While in high school, in the late 1970s, Steve joined a national political organization, the Social Democrats, USA, whose national chairman was the civil rights organizer, Bayard Rustin. “Bayard was the single greatest influence on my political outlook,” Steve says: “his faith in the cause of human dignity became my faith.” As Bayard once put it: “My activism did not spring from my being gay, or for that matter, from my being black. Rather it is rooted, fundamentally, in my Quaker upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me. These values are based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal. Adhering to those values has meant making a stand against injustice, to the best of my ability, whenever and wherever it occurs.”i
The most important intellectual influence on Steve during his four years at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, was a class he took from the social theorist Edward Shils on the political sociology of Max Weber. “Shils had taught at the University of Chicago for nearly half a century before he came to Reed and the power of his example persuaded me to pursue an academic career,” Steve notes.
After college, Steve went on to receive a Master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a PhD in history from Yale University. “My academic work,” he writes, “has centered on deepening our understanding of both the good and the harm that America has done in the world so that we can do better in the future.”
One of the most important contributions the United States ever made to the cause of social justice in another country was its support for the postwar land reform in Japan. Rather than seek revenge on those who had attacked us, we sought to make allies of the Japanese people as against the militarist Japanese government that had betrayed them as well as the people of the United States. Steve’s article on the subject—“The ‘Soft Peace Boys’: Presurrender Planning and Japanese Land Reform”—is available online for free download.
American assistance to other peoples in their pursuit of political liberty has often come through what Steve has called “civil interventions”—nonviolent efforts to decisively affect regime maintenance or regime change in another country that are informed by a commitment to democratic solidarity. In a book on the subject, Steve examined successful American civil interventions in Cuba in 1944, Brazil in 1945, Venezuela in 1946, Ecuador in 1947, and Costa Rica in 1948, as well as a civil intervention that ultimately proved counterproductive in Argentina in 1945-1946. Like all other successes in human affairs, the victories here, if they were to be sustained, had to be fought for continually and, unfortunately, only in Costa Rica did democracy survive intact from the 1940s to the present. Steve’s book—Democracy and U.S. Policy in Latin America during the Truman Years—is available for purchase online.
In the past year, Steve has completed a manuscript on the fight against Cherokee Removal in the 1830s—the fight against the American version of “ethnic cleansing” that came to be known as the Trail of Tears and Death. The fight against removal was a turning point both in American relations with American Indian nations, and in American politics and culture. And in some ways it was a very closely fought contest. The final vote on the “Removal Bill” in the House of Representatives in 1830 was 102 to 97. The heroes, villains, and arguments of that fight deserve to be remembered and their lasting influence better understood. The principles and aspirations of the path not taken—the path that a successful resistance to removal represented—still constitute a goal that beckons in our ongoing relations with the native peoples of America. These principles and aspirations are—to a considerable extent—those of the framers of our Constitution: principles and aspirations that were betrayed by the Supreme Court when the issue reached it in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia in 1831.
After teaching at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for a couple of years in the 1990s, Steve returned to Yale to become the director of undergraduate studies for international studies in 1998. To his horror a student in the international studies major was murdered and he came to suspect a colleague of the crime. Instead of keeping his mouth shut, he was grossly unfair to this colleague and made his suspicions public knowledge. Although Yale renewed his contract for an additional year, it did not renew it for a third year. Unemployed, Steve struggled with clinical depression and, at a particularly desperate juncture, tossed himself in front of a subway train. “I felt God’s love for me in the miracle of being alive immediately after the train hit,” he reports: “I lost my hand, but haven’t felt depressed since.” He wound up at the Austen Riggs Center, a unique open-setting mental hospital in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where patients are free to come and go as they please. “There was an Episcopal church across the street from me and I just sort of knew that was more than a coincidence,” Steve says of his decision to be baptized there.
Returning to Chicago in 2008, Steve became active in Church of Our Saviour, Lincoln Park’s Episcopal church, becoming its building and office manager in 2010. Doubling down on his religious and political commitments and activities, especially in the wake of the November 2016 election, he has also become a parishioner at St. Pauls, the United Church of Christ church in Lincoln Park. In the spring of 2017, he was elected president of the Chicago Literary Club for its 144th season.
When Pope Francis was asked who he was, in 2013, he replied: “I am a sinner.” Steve says, “I feel the same way and, although I am a sinner, I still aspire to help bring the civility and the compassion that the Pope has shown into American politics. We need to build a moral economy and a moral foreign policy. I believe I am someone who can help us do so.”
the Chicago Public High School for Metropolitan Studies https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgjXTlCc_vY
“The ‘Soft Peace Boys’: Presurrender Planning and Japanese Land Reform”
Democracy and U.S. Policy in Latin America during the Truman Years
Austen Riggs Center
Church of Our Saviour
Chicago Literary Club
i Bayard Rustin to Joseph Beam, 21 April 1986, file folder 8, Box 6, Bayard Rustin Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. See also: John D’Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (New York: The Free Press, 2003); Michael G. Long, ed., I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2012); Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise, eds., Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin (New York: Cleis Press, 2003).