Tuesday, January 4, 2011

By way of introduction.

Welcome to Isolation Incomplete, a blog that focuses on progressive politics, history, and philosophy. Allow me to introduce myself with this opening piece I wrote several months back. It is rather long, but my hope is not that anyone will read it carefully but, rather that it be casually referred to in the future as an answer to the question of "who the hell is this chick?" It details my political history -- which I argue, is inherently personal -- and how I ended up where I am today, philosophically and intellectually.

Another reason I put this piece up is to be as honest an intellectual as I can be -- to put all my cards on the table. I believe that the denial of how the personal is political, the false wall we often put between our condition as human beings and our attempts at analysis, can at times distance us from the real reason we care about society, and care about human justice. Because if you do not admit from the beginning that you are human -- that you are part of and prey to the whole range of conflicting desires and needs that this entails -- you will become tempted to focus more on being right, rather than focusing on finding the truth. But if we do our best to be honest with ourselves, and honest with each other, the end goal in sight -- a better world for everyone -- can be kept more clearly in view.

Progressives aren’t particularly known for being moralistic, at least not in the individualistic sense. Yet an argument for social justice inevitably lies at the heart of progressivism, and therefore so does a moral argument. For those who value pluralism and are wary of any statements of Truth as such, this can present a possible conflict. How can we trust ourselves to advocate for change and social justice without merely producing a potentially biased system of dos and don’ts? How do we know our intentions are sincere, and our proscriptions for our society won’t ultimately, at some indefinite point in the future, turn into a self-righteous straight jacket? 

This is a question I have had good reasons to ponder. For most people who know me as I am today, a progressive who is quite allergic to the center-right culture that surrounds me, would never guess what I once was. That I once, in fact, identified mostly as a “conservative.” That I even – horror of all horrors! – was an ardent fan of Bill O’Reilly, right up to my doorstep, which greeted you with a “No Spin Zone” doormat. 

Now that you know perhaps my most shameful secret, I’ll turn to the narrative of my political history. I believe my early identification as conservative had much to do with my parents, who I can roughly describe as center-right conservatives with a good dose of old-fashioned backlash thrown in. In their personal lives, neither are narrow minded or closed off to the acceptance of those who are different from them; but their political rhetoric was always peppered with the classic conservative complaints about big government, the erosion of personal responsibility, and the oppressive power of political correctness. 

I got along abnormally well with my parents when I was a teenager; you could even say that at times they were my best friends. Therefore I lacked the youthful desire to resist their politics, and my father had a short, pithy way of delivering his sentiments that seemed to drip with common wisdom unburdened by human folly. My earliest political memory is seeing Bill Clinton on TV, and intuitively disliking the man, a tendency immediately reinforced after asking my father, “Who is that?” 

However, even as a young adult there were visible conflicts between me and my parents’ views. The only heated political conversation that ever occurred between my father and I before I was in graduate school took place during the campaign for Prop 6, the ban on gay marriage which was later overturned by the Ninth District Court. Although I might have identified with the rhetoric of no-nonsense independence conservative pundits so successfully peddle in, I was too weird of a kid to pick up on too much of the conservative cultural package. I struggled with obsessive and paranoid thinking; terrified, at various points, of spontaneous combustion, abduction by aliens and, for a while, a fear I was possessed by demons. I was also given to occasional extreme bouts of hysteria, resulting in fits well into high school that an outsider observer might think qualified me for institutionalization. When happy, which fortunately was most of the time, I was loud, creative, confident and very obnoxious to people who found breaking routine social rules offensive. In high school most of my friends were either the dreaded “drama kids” or they had connections to said drama kids. I was a weird kid. 

Far too weird to be attracted to the type of social conservatism those opposing gay marriage promoted. The issue seemed quite clear to me, and I couldn’t conceive of why the issue of gay rights was not obviously in parallel with that of the rights of African Americans, or the rights of women. To my father, however, this was not about social justice but about social pests; people were trying to shove their lifestyle down your throat, people were asking for “special treatment.” One evening, I was so boggled at these arguments that I threw everything I could into convincing him that these were really not the issues at hand, at all. The conversation concluded with me explaining that on some basic level, society treating you different in this respect was a way of communicating how you were not worthy, were not valued as highly as everyone else. I teared up as I choked out the words and realized how much my views on this matter were ultimately personal – although I was not gay, I had always felt different, and as I watched picketers around El Dorado County carrying signs crying for “the protection of marriage,” I understood that the alienation I had felt most of my life could be a hundred, a million times worse had I simply been gay. I understood that this could be the worst feeling in the world. 

My early promotion of gay rights was not the only way in which I was socially liberal. I also proudly considered myself a feminist, and hated the obsession with thinness, beauty and superficial femininity that I saw beamed out at me from the TV set, and reflected in my friends’ insecurities and obsessions. I thought I was smarter than all that, and I was. I also supported abortion rights, an opinion undoubtedly helped along by my unusual lack of aspiration to ever become a mother. I loathed organized religion from as early as the age of 7, considering it merely a tool of the insecure to bolster their self-esteem through the exclusion of others. 

At this point, it is worth asking, what else is there left to be conservative about, then? The answer is not much, and as far as most major policy debates went, I was either neutral, uninterested, or totally unaware. My conservatism, such as it was, was mostly an attitude, an affect, a way of presenting myself to the Others out there that made me feel edgy, confident and defiant. This was helped along by the rhetoric I swallowed that told me that being conservative in fact is edgy, that we are living in a politically correct world policed by dogmatic liberals who seek to muzzle others. I had no sources, at this time, to inform me as to how false this picture was, how this portrait is constructed through the willful ignorance of right wing pundits and the millions of uneducated Americans who listen to them. 

But then we get to college. And once you are in college, you’re supposed to blossom into the idealistic young liberal, right? Not quite. There is a good chance I would have started progressing in this direction, but a road block was thrown in my way that I had no immediate desire or ability to overcome. This road block was entirely personal, but ended up having political consequences which, as the phenomena of status politics shows us, personal issues often do. In the course of about two years, I became completely estranged from my best friend from high school, my boyfriend from high school who I lived with my second year of college, and my other good friend who was close with the former best friend and boyfriend. I ended up, for the vast majority of college, effectively alone. I had a few scattered acquaintances, and a few pursuers I found inadequate, but absolutely no one to share my intellectual curiosity and intensity with. Meanwhile, those who had hurt and abandoned me were perhaps the best symbols of the culture war a conservative could possibly ask for: my best friend turned punk during our freshmen year and then bisexual once our friendship fell apart, and my Jack Kerouac wannabe-boyfriend rejected capitalist society from his earliest years and proceeded, after our break-up, to live in a school bus he and my other now-former friend drove around the country while attending festivals of the counter-culture and causing general mischief. These were the people who had let me down, who had lied to me and who had failed to understand me, who I thought were my closest friends and then seemed to reject all the values I thought I held. I associated the character flaws I perceived in them with their cultural politics, and the part of me that had been attracted to conservatism as a rebellious posture blossomed into a self-righteous monster. 

In retrospect, there was no real way for me to have avoided this. I was reeling from a type of disappointment I had never experienced, at least not on this scale, and I clung to whatever hallow, concrete moral judgments I could find to make sense out of it. My former friends became the real conformists, I the independent philosopher; I would watch O’Reilly interrupt his guests each night and, while sometimes I expressed disagreement about his ultimate viewpoint, I felt the satisfaction of the vindicated. These were angry, difficult years for me; I could get enveloped in my bitterness for hours, going over all my arguments, my impenetrable fortress of evidence that my former friends were cowardly, shallow, stupid, unoriginal. To explain their rejection of me I had to make them the negation of me; and that included rejecting “liberal politics” more or less wholesale, despite the fact that none of my liberal social views changed during this period. More often than not these internal fits of fury would conclude with me, exhausted, wrapping into myself and crying my eyes out, left only with the hurt that remained despite my best efforts to eradicate it. This struggle lasted for years, and even today I cannot long revisit how thick my isolation felt to me without feeling the strings of loneliness tug at me again. 

The philosophical structure I built up to deal with this sense of loss was, in a word, Puritan. Virtue and lack thereof was a matter of principle; principle was displayed by an individual’s absolute commitment to these principles, and the principles to be defended were individualism, originality, sincerity and intelligence. The subtitle of my blog captured the stoic image I had of the individual free from human folly with an Emerson quote: “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”

My salvation was my education. I threw myself into my academic work with the devotion of someone who had nothing else to do, and no desire to go home to an empty room. However my enthusiasm was propelled by the positive as much as the negative; I loved it. In high school, I had always figured myself rather smart, especially when it came to my writing skills. However I did not hang the medal of intellectual savvy high on my totem pole; it was a part of me I was proud of, but the ostentatious, outrĂ© drama kid was much more central to my self-image. In college this was almost entirely replaced by the ideal of the intellectual, the thinker, the philosopher. I had several places I would go for hours to study, to the point where the employees knew my name and the waiters knew what I would order. I discovered Locke, Hobbes, romanticism, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, my love for early American history and Enlightenment thought – I discovered Confucianism and British history, George Orwell and Russian dissidents of the twentieth century. I have memories of the exact moment I first read the works that most excited me; I cried and then sobbed after reading Mills defense of the eccentric in On Liberty, I felt so lit up by Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds that someone in the coffee shop finally asked me what I was so excited about. Becoming an intellectual was my way of surviving the isolation I felt in my day-to-day life, and it was through this experience that I started to transform into who I would become. 

And finally, I blogged. I blogged like crazy. Almost every day I blogged, at the least several times a week. Almost no one read this blog, although, a few did. But that didn’t matter, or at least, not too much. Through that blog the intense experience I was going through was given some sort of concrete existence outside of myself, and so I wrote and wrote and wrote. My happiest moments, where I felt the most freed from the isolation that followed me everywhere, came in front of my computer, accompanied by my favorite music and pounding away at my keyboard with the internal conviction, somewhere, that my realization depended upon it. 

Although I was not aware of it at the time, I was actually building the edifice that would help free me, eventually, from the cloak of self-righteousness my so-called conservatism helped preserve. Learning to love the life of the mind, learning, in short, to love reason, taught me to require justification for my own beliefs, taught me to realize that much that I took as fact was actually unexamined assumption. Although the political transformation would have to wait a few years, the fundamental restructuring of how I went about assessing the world happened during my undergraduate days.

But it would take a little more than just the intellectual framework to extricate myself from the web of emotional resentments that entangled me. I was actually helped along by yet another disappointment – the scandal that erupted when Bill O’Reilly was accused, it appears with full accuracy, of various sexual improprieties with one of his employers. Today, this kind of thing would hardly bother me as a condemnable offense, but at the time, infidelity was one of those morally unacceptable behaviors that I believed only the weak of heart and mind committed. I remember sitting at my computer, looking over the documents provided by thesmokinggun.com that proved the allegations. After I had read enough to make denial impossible, I curled up on my bed and I bawled my eyes out. Really. As ridiculous a scene as this now appears, I had been burned yet once again, and in the worst way possible; the person who most embodied what I thought separated me from all those who had rejected me had just shown himself to be a fraud, and I was more alone than ever. I had been had, duped, deceived once again. I threw out my No Spin doormat and I never watched Bill O’Reilly again. 

There were other cracks, however. I was not, actually, unaware of how I used Puritan politics to defend myself against the attacks on my dignity I perceived; I knew that my evaluations of my former friends and the politics that surrounded them were nothing approaching objective. But I did not know what to do about it. The idea of actively trying to change it was revolting; akin to surrendering to my enemies simply for the shallow reason that they had more troops. (The real Spartan, after all, goes down in glory despite the odds.) And I knew that it would probably be impossible even if I tried. Like all people, my intellect did not exist in a box separate from my heart, and I couldn’t adjust one without pulling on the strings of all the others. The scars of all the disappointments I had endured were still too fresh, and they would be ripped open if provoked. 

However my awareness of this subjectivity sometimes resulted in odd developments. During my sophomore year, I developed an infatuation with the film The Fog of War. The serious tone coupled with the hypnotizing music of Philip Glass gave me an outlet for my more serious side which, despite still living with my increasingly distant boyfriend, had almost no one to commiserate with. Luckily said boyfriend also happened to work at the independent movie theater where The Fog of War was playing, so whenever I was feeling bored or pensive I could go and view the film for free. I even wrote a piece about it for the university newspaper, which never ran; topics of actual interest to most university students not surprisingly got top priority over the musings of a intellectual loner about history and ideology. Although not a stringently dogmatic film, The Fog of War can by no means be construed to appeal to the nationalistic mindset of most conservatives. But nationalism was yet another quality I did not share with the conservatives I supposedly identified with; I had never understood patriotism as such, based as it seemed to be on imagined connections to people I never knew nor most likely wanted to. The Iraq war, of course, had just been commenced, and in yet another tell tale sign of my true inclinations, I had thought from the beginning that it was a mistake. Yet I rejected the moral accusations coming from some of the Left, knowing that somehow Bush had gone wrong but not doubting his sincerity in making a difficult decision. Unlike other documentaries that addressed the issue of American imperialism, The Fog of War was thoughtful enough, and historical enough (a quality I admired), to allow me to think about issues of ideology, war, and peace without feeling threatened by the more visceral, anti-intellectual protests of the more visible peace protesters. Somehow, I felt like this film understood me, and I understood it, and I appreciated the patience with which it approached both its topic and it seemed, myself. 

The most memorable moment of intellectual conflict came when I was reading George Orwell’s The Road to Wigner Pier, which as a work of non-fiction is actually I believe much more engaging than even 1984. During his discussion of the state of socialism in the UK, Orwell points out that there are many people who know, in their hearts, that socialism is the only just form of society that our contemporary world can currently produce. But the aversion to being “socialists” themselves, and all the outrĂ© ignominy that brought upon oneself, was simply too much to overcome. I remember thinking, “He is talking about me. I know the unequal distribution of corporate capitalist society is unjust and disastrous to human dignity. I know this, in my gut, but I can’t get over what it would mean to be a socialist. I don’t know how to give up the American narrative of hard work and well-earned prosperity, and I can’t possibly align myself with mindless liberals like my former friends. But he is talking about me.” In this way, George Orwell and others gently and piece by piece pushed me towards a reckoning I would have to eventually fully confront. 

Breaking down the entire Bastille ultimately depended upon me, however. And this was accomplished not by some courageous moment of intellectual honesty or spiritual clarity on my part, but through fuck-ups, pure and simple. By the time I got around to my senior year, I had been so lonely for so long that even all the philosopher-scholars in the world couldn’t fill the void. And so, quite exhausted with my only partially successful techniques, I just decided to act out, more or less. I started drinking, something I had previously had an aversion to on the basis of my Puritan self-righteousness. I broke a few hearts, and I ended up in a friends-with-benefits relationship that really only benefited my friend, and made me feel humiliated and ashamed with myself repeatedly. But almost anything seemed better than feeling alone all the time, and so going into Graduate school, I finally made one more finely-tuned fuck up that brought upon me a horrifying, ghastly realization: I did not live up to my ideals, and so I was full of shit. And that meant my ideals weren’t real, which meant I had no connection to any metaphysical universe, and was even more alone than ever before. Alone and unworthy even of my own self-righteousness, I plummeted into an existential crisis that was illustrated with punk music, heavy drinking and various attempts at self-destructive behavior. Assisting me in this endeavor was a new friend I had made my last quarter in college, who happened to live nearby and quickly became the best friend I had ever had. Together we shared a sense of alienation from the surrounding society, and values which highlighted intellectual and artistic ability.

My first year of graduate school also provided intellectual support to this difficult adjustment period. Exposed extensively for the first time to post-modernism, the themes of inescapable alienation and the ultimate unreality of all beauty came quite easily to me, seeming to confirm all I had recently discovered about the hollowness of even my own belief. For nearly a year and half I redirected all the judgments I had hurled against others for years onto myself, trying to still hold on to the system by being consistent in my application of its judgments. I stopped writing about the historical, cultural and political issues that interested me almost entirely; instead, I created a new blog where obscure, depressed creative writing pieces were put up on a fairly regular basis. I could not specifically say what ailed me because what was clear was entirely too humiliating, and what wasn’t clear seemed so basic to who I had been, and who I had become, to have simple, clear articulations.

In the midst of this place, however, I started dating a graduate student from the math department in the middle of my first year of graduate school. Capable of a type of compassion I had never developed, he slowly helped me to forgive myself and see human beings for the fragile, imperfect creatures that they are. Now that I was no longer alone, I felt free, for the first time in years, from the constant need to defend myself against the rejections I had imagined speeding towards me in every direction. Slowly, I started feeling sympathy for other, random human beings far more than ever before. I would hear a story about a friend whose girlfriend cheated on him, and instead of concluding with disappointment that she, too, was weak on will and ethics, my heart would break imagining how guilty she must have felt. Whereas before I was met with situations that would have made me uncomfortable and resentful, now I saw the tenderness and fragility of the human condition. And at times it seemed heart breakingly beautiful.

As I slowly emerged out of the postmodern swamp, I started to realize that I did not need to give up on the idea of principles, after all. I did not have to give up on progress, or justice, or any of the other ennobling ideas that had captured my attention in undergraduate school. It was merely how I thought they were to be actualized that had set me up for disappointment. Before, principles were something embodied in an individual, a stoic, pure and resilient individual, who made such abstract concepts real by his resolute adherence to them. But I was beginning to see that principles so embodied were meaningless, even if stringently followed; for anything that did not increase the connections, the compassion, and the understanding between human beings was ultimately a tool for depriving everyone of equal treatment and social justice. Bill O’Reilly had not been the solution to my social alienation; he was the cause of it. 

By the time the 2008 campaign season arrived, I had abandoned my social identity as a conservative and realized with some pleasure that I wanted Obama to win. By the last few months, I wanted him to win badly. But even more central than the possibility of progress writ large was the presence of its prevention – Prop 8 passed by a narrow margin, and my thoughts went back to the emotional conversation I had with my father in high school. I had come full circle, and as I depressingly watched the pro Prop 8 commercials capitalize on fear, defensiveness and ignorance, I looked back at my former self with a sense of amazement. I felt so appreciative, so lucky to have made it over to the other side of openness, acceptance and hope that I felt something drastic needed to be done to commemorate my arrival. 

My sister found just the thing when she suggested we get equal signs tattooed on our back after Prop 8 passed. The idea immediately felt right, and it continued to do so right through the pain of having a needle stab my back repeatedly. Since then, the sense of calm and peace I receive from pausing a moment to meditate on it seems to grow monthly. Because the equal sign on the back of my shoulder is not just about gay rights, or the freedom to marry. It is about the idea of pluralism, of democracy and freedom of thought. It is my testament to the belief that any idea which allocates human dignity unequally amongst human beings is wrong – and that every idea that furthers our appreciation of the endless diversity and startling creativity of mankind is a beautiful thing.

In the months following the election, another change allowed me to focus my energy even more intensely on the political awakening I had gradually experienced over the past three years. I was struggling with meeting the time tables my graduate adviser thought necessary to my success, and was beginning to realize that this difficultly was compounded by my relationship with my area of expertise, early American history. The more I thought about contemporary events, the more I felt it necessary to speak out about them, and spend my energy and skills on trying, however hopelessly, to improve the public discourse. While before I had embraced a retreatism marked by denying any chance for the intellectual to matter in our society, now I felt it was necessary, required of me whether it was possible or not. Happily I discovered that I would be able to switch to twentieth century American history, and I did so, bringing my historical and intellectual interests into much more harmony. 

We are a long way from the introductory paragraph, but allow me to try to explain why I have taken such time in telling you this story. Today, I hardly claim that my politics are now freed from my emotions; quite the opposite. Thus it is fair to ask, if our spiritual and emotional lives are so tied up in our intellectual lives, how can we ever trust ourselves to make moral arguments about social justice? Our beliefs, cynics would say, are so tied up in our personal issues that to argue for moral right and wrongs on that basis would be worse than just biased, but deliberately self-gratifying. My answer to that is yes. But it is a qualified yes. The very mistake I made in my undergraduate years was assuming that I could free myself from humanity through the power of intellectual commitment; that I could be pure and objective. But what kind of values are based on propositions deprived of an understanding of what it means to be human? Yet post-modern doubters and religious fundamentalists alike will insist that it is either all or nothing; a system is coherent and objective or it is false and hallow. With such a view, however, there is way to argue for social justice without losing the compassion and openness that is necessary for its realization. 

My proscription for this, for all those who are politically active, is two-fold: awareness and patience. First, always be aware of how your heart and your head intertwine; never assume that where you lay your emphasis is self-evident or objective, and when you feel angry or enraged, do not reject this emotion but also recognize how it deeply connects to desires and experiences within you. Furthermore, be honest about the personal aspect of your politics; you can avoid making sweeping, universalistic statements while still illuminating a larger societal trend through personal example. When arguing for its wider relevance, provide evidence that your case is not an isolated one, for it is extremely unlikely that it is. Through this awareness, individuals will be able to identify the humanity behind politics, and from this point of honesty we can move forward to a more objective discussion of what works to accomplish desired goals of human happiness. This is hardly an abandonment of reason, quite the opposite; it is a recognition that reason is ultimately a human project, and as such it has to be engaged in by full, open, honest human beings. 

Secondly, you must be patient with yourself and others as you conduct your search into all the delightful “big questions,” and the equally important small ones of public policy. You will feel your bias operating on this journey, but rather than trying to control it, identify what its sources are and what it is trying to supply. You might suspect passion is playing too large a role in your intellectual endeavors; this is not always a bad thing, as passion is often times an appropriate response to injustice, and as long as you are honest about your inclinations, a bias with a negative consequence will eventually find its way out. Intellectual and emotional honesty, then, with yourself and others, is all you need to make sure your journeys will keep you more or less steadily on the path towards working for social justice. 

For what I didn’t realize during all those years of alienation and anger, was that in a larger sense, I was doing what I needed to be doing. I processed several emotional and existential blows without ultimately losing sight of what I was experiencing, who I was and what I truly believed in. Struggling under the false consciousness of conservatism, I had to learn for myself how morally and intellectually bankrupt that idea was until I could really respond to my awareness of how restricted I was by wounds I hadn’t recovered from. Thus be patient not only with yourself, but with others who labor under similar restrictions. Much is at stake in discussions about social justice, from how we believe the world is ordered to personal points of pride on which we base our identity and sense of self-worth. Anyone who tells you politics isn’t personal doesn’t realize just how enmeshed they are in both.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

On the NYT site you asked, "How do we compellingly, but gently, wean them from their attachment to untruths". This is America. There could be an app for that. What's needed is for people to build the things that are needed. I think protesting and talking endlessly and vilifying this or that person is useless at this point. Where is Democracy 2.0? If you know C++ and want to create Democracy 2.0 in your spare time as an open-source application, let me know. I'm at joe "underscore" bradshaw "two thousand" at hotmail.com.