Hanging together in desperate times

March 22, 2009


We may not yet be in a great depression but we are probably entering into a period of great disillusion. The secure promises of capitalism seem not so secure. The numbers measuring lost homes and pensions are staggering. Unemployment is climbing to numbers not seen in our life times. Confidence in those who are supposed to know how to manage the free market is no longer warranted.

Here in this spring of ’09, the middle class are like villagers on those Pacific islands being drowned by rising seas. We sit in our beach chairs watching waves climb nearer. How much farther will this dangerous tide wash in? And who will we be, after all, when history takes our chairs away?

The middle class is a property identification, of course, and some argue that that identification is disappearing. We lament that. Men like Rush Limbaugh, on the other hand, (who reportedly has a $400 million contract) argue that for the middle class to complain about its imminent demise is to stir up class war.

Well, maybe it’s about time. Today, let’s talk about class and property and what we value most.

The Declaration of Independence, it is well to recall, celebrates life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It does not celebrate the pursuit of property. Further, leaving property out of the hierarchy of American values was no casual omission. The Scottish philosopher David Hume had argued persuasively to most of Europe and the colonies that self-interest is the basis of all human behavior and that therefore governments are formed to control the passions of men who do nothing so much as pursue that interest, which means their interest in property. Hume said, and much of the world agreed, that governments are necessary to control the evil in men as they forever battle over property.

Hume was raised near the Scottish Highlands dominated by feudal clans. I remember one of those clan songs from when I was a schoolboy in London:

“The clan is out on the march again;

the clan is out on the march.

There is blood to be spilled in a near-by glen, to wipe a debt away. Swords are flashing, men are dashing, marching through the glen.

The clan is out on the march again, the clan is out on the march….”

Hume was raised on all that—men dashing, swords flashing, blood to be spilled—but Thomas Jefferson wasn’t. Jefferson was so offended by Hume’s supposition of evil that he left property out of the Declaration of Independence altogether. Years later he conspicuously omitted David Hume from his list of recommended readings for students at the new University of Virginia. To Jefferson, (and to another substantial school that did not agree with Hume), the pursuit of happiness was identified with the pursuit of civilization, or civil society, and was far more benign than men rushing around killing each other to control their clan properties. The pursuit of civil society was the pursuit of the ages and that was the great noble experiment that Jefferson meant to endorse.

According to Rush Limbaugh and a large number of Republicans, however, Hume was right and Jefferson was wrong. The pursuit of self-interest is all there is and the pursuit of income equality, justice and fairness in the work place is class war. And so here we are, caught up in the same issues that gave rise to the American Revolution, and once again we are dealing with the rock bottom issues.

The serious question presented by David Hume is: What do we hold on to, if it is not property? What is our identification, if property is not our claim to position in society? What power have we, if property does not determine our ability to change our government? Isn’t property the source of all our power?

In 2009, property is falling away, times are hard, and we may or may not get our property back. It is perhaps appropriate to look for this other value to which Jefferson was pointing. What is the inspiration, we might ask, for men and women who are devoted to the idea of civil society? Is there still some direction for those who believe in the possibility of civilization unfolding toward dignity and compassion?

Some years ago when another of the wars of our generation had ripped families apart and mine was cast up on the shores of Great Britain, at age 16, I found myself traveling with my father and mother through Scotland. Korea’s outbreak had pulled my father back into the Air Force and we had landed in London to help defend the West against communism. Now it was summer and we drove to the Isle of Skye and then across Scotland and one night landed in an inn on the edge of Loch Ness. I was desperate to see the monster and after dinner, alone in my room, stayed glued to my small window, peering out into the gloom, scanning dark waves that rippled up on a rocky shore. At last, when I could no longer see the loch at all, I retreated to my bed to read my homework. I was in the midst of an assignment and up to Socrates, when my eye fell upon the words of great importance to him, and to me ever since. I read that night for the first time Socrates’ words that the bedrock of the authentic life was the intention to discover the true, the good and the beautiful.

I had not learned these words before, or been trained to recognize them, nor did I expect extra reward in school for noticing them. But as I lay there between those clean crisp white sheets in the gathering gloom of that Scottish night, I felt as if I were at the core of something. I felt as if this—the true, the good, and the beautiful— was what I wanted to know. I drew in a deep breath and went to sleep.

Now today when property falls away as the organizing principle of one’s life it can seem that the remaining world is meaningless. People who jump off buildings when the market crashes are in that predicament. But it is not just them. People who put all their faith in themselves, or in their own competence, are close to that predicament. People who put their faith in power, or politics, or individualism are in that predicament. Property is just the marker that we have used to show the world who is competent, or powerful, or politically important, or even just good. That’s why we call it the religion of capitalism. Property has served to settle all those ultimate questions.

But today we have reason for some skepticism about that religion.

Property appears to be like the beautiful mistress; sooner or later the lady will move on to another lover. Ask Bernie Madoff. Or ask all those who invested with Bernie Madoff. We are therefore —in these times of collapsing faith in property—looking for something less like the mistress property, wealth and luxury, and more like a star; something that does not go away so quickly. But not just any old star. We are looking for the permanent star, the one value in a million that persists, even more than property, or fame, or competence, or individual success.

Vaclav Havel, writing in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, after Prague Spring of 1968—after his city had been crushed by Soviet tanks—was dealing with despair in a whole population much as we are today. He wrote in Living In Truth that there is something inside each of us that is out of reach of the czars and commissars. There is some resonance with truth that one simply experiences because he or she is a human being. We can go to that place, he wrote, on our own. And if we dedicate our lives to that knowing, we can live wholly together, not divided, not giving one half to the Soviet regime and one half to oneself. Today we might say we could live whole without giving one half to property and one half to ourselves. We can be complete human beings if we will seek out what we know to be true.

Vaclav Havel was describing, I believe, the knowing that I had experienced, unprepared and unschooled, when I read Socrates’ description of the true, the good and the beautiful. In hindsight now I would add to Havel’s formulation that we not only can find the place of knowing truth but also the place of knowing what is good and what is beautiful.

These two additions are useful because not all of us dwell in the abstraction of the truth. What in the world is truth, some might ask?

Those who ponder truth might, on the other hand, be the ones to exalt in beauty. So maybe some of us get to this knowing through the brain and some of us through the eyes and heart and some of us both ways.

And some of us know goodness and what it is to rise in the night to feed the crying child, or to carry food to the sick and when we do these things we are in harmony and at peace with ourselves. When I was a totally self-involved teenager, worried about who I would become and how I would get there and what was true, or how to be famous, my father would say well, yes, those are good questions but you will probably end up feeling better when you are doing something for someone else.

Now when this country was founded it was in the midst of a raging debate about the nature of the human and there were the Hume people on one side and the Jefferson people on the other side and when Jefferson left out the word property and put in the word happiness he was intending to direct the new country to heights not before seen in the West, and perhaps not in any time in human history.

He was relying on the belief that it is innate to want to go after something more than property and that we have a magnetic attraction for that something as strong as the pull of a plant toward the sun.

We might be awed by the great waterfall at Yosemite, or the first crimson Yucatillo flower in the Arizona desert, or the raging leafy fire of a New England autumn. And the point is: we can’t help it.

We might be awed by compassion, or by gentleness, or by a child’s smile, and we can’t help it. It comes from a source that is always there.

The sense we feel when we see these things in our surroundings is available to us all, to the unlettered and the lettered, to the child and the adult, to those who sing and those who cannot sing. When Joan of Arc contacted Saint Michael and Saint Margaret in an unbelieving hierarchical world, she was at her own bedrock and no one, no priest, no bishop or king, ever took that ground from under her. When Mary Sidney raged against war in Elizabeth’s dynastic England she was at her own bedrock and no one ever took that ground from under her. “Will never we this blade which we with our blood have bloodie made, lay down?” she tormented the Queen.

When Abraham Lincoln spoke of a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal he was at his own bedrock and no one did ever undermine that ground from under him. When a revolutionary in the Philippines in 1898 cried out, “We are people here!” he was at bedrock. When Gandhi said that the life of the satyagrahi was a life seeking truth and when Vaclav Havel wrote that we could live in truth, they were seeking bedrock. All of them were living in times as desperate as these.

Years ago, when I was working in and out of the Soviet Union, in the 1980s, I gradually made my way into circles of writers and journalists. Times were not good there. Pravda and Izvestia said that this was the people’s paradise but it was hard to find a chicken at the store and oranges were scarce and the peoples’ buses were so crowded that they were life threatening for the unpadded or unprotected. The peoples’ tickets to the Bolshoi were so scarce that only Communist peoples or apparatchik peoples ever got to see the world’s most beautiful ballet. In Leningrad, in Peter the Great’s city of the golden spire and grand cathedral, outside the famous Winter Palace men fought for places in line to buy vodka, and sometimes fought wildly on street corners after they had had their vodka.

Some of us had developed a working relation with an Intourist guide named Natasha and after some months, or even years, one evening she invited us to her apartment. We walked up several flights of dark stairs and went into a dimly-lit sitting room to meet beautiful Galya, her dark friend, Vadim, and here too were a circle of poets and actors, sculptors and theater directors, held together by the world of literature and its secret subversions of power. They were all, in this circle, critics of the regime, several were Jews who had endured years of suffering hounded by the prejudices of Russian culture. During the course of the evening this small circle recited poems by heart, from Pushkin to Shakespeare, spoke softy but passionately about war and the ironies of Soviet lying, the contradictions in American idealism. They were tight, as we would say today. Very tight. They were a band of intellectuals, hanging together on life rafts of verse and theater, using the time-honored techniques of dissent so subtle that those in power did not understand what the poets were saying. But this circle of friends knew. They were telling the truth. They were, as Vaclav Havel would have said, living in truth, surviving in a sea of lies.

And they were doing it together. In fact, they could not have done it alone. They were in a small circle of kindred spirits, finding meaning in a political culture so cruel, so banal, so scoured out by fraud and vacant looks that they could only find reality when they pulled apart from the dominant story, remembered the arts, the literary geniuses of all of western culture, and bared their souls as if Pushkin were in the same room.

Vaclav Havel had by then written about “the post-totalitarian world” and the small circles of correspondence that united men and women in Prague. Now our friends in Leningrad were doing the same thing, creating their own circles of correspondence, speaking together quietly and secretly writing about the deepest emotions of the human heart.

Before the American Revolution, Committees of Correspondence had sprung up all throughout the American colonies and these had created bodies of common opinion searching for a civil society and the governments necessary to secure that society. John Adams would later write that these committees of correspondence had been the true revolution. The war, he said, was simply the ending. The real revolution had been in the consciousness created by those Committees of Correspondence. Today, we can see that the revolutions in Prague in 1968, and in Warsaw in the 1980s, and in the Soviet Union in 1991, were all preceded by the equivalent of those committees of correspondence, groups like those in Natasha’s sitting room.

This morning, here, in Santa Fe, hanging on in desperate times, groups like this one called Journey may be the equivalent of those Committees of Correspondence of which John Adams was so proud, or the circles of literary friends who gathered in Natasha’s apartment in Leningrad in the 1980s.

We are perhaps witnessing the collapse, and most certainly the reorganization, of giant structures of capitalism and it might be that we could, in our own small circles, initiate the conversations about this post-materialistic world. We will, assuredly, need stars to guide by on that sea beyond property and beyond the religion of capitalism. We are surely headed into the wind, at least against the huffing and puffing of the priests of Wall Street. But why not? Picking up where Socrates left off, or headed in Jefferson’s direction, or toward the world those brave poets in Leningrad yearned for, we would be once again setting out toward a revolution in consciousness, something true, and good, and beautiful. That is appropriate work for desperate times.