Oral History: Rusty Borkin

Narrator: Rusty Borkin
Interviewer: John Tortorice, Skye Doney
Videographer: William Tishler
Date: 5 October 2018
Transcribed: Skye Doney
Total Time: 29 minutes
Editing: Kyle Jenkins, Greg Konop

Rusty Borkin biography:
Rusty graduated with a BA in History in 1974 and was profoundly influenced by George L. Mosse’s understanding of how the world works. While Rusty never entered academia, he used Mosse’s approach to see people’s beliefs and actions from their context and not his own. This has aided him throughout his career in business and public life, and continues to help him navigate the troublesome times we find ourselves in today. The learnings gleaned from Mosse’s lectures and discussions years ago have been reinforced by the Mosse Program’s online courses he has taken over the past few years, and he believes he is a better husband, father, friend and citizen as a result.

Skye Doney: Well, what is your name?

Rusty Borkin: My name is Rusty Borkin.

Doney: All right. Well, thank you for joining us today, Rusty, we’re going to chat a little bit about UW and a little bit about your biography and about the online course.

Borkin: Good. I’m excited to do it.

Doney: So why don’t we start with some very general information, where are you from?

Borkin: I’m from Milwaukee, I grew up in Fox Point, a suburb and went to UW from 1970 to 1974.

Doney: What was your major?

Borkin: History!

Doney: Oh, really? Great, perfect.

Borkin: Yes. Yeah. And I really focused a lot on European history.

Doney: Okay.

Borkin: So I went to school there. You know, it was a period of social unrest and cultural, I don’t know if I should use the term revolution, no, not revolution. Mosse wouldn’t, Mosse wouldn’t say it was revolutionary. But a lot of activity and I had been drawn to history ever since I was a child. I got enamored with the U.S. Civil War as a real youngster. And, and connected to history I think through, I tell the story of when I was a kid being Jewish, we had the Passover holiday, so we’re telling history every year. And it’s a joyous holiday and meaningful, symbolic. And we’re telling the story of freedom and liberation. And so at the same time as I was experiencing those holidays every year, I was watching my parents’ black and white TV and seeing Blacks getting fire hosed in Birmingham and beat up and Selma. And so this idea of, of liberation and freedom and what has changed or not changed in two thousand years resonated with me. So I had this I think, built-in excitement around history and the world around me. And then the events that were going on in the 1960s that had a strong impact on me. The riots in Milwaukee in 1967, and I was 15 then. And there was a curfew, county-wide curfew. And so, so, and the idea of neighbors being worried that Blacks are going to move in to the Fox Point. Little far-reaching. So anyway, I was drawn to history very early on and still am.


Doney: How did your family respond to the riots? Did you talk about them?

Borkin: You know, I don’t remember discussions. I just remember this kind of not that my parents, but some neighbors concerned about Blacks, “Negroes.” “Shvartses,” is the Yiddish word, moving in. I don’t think my parents really thought that, but that had a big effect on me. And by the way, it didn’t happen.

Doney: Okay. When you got to UW, did you get involved in the student movement?

Borkin: You know, I didn’t. I got there in the fall of 1970. So it had peaked with the bombing at Sterling Hall (24 August 1970). So, so I came in right after that, that was in August. I think I came there in the end of August. So there was still a lot of commotion going on. And, but I didn’t get involved in that antiwar protests directly. I attended things. I was kind of like observing a bit from the outside. And what, what repelled me a little bit was the, I guess the dogmatism of of the student leaders at that point. And the yeah, it was a lot of ego, and that kind of, kind of didn’t sit well with me. So I went to protests, got the tear gas, ran, ran around Bascom Hall. It was more a lot of fun than actual feeling like we’re about to change the world, that kind of thing.

Doney: Did you take courses then, with Professor Mosse?

Borkin: Yeah, so I started in a program at UW called Integrated Liberal Studies. I don’t even know if it still exists.

Doney: ILS, yeah.

Borkin: ILS, yeah. And that I said the house is still there, the [Alexander] Meiklejohn house. I don’t know if ILS is still housed in there, but I was up there for a football game a month ago. So I started in that program. And then I kept on hearing about this Professor Mosse. So, and I don’t know if I went to a lecture or not. But I was, I really wanted to take a class from him and, but I couldn’t do it within ILS. So I dropped out of ILS at the end of the first semester. And I took Modern European History: 1815 to the present, I guess. And so that was my first introduction freshman year. And then subsequently I must have taken a class from him, if not every semester, every year, ending with a senior symposium at his house on the west side of Madison (36 Glenway).


Doney: What was the focus of the symposium?

Borkin: Whoo. You know, I don’t remember. Besides it being some, something to do with European history, but I remember I co-wrote a paper with a friend of mine that was taking it. Who was also up at the Madison reunion. And I think he’s taken the class. A guy named Mark Shumow. I don’t know if you remember that name from registration? And we wrote a paper on the German-American Bund in Milwaukee. And so it was a great subject, but we didn’t do a very good job. I think we got a “B” on it.

Doney: That’s still pretty good.

John Tortorice: A “B” from George was pretty good.

Borkin: Okay. I feel better now after all these years.

Doney: He was a tough grader.

Borkin: Yeah.

Doney: So you met Schnutzie?

Schnutzie in Mosse's home at 36 Glenway in Madison, Wisconsin.
Schnutzie in Mosse’s home at 36 Glenway in Madison, Wisconsin.

Borkin: Met Schnutzie. We met, sat in his living room. Schnutzie would be dragging around a bone. And it was just delightful. I mean, Professor Mosse was a very approachable guy and, and both in lecture and then afterward, we spent a number of hours after lecture hanging out at the Memorial Union and the cafeteria. And I don’t remember really topics of conversations, I just remember the experience.

Doney: Sure, that’s great.

Tortorice: So he was very accessible as, he was formidable as a teacher, but accessible as a person. I think there was always that discrepancy between when he was lecturing,

Borkin: Yes.

Tortorice: which was very authoritative, and sometimes I think frightened off some of the students. Whereas if you made the effort to really get to know him,

Borkin: Right.

Tortorice: he was very accessible and friendly.

Borkin: He was, and I would say that Mosse’s style as a lecturer was authoritarian, it was very Prussian. You know, it’s this way and that’s the way it happened. And no, it didn’t happen the other way. But he was also very warm. And even in lectures, he would sometimes do a shift of focus. And I’ve listened to some of the lectures when he taught the class I don’t think I took, which was Early Modern European History 1500. And those tapes I think are being re-done now, but I’ve listened to all of them again. And he would find moments to break off and say something humorous. Often comments. There was one comment he made, I remember from a lecture his saying, I don’t mind if you eat lunch or use this lecture as a time for your lunch.


But please pick up your refuse afterwards because this is the Department of Agriculture Hall and as you know, Agriculture carries a lot of weight at this university.

Doney: That’s great.

Tortorice: Well, you know, he was, I wouldn’t say he was authoritarian, but he was authoritative. And what he was trying to do was to get you to argue with him essentially, he loved people to disagree.

Borkin: Yeah, he tested.

Tortorice: He tried to get you to disagree.

Borkin: Yeah.

Tortorice:  that’s hard when you’re 18-years-old.

Borkin: It is with someone like him. Right. I didn’t yeah.

Doney: So after you’ve graduated, how did your history degree influence your subsequent career?

Borkin: Well, I, I was seriously considering going into graduate school in history. And, and I remember talking to Professor Mosse about that. And he said, you know, you’re going to have to learn French and German. And that just killed it for me because I wasn’t about to begin learning French and German to the extent that I’d have to be able to read it and write it and let alone speak it. So I took the easy route out and went into my father’s business back in Milwaukee selling industrial tools to machine shops and small factories. And, but the study of history, reading history books has been with me ever since. I think that understanding how history works and the dialectic has helped me deal with the world around me. And I think even today when we’re entering, what is a kind of unique time in history in my life. Understanding that these kinds of periods have occurred before. Maybe not with the same forces working, but history working. And, and I remember from another one of those lectures, he said, at one point Mosse said, “everything is history” and I agree with that.

Doney: Yeah. Yeah, “everything is history,” and “what man is only history tells.” All right. Let’s jump into, let’s switch gears and talk a little bit about the class.

Borkin: Yep.

Doney: How did you hear about the class?

Borkin: I heard about it from my friend, an old classmate, Mark Shumow, who had taken the class, I think, a year ago maybe. And we had gotten together.


And he mentioned it. And so that’s, I explored it and looked into it.

Doney: Great. So he must have been in the European cultural history course?

Borkin: Well, didn’t, you teach this class, this racism class last fall? I think he was in that.

Doney: Right, in that pilot version.

Borkin: Was that the pilot?


Borkin: Oh, I didn’t know it was the pilot, okay.

Doney: Yeah, it was a very small group.

Borkin: Okay.

Doney: Then we expanded it.

Borkin: Okay. So when I took it, it was the second time out. Okay. So he took the pilot. Okay. Yeah.

Doney: All right, so which lecture from Racism, Antisemitism in the Fate of Liberalism stood out most to you?

Borkin: Well. You know, there was a couple that I think stood out and I don’t remember which ones they were in sequence. But the one that really dove into the mechanics of implementation of Nazi idea, Nazi ideology. And the, the way the Nazis used the divisions within the Jewish society and the way they manipulated people to really fight one another in order to reach their goal, which was the elimination of all Jews. So just the reality of that and reading that and hearing him talk through that in a very kind of logical way was powerful and really struck me. And it was, it was hard to, and I think I wrote this in my reflection from that class. So, so that was, that was, I think, one of the most powerful lectures. Another lecture, and I don’t think it was in the same one was, I thought was when he was really funny. And and this is where he kind of takes on a different, he’s still authoritative. But so when he talked about being in Milwaukee and talking to some Jewish leaders, and the Jewish leaders were all concerned about rising antisemitism and what they can do about it. And they were wringing their hands. And he said, oh, I’m trying to remember now, it’ll come back to me. Oh, he said to to these Jewish leaders in Milwaukee: “stop kvetching and beat them up!” Yeah. Yeah.

Doney: Yeah, beat up the antisemite.

 Borkin: Right, “stop kvetching and beat them up.”


So that I just burst out laughing hearing that. And then the other, the other time was was, I think it was in the same lecture he was talking about the importance of agrarian life and living on the farm. And how many nations build up their mythology around the land and working on a farm and small farmers. And he said, what could be more silly? You’re going to be a better person because you’ve worked on a farm versus worked in the city. And that he talked about being forced to pick potatoes as a child. He said, “it’s ridiculous.” Yeah. So I’m not getting the verbiage right,

Doney: Oh, yeah the idea is that at his school if they picked potatoes, they would have better character.

Borkin: Right, build your character through picking potatoes. Nonsense, nonsense, he said. But he said it’s true and the earth well, and land, and the soil is very important in most nations’ ideology.

Doney: Absolutely. “The Violence of Racism,” that’s the lecture you were talking about at first.

Borkin: Yeah.

Doney: That’s that entire class is full of this tension between U.S., mostly Jewish students,

Borkin: Yes.

Doney: with the Holocaust in living memory, looking at the Holocaust through a very American lens. Not understanding why these, why European Jews didn’t resist, or fight back in a systematic way.

Borkin: Right.

Doney: and questioning why they would accept this, And so that’s what I really like, in that lecture is how he delves into the Czech Jews aren’t talking to the German Jews.

Borkin: Right.

Doney: They’re not talking to the Hungarians.

Borkin: Right.

Doney: There’s no unified thing here.

Borkin: Right.

Doney: They’re from different social classes. There are tensions within the camps that…

Borkin: There was no monolithic Jewish culture.

Doney: Exactly.

Borkin: And therefore, there could be no monolithic Jewish resistance.

Doney: Right, and that it’s a Nazi myth, that there was such a thing, which is part of the tension through the class. Mosse’s really trying to show, this is sort of a racialized assumption

Borkin: Right.

Doney: Nazis have about a community that doesn’t make any sense.

Borkin: Right. Right. And I think that, and I made that comment in my reflection on that class that we have it today. Yeah. I mean Sheldon Adelson is a Jew. And he supports Trump, and he supports the current leadership in Israel. I’m a Jew. And I don’t support those, in fact are on the other end of the spectrum. So yeah.

Doney: Right, it’s an imaginary.

 Borkin: It’s an imagination. But there’s enough, there’s enough reality, there, the stereotype, to make it meaningful, to make it powerful.

Doney: And to mobilize people.


Borkin: And to mobilize, right?

Tortorice: I was struck in that lecture by how passionate George was about that subject. And that this really was the first time he taught Jewish history, specifically, in this one course devoted to Jewish history. And you could really tell that he wasn’t using any kind of notes that he had really absorbed this material when he really was passionate about conveying this to students who frankly didn’t know much about the Holocaust. Because in those days, that wasn’t really as well-known as it is now. And I think the students were quite shocked by it.

Borkin: Right, because the Holocaust, the Holocaust is known by those students, including me as six million were killed. That’s it. I mean, and not to. But there wasn’t the depth or the really the understanding of what was going on in German, in Jewish, in German Jewish and then Eastern European Jewish society. And you know, that’s where George came from too. So, so he was on one end of the spectrum and there was the Eastern Europeans and all the rest were on the other end of that Jewish spectrum, European Jewish spectrum. Yeah.

Tortorice: Well, it sounds  like you, your engagement with history and with UW really was formative in your life and your in your post-UW career, What did you do with your life?

Borkin: So I, I went on to do a lot of different things in my career. I went and worked in the family business for five years and then knew that this was not what I was here for. When my wife and I went to Washington, DC seeking our fortunes there. I want it to be, I still had within me this desire to be part of history and to move history. And so we moved to Washington, DC to, I was hoping to get a job with a public interests group, some kind of organization that was involved with policy and politics. And so I ended up working for a labor union, came back to Milwaukee with that union representing public employees. Felt pretty frustrated by it. Because it wasn’t about making change. It was about, you know, internal politics. And I mean, it wasn’t all negative, but it’s certainly wasn’t as positive as I hoped it would be. I mean, they did some very good things.


In fact, you see what’s happened to inequality without unions around now. So went to work for the city of Milwaukee got very involved with organizational development and management. And did a, did a stint at ESPN as the Director of Human Resources in Connecticut. And all this time trying to at least be part of the community I was in, hoping to be a change, volunteering on boards, helping with a local election. And feeling pretty frustrated that the change wasn’t happening. Moved the family back to Milwaukee to work in a marketing and design firm. And then I got approached by an individual who was starting an organization. He called it a new social justice organization in Milwaukee. And it turned out to be an organization that’s now known as Common Ground, which is one of the Industrial Area Foundations group, Saul Alinsky, community organizing groups. And I got active as a volunteer and then ultimately went on staff to do organizing work.

And I think I learned a lot about people and emotion and what drives people and how you have to. And this connects back to Mosse’s analysis, you know, one of his, I don’t know if it’s a lecture or an interview in one of the newspapers we read. He made the comment that “everything is psychoanalysis.” And organizing is psychoanalysis. So you’re touching people’s emotion. You’re looking for that anger, you’re looking for people that have that, sometimes the term is called Cold Anger. What moves them, what moves people to act? And it’s not logic, it’s emotion. So that ties directly back to Mosse’s teaching. And so, so did that and then semi-retired, and now am involved with Community Wealth Building, which is the idea of how do we do economic development from the ground up rather than from the top down? I did, I did have a piece of me during college that I wouldn’t say I was an economic determinist. But I really felt like economic factors were undervalued in terms of what moves history. And, and so I think it’s obviously a combination of the culture and the economics. And the ideas drive the economics, though. And, and so. But power rests in economics a lot.


And, and so how do we build new institutions in this country that can democratize  the economy? And I feel like that is where I’m at right now in trying to move that. And I think that all traces back to this understanding of history. And what are the levers that move things?

Doney: Absolutely. And I guess my, so my last question is whether or not the class helped you better understand racism and antisemitism.

Borkin: Yeah, the class really helped me not only understand racism and antisemitism better, but it helped me understand the world around us better. And so when you look at what’s happening in this country and the divisions that are pulling us apart. When you look what’s happening in Europe. And the divisions that are pulling those countries apart. Understanding how racism as an ideology affects people and, and how it, and how it really dominates other factors. We’re supposedly in a booming economy, right? You look at the stock market highs and yet people are pulled apart like never before. Well, there’s also inequality like never before. So, so that inequality is interacting with the ideas of racism and the other and stereotypes. And, and so it’s helping me to understand that it’s not necessarily driving a solution to it. And I think we have to search deep within ourselves and through discussion about: what is the solution? You know, Professor Mosse, I think, didn’t propose a solution to things. I know that he was active and I learned this in the course. He was active in democratic politics. That never came out in his lectures, which was fine. But you know what destroyed Nazism was a World War, as well as Fascism. So what was, what’s the solution for the current dilemma? And so that I think we still need to find. So through responding and writing the reflections to the course assignments, I guess. I call them reflections because I didn’t have to work for a grade. Which was really freeing once I understood that.

Doney: Yeah.

Borkin: And so through reading others, there was reflections and assignment responses that attracted: that you thought, “wow,” this is really meaningful.


And so it turns out that I read number of Lucy’s [Cooper] and Peter’s [Abbott] and responded and then they responded. So then you get this kind of little community going. Now that’s within the context of 40 responses to go through, which is a little tedious. I know that’s your job, but it’s not my job. So sifting through “sifting and winnowing,” right?

Doney: Exactly, yes.

Borkin: Yeah, that’s what we were doing. And so we connected and I forgot who I think Peter reached out first and suggested that we get together. I think it was based upon being attracted to each other’s responses and what we were writing about, about, about the specific class. And so, and so that was great. And we had that, that one dinner. And hopefully it’ll turn into more. I don’t want to study history just for the sake of history, just for knowing the past. I want to study it so I can know how to live in the current situation and to change it. And so that’s why coming back to the present moment in which we’re living was critical. For me. It was just a natural thing. I just, you know, I don’t want to debate, you know, nineteenth-century racist literature. I see some value in that. But for me it’s about what does it mean for now? What does it mean for my life now? My grandkids’ life, and what’s going to happen to the world. And that’s why I think Mosse’s teachings are so important. And so we had talked about a course using Mosse’s teaching, looking at current developments in racial thought.

Doney: And masculinity.

Borkin: And masculinity. And and I think that would be terrific. Yeah, yeah.

Doney: No, I really like that idea.

Borkin: So get on that!

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