I’ve been paying attention, as has most of the country, to the presidential campaign of the young Pete Buttigeig. The mayor of South Bend, Indiana is impressing liberals with his down-home charm, his military service, his happy marriage to the man of his dreams, his easy and winning speaking style, and his apparent working knowledge of multiple languages, including ASL. Holy cow, the mid-westerner is just such a nice guy.
He seems to be the epitome of what it means to be earnest: “resulting from or showing sincere and intense conviction.“
I’m often called an earnest person. I usually say what I mean, and in spite of being an expert in rhetorical adaptation to situation and audience, I can be pretty blunt, so much so that the president of my local American Association of University Professors chapter really did not want me (the vice-president) to go with her to meet with the Chancellor of Syracuse University (who had, however, defended me against Right-wing attacks in 2017). I don’t get sarcasm, and my biggest joke is “I’m not funny.”
When it comes to earnest, though, no one beats my former husband and father of my now-28-year-old daughter. I married him in graduate school. In addition to being incredibly kind, he was also pretty cute, and he was an activist. I believe that whatever social construct my “biological clock” is, it was sending out a red alert: “good dad, good dad, good dad.” And he was–and is–a great dad. If I had to reproduce with anyone, he was the obvious guy. I knew for sure when I met his dad–a teacher and also a kind, generous, and loving human. I loved my baby daddy and still love him, I must say–just not in that way.
As an example of how good he is, when I came out as a lesbian in the mid-1990s, he partnered with me in the process of an amicable–if still grief-laden–divorce. I had always been impatient and prone to drama. It turns out that in addition to being gay, I had inherited (and yes, inherited is the word) bipolar disorder, which afflicts almost every relative on my dad’s side, and was untreated. I think I was pretty terrible to my husband sometimes.
But he was always, always kind. When we first divorced I struggled financially. We had gotten apartments in the same complex so as to co-parent easily. If I ran out of necessities like cat litter or toilet paper, he often helped out. When an enormous flying Texas cockroach flew into my house and landed like a harrier jet on my living room carpet (sending me screaming outside), I called him. He calmly said, “Dana. We are no longer married. I no longer have to kill your bugs.”
I was hyperventilating. So he talked me through the process of catch and release. We went through the dustpan and cup procedure and I tossed the hideous thing over the apartment rail, which is much preferable to crushing an insect the size of a small mouse.
I swear I would have had to lock up and move out had he not been so kind.
So, when I started watching Pete Buttigeig’s campaign, I thought, hm. He reminds me of someone I know. After all, Pete describes his current jobs in this way:
“One is to run an administration of about a thousand people who represent everything from police officers to firefighters to office clerks and people who pick up the trash. And just making sure that that organization is tuned up in the right way and serves residents well.
“My other responsibility is as a leader for a community of a hundred thousand people, trying to set the right tone, trying to call people to their highest values, to trying to heal divisions and build solidarity in a community that’s very diverse, that goes through a lot of ups and downs like any community does.”
Seriously, how straightforward and kind can a person be, setting the right tone and enabling people to be their best selves?
A longtime socialist, I am not a fan of the Democratic Party. As the erstwhile kinder, gentler pro-business party, its politicians have done things that Republicans in earlier eras could only have dreamed of–like ending welfare (Clinton), engaging in continual bombing of the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan (even if they didn’t start it, at some point, that stops being an excuse), deporting more immigrants than any predecessor (Obama), and so on. I actually regard Richard Nixon, despite his paranoia, anti-communism, and corruption, as our last liberal president. (He expanded welfare and started the EPA, for instance.)
My ex-husband is now a die-hard Democrat. In a conservative small Texas town (although I lived in Austin), he was his district captain for Obama. He earnestly wanted the Republican administration to go away, and I can’t blame him.
One of the few times we came into conflict over our politics was when he was picking up our daughter at my house one evening during the 2008 election campaign. I mentioned that I just couldn’t vote for Obama/Biden, not only but also because they did not, even as Proposition 8 was on the ballot, defend marriage equality. Biden, when pressed on this question, muttered, mantra-like, “Marriage is between one man and one woman.” (Biden is still not ok in my book, having badgered Anita Hill during the Thomas confirmation hearings, offering her a non-apology, not to mention taking big money for his current campaign. He is much less earnest than Pete.)
So, my ex told me that I should be sensible and not be a single-issue voter. Except for the fact that that “single issue” happened to be my counting as a person in the U.S. political landscape.
So I forgave my former spouse for that, while Obama betrayed every progressive principle while in office. And I don’t think he would have helped me with my cockroach problem. Just saying.
Pete might be the kind of person to hook you up with some cat litter if you’re desperate. He is appealing to many people around me.
But here’s the problem. In politics, “earnest” can be a performance, a persona or a style, like in the 1895 play by Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” As any community theater troupe will tell you, that play is not about being actually earnest. Its biting humor comes from how the characters (including “Ernest”) put on earnest personae while leading double lives of deceit and back-stabbery.
An earnest politician may intend to be nice. However, a politician beholden to one of our two capitalist, imperialist parties will ultimately be doing things behind our backs or out in the open to betray anyone’s progressive hopes. Pete himself was a U.S. Naval intelligence officer, having signed up as a reservist while working–wait for it–in management consulting, also known as making exploitation of workers seem less like exploitation.
Pete doesn’t say much about what he did in the military, or why. His standard response, when asked, is something like, “You know I was driving and guarding vehicles a lot. When somebody got in my vehicle, I don’t think they really much cared what my day job was. They just wanted to know if I was gonna keep them safe.” I heard that statement in his kickoff speech, and it’s what he told an interviewer from military.com.
His military friends might not care what his day job was, but I care about what his wartime job was: “tuning up” U.S. imperialism–keeping his friends safe while hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan were being killed by the machine he was driving.
Until today, Pete was taking donations from lobbyists, but has vowed to give the money back–not because he didn’t want it, but because it has become, in the age of Bernie, a Democratic “litmus test.”
To my mind, it doesn’t matter how well you make a machine run–from military vehicles to governments. It matters what the machine does and for whom. And to my mind, what the Democratic Party does best is to make sure that the machine of state and the corporate interests it serves does not break down.
Being earnest is not enough. It matters what you are earnest about. And it matters whether you are, like my former husband, earnest at the core, rather than adopting earnest-ness as a political style.
In the present political moment, in which “socialism” is looking better and better to young voters facing precarious futures, performing “earnest-ness” is de rigeur. But, as in the play by Oscar Wilde, it can be a performance that allows politicians–even Pete–to avoid responsibility for the malicious consequences of the institutions they serve.