Interrupting our regular schedule . . .
Karen Joy Fowler
I am traveling in a different time zone and unable to sleep. So I logged on just now and got the very unwelcome news that Chalmers Johnson has died. Though Johnson had a long career and thousands of students, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been among that great number. In 1969 or 70, or maybe 72, I took a class on Chinese history and politics from him at Berkeley. (I loved history. Not so good with dates.)
A while back, I emailed him, because it seemed to me, when a professor remains so vivid in your mind for almost forty years, you should tell him. We then had several wonderful email exchanges. I’m trying to remember you, he said, which was kind, but futile. There were more than a hundred students in my class alone. I sat in the back and didn’t say a word. I’d have been astonished if he remembered me the next quarter, much less decades later.
Back in the 60’s, Dr. Johnson had little sympathy for the student activists, of which I was one. This was troubling as he was so much smarter than I. In those later emails, he said that because the activists had so much wrong about Vietnam, he was distracted from how much they had right about the US. Maybe six years ago, I turned on Air America and heard his familiar cadences on the Al Franken show. He was in full and glorious lecture mode and obviously too far to the left to quite suit Franken. I had an odd sense of enormous pride as I listened.
I trust there will be many now to speak to his brilliance, his scholarship, and his cogently pessimistic assessment of US democracy. So I will say something else as my own memorial: man, could he tell a story! He was as entertaining a teacher as he was inspiring. My time with him was brief, but the impact deep. I can’t help thinking that his was not a voice we could afford just now to lose.
Rest in peace.