Words and things, pt. 1

More than twenty years ago I began and ended my career as a formal activist, working as an outreach fundraiser with a progressive political organization in Pennsylvania. My co-workers were serious, committed people with definite ideas about how the world would be a better place, which for the most part I shared. Among the things they knew for sure was that there was no place in a right and just world for words that, because of their racist, sexist, ableist, or other oppressive histories, were hurtful to folks. This notion is still alive and well among people I respect and admire. I have heard many passionate and/or well-reasoned arguments for it. But I have some doubts.

I grew up in a lefty family, so oppressing and hurting folks was never my thing. We are also a family of smart-asses, with a special penchant for word play. Our punny humor often involves using words according to their sounds rather than their definitions, pulling them out of context and incidentally showing how arbitrary their meanings are. It’s like speaking a second language. Explaining this to my activist organization’s co-directors was of no help; I got ten minutes-worth of consciousness-raising about the inherently offensive nature of the word ‘chick’, especially in substitution for the word ‘check’. Hm. Noted. “Progressive” is an especially inflexible language.

Contrasting with my privileged linguistic oafishness was my colleague Bobby P. Bobby was a real catch for this group. He was a working class boy from northeast Philadelphia, a real man of the street. I liked him and so did everyone else. He made the middle-class organizers feel like they were effectively reaching out and creating cross-class coalitions. What made Bobby even better is that he came with the right principles, took the cause very very seriously and quickly became a polished speaker of Progressive. Perhaps I should have been more like Bobby.

The second-drunkest I have ever been in my life was the night Bobby and I went out and did Jack Daniel’s and Schlitz boilermakers for hours while we shot the shit about this and that. Bobby liked me a whole lot because of my honesty. He always knew what I thought and where he stood with me. I was authentic to him. So after a couple of hours he clued me in to his purpose at work. It was to get paid and get laid. He didn’t give a damn about ending sexism or cleaning up Superfund sites. And he’d figured out that the chicks at work (he knew to call them women) were suckers for a line of snappy progressive patter in politically-correct language from a real nobly-oppressed man of the masses. So he fed them what they wanted to hear — one after another. In a matter of months he slept with half a dozen women in the organization, that I know of, including one of those co-directors. Bobby was a smooth operator. I knew his type. Politics does make strange bedfellows. But we never went out drinking together again.

To be continued.



  1. Pingback: Words and things, pt. 2 « Dead Voles

  2. But we never went out drinking together again.

    Is that because he didn’t want to fuck you as well or due to your principles and honesty?

    The story reminds me of the United Nations, where I worked for a while, which is swarming with Polyannas. But I find those Polyannas who truly believe in the cause and work at the UN in order to help the refugees, actually, scarier than the hypocritical types who are in it to get laid.

  3. As usual you’ve gotten right to the heart of the question, CPC. Once I get around to explaining that I’m trying hard to get rid of my principles in favor of having honest relationships with people, maybe my particular kind of integrity will measure up a little better.

    Along those lines, I couldn’t agree more about who the scary people are. Causes are poor substitutes for human beings.

    Although fucking each other never came up (we weren’t each other’s type) I continued to like Bobby after our chat because he was clear on what he wanted, he’d made a smart and accurate analysis of how to get it, and he wasn’t taking anything that wasn’t freely given. He gave them what they wanted — it wasn’t his fault that they wanted the wrong things. Classic con man. The suckers he was playing set themselves up by failing the elementary is vs. ought test, to my mind a basic condition of moral adulthood. There was nothing hard about penetrating his veneer, but they were so taken with their fantasies and ideals that they never made the ordinary effort to see and understand the real live person they were dealing with.

    Why I didn’t go out with Bobby any more is a little complicated. For one thing, I think we’d felt each other out to our mutual satisfaction. We were from different worlds and had very little in common. Mutual understanding was a good outcome; more than that would have taken a lot of work, and neither of us were workers that way. Another thing is that I also liked the dumbass progressives. They were zealots, but with good intentions and not nearly competent enough to do much harm. Bobby’s revelation divided my loyalties. I could laugh off the ways the liberal nazis’ relations with me were destructive. But their self-destruction was a different story — it made me sad and frustrated for them. I think that’s a lot of why I got out of that biz not long after.

  4. but they were so taken with their fantasies and ideals that they never made the ordinary effort to see and understand the real live person they were dealing with.

    Life imitates art – do you know Todd Solontz’s HAPPINESS, when the Russian teacher gets fucked by the Russian, into whom she projects her neurotic social idealism of the ROAD LESS TRAVELED and Dr. Spock variety (and this type of Marxian humanism is behind the whole United Nations phenomenon as well)?

  5. Anycase, after similar disillusionments in my own life, I tend to run like Hell from people with ambitions to save or improve the world. It might be from my Christian viewpoints, namely that it´s only God´s business to save the world, really.

  6. I like to point out that in order to be disillusioned, one must first have illusions. I do not put myself above this analysis. Resilience in the maintenance of illusions seems to be the critical variable in the world of activism, humanist or otherwise.

    I agree with you completely that big illusions about saving the world are creepy, overreaching and scary. I like Rex on Savage Minds’ idea of Burkean existentialism in this respect. Some people think the world would be a much better place without Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, communists, fascists, meat-eaters and the left-handed in it (again I’ve included myself in this list). I certainly think there are some awfully good arguments for eugenics. How great would it be if we knew the final truth about god(s) and all got on the same page about that. All of these are logics that end in terror. Just say no.

    Nevertheless I have my own persistent illusions as manifest in this blog — that at least some people can be led to think more clearly and to stop torturing themselves and others with their half-baked dogmas and enthusiasms. And in a very cautious kind of way I admire all of the small attempts people make to be decent and kind to each other; although even here I ironically note that my version of being decent and kind to people is to give them credit for being able to handle a more complicated thought, when I know damn well that more complicated thoughts cause confusion, anger and pain for many, including me.

    And yeah, to get bigger and more concrete, the U.N. probably should have let Dallaire do more to stop the killing in Rwanda, the U.S., France and the African Union should all feel pretty bad about sitting on their hands, and all of the same can be said about Sudan now. I’d just rather that good be done by people with a practical orientation toward incremental decencies rather than the big weepy flappers who always find ways to make things unintentionally worse.

  7. Pingback: Words and things pt. 5: Practice of theory « Dead Voles

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