Monday, June 5, 2017

No Sacrifice People: Ableism, the Climate Crisis, and Dehumanization

In these times, we face an increasing crisis of dehumanization, both interpersonal and systemic, driven largely by the capitalist society we live in. As well as everyday impacts, dehumanization has direct implications for our response to the climate crisis; the less responsibility or solidarity we feel for the most dehumanized and vulnerable among us--who experience first and worst the impacts of climate change--the less we will feel the urgency of protecting the planet. 
 A point where dehumanization is enacted very acutely is in the marginalization of disabled people. Ableism, the structural oppression that produces a system of thought and action that harms and discriminates against people with disabilities, is often sidelined or invisible, such that the resulting oppression and stigma often go unchallenged.
            So in an age of accelerating crisis and tremendous dehumanization, what usefulness could the lens of disability offer us in tackling all sorts of interlacing oppressions and global crises?

           I believe that the fight for disability liberation challenges climate justice to adopt a more radical analysis and strategy, refusing to settle for superficial or insufficient reforms.
           As a person with disabilities, I am terrified of climate change at a very personal level. Currently, I have class and geographical privileges that could enable me to hole up in an insulated, “secure” community for a certain time, but one day the crisis will be in my backyard. It will be my life in the balance. Perhaps the day when a storm rips through my safe suburban home, or the day I cannot get the medical supplies I need to treat my chronic illnesses. Perhaps climate wars will reach my doorstep, or perhaps the specific foods I can eat will become scarce commodities. And when that happens, I won't be in a good position for survival. Knowing that I would not survive an environmental disaster that deprived me of medical supplies has long been a personal driving force in my activism.
            One hard reality is that climate solutions cannot be limited to lifestyle politics, the tepid idea embraced by mainstream liberals that the best way to make a difference on climate change is to take personal responsibility for what we eat, what we buy, what we wear, where we shop, what cars we drive, whether we recycle, what lightbulbs we use. These are commendable actions all--to live very consciously is not a bad choice, per se. Where this paradigm becomes dangerous is when lifestyle politics are substituted for more radical changes in our society, personal relations, modes of production, and economic systems.
Because in the end, we cannot rely on our individual choices as the agents for systemic change. According to journalist and activist Naomi Klein: “The hard truth is that the answer to the question ‘What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?’ is: nothing. You can’t do anything… We can only meet this tremendous challenge together. As part of a massive and organized global movement.” The emphasis on individualism has obscured the logical truth that we each on our own will not make the difference. Klein adds that “we often end up acting on canvases that are unnecessarily small—the canvas of our own lifestyle, or maybe our neighborhood or town. Meanwhile, we abandon the structural changes—the policy and legal work— to others.”
           Rejecting the feel-good politics of individual choice may seem disheartening. But through a disability lens, even without recognizing their large-scale inefficacy, lifestyle politics solutions were already unrealistic for plenty of people, including disabled folks.
           For instance, consider the idea of a “zero-waste” lifestyle. I've seen pictures of people’s trash bins after a whole year with barely a few plastic scraps in them. That's really impressive. It's also completely impossible for me to emulate, and the logic of lifestyle politics therefore renders me a problematic person living a problematic life. Sorry, but I’m type 1 diabetic. My syringes, test strips, blood glucose meters, bottles for sugar tablets, insulin pump infusion set equipment--all this amounts to an awful lot of plastic that I will dispose of over the course of my life. And I can't just opt out or change my habits, and stop using test strips or something. This is my reality.
          So if lifestyle politics, demanding superficial, individual changes that are both insufficient and completely out of reach, is a narrative that leaves disabled people behind, what can take its place? How does a disability lens offer different possibilities for climate activism? How can climate justice also manifest as a struggle for humanization?

          Consider the concept of sacrifice zones. The term takes its roots from a Cold War designation for areas that could be written off in the case of destruction by nuclear fallout. Now, because of the fossil fuel industry’s appetite for endless growth and profit, various regions and communities have been designated environmental sacrifice zones. Journalist Chris Hedges frames sacrifice zones as a consequence of “unfettered, unregulated capitalism,” describing them as “areas that have been destroyed for quarterly profit… environmentally destroyed, communities destroyed, human beings destroyed, families destroyed. And…these sacrifice zones are just going to spread outward.”
          Those sacrifice zones don’t just write off land: neoliberal capitalism also demands sacrifice people. These can be people who directly live in environmental sacrifice zones, be those mining communities, lands slated for pipelines, or neighborhoods situated right beside incinerators or landfills. But they can also be specific populations--poor people, people of color, people in developing countries. And disabled people.
           Disabled people are fundamentally dehumanized, quintessential sacrifice people, because already we have been sacrificed over and over again, through discrimination, harassment, murder, neglect, torture, stigma, mockery, inept healthcare systems, and the casual disregard for our lives or the belief that life with disabilities or chronic illness is fundamentally lesser or not worth living at all.
           And just as environmental sacrifice zones are created so that corporations can continue their unrestricted pillaging in the name of economic growth, sacrifice people are also maintained for profit. Disabled folks are dehumanized to make a group of people branded as inferior and less useful into a uniquely exploitable workforce, because disabled labor is dispensable and replaceable. Capitalism fundamentally offers a justification for devaluing disabled people in the name of efficiency and profit, just as it does for destroying the planet.
            So we can conclude that in order to entwine disability liberation with climate justice, we cannot base our solutions on the same system that created these problems through its incentive for exploitation and dehumanization.
The climate crisis must be a battleground for humanization, for greater empathy in this time of depravity and sacrifice. Paolo Freire reminds us in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed that change is possible, that we “must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which [we] can transform” into one of greater freedom and humanization (49). Those of us struggling for climate justice and those who still cling to inertia or denial all will have to reckon with the imperative questions: whose lives are worth saving, when the stakes are highest? For whom do we want to build a better world? And in times of crisis, as well as in the day-to-day--who will we sacrifice?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

International Women's Day & the Inadequacy of Reform

On International Women’s Day, a few dozen students at my school held a rally and speakout for women and girls to share their experiences and why they need feminism. Many of their comments focused on incidents of catcalling, slut-shaming, being harassed or otherwise silenced or objectified. It was a welcome space affording a voice to these students, though few spoke of any overarching concept of ideology and oppression. The speakout was firmly enclosed within the lens of gender and sexism.

Is it what we need for a revolutionary women’s liberation movement? No, but is it totally useless or without any place at all? I’d say no. It's a starting point. Recognizing and adjusting to where people’s priorities and consciousness lie can form a perfectly workable frame for expanding to a view of broader oppression and interlinked issues. If a person’s primary experiences and lens center around gender--or race, or disability, etc.--that in itself isn't, in my opinion and experience, something “real” revolutionaries with “better” analysis should rush to change. Frames of identity do not inexorably produce shallow or restricted conclusions about the world.

This is a line we’ve got to tread carefully. I've been in meetings where “identity politics” becomes such a thorny issue that I hear more people denounce it out of hand than actually consider how to account for and include disparate identities in the broader struggle we’re supposedly working for. An over-emphasis on identities, and the accompanying tokenization, obsequiousness, and sometimes reductionist arguments could understandably obstruct the progress of liberation movements, but refusing to account for nuance, and dismissing concerns rooted in identity, is also an ineffective and exclusive road.

The focus on identity will make or break our movement. It’s a necessary component, but we need to get it right, or it will erode or be used against us.

There are certain obvious pitfalls of the umbrella of often shallow anti-oppression thought known as identity politics: the self-righteousness of attracting token minorities to your group, the setting of quotas for surface-level “diversity” points, the idea of “trickle-down empowerment,” white feminism, the atomized thinking about separate oppressions (“I can't be racist because I'm gay”). There are also divisive and dangerous uses of identity politics employed by right wing or even neonazi forces, e.g. invoking concern for women’s freedoms in order to advocate for a Muslim ban, to “protect” women from Islam.

But the binary narrative on identity--centered or dismissed--has damaging potential either way. If our goal isn't systemic change, we will leave people behind. For instance, prioritizing a reform like closing the wage gap leaves behind those whose oppressive situation isn’t exactly alleviated by that reform alone. Similarly, in the early twentieth century women’s movement, the focus on suffrage left behind (or deliberately excluded) women of color and all others whose liberation required a great deal more than the vote.

The corollary is that if our goal is only systemic change, lacking nuance around identity, we will still leave people behind. This paradigm appears in the argument that class should be the ultimate and solitary lens through which a revolutionary analysis and praxis can emerge, which provides a one-size-fits-all “liberation” that doesn't account for varying situations of oppression and excludes people whose experience of oppression is compounded by and not necessarily founded in their class status.

Women's struggle must be a struggle of all people against sexism and capitalism, and the struggle against capitalism must be women's struggle. Neither should be expected to be totally subsumed by the other. Failure to overcome divides between gender and race and class means those identities can be used to divide us. For instance, class solidarity is undermined when men who are exploited under capitalism are taught to take refuge in the entitlement of their masculinity and/or whiteness, to blame the advancement of women and people of color instead of blaming our dehumanizing economic model. Class oppression is thus reified through sexism and racism.

Capitalism did not create sexism, but utilized it heavily to exploit unpaid female labor. Sexism was logically incorporated into capitalism because the sanctification of property only strengthened the preexisting concept of women as property, thereby deepening gender oppression. These systems work in tandem, but eliminating one will not by default eliminate the other. Women have never lived neatly separated single-issue lives--and the struggle against gender oppression must be more than just a women’s movement, since distilling it to only “women's” issues locks nonbinary people out of the conversation.

A risk of the identity politics approach is that of separating women from other issues and reducing them to gender. War, for instance, is easily a feminist issue but rarely appears in the conversation. Not framing it like that allows for the bizarre contradictions in imperialist arguments about how the US invades other countries to “help” or “free” the women there. How can we talk about women's liberation through war, as though women will somehow be exempted from the casualties of those wars? It's not like our bombs miraculously avoid the women they are liberating. Similarly, when Israel claims to be LGBTQ-friendly, accepting that argument requires abstracting queer rights from the lived experience of occupation, because it isn't as though LGBTQ Palestinians aren't also bombed, or receive better treatment at checkpoints or jails. The rhetoric of identity, placed in a vacuum, can be rendered meaningless and serve to just put a more liberal, progressive face on systems of oppression.

It is necessary to reconcile the importance of identities and specific experiences while putting forth strong political analysis and praxis, based on more than settling for trickle down empowerment or for only changing the face of the same system. And we all have to start somewhere, with whatever background and experiences we bring.

So I would have appreciated if the event at my school had had a broader vision and story to tell about gender oppression, but there is still benefit in just sharing experiences and focusing on upholding and affirming women’s identities. It’s a step in a process of education and realization about our situations in the world. Systemic feminism, intersectional feminism, isn’t everyone’s starting place, but it can--must--be a destination no matter where we begin.

Using a frame explicitly grounded in gender and sexist oppression, radical philosophy like bell hooks’s poses the necessary questions and illustrates the contradictions that push us toward a broader, intersectional, revolutionary feminism. Reform is exposed as fundamentally inadequate when we consider: who are we reforming the system for? Who does “justice” cater to? What counts as progress? To whose level do we want to be made equal? Who gets left behind?

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Peace in (Another) Age of Wars

In these times, working for peace may seem like a dead end. But it's a mistake to conceive of peace issues as separate from everything else that people are fighting for right now. Peace as a concept, as a story we enact about how we want to live in the world with each other, should be a core part of the vision we want to build, now and in the future.

Resisting the Trump regime must be about more than holding the line, or defeating certain egregious policies or actions. We need to think in terms of overarching change to what this world could be. Because the crises that we are facing -- like xenophobia and attacks on immigrants, Islamophobia and threats to refugees and Muslims, sexism and homophobia and dangers to women and LGBTQ (especially transgender) people -- did not originate solely in this administration, and will not go away even if Democrats regain power. Treating each crisis we face, each particular group under attack, as a single issue will undermine our ability to face systemic challenges. An over-compartmentalized resistance will not be effective.

Peace activism is a very workable frame with which to understand this, given how clearly foreign policy has domestic impact. How many refugees seek sanctuary here as a direct result of the destruction and destabilization that US wars and operations have sowed, from Iraq to Syria to Somalia? How many undocumented immigrants flee the poverty and violence that US policy, from regime change in Honduras to neoliberal trade deals with Mexico, has wrought? Foreign policy doesn't operate in a vacuum that ends at US borders -- it returns. The tens of billions of dollars in additional military spending that Trump promises will strip public sector and social support programs, and people in the US will feel that strain, just as people further away feel the impact of our engorged military power.

The military is not strictly a force based in foreign action, in any case -- the trickle-down of military equipment to domestic police has frequently turned law enforcement into something resembling an occupying force, armed to the teeth, terrorizing civilians -- witness incidents of police brutality against people of color, or police repression of protests, or the vicious crackdowns against water protectors in Standing Rock and elsewhere. These are easily peace issues. Our militarism and violence was never restricted to foreign entanglements.

The story of US exceptionalism and the imposition of our imperialist, capitalist agenda is enacted on both ends, at home and further away. The same story that keeps US bombs falling in the Middle East, that keeps us allied with Saudi Arabia and Israel, that keeps our civil liberties dwindling at home, also keeps us bent on destroying the environment for profit and discounting the lives of marginalized people.

The climate justice movement has begun to speak more about environmental sacrifice zones, places written off so that corporations can continue unrestricted pillaging in the name of economic growth. The prioritization of profit and corporate power also maintains sacrifice people. The story we tell about the “inevitable” and “natural” march of Western capitalism and US “indispensable” power fundamentally creates a justification for devaluing people and countries, just as it does for destroying the planet. -- 539 --

Resistance under the Trump regime should reckon with these imperative questions: whose lives are worth saving, when the stakes are highest? For whom do we want to build a better, more peaceful world? And in times of crisis, as well as in the day-to-day--who will we allow to be sacrificed? Peace activism understands the deep danger and immorality of sacrificing faraway countries and demonizing their people, and we have to keep in mind the same vicious story being played out on many levels at home, and how that connects not just to foreign policy but to the overall goal of a peaceful world.

Finally, as the roots of the issues we face did not come from nowhere, it would be unwise to focus on only small actions or settle for a return to the Obama-era status quo. If there's any issue for which it’s extremely clear that the world was not headed for peace and justice under Democrats either, peace activism exemplifies that. Tipping the power back to the Democrats may for some of us take the edge off of the current feeling of crisis, but it will genuinely solve no peace issues. Regime change, war, brinkmanship with Russia, not to mention mass deportations, erosion of civil liberties, climate destruction, racist violence, and any number of oppressions, would continue with Democrats as well. We won't legislate our way -- at least certainly not all the way -- to peace. We need to change the story we tell about each other and the world, and to protect and defend one another in whatever ways we can.

The world will not get more peaceful under Trump, but as we try to build a resistance, we can still struggle to dismantle the dehumanizing ideological beliefs that have manufactured and justified war, oppression, and/or violence under every administration, so we can tell a different story, and refuse to fall for the lack of progress when anyone, Democrats or Republicans alike, sells it to us.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Dissecting Rhetoric on Immigration

Perhaps a piece of good news in this hellscape is that my city just passed an ordinance to become a sanctuary city and refuse to cooperate with immigration officials hunting undocumented people. I’m pleased with my city for rallying to do anything at all, and I have been heartened by the turnout of people and groups who came together to rally, testify, and pack city council meetings.

However, I am also disappointed, or concerned, with the frames and messaging and rhetoric that they’ve been using in this campaign, which finds a wider parallel, to some extent, in the immigrant-ally demonstrations in general.

Instead of genuinely centering on the issue of undocumented people who are in a state of heightening danger, my city has chosen to center the police forces: I attended a meeting in which the top priorities in nearly every speech made, either for or against the sanctuary city ordinance, was concern for the safety of the police and assurance that their ability to do their jobs would never be constrained; the second priority seemed to be concern over violating federal law.

It is, of course, important to tailor a frame to an audience, but that can be done without fully misplacing our concern and priorities. Neither is it just the city council, from whom perhaps this diluted, cautious concern and hailing of our law enforcement officers is all we could expect. It's also the community as a whole, illustrated unnervingly by kids at rallies with Thank You, Police! signs. There is a curious total amnesia and disconnect between the perception and reality of the the police. People ardently defend the police and credit them (rather than our overwhelming whiteness and richness) for our “safety.” US society in general has long refused to reckon with the core function of cops, which is to uphold and protect the interests of the state and ruling powers. The police are a militarized apparatus of enforcement of the status quo, resulting in massive, systematic harm to people of color, disabled people, queer people, poor people, and other marginalized groups. Yet in our meetings about making our city safer and more welcoming, in theory, it is the agents of a deadly system whose sanctity, humanity and freedom is of chief concern.

Justice should not be tailored to or contingent on approval from the forces that routinely obstruct it.

In my observation, there is a quiet, ironic process of dehumanization occurring here, dehumanizing the people we claim to aim to protect, for purposes of Cover Your Ass and self-righteousness. Besides the police, the other central actors in this debate were the privileged people of my town, who were repeatedly assured that above all “we won't put ourselves in harm’s way” by keeping the police from cracking down on crimes committed by undocumented people. Invoking the specter of immigrants bringing harm to this community relegates and dehumanizes undocumented immigrants to the role of purveyors of harm, and establishes a dichotomy wherein the “us” is protected against the “them” by the police.

The issue of hunting and deporting undocumented immigrants is further removed from its human dimension when classic white-moderate delay tactics are invoked, cautioning that we shouldn't move too quickly on this, that it might lose us money, that we need more time and more facts. And then the idea that we “don't even have this problem” or that “this isn't a local issue” just confirms that some people here do not want to see immigrants as part of their community, or consider that that community might be at all at risk from national trickle-down danger.

These unpleasant undertones to a well-meaning campaign are reflected more generally in the immigrant support rhetoric at protests and demonstrations. Much of it tries to spin Trump’s slogan, Make America Great Again, by talking about how “immigrants make America great” and “we are all immigrants.” Before we jump on board with these slogans, here are a few thoughts about their deeper import:

  • Who are we talking about when we say “all”?
  • Before we were a “country,” the land that is now called the US was (and is) inhabited by many Indigenous nations, who are not immigrants.
  • Were the first European “immigrants,” who established this settler-colonial state, more rightly called immigrants or invaders? Which so-called immigrants are we talking about when we say they make this country great?
  • Under what conditions did people arrive to the US? Were they immigrants or forced migrants, slave labor?
  • How many were actually welcomed? Who was excluded? Who did not apparently make us great? Think Chinese Exclusion Act, immigration quotas, Bracero Program, Operation Wetback.
  • Lives have value beyond patriotic contributions. We should protect undocumented people as part of a wider struggle against dehumanization, not because some of them might have useful exploitable skills.
  • On that thought, do immigrants make us great because of their human contributions to our general society, or because of token diversity and/or the fruits of exploited immigrant labor?
  • How well does support for immigrants transfer to support for refugees, who may lack the comforting economically exploitable skills and who frequently reflect direct human casualties of US war and imperialism? Do they make the US great, too? By what criteria is their value decided?

Also, immigrants certainly play a massive role in the advances, sustenance, economy, and social fabric of the US, but what is implicit in the claim that the US is in fact great? MAGA is a thin veneer for white supremacy, but that does not obligate us to espouse the opposite sentiment, that the US is already great and doesn't need to be made anything different. Believing that the US needs to change is not the problem. Envisioning that change as a reconquest by a nostalgized past of white supremacy, social oppressions, free markets, and national glory is the flesh that can make the skeleton of “change” a program of systematic dehumanization. The US is not great, and we do need change, but we need it through humanization, justice, and liberation.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Speech at a rally against Trump's toxic appointees, 12/9

In this unstable situation, it is a time for nuance, and not for compromise.
There are not simplistic solutions or places we can point the blame--even as we grapple with the fear and the danger of this election, we ought to contextualize and not demonize every last Trump supporter. Neither should we idolize Clinton. She was no savior. We must examine the election as revealing the failure of the corporate Democratic Party as well and understand--as students, as marginalized people under threat, as the left wing, as people of conscience seeking justice--our role in building a viable alternative where there is now a vacuum.
Beyond ideology, though, we need to survive the Trump regime.
There must be no compromise or acquiescence. We can analyze all we want and should, but can't mistake nuanced analysis for acceptance of all viewpoints and act as if this is an equal-sided, normal debate. It is not normal. The hate is appalling and ubiquitous and dangerous. Even in Newton, rich, white, and liberal, hatred has been validated. Hotlines have been deluged, hate crimes have spiked. Meanwhile mainstream media like CNN allow a platform to neo-Nazis who question if Jews are people.
Trump may be unpredictable, but the people he appoints set a concrete expectation for his regime. Those appointees are toxic and terrifying: they advocate a Muslim registry, spew hate via right wing cesspools like Breitbart, are seriously unqualified, and stand to destroy protections and social services for vulnerable people. But fundamentally they are symptoms. They will have power which makes them dangerous, but they are also threatening in that they validate expressions of hate in general society and continue a trend of a slide to the far right, as has been seen in Europe with the rise of parties of fascists and racists and neo-Nazis.
We cannot fall for the branding of the alt-right -- New York Times prefers to call them innocuous terms like populist and combative, instead of proto-fascist -- and we cannot make any concessions. They will not be moved by heartwarming stories or respond to open dialogue or respect our politeness. We can understand some Trump supporters as people to talk with or offer real redresses to their real grievances and recognize the ways in which the capitalist system is failing people who the corporate Democrats have alienated, but for Bannon and Sessions and Flynn and all their ilk, we can have no unity, make no compromises, and give no platform.
This is a matter of survival and not giving ground. This is not a matter of winning their hearts and minds. I can tell endless stories about immigrants’ contributions to this country and why xenophobia is bad; I can share how my own grandfather, who was an immigrant and never a citizen, had the government go after him because he did not have a birth certificate, because it was burned during the Nazi occupation of Norway. I can talk about how as a person with disabilities I need good health care and a sustainable, stable climate. I can argue for my human rights as a queer person -- but it does not matter to them. The strength of our morality will not convince them to not attack us.
We are under no obligation to be idle, polite, or equivocating when our lives are at stake. We are under no obligation to demonstrate good sportsmanship with fascists.
Similarly, though, we are not obligated to settle for less than justice from the so-called liberals, supposedly on the side of marginalized people. If the Democrats are supporting wars and pipelines, selling out the working class, deporting immigrants, resisting wage increases, refusing to address police brutality -- then they are not our allies either.
We deserve better. We can have better. We can demand it and we can build it, through solidarity. We can not settle for any less than justice and liberation.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Standing In the Breach: Processing, Protesting, and Planning For the Ramifications of Trump's Election

"You don't know why it's such a far cry from the world this world could be
And you don't know why but you still try for the world you wish to see
You don't know how it'll happen now after all that's come undone
And you know the world you're waiting for may not come -
no it may not come
But you know the change the world needs now is there -
within everyone."
- "Standing In the Breach," Jackson Browne

                                                                   ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The appalling election of Donald Trump as US president on November 9th speaks volumes to the depravity of the US, to be sure, but there is a certain logic to the confluence of forces that brought us here. There is a certain way in which this, as much as it is a travesty, is not a surprise.

Firstly, Trump’s election reveals the massive failure of the Democratic Party to address the grievances of disempowered and disenfranchised working class people. After denying Bernie Sanders the nomination, the Democratic Party essentially nailed its own coffin, showing itself to be utterly incapable of fielding a candidate who had any resonance or appeal to swathes of (mainly white) working class people, or to rural people, to southern people, to heartlands people. With the corporate Democratic Party squarely in the center, there exists a perilous vacuum on the left, and without a left alternative to articulate the causes and solutions for the dire economic straits and social alienation that so many US people feel, those people gravitate towards Trump.

The Democrats are seen as elitist, urban, and irrelevant to the lived experiences of many poor working class people -- and rightly so, in many ways. There is no trickle-down progressivism in this country so geographically and demographically polarized. To refer to blue and red states is hugely deceiving. I thought of Michigan and Wisconsin as blue states until this election, but that’s a skewed impression -- like so many places, it’s red rural areas and blue urban, when you take a closer look. To the rural people, looked down on, alienated from the political process, and not sharing in the fruits of many urban liberal policies, there is an unbridgeable gap between the Democrats’ pro-people rhetoric and their corporate, Wall-Street-aligned, elitist policies.

Of course, the people who cast their votes for Trump hoping he will help them will be disappointed. He’s not going to fix things for them -- his most outrageous claims, like building a wall that Mexico will pay for -- are not feasible, and his more logical statements -- like that he will bring back the manufacturing jobs lost to neoliberal trade deals -- are not going to translate into concrete reality and improved quality of life. In seeking an anti-establishment voice, people have elected a stridently pro-business, anti-people, corrupt and deceitful corporate effigy. One need only look to places like Scotland, whose rural poor people were harassed and coerced when Trump wanted their land for a golf course and decided to cut off people’s water and electricity to get rid of them, to understand that Trump’s rhetoric may appeal, but his actions will bring no succor. His presidency will, inevitably and already, bring more stoked anger, more validation of bigotry and hatred, and more violence.

A Trump presidency matters not just at an institutional and ideological level, with how we work to understand, counter, and defeat the paradigms that gave us this result. It matters personally, too. We have to acknowledge the effects of this hatred and fear -- most everyone I know, including myself, is terrified. It didn't fully hit me until late on election night, when friend after friend kept saying “I’m scared,” when people were sobbing in terror because of a presidential election, when my social media was flooded with unironic posts begging for the world to have ended in 2012, when a friend texted me at 2 in the morning terrified of being deported or kept under surveillance or forced to wear identification as Muslim, when it hit home how much danger we are in. When it struck me that as someone who is neither straight nor male nor typically-abled, I will lose rights to my body and my identity, to my story and my life. This is more than ideological; the fear is visceral.

That said, it is necessary but hard, given the fear that I am choking back even as I write this, to remember that even as we fight back against Trump and the racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, xenophobic forces to which he gives free rein, that there are people among the Trump supporters who are not just hopeless bigots and minions of the right, but also casualties of the Democratic Party. To counter Trump’s right-wing pseudo-populism, we need to build a credible and powerful left alternative to fill the vacuum. If we are going to defeat the Trump phenomenon, it will not be through the Democrats that helped give rise to it, through neoliberalism that systematically discounted working people in favor of profit and then allowed the narrative to be steered by the right wing, who lulled those disillusioned workers into complicity with their own suffering, by convincing them that the blame for their situation should fall on the people below them -- immigrants, people of color, women -- instead of on the systems that created the conditions that enabled the crisis of class.

This shunting of blame is a key dynamic to examine. I consider it the use of toxic masculinity to defend capitalism: the threat of social equality is offered as a scapegoat for the ruling classes’ real fear, which is socialism. I would argue that what comes off as a bunch of misogynistic white men outraged by the threat of social advances made by women, people of color, and queer people is intimately linked to far more than traditional gender and social norms or personal bigotry. The myth of the powerful self-sufficient man, head of the family and the voice of authority, is so appealing and so heavily marketed to working class white men because it gives them one immutable thing to hold onto. It gives them a story to tell about themselves in which they star as a hero, not a downtrodden victim of an economic system that gives little but takes and takes. It gives them a place in the narrative of our victory culture, and it also, crucially, gives them a stake in defending the status quo, by portraying the advance of oppressed minorities as the downfall of manhood, because it threatens to take away the one illusion of unquestionable power that capitalism has always assured them. Therefore, toxic masculinity is toxic capitalist masculinity, because what is toxic masculinity without the deification of the man as breadwinner, as provider, as valued based on his wealth, as innately suited to competing in the profit game, that rough, cutthroat hazing of capitalist society? How could Trump, as a businessman, a “winner,” and a raving misogynist, be more perfectly suited to being the idol for toxic capitalist masculinity?

There’s a similar story with white people in general, of any gender. In the early days of the US, the ruling classes recognized an unavoidable threat to their power: as long as workers identified first and foremost as workers and could name the conditions of their economic exploitation as their chief grievance, the ruling class was in danger from that solidarity. So in order to divide and conquer the working class, white people, no matter how poor and fucked over, were offered the consolation of their race -- a false consolation, in some ways, because they were still materially suffering under capitalism, but decidedly not false in that being accepted in the construct of whiteness did and does give concrete privileges, even as it also provides a false security and a false enemy that prevents many white people from understanding the system around them and how it is not built to serve any working people.

To write off Trump’s blatant racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia as “telling it like it is” is to reify the constructs of race, deepening the divides among working people by intentionally presenting an easy “enemy” that deflects attention from the real enemies, the capitalist powers that be. To write off Trump’s “locker room talk” reifies toxic masculinity, justifying his violent speech as a legitimate reaction against what's considered the coddling and unrealistic PC culture, which is at odds with the ideals of toxic masculinity. Some of these dynamics reflect the problems inherent to identity politics -- enforcing nicer vocabulary and policing how we interact at a surface level will not undo entrenched bigotry, and without confronting systemic and historical causes of the oppression which PC culture is supposed to push back against, demands for tolerance can admittedly come off as uppity, petty, and superficial. Tolerance is not good enough. Tolerance is my uncle reluctantly putting up with my dogs after expressing his dismay that they have not died yet -- it demands nothing of a reevaluation of deeply rooted beliefs. Like any paltry reform, it demands no justice.

Meanwhile, other ways of responding to the election, like third-party-blaming, also only buy into the system that enabled this result. Sure, writing in Harambe is something that at this point, I just cant rationalize as funny or effective whatsoever, no matter how benign one’s intentions may have been. But third parties did not cost Clinton this election. She did that herself. The media did a great deal of the legwork, but fundamentally it is the last decades of Democratic Party failures that set the stage for this catastrophe.

This history of liberal weakness is something we will have to contend with. The Trump ripple effect is already spreading unnervingly -- I live in white liberal suburbia and already at school yesterday there were kids in Trump hats threatening to beat up me and my friends because we’re queer. One of them also followed my friend around, harassing and filming her with his phone camera, and then reported her to the administration. Another friend heard the n-word said twelve times in one class period. And this is a place that’s constantly choking on its own self-righteousness over how liberal and tolerant we are. Well, fuck tolerance. I don’t want to be tolerated and threatened at the same time; I want liberation and justice.

Also, we have to address the liberal relativism dynamic. Saying “oh don’t complain because you could have it much worse, be grateful you’re here instead of elsewhere” is really just a way of shunting away the responsibility for dealing with the actual bigotry that exists even in liberal fucking snowglobes. Also, it just reduces the Sad People struggling in those much more Oppressive Places to pity props in the story self-righteous liberals tell. Also it’s a reminder that what “tolerance” and “progress” we’ve got is a concession from above, a privilege that could be revoked, so we should be quiet and act thankful and not push for more.

Liberals, you can stop telling marginalized people to suck it up and be grateful, just as you can stop offering superficial reforms or rhetoric or vocabulary adjustments -- Trump’s election speaks volumes to the failure of the Democratic Party, meaning maybe I wouldn’t be writing this if they had actually fielded a candidate who wouldn’t put my and so many others’ lives at risk.

There are massive lessons to be learned from this election, and those lessons will be translated to the streets. This presidency will not be one to pass the time with idle petition-signing or trying to play nice with the corporatocracy. Trump and his cronies, the entire state apparatus, are not accountable to us. We must be accountable to each other. Existence is resistance, and our struggles will straddle both the personal and political, and we must cultivate our strength for both. It is our imperative to build massive grassroots movements, to try to bring that energy to the ballot box in future elections as a workers’ party while not losing sight of our action-based strategy -- we cannot hope that the next time around the electoral process will deliver us from hell. It is also our imperative to reevaluate how we relate to one another, how we live deliberately for justice, how we conceive of human nature and our place in this imperiled ecosystem, how we structure our narratives and our strategy to be the least alienating, jargon-y, elitist, exclusive, harmful, or inert. We are going to lose a lot during this presidency, but we must not lose resilience and we must not lose conviction or hope. Placing different value on different lives, dividing people by petty difference, leftist sectarianism or self-righteousness -- none of this helps us be effective.

I believe that the revolution we need will come through smashing the state, sure, taking control of the massive corporations and redirecting our economy in order to save ourselves and this planet, but in the meantime, there is value in building from the very bottom up in order to survive. Solidarity is more than just a word -- it must be a force and a faith in the networks we build and the ways we love and defend each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains -- no, we have much more to lose. We have a world to lose, or a world to gain. We have a crucible of a country -- as we would have had under Clinton, too, but so clearly and perilously under Trump -- and we have the strength as the people to determine in which direction we explode. As goes the quote at the beginning of this piece, we are more than ever standing in the breach. In these bitter, dangerous times, what we have to rely on most is each other.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Question the Political Binary, Even if Settling For the Lesser Evil

For the past several months, as soon as Bernie Sanders was out of the race, I’ve seen a lot of fear politics playing out on liberal social media turf. Any left wing voter who questions their vote, who considers an alternative to both Clinton and Trump, who even impugns Clinton too loudly is aggressively shut down by people desperately propping up the Clinton side of the election binary. The Clinton defenders--as much as some of them insist they don’t like her either or wish there weren’t this broken two-party system--are shunting the blame for her potentially losing the election onto third-party voters, rather than acknowledging Clinton’s own significant weaknesses as a candidate or the general inability of the center-left to field a candidate who truly addresses and reflects the concerns of disadvantaged and disillusioned people in this country.

This disproportionate attack on third-party voters finds a parallel in those who claim that they would love to champion stronger left-wing policies--just not now. “Third parties are a nice idea and we’d love to have something other than the Democrats and Republicans to choose from,” people say, “but this is too high-stakes an election to risk it.”

Perhaps it’s not so easy to be glib and high-minded about democracy and the importance of freely voting your conscience when a presidency as toxic and concretely dangerous as Trump’s is a possibility. This is a valid opinion, and so instead of grounding the anti-Clinton-pressure argument in the principle of democracy and voting, consider it in the context of policy and pragmatism.

Many people contend that voting third party is an impractical and harmful privilege only available to people who would not be directly and negatively affected by Trump’s horrific policies, but this argument can silence the experiences and voices of people who would also be directly and negatively impacted by Clinton’s imperialist neoliberalism. The left is not naive to the danger that Trump poses, but neither can we afford to be immune to the threat that is Clinton. Trump would be disastrous domestically, for rights and safety at home for marginalized people. And his foreign policy is...not much of a policy, as far as I can tell. But Clinton’s foreign policy promises increased US military entrenchment in regions where we only do more damage and engender more blowback, and from her talk of no-fly zones to her direct brinkmanship, she is stoking tensions with Russia to a height not witnessed, according to the New York Times of all sources, for three decades. There are practical and safety-based arguments for strongly opposing Clinton--yes, even and perhaps especially if you also vote for her. And it is a privilege in itself to express concern for the people who will suffer under Trump while ignoring the non-US people who will suffer under Clinton.

One prevalent scare tactic is the story that’s been going around since that fateful 2000 election, the story that says that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader was responsible for George Bush’s (s)election as president by suctioning votes away from Al Gore.

While it is true that had 30,000-odd Democrats voted for Gore instead of Nader, Gore would have won, it is equally true that if even a small fraction of 190,000 Democrats had voted for Gore instead of George Bush, Gore would also have won. Furthermore, if people formerly incarcerated for felonies retained their voting rights in the state of Florida, Gore could also have won. It’s the same story for if there had been no butterfly ballot in Palm Beach county, deceiving people into voting for far-right candidates when they meant to support Gore.

But potential third-party voters take all of the heat, which could just as deservingly be distributed to Democrats who voted Republican or to policies that disenfranchised ex-felons and employed misleading ballots. In numbers alone, it is plainly shown that Democrats voting for Bush deprived Gore of far more votes than did Democrats voting for Nader. Yet it is people opting out of the binary electoral system who are blamed for Bush’s presidency. (Not to mention the vast ranks of Democrats who did not vote at all, who could also be credited, if we want to play that game, with Bush’s presidency.) (Not to mention either that the lament over Gore losing the election is ironic when his policies and statements are critically examined and reveal imperialist and hawkish positions on Iraq, for example. Gore would not have been Bush, but let's not kid ourselves--he was no saint either.)

Also, consider this: although Trump garners a fairly sizable percentage of the popular vote, the electoral college is likely to grant him far fewer votes--some polls indicate that he could lose the electoral college by hundreds of votes. It is not impossible that Trump will become president, but it isn’t highly likely, and the votes people cast will do relatively little to sway that, since it comes down to the Clinton-friendly electoral college in the end.

Fear is the biggest commodity the US both exports and consumes at home, and it has never done much good. As Jill Stein has said, “The politics of fear have given us everything we’ve ever been afraid of.”

We might have learned by now that the status quo is not the safe choice, that toeing the line of our binary traditional system will not produce a better or just outcome. But by refusing to think outside the boxes of Democratic and Republican, we relegate ourselves to begging for the powers that be to throw us a few more crumbs, rather than working to advance an alternative party for which protections of the rights of people and the planet are not concessions, but cornerstones.

And to those who say, “Well, I have to vote for Clinton to stop Trump, but I do want a third party!” -- well, all right: vote for Clinton, but you better be there working for that third party as she reneges on her promises. We can’t afford to keep on choosing the option that makes us less safe, that whittles away our social programs, incarcerates us, sends us to war, sends our jobs overseas, deepens inequality, and treats the public ever more as a menace to be suppressed and controlled--no matter which major party these policies trickle down from. We can’t afford to say we wish there were better options even while we strap ourselves onto the same Democratic dead horse.

In the Gulf South, people have suffered the failure of the Bush administration to help affected communities recover from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and subsequently, the Obama administration’s similar failure after the BP deep-sea oil blowout. People witnessed Bush’s $700 billion stimulus plan during the economic crisis followed by Obama’s ($800 billion), both of which bailed out industry and Wall Street while leaving people to languish. The Everyman of the United States has spent years learning that working people are eternally lodged between the proverbial rock and hard place, the two corporate parties, which have screwed people over with impunity and regardless of pseudo-populist rhetoric.

No matter who you do vote for: the real fight and the real change will come not from who you vote for to occupy the White House, but how you act afterwards, whether, knowing that neither party presented an appetizing option, you work to build an alternative you can feel confident voting for next time, or whether you fall back again into fear, defending a candidate you weren’t thrilled about because you believe still that you must throw your weight behind the lesser evil, hoping it might deign to act someday as a mediocre good.