In my last essay, I wrote about the hair-trigger in my mind activated by recent events in Charlottesville and beyond. Something happens, sparks fly, and centuries of inherited trauma catch fire, fueled by the pain my young self suffered as a first-generation Jewish-American growing up in a community that made us unambiguously other. Obviously, I’m not the only one being overtaken by reactivity these days. We’re in a time of heightened susceptibility. This moment is throwing into high relief essential questions of value and meaning, of harm and healing.
Holding steady when the ground is moving is normally part of my stock-in-trade.People often ask me for something to help put their own fears into perspective. Usually I am willing and able to oblige. Mostly I try my best to see the bigger picture, and mostly that effort pays off. But not now. I was staying more or less centered until a few days ago when something caught me off-guard. In the middle of a conference call, I got a text message carrying information that turned out not to be true, that the Barcelona terrorist who mowed down 13 lives like grass had been heading for a kosher restaurant on Las Ramblas, hard by the assassin’s abandoned car.
Some are furiously galvanized and organizing like mad. Some feel trapped in a surrealist movie, overwhelmed by confusion. Some have subsided into defeat and demoralization. The clash of paradigms is titanic, a tidal wave of protest crashing against the colossal ego of a uniquely unhinged and malevolent executive. We have not been here before. Tons of insightful analysis and practical advice are issuing from progressive groups.
If a few years down the road a young person who knows and respects you were to rise from the shambles of democracy and heaped-up havoc wreaked by the Monkey King in the White House and ask what you did to stop him, would you be ashamed to answer? I’ll let Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel say it:
There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.
With mind-boggling Cabinet appoints clogging the headlines, there’s barely been time to consider what impact a Trump administration might have on arts and culture in the U.S. But something is brewing to the north that suggests that regardless of who heads the government, the well-being of artists who work for positive social change is at risk. Our friends in Canada need help. Please read on and respond. Last spring, Canadian arts groups were optimistic if cautious about newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise to invest nearly $1.9 CAD in arts and culture funding, doubling the budget of the Canada Council for the Arts (the equivalent of the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, but much larger). The Council’s current budget is about $139 million USD, and by 2021, it will double.
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. There have been many rejoinders: I recommend Kathryn Franke’s piece “Making White Supremacy Respectable. Again.” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, accurately pinpointing Lilla’s impact as “underwriting the whitening of American nationalism, and the re-centering of white lives as lives that matter most in the U.S.”
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.
I spent much of last week at CULTURE/SHIFT 2016, the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture’s first national convening, hosted by and cosponsored with the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission. It was incredibly powerful to be with artists and allies from all over the U.S. who had joined together in creative resistance to the extreme hate flooding this nation, from the elevation of antisemite Steve Bannon and racist Jeff Sessions to the White House to the appalling escalation of violence against water protectors at Standing Rock—and who understand the importance of working to enact our dreams of cultural democracy even as we resist. I had the responsibility of giving a talk at the final plenary to mark the official launch of Standing for Cultural Democracy, The USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform, offering ten ways to advance toward cultural democracy. Click the link to download a platform summary or the full summary, and to be taken to an online petition where you can endorse the platform.
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.
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.
What is the incentive to choose justice, even at the expense of one’s own privilege? Over the weekend, I published a thought experiment: something we try on in our minds – often something that can’t actually be accomplished in real life, e.g., Schrodinger’s cat or Searle’s Chinese Room are two classics – to reveal something new. 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?”