‘Fiddler on the roof’ is vantage point to see social change

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, March 25, 2022

“The Fiddler on the Roof” was performed at MU Jesse Concert Series last week as a live production by a traveling professional theatre company. It was dedicated by the cast to the people of Ukraine suffering from the Russian invasion this past month. Their dedication is more appropriate than I realized that evening, for there is a village named Anatevka in Ukraine on the outskirts of Kyiv named after the village from the musical. It was founded in 2015 by Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, primarily as a refuge for Jewish families displaced by Russia’s five-year war against Ukraine that has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced even more in the country’s eastern region.

The 1964 Broadway musical and the 1971 film are set in antisemitic pre-revolutionary Russia in the fictional village of Anatevka, Ukraine, in 1905. The central theme is shown through the poor milkman Tevye’s struggle to accept his rapidly changing world, which includes having five daughters leave home one by one. The 1964 musical was well received,  nominated for 10 Tony Awards, nine of which it won, and was the first musical to achieve 3000 performances. The 1971 movie won Oscars for best song, sound and cinematography.

“Fiddler on the Roof” is a somber but delightful portrayal of an Orthodox Jewish family living in a small community as Russian authorities are moving them out. The father, Tevye, aims to be true to his religious traditions by asking God for personal direction when the village matchmaker suggests his eldest daughter marries the older, wealthier town butcher, whom she rejects. Tevye supports his daughter’s wishes and, resisting tradition, helps his daughter marry a man she prefers.

Social change has a way of speeding up and Tevye is next confronted with his second daughter’s marriage to a man that she arranged all by herself. His third daughter marries a man he disapproves of because the man is of a different faith. The family’s story ends tragically as the Czar’s troops evict the Jewish community from Anatevka and they emigrate to Poland or the United States. History repeats itself.

The timeless popularity of “Fiddler on the Roof” stems from the universal struggle to adopt and accept social change. While the 1960s and ‘70s in America were full of such struggles because of the Vietnam War, rock music and newly discovered social freedoms, all generations deal with social, economic, and technological changes. Smartphones have affected matchmaking, family dinners, and parental authority. “Fiddler” is very popular in Japan, where social change seems to be particularly hard.

Last week’s performance was practically sold out. To be sure, it was an older audience but there were lots of multi-generational families and a few groups of Mizzou students. It was my first live production, but I remember the 1971 movie and the popularity of many of the songs. “Sunrise, Sunset” must have been played at practically every wedding in the 1970s and ‘80s. I was surprised by the number of specific demonstrations of religious faith in “Fiddler.” Tevye routinely asked God for personal direction and the community song “Sabbath Prayer” is a moving request for God’s protection and blessings, including biblical references that my baby-boom generation would probably recognize. That got me thinking about the decline of public, cultural, and social displays of religion in America today.

A majority of American high school students cannot name the 10 Commandments with only 45% recalling the commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Belief in God declined from 90 percent in 2001 to 79% in 2017. A 2022 Marist Poll asked the question differently and found that overall 54% “believe in God as described in the Bible” differing a great deal by generation. The poll also found that 69% of respondents over 60 believe in God as described in the Bible with percentages declining in younger generations. Forty percent report attending church services at least once or twice a month, down from 52% in 2011.

The implications of changing religious beliefs for the future of our society are mixed. Across all demographic groups, 87% of Americans think it is important to be part of a close-knit community. About half of the country say their religion plays a role in their personal relationships, with Republicans twice as likely to say so as Democrats. However, 54% report that religion plays no part in their political identification. About 70% of Americans think the nation’s moral compass is pointed in the wrong direction, regardless if they practice a religion or not. Overall about two-thirds of Americans do not think being religious is necessary in order to live a good life.

The durability of “Fiddler on the Roof” may be due to the long menu of memorable songs, but the struggle to hold on to traditions in a challenging world is universally gripping and heroic.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.

Danforth and McCaskill not giving up on democracy

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, March 18, 2022

Former U.S. Sens. John Danforth and Claire McCaskill discussed the lack of bipartisanship in American politics Monday night at Stephens College with President Dianne Lynch serving as moderator.

McCaskill, a Democrat, and Danforth, a Republican, talked for an hour during a Zoom conference arranged by a group called the Unnamed Committee of Boone County for Open Minds in Politics.

Danforth began the evening’s discussion saying that for two centuries we believed the national motto “E Pluribus Unum” meaning “Out of Many, One” suggesting that despite party disagreement, the goal of national unity was always present.

It’s hard to see that we still act like that. Danforth observed that the main value politicians agree on is how to get elected by appealing to, and growing, “the base.” Danforth said he believes the many Republican candidates sound the same because they constantly use the word fight.

McCaskill was asked about the current political climate and replied, “things are bad, really bad. We demonize the other side.” Danforth referred to a poll of Missourians where 80% say the “the political system is broken.” I agree with them, but it is disappointing that I’ve heard this since at least the late 1990s and not much corrective action, a.k.a. “reforms,” have been adopted.

The two former Missouri senators agree on several causes of our hyper polarization and even on some reforms. For starters, they agree that the primary election process allows party extremists greater influence than they deserve.

Secondly, they agree that the traditional Senate procedure called “regular order ” is no longer used. That’s the process we learned in school about “how a bill becomes a law.” Danforth said that nowadays, major bills are drafted in the White House, the Speaker’s office or the Senate majority leader’s office, rather than in a committee resulting with most senators not having an opportunity to amend the bill as it makes its way through the chamber.

Danforth and McCaskill agree most senators have only a single up or down vote on a finished bill consisting of complicated subsections, so senators end up preaching partisan speeches to the empty Senate chamber rather than working out a compromise that improves the bill.

Danforth briefly referred to his recent search for a centralist Republican to run as an independent who, once elected, could avoid being stuck in the same party adding to the nastiness of modern day poor institutional performance. Danforth said he expects there would be ample campaign funding made available for such a person, but, so far, a suitable candidate has not been announced.

I like the idea and wish it well. It reminds me of the “No Labels” national movement that makes sense in its quest for solutions to tough problems but seems to be stuck in neutral.

Both Danforth and McCaskill called for making politics and the Senate more human. Danforth recalled that his friendship with fellow Missouri Sen. Tom Eagleton, of the other party, began when Eagleton commented to Danforth at an early social event after Danforth had just been elected that “I know you wish your father was here.”

Danforth characterized Eagleton’s thoughtfulness as a fundamental human response that led to them having cordial conversations about political issues. McCaskill added that she had a similar relationship with her fellow Sen. Roy Blunt.

Both former senators agreed that reform ideas have to be actionable, not just a “pie in the sky” proposal. They had several ideas they agreed on. They both criticized gerrymandering and endorsed rank-choice voting — an idea I wrote about several weeks ago at the local level.

The senators disagreed a bit when it comes to campaign finance reform, a topic McCaskill said they had discussed with one another before. Danforth is less enthusiastic about the benefits and feasibility of campaign funding reform than is McCaskill who is mainly concerned with the flow of “dark money,” which is money donated without disclosing the donor’s name.

One topic not mentioned during the Zoom conversation was the news media. I have accepted the reality that (1) few citizens want to watch CSPAN-type programming every day and (2) that the economics of the media will always favor “expert” interviews rather than deep documentaries.

The media is ratings-driven and subscription-driven, so many of us know who AOC, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Marjorie Taylor Greene are but probably can’t place the name Dick Durbin. This is no way to inform a democracy.

The fault ultimately lies with us — the voters. Not only are we not as well informed as we could be, many of us don’t vote and many are single-issue voters when we do.

McCaskill said she told her staff “if a constituent calls thanking me for compromising on an issue, come and get me immediately.” She reports she was never interrupted for that reason.

Danforth proposed, and McCaskill endorsed, “taking a person of the other party to lunch and getting to know them as a person.” To that end, I invite the first Republican and the first Democrat, who I don’t yet know, to contact me for lunch (on me).

We will not immediately discuss politics, per se, but will learn about each other as just as fellow humans. Who knows, maybe we will do it twice and move toward a humane conversation about some current political issues.


David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.

Peter Hessler comes home to Columbia to give lecture at MU

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, March 12, 2022

Peter Hessler, a 1988 grad of Hickman High School, returned last week to his hometown to deliver the Lloyd B. Thomas Lecture and Performance Series lecture that marks the annual Arts and Science Week at MU.

Previous notable scholars brought to campus for the lecture include documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, Truman biographer David McCullough and author Bill McKibben.

Hessler’s extraordinary four books and numerous writings on China, and more recently a book on Egypt deservedly places him in that august group. This was actually his second visit back home to receive an MU award. He was awarded the School of Journalism’s Honor Medal in 2018.

Because of his family, I was aware of Pete’s academic record since the late 1990s. For some reason, news about grand academic awards spreads fast, even before the advent of social media. While aware of his writing achievements, I didn’t really read deeply his work until 2014 when I discovered his three books on China, and his wife Leslie Chang’s “Factory Girls,” while I was teaching in South Korea and making side trips to Thailand, Japan and China.

I was immediately absorbed by Hessler’s skill at examining single people and events and projecting their broader meaning.

I “met” Pete a year ago for a Zoom interview for the Boone County History and Culture Center. He was cooperative, punctual and easy to interview. Very down-to-earth for a person of his achievement. I am a late-coming fan of Pete, for he has received a Rhodes Scholarship, a MacArthur Fellowship, and many book awards over the past 30 years, increasing my confidence in elite selection processes.

Hessler’s Thomas Lecture this week was a 20-year retrospective of his observations about Chinese life that began in 1996 when he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Fuling, a small city in southwestern China, to teach English.

That experience resulted in “River Town,” which he wrote upon his return right here in Columbia. He most recently taught English at Sichuan University in 2019 and was The New Yorker’s major writer on China until he departed in July 2021.

In an hourlong lecture, Pete pulled together many observations perhaps best captured by the theme of China’s transition from rural to urban society, but that is too simple. Pete described the changes in his students’ families due to the one-child policy, better nutrition due to the internet and increased mobility. Most importantly, he used surveys of his students to capture Chinese attitudes toward their parents, Chinese leaders and the intense competition in education and business practices he called “the gray market.”

Overall, I heard of a younger Chinese generation that, while independent thinkers, have tended to find a niche in jobs and society and accepted it. When most Chinese students see unfairness in their communities or the political system, they tend to accept it as being “the way life is.”

Perhaps the easiest entry point into Hessler’s method and work is “How China Controlled the Coronavirus,” in the Aug. 17, 2020 issue of The New Yorker. In it, Hessler recounts significant aspects of his new daily life teaching 55 students creative writing without ever meeting them in person.

Hessler recalls the personal restriction on his physical movement, but also how existing neighborhood groups, some affiliated with the Communist Party, were used effectively for contact tracing and played an important role in keeping China’s COVID fatality rate low.

Pete has developed a unique anthropological approach that is skillfully organized and creatively expressed about basic social phenomenon, which he artfully links to the larger picture. In short, he intuitively learns what he wants to look for, and he knows why it is important. That style of orientation promises to make deeper and richer the social science of voting behavior and policymaking that I have followed for 40 years.

Imagine if Pete changed his focus from China and Egypt to American society. He could spend some quality time in Columbia applying his same skills of observation to a medium-sized Midwest American city in preparation for an imaginary book titled “Hey, I Made it Back Home Again.” He could tutor at Grant School once again and teach a course on China in each of our high schools.

As a runner, he would marvel at our world-class cross-country creek and might join several workouts with MU and club runners, picking up changes in athletic priorities and training over the past 35 years. Pete would spend days at the Farmers Market learning about planting trends and the place urban agriculture plays in the 21st century. As he did in China, Pete would listen and observe American Midwesterners’ attitude toward complying with COVID-19 precautions of vaccinating and mask-wearing. In the process, Hessler would undoubtedly make insights into the breadth and depth of so-called grassroots support for former President Donald Trump and gauge the likelihood of a Trump return to presidential politics.

As he has done with his Chinese students, Pete would survey American students about their attitudes toward American society, their understanding of social change, their attitudes toward government and towards the future.

Finally, I should share my admiration that Columbia turned out several world class scholars and authors in the mid-1980s. I have written elsewhere about Harvard professor Walter Johnson’s several books on American slavery and civil rights in St. Louis.

The fact that they grew up a couple blocks apart and that their siblings played together in the Stewart Road neighborhood blows my mind, as we used to say. Hessler and Johnson received the best Columbia has to offer and found their niches along the way.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.

Russian invasion of Ukraine is jolt of history

David Webber Columbia MISSOURIAN, March 5, 2022

The U.S. House of Representatives adopted a resolution “steadfastly, staunchly, proudly and fervently” in support of Ukraine the day after President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech.

The Senate is likely to adopt a similar non-binding resolution as it negotiates a supplemental funding bill that would expend about $6 billion for military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine.

That’s all well and good, especially if it includes members of Congress educating themselves and their own constituents about the real dangers of today’s international climate and motivates them to reduce their partisan rhetoric. Doing so will give Americans a clearer view of the risks and consequences of the Russian invasion.

The world is rightfully shocked by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin invading a neighbor and ordering nuclear forces to be on alert. He presents the world a clear and present danger to international order and peace.

A nuclear war can never be won, and Biden and NATO leaders have no other choice but to take a cautious, indirect response of economic sanctions that will take longer than anyone wishes to have an effect. Even then, the Russian people are more likely to be hurt than is Putin.

One of the blessings bestowed on the United States is that we are largely geographically protected from foreign invasions, allowing us a level of security not known in most other countries. Along with it has come a limited understanding of human history.

War and disease have plagued human history, but we have embraced global economic networks and national sovereignty without vigilance and skepticism. So here we sit in 2022 with a superpower invading a neighbor amid a global pandemic.

I, and most baby boomers, thought the U.S. had brought Cold War threats pretty much under control since World War II ended. Yes, America dealt with the Vietnam War, several Mideast conflicts and decades of pursuing the Taliban and ISIS, but conflict with Russia seemed to have disappeared with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the USSR on Dec. 25, 1991.

Or so we thought.

We thought we won the Cold War; Putin apparently viewed it as only halftime.

Putin’s indiscretions in the 2008 war with Georgia and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, related to Ukraine’s political instability and street protests in Kyiv, as well as his sending Russian troops into Syria in 2015 in support of Bashar Assad’s regime drew some international condemnation that now seems mild. In hindsight, we should have done more. Several presidential administrations and hundreds of congressional leaders missed opportunities to send clear signals to Putin, and the Russian people, that Putin’s imperial expansion would be confronted.

One key tenet of U.S foreign policy in the post-World War II era, is the benefit of “mutual assured destruction (MAD).” This is the doctrine that a country, knowing that an adversary can instantly retaliate in-kind against a nuclear attack, would refrain from launching a nuclear attack in the first place. Mutual assured destruction assumes that all adversaries are rational actors, not mad. Now we are discussing if Putin qualifies as a rational actor. His aspiration to restore the greatness of Russia is likely to have the opposite result.

A popular idea among international observers is often referred to as the “democratic peace.” This is the widely confirmed argument that democracies never fight each other. The implication is that if Russia was a full-blown democracy and not under the thumb of a tyrant then the invasion of Ukraine would be inconceivable.

A democratic Russia would have hundreds of citizen organizations that would have objected to sending their sons and daughters, or themselves, to die in a foreign land for the sake of Putin’s expansionary vision. American “soft power” should have been used to convert more Russians into democratic activists so that political protests would be a force constraining Putin.

In that light, Russian violations found by drug testing of Olympic athletes, for example, should have been upgraded and increased, and all Russians should have been prevented from competing. The governing bodies of the world and European soccer games have excluded Russian teams from this year’s championships. By allowing individual Russians to compete as the “Russian Olympic Committee” without official Russian affiliation circumvented a path for citizens expressing their views to their government.

Because Putin has ordered the destruction of purely civilian targets such as schools and hospitals, the International Court of Justice needs to prosecute Putin for war crimes. A small gesture, for sure.

Reportedly, economic sanctions and businesses, such as Apple, withdrawing from Russia is having an economic impact on Russia. The single most effective thing American citizens could do to support Ukraine is to refuse Russia oil and gas. This will of course increase the price of gas at the pump because of the simple, wrong-headed way we calculate inflation. A gallon of gas from a dictator should not be measured the same as a gallon of gas a trusted friend.

It is unclear how the Ukraine military invasion will end, but it won’t be good for either Ukraine or Russia. It is hard to imagine Putin will give orders to turn his troops around. What is likely is millions of horrors and atrocities, including possible nuclear waste released from existing nuclear plants, leaving behind a desolate Ukraine and a totally impoverished Russia. I expect Ukraine will be virtually wiped out, leveled, and Russia to be stone cold poor for generations.

Congress and American citizens need to learn once again that the world is a dangerous place and recognize that a democratic peace requires a strong democracy at home that “steadfastly, staunchly, proudly and fervently” supports democracies against tyranny around the world.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.