My family was always political, but I have a love/hate relationship with politics.
Today, I can feel the country swinging towards madness. And make no mistake, a country can go mad. It is familiar territory, exciting and threatening, seductive and fearful. It feels good; it does NOT feel good. Or, if I may coin a phrase: the best of times, and the worst. Heads, I fear, will roll.
Politics is in my blood. One of my earliest childhood memories is of my parents hosting a party for Edward Brooke, the first Black candidate for the United States Senate to be elected. And my Uncle Herbie, who married my mother’s sister, was a speechwriter for Sargent Shriver, making him well known in Washington.
When my father was a little boy, his father, who owned a cloth-making factory, invited union organizers into his shop, saying, “This is good for the workers.” My mother’s father was passionately political, although on the opposite side of the fence: my mother has vivid childhood memories of all household activity coming to a screeching halt each evening so her father could listen to his much-beloved Father Coughlin, the notorious anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer who foreshadowed today’s conservative talk radio hosts. Why wouldn’t I be ambivalent? How could my loving and charismatic Jewish grandfather have, even for a brief period until the invasion of Poland, admired a Nazi sympathizer? For that matter, how could he have been a gangster (part of Boston’s Jewish mafia) and a sexual abuser? (Facts I learned as an adult.) And, on the other side of the family, how could my liberal father, son of a workers’ champion, be such a dick as a dad?
Politics is personal, confusing, and paralyzing. It is, indeed, a curse to live in such interesting times.
I’ve written before about how my family moved from suburban Boston to rural Mississippi in 1967, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and were on the spot, practically, for the assassination of Martin Luther King. The mass movements that moved my parents, and moved me, also exploded and exploited my childhood. It was awful. How could doing good, I wondered, make me feel so bad, bad, bad?
The years that followed didn’t help. The family relocated to Miami, where I entered my teens obsessed with the war in Vietnam, the longing to be a hippie, confused by my gay sexuality, addled by marijuana, surrounded by adults who’d gone mad over countercultural politics. On the one hand, the world of unbalanced adults surrounding me was horrifying, threatening, confusing, unreliable, and destructive People took LSD and had psychotic breakdowns. Cops rioted in the streets. On the other hand: it was goddamn exciting. With parents who had effectively abandoned their wild, runaway, dropout teenaged son, I clung to politics and counterculture as the only things that mattered. This was where I could find meaning in life.
The usual teenage pursuits of friendships, school, college plans, hobbies, learning to drive, graduation, concerts, sports—just about everything “normal”—were abandoned as I and my cohorts dove head long into Chapel Perilous. The kids were not all right.
Politics and counter culture had literally driven us mad. Those were the times, and I was one among many.
I was in my mid-thirties before I sobered up (thank you, AA) and began to survey the damage. Comfortable and confident in my conventional liberalism, I turned my attention to my own creative life and sobriety, a reliance on activism to provide meaning and interest to my life became a thing of the past. What a relief! I settled comfortably into a self-image as a gay activist, meaning that I was satisfied that being “out” and voting Democrat was sufficient to maintain a political identity.
And now, again, the country swings to madness. Seriously friends, I want nothing more than to bury my head in the sand.
Yes, I agree with cohorts, Never Trump. Yes, folks are taking to the streets and certainly the demonstrations are called for. Yes, the paramilitary police are out of control in North Dakota and the streets of Oakland. The apparent power players in an imminent Trump administration are at least as frightening as Haldeman, Erlichman, Mitchell, and Dean, not to mention Adolf. But, I also know too well that a nonstop obsession with the news cycle and the activist response is a path upon which madness lies in ambush.
And so, to the matter of balance and creativity, and, as they say in those “recovery rooms,” serenity.
The question: is it possible to be serene in an insane world? Is it even ethical or responsible? Can one reasonably stand aside from active street engagement in the age of Trump? Can friendships be maintained with Trump sympathizers? Must I run mad once more?
Honestly, I don’t know the answers. But I know this: I find myself able to think or write about little else. I can only assume that in this struggle for sanity in an insane world, I am not alone, and that my reflections may reflect yours. And so I use what platform I have to spill it out and that is the essential thing, I suppose.
For writers, for teachers, for butchers, for bakers, for candlestick makers, there can be no business as usual. Like Cato the Elder obsessed with the destruction of Carthage, I must always harp upon this: the madness must be addressed. We can tolerate no invisible elephants in our living rooms.
I share my puzzlement because, today, it is all I really have to share. And I remind us: we’re in it together.
Don’t forget to turn it off as often as you reasonably can. The news will be here when you choose to tune in, but it is essential to hear it from a place of inward calm. So, how do you get to that?
I have no answer, but to keep writing, keep reading, keep musing, all to keep hope alive.
Rumpus original logo and artwork by James Lorenzato, aka Argyle C. Klopnick (ACK!).
“The Storming Bohemian Punks The Muse” was originally developed as a column under the editorship of Evan Karp at Litseen. An earlier incarnation of this work can be found there, along with many other interesting things.