I became Left Wing out of Spite
I have done a lot of things in my life more or less out of spite. Like learning to play the violin because my best friend in 1971, a spoiled ten-year-old girl, told me I would never be able to play it. Fast forward fifty years, and I’m learning the first Beethoven violin sonata as my retirement project. So there, bitch.
But an initial spiteful impetus can lead to meaningful outcomes. And time mellows rigid ideas like an autumn ode by the unforgettable romantic poet John Keats, who coined the term “negative capability,” the ability to accept ambiguity.
When I was young, I could not accept ambiguity. And when my wonderful romantic poetry professor tried to explain Keats’s concept of negative capability, I was completely confused. I was not ready for such a mature, nuanced view of reality. I tuned out until he resumed our study of Keats’s beautiful poems. Here is one of them:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams,
I listened enraptured (the professor was a very expressive reader). I read Keats’s poems out loud after class and wept at their transcendent beauty. “Who needs abstract ideas?” I thought. For me, beauty was everything.
When I was in my second year of university, Ronald Reagan won the American presidential election. I didn’t know much about politics then, but I had a bad feeling about it. I thought Jimmy Carter was nice and should have won a second term.
Political candidates could only be either good or bad. Evil or nice. And please spare me the boring details, my younger self pleaded.
Also, the United States of America was a foreign country to me. I was much more caught up in Canadian politics. By that, I mean I was interested in the marriage and divorce of Pierre and Margaret Trudeau. Maggie had recently published Beyond Reason (1979), a memoir that dished all the juicy details of their disastrous marriage. It was a mismatch on par with Charles and Diana, only with more violence: picture Maggie attacking Pierre’s face with her fingernails and then ripping up a famous work of art displaying Pierre’s motto, “Reason Over Passion.” It’s a Canadian thing.
Anyway, I was not too well versed in American history or politics at the time. I was an English and drama major and felt that art was everything. Definitely passion over reason. I liked to think that Maggie and I could have been friends if our social circles had overlapped. And Pierre was very, very bad for treating her so poorly.
I stayed in my poetic bubble for a couple more years, reading Chaucer and Shakespeare and the romantic poets. I ignored anything that wasn’t literary or artistic. But by my third year, I was starting to also notice people around me. Mostly people I didn’t like.
It was 1981, and neo-conservatism was taking off. There was a guy who lived in my dorm who I simply couldn’t relate to. He was the president of my college’s student council. He seemed very serious and full of himself. He wore a suit and tie on campus and carried a briefcase whilst always seeming in a hurry. I sensed an arrogant vibe. I preferred my eccentric friends who acted in plays or played frisbee in the quad with an inflatable Fred Flintstone punching bag just to make fun of the jocks who threw actual frisbees.
That student council president later became a prominent conservative Canadian politician. He was very successful until he was disgraced in a sexting scandal a couple of years ago. He was one of the first conservatives to vaguely piss me off for no other reason than I couldn’t relate to his straight, white, right-wing, conventional ways. It was the beginning of the trickle-down economics, proxy wars, South American dictatorships. Those may have been American phenomena, but the ripple effect was felt in Canada as well. And I didn’t understand them at all, but I just knew they didn’t sit right with me. And the people who espoused them annoyed me.
People were either my friends or my enemies. Or else they didn’t exist in my solipsistic little world.
The second person who annoyed my young sensibilities was a guy who was a friend of a friend. My boyfriend and I went to a party at my friend’s parents’ house off campus, and this full-of-himself guy was there smoking a Cuban cigar. He remarked to my boyfriend, a philosophy major, that he really shouldn’t be smoking a Cuban. “Why?,” my boyfriend asked. “Because it’s a communist country?” “Yeah,” he answered, sheepishly, but arrogantly, flicking the ash into a nearby garbage bag. A few seconds later, the garbage bag burst into flames. The next thing I remember is the smoke alarm going off followed by my friend’s grandparents running down the stairs with a fire extinguisher.
That arrogant young man was a student at an American Ivy-League university and bragged that he got in because of a legacy admission: “It helps if your father went there,” he smirked. He later got a job in Washington D.C. as a speech writer for a series of Republican presidents.
I did not like him. Although I knew nothing about the Cuban revolution, I was beginning to sympathize with it more or less out of spite.
The third person to piss me off and send me hurtling over to left-wing politics was a linguistics professor. He explained to my language acquisition class that Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories were brilliant, but his politics were “absolute nonsense.” I liked the class, but I didn’t like some of this professor’s ideas. He could be condescending and seemed a bit taken with himself as a professor of language acquisition theory. He definitely didn’t like feminist language policing. He let us know that referring to humanity as “Mankind or man” was perfectly legitimate. “Man” simply implied women as well as men. Anyone who objected to this, i.e., a feminist, was being ridiculous.
Probably someone irrational like Margaret Trudeau, who danced with Mick Jagger at Studio 54 instead of supporting her husband at home in Ottawa on the night that he lost the 1979 election to the Conservative party.
This professor was also a big fan of Bill Cosby. He informed us that his favorite show was The Cosby Show, because it reflected his own family life so well. I hated The Cosby Show. I preferred shows with working class characters who were like my own family, shows like One Day at a Time (the original one, with Mackenzie Philips, who not only looked eerily like me, but also had a birthday only three days from mine!). Yes, I was still a little self-absorbed, but I was beginning to grow a social conscience.
I was not prescient enough to dislike Bill Cosby; I found his comedy routines hilarious. But that show. It was full of upper-middle-class, entitled characters with privileged problems. I was not economically privileged, despite being white, and was basically against anyone who was.
However, I was about to become a mother and had to grow up a little.
All I really knew, however, was that that language acquisition professor bugged me. I decided that I hated his views and that made him bad. I was also peripherally aware that he was very nice to me, taking an interest in my pregnancy during his course and afterwards allowing me to bring the baby to class, warning everyone not to complain if the baby cried. Despite his upper-middle class attitudes and avowal of sexist ideas, he was really a pretty nice guy, even going so far as to emotionally support a young working-class woman in a socially questionable early motherhood, which was quite unusual at the time.
But when you are an immature twenty-something, everything is either black or white.
He annoyed me so much in fact, that I was motivated to find out more about this Noam Chomsky person. I knew that Chomsky was a famous linguist and had demolished the entire science of behaviorism by writing a very funny review of a book by B.F. Skinner entitled Verbal Behavior. Chomsky quipped that teaching pigeons to play “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” by pecking on a keyboard was not a good model for human language acquisition. However, I knew little else about him.
I decided to take a look at Chomsky’s political books instead of trying to figure out his impenetrable Syntactic Structures. I was quite intrigued to learn that Noam Chomsky’s side hustle from teaching linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was denouncing American foreign and domestic policy.
From his many political books, I chose Pirates and Emperors, and soon moved on to What Uncle Sam Really Wants.
That was the beginning of my political education. So thank you, Professor M., wherever you are. You helped me more than you could know. You introduced me to my one remaining hero.
What I learned stunned me.
To illustrate, here is a passage from What Uncle Sam Really Wants. Here Chomsky is discussing the planning stages of the U.S. postwar economy. One of its architects, George Kennan, was head of the State Department from 1949 to 1950:
In a briefing for US ambassadors to Latin American countries in 1950, Kennan observed that a major concern of US foreign policy must be “the protection of our [i.e. Latin America’s] raw materials.” We must therefore combat a dangerous heresy which, US intelligence reported, was spreading through Latin America: “the idea that the government has direct responsibility for the welfare of the people.”
Let me spell this out a bit. After the second world war, America, which had profited enormously from that conflict, was the richest country in the world. The leaders of this rich country wanted to maintain that status, for their own benefit, at any cost. And that meant exploiting other countries. And also preventing other countries from lapsing into what they termed “communism,” which could include simply wanting to determine their own political and social futures.
Their greatest worry, the thing that would ruin the game for these elites, would be the unacceptable idea that “the government has direct responsibility for the welfare of the people.” By this, they meant ANY government: the American government, the Vietnamese government, all Central or South American governments. Why? Because they wanted all resources to be concentrated in the hands of a few elites, both at home and abroad. And they wanted to reserve the right to exploit American workers at home as well as the populations and natural resources of other countries.
I remember being stunned to learn that democracy was basically an illusion. Society was being controlled by elites like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. And they were not on the side of the people.
Let me repeat: the most unacceptable idea for these ideologues was the one that “the government has direct responsibility for the welfare of the people.”
This meant that social services were to be pared down. Military spending had to take precedence in this brave new postwar world. Education must be limited so that the people would not have the tools to protest what their leaders were doing.
Our welfare was of no concern. And the elites in both Canada and the United States were in on the secret and were gleefully cashing in on their privilege. They were lighting up Cuban cigars while denouncing the Cuban revolution. And starving the country with a cruel economic embargo that only increased the totalitarian tendencies of its Soviet-backed government.
I was getting truly pissed. And what kind of world was I bringing a child into?
Chomsky often came to my city for speaking engagements. He would fill a giant auditorium with his acolytes. I found myself attending every one that I could, and dragging my impressionable younger brother with me, making sure he grew up left-wing as well. Thirty-five years later, he and I still reminisce about seeing Chomsky in his prime denouncing American hegemony in front of ten thousand adoring fans.
I later became a high school English and media teacher and my sense of reality still did not have as many shades of grey as it could have. I felt the need to let my students in on the secret of government brainwashing. I may have been a little over eager.
By then, there was a documentary about Chomsky’s life and ideas called Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1995). I sought to indoctrinate my young students into Chomsky’s universe by showing them this film.
Sometimes I was a little nonplussed by my students’ responses. One boy wrote something like “Noam is an interesting guy, but I think that he should trust the government more and let them do their job. I am not qualified to tell the government what to do.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. I angrily wrote in the margins, “Everyone needs to participate in democracy. There are no special qualifications required. We are all responsible!!!!!”
Naturally, I convinced no one who wasn’t already inclined to be a rebel. Those young students of the 1990s had no reason to be pissed off at the government. Their lives were just fine, thank-you very much. If anything, I irritated some of them enough to turn them against progressive ideas.
At the same time, I discovered Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986), a violent, shocking, but brilliant film depicting the story of an American journalist who exposes America’s involvement in atrocities perpetuated by the Salvadoran government in the early 1980s. Lacking judgment, I showed that film to some of my classes as well. The first time I showed it, it was to a grade nine special education class consisting of three intellectually challenged boys.
They were very sweet and they were very good students. They loved everything I taught them. They especially enjoyed Dominic and Eugene (1988) with Tom Hulce and Ray Liotta. That film was perfect for their level of both intellectual and emotional maturity, sweet coming-of-age story of two brothers coming to accept each other’s differences.
Then I decided to show them something more political. When Stone’s film got to the very explicit scene where a group of American churchwomen are being gangraped by Salvadoran death-squad goons, one of them remarked, “That’s disgusting.”
They both got it and didn’t get it. They knew rape was wrong. They got that abuse of power is a bad thing. But the subtle interconnections between a powerful right-wing government and its client state? Not so much.
I am also lucky that their parents didn’t phone the principal and complain that I was showing this very inappropriate-for-fourteen-year-olds film in their children’s grade nine English class.
Basically, I was fortunate that people were not getting too pissed off with me. I did not yet have a permanent position with my school board and that little stunt could have blacklisted me. After that, I toned down my classroom political messages. Manufacturing Consent was still in, but Salvador was out.
Welcome to adulthood.
Arrogance is never good, but it is a common response to feeling inferior. The upper middle-class students and professors at my university made me feel insecure about my working-class background. My response was resentment and a desire to prove that they didn’t deserve their privilege.
I also did not appreciate my own privilege as a white person growing up during the post-World-War-Two economic boom that allowed me to secure a well-paying position as a unionized teacher in a social democracy.
Honestly, who does deserve their privilege? Arguably, no one. Life is not fair. The secret is appreciating what you have been given. And of course it is everyone’s responsibility to fight for more social justice and equality. Unfortunately, there is still no consensus on how that should be accomplished.
I no longer resent that boy who smoked a Cuban cigar at my friend’s party. He became a famous journalist. I now very much enjoy reading his articles. Many of his views now seem quite reasonable to me. He is still a conservative, but a mature one who never supported Donald Trump. Some of his stated views still rub me the wrong way, but I do not need to demonize him like I did as a young, insecure woman. I can now respectfully disagree with him in the comments section without denouncing his entire ethos.
That college student-council president who had to resign from the Conservative caucus after a sexting scandal? I can now sympathize with him. I’m still not going to vote conservative, but I am very much against destroying someone’s political career for a consensual sexual indiscretion not involving a power differential. This man is no Bill Clinton or Andrew Cuomo. He was having an online “affair” with a someone he thought was a consenting, adult woman, but who turned out to be two guys from the Ivory Coast who were blackmailing him. When he sent them a dick pic, they went public and he was asked to resign from his political position.
He refused the attempt at extortion, so they destroyed his career. I hope that this incident is forgotten about in a few more years. This man may not have all the same ideas that I have, but he has a contribution to make to Canadian politics and he should be allowed to make it despite an embarrassing personal revelation.
As for Noam Chomsky, as I write this, he is ninety-two years old and still teaching part-time at the University of Arizona. His ideas have started to become more or less mainstream. Many other damning classified documents have been declassified since he began researching them in the 1960s, and there is no longer any serious doubt about America’s nefarious, secret activities around the world in the 1980s and after.
As for Margaret Trudeau, I feel a certain ambiguity. I had always seen her as a heroine fighting the forces of repression and sexism. She also movingly revealed the true extent of her mental health struggles in two memoirs she wrote after Beyond Reason: Consequences (1982), and Changing My Mind (2010). While I am sympathetic to her struggles with mental illness (she suffers from bipolar disorder), I also see a lot of self-indulgence and greed in her character.
In 2020 it was exposed that she earned $250,000 as a speaker for a disgraced charity called WE between 2015 and 2019, dragging her son, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau into a governmental scandal that almost cost him the 2019 federal election.
Not sure I would actually want to hang out with her. But I wouldn’t condemn her either.
The older I get, the more ambivalence I feel and the more ambiguity I learn to accept. I no longer feel the kind of self-righteous certainty I felt as a young social justice-minded student and teacher.
I am definitely still cynical about politics and would like to see more emphasis in North American society on equality, fairness, and social justice. I am uneasy about politicians with a hidden agenda. I am very worried about the future of civilization and of the planet. I am relieved that my daughter has decided not to have children.
I’m not sure if my new sense of “negative capability” is at all useful in a world that threatens to destroy itself at any moment. Perhaps the self-righteous certainty of the present young generation will finally put the world to rights. Perhaps delusional certitude is the only way to get anything done.
I desperately hope so.