Part of the reason I'm grumpy today is that I have the overwhelming sense that the world is going to hell and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. The New Yorker article about Iran,1 the NYT Magazine article about abortion in El Salvador,2 the Duke lacrosse case all contribute to that feeling, but it started in a conversation with my dad.
My dad went to Harvard in the late 60s and early 70s, and so did his best childhood friend. He sums up his time there by saying that when he got there, you had to dress for dinner; when he left, there was co-ed skinny-dipping in the Adams House pool. It sounds flip, but it wasn't, really. It meant that Harvard had liberalized, that it was going to be a democratizing force, educating women and people of color and poor people and rich white men all together and helping make a new world.
It didn't, of course. My sister's going to graduate from there in two months, and she talks about it as a place full of social climbing, personal greed, and privileged ambitious people who feel they deserve their privilege.
My dad's kind of upset about this. I think it's because he had an image of Harvard that's idealized in a way I can imagine my image of Swarthmore becoming idealized. He remembers having amazing intellectual conversations. He also was part of at least one sit-in, which I found out about when I found the t-shirt with a red fist on it in his closet. The Harvard student body doesn't go in for that sort of thing anymore, as far as we can tell.
Anyway, all this got us talking about how, in that time, people believed in the power of sit-ins and activism and marches in a way that we don't. That I don't. I went to a lot of protests in college, but more because I couldn't think of anything useful to do than because I thought we would change anything by marching. All those strategies have been worked around and worked into the category of normal disruptions and don't constitute the kind of major challenge they used to be. It's what I think Foucault says in Discipline and Punish3 about challenges and repression getting sucked into the social order.
So I said to my dad that I couldn't think of anything to do that would actually address the problems I see in the world. Nothing that would actually do any good. I have no faith. He went into a speech about how, first, as humans we need some hope and we need to feel like we're doing something, or why not go be a ski patrolman?4 And second, the basic problem is campaign finance.
I don't know about the second. The first, though, is exactly the problem I'm having. My dad seemed to think that I was giving up hope and not doing anything; the problem is more that I feel that exact need and can't figure out how to direct it. When I was a high school activist - and a pretty effective one, considering - I felt like my choices, once I saw the injustice of the world, were to either accept that injustice (which meant defeat) or to fight it. Fighting was the only choice that had hope. These days, I'm having trouble mustering up enough hope to go on fighting.
On this day of all days5 I got an email from an old high school friend who just left his job as a union organizer, donated his car and all his savings to charity, and founded a religious activist center called the Burning Bush: Center for the Working Poor in L.A.6 I can't think of a more profound choice to live in hope than that.
1. By Seymour Hersh. Summary: Bush wants to go to war with Iran and change the government there. No one else thinks it's a good idea, politically or militarily.
2. It's illegal. Period. And the ban is enforced. Bitch, Ph.D. has the stunning quote: forensic vagina inspectors.
3. Which I haven't read, like most people who talk about Foucault. Also, did you know he used to be a big figure in the SF leather scene?
4. My dad was a ski patrolman, and he quit because he felt like he was just having fun and not doing something to make a difference. Oddly, that resembles my position now.
5. Before I get too cosmic about this, I should point out that it's the first day in a week that I've checked my email.
6. For those keeping track at home, this is the acquaintance who burnt all the teachers and the administration on all the activist clubs his senior year by advocating intensely for condom machines in the bathrooms, leaving us unable to find teacher sponsors for my last two years there. He also read Saul Alinsky in high school and was as dedicated (and mostly effective) an activist as I have ever met; so were his older brothers. The condom machine campaign was basically cover for a successful attempt to get a peer sex ed program in our high school. Finally, he's the one who thought I had no sense of humor because I didn't think his sexist jokes were funny. While my high school memories of him are slightly bitter, every time I've run into him since high school has been pretty awesome, and I've liked him a lot.