Murder Most Foul Performed Live by Tom Palaima and Joe Goodkin


Released on Disc 2 of Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020)

Official lyrics:

Official video:


Tom Palaima – vocals

Joe Goodkin – guitar

Recorded by Shane Hendrickson at Studio 3024, Chicago, IL, on October 12, 2023 in one unedited take and performed from memory.

We hope our live version helps listeners to feel and understand the magnitude and emotional depth of this masterpiece by Bob Dylan.

About Joe Goodkin: Joe (b. July 8, 1977) is a Chicago-based singer/songwriter who has written and recorded twelve albums of original music under the name Paper Arrows and his own name.  He travels the country and world singing modern folk song cycle retellings of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad (The Blues of Achilles), a combined 450 performances in almost every US state as well as Greece and Italy. His 13th album is called Consolations and Desolations and will be available everywhere you get digital music on October 27, 2023.

More at:

“I played a 1963 Gibson J-50 acoustic (like this one ). An intriguing coincidence (if you believe in coincidences) that it is from the year Kennedy was killed and the young Bob Dylan experienced such trauma (see Background below).  I favor Gibson guitars for their darker tone and I especially favor vintage Gibson guitars for the additional sonic complexity that develops from aged wood and the decades of history that reside in the instrument.”

“I was first made aware of Bob Dylan’s music through cover versions of “All Along the Watchtower” (Jimi Hendrix) and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (Guns N’ Roses). I got a chance to see Bob live in 1993 in Chicago.  As my focus in music shifted from strictly guitar playing to songwriting/singing, I began to absorb his influence directly through his massive catalogue. The album Time Out of Mind was a game changer. Over the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to learn and perform Bob’s songs at least a dozen times (both in person and virtually) for Tom Palaima’s UGS 302 class at the University of Texas at Austin: Bob Dylan History Imagination. These performances have been both intimidating and inspiring, allowing me to get inside some of the seemingly limitless genius of Mr. Dylan’s singular oeuvre.”

About Tom Palaima: Tom Palaima (b. October 6, 1951) is in his last academic year as Robert M. Armstrong Professor of Classics and founding director of the Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory (est. 1986) at the University of Texas at Austin.

Since the 1990’s he has taught seminars, written book reviews and public intellectual commentaries, and lectured widely on human creative responses to war, violence and social injustice, ancient and modern, and on music and songs as social commentary, including the song poems of Bob Dylan.

He serves on the editorial board of The Dylan Review. He was a prime mover in the decision of TDR  to publish Dylan-inspired poetry, including his own, and to emphasize inspiring the upcoming generation to explore and feel Dylan’s music and express themselves about how his songs and performances affect them.

More at:

Why record the song? During Covid (Spring 2020-Spring 2023) Joe Goodkin and Tom Palaima performed “Murder Most Foul” three different times via Zoom for annual iterations of Tom’s award-winning UGS 302 class at the University of Texas at Austin: Bob Dylan History Imagination. Tom then was using the printed text as a crutch.

They took advantage of Tom’s going to Chicago for a MacArthur Fellows Forum in mid-October 2023 to record MMF in the studio. Tom decided the only way to ‘know and feel’ the song fully and understand its complexity was to learn it by heart. This he did over a period of about six weeks.

The version of MMF here was done in one take in Studio 3024. It has certain live-performance ‘flaws’: ‘live’ substitutions and small mistakes and two vocal pauses filled by Joe’s fine guitar.

Tom also chants “Look Out” instead of “Hold On” when JFK realizes the trap he is in. He was so deep inside the song that he was warning the president himself rather than reporting the president’s own realization.

But we also got to update the chronology: “For the last sixty years they’ve been searching for that.” The end result is what it is and it’s our “Murder Most Foul.”


Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” is a deeply disconcerting hymn of associative and dissociative memory and memorialization.

It is grounded in Dylan’s own original intense experiences of personal loss and menacing social hatred during 1963, the year when he celebrated in late May his twenty-second birthday. During that year Dylan in his famous Town Hall Concert (April 12, 1963) recited a capella, as it were, his seven-minute poem “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” Guthrie at age fifty was then about a decade into hospitalization with the extremely debilitating neural disorder Huntington’s chorea.

On June 12, 1963, in a suburb of Jackson, Mississippi, Medgar Evers, a black World War II veteran, a lawyer and NAACP field secretary for Mississippi, arguably the deepest of the Deep South states, with all that this phrase implies, was shot dead in his driveway coming home late at night to his wife and three children.

Soon afterwards, Dylan wrote his penetratingly honest assessment of the incident “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and performed it on July 6 at a black voter registration rally in nearby Greenwood, Mississippi in the presence of Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel. Bikel recollects the event, here.

On August 28, 1963, Dylan sang the same song from the very podium in the March on Washington where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Returning from Washington, Dylan composed his classic song about racial violence “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” He recorded it in October.

Less than three months later, Dylan and his then true love Suze Rotolo sat riveted to coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and its aftermath (November 22-25, 1963).

Finally, on December 13, 1963, three weeks after Kennedy was killed, at the dinner where he received the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Union, Dylan, having spoken in favor of pro-Castro activists, segued to the Kennedy assassination. He bravely and honestly said:

I’ll stand up and to get uncompromisable about it, which I have to be to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don’t know exactly where —what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too – I saw some of myself in him. I don’t think it would have gone – I don’t think it could go that far. But I got to stand up and say I saw things that he felt, in me – not to go that far and shoot.

THE POWERFUL MESSAGE OF “Murder Most Foul” (MMF) by Tom Palaima

The reference in MMF to searching for Kennedy’s soul for ‘the last fifty years’ gives us an indication that Dylan was thinking, as would only be natural, about the killing of JFK around the time of its fiftieth anniversary in 2013. The song distills the essence and the long-term impact of this shockingly brutal public murder upon American culture and the ‘soul of the nation’.

As I wrote during the covid period in an essay not long after the release of MMF in late March 2020, “Grassy Knoll Covid Morning,” Athenaeum Review 5 Winter 2021 FOLIO:

For close to seventeen minutes Dylan, with piano, cello and light percussion accompaniment, hypnotically meditates upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He takes us through the events of those late November days in 1963 when “the soul of a nation has been torn away” and “the age of the anti-Christ has just only begun.” The subdued meditative mood of the song matche[d] the gray mood of COVID times.

Dylan’s song is Nobel Prize-worthy. I would say he makes us relive the miserable killings, the grief of the Kennedy family, the quick changing of the political guard and what it all meant for us and our country, but in truth MMF makes us take these things deep into our minds and souls and really live them for the first time.

I lived through the assassination of JFK. I was twelve years old and sitting on the front steps of my neighbor friend Robbie’s house in the early afternoon on Sunday November 24, 1963, when his divorced mother came out the front door looking shaken and distracted. Because there were no adults around for her to talk to, she said, not really to us, “They just shot President Kennedy’s —.” I forget what she called Lee Harvey Oswald. Neither my friend Robbie nor I felt very much. We did not talk about the president or his presumed killer being shot. We were more interested in the Cleveland Browns football game that afternoon. By weird fate the Browns were playing against the Dallas Cowboys. I saw my Catholic parents grieving during this period, my mother crying during iconic televised and photographed moments like John John’s final salute to his father.

Dylan in his sung words and [with his] sea-like musical accompaniment takes us “Deep in a Dream,” into the kind of reverie where “junk” or heroin takes the jazz musicians he calls out. He re-creates what it was like for Kennedy himself to realize that he was being “led into some kind of a trap” and “gunned down like a dog in broad daylight” while “ridin’ in the back seat next to my wife / heading straight on into the afterlife.” Dylan conveys the meaning of this “vile, cruel and mean” act to Americans then and to us now, as it was captured forever on the famous Zapruder film.

Dylan never uses the clinical and emotion-obliterating word ‘assassination’.  He makes us feel the horrific moment as a murder most foul (a phrase from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that he uses to conclude all four main stanzas, and to end the song itself), a killing “with hatred, without any respect.” And we do feel what it was like when “they killed him once and they killed him twice / killed him like a human sacrifice.”

Dylan takes us away into our distracted American lives filled with Beatles music, Hollywood movies, Woodstock, Altamont, Patsy Cline, Etta James, Don Henley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Hoagey Carmichael, Shakespeare, the Who, Wolfman Jack and “the great Bud Powell.” He jars us [back] out of our American dreams by alluding to other brutal murders of innocents and not-so-innocents in our country’s history: Sherman’s march to the sea (1864), the Tulsa race massacre (1921), the sordid hanging for murder of Civil War veteran Tom Dula (1868), the violent killings of notorious gangsters Charles Floyd (1934) and Benjamin Siegel (1947). He then leaves us with a “blood-stained banner” and a final “murder most foul.”

Remembering Denny Freeman

by Tom Palaima

April 29, 2021

The Old Austin is now officially dead. Denny Freeman did/played it all,

from Bob Wills and Hank Williams on pedal steel behind John Reed at C-Boy’s to Bob Dylan (March 2005-August 2009 for selections from his Dylan period go to: );

from jazz standards behind jazz trombonist Jon Blondell at the Elephant Room and Hammond B3 organist Mike Flanigin at the Gallery to late 50’s into 60’s r&b and early rock and roll dance music at the Saxon Pub happy hour throughout the 2000-teens;

and behind great bluesmen and women at Antone’s and at the start with Paul Ray and the Cobras and with Stevie Ray Vaughan. He also long toured with Taj Mahal.

He did it with grace, modesty, dedication and a kind of genial seriousness of purpose.

And he did, as one headline proclaimed, make everyone else sound better.

Visitors and even Austinites whom I took to hear Denny in his many manifestations, all say the one time is memorable and they are grateful to have seen and heard him.

Two pieces sent my way from Denny’s friends

This profile is great on Denny. It is written by my friend of twenty years, Brad Buchholz, former feature writer for the Statesman: (Links to an external site.)

This is a marvelous heartfelt interview found and furnished by my friend, Casey Monahan, former head for ca. 25 years of the Governor’s Music Commission, who knows knew everyone, because he set up the state index of musicians and supported/promoted Texas music personally and tirelessly. The interview will clue you in to life for someone coming of age in Texas 1962-70 and some deeply personal experiences we all go through, including how we handle becoming separate from our parents out in the world. (Links to an external site.)

Recordings of Denny’s music

I have put together in one folder 5 live tracks and one studio version that get across why Denny’s music gave us so much joy and helped us get through our blues and sorrow in whatever rough times we were in. (Links to an external site.)

I hope this works. Let me know if you have any troubles downloading the six files. They’re embedded below, too.

There are some small stutters in these.

They were recorded with an old small voice recorder kind of thing I had back then and then transferred onto computer.

Five Freeman classics live and One Ur-original

    1. Dylan (2005 Manchester) “Million Miles”
  1. Jazz (2011) 2 versions of “Riders on the Storm” premiere 082611 & 6 wks later 101611 with Mike Flanigin and Frosty Smith at The Gallery
    1. Version 1:

      On the premiere of “Riders on the Storm” you will hear Mike Flanigin at the beginning explaining to Denny some features of the structure of the song they are about to play and at the end Denny asking what song that was that he just played; my boyish voice twice says it’s the world premiere!

    2. Version 2, 6 weeks later:

      The Gallery on Sunday nights second set was pure heaven for the small audience; no one was there ’round midnight who did not want to hear great music. On the 101611 version you can hear Mike explaining there was no cover that night but we were encouraged to fill the tip jar, because “Denny Freeman doesn’t come cheap.”

      In fact, no. Denny was and will remain priceless as these bootlegs of mine will attest.

  2. Blues/jazz (2012) Denny’s ‘signature’ tune “Soul Street” the original released version from his 1988 album Out of the Blue AND 2 live versions, one with Derek O’Brien at Antone’s and the other with Jon Blondell and Frosty Smith (The Denny Freeman Trio) at The Gallery
    1. Original version:
    2. With Derek O’Brien:
    3. with Jon Blondell:


All my very best wishes. All this above and below helps me not feel so bad. Maybe it will do some good for you, too.

PS Here, too, is an oldie, but goodie from Gavin Garcia’s TODO Austin that recalls a time the late, great Cliff Antone, over my house for a reception, plucked Denny’s music out of the air in mid-conversation. I had thought this was when Michael Gray was visiting, but that was on September 7, 2006 and Cliff passed away on May 23, 2006. And this talks about Denny just having started to play for Bob, which he did from March 7, 2005 through August 2009.

I also thought it was “Million Miles” of which I have given you a magnificent Denny version here. But it actually was “Standing in the Doorway” which Denny played six times with Bob between March and November 2005: 11 March, 25 March, 8 April, 25 April, 21 June, 13 November.

Ain’t it just like your mind to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to make it be still and quiet.

This all captures some of the last gasps of old Austin. I think with Denny’s passing, even memories of old Austin will be gone, or else transform themselves in our imaginations as my mind has gotten two things wrong. But what I got right was Cliff and how he knew Denny’s playing style. And the emotion that student detected in Cliff is the same quiet love of music Denny put across on stage all the time.

TODO Austin 1:5 (October 2009)

“Dr. Antone: The Real Deal”

by Tom Palaima

“You know, if people wanna know why a brother can do down, can get down so much and really do the blues, it’s cause he lived the blues, he lived the blues.”

-James Brown, “Like It Is, Like It Was” 1970

One of the happiest turns in my life was getting to know Clifford Antone personally through our mutual friend Gavin Lance Garcia. We became friends at lunch with Gavin at Hoover’s on Manor Road just after New Year’s Day 2004. I had, of course, seen Clifford at his club at least a hundred times since my first time there in late December 1983, when, in my memory, Cliff had managed to bring in the reclusive jazz-inflected bluesman Fenton Robinson. What made Cliff special, even from a distance, was the respect and courtesy he conveyed in introducing the blues artists who graced his stage and his own child-like happiness in being able to hear them live, close-up and personal, and to give the gift of their music to people like me who were smart enough to realize that a night of music at Antone’s was the best thing Austin had to offer.

I brought to our lunch at Hoover’s a paper I had presented at a Fulbright conference in Austria in November 1992. I had discussed blues and race relations in the United States, which was then a hot topic in circles such as Living Blues magazine. A friend back in the States had gone to the old Antone’s on Guadalupe one afternoon and, with the kind permission of Susan Antone, had taken slide photos of the whole interior and its many memorabilia, so that I could show Austrian students the environment for the music I was playing them: Zuzu Bolin, Herbie Bowser and T.D. Bell, Jimmy Rogers and the Antone’s House Band, master-of-the-telecaster Albert Collins, Junior Wells and James Cotton. Well, talking about all these blues legends was okay twelve years later at Hoover’s, but it was when I mentioned a special set I had heard at Cliff’s club by the great husband and wife team Carol Fran and Clarence Hollimon that Cliff said to Gavin, “The man knows his blues.”

When the bill came, I went to pay. Cliff insisted that he pay. I said I would take $20 from him, but only if he signed it. That bill is now framed on the wall of my office, Andrew Jackson staring over at the big C in Clifford’s signature and the Antone 04. Below in the same frame is Cliff’s business card with Pinetop Perkins’ autograph from the interview I did with Pinetop for anAmerican-Statesman commentary. Cliff had brought Pinetop to Austin and had seen to all of his living arrangements when it became known to him that Pinetop was being taken advantage of by music people up in Indiana.

The Cliff I knew was the real deal. I think that Cliff, like Bob Dylan, heard music all the time. Once we had him to dinner with a small group of aficionados of other kinds of music. I thought it would be nice to put some Antone’s Records cd’s on softly as background.

Impossible. In the middle of a conversation, Cliff would suddenly say, “Listen to what Kaz (Kazanoff) is doing here.” Or his conversation would stop as he was transported away by Kim Wilson playing harp alongside Jimmy Rogers. Most remarkable was this. Denny Freeman had then just started to play with Bob Dylan. I had put on a bootleg which had Bob and his band doing a beautiful, spare, bluesy version of “Standing in the Doorway.” Cliff, again in the middle of talking, said, “Hey, listen to Denny.”

Cliff was the real deal and he respected real music. I remember getting a call from him saying, “The place to be tonight is Jovita’s.” When I got there, Cliff was dreamily taking in the Cornell Hurd Band. And it was Cliff who turned me on to Hard Core Country Tuesday at the Broken Spoke, with James White and Alvin Crow and Johnny X playing genuine country music. Cliff heard the reality in their non-amplified, front-room renditions of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and country blues yodeler Jimmy Rodgers.

The place where Cliff’s deep love of blues music, music-makers and people in general really came across was in the course he taught with Kevin Mooney at UT Austin, “The Blues According to Clifford Austin.” I was lucky enough one semester to be able to sit in regularly.

Cliff would walk in with a suitcase full of dvd’s, vhs tapes, cd’s, books and photos and then give as much of it as he could to the students. Enrollment grew from 60 in 2004 to 180 in 2006. As Kevin recalls, “Cliff’s excitement was infectious, as it always was when he showed us an extremely rare film of B.B. King sharing the stage with T-Bone Walker or a video clip of a young Stevie Ray Vaughan taken from his private collection.” Cliff often said: “This film is so great, I can’t even watch it.” I can corroborate what Kevin says, “He liked to answer questions and showed an enormous amount of respect for the students. He would ask them if they had ever heard of a certain musician and often seemed shocked when only a few hands went up, but that reinforced how important it was for him to be there.”

Cliff died just weeks after the spring 2006 semester ended. I remember getting a call from Gavin while at a dinner before a lecture I was giving in New York City. The bad news sucked the life out of me. What one student wrote on his course evaluation sums Cliff up perfectly, “I have never seen someone so passionate about music. He wanted everyone to feel what he felt and he kept everyone interested with the hundreds of stories he had.” He lived the blues.

PPS Denny lived the blues and so much else through music.

Remember the Soldiers Who Have Labored in Our Fields

Palaima: Remember the Soldiers Who Have Labored in Our Fields

Austin American-Statesman September 2, 2003, p. A9

I owe him an apology and I didn’t even catch his name. But we all owe him and others like him an apology, at least in the original ancient Greek sense of an explanation, so here is mine to one eloquently passionate Chicano Vietnam veteran and the 83,000 other soldados who served our country in Vietnam.

I spent Monday evening in the studio at KLRU on the UT Austin campus where Austin City Limits is filmed. The set gives the illusion of our rich and modern urban center at night, with artificially lighted twinkling stars, a capitol dome and corporate high rises.

This was a particularly ironic setting to preview Charley Trujillo’s and Sonya Rhee’s documentary film in the PBS P.O.V (Point of View) series that told the story of poor Chicano cotton field workers from Corcoran, California in the 1960’s whose only taste of bright lights would soon be night flares and the flashes of artillery fire and the evil beauty of napalm trails.

The event, organized by KLRU, included a lively discussion afterwards kicked off by commentary from Dee Esparza, a psychiatric mental health specialist in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at our local Vet center, Paul Berdoff of the VA Outpatient Clinic, Anthony B. Moore of the Texas Veterans Commission, Gil Rodriguez, the immediate past state commander of the state American GI Forum (founded by Hector P. Garcia to help Hispanic American vets get their due benefits) and Thomas Cruz, who handles veterans affair issues in congressman Lloyd Doggett’s office.

The film focuses on five boys who went from working the fields, “irrigating, chopping, weeding and picking cotton” to wading in rice paddies. And it made clear what was unique to their experience among Vietnam vets..

There are no high-rises in Soldados. The film opens by showing the modified tents in which families lived as they did brutally hard work in the fields, slave work really, a small taste of which as a boy gave Lyndon Johnson a lifelong respect for education as a way out of those fields and a lifelong commitment to try to eradicate poverty and inequality.

You want poverty. Then consider that child care for one vet was his momma dragging him along on the long sack into which she put the cotton she picked in the broiling sun. Again remember that boys (and girls) fight our wars then and now. They were taken away from close-knit families, from strong Roman Catholic upbringings that instilled values of duty and obedience and a strong belief that killing another human being was a mortal sin, from the proud civilian machismo of young Hispanic males coming into their prime, from an overwhelming sense of being low-rung outsiders in an Anglo-dominated society and economy.

Their comments about their war experience have undertones of anger and resentment and resignation about how the world has used them. They also have ironic humor and the kind of deep-sighing awareness of the human condition that middle-age brings to anyone who is even halfway alert to life’s perverse twists and turns and incorrigible injustices.

Their machismo led them again and again to volunteer for the most dangerous assignments, like walking point. Their deep religious beliefs caused moral pain when they “dropped their first guy” in combat, and then the second and then the third. And the guilt that comes from feeling like God, in having such power of life and death. The realization that discrimination even prevails in the armed services. The sudden awareness that they were farm boys fighting Vietnamese farm boys and napalming and shelling and burning farmers’ villages.

“Killing is easy, but living with it is hard.”

“We should have a draft so everyone can do their duty.”

“Our new second lieutenant had dropped out of a seminary. You don’t want a priest leading you unless he’s a mean one.”

“My Vietnam experience prepared me to be a prison guard [in the Corcoran maximum security prison where Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan are kept].”

“Here. You want to see my farm worker permit. [Mr. Trujillo plucks out the glass eye that he has because of a shrapnel wound and holds it to the law officer who was giving him a hard time].”

All that pain and all that anger, delivered in easy tones by 55-year-old men with smiles. And I missed it.

Lourdes Flores, of Texas Rural legal Aid, and I both complained that such documentaries never show the many completely ruined men and women. And we are right. But all the commentators, except for Dee Esparza, stressed what veterans could get, despite closings of hospitals, despite cut backs in benefits, despite reams of red tape.

When Tom Cruz spoke of how congressman Doggett was fighting hard to restore benefits to old levels, we should all have risen in mass apology. Where were we when the benefits for these brave men were cut in the first place.

Watch Soldados on KLRU Tuesday, September 2, and get an education in 26 minutes.

[NOW WATCH: and and  ]

Tom Palaima teaches war and violence studies in the College of Liberal Arts at UT Austin.

The Evil That Men Do Lives After Them

12:49 AM 10/25/2006

This is written, even more that many of my other pieces, to provoke thoughts and comments. Please let me know what comments and thoughts you have.

Find this article at:

Palaima: The evil that men do lives after them
Austin American-Statesman Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The ancient Athenians used public dramas, known as tragedies, to look at problems they had to face. These plays were the centerpieces of yearly festivals that all citizens received payment to attend. They could see one another as they watched the performances in a big
open-air theater. They could share their reactions afterward.

In spring 415 BCE, right after the Athenian citizenry had ordered their soldiers to commit genocide, the citizen soldiers of Athens watched “The Trojan Women,” a play about Greeks committing genocide after the fall of Troy. We have no record of what they thought and felt.

Two movies just opened that pose questions we all need to think about. Clint Eastwood’s version of James Bradley’s “Flags of Our Fathers” (2000) recreates the battle of Iwo Jima and how a single action there by simple men was heroized for Americans back home. In
Kevin Macdonald’s version of Giles Foden’s 1998 novel “The Last King of Scotland,” Forest Whitaker portrays Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. We see Amin through the eyes of a simple everyman character, a young Scottish doctor who has come to Africa haphazardly to do humanitarian medical work and accidentally becomes Amin’s personal physician.

I did not use here any adjectives to describe genocide or what American and Axis soldiers did to each other during the Second World War. Movies such as “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List” and “Hotel Rwanda” have shown us these things. Film images and descriptive terms such as brutal, hellish, monstrous, barbaric can be multiplied forever. They do no good unless we understand what we are confronting: an old-fashioned thing called evil.

We either use the term evil without thinking or think we shouldn’t use it at all. What did our president accomplish when he called Iraq, Iran and North Korea the “axis of evil”? He trivialized evil.

Compared to the real axis powers two generations ago, the bad things done by these countries are feeble. Just contemplate the magnitude of the crimes against humanity of the 11 major Nuremberg defendants sentenced to be hanged 60 years ago this month.

My University of Texas colleague Philip Bobbitt once wrote to me expressing his understandable disgust for comparisons made between civilian casualties during our war in Vietnam and the number of innocent people who died on 9/11. Yet evil operates on a sliding scale. This is a fact even if we are uncomfortable thinking or talking about it.

In “The War of the World,” historian Niall Ferguson remarks, “The Second World War was the greatest man-made catastrophe of all time.” As for genocide, it took many Germans to build and run an efficient system to murder 6 million Jews and about 3 million human beings from other social and ethnic groups. We know these things. Iran,
Iraq and North Korea are far away. So, comedians use “axis of evil” as a joke, and our laughter isn’t even nervous.

But evil is no joke. According to a contemporary news report, “just mentioning the name Idi Amin” in Uganda in 2002 was “enough to cause fear to both the old and young.” Amin was then nearly 80 years old and had been in exile for 23 years.

Many of us shy away from calling things evil on intellectual grounds. We associate good and evil with categorical religious beliefs. Moreover, looking at war or genocide tarnishes the good guys. Former British foreign office minister David Owen thought it disgraceful that we did not act to remove Amin from power. Owen had proposed assassinating him.

When we debate estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties, we see that war in any form makes even the good side complicit in harming innocents. This knowledge is so disturbing to us that we use the euphemism “collateral damage” to soften its impact.

It is also hard to call people and what they do evil because we are so used to compromising in our daily lives. Compromise, in its good sense of meeting people halfway, is arguably the chief (and now forgotten) art citizens and leaders in a democracy must know and use. But evil is uncompromising.

In Vietnam, My Lai was evil. Of all the soldiers at My Lai on March 16, 1968, few had the uncompromising moral courage of Hugh Thompson. Thompson, who died in January, forcefully intervened to stop his fellow soldiers from massacring old men, women, children, babies. He later explained, “I didn’t want to be part of that. It wasn’t war.”

Others, however, succumbed to a mode of thinking that William Eckhardt, chief military prosecutor of William Calley in the My Lai courts martial, came to know too well: “Evil doesn’t come like Darth Vader dressed in black, hissing. Evil comes as a little bird whispering in your ear. ‘Think about your career. I’m not sure what’s going on. We’ll muddle through.’ ”

If and when you see “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Last King of Scotland,” or read the books on which they were based, contemplate evil, and consider what it means that Calley, after spending three years in house arrest, one month for every 10 villagers he killed, at last report was married and working at a jewelry store in Columbus, Ga.

Palaima is Dickson Centennial professor of classics at the University of Texas.


QUESTION: Do you agree or disagree with the decision of the
military court which found (Lt. William) Calley guilty (in
connection with the My Lai incident) and gave him a life sentence?

Agree 7%

Disagree 78%

No opinion 15%

From a telephone survey of 1,090 adults from across the United
States conducted for President Nixon on April 1, 1971.

QUESTION: Do you think President Nixon should free Lt. William
Calley, substantially reduce his sentence, or uphold his life
imprisonment sentence (in connection with the My Lai incident)?

Free Lt. William Calley 51%

Substantially reduce his sentence 28%
Uphold his life imprisonment sentence 9%

No opinion 12%

From a telephone survey of 973 adults from across the United
States conducted by Opinion Research Corporation for President
Nixon on April 5-6, 1971.

As a matter of honor, troops shouldn’t bend rules of war


Austin American-Statesman Monday, August 13, 2007

My close friend Joel Cryer served in Air Force pararescue in Vietnam. The parajumpers are the only U.S. military unit “specifically organized, trained and equipped to conduct personnel recovery operations in hostile or denied areas as a primary mission.” They train hard to uphold their motto “That Others May Live.” They put their lives on the line every mission. On military matters, I give Joel my full attention.

Last week, Joel called me and said, “Tom, I’m leaving a book on your front porch, ‘Lone Survivor,’ about a Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan. It is a New York Times bestseller. The author is from East Texas. Read it, but don’t bother to return it. Just throw it out. It is jingoistic, simplistic and there is something not right about its narrative of what happened. It advocates killing civilians. Let me know what you think.”

I read the book and many reviews and blogs about it. I have read interviews with the author, former Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, including one by Edward Nowotka in the July 29 American-Statesman. I have found only one source, a Christian blog (, that questions Luttrell’s repeated assertion that U.S. military rules of engagement prohibiting firing upon unarmed civilians caused the deaths of the three other SEALs in Operation Redwing.

Luttrell, without historical understanding, blames “liberal politicians in Washington” for the rules of engagement that guide our soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere.

The four SEALs were searching for a Taliban leader. They choppered in and secured a position for observing a Pashtun mountain village. Three goatherds happened upon them. The SEALs faced an awful life-and-death dilemma. Killing these three might preserve the security of the mission. But they had no way of knowing whether the goatherds were pro-Taliban or not.

Luttrell claims that he could tell whether Afghanis were friendly or hostile. He reports that although these goatherds said in English “No Taliban, No Taliban,” their looks were cold and hateful, and they offered no signs of friendship.

Ultimately, Luttrell cast the deciding vote to let them go free. He says the SEALs were afraid of what America’s “liberal media” and the Al-Jazeera network would do if they discovered that four American soldiers had killed three “innocent civilians.” One reviewer declares flatly, “Marcus Luttrell made the wrong

decision. He was thinking like a liberal.”

Later on, after three fellow SEALs have been killed by armed Taliban rebels,

Luttrell is protected and given medical attention by Pashtun villagers. When these Afghanis first approach, he is unsure whether they are friends or enemies. He holds an unpinned grenade as he is carried back to their village, ready to blow himself and them up if they were with the Taliban. He decides they are friendly, when they say, “No Taliban, no Taliban,” the same words he earlier said he heard from the suspicious goatherds. But now he says he is “pretty sure” that the goatherds did not say the same words.

Luttrell’s basic opinion has gained wide support in reviews and commentaries. American soldiers should be given freedom to decide in the field about killing people who look like unarmed civilians. Not doing so in Operation Redwing, in Luttrell’s opinion, cost the lives of three brave SEALs and 16 other Americans in a rescue helicopter that crashed. For Luttrell, even our abuses in Abu Ghraib prison were nothing. Al Qaeda beheads innocent people. Why should we worry about mistreating prisoners?

The Christian blog alone points out that we have no proof that the position of the SEALs was betrayed by the three Pashtun goatherds, or that the mission would have been a success if the SEALs had killed them.

As for Luttrell’s own fallible enemy Geiger counter, imagine three Texan ranchers walking out one morning to look at their cattle. They come upon four Afghani commandos armed with high power weapons. They are forced at gunpoint to sit immobile while the Afghani soldiers discuss in an unintelligible language what to do with them. Hardly the situation for friendly smiles and a warm Texas welcome.

Luttrell is right. War is full of moral ambiguities. But no moral person has the right to do harm to possible innocents to escape death.

This is not a liberal opinion. It is the opinion of an army veteran of three terrible campaigns. His name was Socrates. He died fearlessly in 399 B.C. rather than act against his own rules of engagement, as a soldier and as a human being.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas. Contact:

Why straight talk is hard to deliver but so necessary

Commentary: Why straight talk is hard to deliver but so necessary
By Tom Palaima – Special to the Austin American-Statesman June 6, 2017

We now live more and more in a world of alternative facts. True straight talk about matters that are crucial to living good, satisfying, fruitful and socially responsible lives is hard to come by. Perhaps it has been so ever since our Declaration of Independence declared as “self-evident truths” that “all men are created equal … with certain unalienable rights” and “that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

These words still mean different things to different people. We waited close to century for the Emancipation Proclamation to begin to make the first truth seem not patently false. And 150 years later, it still takes courageous voices to assert the first truth in declaring that “black lives matter.”

Truths are hard to look at, accept and promulgate because they are often not comforting or bring only cold comfort. Truth forces us to confront our shortcomings and see the failings of our society. It is easier to live with illusions.

Poet William Carlos Williams was a doctor serving working-class patients in New Jersey. His deep feelings for their human suffering living lives with no way out made him write in a poem that it is difficult to get the truthful news “from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Truth told can help, even save us.

I long have had Williams’ poetry in my heart, so I was not all that surprised to read in Vietnam veteran poet and writer W.D. Ehrhart’s essay on “Korean War Poetry in the Context of Twentieth Century War Poetry,” that from World War II onward American soldier poets look at war realistically. They “wrestle with the horrors and ambiguities of war.” And they mourn that human beings never learn what they should have learned during past wars.

Soldier poets give us truths about our wars. Even our truly “good war” — World War II — is “butchery and mayhem and stupidity and madness” for those involved. With Korea, Vietnam and later military ventures, “anger, rage and despair” about the aims of our use of armed force become conspicuous.

Ehrhart declares, much like Williams, that poems are the only places where soldiers can tell the truth. Why? Because, as he explains elsewhere, very few people read poems. A best-selling novel will sell hundreds of thousands of copies. A hit film will have millions of viewers. But “our best Pulitzer Prize-winning poets are lucky to sell 4,000 copies.” In other words, you can tell the truth if no one is listening.

There is a crying need for more straight talk — and it need not be offensive. Take, for example, the tragic stabbing death of UT student Harrison Brown on campus on May 1. In class later that week, I asked my students if they felt safe on campus. They all said “yes.”

I told them that they shouldn’t feel safe. The “we’re safe” mantra of the administration lulls them into thinking that an easily accessible campus in the middle of a major urban area is as safe as a backyard in a gated community. In reading about the violence the day Brown was stabbed, students thought it was all some kind of social media make-believe and did nothing to alert nearby students to the danger. If they had not been made to feel unrealistically totally safe, they would certainly have responded differently.

Likewise, when UT student Colton Tooley came to campus on Sept. 28, 2010, fired an automatic weapon into the air at nobody and then committed suicide, he was called a shooter — and the central administration praised the SWAT teams for making the campus secure, even though they came onto campus well after any killing that Tooley could have done if he truly had been a “shooter.”

Little has been done to institutionalize two campus safety truths in faculty, staff and students: the danger signals that might prevent tragic suicides like Tooley’s; and the ease with which anyone intent on violence can do real harm on campus if we are not on the lookout for warning signs. Parents and their children all know that one of the truest forms of love is tough love. The truest truths, too, are tough truths.

Palaima is a professor at the University of Texas.

Some plagiarism serious enough to diminish our faith

September 28, 2003
Austin American-Statesman (TX)

“To plagiarize is to give the impression that you wrote or thought something that you in fact borrowed from someone, and to do so is a violation of professional ethics.”– MLA Style Manual and Guideto Scholarly Publishing

The president of Hamilton College addresses incoming freshmen in September 2002. Talking about a mystery novel, he uses the exact words, without attribution, found in a review on When this is discovered, he resigns.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist in a book published the same month uses, without citation, ideas and words from a Nobel Prize-winning author. When he discovers what he has done, he simply changes the wording for future printings of his book.

Plagiarism is clearly a serious problem. Otherwise, Eugene Tobin would still be president of Hamilton College.

Still, it is hard to know what to do about plagiarism. A recent article describes it as “a lie of the mind.” But there are many kinds of lies, some serious, some trivial. Are there also trivial and serious forms of plagiarism?

“War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” was published about the time Tobin delivered his fateful convocation. On Page 40, the author, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges, writes: “In combat the abstract words glory, honor, courage often become obscene and empty. They are replaced by the tangible images of war, the names of villages, mountains, roads, dates, and battalions.” The phrasing and ideas are clearly taken from Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”: “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and dates.” Hedges does not cite Hemingway in his endnotes or bibliography.

In early June, I wrote to Hedges’ publisher, Public Affairs, advising that the borrowing from Hemingway needed to be acknowledged. I did so after I learned that Hedges’ controversial views on war were being dismissed, unfairly I thought, because of rumors of plagiarism. I also made the case that Hedges’ plagiarism was inadvertent to my former student, Lt. Col. Ted Westhusing, who teaches at the United States Military Academy at West Point. His frank reply raises a crucial question:

” ‘Inadvertent plagiarism’? Inexcusable, especially from a New York Times commentator, reporter and author. Do you know what this would garner Hedges in the circles I run in? If truly ‘inadvertent,’ and if Hedges were a cadet, he might be lucky to garner only a 100-hour ‘slug.’ That is, he spends 100 hours of his free time marching back and forth in the hot sun in Central Area under full dress uniform pondering the consequences of his failure (a slug). If intentional, Hedges would get the boot. Kicked out. Gone.”

Indeed, why should a professional journalist be treated differently than a military academy cadet?

After some confusing responses from Hedges’ publisher, Hedges called me. Hedges later claimed that I misunderstood how he felt about the issues involved.

But the following points are clear:

Hedges attributed his unacknowledged use of Hemingway to careless transcription from his notepads, the same kind of “accidental copying” defense used by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who resigned from the Pulitzer Prize board in May 2002 after plagiarism was discovered in a book she had written 15 years earlier.

When he discovered his oversight, Hedges changed the wording of the passage. In the paperback edition, it now reads: “The lofty words that inspire people to war — duty, honor, glory — swiftly become repugnant and hollow. They are replaced by the hard, specific images of war, by the prosaic names of villages and roads.” The original idea is still Hemingway’s. The words less so.

When I asked Hedges why he had not simply added a citation of Hemingway to his original passage, he replied that he was concerned about increasing printing costs by changing the page layout. But a brief endnote citation would have been easy and cheap.

I pointed out that changing words did not resolve the issue of plagiarism. Hemingway is now unacknowledged on Page 40 in all copies of “War Is a Force” as the source for Hedges’ ideas or words or both. According to University of Texas research librarian Shiela Winchester, more than 900 American libraries have purchased at least one copy of the book. Hedges stayed on message. The offending passage, in his words, was gone. But what about new readers who notice the original plagiarism or how it was disappeared?

Reactions from colleagues have ranged from the cynical: “What do you expect? He’s a journalist,” to laments that Hedges did not have better editors. But Winchester pinpoints why it matters: “The insidious thing about catching an author at this . . . is that it makes the reader doubt everything.”

All this may strike readers, as it did Hedges’ publisher, as a “pedant’s pedant(ry).” After all, a professional historian defended the late Stephen Ambrose against charges of plagiarism by maligning “outside critics (who) worship those sacred quote marks.”

Likewise, many professors at Hamilton College wanted to exonerate their president. One of them, Maurice Isserman, writes that he tried hard before deciding that plagiarism was inexcusable, because as an act of intellectual theft, it prevents students from acquiring “ownership of the words they use.” This is why institutions of higher learning take plagiarism seriously.

But what about outside academia? When public intellectuals like Stephen Ambrose or Doris Kearns Goodwin commit plagiarism, they are not merely stunting their own intellectual development or disappointing their professors.

By disguising the fact that they are not speaking in their own voices, they keep us from understanding how they arrived at their ideas, and they diminish our belief that their voices are original and worth listening to.

Historians and journalists, in particular, are like police officers assigned to protect for us the truth about the past and the present.

More than ever, we need honest cops. Plagiarism is one indicator that a cop is less than honest.

But, like bribes taken by real cops, cases of plagiarism vary in seriousness.

One thing is clear: If Hedges were a cadet at West Point, he would not have had the option of obscuring the wording of the offending passage. He would be marching back and forth under full dress uniform in the hot sun.

Tom Palaima, a MacArthur fellow, is a Raymond Dickson Centennial professor of classics at the University of Texas at Austin.

For the record

This article uses:

* Maurice Isserman, ‘Plagiarism: A Lie of the Mind,’ The Chronicle of Higher Education 39:4 (05-02-03) B12-B13

* Rick Perlstein, ‘The Arrogance and the Ecstasy,’ Village Voice Literary Supplement (May 2002)

* Richard Jensen, ‘In Defense of Stephen Ambrose,’ History News Network (05-20-02)

PLAGIARISM: Historians, journalists have special duty to protect truth

The missing entries from ‘A Gaza Diary’. September 25, 2003

JERUSALEM POST Sep. 25, 2003

by Tom Palaima.



“Every reporter struggles with how malleable and inaccurate memory can be when faced with trauma and stress. Witnesses to war, even moments after a killing or atrocity, often cannot remember what took place in front of them.” – (Chris Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning).

On the back cover of Chris Hedges’ controversial book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Public Affairs 2002), Prof. Michael Ignatieff of the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, assures us, “You can trust Chris Hedges. He has been to the worst places and seen the worst things human beings can do.”

In June 2001, Hedges traveled to one of those worst places, the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian refugee settlement of Khan Yunis. He then wrote “A Gaza Diary: Scenes from a Palestinian Uprising,” published in Harper’s magazine (October 2001). Hedges explained the methods he used in “Gaza Diary” to journalist Uriah Shavit (Haaretz, November 2, 2001):

“The article was written… in first person, present tense; it was done on purpose. Had I written for The New York Times I would have requested a comment, but I wrote journal-style… nothing other than what I saw. I did not interview officials of the [Palestinian] Authority or of Israel. The whole idea was to write without rhetoric. I know the territories well enough to realize that something that you have not seen with your own eyes is not the truth.”

Hedges claims he relied entirely on what he saw, and therefore did not follow his normal procedures for fact-checking and seeking and weighing alternative viewpoints. But his writing has credibility because he is a correspondent for The New York Times and a member of a team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. He is identified with such credentials on the first page of “Gaza Diary” and on the cover of his book. There is no indication in “Gaza Diary” that he is not using his normal reportorial methods.

“Gaza Diary” has gained notoriety because of Hedges’ highly rhetorical description of how Israeli Defense Force troops opened fire upon Palestinian demonstrators at Khan Yunis on June 17, 2001, killing two. One, Ali Murad, age 12, died that very day. During this period of unrest in the Gaza Strip, Palestinians were using petrol bombs, mortar attacks, anti-tank grenades, and sniper fire against IDF troops.

Hundreds of demonstrators were dispersed by gunfire at Khan Yunis on June 16. Eight were wounded. But Hedges does not mention this disturbance until after he starts describing the incident of June 17. He does report beforehand a Palestinian father’s reluctance to approve of his sons becoming suicide bombers.

According to “Gaza Diary,” the refugee camp in the late afternoon of June 17 is still and peaceful. Children play with scrap-paper kites and ragged soccer balls. Hedges sits, wearily sipping a cool drink under the awning of a hut at the edge of the dunes. Suddenly two IDF jeeps with loudspeakers pull up. They immediately taunt the boys with obscenities, luring them up to the fence.

Then “[a] percussion grenade explodes. The boys, most no more than 10 or 11 years old, scatter, running clumsily across the heavy sand. They descend out of sight behind a sandbank in front of me. There are no sounds of gunfire. The soldiers shoot with silencers. The bullets from the M-16s tumble end over end through the children’s slight bodies Children have been shot in other conflicts I have covered but I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport.”

This description is the basis, on many web sites of pro-Palestinian organizations and worldwide news sources, for asserting that IDF troops intentionally lure children to death and use silencers on their M-16s to shoot children “for sport.”

But according to an IDF spokesperson quoted in The New York Times (June 18, 2001), “soldiers had been under attack with stones and bottles when they fired low-caliber bullets at the legs of some demonstrators to stop the crowd.”

Another spokesperson, interviewed in Haaretz (November 2, 2001), asserts that Harper’s never sought comment on Hedges’ incendiary allegations, and that the IDF troops acted with restraint for hours before deciding that the crowd had to be dispersed.

PRO-ISRAELI web sites deny that riot-control forces use silencers. Some argue that Hedges mistook rubber-bullet adapters on the M-16s for silencers.

“The story about silencers on assault rifles is counterintuitive: If the purpose of the exercise was to kill Palestinians it would stand to reason that the IDF would manage to kill considerably more Palestinians than they do,” says Dr. Aaron Lerner, director of the pro- Israeli Independent Media Review and Analysis. “On the other hand, if the shooting takes place within the context of IDF efforts to push back a threat, they would want the mob to hear the sound of the shots.”

But even these counter-arguments miss a key point. Hedges is given credibility because he is a prominent veteran journalist and he was there. Even pro-Israeli sources assume he saw the rifles and mistook their attachments for silencers. But what did Hedges see?

Eye-witnessing in times of stress, danger and violence is problematic. Hedges acknowledges this in his book. But in “Gaza Diary” there is no hint that this might be a problem, especially for a reporter long exposed to war trauma. Vietnam veteran and author Tim O’Brien observes that in a true war story “it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen . You tend to miss a lot.” What did Hedges miss?

Hedges gives three accounts of what happened at Khan Yunis: “Gaza Diary” (October 2001), a “Fresh Air” interview on National Public Radio (NPR, October 30, 2001), and his book War is a Force (September 2002).

His NPR interview is excerpted on the pro-Palestinian web site Palestine Media Watch (

Hedges begins by explaining why he wrote the Harper’s article: “I wanted to write a story that tried to explain why… Palestinian young men are so willing to go into shopping malls in Israel and blow themselves up .”

The interviewer then asks, “What did you see of this fighting while you were there? How did this shooting go down?”

Hedges explains: “And I walked out toward the dunes and they were… over the loudspeaker from an Israeli army Jeep on the other side of the electric fence they were taunting these kids. And these kids started to throw rocks. And most of these kids were 10, 11, 12 years old. And, first of all, the rocks were the size of a fist. They were being hurled toward a Jeep that was armor-plated. I doubt they could even hit the Jeep.

“And then I watched the soldiers open fire. And it was I mean, I’ve seen kids shot in Sarajevo. I mean, snipers would shoot kids in Sarajevo. I’ve seen death squads kill families in Algeria or El Salvador. But I’d never seen soldiers bait or taunt kids like this and then shoot them for sport.”

THIS DESCRIPTION is important because it differs in significant ways from his other two accounts of the day.

Most troublesome is that in “Gaza Diary” and War Is a Force the boys are behind the dunes and out of Hedges’ view. But on NPR Hedges walks out to the dunes, where he sees the troops open fire and the youngsters get shot.

Secondly, in “Gaza Diary” Hedges flatly declares that the soldiers used silencers on their rifles. Yet a year later in War Is a Force he admits, by inserting three little words, that the M-16 rifles were “unseen by me.”

Thirdly, on NPR and in War Is a Force there is only one jeep. In “Gaza Diary” two Israeli armor-clad jeeps with loudspeakers pull up.

It is impossible, then, to know what exactly Hedges saw. He did not respond to my request for clarification of these points. Yet “Gaza Diary” is cited as proof that IDF troops, without provocation, lure peaceful young Palestinian boys forward and immediately shoot them with silencer-equipped M-16s.

Listeners to NPR believe that an experienced reporter saw everything. They would not know that in his published accounts he claims he did not see the boys shot. And only very close readers of Hedges’ book would notice his three-word retraction concerning his seeing silencers. The web sites that have long posted his Harper’s account have not notified their readers of this fact.

Hedges also never tells us many things we would want to know. How many troops were there? Where were they situated in relation to the jeep or jeeps? How many shots were fired? What kinds of bullets were used? Might there be other explanations in the din of conflict for why a short burst of rubber-bullet fire was not heard by frightened, shouting boys and a weary reporter who contradicts himself on what he witnessed?

Hedges’ self-declared non-rhetorical accounts are also archly rhetorical. All is calm at Khan Yunis on the day of the incident. There is no mention of the violence-punctuated tension of the previous days.

Then things happen in ruthlessly quick succession. A jeep or jeeps pull up. It or they immediately incite innocent young boys to riot. Then they directly fire upon the boys with silencers. No hint is given that IDF soldiers were for several hours under assault by a large crowd, which they then attempted to disperse.

There is one fixed truth about June 17, 2001 at Khan Yunis. Ali Murad Abu Shawish died at age 12. Hedges reports his death in such a way as to increase misunderstanding, anger and hatred.

He received the 2002 Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. But his much-cited and highly questionable account of Khan Yunis works against any hopes for a peace that could guarantee human rights and dignity for Palestinians and Israelis.

The writer is Dickson Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches war and violence studies. He thanks Esther Raizen for her translation help. (

Palaima: Let’s explore who we are as human beings

Posted: 11:00 p.m. Friday, Dec 23, 2016 Special to the Austin American-Statesman

The end of the fall semester at the University of Texas always slams up against preparations for the holiday season. Since I was raised with deep faith in Roman Catholicism, the season for me, with 65 Christmases behind me, is still one of deep reflection on the message of the political revolutionary named Jesus Christ.

I can still feel how the small brick mission church — established in 1857 — of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary 20 miles south of Cleveland, Ohio, sheltered from the howling, snowy, dark wintry cold the working-class faithful who attended the 6:30 a.m. weekday masses that I served as a grade-school altar boy.

I am sure deep in my bones that Jesus would disagree strongly with the view recently put forward by psychology professor Paul Bloom in the Wall Street Journal that empathy, the capacity to feel and think how others think and feel, “is a moral train wreck. It makes the world worse.”

Bloom’s statement and arguments in support of it are symptomatic of what the world has become and we within it. Empathy is the very foundation of the socially radical message of Jesus in Matthew 12.30-31. Jesus there enunciates the two greatest commandments defining our purpose on this planet. We are to devote our hearts, souls, minds and all our strength to a higher entity and love other human beings who come near to us.

Jesus here blew up the prevailing moral code: “Help your friends and harm your enemies.” The two new commandments instruct us to live in humility, aware of how far we fall short of the virtues that transcend our lives, and in kindness, treating other human beings as we would want to be treated. We are to do both, Jesus says, full throttle.

One step up and two steps back, sings Bruce Springsteen’s persona in his song of the same title. That is mostly what we spend our time doing, if we do aspire to lead our lives in service to a higher calling and focusing empathetically on the good we can do for others.

The publicly proclaimed values of UT, where I have taught for 31 years, are no longer recognizable to me. I recently sent my friend Ronnie Dugger, founding editor of the Texas Observer, an annotated copy of the inaugural address of UT PresidentGregoryRichard Fenves. I marked in red phrases declaring the economic benefits of the university to our society and to individual students who attend the university. My text looks like a bloodbath.

A UT degree now is marketed as a ticket to a lifetime of higher earnings, a passport to consumer paradise. A degree is no longer a credential verifying that its holder has spent four years exploring who we are as human beings; how historically powerful figures in society find it hard to act outside their own self-interests; and why the history of our own country is full of violence and war and brutal forms of hatred. The faint echoes of the optimism of the civil and human rights movements — including gender and sexual orientation — of the Sixties are distorted. Listen. What you will hear is: “Ask not what you can do for others in your country, think of how you can succeed in an unrestrained capitalist economy.”

In my ethics and leadership class this fall, we studied for one class oral histories from the civil rights movement. Bob Zellner described how he went from his native Alabama to Mississippi where a white voter registration activist had been shotgunned to death in broad daylight in the center of town. There were no white witnesses. Two black witnesses came forward. One was shot-gunned to death in his own yard. The other disappeared forever. Zellner describes hanging onto the courthouse railing as whites who attacked the activists tried to carry him off and “disappear” him. He tells us what it was like to have his eye gouged and pulled from its socket.

Students later asked: “That wasn’t true. That was just a made-up story, right?” Some of these same students wrote to me — after viewing a mainstream documentary film focused on what American soldiers went through in Vietnam — “We were taught that we won the Vietnam War and prevented communists from taking over the world.” The one selfish thing that we all should do at the end of the year is look at history and then treat others with love and understanding despite who we are and who they maybe.

Palaima is the Armstrong Professor of Classics at the University of Texas.