Last night, I went to an Elijah Daniel concert. Chances are you don’t know who he is. If you imagine Redd Foxx as an openly gay Marx Brother with a generationally-coded Twitter feed, you’ll be in the right neighborhood. He is a lover of anarchy who has backed into some success in the very small sub-genre of aggressively-gay hip-hop under the moniker Lil Phag (see, also: “Parents” by Yungblud). In the parlance of the young who will have no idea who either Redd Foxx or the Marx Brothers are, he is chaotically good, disguised as chaotically evil—a charismatic trickster who uses his intellect and creativity to make-up for what he lacks in musical talent. He may not be the hero we need, but he is certainly the one we deserve. He’s awesome and ludicrous; the best of combinations.
The audience was very young, a pantheon of almost entirely queer high-school and college kids, all of whom perceive themselves as broken and alienated. Beautiful kids of every size and shape who put tremendous care into their outfits and makeup, advertising who they are and where they fit on the spectrum in both obvious and subtle ways that I am too old to decipher. Yet, despite sexually explicit and permissive lyrics that every kid knew by heart, and in the face of the full range of queer identities on display, there was no overt sex. As far as I could tell, no one hit on anyone last night, everyone looked-out for each other, and there was not a crevasse in the venue that was not a safe place to be. Of course, and again, I’m old, and there may have been lots that I missed, but I really, really don’t think so. This was an event for people who wanted a collective experience, to express themselves in unity. It was not the rock concert of my youth.
The audience was a mostly white crowd—I live in the upper-Midwest, after all—and my assessment is that economically, it skewed towards the middle and upper-middle classes. The kids are smart although may not get the best grades, they are social-network extroverts and face-to-face introverts. I would bet my paycheck that half of them claim to have social anxiety, but all of them present no-holds-barred accounts of the emotional turmoil online in protected group-chats and fandom-based twitter threads. In short, this concert is Bernie-Sanders country, wealthy, white, suburban and young, and despite the one person who sported an Elizabeth Warren t-shirt, they were not shy about it.
Shortly before the show began, inspired by some unseen trigger, a group of them started chanting, “please don’t make me vote for Joe Biden.” Others followed and for a glorious 90-seconds, the entire venue erupted in this collective lament, both exuberant and desperate, about being pushed towards the current Democratic front runner.
This chant haunts me.
First things, first: I can only celebrate these kids. They are everything we want them to be. They are enthusiastic citizens with political convictions, informed about the world (adjusted for age and experience), and engaged with the process. My trepidation is neither about their involvement nor their choice, per se. As much as I will have to carry the burden of their chant, I couldn’t have been more proud of them.
Next: I don’t like Bernie Sanders. He is an ideological populist with no hope of accomplishing what he is selling. I support most of his goals, but I can’t get past my sense of him as a con man taking advantage of the young population that adores him. I was (and am) an Elizabeth Warren supporter, just as I was a Hillary Clinton voter. Clinton was much more progressive than media and history allows. Simply put, I do not believe that having a vagina eclipses someone’s competence, and whatever else one might say about these two women, they are among the most competent people of this political generation. They tower over Sanders.
And so like many Democrats, I am left with Joe Biden, a “good guy” who is too old for the job, if not biologically, than psychically. He does not live in the current world. His language, his attitude, the compromises he had to make during a career that spanned tremendous social change, all disqualify him and make him a tremendous disappointment. Yet, I have told myself that in the absence of a good candidate, I will take the slow, incremental, but positive micro-changes of a centrist democrat over the stagnant non-accomplishments of a progressive. Once it became clear that Warren was out of the picture, I convinced myself that I would vote for Biden instead of Sanders. Then these fucking kids came along.
My students have been pushing me towards Sanders forever. And despite my use of “kids” throughout this blog, I think of them as adults. They are all over 18; most live away from home. If you don’t treat college students like the adults they are, they take advantage of the infantilism to become passive and disinvest from their education. Also, college students can’t really persuade their teachers of anything. The power dynamic just doesn’t run that way and despite fictitious Republican rhetoric, there is significant evidence to suggest that college professors actually make their students more moderate. It is the students’ peers that drive them to political extremes.
But there was something about this concert last night that emphasized their kid-ness, a fact only exacerbated by my being made the official “Dad” of the concert. This is a story I won’t retell now, but one that will no doubt be recounted by generations of roving bards who sing the tales of a civilization they watched collapse.
This dad thing is important because much to my surprise, many of these kids lack one. Despite the fact that our culture likes to focus on the false myth of the fatherless black community (here, here, here, and here), what I have learned from raising my now 14-year-old daughter is that a significant number of white kids who are alleged to come from “whole” families lack fathers. Some are absent, but many are just awful. Seriously, the stories I hear…a lot of dads who are “present” just suck. So, I was put in the odd, albeit enviable position of telling lots of these kids, individually and collectively, that I loved them and I was proud of them. It became so pervasive that even Elijah Daniel talked about on stage, but it was one of those jokes that wasn’t really a joke, not when so many gay kids are rejected by the fathers.
What all of this means is that I was forced to encounter the loyalties I have developed to the teenage LGBTQ communities. Why this is the case is not worth getting into; it’s the vicissitudes of life. Nevertheless, how can a dad reject the deepest desires of his kids? How can I ignore that ever growing sense that the democratic primary is pushing the younger generation into a corner?
My struggle here is not about Bernie’s or Joe’s merits. Don’t bombard me with comments explaining how my assessment of Bernie is wrong. You won’t convince me otherwise. And ironically, my concern is not inspired by Biden’s history of anti-LGBTQ comments, although they are indeed hugely problematic. My dilemma involves asking when the older generation ought to step aside and let the younger folks make the political decisions. Even if they are making a mistake, isn’t there some point when those who have had their say should step aside and let new voices in? Thomas Jefferson wrote that age is a central tension in any society, and that “one generation is to another as one independent nation to another.” I don’t want “my kids” to be my adversaries.
Here’s the counter argument: I’m fifty years old, not eighty. I’m a professional political philosopher and I have a pretty good sense of the history of justice, American politics, and where America has been, as well as where I think it should be going. The mistakes that we make in this election do not have trivial consequences. Immigrants and refugees are in cages. Climate change is close to apocalyptic. Getting sick bankrupts American families. Gay and transgender families are denied basic rights, including the right to love one another. Competent women are still dismissed—most of us should know the litany by now. So, President Trump has to go and change has to happen, and this is no time to let the person with the drivers’ permit take the wheel.
Also, not all young people love Sanders—it should go without saying that LGBTQ teens are not identical and vary politically as much as any other demographic group—and other marginalized voices ought to be respected, too. As we have seen, the African-American community is overwhelmingly in support of Biden and that must be respected. Latino voters are mixed, but they also have yet to really be heard in U.S. politics. I can always vote for Biden and listen to what other less-privileged voices than my own say.
But there is the dad thing, again. I could have ended up teaching in a historically-black college or university and accepted a parental responsibility for the younger black generation. I certainly go out of my way to care for what few black students I have. I could have been in a heavily Hispanic state, or even at a Yeshiva, for that matter. But I’m not. Instead, I ended up being a father and a father figure for LGBTQ teens—a reality of which I am immensely grateful—and so I am moved by profound moral forces to attend to these voices more than the others.
This is a problem as old as Western philosophy itself. In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates suggests that the obligation of a son to a father outweighs his obligation to Justice—he even gets the main character to drop his claim that the state try his father for murder. If this is true from child to parent, surely it’s true from parent to child. But like many of Plato’s dialogues, Euthyphro ends in aporia—puzzlement. Socrates doesn’t prove that family bonds are more important than political ones; he just gets Euthyphro to doubt his certainty. This is where I am now.
The other way out is to argue that our political system is based on self-representation. We are supposed to vote for our own self-interest; that is what we learn in school. But that’s John Locke’s approach, it’s not the only option. Rousseau describes it differently. He argues that voters should choose the good of all over their own good. This is what you see in France, at least in theory. Two different models of democracy; two different visions of a republic.
I am more shocked than anyone that I am considering voting for Sanders rather than Biden, and I can honestly say that I have absolutely no idea what I will do. It makes me miss Elizabeth Warren so much more. And, I am both concerned and disheartened that my choice depends, not on an educated evaluation of candidates’ respective merits or even the logic of political argument, but on an assessment of personal relationships foisted upon me by circumstances. But there it is; this is where I am.
If you had asked me ten years ago whether I would love being a Dad in the LGBTQ community, I wouldn’t have even understood the question. Now, it is one of the things I am most proud of in my life. I do genuinely love these kids, so how do I show it? Do I vote for the candidate I think is best for them or the one they want most? Do I protect them or let them live their lives as they think they should? I have taught the controversies of paternalism in modern political theory for more than a quarter century, yet I have absolutely no idea.
That trickster Elijah Daniel and his teenage-following have done to me what the gadfly Socrates and his teenage-followers did to the folks of Athens twenty-four hundred years ago. They made me face up to the fact that whatever self-confidence or reputation I have for wisdom, I really know nothing. I am in aporia and I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.