Character and History

December 8, 2002

Craig S. Barnes

I want to talk about how character changes history. I want to talk about how the things we learn at dinner table when we are children change history. I want to talk about how since every one might choose character willingly, we all might change history. Dostoevesky said in the Grand Inquisitor, "Everyone is responsible for everything." I want to agree. But I want to make more than a literary case. I want to make a lawyer's case. I want to be a trial lawyer and put together the precedents. The common law was built like this. So let's look at some cases. We might call it the natural law of human development.

All through this fall I have been excoriating the arrogance of power, the littleness of minds who think that war is peace and peace is for the rich and the rich are really good for the poor, except just not these Islamic poor, and not now. Our global situation is serious. We are into some dangerous folly. When I was a boy I raised chickens and turkeys and pigs and sheep. They are not all alike. Some are dumber than others. Turkeys are the dumbest. Chickens are the next. Then sheep. Then pigs. Pigs are the smartest in the farmyard. Today, we are marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in a grand war parade, everyone in costume, and who is in the lead? The turkeys. The pigs are all hiding in the alleys. They know that the slaughter comes at the end. So today, let's talk about what smart people do when the turkeys go marching off around the bend, leading the sheep and chickens.

They said that John Adams was like a pig; he was so stubborn. John Adams defended the British soldiers in Boston who were accused of massacring innocent Bostonians. It was the great Boston Massacre. All the community was enraged against the King of England and his Redcoats. John Adams defended those troops in the face of an angry mob. That was character. Within 20 years those rights of the accused to be proven guilty were enshrined into the longest lasting written constitution in the world's history.

Henry David Thoreau did not pay his taxes because he thought that they went for war and wars are started by tyrants. He said if we kept away from tyrants we could keep away from the need for war. For a while after that we did not have any tyrants and we did not have a standing army.

There is no formula. Character is not some gimmick. It is not some commodity bought at Walmart or with calico and nostalgia. It is not simple goodness. It is not simple courage. I don't know how to define it. But I do know some examples of people in history who had nothing else you could name, but still had power.

I remember Adam Miknik sitting in a polish jail in 1982, willing to be a free man, in his mind and heart which no jail could take away from him. He did not condemn his jailers. He just went on being free. Somehow his ideas got out. Within 10 years the Polish communist tyranny was gone and they were all talking about what Adam Miknik had said. Ideas get around even quicker than guns. They are cheaper to ship. We might never forget that. Ideas are cheaper and faster especially if they come from people who's words and actions are consistent. Maybe that's character. Being consistent. Making ourselves clear and coherent, internally and externally, so that no matter which way you hold us up to the light, we look the same. There is power when we can master that.

In the 17th and 18th Century in France there was a group of women who were called salonieres. Judy Chicago found them. She says that they ran salons. Catherine de Rambouillet (1588-1665) established the first literary salon in France. She was simply disgusted with vulgar, misogynist brutes in the court of Henry IV of France. She championed equality between the sexes and language that was careful rather than violent. She changed the style of France. Sophie de Condorcet followed her the next century. Stephanie de Genlis was another. They turned their salons into conversations about revolution. They had no power but the word, writing, music, even dance. De Genlis dressed like a man and danced with the servants at the grand balls. She rebelled against class and lived to see the French revolution which was all about the collapse of class. The powerless prevailed. History changed. Not by the vote. Not by the sword, not really, because the salons came before the revolution. The power source was the ideas some of which were spread by these women who said, one at a time, I am somebody; and then, we are all somebody.

Anna Akhmatova in Russia during the Stalin years wrote poems, invited her friends to her apartment. They memorized the lines and then burned the paper. They kept those verses memorized for 40 years, until the 1960s. They did not just keep the poems alive. They kept each other alive by working to keep what is refined in Russia out of the hands of what is brutish, savage and bestial. We are not that; they said, we are this. Just as we are saying of the imperialists and their bluster and blunder toward war today. We are not that, we are this.

And just as we are tempted to withdraw, to pull out, so were Anna's friends. In 1922 they were leaving Russia: Anna wrote:

I am not one of those who left the land to the mercy of it's enemies. Their flattery leaves me cold, my songs are not for them to praise.

But I pity the exile's lot. Like a felon, like a sick man, dark is your path, wanderer; for alien bread is filled with wormwood.

But here in the murk of conflagration, where scarcely a friend is left to know, we, the survivors, do not flinch from anything, nor from a single blow.

Surely the reckoning will be made after the passing of this cloud. We are the people without tears, straighter than you ' more proud'.

She might have been saying to those of us who would give up on our own powers here in America today, those who feel exiled, who want to burrow down and drop out or act exiled, that we will be disappointed in the taste of foreign bread, the taste of some new identity. Take on the identity of the unconcerned or the cynical and it will taste like wormwood.

Lenin killed Akhmatova's husband in the 1920s and Stalin imprisoned her son in the 1930s.

But here in the murk of conflagration, where scarcely a friend is left to know, we, the survivors, do not flinch from anything, nor from a single blow.

She stood in line for hours outside the gates of the Leningrad prison with her packages to be delivered to her son. No one in line spoke. It was too dangerous. They all stood there, inching forward. Grey figures in a line with their packages. One day a woman beside her recognized Anna and whispered, "Can you write this?" "Magou," Anna whispered, "I can." Then Anna went home and wrote. As it happened, Anna inspired Leningrad. Her words outlasted the regime. I can remember where I was standing with friends on the Neva Prospekt in the early 80s. They whispered that they had got secret copies of Anna's poems. We are not that, they said, we are this. Ten years later, in 1990, Leningrad was a hotbed of democratic reform. I was there again. They took me to Anna's grave. It was unmarked in the dark woods but everyone knew which grave was hers; everyone knew where the poet lay. In 1991 during the coup attempt the Soviet army ordered tanks into Leningrad. Leningraders came out to the tanks on the edge of town and put these ideas in the minds of the tank drivers: don't come in here and be brutes and bestial and bloody like Stalin. We are not that, they said, we are this. The City of Akhmatova spoke from the heart: The tanks stopped and the coup failed. History changed.

There was another woman named Adamovich, in the Ukraine, after the Second World War. I don't know her first name. Her son later was a friend of mine. Mrs. Adamovich had lost one boy to the German invaders and her second son, Ales, went at age 16 to the woods to fight with the partisans. Ales and his ragged band watched helpless from the forests as the Germans rounded up whole villages into barns and burned them alive. Ales came home after the war and by then his village had German prisoners in it. One day the prisoners were outside his house digging a ditch at noon and Mrs. Adamovich invited them in to lunch. She spread the table with her best china. It was a small village; there was not much china. Why put on a show for the hated Germans? asked the young war-scarred Ales. Because the war is over, said his mother, and somewhere inside every skin there is a person. Sometimes they can be arrogant and evil. But somewhere in there is a human being to keep a look out for.

Keeping a look out for humans is character, too.

Years later, in 1986, Ales Adamovich was a novelist. He sat in a dangerous closed room in Moscow and told Soviet generals that nuclear war would be an absolute, life-threatening catastrophe. "Yes, but we would be the winners," said one of the generals. Ales Adamovich laughed at him, laughed outloud; laughed in the face of overwhelming power and personal danger. Everywhere Ales Adamovich went thereafter, in the dark days of Soviet tyranny, he laughed outloud at the Soviet generals who wanted to be the winners in a nuclear war. In 1987, we brought him to the US and someone in California asked him where did he get his courage. He told the story of his mother feeding the Germans. Doing what made her feel human. Not imagining what the Germans had done. Only imagining how much better she would feel if she eliminated the canker in her own heart. Ales had got character from his mother. He became a member of the Duma. He was on television. Within five years after he started laughing, the Soviet Union had collapsed.

You have never heard, probably, of the names of these people. That is the point. During Shakespeare's time they did not treat him as great. He seems to have died and been buried without ever willing a single manuscript to anyone. He gave his wife his bed. He did not give anyone King Lear, or Othello or any sonnet about being in disgrace and out of fortune in men's eyes. No one knew at the time that when he described Richard II as having wants, tasting grief and needing friends, he was making a king into a person, laying the foundation for democracy. No one knew that disrobing power in Lear and laying bare clan in Romeo and Juliet, or the law in the Merchant of Venice, he would be laying the ground work for a new human. So he did not will his manuscripts to anyone because he did not know what he did, nor did anyone else right away. But his revelations about character remain today the mental furnishing of our civilization.

Of course Shakespeare did not do what he did alone. Nobody knew then and none will ever know the actors and producers who said to the playwright, "Romeo could not have said that!" and forced changes in the script. I know that because I write plays. My actors are always coming up to me and saying, "He could not say that!" So I change the play. 'Everyone is responsible for everything,' said Dostoevesky, and we all count said the women who ran the salons in France, and no one is alone, Akhmatova found out. So there were a lot of people making Shakespeare into Shakespeare, just as you are making your friends into peacemakers and no one will ever know any of our names, either.

We are in the midst of a boiling time in Western Civilization and probably in global civilization. Values are changing, not over centuries, but within life times. When I was a boy there was no ball point pen and no television and no jet airplane and no personal computer and no women in law school. Which reminds me that a woman by the name of Ellen Barney was refused a PhD at MIT in 1873 because she was a woman. She went on anyway as an unpaid assistant at the MIT laboratory for women and laid the ground work for the eventual passage of the Food and Drug Act. To absorb that rebuff and work on, she must have been a woman of character, too. And she changed history, too.

Think how much the world has changed since 1873. Ideas are the drivers for this change. Barney's idea was that she had a mind, thank you very much. Ideas are the revolution. Poets and writers and networkers are the agents of what we used to call revolt and now call phase change which is a revolution in thinking. Networking is just another name for building consent for phase change. We do our work, ideas spread, and they threaten power.

I use more examples today of women than I do of men because their situation is more akin historically to that in which all of us find ourselves today. As in Akhmatova's time decency and civility, language and restraint are under attack, defended by sophists and a 200-million dollar propaganda campaign for war and imperialism. The oligarchies of power, the obstructions to our influence, are as daunting to us as they must have been to the revolutionaries of France or America or Russia whom I have mentioned. Often the ones who have carried the word in times like these have been women. They are used to being strong without being bestial and are not confused by the difference.

Of course, men have character, too. We all know the stories of Martin Luther King and Jimmy Carter and Andrei Sakharov. Men are not irrelevant or useless in this struggle. They have key roles to play only some times we think they were special, not like us. So today we use examples of people who we mostly never heard of. It reminds us that everyone is responsible for everything. And that character plants some seed. Ideas germinate. Seasons turn. This season too will end and what you do today will determine what grass comes up in the spring.