Wednesday, October 6, 2010

a long distance relationship

In my professional life, such as it is, I conduct research on disadvantaged populations. The very fact that I use the term disadvantaged populations gets to the crux of what I'm thinking about right now. It's like calling retarded people special. I'm sorry if this is a harsh analogy, but I get so damn tired of mincing words all the time and of trying to convince others that I'm more sensitive and kindhearted than I really am. Don't mistake my professional identify for who I really am. I'm not such a nice and caring guy. I stumbled into my job by accident. And now, almost ten years into it, I'm considered an expert on urban poverty within my professional milleux. But I have no real intuitive understanding of poor people on a human level. I deal with poverty strictly from a distance. I know everything about the poor, and I know nothing about the poor. My work reduces poverty to SAS code. In my more reflective moments, I ask myself who these people really are. What kinds of thoughts go through their minds late at night when they lay their heads down on concrete sidewalks, wanting nothing more than for sleep to take them away from their waking misery. I haven't got the slightest fucking idea. Occasionally I do ethnographic analysis that brings me in a little bit closer, and it always leaves me feeling shaken, like I'd rather not know what's going on out there.

This has been my coping strategy more generally for quite some time now. When the banks melted down a few years ago, I melted down with them. I felt on the verge of losing all the security I had worked so hard to create for myself . With every 500 point plunge in the Dow, I became more anxious and depressed. I think I might have mentioned this before, but I'm quite enamored of Gramsci's concept of hegemony, which is the phenomenon wherein ruling class interests are successfully represented as universal interests. It's a kind of false consciousness. My actions, perceptions, and feelings seem to be informed by this form of false consciousness. So with each violent market gyration, I felt like I was mere moments away from losing my job, my house, my savings, my sanity. I pictured myself living in my car until I'd have to sell it in order to be able to eat. I thought I might very well become one of those people I study from a distance. The only way I could escape from the fear was to not know, to essentially become an unaware ignoramus. I stopped reading the papers, stopped watching the news, stopped talking politics with friends. And guess what? It worked! Or, I should say that it's working. I've kept my head in the sand for quite some time now. I'd rather not know. That's the mantra I comfort myself with everyday.

Still, sometimes not knowing isn’t viable. In my line of work there are things that I have to know in order to do my job. I can’t always be completely removed from the life experiences of the poor, for instance. My status as an expert on disadvantaged populations dictates that I know as much as possible, and nothing puts me in a better position to know than ethnographic work. Ethnography forces me to look at all kinds of depressing shit up close. I'm talking about people with serious ailments and physical disabilities who sleep under freeway overpasses. I may be cold and unfeeling in a bunch of different ways, but seeing complete and utter destitution pierces my armour. It makes me feel sad, and it makes me feel paranoid about having it happen to me someday... I interviewed a guy recently who used to own his own business. Then he got divorced, started drinking, started drugging, lost the business, lost his house, lost his kids, lost everything. Now he sleeps in a tent under the 110 freeway in San Pedro. He seemed like a regular guy. He was articulate and cogent. If you met him under different circumstances, you'd never know the guy was homeless. He wasn't mentally ill or anything like that. And if it can happen to him... I felt very bad for him. I told myself I’d go back and check up on him once in awhile, maybe even try to help him, even though he seemed perfectly content, like his life had been stripped of stressful complications and simplified down to the bare minimum. But over time my conversation with him receded further and further into the past. The humane impulses he stirred up in me faded. I got wrapped up in my own shit. The old patterns and tendencies reasserted themselves. I’d rather not know. I’d rather hop in my sports car, drive to my comfortable suburban home, have a few drinks, eat some good food, watch a ball game on TV. Out of sight, out of mind. Roll another number for the road... I don't even know any poor people, except maybe Jesus, the guy who cuts my grass, and Esmerelda, the lady who cleans my house, and Jorge, the dude who shines my shoes while I'm working out at the gym. But I'm an expert. If you need any information on disadvantaged populations, I'm your guy. ...How did I become this expert who knows nothing? The only way I can even begin to answer that question is to say that my life has taken some very strange twists and turns. Some people have a preordained destiny, while others fall into the whirlwind of randomness. I think I'm a little bit of both. I was a jokester who became very serious, and now I'm in the middle between the two. Everything for me seems to take place in the middle of two contradictory things. I'm serious about poverty, but I'm not really all that serious about anything, let alone something that has nothing to do with me...

As a younger man, I embraced Marxism as both a political philosophy and an analytical framework for understanding the world around me. I deluded myself into thinking that I gave a shit about the working class. But it was always the ideas themselves that were the real source of the attraction, much more so than the practical implications of the ideas. I still think Marx’s concepts and theories provide a fundamentally correct interpretation of why things happen, it’s just that the only thing I’m interested in is the interpretation. Marx has that thing about how philosophers interpret the world whereas the point is to change it. Well, what if you’re like me and you don’t really like change? I guess then you side with the philosophers, right? ...A good friend of mine who was always incredulous about the authenticity of my radicalism, with good reason, told me once that I was way too into Derek and the Dominoes to ever be a true revolutionary. It was probably the most insightful thing anybody has ever said about me. Bobby Whitlock’s backing vocals affect me in a much deeper and more visceral way than Das Kapital. ...I was introduced to radical theory by a ‘radical’ English professor. To hear him tell it, reading Donald Barthelme’s short stories through the lens of Marxist literary theory was somehow supposed to bring about a worker’s state, a socialist heaven on earth. That was the pitch, and I greenlighted the script. Never mind that workers in actually existing socialist states produce goods and provide services at the point of a bayonet. I overlooked the facts, so intent was I on rejecting my class origins...

Eventually I lightened up and voted for Clinton. He felt my pain, and he had this phenomenal capacity to be all things to all people. He was constantly triangulating, splitting the difference between the 60s and the 80s. It was cynical, sure, but there's no denying that it was effective politics. I see myself as a bit of a triangulator, actually. I'm an expert who doesn't know shit. I care but I really don't care. Even when I get close, I always make sure to keep my distance. So much of what I do and say and think is deadly serious, and yet it's all a big joke. I'm kind and caring and respectful, but I'm a nasty, mean spirited fucker, too. If you try to pin me down, I'll slide right through your fingers. My friends and family and colleagues see who they want to see when they look at me, and I encourage them in this. But they don't know me, and I'm not so sure I do either...

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