The Happy Heretic

Mr. Navasky presides over MONOCLE, an occasional journal of political satire, contributes to numerous magazines. and is at work on a book about the Department of Justice under Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

WHILE all of California, haunted by the best sellers of Caryl Chessman, was debating the capital punishment issue, Wilbur H. (“Ping”) Ferry wrote to the local Santa Barbara paper calmly proposing that executions be televised in California’s high schools: “Since the pedagogical effect of capital punishment is now, in a way of speaking, official educational policy in California, it is appropriate to take the next logical step and get tin effort under way to have executions televised. Surely the capital punishers must regard television, with its immediacy and technical virtuosity, as a model means of getting across the fearsome lesson.”

At another time, it was “Ping” Ferry who committed what the New York Times characterized as the “arch-blunder in American politics” — he had attacked J. Edgar Hoover:

Mr. Hoover warns against Soviet espionage in the U.S. This is an old line of the FBI chief, and its success, year after year, is a tribute to the trance into which his sermons throw Americans, not excepting Congressmen. Mr. Hoover is, after all, our official spy-swatter. In these persistent reports about espionage and sabotage, is he delicately telling us that he isn’t up to the job, that Red spies are running loose despite his best efforts? . . . it might occur to many people that the country needs a more efficient spyswatter. . . . Congress never grudges Mr. Hoover a penny. So, since he does not produce many flesh-and-blood spies and saboteurs year after year, he apparently feels be must keep up the supply of clandestine, and possibly unreal ones.

As far as Ferry was concerned, it was no blunder at all. In fact, he calls it a “routine” speech; and when a board member of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, where Ferry is paid to “think about corporations,” asked whether the eve of the Center’s $20 million fund-raising campaign was an appropriate time for such a speech, Ferry replied: “I cannot fathom what all the excitement is about. All I did was what editorial writers and politicians and others do every day of their lives. They criticize JFK, Ike, Adenauer, De Gaulle, Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Nixon, and Rockefeller — really lambaste them, too. I suggested, in a mild and delicate way, that maybe J. Edgar Hoover, who is, after all, just another public servant, is not infallible.”

When William Miller, then the Republican National Chairman, heard Ferry’s speech on Hoover, he said that it struck him as a “deliberate attempt to undermine our national security.”Miller was right. Wilbur Ferry specializes in undermining national security. He also does his best to undermine state and local security. This grows out of Ferry’s highly eccentric notion that we have nothing whatever to be secure about. His activities have earned massive retaliation. He was, for instance, a prime mover behind a statement on the “Triple Revolution” (weaponry, cybernetics, human rights) which incited denunciations from more than five hundred editorial writers and columnists.

Among Ferry’s targets are the stock market — he has urged the abolition of the New York Stock Exchange; the cold war — he has advocated a pact committing the President of the United States and the Premier of the Soviet Union to the personal slaughter of fifty children; the Vietnamese war — he chartered a plane for twenty American celebrities who would fly to Hanoi and sit as hostages, discouraging the Pentagon from any mass air attacks on that city (the flight was cancelled for lack of funds, and when the money was ultimately raised, it was decided the flight was unnecessary); the draft — he has suggested that only older people be drafted because they have less life to lose; and the modern corporation — he has deplored the distribution of corporate profits to colleges, hospitals, and other social service institutions, arguing that a corporation’s job is to make money, not to give it away.

Unlike most subversives, Ferry does not use a cover. His activities are aboveground, and he operates in the open out of an abiding conviction that a citizen’s most important duty is to be aware of what’s going on, of the current beating at him from every direction. “The acquiescent society is for slaves,” he says; “the critical society is for free people.” And it was Ferry who coined the motto “Feel Free,” which adorns the walls of his office at the Center (offspring of the old Fund for the Republic) in Santa Barbara. Mr. Ferry feels free.

DESPITE the overt nature of his agitation and the headlines his various proposals have attracted, Ferry himself is not known to the general public. Like most guerrilla warriors, his personality has attracted less attention than his activities. Other social critics, such as John Kenneth Galbraith, Rachel Carson, Michael Harrington, Jessica Mitford, and Ralph Nader, have won attention as specialists. But Ferry’s notion is that today “it is a bad proposition in general for social critics to become specialists. They should take wide swings.” And where other reformers and muckrakers have earned respect by documenting their critiques, Ferry, as a nonspecialized sniper, is less concerned with documentation than with provocation.

Although he would be the last to admit it, Ferry is a satirist. In America satire usually comes disguised as humor, and so it is difficult at first to recognize what the evangelistic Ferry is up to. But it soon becomes obvious that his central strategy is the deployment of satire to advance moral imperatives. His charge, for example, that Hoover exaggerates the Communist menace is provocative but not original. His “poltergeists” and “spyswatters” are colorful, albeit by themselves innocuous. But his suggestion that Hoover is inefficient, whether true or false, is 50 percent Mort Sahlism. Because he is an intellectual, because he is a committed, serious man, because he has a poker face and a pious delivery (which resembles that of the Episcopalian minister he once thought of becoming), because he is self-righteous, and because he resides in a so-called think-tank, few take him satirically. His ability to pass is what enables so many of his ideas to explode onto front pages.

Moreover, in contrast to the conventional dissenter, who is traditionally dispossessed, alienated, and disenchanted, Ferry has the credentials and perspective to operate from within the establishment. He is the son of the former chairman of the board of Packard Motor Company (residence: Grosse Pointe, Michigan), attended a Jesuit high school, inherited the chairmanship of the Dartmouth Fine Arts Club from Nelson Rockefeller, taught John F. Kennedy and his older brother, Joseph, when they were at Choate, and then went on to advise and write speeches for Henry Ford II. Although he is in his fifties, his handsome face has the ruddy, scrubbed, chiseled look of a stern, fledgling scoutmaster.

Far from being a malcontent in his personal life, Ferry boasts, “I have the best job in the country, and at every point in my career I have had the best job in the country. I also have a lovely wife, three beautiful daughters, wonderful parents, and a great mother-in-law. Except for the death of my brother, ‘Pong,’to whom I was very close, there has been nothing but sunshine and good times in my life. Some of this luck should be spread around.”

He is a member in good standing of New York’s august Century Club. And he is master of that ultra-establishmentarian trade, public relations. At various times in his career he has served as publicity director for Eastern Airlines, reporter for the Manchester Union Leader and the Concord Daily Monitor, chief press officer for the International Labor Organization, public relations director for the CIO-PAG (Congress of Industrial Organizations-Political Action Committee), and as a $60,000-a-year partner with Earl Newsom Associates, the blue-ribbon PR firm whose clients, in addition to Ford, include Standard Oil, International Paper, Campbell Soup, and the Columbia Broadcasting System. A polemicist, yes; an amateur, no.

Yet it is a mark of his expertise that the last thing one would take him for is a PR man. This is partly because he is affiliated with an organization whose aim is “to clarify the issues involved in maintaining a free and just society.” But also because in style, amplitude, and moral fervor he reminds one less of a publicist than a Populist. With his pink shirts and yellow polka-dot bow ties, “Ping” Ferry operates in the noisy Populist tradition of “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, “Coin” Harvey, “Cyclone” Davis, and Ignatius (“the Prince of the Cranks”) Donnelly. Like free silver, his platform planks have the allure and virtue of simplicity; and he has the Populist’s preference for government intervention. “I trust a public bureaucrat more than a private bureaucrat because he’s easier to get at. Government isn’t a foe. It’s ourselves. Those habitually condemning government as the foe, as a common menace, are as depressing people as any to be observed in this country.”

WHEN I asked Ferry if he had a formula for generating his trouble-making yet issue-raising proposals, he advised, “Go to work for the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.” Inspection confirms the fact that the center’s highpowered brainstorming facilitates Ferry’s personal barnstorming. For instance, when his colleagues Walter Millis and James Real argued in a paper called “The Abolition of War” that “the sterile, impersonal character of the great weapons system [is] designed to obliterate a country or continent thousands of miles away, where the adversary burns, fragments, vaporizes, or suffocates far beyond the sight or sound of his executioner,” Ferry, believing with his colleagues that most men find it easier to put the impersonal machinery of mass slaughter into operation than to commit coldblooded murder, was busy concocting a Swiftian suggestion: a compact between the President of the United States and the Premier of the U.S.S.R. personally to murder fifty children before giving the order to fire the first thermonuclear weapons. They would agree on an annual exchange of twentyfive girls and twenty-five boys (to be arranged so as not to interfere with school schedules), and on whether the murder would be by machine gun or automatic rifle. Ferry stresses that the proposed murder is not a substitute for war but an “agreed overture” to it. He hopes that his proposal, by interposing a requirement of personal murder, would postpone mass murder. Does he really believe this? His solemn answer: “Do you have a better alternative? It is a way of buying time for negotiations by calling on the abhorrence and deep compunctions of the individual man against murder by his own hand. It provides for the hesitation that might possibly mean the difference between life and extinction for civilization.”

Who would sign such a pact? “In view of the avowed intentions of both great powers never to strike the first thermonuclear blow, it is difficult to see how either the American President or the Soviet Premier could refuse to enter into such an agreement. The children would stand not as hostages but as proxies for the profoundest hopes of humanity.”

Ferry was first invited to join the Center eleven years ago by Robert M. Hutchins, who once told his students at the University of Chicago, “If we have to choose between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, by all means let us choose Don Quixote, for our purpose in the world is to change it.”But despite the philosophic gadflyism at the top, extracurricular activities of the Ferry variety seem to be the exception rather than the rule for staff members. On one occasion, the Center’s public relations director felt constrained to remind the readers of the New York Times:

Mr. Ferry made it clear that he spoke as a private citizen, not as a representative of the Fund. I have made this point before, in connection with other statements by Mr. Ferry, but I thought it might be worthwhile to remind the public of this fact at this time. The Motto of the Fund is Feel Free. Mr. Ferry feels very free and he speaks his mind.

With solemnity his front, satire his technique, PR his expertise, the Center his primary source, and the letter his special medium, Ferry is often attended but not always understood. Perhaps this is because he intentionally frames his proposals so that they resist assignment to any of the prevailing political or philosophical phyla. But it is also the result of a tendency, reminiscent of FDR’s “Fellow immigrants” welcome to a DAR convention, to attack whatever group he happens to be addressing. Ferry’s formula involves keeping the audiences off guard.

He claims to be a pacifist and a “peacenik,”signs statements, and attends conferences favoring unilateral disarmament, yet when he addresses peace groups he compares them to “prayer wheels whirling in front of a dam.”And how can one accuse him of harboring naïve illusions when he tells his audience:

There is no disarmament plan that will ever erase the knowledge of how to manufacture either bombs or bugs. We might disarm but we can never disknow. I have little doubt that the formulas for these lethal products are safely put away in the deepest corridor of the deepest mountain sheltering government records, to enable survivors of World War III without undue delay to make ready for World War IV.

Yet it would be as much a mistake to regard Ferry as a sort of intellectual Bob Hope, playing primarily for a rise from his audience, as it would be to see him as a satiric Tom Paine, using irony and shock tactics to sell a coherent, prefabricated philosophy. When he is effective, it is because his is a buckshot morality. He has an eighteenthcentury view of the rights of man, a nineteenthcentury inclination to explore new frontiers, a twentieth-century appreciation of the implications of the H-bomb, and a twenty-first-century vision of the possibilities offered by automation and the new technology. His commitments are absolute, but his perceptions permit much room for ideological negotiation. Vide his observation that “socialist theory is as qualitatively threadbare as classical economic theory, and there is just not enough to cover today’s conditions. Socialist incantations, like capitalist incantations, are largely directed to vanished circumstances.”

Undoubtedly his career has camouflaged his commitments, but it has also perpetuated his involvement with and perception of the moral and political dilemmas of his day. He was imported by the CIO-PAC in 1944 not because he was sympathetic to its program, but because each of several union factions wanted its own man in control of the propaganda spigot. “They finally compromised and hired me. I hadn’t heard of the PAC until I was approached about the job.”

This is not to say that he was ever unsympathetic to the aims of the trade union movement. He sent Sidney Hillman several memoranda urging that “we [CIO-PAC speakers and propagandists] systematically abjure such words as ‘fascist beast.'" Because of his association with Hillman, at the close of the 1944 presidential campaign (which popularized the anti-Roosevelt, anti-union slogan “Clear it with Sidney”), a national magazine dangled the promise of great sums of money before Ferry’s eyes if he would write an expose entitled “I Cleared It With Sidney.” He wouldn’t.

But he would and did go to work for Henry Ford II. “I didn’t expect to stay,” he admits, “because after my CIO-PAC days, I thought I’d find it difficult moving in velvety surroundings and dealing with tycoons.”Not only did he stay, but shortly after his arrival Ford got off a letter, apparently drafted by Ferry, to the UAW which showed such sympathy for the workingman that, according to one assessment (The Image Merchants by Irwin Ross), it triggered a series of events “successfully changing the public facade of Henry Ford II, who was regarded as a rather inconsequential young man when he took over the Ford Motor Company in September 1945 and who shortly thereafter emerged as an industrial ‘statesman’ of undeniable appeal.”

“Today,” Ferry concedes, “I might have more difficulty making the transition. But at the time, it was the best job in the world.” He is down on public relations, not, like most academics, because it ballyhoos deficient products, but because “it shmoozes things over. The aim of most corporate public relations,” he argues, “is invisibility, giving the corporation so much protective coloration that it will be hard to pick out from the surrounding scenery, a contemporary search for the ‘there’s nobody here but us chickens’ effect. It operates on the principle of quietism. A vast oil company tries to represent itself as essentially like the corner drug store, only bigger. . . . Corporate PR has gone a few thousand light-years beyond where it should go.”

Ferry blames PR for the currently fashionable corporate practice of charitable contributions to nonprofit organizations. “I don’t want to delegate to a board of directors of any corporation what ought to happen to education. Moreover, I don’t believe corporations like the role. They want to make products and compete. The social conscience is factitious and has been forced on the corporation. Conscience is a personal and not a collective attitude. Corporations shouldn’t describe the aims of educational institutions or influence their course. . . . Despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are spent on research, corporations are short on theory about themselves. That’s why PR men are in the driver’s seat. Why doesn’t somebody study the ardent love affair between managers and the corporations they manage? This romance unfailingly mystifies observers in other countries who see it as a psychological curiosity, like a man’s persistent passion for an indifferent woman.

THE idea that corporations should stop subsidizing community activities is not as arbitrary as it might appear. Along with it, Ferry believes that the corporation should be “constitutionalized.”

“At the end of the eighteenth century,” he points out, “the only source of power worrying the founding fathers was government. If they were around today, they’d be worried about the power of corporations as well. Today the sole legal link between the corporation and the state is the fact that three people sign a piece of paper. Virtually any three people can get a corporate hunting license. There is no standard of accountability. We need constitutions — federal charters granted by Congress, maybe — to set forth methods of governing corporations, at least the big ones. Today some corporations are monarchies and some are republics. The Bill of Rights keeps the heel of government off the neck of the citizenry. Why don’t we have a Bill of Rights for corporations? Why don’t we democratize them? Of course you’d have a problem about identifying the constituency. For instance, a worker with fifteen years seniority is as much and more of a constituent of the corporation as a stockholder who bought his shares yesterday. But that’s a problem for the technicians.”

Consigning “the details” to “the technicians,” especially after he has floated one of his more revolutionary proposals, is a Ferry habit that infuriates his critics. It is also a technique with a built-in provision for a second round of uproar — which occurs when Ferry takes the trouble to suggest what the elaboration should consist of. When he proposed before an audience at Colorado College that the stock exchange be abolished, he received an outraged three-page letter from Keith Funston, president of the New York Stock Exchange, and further correspondence provoked a twenty-eight-page rebuttal from Louis Engel, a vice president of Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith. Mr. Funston especially was “deeply distressed” to read Ferry’s remarks because in his judgment they could serve “only to destroy the basic fabric of the economy.” He argued that Ferry’s proposals would lead to “a slowing and eventual stoppage . . . of the flow of venture capital, along with a stagnation of the national standard of living, a stifling of national economic growth and a forfeiture of this country’s leadership in international affairs. . . .”

Ferry’s observation that “the destiny of nations should not rest on an institution whose ultimate irrationality . . . is everywhere acknowledged” was overstated yet reasonable. His assertion that in principle, alternative methods might be discovered for the extension of credit to new enterprises was unorthodox but consistent with free enterprise economics. His answer to the Stock Exchange’s slogan (“Own a share of America”) was that “it is ridiculous to think that a man buying a few shares of GM today and selling them a few weeks later to get into American Can deserves any attention or respect as an owner of enterprises” was pithy but defensible. Once again, however, Ferry’s unfailing instinct for irony is what won attention for his argument. What Funston found “strikingly unfortunate” was Ferry’s reference to the market as an “enormous crap game.” Actually, he had called the market “an enormous dice game whose real character is shrouded in the mythologies sedulously built up by public relations.” To satisfy man’s urge to speculate, Ferry proposed that we consider licensing a few of the better brokerage houses as high-class, clean, well-lighted gambling palaces. “The technicians,” he said, to the irritation of all concerned, “can work out the details. After all, that’s what Yankee ingenuity is all about.”

But what he had actually done was to raise some questions that nobody else was raising. Namely: Is the stock exchange good for the United States? Is it right that this institution should have the power and potential to drive this and other countries into “a slough of recession”? What is the economic rationale of the stock exchange today? And, granting that seventeen million Americans are indeed buying and selling common stocks, he asked whether it is really a good thing? In other words, on the assumption that the stock exchange should not be regarded as an institution “forever fixed in the natural order by some divine dispensation,” he posed the reasonable question: Is it indispensable, useful, or merely traditional?

Letter writer, satirist, polemicist, cliché-buster, preacher, publicist, intellectual, popularizer, idealist, generalist, boat-rocker, advocatus diaboli, he combines a humanist’s belief in the perfectibility of man with an Alsopean view of our chances. At a conference on The American Character he warned the assembled:

Americans are obsessed with happy endings. Our novels, magazines, television programs, are all devoted to the happy ending. One has to criticize leadership in this country for playing up to this obsession. . . . There isn’t any happy ending to any of the present situations. The ending will be intensely disagreeable to many Americans, because most of the endings will call for vast changes in the status quo and Americans simply don’t want to change the status quo.

How does one measure the social utility of a sanctity-exterminator who has a sideline in exposing the cobwebs of injustice? The ample quantity of righteous indignation he stirs up is evidence that he must be doing something right, even if the precise impact of his quizzical exploits and pronouncements is elusive. But the difficulty of calibrating the end result of his intellectual napalming should not obscure the value of the skeptical Mr. Ferry’s function. Although his attacks provoke defense more often than change, the dialogue often yields a new level of clarity, a heightened visibility of the values at stake, a new appreciation of the assumptions underlying our most imposing institutions, and a generally more experimental environment.

Ferry’s peculiar strategy for fomenting this type of critical re-examination is to shout fire in crowded theaters. But his intent is to alert his audience to relevant dangers — clear and present, vague and distant. One suspects that the country would be the poorer if he contracted laryngitis. “The mere example of nonconformity is in itself a service” were the words of John Stuart Mill. “Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric.”