Monday, July 12, 2004

Learning What One Thinks By Writing About Verities

Dear Colleagues:

When asked what they think about a common subject, writers sometimes answer that they don’t yet know because they have not yet written about it. This answer always struck me as a little bizarre. For one would ordinarily think that people write about a common subject because they have thought and formed opinions about it, not that they form opinions about it because they write about it. Yet in the last few years I have had an experience that makes it far more understandable why writers sometimes say they don’t know what they think about a subject until they have written about it.

The experience has been the writing of a quartet -- four books, not a musical composition. (The series started out as a trilogy, but ultimately it became clear that the third book would be far too long unless its material were divided into two books. Ergo, a quartet.) The entire quartet is, to a major extent, social criticism, criticism of the way the United States is today and of the way it has been since about 1955. But the books are not written in an expository way, as one normally expects of social criticism. Rather, they are written in what might be called a quasi novelistic way. That is, they follow the lives of protagonists who moved through the world in the last half of the 20th century. The books tell of the events of those lives, what the protagonists did, what happened to them, etc. (The books are, in this respect, not entirely dissimilar to Siegfried Sassoon’s early fiction (e.g., Memoirs of an Infantry Officer). So, if one steps back to assess what the whole quartet in fact is, one could say quite accurately that it is largely social criticism wrapped in stories.

Yet it was not until I was well into the writing that I began to realize that the same elements of social criticism seemed to surface time after time in the various stories that comprise the events of the two protagonists’ lives. It was only when I was well into the writing that it was borne in on me that several basic, oft-interrelated elements of social criticism constantly reappear, and that the reason they constantly reappear is that -- without ever having articulated it previously, without ever having explicitly articulated it even to myself previously -- there seem to me to be certain characteristics essential for a decent society. Those characteristics are honesty, diligence, competence, responsibility (i.e., a sense of duty), modesty, a sense of social justice, and advancement attributable to ability and work. These characteristics’ opposites, which are objects of the social criticism in the quartet, are dishonesty in both its full blown and lesser forms, laziness, incompetence, irresponsibility, immodesty and oft-associated arrogance and celebrification, total focus on the self without concern for others, and advancement through elitism, sycophancy or both. Those opposites pervade -- utterly pervade -- our society. They are, it seems to me, what is fundamentally wrong with our society.

So, quite similarly to what has sometimes been said by other writers, it was through the writing of the quartet that I came to realize what I really think -- or, perhaps stated more accurately, came to recognize it in a way that is express and organized.

One knows, of course, that expatiation about the characteristics I favor, and excoriating their opposites, will be regarded by many as simple mindedness. Honesty, diligence, duty -- such ideas have been around since thousands of years before Christ turned water into wine. So have their opposites. My views are no great insight, it will be said.

It is true that they are no great insight. The problem, though, is that our society is far too much in the grip of the rotten side of things. Dishonesty, incompetence, greed and lack of concern for others -- these are what have led to Enron and its dozens of progeny in business, in law, in accounting. Some of these same unlovely characteristics, plus immodesty, celebrification and a belief in advancement through elitism and sycophancy pervade higher education and politics. The world we live in has in these ways gotten ever lousier. And simpleminded as it may be to expatiate the verities, their ever increasing absence, it seems to me, really is the problem.

One is also aware of another criticism of an expatiation of the verities. It is that to think that people and institutions might live by the verities is "largely a poet’s dream," to quote Michael Blumenthal. Well, maybe so. But there are individuals and institutions that keep the verities in mind, and that consequently do a lot better than others in living up to them. The problem in this country is that too many people too often regard the verities as only a poet’s dream, rather than as something to be striven for.

I cannot help thinking that if what are thought to be the nation’s problems -- war, the economy, health -- were approached in the spirit of the characteristics I favor, many of the problems might be reduced or solved. What would have happened, for example, if the question of a possible war with Iraq had been approached with a determination to meet the dictates of honesty, competence, and concern for those on both sides who would suffer and die, instead of being approached in the mean, inept, dishonest, and non-diligent spirit that prevailed almost everywhere in the American government and, via the baloney put out by the executive and Congress, in the media? It is hard to believe that application of the verities would not have led to something better than what occurred, and impossible to believe it would have led to something worse.

Concrete examples of the point just made could be multiplied almost indefinitely with regard to what are thought to be our problems. Which brings up another question. Why shouldn’t there be a new political party devoted to the verities? Certainly it could not be worse than the existing two parties, which ignore the verities (except for occasional pious hypocrisies) and which millions of citizens have come to royally despise for their dishonesty, greed, incompetence and self seekingness.

Inherent in what is being said about our purported problems is another example of the (perhaps surprising) fact that writing about a subject may let one know what he thinks about it. For it is in writing the quartet that I came to recognize and believe that it is not the purported problems that are the problem. The true problem, rather, is the failure to approach the purported problems with the verities in mind. Iraq illustrates. So do lots of other matters that quickly spring to mind, e.g, the many business scandals that could collectively be called the Enron syndrome, the disgusting character of our political parties, the failure of our system of education to educate, and, one might venture, even the difficulties which have arisen in our systems for delivering medical care and health saving and life saving drugs.* ++

*The quartet whose writing led to the thoughts expressed here is called, in its entirety, Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam. The first volume, entitled Misfits In America, was published in January 2004 by University Press of America, and is available from UPA, from Amazon, and at various bookstores. The second and third volumes, respectively entitled Trail of Tears and Loss And Creation, will be published by UPA in 2005. The fourth volume, entitled Defeat And Victory, will be finished late in 2004 or in 2005.

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