Gore Vidal once remarked that “politics is knowing who’s paying for your lunch” a sentiment I’ve valued for years though I now understand it’s also knowing who picked the lettuce. Nuance is hard to achieve when you’re young. In my late twenties and early thirties I was the exclusive product of academic English Departments which if you don’t know, are still to this day built from Victorian blueprints. Things are right or wrong; black or white; single issue analyses are derigeur even in the age of postmodernism and postcoloniality. Politics is knowing who’s grabbing the check and hating them for it. At thirty I hated everyone who voted for Reagan. I also hated K-Mart. As a blind person I hated most white men who were the deans and professors discriminating against me in graduate school. You must hate the people who oppress you and also resent everyone who looks like them, even the relatively innocent man or woman paying for your caesar salad.
“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” (Cornel West)
There’s seldom love in the political. Try to find “love studies” in the English Departments. Like it or not we live in the era of oppression studies which has some merit but not enough to achieve West’s kind of justice which is a celebratory coalition. It is hard to celebrate if you’re enraged all the time. And it’s impossible if you’re convinced by single issue politics. Cornel West:
“The country is in deep trouble. We’ve forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that’s the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.”
I find the phrase “stepping out on nothing” to be particularly meaningful because as a blind person I cross streets with a guide dog and take a leap of faith dozens of times a day. My sighted companions talk at street corners about bowling and I’m concentrating on the life or death situation before me.
The English Department won’t teach you about serving others. I learned something about how to do it by leaving the academy for five years and working at one of the nation’s premier guide dog schools. Each month blind folks come to the school from around the nation to train with a guide dog. The students are straight out of the pages of “Leaves of Grass” for they’re trans-gendered and black, old and Asian, young and Latino, white and largely poor though not exclusively so, and being among hundreds of blind people I learned that no one experiences disability in the same way, that no one is a symbol, no one is without the need for understanding and friendship, that everyone is hoping to land on something. I learned you have to be impatient with evil and patient with people.
American universities scarcely know how to teach such a thing. In fact, at least in the humanities, students are taught to be impatient with evil but also to categorize people as representationally evil without nuance and reflection. The country is in deep trouble in no small measure because the expansive and spiritual practice of voluntary selflessness are out of fashion when all we’re doing is thinking like Gore Vidal. BTW Vidal ended up a bitter man.