Taking an Ego Trip (Sorry, Couldn’t Think of a Better Title…)

I want to talk a little bit about growing as a political person, and the significance of that for me.

When I was a little kid, like 6 years old, I used to watch the TV show “Family Ties” with my mom. I don’t have many concrete memories from the show, but I do remember that I looked up to Michael J. Fox’s character, Alex P. Keaton, and I remember that he loved Ronald Reagan, and so I loved Ronald Reagan, too. I also remember the youngest child on the show, a cute little blond-haired kid, and I remember that I was entranced by him. I was entranced by the idea that there was actually somebody my age on TV. More importantly, I remember that I was very concerned with whether he was younger than me or older than me, because if he was younger than me, then somehow that reflected on me and my self-worth…that I was actually older than someone on television. That maybe I could even be on television.

The same thing happened years later with Macaulay Culkin, right after Home Alone came out. I remember reading a magazine and I found out that he was 3 months older than me and I was devastated.

When I was 16, I heard something about how the old philosopher David Hume wrote one of his most famous works before the age of 21 or something, and I told myself that I was going to beat him, and publish my first book before the age of 20. It didn’t happen, and I remember having a tinge of sadness on that birthday, although I didn’t tell anyone.

Also, when I was between the ages of 14 and 20, I was very interested in historical figures like Mao and Lenin and Stalin and Ho Chi Minh, and read biographies of all of them. I was particularly interested in their beginnings as leaders, in their school years, in their twenties, and I took mental notes of how I was stacking up. Was I going to make history like them? Was I going to be a famous leader?

I sure wanted to be a leader like them. Clearly, I would be a leader who would NOT be a butcher or a sellout or a hypocrite, I would be the one who broke the historical legacy of faulty leaders. Who truly WAS a liberator. I would be different, and that would be my particular claim to fame. The anarchist version of the Mao, of the Lenin (complete contradiction in terms, though it is)…and the biographies would highlight my distinctions boldly.

For a good number of years, I lived my life and grew as a political activist and organizer with a very real kind of double-consciousness going on. I genuinely wanted equality, social justice, liberation for all people, and I could imagine many details of that dream. But at the same time, I wanted that global liberation to come FROM ME, from my innovations, and leadership, and legacy. As if the revolution were Arthurian legend, I wanted to be the ONE to pull the sword from the stone (actually…thinking about it…that too was an old cartoon that really spoke to me growing up…interesting). I was a revolutionary optimist partly because I knew that it was my own destiny to usher in the revolution.

The problem was that, of course, there was a fundamental contradiction between my supposed beliefs in direct democracy, massive grassroots social movements and non-hierarchical social structures and my own ego. And over a number of years, as I began to rise in the “activist ranks” and began to find myself being offered opportunities to assert myself as a leader, as a spokesperson or whatever, that contradiction became a lived reality that really started to affect my choices. Especially in the climate of post-WTO radical organizing in the Pacific Northwest, I found myself faced with questions of integrity that held many of my friendships in the balance.

Thankfully, though, I met some feminists.

And, as so many feminists do for wayward young activist dudes, they introduced me to a way of thinking that, for them–and I would imagine most marginalized people–was just second nature, but to me was earth-shattering: they introduced me to the reality that I am not the center of the world.

From those first rocky interactions with feminism (I very nearly lost most of those friendships, too…in fact I pretty much did), I was eventually pushed and guided toward critiques of white racism, and then even more deeply into women of color’s thinking and organizing around ideas of multiple, intersecting oppressions…and each time, each day, each conference, each book just shook me further and further away from notions of myself, of who I am, and of why I’m here.

The realization, so obscenely simple: that there are actually billions of people on this planet, all of whom hope to be good people, to do good, to be recognized in their work, to be loved and cared for and admired. And that for me to want to claim all of that, to hoard that all for myself and for my posterity…how brutally greedy and foul it is…and how typical.

This shit simply just shook me to my core. Not like in one night of epiphany, but much more slowly, over time, in a process of realization that really just doesn’t stop.

Egos. Of all the questions that surround us when we think of social change, I think this question of ego often gets missed or, more often, misunderstood. It is sooooo deep, and it goes so far beyond just me and my particular story, and it goes so far beyond just white dudes, or white people, or middle class people, or educated people. It is much, much deeper, and I think much more crucial than the particular experiences of one or a handful of identity groups.

This is about who we are, about our places in the world, and about, like I said, a very real desire to be loved and to BE RECOGNIZED in this life. It is so simple but there is so much there, and if we look at social movements (or really any grouping of people) it is amazing to see how far egos and their misplaced desires and insecurities take us. The hierarchical, competitive nature of our society and of all oppressive societies fundamentally warps our senses of our selves — certainly some more than others, and probably proportionate to how close we are to the centers of power — and it warps our ability to hold our own value and desire for recognition alongside that of those around us. We sabotage even those we love because we see and feel threats to our egos all around us.

For me, this question of ego has required me to examine and redefine pretty much every aspect of who I want to be, of how I define success for myself. I cannot deny that it is still fun to think about being able to give speeches that draw crowds, to write a book and maybe get on c-span bookTV, to maybe be somewhere in a history book…and I think a lot about the implications of those lingering fantasies. But more commonly these days, these years, I feel like what I want for myself has shifted towards things much more simple. I dream much more often now of participating in revolutionary processes so big and complex that my own head couldn’t possibly hold onto them, of revolutions that would make me feel like a constant tourist, watching in awe as the people all around me create new things and we really learn from each other. I think about my personal success as the building and sustaining of even just a small community…of shared food and reinvented holidays and kids running around and looking up to us maybe for a few years, but then discovering our foibles, rebelling, and then maybe then reconciling with us years later…I think about plants, and simple music, and simple writings that maybe only my friends read, like these blog entries. I think about designing and playing games. I think about doing good work at a local level, like in the high school where I work, and fighting so hard for the people around me…with the people around me. Knowing them. Crying with them…and just weeping and embracing in sharing our losses and our triumphs.

What I think about is the significance of being just one among many, and rather than thinking that means something boring, conformist, robotic, I think about the magic of it: that we live in a world that is so richly filled with beautiful, brilliant, creative people, and that if unleashed we could share in so much joy and discovery every day, on every block, in every nook and cranny of our lives. In this life it is a privilege to be one among so many who are so fantastic.

Over time, and through the struggle of many patient people who love me and believe in me, I have come to see that there is something far, far more beautiful than the sight of a billion posters with one great liberator’s face: billions of faces making billions of unique posters about their own mutual inspiration and liberation.

So suck on that, Macaulay Culkin.

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