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President Quillen on the Power of Promiscuous Reading

Davidson College President Carol Quillen presented a provocative and reflective talk Tuesday evening as part of the college's "Last Lecture" series. In her address, titled "Promiscuous Readings: A Lecture in Three Acts," Quillen answered the question, "What wisdom would you impart to the world if you knew it was your last chance?"

The lecture series, hosted by the Educational Studies Department, was inspired by a talk Prof. Randy Pausch delivered at Carnegie Mellon University entitled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams." In this talk, Pausch discussed everything he wanted his children to know after his pancreatic cancer had taken his life. It included stories of his childhood, lessons he wanted his children to learn, and things he wanted his children to know about him. He repeatedly stressed that one should have fun in everything one does, and that one should live life to its fullest.

The following is a transcript of Quillen's remarks.

Promiscuous Readings: A Lecture in Three Acts

Prologue

As a kid, I spent summers in a beach house filled with books in a town where we knew no one. So books became my friends. Mysteries, classics, beach novels, biographies, histories of the Unites States. Where there were words, I read them.

In college I read with the same casual promiscuity that I had as a kid. Erich Auerbach, Michel Foucault and Gayle Rubin don't have a lot in common, but I discovered them all on the discount table in Powell's Bookstore.

When you read promiscuously -- by which I mean indiscriminately, widely, and for pleasure -- when you read like this, you see how books of different genres written at different times can speak to each other. Tonight I want to share some tales of promiscuous reading. Thank you for listening.

Act I: Creation Stories

In my first semester as a professor, I got to teach a Plato to NATO western civilization class. Western civ was my favorite course in college. It was why I went to grad school instead of law school. So I was excited.

These syllabi generally follow the torch model: Western civilization starts in Athens, then moves to Rome via Jerusalem, then to Paris via Cairo, then to Florence to Wittenburg to London and Amsterdam and finally across the oceans to the Americas via Biafra, where it all culminates in us. Western civ is our creation story.

As history, this model has a ton of flaws. But for a promiscuous reader like me, it's a feast. It's a particularly great way to read the book of Job.

Western civ takes Job out of its biblical/religious contexts. You forget everything you thought you knew. You stop trying to use it to shore up your faith or justify your atheism. And you think about what the text actually says. 

Here's the basic plot. God praises Job for his perfect integrity. An obnoxious angel retorts that if Job's life were terrible, Job wouldn't be so perfect. God says, okay, go test him. Take his stuff, afflict his body. The angel does this. As Job sits in agony, his family and possessions gone, three friends come insisting Job must have sinned and urging him to confess. Job maintains that he is blameless. NAME MY CRIME. Eventually, the voice of the Creator booms out, describing in detail the sublime universe He has made: "Who IS this whose ignorant words smear my design with darkness?"

Job shuts up, comforted that he is dust.

God then restores Job's body and wealth, giving him new kids and even more stuff than he had before.

Reading Job in western civ forced me to abandon what I thought it must mean. So I stopped finding sin in Job and making excuses for God. If you take the text seriously, Job is blameless, and God is a reckless jerk.

Also, turns out Job's not patient. Job is mad. "God damn the day I was born," he cries, "and the night that forced me from the womb." "What good has virtue done me?" Isn't disgrace for sinners? "Can't God tell right from wrong?"

Remember, the text says Job's integrity is perfect. He rescued the poor, protected the widow, served as eyes for the blind and hands for the crippled. Job uses the language of law to challenge God. LET ME TESTIFY. I AM INNOCENT. I WILL PROVE IT. God never responds to this. He never names Job's crime. When God speaks, it is not as prosecutor or judge but as the creator of a vast, savagely beautiful world. The closest God comes to responding to Job is when he says, "Am I wrong because you are right?"

In the context western civ, where I was also reading John Locke, I focused on how Job describes his relationship with God. I did everything you required, Job says. And THIS is how you treat me? From Job's perspective, this is a relationship of mutual obligation. If he avoids evil, then God will reward him. Job thinks of his relationship with God as a contract.

Now "contract" and its sister idea of "consent" lie at the heart of the story that John Locke, writing in the 1680s, tells in his argument against the absolute power of kings. Since this becomes the creation story of western democracy, it is really, really important.

The story goes like this: In the beginning, which is to say in the state of nature, all people are created free and equal. Legitimate communities form through a social contract -- when individuals living in natural freedom and equality come together voluntarily and all consent to follow laws established by the group. Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Our ideas -- and by "our" I mean people living in modern western democracies -- our ideas about human rights, freedom, justice, equality and even the family are shaped by this basic story and the foundational role that contract by consent plays in it. If consent confers legitimacy, then freedom is basically freedom of choice (the right to say yes or no). And when we talk about equality, we do NOT mean equality of talent or possessions. We mean equality before the law.

If you think about it, in our society contract by consent separates employment from slavery, marriage from sex trafficking, and a gift from theft.

Even though he is writing millennia later and about something else entirely, John Locke showed me that Job thinks of his relationship with God as a contract: If Job is good, good things will happen to him.

This idea that from good only good can come is what God the creator blows out of the water. That is, God responds to Job not by answering him directly but by demonstrating the absolute incommensurability of Job's contractual, legal language (on the one hand) and the power of a creator (on the other). AM I WRONG BECAUSE YOU ARE RIGHT?

Look around you, God's voice booms out; look at this relentlessly moving, often violent, savagely beautiful world. Look at the baby vultures, thirsting for blood. See the ostrich, crushing her young underfoot. Hear the raging waves and the booming thunder. Watch the glorious dawn.

Did I color within the lines of your meagre imagination, your tit for tat morality, your contract, when I created this? No I did not. My creation can't be confined by your pretty, little idea that because you are good, good things will happen to you. I am God, creator of heaven and earth. You are a human being.

See why promiscuous reading is great? Locke showed me how to read Job. And interestingly, Job raised new questions about Locke. The incommensurate languages of God and Job helped me to see alternatives to Locke's language. It helped me denaturalize Locke and the story he tells so that I could get at the unstated assumptions on which our creation story is based. And I saw how partial and self-serving my own definitions of "freedom" and "equality" are.

What good is equality before the law to those who don't have enough to eat or a place to live? And can a person whose choice is to work at a subsistence wage or starve really be called free?

What if by equality we meant the equal opportunity to lead a full and rewarding life? And what if by freedom we meant the freedom to realize your God-given potential as a human being? Can we honor the noble aspirations of our creation story without also perpetuating the unfreedom and inequality that this story hides from view?

End of Act I.

Act II: Emmett Till

While I was in college at the University of Chicago in the early 1980s, one of my roommates gave me a collection of Alice Walker's stories. The first story I read was "Advancing Luna - and Ida B. Wells."

Around the time I was reading "Luna," Harold Washington, a U.S. congressman, declared his candidacy for mayor. Washington went on to win the Democratic primary, which in Chicago pretty much guaranteed victory in the general election. But Harold Washington was black.

The campaign was ugly. The chairman of the Cook County Democratic party actively worked for the Republican. Their slogan? "Vote Epton...before it's too late."

So there I was, living the Harold Washington campaign and reading Alice Walker's story "Advancing Luna."

"Advancing Luna" is narrated by a woman who is speaking long after the events she recounts took place. We never learn her name. It tells the story of two friends -- the narrator, who is black, and Luna, who is white. The narrator describes Luna as quiet and nondescript -- suffering from acne, stringy hair, pretty but just barely.

The two women meet while college students in 1965, when both have traveled to Georgia to register African Americans to vote. This is risky but exhilarating work. These two friends believed that they could change the world. They braved heat and flies and hostile state troopers because what they were doing mattered and they personally could make a difference.

As I was reading I quickly began to see myself as Luna. 

Luna and the narrator spend a month in Georgia. The following year, the two women share an apartment in New York. Only then does Luna reveal that during that summer in Georgia she had been raped by a black man, whose name was Freddie Pye. The narrator then asks,

"What did you do?"
"Nothing that required making a noise."
"Why didn't you scream?" I felt I would have screamed my head off.
"You know why."
I did. I had seen a photograph of Emmett Till's body just after it was pulled from the river. I had seen photographs of white folks standing in a circle roasting something that had talked to them in their own language before they tore out its tongue. I knew why, all right.

The conversation embarrasses the narrator. And then she is suddenly really angry. HOW DARE LUNA TELL ME THIS? She thinks. HOW DARE SHE?

After this conversation, these women who had worked hand in hand for justice cease to talk. They drift apart.

When I read this story as a college student in Chicago in the 1980s, I absolutely identified with Luna. She was a hero. I wanted to believe that I would be a hero, too. I wanted to believe that I would NOT have screamed, because I understood the stakes for countless innocent black men. And if I had the chance, I too would sacrifice my own access to justice in order to protect other vulnerable and innocent human beings.

After reading the story I felt good. I longed to be Luna, so my anti-racism spoke for itself.

But there was still something I didn't understand.

Why was the narrator so angry? The narrator knew why Luna didn't scream. Why did their friendship have to end?

Now I have a confession. I'm afraid of anger. And because I am afraid of it, I like to pretend it's a moral failing. So it was tempting to blame my own confusion on the narrator of "Advancing Luna." If I could write her anger off, view her as crazy, put her and her black anger in a box over here, then I could feel heroic. I could get all superior about my efforts getting out the vote for Harold Washington and I could take that as a sign of my own laudable anti-racism.

It's always tempting to ignore what's hardest to confront.

I did this for a long time with Luna. But promiscuous reading intervened when, again in a used bookstore, I came across Susan Brownmiller's "Against Our Will" and Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul on Ice." Susan Brownmiller is a feminist scholar. Eldridge Cleaver was a political activist and member of the Black Panther Party.

Both Cleaver and Brownmiller read Emmett Till's murder through their own experiences. Both are angry -- Cleaver at Carolyn Bryant, Brownmiller at Emmett Till. Together, their anger made pretty clear to me why the narrator in "Advancing Luna" was so mad at her friend.

The narrator knew what I refused to see. That Luna's silence becomes heroism only because she lives in an unjust society where black men -- ALL black men -- are ALWAYS vulnerable to arbitrary violence. The injustice was deep, and the right to vote alone couldn't fix it. Electing a black president didn't fix it.

By wanting to be like Luna, I'd let my own desire to be a hero distract me from fighting against the unjust social conditions that made that completely perverse version of heroism possible. I let that go.

Instead I now want to build a country where Luna's silence would make no sense because no group and no person was routinely vulnerable to arbitrary violence.

I learned a lot from Walker, Brownmiller and Cleaver. I learned that deeply entrenched injustice has uncanny power. It can transform a call for help into the rallying cry of a lynch mob (This is why Luna stayed quiet.). It can turn a friend into a hostile stranger. It can make people with even less power than you seem like dangerous enemies.

And here is the thing. When we're not directly threatened by this injustice, if it doesn't directly harm you and me, we don't see it for what it is, because often its existence enables us to play the hero.

Since reading Luna, I go toward the anger I fear.

So when a normally calm friend suddenly slams his hand on the hood of a car that has crept into the crosswalk, instead of pretending like nothing weird happened, I ask him about it.

He has three Ivy League degrees. But when he walks home at night, white women cross the street to avoid him.

This man is in every respect a better person than I. And every day he rides against a wind I will never face. His anger is a jarring reminder that deep injustice still casts its eerie magic. We have a lot of work to do.

Act III: Free Speech

When controversy erupts, battle lines get drawn fast. Opposing camps form. They assimilate whoever is around them and whoever isn't with you becomes the enemy. Once this happens, it's difficult for people not speaking a party line to be heard, because listeners simply assume that you are in one camp or the other.

I experienced this a lot when I directed a center that focused on religion. I want to share one such experience now.

In September of 2005, a newspaper editor named Fleming Rose wanted to challenge what he saw as a reluctance to criticize Islam. Knowing that many Muslims find visual depictions of Mohammed to be blasphemous, he wrote to the members of the Association of Danish Cartoonists. "Draw Mohammed as you see him," the editor asked.

Twelve artists responded. The publication of their drawings, some of which mocked Mohammed, triggered peaceful demonstrations in Copenhagen, and a letter of protest from 10 ambassadors representing predominantly Muslim countries.

Next, an Egyptian newspaper published some of the cartoons, calling them a "racist bomb." Newspapers in Norway then reprinted the cartoons. Saudi Arabia and Libya withdrew their ambassadors from Denmark. Armed men entered the offices of the European Union in Gaza, demanding an apology for the cartoons. The cartoons were then republished in various papers in France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

At this point, the violence escalated dramatically, especially in the Middle East. Protestors in Damascus, Beirut and Tehran attacked Danish embassies. Several people died in violent demonstrations in Afghanistan, Libya and Pakistan. In Malaysia, large protests broke out as Prime Minister Abdulla Badawi spoke of a chasm between Islam and the West. Crowds in Basra City, Iraq and in cities in Iran attacked the German and British embassies.

At this point, an Italian official named Roberto Calderotti announced a plan to distribute t-shirts embossed with the cartoons. Christians were attacked in Nigeria, and in Istanbul, tens of thousands of protesters gathered, shouting threats against Denmark, the United States and Israel.

What was happening here? The Danish newspaper editor argued that journalists were free to print what they wanted and obligated to defend the freedom of expression; Muslim protesters argued that the "in your face" nature of the cartoon contest itself was akin to hate speech at a time when Muslims in Europe felt increasingly marginalized; the newspapers that reprinted the cartoons did so in the name of solidarity and defending free speech; some nations then called this reprinting racist. And so on. Everyone felt attacked. Each action triggered a reaction that ratcheted up the stakes. Extremists then used these higher stakes as an excuse for brutal violence, especially in the Middle East.

As events escalated, I was urged to take a public position. The camps had already formed. I basically had two options.

That is, I could passionately defend free speech, arguing along with John Stuart Mill that freedom of expression promotes rather than threatens truth and that art should challenge us rather than simply confirm what we already believe.

Or, I could passionately defend the free exercise of religion and argue that peaceful co-existence depends on mutual respect and that dominant groups should take the lead in demonstrating this respect.

Neither option seemed apt or helpful. So I started reading -- widely and indiscriminately. I read Michael Cook on Islam. I read the Quran and U.S. court opinions related to the First Amendment. I searched for what journalists and writers were saying as these events unfolded. That's how I found Edward Miller.

Edward Miller was a New York lawyer who wrote for "The Jewish Week." In his column about the cartoon contest and subsequent violence, he didn't choose a side. He simply recounted a story about Mohammed that was recorded in the ninth century in al-Bukhari's collection of a hadith. A hadith describes the words or practices of the Prophet Mohammad. This is the story Miller told. It's three sentences long:

A funeral procession passed us and the Prophet stood up. We said, "but Prophet of God, this is a funeral of a Jew." The Prophet responded: "Rise."

There's no way that, based on this story, either camp can lay claim to Edward Miller. At a time when many journalists and politicians were using the extremism of a few as an excuse to humiliate the billion peaceful Muslims worldwide, Miller, a Jew, uses an Islamic text to exemplify what interfaith respect can look like. He reminded both camps of the complexity of our religious traditions and of the responsibility we bear for how we interpret them now; and he reminded us of the difference between legal rights and ethical obligation in an increasingly global, plural but still tragically unequal world. What we have the right to say is not always the right thing to say.

As others rushed into opposing camps, Miller's story disarmed both sides and pointed us all toward a shared future.

Lessons

Live in the gray
Own your fear
Lay down your arms
Seek a shared future, even when you can't see it

Epilogue

This is all good advice. But the real point here is this. When you're confused or afraid, or when you just can't face the world, READ. Read widely, indiscriminately and for pleasure. It will help you find your voice. It will make you strong and set you free.