Remembering James Stramel, From A Temporary, Unworthy Opponent

The critic Walter Benjamin once wrote, “There are perhaps paths that lead us again and again to people who have one and the same function for us.” He included among these functions the roles of pupil and master. For myself, Santa Monica College philosophy professor James Stramel, who passed away from leukemia on Thursday morning, achieved a kind of dual role. Throughout my time at SMC, the unique situation arose where Professor Stramel became both teacher and intellectual opponent.

During my first semester at SMC, in the spring of 2013, I attended Stramel’s sexual ethics class, Philosophy 5. Many students enrolled for this class based on the course description in the SMC catalogue. It promised inquiries into what is considered deviant sexual behavior or out of the mainstream practices (S&M, etc.). Many students immediately signed up thinking it would be a luridly fun time. However, the first day of class revealed that this wasn’t some course taught by a rebel wanting to get his kicks; it was going to be a serious, profound exploration of the philosophical approach to modern sexual relations.

Stramel was openly and proudly gay. He would make it a point to begin class with newspaper clippings displaying glaringly irrational, sometimes darkly comic stories about right-wing assaults on LGBT rights. The core of his class explored the idea that humans should have the freedom to live as they wish in an environment of mutual respect and understanding. The assigned readings were always a rich collection of various thinkers and texts. Studying was hard work, but as Hannah Arendt pointed out, to not think is a serious crime.

I still believe that in the shifting, over-sexualized world we are living in, where concepts like “hooking up” and “open relationships” are thrown around like candy, Stramel’s class revealed to students how in any cultural moment, the essence of ethics is never lost.

As a student wandering the mazes of a college campus, it was always refreshing to make a last minute visit to Stramel’s office and be welcomed with a warm, open attitude. I never once saw him turn a student away or dismiss any questions. When I joined The Corsair as a staff writer, I would approach him for a quote on a variety of topics and he was always eager to share his thoughts. In a piece I wrote about interracial dating titled “Love In A Time Of Diversity,” Stramel delivered a wonderfully egalitarian view of love saying, “The reality of the experience of love trumps all of these other characteristics or categories that over the years various societies have loaded up with meaning — skin color, national origin, religion.”

I would later cross paths with Stramel in a very different context. In the spring of 2014, I covered an event at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion hosted by Pole World News, an organization which sought to make pole dancing a recognized Olympic sport. The event was an awards ceremony featuring several notable pole dancers who shared their stories and backgrounds.

Our editorial staff decided to make the article the cover story for that week’s issue and we tried to find a balance between journalism and good taste. The photos were carefully selected and if anything, had a Cirque de Soleil vibe. It was Women’s Empowerment Month and we felt it had an interesting angle on the out-of-the-mainstream careers some women choose in modern Los Angeles. The issue was published and that was that.

Two months later we received a letter signed by 50 faculty members condemning the article and The Corsair. This is not the time to go over the explicit details — readers can check our online archives for that. The general point, however, was that the piece supposedly promoted the objectification of women. Stramel was one of the signers of the letter and a leader of the group who wrote it.

I responded to the letter with a piece — both of which were published in the same issue — in which I pointed out that in the same way we covered a professional pole dancing event, some right-wing nut could take materials Stramel used in class and accuse him of promoting “deviant” behavior.

Stramel immediately replied with a letter e-mailed to the paper and posted on our website in the comments section under my original response. Ironically, he backed the point I made when I called him out. Stramel confirmed that indeed, in the early 90s, a looney California Assemblyman in Sacramento waved his syllabus as an example of public money being used to “teach homosexuality” at SMC. The original version of his reply to The Corsair included the hint of possibly taking the paper to court for libel reasons. However, tempers cooled and the debate was kept in the arena of ideas. Stramel even included the Corsair issue with the original pole dancing article in his final exam that semester.

As a student learning how the realm of public discussion works, Stramel gave me my first real experience of having to defend your ideas with more than just rhetoric. I don’t say this in opposition to the man. On the contrary, this is exactly the benefit I believe many students received from taking his courses. In teaching sexual ethics and philosophy, Stramel challenged his students to truly analyze the world around them, form arguments and discuss how society works. Even if you were on his side politically or philosophically, he expected you to defend your stance with logic and rationality. Quite often, you can find yourself on a campus with professors who don't know what they're talking about, but with Professor Stramel, there was no doubt that the man knew what he was teaching.

When you run a campus paper, as I did for two semesters, you are confronted on a weekly basis with a lot of irrational ranting, either through hate mail or the occasional accuser who walks through the front door. But Professor Stramel was never irrational or crude, never vapid or ignorant. Even during our slight duel in the spring of 2014, I never lost respect for him. If anything, his decision to reply strongly and thoroughly to my article proved he walked the talk. He backed his words with action.

Soon after the controversy, I would sometimes see Stramel walking down the quad area with his lunch. I often pondered walking over and burying the hatchet. It never happened. In the rush of life, we seldom stop to ponder how fleeting our time can be. But even as someone who was once caught in a disagreement with Stramel, I can say that his was a valuable presence at SMC, and in these darkening times, the glow of his intellectual lamp will be missed.