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Michael Potemra’s Two Themes: Religious Pluralism and Human-Rights Libertarianism

I am slow to eulogize our late literary editor Michael Potemra, of whose death we learned last week, but I wanted to add a few memories to those my colleagues have shared.

It has been said that Mike’s voice was hoarse, and this is true, but only of his lower register; he voiced the higher frequencies. I can imagine him saying “Hey, dude” in each of these ways, in each pointing an index finger at you.

Rich found his politics idiosyncratic but to me they were relatively straightforward at the level of general principle: Mike was a pro-life Reaganite libertarian with a strong belief in human rights as he understood them (see below). Readers of his Corner posts might not have realized on how many issues he and they agreed because he wrote disproportionately in opposition to prevailing views, as if providing what he considered to be the missing needful thing. But he took disagreements in stride. I asked him whether he had ever felt angry about an editorial position NR had taken. Just once, he said: when he thought the editors were not willing enough to condemn waterboarding as torture.

Jay remembers him as being appalled by the current Right. That was also my impression, as long as it does not connote that Mike felt disgust and harsh moral judgment, which I think were not natural parts of his emotional repertoire. He was certainly saddened: He wanted, as Jay put it, to be “inclusive,” in a very old-fashioned-liberal kind of way, and struggled with the balkanizing and intolerant aspects of the Trump campaign and presidency (as also, it should be said, with those of the Left’s identity politics). And he was shocked by his perception of rising acrimony. I recall his telling me that he had posted on Facebook the remark that if Hillary Clinton — on whom he long claimed or affected to have a crush — won the presidential election but looked guilty of crimes, President Obama should pardon her before she took office, for the sake of national unity. One can easily enough disagree with the likely effectiveness or justice of such a course, but a conservative writer had responded by sending Mike a verbally abusive message and a vow never to write another book review at Mike’s request. Mike was startled but speculated charitably that the writer might not have been himself at the time.

I last saw him when he passed through my city on a cross-country bus trip back in 2012 and I took him to the best Mexican place in town, which makes eight moles of distinct flavor and color. And we had recently begun to chat semi-regularly on the phone. I was always keen to hear anecdotes from his interesting-sounding life, such as that an ex-girlfriend he had reconnected with after many years had become a bodybuilder and was physically transformed but as lovely as ever.

As sometimes happens with people, though, I got to know Mike best in certain respects through written correspondence. Emails, exchanged over many years and often in high volume late at night, were our customary way of discussing philosophy and theology. He expanded my knowledge of classical and medieval philosophy, and of theology generally. Perhaps I offered something in the way of modern and analytic philosophy, which he once claimed to find too detached from the great questions of life and death. But it is of course possible to bring the analytic style of thought to discussions of life and death. Mike did this naturally, which is perhaps why he was intellectually restless in his search for God. You could tell both that he wanted definite verbal formulae and that he knew what he was trying to talk about wasn’t really definable.

Others have noted that he ended up in Evangelical Christianity, but this might give the wrong sense of him, in particular his lack of quarrel with hippie culture (with the caveat that, as I said, he was pro-life). I believe he also continued to attend some Mainline services. Perhaps one could say that the evolution of his public worship came to rest in a ritually minimal Protestantism but that he continued to develop inwardly, and in ways that left room for doubt and uncertainty. His beliefs were capacious and inclusive, and I would not know how to summarize them. We both had interests in Buddhism despite not being Buddhists, and I got an email one morning from Mike in which he said he was feeling stressed and asked whether I could recommend a mantra. Since I’ve never used mantras — unless you count involuntarily saying “Strange” to myself inwardly when things become that, and so a lot — I told him I’d read that the eleventh Trungpa tulku had asserted that the best mantra was “Om. Grow up. Svaha.” He found this unhelpful.

During the only other meal we ever ate one on one, lunch at a now-vanished Murray Hill diner soon after I started working at NR, I asked him why he believed in God. He replied, “Hidden messages in things.” I really wanted to request an example but didn’t feel like getting too personal; but now I regret my reluctance, because, on the two occasions years later when I asked him to elaborate, he claimed not to remember the remark and dismissed it with jokes about insanity or intoxication.

It’s a shame he didn’t write more in recent years. I got the sense that he felt his writings were not especially welcome. After returning from a vacation once, I emailed to compliment something he’d posted, explaining that I’d checked his archive because I enjoyed his writings and wanted to see whether I’d missed any while away. He was surprised and grateful and said he was used to getting hostile responses. But on the other hand I got the sense that he was relatively indifferent to people’s opinions and free of graphomania in himself. Whatever the reason, his desire to communicate with the readership eventually dwindled into dormancy.

“I don’t feel bad about not writing on the Corner anymore,” he wrote me a little more than a year ago, because “I only ever made two points, which, even though I tried to make them in many different ways, ended up being as boring to me as they were to NRO readers.” I asked what they were, and the answer is not boring:

My points are “All religions, including atheism, have great value as approaches to the Ultimate Truth, which many people call God.” And “All human beings, no matter what their opinions, have great dignity because they are open-ended, at the top, to Transcendence.” In short: 1) religious pluralism and 2) human-rights libertarianism.

Our last phone conversation was a few weeks ago. “I’m afraid this death thing is real,” he said at one point. Not that either of us thought he would die soon; this was normal talk.

“Yes, but who’s to say it’s the final reality?” I answered.

“Well, yes, that’s the hope.”

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