Disillusioned

In 30s of the last century a great many liberals, including folk song icon Pete Seeger, flirted seriously with Communism.  Indeed, Seeger was a member of the Communist Party, as were a great many liberal thinkers at the time. For one thing, the ideals of Communism resembled in a great many ways the ideals of Christianity with which many in the West were familiar– if not enamored. It espoused strong communities, the eradication of exploitation of the poor by the wealthy, and the equal distribution of all property, including wealth. It also embraced the notion that we should all care about our fellow humans. In any event, as I noted, a great many liberals embraced the ideals of Communism though most of them later became disenchanted when the reality of Communism began to stare them in the face. At the time it seemed an obvious alternative to hated Fascism and some, like George Orwell went so far as to join the anarchists on the side of Communism in Spain fighting against Franco and Fascism. The term “anarchist” denotes the confusion on the Spanish left as it included both socialists and Communists all in the name of “Nationalism.” But they were united in their hatred of Fascism.

Orwell, author of the recently best-selling 1984 (thanks to the election Donald Trump in America) wrote a journal describing the gradual awakening to the horrors of Communism that took place on the part of a young, idealistic reporter who went to Spain to write about the war and ended up joining the anarchists. His journal is titled Homage To Catalonia and it describes in painful detail the story of a young idealist waking up to the harsh reality that those in power, even those one admires and who seemingly embrace the same ideals as oneself, succumb to the temptations of power and wealth and behave just as badly as those against whom you are risking your life — perhaps worse, since they join hypocrisy to their other flaws.. Orwell was seriously wounded in battle against Fascism and nearly lost his life. He spent the rest of his days fighting a verbal game against the totalitarianism he saw up close.

Lionel Trilling wrote a paper in 1952 extolling the virtues of a virtuous man, as he considered Orwell. Not a great man, but a virtuous man, one who embraced the Victorian notion of “my station and its duties.” This was a man who walked the walk and who had no patience whatever with closet liberals who talk the talk but become lost in abstractions and find themselves lame when it comes to standing up to the sort of reality he saw up close. He was, above all else, honest to a fault. He was an advocate of democratic socialism though he saw clearly that democracy is also flawed; it has

“. . .told us that genius is available to anyone, that the grace of ultimate prestige may be had by anyone, that we may all be princes and potentates, or saints and visionaries and holy martyrs, of the heart and mind. “

In a word, it tends toward mediocrity, a leveling down of human aspirations to the gathering of wealth and the having of as much as our neighbor, the refusal to allow that there is greatness in the world, that some are actually better persons than others, that failure can be an important lesson learned. So says, Lionel Trilling. But he echoes the convictions of George Orwell who embraced democracy for all its faults — perhaps because, as Winston Churchill said, it is the worst form of government except for all the others. Heaven knows, Orwell saw the “others” up close — at least in their twentieth century guise. And he saw that the best government is the one that empowers the greatest number of people and in socialism he saw that restrictions were necessary to prevent the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the few who have no idea how to manage the power it delivers to them. These things Orwell saw up close and in person. It almost cost him his life, but he lived to warn us all to be suspicious and not fall for the empty promises of ideologues and the pretty speeches of politicians whose only interest is their own welfare. And above all else, he urged us to become engaged in the world in order to preserve our precious human freedom.

Homage to Catalonia is well worth reading if only to see how painful it was for this one man to have his eyes opened to the realities of a world gone mad, a world in which even those who seemingly embrace the highest ideals also easily succumb to the temptations of power and the desire for great wealth. He worried above all else that we would be lulled to sleep by mindless diversions and political apathy

“…sleeping the deep, deep sleep . . ., from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake until we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”

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Generation In Motion

I am reading a book written by a good friend of mine about the troubled sixties. It is, in large part, an apology for the age that has commanded such critical scrutiny by traditionalists like myself and it finds its strongest arguments nestled in a close look at the poetry and music of the period. There is no question that some of the best popular music ever written appeared during those years by such song writers as The Beatles, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. The author of this book, A Generation In Motion, happens to be an expert on the period and especially on Bob Dylon; he has written a book about the man and his songs that nicely complements this book. The author, David Pichaske, is an English Professor at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota. At one point in the book, he remarks about the sixties generation, in contrast with later generations:

“A less aware or educated generation or one distracted by a war or a depression might have ignored the injustices and irritations that so troubled the sleep of sixties children. It would have slumbered blissfully and ignorantly and quite comfortably. A more cynical generation would have been less obsessed, less righteously angry. It could maybe have laughed or shrugged its shoulders. A less motivated generation would have despaired and retreated to the safety of distance.”

Now there are several points that the author makes in this passage that deserve our attention. To begin with, Pichaske is convinced — in contrast with critics of that period — that the children of the sixties were idealists who had a definite program. They were not anarchists bent on bringing down the “establishment,” simply. To be sure, they did want to attack the established powers and throw off the cloak of servitude they were convinced they were burdened with. But they did so with a purpose: they advocated complete freedom from outrageous constraints together with a determination to make the world a better place, to bring about peace and love and better communication among all humans.

“What we had in mind was something a little more humane, a little more free. Less of a ‘niche for everyone and everyone in his niche.’ More flexibility. Fewer rules. . . .  And we wanted it now.”

So says the author. I will not debate the point, except to say that the generation saw gray issues in black and white. Furthermore, their notion of freedom, which was a cornerstone of their program, is confused and weakens the case for the plan in the minds of those undoubted idealists during those troubled days.

Freedom is not to be confused with license, as it is so often, and is so assuredly in this case. Freedom is not possible, as John Locke pointed out many years ago, without law and order. True creativity and a full expression of human endeavor requires discipline and self-restraint. Imagine a group of people all trying to get to a rope tow on a snowy day to get to the top in order to ski down the hill. If there is no order, no discipline, there is chaos. Indeed, complete freedom is chaos, nothing more and nothing less. (In response to this comment, my friend said that if the tow rope were pulling you toward a cliff you might prefer chaos!) In any event, the attack on the establishment by the young during the sixties was based on the notion that freedom was an inherently good thing, that more is better, whereas, in fact, it is not — at least not the kind of freedom most of them espoused. All of the truly great contributions to humankind, from art to literature to science, were made by men and women who knew — and held themselves to — the necessity of restraint and order. The rebels of the sixties may have had a program, as Pichaske says, but it was confused at its core. As a result it is no wonder it could not be sustained.

But Pichaske’s larger point is well taken. By and large, these were not cynical young people and the generations that followed them appear to be — perhaps because the dreams of their idealistic parents and grandparents came to naught. The gap between those ideals and reality became increasingly apparent to increasing numbers of people. In any event, the current generation, together with their parents (including myself of course) do appear to prefer distance and separation from others. This is especially the case given the current explosion of electronic toys and the internet that stress a “social network” in which people seldom meet and communication is stunted and incomplete.

In the end I think the rebellion during the sixties brought to light a number of illnesses that were beneath the surface and deserving of serious attention. But that rebellion became an end in itself for many of the rebels and it rested on a fundamental confusion about what is and what is not important. As a result, the colleges and universities jettisoned those courses that were essential to a good education, at the insistence of groups like the S.D.S., and the culture at large awakened briefly to the inequity of segregation, the horrors of unjustified wars and acquired some beautiful poetry and music — but very little else of permanent value. In the end more and more people went deeper into themselves and grew farther apart than ever. The hope of peace, love and better communication among all people turned out to be a pipe dream.

When Will We Ever Learn?

One of the great protest songs to come out of the Viet Nam war was “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” by Pete Seeger. It has the haunting, repetitive line “When Will They Ever Learn?” that I want to modify slightly and borrow for a quite different purpose. I want to protest our unwillingness to pay attention to an environmental crisis that threatens to dwarf the Viet Nam War altogether. And it is made all the more disturbing by virtue of the fact that those who are in a position to do something are paying no attention whatever.

There are folks in this society, of course,  who care deeply about the fact that in our blind pursuit of filthy lucre we seem hell-bent on our own destruction as an animal species. I have touched on this in previous blogs and mentioned heroes like Danny DeVito who are doing something about it. There are hundreds like him, people who really care and are doing their best to stem the tide. But the tide will not be turned back until the majority of those with large pocketbooks start to pay attention. And right now, they are looking the other way — as are most of us.

Consider the fact that as we enter a presidential election year, there is little or no talk about the environment — from either political party. In polls the environment ranks fairly high in the concerns voters have expressed. But the politicians stay away from the topic as though it were poison. It’s upsetting and not likely to get them elected no matter where they stand on the issue. The reason, of course, is that the issue has been juxtaposed to jobs by the media, and especially by the special interests. The claim is that we cannot take serious steps to save the environment without “costing” the nation hundreds if not thousands of jobs. This is pure bollocks, as the English would say.

The economy will continue to take center stage, as well it should. But the notion that we cannot try to save the environment and create jobs at the same time is nonsense. That fiction may eventually be written on our gravestones. Jobs can be created within the renewable energy industry which at present suffers from lack of adequate funding. Without adequate funding, those who seek to take steps to become energy independent must pay through the nose and few can afford it. Without major tax credits and government subsidies, the small industries that produce wind and solar alternatives, for example, cannot possibly bring the prices of their products down to the levels where they are affordable by more than the very few.

The environment has gotten bad press, and “environmentalism” has become a pejorative term. Together they are seen as the villains in a political game of shuttlecock where there is some talk and even some real concern, but no one really wants to do anything about the problem.  That is, no one who can do something about it. The shuttlecock just keeps getting batted back and forth. Or it is ignored altogether as we turn our attention elsewhere.

There are dozens of things each of us can do, of course, from trying to get those few politicians elected who are willing to take on the tough issues, to turning down our thermostats in the Winter, to recycling, to driving economical cars (or better yet, walking, cycling, car-pooling, or taking public transportation). And we can support “green” companies. Such steps may not take us far enough fast enough, however. Unless there is profit in it for the fat-cat corporations, or until the government (which is largely supported by the fat cats) wakes up and gets seriously involved, or until enough people get pissed off and lean hard on the politicians, little more will be done. And at this point, the fat cats are too preoccupied with short-term profits to see any real potential in earth-saving industries. And the government is too worried about what the fat cats want to do. And the majority of Americans simply don’t care. My guess is that we will sputter along ignoring the problem, and accusing people like me of being nay-sayers and Chicken-Littles, until the problem becomes so big it can no longer be ignored. To quote another environmental hero, Naomi Davis, president and founder of Blacks in Green, “We can either all rise up or all go down together.”