We, the "good" people
“To be is to do” —Socrates.
“To do is to be”—Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Do be do be do”—Frank Sinatra.
I’ve always been intrigued by the colloquial reference to a single person, “s/he’s good people.” I know at least one of its connotations emerges out of the Black vernacular tradition. But one thing that is great about it is its explicit reference to the goodness of a community (indeed, a plurality) even in the singularity of its express content.
As I write, I am entering my third week here in the English department at Assumption College. And I can’t say for sure why, but I’ve found myself in class and in conversations with students making repeated reference to either David Foster Wallace or Kurt Vonnegut. Maybe it’s because Wallace’s “this-is-water” ethic has already crept into my early descriptions of what I think constitutes some of the best argumentation as well as the most insightful media criticism. Wallace described this ethic in a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College entitled “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life.” Two young fish are swimming along, so the story goes, and they happen to come across an older fish who greets them and says, “Morning boys. How’s the water?” After swimming on a short while, one of the fish eventually turns to his buddy and asks, “What the hell is water?” The point, of course, is that we, the fish, are very often unaware or simply uninterested in the stuff that comprises the default settings of our lives. For Wallace, the parable typifies the idea that a good liberal arts education should help students not how to think but how to choose what to think about. In learning to be more aware of the settings, one also learns to be more compassionate and thus less compelled by that which so often occupies the foreground: in Wallace’s words, the “fear, and anger, and frustration, and craving, and worship of self.” A “this-is-water” ethic is, ultimately, one of care for others.
Maybe this is why I’ve also found myself reiterating Vonnegut—and specifically a sentiment that emerges out of his 1972 essay, “In a Manner That Must Shame God Himself.” Anyone with cursory knowledge of the context for this essay will appreciate the spirit of the title, which encapsulates his report on the Republican National Convention. Long story short, Vonnegut discovered an entire political system built on the factional construction of civic clowns that then become enemies. In other words, there are no such things as civic friends. There is only a comical competition of selfish interests, prevailed by the Winners on one side and the Losers on the other. This was in 1972. But our present political climate offers a similar comedy of uncivil errors. The trick, following Vonnegut, is to call out when our politics are part and parcel of polluted wells.
Okay. I admit it. In referencing one or the other I am actually referencing both Wallace and Vonnegut. That is, as I’ve been introducing myself to the Assumption community and making a case for the vital importance of argumentation as well as media literacy, I’ve also been thinking very deeply about how the liberal arts can contribute to the matters of what makes a “good people.”
As it stands, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump share a stake in the worst favorability ratings of any major presidential candidates in U.S. history. Trip Gabriel of The New York Times put it mildly a couple months ago when he asserted that they “accentuate the negatives.” This is true. There are good reasons for the moniker, “Dangerous Donald.” And there is a rationale behind some of the rampant wariness around Clinton. Yet what so often goes by the wayside is the dark humor of anti-politics that makes up the backdrop – er, the water – of our contemporary Republic. In 1829, English writer Thomas Love Peacock revived the term, “kakistocracy.” It essentially means government by the worst. I say that Peacock revived the term because it was also present, at least in theory, in ancient Greece. Importantly, in the latter context, “the worst” are not simply the leaders; they are also those who make up the citizenry. Then again, they are not necessarily the people, but rather the underlying principles and perspectives that seem to drive the citizenry to think, speak and act in particular ways. Fear. Anger. Frustration…. You get the point.
And so we return to my imbrication of Wallace and Vonnegut. In his commencement speech, Wallace was interested in the self-development of students. Vonnegut was concerned about the wretchedness of would-be presidents. As a scholar of writing and communication, I am committed to safeguards of bodies politic. More specifically, I am troubled by the contemporary notion that politics and goodness are incommensurable. There is a certain brand of selfishness in today’s election season, and it spans the spectrum from racial taunts to roving nationalism. As disconcerting is the fact that it also seems to summon the spirits of lesser evils far more than the natures of our better angels. Wallace once cogitated: “Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference?” Similarly, Vonnegut once wondered of who among us is brave enough to “behave decently in a shockingly indecent society.”
For my part, we as a political culture might benefit from shifting our attention from the foreground to the backdrop of our politics, and thereby ask ourselves more compassionately what it means to be a “good” member of the body politic. It is perhaps fitting that some of our classical forbears of democracy situated cardinal virtues squarely within the rhetorical and material stuff of civic life. Prudence, temperance, courage, and justice: these were the cornerstones of anyone who earned praise as “good people.” I imagine this is due to the fact that, whatever one’s feelings, bodies politic require compassion, or “feeling with.” I imagine this is why Wallace was so ardently after moments of human grace in the grind of the day-to-day. I imagine, too, that this is why Vonnegut’s own ethos boiled down to the pronunciation that “you’ve got to be kind.”
I am both excited and encouraged because, if my first few weeks are any indication, Assumption is full of good people—and I am already delighted to call students, colleagues, support staff and administrators my civic friends.