The air around me is swirling with opinions on “identity politics” and the failure of the Clinton campaign to capture the loyalty of what are variously called “poor whites,” “white working-class voters,” and so on—formulations that join class and race.
Readers have sent me Mark Lilla’s piece in the New York Times (“The End of Identity Liberalism”), bemoaning the “fixation on diversity” and calling for a “post-identity liberalism,” symbolized by his experience of singing the national anthem with a public hall full of multiracial union members.
Franke says that Lilla’s “is a liberalism that figures the lives and interests of white men as the neutral, unmarked terrain around which a politics of ‘common interest’ can and should be built,” while dismissing the calls for equity from others as a form of selfish whining.
As someone who’s been an activist for my entire adult life, I can second this critique without reservation. Women, for example, have been told to sit down and shut up by every progressive movement, on the grounds that our grievances draw attention away from the “real” issues—until women finally forced open the doors of leadership and began shaping those movements. Can you imagine Black Lives Matter without the leadership of women?
Thousands of Citizen Artists have been working on this platform for a long time. It is based on the USDAC’s ongoing action research, inviting people across the U.S. to share hopes, dreams, and concerns through art and culture. In dozens of Imaginings, in National Actions from the People’s State of the Union to #DareToImagine to USDAC Super PAC, people have told fierce and beautiful stories of a future they want to embrace. With the help of our National Cabinet, we’ve translated these visions into powerful practical proposals.
All of that happened before 11/9.
Many people gathered here at CULTURE/SHIFT 2016 have spent the last ten days in dialogue with friends, neighbors, family members living in fear that families will be torn apart by deportation, internment, forced registration. People fear that now more than ever, their communities will be made sacrifice zones, ravaged to feed the bottomless appetite for profit of the hungry ghosts this system breeds. And in the face of this massive insult to the body politic, people under attack and their allies are rising once again to annihilate injustice and give birth to the beloved community.
This platform proclaims and defends the right to culture: the right to be who we are, to show up in our fullness—in both our rich particularity of difference and our transcendent oneness—and to be valued, honored, and treated with respect as a fundamental human right. Some of the platform points will be immediately doable, especially locally—tools we can use to create sites of true belonging. Others are aspirational, pointing us toward the cultural democracy we deserve regardless of who occupies the White House.
The challenges we face under President Trump—racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, institutionalized greed, state-sanctioned violence, and every other form of predatory behavior—are not new. But the level of response is already astounding. We will be working in countless local communities to build on the courageous action already seen from mayors of sanctuary cities, leaders who have declared their refusal to normalize hate, vast numbers of individuals and groups who have already—less than two weeks after the election—taken action in the courts, on the streets, and in their own lives and communities.
Protecting and defending are urgent, essential priorities. The USDAC stands with all who are endangered by policies that deny belonging and further threaten the people. We stand to support and assist all those who are affected by the repression of rights. We will work with you to co-create a network of connection and support, to share skills in planning and executing creative resistance, and to bring as much attention as possible to your courageous work in kindling a shared vision of cultural democracy and putting it into practice.
And while this massive outpouring of creative resistance unfolds, we can’t surrender our dreams because we awoke on 11/9 to this funhouse nightmare of democracy.
A platform is a compendium of ideas for policy and action. Ideas are essential to reveal and explore the true depth of demand for cultural democracy which has been increasingly evident over the years as artists and allies show up everywhere, investing creativity in social and environmental justice. Ideas are essential, but without action they are stillborn. To create the conditions for action, we need a national conversation bringing the right to culture to the fore as a foundation for belonging without barrier, belonging that knows no borders and needs no papers.
A tall order, you may say—noticeably taller than it was a couple of weeks ago.
Never once in all the time this platform was in development did I think, “Oh, we’ll release the platform and the new Clinton (or Sanders) administration will adopt it. Mission accomplished!”
What I did think about while the platform was taking shape was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s August 1967 speech, “Where Do We Go From Here?” delivered on the tenth anniversary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In it, he paraphrased something that had been said by abolitionist Theodore Parker a century earlier:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Both Dr. King and Parker, as with Moses whom Dr. King alluded to in the mountaintop speech he gave the night before he was murdered, never lived to see the fruits of their labor. Parker died in Italy, of overwork and tuberculosis, a year before the start of the Civil War. A quarter-century later, when Frederick Douglass visited Florence, he went straight from the train station of Parker’s grave.
There is a line of continuous transmission that pumps like a drumbeat through all those who love justice, who see the moral grandeur and culture of possibility that is the best of humanity.
If you put your hand on your heart, and you will feel it pumping now.
We have to be in it for the long haul if we are in it at all. But we are not in it alone.
Just about every worthy social initiative has been a long time coming. Plessy v. Ferguson, establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine that legitimated racial segregation, was decided in 1896. How many court cases, years of legal research and strategizing, decades of activism, eons of fundraising did it take to end that doctrine? Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, 58 years later, and that is when the struggle began.
It took just as long for the idea of social insurance, introduced by progressives and unionists, to become law as Social Security in 1935. It took 70 years after the mid-19th century Seneca Falls Convention for women’s suffrage to be ratified by the 19th amendment. The struggle for LGBTQ legal rights persevered for decades before same-sex marriage began to be legalized.
Changing these laws has been just one part of these movements for social justice, and it couldn’t have happened without changing the story first.
History’s pendulum swings. Tearing down can be very fast: a symbol of social progress disappears overnight, generating a tidal wave of disappointment and anger. Building is what takes time. Good parents and teachers know the painstaking investment required to nurture a young and promising life; good farmers and foresters understand permaculture and sustainable harvest; good healers are prepared for the long haul of preventive care; good organizers understand the cultivation that democracy requires.
When the pendulum swings away from justice, what sustains our perseverance?
Cultural organizers and transformative arts workers know this: whatever engages the whole person—body, emotions, intellect, and spirit—the work that braids pleasure and purpose, is the most powerful, the most sustaining, and the most likely to accomplish the great awakening needed now.
That work feeds us because it is love in the service of justice and healing—personal, political, and planetary.
Dr. King’s remark about the arc of the moral universe came late in a long speech recounting the SCLC’s progress and the work that remained to be done. I want to share some things he said first:
What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.
Then he called for a much-needed program that is now point number 10 in our platform. This is 1967, mind you, a few months before he was murdered:
We must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income.
He went on to say:
[O]ur country can do this. John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth.
If he could be here, Dr. King might say that the United States government has spent 8.3 million dollars per hour since 2001 on war—that’s $20 billion not in one year, but every 10 days. A universal Basic Income Grant would cost much more today, but it would save a significant amount compared to spending on means-tested and often punishing social service programs.
For the last five years, I’ve been quoting something Van Jones said in the midst of 2011 protests against the union-busting of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker: “Don’t adapt to absurdity.” He was making the point that over time, if we let it, even what seems preposterous becomes normalized—as was clear on #11/9. Flexibility is one of humanity’s best qualities, enabling us to adapt and advance. But it’s also one of our worst: it can be just as easy to adapt to harm, going along to get along until what has been imposed feels “natural.”
Each person here stands for thousands who have the capacity, conscience, and talent to change the story, refusing to adapt to the absurdity of a system that lavishly underwrites war profiteering, energy corporations that poison the environment, and a massive prison-industrial complex, then tells us it is too broke to underwrite creativity, equity, and justice.
Each person here is a storyteller and a truth-teller for love and justice. The earth-shaking power of our collective energy cannot be weakened by a little thing like an election.
Believe me, I am not underestimating the might of our opposition when I say that our greatest obstacle is the risk of internalizing the oppressor’s voice, allowing ourselves to be overtaken by fear and self-doubt, and believing the propaganda that since there is no chance our aims can be realized immediately, we should postpone them again.
Given that risk, I want to ask you a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately, especially when I feel vulnerable to the self-ratifying propaganda of the far right, which 24/7 broadcasts the message that resistance is futile.
When I was paralyzed with doubt, a wise friend asked me this: What would it look like to take yourself one hundred percent seriously?
“What do you mean,” I asked, “you want me to take myself more seriously than this?”
He was asking me to resist the temptation to identify with the world as it is, to reject the world in which we are expected to assimilate the unspoken assumptions and agreements that sustain an absurd order. We are expected to treat that order as normal, even natural, and in some sense right and proper. We are expected to learn our place in it, following the path others have laid for us. If we are in conflict with this received version of reality, we are expected to adapt to absurdity rather than ignore or demolish it.
How seriously can we take ourselves? Taking ourselves one hundred percent seriously not only means fighting back, it means knowing and representing our deepest truths, what matters most, our heart’s desires. Taking ourselves one hundred percent seriously means releasing our identification with the absurd world because it is blocking our view of how things could be. It means freeing our minds to see what is really present, rather than whatever others say we should see. It means embracing and inhabiting one hundred percent of our potential as artists and organizers and owning fully the value that holds for ourselves and the world.
This platform is not a plea to some all-powerful ruler who can decree it with a pen-stroke. It is for everyone seeking a response to the fact that in this nation, the right to culture is under attack. We have experienced a long, painful stretch of punishment and persecution by a system that treats identity as a crime: driving while Black, protecting sacred lands and waters, walking in one’s own city, dancing in a public club. Now fear abounds of more and worse to come.
In asserting the right to culture enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the platform stipulates that rights are only as real as the actions and resources used to protect, express, and extend them.
In a few moments, we’ll say more about your power to advance these claims, joining to build a world of beauty and healing, freedom, love, and justice. Right now, I ask you to listen to ten amazing thinkers and doers as they offer the ten points of Standing for Cultural Democracy: The USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform. We may not be able to fully realize this vision for some time—as Adam said last night, quoting “Crazy He Calls Me” by Carl Sigman and Bob Russell, famously sung by Billie Holiday, “the impossible will take a little while.”
As you consider these ten points, I invite you to put your hand on your heart, feeling the beat that connects us to the ancestors who inspired us and the generations who will benefit from our love.
[Download the Platform to discover and endorse the ten points that Judy Baca, Tunde Ogunfidodo, Martha Richards, Lily Yeh, Roberto Bedoya, Jack Becker, Amelia Brown, Dave Loewenstein, Dana Edell, and Daniel Banks shared at the plenary.]
* * *
We ask you to take this platform home—download the full text to read about the tools and examples we’ve shared and take steps to put them into practice, making cultural democracy real.
Let us stand together with the most vulnerable and the most courageous. Let me say it again: We have to be in it for the long haul if we are in it at all. But remember, we are not in it alone. The USDAC is here for you in every way possible. Talk to us, take part in USDAC actions, let us help you figure out how to put the platform into practice in your own community. Let us help each other resist normalizing absurdity.
Earlier, I quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Now I want to quote another great figure of twentieth century history, Che Guevara, a doctor, revolutionary, writer, and diplomat who famously said, “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.”
You’ve heard people talk about love a lot here at CULTURE/SHIFT 2016: Adam Horowitz in his opening plenary, Carlton Turner in yesterday’s plenary. We did not orchestrate this beforehand. I did not know what either Adam or Carlton planned to say. Speaking for myself, love is a word I use in public contexts with that same slight reservation Che expressed. More than once, I’ve written something about cultural democracy and been told that the piece is good, but if I want to be taken seriously, I need to choose a different word than “love.”
Right now, coming off the recent election, with hate looming so large in campaign rhetoric, I see no alternative. The antidote to despair is to glimpse the world we are trying to help into being, to glimpse the beauty and meaning emerging from the gifts of artists of social imagination and to know what is possible. The antidote to hate is love as the always-brilliant James Baldwin defined it in The Fire Next Time:
Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
Our task now is to live into that love so that everyone we meet understands that though we are many, we are one. This is beautifully expressed in a few lines I will leave you with by the 15th-century poet Kabir, whose work is a converging stream of Hindu and Muslim cultures:
This love between us goes back to the first humans; it cannot be annihilated.
Here is Kabir’s idea: as the river gives itself into the ocean,
What is inside me moves inside you.
Thank you for your caring, courage and grace. For all you have done and will do. Know that you are loved.
I often ask myself how seriously we Americans take our freedoms. It’s a good question, because for each person who risks standing for the full freedoms promised in the Constitution, there are many who allow them to atrophy from disuse. If that tendency takes over, it would be quite easy for extreme-right Supreme Court judges to deliver the death of a thousand cuts that could render freedom a nostalgic memory.
There’s a tremendous ferment of discussion and activity among progressives right now, some still hoping to head off a Trump administration, others to ameliorate its likely excesses, others to support anti-Trump demonstrators and protect them from persecution, others to explore the possibilities that remain for negotiation with an administration without clear or congruent positions on many policy issues.
I blogged right after the election about the meaning of the shock I felt. Many people responded that they were feeling something similar. But just as many posted their own criticisms of the naivete of the left, saying that outcome was predictable: the racism of white voters had virtually guaranteed Trump’s election. Sometimes these points are generalized: voters of color, I’ve been told this week, knew Trump would be elected. This would definitely be news to friends of mine who are deeply involved in the electoral system and were certain right up to the election that Clinton would win. In short, I’m never interested in engaging an argument that turns on who predicted the future more accurately: especially when the argument takes place after the election.
No, the conversation banging on a door in my head right now, begging to be let out, is in the title of this blog: what will we do for freedom?
Here in Santa Fe last night, I moderated a panel with members of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk band/performance art/human rights group. (There’s a ton of information online about them, but two documentary films will give a picture of some of their origins and actions: Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer; and Pussy Riot: The Movement. Just google them for videos, press conferences, and statements galore.)
What impresses me most about the group is the over-the-top courage its members have displayed in defying Russian authorities, at enormous personal cost, to stand for the right to dress in multicolored balaklavas, shift dresses, and tights, thrashing guitars and punching the air as they burn an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin, or crash Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior to call on the Virgin Mary to embrace feminism. Masha Alyokhina was on last night’s panel. She and Nadia Tolokonnikova spent over a year incarcerated under conditions worse even than U.S. prisons following her conviction for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” in the Cathedral protest. Amnesty International, Madonna, and countless other artists and human rights groups came to their support, training the eyes of the world on Pussy Riot and thus helping to ensure members’ survival.
Her incarceration inspired Masha to protest prison human rights violations, winning an unheard-of three lawsuits against the system. Although Pussy Riot the activist art group cultivates a punk aesthetic of chaotic outrage, members’ response to the repressions that smother Russian civil society have also been highly organized, including the creation of MediaZona, an astoundingly popular independent news agency that focuses particularly on the court and prison system, represented last night by a passionate young journalist and editor, Sasha Bogino.
To moderate the panel, I read as much as I could about the situation in Russia, and found myself engaged in the pre-election question of similarities and connections between Trump and Putin. The Russian-American writer Masha Gessen (who is interviewed in Pussy Riot: The Movement) wrote back in July about the two personalities and what they may mean post-election, well worth reading for its indictment of the failure of imagination:
“I just can’t imagine Trump becoming the nominee,” many said at the time. But a lack of imagination is not an argument: it’s a limitation. It is essential to recognize this limitation and try to overcome it. That is a difficult and often painful thing to do.
But it is Gessen’s post-election rules for surviving autocracy that stick in my mind now, holding the line against the inane good sportsmanship that offers the autocrat an invitation to prove he is not one, allowing precious time to pass while his true colors flood the nation. Especially this rule:
Rule #3: Institutions will not save you. It took Putin a year to take over the Russian media and four years to dismantle its electoral system; the judiciary collapsed unnoticed. The capture of institutions in Turkey has been carried out even faster, by a man once celebrated as the democrat to lead Turkey into the EU. Poland has in less than a year undone half of a quarter century’s accomplishments in building a constitutional democracy.
I am not in the futile business of making predictions. To me, it seems just as likely that Masha Gessen’s cautions must be urgently heeded as that Alex Young’s “The Pendulum Swings Both Ways,” reminding us that this too shall pass—and more quickly than we imagine—if only we open our eyes and use the power we have, describes what is to come.
And then there’s this question for each of us, individually and together: what will we do for freedom?
Here in the U.S., we still have access to the means of democratic dialogue, protest, and action that enable a truly mass movement, as we have been reminded most recently with Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie campaign, and more. In the case of Pussy Riot, protest in Russia is necessarily sustained by brave individuals, many of them artists, standing up in the secure knowledge they will be punished for their courage in the service of liberty. The risks have outweighed the possibilities of mass mobilization thus far. But here we still have a degree of freedom that—if we fight to preserve it—can turn the tide.
I can’t begin to aspire to the fearlessness and determination of Masha Alyokhina. But I can be inspired by her example to avoid tumbling into the ocean of fear and despair that awaits those who abandon hope in the face of a Trump presidency. This is a spiritual challenge as much as a political one, a cultural challenge even more than a political one. And so I am adding a fourth question to my litany:
Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered?
What will we do for freedom?
I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. Here’s a quote from my friend Keryl McCord’s Facebook post that explains why:
So tonight I’m calling bullshit on progressives who still think that voting for, well, you know, Voldemort, is okay for progressives because it isn’t. You may want the system to be destroyed but the dogs of war will be unleashed on black and brown people, on Muslims, gays, and women. And if knowing that you still think that’s an option then you are not progressive, nor an ally. You’re just another foot on the neck of the people you supposedly support.
Let me be clear that it isn’t just Voldemort straight up: a vote for the Green or Libertarian candidate is also a vote for Trump, because it does nothing to close the gap between Trump and Clinton. I’m voting for Hillary because voting for Jill Stein, or any other third-party candidate whose views are closer to my own, would help elect Trump. That would be a disaster for the nation as a whole, and most particularly for the groups Keryl listed, those Trump has called out by name.
I’m voting for Hillary Clinton, and trying to wrap my mind around the political viewpoint that prizes personal ideological purity over disastrous consequences for the vulnerable. I supported Bernie. The Bernie-supporters who say they are voting for Stein or Johnson or even Trump inevitably marshal the same arguments: I have to vote my conscience, I can’t support the lesser or two evils, the system is corrupt, Bernie was cheated, and I can’t stomach being part of it.
It reminds me of a Talmudic inquiry. A question is posed: is it better to give one dollar to charity with a full heart, or ten grudgingly? The self-regarding obsession with purity that flavors so much of contemporary politics has to think hard before answering “One dollar with a full heart.” But really, there’s only one answer. Charity exists to benefit those in need. Ten dollars gives ten times more relief. How you feel about it is your problem. At bottom, it’s a simple act of empathy, valuing others’ interests—especially those who would suffer the consequences of a wrong decision on your part—as much as or more than your own.
My thought experiment turned on abolishing the police as they now exist and replacing them with something that would not have the mission James Baldwin characterized thusly in 1966: “to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests.” I excerpted arguments that have come from key figures such as Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza, then asked this: “Reading the last few paragraphs, what was your response to the idea of drastically cutting – even abolishing – policing as it now exists?Did you think, “That’s crazy! Who will protect me?” If so, there is a colonizer in your head making you believe it is in your interests to perpetuate the system.”
The person who has this specific thought is on the other side of the line from the person who fears the police. Do I see myself as someone whose interests the police are here to protect, or someone who is in danger from the police? That seems like a pivotal and illuminating question in this moment, a powerful shot of self-knowledge and social knowledge. The balance of the essay advocated separating “from a system of white supremacy through word and deed.”
I want every white person in this room who would be happy to be treated as this society in general treats our citizens, our black citizens—if you as a white person would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society, please stand. [No one stands.]
You didn’t understand the directions. If you white folks want to be treated the way blacks are in this society, stand.
Nobody is standing here. That says very plainly that you know what’s happening. You know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you are so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.
In less than a minute, Elliott demonstrates two profound and terrible truths. First, as she indicates, everyone knows that Black people as a group face far more hostility, danger, and discrimination than white people. And second, as a group, it is easy for those whose skins insulate them from this treatment to ignore the price others pay for their ability to move about safely and comfortably.
Elliott is best-known for a behavioral experiment called “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes.” In a classroom or other group setting, participants are divided by eye color. Those possessing blue eyes are treated as inferior—reprimanded, made to repeat tasks arbitrarily, made to sit in a corner for minuscule infractions, and so on. In a remarkably short time, the members of that group begin to doubt themselves, stumble over simple tasks, find themselves living into the experimenter’s diminished version of themselves.
This is the response of the defenseless. By and large, blue-eyed people haven’t had a lifetime of practice resisting oppression, ejecting the oppressor’s voice from their own hearts and minds. They just succumbed. But when this sort of treatment is meted out over time, the dignity, righteous anger, and resilience of the oppressed grow, and they fight back.
You and I aren’t in a room together, so we’ll have to settle for a thought experiment. To take part, read the next few paragraphs, then answer the questions I pose.
Right now, in the aftermath of a week of assassinations—first Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA; then Philando Castile in a suburb of St. Paul, MN; then five police officers in Dallas—people are calling for drastic cuts or even dissolution of policing as it now exists. Mychal Denzel Smith’s eloquent April 2015 polemic in The Nation quotes James Baldwin fifty years ago expressing a so far enduring truth:
In 1966, James Baldwin wrote for The Nation: “…the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function.” This remains as true today as it was in 1966, only now we have bought into the myth of police “serving and protecting” wholesale. What do you do with an institution whose core function is the control and elimination of black people specifically, and people of color and the poor more broadly?
You abolish it.
Smith points to the fact that the average police officer uses only about one-tenth of work time on the clearly criminal matters that fill the scripts of TV series, and the rest on enforcing elements of conduct that present no threat to public safety, but give police official reasons to detain anyone they wish. Eric Garner was killed for selling cigarettes, Sandra Bland for driving while Black, Oscar Grant for being in a BART station. Every day, people are detained, arrested, beaten, shot, or left for dead whose only crime is exercising the right to exist.
Real total government spending on the criminal justice system grew by 74 percent between 1993 and 2012, to $274 billion. Similarly, in 2012, real per capita criminal justice spending was $872 per year, up 43 percent over the same time period.
When it comes to policing, there’s a lot of talk about bad apples. But when the barrel gets this full of rot, you have to stop and ask whether it’s time to toss the whole thing out and switch to oranges.
In a July 8 interview with Essence, Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza advocates cutting police budgets by half:
…[I]t’s important to note as well that we are so enraged, in particular at the lack of serious action to defund police departments that continue to wreak havoc in our communities. We are enraged at the lack of action towards demilitarizing the police to make sure they are not carrying weapons of mass destruction to test and experiment in our communities. And we are outraged that we are not having serious conversations at the legislative level about slashing police budgets.
And certainly, we have to make sure our police forces do not have weapons of mass destruction with which they can terrorize our communities. I think if we’re able to focus in some of those areas, we’ll be in a much different place than we are right now.
So here’s the thought-experiment: Reading the last few paragraphs, what was your response to the idea of drastically cutting—even abolishing—policing as it now exists? Did you think, “That’s crazy! Who will protect me?” If so, there is a colonizer in your head making you believe it is in your interests to perpetuate the system Alicia Garza describes so clearly:
Why are we paying tax dollars to departments that continue to murder our people? I don’t want to pay for people to kill us, and I don’t think anybody in our communities want that. What’s also really important is what you just said, that’s so fantastic: there’s not enough people inside of these departments that are seeing what’s going on, speaking up and speaking out. And so, we’re at that point now, and we’ve been at that point for a while, where we have consistently said: ‘What side are you on?’ And if you’re quiet, knowing that there’s a culture of racism inside most police departments, and you’re not saying anything, you are on the wrong side of history.
Those who’ve historically benefited from this system at the expense of Black people and others targeted by the police have a simple choice right now. Separate yourself from a system of white supremacy through word and deed. Or maintain your loyalty to that system and the perks it provides, turning a blind eye to the costs it exacts. Then wait and see how well it protects you when the violence festering at every level of American society—from street-level policing to Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric—explodes.
Fania Davis, who knows what she is talking about, makes a powerful argument in Yes! Magazine for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an essential step, starting with Ferguson. We need all the truth we can get.
Tuesday night, antisemites on Twitter attacked me in a particularly visceral and disgusting way, and I want you to know about it.
I believe that each of us who shows up for love and justice should be able to come as we are, fully owning our ancestors, our multiple identities, and our personal choices. I’ve been involved in Jewish social action for a long time, chiefly in my role as president of The Shalom Center, led by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a beloved and inspiring teacher in the prophetic spirit, rebuking injustice and directing attention to the moral grandeur of which human beings are capable. A foundational principle in our work – and in all the interfaith work we engage – is respect for heritage and willingness to renew tradition so that it speaks directly to the present.
So when I stand up for justice, I show up as myself: a first-generation American Jew of Eastern European heritage who takes very seriously the exhortation from Amos 5:24 to “But let justice well up as waters, And righteousness as a mighty stream.” When Dr. Martin Luther King quoted that passage in his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, he acknowledged a shared point of connection, evoking a primary text for both Jewish and Christian human rights advocates, a ground to stand together. In my own small way, I have discovered that showing up as myself often opens the possibility of connection with people from other faith traditions – Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists, practitioners of indigenous traditions and more – who also draw strength from the teachings and traditions they have inherited.
What is scapegoating?When a man opens assault-weapon fire at a gay nightclub and murders more people than any lone assassin in U.S. history, and before more than a smattering of information about his life and motives surfaces, politicians rush to outdo each other in attributing his deranged and evil act to his religion. (See The New York Times for a concise account of Trump’s fear-mongering, and sadly, see Politico for a glimpse of Clinton’s jump onto the scapegoat bandwagon.)
What is scapegoating?When a Baptist preacher in Sacramento, a man of Latino heritage, applauds the deaths of nearly 50 individuals whose sole crime was dancing while gay and Latino, saying, “I think Orlando, Florida, is a little safer tonight. The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die. I’m kind of upset he didn’t finish the job.”
Singling out one facet of identity to blame for whatever the scapegoater detests is always – and I mean always – vicious, untrue, and damaging. Anyone who doubts this needs only shift the practice onto categories normally considered immune in this society. Friday is the first anniversary of the Charleston church massacre, in which a lone gunman killed nine people at a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church. The shooter, Dylann Roof, maintained a website of white supremacist and neo-Nazi material, along with a manifesto with separate sections for “Blacks,” “Jews,” “Hispanics,” and “East Asians.” He said he attacked the Emanuel parishioners because he wanted to start a race war, commending himself on his “bravery.” He belonged to a Lutheran Church.
Imagine Donald Trump – for that matter, imagine anyone – the morning after Roof’s crime, holding a press conference to condemn “Lutheran terrorism.”
Each hour since Omar Mateen opened fire in Orlando has added more information, more complexity, to the story. Witnesses described Mateen’s having previously visited the night club he later attacked, and also being an active user of a gay dating app. Is it possible he was ashamed and conflicted – especially given the violent homophobia of his father, an outspoken Taliban supporter – and acted out his self-hatred and ambivalence on others as a perverse and horrific attempt at redemption? Fariba Nawa, herself an Afghan-American, offers a deeply felt and thought-out essay on the PRI website in which she explores this question and asks her community to acknowledge and interrogate the pervasive homophobia that has resulted in beatings, ostracism, broken lives – and perhaps, in Omar Mateen.
Earlier this month, the Guggenheim Museum announced it had received a “a major grant from the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation to support Guggenheim Social Practice, a new initiative committed to exploring the ways in which artists can initiate projects that engage community participants, together with the museum, to foster new forms of public engagement. As part of the initiative, the museum will commission two separate artist projects, one by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and one by Jon Rubin and Lenka Clayton, which will be developed and presented in New York City in 2016 and 2017, respectively.”
The museum curators who conceived and run this initiative join a growing cohort of gatekeepers at institutions and foundations creating programs shaped by the aesthetic and ethic I’ve started to call the Game of Ones. To play it, you create a competition (whether public and visible or private and quiet, the form remains a contest) which richly rewards – with funds and fanfare – a small number of winners from within a large field of practice.
The Guggenheim has chosen three artists who taken as a group deflect some of the criticisms of the category “social practice,” which has accumulated resources in direct proportion to its trendiness. (For a little background, check out “Artification,” a piece I wrote about it a few years ago; the title comes from Rick Lowe’s quip that “social practice is the gentrification of community arts.”)
To counter the accurate charge that most artists who identify with the label are white and disconnected from both ground-level social realities and the movements for social justice that drive community-based collaborative arts projects, the Guggenheim has chosen an African American artist deeply rooted in community-based work (Joseph) and two white artists from Rust Belt Pittsburgh whose work touches on issues such as international conflict (Rubin) and feminism (Clayton).
My concern is not with the artists chosen, nor with their willingness to undertake the selected projects. Congratulations to them! If I were anointed with a “major grant” from the Rothschild Foundation, I’d take the money – wouldn’t you? I’ve got a few books queued up to write and a bank account that reflects a lifelong addiction to social and cultural activism, so if anyone is considering nominating me for the next fellowship or prize, feel free!
The bone I want to pick is with the institutional aims and values that have produced the Game of Ones, a framework that ratifies the social order we sum up nowadays with a phrase: “the one percent.”
There’s been a big discussion about “burnout” among activists lately.The people I’ve been hearing from use that word to mean many different things: physical maladies of overwork; depression, a sense of futility – or at least a pervading doubt that one’s efforts matter. Exhaustion, emotional and intellectual.
Some of the discussants are immersed in high-pressure races to a finish line that may be elusive (think presidential campaign organizers). Others have been at their work for a very long time and fear they have little impact to show for it. Some start to fatigue at the relentlessness of it: always a crisis, always a deadline, always an urgent need to do something. They are young and old. They see their individual and collective challenges as amplified by the obstacles society places in their way: working long hours for a cause one holds dear can stress anyone; if you are also coping with the social injuries inflicted on account of race, gender, class, immigration status, sexual orientation – the stress amps up.
I wouldn’t say that burnout is my problem at the moment: I’m not forcing myself to keep on, rather pursuing aims I have chosen and choose still. I’m not exhausted, just a bit tired. But just under the surface of my days runs a red thread of desperation that sometimes loops up to catch my spirit.
What tugs on me? Most frequently, a constellation of feelings about aging. God willing, my health and strength will hold, my brain will stay sharp, and I will have many more years to explore the questions and experiment with the answers that draw me close. But more than at any prior time, I am aware that life is finite, that in choosing to devote myself to this, I may foreclose that, simply because there isn’t enough time to do both. I am not in burnout, but I can see that if I don’t find a way to hold this differently, I could eventually land there.
I think about it a lot. What are the moving pieces? Sometimes my brain holds its own little magical-thinking festival, where it rains money. If I won the lottery, I’d spend some if my winnings supporting other people to do the tasks that don’t engage my passion or pleasure. I would have time to write and do the parts of my activism that seem especially well-suited to my skills and desires. It’s not just me. If the movement – by which I mean the aggregate of all the people and organizations working in this country for social and environmental justice – were adequately funded, there would be more people to share the work and everyone would have at least the opportunity for balance. Instead, most of us constitute a force driven by imbalance: fueled by self-sacrifice, addicted to doing at all costs, living with the perpetual sense of having fallen short of what’s needed, what’s possible. If money equals time, my imagination tells me we’d be positively wallowing in all of those things I am craving: reflection without a deadline, listening without an agenda, belonging without a struggle. Rest.