One evening, while bored at work, I started poking around the web looking for current events for people that I knew when I played chess during high school and college in the 1980s. I stumbled across the text "MORTON WENGER (Deceased)" on this web page, which floored me.
I knew Dr. Wenger primarily as a chess player. He was a "personality" in the area, on his best behavior, he bordered on mean and selfish - if things did not go precisely the way he wanted them to, he would threaten to sue. This intimidation was more than just an empty threat - he actually did sue his employer at one point (they passed him over for a promotion - go figure).
Dr. Wenger may have been a "personality", but he wasn't much fun to be around, especially if he was losing. Complaints were the norm for him, and the constant barrage drove people away, and isolated him. It makes me wonder if he was compensating for his isolation by complaining - thereby forcing people to pay attention to him.
A few years after I started playing, Dr. Wenger brought his son to start playing. I remember having a conversation with the father of one other high school player because Dr. Wenger was hovering over his son's game-in-progress, and the other player's father wanted him to back off. The irony is that when we got Dr. Wenger to back off, his own son relaxed and promptly started blowing the other kids off the board. Dr. Wenger was intimidating his own son worse than the competition!
Just after I graduated from high school, I was suckered into taking an officer's position in the state chess association . . . at the end of my first year of service, I realized that I was now just as likely to get sued by Dr. Wenger as my predecessors were, and I arranged to get myself out of that situation. I stopped playing chess actively for some time - it just wasn't enjoyable when the game ceased to be able the board and pieces, and mutated into the ongoing soap opera of "how not to get sued."
About a year later, I returned to play one weekend. I played a few games, and then overheard a conversation between Dr. Wenger and the president of the state association that ended in shouting. The specific situation dealt with the state high school championships, and a political problem that had been plaguing the state chess association for years - how to make the "state" organization (which was really just Louisville and Lexington) truly be "state-wide". To that end, there had been several outreach programs for a tournament director in western Kentucky, a complete reorganization of the state officers and organizational structure to be more inclusive ... and a major program to include high school players from all across the state. So at the end of the school year, the state organization found itself in a quandary - the rules published at the beginning of the season stated that the "top 6 rated" high school players would play in a round-robin tournament to determine who the state high school champion would be. Unfortunately, that plan had a flaw - the bulk of the rated tournaments had been held in Louisville, Lexington or the surrounding counties, so the top six were all from the middle of the state. The top-rated player from Western Kentucky was seventh on the list . . . a mere handful of rating points lower than the sixth player - Mort's son.
Had Mort's son been fifth, I believe that there would not have been a shouting match that day. The sixth player would have been silently bumped in favor of number 7, and no one would have known. I walked out to talk to the president, and told him point blank that for once I agreed with Mort, and that Mort even had a case. My point was that the player being screwed over by that plan wasn't #7 . . . but was #6, who had worked hard to be there, and achieved it, despite his father. Ultimately, the president agreed that the as-published rules would be followed, and Mort's son played. I think that the people from Western Kentucky were unhappy with this, but that single day was enough to remind me how much I hated the politics . . . and I did not go back.
So, having remembered Mort as being his own worst enemy - I went looking for his obituary to see when he died. As I was looking, I found this article by Alan Spector of Purdue University-Calumet. The rest of this journal entry is a response to that article.
Wow. I had forgotten that Mort was a Marxist. Someone had told me that, once, but I did not believe it. Mort did not strike me as an "out for the good of everyone" sort, but more of a "me first - do it my way or else" sort.
Reading Mr. Spector's text shocked me - it goes against all of my memories of Dr. Wenger. For example, I love this line:
He also leaves behind a life's work that is a model for all who struggle against this old world of racism, fascism, and war -- all who struggle to destroy this old world of capitalism and build a new world of economic, social, and interpersonal relations free from exploitation and inequality.
In my experience, Dr. Wenger was a candidate poster child for exploiting anything that he could possibly turn to his advantage, except that he went so far overboard that things usually blew up in his face and left him in a worse position than before. Mort had a reputation for wanting to be "more equal" than everyone else. It was so bad that when I was arguing that his son merited that sixth position, one bystander wanted to exclude Mort's son just as a way to punish Mort!
Morton was a tireless fighter for humanity in many ways.
I flagged this statement, and then realized that I could neither support nor challenge it. He may have fought for humanity in general, but if so, he fought with a disdain for the specific humans that were around him - we were all in his way. I finally got tired of fighting him, and wandered off - it wasn't any fun anymore, and Mort was a major reason why it wasn't fun.
He often commented about how constricted he felt by the immediate circumstances of his employment
And those of us who were around him when he did that replied, "well, duh - you sued your employer . . . who can't fire you because you have tenure!" Now, in retrospect, I find it amusing that such a determined Marxist would want to become the boss in a capitalist society. I could chalk it up to him wanting to improve the life of his family, I guess, but that does not seem to fit, properly.
As an activist and debater, Mort was scrupulously committed to advancing towards the truth of an issue, whether or not it made him unpopular. He sometimes displayed a too-short temper and an impatience with those with whom he disagreed; some felt he was overly critical. But this impatience flowed not from a fundamental arrogance, but rather from a deep understanding of just how destructive capitalism is in so many ways.
"Fundamental arrogance" describes him perfectly - thanks for the phrase. Mort displayed that same "too-short temper" in chess, lashing out on a regular basis in a situation where competence could be easily determined across the board. You cannot claim that Dr. Wenger had a "deep understanding" of chess after reviewing his tournament record - he simply lost too many games.
He would often say things like: "Well, you can't really condemn him. He just doesn't understand." Or "He's a product of his class situation. He's doing what is sensible from his standpoint." And he did not say this in a condescending way, just a way of keeping his anger focused on capitalism as a system rather than personalizing it.
In the process of "focusing his anger on capitalism", Dr. Wenger appeared to dehumanize the people around him. It is almost like he could not accept the possibility that a good idea could come from someone who was in a higher class than him. Now, that brought forth an interesting thought ...
In a way, his attempt to force his employer to promote him would have expanded the number of people that were his "equals" and "inferiors". By being promoted, he would have had more people that he could have accepted good ideas from, and being denied that promotion kept him trapped in the limited space that he was already in.
That seems to fit. It explains why I did not have problems with Dr. Wenger when I was in high school, and a lesser player than he was - and why I started having trouble with him when my skills improved and I started volunteering my time to help the club and the state association. I had advanced past him in that small part of the universe, and was now to be ignored.
The sad truth is that, having met him and having known him, I find that I have almost no interest in what Dr. Wenger had to say. I found one thread from 1997 where he signed as "Mordechai", and I dozed off in the middle of his rambling. I found another where he wrote about the inherent problem with "Intelligence Tests", and forced myself to read it . . . only to learn that I had reached the same conclusion he had a long time ago (hint: they are flawed).
But that is just part of the deal. If you (or anyone) want me to listen to you, then you have to be willing to listen to me. I may not have the answers . . . but if you disregard me entirely, then don't be surprised when I disregard you.
All of this, because of an obituary for a man that I did not like that much. Ah, well.