My (Partial) Turn (Back to the) Left

"Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"

“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

The old cliche is that you’re supposed to grow more conservative the older you get. “A Democrat, huh?”  Joe Flaherty rants to his daughter Linda Cardellini on Freaks and Geeks, “Just wait’ll ya get a little money! Then you’ll know what it’s all about!”  But I hate cliches, and as I grow older, I find myself growing more liberal, and much more inclined to try to see the perspectives of other people. You can say I have had several advantages in this evolution:

1. I live in New York, maybe the most diverse city in the world. I have worked with mestizos from Ecuador and Jews who had to be home before sundown every Friday. In Greenpoint we had Tibetan babysitters for our kids and drank with our Polish neighbors. In Williamsburg, my Italian landlord and landlady looked after me like I was their son, or nephew at least, and the Italian garbagemen woke me up every night at 3am as they carried away the trash from the Italian restaurant across the street. The other day, I went for a walk through Brooklyn and passed through black, Latin, Pakistani, Russian and Jewish neighborhoods. It’s one thing to have a conversation once with people outside your “group”. It’s another thing to have such encounters constantly for 30 years.

2. I’m in the theatre. Not quite the Queerocracy that every football jock in America seems to assume, but yet there’s probably a higher percentage of “out” queers in this business than in any other field. So, yeah, I care if my friends can get married, and I especially care that they not get beat up or arrested or something for being who they or doing what they do. And likewise I have worked with women in this art form as peers and equals (or, often as not, bosses: producers, directors, etc) for 30 years, and because it is a medium of self-expression, I have been privy to their perspectives for as many years. Theatre, to use a Marxian term, withered as it is these days, tends to be in the vanguard. All you Carolina congressmen who won’t allow women to say “vagina” or whatever? You have no idea the tidal wave that is coming to wash you away, along with everything you tried to accomplish in your final days of hegemony. There won’t be one or two token women in your legislative halls — the room will be full of them, and you’ll raise your hand to propose your absurd law from the year 4000 B.C. and the woman Speaker won’t call on you. How you like them apples, Charlie?



3. Weirdly enough — writing about vaudeville has changed me. Vaudeville wasn’t just a mulligan stew of performance disciplines but it was also a tossed salad of (cultural, ethnic, racial, sexual) identities. Particularly over the last few years in writing for Travalanche, I found myself increasingly interested in cultures and perspectives of OTHER people. We’re all part of the mix. I have no need to be part of something that dominates them. At the moment I am in a place of absorbing what they have to say and contribute and letting it enrich me.


Politically I have always been radically inclined, although it’s taken many different flavors and, some would say, aromas over the years (though when the chips are down in November I usually do “the sensible thing” and vote for a mainstream blue candidate, at least in the major elections). As I often say, there really is no candidate for me to vote for. At bottom, I am extremely anti-authoritarian. This makes me temperamentally anarchist, although I am too sane and cautious to be a practicing, political anarchist. (Though I suppose you could say I was one during my teenage years, when I was too young to vote and it was all even more theoretical than it is now.). I investigated the far left in the late ’80s (in a curiosity way, not in an FBI way) and very much found it wanting, for reasons I’ll get into elsewhere.

Then around 1990 I discovered libertarianism and found it suited my inclinations (and oddly enough my aesthetics) very nicely. I have written elsewhere many times about the when and the why and the wherefore, and will certainly do so again; it’s too much of a digression to go into it here. The ’90s were my heavy decade of libertarianism. I belonged to the party, went to meetings, and I wrote many essays on the topic both for my own ‘zine, and in places like Reason magazine. I voted for some LP candidates but usually I thought of libertarianism as the purer faith; it was the Democrats I usually pulled the lever for because I live on planet earth (much as in religion I lean closer to Unitarianism in my actual beliefs, even while I attend the church I was raised in, the Episcopalian, on those rare occasions when I do attend).


September 11 dimmed my ardor for libertarianism considerably. Mostly I wanted to distance myself from anything that smacked of radicalism. (Some moron joked on a ListServe one day, “They shoulda blew up the U.N. building!” and I was out of there like a bat out of hell).  But also I wasn’t so sure how devoted I now was to weakening the government at the very moment when insane people were flying airplanes into buildings, and mailing anthrax to people in envelopes. Yes, the government does go overboard sometimes, okay, a lot, but then it’s next to impossible to strike the right balance in a world where random college students decide to explode a bomb at the Boston Marathon.

Still, people who bad mouth libertarians — in general — have no idea what the fuck they are talking about.  As often as not libertarians are coming from a socially liberal place as much as a fiscally conservative one. In fact there are SO many areas where it’s the libertarians, NOT the supposedly liberal democrats who are leading the charge, in terms of their platform: decriminalizing drugs, dismantling the police state and metastasized military, removing barriers to immigration, etc etc etc. As for the spending side, yes libertarians are equally radical on this score and this naturally is the part liberals just can’t stand. And yet here too libertarians tend to be misjudged and misunderstood. My favorite refrain (I’m being sarcastic) is the supposed witticism we’ve all heard (with variations) so many times…”Well, I guess they like government well enough when their HOUSE IS ON FIRE!” “Well, I guess they like AMBULANCES well enough!”


No libertarian is against FIRE DEPARTMENTS. Libertarians are for reduced government, not nonexistent government. You are thinking of anarchists. Yes, there are some fringe elements who daydream aloud about privatizing everything down to the very roads we drive on. But don’t hold your breath. (Even supposedly privatized services like prisons and schools, aren’t really — they’re just contractors, still paid out of tax dollars, still subject to the same laws and standards, and in many cases, don’t even save money.)

And there seems to be no prayer of moderation in Washington. I assure you that even the people you consider the most rabid, radical Republican fiscal austerity-minded maniacs have done virtually nil to reduce real spending in this country. They reduced taxes, but apart from some superficial cosmetic cuts in some areas (some of them contentious, some of them painful to some people), though politicians make a huge noise about it, they haven’t reduced spending much at all, compared with how much could be cut.  The spigot remains open. And to use an example liberals will hopefully understand — AGRICULTURAL SUBSIDIES, for example, flourish more than ever. Corn and beef? Our tax dollars subsidizing multimedia corporations that are making America the fattest, unhealthiest nation on the planet? Multiply that corrupt nonsense by tens of thousands of local and national pet causes, many of them ridiculous, obsolete, inefficiently or incompetently managed, or quite able to fund themselves in the private sector or through charity. And all paid for with money that has been seized from you, that you have no choice but to pay for. So no I’ll never apologize for having been a libertarian, despite all the glib bad-mouthing the chuckling class gives it on social media.

And yet something has increasingly troubled me. It’s the realization that in the vacuum left by government, another power structure inevitably steps in: corporations and the wealthy. With these forces guiding and molding all the political decisions, it isn’t precisely like everyone else is “free”. And people who are denied full access to the Fruits of Liberty aren’t free at all.


So I’ve had several light bulb moments over the last few years. One was tripped by something the Mad Marchioness said early in our relationship. I’d said something vaguely if feebly positive about Rand Paul (actually I’m much more admiring of his father). And she said “Rand Paul wants to kill me.” It’s hyperbolic of course, but it was thought provoking. I don’t even know that she elaborated on it (she never proselytizes, BTW, we just talk about things, and in this way have influenced each other).

But I chewed on this awhile. I had been working on a not dissimilar line of thinking for awhile anyway. Not that I agree that Rand Paul wants to kill anyone, but if he did, there are essentially two categorical ways of doing so: 1) actively, with a weapon; 2) passively, through neglect. It is the latter way in which a laissez-faire government can kill. In this way Reagan can be said to have killed AIDS victims (by not taking a lead in finding a cure), and Bush can be said to have killed people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The leaders in question had it in their power to  save lives, and for whatever reason, chose not to do so.  Katrina was probably my first real light bulb, a crucial turning point in my thinking. This is what comes of starving agencies and not caring.  I love that city so much; I did even before I ever went there. It represents everything great to me. For a President of the United States to be seemingly indifferent to its welfare, and that of the people living there, is malfeasance to a criminal degree. At that stage, you may as well be heading up an invading army of enemies, right? You might as well be Kim Jong Un as far as the people of New Orleans are concerned.

And you know who I love even more than the people of New Orleans? My fiance. I want her to have every opportunity and every right and freedom I do. Anyone whose aim is depriving her of the Pursuit of Happiness, is not only her enemy, but mine.

The Shangri-La of Opportunity is the American Dream and mantra and rallying cry but the bootstrap argument many love to cling to (myself included) falls apart when you look at demographics. Fortunes rise and fall in America but you cant deny that people settle into clubs (e.g., “Old Boys”) and then hire their friends, and friends of friends, and people who look like friends. I’m not saying NO ONE outside these clubs ever succeeds, but to an unacceptable degree women and minorities in positions of power remain rare and often ornamental, like hothouse flowers.  I am also not saying unqualified people should be promoted — if you think the only qualified people are white men, you have your head up your ass.


Okay, maybe the biggest light bulb of all went off about a year ago when I read this book, White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America, by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh. It’s a very thorough, very eye opening account of indentured servitude in Colonial America. I’m not exactly sure why this particular book made this subject click into place for me. Previous books I’d read that discussed the subject at length hit it too hard on one side or the other. Jim Goad’s White Trash Manifesto (an influence on my play House of Trash) was too racist. Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, was the opposite, too ad hominem, if you can apply that term to an entire class of people. For one thing, I suspect the fact that White Cargo was written by a couple of British journalists plays a role in the dispassionate yet inarguable tone it manages to strike. Goad (like me) is descended from those American indentures; Zinn was from another sinned-against American class, immigrant Jews. But the guys who wrote White Cargo are outside of it. It feels both humane and objective, and relentless.

Something about the disparity between the plantation owners and their workers — about the scale of it — resonated for me. And you sense the continuum…the slave labor of the Ancient World…to the Medieval Serfs…and then these indentured servants in America and elsewhere in the 17th and 18th centuries. And then later, slavery, and sweatshop factory labor. As for the indentured servitude, it’s a detail I hope you remember at least vaguely from your school days. Poor Irish, English and Scots came to the Southern colonies in the early days to work on large plantations for a specified period of time on a contract. They got free passage to America, and some of them got land grants in exchange for their work at the end of their terms. But the terms were onerous, normally lasting several years, very hard labor, inhuman hours, very little freedom, and a harsh system of justice. Infractions could easily be cooked up by those in power to deprive the indenture of his agreed-upon reward, or even his freedom. A huge percentage of them died from the harshness of the conditions.


It’s one thing to climb a mountain. And it’s one thing to climb a mountain alongside some guy who has much better and fancier equipment than you have.  But it’s another thing altogether to try and climb it when you’re shackled to the guy next to you, haven’t had anything to eat, and every time you climb 50 feet some guy with a weapon tells you to stop or he’ll kill you. It’s not just that some people have the advantages of wealth…it’s that in having such they in turn use the the whole machinery of government to keep everyone else down.


Ironically, as a working class white I never felt more solidarity with blacks than in reading this book.  It helped me to see the larger economic and social picture in relief. Historically blacks of course have had two strikes against them: both economic disempowerment and racism. It occurred to me in reading this book how the latter became a tool of control by the ruling class in the service of the former. The first Africans in America were actually indentured servants, governed by the same laws and agreements as those which governed the whites.  Blacks and whites even intermarried at this early stage. But over time, a sort of caste system was put into place. As advantageous as it was to exploit indentured servants it was even more cost effective to just kidnap and enslave workers and pay them nothing. Initially whites were also kidnapped from the streets of Britain’s cities. But gradually, bit by bit, a system was put in place that commodified blacks like livestock, and gradually allowed more freedom, rights and independence to the poor whites, most of whom pushed into western wilderness areas to homestead small farms.

Historically, racism had always been more like ordinary bigotry. The people of Venice don’t like Othello because he’s a Moor. But he’s still an army general with a rich white wife. The laws and society in the Southern states (and to a lesser extent, the Northern ones, as well — oh yes, this will be the subject of an upcoming post) encouraged and amplified these sentiments to an ever increasing extent, dehumanizing the African, a trend that can be said not to have truly slowed and commenced reversal until the mid 20th century. This gave rise to that peculiar but well-known phenomenon of the second-lowest people in the pecking order (poor whites) directing all their ire and animus at the LOWEST people in the social pecking order (African Americans) rather than at the people in power. It’s ironic, it’s tragic, it’s counterproductive, it’s disempowering to all (to put it mildly), and it’s a trick. Like the man said, “Ya been had! You been took! Ya been hoodwinked! Bamboozled! Led Astray! Run amok!”


This wedge between natural allies, people who are in the same economic boat, was first driven by the right, but then startlingly was later also driven by the left. When I first moved to New York in the 1980s and started to check out the socialists and the communists, their newsletters were full of content aimed solely at African Americans. This is obviously where the recruitment focus was. Whites were characterized strictly as an oppressor class. But over 40% of the people who receive food stamps are white. I’m sure that number was even higher 30 years ago. 25% are black, and 10% are Hispanic. As I wrote here the other day, these people should be making common cause, not at each other’s throats. Another excellent and relevant post by Jonna Ivin is here.

For me this shift in my orientation is about politics (equity, justice, democracy), not so much economics. I believe in the market and in the science of political economy. Things like central planning, wage and price controls, and direct transfer payments are not what I’m on board for. But health, safety, education, information, legal justice, economic opportunity — these things need to be available to all on an equal footing and they’re still not.  There’s been some undeniable progress, but it remains at a fraction of where it needs to go. The strangest thing to me is (strange that some people aren’t seeing this) is that this isn’t strictly about a redistribution of wealth and power. At present we are seeing some SERIOUSLY negative effects from the fact that several generations of public school students have been so badly educated, for example. If you don’t reform things like that, and the justice system, it’s the entire society that will pay, not just the neglected underclasses.

So, anyway, this is a blog, emphasis on “log” — a bit of personal writing chronicling my personal evolution. When one does that, people often use it as an opportunity to attack you on the old attitude, i.e. the previous attitude, i.e. the one I have ALREADY moved away from.  (Or there is the inevitable stream of, “Glad you’ve belatedly come to realize the obvious!” from smug clods who inherited their own positions and never held them up to the light for two minutes). I don’t submit this piece of writing (really none of my writing) for your input, or thoughts, or rebuttals or affirmations. Left or right, fish or fowl, you can rest assured that I work these things out for myself, in my own head, and I don’t give a good goddamn what any of you think — about anything! This leftie don’t sing “Kumbaya” for nobody!


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