Fellow Princetonian-turned-Oxonian-radical-academic Alex began his election-reaction blog post, in which he expresses his anger at last night’s Republican victories, by asking, “What left-leaning blogger isn’t writing one of these?” Well, dear reader. I wasn’t going to, until Alex asked. But now I feel I ought to, to explain why I wasn’t, and why (of all things) the biannual routine of elections which don’t turn out the way you’d like has restored my devotion to my own personal morals and values and motivation to work for what is right in the world.
In November 2009, when Chris Christie won the New Jersey gubernatorial election and I realized for the first time as a voting adult that politics does not tend usually to deliver record landslides for the party for which you voted, I began to articulate my desire to turn away from politics to other ways of making change. On November 4, the day after the election, I wrote, “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.” And later that day, I put into practice the trainee academic/teacher’s approach to keeping faith in the world, in a post about “rededicating ourselves to banishing hate and finding joy.” In that post, I wrote about the stalwarts of my aesthetic compass, like Walt Whitman and James McNeill Whistler, and I promised myself I would concentrate on positive values like love and beauty and not on negative angry things like party politics.
A year later, I stand in more or less the same place. My schoolwork has moved a step further towards real history and literary criticism, I’ve sought out a few more mentors and adopted a few more mentees, and I’ve added a few more writers and artists and musicians to my aesthetic compass and to my dorm-room walls and bookshelves. But a year later I still sit under the window of a gaudily neo-Gothic dormitory in the crisp November afternoon, telling myself and the world that the teacher’s daily labor of changing hearts and minds carries on, regardless of what happens in Washington. And that there is little point getting angry about Washington, because there’s so much to do to institute everything from knowledge to kindness in our lives and communities. I may only live a few hours from Washington—close enough that I’ve taken the early-morning bus down there for a protest myself—but in a day-to-day life of learning and teaching both tangible and intangible things, the wealthy mostly-men who use their personal fortunes and the support of sundry industries to propel themselves to elected office have little bearing on what we do and how we do it. They have the power to affect our material circumstances, but it’s we who must make sure we continue to bring out the best in ourselves and others. Washington has nothing to do with aesthetic appreciation and loving our neighbors. And I happen to believe, because I’m a sappy humanist, that while we need to make sure all our fellow humans are fed and clothed and housed and have healthcare and jobs and educations, we also need fight for the endurance of love and beauty and truth and hope. How can we do that if we believe that humanity’s fate lies in the hands of Congress?
And so today I spent a couple morning hours going over the election returns, but then I set about reading for my first substantial piece of independent historical scholarship. And for the first time in several weeks, I am doing this reading with the conviction that I am doing the right thing, and that I am not a total idiot, and that I deserve my place in Princeton and I deserve to go to grad school, and that what I do amateurishly mucking about with intellectual history matters as much as literary theory I can’t understand. Because what I do will keep me steeped in my vocation of teaching and learning, and that is what will keep us not just alive, but human and humane and doing right by each other.
I leave you with one of the heroes who taught me to believe in what I believe in (whose newest album, to which I’m listening this minute, should be required listening for this particular historical moment) singing a song which always gives me hope: