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Of iPods and Ideals

OUT IN LEFT FIELD

By Sam Graham-felsen

I own a $400, 15-gigabyte iPod. This sounds bad enough, but worse yet, I purchased it after owning a five-gigabyte iPod for only six months. I am, admittedly, a gadget addict. I am one of those guys who actually reads the Circuit City ads in the Sunday paper before getting to the op-eds. If you look at my Internet history, you’ll see endless links to amazon.com, where I look daily to see if the price of the Canon GL2 digital video camera has gone down yet. It’s pathetic, but I can’t help it.

At this point, you might be questioning my apologist tone. After all, plenty of people own iPods, and plenty of people love gadgets. Well, I’m apologizing because I am a leftist, because I believe in redistribution of wealth, because I am philosophically opposed to hedonism at the expense of those who are hungry. And yet, I still buy gadgets, I still have a cool, small cell phone and I still eat at Darwin’s and High Rise for lunch. Everyone who knows me thinks I am a hypocrite. And I most certainly am. In fact, every leftist—with the possible exception of Ralph Nader (who doesn’t even own a car)—is, on some level, a hypocrite.

While it’s not something to be proud of, hypocrisy is an inherent tendency in all idealists; no leftist perfectly matches his behavior with his ideals. But all leftists struggle. Martin Luther King, Jr.—who fought publicly for equal rights while privately engaging in acts of adultery (he was said to have been having an affair at the Memphis hotel the night before he was shot)—once said, “There is a civil war going on within all of us… each of us is two selves...the great burden of life is to always try to keep that higher self in command...and not let the lower self take over.”

Everyday, millions of leftists face this civil war. We are forced to choose between watching the Red Sox and attending rallies, between indulging in life’s often-pricey pleasures and offering our earnings to those in desperate need, between non-profit career paths and corporate positions promising wealth and power. And in my case—and I’m sure I’m not alone here—I lose this civil war more than I win it.

There are only two ways to avoid liberal hypocrisy altogether. The first way is to eschew all sensory pleasures, dress in rags, and eat saltines every night for dinner. The leftist ascetic who sacrifices everything for his beliefs in social justice is undefeated in the many battles of the civil war of the self; he is the ultimate champion of the higher self. The second route to total consistency is to avoid the civil war altogether. The draft-dodgers (of the civil war of the self, that is) who have no qualms about climbing the corporate ladder and buying multi-million-dollar mansions are anything but hypocrites. Their self-gratifying actions fall directly in line with their libertarian, free-market ideals. In Ec10, Marty Feldstein tells us to believe that economic equality is a fable, that the misfortunes of millions aren’t our problem—that, simply put, “life ain’t fair.” Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly likely go to sleep at night with the comfortable notion that they deserve what they have, and that the jobless, homeless and uninsured deserve their fate as well. This year in America, the same sort have purchased a higher percentage of SUVs than ever before, and doubtless, did not feel a shred of guilt. But hey, at least they’re not hypocrites.

Don’t get me wrong—hypocrisy isn’t exactly something to strive for. Socrates railed against his hypocritical interlocutors, exposing their logical inconsistencies and urging them to strive for a “harmonious soul,” one in which ideology and actions are one. And yet, while Socrates would undoubtedly be critical of leftist hypocrites, he would abhor consistent conservatives. After all, Socrates’ greatest legacy was his ability to question, not only himself, but the norms of his society. What leftists do is question status quos, dream of something better and envision solutions; they challenge their own behaviors in hopes of changing society. Meanwhile, conservatives are content to maintain and uphold—not to question. By failing to question free-market, consumerist norms, they avoid the civil war of the self altogether. This is not the sort of consistency Socrates would have advocated.

It’s hard being on the left. It’s hard being called a hypocrite at every turn, and it’s even harder knowing that you are, indeed, a hypocrite. Yet, no liberal hypocrite need be ashamed to eat three square meals a day if he does in fact struggle in the civil war of the self. The ultimate goal, of course, is to win this war: to follow through on our ideals more often than we abandon them with our actions. Realistically, I’m not asking anyone to pawn their iPods tomorrow to help fund Head Start (which, alas, thanks to Dubya, is well on its way to extinction). Every leftist needs to find his own balance between self-gratification and altruism, but generally, the world needs more of the latter and less of the former.

To truly be in Socrates’ good graces, leftists need to win more battles in the civil war. To those who have refused to dodge the draft, sharpen your swords: this war lasts for a lifetime. Godspeed and good luck.

Sam Graham-Felsen ’03-’04 is a social studies concentrator affiliated with Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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