Reflections on the Eve of Fatherhood
What we are fighting for is not radical.
This is one of the first lessons my son, due to be born any day now, has taught me.
I never would have imagined it was possible to feel this much love, this intensity of care and adoration, for someone you haven’t even met yet. It’s crazy. There is nothing else in the world I desire even-remotely-close-to-as-much as I desire his safety, health and happiness — that he have a good life.
These sentiments are, I’m sure, to anyone who is already a parent, familiar, universal, even trite. "Yep, that’s how we all feel."
And that right there is the lesson my unborn son, grown big in the belly of my strong and radiant wife, has been teaching me over the course of these final weeks of pregnancy and preparation: what I want for my son is, more or less, what all parents want for their kids. I can’t find anything radical in the belief that they all should have it. There’s nothing radical, for example, in the desire for none of my son’s brothers and sisters, all the many other children born into the world this year, to die of hunger. The desire is nothing more or better than decent. Its principle virtue would have to be called sanity, not radicalism.
I want my boy to have a reasonable degree (that’s all we can legitimately expect in a world that’s got uncertainty and some degree of suffering built into it, I believe) of safety, health and happiness. That’s the good life I want for him. It has some fundamental components: roof, food, parents who love him, healthcare, education, a society that gives him respect. That’s mostly it. Art, hopefully, too.
And those of us who call meeting those needs the most important thing, who seek to build societies founded upon that basic decency and dignity — socialists, along with folks in various other groupings on the left — somehow have become labeled as extremists, wackos, fools, haters.
These are shitty times. I hear the question in some of my friends’ silences, though they don’t ask it directly: is it really such a good idea to bring a child into this world?
It is, obviously, a serious question.
I’m young, one of the first of my peers to have kids, so the choice to do so is itself seen by some as a bit extremist. It raises big questions. How am I going to keep fighting, working, putting in my share of the struggle — I ask myself this too — when I’m fixated on my kids (we’re hoping to have more than one), when my life begins to revolve around them?
This child could have been born on the day of Bush’s inauguration into a second term or on the day of his State of the Union address. (He wasn’t, praise God.) He’ll be four years old — that sounds impossibly big — when Bush leaves the White House. As you well know, we’re headed down an ugly road — bold and unchecked projection of U.S. military power, the dismantling of the last surviving institutions of our New Deal, no end to embedded white supremacy in sight, repression of dissent (just wait till the aftermath of the next attack on U.S. soil), global impoverishment on a completely inconceivable scale — and the repercussions of all that these bastards are doing are likely to be reverberating back on all of our lives for decades to come. Is it right to bring a child into such a world?
(You’ll pardon the occasional resort to profanity, I hope; these things kind of cut to the core.) The last goddamn thing we should ever let them take from us is the joy of life.
That would be the ultimate defeat, the last battlefield ceded to the forces of destruction, profit, empire. I’ve had the honor of getting to know a lot of folks whose organizing work puts their lives and those of their children in peril — a condolence card and flowers for your ten year old’s death arriving in the mail one day, for example, to get you to shut the fuck up, stop agitating, stop educating. A stack of photographs left on your door, showing your six year old daughter as she left school each day for the last year. It took me a while to understand the logic driving many of these folks’ decisions to stand their ground in the face of such threats, to assume that awesome risk. To give up the joy of raising a family would be to concede a very final defeat.
Precisely and completely, what we are fighting for is life. Joyful and dignified life, for everybody. What could be more natural, more sane and human? I repeat: there’s nothing radical about it.
The radicalism is in the wingnut alternative model being imposed, maintained, expanded a sangre y fuego (with blood and fire) in our world today. A powerful, radical faction of humanity is having its fucking day right now. Capital rules — and these folks are along for the ride, clearing paths for it, taking their generous percentages, having a grand old time. They’re cutting down every last protection and impediment to capital’s free reign (and their own immense, even monstrous enrichment). They’re enshrining the global "race to the bottom" in structures and law. Breaking unions — mocking the whole idea of unions. Locking up an entire generation of our nation’s young black men. Extracting oil and other resources from every corner of the world at the cost of countless human lives. You know the list. The best metaphor for it all, in the end, is one of Marx’s own: like vampires feeding on human life. (And likewise feeding on our planet’s life, its delicate and resplendent wealth — they hadn’t realized this part yet back in the 1860s).
This radical faction of "Economic Freedom" crusaders has been kicking our collective asses lately, to tell the truth. It’s pretty sad and embarrassing how well they’ve borrowed models from the organized left and used them to advance such a sweeping, ambitious project of capital and empire with so little successful organized resistance. (They’ve been winning, in my view, ever since we lost a unified vision of what we’re fighting for, thanks both to their successes and some huge errors and wrong ideas on our side. What we desperately need, as a mentor told me when I was first getting woken up, is to discover and rally around "the daughter of socialism": our new positive vision for societies where everyone’s life is valued, everyone’s basic needs met; a world with dignity). These folks who have been relentlessly advancing and advancing, seizing every inch of the field, represent forces of extremism. If our kids’ minds were able to comprehend how much malevolence and injustice actually exist in the world (which of course, praise God, they can’t quite do, believing still to some degree in the world as a sensible place (or, for my still-in-the-womb boy, experiencing still a world where all needs are met, where a self has not even formed…)) — if we told them and they understood what’s being done to them and to the planet they’re to inherit — there would be a massive children’s revolt. They’d find a way to do all us ‘adults’ in.
Meanwhile, this extremist faction on the right has got a whole lot of people confused and subdued, particularly here in the U.S.A. People drugged up, dreaming, asleep. Fattened on tiny slices of the profits reaped by the few. Convinced, even, by an impressively orchestrated ideological onslaught over many years, that freedom is somehow deeply related to the elimination of government and the omnipotence of markets. A staggering percentage of college-educated people, liberals along with the conservatives, has bought in completely to the paper-thin, cockamamie propaganda line that the pursuit of "enlightened self-interest" by the privileged few somehow benefits everybody! This claptrap runs so contrary to human experience and common sense that its widespread acceptance — its true hegemonic status, even — provides maybe the clearest single indicator of how colossally successful the U.S. right has been over the last three decades. (Just 25 years ago, someone as far from the left end of the political spectrum as George H.W. Bush was proclaiming such economic theories "voodoo" on the national stage. Today you’d be hard pressed to get a self-described progressive Democrat on the record with a statement half that strong.)
Fortunately, globally things are moving in the opposite direction. The moms and dads of my boy’s brothers and sisters, of everyone born in this year of 2005, are, across all their differences, practically unanimous and increasingly mobilized and vocal on a few things:
1) the United States of America is an empire;
2) the U.S. war in Iraq is the most flagrantly immoral, obscene use of imperial military power to secure wealth in anyone’s memory;
3) the empire is threatening to wipe us all out, not just with its "War on Terrorism" but with its economic policies forced on the rest of the world at the barrel of its guns; and
4) this all must be resisted.
"One day you’re gonna rise from your habitual feast / And find yourself staring down the throat of a beast / They call the revolution." (That’s Bruce Cockburn, singing a number of years ago about the IMF.) The children’s revolt — fought through their surrogates and protectors, their parents — may not be so far off.
While this anti-imperialist trend bodes well for the world — as long as people keep the reins of the change, don’t end up ceding them to another aspiring empire — it makes me scared out of my mind for my little ‘Merican boy. This country is likely to be attacked repeatedly over the years and decades to come.
And after this last election, it’s hard to fault folks in other countries for missing some of the subtleties of U.S. demographics and thinking we’re all responsible, complicit — whether they think we’re actively reactionary or just drugged or dumb doesn’t matter much.
In response to attacks, it’s very likely the PATRIOT ACT model will expand, the room blasted open in our legal system for basically saying "fuck you" to habeus corpus will grow, there will be more indefinite detentions, all the rest of it: our society will become increasingly ‘Israelized.’ And our elected leaders’ strategy for preventing the ever increasing attacks? You know it: "More bombings, more war." No variation, just expansion of this "National Security Strategy" as the violence rises. In times of increasing fear, it’ll be pronounced with a macho swagger, of course — what candidate Kerry tried to channel with the "We will track them down and we will kill them" line. (It all makes me fantasize about a new Constitutional amendment — for the next 229 years, say, in restitution: Only females shall hold the office of President of these United States….)
I don’t know, honestly, what to do with the fear of all the attacks to come, the mutual reinforcement and escalation between the "War on Terrorism" and the acts of violence it supposedly opposes. It all gives me shivers, thinking about what it might mean for my son. But I do know one thing: the only way we’re going to have a prayer of heading off such a situation is by building up armies of conscious, committed, sensitive, strong folks here that can challenge and contain the empire from within — and then start taking ground back politically, and then actually take power. We need a whole lot of folks, and in the uncertain, alchemical business of consciousness-raising and organizing and movement-building, what better chance do you get to bring someone into a committed revolutionary mindset — into seeing the world’s injustices with clear eyes and caring enough about people and about their own integrity that they have to do something, do everything they can, to make things better — than by raising them, loving and nurturing them from (well before, even) the day they are born?
The last thing we need is to deprive ourselves of the sorts of kids conscious, caring people raise. The last thing we need is to let the bastards on the right — and all their Kool Aid-drinking foot soldiers — outbreed us too.
So I’m praying today, as I wait for this miraculous boy to be born. Praying for him, and for every other baby born the day he is — in Bangalore, Bogotá, Nairobi, Chungking, Riyadh, St. Louis, Soweto, and thousands of other places: hundreds of thousands of immaculate, cherished, vulnerable, beautiful little initiates into our world — to have good food and housing, education, care for their health, love, and a society that gives them respect.
My prayer is not for children’s rights. That concept introduces an extra layer, separation, an intermediary between all these children and the actual conditions of their living, their dignity. I don’t want everyone to have the right to decent housing, good food, healthcare, and all the rest. (In fact they already have these rights, thanks to many good struggles of years ago which produced and provided some elements of solidity and decency in the U.N. Unfortunately, the few who are fucking the vast majority of our species (not to mention planet) over have no interest in actually fulfilling these rights, and have long since figured out that granting their existence on paper does not actually represent much threat that they will be fulfilled.) Instead, I want everyone — just like my boy, including my boy — to have these things. And I’m not willing to compromise on that need, nor on its urgency. It can be done and so it should be done. There can be no moral excuse for failing to do it. It is, simply, what the vast majority of us, nearly every person on the planet, wants. The only people who don’t, that little faction on the right, is made up just about exclusively of people who have never in their lives experienced or even come close to (tasted fear of) experiencing the lack of all these basic conditions for dignified life.
It’s early morning now and my wife has started labor!
And now I’m a dad. There’s no time to digress here, as I’d like to, into a reflection on the wonder of what women’s bodies do, the reverence I feel after witnessing a long, painful labor and birth. That’ll have to find its way into writing some place else. There’s no time to give voice to all the joys, challenges and amazement of getting to know our boy.
Our son is a miracle, an angel, a unique and beautiful soul — as all babies are to their parents. The depth of love I feel for him, of the desire to protect and nourish him and raise him well, are indescribable. Primal. Tackling political reflection of any kind seems sort of impossible now, just a few days after his birth — all my energy is devoted to figuring out the basics of his care, coping with sleeplessness, reveling in the many delights of time spent with him, marveling at all the transformations in my sense of self and purpose. But one thing is clear.
It had my wife and me weeping in each other’s arms, our little angel swaddled snug between us, just a few hours after his birth: all the reasons we’ve ever had to fight injustice and try to help build a sane world — to be socialists — seem almost feeble or inconsequential by comparison.
We want our son to become an adult in a world that we’re not horrified by, that we’re not ashamed to hand over to him.
We want him to feel pride not shame at the history of his people — and, as white folks from the United States, that’s going to take a tremendous amount of work.
We want him to feel united with all the other precious, beautiful children born this year; and to struggle for their well-being and dignity as though his own integrity depended on it — because it does.
There could be no greater reason to join and rejoin the struggle, to fight the capitalist radicals with every bone and breath, than the simple, universal, and utterly miraculous gift of the responsibility to raise a child well in this world.
JIM B. is an agitator and educator living in Brooklyn.