LOOKING FOR BALANCE; Social historian Theodore Roszak
Theodore Roszak is a maverick historian capable of distinguishing running tides from the froth that rides the waves. For the last two decades he has astutely monitored American popular culture, from war protests to the women's movement, from CB radios to punk rock, and managed to separate the hucksters and hokum from genuine trends and seeds of new social orders.
Roszak first made his reputation reading the pulse of America in the '60s through his books "The Making of a Counter Culture" and "Where the Wasteland Ends" -- both of which were nominated for the National Book Award. He argued that student rebellion was not a historical aberration or momentary catharsis, but part of the constant undertow of the human spirit's resistance to technological excesses and bigness. Roszak believes the counterculture has now moved off campus, taken on new forms, and graduated into the culture at large. He interprests the general unrest of the '70s over Watergate, corporate scandals , inflation, energy, the deterioration of the cities, as the troubled birth of a major cultural transformation, a spiritual awakening in this country.Roszak is neither starry-eyed futurist nor bemoaner of contemporary society. Rather he attempts to offer alternatives and values to break the cultural momentum he denigrates. His most recent book, "Person/Planet," explores the interplay between global ecology and the individual's search for identity.
Roszak, raised in Chicago and educated at UCLA and Princeton University, is a professor of history and chairman of General Studies at California State University, Hayward. He lives in Berkeley, California, where he recently spoke with Stewart McBride.
As we enter the '80s, what sorts of excess baggage would you like to see us discard? I'm thinking of cherished assumptions, myths, and wants.
Some things are being discarded very widely -- the myth of endless material progress and unlimited economic growth, for example. We've got to get beyond the intoxication of industrial production and begin to think about other values in life.
The poet Rilke said that we will not have the answers to our questions until we're able to live the answers. And until then we shouldn't be afraid to live the questions. I wonder if this period of uncertainty is really us living the questions?
Two sets of needs are imposing themselves upon us at the same time. One from within, one from without. The needs that speak from within us for personal autonomy and fulfillment are simply a different expression of the same needs of the environment around us for respect and moderation.
Some people think this has a nebulous, mystic sound. It doesn't seem that way to me at all. The needs of the planet demand the same prescription to scale things down, slow them, democratize and decentralize them.
You're talking about a new definition of power?
In some respects, yes. We're used to power being grounded in masses or in classes. All the politics of reform and revolution of the last two centuries have taken the form of mass actions in which classifications were assigned. The trouble with such politics is that it has no deep respect for people as persons. It treats them as a power base. I'm talking about a politics that is committed to dealing with the genuine personal uniqueness of human beings in all their variety. We live in a society which is committed on all fronts to the massification of people -- as nations, markets. But there is a spontaneous rebellion growing up in Western society, people determined to express their uniqueness.
What do you say to the social critics, like Christopher Lasch, who look at the same symptoms and say the search for self-discovery is really "pathological narcissism," "self-indulgence," the "Me decade"?
There's nothing pathological about the struggle for people to find themselves. We have a whole body of literature in the last century devoted to this. Take James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" -- the struggle of a young man against the identities assigned him by nation, church, family. It's not self-indulgence to strike out in the direction of establishing your own identity. IT takes courage. It takes courage for a woman to stand up against the prevalent stereotypes and say, "That's not for me." She pays a price for it. It takes courage for a handicapped person to come onto the street and say, "I'm not going to hide in my house anymore. I'm going to come out and claim full access to the world around me." If you want to interpret all this in the most tawdry was possible then of course you can mock it and reject it, just as you can anything else. But that's interpreting things in the lowest possible terms and why do that? Unless, of course, what you want to do is crush, discourrage, defeat them. In what way is it self-indulgent for someone to say, "I won't betray my own identity"? It's one of the strongest, most powerful movements in the whole industrial world. And there is no way to deny people their rights without being cruelly oppresive.What I think we're involved with here is something that is as deeply serious as the struggle for equality which began two centuries ago, and which was outrageous and incomprehensible to many people at that time. In what sense did the poor, the nonwhile, the nonmale of the world claim equality? Now it's just gone a bit further. The demand is not simply for equality, but for uniqueness.
There are people who don't understand this. It threatens the power base of social movements, because those movements have again and again betrayed the aspirations of people, by treating them as things, as collectiveness.
How does the present political climate in this country, vis-a-vis the draft, arms race, renewal of the cold war, reflect broader trends?
You have a lot of old values that still come into play essentially born of fear and anger and hatred. There are still buttons like "patriotism" that can be pushed and there are politicians who will push them. Some of the narcissist critics cannot really believe that this value of personhood is accessible to so-called "ordinary" people. They always focus their criticism on rather odd, unique, upper-middle-class types. But when you go out and talk to waitresses, steelworkers, or so-called ordinary people, they all tell the same story -- this job makes me feel like a robot -- it won't let me be myself. They feel no conscience toward the job and they walk off the assembly line. The job violates -- what? Their sense of personhood.Everybody in the corporate community knows that the reason productivity is dropping, not only in out society but in all industrial societies, is because there's no work ethic left. And there's no work ethic left because people have been profoundly alienated.
Is our culture acquiring a new morality?
Yes, insofar as the assertion of a "moral good" means the right to be a person. This is a new morality -- for people to be assertive. Societies have always assigned roles -- that women would be women, that men would be men, that old folks would be old folks, that kids be kids, and the handicapped stay out of sight. Everybody has his place in the social system. That's what makes it a system. But People don't play those games anymore. Neither little ones or big ones. Television situation comedy over the last 10 or 15 years has radically changed. Series after series has been based on people fighting social stereotypes. There's not going to be a neat, efficient, rapid soution -- but at least it's in the open.
Ever since Henry Adams wrote "The Dynamo and the Virgin," a number of social critics have suggested the need for traditionally "feminine" virtues of compassion, sensitivity, intuition, to balance out the excesses of the industrial age. In that sense, do you consider yourself a feminist?
I certainly subscribe to feminist values -- which is simply the right of women to define their identity.
In "Person/Planet" you said that at this juncture in history, for all of us who are sunk in the Frankensteinian culture of masculine dominance, the road to wholeness leads through the feminine. What led you to that conclusion?
That's part of the argument about the changing vision of nature, the earth, the planet. Western science has from the very beginning been deeply imbued with compulsive, stereotypic masculine values. At the point where all of that begins to break down and change, you expect to find a greater openness to a very different vision of nature. In the ecology movement, people are beginning to think of the planet in much more sensitive, personal, generous, reverent terms. One of the signs of the times is an attempt to restore the lost feminine nature to our science. To the degree that there is an imbalance in the masculine direction, it could be corrected by introducing a greater feminine sensivity. Beyond that lies the possibility of transcending these categories entirely and recognizing that we have merely universal qualities. I try not to push the terms "masculine" and "feminine" too hard because they are part of the unfortunate division that I think needs to be transcended for the sake of achieving one's own uniqueness.
If, in fact, nature is somewhat of a mirror for us, in exploring the earth and the universe, to what extent are we simply exploring categoies of human consciousness?
I think I could reply to that, but it's such a big question that I don't know if I should start going in that direction. There is a delicate balance between the way the mind reflects the world and the way the world is. It's very tricky interplay.
What are your feminist intuitions about the "man-made" environment? What bothers you most about cities?
I think our science and our technology have had the stereotypic masculine bias that needs to be corrected. Out of that science and technology in the last century has arisen an imperialism of the cities. This has blanketed growth and is now beginning to close out every other form of culture. The only culture left will be that of urban industrialism. In fact, we're very close to that now. The whole world is now governed by the city-mind. There's a sense in which the city doesn't leave off and rural wilderness begin. There is no authentic rural society left. There is no authentic wilderness left in the world.
What about Alaska?
What happens to Alaska is going to be determined in Fairbanks and in Washington, D.C. The wilderness is not going to determine whether the caribou live or die -- it's no longer capable of defending itself, because human beings penetrate and dominate it and there are no people in that land capable of defending it. Wilderness these days means some kind of national park which can be torn down and torn up if the nearest metropolis sees fit. Jacques Cousteau has pointed out that the high, wild seas of the world -- everywhere -- are now covered with tar and petroleum, as if the outreach of the city in industrial society is just everywhere. It's hard to grasp the fact that this condition is less than a century old. Anything that happens on that rapid scale is ecologically unbalanced. We've not recognized yet that the whole imperialist economy of cities is tormenting the planet beyond tolerance. It means we need to scale the cities down. There are many alternatives to city life. There is small-town life. There is village life. There is family farm life. It is absurd, frankly, to say that after a little more than a century of intensive urbanization, it has been decided that all these other things are undesirable and impossible.
How do we go about dismantling the modern city?
The first thing you have to recognize is that most people who are in cities don't want to be there. It that weren't true, there would be no hope of dismantling the urban empire. But most people are in cities because they've been driven into cities by work, by the fact that cities have come to dominate the culture. Cities alone look like places where life can be affluent, secure, exciting.
But there are people like you and me who are born, bred and live in cities, and are still living in a city. Even you openly confessed in "Person/Planet" that you wouldn't choose to move to a small family farm.
That's true. Clearly there are "citified" people. But traditionally -- which means to go back five to seven thousand years -- the citified people, those who authentically choose to live in cities, have been a strict minority of the human race. I suspect they still are.
The other thing that you have to bear in mind is that what most of us are now forced to think of as urban is really suburban -- vast, swollen suburbs which only exist because people want to get as far away from the urban center as possible. The key to this, is hardheaded political terms, is land reform. If people are going to live any place but in high-rise buildings you have to ask, where else can they live?
What land is available? Once you start asking that, you discover that we have been connived into these urban areas by the land policies of our society over the last century which have allowed the land to be bought up and used for various economic purposes. This has taken people off the land; this has made small family farming insupportable as a way of life. This didn't happen as a matter of technology or of natural fact, or of scientific law, but as a matter of tax policy. Small family farms can be enormously productive. They can be the richest sustaining way of life, but notm if you surround them with land and tax policies that kill them. My approach to this problem is to connect deurbanization with land reform.
Most people would say that's a Third World solution to a First-World problem.
No. Land reform is a universal need. To pretend that land reform is an issue only of the Third World is a propagandistic trick. Land reform starts at home. Right here. All the economic interests in our society are tied up in the land division system.
Is that not a Thoreauvian, pastoral view of life which could simply become as extension of the old escape of the suburbs?
The best you can provide under prevailing economic and social conditions is various illusions. And so you give people suburbs that are called something like "Rural Village" or "Oakdale" or shopping centers that look like big red barns. You give them illusions. What I'm saying is, if there is a case for that and a desire for that, make it real. Give people the realm choice. And see what happens.
The most culturally productive cities we knew in the historical past were small towns. A city does not have to have millions of people to be a cultural powerhouse. Athens in the Golden Age was about 100,000 people. Renaissance Rome was about 45,000 people. Cities of that size created the culture of nations. Now we have cities all over the world that count 8, 10, million in their populations. They are notm cultural powerhouses.
Would you agree with William Irwin Thompson that cities will be as obsolete to the next civilization as the Sphinx is to ours?
No, I don't entirely agree with that. I think that the urban option is one option that's important to keep. There arem citified people. There have always been merchants, artisans, intellectuals, who gravitated to cities. They're the authentic urban population. The best image is to see the true city as a cultural laboratory where we experiment with new ideas and values and life styles. That's what makes cities exciting.
Right? But a laboratory should never be as big as the whole planet. Because if it goes wrong, the whole planet is destroyed. We're turning the whole planet into an empire of cities. And that is ecological unsound. The city has to be retained as one option, but it must be an authentic city, not crowded with millions of people.