The drama of my first real love, who is also my love now, is almost epic, with hungry trysts and horrible rows in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Nashville, Groningen, Utrecht, Seoul, Paris, London, Stockholm, the wet borderland two-thirds way down Sweden and Norway, Californian deserts and forests and coastal trails and towns. But I won’t go into all that. I only want to share two stories from the time before we decided to be together—the second story a development of the first—as a way to talk about a condition I think many of us share in common.
After college, I pursued a fantasy of personal fluidity, naively based on the idea that I could be adaptable to foreign cultures, and I got myself a job teaching English at a private school in Seoul, South Korea. By then, my love and I had already had a handful of meetings and explosions, and he persisted, after our second breakup a couple years earlier, in denying our romance.
By then, I was also so alone. In my first few days in Seoul, I realized I was actually American (not a beautiful nationless shape-shifter), I didn’t speak the language, and I knew nothing of the city I was in, let alone the country. I found myself on the outside of a “closed” culture, and couldn’t relate to the Confucian flavor of the social divisions along age and gender there. Young feathery-haired, plushly accessorized, glossy-lipped girls of the same age linked arms and blockaded the sidewalk, making a line formation of mid-century feminine sweetness, giggling with their hands over their mouths. Businessmen sat—slumping in their suits, still drunk at the crack—on the corner in front of the fried chicken hut I walked past on the way to work.
I was cut off from family and my few close friends back home. My job, the first full-time one I’d had, was challenging and took long hours, and the work environment was incestuous, gossipy, and toxic. So, lonely and looking to blow off steam, I followed my flatmate’s lead and started going to Itaewon, an American ghetto near one of the U.S. army bases, up to three times a week. I’d pregame on vodka, and we’d taxi out to the part of the ghetto nicknamed Hooker Hill, where we’d go dancing and try to pick up what my flatmate called puppies—soldiers in their late teens and early twenties, usually infantry.
Craving contact, as love and affection weren’t on offer, I threw in with kinds of white American boys I had never met before and haven’t really been around since. They were from parts of the country I’d never been to, and they weren’t educated like most of my friends at the time and my family. One of them told me he’d joined the army because it was the choice between that and thug life, and at least the army taught discipline and gave a steady paycheck. Another insisted I watch The Passion of the Christ so I should know how Jesus had suffered for me. One belatedly told me he was married, and after trying to convince me that he and his wife had separated, let out that he had an infant child with her. So not only was I isolated by my Americanness (of which a willful ignorance of my host country was part and parcel), but also these boys, and the American military’s troubling presence in South Korea generally, gave me a growing sense that I was isolated from my Americanness. (I’m realizing now you could also say that I was brought closer to my Americanness, because I became more intimate with another area of willful ignorance typical to an American—that of my own country’s history and practice of international intervention.)
It was into this private bog that my love descended during winter break. As usual, I put my flings on pause and turned myself fully to him. But the funny thing was—or really the exhausting thing was—he flew thousands of miles to be with me and still refused to give our romance any status.
His visit was so disastrous it could’ve been one of those hard-luck comedies, in which the lead’s life totally unravels. He showed up sick, and I got sick soon after. We took an ill-considered throw-a-dart-at-a-map trip to Yeosu, on the southern coast. In Yeosu, we were both even more foreign than in Seoul, and, as a six-foot-four white man, he was especially so. We could hear the whispers of waegukin (foreigner) and migukin (American) popcorning around us as we walked down the street, and we wanted to hide. (It’s been suggested that American soldiers in the Korean War misunderstood the Korean word for America—miguk, pronounced me-gook—to mean “I am a gook,” and developed this misunderstanding into the racial slur that they carried with them to the killing fields in Vietnam. If this origin is true, it says something about how hate works to ablate sense and specificity, and life.)
On New Year’s Eve in our Yeosu hotel, I demanded that my lover admit his love for me, and we ended up in a yelling match. We managed to get our fuck yous in before midnight and rung in the new year asleep. The highlight of the trip was going to the seaside market and seeing an ajumma kick a live octopus to stop it escaping from a bucket. That pretty much summed it up: I was the octopus trying to ooze away and the bucket and the woman.
My love and I spent a quiet train ride back north, seething and working our way through a bag of tangerines and a packet of dried squid. He left me a day earlier than planned after another fight in Seoul; he wanted to stay at a hotel nearer the airport to make sure he’d make his exit on time.
After returning to the States from Seoul, and after some wandering and grad school application submissions and failed driver’s license tests and part-time gigs, I gave what I promised myself would be the last try at us. I flew to the Netherlands and spent several good weeks in Utrecht with him, staying in his high-ceilinged loft, which was part of a converted schoolhouse, and painting while he was at work. Still, it ended the same: the denial and a fight.
I left to travel in France for a couple months, but ached so bad traveling alone, knowing he and I were done, I cut my trip short. Of course, I passed through Utrecht before flying out of Schiphol. Of course, we spent the night together in the way those who are splitting up do—in theatrical, greedy, desperately hopeful coupling. But the next day, I wrote a letter saying I could not be just a friend, so this was it. I wrote that I thought my attraction to him was based on a belief that I could not be loved; I was drawn to him because he corroborated what I thought of myself.
He has never said outright the impact this letter had on him, but I believe it was a turning point, in a very slow and wide turn. I think it broke him up a bit. Because he knew the feeling. This same feeling was at the root of why he kept denying us.
Since we came together again, though we (like everyone else) could never be totally untroubled in relationship, there have been so many proofs of love between us, unlike most of what gets sung about and broadcast on all those screens and written about in magazines marketed to women and airport bestseller novels. These proofs had little to do with romance and exoticism, but were about sticking around for the realities of each other’s bodies—and I don’t mean our freshly scrubbed, rouged, and talcum-powered, fit-as-a-fiddle bodies—and the realities of each other’s personalities and the histories that formed them and the realities of the often unpleasant administrative work of daily life that needs to get done to get by. And they involved, and still involve, a whole lot of hashing things out.
But before you get the idea I’m giving in to some realist version of going off together into the sunset, let me get to the point I’ve been whittling down to this whole time: another reality my love and I have stuck around for is that no proof of love one of us can give the other may be able to dispel completely either of our doubts that we can be loved. Anyone who has dark matter in his or her mind—a personal portion that is always continuous with the dark matter of the social mind—knows this. Thinking of my family, my friends, my acquaintances, I know of so many who are so practiced in self-loathing as to be experts. We share this in common.
The stories that take hold for each of us because of our own self-loathing, and the way we act or don’t act on those stories, have personal peculiarities related to our specific materials and conditions and whether we belong to a group or groups our culture condones despising—sex workers, “freaks,” the homeless, the poor, to name a few. Others have gone into the real, often life-threatening differences for those who become incidental to narratives about the despicable. Others have probably also gone into how our private self-hating thoughts have been privatized; our self-criticisms become the ad reel, in the negative, for products that promise self-improvement on purchase. I don’t plan to work on these ideas here, but to spend some time on a kind of reactionaryism to self-loathing on the part of self-conscious liberals, like me, because I have the feeling that certain of these psychological contortions can only support a loathsome world.
Last month, an in-law in the Netherlands sent me what she called a “mind-opening” article from The Book of Life, a tidily designed website hosting a collection of posts about “the most substantial things in your life: your relationships, your income, your career, your anxieties.” (The meat in that priority sandwich gets to a definite point of view; one of the six major categories for articles on the site is “Capitalism,” which includes guidance and comment on “Good Capitalism,” “Consumption,” “Status,” “Media,” and “Utopia.” I quake to think what this person’s view on utopia is.) The article my in-law sent argues the merits of politeness over political correctness, listing among the faults of political correctness that it forces us to acknowledge that our privilege is more closely involved in the oppression of others than we want to know, causes us to feel “unbearably guilty,” doesn’t hand us a “generous path to redemption”( i.e., an out from our guilt), and then, adding insult to injury, asks us to scrutinize our way of thinking instead of being content with our good deeds. (To my mind, this gives far too much credit to political correctness, which does its fair share of concealing prejudice and hate by making people afraid to open up about their, our, wrongheadedness.) Politeness, the author goes on to say, is superior because it is “universal, not selective” (i.e., doesn’t require us to redress specific cultural and historical injuries), it “focuses on Action rather than Thought” (have a flak jacket on hand for the imminent bullet-point action item list), it is “apolitical,” and it is “an aspiration—not a legal requirement.” In other words, politeness doesn’t make us question ourselves or feel culpable or confused. It’s impersonal and optional, and we can feel good about ourselves for proactively applying one-size-fits-most kindness and aspiring to be good, even though the effects of our “kindness” may not match its intent. Let’s get this crusade started, shall we?
This way of thinking brings to mind another trend I’ve noticed among my fellow liberals: a Western misapprehension of “Eastern” philosophies popularized in lifestyle magazines on yoga, self-help books such as The Power of Now and other Oprah book club reads, and self-realization courses that employ the meditative concept of presentness but strip it of any kind of spiritual or ethical dimension. (It’s not insignificant, by the way, that the selling point for many of these publications and workshops is that they will make you not just more content, but more productive and successful.) One of the underlying messages of these kinds of cultural products is that the only alternative to self-loathing is never feeling bad at all. If we all could just stay in the now, we would, in effect, enjoy our privilege guilt free, because we’d be more aware of our present-moment comfort and safety and we could also safely forget about bugaboos like history and our complex complicity in others’ suffering.
The other day, on a call with my parents, my father expressed something like this. He was telling me how he was constantly, rigorously, down on himself. He recited a long list of ways he would antagonize himself: he’d imagine he’d screw up performing a song in front of an audience, he’d make himself anxious by thinking he’d be late to a phone call with me, he’d feel guilty for telling his church leader about the expensive toy drone he’d bought when he knew this church leader (and his wife and their four adolescent children) were struggling to make ends meet. Then he said something about choosing not to think those “negative” thoughts, choosing happiness, and staying in the moment by switching tracks to some pleasurable activity.
At that point, I thought, Now, hold the phone. One of these things is not like the others. I tried to make the case that, while, yes, most of the thoughts he’d reeled off ideally wouldn’t get any airtime, his guilt about telling his hard-up preacher about his new camera-equipped quadcopter might be useful, or at least significant, as a felt sense of what justice is and isn’t. I said, for example, yes, my jealousy about my girlfriend’s hiking trip is worse than a waste, but there might be something to the jealous, fucked-off feeling I got when I passed two people seated outside Boot & Shoe Service, nibbling on pricey starters of four small, thin slices of meat and several tablespoons of arugula. Or that I get when I pass someone in an Audi or BMW or Hummer. I don’t feel that way because I want these things; I’m jealous of the resources tied up in them. So, even the same “bad” feeling can have different significances, can be chaff or the wholesome pain of conscience’s or consciousness’s prick.
I don’t mean to give the impression that I think feelings should always be utilitarian. If all feelings needed to be useful, we should and would just go ahead and stop living now. Also, emotion isn’t always so uniform for it even to be possible to hold it to the light and understand it as it relates to our values. My emotions are more often like a big cluster chord or fugue—everything all emphatically at once or a horde of little Woody Allens whining their neuroses, sometimes in conversation but usually without stopping to listen. Still, trying to wall oneself off from “negative” feelings altogether denies any chance of discernment that could be revelatory about the stories behind those feelings, about our values, and about where to go and what to do next.
One heavy price of trying to avoid feeling bad is that it makes us lousy at taking criticism. We don’t want to open ourselves up to critique, because it might find us out, show us to be wrong, and if we have to admit we’ve been getting it wrong, our identities might come crumbling down at our feet. The rigidity of this position isn’t really liberal at all—that is, it’s not at all broad-minded or loose or ample or openhanded—and it’s a dubious position at best to champion dissent, but shut out all criticism of ourselves. An example of the logical conclusion of this way of reasoning from a “conservative” mindset is labeling differing viewpoints as un-American.
Critique of the “left” from the “right,” as has become more than obvious in these last few months, may be motivated not just by an interest in a different understanding of morality and the common good, but by hate, insanity, matters of taste, and pure self-interest. Even these last four motivations, I would argue, produce rightful critique, but very often an implied critique distinct from the articulated (maybe screamed or cuss-filled) one. Discernment, again, needs to come into play in these cases, and it should fall mostly to those who are less readily cast as the despised to try to understand the implications of these motivations. Asking the despised to do any more work than they’ve already been doing to understand and navigate or reform their despisers is in some ways asking the despised to buy into the idea that they are despicable and are also responsible for that fact.
Perhaps more uncomfortable for liberals, like me, is opening up to critique, both implied and explicit, from the squeezed and the downtrodden—the ones we’ve supposedly been “fighting for” or at least weakly accepting of. While we’ve been convincing ourselves of our moral rectitude in contrast to the “right,” we’ve been insulating ourselves from the problems of the despised, and quietly despising them as well by allowing laws and the application of the law to legitimate their status as a semipermanent underclass.
The critique leveled at the liberal by those who belong to an underclass is far more threatening to us, because it causes us to doubt our own goodness. Who are we at all, we must ask ourselves, if we’re not good?
I felt this feeling—a kind of wobbly, warping feeling—in myself and in the crowd at the Oakland Women’s Strike in early March of this year. As I had failed to get the memo to wear pink at the Women’s March, so I also missed the note to swap or accessorize march pink with red for the strike; most of the women there were wearing their pink pussy beanies and bright red shirts.
This mixed dress code, which suggested a confusion of politics, mirrored the progression of the event. The rally started with a group of benign, hippie-generation folksingers, one of whom is a children’s music artist, and a woman boldly reciting a poorly written poem about the invisible work of women; then the program became rapidly more radical, and inclusive, with speakers who had indigenous heritage, were sex workers, worked with the homeless, stood in solidarity with women revolutionaries in Rojava, Syria.
My own and the crowd’s reaction to these speakers was alternately tepid, supportive, and tense. When one speaker criticized Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf for evicting a group of homeless people from an undeveloped lot, a woman in the crowd yelled, “Why don’t you respect our mayor?! She’s a woman!” I wonder if this heckler would apply the same logic to women identified with right-wing politics. She might as well have shouted, “Don’t judge me for voting for Libby Schaaf! If I have to question her politics, I’ll have to be ashamed. Isn’t it liberal enough to vote for a woman Democrat?” (I’ll admit the way I’ve voted sometimes has boiled down to as much. This failure of understanding was a hallmark of the Hillary Clinton campaign and I fear it’s inherent to projects like Swing Left and Sister District. An exclusive take on the common good, hate, insanity, and self-interest can also be found in the Democratic Party, which cannot be said to live faithfully on the left.)
One of the more challenging set of strike rally speakers for me was the sex worker advocacy group. The women belonging to this group were of different ages and body types. One of the younger women sexily sauntered to the stage, switching her hips and twirling a red lace parasol. One woman, older than or as old as my mother, wore a shirt with the back cut out, exposing her neon-green bra. Most of the other women wore just T-shirts and jeans. By their appearances alone, they were not to be pinned down, and I was unsettled by all of it.
For as long as I can remember having an opinion about it, I’ve been in support of legalizing sex work, with provisions to prevent child prostitution, slavery, and abuse, and to protect the health and organizing rights of sex workers. But the unease I felt listening to the sex worker group awoke me to my own shame around whoring, an idea whose definition fuses “faithless, unworthy, or idolatrous desire” with “unlawful sexual intercourse as or with a prostitute.” I have whored—not for money, but why do I feel I have to say that?—and I have been shamed by others and myself for it. I walked past the prostitutes on Hooker Hill in Itaewon one, two, three nights a week for almost a year, to pick up men—among my other adventures. I didn’t feel good about it then and I don’t look on it favorably now. I’m not right with part of myself there’s nothing wrong with.
What I started to realize as I considered this, my, shame was how nearly related the themes of our fears and self-loathing are to what we are willing to consider criminal. And, what’s more, how the laws on the books defining criminal behavior are meted out differently to people who are not “us,” so that people who behave like criminals take on the essentializing noun form “criminal,” as in, “the sex workers are criminals.” So, while, intellectually, I’ve claimed to support decriminalizing and regulating sex work, my personal shame said otherwise. I had to think also of my fear of poverty and my aversion, which I battle daily, toward, for example, the homeless man who may have nowhere else to shit but in public, who may have nowhere to shower and so stinks. Our fear and self-loathing and disavowal pass prostitution and vagrancy laws, first in the imagination and then in reality.
But the most uncomfortable moment for me at the Women’s Strike rally was on account of a speaker who wasn’t part of the official program. She mounted the steps to the raised area in front of Oakland City Hall, huffily pushing past me and other seated listeners. She was middle-aged and black and she was dressed well, but she moved through the crowd agitatedly and seemed off. She walked straight up to the organizers as they were in the middle of reading the Women’s Strike’s philosophy and list of demands, and somehow managed to get ahold of the mic. “I’ve got something to say,” she started, but the rest of her speech was mostly too slurred to understand. I assumed right away that she was intoxicated or mentally ill or disabled or some combination of the three, and that she might be homeless. The crowd was mostly quiet, giving her timid applause when they could tell what she was saying. I could only make out one other sentence in the rest of her speech; I think she said, “I love all of you.”
My assumptions about this woman’s situation made her interruption of the event stingingly ironic. Here were the organizers describing a movement by and for the 99 percent, including and supporting women, GLBTQ people, people of color, people of all religions and ethnicities and immigration statuses, people of all abilities, the poor, the working class, the homeless; and here was a person, that I imagined lived a number of these categories, stopping the party and confronting theory and aspiration with reality. The organizers let her speak for awhile, then pried the mic out of her hand and tried to shepherd her off the stage. But a few minutes later, she made another grab for the mic, and some in the audience yelled, “No!”
I was ashamed and embarrassed. Ashamed because I also didn’t want her to have the floor. Ashamed because I had made of her a symbol of the communal failure in which I’m complicit. Ashamed because I thought if there’s anyone who could teach us the values espoused in the strike’s terms and demands, it would be her.
Now I think the real shame in that moment is that I assumed her into oblivion, and made of myself a false idol who might “save” or “understand” her. The truth is that I did not and do not know her almost at all.
All of us or none of us, I’ve seen on signs and heard chanted at these last months’ protests. The effort, the pain, of accomplishing such a thing would be immense.
I’ve still got Baldwin on the brain. He’s making me think that what we all need to know we have is the blues. I am woefully ignorant about the history, forms, and songs that are the blues. But Baldwin talked about the blues and sorrow songs and jazz as a “new idiom [created by his black ancestors] in an overwhelmingly hostile place,” and I take that to mean also that these forms are in some ways the idiom of people living in a hostile environment. We all live there, but that hostility looks incredibly different for each of us.
Now, I don’t mean for all of us to go out and start learning and writing blues songs—although surely some of us should and will. I mean more that I hope we look our pain straight in the eyes and start talking to it, then start talking about it.
I don’t think people will ever stop tormenting each other, so the blues will always hang around. I’m not being cynical or pessimistic when I say that. Think of all your lovers and family and friends—even the most near and dear will torment you and give you reason to torment yourself. But I do think if, for one, we wonder in the mode of the blues, the way we torment each other might become less cruel, less hateful, less bloody and deadly.