Tuesday, March 12, 2013

800 Words: To My 19 Year Old and 24 Year Old Political Selves Part 1

I had the great luck of going to the most political college in America during the most political time in America since the sixties. And it was pure luck: I applied to eight colleges and was accepted to two. I had a choice between being a hippie philosophy student at Earlham College in Bumblefuck, Indiana, or going to American University in DC and trying my hand at the nation’s capital. I was slightly, though not particularly, enthused about Earlham, but I had no enthusiasm whatsoever about going to AU. But I thank my lucky stars I ended up at AU, because I’m convinced I’d have failed out of Earlham and would currently be in year three of living in an Occupy Wall Street tent.

In retrospect, I can’t lie to myself. I chose AU for one and only reason. I found out, to my shock, that the female friend who will forever dwell in my mind as the ultimate unrequited high school love would enroll at AU, and I chose AU to be closer to her. But by the second day of class, I’d nearly forgotten her and rarely ever saw her again. I think she’s somewhere in Cleveland now, no doubt playing Manic Pixie Dream Girl to some other nerdy man in need of saving.  

WIthin three weeks of beginning classes, planes had hit New York and DC, and I remember watching the billowing smokestacks of the Pentagon from our dorm’s top floor with a very pretty girl with whom I had a brief fling. I have no idea what happened to her either, but what I do know is that I was only beginning down a path I could never have guessed a mere month before.

I was supposed to be a humanities kid. I spent my high school years dreaming of thinking big thoughts and reading Great Books by the pile. In my mind, I was going to be Wittgenstein, Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Ezra Pound, Pierre Boulez, and Noam Chomsky wrapped into one brilliant mind who would set the world alight like an intellectual messiah. There was nothing that could break my confidence in my brain - I might have been a drooling nerd with too few friends, I might have been a nuclear disaster with women, I might even have had to repeat my junior year of high school, but the day was fast approaching when all that adolescent angst would be vindicated. I was not stupid, and nobody was ever going to show me that I was.

But then I arrived at college, and the realization that defined my life ever since dawned on me all too quickly - I was not going to be the profoundest thinker since Plato, but I’m not dumb, and it didn’t take me long to realize that college classes were. Any idiot could see that the university setting was where ideas went to die. My classroom experience was little but teachers teaching inconsequential specialties to even their freshmen undergraduates, most of whom were bored beyond description and watching the clock tick towards the weekend when we could drink ourselves into oblivion or smoke a bowl - and in the meantime, the smartest among us could converse with each other on a level to which our classes never approached. Our intellectual conversations might have been quarter-informed and stupefyingly pretentious (and none moreso than my end of the conversation), but at least we had passion for what we were learning, something that died a long time ago in most of our professors. Our professors’ highest hopes for their students, the professors who made tenure anyway, was was that one of us would regurgitate their useless knowledge back to them, go to school with their (usually unfounded) hope of having their own cushy, useless career in academia - where they would pass on the same theoretical jargon to another generation; jargon that has neither done a thing to advance human knowledge or humankind; jargon whose entire reason for existence is to intimidate all but those who are initiated in the cult. “If you can’t understand it, how can you criticize it?” And therefore, because nobody understands it, it can mean anything its writer or reader desires.

Academia has always been a place for cultish behavior. When Hitler came to power, academics were one of the first and most willing professions to weed out their Jewish and dissenting members (let it never be said that the majority of intellectuals always gravitate towards the left). The true minorities, discriminated against by quotas and without avenues open to them for academic careers, ended up in places like magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, the theater, the opera, literary fiction, art galleries, and the concert hall  - places where the humanities live and breathe because they’re discussed and debated like the life and death issues that they are and not embalmed in the sterilized environment of a guarded tower, where students and teachers alike are sheltered from the implications of the real world. In today’s world, newspapers are nearly as sterilized as their academic counterparts - dumbed down by decades of formulaic convention that makes the op-ed board the last place a reader should look for dynamic writing or revelatory insight. The concert hall, the theater, the opera house, and all but the most local and downscale galleries priced themselves out of the working man’s range for so many decades that they’ve lost nearly all their ability to speak to him (at least in America). Even magazines are required to put their material online for free if they want any hope of staying in contact with a real audience. To find real revelation, you have to look to blogs and long form webzine writing, rock clubs and television shows, public radio, graphic novels, web comics, standup comics, and movies with narrow circulation. Much of what passes for 'art' in these places is disgraceful, but it is only in an environment where the risk of failure is overwhelming that success can be achieved in any meaningful way. And it is only the people for whom their happiness is dependent on such a dangerous outlet for success who develop requisite desperation to communicate which cultural vitality demands.

It was a website that gave me my first outlet for precisely that desperation, and all the anger and frustration of a youth more filled with trials than any other kid I knew in my sheltered upper-middle class existence finally found its proper outlet. I don’t know how it felt to others, but as I wrote for a website so pathetic I don’t dare mention its name any longer, I felt a decade’s worth of adolescent anger scorch from my fingers onto the computer screen. I was royally pissed with a world I felt had left me behind, and finally, no one was going to leave me behind any longer. I had a 1000 readers who watched me bloviate to my heart’s content about matters national enough for world events, and local enough to tear my next-door dorm neighbor’s published book to shreds; I was a terrible bully, repaying what was given to me in spades. And I don’t regret a moment of it. For the first time since I was a child, I had a measure of self-respect.

At 31, I’m now writing for my own blog, one that’s lucky to get 200 hits a day. Life’s left me behind as much as it ever did, but perhaps I’ve mellowed in my ‘dotage.’ But even if nobody reads what I write here, I read it. And give or take some syntactical mistakes, I’m proud of what I do. So whether you read it or you don’t, I don’t really care. I suppose that’s not entirely true, I’d much rather have a larger audience, but I don’t care nearly as much as I should. I write what I want, nobody tells me how to write it, and what I write pleases me. Is there anything more which a writer has any right to expect?

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