Monday is my birthday. (And I’m honored to share it this year with Dr. Martin Luther King, may he rest in peace and may we live to see his dreams come true.)
For me, a birthday is an occasion for relentless self-examination, which is how I seem to mark all milestones. I must be making progress, though, because this year a question has occurred to me: what’s with all the relentless self-examination? I see it needs a purpose and of course, several come easily to hand.
For instance, I’ve been writing a new version of a book first published in 2000, which is an interesting experience. Do I still see things the same way? How much has the world changed? How much has my own thinking changed? One thing I am seeing is that increasingly, principles that to me are self-evident turn out not to be. They need explanation and argument, and that in turn requires fresh thinking. I’m trying to dislodge the shreds of ideology and thought-fossil specks stuck in my brain crevices, flush it all out.
Six years ago, I wrote that active participation in society is a social good, but I didn’t say why. To me it is a first principle, but I got it somewhere, or rather from someone: the late great Paul Goodman. Rereading some of his essays, I want to acknowledge him as my role-model as a writer (no one’s private life is a model for others, so forget that). One of his clearest statements of intention is in the preface to a slim 1962 volume of his collected writings, Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals. I love the way he understands himself in relation to knowledge:
As my books and essays have appeared, I have been severely criticized as an ignorant man who spreads himself thin on a wide variety of subjects, on sociology and psychology, urbanism and technology, education, literature, esthetics and ethics. It is true that I don’t know much, but it is false that I write about many subjects. I have only one, the human beings I know in their man-made scene. I do not observe that people are in fact subdivided in ways to be conveniently treated by the “wide variety” of separate disciplines…
The separate disciplines are the best wisdom we have; I wish I knew them better. But there is a real difficulty with them that we might put as follows: In my opinion, it is impossible to be a good lawyer, teacher, statesman, physician, minister of religion, architect, historian, social worker, or psychologist, without being a good deal of all of them at once; yet obviously—especially today when there is such a wealth of indispensable specialist knowledge—it is impossible to be expert in more than one or two “fields.” Again, I do not have an answer; but I prefer to preserve the wholeness of my subject, the people I know, at the cost of being everywhere ignorant or amateurish….[I]f to many people my thinking seems always to have a kind of surprising optimism, a foolish optimism, my hunch is that it is because I keep trying to see people whole and beginning—still growing—and then they seem less limited than they do to sociologists or psychologists, politicians or journalists.
You can see why I love that, right?
Goodman’s point about active citizenship is that it makes democracy possible:
The idea of Jeffersonian democracy is to educate its people to govern by giving them initiative to run things, by multiplying sources of responsibility, by encouraging dissent. This has the beautiful moral advantage that a man can be excellent in his own way without feeling special, can rule without ambition and follow without inferiority. Through the decades, it should have been the effort of our institutions to adapt this idea to ever-changing technical and social conditions. Instead, as if by dark design, our present institutions conspire to make people inexpert, mystified, and slavish.
More than 40 years ago, he described the tenor of our institutions this way:
One is astounded at the general slavishness. The journalists at the President’s press conference never ask a probing question, they have agreed, it seems, not to “rock the boat.” Correspondingly, the New York Times does not print the news, because it is a “responsible newspaper.” Recently, the Commissioner of Education of the State of New York spoke of the need for young people to learn to “handle constructively their problems of adjustment to authority”—a remarkable expression for doing what you’re told….
So we drift into fascism. But people do not recognize it as such, because it is the fascism of the majority.
Goodman was famously unhappy that his warnings and exhortations were not not heeded. I am not famous but feel the same. As I contemplate the passage of another year, it feels good to be reading Paul Goodman and imagine that forty-odd years hence, someone surfing the Web (or jacking into some virtual network via a brain implant) will read what I have written and see the point of carrying on their own crusade, however obscurely. As Goodman wrote,
The present crisis in which an American writes is a peculiar one. He confronts in his audience the attitude that things are well enough, there is nothing to be grievous or angry about, and anyway our situation is inevitable. This attitude is the audience’s technological and organizational helplessness mollified by the famously high standard of living. It puts a writer in the position of, as we Jews say, banging a teakettle, when his readers couldn’t care less. At the same time, these same people are evidently in the grip of anxiety in the face of changes and threatening changes that they don’t begin to prepare for. Instead, they eat up books that glumly expose our plight; and they turn to the daily headlines for new shocking surprises. So a writer, instead of being able to devote himself to the truth and use of his subject matter, finds himself delivering sermons to rebuild morale and to prove that common reason is, in spite of all, practical. But worst of all, if he can successfully achieve these two marvels, of noisily affirming obvious goods and of providing that where there’s life there’s hope, the writer is wondered at and praised as a refreshing idealist of the olden times. A hundred years ago, Ruskin said bitterly, “I show men their plain duty and they reply that my style is charming.” My own experience is that when I suggest a practical proposal plain as the nose on your face, people weep with pleasure for the reminder of paradise lost.
You could dismiss him as alarmist, I suppose; it’s more than forty years on, and where is the fascism? But that we actually have to ask the question supports his point: what is Guantanamo? What are the secret prisons across Europe to which captives are now regularly “rendered”? What does it mean to have the highest prison population on the planet, in both absolute numbers and proportion of population?
Goodman, who died in 1972, would be appalled at the extent to which the tendencies he described have accelerated. I thought about him this week when I read Thursday’s Washington Post coverage of Bush’s defense of illegal wiretaps.
The big deal in coverage of Bush’s talk to a business forum in Louisville? That he actually took questions from unvetted citizens (at a business forum in a red state, but anyway…): “The president’s forum here was different than most of the events he attends nationwide. Usually he speaks to carefully screened partisan audiences and takes no questions. White House aides described Wednesday’s audience of business and community leaders as bipartisan, and Bush opened himself to unscripted questions during the town-hall-style event.”
And the punchline?
Bush again warned Democratic critics of the war not to allow their critiques to undermine the morale of troops whose lives are on the line.
“I can understand people being abhorrent about war. War is terrible,” Bush said. “But one way people can help as we’re coming down the pike in the 2006 elections, is remember the effect that rhetoric can have on our troops in harm’s way, and the effect that rhetoric can have in emboldening or weakening an enemy.”
“Don’t hoch me a tchainik,” my grandmother used to say in her fractured Yiddish-English, “Don’t rattle me a teakettle.” But I did and I will, just as long as I can. Paul Goodman was right. The habits of submission and deference are by now deeply ingrained in our society. Yet the cause for foolish optimism is the same: the machinery of democracy, however rusty, still stands; we still have access to uncolonized minds if we so choose. Where there’s life, there’s hope.