"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Can Politics Be Kept Separate From Friendship?

Will Lenox was was a follower of Ayn Rand.  His passion had nothing to do with politics, but with her passionate embrace of pure individualism.  This philosophy and its resonance with Nietzsche’s pure will corresponded to his view of life.  He had grown up in the Connecticut woods with guns, art, and family where personal expression and individual creativity were highly prized, and he wanted nothing to do with the mediocre unwashed who labored in the basement sweatshops of our nearby city. His mother was a scion of a proper New England family which dated back to the Mayflower Puritans; and her ancestors went on to build the industry that had made the city one of the biggest and most important of the Civil War and the American Industrial Revolution.  His father was an artist with Pacific Islander roots, whose jagged, powerful, colorful paintings evoked Gauguin. 

Will was considered an uncouth mountain man by the children of the town’s well-to-do, families whose ancestors had built the town but who had long ago given up any of their enterprise and ingenuity.  They rested on their pedigree, their wealth, and their name, and spent winters in the islands and summers on the Vineyard.  Billy wore flannel shirts and baggy pants, wore shaggy, home-shorn hair, couldn’t dance the Fox Trot or the Charleston, had no clue about girls; but was a terror on the football field, took on the class bully, and was eventually respected for his fierce independence and playground courage.

At the New England prep school we both attended, his individualism grew more well-defined as he read Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, Godwin, and Stimer. His disdain for social groups, bourgeois associations, and the status and pecking order of the school became more overt and aggressive each year.  As a result he was marginalized, an intellectual mountain man, a defiant renegade who didn’t belong.  In the Sixties we were classmates at an Ivy League university; and it was there that Will’s intellectual, family, and personal roots joined, and he became politically engaged.  At that time campuses were still quiet, but restive.  The closed Old Boy atmosphere of the Fifties – the Fence, The Game, pipes and tuxedos, the Whiffenpoofs, and Hasty Pudding – were wearing thin on our new forward-looking generation, but we were the bridge generation, frustrated with the past but without an articulated future.  Will was different.  He railed against the status quo with a vengeance and said that the rest of us were all members of Nietzsche’s ‘herd’ consigned to follow while he would lead.

The late Sixties arrived in a tempest, but by that time we were both out of college and on our own ways.  Will joined the Navy, rose to Lieutenant, J.G. before leaving to go on to graduate school, followed by junior positions at minor New England universities.  His  hatred of the tenure system propelled him from one college to the next while his inherited wealth allowed him the luxury of independence.  Tiring of teaching, especially to not very bright students, Will left academia to start his own business.  Following in the footsteps of his father and building on his own creative instincts, he became a successful documentary filmmaker. 

For many years he never lost his feistiness and disdain for the herd.  He laughed at my career trajectory which was more predictable, tame, and irredeemably collective and social.

When I planned to visit him in Boston and told him that I was going to take the bus, he scoffed. “I don’t take buses”, he said, and for as long as his finances held out and certainly after his ships came in, he would never stew in the stink of our home town’s barely-off-the boat Polacks on a hot, airless, rattletrap buses.

We lost touch for many years, and as life would have it, we shifted our political and philosophical views.  After many years of indifference – I lived in India smoking dope, meditating in Himalayan monasteries, enjoying the pleasures of Bengali women, and living a happy, sybaritic life – I reexamined my loosely-held liberal beliefs (they were simply worn like a casual cloak or shawl, and never became part of my intellectual wardrobe) and quickly discarded.  Gradually I became the Ayn Rand individualist that Will was.  I had seen the inefficacy, venality, and intellectual corruption of the foreign aid programs in which I was working; was disgusted at the smug, self-congratulatory ‘progressives’ who had embarked on a career of social engineering, collectivist thinking, and mindless and slavish adherence to post-Marxist organizers like Paulo Freiere and Saul Alinksy.

Will, on the other hand, got religion.  Just as quickly as I had jettisoned the bleeding-heart, wooly convictions of the new age, Will picked them up.  My mother used to say that there was no Catholic like a converted Catholic.  You could always tell them by their painful, expiatory grimaces before each Station of the Cross; their public rattling of rosary beads, their proud processionals to the altar to receive communion every Sunday, their living rooms filled with pictures of the Sacred Heart, the Holy Mother, and the lives of the saints.

Will had become a converted Liberal.  There was no cause that he did not espouse.  Coming of political age in the Nixon era, he found an easy and comfortable home among those who hated the President, saw him as the Anti-Christ, the Undoer of Good, the Betrayer of the legacy of Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson, the Destroyer of the New Deal and the Great Society.

What turned Will around – like most converted Catholics – was an epiphany.  Before he turned on me as the enemy, he explained that he saw his life of privilege and ease as a corruption of the hallowed American political tradition of fairness and equality.  His ancestors – at least those on his mother’s side – had accumulated wealth and rather than responsibly distributing it to the poor and less fortunate, amassed it in ever greater quantities and spent it on skiing in Gstaad, second homes in St. Bart’s, and memberships at the finest country clubs on the East Coast.  Of course he never actually chose to work with the underprivileged and disadvantaged – some beliefs die hard – but he was all for the kind of robust political activism that would change policy.  Again, Will was too much a patrician at heart to demonstrate in the streets, but he spoke out loudly wherever he could on life’s injustices and Miss Liberty’s blindfolded eyes.

Will and I had been friends since country day school and the age of twelve.  We knew more about each other than any other friend since.  At twelve, you are still a child with none of the acquired characteristics and pretentions of later life.  Knowing someone at that age is knowing the core of the person, the genetic center that will never change. I knew that Will’s conversion had been superficial.  He was still and individualist to the core, and despite his wooly defense of the poor, he continued to enjoy his privileged life of writing, travel, art, and music.

I was easy with these contradictions. Why should anyone be held to one consistent set of beliefs or behavior?  It didn’t matter to me whether he was a ‘progressive’, Socialist, or Communist.  He was still mountain-man Will, shooting.22’s in the Meriden hills, having BB-gun fights with his cousins, scrapping with Bobby Beacon in the playground; and still the intellectual entrepreneur, confidently striding into new ventures and commitments.

Will, on the other hand was not so accommodating.  One’s political philosophy was the one, true defining characteristic of personality, he said.  Which philosophical lens you used to look at the world determined how you saw it and how you reacted to it.  My Libertarian philosophy of self-determination, individual liberty, and private enterprise and its disdain for the public trust, social engineering, and communitarianism prevented me from seeing human suffering, inequality, and desperate need.  I did not simply espouse a political belief system, said Will.  I was an indifferent, selfish, and narrowly egotistical person.

For a long time I was angry at Will.  I hadn’t changed since the age of twelve and neither had he.  “A leopard can’t change his spots’, my mother would always say. Or “once an asshole, always an asshole”, said my less generous uncle.  Yet I found that Will was not alone.  Many of my ‘progressive’ friends whom I had known for over 40 years had abandoned me because of what they saw were my retrograde political beliefs.  Worse, they said, was my dalliance with the Deep South.  What for me was a decade-long investigation into the conservative, hyper-religious, persistently racist, and defiantly angry region to find out why, was for them a sojourn with the enemy.  Living in Mississippi was a traitorous act, a rejection of my natural liberal traditions, my civic responsibilities, and my duty. 

I  personally did not care whether one friend persisted in his wooly ‘progressive’ beliefs.  He had been my co-worker in India, and we had bounced around the Jeep together, visiting remote villages. I did care that berated me for staying in antebellum mansions, reading studies on the sustainable economics of slavery, or even considering the origins of Southern resentment of civil rights.  I had not become a slaver, a racist, or philosophical turncoat.

I did not care whether another longtime friend cluttered Facebook with screeds against the rape of the environment or littered his Home Page with venerations to Bill Maher and Bill Moyers.  He, I, and his dog had traipsed around the mountains of Guatemala together eating rice and beans and schmoozing with Indian highlanders. I resented his imputation that I had betrayed the Mayan villagers with whom we had eaten. 

Only one friend, another classmate from college and one of the most left-wing, ‘progressive’, and devotedly liberal people I have ever met, has remained my uncritical friend.  Despite his years in the trenches of the peace movement, the environmental movement, and feminist-gay-minority rights movement, and my glowering indifference to them, we have remained friends.  I can joke about his causes.  He can laugh about my cavorting antics with Southern rednecks.  We have known each other since we were 17.  We went on double-dates, hitchhiked up and down the Merritt Parkway, got drunk in cheap New York bars.  No matter what political accoutrements we may have acquired, we were still the same people at heart.  For him intelligence, faith, and a deep sense of social justice came naturally from genes and an old American heritage.  For me an intellectual abrasiveness, curiosity, and social impatience came from not quite so deep a source, but – according to my mother – had always been there.  He and I knew each other and respected something far more important than our political philosophies.

I have often thought, however, about what Will Lenox said.  Politics is never just about pulling a lever.  I will always consider someone who has defiantly struggled against adversity and taken a risk on the odds, as a hero; and one who has rolled over, denied responsibility, and taken what they feel is owed to them as a coward.  Is this my Libertarianism speaking? Or is it my core belief?

At this point in my life it doesn’t matter much which it is.  I am just as locked in as Will Lenox, or my college and India friends.  I would like to think that I can see those patterns which emerge from a deeper place in one’s character than acquired political traits; but I am not sure, and I might well be just as whipped into shape by circumstances and unforeseen events as they.

In any case I think – or hope at least – that at the end of my life I will be seeing things again as a twelve-year old, not as an old man.

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