“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.” – J. D. Salinger
How bruised my spirit is. Not depressed, just . . .bruised.
I wrote a while ago about losing faith in political institutions and how I was thinking and reading about anarchism with more interest than I had ever had before. I have always been enough of an idealist that my response to deeply flawed institutions tends to be quitting: quitting the Catholic Church (and then returning and quitting again), quitting academia (and then returning and then quitting and then returning again), as just two examples. The institution I work at now is deeply flawed, and I did my level best this academic year to find another job so that I could quit my current institution . . . and failed. The local Democratic Party, mirroring the national party, seems still to be animated by the divisions that can be expressed in short form as “Clinton/Sanders.” Another flawed institution that, especially at the national level, is clearly ill equipped to save us from our woes.
The anarchists focus on individual action, not relying on institutions as saviors. And that makes a lot of sense to me, but—and this is probably because I am middle aged and therefore deeply pragmatic—I don’t want to quit these flawed institutions. It would be so easy to quit participating in the local Democratic Party—I only became involved in November . . . disappearing would be easy. It would be harder in many ways to quit academia again, but I was certainly seriously considering it throughout the second half of 2016.
I don’t have the faith in these institutions that I once had, and I feel more strongly than ever the sense of personal obligation (Simon Critchley calls the anarchist ethos of personal obligation to meet the needs of others Infinitely Demanding), but it makes more sense to me to act on this sense of obligation within the flawed institutions. Somehow this year I have gravitated at work to roles where I can try to be the catcher in the rye, the one who saves the children before they go over the cliff. I’ve been working this year as my department’s lead advisor, trying to help with untangling the snarls that can lead to confusion or delays in students’ progress. I joined a committee that provides emergency grants for students in immediate financial trouble, another committee that hears financial aid appeals for students in danger of losing their aid, and today I went to an all-day training session to learn how to do equity investigations in cases of harassment or Title IX discrimination. After several years of trying to gain institutional power, with the idea that more power would equal more ability to do good, I have given up on power, but not on doing good. But being a catcher in the rye, in my institution or, probably, any, could provide full-time, endless hours of work. I won’t catch them all, but my chances of catching some are better if I’m part of the group effort of the institution.
This all makes sense, marks a clear trajectory, in my work life: from service to an attempt to gain power and back to service again. What can I apply to my very beginning participation in the Democratic Party, so that I don’t have to learn these lessons all over again in a new institutional context? I have entirely too many strikes against me to ever run for office—I’m an atheist intellectual bisexual in a polyamorous marriage. This would never, ever fly in Indiana, so I can cross “attempt to gain (political) power” off my list. But what about service? I need to have patience there and follow others. I am with regard to politics where I was with regard to academic governance structures ten years ago, when I served on committees where I spent most of each meeting listening, because I had no idea how things got done—the nitty-gritty of committee work, policy documents, faculty governance—and could learn only by showing up and paying attention. So I continue to show up and pay attention to the Democratic Party meetings.
Illustrations by William Marchant and deseoutshy