The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

For a President & the People of America

Dear Unknown Friends:

At this time, when America has had an election that is historic, we publish the 5th section of the lecture we’ve been serializing—a lecture that explains the economy of now and what Americans are looking for, as a nation and as individuals. It is Once More, the World, by Eli Siegel. We also print part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant and actor Bennett Cooperman, from a public seminar of last month titled “How Can We Like Ourselves in a Tough World?”

Once More, the World, given at the end of 1970, is one of Mr. Siegel’s great Goodbye Profit System lectures. In May of that year, he explained that the world had reached the point at which economics based on a selfish, ugly, unethical way of seeing one’s fellow humans no longer worked. While the profit system might drag on for quite a few years, and sometimes be given a flashy façade, it was a mortally ailing thing. Week after week, using documents of the past and present—of economics, history, literature, and human feeling—he explained why we had come to the time when

there will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.

In the section of Once More, the World printed here, he discusses passages from a periodical of 1910. They illustrate the fight, which has taken thousands of forms, about how to see people and the American earth. The profit motive—the seeing of people in terms of “How much money can I get out of you? How cheaply can I employ you? How can I use you to feather my own nest?”—was always ugly. It was ugly in 1910. It made for the child labor of then and earlier and later; the miserable working conditions with their ensuing occupational diseases and maimings; the poverty wages. But by 1970, the ill will of the profit motive was not only ugly—it was inefficient; it was less and less able to bring in the desired returns. By autumn 2008, we have some of the results of the effort to keep that mean way of using people going: we have an American financial collapse, millions of Americans unemployed, and many more about to be—with all the terror and suffering that includes.

Americans Want Real Kindness & Justice

The election of Barack Obama is important not only because the American people have chosen a black person to be our President. That fact, certainly, is a tremendous, historic victory for ethics. But the election is also an important ethical victory because the massive use of lies didn’t work. And the various scare words didn’t scare. And it’s important because of something to be seen in an American poem about another election.

Vachel Lindsay, in his poem “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,” writes about the election of 1896, in which William Jennings Bryan ran against William McKinley. He describes the large feeling millions of people had about Bryan, and very much young people. Bryan seemed to represent the rights of Americans who were not rich; he seemed to represent their hopes and an America that could belong to all the people, not just the moneyed.

That election was, of course, different from the current one; and besides, Bryan lost. But there is this likeness: the feeling that both Bryan and Obama stood for something kind—against, as Lindsay puts it, “the mean and cold.” There are lines like these, about Bryan: “He brought in tides of wonder, of unprecedented splendor, / Wild roses from the plains, that made hearts tender.” Lindsay describes the huge crowds at Bryan rallies, because people felt, This person stands for an America that is kinder, that is truer to herself. Lindsay writes of being at a Bryan rally at age 16, in Springfield, Illinois:

And Bryan took the platform.

And he was introduced.

And he lifted his hand

And cast a new spell.

Progressive silence fell In Springfield, in Illinois, around the world.

A person can symbolize something to people which they don’t wholly understand and which he does not live up to. Had Bryan been elected, he might not have lived up to people’s hopes. Barack Obama was elected. And it is necessary for America to see, and for him to see, what it would mean to meet America ’s hopes—which are also desperate needs.

What Is a Good President?

In order for our President-elect to be a good President, in order for him to succeed, he must want, passionately, to answer this question, articulated by Eli Siegel: “What does a person deserve by being a person?” And he must make sure the economy of America is based on a true answer to that question.

That is not what the present economy is based on. And the coming President, and Congress, and the American people need to see that tinkering around with an unethically based economy will not work. We now have to have economics based, not on profit, but on ethics, justice, usefulness.

Let’s take the automobile industry of America. As I comment on it, I’m not speaking in terms of particular legislative or executive decisions, but in terms of ethics. It is, as the Wall Street Journal reported (Nov. 8-9), in such a “deepening crisis” that“ Washington may have to step in to finance a historic downsizing of the U.S. auto industry.” Letting this industry, which Mr. Obama called “the backbone of American manufacturing,” die is unacceptable. But pouring vast quantities of taxpayer money into auto companies based on providing profit to stockholders, is now repugnant to the American people, and furthermore won’t work.

With competition from Japan, Korea, Sweden, Germany, and more, there is an expense which must be eliminated from this “backbone of American manufacturing” in order for it to succeed. That expense is profit for individuals who didn’t do the work. The U.S. auto industry cannot sustain itself and pay its workers' benefits and pensions, while at the same time paying out those completely unnecessary extras—emoluments to non-working stockholders.

If the people of America are going to bail out auto companies, there is no reason why we ourselves, or the auto workers, cannot be the companies, own the companies. The people of America need autos. The people of America can produce autos. Autos simply can no longer be produced in America on the basis of private profit—with money from their sales going into the pockets of stockholders. Once they could: when car manufacturing took place pretty much in the U.S. alone.

What this “backbone of American manufacturing” now needs to be based on is not the scare word used during the presidential campaign. What it needs to be based on is, as Mr. Siegel once put it, deep American decency.

Racism & the Profit System

The election of 2008 was a magnificent victory against racism. Yet as we know, racism still exists, in all its filthiness. The future President and the American people need to learn from Aesthetic Realism what racism comes from. And they need to see that profit economics arose from the very same source in the human self. Both racism and the profit motive come from contempt, “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” To illustrate this fact, I’m going to quote from the 1910 periodical that Mr. Siegel uses in the lecture we’re serializing.

In the August 18, 1910 issue of the Independent magazine, there is an article by the important writer and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois. He describes being looked down on, because he was black, by an impoverished little girl who was white:

She was a poor little waif of six or seven years....She was stealing a ride on an Eighth avenue furniture van and spied me on a passing street car. She stuck out her tongue and jeered and made every contortion of countenance to show her personal disapproval of my kind and the superiority of hers.

Poor little thralled thing! It was not enough that she should be prisoned by poverty and ignorance; this great nation must needs chain her with race prejudice.

Du Bois is eloquent and nobly sympathetic. But we need to learn the reason the little girl could welcome being “chain[ed]...with race prejudice”: it’s that there is a desire in the self to be big by seeing someone else as less. And this ordinary yet foulest desire in the human self is the only reason a nation could feel it is somehow tolerable for some children to be born poor and others rich.

The next President, then, needs the knowledge of Aesthetic Realism. Its founder, Eli Siegel, represents American thought at its greatest, kindest—and most practical.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Corruption & the American Earth

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is looking at passages from the September 15, 1910 issue of the Independent magazine.

The matter of corruption in politics affected Theodore Roosevelt a good deal. I don’t think he saw what he wanted to see, but he was certainly agitated by ethics. The tie-up between business and politics was being seen more and more. It had always been present and is present now, and Mr. Roosevelt felt he should be against it and prove to the American people that he was against it. Corruption has to do on the one hand with ethics, and on the other with economics; then, certainly, it has to do with politics. In a speech in Freeport, Illinois, Mr. Roosevelt talks of how he’s against corruption:

If either corporation or politician...helps to put me in a position of influence, let them remember that if they are corrupt...they help me at their peril, for I will hurt them if I get the chance.

There was an Illinois senator, Lorimer, who was felt to be rather corrupt—the way he made deals with industrialists. Mr. Roosevelt was invited by the Hamilton Club, a most noted club of Chicago, to attend a dinner, and he was told that Senator Lorimer (whose wickedness by now has been forgot) was going to be one of the guests. Mr. Roosevelt, in one of those tableaus that thrilled Americans, said, If he’s there, no dinner at the Hamilton Club for me! So they had to revoke Senator Lorimer’s invitation. Mr. Roosevelt talked this way at the Hamilton Club:

Public honesty is a sham if we limit the word honesty to mere law honesty. There are big men whom I count as the worst enemies against the real welfare of the public, although these men have been so well advised as not to be convicted....I am a good party man, but I’m an American first.

An American is first against corruption. It sounds good even now.

For Whom Is the American Land?

In William Howard Taft’s administration, 1909-1913, the great scandal was the Ballinger scandal—Richard Achilles Ballinger, Secretary of the Interior. That had to do with land having coal in Alaska. The Independent quotes a congressional committee report:

In the matter of the disposition of the Cunningham coal lands, Mr. Ballinger was not a faithful trustee of the interests of the people....The charges made by Mr. Pinchot should be sustained; that Mr. Ballinger’s course...has been characterized by a lack of fidelity to the public interests.

Gifford Pinchot is famous because he wanted to conserve American forests, American land. He is an early ecologist of a kind. The conservation movement was very strong in 1910: Yellowstone for American children, not for profit!

Theology Is There

There’s an item from Rome. At the present time the Catholic Church is definitely divided, as other churches are. There’s one part of the Catholic Church that thinks that Christ had a message for the world in general, and that his message is not just theological: that the purpose of Christ is to have people see life and the world better.

There have been these left Catholics from the beginning. Occasionally their being left Catholics had something to do with doctrine; they questioned certain strict theological attitudes. But with Lamennais in the 1830s, Montalembert, and many other people, there has been among Catholics a feeling that the Church should not stand for the way the world is owned. The feeling is stronger now than ever before.

In 1910 there was a movement, Le Sillon (the Furrow), and the Pope said something against it. This was Pope Pius X. He says that the Sillon “places [a nation’s] authority primarily in the people...and then in the rulers in a measure, so long as it continues to reside in [the people],” and he objects to that. The encyclicals of the popes have had to deal with this question, and the agitation is exceedingly deep. What does it mean that “the laborer is worthy of his hire” [Luke 10.7]? It has not been answered yet.

Liking Oneself in a Tough World

By Bennett Cooperman

People today are meeting a world that’s tough on many fronts. There is worry about jobs and money. And there is the everyday job of understanding ourselves and the people we know.

I believe the most important question we can ask is this one, stated by Eli Siegel: “Is this true: no matter how much of a case one has against the world—its unkindness, its disorder, its ugliness, its meaninglessness—one has to do all one can to like it, or one will weaken oneself?”

The answer, I’ve seen through years of testing, is yes. Aesthetic Realism explains that to like the world on an honest, factual basis is the deepest purpose of every person. If we go against that purpose, we cannot like ourselves. The sheer logic of this principle is itself beautifully tough, and gives a person an honest means for self-respect. Studying Aesthetic Realism has done that for me.

Ourselves & Other People

Like everyone, I was in a fight between liking the world and the desire to have contempt for it, the feeling I’d be big if I could find flaws, see people as hypocritical and mean.

Growing up in Miami Shores, Florida, I had a comfortable suburban life. We took vacations, had a nice house. Meanwhile, the way my parents were for and against each other, affectionate and then angry, confused me. Rather than wanting to understand them, I felt I was more sensitive and far superior. Years later I came to see that this attitude, which extended beyond the family, was the very cause of my disliking myself.

I learned that central to liking ourselves in this tough world is how much feeling we have about the toughness, the injustice and cruelty, others endure. How passionate are we that other people get what they deserve? This was a question it never occurred to me to ask.

For example, living in our house from as early as I can remember was Emily Jenkins, a beautiful African-American woman, who was our maid. Day after day for years she made my bed, ironed my clothes, spent time with me after school, cooked our meals. I simply thought this was the way things were intended to be, and never thought about what her life was like. Emily was kind and often had good humor with me.

She stayed with us five days a week and went home to her husband on weekends. I never knew where that was. Once, when I was 13, my father asked if I wanted to come along as he took Emily home. We drove into a section of Miami I didn’t even know existed, and, looking out the window of our air-conditioned car, I saw people living in grinding poverty. “This is where Emily lives?!!” I thought. I was horrified, felt extremely uncomfortable and cowardly, and wanted to get out of there as fast as possible.

I was a selfish, contemptuous boy, and didn’t know there was a direct line from that fact to the fact that I often detested myself. I’m very grateful to Aesthetic Realism for teaching me about contempt, how debilitating it is, and for nourishing the best thing in people: our desire to know and like the world.

In Marriage: To Like or Dislike the World?

I was learning something about the battle between these desires in myself when I had been married for a year to Meryl Nietsch-Cooperman. After work I’d come home and grouchily complain about one thing after another at my job. Not only did Meryl object—I felt there was something wrong about what I was doing. So I asked about it in an Aesthetic Realism class.

While not discounting the injustice of what the profit system makes people go through at work, Ellen Reiss asked me: “Do you want to use Meryl Nietsch for consolation?” “Yes,” I said. And she explained that people can use the economy to feel love should be an oasis where we are soothed by someone adoring us, who will agree with us in our dislike of and sense of superiority to other people.

I saw I was using my wife to say “The world is a bad place—and won’t you join me in feeling this?” That way of being with a person always ruins love, and learning about it frees a man. Ms. Reiss asked if I wanted to use Meryl as “a harbor or a lighthouse”—for shelter or for clear and wide seeing.

My answer is: a lighthouse!