“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Philosopher of San Francisco

At 9:0AM yesterday, the court dismissed the case against me at the request of the District Attorney, who said that she could not “sustain the burden” of proof “due to a lack of corroboration.”  So ended fourteen months of anxiety and hardship (difficulty finding work, inability to find permanent housing) caused when MRM walked into the Ingleside Police Station and filed a false police report.  He did not even have to show up for any of the court dates – approximately one every three weeks during that period.  He knew that if he accused me of physical violence and said the magic words (I am afraid of him) I would be arrested.  And he gets away with it all.

The “Justice” system.


I now begin a new phase, the second phase, of this work.  I started writing this blog just over six months ago and became somewhat entangled in a need I felt to identify myself and the circumstances of my current life to establish my bona fides for my reader.  I have no idea whether that project is complete or was successful, but my muse, a stern mistress, drives me on.  A friend of mine chided me last month for my failure to deliver on the promise of advocating for social justice and exposing inequities in our unacknowledged class system.  So by way of a mid-course correction, let me tell you how I came to upon the quotation from Tolstoy that stands at the head of this work.

In the summer of 1977 or 1978, I stopped at a used book store in New Hampshire.  As I browsed the selection, a copy of "Progress and Poverty" by Henry George caught my eye.  I had heard of George and his economic philosophy while studying Ezra Pound with Hugh Kenner at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  I picked the book up and noticed that among the "blurbs" of praise printed on the dust jacket were quotations from Helen Keller and from Leo Tolstoy.  The praise offered was unequivocal:  Tolstoy said that George’s ideas were so fundamentally sound and so clearly presented that no one who read his work could fail to accept their truth.

I marveled at the fact that a work admired by such seminal figures should have become relatively unknown in the intervening years.  I bought the book, but I did not actually open it and begin to read until sometime between 2005 and 2008, about thirty years later.  It was then that I discovered that the thrust of George’s teaching was that the grinding poverty we see in modern societies results from the private ownership of land.  Henry George held that we would not see real social justice until we abolish the private ownership of land, and he supported his arguments with both rigorous philosophical integrity and with convincing historical scholarship.  Once I knew the essence of his teaching I understood completely why his ideas have been ignored and his books forgotten, at least in these United States.

In his own time, George was called “The Philosopher of San Francisco” much as Warren Buffet is today called “The Sage of Omaha.”  He was an autodidact economic philosopher who made his living as a newspaper man in nineteenth-century San Francisco, and he was  regarded highly enough to come close to being elected the Mayor of New York City.  His ideas were encoded in the laws of Ireland and of Australia, both of which were shaping major land-reform legislation during his lifetime.  But the ruthless and rapacious forces of capitalism have dominated his own country, my country, from his time through mine, and so once again the prophet is rejected in his own land.  It is estimated that 100,000 people attended his funeral.

My interest in George had been sparked in part by Tolstoy’s admiration for him, yet I also had little real knowledge of Tolstoy.  I had read only a short story or two of the Russian master’s work.  I knew about "War and peace" and "Anna Karenina" but had not read either one.  And I had not even heard of "Resurrection" until I was listening to NPR one day last winter and heard it recommended by George Saunders.  Having recently experienced the reality of incarceration myself, I checked the book out of the library and read it in a few days.

"Resurrection" tells the story of a man whose encounter with the reality of courts and prisons changes him materially, psychologically, and spiritually.  The hero, Prince Dmitri Nekhlyudov, finds himself sitting on a jury in the trial of a prostitute for murder.  He recognizes her as his aunt's maid, with whom he had an affair while a young student, dismissing her casually with a bank note as he went on to military service.  He realizes that it is he who caused her suffering, and when she is sentenced to fifteen years in Siberia, he resolves to give up all he has and follow her into exile.  The novel tells the story of their journey to Siberia, in the course of which the Prince sees the full range of human misery and depravity thriving within the prison system.

I will have more to say about Tolstoy’s ideas about criminal courts and prison systems in the future, but for now I must mention another element of the novel.  At the beginning, Prince Nekhlyudov is leading a life that is meaningless to him and thus also a life lacking any real pleasure and providing no sense of self-worth.  Ironically, his discovery of his own guilt, his sinful nature, restores to him the sense of purpose and pleasure in life that he had as a youth and ultimately brings him both great peace and great joy.  And one of his greatest joys comes from the one thing which he thought at first would be so hard that he almost gave up the whole project:  giving his estate to the peasants who work the land.

He discovers the proper way to do this so as to benefit the entire community without merely shifting the role of landlord from himself to someone else, who would then necessarily exploit the peasants as much as he had.  He finds the answer in reading “Progress and Poverty” by Henry George, and he follows George’s prescription for true economic justice:  the land will be held in common by the entire community of peasants, and the rent that they would have paid to him or any other landlord they will pay instead to an account set up for the benefit of the entire community.  This is George’s idea of the “Single Tax”, a tax of 100% on all land rents, the proceeds of which are used to finance all the necessary functions of government, e.g., to build roads and other infrastructure and to provide education, health care, and other necessities of life for all citizens.

Check out the Wikipedia article on Henry George – and then read his books!