Metta Spencer

Seymour Martin Lipset: A Tribute

[From the Globe and Mail, Jan. 20, 2007]

Political scientist who was one of the few American academics to understand both Canada and the U.S. was misjudged as someone who wrote much and said little

By Metta Spencer, Toronto

I was Seymour Martin Lipset's research assistant for about five years, both in Berkeley and at Harvard. I can't remember exactly when we met, though it was probably in 1962. As a single mom I needed lots of part-time jobs, and one summer I worked at the Institute of International Studies in Berkeley. Marty was its director and my job was to type and proofread manuscripts. Later, as a graduate student, I hit the jackpot. I heard that he had a box of IBM cards about a survey conducted in 11 Indian universities that he wanted analyzed. I got the job. About 1O grad students worked there. Marty was a big guy who had to stand stooped over to keep from bumping his head in that office. This was his comparative study of university student politics around the world. My own part of it became a boondoggle: I was paid for the work; I got course credit; I made it into my MA thesis; and just before I was to it turn in, the department changed the rules so I could make it into my PhD dissertation. Along the way, Marty got me a fellowship and I was to finish it at Harvard in 1969.

I started doing editing jobs for him. Sometimes I'd bring a manuscript up to his house in the Berkeley hills. Once I arrived with a manuscript for the special issue of Comparative Education Review that he was editing. I found him staring intently at something in his front yard, completely motionless for a long time. I asked what he was doing. "I'm trying to see it move," he replied. He was watching a young bamboo plant, which had grown four inches that morning. If he watched closely enough he expected to catch it growing.

While our study of student politics was in full swing, the Free Speech Movement broke out and disrupted the normal operations of the Berkeley campus. During that period, Marty's position seemed obviously painful. The whole sociology department, including his colleagues, supported the student protests, whereas he was a close friend of the university's president, Clark Kerr, the bête noir of the movement. Never did I hear Marty say anything critical, but he was engaged in a comparative international study of exactly this phenomenon, and he was not inclined to take the protesters' side overtly.

That term, Marty moved to Harvard and never returned to Berkeley. I never understood what people had against him but eventually I developed two theories to account for his undeserved unpopularity. First, he wasn't one to hail you in a hearty way, and maybe that made some people consider him gruff. My best conversations with him were by phone. He would call and talk for an hour at a time, clearly enjoying it -- because, I think, he didn't have to look at me. Second, some radicals resented him because his politics had changed gradually in ways that they regarded as a betrayal. The young Marty had once been a Trotskyite.

In 1967, I moved to Harvard to work for Marty and write my dissertation, which he supervised and four years later I took a position at the University of Toronto. There, I learned of certain aspects of Marty's career that were news to me. He was still a major figure in Canadian sociology; having written his doctoral thesis about a socialist farm movement in Saskatchewan and then having taught in the sociology department for two years. Living in Toronto, my encounters with Marty became infrequent.

In Miami in 1993, Marty delivered his presidential address to the American Sociological Association. Some feminists had tried to keep him from receiving this honour, but I and others declared firmly that all such criticism was unfair. He was a good man. Yet every famous person's reputation seems to acquire a life of its own that's hard to correct.

There was one other good visit with Marty after that when he received an honorary doctorate at the University of Toronto. I organized a faculty dinner in a restaurant for him so we had a chance to tell him how much he meant to us all.

But in 2001, he underwent valve surgery on his heart. Although the operation was successful, it caused a severe brain hemorrhage from which he would never recover. He was in hospital for many months and we were asked to write letters to him that would exercise his long-term memory. We letter-writers were called "Team Lipset," but it was not an easy responsibility. Once or twice I phoned, which was a bad idea. Having to talk or even listen was too difficult for him, and he abruptly told me to end the conversation. I knew I shouldn't be hurt by it, but I couldn't help it. Having known him as a kind, patient person for so many years, it made me terribly sad. Eventually, he moved home to an apartment in Virginia, to be tended by nurses.

Three years ago, I went to see him. His condition was worse. As I entered and began removing my coat, Marty was sitting propped up, and he called out "Hello, Metta!" Probably his nurse had told him to say it because that was the most he had to give.

A year or so later, I phoned the apartment in Virginia and the caregiver held the phone to Marty's ear so I could thank him for being in my life. Of course, he said nothing. He was singular -- an extraordinary human being.

Metta Spencer is professor emeritus of sociology, University of Toronto, and editor of Peace Magazine. An obituary of Seymour Martin Lipset appeared on Jan 13.