Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Moral American

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

Let's be honest: from the beginning, everything has been arranged in such a way that Florence Thompson would one day sit in a makeshift shelter, bone-tired and hungry, nursing her daughter in a muddy field near Nipomo Mesa, off Hightway 101 outside of Watsonville, California. She and her family were lucky to find work picking peas on that day:

  The older man laughed and looked at the boy, and his silent son grinned almost in triumph. And the man said, "You ain't gonna get no steady work. Gonna scrabble for your dinner ever' day. An' you gonna do her with people lookin' mean at you,...."
  Pa asked slowly, "Ain't--ain't it nice out there at all?"
  "Sure, nice to look at, but you can't have none of it." (Grapes of Wrath, 280-281)

You can't have none of it. 

James Madison patiently explained to men just like himself  that a civic-minded elite would filter the fractious viewpoints of the mob for the good of all concerned; President Adams, in the heat of his struggles with Jefferson, passed a law that made it a crime to criticize the government. The Secretary of the Treasury pushed a bill through Congress that taxed the farmers of the Ohio Valley, and when they protested the General-President personally commanded an army to straighten them out. A few years later the Supreme Court established that--republic be damned--the Court would do the deciding...and they did, always in favor of the Land company that made sure that the Thompson's and the Joad's and Wilson's would be the ones sitting in the tent begging for work and not them.

John Steinbeck's masterpiece, an American classic worth reading once a decade, turns the Founders' "mob" into a family--not just the Joad family, but the family of the dispossessed, the family of the wretched of the earth.  Read in conjunction with James Agee's and Walker Evan's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men ("and the fathers who begot us," Sirach, 44:1) and a collection of Dorothea Lange's dust-bowl photographs, Grapes of Wrath is that rarest of literary creations--a truly subversive book that even (sometimes!) shows up on high school reading lists. Steinbeck is scathing on the subject of corporate monopolies, government ineptitude, law enforcement's bias toward the wealthy, and, even toward capitalism itself. His alternating chapters--one of documentary social criticism paired with one telling the story of the Joad's economic and moral odyssey--serve up both an intellectual and emotional critique of an economic system that rewards the few who don't work (one landowner has "a million acres"--"What in the worl' can he do with a million acres?" "I dunno. He jus' got it.") and ignores or punishes the many who do.

I've been reading Grapes of Wrath in conjunction with the latest American election cycle, watching sadly as the one-percent squabbles over the corpse (as it were). At the same time I dipped back into Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, one of the finest books ever written on the subject of doing well, living morally, in a world where the notion of morality has been reduced to a set of preferences. MacIntyre's argument is that modern (post-Kantian, post-Nietzschean) moral philosophy is stuck between utilitarianism and emotivism--the empty notion of a "greatest good" as measured by bureaucracies and the equally empty notion of a personal good defined by individual tastes. Either way, in MacIntyre's view, we are left with no means of making moral choices; we are left without virtue (a terribly old-fashioned word nowadays).

MacIntyre is more persuasive in this dismantling of the hollowness of preferential ethics than in his remedies: he's a Roman Catholic who finds solace in the clarity and moral absolutes of Aquinas and Aristotle. My problem with Aristotle is that he too posits a formulaic morality based on preference--what's the difference between an emotivist's choice of what feels right and an Aristotelian's choice of what constitutes the mean (not, by the way, the same as Buddhism's "middle path," since the Buddha clearly establishes what the eight fundamental human qualities are, and each of them is amenable to simple moderation; Aristotle's virtues in some cases actually preclude moderation).  And with Aquinas, well, you must have God, and not just any God--it must be the providential one, the one constantly invoked by the sort of people who always tend to hear God telling them to do just what they'd do anyway. No thanks.

But MacIntyre does have one very rich idea, and it takes us right back to the Joad's and their wandering in the desert of endemic American rural poverty. Here's MacIntyre:

"In Latin, as in ancient Greek, there is no word correctly translated by our work 'moral,' or rather there is no such word until our word 'moral' is translated back into Latin.....But 'moralis,' like its Greek predecessor 'ethikos'....means 'pertaining to character' where a [person's] character is nothing other than his or her dispositions to behave systematically in one way rather than another, to lead one particular kind of life." [After Virtue, 2nd ed., 18] [my emphasis]

Here's a thought: instead of thinking about morality (one's character) or ethics (one's choices) as an unfolding process of difficult decisions made throughout a life--as a dangerous dodging of temptations, as a negotiation among sometimes equally unpleasant decisions, as the courtroom of conscience--let's think of morality and ethics together as character, as a disposition to act in certain ways that is prior to and which subsumes any particular choices. Too often morals are thought to be forged in the battleground of living an adult life, but what we now know about the moral growth of children suggests that by the time we get to make choices, it's already likely that we'll make them according to our character.  And where does character come from? Not, as we are prone to think, from individual preferences or calculations about what is good for us and others, but from our social relations, from our adaptation to the demands of families, friends, lovers, communities--from intimate daily interactions with the people around us. MacIntyre wants something like an essential character, a nub of goodness and virtue that we can refer to when we make choices. Well, we have that, but it doesn't come into existence through rational calculation in the Aristotelian or Kantian sense.

I can't not see Jane Barwell as Ma Joad when I read Grapes. For me, she is the moral center of the novel, the proof of Steinbeck's generous reading of the power of a large, if unsophisticated, human soul.  Ma is often speechless, often "intuitive" in her decisions. One of the greatest scenes of the novel comes when, having just arrived in California, Granma lies dying in the tent, whimpering in pain and loss (separation from one's place kills off the older generation). Ma and Rose of Sharon are tending to the old woman when a police officer pushes, uninvited, into the tent to ask Ma when she will be living the miserable camp where the Joad's are resting:

"Who's in here," [the policeman] demanded again.
"Ma asked, "What is it you want, mister?"
"What you think I want? I want to know who's in here."
"Why, they's jus' us three in here. Me an' Granma an' my girl."
"Where'd you come from?"
"Right near Sallisaw, Oklahoma."
"Well, you can't stay here."
"We aim to get out tonight an' cross the desert mister."
"Well you better. If you're here tomorra this time I'll run you in. We don't want none of you settlin' down here."
Ma's face blackened with anger. She got slowly to her feet, she stooped to the utensil box and picked out the iron skillet. "Mister," she said, "you got a tin button an' a gun. Where I come from, you keep your voice down."
"Well you ain't in your country now. You're in California, an' we don't want you goddamn Okies settlin' down."
Ma's advance stopped. She looked puzzled. "Okies?" she said softly. "Okies."

Note: first a question...then a puzzled statement. How best to diminish personhood and therefore rights?  Turn someone into a "terrorist" or an "immigrant" or an "Okie."

Ma Joad doesn't invoke the rules of privacy or her legal rights; she tells the cop to watch his tongue. Strangers, badge or no, haven't any right to speak rudely--"where I come from"--the spirit of place is invoked to support a moral norm, and the place isn't only Sallisaw, Oklahoma, but a place where mutuality and respect demand certain kinds of behavior. We see Ma throughout the novel as the judge of what is right and wrong--will the preacher be allowed to come along, even though he isn't family; should the holy lady speak a blessing over Granma? In every case, the foundation of Ma's judgments is based on what MacIntyre refers to as "character," a way of living one's life that is so deeply ingrained that moral choices aren't forms of problem solving--measuring behavior to an eternal standard--but simply getting on with one's life by doing what is right.  Of course we don't raise our voice, refer to people as "Okies," threaten women and children--no decent person would.

Grapes of Wrath has about it both the power of a political tract and the refinement of a meditation on morality. In scene after scene, from the sociological analysis of bureaucratic power in Chapter Five to Tom's beautiful "I'll be ever'where--wherever you look" speech at the novel's end, Steinbeck examines the confrontation of simple humanity with overweening power. Mostly, of course,  simple humanity is no match for drought, tractors, bankers, and sheriffs. In that regard, nothing much has changed. But Steinbeck stretched the possibilities of the American novel by examining the moral lives of the poorest among us, and by dissecting the mechanical nature of power, forced his readers to see how power strips even decent people of the ability to act kindly toward their neighbors.

So Florence Thompson sat in her tent and nursed her child. She still does. Not Florence, and not a tent. More like a jail cell these days. If Steinbeck were around, he'd write about it.

George Ovitt (10/23/16)

References are to the handy Penguin PB, in print since the 70's. The original appeared in 1939

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