The Common Interest

Dr Martin Weinbaum

Tall, grey, thin to the point of bony, he moved slowly and rather ominously into the noisy classroom, head and body bent as if in deep thought. In fact he was a jolly man, with a wicked sense of humor and an unexpectedly booming laugh. He began each class with a slowly unfolding story in a voice both so quiet and heavily accented it forced you to listen and listen hard.

The classroom at Queens College went silent as he approached the front. Everyone waited for the wit and bite of his introduction, hoping it wouldn’t be directed at them. His tongue could sting.

A middle-aged naughty boy was Dr Weinbaum, one from a world quickly fading into the past.

He was German and spoke the way Germans sounded in the movies. Oscar Homolka, perhaps. Or Kurt Jurgens.

He called the university he went to Leipschhig.

Dr Weinbaum was a link in the long academic lineage of begats and taught-bys going back to Marx and Leibniz and Hegel: the Exodus list for 19th and 20th Century Historians and Philosophers. Such a linked tradition defined for us what it was to be European, when European was a culture and not a geography.

(Curious now, that when the EU is practically Europe Incorporated, there seem to be so few “Europeans”: plenty of French, Swedish, Dutch, Hungarians, and of course Germans, and all to some degree Americanized. As for the Brits–or more pointedly the English—they were never Europeans and never wanted to be. For them Europe was always an economic proposition.)

Although it was not his native tongue, Dr Weinbaum spoke English perfectly, deliberately, always in complete sentences. His mind and mouth were in sync. There were no ahs, or ups, no contractions. And no lazy slang. Compared to the buddiness culture shared by students and the younger faculty at Queens, he was all formality. Male students were addressed as “Mister”: females, with great courtesy, were “Miss”.

In his voice you could hear Weimar and Oxford. Or in his case, Manchester. Clearly an Anglophile, the English came with slightly archaic expressions: chums, twaddle and piffle (the last two charming sounding perhaps, but significant put-downs if directed at a paper you’ve just produced) and kerfuffle were favorites. But for his Germanic gravity you might have thought he had recently spent the weekend with Bertie Wooster.

When it came to history Dr Weinbaum was all business. History was written and spoken with a capital H.

Ideas and arguments were as real as the chairs in the room. Those of and between Hegel, Marx, Feuerbach, Karl Popper, Ernst Cassirer and Martin Buber populated his head and therefore ours. He and many of his soul brothers were refugees, or perhaps one should call them escapees. One by one his contemporaries had abandoned the intellectual hothouses of German universities and turbulent cafés of Europe for the less intense and more democratic airs of London, New York and Tel Aviv. Some with luck and foresight went in the early 30’s. Some scraped under the (barbed) wire to the sound of guns.

Weinbaum was of the former. After a spell at the University of Manchester in the 30’s where he studied, wrote, and became a leading expert on, of all things, English Borough Charters in the Middle Ages*, he landed in New York and began teaching at Queens College.

It now seems I met him at the moment the optimism of post-World War II America ran smack into the fractiousness of Viet Nam America, which was to grow into the fractiousness of the culture wars, the Iraq War and its extensions.

Campuses became mini war zones with daily demonstrations. Seminars on historicism inside, war protesters outside.

Around this early in the Viet Nam War (1964) many of the protestors were recently returned ex-army, and loudly for it. Noisy Patriots, they wore their army jackets and medals. They demonstrated against those of who were against the war, the Un-Americans, who could have been their younger brothers. They had army jackets too, but ratty old ones emblazoned with “Hell no! We won’t go!”: more concerned with street style and ironic commentary on allegiance.

Amidst the commotion it was hard to tell if Dr Weinbaum took in what was going on.

But never fear. He was a man who had seen the old world untethered, disintegrate and fall at his feet. He knew what to look for. Could the same be happening here in this, his second adopted country?

One day he walked into class and a dropped a new magazine on his desk. It had just launched. It was called “The Common Interest”.

Dr Weinbaum asked us about competing definitions of freedom and liberty and what elements of common belief held a democratic society together, or kept it from breaking apart?

He was fascinated with the magazine’s name.

What exactly, he asked, with the ruckus outside, was our common interest?

In retrospect. with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight—and especially the experience of the Obama years and the 2016 election—one might today answer that the magazine appeared at the very moment in America when there stopped being any.

*British Borough Charters 1307 – 1660.

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