Are Love and Good Works Enough?

jules siegel

Anita Brown, Puyallup, Washington, 1977 (Photograph by Jules Siegel from Mad Laughter, Fragments of a Life in Progress)

In my nearly 75 years, I have had a great deal of inner conflict about how to improve the world. I’ve seen so many seemingly good ideas ruined in the execution by what I would call heartless do-gooders. Drug policy, a subset of the mental health movement, is a perfect example. Drug use and abuse are part of the natural human condition and always will be. Not much can be done about this. Humans like it.

Industrial society adds another layer of intense demand. People are driven insane by the conditions of their lives under scorched earth industrialism. Mental health is mainly defined by the ability to hold a job or otherwise remain solvent. Even murderers and sadists have their socially approved economic roles. But all too often holding a job requires personal sacrifices that are really the equivalent of voluntary insanity. People (ab)use drugs to deal with the numbness and the pain, to meet the demands of the machine, to soothe the anguish of injuries sustained in family warfare.

The heartedless do-gooders look at the results and find that it is really easy to blame the victims by assigning their failures to drug use, a moral flaw, rather than fixing the machine. In 1967, I was buying shoes in Greenwich Village and the clerk seemed unusually intelligent. I asked what he really did. He told me he was a sociologist who had worked for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He did a massive multi-volume study of all United States welfare programs going back to the beginning of time. He was fired immediately after he submitted it and the study was suppressed, he said.

So what was wrong with it?

The universal characteristic of all social welfare programs in the United States, he had found, was that most of the money never reached the poor. The administrators spent it on themselves.

jules siegel

"Love's Compass" from Memoir by Jules Siegel, 1975

Look, they tried, right? Pol Pot didn’t consider himself a mass murderer or serial killer. He was a do-gooder. He thought he was helping his people. How was he to know that others might take it the wrong way? I could offer endless examples of good works gone mad. Japanese Buddhists used to release live fish in order to gain merit by saving them from being eaten. They had immense campaigns in which thousands of fish were collected and released, but so many fish died in the process that it was really hard to say that anything much had been accomplished.

In looking back on my own tawdry life, I comfort myself by noting that I am better than my father was. He was an out-and-out criminal, a gun-toting gangster, a swindler. I’ve just been a deadbeat and an all-around jerk. I wince when I think about the different ways in which I’ve thoughtlessly hurt people.The beauteous Anita Brown (my beloved bride these 33 years) once instantly defused a bitter argument about something hurtful she did by saying, “People hurt each other.” She got that right. I hurt a few myself.

In 1964, I walked away from a well-paid career in the union-busting corporate propaganda line, and became a freelance writer. I covered the other side, not labor so much as all those who struggle for emotional relief from the pervasive brutality of life in our time. I’ve written some things that have moved people enough that they still get in touch with me to thank me. Anita sought me out after reading a handwritten novel that I published in facsimile in an an edition of 350 copies.

After experiencing the consequences of a long series of social follies (both my own and others) that looked perfectly reasonable at the time, I decided that the best thing would be to improve myself and concentrate on creating the new improved variety of children. And in that I believe that I might have succeeded. Our children are much, much better than their father. So I can honestly say that I did accomplish something in my life — if only by convincing Anita to share her lot with me. Whew. What a mother! What a wife! If I did that, surely I must have something.

Thus I can look back without much regret, though I do cringe a lot.

All in all, let us say that love leading to good works is not necessarily a doomed course; and doomed or not, is good in and of itself. Even if it doesn’t always work out, it is better than hate leading to evil works. And I suppose that is what keeps us going against all odds.

Jules Siegel

Jules Siegel is a long-time writer, photograph and graphic artist, reporting now from Cancun, Mexico. He has published Mad Laughter, Fragments of a Life in Progress and Memoir.
Published by the LA Progressive on September 9, 2010
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