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Friday, July 8, 2016

Liberty and Loss: The Personal Overthrows the Political


Two years ago, I took to the airwaves and told the audience of my show on local radio about the tragic news transpiring in my family. Usually, the topic of our discussion has something to do with politics, so I decided to present my dilemma with a simple question: your mother or your country?

Although I love covering the political events of the day, discussing the ideas of liberty on air or at an “anarchist” meetup group every week, I told the audience I must be honest with them — that for me the problems facing the nation seemed trivial compared to my mother’s illness. The horizon looked bleak for her, much bleaker than the country’s, I told them, and I would choose my mother over my country every time if both were ever in need of my service.

Though our radio family up until that point seemed to have only been bound together by our common political angst, after sharing my personal tribulations, we became something much more, discovering a latent love for one another that had been there all along. Calls of support flooded into the radio station. I was most touched by the folks who barely knew what to say. I remember hearing people cry for me and mom. Their outpouring was overwhelming. It felt like a true community: something electoral politics can only begin to emulate, and emulate badly.

Personal Government

Fast forward nearly two years, and I am a very different person. 27 going on 55. And I find myself time and time again revisiting Charles Bukowski’s unsettling poem, “i wanted to overthrow the government but all i brought down was somebody’s wife,” in which the author describes meeting with so-called anarchists who claim they seek to overthrow the state and the church. But these malcontents never carry out the propaganda of the deed.

They only sit and talk:

…but somewhere we missed: we were not men enough,
large or small enough,
or we only wanted to talk or we were bored, so the anarchy
fell through…

What happens next, well, the title of the poem speaks for itself. Instead of overthrowing the government, the speaker — who describes himself as a “tottering dynasty…always drunk as possible, well-read, starving, depressed” — overthrows the “personal government” of a rich Italian pharmacist by sleeping with the pharmacist’s wife:

…the pharmacist’s wife, she was nice,
she was tired of bombs under the pillow and hissing the Pope,
and she had a very nice figure, very good legs,
but I guess she felt as I: that the weakness was not Government
but Man, one at a time, that men were never as strong as
their ideas
and that ideas were governments turned into men;
and so it began on a couch with a spilled martini
and it ended in the bedroom: desire, revolution,
nonsense ended, and the shades rattled in the wind,
rattled like sabers, cracked like cannon…

Each time I return to this unseemly tale, I am met by two reminders: one ironic, the other tragic.

First is the irony of having Bukowski — notorious male pig par excellence — remind me of a phrase associated with 1960’s second-wave feminism: the personal is political. Yet, maybe the apparent irony isn’t that deep here. Sex, in every sense of the word, is certainly a political phenomenon; it is at least driven just as much by the pursuit of power over others than any procreative or unifying impulse. We can thank feminists for reminding us of this insight. And Bukowski’s suggestion, “that the weakness was not Government but Man,” is an eerily similar idea to the one Carol Hanisch expressed in 2006 when she revisited her famous feminist essay “The Personal Is Political”:

“Political struggle or debate is the key to good political theory. A theory is just a bunch of words — sometimes interesting to think about, but just words, nevertheless — until it is tested in real life. Many a theory has delivered surprises, both positive and negative, when an attempt has been made to put it into practice.”

Of course, Hanisch has different goals and genuine hopes for her political project, whereas the misanthropic Bukowski sees politics as an entropic cycle of “desire, revolution, nonsense ended.” But the common ground here is the rightful recognition of seeing politics fundamentally as a matter of personal power relations, sexual or otherwise, bound to surprise our best intentions at reforming our lives and world.

The pith of our lives is found via the personal connections we weave.

This brings me to the second reminder: the profound personal tragedies of my past year. The horizon I mentioned before was quite bleak, and as I return to the poem, it’s as though I am arriving to the scene of a crime at my childhood home only to discover, as the poem says, the overthrow of my own “personal government.”

Nothing of monetary value has been taken — it’s not that type of burglary — but what has been pilfered is a priceless sense of dominion and direction over my little plot on this planet. The turmoil of my past year was somewhat self-inflicted, but moreover, it was the product of forces beyond my control enough to make even the most ardent individualist question the very concept of “free will.”

No one slept with my wife because, well, I don’t have a wife. And I am sad to report I didn’t get the chance to corrupt any marriages this past year. No, my government was brought down by a much more lethal and disorienting foe than sex: brain cancer. And unlike Camus’ Meursault, I know the exact day my walls came tumbling down.

July 8, 2015. The day mom died.

A Portrait without its Creator

I must admit my mother’s passing ransacked my worldview, and slowly but surely, I have been putting the pieces of my life back together again. Besides the expected melancholy, I am most troubled by the feeling that my moral compass has been atrophied a bit. She was almost an external conscience to me. As I said at her funeral, “How can a portrait ever know all the secrets of its creator?”

There are no political remedies for the dark night of the soul.

It can’t. And once the creator is gone so soon and so unexpectedly, continuing through self-portrait is a necessary but arduous task.

Well-intentioned friends and family members, as well as kind-hearted strangers, shared their theories on how to carry on in the face of death. For this I am grateful. But what they offered were just that — theories. And much like theories of government, theories on how to deal with death eventually face the test of action and all the surprises found therein. Sometimes you find, indeed, you are not as strong as your ideas, that your pain can overwhelm your best intentions and that all the diversions in the world are not enough to scratch your itch.

But, I’m here to happily report I did find some solace. The scabs don’t itch too much anymore. I return to the world of ideas and keep finding treasure troves, but more importantly, I am resolved to act in the moment — to dream awake and enjoy it through the good and bad —and this has changed my perspective on politics. I no longer say the personal is the political. No, no, no.

The personal eclipses the political.

Genuine Community

More than any idea about how the human race should be governed, the pith of our lives is found via the personal connections we weave to form the complex tapestry of community — a culture so complex it can’t be planned in advance. Community is more a product of spontaneous human action than of conscious human design, i.e. a given culture is emergent, polycentric, and subject to constantly competing interpretations of the self, the other, and the world at large.

For instance, though my radio audience and I first found one another through our shared political angst, we became a true community through our spontaneous displays of love. All those people who took the time to listen to my story or simply ask me “how are you doing?” or tell me, “I’ve gone through the same thing you are, Joey. Your mother will always be with you,” connected with me, helped me through the day, in a more profound way than a common love of Hillary’s “Stronger Together” or Trump’s “Make America Great Again” or any appeal to libertarian ideals ever could.

A true community does not demand obedience to authority.

Why? Because politics barely scrapes the immense depths of human cooperation and solidarity. There are no political remedies for the dark night of the soul, only personal stories to share and be heard. Say what you will for our political leaders, but their attempts to cure complex human tragedies — as well-intentioned as they may be — usually amount to a shot in the dark with more tragedies as the ironic consequence. Living in such an absurdly complex world, we must learn to love life’s twists of fate without falling for the false promises of political control.

So, as we “choose” our country in 2016, remember what that really means. To choose a country is not to elect a new President or Congress. We are not called upon to force a particular ethnic-socio-religious central plan on our fellows through the power of the national government. A true community, one fostered in a positive peace and free exchange, does not demand obedience to authority, but a spontaneous, enthusiastic love we cannot begin to fully understand. The character of a people — at least a free people — is not fashioned top-down in halls of power, but in each individual beating heart, as we form our personal bonds through a fool’s journey into the beautiful unknown.

W.H. Auden said it well:

There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.


If I could find such “ironic points of light” in the midst of conservative talk radio’s sound and fury, dare I say, it can found most anywhere. Across parties. Across ideologies. Across sexes. Across races. Across nations. Across the globe.

In spite of our divisions, an affirming flame burns.

And hopefully, we will flourish through critical self-reflection and engagement with our communities, discovering the depths of our lives in tandem with our search for what we hold in common, remembering, “that the weakness was not Government but Man, one at a time.”