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October 18, 2002

Sahlins gives Nuveen lecture

Professor Emeritus Marshall Sahlins nearly silenced an audience with careful observation, wide-ranging scholarship, and a healthy dose of wit. Sahlins, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and of Social Sciences in the College, delivered this year's annual John Nuveen lecture on the terms of debate and historical implications of the Elián González affair.

Sahlins' lecture, entitled "The Making of National History by Family Melodrama: The Iconization of Elián González", provided an engrossing variety of quotes from journalists, an amusing background of political cartoons and photographs from the time, and a breathtaking detour into cultural theory and anthropological observation.

Much of Sahlins' lecture dealt with historical notions of what makes an unlikely celebrity as well as the relationship between personal beliefs and the development of collective action and debate. He also attempted to explain throughout the lecture how a largely personal affair could capture the attention of two nations.

"The Elian affair raises not a few questions about historical agency," Sahlins said during the lecture. "Who gets to be the history makers and in what circumstances?"

"Not just any old story will do. It has to be a good old story, structurally speaking," Sahlins said.

As a fulfillment of the lecture's investigation of theological issues, Sahlins centered his discussion on the religious values that entered into and motivated the debate on which nation had a rightful claim to Elian Gonzalez.

He described how the image of González became the central symbol in the Three Kings procession in Miami during the affair and how he was celebrated along with Jose Martí, on the Cuban hero's birthday. Sahlins also displayed slides of paintings portraying González with images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, being carried along by dolphins on the raft he rode to the United States.

"Soon both sides were objectifying these values in mass demonstrations," he said.

Sahlins ended his lecture by giving assent to the assertion of Steve Cohen, Chicago Tribune columnist, that the significance of the whole affair was mainly to make fools of politicians and thus to make history.

The lecture evoked only one critical question from the audience about the truth of Sahlins' assertion that the Elián González affair had a decisively negative impact on Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential Election.

The John Nuveen lecture, sponsored by the Divinity School and endowed by the Baptist Theological Union, provides distinguished scholars the opportunity to speak on theological issues in the context of their own work.

In the past, the lecture has been given by former University President Hanna Gray; Karl Weintraub, Thomas E. Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History; Mircea Eliade, Former Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions; Jean Comaroff, Bernard E. and Ellen C. Sunny Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology; Robert Pippin, Raymond W. and Martha Hilpert Gruner Distinguished Service Professor; Richard Saller, Provost of the University; and Johnathan Z. Smith.

"It was a lecture that studied very carefully the deployment of religious iconography," said Richard Rosengarten, Dean of the Divinity School.

Rosengarten explained the mission behind the lecture by way of the University's origins. "The Baptist Theological Union is an organization that supports the divinity school through an endowment," Rosengarten said of the group that funds each year's lecture.

"It had aspirations in the 1880s to make itself into a University of Chicago," he said.

Although the Theological Union never accomplished its aim of becoming a university, it was brought to Hyde Park by William Rainey Harper, a one-time Baptist minister and founding President of the University.

"What we have now is an endowment from the Baptists supporting a nondenominational, university-related divinity school," he said. "It reflects Harper's belief that rigorous academic research on religion is not an oxymoron."

Sahlins is currently doing research on the intersection of culture and history in early-modern Pacific societies. His latest book was a collection of anthropological and political essays ranging from the 1960s through the 1990s.