|NUMBER 1817.—February 29, 2012||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the great New York Begins Poetically, by Eli Siegel. And never before was a city presented as it is in this 1970 lecture. Speaking chronologically, Mr. Siegel looks at various happenings, and instances of literature, having to do with New York. Several are fairly famous; many are not. He is casual, warm, always exact and deep. His knowledge of both literature and history is clearly tremendous, but he never shows off with it or thrusts it. He has one see and feel New York as described by this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
Mr. Siegel began the lecture with Peter Minuit’s purchase of Manhattan in 1626. In the section printed here, we reach the first part of the 19th century. And we’re in the midst of opposites. There are place and time—the geography of Manhattan, in its steadiness, and social life taking place on it. There are the tangible—land, buildings, sidewalks—and the intangible but real purposes of people. And we have the terrible opposites of rich and poor.
A New Feeling
Those opposites, rich and poor, are certainly with us now. And it can be said truly that today there is a feeling about them different from what was felt at any other time in American history. Of course, there’s also likeness. But the difference is enormously, mightily important. It is connected with what Mr. Siegel explained in the 1970s: economics based on contempt—on seeing people in terms of how much profit one can squeeze from them—is no longer able to succeed, and never will again. He documented the reasons why in his Goodbye Profit System series of lectures. And here, to comment on an evolving feeling and consciousness in America, I quote from a New York Times article headlined “Survey Finds Rising Strain between Rich and the Poor.” It appeared on January 12, and begins:
Conflict between rich and poor now eclipses racial strain and friction between immigrants and the native-born as the greatest source of tension in American society, according to a survey....
About two-thirds of Americans now believe there are “strong conflicts” between rich and poor in the United States, a survey by the Pew Research Center found....[This] represented about a 50 percent increase from the 2009 survey, when immigration was seen as the greatest source of tension.
Throughout America’s history there has been that hideous division called “rich and poor.” In New York, for instance, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were sweatshops, disease-ridden tenements, children shivering with cold, thousands of families without enough food, while at the same time, not many blocks away, persons lived in vast wealth. Of course, people always hated being poor, hated it all their rooked and stifled lives. And despite the “anyone can make it in America” notion, most people who worked very hard remained poor anyway. We can’t say they were resigned to poverty, but, with all their suffering, there was in many people the feeling “That’s how things are.”
By the mid-20th century, the fact that there had come to be a sizable middle class in America worked against Americans’ having what the article calls a sense of “conflict between rich and poor.” Meanwhile, that large middle class existed for only one reason: unions, which fought courageously in behalf of justice to working people. Now, in 2012, there is what the Times article tells about: a change in the feeling of Americans, who now see “conflict between rich and poor” as the country’s biggest “source of tension.”
The Real Question
Yet the Times and the survey it cites put the subject in a way that’s not accurate. “The survey’s main question,” we’re told, was, “‘In America, how much conflict is there between poor people and rich people?’” This question, we’re further told, “was often understood to mean, ‘Do the rich and the poor get along?’ and ‘Do they have the same objectives?’” But the real question is: Should there be poor people at all? Is it shameful, immoral, un-American for poverty to exist? Is it something that should be done away with completely, and fast?
There is an assumption, in the question asked and the discussion of it, that the existence of rich and poor is a staple, and that the thing to be studied is simply how much conflict there is between the two. That way of seeing the matter is both cruel and crazy. It’s as though there were a survey in 1850 which asked, “How much conflict is there between slaves and slave owners? Do they have the same objectives?”—implying, as the current survey does, that it’s right for there to be both, and the question is simply whether they get along.
Meanwhile, the Pew survey’s upshot, even as given, is important: that Americans feel our biggest conflict is between rich and poor. This upshot really has in it the following: People throughout America are becoming poorer and poorer, and that’s why there is a much more vivid sense of poverty and wealth. With it is an increasingly conscious anger that such a division exists. Ever so many persons who are still in the middle class are very worried that soon they won’t be. Americans have come to feel that the way of economics they’re living under has in it huge contempt and ill will for them, and they’re furious.
Commenting on Americans’ “change in perception” about “income inequality,” the Times article refers to a new awareness of “the issue of undeserved wealth.” What is “undeserved wealth”? You deserve wealth when it comes from work you yourself do. Undeserved wealth is what you get through using the work of others to aggrandize yourself—through pocketing the profit others produced with the labor of their bodies and minds. That Americans feel there is such a thing as “undeserved wealth” is the same as their being against the profit system.
This Is What Happened
What happened over the years was: 1) as more people became middle class, because of unions, and 2) as countries elsewhere had more ability to produce what US companies had produced, the profit system became weaker and weaker. Because unions were enabling workers to get more of the wealth they, the workers, created—enabling them to stop being poor, to lead more dignified lives—bosses and stockholders were less able to grab for themselves huge amounts of the money the employees had earned.
That is why various persons are on a nationwide campaign to kill unions. They know that big profits for a few individuals can no longer be had if there is a true middle class, if those who work are recompensed respectfully. These slick anti-union thugs want to force Americans to work for very little. If they were honest, they would say what is so: “We are trying to make the large majority of Americans be poor. Because that is now the only way we and our buddies can be very rich.”
Yes, there is a new consciousness in America. And it will grow. Americans don’t want the profit system. They are not clear what should replace it. They don’t want some economic “ism.” What they want is what Eli Siegel described: an economy based on good will, on a true answer to the question “What does a person deserve by being a person?”
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
There Were Social Life, Greed, Love
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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