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

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

The End Of An Era - The Sorry Demise Of Friendship In An Age Of The True Believer

Alvin Newsom came by his progressive credentials honestly.  He cut his teeth as a young man and followed the Reverend Archibald Cabot Seeber, scion of the peace and civil rights movements, anti-war activist, and man of unimpeachable rectitude. Al went along with Seeber to Selma, crossed the Pettis bridge with him, sat-in at Mississippi lunch counters with him, got hosed and beaten by Bull Connor’s thugs, and barely escaped the violence of rabid Southerners who wanted his and all Yankees’ hides.  

Al came back from the freedom rides newly energized.  He had only appreciated the Reverend Seeber’s wisdom intellectually.  There was something Biblically right about his teachings, something profoundly and unassailably moral about his judgments.  Seeber not only stood for justice for the black man, but for justice for all.  Seeing injustice in its most raw and unmitigated form turned theory into practice; and after Selma, Al became a priest of Seeber’s church, an acolyte, an altar boy.

The trip South had particular salience for Al,  for having had an epiphanic vision in Birmingham – a vision of absolute truth and rightness – he turned his back on materialist secularism, the sexual exuberance of the Sixties, and the liberation from the insular life of a small town in Iowa, and became a true believer.  Nothing could displace this newfound sentiment of completeness.  Nothing but justice had meaning.  Nothing but the plight of the black man, the Vietnamese peasant, women, gay men, and the put-upon, abused, and exploited Mexican.

In his first university years Bob was without political conviction.  He was no different from his classmates – serious about some subjects, indifferent to others, happy enough with a Gentleman’s C and assured of a place on Madison Avenue or a seat at the industrial tables of Chicago and Detroit.  He invited girls from Smith, Holyoke, or Radcliffe to spend weekends with him at his parents’ Southampton and Vineyard homes, got drunk at football games, played bladder ball and soccer, was rushed by an underground society but demurred in favor of ‘individuality’, and was all-in-all a regular guy. There were no early signs of his soon-to-be conversion, no intimations that this pudgy, happy-go-lucky, easygoing young man would turn righteous and penitential.

Image result for images beautiful ivy league coeds fifties

Despite Ivy League legacies and significant numbers of students from well-to-do families of the American aristocratic elite, Al’s campus was overwhelmingly liberal – not surprising in the revolutionary era of the Sixties.  Groupthink was the ethos of the times, generational solidarity was the rule, and there was satisfaction in political camaraderie.  There was a Young Republicans Club attended by boys in suits and ties, as jealous of the tradition of Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, and the Chicago School as Al was of Marx, Alinsky, and Paolo Freire, but without influence or recognition.  The theme of the times was a a nascent progressivism – an instinctive, albeit unconscious, belief in the perniciousness of oppression.  Al graduated before the counterculture tsunami of the late Sixties and early Seventies washed ashore, but the campus was waking up.

Image result for images milton friedman

Then came Selma, the epiphany, and the personal revolution of Al Newsom.

Unfortunately it wasn’t long before Al’s righteousness turned self-conscious and self-assuming.  Given the enormity of the challenge – social justice could not be achieved in a day and injustice was so deeply embedded in the American ethos that only a unified, imperturbable struggle could uproot it -  it was not surprising that Al closed all doors to those who did not share his vision and his commitment.  There were indeed such things as absolute right and absolute wrong in the world, and one’s personal worth let alone salvation depended on choosing the right side. 

The cocoon was forming.  Al’s transformation required spinning a tight web of political security around him.  Since his life was now committed and devoted to social justice and transformational action – the right side – there could be no encouragement of the opposition, the wrong side.  If politics were a grey area of human activity, then there might be room for debate, discourse, and challenge; but when there has been revelation, all wisdom is received.

Can two people with radically opposed political philosophies ever be good friends?   If two people have known each other since an early age – a time when personality and character are simple and evident – then the answer is yes. Children like each other for reasons that have nothing to do with intellectual complexity.  They find each other engaging, funny, spirited, quiet, thoughtful, or any one of a hundred more reasons to like someone.  They know each other in a simple, instinctive way uncomplicated by good and bad decisions, religious infirmity, politics, or social affairs.   The way one is at a young age is a product of genes and upbringing. Friendship is a matter of spontaneous, unexplained affection.

Image result for images boyhood friend fifties

Yet few people have known each other long enough to have based friendship on such unspoken, unarticulated feelings.  Adult friendship without the complication of childhood is a function of the intersection of political philosophy, preference, and choice. 

So it was surprising that Al Newsom jettisoned those friends of childhood and early adulthood whose political philosophy was different from his.  No childhood innocence, no adolescent buoyancy, no personal intimacy, no sharing of youthful enthusiasm could compensate or justify continuing friendships with what must be called the enemy.

How could that be? and especially how could that be when such friends entered their last decades of life? When preoccupation with the end of life displaces all other thoughts; when we are more concerned with mortality than with any other temporal, insignificant affairs of the past, shouldn’t we race to reaffirm what most defines us?  

A former college friend of Al’s was summarily dismissed because their political philosophies were in such contrast.  The simple, joyful, unencumbered acquaintance they had had –a meeting of like personalities - was cancelled as if it never existed.  Humor, irony, enthusiasm, and a peculiar absurd satire were neutered, expunged, evaporated.

Al’s justification was predictable.  Political philosophy is not simply a matter of politics but of world view; and world view – the way one values, evaluates, and judges others – is the central, irremediable feature of anyone’s character.   Anyone who did not share Al’s progressive hopes for an attainable, reformed, more perfect world could not possibly be his friend.  A belief in individualism was by nature selfish.  A belief in enterprise was tantamount to social oppression.  Capitalism was but a transparent cover for elitist hierarchy and social insularity.

Image result for images occupy wall street

Yet as intellectually familiar as this argument is, it is myopic at best and ignorant at worst.  No one in their final moments of life will reminisce about what they did, what difference it made, or its consequences; but about spiritual connections.  Essence, singularity, innocence, purity, emotional revelation will come to mind, nothing else.

Al may come around and answer his erstwhile friend’s request to meet; but it is doubtful.  The cocoon is wound as tightly as ever, Al’s eyes are still fixed on the temporal and the relative.  As much as he might like to believe in absolutes, they are not to be found where he has been looking.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.