Carlton J. Snow, Second Essay
Bill Long 11/23/04
Reflections on the Mind of a Man
I thought that one essay on Carlton's passing would give me chance to express all my thoughts and feelings about him, but I was wrong. A comment in the Statesman Journal's Sunday edition (11/21/04) by colleague Leroy Tornquist about Carlton triggered further thoughts. Leroy was quoted as saying: "He was the best employment arbitrator on the West Coast. He was in high demand by union leaders and management to settle disputes." This characteristic of Carlton, where both sides of heated disputes wanted him to arbitrate, deserves further consideration. Carlton was, in the language of law, a "neutral."
Sorting out the Concept of Neutrality
Surprising as it might sound at first, the quality of neutrality has not always been considered a strength. In the late 1970s, when I was pursuing a Ph. D. in religion/theology, neutrality was seen as a cop-out, a kind of admission that you had no values, no center, no commitments in life. Under the influence of liberation theology, a mode of thinking mixing biblical language, Marxist philosophy and the experience of grinding poverty in Latin America, many American thinkers, religious and otherwise, wittingly or unwittingly adopted the idea that neutrality was a weak position. Commitment was what we wanted. Anything less was prevarication, lack of ideological purity, a sign of a muddled mind.
The shibboleth of the times was "Not to decide is already to decide." The argument was that neutrality played into the hands of the power elites. It was a sign of silent approbation of their depredations and various oppressions. I don't think I ever fully adopted this approach to life but in the face of eager ideologues you learn not to voice your opinion too loudly on the virtue of neutrality.
Carlton Snow's Mind
But the life of Carlton Snow is a ringing testimony to the virtue and strength of neutrality. Notice the way that Professor Tornquist's words read. 'He was the best...' 'Both sides wanted him.' The key to Carlton Snow's mind lies in these two statements. He was a man who made neutrality into a word of such strength and suppleness that everyone wanted him. How did he do so?
I think the key to Carlton Snow's arbitral skill was his deep humane empathy. He not only knew the human condition but could, as a result, express the positions of respective parties even better than they could. By so doing he could convince both sides that he fully understood their perspective and that he would weigh all their concerns in his decision-making process.
An illustration of this rare trait will show what I mean. When I first met Carlton Snow in his office, he was full of questions. He wanted to know about my past, my interest in law, the way I was trying to integrate my varied interests in theology, history, philosophy and law. But his manner was singular.
"Mr. Long (and that element of dignified and gentlemanly formality never left him), I see you have studied theology and history. Does that mean that you have a longing for perfection, a sense that the divine is reachable by human effort?"
But then, before allowing me to answer, he said further:
"I see that you also are a scholar of history. You probably have discovered through this that the nature of human interaction is anything but a longing for the divine. It is a sad story of ambition, greed, murder and self-interest. Is it possible that you are coming to law school to learn a new language, to try to come to grips with the glories of theological discourse in the context of the cruel realities of human history?"
What could I say? He hit the nail directly on the head. He had taken seemingly "neutral" information, two lines on my resume, and coaxed meaning from these two lines in such a way as to create and present a problem through these two lines. It was not as if he was declaring a truth, however. He was advancing a hypothesis. "Could it be true, Mr. Long...?" I saw through this interaction that Carlton's ability to create an intellectual world through empathetic reading of just a few lines of text was the key to his unique mind. From that day on, I knew that I would never want to stray far from Carlton Snow's orbit.
The Nature of Human Empathy
But the question naturally arises, "Where does empathy come from?" It ought to be the most imitable of human traits, but where did it come from in Carlton Snow? I don't fully know the answer, but I will venture a guess. His ability to emphathize with me, with thousands of students over 34 years of teaching, with colleagues and secretaries, with parties who often were at each other's throats, emerged from the reality of his own inner complexity.
On the one hand, he believed very strongly in a good God, a God who was not far away but who had endowed His creatures with dignity, grace and even ability to live beyond their perceived limitations. But, on the other hand, he also knew the shadow side of human life, the way that life can become so tangled, so seemingly irredeemable, so utterly beyond the power of anyone to make it right. Yet somehow he kept believing that the power of this good God was actually available to humans and could make situations better. I believe that Carlton saw himself as a minister (instrument might be too strong a word) of this God to bring his extraordinary skills, which he never paraded, to build life and to restore people and institutions.
We each have our own "take" on a person. This is mine on Carlton. He passing leaves me saddened, teary, wishing I had known him better, longing for yet one more conversation to probe his mind and hear his resonant voice. But we had him, as we have each other, for a limited time. Why wait until tomorrow to realize this?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long