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Being Powerless

In response to:

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

To the Editors:

Paul Goodman should be taken seriously beyond the coterie which edits and writes The New York Review of Books. But if you insist on publishing essays pockmarked with sloppy thinking and gross factual distortions, his affective audience must remain small, his work impotent.

Without any attempt at an exhaustive inventory, let me recite a few sad examples from his recent essay on “The Psychology of Being Powerless” [NYR, Nov. 3]. Straining in his opening paragraph for our acceptance of an apocalyptic vision, he cites as one current malaise the fact that

Politics is not prudent steering in difficult terrain, but it is—and this is the subject of current political science—how to get power and keep power….

But since when has politics been anything else, except in the litany of corrupt political piety? And the implication that the political scientist’s preoccupation with problems of power is novel simply shrivels credibility. Has Mr. Goodman ever heard of Machiavelli?

Then we turn to that perennial whipping boy—the press. “[There] is little analysis of how events are building up…” We are forced to wonder at what golden moment in the past the press offered such analysis. If our time is unique, surely there must be a standard of comparison.

Goodman’s ensuing discussion of the politicians and their rhetoric also suffers from what I take to be ingenuous hyperbole. He asserts that the pragmatic approach to governing of President Kennedy and his associates “did not mean a philosophical pragmatism, going toward an end in view from where one in fact is and with the means one has; they meant turning busily to each crisis as it arose, so that it was clear that one was not inactive.” This view is not readily reconcilable with the unremitting and ultimately successful effort of the President and, chiefly, his Secretary of Defense to reach agreement with the Russians on a Test Ban Treaty. That was not a reaction to intense crisis. I think that the Alliance for Progress was another policy of some significance which cannot be stuffed into the category of unplanned reaction to the unforeseen.

As for the “bogey-men” our politicians allegedly create “in order to arm to the teeth,” I would suppose that fairly reasonable people at the Alperovitz, as well as the Rusk-Rostow, end of the spectrum of historical review and prognostication would reject the notion that a great Power has nothing to fear as long as it sits passively and waves a twig.

Mocking the polls is a popular game and not one restricted to that precious circle which will accept Paul Goodman’s jeremiads with the required suspension of the critical faculty. The most Philistine politicians disparage the polls with less eloquence but equal vigor when the results are uncongenial. I, too, resent both their implied claim to omniscience and their influence on opinion. I also tend to resent the motor car which pollutes the atmosphere and outrages aural sensitivity. But I do not pretend it is a toy or a fetish. One senses a bit of the Luddite in our friend Goodman.

I could go on. I might suggest, for example, that the Negro school children in Grenada, Mississippi would prefer squeamish to prejudiced white, if they were offered a choice. Surely it was the former who found Jim Clark’s barbarism intolerable, and it is to their subcutaneous moral sensibilities that Dr. King’s pleas are directed.

As in everything Goodman writes, there are passages of luminous insight. For these I admire him. I suppose it is true that all prophets must be a little hysterical, but if they wish to reach our phlegmatic millions, they might at least accept the ministrations of a good editor.

Tom J. Farer

School of Law

Columbia University

New York

Paul Goodman replies:

Mr. Farer is misinformed, Political science, as the norm of politics, has always dealt with commonwealth and justice, and the positivist approach, of power, is quite recent. Machiavelli is a good case in point. His chief works are the Discourses on Livy, a celebration of pristine Rome, and the History of Florence, designed to show that the commune of the lesser guilds in Florence was the high moment of human history. The Prince is a patriotic outcry in the emergency of foreign occupation.

(Would Mr. Farer seriously deny that commonwealth and justice are the aims of politics? If so, we are back to the dialogue with Thrasymachus, and that must be handled Socratically, not in the New York Review.)

I am not ready to defend the history of the newspaper press. I doubt, for instance, that Lenin was much, or at all, mentioned in the New York Times during 1916. But the quantity of “news,” the “crisis” upon us, is vastly greater at present and epitomized by the TV hot interview on the actual scene. The effect is to drown out prudent analysis, which is not “news.” It would be better—I do not mean best—if people were not informed at all and went about their business, rather than being kept on edge in a chronic low-grade emergency.

(But would Mr. Farer seriously deny that the purpose of information is problem-solving? It is not I but the common practice that is unrealistic on this.)

The Test Ban seems to me to be an obvious example of my point, responding to the crisis of actual poisoning, which was already becoming acute when Stevenson campaigned about it in 1956, and by the Sixties there was protest on the streets, e.g., by the Women’s Strike. Meantime the less “critical” need, disarmament, continued and continues to be stymied. And proliferation, another crisis, is now upon us, but neither the United States nor the Soviet Union is willing to give up an iota of Power in the “unremitting” efforts to get a treaty. As for the Alliance for Progress, my impression in Washington was that it was hamstrung from the beginning by our own staffing and by the politicos abroad through whom it has been channeled.

The evidence—cf. Marc Raskin in New York Review (Nov. 14, 1963)—is that our arms budget would have been quite sufficient at 25 per cent of what we have been spending. There is no doubt whatever that bogey-men have been created to get whopping sums. More important, we have failed to do the opposite, to allay distrust and build trust, although there have been excellent schemes (e.g., Osgood’s) and obvious occasions (e.g., the admission to the UN of Red China).

I am afraid that Mr. Farer is what Robert Theobald calls a neo-Luddite. The abuse of technology in the interests of profits, power, and aggrandizement, is not technological. The philosophical uses of technology would be to simplify the environment not clutter it, to provide for basic necessities and conveniences not gimmicks, to expedite life not harry it, and to make competent people not ignorant masses.

Unlike Mr. Farer, I don’t know the preferences of the school children in Grenada. The objective fact seems to be that prejudice in Mississippi has led to confrontation on real issues; the situation is not anomic. Whereas suburban squeamishness in California (etc.) tends only to riots and backlash. What I said was that squeamishness is “finally” worse, because it prevents the motion toward commonwealth and justice.

Allow me a more general comment. It is disheartening to converse with people who adopt the tone of Mr. Farer. They assume beforehand that they know your score. When you point out things that they have not thought of, they do not then pause and reconsider their own attitudes, but they fall back to some other carping. It is this that makes writers like myself ineffective. Usually we do not engage in “sloppy thinking and gross factual distortions,” though of course we are sometimes in error. The trouble of communication is a psychological and moral one, and that’s what my essay was about.

Finally, I may be a little hysterical—though psychologically I happen to be a compulsive—but I am not a prophet. The defining property of a prophet is that his lips are touched with fire and therefore, because God loves His people, his words penetrate thick skulls.

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