I got an email this morning from a friend who studies transition towns. She lives among the permaculture farmers, street medics, and other radicals of Vermont, an idyllic existence from the outside, and she's visiting Paris for a conference this weekend. On the Champs Elysees, she was having trouble focusing on architectural splendor due to blisters erupting over her shoulders, a "stress rash," she said. She was stressed out, a "tired radical" of the kind that Weyl described in 1921. Except that my friend's tiredness revolved not so much around the conferences, international travel, or sheer brunt of protesting against international finance capitalism and its ravages on her community (although I'm sure that those played a role). Chief on her mind was a subject we'd talked about many times, about how stressful she had found dating.
Two of the most credentialed radicals I've ever met were married early. When I lived at the Harvard Co-op, my room was downstairs for a time from Rick and Jacqui. Rick and Jacqui were different from the rest of the Co-opers in several respects. The first was that they were slightly older -- 25ish I think, when the rest of us were 20 to 22. That meant that they'd traveled slightly more, and taken classes outside of Harvard, and they had nothing but disdain for the watered-down theory and apolitical teaching they found offered on the Harvard schedule of courses; they were there to use the university's support to make films, and they already knew why they were making films and about what. While we were living together, their first film came out, about families in gangs in New York and gang life as pride and survival in the face of racism rather than as criminality and license. For all those reasons, they shone out among the other Co-opers; they had a sense of a political economy larger than white privileged feminism, and a sense of how their lives and careers would interface. It took me another ten years to get anything like that same clarity for myself.
But the second thing that was different about them was their relationship to family. Their relationship was exceptional in the radical community I knew at that time. They were married at 25, and they were also the only married couple I knew at Harvard. As we got older, no one I knew was married by 25, especially among the radicals, so Jacqui and Rick still continued to stand out in my mind (the only Harvard marriages we knew at 25 in my circle were the most tepid, the least political folks who found a spouse much like them and moved back to the suburbs). The marriage was a source of solidarity, a source of radicalism -- it's been fifteen years, and we haven't been in touch, but I've continued to see Jacqui's name near Rick's on their reports from Iraq for radical news networks, or on publicity about their new documentaries. What I learned from hanging out with them, as I recall, was that at least some of that solidarity was modeled on family relationships from Rick's parents, who were left, and had several offspring, at least two of whom became radicals in different ways, who stayed in touch with each other, and who seemed to generally support Rick and Jacqui as well. And Jacqui, when I knew her, described her new family as a safe haven from a world of fundamentalist religion and political conservatism in rural Alberta, where she had grown up. Marriage, in her case, had meant the possibility of choosing a new family, even through migrations from Canada to Boston and then around the world.
All of this is an outsider's hazy vision, badly pieced together from stray details, and surely invested with my own idealism. I have no idea what Rick's relationship to his siblings has been since then, or whether that aura of mutual support continued. I hope it did. I should say again -- I never knew them terribly well, and whatever normal vicissitudes relationships or families go through, I can't speak to them. But it's clear that the marriage and the family did something important for them both, at least for some period of time, and it may well be doing that still for all I know, driving a spear of radical solidarity deep into the future. At least, according to the Democracy Now website, that's what they're both still doing.
Jacqui and Rick's relationship could not have been more at odds with the radicalism I was learning from Harvard, where there was (as they complained) little political economy, little global politics with a perspective from below, and instead, a great deal of queer and feminist theory that insisted on the oppressive nature of the family and the potential for abuse in any set of relationships. We read Kristeva and Foucault and Lacan, deconstructed the self, and learned that multitudinous, polymorphous forms of creativity or demands for freedom were more liable to appear in repetitious repairing and rebonding with strangers. Nomadism and independence was what was preached among the women who took Women's Studies classes of my generations (yes, and a thousand other feminisms besides, but that's where the real action seemed to be taking place). Nomadism and independence were what I heard preached in San Francisco when I lived there, at least by the people most eager to talk about the dynamics of sex and dating. The mantra goes like this: when in doubt, seek sex, nomadism, and independence.
What we were learning at Harvard, I understand now, was a form of radicalism perfectly well suited to the genesis of certain kinds of bohemia, with a long pedigree stretching back through Greenwich Village, San Francisco, Paris, and London. It was particularly helpful for certain young men and women trying to shrug off the memory of paternal authority in another world. The insistence on nomadism, on reconfiguring relationships, on constant travel, was particularly appropriate to young men of means and an experience of outsiderdom, who in the 60s were rejected by their families and found a few institutions around the world offering a happy home. Those stories of personal liberation come down to us through decades of exploration by people with the means to support numerous households, to support breakups and reconvergences. Most importantly, they had the time, energy, and income to support mutual exploration with their many partners. As a life-long public advocate of polyamory once told me, polyamory is probably for the rich. Working-class friends at Ida in Tennessee would disagree, but they chose a back-to-the-land rejection of consumerism altogether -- utopia, not reform.
Reformers, whether in the media or academia or politics or science, seem largely to choose pair-bonding. There's a geographical dimension to that choice. In professional circles -- say left professional circles like tenure-track academia, where plenty of us are married and have left leanings -- plenty of people talk about pair-bonding, planning cohousing movements together, or introducing young single people who want to change the world with someone else by their side. All of those conversations go on in professional circles, but they can be very hard to get to from the Bohemian art-and-protest scenes of Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, or New York. Plenty of people in radical worlds pair-bond and have children, but then they tend to move to a place with cheaper rent, like Portland or Philadelphia. All of which increases the perception that radicals in Brooklyn and San Francisco must choose nomadism and independence over family.
In Boston and Chicago I found entire ghettos of lonelyhearts queer folk, single straight women, and single straight hipster men, many of them with dedicated activist projects and deep streaks of radicalism. Most of them were too tired, after running whatever marches or food justice initiatives or cyberjournalism, to handle more than one lover at a time. When I lived in San Francisco, I found myself in a world of smart, middle-class women with activist tendencies and radical ideas, who entered relationship after relationship, looking for some stability, only to be preached to again and again, by an articulate minority, about the sovereign value of nomadism and independence, which had come to stand in for radicalism itself. Many of my single women and men friends in these cities complained incessantly about wanting to be with someone, and dated frequently, often using the internet. And a good many of them felt bad about themselves for not being nomadic and independent, or for wondering about the end of their fertility if they were women.
The "feeling bad" here bothers me, because we've created a dynamic in which the high premium paid to sexual or gender radicalism in conversation promotes extra emotional labor for merely feministic men and women radicals of a different sort. I'm struck by the numbers of radical friends who second-guess themselves when they start to think about the solidarities they need to be happy in life, including someone loving at their side. In my experience, living with Zach has boosted my abilities to think about the future, to plan, to do my work, to write, to hang out with friends, or anything else, just because I have a partner around who's there, with me, to explore what it means to be human in rest and labor.
The mantra of self-work, independence, and nomadism through multiple, changing partnerships works deep magic for some people. But it's a mantra: it's recited again and again in some cities, in some parts of Bohemia, and ignored entirely in others. At Burning Man there are so many workshops on polyamory and polyamorous marriages and so few meet-and-greets for young radicals trying to pair-bond and create radical change together (because that would be so counter-revolutionary?). These days, one wouldn't expect anything else. In these conversations, radicalism and solidarity are sometimes confused with nomadism and independence, as if having multiple lovers were a precondition of doing radical work battling Wall Street or racism or global political economy. So when we talk as if pair-bonding is anti-radical, we add a great deal of emotional labor to the plates of radical activists that might otherwise be filled with a very different genre of conversation, one that insisted that relationship give comfort, relaxation, and solidarity to activists who are often doing other things than talking about sex, for example making international documentaries about political economy.
These days I find myself thinking about Jacqui and Rick and other kinds of mantras that I might offer to a younger version of myself. I might tell her: Humans need other humans. When in doubt, seek out the relationships -- friendships, love relationships, and homes -- where you feel most comfortable, most welcome, most easily able to talk, and keep returning there. Find people who aren't afraid of family as a word, and talk to them about the kinds of families they'd like to see, which because they're your friends, will probably also be families of kindness, justice, solidarity, and political awareness.
Humans do need other humans. We like talking in the morning about what the plan for the rest of our day looks like. We like talking in the evening about where we went, what we did, and what we thought about it. We're designed to tell and listen to stories, to relate to each other over time, to build up trust and respect for each other in a way that is deeply relaxing to the entire system. In broken and oppressive relationships, we can't relax into the delights of mutual respect or regular storytelling. But without relationships at all, we can become exhausted by the very process of searching for a place to share stories.