What has always hurt most about fighting the "radical" fight is that it is so thankless. Every time "working-class" strangers bait us on the street for the length of our hair or the age of our clothes, we are struck with the ironic ingratitude of "their" nastiness. Don't "they" know that we're fighting for "them?"
Why do we demonstrate, why do we march right into riot sticks and gas cannisters, why do we expound on genocide abroad and corporate oligarchy at home if not for "them?" Is it worth it, we ask, to contemptuously thumb our nose at the avenues to wealth and power that a Harvard degree and modicum of ambition entail, if "they" don't appreciate our sacrifice? Could "they" hate us so much if "they" realized what true friends we really are?
If I'm going to get involved. I demand some compensation. If I'm donating my time, energy, money, and promising future to the liberation of non-elites throughout the world then "they" better damn well appreciate it. A pretty egocentric sentiment, to be sure, but an easy one to slip into in the absence of any gratifying political victories.
THOUGH I suspect that many of us share this periodic pettiness, I will henceforth talk about my elitism, rather than "ours." But it just might sound familiar.
There is a whole lexicon of rationalization for the working class' (a weak and hackneyed term, but a connotative one) seemingly illogical hatred of cultural/political radicals. "False consciousness," "Mass-media indoctrination," "Counter-revolutionary schooling"-I have used them all to glibly dismiss red-neckism. These polemies are particularly convenient because they can be used, in one form or another, to ignore just about any mass consensus that is adverse to radical programs.
When taken as a blanket explanation for the great preponderance of ideology (or anti-ideology) generated by the American public, the theories of "false consciousness" are ideological blinders. At best, they portray the very people whose banner I claim to carry as programmed cretins, hopelessly duped by ploys that are very transparent to me.
At worst, they let me escape the guilt of my own elitism. Isolated sojourns into political activism convince me that I am a bona fide "radical," constantly demonstrating my willingness to forego middle class affluence. Armed with that self-image, I can indulge myself with all kinds of goodies when I'm off-duty, and call every working man's sneer that comes my way an offspring of "false consciousness." Whenever this happens, a little introspection provides a plausible (and comparatively mundane) explanation of a working-man's hatred. One might even call it "logical."
DURING Christmas Vacation, I was smuggled into Mexico. I had driven down to the border station at Tijuana from my family's home in Beverly Hills, which is not in fact, an El Dorado filled with Beverly Hillbillies mansions. I was with two friends, one a Harvard freshman who had finagled his father's new Volvo for us. We had a simple one-day romp in mind, to pick up a few exotic Christmas presents and spend money. Just some college kids out for a little fun.
But the border guards had a different idea. After we had parked the car in a lot on the American side ("Last Safe Parking Here; Lock Your Car.") and walked through the American station, four Mexican federales rushed up to meet us.
"No," they shook their heads. "You turn round and go back to States."
"Hair," one of them said, pantomiming long locks down his shoulders. Another put his hand on a holstered pistol.
"But we're only here for the afternoon. We came all the way from Los Angeles just to-"
"No, No." The guards kept shaking their heads. "You turn round go back to States."
We turned round, looking like we were going back to States. We had been warned that the Mexicans weren't admitting "undesirables," but we thought it was someone's humor/paranoia fantasy. We were stunned by the absurdity of it all. Baja California opens its arms to U. S. sailors on leave from San Diego (so much so that they successfully petitioned the Navy to lift Tijuana's recent off-limits status). Sailors, we were sure, were almost always rowdier and ugly-Americanier than longhairs.