Escaping From Prison

By: Alton C. Thompson

I don’t question the assertion that visiting people in prison is a “good thing.” But what if one is oneself in prison—or at least feels like one is? What then is one to do?

When one is young, one takes the society that one is living in as a “given.” And if one’s information regarding “what’s happening in the world” comes primarily from newspapers, popular magazines, and television, one will continue to take one’s society for granted—for those sources of information are not only “fawning,” but devoted to keeping their readers/viewers ignorant and misinformed, and diverting their attention from what matters.

However, if, as one grows older, one travels extensively (and is observant in doing so!), reads widely (so that one encounters critiques of one’s society, becomes exposed to utopian thought, etc.), and “listens” to the promptings of one’s “human nature” (to allude to Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)), one will likely come to recognize that one does live in a society, and that one’s society is not, by any means, the “best of all possible worlds” (to quote from Voltaire’s Candide).

Such a realization is likely to bring a feeling of discontent with it—perhaps to the point that one begins to feel that one is living in a prison; and that feeling of dissatisfaction can motivate behavior—different people reacting differently, and the same person reacting differently at different periods of time. It can cause one to:

  • Become severely depressed—perhaps to the point that one accomplishes suicide.
  • Become active in politics—either by supporting certain policies, or oneself running for office.
  • Expand one’s reading in an effort to gain a better understanding of how one’s society “works”—so that one can then learn how to go about “fixing” it.
  • Think seriously regarding the kind of society one like to be living in.
  • Etc.

At different points in my life I have responded differently to the feeling of being imprisoned. For example, a number of years ago I gave thought to starting a new political party, and running for the U. S. House of Representatives. Having a Norwegian heritage, with Norwegians known for being passionate coffee-drinkers, I thought that a good name for this political party would be “Tea Party”—as a joke, of course (for those “in” on it). Little did I know then that several years later a Tea Party would come into existence—being very different in character from the one that I had been envisioning, however. For the election slogan that I had in mind was “If I am elected, I will not serve.” Rather, my plan was create a small eco-community, with the “staff” that I was entitled to hire being people willing to join me in living in that community. I knew that I would never get elected (the people in my campaign would go into neighborhoods dressed like Vikings, and would yell out “fjord”!), my object being to make people laugh and simultaneously to awaken them to need for societal system change. (In 1984 I had published a strategy for bringing about such change.)

That “plan” was never realized—I had too much sense not to go through with it, as I didn’t want to embarrass my family! But I had fun thinking about it.

The idea of a need for societal system change has, however, been with me ever since. I guess that I am a rather odd American in that my thinking has not been directed toward how I might “rise” in my society but, rather, has been concerned the kind of society that I would like to be living in, and how to get there. I can’t explain why I acquired that particular “bent,” but the fact that I was raised in small-town Wisconsin and had hammered into me that my responsibility was to develop whatever abilities I had, and then use them to help others—rather than try to be a “success”—likely set my direction in life. I feel guilty for not having done more to help others, but try to tell myself that my “calling” is not so much in that direction but in thinking about how our society should be, and how to change it. (Much of my writing, except for essays written since June, 2012, can be accessed fromthis site.)

In earlier writings I have commented extensively on both of those matters, but in this essay I would like to identify those features of the “Good Society” that are especially on my mind at present:

  • The society that I would like to be living in would be peopled with individuals who had no interest in acquiring things. They would, of course, need to have food for sustenance, clothing for providing modesty and warmth, and shelter. But beyond “necessities”—including some things that would provide a measure of comfort—they would have no interest in acquiring for the sake of acquiring.
  • Related to this, given that not much effort would need to be devoted to producing that which was needed for sustenance, or providing some degree of comfort, the society would be one in which leisure time was abundant. On the one hand, stresses associated in the existing society with work, etc., would be absent (which would contribute to the health of the society’s members), and an abundance of time would be available to everyone to pursue whatever interests they had.
  • The society’s people would have no need to feel superior to others in the society (or “outsiders”)—and as a consequence would have no need to engage in “conspicuous display” (Thorstein Veblen’s term) of goods.
  • They would not feel inferior to anyone else either: With no one in the society “driven” by a need to feel superior to others, not feeling inferior to others would occur almost automatically.
  • Related to the matter of inferiority/superiority, no one in the society would feel a need to exercise power/authority over others—either getting others to do what one wants, or exploiting others. Thus, one of the worst features of existing society (of capitalism, Karl Marx would say) would be absent from the Good Society.
  • Rather than wanting to control others, people would feel an urge to want to help others. In doing so, they would, however, strive to do so in a manner that did not damage the self-esteem of those to be helped. In an earlier essay, I referred to a Lakota Indian elder named “Dan,” who said that for the Lakota, the prime reason for living was to attend to the society’s very young and very old. That’s the sort of attitude that would prevail in the sort of society that I would want to live in.
  • As a person who grew up in a small town/rural environment, while young I was able swim in a nearby lake during the summer, skate on that lake during the winter, play on Mt. Morris with my cousin, follow my dad plowing our large garden in bare feet (talk about being close to Heaven, feeling that fresh earth beneath my feet!), go fishing in the summer and hunting in the fall, etc. I still have fond memories of those days. Although I have been not that close to Nature since those times, I have a deep appreciation for being in Nature—and wish that I were living in a society that enabled that as a matter of course.

Is this a dream, or can it become real (to allude to Nicolai Berdyaev’s autobiography)? My view is that the existing society cannot be reformed, but that that’s not “end of story.” As I’ve argued in various previous essays on this site (and suggested in my 1984 article), if one wants to live in a society having characteristics such as those enumerated above, and given that one will not be able to migrate to such a society (because none exists!), one will need to get together will like-minded friends/acquaintances, and begin creating one—within the society within which one happens to be an inmate. Doing this would not be without problems (as I have noted in previous essays), but it would be possible.

In fact, not only would it be possible, it is now necessary—given the threat posed by global warming today. Only a fool would look to government for leadership in preparing for global warming—which would involve adaptive efforts, given the stage of “progress” reached by global warming to date. Given that fact, if one is to have any hope for “salvation,” one will need to “take matters into one’s own hands.” One could do so as a “survivalist,” but the better option is join with others and engage in community-building. Pursuing that option would not only enable one to (possibly) survive, but to live in a decent society.

About the author: Al Thompson works (data management) for an Engineering (Avionics) firm in Milwaukee and is a regular writer for Brave New WorldClick here to mail him.