Freedom's Not the Whole Answer

November 1, 2007

Presentation for Renesan in Santa Fe

I am going to speculate on the lapse of virtue in America and therefore the lack of mutual help, and therefore, thirdly, the growth of fear and therefore fourthly the greater need for us to find ways to overcome, or live with our fears. That’s my list. One, two, three, four, from virtue to loneliness to my fear and the need for action. Or your fear and your need for action.

I am going to speculate on the roots of our fears and wonder aloud how lonely we all are. And I am going to trace that back to our lack of civic virtue, and therefore to a great corporate fear that translates down to us individually, seeps into us through our pores.

I don’t mean that any of us is so lonely that we are desperate or consciously unhappy, really. Most of us like separation and we are glad for the time we have to be alone and we wouldn’t have it any other way. And of course many of us are in relationship. Even if we are in relationship, however, and declare ourselves happy, I think we are a lonely culture. And because we wouldn’t have it any other way, we wouldn’t want not to be individual, we are sort of trapped in our attitude of separation and, in our separation, unable to feel the presence of the community and then fear creeps in.

So we are more or less schizophrenic. We want to be alone and individual and do the things that we like to do and not do the things that we don’t like to do, and on the other hand, there is no denying that homo sapiens, (at least homo if not sapiens), is a herd animal. Some people break out of the herd, but most of us feel much safer with a common trail, a well-worn path, and a group of fellows and friends who are doing similar things. We get scared when we are the only ones to speak out, or the only ones to dress in hot pink. So mostly we dress in acceptable clothes and stay quiet, even when the world is going to hell. That is the difference between us and the Hebrew prophets; they spoke out and got stoned. Most of us prefer not to get stoned.

It seems to me that as a general proposition, economic adversity unites people but that prosperity divides them. Prosperity is good in one way, it gives us things to eat and places to live and cars to drive and separate rooms in the house for each kid and each kid his own computer and his own domain name and therefore his own identity. But the more individually identified we get the more alienated we get, as well, and the more we seem to withdraw from common or communal efforts.

I do not think, therefore, that the collapse of democratic politics, or the politics of compassion in America is due solely to the failures of democratic leadership, or the lack of inspiration at the top. It seems rather more to be a decline of compassion at the bottom and that decline tracks fairly well the growth through the years of suburbia, car sales, TV sales, and each of these means that we live in separate family boxes, raise our children separate from each other in their own rooms, drive alone to work or to school, watch different programs on TV and read different books. And the progression toward all this separateness tracks very neatly with the fact that at the same time we resist taxes for community projects or, or by comparison to 100 years ago, we contribute less and less to community days out on the irrigation ditch or shoring up the levee on the river, or to join with the neighbors to bring the cattle off down the mountain, or whatever else we used to do that bound our daily lives together. We feel as if our destinies are separate now; we pay therapists to help us find our own individual stories and write our own memoirs and create our own songs and each our own narratives to announce how independent and individual we all are. We like it this way. We would not have it any other way.

And yet, we may not have found the formula for happiness after all. We have a part of it, but not the whole and there is nothing in the contemplation of Jefferson and Adams and Washington at the founding of the republic that addresses this seeming contradiction between freedom and the need to have a strong public center: Nothing to address the problem that we love this freedom and yet it may be the very thing that is doing us in. Milk is good for us, but if we drink only milk, it will do us in. We need vegetables. Strawberries are good for us but a diet of only strawberries will not sustain us. We need protein. Freedom is good for us, but if we only do freedom, independence and individuality, we will not survive. We have now, at this stage in our national or cultural development reached the point where we are happy, indeed ecstatic, with our own little life schedules, our own time off, our own reading lists, and yet are these any different than a diet of pure strawberries? Can we survive on this diet?

If individuality and unlimited freedom make us stronger and more secure and better able to handle our lives, why, when a ragged cabal of 20 terrorists flew their planes into our tallest towers, and when the steel and plastic came crashing down, did we not act as if we have it together and respond realistically? It was only 20 terrorists. It was not a foreign invasion. It was only a cell of less than 1,000 people around the world. It was not a collapse of capitalism. It was a band of religious fanatics fueled by hatred, an approach that our religions tell us does not work, cannot work, never works. It was not a collapse of Christianity and Judaism.

And yet we responded in fear, as a collective, and rushed off in panic to foreign lands to kill the fear, to stamp out the fear, to drive fear from our hearts. All our freedom and individuality had not prepared us; we were more lonely and more worried and more disconnected from the world than we had realized and we acted in desperation.

Was it because republicans controlled the White House and the Congress?

Perhaps it was. More likely it was deeper than that. Republicans controlled the White House in 1958 when President Eisenhower sent troops to Lebanon and when we were in fear of take over of the world by communists. Still, somehow our culture was different then. Eisenhower went simultaneously to the United Nations—acted as a part of the world collective—and promised to get out of Lebanon as soon as appropriate collective measures were taken. We went in in July and came out in October.

But America was not as prosperous then, and not as individual, and not as afraid, even though we have so much more wealth today. Or maybe, we were not as afraid precisely because we did not then have the same great wealth, and with that the great loneliness, the great insecurity, that we have today.

Here then is a proposition: Prosperity seems to set us against each other, breeds individualism and a greater consciousness of being alone, and being alone translates into me vs. them. Prosperity, individuality, freedom and loneliness make us, ironically, and sadly, less secure, more afraid.

There is a worm in our freedom apple.

Which is not surprising.

You may remember that at the beginning of history the three goddesses, Hera, wife of Zeus, Athena, daughter of Zeus, and Aphrodite, promiscuous bitch, were in a contest to determine who was the most beautiful. They were engaged in a spitting fit. The one who was most beautiful was to be given an apple. In the lore of the times that would have been the apple of immortality. The apple was the determining factor. Awarding this apple, as it turned out, was a big problem and eventually caused the Trojan War which caused the decline of women-centered cultures in Asia and Greece, which caused the rise of patriarchy which ensured the rise of capitalism and so here we are, wealthy and alone. There was a worm in the apple even at the beginning.

I have noted about myself that I have these two natures. One that wants to pull out and be alone, that wants to do his own thing, and the other that at first reluctantly joins the common effort with other people and then finds that he is fed by the interaction, is enhanced by it, sometimes inflamed by it, sometimes made human by it. In short, working with other people is an activity that I engage reluctantly, and is at the same time, my salvation.

Now, unless I am an aberration of the species, there may be others who suffer similar dichotomies, yearning for independence and the association with others, both at the same time. If, that is, we are all a little like this, then the question is, “How did we get so out of balance, so willing to appear as if we were independent, as if we were free to do whatever we please, when in fact we need, psychologically and spiritually, to work together?” Or, more importantly, what can we do to rebind ourselves into a common lot, a common destiny, a common nurturance and love?

Those stories of the Trojan War, of Agamemnon and Achilles, of Odysseus and Jason and Theseus and Heracles made individual heroes the model for western civilization. They set in motion the thinking that led to Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar and to Charlemagne and Napoleon and today to George Bush wanting to ride off into the wilderness and hunt down the evil genius Bin Laden. They are stories of separation and difference and our individual paths to the Elysian fields, or to paradise, to live forever. So that’s what George Bush is offering us. The chance to ride with him to the paradise of human freedom. When we get there we can sit down beside Heracles and Achilles.

You are either with me or against me, said the great patriarch Moses, as he sent brother against brother into battle, dividing those who believed correctly from those who believed incorrectly, and killing all the latter. Those who are not with us are against us, says George Bush as he adopts the Biblical model of old. Woe unto them who are against us, who do not think correctly.

Communism might have brought us out of this patriarchal, individual tailspin, after 3,000 years, but Marx did not understand that in setting the working classes against the rich, he was following the old model and increasing the separation. He did not understand that the survival of the species depends upon power exercised together rather than power over, and so sought to kill private property and individual capitalists. This was a proposal against which the whole private world reacted strongly, of course, and it is that reaction, so strong, so fostered and embellished since the Reagan years, that has taken us into this orgy of individualism and selfishness from which we suffer today. I use “suffer” because we are not a happy culture; we are, as we have said, a lonely, and distressed, TV, football, Prozac-and-Zoloft-medicated, culture and suffering is what we feel today.

Science might have brought us out of the patriarchal model because it depends upon collaboration and sharing of information and builds one discovery on the shoulders of the last. But the rewards of science have been captured by persons who believe in power over rather than power with, and so science has become lackey to conquest, either corporate or military, and the patriarchal story, the story of heroes and freedom and self-satisfaction, continues unexamined. Unexamined in the sense that we have not yet noticed that we are all of us drifting away from the herd, and it is dangerous and lonely out here and while we claim our supreme satisfaction with our conscious individuality we are many of us uneasy, distressed and unfulfilled. We taste the worm within the apple but we have not yet identified the nature of the worm and think the problem can be solved with more individual effort. Even individual progress toward spirituality is therefore encouraged, ignoring the fact that it may be the individual effort itself that is the problem, not the lack of spirituality. It may be that being a part of the collective, being joined in comradeship and mutual sacrifice and mutual joy is the essence of the spiritual experience, rather than removal from it all.

It is our collective problem of course, a problem that virtue has been defined since Achilles, since Caesar, since Napoleon, as an individual achievement and not as a collective achievement, and we have not yet got a god of the whole, a song of mutual dependence, a dream of our love for one another.

We might agree with Wm. Butler Yeats when he wrote all the way back in the 1920s: “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”

It is a scary fact that Islam, by contrast to Christianity, Judaism, or Buddhism, seems to generate a sense of the larger community or common cause: thousands go out into the streets nearly every week. Further, it seems that that sense of being bound to a larger purpose is Islam’s objection to the world of individualism and self indulgence. It is this difference, this profound difference, perhaps more than any other which causes distress in the hearts of Islamists: the West and modern commercial societies seem to have forgotten the center. Without a center, they seem to be asking, “Where is God?” And that is why they call us infidels.

I will therefore conclude by saying the most un-American thing that I suppose one can say: We need to bridge back to a time before freedom, to a time before rampant self-interest and individual roads to salvation and see if we can find the humanity in the eyes of all of those who need us and whom, ironically, it turns out we need just as much, and find ways to love one another or assist even those whom we do not love, reach out whether or not love is the bond, create happiness not in the abstract but by the act of reaching out, over and over, without end, because over and over without end is itself the path. We have been spending a lot of time shining our own apples but the path of virtue is dividing the apple up and that is the path, too, of greatest satisfaction and the least loneliness. After 3,000 years, it might be worth the effort.