I’m in England for almost three weeks. Sandwiched between my brother’s 60th birthday party and David (Edgar’s) 60th birthday party, I get to play in London and visit old friends, as well as friends getting older. I was looking forward to reconnecting with Stan Cohen. We were both part of the 60’s radical criminology movement, though from different perspectives and sites. Political sectarianism kept us – well, me – in different revolutionary camps. We’re not personally close, but with the collapse of the New Left in all its permutations, we are now on the same side, even on the Israeli Question, which usually divides Jews in the Diaspora. I’ve always appreciated his intellectual work and his activism, the two intimately connected. We are about the same age; and we’ve both moved about a lot during our careers.
When I was an undergraduate at Oxford in 1960, he was studying at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. While he was in transit from South Africa to England in 1963, I was leaving my homeland for grad school in Berkeley. For a while he was teaching in southern California in radical Santa Barbara; my activism cost me my job at Berkeley and, luckily, landed me a job until retirement at a local state college. Stan was an important figure in post-60s radical sociology, best known for helping us to understand how “moral panics” fuel law and order campaigns against “muggers” and “wayward teens.”
He’s been a committed public intellectual all his life, battling apartheid in South Africa and Thatcherism in England. He tried without success for several years to bore from within Israel (at Hebrew University, 1979-1995) against its militarist state. Since 1997, he’s lived in England, teaching and helping to nurse his wife through a chronic illness to her death from cancer. Now he’s the sicko. He’s been ill for several years with Parkinson’s and various other maladies. Not too long ago, he had spinal problems and was in hospital for a few weeks, immobilized, unable to move his legs. He was “reet poorly,” as they used to say in Manchester when I was a kid – a euphemism for “at death’s door.”
A couple of years ago when he took early retirement because of health reasons, his friends organized a conference and book of essays in his honor. When I told a friend that I was planning on seeing Stan, he said, “You better steel yourself. He’s not in good shape.” But when I called Stan at home, he said, “Let’s meet at my office at LSE.” He’s only been “back at work” a few weeks, coming in once a week to teach a class on “Crimes of the State” to visiting NYU undergraduates. (I doubt if they’ll like what he has to say about Israel.) It is something of a shock to see Stan. Sitting in a chair, he moves continuously like a marionette pulled by hidden strings until he finds a comfortable position. This only happens some days, though his body is usually in pain. Not surprisingly he has trouble, he says, with memory and finding the right words. Don’t we all?
But there’s nothing wrong with his mind or his politics. One of his most recent essays is a blistering critique of the fawning complicity and self-induced myopia of Israeli intellectuals (“The Virtual Reality of Israeli Universities,” Independent Jewish Voices, January 2008).He is now writing a new introduction to the second edition of his book, States of Denial. And despite his physical limitations, he’s into teaching again, trying to jump-start overly compliant students. Stan takes me out to a local café for coffee and we slowly walk the bustling neighborhood. He’s hoping that exercise will ward off another surgery. Our conversation turns personal, to our families, and our losses.
Close to Covent Garden he takes me into his favorite men’s shop, J. Simons, where he buys stylish American jeans and a shirt, and reminisces about working as a teenager in his immigrant father’s clothing store in Johannesburg. He encourages me to buy a vintage 50s jacket that I spot but, for now, resist. Life is still up for grabs. Stan also tells me about his partner, who is “a Ph. D. student, Swedish, thirty years younger, beautiful.” Some people object to the liaison, he tells me. To hell with them, I reply, and he laughs. Another reason they get on so well is that she also has a chronic illness. Which reminds him to tell me the first of several jokes. He’s a lovely storyteller, skilled at peppering his conversation with parables.
“Talking about Jessica [his girlfriend] reminds me of a joke,” he says. “A man walks into a church, goes into the confessional. The priest asks him why he’s here. ‘I’m an old man and I have great sex every day with my young girlfriend,’ he says. ‘What’s the problem,’ asks the priest, ‘Are you a member of this parish?’ ‘No,’ says the old guy. ‘I’m not even a Catholic, I’m a Jew and I don’t even believe in God.’ So,’ says the priest, ‘Why did you come here to tell me this.’ ‘Because,’ says the man, ‘I’m telling everybody.’”
Before I leave, I ask him to sign a copy of the book that has just come out in his living honor, both of us chuckling at the irony. And with that, we say our surprisingly intimate goodbyes.
February 17, 2008, London