Liberty the Spiked Goddess Calls
In Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, the five authors — R. Bellah, R. Madsen, W. Sullivan, A. Swidler and S. Tipton — explore the ways in which contemporary Americans use private and public modes of thought to make sense of the world around them, even as that world is swept from under their feet. This book is the result of a research project in which more than 200 people were interviewed. Out of this number, the authors choose to focus our attention on four individuals, who represent the four dominant orientations found among the larger group. Each of the four is mature, intelligent, responsible, and involved in caring for others. These are people who act on their beliefs. Each is living proof of the magnetic force of Liberty — that spiked goddess who draws home both the best and worst of her abandoned populations.
Like the dream that gave them birth — which now exists in a state of suspended animation, and to whose upkeep they contribute — each of the four presents both a solar and a shadow aspect, of which the first is on view. Neighbors would not hesitate to describe their characters as good. Each is successful in his or her chosen career, life path or calling. Each is at least normally self-aware.
At first glance, we would say that they were happy. As we come to know them, however, we realize that each wrestles with a similar and unacknowledged sense of isolation. Although confident as to their own choices, actions and values, all of the four find it difficult to articulate their relationship to any larger structure of shared meaning. Whether explicitly or implicitly, all seem to assume that there is something arbitrary about their goals — that they may well be building hallucinatory castles out of sand.
But how much do we really know about our place within the time-cycle, or of how each act connects to the precession of the equinox?
Perhaps roles chosen before the present world existed are only just now coming into focus. There are ultimatums, no doubt, that we have chosen to ignore. Future versions of ourselves may be reaching backwards to destroy our habitual right/ left oppositions.
It is always possible that it is not 2008; somehow, we have gotten the year wrong. Even now, the archaic lifestyles I record may not exist outside of this essay.
And we, the last survivors of the deluge, having boarded our UFOs, might comment on the signs that pointed to the freefall of the world economy, as though we were beyond it, as though the one self could be separate from the many. But hyperspace is not a shelter from the storm. It will leave no intellect standing.
Crusade of the Subcontractors
Said William Carlos Williams, "The pure products of America go crazy." Traditions divide. History was bunk — a nightmare from which we alone with all of our true values had escaped. Dreams that have only half emerged from the nonexistent unite us. No roots connect us to a natural location. A moment's inattention has removed our trust in the permanence of the material object. An off-course plane, a box cutter to the neck can result in the destruction of the World Trade Towers. Paranoia invades the body politic like a virus.
Flat Earth patriots prepare to burn the Bill of Rights on the altar of the counterrevolution. Dead heroes are loaded into transfer tubes. Collateral damage corrects the balance of deception in Iraq.
Such drama attends the crusade of the subcontractors of Halliburton! Human capital helps to grow the technology of the organ harvest. Death gives meaning to the disaffected. There is no bread left at the circus, and there does not need to be any. Repetition turns the Big Lie into truth. Chaos integrates the collective unconscious. It appears that there are those who hate us for our universal values. Are the ignorant jealous of our wealth and beauty, or do evildoers hate us just because we are good? They should leave us in peace to act on our vision of the future — if we have one, and whatever that might be. This assumes too that the individual can be proven to exist, that we know what freedom is for, that a word does not mean its opposite, and that each self can articulate its purpose to the other. There is a hunger in the heart for some larger structure of shared meaning that cannot be micromanaged by the media. It does not respond to myths of infantile omnipotence.
Meaning need not be imposed by fiat from above. Instead we should look more closely at the subtext of our daily actions. Small leads to big; the personal becomes the political, once again; destruction introduces the common wisdom to its shadow; the newly transparent body becomes a template for the city. Memory becomes an attribute of space, as correspondences subvert the spell of repressive desublimation, in turn prompting the oppressor to exhale a sigh of relief. "Only connect," said E.M. Forster. Reports of the death of Social Darwinism have not been greatly exaggerated. The future world is waiting for the past to arrive; it just hasn't done so yet, having taken a 5,125 year detour. Alternatives to fear grow. A symbol invites the inanimate object to dance. Being present is the key that opens the locked door to the macrocosm. Our values exist; we do not need to create them. Shared goals ask for permission to be conscious. How does this relate to Habits of the Heart, and to our view of the four subjects of the study?
Like many of us, the authors argue, these four individuals are much better at getting what they want than at determining what it is they should want. They are even less prepared when it comes to offering an interpretation of the American Dream — which has traditionally been understood as a dream of "freedom from" rather than "freedom to." Centuries of struggle have brought us to this place. Is the ultimate goal of freedom only for each individual to do his or her own thing?
Brian Palmer is no longer a workaholic. A period of reconsideration followed the collapse of his first marriage. He is now devoted to his second family — but in exactly the same manner that he was formerly devoted to his work. Things could easily change again — with a new romance, a few gray hairs, or even the most arbitrary of changes in the weather. To Brian, the great thing about California is that anything is allowed. The main requirements are to not harm others, to be affluent enough to afford a house, and to indulge whatever habits you may have behind the safety of closed doors.
For Joe Gorman, the goal or a good life involves service to one's family and community. Oddly, Joe does not choose to see his extended family too often. Suffolk, the town in which he lives, is not really a traditional community at all but rather a "bedroom community" — the majority of whose residents commute to work in Boston or to the large industrial parks in the surrounding suburbs. Joe inhabits the Suffolk that surrounded him as a boy — a place of lazy afternoons at the soda fountain of a drug store, a place where white males argued politics at the barber shop, a place founded by the pilgrims in 1632. Joe does not see the same Suffolk as his neighbors — upwardly mobile professionals drawn by the momentarily low housing prices — who have no interest in history, and are glad to put Joe in charge of all commemorative celebrations. They will soon move somewhere else.
Margaret Oldham is a therapist, for whom the goal of a good life is for each person to develop a mature sense of autonomy. No external demand should compel us. We are not answerable to the needs of others; in turn we should expect no assistance from them, except what they might freely choose to give.
As nature is red in tooth and claw, no guarantees will be offered to the Calvinist elect. Justice is blind. The modern therapist does not see evil in the machinations of the growing crypto-fascist state. Victims attract their abusers. Margaret says, "I just sort of accept the way the world is and then don't think about it a whole lot." Life is difficult. Relationships take work. Industry brings happiness. Rich frat boys with a history of addiction can go on to steal the presidency. The poor are free to inherit large amounts of wealth. Help is available at fair market value. Freedom, in the last analysis, is no more and no less than the freedom to walk away. Except by law, Margaret does not believe that she is responsible even for her own children.
Wayne Bauer is a political activist, for whom the goal of a good life is the creation of a level playing field — in the form of a society in which not only procedural but also some degree of distributive justice reigns. The poor would be free to compete on equal terms with the rich. He gives us little sense, however, of what a substantively just society would look like, or of what would really change following the day of liberation. The new society might look very much like ours –except that everyone would have an equal chance of getting a good job. Poverty could then be attributed to some genuine moral defect.
Each citizen would be free to live out of a shopping cart beneath the underpass of a highway. There is, after all, only so much land along the coast of Malibu; it could accommodate only a few more than the existing number of houses.
Opposites Attract the Past
Freedom can be interpreted as a presence or an absence. As an absence it is pregnant with a myth. As a presence no incarnation could be equal to the archetype. Opposites point to a common origin. Divergent readings of shared values lead to an unacknowledged war. Enemies can be found in one's own family.
Conservatives turn radical. Practitioners of the Tao of bait and switch, they objectify mass fears to introduce the brave new world by stealth. Neo-Federalists advance a strategy to suspend the Constitution. Leviticus replaces Christ. Death by stoning serves many purposes. Torture is again allowed. Militant Calvinism destroys the strategic hamlet it would save.
Wal-Mart uproots the last of the mom and pop businesses. As it laments the permissiveness of 1960s, and the child rearing practices that supposedly led to today's crop of sex and violence crazed narcissistic youth, the right pursues a reductionist agenda of every man for himself — and himself alone, without regard for the social order that gives birth to the individual, the powers that protect him, or the shared resources that contribute to his growth. Born again materialists incite a war of any against all. Answerable to his version of the American Dream alone, the free economic agent is not a situated subject.
It is true that we are not "from" here, are we, any more than we are from "there"; but no act of faith can remove the ancient quarantine from the farm. There is no love lost between Earth's overlords and their livestock. Grace manifest as fear has aimed a death blow at each object that once bound the destinies of the young at heart to nature. Omniscient software is at hand. A Federal Freedom Net will soon monitor the e-mail of each citizen — the least of whom could pose a clear and present danger to the corporate fascism of the state. Each suspect word will be tagged. Each insult to the true cross will be color coded for immediate or future use.
"Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law," said Alistair Crowley, occult superhero and supporter of National Socialism. Here opposites attract. Crowley was also a darling of the counterculture. His books were fun to read after dropping LSD.
Following the injunction to "do what thou wilt"for his own profit or in service to a cause, who can knowPrescott Bush, the grandfather of the current president, acted as a financial intermediary for the Nazis throughout the whole of the1930s and into the beginning of the Second World War. For this he was censured by Congress in October, 1942, when five firms controlled by Union Banking Corporation, of which he was a director, were seized under the Trading with the Enemy Act.8 According to Charles Higham, former investigative reporter for the New York Times, it was feared that prosecution on a charge of treason would lead to an untimely scandalnot that any time would have been goodand would have drastically affected public morale, caused widespread strikes and perhaps provoked mutinies in the armed services. At the war's end, the federal government seized an additional 18 firms that were controlled by the UBC.(9)
The enemy combatant looks very much like us. Six million plus skeletons fit comfortably into the closet of the oligarch. There is space left over. Compassionate conservatism may yet cleanse our homeland of the eugenically unfit.
The Enigma of the Sign
Though the champion of the common man, the left can be contemptuous of the superstitions that now hold sway in the Corn Belt. Social science will create a better Average Joe. Red state patriots are happy to return the contempt. The Clear Channel markets propaganda as consensus through the behaviorist technology of talk radio. The Big Lie also spreads like a virus. We must take heart, as even icons of disinformation are not always wrong.
Marxism has been discredited, and has vanished from all but a few strongholds, such as North Korea and Cuba. At the same time, as pure doctrine, its mystique grows ever stronger at the humanities departments of our major universities. The center left carefully keeps its distance from the edge, but also sacrifices a good part of its passion in the process. Unionized dock workers will not again engage in pitched battles with the police force of San Francisco, as they did in 1934, or impose their alternate order on the streets. Social justice as an immanent aspect of the real has now fallen into disrepute. Unions dissolve; their creators take with them the last living records of that year, of the death of greed, of the flash of mutual self interest that turned chaos into care.
Their descendants believe that it benefits the economy when a millionaire does not pay taxes. Warfare keeps us safe. Civil liberties are a threat to freedom. It is not cars but trees that pollute the atmosphere. The happy warrior takes a step back in order to leap forward.
A vision of archaic solidarity haunts the progressive imagination. "It takes a village to raise a child," wrote Hillary Clinton, quoting an old African proverb. This proverb was repeated to me by a friend from the Ebo region of Nigeria who, as it turned out, picked it up from reading Clinton's book. One may safely wonder if the anthropologist was told only what she wanted to hear — even if this required the invention of a proverb.
The concept of social justice works better as a description; deconstructed lifestyle enclaves leap from the pages of a National Geographic. It is important that one not issue ultimatums to the living. One should not pursue an object just because it is good; one should pick, if one so chooses, the least bad or the most attractive object from the great variety that free trade with the third world makes available. Reluctant to take the moral initiative, to employ the word "should" or to reclaim the language of individual responsibility from the right, the left now advances a philosophy of incremental causes. Bold futurist experiments give way to the shoring up of relics from the Great Society.
"Liberty Leading the People", Eugene Delacroix, 1831
Damned If You Do; Damned If You Don't
The spiked goddess Liberty has a surfeit of defenders. Free traders scream for the growth of corporate welfare. All risk will be public; all benefits will accrue to the one percent, as is only fair. Radical feminists join forces with Christian reconstructionists to eradicate the scourge of pornography. Mind/ body orgasms rape the 144,000. Such violence is an initiation; it does not have much to do with sex. Alien wisdom will enforce the return of a solar cult, to be fed by a species die-off. We are heading nowhere fast.
Nostalgic Industries Reconstitute the Ideal
Right and left change places; unconscious myths create unnatural alliances. Perception lags behind the fact of interdependence in this technologically most complex of societies. The Human Genome Project has stamped its seal of approval on the engine of our descent. Reverse engineering will remaximize the conditions for our growth.
Why should it be so difficult for each good individual to explain the meaning of his actions, or to put her purposes — already clear — into the context of the macrocosmos, or to talk to a tree? It should not be difficult to create a circle out of stories, as other cultures have, or to celebrate the mute expressiveness of objects, or to touch the Earth, or to recognize the full existence of the other. It should not be difficult, but it is. The hand of a demiurge has intervened. We do not inhabit space. We are new — although ancient evils corrupt us. Reality is virtual. Homeland security depends upon the reproduction of logos.
"Character is fate," said Heraclitus. The external world provides each subject with the nurture he deserves. Accidents enforce the law. The subjective world turns inside out. Values diverge. Paths intersect. Is there anything human for which the self is not responsible? Does good character compel us to speak truth to power, to correct injustice, to defend the orphan and the widow? There would be a price to pay; our arrogance would upset the predetermined order.
Though wealth is no proof of providence — as nothing could be — perhaps poverty is a more certain sign that one is not of the elect. Luck is a tribute to the true values of the self. Injustice is the price of a civilized society. Hard labor teaches the unenlightened to obey. Exploitation by the Carlyle Group improves the net value of the wilderness. Exxon will transform the demonic wastelands of the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge. Grace cannot be earned. Wealth cannot be redistributed. The transcendent watcher legislates from above. Emerson wrote, "Then again, do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor?" 150 years later we are waiting for an answer.
Luckily, the past does not exist. The future has not yet been created. A golden egg floats on the ocean. Archetypes are unmanifest. Symbols cannot act. There was no race before us. America is itself a dream. Do we have some obligation to those not present, to the dead or the unborn, to those who cannot speak for themselves? In his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that our settlement here was "effected at the expense of our own blood and treasure, unassisted by the wealth or strength of Great Britain" — forgetting how recently the British had defended the young colonies from French and Indian attacks. Fathers exist to be killed. Mothers more quietly disappear.
So too we are convinced that we have given birth to ourselves — "ex nihilo." There is no one like us! There never was, never will be, and therefore we owe nothing except what we choose to give to anyone. The self is good. The other is — at least potentially — bad. The best government governs least, and all schemes to relate the self to the macrocosmos are suspect.
This approach provides us with a maximum of latitude to act. We "do what we will," but it is only chance that interprets what will come from the subconscious. We are free to create a place for ourselves, a hermetically sealed space to which no gods have been invited, and, if we are not happy, then we are free to walk away. The approach makes it difficult, however, to determine the true meaning of an action. If a part exists — however perfect its autonomy — the fact that it exists implies also the existence of a whole, as well as some just proportion between the two. If the whole does not exist then the part means almost nothing. Moods arise. Phenomena come and go.
Let us now return to Habits of the Heart. Again, let us ask what freedom is for; we should ask also if we serve some end beyond the self, and, if so, whose. Are we parts of one living whole? If we are, does this interconnectedness limit or expand the true potential of our freedom? Can the one be many? It is not that the four contemporaries from chapter 1 do not share in a common moral language. This language does exist-the authors refer to it as the "first language of individualism" — but it is not adequate, in and of itself, to allow them or us to address the nature of success, the meaning of freedom, and the requirements of justice upon which the creation of a good society would depend. As the power of the multinational conglomerate grows, it is paradoxical that our response is to define ourselves more narrowly. To each his own.
There is an almost tragic contradiction at the heart of the American Dream. If each of us is endowed with ultimate freedom — not only to pursue our own happiness but also, if we choose, to ignore any demands that might be placed on us by others — then it becomes difficult if not impossible for us to collaborate on any common project. Society becomes a blind accretion of competing interest groups. Reconciliation is projected backwards as the dream of a simpler time –that never was, in which the corrupt industrialist lay down with the wholesome worker to be exploited.
As the perfect is the enemy of the good, so too freedom — as abstract ideal –subverts the potential for true liberation. No conceptual framework exists that would now allow us to translate the American Dream into reality. At the moment, it is best experienced through the golden haze of nostalgia.
Telos; the Wayward Comet
Revolting against fate, we can also project our desire for completion on the future, as though it were somehow different from the past. Six of one, a half-dozen of the other. The more things change the more they stay the same; it is not so easy to escape from the habits of the heart. We are the ghosts who inhabit the dead bodies we create. We are haunted by the Real. It is possible too that our habits are the teachers that we search for, however bad they may be. We are the archeological footnotes to a world that never was, the memory of which has been implanted in our genes; thus each act of our history has already been recorded. We, the slaves of post-traumatic stress, are true experts in the renovation of the labyrinth. But this is not the "future world" of which I earlier spoke.
1) "Habits of the Heart", Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swider, Steven M. Tipton, University of California Press, Berkley, 1985, page 21
2) "Freedom from…freedom to", "Habits of the Heart", Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swider, Steven M. Tipton, University of California Press, Berkley, 1985, pages 23-25
23) Brian Palmer, "Habits of the Heart", Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swider, Steven M. Tipton, University of California Press, Berkley, 1985, pages 1-8
4) Joe Gorman, "Habits of the Heart", Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swider, Steven M. Tipton, University of California Press, Berkley, 1985, pages 9-12
5) Margaret Oldham, "Habits of the Heart", Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swider, Steven M. Tipton, University of California Press, Berkley, 1985, pages 13-17
6) Wayne Bauer, "Habits of the Heart", Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swider, Steven M. Tipton, University of California Press, Berkley, 1985, pages 17-20
7) "There is, after all, only so much land along the coast of Malibu", "Habits of the Heart", Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swider, Steven M. Tipton, University of California Press, Berkley, 1985, page 26
8) Duncan Campbell, "How Bush's Grandfather Helped Hitler's Rise to Power", Guardian UK, Sept. 25, 2004.
Marc Ash, "Standing on the Dead", Truthout, Jan. 22, 2003.
Webster G. Tarpley and Anton Chaitkin, "George Bush; The Unauthorized Biography", Chapter 1; "The Hitler Project", www.tarpley.net/bushb.htm, 1991
9) "Homeland security depends upon the reproduction of logos."-"Logos" is used here as the plural of "logo", or corporate emblem; it is not "logos", the metaphysical concept.
10) Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Essay on Self-Reliance", quoted in "Habits of the Heart", Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swider, Steven M. Tipton, University of California Press, Berkley, 1985, page 56
11) Thomas Jefferson, Draft of the "Declaration of Independence", quoted in "Habits of the Heart", Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swider, Steven M. Tipton, University of California Press, Berkley, 1985, page 55
12) in "Habits of the Heart", Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swider, Steven M. Tipton, University of California Press, Berkley, 1985, page 20