The Role of a Social Critic

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?

Comments 23

  • an uncomfortable thought
    It is great to hear from Guy M. again. Why? For me, it is particularly because I believe Guy’s value system is very similar to mine. He cherishes the sort of things I cherish and resents the sorts of things I resent. He wants the sort of changes I want. I like that!
    But I also like to explore “the other side” from time to time. I like to force myself to think about things that make me feel uncomfortable, especially if evidence and reality lead me to such thoughts. And recently I had one of those hairraising thoughts.
    I had recalled advice given me years ago, which I believe I reported in a posting here. I was told by someone: “You can’t save the world, Stan. It doesn’t WANT to be saved.” That led to a further series of concepts:
    Maybe the world doesn’t want to be saved because it is not supposed to be saved. Maybe man’s role in the world by virtue of our evolution and genetic adaptation is not to save the world, but to change it, even to harm it, or to destroy it.
    I think Jay Hanson has examined human genetic predisposition in such a way as to remove the ention that man (as a species) evolved to be a custodian of life on the planet or a planetary caretaker. I think we could make an ecological assessment that humankind evolved as sort of a planetary antidote to biodiversity. Is that our real evolutionary niche? Are we here as a species to play a role similar to that of a wildfire, a meteor strike, a biological cataclysm?
    At the species level, do we have a choice in the matter? Certainly as individuals we can establish value systems that urge us in an opposite course, but are we fooling ourselves with one part of our conscious mind while simultaneously participating in the cataclysm we claim to want to avoid. Is Al Gore a hypocrite for flying around the world in jet aircraft proclaiming the imminent demise of ecological systems harmed by jet engine combustion? Did I not have children because I did not want to overpopulate the planet or because I didn’t want to share my earnings with dependants and could thus consume more by myself?
    If acting on one’s value system and ethics is futile in terms of creating the scale of change one desires, is it better to still work within the value system with no expectation of total success? What defines success in such endeavors?
    These are difficult thoughts with answers that will surely vary with varying perspectives and experiences.
    In a nutshell, I believe we should pursue the ethical choices for their own sake and not for the sake of a set of results. The path is the important thing and not the destination.
    Perhaps others would like to comment in agreement or otherwise.
    Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA

  • Guy and fellow soft cock revolutionaries,
    what am I going to do?
    (the following is light on intellectually/philosophically – time to start doing!)
    Ride my bike to work; plant vegetables and fruit trees (retreat to the garden – very political); harvest rain water; reduced my paid working hours by half; lobby my local government for better bicycle infrastructure; practice a kind of sustainable retreat from the world; read more enviro woe; continue to read blogs; counter the influence of our culture on my children by reuse, refuse, recycle education etc; continue to make compost – soil is very important; do a bit of soft enviro mind bending on my work colleagues; read the EB everyday; pay compliments to writers you like via email, very importnat for them to get feedback, and they usually email back, Jensen was one, more power to you Guy; pick your battles; look after
    your neighbours and be generous; learn to fix things; have hope; look for simple
    pleasures; create more time for yourself; and most importantly get a bike!
    car free Matt, Australia

  • Nothing to do about it, really.
    The three signs of being:
    Sabbe sankhara anicca
    (All composite entities are transient)
    Sabbe dhamma anatta
    (All entities have no independent essence = soul)
    Sabbe sankhara dukkha
    (All composite things lead to unhappiness)
    But none of this is kosher in “One Nation under God” / “In God We Trust”; it originates in Buddhism, non-theistic and therefore heretical.

  • Hi Matt —
    Picture John McCain talking —
    “My friend, isn’t it time you shed your attachment to that bicycle. You need to shift to a nuclear powered vehicle — safe, clean, efficient, like my old U.S. Navy ship.”
    Or, maybe get a saddle and break in a kangaroo for your personal transportation needs.
    If demand rises for kangaroos as transportation, market forces will drive the production of new transport kangaroo models within a year or two that will have sound systems with which you can listen to audio books while touring the countryside and thus save the need for old-fashioned paper books. A good old-fashioned camel might make a transition vehicle.
    Since you have already gone and done the no-no of having children, your duty is to go and sterilize someone else’s offspring so that they cannot also have children.
    Make a little journey down to Tasmania to figure out a cure for the disease crisis afflicting Tasmanian Devils before they disappear altogether.
    Drink a few beers and go down and piss on Steve Irwin’s grave as a sign of disrespect for his teaching children it is okay to harass wild things for the sheer joy of being on television.
    Invite the Dalai Lama, Derrick Jensen, Sandra Bernard, and George W. Bush to meet at Ayres Rock to seek common ground and spiritual healing together.
    Recruit an Australian basketball team of Eco-Warriors to compete against Guy and the Tucson basketball Eco-Warrior All Stars and carry out the competitions worldwide via sailing ship transport and zeppelin travel across inland continents.
    Find the master tape of the new movie on Australia and destroy before the movie is marketed. I get a queasy feeling seeing the previews of the little aboriginal girl in that movie and I don’t like seeing Hugh Jackman both bearded and clean shaven in the same movie.
    Make a boomerang and go kill some rabbits today — don’t put it off another day.
    In short, there is ALWAYS more to do…
    Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA

  • Stan,
    I’ve read enough of your posts to believe that word choices like “man’s role in the world”, or man evolved to be”, are simply bad constructions. When I think of our problematique, I think the words of Stephen Jay Gould might better sum things up:
    “We have become, through a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life’s continuity on earth. We did not ask for the role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited to it, but here we are.”
    Humanity hasn’t “failed”; we are what we are. And we are the causal agents of a mass extinction event. Like many others with a spirituality informed by science, deep time, and a basic respect for life’s journey on the planet, I will do my best to shepard as much as I can through the ecological bottleneck of the twenty-first century.
    I do not hate the “yuppie scum”; I pity them. And I will teach my five-year old compassion.

  • Hey Stan and all,
    ‘there is no wealth but life’, Ruskin 1865
    I am glad to read your views on our Steve,
    I was totally embarassed to be an Australian by his behaviour
    whilst he was alive, he is the type of aussie caricature that
    is appallingly and sends an anti intellectual message to the rest
    of the world, that we are a bunch of morons that talk with that twang,
    apparently your pres was a big fan, go figure!
    (Aussie nationalism used to be a cringe worthy taboo, things have
    changed since sept 11).
    When he first appeared on the zombie box I thought he was putting it on,
    surely no one talks like that! I expressed my views to family and
    my partners family whilst he was alive, it did not go down well,
    some aussies did like him I am embarassed to say. I have to be
    careful with my words now that he is dead, it is like admitting you
    are a socialist in USA, immediate ostracism.
    anyway, a bit off topic,
    back to what we can/should do, there is a TV gardener here who recently retired
    at 80, he is an ex aussie communist party memeber, (he believes he is still
    a member!), he is considered a national living treasure. His passion
    is food gardening, and loves to encourage others to do the same. He
    sees his retreat to the vegie garden as a political statement against the
    woes of the world. He has been interviewed and is very concerned about
    peak oil, greed and the destruction of the natural environment. He is
    particularly gloomy about the future, but his garden is his respite/solace/
    response/answer. Its almost like f*ck the world I am going to grow my own food.
    you know I have spent 7 years at uni, I have written essays from
    Trotsky to Chomsky, Barthes to Krauss, as much as I enjoyed it,
    and I enjoy my work, all I want to do now is power down and grow
    my own food!
    I just picked 6 bags of chook poo for the vegie garden!
    I happier than a pig in shit.
    Steve is Australias own ‘anti ambassador’,
    I think your Terri put him up to it.
    Now we see wee Bindi is giving the zombie box a flogging,
    gee wiz we have made light of Guys blog of woe
    we all need some levity some time
    on ya bike
    Matt, Oz

  • We’re doing a few things: getting the financial house in order, learning new things, etc. My main focus has been and always will be the next generation.
    To that end, my kids and I are taking up WWOOFing. I’m talking with some folks right now about spending some time on a work-study on an organic farm here in AZ during one of my older son’s breaks.
    Most of what I like to do–my main hobbies–involve charity and volunteer work.
    It isn’t terribly revolutionary. I don’t know if it will make a difference to many people, but I’m always at it. I’m not happy if I’m not busy doing something for my community and my kids.
    Like Ghandi said, you have to be the change.

  • Matt,
    I always found Steve Irwin mildly fascinating. I don’t know why. Dangling his own baby in front of something large and carnivorous takes a special kind of…um…person. If I’d been his wife, he would’ve died the day he did that. In public. Fed to the crocodile. Then I’d film the whole event, put it on Pay-per-View and donate the proceeds to charity. (I’m not all bad.)
    I know I’m in a minority for holding this opinion.
    Zombie box, good name for it. In this house, we call it Ye Olde Brainsucker.

  • Memo to Charlene:
    I live in Sun City.How about you?

  • Stock Market Death Spiral:
    World stock markets could be in a downward death spiral with no way out.Millions of people worldwide are invested in stock and hedge funds.Much of the stock market losses come from people getting out–getting out for fear–trying to save what they have left.
    But the more redemption forced selling,the lower stock prices go,causing even more redemptions and even more selling.Selling begets selling.The world has never seen so many people with so much money invested,trillions and trillions.Fine when it’s going up,but what about now when markets are collapsing? With so many trying to get out at the same time—well,who does ride the Pale Horse?

  • Stock Market Death Spiral(cont.):
    If you want to see real,raw,mass fear,like never before,tune in to CNBC on Monday!!
    The inate, barbaric,true nature of the human animal will be on display.

  • Memo to Matt:Congratulations !!—I’ve been trying for a very long time to inject some humor into this dead crew.You are the only other blogger who sees the value in humor.Let’s work together to keep it up.The key is that you have to be able to laugh at yourself.W/O this ability you cannot fully understand levity.
    And my exemplar is Pol Pot. Wit and wisdom are not mutually exclusive everyone.

  • Nice posts. I have let my masochism run wild lately by visiting a few right-wing nut job websites, so it’s refreshing to happen upon a site where people “get it.”
    I have noticed a peculiar phenomenon of the last few election cycles, namely that the powers that be save up all the ugly news until right after the election and then spring it on us all at once, figuring that we have the attention span of a 2 year old and will have long since forgotten by time the next election rolls around. Boy, am I dreading November 5, 2008! What zingers will they spring on us? You just know there’s some serious shit brewing.
    I’m a videographer by trade, and I do a lot of peace and justice video work on the side…almost all unpaid. Here’s a 3-part video of Derrick Jensen at Binghamton University:

  • Hmm… I always thought that people learn more from disagreeing than they do from only listening to those that agree with them.
    When the only people you talk to reinforce your views you simply distill (And indoctrinate) yourself down to the point that the simple thought that anyone might have a different opinion about anything is somehow dimwitted and causes you to think that they might not “Get it.” Give a little value to why they might have the beliefs they do, perhaps they’ve had different life experiences than you have. Instead of looking through your paradigm that they’re somehow beneath you because they don’t “Get” your views, try to see why they believe what they do. You might find it illuminating.
    Your simple sentence speaks volumes about your opinion of those that might disagree with you, as shocking as that is. I value this site for the simple reason that I’m not getting my personal political values preached back to me as if I were the choir. In fact I disagree with the other people here all the time, but I’ll never say that any of them does not “Get it.”
    Instead of only listening to those that agree with me, I seek out those that might not, look with an open mind, and question where appropriate instead of insult them. Thus I learn more about those that surround me and am not an indoctrinated sheep. Then again I’m just a Right Wing nutjob right? ;)
    Stan: In your “An Uncomfortable Thought” post you talked about the world not wanting to be saved. I have to disagree. I think that insteand the world is quite literally drowning and would very much love to be saved from the body of water (Or what have you) it’s currently trying in vain to tread, but instead of throwing the flotation device, we’re giving it big glasses of oil in the form of everyone around the world flipping the printing press switch! Oil floats on water, but it’s not going to do us any good.
    I have the sneaking suspicion that this is going to be a bad week. At the very least it should be mighty entertaining watching the Wall Street Bigwigs seek which is posterior verses elbow.

  • Hey Total Turboguy:
    Isn’t it annoying when that dust gets in between your toes?
    Sarge didn’t call it “posteriors” when he ordered us to police the area–we can be glad that delicacy is one of your fine traits !!
    We could see a deadly,unstoppable, chain reaction of selling of stocks next week that
    could destroy the Capitalistic system.But first things first–couldn’t you dig a latrine a little closer to your quarters?
    Just wanted you to know your good buddy Frank is thinking about you.

  • Hi Turboguy —
    My perspective is different on the issue of whether the world wants to be saved. Narrowing it down to Americans, I think most Americans want to save “their” world. But that is different than saving “the” world.
    I still recall Vice-President Dick Cheney stating after the events of 9/11/2001 that “the American way of life is non-negotiable”. I wrote an essay afterwards called something like “The Ecology of Elective Disaster in the Unfolding New Millenium” in which I pointed out that the American way of life is unsustainable ecologically and it is also unsustainable economically. This means that when American politicians and people attempt to preserve as non-negotiable an unsustainable way of life, they are choosing elective disaster.
    I think most Americans remain in this mindset, and are hoping against hope that somehow they can hold onto a fantasy that is unraveling faster and faster every day that goes by.
    America is like the ship the Titanic. It was thought to be unsinkable when built. It was not outfitted with enough lifeboats to save the passengers. Unlike the Titanic, whose crew went down with the ship, America has captains of finance and industry that are bailing themelves out and setting off on their own lifeboats while condemning the public to their fate. The men who steered the ship into the iceberg are not willing to do down with the ship and are shoving the elderly and the young and everyone else out of the way in order to try to survive the final sinking. And I don’t even hear a seriouis call from the passengers yet asking to be saved. They still think they can patch the hole in the hull.
    Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA

  • ‘what a lucky man to see the earth
    before it touched his hand’ Neil Young 1992

  • We’re out in Pinal County now. I used to live up in Sun City. I still have nightmares about golfcarts.
    Of course, there are still golfcarts out here in the boonies, but people put all terrain tires on them and lift them. The effect being that, ultimately, you end up with a vehicle that looks like what you would imagine retired monster truck drivers would own in their golden years.
    If any of you have kids, I just ran across (and read) a very Peak Oil-ish children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg called “Just a Dream”. Looks like Mr. Van Allsburg is PO aware. The book reminded me of A World Made by Hand — the kid friendly version.

  • Memo to Charming Charlene:
    I always knew you were smarter than me–I have this secret Noir desire to just once–just once to –if i said what I really think Sheriff Joe would come for me,but it involves golf carts.Pinal County is better than here.
    I’ve been told that I have children, but have never been able to confirm that.

  • You don’t want to know what I think of dear Sheriff Joe. I almost regret living in Pinal just because I won’t have the opportunity to vote against him in the coming election.
    I do have the chance to vote against someone he endorses, but that lacks the thrill of voting against the devil himself. Oh well, I will learn to deal. To anyone voting in Pinal: Vote Against Paul Babeu!!
    Well, if you ever do receive confirmation and an address, be sure to send them Just a Dream. It’s a good one. Hah.

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