Why Do I Work in Politics?

Near the top of my travel list, for a while now, has been a “find my roots” trip to India. I’ve wanted to do it for a while, because ever since I was 12, people have always described me as “the whitest Indian kid” they knew. I liked it that way, because I hated the stereotypes I saw everywhere — unsanitary, backwards, weird, unattractive, all that Master of None crap. I knew I wanted to be something emphatically different from that. So at a pretty young age, I shunned all things Indian; I read Hitchens and chose agnosticism over Hinduism, Subway sandwiches over sambar and idly, and politics over medicine. I’ve been aware of making those choices, but haven’t really known what to think of it, or how to make sense of it all. I figured a trip back to India would help.

This wasn’t supposed to be that trip, at all, though. This was something I chose to do because the money was there, because I was burned out from the campaign, and because I’ve always wanted to backpack like this but never did because I got my first full-time job in politics at the age of 20 and basically never stopped. This wasn’t supposed to be a root-searching trip, just a steam-burning, scratching itchy feet one.

And yet, I will never forget the way the thought hit me when I was apprehensively riding a train in Delhi, from the airport to my hostel back in August. I’d heard exclusively bad things about the city— sweltering, smelly, crowded, pushy street hawkers, and so on. Not to mention myriad warnings of danger and shitty personal experiences from women who’d experienced some aspect of Delhi’s notorious misogyny and rape culture firsthand. So there I was, on the train, clutching my backpack close on my lap in the hellish metropolis, having just finished my two weeks in the Himalayas, looking around nervously for trouble. After a while of not seeing any, though, and feeling myself relax, I did what I always do in window seats — stare out blankly, watching people, places and things roll by in a blur.

And that’s when it happened. I saw a run-down apartment, a hut really, that I couldn’t unsee. Laundry hung off the railing outside — they couldn’t afford machines — and the open front door gave me a brief glimpse into an abode that appeared strikingly humble. Two kids, six or seven years old, were running around with small sticks; that was their recreation. I suddenly remembered something my dad once told me when I was much younger: he’d said that when he was a kid, the fun thing to do was go to the train station, sit there on the platform with a bunch of friends waiting hours for a train to pass, and cheer excitedly when one finally did. They couldn’t afford to ride it, of course — and needless to say, there was no Chuck-E-Cheese or movie theater or bowling alley — they got their jollies from waiting for trains to shout at.

Suddenly, all at once, the gravity and significance of the utterly quotidian picture I was seeing — it hit me like a punch in the stomach. This, what I was seeing in front of me right now, literally would have been my life. Nothing about me would have really been different had my parents not to decided to give up everything and move to a foreign place called Texas. I would have grown up there and not here, but I’d still have the same brain, the same DNA, the same parts and raw potential. But the simple fact of my birthplace — there and not here — would have foreclosed untold horizons of possibility since the very moment of conception. It would have been literally unthinkable, the thought would not have occurred in that alternate universe, to one day be credentialed in two presidential debate spin rooms, to have played any role in stopping pipelines from being built.

In that universe, I wouldn’t have had the luxury of aspiring to “do something” with myself the way I do now — life would have been less about meaning or fulfillment than about rote, mundane survival, the way it is for the vast majority of people who live on Earth. The way it was for a guy I met an hour later, when I ventured from my hostel to the restaurant four doors down (five felt too far given my still-there fear of Delhi), who told me he sold cell phones for a living and made about $15 a day, which he found completely satisfactory. “I’m happy with that,” he said with a smile.

I don’t think this is an exceptionally original thought — “how different might your life have been?” is something routinely posed to children of immigrants in the abstract before the age of 10. But having it hit me well after the age of 10, not in the abstract but in a place I’d returned to after sort of running away from for years, surrounded by people who looked like me, and witnessing the visceral, photographic reality of poverty statistics like a GDP per capita that’s 3% of what it is in the U.S. — all of that had a powerful cumulative effect on me. If I’d been born there, had that other life instead, entire worlds of opportunity would have been closed, and I wouldn’t have even known. All because I would’ve been born in one place and not another.

The sheer injustice of that simple fact is something I haven’t yet figured out. The slums of Mumbai are known for their brutality — adult bosses there sometimes break kids’ limbs when they’re young so they elicit more sympathy when they beg well-meaning passers-by. But who’s to say that one of those children, given the opportunities that I never had to work for, wouldn’t have been able to get the U.S. to drop fossil fuel subsidies by now, or cure Alzheimer’s? Those kids are me — no less intelligent or full of potential. They just got dealt an unfathomably shitty hand by the accident of their birth, and can’t do anything about it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why I’ve always gravitated towards politics, and more recently, climate change issues. West Wing-style idealism is fine as an initial draw, but sooner or later, that runs head-first into the reality of life in politics and advocacy. It certainly did for me; I don’t like the insidious “I work harder than you” glorification-of-busy culture that rubs off and makes everybody run themselves ragged, even when it’s unnecessary. There are the notorious sacrifices — putting family, friends, love on the backburner while you head to New Hampshire or Iowa to try and make some history. There’s the insane schedule, the hours and the overwhelming stress. And then there’s just the way the work sort of becomes you, and you become the work. There’s no going home, no going away from it for a while the way there is with a lot of other kinds of white-collar work; it seeps into the groundwater of how you see the world, how you react to things random people say at parties.

I’m not sure I like a lot of that. Or the fact that some people who do this for a long time seem sort of unpleasant and unhappy, generally. But I now have my answer for why, definitively, I can’t just drop my line of work and do something like become a travel blogger, which, in the absence of all other considerations, would probably produce more raw dopamine in my brain than anything else, certainly more than a string of stressful campaigns and advocacy fights that I often lose. It’s because of the people here: the ones who have to carry sulfur up mountains in Indonesia, the Mumbai kids who wind up hobbled because their boss thinks that’s profitable, even the folks on street corners trying to hawk random wares, like lighters and woven things. There’s nothing cute or “oh, Asia!” about them, by the way — what that is, for what it’s worth, is a somewhat desperate survival tactic resulting from the obscene gap in privilege between the working Asian have-nots, and the Western European haves that actually have the gall to complain about “pushy” street sellers here.

But anyway, the only difference between those folks and me is the circumstance of our birth. That’s really it. As the guy on the other side of that cosmic coin, I may not be able to really do anything about the fundamental unfairness of it all, but I do have an obligation to use the privilege I’ve been given for something beyond just the rote gratification of my dopamine receptors. I somehow wound up in a life raft, which means I have an obligation to orient my life in some way towards making things better for the people still on the ship that’s on fire.

I think I’ve always known some of that, after all, the fundamental unfairness of climate change, that people who did the least to cause the problem are going to be the ones most royally fucked over by it, is I think the reason I’ve quickly become so passionate about the issue. But as I’m coming to see time and again on this trip: there’s abstract, and then there’s visceral. That day in Delhi, the urgent poverty I’ve seen all over this continent, and the kindness I’ve experienced in the face of it…well, let’s just say I’m never going to complain about a 12-hour day at my desk again.

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