Bearing Witness

Eugene (Gene) Burkart was a dear friend and a colleague, who not only helped me navigate and enjoy the work and friendship of Ivan Illich, but who also helped me with personal, business, and legal advice. Gene developed cancer that quickly led to his death in 2012; fortunately, he left a lot of love and friendships, as well as some sharply written essays that ameliorate his sudden departure from us. Bearing Witness: Selected Writings of Eugene J. Burkart, was released this summer and these short, sharp gems of insight show Gene’s wit and appreciation for practical philosophy and action. Aaron Falbel, in his introduction to the book, writes, “By day, Gene was an attorney who practiced law . . . By night, he was an independent scholar and social critic, an intellectual of the highest order—as evidenced by the writings in this collection.”

The book opens with a quick piece that illustrates what’s wrong with our economy by comparing two markets: the financial market of Wall Street, where “One spends money today hoping to get more tomorrow,” and the farmer’s market in his adopted hometown, Waltham, MA, where money is spent “in order to take home something good to eat or enjoyable to use.” Gene notes, “Markets are human constructs. When they become too big and powerful, however, a transformation occurs: society itself becomes subordinate and subservient to markets. What’s wrong with our economy is that for some time now corporate markets have dominated and ruled our economic, social, and political lives. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are many other possibilities. Just go down to the Waltham Farmer’s Market and let your imagination go to work.”

Gene’s work is rooted in his deep understanding of Illich’s work, and this comes through in Gene’s beautiful expository writing. Illich’s writing is supercharged—he packs every word and sentence with as much power and density as possible—whereas Gene goes for a plainer, more colloquial style. The last, and longest, essay in the book is “From The Economy To Friendship: My Years Studying Ivan Illich,” and it is a concise description of Illich’s ideas, rooted in Gene’s experiences of reading, talking, and visiting with Illich and his colleagues. I can think of no better introduction to Illich than to read this essay. For instance:

“Alone among the critics of industrialism, Illich began his analysis with a focus on the service sector. Initially starting with the Church, he moved on to education and then medicine. Each time with increasing depth and clarity he showed how services are as much a product of an industrial mode of production as goods. And most surprisingly, he argued that just as the overproduction of goods has unwanted side effects harmful to society, so too do services. Both result in something he called “paradoxical counterproductivity,” the puzzling phenomenon of an institution or agency frustrating the very purpose it was originally designed to accomplish. For example, we see this with schools producing bored, passive, and dulled students; or with medical practices that sicken people and foster unhealthy environments and lifestyles.”

Gene notes that his particular work as a lawyer thrust him into the social service economy system where he observed its working closely.

“Despite the lofty ideals upon which each system was founded, rarely would anyone act in a way that threatens one’s position and security within the system. Secondly, just as with any business, social service systems need markets. In this case, their customers are the potential clients for the services they provide. Through training and institutional momentum, and often with the best of intentions, service providers see people as being in need of their services. Police find more people to arrest and others to protect. Social workers classify more families and children “at risk.” Doctors diagnose more patients in need of expensive tests and treatments. All of this is good for business. It is also insidious since service systems take away from people what they could do on their own, or for each other—or do without—and replace it with a dependency relationship. People lose the capacity to heal, learn, grieve, console, and resolve disputes without professional assistance. In this way, the more people lose self-reliance and independence, the better for the economy.

“. . . We don’t so much have a society any longer, Illich argued, as an economy.”

In “Sometimes Less is More,” Gene uses schooling to show how professional assistance diminishes personal initiative and development.

“More than any subject matter, more than the content of what is taught, schools teach above all else the necessity of schools. They instill the belief that only in school does real learning take place, only in school can one grow in knowledge, skill, and maturity. This is the main lesson taught by schooling.

“Most learn this lesson well. It is to be expected that the longer one stays in a particular institution, whether it be school, the military or prison, the more one’s view of what is real and possible is shaped by that institution. One’s thinking becomes institutionalized. Because of this, many have an inflated sense of the benefit and effectiveness of schooling. They confuse treatment with results, process with substance. They think that more school means more learning, more growth.

“Just the opposite, however, is true. At a certain point schooling becomes counterproductive. It produces the opposite of what it is designed to achieve. Have you ever wondered why education reform is always on the political agenda? It’s because prolonged schooling itself actually hinders initiative, stifles creativity, smothers curiosity and deadens the joy of learning.”

Gene uses stories and concise language to illustrate his points—very few of the essays are longer than four pages and the book is printed in a small, pocketsize format that makes it easy to hold and read. However, its small size is packed with riches, organized by the themes that Gene often wrote and talked about: Common Good, Ways of Doing Politics, Bearing Witness, On Faith, A Sense of Place.

Religion and politics are openly discussed in certain essays, and Gene’s opinions may make some flinch. I found them prescient: years before the Ferguson, Missouri riots of 2014, and other recent examples of unequal treatment of minorities by the police, Gene wrote “Ethnic Cleansing: Is It Happening in the United States?” In it he compares our treatment of minorities in the United States today to Germany in the 1930s and sees chilling similarities. In “The Prison Problem” he writes, “How many prisons, how many of these islands of totalitarianism, can a nation sustain without becoming deeply contaminated by them?” Gene’s social activism was always backed up by his outspoken support and physical presence at protests, meetings, and services—he was no limousine liberal. Nor was he a gung-ho conservative, as his strong critiques of nationalism, money, and war make clear. Gene was one-of-a-kind—and he felt that we were all one-of-a-kind and that we should celebrate that fact more.

Like Illich, Gene has a deep, Christian faith that is not based on devotion to the perpetuation of a religious institution or, as Gene writes, “mere adherence to moral codes or rules.” Rather, it is a faith in God’s presence in people: “God is present and active in the lives of these people, in the unique circumstances that surround each one of them, whether grand or mundane.” Some may feel Gene’s focus on religion is naïve and out of date, since religion causes so much irrational friction in a world that is increasingly viewed as a scientific and rational entity. But Gene argues, “I take it as some kind of sociological fact that we are by nature religious, worshipping creatures. It seems that, whether we call ourselves religious or not, we must worship something, have faith in something. This in and of itself is neither good nor bad. The essential question is, what is being worshipped?” Gene then makes the interesting point that religion, to be considered a religion, does not need a specific theology or divine being, but it does require the act of worship, and the worship of human power is our new religion.

“The gospel of this new religion, the good news, is that man has conquered nature—and human nature—and, given enough time and money, the victory shall be complete. Total domination shall be ours—if we have faith. We have witnessed the splitting of the atom and the splicing of genes; the old mysteries and gods have been banished. Nature is now mere stuff to be used, torn apart, recombined, made into something new, a new creation. Finally we can be as gods, we can create the world. A new Eden awaits us all, a manmade paradise, but only if we have faith. There are those who lack this faith. However, we don’t call them heathens any longer. Rather they are ‘uneducated’ or, better yet, ‘underdeveloped.’”

Gene could certainly be forceful in his opinions, but he was careful about picking his battles. In one of the shortest essays, “My Faith,” he recounts a discussion with an atheist:

“ . . . just as she stopped believing in Santa Claus at a certain time in her life, so as she grew older she stopped believing in God. I made no response but quickly tried to turn the conversation to other topics.

“Later, though, I thought about this statement. I imagined the woman as a young girl looking at the Christmas tree after her discovery. She now knew that there was no Santa Claus, but then there were still all those presents in the bright colored paper. If Santa Claus did not bring them, someone else must have.

In the Christian tradition, all that is, the natural world, all the people we know, everything, has something of the quality of a gift. And every gift to be a gift must come from a giver who through the gift expresses intent, will, and love.”

Though deep issues are raised in the book, a spirit of optimism and plenty of examples of people’s abilities to resist or change their circumstances in today’s world through small actions and mutual support provide the reader with lots of practical, positive ideas. Gene was a gift to all who knew him; and this book is a gift to give anyone wondering, as Aaron Falbel writes, “What are these institutions doing to our hearts and our ability to love one another?”