Today I was suddenly overcome with the feeling of being overly bourgeois. Of course, in an empirical sense, that’s just true and there can be no debate. I’m a college professor with a PhD and a steady income. What I’m really concerned about is being so wrapped up in my own concerns and my comfort to the exclusion of noticing the discomfort (oppression) of others. Probably this is a worry caused by suddenly having too much time on my hands (how bourgeois).
I know though, or I think I know, from experience that it’s important for me to hold myself responsible to this concern. Very few other people will. In fact, if this isn’t just a response to too much (bourgeois) time on my (soft) hands in my (single family) house, it could be because I just emailed one of the few friends in my life who does actually hold me accountable to the meaning of militancy.
The email involved a lot of guilt on my part. My friend is someone I met doing fieldwork in Buenos Aires, where I haven’t managed to return for a full two years, my longest period of absence since I first started my research there in 2008. It’s important to me that my research and militancy in Argentina is actual committed militancy and not just a temporary relationship that serves my academic needs, and when I fail to prioritize contact with my compas there it becomes harder for me to convince myself that this is the case. On top of that more general guilt, I also hadn’t emailed this friend directly in a very long time, which always makes me feel bad (and since I have a lot of friends and write few emails, I feel this guilt a lot).
As an excuse and in order to catch up, I explained to my friend that the last year has been a really big one for me: I finished writing the dissertation we’ve talked so much about, got my PhD, moved to a new town, and began life as an assistant professor. I lamented that I did not have much news to report in the way of struggles or movements I’ve been involved in here in the United States. Now, most of my friends would understand this, and would start immediately pointing out how many classes I’ve taught this year and how overwhelming it has been (and they wouldn’t be wrong: in the last year I taught 7 classes, 4 preps, and 3 new preps, for those of you keeping score). But I know that this friend is not going to do that. She is going to be disappointed in me, or at least be unimpressed with my excuses and wish that I was doing more with all my yanqui privilege. My biggest fear is that she’s going to feel I’ve confirmed her suspicion that I have settled into the identity of bourgeois professor who feels that writing, researching, and teaching are activism (which they are not—maybe I’ll post about that another day).
One of the things I love about this friend is that her presence in my life helps me resist becoming precisely this kind of non-militant academic. I wish that more of my friendships kept me accountable in this way, and I wonder why they don’t. Is it too hard to point this out to one another? Is it a devastating critique to suggest to your friends that they ought to spend a little more time out in the streets (or practicing liberation in covert spaces), especially when your friends are academics who know what a difference that time could make? Academia is full of people who talk the talk but rarely walk the walk. I myself often point out that fact about people, but I rarely hold friends and colleagues accountable for it to their faces.
I suspect my feeling (particularly) bourgeois is related to my disconnection from other militants. Militants, after all, are by definition people who do actually hold each other accountable to the necessity of struggling for a better world. Academics do not do this. More often we help each other find reasons why we are too busy doing other things.
In my case, I have in fact been filling my time with meaningful pursuits, many of which I know are really important for the pursuit of lifelong militancy rather than the more intense brand one can usually only sustain for a few years in their 20s. But I am also suddenly faced with a feeling that I’ve been very focused on myself and unconnected to the struggle for liberation, and it’s time to change that. It’s true I’m in it for the long haul, and it’s true that I live in a smallish town where barging in with a new idea for radical struggle without first understanding the local terrain could make it impossible for me to do much for the next 10 years. But it’s also true that if I never get started, if I never get committed (or recommitted, again and again), I may just get more comfortable. And more removed from those compas and militants who will push and inspire me.