Some of what I am about to say is not common knowledge even to my friends. I am taciturn and particularly private man. I have only written about my personal life in detail once in a political context, in “critical support” of Occupy after the Obama election, and even then, aside from admitting I left the US for economic reasons and that those same reasons ended my first marriage to someone I cared about and respected, I did not go into detail. So here it goes: I am not going to name names to protect people I love and their reputations, and I don’t share a surname with most of my family, so I think am doing right by them.
Let’s get something out of the way. The way I use liberal is expensive and includes a diverse living political tradition more or less from the Whigs after the Glorious Revolution to Enlightenment in Europe to American classical liberals to most secular conservatives and most “left liberals.” Marxism relationship to liberal is one of a “loyal opposition” in the beginning, Engels and Marx both come from the liberal wing of materialist controversies at the end of German idealism, itself a nascent development from European liberalism. The distinction between left-liberalism and Marxism is muddled for a variety of reasons given that Marxism and left-liberals were contributors and also rejectors of post-modernism in both France and North America, many liberal ideas rejected by most contemporary Marxists did come out of a Marxist milieu, and liberal (or maybe post-liberal) nationalism and identity movements starting in World War II forward took many concurrent evolutionary developments similar to Marxist–or quasi-Marxist depending on who you ask–developments in Maoism and “red” national liberation movements. This led to overlapping vocabulary and thinkers moving in-between “both” camps as it were. This, by the way, is why the right-wing “cultural Marxism,” while largely a bogeyman to scare post-Cold War paleo-conservatives, has more legs when one does the research, particularly if fine distinctions don’t seem significant to you, as they often don’t to ideological outsiders.
That is a long prologue to this statement: I am a not a liberal. There are beliefs that I share with liberals that even left-liberals themselves have abandoned: free speech, relative freedom of conscience, and no non-arbitrary restrictions to law. I am not a progressive in that I find term to be dipped in a post-Christian teleology that assumes all social developments move in the same direction at the same time for the majority of people. I think this is magical thinking, and I think the popularity of progressive is just a codeword to avoid the linkage to liberals. These are all themes I have written on tons: hundreds of thousands of words in social media, blogs, essays, etc on this topic by yours truly. Frankly, it’s boring to be me.
I have only be registered in any political party once: the Democrats, briefly, in 2008, to vote in open primaries in the state of Georgia for Mike Gravel. For a few months, I even considered canvassing for Obama, something I am not proud of, but even the night he won–once I read his Senate record closely and saw the names in his cabinet–I did not share the elation of those around me. I was twenty-eight years old, struggling with medical problems from overworking myself and an inactive and undisciplined lifestyle, I had finished two master degrees, and even turning 60K with my spouse’s income added in in area with the median income is about 40K per household, I was struggling. I followed economics closely, I had predicted the housing boom and bust just from extrapolating from what I saw in who got home loans as early as 2006. In short, I was smart, needed help, but was an aspiring local Brahmin from a blue collar working class, or in American parlance, “lower middle class” background. I should have been the perfect liberal.
While people in New York and California that I met in left wing circles are surprised when I inform them of this: that “meagre” salary was more than 80% of the people in my area made. They were maxed out in home equity loans if that had property, they had title pawns, and there was no union jobs to be had. Indeed, the only good jobs were working for the hospitals, the school system, the prisons, or in the military. The last factory job that paid enough was a tobacco processor that consolidated in the late 1990s. But all of these sectors were being privatized, although still at the largesse of the US tax payer.
At that time, I was a school teacher and an adjunct professor. My wife at the time worked in Auto Pawns, and I worked in truly integrated school district that was suburban/exurban and declining into Title I status quickly and a Technical College where tons of factory workers–white and black–were trying to start their life over after a year or two of unemployment. Graduating with a terminal master’s degree at twenty-five, even if I had two brief attempts at careers before that, I really couldn’t make more than 20k a year doing what I had trained to do. I wrote editorials for newspapers, wrote music reviews, published poetry, took part-time jobs at big box stores, and worked at two different university/colleges to make ends meet. This is not a pity the poor adjunct professor story though because I had skills and figured out a way out. I became a public teacher because it actually was a good job for the area.
Prior to getting my MFA, I had trained to be either a journalist or a lawyer. While I am good at statistics, I am not particularly great at abstract mathematics when actually doing paper computation so some hard sciences were out. I knew plenty about computers, but was going to school in the .COM crash of the late 1990s, early 2000s and knew a bunch of networkers and programmers who couldn’t get jobs outside of Circuit City and didn’t know to move to Silicon valley for the round two that happened five years later. My dream was to be anthropology writer for National Geographic, but after I saw the beginnings of the decline of print journalism, I started studying for law. Then, when I was gearing up for law school and working in the accounts auditing department of a major insurance company, I realized there were WAY too many lawyers. So I got married to my college girlfriend, who moved down from Pennsylvania’s back country to get away from mining work and manufacturing work herself, and got an MFA in Poetry instead. Since practical hadn’t worked out, I figured, why the fuck not.
So that was the story that let me to 2008, and almost immediate dissatisfaction with the the new Obama (neo)liberals. I had been disenchanted with the left before. I actually went to the “Battle for Seattle” right out of high school, saw the pseudo-black block tactics, saw the cops, saw Buchanan-style paleo-conservatives protesting globalization with the precursors to David Graeber-style anarchists. I engaged in questionable sexual practices with people as “protest.” It had all the precursors to both #Occupy and Burning Man. I left confused, and sickened and feeling like the liberal war criminal Clinton would win even though I was more afraid of Republicans. Yet, the Buchanan people impressed me. Later, I would start reading Lew Rockwell and the American Conservative as well Chomsky and Thomas Frank, and while I was often taken aback by people like Gary North and Mises Institute, I felt like Anti-War.com actually did better anti-war work than International ANSWER or Code Pink. Plus, when I went to protest the G-8 again at Sea Island, most of the leftists weren’t there. They were afraid of the protest cages, but the anti-war libertarians were, and they better at not getting arrested. Furthermore, I while I had been exposed to Marx as a historical artifact, in the late 1990s there were no Marxists on campus. Everyone was reading Derrida or reacting to it by reading Allan Sokal. We had pictures of Chomsky, and his pamphlet on 9-11. The closest to Marxism anyone would touch was Agamben or Hardt and Negri, and even then, it was taught in the context of post-modernism. The libertarians were naive about economics, but they were principled in ways liberals didn’t seem to be.
Most of the people I had known in college were from the rich suburban conclaves of Atlanta. Most of the Marxists professors I knew–I knew two–lived in white gated communities outside of the mostly black city my university was in. Ironically, because I literally taught, at one point, in the State House that Georgia–according to a local professor, “somewhat reluctantly”–declared its succession from the Union in.
So, I grew up in partly in a white neighbor in the mixed race Suburban of a dying industrial/rail road town in central of Georgia. There were no Klan active like in the North Georgia hills or the “lesser Alabama” of South Georgia, and I didn’t spend all my childhood there anyway. I grew up other places too, in urban areas, but some mostly white, some mostly black/South Asian. Unlike some places in North and South Georgia, we had integrated dances and a school sponsored prom–private proms were common in a lot of the South until the early aughts so they did not have to be integrated–but we had a segregated prom court. Only the influx of Hispanic migration workers ended that because no one could figure out if they were white or black. Mostly everyone was Protestant, and my mother, a lapsed Catholic, endorsed me to go the Baptist church. I was educated in public schools, but knew some Latin and chucks of Hebrew–I would later find out because I had lots of hidden Jewish heritage–and was even called a Satanist often by teachers, but mostly felt protected and liked by the Baptists around me–white and black, even if they didn’t go to the same church. My father was a salesman, my mother a waitress–both my grandfathers were factory foremen. One had invested well, but the other lived in a crumbling early 20th mill neighborhood that had increasingly become a meth/crack infested area, and was “darkening” as my genteel and mildly (for a Southern born before World War 2) racist grandfather would say. He would take into the black neighborhood to run charity for church and so that would know “colored people”–while others in my life used it constantly, I never heard the “n-word” from his mouth–and in my early childhood most of my friends were black. Only in my late teens, did this seem to bother some members of my family and this became discouraged for me to solely be around the black community. My grandfather, however, despite whatever racism he had, knew that we have black relatives (a hidden secret), and felt that even his racism was wrong. Not enough to entirely abandon it, but enough to try to get me see beyond it.
I thought of him as a Saint. He had no more than a middle school education before going to work in a brick factory, he raised his sister, and my father and aunt. His father had killed himself in the great depression. He was spared the draft solely because he was slightly too young and sole survivor of my line of the family. We were ingrained and integrated outcasts–although my grandmother had been from a fairly important English-Scottish family with Jewish ties (more than she told me at the time). My mother’s family was similar: Catholic in Protestant country. My grandmother on my mother’s side was a firm Republican, but though of all non-black Democrats as Dixiecrats, and would tell me, “You don’t believe ’em, they are all still racists. Half of ’em were Klansmen. I should know, I married a Klansman once.”
My childhood to many millennials sounds like a story from another area, but I am only 35 years old.
I was not primarily raised my father. So I would stay in the suburbans with my step-father, a mechanic who had come from a old Brahmin family and had trained to be an engineer, but got into Nascar in the 1970s and thus into auto repair. While he was my mother’s second husband, he was my dad and her High School sweetheart. He insisted that I get educated at a State school. He insisted I go to public school even at times when it was not common even for working class men to do so. He and my mother had three more sons and I had a step-sister through him.
So my reason for telling the world this is not narcissism. It’s not that personal is political. It’s not a rags to riches story. It is context. At 30, I went to my first Marxist meeting, and honestly, I am serious about this, it was the most class envy I had experienced–the marxists I met, even ones who immigrants, were in the main well-off, professors for fathers and mothers. While I dated in High School “above my station”–I was an honors student and most the students I worked with were from “better” backgrounds than my immediate family. This both inclined me to social conservative beliefs in some areas, but radically not in others. I was exposed to Nietzsche at 15. To Marx at 16. Left-wing punk zines, at 15 and 16. To Chomsky and Gore Vidal at 17. I had three brothers and my mother was going to university and working at a overnight diner. My father was a well-paid and successful mechanic, but health problems plagued his children and medical bills were a constant drain. Then his business went belly up in the late 1980s, and then he was laid off in the early 1990s. My family life mirrored the economic history of post-Reagan era, but I didn’t know that. I just thought we were barely “not poor.” I wore shoes until they had holes. I got hand-me-down clothes. But I was happy mostly, my parents never let us go without food, my neighborhood was safe (when I was with my mother and step-dad), and my dad always found work shortly after.
But when even though my friend’s were the sons of teachers, professors, and managers, and my girlfriends the same, I grew up in a different neighborhood from them. I didn’t know their social codes until I was exposed through them and some distant rich relatives to the liberal “upper” middle class. When I met Marxists and anarchists, even as an adult, I was struck by how different their life had been from mine. And when I met college liberals, I saw them, actually mistakenly, as rich. So I constantly felt both more authentic and more of an imposter than them. I also felt like they both shot down the class ladder at the people I grew up with constantly while talking about helping them as abstractions.
There were a few other people from the same background, but most them were in Campus Crusade for Christ or joined the military.
I resented that. I was working class. My mother was fairly apolitical Democrat. My father didn’t talk to me about politics, just religion. My step-father was law and order, lock them up and throw away the key, but was not partisan, and voted for Perot twice, but hated Bush 43 and always fond of Obama. My brothers ranged from mildly conservative to strongly liberal to completely apolitical–almost by class lines. Myself and one of my other brothers are high school graduates and college graduates. My two other brothers are high school drop-outs, but one got into college despite this and has a white collar job and has done very well for himself. The other has had run-ins with the law, and struggles with personal demons, but has done tons of blue collar work and saved money. He has no insurance, even after the ACA, and this has been a major problem for him. He has constant pain, severe bouts of depression, and substance abuse problems.
I grew up in Trump country, and very near black America. I grew up working class. In this election, my family was divided. The older and.or liberal members supporting Clinton, meekly and without much fanfare, and two of younger members sitting on their hands, while one supported Trump, even though he found him distasteful but was more excited about sticking it to the man. The one who voted for Trump also believes in single payer healthcare so does my working class dad and my father. He thought ACA was a sham, but NOT because it was not free market. He agreed with his Marxist older brother (me). The Democrat, who works for insurance company, is skeptical.
The world I grew up in is a mixture of the rural world that is dying right now, and the urban world that black community knew. I don’t know much about what it means to be a black person, I know more than most of the left liberals who try to speak for them do. My three closest friends are women, aside from my wife. Two of them college educated. One not. All would consider themselves socially liberal. One felt harassed by the liberal people in her office place and willing joined the working class to escape harassment. She also is from an educationally elite background, but has not been served well by it despite all that. The other works in Silicon Valley, and does quite well, but gets tired of liberal posturing from time to time. She also grew up disadvantaged, and being biracial, knows that world too. The last of my closest friends did not finish college, and her family has suffered the plagues of addiction that you read about in the Atlantic. Indeed, she buried her brother at 36 years old this year. Becoming of the statistics of the crisis of underemployment and lack hope in rural and exurban America.
Three women, three men. Six different outcomes. Only one of which have been served well by the current “recovery.” In fact, the city I grew up by is still economically depressed as is most of my state outside of Atlanta and the shipping city of Savannah. It has been since 2001. Even manufacturing plants coming back, and they have, only supply a few hundred jobs. Not the thousands they used to. Automation as well as off-shoring.
This brings me to the last two stories: The ACA did not help me when my American partner, my current and beloved wife, was diagnosed with a serve strain of cancer whose only effective treatment cost more than half of a house in the outskirts of Atlanta, A DOSE. I love working and living abroad, and it has been how I have afforded to see the world. I have seen the tourist cities, but also labor strikes. I have seen ancient pyramids, but also bodies in the ditch from Cartel Wars in Mexico. I have met Syrian refugees, and South Africans fleeing the crime in the cities there. Former Maoists in little shops from Nepal in Korea. Vietnamese children scared by Agent Orange. Former members of the Muslim Brotherhood who support Al-Sisi now. But I am abroad because the ACA cannot make an insurance company cover my wife at a price anyone can afford, so I can’t change jobs. I love my job, and my employer is good to me, which is odd for a Marxist to say, but I would much rather be by my wife’s side. SO I am tired from hearing from people in rich states that the ACA is working for the majority of people. Most of the poor people I know still pay the tax penalty because even with work, they cannot afford insurance. The structure of the ACA, particularly in “red states” works this way because of compromises by liberals and the poison pill put in it by the Supreme Court.
So I am not a liberal because the policies are half-assed, the ruling dominance of liberal ideology has made it incoherent and decadent, and I have lost friends of multiple races to poverty, violence, and drug addiction. Everyone I know growing up is from “flyover” countries. My most of the people I know now aren’t. While history and literature professors and students who are also Baristas in Portland may role-play in the IWW (with the sincere hope of making it more than that), the AFL-CIO has given up on my part of the United States for over hundred years. It’s always been a “right to work” state, and even though the South as a strong progressive tradition (that also was racialist and religious), the Nixon strategy destroyed that.
I am educated, fairly elite person in the “middle class” who can afford vacations to Turkey because he doesn’t live in America anymore. I make less on paper than I did in the states, but by foregoing most of the modern world and being willing to teach elite private schoolers in “second world” countries, I can pay for my wife’s insurance with a copay we can afford. I can’t do that in the my home country. I escaped the drug and alcohol culture that has taken six of my friends–including a former lover–from me before thirty-five by leaving. I escaped diabetes and had time to exercise by leaving. Don’t lecture me about how President Obama helped us all.
I am not a liberal because I understand capitalism, and I know what it means. I was MUCH less surprised than my professor friends in NY and Portland. I also understand why some people feel nervous, afraid. It understand attacks are going up–although its really hard to see beyond anecdotes how much. It’s going to be hard times.
But listen to me when I say this: If you don’t speak to people like the family I grew up with, and the young fairly liberal minded women who are losing brothers and lovers to alcoholism and meth. If you don’t speak to why poor whites LAUGHED at you when you called them privileged constantly, even though you were statistically likely to be white and from a rich part of the country. If you don’t speak to that. You will lose. You will deserve to lose. You will not help the people of color you want to. You won’t help poor lesbians from immigrant or redneck families. You won’t help former farmers who are now truck drivers who do speed and meth to do enough work to live. You will just shame them for not automatically agreeing with you. And I will laugh at you when they abandon you to the wolves in an election.
Riot in Portland and Seattle. Sure. That’s not where this matters anyway.
Wonktopia deserves what it got, but not everyone it claimed to represent does.