In our dark political moment, it is practical to consider national thinkers who sought to understand our obligation as citizens to a state that ensures dignity and equality worthy of our hopes for democracy. These are all “big” words but are recognizable currency. Their inclusiveness has not always marked a lovely American history, but they compose the central promise of our national life. We are now faced with thinking the almost-impossible—a life in which rational inquiry is smothered by lies, in which language is unmoored from our history, in which hatred of others is fed, while many wonder if our president* (as I refer to him) is a creature nourished by mental illness and fantasy as he pursues the sickness of the exclusive and excluding state.
Plato asked his readers to consider a life in which reason was banned or banished from public experience. His counter-proposal was to envision a state in which the idea—contentious in itself—of the good, and those who could understand it, would direct affairs. Patriotism would be, obviously, loyalty to that regnant concept. Who would not submit to this enlightenment? Yes, this also can be seen as a “dictatorship” (as Karl Popper argued); Plato’s state was based on a “noble” lie, but its creation must also be seen as recognizing the need for a wedding of a “rationalized” ethic and politics.
Although political thinkers have questioned whether “truth” is the only—if at all—criterion for the craft of state, our national myth of patriotism is based on documents and narratives exalting the bringing of people into an ever-enlarging community of equality and understanding. America is an “intentional” country (to borrow a phrase from Paul Goodman); in the best version of our mythos (as in Emma Lazarus’s ringing poem, “The New Colossus”) you not only are welcomed but also intend to belong.
Our new regime has made explicit and implicit appeals to an excluding patriotism. We’ve heard this decades ago as a summons to the Volk: Recover the purity of race, of myth, of society; this bell rang on the streets of Berlin and Rome. Reviving it full-throatedly connects “his” followers with a sought-for belonging—being part of a world-historic movement, of finding an identity not in the tangled coils of American history but in the unitary myth of national destination and superiority. “His” goal: a state that looms over others. Patriotism is loyalty to authorized beliefs. “America first!”
I want to call attention to Goodman—to the spirit of his loyalties. Goodman, the 20th century writer, remains an interim or provisional thinker—someone whose brilliance would have to serve in lieu of the absence of the published expertise of others. He lives on as a majestic figure in a field he practiced and helped poetically describe: community thinking. His expertise was based on his life: as a man who was openly gay (or openly bi-sexual), and attached to his wife; as a loving father; as a writer who lived, before he became famous, as he pointed out, on a salary almost approximating that of a sharecropper; as an American “original” who wrote with clarity and simplicity about what he saw and understood around him. As someone who was in fact willing to chance marginalization (and indeed, he was marginalized) by virtue of his conduct, character and integrity, he has much to tell us about our present dismay.
As an outsider, Goodman ironically spoke about the values of inclusion. His strength was prophetic and patriotic—as in Hebrew Scripture. He understood that temples and empires will fall when they turn away from honoring people and that states will decay when they diminish sociality, eros, dignity and—although as far as I know he did not use this word, it is applicable—diversity. In Goodman’s works, communities and nations become hollow when they deprived one of moral clarity, vitiating responsibility to self and others. Culture was not an isolated affair; it was the heritage of humankind. The old saw still had teeth; the more we understood and could accept others, the clearer we could be about our very natures and allegiances.
Yes, he was an anarchist—but with a catch: For him, its moral spirit was voluntary cooperation. Moreover, opposing social coercion, people would use each other as resources, making community educative, concernful and flexible. In addition, his anarchism was funded by gestalt therapy, and its directive—as I understand Gestalt Therapy, a book Goodman wrote along with others—to maintain a clear field/figure formation. In other words, one discerns context, content and orientation.
It’s fair to say that his work is overshadowed by the noise of contemporary writers and critics who are, in fact, “clever” and “smooth.” They can invent plots without such reaching into our lives; they can produce a surface of mirrors, without suggesting a desirable human nature; they can drown the reader in allusions. Critics revel in exotic theses and esoteric language far more complicated than necessary. Do they produce national letters that inform a public? Or even inspirit? Looking at the great Chinese Wall of such contemporary letters, one can justifiably say, “Who cares?”
Given these questions, a return to Goodman is necessary—and that demand is all I have for allotted space. Like Growing Up Absurd and Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals, his major “bombshells” that rocked American cultural thought, his works asked if growing up in an America that prevented maturation was rational and acceptable. This is an international question as well: Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum gives us Oskar, who throws himself down a flight of stairs to prevent, literally, growing up. One can refuse to conform to a socially acceptable version of fascist adulthood. Goodman differed: He wanted his characters and readers to mature. He wanted them to understand what they were about and could be about.
He is, in our day, démodé. To paraphrase him, he lit fires but no one came. “Why?” is a good question. His rhetoric was plain English; he posed his suggestions in the light of common day. People could recognize their problems in his work. However, he offered what he called “utopian” solutions: proposals that seemed unworkable, and perhaps even dopey, because they called into question what we termed reasonableness. As a result, his work is abrasively educative: a pedagogy in being a self. And here, self is a vocation, a high calling demanding our dedication to our natures and to others. As with Thoreau, his call is not for education in getting a degree or getting certification to enter the job market.
His most arresting meditations and fiction present an urgent problem: What kind of work is valuable and confers respect in its doing and realization? Belonging, a handmaiden of rational patriotism, is pride in being, a pride in self and social achievement. Such a sentiment naturally grows from a community in which work and creation are prized, in which truth is central to motivation.
His theme of civic “pride” is based on an “open” city in which trust and mentoring expose people to opportunities for learning to be a self. Some have been offended by the sexual frankness of his proposals; others, by the lives his characters choose to make; and yet others by his disabusing his figures of the need to submit to depersonalization. Being genuinely useful to a community and society does not mean being a useful fool. He both despaired and was disgusted by those who denied curiosity, who demeaned others, and who praised acquiescence and conformity. And in his work, self and city usually come across. People are curious by nature; they will to trust and love; the good environment is, to coin a neologism, “curiousable.” (Aristotle, please meet John Dewey.)
What is most salient is that he insists that his characters and readers—as they do themselves—discover what they need as opposed to be made to want in a society educating people to be both mouthers of slogans and consumers of unnecessary commodities. So, we find in his fiction a variety of people who may not be able to bear the weight of Goodman’s insistence but who nonetheless do not throw it off. He cheered on those who wanted to learn and mentor. The titles of his books, and I cite a few in no particular order, display this moral commitment: Growing Up Absurd, Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals, Compulsory Mis-education and Communitas (this last, with his brother Percival).
How fundamentally different this is from the career and “culture” of our president* and his appointees who cultivate hatred bespeaking insufficiency of self and a contempt for others. On the contrary, for Goodman “We have to learn again, what city man always used to know, that belonging to the city, to its squares, its market, its neighborhood and its high culture, is a public good; it is not a field for ‘investment to yield a long-term modest profit.’”
Where does all of this take us? Can we live as his fictional “Our Friends” or his real ones? Can a sociable anarchism oppose the state? Goodman suggests that politics begins in self-discernment; that a desirable maturity begins with a valuable acceptance of our natures—to be communal and communalizing as best we can; to cherish the need for truth, eros and honor; to have the courage to denounce ubiquitous lies. In other words, and to paraphrase him: to have courage for a next step. To spoil for a fight.