Being Powerless

In response to:

The Psychology of Being Powerless from the November 3, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

As usual Paul Goodman says wonderful things, and we are indebted to him for trying to help us. But as usual he uses his pet bias—against the middle class—to defend himself against truths.

If the middle class “is the most dangerous group of all” (a minor delusion at least), one which will protect its goods and its schedules and its characters from the changings of anxiety, how should it allow or unconsciously vote for the apocalypse, an event which would cause no doubt the greatest of anxieties, not a way out of anxiety? It is really the lower classes, first (Mr. Goodman forces me to use these names), that are apocalyptic. And they are because they have little to lose, usually see no way out of not being able to change their lives, are at a constant disadvantage to be educated at a high level and get good jobs. Goodman knows, as I do, that many of our most effective, intelligent rebels these days are quite middle class (economically, educationally, psychologically), continue to live in that class and yet belong to groups working for integration, anti-war policies, free educational action, etc. Many of my friends at least are well-off, thoughtfully engaged in movements to change things along Mr. Goodman’s lines, have put themselves in political danger, etc. It is really an annoying habit of Mr. Goodman’s to locate anxiety in groups, as if one had more share in it than another. That is of course ridiculous. But I would guess, as Mr. Goodman has done, that it is the lower and higher classes that bear the greatest “responsibility anxiety,” which is the kind Goodman refers to without naming it. They are the groups that are most intensely ruled by others outside themselves, or by standards and schedules which they feel have to be met. In the middle class, choice is probably more free in several directions because it may combine more aspects of the extremes and so possess a wider taste than either of the pleasures, dissatisfactions, fears, hopes, and resignations of both.

But I am not trying to show a preference for any group. Mr. Goodman is so intelligent that this must seem a very minor point to emphasize. And, I have used Mr. Goodman’s books in classes, and I have found students changing because of his words, and have found my life going better because of him too. But it may help him to know that in the area of the middle class he continues to waste insight he might have had by shielding himself from—what fears I can’t know.

Stephen Berg

Temple University