To My Friend, the Radical Leftist
Dude. I really do not share your vision of the world. I think you know this, but I’m more reticent than you are about sharing my politics, so we’ve never talked about it explicitly. Also there’s this disconnect between your Facebook voice (always out for blood) and your in-person voice on those rare occasions when we meet (warm, funny, kind). I’m not saying this is a good thing — the not-talking-explicitly. I just don’t like ugly arguments and ad hominem attacks, which I fear (with good reason) is what would happen if I responded to your Facebook posts which, honestly, have gotten on my nerves to the point where I’ve hidden them from my News Feed. You are so certain in your beliefs about global hegemony and the primacy of Monsanto’s stranglehold on the socio-economic order above all else. About warmongers and innocent victims and the atrocity of everyone’s apathy. About the way the Western media characterizes this or that.
Here’s the thing: There’s very little you say that I fundamentally disagree with. Demographically speaking, I’m a white, middle-class, heterosexual male. From the standpoint of cultural politics, that makes me triple-privileged, and the oppressor. I believe there’s such a thing as white privilege, hetero privilege, and male privilege. And that they’re pervasive and pernicious. And I can even accept that as a white male I have the luxury of being “above” talking and thinking all the time about privilege and status. All of which is unfair. I accept that nations — especially nations with more power and weapons than their neighbors, do stupid, selfish, horrific things. Like nations, corporations are self-interested and, when left unchecked, often do things that are bad for humanity in general. All of this strikes me as undeniably true.
What’s bugging me, old buddy, is that your political world seems to consist of heroes and villains. Evil companies. Evil governments. Good, hardworking people just trying to feed their families. Things look a lot more complicated than that to me. And the other reason I can’t let this go, besides the fact that I value you as a friend and therefore care what you think, is that as a possessor of all the above-named privilege who hasn’t chosen to live off the grid and devote my life to fighting the same villains you’re at war with, I must (by extension) be one of your villains, too. You’re always kind and sweet when we meet, but isn’t it, mustn’t it be so? I am the complacent bourgeois — guillotine fodder in a past revolution fueled by anger very much like yours. What’s the final solution, taking your logic to its conclusion, I can’t help wondering? You’re basically a pacifist, but there’s a punk rebel in you, too. Wouldn’t the change you want to see in the world require the spilling of a lot of blood?
Well, nothing new happens without some blood being spilled, I suppose. July fourth, just passed, should remind us of that. Here I’m really out of my depth, because I have no idea, but what kind of world would you choose to build if you could start over? If you could light a sociopolitical version of one of those fires that allow forests periodically to replenish themselves? Would you abolish TV and cellphones? Would businesses be illegal? All government-run? Would cities be dismantled in favor of small farming communities? What would happen to science and medicine, supported as they are by the federal/pharmaceutical complex?
The deeper question is about power. How would you distribute it? How would you control it? As you know from your [Michel] Foucault: Power is slippery. It doesn’t like to stay still, or balanced. And, of course, it corrupts, even when in well-meaning hands.
I have strong political opinions, but I tend to keep them to myself. Ghosts of dinner-table debates past, I suppose. I hate racism, homophobia, political corruption, and the fact that income inequality just keeps getting worse and worse. I hate unreason and anti-reason as they manifest in the anti-vaccination movement and the teaching of creationism alongside (or in lieu of) evolutionary theory. I hate sectarianism, ignorance, and orthodoxy of any kind. I love communication, cooperation, collaboration. All the things that begin with “co.”
But I’m not out in the street marching against cops who shoot unarmed black people, or for gay rights, or for anything else. You are. You fight actively, explicitly for the world you believe in, and there, I think you’re doing a bit better than I am. I suppose I fight with words, but mine is a more circuitous battle. It comes back to our worldviews. I’m not comfortable with binaries. Even undeniable evils like racism and ignorance are slippery and metastatic when you try to get your hands around them. I think Foucault would agree with me, that fighting them head-on is a bit like fighting the mythical hydra who grows a new head for each one you lop off.
Is it cynicism on my part to suggest that the revolutionary spirit is in almost every instance motivated at least as much by the will to power as by altruism? Is anger at the prevailing power structures as much about the wish to concentrate that power in your own hands instead, as about what you’d do with the power if you had it? This isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing. This is how new societies are made, or historically have been. The “Occupy” movement tried to sidestep the power question entirely, shying away from the demand for leadership, making all decisions by committee. Back to Foucault again: You can pretend power doesn’t exist, but it permeates every relationship nonetheless.
So back to our relationship, yours and mine, old buddy. You live far away these days, almost on another planet. I see you once every couple years at most. And when we’re together, the bond of kinship feels strong and permanent in spite of these differences. But something’s out of whack and it’s eating at me: the fact that something so apparently fundamental to who you are alienates and frightens me. And the fact that I have no idea how to talk to you about it, or whether there’s even any point in doing so.
talk to @jgots on Twitter
. . . do you embrace the geek? Then you will love episode 4 of Think Again – A Big Think Podcast, LIVE on iTunes, Soundcloud, and Stitcher. Bill Nye guests and Jason Gots hosts.