The semester is steaming along, and steamrolling me. Wonderful discussions yesterday in two of my classes, both part of Poetry Inside/Out, contributed to the steamrollery and also inspired me to further consider the role of social critics and social criticism.
Pima Vocational High School students visited the University of Arizona Poetry Center, where they saw chapbooks resulting from the efforts of earlier classes and also wrote poetry for this year’s chapbook. The topic: poetry and politics. The conclusion of these other-side-of-the-tracks high-school students: “Politicians are fucking us over.” (It’s poetry: They get to use any words they want, for a change.)
The discussion in my honors class, which took an early turn toward economic collapse, was so riveting we did not take time to write during class. We’re reading Endgame in the class, and one of the honors students was in Zimbabwe last summer as the Zimbabwean economy crashed. His description of the human horrors, which included starvation and mass murder, was quite a lesson for those who believe we’ll behave when the grocery stores are empty. And also quite a lesson for those who believe the mainstream media are providing relevant world news.
Based on these, and many other experiences, I’m convinced our young people are far more honest than the mass of Americans. And I’m reminded yet again that the role of a social critic — to speak truth to power, especially when the truth is inconvenient — is critically important and hugely undervalued.
Then again, I might be biased.
I recently finished reading or re-reading books by four social critics: Jose Ortega y Gasset’s 1929 Revolt of the Masses (thanks to Frank for the recommendation on this blog; below, I quote from Anthony Kerrigan’s 1985 translation), Joseph Wood Krutch’s 1967 collection of essays, And Even If You Do (the sequel to his 1964 collection of essays, If You Don’t Mind My Saying So), Wendell Berry’s 2000 novel, and Jayber Crow (thanks to Mike for the loan of the latter two books).
Although each book is a product of its time, each of them also is timeless (pardon the cliche). Consider the words of the Spanish philosopher Ortega (1883-1955), bearing in mind they were written 80 years ago: “In the United States it is considered indecent to be different. The mass crushes everything different, everything outstanding, excellent, individual, select, and choice. Everybody who is not like everybody else, who does not think like everybody else, runs the risk of being eliminated” (p. 10).
Another snippet: “As one’s existence evolves, one comes to realize more and more that the majority of men — and of women — are incapable of any effort beyond the one strictly imposed on them by a reaction to external necessity. For that very reason the few persons we come to know in our experience who are capable of spontaneous and joyous effort stand out as isolated, monumental. Those few are the select men, the nobles, the ones who are active and not reactive, for whom life is perpetual tension, an incessant training. Training = askesis. And they are the ascetics” (p. 54). And, perhaps most relevant to our current predicament: “In short, the man who does not get lost in the confusion of living is the one who is ultimately proven clear-headed. Consider those around you and see how they wander through life like sleepwalkers amid their good or evil fortune, without any suspicion of what is happening to them …. they are not even trying to adjust to reality. Quite the contrary: the person’s ‘ideas’ are merely the individual’s blinders before reality, a way of avoiding the sight of his own life. For the truth is that life on the face of it is a chaos in which one finds oneself lost. The individual suspects as much, but is terrified to encourer this frightening reality face to face, and so attempts to conceal it by drawing a curtain of fantasy over it, behind which he can make believe everything is clear” (pp. 142-143). I reiterate: The Revolt of the Masses was published in 1929, long before most of us were born.
Krutch’s essays, published in a variety of outlets, are similarly prescient. With a single exception, which was published in 1931, the essays were published between 1953 and 1967. Krutch (1893-1970), who spent most of his life in Tucson, Arizona, had several distinguished careers, including drama critic, teacher, naturalists, and philosopher. His ecological world view is particularly compelling: “Cities got along without electricity for thousands of years. In many remote parts of the world, large areas are still so little dependent upon it that to cut it off would not create a major catastrophe or even a serious inconvenience. But suppose that bombs or sabotage were to deprive a major part of the United States of its technological lifeblood by making electricity unavailable, not only for a few hours, but for months. Goods could not be moved in; garbage could not be moved out. Before long we would be in a situation almost as impossible as that of the ivory-billed woodpecker deprived of his decaying trees” (p. 15, originally published in American Scholar in 1966 under the title, “Invention is the Mother of Necessity”). Krutch comments on suburbia in an essay titled, “The Sloburbs,” also published in American Scholar in the mid-1960s: “I wondered if ever before in history a prosperous people had consented to living in communities so devoid of every grace and dignity, so slum-like in everything except the money they represent. They are something new and almost uniquely unattractive – neither country nor village nor town nor city – just an agglomeration without plan, without any sense of unity or direction, as though even offices and shops were thought of as disposable, like nearly everything else in our civilization, and therefore not worth considering from any standpoint except the make-do of the moment” (p. 67). Krutch has much to say about education and educators, but for brevity I include a single pithy line: “I have met ‘educators’ who were not, and made no effort to be educated themselves” (p. 241, originally published in American Scholar in 1960 under the title, “Honor and Morality”). A page later, in the same essay, Krutch reveals he was often asked the question many people ask me: “‘If these are your convictions why don’t you go hang yourself?’ [These days, most people use “shoot” instead of “hang”] The answer was, and has continued to be through all such changes of opinion as I have undergone, that there is a private world of thought and endeavor which society has never been able to take away from me.” As my readers know, I could go on and on. But I include only one more line from Krutch’s wonderfully provocative collection of essays: “That man cannot conceive of anything that would make him perfectly happy and perfectly content is proved by the fact that his imagination has invented a variety of hells, all of them full of horror, but never a paradise in which he would want to dwell for eternity, or even for very long” (pp. 272-273, originally published in 1966 as “But I Wouldn’t Want to Live There” in Saturday Review).
Jayber Crow is the only fictional account on this list, but it reflects, through the life of an individual born in 1914 in middle America, Berry’s 1977 non-fiction classic, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. Berry (1934- ) is a wise elder, a farmer and writer. I absolutely loved his 1977 book for its sweeping assessment and critique of culture in the United States, through the lens of agriculture. I absolutely hated his 2001 Life is a Miracle, an ill-informed, ludicrous, anti-science screed that critiqued, through the lens of spirituality, E.O. Wilson’s amazingly good book, Consilience. Thus, I was prejudiced against Jayber Crow before I picked it up. So much for my prejudice. Jayber Crow is superbly written, thoughtful, serious, and humorous. There are many gems but, reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the book cannot be reduced to short passages without significant loss. So I quote a long passage, which echoes The Unsettling of America (p. 183):
“Buying a tractor at that time was not unusual. A lot of people were doing in. The young men who had been in the war were used to motor-driven machinery. The government was teaching a new way of farming in night courses for the veterans. Tractors and other farm machines were all of a sudden available as never before, and farmhands were scarcer than before. And so we began a process of cause-and-effect that is hard to understand clearly, even looking back. Did the machines displace the people from the farms, or were the machines drawn onto the farms because the people were already leaving to take up wage work in factories and the building trades and such? Both, I think.”
“You couldn’t see, back then, that this process would build up and go ever faster, until finally it would ravel out the entire old fabric of family work and exchanges of work among neighbors. The new way of farming was a way of dependence, not on land and creatures and neighbors but on machines and fuel and chemicals of all sorts, bought things, and on the sellers of bought things — which made it finally a dependence on credit. The odd thing was, people just assumed that all the purchasing and borrowing would merely make life easier and better on all the little farms. Most people didn’t dream, then, that before long a lot of little bigger farmers would be competing with their neighbors (or with doctors from the city) for the available land. The time was going to come – it is clear enough now – when there would not be enough farmers left and the farms of Port William would be as dependent as the farms of California on the seasonal labor of migrant workers.”
“It is hard, too, to say that anybody was exactly blamable for this – or anybody in particular.”
We need many, many more social critics. And we need to take many actions, large and small, to bring it all down. I teach, write, and pull survey stakes. I ask inconvenient questions, speak truth to power, and point out absurdities even when it hurts (me, that is … it always hurts those about whom I’m speaking).
So, then. What are you going to do?