Monday, September 30, 2013

Where There's a Will


Okay, I am going to get a little weird on you here.  But I really believe what I am about to tell you.  The world, the thing we call reality, the “what-is,” is basically just a bunch of “energies” roaming around, created and/or embodied by us and all sorts of other living and inanimate objects   Maybe Christians call these energies demons and angels.  Maybe the Ancient Greeks called some of these energies by other names, eros, furies, etc.  Often these energies get experienced and expressed as emotions.  Sometimes they are long lasting, like love and habitual anger.  Sometimes they are short lived like lust or quick frustration.  Sometimes large groups of people get inhabited by them—mobs, vigilantes, Occupiers, Tea Partiers.   It seems to me that to be a free and happy individual that we need to understand where our emotions come from.  Often we feel things that we are not intentionally producing ourselves.  Low-blood sugar, perhaps.  Tenseness from too little exercise, maybe. Anxiety at work.  But also we take on the emotions/energies of those around us.  Both sides of the Waco Branch Davidian conflict comes to mind as examples.  You know the phrases:  “Keep your head, while others around you are losing theirs.” And “Lack of planning, on your part, does not create an emergency, on my part.”  These sentences express ways that we try to deal with these forces.

Henry Ford

“Will” is one of the words we use to express some of these energies, especially the energies that we churn up within ourselves, gather and then focus into actions that we impose upon the world, upon all those other free-floating energies.  Waller Grant recently visited The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village.  These two places are monuments to human will acting upon the world and in some cases changing what we call reality, at least for a sizeable amount of time.  Henry Ford and his friend Thomas Edison were men of enormous wills.  But these men also noticed around them other great waves of energy; they were not alone.  There were Olds and Beinz and Diesel, the Wright brothers, Westinghouse and Tesla.  All these individuals were working, yes, as individuals, but they were also challenging, inspiring and feeding intellectually off each other and many others whose names we have forgotten.  Quotes from these guys attest to my theory, in part:

“Whether you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right. [Ford].
“Coming together is beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”     [Ford]
“Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal. [Ford]
“Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.  [Edison]
 “The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are:  Hard work, Stick-to-itiveness, and common sense.”  [Edison]
“If someday they say of me that in my work I have contributed something to the welfare and happiness of my fellow man, I shall be satisfied.”  [Westinghouse]
“If we worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance.”  [Orville Wright]
“I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine.  I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then, if possible, add my might to help on the future worker who will attain final success.” [Wilbur Wright]
“Our virtues and our failing are inseparable, like force and matter.  When they separate, man is no more.”  [Tesla]
“The spread of civilization may be likened to a fire; first, a feeble spark, next a flickering flame, then a mighty blaze, ever increasing in speed and power.”  [Tesla]

I suppose I could develop all this into some great theory, that understanding the full round of what we call success is somehow measured by how our individual wills relate to the will of the world around us.  Categories could go something like:

·      A person without will:  These are all those folks who just kind of live, go along, and die.  I am not judging here.  Good god, what would we do if everyone were rushing around trying to change the world?
·      A person with some will, but not enough to really break out with-or-against the world:  I would be one of those people, a lot of people would be, maybe most people.   We don’t need to be regarded as “great,” as “heroes,” but we want to stand for something.   Heck, just to keep a job, graduate from college, write a book, save enough money to pay for your children’s education requires from us a certain amount of will.
·      A person with will but totally incompatible with the world’s will:  I think of Robert E. Lee and The Texans in the Alamo.  Here, it depends on how you look at these instances—one can be out of tune in the short term, but in tune in long term (Jesus); or in tune briefly, but out of tune in the long run (Hitler). 
·      A person with will but about a generation ahead of the world’s will:  Vincent Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, the Suffragettes. 
·      A person with will and just ahead of the gathering will of the world.  Ford, Edison, and just about every person we consider great, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln, FDR, Reagan. Steve Jobs.  

Knightsmama and Captain Crunch with Thomas Edison

Why am I thinking about all this?  Part of it is just being around the legacy of Henry Ford.  Part of it is seeing Detroit and contemplating what happened there.  How could the collapse of that city have been prevented?  Scott Martelle, in Detroit:  A Biography, seems to say (in very simplified summary) that the causes were 1) the citizens never dealt honestly and straightforwardly with the racism, and 2) the city fathers allowed the economy of the city to depend too greatly on just the automobile industry, so when it went sour in the seventies, there was nothing to fall back on.  Perhaps I can theorize that people with ill will exercised that ill will upon the city and its citizens, or that the citizens gloried in their ignorance and irresponsibility and did nothing.   Another theory is that people with good will neglected and abandoned the city, and that a strong person with enlightened vision did not impose his or her will upon all those scattered and desperate energies in the city.  Still a third is that the will of world, the great mystical forces of the universe decided Detroit had had its time and its era of greatness was over—nothing anyone could do could have changed history—the era of industrialization in the US is over.   Which is it?  I don’t know. 
Another reason I am thinking about these things is that I have been reading a book that my friend Doug Dawson gave me for my 60th birthday:  The Port Huron Statement, by Tom Hayden.  Doug gave me this book more or less as a joke because he participated in my birthday party which, because, also more or less as a joke, I had begun growing my hair and beard for this year on the road in the Caravan of Wonder,  and I had developed a faint resemblance to the Jeff Bridges and The Dude.  For my 60th birthday, a bunch of us bowled, drank White Russians, and said “Fuck,” a great deal.  Just for the record, I am an extremely fortunate person to have as many great friends as I have, and I am an embarrassment as a bowler.
Just for the fun of it, therefore, when Waller Grant left Detroit, we did so by driving through Port Huron and crossed over into Canada.  As sixty, I have no war to run away from; I am more or less pleased with my President, but “Canada,” as a idea has always existed for me, and I suppose for others of my generation, as a place to run to when the crazies finally take over.
So we drove through Port Huron, Michigan, and I’ve been reading The Port Huron Statement, which the real Dude claimed to have written, well, at least contributed to an early draft. 
            In May, 1962, about sixty students from various universities, many of them associated with the Students for Democratic Society, gathered in an FDR park, now a state park, just outside of Port Huron.  Tom Hayden, young, fresh faced from the University of Michigan, was supposed to show up with a brief, pithy statement, perhaps of a half dozen pages, that would serve as the manifesto, maybe as a recruiting tool, for these idealistic youngsters.  Instead, he arrived with a fifty-page, single spaced document.  For five days  these determined and committed citizens discussed, argued, yawned (I assume), edited and more or less agreed on ideas and language that would eventually be mimeographed thousands of times  and distributed for 35 cents.  This is how one changes the world, eh? 
Well, it kind of is.  When The Port Huron Statement was written, I was a little league loving nine-year old boy in Birmingham, Alabama.  My parents, polite, middle-class racists, protected me from Martin Luther King and the troubles just over the hill from our segregated community.  By the time I had gotten to the University of Texas in the early seventies, the SDS had splintered and broken apart, but the nation was still fighting in Vietnam and Nixon was still in the White House, so there seemed there was always some meeting on campus.  I have to admit, I deliberately avoided any and all political meetings, even though my minor was government.  I certainly wasn’t a Republican, but I wasn’t then, and never have been, a radical. The student leaders I met in class—I just didn’t like them. I think what I was offended by was the confidence, the egotism, and the blatant displays of will that I observed in those leading, or attempting to lead.  Still, today I am suspect of any person who shows up to a meeting—be it a civic or work related—and wants quickly and completely to change the way things have always been done.   
Today, in reading The Port Huron Statement, I regret that I had not read the document earlier in my life.  It is a full and, I think, accurate critique of what was wrong then and, in many cases, what continues to be wrong with our nation. Yes, this document is idealistic, and I suspect we will never see its agenda fulfilled.  But it is not some dreamy mishmash of undergraduate longing.  Rather it is an intelligent description and analysis, supported by facts. And it is fairly wide ranging, looking at social policy, the economy, international relations, and more.  One surprise for me was its critique of labor and labor unions.  While proclaiming the importance of labor as an organized force for democracy in the history of the United States, the PHS pinpoints problems with the elitism of labor union leadership and future difficulties as the nation shifts from being an industrial-based economy.  Another surprise was its admission, up front, that the writers of the document were economically and culturally comfortable.  In one sense, there was no reason whatsoever for these people to become committed to the politics of the left.  College-educated, from middle-class and affluent families, their future comfort was assured.  But they opened their eyes and saw the racial horrors of the nation and the international situation balanced on the edge of mutually assured destruction.
One of the amazing things, in reading the document, is how much of its agenda has been achieved or at least how much movement has occurred in the past fifty years.  The SDS was created, in part, to support voting rights for African Americans, and today we have an African American President.  Regardless of all that remains to be done concerning race relations in the US, this fact is huge.  We can also throw in the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Environmental Protection Agency, and OSHA.  The Cold War, another important facet of the manifesto, has ended, though, obviously, not in the manner envisioned.  Still, their goal “Universal controlled disarmament [of nuclear weapons] must replace deterrence and arms control as the national defense goal” still seems to me a worthy goal.  We can add other improvements that were not foreseen but did grow from the sympathies of the PHS agenda—such as, equality for women and other less enfranchised groups.  Added together, we have a fairly different world.   Would some of these changes have occurred without The Port Huron Statement?  Certainly.  But that is not really my point.
My point is that this document is an emblem of a group of people who sat around and created a vision for a better world, and then through a clear expression of that vision, in this document, inspired others into action.  We are surrounded by people who do this kind of thing with technology, with art and literature, with video and computer games, and with politics.  This is how we change our world, for better or worse.  I happen to agree with more of this document than, most likely, I would of the McDonalds Business Plan for 1962, or more especially the McDonald-Douglas Business Plan.  People with a vision and a strong will face and overcome many and various obstacles to achieve what people fifty years later will just consider common sense and inevitable. 
And it occurs to me that I really need to examine what could be described as my political cowardice for not being an active member in “participatory democracy,” a key concept in the PHS.  I like voting; I believe deeply in voting—although I certainly don’t vote every opportunity I have.  But just as deeply I dislike sitting in a room listening to everyone’s current worry, their rehashing each infraction to their sensitive nature, their discussing endlessly their existential angst that their pet project is still not on the agenda.  Even more, I dislike watching those in charge, like boards and councils, listening politely to the fearful and angry knowing all along that they will either capitulate to the desires of the rich and entrenched or follow their own fearful and angry agendas.  I can watch and listen to all this on a personal, one-to-one basis.  I can sometimes tolerate it as a process at work.  But, civically, I just can’t stand the drama of it.  Is this apathy? 
And then I wonder if this entire trip, the year of the Caravan of Wonder, is it merely an indulgence?  We drive around and look at things, read something related, eat and drink at some locally owned joint, park, sleep, and move on.  What’s the point?  So The Port Huron Statement has made me feel a little guilty.  What about my will?  What will it be focused on in a year, for the next decade?   I feel so out of sync with much of the world and its desires. 
I will end with something from Thomas Edison.  He wrote, “Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution.  Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.”  This seems to me to be a statement that would be perfectly at home in The Port Huron Statement.  If only we all had the will to make it so.


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