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Donald N. Levine: A sociologist at work and in love

Andrew DeCort

Professor Donald N. Levine (June 16, 1931 – April 4, 2015), affectionately known to the greater Ethiopian community as Gash Liben Gebre Etyopiya, was a man I was graced to call my professor, and then also a mentor, and finally also a cherished father-friend. It is with immense gratitude and admiration that I offer these reflections on the kind of man and the quality of mind that I encountered in Gash Liben over the eight years that I studied and worked with him.

Gash Liben was a deeply spiritual man of remarkable depth and breadth of learning endlessly awed and drawn by the world in all of its multiplicity and mysterious unity. If Plato was right that “philosophy begins in astonishment,” Gash Liben was a philosopher’s philosopher. It seemed that the more his body aged, the younger his spirit became – agile, energetic, voracious, penetrating, grateful. He was the quintessential Chicago scholar and Renaissance humanist whose research, teaching, and service stretched across disciplines and continents, from Ethiopian studies to social theory to American liberal education to the nonviolent Japanese martial art Aikido to a lifelong love for music.

The ever-expanding universe of Gash Liben’s mind and practice was unencumbered by academic pride or intellectual greediness but emerged from a relentless love for and commitment to fully participating in what he thought it meant to be truly “modern” without abandoning the past – “to be joined to a world-wide dialogue about the limitations and potentialities of human experience.” Gash Liben aimed to listen, to observe, and to respond to history, people, society, and the world as sensitively, imaginatively, and responsibly as possible. As such, his thought and engagement was free of dogmatism, and he was always ready to learn from anyone, including young graduate students. For Gash Liben, such a dialogical practice of being human on our planet powered his passion for education, which he understood as “conversation about the meaning of life, as each sees some part of it, on behalf of everyone” – not dictation or indoctrination but “the art of questioning.”

Gash Liben was entirely serious when he wrote “on behalf of everyone.” It wasn’t unusual for him to share correspondence and personal meetings with the late Prime Minister Meles and other elites in Ethiopia and around the world. But these engagements were no more important for Gash Liben than consistently funding the education of boys in Lalibela, keeping up a handwritten correspondence with an Ethiopian prisoner in California, supporting the cases of refugees seeking asylum in the U.S., personally visiting members of the opposition in prison in 2005, founding a “peace dojo” for youth in Awassa, visiting his grandchildren, and leading an unknown graduate student at the University of Chicago through a rigorous one-on-one tutorial in Ethiopian studies for an entire year (2007-2008), whom he eventually invited to edit and write the Foreword to his Interpreting Ethiopia: Observations of Five Decades (2014). Somehow the depths of Gash Liben’s intellect, accomplishment, and access to influence did not translate into a diminishment of humanity, personal compassion, and practical support for others but increased and energized them.

All of this – an astonished, global, dialogical, humane mind and character – increasingly drew Gash Liben to critique what he called a “pharaonic culture” in Ethiopian leadership stretching back to Aksum in which “authority at the top is sacralized and all subordinate authorities take their place as kinglets up and down the chain.” Gash Liben saw this dominant leadership culture as wasteful and impoverishing, undercutting the inherently dialogical nature of human existence and undergirding a series of crucial “missed chances” in Ethiopia’s recent past.

But rather than “hurling epithets” like so many, Gash Liben’s critique remained consistent with his aim in Wax and Gold (1965) of patiently, constructively “raising questions and formulating issues in public which heretofore have been politely overlooked or furtively concealed.” For Gash Liben, any genuine “reform” of culture was actually a form of reconciliation in which we “stretch out our hands,” return to one another, and thus work together in all of our pregnant ambiguity, persistent fallibility, and irrepressible mutual dignity as persons sharing the world through (dia-) the word (logos).

Days before his death, Gash Liben invited me to his home one last time and spoke with me for an hour in his medical bed. With a shining face full of presence and cheer, he asked me some final questions (“Will you devote your life to Ethiopia?”) and offered words of encouragement. At last, he called me to take his hands, looked me in my eyes, and said, “I love you, my brother.” I replied, “I love you and cherish your life.”

I always will.


Photo Caption: The late Donald N. Levine with Andrew DeCort. Andrew edited and wrote the  Foreword to Donald’s 2014 “Interpreting Ethiopia: Observations of Five Decade”, his last book on Ethiopia. 

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