That Time I Befriended an Old-School Leftist in Graduate School

Graduate school is probably not the best time to be figuring out your political identity. You have far too many papers to write.

3 months ago

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The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it. — Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845)

Graduate school is probably not the best time to be figuring out your political identity. You have far too many papers to write. Too many projects to complete. Bureaucratic machinations are looking to snuff you out. And, you have those oh-so-special instructors looking to get rid of your ass, because you’ve upset their life’s balance.

I applied for graduate school much in the way a slacker does. I didn’t have a plan. All I knew was that I wanted to write, and I wanted to get some serious writing in while I still could do so. I figured graduate school was the best route for such endeavors, so I applied to my alma mater’s graduate program in English literature — and, boy, was that an experience.

The graduate coordinator, a wonderfully chipper woman originally from Minnesota, advised me on my course options. I took what I could: one class in English and another in graduate-level history. This allowed me to get the financial aid I so desperately needed to keep in school and stay afloat financially. Little did I know, I was embarking on a serious, obstacle-ladened path to my political identity.

To be sure, my political identity up to that point was seriously fucked in the head. I didn’t know, truly, where I stood on political issues. In order help ya’ll understand where I came from, I have to delve into my childhood and teenage years, a rather painful time for me, socially and otherwise.

My father and his brother owned and operated a rather interesting conservative Website, something called The Website in question hosted a blog and sold merch that aligned with neoconservative values. Pro-Israel this. Stroking Patton in the grave that. Death to America’s enemies. You are either for us or against us. It was inspired by unhealthy doses of George C. Scott as Patton, twenty-four-hour Fox news broadcasts, 9/11 terrorism attacks, and pro-Israeli zionism.

As kids, me and my siblings were instructed in the truth about American and international politics. Might makes right. War instead of peace. Guns bring freedom and ensure speech is protected. The list went on and on. If we disagreed, our father, and other members of our family, educated us, in order to correct our thinking. School teachings were contradicted with the politically incorrect pedagogies of my father.

The man who taught me these things grew up in a household that was deep Republican. Democrats weren’t to be trusted. Richard Nixon was set up. Kennedy was a communist. Bill Clinton was a shyster. My father also served in the United States Air Force — interestingly in the the nation’s nuclear forces. He later told me that he was not in the “keeping world peace business” during his time in the Air Force. Instead, he said with a chuckle, “I was in the world-ending business.” Between these two things, my father developed a rather interesting political identity as a young man, sharing it, enforcing it, among his children and family.

When I started graduate school, I’d drifted away from my father’s strange neoconservatism. I’d managed to fall in with the libertarians on campus, but I didn’t much enjoy their talk about letting the markets loose. This was the post-07/08 Recession, after all. I’d seen my share of market failures, and I found that the market didn’t account for newly minted college graduates, needing entry-level jobs. Graduate school was both a choice and a necessity, as the economy hadn’t actually repaired itself, as Obama and so many others claimed.

In rural New Mexico, at the time, you had three political ideologies that stood out: really conservative, conservative, and sort of left of center. The conservatives outnumbered everyone else. When the Democrats tried to run for office in Portales, New Mexico, they could never find businesses that would allow them to rent convention or office space. Portales, and much of southern New Mexico, was and still is deep red Republican territory. A bank owner in Portales likes to show off his political opinions by making large signage touting the superiority of Republican candidates and other such nonsense. The lefties in southern New Mexico usually comprised of conservative Democrat farmers, school teachers, and college/university faculty and staff.

To someone who was looking for new ideas, new political ideas, rural New Mexico wasn’t the place to be — or, so I thought.

Enter the old-school leftist. He was a real cool dude, about five-foot-seven, bald, and wearing wire-rimmed glasses. He came from Texas, looking for opportunity in the so-called Land of Enchantment. He’d applied to the graduate school about two months after I had, and he managed to make it to southeastern New Mexico on the last bit of money he’d scrounged up before leaving Texas proper. We met in a cultural studies class, and everything clicked, from there.

The old-school leftist apprised me of the past century and a half of far-left political thought, filtered through a lens of a Texan native. He’d visited Cuba. He’d gone to the motherland back when it was still the U.S.S.R. He was a follower of Che, whom he revered. In fact, the old-school leftist once gave me a poster with Che posing in the foreground next to a group of guerrillas. He jokingly said it was “A gift from the Communist Party of Portales.” I still have it — somewhere, and I keep it as a reminder of my journey to comprehend my position in the political realm.

The honeymoon stage was soon over. My leftist friend started to show his true colors, like many of those overtly political types in my life. He once said to a female friend and colleague, “You could be our organization’s secretary.” He didn’t think that such talk was dated — to say the least. He hadn’t thought that a woman might be just as political as a man. He also proved to be less leftist than I’d originally believed. He joked about the pointlessness of leftist thought on more than one occasion. In other words, I found that he was nothing more than a contradiction.

I guess that’s the real lesson in all of this. Politics aren’t cut and dry as we’d like to believe. Although the ancient philosophers were right in saying that humans are indeed political creatures, we are also creatures of contradiction. We aren’t slaves to political dogma, as some would believe. Political stances oscillate between extremes for many, only to land somewhere between the extremes. Few are truly extremist in their views, even the diehards. My own political views are more in line with leftist thinking — right of leftist totalitarianism but very left of center. I’ve come to these political standings from a series of readings I’ve conducted over the years. That’s all anyone can do. Thorough research, deep close readings, and reflection are the only way to really figure out where you stand politically. Ironically, most people don’t go through that stringent a process, but that’s a tale for a different time.

If you’ve enjoyed this article/essay, please feel free to join the conversation below. Thank you for reading!

G. Michael Rapp

Published 3 months ago


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