(I wrote this on the plane to Hawaii last week)
I just got around to reading the November 17 love-letter-to-Obama New Yorker, and there is just nothing snarky I can say about it—what a beautiful issue. (The entire thing is available online, too.)
Well, OK. Obviously, it’s beautiful as a fantasy document, since all of us who were warning that Obama wasn’t our savior months ago are, sadly, being proven ever more right by the day, but I’m not going to get into that. It’s a very earnest issue written by optimistic, good-hearted, earnest people, and in that sense it was beautiful to read.
As we all know, and as the brilliant ZP makes clear, the New Yorker is dependably liberal and never radical. I know this, and I enjoy what I can and leave the rest. Obama winning was a real victory because of who people thought he was. The fact that he never was that person is almost incidental—or, will be until January 20th, 2009.
I was fascinated by the pair of pieces comparing Obama’s winning strategy and McCain’s losing one—what a great crash course in how to (and how not to) run a campaign. I’m saving the issue to refer to when working on the little local races I am sometimes involved in.
But the most instructive piece for my political life was “The Joshua Generation: Race and the campaign of Barack Obama,” all about Obama’s very reasoned and self-conscious journey to where he is now. It was saddening because David Remnick very plausibly argues that no one except milquetoast Obama-esque politicians could have achieved what he did—I don’t think Remnick finds that saddening, though. I think he is awed by Obama’s even temper and willingness to consciously step out of the “angry black man” mold. As these are the very qualities that leave me less than thrilled about him, the piece confirmed what I already felt in a disheartening way.
Remnick smartly compares and contrasts Obama and Jeremiah Wright, and of course I am on the side of Wright. We are flying over Spokane right now, and ever since Billings I have been staring out the window, thinking about this passage:
Wright saw himself as—and Obama understood him to be—an inheritor of the prophetic tradition, not an accommodationist, and hardly a politician. His jeremiads were meant to rouse, to accuse, to shake off dejection. At times, he called on the familiar metaphor of American blacks as modern-day equivalents of the ancient Hebrews, a people marked by terrible suffering and displacement. Wright was part of a tradition well known to millions of churchgoing African-Americans. But that would never be explained adequately on cable television.
YES. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my place on the political spectrum lately, and this passage literally made my heart pound: I don’t want to be Obama. I don’t particularly want to be calm and collected and bring moderates around to my way to thinking with beautiful rhetoric. I want to be the uncompromising voice of hardcore liberalism helping to keep the left left when people like Hillary come along. I don’t want to be Obama—I want to be Jeremiah Wright.
I want to inspire with my belief system, not my ability to unite people. I want to inspire people to change and, to be blunt, be better than they are. I’m not saying that I am perfect–of course, I am far, far from it. But I am obsessed with the idea of perfectibility–continued struggle toward the perfectibility of the individual and collective self is what interests me.
Not: what can we get done? But: how can we be better?
It seems to me that when we are continually striving to be better in all aspects of our lives we will automatically get a lot done.
This is especially relevant to my life right now because last May I had the honor of being elected chairwoman of the New Paltz Green Party. This position has made me think a lot about different types of activism, and how a third party in a tiny town can be maximally efficient. I get way, way too angry way, way too often when I should be acting as a better representative for the Greens (see here [scroll down], here & here), and lately Jacob and I have been having productive and heated talks (my favorite kind!) about how I can be a better Green.
He keeps telling me that it boils down to learning a more appropriate way to interact with people that wins them over to my side, and I keep telling him that it boils down to people not being so incredibly fucking stupid. We go back and forth with this for a while, and eventually I admit that one way to work for the latter is to work on the former, and we come to the same conclusion: the very whisper of the idea of being a politician fills me with intense, skin-crawly loathing for humanity. As a representative of the Green Party, it’s pretty much my job to be nice to everyone and try to get them to be Greens—to be a Green booster. But I just can’t talk to people I disagree with on major issues like that—if you’re not a Green, what can I say to you? You’re obviously either truly evil (and thus a Republican) or a mediocre wishy-washy Democrat, and in either case my life is really too short to bother with you at all. (Most of my friends are Independents, Greens, or we-don’t-talk-to-Lagusta-about-things-like that.)
It’s the same problem most long-time vegetarians I know have talking to non-vegetarians about vegetarianism: most of us avoid it because it’s so blindingly obvious that eating tortured rotting flesh is a ridiculous, outdated idea. Most of us came to that conclusion when we were about twelve, and when you’re thirty and are still dithering about it and doing silly things like eating “humane meat” (HA!!!!!!) there is really nothing to be said.
Believe it or not, I like being this way. And thus the problem. I like having beliefs and standing up for them and admitting that I came to them by thinking about them and if your beliefs are radically different you probably didn’t think that hard. It’s not that I’m very smart, it’s that I know how to listen to my heart. What’s wrong with being right? I still have space in my life for, say, vegetarians who are not vegan. I like to talk with friends about political differences, because my friends are my friends because they are smart and have good hearts, so I will listen to them even if we disagree on minor points—I haven’t totally closed myself off to the world, just, well, mostly.
But it’s not good to be this way and be the head of the Green Party. I don’t want to be a politican—I want to be the Karl Rove of the left, to be honest. I want to be behind the scenes, the mastermind, never emerging to show my inflamed heart to the world because I am just not acceptable to mainstream people. I don’t want to play the dirty tricks Karl Rove does, of course, I just want to indulge in the sense that I get from him: that he is the moral center of the party, an uncompromising figure the politicians on his side listen to. Of course, he is a terrible human being, unlike me. But he’s effective, and he doesn’t seem to compromise.
So here is the question, the one I always come back to whenever I feel like this and the one that never gets resolved: should I work on changing, or revel in who I am? Working on changing would entail learning to suppress my bouts of wonderful, searing manic righteousness—a practically hysterical edge I love to live on, where I get lots done and make lots of people angry. Am I truly productive when I give in to my ultra-passionate, furious side? I like to pretend that I inspire people by example. I like to bloviate on and on about how it’s important to not compromise, that we can’t all be family-friendly and tone down our hardcore lefty positions so Hillary-esque idiots join our side. I like to scream about how me being steadfastly on my side pulls the entire left a bit more to me. But I know this probably turns more people off than it turns on. But it’s so fun!
If I don’t resolve to change, I will not seek another term as head of the Green Party. I’m not sure that I would get elected, because I know there is a faction who think my anger and actions are hurting the party. I can still do just as much good work with the party without being the chair, and if I am not going to change I don’t think it’s appropriate that I am the chair.
Right at this moment we are flying off the coast of the United States, just north of the pretty little town of Eugene Oregon. Goodbye, mainland! It seems like a good time to be thinking about meta questions like this.
My most deeply felt, most passionate and beloved impulses—the things that make me me as I understand myself—are often ineffective and hurtful. What do you do when you realize that, and when you have no idea how not to be you?