Every few days, Steve Benen, of whose Washington-politics blog I am an avid reader, writes a post summarizing the achievements of the 111th Congress and of the Obama administration’s first two years. It can become tiresome, representing as it does the endless partisanship of Washington politics, the defensiveness with which those who find themselves supporting the Democrats must react to the new normal of Republican nihilism. Tired cynic that I am, I find myself just barely satisfied with a set of accomplishments meant to advertise the promise of progressivism and the suggestion that these days will—we are certain of it!—go down in history along with the New Deal and the Great Society. I possess not just a cynicism but a conservatism which hesitates to consign the new progressivism to the historical narrative of the old progressivism quite so very soon, and I resent being dragged into a reelection campaign against my will.
And yet there is something nevertheless comforting about listing your accomplishments and thinking that, after all, you’ve been more productive than you’d supposed. I had occasion to reflect on this point this morning, as I sat morosely staring into my first cup of coffee and letting my father quote Aristotle on the inachievability of perfection at me. My father is exceptionally talented at making sensible points about the nature of academic life (frequently with the aid of ancient philosophy) which I know, rationally, to be quite true. Listening to him make these points tends to cause me to alternate between frustration that I couldn’t have figured these things out for myself and resolve to reapply myself, after all, to achieving the elusive nine-hour day of sitting at a desk reading and writing. And so this morning, of course, I sat and read 75 pages of a novel and the new issue of The American Scholar, and this afternoon I made a cup of tea and am now at least sitting at the desk, albeit thinking that in order to find the motivation for nine-hour days, I need to first congratulate myself—à la reelection campaign, reelection to the post of academic apprentice for another academic year—on the accomplishments of a summer which started two-and-a-half months ago and which now has three weeks to go. Campaign season is in full swing, and there’s no more time to waste on staying up late watching BBC documentaries on the history of British art, or on reassembling Ikea furniture that I’d screwed up the first time, or on walking to the neighbors’ house to download practically gigabytes of Facebook updates and book-review RSS feeds. And so: instead of lapsing into schizophrenic GOP-style sabotage, outlining my failure to the American people (who are also, obviously, me), we might as well catalogue two-and-a-half months’ worth of stimulus, health care and financial reform, and so on. I should be able to concoct a checked-off checklist of which to be proud: after all, I don’t have to contend with the U.S. Senate.
This summer began what seems like a long time ago, with the proper vacation bit, the part where it was okay that I wasn’t putting in nine-hour days, and was actually in its way the most productive of all. Not only did I get a valuable lesson in having fun, and travel north to lend a brief hand to one of the most welcoming communities and best local causes I know, my world got much bigger and brighter in the wake of my first trip to France, my first trip out of North America as an adult. In the process, somehow, I experienced the biggest surge of productivity I’ve had all summer: writing two good articles (one my valediction to Campus Progress, the other as yet homeless), and beginning to research grad schools and become a bit more knowledgeable about the real world of professional history. Of course, I spent hours sitting in front of the computer, but not entirely steeped in book reviews and academic blogs—also wading through bibliographies and archival finding aids and Amazon and Google Books and Powells, looking for titles to add to what is now my “to read” list and will someday become the bibliography of my first substantive research project. As June stretched on, I told myself every day that when July rolled around, and I was sitting at a desk in the suburbs without the delights of Paris to distract me, I would marshal all the intellectual and physical reserves of a Princeton semester and read for my thesis.
But wow, that perfection is so damnably impossible, isn’t it? Like a member of Congress who can’t quite look the American people in the eye, it seems as if I’ve read anything but thesis books, found any number of things to fill my day other than the desk and the notebook. Even when bureaucratic incompetency caused my volunteer job to vanish into the ether, leaving me with great washes of unmanaged time, I found myself inefficiently lingering over too-detailed notes, reorganizing instead of writing, and every day updating my thesislog with a new lens through which to focus my study of the intellectual history of homosexuality, unable to settle down and research just one. My fellow Americans, it is hard to begin a substantial research project with only the two-week, fifteen-page paper as guidance in how to do so—not quite as hard as generating support for a public option, perhaps; not quite as hard as withdrawing gracefully from land wars in central Asia; but hard all the same. I’ve spent six weeks dithering, skirting the edges, reading only a third of the books I’d excitedly checked out of the UCSD library in my first week of self-imposed summer term, and realizing last week that it had stupidly taken me over a month to notice that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick had in about three sentences of a book she wrote in 1985 rendered the act of writing the thesis I’d thought I’d begun to research rather pointless. And so here we are: hence the dithering, hence the Ikea furniture and the book-club novel, hence my father’s Aristotelian pep-talk over the morning coffee. Hence this afternoon’s decision to turn the academic life which I sometimes believe I am not qualified to undertake into a reelection campaign.
Because, you see, that was the opposition’s attack ad (“Rutherford is no historian! She hasn’t the capability for original thinking! She has never done more than naïvely parrot Sedgwick!”), and here is Rutherford Junior Year PAC’s response: By assuming that this summer was about the thesis of my thesis, my opponent misses the point. By assuming that this summer was a failure because I haven’t been gainfully employed, my opponent misses the point. My opponent has turned a blind eye to the accomplishments of this administration: from essays, articles, and memoirs written, to restoring and life-changing travel foreign and domestic, to the real work of the academic amidst all this.
You see, my fellow Americans, one of the most rewarding parts of my life this summer has become what I can do to transmute my innate academic geekiness into something useful to other people’s lives—particularly in the links I post and the discussions which I moderate and in which I take part on Facebook. There are those in my life who have schooled me well in the possibility of taking Facebook seriously: it is where the audience is, the audience to which I hope to impart the values of civil discussion of current events and a respect for the liberal arts which the countries in which any of us live would like to funding-cut into oblivion. My days this summer have been made not by the slow inching progress on my thesis, but by the friends who have written to me all summer to tell me that they read what I post on Facebook, and that it is worth reading. My gratitude for these words of gratitude is immense, because it suggests to me—as I have suspected—that we are all starved for opportunities to read real things and to talk about real things. And it suggests to me that after too many years of being outcast for choosing a lonely life of the mind, and failing at too many social situations to ever dream of building communities based in friendship first and the sharing of ideas second, I can actually put my talents and my predilections to use. It suggests to me that when I seek to tune out of politics so that I can spend more time making my own life into a metaphoric midterm election, I do not do so needlessly or even entirely selfishly: I do so because I like having people to whom to talk, people with whom to talk, and people from whom I can feel needed. It is these interactions, electronic as often as not, which provide for me the real proof that the life of the mind is no waste of time.
But they are not always electronic. In San Diego, I found myself becoming part of a new social circle of kids with whom I went to high school: some of its members I’ve known for a long time, but some of them I just barely knew, or had never met at all. I grew closer to all of them, though, in a few weeks of cultural excursions and late nights in coffeeshops of which I could never have dreamed when we were all still in high school, when I was a little less sure of myself and a little more apprehensive of social settings than I am now. Twice or three times, in those languid summertime caffeine-fueled conversations, when I drank espresso and we made our Paris café right there in the cultural backwater of southern California, I caught myself, without realizing it, lapsing into my academic mode. Suddenly conscious that I was lecturing my friends about the history of gay identity politics, or had become the TA-like moderator of a political discussion, I would become embarrassed and step back—but not without first experiencing a little frisson of delight. Because I am never so much myself, and never so content with being so, as when I feel that I am teaching, and that my audience doesn’t object too much to being taught. And it is because of this that, despite the constant failure to achieve a nine-hour work day (I have now spent over an hour writing this post) I do not feel as if I have failed in my campaign promises of trainee scholarship.
When we make our cases for ourselves, we cannot admit to the world that we are—as is surely a philosophical truth—imperfect. Politicians do not schedule rallies only to tell their constituents that they will not be able to deliver on the promises they make; I think there was a part of me which belived when I left Princeton in June that I would write a book-length research project this summer. But in making the case for reelection—in calling upon all our physical and moral energy to take on the new academic year, and to make the case for fitness to do this for a lifetime—we must recast the debate. Determination of a candidate’s fitness should not be based in the partisan binary of what she has or hasn’t done, what she does or doesn’t believe, but rather in the presence of moral seriousness: the belief that she is acting not in the interests of lobbyists or in response to fleeting scholarly trends, but in pursuit of American ideals, in pursuit of knowledge, in a manner which demonstrates her caring for the next generation.
My fellow Americans, I have not written my senior thesis in the summer before my junior year. I have not, really, even started. But I have made great headway in understanding how to read the masters of my discipline and how to convey what I’ve read to those who haven’t; I have practiced in my own stumbling adolescent way the craft of public intellectualism, and I have begun to believe that research—as much as it will determine my career in the years to come—is absolutely the least important part of how my electorate (okay, fine, I) ought to judge my candidacy.
The 111th Congress passed the Affordable Care Act. I read a few books, and wrote a few essays. But the pollsters are asking the wrong questions. I would sooner they asked: are we good people striving to be better, committed to making the world a better place?
I leave it to the American people to decide.