Lunch with LLaughing BBoy
The University of Houston's most notorious graduate student is waiting for me outside the grounds of Congregation Beth Israel. For a man who's single-handedly created "an environment of fear" in the UH history department, as one professor recently told the Daily Cougar, Fabian Vaksman is decidedly unprepossessing. He's short and dumpy, and on this warm February day he's wearing khaki pants and a vintage pair of Adidas running shoes. His hair is lank and carelessly parted; his round, boyish face is framed by oversize glasses. The faint beginning of a wispy mustache is visible on his upper lip. Everything about his appearance suggests the ill-at-ease social misfit.
Yet Vaksman is surprisingly agile, and he walks with the purposeful stride of a someone who has pressing business.
"I am absolutely open book," he had told me on the phone.
Vaksman's English is somewhat stilted and Russian-accented, but after 20 years in this country he has no trouble with the language. In addition to his academic pursuits, he freelances as a Russian translator and interpreter, when he can find the work, and he says he went to Kazakhstan in December to interpret for a Houston-based oil company he won't name. Vaksman's as cocksure of his translation skills as he is of the importance of his scholarship. "I don't miss a comma," he later tells me.
Vaksman and I are going to lunch. The venue is his choice, and I'm hoping he'll suggest some hole-in-the-wall Russian cafe or deli. But when I ask where to, he hems and haws before deciding that the Chili's in the Galleria would be a suitable place. After 20 minutes of lurching through the West Loop traffic in my un-air-conditioned car, though, he suddenly asks if there isn't a Japanese place somewhere right off the freeway on Westheimer, and a few minutes later we're being seated at Tokyo Gardens. Apparently, it's his first time for Japanese.
"We've left the U.S.," Vaksman says as we make our way into the back room of the restaurant. "We've defected."
Two days earlier, Vaksman had been the target of a combination protest and press conference at the UH campus, where a group of undergraduate history majors and a half-dozen professors denounced the 44-year-old doctoral student's latest antic -- the series of "memos" he began sending to the history professors and UH administrators last month that equate the university's African-American studies program with "animal studies" and refer to its students and faculty as "research animals." Vaksman had composed yet another of his memos that very morning, before he agreed to meet me outside the synagogue near his apartment. Addressed, as most of his memos are, to Art Vailas, UH's vice provost for research and graduate studies, it reads:
"Financing African-American animal research at the expense of Russian history is such a MISPLACED priority as to be prima facie evidence of the administration's stupidity and incompetence. It IS proof positive that this administration is the champion of ignorance and savagery -- NOT civilization and knowledge."
Clever he's not.
Of course, it's all a joke, but then again, it isn't.
With a straight face, Vaksman maintains that he aims only to "sensitize" UH administrators to the short shrift he claims his own research is getting from the school. His is an important yet undervalued area of inquiry, and if you don't believe him, you can refer to his memo to Vailas of February 17, wherein he decries another administrator's failure to "recognize the critical importance to survival of civilization of adequately supporting academic research in Russian medieval history."
He has nothing against black people, he says. He's the real victim of discrimination, you see, and he's just taking advantage of this country's "pathological hyper-sensitivity" to race to draw attention to his plight.
In that regard, Vaksman has been wildly successful, his memo-writing binge and the resulting controversy having been covered by the Daily Cougar and the Chronicle and on Channel 2. Two weeks ago, UH president Glenn Goerke and executive vice president John Ivancevich felt compelled to issue a statement confirming the school's commitment to free speech while "vehemently" disagreeing with Vaksman's "racist polemics." Now Vaksman's dining on medium-rare steak teriyaki courtesy of the Houston Press.
"If I had said the French department was 'animal research,' and the people in the French department were research animals, then [you] wouldn't pay any attention to it," Vaksman says.
That's the empirically verifiable truth, but Vaksman can barely articulate the thought. He's cracked himself up, and he's almost choking on his words. It sounds like something he's said before, but the very idea seems to have convulsed him to the verge of the hiccups. It's the laugh of someone who spends a lot of time with himself.
A Russian Jew, Vaksman was permitted to emigrate from the Soviet Union in 1976, and he spent a year in Israel and two years in England before coming to the United States. He arrived at UH as a doctoral student in 1982, but was booted from the history program four years later for failing to make the required progress on his dissertation. Of course, he says that's not the case, and his subsequent lawsuit against the university led to protracted litigation that ended with a judge ordering his reinstatement in 1991. Vaksman's academic standing was again in jeopardy in late 1995, but to the dismay of many in the history department, he struck an agreement with lawsuit-chary UH administrators that provided him with a $10,000 stipend for 1996 and a two-year extension to complete his dissertation.
Now he claims he's entitled to more money, to more attention, to more recognition -- to more something -- from the University of Houston.
The second act of Fabian Vaksman's American life was staged shortly after he returned to UH in the early nineties, with the circulation of his self-published book RRacist, a 336-page epic poem of sorts in which a UH grad student named RR is persecuted for his racist views and slaughters five "second-rate" history professors to wake the world to the dangers of enforced racial equality.
"The theory I advance in the RRacist is that this is a KGB conspiracy to hold back the development of the United States, to demoralize this society, so that the Russian can compete more successfully," he says. "If you try to average society, you end up pulling back the most advanced elements to pull up something from below."
According to the title page of a copy Vaksman shows me, RRacist was an entry in the 19th Chicano/Latino Literary Contest sponsored by the University of California at Irvine.
"I lost," he explains.
One of the members of the graduate council who recommended Vaksman's dismissal in 1986 was Loyd Swenson, a historian of science who's been at UH since 1963. One of the professors who dies at the hands of the RRacist is Boyd Benson. Vaksman devoted two pages to the killing, "describing what my brains looked like splattered on the bookcase behind my desk," Swenson says.
Naturally, RRacist put the history faculty on edge, and for a while there was an armed guard stationed at the department. Vaksman says the notion that he would harm anyone is ridiculous and was "maliciously" spread by Swenson and other professors whom he calls "disgusting, stupid people." (For someone who claimed he was dismissed from the school for his stridently anti-Marxist beliefs, Vaksman employs some ripe Maoist-style rhetoric in denouncing his critics: The ones who aren't "windbags" are either "imbeciles" or "criminals," or imbecilic criminals.)
RRacist is dedicated to William Shockley, the late Nobel Prize-winning Stanford physicist who won a degree of infamy positing that blacks are genetically inferior to whites. Vaksman is especially impassioned on the subject of Shockley. It's clear that he strongly identifies with the man and believes that Shockley's views were somehow suppressed.
"I care about the question of academic freedom, and intellectual freedom, and creative freedom," he says. "I wasn't born in this country, so I don't take it for granted. So I'm very concerned if there's some genetic knowledge that's been suppressed."
Now I understand. The glib Yber-scholar is actually doing us a favor by reminding us of our precious freedom of speech.
Him and Larry Flynt.
Vaksman goes on to say how he does indeed care about more than his stipend and his study of pre-Mongol Russia, how he's really concerned for his adopted country. But when I ask whether he did something so mundane as vote in the last presidential election, he pauses, flashes me a smile that I can only read as contemptuous, and explains that, no, he was too busy preparing the paper he delivered to the Charles Homer Haskins Society of Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman and Angevin History last November. It was entitled "The Volga, the Dnieper and the Danube in the 10th Century A.D.," and I wouldn't recommend trying to read it after a large Japanese meal.
He seems similarly contemptuous of my suggestion that someone who had caught the first plane out of the land of the pogrom and the gulag might have at least some sympathy, if not a pathological hyper-sensitivity, to problems caused by the past denial of freedoms to a people who were forcibly brought to this country as property.
"That's a very stupid comparison," says Vaksman. "There's no correlation. It's totally ridiculous. African-Americans are not denied those freedoms" -- that is, the academic, intellectual and creative freedoms he professes to hold dear -- "in any way."
"That's bullshit ...," he mutters with finality.
On the way back to his apartment, Vaksman laughs his convulsive laugh as he reads me part of his most recent memo. As I discover later, it's similar in its puerility to the dozen or so others he's given me.
"If this would have been Russia," Vaksman said back at Tokyo Gardens, "I would have been in the forced labor camps a long time ago."
He laughed when he said that, too.
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