Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The evil reactor: The decent into insanity from Rosa Parks to David Brower

We are still working threw the legacy of the 1960's. During the 1960's is was fashionable to establish who you were by making a firm statement about what you were against. This development in turn grew out of the Civil Rights struggle in Alabama during the 1950's. Which brings use to Rosa Parks, who on December 1, 1955 refused to give up her bus seat to a white bus passenger in Montgomery. Parks was arrested for being an "uppity nigger," a crime which in the Alabama of 1955, was far worse than murder or rape. In fact, Parks was a representative American whose ancestors included European-Americans, Cherokee and Creek Indians and African-Americans. Parks was a modest person who believed that
Each person must live their life as a model for others.
Parks, did not intend to start a mass movement,
It was not pre-arranged. It just happened that the driver made a demand and I just didn't feel like obeying his demand. I was quite tired after spending a full day working.
Immediately a sense of outrage spread immediately through the black community of Montgomery, and that night 35,000 handbills were printer calling for a bus boycott. The Montgomery bus boycott soon found a leader, a black minister named Martin Luther King. King realized that American Network Television was looking for spectacle that could be filmed as news, and he soon discovered how to give them that.

The Civil Rights movement provided the news media with a simple dramatic story. I know from first hand observation how badly blacks were treated in the south, and as a child and a young man I had nothing but sympathy for the Civil Rights struggle, and admiration for both black leaders, and the ordinary people who were involved in that struggle. In that regard I was like many other idealistic young people. By refusing to give up her bus seat, Rosa Parks, a long time Civil Rights worker and attendee of the then notorious Highlander Folk School, was leading us into a new age.

Yet Parks was a simple person who said of her famous act of defiance, "I knew someone had to take the first step and I made up my mind not to move. " Her decision gave her courage, "I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear."

Parks followed a remarkably simple philosophy:
"I do the very best I can to look upon life with optimism and hope and looking forward to a better day, but I don't think there is anything such as complete happiness. It pains me that there is still a lot of Klan activity and racism. I think when you say you're happy, you have everything that you need and everything that you want, and nothing more to wish for. I haven't reached that stage yet."

Time Magazine named Rosa Parks, one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century. By all accounts, the recognition was well deserved.

The Civil Rights movement provided us with powerful images of brave leaders, and of men and women fighting against government oppression, and against evil. That image soon found imitators. If you could not participate in a Civil Rights demonstration, you could always protest against something else. The ill conceived Vietnamese War proved to be a good target. President Lyndon B. Johnson, had done more than any other American President to redress black grievances expressed by Civil Rights protesters, but he had made two unforgivable mistakes. First he had led the country into a deeper involvement in the Vietnam War. Secondly, he had lied to the country to the country and congress about the Tonkin Gulf incident, which had served as a pretext for authorization of that deeper involvement.

Johnson created the background for the Anti-War protest movement of the 1960's. The movement thrived on its self image as being in conflict with evil. But the issues involved were more complex. True the Vietnamese government was corrupt, Lyndon Johnson had been underhanded, and far to many American boys were dying, but the Vietnamese Communist were hardly a bunch of boy scouts. South Vietnam, for all the faults of its government, was a far freer country than the semi-Stalinist state of North Vietnam. As bad as the military dictators of South Vietnam, their worst moments could were far less evil than the every day political oppression practiced by Ho Chi Min and his associates.

The Anti-war movement was not about nuance, however. The war protests provided drama for participants and leaders, and for the media. Participants felt that they were in a struggle against evil as they shouted, "Hay, hay, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today." It never crossed their minds that Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Min might also have some responsibility for the dead kids. Protest leaders certainly did not encourage their followers to think critically and deeply about the issues targeted for protest. Although protests were ostensibly about moral issues, issues of right and wrong, people got juiced by involvement in protests, and getting juiced is problematic, because being juiced can be addictive. Protesting can stop being a clear cut issues of right and wrong, and become about the juice.

Protesting can be about being board, being lonely, and leading an empty and pointless life. Protest leaders can in it every much for the juice as members of the crowd. Eric Hoffer has given us well thought out studies of the mentalities of mass movements. Hoffer argued that personal weakness was often at the root of fanaticism. Hoffer understood the psychology of mass movements because he looked within himself. "In later interviews, he confessed that he saw himself as a potential mass leader – he had charisma, a way with words, and a cold heart towards his fellow human beings, all essential elements for leading large numbers of people and not caring what ultimately happens to them."

David Brower would have fit into Erric Hoffer's pantheon of true believers. Brower was an nature boy, an avid hiker and mountain climber, and a long time leader of an organization of harry chested nature enthusiasts, called the Sierra Club. Brower liked nature a great deal more than he did people, and he liked technology even less than he liked people. Brower believe that "all technology should be assumed guilty until proven innocent.”

Brower regarded himself as being special and believed that his love of nature gave him superior moral insight. He had an authoritarian streak, but there was in fact only one authority for Brower, Brower himself. Brower took himself very seriously, which is most unfortunate because many of his opinions were insane. Brower stated:
"Loggers losing their jobs because of Spotted Owl legislation is, in my eyes, no different than people being out of work after the furnaces of Dachau shut down."

Brower was often given to extreme hyperbole. He once stated,
"All I know about thermal pollution is that if we continue our present rate of growth in electrical energy consumption it will simply take, by the year 2000, all our freshwater streams to cool the generators and reactors.

At the heart of Brower's complaints was a mistrust of people and what they do and would do with energy. Brower stated, I will say this, - though: If it is true that fusion will put unlimited amounts of energy into our hands, then I'm worried. Our record on this score is extremely poor.

Statements like these should be our clue on Brower. Brower was given to making extreme and morally repugnant statements:
"Childbearing [should be] a punishable crime against society, unless the parents hold a government license... All potential parents [should be] required to use contraceptive chemicals, the government issuing antidotes to citizens chosen for childbearing."

"While the death of young men in war is unfortunate, it is no more serious than the touching of mountains and wilderness areas by humankind."

Brower acknowledged his own fanaticism:
"The Sierra Club made the Nature Conservancy look reasonable. I founded Friends of the Earth to make the Sierra Club look reasonable. Then I founded Earth Island Institute to make Friends of the Earth look reasonable. Earth First! now makes us look reasonable. We're still waiting for someone else to come along and make Earth First! look reasonable."

In an era like the 1960's when protesting was much admired and had become in effect a form of being and a style of life, Brower set a standard for fanaticism that few could match.

If Rosa Parks, who was by all accounts a gentile humane person, who stood on her dignity led us into the 1960's, David Brower, was destined to be a major force leading us out of it. And as much as he loved Nature, David Brower loved himself even more. David Brower was a narcissist. David Brower was no Rosa Parks.


Anonymous said...

Another fascinating essay. Spurred on by interest in your writing about Eric Hoffer, I found this passage in his Wikipedia entry:

"Hoffer's insights into the consequences of a lack of self-esteem also informed his later writings. His 1963 book The Ordeal of Change discusses change and modernization in society. His 1971 book First Things, Last Things was a collection of essays published at a time in which young middle-class American youth were undergoing an increasing attraction to mass movements, whether political, religious, or subcultural, as well as a rapid increase in youth crime. In these and other books, Hoffer continued to build upon his earlier insights. In Hoffer's view, rapid change is not a positive thing for a society, and too rapid change can cause a regression in maturity for those who were brought up in a very different society than what that society has become. He noted that in the 1960s America had many young adults still living in extended adolescence. Seeking to explain the attraction of the New Left protest movements, he characterized them as the result of widespread affluence which, in his words, "is robbing a modern society of whatever it has left of puberty rites to routinize the attainment of manhood." He sees these puberty rites as essential for self-esteem, and notes that mass movements and juvenile mindsets tend to go together to the point that anyone, no matter what age, who joins a mass movement immediately begins to exhibit juvenile behavior. He further notes that the reason working class Americans did not by and large join in the 1960s protest movements and subcultures was they had entry into meaningful labor as an effective rite of passage out of adolescence, while both the very poor on welfare and the affluent are, in his words "prevented from having a share in the world's work and of proving their manhood by doing a man's work and getting a man's pay" and thus remained in a state of extended adolescence, lacking in necessary self-esteem, and prone to joining mass movements as a form of compensation. Hoffer suggested that this need for meaningful work as a rite of passage into adulthood could be fulfilled with a 2-year civilian national service program (not unlike the earlier programs during the Depression such as the Civilian Conservation Corps), in which all young adults would do two years of work in fields such as construction or natural resources work. He writes: 'The routinization of the passage from boyhood to manhood would contribute to the solution of many of our pressing problems. I cannot think of any other undertaking that would dovetail so many of our present difficulties into opportunities for growth.'"

Rod Adams said...

Interesting insights, Charles.

As an aside - my favorite anti-nuclear target, Amory Lovins, started his career as a disciple of Brower and as the Friends of the Earth representative in the UK.

It still is interesting how he got from there to a major article in Foreign Affairs in November 1976, just in time to have a bit of influence in the Presidential election that brought us Jimmy Carter.

Charles Barton said...

Rod, I will probably take a look at Lovins in due course, but Ralph Nader might end up higher on my target list.

Left Atomics said...

I bet to disagree on much of what Charles wrote in his blog. I actually think Hoffer is typical of a yuppie-shrink rationalizers that popup now and again to "explain" the 1960s. For people like Hoffer, and others, it's as if life started nicely in 1950 and then something 'went wrong'. Thus the search for explanations.

I think the 1960s was a result of the issues that Charles so elequently talked about: racism and war. The anti-war movement was a direct slide by many of the same activists active in both the 1950s and mid-1960s civil rights movement. Now...with the then new widespread technology of television.

The radicalization of the 1960s had little do with "puberty", delayed or otherwise, but with real issues of the day, especially the war. If one doesn' realize this, then one is bound to come to the same useless conclusions conservatives did at that time.

On vietnam and Ho chi-mihn. Can't argue with the assesement Charlies you give of Ho, but you miss the point. One cannot equate the seemingly barbaric tactics of the Vietnamese...fighting what was an extension of their century long struggle for national liberation from the French and place an equal sign between Ho and his supporters and the US, which simply replaced the French under the guise of anti-communism, which was what the Pentagon tried to do, unsuccesfully.

The Vietnamese supported the communists. Eisnehower admitted as much in the middle of this term. It didn't matter to our rulers then. Democracy, overeas, certainly didn't matter. The Vietnamese struggle, even under the Stalinists of the Vietnamese Communist Party, was still a legitmate struggle against an illigitimate foe: us. As hard as that is to admit.


Charles Barton said...

David your remarks are terribly confused, How can a working class guy, who had vision problems, who lived in a very modest apartment all his life, and who wrote original books in social theory, be a typical of a yuppie-shrink rationalizers? I think you have him confused with some one else? Hoffer certainly did not write the true Believer as an ex post facto explanation of the 1960's. Indeed I read the The True Believer as a teenager in the late 1960's. Hoffer was trying to explain the rise of fascism and communism, and even Christianity, since St. Paul was one of his prototypes. I can understand your discomfort with Hoffer, who might hit a little too close to home for you. What I am critiquing is not the anti-war movement, which I see not in terms of black and white, but in terms of shades of gray. Rather I am pointing to a darker tone, the tendency to see thing that were gray, as either black or white. I see this as a great evil. You ought, some day, to read mu discussion of Antonio Gramsci's influance on Rush Limbaugh.

If one ignore the psycho-pathologies of leaders, be they right wing, left wing or pragmatic, then we continue to believe them when they are clearly lying. Don;t tell me that the left is imune to believing lies from left wing leaders. I do not think that there is amy ideological mandate that will allow us to comfortably to ignore the dishonesty of our leaders.

The tactics of the VC did not stop being barbaric after the "war of liberation was over." This is a shade of gray situation, and I would probably see the gray darker than you do.

David Walters said...

My issue is the elevation of the psychological and emotional over the material in Hoffer's views. It is his not his background, but his appeal, that bothers me Charles. He was trying, indeed, to explain the idea of or rise of totalitarianism. But he avoids the very real class conflicts, the actual politics, for other views, views that in my mind make his ideas more musings that something to go on.

I will have to read what kind of influence the great Italian communist, who died in the cells of Italian fascism, had on influencing the likes of Limbaugh. I should throw the question, too, by David Horowitz who I am in correspondence with. Horowitz was student of Bertrand Russell, former Marxist and no 'neo-con' attack dog. I can't help but wonder what HIS view on that is!

I don't believe the left is any more immune than the right from the pathology of lies. It is perhaps a typical human trait that all societies at least in word try to stop. The problem is that Hoffer thinks this *explains* communism and fascism, or rather it's leaders. I simply see it as a very secondary aspect, preferring the truth of the saying Clausewitz made famous "War is politics by other means".

While you raise this metaphorically, the VC did wage a war of liberation Charles, ironic quotes or not...they represented a nationalist response, using Stalinist tactics, to a foreign occupier. BTW, despite the dire warnings millions did not die after April of 1975. Vietnam united as one nation, under the VCP Stalinist leadership. One wonders what would of happened had we followed up on our initial training and support of the Viet-mihn in 1944 a remained consistent with our opposition to the French reestablishing their rule over the Vietnamese peoples. Ah..well...we see what happens when we chose the wrong side.


Charles Barton said...

David, Is not the emotional and the psychological a manifestation of the neurological? Is the brain not an organ of social adaption? Are we not talking about something that is profoundly material. What I am pointing to is a weakness in the Marxist theory of the material. People do, after all suffer from the same psychopathologies under Marxist systems that they suffer under capitalism. And sometimes people who manifest psychopathologies become openion leaders.


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