Daniel Cooper writes in on the dilemmas of radicalism, LA and post-post-graduate life.
When I flew to London to begin my Erasmus Mundus experience, I was an impressionable twenty-two year old eager for any type of adventure, but especially for an intellectual adventure. Socially conscious and sympathetic to human suffering but without a defined political zeitgeist beyond the standard line of the US’s Democratic Party, and responsive to art, culture and history, I jumped head first into my studies in the Global History program at the LSE with an open mind. During my first few months there, nevertheless, I felt like a deer in headlights, lost in a world of serious academia for which I probably could have used a little more preparation and seasoning. But as time went by over the next two years, I gained a firmer grip over my studies and little by little gained confidence in my own ideas and emerging politics. Reading endless pages about the social, political, and economic systems of capitalism and socialism beginning with World Systems Theory, I began to understand human interaction as part of something larger than just random everyday exchanges. I began to see human suffering as the result of larger systemic trends—capitalist expansion through violent imperialist conquest, for example—and not just because some people were inherently evil. I became intrigued by Marxism, and through my readings grew more and more convinced of Marx’s materialist view of history that says that modes of production, i.e. economic relationships, have largely defined social interaction through the centuries. From there I became more and more attracted to literature and ideas espousing radical action (revolution) to effect change in an overwhelmingly unjust capitalist system. Of particular influence on my fledgling radicalism were epic biographies of Karl Marx and Che Guevara, Guevara’s dramatic pamphlet-like appeals for world revolution, Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Gandhi’s Indian Home Rule, Fidel Castro’s History Will Absolve Me and other writings by the Cuban revolutionary, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, Malcolm X’s biting critiques of American racism and capitalism and parts of George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (recommended to me by dear friend Sayalee Karkare, a humanist in every sense of the word). I remember pouring over Marx’s Communist Manifesto on a crowded London tube and leafing through Lenin’s What is to be done?, alone on a freezing city bus that gingerly made its way over Leipzig’s icy streets on a silent winter night. I felt alive as I stood over Marx’s grave in London’s Highgate Cemetary on one of my last days before leaving London.
After two years of this type of intellectual onslaught, I had become politically and emotionally radicalized. I also found myself more and more angry, hopeless, alienated, and completely lost in a world whose injustices I could not come to terms with. Where do I fit into this world, and how can I even justify trying to fit into Western society? How am I going to go back to the US with any sense of normalcy? After all, having largely assumed a worldview made up of a conglomeration of the ideas of the authors whom I’d come to consider legends, the idea of the US and its imperialist history made me want to vomit! I was emotionally unprepared for a transition back to life in the United States.
On my way home from Leipzig in August 2009, I took a week-long sojourn in New York City, in my mind the evil empire’s economic and cultural metropolis, to visit my cousin. One humid day while I was walking down a bustling 5th Avenue, where store-front windows boast unbelievable opulence and wealth, I stepped on a woman’s foot by accident. I looked her in the eye and apologized, but she responded with the iciest, most bitter look I have ever seen, the kind of look you can feel burning into your eyeballs. Immediately my throat lumped up, and before I knew it, I began to sob uncontrollably. I sat down on a bench in Central Park and wept, absolutely wept. I wrote an angry poem in the margins of a newspaper while I sat there and cried, and I could feel my anger seething out of my right hand as I pressed the pen hard into the newspaper.
Upon my return to Los Angeles following my stop-over in New York, without a job, not many friends left in Los Angeles, and no one around me (my family) seeming to understand my confusion, I released my rage, often lashing out at my loving parents and sister. I accused them of being ignorant about, or complicit in the US’s imperial destruction of the world. Looking back now, I would not be surprised if my parents had been seriously worried about my mental well-being at that time. These verbal attacks against the people who love me most made me feel even more alienated, more angry, more frustrated in my own inabilities as a single person to change the world. I sank into what some might call an existential crisis, a woe-is-me melancholy compounded by loneliness in this now foreign land, Los Angeles.
One of my first wake-up calls to snap out of this funk, though I didn’t realize it at the time, came in my first week back in Los Angeles. One day I trekked out from the coastal smugness of West LA across the city to rugged and formerly-sumptuous Downtown in search of a little-known Maoist bookstore called Revolution Books. In my mind the bookstore was a throwback to a 1960s clandestine anarchist cell headquarters, hunkered behind the grimy walls of a gritty building on 8th St. at Broadway. The inside was musty and brown and falling apart. Now-unread books by Mao and Lenin and Marx overstuffed the splintering bookshelves, and retro posters screaming of the glory of Soviet and Chinese workers crumpled as they hung forlornly on the walls. I fell into conversation with the young man behind the counter, a guy about my age. In our talk, he tried painfully hard to convince me to join the obscure Revolutionary Communist Party, and told me that the Cultural Revolution in China was actually a good thing but that Americans have been brainwashed to believe it wasn’t. I didn’t feel like we were connecting very well, until he told me he was about to join the Global Studies Master’s course at UC Santa Barbara. I responded with happiness at finally having stricken a common chord with him that I too studied Global Studies at UCSB and had just finished a similar master’s course in Europe. When I told him all of this, his only response was to nervously ask me I were the Police, as if the fact that our common educational endeavors were a little too coincidental. He said his name was Pablo, and when I left I thought, “Wow, that was a little strange, he seems to be living way out of touch with reality.” When I found out months later from one of our European Erasmus Mundus colleagues doing her semester at UCSB that his name was in fact Alejandro, not Pablo, and that he had lied to me apparently out of pure paranoia, my suspicions were confirmed.
I experienced a second and even more powerful eye-opener soon after this episode at Revolution Books. I remember I was driving in the car with my father, the man I respect most in my life, a calm, kind, wise, gentlemen of the highest degree who also spent much of his teens, twenties and thirties in radical leftist political and artistic circles. It was during the pits of my alienation, maybe even after I had gone on a rampage of words denouncing Western society, when he looked me in the eye and said something to the effect of this: “Daniel, you are approaching a point right now where you will seemingly have three options: either you will have to take your own life because you don’t see a place for yourself within your immediate reality; you will have to turn yourself into the authorities for voluntary imprisonment because you can’t live with the fact that while you are free so many others are shackled, physically or spiritually; or you will have to take up arms and join an armed revolutionary movement. And these are all very unpleasant scenarios.” It was then that I snapped out of my haze and realized that I was at a crossroads: I could continue in this alienation and rage towards this path outlined by my father, or I can do something about the situation, my personal one of alienation, and the larger world situation around me.
Little by little, I settled down. I found a part time job teaching English, a nice way to stay connected to an international crowd following my two years in Europe. I began reconnecting with old friends. These friends are good people who have not studied at the graduate level political systems or economic history, for which they can hardly be blamed. These are intelligent, thinking people, sympathetic to others (I probably wouldn’t hang out with the rugged individualist types, anyway), but who do not necessarily see the larger picture. I began to question myself, does it really help to see the larger picture, or does seeing it just throw you into the pits of existential thinking where nothing matters? My desperation subsided, as I began to think about other issues like mortality and the idea of life being so short. I am not sure why, but I have become ever more aware of the idea of death, of my own mortality, that one day I will consciously or unconsciously draw my last breath and then will cease to exist, disappear from this earth forever. These are powerful, powerful thoughts that have been the motor of some of history’s most potent pieces of human expression. Does it pay to be constantly angry, sad and alienated when life is so short and I am fortunate enough to live in material security, a situation too many people can only dream of?
I travelled to again to New York and stayed in a nice hotel with good friends, went out for fancy dinners and drinks in that incredibly exciting city. We climbed to the top of the Empire State Building and scanned with awe the tops of the city’s buildings. We met beautiful girls, went to basketball games, took taxis all around town. Back in Los Angeles, I have joined my parents for dinners at the overly luxurious Ritz Carlton Hotel, where my mother works as an assistant to the hotel manager (dinner at the Ritz certainly would not be within our financial means if my mom didn’t get an employee discount). I have spent almost every day of my time in Los Angeles in a comfortable café reading (currently reading Hobsbawm’s On Empire), or writing (I submitted an op-ed piece to the Los Angeles Times originally entitled “Time to Give Radicalism it’s Due.” [It was rejected]). I have flown frequently on the luxurious airline Virgin America back and forth to San Francisco to visit my sister. The point is that I have truly enjoyed all of these material things. Is that wrong? At this point I am inclined to say no, and I do not feel bad about my enjoyment of such luxuries either.
In fact, listening to a radio interview recently with a biographer of Frederick Engels, I was surprised to hear that Engels was a womanizer who loved the finer things in life: travel, expensive booze and good cigars. Engels was a successful capitalist within the British textile industry, a part of the very class whose overthrow he and Marx were calling for. The biographer on the radio essentially communicated that Engels found nothing wrong with material goodness, only that it was his wish that it could be distributed more equally. I even remember that in the biography on Marx that I read in the reading room at the British Library in London, Marx once said something to the effect that he hoped the inevitable revolution would come after he was long dead, as he had no interest living a revolutionary life.
So what is the answer? How do I reconcile my still radical, though now a little more tempered, sentiments within a reality of security and prosperity? I still believe staunchly in the determinative rights of the oppressed; social equality for all races, genders and sexual orientations; equitable distribution of resources; government-provided social safety nets, including healthcare, social security, and education. I am a democratic socialist and above all a humanist, believing that we as humans are never truly free until every last person on earth is completely free.
I have come to the conclusion. Create! Write! Volunteer! Produce! Teach! Learn! Act! After all, consciously engaging in purposeful action is what gives us our humanity, is it not? Act according to my deepest feelings. Adopt a mindset and a way of life of the politically engaged and artistically creative idealist that I know is foaming at the mouth, waiting to burst out. I have taken active steps toward this new beginning. I have returned to writing, an exercise that has always served as the best outlet for all of my feelings. While still teaching English, I am applying to jobs with organizations which I think can effect tangible change in the world. I visit with my 96 year-old grandfather and bring some light to the end of his life.
I have moved into a house in Venice Beach with a group of artists. Venice Beach has offered me the type of setting I have so desperately been seeking. It is a small Los Angeles beachside community with an artistic vibe and social-political activist history that is still very much present today, manifested in the countless art galleries, alternative cafes and community centers that offer social services for the local dispossessed victims of homelessness and mental illness. Over palm tree-lined stark asphalt streets in need of repair surfers happily ride by on their bikes, surfboard under arm, on their way to the perfect wave; little Mexican children skip along with their mothers chiding them in Spanish; disheveled, sun-baked homeless men rummage through trashcans and babble to themselves; 60-something-year-old burned out hippies roll by in Volkswagen vans, strung out from a life of too many drugs and highway miles; young women sporting the latest fashionable boots and ostentatious sunglasses strut along laughing with care-free, youthful voices; and young, bearded twenty-something-year-old guys like myself walk with an optimistic hop in their step carrying books like Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle in their young hands. I have found a niche for myself, at least for now, in Venice.
It is entirely possible to feel radical, act appropriately, and still enjoy material prosperity. Life will end sooner rather than later, so we might as well enjoy it and try our hardest to fulfill the hunger of our convictions through humanist action at the same time. While the Western world remains entirely too imperfect and in need of major, major renovations if it is to survive, I have come to realize that there are spaces within this society, much like Venice Beach right here in Los Angeles has proven to me, that offer the possibility of redemption, if only we stand up together and realize our common humanity.