Thursday, February 10, 2005

Turning red

This week I have returned to the town I grew up in, for a memorial service for my father and to help my mother sort through the things in the house here, which she is going to sell so she can move up by us.

This town is in one of the reddest of the "red states" — the last time it voted Democratic for president was 1964 (the anti-Goldwater landslide) and before that, 1936. And I grew up in this state during the Reagan era.

Now my town was (and certainly is still) considered the "red square" of this state — "red" in its older meaning, that is — though when I was growing up that primarily meant that we didn't run moderate environmentalists and Amnesty International out of town. There were really no visible manifestations of any kind of politics more progressive, class-conscious or "left" than a kind of middle-class do-goodism. This was the politics of my parents, and while I certainly didn't oppose it, getting involved with the local Democratic Party organization was hardly going to appeal to a rebellious teenager.

H graduated from a small high school where, because it was so small, everyone who was not a "jock/cheerleader" or a "hick" had to bond together into a kind of "miscellaneous" social group - which was how H, a "nerd," came to discover drugs and sex from the theater people and the druggies and so forth. My high school was large, so the theater people, the druggies, the honor students, and so forth all had their own well-formed cliques, and my miscellaneous social group was made up of what were in the late 80s much more rarefied types: socialists and anarchists, writers and poets, musicians who wanted to play weird jangly pop music instead of heavy metal or classic rock or synth-pop.

So I was politicized as a teenager not by any cataclysmic event or insight, and certainly not by any organization, but by the slow erosion of my inherited faith in the goodness and democratic nature of America by lapping waves of doubt — the realization that Reagan's going to kill us all in a nuclear war — the latest Jello Biafra spoken word album — resentment of the rich preppies in my classes — reading The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath in American Lit II — working in the fast food industry, not nights and weekends for pocket money, but full-time to support myself after graduating from high school, as I spurned higher education in favor of playing in a rock and roll band.

I never would have thought that, returning to this town at age 31, I would find a "revolutionary center and radical library" where a greasy hamburger joint used to be, or that one would be able to pick up a copy of the Industrial Worker from news boxes next to USA Today on downtown corners. Walking around I've seen not one but two houses proudly displaying the red and black flag. Running errands today, one of the four or five wage-slaves who I happened to come into contact with, seeing my workers' center shirt, engaged me in a conversation about radical labor politics — he's involved in the revolutionary center and was an IWW member.

Not that this presages any great revolutionary uprising here anytime soon; more prominent than the few red and black flags are the massive growth of subdivision sectors on the west side of town and the big box stores that feed their insatiable appetite for consumption and waste. Nonetheless, I doubt that in future decades, "I grew up during the W administration" is going to connote the same suffocating blanket of bland depoliticization that the Eisenhower and Reagan administrations are known for. Even in the "red" states.

I was a teenage communist.

I had forgotten this until recently, because I tend to think of my own radicalization, largely through the trade union movement, as having happened over the last ten years or so. And this is not untrue: ten years ago I probably would have described myself as a democratic socialist or social democrat. I was certainly anticommunist and vaguely remember ridiculing Marx in some of the papers I wrote in college.

Yet a writer friend I had in high school, with whom I recently began corresponding after more than a dozen years, remembers me giving her a copy of the Communist Manifesto for her birthday. And some of the things I wrote before I went to college, which I unearthed going through various boxes in my parent's basement this week, showed an understanding of class dynamics which I certainly didn't remember having at that age.

Higher education had its intended effect on me. It taught me that politics was about "big ideas," and even though many classes discussed some big ideas which contained a fairly radical critique of society, we always discussed them as big ideas. Marx was about teleology and dialectic and does Marxist utopianism necessarily lead to totalitarianism? and most certainly not about Why did you get paid what you did in that fast food restaurant or plastics factory? or Why is the refrigerator factory down the road laying people off and moving work to Mexico?

An education in big ideas teaches two lessons: first, since arguments about big ideas can be based on nearly any evidence, and that evidence is almost always secondary or tertiary, it tends to favor big ideas which for the most part accept the status quo. Most of the resources which support scholars and intellectuals come from institutions which are powerfully invested in maintaining their own prestige and power; there will always be a preponderance of studies and treatises written on the assumption that the basic institutions of society, or at least most of them, are fundamentally sound and need only tinkering.

The second, and more insidious lesson, is simply that politics is about big ideas, and only people trained in thinking about big ideas should participate in politics. This, I think, is why for so much of the academic and middle-class left, "socialism" has come to mean merely a sensibly designed system of allocating resources among society. That's a necessary part of socialism, of course, but the soul of socialism is not so much about a "system" which is well-designed or equitable or just but about the ability of people, of all people, to participate in creating and governing all of the institutions of their lives — their workplace, their neighborhood, their schools, etc. — based on social solidarity. To learn the necessity and possibility of this, you need not an education in big ideas but an education in small things.

The education in small things cannot happen at a liberal arts college. It can happen at work, in neighborhoods, in schools and hospitals and grocery stores. It can happen when the big ideas run up against the human body in all of its materialism, when "free trade" means I'm losing my job and can't pay my rent or the "free market" means I'm not going to get medical care or "freedom of speech" means my boss can haul me into his office and subtly threaten to fire me if I don't quit the union and stop complaining about the noxious chemicals that burn my eyes every day at work.

Education is not a solitary activity, it is a social activity and a dialectic. Just as teachers, by themselves, cannot "educate" a student who refuses to participate, experiences, by themselves, cannot educate anyone unless they have some kind of social context, interaction with teachers or friends or parents or books. In most cases, education is a dialectic which aims to integrate the student into the existing social structure; this is easy, because the teacher has both power and knowledge and the student learns to adopt his or her knowledge to fit that reality. Paolo Freire's "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" sought to develop a method which recognizes and legitimates the student's existing knowledge — their knowledge of the circumstances of their oppression — but it still requires a teacher; the goal is to get the student to name the oppressor, recognize and name the system.

I never worked grease-collar and blue-collar and temporary and contingent jobs out of some Marxist fantasy about being one with the working class; I've worked those jobs because of rock and roll romanticism and dumb life choices and crappy job markets. I consider myself lucky that some random combination of my parent's liberalism, rock and roll rebellion, a chance 10th grade English class assignment to read the Communist Manifesto and joining the right union at the right time led me to an understanding of how capitalism functions. I couldn't have figured it out on my own.

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