Why centrism can’t cure shit (among other things)

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Half measures never accomplished anything

(Open letter exchange, Sept. 13, 2009)

Hey Joe,

I’ve written to you before. I said that you had pointed me in the right direction about dealing with class and race and all. I think I spoke too soon.

I’m not working class. At least, not really.

For starters, I’m Asian.

I’m not the kind of Asian that runs donut shops and runs from the immigration officers, nor one of the poor bastards that flee sweatshops on one side of the Pacific to get stuck in sweatshops on the other side. I’m luckier. I was born Stateside, to college educated parents with green cards.

On the flip side, I’m not the kind of Asian that’s insanely privileged even by American standards, riding his (bought and paid for) 2400 SAT score, 22 separate sets of music lessons and 20 million AP tests into university and then frittering his time in either innocuous debauchery or Outrage Masturbation at how Whitey steals our women and tells America we have no game and high test scores.

(They actually do that, you know. The balls-to-the-wall fights of the Japanese and Filipinos and Chinese workers in the Pacific states or Hmong and Viet refugees in Minnesota and California have petered out into anti-miscegenation screeds by upper middle class manchildren who can’t get their dicks wet. But that’s a totally different letter.)

I guess you could call me “lower middle class,” if these terms still matter. I grew up in a county seat in Southern California in the middle of white flight, my Congressman is bought and paid for by a certain health institution that justifies anti-union policies with religious doctrine. My high school is distinctly divided into those who did escape and those who didn’t. Us refugees keep in touch, and share little but thankfulness and ambivalence about home.

I go to a big-name public school, and my family (the three of us) have enough money to buy a degree, and I work on a campus newspaper that will remain nameless, as will my position with them. (I’d be shocked if they haven’t figured me out already.) I’m out in two years and I’ve decided to eschew the ivory tower because grad students seem to get shafted harder in the long run and I think I can do more (and be happier) as a working, fighting, trench liberal than a latte-sipping hipster.

I read Deer Hunting with Jesus a long time ago, and I follow your essays. You’re right: America’s going to hell and there’s little any of us can do about it except peace out.

But fuck, what do I do know? If I take any overt stands I lose my only source of income (goddamn working for the campus MSM!) My folks are working themselves to death for me. I like writing and editing, and I like the fact that I won’t be squeezing blood out of my turnip parents, God bless them both.

And even if I did throw away my thirty pieces and side with the “progressives” or whatever the fuck they call themselves on campus, they just don’t get it. They’re caught up in disdaining Caesar’s mutt people and celebrating diversity and race and specialness and all the little balkanizations. They’re Queer, Fluid, Pinoy, Chican@, Afrikan, not laboristas! Well, some of them are. But they don’t get the point that white labor is labor, too. Everything’s got to be oppressed in some special way before it can join the club.

I ran into a petitioner that said “hey, look, can you donate money so we can send organizers into the conservative parts of California to convince them to overturn Prop 8?” — the ballot initiative to overturn a ban on gay marriage. This in a state that’s getting financially face-raped harder than the Union at large! The house is on fire, and they want me to mouth cliches to people I know damn well have more important worries?

My second half of college and my gilded chain of a job start up in two weeks. What can I do for truth and justice and mercy and keeping my brothers?

Respectfully,

David

——

David,

I don’t give advice. But I feel your situation. I’ve got two kids of my own, one at Berkeley Law and one at Cornell, both in the same situation. You’d probably be surprised to know that we almost never talk about it. I don’t kid myself that I know their world. And for the most part they’ve already heard all I have to say in this world anyway. I talk too much when I am drunk.

But I do know this. You cannot have it both ways. Or do it on the installment plan. As in, “hang onto my golden chain, but do good things for the oppressed too.” Nor can a person make the sacrifices necessary to live on the just side of the river and in mercy and truth until they have suffered a sufficient amount of injustice and lack of mercy themselves. I think a person grows into the shoes. But I also think some grow fast (Rachel Corrie for instance). And personally, I don’t think America is the only venue to stand up for a just world. In fact, I think it is almost the worst one in many respects.

Personally, I sort of came to where I am now in three parts, in terms of actually making decisions affecting the direction of my own life. First I chose to become a hippy and join the counter culture. The real one, which, contrary to the mythology, had many sacrifices involved. Then in middle age I joined the straight world and worked at mainstream writing and publishing jobs — newspapers and magazines — horrible lying pieces of shit that help drive the empire’s worst aspects. But I had kids to school and feed, and later big time child support to do same. Just like your parents love and support you. Yer a lucky guy, which of course you fully know.

Then I managed to bust out of the empire’s assigned camp again. And this time I could look back and see it for what it is and always has been. I ain’t never going back and that’s about all I really now. Everything I do stems from that simple premise. That I can do and be something better than I have been. No matter where I am at the moment.

And I know for sure you cannot have it both ways. Half measures never accomplished anything.

In art and labor,

Joe

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