By a law of paradoxes, it often happens that the more things change, the more they stay the same. That certainly seems true as I look back on Yale and the world 25 years ago.
In those old, bygone days of ancient history, instead of reading the poetry of Allen Ginsberg on Wichita, we were reading William Carlos Williams on Paterson.
Instead of the peace songs of Joan Baez, we had the pacifism of Dorothy Day.
Instead of McLuhan, we had Maritain.
Instead of a novel about Augie March, we had one about Studs Lonigan.
Instead of Oscar Lewis in Puerto Rico, we had Malinowski in Melanesia.
Every age has its choice writers, its gifted poets and its daring saints. They are the motor on which civilization runs.
Over at Vassar, the girls were burning their silk stockings in protest against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.
Walter Reuther was “sitting down” in Detroit and Henry Wallace was calling upon all true liberals to stand up and be counted.
It would be foolish to associate oneself with all these different protestors. And I do not so associate myself tonight. But it would be equally wrong to deny them their proper place in the mainstream of American dissent. And it would be wrong to disparage or discredit their motivation or effectiveness.
These dissenters — present and past — have been just as American and often just as helpful as the consenters. The single criterion for judging their efforts –in my mind–is this: have they advanced or retarded the growth of human dignity, human rights and human freedom?
Human life is too valuable to be wasted by war or by poverty or by indifference.
But we sometimes seem to be doing exactly that — not knowingly, not willfully perhaps — but simply because we often live in a value vacuum.
The more progress we make with computers, the less we seem to make with human beings.
We spent more money on television commercials last year than we have spent on the entire War against Poverty since we began. Television commercials cost $2.46 billion dollars — yet we say we cannot afford to spend even $2 billion for the poor.
About twelve times as much money is spent on liquor as on the War on Poverty.
About four times as much money is spent a year on tobacco as on the War on Poverty.
If those are problems that are bothering you, they are the same ones that bother me, also. The question is, what can we do about it?
Down through history, men have been asking that question. One of the clearest answers was given by Plato 2300 years ago: “you cannot make people good; the most you can do is create the conditions in which the good life can be lived.”
But how will these conditions be created? How can we create a world where every man can obtain what he needs — and be free to pursue the happiness he wants.
One way is, to concentrate as much time, money and talent on social inventions as we now spend on social diversions.
As with all new ways of doing old things, a social invention is a refusal to bow down before fate. It is an enlargement of what we know in the face of what we hope for.
Until now, human life has mostly progressed by means of mechanical or materialistic inventions — new methods of using water power or electricity or nuclear power.
But in our era, human life is making progress because of our social inventions: the Peace Corps, Crossroads Africa, Head Start, Montessori schools, VISTA, Foster Grandparents, Legal Services.
Instead of steam, electricity or fire, we are using the kinetic energy of other forces — imagination, initiative, will power.
The social inventions we now have are not meant to make things work — they are meant to make things better.
In the past few years, I have seen some of these social inventions working. One of them is Legal Services for the poor.
This summer, more than 800 law students will volunteer their time to bring justice to the poor. They will be using the law as a social invention, not as a social prevention. Nothing like this was happening 20 or 30 years ago. I was in law school–here at
Yale — and I know. In those days, no one was tougher or more grasping than the average law student. He was a young man on the rise, eager to go up the ladder two rungs at a time. But today, something has changed — 800 of these students are going into the slums for the summer or will be travelling the circuit in rural areas. These young law students are renegades from Easy Street. They don’t care about how much money they make, but how much justice they can bring.
Some of these social inventions are able to take down walls.
Take the religious issue — the church-state question.
Just a few years ago, it was practically impossible for a federal agency to give a direct grant to a religious group.
People said there was a wall between church and state. But we said that wall was put there to keep government out of the pulpit, not to keep the clergy away from the poor. That wall protects belief and even disbelief. It does not exclude compassion, poverty, suffering, injustice. That is common territory.
So, as of today, we have given hundreds of grants to religious institutions or religiously affiliated organizations to run poverty programs without violating the principle of separation of Church and State.
What does all this mean? What is happening?
Is the fad-value of idealism suddenly the latest thing to be “in.”
Are we on a brotherhood kick?
The answer to these questions is no.
Something else is happening. We are going beyond idealism, beyond politics, beyond even theology. These social inventions have helped create a new kind of humanism in America.
We have a humanism that understands what poverty means in America.
A few days ago, a Senate subcommittee went to Mississippi to view the War on Poverty. The New Orleans Time-Picayune ran a front page story on the impressions made on the senators. It said that Senator George Murphy of California was so shocked that he was going to call on the President to declare an emergency because of the hunger in Mississippi.
The Senator from California told the press: “I didn’t know we were going to deal with starving children and starving people.”
Well, thank God the Senator finally found out what poverty is all about.
We have a new kind of humanism that no longer says to the poor man: “Can’t you make it the hard way, like I did?”
Instead we realize the poor can’t make it the hard way — because progress and technology have changed the old and hard way into the new and impossible way. In the age of automation, it is three or four times more difficult to rise out of poverty as in immigrant times — because a man needs three or four times more training to qualify for a job.
We have a new kind of humanism that understands the most important reality of our day — the way to stop war is not to condemn the soldier, but to fight the conditions that make war possible: poverty, sickness, injustice.
The Greek writer, Kazantzakis, points out the problem in his book, Report To Greco:
“We have been born in an important age of kaleidoscopic experiments, adventures and clashes — not only between the virtues and vices, as formerly, but between the virtues themselves. The old, recognized virtues have begun to lose their authority; they are no longer able to fulfill the religious, moral, intellectual and social demands of the contemporary soul. Man’s soul seems to have grown bigger. It cannot fit any longer within the old molds.”
In a world where millions of people live with no hope and millions more die because of no bread, in a world where a dog in America often eats better than a human being in Ghana — in that kind of a world, the blood-stained face of reality is asking each of us to pay up personally.
And a large number of Americans are paying up personally.
But I am not unaware of the large number of under-25 people who are either dropouts or holdouts from society — and that the last thing they would call that society is Great.
Many of them are refugees from conformity who have become, in a phrase of Wallace Stevens, “connoisseurs of chaos.” They are living on the cheap all the way from the Village in New York to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. They take drugs, they take it easy and often they take the cake.
The problem is not — as many say — dissatisfaction. Rather, the question is how to use dissatisfaction creatively.
Despite all those who are committed to pot or the picket lines or throwing eggs at Hubert Humphrey — there are still countless young Americans who are using their dissatisfaction creatively.
They are dissatisfied about the towns in Appalachia with no sewers.
So they join VISTA and go down there to help build sewers.
They are protesting the primitive way of life of the American Indians.
So they go to the reservations and teach in Head Start classes.
They are protesting the slums in East St. Louis. So they go there and work in a Neighborhood Youth Corps.
This is the kind of dissatisfaction that only courage can create and history can honor.
These people fit the description John F. Kennedy gave himself after two years in the Presidency: “an idealist without illusions.” They have no illusions about the cost for a better world, nor the price they must pay for it.
Instead of telling everyone what’s wrong with a world they didn’t make, they are helping to do what’s right in a world they can make.
What is the reward of this kind of humanism? To quote Ernest Hemingway, “You don’t really own anything until you can give it away.”
That is what many young Americans are learning — that you don’t really own your life until you give it to others.
But before we decide to give — or decide not to — one thought must be considered. It was raised recently by the Jesuit poet, Daniel Berrigan.
“We stand there — American, white, Christian, with the keys of the kingdom and the keys of the world in our pocket. Everything about us says: Be like me! I’ve got it made. But the poor man sees the emperor naked. Like the look of Christ, the poor man strips us down
to the bone…
“The poor have it hard, the saying goes. Well, we’re the hardest thing they have.”
Read Robert Sargent Shriver’s ’38 LAW ’41 Yale Daily News Banquet Address, April 17, 1967.