Tabs Open #43: The Time Is Not Some Abstract Time

I’m posting this today instead of Wednesday because a) I didn’t publish last week and b) the contents of this newsletter are time-sensitive. The entire context of what’s written here will change depending on what happens tonight and frankly I just don’t have it in me to rewrite this once we know the outcome.

For the second time in three years my socialist political bent has caused me to miss the Super Bowl. Not for any reason that’s political, mind you; I’m as much a hypocrite as anyone and still watch football despite the raft of knowledge we now possess about its crippling effects on players and the financial exploitation at all levels of the game. It’s just that my involvement in socialist politics has created conditions that caused me to miss the game.

To wit: in 2018, fresh off some extremely disheartening developments in my local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, a small group of us got together to read and discuss (and argue about) a recent Marxist text about race and capitalism. It was a spirited, principled debate, one that laid the foundation for what would eventually become the Socialist Night School that I now teach each month, and like any good socialist get-together it concluded with someone pulling out a package of legal edibles and passing them around. The Super Bowl began about 10 minutes later, and by midway through the second quarter my mind had pretty much completely unraveled. So I have no actual memory of Tom Brady’s failed attempt at a heroic catch, no memory of the Philly Special that followed, no memory of feeling triumphant that the New England Patriots had failed spectacularly on the sport’s biggest stage. Frankly I just wasn’t capable of paying attention.

Things were a little different this year. I missed all but the final 12 minutes because I was traveling back home from Iowa, where I spent the weekend canvassing for Bernie Sanders.

The energy surrounding this weekend was like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I experienced it at the Des Moines airport at 11:30 at night as I ran into a group of canvassers in from Philadelphia. I felt it early Saturday morning in the Ankeny office of the campaign, where staff corralled dozens of people of all ages arriving for their first or second or fifteenth shifts out talking to potential caucus-goers. I felt it standing in the doorway of an apartment above a church next to an industrial park, a church housed in a building that looked like an insurance office. A man named Brian lived there, a day laborer who wasn’t going to caucus until we came to his door. He was already sold on the issues, it was just the feeling of alienation from the process keeping him away. When he found out that we cared enough to fly from Seattle to talk to him, and that some 2016 precincts were decided by coin flip because they were a dead heat, he decided that his presence there—his participation in the democratic process—did matter. He even agreed to talk his girlfriend into going, too.

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this video in the week or so since it was released. (The eight of us who came in to canvass together all watched it before we went out on our second shift, just to get fired up.) I do know that I saw the proof of its thesis every hour I was out knocking doors this weekend. Ankeny is a hodgepodge of McMansions and trailer parks, driveways with shiny new F-350s and driveways with cars that were old three elections ago. For every Derek and Kylee on my list there was a Jose or Imran to match.

Before I get further into sentimental territory I should also add that the Bruegger’s Bagels we ate at both mornings was right next door to the Tom Steyer field office, a building with no adornments save for a yard sign. They hadn’t even taken down all the big “FOR LEASE” markers. Grim.

Anyway I want to share with you the transcript of the last few minutes of a podcast episode that has made me tear up both times I’ve listened to it. The analysis given here by Matt Christman is apt, whether you’re a dyed-in-the-wool socialist or someone whose political engagement of late has been a hyper-fixation on our president’s impeachment proceedings. There is a desperate need to feel as though Something Good Will Happen, even as all things go so wrong. There is an overwhelming desire for the people in charge to just do the Right Thing, one time. And of course they don’t. So your choices are basically to give in to despair, or to organize. To walk through the door, as Christman says.

So it is that several hours before the Iowa caucus results start rolling in, I have hope. Perhaps it was only ever a fool’s hope. But it is there nonetheless. It scares me, this hope; a year ago, I thought my personal best case scenario for this election year was to be part of a small movement that moved the political conversation ever so slightly Left. That we’ve come so much further than that will make it hurt even worse if we ultimately do fail. But we don’t have to fail, is what I’m learning.

There is so much at stake.

Anyway I hope I’m not eating my words come tomorrow. And I also know, academically if not emotionally, that tonight’s outcome will signal neither the victory nor the death knell of the movement to give everyone healthcare, not just health insurance; to win a Green New Deal that puts workers and vulnerable communities first without giving big business a “seat at the table;” to make every level of education from pre-K to college a right and not a privilege. I know that.

I read somewhere—and the person who wrote this was not a mountaineer but a sailor—that the sea’s only gifts are harsh blows and, occasionally, the chance to feel strong. Now, I don’t know much about the sea, but I do know that that’s the way it is here. And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head. . . . But, excuse me, that’s another story. 

That’s from Primo Levi, who survived the camps at Auschwitz. It is good, in this moment, to experience both: to feel strong and to be strong.

See you all on the other side of this crazy night.