I grew up in at least modest comfort.
My father was a professor. My mother studied to become a nurse. Two brothers, a sister, cats named Humphrey and Hepzibah, several generations of Red Irish Setters. We lived in a nice little white house with green shutters, just down the street from several blocks of subsidized housing. The projects were only two houses down, but those two houses made all the difference. They were filled with black residents, Puerto Rican residents, and entrenched poverty-stricken white families, of the kind that most academic white liberals have such trouble writing about. My father was a beatnik turned hippie turned academic; he'd make his students lie on the floor while he exhorted them, about Artaud and life through the flames. My mother played naked badminton, cried over Jesse Jackson and saved the local arboretum from developers; it now bears her name. If you're inclined to be uncharitable, you could squeeze her into some liberal do-gooder stereotype. All I know is that she taught me, through her behavior, about gentleness and compassion. For a time I thought they were something important. Nowadays I suspect they are everything important.
My paternal grandfather, an old school pacifist, back when that meant something, wrote anti-war polemics in academic journals. "We must end war or war will destroy us." In time, his pacifist tendencies would be perceived as Communist sympathies, in exactly the wrong era to be so perceived. It ruined his career; before long, the family curse of alcoholism took care of the rest. He died twelve years before I was born. My maternal grandparents smoked too much and took us to Friendly's, played card games against each other and swore when they lost. My grandfather had a military high-and-tight from the day he left the army, but in the last year of his life, he let his hair grow past his shoulders. There was one aunt and one uncle and two cousins, and then, in that peculiar American way, there wasn't.
When I was seven, my mother died very suddenly. It was hard on all of us, but it ultimately killed my father. I went to see her in the hospital. They had wrapped her eyes in some sort of covering; later I came to realize it had to have been because, being brain dead, her eyes would have been hollow and vacant. I know it can't be right, but in my memory the wrapping is the texture of paper, white paper, butcher's paper. All I knew at the time was that nothing to me could have been more distant than her docile body. She had been physical and antsy, and the motionless object before me should have said it all, but I was still surprised when my father came home a couple days later to tell us she was dead.
But: the kids in the projects. They were there (in the projects). What parents they had were there too. We went to school with them (you cut through the projects on Daddario Road and then through the woods that seemed to go on forever but couldn't be more than fifty yards and there was school). Some of them we were friends with. I've kept in touch with a few; you know, Facebook. The way you do. Anyway: throughout it all, they were there. That perpetuity is the kind of thing a polite lefty does his or her best to avoid-- you can't be perceived as condescending, that's death in left wing cultural competition-- but you have to understand that, mercifully backgrounded for a nice boy like me, life in the projects beat on all along, injustice self-replicating like summer, fall, winter, spring.
He did his best. He was loving and creaky and defiant and tender. He had a big belly for grabbing and he was absolutely unsparing against idiocy or sentimental dishonesty. He radiated realness and when he felt like it, dressed in a stained shirt and shoeless he could render men in three piece suits totally speechless. He met the big-picture, grand parenting responsibilities well and the little, embarrassment-sparing parenting responsibilities poorly. He did not forget and would not let us forget our advantages even in the periods of our grief. That was hard (he was often hard) but it was right (he was always right). He spent too much time locked away in his room, typically with a bottle of vodka. But he was gentle towards us, and he was wise, and he had lived through it all, and when I crawl outside of myself for long enough to encounter something like self-respect, it's his voice I hear. All in all, we were very lucky to have him.
He remarried. I have spent more than a decade not thinking about my ex-step mother and I have no great desire to do so now. It didn't work, never worked, but then he was ill. The daily unhappiness of the failed blended family experiment was usually lost against the experience of watching him fall away, drop by drop. Screaming fights and broken windows but always, in the center of it all, the sad spectacle of someone trying not to waste away. He was 45 the day I was born. He went to church and sang in a crackling old voice. Unlike with my mother, there were to be no surprises here. The insurance company shipped him across country to die at Cedars Sinai. My little brother endured a year in hell in a Los Angeles middle school. My older brother and I lived alone in our house and went to high school, telling the administration there we were being looked after by an uncle who didn't exist.
When my father lay dying in the hospital I came to visit him for the last time, and he was dressed in a too-small robe, and they had given him a hypoallergenic blanket made of plastic, and in his delirium and weakness as he saw me approach he feebly tried to move the blanket to cover himself and preserve his dignity in front of his 15-year old son. And I knew even then that memory of all that was fierce and flawed in that fierce and flawed man would slowly be lost, and in my mind all I would have left was that feeble motion, that plastic blanket.
It didn't take long for whatever paltry sense of responsibility to evaporate. You'd think, given it all, that we were entitled, but there I go thinking about it again. Before long, it was over with my stepmother and us. The disintegration was long and tangled and wearying and terrible. There was the house and the money and the heirlooms and albums, and Christ, the books, I still think about them. Little by little over the last days when there was any interaction at all, things would disappear, I mean literally I would go to what had been my room and stuff of his I had would be gone. Those few fragments I had left, taken. His leather jacket disappeared from my closet, my fucking father's fucking leather jacket. At least I saw him physically degrade. All the things seemed to leave when I wasn't looking, I'd just suddenly find that I had less and less of what my family had been.
In life the tragic problems mix with the ridiculous. There can be such little space between the homework assignments and the liver cancer. How to get a ride to the movies. Sheer terror: what would happen to my younger brother? Would he end up in the state system, in some kind of home? You could just do nothing, control nothing. Over time, we went broke. I wish I could say I was smart with what I ended up with but I wasn't, I was a stupid, angry kid, and I just had no idea about anything, the only thing I understood was how I would go to speak and I didn't even have words. Friends would say, "being orphaned, it's not really about the money," and of course it wasn't, but of course it was. My sister had a young baby. I don't think people realize, even for decades after childhood, all the help, all the loans, the place to stay...well. Eventually, we were able to get a house. That's a blessing.
When time passed and all the endless legal and financial and material connections with my stepmother were dissolved, it was time to look up and around at a young adulthood I had no capacity to face. My grades had been terrible. (I think you'll excuse me.) I couldn't get into college. Sometimes there was money and sometimes there wasn't. I didn't know who or how to ask for help. And the guilt, it just wormed its way into everything I was, I could physically feel it, the punishing self-hatred that pressed against my temples and left me curled up on the floor. The terrible survivor's guilt that attended every decision and every purchase and every moment, the constancy and terrible banality of it keeping me from even the pathetic defense of romanticizing my situation.
At times, it felt that all that was left was my despair, my rage, my helplessness, my grief. And in the very heart of it all I could not pretend, even for a moment, that I knew anything about what it meant to exist in poverty. We deserved and required better. We needed support, material and governmental, and we needed sympathy, and we needed recognition. But I can't, don't, and won't pretend that what I faced was the same as being born without social capital, within entrenched poverty. To separate personal need and desire from the broader, more direct purpose of left-wing practice is precisely why we are critical, precisely why we are conscious.
And over time, things were getting better for me personally.
Understand: it didn't even take one generation. Social capital reasserted itself. Privilege did what it does. At the very moments when my life was most broken, the vast advantages of being born white and male, to educated and caring parents, who read to me and told me I was good, who connected behavior to consequences and advised me to live life consciously-- all these realities quietly worked in my favor. No, I don't have any money, I'm in student loan debt up to my eyeballs, I could very easily emerge from graduate school without a job, my credit's a wreck, things like car trouble and unexpected tax penalties can totally derail me.... But there is an obvious path to material security for me, whether in the job I want or not, and that advantage is the product of social capital that I did very little to earn. I live a comfortable, fulfilled life, and all for all I am an immensely fortunate person. I have fool's luck, wanderer's luck, and I want to remember that every moment of every day.
Back at the projects, they're still there. Some of them got out. A couple are dead or in jail. Many of them are still there, with children of their own. (You know how easy it is to find American families in their fourth or fifth generation of poverty?) That is not a coincidence. Social capital is real, it matters, it is determinative. And, yes, I have worked hard, and yes I'm smart, and yes, I wish some of the people I stay in touch with from the projects had made a few different choices. But to hold those feeble caveats against the pitiless force of demographics and chance is an absurd enterprise. They were not given the advantages I was given.
This is all just anecdote, just a story, just my story. But you can find the numbers, and they can slowly drive you crazy, all the vast disadvantages of birth and class: life expectancy, literacy, access to health care, odds of being the victim of a crime, odds of being convicted of a crime, education level, income, happiness.... Please, keep your bootstraps to yourself. I've had my fill of fantasy. But my conscience insists: this same reality has to speak to Occupy, and the young activists within it who look out an ugly and unjust world and ask for more. I want better for them, I swear I do. I understand their anger and their disillusionment. But please, take it from me, and trust me, about the terrible seduction, how easily you can fall into believing that left wing practice is for you. It just can't be, it can't. I believe in solidarity and I believe in the power of the temporarily oppressed and I believe in highlighting the fierce urgency of now. Still, it can't be about young college graduates, not at the heart of it. You can't allow yourself to slump into the posture of what you believe you are entitled to. If the purpose of Occupy is to benefit the college educated, if it becomes some generational warfare caricature, then none of it has any meaning. You have to have the courage to give up on asking for what is best for you.
If that sounds cruel or callous, don't believe it. I share their concerns. I have agitated and will continue to agitate for those young college graduates that face an uncertain future and mountains of debt. I believe that our resource distribution system is fundamentally unjust, and I further believe that the culture it spawns is fundamentally oriented towards justifying that corrupt system. (And it is precisely that schizophrenic culture that conditions these people to lament that they are not living the ideal life.) I agree that shit is fucked. But it's been fucked, and it will continue to be fucked after their immense social capital restores them to the material conditions they thought they were fated to receive. If a movement arises that is oriented towards pursuing their needs, that's who it will serve, and it will leave behind those who need a movement most. History teaches me that. Empiricism teaches me that. And my own brief life teaches me that. Orient your work towards the empowerment of the worst off, or privilege will orient it away from them for you.
Debs taught me, and so did Haruki Murakami, and so did my mother: the only political question I care about is who is on top and who is on bottom. That's it. I've said it from day one and been ridiculed for it from day one and will not relent, whether you appeal to tradition or to revolution, whether you call yourself radical or reactionary. I've heard it all before, and whether it's some old libertarian or some young Jacobin is irrelevant, it's the same lecture, there's not one atom of difference. This devotion is all I have left from all that I went through. Anyone can join, rich or poor, PhD or high school dropout. But we proceed critically, we proceed consciously, and we support the empowerment of the powerless, the truly powerless, first and beyond all else.
You don't have to be the worst off to have my support, my friendship, my sympathies, my vote, my solidarity. But to be upwardly mobile and educated and America, as I am and was, and speak of your problems as if they are the moral justification for revolution-- no. Generational warfare? Why, when the same inequity and injustice that harms the child continues to constrain the father, the grandfather? Arbitrary divisions of age and circumstance? No: I'll stand with anyone who is willing to change the world for the empowerment of the dispossessed. I will break bread with the young and educated and dissatisfied, I will work towards their goals and ending their problems, but I will never stop insisting that it is a deeply regressive mistake to highlight those problems as the first priority of a revolutionary movement. Things change, in your life, and you get to be consumed in that change, and you get to cry for the moon and for yourself for awhile, but you never forget the ceaseless cruelty of a homeless shelter, of a housing project. If that means you are speaking for the subaltern, or that you are being condescending, or that your radicalism is a product of privilege, so be it. You are who you are. Keep your own counsel, do your own good for those who are not used to having good done to them, and burn a quiet flame inside of yourself, and I swear I will have your back, no matter how good or bad I've been to you in the past. My support is probably worth nothing, nothing at all, but I swear I will keep that promise.
Movements will fall away, but the movement will endure. Temporary conditions will change, and with them the short-term self-interest of the self-interested, but you can be irresolute. Fads in politics and media, new ideas and new rallying cries, all of that is inevitable and temporary. All that will remain is privilege and its lack, entrenched poverty and embedded affluence, and the reactionary power of what is and what has been. And only this political question will endure: do you want to change the miserable condition that exists on this earth?
Few things are so hard for me as the battle between what I want for the world and my pessimist's heart. I look at the human species and all I can see is loss. All I can do is motivate myself with the same burning self-hatred, the same contempt for my powerlessness, the same sickness I feel when I perceive my self-pity. I have nothing to offer the most damaged in the world, beyond the silent peripheral grace of how desperately I feel these things that I feel. So feeble as that is, I keep and own it, and day by day, it burns and burns.