“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears
Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads
Saturday, February 24, 2007
Locke vs. the Witch
This is a typical story from Edward Wingfield's Discourse of Virginia. Wingfield, one of John Smith's men, is talking about another expedition of starving, quarreling gentlemen up another hopeless river in a country seemingly infinite in expanse and strangeness. He and Smith meet a kyng of an Indian nation, named Pawatah. The Englishmen presented him with a hatchet.
“Monday he came to the water side, and we went a shore to him agayne. He tolde us that our hott Drynckes he thought caused his greefe, but that he was well agayne, and we were very welcome. He sent for another Deere which was roasted and after sodd for us (as before). Our Captayne caused his Dynner to be Dressed a shore also. Thus we satt banqueting all the forenoone, some of his people led us to their houses, shewed us the growing of their Corne and the maner of setting it, gave us Tobacco, wallnutes, mulberyes, strawberryes, and Respises. One sheewed us the herbe called in their tongue wisacan, which they say heales poisoned wounds, it is like lyverwort or bloudwort. One gaue me a Roote wherewith they poison their Arrows. they would shew us any thing we Demaunded, and laboured very much by signes to make us understand their Languadge.”
LI thinks there are fascinating things in the early stories of the colonists – (and reminds you to be on the watch for Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown). We are bringing up this account of gifts to contrast it with a recent post on Crooked Timber by John Quiggen, which is about a recent survey of happiness and how one should interpret the results of it . This is a truly ponderable matter, although economists are only moved to spasmodically engage with empirical evidence about happiness once in a blue moon, as a sort of homage to Bentham.
Well, the post, and the assumptions, have made me ponder about the emphasis on the happiness parameter, and the neglect of others – among which, most strikingly, is generosity. And on this neglect hangs a tale of Weltanshauungs.
It really does make perfect sense for economists to be worried about happiness, just as it made sense, so long ago, for the Jamestown colonists to look at all those gifts and plan on seizing them – or just as it makes sense that one of the enduring American myths is of the “purchase” of Manhattan for a deal of beads. For here, the avant garde of the Early Modern Era, Lockians avant le lettre, encountered an ethos they had already overthrown in Southern England. They met it, too, in the Scots highland, and the wild country in Ireland. They met it and invariably they killed it. For this was the deal – the Lockian view was that liberty, that amazing invention of the Dutch and the English, consisted of the disposing of property. Freedom and owning property were synonymous. Whereas the Kynge Pawatah, the highland clans, the cattle raiding Irish, all saw liberty – not that they conceptualized it as such – as generosity. To be powerful was to give. Account after account of the first settlements tell us that the colonists, always seeming to be a miserable lot, survived, crucially, on the generosity of the salvages. The learning of planting techniques, the seeds, the food for the winter, the banqueting – it was all accepted without question by the settlers, who responded with maps, surveys, claims, and treaties. Of course, we are not talking of an unmixed capitalist ethos – these seventeenth century bravos were still too close to the older ways to be completely comfortable with the triumph of property. But so it went – the fall of one definition of freedom – transmuted into today’s terms, it is the freedom from the iron laws of economics, the remorseless gameplaying for profit – versus another: freedom of contract. While, from the Lockean viewpoint, generosity is nothing more than irresponsibility, a parasitic relationship to the production machine.
Poor Marx. He was born too late. If only he’d been there, at John Smith’s side.
Now, the thing about conservatives is that, no matter how they might go on about Aristotle and natural law, in the end, they are always going to come back to Locke. The Aristotelian virtue of generosity is absolutely foreign to the ethos of property based liberty. Try to imagine Americans, now, looking out at strangelooking, foreign tongued peoples straggling down their streets, and going out and – showing them all their wealth. Treating them to the best food. Giving them medicine. This is not going to happen.
The thing about liberals is this: we are nostalgic for the ethos of generosity, but aware of the amazing wealth created by the freedom of contract. Our idea is that eventually, the wealth will be so much that society will evolve, peacefully, into a thing more generous – generous beyond the belief of those Indians.
This is to tacitly ignore what “evolution” is all about. Marxists, of course, think that they can skip and seize, banking on a revolution that comes from outside history. And LI, ex-lefty, misfit liberal, only figured out, last year, that Red Riding Hood going up the path of pins is not the same as Red Riding Hood going back down the path of pins. That there are irreversible paths, and that the negation of the negation is best embodied in that moment in which the witch says the Lord’s Prayer backwards. Little Red Riding Hood can get eaten by the wolf, or have the wolf killed, or – back back back down that path – worship the wolf.
I imagine that, on the parameter of generosity, this country would show up as characteristically schizophrenic. If I close one crow’s eye and gaze at these here states, I see an astonishingly selfish place. Foreign aid has radically declined since the sixties, even as the country has become much, much richer. This is a country that calmly looked on in the nineties, watched Africa fight an AIDS epidemic that was, in its scope, like the Black Death, and moved only to make sure that the intellectual property rights of the drug companies were properly respected. This is a country that abolishes welfare, and substitutes the system of jails – jails being a two-fer – you can both enforce apartheid and sink the poor into such straits that they become absolutely demoralized. In these days of the long long war, World War IV, don’t you know, what country is taking in the million plus refugees from the Iraq war? Syria and Jordan – where the average income is, maybe, a tenth what it is in the U.S. The U.S. – the major cause of the death of the two to four hundred thousand Iraqis, and the flight of the million plus – will take in – 7.000 this year. Ideally. This is typical, however. Unless you are white, coming to the U.S. is always a fraught enterprise – from the coast card turning back starving Haitians all the way back to the policy of slamming the door in the face of the Jews in the 30s.
However, closing that eye and opening my other crows eye, I see evidences of generosity in another form. A restlessness and energy in the culture that is all about giving everything up. About second chances. The bold forging of new sexual relationships. A lot of things that I find incredibly moving, but would have trouble materializing it into questions on a generosity questionnaire.