When I try to express how I feel these days, the image that comes to me is a knot. A big one. A Gordian knot, the kind I can slice through with a single blow from the right sword. I’m someone who usually knows what to do—right or wrong, there it almost always is. But this knot, this knot had me so stymied, I set out to find the sword.
With my nerves and muscles tied up, it’s hard to believe that until recently, the chief complaint readers have brought to my attention has been my evergreen sense of possibility. “A psychic once told me that I came to earth from another planet where basic problems like greed and prejudice had been solved,” I explained in a digital story I made a decade ago. “She said that this explains my persistent feelings of astonishment at how far from solved these problems are on Planet Earth.” While I doubt this is my literal origin-story, it works as a handy metaphor for my persistent can-do attitude.
Which I seem to have misplaced. Help me find it?
I hadn’t quite realized this until my friend Francois Matarasso sent me an essay by Bruno Latour. You should really read Francois’ blog about it, not only because you should be reading his blog regularly, but because he has done an excellent job of summarizing Latour’s take on social imagination. Given the way the coronavirus pandemic has slowed things down, social change previously thought impossible might be doable after all. (You should also read Francois’ book A Restless Art, which I wrote about when it came out a bit more than a year ago.)
Latour’s essay, written at the end of March, concludes with a set of questions about the future. He invites each of us to ask them of ourselves, then collectively as a foundation for joint action. For example:
Question 1: What are the activities now suspended that you would like to see not resumed?
Question 2: Describe why you think this activity is harmful/ superfluous/ dangerous/inconsistent and how its disappearance/suspension/substitution would make the activities you favor easier/ more consistent. (Make a separate paragraph for each of the activities listed in question 1).
I loved Latour’s take on response to the pandemic. I’ve just begun to read his book Down to Earth. But when I started to answer the questions posed in his March essay, something stopped me.
My stumbling-block was the “we” Latour referred to so often—the we who would formulate our aims and pursue them. I wasn’t sure who the “we” might be. My mind stalls when I think about the folks who voted for #IMPOTUS in this country (and say they would do so again); and for Boris Johnson in the UK. I know they don’t make a majority. On the purely practical level, I’ll settle for winning the next election by one vote. I keep telling myself that as far as electoral politics go, our task isn’t necessarily to understand or persuade Republican voters, but simply to outnumber them.
But voting is a single gesture, the work of a minute or an hour (unless you live in Wisconsin). Who is the “we” ready to grapple with key questions of public policy—of all that is affecting the body politic, saying what should stop and what should be started? Who is the “we” ready to unite to put their answers into practice?
Some people I know continue to believe that those who voted #IMPOTUS into office may now be convinced by what has since unfolded that their allegiance has harmed and not helped. As an electoral strategy, this seems pointless to me. I’m with Steve Phillips and other knowledgeable commentators who feel certain our best approach is to listen to and engage the potential voters who sat it out in 2016 (or who are considering doing so this time around). My main reason has been economy of effort: it just seems so much more labor intensive to try to turn a Republican than to open a dialogue with someone with shared values but a high degree of skepticism about politicians.
But both ways of looking at electoral strategy assume that the truth of what’s at stake can set the election free. I hear the hopeful thought that folks may not understand the true gravity of our predicament, the true impact of the Republican agenda. I’m sure that’s true for some rank-and-file Republican voters. But when it comes to leaders, big donors, movers and shakers on the right, Latour has a quite different, interesting, and I think accurate take on this. In Down to Earth, he suggests that refusal to face political realities in more than a self-centered and short-term fashion is rooted in climate denial, as demonstrated by #IMPOTUS’s election:
Trump’s election. The country that had violently imposed its own quite particular form of globalization on the world, the country that had defined itself by immigration while eliminating its first inhabitants, that very country has entrusted its fate to someone who promises to isolate it inside a fortress, to stop letting in refugees, to stop going to the aid of any cause that is not on its own soil, even as it continues to intervene everywhere in the world with its customary careless blundering. The new affinity for borders among people who had advocated their systematic dismantling is already confirming the end of one concept of globalization. Two of the greatest countries of the old “free world” are saying to the others: “Our history will no longer have anything to do with yours; you can go to hell!”
In other words, what if #IMPOTUS and others shaping the Republican agenda really do see what is unfolding in the world at large—not that they don’t get it or refuse to believe it, but that they do? What if they have now decided that the only way forward is to accumulate as much capital and resource as possible for the 1%, prolonging their own comfort as much as possible as millions die off from avoidable disease, poverty, forced migration, and late capitalism’s other “side-effects”?
Say this is cynical if you want. It’s true, I am convinced. From Latour’s essay:
[G]lobalisers are conscious of the ecological mutation, and all their efforts for the past fifty years consist in both denying the importance of climate change and also avoiding its consequences by building fortified bastions of privilege, which are necessarily inaccessible to all those who are going to have to be left in the lurch. They are not so naïve as to believe the great modernist dream of the universal distribution of the ‘fruits of progress’, but what is new is their willingness to not even give the impression of believing in it.
This is our reality: a small number of people who’ve succeeded in a decades-long campaign to reserve economic power to themselves and use it to subvert political power, and who no longer even pretend to give a damn about everyone and everything else. They face an electorate that cannot directly control the right’s disinformation systems but can absolutely band together in large numbers to counter and defeat them.
But will we?
The questions posed at the end of Latour’s essay offer people agency: the opportunity to look critically at the past and propose elements of a better future, to think both locally and globally, and to practice collective self-determination. This appears to be the opposite of what Trump persuaded voters they wanted, which was to give control to a patriarch who would do battle with insurgent forces and restore them to their rightful place (in the US, the place of white skin privilege, the superior place of “real” Americans vs. immigrants, the dominance of Christians over “foreign religions,” etc.).
I find myself doubting that people will embrace the possibilities that stem from understanding their own agency, in part because I doubt myself. I feel a sense of fatigue and defeat come over me. That knot tightens and I don’t know how to loosen its grip.
I know my doubt isn’t grounded in reality because I still see the same truths that led people to call me an optimist in the past. What’s real is that there are so many more people who practice and benefit from kindness and compassion than those who exploit suffering for profit. Although our rights are being eroded by clandestine forces—elections hacked, voter disinformation, etc.—what’s real is that we still have access to the fundamentals that enable democratic dialogue and action. We just have to fight harder to use them.
So the problem I see for us collectively is also the problem I face as an individual. How do I regain a sense of possibility in democratic power, in taking action for the common good? How do we address the learned powerlessness that discourages people from standing for their collective interests, that inflates the oppressors’ dominion in our own minds, seducing us into believing their declarations of might and control?
How is it possible to persuade more people to embrace self-determination and social imagination? How is it possible to persuade myself?
I have great respect and admiration for the people who run for office on social and environmental justice platforms, who win and persist and have an influence. I have great respect and admiration for the people who organize social media campaigns and raise funds for TV ads. I see those efforts as part of a mosaic of action and connection, something that can in the aggregate engage enough people to turn the tide at election-time. But I can also see that even the best are shoring up a system based on buying elections. I am not seeing candidates and organizers deploying the kind of social creativity it would take to sidestep the system and win because what is being said can actually be heard: it cuts right through the knot of politesse constraining our current system.
No matter how many contribute to campaigns, I don’t think it will be enough to turn us toward the vision of collective imagination and responsibility Latour and others describe. I don’t think the conventional way of doing politics speaks to the pervasive horror, fatigue, and everyday surrealism the last months have brought. I’m not the only one who’s tired. I’m not the only one who is so mind-blown by the way the media, political structures, and corporations—all the while denying this intention—collaborate in keeping a clearly demented and vicious chief executive in office. I’m not the only one dying to vote for someone who says this, straight out.
Latour’s message has reminded me that truth is the sword that can slice through the knot. I want to hear unvarnished truth. It gives me energy. I can’t be the only one who longs for it. A few political candidates have been very forthright in their criticism of Republican positions, but I can’t recall hearing one say that the polarization of wealth accelerating in this country over the last fifty years has been entrenched power’s scheme to build a separate fate, to live behind a wall until the sea rises above it, then to live on a fortified yacht. “Our history will no longer have anything to do with yours; you can go to hell!” Latour meant this in terms of geopolitics, “our” state versus “yours.” But it serves equally well within this country as the Republicans’ message to working people, people of color, Indigenous people, immigrants, Jews, and everyone else who can’t fit on the fortified yacht that is their ship of state.
The truth that speaks possibility to me is that callous greed and indifference that created this crisis was merely one manifestation of a conscious choice to sacrifice the many for the privilege of the few.
Too macro? Take in the full weight of the micro, then. What is being communicated by a leader who commandeers hours of TV nightly to casually recommend that citizens poison themselves and never ever offers a word of comfort or condolence (let alone actual help, but that’s another story) to those who have lost lives, livelihoods, and any sense of safety? “Our history will no longer have anything to do with yours; you can go to hell!”
Whatever my preferences for other candidates, I fervently hope Biden will win in November. I support many of the things Democratic leadership is doing to help, but mourn the avalanche of compromises it has offered. Speaker Pelosi has allowed the country’s business to be done sub rosa if at all in this time, because she has been unwilling to break decorum and push through a means of remote meeting and voting. “I’m all for doing the remote voting by proxy,” she said. “I want it to be bipartisan. The Republican leader, Mr. McCarthy, has assured me that he will consider this. He’s not there yet. He could be there.” This is shelving democracy while waiting for permission from the people whose keenest desire is that you have neither voice nor vote.
My sense of possibility lies first in more and more people speaking plain, brave truths. Second, in knowing that our power to exercise meaningful self-determination can rise to the occasion, can triumph, but only if we face what is being done for the benefit of those who find us dispensible, at our expense, in our names.
That’s the sword that will release my knotted mind and heart.
Lucinda Williams, “Joy.”