Personal Narrative

David Iscoe newsletter, Weekly Update #5

It’s Friday again, I’m on a train out of the city to Hudson, NY, and it’s been another week of steady progress that summarizes to “nothing to report.” Politics in New York continues to be twisted and interesting, with politicians who have gotten away with a lot for a long time finally facing public exposure. This work is good, and there’s still a long way to go, but in the areas where there’s been progress people are wrestling with the more boring, tough work of building a replacement. 

Most of the IDC challengers are getting ready to go Albany and legislate, although a couple have general elections that might be at least mildly contested. When they go they’ll need to be effective, and they’ll work on holding their seats out of either personal interest or suspicion that other people who would take the seat would do worse things. These motivations blend together in weird ways, and it seems common that a politician’s belief that they are good or important can extend beyond any good or important work they do. It seems common for people in power, used to fighting hostile forces, to trust themselves the most, and trust all the things that they do even when they’re not doing the things that make people worthy of trust. 

It also seems common for us to attribute this to politicians being bad people, time and time again, to interpret political failings as a symptom of too many bad individuals in office. Definitely part of the problem is that the wrong people are often promoted to power. But most people are usually less extraordinary than we think, and I think a lot of what’s been happening is that people are put into offices surrounded by forces that shape them in particular ways. Without changing the environment around the job, we can make better selections and still end up with a lot of people in the same familiar end stages, entrenched and spending more energy defending their status than making use of it.

The first person I voted for for president was Barack Obama, as a write-in candidate in 2004 when John Kerry was the nominee, George Bush was the president, and I was in high school in Washington D.C.. I wanted Kerry to beat George W. Bush, but I wasn’t enthusiastic about him and the D.C. vote was never in question, and I though Obama could maybe run for president and win one day so I wrote down his name.

One thing Obama used to say, but said less often as he got farther into his presidency, was that politicians could not do things without people pushing them to, and that he was relying on people to keep pushing him and holding his feet to the fire so that he could do better work. Ironically, I think the message a lot of the country got was “to say this shows that he has honor, and because he has honor we can relax.” But he needed that work, and I do not think he got enough of it, especially when it came to the wars he was tasked to run, and so someone who had all the personal qualities we ascribe to good people did some things that were not things a good person does, and I do not think it was because he was a bad man. He was not perfect, and but his flaws were pretty common in America and mostly he did things that were characteristic of being president of this capitalist country with an enormous military and a love of power.

It would be nice if we could elect better people, but good or bad we need to shape the ones we have.

There’s another more obscure, lower-stakes political battle going on in Kings County right now, over the control of the executive board of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. Lots of ordinary people – hundreds? a thousand and some? – walked around their neighborhoods running for a spot on County Committee, and next Thursday these new people vote on their executive leadership. The meeting is set a long way away from the subway lines, at the far east end of Manhattan Beach, so it will be hard for people without cars to get there. If people cannot attend they are being asked to give their votes by proxy to the party leader, Frank Seddio. Usually they receive a mailer from the party to this effect, but this year committee members have also been getting the same message via phone calls and door knocks from a consulting, as well as a new mailer that claims to be from their district leaders, whose names are printed at the bottom in the signature-esque Pacifico font. The leaders are saying they didn’t send these mailers and that they weren’t even aware of them. Some of their names are misspelled. Even though the mailer is sent on behalf of the district leaders, it asks people to give their proxy votes not to the district leaders but to Seddio.

Something is wrong with the shape of power here, and on September 27th we’ll see what the voters do when it’s time to elect their new (or same old) executive board. There have been reformers working trying to unseat the party bosses for years, and what’s interesting about this campaign is that it doesn’t feature any prominent candidates but is all about reshaping the structure itself, trusting that better leaders and goals will emerge. As the prospect of structural reform gets nearer, there’s a little more focus on positive vision for the future. If things are reshaped enough, the new boss cannot be the same as the old boss, even if it’s the old boss himself. But how far the reforms can come is a battle still being fought, and if the prospect of electing a new boss is on the horizon it will be necessary to find someone who will continue to reshape power even if they’re shaping it away from their own control. 

Because narrative always interests me, being a concept that surrounds a lot of my work and all of our lives but that I only vaguely understand, I’ve been thinking a lot right now about how our narratives of politicians so often trace their personal accumulation and loss of power, but we have fewer stories of people who use power for a time, pass it off to others, and go on to do other work. Maybe if this narrative were more familiar, accepted, and honored, there would be less of a need for politicians to cling onto power like their survival was at stake. But I think the bulk of the work is in delinking power from survival in actuality, assuring people that they can be seen and protected without accumulation as their only shield. 

At the same time as I’ve been thinking about all this, I’ve spent time on four consecutive days this week working on personal essay. It’s some obscure small stuff, about being Jewish in Japan talking to a German who’s wondering if Jewish identity is important to me and my friend. And then I think about why it is and whether it matters, even though I go through most of my life just trying to be a person and Judaism defines very few hard lines of my actual existence. And a bunch of other stuff, but I’ll stop so I don’t have to go through all the work of trying to write it again right here.

I’m fascinated by personal narrative, because we’re all fascinated by ourselves and by stories we tell, and I like writing because it gets thoughts out there, but I also genuinely hate doing it in a lot of ways. First, it takes so much goddamn time. Every day I feel like I’m ready to knock it out in an hour or two, then I write and rewrite and rewrite one paragraph, make a tiny bit of progress, think a whole bunch of other things, pace around, and feel like I know how to finish it now, one or two hours the next day should do it. I know by now it’s not happening like that, and after a few repetitions I think, “well, at this point I’ve just put in a stupid amount of work for something with no actual use, this is not work but a bad habit I need to stop.” But I also just hate being on display, even though I talk constantly about everything at length, including myself, and I still have trouble coping with the idea of taking up space. I like to talk and take up space, I enjoy it, but seeing myself do it still bugs me. I’m more comfortable doing something that is clearly work, useful to someone for something, or that is just fun, without as much reflection or stakes, and those are times I feel better about writing. But sometimes I feel the need to write shit, too, so whatever.

Anyway I’m about to arrive at train station and need to stop writing. I love natural deadlines. They contain the sprawl. And now I’m home from the station and connected to WiFi and I can send this and do other stuff for the weekend and try to cram in five and a half hours more of temp work.