I was hosting a friend/colleague of my mother's for the night. An 72 year-old Argentine novelist (my mother's translated some of her books into English), she's a lovely, funny woman. She is/was, in a word she used frequently, "delightful." She has not had the world's easiest life; this would almost certainly be true of your average person who'd lived through the political and economic turmoil Argentina's gone through over the past three-quarters of a century (not to mention one who is/was Jewish in a fairly anti-Semitic environment, to boot); and she's had her share of personal woes on top of it, I'm given to understand. She was stopping here between speaking engagements at various universities around the country.
Anyway, at one point she was telling me about one of the professors she had met at her last engagement (apparently the topic was about Argentine identity, which she said she didn't know what that meant, really, how could you define such a thing?...): a man who was, as she put it, "trying very hard to be as Jewish as he possibly could." Except he didn't believe in God, the religious part. But (I took it), he was still following all the laws, going to synagogue, learning Hebrew, pilgrimages to Israel, and so on, so as to be a better Jew. She seemed bemused. She said he was very...serious, or, no, not exactly, what's the word? "Earnest," we said in unison. "Yes," I said. "I know the type." Yes, she went on, he seemed terribly concerned about doing everything, about being... "I don't know how to say it."
"Correct?" I ventured. She nodded, thoughtfully. Then, "What?"
(Unfortunately, she's also extremely hard of hearing, and she found my flat, slushy California accent hard to understand, so this happened a lot. I let it go).
Anyway, she said, she thought he was a bit of a...masochist, yes. "Well, that's part of our tradition, too," I said, dryly, and probably out of her range of hearing. But, he was, she continued, so worried about getting everything right, about doing everything properly, about...
She paused, and laughed. Basically her gist was, life was hard enough as it is. Why make up more things to punish yourself with?
I have to say, she had a point.
It seemed to her and it seems to me that in some ways this is perhaps a peculiarly (U.S.) American phenomenon, the whole "identity politics" business (into which general category I'd slot the man's behavior, based on what she was telling me). Oh, not limited to us, of course. Karen Armstrong, for instance, talks very convincingly on how all fundamentalisms (religious and otherwise, I'd say) are a byproduct of modernization, a reaction to intense and rapid destabilization. I would venture that this is true on a micro as well as a macro level. The more chaotic your world, the more rigid an ideological framework you'll construct for yourself (or, more likely, fall in line with one someone else has already constructed). The fragile your internal sense of identity, the harder you'll cling to an external, constructed Identity.
And while most of us in this our modern woild are subject to the buffetings of dizzying change, those of us who grew up in the United States are (perhaps; then again we're also notoriously self-centered, myself included, so I can't speak with any real authority on anywhere else) particularly vulnerable to the identity business. Because with the exception of a few folks, most people can't trace their familial roots back more than a couple of generations or so, if that. And contemporary American life is more rootless than ever, for a lot of us (what d'you think the whole "family values" squawking is about? it's about people worrying about the social unit fragmenting even more than it already has, which is: considerably. They do it in a way that I find personally inimical, but I understand the impulse). And on top of it you factor in all the people(s) who were pressured until very recently (and in many ways and places still are) to melt into the pot, to let go of any remaining non-norm-conforming characteristics. So, not really a surprise. And most of us probably need to go through some version of this or another at some point in our lives, I'm now thinking; it's a kind of rite of passage.
That said, I also think that it's maybe not so great to end up stuck there. Crawling back into your own cozy if narrow niche with a few like-minded fellows is a comfortable and sometimes necessary retreat. Nice place to visit; probably you don't want to live there. Or, anyway, let's just say I don't. I find it claustrophobic after a certain period; and I also think that it's a luxury the (loosely defined) American left can't afford for too long. This last more on the macro level than on the individual level, I'd add; there's a place for all kinds of activism, and yes, there's a need for inter-work as well as intra-work (are these real terms? fuck it, they are now). Some people might want to spend their lives and work within a certain concentrated niche, and I think that makes complete sense...for them.
But there's been a real dearth of serious bridge-building, let alone larger structures, within the (loosely defined) American left, it seems to me, (at least until very recently, maybe). The thing is, the reactionary right is all about retreat; if the bulk of the left is mostly on its own retreat, there's not a lot of meeting ground, and there's not a lot of room to go forward to anything new.
There's been some talk in some circles about the need for meeting the (loosely defined) right with "come, let us reason together." And that's probably true...but it seems to me that before one goes too far afield, one might be better off starting closer to home, with the people you share a basic framework with, even if there's bitter contention over some points. Dialogue. Which is what I was trying to get at with my link to the networking piece (yeah, a "structural hole" doesn't sound like something I want to be in either; but funny academese aside, the basic idea behind it is sound, I think).
But all of this wasn't even my main point, when I started this entry. What I was really interested in was the idea that maybe life is too short to go around being terribly terribly earnest all the time; and that what with all the imposed restrictions from the Powers That Be (which we're not and never will be, of course. no; the powerful are alien beings in their own world and have nothing to do with anything within the rest of us), maybe, you know, we could be a little gentler with and amongst ourselves with regard to imposing still more.
Which is as good a segue as any back into our favorite subject, Sex Positive Feminism (tm).
I've more to say about this, a lot more. For now I'll just leave it with this:
Try, if you will, to let go of the "sex" part of that phrase and focus on the "positive" for just a moment. As in: this is something some of us are fighting FOR, not merely against. Desire. Creativity. Expression. Pure sensual happiness. The lives and beliefs of the "sex positive" (feminist and otherwise, and yes, there is a distinction to be made) are not for everyone, God knows; and I for one do not know of anyone who is "sex positive" who's, like, trying to force everyone to buy porn and wear fuck-me pumps and go to orgies, or whatever it is that people seem to imagine (I've seen some decidedly bizarre interpretations on the Internets over the last few weeks).
All I want to know from my fellow travellers, whatever your sexual bent, is: what are you positive about? What makes you happy? What's the cream in your coffee, the spring in your step? What do you want to see when you go out your door in the morning? What kind of world? God knows there are a shitload of things in this world to be fighting against. What's worth fighting for?