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a sort of autiobiography

The message below was written by Ian to a high school classmate who had undertaken to organize a 55th anniversary class reunion (Ian and I had attended the 50th, a big success), Ralph chose Saturday, September 18, 2010, for the planned 55th.  When Ian pointed out to Ralph that he had scheduled the reunion for Yom Kippur, this did not deflect Ralph from his course.  Ian then wrote to him explaining why he would not be attending.  The result is a sort of autobiography, which contained revelatory sidelights for me on the guy I had been married to for fifty years.  You may be interested as well.  Janel

Date: Wed July 21 05:51: 42 WST 2010
From: Ian Mueller <i-mueller@uchicago.edu>
Subject: Re: Reunion concern

Dear Ralph,  This is a difficult letter to write. I have decided not to come to the reunion. I will try to explain my reasons, but I do not expect you to respond to them. And I am perfectly willing to have you share what I have to say with others.  Everything I say is an expression of my opinion, although I write without repeating phrases like ‘I think’.

The society we grew up in was antisemitic as well as racist and sexist.  This was not a matter of anybody’s conscious choice, as it was with Nazism or southern white supremacy.  I can only recall two explicitly antisemitic remarks from my childhood, one made by me and the other by a classmate.  I’m sure there are more that I have forgotten, but that is probably not important.  What is important is that we grew up in a social nexus in which Jews were the other for the dominant white Christian male ‘elite’.

I  regret very much that I was a part of that nexus, although I do not feel guilty, since I do not believe that I or any one else could have behaved in any other way.  We were all too young to think about these deep unconscious matters on our own.

After Sharon High School I went to a very elite all-male and essentially all-white university. After my athletic skills were judged insufficient and the only thing I had to fall on was my intelligence, I was consigned to non-elite status as an undergraduate.  My roommates and most of my best friends were Jews (I remember one oriental).  I did not feel oppressed by this, however much I wished that I, too, could have a laughing mildly alcoholized conversation with one of those elegant Wellesley girls. Unconsciously I viewed elite status as something natural, like intelligence or athletic skill, something that I did not have and had to make my way in life without.

My first awakening of consciousness concerned sexism and Janel.  I was given a job at Harvard; my wife was told that she would certainly be given a job there except for the fact that she was the wrong sex. Later I was given a job at the University of Chicago.  The chairman of my department managed to cobble together a non-tenure track position for Janel, who was told by our dean that she would never get a tenure-track, let alone tenure position at Chicago.  Fortunately that turned out to be false as gender discrimination turned into a legal issue.  I am sure that the only reason I was (now consciously) revolted by sexist practices was that I knew that Janel was much more talented than her male compatriots both at Harvard and at Chicago.

I am sure that my revulsion against antisemitism came much more slowly, and was very closely associated with the general cultural revolution of the sixties and seventies.  The University of Chicago has a long tradition of openness to Jews. For many years up to and after World War 2, it was the only place where an inner city Jew could get an elite education.  Many of my colleagues and superiors both at Chicago and internationally were and are Jews.  Together we gentiles and Jews constitute our own elite in a profession where all that matters now is intelligence and hard work. That experience has made me reflect even more on some of the unfortunate aspects of my younger years.

The decision (made, I am sure, completely innocently) to hold our reunion on the holiest day of the year for our classmates who are practicing Jews reawakened the thoughts I have written here.  I grew up in a society suffused with cultural antisemitism.  I want to repudiate that as thoroughly as I can. Attending this reunion would only make me feel more uncomfortable about my past and give me the sense that things have not changed.  I hope you will understand.  You and my classmates have all my best wishes. Ian

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