John Updike died in 2009, so he won't be weighing whether or not to join Occupy Writers, the list of more than 1,000 well-known writers who support Occupy Wall Street. -- But a 1992 essay written when the author of Rabbit, Run was sixty shows he would have sympathized with the movement. -- Updike's prescient essay was the keynote speech at a humanities festival in Chicago in the year Barack Obama begin teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School. -- Entitled "Freedom and Equality: Two American Bluebirds," it appears in his 1999 collection More Matter: Essays and Criticism (1999). -- In it, Updike concluded that equality is more important than freedom because it is freedom's foundation. -- "An unequal society," Updike wrote, "is an angry and fearful society, and a fearful society is not a free society." -- "[A]n American degree of personal freedom can flourish only when the economic thrust is not forcing people apart." -- The concluding paragraphs of Updike's essay evoked the 1%-99% theme, and are reproduced below. ...
FREEDOM AND EQUALITY: TWO AMERICAN BLUEBIRDS
By John Updike
Keynote speech of the Chicago Humanities Festifal III, "From Freedom to Equality"
November 15, 1992.
[. . .]
The gap between rich and poor is widening, for a great number of reasons, including the Reagan tax cuts. A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities declared that during the Eighties those in the richest fifth of our society gained an average income of $7,200, those in the middle fifth gained only $140, and the poorest fifth lost $350. Another recent study, by economists at Harvard and Columbia, studies the richest one percent of Americans throughout our history. At the time of the American Revolution, the country's wealthiest one percent controlled a mere fifteen percent of the nation's wealth; by the time of the Civil War ninety years later, this fraction had doubled, and by 1929 it had climbed to forty-three percent -- nearly half of the nation's wealth in the hands of one-hundredth of the population. The Depression, World War II, and post-war boom saw the percentage hold at around thirty percent, and in the 1970s it dropped to a mere eighteen; in the 1980s, under Presidents Reagan and Bush, the percentage doubled, climbing back to thirty-six. The rich got richer.
The loss of equality is felt not in statistics but in our cities, with their Calcutta-like efflorescence of beggary and homelessness, and in the elaborate security systems the affluent erect around themselves. The poor are increasingly visible and the rich ever less so. The cherished small-town America where the front yards had no fences and nobody locked his door because nobody needed to steal is gone, even from Hollywood movies. I grew up in such a town. Not that my family was not aware of local gradations of income and status; we were, painfully. It was the Depression, and we were running scared. Yet we and our neighbors seemed to be all in the same broad boat. As a man who has lived most of his life in small towns I can tell you: If your neighbor is more or less in the same boat you are, it is easy to like him. If he's not, it becomes easier to dislike him, to fear him as a threat.
* * *
A sense of equality is necessary to freedom because when a society breaks down into hopelessly unequal blocs the elite in its own defense will seek to contain -- that is, to repress -- the disaffected. Mostly white police forces already, it seems to many African-Americans and Hispanics, function as an army of occupation and restraint in the big cities. An unequal society is an angry and fearful society, and a fearful society is not a free society. When a man or woman, white or black, is afraid to go into a certain neighborhood, whether it be Bedford-Stuyvesant or South Boston, freedom has been curtailed. Our liberties flourish in an atmosphere of mutual trust, and the legend of equality, blazoned in our documents and coinage, has served to lubricate American motion, and to soothe with hope of betterment the old sore spots of ethnic antagonism. People are naturally optimistic and conservative, and can long defer gratification -- the attainment of happiness -- if the door to its pursuit is open. But when the door seems locked, when the poor get poorer and the society's assets increasingly accrue to a minority, then we can reconcile ourselves to a world of hostile contending forces, with all the abridgments of liberty that warfare brings with it.
What is the solution? Well, a return to a more progressive income tax would seem a likely beginning, and we have just elected President a man [William Jefferson Clinton] who promises just that. The End of Equality, by Mickey Kaus, proposes that, since the redistribution of income, by such means as welfaire, has proved ineffective, an institution from above of compulsory national service, a national health program, and a workfare program to improve public amenities might restore a sense of national community. But I wonder how much can be done from above, from a government already spending well beyond its means.
A sense of contented commonality grows from the private pocketbook upwards. There is a freedom of permission, and a freedom of empowerment. When, say, blacks are permitted to eat at a lunch counter with whites, it is a hollow freedom if they can't afford to pay for the lunch. Nor are women's rights, so-called, very meaningful without women's access to the workplace and the paycheck. It is the freedom of empowerment, the freedom of disposable income, that fleshes out our legal freedoms, and that affects the way a person moves in the world, freely and responsibly. How much empowerment can our planet support? This land of freedom was also a land of plenty, plenty enough to support a great deal of waste and piracy yet still feed mass hopes. This plenty underwrote our confidence, our asserted freedom. We must learn to do, it seems, with less. Certainly we must learn to apportion our national wealth more thoughtfully, with more conscious scruples than laissez-faire economics finds necessary.
The topic of this conference is "From Freedom to Equality." The phrase was meant, no doubt, to conjure up the legal emancipation Abraham Lincoln bestowed on black Americans and their still-unfulfilled struggle for real equality. I have chosen to meditate on our topics more generally, arriving at the thought that the progression is the reverse: an American degree of personal freedom can flourish only when the economic thrust is not forcing people apart, when men can relax into the assurance that we are all equal in opportunity if not inheritance, before the law if not at the bank. Such a relaxation is unusual in history and perhaps temporary even on this fortunate continent. Freedom in the American sense may be a luxury to be tasted by a few, in a few remissions of what Hobbes called "the war of every man, against every man." But, I would hope not. Though this century's history abounds in abnegations of freedom and equality, the ideals of the American Declaration of Independence do receive, I think, some new reinforcements from technology; the electronic revolution makes us all a bit harder to bully. As information blankets the globe, tyranny, injustice, and falsehood have become harder to hide. Myself, I am grateful to have been born in the United States in the twentieth century, and devoutly wish that my grandchildren, and their children, will find cause to be grateful in the next century, while our ever-endangered bluebirds continue to sing. Amen.
--John Updike, More Matter: Essays and Criticism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), pp. 14-16.
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