I was in one of my favorite bookstores the other day. There was a rack with really really inexpensive books – and you can never tell what you might find.
I found a copy of a book from October, 1990. It seems like another world, thinking back on that time. The Berlin Wall down, Communism dissolving before Our eyes. A new chapter of the world’s torturous climb into brighter uplands ready to be inscribed as a great darkness began to break in its very core.
Not that I’m a nostalgic type. There has never been a golden time, a perfect time. Still, there was a moment when Titanic was seaworthy – for all her structural faults and the sins and failures of those who sailed in her – and then there was a moment when Titanic was most certainly no longer seaworthy. History didn’t stop, nor in a way did Titanic’s own history … but it would change; a certain phase, of her time ‘in the light’ as it were, was over, never to be recovered.
Not that the lives of nations work quite as clearly and decisively, as simply and as quickly, as the lives of an individual machine, even one as large as an ‘unsinkable’ ocean liner. There are many ‘waves’ in human history: some of them are short, sharp, like high-frequency radio waves, quick and almost evanescent; even more so the very-high and ultra-high frequency waves. But then there are low-frequency waves, long, undulating, somewhat slower waves, but powerful in their quiet way, coursing along, unstoppable, implacable in their way.
I took to this book not so much to master its particular thoughts, specific to its time and perhaps – in its time – bearing the appearances of ‘the right thing’ that ‘everybody knows’. Instead, I was looking to see what much lower-frequency information it might yield, revealing a relationship or many relationships to larger and deeper and more hidden waves, coursing along through the decades, bearing Us and the world along though We – excited by the VHF and UHF agitations of the time – would miss.
And in missing them, fail to grasp what consequences they would bear, consequences that were not inevitable, but that had to be dealt with by humans lest they exercise an influence and a matrix of consequences that would take from humans the power to best Shape their history.
It doesn’t often end well, when humans lose – or yield – the power to Shape their affairs.
The book is Mary Catherine Bateson’s “Composing a Life”. A pleasant work, very much of its time. A compilation of anecdotes about and reflections upon the lives of five women selected by the author, whose experiences best exemplify – to her – the ‘new’ wisdom of the age.
Harmless enough, and not without its useful insights. No doubt it was much lauded and read by many on the ‘cutting edge’ of that era: academics whose authority and speculations were amplified by a government eager to please what it considered to be a ‘key’ demographic and a media eager no longer to ‘report’ but rather to ‘be players’ in History.
Several points that it made caught my attention. The page-numbers I give are from the Plume edition of October, 1990.
“This book is about life as an improvisatory art” (p.3) ‘Improvisation’ was big back then; it was a theme that would ‘create space’ by prying apart the sense of solidity and established patterns. It’s a great gambit for those who teach and those who do therapy: loosening up the way a student or patient conceives of ‘the world’ and of events, in order to make room for new insight and new growth. Classrooms and counseling offices are its best locus.
Whether it would be wise to make it a principle of governance is another question. Whether it would be wise for any government to ‘valorize’ it as the overarching national approach to law and policy – also another question.
Whether it would be wise to embrace numerous various ‘improvisations’ throughout the height and length and depth and breadth of a nation’s and a people’s life and affairs – also another question.
What consequences might follow from such wide and deep and sustained ‘improvisation’ – also another question.
Questions never really asked or considered.
But the book is unfazed. In a stunning ‘kitchen’ metaphor, the author opines that her life resembled – as she saw it – a ‘frantic’ effort to throw a meal together for unexpected guests, from whatever “conflicting” ingredients might be in the kitchen, figuring that at the last minute it would all come together, “hoping to be rescued by serendipity” (p.3).
But not to worry. The ‘improvised’ meal is often better than any ‘planned’ meal, “rich with the possibility of delicious surprise”(p.4). So it’s actually better not to plan or to think ahead, or to limit your possibilities to some plan, even your own – the entire concept of ‘planning’ is apparently the problem; it’s not liberating, it’s constricting.
But, echoing the brightest summer afternoons of the Sixties, it goes further than that: “Improvisation can be either a last resort or an established way of evoking creativity”. So ‘planning’ actually blocks that great shining damp-dream of both the Flower Children and their more ascetic, fiercely focused ‘radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ peers: “creativity”. Wheeeeeee.
So We would enter into the most gravid and hopeful period of the world’s history in all of the sorry, blood-soaked 20th century, and for some centuries before that, dedicated to the proposition that ‘planning’ was a baaad thing. And, I wonder, if ‘planning’ is bad, what of ‘thinking’, what of reasoning?
No matter. As Mao burbled with that ominous whale-shark smile of his back in those same Sixties: ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom!’ Kitchens, flowers, national policy foreign and domestic, laws, wars, birth, life, death – it’s all the same thing. After all, We were Number One, now more than ever.
And when will We decide to retire that ghastly word “rich”, freighted now with the burden of so much monstrous fecklessness?
“When the choices and rhythms of life change, as they have in our time …” (p.4). Well, that’s being a tad disingenuous. Things weren’t ‘changing’, not naturally, not in the way large matters ‘change’ in a democratic politics. Rather, such ‘change’ was being enacted, here, there, and everywhere in the country, imposed by legislators and pols who figured that no matter how whacky things might sound when they were ‘demanded’, everything would turn out OK; not necessarily because the demands made any sense in the long term, but simply because there was no longer anybody on the planet big enough to stop Us and whatever it was that We decided to do. Bush didn’t think it all up when he came along a decade later. And the cash was flowing, bubbling up – as it were – from the ground or out of thin air, as it had for Jed Clampett. It was Beverly Hills for everybody now. The bankers were Our friends, like the Clampetts’ obsequious Mr. Drysdale. Life was sweet, and We were ‘phat’, living large.
“Assumptions about careers are not unlike those about marriage; the real success stories are supposed to be permanent and monogamous” (p.7). So the stable marriage, like the stable career, was just a misconception, an ‘oppressive’ fantasy that blocked ‘creativity’. Weirdly, this assumption blended in perfectly with the outsourcing of ‘oppressive’ jobs. Marriage and the economy were both to be recast; marriage, actually, almost to be cast aside. Who woulda’ thunk that the economy would actually go away along with marriage?
Those assumptions, indeed, “have not been valid for many of history’s most creative people” (p.7). So the entire citizenry would be cast loose from their moorings (and their foundations) on the assumption that there were a lot of the most ‘creative’ people who needed their space. Wheeeeeee, again.
“Goals too clearly defined can become blinkers” (p.7). So don’t be so ‘goal-oriented’. Simon and Garfunkel’s advice (quite possibly sarcastic) to ‘just get yourself free’ was going to become national policy. There are a hundred ways to leave your loved one … those hundred flowers would bloom! Or at least the most ‘creative’ ones would.
“It is time now to explore the potential of interrupted and conflicted lives, where energies are not narrowly focused or permanently pointed toward a single ambition” (p.9). Focusing a life and disciplining one’s energies toward a single goal … nah. Imagine how children, those wild, vital vines, would turn out without a Trellis, without even any help in shaping energies. What would such a ‘self’ be like? What would it become? What would millions of such young lives become as they ‘grew’?
What would a government be like that embraced such a ‘philosophy’ whole-hog? What would it do?
Such lives “are not without commitment but rather lives in which commitments are continually refocused and redefined” (p.9). But the entire concept of ‘commitment’ requires that one ‘stick to’ it; that one allows one’s life and its possibilities to be shaped, confined in a way, by the commitment that was made.
To continuously ‘redefine’ commitment is to have no commitment at all, to reduce the solidities of existence to fluid, to water – water for which there is no container, water that slips through the fingers, of a person, of a people, of a nation.
“Fluidity and discontinuity are central to the reality in which we live” (p.13). Nothing ‘solid’? No ‘solid ground’? And We truly are on Noah’s Ark now – surrounded by the flood. But in the 1990 ‘vision’ – or ‘dream’ – everything would remain without substance, because substance and nature and even Nature itself, ‘confined’ and did not ‘liberate’;’ oppressed’ and did not empower.
But We are worse off than Noah: not only are We adrift upon the formless flood, but We are not supposed to be looking for any ‘solid ground’ – no need to send out the dove and hope some sort of olive branch will come back to Us as a promise, or even an indicator, of solid ground upon which to continue Our lives. It’s all water – and that’s a good thing. Yah.
“Continuity is the exception in twentieth-century America” (p.14). So, the Constitution is merely a ‘continuity’, and perhaps a ‘commitment’ to be ‘redefined’. What does this bode for the Republic? For a democratic politics anchored in a Framing vision and structure and process of how Our affairs might be conducted? What does this bode for human lives that grow without any solid Shape? What happens to water that is not in some way ‘contained’?
And of course, ‘continuity’ was the exception because it was being forcefully removed, evicted. It was not any ‘natural’ or ‘historical’ inevitability that was causing such a dubious and potentially lethal change – it was national policy. The classroom, the therapy room, the coffee klatsch, the halls of legislatures … just rooms to be remodeled – with no thought for what walls were decorative and expendable, and which walls were carrying-walls, that held the whole building up.
“Our lives are longer and more full of possibilities than ever before” (p.15). Ah, 1990! How water is supposed to move toward possibility, how fluidity can hold any energy together that can then achieve a chosen possibility – that question was not considered. But then, ‘achievement’ itself was no longer a goal. It was, actually, just ‘something’ that you assumed, like financial primacy and sufficiency; it would always be there so you didn’t have to give it any thought, let alone darken your optimism and baffle your creativity with serious and even skeptical analysis.
The infinite plasticity of life and history … wheeeeeee! The ‘thought’ of the 1990s was just so cheerible, to use Dickens’s superb neologism. Let the hundred revolutions bloom – but this would be a cheerible blooming, not the dark and bloody business of prior revolutions.
Revolution was not the danger; ‘patriarchy’ and its lack of creativity were the problem.
“We are engaged in a day-to-day process of self-invention – not discovery … “ (p.28). After all, there is nothing ‘inside’ of a human being to ‘discover’; it’s all ‘invention’. No human nature, no preconceptions that will ‘oppress’. How do you ground ‘rights’ for individuals if there is no human nature? Or are ‘rights’ just something commonly agreed-upon – or, more probably, granted by the state? But if rights are merely commonly-agreed-upon, what happens to 'rights' when some of the citizens change their mind? And if rights are merely ‘gifts’ or ‘grants’ made by the state at its whim, then on what grounds does the Republic stand? The government is no longer the servant of The People, but just the citizenry’s ‘Godfather’ (or –mother). And what happens then?
“Lives are in flux” and “it is a temptation to interpret them as pilgrimages to some fixed goal”(p.29). And such a temptation is baaad, although there is no ‘sin’. No wonder Christianity is under attack: the whole concept of an ordered life, of a life toward a goal, has been Flattened and even rendered as a fool’s errand. The long progress of Jewish and Christian thought and experience, of one’s own life and the lives of all others as a journey toward a larger Goal, a Goal beyond the appearances and darkling fluxes of this world, are mere fantasies, and in the service of oppression to boot.
But “there is no way of knowing which fragments of the past will prove to be relevant to” a continuously re-imagined future (p.29). Fragments like … the Constitution? Is there some connection between this kind of ‘thought’ and the increasing un-Constitutional and even anti-Constitutional developments We have been seeing? What solid grounds can the Constitution provide if one can ‘pick and choose’, adopt and then toss away? What solid grounds are there for an individual to Shape a self and conduct a life in the face of history’s powerful forces? What happens to an individual then?
But you are supposed to “forget those events that proved to have no meaning within the narrative” (p.30). Meaning ‘your’ narrative, the one you personally have ‘chosen’ for yourself. It’s a good thing, in therapy with an individual patient, to re-instill some sense of personal meaning and purpose. But it’s something else altogether to transfer that good therapeutic gambit to national policy, while simultaneously erasing any influences or authority beyond the individual which need to be factored in as the individual comes to shape and embrace that vitalizing sense of meaning and purpose. A human being ‘empowered’ simply by being ‘freed’ from any ‘outside’ references whatsoever is a human being not empowered, but doomed to solipsism and a grossly inaccurate, incomplete comprehension of the nature of this life and of the forces that not only acting upon him or her, but that might be available as support. A therapist who sends out a patient in such a condition and considers it a good day’s work is guilty of a profound ignorance and malpractice.
The author gets into the ‘story’ of a black woman, formerly a ‘revolutionary’ and now suddenly a college president, who starts to become “aware” (not that she starts to ‘think’) that “being female can be just as much of a disadvantage as being black” (p.44). Now on a political strategy level, there is indeed truth to this: to be able to connect the age-long oppressive denial of civil-rights to blacks in America with the large female demographic would create a political super-demographic of intense potential. A feminist Advocacy that could ‘speak for all women’ would be the very entity whose perceived authority could focus such possibilities like a laser-weapon from outer space upon the legislative halls and process.
True enough indeed.
But it’s another thing altogether to conceptually link with accuracy the concerns of ‘women’ – or at least as We know them through the Advocacy of the Second Wave of Feminism – with the very solidly established historical experiences of American blacks over the course of four centuries in the New World. And it’s interesting to recall that the initial analogical linkage – by Betty Friedan in 1965 – was to the Jewish death-camp inmates of the Holocaust (home-and-marriage-and-family-as-a-woman’s-Dachau), not to the civil-rights struggles of American blacks; there’s a certain flavor of ‘shopping around’ in all of this.
It also leads to the confusion of the nature of ‘race’ and ‘gender’.
We recall that the Royal Navy made a profound conceptual mistake a hundred years ago when it called it’s new class of heavily-gunned but lightly-armored warships “battle-cruisers”. The term sounded too much like “battleships”, which were heavily-gunned and heavily-armored. And consequently, the ‘battle-cruisers’ were considered capable of slugging it out with actual enemy ‘battleships’ – the awful result, as seen in those terrible few hours at Jutland, was that under fire the battle-cruisers suddenly started blowing up and going down instantly with all their thousands of sailors when the enemy’s battle-ship shells easily penetrated their armor. This was not a ‘tragedy’ – something awful but unforeseeable that ‘just sorta happened’; this was the direct result of a monstrous professional failure to clarify the terms and concepts involved: a cruiser, no matter how dolled-up, is not a battleship and is not the equal of a battleship in combat.
‘Race’ is not quite the same type of animal as ‘gender’. While the two are each ‘concepts’ they are not at all the same kind of entity – they do not share the same root causes, so they are not susceptible to the same strategies of comprehension and change. ‘Congestive heart disease’ and ‘cancer’ are both diseases; but the effective treatment for the one is not an effective treatment for the other. And for a physician to treat a patient suffering from congestive heart disease with the same treatment prescribed for a patient suffering from cancer – just because congestive-heart and cancer are both ‘diseases’ … constitutes profound malpractice.
But it is surely politically convenient to lump them together. And it is almost diabolically shrewd to foster the illusion that they are the essentially the same type of entity. Such almost-willful category mistakes have led Us into disaster in the ‘war’ on ‘terrorism’, and such a decades-old incompetence in distinguishing one thing from another enabled Us to accept without demur that ‘invasion’ and ‘occupation’ constitute ‘liberation’ and that there couldn’t possibly be any negative consequence from doing whatever it was that We wanted to do. But such monstrous incompetence did not start with Bush and his era. Category mistakes can be lethal: whether it is mis-classifying a fungus found in the forest as ‘edible’ when it is actually poisonous, or misclassifying the nature of a challenge on a national or international level.
I would add here that there is a huge difference between a ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ and a Narrative. A Narrative – I would say – is an overarching vision of one’s life, but also of one’s place in the scheme of things; its roots are beyond this dimension, this ‘world’, and provide deep grounds for that belief that is utterly essential for a human being, or group of human beings, to conduct themselves in the ‘boombuzz’, dark and bright, of history. Narrative is low-frequency; story is very-high or ultra-high frequency.
A ‘story’ is of much shorter range and depth; it is a way of conceiving a particular group of experiences one encounters in one’s daily ‘history’; it is limited to this-world and the particular ‘time’ during which it is conceived.
The higher frequencies aren’t so good for carrying over long distances of space … or Time.
The author quotes approvingly this woman’s conclusion that, since concepts of ‘gender’ are even more deeply embedded in society than those of ‘race’, extending thus even to the home-setting where children are first raised, then “unless the State reaches into that household, it’s just a lot harder to deal with all that stuff” (p.46). And here, I would say, is a monstrously ominous indicator of the type of threat to Constitutional society as well as a democratic politics – a threat whose consequences during the past 20 years have increased exponentially. When government ‘reaches into’ the very hearths of the citizenry, then the Framers’ vision of how government would be bound by The People is completely undermined. In their urge to achieve their goals (such as they are) or at least to make such achievement less ‘hard’ and more ‘easy’, the ideologists of the Second Wave invited the vampire of the government in through the front door.
“The need to sustain human growth should be a concern for the entire society, even more fundamental than sustaining productivity” (p.55). Well, here We are, in the Year of Grace Two Thousand and Nine, and ‘productivity’ has indeed disappeared. It’s perfectly true as an isolated concept – what the author says. But isolated concepts on blackboards, isolated for the purpose of understanding them, are not what exist in actual human life and affairs. A nation that makes as its national policy a focus on ‘human growth’ – without actually defining that nebulous though attractive and desirable concept – is asking for trouble; a nation that then actively outsources its base productivity capacity is digging its own grave; a nation that then erects such a dismissal of ‘productivity’ into a positive good and a sustained and actively pursued national policy, is strangling itself while it stands on the edge of the grave it has been digging.
And after her experiences living in Iran under the Shah and immediately following the Khomeini revolution, the author decides that the moral conviction and urgency of both those who wanted to get rid of the Shah’s government because it was ‘bad’ and those who supported Khomeini’s fundamentalist revolution because it would be ‘good’ … the moral conviction and urgency of both groups were fatuous. Thus, she concludes, “moral ambiguity can be a source of strength”(p.190).
This is akin to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Having watched the ‘conviction’ of both Southerners and Northerners result in the awful bloodbath of the Civil War, in which he fought as a young man and was repeatedly wounded, Holmes decided that ‘absolutes’ were nothing but invitations to horror. He came to a particular version of American philosophical ‘pragmatism’: that ‘absolutes’ are to be avoided (others would go further and say that Absolutes do not exist).
But with no ‘ground’ solid enough to bear the weight of human aspirations and suffering; with no ground solid enough to justify the self-sacrifice and commitment that enables human beings to sustain their course in the face of evil – their own as well as others’; with no such ground let alone any ‘support’, then human beings become un-rooted, rootless, un-grounded, like a Ferris wheel spinning madly but without any struts to steady it and hold it in place. Blood and catastrophe will be the only result.
So what am I saying here?
I am not saying that Bateson was the ‘mastermind’ of anything. I am not saying that Bateson was trying to create a catastrophe. It does not matter whether she had repudiated or changed her ideas since the book was written.
There was no ‘conspiracy’. But there was a ‘synergy’. Politicians who were desperate to raise up and then placate new voting blocs that could be reliably counted upon; persons who wanted change but were too impatient or dismissive (whether they knew it or not) of the democratic process and even of democracy itself; intellectuals who were intoxicated by being ‘doers’ or by being celebrities or both; a media that was intoxicated more with making ‘history’ than reporting substantively on the news.
Any one of these elements could create an imbalance in democratic process; but the process has built-in capabilities precisely to handle such imbalance, like the baffles in a tanker truck that prevent ‘waves’ from running the whole length of the cargo, capable of overturning the truck. But when all of the baffles failed, then the lethal wave-action dynamic could increase beyond safe limits.
Impatient advocates occurr naturally in a democracy, but ideally the ‘excessive’ or ‘unrealistic’ nature of either the content or the extent or the implementation-speed of their demands will result in their modifying their agenda or in their program being modified for them. But advocates who are actually committed (whether they acknowledge or even realize it) to revolutionary process as opposed to democratic process are literally going to undermine the system.
Public Intellectuals would presumably be interested in truth and in critical and accurate analysis of large programs. But ‘celebrity’ or ‘advocacy’ intellectuals are not interested in the truth or accuracy, but rather in the success of the agenda to which they have hitched their own professional star or upon which they have chosen to bestow the support of their ‘advocacy’.
Media would also presumably be interested in providing accurate and comprehensive reporting; But a media seeking to satisfy this or that demographic among its ‘consumers’ would tailor what it ‘reports’ to what it thinks those ‘consumers’ want in order to keep its ‘numbers’ up.
Legislators, of course, would be the lynchpin. Sworn to uphold the democratic process and responsible for carefully weighing just how much and what kind of change would be in the common interest at any point, the legislators would presumably speak for the interests of the common weal. They would first conduct their own careful and thorough analysis so that they would be able to assess the benefits and costs – and even the probability of dangerous outcomes – that would be involved. But a political party so fearful of its continuity and power that it would make its own political survival a more important objective than the common weal or even the integrity of the democratic process …. Such a failure as that would almost inevitably create lethal imbalances if sustained over the course of time. Like, say, the Biblical past forty years.
I am looking at ‘ideas’, ‘innocent’ in themselves, if not actually self-evident in their accuracy and wisdom, that in their time almost twenty years ago were welcomed into the national consciousness, and into national political practice. And indeed were almost imposed upon the national consciousness, as the ‘high’ purposes of ‘liberation’ and ‘civil rights’ became – accurately or otherwise – attached to them, which enabled the imposition of a Political Correctness that did not permit the careful and full analysis of those ideas.
But this does not take Bateson off the hook. The potential dangers of the ideas I have quoted were there for anybody to see even in 1990.
Nor does it take the intellectuals or the media or the pols off the hook.
Individually open to much doubt and certainly capable of leading to some very undesirable consequences, these ideas were yet raised up as ‘cutting edge’ insight, as if their implementation would lead to nothing but ‘good’. Individually dubious although hardly empty of worth, yet when taken altogether and acting in concert they exerted a fateful pressure on Us as individuals and as a people, and upon us as The People, and upon Our republic.
It may seem hard to imagine that a bunch of not-so-bad thoughts, and practices that in classrooms or therapy offices would have been most fruitful to pursue carefully, could create such baneful forces when ‘merely’ transferred into policy and law.
And all within the space of less than twenty years. Persons who were even young adults in 1990 can perhaps entertain in their mind’s eye that year, and each of the succeeding years, and now.
And ask themselves: Did I really let this stuff get by me?
This is an excellent question to ask.
But the hour is late. And huge – possibly lethal – damage has been done.
This is not a call to ‘turn back the clock’. This is a call to look much more closely and carefully at what has been done, what has happened as a result of what has been done, and consider what must be done now to repair if not altogether restore, the great Gift that is the Narrative of this country.