Last night, I was sitting on my window seat, blaring public radio and refreshing half a dozen websites; making phone calls; covering the New Jersey elections—and, to a lesser extent, Maine and NY-23—as if it’s my job. (In fact, it sort of is; I’ll have a piece up at Campus Progress later today about NJ.) I went to bed last night full of depression and malaise, not even fully angry at the voters who elected an incompetent Republican governor in my state, nor at those who voted to take away the rights of LGBT Mainers. No, I was just sad. Sad and frustrated and wondering what the point is of letting my schoolwork suffer while I care about politics. I put on a 50-year-old comedy radio show that had nothing to do with politics, and I fell asleep consumed by guilty that I wasn’t listening to a cable news show instead. It’s so hard. It’s so hard to do enough, because it’s never enough. It seems as if the forces of good and equality and righteousness are up against so much.
This afternoon, after I’d turned in my copy and gotten an H1N1 vaccine (all the while grumbling, “If we had public health care, I wouldn’t have had to pay $15 out-of-pocket for this”), I went to get lunch and wound up chatting with one of the dining hall workers, who is from Haiti. He was telling me that his cousin is running for office in Haiti, and that he was going to go back to Haiti to vote for his cousin. We talked about how we’re both from warm places, and how much colder it is here in New Jersey. We didn’t, of course, talk about the American election.
And that’s because there are people to whom American politics is simply not the center of the universe—not just those who live in privilege and so don’t want to work to get everyone health care and equal rights, but those whose universe is focused differently. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Corzine vs. Christie, or marriage in Maine, aren’t questions that make a whole lot of difference to someone whom one of the richest universities in the world can barely manage to pay a living wage. And we all should remember that. Those of us who wake up the next morning election after election, full of elation or remorse and the will to organize and to vote again, should remember that American electoral politics are not the be-all and end-all of reality.
I’m telling that to myself as much as to anyone else, because here I am, now, sitting in Princeton and eating my eggs and drinking my coffee, wondering what to do next. I am left winded by this election, suffering post-2008 disillusionment the way a lot of us are. I feel exhausted by politics, by reading hundreds of blog posts per day, by writing and talking and posting shit on Facebook. I feel lost after phonebanking and campaigning for Corzine, donating to Maine, and being left with the notion that the progressive grassroots is powerless in the face of far more entrenched and well-funded lobbyists.
I would like nothing more than to put politics in a box for the next ten years, and train to be the best historian that I can possibly be. I would like to be able to tell myself that devoting the next two and a half years to telling the story of Princeton’s gay alumni is as worthwhile an endeavor as devoting the next two and a half years to fighting for marriage equality in New Jersey. I would like to believe that going to grad school and fighting for one of those rapidly-disappearing tenure-track jobs is as morally conscionable a career path as getting paid subsistence wages to organize for another pie-in-the-sky progressive cause. I want to believe that telling the untold stories of Americans dead for thirty or forty or fifty or a hundred years is as important as telling the untold stories of Americans suffering today.
I want someone to tell me that it’s okay if I can’t do everything, and that furthermore it’s okay to choose my schoolwork over campaigning. I want someone to tell me that historiography can be a fight for social justice too. But the fact that I want so desperately to hear those glad tidings makes me think that it can’t possibly be true. It makes me believe that this is just rationalization to explain away the fact that I spent the weeks before the election writing my midterm papers and not out in the streets. It makes me believe this is just an attempt to justify my privileged access to elite higher education and a cushy academic job after.
But all the same. All the same I think that ten or fifteen years hence, if I do keep doing this, it will be worth it. The organizers will organize and my god, I wish them well. But how will we know if the arc of history bends towards justice unless there are historians to interpret and understand it?