On the bus from DC to NYC back in April, it occurred to me, as it has many times over the last thirteen years, how lucky I am to have this job. Producing the Humanist magazine has always been a creative and intellectual adventure, in large part due to the thousands of writers I’ve had the privilege of working with over the years. (And the many thousands whose submissions I’ve read—all you deep, quizzical, humorous, humorless, thoughtful, bloated, brave, and ornery minds, you’ve made it fun too!) And here I was on a beautiful spring morning, equipped with a dog-eared copy of Midnight’s Children and my interview notes, on my way to present the Humanist of the Year Award to the inimitable Salman Rushdie.
Talking humanism, Rushdie told me he’s not interested in saints—because we’re all both good and bad—but thinks that we do have a moral instinct, that our ethics have evolved, and that we have an interest in the good: “That’s the heart of humanism, I think.” It’s also what his fellow American Humanist Association awardees are getting at in each of their unique contributions herein—the heart of what humanism is, what it stands for, and what it aspires to be. Their remarks (and Rushdie’s videotaped acceptance) were delivered in June at the AHA’s annual conference, which in 2019 took on the novel and environmentally conscious challenge to unfold in rolling segments over the course of a weekend, presented live from five university locations zigzagging from Pittsburgh to Houston to Brooklyn to Los Angeles to Miami. The entire thing was livestreamed free for online audiences, including at viewing parties nationwide. (If you’re tired just thinking about it, imagine how the dedicated AHA staff felt when it was over!)
Back in Washington, DC, things heated up this fall as House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry following a whistleblower complaint over President Trump’s overtures to the leader of Ukraine. Did Trump commit an impeachable offense in a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky when he suggested military aid to that country would cease being held up if Zelensky reopened an investigation into presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s connections to a Ukrainian energy company?
As a magazine of critical inquiry and social concern, it’s a question we’d like to explore, along with related activity by Trump’s inner circle that suggests concerted and felonius efforts to sway the 2020 election. However, our publisher (the AHA) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which means we’re bound to certain restrictions by the IRS. In short, once Trump is considered more of a candidate than an office holder, we can’t appear to endorse or oppose his reelection or his impeachment. That magic moment hasn’t been clearly delineated by anyone as far as I can tell, so in the interest of proceeding with caution, allow me to share a strange sort of analogue on the theme of nervous incumbent presidents.
In 1972 the FBI opened a file on former Beatle John Lennon, concerned that his massive popularity and antiwar stance would influence the youth vote against Richard Nixon’s reelection. Lennon talked about doing a nationwide concert tour during the presidential campaign to promote voter registration, and he was clear about his opposition to the president. For example, the song “Give Me Some Truth” from Imagine includes the line: “No short-haired, yellow-bellied son of Tricky Dick is gonna Mother Hubbard soft-soap me.” And in 1972 Lennon and Yoko Ono released Some Time in New York City, a studio album that was overtly critical of the government. The cover was designed in a newspaper-style format, including a doctored photo depicting Nixon and Mao Tse-tung naked on a crowded dance floor. (The record company cleverly affixed a non-removable sticker to that corner of the album.)
Nixon figured out a way to intimidate Lennon, whose travel visa was expiring; with a misdemeanor back in the UK for marijuana possession, Lennon could be deported. A few months after receiving the deportation notice, Lennon dropped his plans for the anti-Nixon tour. Nixon won reelection, and Lennon spent years fighting to stay in the US, finally becoming a permanent resident the year after Nixon resigned.
Writing in Time magazine on the twentieth anniversary of Lennon’s murder, Martin Lewis concluded:
John Lennon was not God. But he earned the love and admiration of his generation by creating a huge body of work that inspired and led. The appreciation for him deepened because he then instinctively decided to use his celebrity as a bully pulpit for causes greater than his own enrichment or self-aggrandizement.
Imagine the next president of the United States using his or her position for something other than their own enrichment and self-aggrandizement. Imagine no corruption. As the song goes, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”