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Samples From an Illustrious Life

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Jonathan Fanton spoke to Y’s Men on January 3, sharing some stories of his 40 years working for free speech and human rights with, for and against people whose actions regularly make the New York Times front page, above the fold.

He first asked the group’s help, saying he would “preview a project that might become a memoir.” He has put together 150 pages of “vignettes of people I have known and situations I have observed.” “Observed” dramatically understates Fanton’s role.

Fanton earned his undergraduate degree from Yale in 1965. He returned in the early 70s as a special assistant to President Kingman Brewster while completing his Masters and Ph.D. studies. One of his roles was to allow controversial speakers to have their say while maintaining calm and upholding the University’s commitment to free speech.

One such occasion was Yale’s hosting Trustee and former Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance. Vance suffered through a show of guerrilla theater, then told the audience “we have tried… if you ask whether I disassociate myself from those who made the decisions about Vietnam, I say ‘no’.”

The next day he put it in perspective, telling Brewster “those in power are neither stupid nor evil, we’re just men doing our best.”

Brewster’s determination to uphold free speech meant “we paid a price.” He added that while Yale suffered disruptions, they never had the takeovers or shutdowns so many other universities did during that era.

He was named President of the New School for Social Research in 1982. During his 17 year tenure he substantially strengthened and expanded its academic offerings, increased enrollment and oversaw a ten fold increase in its endowment.

He also endured “lots of opportunities to have speeches disrupted.”

Yitzhak Rabin spoke in 1990, two weeks after the murder of ultra orthodox Rabbi Meir Kahane. The school sold tickets only in blocks to eliminate disruption around the hall. The Palestinian Liberation Organization, a militant organization that had yet to recognize Israel’s right to exist, struck back, buying blocks, distributing tickets individually and so placing  disrupters around the hall.

Shouting went on for 45 minutes as Fanton urged, then all but pushed the unyielding Rabin off the stage. Meanwhile, the police were summoned. They forcibly, but surgically, removed a dozen protesters.

Robert McNamara also spoke there, to publicize his 1995 book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Not wanting another disruption, Fanton offered to filter questions. McNamara declined.

He responded to every question until a woman told him “you have taken my son twice. First in Vietnam, and again when you say the war was in vain.” McNamara broke down and wept. Fanton called it “a part of his cathartic process.” Dinner conversation later that evening led Fanton to describe him as “extremely intelligent, but lonely and needy.”

The New School also gave Fanton the platform for the next stage of his life – human rights advocate.  It put him in contact with dissident scholars in Eastern and Central Europe, many of whom were leaders of human rights organizations in their countries. It also connected him with Human Rights Watch, which he joined as a volunteer then gradually assumed responsibility for its work in that part of the world.

He was in Prague in 1989 when the Czech revolution began. He watched a Communist Party rally that drew “a few thousand people” at one end of Wenceslas Square while participating in a Charter 77 rally for independence in which Vaclav Havel led over 100,000 participants at the other end.

Police dispersed Havel’s crowd. Rioting broke out later. Fanton was seized by the police and released only when they learned he was with Human Rights Watch.

One month later the Velvet Revolution ended and along with it Communist rule in Czechoslovakia.

In Lithuania in January, 1991 he witnessed the “brutal Soviet crackdown” meant to reestablish Communist rule in yet another former Soviet country. Unsuccessfully so.  One month later other countries were recognizing the Republic of Lithuania.

In 1999 he moved, again to a bigger stage – President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Fanton’s ten years also left this institution markedly better. He almost doubled its assets, to $7 billion and increased annual awards from $173 million to $267 million.

The Foundation is best known for its Genius Grants, unrestricted $500,000 awards given to some two dozen uniquely talented individuals annually so they can continue their work. 2012′s winners included an author, a telescope designer and an anti-poverty community developer.

During Q&A Fanton was asked what part of his life he enjoyed the most.  The New School, he responded, where “I made a real difference.” He said he moved it from being in trouble to placing it on “secure financial footing and better programming.” He added that he also felt he made a “global impact through Human Rights Watch and at the MacArthur Foundation.”

Yes, Dr. Fanton, flesh out your vignettes, complete your book. Give Y’s Men an opportunity to host a signing party.

Roy Fuchs

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