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Politics Within Limits

Our present practice is poor. Big Society has slots to fill; the young are tested for their aptitudes and schooled to fill the slots. There are no intimate models. The actual jobs are distant and unknown. Talent is co-opted; it does not develop at the youth’s choice and time. A strong talent may well balk and deny his very talent. This is abstract.

But there may be an even more lifeless future, now widely proposed. In our changing world, the young must be trained to be adaptable, to “play various roles.” This will “free” people from being “tied down.” Young people I have talked to like this idea; they want to be “just human” and not limited to a vocation or profession. They want to be “into” various activities. As, presumably, Shakespeare was heavily “into” writing plays and Niels Bohr was “into” atomic physics. It is a curious view of personality and commitment.

  1. To be a citizen is the common vocation. It is onerous unless one has an authentic talent for it, which I don’t have, but we have to take over society as our (hopefully finite) experience or it takes us over infinitely. Even when I can only gripe, I write letters to the editor. I gave a collection of them the explanatory title The Society I Live in Is Mine.

A child or adolescent has the right to a naïve patriotism, loyal pride in the place where he is thrown—he didn’t choose to be born here. Without a sneaking nostalgia that there is some sense, honorable history, and good intentions in these people, we are in a harsh exile indeed.

For a child, even the idiot patriotism of nationalism is better than none. My little daughter, now nine, is going to an Hawaiian public school where they inundate the kids with “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” and the Pledge of Allegiance, plus some pathetic Hawaiiana—the school is 95 percent quarter-Polynesian. But in New York she had been attending a “progressive” private school where instead of “America the Beautiful” they were likely to sing,

O ugly for polluted skies,
grain grown with pesticides

and I am just as pleased that (for a few months) she is reading about the shot heard round the world and Thomas Jefferson without mention of his being a slaveholder. I see that it makes her happier to believe the noble rather than the base. It is touching.

  1. I have no idea what is the secret mission of the Navy vessels lying off my lanai in Waimanalo, but I wish they would get it over with and stop obstructing the horizon”—letter to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. In fact they were practicing living in an underwater habitat built by the Oceanic Institute, nothing objectionable. But my resentment was that the Navy just sat there day after day, as if they owned the place.

I like Hegel’s idea that property is an extension of personality; it is obviously so if we consider my tools, my clothes, my room, and my view of the horizon. And I would prefer to consider big capital property in the same light rather than that it is purely made by statute, State power. Big capital is the extension of cooperative personality, past and present; it is largely our common inheritance that has been sequestered by a few.

Socialists object to any theory of natural property. They would in fact usually allow private use in clothes, tools, and so forth, but not as a natural right, rather as a right given by the collective. I think this is dispiriting; in order to assert my right and do my business, I would first have to take myself abstractly, as a member of all society. To get capital for a new venture, I would sooner appeal to a tight-fisted businessman who might have a mind than to a collective bureaucracy that is likely to have none. To be sure, all that I myself ever need is somebody with a little printing press.

The issue of property has been wrongly put. The question is not whether personality extends into the environment—of course it does—but what kind of personality a man has. If he is exclusive and squeamish and rides roughshod over people, then his property will also be like that and will be objectionable. If he imagines that huge holdings do not enclose the commons, exploit the common wealth, and deprive other people, he is a fool. If he has a monopoly and does not consult my interest, he makes me subservient, and why should I put up with it? If the Navy would explain to me how it is temporarily appropriating that stretch of water for an interesting experiment, I might feel that my property in that stretch of water is being improved. I would willingly cooperate. My horizon would no longer be obstructed. To be sure, I distrust any experiments of the Navy, but that is another story.

Nor is the issue between “private property” and “social property.” Who would want to be private? We exist mainly, though not altogether, as community animals. To be a private individual is largely pathological. For a society to act as a collective is largely pathological.

  1. The error of those who are mistakenly called “conservative” is not their laissez-faire economics. It is probable that competitive free enterprise is a more productive system than mercantilism, monopoly capitalism, or socialist collectivism. But as in the past, free enterprises still parcel out the commons as if it were on the market. They treat moral, cultural, and aesthetic affairs that belong to the community as if they were economic affairs, e.g., giving access to the young, conserving the environment, helping the needy. But these are necessary for society to be tolerable at all. The tolerable background for any economic activity cannot be an object of economic activity.

And they make a corresponding mistake in their economics. In most of our present production, the chief value comes from the genius of Watt, Faraday, Rutherford, etc., from the industry of our fathers who cleared the woods and laid out the roads, and from natural resources. We all happen to have inherited these gold mines. It is unreasonable for a few who control capital and thereby can make use of the inheritance not to pay everybody royalties, e.g., Theobald’s guaranteed income.

  1. Equalitarians object to special privilege; for instance, they don’t like it that my sheepskin promises to me “all the rights, privileges, and immunities” of a doctor of philosophy. But my ancestor Abelard and his students fought and suffered for those rights and immunities; we (maybe) need them to do our thing; I am not at all willing to renounce them—indeed, I am a stickler for them.

Again, the issue is put wrongly. It would be better if every person and his community of interest had far more rights, privileges, and immunities. Children have special rights, privileges, and immunities. Those who have worn themselves out bringing up children have special rights, privileges, and immunities—I guiltlessly say, “Young man, tote my bag.” As a writer I need liberties and immunities that do not belong to a man who will never write a line; he does not care about freedom of the press, and in fact he won’t defend it. The real issue is that many right, privileges, and immunities that once had an historical warrant, and enhanced experience and activity, have now become a racket. For example, professionals do need a peer group and are professionally responsible only to their peer group, their oath, and the nature of things; but the economic blackmail of the medical associations is a racket.

Any professional peer group is likely to develop a secret language and mystify the laity, but I find this acceptable if it helps them do their thing. What is unacceptable is for them to get the State to certify them as the only practitioners and make them exempt from competition and criticism. Compulsory mystification is like compulsory miseducation. The pretext is to protect the public from quacks; the effect is to destroy people’s inquisitiveness and natural prudence and to increase quackery, including the quackery of certified professionals.

I am suspicious of equal law for everybody, like the jus gentium of the Romans that emerged with an empire from which no one could escape. It is safer to have a bewildering tangle of unique prerogatives, and lots of borders to flee across.

  1. The main reason that Jefferson was a champion of freehold farming as a way of life was that it was independent of political pressures. It kept open the possibility of anarchy that he hankered for—“Let Shays’ men go. If you discourage mutiny, what check is there on government?” If a farmer doesn’t like the trend, he can withdraw from the market, eat his own crops, and prudently stay out of debt. If he has a freehold, they can’t throw him off his land. (In Jefferson’s day, he couldn’t be drafted.) Other kinds of tenure have a similar privilege, academic tenure or seniority on the job, but of course the whole enterprise can shut down.

My own admiration for farming is its competence. The wonderfully direct connection between causes and effects, whether the seeds, the soil, the weather, the breeding, the plumbing in the barn, or the engine of the tractor; and of course growing it and then eating it. Needless to say, a farmer understands most of this only empirically, practically, not scientifically. He is not altogether in control. That too is very good; there are gods.

Wordsworth had a good insight of the beauty and morality of rural life. The ecology of a country scene is so exquisitely complicated that we finally have to take it as just given. This simplifies it morally, we can relax a little. But I can’t take the traffic or housing in Manhattan as given; it is an artifact and I have to do something about it. Also, the country scene has been so worked over for millions of years that it is bound to have unity and style, heroic in scale, minute in detail. But for various well-known reasons, the man-made scene is bound to be ugly. If people change their ways, it could become at least modest.

  1. Professions and sciences are sacred because they devote themselves—indeed, in a priestly way—to the natures not made by us but that enable us to make sense and not live wishes, hopes, and nightmares. Being observant, accurate, humble, and austerely self-denying, scientists and professionals accumulate the reward of their Calvinist virtues. Great powers flow through them—which they can use to our disadvantage. Therefore they ought to bind themselves by oath to benefit and not harm the community, and it is better if this oath is public and explicit, like the Hippocratic oath.

When, instead, they come on like petty clerks of the powers-that-be and as petty bankers of their own economic interests, the forces of nature are unleashed without human beings to interpret and exorcize them.

We others, artists and literary men, are easygoing toward nature and mix into our service a good deal of ourselves. So we accumulate little force, but it is domesticated. We do not need to bind ourselves with an oath, except not to censor.

  1. Futurologists take current trends, that may or may not be good, and by extrapolating them for twenty years perform the sleight of hand of making them into norms that we must learn to conform to and prepare ourselves for. As a group they are extraordinarily slavish to the status quo—science fiction writers are often far more critical and daring. They seem to want to delete from primary experience its risky property of passing into the Next, beyond a horizon that very swiftly becomes dim and dark. Aristotle: “The past and present are necessary, the future is possible.”

Luckily, human beings have enormous resources of anxiety, common sense, boredom, virtue, and perversity, to distort or reverse almost any trend you want.

The mania of planning for the future springs, of course, from the fact that current technology, urbanization, population, and communications are intractable—or at least the managers have lost their pragmatic inventiveness—so that it seems to be less desperate to grin and codify them. As Kafka advised, “Leopards break into the temple; make it part of the ritual.”

My own prediction, however, is that there will be increasing disorder for twenty years, and that might be very well. Some things—some times—break up into fragments of just the right size and shape. People en masse learn only by being frightened anyway—10,000 dead one morning of the smog, a city wiped out by an accidental bomb. It’s not that we are stupid, but it takes a big fact, not a syllogism, to warrant a big response. If only the process of disorder is not aggravated by reactionary Law and Order, liberal Futurology, and radical Idealism.

  1. I am bemused, as I spell out this politics of mine, at the consistent package of conservative biases, the ideology of a peasant or a small entrepreneur who carries his office and capital under his hat. Localism, ruralism, face-to-face organization, distrust of planning, clinging to property, natural rights, historical privileges and immunities, letters to the editor that view with alarm, carrying on the family craft, piecemeal reforms, make do, and let me alone.

No. It is not a possessive peasant nor a threatened small entrepreneur, but a small child who needs the security of routine. There is no father. Mother is away all day at work. The child is self-reliant because he has to be. It is lonely, but nobody bugs him, and the sun is pouring through the window.

Where the emphasis in a philosophy of experience is on the foreground empirical facts, as in Dewey, we come out with a bias toward experiment and a politics of progressivism. Where the emphasis is on the phenomenology, the horizons and backgrounds of experience, we come out with conservation and conservatism. The difference is the old principle of acculturation from tribe to tribe: if the new item is a plough or a technique for baking pottery, it diffuses rapidly; if it is a change of taboo, child-rearing, or aesthetics, it is resisted, it diffuses slowly or not at all. In such acculturation, there is no “future shock.” (The shocks come with colonialism.)

Since as experience I want the concrete and finite, with structure and tendency, a next so I can live on a little, and a dark surrounding, politically I want only that the children have bright eyes, the river be clean, food and sex be available, and nobody be pushed around. There must not be horrors that take me by the throat, so I can experience nothing; but it is indifferent to me what the Growth Rate is, or if some people are rich and others poor, so long as they are pauvres, decently poor, and not misérables (Péguy’s distinction). I myself never found that much difference between being very poor and modestly rich.

I dolatry makes me uneasy. I don’t like my country to be a Great Power. I am squeamish about masses of people enthusiastically building a New Society.

The great conservative solutions are those that diminish tension by changing 2 percent of this and 4 percent of that. When they work, you don’t notice them. Liberals like to solve a problem by adding on a new agency and throwing money at it, a ringing statement that the problem has been solved. Radicals like to go to the root, which is a terrible way of gardening, though it is sometimes sadly necessary in dentistry.

Finally, like Luther, but unlike Hegel or Marx, I think that the way to overcome alienation is to go home and not on a tour through history and the realms of being.

Schultz, the neighbor’s big black dog,
used to shit on our scraggly lawn,
but we feed him marrow bones
and he treats our lawn like his own home.

The kids of Fulton Houses in New York
smashed windows on our pretty block for spite;
we gave them hockey sticks to play with
and they smashed more windows.

The dog is an anarchist like me,
he has a careless dignity
—that is, we never think about it,
which comes to the same thing.

The kids are political like you,
they want to win their dignity. They won’t.
But maybe their children will be friendly dogs
and wag their tails with my grand- children.

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