On Idealism

I haven’t written in a while; it’s been a long come-down from ten years of scratching away against injustice in the non-profit and cause-based sphere, earning sub-poverty wages while I strove to lift others to better lives.  I don’t regret the work, but I do regard it very critically.


This had been an issue of personal reflection and growth until the purity contest of the 2016 Democratic election became the runaway train ever-bearing down on my Facebook feed; I have left the activist circles of the Bay Area only physically, and digitally they are #FeelingTheBern.  At first I was on board — who doesn’t love an outsider campaign that successfully pushes a mainstream dialogue about the principles of democratic socialism?  But the outsider campaign has become, simply, a campaign, and I am, frankly, too tired for this bait-and-switch bullshit.  Call me a Ho for Hillary if you must, but that’s an overstatement and besides I’m really more of a Ho for History, America’s and the world’s and my own.  Plus, I don’t give a shit who you vote for.


Idealism is a tricky thing; by its very nature it invites purity contests and border-policing and a pedantic tendency towards righteousness, from which I know myself to have suffered all too well.  I graduated from an elite college and spent ten years living in the federally defined category of “low-income,” and three of those years below the federal poverty line.  I rarely had health insurance and I was on and off food stamps and I found myself repeatedly homeless.  I couch-surfed, I slept in my car when I had one, I squatted; I made it work, but as I sat at the library emailing out as many resumes as I could I continued to seek job postings on Idealist.org and the Craigslist non-profit section, where my underpayment was essentially guaranteed to continue.  And it did.  I survived on the generosity of family and friends, on luck and persistence, and I never sold out.


Or maybe I did.  I don’t particularly care anymore, because what I’ve realized in the past year or so is that the concept of “selling out” — of moral or ideological compromise — is mostly garbage.  Making positive change depends on effectiveness, not upon self-righteousness.  This isn’t an argument against principle, but it is an argument for not being limited by it, or — perhaps more salient to the Sanders campaign — not being blinded by it against political reality.  Or just plain reality.


Maybe we progressives use “establishment” as a slur because our own moral elevation is easier than compromise, or the acknowledgement of our failures and disempowerment.  Maybe we don’t even really know what “establishment” means, or maybe it has so many meanings that it can suit whatever definition we need at the moment, leaving those tarred by its accusations of complicity and effectiveness to shadow-box with an ever-shifting Republic of Virtue.  And we all know how those end, anyway: with all of us unfit residents.  (Robespierre might be one of my all-time favorite historical figures, but that’s only because I’ve never lived in late-18th/early-19th century France.)


I spilled a lot of ink on Facebook threads about the inherent double-standard of calling Hillary Clinton “establishment” until The Onion made the point more succinctly.  If that doesn’t persuade you, then the existence of voters torn between Sanders and Trump — which, for all the shit I’m about to pour on Sanders, I truly don’t understand, because there is a vast gulf between the two — might speak to the empty value of “anti-establishment.”


Ah, say the only-mildly-chastened, but Hillary represents second-wave white feminism, and we are intersectional these days, and we will prove this with a torrent of Internet screeds excoriating Hillary and her white feminist supporters, like Madeline Albright (willing to countenance the death of millions of Middle Easterners in a moral calculus that Bernie, as the leader of the most militarized nation in the history of the world, will somehow… avoid?) or Gloria Steinem (who said something dumb and offensive in public) or John Lewis (bought off and irrelevant, further evidence of the Clinton machine) or America Ferrara (pshaw, a Hollywood star, although we could also call her the youngest child of Honduran immigrants whose father left and whose mother supported the family working as a hotel housekeeper), or the middle-aged-plus black women who are shaping up as the ride-or-dies of the Hillary electorate (they must be uninformed, and it is our moral duty to fix their ignorance), or Dolores Huerta (DOLORES MOTHERFUCKING HUERTA!, but she’s with Clinton so she must be bought off) — but please, lecture me again about how intersectionality works.


Because the truth, unacknowledged by those who think a woman in the White House would be a “trophy” rather than an embodied radicalism entirely independent of policy, is that identity politics developed and gained traction as a direct answer to the shortcomings of traditional Marxist/socialist class-first approaches.  The intersectionality of democratic socialism is only theoretical, and perhaps those legions of black Hillary voters are not ignorant of Clinton’s faults but overinformed about the failures of progressive populism to move the needle of black liberation in any meaningful way.  I’ve seen a few memes comparing Bernie to FDR, but that comparison might reflect more than supporters and sharers realize: the New Deal was famously passed with Dixiecrat votes in a compromise that excluded entire categories of low-wage, predominantly black workers (primarily domestics and agricultural workers) from its benefits, but less known is that white security came not only from continued economic exploitation but from an officially-unofficial sanctioning of violence against the black body, because FDR also agreed not to pursue any federal anti-lynching legislation or enforcement in the South.  Compromise is the price of political change, and the idea that Bernie will be somehow immune to this reality — in a way that Hillary or Obama or FDR were not (was it their own moral failing?) — is a comforting illusion only until the time comes to actually do anything. 


(In the meantime, however, Sanders supporters are more than welcome to continue writing screeds about intersectionality which dismiss Hillary’s accomplishments and competence as merely a “feminist trophy,” a phrase that doesn’t at all mean the exact same thing as “affirmative action baby,” that isn’t on its face a rejection of the idea that representation matters — an idea so opposite to intersectionality that it’s probably more efficient to just tweet “#OscarsSoWhite but UGHHHHHHHH PANTSUITS AMIRITE?!?!”)


And like the white feminism she represents, Hillary Clinton has many faults, and there is a lot of legitimate criticism of her record, although strangely that criticism seems to be awfully one-directional: Hillary’s stumbling in answering for a twenty-year-old remark endorsing a racist criminology isn’t good enough and it seems the only possible penance for the ’94 crime bill would be for her to go back in time and clothesline her husband on national television to physically prevent his signing it (even though it was a compromise bill with broad progressive support that had a fairly limited impact on rising incarceration rates, even though Bernie voted for it, even though Hillary was political deadweight in 1994 after the HillaryCare debacle and her support was pretty irrelevant to its passage, even though she’s spoken consistently and repeatedly in recent years about her regret over some of its elements, even though her current platform aims to undo not-insubstantial parts of it) — but the young diverse intersectional supporters of Bernie accept his about-face on immigration after decades of consistent and repeated “protect American jobs” and “porous borders” rhetoric that is not indistinguishable from the official Republican party line (non-Trump, non-racist version), even though Step One on Bernie’s official “immigration” platform on his website is to pass comprehensive immigration reform not tied to building a wall, even though the last time Bernie had a real opportunity to help just such a bill pass, less than a decade ago, he voted against it, even though Hillary voted for it and Bernie’s nay put him with the ranks of the far-right.  And so in summary: one extremely intelligent and committed millennial activist and POC who is a Facebook friend of mine can post about how Hillary’s inability to immediately answer for her “superpredator” remarks of two decades ago reveals her as an amoral opportunist who couldn’t be trusted on, say, executive orders related to immigration, even though everything in Bernie’s actual record, everything beyond his recent campaign rhetoric, indicates that Bernie — like the Danish he venerates, and like the entire history of progressive populism in America — is perfectly comfortable with a good dose of nativism if it protects American wages. 


But Bernie is allowed to learn and grow from his encounters with activists (isn’t it great how he developed a criminal justice platform in response to the Seattle #BlackLivesMatter interruption?), while we all already know that Hillary is a craven flip-flopper who will say anything to satisfy her ambition, incapable of “growth” or “learning” because she’s just saying whatever people want to hear.  When Bernie commends a woman for breastfeeding at a political rally, the Internet swoons; if Hillary points out that she balanced breastfeeding and political rallies as part of her actual life, well, she’s just trying to get us to vote with our vaginas.  


Maybe.  Or maybe Lady MacBeth was a tired stereotype even in Shakespeare’s day.  Maybe it’s easier to blame Yoko Ono for breaking up the Beatles than to acknowledge that the band was coming apart at the seams — that George had already stolen Ringo’s wife and was so mad at John that he literally wrote him out of his autobiography, that Paul was already doing side-projects with sweet unambitious supportive blonde Linda, that music was moving on with or without them — and maybe what really makes it sting is that it was through his relationship with Yoko that artistic hero and genius John Lennon transformed from a wife-beating misogynist to an avowed feminist who was, at the time of his death, repairing some of the myriad relationships he’d broken in his life by being a raging asshole.  But sure.  Let’s make Yoko the villain of the piece. 


And sure, maybe Hillary really is everything Rush Limbaugh said she was, a conniving, utterly amoral creature defined only by her lust for absolute power, master of a cabal that could off Vince Foster and do whatever the fuck she was accused of in Whitewater and Benghazi and emails and Monica Lewinsky and those Chinese donors and a million other things probably and maybe she really is equal parts Jimmy Hoffa and Joseph Stalin in those goddamn pantsuits. 


Or maybe we live in a world that really likes projecting all our insecurities and ugly bullshit on women, especially old women or public women or ambitious women or ew, gross, all three at once, are you fucking kidding me? 


Your call.  I’m gonna stick with Occam’s Razor, which is to say, the patriarchy did it. 


And their policies.  What Bernie offers is tempting; it’s a vision of America that is beautiful, that I could fall in love with, but it’s also — and here’s the rub — a vision of America that is fundamentally false.  2009 was not so very long ago (even the very newest voters this year were over the age of reason at the time), and can’t we all recall Obama spending every single goddamn cent of his considerable political capital to juuuuuuuuuuuust barely eke through an imperfect compromise health care bill that, for all of its flaws, materially and significantly improved the lives of millions of people?  (Before ObamaCare, I could only treat my suicidal depression by joining a clinical study.  For those of you not directly affected, let me tell you: this imperfect compromise bill has been a fucking godsend.)  And the consequence of this bare-knuckled and incomplete victory was Republicans taking over Congress in the next midterm election cycle and repeated efforts to undo some or all of the bill, some of which have been, at least in some states, successful.  That is the America we live in.  That is the political reality of trying to address major social issues from a progressive perspective at a national level.  And those with longer memories were utterly unsurprised by Obama’s challenges because they remembered 1993 and HillaryCare, her national, universal health care program that was well-researched and well-designed and crashed and burned so completely — not on its policy but on its politics — that health care was effectively off the table for the remainder of the Clinton administration, in large part because the 1994 midterm elections brought in massive Republican numbers to Congress in response to the fear-mongering around HillaryCare and hey is this maybe starting to sound like a familiar pattern here?


But Bernie will do it right.  In spite of a Republican Congress, he — the old white man from one of America’s smallest and whitest states — will succeed where the woman and the black man failed.  Bernie will give us Medicare for All, without compromise, because the people — those same people who rose up to elect Republican majorities in direct response to the two previous serious efforts at universal health care — those same fucking people will, seven years later, rise up to support Bernie. 


And we (progressives) apparently believe this.


If this were a story arc on a prestige television show there would be scores (hundreds?) of thinkpiece essays about the problematic framing of this particular narrative, of the idea that millions of diverse young progressives would rally to an old white dude offering cheap promises of succeeding where the non-white and non-male had failed.  “If the phrase ‘the people too must rise’ sounds familiar,” some of those essays might point out, “it’s from the musical Les Miserables, where the young revolutionary Enjolras sings the same line during the uprisings of 1832 against the restored monarchy.  The tragedy of the story, of course, is that they don’t: the working-class Parisians who were to be France’s liberation let the idealistic young rebels die at the hands of the king’s soldiers.  Are the moderate gains of ObamaCare to be similarly sacrificed in the fires of revolutionary fervor?” 


“Some of those essays” might be an overstatement, but at least one of those essays would say that, and I would write it.  But here’s the thing that’s not a joke, or a hypothetical: this isn’t a prestige television show, and the progressive-left “we” is what constitutes that problematic framing.  We are participating in it and, in our denial that representation matters, in our reliance on right-wing narratives to justify that denial, we are only digging ourselves deeper into the problem; with every social media share of another supposed “truth-telling” link from a website that claims to be an organ of both Sanders and the People but has actually compared of Hillary to Trump, spread false information about delegate math, straight-up lied about the superdelegate procedures in an effort to discredit the primary election itself, and generally peddled a self-victimizing mythology (the “Bernie media blackout” schlock) pulled directly from the right-wing playbook, we are only digging ourselves deeper into the problem.


Not to mention, of course, there is quite literally nothing to support Bernie’s claim that he will succeed where ObamaCare failed, and there is quite literally nothing to support the idea that the majority of Americans even want him to.  Most health-care-related rising up has been in direct opposition to even moderate universalizing.  There is no way to reconcile every single piece of our recent history on this issue to what Bernie is proposing will happen.  That’s not a serious campaign, and that’s not a promise.  That’s a delusion.


It is not his only one.  Let’s talk about another beloved plank of the Sanders campaign: free college.  Hillary has, in debates, pointed out that free college is not very feasible without mechanisms to control costs, to which Sanders has mostly replied “But Europe does it!” — because this deflection is much easier than a serious discussion of how, precisely, colleges might control costs to fit their tuitions to federal funding levels.  The most likely route is, of course, what colleges are already doing to cut costs: adjunctification, that is, the replacement of retiring full-time, tenured professors with poorly paid wage-slave contract laborers.  I don’t think that’s what Bernie wants, of course, so perhaps the free-college-tuition-law will be some massive omnibus bill that regulates details like what percentage of the faculty must be full-time in order for schools to qualify (states might have to consolidate a bit in order to meet these regulations, and of course we’d also have to set a cap on how many full-cost-paying foreign students they could enroll, since upping those numbers is another strategy already very much in play) — at which point schools will most likely just keep doing exactly what they are already doing and close down unprofitable departments in favor of revenue-generating science and business programs funded by corporate and foundation grants, with the legally permissible number of adjuncts corralled to departments and programs like English and composition because, well, maybe it matters that college grads can write a complete sentence.  It’s not illegal for a school to only offer a small number of majors, after all, and besides, kids who want to do something else, who come from sufficient means or who are sufficiently spectacular, will still have the option to attend private colleges, where their tuition money might bring with it perks like “foreign language classes” and “labs not sponsored by Pfizer.”  Because — and this is a mistake made by many, many progressives, not just Sanders — there is a MAJOR difference between the American system of higher education and that of every other developed free-college country on the planet, and that’s that we have a massive and thriving system of private colleges and universities in addition to our public schools.  Other countries have private schools, sure, but they don’t have so damn many, and it is to these many that parents and students will turn as public colleges contract under cost-control measures, and again this is not some wild prediction because this is already fucking happening.  A brilliant few lower-income students will attend places like Harvard or Stanford or Yale, which are rich enough to offer full scholarships to anyone from a family below a certain income threshold, but the very existence of so many private institutions of higher education means that we can’t simply imitate the European (or Canadian, or Australian) model of free college without huge numbers of folks jumping ship to the ready, widely-available, unconstrained alternative.


I think zero student loan debt and affordable college is one of the most important things we can do.  I also think Bernie’s plan leads pretty directly (based on trends which are, let me reiterate, all already happening, this is not exactly difficult stuff to game out) to a two-tiered system in which private schools are widely preferred over the cost-constrained (but free!) publics.  I also think there’s a really easy way around this, which is simply to expand the federal Pell grant program to fully fund the tuition of all qualifying students.  This is, coincidentally, Hillary’s plan.  It’s a lot less ambitious and romantic than Bernie’s.  It’s also a lot more likely to actually work, whereby “work” doesn’t mean “satisfy neoliberal economic-imperial ideas about the function of education” but means, rather, that Hillary’s plan is much more likely to serve actual human beings, rather than serving an ideology, or an ideological vision of how American institutions and policy “should” look.


And that is, at heart, why I can’t get on board with Bernie: because Bernie can’t seem to get on board with America.  Not the America that we on the left like to talk about, the America of hard-working immigrants and smart young people of color and kind old Social Security recipients, but rather the America that elects people like Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush and quite possibly Donald Trump, because this is a democracy and they are part of it too, and we can’t simply wish them away, much as we would like to; we have to negotiate and compromise with them according to procedures laid out in the Constitution and according to the institutions and cultural practices which already exist and a campaign that relies on revolutionary ideals of people “rising up” rejects all of that, whether it comes from the left or the right. 


And I know, I know, but Bernie was a great compromiser in the Senate, they call him the “King of Amendments,” and that certainly speaks to his value in a legislative body, where a greater diversity of opinion can and should be represented.  I’m proud of the votes I’ve cast for Dennis Kucinich and Barbara Lee, quite possibly the only two contemporary national politicians who can be called substantively leftwards of Sanders.  I also don’t know that either of them would make a great president, because the American executive office is designed for centrism.  Saying that Bernie would not be a good president is not a denial of his accomplishments in the Senate.    


And there are, of course, very legitimate critiques to be made of Hillary.  I certainly don’t agree with all of her political choices over the years, although I appreciate her tenacity and her willingness to be persuaded to another point of view.  I’d heard reports from Beltway insider types that she was a shrill interpersonal nightmare but when I’ve actually spoken to people who worked under her at the State Department they have unanimously characterized her as humane, committed, and deeply caring.  I think she’s progressed quite significantly in her views on incarceration and racial justice but I’m troubled by her support of welfare reform, which unlike the Crime Bill she has actually defended in this century; I’m also troubled that true progressive Bernie hasn’t made more of an issue of it, but then again, the cultural currents have shifted against mass incarceration — it’s become one of those “Holy shit, I agree with Rand Paul about something?!” kind of coalition issues — whereas the public tide has yet to turn against welfare reform, so I suppose even the true progressives can’t make too much too much of a ruckus over amoral policy without losing their electability.  I also think this is how politics works in a representative democracy, that everything is a calculus, and that Hillary’s incrementalism is frustrating to those of us who have a vision of what justice looks like right now but is also, in fact, more effective in the long run for being actually workable.  And I think all of these things are equally if not more true in the arena of foreign affairs, where Hillary’s respect for Kissinger is deeply troubling but where the necessity of the calculation is even more undeniable, and where the questions and hopes and aspirations of peace and justice run most sharply against militarism and imperialism and hegemony, and these things would be so much easier to resolve if they weren’t shaped like actual people, like drowned Syrian toddlers and Vladimir Putin and everything in between. 


Because I don’t think Hillary has always made the right choice or will always make the right choice.  But I think we on the progressive left are often and deeply guilty of ignoring the complexity of the choices at hand, of oversimplifying reality for the sake of the possible, and it does not serve us.  We underprepare for the challenges that need to be not conquered, but met in compromise and coalition, and we don’t recognize compromise for its small victories so long as there is still morally indefensible injustice being perpetuated.  And I can’t craft a genuine moral defense for incrementalism.  I can’t.  The world should be a better, more just, more loving place, but it’s not, and we have to live and make positive change in the space between those two truths.  But maybe while Hillary is making small improvements to ObamaCare and expanding Pell grants and, yes, upholding the general neoliberal economic perspective, the rest of us can be winning hearts and minds, not talking amongst ourselves but mingling with the evangelicals and the rural poor and the high school dropouts and all those who aren’t generally a part of the progressive coalition, who find it profoundly alienating or even threatening; let’s bring them in and genuinely listen to what they have to say.  Maybe we can be thinking creatively and strategically about what democratic socialism might look like in a country with a massive and growing private non-profit sector, which like those private colleges sets us apart from our European and Canadian and Australian counterparts and complicates the transplantation of their methods for equity; let’s push for boring-sounding but wide-ranging reforms to tax policy around 501(c)3 status and charitable giving and the structure of foundations, all of which interact with inequality in uniquely American ways.  And let’s borrow from the Republican playbook and cultivate our state-level leaders and control redistricting so that the demographic inevitability of a more liberal America isn’t held hostage by a House of Representatives that is thoroughly un-representative. 


But let’s stop deceiving ourselves that pragmatism is an approach without either value or values, because that is complete and utter bullshit.  The veneration of the possible over the actual doesn’t serve people on the front lines; rather, it punishes them for the smallness of their accomplishments, no matter how hard-won those accomplishments may be, and I know because for ten years I’ve been one of those front-liners, for which I have to show zero retirement savings, a decades’ worth of truly pathetic tax returns, a recovery from suicidal depression informed largely by my sense of having failed to meaningfully change anything in the world, and a handful of small accomplishments which may prove utterly ephemeral but which are also indisputably real, tiny and insignificant against the promises of world-changing but stubbornly relevant to the handful of us who were there. 


And that’s all we can do; that’s all any of us can do, even the goddamn president.  I’m not moved by Bernie’s claims, and the claims of his supporters, that he can do otherwise, that he can be effective without compromise, that his moral calculations will somehow always or even occasionally involve situations in which there is a clear ethical choice.  I’m not moved by the idea that he will be a purer president than Obama, or that we need a purer president than Obama, and my reluctance comes not from cynicism or apathy but from the hard-fought optimism of having been in the fucking trenches myself and realizing that justice and kindness and a truly fair and equitable society is the longest fucking game around and it’s not won with self-deception or platitudes or idealism but with unyielding curiosity and unsparing honesty and a kind of self-brutalizing courage to keep wading in shit, day after day, even if you were wrong before, even if you fucked up yesterday or five minutes ago, even if there are no good options, even if the only way forward is deeper in shit.  It’s as commonplace as raising children, or building human relationships, or life; and it’s not always as hard as we make it out to be but we don’t need to pretend it’s easy, either.


Bernie’s campaign is predicated upon authenticity, realness, truth-telling beyond politics.  Idealism is an easy comfort, and in a universe’s worth of truth, it can offer a not-unimportant sense of possibility.  But it can only — ever — be a small piece of the expansive and complicated whole, and to pretend otherwise is the most insidious political gimmick of all.

2 thoughts on “On Idealism”

  1. Glad to see someone lay out the facts on Bernie. He wants pie in the sky and there is no possibility of him being able to deliver on his promises. Hillary has problems and I don’t always agree with her. However, she has stuck with it through shit and thin and by God it’s time a woman got elected President. There is no way in hell Hillary could do anything worse than the men that have gone before her. and there is great promise that she will do better than her critics think. Americans on the left need to get real. Support someone electable. Or, sit back and let Trump be President.

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