The Art of Iconoclasm
DECEMBER 01, 1969 by ORIEN JOHNSON
Mr. Johnson, of Palo Alto, California, is a counselor in public relations and fund raising.
My first experience in iconoclasm occurred one afternoon after a hard day at the office. My four-year-old son greeted me with the announcement, "I can fly, Daddy; I can fly."
Not wishing to squelch the vivid imagination I saw developing in his fertile brain, I went along with him and allowed him to rattle on in great enthusiasm about his new idea. Then I saw what I was doing. I was building him up for a grand let-down, psychological and perhaps even physical—for our second-story sun deck was his favorite play spot and I had visions of him trying a take-off which might have disastrous effects on his little bones. So I knew I must point out the fallacies in his cherished belief in order to prevent possible harm later.
Iconoclasm is the practice of tearing down idols or false concepts and ideals which people hold to tenaciously. At first glance this seems a negative position to take, but I am suggesting that it is a good and helpful technique to employ and an art which should be cultivated.
For untold centuries men thought the world was flat, and such a belief didn’t matter as long as our transportation needs were confined to a continent or two. But the iconoclasts, the early explorers and scientists, took away this ancient belief and replaced it with a concept more compatible with the world in which we live. Iconoclasm, in this case, proved a beneficial practice for the good of all mankind.
When we move from the area of the physical sciences into that of the social sciences we find a multitude of theories and practices being taught and held with great passion. My particular concern in this paper is the so-called revolutionary ideals and hypotheses being disseminated among college and university students. In a sense the tired old men of the Establishment have had a hard day at the office and the young generation is saying, "We can fly, Daddy; get out of the way."
Highly idealistic young people are dreaming grand dreams about changing the nature of man and liberating the world from all oppression. Many are evidently only concerned with rebellion against the established order and seek only to disrupt and destroy it. Some are so certain they will succeed in the complete overthrow of the present order that they are wondering what they will put in its place. At this point a few are dragging in Marxism and other variations of faded socialistic dreams and holding them up as if they were innovations on the social scene. They can’t understand why everyone doesn’t see the light, and are quick to label all unbelievers "racists" or "fascists." They are like the little boy who found a dead cat in the garbage can and said to his mother, "Look at the perfectly good cat I found," then was puzzled at his mother’s attitude when she refused to share his enthusiasm.
It is time for parents, teachers, and others who have any contact with youth to learn the gentle art of iconoclasm. We must discover how to carefully point out the fallacies in their theories before they are severely disillusioned and irreparably hurt.
I use the term "gentle art" and urge the careful approach as opposed to the confrontation and polarization tactics of the young radicals. Men only use these latter tactics when they won’t take the time to learn how to communicate or wish only to impose their will on others with displays of power.
Blueprint for "Liberation"
The following quotations are from a program written by several "Berkeley Liberation Committees" as examples of theories and ideals being adopted and disseminated by certain radical students, professors, dropouts and fellow sympathizers in one university community. From these we might be able to formulate an approach for parents and educators who would establish communication with those who follow such leadership.
"We shall create a genuine community and control it to serve our material and spiritual needs."
I had to look for this statement. I wanted some point of agreement, some common point from which to say, "Here we stand together. Now where do we go from here?" Can we not commend young people for their desire to provide for man’s material and spiritual needs? I’m sure we could all agree that such needs can only be met in community. Now our only problem is to seek feasible ways to accomplish the goal we both desire.
There is one word in that quote we should probably clarify first. Exactly what is meant by "control"? Are we not all concerned with liberty? Are we not concerned with restrictions and controls that inhibit the fulfillment of our material and spiritual needs? We must know the nature of this new "control" before we shake off present "controls" or we may live to regret the change in jailors.
"We will create an International Liberation School in Berkeley as a training center for revolutionaries," they say. "We will unite with other movements throughout the world to destroy this racist capitalist imperialist system."
We dare not snort at such bravado or flinch when they throw in a few four-letter words. This is all part of the calculated shock-treatment intended to create fear and confusion. We exercise great restraint and inquire further.
"We will create malls, parks, cafés and places for music and wandering. High quality medical and dental care, including laboratory tests, hospitalization, surgery, and medicines will be made freely available. Child care collectives staffed by both men and women, and centers for the care of strung-out souls, the old and the infirm will be established. Free legal services will be expanded. Survival needs such as crash pads, free transportation, switchboards, free phones, and free food will be met."
And Who Will Pay?
Here are some points we can respond to with sincere interest. This is a positive program. We can commend them on their concern for these urgent human needs. But we must ask, "How will these services be paid for?" And the "Berkeley people" have an idea.
"Businesses on the Avenue should serve the humanist revolution by contributing their profits to the community." Indeed. And what if they don’t?
"Berkeley cannot be changed without confronting the industries, banks, insurance companies, railroads, and shipping interests dominating the Bay Area. We will demand a direct contribution from business, including Berkeley’s biggest business—the University, to the community until a nationwide assault on big business is successful."
We force ourselves to hear them out, then probe some more. "What if confrontations and demands don’t bring in enough money? Would more violent means then be attempted?"
"Through rent strikes, direct seizures of property and other resistance campaigns, the large landlords, banks and developers who are gouging higher rents and spreading ugliness will be driven out. We shall force them to transfer housing control to the community, making decent housing available according to people’s needs."
Now we are beginning to get the picture. They propose to seize property by force and drive out the present owners. Would it be possible for us to point out that when this occurs they will then become the oppressors and the former owners would become the poor people with the same problems they seek to solve by means of this violence. Will these new poor people then have to start another revolution and wrest the power back again in order to meet their needs? Perhaps this is what they have settled for, an endless succession of oppressions and revolutions in which the power mongers use the "needs of the downtrodden masses" as a psychological weapon by which to gain sympathy for their cause. Once they are in power another power structure will form and hope to gain the upper hand. And the slogan-symbols for such a program are "peace and love."
It should be easy for us to point out that political revolutions are comparatively easy to precipitate. They have been occurring quite regularly for many centuries. The manuals tell how it is done. You march, you demonstrate, you protest, you write clever slogans on signs, you resist, you propagandize, you destroy. These are easy to do because you can always point your finger at the "bad guys" and keep at it until you cut them down. And I’m sure many young people have settled for this exciting prospect and are ready to die for such a shortsighted goal.
But there are many more thoughtful young people who are genuinely concerned about social issues. Yet some of these will get caught up in the excitement and go along on the destruction jag just for the ride. They think this is the only way to fly, and are not prepared for the crash that inevitably occurs at the end of such utopian dream flights. These are the ones in which we must invest special time and interest in our iconoclastic pursuit.
A skillful iconoclast knows that a person will not give up a cherished belief until he finds a better one. The reason some people hold so strongly to false concepts is because of a basic insecurity. They are usually deeply concerned about life and its problems and sincerely want to have some part in change for the better. They have become disillusioned with the cliches and the slogans of successive political platforms and their inability to live up to their many promises. Some have settled for the fanatical destruction philosophy as a last desperate attempt to level the status quo and build again on the ruins.
We must remember that these highly motivated young people are not basically diabolical and evil. Most of them sincerely desire good to come of their actions however radical they may seem to some.
They are like the possum which crawls farther and farther out on a limb when a hunter climbs the tree after him. The more the hunter shakes the limb, the tighter the possum clings to his insecure position. He will only leave this tenuous position by sheer physical force; or when the pressure is off, he will find his way back to a more secure position.
So the skilled iconoclast does not begin by shaking limbs, but carefully shows and demonstrates a better way. In a sense we are saying, forget all these grandiose programs aimed at healing all the ills of the world. Give freedom a chance. The social problems of mankind are much too sophisticated for any simplistic plan to cure. None of these ideologies is worth defending with all the pent up emotions that divide men and cause an eternal succession of bloody conflicts and wars.
On a Person-to-Person Basis
But there is something we can do about the needs of men. There is a positive program to which we can subscribe. But it is a program we design ourselves and one that can only be implemented by us as individuals or by others with whom we voluntarily cooperate.
We create our own social revolution by doing something revolutionary whenever we see a fellow human suffering. According to the ancient parable, two-thirds of the men who saw the wounded man lying beside the road passed him by. Only the Samaritan did something about the situation. The two who were too busy to respond that day were busy men dedicated to work for mankind through the respected institutions of their day. They were so busy serving "humanity" that they failed to notice a suffering human.
This hypocrisy hasn’t escaped the notice of sensitive young people who see the same attitude reflected in many of our modern institutions. So the cry goes out to renounce allegiance to all the traditional institutions and to celebrate this new freedom with singing and dancing in the streets. And in the alleys behind those streets are the cheap flats where rats gnaw on baby’s toes and old people live in solitary loneliness with no one to care.
The climate of opinion which the young radicals have created calls for renunciation of the inhumanity of computerization and the depersonalization of automation. It calls for globe-encompassing plans to liberate the masses. It calls for a new terminology which makes extensive use of the words love, peace, brotherhood.
Yet it makes no realistic provision for the brother in the alley who is an epileptic and can’t enjoy the music in the streets.
How revolutionary must a program be to attract today’s youth? Is this one radical enough to tear a few of them away from the singing and dancing long enough to read a book to a blind person in a smelly hovel? Or listen to the woes of a gin-soaked mother, especially if she happens to be their own?
There’s more to the art of iconoclasm than meets the eye. It is not so much a philosophy to expound and argue as it is a radical way of life. This kind of philosophy is caught rather than taught, but it is probably the only way to save our youth from utter cynicism and at the same time to save our own sanity.