“THE YOUNG are honorable and see the problems,” Paul Goodman wrote in 1968, “but they don’t know anything because we have not taught them anything.” Michael Brown’s wise and eloquent essay proves him wrong. The young know quite a lot, but their elders (including the very students Goodman described) have deprived them of a sturdy tradition of social criticism that should be their birthright. The tradition of Thoreau, James, Veblen, Addams, Dewey, Bourne, and Mumford that Goodman kept alive in the postwar years has apparently become an embarrassment to those aspiring to “global citizenship” and a “post-national” consciousness: its masterworks barely figure in humanities courses. As a result, young Americans find themselves exiled from their country’s moral narrative. “Tradition has been broken,” Goodman wrote fifty years ago, “and yet there is no standard to affirm. Culture becomes eclectic, sensational, or phony.” With luck, Jonathan Lee’s forthcoming film Paul Goodman Changed My Life will lead viewers back to Goodman’s work and that of the critics who inspired him. The new editions of several of his books brought out by PM Press are a good place to start.
Irving Howe observed that “Goodman continues to write as if it were still possible to move people: perhaps not sufficiently or in sufficient numbers, yet with some sense that speech remains a power.” Goodman had an uncanny ability to make the most radical suggestions sound eminently reasonable, as if they were projects that free people could agree on and pursue that very day. His criticism was an appeal to Americans’ “horse sense,” the imperiled “habit of making independent judgments and in democratically rubbing shoulders with all kinds and conditions.” The title of one of his collections, Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals, captured what was unique about the man. Who else moved so easily from calls to abolish nuclear weapons and ban cars from Manhattan to a plan to replace hospital nurses’ starchy whites with easy-to-wash seersuckers? All were steps citizens could take to live more human lives.
Because he was an anarchist from the outset, and never a communist, Goodman didn’t waste the cold war years apologizing for having been naïve about the Soviet Union. Nor did he beat a familiar path from Left to Center or Right. Instead, he dispensed with traditional political formulas as he sorted through the cultural wreckage left by “the missed and compromised revolutions of modern times.” His penetrating indictment of “our abundant society” in Growing Up Absurd still stands.
It is lacking in enough man’s work. It is lacking in honest public speech, and people are not taken seriously. It is lacking in the opportunity to be useful. It thwarts aptitude and creates stupidity. It corrupts ingenuous patriotism. It corrupts the fine arts. It shackles science. It dampens animal ardor. It discourages the religious convictions of Justification and Vocation and it dims the sense that there is a Creation. It has no Honor. It has no Community.
Goodman was obtuse in thinking the maladies he diagnosed in that book were irrelevant to the experiences of girls and women. But he was not obtuse in insisting that all those capitalized words mattered, and that their waning was a source of profound sadness for many Americans. The difficulty Goodman had in defining his own position over the years—a “community anarchist,” a “Neolithic conservative,” or (my favorite) an “anarchist patriot”—speaks more to the uselessness of political labels than any uncertainty in his thinking.
Goodman saw more clearly than most of his “crazy young allies” in the 1960s that the United States suffered from a crisis of meaning that could not be resolved by politics alone, least of all the politics of “revolution.” The elevation of consumption over satisfying work had fostered a base cynicism among Americans of all backgrounds. Seemingly at odds, the corporate executive, the juvenile delinquent, and the Beat were united in thinking that role-playing comprised the sum total of human relations. An “organized system of reputations” had displaced older standards of excellence that challenged the young to master and surpass what they had inherited from previous generations. They had lost the very idea of an “objective changeable world,” the “conviction that there is a Creation of the Six Days, a real world rather than a system of social rules that indeed are often arbitrary.” As young people they were “early resigned” and stayed that way.
Goodman admitted his tone was that of an “Angry Middle-Aged Man, disappointed but not resigned.” Today’s disappointed but not resigned—women and men of all ages—should hunt down his fugitive writings and read them.
Casey Nelson Blake teaches history and American Studies at Columbia University. He is writing a longer essay on Paul Goodman for Raritan.