Monday, September 21, 2009

My Last Paper In College

It is so interesting to read this. I feel like much of it is the same. Except, of course, that I am letting myself down. Or maybe I'm just taking a detour. Who knows. Enjoy!

To: Dr. Gary Olson
From: Linsey
Re: My Very Personal Reaction to your selections from Letters from Young Activists, which you assigned in our Politics of Personal Identity class.
Date: 25 April 2006

Dear Gary,

I want to thank you for introducing me to these writings. I found the introduction of this book to be inspiring and grounding. Bernadine Dohrn’s preface was a call to action. For activists, the action she demands is our continued struggle. She reminds us that young people have always worked to change the world and have succeeded in doing so. The problems that we see now are just as valid as the ones addressed by our predecessors.

I find that the rest of the world wants to make me feel like I am crazy when I talk about things I think need to change in our cultural outlook, in our government’s policies, or elsewhere. Is change really that terrifying? I am labeled a liberal and banished to the outskirts of the norm. My thoughts and actions are seen as rocking the boat, yet, I see them as attempts to know the boat, the water, the air, and the sun a little better then it is generally known. I want to ask questions about what influences the boat and how that influence manifests. I want to make sure the boat is moving closer to a destination that we are sure we want to be.

More and more I believe that the political labels available to us do not truly describe what we intend. For instance, I would like to call myself a conservative when it comes to issues dealing with the natural world. Since the natural world provides the very foundation of human survival, wouldn’t it be wise to conserve it? The Native American concern for the next seven generations is a beautiful and worthy rule of thumb. We should all be so conservative. If I believe in conservation, shouldn’t I be called a conservative? If not, how does conservation make me liberal?

Yet, in other ways, perhaps more socially oriented ways, I can claim to be a liberal. When I am asked about gay marriage my gut reacts to change, not tradition. I want respect for others in the same way I want respect for myself. Traditionally, we do not respect others in the same way that we respect ourselves. In the true sense of the word, ‘liberal’ is synonymous with generosity. I am liberal in that I believe that we should all be so generous as to wish good life experiences for others. We should all be so liberal. So, maybe conserving the environment means being generous to future generations and that’s why I am called a liberal when I talk about recycling.

How constructive are the political labels that we place upon each other? Politically speaking, when I think ‘conservative’ I think ‘greedy asshole’ and when I think ‘liberal’ I think ‘gracious thinker’. Typically, these words are spoken without the speaker knowing how to define them, which is inevitably not constructive. Political labels are a method of polarizing people, of making them seem more different then is probably true, and of inhibiting connections that would otherwise allow us to evolve as a culture. From television shows like Crossfire, one can see that instead of constructive dialogue we choose to engage a political enemy, proving that they are definitely wrong and we are definitely right. This type of dialogue isolates us from one another and benefits no one.

To be an activist is a choice. Dohrn says, “It is a choice to be vibrant dissenters, to question, to engage in what Foucault calls ‘a relentless erudition,’ to remain insurgent, independent of the powerful to try to ‘speak truth to power’” (xv). She calls it activism, I call it democratic citizenship. It is another instance where mainstream America has forgotten the meaning of the word, or at least, allowed it to be maimed. As democratic citizens our role is to rule ourselves, to think, to find meaning, and to defend the results of this seeking process. Our role is to be actively engaged in ruling ourselves, not in allowing ourselves to be ruled. Just as we have chosen to fear connection with our political other, be it conservative or liberal, we also have chosen to fear the power inherent in democratic citizenship. Or, as Susan Sontag explains, a more constructive approach to these conversations means each of us must first “train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours” (xxiii).

While I am still working on how to communicate with people whose beliefs are antithetical to my own, I have become quite good at being a democratic citizen. I am trying to always remain critical while simultaneously remaining open to difference. It requires the kind of fluidity that Dohrn attributes to Letters:

Letters is an unreconciled book, filled with contradictions and uncertainties, unfinished, in motion, still becoming. It involves choices, blind spots, and problematic absences. It is not complete, nor regimented, but can be tasted as fragments, revelations, a view of the landscapes and habits of some young activists (xvii).

So too is democratic citizenship. It is an imperfect role, requiring the actor to be as aware of her faults as she is of strengths. We are so quick to find the faults of others and to forget our own. This gives conversations about change a business-like quality that stomps on creativity and imagination. Dohrn says that an empire, which to her symbolizes stagnation, requires that its citizens lack the ability to imagine another way of life and so, even when the flaws become obvious, they are powerless because they cannot imagine alternatives (xxii). Our aggression and refusal to understand ‘the other’ is what strips of us of our agency – not the government, not The Man.

Dorhn also says that, “New thinking is required: revolutionary democracy, reinvented socialism, transformed relationships and economic structures” (xxii). These words resonate with my own beliefs about what Western culture needs. Revolutionary, reinvented, transformed – grounded in the wellbeing of the next seven generations and newly imagined like nothing of old. Fresh, like newly ripened fruit or morning dew. We need meticulous creativity. We need to stop acting out of fear, to dialogue with the past, and to engage the present so that we might imagine the best possible future.

The introduction to Letters ends by saying that “Our challenge, and yours, is to live our lives in a way that does not make a mockery of our values” (xxxii). It is a challenge, but, I can see no other way to live my life. I want to buy local and organic. I want to choose my tempo giusto, to have access to healthcare, to respect my government, and to have my “work” be my passion. I want to live in a way that I find meaningful and I want the same for everyone I meet. My generation has a huge job to do, one that my life will be consumed by.

With hope and determination,


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