Monday, March 15, 2010

Becoming Human

Before I had a child I sometimes attended Ethical Humanism Society meetings. I exaggerate only a little when I say that my wife and I seemed to be the only couple in attendance under the age of 75, and certainly the only multi-racial couple. Ethical Humanist Society meetings felt like Unitarian church services stripped of all of the unnecessary ceremony and amateur choral music. There was a lecture, usually on politics or ethics, followed by audience questions, a five-minute musical interlude, and announcements, and people were free to go.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Although I loved it there, people weren't friendly. Far from it: elderly couples routinely shushed us, routinely shushed their neighbors, and routinely shushed one another. They cared so much about the topics under discussion, they had no time for common courtesies. On one occasion, an ancient lady heckled her husband as he rose to question the speaker. "Saul, shut up. Nobody wants to hear you ask the same question about Israel over and over again." Undeterred, Saul asked his question (which, admittedly, bore no relationship to the topic at hand), sat down, and proceeded to hiss this simple statement to his wife of perhaps 50 years: "I hate you."

I felt at home there. Why? Because notwithstanding the median age of congregants, the Ethical Humanist Society is one of the only places in American where people value politics. Of course, most members of the Ethical Humanist Society were Democrats, Socialists, or Green Party members, but they were political in a sense that trascended party affiliation. They believed with Aristotle that people are fundamentally political creatures. They were alive only insofar as they made conscious and collaborative efforts to choose a better world for themselves and their proginy.

Head Of Aristotle

I recall a book by Margaret Meade entitled "Four Ways of Being Human." This title is telling: it reminds us that people can learn what it means to be a human being in very different ways. Culture is everything. When I was young, I learned that personhood was predicated on politics and little else. You could certainly talk about economics, religion, anthropology, history, and even art, but only insofar as these topics helped to shape your politics. It wasn't that politics was more important than religion, but rather that religion was itself a political undertaking. If you were religious, that was fine, but it was up to you to explain how your faith in God was going to help make this world a better place. Perhaps this was a shallow, one-dimensional way of looking at life. Even so, this was how I was raised.

Margaret Mead

Middle aged now, I've stopped being political. Unlike my mother or her father, I don't lobby, campaign, argue with friends, write letters to the editor, participate in board members, launch nonprofit organizations, etc. However, I've never stopped believing in politics. My atavistic, 19th century view of politics is at least helpful for understanding Bolshevik Russia. Most modern Americans now subconsciously believe that one becomes human--as Margaret Meade would say--only after they have mastered the complexities of consumerism. But in 1917, this wasn't the case. People were apt to sacrifice almost everything else in order to create a new and better political life.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting that the US was founded on the republican ideal of citizen involvement in politics and yet the only form of politics that fully involves the whole self these days is revolutionary. The tea party movement is the most important advance in republican government since the civil rights era, but I wonder how much interest it would pique if it didn't carry a substantial whiff of grapeshot.

    I loved my one experience at an Ethical Humanist meeting, which combined old world idealism with Chicago brutality, but it isn't enough to center your life around. Fur Coat is a first-rate political conversationalist, I think, but there's always something vaguely embarrassing when conservatives and liberals argue. Like when Jon Stewart took down Marc Thiessen the other day; it was spectacular and but so cringe-inducing I couldn't wait for it to end. Nothing reminds you of the futility of life like a political argument.