This summer is supposed to be my grand political experiment, or so I declared coming into it. Is the best way to change the world and improve people's lives to work inside the system or from outside? And can I tolerate being a part of the system? I figure that this summer's internship in Senator Wellstone's office is about the best way to possibly determine this, between his politics and the ability to effect change. That doesn't mean that I'm actually figuring anything out, of course.
I'm a rather unique person politically. (Okay, so I tend to think that I'm unique--not necessarily in a good way-- in a variety of ways. If someone breaks the news to me that everyone really thinks like I do, I'll be both disappointed in my normality and frightened for humanity.) I feel very passionately about a number of issues, and the positions I hold on many of them are what could be legitimately considered fairly radical, though not necessarily drastically so. And I feel that the things I believe strongly in must guide my actions. Yet not only do I emotionally dislike conflict, the kind of conflict which I inevitably run into in fighting for my goals and which on an intellectual level excite me (fighting against the NU administration, for example), but I'm the sort of person who can really see and to some extent identify with where other people are coming from. So considering that I hear a lot of messages affirming the status quo that I'm trying to change (considering that it is, after all, the mainstream), I continuously process them as, "Well, yes, I understand, that's reasonable, but..." I'm sure it'd be much more efficient to be able to discount them rather than take the time to weigh them, affirm that my position is still valid, and then move on with my goals. But that's not the way I work.
Anyhow, I used to be easily defined as a liberal Democrat, from the time I was first interested in politics (probably early teens) until somewhere in the middle of my freshman year of college. At the very beginning of my freshman year, I decided that I absolutely had to spend the rest of my life doing something that I felt would substantially make a difference in people's lives. I didn't know exactly what it would be, but it was time to stop playing with the idea of being a baseball writer or an actress.
My freshman year was an educational process, with lessons every Wednesday night at 10. I learned a lot of things, and my eyes were opened in a big way, particularly about US foreign policy (but also about new ways of looking at problems). By the end of the year, I was convinced that there were huge political issues that needed to be addressed, and that people weren't currently addressing them adequately. So my new plan was that after I graduated, I'd go to Washington, advise congresspeople and hopefully a Democratic president, and convince them all that they needed to be much more liberal, which would solve many problems and improve many lives.
By the end of the summer, thanks to lots of reading, discussion, and just plain thinking, I'd evolved to a point where I'd decided that the Democratic party needed a full and massive populist movement and restructuring in order to be able to do the right thing and be something I could believe in. So I suppose it was only a matter of time before I would decide that this was not going to happen and hence I could not in good conscience associate myself with the Democratic party. This didn't, and doesn't, mean that I gave up on the idea of voting for Democrats; it just meant that I stopped being happy about it.
It was also at about this time that I started learning more about what the concept of liberalism is, that far from meaning "left" as conservative means "right", it is an inherently centrist philosophy which is different in substantial ways from actual radicalism and the left-- that this argument that Alex tried to make to me several times was not simply semantics, as I'd thought. With this recognition came a rejection of liberalism, and the beginning of a self-identification as being outside the mainstream, as a radical. I saw that the things I believed in and the ways I thought were not shared by the vast majority of the American public and of political figures and opinion leaders. And as I began to associate with the groups on campus which I saw as doing real activism and trying to accomplish things, I became more surrounded by this sort of radical philosophy.
But radicalism and alternative thinking is quite often exhausting and depressing emotionally, to be honest. I think that's why a lot of people with real radical political views often become either cynical or just refrain from taking action on their beliefs-- because it's just so much easier to avoid it all and not to think about it. It's hard to find energy for a fight where you're in a tiny minority fighting a huge entrenched system.
Of course, the other way to escape from the quandary is to accept that while the system is bad, maybe it's not all that bad and can be fixed from within. That you can be a liberal Democrat who can fight the good fight and do things the normal way and be supported by near-half the country. It takes a lot less energy if you accept the system, even if you admit flaws in it. And it's not a completely ridiculous argument that the system is designed to represent the people and is doing so, and the problem is in the people and the fact that they don't all think the same way I do..
I don't know. I'm spending the summer in an environment where everybody completely swallows the idea that the way to make people's lives better is to support the Democratic party and work in Congress. (And when I say environment, I mean both at work and at home.) And I guess they do seem to get some things accomplished, although far from as much as I'd like. It's such a simple way of looking at things-- you have the good guys, and the bad guys. (And, of course, anyone who helps the bad guys win, who doesn't support your team and your party, are bad guys too.) Sometimes I'm not sure whether it's worth the energy to analyze and criticize it all the time. Yes, what the Democrats stand for and accomplish won't be good enough for me. Yes, it will be something. Is liberal social-democratic centrism always inherently unacceptable? Where is the line?
Sometimes I think that, considering how much politics cyclically depresses me, it wouldn't be wise for me to pursue things so politically rooted as a career, like I've intended for the last year and half in some fashion. Maybe I'll learn how to believe that little things make a big difference, and focus on the little things and not get depressed. I could wrap myself up in some community like Berkeley or Madison where people think like me, or go to another country, all to escape getting depressed at how awful and conservative people can be. I could do good things and work for the good of people, but not attempt to do great things on a large scale, which would just disappoint me when I failed. Or maybe that's giving up, giving in.
I've got time to figure it out, I guess. In the meantime, I need to learn how to get through life without being tormented by the injustice and suffering in the world, and my undeserved and unearned privilege. And unfortunately, the best way to deal with it is to try not to think about it.
5 September, 2002
Intellectual Property Rights denounced by Britt Gordon-McKeon, 2002