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Notes of a Neolithic Conservative

But I am political because of an idiotic concept of myself as a man of letters: I am that kind of writer who must first have done his duty as a citizen, father, and so forth. Inevitably, my disastrous model is John Milton—and it’s a poor state to be waiting to go blind in order to be free to write a big poem. But at least, thereby, I write with a good conscience. I do not have to be a political poet. I am immune from the stupidity of Sartre’s artist engagé—how the devil would an artist, relying on the random spirit as we do, choose whether or not to be engagé?

16. In normal fiscal conditions, the way for free citizens to check the government has been to grant or refuse taxes, usually through the parliament, but if both the parliament and the government are illegitimate, by individual refusal. At present, some are refusing their Federal taxes, or 70 percent of the amount, in protest against the armaments and, of course, the Vietnam War. (They estimate the military budget as about 70 percent of the total.)

I agree with the principle of refusal, yet, except for the surtax and the telephone tax, I pay the taxes because of a moral scruple; for in the present fiscal set-up, the kind of money I get is not really pay for my work, is not mine, but belongs to the very System I object to. I have a comfortable income. I well deserve an adequate one and a little more; I worked hard till forty-five years of age, and brought up children, on an income in the lowest tenth of the population; nor have I found that my late-come wealth has changed my thoughts, work, or even much my standard of living. But most of my money is “soft” money, from the military economy and the wasteful superstructure, and I cannot see how I am justified to keep Caesar’s share from dribbling back to him through my hands. For instance, I am paid a large sum to give a lecture—mainly because I am a “name” and they want to make their series prestigious; the lecture series is financed by a Foundation; and you do not need to scratch hard to find military-industrial corporations supporting that Foundation—perhaps as a tax dodge! I give the lecture innocently enough; I am probably not indispensable to give it, but I do by best and say my say. But it would not help to refuse the money, or most of it, since by Parkinson’s law that all the soft money will be spent, the money will certainly be spent.

I wouldn’t know how to estimate the pay that I get for hard work in hard money, on which I would feel justified in refusing the tax because it is mine to give or refuse, but it cannot be much of the whole. There is an hypothesis that in our society pay is inversely proportional to effort. The idea, I guess, is that big money accrues from being in the System, and the higher you are in the System, the less you move your ass. But empirically it is not quite accurate. Top managers and professionals work hard for long hours for high pay; those on a thirty-six-hour week work much less, for varying pay; farmers, hospital orderlies, dishwashers, and others work very hard for miserable pay; some students work hard and it costs them money; unemployable people do not work for inadequate pay. In my experience there has been no relation whatever between effort and pay. For twenty years I averaged a few hundred dollars a year for good writing that I now make good royalties on; I work hard for a possibly useful cause and lay out fare and a contribution, or I do the same work at a State college for a handsome honorarium and expenses. Third class on planes is usually the most luxurious because, if the plane is not full, you can remove the seat arms and stretch out. My editor takes me to costly lunches at the firm’s expense, and the food is poor.

The lack of correlation between effort and pay must be profoundly confusing and perhaps disgusting to the naive young. In my opinion, it is unfortunate at present but promising for the future: it creates the moral attitude, “It’s only money,” and politically, a soft-money affluent society can easily come to include a sector of communism, in the form of guaranteed income or free appropriation or both.

The telephone tax, however, was explicitly a war tax and my wife and I don’t pay it, getting the spiteful satisfaction that it costs the government a couple of hundred dollars (of the tax-payers’, our, money) to collect $1.58. We also have refused the 10 percent surtax, which rose directly out of the Vietnam War. This tax for this war is like the ship tax that Charles I exacted for his Irish War, that John Hamden refused. The FBI seems to be breathing down our necks about it, but if they arrest me I’ll bring up that shining precedent—and they’ll be sorry that they picked on me. (No, they finally simply attached my account.)

17. In otherwise friendly reviews and expostulatory fan mail from young people, I read that there are three things wrong with my social thinking: I go in for tinkering. I don’t tell how to bring about what I propose. I am a “romantic” and want to go back to the past. Let me consider these criticisms in turn.

My proposed little reforms and improvements are meaningless, it is said, because I do not attack the System itself, usually monopoly capitalism; and I am given the philological information that “radical” means “going to the root,” whereas I hack at the branches. To answer this, I have tried to show that in a complex society which is a network rather than a monolith with a head, a piecemeal approach can be effective; it is the safest, least likely to produce ruinous consequences of either repression or “success”; it involves people where they are competent, or could become competent, and so creates citizens, which is better than “politicizing”; it more easily dissolves the metaphysical despair that nothing can be done. And since, in my opinion, the aim of politics is to produce not a good society but a tolerable one, it is best to try to cut abuses down to manageable size; the best solutions are usually not global but a little of this and a little of that.

More important, in the confusing conditions of Modern Times, so bristling with dilemmas, I don’t know what is the root. I have not heard of any formula, e.g. “Socialism,” that answers the root questions. If I were a citizen of a Communist country, I should no doubt be getting into (more) trouble by tinkering with “bourgeois” improvements. The problem in any society is to get a more judicious mixture of kinds of enterprise, and this might be most attainable by tinkering.

18. A second criticism is that I don’t explain how to bring about the nice things I propose. The chief reason for this, of course, is that I don’t know how or I would proclaim it. Put it this way: I have been a pacifist for forty years and rather active for thirty years, and…. But ignorance is rarely an excuse. What my critics really object to is that I accept my not knowing too easily, as if the actuality of change were unimportant, rather than just brooding about it, when in fact people are wretched and dying.

As I have explained, I do not have the character for politics. I cannot lead or easily be led, and I am dubious about the ability of parties and government to accomplish any positive good—and which of these is cause, which is effect?—therefore I do not put my mind to questions of manipulation and power, I do not belong to a party, and therefore I have no tactical thoughts. Belief and commitment are necessary to have relevant ideas. Nevertheless, somebody has to make sense, and I am often willing to oblige, as a man of letters, as part of the division of labor, so to speak.

I do agree with my critics that there cannot be social thought without political action; and if I violate this rule, I ought to stop. Unless it is high poetry, utopian thinking is boring. “Neutral” sociology is morally repugnant and bad science. An essential part of any sociological inquiry is having a practical effect, otherwise the problem is badly defined: people are being taken as objects rather than real, and the inquirer himself is not all there.

For the humanistic problems that I mostly work at, however, the sense of powerlessness, the loss of history, vulgarity, the lack of magnanimity, alienation, the maladaption of organisms and environment—and these are political problems—maybe there are no other “strategies” than literature, dialogue, and trying to be a useful citizen oneself.

19. I am not a “romantic”; what puts my liberal and radical critics off is that I am a conservative, a conservationist. I do use the past; the question is how.

I get a kind of insight (for myself) from the genetic method, from seeing how a habit or institution has developed to its present form; but I really do understand that all positive value and meaning is in present action, coping with present conditions. Freud, for instance, was in error when he sometimes spoke as if a man had a child inside of him, or a vertebrate had an annelid worm inside. Each specified individual behaves as the whole that it has become; and every stage of life as Dewey used to insist has its own problems and ways of coping.

The criticism of the genetic fallacy, however, does not apply to the negative, to the lapses in the present, which can often be remedied only by taking into account some simplicities of the past. The case is analogous to localizing an organic function, e.g. seeing. As Kurt Goldstein used to point out, we cannot localize seeing in the eye or the brain, it is a function of the whole organism in its environment. But a failure of sight may well be localized in the cornea, the optic nerve, etc. We cannot explain speech by the psycho-sexual history of an infant; it is a way of being in the world. But a speech defect, e.g. lisping, may well come from inhibited biting because of imperfect weaning. This is, of course, what Freud knew as a clinician rather than a metapsychologist.

My books are full of one paragraph or two page “histories”—of the concept of alienation, the system of welfare, suburbanization, compulsory schooling, neutral technology, the anthropology of neurosis, university administration, citizenly powerlessness, missed revolutions, etc., etc. In every case my purpose is to show that a coerced or inauthentic settling of a conflict has left an unfinished situation to the next generation, and the difficulty becomes more complex in the new conditions. Then it is useful to remember the simpler state before things went wrong; it is hopelessly archaic as a present response, but it has vitality and may suggest a new program involving a renewed conflict. This is the therapeutic use of history. As Ben Nelson has said, the point of history is to keep old (defeated) causes alive. Of course, this reasoning presupposes that there is a nature of things, including human nature, whose right development can be violated. There is.

An inauthentic solution complicates, and produces a monster. An authentic solution neither simplifies nor complicates, but produces a new configuration, a species adapted to the on-going situation. There is a human nature, and it is characteristic of that nature to go on making itself ever different. This is the humanistic use of history, to remind of man’s various ways of being great. So we have become mathematical, tragical, political, loyal, romantic, civil-libertarian, universalist, experimental-scientific, collectivist, etc., etc.—these too accumulate and become a mighty heavy burden. There is no laying any of it down.

20. I went down to Dartmouth to lead some seminars of American Telephone and Telegraph executives who were being groomed to be vice-presidents. They wanted to know how to get on with young people, since they would have to employ them, or try. (Why do I go? Ah, why do I go? It’s not for money and it’s not out of vanity. I go because they ask me. Since I used to gripe bitterly when I was left out of the world, how can I gracefully decline when I am invited in?)

I had three suggestions. First, citing my usual evidence of the irrelevance of school grades and diplomas, I urged them to hire black and Puerto Rican dropouts, who would learn on the job as well as anybody else, whereas to require academic credentials puts them at a disadvantage. Not to my surprise, the executives were cogenial to this idea. (There were twenty-five of them, no black and no woman.) It was do-good and no disadvantage to them as practical administrators. One said that he was already doing it and it had worked out very well.

Secondly, I pointed out that dialogue across the generation gap was quite impossible for them, and their present tactics of youth projects and special training would be taken as, and were, co-optation. Yet people who will not talk to one another can get together by working together on a useful job that they both care about, like fixing the car. And draft-counseling, I offered, was something that the best of the young cared strongly about; the Telephone Company could provide valuable and interesting help in this, for instance the retrieval and dissemination of information; and all this was most respectable and American, since every kid should know his rights. Not to my surprise, the executives were not enthusiastic about this proposal. But they saw the point—and had to agree—and would certainly not follow up.

My third idea, however, they did not seem to know what to do with. I told them that Ralph Nader was going around the schools urging the engineering students to come on like professionals, and stand up to the front desk when asked for unprofessional work. In my opinion, an important move for such integrity would be for the young engineers to organize for defense of the profession, and strike or boycott if necessary: a model was the American Association of University Professors in its heyday—fifty years ago. I urged the executives to encourage such organization; it would make the Telephone Company a better telephone company, more serviceable to the community; and young people would cease to regard engineers as finks. To my surprise, the prospective vice-presidents of A.T. and T. seemed to be embarrassed. (We were all pleasant people and very friendly.) I take it that this—somewhere here—is the issue.

I am pleased to notice how again and again I return to the freedoms, duties, and opportunities of earnest professionals. It means that I am thinking from where I breathe.

Letters

O Canada! June 18, 1970

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