Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Some autobiographical notes

I don't remember much anymore. It's how I stay young. I don't think much of the future or the past. How did I spend seven years without health insurance? How did I live on less than $12,000 a year for seven years? Not by thinking of the future or the past.

I am not a member of the threatened middle class. The relentless appeals to the interests of this class do not reach me where I live. I have lived for so long in the condition that this group fears that I do not share its fears; I never believed what this group believes about the efficacy of its own efforts, or the worthiness and decency of the life they have earned to try to earn it for myself, and I have thus not earned it for myself, and thus I am not outraged when the promise has turned out to be false, and thus I do not believe it when a politician promises to restore this life in which I cannot believe, though I acknowledge its basic decency, or at least I see the extent to which it is intrinsically benign.

Neither am I a member of the liberal elite. Like them, my relationship to the life they observe and comment upon and for which they provide us the symbolic structures, as the sociologists would put it, to parse our experience, is mediated by book learning. Unlike them, I am not protected by earned position, recognized prestige, or inherited wealth, and unlike them, I do not feel guilty about the way that I am protected from life's cruel vicissitudes (because I am not protected) and thus I do not feel obliged, as they do, to clothe myself in an outward show of commitment to some principle -- any principle -- so as to convince the world, or most of all themselves, that they are in it for anything other than themselves, and the infinite expansion of their own self-regard.

Neither do I feel any solidarity toward people who make as little as I do. I am a model of bourgeois propriety and rectitude in all things other than earning a living, and the daily business of manipulating others to do my will voluntarily, and with the sense that they serve themselves by serving me, that is life under managerial capitalism -- I pay my debts, I live within my restricted means, I surrender to vice only in highly controlled and protected settings, I research every purchase to ensure that I get the best value for the least money spent, and I am sure that anyone can learn to discipline themselves in this way without the intervention of the state or a deity. In my neighborhood, if a voice is audible on the street, it is saying the word "fuck" -- I am just barely exaggerating when I say this -- and I know for a fact that this constant venting of rage is keeping my neighbors down at least as much as anything any Man has ever done to them; it is a small, quotidian form of collaboration in one's own imprisonment that one has no choice but to transcend, or failing to transcend it, there is no one to blame but oneself.

What kinds of appeals would reach me where I lived? They would not be political ones. With whom should I feel solidarity, if I were capable of this feeling?

I read an account of an Obama rally in Philadelphia in the New Republic. It ended by quoting an old retiree named Edith MacDonald:

"This is just such a happy place," she says, watching the crowd stream past. Brooks and Dunn's "Only in America" is playing again, and McDonald shouts over it to tell me that she's the last one left from her generation, born in South Carolina before migrating north. "I told my family, God left me here for a reason," she says. "So when I go up to heaven and see my family, I tell them" that the country had a black president.

And I wept at this. And what I wept for was not for anyone else, it was just for me, and me alone, because sentimentality is the mark of the person whose ability to feel -- in this case, the emotions of solidarity and hope -- has been fatally compromised. And what I mourned for was the person my own time hadn't permitted me to become: someone who could believe in a cause, and fight for it, and endow my life with meaning that wasn't either futile or actively malign.

I believe that Barack Obama is a good man and a capable one, and an intelligent one, and a person who knows things that lots of good, capable, and intelligent men who haven't been forced by the accident of their physiognomy, to know things about other people, will never be able to know. I also know that he is, in the end, a conventional Democratic politician operating within the limited and limiting framework of conventional Democratic politics. The one hope I can still muster is that like JFK, who was himself a conventional politician, something about the irrational and unjustified hope he arouses can itself awaken an appetite deeper than the one he can himself satisfy, and thus make possible things beyond himself. So here's to victory for Obama, and also to the hunger for something beyond.

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