06 October 2011

I Am Not a ‘Marxist’

I need to lay out a few qualifications for tonight’s entry, which will be about an email my Mom sent me yesterday, my response to it, and my further reflections on the contents of those emails this morning. I love my parents. I know they mean well. Also, I’m well aware that just about everyone disagrees with their parents on fundamental levels and that these disagreements often lead to heated arguments where each side defends its view of the issue rather than come to some sort of understanding. I would consider it abnormal to have any other kind of relationship with my parents (though that does not mean that what I am calling a ‘normal’ relationship is unproblematic). Nonetheless, the very short, ‘well intentioned’ email my Mom sent me was both surprising and hurtful. Keeping that in mind, I want to make it clear that I am not writing this entry to attack my Mom or my family, though a constructive critique of the contents of my Mom’s email will be part of how I work through its contents. But the salient point I wish to get across before I go any farther is that I am writing this entry for me and to tell my story, because nobody else is going to tell it.

The contents of my Mom’s email to me and about me were as follows: a thirty-or-so-word personal message stating that my Mom read on Facebook that I am a Marxist, that she hoped I would read the chain letter she included (she did not use the words chain letter, of course, but that is clearly what it was), and that she hoped I would give serious thought to what I believe and what I am doing. She then added XOXOXO, Mom (there were a good deal more ‘hugs’ and ‘kisses’, I think, but I don’t know how many). The chain letter was a list of five so-called ‘cogent’ reasons why the government should not tax the wealthy.

There’s no need to go into the chain letter other than to note that I thought the argument it made was preposterous and a defense of corporate greed.

As I’ve written above, I was shocked and hurt after reading my Mom’s description of me. I’m not sure exactly what she meant by calling me a ‘Marxist’. If I had to guess, I think she meant ‘communist’ or ‘socialist’. I do have training in Marxist theory and believe some of the points Marx makes about capitalism are valid, but I do not think he is entirely correct, and in any case his solution to the problem of capitalism ends up participating in capitalism, as anyone who has considered how the former Soviet Union handled communism could tell you. There is also good evidence to suggest that some socialist programs work or can work, such as our fire department system. I point all of these things out because, whatever my Mom means by Marxist, she means it pejoratively. This misrepresents what Marxism, Communism, and Socialism are supposed to be about. And the the tone of her message clearly indicates that she does not approve of my being a ‘Marxist’. More than that, her suggestion that I think seriously about how I think and act implies that I should change how I think and act. And by change she means that I should think and act as she does. Or that is one way to read it.

What hurt me most in this message isn’t the suggestion that I change because my Mom wishes me to. In no case will I simply change for that reason anyway. Rather, what truly hurts are the implicit assumptions in this message that there is something wrong with me. At no point does my Mom’s message ask me any questions about me. Rather, it tells me who I am: someone who does not give serious thought to their beliefs and actions, a dangerous agent who may find himself in trouble if he continues on the path he has inadvisedly stumbled upon (rather than purposefully chosen), a misbehaving or astray child who has merited a scolding by his much wiser, more experienced parent.

I perhaps should not have been as shocked as I was when I read my Mom’s email. It is hardly the first time she has treated me this way, always, I am quite sure, with all the good will in the world. But those good intentions don’t erase the damage messages like this have done to me over the course of my life. For, of course, I do want my parent’s approval of who I have chosen (and not chosen) to be. And, to be fair, there have been times when my parents have praised me, supported me, and aided me when I turned to them for help and aid. But those moments do not stick out nearly as vividly to me as all of the half‑spoken signals of disappointment, disapproval, and presumed failure. At least they do not at this moment. And I think this is the biggest shock to my system, to discover, despite that I have not been a child for a long time, that I can still be a disappointing child in my parent’s eyes.

I’m not going to go through all of the details of the response I wrote to my Mom. Suffice to say, I attempted to tell her some of things I have voiced here, though not in quite the same terms and not at such length. I felt guilty for doing so, even though I believe my response was wholly justified, because my response puts me in the role of the misbehaving or astray child. I wondered if it would no have been better to call her and confront her more directly. But I ended up avoiding that. I’m not quite sure why. And I couldn’t help but begin to doubt who I think I am given the very specific and negative terms my Mom constructed me in, even though I knew those terms were inaccurate and said more about how my Mom sees me than how I see me.

And so I asked myself in my writing session this morning just who I think I am. I came up with quite a bit, much more than I’m going to discuss here. But as for the kind of thinker I think I am, one of the ways I would describe myself is as someone who is keenly interested in the way that we humans tell stories. We never tell our stories innocently. My Mom’s story about me is not innocent. Nor is my story about her story about me. And what this means and what interests me about how we tell our stories is the stories we try not to tell but which leak out of the story we are narrating. That’s what happened with my Mom’s story about her son the ‘Marxist’. Or it did when I asked the right sorts of questions. And it is what happens in the texts I am studying as I write my dissertation: the stories of the conquered peoples that inhabit them leak out ‘in translation’. Or they do when we ask questions rather than make assumptions that we are getting the whole truth or even a tiny part of it.

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