’71-74

My association with the North Carolina Sociology Department did not last very long. I came in the fall of 1971 before finishing my PhD from Columbia (those were the days when that was common) and I finished it in early 1973, when I became an Assistant Professor instead of just Acting. By then I had met a star undergraduate sociology student, Cindy Kenyon. Her professors were urging her to go on as a graduate student, but one day, after getting to know me well, she said that I seemed to be spending my whole life writing term papers. I agreed, but said I was good at it, liked it, and since someone was paying me for this, why not continue? She, however, decided this was not for her, and wanted to have a business career instead. She also felt that she didn’t want to stay in Chapel Hill but preferred to live in a big city. So when I got an offer to move to the University of Washington in Seattle, I took it. We got married and went there in late 1974. Cindy went to business school for an MBA, and went on to have a very successful banking career. Now she still does consulting, though for non-profits that can use her management skills.

I suppose our relationship back then would today be considered against the rules, but now that we have been very happily married 42 years and have two grown, also happily married daughters, I hope we can be forgiven.

Being in the Department in Chapel Hill was a pleasant experience, and I got a lot of work done as well as learning to pilot a small plane. I had some very good friends and a few excellent students with whom I stayed in touch afterward. I wrote my first real sociology article with Charles Ragin, who was then a student. I saw John and Dale Reed often, and on many afternoons went to John’s office to play chess. I’m afraid, however, that he gave me a somewhat overly nice sense of what the South was like, something that it took me years to overcome. It really isn’t that nice, and that has become very obvious in recent years. But I still admire John’s work and sense of humor. The famous older professors in the Department were very kind and supportive – Gerhard Lenski, Dick Simpson, Henry Landsberger, and Ev Wilson in particular. They did a lot to show me how good sociology could be, and how to be a serious professional. I think of them often, especially as I am now older than they were then.

In Seattle I did well, and have loved the fact that over time it became an exceptionally dynamic, cosmopolitan city. At the same time, it is very near some real mountain wilderness and the Pacific. We hiked a lot, learned to sail, and raised our children here.

But with time, I lost interest in sociology. My colleagues here were very good, and even now that Department has a lot of able young people. Eventually, however, I realized that the students, especially the undergraduates, did not share my interests, so I moved to the University’s School of International Studies. There I was able to continue as an area specialist working on Eastern Europe, and later also a bit in Indonesia, and more recently in Africa. In fact, I’m writing this from Senegal where I am doing some consulting work. I got to travel a whole lot and work with many American and other institutions. I was also able to write and edit the kinds of books I’d always wanted to write on historical change throughout the world, on the politics of tyranny, on genocide, and most recently, with a co-author, on the importance of ideas in shaping our world. That one came out in 2015 and got a great New York Times review as well as being listed as one of the most notable books of 2015, which made me feel good because I think its audience has gone a bit beyond the usual academic one.

I’m not yet retired and I’d like to write one more book, I have it all outlined in my head. Unfortunately, that’s the easy part, as we all know, so I’ll have to stay healthy enough to do it.

I’d like to think that if I hadn’t met Cindy I might still be in Chapel Hill, and that I would have had a similar career, but who knows? Today I’m not worried about my own future at all, but looking at the parts of the world I know well, the Middle East, Africa, parts of Asia, and even, sadly, Europe and the United States I do worry a lot more about the future than ever before. Our oldest daughter is pregnant with her first child, and I hope that his (we know it will be a boy) future will take place in a world with as many opportunities as the ones I’ve had. I’m not so sure it will be so. It isn’t just politics. On my way to Africa I flew from Seattle to Paris over Greenland, and for a good part of that it was daylight and clear. I’ve done this a lot, but hadn’t had a good look at Greenland for at least a decade because it is so often cloudy or if it isn’t the height of summer, dark. I was shocked by how much bare space I saw in areas that used to be all white. If I were religious, I would say God help future generations. Those my age who have lived in the United State, despite its many problems, have experienced a kind of golden age that might not be repeated.

chirot@u.washington.edu
Submitted August 2016