Red Emma Speaks

Monday, November 07, 2005

So What the Hell Was That About?

Yesterday's long confessional was out of character here... Certainly I'd thought originally I'd keep this blog strictly without personality. But as usual, since I'm such a mouthy sort, unable really to separate my emotions from, well, everything... so be it.

In some ways, it's impossible for me to tell even a little of my Activist Self story without cringing, because I've always found myself such a slacker. There is--if you feel committed to the idea of "saving the world," you know, doing your little part because well, what the hell are we here for if it's not to do some fucking good?--always a feeling of why am I sitting on my ass right now, watching documentaries on Sundance when I should be out there stopping the idiotic things I think are killing the world? No time to waste.

Yesterday's post was in response to a commentland poke by somebody regarding "do-gooderism." I had thought this poke was, rather, that mostly-unspoken question I get a lot in my town--why do you, white girl, give a shit about racism? White people ask me that, somewhere in a half started sentence, but squelched into a startled sidelong glance and an eyebrow raise. (People of color will ask me right out, sometimes, but for different reasons.) So, I'm supposed to read some book, which doesn't look now the onerous task I first thought it to be. And the poke wasn't supposedly about the racism thing but more about the do-gooderism.

I can think of an instance or two when someone either called me a do-gooder or implied it. I have vague memories of acquaintances throwing it at me as some sort of compliment for something they saw me do. It always felt to me like they were saying their own guilt out loud, like I have in a moment of verbal weakness to someone whose commitment I admired: you do so much, and I do so little. And then, after I got more confrontational with people--and by this I certainly don't mean in speech or demonstrating, I mean in quiet ways that disturbed people's sense of whiteness--they would sometimes express more bitterness with my insistence on things going through. Then it was more of an unspoken slur.

First they ignore, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
-
Mohandas Ghandhi

It's funny that in all those words, I never talked about the work part of it. I have been to more demonstrations than I remember numbers for. Or even remember. And I've worked on any number of causes that presented themselves before me. There's been a lot of work, mostly having the "demonstration" as a sort of exclamation point on the end of a very long sentence.

As far as motivations for why? why do anything at all? I have thought a great deal about it. Finally, a few years ago, I could pinpoint some of the main factors.

There was some point, somewhere just out of college, when I realized how truly sheltered, protected from the truth I'd grown up. There was something chilling in realizing I could stay as ignorant as I wanted to be. I could refuse to know anything at all. I could get a nice teaching job in a nice suburb and someday get married and buy a house just a little bigger and newer than my parents. I nearly stepped onto that path many times. I occasionally even felt a twinge behind my eyes, drawing me there. To fuzzy bliss. But I'd known for a long time, deep down, that I wanted to escape that land and find out for myself what the world was. Perhaps it was classic rebellion. But mostly, it was that there were people I admired, idealist sorts who did what they believed to be right. I'd read about them. Seen glimpses of them on television. Antigone had been a great inspiration to me at 16. I wanted to be a little like them, if I could.

So why? Because there was a moment in those last few years of college where I said that I didn't want to waste my time on earth. At least not as much of it as I could. Do something. Why take a job that isn't doing something worthwhile? I saw friends getting jobs in cubicles, eating dinner over their keyboards. Trolling for husbands and wives in plastic-plant bars. It gave me the shivers. I couldn't stomach it. So instead of a teacher-track life, I picked a "hard" job. The kind where the students call you by your first name, get plucked out of class for therapy, and occasionally try to scare the crap out of you. Sometimes die. It was hard, emotionally, that job. I admit it. But I did it cheerfully, honestly. I rarely got cynical or wanted to leave. I never considered it penance for anything. It was, rather, a way to enjoy teaching. I'd always liked the weird or crazy kids. They were smarter, more interesting. I could teach whatever I wanted, kind of like Welcome Back Kotter, except my students never knew where I lived. (Which was fine. I often got mistaken for one of them. The last thing I wanted was to socialize with them.) It was a peach, with the benefit that it was eternally interesting.

I look back and realize that really, I started doing things--"volunteering," although I'd never call it that--because it was a way to explore the world. (Not volunteering, because I've always called it just work. Sometimes I have jobs that pay. Sometimes I have jobs that don't. But they're all jobs. Things I want to do.)

It was an experiment in Right Living, with a healthy dose of "what's going on out there, anyway?" Doing what felt right. But then, I realize, it became accompanied by a sense of debt. As I became more aware of how truly miserable the world can be to people, how horridly we can treat each other, I started to see my origin for what it was. For instance, I benefited from the largess of a father who builds strip malls. He doesn't mean to hurt the world, and doesn't always, but he does. He traded his life away to spend it building things that perpetuate cultural death, in the name of keeping a standard of living. I come from a long line of people who did the same and worked hard to distance themselves from the world around them. And so, yes, I've come to realize that I do have a sense of historic, familial debt. My family, whose disposable income is tied inexorably to the ups and downs of the construction biz, owes some of that to the people and the land. The thing is, they don't know it. And they won't see it. Because if you admit how much you participate in our cultural disease, you have to do something about it, or eat your guilt. (And accuse others of having whacked out motives for doing anything at all.)

I was a buddhist before I was a Buddhist. I'm not much of a believer in reincarnation anymore, but I do think that karma's a damn fine idea. I believe that life is about doing the best you can. And if you know that something needs to be done, you sure as hell ought to do it. Yeah, I've slacked off. But I've noticed something, too. I've always been able to look around me at all the people who don't do a damn thing except maybe send a check to some .org once in a while. And I know that for me, that's not enough. How could it be? How could anything happen at all if everyone just sent a check or wrote a letter to their representative?

I don't know any activists who "just demonstrate" and don't also feel a strong compulsion to do the meatier stuff to go with the chili pepper. But all that is work. I could put out a resumé, and it would probably paint you a picture. I could tell story after story about what I experienced, in my travels. Somewhere along the line, maybe I will.

The thing is, it's not because I want to feel superior. (At least to others.) It's not because I feel guilty. I don't think I'm going to get to heaven that way, or reach Nirvana. I get embarrassed and uncomfortable when I'm admired. It's just that I rather would use my talents for good rather than evil. As simple as that.

I'm an incurable optimist. I really do believe that if every person did their little thing, their little part in positive movement, then things might stop getting worse. There might be a chance. And even though I know that the odds are we're not going to make it, as humans, I'd rather be on the side of history that tried to do something about it.

Someone I knew once called it "earnestness." Of that, I'm terribly guilty. And of being generally without guile. And allrightythen, I guess that's fine.

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