The People We Love and the People We Hate
by Matt Stoller, Sun Jun 17, 2007 at 09:16:49 AM EDT
I guess I'll start explaining why I'm leaving MyDD by giving you the real story of why I'm in politics, and what I actually believe. I wish I could say that it starts with a noble battle with developers, a war, or a fight with an employer, but the reality is that it's a lot more petty and unnoble. It started with my relationship with my immediate family, along my relationship to the past.
I grew up in a wonderful home, with a mother and a father and a brother about whom I care deeply. My father is a stockbroker, and my mother has done a number of impressive things in her career, the most recent one is a travel company that focuses on running trips for women all over the world called the Women's Travel Club. I'm a fourth generation American, with eastern European Judaism in my blood and all that that implies. On my Mom's side, my great Aunt Anna was a lawyer in the 1920s fighting for Israel and my great Uncle Max, for who I am quasi-named, was also radical lawyer. Anna used to say that she was the first woman in New York to buy her own mink coat, and my Mom and I have taken up this tradition and become stalwart feminists. My great-grandfather was an orthodox Jewish peddler, and my grandfather a clothing maker. My great-grandmother came from a long line of working class Scotch-Irish. After the two of them married, my grandfather's family disowned him for marrying a non-Jew, even though she later converted to Judaism. My grandmother's family was just happy she hadn't married a Catholic, because anti-Catholicism trumped antisemitism in those days.
All of this is family myth to me, because I didn't really know my Mom's side of the family very well. It was a very political family that argued intensively, aggressively, sometimes even viciously and with long memories. Aunt Anna never forgave my grandmother for putting my senile grandfather in a Catholic nursing home in the 1980s, exclaiming 'how could you do that after what the Pope did in World War II?!?' At the time, my grandmother couldn't drive, and the Catholic nursing home was close to her home. And I suppose Aunt Anna, who told stories of bribing African delegates to the UN after WWII to vote for the creation of the state of Israel, had lost some of her strategic savvy. I mean, the Pope in the 1980s really didn't care about whether the Catholic nursing home market in Miami had one more Jewish customer. By the time I came around, the spirit of political radicalism had died down, though the culture of argument and paradox had certainly not. I mean, my mother, half Jewish at a time when that was not culturally accepted, had Anna as a role model, as well as a mother who could not drive and did not work. Politics has always been in our blood, even when it was just beneath the surface.
On my Dad's side, the story is a bit less clear. My grandfather was born in Russia/Eastern Europe (the ethnic boundaries were a bit hazy until Stalin redrew the maps into neat countries with the right ethnic makeups). Grandpa Phil didn't ever tell us about his family's background, because he probably feared the anti-Communist spirit in America. He did have one tale of being nearly kidnapped by gypsies while in transit to America when he was two years old, though who knows if that's true. Beyond that, we don't know much. Grandpa was a businessman, and didn't want to be associated with Communism in any way, shape or form, even if it was just having people know he had been born in Russia. He was also afraid of African-Americans, and felt uncomfortable around non-Jews. I suppose, though I never did have a political conversation with him, that he was probably a traditional conservative. Like many first-generation immigrant Jews, he wanted us to forget the past, the pogroms and being drafted to fight and lose in the Russo-Japanese war. So we don't know much. Grandma Molly's family was from 'somewhere in the Austro-Hungarian Empire', which at the time included much of central and Southern Europe. She had at one point wanted to be a teacher, but ended up not working. They loved each other, but fought for fifty years. It was a really hard relationship, and I remember hearing arguments between them as a little boy that were about how they shouldn't argue in front of me and my brother. I don't think they really even knew how to communicate without fighting, but they did love each other.
I think the best story I know of what it means to love through fighting is the story of my father's parents, and in particular, how they died. Though I don't have a great memory of childhood, I remember that week vividly. I studied in Japan for three weeks in middle school, and the day I got back, my Dad met me at the airport and told me that my grandmother had died of a heart attack. Six or seven days later, my grandfather, who had been living in a hospice with a terminal illness, passed away as well. Grandma died of loneliness, of not having her partner around, even though they fought throughout their marriage. His last words to her came, I'm told, as she was trying to feed him eggs, since he was losing weight, as dying people sometimes do. With his mind going in and out of focus, he suddenly looked at her and said 'Molly, take those eggs and shove them up your ass'. This was the week of hurricane Andrew, when part of our house was damaged and all the trees in our yard died. There was a French exchange student staying with us, and he got to spend time living through a major hurricane and two funerals, one where the funeral parlor had electricity and one where it didn't.
So I guess you could say that love, to my family, is about our wonderful and painful ability to disagree, wrapped up in a relationship that is stronger than those disagreements. That's what home is, as well, and that's what I believe is best about America.
Anyway, my parents loved each other, and we grew up in Miami in the suburbs along with my older brother Nick. As a child, it always felt like it was the four of us alone in a hostile world. While we were a prosperous family, and my parents taught us good values and exposed me to cultures from all over the world, Miami was not a town for intellectual-ish Jews. It was never 'home', and after we sold our childhood house, I felt no sense of nostalgia whatsoever, nor was it a big deal when my parents packed up a few years ago and moved to New York. Home to me was always about people, and never about place, although when I do see palm trees in Christmas I do get a little misty. The subtropics just fit me really well. As a child, I grew up in a family that was incredibly argumentative, loving, but full of fights. I often felt bullied or marginalized, and I learned that fighting was a way not just of expressing frustration, but also, of communicating with authority figures otherwise predisposed towards not considering that something was important. My family's radical politics, the culture of Eastern European Jewry, was a culture of argument, of love through disagreement. I guess that's how we dealt with the pain of insecurity, the pain of uncertainty that is so common among suburbanites, or maybe, just 20th century Americans struggling in a mass society that prized individualism yet crushes individuals.
In 1993, I went to a boarding school in New Hampshire called St Paul's, an exclusive-ish prep school that did not have a lot of Jews. Nick and I came from a professional family of people who did not hide their problems and used comedy and argument as a way of expressing love and frustration, which is certainly not how WASPs deal with the world. And a modern boarding school environment is basically designed to teach adolescents how to manipulate rules and institutions, and how to see through pompous authoritarian structures. We had a 'Rector', or principal, and teachers were a mixture of parental figure, informant, and prison guard. We had dinners with coats and ties four times a week, and chapel every morning at 8am. In other words, this was not a normal environment or high school experience. I then went to Harvard, which is the educational expression of America's elite, both morally corrupt and aristocratic and wonderfully meritocratic at the same time.
After toying with the possibility of a career path in management consulting or Goldman Sachs in Japan (ironically I would later work in politics for Jon Corzine, who was running Goldman at the time), I eventually went into a dot com in Boston, and then moved into politics from the blogging world. I encountered the horror that was the modern Democratic Party circa 2002, and tried to make peace with it, tried to do my traditional institutional 'go along get along' path that had brought me educational success in my various pursuits. But it didn't work. My analysis of Iraq was dead-wrong, both in the politics and the policy (I was pro-war). I had been lied to by elites about WMDs, and I was angry. But what shocked me was that no one seemed to care that the whole war was based on bullshit, and there were no consequences for the elites who lied us into war. These were the people I knew, I went to school with, and aspired to friendship with, and they had no shame, nor did they care that they lied to me and the country.
And when my voice was marginalized by the political system, the institutional acceptance of modern America, that acceptance and discipline that got me into Harvard, that melted away. Older strains of radicalism, strains that are cultural in orientation, strains passed down to me by my parents and their parents and back ultimately from villages in Eastern Europe wiped out by the Nazis and splattered throughout America in its trade union movement, financial institutions, politics and in Hollywood, those strains and the way they taught me to communicate and the values of fairness mixed with the inevitable tragedy of life, these strains came out. I began, along with creative class professionals everywhere, to yell. And as I've looked into history, what I've found is that I'm yelling, we're yelling, a lot like the Communist/socialist organizers of the 1930s were yelling, and a lot like the New Right were yelling in the 1970s. It's a yell born of primal identity, values, and an obsessive willingness, even need, to restructure power arrangements. It's like an itch that upon scratching, does not go away until you remove the skin itself.
All of this is to say that I've had a journey away from a weird and lonely and loving suburban upbringing. A few years ago, my parents left Miami and moved to New York City, leaving the last suburban traces of my childhood in tatters. I'm an urban-suburban Jewish outraged would-be elite who a few years ago sought an investment banking or consulting career. I believed in the American status quo, but, when it failed, it rubbed something fundamental in my character, a rawness that had always been there, in my person and in my people.
Now, I have worked in politics as a professional, but unlike professional political people who blog, I began my career in politics blogging. My career path of going back and forth between the blogosphere and the political world will become increasingly common. And that's where MyDD comes in. It's not the first major blog I was on. That's actually the Blogging of the President 2004, a mix of talk radio and blogging, which, ironically, was a group blog to which I invited Chris to post. He didn't remember this when he hired me for MyDD after I got off the Corzine campaign, but I think our writing styles and ideological affinity just mesh well and always have. I certainly have always seen him as the leader of this community, and have always felt immensely privileged to be his colleage.
Anyway, after the Corzine campaign, because of both Jerome and Chris, I came here, and began work with Chris, Jonathan, Jerome, and all of you on the progressive movement from the outside. I've been enormously proud of the work you've enabled, the feedback, the spirited discussions, and the collaborative nature of MyDD. Jerome, Bowers, me, and Singer operate in an environment, a space, where you keep us honest and prod us to improve. Being yelled at every day in good faith is the essence of democracy, of a civil society that pushes its leaders to be better than they ever though possible, and that allows anyone to emerge as a leader should they face down the twin fears of failure and the learned disempowerment of TV and elite culture. As a result of your comments and feedback, my writing, indeed my very identity, has gradually adopted into a pugilistic yet playfully moralistic tone, which mixes in policy discussions, political analysis, and inspections of bad and faith actors and underlying institutional and personal motives. I remember a meeting I had with Pelosi, prior to the 2006 elections, where I asked her to call the Republicans liars on the House floor when she felt they lied. She said she wouldn't, and in the conversation pointed out that the use of that word would strip her of the right to speak on the floor for that day under the rules of the House. Perfect, I said, that's a terrific PR move. And I wouldn't let up, until her communications director pulled me away. 'You're just like your blog', is what a friend told me afterwards. And that's because of you, because you have helped me to understand what I never did before, that there is a thirst for people who have strong voices, for people who speak in politics as a moral story. That's how you talk about politics, so that's how I now talk about it. I have learned that might does not make right, right makes might.
I hope, as Chris Bowers, Mike Lux, and I go on to our new venture, that we are able to help more people understand the power of disagreement, the power of ideas, and the power of dissent. The notion of unity is a very powerful framework, and it's one I believe in strongly. Lincoln's Union was a moral community that sought disagreement within a framework of individual consent to overall decision-making governance. And that's where we have to go now as a country. I hear the right-wing and corporate elites making arguments that the public can't govern, so it shouldn't even try. That taxes can't be paid because lawyers and accountants will find loopholes for the rich, or that we can't move off of a carbon intensive energy system because oil companies and car companies and defense contractors are too powerful. Nonsense. The Union, Lincoln's Union, would never say that we cannot tax the powerful and immoral to throw off our chains. Our America, Lincoln's America, will never consent to being ruled by fiends in defense industries because we can't do better. In our America, we will not discuss whether the Iraq War made us 'safer' without discussing first whether it was the right thing to do, whether it made us more or less able to live up to America's promise or whether it is part of that murderous and slave-owning past that we pretend does not exist, without seeing our own lack of moral character in the inner cities where we choose to overlook the AIDS, crack, death, and violence that we perpetuate with our suburban lifestyle of gates, chains, and TV fantasy dreamworlds. We will and are building a new Ameria, and it's going to take time, and it will be painful, but we will get there, at least some of us.
MyDD is a site that should focus on elections and partisanship. Chris and I believe that elections and partisanship are necessary but not sufficient tools to use for major ideological realignment of our cultural institutions, so that we can build a progressive governing majority. This realignment is happening, all over the country, and that's what we want to focus on. The blogs are not a technology platform, but are a representation of what happens when an institutional leadership betrays its stakeholders. The media, the political system, and the Democratic Party both consistently betray us as liberals, and so the blogosphere is a mixture of organizing against the media, the political system and the Democratic Party. Until we are done marching through the institutions - labor, churches, corporate America, the courts, the military - our movement will continue, through blogs or other tools.
And this gets to moving beyond partisanship. We are an ideological movement that believes in pluralism, communitarianism, and individual identity. I am my own person, but that person is wrapped up in my relationship with all of you. I will always be greatful to Jerome, who gave me the chance to have one and a half unbelievable years where I literally found my identity. I will always be grateful to all of you, and hopefully some of you will find our new space a useful place to continue our organizing and strategic discussions. Indeed, I believe that the internet is a core element of our movement, because it alone as a medium combines individualistic notions of self with a larger communitarian identity, and allows for rank-and-file stakeholders in institutions to organize around a leadership that betrays them. There are many untold stories in American history and politics, and the founding of the internet by people within the military-industrial complex and the counter-cultural who thought very hard about institutional betrayal is one of them. There are others, such as the real story of the modern Democratic Party, and its genuinely radical roots. I hope to tell some of these, with your help, though not on this site, in this space.
So this is a goodbye to MyDD. I'll be coming back occasionally, but this site will no longer be core to my identity in politics, or really, in life. It's really weird. I mean, I'll be on another site, and many of you will come on over and read, and comment, and link, and complain. I'm not going to stop howling at the 2008 candidates, it'll just be at a differnet url. So why is this really a goodbye? I don't know, but it is. MyDD will continue, and there will always be a piece of me here, but it will be a different place, with new personalities who can find their voices. This was my home, my real home, and that's because of you.
And I guess that's what I'll leave you with. Find your voice, and realize that you have power, whoever you are, wherever you are, and in whichever community you belong to. Find it, and use it, because in the end, that's all we really are, the people we talk to, the people we listen to, the people we love and the people we hate, who are often one and the same.