In 2017 I followed my usual reading plan of no plan at all. I read whatever I wished, usually picking up the next book because of something I had read in the book before it or the book before that.
Next year will be different. It’s not that I need a change; I think, in the long run, serendipity is the only guide I require to discover what it is books offer–a map of the human heart, the key to all mythologies, new experiments in living, that sort of thing.
But in 2018 I will read only about America. The longer I live overseas the more I feel like I need to re-explain my homeland to myself. The place is always changing, and I think my distance has given me a certain perspective on what is means to be American in the swirling tides of recent history. We’re always in what I.F. Stone called a “time of torment” back in the 1960s. History never stands still, and neither does our identity.
In a few days I’ll post the third part of an essay I’m writing on the question of what it means to be American. For a philosopher, I think I will give a pretty direct answer, which means many people will disagree with it. Thinking about that question has been stimulating, and because I derive all my answers from what other people write in books, it has awoken a need to read even more about America.
Here are the themes I will focus on in 2018:
Democracy. How vibrant is ours? How much has it changed over the years?
Slavery. Our country was built on it. Has ignoring this central part of our history poisoned our political culture?
Flight. In 1903 two Americans invented the airplane, a bicycle-based contraption with a lawnmower-type engine and wings. In 1969 Americans used the heir of this contraption, a rocket, to land on the moon. I often doubt I am sufficiently amazed by this 66-year period of innovation and adventure.
Presidents. They are a symbol of who we think we are. I want to know more about them.
War. Some of our costliest wars have proven dirty, pointless or trumped up in retrospect. Is this a pattern? Are we as good at war as we think?
Money. I think it has always run America. Can the lust for it be harnessed for good? What does our wealth structure mean for the next two or three generations of Americans?
Race: James Baldwin, one of my favorite essayists, directly accused white Americans of not wanting to confront our country’s racial divide. I will take up his challenge.
Criticism. I view all of life through literature’s lens. What do American critics tell us about the meaning of our country? What do the great American novels and poems tell us about ourselves?
AI. First, is this even an American thing? The quest for artificial intelligence belongs to no nation, and its roots were laid down by Alan Turing, an Englishman. As the richest, boldest experimenters in the field, though, Americans will usher in this brave new world, once again setting a global agenda. Do we know what we’re doing?
Christianity. Christian doctrine demands voluntary abasement before a singularly masochistic idea–that we are born sick and commanded to be well (and to love the author of this demented arrangement). Why do Americans, supposedly rugged individualists, believe such prurient, authoritarian nonsense? Or do they?
Well, that ought to keep me busy. In fact, this might be a two-year plan. We’ll be in touch as I set off to re-discover America. Suggestions welcome.
Prophets, almost by definition, are not appreciated in their own times. Small wonder. They are either slagging the establishment or warning everyone how bad the future looks. Such outbursts tend to be mood killers. We do not want to hear how the powers that be are walking us off a cliff.
I recently read Kurt Vonnegut’s deeply prophetic first novel, PlayerPiano. It is, in my estimation, about as good as a first novel can be.
Published in 1952, it was also way ahead of its time, unintentionally describing the first step toward the cliff of middle-class job insecurity we walked off in, oh, I suppose the 1990s. It portrays the increasing social dominance of technical expertise in America just after World War Two, a time when the promise of automation was just beginning to capture the public imagination. Older and wiser, we now know automation has led to, not just less drudgery, but also a diminishing sense of purpose in one’s work and the widespread fear that one’s job could be rightsized or outsourced any day. PlayerPiano catches this story at its sunlit beginning, when Americans were still focused on the intended consequences of all-out automation.
Literature exists, of course, to show all the ways the world escapes our grasp, especially when we think we have it thoroughly sewn up. It wasn’t just drudge work we were abolishing when we began programming machines to do our jobs (faster, better, and around the clock). Here’s the basic setup of PlayerPiano: In postwar America, the government, elite newspapers and leading universities have determined that the thing that won World War Two was American know-how. Russia fought a long, bloody, desperate campaign against the better-organized Nazis and won only by Stalin’s luddite sacrifice of millions of Soviet lives; Britain barely held its own even after it developed the ability to carpet bomb German cities at will. Not until America put its unique genius to work developing the atom bomb and proliferating the world’s best arms factories did the game change and the war turn toward an end.
In Vonnegut’s PaxAmericana, the country’s master class is a small cohort of managers and engineers, the two types of people who generated the know-how that won the war. America has turned into a comprehensive meritocracy based on this historical test case; if you have know-how you’re in, if not, you’re out. Every factory, indeed all of society, is overseen by managers and engineers whose job it is to expand automation to its natural limits. The factories they supervise hum quietly with computer processes and electric current; the roar, swoosh and clang of industry is gone. The managers of know-how are less like floor bosses, more like curators of museums of the future. The new engineers write routines that cut more and more humans out of the loop. (The roots of artificial intelligence are evident here.)
PlayerPiano‘s antgonist, Paul Proteus, is a high-flying, mild-mannered manager of a large plant in upstate New York. His staff consists of one secretary and one engineer; as the book opens, the latter is about to design a circuit that will render his job redundant. Paul delivers the bad news; the engineer takes it equably, having already worked out the consequences of his latest inspiration. He’s a smart, affable guy from Georgia.
Paul, however, perceives what his genius is doing to the less affable remainder of society, the ranks of the laid off who didn’t get the chance to write their own pink slips. The problem is the system as a whole. Elementary schools track young students to determine their fitness for a future in management or engineering, which increasingly means their fitness to rule society. Most of them–shall we say 99 percent?–will be shunted into the class of the ruled. Workers all across the new America are now former workers: where they used to contribute to society, they now face a choice between conscription in the do-nothing Army (presumably machines do all the real fighting) or a federal jobs corps whose only function is to absorb excess labor energy.
Of an evening the useless proletariat gathers at the bar, which is where Paul meets them. The plot of PlayerPiano is the story of how he defects from his class to become the leader of an insurrection on their behalf . The story is a tragedy: after Paul’s rebels make a bloody stand to smash the machines and restore humans to meaningful work, they immediately set about designing “efficiencies” in their primitive new society that would eventually debase them and shunt them aside once again. They can’t help themselves; or maybe better: they are addicted to helping themselves.
The real substance of PlayerPiano, though, is in its ideas, not its plot. In a key moment, as Paul is about to take the leap and assume leadership of the workers’ rebellion, he tries to persuade his wife that the wealth and comfort of the master class–their class–has created the cause he now feels he must fight for. “In order to get what we’ve got, Anita, we have, in effect, traded these people out of what was the most important thing on earth to them–the feeling of being needed and useful, the foundation of self-respect.”
This indictment is essentially a restatement of Marx’s idea of alienated labor, the contention that maximal efficiency-seeking in productivity dehumanizes work. It is worth quoting Marx at length on this idea. Long presumed dead, Marx’s words from DasKapital describe the setup of PlayerPiano to a tee and, much more unsettling, touch on many things that still plague workers today:
. . . within the capitalist system all the methods for increasing the social productivity of labor are carried out at the cost of the individual worker. That all means for developing production are transformed into means for domination over and exploitation of the producer; that they mutilate the worker into the fragment of a human being, degrade him to become a mere appurtenance of the machine, make his work such a torment that its essential meaning is destroyed; cut him off from the intellectual potentialities of the labor process in exact proportion to the extent to which sicence is incorporated into it as an independent power; that they distort the conditions under which he works, subjecting him . . . to a despotism which is all the more hateful because of its pettiness . . . .
For all the poetry of this passage, the key to understanding it is that odd little clinical-sounding phrase about science being an “independent power.” What we are supposed to take away from this term is a sense of inexorability: certain objective forces drive the means of productivity forward, and we just have to accept that we are along for the ride. History determines the haves and have-nots. In PlayerPiano, it was the job of the managers and engineers to propagate this narrative of inevitability: although the proles might honestly feel they had reason to grumble about lacking meaningful work, the forces that had set them adrift were an established historical fact that you simply couldn’t get around. Remember the engineer who coded himself out of a job and then took it well?–That’s the way to handle these things, the managers tell us.
Alienated labor is still very much alive today. And workers are still not good at taking it equably when robots or cheap foreign workers push them out of their jobs. Indeed I would argue that the populism that gave us a demagogue for a president last year is based in the very same complaint that the proletariat raises in PlayerPiano: the feeling that invisible, unaccountable powers have debased labor and disconnected people from their jobs. This trend has been going on long enough now–and has been buttressed by new wondrous means by which the rich expropriate the workers’ wages, including offshoring, benefits reductions, and tax havens–that it has become toxic. Alienated labor gave us Trump. It is the thing that, since the 1970s, has gutted America’s middle class, wrecked the hopes of those left behind by new “efficiencies,” and supercharged our class antagonisms into a political culture of tribal hostilities. And since Trump only stirs the anger of the alienated without actually addressing any of their complaints, their cause will continue to fester and inflame, making a future revolution of some kind that much more likely.
One of the background characters of PlayerPiano is EPICAC, a supercomputer that is biding its time, waiting for the top engineers and managers to write the codes and business plans that will put an end to their own jobs, the last human workers.
In a delicious scene, a visiting foreign dignitary, a shah, has taken in the briefings at Paul’s plant that foretell the demise of work. Eventually, EPICAC will run the place, as it will presumably run every other place in America. Paul offers to send a crack team to to the shah’s homeland to install this business model of the future. Intriguing, the shah responds, but “before we take this first step, please, would you ask EPICAC what people are for.” Wonderful.
Vonnegut is an artist, of course, so he can leave the question at that. Most of us are “just” citizens, though, and we must look to practical means, imperfect as they may be, to help us define what we are “for” and what work is supposed to mean to us. Is the need to feel useful in our jobs as sacred as it seems? What if the established powers deprive us systematically of the opportunity to so perform and to so feel?
The glowing heart of PlayerPiano is the (thoroughly Marxist) reminder that we need not accept the ruling elite’s narrative that morally-neutral forces of history have placed them in lear jets and the other 99 percent in the entryways of Walmarts, in the seasonal Amazon warehouses, and in the rest of the places where every job threatens to become a mcjob and impose a “despotism . . . hateful because of its pettiness.” Pro-labor political reform is still an option, and rebellion need not take the form of a do-nothing populism.
In the first part of this essay I wrote that Americans owe a huge philosophical debt to John Stuart Mill for articulating the “harm principle,” the main idea behind the personal freedoms we hold so dear. According to the harm principle, you are free to think, say or do whatever you wish in the pursuit of happiness as long as you do not harm or threaten anyone else’s freedom to do the same. It’s an ingenious way of extending the boundaries of one’s private sphere as far as the public interest allows. Within those boundaries, the individual is sovereign, as Mill famously put it.
I believe nearly all Americans agree that the harm principle is the bedrock of our political culture. Even if they have never heard of it, most Americans would recognize the idea and accept its basic validity. We are committed in our bones to the principle of live and let live.
At the end of the day, though, the harm principle is a purely negative precept; it only sketches what the prevailing authorities should not be allowed to do when it comes to controlling the thoughts and actions of individuals. And since no one likes to be told what to do, the harm principle turns out to have a lot of intuitive appeal.
There is much more room for disagreement, though, as soon as we contemplate what we should do with the freedoms that grow out of the harm principle. What is personal liberty for? Is it (merely) an intrinsic good, to be exercised for whatsoever we wish, or does it serve a higher purpose? A life spent on the couch snarfing Doritos and playing video games could (with important caveats about not neglecting certain peronal duties) accord perfectly with the harm principle, but should we encourage such disspipation by stamping it with the harm principle’s imprimatur and leaving it at that?
Mill anticipates this problem in On Liberty, the beautiful little book in which he spells out the harm principle. Even though humans enjoy robust freedoms of thought, speech and action, Mill worried they would tend, through intellectual laziness and tacit surrender to social control, to join the heard. Therefore Mill thought it was essential to constantly court difference of thought by seeking new “situations” and actively experimenting with new forms of life. In his lapidary words:
Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral? . . .
Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.
Today my thoughts are about two American thinkers who picked up where Mill left off and elevated this idea–let’s call it the diversity principle–into a defining feature of the American persona. If the biggest part of being American is to believe in the harm principle, the next biggest part is to believe something slightly more controversial–that we only do the harm principle justice if we live as differently from the crowd as we can, and that we think boldly, privileging our private intuitions over public opinion and even the precepts of established institutions. In pursuing the widest possible diversity of life experiments, we become stronger, braver, more ingenious. Freedom is for reform, activity and creation, concludes Mill, not merely for droning undisturbed on one’s inevitable way toward death.
The first American thinker to capture the positive spirit of Mill was Walt Whitman. His Leaves of Grass, indeed virtually all his poems, are a paean to the multitudinous diversity of the American persona. Whitman saw the wellspring of our national strength rise from a multitude of sources: the self-reliance of frontier life on the plains, the surging energy of the political meeting house, the industrious hives of American factories, but especially in the great variety of skilled trades. He was bowled over by the creative energy evident in everyday life. Take, for example, his reflections on work in “I Hear America Singing”:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the
deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the
morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at
work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
Whitman beautifully anthemizes Americans content at their jobs–which, he notes right off the bat, are varied. Each character acts creatively in his private realm to help build a public good of great variety. But look again. Isn’t this poem out of date? Why are all the tradesmen, craftsmen and technicians men, and the only two women a mother “at her work” and a “girl sewing or washing?” America was visibly, gaudily on the go in Whitman’s day, “blithe and strong,” but his women seem to hang behind the scenes, quietly doing the drudgework.
Of course the poem is out of date, but I will be so bold as to say that Whitman would be the first today to admit this. He would also be well pleased at how far we have surpassed even his generous vision of personal freedom. Whitman very much saw America as the kind of place where social experiments were constantly being launched from the ground up, fired by individual will and genius. Of course, then, women would eventually become carpenters, sea captains, and more. American life was, for Whitman, about each individual’s quest to increase the scope of “what belongs to him or her and to none else, expanding life into a perpetual work in progress.
In his prose work Democratic Vistas, Whitman ties his advocacy of diversity directly to Mill’s ideas on freedom. What is needed, Whitman asks, to forge the “truly grand nationality” that America deserves? The answer is cribbed straight from Mill’s On Liberty: “1st, a large variety of character — and 2d, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions.” The radical nature of this second requirement cannot be overstated. Americans are called on, Whitman believes, to boldly and ceaselessly carry out experiments in the “full play” of freedom on human life.
Unlike all the political ideologies that had preceded it, which had aimed at achieving fixed ideals of human fulfillment, the American experiment in liberal democracy was to postulate a goal that was ever-changing, suspended just beyond the horizon at any given cultural moment, and evolving according to whatever seemed best and most enlightened to those carrying out the boldest experiments in freedom. As the American philosopher Richard Rorty put it, the destiny of America is to drop the old European frames of reference and “create the tastes by which we will be judged,” forever breaking new paths to we-know-not-where.
John Dewey is the second great American thinker to address this idea, catching it in its high, romantic flight, bringing it down to earth, and giving it human, programmatic form. By now, Dewey’s ideas on how to maximize personal diversity and enable creative life experiments (Mill’s criteria for robust freedom) have been so thoroughly incorportated into our approach to education (especially in primary school), that we hardly notice their provenance. If you take it for granted that children go to school to learn they can become whatever they wish, you can thank Dewey for making this idea mainstream.
There are two corallories to the maxim that every child can aspire to whatever she wishes. One is that, so can her fellows, and two is that (as Mill indicates in the quotation above), the world will be a better place for it. The purpose of education, then, is to awake maximally diverse aspirations and create a reflexive acceptance of the equal legitimacy of one’s fellows’ aspirations. Dewey lays out these ideas in his masterpiece DemocracyandEducation. There he discredits the idea that school is for merely amassing facts in the child’s mind or even for acquiring good judgment. Rather, education is for maximizing each individual’s creativity within the framework of a shared culture. This, of course, can’t be done without posessing salient facts and sound judgment, but Dewey covers that. Utlimately, education, Dewey says,
. . . should mean cultivation of power to join fully and freely in shared or common activities. This is impossible without culture, while it brings a reward in culture, because one cannot share in intercourse with others without learning–without getting a broader point of view and perceiving things of which one would otherwise be ignorant. And there is perhaps no better definition of culture than that it is the capacity for constantly expanding the range and accuracy of one’s perceptions and meanings.
In an earlier passage, Dewey describes the learning process as the application of iterated experience-combining to problem solving. And since problems keep coming at us throughout life, as do new experiences, an educated human being, for Dewey, is perpetually a work in progress, someone happily at work re-combining experiences to adapt to an open-ended future of novelties.
So, what does Dewey’s definition of education have to do with what I am calling the diversity principle–the idea that we should think differently from the crowd and get up off the couch to enact our thoughts? Everything. Education makes us who we are, politically speaking. And if we come to believe, through education, that our purpose in life is one of “constantly expanding the range and accuracy of [our] perceptions,” we must believe that of our fellow humans are equally entitled to grow in unanticipated ways as well. We are all changing all the time, through the process of adaptive experience-recombination. Not only are we and our fellows literally becoming new people before our own eyes, but we are building building a better, more ingenious society in doing so.
Of course it would be silly to say that Whitman and Dewey have the last word on what it means to be American. But I do think they discovered something of vital importance, a principle that starts with our robust conception of personal freedom and spells out what that principle means for our communal life. Reactionaries, conservatives, and probably anyone over 50 (present company included) sometimes complain that we don’t recognize our country anymore. Good. Our country was not designed to sit still. Our communal life changes, but as long as it does so on the basis of our founding freedoms, I think we should have more hope than fear for the novelties that will ensue.
America, I believe, is meant to be a country in which social differentness keeps on compounding itself until everyone is able to believe they have a place here, and a unique contribution to make to our ongoing experiment. The more natural and reflexive our acceptance of differentness becomes, the closer we get to realizing this hope. As Richard Rorty wrote in AchievingOurCountry, if we are to build in America the paradigmatic democracy, we must hold faith that “governments and social institutions exist only for the purpose of making a new sort of individual possible, one who will take nothing as authoritative save free consensus between as diverse a variety of citizens as can possibly be produced.” Believing something like this is a large part of what it means to be American.
The 19th century novelist Honore de Balzac died at 51, of drinking too much. Coffee, not booze. His typical writing schedule was to nap through the early evening, awake at midnight and work through and often past the dawn, downing 10, 12, even 15 cups of black coffee. He was an addict. A glorious addict.
Balzac’s ovations to coffee have become famous. This is probably his best known:
This coffee falls into your stomach, and straightway there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army on the battlefield, and the battle takes place. Things remembered arrive at full gallop, ensign to the wind. The light cavalry of comparisons deliver a magnificent deploying charge, the artillery of logic hurry up with their train and ammunition, the shafts of wit start up like sharpshooters. Similes arise, the paper is covered with ink; for the struggle commences and is concluded with torrents of black water, just as a battle with powder.
I can relate. I’m an addict, too, and I find that coffee-fueled ideas leap to life, where they might have lain fallow, indistinct, unremarked. Ever since my undergrad days, when coffee enabled me not just to understand Plato’s dialogues but to emerge through them from the Cave and lay hold of the Forms Themselves, I have drunk strong coffee virtually every morning of my life, always reading, occasionally writing.
Balzac, to put it modestly, lacked self-control. He claimed to have worked 48 hours straight through once, downing cup after cup of the strong stuff. When coffee in its liquid form failed to sustain his comet-like genius, he ingested the beans straight, roasted and ground. His habit wrecked his stomach, causing ulcers which he ignored, soldiering through on caffeine, covering his paper with ink. The endless onslaught of coffee first dissolved the mucus lining of his stomach then attacked the smooth muscle tissue of the stomach wall itself. This was the price paid for the Human Comedy, Balzac’s collection of 91 finished novels, stories and essays, and 46 unfinished works that made him a genius.
Although we cannot be sure what killed Balzac, we can make a fair guess. After his stomach wall became ulcerated, it likely developed a perforation, and the ghastly flora and fauna that inhabit one’s stomach and so merrily digest one’s food, killing off in the process all but the hardiest microbial invaders, oozed out to envelop and infect the surrounding organs, at speed. Sepsis acts quickly, often lethal in less than a day, when caused by the leakage of gastric juices.
Like Balzac, I also suffer gastritis, and although I am only guessing, it is likely caused by too much coffee, strung along by love of words, as it was for him. It has caused me an ulcer once, and I think it may be repeating its trick at present. And so I moderate my intake. I recently went 34 days without, and it seems I am only partially on my way back to having an uncompromised stomach lining. The five small cups of coffee imbibed this week pinch at my insides, telling me there is healing left to do yet.
Well, what of it? I have no genius worth sacrificing for, and I live most of my life, not among the gods of the intellect, who are so well pleased by my fragrant daily offerings of Sumatra or Mocha Sanani, but down here on Earth, forming loyal bonds to family and other risk-free bourgeois pleasures.
So, no, I won’t die like Balzac. It is not even a temptation. But Jesus, it is miserable not to pretend to be him.