by David Peritz, politics faculty member
Raymond Seidelman, member of the Sarah Lawrence College politics faculty for 25 years, died October 30 from complications due to cancer. A central figure on the social science faculty, he will be remembered for his passionate commitment to democracy and to social justice. He was an inspiring teacher and colleague who held the Sara Yates Exley Chair in Teaching Excellence and, in 2002, won the College’s Lipkin Prize for Inspirational Teaching. The College community will miss him deeply.
Ray Seidelman Fund
In the last few months of his life, Ray Seidelman turned to thinking about his legacy, focusing on the hundreds of former students he inspired to embark on lives of public activism and the many difficulties they encountered both in trying to be effective agents of social change and in supporting themselves on often meager wages. In accordance with his wishes, a number of former students, colleagues, and friends have begun to organize a memorial fund in honor of Ray that will support SLC students and alumnae/i in leading lives committed to public service and activism. Anyone wishing to contribute can do so by making a donation to the College directed to the Ray Seidelman fund.
Ray Seidelman was many things to me. He was a mentor who led by example, not directive, and an energetic collaborator on a wide variety of projects who made time, despite the demands of teaching and scholarship, because of his deep commitment to this college and its students. He was a loyal and dear friend whose honesty, sensitivity, and concern lifted me in hard times. I miss Ray sorely—there have been many times in the last few weeks when force of habit and a bit of magical thinking have led me to reach for the phone to give him a call. I come up short at these moments and feel a new wave of grief. But I also feel a deep sense of appreciation for the many interests I was able to share with Ray and how lucky I am to count him as a mentor, colleague, and friend.
In light of Ray’s tremendous energy, diverse interests, and wide learning, it is appropriate that we construct our collective remembrance as a mosaic, each contributing our little piece. Mine has to do with the way Ray thought about politics. I want to describe two Rays and the way they related to each other. As a serious, sustained, and original student of politics, Ray was penetrating and thorough in his analysis of the forces in American society that distort democracy. Ray traced the regressive character of American politics and the political production of apathy to structural factors. Here Ray contributed to our understanding of the constraints imposed by the dependency of political parties on corporate and individual wealth; corporate ownership of the media and its tragic consequences for the content and quality of public discourse; suburbanization and the isolation, segregation, and cleavages it produces; and a political economy that robs Americans of the time and energy required to sustain civic engagement.
Tracing the inegalitarian and shallow character of American politics to these structural forces allowed Ray to continue to believe in the basic decency of most people. But it also seemed to lead to a pessimistic, disenchanted realism, and there certainly were times when disgust and despair were Ray’s dominant political moods.
But this Ray, the hard-nosed analyst of the structural decay of American democracy, lived side-by-side with another, whose abiding commitment to progressive democratic activism not only pushed him into action, but also pulled many of us in his wake. This Ray mustered commitment and demanded of his friends, students, and colleagues that we fight the good fight, even against long odds. I often wondered how these two Rays coexisted, whether he perhaps cared less about consistency than about insight and humanity. But I came to detect a deeper compatibility that came from what I’d like to call Ray’s lessons about sustaining democratic hope and engagement in dark times. And, as he put it, without leaving one’s brain behind. I’ll mention four lessons:
First, to retreat into privatism and apathy is to allow structural forces and powerful interests the ultimate victory of defeating our hope. We have to keep fighting to maintain the capacity to fight and to prevent the already unfairly privileged from further consolidating their power.
Second, even in our highly administered polity, if you search carefully you can find places where democratic politics in its true sense still lives, where what is to be done is determined, within the limits of the possible, by the free deliberation of a body of equals. It is in this light that I understand Ray’s longstanding commitments to labor and community-based organizing, to places like New Orleans or post-war Italy, where new possibilities open in the aftermath of catastrophe, and to insurgent progressive, populist politicians.
Third, mainstream and especially national politics still matters, even when the choice is the lesser of two evils and one feels compromised and unclean in taking sides. The harm to be done by the greater of the two evils often matters too much to let our scruples dampen the will to fight. We must fight against greater evil, but also to make the lesser less bad.
Finally, Ray believed in the intrinsic value of political participation, for what it brings into being within and between people joined in the struggle to create a slightly more human life by pursuing justice, freedom, equality, and democracy. I’ll quote briefly from the talk Ray gave to the graduating class in 2001 so you can hear his eloquence and humility on this point: “For 20 years I have now been teaching, and from supportive students I’ve always gotten the question: ‘Okay, that’s your critique, but what’s the solution?’ I asked the same question of my own teachers. I’ve learned that their answer was right: Democracy is not what we have, it is what we aspire to be. So dare to aspire to it, for in the process you become a democratic citizen. It takes courage to live as a democratic citizen, and that’s why we fight for it; this will involve you in great risks, but it’s worth it because it will make you free.”
The force of Ray’s four lessons, then, is to teach us to combine clear-eyed analysis of unjust and antidemocratic conditions with an abiding commitment to political struggle. In this spirit, I want to leave you with one last thought. On Ray’s office door there is a picture of Paul Wellstone, captioned by Joe Hill’s death-row admonition: “Don’t Mourn. Organize.” I think it might be more in keeping with the complexities of the Ray Seidelman I knew and cherished to say: By all means mourn the loss of a great friend, teacher, and colleague. And then go back to organizing and analyzing in the smart, critical, and hopeful way that Ray taught.
David Peritz has taught politics at SLC since 2000. He delivered this eulogy at the College’s memorial service for Seidelman in November.