The Society I Live In Is Mine

Paul Goodman was a public figure who did not shrink from taking action in support of his beliefs. In the biopic PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE you'll see him alongside draft resisters; speaking out at peace rallies; going before the Board of Ed with radical reform proposals for New York City schools; advocating the banning of cars from Manhattan; and telling elite defense contractors they're the world's most dangerous men. Goodman's formal career in politics advanced no further than a school board position on Manhattan's west side. But his record makes clear that he took very seriously his public role as a political gadfly, an activist, or as he would probably have preferred to put it, a citizen.

There are hundreds of millions of people in the United States of America who are considered citizens in the legal sense. Yet how many of them vote in elections or speak their minds in public fora? How many believe, or behave as though they believe, that living in a democratic nation means they themselves participate in the heavy lifting of owning and operating the machinery by which the nation runs?

Goodman was a patriot in the tradition that defines patriotism as a conscientious quarrel, some go so far as to call it a lover's quarrel, with one's country. He also had an unusually strong sense of inner autonomy, inner sovereignty. Both these components seem to me necessary to explain from whence came PG's commitment to his community-anarchist citizenly activism. Being a writer and citizen of the republic of letters, much of his activism took the form of or was documented in his writing—not just his essays and books but his poems, speeches, even letters to the editor. In 1962 he published The Society I Live In Is Mine, a book largely composed of letters to the editor and similar public and private rantings. He said of these angry missives:
They are the squawks of a Citizen. The society in which I live is mine, open to my voice and action, or I do not live there at all. The government, the school board, the church, the university, the world of publishing and communications, are my agencies as a citizen....It is appalling how few people regard themselves as citizens, as society-makers, in this existential sense. Rather, people seem to take society as a preestablished machinery of institutions and authorities, and they take themselves as I don't know what, some kind of individuals 'in' society, whatever that means. Such a view is dangerous, because it must result in a few people being society-makers and exercising power over the rest.
The book is forgettable but valuable for the way it reveals its author's principled integrity and eccentric turns of mind. He complains to the Board of Ed about commercial brochures his son receives in his junior high school classroom. A few years later, when Matty's at Bronx Science, Goodman defends his son's refusal to take part in those ridiculous air raid drills ("I cannot ask him to move his feet in a way which he thinks to be senseless and evil"). He writes to the New York Times to defend Rachel Carson from the chemical industry's attacks. He speaks to a Lutheran group about liberalizing drug and pornography laws.

The preface to Growing Up Absurd ends with the peroration, "One has the persistent thought that if ten thousand people in all walks of life will stand up on their two feet and talk out and insist, we shall get back our country." That was in 1960. Did we get it back? I think it's fair to say that active citizenship and protest have become more common, even mainstream behavior in American life since the sixties. The popular perception is that activism petered out once the Vietnam war and the draft ended, but I think it actually grew and diversified (or splintered) in scores of directions. The right also eventually adopted the activist tactics developed by the left, and Messrs. Murdoch and Ailes have given them a media platform no leftist radicals could even dream of.

But even if we have more citizens squawking than we did before, apathy and apolitical consumerism (consumerism is the politics of the apolitical) remain rampant among the Americans. And with the economic squeeze that's taken place, the fact that we work 100-plus hours a year longer now than we did then, and you know how well we're getting by—well, who has time? A propos for our time-starved era, we have the new phenomenon of click-tivism—as in click here to "take action now!" Goodman would have hated this, both for how it insidiously attenuates human relations and how (as Micah White argues) it accepts the assumptions of marketing and market research.

Well, guess what? At a moment when Washington would have us believe we must choose between tearing big holes in the safety net (bye-bye decent poverty) or torpedoing the whole economy by blowing the nation's credit rating... Come on, society-makers, we better get squawking!