There is a widely held, and I think well founded, belief that self-knowledge
can be very empowering and/or therapeutic. I wholeheartedly agree, except
that I would replace
"self-knowledge" with something like
"a discipline of self-knowledge, self-integration, and self-design".
"Knowing" as a way of relating to the self is inadequate and potentially stupefying. The self will simply not sit still and be studied and analyzed. To imagine that it will is profoundly dis-empowering.
This "discipline of self-knowledge, self-integration, and self-design" pretty well summarizes what I'm trying to do when journalizing or writing an autobiographic sketch.
The idea that this "discipline of self-knowledge, self-integration, and self-design" could apply to society is, perhaps, the heart of my attitude towards history.
The historical view of our own lives: the piecing together of events and fitting them into an interpretative framework, is an important part of this discipline. Maybe a way to express this is "if you don't write your own history, it will write you". Perhaps that is just a glib phrase.
A primary (and biologically rooted) way that an individual, or a community, becomes more "centered" and coherent is by the spinning of narrative. Likewise it is one of the strongest ways of throwing off disorders (of individuals or of societies), of suiting oneself to a new environment, of healing oneself after a tragedy (again, apply this to societies as well as individuals). Narratives are sometimes interpretive accounts of what I, or we, or someone else, has been through. At other times, a narrative is an invented parable or story with a point, or a moral -- sometimes presented frankly as an invention, but quite often disguised as an actual happening.
I am interested, in case you're wondering, in the origins of the Civil War, but I mean to work my way forward from about 1828 or 1830, and try to view each half decade or so as it would be viewed by the people of that time, not teleologically looking towards the Civil War [Look up quote from the beginning of Wiebe's Opening of America (or something like that)].
The first thing that got me into reading history on my own was being on Harvard Square, Cambridge, for some reason, and picking up Stephen F. Cohen's Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (a book for which Gorbachev specially sought to meet Cohen) and after that, for several years, I read about the strange growth of the Soviet state.
I am always interested in the spontaneous growth, or creation, of something; some movement, institution, or body of knowledge.
After spending ten years pursuing (in a hobbyist's way; not in my current unpaid career-ish way), the study of something awful and tragic, I got interested in how institutions that are not totally psychotic evolve, which lead me eventually to the Early American Republic.
The beginning of that awakening experience was March, 1983, when I took the old "est" training of Werner Erhard and Associates. Actually they just called it "the training". I have not been involved with that organization, or its successor, Landmark Education, for several years, but still believe that it teaches something fundamental about living and being human.
What it teaches either can't be put into words, or it can, sort of, but the words don't do the job. Somehow something outside of language is demonstrated in those programs. If I am ever able to convey it in words, that will be the achievement of a lifetime.
If I told you you were going to die some day, you'd probably say "I know that already". But suppose you had the experience of "knowing" one day that you had one month to live, and lived with that for a month, then got a sudden reprieve from this death sentence. We hear of people having had such experiences who later say "I never really know that my life is finite".
A less profound example of knowledge that won't communicate in words is the difference between knowing the physics of riding a bicycle (most of us don't, so we have to imagine that), and having in your body the knowledge of how to ride a bicycle. Does anyone imagine that, knowing the physics of how to ride a bicycle, and never having ridden one, a person would get on a bicycle and not fall the first time?
These programs that used to be called "est" convey something that for some people is totally new, and for others is familiar, but convey it in a special way that is like intensely lived experience, which no mere statement could convey.
Soon after "the training", I signed on for another, even more intense experience, with the not very revealing name "The Six Day Course", that I like to call a "pie in the face" encounter with what it is to be a human being, I had this sense of "shit or get off the pot" about my life; or, to put it less crudely, "Stop daydreaming; stop putting your dreams in one compartment and your actual life in another".
This lead to two dramatic moves which eventually came to cross purposes. One was to sign up for what sounded like a very special and interesting tour of the Soviet Union, as a way to get more "real" about my interest in Soviet history.
About the same time, though, I went to a fundraiser and learned of a program called Youth at Risk which I could see was literally saving lives of "at risk" teenagers; winning them away from their destructive and self-destructive ways, and I pledged $100 a month, by far the biggest contribution to a "cause" I ever made. Near the same time, I signed up for a two week tour of the Soviet Union, under what seemed like excellent guidance, and started learning Russian.
Some time after making that pledge, I heard that the Youth at Risk program would soon be launched in New York City; previously it had only operated in Oakland, CA. A very likable middle aged woman artist who was part of the volunteer group to create it, told me there was a meeting that night in New York. I asked if she knew of anyone involved from New Jersey, and she told me of someone working in the same building, at Bell Labs, Holmdel, with me. So I was off to the races, riding with these two real "pieces of work" as they say in New Jersey, Nick, and Jens (to be described later, perhaps).
The meeting turned out to be a special one, in which serious support from the parent body of Youth at Risk was being inaugurated for the first time. There was a woman there from California who took charge of the meeting who transformed it from a group of whiny volunteers to a credible facsimile of a group that was going do go into the awfullest slums of New York and save lives.
I had a kind of epiphany then. For several years I had had nothing but half relationships with women. There might be sex (occasionally), or a spiritual and intellectual fellowship, or some odd kind of love for an attractive crazy woman ten or fifteen years older than me, but no viable romance.
So I was watching this nice looking woman, about my age, named Maggie, who was ready and able to move mountains. The epiphany was realizing that, while rationally, I had a high opinion of myself, I didn't really see myself as capable, as in any way comparable with this Maggie. I carried around a dream of doing something really big and positive, but when I see someone really living that way, I was afraid to even think of myself on the same plane with them.
It seemed to me then that the only difference between her and me was action. She was acting on the world, while I, "believing in" "serving humanity in some way", was waiting for the way to do it that would "speak to me".
One thing she asked for was for someone from the New York group to fly out to California to be a volunteer in a ten day long intervention in the lives of "at risk" teens in Oakland, and I said then and there I would do it. I had no thought of chasing after Maggie - none to speak of, anyway; rather she had just furnished me with a revelation of why I did not measure up in my own eyes, and, as a symptom, didn't expect any real relationship of equals, romantic or otherwise, with someone I would admire and be excited by.
I thought something like "I don't know what's most right for me to do in the world, but until I do, I need to challenge myself to do something that I would strongly admire in another." To help save some few teenage lives fit the bill, and nothing else I could think of just then did.
That nixed my Soviet educational vacation plans. There was a direct time conflict, and I needed something immediate; not another (however grand) piece of the puzzle of my "real destiny".
Over the months leading up to the Youth at Risk "10 Day Program", I became what some other volunteers affectionately called a "committed fool", picking people up at airports, and driving around Brooklyn with my own TV and VCR to assist other people in making presentations.
Before going on, I should try to explain what a Youth at Risk program is. At the core of it is a teaching of that same lesson I spoke of before. Perhaps the Youth at Risk setting actually helps to clarify it. The people who show up at this program are used to thinking of themselves as victims. The point of the program isn't that they are or aren't victims; it is simply to show people that is is deadly to think of oneself as a victim, and to give them the experience of the strength, vitality, love, and sense of self-expression that can come from basically saying "I am my dream. I dare to dream something and say 'I will make this happen', and that promise is who I am." The youths who participate in Y.A.R. start out very far from that sort of attitude -- about as far as possible. Within a few days though, they become a community of people living that sort of proclamation about themselves.
Now suppose that is possible, just for a moment. One is apt to be pessimistic about the long-term effects; they're going back to their old environment. How much difference can ten days make? I think the pessimism, though, is based on a model that says we've for ten days, inculcated some new habits. But that is not what is going on at all.
In fact, they now know something they didn't know before of such a nature as to change their subsequent lives. Once you learn to ride a bicycle, you don't unlearn it. Balance is not a habit; it is a kind of knowledge. From my experience, it seems that it is possible to get a group of people into such a frame of mind for a few days, and it does leave them with a new knowledge that has important permanent effects.
People have two especially distinct modes of being. We can be leaders and creators, or we can follow or react. People aren't in any absolute sense, born to play one or the other role. Actually, "playing a role" or "following a script" is the very essence of being a follower. My own mind objects that "great actors" don't necessarily seem like followers, but I think the answer to that is that great actors don't "follow" a script so much as they manage to recreate it. So what, ideally, does a leader do, if not play a role? I say a leader is constantly on the alert for what is possible; is open to the possibility of doing things very differently from the way they have been done.
In tight, tribe-like communities of preliterate people, it is not a good thing for too many people to be expressing the possibility of being a leader. Maybe there are different leaders in different situations and contexts, but there can be at most a few. A preliterate community needs to "keep a taut ship". Most people need to be practicing those roles that have proven to work in their current environment -- not dreaming up new roles; new ways to act; not inventing new technologies. The collective memory of an illiterate community is pretty small. It has no way of maintaining an attic full of novelties that "look like they may be useful some day".
In the modern world it is very different. No one, or at least no one who will look out for your interests will tell you what to do. There is no one of whom you can unconditionally become a follower. There are outbreaks of cultism, in which a group cuts itself off from the world and follows a leader in all things, but we do not want to be a part of that, do we? But leaving that aside, in the modern world, our search for leaders to follow is bound to leave us somewhat confused.
People who thrive in the modern world must, to some extent at least, eschew role-playing, and find within themselves the creator or leader.
As I go on, it may seem like I'm looking for a sort of philosophical essence of leadership. Really, I think I'm looking for a sort of outline of a structure within the mind.
It has been known for a long time that there is a structure in the minds of certain birds that leads them to try to relate to the first thing they see moving as their mother. This mechanism "works" if that first thing they see move is their mother; e.g. they expect to be fed by it, and later follow it around. And that happens to work if, as usually happens, the first living thing to meet their eyes is their mother.
In people, too, I believe there are structures in the brain, and consequent ways of acting and thinking which, though "built-in", are triggered, and shaped or customized by something we perceive around us. And whereas the baby bird will always find some object to regard as its mother, some of these structures can lie dormant all ones life if not "unlocked" by some sort of "key".
I advance the proposition that the creative artist, and those who tend to be called "true leaders" (not just managers) function that way, in part, by releasing a way of being that exists in embryo in everyone, but is normally blocked, or locked up.
It isn't about telling people what to do. People who tell other people what to do are not necessarily leaders; some are only managers. They are every bit as much role-players as a worker on an assembly line. Perhaps the most natural expression of this aspect of being is to think for the community; especially where a creative response to a crisis is called for. But other expressions exist even in illiterate tribal cultures. These societies from time to time bring forth inventors, or discoverers of new ways of life, as well as those we would call artists. (I suspect the tendency to create art is a kind of safety valve for the creative potential. The fact that it can be diverted away from attempting to take hold of, and lead, the community creates useful results, and allows for smoother transitions within a community than would be possible if seizing control of the community were the only expression of the creative tendency).
This notion of creative leadership as potential, to some extent, in everyone, but normally dormant or diverted, helps account for the phenomenon of the unlikely individual "rising to the occasion".
There are precedents for this sort of "hidden possibility" in nature. What happens when the queen bee of a hive dies? A worker bee somehow "gets the call" to transform her body into that of queen bee. This mechanism deserves some careful thought. Can it be guaranteed that there is but one worker bee primed for the possibility of becoming the queen bee? I don't think so. Rather, one gets a slight lead on the other candidates, and the other candidates, sensing this, block their potential development into the queen bee.
Much closer to the mark, Listening to Prozac cites studies on ape communities that show high levels of seratonin in "alpha males", or group leaders; moreover, increasing the blood level of seratonin in a submissive male can cause him to become the dominant male in the group.
There are other examples in nature, such as androgynous reptiles that assume the role of one sex or the other as circumstance demands.
A self-organizing system is like a coin, which, in the "normal" condition, is either heads or tails. Some circumstances, like throwing the coin in the air, put it in a state of flux. Normally though, it is quite stable in whatever state it happens to be in.
Part of the point of this digression is to help explain what I have observed in Youth at Risk, and related programs.
After volunteering in the Oakland "Ten Day Program", I spent several months working with the New York volunteer program. First there was fund-raising; then there were presentations to be made to potential partner organizations. These "partners" were stable organizations with a long-term relationship with the youths that we would work with. They had to be so committed as to send some of their full-time employees to participate in the program with the youths. When the program actually went on, one of our partner organizations was the New York Department of Probation. Another was a school. So we had parole officers going through the program, and sleeping in cabins with, their parolees, and likewise teachers with their students. These "facilitators" as they were called, sometimes performed a special role in maintaining order, but much of the time, they were doing exactly the same things as the youths.
In the Oakland Ten-Day my main role was washing dishes, though, like all volunteers, I participated in certain physical activities (exercises and the very challenging ropes course).
In the New York program, I got to have a very privileged role, which was to be in the classroom all the time, making a record of everything that was said, or went on, there.
After this first New York Ten-Day Program, I made a personal commitment to make the program happen in New Jersey, and spent 2 years as founding chairman of what became the Newark Youth at Risk program.
After two years, I was unable to go on, and it was just a few weeks later that I lost a job due to excessive time spent working for Youth at Risk.
In the period when I was looking for a new job, in Spring of 1988, I first took a concrete step towards a project of communicating my attitude and insights towards history through storytelling. I took a course in screenplay writing, and began working on an imagined movie based on the American role, and particularly that of Gen. Joseph Stilwell, in the final disintegration of the old order in China, which led to its replacement by a Communist state.
In the late 70s and early 80s, I took various adult education type writing courses, and fancied I had some talent for short stories about the poignancy of human relationships. There was one story I worked on over several years, which some talented people encouraged me to believe had promise. It was about a failed romance (my last one, basically), and the glimpse it gave me of what it meant to have a mutually yielding relationship. Of course the glimpse came too late to do anything for that relationship. Anyway, I had some love for the process of writing, and maybe had some gift of understanding people, and talent for telling moving stories about them. But no particular stories, other than my own very limited stock, seemed to well up from my being, or wherever stories come from.
Why did I think I could write? And why did I have this thing about history?
I wanted to work at Bell Labs in New Jersey. Bell Labs was intrinsically very attractive. I had read about something called the 'C' programming language (which now, years later later, is virtually the language for commercial PC software development). It originated at Bell Labs. I was so taken by the 'C' language (and by the whole Bell Labs software design philosophy) that I bought the 34th copy of the first 'C' compiler to run on commercial (non Bell Labs) operating systems. This was for my employer at the time, an architecture firm which had a small computer (refrigerator size, which was considered small at the time). Besides the attractions of Bell Labs, there was my girlfriend, or former girlfriend, who got a job at one of the several Bell Labs locations in New Jersey.
I had the resources of the Ohio State University job placement department (or whatever it's called), which helped me make connections with companies that would fly me out to their sites for allay interviews.
I failed to get a job as an employee of Bell Labs, but was hired by a "consulting" company and contracted to Bell Labs. This is sometimes called "body shopping". It lets a company expand and shrink their labor force more than they want to do through hiring and firing (the latter can lead to lawsuits). It also let them hire anyone who can do the job, and relax their usual requirements to have a certain level and quality of higher education.
In January 1981, I drove from Columbus, Ohio, where I had just spent a few years in graduate school, to Neptune, in a Volkswagen "square back" (their old rear engine station wagon) with no heater on the coldest day of a very cold winter. The car was totally stuffed full. I had a little electrical defroster of a sort that car parts places sold. It plugged into the cigarette lighter, and was intended to defrost the rear window of a normal car, though no doubt many buyers were like me, owners of a VW with a rusted out heating system (replacements cost more than the car was worth).
The Jimmie Carter presidency was coming to an end; the Sandinistas had recently come to power in Nicaragua, Russians were meddling in a big and very destructive way in Afghanistan; Islamic fundamentalism was a recently arisen threat, and the Iranians were holding seventy-some American hostages; Walter Cronkite was still broadcasting ("Today is the Nth day of the Iranian hostage crisis").
There was a tendency towards a harsh nationalism in American politics, largely in reaction to what was going on in the world; also a sense that the "good guys", or what Reagan would call the "moral majority" needed ruthless heroes. The anti-war movement was deflated, and in its place were the black P.O.W./M.I.A. flags and copper bracelets. Then there were the Sylvester Stallone First Blood movies, reflecting need for vengeance against Vietnam.
In general, there was a growing glorification of violence; a sort of wallowing in the evilness of evil-doers to build up our sense of indignant rage, followed by a cathartic rush of revenge.
At the soft core level there were the Indiana Jones and Star Wars movies. Their approach to depictions of violence was somewhat old fashioned and good natured. The qualities I disliked, in retrospective analysis were
Bakshi was kind of a sensation for his earlier films, Fritz the Cat, and Heavy Traffic, both of which gave a cheerfully cynical view of all sorts of "taboo" goings on - sex, drugs, violence, in a seedy setting.
Wizards was set in a post nuclear war world that was divided into "good guy" and "bad guy" camps. The "good guys" had comic book perfect faces and bodies. Everyone who wasn't old appeared to be in a sort of golden youth, with a touch of elfish baby fat; the boyish men looked like gladiators; the females had little girl faces and absurdly voluptuous bodies. The "bad guys" of whom we were at first but darkly aware, were all mutants, with warty twisted faces, grotesque bodies, and sometimes bare bones sticking out from their flesh.
Each camp had its "wizard", and the wizard in the "bad" camp (or one of his henchmen) found, in the detritus of civilization, some old Nazi propaganda movies; something with masses of people marching stiffly, looking ferocious; military music, and the like, and it charged up all the masses of ugly bad guys until they just about overran the good guys, and I don't recall what saved the good guys; at any rate, the good guys overran and annihilated the bad guys in the end.
The trouble with all this is the image of the good guys, and that of the bad guys is exactly how the Nazis saw themselves and their enemies, respectively. Themselves: physically graceful, pure denizens of a society with organic connections to our pastoral past, menaced by the "degenerate" races of the world -- the Jews foremost. The "pure" society must respond by wiping out the purportedly deformed and ugly races.
To me, it seemed, Ronald Reagan understood the Soviet Union no better than did the "pinko" intellectuals of the 30s, or than Chamberlain understood Hitler, though his stubborn preconceptions went in the opposite direction from those of the "pinkos" or Chamberlain.
The Soviet Union was a dangerous phenomenon, but I think we have more to fear from its rotting corpse today than we had of the thing when it was alive. I think the danger was always that it was going to disintegrate in some fashion, leaving thousands of nuclear weapons in the midst of a chaotic and immature society.
Today people like Ronald Reagan and George Bush go around crowing about how we "won the Cold War". Instead of gloating, there was a desperate need to help a society undergo transformations the likes of which have never been seen before, and overnight grow up into a mature democratic society, before it went totally out of control. Those people (especially the Russians) are likely to blame their misery on others, especially others who go around gloating about "beating them".
A potentially powerful nation is never so dangerous as when it is beaten down, bereft of responsible leaders, with the rest of the world complacently gloating over its low state; especially when there are strong traditions of cruelty and/or militarism. Witness France around 1790, which seemed to be tearing itself apart one moment, and conquering the world the next. The same for Germany between the world wars; and a somewhat different, but close, dynamic was at work in Russia during World War I, and China prior to World War II. Often when a nation is getting beaten nearly to death, it arises tempered, and paranoid about the rest of the world, and is exhilarated to find that its desperate strength is more than a match for the rest of the world.
Following the time I spent chairing Newark Youth at Risk, when I lost my first good job; in the six weeks that I was not working, I took a course in screen writing, and tried to make a start a conveying the experience of Joseph Stilwell in China, inspired partly by Barbara Tuchman's Stilwell and the American Experience in China, and some other reading I'd been doing.
Stilwell was a type I admired; a humane soldier and a builder; one who took great responsibility for the people entrusted to him -- who knew how to shape the most downtrodden Chinese peasants into soldiers who would fight and win. There was also the spectacle of feudal China being thrust into the modern world in a brutal way, and of a terroristic state growing (as usual) from a governmental vacuum. There were media moguls (Luce and company) entertaining the public with simplistic notions of what was going on, while a world collapsed behind the sometimes pretty, sometimes thrillingly melodramatic facade.
The idea was also attractive in part because it was set in one of the most foreign cultures imaginable (among civilized peoples at least), but it was the story of an American trying to wrestle with all this strangeness (hence something that Americans might be able to relate to).
At this point in time, if one had asked me what kind of story interested me the most; what I would hope to be able to convey myself, I would have said something about the meeting of two mutually incomprehensible cultures. The medieval knight and the Arab or Turk. The Russian and the Chinese, or the American and the Chinese; the American and the Russian, who are closer and may think they understand each other; the more recent meeting between the American and the Viet Namese.
China as a whole was characterized by a cruel lack of caring (parental, one might say - the good side of the coin of "paternalism") leadership. Stilwell tried, almost single handed, to build up such a culture of caring leadership. By the time I was done with my assault on this project, I had dreamed up two awful scenes to portray the "cruel lack of (parental) caring".
Stilwell had recently risen to the rank of general and beyond, in the brilliant shakeup of the army by George Marshall in the years preceding World War II. In his early years, he had served as liaison (attaché?) in China. He spoke the language fluently, and had a good understanding of, and sympathy for, Chinese culture. In 1939(?) he was given an assignment of unclear parameters; the job being more or less to, with his presence as a high ranking officer, impress the Chinese with U.S. commitment to them (without violating our neutrality towards Japan - very problematic); to advise and help modernize the Chinese military, with the help of a fair amount of material aid being shipped from the U.S.; and somehow to stiffen the resistance of the Chinese to Japanese expansion. He didn't want the job, knowing it was impossible as soon as the job description went out. Once placed in that responsible position, he stopped assessing it. It was no longer possible or impossible; it was simply his job to do.
Stilwell was perhaps most famous for delivering his whole party safely from the Japanese invasion and collapse of Burma, in a situation where deliverance appeared impossible.
Social Issues Found in History That Have Preoccupied Me:
Then there are times when a society is evolving in some particularly interesting way.
History as something other than either: