Philosopher Stephen Turner Publishes A Memoir: Mad Hazard: A Life in Social Theory

Here are some highlights from this 2022 book:

* The bookshelves in my father’s office in the basement of our house in Chicago
had a copy of Saul Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals of 1946, a first edition “second
impression,” with an endorsement by Jacques Maritain, saying “this book is
epoch-making,” and a dust jacket quoting a newspaper description of Alinsky as
a “hardboiled sociologist and criminologist who refuses to pull punches when he
believes the welfare of the people with whom he works is being jeopardized.” I
was in my mid-sixties when I learned that the reports he published on gangs
omitted the gang rapes they executed, and that his account of the rehabilitation of
a robber had failed to explain that the thief had eventually gone back to crime.

* Much has been written about the racial transformation of Woodlawn; it was a
formative part of my early childhood, and of my father’s life because he had to
adapt the buildings to the new reality and new clientele, and thus my own life.
Much of this not-pretty story has been prettied up and reinterpreted from successive
ideological viewpoints. The more explicit and nonideological – and
nonacademic – discussions focus on the extraordinary level of crime in the nearby
fifth police district, famous in the world for having “the highest crime per capita
known to man” (Lait and Mortimer 1950: 35). This spilled over into Woodlawn
in the 1950s. The changes were dramatic. In the few years of childhood that I
spent living on Kenwood Avenue, Hugh Hefner in 1953 created Playboy on a
kitchen table a few blocks away; and, just before I left, although I probably never
encountered him, Jeff Fort, four years older than me, moved from Mississippi in
1955 to an address across the street and a few buildings north on Kenwood. He
was to become the leader of the Blackstone Rangers gang, and wind up in a
supermax federal penitentiary.
A joke of the 1960s defined integration as the period between the first Black
moving in and the last white moving out. This was pretty accurate, and I lived
through it twice, and because my father’s business was in what became “the ghetto,” I was a daily participant in, and observer of, the aftermath. My own
response to integration was not racialized, and my parents were resolutely open
to the Black presence, and considered staying in the city to be a Christian duty.

* my tricycle was stolen, and the safe world began to narrow. The attitudes of many of the new residents resembled those described by Charles Johnson in Shadow of the
Plantation (1934). Their attitude toward property was not the reflection of some
sort of African communalism of the type celebrated by Kwanza. It merely
reflected the idea that if one could take something, one was entitled to it.
I was scheduled to start school in the neighborhood school my father had
started in 35 years earlier. As an ex-teacher and a person with some knowledge of
the school system, he anticipated trouble.

* The decline of Woodlawn was punctuated by crimes. My first barber was
murdered in his shop. As a felon, he was not allowed to have a gun, but kept a
bullwhip that he thought would protect him. It didn’t. My first dentist was also
murdered in his second floor office on Stony Island, just south of 67th Street,
presumably by someone looking for drugs.

* The neighborhood was largely crime free, at first, though among the kids there
was a complex culture of violence. In reading a biography of James Farrell, the
Chicago author of Studs Lonigan, I could see something of where this came from,
and it was indeed the old ethnic neighborhood of Englewood. The stereotypical
image of the fighting Irishman used as the Notre Dame mascot was based on
reality – physical challenges were common and resolved disagreements. But for
the most part, the fighting of kids in the neighborhood itself involved maintaining
the pecking order. It was pure monkey politics.

* I asked the janitor’s helper, UT (for Ulysses Taliaferro), why the victims hadn’t just gotten a dog – in my neighborhood a source of terror. He looked me in the eye and said, as though speaking to a backward child, “they shoot the dog.”

* My life as an adolescent was lived under the constant threat of racial violence.
Marynook was quickly becoming Black, and also dangerous. The violence was of
a different kind. One-on-one confrontations, which were the norm under the rules
of monkey politics, without which a pecking order made no sense, were not only
rare; they never occurred. The point of confrontations, which were common – if
they were on the street or in the park, they normally began by asking for a nickel
– was not to prove one’s individual superiority, but to humiliate your target.
Being in a group made this imperative: one showed off to your peers by messing
with a white kid. I was grateful many years later when Nate McCollum in Makes
You Want to Holler (1995) described with pride the pastime of chasing down
vulnerable white kids and beating them. I experienced this many times – being
followed, confronted, and sometimes harmed.
I will give a few examples, but it should be added that this was simply an
accepted part of life. No one expected anything different. No one did anything
about it. The police certainly did not care. Once, when returning home on the
Stony Island bus, covered in paint from working a morning on a porch job, I was
sitting in the back seat of the bus. Two boys of a similar age came on, and one
asked if I was a girl. When I didn’t respond, he said he was going to cut my titties
off. He pulled out a knife and stuck it in my ribs. I jumped up and got off the bus
at 79th Street. A chorus of older Black women chastised the boys, for which I was
grateful. The driver of course did nothing. Another time I was tailed for hours. I
took refuge in the Community Discount store on 87th Street and tried to wait out
my followers, who hung out at the exit waiting for me. I somehow gave them the
slip. Another time I was returning from downtown on the IC and walking from
the 87th Street station to the house. As I was walking through the parking lot, a
group of boys on bicycles overtook me and started beating me up.
I rarely told my father about these beatings or incidents. His response to them
was to blame me – to say I wasn’t “streetwise.” How being streetwise would have
helped in these situations is a mystery. One time, when I came home bloodied, he
did offer to call the police. But there was no point – I couldn’t identify anyone,
and the police wouldn’t have done anything if I could have. There was at least
one killing during the integration process, and it tells its own tale. A white kid
refused to get off the sidewalk when a number of Black “youths” were walking
from the other direction. For his defiance, they killed him. The white neighbors
tried to explain this away – that the white kid was a hothead. But they got the
There is a good book on the process of integration as it affected the neighborhood
on the other side of Stony Island (Rosen 1998). The neighborhood was
Jewish, and had a charismatic Rabbi who was a convinced integrationist who
wanted his congregation to stay put and welcome the new residents. After his
congregants, some of whom owned shops on 87th Street, were robbed and
threatened, sometimes with the connivance of the Blacks they had been
encouraged to employ, the Rabbi gave up and moved on. The author, Louis
Rosen, went back and interviewed the Blacks who moved in. They wanted to live in a better neighborhood and found it. As one of Louis Rosen’s Black respondents
asked, “why did they leave? This is a nice neighborhood.” The reason was
crystal clear. After having their bicycles stolen, their kids threatened, guns pulled on them, and so forth, they had enough. The same thing happened on my side of
Stony, which didn’t have many stores. The photo shop, Cash Erler’s, which my
father patronized, held on with one of the sons in charge well into the period of
integration. After being threatened with a gun, he decided that sticking it out
wasn’t worth his life. On 79th Street, just east of Stony, the proprietor of Wee
Folks toy store, a shop frequented by Muhammad Ali, was murdered in front of
his wife by a Blackstone Ranger raising bail money for Jeff Fort. The killer got
off with a light sentence.
What is remarkable to me is how calmly this racial transformation took place.
People just reached their limits and silently left. There was a movement to prevent
panic selling and people put signs on their houses saying “Not for Sale, this is our
home.” But they too reached their limits and left: the “For Sale” sign replaced the
“Not for Sale” sign. No one thought the police could do anything about the endemic crime. It was rude to point out the obvious. The process was already long advanced when Martin Luther King came into town and demanded housing opportunities, among many other things, for Blacks, and marched in white neighborhoods. The result of this effort was simple: white flight and segregated neighborhoods.
This was not the intended result, at least for proponents of integration, but it
should not have been surprising. There was always a difference, which came out
clearly in Rosen’s interviews, between the way whites and Blacks viewed integration.
For the whites it was a value-commitment. For the Blacks, it was a matter of indifference, if that. For them having whites there was not a goal. Indeed, by boycotting them, or only patronizing Black businesses, they sent the message that they wanted them out. More fundamentally, it was a matter of crime-tolerance. For the whites, the killings were unacceptable, as was the violence, which was disproportionately directed at them. For the Blacks, it was a matter of comparison. Things were better than the neighborhoods they moved from.
My own response to all of this reflected the fact that for me this was normal. I
simply had to adjust to the reality of the constant threat of violence, and carry on.
There was no hiding from it, and it entered into every calculation of what one
could do.

* The building on Kenwood that I had lived in as a child was sold by my father for, as I recall, $64,000 cash to the owner of a liquor store on Stony Island – these stores were cash cows for their owners, but the risk of being murdered was high, as the most prominent liquor store owner in Woodlawn, “Big Jim,” found out. The building was ruined in just a few years, and was demolished. Eventually most of the
buildings in Woodlawn met the same fate, and the neighborhood became depopulated.

* The point of confrontations… was not to prove one’s individual superiority but to humiliate your target.

* My 11th birthday party was almost all Black friends. I cannot really explain this. I was sufficiently color blind that when a friend told me he was Jewish I looked at him and said “you don’t look Jewish.” It wasn’t until much later that I realized why he didn’t look Jewish. I lived and spent my time in Black communities, including not only Woodlawn, but Chatham. The surprising benefit of this was that I connected to people who were part of the local Black elite, or just below it, and were destined for greatness, as well as people who had ordinary but happy lives. Unfortunately, this all changed, or largely changed, in adolescence. The social world they belonged to was far more permissive and their parents were far more eager to promote the social development of their children. This meant that the social world of Black students diverged, and very radically, from those of the nerdy white students they shared classes with. But it also meant a loss of connection: their world was closed to me.

* Black nationalism was the big idea on the South Side, before Black power, and more fully elaborated. I read the literature on it, and the speeches of Malcolm X published by Grove books. I thought more of these people, despite their bizarre theories of origins of the white devils, than I did of the more prosaic civil rights leaders. The Muslims preached self-respect, self-discipline, and self-reliance, and disdained reliance on the white man. The more prosaic civil rights leaders, who focused on grievances, promoted new forms of reliance on the white man, like public housing. Their active presence exacerbated racial tensions and encouraged racial violence, even when the overt message was otherwise. I experienced this many times, in the form of rocks thrown at me as I bicycled home, something no self-respecting Black Muslim would have deigned to do.

* It is a commonplace that people who are excluded from society, or separated
from it in some way, are prone to becoming sociologists: society and its variations
are an unavoidable intellectual problem for them. Sociologists have often come
from missionary backgrounds. They experienced one social world in a marginalized
way as missionary children, only to return to a society they were also marginal to. I was born into the most studied of sociological domains – the South Side was the laboratory of the University of Chicago Sociology department. But it was a domain in decomposition and one in which I was multiply marginal.

* I…have a special admiration for this ability to do whatever is demanded of you, without being interested in it or caring about it. Much of the work in modern society is like this.

* There is a saying about Harvard degrees that they increase in value the farther one gets from Cambridge.

* It was a time of illusions… The first illusion was that sociology was an important discipline, that the internal issues and conflicts within sociology were worth fighting over, and that one could actually influence the discipline from below, the position I was in. My aim, which was to get some leverage on sociology, reflected this illusion, and I thought that the philosophy of science was the way to do so. Sociologists, especially those in power, pretended to believe that sociology was a science, and this pretense left them open to arguments about the nature of science, or so I thought. That made the positivism dispute important – another huge

* The great illusion I subscribed to was that theory did matter. The conventional
picture was that science required theory and methods, which were in effect at two
poles, but needed to be integrated into actual research projects. Theory was
supposed to provide hypotheses that the methods were to be used to test. This
fiction was inscribed in the conventional journal format, which had a section on
theory and one on methods. This implied, and researchers believed, that it was
the job of theorists to supply researchers with hypotheses to test, hypotheses
which were already in the form that fit the methods and statistical techniques they
employed. But no theory, deductive or otherwise, actually fit with these methods,
so a kind of fakery was employed. Researchers found correlations or associations
that they tried to make sure were real rather than the product of confounding or
common causes. They used their noggins for this: they thought about what else
might be confused with the variables they were using, and tried to eliminate the
possibility of confusion. This took some local knowledge and some sensitivity to
class and race. But it didn’t require any elaborate theory.

* sociology may not have had any real “theories” in the sense of physics, but it certainly had “paradigms,” and that was the mark of science. It would be better, from the point of view of the elite, if there were only one paradigm: theirs.

* Ted took it as a given that our ideas are shaped by our time, our social circumstances, and the conflicts they produce. He tried to influence sociology. But
sociology was on its own course to self-destruction, and wouldn’t listen, and it
probably would not have mattered if it had. That is a tragedy that engulfed all of
us. And it was precisely the kind of tragedy Ted expected – a product of social
circumstances that were bigger than all of us.

* The old warhorses [of Sociology] were about to take their revenge. Their instrument was Jeff Alexander, who was unknown to any of us, having virtually nothing in print, but was well-known to the elite as the Great White Hope of Parsonsianism. His emergence as a star was carefully orchestrated. He appeared out of nowhere, though he was obviously well-groomed as an insider, as author of a four-volume magnum opus entitled Theoretical Logic in Sociology (1982), with volumes on something like the philosophy of science, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Parsons… The dead hands of the recent past were laid on Alexander like an apostolic succession. They reappeared on the dust jackets for the books. A few quotations can give the flavor. Daniel Bell opined that the book had “magisterial range” and that “we may yet have here a new master in the offing.” Seymour Martin Lipset, from the Merton side, said that “there can be no question that Alexander’s book is both brilliant and original.” Alvin Gouldner wrote that “The publication of this work will be a major event in the lives of American Sociologists,” Lewis Coser added that “The man reads and writes with
enormous sophistication, lucidity, and theoretical penetration.”

* Liberal Democracy 3.0… The basic idea was Schmittian: that liberalism
was government by discussion, and required both the willingness and ability to be
persuaded; that what is political is a political decision, which implies also that
what is expert is a political decision. Claims of expertise were assertions that
opinions were beyond and above politics, in a special realm. But this itself was a claim in the political realm. The boundaries between the realm of expertise and
politics were movable, and moved all the time. Organizations, including the state,
employed the strategy of expertizing, and were faced with counter-expertizing.
Politics became, to a significant extent, concerned with weighing these claims.
That was the 3.0 stage of liberalism: not about the issues, but about the bona fides
of expert claims.

* James Coleman…was talking about white flight – a fact that the Left was anxious to deny. He pointed out to me that Florida was the exception because in Florida the school boards were organized on a county basis which meant that there was nowhere to flee to. The protests marked a moment of overt politicization of sociology.

* …if I objected to states of exception, what would I put in their place. I always thought Ex Parte Merryman (17 F. Cas.144; Suspension of the writ of habeas corpus by Lincoln, 18611) was a blow for human freedom and law. Perhaps a state which cannot resolve its issues within the law (though it is unclear that this actually happened in this case, for complex legal reasons) deserves to be dissolved.

* I finished The Impossible Science, and Jon Turner and I searched for a publisher.
He was part of the University of California system, the model for the
Florida system. We submitted it, and were rejected on the basis of a review by
Neil Smelser. I no longer recall what the objections were, but they were part of a
pattern: the book was a downer, and so was the title. The conclusion was also an
issue. Jon and I disagreed about the significance of the argument. He thought it
showed that the organization of the field prevented it from being a science and
that this was a tragedy. I thought it wasn’t going to be a “science” in the physics
sense anyway, but that its intellectual content was driven largely by the resources
available to people; foundations had a big role in what appeared large and
portentous in sociology – such as the ideas of the Chicago school, the Columbia
Merton-Lazarsfeld factory, and Parsons. Subsidy publishing helped to create the
illusion of importance. But at the same time teaching was a resource, and the various movements to push out the “wrong” kind of sociology always failed
because vaguely reformist types were able to survive and flourish while ignoring
the elite. What we did not say, and what was becoming obvious, was that feminists
were taking over the field, and that they were killing the idea of sociology as
a science.

* There was a saying about the sixties student revolt that the students and faculty fought, and the administration won.

* There was a kerfuffle on the St. Pete campus when a local character, Dr. Fernando “Ferdie” Pacheco, who had been the ring physician for Muhammad Ali, gave a presentation of his memoir of growing up in Tampa and was accused by two women faculty members of sexism and violently denounced for his mention of the large bosoms of some of the women in his book. One of the women’s antipathy was so great that eventually she was transferred to the Tampa campus.

Around this time I was sent as the department representative to a meeting of
the chairs of the college of arts and science ― “representative” meaning nonvoting
and nonspeaking. The topic was an invitation to speak that had been extended to
Condoleeza Rice by the college Young Republicans. At this time, Rice was the
Provost of Stanford and had not been appointed National Security Advisor by Bush. The meeting was a rare show of consensus. Led by the unhinged chair of the psychology department, one chair after another denounced Rice or schemed to find a way to prevent her from coming to campus. No one spoke up for freedom of speech, scholarly courtesy, the political neutrality of the university, or for any principle of academic or political civility. This was a wakeup call. It was not merely members of the church of the perpetually offended who sought to suppress speech they disliked. It was now the mainstream opinion. It was as though a 1000 years of academic tradition could be snuffed out with a pinch of the fingers. In this atmosphere, one needed to be wary. My situation as a Graduate Research Professor, though superficially very favorable, was nevertheless precarious: if I was accused of something it would all end in tears. I kept my opinions of Judith Butler, and much else, to myself.

* whatever one writes, there is a student in a garret in Berlin ready to take you down.

* [Hans] Morgenthau had in essence constructed a theory – really an ideal
type – of the responsible leader. To stray from behavior that conformed to this
type courted danger. Everything derived from this. Of course leaders have concerns
other than foreign policy, and other than being responsible. So this was normative – for a role and with a value in mind. I wrote a paper on this with Mazur as coauthor, and sent it to American Political Science Review, expecting a snarky but possibly useful comment. What I got back were two comments, one positive, the other snarky beyond belief: it said that since NATO had not absorbed Ukraine, realism was a dead theory, so why publish on Morgenthau?

* American students, with astonishingly few exceptions, knew nothing about
political history, or international relations, and were typically sentimental and
thought everyone should get along by being nice. The ex-military and the foreign
students, in contrast, were intensely engaged, knowledgeable, and open minded.

* Some charisma – the example I used was Madonna, who by her own actions
empowered her fans to do the same kinds of things, such as wearing their bra on
the outside. Her acts reduced the risks of this behavior – without her example it
would have been merely ridiculous. But Madonna was not a political leader. The
secret was that charismatic leaders also did something that involved risk: they
presented through their bodies the promise of something that had previously been
thought impossible or never thought of because it was too risky. Hitler, Martin
Luther King, Jesus, Napoleon, all fit with this, and with the implication that this
new thing could only be achieved through them. They all followed what Weber
had hinted at and I called the charismatic cycle: they performed a miracle or had
a victory that constituted proof of their special abilities to do things people didn’t think could be done, and the existence of followers enabled them to do even
more, to then generate new followers, and repeat the cycle; until their luck ran
out, or as Roberto Michels said, until the water reached their throat.

* The key to the “democratic theory” tradition was the idea that a system could
be made more democratic, by the right reforms. It declined asking the question of
whether the voters wanted this reform, which of course they didn’t or it would
have happened, eventually. To be “progressive” was to be ahead of the people.
The political idea, to the extent that it was semiconscious, was that changing the
constitution or other rules of the game to be “more democratic” would produce
the “right” outcomes. The assumption was that the present system was undemocratic,
or insufficiently democratic, and that the obstacles could be removed. In
practice, the strategy was not to appeal to the people, but to the courts, who
might be persuaded to change some of the rules of the game on grounds of
equality or access.

* One function of voting was to tell the state it has failed. This is what Weber had in mind when he told Erich Ludendorff that democracy was a system where you select the leader and then shut up and obey, but if the leader fails, to the gallows with him. It was the gallows part that made this definition work. During the Trump administration, there was a great deal of talk about “democratic values,” but no one said what they were supposed to be. [Turner] argued that with a suitably deflated definition of democracy, not one festooned with preferences that the festooner wanted to add to the definition and the people themselves did not, accountability was still left as a core value (Turner and Mazur 2020). Without accountability, there could be no meaningful rule of the people, which was the core definition. And this is the “value” that the administrative state, in Wilson’s own telling, was to abandon and replace by “trust.”

* As I close this text, I am several years into Stage IV breast cancer. I began writing the early part after my initial diagnosis, at Stage III-C, when it appeared to everyone that I would not live long. Then I set it aside for eight years. I returned to it during the COVID-19 pandemic. The literature at the Breast Clinic at the cancer center where I had the initial surgery, and where I return annually to see the surgeon, is unequivocal in its message to patients at this stage: you will die of this. The progress of my cancer has been signaled accurately by the “markers” in the blood test. They go up and down, and happen to be up a bit at the moment. There is nothing predictable about the course of this disease, so there is no reason
not to go on working. But there is no reason to think that I will be able to finish
what I started.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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