Character and History

February 19, 2008

Progressive Democrats of America
Santa Barbara

I want to talk about how character changes history. I want to talk about how the things we learn at dinner table when we are children change history. I want to talk about how since every one might choose character willingly, we all might change history. Dostoevsky said in the Grand Inquisitor, “Everyone is responsible for everything.” I want to agree. But I want to make more than a literary case. I want to make a lawyer’s case. I want to be a trial lawyer and put together the precedents. The common law was built like this. So let’s look at some cases. We might call it the common law of human development.

All through these last five years I have been excoriating the arrogance of power, the littleness of minds who think that war is peace and peace is preparing for war, that wealth is earned by the rich and poverty is earned by the poor, that terror is more dangerous than global warming and that tanks are more to spend our treasure on than schools and medicines and music and dance. Our global situation is serious. We are into the fifth year of dangerous folly. When I was a boy I raised chickens and turkeys and pigs and sheep. They are not all alike. Some are dumber than others. Turkeys are the dumbest. Chickens are the next. Then sheep. Then pigs. Pigs are the smartest in the farmyard. Today, we are marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in a grand war parade, everyone in costume, and who is in the lead? The turkeys. The pigs are all hiding in the alleys. They know that the slaughter comes at the end. So today, let’s talk about what smart people do when the turkeys go marching off around the bend, leading the sheep and chickens.

They said that John Adams was like a pig; he was so stubborn. John Adams defended the British soldiers in Boston who were accused of massacring innocent Bostonians. It was the great Boston Massacre. All the community was enraged against the King of England and his Redcoats. John Adams defended those troops in the face of an angry mob. That was character. Within 20 years those rights of the accused to be proven guilty were enshrined into the longest lasting written constitution in the world’s history.

Henry David Thoreau did not pay his taxes because he thought that they went for war and wars are started by tyrants. He said if we kept away from tyrants we could keep away from the need for war. For a while after that we did not have any tyrants and we did not have a standing army.

There is no formula. Character is not some gimmick. It is not some commodity bought at Wal-Mart or with calico and nostalgia. It is not simple goodness. It is not dumb courage. I don’t know how to define it. But I do know some examples of people in history who had nothing else you could name, but still had power, because character is power. It is not the only power. There is power in money and weapons and missiles and submarines and bluster and bravado and being a president willing to act like a king. But there is another power and the story of that power deserves telling, too, because it may even be the greater power.

I remember Adam Micknik sitting in a Polish jail in 1982, a free man in his mind and this exuberance no jail could take away from him. He did not condemn his jailers. He just went on thinking free. Somehow his ideas got out and it was only his body that was in there. Within 10 years the Polish communist tyranny was eroded away and they were all talking about what Adam Micknik had said. Ideas get around even quicker than guns. They are cheaper to ship. We might never forget that. Ideas are cheaper and faster than these million-dollar heavy-armored troop carriers, especially if the ideas come from people who’s words and actions are consistent. Maybe that’s character. Being consistent, when the ends and the means are the same. Making ourselves clear and coherent, internally and externally, so that no matter which way you hold us up to the light, we look the same. There is power when we can master that.

In this year’s election campaign we call it authenticity. Clearly, when a person seems to be authentic, is at his core what he claims to be on the surface, it helps him. There is a reason why Huckabee and McCain are still in the Republican race. Republicans are looking for character, too, and while McCain’s record may not be as strong and consistent as he is given credit for, he leads the GOP pack, having been for the war from the beginning and without reservation. We would all like to have someone in there who comes across authentic; even if he’s wrong, it is better to know who he is than to know that he will pander to the highest bidder.

In 16 Century England, just before Marlowe and Shakespeare, the most heralded poet in Queen Elizabeth’s court was a young courtier named Philip Sidney. His sister Mary was also a poet. He and she were devoted to one another but although Philip could publish Mary could not because of her sex. Women were allowed to translate from French and Italian, which Mary did, brilliantly, and she read Greek and Latin but she was not allowed to appear herself in plays or publish anything original because women were inferior. Then one year, Philip was sent off to one of Elizabeth’s wars, and tragically killed in Holland. Mary was devastated and fell into two years of prolonged grieving and silence. But in the early 1590s she emerged from the shadows to finish Philip’s work. Disguising the words as those of her brother, she had found a way to publish her own ideas. She concluded a translation of the Psalms of David and delivered the translation direct to the insulated, isolated, Queen. Elizabeth the absolute sovereign did not take well to criticism. She would, and did on one occasion, cut off a man’s hand, when his writing displeased her. Mary Sidney wrote into the teeth of this royal arrogance, penning perhaps the first anti-war lines in English history and she aimed them right at her war-making sovereign.

Will ever civil bait

Gnaw and devour our state?

Will never we this blade

Which we with our blood have bloodie made

Lay down?

Or from age to age

So pass from rage to rage?

Sidney was a woman of grace and intelligence and one of the first to use language to advance, not just the cause of peace, but in truth, to lever open the doors of tyranny. Eventually she gathered around herself such a flock of literary lights of her age, such a band of worshipful followers that her home at Wilton House, away from London, became a magnet. And among others, she attracted to her husband’s acting troupe a young player by the name of William Shakespeare. And it was Shakespeare, or Sidney, who eventually wrote in Richard II that great caution to kings:

For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings;

How some have been deposed; some slain in war,

Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;

Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;

All murder'd: for within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,

Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,

Allowing him a breath, a little scene,

To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,

Infusing him with self and vain conceit,

As if this flesh which walls about our life,

Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus

Comes at the last and with a little pin

Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood

With solemn reverence: throw away respect,

Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,

For you have but mistook me all this while:

I live with bread like you, feel want,

Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,

How can you say to me, I am a king?

After Sidney and after Shakespeare, kings were never the same. The following century was one of turmoil and tumult, transition and finally the triumph of the principle of the law above the king, and it ended when in 1689 a king was literally thrown out, forced to abdicate, because he had not absorbed the message: “I live with bread like you, feel want, taste grief, need friends.” Forgetting that, he lost his footing in England and was driven out.

In the 17th and 18th Century in France there was a group of women who were called salonieres. Judy Chicago found them. She says that they ran salons. Catherine de Rambouillet (1588-1665) established the first literary salon in France. She was disgusted with vulgar, misogynist brutes in the court of Henry IV of France. She championed equality between the sexes and language that was careful rather than violent. She changed the style of France. Sophie de Condorcet followed her in the next century. Stephanie de Genlis was another. These women turned their salons into conversations about revolution. They had no power but the word, writing, music, even dance. De Genlis dressed like a man and danced with the servants at the grand balls. She rebelled against class and lived to see the French Revolution that was all about the collapse of class. The powerless prevailed. History changed. Not by the vote. Not by the sword, not really, because the salons came before the swords. The power source was the ideas some of which were spread by these women who said, one at a time, I am somebody; and then, we are all somebody.

I like to think of these women and these words connected down through time, passing on the secrets of the inner life, eroding the underbelly of military power. They reach back from Genlis, to Condorcet, to Rambouillet, to Mary Sidney. And coming forward, too; they reach forward.

In St Petersburg, Russia, before the Revolution of 1917, Anna Akhmatova wrote of Hamlet and connected directly to this tradition. Before the Revolution she was a woman of mystical sensuality and a glowing inner fire. She wrote of attraction and was famous already as a young woman haunting the snows around the palaces of the Czar. In 1911, she wrote a poem called The Visitor:

Everything as before: a fine snow

beats against the dining –room windows.

I have not changed,

though a man came to visit.

I asked: “What do you want?”

He said ‘To be with you in hell.’

I laughed, ‘No doubt you’ll destroy us both.’

He lifted his thin hand

and softly touched the flowers:

‘Tell me how they kiss you,

tell me how you kiss.’

He stared with resignation

at my wedding ring.

Not single muscles moved

in his radiant, evil face.

I know: he delights in

knowing intensely and passionately,

that he wants for nothing,

that I have nothing to refuse him

Then came the Revolution in 1917, the execution of the Czars, the seizure of power by Lenin, followed by the purges and horror of 20 million killed by Stalin. Akhmatova took cover in Moscow. She continued to write but her poems were forbidden and had to be immediately destroyed. One by one, certain special friends came to her apartment for tea. It was the 1920s and 1930s. Dark terror lay like a cloud over Russia. Anna recited her poems to her friends, once, twice, three times, music playing in the background. Then she lifted the writing quietly over an ashtray and burned it. Her friends drank tea and held the poems in memory. Forty years later, when Stalin had died, they wrote them down and the world knew.

These poets did not just keep the poems alive. They kept each other alive by working to keep what is refined in Russia out of the hands of those who are brutish, savage and bestial. We are not that; they said, we are this. Just as we are saying of the imperialists and their bluster and blunder toward war today. We are not that, we are this.

And just as we are tempted to withdraw from the intellectual and political chaos in America today, to pull out, so were Anna’s friends, tempted to leave for Paris and Italy. How many times have we here in America heard in the last years: “I am looking over New Zealand. I might move to Bhutan. Have you checked out Burgos?” We are all wondering if there is any place more civilized to go to. In 1922 they were leaving Russia: Anna wrote:

I am not one of those who left the land

to the mercy of it’s enemies.

Their flattery leaves me cold,

my songs are not for them to praise.

But I pity the exile’s lot.

Like a felon, like a sick man,

dark is your path, wanderer; for

alien bread is filled with wormwood.

But here in the murk of conflagration,

where scarcely a friend is left to know,

we, the survivors, do not flinch

from anything, nor from a single blow.

Surely the reckoning will be made

after the passing of this cloud.

We are the people without tears,

straighter than you … more proud….

She might have been saying to those of us who would give up on our own powers here in America today, those who feel exiled, who want to burrow down and drop out or act exiled, that we will be disappointed in the taste of foreign bread, the taste of some new identity. Take on the identity of the unconcerned or the cynical and it will taste like wormwood.

Lenin killed Akhmatova’s husband in the 1920s and Stalin imprisoned her son in the 1930s.

But here in the murk of conflagration,

where scarcely a friend is left to know,

we, the survivors, do not flinch

from anything, nor from a single blow.

During the 1930s, she stood in line for hours outside the gates of the Leningrad prison with her packages to be delivered to her son. No one in line spoke. It was too dangerous. They all stood there, inching forward. Grey figures in a line with their packages. One day a woman recognized Anna the famous poet and whispered, “Can you write this?” “Magou,” Anna whispered, “I can.” Then Anna went home and wrote. As it happened, Anna inspired Leningrad. Her words outlasted the regime.

Years later I was standing with Elena Zelinskaya on a balcony overlooking the Neva Prospeckt, in Leningrad. The regime was still tighter than a drum. People walked the streets in fear of being seen with an American. Elena had been secretly typing up news reports from around the Soviet Union, news from clandestine sources, men and women who would call her and say: “A plane went down.” One night I had been standing in her hallway when she took a call from Armenia. I watched as her face went ashen. She wrote down numbers of the dead in an earthquake that had devastated whole Armenian villages and that the regime had barely reported. She would give the true numbers in her little newspaper.

Where did she get her courage? I wondered. Some days later we stood on the Nevsky Prospeckt looking out at the passing traffic and amid a roar that made conversation safe, she whispered that she had got secret copies of Anna’s Akhmatova’s poems. We are not that, these poems said, we are this. Elena told me for the first time about Anna, and Elena went home to work with her little newspaper. These little papers were called samizadts, meaning, “self-made.” Elena typed out her paper ten times over, and then gave it to ten of her friends who each typed out ten more copies and her little samizdat had, she thought, a circulation of about 2,000. Two thousand readers who came to her for the truth. Like a secret, moving salon, she could trace her tradition back to Akhmatova, who might herself trace back to Genlis, who could trace to Condorcet, to Sidney.

In 1990, Leningrad was a hotbed of democratic conversation. I was living there. Friends took me to Anna’s grave. It was unmarked in the dark woods but everyone knew which grave was hers; everyone knew where the courageous poet lay. Elena, too, had by now become prominent for her samizdat and was not yet in jail. A new Soviet city council had been elected but was in turmoil because no one knew how to compromise about anything. Chaos was taking over the empire from Leningrad to Kiev, to Odessa. Then, in 1991 the conservatives struck back. The Red Army sent tanks belching smoke and rumbling into the heart of Moscow and into Leningrad. Leningraders, friends of Elena’s streamed out of the city to meet the tanks on the edge of town where for a moment they halted, awaiting orders. The same people who had been typing samizadts now climbed up on the roaring great machines of war and handed leaflets to the young crews hovering inside. The leaflets said, don’t come in here and be brutes and bestial and bloody like Stalin. We are not that, they said, we are this. The citizens of the City of Akhmatova spoke for civilization: The tanks stopped, the generals backed down, and the coup failed. History changed.

There was another woman named Adamovicha, in the Ukraine, after the Second World War. I don’t know her first name. Her son later was a friend of mine. Gazposha. Adamovicha had already lost one boy to the German invaders and then her second son, Alexander, went at age 16 to the woods to fight with the partisans. ‘Ales’ and his ragged band watched helpless from the forests as Germans rounded up whole villages into barns and burned them alive. Ales came home after the war and had every reason to wreak vengeance, spew out words crying for justice. By then, the fighting over, his village had German prisoners in it. One day the prisoners were working outside his house digging a ditch. It was noon and Gazposha. Adamovicha invited them inside to lunch. She spread the table with her best china. It was a small village; there was not much china. Why put on a show for the hated Germans? Asked the young war-scarred Ales, tempted to hatred by what he had seen. Because the war is over, said his mother, and somewhere inside every human there is a person. Sometimes they can be arrogant and evil. But somewhere in there is a human being to keep a look out for.

Keeping a look out for the human being in our adversaries is character, too.

Years later, in 1986, Ales Adamovich was a novelist. He sat in a dangerous closed room in Moscow and told Soviet generals that nuclear war would be an absolute, life-threatening catastrophe. “Yes, but we would be the winners,” said one of the generals. Ales Adamovich laughed at him, laughed out loud; laughed in the face of overwhelming power and personal danger. Everywhere Ales Adamovich went thereafter, in the dark days of Soviet tyranny, he laughed out loud at the Soviet generals who wanted to be the winners in a nuclear war. In 1987, we brought him to the US and someone in California asked him from whence his courage. He told the story of his mother feeding the Germans. Doing what made her feel human. Not imagining what the Germans had done. Only imagining how much better she would feel if she eliminated the canker in her own heart. Ales had got character from his mother. He became a member of the Duma. He was on television. Within five years after he started laughing, the Soviet Union had collapsed.

You have never heard, probably, of the names of these people. That of course is the point. During Shakespeare’s time they did not treat him as great. He seems to have died and been buried without ever willing a single manuscript to anyone. He gave his wife his second best bed. He did not give anyone King Lear, or Othello or any sonnet about being in disgrace and out of fortune in men’s eyes. No one knew at the time that when he described Richard II as having wants, tasting grief and needing friends, he was making a king into a person, laying the foundation for democracy. No one knew that disrobing power in Lear and laying bare clan in Romeo and Juliet, or embarrassing princes in Henry VI, he would be laying the groundwork for a new human. So he did not will his manuscripts to anyone because he did not know what he did, nor did anyone else right away. But his revelations about character remain today the mental furnishing of our civilization.

Of course Shakespeare did not do what he did alone. Nobody knew then and none will ever know the actors and producers who said to the playwright, “Romeo could not have said that!” and forced changes in the script. I know that because I write plays. My actors are always coming up to me and saying, “He could not say that!” So I change the play. ‘Everyone is responsible for everything,’ said Dostoevsky, and we all count said the women who danced with her servants in France, and no one is alone, Akhmatova found out, and no one is beneath our care said Ales Adamovich’s mother. So there were a lot of people making Shakespeare into Shakespeare, just as you are making your friends into peacemakers and no one will ever know any of our names or your names, either.

We are in the midst of a boiling time in Western Civilization and probably in global civilization. Values are changing, not over centuries, but within single life times. When I was a boy there was no ball point pen and no television and no jet airplane and no personal computer and no women in law school. Which reminds me that a woman by the name of Ellen Barney was refused a PhD at MIT in 1873 because she was a woman. She went on anyway as an unpaid assistant at the MIT laboratory for women and laid the groundwork for the eventual passage of the Food and Drug Act. To absorb her stereotype-based rebuffs and work on, she must have been a woman of character, too. And she changed history, too.

Think how much the world has changed since 1873. Ideas are the drivers for this change. Barney’s idea was that she was a woman and that she had a mind, thank you very much. Ideas are the revolution. Poets and writers and net workers are the agents of what we used to call revolt and now call phase change, which is a revolution in thinking. Networking is just another name for building consent for phase change. We do our work, ideas spread, and they threaten power.

I use more examples today of women than I do of men because their situation is more akin historically to that in which all of us find ourselves today. As in Akhmatova’s time decency and civility, language and restraint are under attack, defended by sophists and a 200-million dollar propaganda campaign for war and imperialism. The oligarchies of power, the obstructions to our influence, are as daunting to us as they must have been to the revolutionaries of France or America or Russia whom I have mentioned. Often the ones who have carried the word in times like these have been women. They are used to being strong without being bestial and are not confused by the difference.

Of course, men have character, too. We all know the stories of Martin Luther King and Jimmy Carter and Andrei Sakharov. Men are not irrelevant or useless in this struggle. They have key roles to play only some times we think they were special, not like us. So today we use examples of people who we mostly never heard of and never will, like us. It reminds us that everyone is responsible for everything. And that character plants some seed. Ideas germinate. Seasons turn. This season too will end and what you do today will determine what grass comes up in the spring.