Adolescent Politics

by Daniel A. Kaufman


The sub-heading of the late-Christopher Hitchens’ book, God is Not Great, reads: “how religion poisons everything.”  Now, maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t.  I really don’t know.  But one thing I do know is this: Politics poisons everything. And the reason it does is that we are not serious or mature enough to engage in it properly or to understand when it should be put to the side.  Today’s politics is reminiscent not of the noble pursuit described by the ancient Greek philosophers or the humbler, more practical game played by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, but of the narcissistic displays and social jockeying most identified with insecure teenagers.

When I say ‘we’, I mean all of us; everyone; even some of our most significant institutions.  Our leading professional organization for practicing psychologists, the American Psychological Association demonstrated this with its recent “Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Boys and Men,” which deem masculinity a mental-health risk.  Rather than any sort of scientific statement (anyone who knows anything about science could tell you that a claim such as “stoicism is harmful” is neither testable nor otherwise empirically verifiable), the document is a transparent and cringeworthy effort to pander to the current politics swirling around the #MeToo movement. [1]  A number of our top corporations have demonstrated it, insofar as they have allowed politics to so blind them to the reason for being in business (which is to provide goods and services, for the purpose of making a profit) that they actively attack and insult their own customers for being insufficiently feminist or gay friendly or environmentalist or otherwise sufficiently “woke” (the pitiful, ill-conceived recent Gillette ad being only the most recent example). [2] Even comedy, the one place where one always could expect to find an unrestrained free for all, full of wit and humor, delicious irony and hilarious offensiveness – think Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, or Eddie Murphy – has been ruined by wokeness, with miserable creeps like Hanna Gadsby being praised to the skies for “performances” like Nanette and her weird misandrist rant, last year, at The Hollywood Reporter‘s Top 100 Women In Entertainment gala, while real (i.e. funny) comedians are being de- and no-platformed left and right and disappearing from the cultural map, without replacement. [3] Beyond comedy, the pathetic parade of examples from the world of entertainment is ongoing: Scarlett Johansson being hounded by trans-activists for being cast as a trans character in Rub and Tug, to the point of having to drop out (already exhausted at having previously been attacked by Asian-activists for her role in Ghost in the Shell); Roseanne Barr having her television show canceled for an off-color, ill-advised tweet; and Liam Neeson, who is about to have his career euthanized for having made the mistake of being candid about a very dark moment in his life.

Hanna Gadsby
Real (i.e. funny) comedians: Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor

I first “got into” politics early in high school.  My best friend at the time, who was to some extent the “leader” of our little group, was over-the-top right wing and crazy about everything military and paramilitary – the sort who subscribed to Soldier of Fortune magazine, wore tiger-stripe camos, and had an arsenal of knives and shuriken in his dresser – so I fashioned myself as a super-Leftist and drove him insane by expressing support for Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas on every possible occasion. Of course, his own “passionate political commitments” were equally disingenuous, devoted as they were to showing what a macho bad-ass he was, which may have been great for attracting other guys and maintaining some semblance of control over the group, but was radioactive when it came to girls.  As we grew older and I became more interested in getting lucky with the chicks than in hanging out with a bunch of dudes watching The Dogs of War over and over again and fantasizing about being mercenaries, I ditched my gang as well as my leftist politics and did myself up with a Miami Vice makeover, Sonny Crockett style, complete with linen suits and t-shirts in pastel colors. It was a wild success.

Don Johnson as “Sonny Crockett,” Miami Vice
Me, after my makeover (1985)

From that point on, I retained the nagging suspicion that peoples’ politics were phony, but it remained largely unconscious, until I arrived at the University of Michigan in 1986, when it was triggered once again.  It was a time of intense student activism on campus that manifested itself in all sorts of high-profile stunts, whose primary effect on me was a feeling of escalating annoyance.  Students belonging to the “Black Action Movement” surrounded classroom buildings, barring anyone from entering, in protest of the University’s decision not to make Martin Luther King day an official school holiday. Anti-racism activists built a wood shanty in the middle of the school’s main quad, where everyone would hang out between classes (known as the Diag), to protest South African apartheid. This quickly devolved into what we called the “shanty wars,” as Palestinian activists built their own shanty to protest the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and pro-Israel students built a full-sized model of a blown-up bus to protest Palestinian terrorism, all of which rendered the Diag a shithole and a bummer to hang out in.  The University, in the meantime, had introduced “the Code,” an early version of today’s speech codes, which landed it almost immediately in an ACLU-filed lawsuit. The school newspaper, the Michigan Daily, became increasingly fractured between its liberal and radical wings, which gave birth to the Michigan Review, a right-of-center student publication that spent half of its pages mocking the Daily. And so on and so forth.

I perceived not a little insincerity in all of this, as it seemed to me that all the activism I was witnessing had more to do with social positioning on campus than with the actual plight of the people in any of these places. There are any number of useful things that someone motivated by genuine concern about the situation between Israel and the Palestinians could do, but building a shack or a model bus in the middle of a university campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan was not one of them. As Jonathan Chait pointed out in an article on this period at U of M (he graduated just a few years after me):

It is a sad irony that a newly resurgent left, rather than aiming outward to redress the world’s evils, instead directed its energies almost entirely inward in a misguided attempt to achieve ideological hegemony in a small university enclave.[4]

While those on every side were engaged in this early version of political virtue-signaling, for the most part it was people on the Left, so my aggravation over the politics on my campus led me to the political Right.  It had not yet occurred to me that I might become apolitical or that my own political moves, motivated as they were by personal and social imperatives of my own, were really no different from those of the people I was aligning – and realigning – myself against.

Anti-Apartheid shanty at the University of Michigan, mid 1980’s

I would remain on the “Right” through my graduate school years in the 1990’s, though what this mostly meant was fighting against the efforts at the time to “decolonize” the university curriculum, by way of political attacks on the magnificent Western canon.  It was the Rightism (if you can even call it that) of an Allan Bloom, rather than of a Newt Gingrich, but moving to Springfield, Missouri in 1999, in order to take my current job at Missouri State, changed all of that, as being “Right” down here means something very different – and much more distasteful – than it does in New York City.  The local racists, gay haters, Bible thumpers, and other assorted lower-Midwestern know-nothings sent me trotting back to the Left, but it was halfhearted, as I found myself tiring of what had become a lifelong game of political yo-yo.

Family and professional life had led me to become much more self-reflective and self-aware, and I began to realize the extent to which my politics over the years had simply been tracking whomever I hated the most or wanted to socially upset in some fashion. The new century saw campus politics ratchet up to the absurdist levels we see today, making the political conflicts of my college years seem like enlightened discourse by comparison, and the weird and disturbing spread of that style of politics throughout every sector of society, by way of social media was becoming increasingly manifest. I also started listening to more and more hardcore punk, whose aggressive, speed-infused energy isn’t directed against any particular politics, as 1960’s protest music was, but against politics itself and especially, the hypocrisy inherent in so much of it. [5] The stirrings of those unconscious suspicions about politics that I’d been carrying around since the early 1980’s were getting stronger and stronger, but it was the rediscovery of Joan Didion that brought me to the state of relative clarity that I enjoy now, with regard to politics and especially, the current political moment.

I say “rediscovery,” because I had read Didion’s fiction at least as far back as college – I think I might have read A Book of Common Prayer in high school, though I can’t remember for sure – but I only found my way to her essays much later in my life, and it was the essays that were so revelatory, not just with regard to my understanding of my own political inclinations but of the politics of our age. Didion articulated in her beautifully bare, razor sharp prose what I had instinctively understood as an adolescent and came into full consciousness of as a middle-aged adult: that beyond the day-to-day business of legislation and management and statecraft, politics has become more about narcissistic self-assertion and justification and in-group domination/out-group subjugation than about the implementation of principles by way of public policy.  In this, she was certainly channeling Lionel Trilling, who warned in The Liberal Imagination that “Some paradox of our nature leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion,” but in my view, Didion said it best, in a tiny slip of an essay, “On Morality”:

Questions of straightforward power (or survival) politics, questions of quite indifferent public policy, questions of almost anything: they are all assigned … factitious moral burdens.  There is something facile going on, some self-indulgence at work.  Of course we would all like to “believe” in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home.  And of course it is all right to do that…  But I think it is all right only so long as we don’t delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why.  [6]

“Facile and self-indulgent.” “Assuaging private guilts in public causes.”  “Transforming the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home.”  I can’t think of anything that better describes today’s politics and the way in which we have politicized dimensions of life that never should have had anything to do with politics, and we couldn’t be any less aware of it, as “deluding ourselves” is all we seem to do. Hannah Gadsby clearly has suffered tremendous personal trauma at the hands of certain men, but her loudly broadcast rejection of comedy, on the grounds there is too much misery in the world is an obvious instance of “transforming the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home,” and her public excoriation of 150 million or so men whom she doesn’t know is demonstrably “facile and self-indulgent.”  Every suddenly “woke” person publicly apologizing for his or her “privilege” and bowing and scraping at the altar of intersectional identity politics is clearly “assuaging private guilts in public causes.”  You get the drift.  Didion wrote the script for the politics we suffer with today, decades ago. It’s too bad that nobody took it for the warning that it was.

The tipping point that brought us from the political farce one might have experienced on a 1980’s college campus to the political nightmare that is everywhere USA, today, was when social media arrived on the scene.  What it has effected is no less than the virtual return of everyone to high school and its clique-oriented culture, turning all of us – from the lowest-wage laborer to the highest-paid corporate CEO – into eternal adolescents, by exposing us to what everyone in the world thinks about us, at every moment of every day, and thereby reviving all of the adolescent insecurities that we normally outgrow, not just by way of our physical development, but by entering into the adult spheres of life. These spheres can no longer play this role, because social media has effectively turned them all into high school cafeterias, which is why we find ourselves confronted with the bizarre spectacle of the heads of major corporations and healthcare institutions behaving like teenagers engaged in popularity contests and other juvenile forms of social competition.  How else to explain the “woke-business” antics of a Gillette or Electronic Arts or the betrayal of every principle of sound science and medicine on the part of a professional organization like the American Psychological Association, but a desperate need to prove oneself in-group, by way of shameless obsequiousness and pandering out of one side of our mouths, and the condemnation and destruction of those who are out-group, out of the other, under the ever-present, ever-watching eyes of one’s clique on Twitter?

In “On the Morning after the Sixties,” Didion wrote of her cohort, born between the mid 1920’s and mid 1940’s:

We were that generation called “silent,” but we were silent neither, as some thought, because we shared the period’s official optimism nor, as others thought, because we feared its official repression.  We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal… [7]

We would all do very well to be a lot more “silent” in this way; much more aware of and invested in the personal; and much less inclined to engage in “social action,” i.e. the political.  In other words, we should all fucking grow up.  If we don’t, I fear for what will become of us, and one thing that I know for sure is that it’ll happen a lot sooner than we’ll drown or roast or whatever, as a result of global warming.

Joan Didion




[3] Towards the end, Ms. Gadsby also has tough words for “white people,” of which she is, of course, one.


[5] I discussed this in my essay “Middle-Aged Punk.”


[7] “On the Morning after the Sixties,” originally from The White Album (1979), reprinted in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live (Everyman’s Library, 2006), p. 330.






26 responses to “Adolescent Politics”

  1. Social media – which now dominates simply because more established media now races after it in search of juicy headlines – has also produced one of the worst poisons in public discourse today – celebrity politics. No, I’m not (or not just) referring to celebrities burbling political opinions – that’s been going on for decades. I mean effectively remolding politicians as celebrities, so that the line between experienced politicians and “political stars” who may have no real savvy or little to contribute is now completely blurred, perhaps erased. Obviously the sore thumb is our reality-TV-star-n-chief in the White House, more concerned with schmoozing with dictators with similar bank-accounts as his, and who is followed by fans on the right who have surrendered their moral compass in the hopes that rally chants will numb the irrationality of his policies (if one can call opportunism a policy model).

    But the left has the same problem. I am disheartened by the current crop of young new freshman Representatives, over whom the media lavishes such attention, and who seem not to understand that the first thing you do when you get into government is 1) learn how to govern, and 2) learn how to continue to win elections so you can keep on governing. Instead I get a flurry of headlines about Ocasio-Cortez’s tweets, and her dancing and her clothes. And the rightist trolls love her just as much as a target of invective and hoping to use her to brand all liberals as followers of “AOC” – she’s just starting out and she’s an instant image, a symbol, a bright shiny thing to gawk at and take selfies with. This is ridiculous! She hasn’t maneuvered her way through the lobbyist infestation, she hasn’t negotiated any compromises, she hasn’t studied all the possible contributors she may need to call on for resources – monetary, political, social.

    In the ’90s, television – already the main source of information for a population reading less and less (with decreasing literacy) – was well on the way to turning politics into entertainment – that’s how we got the likes of Beck and Limbaugh, and why a serious impeachment process was rather turned into s show. But the common “news cycle” was, as it had been for decades – still about a week long (which is why serious punditry was preserved for Sunday morning). Social media has telescoped it into about 6 hours by my own rough estimate – look at that nonsense about the MAGA hat wearing school boys and the elderly Native American trying to talk with them – and, as we learn within a few hours, the “Black Israelite” cultists hurling insults at them. A complete non-confrontation blown up into a national crisis by twitter outrage, only to evaporate into sporadic side-bar reports by ‘reporters’ convinced that, if there had been such an outcry, there must be something ‘serious’ going on… or at least some further outrage for new headlines.

    If 6 hours is your news-cycle – that is, the period when certain trends gain or lose momentum, or erupt into real decisions – then of course you need celebrity politicians! essentially nameless Covington school-boys in MAGA hats will not do. But A tweet from Trump or Ocasio-Cortez -! OMG! And they do it every day, so – the tweets write the headlines. If it tweets it leads.

    I don’t know whether we will ever regain our sanity. The media is utterly invested in this new social environment. They too have their stars, and will reduce the influence of such stars only with monetary incentives that are unlikely in the near future.

    My guess is that what will happen is the rise of a new elite, governing in the background like a program on a computer one is not even aware is doing anything. I don’t know whether this elite will lean left or right, but while they may not be malignant, they will certainly not prove beneficial for the majority of us; for they will develop a savvy we can never aspire to.

    Yet there will be government. What fantasists on the left and the right never understand: there is always government. We have records of ‘primitive’ tribes that do not have chieftains; but they have counsels. And even those lacking even that institution of communal decision making, have extremely rigid codes of behavior enforced by unforgiving relatives. There is always government. It is either more open or more closed, more charitable or stingier, more just or more brutal. The question should always be, how to develop government that finds the common ground and yet is more open, more charitable, more just. And that takes reasoned discussion and inclusive rhetoric. Which arts we appear to be losing right now….

  2. s. wallerstein

    I sympathize with your adolescent perception that people’s politics are generally phony.

    I was a very out of it teenager and one day at a friend’s house I listened to a Bob Dylan album. That was 1963 and Dylan was still largely unknown. I was apolitical (although rebellious) and I realized that if I made myself over into a Bob Dylan clon, I could become much much more successful with the girls. Dylan like me was skinny and unathletic looking, with curly hair, obviously Jewish and ironic, very distant from what were then the idols of teenage girls. I started to dress like Dylan, adopted his political opinions and I was launched and reborn as a cool 17 year old.

  3. Good ideas, or theories to consider. On reflection though, I do not agree with Didion’s analysis of her generation’s “silence”. The sampling of people I knew from her generation, during the 60s and the morning after, (which comprised a reasonably wide swath) simply do not the motivations she describes. There was definitely a conformity cultural element operating during that generation, in thought and behavior, which although easy to typecast too widely, was something offset and reacted against, instinctively, by the evil baby boomers.

    More consideration and less agora is something absolutely indicated in the present situation though. And as you’ve hinted, the web effects and social media strangeness is deeply implicated in this. Serious thinking has to go towards how to reform these things and the ways we use them (and they us) as a foundational element in any social/cultural healing. Individuals already do this. But something more systemic is necessary.

  4. My parents are both of that generation, and I would say they much more closely resemble Didion’s characterization than yours. And the Gen-Xers in general — who are the children of the Silents — would seem to confirm that characterization, given that they (a) are much less political than either the Boomers or the Millennials and (b) they are the farthest thing from conformists. Indeed, I would argue that it is the activists who are the most conformist.

  5. s. wallerstein

    In my experience, as a 60’s person, when the 50’s people didn’t conform, they were far more creative and autonomous than those of my generation (the boomers), probably because there were no or very few ready-made models for non-conformity in the media in the 50’s. They had no Bob Dylan or John Lennon. They were on their own and when they faced that challenge as did Didion, they were freer and more authentic than those of my generation.

    However, the vast majority of the 50’s generation (and I knew them well in my older cousins, etc.) did not face that challenge in the least and were fearfully conformist, partially because they had no or few models for non-conformity, but also because of the fear that came from the McCarthy era.

  6. Obviously we could both cite counter-examples. My observation is based upon many people of the ‘generation’ which I knew.

    In general, I am of the opinion, from many of your previous comments and such, that you have too monolithic an opinion of these cohorts, meaning all of them, including your own.

    ‘The activists’ does not capture any meaningful grouping. Some activists follow group-think and some do not. Group-think is not generational. Activism can or cannot be, depending upon the context and what is being reacted to. But activism itself is also not generational.

    The core issue, I continue to point out, is the mechanism now uniquely available: social media, fragmented attention spans, web culture, etc.

  7. I agree that any generalizations about such huge cohorts are just that … generalizations. The question is what the overall flavor of a generation is. One cannot be more precise than that.

    Agree with you entirely on the last point. It’s why I emphasized it so strongly in the piece.

  8. Aaron Silverman

    Interesting thoughts. I’ve now jumped The White Album further up my queue of reading projects.

    The stages of human maturation metaphor is apt. There’s an argument out there (don’t remember by whom) that, rather than corresponding to a biological stage of development, the pattern of behaviors we currently label adolescence arose as a result of the spread of government mandated children’s education and has since protracted due to increasing participation in post-secondary education. Schools force a bunch of different people together into a common space and then tell (backed with punishments and rewards) those people, often inconsistently, what they can and cannot do, what is bad and what is good, what is true and what is false. And the content of many of these circumscriptions changes from year to year as children age up through the system. Under such totalizing and unstable conditions a human mind might be motivated to interpret and engage with social intercourse more extremely. But the institutional conditions that characterize this educational arrangement are not uniquely experienced by children.

    At the risk of abstracting out quite a bit, I would guess that generally participants’ behaviors tend toward adolescence as a given institution’s exit cost and inclusivity both increase. Institutions characterized by high levels of both have the combined effect of forcing participants to interact with others with whom they share few norms and interests. Of course, we’re going to have poor emotional regulation in such contexts.

  9. These are interesting speculations that never would have occurred to me. Thank you!

  10. Dan

    Well said.

    You make good use of Didion: “Questions of straightforward power (or survival) politics, questions of quite indifferent public policy, questions of almost anything: they are all assigned … factitious moral burdens…”

    Yes. There is this fake morality out there which is cut off from all the things (both social and personal) that really matter.

    As part of your commentary on Didion you say:

    “We would all do very well to be a lot more “silent” in this way; much more aware of and invested in the personal … ”

    I agree absolutely.

  11. Bharath Vallabha

    Very nice post. Thought provoking.

    Makes me think of my past. As a brown person who left academia, I assumed – as do most people – it is because of how conservative (not politically) academic philosophy is in terms of change. There was that. But also in the departments I was at, there was the beginnings of the “woke” energy, which I found not very appealing. There was a sense that if I wanted, say, a more global curriculum, then I must also think, talk, smile and socialize as the hip, engaged group does. This is a kind of reducing conceptual issues to social dynamic issues. Like a cult of personality but without a person at the center, but just a mood. And the mood demands that if you are to be taken seriously, you have to pass the set social cues. On the left – and the right – we can see this happening broadly in society. In academic phil, because it is so much more oriented to the left, select social groups dominate or try to dominate the conversation.

    Dan, you said in earlier writings you used to write for National Review. Do you still do that, or plan to, there or other venues like that? Would be helpful to hear this kind of perspective more broadly. And for society to hear from academic philosophers who aren’t just on the left.

  12. Bharath, during the “conservative” phase in the ’90s, I did, for a little over a year, have my own column in National Review, called “New York Journal.” It was primarily, however, a column focused on culture in NY and not political, though politics came into it — such as in a piece I did on the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

    I lost that job due to a change in general editorship (from John O’Sullivan to Rich Lowry) and some conflict between me and the editor of the arts section, where my column appeared, a guy named David Klinghoffer. (I was right about him, of course, and now he’s effectively a crank over at the Discovery Institute fighting for intelligent design education.)

    At this point, I am more interested in increasing the reach of my own platforms, rather than working within other peoples’ platforms. The process I am going through right now — working on revisions of a book for a major trade press, Vintage/Random House — is only making that inclination stronger. I am a good enough writer, with enough experience and education under my belt to publish quality work, without the interference of editors.

    I have the means to substantially self-market, if I wish, so I will probably self publish most of my work, from now own. EA already has over 125,000 annual views, with over 50,000 unique visitors a year, with almost no marketing at all, and I suspect the audience for my BloggingHeads show is even larger, so if I do invest in marketing, I suspect I can substantially increase the reach of my work. I may write for the occasional organ now and then — as I just did for Philosophy Now — but I doubt it will ever be my main thing again.

    I should say, finally, that while I am not on the Left, I am most certainly not on the Right either. I am a Lockean/Millian liberal, which to my mind, is pretty much functionally apolitical in today’s political climate.

  13. alandtapper1950

    Dan: Thanks, that’s very interesting. Here’s my somewhat similar story. I went to university in Western Australia in 1968. In rapid succession there were amongst my contemporaries waves of anti-Vietnam protest, sexual liberation, feminism Germaine Greer style, hippiedom, dope and LSD, afros, dropping out, Hindu cult following, deep green environmentalism, and I forget what else. I was way too straight to be more than an observer of all that. I wanted to be a scholar, not an activist. In any case I got married and soon had small children to consider.

    Three authors helped me to think about the relation between politics and self-display. Tom Wolfe, especially in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”, showed how to be a participant-observer in a weird world without taking the weirdness too seriously. Later, PJ O’Rourke, in “The Parliament of Whores”, showed how to laugh at everyone in politics, and also how not to take oneself too seriously. O’Rourke’s insight that the well-behaved generation older than mine was as self-serving as anyone later has stayed with me. The third author was Simon Leys. At school we had passed around Mao’s unreadable but catastrophic “Little Red Book”. Leys’ “Chinese Shadows” taught me about the real world of Chinese politics. It was an awakening. From these authors I learned to be indifferent to political labelling and moral pressure. My preferred label is pro-family libertarian.

    Of my contemporaries, a few went to jail for political corruption. A few others became admirable leaders in politics and law. Most of us did nothing of much interest.


  14. Thank you! I’d love to hear others’ personal stories as well!

  15. Kyle

    I was very mildly politically active for stretches in the late 1980s, early 90s as a student on my campus. I can remember getting elected to be a representative from my dorm or major or something to a university-wide student assembly. I remember accepting this position in part because my studies did not interest me at that time (although later, they would).

    I was exposed to a large range of issues for which I was expected to have certain opinions. I can barely recall them all. Farm workers. Unions. Anti-imperialism with respect to Latin America, the first war in Iraq, Act Up.

    I now know that it would have been very difficult for me to have reasoned positions on all or even some of these issues so quickly. I was just in a room with people who I was supposed to support. Being in that room, even silently, meant that I supported them. Being friendly with them led to being asked to do certain kinds of work, go to meetings, protests.

    There was no scrutiny or discussion of policies or positions. These latter were taken for granted as right even though they were all vastly different and did not at all rely on the same principles. So, it was deeply, unthinkingly conformist.

    Looking back at it, I am surprised that I was not more scared of the whole thing. But I think that the thirst for doing more than just sitting in classes (which was all, outside of summer jobs, I had ever done) was a motivator for me.

  16. But I think that the thirst for doing more than just sitting in classes (which was all, outside of summer jobs, I had ever done) was a motivator for me.
    = = =
    Me too, but that thirst was satisfied by my social life, much of which included mixing partying — i.e. drinking, etc. — with intense, late-night bull sessions, in which we talked about all the things that we were learning that interested us.

    I never felt any inclination to man any barricades. Indeed, the whole thing disgusted me, for the reasons I tried to express in the essay.

  17. Kyle

    I think that’s an important part of the story.

    There was a friendliness that led to deep discussions, sex, and often both. We were all afraid of AIDS, so we were somewhat afraid of sex. But there was still a lot of intimacy and friendly sex.

    I loved your recollection of the Don Johnson jacket. I had one, too. Linen and shoulder pads! A school chum with some money bought it for me just because she thought I looked great in it. We had sex for the first time that night.

    I am guessing (truly) but it is hard to believe that this is still happening to the same degree. Today, the same kind of friendly sex would be overshadowed by the risk not of a positive HIV test but rather a call from the TIX office.

  18. Let me tell you my story. Once upon a time …. just kidding! Your piece and the comments are really quite outstanding.

    But about 5 years ago I consciously asked myself what have I discovered after studying and living on 3 continents, and working for 40 years in the medical profession, all the while trying also to keep abreast of events in the wider world.

    Like you, I had come to the conclusion that our culture is chaotic and that it doesn’t seem to make sense. It is supercomplex and exceeds our individual abilities to comprehend. Very smart people seem to do the stupidest things. Most commentators and students of the human condition seem to be committed to the idea that if we could only just identify the most important truths and values about ourselves and society we would solve our problems. Our follies, wars, prejudices, exploitations and oppressions should then recede. Unfortunately, this pursuit of ‘the truth’ goes off the rails with regularity, sometimes with devastating consequences.

    It may well be true that some virtuous combination of knowledge and attitude would deliver us from evil. The problem, however, is that our culture for the foreseeable future would be unable to recognize such a universal solution when presented with it. (It probably has already failed to recognize it many times) Society is not ready for ‘the truth’ because it is too ignorant. Heck, even I am not sure I would recognize it!

    Culture then might be more like a biologic spandrel – “a phenotypic characteristic that is a byproduct of the evolution of some other characteristic..” I say ‘more like’ because culture is a fundamental adaptation. But it is like a spandrel because the contents of culture do not DIRECTLY point to our goals and means of survival.

    Culture is an irresistible glue that binds us while biology is doing its thing.

  19. In my day, straight people werent afraid of AIDS yet, so it didnt effect us. It effected the cohort right after mine.

  20. Kyle

    Thinking about your post some more…It seems to me that the political activist is a tragi-comic figure, a kind of necessary fool of social evolution.

    The politician seeks to rule and manages opinion for the sake of governance (i.e., power). For the politician, opinion is ironic, subordinated to the political situation. The activist must speak without irony in the hopes of changing political opinion. However, such speech has its own kind of bullshit, different from the politician’s bullshit. For instance, alarmism, grandstanding, moralism, emotional manipulation of the fence sitters etc.

    I suppose there is an art to it. But, in our society, is is always the young who do it. There is no time or way to mature into an artful activist. There are no mature activists. They either quit or become politicians.

    And so here we are…

  21. s. wallerstein

    An example of a mature activist: Noam Chomsky.

    There are of course many more, but less well known.

  22. There are many examples, alas most are old. Or dead.

  23. s. wallerstein

    I don’t live in the U.S., but I could name some others in the U.S. who are not as old and as well-known as Chomsky, but older than you are. You yourself have commented that your generation is not an activist generation, so they don’t come from your age-group. There are of course younger ones and we’ll see whether they continue as activists as they age.

    My point is, in any case, that it’s not that activists necessarily become politicians as they age as is claimed above, but that for complex historical and sociological reasons in U.S. society activists are mostly young or old.

  24. Well, if we’re getting personal here, my journey through politics has followed something of this path. (I’ve probably remarked mthis somewhere before, but it’s worth repeating in the present context.)

    I was 13 when I first became aware of politics, and reading a good deal of William F. Buckley I began the political phase of my life as what I call a “Nixon Youth.” I attended a speech by him in ’69, and when I realized his sleeve had brushed my hand on his way through the crowd to the podium, I was in awe for a week. At that time, especially in Rockefeller’s New York, there was no shame in being a liberal Republican; and in fact most everyone I knew was Republican of one stripe or another, including my Uncle sam who was a player in the County machine (which would have painful consequences for him during a scandal involving Off-Track Betting:in the early ’70s). But in March of 1970, the essential callousness of many conservative voice (not least that of Nixon himself) to the shooting of the students at Kent State led me to reconsider my politics and attend to news and information than I had previously. About the same time the local Republicans, losing power over the City Council, decided to play the race card, to take advantage of the ‘white flight’ that had been developing since the mid-’60s riots. (To this day, Rochester, with nearly half the population non-white, vote Democrat, the County votes Republican.)

    At that point, I couldn’t join the Democratic Party – I had spent two yeas growing towards my maturity critiquing and mocking liberals. So as I finally came to age, I took the only seemingly unreasonable alternative at the time, and became a Yippie.

    This didn’t last long – the Yippie movement was too bound to its era, and by the mid-’70s it was clear that era had passed. So I became apolitical for a while, until I got to college. I actually got involved in one of the last great student uprisings of the ’70s, the march on Albany for reduced or even free tuition in the SUNY colleges, which led to crashing into the state capital building and occupying the President’s office once we got back to college. It was great fun – that’s where I met the love of my life, and while we’ve been apart for decades, I still think on her occasionally, and remember fondly that night of flirting in the college President’s kitchen.

    However, I wasn’t fooling myself. I knew that a major protest over tuition hikes was an embarrassing diminution of the supposedly noble causes students had marched for in the ’60s. So, rather jaded, and ever skeptical, I redefined my old Yippie re=education into traditional Left Anarchism Anarchism in the late ’70s and ’80s meant, basically, long debates with other Anarchists, and reading not only Main Anarchist writers like Goldman and Kropotkin, but studies in anthropology to discover how we had gotten this-a-way and whether there had been any historic possibility it could have been otherwise. Also, there was occasionally joining social collectives, like the Co-Op food store, occasionally breaking minor laws that seemed impositions, ignoring local law enforcement, and occasionally cooperating with Marxists for the occasional protest march. But debating with Marxists became tiresome; the protests more and more appeared pointless efforts at self-aggrandizement. Also, there was one great problem that had occurred to me that could not be properly answered by Left Anarchism or Right Anarchism (Libertarianism): How can a society with no governmental law-giving or enforcement, provide the necessary force to inhibit the rise of the excessively greedy or power hungry. The answers we get from either left or right anarchists – social ostracism or ‘the invisible hand of the marketplace – these are just silly; a clever manipulative SOB can easily play these strategies like cheap kazoos. Look at Trump – what does an anarchist do when achieving a position of power? become a self-serving autocrat.

    By the time I was earning my Doctorate (1990), my reading had begun to include the American Pragmatists, and I finally found my home in Dewey’s social democracy, where I largely remain today; but not without an interesting spin through Hobbes’ Leviathan. One might say I am a pessimistic social democrat. We need government intervention – and on the same principle we can use government to help correct social problems. The boundaries and limitations to these interventions and corrections are not clear and change over time – that is why we need a system of government that is elastic and necessarily open to the influence of social and cultural forces, and determined through agencies of law and justice.

    However for that reason, I did want to add a defense of political activism, which has gotten something of a bad rap here. First of all, its a great place to meet members of one’s preferred sexual ‘others.’

    But more seriously, look at the history: There would be no 40 work week without labor union efforts spanning some 50 years. There would be no recognized civil rights without the Freedom Riders. Women would still be without the vote without the Suffragettes. A lot of political activism is either wrong-headed or simply futile at their very bases. Before contributing to any activism I remind myself that Prohibition was brought about by a strange partnership of left and Right-Christian political activism, with disastrous consequences. And I remind myself of the youthful self-centeredness that made protesting a tuition hike seem so important once. .

    But I also remember my sixth grade class. The city was about to turn the playground of my school into a parking lot. Our teacher, Mr. Zito, listening to our complaints one day, told us, “Well, do something about it!” And with his help we petitioned the City Council and raised a neighborhood outcry among our parents.

    Thirty years ago, that school building was sold and exists now only as condominiums. But that public playground is still there. As long as it is, I can think that I contributed in a small way to the living history of this city. That’s much more satisfying than an epithet on a tombstone.

    Sorry for being so long winded; but, god, the memories evoked….

  25. s. wallerstein

    The element of play-acting in political commitment evaporates when reality hits harder.

    As I noted above, I play-acted Bob Dylan as a young man. It’s noteworthy that Bob Dylan is also play-acting Bob Dylan since he was born Robert Zimmerman, a middle class Jew, not a hillbilly vagabond. The U.S. is an environment that is favorable to play-acting. First of all, the media is omnipresent with its roles invented in Hollywood or in the counter-cultural equivalent of Hollywood. Second, there is the myth of the self-made man: you can reinvent yourself over and over, you can be what you want to be. Third, the U.S. is relatively benevolent for middle class (not to mention wealthy) whites, even the women, so the weight of repression is not overwhelming. You can play-act without much fear of getting hurt badly.

    The play-acting ended when I got to Chile in 1979. I had met a Chilean woman in Brazil, she became pregnant and I came to Chile with her. Being leftwing or progressive, I was against the Pinochet dictatorship, but I certainly had no intention of complicating my life opposing it. However, it was worse than I imagined: not only the outright repression and censorship, but also the intellectual mediocrity which it brought on, the fear of criticizing or questioning anything.

    For those who complain about the activism on university campuses today, I invite them to share my experience as a university English professor in a university where there was no activism at all, not even, say, in defense of stray dogs because people were afraid to criticize anything.

    Little by little I got drawn into the struggle against the Pinochet dictatorship until by 1986 I was working full-time in a human rights organization against it. There was no play-acting there. One of my friends and co-workers, Jecar Neghme, was gunned down in the streets of Santiago by the secret police.

    That experience left me with a lifetime commitment to human rights and to leftwing politics, since in Chile the right supported the Pinochet dictatorship and the moderate center did little to combat it. Maybe if I had ended up in the Soviet Union in 1979, I would have a commitment to rightwing politics, but life leaves its marks on us.