Like a Conquered Province
This is a time when we ask, “What must a man do?” and nobody knows the answer. Every day our war against Vietnam gets worse. The readers of this journal know perfectly well that more than 10,000 American men have been killed there, that the casualty rates are rising fast, that we are doing our best to destroy South Vietnam by uprooting provinces, defoliating forests, poisoning rice paddies, bombing with napalm and with the ingenious new multiple canisters that seem to be so effective against villagers. It is said (Wall Street Journal, June 27, 1967) that we have killed 200,000 “Reds” so far; I don’t know if that includes women and children. In North Vietnam, our enormous bombing attacks destroy and redestroy the few “targets” available. The fact that villages are also destroyed made a few headlines when Harrison Salisbury reported it, and then it was forgotten. The excuses our government has offered for all these onslaughts have been exposed again and again as lies. Our government’s claims that it seeks peace have been exposed as lies. These exposures seem to do no good. The truth does no good. Thus, when Noam Chomsky rigorously accomplished what he said was the responsibility of intellectuals, “to speak the truth and to expose lies,” about Vietnam, in The New York Review, February 23, 1967, his truths and his exposures brought only the response, “But what must we really do?” To do the job of the intellectual no longer seems like doing anything.
Very honorably Chomsky replied that he was worried about this too, and that even for him his responsibility as an intellectual was not fulfilled by seeking out the truth and telling it. He said he was refusing to pay half his taxes. This is admirable, if maybe difficult to manage for most of us under the tax-with-holding system; and there can be no doubt that this action, along with his speaking out, will answer for him satisfactorily the question he asks, “On what page of history do we find our proper place?” As we all know, many American intellectuals have acted honorably in opposing our war against Vietnam, and they deserve to be enrolled on the right side, when it is all over some day. But this has no effect on the events that are making history. What must a man do? Is it the responsibility of intellectuals to try to speak more loudly, to reach larger audiences, to hope to have some direct effect on the public sentiment? Dwight Macdonald, returning to politics after all these years, has summarized the work of the intellectuals on Vietnam, a good part of it from these pages, for the audience of the July Esquire, and with his usual dash and clarity has recorded his personal disgust with our war. But he too seems to feel that saying this is not enough. He ends with the parable of the pacifist Quaker who stood by during a pirate raid until at last he took up the pirate captain in his arms and dropped him overboard, saying, “Friend, thou hast no business here.” I do not know just how to interpret this. Surely it is not a call for some new Macduff to settle the problem of our MacBird. But it says again that to hold a merely honorable intellectual and moral position is not enough.
WHAT IS A MAN to do? Not only our war against Vietnam poses this question to intellectuals. The intellectual and moral case for many actions in our society has been made over and over again. Our capabilities in wealth and techniques could solve our social problems. Yet the problems grow.
Enterprises often seem to be expanding simply because the managers cannot think of any other use for energy and resources. The economy is turning into a war economy. There are warnings of ecological disaster, pollution, congestion, poisoning, mental disease, anomie. We have discovered that there is hardcore poverty at home that is not easy to liquidate. And unlike the success of the Marshall Plan in Europe in the forties, it increasingly appears that poverty and unrest in Asia, Africa, and South America are not only not helped by our methods of assistance, they are perhaps made worse.
This is Paul Goodman’s list, in his new book, Like a Conquered Province, a collection of the six Massey lectures he gave last year for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The first of these, “The Empty Society,” says that American institutions tend to expand meaninglessly for their own sakes, and that in the process many human beings are excluded as useless; the society, then, is empty because it has no human meaning, and it is probably headed for an empty and immoral empire or for exhaustion and fascism. Yet in his second lecture, “Counter Forces for a Decent Society,” Goodman sees reasons for hope. He describes these in his old-fashioned Horatio Alger way:
The traditional American sentiment is that a decent society cannot be built by dominant official policy anyway, but only by grass-roots resistance, community cooperation, individual enterprise, and citizenly vigilance to protect liberty. These, surprisingly, are reviving… The question is whether or not our beautiful libertarian, pluralist, and populist experiment is viable in modern conditions. If it’s not, I don’t know any other acceptable politics, and I am a man without a country.
The good things are the recent Supreme Court decisions, sexual freedom, the churches, the arts, and here, typically, he is brief and accurate.
There is an odd explosion in the arts, with an immense number of amateurs, of a kind of urban folk art in all genres. It is entirely inauthentic in style, combining misunderstood fragments of international culture with commercialized mountain music and stereotyped urban naturalism; yet it is authentic to the actual urban confusion.
Then there is his “youth.” Goodman first came to national prominence, of course, with Growing Up Absurd, where he analyzed how hard it was for young people to become mature when America provided them so few models of “manly” activity. Young people responded to this, and Goodman has for years now been making the rounds of the colleges, getting to know the young. He admires the style of the 5 percent of college students involved in radical movements, their natural “aristocratic” disdain of the Establishment, of direction from the top, of middle-class squeamishness. But he does not identify with them, nor really expect a whole lot from them. They don’t know much of anything, and don’t know what they want to know.
There is a lecture on the morality of science and of technology. These enterprises are good in themselves, we have to support them as part of the human adventure, but they have lost their independence and they labor away now, mindlessly, under the orders of our mindlessly expanding union of big government and big corporations. Lecture IV is “Urbanization and Rural Reconstruction.” Goodman describes our hideous cities and our destruction of the countryside, and offers his solutions, as he does for nearly all the problems he notices. These solutions I will discuss in a moment. The last two lectures are “The Psychology of Being Powerless” and “Is American Democracy Viable?” where he returns to that question he raised in the beginning. He ends darkly. “I would almost say that my country is like a conquered province with foreign rulers, except that they are not foreigners and we are responsible for what they do.”
Yet Goodman has hope. He believes that the decentralizing anarchist solution of local attacks on abuse, personal confrontation, civil disobedience, legal petition, can ease the anonymous misery of being powerless and at the same time actually accomplish things. He is not interested in the conspiracy theory of a power elite, even though that is certainly what his “foreign rulers” sound like as he describes them. He does not want to join the rulers, he does not want to replace them. He seems to believe, still, that they will leave him holes and corners, that they can be driven back here and there when they go too far, and that this will serve.
Thus Goodman stands neither with the dissident intellectuals of the New Left nor with those who have joined the Establishment. This latter group was praised recently by Theodore H. White in a series in Life: “action-intellectuals,” “a super team with ambitions of managing man’s whole environment. In a computer-banked laboratory in Washington, ESSA chief Robert M. White stands beside a plastic globe.” Theodore White is pleased with this super-team for the very quality that Goodman finds so deplorable in technologists. The role of the “action-intellectual,” White says, “is not to dictate answers to problems but to suggest approaches and alternatives.” They want to manage man’s whole environment and they are proud that they don’t know what they would manage it for. They have no “coherent theory.” The “action-intellectuals,” then, in Goodman’s terms, are mindlessly expanding the powers of our “foreign rulers.”
White, trying to explain why this is so fine an attitude, ridicules the New Left. His list of their complaints might have been taken from Goodman’s book, although Goodman’s tone is the opposite of “sour and hopeless,” and the kind of solution White attributes to the New Left has no resemblance to Goodman’s ideas.
It is the wild and rumbling rhetoric of the alienated intellectuals of what is called “The New Left”which, paradoxically, illuminates best the dilemma of the action-intellectuals. There is very little new about the ideas of the New Left except for the sour and hopeless quality of their talk. To the New Left, the enemy in America is some faceless “they” who control events, “They” are persecuting Negroes. “They” are building not a Great Society but an idiot society. “They” have ruined our cities. “They” are crushing individuals, depriving them of identity, denying them the opportunity of achievement. If only the anonymous and malevolent “they” can be purged, implies the New Left, America will find its way to a new, freer, humanitarian society. The action-intellectuals…left this philosophy behind 30 years ago.
Goodman, too, offers approaches and alternatives, as these super teams do, but not because he has no coherent theory for a more general change. It is his theory which seems to bring these alternatives to mind naturally and easily.
Anarchism is grounded in a rather definite social-psychological hypothesis: that forceful, graceful, and intelligent behavior occurs only when there is an uncoerced and direct response to the physical and social environment; that in most human affairs, more harm than good results from compulsion, top-down direction, bureaucratic planning, pre-ordained curricula, jails, conscription, states.
Thus, to counter the mass media, he proposes a tax increasing with the size of their audiences, the funds to be diverted to small media; for police abuses, self-policing in the slums, according to the slum-dwellers’ own mores; for welfare, direct grants:
In New York City or Chicago $2500 a year of welfare money buys a family destitution and undernourishment. In beautiful depopulating areas of Vermont, Maine, or upper New York State, or southern lowa and northern Wisconsin, it is sufficient for a decent life and even owning a house and land. (Indeed, if we had a reasonable world, the same sum would make a family quite well-to-do in parts of Mexico, Greece, or even Ireland.)
It is these simple solutions that Goodman comes up with again and again which lend a marvelous note of cheerfulness to his writing. But then they begin to seem bizarre; and in the end they are shocking, these simple, intelligent, human solutions, as shocking with their cheeriness as Swift’s beautifully simple solution to Irish overpopulation and starvation was shocking with its malignity. Their extremity confronts us, as Swift’s solution does, with the facts as they are.
The very ease with which Goodman, by the stroke of a pen, can move American families from the horrors of Harlem to the beauties of Vermont, and save money in the process, reminds us that our government, our “they,” our “foreign rulers,” could do this too if they wanted, just as Lyndon Johnson could stop bombing the Vietnamese people this afternoon if he wanted to. He could do this with a telephone call. We could not do it if we were to give our lives for it, if we were, as Noam Chomsky suggested, to go to Hanoi as hostages.
An organized conspiratorial “they” may exist only, as both Goodman and Life say, in the paranoia of the New Left. And yet, there is somewhere in America a hideous resistance to common decency. We should be glad that we have a start on medical care for our aged and indigent, but how to explain the last-ditch fight against it? How to explain the idiocy of the New York World’s Fair, or the World Trade Center to be built here, the tallest buildings in the world, when we have for millions of our people no decent houses or schools or hospitals? It may be invigorating to practice confrontation politics, to win or lose small local contests we can understand. But what is it we are fighting against? What are we doing when we walk in the street looking at one another’s placards disapproving our war? What have the intellectuals done when they have proven carefully to those who already agree with them that our government lies, that intellectuals who join the government to try to exert influence end up lying too; and that when this task of learning the truth and exposing lies has been done, the question remains, what then?
There can be small victories. Those who drove out elements of the CIA from the universities and from intellectual organizations did a good day’s work, but probably they succeeded because they were beating old nags already being turned to pasture, the Cold War was over, and nobody really cared any more. All the revelations of fraud and corruption in the South Vietnamese government, a government that still matters to Lyndon Johnson, accomplish nothing.
At any rate, if the job to be done is to raise the voice, to speak clearly to a larger audience, then Goodman is a model for the action of the intellectual. In these talks to his Canadian audience, he has both authority and modesty. His tone is clear and reasonable, and inoffensive. There is much in the assumptions of his old-fashioned Americanism that might be shared by a large audience which then might find it exhilarating to see how Goodman can proceed from these assumptions to hopeful solutions. It may not have occurred to them before that anyone thought about these things or that anything could be done about them. But alas, if these pleas for decentralization and individual action do find any political response it is just as likely to be from Senator Percy or from Governor Reagan as from any of the rest of us.
THE OTHER NEW BOOK by Paul Goodman is Five Years: Thoughts in a Useless Time. This is based on his journals from 1955 to 1960. The impulse to publish it seems to be described in the book when he says, “I am uneasy about the reputation I am getting for Growing Up and my recent essays. I feel I am going under false pretenses…” So he thought to publish something that would make it clear he indulged in homosexual activities. It’s difficult to say whether he felt this would invalidate his essays or validate the homosexuality. It seems to me it does neither, it only tells us what we all know, that good writers can be as mean and boring as the rest of us, when they are not doing their best. Perhaps some scandalized interest will attach to the homosexual experiences, here so dryly jotted down, but believe me, this interest will have to be self-powered, there is nothing in this dessicated account to generate it. Our author has suffered miserably, and this we must regret. But despite all his protestions of how interesting it all was, I imagine most of us will prefer the happy accomplishment of his public lectures to the sad vanities of his notebooks.
Only One-Seventh November 9, 1967