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Politics Within Limits

The criteria for the success of such operations are abstractions like Gross National Product, Standard of Living, body count, passenger-miles, PhDs awarded. These at best have no relation to the common wealth, satisfaction of life, peace, experience of travel, or knowing anything. But at worst they impede the common wealth, peace, experience of travel, etc.

Nevertheless, central organization, which mathematically guarantees stupidity, is sometimes unavoidable; and just by existing, it exerts disproportionate power. This is a puzzler. The Articles of Confederation and the acrimoniously debated Federalist Constitution gave an answer that worked pretty well, in quite simple conditions, for almost thirty years. In my opinion, we would have had a more experimental and interesting country for a longer time if we had just amended the Articles. We wouldn’t have had the Tariff of 1817.

  1. I suppose the most sickening aspect of modern highly organized societies is the prisons and insane asylums, vast enclaves of the indigestible, which the rest live vaguely aware of, with low-grade anxiety.

We have been getting rid of the stupid but at least human notions of punishment, revenge, “paying the debt,” and so forth. But instead, there persists and grows the God-like assumption of “correcting” and “rehabilitating” the deviant. There is no evidence that we know how; and in both prisons and asylums it comes to the same thing, trying to beat people into shape, treating the inmates like inferior animals, and finally just keeping the whole mess out of sight.

The only rational motive for confining anyone is to protect ourselves from injury that is likely to be repeated. In insane asylums, more than 90 percent are harmless and need not be confined. And in prisons, what is the point of confining those—I don’t know what percent, but it must be fairly large—who have committed onetime crimes, e.g., most manslaughters and passional or family crimes, while they pay up or atone? People ought indeed to atone for the harm they have done, to get over their guilt and be “rehabilitated,” but this is much more likely to occur by trying to accept them back into the community rather than isolating and making them desperate. Certainly the old confession on the public square was a better idea.

It is doubtful that punishing some deters others. Varying the penalties has no statistical effect on occurrence, but only measures the degree of abstract social disapproval. And it is obvious that the great majority who do not steal, bribe, forge, etc., refrain because of their life style, more subtle influences than gross legal threats; other cultures, and some of our own subcultures, have other styles and other habits; for example, the youth counterculture has increased shoplifting and forging official documents.

The chief reason that so-called “moral legislation” has no influence on deterring vices is that temptation to the vices does not occur in the same psychological context as rational calculation of legal risks—unlike business fraud or risking a parking ticket. And it is likely that much authentic criminal behavior is compulsive in the same way. (But we must remember that our theories about criminal psychology and sociology come mainly from caught criminals, a special minority.)

There are inveterate lawbreakers and “psychopathic personalities” who cannot be trusted not to commit the same or worse crimes. (I think they will exist with any social institutions whatever.) It is unrealistic to expect other people not to panic because of them, and so we feel we have to confine them instead of lynching them. But our present theory of “correction” in fact leads to 70 percent recidivism, usually for more serious felonies; to a state of war and terrorism between prisoners and guards; and to increasing prison riots. Why not say honestly, “We’re locking you up simply because we’re afraid of you. It is not necessarily a reflection on you and we’re sorry for it. Therefore, in your terms, how can we make your confinement as painless and profitable to you as we can? We will give you as many creature satisfactions as we can afford, not lock you in cells, let you live in your own style, find and pursue your own work—so long as we are safe from you. The persisting, and perhaps insoluble, problem is how you will protect yourselves from one another.”

It may be objected, of course, that many sober and hard-working citizens who aren’t criminals are never given this much consideration by society. No, they aren’t, and that is a pity.

  1. Writing Communitas, my brother and I used only one methodical criterion: diminish intermediary services that are not directly productive or directly enjoyed, like commuting, packaging, sewer lines, blue books. These do not pay off as experience, but they clutter it up and rigidly predetermine it—you walk where the streets go, you study to pass the examination. The social wealth and time of life that go into intermediaries cannot be used for something else. There are slums of engineering. Economists of the infrastructure do not think enough about this when they saddle underdeveloped regions with dead weight.

It is melancholy to consider the fate of John Dewey’s instrumentalism, the idea that meaning and value are imbedded in means and operations, that the end in view is in practice. Instrumentalism was attacked as anti-intellectual, as base because it omitted ideals; but indeed it was an attempt to rescue intellect from being otiose and merely genteel. It was part of the same impulse as functionalism to rescue architecture, and industrial democracy and agrarian populism to rescue democracy. These meant to dignify the everyday and work-a-day from being servile means for Sunday goals. Now, however, we take it for granted that immense means are employed and operations carried on instead of meaning and value. No end in view, no experience, nothing practical. A university is administered to ensure its smooth administration. The government makes work in order to diminish unemployment. A candidate runs for office in order to be elected. A war is fought to use new weapons. Only the last of these sounds harsh.

  1. At best, survivals of the past, for example “Western culture,” and the busy business of present society must also be crushing weights on anybody’s poor finite experience, unless he can somehow appropriate them as his own by education and vocation.

Most people in most ages pick up a good store of folk ways and folk songs in the same way as they learn the language, however that is. They prudently manage to screen out most of the high thought and culture that is not for them, unless they are harassed by schoolteachers; yet they also get wonder-full flashes of it: on solemn religious occasions; from works of high music, art, and architecture that have become like folk ways; from important civic occasions that give food for profound thought, like constitutional crises, struggles for social justice, lawsuits; and most jobs and crafts, whether mechanics or farming or cooking or child-rearing, involve a good deal of fundamental science and high tradition that intelligent people pick up. Ordinary life can be culturally rich, and sometimes has been. It is a dubious society when the workdays, holidays, and election days do not provide enough spirit for most people, and we try to give a liberal education abstractly by lessons in school. It cannot be done.

In critical periods, alienated young people may choose on principle not to take on the traditions at all. At the end of the Middle Ages, the moderni declared they were throwing out the past, and they deserted the Scholastic regent professors and set up their own colleges. The youth of Sturm und Drang threw out the courtly manners and morals. Today seems to be a similar time. Young people astoundingly might not know “Greensleeves” and “Annie Laurie”; they do not become thoughtful on days that commemorate events that happened thousands of years ago—like Huck Finn, they aren’t interested in people who are dead; they simply take for granted what Harvey and Newton had to puzzle out; they don’t care that Tyrannosaurus lorded it over the Cretaceous era. The curriculum of a Free University might be, typically, Sensitivity Training, Psychedelic Experience, Multi-Media, Astrology, Castro’s Cuba, History of Women, and Black Studies. These are not the major Humanities, yet it is better to study what they can appropriate as experience than what they can’t. (I am puzzled that they do not study nothing, a deeply philosophical subject. They seem to have to go to school.)

Some of us, finally, live in the high culture, its spirit reviving in us and being more or less relevant to 1972, not with an easy adjustment. Our contemporaries are as likely to be Seami and Calderon as people we can talk to. People like us have a use. It would be woeful if the great moments of spirit did not survive. And the present institutions are lifeless if their spirit is not revived. But I don’t know any method to teach what we know, namely, that Beethoven, the Reformers, the authors of The Federalist were real people and meant what they did. The great difficulty is that, in order to know them in our terms, it is first necessary to make the abnegation of learning them in their terms. And the less culture one has to begin with, the harder this is to do.

  1. Vocation is taking on the business of the community so it is not a drag. If I find what I am good at and good for, that my community can use and will support, securely doing this, I can find myself further; and the social work is humanized because a person is really doing it.

Having a vocation is always somewhat of a miracle, like falling in love and it works out. I can understand why Luther said that a man is justified by his vocation, for it is already a proof of God’s favor. Naturally, it is psychologically easier if the family or community has provided intimate models to a child, and if it encourages him as he follows his own bent. It is harder if a child is poor or is restricted by his status, high or low, and has to take what offers or what he must. Faraday’s career is a good example of both advantage and deprivation, and of the miracle. His father was a journeyman blacksmith. When he was adolescent, they apprenticed him to a bookbinder for seven years. Although he could hardly read, he used to take home the books of natural philosophy that came into the shop for rebinding, and copy out the diagrams. The clients talked to him—he must have been likable as well as smart. They invited him to lectures. Because of his ability to fashion apparatus, at twenty he became the laboratory assistant of Humphry Davy. So he had the right background, he had the right hardships to make him make an effort, and he had the genius of Faraday.

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