Thomas Fingar: Remarks at the John Lewis Legacy Conference, 13 January 2018

The following are remarks delivered by Professor Thomas Fingar at the John Lewis Legacy conference on January 13, 2018.


We've heard many characterizations and word picture descriptions of John.  My own image is that of John as the Energizer Bunny wearing a Nike tee shirt that says, “Just Do It.”  The bunny is also wearing a huge grin.  My memory of  John Lewis includes all of the scholarly and other attributes described by previous speakers, but at the core there is a wonderful human being who touched many lives in many ways.  Things that others have said today prompt me to use my time to relate a series of little vignettes that I think help capture who and what John was.

The first was prompted by the discussion of getting Siri to call Bob Carlin.  The world entered an exciting new era when John Lewis was mated with a cell phone.  From that time on, it was possible for John to act instantaneously whenever he had an idea or wanted to do something.  I've traveled a lot, and for many years had worried that when the phone rang in the middle of the night, it probably was to report bad news from home.  John’s acquisition of a cell phone changed that.  Time and time again, the 3:00 am phone calls were from John.  He seemed never to remember—or never to care—that I was traveling.  When he had an idea, telling me about it was always more important than the fact that I was in New Zealand or some other distant land.  This happened so often that I was almost surprised and disappointed when I made it through the night without a call from John.

John didn't watch the clock.  With John, everything was urgent.  His unique combination of vision,  passion, commitment, and urgency came with a blind spot for the possibility that not everyone might share the vision, the passion, or the urgency.  And, as was noted earlier, if you didn't share John’s vision, passion, and urgency, you might as well head to the outer darkness.

There is much about John that I admired greatly, but my long and wonderful relationship with him never clarified when or why he would switch from all-in exuberance to total disinterest.  I have been described by a former boss as having an emotional range that goes from A almost all the way to B.  I don’t get very excited about anything.  John was either very excited about an idea or opportunity, or utterly dismissive.  But with the ideas that excited him, he was quite prepared to give them away so others could take credit or figure out how to act on the idea.  Over the years, when John would call me in, or phone me on the other side of the world,  my normal response was to listen.  The excitement in his voice caused me to visualize him hovering a few inches from the ceiling.  He had long ago figured out that we had different scales of excitement and that I would treat the idea seriously until I had determined that it simply would not fly.  Or would not fly without more effort than I was willing to expend.  If I said, “let me think about it,” John would move on to something else because we both knew that I had effectively made a commitment to run with the idea.  If I did so more slowly than he thought necessary, he would prod me with a question about where things stood.  He cared about the idea, not who had proposed it.  Addressing the underlying problem was more important than the specific way in which it was to be addressed.

John’s de facto delegation of tasks to me and to others, and greater focus on developing ways to deal with problems than on specific solutions reminds me of one of his favorite Chinese words and concepts.  That word is jizhi or mechanism.  John was always looking for ways to build connections and arrangements that would endure beyond a one-time meeting or conference.  His constant query asking “How are we going to solve this problem?” was always followed by some version of  “How do we put in place arrangements-- people, procedures, relationships—that are enduring?  That don't solve the problem once, but that are there when that solution proves to be inadequate or when a new challenge comes up?”

The people in this room, and many, many more who are not here today, are part of the activist network that John developed.  I don't know how conscious or self-conscious it was on his part.  Regardless of how deliberately John tried to instill in us a model approach to tackling problems, the fact is,  we found a model worthy of emulation. We saw what worked for John and thought it was a good idea to try something approximating what he did.  As I look around at friends in this room, I see not just fantastically successful academic scholars.  I also see people who have run things—run big organizations and made significant things happen.

John created a network of people. We're all part of it. And I think he probably left feeling pretty good about that aspect of his legacy.  He had an uncanny ability to spot people with abilities and potential—he often saw more in us that we saw in ourselves—but he was also remarkably effective at putting people in place to “do something important.” Along the way, he taught us how to approximate doing what he did.

Mention was made of his first Rottweiler.  It was an enormous dog.   I think his name was Amigo.  I was in awe of John from the time I first encountered him as an undergraduate until the last time I saw him.  But awe was infused with a degree of intimidation when I was a junior graduate student.  I had a meeting with John in his Owen House office.  Amigo was there, alertly lying under the conference table.  The dog was even more intimidating than John, probably because he looked like he would eat anything smaller than he was.  Something on or in the sole of my shoe caught Amigo’s attention.  I was sitting at the table discussing a research paper with John.  Amigo was underneath.  And he was eating my shoe.  That dog was so damn big, I certainly wasn't going to kick him. I thought to myself, the dog is going consume my shoe and eat my leg.  To say the least, I was distracted, but I was not about to tell the professor that his dog was eating my shoe.  We finished our conversation and I departed with a very unbalanced pair of shoes.  If I had told John, he would have laughed like hell, told Amigo to stop, and would not have been upset that I was dismayed by his dog.   But I did not realize that in 1969.

I want to shift gears in the remainder of my time to provide illustrations of the way John built teams and institutions to refine and implement his ideas.  Several have mentioned the book on the United States and Vietnam that John wrote with George Kahin.  I was introduced to the arguments in that book in a classroom lecture before the book was published.  The lecture and the book evolved into a series of teach-ins on the Vietnam War.  It also led to the establishment of the Stanford chapter of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, and to a much larger series of teach-ins and the incorporation of more information on Asia into national security courses across the United States.

I think it was in 1968 that the US was about to deploy the Safeguard anti-ballistic missile system.  The stated purpose was to protect us from the Chinese, who, it was asserted,  had no respect for human life.  The basis for the assertion was a statement by Mao Zedong about how many deaths China could sustain in a nuclear war.  Debate about whether deployment of the ABM system would increase security more than it increased uncertainty and instability was conducted during China’s “Cultural Revolution,” which certainly looked pretty irrational to the outside world.  It is easy to find echoes of statements about China in the 1960s in contemporary arguments about the need for missile defense to protect us from “irrational” leaders in Iran and North Korea.  John worried that the proposed “solution” would make the situation less stable and more dangerous.  Acting on that concern, he reached out to physicists and others who knew more than he did about the situation and the systems.  This led, again,  to a series of  teach-ins.  The teach-ins led to a team-taught multidisciplinary course.  And that led to a book on arms control compiled by Chip Blacker and Gloria Duffy.  The story continues.  Later fruits of John’s initial efforts to “do something” include the CISAC Honors Program and Post-Doctoral Fellows.  Today what John launched includes a very large and diverse group that continues to build upon John’s idea, and missions.

Earlier speakers have mentioned SPICE.  SPICE is the descendant of BACEP—the Bay Area China Education Project.  Another dimension of John’s reaction to assertions that Chinese don't care about human life that played out in a public debate about the need for an anti-missile system was his effort to address the poor quality, indeed the almost total absence, of information about China and Asia more broadly, in American textbooks.  World history was all about Europe.  John was determined to “fix” that.  He raised money from the Wingspread Foundation to convene a meeting to talk about what needed to be done.  He enlisted the assistance of more people here at Stanford, notable David Grossman and others in the school of education.  Asian Studies grad students deployed around the Bay Area and beyond to do public panels, public lectures, and workshops for teachers.  The initial focus was on California, because that is where we are but also because it is the gateway to Asia and, more strategically, because the California textbook market is so large that changes to California textbooks are likely to be incorporated into books used in many other states.  The program has evolved, is now much larger, and has had a tremendous impact.

Would these—and many other—things have happened without John?  Maybe.  But maybe not.  In the event, the way that they happened bears the imprint of John's activism and organizational skills..

My final observation is to underscore a point made by others,  John was almost always more interested in results than in who got credit.  But he sometimes craved more recognition for his role than he, in fact, received.  There was always an element of ambiguity here.  Getting it done, accomplishing the goal, solving the problem—these were always first and foremost in his thinking.  Except for those times where it would have been easier to tackle the next problem if he had received greater recognition for what he had already done.  John could—and did—harbor resentments that sometimes got in the way of accomplishing even more.

Despite flaws and foibles, John’s legacy of seminal books, new courses,  mechanisms to ensure continuing work on a problem, etc. is extraordinary.  So are the interdisciplinary friendships, collaborative relationships, and international ties that he helped establish.  So too was his ability to raise money.  He made the time to cultivate and inform funding organizations about what he was doing and always had a proposal ready to go.  When he saw a problem,  he had a template, wrote a proposal, and phoned the potential funder to make it a part of the process.  The lessons he taught were not difficult to learn.  A number of people in this room learned them and apply them.  The activist and organizational parts of John’s legacy will live on.  Thank you.