I am a happy person. I enjoy my life. And I certainly do not proscribe to the argument that because I am the recipient of class and racial privilege, that I ought to flagellate myself on a daily basis and avoid all enjoyment of these advantages in some misguided belief that self-hatred and denial will make up for the accident of my birth.
However, all this being said, I am nonetheless a creature of the left. And when you’re on the left, you can’t – nor should you – go much more than a day without, at the minimum, thinking about the unfairness of these advantages. And beyond thinking about them, what you really ought to be doing is working – if not every day, then most of them – in whatever way you can to make your privileges no longer your privileges but everyone’s rights: or, if it seems appropriate, to get rid of such privileges altogether.
This work can take place in any number of ways, from the small to the very great. It could be posting a story on facebook that you know will get you flak from your conservative relatives, or it could organizing an action of hundreds or thousands of people. But you’ve got to get it out of your head – you’ve got to make your behavior, in some discernible manner, contribute to the erosion of social injustice.
This is the consciousness that I live with as a member of the left. It’s the awareness all of us on the left live with, and struggle with, as we figure out to what degree we want or have to participate in the surrounding culture we cannot entirely escape. And that negotiation is about as messy as it gets, and I have nothing but empathy for all us trying to navigate it.
Because here’s the thing. We’re the exceptions. By highlighting this, I am not meaning to congratulate us on being the rare and the few to see the truth – most likely somehow we just lucked out in being exposed to the hard work of other likeminded people at some crucial point and time. And it is not hard to understand, given the incredibly powerful hegemony of the forces we are up against, why we are a minority. If so many people are blind, it is because it can in fact be very difficult to see.
And yet still, I get sad sometimes. I get a sharp feeling of dystopia that creeps up on me suddenly and grips me for a matter of moments before I can shake it off and return to my default mode of accepting and enjoying the everyday world as it is. These moments come when I am neck-deep in thinking about where we are today.
Right now, the public university is in the process of being destroyed. The very idea of public education as a right is under attack, and education is swiftly being transformed into yet another commodity in a culture full of almost nothing but commodities. Meanwhile, inequality is growing, and the 1 percent are sucking the dreams and dignity out of the rest of us. There has been resistance. But just as many people have gone along with it in true American form, believing always in a boot-strap ideology so wrong and so full of bullshit that it must qualify as one of the most sinister and outrageous lies a society ever swallowed.
Meanwhile, the United States has somehow managed to incarcerate more of its citizens than any other country in the world. Over half of these inmates are non-white. If you are a non-white male, whether or not you will be pulled over or frisked by a cop for no legitimate reason is not a question of if it will happen, but only a matter of when it will happen. Occasionally, someone shoots some video of racist police violence – they might even catch a young Oakland youth being executed in a subway station. But for every video caught, who knows how many similar incidents go unrecorded. The mothers of the children in these videos are still struggling to make ends meet, often working long hours or more than one job, while white middle-class America accuses them of being lazy and enthusiastically pushes them off welfare after their five years are up. As these same mothers try to feed their children, pundits on Fox News wail about the injustice of providing them with food stamps, and conservative trolls on YouTube complain about poor people having the gall to buy steak and lobster with them at the grocery store. Because you see, white middle-class America is not satisfied with the suffering the lower-class endures simply because they are poor – they also need to be denied any enjoyment out of life; they have to repent for their poorness through self-laceration. Simply being poor isn’t a sufficient punishment for adding a few more cents and dollars to their tax return.
So let’s go back to the university, land of middle-class America. I’m handing out flyers for an action a week from now – we’re asking people to call in to the UC Whistleblower’s number to inform the appropriate officials that the university is currently being destroyed – and what’s more!, the people who are responsible for looking over its well-being are members of the 1 percent, invested in the forces that are attacking, not helping, our university. One of them, Dick Blum, is even the largest shareholder in two firms dedicated to for profit education. We think this qualifies as a serious conflict of interest.
But a student doesn’t look very interested in my flyer. They shoot me a look and instead of saying “no thank you,” put their head down and keep right on going. But in the brief flicker of their eyes, I can see the layers of their thoughts laid out before me: “Oh these political people. They’re so annoying. It’s true the pepper-spraying was out of line but they think that everyone should get everything for free. Things could be better but come on. Work hard and you will still get ahead. Or at least I hope so. The economy isn’t looking good. No, it’s getting better. And it’s true, I’ll be ok. I’ll find something when I graduate. I’m not going to turn into one of these people asking for hand-outs and being self-righteous. I’m not like that.”
Or, even worse, they think none of this; their apathy and fear is so thick it prevents them from even getting so far as forming semi-coherent thoughts in defense of the ideology they have absorbed.
And so, it is in moments like this – where in a matter of seconds, both the reality of the extent of social injustice we condone every day, and the extent of both the ignorance and willful oppression that sustains and nurtures it – hits me all at once. And then it is not only sad that I feel, but so very frightened – and I ask myself, where the fuck do I live?