“This is a call to resist the insistent pull of tradition and dogma, the easy acquiescence to the orthodox opinion of the moment.” —Bill Ayers, Demand the Impossible
On a long walk with a close friend of mine in the Oakland Redwood Regional Park, we reflected on the 2016 US presidential elections.
She told me about how her generation had resisted. She said they thought they were winning, but now she feels we face a wounded empire. Weaker, but fiercer, at the realization of its possible demise.
She tried to explain what it felt like to tell the next generation you failed to leave the world better than you found it. “What a time to be alive,” I told her.
Many of us worry about our survival. We’re scared about making rent or having enough to eat. Some young people are concerned about paying back student loans. Others about walking home or past cop cars.
I, like many of my peers, feel concerned about the world we have inherited.
Quite a time, indeed.
Every generation must think that, but I can’t help believe we might just be right this time. The truth is, I have found the elections hard to stomach. I struggle to balance the urgency of this moment against what I see when I watch news of the campaign trail.
The 2016 US presidential election has deepened my fear. I am afraid in part because the quality of US popular discourse has deteriorated right when we most need to engage the imagination.
There is political potential in the discussions we have with our loved ones, students, and families. What we talk about sets a tone, establishes priorities, and sometimes reinforces concepts we might rather abandon.
Our conversations are the climate in which our bodies exist. As the words get colder, our bodies are at more risk.
In Assata Shakur’s autobiography, she warns us not to let our enemies choose our enemies for us. I’m going to remix that quote here like this: Never let your enemies choose your discourse for you.
In that vein, I hope to call attention to the “orthodox opinion of the moment” by sharing three concerning omissions and trends I’ve noted in our conversations about the elections. May it be easier to resist.
1. Hate Has Been Given a Safe Space
Many times throughout this election, I have tried to imagine what it might have been like if our mainstream media had taken a stand. I have fantasized about the elections being censored entirely for the sake of public safety. I sure as hell feel less safe.
I’ve tried to regain my peace of mind by ignoring the elections. Then I find myself at the laundromat, airport, or a waiting room with a television turned to the news. I hear the most vulnerable amongst us attacked and problematized. I listen to the extreme right dictating the terms of our conversations.
I think of it like a drain.
Once a drain is unplugged, the force generated brings everything surrounding down into it. I have listened to many people responding to Trump’s comments with anger and indignation. And rightfully so. But I can’t help shake the feeling that responding to Trump’s hate still sends us down the drain along with him.
If the extreme right dictates the terms, they can shape what we might think of as a “progressive” response as well. And that’s dangerous.
One example that helps me understand the danger is Nancy Ordover’s American Eugenics. In it, she talks about the science community’s pursuit of a biological basis for homosexuality. Ordover explains that many within the LGBTQIA+ movement turned to these explanations for self-defense. But the pursuit of an explanation in and of itself infused the search with an anti-queer bias.
Another more recent example is Ava Duvernay’s new documentary, 13th. The film describes how Bill Clinton adopted the same racialized discourse of criminality to respond to republican claims of being tough on crime. It was in this climate that Bill Clinton passed the 1995 crime bill. And it was this bill that almost doubled the number of black, brown, and poor bodies in prison.
Discourse that puts the disempowered on trial contributes to this hostile environment. We must question the relentless problematization of marginalized communities. Let’s not settle for just being talked about.
In the face of hate and confusion, it can be difficult to know when to engage and when to leave well enough alone. Here’s a quick tool I use to test the health of my conversations: I think of dialogue that places the marginalized at the center of critique as astroturf. It’s fake grass, meant to distract us from the real issues.
Healthy popular discourse keeps power at the center of critique.
Thus, for example, rather than talking about homosexuality, we would discuss what privileged sexual practice looks like and why we hold it up as an ideal. Or rather than centering our dialogue on “criminality,” we would talk about who has the power to define and construct “criminality” and whose interests those constructions serve.
I’m frightened by the hate speech. It’s part of the weather getting colder around me. I’m glad people are angry and want to resist it. But we have to exercise caution in our resistance. Beware of the drain.
2. Elections as Highest Form of Democracy
Many US citizens understand voting as the highest form of democratic practice. We talk about who we are voting for and why. We question people who say they won’t vote.
Voting becomes an unchallenged synonym for the democratic process, despite all the reasons there are to doubt it.
We know about the millions of disenfranchised living within these borders. We know many people vote against their political interests. We remember the contentious 2000 presidential elections. And we know hella people just don’t do it.
Democracy is wielded like a weapon in the US, but we rarely get the opportunity to critique the way we perform it. It’s unsettling how often the term is used to justify US imperialism and how rarely US citizens even get to think about what the term means and different ways it could be enacted.
I think about the Black Panther Party that recently celebrated its fifty-year anniversary. They showed people how many ways democracy could be enacted in our communities: accessible, community-run food and health services. When Huey Newton stood trial, he organized his own people’s court.
Standing against power to remind people that the present moment is not an immutable fact – that sounds like democracy to me. It’s certainly worth questioning our current format, where slightly over 50% of whoever shows up is hopefully counted.
I have felt pressure to vote for Clinton, because it might be easier for a progressive movement to gain strength under her administration. I appreciate this perspective because it warns of all that could be lost if Trump takes office.
But the terms of the conversation are still limiting. I find it hard to watch presidential candidates debating the rights of women in the labor force, for example. What frustrates me is the use of women’s rights for political influence, regardless of their stance.
I think we have to ask ourselves if we want someone to be able to leverage our basic rights for votes. We have to ask ourselves how much power politicians should have over what we need to live quality lives.
It frustrates me that the quality of my life is up for grabs every four years. I find this to be evidence of a lack of democracy, in the sense that we lack the power we need to protect even our most essential rights.
I believe US citizens have a responsibility to interrogate the version of democracy we’re sold here – and commit to work that empowers and gives power back to the people.
3. Celebrating Identity Before Actions
We are in the midst of an historical election. A woman might be chosen to serve the nation’s highest office right as the first black family leaves the white house behind. What a time to be alive. Quite a time, indeed.
Sometimes our reaction is one of awe. I can admit that I was thrilled in 2008 when it was announced that the first black man had been elected president. It wasn’t that I suddenly felt a sense of trust in our political system. But Obama felt symbolically refreshing at the time.
In 2016, the nation is in the midst of another historical moment. Hillary Clinton might become the first woman to be elected president. She references this historical significance often. But by now, I’ve learned my lesson. I hesitate to celebrate.
There’s a funny meme running around the internet of Barack and Hillary in a close embrace with the words “intersectional imperialism” written above. I find that a useful tool to help think through the dangers of celebrating identity before action.
The Obamas are black. But they talk about the US being the greatest country on earth with special “responsibilities.” This is colonial discourse that serves to justify and encourage our interventions abroad.
Hillary is a woman. But she harkens back to a romanticized founding of our nation that neglects the casualties: enslaved Africans and Indigenous people robbed of their land and livelihoods. They both use the bootstrap narrative that is untrue and a thinly veiled attack on the poor.
The identity of these candidates makes no difference if they are still speaking in terms of the right of the US to dominate certain bodies at home and abroad.
When I listen to the debates, I hear a lot of apologies: I am sorry I supported legislation that made the lives of black, brown, and poor women more vulnerable. I am sorry I supported a war that destroyed the lives of women in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. I apologize for the instability I caused for women in Haiti, Libya, and Honduras.
Today, I ask myself: What is it that we’re celebrating?
Before we celebrate, we have to ask ourselves what alternatives these candidates really offer to the current status quo. And if the answer is little to nothing, we must not extol a new face on the same exploitation.
The effects of this election cycle remain with us regardless of who is chosen. The climate that has been created, the political positions that have been legitimized, remain despite who wins.
What a wild, urgent time to be alive. There are many good reasons to be afraid. And fear makes us more susceptible to half truths, half-ass attempts, and straight up lies. Fear makes us draw inward right when we need to stand in the expanse.
We have to sit and reflect on what this election season says about us as a nation. We’ll need some concrete strategies for moving through this weather, starting with being real about the climate as it is.
I don’t know what to tell you to do at the polls or whether or not to go. But I do feel that we need creative, critical thinking. Perhaps now more than ever.
Sam Carter is a black being, first generation, child of an immigrant and two parents who never went to college, a revolutionary artist, and a survivor. Follow Sam on Twitter @computercavemen or visit their website.
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