Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Inside the Net

For a quarter of a century, I generally traveled rough. Not at the level of the homeless, but close enough to share, occasionally, their sleeping places, their means of getting about, their ways of finding food. Generally, when moving about, I was below the safety net—and did suffer its lack. Police were not friends to me, and even a US passport sometimes provided surprisingly little help. In Prague in 1968, I was turned away by the Marine guard at the embassy entrance. Filthy, long-haired, my papers did not redeem my appearance. I had to muddle my own way out of the country, where I’d overstayed my visa, getting out just days before the Russians invaded.

When I felt flush, that trip, I would stay in youth hostels—though doing so generally meant less food money, days down the road. The hostels had showers, though you often had to insert coins if you wanted hot water (I declined). They also had books, and an informal book swap. You left one, picked up another. In Munich, on my way to Prague, I laid down two, snatching up replacements. Hitchhiking allowed plenty of time for reading, and I made good use of it.

The two I picked up were Ayn Rand’s Anthem and Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society. Seven days later, in Nuremburg, after my exit from Czechoslovakia, I traded them for others.

Of the dozens of books I read that summer, I remember none but these two. Perhaps that was because of events associated with the time of reading. Perhaps it was because of the opposition between the authorial viewpoints, an opposition that struck me quite forcefully at the time and still tints my thoughts.

Naïve and sixteen, I’d never heard of Rand, much less of Fromm. Nor did I know much of economics or philosophy. But I had been learning some things fast, chief among them that we all rely on the kindness of strangers, that “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” I doubt I had read Donne, but the sentiment is common and obvious. My experiences, at least, made it obvious to me.

Even the predator relies on others—else there would be no victim. No one creates, whole or simple, their own life. Belief that we are self-sufficient is no more than pride—as is the conceit that we are in control, that we can live principled and honest, even nonviolent lives. There are things we will die for, yes, but we compromise readily to live—even if we never admit it.

Reading Rand, inchoate rage increased, each page. The fantasy world ran counter to anything I had experienced. It spoke of willful avoidance of individual dependence—and a willful ignorance, on the author’s part. The book wants to be a lesson, but one based on false premise and distorted reasoning, pandering to the worst aspects of the ego. The person with some modicum of success, Rand claims, is better than the rest. Success arises from internal aspects of being, not from the strength of the individual web holding one from falling.

I saw little possibility that I could control my future—and I resented those who mistook luck for justice. In two years, I would face a series of choices with no positive outcome. Either I would serve in an army fighting a vicious and unnecessary war, would find a way out that would condemn another to go in my place, or would go to prison. The first I could not do. The second, I would not. In the event, I proved lucky and did not have to face the third option: a birthdate lottery was instituted when I was eighteen and 1-A (prime candidate for the draft), and my birthday effectively exempted me, keeping me from having to make decisions that should be forced on no one.

Just as I hated Rand, Fromm, with his decentralized socialism, entranced me. The totalitarian states of the eastern bloc had made it clear that central control leads only to damage—just as much as unfettered capitalism. A middle way, such as The Sane Society presents, pointed towards what could become a just and successful human future. This became the core of my own philosophy for a number of years.

Traveling rough, however, eventually teaches one that society is not sane—or is only ‘sane’ on the inside, and only then when the edges are well protected and out of sight. Skirting those edges, I eventually lost my faith in Fromm and my associated commitment to nonviolence, recognizing the sanctimony of adherents who never had to face violence themselves—thanks to the violent forces their society had placed around them to protect them. Most adherents to the idea of human sanity and to nonviolence, I eventually discovered, are as naïve as the fans of Rand. Both revel in their own goodness and fool themselves into believing it can protect them from the ravages of a violent and unstable world.

I write this as two processes unfold, one personal, the other political. First, I am withdrawing all identification with the Society of Friends (Quakers), a group I have been involved with over much of my life. The sanctimony of the do-gooders who refuse to recognize that their ability to ‘be nice’ is grounded in both threat and actuality of violence at the borders of society is too much for me to digest. Second is the growing Tea Party movement, the people who believe they don’t need the web of society at all, who think they make it on their own and would be fine without governments, without others looking out for them. Neither group is willing to recognize that the mercy of the web is the only thing allowing their beliefs.

Neither group understands the outrage of violence.

Maybe they both need a little more time traveling rough.

In the middle of a small war, one time, I told my traveling companion the story of a group of journalists who crossed Lake Victoria into Idi Amin’s Uganda. Though the borders were closed, they were greeted politely as they stepped from their boat, which immediately turned and headed back to Kenya. The journalists were escorted away from the beach—and that is the last that was seen of them. It later came to light, of course, that they had been taken out of sight and shot.

A few hours later, we were led at gunpoint ourselves, towards the bush, away from people and sounds. We looked at each other, same thought of those journalists in our minds.

Our luck was good: we survived. But that’s the only difference, luck.

Both the Quakers and the Tea Partiers are lucky, lucky enough to be able to pretend that their beliefs and their persons are sufficient. Yet few people in the world have ever been as lucky, in fact, as most of us in contemporary America.

Even when I traveled rough, the web was there for me to return to—a luxury not offered to many. I am thankful for that, and am thankful for the violence (personified by the army and the police) that makes it possible—and for the community within (personified by the government) that makes it actual. The Quakers long ago marginalized themselves by refusing to accept what violence does for them. The Tea Partiers are in the process of doing the same, by refusing to accept how strongly community underpins their lives.