Before I met Harry, I didn’t draw much of a connection between my obsession with cupcakes and worldwide systems of oppression.
Harry called himself a socialist, but he looked like any other high-end hipster. He didn't wear ratty clothes or buttons supporting any particular cause; in fact, he had a taste for fine foods and designer fashions. But his mind was consumed deeply in his radical politics, and in between his consumerist indulgences, his views rushed out in scathing critiques directed at anyone who didn't live up to his ideals. Harry could jump from comparing vintage cheeses to declaring that some new politician was just in it for the money. And as we slowly developed a relationship, Harry began to turn his political analysis on my lifestyle, too.
Before I met Harry, I didn’t draw much of a connection between my obsession with cupcakes and worldwide systems of oppression. At first, Harry didn’t, either. At Purim, we’d baked Hamentaschen cupcakes together. He even came up with the recipe and got playful in the kitchen, and the final product turned out way better than it would have if I'd made it on my own. But a few months later, when I told Harry that some readers of my blog had balked at the pro-gay marriage cupcakes I'd posted, he took me to task. "What did you expect?” he told me. “Cupcakes are inherently WASPy."
I’m a bisexual liberal Jew, and at the time, my fellow cupcake bloggers were of African-American and Polish descent. There was nary a WASP among us. “That doesn’t matter,” he informed me. The history of cupcakes, he explained, is “associated with WASPs, and that will always be part of them, even if you yourself aren’t a WASP.” He added, “There is nothing subversive about cupcakes.”
I don’t think the path to social change is paved with buttercream frosting. But Harry’s way of thinking—where once something is tarred with conservatism it can never develop any other meaning—infuriated me. Meanwhile, my response—that sometimes it’s enough to do something simply for the fun of it—seemed to amuse him. For Harry, informing me that my pride and joy didn't pass revolutionary muster was a playful exercise, but I didn’t find lecturing fun. I bit my tongue instead of reminding him that his heavy smoking habit funded the evils of Big Tobacco.
Harry’s hypocrisy grated on me, but I also found myself admiring his commitment to intellectual idealism, even if it never quite matched up to reality. Harry read the newspaper, followed local politics, and was smart enough to cultivate informed opinions, and that went a long way. In some ways, he reminded me of my former self. When I was 16, I got arrested protesting a pigeon shoot in Hegins, Pennsylvania. As I got older, I learned to fold my liberal politics into an everyday life that didn’t always accommodate impromptu court dates.
But Harry never seemed able to reconcile his politics with his day-to-day life. When he tried, it was obnoxious. I held a party one night, and Harry told me at the last minute that he couldn't come because he didn't have subway fare (at the time, $2). I don't know if he truly didn't have the money—in all likelihood, he'd probably spent his last dollars on cigarettes—but the excuse began to deflate the romantic trappings of his socialist idealism. There is a way to fight the system while also living within it. He wasn't doing either.
Perhaps we could have managed this contradiction had we not met in 2007, just as the presidential election was moving into full swing. While I was following the election cycle and supporting Obama, Harry had already tuned out. He declared Hillary Clinton “useless” and reduced the whole enterprise to a battle between one capitalist and another.
On Election Night, he was living on the West Coast while I was still in New York. My block exploded when the election was called for Obama. People were literally dancing in the streets. When I called him to share the moment, I found him at his most morose. He was in California, where Prop 8, a ballot measure to remove marriage rights for same-sex couples, had passed with 52 percent of voters. He couldn’t seem to find the middle ground between mourning the loss and celebrating the win. While that vote was highly upsetting, I couldn’t even coax out of him a begrudging nod to the historic victory. "What's the difference, really?” he told me. “It's not like Obama and McCain are so far away from each other."
This was the kind of utopian thinking that made fringe candidates permanently fringe. But it also made me uneasy on a personal level. If even a revolutionary global event couldn’t phase him, what could I ever do to impress him?
If you’re so consumed with complete societal overhaul that you can’t even acknowledge the importance of our first black president, something is askew. In the morning, I woke up to an email from Harry telling me he’d experienced a delayed reaction to the news. But I was still put off. It wasn’t his socialist values I objected to, but their real-world application: If you can't win, you might as well give up. In the end, I gave up, too.