I grew up in Bucks County, a far suburb of Philadelphia. Back when I was a kid, the county was reliably Republican. A world-famous author, James Michener of Tales of the South Pacific fame, ran for Congress as a Democrat against a very ordinary Republican incumbent whose name you’re probably hearing now for the first time, Willard Curtin. Curtin trounced him.
My dad was an East Coast Republican: strongly anti-communist and pro-strong defense, very strongly for outlawing state-sponsored racial segregation and ending the denial of civil rights to any American. He spoke with passion about the outrageous internment of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II and about the impediments and indignities that faced black Americans. He liked lower taxes and less government intrusion in most areas of life, especially the free market. He listened to Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and classical music.
To an eighth grader, it seemed a pretty nice worldview, morally sane and practical at the same time. It was whole. Power was meant to serve the good by protecting good people from evil and abuse, whether from within the country or without.
High school opened up a whole different world. My folks valued a good education, and they sent me to a private Quaker high school nearby. There, I found two worldviews asserting themselves strongly but which were in no way integrated.
One was the classic view of historic Quaker quietism. Rejecting the violence of the politics of 17th-century England, the quietists retreated from the conflicts of the world to their Society of Friends, embraced pacifism, and meditated on the inner light.
The other view was that of radical involvement in utopian politics. This was true to the Quaker tradition of advocating for the persecuted. They were prominent in the movement to end the slave trade in Britain and the abolitionist movement in America. Their rejection of using force to oppose the spread of communism after World War II attracted many on the left to them. There was a contingent of passionate and articulate leftists, some quite radical, among my new classmates.
I faced withering moral criticism from more than a few of my peers. As a teenager, I wanted very much to impress and be accepted by them. By the time ninth grade year was over, I was already internalizing the way that they were looking at the world.
Looking back more than half a century, I can see and appreciate what was going on.
Utopian aspirations are necessary in that we can never be free of striving to make the world better than it is. All the horrors unleashed by Mao, Lenin, and Stalin don’t lessen the need to strive for what the Framers called a more perfect union.
Spiritual retreat is necessary as well, for we humans are creatures of habit, and, in contemplation, we can find a deeper and truer self that can respond better to life’s necessities and opportunities. Deep attention can reveal possibilities that habit would overlook, and, as the Quakers seemed to realize, minimize the need for violence. No matter how necessary violence seems, there must be a deep core of humanity within our souls that makes possible some more peaceful solution.
More than 50 years after I left high school, we face problems as severe as America has ever seen — a collusion of powerful players in government, tech, education, media, and business who are devoted to transferring wealth upwards (see this fine article by Batya Ungar-Sargon) and toward insulating themselves from any accountability to the people in whom American sovereignty resides.
They have thrown together a coordinated effort that has stifled debate, perverted science, and protected institutional corruption at the highest levels of government.
They have put a chokehold on those who do not pass their test and are ready to throttle those who speak the truth if that truth threatens them.
The natural reaction of many of those who valued the American promise of freedom is a version of quietism. Let’s dig deeper in ourselves, withdraw from violent, vicious politics, and strengthen our own society of friends. Let us disengage and find our deeper selves.
Another reaction is typified by those who say it is time to forget being the good guy and get serious about the struggle for power (see this fine article in these pages).
After 50 years, I see that the quietism on the one side and the struggle for power are necessarily flawed by themselves. Neither adequately answers our human challenge.
Modern totalitarianism embraces power as the only truth. Marx, Lenin, and Stalin are explicit about it, as were Hitler and Mussolini and Napoleon before them. All reject any transcendent ethics, anything powerful enough to require allegiance beyond the reach of their state and its full range of utterly crushing power. The ideology of power is behind today’s wokeists; none have access to any real truth. All merely disguise the only reality — they are striving for power.
And the wokeists act on this belief of theirs, believing that they are as right as anyone in using power to crush any who oppose them, without any accountability beyond that of their own victory. Of course, that was the cry that thundered from the packed stadiums and plazas — Hail Victory! Sieg Heil!
But quietism is an inadequate and irresponsible response to the Holocaust, the most horrific of the many horrors of the last hundred years. Power can be and must be used and nowhere is it used more legitimately in protecting the innocent.
There is a model for this, a unity that brings together power and commitment to the vision of the peaceful Society of Friends. It emerges at the very beginning of the Bible, the book that deals with beginnings, the Book of Genesis.
What the first chapter of Genesis describes is a Being in whom ultimate goodness and ultimate power are inextricably integrated. God in Genesis makes the space for a whole world, even though that world can and will often work against God’s desire and purpose. This infinite altruism is emphasized by the ancient tradition preserved by the students of Torah that when God calls the sixth day of creation not just good, like the previous days, but “very good!”, it was on account of the Evil Inclination that spurs humans to spurn God.
That same chapter of Genesis tells us that we humans are created in that divine image. Our task is to emulate the creation that underlies and makes possible all our human creativity, and never separate power from goodness or goodness from power.
Embracing the necessity to integrate them both in every aspect of our lives is what makes our American dream of a self-governing people possible. It makes possible a vision that embraces all our fellow citizens, and indeed the whole world, while requiring us to use effective power to act against those who wish to compel us to worship their power, stripped naked of any goodness.
I can see that wholeness as the tacit base of my father’s engaged life, which I left behind as a teenager. He wanted freedom and equality, not the subjection to the power of dictators. I see him now as an ally, beyond all the differences.
In the light of the Oneness that underlies the universe and each one of us at every moment, we too have the imperative of seeking alliances beyond all differences, as American freedom allows us and challenges us to do. It’s worth fighting for, in the most peaceful and effective ways possible.