Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ethics and Political Engagement; Thoreau, Musil, and the Great Unwashed

Henry David Thoreau
This morning I am thinking about ethics, and how ethics is different from an immediately self-interested castigation of injustice. "Not in My Back Yard" is an ethos often criticized by those who want to belittle the concerns of protesters; and in a way this criticism is justified--but mostly insofar as it might be used against those whose backyard is, for the moment, spared, and who, thus, do not have the imagination to see that someday it will not be, that someday their lawns, their jobs, their rights, the air they breathe, will be taken from them too. My yard is your yard, or your yard is my yard may be another way of spelling the categorical imperative.

Ethics, then, implies a way of thinking not inspired by NIMBY, and thus those operating from immediate outrage about their own discomfort may be inspired to protest for reasons that are not motivated by strictly ethical considerations. Ethics implies a consciousness of justice beyond self interest, and motivated by a sense of what is right, a sense of what one cannot, as a human being, countenance in one's own name as citizen, person, neighbor.

Having spent the last few days involved in an uncharacteristic flurry of political engagement in little Burlington, Vermont, I am struck by a number of unfortunate realities and questions about what factors do and do not induce people to become politically engaged in our society.  I read "Civil Disobedience" on the steps of City Hall yesterday with a number of brave and beautiful people in honor of and defense of a number of our fellow citizens who were shot at with rubber pellet-bullets on July 29th by Burlington police. These concerned citizens were engaging in a peaceful blockade during the Governor's Conference. They were protesting devastating plans to destroy land  and  eco-systems reaching from Canadian Inuit populations into Vermont, plans in the interest of profit for the few.

 Few of the people who read "Civil Disobedience" yesterday were at the original protest and some of us who joined the protesters later for a march to the police station and back to City Hall were disturbed and put off by the tone and the inarticulate message of the protesters whose fundamental right to protest we had been defending. "The Burlington Police Department is Fucked Up" was not exactly a sign we felt proud to stand behind, nor were we practitioners of the nuances and power of language comfortable chanting slogans whose ill-considered meanings we could not get behind. So we left them to their own devices,  and went off to drink a glass of wine before the City Council meeting that same night, where we hoped to hear more articulate voices of dissent and concern. Indeed, there were more articulate voices, a great many, which was encouraging, but also a good deal more ranting and incoherence; and I am left wondering about why people who might have something meaningful and considered to say so often stay home from such things, while the extremely disenfranchised and wretched of the earth come out in larger more visible numbers.

This morning I am thinking about ethics, and about the role and responsibility of the intellectual, or "Geist" in Musil's sense, in society. Is it possible, as Musil asked during the Paris Conference of  Writers in Defense of Culture, to engage in complex discourse about such questions, or must we devolve to chanting simplistic slogans and a polarized celebration of one brand of right-thinking over another? Must we choose between non-participation and participation in things we can't whole-heartedly stand behind? And finally, why is it that the disenfranchised and the wretched of the earth are the first ones to speak out against injustice while the relatively comfortable (like myself) so often sit by and criticize their tactics? Is it really because we are as-yet inured to the pains that they already feel everyday, and because our ethical imagination is so weak that we do not yet see or believe in the imminent dangers of which they warn us? Or is it because we don't want to associate with the great unwashed, the half-mad, the angry and resentful mob? They certainly have good reason to be angry, to feel disenfranchised, to feel that they have no voice, to feel betrayed and unheard. We only wish they had something better to say once they are given a platform upon which to say it. But perhaps it is our fault for not lending our voices to the discussion more often.

Thoreau and Musil present powerful models of independent ethical voices, who neither compromised nor watered down their complicated intellectual analyses and who were able to remain true to themselves while still making significant statements about what they deemed unjust and insupportable. Clearly, Musil suffered for his adamant resistance to the lure of the Soviet Republic (he was booed off the stage at the Paris conference and called a Fascist sympathizer because he predicted that the Soviet brand of thought-control was not so very different from that of  his German and Austrian oppressors), although he tried, in his way, to bear witness and to speak against the horrors of Nazism; and Thoreau was never a member of any club (though he was surrounded in his own home by active abolitionists and himself helped in the escape plans of several fugitive slaves). Thoreau maintained the individual's imperative to be true to himself, as an acorn grows into an oak, while seeing to it that he does not sit on the shoulders of others or steal a plank from a drowning man. They both had the imagination to consider the suffering of others and to understand that in all the great world, we share one back yard.


  1. i didn't have this idea till later on in the' occupation' movement- but i was sad that i hadn't registered people to vote, from that group. i wonder if anyone did? it was great to read again how thoreau felt voting isn't perfect but it is important. next time somethig comes up, or even some other sort of event that draws people, a table for voter resistration might be good? better still is wander around with the appliations. if shouting protesters feel disenfrachenised - let us enfranghise them! encourage them to run for office. voting is a real way engaging, empowering people- or so i think. folks who are cynical and say voting doesn't matter seem very short sighted. just look at the presidential election of 2000. or the local race for mayor in 1980- when bernie won by 10 votes. or my city council race in which i lost by 22 votes. do we have an obligation to try to register young disenfrancised people to vote? maybe we do- when thoreau was jailed for not paying the pole tax, he wasn't just trying to save a few pennies- he was trying to save the republic of his future- the one we live in today.

    thanks again for the reading- and for the piece you've posted here...

  2. “No matter what side of the argument you are on,” Jascha Heifetz once said, “you always find people on your side that you wish were on the other.”

    I suspect that your feelings are quite Transcendental in nature as both Thoreau and Emerson were always asserting that the common man was capable of a divine wisdom that they rarely saw the common man express well.
    Ah well, take courage.

    “[...] a number of flawed individuals can often add up to a brilliant social unit.”

    ― Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities Vol. 1: A Sort of Introduction and Pseudo Reality Prevails

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. @Philip: I'm afraid we can't read the sentence you are quoting from Musil, extracted from its context, the text and neglecting the potential fragility of the translation. In the Portuguese and Spanish translation we have the same sentence as a Social critic, such as "(...) a number of weakened individuals can often add up to a strong social unit". It makes all the difference to me. (Perhaps we would need to read Musil in German).

  3. Thank you, Philip and Marc! I certainly believe that the "common man" and woman is capable of divine wisdom, otherwise I would not be so proud to be a community college professor; and, like E. and T. at their best, I believe in a natural aristocracy of spirit, aided hopefully by educational empowerment! I also agree that it would be a good idea to combine a voter registration station at our next reading; for maybe knowing that one has a voice, and believing that that voice matters, are the first steps toward informing and using that voice to good ends. But I am not so sure that Thoreau would agree about voting...didn't he say it was merely a morally tinged game...?

    1. “The Austrian writer Robert Musil summed up the Fanatic's great rhetorical advantage in just ten words:

      There is no truth which stupidity can't make use of.

      Another Austrian, novelist Heimito von Doderer, put this way:

      Even the most impossible persons who do the most unforgivable things possess substantial reality; from their points of view they are always right – for let them only doubt that and they are no longer such impossible persons. And we must pay close heed to those who play such ungrateful roles, for these roles are indispensable. It is no small thing to be a monster or a spiteful idiot, and in the first case to think oneself beautiful, in the second a highly intelligent person. Such characters must be represented. Some one has to do it.”

      ― David James Duncan

    2. Nice ones, Philip! Musil did indeed have a talent for using, or maybe I should say getting the most possible that was nourishing out of, the ideas of anyone at all, or even the most horrible events and circumstances. That was his famous or infamous "objectivity of the writer"... but it certainly didn't mean that he didn't feel alienated and frustrated as a human being most of the time! As to Doderer, I don't know too much about him aside from the rumor that he himself was on the undesirable side in terms of fascist politics. A colleague of mine,David Luft, wrote a book on him, Musil, and Weininger, I believe, which I should read!

  4. "I am left wondering about why people who might have something meaningful and considered to say so often stay home from such things, " I wonder this about myself, G. I have for a while. I mean, I wouldn't call myself an intellect, but, It may be partly because of the "extremely disenfranchised and wretched of the earth" coming out in droves, but then again, I have often felt like one of them, &/or somewhere in between. I still think I have a voice and that it matters, so I should get back out there! (eh, voting shmoting) Thanks for your inspiration, Miss Lovely G!