Back in the day, I had a quote from Wilhelm Reich* over my desk:
The nature of the trap has no interest whatsoever beyond this one crucial point: WHERE IS THE EXIT OUT OF THE TRAP?
It was the resonant wisdom of this sentence and not the cult of its author that drew me. As a young activist I had already observed progressives’ delight in analyzing the life out of ideas, to fall into bitter conflict over differing interpretations of the causes and effects of social injustice and their remedies, and often to invest more energy in conversation about such things—in the dimensions, decor, origins, textures, and other characteristics of the trap—than in getting out. Reich made the obvious yet often ignored point that “to break out of a prison, one first must confess to being in a prison.” I had already seen how easy it is to normalize captivity with distractions, rationalizations, creature comforts. I posted the quote to remind myself not to succumb.
Today, sick to death of reading minute exegetical analyses of whether or not the Present Occupant of the White House has committed treason, I was reminded of the quote I had written out to post in my line of vision decades earlier.
The commercial media debate is pretty simple: did he or didn’t he, who knew, was it bad or really, really bad? I just read 20 pages of online debate among progressives, much more complicated: all states spy and interfere, including the U.S., so why is Russia so bad? The U.S. interfered in Russian elections, with the end-result being Putin. Why are leftists suddenly embracing America-first and defending the FBI and CIA, knowing how much harm they’ve done to democracy here and abroad? Why are leftists reluctant to call out treason and stand as patriots when it’s so clear national sovereignty is at stake? The main thing I take away from these debates is that those engaging and sustaining them believe that there is an ultimately correct analysis, that it is vitally important to press that analysis, and that even in crisis, time is well-spent debating its fine points with other progressives.
I confess I’m haziest on what comes after that. Abracadabra!?
Because if the goal is actual liberty and democracy, it doesn’t matter one whit to decide beforehand whether Congress or legal authorities would deem this president a traitor, just that we seize the opportunity to judge him and hold him to account.
If the goal is to bring about accountability to we the people, it doesn’t matter even a little bit whether he is a dangerously unstable narcissist who bought his way into political power and doesn’t even understand how he is being used by Putin and others, or a diabolical schemer willing to employ any means necessary to effect the total fulfillment of the right-wing plot to fully replace democracy with plutocracy. It only matters that he and all those joining him be stopped from succeeding.
If the goal is to awaken constructive outrage and right action, it doesn’t matter whether he is a master performer, enacting a particularly perverse buffoonery to deflect from what’s really happening—saying one outrageous thing after another as sleight-of-voice, just as a magician obscures a trick through sleight-of-hand—or whether he is merely saying the first thing that comes out of a mouth barely connected to a brain. It only matters that we stop listening as a step on the road to stopping his lies.
And if the goal is to help bring about a social order of love, equity, and justice, it really, really makes no difference if some participant in an online debate ticks all the boxes on a checklist of political correctness and purity, villains and heroes always lining up perfectly, history lessons always deployed in support of certainties that—so many things being utterly unpredictable—are anything but certain in real life. It only matters that we stop believing it does matter and get on with the real work.
Like many who oppose this frightening slide into plutocracy, I have my own ideas about strategy and tactics. So what? No one knows the exact combination of actions that will turn the tide. I want to see elected officials, investigators, prosecutors, and judges, rise to the occasion with full hearts and straight spines. But we can’t wait around while they grow into the courage democracy demands. Now is the time to do whatever seems best for you: call, write, take to the streets, give money, make art, recruit your neighbors, exhort your community. When the task is to awaken awareness, acknowledge truth, effect a U-turn, everything helps.
However they happen—however you help make them happen—three things are imperative:
It must be made impossible for Brett Kavanaugh to be treated as a normal Supreme Court nominee, let alone approved.
The monstrosity in the White House, having invited and permitted foreign nationals to interfere in domestic elections; having conducted the affairs of state so as to enrich himself and his family; having perpetrated and encouraged sexual abuse; having tortured thousands of children and parents for the crime of seeking a better life; having licensed, approved, and enabled every form of bigotry, both personal and structural, cannot be normalized as a nominator of Supreme Court justices. Any official who continues the charade of considering this president’s high court nominee—a man who has stated his conviction that no president can be held to legal account for his actions—is complicit in the fall of democracy.
These coalitions are among many groups organizing to stop the Kavanaugh nomination its tracks:
- Demand Justice, empowering “citizens to organize around our nation’s courts and prevent them from devolving into just another tool of economic and social oppression.”
- NARAL Pro-Choice America. In addition to other initiatives, a National Day of Action is planned for 26 August.
Republicans must be prevented from winning in 2018 elections and true progressives—not corporate party hacks—must be elected.
I’m appalled at the number of elected Democrats who find some absurd rationale for letting the Kavanaugh nomination take a “normal” course, going along with Republican economic and social policies, standing on the sidelines as one insane executive order follows another, destroying public lands and common resources, separating families, banning Muslims, and much, much more. I’m appalled at the call for “civility” aimed at the few officials like Maxine Waters, who show what standing up for democracy really means. So I’m not calling for party unity, not while corporate interests remain in control. What we need to do is change that. And to change that, the large number of people who are qualified to vote but never registered need to be brought into the process with massive voter registration campaigns followed by massive GOTV (get out the vote) organizing.
These groups are among many organizing to turn the 2018 elections around:
- The Movement Voter Project, funding the most worthwhile grassroots projects and coalitions
- Rock The Vote, focusing especially on younger voters, engaging many partners and resources
- Nonprofit Vote, helping organizations such as social service providers to register the people who use their services. The site features a wealth of information on other ways to promote registration and voting.
- Discover and support the best candidates by finding out who is being endorsed by organizations you respect. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is by no means the only progressive woman of color running for office, but she’s one of the most visible. Click on any of her endorsers to be taken to their sites to learn about other candidates they are supporting and how you can get involved. (For example, scroll through Democracy for America’s endorsement page.)
Each and every one of us has a role to play in breaking down the echo chambers that pass for public discourse in this society, in halting the normalization of the march to dictatorship.
Six years ago, I wrote about Van Jones’ exhortation to those falling for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s lies as he moved to destroy the public employees’ union: “Don’t adapt to absurdity.” “To break out of a prison, one first must confess to being in a prison,” wrote Reich. To free ourselves from the grip of absurdity, we must first confess that we have—however unknowingly—allowed ourselves to adapt. The prison we are in today has walls made of the lie that the slow-motion coup unfolding in this country is politics-as-usual, and that we ought to treat them just as we treated earlier elections, nominations, and so on. But this is not normal. A month ago, I wrote “Is This It? I’m Afraid So.”A few excerpts:
I watch the gulf grow. The possibilities of ordinary life persist, the world of normalcy endures, a jumble of small-world pleasures and heartaches, moments of love and luck tumbling into the present: have a taste of this, let’s see a movie, come get a hug. And all along, on a parallel track, cruel, cynical, terrifying deeds are being committed in our name and we are becoming inured to them….
The spirit of democracy is stuck in an abusive relationship with a larger-than-life broken bully. Can she be rescued? Every day I hear someone say, “I’m not surprised” at the latest outrage. Maybe not, but surprise and shock are two different things. It hurts to be beaten even if you see it coming.
In the small world of the family, the pain of being tortured by the person who should be looking after you is amplified by indifference of others. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a survivor of horrific childhood abuse say, “the people next door must have heard the screams, but they said nothing, did nothing.”
There is a powerful pressure to normalize the present regime, to call people into line for violating conventional political decorum by speaking out too harshly.
I’m not linking you to organizations to enact this imperative. You already own the means of production. Instead of getting sucked into wading through—or adding to—to the enormous pile of split hairs that is passing for meaningful political discourse right now, admit we’re in prison and use your keys: awareness, acknowledgment, right action.
One question above all else needs asking and answering now: WHERE IS THE EXIT OUT OF THE TRAP?
*NOTE: Whatever you think of Reich, dear readers, he had a point. You could tell his story as one of a generative genius, ahead of his time, one who tried against opposition to integrate the lessons of psychology with the body’s wisdom and price of social injustice, driven out of Europe by the rise of the Nazis, persecuted to the point of death in the U.S. for ideas deemed dangerous by the powers-that-be. You could tell it as the McCarthy-era demise of someone who foresaw the critical link between fear and physicality, of the father of generations of bodywork to address trauma through the injuries imprinted on human flesh. Or you could tell it as one of derangement, of sexual abuse turned into a sexual crusade, and of the tragic self-destruction of a dangerous quack whose prescriptions harmed those who trusted him. No matter: even a broken clock is right twice a day.
Richie Havens “Freedom,” 49 years ago.