, take note. A much better society’s future is dimmed a bit by the loss of Jonathan Schell’s insight, magnanimity, and love.

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Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.