Writing for Their Lives: Interview with Toronto Pursuits leader John Riley

John Riley

We at Classical Pursuits are excited to welcome back John Riley to Toronto in July 2018. In 2017, John led a seminar on the nature of knowledge. He recently spoke with us about his upcoming seminar, Listening to the Voices of Resistance. The seminar has its roots in John’s experience of growing up in the American South but reaches across cultures and civilizations to ask always-urgent questions about power, oppression and justice.

Melanie Blake: Would you tell us a bit more about yourself and what you do?

John Riley: I am a board member serving three masters: Chicago Youth Programs, the Great Books Foundation and the Alliance for Liberal Learning. I am an adjunct professor at Benedictine University, teaching humanities, literature and writing courses. I am also an academic director for the Great Books Summer Program, and I have the distinct pleasure of teaching for Classical Pursuits.

The biggest task before me now has a connection to our Classical Pursuits theme and my seminar. In 2016, my brother passed away from leukemia. An attorney, George was a tireless champion of the cause of social justice. In his memory, I have created a memorial fund that is being used to financially support nonprofit organizations in our hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, that are participating in MLK 50—marking the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

MB: How did you become interested in writings on resistance?

JR: Two words: family history. My older brother as I just mentioned and my mother, who was a pediatrician, were very sensitive to plight of underserved communities. We had an African-American woman who worked for my mother for forty years and was a living demonstration of the utter folly of racial prejudice. She is still with us at age 96. The irony of having a domestic worker in my home demonstrate the moral importance of respect for oppressed peoples is not lost on me, and it shouldn’t be for thousands of white folks across the country and the South, especially.

Attending public school in Memphis, I was a part of a court-ordered desegregation plan put in place after my ninth grade year. By the time I graduated, our school was clear majority African-American. I was one of the last—if not the last—white players on our basketball team. It was an invaluable experience, a blessing, because it taught me how those with the power can hold such naïve opinions about race and the virtue of “color blindness.” [Civil rights activist and Southern Poverty Law Center founder] Julian Bond made a powerful point when he spoke of those who extol colorblindness being themselves blind to the harsh consequences of color. Whites become more empathetic about race when reminded of their “whiteness” and how it frames their perspective. The civil rights struggle, like all resistance movements, exposes the most embarrassing parts of ourselves to us. We may not like it, but we need it.

MB: What do you hope participants will gain from your seminar?

JR: Resistance writers are literally writing for their lives; they argue to change the course of history. They are poised and desperate, calculating and passionate, hopeful and angry. I want my participants to feel those conflicting emotions and appreciate how high the stakes are.

Great resistance literature can raise our consciousness, probably more when we do not agree or completely understand the grievances that are being explored. I hope participants will not be too quick to accept the ideas of those they admire and reject the ones from those writers who have different politics than they do.  These people are challenging us on purpose; if we give them their due we should become a lot more open-minded about the solutions.

MB: What are your thoughts on the rise and fall, in the media, of Myanmar’s state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi? In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and now she has come under harsh criticism for not taking action to stop her country’s military, accused of serious crimes against the minority Rohingya group.

JR: I am making an unsuccessful effort to temper my disappointment in Aung San Suu Kyi. I have heard the arguments that she must placate the military leaders and not let the Rohingya crisis upset the fragile, new democracy in Myanmar. However, for me it is impossible to reconcile her recent words and inaction with her beliefs as expressed in Freedom from Fear [one of the readings in the seminar]. We may be seeing here another case where the acquisition of political power completely overwhelms a person’s perception of social justice. I don’t want to believe that it has to be that way; I think history provides someone like Nelson Mandela as a counterexample to Aung San Suu Kyi.

MB: The readings in your seminar cover more than 2,000 years of human history. Has our core concept of justice changed over time? If so, how?

JR: What has stayed the same is that we continue to search for that core concept. The most certain thing we can say about justice is that we are uncertain about what it means and when it applies. One of the most vexing questions is: Does justice even exist as a transcendent moral ideal or is it simply a provisional concept, a necessary evil invented by leaders to keep society in check. The questions and the elusiveness of the concept of justice have been plaguing us for thousands of years.

MB: What do you see as the relationship between power and justice?

JR: Thucydides in “The Melian Dialogue” has the Athenian military assert: “You know and we know, as practical men, that the question of justice arises only between parties equal in strength, and that the strong do what they can, and the weak submit.” If we believe the Athenians, then we see that justice only comes into play when no power imbalance exists, sort of like the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” the U.S. and the Soviet Union followed in the last century. If true, that must mean all the oppressed people better start loading up on weapons of war if they want “justice.”

At first blush, I find this to be a deeply cynical point of view, but perhaps not so cynical if we conceive of “power” in new and different ways. It could be the power of the oppressed to appeal to the conscience of the stronger party, the power of the weaker party’s resolve to keep the focus on their issue, the power to make the strong uncomfortable and longing for the problem to disappear. Maybe Thucydides is right and equal power on both sides of an issue is a prerequisite for justice, but the form the power takes in the hands of the minority must be unexpected by those in control.

MB: Thank you to John for his time and thoughts. We invite you to explore the topics we have discussed today more deeply in his seminar Listening to the Voices of Resistance


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