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Free Love, Free Men, Free Silver and a Ticket to Heaven

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Okay, so here’s the thing.  

My two sons read this blog–or, to be exact, my younger son reads it, and my older one (who claims never to read blogs, ever) pumps my younger one about it, and then they both argue about it with me.

I figure this has got to be better than endless chatter about videogames, so I let it go. 

At any rate, yesterday the two of them had some very strong complaints, and on reflection I’ve decided they have a point.  I described Zenobia as a Nurse Ratchett, but she isn’t one, and neither are most of the people I was thinking of when  I wrote that post yesterday.  

There are always Nurse Ratchetts hanging around any reform movement, and they often get fairly high in reform organizations, especially after the main point has been one (slavery abolished, women have the vote) and what’s left to do is a sort of maintenance effort. They are, however, parasites on the revolution, not revolutionaries, since their only object is their own personal power.

So I’ll get back to the Nurse Ratchetts some other day.  We have spent a lot of time in this house over the last few months talking about the Nurse Ratchetts, and it’s a subject tat fascinates me.

But the people I was thinking of yesterday are the people my older son says I should call “the hippies,” because that’s what they remind him of.  I think they’re a little too relentlessly earnest to be hippies, but then  I’ve actually meant hippies, and Matt’s only fantasized about them.

I keep telling him Tommy Chong isn’t the best model here, but, you know, what the hell. 

We’ll call the the Serious Hippies, maybe, or just the Zenobias, but what they have in common is not so much a personality type (although they have that, too) as a constellation of positions that’s always the same everywhere and everytime these movements arise.  There is, as far as I can tell, no logical necessity that people who agree with the main point (back to ending slavery, or giving rights to women) should take up these other things, but they do.   And once they do, they treat these things as moral laws with all the seriousness of Thou Shalt Not Kill.

Okay, let me hedge a little here–this constellation of things has been the same since the French  Revolution.  The men who made the American Revolution had no interest in them that I can tell.

But the New England Transcendentalists did, and reading the books I’ve been reading this summer has been like some weird time trip.  It’s the antebellum Northeast that I’m reading about, but it all sounds like a report from a Vermont communal farm in 1973.

There is, first, the assumption that marriage should be abolished–that it is a hindrance to the right relations between men and women, a shackle that causes harm to human relations.  Sometimes this wish to abolish marriage goes along with a wish to establish Free Love, as it did for Victoria Woodhull and Abbie Hoffman, but sometimes it doesn’t.  The NETs were very concerned about being pure and putting the relations between men and women on a spiritual plain, but they still thought it could only happen if they “did something” about the institution of marriage.

There is, next, the assumption that education should be “natural.”  The Progressive Education movement and Maria Montessori actually came up with plans for doing this at the beginning of the twentieth century, but Rousseau had already led the way, and you can see it now in the “unschooling” movement.   Lead a hild to learning, let him absorb it like a sponge without turning it into something hateful by punishments and restrictions, and he’ll–well, he’ll just choose to apply himself to algebra.  After all, learning is natural to the human child.  He’s driven to do it by his very nature.

Then there is the commitment to vegetarianism.  I’m not saying that all vegetarians are Zenobias.   People decide on a vegetarian (or vegan) diet for a lot of different reasons.  But the Zenobias area almost always vegetarian or close to it, and from the beginning their argument in favor of such a diet relied heavily on claims that meat corrupts the human body, that it fills it full of pollutants, that it lowers the energy and obscures the spiritual in the human soul.

What interests me about the vegetarianism is that it arose and persisted in an era when it was actually physically dangerous to practice it.  In 21st century America, or Australia, or Brussels, you can commit to even a vegan diet without worrying about what you’re denying yourself nutritionally.  We know about other ways to get enough protein and there are dietary supplements for the amino acids we miss when we walk away from the prime rib.

But Bronson Alcott knew nothing about any of this, and yet he forced his wife and children to eat a nearly totally vegetarian diet, with the result that they were often ill and that at least one of his children was perpetually “sickly.”  Practically the first thing his daughter Louisa May did when her books became popular and she became the source of income for the household was to fill the place full of meat.

The next thing is the attraction to violence in other people–Zenobias are never violent themselves–almost always coupled with the stated conviction that war is just something stupid and unnecessary that can be abolished.  The NETs sat in awe at the feet of John Brown and his sons just as Leonard  Bernstein and his gets thrilled to the sight of Black Panthers in their midst. Pictures of Che still adorn the t-shirts of college kids on campuses throughout the US.

Then, finally, there is the replacement of standard forms of religion with commitments to the “spiritual,” both in movements for liberal Christianity–the idea that Jesus would never actually send anyone to hell dates from the early nineteenth century, at least as part of the repertoire of the Zenobias–and in an attraction to what they imagine to be “Eastern wisdom,” and to Buddhism especially.

Margaret Fuller, that model for  Zenobia herself, was a passionate student of anything she could find out about Buddhist “spiritualisty,” and the enter NET movement supported what it called ‘natural religion,” which, as far as I can figure out, meant having a direct relationship with a God you sort of made up in your own head by communing with Nature and  The Infinite.

And no, I can’t get any more clear than that.  You’re going to have to go read Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even then I’m not making any promises.

But you must see what I mean here.   There’s no reason whatsoever that supporting the abolition of slavery should make you start communing with the  Infinite or give up eating meat.   There is no logical connection between the first thing and the other two.

And yet these things all occur together among the first proposers of really good, really necessary reform ideas.   Those reform ideas always seem to start with people who hold to these other things as well.

And I have no idea why.  No reform movement succeeds with just these people, of course, and none succeeds while being led by someone who had bought into all of this.  For a reform movement to succeed, you need the support of the general public, and the general public doesn’t have any patience for Zenobia’s constellation of principles.

Hell, one of the most effective ways to stop a reform movement in its tracks is to convnce that same general public that you can’t have the reform without having all the rest of that stuff.  They take one look at it, get appalled, and run for the hills. 

If a reform is ever really going to happen, you need a Lincoln or a Martin Luther King, as Robert noted, a person who isnot a Zenobia at all.

But still.

What is it about this particular constellation of ideas that seems to make the people who hold them more capable than the rest of us of seeing what reforms are really needed and committing themselves to making them happen?

Written by janeh

July 10th, 2009 at 7:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Free Love, Free Men, Free Silver and a Ticket to Heaven'

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  1. Oh, I know that type! The ones I knew best never bought into it 100% – if the vegetarianism didn’t dissuade them, the realization that free love meant that they were supposed to be happy and accepting when the man they fell in love with also loved someone else did. The ‘I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual’ crowd are every bit as numerous as they ever were, if not more so, although a lot of them don’t seem to be much into political radicalism or free love, and the rather vaguely conceived versions of Eastern religions, while still there, seem less common than they were back in the day. As far as I can make out ‘I’m not religious but I’m spiritual’ means no association (of course) with any religious group other than perhaps a local meditation group or yoga teacher, an extremely vague idea of the nature of God (often as a yet undiscovered form of energy, or something), and a devotional and prayer life that seems to consist of vaguely positive feelings while meditating or thinking about nature (although not while actually doing battle with nature to preserve a garden). These people often seem to have a vague belief in the goodness of all human beings, and moral teachings consist of encouragement to be nice to everyone and warning that what goes around comes around, and really, anyone who does wrong things are hurting themselves or will come back as a kumquat or something. I’ve never really had the heart to enquire into their take on the problem of natural evil.

    It’s all terribly fuzzy and sweet, without much if anything in the way of thinking or studying about, say, what other people have had to say about God or prayer or nature or morality.

    Anyway, I don’t think it’s the case that these people are more capable that others of seeing what reforms are really needed. I think it’s the case that they are born with a desire to be different from everyone around them. They find a lot of different ways to be different – novelty, new ideas on social roles and religion, appeals to them, and they interpret ‘freedom’ as meaning mainly the ability to try out whatever new ideas float through their minds. Some of them actually have the perseverance to carry out one or more of the new beliefs that appeal to them rather than flitting from one to another, and some subset of those manages to pitch on some Cause that later developments will reveal to have resulted in big improvements for lots of people in their society.

    I’m much more impressed by the people who DIDN’T have a tendency to try out new ideas, but who nevertheless, when they realized that a logical consequence of the ideas they had all along was that, say, prostitutes were being mistreated under the law, and then fight against it.


    10 Jul 09 at 8:27 am

  2. Good point, Cheryl. There are a lot of people who would speak up but they’re loathe to make themselves conspicuous by their dissension. I think that’s why people always speak so admiringly about the German priest (Niemoller?) who resisted the Nazis and made the “first they came for the Jews” comment – because most people are aware that they would struggle mightily with doing what he did.

    Can someone tell me something though? People are always talking about spirituality. I understand God – don’t believe in God, but I understand the concept of a deity. I understand religion. I understand prayer. But what the hell is spirituality in the absence of God/prayer/religion?

    Am I being dense or just too emphatically atheist?


    10 Jul 09 at 1:51 pm

  3. I should know the answer to this since I took a session in spirituality-but-not-religion years ago as part of a larger program. I didn’t particularly want to take it, since I was in my agnostic period and didn’t think I had a spiritual side, but it wasn’t optional. Unfortunately, I’ve long since lost any handouts.

    I’ve mostly heard people use the term of themselves when they appear to mean that they experience a sense of transcendance in their life, but they don’t interpret it or attempt to pursue it or experience it through the rituals of a religion or, usually, as members of any group. In fact, they appear to have quite negative attitudes towards religion, which they consider far too confining and narrow.

    Whether or not this means they don’t believe in God depends on your understanding of ‘God’ (there’s a long word for this, but I don’t remember it although I know the existence of the word means that people have been arguing for millenia about the nature of God). You know the statement about from stars we were born and to the stars we will return? I’ve always thought of that as a kind of poetic statement of the fact that atoms get recycled over millenia, but I’ve heard people talk about that as our part in God, who is the energies involved, or possibly the universe and everything in it, or something like that. They certainly don’t believe in the old man in a nightgown sitting in the clouds idea of God (well, neither does any religion I know of, except in simplified children’s stories). Sometimes, they just talk about experiencing the presence of the Divine, which they do through prayer. Tthey don’t seem to go in much for prayers of intercession or thanksgiving. They meditate, or walk in the woods communing with nature (although they don’t generally personify nature or believe in nature gods). They might praise God (meaning, of course, not a personal God) through music.

    I find the whole approach kind of wishywashy and very hard to get a handle on. I mean, I can feel wonder and awe while walking through a beautiful bit of nature as easily as the next person, but unless an approach to the non-material aspects of life gives me something for my brain to work on, and deals with other people, including the random assortment you get to associate with if you join a church or mosque or temple, I’m not really interested.


    10 Jul 09 at 4:48 pm

  4. Yes, that seems to be the standard list, though I think it predates the NET by more than a generation. Like the communal living, it seems to start–in the English-speaking world–about with the French Revolution, with Wolstonecraft & Co. Maybe it fit the agenda of one or more of them. Certainly they’ve been stealing from one another ever since.

    Assuming it DOES make a coherent whole, I’d think in terms of moral posturing.

    “Free love” and “spirituality” as opposed to binding oaths and almost any religion, free the advocate from tiresome moral restraints. Want to cheat on the wife? Traditional marriage is passe. Want to defraud or otherwise steal from your publisher, your relatives, your friends? YOU don’t have to adhere to outmoded traditional concepts of property. Many of us have done things we weren’t thrilled about doing–or refrained from doing things–because our religious beliefs required it. Somehow spiritualism is never so inconvenient.

    Vegetarianism is the icing on the cake. It’s a moral requirement you can’t make Christian, since on evidence as good as that for the Resurrection, Christ fed his followers fish, and ate fish Himself. I keep hearing Arnold explaining how his new order would be more virtuous than Jesus–and here it is: you can fornicate, commit adultery, steal and support mas murders, because you’ve removed all those rules, and still be morally superior, because you’re adhering to the rule you invented.

    Man, the rationalizing animal.

    Be fair to the revolutionaries and reformers, though: they don’t have a monopoly on the Ratchetts. Jerry Pournelle pointed out years ago that in any organization, there were those who promoted the ostensible PURPOSE of the organization, and those who promoted the INTERESTS of the organization. Pournelle felt the advantage lay with the latter–but he was a scarred veteran of NASA. We all know that can’t be true of our political parties or our governing institutions.


    10 Jul 09 at 5:40 pm

  5. Don’t you mean “shouldn’t be true of our political parties or our governing institutions”, Robert? Because it seems like it can be – but it would be wrong, I agree.

    Cheryl – maybe it’s the wishywashyness that I react to as well. There’s no there there.


    10 Jul 09 at 6:46 pm

  6. Hey, what’s wrong with being a kumquat? A very under-appreciated fruit.

    Seems like the constellation of traits Jane talks about go along with just wanting to be different from everyone else. What’s oddest of all is that somehow wanting to be different leads these people into being just like a whole bunch of other people.

    However, I think we’re missing that many if not most of these people have other very odd ideas, like foregoing “conventional” medical care, or sleeping under pyramids, or not paying taxes. What is also interesting is what they *won’t* advocate. None of them thinks eating cats or dogs is okay (for the non-vegetarians), none of them is enthusiastic about infanticide, or (openly) incest.

    What I suspect is that in these people, their approach to ALL issues is a bit extreme. Unhappy with relationships? Abolish marriage! The strictures of religion making you uneasy? Find the most undemanding spirituality you can. Meditate, or go Buddhist. Feeling a bit alienated from your fellow humans? Get naked! Nudism is salvation!

    And of course, with the verve of the recently reformed, they tend to proseletyze for their new Way of Enlightenment, whatever that might be. We should all eat, believe, dress, behave as they now do. It’s all just religious fervor redirected. We’ve all seen it in those who have recently quit smoking or lost weight.

    It may be hard-coded human behavior.

    As for why the group that Jane is focusing on all chose the *same* core issues on which to differ from mainstream culture, well, any teenager can tell you they want to be unique, different from everyone else, just like all their friends. ;)


    10 Jul 09 at 11:12 pm

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