Posted on Friday, June 17th, 2011 by Roger Smith
Toward the end of PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE comes a poignant and revealing clip from a Canadian television program circa 1969. Goodman, whose writings made him closely identified with the youth movement of the sixties, is having a dialogue with a group of young people who don't seem to understand or sympathize with him much at all. One accuses him of being alienated and confused. He ducks those charges but admits to being disappointed:
Along around the end of the fifties, the beginning of the sixties, it struck me that suddenly I was getting a lot of lies, and a lot of young people, for instance the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, were making a lot of sense, and thank God we were finally getting some living sense in American society which might make a change. Then unfortunately, as the decade wore on I became real disappointed... that they were losing the moral integrity, the keen insight, the political concreteness which I saw in 1962 and '63.
By the late sixties, Goodman had all sorts of reasons for feeling disconnected from American youth, after a few brief years of feeling intensely connected with them, and they with him. The massive cultural upheaval that was in full swing left him cold. While Goodman was always very powerfully motivated by sex, he had no use for drugs or rock and roll. As the countercultural movement grew more popular and began to bleed into the mainstream, its intellectual basis grew thinner. The tragedy of Vietnam, the urban riots, the assassinations, and the debacle of the '68 election drove radicals toward increasing stridency and bravado, into increasingly empty—or violent—talk of revolution. None of this fit Goodman's style at all.
And of course he had another reason: in August 1967 his only son, Mathew Ready Goodman, died from a fall while climbing North Percy Peak in New Hampshire. Matty was 20, a senior at Cornell, a draft resister, and a big part of what kept Paul Goodman in touch with the younger generation. He never fully recovered from this loss and it inevitably colored his responses to subsequent events. After watching cops beat demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic convention, he wrote these lines of poetry:
we are seeing scenes
reminiscent of Caligula.
How shall honest men respond to it?
Mathew would have known to tell me.
I was a champion of the resisting young,
I usually vainly tried to guide them,
more often guided by them. My liaison
is lost. Now they are right to call me senile.
The sixties, of course, remain very much with us today, a powerful source of our creativity, our consciousness, and our conflicts. These days, I think, there's a certain sentiment afoot that's curiously parallel to the disenchantment Goodman felt in the later sixties, a nostalgic effort to reclaim and recover the idealistic moment-before mood. Looking back nearly half a century, there's a temptation to create a good sixties/bad sixties dichotomy—not just among today's conservatives and squares but across the board. Not that I think this way myself, but I'm just saying it's out there. Perhaps it's because hippies make such an easy target—just as they did back in the day. Perhaps because we know so much about the decade's excesses, its earlier, embryonic moments make for an easier, cleaner nostalgia. A nostalgia for a sixties that still has some fifties in it, instead of a sixties that's beginning to give off a whiff of seventies.
You can play it like a parlor game. Try it!
Good 60s: Free Speech Movement in Berkeley (or SDS at Port Huron)
Bad 60s: Yippies in Chicago
Good 60s: cocktails and cigarettes
Bad 60s: LSD and marijuana
Good 60s: Civil Rights movement
Bad 60s: Black Power movement
Good 60s: SNCC invites white youth to Mississippi
Bad 60s: SNCC kicks whites out of the organization
Good 60s: Fab Four on Ed Sullivan
Bad 60s: the White Album
Good 60s: New York folk and early Dylan
Bad 60s: San Francisco psychedelic rock
Good 60s: Space Age
Bad 60s: Age of Aquarius
Good 60s: Allen Ginsberg as poet
Bad 60s: Allen Ginsberg as celebrity guru
And of course, fitting right in with all this:
Good 60s: Paul Goodman and Growing Up Absurd
Bad 60s: ___ well, did he have an antithesis? [Write your own on our Facebook page!]
Posted on Friday, May 27th, 2011 by Roger Smith
There's a moment midway through PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE that really struck home for me. We see a series of photographs of him as a teenager, as a young man, with a striking, unusually beaming grin. All through his young years, his lifelong friend Taylor Stoehr tells us, Goodman was "the happiest person, with the most pleased smile on his face, filled with all that juice of life." He didn't stay the happiest person, but that youthful vitality remained a part of his character and a motif in his thought and writing.
I think he was able to retain a certain childlike quality in part by being an outsider and keeping himself free from authoritarian structures. While he did go to school and, in fact, excelled there, his sense of self seemed to be bound up in his life at play in the city streets—and his phantasmagorical self, Horatio in The Empire City, was a devoted truant and street urchin. As an adult he was never pushed into a suit, into a career. Committed to doing what he loved, he consigned himself to the writer's quest for decent poverty and insisted as a matter of principle that it was perfectly fine not to want to devote yourself to making money. Living through World War II did not make him submit to the war effort and he continued to thumb his nose at Uncle Sam even when it cost him. You could say his bisexuality and habit of cruising gave him an outsider's perspective on the institutions of marriage and family even while he was inside them.
And so, Goodman's "anarchist attitude" had a lot in common with a childlike principle of playfulness. It's founded on an instinctual resistance to authority figures and hierarchical institutions, a smart-alecky skepticism toward bigshots of all types. There's a kinship between the kind of anarchy you encounter in a Paul Goodman essay and the kind you find in a Marx Brothers movie.
And what were the goals of this anarchism? "Politically," Goodman wrote in Crazy Hope and Finite Experience, "I want only that the children have bright eyes, the river be clean, food and sex be available, and nobody be pushed around." And of course, as Goodman saw it, the bright-eyed children part was directly related to the nobody-pushed-around part—for as he wrote in "Freedom and Autonomy," coercion and "the intervention of top-down authorities, whether State, collective, democracy, corporate bureaucracy, prison wardens, deans, pre-arranged curricula, or central planning...may be necessary in certain emergencies, but it is at a cost to vitality."
So I think of Goodman's values and ideals as I hear in my head that great Cat Stevens song, and its simple question: "Where do the children play?" This very question concerned Goodman. In Growing Up Absurd he writes about "child-useless landscaping....The newer high dwellings make the streets inaccessible to small children. The automobiles make the streets dangerous....The city, under inevitable modern conditions, can no longer be dealt with practically by children." And this was the fifties! Half a century later, the cities and suburbs have lost still more innocence; the children's navigable worlds seem to have narrowed still further. Justin Hyatt's point about reining in the ubiquity of the automobile is well taken.
And in these times, it's just as important on the spiritual level as the physical: the kids need room to grow, to play, to learn who they are, to keep their spirits free. We had better help keep that juice of life from getting squeezed out of them.
PS: And here's education hero (and Goodman fan) Deborah Meier way ahead of me: her new book is called Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground. Defend Recess!!
Posted on Friday, May 13th, 2011 by Roger Smith
One of the virtues of the documentary PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE is that it offers an answer to the question, how do you make a movie about an intellectual that isn't boring? Or even better, one that's neither boring nor shallow? Director/producer Jonathan Lee splices together interviews, excerpts from Goodman's essays and selections from his poetry, quotes from heavyweights like Susan Sontag, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Noam Chomsky, and, best of all, plentiful footage of Goodman himself making speeches, at press conferences, and appearing on talk shows. The assembled evidence conjures the presence of a merry mental prankster, a man both learned and libidinous who seduced with his mind.
And also, not by coincidence, the film immerses you pleasantly in an era of high intellect—that heady, cocktail-glass juncture that Mad Men has so effectively exploited—when New York was peaking culturally and artistically; when ideas, and the people who propounded them, seemed to punch in a higher weight class than they do now; before the Baby Boomers came of age and the Beatles took over the charts; before the country got dragged into the dozens of arguments with its teenagers that we know as "the sixties." The way Lee re-inserts Goodman into his times gives the viewer an enriched way of thinking about those times.
For me, this all crystallizes in several long clips of Goodman going tête-à-tête with William F. Buckley on Firing Line. For one thing, the figure of Buckley himself brings up a rather warm, almost fuzzy nostalgia for a time when it was possible to imagine a political right interested in ideas and honest exchange of views. The colloquy between these two sharp-tongued men tells us a satisfying amount about Goodman's provocative educational theories. Goodman says, "I'm important for the radical youth, not because I teach them—they're unteachable, thank God—but I prove to them that there are alternatives to doing what we do." The throwaway aside reveals all; it's one of those precious moments when a subversive truth sneaks through the television screen for a second.
Buckley tries to pin Goodman down as anti-literacy because he opposes teaching kids to read too early. On this as on so many issues, Goodman was ahead of the zeitgeist. The issue is still controversial, obviously, but a body of theory now supports the belief that emphasizing the abstract alphabetic code too early in a child's development can distract and diminish from the concrete, sense-based learning the young child is so busy doing every waking hour, and thereby lead to slower, less vitally engaged learning later on.
But this is just a piece of a larger educational critique. The leaders, the educational decision-makers, Goodman says to Buckley, "have a theory of social engineers; they don't have the theory of human teachers or artists. The theory of a social engineer is you can analyze everything down to its least elements...but this isn't how a person learns. A person learns by an intrinsic need or reaching out, and what you reach out to is what's interesting, and if the text isn't interesting then why bother?"
This type of thinking, this John Deweyite progressive critique of the schools, and Goodman's pungent way of getting it across, give a little taste of Goodman's appeal to school reformers as well as bright young radicals, both academically inclined and disinclined. A few years after Growing Up Absurd (1960) and Compulsory Mis-Education (1962) made Goodman an identifiable education pundit, a number of teacher/writer/scholars came along—people like John Holt, Herbert Kohl, and Jonathan Kozol, who are far more known today to those who follow education—and hacked out more of the trail Goodman was blazing. Another noteworthy protegé was George Dennison, who trained in Gestalt Therapy with Goodman and wrote The Lives of Children (1969), an account of his involvement with a small community school on the Lower East Side.
As a footnote: this thoughtful essay on Goodman by Edgar Z. Friedenberg fleshes out Goodman's contribution to the school reform movement and its literature.
Posted on Friday, April 29th, 2011 by Roger Smith
Cars have to stop being everywhere they feel like being. We need to reduce their level of ubiquity by a notch or two. While the time might not yet be ripe for their full-scale removal from towns and cities (the European Commission is sounding out such a long-term goal with an eye to 2050) but we need to do something about their universal access. Now.
At some point in the human history it was deemed the right move to place cars on a high pedestal, one where we bestow on them the space they demanded of us and then some. Where previously people walked in the middle of the road or children played with their companions, today those very same places are the scene of high speeds and a never-ending flow of metal boxes spewing unhealthy fumes. To venture in their midst would be a death wish.
I am perhaps lucky that in my home turf Budapest, Hungary most of the sidewalks can be traversed by foot, albeit with the occasional inconvenience of not being able to walk hand-in-hand with my girlfriend - some streets require you to be sufficiently skinny to be able to squeeze between house and car. However, elsewhere even skinny people aren't so lucky: In Istanbul, Turkey I have seen cars take up 100% of the available sidewalk space, while in Bucharest, Romania I was surprised to find a car actually parked on a pedestrian crossing (not just idling), and in Bakersfield, California I was honked at for just being out on my two feet.
Apart from the noble cause of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving the air quality for those living in urban areas (a cause which is winning ever greater public acceptance), we simply need to recover some of that territory that was taken away from us and given over to cars, either stationary or in motion. Kids need places to play. The usual parental excuse for a childhood limited to television, Nintendo or the mall is: "I just can't let you out there son, the traffic is too dangerous". People need places to recreate and all of us need to be given the choice of either commingling with vehicles or with pedestrians.
As one of my favorite Andy Singer Cartoon goes: "We've appeased the non-smokers, now let's appease non-drivers... !! Divide cities into two sections, Driving and Non-Driving"* What I like about that is the simplicity of the message, leaning on superb logic. Just consider, no one who abstains from smoking or wretches from fumes is very happy when forced to sit in a smoke-filled bar. So why is it that there are so many cities where a large percentage of the population does not drive cars (in European cities, you find many neighborhoods where the carless constitute the majority), yet day after day we have to put up with walking around cars, being hit by cars, having our public space dominated by cars, all the time breathing in the horrendous, carcinogenic fumes that cars release into the air? It certainly appears that non-smokers carved out the better deal.
I would then suggest that the act of driving has been awarded a free ride for too long, barreling down the 20th century like an unstoppable force, with nary a soul taking issue with this red carpet treatment. I am cautiously optimistic that the story of the 21st Century will be one of undoing some of the damage of yesteryear. If enough people feel strong enough about it, that is. A plan for action accompanied by firm resolve is the order of the day.
Passionate and informed activism might indeed be the only thing to extricate us from the stranglehold we are currently tied up in. Some dreamily hope for the day that the oil runs out, believing that this will magically send all those vehicles to CARmaggedon.
Wrong. As we sit here, pondering the end of the automobile, the car and oil industry are busy preparing us for the next stage: alternative fuels, biofuels, green cars, electric cars, solar cars, and all that hogwash.
Let me make my position clear. Biofuels and electric cars are the wrong answer to the problem of how to restructure our mobility. Oops, the celebrated first car ever to be fuelled on genetically modified rat poop just ran over someone's grandmother. Given the choice of redesigning the motor vehicle or redesigning our mobility and neighborhoods, I'll go with the neighborhoods.
And it's not all rocket science. The compact format of a mixed-use neighborhood is one where taking care of all your needs is a breeze - shopping, the dentist, a game of bocce ball in the park - all a short walk from your front doorstep.
Going back to my first paragraph, where I mentioned reducing the level of the car's ubiquity, here is one very concrete example: Parking. It is sheer nonsense that parking must be made available on every inch of ground with never more than a six second dash from a house entrance. I have heard it said that getting a motorist to give up their cherished parking space is more difficult than dragging him or her to the dentist.
Yet once we properly limit the availability of downtown parking places, people will begin to see things in a new light: Maintaining ubiquitous, universal access to parking (or lanes for driving) is not a fundamental human right, and should not be treated as such. The right to park does not figure in the UN Charter of Human rights and is not given as a charge in any holy books of world religions. Rather - preserving human life, access to free movement as well as happiness and health are loftier goals. Let's work in our communities and cities to herald in the change, one reclaimed sidewalk, parking space, or public square at a time.
* * *
I take comfort in groups like New-York based Project for Public Spaces, who are doing their level best to help put community back into neighborhoods and the public arena. People at the World Carfree Network have been saying it for a long time: There is a whole world out there beyond the ignition switch. Giving this all a visual boost is Street films, whose poignant street-smart view to the transformation of our city streets helps us all to see it.
*cartoon referred to: http://daytonabicycletowork.blogspot.com/2008/08/bicycle-friendly-community.html
Justin Hyatt makes his home in Budapest, Hungary, where he coordinates the Social Bike Business Budapest and partakes in other mobility mending initiatives. He is the proud owner of a biomega Copenhagen, the prize bicycle awarded through the "Paul Goodman changed my life" contest. He also edits the World Carfree Monthly News (available via the World Carfree Network's website).
Posted on Thursday, April 28th, 2011 by Roger Smith
One of the vibrant streams coursing through the documentary PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE is Goodman's poetry. Goodman used verse all through his writing life. In his youth he concentrated on poems, stories, and novels, but in his later years when he left prose fiction behind, the poetry kept coming. He churned out little stanzas like some people would write diary entries. His informal, ingenuous, on-the-fly style had a notable influence on other New York artists of the time, such as Frank O'Hara, to name one. Others were drawn to Goodman's mercurial personality, irrepressible energy, and intellectual bravado, years before he achieved mainstream success with Growing Up Absurd. The composer and author Ned Rorem was among those in his thrall and writes of Goodman, "He was my Goethe, my Blake, and my Apollinaire."
Goodman's poetic voice was a deep and fundamental part of his character. "Evidently," he wrote in introducing his Little Prayers and Finite Experience(1972), "when I undertake to cope with the despair, horror, joy, or confusion of my existence by writing how it is, I am bound to do so in eight four-beat lines rimed a-a, b-b, c-c, and d-d." Into those double quatrains went his ruminations about his family life, his erotic life, and his life of the mind. In the film you'll hear poems about his fatherless childhood and poems dedicated to his daughter Susan and son Matthew. You'll hear about the complicated balancing act between his marriage and his bisexual inclinations: "Happiness is touch and go." You'll hear sonnets about sexuality written with a freshness and candor that make them, in the words of one interviewee, "the poems of a man."
On "A Plane to Pittsburgh," the poet amuses himself cruising while aboard a cruising aircraft, hunting for a seduction target and lamenting the cabin's seating arrangements. "The evils of this world are mathematical," he concludes— a thoughtful riposte to Galileo's claim that "God speaks in the language of mathematics," especially spoken at such an altitude.
Comparatively few of those who absorbed Goodman's political or psychological theories during his days as a popular public intellectual also appreciated or were even aware of his poetry. But those who look there can perceive the gist of Goodman's political insights, that anarchist attitude that became his stock in trade, radiantly present. Here he is negotiating, in eight succinct lines, his own role in the "new reformation" he conceived:
Jail and blows, being a coward,
I dread, but I am inured
to be misunderstood,
because the common reason, God,
communes with me. Let them refute
the propositions I have put
with nail and hammer on the door
where people pass, upon the square.
And let's close with the following lines, which have never been more pertinent than in 2011, as we decay ever further from the audacity of hope to the austerity of hopelessness:
One thing, thank God, I learned, the grisly face
of Hope to abhor, her eyes bloodshot with dreams,
her hair unkempt with fury. Lying streams
out of her mouth and men drink it. Alas,
if you ever look in a looking-glass
and see an ugly Hope in hungry flames
devouring you—so the unreal seems
real and the impossible to come to pass
possible—see, when you look again,
Posted on Sunday, April 10th, 2011 by Roger Smith
What a breathtaking range of 20th-century experience is embodied in the life and writing of Paul Goodman. The upcoming biopic PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE provides a splendid introduction to Goodman for we 21st-century folk who can learn so much from his example. The film admirably captures the astonishing diversity of fields on which he had an impact—poetry, psychology, politics, planning, education, and the theory and practice of queer sexuality. The other main strength of Jonathan Lee's documentary is how it integrates Goodman's life story with his literary achievements. Goodman was an artist whose buoyant, irascible personality was indelible—literally, impossible to obscure or erase—in everything he wrote. This feature of his work, of course, made him a love-him-or-hate-him figure in his time and is part of the reason his name recognition plummeted after his death.
For those who want to explore Goodman's breadth in more depth, it's cause for rejoicing that PM Press has released The Paul Goodman Reader. At long last we have within one volume ample and choice selections from Goodman's body of verse, fiction, theory, polemic, criticism, manifesto, and self-reflection, cunningly edited by Goodman's literary executor, Taylor Stoehr. And Stoehr's introduction provides the crucial biographical information the reader needs to perceive the figure/ground relationship between Goodman's life and work—or as he would put it, the contact boundary between the organism and its environment, the exploration of which was the through-line of all his writing.
Hoofing it through the different neighborhoods of the Reader, it's easy to perceive the connections between and cohesion within the multiplicity of Goodman's intellectual exercises. Comparing two quick examples will suffice. The "Anthropology of Neurosis" passage from Gestalt Therapy (1951) is what its author calls "a chapter in abnormal anthropology." Goodman intends to elucidate the idea that what he calls "safety-functions," or what Freud called "defense mechanisms," are not neurotic in themselves, but are instead properly functioning stress responses to the chronic epidemic pathology, the mishegas, that is modern society. From this premise, Goodman proceeds to comment on the steps of human evolution, including erect posture, use of tools, and development of language. What interests Goodman about these breakthroughs isn't the new powers and capabilities they made possible but "the dangers incurred and the vulnerable points exposed, that then have become pathological in the debacle. The new powers require more complicated integrations, and these have often broken down."
This same analytical and rhetorical technique, dispassionate yet highly passionate, is on view in "The Missing Community," from the culminating chapter of Growing Up Absurd (1960). The premise makes the exact same thrust: the problem that afflicts the young is the absurdity, corruption, and utter unsuitability of society as a whole. Again Goodman's approach is radical, seeking the root of the problem by looking into history. Here he offers a list of "the missed and compromised revolutions of modern times," each annotated in a short paragraph. Democracy, liberty, the Enlightenment, modern science, the New Deal: every social advance achieved a degree of liberation, yet all were incomplete achievements, and the failure of their grandest goals—for example, the failure of democracy to equip every citizen to take political leadership—has resulted in complications, missed opportunities, and lasting problems making further revolutions necessary, each in turn harder to attain.
Whatever you make of these arguments, the parallels between them are obvious, and they provide a snapshot of how Paul Goodman's unusual mind worked. His body of work, and his life, record his efforts to understand and resolve "the Dilemma," as he called it in The Dead of Spring (1949), the third book of the four-volume epic The Empire City:
What is the Dilemma? If one conforms to our society, he becomes sick in certain ways. (I grant it, who can deny it?) But if he does not conform, he becomes demented, because ours is the only society that there is. That is the Dilemma.
Posted on Saturday, March 19th, 2011 by Roger Smith
First I want to say that the suffering in Japan is weighing heavy in my heart. Second I want to say we should all of us be taking extra care of ourselves right now. No matter what they say about immediate health threats or lack thereof, radiation anywhere threatens us everywhere, especially in East Asia, the Pacific, and western North America. The Japanese experience of 1945 revealed the value of kelp and other seaweeds in combating radiation, especially in combination with miso and brown rice and a minimum of immune system suppressants (those bad-for-you foods and drugs).
Having said all that: it's bitterly ironic that the Japanese people would have to endure a second earth-shattering nuclear disaster before we woke up and put an end to the insanity and hubris that is the human manipulation of the nuclear fuel cycle. Of all the nations on this planet, Japan ought to have been the one to reject the folly of nuclearism. As the target of the world's first, and so far only, act of nuclear warfare, they have experienced the dangers of radiation poisoning more than anyone else. The Japanese government and the Japanese people have forthrightly and consistently condemned nuclear weaponry, with unquestioned moral authority, and contributed mightily to the international movement for abolition of nuclear arsenals.
And yet, there are 55 nuclear power plants in Japan today, and more than a dozen expected to go online before the end of the decade. Nuclear accounts for a third of the Japanese energy supply. It's understandable to a certain extent. The island nation is poorly endowed with domestic resources. At one point in the 20th century it tried to appropriate the resources of neighboring countries in an imperialist manner, and we know how well that worked out. In the year 2000 it was importing 80 percent of its energy resources. The capital-intensive, high-technology profile of nuclear power was too tempting to refuse. The highly-touted notion of nuclear power as environmentally friendly was the clincher.
And yet... it should not, must not come as a surprise that accidents happen.
Here in the USA, a major faction of the powers that be has been desperate to sell us on the idea that nuclear power is climate-friendly. Too many politicians and mainstream environmentalists have bought this line.
Look at this map of nuclear power plants in the mainland United States. Look how many of them are hugging coastlines.
Now remember what we know about the changing climate and rising sea levels. All the North American coastlines are threatened. Consider the dispiriting status of global negotiations on controlling emissions. Consider that the Kyoto Protocol, finalized in 1997 just a five-hour drive southwest of Sendai, expires next year.
Now tell me Fukushima can't happen here, sooner or later. If it's not a tsunami, the water will find other disruptive ways of announcing itself and staking its claim.
Granted, it's a tough choice for any society to make: occasional catastrophes or a steady slide into planetary peril. Can we please check none of the above?
Starting with the earliest campaign to sell nuclear power, Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" scheme, a few dissidents have opposed this horrendous machinery, puncturing the industry's lies and revealing the glaring destructiveness of its operation. The poet, philosopher and anarchist activist Paul Goodman was one of those early, committed anti-nukers. Goodman was an ardent champion of science, but fretted that the scientific virtues had been perverted by the structures of power—in academia as well as industry, government and the military. In his writings and dozens of speeches during the 1960s—of which you'll hear excerpts in PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE—Goodman challenged scientists to take moral responsibility for how their work would be applied, and to oppose dangerous uses of their brain power.
Goodman wrote cogently and eloquently about establishing sensible, practical criteria for guiding the development of technologies. The machines we create and proliferate should be useful and efficient, of course, but also comprehensible to ordinary citizens and repairable by their users. Above all, he said, technologies should be prudent and modest, human in scale and humanistic in the mark they make on the world. Nuclear power flagrantly flunks all these tests, especially the modesty test. A technology that creates waste products so harmful and potent they must be sequestered for, literally, thousands of years—and that's when it's working properly!—and whose malfunction threatens to annihilate populations and render large areas permanently uninhabitable, is the very epitome of an arrogant technology.
It's too simple to say that nuclear is the wrong choice for our century. What has to be said is that the whole development of nuclear power technology over the past 60 years has been a colossal, shameful mistake and a crime against humanity. It represents decades of time, mints of money, and generations of scientific effort misdirected, wasted. Imagine where we'd be if all those resources had been—or could be now—devoted to truly sustainable energy solutions.
May peace prevail on Earth.
Posted on Wednesday, March 9th, 2011 by Roger Smith
The Economy. The Ecology.
From the Greek, oikos: house, dwelling.
Which house do we really live in?
Which house shall we huff and puff and blow down?
For one of them will have to go;
that much we can hardly fail to know.
Thank heavens for the depression of 2008 and 2009. It's a miracle. I say this sincerely. For because of this depression, my country managed to decrease its greenhouse gas emissions for two consecutive years. Perhaps this puts the case a bit too starkly; I know millions of us are suffering. But I think we have to think about it.
The prospect of runaway climate change matters profoundly—and the evidence is increasingly hit-you-over-the-head that the planet's operating systems are in severe malfunction right now. We are not living on the same Earth into which our parents were born: this is the arresting thesis of Bill McKibben's important 2010 book Eaarth. By the time most of us woke up to the depth of the climate crisis, it was already too late. A new normal had taken hold, a new planet as McKibben styles it, one of full-to-bursting storm clouds and frequent disasters and rising seas and you get the idea.
"My world my only one." The phrase recurs in Paul Goodman's poetry. I can't say whether when Goodman heard these words in his head their ecological overtones resonated—half the time he may only have been thinking of some boy he was into. But they sure speak to me—"my world my only one"—of a precious, intimate, fragile, desperate, beautiful and tragic love and union.
Yet McKibben's book is not only tragic, though he does deal out more than enough bracing and bummericious data. Much of Eaarth exudes the notion that some of the inevitable consequences of the climate crisis also happen to be some pretty salutary and necessary social reforms and new initiatives. McKibben persuasively dangles the profoundly un-American idea that we humans ought to get adjusted, pretty damn quick, to the idea of coping gracefully with our decline. The hardest thing we'll have to do, perhaps, is dispense for good with our obsession with growth. We may have an economic system that depends on growth on all levels, but that's our tough luck. Growth is over. It was a house of straw. The only growth we can count on now is the kind that produces a parsnip.
So what to do? Localize, localize, localize; decentralize, decentralize, decentralize. Is it a coincidence that this is also at the heart of Paul Goodman's message to the Americans? The key projects now, the key capacities and networks to be created, are local, not national. We need technologies, policies and institutions that promote small-scale community autonomy and self-sufficiency. We need an era, at last, that puts our Hamilton on the shelf and gives free rein to the Jefferson in us. "Resilience" and "transition" seem to be key buzzwords of the people thinking this way now.
Goodman himself, while he was well aware of the lessons of ecology, didn't make too much of the connection between his call for a decentralized economy and the demands of ecology. But he had the essence of the idea and this makes his viewpoints relevant for the coming years.
You do not promise anything today
my world my only one. I am content
just to watch wistfully. And my dismay
is very like glory as I slowly walk
away into my solitude intent
and musical and we two frankly talk.
- Paul Goodman, "To My Only World"
Posted on Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011 by Roger Smith
Well, folks, here comes the austerity, with asperity. Will the rich, who have gained so disproportionately over the past two decades, shoulder their share of the sacrifice? December's tax debate gave us the answer to that one. How about the military? William Hartung of New America Foundation addressed that one quite lucidly the other day.
I wrote in a previous post that Paul Goodman's 1960s writing and thinking was deeply influenced by the economic conditions of that moment in time—an anomalous moment, as it turned out, since it was the peak of the greatest economic boom in U.S. history. These days, the political discourse is making contrary assumptions—it's obvious that things are bad and we're all assuming they're going to get much worse. The federal budget discussion, and Wisconsin, reveal these grim premises (or gleeful ones, if you're a Republican) all too clearly.
So it's refreshing to read sixties-era Goodman and see the rather expansive underlying notions of what's possible. With his anarchist attitude, Goodman rarely had anything good to say about existing government programs. Nor, to be honest, could he find much to praise in many of the solutions proffered by the left. And his own policy ideas (packaged in the 1962 book Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals) tended to sound so off-the-wall that even when you were convinced of their merits it was hard to conceive of them coming to pass in the real world.
But there was one economic reform he was unabashedly for: the guaranteed annual income. In this scheme, the government would supply every American family an economic floor; those whose work income didn't reach the threshold would be paid the difference. This proposal squared perfectly with Goodman's concept that decent poverty should be possible in a decent society. Here's how he put it at a 1967 conference on rural poverty in Knoxville, Tennessee:
In the first place, I'm for the annual income. Probably because it puts more money in poor people's pockets which is always a nice thing. You know, the chief defect of the poor is that they don't have money. But I am even more interested in it because it allows for the development of small cooperative enterprise. A number of people want to go into a business. Now you can't risk the little money you have, if you know that is going to be the end. But if there is a guaranteed income, and you know you have to be a little badly off for the next period, then you'll be back on keel a little after that, there's a great opportunity to pool that little income you have with other people and start some business.
Leave it to Paul Goodman to take one of the most socialistic of all welfare programs and present it as a boon to entrepreneurship!
Goodman was hardly a lone voice on this issue. He dovetails here with Martin Luther King, Jr., who, toward the end of his majestic final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), singles out the guaranteed income above other progressive goals as the simplest, most direct, and therefore most effective means to confront the nation's most pressing problems.
Actually, although nothing like the guaranteed income ever materialized in the USA, it's pretty surprising how far the idea got. At a certain point in the late sixties the idea had some serious bipartisan support. President Richard Nixon's Family Assistance Plan, proposed under the influence of his aide Daniel P. Moynihan, passed the House twice, in 1970 and 1971, but in the process of concocting a compromise version that could get through the Senate, the bill lost support from both the left and the right.
MLK pegged his argument for the guaranteed income, as he usually pegged his arguments, in terms of deep morality. He must have realized that the idea went against the American grain, but he believed that if Americans were, or could become, humane enough to transcend racial prejudice, they could transcend class prejudice too:
Earlier in this century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual's abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber.
We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind motivation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will.
King's got his finger on the key problem here, but events seem to have proven his viewpoint too sanguine. As Brian Steensland argues in his history of the guaranteed income, The Failed Welfare Revolution (2007), the real reason why it was a failed revolution wasn't economic but cultural. In the end, the idea was just too radically humane for a society in which the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism are still the official story. The guaranteed income framework just didn't stigmatize poor people enough, nor did it make a sharp enough distinction between the worthy and the unworthy, the hard-working and the lazy. Americans just didn't buy it—not even the ones who would have benefited the most from it, the working poor. It smelled like welfare, and they didn't want welfare.
So the proposal sank in the ideological confusion of the Nixon years. The Carter administration tried to float the idea again, but it didn't get traction, and Reagan killed it off—and then some—with his "welfare queen" rhetoric. Now, in this age of austerity politics and its blinkered, compromised ethics, can we preserve the vision that a minimum level of economic security is every American's birthright? Can we imagine a discourse that generous?
Posted on Sunday, January 30th, 2011 by Roger Smith
A lot of news has been happening lately, from Tunisia to Tucson. For those of us whose heartstrings vibrate merrily at the thought of revolution, it's pleasant to watch the Tunisian fever turning into a prairie fire across North Africa. Is Hosni hosed? Are they diggin' it across the Arabian peninsula and sayin' "Ye, men?" Are we digging the Palestine Papers, an autopsy on the corpse of the so-called peace process? Are we digging in our heels?
Are we enjoying the so-called resurgence of our great black-and-white changey-hope of a president? I'll say this: although the world has now had the chance to take the measure of President Obama, there is one thing I continue to admire about him, and it is this: he very consistently emits the impression that his thoughts are on long-term goals. This, of course, often seems to lead him to disturbing short-term sacrifices, from telecom immunity to the public option to the Bush tax cuts. He is willing to lose many, too many, rounds of the prizefight. He is willing to appear weak—no, let's say to be weak, to play a weak hand, a good deal of the time. This makes him the rare leader who may take a Taoist approach to governance; after all, Lao Tzu says yielding is strength.
But while number 44 is in there swinging, his eyes appear always to be on a distant prize. And the prize is? His re-election, that goes without saying. But also, perhaps, do you think, a certain improvement of our national discourse? He seems to have made the calculation that showing good faith to the opposition party, much more good faith than he shows the rank and file of his own party, is and must be his ticket. And by this calculation—or it's just his inner constitution—he succeeds if the national discourse succeeds, and he fails if it fails. Can we talk? Yes, we can?
And how would Paul Goodman have responded to this buffeting series of events and revelations? The question is, most likely, meaningless, by its overly broad phrasing if not by sheer anachronism. You can answer in a blurry way by considering the crowd with whom Goodman associated over political matters: peaceniks such as his cohorts on Liberation magazine, folks such as A.J. Muste, Dave Dellinger, Bayard Rustin and David McReynolds. Or radical writers and artists like Grace Paley, Julian Beck and Judith Malina. It isn't hard to draw conclusions about what a group like that would have made of, say, the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords. All of the above were alive when JFK was killed; Muste was the only one who didn't make it through 1968.
Maybe a more interesting question: what does this confluence of currently cycling news reveal about where we are historically, about how things have changed? Think about the national discourse today and the national discourse in, say, 1960. There is a connection between how far rightward the political culture, the parties, and the press have drifted, and the economic stagnation and rising inequality I've written about in previous posts. And perhaps it ties in to the environmental straits we're in, too, and how it's increasingly clear that our way of life is driving the species off a cliff.
Yet how things can change, from Tunisia to Stonewall: how the unexpected can come to pass. Even after President Obama has passed from the scene, there will be kinds of change we can believe in and hope for. He can give our hope a bad name, but he can't exhaust it for good.