The Way We Live Now – The Edge of the Mystery – Will Barack Obama’s Aura Fade? – NYTimes.com
Already, in the weeks since the election, Obama has endured the moans of disgruntled constituencies in his own party whose ideal of the outsider is difficult for any breathing politician to fulfill. Progressive activists online and inside the party have complained bitterly about Obama’s turning to so many pragmatic insiders — that is, public servants who ran Washington in the Clinton years — to populate his cabinet, rather than reaching out to more academics or state-level politicians whose political instincts have not yet been corroded by Washington’s penchant for incrementalism. Then, too, have come the inevitable protests from identity-based interest groups: Latinos and African-Americans in Congress who weren’t satisfied with the number of senior appointments, as well as gay activists lamenting the omission of a gay cabinet nominee. That sound you hear is the last wheezing gasp of boomer-age politics, the cataloging of individuals according to their areas of oppression, the endless process of tallying cultural differences rather than aggregating common objectives. It is a political philosophy that probably made sense 30 years ago but that seems sort of baffling at the dawn of the Obama era, when such interest groups are among the most powerful in the Washington establishment — and when the Man himself is black.
At the risk of alienating every single one of my friends, where the hell have you been?! Have you been to a college lately? Sometimes I feel like all I ever hear about are intersecting identities and oppressions and blah, blah, blah. Sometimes I wonder if I’m really a person, or if I’m just a cascade of labels.
I’m a little afraid to talk about this, because I do know oppression exists (I’m not naïve), and I do strongly support affirmative action (as large groups of similar people tend to make bad decisions). Plus, after all, I possess an alienating medical condition (transsexuality) and a learning disability (ADD), and when these are taken into account by those above me I feel marvelous. I’m just a little sick of the culture around me of amassing identity tags like trading cards.
Once, an event at my school was promoted by a Facebook page waxing poetic about the speaker’s “intersecting identities,” and not a word was given to what she actually does (and for all I know, she does it very well). I’ve had dear friends publish articles ending with self-summaries that begin with a list of countercultural credentials (“Jane is a radical, kinky, queerspawn,” etc.) that reduce us to shipping labels. I’ve heard spoken-word performances consisting entirely of espousing irritation at white people for our stupid white mistakes, recorded solely for the benefit of white people to listen to not as entertainment (I do love a good bit of light-hearted debasement), but as an act of righteous self-flagellation.
And, I’m afraid of this because now I’ve just bestowed myself with yet another label that I can use to cry oppression: tokenization, the process of making someone into a novelty barganing chip, or a trophy of liberal achievement. I’m essentially decrying an act of self-obsession, and obsessing over that sounds even worse; it sounds like an easy way to restart the cycle of self-imposed, righteous, perpetual victimhood. We whine and moan about how oppressed we are, or we boast about how radical and different we are, and none of it gets us any closer to what we want. It’s vain, it’s annoying, it’s shallow, and it’s disgusting. I’m proud of being transsexual; I’m proud of being intelligent; I’m proud of being part Norwegian. I can wrap more into myself, though, than any pompous list by using just one label: Tina.
Perhaps I’m grousing because I feel I don’t fit in; I’ve never found a single community that I feel I adhere most closely to, and so to the time of this writing my blog’s header still simply says “Tina K. Russell, writer and artist.” (Edit: whoops, I forgot that my blog’s current theme doesn’t use a subtitle. Never mind…) There’s a lot more to me than that, but… I don’t believe that because I hang in young liberal circles that I’m somehow “more unique” (not a valid phrase!) than others. We all have our inner beauty and splendor, and more than I want someone I’ve just met to be impressed by a boastful list of Oppression Achievements, I want them to trust me due to my warmth and candor. I don’t want to limit myself to communities where it’s cool to be a victim. I just want to be… me, and I want other people to see me for me.
I once went to a queer-themed summer camp, as a teenager, hoping that this would be my “back to Africa” moment, where maybe I’d feel normal for being surrounded for people like me. Instead, I was the transsexual on display. I even had a camp counselor tell me “I think it’s great what you’re doing!”, referring to my transsexuality and not to any personal achievement. That is the sort of person, the token, that everybody wants to be seen next to but no one wants to get close to. To be a label is to be an unperson, and if my fellow college liberals (I’m one, I should say) think that amassing labels will bring them closer to happiness, they’re in for brutal, crushing disappointment.