Anthroposophy NYC Blog
MEETING OUR TIMES
Protests, the Pursuit of Happiness, and Mirrors
Author: Walter Alexander
In these times of protest when the very earth seems to tremble and clamor for change, it’s probably best not to speak at all unless what you have to say falls within the outlines of the moment’s passionate calls for action. Yes, down with police brutality against African-Americans! Yes, finally address structural racism and all of its ugly manifestations. Yes, reparations! Yes, defund the police!
To qualify the “Yes” in any way may invite the hot, foul breath of the political correctness beast. And, when you are not a person of color, you can easily be charged with trying to steal heat from another’s rage and suffering. If you say, “All lives matter,” the rational, scalding response is: “You’re a bit late! Where were you?” Still, fury is liable to strike blindly at the closest target and burn the house without purifying it. Since silence may still = death, let’s not forget the assortment of devil-arsonists out there.
The call for reparations is based on the fact that while granting emancipation dissolved the bonds of servitude, it didn’t address the damage that the enslaved condition inflicted. Something else, too, had to be afoot to allow that emancipation to be so thoroughly subverted within a few years after the end of the Civil War.
Slavery has been around for a very long time. We don’t refuse to marvel at the Great Pyramid, or the Parthenon, and demand that they be torn down because the Egyptians and Greeks had slaves. Time was when in war, to offer servitude to a defeated person, or people, as an alternative to on-the-spot slaughter, was considered the epitome of liberalism. Native Americans sometimes enslaved captured members of other tribes and held them or sold them. The names of most tribes translated as “human being,” implying that to them the other tribes weren’t. European slave traders, as an alternative to raiding African villages, received persons offered as slaves from affluent African tribal leaders in exchange for guns, tobacco, alcohol, textiles, beads, or other not-available-in-Africa goods.
Ralph Waldo Emerson contended that everything in nature has a moral side. What moral precept is wounded by slavery? And if there is one that it offends, why at a certain time in history but not earlier? Was the American rebellion and experiment in any way related to that offense? Or was it just about an exchange of bullying rights? Replacing the oppressor King George with defiant white guys in tights and wigs? Or was there, indeed, breaking into history’s grand unfolding procession of nations, peoples, and cultures, a novel concept? One in opposition to the dominant idea also emerging on a large scale behind the 17th to the 19th centuries’ slave trade, which said that in terms of inherent value, individuals comprising some peoples never rise above the level of a unit of labor—they are commodities.
Trading of slaves was not new, but as a colossal industry shaping the fate of nations, it was unprecedented. It was linked to a disruptive technology: the cotton gin. After its invention by Eli Whitney in 1793, the same worker who could produce a pound of clean cotton previously by toiling for a full day at separating cotton seeds and pods from the fiber bolls, could then turn out 55 pounds a day. Production in the south increased from 180,000 pounds in 1792 to 6 million pounds of cotton in 1794. Once expensive cotton cloth quickly became the world’s top-selling textile. With that vast demand, came a similar need for more land and more slaves. Land hungry settlers pushed native Americans out of the southeast, and fortunes flourished for the owners of southern plantations, northeastern textile mills, and slave ships.
The opposing idea leaps out in the second paragraph of The Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Human equality, it proclaims, is based on the shared possession of divinely bestowed rights—an Enlightenment idea that knocks hard against the concept of the Divine Right of Kings. Why? Because it is handmaiden to the principle that the right to govern is conferred solely by the consent of the governed. The power wielded by governments comes from below, knowingly granted out of freedom. In the other view, it is wielded downward from above by the anointed on not-necessarily consenting subjects.
Does this make hypocrites of the Founding Fathers? Weren’t they voicing Enlightenment ideals and enacting them in 1776 as deed in the American Revolution? The shock of its success arched back over the Atlantic toward Europe with considerable power. The French Revolution (1789) overthrew another monarchy, declaring “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” as ideals, and then demonstrated, through its excesses, how a slide to dictatorship under Napoleon could be accomplished in a mere decade. Friederich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” composed in 1785 and enshrined in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1824), declared “Alle Menschen werden Brüder,” “All men become brothers.”
Some of the Founding Fathers were slave holders. The U.S. Constitution established, as a rule for determining the number representatives from each state, the value of a slave as three-fifths of a person. The zenith of hypocrisy? An abyss of cynicism? To declare that all human beings possess divinely bestowed inalienable attributes and then in the next document to reduce that divinity for some by forty percent? Was this divine origin notion just a disposable sentiment?
A good number of the Founders were Freemasons (including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and Paul Revere). That semi-occult society welcomed members from all faiths, but not atheists. Its members held fast to a divine origin for human beings, but dictated no specific religious affiliation. The ideals expressed in The Declaration of Independence are consistent with that. So how then do we square the ideals and the reality?
What if we can’t, but rather see a pitched battle continuing on into the present? As a culture, we’ve bought deeply into the idea of evolution, but have largely narrowed it to evolution of physical bodies and mental capacities, with just about everyone but Bible literalists accepting (with varying degrees of discomfort) the Darwinian depiction of survival and accidental mutation as evolution’s deep drivers. But it doesn’t take a long study of history to see patterns suggesting clear directions in humanity’s political-social unfolding, as in the progression from “Divine Right of Kings” to “the consent of the governed.” That’s one line pointing toward gradually increasing individualization and personal authority and universal dignity. It collided in the young nation’s formative years with another one, driven strongly by the western mind’s technological prowess (mastery of the seas and navigation, industrial-scale production of goods)—fueled by economic forces. From an eye trained to look through that microscope, racism is a mere convenience, a façade obscuring the devil in the accountant’s back office who reduces everything and everyone to a cypher in a ledger column. In our digital age, it’s a pervasive force pushing headlong in the opposite direction from inalienable rights. On the Amazon fulfillment center floor, where free ibuprofen dispensers ease acute and chronic injuries, the robot is the ideal worker. As a human, the only right left to you is the right to lease yourself out for commerce—for as long as your body can take endless repetitive motions better suited to a machine. Now Amazon workers can commune with chicken cutlet hackers on processing plant production lines, because they’re all supposed to be grateful just to have a job. Pass the opioids for the unemployed, though. When the jobs report shows their numbers going up, the stock market goes up right alongside. Who is this about?
Pursuit of Happiness! An odd phrase to plunk into a declaration of political independence, really. My late uncle left this earthly plane not too long ago with a light wave and a warm, gracious thank you, asserting that he’d had a good life, particularly because he’d enjoyed his later years in a condo on a golf course. He could, he told me in our farewell conversation, still in his eighties crank out a pretty solid round. Not exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind, but not altogether outside it, either. Then, the materialism of things and pleasures had not yet so fully arrived, and “Pursuit of Happiness” wasn’t so much about “the good life” as it was about the radical assertion that all persons of any station in life have an individual destiny to work on and work out. Happiness more in the sense of fulfillment than of gratification. The phrase’s other remarkable attribute is that it is entirely non-proscriptive. No one tells you what happiness is, or how to go after it. That’s up to you—to discover and enact. The phrase itself smacks of freedom! Unheard of not so many years and centuries earlier, when royalty’s proper job was to embody virtue. But this happiness isn’t of a trivial sort, because the pursuit, after all, is divinely endowed, spiritually endowed, purposefully endowed. And for a people to hold this to be a self-evident truth for themselves, and for each other, well—how hard would it be to find love amongst such a people whose guiding precepts include this?
Would the Founders have imagined a nation leading the world in mass incarceration, largely of people of color? Often in privately owned and operated for-profit prisons, serving long sentences for low-level non-violent crimes? Their futures ransomed away in plea deals disqualifying them forever from fully partaking in civic life, and relegating them to a permanent underclass? All at that same time that the super-rich, with their lawyers- and legislators-for-hire, legally reap the vast majority of the economy’s winnings and, as Steven Brill phrased it in “How My Generation Broke America” (May 28, 2018, Time Magazine), pull the ladder up behind them, creating a small but permanent overclass.
It’s beginning to look like we can’t have it both ways. We have to decide. Are we divinely endowed beings seeking our individual and communal destinies on earth and bound to each other in respect and sister-brotherhood? Or animals in a death battle, clawing our lonely way toward the only seemingly safe place in a hostile world—the very top? It is likely a parting of the ways. Some will go one way, some the other. A time of testing.
Many people are not surprised that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and WHO (World Health Organization) have often blithely wilted under pressure when it comes to publicly opposing unfounded and politically motivated COVID-19 advice. That’s because the near total saturation of the medical community with conflicts of interest has been exposed on some few occasions, but is quite frankly obvious to insiders.
What’s not as widely recognized is that when the U.S. Supreme Court, through Citizen’s United, granted the right of free political speech to corporations, it could do so not so much because corporations have been elevated to the rank of personhood, but because personhood has already been degraded. The still prevailing (although increasingly challenged) reductionist scientific paradigm seeks all causes at the level of atomic-molecular attractions and repulsions. If asked to explain the value of Beethoven’s Ninth or Little Richard’s “Tutti-Frutti,” a perfectly sensible scientific explanation would point to the release of endorphins and neurotransmitters as promoters of survival. If called upon to study Michelangelo’s David, it might just examine the chemical components of marble. Consciousness and sense of self and (weirdly) understanding are all held to be mere epiphenomena, illusory excreta of neuronal firings.
There is a very substantial and growing body of rigorous research pointing beyond physical causes in medicine (e.g., the placebo effect), biology (e.g., open systems biology), and physics (e.g., quantum phenomena). Historically, these data tend to get consigned to polite neglect—by being viewed as fascinating but unrelated tidbits. How interesting that something done to one of an entangled pair of photons, both fleeing from each other at the speed of light, instantaneously affects the other one! How? We don’t know. But, it does cry out emphatically that they are connected somewhere outside of ordinary time and space. The Founders, too, saw us all as connected in a realm that is non-physical, but still not divorced from the earthly and physical. They did not yet have the moral will to confront the nation’s racial divides, entangled as they were by economic and other forces. Fate, it seems, has left that to those living today.
In the early 1890s, Rudolf Steiner, a little known young editor of Goethe’s scientific works, published some works in German on epistemology based on his PhD thesis. One of them, a small book called “The Philosophy of Freedom,” articulated that what we have as experience is made of two essential components: a percept AND a concept. To experience a chair we are looking at, what comes through our eyes has to be joined with a part coming from our mind—the already internalized concept: chair. Bake the two in the oven of our consciousness and—voilà—a place to sit. After the first time in childhood, the joining of percept and concept takes place automatically below our level of awareness. But if the concept becomes unavailable, as it does in dementia or with brain injury, we won’t recognize a chair, or know what to do with it. Our ordinary experience is drenched through with concepts that we have imbibed without being aware of the process. Many concepts have a universal character, and the one underlying both your and my experience of a particular triangle is identical.
In our nation, we have many people polarized to extremes, such that the same event may have a radically different import to different people, determined by the concepts they have taken in previously. They may have great difficulty imagining how those on the other side of a particular issue are as sincere in their own positions as they are in theirs.
Today, the nation, thrown into an enforced pause by the COVID-19 pandemic, has had its attention wrenched from habit through new disruptive technologies—ones that, while more often lending themselves to trolling and fraud than to truth, have at this time electrified our attention, held us in front of a mirror, and torn off our masks. As a nation and as individuals, we finally see the knees to the neck, and shots in the back—and have what may be a final chance to simply admit that the face looking back at us is our own. The nation has a violent shadow.
In a few days, we meet the anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, and in auspicious November, the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s momentous address. The two handwritten pages reaffirm the equality of all human beings and a high resolve that government, based on that principle, would, in a new birth of freedom, survive. In his Second Inaugural Address, with civil war all but over, Lincoln sacrificed all triumphalism and humbly recognized divine balancing in blood drawn by “the bondsmen’s lash” and blood “drawn with the sword.” Over malice, he chose charity and tending to the nation’s wounds. Before the terrible war began, in his First Inaugural Address, he invoked “the better angels of our nature” in futile hope of preventing the strain of passion from breaking the Union’s “bonds of affection.”
The realities of Jim Crow were institutionalized by another American president, one widely remembered as an idealist in the narratives we were fed in high school history books. Woodrow Wilson’s ideals, though, are lately suffering in the sharp glare of unaccustomed attention. They were backed by what was in that day considered the respectable science of eugenics, out of which social Darwinism, sterilization of the “unfit,” and white supremacy were openly advocated. Wilson, and those riding the same wave with him, scornfully derided the ideals of the “Declaration” as “taken out of a forgotten age.” Through Jim Crow perpetrators, a lot of bleach was poured and drunk, minimizing the role of slavery among causes of the Civil War, and expunging the part that official government policy played in the collapse of Reconstruction and in mandating separation of the races. Eugenics pseudo-science was blathered about, and still granted a lot of currency (with champions like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh) up until the time when Adolf Hitler gave it a really bad name—by showing how it leads to slave labor, cruelty beyond measure, and genocide.
We have been juggling too many suspect items for too many years: merciless economics, toxic politics, half-measure social policies, and science and medicine distorted by conflicts of interest. It is amazing that we’ve kept them aloft so long. Utter freedom is apparently our blessing and curse. I pray against a return to normal, but instead for the grace of caring, radical deeds. Out of all the varied offspring that will arise from our actions, may moral monstrosity cease, and moral audacity take its place.
I praise the mirrors and all those who fearlessly hold them up.
Walter Alexander is a NYC-based veteran medical journalist, former teacher (public and Waldorf), and long-time, active Anthroposophy NYC member, currently the Vice President of the Council. His writing career has reflected lifelong interests in the life sciences and medicine, astronomy, music, literature, the visual arts, epistemology and consciousness studies. heartsmindsoul.com
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