The Body Apolitic
The question came over a week ago, from one of my oldest friends: why don’t you write about politics anymore?
At first, it struck me as an absurd thing to ask: don’t I write about politics all the damn time? Didn’t I write for one of the internet’s spunkiest lefty blogs? Didn’t I once cram my body full of dangerous drugs just so I could tolerate being around a gathering of right-wing conservatives for the amusement of my fellow libs? Ain’t I got the power?
But that’s when it hit me: I was largely framing my political writing in the past tense. While I still update my blog regularly, I can go months without posting anything political. I will still occasionally talk politics on my Twitter or Facebook accounts, but it’s usually brief, infrequent, and, often as not, directed at the excessive behavior of my ‘allies’ on the left instead of my enemies on the right. While I link to writing I find worthwhile, it’s almost never my own. I don’t even make myself a presence in the comments sections of my favorite political blogs anymore. Roy Edroso, who’s thankfully in it for the long haul, lists me on his blogroll under the rubric of “Forget About Politics”, and he’s not wrong to do so. What happened? What changed? Why is the thing that was once my most burning passion now my most dying ember?
I wish I could credit it to Barack Obama. That’s the common accusation on the right, anyway; when it was their guy in office, we lefties couldn’t tear him down fast enough, but now that it’s our man, suddenly we don’t have anything to say. But that’s certainly not the case with me — and it’s not just because there’s a black Democrat in the White House. From where I sit, almost every important issue is the same or worse than when Obama took office; some of that is his fault, and some of it isn’t, but the song remains the same. I’ve taken more heat from my Democratic friends for expressing disappointment that the Obama who ran for office isn’t the same person who’s served in that office — more than I ever took for criticizing George W. Bush. And even if that weren’t the case — even if Obama really did close Guantanamo, even if he stood behind the unions or passed single-payer health care or made a stand against the security state or pursued a foreign policy that wasn’t largely reckless nonsense — the usual suspects are still out there carrying on. Even if Obama were the next FDR (or the next Lenin, as the right wants to frame him in their official portraits), the worst elements of our society, from the paid propagandists of the FOX network to the recidivist Republican senators of the South to the monomaniacal corporate bosses who let the world burn for the sake of a more robust balance sheet, are still in full effect. If one is in the mood to complain, there is no shortage of things to complain about.
Nor can I blame it on my own behavior. It is true that I write less about politics now because I write less in general now; but shitting on my own career was nobody’s fault but my own, and the weight I’ll have to carry for betraying the trust of my readers is of my own making. It’s tempting to think that I should keep my trap shut so as not to be constant reminded of my own fuck-ups, but even today, when Google perpetuates your every failure in perpetuity, it’s hard to tell how far one’s infamy reaches. I’ve largely given up on writing except for my own amusement (although it might be more accurate to call it a consequence and not a choice), but honestly, I caught more heat over my bad decision from people who professed to be fans of my work than I ever have from political opponents. To blame my lack of political output on my self-made circumstance would be to compound a lie with a lie.
I can’t even chalk it up to my own bourgeoisification. It’s true that I’m in a much better position now than I have been in years; I finally have a good job again, with health insurance, a decent place to live, and generally satisfying personal circumstances. I’ve moved to probably the most liberal big city in America, a place that has legalized both gay marriage and recreational marijuana and has suspended the death penalty. It even elected — I am proud to say, with my help — a genuine Socialist to its city government. But I’m still tens of thousands of dollars in debt, living from paycheck to paycheck, and as likely to ever own a home or have a decent retirement as I am to swim to the moon and back. Weed and gay marriage are nice, but they won’t stop the institutional rot and greed that are poisoning the country. And while I yield to no one in my love of Kshama Sawant, she is just a city councilperson, and I remain quite skeptical that her election will lead to a renaissance of socialist government in America.
The fact is, I’m just tired. Even writing this — should I call it an excuse? A confession? Not a surrender, surely — has taken me months, and I get exhausted just contemplating it. I keep up with the news as much as I ever did; I still stay current with the best political bloggers and respect the work that they do; and politics is important to me, but it’s in an abstract way that seems less immediate all the time, in the way, maybe, that language is important to me, or philosophy. More and more, I feel like I’m engaged in the most lost of all lost causes, and it wears me out.
Part of this has to do with big issues. I know I risk sounding like an old crank here — sounding like, hell; I am an old crank — but even as recently as the 1990s, I had the feeling that, even if the country was headed in the wrong direction, it could still be rescued if enough people cared enough about the right things to turn it around. It no longer feels that way anymore. We remain a two-party nation, and worse, the Republicans have moved farther to the right while the Democrats, too, have moved farther to the right. We have won important victories, but lost nearly every one that matters: our political system is more for sale than it has ever been. The idea that the only proper way to manage society is with capitalism and more capitalism is stronger than it has ever been. Militarism, the prison complex, and the security state continue to grow and grow, while the possibility of undoing the vast amounts of damage we have done to our own environment continues to shrink. We have bought into the austerity hustle hook, line and sinker, and the idea that the government (or, through the government, the wealthy) should do anything whatsoever to prevent the poor, the sick, and the aged from the sharpest corners of a cruel world is rapidly losing traction. We have accepted with a shrug the idea that the wealthiest and most predatory business entities can bust the economy, poison the air and water, steal from the public till, and eradicate the very idea of job security and a living wage, and if anything is ever done to control the damage they do, it will be funded by the taxpayer. My own greatest and most personal causes — unionism and the rights of the working class — are now a quaint joke.
Beyond our failure to address the key issues of the day, our ability to formulate resistance seems to have been self-crippled. We have so thoroughly accepted the existence, and inevitability, of the two-party system that we demand practically nothing from our Democratic leaders, lest they be replaced by a Republican who is even worse; we identify those who even mildly criticize the president as traitors at worst and delusional Utopians at best. The youngest generation able to participate in politics is socially liberal, but has bought into the money game like they know nothing different; and those who do prioritize politics over career are like as not to be social justice warriors, for whom every political stance is filtered through a pop-culture lens, to whom every argument is a sign of treachery and betrayal, with whom the ultimate goal is a self-built ghetto of one, where nothing as messy as society or the economy can ever detract from your specialness. While there are obviously good people in good organizations all over the country fighting the good fight, it is distressing to think that the task of actually maintaining a safe, productive nation where there is the possibility of justice and equality has been shed by government and ordinary citizens and handed over to the diminishing number of people willing to do it at great personal cost. Public life going in cycles as it does, I am very willing to accept the possibility that there will someday be a rebirth of social responsibility; but for the first time — and to be sure, this may be age talking — I worry that it will finally be too late.
To be sure, there are reasons to be hopeful. The opposition to gay marriage continues to crumble, and I now think its demise is inevitable; and drug legalization is gaining more traction than I ever thought it would. But for every positive development that’s come sooner than I thought, there are three negative ones that makes the world that much uglier. Whether the internet has caused this or merely revealed it, the tone and depth of stupidity being expressed in political discussions is no longer funny to me; public discourse is so shamefully degraded that it’s depressing to even think about. My two primary modes of engaging in political discussion — ridiculous humor and ridiculous earnest — no longer seem to work, as satire outpaced reality decades ago, and what’s the point of putting on an earnest face for the handful of people who still pay attention? Maybe the day will come when I change my mind, and feel the fight again, but until then, I’d rather just make jokes and watch movies.