A Strong Voice Democracy Is Lost

The writer Jonathan Schell died last night, of cancer, in 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 but that draws on deep wellsprings that he knew, like few others, how to plumb.

From his beginnings as a brave young Vietnam War correspondent for The New Yorker, and 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 poured the best of a 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 -- 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 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."

All you award-seekers, take note. A much better society's future is dimmed a bit by our loss of what would have been Jonathan Schell's continuing insight, magnanimity, and love.