The following is the second of three excerpts from conversations between Daniel Berrigan and Robert Coles which were held last July, two weeks before Dan Berrigan was captured on Block Island. The third excerpt will appear in the next issue. The complete text will be published in September as The Geography of Faith.
BERRIGAN: I’d like to ask you some questions—I mean, ask what issues you believe your profession ought to be struggling for in times like these. Do you think a professional man like yourself is free to inquire broadly, free to do and say whatever he believes right and proper?
COLES: I feel that all too many psychiatrists and lawyers and teachers and architects in New Orleans or in Boston or in Seattle manage quite successfully to come to terms with the powers that be, and never once start asking themselves what assumptions they have to make every day about the structure of the world around them, where their money comes from, who pays them, who rewards them, whom they don’t see as patients or clients, whom they never get to represent, who cannot purchase their time. I remember one day when I was taking my residency training in psychiatry I heard a supervisor of mine say, “We are in the business of selling time to people.”
Because I fancied myself somewhat idealistic, that seemed like a rather crude way of putting things, so I turned upon him in my mind and said to myself (not to him, because I wanted to get through and be awarded my certificate!), “What a vulgar man, to think of a psychiatrist as one who sells his time to people.” I thought of myself as sincere and generous and anxious to give my time to anyone who came to me, so that we could all help one another to grow as individuals. But more recently I have thought back upon that moment, and now I’m not so sure the doctor wasn’t right in coming out with that kind of almost vulgar confrontation which in turn compelled me to look at certain brute facts, and stripped away from my mind, one might say, an almost fraudulent idealism.
The facts are that I do sell my time, or if I personally do not, most people like me do. We sell our time to people who can afford to pay thirty or forty dollars an hour for it. In that sense, of course, some of the confrontations now going on in our society may have a liberating effect on the society. The obscenity, the pornography, the greed, the self-aggrandizement, the parochialism that are protected and considered to be part of everyday life are being confronted—and the result is a great deal of outrage on the part of people like me, who don’t want to think of ourselves as “up for sale,” as “purchased at a going rate” by a certain class of people, but who rather have been accustomed to think of ourselves as noble and idealistic and decent and honorable. No wonder we squeal with pain or, for that matter, turn on people who would compel us to moments of self-analysis as well as of social or political analysis.
B: Why is it that there are no psychiatrists in jail at this point in American history?
C: I think your question is interesting indeed—in view of the fact that we are secular moral leaders of sorts, called upon for advice about anything and everything by anyone and everyone; and in view of the fact that so many people ask us for opinions about all kinds of ethical issues, about how to bring up children, about what is right and what is wrong, what is sane and what is insane, what is “good” and what is “bad” for the “person,” for the “personality,” for the family. Even more to the point is what do psychiatrists think of those who are in jail or who take stands which the federal or state authorities want to punish with jail sentences? What do they say about Dr. King or Dr. Levy or Dr. Spock or Cesar Chavez? Do they call such men “immature”? Do they call them “anti-social”? Do they call them “self-destructive” or “masochistic” or “unrealistic”? Do they say that in some way those men are “acting out a neurotic problem”?
Many of us, and not only doctors, do just that, think in just that way. We think of people who are taking up one or another eccentric position in relationship to our society as troubled people who need help, who need “treatment,” who need to be analyzed, who need to be looked at, who need to get rid of their “problems,” so that, presumably, they will be better “adjusted,” more “normal”—and the words go on and on, and reveal how both we here and (needless to say, in a much worse way) the Soviets have found a certain kind of psychiatric nomenclature all too convenient.
Then of course there are those psychiatrists who say that their profession has no values, that they are only interested in “understanding,” in “learning.” But of course, having said that, they don’t usually try to understand, to learn why it is that they see one set of patients rather than another, and what effect such a practice has on their view of the nature of the mind.
I have to keep on emphasizing that we psychiatrists are, like those in any other profession, part of a given society, and very much attached to it; and the nature of that society affects our assumptions—the way we look at people and the conclusions we come to about people—which is particularly painful and ironic in our case, because so many of us talk about being “scientific,” which is supposed to mean “objective” and “value-free.” Now of course an architect would similarly have to ask this: for whom am I designing this building, and who will use it, for what purpose? No profession can free itself of these ethical issues, and yet I guess we always try—by accommodating ourselves to the conditions around us.
I have to mention again and again that during the Sixties in the South I saw psychiatrists used by the courts in order to pin labels on protesters, confine them, judge them. One youthful dissenter after another was sent to a mental hospital for evaluation, and the courts considered such an approach “more humanistic”: a person would go to a hospital rather than to jail. Certainly the violent response to the segregationist “law” which dominated the state courts of the South could in that way be somewhat masked or made less obvious. Those who were involved in sit-ins and demonstrations were called “troubled young people,” “delinquents”—“potential sociopaths” I once heard them termed—who needed “help,” who needed some “insight” as to why they were behaving so irrationally, so bizarrely. Needless to say, judges and psychiatrists and district attorneys in those states never thought of segregation (in all its various forms) as irrational or bizarre.
B: Would you allow for the possibility that there was something important going on in the minds of those students, something extraordinarily significant for professional men to look at?
C: Yes. And I’m afraid it’s something that, as a psychiatrist, I’m ill-equipped to comprehend—and you can see it in the tenor of the questions I’ve been putting to you. I am equipped to comprehend deviance, disorder, rivalry, tension, animosity, belligerence, truculence, nastiness; not only am I prepared to comprehend such things, I in fact manage to see them everywhere. And if I don’t see what I’m looking for, I ask why and look harder and eventually, to my own satisfaction, succeed in what is a quest of sorts, I suppose. If I am thwarted, I can always say that the person who is not displaying this or that to me is extremely well guarded or “defended,” and that itself is a sign of the difficulty I’m looking for. So, one way or another I’m going to find what confirms my way of looking at the world.
And my way of looking at the world is, again, to see the problems people have, the struggles they go through, the sly and devious mental maneuvers they put themselves (and others) through. In a sense I see a jungle everywhere, in everyone’s mind: “It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory,” to quote from the song in Casablanca. Now there is that struggle—and not for a moment should we whistle in the dark and deny how difficult and mean and self-centered and grasping people can be, children can be, even before they go to school. But by the same token we are also many other things—capable of decency and honor and kindness and generosity, capable of sharing solidarity with those less fortunate, capable of being, in our own small ways, like Bonhoeffer.
We psychiatrists are often less interested in “studying” that side of “human nature”; our training often ill equips us even to look for that side, nor do we often enough ask ourselves what price both we and our patients pay for such a psychiatric “philosophy” of the mind. Instead we try to help our patients “live within the world they’re a part of.” I heard that phrase over and over again when I was in training. I wonder why we weren’t encouraged at least to discuss other possibilities—to consider whether both we and our patients didn’t have more of a responsibility to be skeptical, uncompliant, and in some spheres thoroughly angry and rebellious.
B: What we both can tell one another about our respective periods of “training” comes down to this: professional education in America, maybe everywhere, is both valuable and dangerous because one acquires important tools, but one has to fight hard to stay loyal to one’s values, to stay spiritually alive. That training at least gives one the ability to do something, and also gives one a certain world view, a certain limited but important competence; but that training must now itself be submitted to scrutiny and evaluation and examination, even as thousands and thousands of medical students and law students and seminarians went through quizzes and tests to prove themselves. I mean, the professions must ask themselves if they are responding to the needs of people for medical care or legal assistance or spiritual energy—rather than hypnotically pacifying ritual.
Nor can one at any point in his training, or at any point after his training is done, feel that he is securely prepared for what is ahead. I said to myself last June: Well, I’ve been in my order thirty years now, and I’ve been an ordained priest for about eighteen years now, and I know that I have had to change more in the last five years than I had to change in the preceding thirty, and I know in my heart (though I dread saying it even to myself) that I am going to have to change more in the next year than I have in the last five.
I know such is going to be the case in the future, too, so the best I can do is to say, in however shrinking and terrified a way: All right, that’s the way it will be, and I will do my best. Nor do I believe I am alone. I think all of us are caught up in the tremendous changes now going on, and we simply cannot fall back on the degrees we once obtained, the credentials we have, the certificates we have hanging on our walls. I believe the priesthood is self-creating or self-destroying, almost like one of those new artists’ pieces of machinery which sort of light up and move around and collapse, or suddenly undergo some sort of internal transformation into something else.
I think that, by and large, the professions, all of them, share a common assumption, one which I would like to attack. You have brought it up, certainly: it is that we are, as professional men, a sum, the sum of those energies and talents and achievements we have managed to amass during our long period of training and our “rise” to positions of status and respectability. After we get there no one ought to question us, because that “sum” is static and unassailable, so many dollars of performance and distinction and worth.
So, we get tenure at a university, or in the instance of the Jesuits, we get our degrees and our places of honor in the religious community, or with doctors, we get our appointments on hospital staffs—and at that point we begin to level off, so far as our growth goes. We have only to ride the wave that has developed on our behalf as professionals or as churchmen, as if at a certain point a halt is called to our growth: childhood and adolescence may well be explosive and chaotic and fiery, but adulthood must be characterized by a certain kind of static achievement, with a consequent under-tow. One becomes turned into statuary, turned into a prestigious figure who cannot be seriously questioned, least of all by those bold and impertinent youths we seem to be producing of late in America!
I’ve seen all I’ve just described happen again and again—so blatantly, so outrageously!—on our campuses, where college professors simply stand on their records, their books and articles, their capital, so to speak, and rage at anyone who questions them in a searching, face-to-face manner. And so often, those professors feel called upon to vindicate not only what they have won (what they have come to!) but what others have won—the system!
C: Let me interrupt you to agree that the struggles you have just mentioned—between critics of one sort or another and established professors or religious leaders—plague all professions. When young psychiatrists-in-training start to question their teachers too strenuously or to speak too critically of theories sometimes handed down to them like laws or articles of religious faith, they can be called “troubled,” be told that they need “more analysis,” be asked what their “problem” is that prompts such radical doubt. So ideological postures, professional self-righteousness, power politics, the exploitation of the weak or the aspiring by the strong and self-satisfied—all of that, to me, is universal, the result of man’s capacity for harm, his egoism, his drives and lusts as they become expressed institutionally.
Particularly sad is the way the weak young man (the young doctor or teacher or lawyer or priest) on the rise, on the make, feels compelled to turn upon himself after any rebellious moments he may experience. In order to graduate and be declared certified and authorized and approved, the young man in his own mind becomes a sinner: faulted, troubled, in need of help, in need of a change of “attitude.” In the twentieth century, in the name of science and honesty, professional men (presumably by and large agnostic and with an image of themselves as generous and liberal) can persecute one another, can be vicious toward one another, can be vindictive and narrow-minded and intolerant. So cadres of young “trainees” meet up with rigid and doctrinaire teachers who have this message for all who come to learn: Conform or repent, or you are out of our guild or you will never get in it.
And I wonder whether any profession is immune from that kind of problem. I have heard law students ask questions about the law; ask who has access to lawyers and who doesn’t and who gets sentenced to what length of prison term and who gets pardoned and who doesn’t. But I have also heard them say that there is just so far one can go as a student or young lawyer with questions like those.
B: It seems to me that the hopeful thing about everything we’ve been discussing is that the best of the young people are no longer taking it on the chin, bending and scraping before that kind of “ten commandments from on high.”
C: Are you sure?
B: Haven’t you seen a new attitude among medical students recently?
C: Yes. But perhaps I tend to be pessimistic. I worry that the kind of spirit we have seen in the finest of medical students and law students and divinity students in recent years will gradually be subdued, because in the South in the early Sixties I saw many young idealists get discouraged and give up. You keep talking about the war; well, we will settle this war, and then I doubt so many of our young will be as aroused as they recently have been. I am not at all sure that this nation is changing as much as some social critics say it is; nor do I believe that the majority of our people want any really drastic changes in the way the nation is set up.
B: You mention that the war will eventually end. One can only hope and pray for that day. But I don’t think the war is the only thing that upsets our young people. For many youths, the war and the way we have fought it and our reasons for fighting, all of that is symptomatic of something much deeper. I am not hopeful about what I see happening simply because the war has prompted young people to rebel against this or that. It seems to me that many youths I have met in seminaries, in law schools, in graduate schools, have their sights on a very large picture indeed; they are drawing analogies and making connections between evil abroad and evil at home, exploitation in South America or Southeast Asia and exploitation in the business world and in the professions and universities.
The professional horror that they are subjected to by explicit and implicit pressures no longer paralyzes certain students. Rather, they are as outraged by lies and deceit in a teacher or doctor or local politician as they are by the spectacle of this nation’s international behavior, its coziness with Latin American dictators and Greek dictators and the Spanish one and feudal oil barons in the Middle East. In the university, the essential character of the society comes across; no matter what students are told to read, the values of the world outside those college gates constantly intrude. That is to say, the university’s connections, its sources of power and money, and the way the university responds to the pressures exerted on it by those various sources—all of that is a microcosm of the country at large.
If students get to see the connection, get to see how politicians and military leaders and industrialists and—yes, I am sorry to say—our religious leaders, all work together, get to see how professors join in the act, too, and help make poison gas or pesticides that hurt children, help run that “military-industrial complex” that Dwight Eisenhower spoke of—well, if students get to see all of that, they’ve had some important boot camp training; I mean they have learned how our society works, and they’re in a better position to fight for their beliefs, rather than surrender and take orders from above. They are less naïve. They know we aren’t suddenly asked to serve the beast; all the way along, from our first years in school, we learn to do so.
So I can see how you would feel gloomy, but there are good reasons to feel otherwise. I have talked to students on a number of campuses and am impressed with their determination, come what may, to get at the heart of things, to look at the bare bones of our society, at the junctures of power in it, to analyze the relationship of the trustees of universities to those who run our corporations and own mines or plantations in the Third World. And I don’t see those students getting gloomy. Perhaps they never intend to make the compromises you and I may have felt were necessary to become a Jesuit or a psychiatrist, to become “acceptable” and “accredited” professional men!
C: Perhaps you are right—or perhaps you romanticize those youths. They can no doubt be blind and mean, like other human beings. They can no doubt trick themselves, as well as others. I believe anyone’s mind can fool itself, can draw veils over certain “areas” or “subjects,” can resort to illusions, can protect itself from what you call the “bare bones” of reality. Even people who say that their life work is dedicated to finding out what reality is, be it psychological reality, or the social reality a novelist’s sensibility often tries to evoke, or the reality of “physical matter” a scientist studies—even those people know how to whistle in the dark and to spin elaborate fantasies (sometimes called “theories”) and to ignore all kinds of things while emphasizing what it suits their purposes to emphasize as citizens of a particular nation and as men or women alive at a certain moment in history.
Witting or unwitting, we blind ourselves at certain moments. We are actively clever at not seeing a lot. Our language and literature are riddled with available masks and disguises. In a sense we are all like Blanche Dubois—whom we can laugh at and think of as a pathetic New Orleans woman, a character out of a strange Southern gothic mind. Yet how much like her some of us are—able to make our accommodations, to camouflage ourselves and our beliefs, and to see only what we can safely see.
B: But how much can one safely see?
C: I think it is an individual matter, to some extent; and of course different nations allow their citizens different degrees of leeway. But one has always to ask: What is it that people don’t want to see about the world around them, and why?
B: I’d like to suggest that the power of seeing grows in the very act of seeing. The innate health of the eye grows in the very exercise of the eye. I’ve encountered so much hopelessness, even among young people—and I am referring to the hopelessness of people who see their fellow human beings as incorrigible, as beyond change. Perhaps they don’t dare look—to see the more positive things, the more encouraging signs. We can trick ourselves into despair as well as false optimism! Many of the most sensitive young feel themselves constantly assaulted, and they see no likelihood that those in power, either in the university or in the government or in public or professional life are going to become anything other than what they are. And of course once that view of things becomes a general interpretation of life, then the worst sort of despair follows. Perhaps those who despair resort to their own kind of illusion—and one sees fine young people do so.
C: Yes, and euphoria is another tack some of the same people you have just mentioned (and the rest of us, too!) can take. It is as if one says: This is where I am, and I will enjoy myself, because it is foolish to think that any real changes in our society are forthcoming. In the Sixties I met up with that kind of thinking, of course, when I talked with “ordinary people” all over the South. But interestingly enough I also heard the same line of reasoning expressed by some of the people in the civil rights movement, who almost inevitably, it seemed, took the assumptions of our society and made them their own, which means that they assumed a greater degree of intractability and inflexibility in the white Southerner than actually turned out to be the case.
Many of the activists I worked with in Louisiana and Mississippi and Georgia in 1961 or 1962 assumed that the specific struggle they were wagingwould take years and years, would be extremely difficult; hence they were surprised by their own successes, limited though these were, of course. For instance, in 1961 or 1962 it seemed inconceivable not only to the white Southerner but to many in the so-called sit-in movement that two or three years later school desegregation would begin in Jackson, Mississippi.
Put differently, those who have to initiate and brave the hardship and dangers of social change often are as fearful and apprehensive (naturally so) as they are bold and courageous. How can they know what will happen until they go and test and try both themselves and the society they wish to change? Often they are surprised by the possibilities for change that they find both in individuals and in the political system—all of which means they are part of the world they are confronting, and thus heir to the assumptions that world possesses about, say, human nature and the nature of political protest. Do you see what I mean, how such ironies constantly plague us?
B: What’s happened to some of those young people who had that kind of experience? Have you been able to follow any of them?
C: Yes, and some of them have fallen—that’s where I think you and I may differ—in the sense that some of them have paid a high price, psychologically, I’m not speaking clinically; I don’t mean to call them “depressed” or “sick.” They made surprising progress—surprising to them, at first—but then they saw how much remained to be done, and how slow, very slow, the kinds of fundamental changes they wanted would be. So they became quite “realistic” (we in psychiatry place a high premium, perhaps too high a premium, on that word) and cold and bitter and discouraged. They don’t feel the kind of hope you mentioned a little while back.
B: Have they walked out on the whole struggle?
C: No, but many of them have walked out on American society. They want no part of it. They don’t vote. They shun the newspapers and magazines the rest of us read. They have not become professional men. They live from day to day, at most.
B: What does that in fact mean?
C: Well, remember in the early Sixties and right through to the mid-Sixties these youthful activists wanted to bring sharecroppers to the county courthouse so they could register to vote, and wanted to bring children into desegregated schools, and wanted to get more from American society for those who had so very little. And now those activists, older and—they would say—wiser, have very little interest in doing anything that brings their people into the American mainstream; and they also feel that the right to vote has not meant all that much, nor has school desegregation, in so far as it has lasted and not been undone by housing shifts, population shifts.
I think those now not-so-young men and women would not object if I said that they have become cynical and angry and thoroughly fed up. When I use words like those some might immediately conclude that the issue is psychiatric, that I am talking about people who need “help” to counteract emotions we consider “bad,” like despair, agitation, anger, irritation, bitterness, cynicism. And yet I suppose it could be argued that in so far as those men and women I have just described feel as outraged and defiant as they now do, they are in a state of radically good health, to play on words a bit.
B: It must be very, very difficult to make sense of these things.
C: Yes indeed. It is especially treacherous to make psychological judgments about people, to categorize them, to say what is “good” or what is “bad.” The language of the social sciences, anyway, is an inadequate language, I think, for coming to terms with such problems. As Thomas Merton, among others, has asked: “What is sanity?” Sane men are obviously the people who pull the levers of destruction, who order people to war. Eichmann was sane, declared so by psychiatrists in Jerusalem—and there is a paradox that should haunt the life of every psychiatrist, not to mention every human being!
And yet we psychiatrists continue to talk about young political activists as if they are “disturbed,” as if they are to be explained as products of Dr. Spock’s “permissiveness.” We don’t ask about the kind of child rearing which enables a man to be a general or a war leader or a President who lies and cheats or a political leader who orders bombs to be thrown on defenseless villages or dangerous defoliants over thousands of miles of land. Words are weapons. Psychological words are especially useful weapons. Who is analyzed? Whose child rearing is questioned? Whose credentials for sanity and insanity are gone over? Those are important questions. And by whom are such judgments made? What position in our society do those judges occupy, and who listens to them?
B: I’d like to stay with this extremely difficult question of the psychological development (one might call it) of young people who go through the kinds of experience you speak of—for instance, who came up through the 1960s as freedom riders, as sit-in students, and who encountered so much explicit and (maybe worse) implicit violence in the South, and elsewhere, as the struggle spread to the North. One can trace, I would imagine, the rises and falls of their hopes. One can imagine them putting so much faith in men like the Kennedys and McCarthy, decent men who spoke for human decency. Large numbers of these students attached themselves to those men, in spite of the obvious faults those men had—or, more important, the limited power those men actually had or, things being as they are, could have had, no matter how “perfect” or faultless they might have been. And then, of course, the Kennedys were killed and McCarthy was defeated by the likes of Hubert Humphrey—who in 1964 had been Johnson’s message boy to the Fannie Lou Hamers of Mississippi, telling them to wait, to wait, to be thankful for what they do have, and not “rock the boat.”
Eventually, as you have observed it happen, people tricked and conned like that lose interest in either voting themselves or enjoining other people to vote. Eventually they say no, no, no. And they become enraged—they feel the rage men like Cleaver project, or the Weathermen; and here we are.
I am trying to understand that sequence, that development. In my own mind I find it very difficult to know whether it is a legitimate and humane development, a reading of reality which is profoundly accurate, or whether in the main it is despairing and terribly dangerous and hurtful—to those who come to feel that way, let alone the rest of us. Now I think the politicians would have us believe that those young activists who became disillusioned are naïve and utopian and foolish, at the very least. But on the contrary I believe it is part of the cruel seductiveness of our political life that we get constantly thrown up before us on a screen, almost as on a screen in Plato’s cave, one figure of salvation after another, each one promising us to undo the so-called “necessary” mistakes and lapses and omissions that the preceding one simply “had” to permit, so we keep on being told!
And the result is that a man like Arthur J. Goldberg can go through a phase in his life which entitles him to be called something close to a war criminal, because of his behavior at the United Nations, where he tried to sell Johnson’s war to the world—and then he suddenly appears as a “friend” of the antiwar movement by being an appeals attorney for the Spock people, at least for Coffin; and then he runs for office in the state of New York, like somebody reborn or cleansed, I would say whitewashed.
What he depends upon is the almost total amnesia of the general public; somehow they forget what he has been and buy what he says he now is. Whereas for the young idealists we have been talking about such a sequence of events is one more horror; indeed for them the presence of that man as a political figure running for political office as we begin the Seventies is cause for almost limitless cynicism.
C: You have to add that only some of the young idealists would feel that way; and you also have to add that much of the “general public” you mention simply doesn’t see things the way you do. So the issue is not “amnesia,” as you suggest. Rather, for many people Arthur J. Goldberg’s beliefs and actions, and the drift of his affiliations or sympathies, reflect their own.
B: Yes, but speaking of the young radicals, how might they possibly have avoided cynicism, avoided despair in view of the deep cup of bitterness this past decade has held to their lips? They have seen so little real progress. They still see an incredibly rich and powerful nation ignore millions of its poor at home and align itself with men like Marshal Ky and Generalissimo Franco and the Brazilian militarists; and they see decent populist people mowed down, men like Robert Kennedy, who in the last months of his life was trying for a new direction, however tentatively.
C: There is something else one has to mention: all the while those young political activists have been sternly lectured by the editorial writers of the American press, and especially and ironically by the so-called liberal press. When they went on freedom rides, when they staged sit-ins, when they organized the Mississippi Summer Project, at each point they would be labeled radical, divisive, thoughtless, unheeding, always they were “pushing too far.” And then of course a year or two later when those efforts were successful, the same editorial writers and politicians said: Fine, it’s good that we’ve done this in Mississippi, or that we’ve got a new voting law.
Meanwhile those same writers don’t check the editorials they wrote a year or so earlier. Now, those editorials were read at the time they appeared by those, say, in SNCC or CORE. Those freedom riders and sit-in students had to bear the burden of accusation, of the charges made against them. It is one thing to be taken to task by the Jackson, Mississippi, newspapers and another to be told by Northern “progressive” columnists and editorial writers that you are fatuous or reckless or “going too fast”—an expression that has probably been thrown since the dawn of history at those who want to change things.
Anyway, the editorial writers can forget what they have written; they can just go on to write the next editorial. But the students don’t forget. And by editorial writers I really mean the whole culture and its attitude toward the dissenter. We accuse them and accuse them—and later accept the value of what they have done, only to accuse the next wave of dissenters once again.
One goes through the experience repeatedly of taking a stand that is universally condemned and then finding it absorbed—to the point that one begins to wonder whether there is ever any point in listening to those voices of caution and compromise. And additionally, one sees that for all the changes, things aren’t even minimally acceptable. I mean blacks can go into a Howard Johnson’s in Birmingham, Alabama, but in county after county of that state blacks earn virtually no money, go hungry, are jobless, get no medical care, die unnecessarily and tragically. And one sees a million blacks become voters in the South, and yet Maddox is governor and Wallace is governor and John Bell Williams is governor and Eastland and his ilk are still in the Senate, and not just there, but there as extremely powerful men.
It is very hard to know all that and then go on to another effort, make another political initiative—which in turn will be called premature or hasty or thoughtless or heedless or reckless. And what we are talking about is so very much part of professional life. A man like Freud was for years and years ostracized and condemned, and even after his ideas were accepted he saw how cleverly they were also undercut and misused and turned to bad account.
B: And then at the top one must witness the kind of political arrangements Nixon is so skilled at—and in the case of the South, those arrangements mean men like Carswell are nominated to the Supreme Court, and step by step the government signals the Thurmonds of the region that their power is on the rise.
C: Well, those “arrangements” are not called violence. Violence is what the blacks at Cornell did when they brandished their guns. When people say this I think of the violence I see in Appalachia or in migrant labor camps. When a coal company doesn’t enforce safety standards in its mines, and an explosion occurs and men are killed, we read about an “accident,” a “tragedy.” We don’t think of the violence done against those miners—by company officials bent on profits and government officials who go along with the companies rather than scream and shout and take action in courts and the Congress.
By the same token when migrant workers are herded about like cattle all over the country and exposed to dangerous pesticides and paid miserable wages and housed in chicken coops and shacks flimsy and primitive beyond description, and when they get sick from contaminated water and food, and their children get sick and die because they live as they do and get no medical care—then we do not think to call growers violent, nor do we call derelict legislators violent, even though they have been unwilling to vote migrants the protective labor legislation they deserve as workers.
And our universities until recently have traditionally signified for “honor” far fewer labor leaders than business leaders, have ignored men like Cesar Chavez in favor of generals and admirals. And universities all too often selectively insist that they stay distant from the “social issues” of the day. They involve themselves in one military contract after another—but worry that they will lose their “objectivity” or “neutrality” when they are urged to get involved in other causes or respond to the needs of people who are not working in the Pentagon, and armed with billions of dollars.
In a way some of our students recently have been educating their college teachers and presidents, have supplied us with ethical leadership, have made it more difficult for boards of trustees to honor certain people with degrees, have made college trustees and presidents and administrators think twice about things they never thought once about before: namely, their expansion into communities, their relationship with surrounding populations. In that sense those students have reversed what one might think to be the usual order of things, in which older people serve as sources of moral inspiration for younger people.
Certainly when I was at Harvard as an undergraduate, I never questioned the fact that the university not only had its own police force, but was buying up property (and tearing down buildings) only in certain areas of Cambridge and not buying up property where the professors lived or where the wealthier people in Cambridge lived, but largely where poorer people lived. I never questioned that, I just thought it was part of the legitimate needs of a university—to have land, to put buildings on that land, so that people like me could learn. But I never asked, “Who am I? What people are being educated, and for what reason, by whom, and at whose expense?” Just as one, of course, often fails to ask oneself whose “law” and whose “order” are being upheld.
In 1960, I watched four little black girls, citizens of the United States, residents of New Orleans, Louisiana, go into white schools. No one was shouting then about law and order. In fact, those girls were looked on as revolutionaries, they and their families. For trying to assert their rights as American citizens they were brutalized by mobs for months. Nor did they receive any support from the thousands of people in New Orleans who, I am sure, were embarrassed by the mobs—but not so embarrassed that they started asking what is really going on, what is fundamentally at work in Louisiana and other states as well.
B: It is so sad to see idealistic and loving and trusting people become not only exhausted but badly embittered; and yet such a development, one has to think, is part of the way history moves forward—in the sense that when men lose illusions they gain strength as well as become hurt and tired.
I have to contrast what we have been talking about with the atmosphere in Hanoi. In a way I didn’t really understand what I had seen in Hanoi until I came home to America, which loves to see itself as a kind of cornucopia, and saw the depression and the bloodletting that so dominated the air here in the late Sixties. The simplest way I can put the difference is that in North Vietnam for thousands and thousands of people it was obvious every single day that a revolution was occurring: At the very deepest roots of human life new energies were being released and welcomed, and were being embodied, and were being structured, whether in education or in law or in medicine or in the church. One was not fighting, as in our South, for the smallest of gains—and fighting against the wishes of a “comfortable majority.”
The entire North Vietnamese people were threatened with extinction by the kind of war that we were waging against them—though they didn’t talk that way or complain about that fact. For them, it seemed that the horror of their fate was on the periphery of their consciousness; at the center was their feeling that they were creating a new kind of society, even though against great odds. They felt strongly exhilarated. Even though the bombs fell, as they did constantly while I was there, fell on housing developments, with people killed before our eyes again and again, still the people went on about their business—as if to say: We can last, we can outlast the Americans, because we are building something terribly important, and nothing they destroy can interfere with what we’re doing.
C: You’re not romanticizing?
B: I’m trying to be fair about what I saw. The fact was that we had subjected that city to a three-year barrage which destroyed at least half the city. At the same time our planes were striking at Haiphong; we destroyed much more of that city. So, as they spoke to us, the Vietnamese were seeing their chief cities devastated—but they were already planning to build them anew, to build other cities elsewhere.
C: What you say reminds me of what I have read about life in London during the Second World War, and in Israel now: extreme duress can not only fail to overcome people, but can serve to inspire them, draw from them unexpected energies and capacities, turn them as individuals and as professional men and women into new citizens, new workers. I suppose it depends upon the nature of the stress, the purposes to which all that hardship seems directed. After all, people can also become dispirited and demoralized and fatefully weakened by severe stress.
B: I know, and that is all the more reason for us to stop and ask ourselves why so many young Americans feel as unhappy and almost mournful as they do. If human beings sense (no matter how painful their lives are at present) that something is happening on their behalf, that something is happening which is important and which their leaders welcome, indeed are trying to bring about; and if human beings feel valued and accepted as contributing members of a society—then they will face death itself, whether from bombs or disease or extreme poverty, in order to defend and build up what is theirs, what is their future actually. And when all that is absent, we really are looking at a dismembered body politic; we are face to face with people who feel useless and lifeless—as if they are not whole, but fragmented, and only fit for burial.
C: I’d like to tell you something and ask you to respond to what I say. Six years ago Stokely Carmichael and I together gave a seminar on nonviolence to the college students who went south to Mississippi for the so-called Mississippi Summer Project. Now in that six-year period of time I think it is publicly known how Stokely has changed his ideas—in what direction. Meanwhile I continue to do my work, and I say to myself: I haven’t become bitter the way he is; I haven’t left the country the way he has done; I haven’t said some of the things that he has said, about violence being as American as apple pie; I haven’t felt myself wanting to denounce my country as vigorously and sweepingly as he has. And so I say I am somehow not bitter, not depressed, not in a rage.
I tell myself I haven’t gone down the road of anger and despair and unqualified or irrational political estrangement. And, of course, I say to myself that I haven’t done all that, gone in that direction, because I’m a white middle-class doctor, and I haven’t been waging the struggle that Stokely Carmichael has. Yet I wonder whether it cannot be said that in the last five years he has in fact grown and become increasingly aware and sensitive to various issues—and it is for that reason he has moved away from the joint position he and I held in 1964, the joint political and social analysis we made for the “students” we “taught” before they went south to Jackson and the Delta.
I suppose it can be argued that what I fancy to be my “maturity” and “equanimity” and “good sense” and “historical distance” are really all signs of my death. In other words, because of the life I lead I am every day protected and sheltered from the concrete realities that affect (every minute of every day) 90 percent of the people on this planet. It can also be argued that I am fatally compromised, and that my way of looking both at Stokely’s political position and his psychological development, as well as at the economic and social realities of the world around me, reflects my willingness to live as I do, indeed my desire to live as I do, which the critics of people like me would say means living as the beneficiary of a colonial world power, able to command resources from wretchedly poor lands and turn them into the style of living a man like me enjoys, while even in his own land, let alone Africa or South America or Asia, millions live half-desperate lives.
In other words the way I look at Stokely and his development in the last five or six years (as evidence of deterioration, stress, disintegration, violence) is a measure of my own predicament. Do you follow what I am trying to say?—that when I talk about him as I do I am really describing my own situation, my own cast of mind and mode of existence. The way I look at him and his behavior is really a way of expressing my own relationship to a particular society.
B: Well, I’m glad such thoughts are at least occurring to you! It’s important for people like us to feel uneasy, to turn on ourselves with questions. I don’t want to be self-congratulatory when I say that. I just think we have to look at ourselves as others see us—for reasons we too easily can forget. I don’t have access to Stokely, I haven’t known him, so I can’t add much to your remarks. I would be inclined to go a little bit easier on some of the language he has used these recent years. I don’t consider him as bitter and angry as you do.
The blacks I knew at Cornell were struggling, among other things, with the problem of language. Their fiery, heated-up ghetto language, in my own experience, was a way of insisting upon being heard, understood and heard—by people they feared were deaf, dumb, and blind. I find in many cases a profound dichotomy between the way blacks conduct their lives and the way they speak about their lives; they shout to Whitey but they live among and for themselves. Many of the so-called “militant” and “extremist” blacks I knew at Cornell showed themselves capable of leading quite peaceable and quite humane lives among themselves; but they presented a different face to us, as they said out of the need to survive. They considered us to be bestial, and in many cases they were right—witness the cowardly burning down of their black studies program by a gang last Easter.
C: It may be bestial for an observer like me to characterize people (whether they be men like Stokely Carmichael or the students at Cornell) with words like violent, frustrated, embittered while at the same time failing to mention the bitterness and violence and frustration and moodiness and despair their own world generates among its supporters, never mind its critics. Given a certain historical context the acts of those six young students at Cornell or Stokely’s development in the last six years don’t seem so strange or so clinically psycho-pathological. Certainly historians like Richard Hofstadter have shown us how deep and wide are the currents of violence in America.
B: I would want to hear what a black psychiatrist would say. Would he find Stokely Carmichael or the Cornell students exceptional? If so, I would have to stop and think; but I doubt he would.
C: Do you think his black skin would protect him from the white professional values that we’ve been talking about?
B: Well, that’s a good question. I can’t answer it.
C: Has black skin protected seminarians from the pitfalls of their profession?
B: Perhaps, in some cases. I’m not sure. I wouldn’t want to excuse a black seminarian of one thing or another he did or didn’t do, simply because he is black. But I would want to be careful, very careful before I came out with those “liberal,” evenhanded judgments that whites often use as a means of ignoring the special history, the special circumstances of life with which black people have to contend. With respect to a black seminarian, before I said anything to “judge” him, I would want to know whether he has been able to build a compassionate and loving community where he works. I suspect many black priests have been able to do so. I think people like us ought to stand outside and distinguish at all times between the way a black man acts with Whitey, and the way he acts in his own world. Those are two very different things.
C: Yes, and it’s a distinction we don’t often draw. I mean, there is the black man as the white man’s devil, and the black man as he is in his own world, to which the white man has no access. Nevertheless, I wonder how redemptive one’s skin color can actually be. I doubt that skin color will save blacks from the kinds of tensions we’ve been talking about—the bitterness, the meanness man is heir to.
Certainly I’ve seen bitterness and meanness and vicious kinds of exploitation in the black communities—and I don’t think I now speak as a white observer. I mean, I’ve seen physical evidence of it: black people hurting black people, black people cheating black people, robbing them, assaulting them. Nor is that a very unique experience on my part. Blacks have written about such matters—yes, I would say written about the humanity of their people.
I kept on wondering as you were talking about North Vietnam whether the kinds of violence and horror that we’ve just been talking about don’t in some way exist there. After all, they have shown themselves capable of hunting down their own people, killing them. I don’t believe the North Vietnamese people—and certainly not their government—are beyond the sins our people, our government demonstrate.
B: Yes, we should go into all of that, and those are important issues. Perhaps we can distinguish people by what they emphasize about “human nature.” It seems to me that I search out in any given situation whatever elements of hope I can find there—I hope not by way of self-deception. Yes, one has to acknowledge the horror of life, the violence and the bloodletting and all the rest of it, be it found among blacks or whites or North Vietnamese or South Vietnamese. But we have to keep looking for signs of a future: those signs that we try to discern and even to follow, perhaps to enlarge, to give breathing space to. One must keep those signs at the eye’s center, because I think they are the object of one’s true search. What is best in man? What is most hopeful in man? What can be built upon in any particular situation? The other side of the picture is obviously there, but it belongs in the eye’s peripheral vision. I just don’t believe that the truth of things is revealed to us by our cynical, hoarding, businesslike, materialist political philosophers who see evil everywhere—as a means of justifying their own evil. Truth was revealed to us by Jesus Christ, and those who in lesser ways follow His tradition.
C: Christ was killed.
B: Yes, yes—but His truth didn’t die; the truth of His life and of other lives remains available to us.
C: Jesus Christ had a moment of extreme doubt before He died, felt that He had been betrayed, asked why He was forsaken. Isn’t that also a part of the reality of man? In all lives doubt and a sense of abandonment are there, and may well be dominant, at least in a given life. Again, Christ died sad, and afraid all His effort was for naught.
B: Yes, I would agree.
C: You are saying, though, that each man has to choose which of the themes in Christ’s life will obsess him, so to speak; and the choice determines the character of the man’s life. The way one looks at the world, what one does in one’s life, has to do with whether one emphasizes the negatives or seeks out the positives; and it may well be that it is to a particular society’s advantage that we all emphasize the gloomier side of things, because if we do, we needn’t trouble ourselves to undertake any great social and political struggles, since they are doomed almost by definition.
B: You know, it is interesting: as I look back over the last five years, my thinking has moved along in two directions, and let me for a second state them rather than editorialize on them. For one thing I have felt that somehow, however awkwardly and inadequately, I had to keep moving along; that is, I couldn’t stop and become satisfied with myself and my various ideas. Rather I had to keep questioning myself, keep taking one step, then another, even though at the time the step seemed difficult and maybe controversial. And then I have felt that I am not alone, that a number of us are together, struggling for certain things, and that we had to stay together, work together.
C: “We” being?
B: Well, “we” are people I know, my brother and those I have loved and worked with; and “we” are thousands and thousands of people I have never known and never will know; and “we” are some fine people I have met these past weeks while underground. I have learned how much I need others, how much we need one another in this world.
You no doubt are aware of the old philosophical struggle between the Manichaean and Christian view of evil. I guess I have tried hard to believe that there is just so much territory that belongs to evil—that one is obliged to refuse evil substantial control over one’s life, refuse evil so much power that it becomes a shadow over you or an indwelling devil. At one time I knew I was in trouble. I not only feared the Pentagon, for example, I believed in it—I believed its power was there and “there” in a way that transcends mere “fact.” I mean, I despaired. I felt it was hopeless to fight such a monstrous thing. But somehow I survived that kind of thinking. I learned “hope,” perhaps. I learned to have confidence in others and myself—in the power that one’s faith and love can exert—yes, even on the Pentagon.
C: But you don’t think your viewpoint is idiosyncratic, a function of particular psychological qualities in you; you see that hope in others and you see conversions possible—you see a point to fighting against the tendency we all have to despair.
B: I would say that by the grace of God I am able to draw upon something quite important and healthy in a long tradition, and I find around me constantly manifestations of that “something” in the lives of other people—no matter what tradition and what background they happen to draw upon for spiritual strength. For all the bad and evil to be found on this planet, I find much goodness struggling for birth and struggling for expression. So I do not feel alone, I do not feel lonely or eccentric. I feel the kind of steadfastness one experiences in the presence of others—and I am sure we together will persist and keep struggling for what we believe important as long as we are permitted to live.
C: Do you possess the strength to work with—and by you I mean more than you as an individual—the problems of millions and millions of plain, ordinary middle-class Americans who don’t have the same concerns and aspirations you have, or at least don’t demonstrate those concerns in a way that seems to be politically active and responsive to the injustices of the world? Or are you and others you feel close to confining yourselves to those who for various reasons welcome you as allies—certain youths, certain blacks, certain poor people? I’m asking whether there is to be a ministry to suburbia, a ministry to the professions, a ministry to the American working man—not necessarily made up only of ministers, but an effort to find in people who seem without your particular concerns a larger measure of compassion and selflessness and integrity than some of our social critics are willing to allow, or even think to wonder about.
B: Well, I hope I don’t sound hardhearted when I say that one does what one is called upon to do, and lives in a certain way and perhaps dies in a certain way. We do what we can, and none of us does it very well. Sometimes the majority of a nation proves itself wise beyond words; sometimes that majority becomes fatally blind. I feel responsible for a very small area of life. I can only do what I can do.
C: You feel you have enough to do clarifying the ethical dimensions of your own life, and of the relative handful of lives you affect.
B: I hope I am governed by Camus’s sense of modesty. In his treatment of his heroes and his treatment also of political questions Camus reveals a very deep sense of himself as a modest being in the world. That is to say, he was a man who refused to enter into questions which are of quantity, so to speak. He didn’t judge himself by the number of bodies he reached, by the “converts” he made, by the “power” he amassed or the “influence” he was credited with having.
Indeed when he was called influential or successful or whatever, he worried a great deal, because he knew how corrupting a certain kind of “fame” can be. He had a certain length of time to live (we never do know how much, do we?) and he had a certain measure of talent—and he assumed that if he spent his time wisely and worked hard, then something would occur. By the same token, something occurs because you write, something occurs because I write, something occurs because you are who you are and have been where you have been, and the same for me.
A lot of what we achieve we don’t even know about; sometimes inklings of it come through to us—in letters we get, in responses of students and people, in all that goes on in the world as a result of what we say or write or do. Now those responses are important; they are important not only to my ego, but as a corrective. Through others one learns what is happening, how one’s ideas are in keeping with the world—and we can never know the world if we stay apart, rely upon ourselves too exclusively. And yet I have to qualify what I just said, because I really do believe that when a person is at his deepest with himself, the outside world—here I refer to the so-called “pressures” of conformity—means relatively little. For instance, when I went to Catonsville or when I went to Hanoi or when I went on trial or when I went underground, I didn’t have around me voices that urged me on, or wide support which enabled me to feel I was doing an approved and thoroughly respectable thing. I would mistrust that kind of approval very much.
C: You mean you have never asked the Gallup Poll (or commissioned a private pollster to find out) how the American public “feels” about your ideas or actions.
B: No—it would have been unnecessary. I knew at those various critical times in my life what many of my countrymen felt. I don’t mean to say that at those points I was without friends and considerable support from people I have never met, and probably will never meet. But my friends are themselves often struggling against considerable odds; what they offered me was a certain light that emanated from their lives. In one way or another they said to me: you are somewhere and we are somewhere and you come and tell us what you have finally decided, and we will stand with you as best we can.
Copyright Daniel Berrigan, 1971, and Copyright Robert Coles, 1971.
March 25, 1971