War: "the activity of decades"

What would Paul Goodman have thought about the war in Afghanistan? Nothing much different than what he thought about the war in Vietnam, I expect.

More interesting to me is what he might have thought about 9/11, the awful event that made the war in Afghanistan appear inevitable, and to many at the time, self-evidently justified. This, too, is an easy one. I mean, come on: the guy was against World War II. If Pearl Harbor wasn't enough of a casus belli for him, it's a cinch he would have taken 9/11 in stride.

I was in New York that day and the months that followed. I expect he would have reacted, on first hearing the news, rather like I did. I'd woken up that Tuesday morning out of work and uncertain of the future. The day before, my wife had taken the home pregnancy test and confirmed scientifically what she already knew intuitively. I'd put on a suit and tie and walked out the door resolved to take the subway to a temp agency and try to get some money coming in. As soon as I hit the street, my neighbor accosted me. He was something of a character. "Did you hear what happened?" Michael said. "A plane hit the World Trade Center. It's terrorism. Can you believe it?"

"Well, yeah, I can believe it," I said. "Look at our president. Look at his policies." Michael didn't like that response. But get this: months later, after the war had started, he came up to me and said, "You know, you were right."

In early 1942, amid the hysteria of mobilization to fight the Japanese, Goodman sent an article to Partisan Review, an insufficiently pro-war article that got him blackballed from that premier progressive periodical. The piece contained this sentence:
By the war I do not mean something subsequent to the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the activity of decades which has adapted itself with such astonishing smoothness to the present world-wide national unities.
From today's perspective, it doesn't seem all that astute an insight to note that Pearl Harbor and World War II were decades in the making. But it took a bit more acuity, more awareness to realize that 9/11 also had a long back story—that those attacks came as the climax of a long series of important and troubling events, many of which were not considered news in the United States (and some of which, Langley only knows, may still be secret). I think it goes without saying that Paul Goodman would have been one of those who understood this immediately.

By the way, I found this quote in the intro to the newly released version of New Reformation: Notes of a Neolithic Conservative (originally published in 1970) put out by the indispensable PM Press.

And by the way, I never ended up doing any temping. Budge only for folding money!

"It's a free country"

One of the great things about reading Paul Goodman in 2010, half a century after he first found fame, is how it can open one's eyes to where we are and where we've come from as a society. Listening to his words—tuning into that most unusual frequency from which he broadcast—can flood the imagination with possibilities. Not least with the possibility to imagine.

Drop the needle, for example, on a passage of Goodman's political theory. Here's a snippet about freedom from "The May Pamphlet" (1945):
Free action is to live in present society as though it were a natural society. This maxim has three consequences, three moments:

1) In the spheres which are in fact free and natural, we exercise personal excellence and give mutual aid.

2) In many spheres which seem to be uncoerced, we have nevertheless been trapped into unnatural ways by the coercion that has formed us; for example, we have become habituated to the American timetable and the standard of living, though these are unnatural and coercive through and through. Here the maxim demands that we first correct ourselves.

3) Finally, there are those natural acts or abstentions which clash openly with the coercive laws: these are the 'crimes' which it is beholden on a free man to commit, as his reasonable desire demands and as the occasion arises.
After nine years of Enduring Freedom in the Graveyard of Empires, how degraded and tiresome that word "freedom" has become. But what a definition of freedom we have here! How far is this from the way we live now? Or lived then, for that matter? But how much further has the "organized system" progressed in 50 years?

On the other hand, what forms of coercion have disappeared? After all, when my mother was a teenager she wore a bikini on the Coney Island boardwalk and was cited for indecent exposure!

And how did Goodman himself clash against coercive norms? I'm guessing he's thinking in part about the draft, which he urged people to resist, and the whole World War II war effort, which he loathed. But his "crimes" of freedom went much deeper than that: Goodman's novel Parents' Day (1951) thinly fictionalizes his most notorious transgression, that of seducing his male students at a boarding school. I'm not exactly sure such an act is to be condoned: but this is why Goodman is so valuable a figure. It's not just that he talked such a good game about freedom; he backed it up by acting and living like a free person. How many of us really do that?

Paul Goodman Changed My Life

Paul Goodman Changed My Life is the first documentary about Paul Goodman, the late social critic, poet, philosopher of education, or, as he called himself, "man of letters in the old-fashioned sense."
Paul Goodman Changed My Life is now showing in select cities. Click here to find the nearest screening location.

JetBlue and Professional Satisfaction

As the world now knows, JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater quit his job last week in the most outlandish way possible: Grabbing a beer and whooshing down the emergency slide to freedom.

What I found interesting about the whole thing was not Slater himself (although he sounds awesome - totally invited to my next birthday party), but rather the reaction the rest of us had. It was immediate, visceral, and overwhelmingly positive. He’s been called a hero. He’s been offered his own reality show. We love him.

So what’s the reason for all that attention? I think it comes from two sources: One, we’ve all secretly longed to try out that slide; and two, we all know what it’s like to have an awful job.

It’s one of the things that interests me most about Paul Goodman. “I have learned to have very modest goals for society and myself, things like clean air, green grass, children with bright eyes, not being pushed around, useful work that suits one's abilities, plain tasty food, and occasional satisfying nookie,” he once wrote. How many of us can really say we consider not being pushed around and useful work that suits one’s abilities to be “modest goals”? But the way we’ve largely rallied around Slater suggests that the professional satisfaction Goodman is talking about isn’t a luxury, but a deep-seated need.


Howl is an upcoming biopic of Beat-generation poet/poster-boy, Allen Ginsberg, portrayed by James Franco. The film, written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeremy Friedman, is structured around the 1957 "Obscenity Trial," a landmark case that was spurred by the controversy of Ginsberg’s poem "Howl" and would later serve as a key legal precedent in guaranteeing First Amendment rights for controversial literary works.

While Allen Ginsberg (along with his famed compatriot Jack Keruaoc) are continually celebrated today as the Great Beats of the late 1950s – the making of Howl is evidence enough of this fact --  it should be noted that Paul Goodman was very much as significant a “man of letters” as any of them.  In fact, Goodman and Ginsberg were personal colleagues, often attending the same literary events and reciting at the same poetry readings.  In their own time, Goodman was just as popular, prolific, and inspirational as the Ginsbergs and Kerouacs, but his untimely death has somewhat muddled this legacy.  It’s a shame that Goodman is not as celebrated as his Beat peers.  I suspect, too, that Goodman will not have a part in the film, though he very much should.  Nonetheless, Howl (the film) should prove to be a very insightful portrayal of the time and circumstance that both Ginsberg and Goodman were responding to.

Currently, the film is showing at international film festivals, and will be released nationwide on September 24, 2010.

See the trailer here.

Paul Goodman's West Coast Counterpart

Samuel Morris Steward (1909-1993) was something like a California counterpart to Paul Goodman.  Steward was an English professor, controversial essayist (under the pen-name Ward Starnes), prolific novelist of gay pulp fiction (under the pen-name Phil Andros) and tattoo-artist (as “Doc Sparrow”).  In his early years as a young novelist, he maintained a long friendship with Gertrude Stein, and met often with literary figures such as Thomas Mann and Andre Gide.   In the 1950s, Steward became an “unofficial collaborator” of  biologist/father of sexology Alfred Kinsey, contributing to Kinsey’s famous research.  In his later years, Steward became a renowned tattoo artist in the Bay Area, becoming the official artist for the Hell’s Angels.

Recently, author Justin Spring researched Steward’s life, and stumbled upon 80 boxes full of drawings, letters, photographs, sexual paraphernalia, manuscripts and other items.  After extensively studying this goldmine of archival material, Spring realized what he had in hands was a “secret history” of an otherwise unknown narrative of gay life in mid-twentieth century America.  Much like Goodman, Steward was a man of letters who was openly and proudly gay, and this was all long before the period of gay liberation and activism.  Spring’s book, entitled Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade is due out next month.

Cycling Copenhagen

Clarence Eckerson Jr.’s Cycling Copenhagen, Through North American Eyes is a fantastic short film that explores Copenhagen’s bicycle culture through the lens of Americans city-dwellers.  Through live testimonials, people from Boulder, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles marvel at how functional, safe, efficient, healthy, and environmentally friendly a bicycle-based city can operate.  Indeed, nearly 38% of all transportation trips in Copenhagen are done by bike.  Though that may seem an infrastructural impossibility in any major city in American today, the film’s ultimate message is a sort of call to arms to bicycle-supporters and policy-makers to push for more car-free/bicycle-focused cities.

Copenhagen might very well be the ideal city that public intellectual Paul Goodman envisioned in the early 1960s.  In 1961, he and his brother Percival wrote an essay, “Banning Cars in Manhattan,” that promoted a more car-free, pedestrian friendly NYC.  Though this proposal was never enacted, perhaps a focus on bicycles is a more plausible, practical approach to congestion problems.  Copenhagen is undoubtedly the model bicycle city, and let’s hope that our American cities can move in this direction.

Percival Goodman

Just as undeservedly forgotten as Paul Goodman was his brother, Percival, who was once the nation’s leading synagogue architect.  Between 1936-1979, Percival designed over fifty synagogues and religious buildings around the United States, including the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan; Congregation Adath Israel in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, and Shaarey Zedek in Detroit.  However, Percival was much better known in his time as an urban theorist who staunchly believed in rational city planning.  In fact, the Goodman Brothers together wrote extensively on American urban planning, such as in their manifesto Communitas, or in their article, “Banning Cars in Manhattan.”

A recent article in the NYTimes discusses how NYC neighborhoods, once rescued from blight, are in deterioration once again.  So, as NYC urban problems persist, so, too do the critical voices of the Goodman Brothers.

Goodman and Good Politics

I love my home state of Minnesota, but sometimes my fellow citizens from the Land of 10,000 Lakes make me shake my head in embarrassment. Minnesota Majority, a conservative political group, has recently performed a study showing that felons may have illegally voted in the 2008 Senate elections. The race, between Al Franken and Norm Coleman, was extremely close, and it took the state court to finally deem Franken (an outspoken Democrat) the victor.

Phil Carruthers, the director of the prosecution division of the Ramsey County attorney’s office, says that Minnesota Majority’s study is not credible. Nevertheless, Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty backs the study. As notes, this fable is already becoming part of “Conservative Mythology.”

This story may seem trivial, but it demonstrates the deep schism between conservatives and liberals in the US. No matter what one side does, the other accuses it of being misguided, malicious, or mischievous. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are immune to this thinking—I know I mistrust anything Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck say, but accept Bill Maher’s wisdom almost automatically. With this suspicion on both sides, it’s no wonder that politics has become so divided.

It’s bickering like this that makes me long for the world Paul Goodman imagined: locally-oriented communities where people make decisions based on personal gumption, not because of partisan alignment. In such a world, people would work toward building a thriving, cohesive environment, instead of focusing on trumping the “bad guys” on the other side of the Senate floor.

Read the article here.

More on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Last week I blogged about repealing the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the Senate. And it hasn’t sat right with me ever since. Of course, as a gay rights activist Paul Goodman would support repealing such a law. But, as a pacifist, he would object to sending young Americans—gay or straight—to fight wars. Goodman adhered to waging peace, promoting community development through humanitarian, nonviolent means. In fact, Goodman ended a poem with the phrase “make love, not war” in 1940, a generation before it was adopted by Vietnam War protestors.

Today we are still grappling with the dialectic of love and war. Many argue that war is necessary to keep America safe. Safe from what? Terrorists, nuclear weapons—all things either created for war or sprung as a direct consequence of US military efforts overseas. If America promoted a more loving foreign policy, as Goodman touted, the world would be more inclined to love us back.