My Turn: Collection of essays traces our obsession with wealth to 1700s


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

With the 1950s military assistance for French efforts to restore their colonial rule over Indochina, the U.S. began its involvement in Vietnam. Succeeding assassinated President Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson was reluctant to reverse JFK’s Oct. 11, 1963, “National Security Action Memorandum 263,” which ordered complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Vietnam.

Johnson told his joint chiefs of staff that sending more troops to an unpopular war would hurt his bid to win the upcoming 1964 elections. But, he famously told these advisers, “Just let me get elected and then you can have your war.” The one powerful issue binding the still deeply troubling assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedy brothers was that each developed a robust and compelling opposition to that war.

In his latest book, a collection of 10 essays titled “Struggling for the Soul of Our Country,” University of Illinois at Chicago Professor Emeritus Preston M. Browning Jr. provides a penetrating Christian socialist perspective on the social and political circumstances in which we find ourselves. John F. Kennedy, he writes in one of these essays, was for those in power a “sacrificial victim.”

Socialist thought, popular at the beginning of the 20th century, fell out of favor with the extremes of the 1917 Russian Revolution. For critique of this alternative economic and social system, Browning begins with Albert Einstein, whose 1945 assessment was that with our 500 years practice of the capitalist system, humans have not evolved beyond “a predatory phase.”

Historically, the American moneyed class has done everything in its power to redefine and misrepresent the basic difference between capitalism and socialism. While the former is a system narrowly based on survival of the fittest, socialism (savagely distorted in the Soviet Union) is humanistic, concerned first with the meeting of human needs. An illustrative example is health care in the U.S. While virtually every other developed country in the world provides health care to its citizens in a socialist model, here achieving corporate profit is the basis of care.

“A healthy society, a genuinely sane society,” Browning writes, “would recognize that its principal capital lies not in its skyscrapers or its oil deposits … but in its people.” European colonists who founded this country were motivated by religious faith, holding that a narrow interest in money is the root of evil. Largely Christian and looking back as they did to the example of Jesus, these settlers’ source of guidance was a profound humanism.

With a doctoral degree in religion and literature to match his study of history, Browning is well credentialed to introduce “soul” into his discussion. He describes his book as an invitation to a “psychological and spiritual journey” into that with which readers may also be struggling.

Americans, he writes, may have much to be proud of, but it is far past time they came to terms with the dark side of their history — its “slavery, ethnic cleansing of indigenous people, multiple invasions and occupations in the Western Hemisphere.” Here, too, having come of age in the Jim Crow-era South and traveled extensively in Central America, Browning is a qualified observer.

In an early essay, Browning reflects on the view out the window of his Ashfield home. In the spring there is the ubiquitous green, the blooming lilacs, “the astonishing tapestry of colors nature has chosen to offer” — and how fragile all of nature we have taken for granted has become. He reflects on the prophetic lines of a sonnet by the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God/ It will flame out, like shinning from shook foil.” Hopkins later laments humankind’s tendency to destroy, “And all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil … the soil is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”

Imagine the astonishment of a Victorian poet observing the threats to air, water and life as we presently experience, or to author Browning’s very lilacs and green. Another rich resource for this writer is his 30 years teaching literature at the University of Illinois.

Adding to what poet Hopkins’ contemporary lament might be, there is now the evolving consensus that we have, for a lengthy period, been living in a new geological epoch — the Anthropocene — during which human activity, not geological events, has become the dominant influence on our climate and environment. Though not made official by governing bodies, there is serious reason to correlate this new epoch with European conquest of the Americas.

Two significant factors then came into play. The first was the emergence of the capitalist economic system five hundred years ago in Europe. The second was the enormous wealth realized, from Indian and particularly black slave labor, from the Americas. It can be demonstrated that these factors combined to fund and energize the Industrial Revolution. It goes without saying, no human activity so consequential had ever occurred on our planet, and it should be obvious that no matter how great the benefits the industrial revolution provided, in its obsessive focus on wealth and material things that revolution also has resulted in devastating injury to the human soul. Browning cites “Empire of Illusion” by Chris Hedges for a superb analysis of those factors contributing to the spiritual sickness of America that Browning returns to again and again, chief among them a loss of the capacity for empathy.

Perhaps it is only because I have heard Professor Browning speak on numerous occasions that the inflections of his Southern origins seem to echo through these timely reflections. Browning has made a sweeping and incisive assessment of where we are as a nation. This is a book for our contentious times.

“Struggling for the Soul of Our Country” is available from Wipf&Stock and also from the author (Browing@wellsprinhouse.net) for $25.00, postage included.

Charlemont resident Carl Doerner is a historian, journalist and author.