The Journal of Provincial Thought
jptHome Issue 20
luminance Pigasus 20
Professor Jones reflects on his experience of liberal humanism and ponders the fate of society's Great Transition.

Walking the Road Not Taken: Confessions of an
Unreconstructed Liberal Humanist

Lawrence Jones


It was the time of the invasion of Iraq, and we were marching down George Street carrying placards and leaflets. Up ahead of us enthusiastic young men and women with bullhorns were leading antiwar chants which a friend and I, marching towards the back of the procession, were ignoring as we discussed the issues of the invasion. I was saying that while I thought the Russians and the French were doing the right thing in not participating in the 'coalition of the willing', I was pretty sure that they were doing it for the wrong reasons, that they had a lot of investments in Iraq and had been happy enough to do business with Saddam Hussein's regime, without much concern about what he was doing to his own people so long as he paid his bills. As for the United Nations, yes I would give it those two cheers that E. M. Forster gave democracy, for it was the best thing we had, but a pretty poor best, and it had failed miserably in Rwanda and was incapable of doing much unless it had American support, so it wouldn't be able to do much in Iraq. We agreed that there was no simple black and white opposition here, but rather shades of grey, although the American position was a very dark grey.  But we also agreed that you wouldn't get 2000 people out on a march by talking about shades of grey.  Maybe chants were a necessary embarrassment.

     As me marched, I had a strong sense of déjà vu and at the same time of difference.  I remembered the Springbok Tour of over twenty years before and the ritual of the marches every day there was a game, ending up in a silent vigil in the Cathedral as the match went on. And I remembered the marches down George Street in the days of the Vietnam War, ending in a rally at the Octagon. I even had dimmer memories of demonstrations in America in the 1950s, especially one against American nuclear testing, ending in a rally spoken to by Linus Pauling.  There had been chants on those occasions (except for the silent marches against the Tour), and I had refrained from shouting then too because I was embarrassed by the oversimplification. And there had certainly been shades of grey then too. I could remember being unhappy when some enthusiasts carried the flag of the Ho Chi Minh North Vietnam regime as a protest against the American support of the South Vietnamese regime, while to me it appeared to be less corrupt but equally a dictatorship. To oppose New Zealand participation on the side of America and South Vietnam did not mean one had to support the other side, even as to oppose American nuclear testing had not meant that one supported Russian testing or saw the USSR as anything but a totalitarian state of a very nasty sort. From the less distant past, I remembered how I had been unhappy at the plans of some of the anti-Tour organisations to block traffic on the motorway as a protest against the games, and how when I had said that the main result of that would be to alienate people and probably to get more votes for Muldoon, one young Marxist enthusiast had said that was what he wanted – Muldoon re-elected would mean the capitalist system would destroy itself faster.  I remembered being upset enough to write a kind a manifesto and call the public meeting that resulted in the organising of the silent marches, alternative demonstrations, as it were.

     So in one sense it was all familiar – that ambivalent experience of marching, feeling that you were making a witness with others, and yet at the same time feeling uncomfortable with the perhaps necessary oversimplifications. But there was a difference this time.  The difference was partly in me – I was older, less enthusiastic, less involved, less hopeful.  But that loss of hopefulness was probably not just a function of my age but also a response to the age. The larger social context in which the demonstrations took place had changed.  In the past I had felt that there was some reason to hope, that we who were marching were on the cutting edge of social change. If, like Thoreau, we were marching to a different drummer from the social majority, there was the sense that that drummer was leading us into the future and that others would join. Now I wasn't sure that even those marching with me had anything like the vision of the future that I had hoped for then, and I now doubted that such a future would ever eventuate. Was the change only in me, or had we, as I suspected, gone through a paradigm change in the last twenty years that made the future that I once hoped for increasingly unlikely? I very much doubted that my grandchildren would grow up in a world anything like that which I had once thought desirable and possible. We were still marching, but the road on which I was still inwardly walking was probably going nowhere, an historical dead end. In the light of this depressing thought, my own past began to take on a different narrative shape in my mind.


In those terrible Cold War years of the early 1960s in which my children were born, even while coming to New Zealand to keep them from being used as anonymous pawns in the Cold War power game typified by the Cuban Crisis, I could envision a better future for them, even if at worst it had to be built in the parts of the world not destroyed in a nuclear war.  That vision was a liberal humanist one, of a world in which that traditional God was dead but one in which human beings faced the truth of their existential situation, the essentially tragic condition of being conscious beings in an unconscious universe which makes no allowance for their conscious values and aspirations, and took responsibility for their own lives.  It was a vision in which we brought forward the best of the past, including the essence of the Christian ethic without the supernatural-Salvationist baggage, that whole heritage of humanism that Charles Brasch was referring to when he spoke of ‘the values gained from literature', and used our growing and potentially dangerous technological power in order to increase human happiness and realise human potential, working for a peaceful international rule of law, the control of epidemic disease and famine, the spread of racial, cultural, and sexual equality.  This vision was based not on a blind faith in an inevitable utopia, but rather on a faith that human beings as evolving rational and imaginative creatures could use their limited but significant freedom to make what Kenneth Boulding in The Meaning of the Twentieth Century in 1964 called 'the great transition from civilised to postcivilised society'.  The role of the thoughtful individual in helping to bring about this transition was to be a conscious, responsible member of what Boulding called 'an "invisible college" of people in many different countries and many different cultures, who have this vision of the nature of the transition through which we are passing and who are determined to devote their lives to contributing towards its successful fulfillment'.  An important part of this ‘invisible college’ to Boulding were the writers 'who continue the great traditions by which man uses the exercise of his own imagination to lift himself and achieve self-knowledge'. (196)

     The origins of this vision for me were in the unpromising but personally formative years of the 1950s. Undoubtedly the America of that time was in many ways stultifying, with that strange combination of Cold War political conformity and suburban social conformity that Thomas Pynchon exaggerates so tellingly from the outside in The Crying of Lot 49 and that John Updike portrays from the inside in his social realist fiction. My high school environment in Los Angeles was both the closed world Pynchon shows and the world of basketball games, petty social snobberies, and angora sweaters that Updike shows. But for me that closed world suddenly opened when in September 1952 I began my undergraduate education at Pomona College in Claremeont, California. Claremont was only 40 miles east of Los Angeles, but the psychological distance was much greater, for Pomona was a wonderful example of that unique American institution, the small, high-level liberal arts college, and I had never before been in such an intellectually stimulating atmosphere. Music ranging from Gieseking and Heifitz to Brubeck and poetry and jazz evenings, lively and challenging lectures, a student body made up almost entirely of the intellectually capable and motivated, a theatre with European films, a library of a million volumes and a bookstore with quality paperbacks – it was a kind of heaven of previously unknown or only distantly sensed delights. And the brightest luminaries in that heaven were the great writers to whose work you were constantly exposed – Tolstoy, Thoreau, George Eliot, Hardy, Forster, Arnold, Orwell, Camus, Malraux, Lawrence, Faulkner.  They opened up a new world of choices beyond Cold War and suburban orthodoxies: you didn't have to accept conscription as a given; you didn't have to accept the unbelievable God of the local Methodist Church; you didn't have to apologise for liking to read; there were alternatives to a watered-down secularised puritan ethic; it was permitted to say that Senator McCarthy was a bigoted bully and an idiot; you didn't have to conform to the demands of suburban materialism.

     If there were exciting things to read, there were exciting ways to read them. The New Critics such as Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren gave us the tools for getting the most out of those books, engaging with the language to most fully experience the 'felt life' of the texts in all its richness, ambiguity, irony, while F. R. Leavis, Lionel Trilling, and others in the Arnoldian tradition were demonstrating to us in their essays that that 'felt life' was a 'criticism of life' of the fullest and most valuable kind. I had been pushed by high school counsellors, using standardised national exams to find potential scientists and engineers for the Cold War effort, to study physics, but I quickly realised that for me the humanities were where I wanted to be and that literature was the most exciting and relevant of them. I had been awakened by good teachers, and my vocation would be to try to awaken others, as my part in the bringing on of the new age of humanism.

     Graduate study at UCLA was essentially a continuation of this process.  The university was bigger and more impersonal (16,000 students, not Pomona's 1000), it had its own rigidities and some examples of barren professionalism, but there were some stimulating teachers, time to read and discuss more of the riches of literature, a lively daily student newspaper with a radical editor.  And the Los Angeles community revealed a diversity I had not known was there beneath the conformist surface. Marion and I, newly married and living in a tiny flat over a garage in West Los Angeles, became attenders at the Santa Monica Quaker Meeting and became involved in the peace movement, had a summer helping to teach English to mostly Latino migrant farm workers (the team leader of our project went on to become one of Cesar Chavez's right-hand men in the nonviolent campaign to organise farm workers into a union to fight for better working conditions). I was learning about nonviolence as a means of bringing social change, about the Gandhian concept of the means ultimately determining the ends instead of the proclaimed ends justifying the means. These issues were to come to a head for me in 1981 in New Zealand when I argued that civil disobedience was the last resort of nonviolent action for change, to be used only when political means to effect change have been denied and then only to stop clear and present injustice; the Tour, I argued, was not such an issue, but rather a symbolic support of an unjust system that should be opposed by symbolic demonstrations, not by challenges to the police, for such challenges would lead to polarisation and violence and would damage the cause which they were ostensibly designed to forward.

     But the Tour was in the more distant future.  The more immediate future was taking that graduate school training to a first teaching job at Linfield College, a small liberal arts college, but poorer, more conservative, and lower on the academic pecking order than Pomona.  But there was the challenge of some motivated students and the support of some keen colleagues, and there were those inspiriting texts to teach. The college was seriously understaffed and there was too heavy a teaching load, difficult to carry out while beginning a family, but there were certainly exciting opportunities: to teach a range of the great texts – the whole history of the English novel and the European classics in translation; to take a seminar on literary criticism; and to set challenging readings and essays topics for the ubiquitous English Composition classes. The work towards a liberal humanist future could go on in rural Oregon as well as in Los Angeles, and it did for me for three very busy years before the shift to New Zealand.

     The University of Otago in the 1960s was a puzzling place in some ways, seemingly not on the cutting edge of change. The English curriculum was almost unimaginably conservative, with its required Old English, its heavy emphasis on Renaissance texts, its lack of much twentieth-century literature, its lack of any American literature, and its restriction of New Zealand literature to a single token text a year.  But literature was taken seriously, the discussion was often intense, and one could carry on the humanizing work by attempting to broaden the curriculum. I struggled to introduce first American literature and then, as I came to discover how much it spoke to me, New Zealand literature. I still remember when Alan Horsman said in response to my first attempt to introduce a paper on New Zealand literature, 'How can we find space in the curriculum to include New Zealand writing when we can't even find space for Cowper?' When he said that, I had a wildly puzzled moment when I wondered why he should regret that we didn't teach a nineteenth-century American novelist of the frontier until I twigged that it was not Leatherstocking Cooper to whom he was referring, but rather 'God Moves in mysterious ways' Cowper, to me a minor English poet of little relevance.  In some ways I was stuck in an environment looking back to an Oxford of thirty years before, but there were those great texts, that humanist scripture, and I was happily involved in teaching Lawrence, George Eliot, Hardy, and soon Melville and Faulkner, and then Sargeson, Curnow, Brasch and the New Zealand contingent, as I managed to push the door open to let them in.

     Meanwhile, the 1960s were taking off.  The Civil Rights movement in America was blossoming and had found its prophets in Martin Luther King and James Baldwin. The Vietnam hotting up of the Cold War had roused a resistance among the young that I had never anticipated. People like Paul Goodman, whose Growing Up Absurd had seemed to me one of the few prophetic voices in 1950s America, were no longer voices from the wilderness but were being heard. Change was in the air, and the anti-Vietnam movement in New Zealand was a part of it; we were marching somewhere. I was skeptical of the age's more hopeful gurus – the Theodore Roszak of Where the Wasteland Ends, the Charles Reich of The Greening of America – and of the extremes of flower power and the drugs and sex revolutions, but I could explain these as over-reactions to sustained repression.  The last shackles of Puritanism had been discarded, the technocrats of the Cold War state were being threatened.  The 'Peace, Power and Politics' conference at Wellington felt like riding the wave of the future.  I could even feel a small part of that wave, for I had been able to supply the organisers of the conference some of the overseas funds necessary to bring in outside speakers, doing my bit to lift the lid the Holyoake government was trying futilely to hold down. We were on the move; the march was gaining force.

     That hopeful sense was strongly challenged in the 1970s.  America had its Nixon, New Zealand had its Muldoon. The forces of the counter-revolution were indeed strong.  But Nixon over-reached, and there was the immense satisfaction of seeing him fall.  I can remember a visit to California when Nixon's final humiliation was imminent, driving through San Clemente and thinking that soon he would be 'retired' there, shifted out because he was standing in the way of the great transition. There was a sad note too, when a friend of the family asked me, in front of my father, a staunch Nixon supporter, what I thought of the Watergate proceedings, and when I said that I had always known that Nixon was a devious bastard but I had not realised that he was also a stupid one, and my father looked almost as if I had slapped him in the face. I also remember joyfully reading George Levine's review of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow in which he said that Pynchon had written the script for Watergate (and by that time I was lecturing on Pynchon also); the writers were still the prophets.

Concluded next issue. . .
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