Before I departed for Canada in August, I was dead set on joining a political club or youth organization once I’d settle there. Having looked at the options, however, some uncertainty has started to trickle in.
Some of my misgivings about coming here to study were born out of my ongoing period of Weltschmerz, particularly my own unwitting contributions to the wretched state the world is in. I applied for the exchange in a very different state of mind than I’m in now, out of a largely academic motivation. I had no way of anticipating this recent shift in perspective. So when departure was looming, I thought to myself,
To hell with it. I’ll just make that transition toward a politically active and more socially conscious person while I’m over there. It’s a chance to start over.
But ever since I arrived, I haven’t had a chance to work toward that goal. My buzzing mind has been drowning in money problems while the rest of my body kept busy by carving out my carbon footprint to an unprecedented size. There wasn’t much I could do to prevent slipping into harmful routines. Facing consumer choices, I kept asking myself over and over, “What’s the responsible thing to do?” but all I managed to pick up in response was some mocking echo of the original question, a desperate call distorted beyond recognition.
I confided to a friend I’d made in orientation that I’m afraid of becoming a cynic because I’ve been taking on all these pejorative filters through which I take in the world. I haven’t just become critical of neoliberal policies but of the institution of government in and of itself. I’m not just afraid of exploiting working people abroad but I’m entirely against capitalist modes of production.
All I’m trying to achieve for myself is what sociologist (and personal hero) Stephan Lessenich calls “a politicization of everyday life”. I don’t want to turn a blind eye on problems that require fundamental changes in the way the world economy functions just because they’re inconvenient or unrealistic. And I figured I should be right at home with that sort of mindset if I stick to my demographic, which has always carried a reputation for being hot-headed and idealistic.
What I’ve found in Canada so far is not exactly a refutation of that image. There are plenty of clubs at Queen’s University that tackle issues of local and global justice, so it’s safe to say that the student community here is far from indifferent about politics. Still, there’s something fishy about it. What I’ve noticed is that students are more interested in fundraising than direct action; they put up signs on their stalls that read “Hiring!” and ask about your skills in running marketing campaigns; their posters recruit members with the promise of “leadership skills”; they collect signatures that their local MPs can chuckle over.
Basically, they play the game. And not just any old game — the game of appealing to authority and adding empathy bonuses to their résumés. That stuff doesn’t sit with me. Admittedly, I’m a total newbie at politics, but I’m also too jaded to enter it on that route. I don’t want to put energy into student-run publications that are afraid to be partisan but ask you to be “controversial”. Or at least, I’m suspicious of the results that would produce.
I hope that once classes start I’ll get to have a go at that “I have found my people” moment I’ve been waiting for. Some of the courses I enrolled in at the Philosophy and Gender Studies Departments look like they’d draw the kind of crowd I’d like to get in touch with. I have hope because I still believe a good education does sometimes come out of ambitiously titled courses like “Critical Perspectives on Social Diversity” and “Racism, Colonialism, and Resistance”. Yet I also think it takes great teachers — whether faculty members or classmates. If that weren’t the case, I’d just need a library card and not a student ID.
I don’t mean to jump to conclusions about experiencing culture shock, but I find it really hard to withhold judgment after the rough start I’ve had (i.e., realizing how unabashedly “American” Canada really is). This is exactly what I was driving at when I mentioned “ideological baggage” in my last post: I don’t want my attitude to interfere with my life in Kingston; I think it’s wrong to paint the people who live here, some of whom share my values about distributive and environmental justice, with such a broad brush.
On an interpersonal level, I’m worried that all the friends I make, all the people who get to experience the world through my eyes, will find that world to be a cold and ugly place, full of sellouts and narcissists. I can make no claim to self-righteousness — I am myself a hypocrite in many ways — but I can feel myself slowly turning bitter about certain groups of people and the lies they tell themselves so they can sleep at night.
Why would I want to force my misanthropic goggles on anyone? Who would want to put them on if the glasses are always dirty and the frame never rests comfortably on your ears? It’s too much to ask. At the same time, though, I believe that nagging discomfort to be necessary; not for my sake, but for the sake of being genuine. I entertain the vain hope that that itch will be scratched one day, just as long as we’re made to feel it.
Although my ideas are far too vague to be channelled into a concrete “agenda”, my world view is still inherently evangelical: it projects an awareness onto others, and it feeds on collective guilt. That’s why I need a social circle that converts such negative energy into positive action. But I’m increasingly doubtful whether I’m going to find that here.