Posted by: Harold Knight | 09/03/2011

“. . . a constriction of collective empathy and a growing lack of compassion are what one finds throughout America today.”

Karl is as mortal as you are

Karl is as mortal as you are

Am I your basic coward or just a weary old man? According to one article on aging, I am two-thirds of the way to being one of the “oldest old” (1). That is, of course, assuming I live to be as old as my dad. As I get older, I am less and less inclined to plunge into political or social activism (as in 1972—when I worked full-time for the George McGovern campaign, fully vindicated August 9, 1974).

I was never part of the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” generation.  I’ve never really been into rock ‘n roll.

But, as usual, I digress. Or do I? That may be precisely my point.

Two-thirds of my emails come from more or less radical organizations and publications to which I belong or subscribe. “More or less” because none of them is as radical as I am. If I had any charisma or organizational ability or energy, “the movement” would long since have begun. “Populist, libertarian, socialist” might describe my thinking. How’s that for self-contradictory?

Those organizations and publications include The New Left Review, Common Dreams, Alternet, TPM Daybreaker, US Campaign to end the Israeli Occupation, Council for the National Interest, eSkeptic magazine, and The Nation. Not one (with the possible exception of the first, a British publication) comes close to expressing the “radical” ideas living in my head which I simply take as truth without question.

I was never into drugs, either, by the way—except speed and alcohol.

Radical. All wealth ought to be distributed equally—as long as one percent of our society owns one-third of the wealth, we are screwed. All laws governing sexual activity (except those that try to protect children and prevent rape) ought to be deleted. The US military should be dismantled. The United States should never interfere in the internal affairs (even dictatorships) of any other nation. All religious privilege should end (including the tax-exempt status of property of religious and religiously oriented institutions). We must end the absurd “war on terror” which is nothing more than the ultimate excuse to curtail our freedoms and redistribute wealth—upward! Do I need to continue?

Even if I were young and energetic, I have no idea what movement I could join that espouses such a mélange of beliefs. I’d call myself a libertarian except many libertarians actually have the most rigid of all beliefs—God somehow ordained rampant capitalism, and the “free market” is as natural as the rising and the setting of the sun. What balderdash!

It’s not fair to associate any group or organization that undeniably and unequivocally promotes and works for the common good with anyone who, like me, espouses such a ridiculous hodgepodge of non-conformist beliefs. I realize how limited my intellectual and moral strength and courage are. So let me quickly disassociate myself from groups I might drag into this philosophical/ethical morass. It’s not their fault I follow (and have been known at times to participate in) their activities.

I love Abraham Maslow’s ridiculous understanding that every human being has two opposing

. . . forces within him. One set clings to safety and defensiveness out of fear. . . afraid to take chances, afraid to jeopardize what he already has, afraid of independence, freedom and separateness. The other set of forces impels him forward toward wholeness of Self and uniqueness of Self, toward full functioning of all his capacities, toward confidence in the face of the external world (2).

(My computer knows better than Maslow. When I copied and pasted from the PDF file of this article by Nelson Goud, it read “the other set of forces” as “the other set of farces.”)

As are Charles and David

As are Charles and David

Here’s why such talk is farcical. It is based on the assumption that a human being “has” something. That a human being can, in fact, move forward to “independence, freedom, and separateness.” Exactly what is it that you “have?” I don’t “have” anything. Oh, yeah, this computer sits here on a desk that I gave IKEA money for, in an apartment for which I give Michael the manager a check every month so I can pile stuff here and use the refrigerator to store the food that gives me the energy to keyboard these words.

At a certain time (I’m most likely more than 2/3rds of my way there) I will be dead. At that point, what difference does it make whether or not I have been impelled “forward toward wholeness of Self and uniqueness of Self, toward full functioning of all his capacities, toward confidence in the face of the external world.” That’s all making excuses for behavior that is—we all know—reprehensible and meaningless.

I have to admit I don’t have a clue what Maslow means by “wholeness of Self.” However, my guess is that if there were five people in this country who had “wholeness of self” the revolution would already have happened. Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers would not be in charge, nor—I’m sorry to pick on my heroes—would Noam Chomsky and Robert Jensen. Neither the belief that money and power nor the belief that service and compassion are important would be on the ascendant trajectory they have shared since the beginning of human time.

Leonard Kriegel in the article quoted in my heading says

At 62, a man can acknowledge that he is tired of watching and rumination. I want to trust what I see . . . that is all I can finally ask for. . . Forget reflection. All that is left for a man like me to argue over is how he can measure the value of what he has learned in his life until now (3).

I agree partly with Kriegel. I am tired of rumination, but not of watching. Thirty years ago I was trying to learn something “spiritual” from a teacher of meditation.  I didn’t. But his mantra has stayed with me long enough to begin to make sense. “Watch and observe.” Watch and observe oneself. Don’t DO anything. Watch and observe.

And Noam

And Noam

I repeat. If only five people in this country really did nothing but “watch and observe,” they would exert such moral authority without intending to that our universal lust for power as culminated in Karl Rove and our lust for worldly goods as culminated in the Koch Brothers, and our lust for rationality as culminated in Noam Chomsky, and our lust for justice as culminated in Robert Jensen would simply vanish.  All of those guys will be dead soon, too.

I, of course, am waxing hyperbolic and absurd. Probably because I want to be able—and even my “wanting” it is evidence that I can’t—to do nothing but watch and observe myself, my life, and thus get beyond even such noble sentiments as Maslow’s.

I fear “constriction of collective empathy and a growing lack of compassion” are simply the norm. The revolution will never come because each of us wants to be either as rich as the Koch Brothers or as brilliant as Noam Chomsky.

And even Robert

And even Robert

(1) Fischer, Regina Santamäki, Astrid Norberg, and Berit Lundman. “I’m on My Way: The Meaning of Being Oldest Old, as Narrated by People Aged 95 and Over.” Journal of Religion, Spirituality & Aging 19.2 (2007): 3-19.
(2) Maslow, Abraham. Toward a Psychology of Being. New York; Van Nostrand Reinhold: 1968. Quoted in:  Goud, Nelson H. “Courage: Its Nature and Development.” Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development 44.1 (Spring 2005): (102-116).
(3) Kriegel, Leonard. “Confessions of a might-have-been conservative: Or, How Newt and Rush Helped One New York Liberal See the Light and Keep the Faith.” Virginia Quarterly Review 72.1 (1996): 1.



  1. Nice post Harold. I’ve got to say that your fragmented and clashing beliefs come pretty close to my fragmented and clashing beliefs. I usd to try to make them mesh into a coherent theory of praxis. I don’t worry about that too much now. I figure evolution will have its way with me and my ideas. I express my ideas and those of others. I’m curious to see what takes root and what will happen. I’m not the master of any universe, not even my own interior universe. I’m ok with that.



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