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The Uncolonized Mind: Paul Goodman Changed My Life

I was thrilled to see a new film on one of my heroes (and I am a woman of few heroes, it must be admitted), the great writer and thinker Paul Goodman, who died in 1972. Watching Jonathan Lee's Paul Goodman Changed My Life was like spending an hour and half in the company of an open flame, radiating verbal brilliance. Goodman's incandescent intelligence knocks me off my feet every time I encounter his writing; to see so much of the man and his times on film adds immeasurably to the blaze.

Paul Goodman was a polymath, writing groundbreaking books on politics, urban planning, psychology and a dozen other subjects, as well as important novels and much poetry. The first time I read Goodman, I was a draft counselor during the War in Vietnam.

Since draft counseling is a profession which no longer exists, I'd better explain: when the United States had a military draft, all young men had to register with the Selective Service System, which made them eligible to be called for induction into the Army. (Although the draft ended in 1973, the registration requirement still exists.) The Selective Service System created a series of classifications which allowed men in certain professions (the clergy or certain agricultural workers, for instance), students, those with exempt medical conditions, and conscientious objectors to avoid military service. (The COs had to do civilian service instead).

Draft counselors like myself guided young men through the labyrinth of Selective Service regulations, a job that entailed equal parts of political organizing, barefoot psychotherapy, and memorizing great swathes of impenetrable bureaucratese. (I still remember some of the regulation numbers; they come to me in my dreams.)

We also often guided them through the twisting chambers of their own consciences. I wish I could convey the agony of self-examination experienced by young men torn between a love of country and a keen desire to avoid killing innocent peasants in their grass huts. I often think that our current wars would excite an altogether different response if we still had a draft. When we did, those eligible for service (and those who loved them) weren't merely required to form opinions; they were forced into choices that literally meant life or death.

Consider this brief excerpt from something that impressed me greatly at the time, Goodman's 1967 "A Causerie at the Military-Industrial," delivered first as an address to a gathering of the elite of the war industries, then published in the New York Review (sorry, but I can't find a free version for other than NYR subscribers):

You are the military industrial of the United States, the most dangerous body of men at the present in the world, for you not only implement our disastrous policies but are an overwhelming lobby for them, and you expand and rigidify the wrong use of brains, resources, and labor so that change becomes difficult. Most likely the trends you represent will be interrupted by a shambles of riots, alienation, ecological catastrophes, wars, and revolutions, so that current long-range planning, including this conference, is irrelevant.

In the film, you see this small figure, a little rumpled, obviously an intellectual and not a man of war, alone on an enormous stage, speaking unfiltered truth to power. Power was not pleased. Watching it—and so many other scenes—I felt something like love for a human being who possessed the chutzpah and clear sight to insist on being exactly who he was, and saying precisely what needed saying, despite every discouragement.

It's hard to articulate precisely why I find this so moving. One reason is how markedly it stands in contrast to the weasel-words and compromised speech one hears everywhere these days from commentators who spill oceans of words that function mostly as an anodyne disguise for their actual opinions. Another is something more elemental: seeing a mind that takes itself seriously acting in the world generates the satisfying completeness we feel watching a seed sprout or an egg hatch, witnessing anything or anyone perform the uncoerced dance that expresses unfettered essence. And finally, there is the way that Goodman, an anarchist by disposition and decision, understood his own responsibilities as a citizen. He did not condition his message on its chances of success; he offered it, freely and often, because it was true and needed to be expressed, despite the odds.

Believe me, discouragement was plentiful. Goodman's persistent refusal to brown-nose ensured that he won few favors and honors, despite a self-confidence that bordered on arrogance (and was more or less justified anyway). He espoused hugely unpopular ideas, particularly Reichian ideas about the relationship between sex and power, and advocacy of a sexual libertinism that was even further from the mid-twentieth century norm than it would be from today's.

As the film confirms, he made himself personally obnoxious by hitting without the least subtlety on anyone who interested him sexually, chiefly young men. The draft counseling service I worked for was housed at San Francisco State University's Experimental College, where Goodman served as scholar-in-residence in the late 60s, and this behavior was a standing joke among the students and activists who gathered there. He seemed impervious to the usual effects of rejection. Perhaps this is because of the extreme compartmentalization of his life, with a wife and children at home (the film tells us he prided himself on always making it home for family dinner) and a busy cruising schedule beyond.

In Goodman's view, boys and men make the world. As Deborah Meier quotes in the film, in Growing Up Absurd, the book that launched him into popular awareness, that book on the social failure to address the real needs of youth includes this opinion:

The problems I want to discuss in this book belong primarily, in our society, to the boys: how to be useful and make something of oneself. A girl does not have to, she is not expected to "make something" of herself. Her career does not have to be self-justifying, for she will have children, which is absolutely self-justifying, like any other natural or creative act.

This is appalling, even considered as an artifact of its time. But it shouldn't invalidate his work. As Meier wrote in Dissent, "All we need to do is add “women” and we can take almost any page of that great treatise on raising the young in the fifties and translate it easily into raising the young in the twenty-first century."

My hope is that this film introduces Goodman to new generations and reminds those who've read him before of his relevance, reviving interest in his work and ideas. See Paul Goodman Changed My Life, please, and be sure that others see it too. And read his work: here's a link to a few essays and letters available on the Web, to give you a flavor of his writing. I've written about him before; here's a link to an essay from 2006, and if you go to my blog and search for his name, you'll find more.

Goodman felt underappreciated in his time, as Susan Sontag explained in a famous essay written upon learning of Goodman's death. Here's Irma Thomas's version of a song I love: "I Wish Someone Would Care."