Picktures and Pieces 7: The Courage of Our Convictions
Randall E. Auxier
“Commitment” probably isn’t the first word that would come to your mind looking at this image. Or if it does, perhaps only in the way we think of older married people. Things are not always as they seem. These two are lovers alright, but it’s not what you think, unless you are among those who would happen to recognize this photograph. In fact, the government regarded these two as quite committed to something apart from one another, but let’s keep things light for another few moments.
Hard to believe, but we have on the left one of the early advocates of “free love.” One thing that seems ironic to me about that odd phrase is that sex without lasting commitment, while it may not be immoral by present day standards, definitely seems to fall short of “love.” There is more to say about this (and I’ll talk about it three blogs hence), but it pricks my mind, as I consider the virtue of commitment. In a recent book, Crispin Sartwell gives a loose field of connotation for the word. To be committed, as a public virtue, is to have a sort of calling to serve something larger than oneself, and it involves overcoming resistance and facing risk and loss in that service. People who are committed to something, Sartwell says, will work tirelessly and become emotionally involved in whatever they serve. The claim exerted by the cause upon its servant makes the situation feel almost involuntary --something must be done and I must do it. The ancient idea of “calling” (ekklesia, vocatio, etc.) seems implied, which, in the archaic sense, meant to ring a bell in the public square to call the people from their private dwellings for collective action or decision-making.
Commitment, then, is whatever calls us out of the privacy of our lives and subjective ruminations and into action –irrevocable action that cannot be undone once it has been done. The image above depicts Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, famous anarchists of a generation long gone. The picture was taken in 1917. They were on their way to prison that year for conspiracy to resist the draft during the First World War. Upon release in 1919, both will be permanently deported from the United States. Both were born in Lithuania, under Czarist Russia, and immigrated to the United States in the 1880s, which is to say, they weren’t exactly new to the country when “deported,” so the term seems a strained choice. “Expelled” would be closer to the truth.
I do not wag a finger at the US government here, however. A convincing case could be made that Berkman and Goldman had been shown both leniency and forbearance, given their commitments and their actions in service of those commitments. These folks had an alternate vision of society, contrary to the status quo, or even the progressive version of the so-called “American dream.” I will talk about Goldman’s philosophical ideas in a few subsequent blog posts, but for now, just thinking about their level of commitment, I am led to wonder about two things.
First, we all know human limitation, frailty, fallibility, and the like. But the self-righteous indignation of ordinary folks, individual people working up a lather over the “way things are” or “the way people are treated” is surely a part of what brings changes, both good and bad, to our collective lives. People do get mad as hell and they "won't take it anymore, whatever "it" is. Since no situation is ideal, some kind of change might always be an improvement. Goldman and Berkman were living in a time when things weren’t just a little bit bad, they were perfectly horrendous: big business was raging out of control, ordinary people were being crushed, literally, under the feet of a privileged few who couldn’t have produced even a modest justification for their habits or means or aims. Today we read the thinking of the captains of industry, from Commodore Vanderbilt to Henry Ford and we find their social Darwinism (really Spencerian reductionism) appalling.
How far would any of us go, today, to remedy this exploitation? These powerful people scrupled not in the least at the idea of risking the lives and safety of their employees or even their customers in pursuit of the Dollar Almighty. There just was no government oversight of industry, transportation, mining, the rape of the land, up to and including the wide scale violent slaughter of indigenous people, and the list goes on. We speak of America, land of the free, home of the brave. As I consider what was being done in those days, and in whose name and for whose sake, I begin to believe that I might have been able to generate some commitment of my own. I feel myself becoming physically angry, my sober thoughts being crowded out by the vilest recriminations I can manufacture.
But hold for a moment. Would I really have felt these things had I lived in that generation? Would you? Or would I have reserved that passion for hatred of these foreign Jews, Goldman and Berkman, who were making trouble throughout what I might have arrogantly called "my native land"? How can I know which side I would have taken? Or would I have even cared? Almost no one today, even the most reactionary fascist, would advocate a return to the conditions that Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were fighting. No one. If anyone so much as attempted to re-instate the system under which the USA operated between 1875 and 1900, that tyrant would be treated with the kind of contempt we, in the West, reserve for Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. And yet, Emma Goldman, who confronted these bullies and mass murderers, is not celebrated for having the wherewithal to take a stand and say “there must be something better.” Why?
Sartwell says that commitment as a public virtue, involves a certain kind of courage, and this is the second thing I am wondering about. What kind of courage? He says: “Commitment cannot be manifested without courage, but the courage is derivative from the commitment.” (Extreme Virtue, p. 9). When we say that a person is courageous, we usually mean that he or she can face fear and accomplish something important anyway. But one of the interesting things about commitment, as a public virtue, is that it backs us into a corner sometimes and we find ourselves doing, and able to do, things for which we would not normally have the courage. We get beyond ourselves, and it is a core of belief and an emotional attachment to that belief which drives us into the breach, according to Sartwell. He is remarkably even-handed in his willingness to find commitment admirable, but I confess that I struggle with it. In pondering this last point, I recently came upon the following image. Is this commitment? Is it courage?