The Reading Room
A Meeting of Minds in the Middle of the Street
We lived across a quiet neighborhood street from one another for more than three decades. On the political spectrum, however, we were so far apart that we couldn’t see one another from our houses. On the religion spectrum, we had an almost equal divide. He was devoted. I’ve always envied him and regretted my lost devotion.
So, for all those decades, we did what few political opposites have lately been willing to do: talk policy differences, civilly and in good collegial, as well as neighborly, cheer. We were able to do that by doing what was needed, literally and figuratively: We shuffled our way from opposite sides of our street to its middle—in later years, Keith with his walker and me with my cane—to find common ground within our differences. No matter that our differences defined our talks. We always stood ready to rejoice at the opportunity to disagree heartily and rib the other on policy positions that seemed to the other foreign and misguided.
Our meetings of the mind in the middle of our street also worked for a basic reason Keith’s friends have always known: he was, very simply, a genuinely nice person.
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I remember Keith always with a big smile and a hearty laugh, followed by a thoughtful pause when I asked something in his subspecialty, war history, or ventured a probe for his historical perspective on the endless political protests over taking down Confederate monuments or the canceling of comedians for jokes that had not been preapproved by the Woke Left.
He always had serious economics questions for me, not fearing to ask my assessment of, for example, President Biden’s latest trillion-dollar program, which the president consistently claimed would come “cost free.” Keith understood he was dealing with a confirmed contrarian who, from the business school, was a world apart from his school of humanities. He always seemed genuinely appreciative of my policy takes that contrasted with those commonly heard across our university campus.
Keith and I had greater reason to meet in the middle of our street (and dodge the occasional car) than many other opposites—whether in our university neighborhood, across the state, or in the halls of Congress. We sought each other out not so much to agree but to hear the other side and, in so doing, come to better understand and refine our own thinking. And I also suspect we both saw the other as a part of our separate intellectual missionary work.
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Keith Nelson was a founding history professor at the University of California, Irvine. He was in the classroom the first day our university opened in 1965. By the time I arrived in the very early 1990s, the university had grown substantially with enrollment approaching 16,000 (enrollment has since more than doubled). More importantly, over the preceding twenty-five years, the university had climbed the ranks of national research universities and was beginning to challenge the academic prestige of much older universities—thanks in no small part to Keith and the other 118 founding professors who chose well the rapidly expanding ranks of their colleagues, always with high standards for scholarship, pedagogy, and academic integrity as their beacons. I have been a proud beneficiary of their considerable early and largely unheralded dedication to a higher purpose.
Keith and I could have our middle-of-the-street meetings (as well as morning coffees and late afternoon wines) because we both shared unifying values: We were “old school” academics. We saw our professorships as a calling and a privilege and our work with students and our research as serious but fun, guided by a search for publishable insights—but also for findings that demasked truths, at least a little.
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Keith was an ardent Democrat, which is to say, a political liberal in the mold of Senator Bernie Sanders (my inference only). Keith was predisposed to favor added federal spending, especially on social programs. I was, and remain, predisposed to favor market-based solutions to economic and social problems, and I almost always found fault with Keith’s advocacy of tighter business controls. He seemed to see profits (and the resulting great fortunes) as an impairment on the economy, and on workers’ living standards. I have always seen them as owners’ rightful claims on the considerable value their firms add to the multitude of goods and services businesses develop and sell to willing buyers. (Of course, our opposing arguments were full of nuances and qualifications.)
I repeatedly reminded Keith of my partisan independence. He always smiled, confident that my policy positions betrayed my protestations. I suspect he was quietly convinced I was a closeted Republican (which I’ve never been). After all, I had published a book on What Went Right in the 1980s and frequently referenced Milton Friedman in our discussions (with my comments middle-of-the-road only by the location of our talks).
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Professor Keith Le Bahn Nelson died on October 10, 2022, at age 90, not unexpectedly, given his growing frailness, but with his mind as incisive as ever. The university and his history colleagues have lost a dear and faithful cheerleader.
I miss him greatly, for a reason most non-academics would not suspect: He leaves a hole in the middle of my academic life not easily replaced within contemporary university faculties. We had the ability to disagree—with gusto when needed—on sensitive issues but always with civility and good spirits. That’s not just a hole today but a growing chasm.
Universities desperately need more probing but good-natured discussions among at-odds colleagues who seek to learn from each other, not to cancel them—something very rare in today’s political climate. They need more Keiths.