Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Author Of Random Acts Of Kindness

“Practice random acts of beauty and senseless acts of kindness.” It was a bumper sticker on the car next to mine in the co-op parking lot, a rusty Volvo with a kid seat in back. My car doesn’t carry any bumper stickers. Barbara refuses to let me put them on, and I’m grateful to her because I wouldn’t know when to stop. A bumper’s credibility is inversely proportional to the number of its messages. Multiple bumper stickers say, "I guess I’m not what you’d call a critical thinker. In fact, I’m a crank." Maybe you can get to some critical mass where you’re saying, "I want everything to be different," and give a complacent corporate buccaneer or one of his fearful dupes an epiphany. Art-car territory. The car at the co-op only had the one.

I don’t think of bumper stickers as having authors, but somebody has to have imagined the messages. Some of them are banal enough to have occurred to more than one thinker: “Peace is patriotic,” “Co-exist,” “Lick Bush.” The slogan on the car next to me was unusual enough, and put in a unique enough voice, that someone, somewhere knows, “I wrote that. It was pretty good.” She might have said, “Practice random acts of kindness,” and left it at that. It might have been “senseless kindness,” and “random beauty,” or she might have gone for “Guerrilla beauty and kindness!” “Kindness and beauty make a better world,” or “Mean people suck.” Anne Herbert wrote it.

Anne Herbert was Stewart Brand’s first Assistant Editor at Co-Evolution Quarterly. Who knows what she does now. If she were a man, she’d have a string of bestsellers behind her or be fronting a jam band. She’s part of the Vietnam generation, and Barbara and I always enjoyed the things she wrote in Co-Ev or its successor, Whole Earth Review. They were brief, good-humored, and insightful about important things.
I’ve mentioned before that she wrote that God kicked us out of the Garden because we started keeping score. In an surprising piece of detournement, Herbert changed the Freak Brothers’ slogan from “Dope will...” to “Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.” On Co-Evolution’s twentieth anniversary, she wondered, “If there is a God, why are there crummy little jobs? If we made up God, why can’t we make up something better than an interlocking network of crummy little jobs?” In 1995, Anne Herbert wrote one of the most chilling and pessimistic things I’ve ever read, Handy Tips On How To Behave At The Death Of The World. Mistaken in its premise, but not in its recommendations.

My favorite Anne Herbert idea came from her growing up a parson’s daughter. She was allowed to choose Sunday's hymns, and that led to her realization that somebody chooses everything we do. We design the world.

Sometimes we do a better job than others, and sometimes (now) we need to do a better job than others.

No comments: