It was a sunny day in Olympia, and I was going to a protest. The target was the notorious federal Animal Damage Control program, responsible for killing coyotes and other "nuisance" wildlife with traps, poisons, and other godawful eco-travesties. At the remote ADC office—a glorified trailer standing alone in a clearing—20 or 30 Evergreen State College students and Earth First! activists met for action. We all stood around in bright colors and animal costumes while my girlfriend, dressed as a preacher, delivered a mock sermon on the evils of murdering wild animals. Then the crowd shuffled through the trailer-office trying to guilt-trip the middle-aged secretary who was unfortunately its sole occupant then.
But they moved without me. I waited outside, mortified, sympathizing with everyone—the coyotes, my girlfriend, the secretary at her desk. "I'm sorry to trouble you, ma'am," I longed to say. After all, she was just doing her job, which made her a worker—one of the good guys, according to yet another element in my still-to-be-worked-out ideological map of the world. But ideology aside, what I really hated was the rudeness. We were provoking, maybe frightening, a woman twice our age who'd probably never been to college. What were we doing?
George Bush was wrong: Being a leftist isn't just a matter of having a bleeding heart. My heart bled, but too promiscuously. It still does. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I'd recognized then what it took me years to figure out: I don't have what it takes to be a leftist.
Not that I know what "leftist" means anymore. Does anyone? But my problem isn't just the confusing legacy of the Soviet Union, or the American Democrats' mutation into the mainstream conservative party. It's also that I didn't love the left; I loved underdogs. For a while, I was simple enough to confuse the two. I imagined that the left was the party of the underdogs. But the left as I encountered it, in group after group, was actually thoroughly poli-tical, and it had no intention of remaining the underdog. It meant to win.
Nothing wrong with that, but it might hint at one reason the left is in such trouble in this country. Idealists like me show up with our bleeding hearts full of indignation about the CIA and sweatshops in Malaysia. But then we're shocked to find ourselves not in some higher, uplifted spiritual plane, but on a team planning for the Super Bowl. And our team plays by many of the same rules as the enemy. Once I wrote down some of my observations of the rules the left seemed to be playing by:
1. Criticize capitalism intelligently, but say nothing about Stalinism.
2. Movements are built by drilling simple statements into the heads of "the troops."
3. If "the troops" question you, send them for re-education.
4. Don't forget that the Answer—i.e., how to build and run a good society—is so obvious that we don't need to worry about how our ideals would play out as policy if we ever made it to power.
5. We study history to reinforce our current beliefs, not to challenge them.
6. If anyone ever claims that your tactics are causing harm, don't believe them. Blast back.
7. The best people are the ones who work too hard, have no private lives, and make their friends cry regularly.
8. Personal "issues" are just a bourgeois distraction. Real revolutionaries don't have unconscious motives, so they don't need to examine them.
Is it too much to ask for a political party that can stop and examine itself from time to time, and maybe even correct one or two of its own excesses? The pragmatist in me says yes. It says that politics is war. You don't win wars by weeping for your enemy's losses and second-guessing yourself.
Or by admitting your own weaknesses.
But if my pragmatic self is correct, then the underdogs can't ever really be represented by a party or ideology. If the left claims to be the voice of the oppressed, it's kidding itself (or someone else). George Orwell said so, of course—and I'm thinking not of Animal Farm but of the more adult, and much more heartbreaking, Homage to Catalonia. And the American left and right will continue to mutate into strange (if not really new) forms, but politics will still be war—or at best a team sport. People like me, it seems, had better find something else to do. What's the political equivalent of "Gone fishing"?