VOICES IN THE WILDERNESS (1985)
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For a week or so during the summer of 1984, I attended what I have always thought of as a counterculture conference that turned out to be centered around the writings of Ivan Illich, about whom I knew nothing before I went. This essay was supposed to be the final one in a volume of contribution s by attendees. I don’t know if it was ever published.
I. Why I went to Maine
Like many New Lefties active in the 60s, I’ve hung onto progressive political values without doing much about them for a long time. A bit over a year ago, deep in mid-life passage, I drifted into reading that began to re-organize my assessment of human behavior. My thinking about social injustices increasingly stressed their cultural roots, and I grew intrigued by the relationship between culture and biology. I became overwhelmed with the imminent prospect of human self-annihilation, slowly through ecological recklessness or quickly via nuclear war (begun either as a result of resource colonialism or just because it seemed like a good idea at the time). My apocalyptic helplessness about the fate of all humanity made any struggle against more everyday injustices (like poverty, racism, sexism, governmental or private terrorism) seem especially futile. At a personal level, I was groping to understand my own place in my culture, how I could fashion a life style in harmony with my values, how to protect my body and my son’s from the carcinogens assaulting them, how to improve intimacy with those close to me.
I schlepped from the Boston area to the Maine Summer Institute to discuss these social and personal issues and to learn something about responses to them within today’s alternative cultures.
II. And what did I find?
All week long at the Institute I felt on the verge of going home, variously infuriated, frustrated, perplexed, exhilarated and intellectually energized.
While widely divergent world views were articulated during the week, the predominant thinking made me feel intellectually schizophrenic. I kept dissenting passionately from what its proponents said while also feeling that our underlying social concerns were very similar. As I write, six months later, I retain this clash of feelings.
I want here to explore my reactions at the conference. My reflections rely on my memory of statements made there; I have read little of what the participants have written—and many of them have published extensively on topics I here treat briefly. While I no doubt consequently distort the full subtlety of their thinking, I should also be a useful case study in public experience of the ideas these people seek to disseminate.
III. A materialistic note
In light of the widespread spiritual basis of many conference participants’ social attitudes, I need to note that underpinning my own thoughts is a deep and abiding faith in philosophical materialism, a heartfelt conviction of the non-presence of any metaphysical realm.
You can’t appreciate the week without a sense of the experience of Ivan Illich, who set the tone of much of the conference and is the focal point of the attitudes to which I reacted so adversely. I had heard of Illich but not read him; nor was I prepared for his dominance of the week.
Illich is an aloof, imposing, brilliant, erudite, charismatic figure with superbly polished oratorical skills. He uses gaunt body, voice and language with precision and authority, and even his unspecific foreign accent lends him an air of distinction and perspicacity. His encyclopedic command of his material combined with his philological dexterity give one that helpless feeling of having neither right nor ability to debate (I almost wrote “compete”) intelligently.
While Illich affects to exchange ideas (rather than engage in loathsome “communication”), I experienced many of his statements as pronouncements. He seemed to go out of his way to irritate newcomers to his personality, summarizing complex ideas in pithy terms that sounded outrageous to the uninitiated. At the same time, disagreement appeared both to vex and perplex him: faced on the one hand with the absolute clarity of his Truths in his own mind and on the other with the inability of many listeners to grasp what he had to say (= to agree with him), he must have been torn between frustration over his own apparent failure at lucid articulation and bemusement at the appalling scarcity of rationality (= sanity) in the people he was addressing.
When Ivan joined a discussion, I was dealing with a personality as well as ideas. My mind had to become an intellectual and emotional centrifuge, whirling to separate out the impact of his persona from both the ideological content of a discussion and my own resistance, in the face of his alienating behavior, to hear his contributions with sympathy. The problem was compounded by the Institute’s being a kind of reunion for Illich acolytes and friends, so that I felt like a court hanger-on with mutually unsavory choices: to insinuate myself into the intellectual aristocracy, or, wallowing in alienation, to turn up my nose at this incestuous coterie.
It was rather distressing, as the week progressed, to find that some of these people disagreed with Illich, and that many of them were actually quite likeable.
Occasionally, Illich’s public image of aloofness (he seemed much more casual and accessible in private) cracked, most notably the time during a question period after one of his lectures when Jennifer, who did much of the conference leg work, asked him where he was coming from. Where to a more aggressive or obviously irritated questioner he might have given a gnomic answer that detached himself from his subject, to Jennifer’s ingenuousness Ivan responded openly, even vulnerably, delivering a moving, personal answer that acknowledged his own participation in what he was criticizing. His concern with how we have turned value into commodity, he told us, came from asking himself how it was that his well-being now required things, like a telephone, which he used to live comfortably without. During this extended commentary Ivan was, for a little while, one of us, sharing himself as well as his ideas, showing his continuity with the humanity that inhabits the culture he vilifies.
V. Rigid individualism
Listening to Illich and his sympathizers, I sometimes felt I was attending a session of the Republican platform committee: contemporary values have perverted traditional ones; let’s get the government off our backs; local community above all; public schools corrupt children; get rid of government regulation; beware egghead institutions (like psychotherapy) that are really out to strip us of our psychic health and independence.
Among the roots of these ideas I hear populism (which is getting considerable press these days), philosophical Idealism (things aren’t what they seem; temporal reality is ultimately a construct of the human mind—as in, “humans beings aren’t tool-users until they define themselves that way”), and European libertarianism (= anarchism, where individual autonomy is sacrosanct and the State, of course, malevolent). The libertarian roots would account for the echoes of certain American right wingism (the kind which confuses libertarianism with laissez-faire individualism that promotes unfettered free enterprise and the abolition of social programs), and would also help explain part of my own psychic dissonance in hearing these views: I have always had anarchic tendencies, so that the energy in my dissent might have arisen in part from projection, from my wishing we could construct the kind of world these people seek while believing that the social nature of humanity makes this impossible.
For I generally found myself in agreement with the core of the analyses I heard. Technologically developed countries do exploit and pervert indigenous third-world cultures. Governments do impose hidebound, spirit-destroying, bureaucratic controls (as with many licensing criteria). Institutions, whether governments or businesses or social services, do seek to perpetuate and aggrandize themselves by creating needs that people did not previously have. Commodity imagery does heavily pervade social and personal thinking about values.
It was usually the framework for the solutions (or non-solutions) to these problems that so riled me. Until I attended this conference, I thought it axiomatic that you deal with social problems both privately and socially: you strive to minimize how social evils harm your own life and the lives of those close to you; at the same time, affirming your membership in a larger community, you try to root those evils out of the society altogether. Given the contamination of our food supplies, for example, you might privately maximize the organic food in your family’s diet while in the larger world you work to expunge the agricultural, economic and social causes of the contamination. At the conference, speakers of the Illich mold paid plenty of attention to the need for activism at the personal and local community level, but at best had little interest in larger-scale involvement, at worst seemed to repudiate it altogether.
I want to glance at two discussions where I had problems with the kind of “individualism” I’m describing.
VI. Example 1: Licenses and freedom
A special animus was reserved for the licensing of professionals. From this perspective, licensing is an Establishment ploy to hinder individuality and true expertise (alternative healing, for example, should not require traditional medical schooling), while professionals themselves are cultish mystifiers who create needs (psychotherapy, say, flourishes because people in industrial society have lost touch with the roots of community supportiveness). Such claims contend, as suggested by the witty phrase, “disabling professions,” that professionals actually make people worse than they would otherwise be (as with iatrogenic diseases—those caused by the cures for other illnesses).
Yes, we can all find cases where licensing requirements ban a highly capable person from practicing a skill, and it’s reasonable to try to get rid of such injustices. But how easily can we distinguish between the just grievances of unlicensable adepts and the spurious claims of, say, medical quacks or day care child abusers? Whatever improper vested interests encourage licensing, one motive of its supporters is to minimize what history suggests is a predatory instinct in some people for gullibility, ignorance and vulnerability in others.
People who oppose licensing by saying that they feel able and willing to judge for themselves the quality of a professional (or facsimile thereof) and that therefore everybody else should, too, are being self-indulgent, egocentric and elitist. Maybe they’ve really taken the time to learn how to judge a practitioner’s skills—or maybe they should, regardless, have the right to risk being duped by a smooth-talking sharpie. Some of us, however, lack the training or inclination or even mental ability to judge so wisely (it’s hard enough to judge people who have licenses); and some of us, having seen the triumphs of capitalism in other arenas, may hesitate to become consumers in such a free market.
Of course professionals (or any other group) have some tendency to mystify what they do, to make themselves needed and their services socially indispensable. Of course involvement in another person’s life (as therapist, doctor, philosopher of social change) inevitably raises problems of boundaries, abuse of one’s position, the ethics of “treatment” and its long-term effects. But pathological social behavior, alas, appears as inevitable as physical illness, unlikely to disappear in the brave new society, which will also have to fashion mechanisms to protect its members from abuse. In the meantime, while an unjust society (probably a redundant phrase) continues to exacerbate some emotional illnesses and create others, are we to advise the afflicted that they should defer treatment and await the millenium? Furthermore, can we change the society constructively without initially attending to its penetration of our own psyches? Private neuroses disable social action (cf., e.g., Michael Marien’s sandbox syndrome discussed at the conference); as we used to say in the counter-culture, you can’t liberate others until you’ve liberated yourself.
VII. Example 2; Home schooling
This was a disturbing session. Some of the home-schooling supporters, despite their militancy in wanting to teach their kids at home rather than send them to schools (even alternative schools), seemed extraordinarily fragile, desperately in need of support and approval. Challenging them seemed midway between being an elephant stepping on a butterfly and a churlish child poking a stick into a hornet’s nest.
Of the sincerity of the home schoolers I have no doubt; and presumably some of them are quite competent at what they set out to do. But some speakers alarmed me because I saw adult self-centeredness victimizing children. I was most distressed by one mother who said she wanted to teach her children at home to protect them from other ways of thinking than her own. The wish is merely pathetic; applause for it by people who should know better is wicked. Parents may have to have a right to make close-minded, over-protective decisions for their children, but the rest of us need not admire such choices as noble and virtuous any more than we admire parents who for racist reasons send their kids to all-white schools or fundamentalists who send theirs to church schools. It is the children who will eventually suffer, in their likely difficulty at relating to other adults (especially those with differing viewpoints), in their confusion (or defensive close-mindedness) when they have to confront a pluralist society and world.
The lousy quality of much of current American schooling, which has economic and social as well as pedagogical causes, is incontrovertible. But messianic family-centrism, like so much else espoused during the week, is about as useful a solution as solipsism.
VIII. Homo nostalgicus
Illich and his followers often expounded on the subtle cultural imperialism of consumer-oriented nations. Literacy campaigns, for example, because they intrinsically promote the values of the literate culture, inevitably overthrow key virtues in the non-literate one. Such arguments always seemed to exude an age-old romantic Western nostalgia for simple times and places, for the chronological or cultural past, for a “return” to “nature.” Indeed, the tone went further: in urging our return to some putatively naturally therapeutic culture (no licenses, no therapy, no schools), speakers were not merely respecting third-world cultures as equally legitimate with our own, but viewing them as representatives of a lost Golden Age superior to our culture.
I find this tone very hard to stomach. Of course we in industrial society shouldn’t screw up the integrity of indigenous cultures. Of course we should resist their social and material exploitation. Of course we should view them with thoughtful relativism. But as surely as a great deal in the present is blameworthy, much in the past was, too; as surely as we in technological society have foolishly learned to worship “progress,” some characteristics of our culture (including, my humanistic roots insist, literacy) are “better” by progressive standards than what was, or what is elsewhere. In encouraging their own continuity and stability, cultures everywhere have a notorious record of inhumane practices, and they easily behave provincially, in bigotry towards outsiders, in demanding conformity from their own members. Excessive veneration of a local culture can be as vain as cultural imperialism.
Admiration for “simple,” technologically undeveloped societies, while an important corrective to assumptions of Western superiority, here becomes elitist: Western thinkers who have the choice of rejecting industrial culture are piously protecting third-world nations from experiencing and judging that culture for themselves. There is a paternalism in judging what a culture should not get as well as what it should.
We cannot undo the world by wishing it away, and nobody, anywhere, can return to some pristine past. Consider drought and famine in third world countries. Certainly external imperialists and internal native elites are steeped in guilt for the land and resource exploitation that have contributed to such conditions. But throughout history, societies have also experienced resource pressures without any exploitation by hostile nations. Whatever the causes, we know that peoples who do not make self-conscious efforts to control population/resource balances by humane means have done so by inhumane ones—actively by war or infanticide, passively by the starvation that results from a population’s outstripping resources for producing food. To combat famine—indeed, to atone for the imperialist sins of our civilization—we have a moral obligation not only to return land to local, community control and make economic restitution (which we should view as reparations, not charity); we also have a duty, after assiduous attention to understanding and respecting the character of the local culture, to make available to its people knowledge about (say) family planning and renewable agricultural techniques.
IX. Elitism baiting
The perspicacious reader will have noted my explicit and implicit charges of elitism, a term of such disapprobation on the left as to ensure recognition of my own moral superiority and repugnance towards the degraded views of the running-dog lackeys whom I refute. Alas, I must confess that I have promoted this tone only because the views I have criticized themselves condemn elitism. I actually believe that elitism and manipulation of people are inherent to human interaction.
How can anyone put forth, at least in public, an idea he or she really cares about and not try, subtly or otherwise, to force others to see its truth? Aspirants after social change are all “teaching,” making such assumptions as: I know something you don’t; my knowledge is better than your ignorance; you may not understand the reasons for your lot in life, but I do, and you will remain oppressed until you understand and act on what I tell you. A speaker’s words have connotations that shape a hearer’s response. Tone of voice sets an emotional mood. Public actions are object lessons for a targeted audience. A pose of objectivity is itself manipulative, affirming emotional detachment as an ideal, devaluing the full range of ways that people experience and validate reality.
How egalitarian were the addresses at the conference? How much did they really respect the differences in points of view held by the audience?
(A related observation: Many people who attended the conference’s panels and lectures were teachers and social service providers who saw themselves as politically progressive and wanted, needed, to believe they had chosen work that promotes their ideals. Much of the open hostility during the week came from such people upon learning that they further an oppressive social and political structure. Without being hypocritical, without lying about their opposition to educational and social services, the conference speakers in question could have displayed honest tact—and sensitivity to the real world—by stating their beliefs in words that treated their audiences as full human beings with feelings as well as minds. Programs for the future anyway have a responsibility to plan for the deserving who will be displaced by the New Order, whether they’re loggers no longer allowed to chop down redwood trees or social workers banned from do-gooding.)
Ah, but we say: the “teacher” is a learner, too, and reciprocity should exist between the political teacher and the people being taught. I like the sound of such sentiments, but I doubt they have much contact with reality. For example: how much real interest did conference speakers have in “learning” from most members of the audience?
I suspect that in community
organizing, a great deal of what activists say they learn from the people
with whom they work comes from the process and evaluation of the
work, while, against their best wishes, they feel “learning” which comes
directly from the participants (e.g., local values or skills the
organizers hadn’t already guessed at)
How much empowerment—the opposite of elitism—can we give people anyway, how much must they grab for themselves, whenever they’re ready?
We should stop pretending we can transcend elitism and instead examine what kinds of elitism are morally tolerable. Maybe, for example, tone is important; maybe we need humble elitism. Honesty about our feelings is probably a good public stance. Self-confidence and a sense of personal legitimacy are constructive attitudes that need not clash with respect for the differences in those we address. Striving to empathize with the local culture can mitigate the arrogance and condescension that easily come with setting out to tell people what’s good for them.
To my earlier prescription that we share technology with third-world nations rather than protect them from it, I would now add that we should make elitist decisions, based on our sad experience in industrial civilization, of what technology to withhold. Moreover, the training we offer should include clear warnings about the dangers of technological thinking and should be inseparable from the actual mechanics of the technology.
All this doesn’t mean that the activist should be a dictator, or that the relationship between teacher and taught can’t evolve and change, or that the organizer can’t aim for a time when she or he will step out of the organizing altogether—that the inevitable elitism of the organizer is ultimately in the service of empowerment. I’d just like us to stop making sentimental wishes masquerade as hard-headed realism.
X. Serendipitous philosophy
Much of what I’ve said simply reflects the principle that all humankind is connected, no (hu)man is an island, in the modern world more than ever. We modify other cultures, they modify ours. A culture can’t go back to somewhere it once was.
Similarly, we retain the deepest structure of our culture within us: no individual can entirely step outside her or his culture, cease to be affected by it or responsible for it. I stumbled onto this principle during a chat one day with Jean Robert about American foreign policy. I observed how “we” do something or other (as in “we support repressive regimes around the world”), and he asked me why I said “we,” identifying myself with American governmental policy when surely I didn’t wish to promote it. Initially out of sheer cantankerousness, I rejected his point: I was still pissed off with Jean for cavils that earlier in the week had prevented me from getting far into a presentation I was making on sociobiology. Of course I must say “we,” I now insisted, and then hastily improvised what I gradually realized was quite true: I am a part of America (something I myself have often enough tried to deny), and regardless of whether I agree with the government’s policies, I must share responsibility for their execution.
I am not, of course, urging us to rally round distasteful policy. On the contrary: acknowledging our membership in a community whose “benefits” we cannot help inheriting and in which we continue to participate, realizing that we cannot honestly abjure responsibility for what that community does, may spur us to resist our society’s wrongs. Even those in abject poverty of money and psyche are not free of this moral burden: however unfair their plight, however difficult the effort, victims have a responsibility to struggle against their victimization, not passively to accept it.
Choosing instead to drop out, through cultivating an organic garden or immersing oneself in spiritual concerns or even emigrating, does not stop the society’s wickedness, at best pays passive witness to our disgust at what surrounds us (as staying in inevitably involves some passive collaboration). I’m not saying that dropping out is “wrong” (it’s an option I seriously consider), only that it is not pure, and certainly not the moral ideal that many people at the conference claimed it is.
XI. Pax nobiscum
Let me repeat: my anger towards the views I’ve been discussing comes from a sense of common bondage with the people whose ideas I criticize, from frustration at feeling that basically good people are constructing philosophies and urging actions that disavow the underlying goals we all seek.
My intense emotional experience of these perspectives testifies that they touch something powerful in me. Some of them, especially Illich’s concerns with how we replace values with commodities and measure personal growth in ledger terms, seem wonderfully fruitful, even if the bounty I harvest differs from that planned by the sowers. Certainly I have not simply dismissed everything I heard at the conference; with Gene Burkart, an Illich admirer whom I met there, I have continued vigorous debates over many of the same issues. But stimulating as these ideas were in provoking discussion, they have done little to change my basic understanding of the world or my plans for living. As so often happens among us ideologues, the priesthood was largely addressing the already-converted.
So much for my intense dissatisfaction during the week. The overall experience was intoxicating—in part, as the reader must sense, precisely because of the emotional intensity and abandon with which I threw myself at the viewpoints I have been describing—and I want to conclude by cataloguing some memories that suggest the more obvious pleasures the week gave me: