Freedom Socialist Soapbox: Of hermits, hedonists and related narcissists

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In the melting pot ghetto of East Los Angeles where I grew up during the Great Depression, everybody seemed to know that the only way to keep things from getting worse was to organize to make them better.

Everyone was involved in some group bent on improving some facet of social arrangements. What outfit you belonged to was your badge of distinction, the mark of your individuality and the guidepost to your relations with others. And the kind of life that gravitated around causes was full of meaning and stimulation. Social activists found satisfaction, ideological understanding, humor, and companionship as the fringe benefits of commitment, and it was an exciting way to rise to the call of human beingness. The political was the personal.

That’s right, back in those olden times working people cared about the world, and everybody had a pet panacea, especially in that golden Southern California clime of sects and movements where anything seemed possible and the improbable was institutionalized. And to the adolescents growing up optimistic, athletic, and reflexively welded to our clubs and teams and schools and neighborhoods, the symbol of high craziness was the hermit, the barefoot weirdo who wandered through the Hollywood hills and fled if people approached. We laughed ’til we fell down, teenage-style, at a man who chose solitude instead of the human comedy.

Our heroes, naturally, were the freedom fighters and rebels. One day in 1938, a group of wounded Spanish Civil War veterans visited our high school, and classrooms emptied as students and teachers alike rushed to welcome the Abraham Lincoln Brigaders and to gaze, star-struck, at the glamorous figures. One of them, praise be, lived on my street and offered to walk me home. He walked and I floated, Cinderella at the ball. That was prestige!

We were poor, with nothing but prospects, but filled with hope and idealism and the enormous capacity for enjoyment. We never had any money; everything we earned went for clothing, school supplies, streetcar fare, movies and dance halls — the basics. Daddies were periodically unemployed and mamas slaved in the garment shops or in somebody’s kitchen or store, and we hung on every tale of our parents matching wits and fists with the bosses. We helped neighbors in need, fed the beggars who came to the door if they asked nicely, and went to all the mass meetings against the mass of injustices. We had a wonderful time applauding the speakers, booing the bad guys, and kidding around with the buddies we ran into. We were a community, and that was invigorating.

How good it was to be young and alive and turned on and tuned in and doing something that mattered.

Quiet as it’s kept, it still is. While nothing is too good for the working class, and no labor-saving household device should ever be sneered at, when the sole purpose of living is to luxuriate in the “good life,” in “personal life,” in the panoply of “self-discovery” lures and hoaxes — irrespective of what’s happening in the world and to whom — then it is clear that many people are simply losing their Homo sapient bearings. So I welcome the current dissection of this phenomenon of narcissism because it focuses the spotlight on the follies of the resigned, the fashionably cynical, the boringly self-absorbed, and the yearners for private contentment amid public chaos.

As if individual satisfaction can be achieved by political withdrawal in a society sick unto death and crying out for more, not less, collective responsibility and intervention!

The “Me Generation” is the inexorable outcome of the official, anti-humanitarian, anti-worker, racist, sexist, bourgeois culture. Some of these shallow eat, drink and be merryites, frantic to get it on before the sky falls down, can get real nasty, and radicals are being mau-mau’d by these me-me’s. But others are unaware of the option of creating stunning progress, unexposed to the exhilarating benefits of collective politics. Still others passively await a new giant movement to supply safety and comfort in numbers.

In any event, the tables will turn, and the new crop of self-pamperers will become as extinct as their predecessors, the hermits. For a new upsurge, a new uplift, is in the air, and the cultural cycle will soon reflect the upbeat connectedness of the ’30s and the ’60s instead of the disengagement of the ’50s.

The culture always reflects the socio-economic times. But this doesn’t excuse a surrender to alien class pressures, and we must let consciousness be our pilot in dealing with the privatists. Time is on our side — for they will soon discover that they’re not really having any fun.

— published originally in the Fall 1979 Freedom Socialist

Also see: The living ideas of Clara Fraser: the original socialist feminist

Also see: A small biography for a very large life

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