Archive for publishing

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn died this morning. He was one of my authors back when I edited Free Inquiry magazine, and we worked on various projects together as he joined the Secular Humanist team we had there in Buffalo, NY thirty or so years ago. I liked him very much – always charming, always honest. A super can-do colleague.

We had a few back-and-forths after I moved on, and we followed each other on Facebook. Whenever Tom popped up in my timeline, my thought was always the same: “Well, Basil, now THERE is a man who really has the courage of his convictions. Pay attention.”

From my colleagues’ announcement:

The world has lost a towering figure of American freethought, a man who was both on the cutting edge of secular humanist thought, as well as the foremost caretaker of its rich history. The entire Center for Inquiry family is anguished by the sudden and unexpected death of our colleague, teacher, and friend Tom Flynn at age 66.

Tom held numerous leadership roles during his more than thirty years with the Center for Inquiry, most recently as editor of Free Inquiry magazine, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum and the Freethought Trail, and former executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.

But this collection of titles does not nearly convey the plainer truth, which is that Tom Flynn was the beating heart of the Center for Inquiry and indeed the wider freethought movement.

A stark rationalist and staunch atheist if ever there was one, Tom was nonetheless brimming with enthusiasm, curiosity, bold ideas, and perhaps most of all, humor. He had a deep love and encyclopedic knowledge of freethought history and devoted himself to the preservation and rediscovery of American freethought’s great untold stories.

At the same time, he was a true visionary whose future-focused ideas about religion, atheism, equality, and the existential crises we face as a global civilization were once considered radical but now seem prescient. He was a virtuoso of the written word, penning not only countless articles and essays but also science fiction novels and the defiantly revelatory book The Trouble with Christmas.

Tom revelled in his various public personas, whether as a pugnacious stoker of controversy, a stubborn atheist curmudgeon (as with his infamous “Anti-Claus” alter-ego), or a wisecracking, avuncular coworker. But at his core, Tom was a man excited about big ideas, regardless of their popularity or public acceptance, and he was eager to share those ideas, bringing to them his unmatched combination of scholarship, eloquence, and humor.

“Tom didn’t believe in magic, but he was magical,” said Robyn E. Blumner, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. “How else to describe this unlikely combination of brilliance, charm, vision, and roll-up-your-sleeves accomplishment?”

“He saved the legacy of the Great Agnostic, Robert Green Ingersoll, from obscurity. He carried the torch for atheism, secular humanism, and clear-eyed rationality for decades with his powerful and copious writings and speeches—undoubtedly helping to cause the Rise of the Nones. All while cracking jokes and delighting everyone in his orbit,” said Blumner. “And how lucky we were to be part of it.”

“The death of Tom Flynn is a tragedy of epic proportions for everyone who cares about the equality of atheists anywhere in the world,” said Edward Tabash, veteran freethought activist and chair of the Center for Inquiry. “He was our conscience against religious bigotry. He was our conscience against irrational action and thought.”

“His razor sharp humor and wit were simply unmatched,” said Tabash. “The best way that we can honor Tom’s memory and all the magnificent work that he did is to continue to devote ourselves to ending religious bigotry anywhere and everywhere.”

To Tom’s wife, Sue, and to his family and friends, all of us at the Center for Inquiry join you in your grief. He was our family, too.

Tom’s hero, Robert Green Ingersoll, once wrote, “A great man does not seek applause or place; he seeks for truth; he seeks the road to happiness, and what he ascertains, he gives to others.” It will be a long time before there can ever be a full accounting of what Tom Flynn gave to all of us. Now Tom joins Ingersoll in what the Great Agnostic called “the perfect rest,” no longer as a mere admirer but as an equal.

I still can hardly believe the news. Sending condolences to his family and to all of the friends and colleagues we shared.

Larry King

Back in 1988 I appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live! to debate the topic of Near Death Experiences (NDE’s). I was given the role of the skeptic. To me that meant I was there to offer explanations for this very real-feeling sensation that were neither paranormal nor religious. My goal was to “save” the experience rather than “debunk” it, offering a more scientifically sound way of describing the NDE.

The woman sharing the split-screen with me here is Barbara Harris-Whitfield. Considering how pointed my remarks were on that show, she was very forbearing and generous with me. Indeed, after our appearance on Larry King she asked producers of other shows to ask me on to be her debating foil. (We even travelled to Cincinnati to be on an early version of The Jerry Springer Show, which was not the gong-show it would become but which nonetheless sure did encourage ill manners.) Barbara showed me how to be somewhat kinder to others when I argued with them, and she taught me that lesson without embarrassing me. I think of her often, with gratitude.

A word about Larry King. Back in the eighties, the discussion on Larry King’s show could be a good deal more elevated than what people saw in his later years at CNN; there were fewer commercial interruptions as well. To me, though, King’s finest years as an interviewer came when he was on the radio at night in the seventies. He knew everything and everyone and the conversations could really spread out. His curiosity was unquenchable, and he alleviated the isolations of insomnia among his listeners. It seemed he never failed at that. RIP, Mr. King.

The great Tom Toles retires

What a wonderful career.

I had a chance to meet Tom Toles back when I was an editor at the University at Buffalo’s student newspaper, The Spectrum. Tom worked there a few years before me when he was a student and still contributed some of his caricatures from time to time while he was also drawing editorial cartoons for The (late) Buffalo Courier Express and the Buffalo Evening News (now the Buffalo News).

Later, Tom did covers for Free Inquiry magazine, which I edited in the late 1980s. (See cover below.) I believe he contributed his work for free.

Tom is an exceptionally cool man.

Update: Toles’ drawings in his university years tended to be more realistic than the editorial cartooning he did afterwards. Below is one of my favourite illustrations by Tom, of University at Buffalo “campus prophet” Michael Stephen Levinson, from 1973.

Happy to help

Leonard Bernstein died thirty years ago today. I always think of Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg on this anniversary. I wrote this ten years ago:

Twice in the last week I have helped to prevent a calamity from befalling a colleague. One colleague was irritated and the other was infuriated to receive my editorial help, though they each requested it. Both will come out “smelling like a rose” (to use an expression my Dad has always loved and that I now love, too).

In my last couple of years in book publishing back in the early 1990s, I spent more than half of my time, it seemed, addressing legal matters: Making sure that my authors weren’t going to get the company I worked for, Prometheus Books Inc., sued for defamation, libel, invasion of privacy, copyright infringement, and the like. Although I did not become an editor so that I could act as an ersatz lawyer, I did enjoy the role, especially because I got to talk to a REAL lawyer, and a great one, Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg, a lot.

Stefan provided his services for free, because he liked the books we published. He was a wonderful and brilliant and eclectic man, who reached the highest levels of accomplishment as a musical conductor and mathematician and teacher before starting his career in Law. I didn’t know he’d been a conductor until I called him one afternoon regarding a lawsuit. Leonard Bernstein had died the day before, and for some reason I brought that up with Stefan. “I was his assistant conductor for a year,” he said. “This sounds more impressive than it was. My main job was to have a cigarette lit and ready for Lenny when he came offstage.”

Back to my point: Because of Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg, many of my authors *didn’t* besmirch their reputations and *didn’t* get their butts sued. To a person, they were unhappy receiving the help they received, because they believed they didn’t need it. They all asked: What could go wrong?

A calamity is smaller than a comma when it’s born.

Remembering Stefan – and remembering my mentor Paul Kurtz, the difficult boss who introduced me to him – fills me with gratitude. Some very gifted people have shared their time with me.

Amazon recommendation in my inbox this morning

Good deal!