Friday, May 25, 2012

Walking the talk: Lawrence Wittner as activist intellectual

On August 4 [2004], together with a survivor of the Chernobyl disaster, I addressed a gaggle of reporters from the Asahi Shimbun and other major [Japanese] newspapers, who probed my thoughts on the current state of the nuclear disarmament movement. (If only the U.S. press showed a fraction of their interest!).
--Lawrence S. Wittner (2012, p. 228)
Lawrence S. Wittner is a name you recognize if you've read much of anything in the scholarly literature about the history of anti-nuclear movements worldwide from the beginning of the nuclear age. Or you may know his name if you've read about US foreign policy. On the other hand, you could be familiar with his name if you've read histories of peace movements. There is also a strong chance you've read a historical analysis commentary of his in the media, either alternative or mainstream. Wittner is a serious historian whose working class roots and Russian/Polish Jewish heritage gave him a strong sympathy for those who have been persecuted and exploited. These sympathies may be felt by many academics but Wittner's history is one of putting his activism and public utterances in front of those who were in a position to harm him professionally. His story is one of a person of serious intellectual capacity whose career was pushed and pulled aside and around by those in the academy whose allegiance is to the status quo rather than to academic freedom or peace and justice education.

Over the years I've benefited from Wittner's scholarship and his translation of academese into plainly understandable writing. His latest book, now that he is emeritus and 71 years old (Happy Birthday May 5, Dr. Wittner!, a Cinco de Mayo serendipity day), is his memoir, a delightful and typically Wittnerian volume in some ways, and an outlier from his oeuvre in others. He is thoroughly profession in his familial research all the way back to three generations before him in the persecuted Jewish communities in Poland and Russia to his New York immediate family roots, digging up historical data that grounds his story in a solid societal and cultural fashion.

From his early days at Colombia to Madison, Wisconsin, to his Ph.D. in history from Colombia University at age 26, his academic career was increasing golden, but he had the professionally maladaptive habit of publicly speaking and writing from his conscience about peace and justice issues. This kept him on the move, unable to gain tenure for a long time indeed, and when he was grudgingly awarded what was long overdue it was at a backwater university, the State University of New York-Albany, where he remained until retirement. Had he been about self-aggrandizing careerism his foreign policy writing would have served US corporate and national interests, instead of favoring peace and justice for all. His activities would have served the Rand Corporation instead of local labor unions and anti-apartheid activities, just to name a couple of his unpaid challenger movement activities.

The book reads like a novel with occasional dryly mordant wit and the rare but interesting account of some of the internal academic struggles that reveal how petty many of us in that world can be. At times Wittner names names, but sometimes uses pseudonyms. He is modest where he should be and frank about his capacities where he needs to be (e.g. noting his nonathletic skill set but his intellectual abilities). He lets his commitment, conscience, and heart speak for themselves.

If you are a writer, a teacher, an activist, or aspire to any of these, I recommend this memoir. It is a blunt and revealing look not just at a life of the mind impacted by a life of the conscience, it shows a great deal about our subcultures and dominant culture through these lenses.


Wittner, Lawrence S. (2012). Working for peace and justice: Memoirs of an activist intellectual. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.

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