Most of you are familiar with the notion of "degrees of separation," made popular by a play and then by a parlor game called "six degrees of Kevin Bacon." The idea is to see how many links of personal acquaintance are required to connect two seemingly distant people. For example, I am connected by no more than three degrees of separation to George Clooney, a fact of which I was reminded yesterday while watching a bit of the quirky movie Up In The Air. Clooney's co-star in that movie is a young actress named Vera Farmiga, who starred in a film made from a memoir written by the mother of one of my all-time favorite students, Jennifer Jensen-Wallach. Since Jennifer's mother visited the set and met Farmiga, that means that I am linked to Clooney by the series of connections Me-Jennifer-Jennifer's mother-Farmiga-Clooney, which is three degrees of separation.
I am also linked to Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, and every other major world leader by one degree of separation, since I, like thousands of others, once shook Barack Obama's hand. Indeed, since my son, Tobias, served as the Chair of Obama's LGBT Advisory Committee in the 2008 election campaign, I am linked by only two degrees of separation of personal acquaintance to all those big wigs. I am also linked by one degree of separation to every important figure in South Africa's political life of the last thirty years, inasmuch as I once spent an hour one-on-one with Desmond Tutu [a fact of which I am inordinately proud] and Tutu of course has known every important person in South Africa and thousands upon thousands of others not considered to be important by the world, but considered important by him.
It is perhaps a good deal more surprising that I am linked by two degrees of separation to Jeremy Bentham! I am not talking about philosophical influences or anything hokey like that, but real honest-to-God personal acquaintance. How on earth is that possible, inasmuch as Bentham died in 1832? Well, in 1954, I had tea with Bertrand Russell in his modest home outside London. Russell's godfather was John Stuart Mill [who died when Bertie was one, so I am stretching it a little, but still], and Mill's godfather was none other than Jeremy Bentham [a fact that is not at all surprising, inasmuch as Bentham and James Mill were political allies.] So: Me -- Russell -- Mill -- Bentham. I spent a little time this morning trying without success to find evidence that Bentham knew David Hume. It would have been possible -- Bentham was twenty-eight when Hume died -- but E. C. Mossner's magisterial biography of Hume does not list Bentham in the index, and I take that as definitive. Along the way, I did discover something that I either never knew or had forgotten, namely that my second-hand copy of the biography originally belonged to the famous English legal theorist H. L. A. Hart.
Has anyone out there ever met Angelina Jolie?