On how we relate to each other in such Troubled Times.
Over the weekend I had the opportunity to cool down in the Skagit River, up in the North Cascades. The water there is fed by glaciers and mountain snowmelt, and as such is impossibly blue and devastatingly cold.
The place we picked to jump in was a shady, shallow eddy separated from the main river by a few trees growing tall and strong right out of the sand. Just beyond us, the river raged. It’s been a wet year here in the northwest and the rivers everywhere are flowing like it’s spring.
Past the trees, a solitary boulder, maybe tossed by a glacier in some long-gone age, sat breaking the flow of the river. In fact its effect on the current was such that in the lee of the boulder the water flowed backwards. A flat surf wave, a river in reverse.
There is no force so powerful that it cannot be diverted. No current so strong that it cannot be turned around. I firmly believe that. I have to believe that. Nihilism is cheap and boring and is ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy; the worst part about those who scoff at people who haven’t given up yet is that they get to prove themselves right without even trying.
But if we’re ever going to turn things around, in this country or elsewhere, we have to be smarter than we are. Up til now a lot of what we have been doing is flailing, because we have so little power, as things currently stand. And when people feel powerless they lash out. They search for something to make them feel powerful, even if it’s just over one other person. There’s a long-ish Twitter thread I come back to a lot that expresses it well:
When I was in college, part of our university's graduation requirements had a community service component that they called service learning. One of my service learning classes involved work at a local homeless community center, helping people write resumes and cleaning bathrooms. Our instructor told us to expect to see bathrooms trashed a lot - like you will clean the bathroom and immediately someone will wreck it.
And it's not because they disrespect your work or don't value having access to clean bathrooms or whatever, but because of control. When you feel like you have no control over your life or your environment, your brain is going to want to assert control however it can. Which results in thrashed bathrooms. It's control exercised over one small part of your environment that you still the power to affect.
I see kids…using the language of social justice as cudgels on people who actually do care about and listen to them, or holding [them] to an impossibly high standard...
I just see thrashed bathrooms. “These are the people my voice will actually reach,” they rationalize, “so these are the people I'll hurt.” But the guiding principles of social justice are aimed at correcting and dismantling systems. Stop using them to dismantle people.
With the horrifying Supreme Court developments unfolding in the US this past week, especially1 the end of Roe v. Wade, I’ve had cause anew to return to this idea. That our power will never come from dismantling other people, especially people who are trying to do the right thing. If your social media feeds look anything like mine, you’ve seen a lot of posts this week laser-focused on making sure that people aren’t comparing our present horrors to the wrong works of dystopian fiction. (The Handmaid’s Tale is OUT, Parable of the Sower is a-okay.) You’ve seen people get excoriated for denigrating “religion,” when they should ONLY be denigrating “American Christianity.” You’ve seen white women wondering openly if white women are culturally and biologically incapable of participating in protest and resistance movements because of their numerous failings. (The implication being that the speaker is one of the good ones, who knows their place. As though treating other racial groups as monolithically pure and wise is an act of anti-racism, rather than the exact opposite.)
And if you haven’t seen any of these things in your feeds, well: that just seems like further proof that none of this messaging is far-reaching enough to make any kind of political difference, and instead is only reaching people who already agree or are inclined toward feeling guilty about their social/economic/racial position. That doesn’t feel like building power—it just feels like trashing the bathroom.
The cruel irony of it all is that this kind of “activism,” one which erects so many barriers to solidarity as to make solidarity functionally impossible, ultimately ends the same place as nihilism, with nothing at all getting done.2
I’m very aware of the optics of saying all this as a cis white guy. But I also firmly believe a politics of “de-centering” oneself, of pure epistemic deference, isn’t really politics at all, and isn’t going to free anyone. We’re all political actors, whether or not we wish to be; the question shouldn’t be who is allowed to act but how we relate to each other and organize with each other toward a collective project of liberation. As my friend Marianela writes:
The problem with claiming that what goes on inside somebody’s uterus is none of anyone else’s business is that it’s just not true, since what we want is for abortion to be legal — in a permanent, codified way, and that makes it the business of, well, everyone. Abortion is a public matter.
The movement to legally codify abortion—like the movements to end the capitalist stranglehold on our other freedoms and our environment—is everyone’s business, which means it will necessarily include people who haven’t learned the ever-changing rules of the online social justice game. It seems profoundly silly to aggressively gatekeep such important issues, provided people are willing to listen and learn and grow, which is different from accepting marching orders. (If they aren’t willing to listen or learn or grow at all, well, that’s a different story.) There has to be room for grace in our lives and in our movements. Extending grace, even to people I know are just trashing the bathroom because they need control, is something I struggle with. But I also think it’s a fundamentally necessary thing to work at, and doing so has become a daily goal for me.
Because if nothing else is clear, it has to be that more than ever, we need to band together and reforge some bonds of solidarity if we are to have a prayer at fighting back effectively. The “sensible” centrists have throttled every attempt at a progressive challenge to the status quo, sinking us deeper and deeper into the mire and continuing to insist, along with their sycophants, that they cannot fail, they can only be failed. Democracy is on the ballot!!!!! (People worth voting for, not so much.) Watch this video of Kamala Harris smugly asserting the helplessness of the most powerful executive office in the world and tell me you don’t want to take a baseball bat to the entire Democratic Party apparatus. Centrism and its proponents are not “unprepared” for this moment, as many assert; on the contrary, centrism is the embodiment of capitalism’s seemingly contradictory internal death drive, a slow capitulation toward Armageddon. It will not and can not save us.
Only we can do that.
Thanks, as always, for reading. I’ll talk to you next week.
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But not exclusively—fun place we live in!
I thought about doing the usual three paragraphs of throat clearing and caveats here, but I think if someone insists on reading this as me saying that white people should just be able to whatever they want all the time without self-reflection, that’s not really on me.