On Mattering; or, A Thanksgiving Apology

It is Thanksgiving, today: I suppose we agree now that, like Columbus Day, this holiday rests on a racist American founding mythology, and yet I am thankful that my parents and sister have used the days off work to travel to New York and cook a festive meal in my apartment. I am grateful that their arrival on Tuesday evening also obliged me to pull myself out of a spiral of self-loathing occasioned by the explosion on social media that followed the announcement of a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri that police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for shooting an unarmed African-American teenager. The outrage was palpable and entirely appreciable, and—perhaps after spending the last couple years abroad—I was blindsided by the intensity with which it took over my news feeds. Everyone, it seems, is angry: angry in a way they never are about Palestine, about Afghanistan, about Syria, about Liberia, about Somalia, about Ukraine, about China, about sexual assault on our university campuses or far away in Mumbai or Tehran or the warzones of the world. Here in New York, helicopters circled overhead on Tuesday night, and today there is talk of protestors obstructing the Macy’s parade.

This is all perfectly understandable, justifiable, and in large part good, especially if this kind of outpouring of anger and grief can be translated into a call to reckoning on race, on gun policy and the inviolability of the police, and other vectors of power in the US national context. And yet. There is something about the all-encompassing nature of the discourse that seems to be emerging that troubles me deeply, because it seems to foreclose a variety of possibilities for how to live and how to manage anger and productive activism, and it seems to impose a hierarchy of political urgencies and ethical ways of being that shuts down the wider variety of ways in which individuals can find ways of being and doing good and not harm in the world.

All this began first thing Tuesday morning when, half-asleep and instinctively, I checked the internet and reposted a couple articles about academic news, and commented on a conversation about managing time-to-degree in US PhD programs. I had my first cup of coffee and my second, and I wrote some careful paragraphs on a new project, about seven British academics who toured a wide swathe of US universities in 1918 in the name of peace and international relations. As I wrote about the need to recover the intensity with which the women in this British delegation engaged with the problems of international education and with which they pursued interpersonal relationships in the course of this project, against a backdrop of Twitter positively exploding with fury, it seemed to me that I was making my own idiosyncratic contribution to telling stories that need to be told, that I was pursuing my training in trying to be the kind of historian who helps. I posted as much on Facebook.

It turned out that I was wrong. A friend wrote on Facebook of her anger at her white friends who were not posting about Ferguson, and in the thread that ensued it became clear to me that by writing about the British Educational Mission of 1918 instead of Race in America, I was part of the problem. It became clear that I had everything, as a white American, to be sorry for, and that leaving my work, going to the internet, and reposting a large number of articles about Ferguson and race was one acceptable way of atoning. I didn’t return to my historical work that day, and I spent it mired in deep remorse that my life as a privileged, white grad student with fancy degrees from an upper-middle-class background at a university that has so aggressively displaced the historically black population in its neighborhood creates such active harm in the world. If only flagellating oneself were the same thing as consciousness-raising, because I can assure you, dear reader, that the self-loathing with which I have struggled for the past several years resurfaced on Tuesday in earnest. As I wrote on Facebook, it seemed that anything in my life that leads to pleasure and personal fulfillment—studying history, learning to teach it, having a calling to universities and university work, having a life with some material comforts, friendships, hobbies—was directly at odds with anything that might do good in the kind of absolutist way that social media that day seemed to be ranking good. That the only moral way to live would involving dedicating my life to social justice, giving away all my income above a basic subsistence level, and definitely leaving graduate school. That, dear reader, was how it seemed, and the “likes” came pouring in: many agreed, and it was noticeable and only added to the shame that the only friends who wrote to say that they thought I was doing enough good were white. In the UK, where the discourse is all class, all the time, I had forgotten how to think as so many do in America that race says everything about how you engage with the world, what your opportunities are, and what your opportunities aren’t. Being white and wanting to spend my day writing history not directly connected to race and social justice made me rethink basic decisions I had made that I had tricked myself into thinking were not actively harmful, such as being in grad school, living in Manhattan, and even finally making the decision to spend some of my savings on an iPhone next month. All of these acts suddenly seemed emblematic of why my life was repulsive and disgusting and criminal. It seemed that when I go to work, when I ride the subway, when I teach, when I write, I am the reason that the status quo is what it is, that I am the society that killed Michael Brown. That nothing else about me—my pacifism and opposition to guns, my educational vocation, the donation I gave to a Thanksgiving food drive, all those small things I try to do to make myself and others better—alters the basic fact that my life is harmful to society.

So today, two days later, it is Thanksgiving, and no one’s anger has abated, nor has my remorse. Another friend posted on Facebook, “If you’re white, don’t forget to be thankful today that you don’t have to convince anyone that your life matters,” and it seemed a particularly cruel joke, because to keep myself alive for the last 25 years I have spent many tear-filled sleepless nights trying to work so hard to convince myself that my life does matter, that there is anything about the small good that I have the power to do and the ways that I can put the things that give me pleasure and fulfillment to use that means that I deserve to live. In order to survive I have turned to Protestantism for a discourse that confirms that everyone’s lives are equally precious and that founds the drive to be and do better on this first cause of grace: doing good, and doing the right kind of good, isn’t necessary to justify why we should be allowed to continue to live, but proceeds naturally from our joy at living and our love for others. And I have turned to nonbelievers over the course of a historical period in Britain more or less spanning George Eliot to E.M. Forster, who offer an account of ethics in which good is achieved through an infinite variety of unhistoric acts and individual personal connections. It is these foundations which have caused me to see the university as a site on which slow and careful institutional change can have huge ramifications, as the tenured faculty in a variety of disciplines who have recently put their efforts behind changing cultures of sexual assault at the University of Virginia and other institutions show. On Tuesday these ways that someone like me might lead a life worth living all seemed like a hollow lie. It was a black joke to assert that I should be thankful that society thinks my life matters: because it so, so doesn’t. And I know it, and everyone in the public sphere who decries ivory towers, and academics who teach undergrads instead of writing for the media or policymakers (or Tumblr and Twitter), knows it.

I am still sorry. I am sorry that I have so much power and wealth and you have so little—even though on some days it feels pretty funny to think that a 25-year-old female grad student who lives in central Manhattan on $28,000 a year (which divided by hours of work done comes out to less than minimum wage) has power and wealth. I am sorry that I have a choice about whether to act in accordance with my inclinations and you don’t. I am sorry that when I look at a cop with a gun on his hip and am afraid, it is not from any rational belief that I might be shot. I am sorry that when I walk through the city all I fear is that someone will yell insulting comments at me or grab my ass in a crowded subway car, not that they’ll shoot me—though I am also sorry that I often lie awake at night in the knowledge that a real risk of my vocation, and another result of America’s appalling intransigence on guns, is that I may someday have to put my body between my students and a shooter. I am sorry that I am not brave enough or strong enough to drop out of grad school, renounce all material comforts, and dedicate as much time to helping the neediest in the world as I currently do to learning, writing, and teaching history and working for universities and the young people in them. I am sorry that I am not Christ or any of the iconic Christ-like figures whose sacrifices and martyrdom we celebrate in modern times (a lot of people have been invoking Martin Luther King this week, though often to as radically different ends as people invoke Jesus).

This Thanksgiving I am grateful for what I have, and I am sorry that I have it. I am sorry that I am not better, though I am trying to be. And I am sorry to anyone whom I have ever judged for not being better, because it is a tall and terrifying order, being better, and I really ought to leave it to she who is without sin to cast the first stone.

Yes, to all who are wondering, my family and I are talking about race and racism and Ferguson this Thanksgiving, though probably not in the way that most of you would wish. Still, what gave me the most hope that I might be able to live a life that matters was not any of this but the grand reckoning universities and university people have been having about sexual assault. If lives matter—and all my sacred texts teach me that they do—then one thing that I know that I can do is to look down from my eighth-floor Manhattan windows through the swirling snowflakes at the four Columbia fraternity houses across the street and ask myself what I can do as a TA and perhaps one day as a faculty member to work against the disgusting, troubling, pervasive violence against women that fraternity culture perpetuates on countless university campuses. It is clear that we who teach have a responsibility to protect our students as well as to educate them, and that if we have any moral responsibility beyond our general duty to be kind, it is to them.

I have read widely and searched my heart, and I find that I still wind up where I began on Tuesday morning: while the world goes to hell in a handbasket around us, and no region is immune from violence, power struggles, and hate, we can do the most good by cultivating our own gardens, loving our neighbors, and being better however we can. This Thanksgiving I am not so much thankful as sorry, but I think the best thing that we can do is not to cast blame, but to look around us until our eyes land on someone whom we have the capacity to help.

2 thoughts on “On Mattering; or, A Thanksgiving Apology

  1. Hi Emily-

    You probably don’t remember me. We “met” on the UChicago prospective students forums in 2008. I was impressed by you and bookmarked your blog, which I still occasionally check. We share intellectual interests but I work outside academia so I think of your trajectory as my path-not-taken. Besides that, I study English literature, not history, although I’m getting into more archival work and sometimes read your blog to wonder what my life would be like as a historian instead of a new historicist. Actually, I think you have really stoked my interest in working as a historian, which is more and more of what I do. I relate to this post and struggle with the same politics you do. (Coincidentally, I grew up in and still live near Morningside Heights, so I particularly understand the self-implicating guilt of Columbia’s gentrification.) In any case: don’t be too hard on yourself. I just wanted to take this opportunity to say in whatever small way you have mattered to me. Hard to articulate without context; in any case, thank you!

    FWIW- something that has helped me is Chris Kraus’s work on Simone Weil. Not sure if it’s up your alley (Kraus loves critical theory), but she addresses, without resolving: (1) how to be a good person who also profits from a corrupt system and (2) how to be an ethical academic without turning to total asceticism. Obviously she’s not alone in asking these questions, but I found her really relatable and helpful.


  2. Johannah, thank you for your kind post! Of course I remember you. I hope that all is well! Kraus’s work sounds really compelling; it’s definitely going on my reading list. Happy Thanksgiving!

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