Years ago, a friend of mine had a favorite menu item at a carry-out Chinese restaurant. The proprietors, who barely spoke English, had put their young daughter in charge of the register. The girl noticed that my friend always chose the same dinner. Once when my friend picked up her order, the girl smiled knowingly and said, “You like it!”
This exclamation embarrassed my friend. It became a favorite joke at our house and in our little community. If someone asked for more coffee or an additional scoop of ice cream, you’d say to them, “You like it!” It was a mocking way to expose their proclivities. It was an accusation of weakness. If you could identify what motivated them, you kind of owned them.
At Thanksgiving this year, it all came back to me when my mother asked me what I wanted to drink. One option was root beer, and my father said to me, “You like root beer.” Okay, I don’t dislike root beer, and I might have had one, but I turned it down in reaction to my dad’s presumption that he knew what I wanted.
After childhood, we don’t want people to know us all that well. Growing up is about achieving independence. It starts when we’re quite young. For instance, my godchild got it into her head during fifth grade that she no longer wanted to be dropped off in front of her school. She still wanted her parents to drive her there, but she didn’t want her friends to see her emerging from her parents’ car like a needy child. She wanted her parents to drop her off a block away, and then to disappear so that she could simply materialize at the front door, born of her own volition.
That’s how it is for Americans. Trapped in the land of consumerism and pressured to conform, we struggle to assert our autonomy. The problem is that our desires are weaknesses. If someone knows what we want, they can manipulate us. Being cool is all about seeming to float above ordinary needs. We don’t want the other person ever to exclaim, triumphantly: “You like it!” We strive to preserve our personal mystery, even at the expense of the intimacy that can only come from sharing our true feelings. The conflict is unavoidable. If you want to know me, you have to earn my trust.
This is precisely what we hate about some advertisements, and it’s a fundamental point of resistance against fascism, a style of politics that exclaims, “I know what you want!” The daddy-like leader tempts us by tapping into our fantasy of safety and belonging, our child-like desire to be wrapped up in an all-knowing embrace. The leader who relieves you of the burden of deciding truth and falsehood requires only that you give up your weird and quirky and indefensible privacy, your freakish inner self, your secret world of desires, your essential foreignness—what drove you so forcefully from daddy and mommy when you were still so young. Such an inner life is essential to democracy and the wild secrecy of the ballot box. The Constitution—that perverse, impossible, beautiful text—asks us to refuse conformity, to seek liberty, to strive for a happiness no one can predict because it lives within us and is no one else’s truth. Maybe you don’t like it, but you need it.
Music: "You Like It" by Omarion