HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 16, 2007
From Liberty Street

The Man

John Turner


About a month ago, on Bill Moyers's TV program Now, I watched an interview with Grace Lee Boggs. She's ninety-one years old now and has been involved in reform movements for most of her life. For me, the most interesting thing she said was that we need another way of living, that the qualities that need our loyalties now are elemental.

That may strike some as mere abstract idealism. But not me. I think she's right. Manners, and styles, and attitudes we have accepted for a very long time are worn out. They don't do us any good anymore -- if they ever did.

In the same notebook where I entered the information about Ms. Boggs I also jotted this thought: "The concept of 'the man.' Who is he? What does he know? How adequate is he? How should we respond to him?"

What did I have in mind? All my life I have watched and worked with men who were considered successful, who had what it took to scramble near the top of whatever it was they wanted to climb up in. They certainly weren't uniform; each had his quirks and peculiarities. And they varied tremendously in integrity and kindness. Yet in all of them there was a certain something that didn't move far from a norm. I don't have a name for it. I've become increasingly aware that there are many forces in our world for which we have no names and that we are, therefore, largely unaware of. And this something is one of them. But it's not simply one among many. It's the most important of them all.

On the back cover of a subsequent notebook, I wrote down one of my favorite aphorisms from Friedrich Nietzsche: "No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself." The something I fumble for that marks the regular, successful man of our world, the man to whom we turn over our affairs and expect him to manage them responsibly, is that he won't pay anything for that privilege. He lives to be owned instead of owning himself. It doesn't matter much whether the owner is the CIA, or the Holy Catholic Church, or General Motors, or Harvard University, the man will surrender himself and elemental aspects of his humanity to it because it owns him in contrast to his owning himself.

Consider the clean-cut, sharp-minded, well-dressed officer of the United States Air Force piloting a powerful airplane through the skies of Iraq. He will drop a bomb on buildings in which children are huddled and rip them into bloody pieces. Is it because he wants to be cruel to little children? No. He may be the most kindly of men to children when he confronts them face to face. But, he'll do it because the Air Force told him to. He can spout all the palaver he wants about the nature of geopolitical forces and how they require people to accept the lesser of evils. But, in doing what he does, he is not owning himself. And if he tells himself he is, he's a liar.

I think we need to trade this man in for something else. I don't think we should any longer make him into department head, or division leader, or university president, or company commander, or police chief, or CEO, or pope, or president.

This doesn't mean we can't have men who will work in organizations and most of the time comply with the regulations of the organization because they know ordinary efficiency requires it. But it does mean they will own themselves and, consequently, that certain things which in the past have been easy and regular won't be easy any more.

Can we be sure what the social outcome of self-owning men will be? Of course not.  But nothing genuinely important is ever achieved in certainty. To be better than we have been demands some gambling. But we do know this: the owned man is worn out and all round the world he is producing decay and disaster. We know we're tired of him. So why not make the break?

And if the self-owned man creates frustrations, at least they'll be more interesting than the pathetic mess we have now.


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