ON BOARD AMTRAK TRAIN FROM NEW YORK CITY TO ALBANY–From the start of our conversation, I realized he was not your usual import-export textile executive. A 1968 graduate of Columbia University (a non-participant in the student revolt that year), he had gone into his family business and become quite successful.
Just coming from a day-long conference at Cooper Union sponsored by The Democracy Project, a new progressive research group, he was skeptical that anything would come out of this six-hour debate and critique of Reaganomics and right-wing politics.
I asked what was troubling him. In so many words, he said it was the course of the world–beginning with the arms race, the economy, and ending with the urban squalor of New York City. His deepest worries about nuclear weapons he felt could not be shared with his wife. As for New York City, he and his wife and two small children were moving out to a small town about an hour from Albany. Gotham was no place to raise children, he said, adding that he’d figure out later how he would commute the 120 miles to his work in New York City.
This blue-jeaned businessman was upset but not depressed. His talk revealed a widespread knowledge of major philosophies from East and West. When I asked him what he enjoyed most, he said being with his 9-month-old daughter–an infant he described as unruly, helpless and self-centered, but irresistible.
How could he continue in his business, given his view of what needed to be done in society? His world of commerce, he acknowledged, was narrow, but he rarely lost an opportunity to raise broader concerns with his suppliers and customers. He drew some consolation from the fact that his wealth provided other options, if he so chose. For example, he wanted to bring together some 20 other business people so they could hire a full-time person to advocate their citizen interests toward such causes as world peace or social justice.
But wouldn’t he be more effective, given his independent means, for him to become a full-time citizen? Perhaps, he said. But he was not ready to take that big a step yet. He wanted more time to think about his future.
The train came to a stop at his destination and he disembarked. I wondered how many other people in business were beginning to look toward wider citizen roles and to question the tight corners entrapping their lives.
In times of mass protests over matters confronting the nation–and the nuclear arms race presently is one such focus–some people cease being bystanders and find themselves jolted out of their daily routines into new leadershipactivities. This happened in the civil rights and Vietnam War period. And it may be occurring today, not just among the young, but among older people who decide to adopt more resolutely the civic commitments of their times. They shed their feelings of alienation, powerlessness or indifference in favor of a consciousness of learning and doing that brings new energies to social causes.
One secret in that wondrous arrangement called democracy can be unlocked were we to discover how this reservoir of civic effort can be tapped before reaching the precipice of crises or the morass of tragedies. Recalling Alfred North Whitehead’s dictum that “duty arises from the power to alter the course of events,” business executives certainly qualify to assume broader duties. Increasingly, as Reagan gives Big Business all it wants, the public is directing more of its demands for a prosperous economy toward the large corporations. A recent Business Week/Harris poll was a stunner: “The public thinks business is doing a terrible job to help solve the nation’s economic problems–particularly in such vital areas as keeping America at work, fighting inflation and investing in production plant and equipment,” says the magazine’s editorial.
Perhaps this sharper public focus on business performance will start more people in the corporate community reflecting like the traveler on the Amtrak train to Albany.