Blog

LAZY HACK WRITERS: BEWARE!

The premise of Kerry Howley’s recent Bookforum review (“Arrested Development,” Dec/Jan 2011) is that Paul Goodman was a fake intellectual: “He was a guy who wore a lot of tweed, smoked a corncob pipe, and played the part of a serious man.  His rumpled outline and earnest demeanor met with some notion of how a public intellectual ought to look,” but really, Howley writes, Goodman’s public persona was all artifice.  “He was never the genius some took him to be,” and for this reason his influence has been justly forgotten.

It may be that Howley based this conclusion on some cursory reading of the three books supposedly considered in her review (New Reformation, Drawing the Line Once Again, and The Paul Goodman Reader, all issued by PM Press).  But anyone who has read Goodman with more than simple animus in mind will notice certain defects in her reasoning from the get-go.  Yes Goodman was notoriously difficult to deal with.  He was sexually promiscuous and intellectually strong-willed.  But since when are these indications of literary shallowness, much less evidence that Goodman the artist and writer was so terribly unique?

Alongside her ad hominem attack, Howley’s more tangled assertions arise from what is at first a less noticeable sleight of hand.  She seems to know nothing of Goodman’s life or thought before the Sixties, nothing of the series of personal and intellectual turning points that infused books like Growing Up Absurd with such moral and political potency—and yet she quotes several people who have clearly done their homework and arrived at a different view of Goodman’s lasting significance.  Is there some disconnect here?  Are these people simply deluded, simply unable to see through the thin layer of pipe smoke Howley herself is able to penetrate so effortlessly?

In particular, Susan Sontag and Taylor Stoehr are cited to sum up the fact that Goodman was important to a few people if only for a brief period around the 1960s.  As Howley blithely puts it, “Goodman’s thoughts converged with their own vague misgivings and validated their refusal to accept the world as it was given them.”

Perhaps she considers this a fair assessment.  Perhaps she considers her own experience reading Goodman the only one possible for those not deluded by his artifice.  In any case, Howley’s consistent condescension shows that she has completely misunderstood the nature of Goodman’s influence, past and present.

Roughly estimating a very complicated series of events between 1960 to 1969, she presumes she knows precisely why Goodman’s ideas fell out of favor in certain radical quarters and why he remains virtually unknown today: “Students eventually turned on Goodman, perhaps because they made the mistake of reading, rather than simply quoting, Growing Up Absurd and found its normative view of a meaningful life unduly constrained.”

“What?” a serious contemporary reader of Goodman’s work is likely to ask at this point.  “Unduly constrained?”

Whether one has spent real time reading Growing Up Absurd or not, it should be evident to all but the most casual student of the 1960s that there is an explicit connection between Goodman’s “normative view” and an event like the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in 1964.  The reason Goodman was the only author regularly quoted by the Berkeley protestors—and the reason he was read by many, many others after 1964—is that they were attracted to his normative view of a meaningful life, not repelled by it.

To say that these young people were repelled by Goodman and simply didn’t know it yet is bad, bordering on fraudulent, history.  Even those who hadn’t finished reading Growing Up Absurd in 1964 seem to have noticed something Howley misses in 2010.  And this is what continues to attract readers to Goodman today.

The essence of Goodman’s normative view, which runs across all his books, is what Taylor Stoehr calls “the anarchist attitude.”  Since the 1940s, Goodman’s precise formulation of the age-old libertarian principle—a formulation centered on Aristotle’s tenet “soul is self-moving”—has moved readers to examine the larger social conditions that shape their lives.  In many cases, it has helped them change their lives.

Why insult these readers?  Why present a poor rendering of history and an obvious hack job in so reputable a forum as Bookforum?

The source of Kerry Howley’s animus toward Paul Goodman can only be speculated upon.  What is clear is that this so-called book review is an unfortunate example of willful ignorance wedded to a mysteriously vengeful effort to misunderstand the past.

Michael Fisher, a third-year Ph.D candidate in American History at the University of Rochester, wrote the introduction to the PM Press edition of Paul Goodman's "New Reformation: Notes of a Neolithic Conservative. He can be reached at mcfisher84@yahoo.com.

Guest Post by Horatio Morpurgo: The passion of Paul

The sociologist and activist Paul Goodman was one of America’s most influential public intellectuals during the tumultuous decade of the 1960s. His writings on education, especially Growing Up Absurd, released at the beginning of the decade, placed the middle-aged author at the centre of the US’s dissenting youth culture. Today, says Horatio Morpurgo, his reputation is enjoying an unexpected – and welcome – revival.

There is a hair-raising scene near the end of The Grand Piano, when a child in New York City sets out to cycle down Broadway past Harlem. He really wants to ride beside the Hudson River but the road network is not designed for what children on bicycles might want. The boy quickly finds himself swept along by the traffic – a ‘thundering truck’ in front, an ‘evil omnibus’ close behind and a subway train ‘roaring’ on his left. Paralysed with fear, he watches his riding space begin to close: only at the last moment does he collect his wits and swerve away – behind him a shrieking of brakes and the sound of cars colliding. From a side street he looks back ‘to observe from a safe distance the arguments and the damage’.

This street kid and dare-devil cyclist, whose early ‘education’ by the city of New York is the novel’s theme, would one day exercise wider influence than his creator had any reason to expect. The Grand Piano was Goodman’s first book (1942) and there were problems finding a publisher, but many of its preoccupations would be life-long. About planning cities with children in mind, for example, he wrote nearly 30 years later, in New Reformation (1970): ‘no city is governable if it does not grow citizens who feel it is theirs.’

His second book, Communitas (1947) – written with his brother Percival, an architect – dealt with urban form at a time when cars were transforming US cities and lives, as they would later transform cities and lives everywhere.

Goodman’s response was characteristic. He proposed that private cars should be banned from Manhattan while access for service vehicles was maintained. This, he argued, would result in less pollution, faster transport, greater tranquillity and more space for everybody. More than 60 years ago Goodman recognized the threat posed by cars to human communities and proposed a radical solution.

At stake were not only the particular traffic problems of a particular city. In his witty, combative style, he often responded to the suggestion that such ‘utopian’ or ‘revolutionary’ proposals are impractical, or that the necessary changes would be ‘incalculably destructive’.

‘Consider the actualities,’ he responded in a 1962 piece, reeling off a list of the expressways and tunnels constructed around Manhattan ‘at more than a million dollars per mile’, until 35 per cent of the island’s surface was occupied by roads. This was not a ‘natural process’ but the result of decisions that had ‘entirely transformed the residential pattern of the city and the behaviour of its inhabitants’ with ‘whole neighbourhoods disrupted, razed…’. ‘No utopian planner,’ he wrote, ‘would dare propose… such vast, disruptive and expensive changes.’

It’s an argument he would apply with equal force to the rise of supermarkets, advertising, mass air travel and television. He saw these not as ‘inevitable natural processes’ but as areas where decisions were made in the calculated interests of a few and could therefore be unmade, to the inestimable advantage of the many.

So what starts out as an argument for cycle paths is really part of a larger argument for utopian thinking that can ‘cut through habits, especially the character-defence of saying “nothing can be done” and withdrawing into conformity and privacy’.

If Goodman had lived to see the backlash against that culture of dissent that he helped to nourish, what would he have made of it? I think he would have been more disappointed than surprised. Unfinished revolutionary moments were a favourite theme: from the founding of Europe’s first independent universities in the 12th century to the 16th century Protestant Reformation; from the English Civil War to the French and American revolutions.

For all their initial daring each of these enterprises had succumbed in the end to ‘the danger of new bosses who are invariably rife with plans’. Goodman saw the 1960s as such a revolutionary moment but saw its incompleteness, too, and was critical of its surface phenomena. The Sixties youth revolution, he argued, was self-defeating because it tended to be ignorant of political economy, too headlong in its rejection of the past and indiscriminate in its rejection of Western traditions.

And yet when the young were framed as ‘the problem’ he bristled: ‘They are problematic because they try to vomit up the poisonous mores.’ It was precisely ‘the young who resent being processed’ who listened to this ageing, awkward man and his passionate analysis. The beats and the hippies and the delinquents and the squares – despise each other as they might – were for Goodman all symptoms of a deeper societal conflict which none of them had succeeded in resolving, though some were trying harder than others.

At the heart of it Goodman saw an all-pervading confusion of science with technology. Through its misapplication and ‘hypocritical distortion’ by commercial interest groups, technology had lost touch with science, with the freely inquiring spirit which first gave rise to it.

‘Technology is a branch of moral philosophy,’ as he put it – or it ought to be. In the US it had resulted instead in the ‘proliferation of those machines and their complexes that have demonstrably become ruinous.’ The further emptying out of a culture through an education system geared to ‘national needs’ (as defined by the world of business) had left the young bereft of any language that might help. He refers to a ‘therapeutic use of history’ as a way of restoring to the young a culture worthy of their attention, liberating them from ‘the $10 billion teen-age market’. The ‘teen-age market’ is even bigger now and the infantilization of public taste continues. Its main function was and is precisely to get in the way of anyone who would rather grow up.

If there was an exemplary figure that meant most to Goodman it was probably Thomas Jefferson. The new republic’s third President (1801-1809) and the principle author of its Declaration of Independence, ‘blessed us with those 25 years of quasi-anarchy in national affairs, during which we learned whatever has made the American experiment worthwhile.’ Central authority was not yet strong, the memory of the struggle for independence was fresh and the appetite for autonomy on the part of the states was keen.

That initial idealism faded but in his later years Jefferson made one last attempt to realize some of the hopes that had animated the original dream. Crucially for Goodman, that attempt took the form of a university. Jefferson raised the funds, selected a site near his home, designed its buildings, chose the masons and carpenters, oversaw the bricklayers and supervised the landscaping for what would be the University of Virginia, an educational experiment worthy of the revolution he had really wanted.

He designed the curriculum and outlined its educational ethos: it was to be a self-organizing community with freedom from state interference guaranteed. The students would govern themselves without academic discipline or moral policing. There was an absolute minimum of administration.

It is in this sense that Goodman spoke of the initial anarchist impetus behind the US. Jefferson’s college would draw out and develop each student’s natural curiosity and propensities – unruly ones included if need be. ‘Pride of character,’ Jefferson wrote, ‘laudable ambition and moral dispositions are innate correctives of the indiscretions of that lively age.’

The university’s independence from the outside world has long made it the natural flash point in conflicts with absolute authority. In 13th century Paris and in 15th century Oxford, Goodman argued, students rose against Church interference, demanding expulsions and resignations. In the US in the 1960s they protested against the military draft and the Vietnam War. The essential argument was the same – how you educate for a freedom that means something.

Goodman’s range of interests was vast. He described himself as ‘an old-fashioned man of letters’ like Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Matthew Arnold. He did pioneering work on gestalt psychology in the 1940s and 1950s. He was a devoted father and he was also openly bisexual a full decade before this was socially acceptable. It got him into no end of trouble, not least because he argued that the relationship between student and teacher often involved personal friendship. But it was through political activism, notably in the peace movement, and through his writing, that he engaged such a large audience.

‘One has the persistent thought,’ he wrote in 1960, ‘that if 10,000 people in all walks of life will stand up on their two feet and talk out and insist, we shall get back our country.’ He soon found himself a spokesperson for a decade and a country that was ready for what he had to say. He barely outlived it all, dying suddenly of a heart attack in 1972. Since then, three decades of neo-liberal consensus have come and gone. We might well ask what he would have made of our world. The findings of climate science would have seemed a gloomy confirmation of a deeply felt intuition. He’d have welcomed the internet. The revival of fundamentalist religion, especially on campus, would have startled him, would perhaps have brought out the Jeffersonian in him. How would he have been on the ‘selfish gene’?

Maybe it’s time now to look back at one of those who inspired a richer view of human potential. Paul Goodman Changed My Life, the first ever documentary about him, will be released in the next few months, along with new editions of his work (forthcoming from PM Press, www.pmpress.org). Perhaps the renewed interest will help bring about a timely revision of the 1960s – a decade so often written off as frivolous by those who never take the trouble to untangle its roots.

For more information on the film Paul Goodman Changed My Life see www.paulgoodmanfilm.com

Horatio Morpurgo is a regular contributor to New Internationalist.

PULL QUOTES
Goodman saw the 1960s as a revolutionary moment but saw its incompleteness, too, and was critical of its surface phenomena
The Sixties youth revolution was self-defeating because it tended to be ignorant of political economy, too headlong in its rejection of the past and indiscriminate in its rejection of Western traditions.
This article was originally published in the December 2010 issue of New Internationalist magazine (www.newint.org).

hunger, aggression, excitement and growth

In two prior posts I discussed the relationship between Fritz Perls and Paul Goodman and the novel psychological theory that resulted from their shared work on the book Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality (co-authored with Ralph Hefferline, 1951). To me, this theory is so interesting that it warrants spelling out a little further (to the small extent that I understand it!).

I think it's characteristic of Paul Goodman's philosophical cast of mind that he undertook to restate the fundamental premises of psychology from scratch, stating only ideas that could be experientially understood rather than trotting out the artificial and bloodless concepts on which most personality theory relies.

Perls and Goodman's theory begins with the premise that "experience occurs at the boundary between the organism and its environment." The most common or normal kind of interaction that takes place at this boundary is what they call "growth." It starts with a motivation, or desire, or excitement, or drive on the part of the organism, which leads to some decision, or action, or reaction, or contact intended to manipulate the environment. If this contact satisfies the desire, the result is growth, or "creative adjustment," or "assimilation." The clearest example would be when the environment has food in it: the organism appropriates and assimilates the food as the basis for physical growth. We can take this as a metaphor for all kinds of growth. We grow by absorbing the energy and resources of our environment—consciously and aggressively distinguishing between what is good for us and bad for us, what is assimilable and what is unassimilable in our surroundings. [I believe this is the key concept of Perls' first major work, Ego, Hunger, and Aggression (1942).]

But if the contact or manipulation isn't successful, if it fails to do what it sets out to do or it can't get no satisfaction, it remains unfinished, unresolved—and this is where the psychology of abnormal or neurotic development begins. In the Perls/Goodman theory, the organism keeps on trying to resolve the unresolved contact, especially if the motivating drive is something essential (and especially if the organism is very young). Rather than give up on its organic needs, the organism is likely to take emergency measures to buy time, to postpone the assimilation, delay the resolution. Enough time spent putting the satisfactions of organic growth in a holding pattern can turn the unresolved situation into a chronic emergency. Following Wilhelm Reich, Perls and Goodman described this outcome as a physical tension or musculo-skeletal rigidity in the organism. This rigidity would have a mental aspect as well, in terms of a diminution in the overall energy available for making novel contact and spontaneous creative adjustment. If the organism's needs continue to go unmet, the chronic emergency becomes the new normal and eventually passes out of awareness, without ceasing to draw its share of energy and diminish the quality of contact with the environment. There we have a theory of repression, perfectly compatible with Freud and Reich but expressed in highly concrete, essentially verifiable or falsifiable terms.

Also, this theory allows ample room for the possibility that the environment exerts powerful reciprocal influences on all of us organisms—that contact, manipulation, and assimilation are all two-way thoroughfares. Therefore, it was hardly a stretch for Goodman to pass back and forth between psychological and sociological ways of thinking. And it was hardly an accident that he achieved renown for combining the two approaches, through the diagnostics of abnormal sociology and the assumption of a therapeutic pose toward society at large.

Decent Poverty Report: our depression

I don't know why so few people utter the word "depression" to describe the economic conditions in America over the past year or two. I suppose some people believe on principle that as long as things don't get as bad as they got at the nadir of the thirties—and they haven't—we're not entitled to the word. Certainly the corporate news media and those who take their cue from them, patrolling the public discourse like vigilantes, wouldn't think of using it. But I mean, when you think about it, isn't it depressing?

For more than thirty years now, the screws have slowly been tightening on middle-class life in the United States. The gains this country made in building a middle class in the mid-20th century have been receding for some time. Real wages at the median level have stagnated while the richest have taken gluttonous portions of the pie. Health costs. Longer hours. Regressive taxes. Bursting bubbles. Drowning in underwater mortgages. Government assiduously transferring wealth to the rich. Now, under the guise of confronting the deficit, will come "Shock Doctrine" proposals for even more cuts to the bone. Cutting Social Security benefits and cost-of-living adjustments. Eliminating the home mortgage interest tax deduction. Increasing the retirement age. Taxing workers for their health benefits. How tight can your belt get?

As I've been studying the writings of Paul Goodman, one little phrase he liked to use has been sticking in my mind: "decent poverty." He mentioned this idea fairly frequently—he had no problem repeating himself in different contexts. To me this little phrase packs a big wallop. It contains a great deal of what Goodman stood for, as a "community anarchist," a "practical utopian," a "neolithic conservative," a Jeffersonian democrat, a social critic whose greatest dream was not an ideal society, not Lyndon Johnson's great society, but a "tolerable" society. I'm going to try to open up this subject in future blogs, exploring how Goodman conceived it and how the idea of decent poverty, and the relative possibility of its achievement, relates both to my own life and the current state of the nation.

Start by chewing on this paragraph, from a 1970 essay called "Anarchism and Revolution." [available in Drawing the Line Once Again, PM Press, 2010] I'll give Paul Goodman the last word for now—let's listen:
If young Americans really consulted their economic interests, instead of their power propaganda or their generous sentiments, I think they would opt for the so-called Scandinavian or mixed economy, of big and small capitalism, producers' and consumers' co-operatives, independent farming, and State and municipal socialism, each with a strong influence. To this I would add a sector of pure communism, free appropriation adequate for decent poverty for those who do not want to make money or are too busy with nonpaying pursuits to make money (until society gets around to overwhelming them with the coin of the realm). Such a sector of pure communism would cost about 1 percent of our Gross National Product and would make our world both more livable and more productive. The advantage of a mixed system of this kind for the young is that it increases the opportunities for each one to find the milieu and style that suits him, whereas both the present American cash nexus and socialism necessarily process them and channel them.
Giving happy thanks, everyone!

the contact boundary

In my last post I discussed the 1951 book Gestalt Therapy, co-written by Fritz Perls, Paul Goodman, and Ralph Hefferline. For a landmark work of clinical psychology, it's a curiously schizophrenic book. One half, written by Goodman from ideas and notes by Perls, is a dense and cogent exposition of the personality theory in which Gestalt therapy is grounded. The other half, executed primarily by Hefferline of Columbia University, consists of 18 body-mind exercises with which Perls had experimented in his practice, introduced with light commentary in a simplified self-help tone.

The authors intended for Goodman's work to come first, but the publishers thought the book would sell better the other way around. It was an unfortunate decision that significantly slowed the diffusion of the Goodman/Perls theory. The direction of Perls' subsequent career did still more to paint a picture of Gestalt therapy in the public mind as a somewhat gimmicky, very 60s, be-here-now, encounter-group style driven by the therapist as charismatic guru.

Nevertheless, there are quite a few people who see what Goodman wrote in Gestalt Therapy as a path-breaking masterpiece, a step forward from Freud's insights into a coherent, empirically workable description of how personality and neurosis develop. Another of the field's leading figures, Isadore From, for many years taught Goodman's book line by line in a year-long course at the New York Gestalt Therapy Institute.

I'll try in a subsequent post (if I have the chutzpah) to describe the mechanics of Goodman's theory, but for now here are two things about it that contributed to the opening up of therapy beyond the assumptions and conventions of psychoanalysis. First, Goodman insisted that no solid boundary can be drawn between an individual organism and its environment. Remember, individual and society, organism and environment—the relationship that defines sociology and ecology—is what Goodman considered the through-line of his whole wide-ranging intellectual career. While the self and its constituent parts (id, ego, etc.) represent the fundamental unit of Freudian theory, Goodman decentered the self. In its place, his theory posited the "contact boundary" between an organism and something external to it—including, of course, other organisms. In Gestalt therapy, the points of contact are where it's at, the most salient locus for both useful observation and therapeutic intervention. This idea that wider realms and structures (the biosphere, the family, the nation) impact on every level what constitutes the self, is what makes Goodman's psychological model compatible with both his social-political theory and with the key insights of Asian religious philosophy.

The other breakthrough in the theory (and come to think of it, this also meshes well with Taoism and Buddhism) is its focus on the present rather than the past. In Freud's mythical model, the holy grail is whatever's locked up from childhood trauma and can be unlocked on the couch, but in Gestalt therapy, what matters is what's happening right now: how a person's moment-to-moment acts of cognition, reaction, making contact (or withholding contact) manifest the whole (the Gestalt) of the person's being, or neurosis, or state of growth, or possibility for further growth. I'm not sure I can unpack the word "phenomenology" (it has too many syllables and too much philosophical baggage for me), but the idea that what's observable, not what's hidden in the unconscious, really is what's going on—and thus that the here-and-now represents the most useful material for making progress in therapy—strikes me as a crafty, pragmatic approach.

"I do my thing and you do your thing"

One very interesting segment of the upcoming movie Paul Goodman Changed My Life discusses Goodman's role in the origination of Gestalt therapy and his association with Friedrich (Fritz) Perls. Perls, along with his wife Laura, conceived and popularized the technique of Gestalt therapy, which remains a relatively popular product in the mental health marketplace.

Fritz and Laura Perls emigrated from Germany in the early years of the Third Reich and spent the war years in South Africa. As the human potential movement got underway in the 1960s, Fritz Perls became one of its most visible gurus. He was a fixture at the Esalen Institute in California, and became known for performing highly dramatic, on-the-spot, blitzkrieg therapy on audience members at his talks. He also wrote the well-known "Gestalt prayer" that made it onto some bad-taste 60s-hangover posters—the one about "I am not in this world to live up to your expectations," but "if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful." That one's always creeped me out, quite frankly.

By chance Fritz Perls and Paul Goodman found each other in New York in the late 1940s. Goodman had already established his chip-on-the-shoulder persona of calling himself New York's finest unknown writer. He had some reason for this disgruntlement, having recently published two unheralded, ahead-of-their-time masterpieces—the virtuoso city-planning treatise Communitas (1947), co-written with his brother Percival, and the novel The Dead of Spring (1950), which became Part 3 of The Empire City (1959). Goodman was in therapy himself, having digested Freud and moved on to Wilhelm Reich.

Perls hired Goodman to produce a manuscript, from Perls' notes, explaining his new therapeutic model. Goodman took that ball and ran a marathon. The work he produced—the theoretical half of the book Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality (1951)—is still considered the field's foundational text, number one on the required-reading list for aspiring Gestalt therapists.

At least some of them. In his later years, Perls essentially disowned the book he co-authored with Goodman and Ralph Hefferline. He liked to dispense his own "perls" of wisdom and expressed heavy disdain for any theoretical statements more elaborate than a pithy one-liner. To be precise, his stock phrase for rigorous explanations of psychological phenomena was "elephant-shit." This cavalier attitude helped burnish the brand image Perls was creating, but it had lasting, unfortunate effects. A rift developed between the West Coast and East Coast schools of Gestalt therapy—a rift that epitomized and helped define the stereotypes each coast deploys against the other (the one too stodgy and intellectual, the other loosey-goosey and intellectually flabby). Gestalt therapy became indelibly associated with Perls and his celebrity, receding from prominence after his death in 1970, and was subsequently, incorrectly, dismissed as a showy model without a coherent theory to back it up. Meanwhile, that theory—Goodman's psychological magnum opus—just missed the conveyor belt to the zeitgeist.

"If not, it can't be helped."

Education and The System

I confess, one subset of the national political discourse I have largely tuned out lately is the education debate. I find it kind of inane and depressing. Apparently some mainstream media people are speculating that education could be one area where the incoming Congress might be able to work constructively—that is, if the GOP is willing to allow anything to pass in the next two years. Hurry up and wait.

As far as I can see, the intervention of the politicians in education mostly makes things worse. It's all about standards and tests to them. Whether they're racing to the top or no-child's-left-behinding, politicians demand accountability as their pound of flesh for the money the federal government invests in schools. Their mantra is math and science—has been ever since Sputnik. President Obama said at his press conference this week, "I think everybody in this country thinks that we've got to make sure our kids are equipped in terms of their education, their science background, their math backgrounds to compete in this new global economy." That seems pretty representative of the consensus conventional-wisdom viewpoint.

Paul Goodman had an utterly different idea of how and why society should go about educating children. The author of Growing Up Absurd and Compulsory Mis-education had a view more in touch with how children learn and how they experience their education; a view not in denial of what most young people find yucky about school:
...for the majority of adolescents academic routine is time-wasting, unreal, dispiriting, desexualizing and destructive of initiative; and it is resisted by the usual devices of sabotage, by "sub-culture" and—on the part of the highly intelligent—by "underachievement," for they do not want to "achieve" in this way.
This quote comes from an article in The New Republic (October 5, 1963) entitled "Why Go to School?" Goodman opens the piece thus: "In 1900, 6.4 percent of American 17-year-olds graduated from high school, and perhaps another 10 or 15 percent would have graduated if they could have afforded it." By 1960, the rate had gone up to about 60 percent; in 2009, it was around 69 percent. But is this truly progress, when the remaining 30-odd percent are branded "dropouts" and considered a drag on the economy, an underclass?

Writing at a time just before the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, before the federal government plunged permanently into the business of public schools, Goodman proposed redirecting education toward communities rather than aligning it further with the "organized system" of global economic competition. "The most plausible expedient for expanding education," he writes, "is to create enterprises that fulfill social necessities and can also be educational opportunities for youngsters." He mentions neighborhood improvement projects, conservation, apprenticeships, farm work, local media—concretely useful things kids can do in the real world. These ideas are in the spirit of Mark Twain's notion: "I have never let my schooling stand in the way of my education." These days, quite a few of the better schools have incorporated community service programs into the curricular mix—a small but significant step in the direction of a path not taken.

P.S.: Deborah Meier, a progressive education hero, has this to say in Dissent magazine's Fall 2010 special on "Paul Goodman For Our Times." Also look there for the winners of the Paul Goodman Changed My Life essay contest!

the city and the social network

Well, I admit, I'm not on Facebook, so what do I know about anything anyway? Nor have I even seen The Social Network yet, I feel compelled to disclose (but I will, since I loved Jesse Eisenberg in The Squid and the Whale). But just the plot summary—about all the backstabbing, jealousy, and antisocial vindictiveness that surrounded the creation of Facebook—confirms my intuitive sense that this is an interface with which I prefer not to interface. I know it has many adherents who swear by it but to me there's just something kinda creepy about it. This whole will-you-friend-me thing—and its corollary, the oh-my-god-this-person-wants-to-friend-me-what-do-I-do thing—it's so not how human relationships work. And the idea that people are using this sophomorically synthetic medium as their means of staying in touch with or reconnecting with people they actually know in the real world, it just bothers me, it seems subtly corrosive to human values. FB seems to have replaced e-mail for some people, and I find it a poor substitute.

I'm guessing Paul Goodman would have found social networking software somewhat creepy too, too inorganic for his tastes. His whole attitude toward life was based on face-to-face (or some would say skin-to-skin) human encounters. From his early childhood the city streets were his home, and as a married-with-kids grownup he still prowled the streets, addicted to their energy of spontaneity, serendipity, possibility. The power of people in small groups, in communities, were the heart of his philosophy. Social networks—the real kind, not the virtual simulacrum—can practice mutual aid, take political action, serve the needs of the time and place. I know the virtual can do some of this too but I'm not quite ready to call it equivalent.

Not to mention the not-innocuous fact that online "social networks" are centrally organized, part of the system of aggregating masses, surveilling the intimate details of their habits, and delivering them to advertisers. No doubt the insidiously coercive role these technologies play in the advancing police state would not have been lost on Goodman.

So if you want to be my friend, you don't have to ask me, just go ahead and act like one. And we'll treat each other like people, not personnel.

P.S.: I haven't read this Malcolm Gladwell piece yet but it seems relevant. What do you think, folks? Let's hear the voice of the social network!

Election Special: Better a Frenemy

Q: What's spookier than Halloween?

A: Election day.

For partisans of peace and justice, this has been the most depressing election season in recent memory: Harvey Wasserman called it "a horrendous death spasm for a dying empire. The cancerous flood of corporate money pouring through the process has taken the corruption of what's left of our democratic process to new post-imperial depths." I seethe at the bitter irony that this metastasizing money meltdown resulted from something called Citizens United. Corporations United, they mean—the most criminal act of judicial jujitsu since Bush v. Gore. But consider this, for what it's worth: at least we have a president who opposed this disastrous decision and speaks out against it.

It takes a strong temperament not to be carried away by frustration at our sclerotic political system. For a progressive, the temptation is strong to stay home, move on down the ballot, give up on the jackass Democrats like a husband who keeps disappointing you. Interestingly, some writers with well-burnished left-wing credentials, such as Robert Parry and Stephen Zunes, are doing some hard, sober thinking this month about lesser evils, third parties, and the real choices we face.

I found this Paul Goodman quote from an article in Liberation magazine, October 1962. Peace activists had this piece inside their homes when the Cuban Missile Crisis ignited. Mull this one:
Our system of government at present comprises the military-industrial complex, the secret paramilitary agencies, the scientific war-corporations, the blimps, the horse's asses, the police, the administrative bureaucracy, the career diplomats, the lobbies, the corporations that contribute Party funds, the underwriters and real-estate promoters that batten on Urban Renewal, the official press and the official opposition press, the sounding-off and jockeying for the next election, the National Unity, etc., etc. All this machine is grinding along by the momentum of the power and profit motives and style long since built into it; it cannot make decisions of a kind radically different than it does. Even if an excellent man happens to be elected to office, he will find that it is no longer a possible instrument for social change on any major issues of war and peace or the way of life of the Americans. Indeed...office does not give even a good public forum, for the press does not report inconvenient speeches.
[It's from "Getting Into Power: The Ambiguities of Pacifist Politics," included in Drawing the Line Once Again: Paul Goodman's Anarchist Writings, edited by Taylor Stoehr: PM Press, 2010.]

Need I indicate the relevance of this passage for us today? Goodman's giving voice here to the main reason I resist the urge to spurn and condemn President Obama, despite my disappointment with many of his policies: I think he—that is, the presidency—may have quite a bit less power to bring about progressive change than we wish. Democracy's in worse shape than it used to be, I'm sorry to say. Corporate power has been building for more than a century and is still consolidating, still moving the political center ceaselessly to the right.

This is a worldwide phenomenon: a defining aspect of globalization is the eroding power of governments to uphold a social contract with citizens. The USA is not exempt from these dynamics of our time. Look what happened when South Africa jubilantly elected Nelson Mandela in 1994. The end of apartheid was very nice, but on economics, Mandela and the ANC swiftly betrayed the masses by privatizing water and electricity and imposing neoliberal austerity.

This is instructive for viewing Obama. We all know we meant to elect a change agent. What we found was that change is easy as long as it benefits the corporate class; if it benefits the body politic, change is murderously hard. No matter how valid and voluminous the complaints, I just don't see us doing much better than this administration in the near future. Much worse is easy to see. Remember back during Bush/Cheney's salad days? How Berlin-circa-1934 it felt? Remember those ten steps to fascism Naomi Wolf was talking about? I put it to you that having a frenemy in the White House may be the best we ought to expect. And Tuesday's election need not be a way of "sending a message" to our frenemy but a thoughtful decision about how we'd like to live.

Happy election day, Goodman fans!

dangerous men

The documentary biopic can be a very politically potent medium. The 1984 film The Times of Harvey Milk, for example, did as much as any of that decade's films or books to advance mainstream understanding and sympathy for the gay liberation movement. Last year's release,  The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, also carried a lot of power, as it revealed the earth-shaking repercussions one courageous act can have in a time of pointless war and imperial government. I hope the upcoming release of Paul Goodman Changed My Life will add to this tradition, ultimately changing more lives by bringing this inspiring, radical, big-hearted intellectual heavyweight into the awareness of many good, active people today who really ought to know his name and learn about his work.

Goodman and Ellsberg have some important common traits, aside from the coincidence that they both had a moment of white-hot fame and cultural notoriety. Both of these antiwar activists combined a penetrating analytical mind with a lot of heart. Both men were devoted to telling the truth in every way they could, and both paid steep personal consequences for obeying their conscience. Goodman's most well-known book, Growing Up Absurd, can be viewed as an act of bold truth-telling. It took deep courage as well as deep convictions to tell the America of 1960 that the problem with young people today wasn't with the young people at all, that the real problem was that the America of 1960 was not a worthwhile society for bright and idealistic young people to grow up in.

I had the opportunity to hear Dan Ellsberg speak last week. He also gave it to us straight. The world is in terrible danger, he said with gravity, both from climate change and from the possible use of nuclear weapons. He worries that our president, or the next one, will attack Iran. He believes that India and Pakistan may have arsenals large enough to bring on nuclear winter all by themselves if they should ever be used against each other. And he maintains that all of society's institutions—government, the press, business, lawyers, colleges, unions—are performing terribly these days. In the United States since 9/11, he said rather persuasively, the accumulation of executive power, the capitulation of the other two branches to that power, and the diminution of constitutional rights have been so extreme that it really constitutes a change in our form of government, into something much less of a republic than we are used to assuming. The times call for acts of conscience on a grand scale, like the one he did—and, he noted, like Bradley Manning has done via Wikileaks. Ellsberg is a living inspiration for people to discover, and do, the biggest right thing they can.